Saturday, August 4, 2018

Reality Benders - 3: Game Changer by Michael Atamanov





Reality Benders, Book 3
Game Changer
by Michael Atamanov




Release Septmebr 24, 2018
Pre-order at: Amazon, iTunes, Google, Kobo
Free chapters from book 1 & book 2




Introduction. Enemy Plans


Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory
Palace of Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin
Small Council Chamber

"Consequently, honorable Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, our strategists have also deemed that plan a flop. Our troops would get bogged down in the enemy defenses and be unable to achieve their objectives in anything resembling a reasonable timeframe. We would completely lose the element of surprise. Then, our enemy would reinforce, and it would all be over."
With a wave of his hand, the young Mage-Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi dismissed the hovering helper drone that had been giving him cues for his speech. He then gave a bow of respect to his leader and rejoined the dozens of other advisors, allowing the Coruler to see the map and think things over at his leisure. The great mage Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, one of humanity’s three Corulers, was feeling peevish today and, with each subsequent report, his face went gloomier and gloomier. But this time, he had no criticism. Despite Advisor Mac-Peu Un-Roi’s young age, he was considered one of the most talented soothsayers of modern times. He was so renowned for his deep multilayered analysis of the lines of fate that his predictions were simply taken at face value.



The Coruler didn't take long to consider the information on the tactical screen and soon swiped it away with a wave of his hand, returning the map to its initial state. With obvious strain, bracing his trembling arms on his magic staff, the aged Thumor-Anhu stood from his chairman's seat and walked on his stiff legs up to the glowing screen on the wall. The ghoulish old mage spent three minutes looking from the tactical map back to his ever more flustered advisors as they crumbled in fear. Finally, the great mage spoke, not even trying to hide his dismay:
"So, am I to understand that even with a three-fold advantage in manpower, a rapid-response air force and a battalion of armored vehicles the enemy has no practical way of damaging, my advisors still cannot find a single path to victory? Do you really think I will simply accept that?! You know, it might be time for me to really shake things up around here! After all, it seems all my current advisors are unfit for the task at hand!"
The all-powerful mage furrowed his brows severely and, turning his gaze from one advisor to the next, he read their emotions with ease: terror, indignation at unjust criticism (that was Mac-Peu Un-Roi), exhaustion and annoyance with his fickle manner, and even some hate. No matter, fear of one’s superiors was the natural order of things, utterly normal. It was even acceptable for underlings to hate their lord and think him a despot unless that enmity became strong enough to serve as a limiting factor. Most importantly, Thumor-Anhu did not sense any treason or intentional sabotage. His advisors had not deceived him. They really did not see a route to a speedy victory over the Human-3 Faction.
After calming down a bit, Coruler Thumor-Anhu returned to his seat and asked his advisors to review the scenarios he had criticized the least. The First Advisor approached the glowing screen, leaning on a crooked knotty staff. The once fearsome combat mage Avir-Syn La-Pirez was far past his prime. He was the right hand of the Coruler both in the real world and the game that bends reality.
The great Mage fully trusted his First Advisor, who he considered his closest friend and basically a relative. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin's only daughter, the unearthly beauty Princess Onessa-Rati had been married to Avir-Syn’s grandson, but they both perished in a terror attack orchestrated by enemy mages. However, the couple were survived by a daughter, Princess Minn-O La-Fin. Though not wealthy or too influential, the La-Pirez dynasty was ancient and proud. And if Thumor-Anhu were to pass unexpectedly, they would be Princess Minn-O’s only source of protection and support. The Coruler always bore that in mind and thus tried to maintain good relations with the First Advisor and his kin.
Meanwhile, the doddering old Mage Avir-Syn slurped down two magical elixirs of strength, not ashamed to consume them in full public view. After that, he set his heavy staff aside. The old man was not accustomed to new-fangled antigrav helper drones so, as in days of yore, he picked up a remote and a laser pointer.
"Of the plans elaborated by my colleagues, just two warrant further consideration. The first: try another blitz through the muck of the swamp hexagon. That proved itself quite ineffective ten days ago, but we could consider our errors and, instead of spreading our forces out along the whole front, concentrate on destroying the enemy citadel. Our three and a half thousand soldiers will surely be enough for us to overcome the enemy's staggered defenses and occupy the oil-rich territory."
"Stop right there!” said the great mage, interrupting his ancient friend and advisor. "As I already said, I will not allow all our three and a half thousand troops to all be used in one attack! It is unthinkable, crosses all bounds of reasonable risk, giving our enemy a chance to score cheap points! I can hardly believe that the militarily erudite H3 Faction, will just stand calmly by and watch us devastate their hexagon. More likely, they will take advantage of our unguarded borders to make a counter attack!"
Exactly!” came an invited military expert, supporting the leader’s objection. "As soon as we start trying to erect pontoons, the enemy will rain fire on us. Our armor will be destroyed or get stuck in the mud like last time. And while thousands of our players trudge from landmark to landmark through waist-deep muck, struggling to keep their weapons clean, the enemy will race into the grain or capital hexagon and destroy infrastructure we can’t afford to lose! Last time, they were able to do just as much damage with one lone raiding party as we did with our whole assault. But this time, the enemy has hundreds of galloping centaurs at their disposal and many raiding groups. Sure, we may capture the swamp hexagon, but it will come at the cost of our most productive and developed lands! And that will mean the end of our faction’s hopes!"
"The most we can allocate to any assault without risking disaster is two thousand three hundred soldiers," said Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, setting a concrete limit. The advisors then got back to thinking
For a long time, no one could say anything. They were all too immersed in calculations and studying the lines of fate. Finally, the prolonged silence was broken by the youngest advisor, Mage-Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi: 
"With an assault force of that size, our chances of capturing the grain hexagon are just eighteen percent. Given that is the most promising vector of attack, the enemy will be expecting us there. So, I’m sure that not only will their previous fortifications be rebuilt, they will also have built new lines of defense, firing points and mine fields. There is more than an eighty percent chance that our first attack wave will be almost entirely wiped out... but then, I must admit, there is something in the lines of fate I cannot understand... obviously, the enemy has some kind of trap in the works. In any case, the chance of our faction of holding the swamp hexagon for more than three days is exactly zero. It is unfeasible to supply a garrison there, and that hexagon is too near the enemy capital. And I’m afraid nothing can be done with that.”
After such an unambiguous statement from the Mage-Diviner, continuing to discuss this obviously hopeless plan was pointless, and Thumor-Anhu ordered the alternative brought up on the screen. The First Advisor eagerly switched scenarios, and the colored markers and arrows on the map changed position.
"A more interesting and promising plan is a concentrated mass attack on the unfinished enemy fortress in the Rocky Shores. Then, without losing speed, we could push toward the enemy capital and try to penetrate as deep as possible before they come to their senses and stop our advance. This option has certain minuses, though. Above all, after our recent unsuccessful attempts to use NPC's against the enemy fort in the Rocky Shores, the garrison there was significantly beefed up and is now on high alert. And there's no reason to hope for the element of surprise either, which means that our losses in the first stage of battle will be extreme. What’s more, the dreaded Second Legion is in charge of defense there..."
"Gerd Tamara..." Thumor-Anhu said with annoyance, spitting out the hated name.
"Yes, exactly. The enemy Paladin will be there, and the new Priests will be with her. That means their soldiers will have mental protection, so the effect of our magic attacks will be miniscule. Everything will be decided by brute force and firepower, but at least we have..."
The speaker sharply fell silent and gave a low bow because the door suddenly flew open and Princess Minn-O La-Fin strode quickly into the chamber. The Coruler's granddaughter was usually embarrassed to wear official dress, which was a bright and loud proclamation of belonging to a ruling mage dynasty. At the first opportunity, she would generally change out of them quickly and into something less gaudy that provided more comfort and emphasized her beauty. But today she was wearing a dress of the proper cut in her own home and all the regalia befitting a Princess of her stature.
The great mage Thumor-Anhu, no less struck by his beloved granddaughter’s unusual behavior than the rest, watched with satisfaction as all members of the council bowed respectfully to and even obsequiously the Princess, even though she had no magical gift and thus could not claim a high position in magical society. That was new. To be more accurate, they had always treated Minn-O with elementary politeness, but this was the first time there was anything even close to respect. It was obvious there had been a leak. Everyone must have found out the beautiful Princess had a husband with magical abilities and, consequently, expected that Minn-O would soon become mother to a mage of the great regnant house La-Fin. Or perhaps – here the old mage gave a sad sigh, remembering his one hundred and eighty years of age – she would be regent if the heir to the throne was underage and could not yet serve as Coruler.
"Honorable mages, your suggestions for the upcoming battle have been taken into consideration, but now I need time to think it all over and come to a decision. And I know just the person to help me with this. Invite General Ui-Taka to the Palace, the self-proclaimed monarch of the Second Directory! I want to find out if he really is that good as a strategist and commander as they say."
"Uhh..." Thumor-Anhu’s last order had clearly baffled his advisors. They started exchanging glances, not hiding their incomprehension. "But General Ui-Taka is an illegitimate pretender, ignored by the council of rulers. Would the honorable Coruler Thumor-Anhu like the rebellious General dragged here by force?"
Minn-O couldn't hold back and snickered, imagining an attempt to arrest a commander surrounded by hundreds of enamored soldiers who were unwaveringly loyal to him. Coruler Thumor Anhu turned to his granddaughter, furrowed his brows severely and she instantly stopped giggling.
"No, we mustn’t be rude. The General is popular in the armed forces, and we would like to keep them happy. I would like to invite him to my palace as a guest and military expert. I'm sure the first non-mage to rule in eight hundred years will not refuse to pay me a visit. He is desperate for recognition from other rulers, so I’m sure Ui-Taka will not only show up, he will be on his best behavior and do whatever I ask. But now, honorable mages, please forgive me, but I must speak with Princess Minn-O."
A minute later, only the old mage and his beloved granddaughter were left in the chamber. Thumor-Anhu even got up from his seat and went over to the doors to check that no one was eavesdropping, closing them a bit tighter.
"So, Minn-O, I see that you have news. Tell me! The enemy Gerd Gnat has visited your prison cell again. Did I guess right? Has he made any specific promises on when you will be freed?"
"Prison cell?!" the Princess feigned surprise. "Thumor-Anhu, for the last hour and a half I have been flying off into the unknown depths of space on a Geckho spacecraft!”
The expression of surprise and confusion on the wise mage’s wrinkled face was so unnatural and funny that the Princess couldn't resist and broke down laughing once again. He was used to knowing the future, so this caught him off guard. But the old man quickly came to his senses and connected the dots:
"Gnat's Geckho friends flew in to get him, and your husband took you on the space voyage!"
Yes! Grandpa, you told me a number of times that Gnat is exceptional, and that the Geckho bring only him into the cosmos. But that is only partially true. The Geckho really do adore Gnat, and practically wait on him hand and foot. If only you could have seen how happy the crew was to see him! The Geckho bared their teeth and rumbled so loud that, if I hadn't studied their body language, I'd have thought they were going to devour my husband! But Gerd Gnat is not the only one! There's a whole gang of our factional enemies there. I counted at least four! Gnat himself, then a Pilot, a Space Commando, plus a Gladiator you said was Gnat's friend. And that is if I don't count two little Miyelonians, who Gnat keeps around for some reason. It’s a whole squadron! In fact, I found it strange he didn't bring his lover."
"Well, Anna the Medic could never have gone..." the old mage suddenly stumbled midsentence and, clearly having rethought explaining some finer points to his daughter which were not fit for the mind of a mere mortal, sharply changed topic. "And actually, that leaves Anna in an interesting position. For the first time, we were able to find a person the cautious Gnat will let in. We'll see what comes of that. You shouldn't be counting the Miyelonians out either. Do you know what that modest looking Translator did yesterday?"
Minn-O shook her head. She had spent the last two days in a prison cell and had no way of knowing what happened beyond its borders.
"That little bushy-tailed stinker led a combat training session for the First and Second Legions! I don't know how she did it, but my informants all say she strengthened the elite troops significantly. Even their highest-level player Gerd Tarasov leveled up twice! It's simply unbelievable! And here I am crawling out of my skin trying to train an army before the battle and at least somewhat close the level and skill gap, but that little Translator has brought it all to naught!"
The old man could barely contain the emotions overflowing him, the top of his magical staff even started to glow with seething energy. Just in case, the Princess took a step back. That way, if some death spell spilled out, at least it wouldn’t hit her. Her loving grandpa could never hurt her on purpose, but the dreadful old man had the habit of accidentally burning holes in walls or splashing random servants and robots with his rage.
In order to distract her grandfather from the burdensome thoughts, Minn-O started to tell him about her space voyage so far. She was not staying in the same bunk as Gnat as she thought, but in a bunk with some Geckho merchant whose thick black fur was mottled with strange white spots. After the prison cell, Minn-O’s only clothing had been a track suit and a pair of slippers.
"Gnat noticed that and brought me a great ladies' spacesuit before takeoff. But he sized me up, shook his head skeptically, called me a giraffe and said that he would give the spacesuit to the ship Mechanic to bring it out to my size. And Gnat gave me weapons, a common laser pistol of our faction, maybe even my old one, and some antiquated hunting rifle. Just imagine, grandpa, it still shoots bullets, not lasers! But it does have an ornately carved stock, a bunch of modifications, and its own name: Krechet! Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Gnat changed his class from Prospector to Listener!"
The great mage, previously listening with measured interest to his granddaughter's chirping, sharply straightened up and raised his eyes:
"You're such a blockhead! You should have started with that, not the slippers and other crap! Tell me right now, what is this class? What bonuses does it give? And why did he change? Also, find out where the ship is going, why and what you should be doing. Definitely try and sniff out some info on the Miyelonians, too. Why are they with Gnat, can they be bought, and how much might that cost?"
Minn-O put on an unhappy grimace and, lifting the hem of the uncomfortable skirt, took a seat on the edge of the high table and crossed her long legs.
"And why should I do that? I'm Gnat's wayedda now, so he's no longer my enemy... And that's at minimum! I’m legally married now, and I'll probably make friends with the Geckho and Gnat's pals soon enough. It was you that pushed me into his arms, so don't get surprised if my attitude toward the whole war between our different 'versions' of humanity starts to change! I will not spy for you!"
This tack from his beloved granddaughter was an unpleasant surprise for the old mage. However, the Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin knew the Princess very well, so he quickly found the right words:
"There you are a sponger on a poor student, who will treat you with apprehension his whole life and even mistrust because you will never truly be one of them. Here you are a proud Princess, a representative of a ruling house and respected by all! If you play your cards right, you can climb the ranks higher and become much more important in our society. You may even be Coruler of humanity one day! Do you see the difference in your position between here and there? That is exactly the choice you're making for your future children as well. They can either become Crown Princes and Princesses, future rulers of mankind or spend their lives as outcasts and pariahs, strange freaks understood by no one!"
He probably could have limited himself to these words. The experienced Psionic Thumor-Anhu could sense that he’d already hit his mark. But this issue was too serious to just let it go, so he figured he also needed to use a bit of mind control. The Princess wrinkled her nose, jumped off the table and, just like in early childhood, fell into the arms of her honorable grandpa, begging for consolation.
"I’m sorry, Thumor-Anhu, I was wrong! Of course, I will always remain loyal to house La-Fin and will do everything I can to bring victory to our faction and our world! But Gnat is no longer a stranger to me. I think about him all the time and cannot do anything about that!!! Don't make me spy against him! You are a powerful mage, and also very wise! So think up some way of getting Gnat over to our world. That’s the best way to solve all this!"
The old man embraced his beloved granddaughter and reassured her, but his mind was on something else. Princess Minn-O was growing distant from him. A larger and larger part of her heart was occupied by another man. Sure, today he could use mind control on her, but that would only get harder and harder. One day, Minn-O would break with him once and for all. That pink bundle bound with flowery ribbons he had taken from the arms of the mortally wounded Onessa-Rati, the little girl he'd raised since birth, who he was used to considering small and unintelligent, had unexpectedly grown up and become adult...
At the same time, the experienced psionic only needed a small spurt trust and openness to read all the information he needed from the Princess's mind. Minn-O really did not know where the ship was heading and did not understand one iota of the Geckho conversations. The only curious information was a conversation she had overheard when four people from the H3 Faction had been quarreling in the next room over.
As it turned out, Gnat and his companions were not exactly burning with desire to fly off into space, and instead wanted to fight in the big battle with the Dark Faction the next day, which they now considered inevitable. His faction was respected by the enemies and even somewhat feared, but they were prepared to fight to the last drop of blood, then respawn and go back into battle, anything but retreat. Hrm... Not an easy situation...
On the one hand, what did the Mage-Diviner say earlier...? The chance of success was just eighteen percent, and a victory would mean just a temporary change of borders, not a serious shift in the war with the H3 Faction, which was proving a hard nut to crack? What was more, the enemy was expecting an attack, had even made allies and was ready to fight like never before. It was not the best time to go on the offensive, to put it lightly.
On the other hand, not attacking would mean showing a lack of confidence and that might work against the propaganda he’d been trying so hard to instill, according to which defeat was inevitable. What to do? Time was needed to further prepare his troops, and maybe even long consultations with General Ui-Taka, the most experienced and lucky strategist of the magical world. Hopefully, together they could find the key to the enemy's defenses. But how to achieve that without damaging his own authority?
The great mage gave his dear granddaughter another warm embrace and, smiling, looked the Princess right in her teary eyes:
"Minn-O, go back into the game and tell Gerd Gnat that I give your union my blessing! If your husband were here in our world, I would bequeath him the ancient palace of House La-Fin and two hundred servants at his beck and call. But in that you can only see Gnat in the game for now, in honor of that wonderful event, I grant his weak faction an additional five days of cease-fire!"

Chapter One. Technical Difficulties


For the last few hours, I had been seeing messages on the inside of the helmet. I couldn’t read the ancient script, but it was all written in an alarming shade of red. Some of the symbols blinked. Some of them were brighter, and others were duller. And now, another one had just shown up. The mysterious "syntactic brambles" weren't so much blocking my view as they were annoying me with the mere fact of their presence. And that was breaking my concentration. Before, I had somehow managed to dismiss them, but every time was a prolonged torture. I hadn't yet noticed any logic or pattern in how I made them go away, either. Maybe it was nothing I was doing, and the messages were just expiring. Or maybe, which would be much worse, the system was just automatically making important decisions for me after too much time had passed.
I tried to give all kinds of commands in every language I knew although, to be honest, I was being quiet so my Miyelonian bunk mates wouldn’t wake up. Well, actually just Ayni because Tini had left into the real world. I also tried mentally and even by moving my pupils to remove the bothersome red text. For a minute, nothing happened, then I saw a game message:  
Break-in skill marked for deletion. Confirm? (Yes/No)
Just what I needed! I hurriedly removed the helmet of my Listener energy armor and just held it in my hands. I noticed before that the words would turn off if I wasn’t wearing the helmet, as if dissolving in the matte-black glass. And now as well, without power from the nuclear battery in my backpack, the screen on the face visor of the helmet started flickering and quickly went dim. With a sigh, I set the helmet aside.
Yes, what a day I was having today, everything was going topsy-turvy... First, I fought with Anya. Then I set off on a forced/voluntary voyage with a Geckho crew to a war that had nothing to do with humanity. It was "an offer you can't refuse," just like the Godfather. Even my closest and most loyal friends were not too delighted to be heading into space, as it meant we were nearly deserting our allies right before a massively important battle. Just imagine what the rest of the faction would think... I suspected that the biting and annoying three-point fall in my Authority was somehow explained by this.
Even the new leader Ivan Lozovsky couldn't hold back some unflattering comments, even though he had promised me complete freedom before. Although, I suspected the newly-minted Gerd was not so much upset that I would miss the battle with the Dark Faction as he was that I had taken the high-level Morphian, who Lozovsky was counting on to kill enemy leaders. Yes, it had turned out poorly... Everyone was mad at me.
And what was more, my traveling mistress Minn-O was behaving haughtily and strangely, not only avoiding conversations with Geckho and Humans, but even shying away from me. Everything in her appearance served to show that she felt alien on this ship and was uncomfortable. Also, the light spacesuit I had asked Uraz Tukhsh to lend Minn-O La-Fin had not fit her. I had to spend all my remaining crystals and even go slightly into debt, asking for a handful of change from my friend Uline to pay the ship Mechanic, promising to resize the spacesuit for the lanky frame of the Dark Faction Princess.
I could add to that the very strange behavior of Captain Uraz Tukhsh. Either he was embarrassed or admired me, but he never once came to talk to me in the many hours the Shiamiru spent parked on Earth, preferring to go through Uline. And here on the starship, when I walked up to him to ask about the spacesuit, the captain clearly felt out of his comfort zone and agreed to everything quickly just to get me out of his cabin. To put it lightly, it was strange behavior for the proud Aristocrat, and I couldn't find an explanation.
Plus my own space suit was on the fritz... What a disaster... How could I play or do anything sensible with all this ancient hokum blocking my view? And I never knew when more might come! As if the sudden change of class was worth all that! With a certain trepidation, I glanced down at my troublesome helmet. I wondered if I had stopped it from deleting the Break-in skill or not. Unfortunately, my character information could not help me with that. Everything there was just weird not showing some of my skills, Hit Points or Magic Points. And it showed my game class as "changing:"

Gerd Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
??? Game class changing ??? Level-61
Statistics:
Strength
13
Agility
17
Intelligence
23 + +3
Perception
26
Constitution
15
Luck modifier
+3
Parameters:
Hitpoints
1704 of ???
Endurance points
861 of 958
Magic points
237 of ???
Carrying capacity
26 kg
Fame
49
Skills:
Electronics
41
&6%%##@@!
49
Cartography
52
Astrolinguistics
67
Break-in [inactive]
0 of 23
Rifles
45
Mineralogy
[requires confirmation]
???
Medium Armor
44
Eagle Eye
59
Sharpshooter
28
Targeting
18
Danger Sense
28
Psionic
[inactive, critically low value, incompatible with game class]
36
Mental Fortitude
[inactive, critically low value, incompatible with game class]
27
Machine Control
[inactive, critically low value, incompatible with game class]
12
Attention!!! You have nine unspent skill points

Hrm, my character was chopped to bits... The first thing that caught my eye was that the Scanning skill had been replaced with a collection of unreadable symbols. Also, the normal scanning symbol which I had used since my very first seconds in the game was gone as well, which baffled me and made me feel ill at ease. Who had I become or was I supposed to become? What were the features of my new game class?
The once unavailable information on the Listener class was now there, but again in the form of columns of incomprehensible symbols, as if the game’s technical assistance (if such a thing even existed) had neglected to have it translated since the times of the Relict race. I had no one to complain to, so I would have to figure it all out, clearly, by trial and error. Determine class abilities, learn to use my suit, monitor and activate missing skills, and also learn the Relict language. But I had to start with the very smallest task fix whatever was in my power to fix.
Critically low value, incompatible with game class.I'd like to figure out what value would not be "critically low." And that was exactly what I decided to figure out, starting to add free points one by one into the inactive Psionic skill, which was now grayed out. One, two, three... I had already started to worry that it was all for naught, and I wouldn't have enough points, but when the skill reached forty, the line changed from grayed-out back to normal and Psionic turned on:

Psionic
40
 
That's better, one problem down. Now it would be nice to pull Mental Fortitude and Machine Control out of inactive state as well. I looked at my pitiful five remaining points with sorrow. If I assumed that forty was what I needed for the other skills too, I definitely wouldn't have enough. And that was exactly what happened. I placed all five into Mental Fortitude, raising it to thirty-two, but nothing changed.
Alright, given my free points were spent, I'd need to try something else and figure out the other problems. For example, what did "Break-in [inactive]" mean? Probably it was because the skill was in the process of deletion. But how to delete a skill? I basically thought that was impossible on principle, and all skills were a player took were forever. Also, I knew the game menu had no way of deleting a skill. I had carefully combed through all the character settings during my time in game and never seen anything like that.
By the way, what was the big difference between Break-in and Medium Armor? Why had the game system been fine with the latter, but found fault with the former? Maybe a Listener was not supposed to break into anything, because that was incompatible with its identity. I already knew some professions were incompatible with some skills. The Prospector, for example was not allowed to take any skills related to piloting, and a Space Commando couldn't have any gun skills except Heavy Weapons. So, following that line of thought, if I approached the issue from a purely technical standpoint, was the game trying to delete a now incompatible skill from my repertoire? There was no option in the settings for that...
I looked glumly at my black helmet. Only suited up in the full Listener armor did I see these system messages about deleting skills and whatnot. Clearly, the Relicts had managed to duplicate the game menu on the helmet screen. Perhaps, when their ancient race still existed, there was no other way to access the game menu. Seemingly, like it or not, I'd have to put the helmet back on and figure out the confusing array of incomprehensible symbols and look for a way to delete the now inactive skill.
Ugh, it was a shame, of course, Break-in gave me such interesting perspectives. But here I remembered an old Russian gamer joke: "If, playing a mage, you suddenly finding two-handed war hammers with bonuses for pickpocket, you been leveling your character wrong." This was exactly such a case.

Listener, decision accepted. Break-in skill deleted.
Half the points in that skill may be reallocated.
You have received eleven skill points!

What, just like that? I just put on the helmet but couldn’t do anything else before everything was decided for me. And again I didn't understand if I had made a conscious choice or the game system had just not waited for my reply and made the decision for me.

Listener, you have taken the required class skill Scanning.
You have taken the skill Scanning level 1.

Fuck a duck! What was that then? What did the game system not like about my already level-49 Scanning ability, or as it was now called, "&6%%##@@!" that it needed to be replaced with that very same skill, but of the horrible level one?!
As if listening to my annoyed thoughts, the game algorithms considered the presence of two similar Scanning skills excessive, and a new message came before my eyes:

&6%%##@@! skill marked for deletion. Confirm this action? (Yes/No)

I just waved a hand. As they say, a man with no head doesn't cry over lost hair. What else could I do? Delete this obviously glitched line from my skills. I didn't even manage to think my agreement before my decision was accepted:

Listener, decision accepted. &6%%##@@! skill deleted.
Half the points in that skill may be reallocated.
You have received twenty-five skill points! (total points accumulated: thirty-six)

Thirty-six free points... Alright, settle down... I needed eight points to bring Mental Fortitude up to forty where I needed it, and twenty-eight for Machine Control, giving a total of, as a matter of fact, thirty-six... accurate to a hair's breadth. I wonder if that was a coincidence? Should I try and turn them on? I started using the free points on one skill then the other

Mental Fortitude
40
Machine Control
40

Both skills activated, and the lines lit up brighter. Right after this, another endless bedsheet of incomprehensible symbols ran before my eyes, then the bothersome text suddenly disappeared, replaced with legible and now pleasing system messages:

Congratulations! Class change to Listener complete!
Number of Hit Points reduced from 1704 to 1278
Number of Magic Points increased from 237 to 555
ATTENTION!!! As of now, you are the only Listener in the game that bends reality!
Fame increased to 50.
Fame increased to 51.

I removed the helmet and wiped the condensation from the glass. I pulled it off! I managed to smooth over almost all the changes in my character after the class change, too. Although I did have to delete one and reset another to level one. And to be honest, the system still said my Mineralogy level was unknown, but I was hoping to handle that soon enough as well.
By the way, with the appearance of the Scanning skill, the Scanning icon was also back, though it had changed to an unfamiliar green color. I wondered what the difference was between it and the former violet? Naturally, I tested it out.
My mana bar fell a good bit, and my mini-map just showed a schematic rendering of the nearest walls and characters. Well, my scanning radius was tiny again, and my abilities were weak, so not much was being shown. Although... now this was interesting... I increased the dimensions of the map and looked at some unfamiliar markings. When I noticed their descriptions, I was elated:

Airlock control unit. Chance of connection: 17% Chance of taking control: 2%
Right maneuver thruster control system. Chance of connection: 4% Chance of taking control: 0%
Laser cannon control unit. Chance of connection: 1% Chance of taking control: 0%
Navigation system. Chance of connection: 0% Chance of taking control: 0%
Tini Wi-Gnat. Level-48 Miyelonian. (inactive) 
Level-279 Morphian. Chance of connection: 12% Chance of taking control: 0%

When I saw that I could take control of a living creature as well, I was bemused. But I was much more interested in the fact that I now had something of a different version of the Scanning skill not like the one my Prospector had used before. First of all, it now required me to spend mana, and quite a bit of it. Second, a scan showed me vulnerable systems and creatures I could attempt to hijack. What was more, even at level one, this skill was clearly showing me the Morphian’s true nature, not its guise as the Miyelonian Translator. Now that was better than the old Scanning!
Seemingly, I was beginning to gradually understand the role of a Listener. This game class had a noticeable slant toward magic, and was specialized in Scanning, but also Machine Control, it could even control living creatures. Something of a hybrid between a Prospector and Mage-Psionic, even though I wasn't quite as good at mind-control magic, but also not so narrowly specialized. I now had quite a lot more Magic points, and that was very pleasing. But as for Hitpoints, I had a fair amount less, which of course was no joy. But everything has its price, including changing to a unique game class.
By the way, was I even able to use the Prospector equipment now? That crucial question needed to be answered right away, so I took out the Prospector Scanner and geological analyzers. I could still pick up the "laptop" and metal rods and set them in the requisite slots, but I was not yet able to use them. I didn't have enough skill points:
Your Scanning level is too low to use this item. Requisite level: 19.
On the one hand, that was very strange. An item I had used before and knew inside and out was now beyond me. On the other hand, I was more happy than sad about that. It would be much worse if the game system considered my skill "incorrect" and required the type of Scanning now called &6%%##@@!.
And here, when I thought I had handled all the changes, I saw another set of red incomprehensible symbols, which changed into a fully readable message:

Listener, access confirmed.
Searching for available units...

I froze, rereading the lines again and again and not understanding what was happening, or what the algorithms of the game that bends reality were searching for. A minute passed, then another... And after I'd already made up my mind that the system had simply frozen, my patience was generously rewarded:

Appropriate unit found.
You have received a Small Relict Guard Drone.

Chapter Two. Going to a Comet 


A small combat drone of the ancient race! The same as the deadly lightning fast-drone that took down the Shiamiru's whole guard team at the Relict base! Cool!!! Just a great acquisition! By the way, I wasn't happy for long. All the rest of the text was illegible, so I couldn't figure out how to control this drone, nor where it was located. Furthermore, based on how long the algorithms had spent searching, it may have been very, very far away, and I would be lucky if it was even in the known part of the Universe.
In order to find answers to these questions, I would have to study the ancient Relict language. Without that knowledge, I might as well have been stumbling in the dark, just swaying chaotically from side to side, hitting random objects and never really knowing what they were. But where to begin studying a long dead language? There were no dictionaries, and certainly no teachers. That was not even theoretically possible.
The obvious answer was to start studying the Listener class description. From what I'd seen, every class was described in a formulaic way: first the name, then a brief description, required skills and finally limitations. I could be sure that the text would contain the word Listener, and probably more than once. I would probably also be seeing the word Scanning, given the skill was required for the profession. I brought up the syntactic bramble and started trying to decode it.
It was hard to figure out where to start reading. Was it left to right, right to left, or maybe even vertical? But I mentally thanked the heavens that the Relicts actually used separate symbols or letters, not jerky broken lines like Geckho writing.
Oh! A familiar symbol. Interlaid circles like ripples in calm water after throwing a rock. That was the very symbol used in the Scanning ability. I suspected that this symbol meant scanning. One symbol per word. So, the Relicts didn't have a proper alphabet, these were logograms.
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level sixty-eight!
The Scanning symbol was used a few times, and that got me somewhere through comparison. Apparently, it was read vertically top to bottom, column by column from right to left.
Lines of text ran across the visor again, and I wanted to dismiss them as usual, but suddenly found some familiar symbols, and it dawned on me! This mysterious text was just the class guide in Relict logograms!!!
Then that complex doubled sign must mean my status and name: Gerd Gnat! Here it would of course have been interesting to have a think over what the Gnat hieroglyph meant: were there bothersome little bloodsucking flies on the ancient race’s home planet, or was this symbol just a combination of sounds? I had no way of knowing. However, I did pick out the word Listener in the information. It was similar to the Scanning symbol but wrinkled as if it had been flattened out. I managed to move the new text with mental commands and placed it next to the class information for convenient comparison. The Listener glyph was also used a few times in both texts, as I supposed. But then, if this class description was formed by the same pattern as usual, the next fragment of text should be: Level-61 Listener, and this one means my race: Human

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level sixty-nine!
Electronics skill increased to level forty-two!
You have reached level sixty-two!
You have received three skill points!

That increase came just in time! Before my very eyes, the information about my character changed a bit, allowing me to identify the numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 and at the same time 3 in a totally new line that came up which seemingly must have meant: "Attention!!! You have three unspent skill points." The number of familiar words snowballed, allowing me to decipher more and more symbols. I was definitely on the right track, so I found myself powerfully excited, full of well-deserved joy at my accomplishments.
But then I was distracted. Minn-O La-Fin was back in the game. The Dark Faction Princess knocked politely at the frame, although the door into my bunk was open. She didn't enter and just stopped in the doorway to look at Ayni and Tini as they slept on the upper bunk opposite me. I scooted over on the bench, making room for her, but the proud Princess didn't want to sit:
"Gnat, I am like to know why you is bring I alone room big black trader? You no want living with and take with I talking kitties?"
I could read slight offense and nearly envy in Minn-O's voice. I couldn't hold back and laughed good-heartedly, trying to quickly reassure the upset Princess:
"That big scary black trader is actually a Geckho woman by the name Uline Tar, and she is considered very pretty by their standards. Don't you repeat my mistake and, after you've learned Geckho, let slip that you didn't know she was a woman. Uline will get very offended. In fact, you were given a great honor and despite the cramped conditions on the Shiamiru, given a place in the women's bunk."
The Dark Faction lady thought for a second, then gave a silent nod toward Ayni, clearly wanting to know why this Miyelonian was not also placed with the women. I understood that the sensitive and curious Morphian had probably already woken up and was just pretending to sleep, meanwhile listening to our conversation, so I extended a hand and gave the fluffy creature a friendly ruffle of her well-groomed neck scruff.
"Ayni is a special case. She is a surprising and very loyal creature, who I trust even with my own life. She has lightning-fast reflexes and moves so fast you can barely see it. Her intuition is great, and she has a ton of experience speaking with members of the most unbelievable races. She has saved my life three times in dire fights, and I am very grateful to her.”
Without opening an eye, the fluffy Translator gave a satisfied purr, just like a house cat, then turned her head, exposing her neck and whiskered cheeks for petting. I'm not sure that a real Miyelonian, a race known for their sparse emotionality, would have behaved that way. The Morphian was probably more reading my expectations and playing up to them. Minn-O then, with a heavy sigh, said unexpectedly:
"Gnat, I have to admit, I come for other reason than this. I only now is say with ruling grandpa Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. He to be very glad for us together and offer in honor of such celebration you faction five more days ceasefire. He also ask about Miyelonians, especially Ayni. My faction's Leng is very impress Miyelonian capable Translator fast-fast teaching soldier, and he even ask me figure out how much is cost her service."
At that very moment, Ayni sharply opened an eye, confirming my guesses that she hadn't been sleeping for some time, and started smiling with a whole mouth full of sharp teeth:
"My services cost very dearly. Your faction doesn't have the crystals to pay me."
"But..." Minn-O tossed a quick gaze at me and fell silent, however I understood her unvoiced objection, that given the poor H3 Faction had the funds, the rich Dark Faction had even more.
"I did that just for Gnat's sake. He's my only friend in the Universe. And as you're Gnat's wayedda, I am willing to train you as well. And you too, Gerd Gnat. You could stand some good training, along with your friends. We've got an ummi and a half before we get to the Geckho base, so I suggest we spend it well."
"Do you know where we're going?" I asked in surprise, because I myself was still totally ignorant about the captain's plans.
In response, Ayni gave a nod of confirmation just like a person, smiled and, throwing a quick gaze over Minn-O, changed to Miyelonian:
"It isn't hard to guess. The Geckho have only one military base in this sector of the galaxy, on the comet Un-Tesh. Around here, there are only Meleyephatian and Miyelonian stations. It's actually strange that the Geckho were the ones who found your home planet first."
I immediately latched onto the rare chance to speak about grand-scale space politics and asked the Morphian what would have happened had the Meleyephatians found our Earth first. Ayni considered it and answered honestly that she didn't know:
"For my race, as you know, being subordinate to the Meleyephatian Horde ended in tragedy. It is possible that your people would have met just such a horrible fate. On the other hand, the Horde contains dozens of different races, including some similar to yours from other stars, so it’s hard to say. The Meleyephatians are harsh and cannot bear other ways of thinking, but subjugated races somehow learn to live with them and even progress in a manner of speaking... Yes, they lose their freedom, must pay a heavy tribute, are subject to total control over birth rates, science and production, and must provide troops at a moment’s notice to continue the expansion of the Horde... But some races choose that path consciously and are even proud that they managed to join such a powerful union as the Meleyephatian Horde, whose heavy footsteps make the whole Universe tremble."
"Are the Geckho a better master for humanity? And really who is stronger in space, the Meleyephatians or the Geckho?" I decided to ask these extremely important questions, which could be fundamental to my race.
"Gnat, don't confuse the status of a vassal and enslaved race!" Ayni's voice started shuddering in strain. Her pupils condensed into tiny dots. I'd seen this before when a Miyelonian got mad or was extremely concentrated. "You and your people must pray to all higher powers that the Geckho will win, otherwise your situation will grow drastically worse! But I have nothing to do in this war, which has been a powder keg between the Meleyephatians and the Geckho for some time. It is not my war! I know the comet Un-Tesh well, which is where we're flying. I have been there a few times in all kinds of forms and I know the base layout well. Gnat, I'll be leaving you there. It was nice knowing you. Ah yeah... the Priest Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo's tail you're hiding from me in your inventory, you can keep it as a gift. Let it serve as compensation for all the stress I put you through!"

***

Other than Minn-O, me and other people from the H3 Faction, three Geckho wanted to take part in the combat and athletics training session: the twin brothers Basha and Vasha Tushihh, and also Uline Tar decided to join us much to my surprise. It was impossible for such a large group to practice in the narrow corridor, and even more so in the tiny living spaces, so Uline asked the captain to open the cargo hold.
After refitting the Shiamiru from a peaceful cargo and passenger shuttle into an armed spaceship, the size of the cargo hold had been severely reduced, and half of it was now occupied by additional forcefield apparatuses, but still there was still enough room in there for us. Uraz Tukhsh agreed with unexpected ease, which surprised me even more. The captain's strange facility struck me and even put me on guard. Something was wrong with our loser aristocrat, but I never found a good moment to ask Uline why our captain was acting so strangely.
After waiting for Eduard Boyko to come back from the real world, having given our faction Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin's offer of a five-day cease-fire, we walked into the cargo hold. Once upon a time, I had to practice sports. It was on my very first day in game, and the lesson was led by Svetlana the Assassin. The session put on by Ayni was distantly reminiscent of that, just because the Morphian put us all into a big group so she could track our Endurance and Hitpoints. But from there, Ayni told us the main idea of her training style. Skills grew more actively when a player was at the border between life and death, when one well-timed shot or successful dodge was all it would take to, at the very least, send health into the red, and possibly send a player to respawn.
"But we're on a starship!" I noted reasonably, implying that all the crew members respawn points were very, very far away, and that after such an extreme training session, we might have to go pick up our crew throughout the galaxy.
"Then you'll have that much more motivation to survive!" the Miyelonian said with a predatory smile, once again demonstrating her small sharp teeth. "Or, if you're not sure of your ability to survive to the end of the exercise, you can change your respawn points onto the Shiamiru, although that carries a huge risk of dying once and for all, both in the game and real life."
No way! It only took me one time to learn that ghastly lesson for the rest of my days. When the Shiamiru just barely escaped during the explosion of the Relict base, it was a miracle I made it! I categorically refused to move my respawn point onto the shuttle and forbid all my friends from doing so either.
"Then let's begin!" the trainer proclaimed and started an endless series of sparring sessions with combat weapons, ending only when each of us had taken a severe beating and even some gunshots. It was a very painful and unpleasant thing, but it allowed us to level our armor, dodge and other skills at an advanced rate.
Over the next few hours, I was frequently reminded of Anya. She would be just delighted to be here. We had to be revived after being knocked out or losing lots of blood regularly, and our Medic could have gained a decent number of levels, if not for her donkey-like stubbornness and refusal to fly with me. Without Anya, her role was taken by the ship Medic. I watched and even felt him using healing magic.
But at first it wasn't even that. Ayni hadn't even managed to begin before a crowd started forming. Three large high-level Geckho from the Waideh-Tukhsh clan, the personal guards of the captain had come into the hold to watch our training. They were speaking loudly, annoying us, and not even hiding their mockery of the small peaceable Translator, saying she’d taken on a job that was a bit bigger than her britches. I had to admit, at that moment I got slightly distracted due to some messages on my helmet, so I didn't hear what exactly Ayni said. Maybe she was offering to square off, but I'm not sure.
But I clearly heard the Miyelonian ask the jerks where they had their respawn points. After an acceptable answer, the Un-Tesh military base, Ayni disemboweled all three in the space of fifteen seconds. And she disemboweled them in the literal sense of that word their rib cages were cut open, their innards fell out, their large arteries were cut, and their skulls were even trepanned to show us a still living brain of the Geckho race. And at that, the Translator commented on all of her actions, calmly and in a businesslike manner pointing her students to the examples of how three different methods could be used quickly and effectively to take down a Geckho, using nothing but a knife and set of sharp claws.
Even I was struck, although I had seen this lightning fast refined butchery performed by the Morphian before when Fox had sliced up the Great Priestess of the Miyelonian race before the thousands of worshippers. But then imagine my other companions, for whom such devastating and bloody slaughter of three high-level Geckho enforcers was a big surprise. Uline just passed out, while Minn-O nearly turned inside out. The noble princess rolled her eyes, turned green and strained to hold back the urge to vomit. On the other hand, it also had its positives. Our training session was no longer being hectored, while our trainer's Authority took off into unthinkable heights.
There is no sense in recounting the whole session, so I'll just recount the most memorable. First of all, the amazingly intense sparring session between Imran and Eduard. Both opponents took off their shirts, demonstrating their fit bodies, made of nothing but solid muscle. The Dagestani athlete was somewhat taller and more mobile than his opponent, but the Space Commando was an indestructible mountain of a man, and all the sambo expert’s punches and attempts to grapple just bounced off him. Eduard's meat hook hands whistled through the air and could have knocked the wind out of the Gladiator if he had been reckless enough to let him get near even once. The nimble mongoose and the cobra... Everyone watched their match, the other pairs of students even had to stop and watch. And although the Gladiator was actively applying his Fast Jump ability, getting out of dangerous situations time and again and getting behind his opponent, brute force won the day. After backing Imran into a corner for the umpteenth time, the Space Commando caught his nimble partner and knocked Imran the hell out with a series of dastardly strong blows.
After the ship Medic brought Imran back to his senses and restored his hitpoints, Ayni commented on the battle, saying where each of them had made mistakes. The Gladiator had started off wonderfully and, after reducing his opponent's hitpoints by half, at a certain point became predictable and relied too much on his class ability. Fast Jump, as she said, wasted too many Endurance Points and took too long to reload.
"If I'd had my blades, I'd have won!" the hot-blooded Dagestani disagreed, having taken this vexing defeat with too close to heart. But Ayni reasonably noted that, if both soldiers were fully equipped, the heavy exoskeleton Space Commando armor would have rendered his blade quite ineffective.
And of course, how could I avoid my own part... So, I’ll do my best to be honest. At first, I looked pitiful compared to these muscular and speedy soldiers. Eduard or Imran, or even Dmitry, who'd graduated from a military academy, all put me to shame which was to say nothing of the beefy Geckho, who surpassed me in every way and didn't leave me a single chance to win. I only beat the Princess twice. The first time was stupid and because of armor advantage. My suit’s forcefield allowed me to absorb all the cartographer’s blows and get right up to her, then I used my advantage in strength and crumpled her. But as for our second fight, we were on even footing. I was wearing just a track suit, and that duel really was of a principal importance.
For the first time, Minn-O and I came face-to-face on even footing, so both the Princess and I were very invested in the outcome. I decided to play fair and refused to use my psionic abilities, although I didn't say that out loud. It was hard without magic. The nimble girl moved unpredictably and with blazing speed, attacking with her hands and feet, not at all ashamed to make cheap and obviously crippling shots. I was helped only by intuition and luck. Over the course of our duel, I raised my Danger Sense skill by four points, and Minn-O, I suspect, did the same. I suppose that, if my wayedda was not afraid to look me in the eyes, she might even have won. But she was constantly expecting me to use magic, so she wouldn’t look directly and missed a simple leg sweep (although that was no easy trick to pull off try to do it yourself without thinking about it). I won again, having broken the Princess's arm in a submission lock, thus immobilizing her and forcing her to admit defeat.
But near the end of the training session, Ayni said I was allowed use magic... After that, the situation changed decisively, and I "suddenly learned to fight!" Oh, it was simply a feeling of omnipotence, payback for my defeat and humiliation! None of my opponents could touch me. I immediately, as it said in the scan map "took control" and forced my opponent to make mistakes, stop or even surrender. In the end, I managed not only to restore but even to slightly raise my Authority, which had fallen in the first half of the session, when I lost to everyone and time and again in a broken or even unconscious state found myself in the tenacious hands of the ship Medic.
As the result of a six-hour training I leveled up twice, increased Strength and Constitution by one each, and seriously leveled a bunch of skills! I simply couldn't get enough of looking at my delightful new numbers:

Gerd Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Level-64 Listener
Statistics:
Strength
14
Agility
17
Intelligence
23 + +3
Perception
26 + 2
Constitution
16
Luck modifier
+3
Parameters:
Hitpoints
317 of 1420
Endurance points
61 of 1050
Magic points
7 of 582
Carrying capacity
28 kg
Fame
51
Skills:
Electronics
44
Scanning
7
Cartography
52
Astrolinguistics
69
Rifles
48
Mineralogy
[requires confirmation]
???
Medium Armor
49
Eagle Eye
60
Sharpshooter
32
Targeting
19
Danger Sense
38
Psionic
47
Mental Strength
45
Mechanism Control
41
Attention!!! No skill chosen
Attention!!! You have nine unspent skill points

Sure, Mineralogy was still up in the air, but I was hoping to solve this issue as soon as I used a geological analyzer for the purposes it was intended for initially, not just as a skeleton key to break locks or fry electronics. First though, to be honest, my Scanning would have to be brought up to 19, but there everything was going according to plan as well. The first skill levels always go very fast, and after hitting ten you can put your free skill points into it as well.
I didn't think long over what to choose as a fifteenth possible skill. After the recent class change, my character was now extremely mana dependent. Even Scanning now took Magic Points, which was to say nothing about Psionic and its huge expenditures. And thus, my mana reserves and their restore speed had become critically important.
You have taken the skill Mysticism level 1.
As the guide on the skill confirmed, each level of Mysticism increased the number of Magic Points by one percent and increased their regen speed by just as much. Yes, it wasn't much, almost unnoticeable, but the impact of Mysticism was going to become more significant as it grew.

Chapter Three. Comet in Sight


I returned to my bunk and discovered Tini sitting on a bench, now back in the game. The kitten was clearly scared by something and, just after seeing me, he hurried to say why:
"Master Gnat, in the real world I was contacted by the Miyelonian lady who plays Ayni! Well, she is just baffled, because her Fame is growing tempestuously. She’s also mad at us for leaving the Medu-Ro IV station without her! But master, that means that our Ayni... well, the one who is here on the ship... is not the person she pretends to be! I think she might even be..."
Here the kitten took a pause and gave a heavy sigh, clearly afraid to continue, so I finished his sentence:
"A Morphian. And not just any Morphian, this is the one that killed the Great Priest Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo."
After confirming his most ghastly suppositions, the Miyelonian youth melted in fear and pressed his ears to his head, so I hurried to reassure him:
"Don't worry, Tini, your rulers have known this for some time, and they have no problem with it. Or do you think your superiors are so foolish and naive that they would allow a killer to get right up next to their holy Priestess?! I doubt it. Or, let's say the bodyguards simply yawned through the assassination, which I personally don't believe. Why would they not increase security measures after the attack? No, they allowed the Morphian to walk around freely as a First Pride warrior! Those elite soldiers know one another very well, they've probably been working together for a long time, and you think that a new one just showing up wouldn't arouse suspicion? Not possible! Your rulers allowed the Morphian to do its work, paid honestly and let it leave the station unimpeded."
"But... how can you know that, Gerd Gnat?" Tini asked, still doubtful.
"Come on, even at my low Psionic level I could tell it wasn't Ayni by its thoughts, and I noticed a few times! But the Truth Seekers are professionals, they read me like an open book! They could tell a fake guard from a real one in a second! Another thing opened my eyes to it, though. After the Truth Seeker interrogation, we needed to walk through an inspection corridor between the main station and the space port zone. Well, the First Pride there, clearly acting on orders from the Truth Seekers, in violation of every safety protocol, led Ayni and I around the checkpoint without any scanning or search! Why? Because they didn't want the Morphian to be discovered! I didn't notice at first, but later all the pieces of the puzzle came together in my head and I understood. You want me to tell you what really happened on the Medu-Ro IV station?"
Tini, still scared and pressing his ears back, slowly closed and opened his eyes, which for a Miyelonian was equivalent to a nod of approval. I started explaining with gusto:
"Leng Amiru, or another no-less-important Miyelonian hired the Morphian to do the attack. With thousands and thousands of pilgrims watching, the wicked Morphian was supposed to gruesomely murder the priestess, causing righteous furor in Miyelonian society. After all, that broadcast went out to the whole galaxy! The completely predictable rage of billions was supposed to lash out at the individuals behind the crime, who would soon be revealed by the Truth Seekers investigating the murder. The murder of the incarnation of the Great First Female was a legal and indisputable reason for war, and the target of this secretly arranged attack was the Meleyephatian Horde."
"Ah, that's right!" Tini said, now lighting up. "I noticed all the news channels showing anti-Meleyephatian propaganda before the murder of the incarnation of the Great First Female. You're right, master! Everything adds up!"
"Yes. The Morphian was supposed to take the appearance of a Meleyephatian, meet with members of that race on the station and, in full view of many security cameras, spend some time with them before committing the vile murder. Although there was a backup option if the Meleyephatians who spoke with the Morphian suddenly proved their innocence. For example, if they could provide a recording of their interaction with the Morphian, which would show they were speaking on neutral topics. That, most likely, could not stop the war now, but it would put the Alliance of Miyelonian Prides in a very unfavorable light before the Geckho, Trillians and all the rest..."
Here I was forced to take a short pause, because Minn-O came into the bunk, now wearing the refit spacesuit. She was clearly expecting some commentary on her new look, and I expressed all the necessary words of praise to the Princess's new combat outfit. And it wasn't just white lies. Minn-O really looked impressive and even stylish, a true space Amazon! Satisfied with my reaction, she didn't return to her bunk, just plopped down on a bench. But she didn't know Miyelonian, so I continued the story for Tini:
"So, I'll finish up about the backup option. As you know, there are many races in the Meleyephatian Horde, including a few from human groups. They noticed some people on the Medu-Ro IV who would fit that role perfectly. They were from Tailax, and the Morphian was told to get to know them as well. But there was a cock-up. The Morphian met me, spent time hanging around me on camera and, overall, left plenty of tracks leading back to Gnat and humanity. But afterward, it became clear that my faction was a Geckho vassal, not Meleyephatian! The Miyelonians had no quarrel with the Geckho, so the Truth Seekers had to make some corrections, urgently wipe some of the camera footage and put on the whole circus with thought reading and what not. But the mission was done in one way or another, they tracked down the guilty party, and the Morphian received its reward and calmly flew off aboard the Tiopeo-Myhh II interceptor. And so, Tini, don't you worry about this false Ayni. In fact, take advantage of the unique chance to be trained by an amazing warrior and excellent trainer while you have it! Don't be ashamed, go into the cargo hold while Ayni is there! And don't come back until you hit level fifty!"

***

As soon as my ward left, the noble Princess unexpectedly stood up and closed the metal curtain leading into the corridor.
"Gerd Gnat, I wanting talk with you. First of, is praise. You be amazing! When you no surrender, but use all abilities, difference between simple muscles warrior and true mage ruler is clear in once!"
After a second of hesitation, Minn-O sat down on the bench next to me and placed her arms modestly on her knees. She clearly was not sure she was doing the right thing, so I didn't take the lead, and especially didn't throw her hands off, afraid to spook the Princess, who was already not feeling overly self-confident. She spent half a minute in silence, then decisively turned to me and looked me right in the eyes:
"Gnat, according to all traditions and customs my world, you already one day to be me legal husband, but I still no feel any attention from you. I be you wayedda, suppose to be you most closest person. But still no know lots about you, you past and present, you goals and wishes. And, what make me bitter and even somewhat afraid, I no having not slightest idea of you plan about me."
I noticed how significantly Minn-O's grasp of my language had improved, how much more fluent and proper her speech now was. This speed of learning spoke not only to leveling Astrolinguistics, it meant she also had good Intelligence. And so, not knowing where to start, I praised my companion for her obvious successes in studying my language and asked about her character's stats in the game that bends reality.
You might think it a simple and even obvious question. But Minn-O unexpectedly turned away and refused to answer, saying that every lady had her secrets, she wanted to stay mysterious, and revealing her character sheet was the same as standing naked before me. Here I couldn't agree with my companion:
"Ladies’ secrets are little tricks you use like inserts that make your boobs look bigger, or strapless bras that push them together. Those are the kinds of details that men had better not delve into. But I am not asking you to reveal ladies' secrets, I just want basic game information. It would allow me as a commander to understand just how much I can count on your level-55 Cartographer in a serious fight, and what use you might bring in times of peace."
Minn-O lowered her eyes and grew unexpectedly embarrassed, even her ashen-gray cheeks flooded with red blush. I realized too late that I had accidentally broken some moral taboos of her world and started speaking about things that are utterly unallowed. Her next words confirmed my guesses:
"Talking about that is considered uncultured, and also the feminine wiles you've described are not needed in the game... As for the characteristics and skills of my Cartographer... no, I can't, it's too personal. I'll have to explain why I chose this and that, what guided me. If it really is necessary, read them from my thoughts, you can use Psionic magic, after all."
Minn-O then looked me in the eyes, as if inviting me to mental conversation. I had to admit, I was intrigued with the mysteriousness and stubbornness of my girlfriend not wanting to reveal her stats, met eyes with her and... drowned in the stream of the Princess's thoughts.

"How can I communicate to Gnat that I care about him? I'm crawling out of my skin to attract his attention. And he looks at me so distantly, I don't even know if he likes me or not. For him, I even took the Lover skill as not to disappoint such a sophisticated and pretty boy after so many past girlfriends. But the most important is how to bring my husband into my world? Grandpa said it was possible. His backwards H3 Faction is doomed. And its days will be all the more numbered after the legendary General Ui-Taka takes up the fight. I need to save Gnat and bring him to our world before his faction gets wiped out. After all, doesn't Gnat understand that a mage like him will live better in our world?"

I averted my gaze, breaking the mental contact. No, that wasn’t how it would go. I needed real data about Minn-O, not this poorly masked propaganda!
Psionic skill increased to level forty-eight!
Mysticism skill increased to level two!
Mysticism skill increased to level three!
No, I didn't curse or speak my mind, despite her extremely unpleasant and obvious attempt to lure me over. Instead, I gave a good-hearted smile and suggested that we just talk like normal people to get to know one another better. I even suggested we combine this free conversation with language lessons. I could teach Minn-O the language of my people and the Geckho race, and she could act as my teacher of the Dark Faction language.
It was a good idea. Minn-O grew noticeably calmer and, generously peppering her speech with words from her world, she began to tell me about the mageocracy, ruling families and the twelve directories. I listened carefully, not interrupting, sometimes just clarifying the meaning of a certain word or asking her to comment on parts I didn't get. At a certain point, Minn-O came closer, and I gathered the courage to gingerly hug the Princess. She didn't object one bit. In fact it was the opposite and she pressed up close to me and put her head on my shoulder.
The ice of distance between us quickly melted. I was no longer so constrained and, when telling her about my world and past life I joked around a lot, acted dumb, and the Princess laughed infectiously. As it turned out, Minn-O had a pleasant sonorous laugh that was reminiscent of the peal of silver bells. I didn't even know who initiated it, but at a certain point, our lips met in a kiss.
"I'd already stopped hoping you’d get the courage," Minn-O smiled, and happy devils started to dance in her eyes. "You sold me a whole song and dance when I was naked and tied up on the Geckho ferry. You said that if I ended up your prisoner one more time, I wouldn't get by with just kisses. I'll admit, I was worried and afraid, but in actual fact my husband turned out pretty timid I had to wait a whole two days just for a kiss..."
I understood perfectly that the Princess was just joking, and that if I made too many moves, I might scare her and demolish the shaky trust we had established. But some way or another, our relationship was in the stars, and at some point, it would reach the point of "leveling the Lover skill." By the way, what did that do? I tried to open the pop-up guide, and received only the following message:
Information unavailable. This skill is incompatible with your character.
Then I just asked Minn-O and my wayedda didn't hide anything, reading aloud:

“Lover. This skill is available only to female characters and allows its bearer to better attract the opposite sex* (both NPC's and living players), and also to please and keep them. Raising the skill gives new previously unavailable conversation and behavior options, improves the relationship modifier, and also increases Endurance Points. This is the main skill for the game classes Prostitute, Favorite, and Matriarch.”

* For races with variable gender, the Lover skill may temporarily become inactive.
** For races with more than two gender options (for example, Meleyephatians or Cleopians) the Lover skill is only active between partners capable of conceiving young.

"Well then..." I couldn't hold back the surprised exclamation. "It looks like I seriously underestimated your feminine wiles. Is my Princess already using the skill on me?"
"I took that skill back on the Geckho ferry and tried to use it on you even then," Minn-O admitted with a satisfied smile. "But I didn't notice any effect for a while. In the prison block either. You're just impossible to get through to!"
We kissed again, this time bolder and with less restraint. I even started thinking about taking some liberties and letting my hands test the boundaries, given that my companion was in a playful mood. However, our placid cooing was interrupted by a heavy and demanding knock at the door, so I hurried to raise the curtains before they got broken down by someone strong and impatient. In the doorway was Geckho Trader Uline Tar:
"Gnat, there you are! Our ship is almost there, the Un-Tesh comet is already in the zone of visibility. But that wasn't why I came looking for you. We got a message from the base that our shuttle will be boarded and inspected by a group of Geckho military, and you and the Miyelonian Ayni are to be placed under arrest. Such was the order of Kung Waid Shishish himself. Admit it, Gnat. What did you do this time?!"
The shocking news made my jaw fall. Kung Waid Shishish, the fearsome and unrestrained Geckho military leader, who held sway over huge territories in the galaxy, including my very own Earth, had ordered me arrested? But why?! Sure, Gnat was not some innocent little lamb, and his gameplay might have upset the Geckho a few times. I could remember at least ten reasons for our suzerains to be mad at me. Just inviting the Miyelonian smugglers into the exclusive zone of the Geckho was enough. But that was all in the past now. I had already made a report to Geckho Diplomat Kosta Dykhsh about it. I couldn't really think of any transgressions since that time.
Uline herself also did not understand why Kung Waid Shishish would be mad, and neither did our Captain Uraz Tukhsh, who had passed this alarming information along to the Trader. By the way... although this wasn't the best moment, I asked the furry girl whether she might know why the captain was treating me with such strange agreeability.
"Are you implying I might not know!" Uline frowned at me, slightly offended, as if my lack of faith made her feel bad. "Our young handsome Aristocrat got it into his head to marry! And not just any old Geckho, but a respectable and very pretty Geckho lady from a rich clan that controls a network of Galactic highways and a whole flotilla of trade ships. It was a marriage borne of pure calculation. One party is a famous aristocrat from a now poor family, and the other is from a family of rich traders with no title. But the obstinate bride gave our captain a clear and unambiguous condition he had to earn glory and become a Gerd, put his remaining free stat points into luck and thus rid himself of his curse. As it was, everyone knew about his constant bad luck, it was practically broadcast on the galactic news."
I thought for a bit and put together the phrases: "pretty Geckho lady," "rich traders" "ships," and "curse," and came to a conclusion, already totally sure that I was right:
"That pretty and obstinate bride must be you, Uline!"
"Gnat, you're as good a guesser as ever," my huge furry friend grumbled out in satisfaction. "My fiancée, not least of all at my behest, sees in you a talisman of luck and his chance for a successful marriage. And that's why he's so nervous around you. He's afraid of losing you. And I share his convictions, so I'll try to help you with this weird arrest, even though I don't know what caused the anger of the head of the Waideh-Tukhsh clan, my fiancée’s influential relative."

Chapter Four. Master of Earth


I'd been on asteroids before, and all kinds, so I wasn't exactly some space greenhorn, I'd seen plenty of views in space. But still the view I got from the surface of the comet Un-Tesh surprised me and even delighted me. There were so many ships here both on the space port landing field and drifting nearby! Interceptors, assault frigates, heavy cruisers, landing ships... There were hundreds of them here! And although we were on the dark side of the comet, opposite the local star, the field of the huge ice space port glimmered with millions of lights in the beams of a plethora of spotlights, illuminating and emphasizing all the military might of the great Geckho race. What a pretty sight!
And what was more, this comet had an atmosphere. Not a very thick one, but still! The black starry sky looked washed out and almost dirty. The huge combat starship hanging a few miles over the surface looked very indistinct. It was so severely blurry that I couldn't even read its class or make out the details. Most likely, this was the gigantic battleship Dmitry Zheltov told me about, but I had no way of confirming that. I couldn't see further than half a mile, and there was also no distinct horizon here either. Nothing but a swirling ash-gray haze, like wisps of steam mixing into the dark sky and bright blue ground of the icy space port.
The barometer in my suit sleeve confirmed what I saw about the atmosphere, showing a pressure of nine thousand pascals, which was pretty significant. In fact, one twelfth the average on earth. For a cosmic body that was not a planet and didn't seem all that massive, the pressure was very significant. But the composition of this atmosphere would not be breathable.
Apparently, the substance underfoot was not exactly ice in the normal sense of the word. The ground was just too crumbly and light to be normal frozen water. To be more accurate, there probably was some water in it, but it was not the main component. I looked closer at the dark violet frozen ground and thought. It didn't look like frozen oxygen or nitrogen either, and they weren't commonly found on comets. What was more, the temperature was just negative one thirty Fahrenheit, which would not be enough to maintain nitrogen or oxygen in a solid state.
I came to the conclusion that under my feet was primarily solid ammonium, billions or probably even trillions of tons of frozen compressed ammonium. Seemingly, the side of this comet pointed toward the sun would be hot enough for it to sublimate. There were probably a large number of ammonium geysers bubbling away over there. The surface of that comet may even have been liquid, not solid. Whole seas of boiling toxic ammonium. The mass of this heavenly body allowed it to retain most of the sublimated gas, which is what made up the local atmosphere. Although not all the ammonium stayed, some of the gas floated off into space, forming the comet's tail.

Eagle Eye skill increased to level sixty-one!
Mineralogy skill confirmed, skill level determined to be forty-nine.
You have reached level sixty-five!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: twelve).

Oh! Mineralogy had not only "turned on," but sharply improved from twenty-three to level forty-nine. Seemingly, that was the game algorithm's evaluation of my prior education in this field. Ugh, if I'd only known this would happen, I'd have never left the library, studying materials on Geology and the composition of heavenly bodies...
I had plenty of free points to raise scanning to level nineteen and give me back my ability to use the Prospector tool. But I was in no hurry. I could do that any time, but at this early stage, Scanning was leveling fast, so I could hold onto the free points.
But where was the landing party? Where was the division that was going to board our shuttle and arrest me and Ayni? Would I have to stand here at the gangway for long?
Ayni took the news of her planned arrest with surprising calm and told me, and also everyone on the shuttle that she had no desire to speak with the Geckho military leader, so she'd rather commit suicide and respawn somewhere safe. None of the crew members contradicted the fearsome Miyelonian and they especially didn't try to detain her. Ayni bid us all farewell, went into the cargo hold, and no one saw her again.
But I'm certain the Morphian was playing a trick. At the very least, after the Shiamiru landed on the surface of the comet, the Morphian was still on the shuttle. I saw the marker when I ran my next scan. I guess Fox probably was hiding in one of the technical spaces of the shuttle, planning to blend in with the local contingent when given a chance, pretending to be from one of the many starship crews, or someone in a service job at the military base. Yes, I could not imagine how it was technically possible, even with a change of appearance, to leave with no armor in such a toxic and sparse atmosphere as this comet. But my friend had been to this base a few times before, based on her own words, which meant she knew the local conditions and was prepared for them.
"Gnat, don't leave the ship! The antigrav with Kung Waid Shishish's soldiers is already coming and will land next to our ship soon."
The voice that rang out in my headphones belonged to Captain Uraz Tukhsh, I just shook my head in reproach. I didn’t know about Fame (it sometimes went up even with undesired fame and plainly stupid moves), but the young Aristocrat could never achieve positive Authority. After all, it seemed to me that any more-or-less accountable captain would at least try to figure out why his leaders wanted to suddenly speak with a crew member. A good one might even feel the call to personally go and defend his subject. That was a logical and proper move. Otherwise, who would want to serve a captain that doesn't give a damn about his crew?! But Uraz Tukhsh just threw up his hands and, not wanting to fight with his vaunted relative, just stepped aside, letting me go to the hands of fate.
The only one to express a desire to support and protect me was Uline Tar. The Trader even tried to come to the meeting with Kung Waid Shishish herself to figure it all out and "restore justice," but I talked her out of it. I needed Uline on the ship. She was the only one I could trust to keep my most valuable objects: The Annihilator, the Priestess's tail and the wallet with a large number of crypto.
Finally, I saw a small quickly moving blinking antigrav in the sky above. It nearly jumped past our Shiamiru, which must have been invisible compared to the other starships, but at the last second it made an abrupt maneuver and started coming down. The side hatches opened, and ten Geckho soldiers came out of the antigrav in identical heavy red armor suits. They surrounded the Shiamiru with their weapons at the ready and froze, and only after that did their commander come out of the landed vehicle, slowly and with dignity:

Gerd Ost Rekh. Geckho. Clan Waideh-Rekh. Level-156 Shocktroop

One hundred fifty-six?! That's a serious guy. I already knew I should not joke around with him. But just then, I got distracted because an airlock hissed open behind me and, covering her face with a hand to block the bright spotlight, Minn-O came down the gangway in her new spacesuit. What the hell was she doing here??? Or... I activated the Scanning icon, but with surprise discovered I was not wrong, and this really was Minn-O La-Fin.
I took a step toward the Princess and first of all checked the air in her tanks, and made sure they were all hooked up right, and the batteries were charged. The last thing I needed was for my wayedda to lose consciousness at the worst moment in this corrosive ammonium atmosphere. While I tightened and readjusted the clips of her space suit, fitting it to her figure and clipping her loose rifle better, the Princess explained why she was here:
"Gnat, man pilot told me that my man was having troubles, and they even want to arrest you. Well, I decided to be by your side in a difficult moment and share your fate!"
Well, well! An unexpected step from my "traveling mistress" and, I can't hide it, very pleasing. I had just finished setting up Minn-O's spacesuit, when the huge bulky Shocktroop walked up to the gangway and stopped a step from me:
"Kento duho, Gerd Gnat! Uh, I was told the second would be a Miyelonian..."
If only you knew the relief I experienced when I heard that fearsome Geckho's first words! It was as if a mountain fell off my shoulders! The "kento duho" greeting meant he was friendly and definitely could not be used to address a criminal or arrestee. I greeted the head of the division and explained with all possible politeness that the Miyelonian Ayni had killed herself as soon as she found out our shuttle was flying to a Geckho military base. She said that it wasn't on her way and it was better for her to respawn on the Medu-Ro IV station. That was exactly what Ayni told the crew, so I just retold it exactly.
"Too bad... Kung Waid Shishish REALLY wanted to see that Miyelonian," the Shocktroop put special emphasis on the word "really," but I couldn't make out what he meant by that intonation. Either he wanted to emphasize how mad and unhappy his leader was, or he just had a sincere interest. And maybe he was also expecting problems now that he hadn't carried out the Kung's order.
In one way or another, I needed to figure out my status in this situation, and I directly asked the Shocktroop what the war leader wanted from me.
"Kung Waid Shishish is angry and would like to see you personally. He has a lot of questions about your actions, Gerd Gnat. In your place, I wouldn't make the Kung wait, because he is not known for his patience."
It was just getting harder every hour... I pissed off the great and powerful Geckho military leader somehow. This was of course no arrest, but there was still little to be happy about. I needed to go at once in order not to further annoy the master of Earth. And it would be good to somewhat smooth the angle of discussion, turning this upcoming difficult talk from a technical interrogation into an official visit. So I pointed Gerd Ost Rekh to my companion:
"Minn-O is my spouse and a true Princess of my race, the granddaughter of a Coruler of mankind. It would be proper to have her come with us in order to express the necessary respect to Kung Waid Shishish."
The Geckho did not object, and soon the antigrav was racing off with us toward a barely visible huge ice massif in the cloudy mist in the distance a true mountain ridge made up of condensed frozen ammonium. From nearer by, I was able to see that it really was a whole chain of icy peaks over half a mile in height. At enormous speed, our flying machine went right into a vertical ice wall, and I felt Minn-O shudder in fear as I grasped her hand. I was not worried one bit myself my Danger Sense was quiet, which meant there was nothing risky in this maneuver. And in fact, our antigrav passed into the seemingly solid wall without resistance. For a second, bright colorful sparks and flashes of electricity went off around us. All clear, I had seen this on an asteroid with the illicit platinum mining before. There was a cloaking screen, changing the view of what was behind it.

Fame increased to 52.
Authority increased to 31!

"You're not easily scared, Gerd Gnat!" the leader of the Geckho group called out respectfully, removing his helmet and showing his yellowed tusks. "Not many react so calmly the first time. Some have even passed out or tried to jump out of a flying vehicle."
By then, the antigrav had passed through a second defensive shield and into some spherical room, which I imagined was a pressure equalization and poison cleaning chamber, after which the walls of the tunnel were no longer ice but made of some kind of gray metal-ceramic. The air here was now breathable, so I followed the Geckhos’ example and took off my helmet, holding it in my hands.
In response to Ost Rekh's words about my guts, I didn't tell him what I was thinking and feeling, I just expressed confidence in the pilot’s ability, which is why I had no worries.
"That's true," the Shocktroop rumbled in satisfaction. "My division has the best of the best, and there's no reason to doubt their competency. What's more, Kung Waid Shishish would skin us each thrice if we didn't bring you to him in one piece. Alright, we're there! From there, straight down the corridor and there in the far room will be a small test of your luck! Try not to disappoint our fearsome boss!"

***

Only after Minn-O and I got a bit further from the antigrav and Geckho did I find the chance to thank her for her bravery, which was bordering on self-sacrifice. But the Princess clearly did not understand the reason for my gratitude by the strict laws of her world, a wayedda had to follow her spouse even into war or exile, and even up the gallows. And that, by the way, was one of the main differences between a "junior, traveling wife" and a "senior." A senior wife was considered the keeper of the domestic hearth and raiser of children, and generally stayed away from dangerous ventures.
"Not in my world. Wives, as a rule, do not follow their husbands into war with very rare exception. Same goes for exile. There were of course the Decembrists' wives, who went off after their husbands to Siberia..." here I was forced to make a pause, because my companion had clearly lost the thread of the conversation, and I'd have to explain in simpler terms. "Two hundred years ago there was a rebellion of a large group of aristocrats against... how to explain... one of the corulers of mankind, the head of the largest directory. The uprising was harshly suppressed, five of the leaders were executed, and around four hundred thousand were deprived of title and exiled to far-away lands."
"And that's what they call 'harsh' in you world???" Minn-O couldn't hold back and laughed uncontrollably. "Gerd Gnat, a year ago during the suppression of a hunger riot in the Ninth Directory, my grandfather ordered the execution of more than six million rebels in order to bring down the number of hungry mouths. And at that Thumor Anhu is not an exception, every Coruler has done that forever! And as for encroaching on the lives of the Coruler, the only thing that awaits such psychos is death of all terrorists without exception, and all their families for three generations, and at that with the harshest possible methods... Yikes! Gnat, look!!!"
My companion's last sentence was about a truly colossal hall now visible through an oval window. In it there were endless rows of thousands and thousands of Geckho soldiers in exoskeleton armor. I abruptly rethought giving acrid commentary on the inadequacy of Minn-O's world's order and the harshness of her grandfather, and also stopped, struck by the never-before-seen spectacle.
The ideally even rows of frozen soldiers, primarily in identical black and silver armor suits just like the one I bought for Eduard Boyko. Among the main mass of the infantry, I could clearly make out commanders in their more advanced and expensive orange shock armor, and also... My jaw just fell in astonishment when I saw in the very depths of the room... a group of thirty titanic figures draped in weaponry, each the size of a nine-story-building!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level sixty-two!
Greiss Ukhkh-Tor. Heavy Geckho Shock Mech.

Now there's power!!! Yes, there were sufficient forces here to capture not only a space station, but a whole planet the size of my Earth! Humanity, even taken all together, didn't have a single chance against such an army... And this probably wasn't even close to our suzerains’ total forces because Kung Waid Shishish was an influential "leader of many divisions," responsible for a certain sector of the galaxy, but was just one of many such Geckho military commanders.
No, I understood before that the Geckho were a great space race and strong, but it was one thing imagining that based on abstract data, and it was another entirely to see it all with my own eyes. I walked in thoughtful silence to the next room, where Kung Waid Shishish had apparently set up some kind of test for me.
Ho-ly crap... There was a meeting being held in the room, and fifteen furry Geckho in identical red armor suits were sitting in a semicircle on small pillows opposite a larger Geckho in a glimmering snow-white suit of armor sprawling out on a throne in a stately manner and there was no other way to call this gem-encrusted carved armchair, the tongue just couldn't. I would have assumed the white-armored individual was the Kung, but it was unmistakably an, albeit large, Geckho female! She was too large for a female... and for a male too, actually... She didn't have female markings on her fur or jewelry, but I had spent enough time in the company of Uline Tar to learn to pull out those seemingly insignificant anatomical differences, which allowed Geckho females to be identified. The front paws were somewhat different proportion to the body, the ears were turned back, the eyes were a lemon-yellow color, unlike the males... Yeah this was definitely a female! What is going on here? Where is Kung Waid Shishish? Or was I confused, and my captain's famed relative was a woman? It seemed unlikely. Uraz Tukhsh always referred to him with male pronouns...
In the strongest incomprehension, I stopped at the entrance and looked around. I couldn't read character info about any of the Geckho in the room, however according to etiquette rules and diplomatic protocol, I was supposed to approach Kung Waid Shishish first and express my respect for the Master of Earth, get down on one knee and bow low before him. Who to approach? Clearly, this was that test Gerd Ost Rekh had told me about.
The lady on the throne was clearly a trap. If I couldn't tell her apart from the real Kung, I would shame myself before my suzerains in the most serious fashion. I'd never wash that off in a hundred years. But who of these fifteen? I had one guess. One of the warriors was intentionally looking away from me and trying to blend into the crowd, and also, I could play with Danger Sense to find the right decision, but I didn't risk it and just used scanning.

Scanning skill increased to level eight!

Everything became clear at once. I was not wrong in my suspicion. A very "modest" Geckho on the mini-map was shown as:

Kung Waid Shishish. Geckho. Clan Waideh-Tukhsh. Level-279 Space Commando

I didn't hesitate for more than a second. Making a precise step, I walked toward the respected leader of my planet and bowed in the proper greeting. Minn-O did the same and fell down next to me on one knee. But the Kung's reaction was one of clear dismay. Seemingly, he was hoping to play us jackass outworlders for fools and have a little fun.
"Hey, no fair! You knew! Or did someone tell you? No? Ah! You'd probably seen me on signs! Or was that just luck?"
"No, my Kung, luck had nothing to do with it. A blind man could tell a man from a woman, even if she's so awe inspiring and strong. And from there it was very easy. All the others in the room were clearly afraid they might be confused with the great and legendary Geckho commander, and only Kung Waid Shishish was acting casual, enjoying the game."
Yes, I told him a different story, having little to do with reality, but it seemed the right option to me, because a bit of flattery in a conversation with the leadership never hurt. But Kung Waid Shishish gave a rumble of dismay and raised his voice to a shout:
"Gnat, do you mean to say I might sour on an advisor just because he could be confused with me?! Do you think me some ghastly despot?"
My heart ran off on its heels. Seemingly, I was still taking the wrong line... I didn't manage to think through the potential danger before the end of the military leader's sentence threw everything topsy-turvy:
"And you are completely right, Gerd Gnat!!! Every person you bowed before I would have shot at once and forbid from appearing before me again after respawn. What need do I have for an advisor who will eclipse me with his presence, and who can be confused with me?! Well, Gnat, you've confirmed your reputation and earned the right to speak with me."

Psionic skill increased to level forty-eight!
Fame increased to 53.

Chapter Five. Audience


The "conversation" if that term can be used to describe the stream of trick questions poured onto me, began with the Kung's dismay about me smuggling his property from the relict base. Clearly, my posh Listener Energy armor suit had gotten under the fearsome military leader’s skin, given he had lost significant funds buying the rights to the ancient race's base and had nothing to show for it. I had to remind the Geckho leader as delicately as possible, that myself and three other Shiamiru crew members had entered the base ourselves without anyone's help, and that we had done it before getting information about any understandings about who the base belonged to, and that on the first order from Leng (back then) Waid Shishish, we would have immediately left the outpost of the ancient race. I also told him about the conditions of my contract with Captain Uraz Tukhsh and the absolute legality of my keeping whatever I could carry out.
In order for my speech not to look like a one-sided and boring attempt at self-justification, I also told the Kung and everyone else there I’d had the spacesuit refit for a human to use and added additional equipment:
"Installing the bracelet in a special slot made for the purpose helped turn on the ancient device's electronics. All that, to be honest, was accompanied by a spontaneous change of class and other problems of a technical nature, but overall it showed I took the right path. Like here," I said, pointing to a ring-shaped cavity on the chest of the Listener suit, "there's clearly a slot for popping in something else: either a dome-shaped disk or a ring. I seem to remember seeing such disks on the base, but I didn't take any, because I had already received a command from Leng Waid Shishish to leave the outpost of the ancient race, and I did not dare break my lord's order. The artefacts my Geckho friends took, and there were definitely some disks among them, were stolen by space pirates."
Kung Waid Shishish attentively heard me out and didn't have any notes. No matter how badly the fearsome Geckho wanted to lay a finger on the trophies, he had to admit the truth of my words. The following question was the fully expected one about the Listener class, to which I, carefully choosing my words, answered that I myself didn’t understand yet:
"All the information the game has given me so far is in Relict, so for now I have to learn the bonuses and restrictions by trial and error. Although I already know that a Listener is very similar to a Prospector, and that may have been why the change happened relatively easily. The character also has a high Perception and Intelligence, with the others lower, and it also uses Scanning, but not so much for finding ore deposits and anomalies, but for finding hidden mechanisms and living creatures. My hitpoints fell, but I got more Magic Points, which are now used on Scanning. Overall, I'm gradually figuring out my new class and I'll be sure to tell my Kung the results as soon as I have them."
The severe hotheaded commander, already having chased the huge lady off the throne and taken his spot, gave a happy rumble, content with my answer. I already thought the hardest part of the conversation was behind me, when suddenly another accusation was added by the terrifying commander:
"Alright, we'll set aside the topic of the artifacts and new class. That's all behind us now. It has little to do with the present. But because of your very recent poorly considered actions, my Authority fell by two whole points! How am I to understand that, Gnat?! I've killed my closest advisors and friends for less, you know!"
Here I froze with my mouth open, not able to find explanations. On the one hand, I couldn't really cast aspersions on the words of the great commander, on the other, what did I have anything to do with the Kung's fall in Authority??? I had to, without refuting the fact of the Authority dip and my possible complicity with that unpleasant story, ask him to clarify when and under what circumstances.
"Just an ummi ago, three reasonably good soldiers of the Waideh-Tukhsh clan, who I personally chose as bodyguards for my relative Uraz Tukhsh, were smacked around in public and killed by a noncombat character of a very average level. The story has spread far and wide here on the base and put Clan Waideh-Tukhsh, and also its head, in a very unflattering light. They say, how can you speak of the clan having any true power, if warriors selected personally by the head of the clan can be taken down by some Cook or Translator of a much lower level?!"  

Danger Sense skill increased to level thirty-nine!

Near the end of his speech, Waid Shishish was roaring full-throatedly and shaking his huge furry head in rage, spraying spittle in every direction. Minn-O standing next to me was staring at me in alarm, not fully understanding what was happening, but seeing an enraged huge Geckho attacking her husband. I then, despite the popup warning message and aggressive behavior of the Kung, waved off the problems with false calm, saying they were insignificant:
"Ah that... Well the authority of the honorable Clan Waideh-Tukhsh would have suffered in any case then, and my Gnat has nothing to do with that unfortunate event. The Authority fell at the very moment three soldiers of the clan disputed the professionalism of a hand-to-hand combat trainer, selected by the captain of that very same clan to train the crew. I even suspect that the authority of Clan Waideh-Tukhsh would have fallen even more if the respected trainer they appointed suddenly lost the battle to some common ruffians."
"Ruffians??? You forget yourself, Gnat!!! All three who were killed are not some ruffians or bandits, they're Bodyguards from the Waideh-Tukhsh clan with level over ninety!"

Danger Sense skill increased to level forty!

The Kung was about to explode in rage, and the second system message in a row bore witness to that. Nevertheless, I kept on my chosen line and demonstrated absolute calm, and also an extremely scornful, almost obviously insulting opinion about the combat skills of the bodyguards the Kung had appointed:
"They didn't look like respected Bodyguards. They acted boorishly, were itching for a fight and were damaging the authority of Clan Waideh-Tukhsh, which I respect immeasurably. Although I don't know, what were they hoping for? What could stand up against a Morphian warrior with combat experience measured in centuries, whose level is the same as that of the respected Kung, two-hundred seventy-nine?!"
The Geckho in the room all gasped at once. The hot-headed commander himself seemed ready to answer extremely sharply and even took in some more air to do so, but after my last sentence, he sharply rethought and even somehow visually deflated, becoming smaller. Sitting back down on his armchair throne, which he'd jumped up from in the heat of the dispute, Kung Waid Shishish gave an inquisitive nod at the Princess behind me. Seemingly, he thought she was the Morphian, so I unfortunately had to correct my high boss:
"No, this is my spouse Minn-O, the granddaughter of a Coruler of humanity. She doesn't understand a word of Geckho, but I thought it was my duty to show her to the great leader and discoverer of our race, so Minn-O could express the requisite respect to the most-powerful master of our planet. The Morphian didn't want to come to this comet and committed suicide, and I had no way of stopping the powerful creature."
Minn-O, having heard her name, found her place and gave a graceful bow to the most important Geckho, seated on his throne. Kung Waid Shishish greeted my companion in return with a careless nod and a wave of his clawed paw, after which he lost all interest in her:
"Too bad... I'd love to talk with a Morphian... Just think how many ways we could work together..." Waid Shishish cooled down with remarkable speed. There was not a trace remaining of his former aggression and hot-headedness. Now the Geckho before me was a wise military strategist of the great Geckho race.

Psionic skill increased to level forty-nine!
Psionic skill increased to level fifty!
Mysticism skill increased to level four!

Now that was interesting! Seemingly, it all happened without any psionic action on my part, and my strange confidence that I was doing the right thing even at the most worrying moments of the conversation with the Kung were explained by, among other things, that I had slightly influenced his behavior at the right moments. By the way, I barely had any mana left. I just had 83 of 615 Magic Points...
"Gerd Gnat, tell me everything you know about the Morphian's assassination of Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo and the start of the war between the Miyelonians and Meleyephatians," the Kung asked in a calm tone, as if leaving all his grievances and previous accusations in the past.
I gave a noticeably freer sigh and told the Geckho leader exactly what I'd told Tini earlier. Kung Waid Shishish listened carefully, and when I finished the story, spent some time in silence, thinking about something in agitation. Finally, the huge Geckho shuddered:
"That is a different story than the one the Great Miyelonian Priestess told me, but your version seems more truthful. The Miyelonians have been sitting quietly on the sidelines for a long time, gathering forces and preparing to expand their presence in the galaxy. And when the Alliance of Miyelonian Prides thought it was ready for war, all that remained was for them to think up a reason to start one. By the way, Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo had a lot of praise for you, calling you a clever and helpful Human."

Fame increased to 54.

Kung Waid Shishish kept silent and spent a long time boring into me with his attentive black eyes, thinking in agitation about something, then he continued:
"I don't really know what you did to make such an impression on the Miyelonian Priestess, but I personally have to admit I don't much like adventuresome chaps like you who crawl into places they’re not wanted and don't have respect for common order. Although I will agree with the respected Miyelonian that such troublemakers sometimes are useful, mostly they bring harm. However, one of my subjects considers you a talisman of fortune, without whom the operation is doomed to fail. And as that's so, what are you doing nested up in that little Shiamiru? Get your friends and move to the Grokh-Uvachch, the largest and most fearsome ship on the military base, a contribution of the most powerful Clan Ashdeh-Wayn to our common cause," with these words the severe military leader pointed at that same immense Geckho lady in the glimmering snow-white armor suit. The marker on the mini-map told me who it was:

Leng Amothy Yore. Geckho. Clan Ashdeh-Wayn. Level-221 Starship Pilot

The largest and most fearsome ship was clearly that gigantic battleship hovering in space near the comet. Of course, it would be interesting to spend some time on it and see a Geckho military starship in person. However, before the military leader finished his sentence, I already knew it was another trap. As Kung Waid Shishish spoke so often with his relative Uraz Tukhsh that he'd even heard of his "lucky talisman," he had to know that I had a contract in force with the Shiamiru captain for one more voyage. Was I being tempted into breaking a contract? I had to imagine that there were serious fines and sanctions for breaking that, the most obvious of which would be confiscation of everything of any value as "compensation." Nope, no thanks!
I had to carefully choose my words and refuse the "great honor," making the excuse that I still hadn't finished a contract with Clan Waideh-Tukhsh. And I guessed right the Kung gave a happy rumble, clearly content with my decision, then he said:
"Well, Gerd Gnat, I have to praise your devotion to principle! Uraz Tukhsh could stand a 'lucky talisman.' Although I don't think this flight will bring my relative or his crew many obvious trophies or much glory. Noncombat starships go in the third attack wave, when the space battle will already have long been over, while the landing troops go in and take everything of value from the combat ships. Nevertheless, I am very glad you're helping my family. And if you, Gerd Gnat, have any requests, now is the very time to voice them."
I got back down on one knee and told him the problem I'd been busting my brains over for some time:
"Due to the unexpected coming of the Shiamiru and the massive rush to pack, I not only forgot to prepare a gift worthy of a great Kung, which I am immeasurably worried about now, I also didn't manage to provide all my people with spacesuits. I'm missing just one, for a Gladiator. And if here on the base there are any I could take, or ones that could be remade for a large person, I beg Kung Waid Shishish to give an order to have one issued. But the problem is that I cannot make a payment right now except in Miyelonian crypto... or I need a money changer, even though I know how illegal that is."

Fame increased to 55.
Fame increased to 56.

For some reason, that request seemed very funny to the Geckho leader. The fearsome Kung Waid Shishish bared his teeth into an unthinkable grimace, rumbled and even lost control and slid off his throne onto the floor. His advisors were laughing too, or more like rumbling loudly, baring their fangs and furrowing their furry brows. Finally, the military leader had laughed it off and said:
"Even if we don’t have a spacesuit for him on the base, I'll order one brought in at once. It's not right to leave such an unusual request unattended, or a great soldier without the ability to even leave the ship to take part in battle. And I'll try to get by without your money, Human. Yes, it will be hard," here the Geckho once again lost control and started rumbling in laughter, "but I'll try to get by without your crypto somehow. Let it be a gift to you and your companion for the good mood you've put me in. And your gift, Gerd Gnat, shall be our common victory in the great war! Prove to us all that you truly do bring luck!"
At that, the audience was over. One of the Kung's advisors called me and said the attack was beginning in one and a half ummi. Captain Uraz Tukhsh's Shiamiru had been transferred to the eighteenth (reserve) flotilla and would be in the third wave of ships, and for secrecy reasons, everyone on the shuttle was strictly forbidden from leaving the game until the battle. Also by order of the Kung himself, everyone who would take part in the attack was supposed to take care of possible respawn in a safe place here on the military base, where new divisions would be formed of respawned players and sent to the front to take part in further operations in a centralized manner.
I confirmed that I understood and accepted all the security regulations, and that my companions would not be committing any violations. After that, Minn-O and I headed back to the antigrav waiting for us. When we got far enough away from the council chamber, my companion asked a totally unexpected question:
"If it's no secret, who was that clown? I mean, the one who the warrior in the stylish glimmering white armor sat on the throne instead of herself, and who was constantly writhing, baring his teeth, roaring at you and stamping his feet in such a funny way?"
 I stopped sharply and mentally said goodbye to life, because Minn-O had said these words into the functioning microphone of her radio, which meant the seditious words would spread far. And on this top-secret military base there were probably recordings being made as well. Later I realized she had spoken an earthbound language and, most likely it was not understood by the local security goons. In any case, my wayedda had to be taught a lesson for her loose tongue:
"I'll have you know that was Kung Waid Shishish, master of huge territories in space and the all-powerful ruler of our shared planet Earth. Didn't your grandpa ever tell you about our suzerains?"
Minn-O tripped and almost fell. I caught her just at the last moment. In just a few seconds, my companion's skin changed color from ashen-gray to white, her lips quivering in horror. Maybe, my next words were too much, and I shouldn't scare Minn-O any more, but I couldn't hold back:
"I tried to ask our leaders for five of those big robots." we had just then come back into the room with the Geckho soldiers and I pointed Minn-O to the titans frozen in the distance. "Not for long, just for a couple of days. I think that will be enough to settle the question of your grandpa's faction and never remember it again. What do you think?"
"And... and what did the Kung say?" My wayedda started to hiccup nervously, so I took pity on her and admitted that it was just a stupid joke, and also the Geckho in principle never interfered in disputes between their vassals.
"Every joke has a measure of truth," the Dark Faction girl said, showing plainly that her world had sayings similar to my own.
Minn-O, still not having fully distanced herself from that fear, smiled in embarrassment, looked at me and asked forgiveness for her poorly considered words. I looked the Princess in the eyes, and the mind reading happened despite me, although I didn't break the mental contact either.

“Just think, my ruling grandpa Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin is making grand plans, inviting the best strategists, conducting meeting after meeting. He thinks he has the situation fully under control and the days of his enemies are numbered. But in fact the Leng isn't even close to understanding the power he's tussling with! 'Poor student...' We'll see about that! Just think, this 'poor student' was well received by a great ruler of the Geckho race! With one well-timed phrase, my husband can put the Kung on the right track, and he just has to wave a claw, and all that will be left of my faction is memories... What a brainless idiot I am! As soon as I open my mouth, I talk my way into a death sentence. Good thing my husband is kind-hearted and lets me get away with little things like that..."

Then, instead of that whole long-winded diatribe, my wayedda said a very short sentence:
"Gnat, I can't hide it, I'm in shock!!!"



Release Septmebr 24, 2018
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Free chapters from book 1 & book 2



5 comments :

  1. I told myself I would only read one chapter every week, yeah that didn't work.

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  2. Grrrr… A teaser, why did I read a teaser? Now I have to pre-order!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Seriously thought it was coming out tonight got all excited. F#!k so not fair, can we get a pre-order bonus like a few more chapters.

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  4. is there a time machine i can use to get the book sooner?

    ReplyDelete