Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Level Up: Hero by Dan Sugralinov




Level Up, Book 2
Hero
by Dan Sugralinov




Release - December 10, 2018


Prologue

“OKAY, I’LL PUT it in a different way. How did you kill them?”
“There was this little boy... he suffocated. It just happened! Then there was a girl... she just died too... bled to death...”
The sound of a gunshot almost deafens me. A bullet to the shoulder throws the corrupt government official onto his back. My ears ringing, I can barely hear Vicky cuss under her breath as she flings the gun aside,
“Bastard, bastard, bastard! How I hate them!”
“Holy crap, Vick, what have you just done!”
Gleb Grechkin, a prominent figure in the Town Hall’s Cultural Department, is squirming on the floor, apparently not in a hurry to croak. His wound isn’t life-threatening and his Vitality is still in the green as a Bleed debuff ticks away, stripping the pedophile of his Health.



“He’s a scumbag, don’t you understand? He doesn’t deserve to live!”
“Uuugh,” he groans, “You’re gonna pay for that! I’m gonna wipe you out... Ooooh...”
“Enough! Wake up!” I shake Vicky by the shoulders, trying to bring her back to her senses. “Let’s go!”
“Where do you want us to go? We need to finish him off first!”
I'm a bit worried about her attitude but I can see the Fury and Righteous Indignation buffs hovering in the tag above her head. I grab her by the hand and drag her toward the door. I also pick up the gun, just to be on the safe side.
I open the trunk of Grechkin’s SUV and look for a hose and an empty can. While Vicky inspects the other cars, I syphon off the gas.
“Here, I’ve found another one,” Vicky hands me an empty can.
It takes us some time to fill both, then I take them and go back into Grechkin’s house.
Grechkin’s cowering behind the couch. A bloody trail lies in his wake. As I enter, he shudders and starts muttering.
I cuss as I remember something. I reach into my pocket for the handkerchief I’d taken off the corrupt Colonel “Dimedrol”[1], Grechkin’s best friend. I pour some vodka over it and wipe the gun clean. Vicky leaves to do the same with the fingerprints in Wheezie and Zak’s car: the two junkies who, on Dimedrol’s orders, have kidnapped me and Vicky in a dark alley, stuffed us in the trunk and brought us here.
“What are you doing here?” Grechkin asks clearly, enunciating every word. “I can’t feel my legs. What’s wrong with me?”
I peer at the profile of this non-entity which has already been sentenced to death by the mysterious program in my head. Social status level: -1. This has resulted in a dramatic drop in all of his characteristics. His debuffs aren’t exactly energy-promoting, either: his Metabolism is deep in the red, his Mobility virtually non-existent. Once he’d confessed to all his crimes, the game system declassified him, changing his social status to negative and issuing me a system quest to eliminate the pedophile.
Which is exactly what I’m going to do now.
I can hear someone moaning nearby but it’s not Grechkin. Wheezie raises his bloodied head, his foot twitching. He’s still alive but I don’t feel like killing him yet. He can stay alive... for the time being.
I glance at the clock hanging above the door. It’s well past three in the morning. Trying to stay away from the burning fireplace, I pour the gas over the bodies, the furniture and the pool table, then use the second can to douse the verandah, the hall and the wooden staircase leading to the second floor. The remainder I use to make a hot trail to the house.
I return to the lounge holding the gun in the handkerchief and lay it into Zak’s hands.
“Please don’t leave me...” Grechkin pleads. “A million dollars... in cash... please...”
I leave the empty cans in the house. Snatching a lighter from the couch’s armrest, I survey the scene of our nightmare.
Then I walk outside. Vicky stands next to me and lays her head on my shoulder.
Even if hell doesn’t exist, we’re going to make a personal one for him: here on planet Earth, in this particular local segment of our Galaxy.
Let it all burn to hell!
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a silhouette appear from around the corner.
The last thing I hear are the claps of several gunshots. As I pass out, Vicky’s scream echoes through my mind.



Restart


I COULD STILL SEE the smoky crimson flames imprinted on my retinas; I could smell the steely odor of blood and hear someone shrieking; I could taste the gas and the damp loose earth in my mouth when I woke up.
“Phil! I’m home!” Vicky’s cheerful voice rang in the hallway, awakening me from my nightmare.
She walked into the bedroom, leaned over me and kissed me.
“Vicky... sweetie...” I rubbed my eyes and stretched, feeling all my bones ache. Then I couldn’t help it any longer: I scooped her up and pulled her toward me.
Laughing, she fell into my embrace. Still holding her, I rolled onto her, supporting myself on my elbows.
“You didn’t expect me, did you?” Vicky gave me a brazen smile. “I thought you were enjoying your freedom! Maybe not with the girls but you could have gone out with your friends for the weekend!”
“No, I didn’t expect you. And no, I wasn’t going to enjoy my freedom. You know very well I don’t do weekends. I went for a jog in the morning, did some market research trying to work out a few things, then I had my boxing practice and pumped some weights. By the evening, I was so tired I zonked out reading some Adizes. His books are so beneficial they put me to sleep.”
She shut me up with a kiss and reached under my T-shirt.
“Why did you-” I began, meaning to ask her why she’d come back from her parents so early — she was supposed to spend all weekend there — but the blood drained from my brain. For the next quarter of an hour, I had no desire to ask her anything.
When we finally lay there quietly, I tried to pull together the tatters of my dream but could only remember a few images. The woods, a cellar, rain, some bad people and my utter helplessness.
I remembered my unasked question. “So what made you come back earlier than planned?”
“You know... we were sitting there at the table having dinner and talking; my parents, my brother and my daughter...” she fell silent, reminiscing. “And all of a sudden I felt I had to go and see you. I felt as if I was losing you. At first I wanted to just give you a call, but then Dad decided to go on an overnight fishing trip and Mum had her own things to do. So I gave Xena a kiss and jumped into the car. I was in such a hurry to get back home before nightfall I very nearly had an accident. I skidded into the opposite lane just when a white Land Cruiser sped right past me...” she droned as if it didn’t happen to her. “Then I walked in, heard you wheezing in your sleep and felt a whole lot better straight away!”
Impressed by her story, I pulled her toward me. That was my Empathy at work: I could physically sense the potential loss and something truly terrible that could have happened to us but luckily didn’t.
For a while, we lay in silence. Then Vicky lifted her head from my chest and sprang back to her feet. I got up too and followed her into the bathroom, unable to take my eyes off her well-rounded backside.
“How about we have dinner?” she asked as we took a shower together. “Mom sent us over a whole heap of pies.”
“Roasted?”
“No, toasted!” she lashed out at me with her sponge. “Some are egg and onions, some are cabbage and the others are potato!”
“I only asked!” I said, ducking out of the way. “Give her my thanks! Okay, okay, I give up!”
Her reaction was pretty understandable: she was sick and tired of my lecturing her about healthy eating. What did you expect me to do, if every time I took a bite of French fries, the system showered me with warnings and debuffs? If you listened to the interface, everything fried increased the risk of cancer and raised your cholesterol levels. It would have been okay but every time I saw my Health drop even one-thousandth of a percent, it eroded every pleasure I had in eating.
While Vicky was getting dressed, I managed to slice some fresh veg for our dinner. That was the only way I could neutralize the effects of fat food, courtesy of the system.
“Listen, Phil,” Vicky came back into the kitchen. “My Mom has been pestering me about you. I’d have loved to tell her something but what? I can’t keep explaining to them that you’re such a nice, reliable, intelligent guy, then drop the bombshell that you’re unemployed. Should we go and see them together next week, maybe? I’ll finally introduce you to them...”
My parents had indeed liked her. When we’d arrived at their place together a couple of weeks ago, they hadn’t known what to say because they’d expected me alone. But as soon as the effect had worn off, Mom began squawking,
“Don’t just stand there in the door, son! Come in and introduce us!”
“I’d like you to meet Vicky,” I said. “We’re seeing each other. We met at work. Vicky, these are-”
“I’m Kira, this wanker’s sister,” my sister gave Vicky a hug. “Come in, don’t stand on ceremony! Make yourself at home!”
It had gone well. Still, I was a bit worried how the meeting with her parents would go.
As I pondered over this, Vicky switched over to another sore subject, “Listen, so what’s on your agenda? Have you made up your mind? You sure you don’t want to try White Hill, Ltd? I know their HR manager. They’re major distributors in their field but their sales reps don't last long so they're constantly short of staff. How about you give them a try? Even an average rep ears a decent living there and you’re one helluva salesman. I could talk to them...”
”Please sweetie, don’t start. I know you’re used to only relying on yourself, so allow me to do the same. I’ve got a business idea and I’m sure it’s gonna work. But I still need a little bit of time to prepare everything and start everything properly. I’m not just doing all this market research for nothing...”
“But you never even talk about it! Why can’t you tell me? Could it be that you don’t even have an idea? Or are you not only trying to fool me but also yourself?”
“Yes, I do have an idea,” I began.
A telephone call interrupted me.
“Wait a sec, I’ll get it,” I said.
I looked at the phone screen. Look who’s calling! Alik, as large as life! I hadn’t seen nor heard from him for quite a while, almost since I gave him my old apartment.
With an understanding nod, Vicky got up and started doing the washing up. I walked out onto the balcony so that the noise of the running water didn’t drown my voice out. “Hi, Alik.”
“Good evening, Mr. Panfilov!”
“Evening, Romuald! Why are you so official?” I asked, slightly baffled by his formal manner. It had never happened to him before.
“There’s something I need to ask you, Mr. Panfilov,” he drawled glibly. “What’s with our business? When is the launch?”
I realized he was half-canned. “I can’t talk to you right now. We’re gonna start any week now. I’ll give you a call.”
I could hear a woman’s laughter and his voice whispering, “We’ll start any week now! You’re gonna be my secretary!”
“Mr. Panfilov,” Alik switched back to me. “Well, just make sure it’s all sorted! Because if you don’t-”
“Right,” I said. “I’ve no idea who you’re with or where but I suggest you split and call me back later. Over.”
I hung up. I really didn’t like the almost condescending tone of his voice. I stayed on the balcony waiting for him to call back.
“Everything all right?” Vicky’s voice came from the kitchen. “Who was it?”
“It’s okay. I won’t be long.”
I waited a couple of minutes until finally the screen lit up again, showing him grinning. It was the picture of him I’d taken for my phone book profile.
“Phil, I’m lone now, just like you asked,” Alik said in his normal voice. “What’s up?”
“You’d better tell me who you’re out boozing with. What did you want from me?”
“Eh, sorry if I upset you. Today’s a day off so I’ve had a few drinks with the guys from work and I’m just sitting here socializing. There is this girl, Irina... I think I like her,” Alik paused, reluctant to go on.
“And?”
“Well, I told her I was going to quit and start my own business. Like, I was your partner. So she started nagging that she wanted to be in it too. And I-”
“I see. I’d like to ask you about something. Before you promise anything, please run everything past me first. Otherwise nothing will pan out. Agreed?”
“Word up. Sorry, Phil. You shouldn’t think I’m crocked. I’ve only had a few beers. I’m gonna get Irina now and we’ll go to my place.”
“Where do you live?”
“I’ve rented a place next to work. It’s really run down but at least it’s cheap, five grand all in. Listen... so do you want me to quit? And the guys as well?”
“Which guys?”
“My guys, the lads who very nearly beat the crap out of you, remember? Tarzan and the other two? I got them working with me. And if we do suddenly have to quit, we’ve still got a month’s work in front of us.”
‘Okay, just let them work for the time being seeing as you’ve got them already. But I might need your help very soon so you can quit from this Monday onwards. It’ll take us about a month to get this show on the road.”
“Yes, boss! Sorry for having troubled you. Don’t hold it against me!” he hung up.
By my calculations, three weeks should have been enough to finalize everything we still had to do to launch our little enterprise. I’d had a lot of ideas but they all summed up to a few things: to bring my physical stats above average, level up Insight and wait for Optimization. Once that done, I could concentrate on my business.
I planned to start with just one thing: opening a recruitment agency. One activity was much easier to promote than several. Also, I’d already had a few successful referrals like Alik and Fatso. And once our agency had made a name for itself, we could start broadening out the range of our services.
There were two more factors at paly there. Firstly, I still didn’t know what kinds of perks I could receive at the next level of Insight. You never know, I might be able to see hidden treasures by looking at maps, or even new plutonium deposits. And secondly, processing a large flow of job seekers would allow me to hand-pick the best people for my own company.
I went back to Vicky. She’d already poured out the tea and was sitting at the kitchen table hugging her legs, glued to her telephone. On seeing me, she looked up quizzically.
“That was Alik,” I answered her silent question. “He asked me the same thing as you: when we’re gonna start the business.”
“Alik? Who’s that?”
I realized they hadn’t met. They’d never had the occasion.
“Just a friend,” I said, unwilling to go into details. “He’s gonna help me with the business.”
She didn’t seem to convinced but she didn’t show it. All I could see in my interface was her slightly deflated mood and her prickled interest.
“You’re gonna meet him as soon as I get the chance. And as far this business is concerned...” I chuckled. “This isn’t just an idea. I know exactly how to launch and develop it. All I’m asking you for is a little bit of patience. You won’t be disappointed, I promise!”
“Phil, I’m only worried about you, don’t you understand! I just can’t work out what’s going on in your head. I’m afraid you’re thinking about going back to your old lifestyle...” he lowered her gaze.
“Look me in the eye, sweetie,” I pressed my hand to my heart. “I swear on everything that’s holy that I haven’t even thought of anything of the kind! I’m following a plan, and this plan is going to bring success to our family!”
There was a spark of surprise in her eyes. A smile lit up her face. “Are we a family, really?”
“Yes, we are. And next weekend we’re gonna see your parents just as you suggested.”
“In that case...” she said slyly as if she was up to something. She suddenly dropped her head, letting her hair fall over her face, then stood up, holding her outstretched arms in front of her, doing an impersonation of that girl from The Ring movie. “You’d better watch out! The ancient evil has awoken in me! It wants you!”

* * *

EVEN IF MY RELATIONSHIP was going well, my leveling up strategy wasn’t. All I’d achieved in two weeks was a level 13 in social status, +1 to both Strength and Agility and +2 to Stamina. Just as I’d planned, I’d invested the three system characteristic points I’d invested into Perception (+2) and Intellect (+1).
Even if I had become any smarter, I hadn’t noticed it. But my heightened Perception had immediately made my world a lot brighter. I now had 20/20 vision, my hearing was excellent and so was my palate. Now I was even capable of telling the difference between various types of tea and coffee which I’d never noticed before. Just think that I used to enjoy that instant crap and proper freshly-ground coffee in equal measure!
As for my eyesight, the only thing I had been able to see in the night sky without glasses was the North Star. And now... now I derived a particular pleasure from studying the heavens. How fragile planet Earth was and with it, just how insignificant was humanity! You never know, maybe it was true about all those senior races visiting us from thousands of light years away and the mysterious Vaalphors who looked suspiciously like horror-movie demons.
I hadn’t yet touched the system skill points I’d received for leveling up so now I had a total of five. I wouldn’t have been wise to invest them now because the initial skill levels normally don’t take much time to achieve. Which was why I was waiting for the Learning Skills optimization period to finish so that I could invest all the available system points into it. If I’d calculated everything correctly, touch wood, then I might be able to learn new skills and level up my existing ones at a truly cosmic speed, almost like in the Game. I only had ten days left to wait.

Philip “Phil” Panfilov
Age: 32
Current status: unemployed
Social status level: 13
Classes: Book Reader, level: 8
Divorced
Children: none

Main Characteristics:
Strength: 9
Agility: 7
Intellect: 20
Stamina: 9
Perception: 111
Charisma: 14
Luck: 10

At 8 pt., my Reading skill had already overtaken Empathy. These days, I wasn’t perusing books on sales anymore. I chose the books relevant to my skills because I’d already found out, through trial and error, that knowing the theory of a given skill — be it boxing or vending — considerably increased its leveling rate. I hadn’t yet attacked Martha Stewart’s cooking books but I fully intended to because a high level of Cooking just might allow me to prepare buff-rich food. Heh! Wouldn’t it be cool to eat a hearty bowlful of borsch[2] knowing that it gives you +2 to Strength and 30% to Satisfaction for three hours!
These days, I was cooking much more compared to the time when I’d lived with Yanna which had allowed me to make another level in Cooking.
These days, whenever Vicky was at work I concentrated on XP grinding. We’d get out of bed together and have breakfast sharing our plans for the day or discussing a movie or a series we’d watched the night before. Then she’d leave for work and I would head for a run to a dilapidated school stadium nearby, its soccer pitch with lopsided netless goal mouths overgrown with yellowed weeds.
Grass peeked out of the holes in the rubberized running track which I used to circle every day, trying to improve my distance. With every training session and every fraction of the skill gained, my running felt increasingly easier.
One fine morning I’d discovered that I was already on my fifth mile and I wasn’t even out of breath. Nothing was hurting. If someone called me on my phone, I’d be able to speak to them normally without them even noticing I was running. I’d raised Running three more points and made level 5.
Once I’d realized that it took me very little time to restore — thanks to the booster — I started going to the gym every day. Ditto for my boxing sessions. Even though my Strength wasn’t growing as fast as in the beginning, I still had less than 20% left to the average 10 pt. which was about a week’s training.
I’d also received a new skill: Athletics. It came without a description so I’d had to ask Martha about it. Apparently, unlike in Morrowind where Athletics only conditioned a character for running and swimming, my game system used it as the ability to compete. In other words, having this skill activated meant that the system now considered you a proper athlete (albeit an amateur) and not a wimp.
Admittedly, I was starting to feel like an athlete. My six-pack might still be concealed under a layer of fat but there wasn’t much of that fat left, either. When I’d put my old glasses on just to check if my increase in Perception had indeed improved my eyesight, they refused to stay put. In actual fact, my goofy mug had thinned out so much that it now fit in the proverbial mug shot. If Kira were to be believed, I’d “shed a few years”. The only thing which still reminded me of my past was my admittedly shrunken belly which although it had stopped pouring over my belt, was still visible unless pulled in.
Last time I’d seen Alik was when he’d moved out of my old apartment. That day, I’d gone there early to make sure everything was hunky dory. He hadn’t let me down. The place looked fine; he'd even managed to do some repairs. The only thing my former landlady found to complain about was the claw marks in the couch left by Boris the she-cat. We came to a reasonable agreement about this, considering the couch’s ancient history.
The same day, I’d come across Fatso in the yard. He'd changed an awful lot. Maybe not on the outside but his Vitality had considerably grown and his Mood figures were high. The stable job seemed to have instilled a bit of discipline in him. It had also calmed his wife down, disabling her built-in Scold mode. Altogether it had improved his Satisfaction, pacifying the formerly unemployed juicehead and considerably improving his Health.
Last week I’d received an invitation for a birthday party from Cyril Cyrilenko, my ex-coworker from Ultrapak. I’d wanted to invite Vicky along but she refused saying she wouldn’t feel comfortable after what had happened with Marina and Dennis. So in the end I went there alone.
Cyril had chosen a modest but cozy venue with attentive waiters, cold beer, good food and upbeat live music. There were about ten of us, all his friends and colleagues. I didn’t know some of them so I sat at a table between Greg and Marina. Their trial period had nearly come to an end but neither of them seemed to be too worried about it. Seeing as Dennis had been fired for sexually harassing Marina and I had also left, Pavel was likely to keep both trainees. Especially as their sales results had been excellent. Greg was one of those people who could sell sand to Arabs while Marina was enthusiastically working her way through the client list I’d compiled for her, working on the “not a day without a sale” basis.
After Greg had made up with his pregnant wife Alina, his paternal instinct seemed to have kicked in. Having sat with us for a couple of hours, he apologized to Cyril and went home. As for Marina, she’d brought a date along, some postgraduate or other.
I was so happy I’d been able to help my friends and change the course of their lives in some way. Who knows? Maybe this small readjustment would change their lives dramatically for the better. Or was it already doing so?
By the way, the system had classified my attendance as a meaningful social action and rewarded it with some XP points. Apparently, the ability to always stand by your friends in good times as well as bad was considered a virtue.
I hadn’t heard from Yanna even though my Mom had called her mother Mrs. Orlova for some unknown reason and asked how she was doing. That’s my Mom for you: she’s constantly worrying about everyone. As far as I understood, their conversation had been curt and brief, ending with Mrs. Orlova’s demand to “leave her family alone”.
Mom had accepted this with comprehension. I’d only found this out by pure chance from Dad when the two of us went to our summer cottage last weekend to help build the sauna. I’d used the occasion to weed the vegetable garden, bringing my Agriculture skill to level 2. I’d also used the hand pump to water the whole garden. No amount of time in the gym can compare to hand-watering a garden. My muscles are still indignant of the fact, remembering all the effort.
One morning on my way back home from my run I’d met Mr. Panikoff, the dear old-age pensioner. I tensed up: by then, the whole dark incident involving Valiadis and Khphor had already begun to fade from my memory. Deep inside I’d been expecting something like this to happen. Still, my worst expectations hadn’t come true. All that had happened was he’d issued me another quest. Apparently, his children had given him a tablet with his favorite sports newspaper app already installed — but it stopped working whenever his Wi-Fi was out of range. As soon as I walked the old gentleman back to our building’s door and within range of his Wi-Fi, the app started up and the quest was closed, rewarding me with 5 more Reputation points and a negligible amount of XP.
I’d bought myself a mid-range laptop, perfect for writing and doing online search. It was light with a wide screen and a long-life battery. I’d developed the habit of taking it with me in my sports bag so that I could pop into a café on my way back from a gym practice and do a bit of writing. This had become my favorite time of the day. I was yet to tackle novel-length manuscripts but at least my vignettes and short stories had found their reader, harvesting likes and comments. That in itself was motivation enough, not to mention the fact that they improved my ranking on that particular writers’ portal.
I’d gone as far as to write the story of Alik and Fatso whom I’d rolled into one character. It had become a one-day wonder, hitting the portal’s “most read” list. The readers demanded a sequel which I didn’t have because the story’s prototypes were too busy working and basically leading an uneventful life. If it went on like this, I might write a sci-fi story in which the MC would receive the same kind of interface as I now had. Like about some puny guy who was too scared to fight. Why not? It might be interesting.
In any case, my Writing and MS Word skills kept leveling at the rate of knots. That showed both in their numerical values and in the way I felt. Words came easier; my fingers flitted over the keyboard and ideas seemed to come out of nowhere so that I’d even had to start a special file in my smartphone to jot them down.
The change in my lifestyle had also indirectly affected my other skills: Self-Discipline (+2), Self-Control (+1), Persistence (+2), Long-Term Planning (+1). Indeed. These days I found it easier to follow my own plans, nipping all attempts at procrastination and cowardly moments of “I don’t feel like it” in the bud.
The major part of XP I now had I’d amassed by leveling up skills and characteristics — but some of it I’s also received for completing the tasks I’d set for myself. Any athletics-related goals counted (like an effort to run a hundred meters more than the day before), as well as helping my family with their everyday tasks. For instance, helping my Dad at their summer cottage that day had resulted in me receiving a hefty 500 pt.
What upset me a little was that I still couldn’t level up Insight. I’d already got into the habit of IDying everything in sight. It had become as involuntary and automatic as turning round in the street to double-check a pretty woman’s posterior. Still, it didn’t seem enough. The skill seemed to have frozen at about 40% halfway between levels 2 and 3. All the hundreds of object identifications I performed every day garnered me a fraction of a percent.
Ditto for using the interface map. Whenever I asked Martha about it, her response was like a Catch-22 situation: my level of Insight wasn’t enough to receive the answer to the question of how to level up Insight. I had this idea that its leveling rate could increase whenever I used to interface for the benefit of society. Alternatively, the skill’s level cap could be tied to the current social status level — but I had no means of checking out these two theories yet.
But the biggest improvement, apart from Running, had proven to be my Boxing skill (+3) which had brought the total up to level 4.
Main Skills and Abilities:

·       Learning Skills (3) (a primary skill currently undergoing Optimization: +4)
·       Reading (8)
·       MS Word (7)
·       Empathy (7)
·       PC skills (7).
·       Vending (6).
·       Communication Skills (6).
·       Creative Writing (6).
·       Russian language (6).
·       Running (5).
·       Intuition (5).
·       Cooking skills (5).
·       Online search (5).
·       MS Excel (5).
·       Boxing (4).
·       Perseverance (4).
·       Decision Making (4).
·       Hand-to-Hand combat (4).
·       Self-Discipline (4).
·       Self-Control (4).
·       Seduction (4).
·       English Language (3).
·       Long-Term Planning (3).
·       Speed Typing (3).
·       Manners (3).
·       Driving (2).
·       Pushbike riding (2).
·       Leadership (2).
·       Marketing (2).
·       Map reading (2).
·       Public Speaking (2).
·       Fishing (2).
·       Agriculture (2).
·       Persuasion (2).
·      
·       Athletics (1).
·      
·       Playing World of Warcraft (8) (a secondary skill currently undergoing Optimization: −8).

System Skills:
·       Insight (2).
·       Optimization (1).
·       Heroism (1).

System skill points available: 5.

But as for the money, I was slowly but surely running out. After I’d paid the rent on the new flat and bought the notebook, I had to shell out a lot for my individual boxing lessons and taking Vicky out from time to time.
I had put a certain amount away for a rainy day but I loathed to dip into it, determined to level up financial discipline. Spending is easy; saving and making the money grow is much harder.

* * *

THE TWO GRAND I had to pay my coach for every boxing session was quickly depleting my budget. If I wanted to continue training with what little money I still had left, I had to join the group. It would certainly be wise and much cheaper.
So once the next session was over, I stopped him, “Mr. Matov, I need a quick word with you.”
“What is it?” he glanced at his watch, apparently in a hurry. “Go on then but make it quick.”
“Do you remember when I first came you refused to let me join the group? Do you think I’m good enough now? Am I ready?”
He frowned. “When you’re ready I’ll let you know. In my personal opinion, you’re still a while behind the other guys. You’ll be holding them back. You’ve made some progress, I agree. You’re night and day compared to what you used to be. But they’re young guys who’ve been training since early childhood and you’re still a wimp. Every boxer that’s worth his salt will punch your lights out.”
“Yeah but-”
“Are you serious? Listen, I have an important tournament coming up and I won’t have the time to mollycoddle you in the group. It’s one thing when you pay for your own training and quite another when you start impinging on the time of the really promising guys who work hard to prepare for the competition. It’s absolutely out of the question. Carry on for another six months and then we’ll see.”
“But I don’t have money for another six months, sir! I could pay you for another couple of sessions and after that, I’ll either have to quit or look for another gym.”
“Does that mean you’re stopping with the one-on-one training?”
“I’m afraid so. Two more sessions is all I can manage. But I don’t want to give up boxing.”
“Now listen. I have to run. There’re people waiting for me. I have two groups: one trains Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the other Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Both start at 7 p.m. Come and we’ll see. If you can’t keep up, I’ll kick you out, as simple as that. You sign up and pay at the reception. That’s it, I need to rush. See ya!”
He left, leaving me to decide how to fit it into my schedule. I wanted to keep the weekend evenings free, just in case I wanted to take Vicky out. So it looked like it would have to be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Consumed by these thoughts, I was headed to the locker room when some jerk barged past me knocking my shoulder.
“Is the corridor not big enough?” he asked, swinging round. “I could cut you down to size a little bit if you want.”
I decided not to make a bit thing of it. “Sorry. I was miles away.”
“Yuri!” another guy called him from the boxing hall. “We’re all waiting for you! Get your ass in gear!”
“Coming!” Yuri shouted, then turned back to me. “Listen, are you the guy who trains with Matov?”
“Yes, and what of it?”
“Aha, I see now! You’re the daddy’s boy who takes private lessons every day. Fancy sparring with me?”
“No, thanks.”
“As you wish! See you around... wuss,” laughing, he disappeared into the hall.
Yeah right! I don't think so! He had Boxing all leveled up. Compared to his seven points, my four were a joke.
I looked at the calendar on my smartphone without which I wouldn’t be able to stick to a strict schedule. I wouldn’t even know which day of the week it was. Aha! Today was Wednesday which meant this had been the group which I wanted to join. No, I didn’t fancy training with such a bunch of uncourteous and unfriendly individuals.
Having thus come to a decision, I headed for the reception and laid the magnetic locker bracelet on the desk. A petite shapely blonde called Katia scooped up the bracelet and gave me my card.
“Are you all done, Phil?” she flashed me a pearly smile. “How did it go?”
“Everything went fine, thanks. Listen Katia, I’m stopping one-on-one training with Matov and transferring to his group. Can you sign me up for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays?”
“Just a minute. When are you starting?”
“Next week. I’m leaving town for the weekend. I’ll finish up the one-on-ones for this week if it’s possible.”
“Of course,” she replied, tapping something into the computer. “Now: evening boxing sessions starting Tuesday at 7 p.m. Don’t be late otherwise Matov might not let you in.”
I smiled, remembering his proverbial ‘one minute late and it’s finished!’ “I know.”
“Are you gonna pay straight away? It’s four thousand a month.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have it on me. I’ll pay just before the session.”
“Very well. See you, then!”

* * *

BACK HOME, I was greeted by Boris the she-cat who complained bitterly, peppering her diatribe with a feline equivalent of f-words. I’d been out the whole day and she’d missed me. Having said that, she was probably just hungry.
“Can I at least change into something dry?” I begged. “I’m soaked through!”
Still, she wouldn’t leave me alone, rubbing against my legs.
My conversations with Boris — and with Richie before that — probably didn’t fit the pattern of a completely sane person. But I couldn’t help it. I understand that it’s probably naïve and stupid to see a human being in every man and animal. But that was just me.
I opened the kitchen cupboard. The shelf where I kept cat food was empty. I’d forgotten to buy it again. I had this urge to get dressed and rush out to the shop but hesitated. I really didn’t want to get wet again.
“Go and drink some milk,” I remonstrated with the cat.
Contrary to stereotypes, Boris wasn’t fond of milk. No idea why but she’d always preferred industrial cat food to milk and even meat. Could they be lacing it with something? Nevertheless, her hunger was so strong she attacked her milk with gusto.
Still, unwilling to upset her, I called Vicky.
“Hi,” she replied. “I’m coming over to see you soon.”
“Great, I’ll be waiting. Can you go past the shop for me?”
“Easy. What do you need?”
“Just some coffee and a bag of cat food. Could you bring that?”
“Not a problem. Kisses! See you soon!”
I turned on the TV for some ambience, peeled off my soaked clothes and threw them in the washing machine when I overheard an anxious voice off-screen,
“An all-points alert has been put out for Joseph Kogan, a six-year-old boy last seen in the local mall... dressed in... please contact the search and rescue team...”
That was the mall where I did my shopping! I hurried into the room to catch the precious snippets of identification data: the boy’s picture, date of birth... description and height. Now I had enough KIDD points.
I opened the map. He was alive! He was somewhere out of town, in the north east. I zoomed in to the max on the house. It didn’t look like a posh villa. I surveyed the outhouses and the fenced-off yard. A white SUV was parked by the house. I didn’t observe any movement; the boy’s marker was quivering on the map indicating that the object was moving around slowly inside.
I reached onto the bookshelf and pulled out a fat encyclopedia, reaching for a sturdy well-used Nokia stashed behind it. I’d bought several such antiques in a phone repair shop by an underground crossing specifically for occasions like this.
I got dressed, slid the phone, the charger and a SIM card into my pocket and went outside, calling Uber on the way.
So as not to get wet, I waited for the cab in the doorway. After about five minutes, a battered old Lada pulled up. The driver’s rating was very low and I saw why the moment we’d pulled away. He started grumbling, complaining about everything.
“Jesus Christ, I’ve just washed the car and now it’s bucketing down! It’ll take me ages to clean all those muddy footprints!”
I gave a sympathetic chuckle which he must have taken as me being contrary.
“Something you don’t like?” he snapped. “I’m in my own car! I can do what the hell I want! Where to?”
“I gave my destination when I booked you,” I said, slightly annoyed. I was trying to word a search query and he was distracting me.
“Is it so hard to give me an answer?”
“Absolutely not. Vernadsky St. 306.”
“Which Vernadsky is it?” he decided to show off. “The geoscientist?”
“Dunno. Maybe.”
“That’s young people for you these days! Nobody knows the history of their own country! When I was young...”
My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was Vicky.
“Where’ve you got to?” she laughed. “Did you go out yourself to get cat food? Was Boris too impatient for her dinner?”
“I’m going to go and look at an office,” I adlibbed. “It’s a good offer, I don’t want to lose it.”
“No way! You don’t mean it! How cool is that? Okay, I’ll wait for you. You tell me about it later. I’ll cook something for dinner. Love you.”
“Likewise,” I took the telephone from my ear.
“He’s gonna look at an office!” the driver muttered under his breath. “Everyone’s a businessman these days. All those iPhones, offices, businesses... Everywhere you turn, it’s nothing but commerce!”
I tried to distance myself from his grumbling. I’d already come far enough to do what I’d intended to do when I’d left the house and ventured back into the rain.
I inserted the battery into the phone and waited for it to boot up. Then I typed a text message,

You can find the missing boy Joseph Kogan at a house located on the north east highway 20 miles from town. The exact coordinates are...

I sent the message to the two numbers I had for the search and rescue team, pulled the SIM card out, broke it, removed the battery, opened the window a crack and flung everything out by the roadside.
“Are you hot?” the driver asked, casting an unhappy glance at the window.
“Me? Yes, it’s a bit stuffy in here. Could you take me somewhere else instead? I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be going to Vernadsky St.”
Having lied to Vicky, now I had to lay the groundwork for my fib. I opened the map and searched for all business centers with rentable premises. I then narrowed my search to the offers of less then 500 square feet, security and cleaning staff included, in the immediate vicinity of my house with a rentable value between...
I found a suitable offer six blocks away from my place. I Googled it, then dialed the number given on the site but nobody picked up. Never mind. Even if there was no one in administration at this late hour, at least I could go and see for myself. That way I’d have something to tell Vicky.
That’s it, then. Let’s go there!
The driver kept grumbling. I looked up.
“Hello!” he demanded. “Where to now?”
“Chekhov St. 72, please.”
The moment I leaned back in the seat and tried to relax, my phone rang again.
The number didn’t show. For a while, I just stared at the screen wondering if I should answer it. It wasn’t as if I was afraid of phone calls from strangers but I was a bit reluctant to talk to the likes of Police Investigator Igorevsky just now.
Finally, I decided that the uncertainly was worse than taking the call from a potential police officer.
The driver, too, was getting annoyed. “Are you gonna pick it up or what?”
I did.
“Hello,” a strange male voice said. “You’ve just phoned our number.”
“That’s right. Is this Chekhov business center?”
“Yes, go on, I’m listening,” the voice urged, impatient. “What was it you wanted?”
“I called you about office rental. Could I come now and take a look?”
“What exactly do you have in mind?” he asked, all businesslike. “What surface area?”
“Something around five hundred feet.”
“We do have something to offer you! But I’m leaving in half an hour, do you think you can make it?”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Good, I’ll meet you at the entrance!”
Even though he’d never introduced himself, he was apparently happy to land a potential customer. I too felt slightly elated. The initial reason for my phoning — my desire to justify my sudden disappearance from home — had already taken a back seat. I was already curious to see the office where I might possibly get my first assignment. What if I actually liked it?
We finally arrived at the center. The driver pulled up by the kerb without continuing to the parking lot.
“Have a nice day,” I sincerely wished him. He could use some positivity.
Without replying, he pulled away sharply as soon as I closed the door.
I took a good look around. The parking lot was almost empty if you didn’t count two rather shabby cars parked in the slots for the company administration.
The four-story Soviet-era building was rather squat and unpresentable. A massive concrete staircase faced with crumbling tiles led to the front doors. Two flowerbeds lined the entrance; a long-unkempt hedge grew along the fence. A cumbersome awning overhung the façade sporting an unassuming sign of vinyl letters, Chekhov Business Center.
I climbed the stairs and leaned my weight against the heavy wooden door. I was greeted by a typical office smell. The hall still preserved the aura of a Soviet-style government building, complete with the local version of Maxwell’s demon: an old lady doorkeeper sitting at a flimsy desk with an ancient rotary-dial telephone and deciding who deserved the right to be let in. Although apparently dosing off, she was nevertheless vigilant, my arrival provoking a knee-jerk reaction in her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked cantankerously the moment I’d crossed some invisible threshold.
“Good evening! Sorry I don’t know your name,” my Empathy prompted the right approach: as long as I showed respect to her age, everything would be fine.
“I’m Mrs. Pavlova.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Pavlova, I’m here about renting some space. When I called, they told me to come here for a viewing.”
“Who told you that? You know what time it is? There’s nobody here now!”
“Some guy but I don’t know his name.”
“Come tomorrow,” she announced, then mumbled under her breath, “I should have locked the doors, lazy cow...”
While she was still grumbling, complaining about all sorts of folk who kept “coming and going at every ungodly hour”, I dialed the number again. Before it even started ringing, the old lady waved her hands and exclaimed,
“Mr. Gorelik! You still here?”
“I am,” he mumbled, walking down the stairs in the company of a woman. “Do me a favor, Mrs. Pavlova, and try to at least pretend you’re not asleep!”
“God forbid!” the old lady exclaimed with another wave of her hands.
The man left his companion and headed over to me with a spring in his step. “Was it you who called me about the space?”
“That’s right. I just spoke to you not long ago. My name’s Phil.”
“I’m Stephan Gorelik. I’m the manager here.”
His female companion — an ample peroxide blonde with hair permed into tight curls — walked over to us. “Are we finished, Steve? I need to be off. My husband keeps calling.”
“Yes, thank you very much,” the man said with a faint smile. “I really appreciate your help.”
“You’re very welcome,” she replied with a blush, then left.
While Gorelik watched her leave, I quickly studied his profile.

Stephan Gorelik.
Age: 46
Current status: manager
Social status level: 6
Class: angler. Level: 5
Married
Wife: Maria Gorelik
Children: Vasily, son. Age: 25
Criminal record: yes
Reputation: Indifference 0/30
Interest: 58%
Fear: 14%
Mood: 49%

The fact that his interest in me was pretty high was quite clear. When you have available premises that don’t pay for themselves, every new tenant is a feather in the manager’s cap. His rather average Mood could be explained by the long working day and possibly a missed lunch break. But fear? What could he be afraid of? Could it be just a light anxiety brought about by his adultery? Possible. Not wanting to increase his anxiety by focusing on his unzipped fly, I elected not to say anything.
“Come and have a look,” he called me, then asked as we climbed the stairs, “What kind of company have you got?”
“A recruitment agency.”
“How many staff have you got?” he asked, wheezing.
“At the moment, just myself,” I answered, then added, seeing the surprise in his face. “We haven’t started yet.”
We went up to the third floor. My eye fell on the ubiquitous fire hazard regulations on the wall next to a fire extinguisher. An endless corridor stretched out on both sides of us.
“To the right,” the man sighed.
He stopped by a metal door painted a cheerful light blue which admittedly didn’t look very serious.
“This one was previously occupied by some MLM guys,” he explained. “They sold makeup, perfume, that sort of thing. Things went well for them so they moved to the center.”
He sorted through a bunch of keys, found the right one, unlocked the door and gestured me inside, “Come in, please.”
As I stepped in, a faint wave of excitement swept over me. Behind my back, the manager flipped the light switch, flooding the room with a cold fluorescent light.
“It’s just been recarpeted,” he said. “The blinds are new. They even left a couple of desks and chairs behind as part of their rent. If you need the landline, you’ll have to have it reconnected.”
“And the Internet?”
“They’ll do it at the same time as they connect the landline. We have a permanent contract with the providers so they’ll get it all done within twenty-four hours. In total, it’s under five hundred square feet which will cost you forty-six rubles a square foot,” he produced his phone and made some quick calculations. “In total it’s twenty-three grand a month. If you pay for an extended period, I can give you a discount.”
“What kind of period? And what kind of discount?”
“If you pay upfront for the first quarter, we could make it twenty grand a month.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“Think but not too long. A lot of people come and ask us about available premises and this office is the best we have. Would you like to look at something else? Something cheaper, maybe?”
I took another wander around the room to check out all the little thing that might need fixing or redecorating. The walls were a bit shabby in places, one of the plinths had come away from the wall; there was also an oily patch on the floor and a window catch that didn’t work.
“A thorough cleaning will cost you a couple grand,” the manager said. “Ad you can count the same for a paint job.”
“Thanks,” I said sincerely. Considering my lifestyle over the last years, I was a total noob in everything concerning cleaning, painting and decorating. If I made up my mind, I’d have to have a chat with Alik. He might know someone who could use a little job like this.
“Do you want to look at anything else?” the manager said impatiently. “I really need to go.”
“Yes, why not? Just to compare.”
Ten minutes later, we went back downstairs. Their other offers hadn’t impressed me at all. In fact, they shocked me. One of the rooms hadn’t been redecorated since Soviet times. Its parquet floor had sunk, its walls painted a ghastly dark blue to shoulder height, its window frames loose and crumbling. Another room was too big and a third one too small, resembling a broom closet. Having viewed this last one, I decided to do a bit of haggling for the first one.
“So,” I summed up, “is this all you have?”
“Not really. We have another room on this floor and four more on the fourth floor.”
“Could I venture a guess that they’re even worse than the ones we’ve already seen? This place is really in a state.”
“Well, you know, the owner won’t lay out anything for decoration,” he complained. “He says, let the tenants do it themselves. And you know what tenants are like these days... they can barely scrape together enough money to pay the rent and even then they’re late.”
“So seeing as you have so many unrented premises which bring nothing in, maybe you could bring the price down a tad for the first one? You now which one I mean, don’t you?”
“How am I supposed to charge less? It’s at rock bottom now! Twenty grand for a great office! All inclusive: the electricity, the heating, the cleaning and even security.”
I laughed. “Security? You mean that old lady by the front door?”
He gave me a bitter grin. “It’s up to you. I don’t have anything else to offer you.”
“I’d say, thirty rubles per square foot is all it’s worth. So taking into account the relatively recent decoration, the cleaning and security in the form of an ancient old lady, I suggest fifteen grand a month.”
“What do you mean, fifteen?” he seethed with indignation. “A great office like this with cleaning and security can’t cost less that nineteen grand a month! And that paid quarterly!”
In the end, we agreed on seventeen and a half. Gorelik gave me a week “to think it over”, promising to hold it for me for a symbolic advance.
In fact, I’d already made up my mind. The only thing I still had to “think over” was how to come up with fifty thousand rubles for the first three months.
My initial plan hadn’t counted on paying the advance; furthermore, I’d naively expected to talk him into being able to pay at the end of the month, hoping to find a few clients and make a bit of money. But the more I looked into the finer details of my idea, the more I realized I’d be lucky if I broke even straight off, with or without the advantage of the interface. Which was the reason why I kept delaying the launch, telling myself I had to level up a bit more.
The system registered the new task as a matter of course:

Find the rent money, sign the rental agreement and pay the Chekhov Business Center for the first three month. Deadline: July 1.

I paid Gorelik the two-thousand advance which went straight into his pocket, considerably improving his Mood.
Once back downstairs, I noted his cell number and bade my goodbye to him. As I headed for the door, I heard him giving the security babushka a good dressing-down for having let in a certain Veronica who apparently was a persistent non-payer.
“But that wasn’t me!” the old lady replied indignantly. “That was during old Tamara’s shift!”
As I rode home, I remembered the missing boy and checked the map. He was on his way back to town in an ambulance. Excellent. I just hoped he’d be all right.
Still, I kept getting this nagging feeling that all was not well with the boy.



[1] Dimedrol: a sedating antihistamine drug popular with Russian criminals
[2] Borsch: Russian beetroot soup

Chapter Two. Meeting the Parents


The man who is fortunate in his choice of son-in-law gains a son; the man unfortunate in his choice loses his daughter also.

Democritus


HAVING ARRIVED at Vicky’s home town, we took a walk in the courtyard where she’d spent her childhood. Everything about it was depressing; even my old yard complete with Yagoza and his alcoholic buddies looked brighter and more lively in comparison with the junk-filled yard of this old house.
Even trees didn’t grow here. A discarded plastic bag rustled in a sickly-looking bush, caught on one of the branches.
The entire town in general with its population of less than twenty thousand exuded an aura of depression. During the couple of hours that we’d spent driving there, Vicky told me that young people used every opportunity to leave the place the moment they’d finished school. They settled in big cities and moved their parents over which was why with every passing year the town’s original population shrank, replaced by newcomers from the ex-Soviet Asian republics.
Nobody came out to greet us. As we climbed to the fifth floor of the dilapidated prefab remnant from Kruschev's times, the more disheartened Vicky grew. I could see that her relationship with her parents wasn’t the warmest. Still, they doted on Xena, their granddaughter, which remained the only link between the parents and their daughter.
Vicky’s mood proved to be contagious as I started worrying about our meeting’s outcome. I could already list all the reasons why they wouldn’t like me. I had neither a job nor a place of my own, I didn’t have a car, and on top of it all, I was divorced. The list could go on — but still I decided to carry on to the end and do everything correctly like a good mensch.
The moment we’d stepped in, it became painfully obvious that nobody here was happy to see me. Everything pointed to the fact: the brusqueness of her parents, the grim “Hi” mumbled by her brother Victor, not to mention my interface Reputation reading: Dislike.
As Vicky was talking to her daughter and her parents in the kitchen, I was sent “to wait” in her brother’s room. Victor hospitably hid behind his computer, engrossed in Counter Strike. Over the next hour, we only exchanged a couple of meaningless phrases. Then they called us.
We all sat around a cramped table and waited for Aunt Toma to serve up the pelmeni[1].
“So you’re not working, are you?” Uncle Alexey asked grimly, stabbing a pelmen with his fork.
“Dad, didn’t I tell you just now that Phil is starting his own business?” Vicky piped up.
“And you should hush up when men are talking!” Aunt Toma chastized her daughter.
“I suggest you take Xena and go out for a walk,” Uncle Alexey suggested. “We’ll carry on without you.”
Vicky and I had spent some time discussing how I should address them before we finally settled on Uncle Alexey and Aunt Toma. I didn’t want to address them formally but was reluctant to call them Mom and Dad which was admittedly a bit too early. Like this it was nice and neutral.
Without saying a word, Vicky rose from the table and went to get Xena dressed. Her daughter seemed to be the only one who’d received me well. We’d immediately found common language, discussing her favorite cartoons while I was introduced to everybody else and found my bearings in this new situation.
But as for her parents and her younger brother, things hadn’t gone as smoothly. Vicky’s dad was a working-class man who'd spent all his life busting his hump for a construction company. For him, stability and reliability were the cornerstone virtues. Her mother worked for the same company as a bookkeeper and completely shared her husband’s views. Up until now, they’d never stopped blaming Vicky for the breakup of her first unsuccessful marriage when she’d got hitched practically with the first guy who’d asked her. In their opinion, she’d made a completely irrational and improper choice. They even derived a particular gleeful pleasure from her current status as a divorcee and single mother, as in, “We told you so!”
“Eat!” Uncle Alexey commanded. “These are real pelmenis, Toma’s spent all morning making them. We made the stuffing last night, so you can’t get any fresher than that. Come on, pour some sour cream over them! That’s real stuff, not like that crap they sell in town. Eat!”
“I am eating, thank you. And very nice they are, too!”
“Help yourself! So what about your job?” he got back to his original question. “From what Vicky told us, you didn’t even last a month at her company.”
“And why did you split up with your ex?” Aunt Toma inquired, placing more salads and starters on the table.
I switched my attention to her, then looked back at him, wondering whose question to answer first. The father decided it for me,
“Give it a break, Toma! Go sit down and stop fussing about!”
She perched herself on a chair. Both of them looked at me, awaiting an answer.
“At the moment, I don’t work. I quit Vicky’s company because I decided to open my own business. They asked me to stay but for me, it was now or never. That’s why I left. I’m going into...” I paused to fill my mouth with pelmenis, realizing that Vicky’s father probably wouldn’t appreciate my recruitment agency idea.
“What are you going into?”
“Just some business.”
“Monkey business,” young Victor snickered as he stuffed his face with food. He seemed to be the only one who felt comfortable in this oppressive atmosphere.
Vicky’s father gave him a sonorous slap on the back of the head. “Shut up and listen when your elders are talking!”
Victor lowered his face over his plate. His ears went red. His Mood had plummeted as his father had humiliated him in front of a stranger.
“So what kind of business is it?”
“In the service sector,” I replied vaguely.
“What’s that, peanut salesman?” Uncle Alexey insisted. “Or someone who wipes other people’s asses for them?”
“It’s more like a supply and demand sort of thing.”
He chuckled away his discontent as he waded through his pelmenis. My Reputation with him had dropped to the lowest possible Dislike reading. One more faux pas on my part could result in unbridled Animosity.
I had my work cut out for me, I could feel it. Boring me with his glare, the fifty-year-old Uncle Alexey frowned his ample eyebrows. He looked impressive. Now I understood where Vicky had got her shapely body. He was a huge man almost seven foot tall with arms used to hard physical labor. My potential father-in-law sat straight as a ramrod, towering over us at this small kitchen table like a mythical giant. The fork in his calloused bear paw looked like a child’s toy. It took all of my self-restraint not to lower my eyes first.
‘Very well,” he summed up. “You’ve made everything very clear. Meaning, nothing is clear. I’m not sure you know yourself what you want. You’re just leading Vicky up the garden path.”
“You really shouldn’t talk like that, Uncle Alexey,” I said. “I have everything sorted. We’ll never go without. I just don’t like talking about things that aren’t even done yet. Once I do it, I’ll tell you everything. But now it’s pretty pointless.”
He chuckled. “Yeah right, pull the other one, it’s got bells on.  Okay, let’s leave it like that. And what kind of person are you? Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your trade? Who are your parents? Vicky said, you used to be married.”
“I was. I met my first wife online. She was still at college.”
Victor pricked up his ears, apparently interested. Aunt Toma craned her neck so as not to miss one word. Then she jumped up and exclaimed,
“Wait a sec, Phil! Let me pour the tea first and then you’ll tell us!”
She was a fragile petite woman two years her husband’s junior who was visibly afraid of him — but still had boundless respect for him, obeying his every word as if it was set in stone. Being a mother, it didn’t stop her interfering in our conversation.
As she was fussing with the kettle and the teapot, scalding the tea leaves with boiling water and slicing the cream cake we’d brought along, I’d finished my plate and thanked her. Indeed, her pelmenis were exceptional. And the whole time I sensed the appraising stares of my potential father-in-law.
Which was why I couldn’t read the quest message that had suddenly appeared in my view without my face making funny grimaces. I was forced to minimize the window and leave it until a more appropriate time.
“Dad, are we going to watch the soccer? It’s Croatia versus Argentina!” Victor asked, then switched his gaze to me. “Are you watching the World Cup?”
“Oh yes. That would be great.”
He smiled and gave me a satisfied nod.

Your Reputation with Victor Koval has improved!
Current Reputation: Indifference 5/30

“You can talk about soccer later,” Uncle Alexey said. “Come on, mother, sit down. Carry on telling us about yourself, Phil.”
“My parents are quite ordinary,” I said. “My dad is a fireman and my mom’s a school teacher.”

Your Reputation with Mr. Alexey Koval has improved!
Current Reputation: Dislike 20/30

Your Reputation with Mrs. Tamara “Toma” Koval has improved!
Current Reputation: Dislike 5/30

I fought the temptation to look at the system messages flickering in my view because I’d have hated them to have thought that I was shifty-eyed. In any case, my parents’ professions apparently seemed to have passed the litmus test so I had to continue in the same vein trying not to tell any lies.
“What does she teach?” Victor asked.
“Russian language and literature. They’re both retired now.”
“So they’re retirees, then,” Uncle Alexey came to some conclusions only apparent to himself.
“And what kind of pensions do they hand out these days!” Aunt Toma exclaimed. “They’re a joke! Do you help them out?”
“I try to, as much as I can,” I replied, remembering my gardening stint at their summer cottage. I wasn’t exactly lying but I felt some pangs of conscience because she did mean financial help. “I also have an elder sister, Kira, who works at the bank.”
“Is she married?” Aunt Toma interrupted me. “You sister, I mean?”
“She’s divorced. She’s raising a son who’s slightly younger than Xena,” I replied willingly, trying to satisfy her curiosity.
Still, I didn’t like the straightforwardness of her questions. I felt I was being interviewed for the position of son-in-law.
“Come on, keep going,” Uncle Alexey said. “You’re not a spring chicken anymore. What have you done in your life?”
“Take our Vicky, for instance,” Aunt Toma began. “Who would have thought that she would have made a career in the city. Now she’s a deputee director at a factory!” she said proudly.
“Deputy director?” I repeated mechanically.
“Of course!” She gave me a look of disbelief at my apparent naïveté. “You must know, seeing as you two worked together, no?”
“Just give him a chance to tell us about himself!” Vicky’s father snapped.
“I won’t say a word more,” she made a mouth-zipping gesture.
All this time, Victor had been busy stuffing himself with the cake. Seeing as nobody had been watching it, he’d already demolished a third of it. He could certainly work his jaws! But as for Vicky working as a “deputy director”, I might have to have a word with her in order not to burst their bubble.
Her parents were sitting expectantly, waiting for me to reply. I plucked up my courage and began,
“I finished college where I studied economics. It’s true that since my internship, I’ve never worked in this profession. So for the last ten years, I basically just went with the flow. You know what they say about turds never sinking?”
I caught the faint glimpse of a smile on the man’s lips. Apparently, he appreciated a little self-deprecation.
My next words I chose just as carefully as if I were negotiating a mine field. “So basically, I was in sales for some time.”
Uncle Alexey pulled a sour face. “What do you mean, as in shop assistant?”
“Not exactly. I didn’t have to stand behind a counter. I moved around a lot offering various goods and services.”
He squinted sardonically at me. “Goods or services?”
“Depending who I worked for, Uncle Alexey. Do you qualify satellite dishes as goods? And advertising them in a paper — is it a service? I wasn’t particularly successful though which was why I moved on to writing.”
“And what is it that you wrote?” Vicky’s mother asked in surprise.
I could understand her. It’s not every day you get to entertain a real author in your kitchen. “I didn’t mean it like that, Aunt Toma. I wrote articles for various websites and businesses...”
Seeing as they’d stopped interrupting me, I finished up in one breath in all sincerity, albeit omitting my gaming past. “I didn’t earn much doing that, either. That’s exactly why my first wife Yanna left me. She put up with it for four years, waiting for me to either make it or get my act together. But it just so happened that I finally got my act together only after I’d lost her. I still remember that day last May. It felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. I walked out onto the balcony and took stock of my life asking myself what I’d done with it. The answer was, I’d done nothing! I turned thirty-two last winter and what did I have to show for it? I didn’t have a job or a place of my own, I didn’t even have children. And now I’d lost my wife as well! You can’t imagine how I felt. I was gutted.”
Resting her cheek in her cupped hand, Aunt Toma listened to me open-mouthed, enthralled by my story as she mechanically continued to stir the long-dissolved sugar in her cup. Uncle Alexey silently gnashed his teeth. Even Victor froze with a piece of cake in his mouth.
Come on, Charisma, give it your all! Communication Skills, get on with it! Empathy, do your job!
“I was so gutted that it felt as if a switch had been flipped on in my head. I started running in the mornings, I found a job straight away, I signed up for a gym and started boxing and pumping iron. Workwise, things went just fine. Vicky can tell you. I was a successful salesman. Our boss paid me large bonuses and wanted me to stay — but by then, I’d already decided I was done working for a boss,” I used this last cliché to make sure the phrase was imprinted in their brains. “I already found an office the other day. I’ll be launching in two or three weeks, depending on how fast I can register the company. So basically, I just got my act together..”
The deadly silence was broken by the sound of Aunt Toma’s teaspoon falling to the floor. As I awaited their response or at least any coherent reaction to my story, I picked up my mug and took a sip of strongly brewed tea to wet my whistle. I could hear the front door open.
Vicky’s voice rang out in the hallway,
“We’re back! Have you finished interrogating Phily?”
Phily!” Victor rolled his eyes and dissolved into broken-voiced teenage laughter.
‘Gran, I’m thirsty!” Xena announced, appearing in the kitchen.
Aunt Toma jumped up to pour her some water. Victor rose from the table too. “Thanks, Mom. It was great. Dad, can I go and play now?”
“Sit yourself down!” Vicky’s father barked. “We’re not finished yet! Victoria, come back here. This concerns you too.”
As Xena was drinking her water, Victor surrendered his place to his sister. She sat down looking at our faces, very concerned.
“Now,” Uncle Alexey summed it all up. “Victoria, I've listened to your fancy man and had a think. He sings a nice song, very pleasant to listen too, only I have no faith in him at all. You’re a grown woman now, you’ve been married before so it’s up to you how you want to live your life. All I want to say, don’t expect us to give you our blessing for a match with this loafer!”
“We won’t! Don’t even ask!” Aunt Toma enthusiastically nodded her agreement. “We don’t believe him and you shouldn’t, either!”
“You keep your mouth shut, Tamara! No one wants to know your opinion!” Vicky’s father slammed his fist down on the table and pronounced his verdict in a voice ringing with indignation. “A fucking salesman! He calls himself a businessman! At his age, your mother and I already had a small place of our own! We had a car and a summer cottage! You wanted for nothing and Victor was already on the way. And all this we did ourselves, your mother and I! Our whole lives we’ve been working hard without ever complaining! And what is this guy? He’s piss poor! He’s trying to get out of the crap he got himself into through his own laziness by sponging off you! I bet it was you who found him that job in the first place! And then your bosses must have realized what a big mouth he was and kicked him out by the scruff of his neck! And you believe all his bullshit? Or are you covering up for him on purpose? You should think with your head and not with your pussy! That’s exactly what he’s counting on! He wants to make you fall for him and marry him All he needs is a free ride and someone to warm his bed in place of his ex-wife! He just saw you were pretty, had a good job and a place of your own so he decided to turn on the charm, nothing more! He won’t be coming here anymore!”
He uttered the last words slowly and calmly which added an additional gravity to his words. You could tell he wasn’t speaking lightly. This was a man who’d thought everything through in his own way and made his final decision.

Your Reputation with Mr. Alexey Koval has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 10/30

You’ve been dealt critical damage: verbal injury
-50% to Spirit
-50% to Confidence

“Uncle Alexey,” I closed the devastating messages and made one last attempt at righting the unrightable.
He shook his head, unwilling to listen. “I’ve said everything,” he said softly. “Get out of my house.”
I rose slowly, still in disbelief this was actually happening, then very nearly collapsed on the floor. I was feverish and nauseous, almost fainting. My vision blurred; I wanted to rub the strange haze from my eyes.
I closed the Reputation message with Vicky’s mother without even reading it. She would agree with everything he said or did, anyway.
Supporting me by the elbow, Vicky sat straight as a rod and said in a level, mechanical voice staring fixedly in front of herself,
“Phil, wait. Xena, get your stuff together. We’re going home.”
“What’s that now?” heг мother protested. “The child has no business living under the same roof as a strange man! That’s a scandal!”
“Mom!” Vicky exclaimed, a tear rolling down her cheek.
“I’ve been your mom for thirty years now! I’m not giving you Xena! Once you’ve split up with him, you can have her! The school is on vacation, anyway, she has no business being in town! At least here the food’s decent and the air’s better!”
“Mom, please don’t cry,” Xena tried to console her.
Vicky gave her a peck on the cheek and eased herself away. Kicking the chair away, she rose and dragged me to the door.
“Vick, wait,” I tried to stop her.
She snatched her hand away. “I’ll be waiting for you in the car.”
With those words, she left.
Me, I couldn’t do the same without giving some answer to her father’s slanderous assumptions. I knew very well that my every word could be conceived as a feeble attempt to redeem myself but I wanted to pour some oil over troubled waters, unwilling to burn any bridges.
“There is some truth in what you’ve just said,” I told him. “I’m not going to justify my behavior. I can’t prove anything to you now, anyway. The time will come when you realize you were wrong. Thank you very much for your hospitality. Aunt Toma, your pelmenis are out of this world. I’ve never eaten anything like them.”
No one replied. Vicky’s mother had demonstratively turned her back on me, rattling the plates as she cleared away the table. My once-potential father in law was rolling a cigarette, ignoring me entirely.
“All right. All the best, then.”
Staggering (what was it with me?), I headed for the hallway and began putting my shoes on. Victor was the only one of them who came out to see me off.
“What a shame you’re gonna miss the soccer,” he whispered. “It’s starting in an hour and you’ll be on the road for at least two or three hours.”
“I might make it for the second half. See you, Victor. Nice to have met you. Don’t play too much Counter Strike. Stay in touch with the real world.”
He grinned and shook my proffered hand.
I softly closed the door behind me and left their hospitable abode. Stumbling, I managed to negotiate two flights of stairs before my legs gave way under me and I slid down the wall to the floor. I felt weak and lethargic. Could this be the consequence of him having critted me?
I reopened the closed messages and carefully read through them.
Aha. It had nothing to do with the crit. While we’d been busy eating pelmenis, I’d received a system quest. It was the first time I’d ever come across such an ad hoc system ability to generate quests. And to top it all, the quest description seemed to run forever.

System quest alert!
Family Bonds I
This is the first part of the quest chain concerning the Koval family.
You need to win their trust and approval, bringing your Reputation with each family member to not less than Amicality.
Current Reputation:
With Victoria’s father Mr. Alexey Koval: Animosity 25/30
With Victoria’s mother Mrs. Tamara “Toma” Koval: Animosity 10/30
With Victoria’s brother Victor: Animosity 10/30
With Victoria’s daughter Xenia: Indifference 0/30

Rewards:
XP: 2,000 pt.
Reputation with Victoria Koval: 30 pt.
Current Reputation:
Psychological Reputation: Amicality 25/30
Emotional Reputation: Love 1/1

Penalties:
Reputation with Victoria Koval: 20 pt.
Current Reputation:
Psychological Reputation: Amicality 25/30
Emotional Reputation: Love 1/1
XP: 2,000 pt.

Warning! A decrease in your Reputation with any one family member to Animosity or lower will result in your failing the quest!

The quest message showed my old Reputation numbers with them. I had a funny feeling I knew what the next messages would be about. Nevertheless, I read them too.

System quest alert: Family Bonds I. Quest failed!

Your Reputation with Victoria Koval has decreased!
Current psychological Reputation: Amicality 5/30
Current emotional Reputation: Love 1/1

XP lost: 2,000 pt.
Current level: 13. XP points gained: 8700/14000

Ouch. That was tough. So that’s how the system “rewarded” a user for failing quests and the loss of XP? By making them feel sick? Oh well. This was the proverbial carrot and stick, I suppose. I’ve already consumed quite a few carrots and I’d finally got a taste of the stick.
Frankly, I didn’t wish to repeat the experience. What I felt could be best described as an extreme case of alcohol poisoning coupled with a fever and high blood pressure. Was the system indeed capable of controlling my body’s biochemistry? Was it possible for it to synthesize some nasty substance and inject it into my blood stream? Some kind of toxin, maybe?
What I also found strange was the division of Reputation into psychological and emotional. With Yanna, it hadn’t been like that. Nor with Kira or my parents, come to think of it. Their readings were simple: Love 1/1, period. What was this now, some new approach offered by Insight? But it hadn’t reached level 3 yet. Or was the system capable of self-learning so it could now tell the finer aspects of human relationships?
I might have to ask Martha about it. At the moment, it was all academic.
I clambered back to my feet and staggered down the stairs, holding tightly onto the banister so as not to fall flat again. I still felt awful but the system didn’t seem to think so. It rewarded me with the same debuff I’d received when I’d just started tackling the interface.

Apathy
Duration: 18 hours
You’re emotionally drained. Your central nervous system needs some rest. We recommend that you get some quality sleep, a balanced diet and some exercise.
Warning! The state of Apathy can easily escalate to Depression!
-5% to Satisfaction every 6 hrs.
-1% to Vitality every 5 hrs.
-6% to Vigor every 6 hrs.
-2% to Metabolism every 6 hrs.
-5% to Confidence every 6 hrs.
-2% to Willpower every 6 hrs.

I clenched my teeth and, mustering the last of my strength and willpower, stumbled out of the front door toward the car.
Everything was fine. Everything would turn out well. Come to think of it, what had happened just now? Just a misunderstanding, that’s all. I would go home now, open my business, employ Alik and start working. Clients would come and with them money would start coming too. We’d make a name for ourselves. And then Vicky and I would come back here. I might ask my own parents and also Kira to come with us to lend it more weight. The main thing now was, I had to get my act together and make sure I didn’t lose what was left of Vicky’s Amicality.
Strange. Whenever had I lost her Respect? I met so many people these days I made a habit of closing Reputation messages without even reading them. One day I was absent-mindedly crossing the street and I was absolutely flooded with Animosity messages from all the drivers. More than likely, that was how I must have overlooked the message informing me of Vicky’s drop of Reputation.
By now, I was shivering and shaking all over. I staggered over to the car, grabbed the passenger side door handle and yanked on it several times before I realized that the door was locked and there was nobody in the car.
Where was Vicky, dammit?
Then I heard someone scream.

Chapter Three. Im Free!


You couldn’t wipe it out, no matter how hard you tried:
Freedom is just something I carry inside.

Sergei Shnurov. Freedom


I LOOKED AROUND, trying to locate Vicky, but I couldn’t see her. Some children were playing in a sandpit; a young mother on a bench was looking anxiously right and left. She must have heard her scream too.
Suddenly I felt a whole lot better. My fever, weakness and nausea were gone. Apparently, the penalty for the failed quest had just expired.
The pain from the stick was much worse than the pleasure derived from the carrot. It was out of all proportion, really: they only rewarded you with a couple of seconds of pleasure for reaching a new level while this agony had lasted for a good five minutes.
The scream definitely seemed to have come from the row of doors at the far end of the apartment block. I took another look around and ran over to them.
I had to go almost to the end of the building when I noticed a group of people by one of the many front doors. Only then did I take the situation in and breathed a sigh of relief.
Vicky was standing there surrounded by women, chatting to them cheerfully. No, she only appeared to be cheerful because her Mood was still not too hot after the visit to her parents.
“Vicky?” I asked.
“There he is!” she said to the women and only then turned to me. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I nodded, looking at her friends.
I’d overestimated their age at first glance. Now I could see they were the same age as Vicky but slightly worse for wear. Two of them — Irina and Olga — resembled little sheep with their hair permed short in an old-fashioned way. Their clothes, too, befitted women in their forties or older. The third one — Natalia — was probably considered a raving beauty by  local standards: she was wearing an acid pink track suit, her long raven-black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had Botoxed lips, thickly painted eyebrows and the waxen complexion of an Instagram doll.
All three sported high Interest in my respect, Natalia’s being the highest at over 60%. I had to play it cool with them considering Vicky’s jealous streak.
“Okay girls, we’ve gotta go,” she said to her friends. “I’ll see you around!”
“Wait a sec, Vic! Aren’t you going to introduce us to your fiancé?” Natalia pouted her lips. “Please!”
“She’s right, Vic,” Olga nodded. “Introduce us.”
Vicky nodded her permission.
“My name’s Philip,” I began. “And you must be Vicky’s friends, of course.”
“I’m Natasha,” the dark-haired girl said languidly.
“Olga... Irina...” the two little sheep echoed.
“Was it my imagination or was one of you screaming just now?” I asked. “Because it was really loud. That’s why I came running. I thought someone was hurting Vicky.”
“As if!” Natasha chuckled. “She could see most people off if she wanted to. She knows how to defend herself! It was actually me you heard screaming. Or not even screaming, I was just happy for her. You've just proposed to her, haven’t you?” she said with a wink.
“Yes, he has,” Vicky replied for me. “So have you all introduced yourselves now? We need to go.”
“Where are you rushing off to? Just because you’ve had an argument with your parents? We thought you were coming for the whole weekend,” Natasha butted in. “Let’s go to my place. I live alone. There’s nobody there to pester you. We can sit down for a chat and a drink and get to know each other a bit better. I have some martini left, how about that?”
I didn’t need my Intuition to tell me it wasn’t such a healthy idea. I already knew — from my experience with Vicky among other things — that this elevated Interest from the opposite sex toward a complete stranger was bad news. And seeing as this girl was apparently either Vicky’s best friend or sworn enemy, I had to tread very carefully.
Still, I felt a degree of guilt toward Vicky about our failed meeting with her parents. So I left it up to her. If she wanted us to go, fine; if not, we could just go home.
In any case, I’d already decided to spend all weekend with her. As it was, I’d been busy every waking moment pushing myself to the limit, afraid of missing a single second without having leveled up, so by now I felt completely depleted. A change of scenery would do me a world of good.
Then I noticed some shopping bags loaded with groceries on a nearby bench.
“Are those yours?” I asked Olga. “Would you like me to take them up to your apartment for you?”
She appeared scared. “Oh no, it’s all right. I can manage.”
“Her husband is really jealous,” Irina explained. “He’ll punch your lights out first and ask questions afterward.”
“Vick, that’s one knight in shining armor you have!” Natasha commented on my attempt at chivalry. “Can I borrow him? Joke.”
“Yeah right! Dream on!” Vicky quipped, ignoring the fact that it had been meant as a joke. Her voice rang with the unfamiliar tough notes of a street urchin. “Thanks for the invitation though. We have to be going.”
“Look who’s talking!” Natasha stood with her hands on her hips, speaking louder with every word. “We’re a big city lady now, aren’t we? Nose in the air, and not just your nose? Too squeamish to visit your childhood friend? She’s got a posh job in a big company, a car and a place of her own! And now she’s getting married to a big businessman! What did you do to deserve that? You couldn’t study at school to save your life! Where’s the justice here? Some people have it all!”
“Zip it,” Olga said quietly. “Don’t start.”
“Natasha, please don’t,” Irina concurred.
“I don’t mind!” Vicky joined in. “Let her speak! It’s perfectly clear what she’s implying. But who’s she to judge?”
She turned to me and handed me the car keys. “Go down and wait in the car!”
The attention of all the girls turned to me.
So that’s how it was, then. Quite an eye-opener.
Once back in the company of her old street friends, our cute girl next door had reverted to the role of an alpha bitch in our nascent family.
Without saying a word, I took the keys from her. “Nice having met you, girls,” I smiled and nodded. “See you around.”
“Likewise,” Natasha replied for everyone. “Bye, Phil!”
As I walked back to the car, I wondered if I’d jumped the gun with my proposal. As she had just shown, I didn’t really know the real Vicky at all. Could it be that I’d trusted the system’s Reputation reading too much? Love 1/1, yeah right. But what was love, anyway, but a biochemical process in the body? A psychological attachment, maybe? In any case, a romantic infatuation wasn’t exactly love.
My father had always tried to impress upon me the importance of looking before you leap. And once you’d made up your mind, you just had to go for it. With my impulsive tendencies, explosive character and inability to think ahead, I was his exact opposite. He would have spent another couple of years checking all available scenarios; and once he’d decided on a potential mate,  he’d spend another two or three years checking out whether she was right for him. According to my parents, they’d been friends for already three years before they finally started dating. The dating stage lasted another year until finally my Dad had proposed to her.
Well, I was nothing like my father in this respect. Until today, nothing in Vicky had made me feel uncomfortable. She’d appeared to be a good and faithful friend, a trustworthy ally, a consummate lover and an excellent housekeeper. Also, she’d promised me to be a good wife.
All of this was indeed true — and until now, it still outweighed the vague yet undefined feeling that something wasn’t quite right in our relationship.
I sat in the car and turned on the radio. Without really listening to the DJ’s happy chattering, I tried to work out what had just happened at her parents’.
Had all this taken place a couple of months ago when I still hadn’t had this weird game interface in my head, I would have acted differently. I would have exaggerated my achievements, unhesitant to sugarcoat my questionable accomplishments in order to endear myself to her parents, and would have undoubtedly stooped to blatantly lying to them if the situation had required it.
In those days, I used to do a lot of things differently. After that first night we’d spent together, I probably wouldn’t have invited her to the movies at all.
Now that I had this crazy software in my head, I seemed to be doing things that I’d always wanted to do but never had.
Being honest, correct and sympathetic is only easy in our dreams. That’s how we like to view ourselves and that’s exactly how we try to justify some of our more than questionable actions. We tell lies in order “not to rock the boat”; we half-heartedly apologize as we unflinchingly deny help not only to strangers but also to the people that we hold dear. Gradually, the borders of the lie we live in begin to expand as we become brazen with impunity — or just fear to face the truth. We live with spouses we don’t love, we go to a job that we hate, we flatter our idiot boss; and then we even have the temerity to “love” ourselves the way we are.
But the main object of our lie is inevitably ourselves. We lie to ourselves in little and large ways. We promise ourselves to do tomorrow what we didn’t feel like doing today. We assure ourselves we’ll start a new life but we never do. We quit smoking, then start up again. We stop drinking, then reach for a new bottle because there’s always an occasion. We decide to start working out and read useful books — but instead, we glue ourselves to the couch leafing through cheap novels, the names of their heroes easily forgotten and replaced by those from yet another fantasy world. We decide to briefly check our social media feed, then spend hours scrolling through it in anticipation of those tiny micro doses of happiness hormones, a.k.a. new likes and comments.
This is our right, isn’t it? We all study and work hard; some of us have a house to keep. We do get tired. We need some rest, after all. Everybody does it. Come to think of it, we’re doing fine, aren’t we?
But still, this hamster wheel conceals an oppressive feeling of self-deceit. We admit it during our rare moments of lucidity when we make new to-do lists, read motivational articles, count calories, pack our gym bag, upload a Top 100 list of the best books of all time fully intending to read them all; we quit smoking, find a new job and start taking new courses and seminars. Then we report it all on social media, replacing the beautiful expectation of a new successful life with more microscopic injections of happiness derived from the more likes we receive for our post about us starting a new life.
I of all people knew the ugly truth about all these great unfulfilled plans and new starry-eyed beginnings which are doomed to fail.
I'd needed an appraisal from an impartial piece of alien software in order to see myself for what I truly was, not the imaginary Phil I’d believed myself to be. As they said in the movie, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have absolutely been found wanting.”
Which meant that today’s bout of idiotic honesty with Vicky’s parents was rooted in my recent interface experience. Who knows? Had I read the system quest message straight away, I might indeed have reverted to being devious and telling lies to them. At least I wouldn’t have opened up so much in front of strangers. But now the cat was out of the bag.
The strangest thing was, I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t have lied to them. Sooner or later,  the truth would out anyway, and I didn’t want to start a family with lies, half-truths and exaggerations. Honesty was indeed the best policy, even with oneself.
When I’d heard Natasha scream, my first thought was that it could be some incredible new development courtesy of the program. I’d thought I’d recognized Vicky’s voice, imagining her to have been attacked by some hooligans and hoping to use my newly-acquired fighting skills to defend her. Her father would see it and change his opinion of me; he’d shake my hand, invite me back into the house and we’d sit and watch the soccer game all together.
I smiled at my own naïveté and my belief in fairy stories.
The yard appeared deserted. Friday night was here but the sun was still high in the sky. Tonight was the longest day of the year. At least it definitely felt that way to me. The groundhog days I’d been living just lately — jogging, training, reading, leveling up, a quick dinner and a bit of downtime with Vicky, then it was back to bedwent so quickly I didn’t even see the passing of them. It seemed that I’d get out of bed, and then it was time to go back to sleep again.
But today felt long, stretching like treacle and seemingly having no end.
I glanced at my watch. I’d been waiting already for half an hour. I got out of the car, locked it and decided to go see Vicky and find out if everything was all right.
Halfway there, I saw her coming toward me. Her head hung low. She walked quickly, stooping. I could see she was in a bad mood.
“Vick? Are you okay?”
She looked up at me and nodded, then turned toward the car. I followed her in silence.
As we drove back, she didn’t say a word. To all my questions and attempts to strike up a conversation she replied with a curt “yes” or “no”. I wanted to leave her alone but decided to give it one last try.
“Listen,” I said, “what’s all this about you being a deputy director at some factory? Did your dad mean Ultrapak?”
“Why do you ask? Have you got a problem with that?”
“It’s just that all his accusations were based on this little untruth, that’s all.”
“Were they really? And I thought that he was talking about you being a useless unemployed loser. I don’t think it had anything to do with my job.”
It hurt to hear this from somebody you loved. Still, I suppressed the bout of anger. All she’d done was say it loud and clear, whatever I might have thought about it.
“I just asked,” I said. “Do you really think I’m a loser?”
“I don’t think anything! Just leave me alone!” she tugged on the steering wheel to overtake a car. I said nothing until she’d finished the maneuver.
She tensed up, white-knuckling the wheel. I could sense her unwillingness to talk. I could see in her profile that she was afraid. Her Fear was at 14%: not much but still. Was it the fear of an inexperienced driver on the road? Or was it the fear of our potential confrontation?
“Okay, let’s not talk about me,” I tried again. “Why are your parents so sure-”
“Shut up. Please. The more you speak, the worse you make it.”
“Vicky, if we can’t clear the air in moments like these, how can we live together?”
“What do you want to hear?” she asked listlessly, leaning back in her seat.
I remembered what her father had said about her having made a career. She’d bought a car and an apartment. I also thought about Natalia’s accusations.
Then I remembered what Vicky had told me about herself: “It’s been three years I’ve been working for Ultrapak,” she’d said. “I started as office manager. Than they transferred me to HR.”
No matter how hard I tried to dismiss it, something just didn't sum up. How can an office manager buy an apartment in just three years? Seeing as her father had made a point of telling me that she’d done it all on her own. Especially because before that, she could barely make ends meet.
“Are you telling lies to your parents because of the apartment?” I asked, putting all of my suspicions into one sentence.
“I didn’t lie to them,” she replied. “For them, an HR manager is a big shot because she decides whom to hire.”
“An HR manager? Your father told me you were a deputy director.”
“So what if I did tell them that?” she snapped, furious. “What’s that got to do with you? Does it hurt anyone? And they feel great that their daughter has made it! All my childhood they were pushing me around. All my younger years they were shitty with me. And now they’re proud of me. Is that enough for you? That’s nobody’s business! Least of all yours!”

Your Reputation with Victoria Koval has decreased!
Current psychological Reputation: Indifference 25/30
Current emotional Reputation: Love 1/1:

How was it possible? How could a person be indifferent to someone she loved? What kind of love was that?
For the first time I doubted the adequacy of the program’s rating system. What could a heartless artificial intellect possibly know about the explosive cocktail of human feelings if it had to rely on the data downloaded from the universal infospace? What kind of oversimplification was that? Or could it just be that my Insight skill wasn’t yet up to scratch?
I left her alone, not having enough courage to ask her about the source of her managerial income which was apparently enough to buy her an apartment. An oppressive silence hung in the car. I finally fell asleep to the rustling of the tires on the tarmac.
I was shaken awake. “Get out. We’ve arrived.”
I climbed out of the car and stopped, waiting for her to follow me. Instead, Vicky rolled down the window. “I’m going to my place,” she snapped, then sharply pulled away, leaving me in the yard.
I stood there a long time, not having the power to decide whether I could take such behavior. What was I supposed to do now? Should I try to make up with her straight away? Or should I give her some space?
My heart was heavy. I felt like shit.
The program was going crazy, creating and deleting new tasks:

Make up with Vicky
Get Vicky back
Go to Vicky’s
Speak to Vicky
Sort it out with Vicky
Split up with Vicky

In the end, all the tasks mentioning her name disappeared, leaving only the one about me raising the money for the office rent.
I got home and cooked myself a simple dinner, all the while thinking I’d jumped the gun after all. I’d had my fill of emotions and relationships for this particular stage of my life. Regardless of whether Vicky and I made up or split up, my efforts in this respect would take way too much time and energy. Her style of bringing me close, then pushing me away was pure manipulation. And it wasn’t going to work with me anymore.
For the second time this month — the first being her ungrounded bout of jealousy over Marina — I decided to take a break and see how things panned out. She could always come back to me if she wanted to. And if she didn’t, her priorities would be clear.
The program disrupted my train of thought, rewarding me with 2000 XP for a socially meaningful action. What could that be for? I scrolled through crime reports. As I methodically looked through the local news on our city portal, I stumbled across a message reporting the finding of the six-year-old Joseph Kogan. The identity of his abductor hadn’t been disclosed “in the interests of the investigation”.
Still, something in it had awoken a vague memory of my earlier nightmare about the pedophile official.
I spent the whole night writing up the concept of my agency.
I envisioned vending as our main source of income at the initial stage. Yes, exactly the same as I’d formerly done at Ultrapak. I might not have my own warehouses or logistics but I did possess what was valued the most in this world: information. By varying search filters, I could work out who needed something and what kind of price they were prepared to pay for it; I could also see who had this particular thing up for sale.
This was basic commerce, the kind that Vicky’s father had described as a “peanut salesman”. It also included broker’s services, matching large suppliers up with equally large buyers.
The social purpose of my business was going to remain the same: a recruitment agency. Although I wasn’t going to make millions doing it, it could kill three birds with one stone: it would provide me with some initial income and allow me to accrue some XP, but most importantly, I — or my agency, rather — would make a name and a reputation from it.
And after that, we could start tackling bigger business, like the recruitment of top management for leading brands. The most valuable resource of any company is its workforce. What was it Comrade Stalin (may he rot in hell) once said? “Workforce is key” — in my case, this couldn’t have been truer.
And once I had a name, money would follow. Then I might start thinking about opening a sports department. But I could only do that if I could somehow extend my license for the program. I could start talent scouting in soccer, ice hockey, tennis, boxing and other sports. I could also work with socially vulnerable kids from disadvantaged or single-parent families and orphanages. I could match them with understanding coaches or sports schools which would be beneficial to them.
And this approach could work in other areas, too! How many talented artists, writers, singers, dancers or actors were wallowing in obscurity? Very few could make it big.
And then there were medical diagnostics, missing persons’ search, bounty hunting, the tracing of dangerous criminals, a detective agency... Lots of things to do — but I couldn’t possibly pull them all off alone.
And what if I could use the initial agency only as a starting point? That way I could accumulate some funds and gather a team of the best minds in the most promising scientific fields. And then...
I stopped myself from daydreaming. No good trying to plan too far ahead. Still, I made a mental list of things worth looking into: augmented reality, the Universal Infospace, biotechnologies, blockchain technologies, wetware... I could create an international company, choose a few of the most promising fields, then find some good investors (which was piece of cake with my interface).
All the prospects took my breath away.
All I needed was time. The countdown till the end of my license was ticking.
Dammit! What had I wasted all this precious time on? On building, then successfully ruining my relationship with Vicky? Or on running around like a headless chicken selling packaging materials to all and sundry? On boxing? Or spending hours jogging around the stadium like a donkey on a millstone? Or on leveling up Cooking and Agriculture?
The realization of my own stupidity was sobering.
In three days’ time, Optimization would have run its course which would bring my Learning Skills level to 7. I had 5 available skill points I’d saved during the last five level ups and I fully intended to invest them into Learning Skills too. That would bring it to level 12, giving me +450% to skill development rate. Add to this the 50% bonus to the development of primary skills and that would bring it to five hundred. If we multiplied it by the stat booster’s effects which tripled your XP gained from skill use, that would give us 1500%. That meant that I’d be able to develop any skill fifteen times faster than an ordinary person.
I might try to choose some totally undeveloped skill like soccer, shooting or a foreign language and level it up for a couple of days just to see how fast it would go. And if it worked...
My lips stretched into a smile at the thought. This might end up being the craziest leveling stretch both in my gaming experience as well as in real life.
And I still had the activation of Heroic skills to look forward to.
On top of all that, I was waiting for more new offerings from the system like a kid on Christmas Eve. What else would I learn about the Universal Infospace once I’d reached the next level of Insight?
The mere thought of all those goodies, so dear to the heart of any gamer, calmed and reassured me in anticipation of the new day — and possibly, also a new life — without Vicky. I relegated the memory of my failed visit to her parents to the trash can of my memory, complete with her father’s illogical and unfair attacks as well as the strange behavior of Vicky herself.
Regardless of how much I loved her.




Chapter Four. The Right Things Aren’t Always the Best


Making a decision was only the beginning of things.

Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist


THE NEXT DAY, I awoke at 10 a.m. Recently, I’d only needed six hours of sleep even though at the time of my gaming raids nine hours hadn’t been enough. In those days, I’d had no incentive to get out of bed. On the contrary: once I’d awoken and had breakfast with Yanna, I would go back to bed and lose myself in colorful, perfectly logical dreams. Back then, I would have never said no to a few extra hours of sleep.
But not now. Whether it was due to my working out, my steady schedule or my improved recovery rate courtesy of the booster — but all in all, these days I jumped to my feet the moment I awoke. Which gave me an additional three hours to my daytime, allowing me to accomplish so much more. And today, I’d only slept a little more than four hours.
The moment I was awake, I impulsively took out my phone and checked the message notifications to see if there was anything from Vicky.
There wasn’t. That was a relief. My phone screen was pristine these days, free from all the icons as I’d removed all the games and deleted all the social media apps. They might be convenient information-wise but on the other hand, this convenience provoked a Pavlov’s dog reaction, constantly prompting you to check out this and that. It might sound funny but I used to reach for my phone even during sex just to see who’d written what.
I spent the first hour of each day doing mundane chores — not the kind that we are conditioned to consider monotonous and boring but something totally different. To me, it was a sequence of habitual actions necessary to steer my day to its maximum productivity.
Put the kettle on, feed the cat, brush my teeth, splash some water on my face, have a shave, take a shower, do five minutes of exercise, collect and take out the garbage, sort my washed clothes and put them away, pack my gym bag — all this took me just over half an hour.
After that, I’d make a light breakfast. By then, I’d finally start getting hungry as normally I had no appetite after I'd just got up. I’d top up my fuel tank with proteins, fats and carbs, eating unhurriedly without pausing to look at the newsfeeds in my phone. Later, I’d drink my first and only mug of coffee for the day — large with just one sugar, both for the taste and to give my brain a glucose boost — while making a mental list of all the important things to do today as well as those that could wait till tomorrow.
So these were my plans for the weekend:
I set aside two hours a day for Stamina, Strength and Agility training, plus another hour to get to the gym, get changed and come back again. My one-on-one boxing sessions with Matov had finished and the group training wouldn’t start until Tuesday. That meant six hours of physical training this Saturday and Sunday.
I also had to go to our summer cottage to check up on my parents. And if Kira managed to do the same, I would see here there too. That was a minimum of five hours but if they needed some help, I might spend the whole day there. Leveling up was all well and good, but my parents were quite old now and I had no idea how much longer they might last. My every visit strengthened their bond with this world, giving them a charge of positive emotions and consequently, a reason to live.
I scheduled my trip for tomorrow. Today I had too many other things to do.
On top of everything else, I had to work out a few potential Insight development scenarios. It had been quite a while since I’d last received quests from strangers. It might be worth my while taking a walk around town looking to see if I could find anybody sporting the exclamation mark of a quest giver hovering above their head.
I scheduled this task for tomorrow as well.
Also, the office rent couldn’t wait any longer. I absolutely needed a place where I could start to receive my unemployed clients — because I viewed the unemployed as my main target market, and we had officially over a hundred thousand of them in our city alone. Naturally, some of them still worked somewhere undeclared, receiving under-the-counter payments but some of them were bound to be truly without work. Especially because those who already had work were unlikely to give my new unknown agency a try. People like them aren’t normally in a hurry; they upload their CVs to employment sites and wait for the best offer.
The program duly classified this task as a priority, shoving my visit to my parents into second place.
I had a week until the rent payment deadline. All kinds of ways of earning a quick buck passed through my head. Playing online poker seemed like a relatively easy way to do so but my heart wasn’t in it. The very idea of making money through gambling met with some sort of inner resentment and rejection, even though the possibility of using poker to check my post-Optimization leveling rates seemed more than attractive.
I could try and raise some money through bounty hunting. According to the official website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, they promised a million rubles[2] for each criminal caught. Still, I had no idea how I was going to explain my knowledge of their whereabouts, especially if they were located in different parts of the country.
I set this idea aside as a last resort. What a shame I couldn’t assist justice without having all these reservations. Why couldn’t I just email them the coordinates of all these wanted crooks from my computer? Was it because every such letter would provoke an investigation, triggering an unhealthy interest in me? As in, who was I? Where did I get my information from? What connection did I have with the criminal?
So generally, I did want to help them — but I wanted to do it so as not to attract the attention of all the intelligence services.
Having said that... wait a sec!
We lived in a globalized world, didn’t we? Why was I focused on our country alone?
Gripped by excitement, I brought my laptop to the kitchen.
Within a minute, I’d found the Rewards for Justice site. This was a program created by the US Department of State in order to fight international terrorism.
One of the site pages read,

You may submit information anonymously. The personal information requested is not required, although it will help us to contact you in the event that there are any questions.
All information you provide will be kept strictly confidential.
You may be eligible for a reward. In addition, you and your family may be eligible for relocation if necessary.

I tried to listen to the voice of my intuition but it didn’t seem to protest. Just to be on the safe side, I Googled some information about the program. Apparently, it had already helped to arrest a number of terrorists and a reward had already been paid out to those who’d tipped them off. I read a few discussions which confirmed a few cases when the reward had been paid out within a few weeks.
Oh well. It might be worth a try.
The list of the most dangerous terrorists was split into regions. I checked them one by one, initiating my own search every time. Not all of them could be located due to a lack of information.
The first one was a Jabar Aziz Haqqani, 52 years old, a terrorist with Yemeni roots who’d lived a long time in the States. I had all the information about him. He’d sponsored various terrorist organizations in the US, including Al-Qaeda. He was involved in the explosions in NYC and Chicago with over a hundred dead.
The reward for the information about his current whereabouts was five million dollars. And judging by some other sums mentioned on the site, it wasn’t the limit. The information about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the ISIL leaders, had been valued at twenty-five million!
When I’d Googled Haqqani’s name, one of the first listings was the link to his profile on the FBI site. There, I had more than enough KIDD points. Ditto for Wikipedia. The date and place of birth, photographs taken at different times in his life, his height, weight and family information...
I committed it all to memory.
A new marker lit up on my internal map, showing a small Saudi town Al Kharkhir almost on the Yemeni border. Haqqani was in a large house in the north of the town, not far from the power station. I jotted down his coordinates, returned to his profile on the Rewards For Justice site and pressed the Submit a Tip button.
I entered the house address and the coordinates into the form. After some deliberation, I also entered my name, email address and phone number. I made a mental note about leveling up some English in case they called me. Having said that, an organization like this was bound to have Russian-speaking staff.
I was fed up with having to lie and hide all the time. Hundreds and thousands of psychics — authentic as well as charlatans — worked quite happily and advertised their extrasensory abilities, real as well as invented ones.
Having made up my mind, I pressed Send with a light heart. After a moment’s hesitation, the browser offered the following text:

Thank you for the tip. If you’ve left your details on the site, we might contact you again for any additional information.
If your tip results in the criminal’s arrest and court judgment, you might be eligible for a monetary reward. In applicable cases, you and your family could be subject to relocation.
All the submitted information will be treated in strict confidence.

I finally breathed out. That’s it, Phil. Now you should be prepared for anything.
Still, something was nagging at me. It wasn’t even the fact of me disclosing my identity but rather something I hadn’t done yet. I couldn’t quite place it, so I went back to my plan.
Having sent them the data worth 5 million bucks, I then spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with a way of quickly raising 50,000 rubles for the rent, discarding different ideas one after the other.
For instance, debt collecting agencies offered hefty rewards to those who gave up the whereabouts of certain debtors. Like a Vakha Salamgadjiev who’d siphoned off about two million dollars from the bank accounts of some private company. Anyone who could report his whereabouts was promised 10% of all the assets he’d stolen.
It didn’t take me long to locate Vakha in Chechnya — or the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, as it was called these days.
I was about to send them the data when my intuition screamed a desperate warning, alerting me to some sort of mortal danger and completely discouraging me from pursuing this route.
Without having decided anything, I dashed off to the school stadium for a run. Dashed being the operative word. I’d seen enough overweight guys who’d taken the elevator to the gym on the second floor just to walk unhurriedly on the treadmill. Hats off to them, of course, for trying to conserve energy before their training but this wasn’t my case. I invested every effort into my continuously progressing Stamina.
The midday sun was blazing so hard in the faded sky that I could feel my exposed skin burning. My breathing, light and level at first, soon dried out my throat, becoming wheezy and laborious. The old rubberized coating of the running track flashed underfoot; its every dent and crack were like old friends to me.
My Stamina training didn’t go easy. No matter how many long miles I’d run in my life, every new one would still be a challenge despite having stronger legs, a second wind, and the constant injection of endorphins into my bloodstream.
As you run, you don’t have any deep thoughts, only instincts: to drink, to breathe, to jump over an obstacle. Still, my mind kept working on autopilot, processing its tasks. Snippets of ideas coursed through my head, all of them centered around either some sort of gambling or missing persons’ search.
Finally I stumbled across the seed of something more practical and dependable. I remembered how I’d earned my first money after Yanna had left, offering copywriting services via some freelance portal. Last night, Vicky had left me too — so was it worth trying again, maybe?
Although this route didn’t promise much money, it was also risk free. Especially if you took payment upfront.
I couldn’t quite finish these thoughts because my heart was too busy pumping hundreds of gallons of seething blood as I ran. My body had no intention of wasting precious energy on whatever mental considerations I was busy with, investing every bit of it into my survival.
Ten interminably long miles of running and a gallon of water later, I finally got the precious new Stamina level I’d been after.

Task status: Running Practice
Task completed!
XP received: 300pt.
+5% to Satisfaction
Current level: 13. XP points gained: 8730/14000

Your Stamina has improved!
+1 to Stamina
Current Stamina: 10
You’ve received 1000 pt. XP for successfully leveling up a main characteristic!
Current level: 13. XP points gained: 9730/14000.

Congratulations! You’ve unblocked one of the requirements for the Stealth and Vanish heroic ability: Stamina (level 10+)

Having finished my training, I went to do some shopping.
The guard by the door stepped in my way — or rather, tried to but was too late, so he just shouted threateningly at my back, “Sir! Excuse me, sir! I’m talking to you!”
I kept walking as if I hadn’t understood he was addressing me but I had a funny feeling he wasn't going to let it drop.
“Hey, mister! You!”
I stopped and turned round with a long-suffering expression on my face. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes, you!” he nodded vigorously as he came closer. “You can’t come here dressed like that!”
“Like what?”
“Eh...” he paused, trying to remember the word. “Unhygienic!”
Okay, what did we have here? Name: Alexander. Age: 23. Social status level: 3. Intellect: 5. The picture was pretty clear.
I pretended I was reading his name tag pinned to his T-shirt. “Listen, Alex, bro, I’m parched. We had a bit of a shindig with the guys last night. I won’t be long, all I need is some water and grub. Your till’s working, I take it?”
His narrow forehead furrowed. He'd already grasped my situation which was way too common. Also, the unwritten street code demanded he did me a favor. On the other hand, he could get what-for from his superiors.
Furthermore, this was the legendary big man syndrome in action: he was drunk on his power which allowed him to either stop me or wave me through.
“Alex, please, be a mensch!”
“Okay. Just make it quick.”
I smiled, nodding. “I’ll be back in a flash! Thanks!”

Congratulations! You’ve received a new skill level!
Skill name: Communication Skills
Current level: 7
XP received: 500

I’d chosen how to address him instinctively — and it had worked. Had I started to read him my rights, demanding to see the manager or look at their dress code rules for customers — that might have worked too but it might have taken infinitely more time.
I did some shopping and carried it all home, throwing the bag over my shoulder. As I walked, I entertained myself by opening my interface map and adjusting its transparency so that I could view it out of the corner of my eye, then spinning the globe in search of any old friends, mentally zooming in on cities from Antananarivo to Zurich.
Once back home, I took a quick shower to wash away the sweat, then cooked lunch as I drew the office layout on a sheet of paper. My visual memory worked fine, allowing me to plot out the position of the furniture and working places.
I spent some time pondering whether we would need a receptionist who’d answer the telephone and greet visitors, but decided against it for the time being. Once we had a steady flow of customers, we might have enough money to expand. In the meantime, there was only me and Alik for whom I still had to find something to do.
I estimated a rough budget. Fifty grand for the rent and another thirty for some decent furniture which I was planning to buy second hand. We needed some desks, chairs and a couch for any visitors. I already had a laptop but we might have to splurge on a printer to print out our contracts with clients. We also had to have the Internet and a landline installed and buy the phone itself, which also was going to cost money.
And finally, the most important thing was to advertise our services. Opening an office wasn’t enough; we had to attract a clientele which would actually come.
And how exactly were they supposed to come if they didn’t even know we existed? In an ideal world, we’d need a signboard and a couple of sidewalk signs which we could place on both sides of the street.
The cheapest but arguably the most cheerful way of making ourselves known was by plastering the whole city with posters announcing “100% Employment Guarantee”. Yes, we’d have to compete with the numerous MLM and pyramid schemes but that would give me hope for some popularity through the grapevine. Everyone who’d found employment through us would surely tell others about us.
In total, I reckoned it was about a hundred thousand[3]. Some I could invest by depleting my bank account and the rest I’d have to find.
I remembered my long-neglected freelance portal account and decided to check it out.
I had several unread messages from potential clients. Judging by the dates, the orders were long gone but still I sent each of them a quick message, apologizing for the belated reply.
The home page of the site advertised a large competition project, offering 50,000 rubles to anyone who could write up a book-size biography of some local public figure for his anniversary. The rules were simple: contestants had to write the first chapter based on the materials provided, after which the person’s children would choose who to make the contract with.
The minimum word count of the finished biography had to be 35 thousand words. That was about half the size of an ordinary book. If I only did that, I could finish it within a couple of weeks.
And — they promised a 50% advance!
That could actually work. If they did hire me, I could always top it up by emptying my bank account and pay the rent to the business center manager which was the most urgent matter. The rest could wait.
Once I’d made that decision, the program duly recorded a new task:

Write the first chapter of the biography of Mr. Vladimir Koutzel and enter it into the competition.

I downloaded the archive with all the materials and opened it, leafing through scan after scan of yellowed childhood and teenage photos, newspaper cuttings and articles as well as testimonials by his friends, family and fellow workers.
I spent about an hour reading through them, soaking up the information and trying to put myself in his shoes. Then I picked up my gym bag and headed for the fitness center.
I worked through my weightlifting schedule mechanically, thinking about what should go into the first chapter. Where should I start? Should I begin by telling the mundane story of him starting school? Or by describing his parents meeting at a metal working plant where both had worked at the time? Or should I really list all of his titles and achievements, then flash back to his childhood?

Task status: Weightlifting Practice
Task completed!
XP received: 30pt.
+5% to Satisfaction
Current level: 13. XP points gained: 9760/14000.

Deep in thought, I finished training and headed for the locker room packed with strangers. I brushed against someone’s gym bag on the bench. It dropped to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” I picked up the bag and set it back on the bench.
“Whoa, dumbass! Are you completely blind?” the bag’s owner — a squat stocky Dagestani refused to accept my apology.
“Cool it, Mohammed,”  a small sinewy guy next to him said.
“What’s that to you?” another Dagestani guy butted in. His name was Zaurbek, according to his name tag. “Do you know him or something?”
“You should watch what you’re saying, Kostya,” Mohammed added threateningly through clenched teeth.
My interface identified the two Dagestanis as the Kichiev brothers. At 24, Mohammed was the elder of the two, Zaurbek a year his junior. Both were boxers, as was the guy who’d just taken my side. His name was Konstantin “Kostya” Bekhterev, 21 years old.
Having received no answer from him, Mohammed returned his attention to me, towering over me and staring me out.
I rose, locking my eyes with his. “I already said I was sorry.”
“So what?” he said challengingly.
“That’s all.”
“What’s all?”
“Right, Kichiev, give it a break,” the coach commanded, entering the locker room. “Phil, meet your group. You’re starting Tuesday, aren’t you? Boys, this is Phil. He'll be joining you.”
“Who, him?’ Zaurbek couldn’t conceal his surprise. “He’s too old!”
“Are you serious, coach?” Mohammed asked.
Matov shrugged. “Let him try. I already told him he won’t make it. There you see,” he turned to me, “even the boys are doubtful.”
“I can do it,” I answered, even though by then I wasn’t really too sure. The guys’ Boxing skills were at level 6 and 7, all of them. With my meager 4 points I might find it heavy going.
‘It’s up to you,” Matov summed up, then gave a sharp hand clap. “Right! Focus! What are you waiting for? Get training! Bekhterev, why are you hanging around?”
In a few seconds, I found myself alone in the room. Finally I could strip off to take a shower for the third time today.
Languishing under the jets of hot water lashing my back and shoulders, I checked my Strength. I’d almost managed to bring it to 10 during this last session. I only had a couple percent left which meant I might be able to make a new level today.
I gulped down a large serving of a carb and protein shake in the gym bar which must have had the desired effect.
Back home, as I was sitting by my laptop, laboring over the biography of Mr. Koutzel, our distinguished local luminary, I finally received the system message:

Your Strength has improved!
+1 to Strength
Current Strength: 10
You’ve received 1000 pt. XP for successfully leveling up a main characteristic!
Current level: 13. XP points gained: 10760/14000.

Congratulations! You’ve unblocked one of the requirements for the Stealth and Vanish heroic ability: Strength (level 10+)

Still, the long-awaited improvement to my Strength didn’t make me happy. Something wasn’t quite right. Words didn’t flow. I still couldn’t quite place the premonition that had kept following me ever since I’d pressed Send on the Khaqqani message. Something elusive which had something to do with missing people.
Trying to put my finger on it, I opened Google search and entered the keywords “search”, “rescue” and “missing person”. Immediately I came across a public group on VK[4] which belonged to some rescue team in Izhevsk[5]. They were looking for a missing old lady suffering from amnesia. She was so old she might have seen Comrade Stalin in his diapers but still they were actively involved in her search. Dozens of volunteers continued to comb the local woods 24/7 under the pouring rain but by now, nobody believed anymore in a positive outcome. Considering the search had been on for three days already, she could have frozen to death because the summer was quite chilly over there this year.
I had plenty of data — which allowed me to locate the granny almost straight away twenty miles to the north of the search area. Even though I didn’t see her behind the trees, she was alive judging by the fact that the marker was moving.
I created a fake account via TOR and sent her coordinates to the group’s admins, then used one of the cell phones I’d bought in the underground crossing to dial the search team’s leader’s number.
“Yes?” a voice snapped.
“I want you to write down the coordinates of the missing old lady.”
“One moment. Go on, then.”
“Latitude: five, seven, dot, zero, one, four, six, nine. Longitude: five, two, dot, nine, two, six, one, eight. The old lady’s still alive but won’t be for much longer.”
“Accepted. What’s the source of your information?”
“I’m Phil Panfilov. I can’t explain it to you. You wouldn’t believe me, anyway.”
“Who are you, a psychic? It doesn’t matter, anyway. Thanks.”
I could hear him barking orders even before he’d hung up.
A wave of relief flooded over me. That’s what had been bugging me!
When I’d decided to help foreign secret services, I hadn’t done so anonymously. I hadn’t used any anonymizers and all that proxy shit, I’d just entered my personal information into the form. My name, my email address and even my phone number. And was I too much of a coward to do the same to help my fellow countrymen?
Enough lurking in the shadows. There were people to be saved who would otherwise die if I kept my head down. They were still someone’s family.
So what if I made myself known? Catch me if you can!
I closed the Word document with the first page of the biography of Mr. Koutzel, that yet-unsung functionary hero, and started leafing through the many social-media groups and sites of rescue teams all over the country.
The city of Minsk: Angel Search and Rescue
The Don area: The Night Watch Rescue Group
The city of Tver: The Owl Volunteer Rescue Team
The cities of Novosibirsk... Voronezh... Tambov... Kazan.... Vladivostok... Orenburg... Dnepropetrovsk... Almaty... the list went on and on.
A missing child. A missing man... Missing people...
I’d find them all. I would help them all.



[1] Pelmeni: Russian meat dumplings, a popular and much loved dish. Can be bought readymade in supermarkets but every Russian cook worth his or her salt have their own family recipe.
[2] About $15,000
[3] About $1500
[4] VK — VKontakte (“In Touch”), a popular Russian social media site similar to Facebook
[5] Izhevsk: A provincial Russian city used here as an example of a far-off backwater


Release - December 10, 2018



4 comments :

  1. Thanks for posting this. I really enjoyed the first book and already pre-ordered the second one.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the 1st chapter i really enjoy this book , and im kinda a "cool" change from the usual Genre... for some reason im imagining THE SIMs :)
    Keep up the good work and greeting from MEXICO ^_^

    ReplyDelete