Monday, January 14, 2019

Adam Online: Absolute Zero by Max Lagno

Adam Online: Absolute Zero 
by Max Lagno

Release March 18, 2019

Chapter 1. Death and Oblivion

A RED MESSAGE appeared on the projection screen:

Radiological hazard. K-coefficient — 20%%%%%
Assessing radiological environment...

At that the system froze, displaying a spinning wheel. Either the readings were too complex, or the on-board computer had failed.
My traveling companion put aside the tablet on which he had been watching idiotic stand-up shows for the whole flight. For a full hour and a half, I'd been forced to listen to loud cackling and jokes in Tatar, Russian and Chinese. They were just as bad in every language. I even started getting annoyed that the cabin's soundproofing shielded us from the sound of the rotors. Their whirring would have been better than those attempts at humor.

My traveling companion stood up and opened a cupboard. “Size?”
I stood up too and grabbed a radiation suit for myself.
He smirked. “You soldiers give yourselves away with details like that.” “I don't know what you mean.”
“The fact that you didn't trust me with the choice.”
I unfastened the suit. Within twenty seconds, exceeding the standard time requirement, I’d put it on and checked it was functioning.
“My dad taught me not to trust strangers. Sorry, but this is the first time I’ve met you,” I sat back down, keeping the controls in view.
My traveling companion followed my gaze. “And you always keep an eye on the controls.”
“Maybe I’ve never seen a combat helicopter piloting itself.”
“You’ve seen it all,” he zipped up his suit (almost making the standard time). “And you know full well that if we’re shot down now, your best bet is taking the controls.”
“Isn’t the chopper equipped with reactive defenses?”
“Of course, the defenses will shoot down a missile in flight, but that’s why they have gamma emitters built in. After the missile explodes, the EM pulse knocks the computer out of action. It won’t be able to perform an emergency landing. That’s why you’re sitting there ready to jump into the pilot’s seat. Anyone who’s served knows that.”
By the last sentence, I was listening through the earphones of my radiation suit. I wanted to answer that the on-board computer would crash even without an EM pulse, but I kept silent. The conversation was pointless enough as it was. We were swapping obvious facts, feeling each other out to find out who was hiding more about themselves.
He picked up a tablet and brought up the map on the projector panel. “Beginning descent.”
The symbol of our Mi-200 SU moved through an area crosshatched in yellow and black. Formally, the land belonged to Chinese Kazakhstan, an autonomous republic incorporated within China. In practice, it belonged to nobody. It had been several decades since the last nuclear bombing. The place would be highly radioactive for centuries to come.
There was no better place to set up an unregistered access point to Adam Online. Even if they followed the signal, it would lead them to the edge of a deserted zone. Then no electronics would determine the precise location of the pod: too much interference.
The map disappeared from the projector panel and the lower camera came up on the screen. It showed the remains of a ruined town, with broken streets like cut veins. The sun had not yet risen, so the camera was in night mode, making the ruins seem even more lifeless.
“Don’t tell me the pod is on the surface.”
“Relax, bro,” my companion replied. “It’s so deep underground, you can hear Satan knocking from hell.”

* * *

The beginnings of dawn barely tinted the lifeless sky. The city ruins drowned in blue. I stood on the ground by the helicopter’s open cargo hatch.
“Look over there, under the bricks,” my companion said from the depths of the cabin.
People like him were called “landlords.” They owned “landings,” buildings containing unregistered log-in systems for Adam Online. And people like me, who wanted to steal their way into the virtual world, were called “squatters.” Or, considering the quantum nature of the extranet — QUANTers.
Beneath the pile of bricks was the end of a hose with a fluid transfer mechanism. The hose pulled easily from a hole in the ground. The landlord brought a second, similar hose out of the cabin. We connected the ends to the two tanks of dissociative electrolytes occupying half the helicopter’s cargo compartment. On the sides of the tanks, apart from inscriptions in Tatar, Chinese and English, were stickers bearing the crest of the Kazan People’s Republic.
The contents of the tanks began to pump into underground vats.
“Grab your things and follow me,” the landlord told me.
I took my backpack from the helicopter cabin and got my pistol from the side pocket.
“Who are you planning to shoot out here?” my escort asked over the radio. “Everything’s under control.”
Hesitating a little, I put the pistol back. I placed my backpack in a protective bag. The backpack was shielded against radiation too, but I didn’t want to risk it. If my injection syringes took a dose of radiation, I’d never return from the taharration.
I threw the backpack onto my shoulders and hurried to the ruined store building. The helicopter remained on the town square, surrounded by an overgrowth of yellow thorns, its cargo doors wide open, the hoses stretching out like lines for an intensive care patient. No wonder it was such a mess inside.
The landlord and I climbed through broken windows. The store was completely overgrown inside with thorns and twisted trees reminiscent of saxaul[1]. The scraps of an ancient coca cola advert hung limp. A cloud of insects rose into the air. There were no animals in the radioactive zone, but there were bugs, hornets and butterflies aplenty, pollinating who knows what and how.
Walking through a swarm of gnats as if through mist, we reached the wall. The landlord cleared away some creeping plants and opened a disintegrating door, revealing a stone wall. He grabbed a protruding stone and pulled at the wall. It opened like an ordinary door. Behind it, a dark corridor with steps leading down.
“Took me and my partners three months to build this landing,” the landlord said, walking down the stairs. “Then I lived here alone for a month with the building droids. Cobbled together the infrastructure for connecting to the extranet.”
A bulb came on in the corridor, illuminating the cage of a lift. The landlord tapped a code into a tablet to unlock the doors.
I looked back. The insects had settled back down onto the branches. Pink clouds hung in the triangle of the broken storefront as if in a picture frame. My last glimpse of the real world for a long time. Even if it was a sad world with high background radiation, like these abandoned lands of Chinese Kazakhstan.

* * *

We took off our suits and left them in the airlock after we went through the radiation scrubber. The landlord walked into the dark emptiness and pulled a switch with a loud crash.
The lights came on slowly, those that came on at all. Pumps and air vents spluttered into action along with them. The air in the underground room filled with dust.
“See, brother, the air is filtered and purified,” he barely held back the urge to sneeze. “We... we refine oxygen from water we get from a well. The hydrogen left over from producing oxygen goes to the power system. Like on a lunar station, bro.”
“What’s up with the electricity?” I pointed at the blinking lights. “My pod going to work like that?”
“Please. The computer and pod have a separate generator, and the battery can last two months in emergency mode.”
Along one wall stood two gyroscopic cells; orbs of yellowed plastic three meters in diameter. The brand looked to be LG. Hmm. Who needed gyrorbs these days, apart from the underage and the crippled? And besides that, why keep them in a landing? Medical cupboards and valves for dissociative electrolytes lined the other walls. Building droids gathered dust in the corners.
There was a separate cabin at the room’s center. The landing itself. It stood out with its bleach-white cleanliness. Thick air ducts stretched up to the ceiling. I looked through the square window and examined the taharration pod covered in a plastic sheet. An old droid started crawling into the room.
A message appeared on its screen.

Sterilization: 34%.

“What do you think?”
“Pod looks great.”
The landlord approached the door of the landing. At its center was a projection screen. He waved his hand, opening the computer interface. I approached and called up the system information.

Quantum Computation Platform

20445 MgQ-bits (Last date checked: never)

Model Name: QCP
Model Identifier: QCP 6.2
System Release: 100.07
(Server upgrade unavailable. Please check firewall settings. Reconnecting 3… 2… 1…)
 Hardware UUID: 8D9DBA65-21FA-5629-8A59-46ECF5708B77

“Six-two?” I exclaimed. “Seriously? This computer is ten years old.”
The landlord took offense as usual. “Look here, brother. How old are you in standard years?”
“Why were you sent for this, instead of a twenty-year old kid? Right, because you’re experienced. A major? A captain? Maybe even a general, huh? You guys in Moscovian Rus rank up pretty quick.”
“What are you driving at?”
“New doesn’t always mean better. And ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘reliable.’ Alice here has sent so many people to the other side that you have nothing to fear, she’s the most experienced around. She’s amassed so many human consciousnesses that...”
“Computers don’t keep binary arrays of human consciousness.”
“Eh, nah, bro, even the scientists that invented taharration technology can’t explain all that confusing quantum stuff.”
“They can, you just don’t understand it. No offense. Never mind, relax, six-two it is.”
I decided not to annoy the landlord. For the next few months, my body would be floating in a pod of dissociative fluid. If the landlord decided to throw it in the garbage, my consciousness would have nowhere to come back to.
The droid signaled the end of the sterilization process and exited the pod room.
The landlord pointed out a cabin in the corner. “It’s time, brother. There’s a shower and a changing room in there. I’ll prep the injection.”
I nodded toward the backpack. “I have my own. In the pocket next to the pistol.
“See, that’s just what I’m talking about, brother... You won’t even trust me with the injections. Why do you guys — CIA, NSA, FSB, or whoever — even need us landlords? Even ones as high-class as me.”
I shrugged, entered the cabin and started to get undressed. The landlord droned on behind the door, rummaging through my backpack. “Why, I ask? When the details of the hundred-year story of the Mentors broke, you all bolted into the extranet to find them. That’s no secret. They talk about it in all the Rims. The one who finds the Mentors may be able to achieve digital immortality. So you hide from each other. Try to infiltrate the extranet under the guise of petty criminals. But you can’t fool me. I’m no tech support droid, heh.”
I turned the valves. The pipes coughed, spluttered out some dust onto me.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. There’s a pump on the wall there, pump the water yourself. Couldn’t make a normal water pipe. Like I said, was building on my own.”

* * *

Taharration[2], the copying of human consciousness, was a complex operation. The human body was immersed in a pod of dissociative electrolytes and put into stasis. All life functions were frozen. The dissociative molecules melded into every cell of the body, creating its digital copy, which was then scanned by the QCP, the quantum computing platform. A virtual model of the individual, sometimes called a ‘binary array’ (although there was no binary code involved) was processed and forwarded to the extranet. Usually to Adam Online, the largest virtual world.
Adam Online was better than reality in all respects. The air, the food, the entertainment. The work paid better and was more fun. After all, a quest to seek out some item was more alluring than the manufacturing of real items at a real conveyor belt in a real factory.
According to the statistics, over seventy percent of the planet’s population was in stasis at any given time. They floated in pods or in their own homes, or in a district MTC department: a Municipal Taharration Cluster, a pathway to Adam Online for the poor. A building full of tightly packed torpedoes, in each a naked and bald human being.
People lived in a virtual reality, earning virtual millions, or roaming the endless zones of Adam Online, imitating trade, and earning billions through it. They traded user-made skins, upgrades, weaponry, and gear.
The place used fake money in a fake economy, creating real added value that could be used to produce an even greater number of artificial objects: new skins, new weapon modifications, new structures. The gigantic flywheel of the digital economy encompassed almost the entire population of the planet.
To bring it back to reality, the QCP converted the consciousness back again and rewrote it into the body via the dissociative electrolytes. The old consciousness was overwritten with the new version, the one that had lived in Adam Online.
Ordinary dissociative fluid preserved its conserving properties for between five and eight thousand hours, depending on its quality. If one failed to return to the body in that time, then the decay process began and prevented reintegration. High-quality dissociative fluid, such as the fluid in which my body now floated, could support stasis for almost a year.
But a year is an unattainable time.
The limitation was not in the electrolytes, or the powers of the QCP. It was in the human consciousness itself.
It could not exist in a virtual world for an unlimited length of time. It could never truly let go of the fact that it once had a real body.
After eight thousand hours, people gradually began to lose themselves. Their consciousness was subjected to so-called informational entropy. All memories of life before entering the pod began to disappear. They would lose the ability to think logically, would confuse cause and effect. All the symptoms of schizophrenia began to set in.
Those subjected to this entropy ignored the fact that Adam Online was an artificial reality. They forgot everything that happened to them before taharration. They believed that they had always lived in Adam Online. They fought, died and were reborn in respawn towers. They refused to accept tales of the real world. Laughter was their only response to those that insisted that their bodies actually lay in some pod somewhere. In the end, the consciousness of these people decayed and melted away in the virtual universe.
Death reached humanity even in an attempt to trick it by hiding in a digital copy.
That’s what happened to my Olga. That’s what happened to all those too weak to face ultimate annihilation. They preferred infinite virtual rebirths, which, in the end, all led to the same unavoidable point: death and oblivion.
You cannot cheat death by digitizing your life. But everyone wanted to.
As more and more people failed to return, QCP software was updated with a forced log-off mechanism. In addition, when the game session reached 7900 hours, the player received debilitating debuffs. Living in Adam Online became harder with each passing hour. Even a gust of strong wind could kill a character at the maximum level. The threat of losing all one’s accumulated resources and experience was stronger than the threat of losing one’s life. Adamites returned to their bodies before being forced to log off.
A pleasant side effect of taharration was an increased lifespan due to stasis. People aged roughly five months per year. The body’s expiry date was pushed back. This led to decreased birth rates, solving the problem of overpopulation and insufficient resources more effectively than the last nuclear war. Why hurry to have kids if you have two hundred years full of adventure ahead of you?
Living two hundred years is good. Living forever is better. But informational entropy prevented that. If the Mentors had truly found a way to neutralize it, then everything would change. For the sake of immortality, we would kill each other both online and off. Just like we once killed each other over land, over oil, over the neighboring tribe’s livestock.
Man has always been able to find a reason to strike his neighbor before his neighbor strikes first.
Don’t you think?

* * *

Completely naked, I sat on the edge of the pod. It was filled with a thick blue liquid. It was warm. The scent of pine overwhelmed the stench from the tub. My face and bald head were covered in a neurotransmitter net. The landlord’s tablet was on the chair in front of me, showing the progress of the scan. ALICE was calculating how much space and time the digitization of my existence would take up.
The landlord brought in the last bucket and poured it into the pod. Even the dissociative fluid had to be added manually! What did he even build in those three months?
“Done,” the landlord said, wiping sweat from his brow. “Gonna inject yourself too?”
“Nah, you do it.” I presented my arm. I had to show him that I did trust him after all.
He took the syringe from the box, put it against my vein, waited for the green light and pressed. I felt drowsy right away. I could barely move my lips. “There’s a card in the other pocket in the backpack... Bring it here, please.”
The landlord left, then returned looking at the card. “Wife, daughter, sister?”
“None of your business. No offense. Put it on the chair. Switch off the animation.”
The landlord placed the card next to the tablet. He switched the animation mode off. Olga froze, strolling to somewhere in the distance, above the lens.
ALICE blinked through the tablet.

Process complete. Ready to taharrate.

I turned, easing my legs sluggishly into the pod. The dissociative fluid gently cooled them. The landlord took the neurotransmitter net off my head. “From here on, we do it like we agreed. I’ll stay here a week. If you show no signs of resurfacing, then I’ll pack my bags and head home. I’ll destroy the lift... and fill the shaft with sand. Haven’t changed your mind?”
“I need safety. Who knows who might be wandering around here? There could be nomads.
“I’ll launch the defense system here, in the hole. Three fully equipped Cassies will be in the building. They’ll be the ones that dig you out after the mission is over.”
“Which Cassies exactly?”
“CAS-4-M, the M is for modernized. Old machines, but again, reliable. One even has a flamethrower. So don’t you worry. They’re all already configured to detect your voice and appearance. In other words, they’ll recognize you, don’t fret. There’s a Cassie buried at the surface too. It’ll destroy the whole building if there’s a threat of infiltration. Then you’ll be really covered up, no digging you out. But how you’ll get out isn’t my problem, got it?”
“Good luck, brother.”
I lowered myself into the pod silently. The dissociative fluid seeped into my lungs, sank into my stomach in a chilly blob. I resisted the urge to come back up. I wasn’t used to sensations like this. For some time, I watched the world through a blue fog. The blurry face of the landlord flickered above me. Something loud struck the bottom of the pod, probably the droid checking the hermetic seal. It would do that every forty minutes for days, months...
The dissociative fluid flowed through my veins, working its way through my body, seeping into every cell. My metabolism slowed, and my sense of time along with it. I saw one of the lights flicker: it slowly went out, turning red.
I went out with it.

Chapter 2. Good Time of Day

I OPENED MY EYES. The blue haze quickly faded.
Another second and the force of gravity came crashing down. I stood on the ground. My ears filled with the noise of wind. The wind itself gently touched my cheek, bringing the freshness of rain. I stood in a field of bright green grass, almost up to my shoulders. The sun glowed softly behind a veil of cloud.
I wore a standard grey vest and jeans. I had a ten-shot Glock X5 in a holster and a knife at my belt. A lighter and a paper map in my left pocket. In my hands were three booklets: Guidebook on Rim Zero of the Adam Online Universe, an advert for the Tenshot weapon store, and Adam Online Version 101.45 Update Information.
I had a small uncomfortable bag on my shoulder. In it was a tablet, a flat box of rounds and a Small Medkit.
The standard set of the new character.
But since my spawn point wasn’t standard, and instead of a name there was a line, a message lit up before me, complete with a triangle with an exclamation mark:

Something went wrong, %Username%.
Please exit your account and log back in. If the problem persists, please contact tech support.
Error code: unknown.
Additional information...

I threw away the booklets and walked toward a semicircular white cottage, almost disappearing in the grass. The system message hung before my eyes. A second message layered on top of it:

How do you rate our tech support service?

I pressed five stars just to get the message out of the way. It wasn’t just annoying, it was alarming; would a tech support bot be closing in? There were no instructions about that.
I’d almost reached the white cottage when a booklet appeared in my hands again: “Information on Adam Online Interface Updates.” It looked like it wouldn’t disappear until I read it to the end. I quickly skimmed through the booklet and threw it into the grass. But then it rematerialized in my bag. Alright, fuck it.
I reached the cottage. Remembering forgotten skills, I gazed along the cottage walls, expecting to read its stats, but saw nothing. Oh, right. I’m at level zero. All the info is through that dumb tablet. I took it out, switched it on and aimed it at the tent. There it is:

Improved Tent.
Structure class: shelter.
Structure type: temporary accommodation.
Owner: %?????????%.
Access: public.

Level: 5.
Defense: 300,000/300,000.
Durability: 100,000/100,000.
Dimensions: %???% by %???% square meters.
Capacity: from 1 to %???% guests.

Partisan Trap. The tent may disappear from other players’ field of view. Effect range: 50 meters.
Unknown Effect. Requires 20 Knowledge.

Note: temporary dwellings can be created by a player in any area, regardless of ownership or permission for construction.

A hacked tent, too? Now I could definitely expect the tech support bots...
I put away the tablet, pushed the low door of the white cottage and went in. The system message disappeared immediately. I saw a figure in a bot’s overalls in the gloom. He stood with his back to me. Instinctively, I reached for my holster. The bot turned and I recognized Major General Makarov, my superior.
“Hello, Anton,” he said. “You should know that this is just my image uploaded into a bot. It’s programmed to only answer questions on the mission. If you want to hear about my fishing trips and other trivialities, we’ll have to catch up in real life. As always, you can visit any time.”

* * *

The Major General imitated the habits of the original. From time to time he patted his chest where he normally kept cigarettes, but then remembered that there weren’t any here.
“You are aware of the primary goal,” he began. “Let me tell you what they didn’t tell you at your pre-flight briefing. The Mentors exist. That’s a fact. But more importantly, the consciousness of Nelly Valeeva exists too.”
“What? She digitized herself a hundred years ago.”
“Exactly. She exists in the extranet, fully conscious, not subject to informational entropy.
“Why are you so sure her consciousness hasn’t degraded?”
“We don’t know exactly how, but we suspect that her binary array was fully saved somehow. That’s one of your intermediary goals: find Nelly Valeeva, or rather the digital copy of her consciousness, and learn her degree of entropy.”
The Major General called up a projection interface. “Memorize her face.”
A video came up showing the presentation of the first taharration complex in the world. This video was just as momentous as the Moon landings or the surrender of the Chinese in their war against us.
“Look, it was almost a hundred years ago,” Makarov said. “And practically nothing has changed: a pod of dissociative fluid and a connection to a quantum computing platform.”
“Only it was crap, Sir. It was all jury-rigged, like the first exoskeletons.”
The speaker came into view. A beautiful, strict face. She was a little over thirty then. An aggressive twist of her lip showed that this legendary woman was no rose. As far as I remembered, she even died alone, at her desk. She continued working on the taharration technology deep into her old age. A line of affordable quantum platforms was named after her: NELLY.
There’s something mystical about the fact that I was sent into the game through precisely one such platform. “What’s the point of searching for her by her appearance, Sir? Was it really possible a hundred years ago to digitize an individual to the same detail as we can now? How do we know she looks like that? Does she show up at all in Adam Online? Doesn’t tech support wipe her, thinking she’s just another bug or hacking attempt?
“That too is a problem you’re going to have to solve.”
“Sorry, Sir, but the mission looks like I’m supposed to find something without knowing what it is. Adam Online has millions of users and trillions of NPCs at all difficulty levels. It takes half an hour just to go through the list of zones...”
The Major General interrupted me. “A year ago, during a random scan of Adam Online traffic, we caught something.”
He swept away the presentation video and dragged in a new one.
Two washed-out female figures stood opposite each other. The image twitched, turned to static. Corrupted snatches of dialog came through.
“Who are you?”
“Just like you. A copy of a copy.”
“Who created the Darknet?”
“The Mentors from Do...”
The image blurred. It came together again and started over. I recognized Valeeva as one of the figures. The second was younger, in a vest bearing some kind of emblem, upon which the word Darknet was visible.
“We don’t know who she’s talking to,” Makarov said, anticipating my question. “This isn’t even a video, it’s a three-dimensional reconstruction of raw data caught at random in Adam Online game traffic.”
“Maybe it’s the start of some porn scene?”
“The fragment has a date field. The same day that Nelly Valeeva tested out taharration technology: she digitized her consciousness and sent it to the Adam Online version of that time.
I nodded. “I agree, it’s an anomaly. What makes a hundred-year event in new traffic? On the other hand, what’s so special about it? Adam Online isn’t just on servers, it’s in the consciousness of the users connected to it. We could have caught anyone’s nonsense.”
“The analysis department concluded that Nelly’s companion was an avatar of the Mentors. That’s what we’re going on.”
“I see, Sir. Now another question...”
A knock at the door interrupted me.

* * *

“Good time of day, players!” the tech support bot said. Without waiting for permission, it opened the door and came in. A standard blue-eyed, broad-shouldered blond.

Arild 23-003.
Adam Online Asian Cluster Tech Support Bot.
<< Disclaimer: a majority of users in the Asian Cluster voted for the bot Arild’s appearance. If you consider that your race or gender has been discriminated against, please change the bot’s appearance in your account settings >>

I moved my hand to my holster, ready to draw my weapon.
Smiling broadly, Arild approached us. “The dispatch station received a notice that there have been bugs in this zone. Will you allow me to begin a scan? Yes-No? In the meantime, please familiarize yourself with the new additions to the interface.”
Some of those idiotic booklets appeared in the hands of Makarov and myself. I didn’t throw them away, just skimmed through them and put them in my bag.
The bot turned toward me. The smile changed to concern. “We cannot fix the bugs in your account, Username. The error code reports that your taharration system is the cause. Your location cannot be Unknown. Please contact your taharration service provider.”
I shot him in the face. After thoroughly coating the walls in blood, Arild fell to the floor.
“Hm, you couldn’t bump off tech support in Adam ten years ago.”
“The users voted for the ability,” Makarov chuckled. “You can even fuck them now.”
I searched the bot, but apart from a pack of booklets and a nametag with its serial number, I found nothing. The habits of a seasoned adamite were slowly returning to me. I put the bot’s nametag in my bag. Then the tablet beeped. I took it out and read:

Quest available: Fair-Haired Beasts.
The owner of the All-Seeing Eye chain of stores invites you to cull bots like Arild. Bring the bot’s nametag to any All-Seeing Eye store and you can swap it for money or upgrades.
Let’s show the fair-haired beasts who’s boss in the Asian Cluster!

Please note, each nametag reduces your Reputation with the authorities of Rim Zero: -1.

Makarov closed the tent door. “In short, a piece of data containing Valeeva was captured from the traffic. We narrowed its source down to Rim Six. It was generated relatively recently. Players are only just starting to take those regions. Actually, they’re only just planning to take them. Nobody has opened a way there yet.
I whistled. “I’ll need to level up a lot to get there.”
Makarov approached the wall of the tent and summoned a projection panel. “It’s all been done for you. The bravest warriors of Adam Online have worked on leveling up this character. Meet your new virtual body. We used your old name.”
The name Leonarm lit up on the panel, and a diagram of the character started loading. Even in this form, it was clear that the character had been leveled to the max. The UniSuit list of skills and upgrades took up most of the panel.
“Leonarm? I’d rather forget that name...”
A user of Adam Online could choose any name, whether it was already in use or not. The log-in system used a unique 1024-symbol identifier instead of the name. I remember Adam’s locations being full of Fire Demons, Crushers, Reality Distorters and Supernoobs. Even my Olga had the name Dark Angel. Along with millions of other Dark Angels.
“Alright, Leonarm is fine. How are the stats?”
“We chose the Human race for you,” Makarov said. “Not because you’ve always worked for them, but so that Nelly won’t be frightened at the sight of a bizoid or mechanodestructor.
“Um, I remember the mechanodestructors, but who are the bizoids? Sounds scary even to me.”
“One of the new races. In the years you lived in reality, a few things have changed here. Your achievements and skills are out of date, Anton, so try not to mess up with Leonarm in Rim One. But don’t worry, I’m going to be here for two more hours to show you what’s new in the world...”
“Why only two hours?”
“After that, the controllers will pry me out of this tech bot. They’re doing it right now, actually.”
“Who are the controllers?”
“They’re designed to deal with hackers like me. If tech support bots are ordinary NPCs designed to fulfill one task — to eliminate bugs — then the controllers are here to neutralize cheating players.
The walls of the tent shook. A notification lit up on the panel. A missile strike had eaten through half the defenses. I couldn’t help but smile: I was unused to a tent withstanding a missile strike just because it had been upgraded with a force field. A tent! Not a bunker, a tent. I wasn’t at all used to the way things were here.
“That’s it, Anton, they’ve found us. I’ll hold them off, you get elsewhere.”
Makarov waved the image of Leonarm onto me, confirmed the character transfer and fled the tent. As he ran, a heavy Nevsky infantry exoskeleton formed on his body, almost the same as the type used in real military theaters. The real military preferred realistic equipment even in a virtual world.
Then I felt myself changing. My vision flickered out and appeared again, now equipped with neurointerface data.

* * *

I opened up the character tab.
My head span from the abundance of data. To go from level zero to three hundred was stressful even for a digital conscious.

Name: Leonarm.
Player: %Username% (Error! Check taharration system settings).
Race: Human.
Level: 322.

Classes: Gunner, Technolord, Stalker.

Why all these classes? Don’t they conflict with each other? It seems the people that leveled up Leonarm disagreed on what was most important for him. Or more likely, they didn’t know who they were leveling him up for and for what, so each went by their own opinions.
I didn’t even open the Skills tab. I could imagine what that list was like! I moved to the equipment description. Humans were capable of expanding their battle abilities via one method: UniSuit upgrades.
The Universal Suit (UniSuit) looked just like a level one or two suit after buying it in the store. After installing the right upgrade in one of the slots, the UniSuit turned into both armor and neurosuit for controlling combat machines, and an exoskeleton like Makarov’s.
You could either buy the upgrades or make them yourself...
The number of slots depended on the UniSuit’s level and could be increased again by the upgrades themselves. A Multislot upgrade could fit in one slot without issue. After which you could put not one upgrade in it, but three or five. The upgrades themselves could be components too. They were made from the corresponding expansions. For example, radiation protection plus infrared, plus vision, plus perception upgrade. In other words, the range of combinations was huge. The UniSuit of a single adamite was rarely similar to the UniSuit of another.
I scrolled through the list mindlessly. Most of the upgrades told me nothing. There was a time when I knew them all. Damn, what could “Defense Against Bizoid Seed” mean? Or “Leap into the Unknown”? Or “Angelic Shepherd”? Out of interest, I expanded the description of the last:

Angelic Shepherd.
Allows you to capture angels and bend them to your will as long as their level is lower than yours.
Duration: 5 minutes.
Cost: 1,500 energy per minute.

So much was new to me. What kind of race were the angels? Fallen ones too. Back in reality, I avoided news about Adam Online. And that was hard. Most people that are forced to spend time in their body to get back into a pod talk about nothing but Adam Online.
I was afraid that Makarov had entrusted this mission to the wrong guy. I was starting to doubt myself.
“Player Name Hidden is calling you. Action?” the voice of the personal assistant in my head rang out unexpectedly.
“Accept call.”

Chapter 3. First Damage

ANTON, Makarov’s voice said. It’s worse than I thought. Someone knows our plans. Used to your new body yet?”
The sounds of shots and explosions accompanied the question.
“Um... Ah.... Not quite...”
“There’s no time for a tutorial. You’ll figure it out in battle.”
I opened the inventory and selected a machine gun based on its size and fearsome appearance. I noticed that the UniSuit was equipped with a Stalker Dimensional Compression Backpack. The number of items in it was off the scale. Apart from heaps of weapons, ammunition, medkits, expansions and upgrades, a box depicting an armored car came to my attention. A toy, or...
Not trusting my guess, I expanded the description. There it was:

Armored Vehicle.
Level: 69.

Speed: 55.
Acceleration: 14.
Maneuverability: 22.
Economy: 49.
Reliability: 102.

Durability: 102,000/102,000
Fuel Supply: 49,000/49,000
Fuel type: energy units.

Left Side: Twin Nagata Machine Guns.
Right Side: Twin Nagata Machine Guns.
Turret: Arena Plasmagun.

Toyota Transmission: +5 Maneuverability.
Gorilla Front Glass: +1 Perception.

And another dozen lines. But it was the backpack itself occupying one of the UniSuit’s upgrade slots that interested me. From reading the description, I realized that it compresses items to an identical size and weight: within it, an armored car and a chocolate bar took up the same weight and linear size.
The past hit me like a punch in the gut: Olga invented a backpack like that many years ago. She even sent the idea to a contest for improving the Adam Online world...
I unfolded the map. It turned out that we were far from Town Zero, the starting point of all new players in Adam Online. Then I examined the weapon I’d chosen. The model was unfamiliar. The so-called “Automatic Salinger Rifle”. It used magazines with a capacity of ten eus. One eu (energy unit) was equal to one gold. I was basically shooting currency.
I didn’t have time to read the long list of this gun’s characteristics. After making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I ran out of the tent.

* * *

Makarov stood tall, blocking the entrance to the tent, and shot from the same Salinger rifle. So I made the right choice. To his right and left, fifty meters away, there were machine gun turrets. Spinning around, they emitted long volleys of covering fire, cooled down for a couple of seconds and opened fire on the enemy again.
Two huge spiderlike robots meandered through the tall grass. I aimed at the first and read:

Grisha, Mechanodestructor.
Guild: Black Wave.
Classes: Pilot, Defender.
Level: 332.
Health: 42,439/59,000
Armor: 7,865/9,000.

When a volley from the turret hit Grisha’s mechanodestructor, its protective field glowed blue, and blue damage numbers tumbled out into the air:


Grisha launched missiles at us in response. They tore away from the shoulder-mounted missile launcher and drew a complex trajectory in the air, dodging the anti-air defenses we didn’t have. They flew into the sky and turned back, dropping onto us from an unexpected angle. The explosion dissipated across the dome of the force field, reducing its power.
I aimed my sight at the second mechanodestructor:

Fortunado, Mechanodestructor.
Guild: Black Wave.
Classes: Engineer, Defender.
Level: 340.
Health: 40,000/40,000.
Armor: 2,336/16,000.

I addressed my personal assistant:
“Why are players of this level in Rim Zero? You can’t come back here after reaching level five.”
The assistant answered instantly: “Initialization err...” and cut out.
Fair enough. Strange to ask the game assistant about a non-game situation. I readdressed my question to Makarov:
“How did they get here?”
“Someone hacked the block, like we did,” Makarov replied. “That’s why you’re here, and these high-ranked players.”
“What’s the Black Wave guild?”
“A brigade of high-rank mercenaries. Their interests include contract killing and fighting wars for other guilds. Their HQ is in Rim Four, at the Black Wave military base. Grisha[3] and Fortunado are the guild leaders, twin brothers.”
Makarov sent two identical photos of men aged around twenty. Judging by their perfect appearance, the photos weren’t real.
“Handsome guys,” he continued. “They’ve headed up the leaderboard for the coolest adamites for two years now. Only you caught up to them sometimes. Or rather, the people that were leveling up your Leonarm.”
I summoned my personal assistant. “Show leaderboard.”
“The leaderboard consists of three billion six hundred twenty million three hundred thousand entries. Estimated time to display list: eleven minutes. Continue?”
“Just show me the top ten.”

Adam Online Ranking Leaderboard (Asian Cluster)

1. Fortunado — 340 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Black Wave).
2. Grisha — 332 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Black Wave).
3. Jamilla — 329 (Fallen Angel).
4. Most Ancient Evil — 327 (Bizoid, Guild: Black Wave).
5. Leonarm — 322 (Human).
6. David Kronenberg — 319 (Bizoid).
7. Nika — 301 (Android, Guild: Black Wave).
8. Crusher — 292 (Angel, Guild: Black Wave).
9. HyperNoob — 284 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Langoliers).
10. Evil Transformer — 277 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Golden Horde).

An interesting spread. The mechanodestructors dominated in the top ten. One human and one android. Two bizoids. One angel and one fallen angel. I didn’t know the difference between them.
I had other things to deal with. Time to fight.
The turrets had torn up the entire field before them. The grass no longer hid the fact that apart from the two gigantic mechanodestructors, a dozen or more smaller enemies now approached us. A couple of tall, thin androids towered over us.
They were all player-controlled. There were no NPCs or procedurally generated soldiers. All of them were between level 200 and 300, and all from the Black Wave guild. I could see several red squares in the sky. That was my neurointerface marking air targets: one Eurofighter, two MiGs and one empty target, which my combat system stubbornly lit up, but didn’t describe.
My personal assistant came to my aid:
“That is an angel. They are invisible to the naked eye, but your level allows you to at least be aware of their presence.”
Strange that they brought androids onto the battlefield. That race stood out for the fact that it couldn’t attack or use weapons against any players or characters.
But I quickly remembered what androids did on the battlefield. One android approached the spiderlike mechanodestructor and placed its long fine fingers on its force field. The Defense scale instantly rose.
“Makarov!” I yelled. “Switch the turret fire to the androids! They’re healing the spiders.”
“Take care of it yourself, son,” Makarov replied. “I know nothing about these games.”
A message appeared in front of me:

Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret (x2).
Damage: 200-600.
Cost: 1,000 eu per 10,000 shots.
Upgrades: barrel cooling (10 sec.), King force field generator (+2,000 Defense, 25 meters), intelligent target search.
Attention: second turret Durability at 450/5,000.

I opened my equipment and selected a Nanoid repair kit. I sent the nanobots to the turret — the device’s Durability scale crept upwards. Great, my skills as a seasoned adamite had almost returned. I was acting automatically, without having to waste time thinking.
The repair finished and a message popped up:

Urgent Repair skill increased: +10 XP.

Having given me time to get my bearings, Makarov rushed forward. Two missiles launched from his back and flew toward our enemies. But a beam of light came down from the sky, cutting the warheads in half. At the same time, quiet music descended from the sky and dispelled my doubts: this was an angel at work.
I opened the turret control interface and reconfigured the targeting to aim for androids. The first volley took down the android restoring the shield on Grisha’s mechanodestructor. The android exploded in a flurry of damage notifications, which instantly filled up my progress bar.

Leonarm (Human) killed Digerati (Android, Guild: Black Wave) using: Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret.

A second android lost both legs and fell into the grass. Damage numbers fell off him for a short while longer, but quickly stopped.

Congratulations, Leonarm, you leveled up!
Your level: 323.
Attention: you have unused stat points (1) and skill points (1). Spend them wisely!

“Keep it up!” Makarov encouraged. His Armor meter floated around two thousand. Health: around five thousand. Just as I was about to grab a medkit, he stopped me:
“Don’t waste it on me. The controllers are already here. Stay focused. They don’t meddle in player affairs unless they’re cheaters like me, hacking a bot or another account. That’s it, Leonarm, you’re on your own now. My advice: don’t try to take them all out. Break through and run to the respawn tower in Town Zero. You have more than enough money on your account to go straight to Rim Five. From there, move to the most distant and unexplored zones. The Mentors are somewhere where there are no players yet...”
Before I could speak, the Major General shut off the radio and ran at the enemies. The rain of fire cut through his defense. His health bar began to drop. Aside from the mechanodestructors, the angels were shooting at him too: fiery arrows fell from the sky with a piercing whistle, drowning out the angels’ song.
The figure in the exoskeleton was covered in a cloud of fire, columns of dust. But all the same, Makarov reached the enemy. He detonated a powerful explosive. The explosion threw tons of earth into the air. The turrets’ force field shuddered and rippled as if in fear.
Small explosions tore through the sky. The Eurofighter and the MiGs lost control and went down. They all exploded before hitting the ground, struck down by Makarov’s superweapon. It seemed to be a unique bomb assembled by an experienced and high-ranking weaponsmith.
The shockwave hit me. It knocked out the turrets and blew away the tent.

Damage taken: -945, shockwave from Wiper Swiper photon mine.

Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret (x2) destroyed, cannot be repaired.

A list of players killed by Makarov stretched out before my eyes. I didn’t know how they’d all gotten into Rim Zero, but I guessed that the fines for dying in such a low-level zone would be huge.
Two mechanodestructors remained among the enemy’s ground forces. Not only were their force fields destroyed, but their Armor had been halved. Their health bars also showed less than eighty percent. They were defenseless against the full-fledged power of Leonarm.

Chapter 4. Damned Angels

“LEONARM CALLING Black Wave,” I said over an open frequency. “How’s it going? Hanging in there?”
“Get lost,” Grisha’s avatar replied.
Fortunado’s avatar just sent a picture of an ass.
“What do you want from me? How did you hack the protection in Rim Zero?”
Fortunado answered this time. “Nothing personal, Leonarm. We got an order, we’re carrying it out.”
“As for how we got into Zero, that’s none of your business,” Grisha added. “Give up now. You can’t escape.”
Their words were booming, frightening, spoken through a speech modulator. I aimed down my sight: a few surviving soldiers stirred in the churned-up earth. A legless android crawled to them on his hands and began to heal them. I aimed for the android’s head and fired. The white-blue stroke of the energy charge took out half the skull. The burnt edges of the head’s remains glowed. A blue flame burned to the android’s shoulders. Damage numbers fell off it as it burned, adding to my XP bar.

Leonarm (Human) killed Nika (Android) using: Salinger Automatic Rifle.

Why was that so easy? These are top players. Why are they so slow, and why do they die so quickly? Maybe it’s because of the hacking?
The mechanodestructors continued toward me. Suspecting that they were attacking out of sheer stubbornness, I calmly picked off the remaining soldiers, gathering experience points. I tried to tease more information out of the brothers about their customer:
“You’re about to die and respawn fifty percent weaker. Want to make a deal?”
“It could be a hundred percent,” Fortunado said.
“We’re bored of being at the top all the time. We’ll level up again.”
Were they bluffing? I checked the contents of my Wallet. Wow! 5,345,700 g.
“Then I’m officially offering the Black Wave guild a job. I need bodyguards.”
“Don’t be an idiot, buddy,” Grisha said. “Firstly, there’s a conflict of interest.”
“Secondly, we were paid so much that you wouldn’t be able to save it up in a hundred years,” Fortunado added.
I aimed my sight at Grisha and shot out one of his left legs. The spiderlike mechanodestructor reeled. Another bunch of experience points flew into my progress bar.
Grisha opened fire with all his guns. My Armor slowly lost durability. But when Grisha’s guns quietened, cooling down, my automatic repair bots kicked in and my Armor rose just as slowly.
Fortunado’s mechanodestructor reared onto its hind legs. The upper section transformed into a turret. Now its four front legs turned into guns: two machine guns and two cannons.
I had to finish them off, I decided. Since I’m their target, they’ll keep getting in my way. After death, their level would be so low that they wouldn’t be able to follow me to Rim Five.
The earth shook, tossing the broken turrets around like toys. A few meters from me, the soil rose into a mound.
“What’s that?”
In answer to my question, the top of the mound broke, revealing a huge eyeless creature. A worm’s face with a round mouth that could consume ten Leonarms. The mouth was full of thick rows of teeth the size of two-handed swords.

Most Ancient Evil, Bizoid.
Guild: Black Wave.
Class: Slug.
DNA Modification: Earthly Tremble.
Level: 327.
Health: 67,000/67,000.

I had no idea what bizoids were capable of, or how best to fight them. They hadn’t existed in my day. Time to follow Makarov’s advice and escape. I decided to get out of the mechanodestructors’ fire and activate my armored vehicle. I’d barely made it ten meters before the earth around me rose in a ringed hill. How big was this bizoid?
Pretty big, as it turned out. I was surrounded by its long body.
Then I leapt up, activating the jet pack built into the lower part of my UniSuit and flying over the bizoid. I’d almost gotten over him when a thick beam of light lanced down from the sky toward me.
That damned choral singing! Damned angels.
My jet pack cut out. Waving my arms and legs as if trying to fly like a bird, I spun head over heels in the air. The light beam pressed down from above. With a crash, I struck the ground, sliding several feet ahead.

Damage taken: -34,555, fall from height and strike from angel’s light beam.

Just like that, in a second, I’d lost half my Health.

Left arm injured. Gunner skill reduced by 50%.
Upgrade slot #4 destroyed. Urgent Repair skill lost.
Upgrade slot #6 destroyed. Sprint skill lost.
Upgrade slot #7 destroyed. Capacity of Stalker Dimensional Compression Backpack reduced by 70%.

A list of lost items stretched out after the message that my backpack was damaged. The first to go, of course, was the Tiger armored vehicle. Then I saw a message that I was bleeding, but it was quickly replaced by another:

Automatic healing in progress (upgrade slot #13).

I climbed out of my UniSuit-shaped hole and looked skyward. The only air target remaining was the angel. But it was still impossible to determine its location. The highlighted target square just hung in place, showing the angel’s possible presence.
I opened the Character tab.

Angelic Shepherd skill increased to level 3.
I see angels, mom!
Now you can see the location of all angels whose level is below yours.

A name appeared above the empty square in the sky:

Crusher, Angel.
Guild: Black Wave.
Level: 292.

All this happened in mere seconds. Bullets continued to rain down on me from the mechanodestructors. My UniSuit’s armor was now going down faster than it was recovering. The round face of the bizoid closed in on me from the left while the circle of his body tightened. The angel’s beam continued to press down on me, making it hard to move.
I switched from my rifle to a one-handed Uzi machine pistol and unloaded an entire clip into the bizoid’s round maw. Not the most fearsome weapon against the Most Ancient Evil. But it had an Electroshock upgrade. Each bullet hit the target with an extra electric shock, so the damage was high. A thick stream of numbers fell from the bizoid’s maw, along with blood and scraps of flesh.
The bizoid Most Ancient Evil turned and fled underground. For some time, I could track its movement using the damage notifications which continued to appear from the electricity.
That gave me time to concentrate on the angel. I had no time to read how Angelic Shepherd worked. I just activated it. To my left appeared the image of a man, holding the angel by the wings and shaking him from time to time.

Attempting to catch angel. Chance of success: 74%.

But a blinking red message covered up that hopeful sign.

Damage taken: -12,460.

I reeled.
The mechanodestructors were getting too close. I unloaded another magazine at Fortunado. It knocked out his cannons and machine guns. But the cannons weren’t even firing. Perhaps the artillery gear on both mechanodestructors had been damaged after Makarov’s suicide bombing.
The mechanodestructors retreated and took cover behind a mound left by the bizoid. All three would probably be healing up and repairing.

Link to angel established.
You have five minutes to play God.
Attention: not enough energy (need 4,500 more) to maintain connection. Time left: 25 seconds... 24...

Twenty-five seconds? But the skill promised five minutes!
I immediately took the magazine out of my Salinger rifle, took out the energy rounds and converted them into energy units. That gave me more than enough. I took control of the angel.
I was dragged out of Leonarm’s body and thrust upward.

Release March 18, 2019

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