Thursday, January 24, 2019

Disgardium: Class-A Threat by Dan Sugralinov

Disgardium by Dan Sugralinov
Book 1: Class-A Threat

Release - April 22, 2019

Chapter 1. Sandbox

For my birthday, my parents got me an Infinitum 8. Not a very expensive model of immersion pod, but one of the best in its class. It was the present I wanted most for my fourteenth birthday because that is the age you can finally start playing the coolest and most popular game on the planet – Disgardium.
As soon as the birthday party was over and the guests were gone, dad smiled:
"Can't wait to test it out?"
I nodded. How could I!? An immersion pod is not some steam-powered VR-helmet with sensors gloves!
"Go on then, Alex," mom said and laughed, embracing dad.
"Don't go in too long your first time!" he shouted after me. "Alex?"
"Yes, dad!"

I answered, almost running to my room where the new pod awaited me. I mean it was already installed, calibrated and ready to use. I hurriedly got undressed and went inside. It was vertical, but could change its orientation based on my actions in the virtual world. Gravity is a heartless bitch and it’s hard to feel like you're standing when your real body is lying down.
I grabbed the metal handles and froze. A few seconds passed, but nothing happened. Does it really not work? I was going to run down to get in touch with the manufacturer when a stern voice rang out in the pod:
"Alex, your heart is beating too quickly for your first immersion experience! Access denied."
"Oh come on!" I shouted.
"Apologies for the inconvenience, but characters can only be generated when the player is in a normal physical condition..." the voice muttered an excerpt from the user's manual. Then it followed up with some helpful advice: "Alex, do your best to calm down and try again. Thank you."
With a sigh, I climbed out of the pod and walked out onto my little balcony. On the backdrop of the starry sky, all kinds of silvery delivery drones quietly buzzed past, landing and taking off from the windows of our huge residential complex.
Higher up, a procession of public flying cars darkened the sky above. As of today, I was legally allowed to pilot them without computer control and I was eager to try it out. Of course, I would have to pass the license test first, but I had no doubts about that.
A cloud of condensation burst out of my mouth. I shivered. The cold damp wind made me shiver even though, earlier today, it was pretty clearly turning to spring.
A few minutes later, I was calm and back in the pod. This time I saw no warnings, and the immersion process began.
Intragel filled the space, going over my head, but it didn’t hamper my breathing. Finally, I closed my eyes.
And when I opened them, I was in space. The sensation of weightlessness took my breath away, and I could barely resist waving my arms and legs. That couldn't do any harm though: the pod assumed control over my muscles, while the intragel kept my body suspended and out of harm’s way. That way, if something went wrong and it lost control of my body, the gel would protect me from injury.

Good evening, Alex!
Please choose the world you would like to be immersed in.

The text was then read out by an airy female voice. In terms of worlds, there wasn’t much choice. I had the moon-sized test world Infinitum, made to demonstrate the pod's capabilities, or the huge Disgardium, which came factory preinstalled on all pods.
And that was what I chose. Some system logs ran before my eyes:

Biological age confirmed.
Access to Disgardium permitted.
Notifying Department of Education... Success... Status confirmed.

Welcome to your first immersion experience!
Scanning body... Success... Character appearance generated.
Allowed version of the world: Sandbox.
Recommended location: Tristad.

Unfortunately, I could only play in the sandbox until sixteen. It was a private location with access is restricted to underage players. Adults from the full version were not allowed in, and all content was strictly age-appropriate...
All around me, I saw a flurry of majestic cities and abandoned villages; epic battles and ghastly monsters; the six not yet entirely explored continents; heavenly gardens and fiery wastelands; a billion active players and just as many non-player characters, which was to say nothing of the noncitizen workers; seaside resorts and city blocks of forbidden pleasures...

Welcome to Disgardium, Alex!
Welcome to a world where dozens of nonhuman races live in harmony. A world where sword and magic reign! A world where anyone could become a king or a hero! A world you will want to live in! A world where anything can happen...

I didn’t even think of interrupting the intro, savoring the massive scale and brilliant colors of this world that was so recently off limits. I had been dreaming of this moment for far too long.
The primer on Disgardium came to an end. I was immersed in darkness for an instant and suddenly found myself in a room full of people.
It was a few boys and girls and we were all wearing identical canvas garb and looking around in surprise. I was just overtaken and couldn't hide my glee. It was all so real! The wooden floor creaked underfoot, rafters peeked out from behind the high ceiling, and light from the windows jumped along the walls, playing off our shadows. I could smell a sappy tree, dust was whirled in the rays of the sun. The canvas shirt fit loosely over my body and, when I touched it I could feel my ribs through the fabric. Unbelievable!
"Woah!" shrieked a girl with long black hair. "Who pinched me?"
Everyone laughed. The girl sneezed, and that caused a new burst of laughter.
"Happy birthday, all!" I shouted.
"Happy birthday!" rang out discordantly through the laughter.
All of us had just today reached our fourteenth year, that was obvious. Who in their right mind would put off their first taste of Disgardium?
"Just a minute! Shouldn't we see our names?"
"We haven't even generated our characters yet, dummy!"
In our fevered anticipation, we didn't notice at first but the door had opened.
"Welcome, guests of Tristad!" came a sonorous male voice.
We turned. In the doorway, hiding a smile in his whiskers, there stood a respectable man with graying locks. Over him hovered the words:

Peter Whiteacre, level 30
Chief Councilman of the city of Tristad.

"It is my pleasure to welcome you to the free city of Tristad, where everyone has a place be they a hero or a warrior, bard or wise man, hunter or mage, druid or a common quarry worker..." the councilman listed another series of classes and professions, then got to the list of races inhabiting the Commonwealth: "We are equally glad to see people, elves, and gnomes..."
I listened with interest. Studying materials online was one thing, but finally becoming part of all this was another. The councilman then gave us a brief overview of the state of the world: all races of the Commonwealth were at war with hordes of orcs and barbaric nonhuman tribes. They also repelled raids of the beasts from the Abyss and the illogical attacks of the Devastators, resisted dark brotherhoods, the Sleeping Gods, the Goblin League...
Lots of things happened in this world, and it was possible that some of us would remain in the Commonwealth after transitioning to the adult world. Though others would certainly use the chance to change their character to a different faction.
"I can see that you're all tired from the long road," Whiteacre said finally. "Now please complete your registration with Carlson the scribe, then I'll answer any questions you have. If there are no questions, go out and see the city, meet its inhabitants and bring it good fortune..."
We started heading toward the registration desk. There was a plump rosy-cheeked scribe sitting there, and I was at the back of the line.
"Complete these arrival forms," said Carlson, handing them out.
That paper, once in hand, unfolded into a character registration form.
In the sandbox, you could only play a person, so it wasn't clear why Whiteacre had listed all the races of the Commonwealth for us. And we could only choose a class at level ten, so now we could only fill in our name and allocate attribute points.
I had my name picked out long ago, back when my dad used to keep me entertained with stories from ancient history.

Your game name: Scyth.

I could say it has no meaning, but that isn’t true. I hope I can live up to the name.

Scyth! You have 15 main attribute points.
In large part, your attributes will determine your entire life in Disgardium from your strategy in battle to the way others perceive you!
Take your time and think carefully! Your attributes cannot be reset!

In school, I heard that no matter what class you choose, you need every attribute to be ten at least. Strength – at the very least so I can carry lots of weight. Agility and perception – so I don't miss my targets and do critical damage. Intelligence defines mana regeneration, and without it you cannot use any special moves, even if you are a warrior. With low charisma, you can forget about good quests and discounts from traders. And luck, meanwhile, has a bit of impact on just about everything.
So then, after some brief thought, I put two into each one. I added the extra point to endurance without really thinking, just because it was there.

Scyth, level-1 human
Real name: Alex Sheppard.
Real age: 14.
Class: not chosen.

Main attributes:
Strength: 2.
Perception: 2.
Endurance: 3.
Charisma: 2.
Intelligence: 2.
Agility: 2.
Luck: 2.

Now finished, I handed the completed arrival sheet to the scribe. He scanned it, snorted, gave a strained smile and, with exaggerated enthusiasm, announced:
"Welcome to Tristad, Scyth!"
Coming out, I stopped on the stairs, looking down the central street dreamily and smiling.
Disgardium, meet your new hero!

Chapter 2. A Year and a Half Later

There were only five minutes left in class, and the students was starting to get restless.
"The bell hasn't rung yet," Greg Kovacs, our history teacher, noted sternly. "Take your seats! Edward! Sit down this instant!"
Ed Rodriguez, leader of the Dementors clan, scraping his desk along the floor, sat back down despite himself. Modern history was the last lesson for today, and he just couldn't wait to dive back into Disgardium.
"I’m not finished," Greg frowned. "Alright kids, class is extended by two minutes! You know who to thank."
"But teacher!" Ed objected. "Mr. Kovacs..."
"No 'buts,' Rodriguez!"
Blonde-haired Tissa, sitting behind Ed, hissed out something that sounded very much like "shit!" She was in Ed's clan and, seemingly, they had a raid scheduled today.
"That’ll be three minutes, Melissa Schafer," the historian corrected himself nonchalantly and continued the lecture: "After the collapse of the world banking system..."
Tissa rolled her eyes and gave a loud sigh, not unclenching her lips. Ed, turning around, blew her a kiss. Tissa shot him a middle finger back.
"... the UN," Greg said, writing the name on the whiteboard and underlining it. "That led to the creation of the Unified World Bank and the single world currency. Who can tell me what it was called?"
"The phoenix," the class answered in unison.
"Exactly," the teacher nodded. "And who knows what a phoenix looks like?"
Silence. Knowing my history teacher, it was better to answer. Otherwise we could end up sitting here a whole half hour.
"The phoenix is a mythological bird that can burn itself up and come back from the ashes," I said. "The first written mention of the phoenix myth is found in Herodotus."
"I appreciate your knowledge of mythology, Alex, but I was asking about the currency. The phoenix doesn't have a material form. It is a digital currency, independent of economic and political conditions. In the same year, another important change took place in society..."
He started talking about the upcoming mandatory citizenship tests, what a pitiful existence noncitizens must live, how there were now more of them than citizens, and how they are constantly dying without support from society... But by the end, no one was listening anymore. For the last seconds of our extra minutes, we were drumming on the desks, and shouting out a countdown:
"Three! Two! One!"
The thunder of every chair scooting back at once drowned out what Mr. Kovacs said about homework and the upcoming test.
The Dementors were the first to race out of class, driven on by Ed. They treated Disgardium seriously, because they saw it as their future. Snowstorm Incorporated, the developer, was the first company to pay people to game.
And ever since, it has been the most widely played full-immersion game, even receiving certification from the United Nations itself. And now that is where noncitizens and citizens with low qualifications spend their days and earn their money. For many, it was the only way to change their lot in life.
But definitely not for me.
It had been a year and a half since I first loaded up Dis. I thought I was very clever setting all my attributes the same. How wrong I was! That gave me a character with piss-poor damage and dispiriting aim. I was hardly fit to live. Unfortunately, even though I had read a few guides before my first session, I missed that particular factoid. I knew that every level would give me five attribute points, so I figured if anything was wrong I could just fix it in no time at all. It seemed so trivial to get just a few levels.
But it wasn't all puppies and rainbows like I imagined. Bots were in no rush to give me quests, and farming mobs turned out to not only be tedious, but quite difficult!
Level-one rats refused to be easy farming, and took me down in a couple of bites every time. I had to land ten or so blows, constantly swinging, before I could even take down one of them. And that was if I had someone holding the rat for me.
And when I joined a group with beginners like me, those drips of experience became dewdrops. When I realized that, my enthusiasm was extinguished. And this wasn’t exactly an uncommon experience. Some just stopped playing, others opted for social quests.
But leveling like that was hopelessly tedious and never-ending. Just to get one experience point, for example, you had to spend a few hours doing social labor like cleaning out stables or pulling weeds in gardens. Half a year in the game to get a couple levels? Oh abyss!
And one day I quit the game, but the next I was inspired by the success of a few classmates and entered again with new hopes and plans. But the longer I played, the more disenchanted I grew.
At the beginning, you can’t get any equipment, armor or weapons. The lowliest knife in the weapons store cost a few silver, and you have to complete fifty social quests to get just one silver coin. Fight rats with my bare hands? Ha! These things were so big they’d have the upper hand on a rottweiler in the real world! And even if I could kill one, the reward was just one experience point, maybe two if I really got lucky.
So in the end I just couldn’t stand it. After a few weeks trying every way to level, the experience bar was no more than five percent full. I didn't even hit level two.
For some reason known only to the developers, it was impossible to delete a character and create a new one from scratch in sandboxes. Maybe that was to make us more responsible for our decisions.
Meanwhile, I was disgusted by the idea of spending real money on the game both then and now. I mean, I knew how hard up my parents were for cash. It wasn’t like basic equipment would cost some astronomical amount, but by the time I considered it, Dis had already lost its charm to me.
I won't argue, at first it was interesting to explore an absolutely new world with its own laws, rules, geography, history and races. It even had different physics, given both magic and teleportation were possible.
But it was only truly engaging for the first few days. Weeding or respawning again and again after the deadly bites of some overgrown spider? No, thanks.
What was more, my heart yearned for outer space. The first settlements were being made on Mars, and it seemed to me that exploring a real new world was somewhat more interesting than a virtual one. I greedily ate up anything I could find about space expeditions, studied the requirements for getting into university and prepared for exams. My parents supported my ambition too, setting money aside for my studies.
But I still had to play Dis. And every day.
From the age of fourteen, every underage person was required to spend at least one hour per day in the game. Snowstorm Inc.’s long tendrils reached into the UN Department of Education. Now it was thought to be an important part of a child’s education, providing necessary socialization skills and preparing us for adult life, whether it be in the real world or Disgardium.
Every day was exactly the same for me there. I usually spent the whole hour sitting on a bench opposite the Bubbling Flagon tavern. Just after me, the neighbor girl Eve O'Sullivan would come into the game. She couldn't even stand a hint of pain, so she was also not super happy with the game. And for that reason, she came to kill time with me.
The sooner the citizenship tests came the better. After that, I could be done with this onerous requirement.
Thinking about all that, I hurried to leave school. Our lot had a limited number of flying cars, and if you didn't manage to get one on the first go around, you'd have to wait for one to come back.
And that's just what happened. Or more accurately, one of the last ones still had an empty seat, but I wanted a whole flying car to myself so I could drive it manually.
The school parking lot was on the roof, next to a solar panel array. Eve was sitting there. She always waited for me so we could fly home together. Her father's business was really taking off, but they were still in our apartment complex.
Eve's face lit up. I might have thought she liked me, but that didn't do anything for me. She was sweet, but not at all to my taste and didn’t watch her figure, eating chocolate bars in quantities that vastly surpassed Department of Health recommendations.
"How was your day?"
"Like normal, Eve. Two classes of ethics of modern society, two programming domestic robotics, two modern history. Dullsville."
"Oh god, I never understood, why we need history!" she shouted and, her voice changed, trying to parody Greg's unique manner of speaking. "The last president of the United States..."
Eve got distracted and started thinking. I threw off the backpack and sat down next to her. All the flying cars were gone, so we would have to wait here at least ten minutes. Then a tarry column of acrid bitumen shot up into the air from the asphalt of the take-off platform.
"That damned Dis again," she sighed. "When are you going in today? As usual, right after you eat?"
"Mhm. The sooner I start, the sooner I'm done. Then I can do whatever I want."
"And what do you want to do?" Eve asked, emphasizing the word "what,” attempting a languid tone, drawing out the last word and slanting her gaze.
Aw, abyss! Flirting was definitely not her strong suit. Where had she seen that move? Nevertheless, I was caught off guard.
"Probably not what you had in mind," I answered with a smile. I didn't want to offend her, she was a great girl and I had known her since childhood. "I'll be studying materials on the Leman expedition to Mars."
"I see. I just thought... Maybe you'd want to..."
"What?" I didn't want to embarrass her, but it was better to break it off right away before it turned into an upwelling of unjustified hopes.
"Maybe... Maybe we could watch it together?" she blurted out in one breath.
"Sorry, not today. My parents are working on a new project, I don't want us to distract them."
I tactically said "us," although I meant only her. My father and mother had finally gotten an easy order, but the client was fickle and it was best to keep risks to a minimum. Money had been tight at my house recently.
Dad suspects mom is having an affair, which is driving him more and more to the bottle, and when he drinks he gets paranoid, suspicious and aggressive. Mom, of course, doesn't like that. And so she leaves home on the sly and comes back around morning. I definitely think she’s seeing someone.
Their constant fighting ruins my mood so much I don't even want to do my homework. And that is a problem. To get into university, I need high average points.
"We can watch it at mine," Eve didn’t relent.
"Let's decide later," I answered, hoping that by then her spark would have gone out.
Flying cars began returning to the parking lot. We got into one, and I gave a nod to Eve:
"So, are we flying, or the computer?"
I changed the automatic steering to manual and took off into the air. Flying... what could be better? Only the stars.

Chapter 3. Bad news

After eating, I went on Dis. Eve and I sat on the bench across from the Bubbling Flagon tavern which was, by the way, the only one in all Tristad. We just chatted and looked around.
The city’s life had its own rhythm. Players ran around unimpeded, coursing between the market square, bank and the auction. There was so much noise that twenty minutes after loading I wanted to go deaf at least for a bit. Everyone around was screaming, arguing, negotiating, inviting people to groups and just-formed clans.
The sound of criers and barkers for local merchants and craftsmen energetically cut into their din. Maneuvering between them all was awkward due to my low attributes. Couriers and other low-level players darted here and there, carrying out social quests for the city.
And they all ignored the red-faced town drunk Patrick. They just pretended that he didn't exist – that's how much he bothered everyone. That unlovable bot was always begging for copper. Yet there were rumors that if you cranked your reputation with him up to maximum, you could get some legendary quest. But few tried, because at a rate of one rep per copper, the price was too steep for most noobs.
A bit further down the street some restless gnomes were causing a ruckus with some dignified dwarves, negotiating for every silver. Even from here I could hear that they were talking about some new gnomish formulation. The city guard was standing at the entrance to the tavern looking suspiciously at the passersby...
By the way, in the sandbox taverns the players were only served cream beer. No alcohol! Explicit language was beeped out and penalized with experience points. And also it was not possible to get fully undressed here and, instead of sex organs, all you could touch was... Nothing. Like a child's doll.
Too bad, of course. I had no problems with girls, but the very thought of something greater than a normal conversation made me shiver. I would not have said no to a bit of practice.
Just so you know, that does not apply to Eve O'Sullivan. One bit. And the nick she chose, Aphrodite, was somehow not very fitting for her. Although maybe she simply didn't know who that was.
But if I dreamt of something greater than chatting, it was only with Tissa Schafer. And it just so happened that she was walking on the other side of the street just then with Ed and the other guys from the clan. They were talking loudly and laughing.
Based on how they were barely moving their legs, they were all encumbered and heading to auction on the market square, to the smith or to a merchant stall to get rid of all their loot before another raid. They probably didn't have anything of value, maybe just a hunk of rusty scrap from the mine of the hyena-like gnolls. That was not the most complicated instance, but it had to be done before raiding the dungeon of the man-eating ogres where they were going. And maybe they were planning to go to the new ins in the Olton Quarries, which everyone was talking about in school...
"Does she have to shake her thighs like that?" Eve asked in annoyance, looking at Tissa.
I led my gaze over Melissa's tall and well-proportioned figure, wrapped in the short white dress of a priestess of Nergal the Radiant – that was the name of the main deity in this world, or at the very least that god had the most followers, which meant faith points. I couldn't look away. It was a captivating spectacle, and only Eve's look of admonishment in the corner of my eye made me stop leering at Tissa Schafer's back.
Here all characters were an exact copy of the people who played them but, in the real world, Tissa never wore clothes like that. There she usually loafed around in oversized pants and baggy hoodies. So I could only admire her here. And that was the only thing I liked about the game.
Of all the players I knew in Tristad, only she and Ed "Crawler" Rodriguez had become mages. Magic was an inalienable part of the world. In theory everyone here could master it, but it cost unspeakable sums of cash to learn. A tome of basic magic of any school cost at least ten thousand gold! That was approximately the same number of phoenixes, and that was enough money to buy a flying car.
But neither of them bought any tomes. Tissa randomly found a quest object that brought her on a long chain where the final reward was light magic training in the Temple of Nergal the Radiant.
And Ed got the fire magic class supposedly after getting a tome as loot in an instance. Fate had been kind to him, or he just got the loot as the clan leader – I didn't know.
"I'm bored," said Eve, looking at me demandingly.
"Do you want to take a walk around the city?"
"Not really," she shook her head, and I understood that I had guessed wrong. But I wasn't going to play her naïve little flirting game.
"Then let’s please just sit quietly."
Eve went silent.
I would gladly have read something, but there was no way to bring stuff in here. This was a medieval fantasy world, where the highest achievement of technology was the primitive powder guns of the gnomes and dwarves. So I'd have to read, or more accurately, reread the game encyclopedia: "Gnomes provide the dwarves with various powder weapons: rifles, muskets and even cannons. And they also do not disdain steam machines either, among other things..."
Boring. Why should I care about steam power in the age of colonizing the Solar System?
Damn, time was drawing out so long! Too bad I couldn't break up the required hour per day into several sessions. It was thought to be harmful to the psyche, constantly changing between realities. There were cases when people didn't manage to adapt post-virt. In the game, they rakishly carry heavy two-handed words, but in the real world they were weaklings, which at time led people to overestimate their abilities and hurt themselves.
Feeling bored, I once again opened the interface menu and looked at my profile:

Scyth, level-1 human
Real name: Alex Sheppard.
Real age: 15.
Class: not chosen.

In the sandboxes, you had to show your real name and age. That was to cultivate responsibility in schoolchildren for their behavior in the game. In the first years, only your nick was indicated in your profile and you could generate any appearance.
That was a truly blessed time for dorks and losers, who took revenge in the game on their real-life bullies. Then a wave of parent outrage swept the world and, after brief discussion, real names were added to sandbox profiles and characters were given their true appearance. The next day, almost none of the gankers went back to school…
Eve stood up. She probably wasn’t mad. She always forgave me for stupid jokes.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm sick of sitting here," she answered, turning. "Shall we go take a walk?"
I also stood up and we headed to the city gates. On the way, I remembered that five minutes earlier I had suggested we take a walk and she didn't want to. Girls...
Mills, the gate guard, tossed us a passing gaze and gave a signal to his partner:
"Let them through!"
For the next few seconds we waited patiently for the gates to open enough to get through, then we went beyond the city limits. Eve said something about a gift her parents were getting for her birthday, but I was barely listening.
The edge of the forest was just twenty yards away when we were caught by a group of running players. I spit out a curse. The last thing we needed were the Dementors. I always thought their leader Ed "Crawler" looked at me funny, quick to tease me whenever he got the chance.
"Where are you guys going?" he asked, giving a jocular smile. "A romantic date in the Murkwood? Or are you going raiding for rabbits?"
"Come on, Rodriguez," I answered.
In the last few months, I had grown used to my classmates teasing me. It always followed the same scenario. Now Malik "Infect," the tanned thief would make some joke about my progress, and Hung "Bomber" would pile on. Then Tissa would frown and try to bring her clanmates to reason, and Crawler would balk, saying they had no more time to waste on pathetic noobs...
"Not likely," Infect said. "A rare mob just popped up by the rabbits. They won't be able to take it; their equipment is too low level."
"Do you think they'll attack the butterflies?" Bomber asked, keeping the serious expression on his face. His father was Chinese, and his mother Swedish, which explained how Hung turned out a six-foot-six wall of muscle. "They'll get wiped, one hundred percent."
Ed broke the scenario. Waving his rare wand, he left a stream of fiery sparks in the air behind the tip. Then he took a few steps toward me and said in confidence:
"Listen, Scyth. I understand that Aphrodite's family has it made, and her parents will set their daughter up with something cozy. Disgardium doesn't mean squat to her. But what about you?"
"What about me, Ed?"
"Call me Crawler, Scyth. We aren't in the real world!"
"Back off!" Eve screamed.
She stood in front of me and shot Tissa a mean look.
"Hey Aphrodite, we were having a little talk here! For you all this," Ed led his hand over everything around, "means nothing. But for us it's all very important. Much more important than what happens there, where the world is ruled by hypocritical bastards like your parents!"
"Don't you dare speak badly of my parents!" Eve flared up. "You don't know anything!"
"Is your father going to be elected prefect? Everyone's saying it. How many asses did he lick? Or is Mr...." Ed made a face and spit, "O'Sullivan not going to share that with his one and only precious little girl?"
"Up yours, dumbass!"
"Choose your words carefully, fatty," Tissa said lazily.
"And what if I don't? Are you going to kill me? Ha!" Eve was going nuts, and I anxiously placed a hand on her shoulder, but she threw it off. "It’s impossible to even really kill someone in your stupid game!"
She took a step forward and gave Rodriguez a slap. Ed easily dodged the next one, then unwittingly threw a fireball. His flaming left hand came unclenched, shooting a spurt of condensed plasma the size of a walnut. It reached Eve in one second, and the plasma covered her body like napalm.
Her clothes – a light standard beginner’s dress – caught fire and burned up in an instant, while her health points fell sharply downward. Eve screamed. Sensations of pain were significantly dulled here, but they did still exist. The girl fell to the ground, trying to beat out the fire, but the damage was too much for her level one. A few moments later, she died.
"Geeze Crawler, what was that for?" Tissa wrinkled her nose.
She could hardly have been talking about the fire. Tissa Schafer visually mocked Eva's plump body, which was now only in underwear and beginning to flicker. Five seconds later it was gone. She left the world.
"What, you won't even go to bat for your stupid girlfriend?" Crawler asked acridly, egging me on.
"She's not stupid, if you're talking about her intelligence," I objected calmly. "Definitely not dumber than you."
"No, she isn't dumb. You're right there. But still she's a big piece of crap like the rest of her family!" Crawler provoked me, cradling a new fireball. "Well! Come on then!"
"Do you really need a moral justification to burn a player many levels below you to death? At the end of the day..."
"Acting smart again, Scyth?" he interrupted. "You prefer to use your tongue, not your hands? Ha-ha!"
"Good one."
He was now conscious of his reputation with the city. Eve attacked him first, so he was defending himself. It was his right to kill her. Now he was expecting me to do the same.
"Coward," he said, hawking another loogie.
"This is pointless, Eddie. There are four of you, all at level fifteen. I won't even get through your armor. I mean sure, I could get myself fired up into a righteous anger and tell you to go to hell. I could even call you a dick and run at you swinging, if that helps your principles and allows you to send me to respawn with a clean conscience."
"He is acting smart. Right guys?"
"Yeah, running his mouth is all he's good for, Crawler," answered Bomber Hung. "You want me to swat him down without all this heckling? I could also..."
"Let him be," Tissa interrupted. "We're wasting time!"
She turned to leave, but Rodriguez got what he was after. Regardless of what I said, their words hurt me and I wanted to answer.
"Hey, Ed..." I called. "You know what?"
"What?" he shuddered.
"At the end of the day, this is just a game. Nothing more! No matter how cool you make yourself here. No matter what you’re worth in the game, real life still means something..." They were all listening carefully, even Tissa, but they kept silent and I continued: "And you know what? No matter how hard you try, you're gonna have to live in a fake world. And that's if you can pass the citizenship test. Otherwise... The virtual mines? Work on plantations? Street sweeping? Is that a life?"
Not one muscle twitched on the Dementors' faces. Just a light shadow ran by on Tissa's cheeks: she had lost her mother, and her father worked in Dis. She had no chance at university.
"Come on, to the abyss with him guys. We're wasting time for nothing!" she said.
"Just a sec, guys. The ogres won't go anywhere." Crawler walked up to me, coming forehead to forehead. "As long as I've known you, Scyth, you've always thought you were above everyone else. I might not be so smart but, at the very least, I have friends. Do you have any friends, Alex Sheppard?"
"Yes. I do."
"And who are these invisible friends?"
I had nothing to answer with. Only lonely kids dream about space. Everyone else has someone to lose.
"Exactly," Ed nodded. "Think about that... smarty pants. Tissa, buff me!"
The priestess of the Radiant One renewed everyone's movement speed buffs and they ran to the west, not turning back.
I exited Dis.

Scyth, you have left Disgardium.
Please wait to adapt to the real world.
Remaining time: 00:59… 00:58… 00:57…

I was immersed in impenetrable darkness. I felt deaf, dumb and unconscious. Just the flavor of burning was left in my mouth – a trick of the mind remembering the soot of Aphrodite's burned body.
Just then the pod went vertical, it's sensors relinquished control over my body and handed the reins back to my brain. Then the intragel, which provided balance and shock-absorption, and also maintained muscle tone, was sucked into the pod walls to undergo antiseptic treatment and filtration.
My senses returned. I was standing in the middle of the pod. It's doors slid aside silently.
I crawled out and froze. My hearing was back, allowing me to sense that my parents were fighting loudly in the other room. Their fights had become a daily occurrence, nothing out of the ordinary.
I put on my shorts and t-shirt and went into the kitchen to get a couple sandwiches and a bottle of mineral water, which I was planning to consume as I studied the materials on the Leman expedition to Mars. But I stopped and listened. My father was trying to get something through to my mom, and he was calm, now that was weird:
"... you'll have to tell him, Helene. He's smart, he'll figure it out."
"Mark, you're so heartless! This is his last year of school, citizenship tests, do you even understand what a blow that would be to him? He might not recover!"
"No, you don’t understand!" My father raised his voice. "Sooner or later, he'll have to find out! And let it be sooner rather than later so he has time to think it all over and decide what to do from there!"
What were they talking about? What was I going to figure out? I just happened to come out when my mother's mouth was already open to answer my father. Seeing me, she gave a noisy sigh:
"Mom, dad? Is everything alright?"
"Everything's alright buddy, everything is fine..." my father muttered. His hands rested on my shoulders, and we sat on the couch. He tossed a gaze at my upset mom and, looking aside, quietly said:
"Alex, your mother and I are getting a divorce. No-no, not now. We're going to wait until after your citizenship test."
"You're getting a divorce?" I repeated stupidly. "And what about me?"
"Yes, you..." my dad looked at my mom. "Helene?"
"No way, this was your idea, you say it. I don't want him to hate me his whole life!"
"It was my idea?" he asked, enraged. "You should have thought about our son when you..."
"Mark!" my mom whispered. "Not in front of Alex!"
My father nodded at her enraged gaze again, but held back. Their flares of tension were so intense I could hear them.
"Hey, what was that? Care to explain calmly?"
"Alex..." my dad coughed out. "We can't pay for your studies. I'm sorry."
"But why?" I figured I'd misheard. "Why?!"
"Divorce will automatically lower our civil status to G. There won't be enough money to pay for university, and we can only help you get set up. You're gonna have to start working, son."
Work? With no education? And what, pray tell, did they think I was going to do? Oh abyss, but they were saving for my studies! Or...
"And what about the deposit?" I made up my mind to ask, already knowing the answer.
"There he goes!" mom answered with particular vengeance, looking at my father. "What do you think we've been living on all this time? We haven't had a decent project in a long time!"
I looked helplessly at my dad and he, shaking his goiters, looked away. And mom just kept coming at me:
"Our income is going to be barely enough to live on. Congratulations, Alex. You're an adult now and have to fend for yourself..."
I couldn’t hear either her, nor my father, who was saying empty words. Just one idea was clanking around in my head? No outer space? Then I exploded.
"That isn't right!" I shouted. "Mom! Dad! What are you talking about? What divorce? Everything is fine! And sure, you fight sometimes, but so does everyone! I know every couple fights, but they don't all get divorced!"
My face twisted and, as not to burst into tears like a baby in front of my parents, I turned away.
"Sorry, son. We’ve already decided," came my father's voice from some unfathomable distance. "When you get older, you'll understand..."
Sensing my mood, our catdog AT rubbed up against my leg. He meowed and tapped me with his big forehead. I mechanically grabbed him under the arm, brought him to my room, and only there let my silent tears out, my head buried in a pillow.
No work without higher education. No education without money. My welfare money will only be enough for a cupboard in a building for poor L-class citizens, and all I'll have to eat is flavorless universal nutrient blend.
And all I'd have left is Disgardium?

Release - April 22, 2019

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