Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Final Trial (Level Up +3) by Dan Sugralinov

Level Up +3
The Final Trial
by Dan Sugralinov

Release - March 25, 2019


Hearing's the first thing to go. Or is it memory, I always forget.

My name is Philip Panfilov. I'm 32 years old, but I’ve really only felt alive for the last three months. Before that, I just bobbed about like a turd in a fishing hole: I ate, drank, played the most massive online game that existed at the time, and was even married. I picked up cash working as a freelancer. I wrote a blog and was writing a book. And I drank beer— lots of beer, almost every night.
By the time I was married for four years, I'd gained so much weight from the drinking that I couldn’t tie my shoes and the mirror disease had reached a critical point. That’s when my wife Yanna decided she’d had enough, and she up and left me.
That same day I started seeing the world differently.

An augmented reality interface that someone—I have no idea who—had installed in my head displayed digital data mapped onto my surroundings, but that’s not all it did. It mimicked the interface of the game that I'd squandered my days on for almost the last 12 years, rarely coming up for air. It gave me quests, measured Reputation and awarded XP points. Whenever I leveled up my Social Status, I earned Characteristic points and skills that I could invest in my Insight. I leveled up Perception, and my vision became perfect. I increased Strength, Agility, Luck, Stamina and Charisma, not just by freeloading from the interface, but also by working hard.
As it turned out, my interface was software, a computer program. It just happened to be from the 22nd century. I was able to access a stat booster, so my premium account let me level up twice as fast. Later I leveled up my Learning Skills, which allowed me to learn anything some 18 times faster than before.
The interface also endowed me with system abilities. Insight is a vital skill that lets me look at anything and see more within it than anyone else can. This is no big deal for a computer game, but for real life, it's honest-to-God magic. All I need to do is look at someone, and I find out more than they know about themselves—I can even see what their potential is. For instance, I can see that someone is capable of winning the world chess championship title if they just practice.
Objects can also give me access to additional characteristics. Like the way I bought some cologne, and when I use it I earn 5 extra Charisma points. That’s a lot: the average person has 10 Charisma points. Some people have more and some have less, but the average is 10.
And then, thanks to Insight, I have a miniature map and a full-size map. The minimap is always displayed in my field of vision, while the full-size map shows the whole world in real time, and when I submit a request, it can locate any object or person. The main thing is that I need to have enough Key ID Data, or KIDD, points. I can get them from a photo, a person’s date and place of birth, their full name and special markings—in short, anything that will allow the system (that's what I call my interface) to find the object in the Universal Infospace. The Universal Infospace is what makes Insight work.
The system and Martha, my virtual assistant, extract data from it. I accidentally gave Martha a few more rights than she needed and her AI has gained self-awareness.
It’s actually helped Martha save me from dying three times. The first time was when I was first abducted from real life and taken to the Trial. I was swallowed and nearly liquefied by the Acid Jelly. The second time was when I was kidnapped by the henchmen of a vile, corrupt bureaucrat. The third time was when those same henchmen—drug addicts named Zak and Wheezie—stabbed me in the back. At the time I was trying to save my childhood friend Gleb. Now I’ve exhausted my lives—Martha is no longer able to activate my heroic abilities without confirmation. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that my virtual assistant has created herself as an individual that’s based on my ideals of female beauty, character and behavior. These traits came together in my brain without my asking for them, but I have no delusions. So I try to summon Martha as little as possible because the more I communicate with her, the harder it is to pay attention to anyone else because she’s too perfect. Anyway, I don't have a girlfriend, and there’s a dangerous debuff that’s constantly on the alert.
After I got the interface, I took an objective look at myself. I was horrified. I saw a clumsy, puny, frail weakling with a fairly strong intellect. True, my Charisma was decent, but only because of my developed language skills. All I needed to do was get a haircut, and I immediately leveled up and became 1 pt. more charismatic.
As my friend Alik would say, come on! So come on, I came to grips with myself. I started running and lifting weights, I signed up for boxing and I got a job at a company that made packaging products. On the very first day I got lucky and clinched a contract with a major customer, and people started to value me. The boss even threw a party for the company on the night we signed the huge deal, which was worth millions. That’s where I met Vicky, who was a manager at the company. We slept together, started dating, and fell in love. But we weren't together long—just over a month—before she left me because she didn’t believe in my idea of starting my own business. To put it mildly, her parents didn't exactly welcome me with open arms.
But Alik believed in my idea. He’s a street lowlife I unexpectedly became friends with. He and I opened a recruitment agency together. I just so happened to stumble upon an undocumented feature in the interface. When I use my mind to set search parameters, including probability filters, I can find people jobs. I just look for companies that need a lawyer, for example. Then I set filters, eliminating suggestions where my candidate won't get hired and where the salary is too low. And voilà! That’s how I found the first job for Alik.
We rented a small office in a business center and hung out our shingle. At first we didn't get many clients, but then word of mouth started to work its magic and business took off.
We met the other tenants of the business center and became friendly with them, and I proposed setting up a joint venture. My level 3 Insight showed off-the-charts synergy with these people and an excellent forecast of success for what was now our shared business.
That's not all: I also entered a boxing tournament and won. The money I won will cover the operation for Julie, my new friend Kostya’s little sister. Kostya coached me in boxing after I was kicked out of a group for getting into a fight. Incidentally, Vicky was the reason for the squabble with Mohammed, but not the main point of it.
It feels like all of this happened yesterday.
But today everything changed.

Chapter One. More Fire

The thing about happiness is that you only know you had it when it's gone. You may think to yourself that you're happy. But you don't really believe it. It's only looking back by comparison with what comes after that you really understand, that's what happiness felt like.
“Fallout 4”

I was standing at the edge of a forest, wearing only a pair of tattered jeans. I was looking at the world as it really was, without the interface. All the icons and indicators had disappeared. I couldn’t move as something seemed to be holding my feet. The same could be said about my whole body: it seemed to have turned to stone. It was as though the air around me had frozen, holding me up.
A few feet away from me, a message appeared in the air:

Congratulations! You’ve successfully passed the preliminary selection!
You’ve been admitted to the main Trial.
Candidate evaluation complete.
Character generation complete.

What? So what was that before? This hadn’t been the Trial?
The message dissolved into thin air, replaced by a new one:

The Trial will begin in 3... 2... 1....
The Trial has begun!

Suddenly I was free. I lost my balance and fell to the ground. Perfect, now I could regroup. I took my time standing up. I needed to get my bearings and figure out what was going on and where I was, and investigate the system message, whose rotating 3-D icon was hovering in my field of vision. A red balloon was pulsating and flickering—in other words, doing all it could to attract my attention. Tough luck. It would have to wait.
Physically I felt like I was in top form. There was no trace of the scratches, wounds or burns of the preliminary selection, the one that had the tunnel and the acid jelly. I turned my neck and body. Nothing creaked or snapped. My body was as good as new. Hold on, was it even my body? I examined myself and touched my face and hair. Everything seemed to be mine. But I couldn't feel any of my own belongings in my pockets—no phone or even a slip of paper. Even the belt had fallen from my tattered jeans. The Lucky Ring of Veles and the Protective Red Wristband had also gotten lost somewhere. I was positive I still had them when I was in front of the portal.
The air was unusually clean. It was as pure as could be, with none of the pollution created by people as they live their daily lives. I could hear a continuous chirping, occasional cracking, and birds trilling. A sort of croaking noise wafted out of the depths of the forest. I’m not really a nature lover, so to be honest, I can’t really tell you what was making the woodpecker noise. I’ve never actually seen a woodpecker.
I raised my head and my mouth dropped: this wasn’t Earth.
The sky was so low I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The color was changing into shades of light blue, dark blue and purple, and in the area where there were two suns, it was a dirty brown. It wasn’t a very friendly sky. Mr. Katz, who’s a connoisseur of science fiction, would be interested in this.
Crunch! A sharp pain suddenly shot through my left heel. I cried out and drew my foot back.

You’ve been dealt an injury: 4 (baby hedgehog bite).

A large mouth had me in its clutches. A small, nasty, growling creature was chewing on my foot. Messages about the injury flickered. I grabbed the creature and my palm seared.

You’ve been dealt an injury: 17 (acid burn).

Damn, that baby hedgehog was vicious! The creature was trying to stretch itself over the sole of my foot like a sock, and my Health had already dropped about 10% while I was trying to figure out how to get rid of it—its fur was covered in a burning slime that made it impossible to pick up with your bare hands. I lifted the foot the animal was clinging to—it weighed around 10 pounds—and slammed it on the ground.

You’ve dealt damage to the baby hedgehog: 13.

I continued to stamp my foot until the level 2 creature died. Six blows and it was all over. The hedgehog’s body flashed and disappeared, leaving in its wake a sort of crystal. A long-forgotten term I’d heard in my university days popped into my head: rhomboidal pyramid.

The tiny crystal of existence.

I reached out for the crystal, which disintegrated into a silvery dust and fell into my hand. A notification appeared:

+2 existence resource pt.

The first component of a new interface appeared in my field of vision: an icon of a heap of dust with a number 2 beside it. There was no description of it or explanation of what it was for.
I tried to call up my old, familiar interface, but nothing happened. Either it was blocked, like after the ban, or it no longer existed. I tried issuing silent commands and shifting my eyes, but nothing worked.
There was only one thing for me to do: open that nagging little red balloon, which was shaking restlessly and practically screaming for attention. I focused on it:
“Please show me what you have there.”
It flinched and popped. The wisps turned into symbols floating in the air. They multiplied and morphed into Russian letters. I didn’t even have time to think about how it was hard to read the letters before a semitransparent background, like in my interface, appeared behind the letters.

Welcome, test subject!
You have been chosen. You have successfully passed the preliminary selection. Because you have done well, the penalties to characteristics in the Trial will not apply to you.
Your time to complete the preliminary selection was 14% better than the average time of all the trial subjects. You will receive: 14% off the cost of character development.
Your social status level is 17, 6 levels higher than the average level of all the trial subjects. You will receive: +6 Characteristic points to invest however you’d like.
You have come from an environment with a low environmental safety index (code yellow), where you managed not only to survive but also to win the respect of many individual members of your race. You may keep one of your achievements. Please choose.

An explanation flashed underneath: “System messages are generated from the candidate’s preferred vocabulary.” OK, so everything was just like with the interface—someone had poked around in my brain so they could speak to me in the same language.
The message was replaced by two vibrating boxes with the names of the achievements:

The Fastest Learner.
10% to skill development rate

+1 to all main characteristics at every level gained.

It was a no-brainer: I decided to add to the characteristics. For good measure I tapped the box. The other one popped and “Altruist” was pulled into my finger. What a circus.
While I was examining my fingertip, another notification opened in front of me. It wasn’t on the side, but in my line of vision, above my finger. The letters were small. I shifted my eyes and the font grew and moved away a little so it was easier to read.

The Trial is a tradition for the Commonwealth of Sentient Races, the first but not the last procedure for selecting candidates to take part in the next Diagnostics of the race.
Prototype of the Trial site: Pibellau, Sagittarius Sector.
Participants in the Trial: planet Earth, “Humankind” faction, Homo sapiens race (these are self-designations), 2018 according to local chronology, fourth wave.
Number of participants: 169.
Main characteristics of the test subjects: real-life characteristics are carried over.

So that meant that all my running and boxing at the gym wouldn't go to waste. All the indicators I’d earned through buckets of sweat would still have value. That was good news, and I felt encouraged.
I continued to study the rules. The previous message flipped and a new one opened:

The objective of every Trial candidate is to capture all the Pibellau hexagons.[1]
The candidate who passes the Trial will be named the winner. The reward will be tallied dynamically according to the results of the selection procedure, along with a vote by the observers. The final decision will be issued by the Senior Supervisor of the Trial.

OK, I get what happens to the winner. But what about the loser? Is he sent home? That’s not the worst thing that could happen. Even if my interface is uninstalled, no one can take my achievements away. I’ll keep my new friends, my company, my fit body and my new skills.

Absorb the territory—every hexagon you capture rewards you with additional resources.
To capture a neutral hexagon, activate the command center. Cost to activate the command center: 100 existence resource points.
To capture an enemy hexagon, you must report in person to the command center of the captured territory within 1 hour, Pibellau time (13 hours = 1 day), and then activate the command center.

All right. This reminded me of something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Remember that all the other Trial candidates are your enemies!
When you destroy an enemy, you capture their hexagon. Any trial subjects who lose all their hexagons will be disincarnated one day later (Pibellau time), no matter how many lives they have left.
A captor may cancel the disincarnation by taking the enemy into his clan.
A clan is not an alliance! A clan belongs to only one person, and all the resources captured by the clan are transferred to the leader, who is in charge of them.
When test subjects agree to join another clan, they become the vassal and surrender all their hexagons and resources to the clan leader.

OK, got it. You're surrounded by some enemies, you need to stay on your guard, dominate, trample them and enslave them. I see what it’s all about. Something similar, the voice of Khphor, had been trying to get a message across to me while it used Panikoff’s mouth to advise me not to stop at anything.
I swiped that message away too. A new one appeared:

Pibellau is an inhospitable place. The ferocious, carnivorous wildlife is always hunting for prey, but the most deadly creatures come out at night. Be alert, keep moving your base and build up your defenses.
Use labor and the skills of laborers, reconnaissance and military units, which are generated from the command center. Keep moving your base and improve the abilities of the units.
Don't forget about yourself. You will earn existence resources by destroying other participants, the aggressive flora, hostile fauna and your adversaries’ units, and by capturing hexagons. The hexagons will help you level up, and after you receive category specializations with each level, you will gain access to new talents and abilities.
These are all the rules.
You’re now ready to begin.
Put more fire under your enemies’ feet, test subject!

Screw me dead! I looked around for the infamous command center but didn't see anything that looked like it. While I was doing that, the message rolled up and was replaced by another balloon, green this time and quivering like the other one. I opened it.

Choose a name, test subject!

A name? Right, it’s a game.
Maybe Graykill, the pseudonym I used in every game I played? No, wait. Philip. That wouldn’t do either. Just keep it simple: Phil.
I said the name and a large message appeared:

Phil, invest in your main characteristics!

Strength determines the damage dealt without a weapon and by a short-range weapon. It influences the damage dealt by your units and the volume of resources extracted by laborers.
Agility determines the damage dealt by a long-range weapon. It affects the speed of movement of the bearer and his units.
Intellect affects the character development rate, and the rate of generation and upgrade of modules and the base.
Stamina determines the number of life points of the character and his units.
Perception determines the chance of critical hit and critical damage. The chance of finding lost artifacts increases. It affects the radius of visibility in the fog of war.
Charisma affects the rate of generation of new units and the number of units used at the same time.
The greater your Success in all aspects of the Trial, the more likely you will be to encounter advantageous situations.

I fell deep in thought and reflected for a long while. It seemed that the physics of the world were closely connected to the trial subject’s numerical ratings. Looking around, I realized that I could see up to a radius of around 500 yards; the wall of the fog of war stood beyond that. Apparently, the higher my Perception, the farther I would be able to see.
I collapsed the window into the green balloon and opened a pulsing yellow balloon. A character window with three boxes popped up. The first one contained general information, the second contained the characteristic indicators, and the third—the smallest—contained my stats.

Character profile
Phil, a human.
Level: 1.
Class: undetermined. Required level: 10 needed.
Health points: 1100/1100.
Damage without weapon: 11-15.
Chance of critical hit: 36.5%
Bonuses: 14% off the cost of character development, +6 Characteristic points to invest anywhere.
Achievements: Altruism (+1 pt. of main characteristics for each level up).

Main characteristics
Strength — 13.
Agility — 11.
Intellect — 20.
Stamina — 11.
Perception — 15.
Charisma — 17.
Luck — 14.
Characteristic points available to invest: 11 (5 main characteristics, 6 secondary characteristics).

Character stats
Lives: 3.
Captured hexagons: 0.
Ranking: 169/169.
Existence resources: 2/1000.
You don’t have enough existence resources to activate the leveling up function!
For the next level (2) you need 172 existence resource points.

Ah, that’s what I thought. The Trial is a game. It contains “lives” and you can be resurrected, but the mobs[2] that are around you when you die disappear, leaving loot[3] instead of bodies. For now I’d been able to loot only the mysterious existence resources, but who knows, maybe an axe would fall out of the next hedgehog? It was too bad that the ring and red wristband had not raised my Luck, and even the Netsuke Jurōjin, which didn't need to be worn, didn’t work here.
I also gathered that leveling up didn't happen through XPs but in exchange for currency—that is, existence resources. That assumed different branches of development: you collected it or lost it on upgrades of the command center, created an army of mobs or improved their indicators. I guess I’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t figure out if this was the real world or a virtual one, but it was clear that I was myself, not a virtual avatar. My heel, which ached where the hedgehog had bitten it, could vouch for that. The memory of the animal’s teeth was still vivid.
Whether or not this world was real, I needed a development strategy, and in order to figure out how to develop, I needed to start playing. That was even more urgent because judging by the ranking, everyone else had already thrown themselves into leveling up while I was the only one standing around thinking and trying to figure out what was going on.
I stood up. The wound had already healed, and so had my burned palm; Health had regenerated and the bar was full again. I looked to see where that damned command center could be, and while I was at it I peered at the ground: maybe there was a stick or branch I could use to fight off the hedgehog’s parents and their buddies. I didn't find anything like that, but about 20 steps away, closer to the ravine, I could see a white, perfectly round stone lying on the ground in the opposite direction of the forest. It was about a yard in diameter.
When I got closer, I saw that a handprint was pressed into the surface. I placed may hand in the indentation, which perfectly matched my hand, and felt warmth emanating from the stone. Nothing happened at first.
But then I knew: I would need 100 existence resource points to activate the command center.
Then I understood that the existence resources were needed for other things, not just to activate the command center. The existence resources would allow me to live. Days on Pibellau cost 13 existence points, a point for each hour experienced in local time.
After understanding came realization and epiphany: to live, I would need to kill. To develop, I would need to kill. To preserve everything I achieved there, I would need to win victory here. And to do that, I would need to kill.
Valiadis and Ilindi had not prepared me for this.
A notification telling me that I was losing one existence resource point appeared and then disappeared. I had only one left; that was an hour of life. Resources can't be negative; I will simply lose “life.”
So my plan of action for the near future was simple and clear: farm[4] existence resources after setting up a local armageddon on my hexagon. After I “optimized” the Game, I forgot its nuances, but it wasn’t the only game I had played, and something buried in my memory surfaced: an old, pleasant farm was waiting for me.
It would not drag me into the forest: I could avoid noticing and aggro[5] a few mobs right away, but that was risky. So I chose the open territory behind the ravine. It was around eight yards wide, impossible to get around. I would need to lower myself into it.
The bottom was concealed by  fog, but I knew from my gaming experience that the most greasy mobs and best loot could be found in places like this. The descent was steep, but there were thick, dried-out, broken-off tree roots along the walls. Holding onto them, I carefully lowered myself, groping for a foothold. The ravine was as deep as two men standing one on top of the other, and when I finally touched down, I breathed a sigh of relief.
There was no one in my line of sight...
A sound like a wet cloth slapping the wall jolted me. The skin on my chest charred and smoked. I understood full well that 358 damage points wasn’t a joke as I screamed at the top of my lungs from the pain and fright of the surprise attack.
A couple of yards away from me, there appeared a massive hanging...

Location boss.
Level 6.
Life points: 1800.

Run, Phil, run! I stepped away, covering my eyes with my arm. Oh, God, it burned, how can I go on living? The creature looked like a gadfly with a long snout that was uncoiling again, preparing to spit napalm saliva on me. I spun around, and inwardly shrinking from the inevitable spit that landed on my back, ran away. But the Kreken had stopped attacking. I guess it wandered off.
When I was 50 yards away, I turned around but didn't see anyone.
I breathed a sigh of relief and was hit in the face by a new salvo of spit. The creature’s saliva was eating through my skin down to the bones, but I stifled a shout. The next attack went into my mouth, which was open in a scream, penetrating my throat and scorching the tendons from inside. I collapsed to the ground, dreaming of dying just so I could stop the pain. I lost consciousness.

You are now dead, test subject.
Lives remaining: 2.
Until resurrection: 3... 2... 1....

Damn, you’ve organized a local armageddon, all for yourself!

[1] Hexagon: a six-sided shape.
[2] Mob: a slang term for a moving object, usually a monster, that is found in computer games, especially online RPGs.
[3] Loot: treasures within a game that are received by players after killing mobs or other players.
[4] To farm: to receive game currency and objects by killing monsters.
[5] Aggro: to perform an action that will lead to an attack by a bystander on the player’s character.

Release - March 25, 2019

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