Friday, March 22, 2019

Reality Benders-4: Web of Worlds by Michael Atamanov

Reality Benders
by Michael Atamanov
Book IV: Web of Worlds

Release - May 20, 2019

Introduction. Point of No Return

Moscow, Onega 3 Command Center
Russian Ministry of Defense
Small Meeting Hall

Ivan Lozovsky was very angry, but he was trying not to show it. For the first time in his nascent term as leader of the Human-3 Faction, he had been summoned to a meeting with the curators of the Dome project. And although the young diplomat couldn't see particular reason for leadership to be displeased, it was hard to be happy about being urgently yanked out of important negotiations with the allied German faction in the game and transported to Moscow by military helicopter. Was there any way this was something important enough for that?
Things were going fairly well in the faction recently thanks to the long ceasefire with their dangerous northern neighbors, which had allowed resources to be used on development rather than military needs. The faction’s population was growing steadily and had just topped two thousand. New nodes had been incorporated. What was more there was reason to believe that, in the next few days, they would be getting two more nodes from the Centaurs to the south of the Yellow Mountains. All their understandings with Phylira were still in force, and the striped mare was well on track to becoming sole ruler of a unified centaur herd many thousands strong.

Sure, there had been certain snags and setbacks. But how could you get by without any in such a serious and mass-scale project? How much had we lost over the senseless war with the Naiads, which we thoughtlessly got involved with to help an ally? And the fact that the Karelia base took three times more resources than planned due to constant attacks of dangerous NPC's had also likely not gone unnoticed. But there hadn't been any severe cock-ups or mistakes. And certainly there were no glaring failures like when Tyulenev fled and joined the enemy or when the Dark Faction sabotage group intercepted the faction’s payment from the Miyelonian black-marketeers. The last incident, by the way, had cost his predecessor Radugin a job. So then what could have been the reason for today's urgent summons?
Ivan Lozovsky gathered his thoughts and walked into the well-familiar small hall, which could hold just thirty people. It had no windows, and one whole wall was occupied by a big interactive board showing the territory of the Human-3 Faction and neighboring nodes. On the door there was a warning that wireless signals would be jammed inside. This was the same room where, five months earlier when he was a complete beginner in the game that bends reality, the curators had given him instructions for a space flight to the Geckho homeworld, Shikharsa. Leadership had pinned enormous hopes on that diplomatic mission to the suzerains. It was even thought that the all-powerful Geckho would share knowledge and technology with their new vassals. And that, they assumed, would open the floodgates for human space travel and interspace flights would become an everyday occurrence just like taking the subway.
Hrmph... naive dreams. And although the faction was fed an official story, which was that the diplomatic mission culminated in a brilliant success, and the Geckho had shared antigravitation technology with their new vassals, in fact it all went completely different. There was no personal meeting with the great and powerful ruler Krong Daveyesh-Pir. There was no need at all for the traditional greeting, which Ivan Lozovsky had practiced for many days and fine-tuned with Geckho diplomat Kosta Dykhsh. No, along with a large group of three hundred if not more representatives of new vassals, colonies and populations, the lone earthling was led into a huge circular hall in the Sovereign Palace. And there, standing behind some tall Geckho, he didn't even catch the briefest glimpse of the extraterrestrial ruler.
He also didn't manage to personally convey his gift to the great Krong Daveyesh-Pir. And meanwhile the Earth diplomat had brought an exact copy of the golden record from the Voyager mission with all its drawings and designs. It was the same message humanity sent in the twentieth century to distant stars in hopes of meeting extraterrestrial civilizations. But there was no reason to give such a strange gift through an intermediary without the most important part an explanation of the deep meaning behind it.
Before returning home, the diplomat sold the gold disk for scrap, netting enough crystals to purchase an old and very patched up antigrav. When he made it home, it became clear that the vehicle the ragman had foisted on him was of Miyelonian production and incompatible with the parts and software that could be obtained in the nearby Geckho space port. Nevertheless, the antigrav elicited colossal interest from our scientists and allowed them to understand a few of the working principles and laws of physics behind antigravitation. And that was basically the whole real story of the supposed gift of technology.
"Okay, we have a quorum and can begin," the microphone-amplified voice of a middle-aged soldier with major general stripes brought Ivan Lozovsky back from wandering in memory.
The diplomat looked around. There really were no more unoccupied seats in the hall. In fact, it was the same way at all the meetings he had been to as Radugin's deputy. Thirty people, most of whom were in military uniform, were extremely concentrated and serious, awaiting a report from the head of the faction.
The diplomat took out his work tablet. He’d had just enough time to copy all the detailed data about faction affairs onto it before leaving for Moscow. Resource stockpiles, construction timeframes for important facilities, road maps and a few tight spots in logistics. A complete class and level breakdown of players and an attempt at some kind of averaged "combat power" stat, which was what the curators assigned his predecessor Radugin at the last meeting. It was, of course, a shame that the important information was stored only as formulas, tables and dry numbers, which made it hard to interpret at first glance. But Lozovsky wasn't planning to give a report today, and there just hadn't been time to make an elegant presentation.
The faction head gave a bow and looked for the connectors and cords for his device, but the major general leading today's meeting stopped him:
"We won’t be needing that, Ivan. Your next report is still on the schedule in two weeks. Now we just want answers to a couple questions. First of all, we wanted to discuss the problem with Vasily Andreyevich Filippov’s character. As faction head, what do you intend to do in this unexpected situation?"
And the faction head had in fact told them what happened, which was not so much problem as curiosity, as soon as he came out of his virt pod. The highly experienced military specialist, who the curators sent under the Dome to work as a Strategist and counterweight to the Dark Faction's terrifying new General Ui-Taka, had been given a very unexpected choice of class when generating his character: Fisherman or Bard. Before making his choice, Vasily Andreyevich Filippov left into the real world and made a report on this problem. Nevertheless, the game had already registered him as player number 2018, so we couldn’t replace him.
Vasily Andreyevich then, clearly embarrassed, justified himself today before the faction head by saying that he really had adored fishing his whole life and singing songs around the campfire. In fact he was a fairly talented guitar player and, in his circle of friends, even played a few songs of his own composition. But he never imagined these hobbies were so close to his heart that they would keep him from doing what he was trained to do in the game that bends reality.
What choices did we have here? Use him as a Strategist anyway and take a serious hit to effectiveness? Or lose one faction member forever? As head of the H3 faction, Ivan Lozovsky had firmly chosen option one. The faction had a catastrophic lack of manpower, and a Strategist working at half his maximum ability was still better than nothing. The faction head thought it inappropriate to discuss Vasily Filippov actually working as a Fisher or Bard, although he was keeping that option in mind. Now he needed to carefully lead the others to that thought:
"I was told Vasiliy Andreyevich Filippov is an experienced specialist in his field. As far as I know, he took part in the extremely difficult liberation of Aleppo. We definitely need someone like him in the faction, and he can apply his talents regardless. And in case things get hairy, he also knows how to hold a weapon. But whether he'll level by fishing or playing guitar is a purely technical matter and up for discussion. I would personally prefer a Bard due to morale and stat bonuses he could give to other players. What's more, there are no lakes or large rivers in our faction's territory, and access to the sea is an issue due to the war with the Naiads."
A pause took hold. The hall was immersed in semi-gloom, just the small area around the tribune remained brightly lit. As far as Lozovsky knew, they did this to exchange opinions in private before a vote. Finally, the chairman spoke up:
"A majority decision has been reached. Vasiliy Filippov shall remain in the Human-3 Faction with the class of Bard. The directors are expected to develop a plan to level his character quickly with a slant toward combat skills and providing positive bonuses to others. Do not pay any mind to Strategist skills. At a later point, we will send another candidate to fill this vacancy."
Sure, a very logical and rational decision. The Diplomat was even glad in his soul that he would soon have a decent Strategist, and not this "neither flesh nor fowl." All that remained unclear was what to do with the new Bard. Would he still be among the directors and deputies? Or would they transfer him to the normal players? But that decision could easily wait, especially because the speaker asked another question:
"The ceasefire with the Dark Faction has expired, as has the time for General Ui-Taka’s ultimatum. Our impression of the new Dark Faction leader is that he’s a serious man, someone who doesn't throw his words around. How prepared is the H3 Faction for an escalation in this sluggish conflict?"
Ivan Lozovsky immediately lit up because he had lots of data about that precise question and therefore lots to say. Thankfully, the faction had made significant progress in that regard. The whole chain of fortifications on the border with the Dark Faction had been rebuilt and reinforced. The problems of insufficient supply and the isolation of distant garrisons in the Eastern Swamp had been solved, new roads had been built, and the faction now had plenty of ammunition, explosives and provisions. Multilevel articulated defense lines had been constructed at the most dangerous sections. We even had true fortresses with powerful garrisons and underground storage facilities stocked with enough supplies to keep the defenders shooting for a long time even when fully surrounded.
Our allies were also better prepared than before. Just yesterday, six hundred of the German H6 Faction’s best soldiers had been brought along a new almost completed road along the sea shore and placed in the capital node and Eastern Swamp. Phylira said she could provide two thousand big strong centaurs, although these tough and fast NPC's were going to be transportation rather than as troops. We had even reached an agreement with the harpies. They were supposedly going to patrol and do recon from the sky, although we hadn't put much stock into these unreliable winged allies. Their intentions changed five times per day. But in any case the H3 Faction had fortified the whole border line from Karelia to the Eastern Swamp like never before. Recent studies had shown that our forces could be fully deployed in just eighteen minutes, and at the most critically dangerous points, enough troops to deflect an attack could be ready in just four minutes.
The curators were completely satisfied with that, though there was one lone retort that the war could not be won by sitting back and defending. Ivan Lozovsky answered that completely accurate remark by saying they had many attack plans under consideration. But each time the military experts came to the same conclusion. Given the present balance of forces which was thought to be, in the best-case scenario, two thousand of our players against five or six thousand darksiders, attacking aggressively would be akin to suicide.
At that the Diplomat assured the military men that the situation would be changing for the better soon because we were currently developing and incorporating three southern nodes: Centaur Plateau, Rainforest, and Tropics. And in just a week, if there were enough resources, all three of the southern territories could be up to level two, which would allow the H3 faction to bring another five hundred twenty-two players into the game. The faction's main hope then lie in the Jungles and Yellow Mountains nodes being brought up to level three within ten days as expected, which would give us another one thousand players. And if, beyond that, peaceful expansion into Centaur territory continued, it was easily possible that we would get two more nodes. And so ideally, in ten or eleven days, the Human-3 Faction's population would practically be doubling.
"The Dark Faction must understand that," came some immediate commentary from the chair. "And as long as the enemy isn't growing faster than us, an attack is inevitable in the next few days."
"If you look at it that way then of course yes. But there are other factors you aren't considering..." the Diplomat chose his words carefully because this was quite a slippery topic and he didn't want to delve into details, trying to limit himself to general words. "I have already reported on our contacts with the group Emancipation from Mage Tyranny. No matter who these supposed ‘ideological warriors against mage rule’ really were, they did their job and committed a bloody act of terrorism at Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s funeral, killing or crippling a large number of mourners. And many of those who died there used to form the inner circle of the former ruler of the First Directory. Many of them were on the list of strongest Dark Faction players, and a few were even among its leadership."
The experienced speaker made a pause, allowing the curators to think over what he'd said, then continued:
"We've long known that most Dark Faction players come from the First Directory, the historical patrimony of the La-Fin dynasty of mages and corulers. There is nothing surprising in the fact that many of the mages who died and suffered were subjects of the La-Fin family and part of the faction created by the great mage Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. And for that reason there is a high likelihood that the Dark Faction is now paralyzed, as it is basically headless: many of the strongest mages died or were seriously wounded, and the laws of the parallel world allow only people with magical abilities to occupy leadership positions."
"But the new head of the Dark Faction is not a mage!" came a justified objection from the hall. And Lozovsky was eager to confirm:
"General Ui-Taka is an exception to that rule, the only nonmage to rule in the last eight hundred years. But the new leader of the Dark Faction has a ton of problems now due to that terror attack. The least of them are that many of his advisors and assistants in the game that bends reality were hurt or killed. And he was himself blamed for the blast. Four of the strongest directories have declared war on his state. And so..."
Ivan Lozovsky gave a satisfied snort and said the Dark Faction strategist would soon be so wrapped up in real-world conflicts that he wouldn’t have any time for the game.
After that, he heard shouts of approval, even applause. The news of the fearsome enemy's new problems was taken very positively. One of the council members even said something like, "the Dark Faction will now simply collapse, because citizens of the First Directory are already not especially loyal to him as the ruler of a different government, and they won’t be seeing him very often." However, the others in the room did not share his optimism.
"Ivan, what does this all mean?" one of the previously silent curators asked. "You yourself just said that only mages can rule in that world. But the last of the La-Fin dynasty passed away without a magical heir. So who will be the new head of the First Directory and in fact the most powerful play Dark Faction player not in the game but in the real world?"
The din and conversations immediately went silent, everyone was listening attentively for Ivan Lozovsky's answer. The Diplomat's answer sounded fairly sharp in the silence:
"The new ruler of the First Directory is Gnat! Our Gnat! Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin's granddaughter, Princess Minn-O La-Fin has become the junior wife of a player in our faction who undoubtedly possesses magical abilities. In the rules of the magocratic world, that is all it takes to make Kirill Ignatiev a Coruler of the parallel world!"
The room grew noisy again. The curators began actively discussing this news. However, the conversations immediately went quiet as the doors quietly peeked open, and an agitated young officer walked quickly toward the speaker, actually more like running. He was holding a telephone and pointing toward the corridor, where the call wouldn't be jammed. The Major General apologized to everyone and hurried to the exit.
Something out of the ordinary must have happened if they’d sent someone in to interrupt this secret meeting. In the quiet of the hall, everyone was whispering guesses, but the word heard most often was "war." And in fact, when the speaker came in three minutes later with a deadened face, he announced:
"War!!! At five o’clock this morning game-world time, our Rainforest node was attacked by the Dark Faction. Under cover of thick fog, fifteen enemy Sio-Mi-Dori landing assault antigravs entered our node unnoticed from the forest and landed right at outpost thirty-four. And although they didn't catch our soldiers completely off-guard, the battle didn't last long. Outpost thirty-four has been lost, and along with it the whole Rainforest. The Tropics node and its garrison has been cut off from the rest of our territory. And that isn't all the bad news..."
The Major General wiped the perspiration from his forehead and continued with poorly hidden notes of panic slipping through:
"At the same time, no less than three hundred Dark Faction soldiers made land in a Geckho ferry on the German capital node, most of them wearing exoskeleton armor and carrying heavy weaponry. The enemy caught our allies by surprise. No one was expecting an attack on the distant island, so practically all H6 Faction members who can hold a weapon were in our territory! The island has been captured. The Dark Faction assault troops are shooting on sight any Germans that try to enter the game or respawn. And all that means..." In that the speaker fell silent, Ivan Lozovsky finished:
"That means that all of the six hundred allied soldiers are no longer with us. The H6 Faction has seriously fallen in number and is no longer capable of providing any manpower. Their maximum now is three hundred forty-eight people, and they will need them to defend the two coastal nodes the H6 faction has left, which are at levels one and two."
Damn, damn, damn! Ivan Lozovsky was angry at himself and all the others. Now, after the fact, it dawned on him: how could they be so blind? Why had they made strong defense on the border and just sat on their laurels? After all, they understood perfectly well that General Ui-Taka was known as an unrivalled tactician in his world. And now, instead of bursting through all these mine fields and articulated defense structures, he just landed a party deep in the rear, cutting off the only way south and basically removing the German faction from the rest of the fight. Just one move, and the situation was gasp worthy!
Without support, the Tropics node, cut off from the rest of the faction, would fall. And there were no less than fifty H3 players there, mostly just builders. Plus the Germans couldn't hold their remaining hexagons. They would fall very quickly. Sending reinforcements south would mean calling off people and weakening the northern border with the Dark Faction, which was exactly what the enemy was expecting. Basically, to put it in chess terms, the H3 faction had us in check, and checkmate was not far off. At the very least, the faction leader didn't see any good moves. No matter what he did or didn’t do, it would only get worse.
"But how did they get there by ferry?" came the surprised and outraged voices of all the curators. "The Geckho don't interfere in their human vassals’ squabbles!"
"And they aren't interfering here," the major general replied to all these objections. "Geckho Diplomat Kosta Dykhsh has already confirmed their neutrality. In his words, the Geckho just transported people who paid for a ticket. And the Diplomat reminded us that our faction had used the same ferry on a number of occasions to transport humans and freight, including troops and military supplies. And I suspect that transporting three hundred landing troops along with heavy weaponry and other supplies cost our enemies a pretty penny! That must have been at least half a million crystals! Where did the Dark Faction get that kind of money?!”
Ivan Lozovsky kept silent and lowered his head morosely. He understood perfectly where they enemy got this half a million crystals, because he himself along with Gerd Tamara and other trusted players had handed them to a Dark Faction player as payment for the funeral bombing!

Chapter One. Talking with the Crew

You stop noticing the even hum of the engines after just half an hour underway. In fact, any change in their tone and you’re sure to be worried. In fact, the sound becomes a comfort, a sign that everything is working just fine. My Tolili-Ukh X frigate successfully left dock at the Medu-Ro IV pirate station and, building speed, entered a hyperspace jump to the Miyelonian trade hub Kasti-Utsh III. No one came to meet us at the entrance to the station, or followed us, which made me happy. I had calculated right, and the repair of my starship was over before the fleet of the enraged Pride of the Bushy Shadow had returned.
Just after the threat had passed, my business partner Uline Tar removed her space suit and went into her bunk, asking not to be disturbed. I know what had my coarse-haired friend so bothered. Neither she nor I had any money left. All attempts to find shipments headed to the Miyelonian station ended in potential clients recoiling as if we were lepers. That was a direct consequence of Gnat's fame as a pirate! Law-abiding captains didn't want anything to do with me and my ship. Uline Tar, a member of an ancient house of space traders with a reputation earned through many generations of hard work, was definitely annoyed by that. How could you trade if no respectable merchant wants anything to do with you?!
And there was the creeping war between the outworld vassal factions on the edge of the known Universe which her human business partner was going to go fight in. War always meant big expenses. And Uline had seen that planet and its pitiful natives with her own eyes. Those primitive outworlders quite simply had nothing worth enough to convince a Geckho trader it was worth their while. So my furry friend had a good reason to be so distraught and worried.
But there was nothing to do here, we just had to go to Kasti-Utsh III with no cargo and a foggy idea of how I’d get the money for the ancient Relict artifacts I heard a fence from the pirate station sold to someone there. A Miyelonian trade hub is a place of law and order, where you can’t simply steal an artifact that catches your eye, even if it once did belong to members of my team and had been taken by force. Since that time, the items had traded hands at least three times, so there was no way to prove my right to them now. Well, sure. I'd take a look when I got there. Maybe I'd have some ideas.
For now we had another four ummi in flight, that was approximately twenty-three hours in earthling time. There was no sense in spending so much time hanging around on the bridge, so I left Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov in charge and headed to a spacious room on the second deck, which we had refitted into a common area.
The furniture was a bit sparse to say the least. There was just one flying table held in the middle of the room by gyroscopes on an antigravitational base and, around it, a dozen large and soft cushions on the floor. Today, our frigate was finally all fixed and I gave the crew leave. I had ordered various delicacies from the station restaurant which the chef assured me were edible by most races, along with juices and light alcohol. But the crew, as far as I had seen, was embarrassed for some reason and didn't want to open the boxes on the flying table with the treats and drinks. And instead of passing the time together, my crew for some reason had broken down into several distinct cliques.
The brothers Basha and Vasha Tushihh, as usual in any free time, were neck deep in a game of Na-Tikh-U, moving starship pieces around the glimmering three-dimensional board and not inviting anyone to join. Eduard Boyko and Imran had switched out of their combat armor into tracksuits and, lying down along the walls, alternated between endurance competitions and posing for the mysterious girl Valeri. No, the only other member of the fairer sex in the room was my wayedda Minn-O La-Fin, but I suppose my crew was not feeling suicidal enough to flirt with the captain's wife. Valeri-Urla, meanwhile was whispering with her companion Denni Marko in the corner. I even had to fall back on my psionic abilities to figure out that both of them found it uncomfortable here in this foreign and unfamiliar pirate crew.
The Miyelonians then were grouped up separately and engaged in some strange activity. Ayni, Tini and Orun Va-Mart, their paws and tails held tucked beneath them, were sitting right on the bare metal-ceramic floor and making sounds somewhere between singing and whining. All three of them had their eyes closed and their paws held out and touching. I had no idea what kind of mystery or rite this might be, but still I was afraid to interrupt this ceremony. It might have been important to the Miyelonians.
At the other end of the large room was Avan Toi the Supercargo. He was lying down languidly on a cushion, which was barely visible because of his corpulent body, and carrying on a conversation with Ayukh the Navigator about the situation on the fronts of the great space war. That I discovered thanks to my good Perception alone. I wanted to know more about the topic these Geckho officers were addressing, so I walked up and plopped down next to them, immediately accepting a glass of a light alcoholic cocktail gratefully from the repair bot Kirsan, who was handing out drinks. Only after that, the two Geckho turned to the Mechanoid repair bot and also took a glass each in their large hands.
"Well, what's the news on the war?" I asked, taking a sip of the refreshing beverage. Both Geckho were eager to tell me:
"Captain, the Geckho base on Un-Tesh has fallen, there was a very brief story about it in the news. No details. And we have no idea if it's been captured or destroyed. We also don't know the fate of the Geckho who were there."
"Ayukh, you know as well as I that the Meleyephatians don't take prisoners. It goes against their customs!" the gloomy Supercargo reproached the sheepish Navigator. "Even with their brothers' lives on the line, the Meleyephatians would never trade prisoners and kill all captured enemies."
Alright then, I didn't know that. I'd take into account that there was no reason to surrender to these intelligent spider-like creatures it would mean death no matter what. I guess we were extremely lucky with our last-minute escape from Un-Tesh!
"So that means we’ve traded systems," Avan Toi continued thinking out loud. "The Geckho captured the Meleyephatian base Ursa-II-II, the enemy answered us in kind with the base on Un-Tesh. Just think! So many starships destroyed, so many soldiers dead, and that includes some who will now never respawn. But the political situation is practically unchanged. So, I ask, what exactly were we fighting for? Who wanted this war?"
"You can say that again! Still, I suppose the Miyelonians have gained something," Ayukh pointed his wide clawed hand at our three fluffy crew members, who were still sitting on the floor with their eyes closed and singing. "Their Leng Kissi-Myau, beloved fleet commander, just waited for the Geckho and Meleyephatians to get in a bigger fight, and basically captured two Meleyephatian star systems." 
"You're writing the Geckho off too early!" I came, trying to play on their patriotic feelings and support the flagging conversation about interstellar politics. "Do you really think Kung Waid Shishish’s Second Strike Fleet won't send reinforcements from the central systems? There's just one fleet there, and its badly damaged after the battle."
"Well..." Avan Toi lowered his voice to a whisper, "I have heard rumors to that effect. They say Fleet Commander Kung Waid Shishish has reined in his pride and turned to the capital for reinforcements."
Other crew members started coming up to us. Vasha and Basha finished their games and, dragging some cushions over, plunked down next to us and refused the drinks Kirsan had to offer. The old and wise loader brothers didn't enter the conversation, but they did open one box of treats and offered it to the others. I ended up with a skewer of blue spheres with some sweet juice dripping off them. They weren’t exotic fruits or berries, as you might expect either, but... I really didn’t know what they were. I couldn't even tell if they came from a plant or an animal. Nevertheless they were tasty, so I reached for another.
Our athletes walked up then too, actively discussing protein diets. Neither Eduard nor Imran used alcohol, but they didn't say no to the juices and food. Minn-O La-Fin walked up. My wife looked around, couldn't find any free cushions around and sat on mine, not at all ashamed to push me a bit aside. I didn't argue and moved. The Princess was slowly coming to life after the physical and psychological traumas she had borne in the real world, which made me very glad. Finally she was back to the Minn-O I met first. She was proud, confident in herself and accustomed to a special privileged role in any team.
Successful Perception check!
"Hey, wait! That was mine!" Half a minute earlier, I saw one of the skewers suddenly disappear from the flying table. And now, at the very last moment, I jerked my unfinished skewer away from the invisible, rude thief and the Shadow Panther’s fanged jaws slammed shut on nothing. I gave an accurate bop of my palm on the invisible nose, which clearly made Little Sister confused, because she thought no one could see her. That made her mad, so she became visible and, jerking her tail in dismay, went to complain to her master Valeri about the greedy and inconsiderate captain. I looked at the dangerous predator from behind. A huge panther with luxurious silvery white fur, this animal weighed at least four hundred pounds. And she was fast, deadly, and capable of turning invisible. Little sister could easily kill a person with one swipe of her clawed paw, but I didn't sense any danger from her. To her we were members of the same pack, and thus untouchable. What an awesome and intelligent big creature!
Meanwhile, the conversation about the Geckho going to war with the Meleyephatians gradually shifted to allies. Cleopians, Estitians, Humans, Jargians... I knew only half of the space races the wise Ayukh told me were among the allies of the Geckho. And when he turned to the Meleyephatian horde, I became completely lost. Something about Crystallids, Psio, Dharki, Antians, Dendrians, Tailaxian Humans... Wait! Tailaxians? So Tailax then was a Meleyephatian ally? But we had a Tailaxian on board!
As if sensing that I was thinking about her, Valeri-Urla stopped talking with Denni and raised her huge eyes, which looked more fit for a night creature than an animal. I asked her to come closer and she didn’t come alone. Her companion Denni Marko, who the system said belonged to the Gilvar Syndicate Faction, came too. Okay then, all the better. I extended the panther's master a whole box of the juicy blue spheres her pet just attempted to steal asked both new crew members to tell me about them.
"Why you that needing want, Gnat?" Denni, as always, was unfriendly and surly. And his proficiency in Geckho had not improved. "We in you team, yes. We is to do you order, that is more than enough to be enough."
I just shrugged my shoulders indefinitely. So, how could I explain my interest to these members of other human factions?
"I have just fifteen human crew members on this frigate, including myself. That is a very small number. As captain, I want my small team to come together. I want us to understand, trust and help one another. I want us to be connected not merely by a formal work relationship. I wouldn’t say I want us to be one big family, that’s too much. But I still don't want us to be complete strangers."
Psionic skill increased to level seventy-three!
I didn't manage it without a bit of magic. A few of the crew members were just too hard to get through to. But I did what I set out to do, and that was what mattered.
"Okay then, why is not to talking you?" Denni stopped being foolishly stubborn and, walking over to get cushions for himself and his beautiful companion, started talking. Before that, hoping greatly that I wouldn't offend Denni by doing so, I asked Kirsan to hand him the universal translator. That made the Bodyguard's speech smooth and comprehensible:
"Denni Marko. Born on Farunji, the largest planet of the Gilvar Syndicate. I graduated from a military school in the same place. I fought in the Ninth Syndicate war, and got honorably discharged after an injury. Then I worked in the Quarantine Service for a long time. Our mission was to safeguard the primordial planet ζ-Reaper from black-marketeers, slavers and headhunters. And that was where I met Valeri. She first showed up on the Quarantine Surface radar as an unauthorized visitor,” he said, pointing to his companion. "Just one glance at her was enough to see her Tailaxian origin, and Tailax was a hundred parsecs from Zeta Reaper. What was more, Valeri had strange abilities. She was unafraid to be surrounded by deadly animals, healed monsters and rode them, even though the sky. But most importantly, she carried a blaster. And that was on a primordial planet, where the upper limit of technology was supposed to be bronze blades."
Valeri laughed happily, and her sonorous laughter seemed like the peal of silver bells:
"I never did suspect that I was being tracked from orbit though, or that someone would think me strange! I was just living, hunting and surviving as best I could. I was kidnapped by slavers, but I escaped, taking weapons from flying people. Then a shuttle came down from the sky and my sister and I were taken for study. But seemingly I disappointed the observers."
"Yes, that's true," Denny confirmed. "All the strange things had completely normal explanations. Valeri's mother, a Tailaxian, came to the wild planet as part of a group of missionaries. Her father was a native that kidnapped her, but he was long dead by the time we found Valeri. We took the blaster. The slaver and black-market trade base was already abandoned. We discovered that she had psionic abilities, but nothing more. Basically, to the Quarantine Service neither Valeri or her relatives were of any interest. We helped her mother and younger sister go back to Tailax, and Valeri-Urla wanted to stay on her home planet. We stopped watching the little hunter. But just half a year later, I happen to find out that a girl named Valeri-Urla had been accused of murder and would soon be executed. I intervened, and my authority as a Quarantine Service employee was enough to get her transferred to a Tailaxian court."
"The Urla in my name means 'hunter,'" she explained in an even tone, as if this wasn't even about her. "Hunters do not have the right to kill people, it is punishable by death. I broke the law by setting Little Sister against some creep who was following me and threatening me with rape. Denni saved me from the gallows. I was brought by starship to Tailax, and once there sentenced to three tongs in the game that bends reality. As I requested, Little Sister was placed in my virt pod with me. She would never leave my side anyway. Then Denni met me in the projection of Tailax in the game world. Ever since we've been travelling together."
This game was a method of punishing criminals? Although why was that surprising? I myself had been sent under the Dome as an alternative to prison. Overall, that was very intriguing, but I was most interested in Tailax and the Gilvar Syndicate. I asked about these two factions in the game that bends reality. Denny answered, but quickly admitted that he was a simple man and didn’t know much:
"The Gilvar Syndicate is a commonwealth of eight densely-populated and highly-developed human planets. In the game they are all vassals of the Meleyephatian race. I know less about Tailax. It is a very closed society both in the game and the real world."
"A highly developed society, led by religious figures," Valeri-Urla continued. "It is also part of the Meleyephatian horde, but as a nearly independent state whose policies don't always align with those of their suzerains. Tailax is considered a leader among human governments in microelectronics and applied psionics. It's hard to get onto Tailax, they do not welcome outsiders. And they don't let their own leave either. The body of every Tailaxian citizen contains so many cleverly hidden bugs of all kinds that finding them all is considered impossible. And Tailaxian intelligence services can use them to always keep their citizens in line no matter where they are. In the game, my overseers gather information about the world through these devices, and sometimes use painful shocks and commands in my head to correct my behavior if there's something they don't like. They usually don't care where I am or what I'm doing. But recently, I was ordered to get onto the frigate of Gnat the Listener. Something in your gameplay, Captain, has the Tailaxians interested."
"You were asked to spy on us, and now you're telling us calmly?!" Eduard Boyko objected.
Despite the Space Commando’s outraged tone, full of judgement, Valeri was absolutely calm:
"We're in a hyperjump. There is no signal here, so my devices can’t see what I’m saying. I figured better I tell you myself before Gerd Gnat reads it in my thoughts."
I activated Scanning, zoomed in on the result, took a look and gave a whistle in surprise. Yep. Valeri was speaking the truth. I detected at least eight miniature foreign objects in the Beastmaster's body. Two were in her head, one of which was very deep in her brain. Three were in her neck. One was in her left shoulder blade. One was in her right lung. Another was inside her heart the millimeter-sized capsule was stuck to the wall of her right atrium and could stop her heart at any second. Clearly, this was a little bomb her jailers could control, a guarantee that she would remain loyal and obedient. Most likely, Valeri had more implants lower in her body, but I didn't keep looking because I'd seen enough. By the way...
 "Valeri, that means that I can get messages to Tailax through you quickly? But that's very important! Imran, leave the game and tell that to our directors. They've been looking for a way to get in touch with the other human factions scattered throughout space. I think we've just found one!"
The Dagestani athlete didn't even leave to his bunk, just sat on the floor in the common room and froze when his mind left his game body. We then kept talking. In my turn, I gave a fairly brief retelling of my story to our new crew and introduced the rest of my team. The Miyelonians walked over, their ritual over and immediately threw themselves on the snacks and alcohol with fury. And Uline Tar, thirsty for interaction, left her bunk. Then Imran came back into the game and got up off the floor. He was looking dejected.
"Well, did you tell Lozovsky about Valeri?" I asked, but the Dagestani Gladiator seemingly didn't hear me.
With a heavy sigh and taking a bit of air into his lungs, Imran squeezed out:
"There's a siren wailing under the Dome, I didn't see any players. There's a message being repeated over the loudspeakers from Alexander Antipov that the Dark Faction has attacked and we are now in CTA (Call to arms). WAR!"

Chapter Two. Unrelenting Hospitality

Naturally, given that, we could no longer even think of staying long at Kasti-Utsh III. We’d calculate coordinates for a new hyperspace jump, this time to Earth itself, recharge if necessary and off we would go to aid the Human-3 Faction! Otherwise soon enough Captain Gnat would be logging out permanently alongside a third of his crew. And there would be issues with piloting the frigate, because none of the remaining crew members would have piloting skills, and many systems were directly controlled by the captain.
None of the crew objected. Perhaps my business partner Uline Tar had her own nonconforming opinion, but if she did, she kept it to herself. Minn-O also immediately stated her position that after our marriage and the death of her grandfather, there was no longer anything to connect her with her old faction. What was more, having a mage husband was the princess's only remaining chance to survive in the hostile magocratic world. If Gnat was no more, Minn-O La-Fin would very quickly die "on accident" because she stood in the way of too many dangerous predators, who were currently drooling over the riches of the La-Fin family. I could read unhidden panic in my junior wife’s tone, and I assured my wayedda that it was too early to count me out. I would not allow the H3 faction to be destroyed. I was not going to force the Princess to fight against her subjects, but the mere fact that Minn-O would not be interfering and telling the enemy our plans was nice.
And although we still had a day before things would really heat up, the rest of the party was subdued because no one was in the mood to celebrate anymore. Those who were in the mood quickly finished their cocktails and the open boxes of fine food then left, some to their bunks, some on shift. The Miyelonians just went into the real world.
I called the white Kirsan over, who I considered the most senior of the three Mechanics, and finally gave the repair bot my Annihilator. Previously we lacked either the materials or time to modify my weapon and there was little reason to increase the Annihilator's firepower. It could already shred through any barrier and chew enemies into huge hunks of flesh. But increasing its accurate fire range seemed necessary because now I couldn't hit anything farther away than twenty or thirty feet. And increasing the battery capacity or even adding a special firing mode with more conservative power use wouldn't hurt. Now, a nuclear battery on full charge was good for thirty shots at most and, if I considered that I had my last one in the gun now, that didn't paint a pretty picture. Buying an extra battery was a real problem. There were very few on the market and batteries for guns and Relict artifacts were not exactly available on every station. And they cost way too much. I was no Croesus nor Count of Monte Cristo to be using weapons that cost two hundred crystals per shot.
"Ideally, change it away from the disposable nuclear batteries to ones that we can recharge from the ship’s energy systems," I kept dreaming and Kirsan looked attentively at me with his faceted eyes. And the repair bot was actively moving his many little hands both to say how long it would take and trying to get a thought across: "That might be a tall order, captain, but I’ll see what I can do." 
The huge metal millipede stashed the invaluable weapon in its chest cavity and crawled nimbly off toward the supply room. Before then I never suspected that the repair bots' chest pieces could move aside to reveal a storage compartment. For some reason I instantly realized that three electromagnetic bombs could easily fit into such a space, and the thin and flexible millipede could get into even the hardest to reach places on the starship including the service areas behind the hyperspace drives. The white Kirsan's chest cavity was empty before he put the Annihilator in there. But the scan I ran showed that the other two millipedes had something in theirs. Some kind of metal pieces or patches. I couldn't see better, so I would have to check what my Mechanics were hiding in these secret safes when I got the chance.
At the same time, I checked up on the other two repair bots through the security cameras. One of them was lying out the pieces of the destroyed relict combat drone on the floor of an empty room, thoughtfully crawling between them and, one after the next, lifting them up and carefully inspecting them with its many mechanical eyes. Apparently, repairing the Relict Small Guard Drone was going to be very complicated, and I had no reason to distract Kirsan.
The last of the metal millipedes was turning something over very quickly in its jointed hands, spinning and twisting the object every which way as if solving a Rubik's Cube. With a certain surprise, I realized that it was the Pyramid Signal Booster, although it didn’t look quite as disk shaped as before. In fact, I noticed that it was an articulated fractal construction, more reminiscent of a three-dimensional asymmetrical snowflake. Yeah, that was it. I had given the ancient artifact to my Mechanics so they could remove the "only for Relicts" limitation. Clearly, the mechanoid repair bot had figured out this seemingly one-piece device could fold out and had unfolded it as a step in the repair.
I took over for Dmitry Zheltov on the bridge and sent the Starship Pilot to get some rest. The frigate was on autopilot going through a hyperspace jump, so there wasn't much work to be done on the bridge. If nothing extraordinary happened, this would be a long boring shift of around an ummi and a half, after which Ayukh would take over for me. Still, I wasn't going to just sit around for eight hours, as some may have thought. In fact, I was planning to use that time to maximum effect, levelling Gnat's skills as much as possible, above all those connected with psionics and machine control. After all, when would I get a better chance to test out taking direct control of the various frigate systems?! With the whole crew resting, they wouldn’t even notice. I could also afford to bring Astrolinguistics up a bit. Sure I was understanding Relict glyphs better all the time, but some of the messages from my Listener Energy Armor were still indecipherable.
So then, how was my little Gnat doing for abilities? What should I improve first? I opened my character information:
Gerd Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Level-74 Listener
23 + +5
27 + 2
Luck modifier
1612 of 1612
Endurance points
1008 of 1209
Magic points
759 of 899
Carrying capacity
62 lbs.
Medium Armor
Eagle Eye
Danger Sense
Mental Fortitude
Machine Control

My firearm skills were noticeably lagging behind. To have Rifles at just 51 and Sharpshooter at 34, with my character at level seventy-four was not even funny. As far as I'd heard from the First Legion, it was considered standard to have one's main combat skills one point five times higher than your level. Targeting was even further behind, even though discovering and highlighting targets for others to shoot was Gnat's only effective method of long-distance combat.
Sure, here I had the excuse that I had changed class now, and a Listener was more a mage that knew how to control machines than a classic shooter or scout pointing out targets. But that did nothing about the worrisome fact that Gnat hadn't been to the firing range in a long time and had left that part of his development in the dust. As for my psionic abilities, things were looking a bit better, but still not exactly one point five times over character level, so I had plenty of work to do there as well.
But still I started with Scanning. I gave a mental command, activating the ship scanners and requested a complete picture of everything happening outside my frigate. I had no idea what I could get from scanning in a hyperjump, or if scanners even worked like this, but the mental command worked. The computer froze for a long time, trying to interpret the clearly unusual feedback, then it brought up some long parallel stripes and something strange a spot of light that was quickly going away. A second later, some words came on screen in Geckho:
Gravitational anomaly. Class SA-113/FF
At the same time, my heart clenched in pain and foreboding. I was at serious risk. I felt a prick as if a needle got stuck all the way in my heart. It felt like I was squeezed in a vice for a few painful seconds, then the feeling gradually retreated, leaving me sitting in the pilot's seat and reading a flurry of messages with my eyes open wide in fear. Apparently there had been some problems with the ship:
ATTENTION!!! Gravitational scanner has gone out of order!
ATTENTION!!! Short-wave radar has gone out of order!
ATTENTION!!! Neutrino scanner has gone out of order!
In parallel with this, I saw many messages run past about changes in Gnat's statistics: 
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-six!
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-seven!
Electronics skill increased to level sixty-two!
Danger Sense skill increased to level forty-nine!
Machine Control skill increased to level sixty-seven!
You have reached level seventy-five!
You have received three skill points.
If I had been out fishing, the closest analogy to this would be a bite from an especially huge knocked me off balance, broke the line and left with my tackle. What even was that??? After a second's delay, I decided not to turn on the all-hands-on-deck alarm, just calling Ayukh and Dmitry Zheltov. But first to come on the bridge was my Wayedda Minn-O, running in panicked:
"Gnat, what happened? I was jolted from sleep as if someone poured a bucket of cold water on me! My Danger Sense jumped up by two points at once!"
Ayukh the Navigator then pushed her out of the doorway and paced quickly into the control room looking disheveled. He had also been awoken from his slumber. Behind him was the Starship Pilot and Uline Tar for some reason. I pointed the crew to the system malfunction messages on screen and briefly explained what caused them.
The furry gray Navigator stroked his nose with a clawed paw in thought:
"I don't understand, Gerd Gnat. Why did you have to run a scan in a hyperjump? Here in hyper, everything flickers by so fast that the scanner pulse never reaches the faster-than-light-speed ship! Even a child knows that!"
It looked like my abilities as a captain had seriously fallen in the Navigator's eyes. In response I just shrugged my shoulders indefinitely, then made the same motion in Geckho body language, jutting out my lower lip and rolling my eyes. What could I have said in my defense? That I didn't know it was pointless to scan in hyper? But it worked!
After another half minute of grumbling, the Navigator took his seat and opened the stellar object classification system. Ayukh, like all the others, was looking for the “Anomalies” section. The object we had scanned was found in the category "Rare, unconfirmed:"
SA-113/FF class anomalies move in hyperspace at faster-than-light speeds. They have very high mass on their own, similar to that of planetary moons class 3B and higher. Much information about this anomaly is conjecture. It has been clearly detected just once two hundred eleven tongs ago in the star system 5С-678/PP by a Meleyephatian scout research ship. They are thought to correspond to ships of Supercarrier or Titan class. But in that starships of super-heavy classes have not been built by the great space races for more than three hundred tongs, and the few remaining ones have long been scuttled, the most probable explanation is that this is the signature of a starship of an unknown race. ATTENTION! These objects have reacted very negatively to detection, and destroyed the research vessel that detected it.
Woah! How lucky we apparently were that this contact with hot-headed unknown aliens had merely taken a few scanning systems offline. We could easily replace the burnt-out systems. As far as I could tell from my captain's tablet, all necessary parts were already in my storage. After some six or seven hours work for the repair bots, all negative consequences of meeting this space freak would be over with. But I couldn't get rid of the feeling that this encounter was not random, and I would have to find out more about this mysterious object despite its clear danger and unsociability.
As if that was all! The last time such a thing had been seen was more than seven hundred years ago. If I could detect what this mysterious ship was and where it was based, even the coordinates of a base of an unknown race could be sold to interested parties for lots of money, immediately solving my financial issues. And if I could be the first to reach that place and find some unique artifacts... I mentally bopped myself for counting my chickens before they'd hatched.
"Ayukh, is there any way to tell where the anomaly came from and where it was going?"
The experienced navigator spent a long time immersed in calculations after which he turned toward me, his furry face impossibly surprised:
"As strange as it seems, yes captain! We spent enough time at a short distance from one another, insofar as directionality and distances even mean anything in this warped hyperspace. So we have a few markers from our locators, that we can use to estimate a trajectory. The object was headed for star system B7670/MP, that's another arm of the galaxy altogether. At our current level of technology, it would take more than a lifetime to reach. But it started from much nearer by, although it would also be quite a long journey: two tongs minimum not counting time to stop and recharge energy. The Aysar Cluster. Hmm. That system must be noteworthy for some reason, seeing how they named it instead of just giving a number. "
"The Aysar Cluster? Where even is that?" I asked, and Ayukh obediently zoomed the star map out, pointing at a point far past Meleyephatian territory outside of known space.
I had to admit, I was baffled. Then why was there a name for this place, if the star was many hundreds of parsecs from the area known by the great space races? After I asked, the Navigator opened a detailed guide and read aloud:
The Aysar Cluster. Triple star. 3B orange dwarf, two satellites of type 7D and 11F. Six uninhabited planets. This star system became famous after one of the largest space battles in the history of the Universe took place in it 2.3 tongs ago*. Current sovereignty: Swarm.
*Note: all sources are secondhand and require further investigation.
The Swarm? What was this Swarm? And who was battling who in that distant star system? Unfortunately, there was no more detailed information in the database. The old Ayukh, although he had worked as a Navigator his whole life and knew the star maps and space races like the back of his hand, didn't know either.
In the end, we didn't find anything of use both the start and end point of the mysterious space oddity's route were so far away from anywhere we could get to that we had no way to use this information or reach the places it pointed to. Nevertheless, I asked the Navigator and everyone else there to keep that information a secret.
But I was not allowed to sit and study in calm. Ayukh was sitting at the navigator's panel, calculating the potential risk and profit from various trade routes. My business partner was still nourishing the hope that we could work our way back up to a decent reputation and be rid of the black spot of piracy. Following the Trader's idea, right after the end of the war on earth we would have to take a few journeys transporting in-demand freight to distant colonies that weren’t too squeamish about what kind of traders visited them. A few successful journeys and the clients' would stop being so worried. Then our infamous reputation would be washed away. I didn't interfere in their conversation and especially didn't argue, even though something was telling me that, with my restless character and ability to get myself into trouble, it wasn’t going to be all that easy to wash out the black spot of piracy!
"Exit jump in ninety seconds!" the Starship Pilot informed me, concentrated and impossibly distinguished.
"I confirm that there is enough energy in our drives for a hyperjump to Earth," the voice of our Miyelonian Engineer, Orun Va-Mart rang out over the loudspeaker. He was now in the engine room.
"Well then, Dmmmitry, I see no reason to dock. Ask the dispatchers for an acceleration lane! Vector 114:37:22, distance 4.3 units, I've still got it on my palmtop," the old Navigator back from the crew of the Shiamiru shuttle had flown to Earth from Kasti-Utsh III a few times before so he had no reason to do all the calculations again.
It was good that there was enough power and we could go help the faction right away. As it was, Imran and Eduard were going under the Dome then back into the game regularly and, every time, they had worse and worse news. The Rainforest node had fallen. What was more, the Dark Faction had managed to reinforce in that territory, having landed three waves of marines numbering just under one and a half thousand soldiers via Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav. And by sea on a Geckho ferry, the enemy brought heavy armor and rocket artillery to the Rainforest node. And so the Dark Faction had formed a strike force that threatened our whole territory from the undefended south. It was a critical situation. I had no idea where our directors would find enough soldiers to fight on two fronts at once.
But that wasn't all the bad news. We had confirmation of the seemingly impossible fact that the German capital node was lost. And now enemy had captured the island and sent assault groups from there to our whole coastline. We lost our southernmost Tropics node without a fight. Our fifty players, all in peaceful professions, had no chance to withstand an enemy that surpassed them by many times. So on an order from Lozovsky, they retreated through a neutral and severely boggy node to the allied German faction. And now everyone understood perfectly that three hundred H6 players, even reinforced by the centaurs and our fifty builders, had no chance of holding out in a serious attack. The fate of the H6 faction was literally hanging by a thread.
All our hopes rested on my starship getting there as fast as possible. Whether the nice way, negotiating as General Ui-Taka suggested, or the mean way by ruthless orbital bombardment, either way I was intending to stop this bloody war. It would take nine hours to fly from Kasti-Utsh III to Earth. My faction could definitely survive that long, even if it came at the cost of a few territories. But I was much less sure that my badly beaten allies could last for nine hours.
But then, finally, we came out of hyperspace! The local station was not a colossal spindle, but a basically flat metal plate five miles in diameter. And unlike the Medu-Ro IV pirate station, it didn't just have one way into dock but many around the whole perimeter, which was very convenient. There was so much action here! There were thousands and thousands of starships, all of Miyelonian design.
When Ayukh suddenly fell into silent agitation, I didn’t know what was going on at first. In fact, Uline Tar came on the bridge and wasn't her usual talkative self either. Also Ayni the translator, who we invited in case the station dispatchers said any complicated or incomprehensible terms, had crawled down off her seat and was trying to sneak out of the room. Even our Dmitry Zheltov went gray in the face and turned unconfidently toward me in hopes of an explanation, or perhaps also further instructions. What was wrong? Then it hit me: here among the thousands of ships there wasn't a single noncombat starship! Only combat frigates, battleships, carriers and landing ships! We had stumbled upon the Miyelonian fleet!
In the midst of the Miyelonian armada, our little Meleyephatian frigate looked like some unfortunate soul that wandered into the wrong neighborhood. I wasn't the only one who thought so either. The instruments were showing that we were being subjected to active scanning and study. And why not? I was a free and neutral captain. I hadn't done anything bad to the Miyelonians, so I had the complete right to be here at the popular trade station. Finally, the monitor lit up, and a young fluffy Miyelonian dispatcher asked:
"Free Captain Gerd Gnat, what is the purpose of your visit to Kasti-Utsh III?"
Purpose of visit? I honestly told the kind Miyelonian lady that I was not planning to stay here or even dock my ship. Kasti-Utsh III was only a midway point on my route and now I needed a free lane to accelerate for my next hyperjump.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible, Gerd Gnat," the cat on the screen bared its teeth predatorily and pushed down its ears, immediately losing its sweet demeanor. "The station and surrounding space are on temporary military lockdown. No starship may use long-distance communication or leave the station for the next five standard days. Such is the order of Commander Leng Kissi-Myau. So welcome to Kasti-Utsh III, Gerd Gnat!"

Chapter Three. Kasti-Utsh III

Five days??? But everything would be over by then! Vexed, I tore the ceramoplastic headphones off my head and threw them full force at the wall, smashing the fragile item into smithereens. Nevertheless, I had no choice, I had to obey the demands of the dispatchers and bring my ship into dock. What was more, there were Miyelonian interceptors spinning tight circles around my frigate, showing that we would simply not be allowed to leave.
They did not need my help to translate. The dispatchers spoke Geckho perfectly and our Starship Pilot could directly understand their commands. I ordered Dmitry Zheltov to handle the maneuvers by himself, and headed into my bunk. I was wound up and clearly that could be felt, because as I moved through the corridors the members of the team pressed themselves into the wall in fear and lowered their eyes.
"Tini!" I called my ward and a few seconds later the little Miyelonian thief was standing in my bunk. "Go into the real world right now. Get in touch with the Great Priestess Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo and explain the situation to her. We cannot spend five days sitting around here, we have business that cannot wait!"
The kitten nodded understandingly and hurried to do as I said. But before the door closed behind the Miyelonian, I saw Valeri-Urla coming in. Clearly, something important must have happened, because the usually tight-lipped and embarrassed Tailaxian girl came to talk with the captain on her own.
I invited her in with a gesture and sat in a big comfortable chair. The huge flying armchair was made for a Geckho and I had ordered it for my bunk on Medu-Ro IV to replace the woven Meleyephatian constructions that were here before. They were just too weird. The Beastmaster agreed to come in, but insisted that I lock the door first because this was going to be a somewhat delicate conversation.
"Captain, Denni is planning to desert!" The Tailaxian blew up as soon as I'd locked the door. "And he keeps telling me to do the same! He says we should go to the station together, move our respawn points to somewhere in a green zone then leave the game for five days so you can fly off to defend your homeworld."
"But... why?" the news really did shock me. It was not nice to find out that someone wanted to desert from my crew. What was more, Denni Marko was the only one who knew how to control the ship's laser turrets. Without him, the star frigate lost all its death dealing ability, becoming nothing more than an advanced artillery targeting system in the war against the Dark Faction. "And why desert when you signed a contract for five voyages?! No captain would ever take you on again, it's against the rules!"
Valeri ignored the question of why, but she answered the second question, getting straight to the point:
"Denni has taken all precautions, even left to the real world to consult with some friends who specialize in space law. He wants to appeal to the labor commission that he didn't know all the conditions of the contract when he signed on. He says he thought he was being hired to work as a Bodyguard as usual. Instead, he was brought onto a pirate ship be used as a Gunner to commit genocide and destroy members of his own human race from outer space. In such conditions, the labor commission usually annuls contracts, especially given that there was no advance paid."
Okay... But what could I do here? I could, of course, tell the potential deserter he was not allowed to leave the ship and place guards at the airlock. I could even lock Denni in his bunk for a few days and say he couldn't leave. But after that, once we were in battle in Earth’s orbit, the angered gunner would just keep missing for as a way of expressing anger at his despotic captain. And really, did I even want a soldier I’d have to force to fight? No, threats and pressure alone were no way of dealing with this. What was more, before doing anything about it, I wanted to find out Denni's companion's position:
"Your jailers would probably require you to stay on the station then, yes? Nevertheless, Tailax is part of the Meleyephatian horde and I’m sure they would like to observe the enemy fleet."
Valeri-Urla looked ashamed. Clearly discussing espionage was not too pleasant for her, but she still answered eventually:
"Weirdly no. I was surprised myself, but orders haven’t changed and they still want me to stay with the Listener. And there's the problem: Denni doesn't want to let me go and insists I leave the frigate with him. We've been together for many years now, and I got used to having such a partner. From time to time he acts rude and even unbearable, sometimes he gets jealous, but overall he's reliable and well-behaved. I'd never want to leave him alone here on the station."
Well, well! I finally figured out how I should act. If Valeri wanted to stay with me, it wouldn't be too hard to convince her companion: 
"Tell Denni he's making a big mistake. Maybe his plan of desertion could work on a Geckho or Meleyephatian station, but not here, not on a Miyelonian station. You see, I am personal friends with the Great Priestess of the Miyelonian race and have even done her a favor. Actually, what am I telling you for?! You were on Medu-Ro IV when I was arrested on charges of killing Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo, then found not guilty and set free! What was more, I know the leaders of a few influential prides, have proven myself a reliable partner and earned their trust. So I have a certain Fame and Authority among the Miyelonians. The labor commission will have doubts about Denni's story. He will be subjected to Truth Seeker checking, and that is a very unpleasant procedure. The lie will be revealed, Denni will be arrested. What's more, you'll also be checked and that will be sure to reveal the fact that you are spying for the enemy. Is that what you want, Valeri?"
Psionic skill increased to level seventy-four!
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level fifty-six!
The pop-up messages confirmed that I managed to be convincing, and my reasoning had its desired effect. But suddenly she got on guard, pressed her left-hand fingers to her forehead and frowned in dismay:
 "Gerd Gnat, you might have said all that without using magic. I don't like when people try to manipulate me! You can't dig in my brains without me noticing, plus I'm much more experienced and powerful in psionics! It was awfully arrogant on your part to attack me like that!"
By the end of her sentence, the Beastmaster was so angered that she had basically started to scream. The Tailaxian girl was clearly angry. Now she simply would not listen when I said it was all on accident. Valeri clenched her right fist around the green stone pendant around her neck, took a deep sigh and looked me decisively right in the eyes. Seemingly, she'd thrown down the gauntlet.
I didn't turn my head, and our gazes met. I saw a reflection of the blue luster of my eyes in her huge hazel eyes. I started feeling pressure as if I was struggling to pierce through a particularly resilient piece of rubber. My thoughts grew viscous and stopped making any sense. And suddenly, I could hear distinct words in my head:
"Why is this so hard? I'm twenty-three levels above Gnat. And I have more mana, endurance points and experience in mental duels. Is Gnat wearing some kind of thought-blocking artifact? No, I would be able to sense that. I need to just keep pushing and not break eye contact. But he has such pretty eyes! Like blue shimmering ice. I've never seen eyes like that. You could drown in them like a mountain lake. I just want to swim and swim in that deep blue and forget about everything on earth. It's simply bliss! I wonder if Minn-O is Gnat's only wife? I've overheard the crew calling her a ‘junior wife.’ Does that mean he has a senior one as well? Probably. Too bad if that’s true. He's a pretty cool guy. He hasn't been in the game long, and he's already a Gerd with his own starship, plus he knows some very powerful Miyelonians. They also say Gnat is the only Listener in the game. I see why Denni's going so nuts and trying to desert the starship. He's jealous. He knows that he looks quite dull compared to the brilliant Gerd Gnat. So, what's happening? I'm running out of mana! But how?! Why?! I need to look away!!! Otherwise Gnat will be able to read my thoughts! What is this??? He's not letting me go!"
A wave of fully real panic rolled over me. I couldn't say exactly how, but I stopped Valeri from breaking the mental contact. The girl was trying to look away in desperation or close her eyes, but she just couldn't. Finally, a clear thought formed in my head:
Gnat, I know you can hear me. I admit, I lost the duel. Let me go, please!
With immense strain, I turned my head away, breaking eye contact. My arms were shivering, blood was dripping out of my nose. I even had to lean on the wall as not to fall over. My mana was down to zero. The last moments of the mental duel had been taking up Endurance Points instead of Magic Points. Nevertheless, I won!!! And the system sent some messages to congratulate me:
Psionic skill increased to level seventy-five!
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level fifty-seven!
Authority increased to 51!
Valeri-Urla, red as a boiled lobster, was sitting in a flying chair with her hands covering her face:
"Gerd Gnat, forgive me. Oh gods, I'm so ashamed! At least tell me when you started being able to read me?"
"I first heard something unclear like 'Denni is jealous,' then about looking dull and after that some easily readable thoughts about mana running out," I lied, wanting not to embarrass her or reveal my true powers.
The Beastmaster gave a noticeably freer sigh and even smiled a tortured smile:
"Okay then, I'll take it as a lesson. Alright, Gerd Captain. I'll have a talk with Denni Marko. I promise he won't desert and will stay on the ship until the end of the contract. As will."
The dark-haired flexible girl with luxurious coal black hair braided into a plait that went to her belt, jumped off the chair and headed for the door. What was more, Little Sister had been scratching outside for some time, asking to be let inside. In the very doorway, the Beast Master stopped sharply and turned around:
"Captain, I will challenge you to a rematch one day, when I think I'm ready. It means a lot to me. After all, I am a proud Great Huntress," Valeri pointed at the three wavy lines tattooed on her cheek, "and in the traditions of my people I cannot be kidnapped, bought or taken by force. I bow to no one: not to chieftains, or shamans, wise men, or rich ones. I will only ever submit to one person in my life, and I must first deem them worthy. Could that be you, captain?"
And conversely, as soon as the doors closed behind her, Tini the kitten flew into my room after returning to the game:
"Master, I was not able to carry out your order. The living incarnation of the Great First Female Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo refused to overrule the order of Commander Leng Kissi-Myau, who is equal to her in power and might. She said: 'My friend Kissi is somewhere on the station, deal with her yourself.'"
The Miyelonian teen was down in the dumps after failing such an important mission. I walked over to Tini. His hair was standing on end, and his ears were pressed back. So, wanting to reassure my ward, I gave him a tender pat on the nape and said:
"Don't worry. Somehow I knew I’d have to visit this station. Okay then, I guess we’ll have to look for the great commander on a huge station teeming with Miyelonian military. Get the crew together in the hall. I'll speak with them and select the ones who will be coming with me."
Airlock fourteen, parking place 567, just about in the very center of the huge disk-shaped station. For a whole hour, gravity cranes dragged our starship at an impossibly slow pace down a two-and-a-half-mile-long corridor before unhurriedly turning it and, literally centimeter by centimeter, placing it in the tiny hangar which looked to have been intended for starships of a somewhat smaller class. It was such a tight squeeze that I worried my Tolili-Ukh X modular frigate might have its armor panels scratched or its short arrow-shaped wings broken. I even asked the wise Ayukh who would pay for repair in that case.
But thankfully it was not necessary. Still, when I left the ship to see the results of the parking job, I still couldn't hold back a select word the sharply pointed nose tip of the frigate was less than half an inch from the coarse back wall. And the tips of the stabilizer wings had anywhere from six to eight inches play off the hangar walls. What a pinch, jeeze... 
Nevertheless, I had to admit that we got very lucky that the dispatchers of the Kasti-Utsh III station even found a free hangar for our frigate given the huge Miyelonian fleet stationed here. And otherwise we'd have to spend the five days just sitting in space without the right to turn on our engines or use comms systems. I suspected that the slightly different proportions of Miyelonian ships narrower and more elongated in comparison with the triangular Meleyephatian ones would have kept any of them from fitting into this small hangar, and that was why we got it.
I entered the common room, where all Team Gnat was already waiting. Human and alien faces were staring at me in anticipation, the whole crew understood the seriousness of the situation. We had no reason to hide that the war on Earth was going very poorly for our faction. Imran had just come back from the Dome with the alarming news that the Tropics node had been abandoned by defenders and fallen. The Dark Faction was building on their drive south, acquiring more and more new territory, had forced their way quickly through the swampy forest of the two coastal nodes and already reached the border with the German Human-6 Faction. Although the attack was utterly expectable and even inevitable, neither my faction nor H6 had the forces to repel it or influence the situation in any way.
Still, I couldn't say that the H3 faction was just sitting with its arms folded and waiting for the end. We regularly attempted counterattacks, but none had been successful. Once we attempted to launch an offensive from the Capital node toward the Graveyard to test the enemy's defenses and tie up some of their reserves. But that attack drowned in blood. It was as if they knew in advance. The First Legion fell under dense crossfire and were all sent to simultaneous respawn.
Imran also told us about heavy battles at the juncture of the Centaur Plateau and Rainforest nodes, but from his words I couldn't understand who attacked who. Imran also told us about the movement and successful deployment of rocket launcher batteries on that section of the front, so most likely we were the aggressors there. My Dagestani friend also said that, on the southern part of the front, we had shot down an enemy Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav. And he had some strange information about the head of our faction Gerd Ivan Lozovsky. Apparently just after returning from Moscow and entering the game, he transferred leadership of the defense to his deputies then got in a Peresvet with a group of trusted First Legion soldiers and went on the Geckho ferry to an unknown location.
Basically, the war was really heating up. My faction was resisting with all its might, but it wasn't enough at all defensive sectors.
"Captain, I spoke with other team members and here's what I want to suggest..." Uline Tar stepped forward, drawing my attention. "There's still time for you, Immmran, Dmmmitry and Eduarrrd to change faction. Go find some fixers here on the Kasti-Utsh III station who provide such services. Sure it'll cost you, something like five crypto a head, but you have that kind of money. If you don't, I can loan you some. And in five days, you just leave your virt pods in the real world on a Miyelonian station."
"Yes captain. Why risk your lives?" Vasha Tushihh supported my business partner.
Seeing dismay on my face, Avan Toi walked forward.
"Don't be angry captain, it was my idea. No one is talking about deserting, and certainly not treason or betrayal. In five days, when the state of emergency here on Kasti-Utsh III is called, you can go to the war and help your faction. You can even go back to your friends if your Leng agrees to it. We're just suggesting some insurance just in case everything goes wrong."
Everything in their suggestion to take insurance and temporarily change faction sounded logical. But it was just... somehow wrong or something... and my soul was categorically opposed.
"Friends, thank you for caring about me, but I'm afraid I have to say no. And not least of all because a frigate that formally belongs to a Miyelonian faction might not be allowed into the Geckho's exclusive territory. There's a bigger issue. After all, I am not just your captain, I am a famous and high-profile player in my faction. My factionmates are fighting heroically against a strong and clever enemy. Yes they are retreating, but they're fighting for every rock, ever foot of territory. They're expecting support from space, they have placed their hopes in me. And now if, instead of the long-awaited help, it leaks that Gerd Gnat and his crew deserted the faction..." I shook my head in doubt. "No matter the noble intentions behind such a step, it will be taken too negatively and be a serious blow to our soldiers' morale. So I will remain with my faction to the end and am willing to share their fate!"
Authority increased to 52!
Now that I'd answered the crew, I had to get back to the main mission: somehow find the commander of the Miyelonian fleet on this huge station and get an audience with her. Leng Kissi-Myau isn't exactly a needle in a haystack, she shouldn't be hard to find. But just think how easily I could find such a needle with my Scanning abilities! Here on the Kasti-Utsh III station there were two technical floors, docks and two residential floors. One hundred square miles of corridors and rooms! It was twice as large as Paris in area! What was more, there were thousands and thousands of Miyelonian soldiers here now, which caused problems of its own. Ayni had already warned me that the Miyelonian predilection for dueling, which I first encountered on the Medu-Ro IV pirate station, was especially widespread among the military.
So, a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: if I wanted to get through the Miyelonian military filling the station, I shouldn’t take any fighters. I could only take crew members these cantankerous tomcats would have no desire to fight with, whether because it violated their mores or they’d think it was too easy. For example, I had Ayukh or Avan Toi. Sure, not a bad idea! The old Navigator and gloomy Supercargo had been on this station a few times, knew their way around and could give me some advice. What was more, neither Geckho would be of interest to the young troops seeking a thrill, glory and trophies of honor from battles with worthy enemies.
How about noncombat characters then? Uline Tar the trader asked to be left out of this. My business partner had found some cargo headed for earth and was engaged in negotiations to deliver it. Gerd Ayni obviously was out, too. Fanatically inclined Miyelonians would kill my Translator and without any formal reason, just because of a personal dislike. And here on the Kasti-Utsh III station, teeming with quick-tempered warriors, it would be quite a difficult task to keep the Miyelonian girl alive and well. Tini? Sure he was small, and no one would challenge a kitten to a duel. What was more my ward was somewhat familiar with Commander Leng Kissi-Myau, which could help.
And well... I ran my gaze over the remaining crew, trying to choose between Orun Va-Mart, Valeri and Minn-O La-Fin. There’s always work for an Engineer on a ship at dock, so let Orun Va-Mart stay. Valeri-Urla? I would take the Beastmaster with me but I remembered the recent conversation about Denni and decided to leave her on the frigate so she could have a talk with her companion. So I decided I would bring my "travelling wife." Minn-O would have to change into a civilian dress though. Otherwise I was afraid the tall and agile cartographer, who looked impressive and fearsome in an armored space suit, would be considered a worthy opponent and challenged to a duel by surly Miyelonians.
The fact that I myself would make quite the impressive trophy I decided to ignore for now. At the end of the day, if you're afraid of wolves, stay out of the forest! And if you're afraid of all kinds of troubles, it's best to just keep your nose out of space in the first place.

Chapter Four. Unstable Analyst

We made it through control without the slightest delay. My companions and I had our documents in order, the Tolili-Ukh X modular frigate in long-distance raider configuration was already in the galactic starship database and registered to Free Captain Gerd Gnat. My pirate status at level two caused no questions or difficulties, so the Miyelonian sitting at the registration counter wished us a nice stay on Kasti-Utsh III and opened the transparent gates, letting us onto the station. A short hallway, all walls, ceiling and even the floor of which were stuck with advertisements for the most freakish services offered on the station, all kinds of hotels, stores, restaurants and...
Cartography skill increased to level fifty-eight!
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-eight!
There's what I needed! New locations, new maps being drawn from my skills and use of scanning. Given this abundance of creatures, objects, hallways and rooms, the Kasti-Utsh III station was a paradise for Cartographers, Scouts and Prospectors. Minn-O with a satisfied smile looked at me and asked if her husband noticed that she just hit level seventy-one. Yes, he did.
I noticed a lot of things in the flood of information crashing down on me after running that scan. With my skills where they were, my scanning radius was just one hundred thirty feet, but a sphere of that size could in fact contain quite a lot! I saw a group of pickpockets in a nearby gloomy wall niche, a hidden observation system lining the whole corridor, some little snack shop or cafe a floor up and an Onuri-No V container ship docked on the other side of the nearest wall. Then I noticed a strange figure silently stealing up behind us thirty steps away. It instantly darted behind a corner when Tini turned to look in its direction. The only Listener in the game was nearly drowning in the ocean of data flooding down from Kasti-Utsh III. Doing my best to sniff out the most valuable and important things from that flood, I stopped and gave an order to my companions:
"Tini, go talk with those thieves hiding in that hole," I pointed the kitten to the darkened niche. "Tell them that Gerd Gnat really doesn't like when he or his companions are robbed. Tell them the captain usually prefers to shoot first and pay off guards than to search a whole huge station for a little thief that ran off with his stuff. And you, Minn-O, quietly go back there and pull the Jargian following us into the light. He's level fifty-two, you'll manage."
"A Jargian?" Ayukh and Avan Toi shuddered at once. "Careful human, don't spook him! Jargians can explode in dangerous situations, shooting hundreds of sharp scales covered in neurotoxin and leaving behind a cloud of poison gas. That's why Jargians are not allowed on most space stations."
Well, well! This was the first creature I’d ever heard about with such a bizarre ability. So I asked the all-knowing Geckho to tell me more about this astonishing race. Minn-O also stopped, listening and not hurrying to carry out my order just yet. Ayukh was eager to share with us what he'd heard about Jargians:
"A peaceful race the Geckho first discovered in space four hundred tongs ago, Jargians were the first Geckho vassals in the game that bends reality. Their civilization was not yet at spacefaring level when discovered, and it remains as such to the present day. Jargians have no desire to explore space, although they do possess all the necessary technologies to go there. They have no drive for expansion, instead meticulously landscaping their swampy homeworld to perfection. There has never been a war in Jargian history and, in the game, they have no warriors in the usual sense of Grenadiers, Gunners, Shocktroops and the like. In case of danger, they try to defeat their enemies with a wave of suicide troops. It’s easy, because all Jargians can explode like that, from the tiniest to the greatest. No one in the galaxy can say for sure how many of them there are in the galaxy. Even us Geckho, their suzerains, do not know. There might be a few million, maybe a billion, or maybe a whole trillion hidden in the endless underwater cities."
"How?" I didn't believe my own ears. "Do the Geckho not even have a basic idea of what takes place on the territory they control?!"
"The Jargians covered their homeworld with an energy shield, and also actively jam any attempts at scanning. They don't let any foreigners in, so it's hard to say what exactly happens down there. Just one lone Geckho diplomat is allowed to be on the planet, and he is forbidden to leave his underwater embassy."
"But the Jargians themselves actively travel through the whole galaxy and work for lots of races both great and not so great," the Supercargo added to the Navigator's story. "It's thought that Jargians bring good luck, so captains are eager to take them on, though they do try to keep them separated from the others. Their race is famed for its excellent Strategists, Philosophers, Physicists, Engineers and Constructors. The services of such specialists are expensive, but even Meleyephatians hire Jargians to do those jobs despite their suspicion and lack of trust, and that says a lot."
Everything in this story was interesting, although it didn't explain why this particular Jargian was stalking us. I looked at Minn-O as she took out her laser pistol and set the shot power. I shook my head skeptically and decided to go together with my wayedda. And although I was also armed, my Paralyzer in hand, something was telling me we would have to do some shooting.
Uii-Oyeye-Argh-Eeyayo. Jargian. Level-52 Analyst
A very strange creature, I couldn't easily imagine an analogue for it. It was sitting in a ventilation niche and staring at us with dozens of cloudy white eyes with no pupils. The Jargian came up to my waist and looked something like a frog covered in triangular scales with two pairs of back legs and two pairs of front ones and suckers instead of fingers. But it also looked like a pear-shaped vertical armadillo with extra appendages and a strange formless head with many eyes. The Analyst wasn't even slightly afraid of me or Minn-O La-Fin. He climbed right out to meet us, as if expecting us to come. But the strange gurgling sound it issued had not one familiar word in it.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand. Do you speak Miyelonian?"
The creature didn't answer, so I asked if it know Geckho. More silence. I wanted to call Ayukh over to have him use his fifty or so words of Meleyephatian on the thing, but there was no need. The many-eyed Analyst used its uppermost pair of appendages to get a universal translator out of his inventory, hung it on its chest and burbled out again:
"Good one. Glad to see. You. And you. Have offer."
Minn-O and I exchanged glances and both simultaneously holstered our guns. And that was also when I noticed that the security cameras in this section were broken. That was clearly no coincidence.
"A deal? What kind of deal?" my companion asked the Jargian, but the alien ignored her and kept sitting and puffing out his cheeks in silence. I had to repeat the question.
Successful Fame check
"You to speak. Senior human. One. Cartographer to leave. You I to know. You I not to know."
It wasn’t exactly easy to parse, but it wasn’t a huge challenge either. This Jargian was suggesting we speak one on one and telling me it had heard of the man named Gnat. But such mistrust would offend my junior wife, and I was already working hard to get Minn-O back to normal after all her recent traumas. So I decided to intervene for Minn-O La-Fin:
"She is my wife. I trust her. Speak, what kind of deal do you suggest?"
The Jargian spent a long time in silence. A minute or so, if not longer. Finally, a message about successful Authority check came before my eyes, after which the strange creature told me the essence of its offer:
"I to think. You to search Kissi. Hard. Not to find. Much area. Secret. I to tell you where. You to take package. Bring Kissi. I no to can do. Jargian is not to allow. Big-tail honchos."
Uhh... As far as I could tell, this Analyst with an utterly unpronounceable name had somehow found out or guessed that I was looking for the celebrated commander of the Miyelonian fleet. The Jargian assured me that without his help, Leng Kissi-Myau would be impossible to find on the Kasti-Utsh III station because the commander's location was a big secret and no Miyelonian would help me. But somehow he knew where to find Kissi, and would tell me if I agreed to take a package to the fleet commander. A package he couldn't deliver himself because Jargians weren't allowed on the station. Plus the "big-tail honchos" were here. He clearly meant that there were lots of Miyelonian military here who could stop a dangerous exploding Jargian from reaching their leader.
What should I say? If I weren't in a time crunch, I would have told the Jargian to get stuffed. What happened with the Great Miyelonian Priestess before did plenty to teach me to be careful and stay out of political games that went over my head. I had no doubt that something mysterious was brewing and possibly with big consequences. Otherwise what was the point of the Jargian being so secretive and thinking up strange delivery schemes if he could simply send a package by common post? No, he needed this to be handed off personally and by a player Leng Kissi Myau would know and let near. I could smell the potential for trouble here from a long way off. There, the game even confirmed with a popup:
Danger Sense skill increased to level fifty!
However, unfortunately, the Jargian had calculated right. It really was critically important for me to see Leng Kissi Myau as fast as possible and obtain her permission to fly to Earth. I couldn't imagine any way of doing that quickly other than accepting this strange spiny armadillo's offer. Overall, with a heavy sigh, I agreed. It immediately lit up and burbled:
"Agreement. Trust. Second floor. Sector 8-13. Bar Supernova Shine. In a quarter ummi. Here to be package."
With those words the Jargian extended me a heavy-looking black stone disk polished to a shine. After handing me the rock, the Analyst started straining to squeeze itself back into the fairly narrow ventilation shaft. A half minute later and he was no more. And twenty seconds after that, deep inside the shaft, I heard a loud dull pop, telling me that the messenger had chosen to self-destruct. Hrm... That wasn’t good.
I started looking the strange package over from every angle. The large and smooth black stone weighed ten pounds. There were lighter veins in it, and in places even transparent microscopic granules. The system even identified it as nothing more than a simple stone:
Polished stone. Aegirine with augite flecks.
Mineralogy skill increased to level fifty-one!
Mineralogy skill increased to level fifty-two!
A very common mineral on earth, it was composed of everyday iron and sodium silicates. Depending on the proportions of these metals and other things mixed in, the color of aegirine could vary from black to dark green or brown. The only interesting property of aegirine, as far as I remembered from university mineralogy, was that it formed beautiful elongated crystals. In fact, neither aegirine or augite were even semi-precious stones and were not often used for any purpose. I suspected that this mineral was not a rarity in the rest of the galaxy either. That meant the value was not in the material.
Maybe the color then? Or did these veins on the polished stone form a design a knowledgeable Miyelonian could work out? Just then, Tini came back from the thieves and I asked my ward whether his race had any beliefs connected with black stones. Maybe giving one as a gift to the Miyelonian fleet commander would be a mortal offense. Or maybe it was the opposite and meant the messenger could be trusted.
The kitten considered it, stroked his nose comedically and honestly answered that he hadn't heard of anything like that. Still he had another gift to brag about a special little machine for giving color tattoos directly on fur without needing to shave the skin first.
"The local thieves gave it to me as a sign of respect! And they also promised that no thief on Kasti-Utsh III would touch either Captain Gerd Gnat or any other members of his team."
Authority increased to 53!
I thanked my ward for the good work even though my authority among the local thieves was the last thing I cared about. It was much more important to figure out the essence of this stone. As soon as Scanning reloaded, its radiating-ring icon changing color from gray to green, I immediately activated it.
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-nine!
Electronics skill increased to level sixty-three!
There we go! As suspected, the polished stone was just a case and the more interesting thing was inside. Some microscopic electronic chips, a power source, tensiometers along the whole inner surface stress and pressure detectors, a large faceted crystal nearly half the size of the stone itself. And all the rest of the space was filled with... explosives! So I was holding a powerful bomb that would be sure to explode if I tried to open it haphazardly. No, I definitely didn't want to bring THIS to Leng Kissi Myau!
I wiped the sweat off my forehead, then asked my companions to keep quiet so I could think. Most likely, this package was interesting because of the crystal. Such things are usually used as data carriers. But I figured I'd better take the risk and open the case myself, pull out the drive and bring only it to the commander than be at fault in the death of a vaunted admiral of the Miyelonian race if the bomb did go off. The Miyelonians would never forgive Gnat for that!
What was more, I could easily see how the package opened. When I zoomed in the mini-map, I could clearly make out the seam and carving going sideways into the stone. I could not see it on the smooth surface of the stone, but in the scan the seam was visible. Overall, the two halves of the case could unscrew and come apart, but it had to be done very carefully, only applying pressure to places without a pressure sensor or tensiometer. I also had an alternative method, turning off all the little detonators and sensors using Machine Control. But I didn't even take a serious look at that because there were just too many of them.
Before my decisive mood passed, I traded the Intelligence rings for a +1 Perception one and the armored gloves from my Listener Energy Armor so I could better feel the stone with my bare fingers. Then I asked my companions to walk into the corner of the hall so they wouldn't get hurt if this exploded. And it was easily possible. Everyone obeyed except for Minn-O. My wayedda sat Indian style on the floor and refused to go anywhere:
"You're my husband, and I as your travelling wife have the right to share your fate!" 
I didn't try and argue, I just didn't have the energy. If my wife wanted to stay, let her stay. She could hold the flashlight so I could see better. I compared the scan map with the real stone a few times and, adjusting my finger position just a hair, warned Minn-O:
"I can't see the groove clearly enough in the scan, it’s very fine. I could easily make a mistake. So I’d say there's a fifty percent chance that we're gonna get thrown up into the air. So I leave it up to you should I open it clockwise or counterclockwise?"
"What? Gnat, sorry, I don't understand!"
I belatedly realized that perhaps my wife's magocratic world never had mechanical clocks like I was accustomed to, so terms like clockwise and counterclockwise were unfamiliar to Minn-O. No matter. I had already made up my mind and turned counterclockwise.
Electronics skill increased to level sixty-four!
Machine Control skill increased to level sixty-eight!
You have reached level seventy-six!
You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six)
How lucky! Noticing in passing that, with the six free skill points, my Electronics would already be high enough to use the ring-shaped Pyramid Signal Booster, I cautiously began unscrewing the halves of the stone. First turn, second. There, just a little bit more. Open! I couldn't hold back the cry of disappointment when I discovered that the crystal drive I was after was so thickly wrapped in a web of fine wires that pulling it out without breaking anything seemed impossible. But what to do?
"Ayukh!" I called the Navigator over, who was cautiously glancing from around the corner. "Say, can you copy the data off this crystal? Just be careful. You might blow up everything around!"
The furry Geckho, extending his big hands to the dangerous package, grabbed it and held it far away from his face. Then he turned toward me in surprise:
"Captain, I have never seen such a large drive before, only read about them. I can read from this crystal, that contact edge there is open. But I'm not sure our frigate has enough computer memory to hold all this data. There’s at least a yottabyte! Maybe we could stick this thing into the main ship computer temporarily until we find another exchangeable drive..."
"Yes, Ayukh, that's exactly what we'll do! I'll bring this dangerous item to the starship and connect it. You tell me how to do it. And Uline can try to find a similarly huge drive, just without any explosives and wires. Let's go back to the ship!"
Pressed for time, doubting my intuition was a luxury I couldn't afford. I didn't carry the explosive item in my hands and just stashed it in my inventory. As far as I understood the game rules, no amount of shaking or walking could trigger the explosion now. At the very least, I hoped so.
"Back so soon? Did the soldiers really impose on guests to the station by challenging them to a duel?" the same registration service employee greeted our return with an acrid note.
Sensing open mockery in the Miyelonian's voice, I first got indignant and wanted to deny his guess, but I sharply rethought. And really, why not? Let him think so! It was a great explanation for our hasty return!
"We decided to get better prepared and at least take a weapon with us," I said, embellishing the hastily constructed story, then changed topic. "On our way back, we heard a really loud boom to the right of the corridor. Like maybe an explosion or something fell. I wanted to report that and also ask if everything at this station is going alright."
Psionic skill increased to level seventy-six!
Mysticism skill increased to level twenty-five!
Ugh, I didn't mean to use magic. It just happened. The dispatcher wrinkled his whiskered nose, pressed his ears to his head and closed his eyes for a few seconds, which in his race meant embarrassment and uncertainty. Finally the Miyelonian admitted to it:
"Yes, there is one Jargian here we just can't seem to get rid of... He keeps crawling around the station even though its forbidden. Every time he dies when trying to overcome the automatic security system, but he still tries again. When I find out what ship he belongs to, I'll fine that captain and its whole crew to the fullest!"
I already knew about the Jargian, though I didn't tell the staff about our meeting. With the group, we returned to the frigate, thankfully the hangar was just two hundred yards from the registration control service desk. After that I personally attached the rigged crystal drive to the ship computer, not willing to entrust this sensitive and dangerous operation to anyone else. Ayukh the Navigator told me the data was being read:
"Captain, this is a huge file. Based on the format, I’d say it’s a star map. It'll come quite in handy, we can add it to the one in our ship. And there are also some encrypted files here. Without the password we can't get to them though."
"Copy everything!" I ordered and the Navigator quickly ran his claws over the sensor keys on the instrument panel, doing as I ordered.
A minute passed, then a second. I was looking at the clock with more and more impatience. Finally I couldn't hold back and asked if it would take much longer. The old Navigator's answer simply blew me away:
"Another ummi and a half or so. Maybe two."
"How much now???"
I had not considered this. Copying such a large amount of data would take ten hours, maybe more. But I didn't have that kind of time! In just forty minutes I was supposed to be at Supernova Shine with a package for Leng Kissi Myau!
"But Gerd Gnat, what did you want? Here just the star-map file is two yottabytes, the information in the encrypted files is three times that! Wait, captain..." Ayukh turned to me, his face full of apprehension and even fear. I had already guessed that something bad had happened. "All the folders just permanently erased themselves! Looks like some kind of software protection. Only the star map file is still there and being copied to our ship computer. A half ummi and it'll be finished." 
Damn... I guess we had just hugged six yottabytes of data to death. And the data was probably quite valuable and secret if the Jargians had fallen back on such difficult methods of packaging and delivery. Miyelonian command was not going to like this.

Release - May 20, 2019


  1. Sweet jesus finally.........I know it's only been a few mknths, but I need a fix.

  2. Needs better editing or translation by an English speaker. There are problems with word order issues as well as incorrect words. Ex, "understandingly" which should be either "in understanding" or "his understanding". Another example is "It'll come quite in handy" should be "come in quite handy".

    1. Thank you for your comment. All our books are translated by professionals (including this). But this book hasn't been properly edited yet (and proofread), it's going to be much better when it's released.