Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Interworld Network: The Time Master by Dmitry Bilik

Interworld Network, Book 1
The Time Master
by Dmitry Bilik

Release - July 18, 2019

Chapter 1

My least favorite things in the world were chicken liver, heartburn, and helping people. No, my parents hadn’t spawned a scoundrel. Its just that Id rather help someone because I want to, not because Im pressured to.
Sergei, hes probably gone to the foundation pit,” my neighbors words added boiling oil to the cup of my already-heated patience.
Masha was only three years older than me, but somehow I ended up addressing her like I was a kid and she was an adult, while she graciously talked to me as though we were equals. On top of that, at age 28 she had two kids, a docile husband, and her own apartment, no matter that it was off the beaten path. In contrast, besides nine pairs of oddly colored socks, I owned nothing in particular.

But that mischief maker known as fate had brought us together on the same floor of an apartment building after my father’s grandmother died. I inherited her apartment, breaking free of the parental nest but falling into Mashas web. Apparently, the universe was doing its best to maintain equilibrium.
Youd be hard pressed to call me a pushover. At no time would I have a girl order me around. I always made that much perfectly clear. Yet I’d somehow missed that opportunity with Masha. I once helped her carry her stroller downstairsyou know, as a neighborly thing to do. Then one time when I went to the store, I picked up some yogurt while I was there. After that, there was no stopping her.
I should probably mention that Masha was smart. She never crossed the line with her errands, but she could occasionally knock you off balance, like today. Except that her quests always came with the label legendaryand forced you to work up a major sweat.
OK, Ill check if he’s there,I said with a nod, reaching for my cigarettes.
Her window immediately banged shut. It wasnt May, after all, and she had a suckling baby at home. I heaved a heavy sigh and threw on my hood.
I see that the Young Communist is helping out the big families?an old man in a ski cap inscribed with Sportobserved snidely from his perch on the bench by the entrance.
I smiled. I liked Mr. Sergeyev. The old fellow was a local institution. He was a professor who’d once taught the history of the CPSU[1] and other subjects that were undoubtedly important, and he hadnt been able to change his ideas in time. When the country went through perestroika, Mr. Sergeyev was left behind. So he developed a taste for the demon drink, and eventually lost the battle for good. He was dragged along by his wife, a hardy, permanently angry woman for whom her hubby had become like a suitcase that had lost its handle. It was hard to pull, but it would be a shame to discard it.
Something like that. Her husband is away overnight and her little Vasya went for a walk. He was supposed to be home a half hour ago. Im on my way to the store and volunteered to go see where hes hiding.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions,Mr. Sergeyev said sagely.
Oh, I know that. What are you doing hanging around freezing here?
Waiting for a buddy. Weve decided to organize a symposium. Give me a cigarette, will you? It’s not for memy friend is the one who smokes. I always tell him it’s bad for him and hes destroying his health, but hell hear nothing of it.
I smirked and gave him a cigarette. As I walked away from the entrance and lit up, I heard the crackling of cigarette paper and the dry tobacco. I took a couple of drags and fell to thinking.
The foundation pit, huh?
It was right across the street from the local supermarket where I was going. At one point an ambitious development company had decided to build a modern, attractive multistory building in our backwater. It bought out private homes, surveyed the land, and started to excavate a foundation pit. But something didn’t pan out on their end. More precisely, something literally flamed out: one night, the office downtown caught fire. Perhaps competitors were to blame, or a circuit, or maybe a combination of the two. So the company vanished into oblivion, leaving behind nothing but a foundation pit. You can guess who immediately took a liking to this local monument.
Everyone knows that every man is a former kid. But the kids from our district tried with all their might to stay at that tender age forever. A half-destroyed or half-built property in the vicinity only helped the cause.
OK, Id stop by the foundation pit on the way home. Vasya was a good kid, if somewhat mischievous. God forbid something happen to him.
The supermarket was on the first floor of a five-story building. No doubt about it, it was off the beaten track. Next to it was the ring road, followed by lane after lane of dilapidated log huts echoing with guard dogs’ indistinct, sad barking and filling the air with the woody scent of heated bathhouses on the weekend.
I had time to smoke two cigarettes before I reached the shop entrance. Inside, some kids around the age I was looking for were jostling each other by the vending machine with the chewing gym.
Hey, guys, have you seen Vasya from number 8?
One of the kids raised his head in obvious resentment. Vasya? Vasya Korshunov?
Yes, Korshunov. His moms looking for him.
No, haven’t seen him.
Shit. Now Id need to cross that street and get myself over to the foundation pit. There was only one streetlight, and it only illuminated part of the pit. At least I had a flashlight on my phone.
I wandered through the aisles tossing simple food into my basket: sausages, three bottles of beer, macaroni and mayonnaise. As I approached the register, I stopped by the stand holding the deodorant. I did need some; I was almost out. That took care of it.
It had gotten cold outside. I raised my hood and shifted the flimsy plastic grocery bag so it was more comfortable to hold, then set off for the edge of our world.
Before crossing the street, I looked both ways a few times. This was a place where you needed to teach kids the rules of the road, under conditions that were, shall we say, reminiscent of war. I managed to get across without any mishaps and heaved a sigh. The streetlight flickered hostilely in unison with me and blew out. Great.
I turned on the flashlight on my phone. Of course, I couldnt see more than five yards in front of me. I tried to peer through the dark for a while, but nothing useful came of that. I swore and put away my useless phone.
Vasya! Vasya!
The last thing I wanted to do was climb down into the pit on the frozen ground. I was tempted to blow off the mission and head home. I mean, really, was I ultimately responsible for other people’s dumbbells? Just do a better job raising your kids and don’t baffle your dutiful neighbors. It was warm and cozy at home right now. I could go home, cook some macaroni and sausage, turn on a TV show, and enjoy it all with a beer.
Im over here!
Damn it. Id planned it all out so nicely in my head.
Vasya, where are you?
As if! Now the kid was silent. I had a feeling that today Id need to personally take care of Vasyas upbringing and give him a good taste of paternal tough love.
With a technique that would have put Cirque du Soleil to shame, I started to lower myself into the pit, scattering hard pieces of frozen clay with my feet. In one outstretched hand I held my lighter, and in the other I held the bag with the clinking bottles. All I needed was a tightrope and an audience.
Which I apparently had. Someone was watching my clumsy descentthat became clear when I was halfway down. Thats when I made out two figures on the bottom of the foundation pit: Vasya and a guy I didnt know standing next to him.
Oh great. A Pedobear was the last thing I needed. Considering that at no time was I a fighter, and my adversary had more girth on his side, things could turn unpleasant.
What do you need, dude?I shouted, trying not to betray my anxiety.
No answer. The kiddo was silent, too. They just stood there looking at each other without moving a muscle. I kind of wanted someone to jump out and yell, Surprise!But dreams are only dreams. So I took a few steps forward.
Dude, don’t make me do something Ill regret.
I stumbled but managed to stay on my feet. The bottles jangled plaintively, but even that didn’t provoke a reaction. I guess I was going to have to sort him out, after all. I squeezed the lighter, placed the grocery bag on the ground, and strode toward the stranger.
Only then did I notice the odd clothing on this guy who enjoyed chatting up kids at night. He was wearing a long cloak devoid of any labels or designs. The hood was over his head. Well, terrific. Good job, Sergei, now youre going to meet a cult follower. And the night had started off so well. . . .
Man, get away from the kid,I uttered an idle threat, my arm already drawn back to punch him.
My father had never taught me to fighthis thinking was that a smart man could always reach an agreement. But his best friend, Uncle Dima, disagreed. He’d made sure I threw a decent punch and his opinions on the matter were far more straightforward. As in: if there’s a fight in the air, go for it, and then afterward you can sort out who was right and wrong. Thats not to say that I often made use of this maxim, but it was much more in line with my own philosophy.
Somehow, it looked like the man in the cloak must have had his own Uncle Dima because he turned sharply and thrust out his hand.
He didn’t hit me but I could feel some sort of force running through his fingers. My body flew several few yards like a defenseless rag doll. I landed on my back on my ill-fated grocery bag. Judging by the sound, the packet of macaroni had split. The bottles clanked but at least they didn’t break. The stick of deodorant bumped up against my side.
 I grunted. What was that? All I knew was that I was in pain. My back wasnt the strongest part of my body. Because of my line of work, I constantly needed to massage the small of my back so it wouldn’t ache. It took my angst-ridden brain a couple of seconds to realize that I’d gone flying even though no one had touched me.
It was unlikely that the approaching stranger was a Jedi. I didn’t see a light saber. Well, maybe not yet. In any case, he was obviously a master of telekinesis. Of course, I would have liked to know what the hell was going on, but I now acted on the most ancient instinct, putting everything else on the back burner.
I tried to use my free right arm to lean on the ground so I could get up. That didnt work. First I crawled over a bottle, and then the scattered macaroni, and then bumped up against the stick of deodorant. Then I had an ideaI wouldnt say it was a bright one, but it wasn’t bad. The stick of deodorant was in my right handthe cap had flown offthe lighter was in my left hand, and the approaching adversary was around two yards away.
I held the deodorant in front of me, catching a whiff of its rank scent (Id missed the mark this timeI made a mental note to buy something else next time), and struck the lighter in front of it. I may not be a master of telekinesis, but we all have our fireballs.
For a moment, the place was flooded with light. I managed to discern the garbage-strewn foundation pit, Vasyas frightened face, and the strangers cloak which was being licked by the flames. Biting my lip and trying to ignore the pain, I hurled my improvised livesavers aside and leaned my arms on the ground.
I stood up with the speed of a pregnant Seychelles tortoise and threw myself at the assailant. He was still swatting the smoking hood, so he couldn’t respond adequately. He swung his arms wildly and punched, attempting whats called a one-shot.
Never in my life did I stand out for my heroic strength, and I never frequented a boxing gym, but I managed to land a hook that was a work of art. I heard an unpleasant cracking sound as the stranger fell to the ground. Or maybe the opposite: first he fell, and then I heard a deafening crack.
I stood for a few seconds with my fists raised, ready to punch some more if needed, but the Satanist guy lay there motionless showing no intention of standing up.
Is he OK?Vasya spoke up.
I shrugged. “Probably.”
In any case, I took my time going over to him and carefully checked his pulse. I felt pretty arrogant as I did this because Id breezed through all the health and safety training classes in school. I touched his wrist and then his neck. I thought I felt something, but it could have also been my own heartbeat.
I touched his head, and my fingers came away bloody. Fantastic. I’d just smashed his head.
Is he alive?Vasya asked.
Yeah, yeah,I answered, starting to believe my own words less and less.
I straightened up, trying to get hold of myself. All right then, another one bites the dust. Now youve become a murderer, Sergei. Damn, how did that happen? Now what? Who was I supposed to call first? The police or an ambulance?
First of all, I still had to take Vasya home.
Let’s go. Your moms beside herself.
In a stupor I picked up the remains of the food I’d bought. To my surprise, not a single bottle of beer had broken. I tied up the bagits handle had been torn offand started to plod along. Vasya trudged behind me, wheezing and scattering clumps of earth underneath him.
Uncle Sergei!
What now?
Um, hes gone.
I turned around. Vasya was rightthere was no sign of the body. Either this mysterious telekinetic had passed himself off as a zombie and buried himself in the ground, or hed turned on escape velocity and sped off.
Well, no body, no problem. Except that what happened next really frightened me.

Youve killed a Player who was neutral to you.
-100 karma points. You gravitate to the Dark Side.
The main development branch has been determined: Time Master
Youve earned the Savior face.
Youve earned the Insight ability.
You’ve earned the Light spell.

I looked at the message scrolling in front of my eyes. Sergei, everythings OK. Youre just in shock. Youre not going crazy. Just go home and have a beer. If it doesn’t pass, you can go to the hospital tomorrow.
Vasya tugged at my arm. Uncle Sergei, you all right?
I’m OK. I just got a little dizzy. I hit my head when I fell down. Lets go... Hey, watch out! You shouldn’t be running across the road like that! Look both waysleft, then right.
I suddenly realized that I was acting exactly like my father. When they’re young, all children probably think, Ill be different when I grow up.But then it turns out that either deliberately or not, we end up just like our parents.
Vasya, how on earth did you end up in the foundation pit with that, er, stranger?
He said he was a wizard. A real one. He said he knew everything about me: where I live, Mom and Dads names, everything.
What do you mean, everything?
Don’t tell anyone.
Mums the word,I promised.
In the spring we would go floating on rafts, you know, foam plastic ones. We made them ourselves. And I crashed into the water. I got soaked. We lit a bonfire and stayed until all my clothes dried. Mom didn’t even find out. That’s it.
What do you mean, ‘that’s it’?
No one besides the kids knew about it. Get it?
Ah, Vasya. Has it occurred to you that maybe he just saw you guys? Or the other kids spread the word? Think about it. Figuring out where you live and your parentsnames doesn’t take a whole lot of intelligence either. And thats why you went to the foundation pit with a strange man at night? Isn’t that a stupid thing to do?
It was stupid,Vasya admitted. I got scared after. It’s just that his . . . face was familiar. And hes a wizard. He did all sorts of tricks. Like spells, you know?
Did he . . . do anything to you?
No. He said we had to wait for something. So we stood there and waited. Then you came.
What if I hadn’t come? Don’t ever go anywhere near strangers, especially when youre alone. And if you see him again, run home and call the polino, on second thought, call me. Is that clear?
Vasya nodded.
I patted him on the shoulder. There was a lot in this story that I didn’t understand. What did this satanist weirdo want to achieve? From what I understood, he hadn’t laid a finger on Vasya. And yet . . . Vasya let slip that they were waiting for something. Maybe a full moon on Saturn? Of course, the autumn had passed and with it, the seasonal relapse period in the local mental hospital seemed to be over, but you couldn’t be too sure with lunatics. Plenty of them around.
But what about he did all sorts of tricks, like spells? Did telekinesis count? On the other hand, what made me think that that’s what it was? There are all sorts of schools of no-contact fighting. Maybe this misfit had practiced one of them. He must have distracted me somehow and I’d just flown a few steps without realizing what had hit me.
Of course this sounded crazy. But my brain was desperately trying to find a logical explanation for what had happened. It wasn’t really succeeding.
Vasya, lets not say anything to your mom right now about this guy. OK?
Of course we won’t say anything,Vasya agreed easily. I might get in huge trouble. I’m already in trouble as it is.”
He suddenly looked sad. We made the rest of the trip across the courtyard in silence. The dimly lit streetlights illuminated the ice-covered asphalt. Harried people loaded with shopping bags were heading home from work. A prickly snow was dropping from the sky. Neither Mr. Sergeyev nor his symposium partner were sitting on the bench. They had probably already drunk their fill and drifted away to their separate lairs. All the betterthat meant thered be fewer witnesses. Ugh, I was thinking like a criminal.
I tapped my key fob on the entry system and let Vasya walk in before me. The door on the third floor was already open for us. Apparently someone had been waiting and heard steps in the entrance.
Vasily, where were you?
Masha was ready to give Zeus the Thunderbearer God a run for his money. From personal experience I knew that when your parents call you by your full name, its unlikely that its out of respect for you. Instead, you can expect fury to be unleashed. Seeing Vasya hunch his head in his shoulders, I felt that my theory was confirmed..
Thank you so much, Sergei. Where did you find him, in the foundation pit?
Yes, he was messing around with the kids,I said with a nod, fixing Vasya with a stare. He blinked slowlyhe understood.
How many times have I told you not to go there? Your father will set you straight!
The threat didn’t work on either of us. Everyone knew that Mashas husband was totally henpecked and that he adored his wife. Vasya obviously resembled his mother in nature. His dad might admonish his son, but he wouldn’t be forced to kneel on dried peas as they’d done to kids in Victorian times or be whipped with his father’s steel-buckled belt.
What’s with your bag?Masha looked suspiciously at the bundle in my hands.
I slipped and fell. All right then, goodnight.
Good night. Sergei, thanks again.
I opened the door, crept into my own lair, and turned on the light. Was this night really ending after all? It felt like enough had happened to fill the next week.
I didn’t notice that I was sitting on the rug in front of the door, fully clothed. No, I needed to get up, cook something to appease my growling stomach, and gather my thoughts.
I tossed the beer into the fridge and threw the dirty shopping bag into the sink with the sausages still in it. I just needed to rinse them off , and then theyd be fine to cook. As for the macaroni, it was much worse for wear. Most of it had remained strewn on the bottom of the foundation pit.
I looked in the cupboards and found half a package of rice. That would do. I hastily put a pot of water on the burner. Now I had to see what I looked like. Despite my fall, my pants were practically clean. My hands, however . . .
That was the strangest thing. My right palm was covered in dirt even though I remembered clearly the wetness of blood as I’d touched the man’s open wound. You don’t forget crap like that in a hurry. Talking about which, the bag also should still have had drops of blood on it. But I didn’t see anything of the sort. The evidence of my fall was there - but there was no blood from the dead man left anywhere on me.
What was it that those bizarre messages had said? Apparently, I’d killed some Player. Bullshit. Had I killed him, he wouldn’t have disappeared anywhere. Rather, he would have lain there nice and quiet like Lenin in his tomb, waiting for the police to arrive. No, if anything, I must have hit my head a little as I fell, resulting in minor hallucinations. I should actually take a closer look at my own stupid head to see if it was injured.
I went into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and started to wash my numb frozen hands. The water stabbed my fingers unpleasantly. But it was no big deal; the most frightening events were behind me now. I just needed to calm down a little and gather my wits.
I smoothed my hair with my wet hands and straightened up, going over to the tiny mirror above the washing machine.
I nearly cried out. A completely different person was looking back at me.

Chapter 2

As Bulgakov once wrote, Fear your wishes, for they have a habit of coming true.I’d add that when they do come true, its in a twisted way that you could never have fathomed out.
Like anyone with average looks, for my whole life I wanted to appear a little cuter than I actually was. Nature and my parents hadn’t done an excellent job fulfilling their duties. Unlike my gorgeous sisters, I didnt have wild success with the opposite sex. You might call me average: narrow chin, long, straight nose, sharp cheekbones. A typical Hollywood-style villain nerd.
But the guy looking out at me from the mirror was ... cute. The jaw was more prominent. Against the backdrop of the jaw, the sculpted cheekbones looked completely natural. The ears were small, unlike the radio detectors Id grown used to. The eyebrows were blondactually, silveryand the skin and hair were noticeably lighter. The only thing that hadn’t changed was my brown eyes. That was the only way I knew that the reflection in the mirror was mine.
But there could be no mistake. The light-haired, sturdy guy in the mirror was me. I frowned, scratched my forehead, and again adjusted my slightly wet hair. It looked like I was the one who needed first aid, not the stranger in the foundation pit. Calm, I had to stay calm.
I went back to the kitchen, as if Id been hit by a dusty sack. The water had begun to boil long ago, but instead of the rice I just threw in the sausages and opened a beer. What a business. No, not quite. What a business. And I couldn’t really tell anyone about what had happened. Id be shipped off to the loony bin immediately. To be honest, at this point even I wasnt completely sure that I hadnt gone crazy.
What if the things that happened in all those fantasy books were coming true? Had the apocalypse come, were most people turning into zombies and just a few into Players?
I turned on my small kitchen TV and flipped through the channels. Vremya, Vesti, Novosti, Comedy Club,[1] a soccer matchnothing out of the ordinary.
I even had to look out the window. Occasional passersby, wrapped in light jackets that were still too light for winter (it was all the fault of the late cold spell) were bustling home. No one was devouring or killing anyone. Maybe Id been hurled into some sort of parallel universe?
I even walked around and across my apartment. No, it didn’t gel with my theory. The same Soviet-era furniture: the folding couch, Grandmas old table with my laptop on it, the Czech wall unit[2] - the last vestiges of a country that no longer existed. The chipped wooden windows, the wallpaper that had been put up when my grandfather was still alive, the curtains... They obviously didnt match the interior and who knows when theyd last been washed. Other than the computer and TVsone in the tiny kitchen and the other in the bedroom-living room-only roomnothing had changed since my grandmother was around. I mean, Im a loafer and my bachelors existence only contributed to that.
I went back to the kitchen to mull some things over, especially because Id finished the first bottle of beer and the sausages were cooked. I poured some mayonnaise and ketchup onto a plate and created an absentminded meal to the accompaniment of a sports commentator lamenting about how a striker had missed an empty goal from 10 yards away.
My head was heavy. I couldn’t get myself to form even a few intelligent thoughts, all the more so because my body’s efforts were focused on digesting the food. In fact, the beer was acting like a sedative. My eyes were sticking together and my nose was trying to get acquainted with the table. Sleep. I needed some sleep. Theres a reason why people say you should sleep on it.

The alarm on my phone had been screaming for nearly a minute before I turned it off. I pattered to the bathroom in the darkness. The things you dream!
I turned on the light and nearly yelped. That sturdy blond guy was still there. He gazed out of the mirror looking a little frightened, but he obviously hadnt gone anywhere.
So I guess it wasn’t a dream. I put toothpaste on my toothbrush, sat down on the edge of the tub and started to think about how Id continue to live.
I got stuck when Id nearly finished brushing the right side. How had I never noticed these bars before? They were arranged in pairs, two on top and two on the bottom. They scared me in the way that I imagined a 16-year-old girl felt when taking a pregnancy test.
The two on the top were sort of gold and green, while the ones on the bottom were red and blue. OK, lets think about this. It all had started yesterday when I’d punched that stranger. Someone in my head had called him a Player. As in, Ready Player One?
Maybe Id somehow taken his place? In that case, everything would be simple. The read bar was health, the blue one was mana, the green one was vigor, but what about the gold one? Who the hell knew. Maybe the level of my sex appeal? Considering my new appearance, it was entirely plausible.
I finished brushing my teeth and climbed into the shower. The water was barely warm; the water main in our district had probably burst again, but I was used to it. Id always been tempered, since I was a kid.
After I’d dried off, I got dressed and sat down in the kitchen to contemplate. By all accounts, I needed to go to the hospital. To have a brain scan or whatever. Maybe it would simply turn out that there was a tumor in my head, and that tumor was trying to put me at odds with reality. On the other hand, if I skipped work right nowBones definitely wouldnt be happy. My boss was thin and sinewy, and on top of that he was also grim - obviously you didnt need to look far to think of a nickname for him.
I thought for a bit and then dialed his number.
Hello,said a disgruntled voice.
Eh, sir—”
Sergei, I dont want to hear it. Fyodor and Alexei are kicking back again. No matter whats happened, Im not giving you the day off. The van of beer is coming today. And whos gonna supply the stores?
But what, do you have a fever? Did you break your arm? No? Then you have no excuse. Do you expect me to run around the warehouse myself?
With that he hung up. As the saying goes, it wasnt in the cards. I guess Id need to go out. The news that Fyodor and Alexei had gone on a bender was unwelcome, of course. Everyone would need to run around more. On the other hand, the work was such that it attracted a certain crowd. People with college degrees dont typically become warehouse loaders. I mean, normal people.
In my case, it was a conscious choice. I’d spent five years getting an economics degree to then go and work with my hands. You should have seen my father’s face. In fact, that was the first and biggest reason I’d done it. Theyd already bought me a military card,[3] prepared a warm spot in a fancy company doing a second-banana job, which, as they say, is to grow into.And Id go and get myself a menial job with God knows whom. That was the second reason.
Of course, it was hard to brag to my friends that I had gotten a job as a loader all on my own without connections, but I really didn’t care. When you talk about a grown-up, independent life, the emphasis is on the word independent.Thirdly, it turned out that the job paid reasonably well for our provincial, yet large, city. I had enough to eat, drink, buy some clothing, and take my latest crush to the movies.
And to be honest, I didnt have any particular friends. I had a couple of acquaintances from university I could meet once every couple of months to grab a beer and hear about their sexual conquests or failures or commiserate about workloads. They tactfully avoided bringing up my work.
Its clear that loader isn’t a career you dream about when youre a kid. No one ever says, If you do well in school, youll be stacking pallets of beer for a living.”  I understood very well myself that with time Id need to grow in some direction. But for the time being the question didn’t concern me much. However, right now, the fact that I needed to run like hell to get to work concerned me a lot.
I looked in the fridge. Other than yesterdays sausages and a couple of eggs, you could have rolled a bowling ball through it. Although an omelet with a grade B meat product isnt bad in  itself, you shouldnt eat one every day. It had been drummed into me since childhood that breakfast was supposed to be balanced and contain the right amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
There was only one dish that fit these criteria, and it was sold close to my house.According to the clock on my wall, theyd already been open for a half hour. That meant that theyd had time to put out the meat and fry enough for a few portions.
In front of the door I felt as worried as Leonov[4] when he was about to step into outer space. The multicolored lines hadnt disappeared, and my hands were shockingly pale. Apparently, I was supposed to get used to the changing reality and my new body. More precisely, I felt it like the old one, but my eyes didn’t lie. OK, Id talk to Bones, anyway. Not for today maybe, but Id ask for tomorrow off.
The stairway was silent; even Masha didn’t poke her head out at the sound of my slamming door. On the third floor my nose started to itch as usual from the smell of  cat piss. That’s where a self-sufficient and independent woman of an indeterminate age lived by herself. She hated people as much as she loved cats.
As I skipped the rest of the way, the green bar trembled a little and crept downward. I pressed the button on the entry system and dashed out into the fresh, frosty air.
You understand what its about, my dear sir, don’t you? In our people theyve b... br ... bred a feeling of inferiority. Theyve drilled it into us that if we want to be great we need to hate someone. We need to have a common enemy that supposedly prevents us, the powerful and awesome, from getting on with our lives. Ah, Sergei, greetings and salutations.
Mr. Sergeyev waved his hand. I stopped for a moment and nodded. His friend - or to be more precise, his listener - was sitting next to him, struggling to stay awake. He had a neglected appearance: a torn sheepskin coat, drooping sweatsuit, and old shoes with scuffed and cracked leather toecaps.
The two were clearly conducting a sophisticated conversation and theyd already had quite a bit to drink. But there were two things that interested me.
First, what time did you have to wake up so youd be so wasted by 10 oclock?  It’s true what they say: keep your eyes on the prizesee your way clear. But the second thing was the most curious.
There was a text box floating over the professors head.

Pyotr Sergeyev

This was amusing. It was just like in an advanced online game.
I looked at the man in the sheepskin coat.


That was it. There was a little more information about the professor. Maybe it was because I knew him and I was seeing the other man for the first time?
Mr. Sergeyev, you never told me you used to be a carpenter.
A carpenter!he waved my remark aside. My father, God rest his soul, now he was a cabinet maker from God. I’m just a tinkerer. I can only fix things or just potter about.
I nodded, put my hood on, and skirted the building to go out to the street. The most dangerous thought of any madman crept into my head: what if I was normal? Meaning that maybe that guy from yesterday really gave me some sort of superpowers? Maybe it was even by chance, like venereal diseases are typically transmitted? No, I was not going to start wearing my underpants on the outside. But what if I had also become someone like the Player, and I was now looking at the world through the concave mirror of convention?
The people who were hurrying to work only confirmed these wild ideas for me. They all had question marks floating above their heads. Some of them had a few lines over them, while others had nearly ten or so. But they all had a line I could read: pastry chef, coin collector, leader, shoemaker, Tatar, teacher...
So this mysterious system was displaying not just professions, but also nationalities, certain personality traits, and hobbies.
With these thoughts I literally flew past the three buildings until the intersection where the bus stop was. The traffic was a little livelier here. But most important, thats where Uncle Zaur made the most delicious shawarma[5]in his rather filthy-looking snack joint.
Hello,I said, nodding.
Good morning,the old shop owner greeted me.
A notification appeared over his head:


Very funny. As if I didnt know it.
One please, to go.
You should come in. Ill give you some tea. You all eat on the go and then you have stomachache and blame it on my shawarma.
Uncle Zaur muttered all of this as he spread sauce on the lavash and with quick, agile movements threw hot meat on it. All I knew about the owner of this hole in the wall was that he’d come to Russia a long time ago, married a Russian woman, and ran his own small but formidable business. He also had two guys working for him making shawarma and shish kebab, but Uncle Zaur himself was always close by. Sometimes hed drink with the regulars or thoughtfully smoke a cigarette, arms crossed over his small belly.
Here you go, no change,I said, holding money out to him.
Enjoy,he said, handing over a bag with the shawarma.
I wolfed down the hot meat in the lavash before I even got to the bus stop. With anguish I caught sight of my departing bus. Now Id have to wait another 10 minutes or so. I stepped to the side, lit a cigarette and blithely took a drag.
If you thought about it, things werent so badprovided my head was in order. So if I were of no interest to psychiatrists, I needed to figure out how to take advantage of what had fallen to me. As far as I could understand, the message said something about the Insight ability, the Light spell, and the Savior face. It wasn’t clear how to activate the second two points. As I understood it, Insight was passive and worked all the time.
The bus, which arrived before too long, thwarted all my plans to enslave the world. I had to get on. As I paid the driver, I noticed that in addition to the occasional question mark, a Speeder sign was burning over him. I immediately plopped down on a seat and grabbed hold of the handle in front of the standing spot.
I was really starting to like this new ability of mine because after three intersections, with a wild screech of the brake pads, the bus stopped after nearly crashing into some ancient dude driving a cheap sedan. All the passengers lurched forward. Except me. The Speeder tried two more times to hasten my meeting with God, but he didn’t succeed. When I got out by the building materials plant I was a little shaken, but intact.
And there were advantages to the drivers speed. I thought Id be cutting it close, but I ended up arriving 20 minutes early. So I took my time crossing the street and beelined for our base.
It was made up of five identical produce warehouses on one side and an office that abutted them on the other. It was nothing to write home abouta small private business owned by a Russified German who rarely made an appearance, usually just when he had to pick up his earnings or give us a major dressing-down. Incidentally, when it came to dressing-downs, he could go toe to toe with Bones. As I already mentioned, the workers were a diverse bunch. There were former convicts, a few drunks down on their luck, a couple of migrants, and the occasional student. And me.
Over the course of the day, trucks came up to the guardrail, filled out requisitions, and then, under the alert supervision of the shipping agents and Bones himself, we loaded their vehicles with goods for small stores. At a different time, usually in the evening, vans with water and beer came. Today, too, a van was scheduled to come. Nothing major, just about 20 tons, but, as I understood it, two of our regular crew had gone on a bender.
Whats up?Marat said, holding his hand out.
He’d already changed his clothes, laid a few pieces of cardboard on the guardrail in order not to freeze his rear end, and sat down on them. When he saw me, he smiled, flashing the two gold caps on his upper teeth, and extended his hand.
Hi,I answered him with interest, shaking his hand and examining his stats.

Marat Gubaydullin, age 32

Marat had been a young offender when he’d first gone to jail, and he’d left it long after he’d been transferred to the adult division. When he’d finally got out at the ripe age of 23, he got married and even had a little kid. But my secret assistant still designated him a Thief.
I doubted it was referring to Marats slippery past. Hed been in jail for robbery, not theft. That meant that he was stealing from the warehouse on the sly. Now I understood who Bones meant whenever he was swearing to bring everyone into the open.
The van from Samara is coming today,I said.
Yes, I heard. I’m sure we’ll get a good drink out of it,Marat nodded, flashing the gold-lined Hollywood smilethat he’d gotten in the slammer.
I nodded. During any delivery there were enough faulty goods, or more accurately, faulty goods.Sometimes the drivers themselves left a couple of pallets at our mercy so they could finish the trip faster. On days like that the loaders went home tipsy and happy. Even Bones couldnt do anything about that.
Uncle Alexei and Fyodor are already drunk. They wont be going out today.
Marat cringed. Shit.
I understood him. We had no equipment. Our workload was measured utterly simply: in humanor if you approached the process with a sense of humor, donkeypower. Two extra pairs of hands unloading the van meant a lot to us - especially because, counting the two shirkers, there were only seven of us altogether.
So we work overtime,he immediately shared his unhealthy optimism. A little extra cash wont hurt.
Right. Im going to get changed.
I ran right into Bones as I left the closet. To me, despite the insulting nickname, our stock manager was the binding force here. He kept a firm hand on the loaders. If you took him away and put someone else in charge, it was unlikely that anyone here would actually work. Youd need to put together an entire staff again.
Hi, Sergei.
That was one of his quirks. He called everyone by their first name, no matter what their age or how long theyd been working here. Or more precisely, not working.
Bones shook my hand like a genius diagnostician trying to determine how sick I was by looking at me. How are you feeling?
My ears are sort of ringing,I lied, scanning his face.
In addition to his full name, the Insight spat out new information: Model Maker. That was interesting. What kind of models did Bones make in his spare time?
Youll be sick tomorrow. But today, no way. By the way, the vehicle from store number 9 has arrived. Let’s go load it. Theres water, beer, energy drinks, and cookies. Marat, you hear?
Fifteen minutes until the shift starts,my hardnosed coworker called out lazily.
Ill let you leave 15 minutes early.
Yeah, thats if the van doesnt show up when were closing,Marat retorted, but moved from his spot.
I don’t know if this is worth bragging about, but I was very good at preparing shops’ orders. When I first started out, I looked like a complete misfit. But it was like that in any field. You’d get the job, make people smile because youre new, but then you gradually become an expert. In the beginning, I was constantly scurrying around and getting in the way, but now it was a real pleasure to look at me. I didnt make a single extra movement.
Carbonated water, six pallets, check,Bones counted aloud. Beer, glass, two, check. Beer, plastic, three crates.
Marat and I danced around each other. He dove into the warehouse while I walked out with my load. Twenty bottles arent very heavy when they’re inserted from top to bottom with heavy cardboard and sealed thoroughly in new polyethylene. Unfortunately, we didn’t have such a luxury. All the beer was from an old delivery that had been sitting in the warehouse for a long time. The cardboard had fallen apart, and then a radiator had leaked and the packaging had gotten wet. As a result, I had to carefully hold the beer from the bottom. No matter how experienced I thought I was, better safe than sorry.
I wasnt aware exactly at what point the case fell apart. Four bottles fell out through the hole in the bottom at the exact moment when my foot was already lifted onto the body of the truck.
I raised my head and saw Bones’ angry face. He opened his mouth and ...
Marat and I danced around each other. I couldn’t shake off the feeling of déjà vu. This had already happened, just now. I had exited the warehouse and the case of beer had fallen apart in my hands.
More precisely, I was now exiting the warehouse and...
By reflex I shifted the case in my hands, taking a better grip. The glass clinked mournfully.
Be more careful, Sergei.
The case has no bottom, sir. We should tape it up.
Go ahead. Marat, one more case of glass bottles. Then well move on to the cookies.
Holding the tape, I crouched down, staring with acute fascination at the intact case of beer.
First of all, now I knew the purpose of that gold bar, which had now lost a third of its length. It was displaying the progress of that most important development branch.
And secondly, I had the ability to rewind time.

Chapter 3

If you want to keep yourself from having destructive thoughts, the best thing to do is to lose yourself in hard physical labor. Just read the history of any totalitarian regime, and you can see that those governments recognized this simple truth. People under those regimes toiled hard, from morning to night. That left them no time for foolish thoughts.
I was lucky enough to be able to deal with my mental issues that way. All I had a chance to think about was what I was carrying, without descending into contemplation. I worked on autopilotmy arms and legs knew exactly what they had to do.
There was no real lunch break. The damned van that was scheduled to come in the evening arrived at 2 p.m. To do our job we made a human chain, with Marat as the anchor. He adeptly punctured a few 1.5-liter bottles with a nail, flipped them so the beer wouldn’t spill out, and set them off to the side. There you go, faulty goods!
By 6:30 p.m., wed not only managed to finish our work, but nearly all the loaders had polished off most of the expropriated beer. I declined. My head was so muddled that drinking would be a terrible idea. In any case, beer had little to do with this grotesque beverage in plastic bottles. I preferred to hold off until the evening when I could drink a normal beera draft or at least something from a glass bottle.
Bones was a good guy who always kept his word. At 6:45 p.m. I shook Marats hand and we went our separate ways. He lived nearby, which was probably the main reason he wanted this job. I headed to the bus stop.
A snowy sleet fell on my face. It was dark on the way from the base to the street, but that was typical. I walked slowly so I wouldnt lose my footing. As I shuffled along I tried to grasp at the thoughts swirling through my head like they were Chinese meditation balls I was trying to manipulate.
The main development branch was Time Master. Now I knew what that involved: rewinding time. That was what the gold bar showed. Apparently, I could rewind three times in a row, going back three or four seconds. Id need to keep experimenting. The only question was how to do it.
I looked in front of me and gave myself a mental command to move through time. Predictably, nothing happened. The other time, it had been fear that had moved me. I’d had a scare and then I was propelled through time.
I tossed my head. What madnessthe incident in the foundation pit, the time travel. I touched my forehead. No fever. But this was messed-up stuff.
I emerged into a small, illuminated open space under a streetlight. Now I was within spitting distance of the bus stop. I stepped onto the path, which was dusted with prickly snow, and slipped. It happened so suddenly that I didnt even have time to pull my hands out of my pockets. Another moment and my vertebrae cracked . . .
I emerged into a small, illuminated open space under a streetlight. Now I was within spitting distance of the bus stop.
Stop! I carefully skirted the snow-dusted icy patch.
The adrenaline was still racing through my veins. I had just time traveledagain! I mechanically took a few steps and looked at my watch.
I looked at my watch again. This time-rewind ability went back exactly three seconds. The gold bar was only one-third full. But the most important question was, how was I able to time travel? This time I had just willed it to happen. So why couldnt I do it before?
I reached the bus stop and sat down on a bench. My heart was beating wildly; my skin was covered with goosebumps. They werent from the cold, but from what I had just experienced.
Apparently I could achieve whatever I wanted. What if, for example, I learned some boxing, landed a good hook, and became world champion? Why not? Suppose I knew where to punch my opponent, and I had three chances to duck and knock him out. But what if he stood his ground? Hm, a punchfest didn’t sound like a good option.
What if I were a soccer player? Yeah, that would be cool. On the field, Sergei Dementiev who can dodge any world-class defender with a single movement because he knows where the other guy is headed. But once again, I’d only be able to do that three times. And then what? Substitution, the bench, class demotion. My fantasies of having Cristiano Ronaldos career ended with me in the second amateur league.
I could become a firefighter and save lives. But three seconds and three chances weren’t much. If only there were some way to extend the rewind or get more of this goodie. Hold on. If Im a Player, everything is completely feasible. There had to be some levels and experience you could collect. All I needed to do was find out how to do it.
I hailed the approaching bus, got on, and went to sit at the back. I caught myself thinking that the little text boxes over my fellow passengersheads already seemed completely normal. That made senseyou always quickly get used to good things. I perused the messages. There was nothing interesting, except the guy by the front door turned out to be a Lothario.
I gazed out the window at the somber landscape of the dark winter evening. I knew every angle of every building, every bump on the road, and every turn by heart. I didn’t even need to look through the mud-spattered glass. When you spend a few years traveling the same route to work, its impossible not to memorize it. But today it was like everything around me had been transformed.
I didn’t recognize the buildings on the avenues. The stalls in one of the little markets looked old and shabby, and in some places signs had been changed. At the same time, the city was still recognizable by scattered fragments I had to put together. That said, it appeared like something new to me.
I felt like Id stepped through Alices looking glass, or that two worlds had merged together. I was familiar with the first one, but Id only just started to discover the second one. For example, did someone hang a sign in an incomprehensible language in the middle of the main street? I could swear it wasn’t there yesterday. Or why were planes flying so low over the city? Or were they even planes?
I took out my headphones and put on some Rolling Stones, my all-time favs who’d wrongly been shoved aside by the famous quartet from Liverpool. Ironically, the shuffle mode landed on Paint It Black. It perfectly matched the reality unfolding outside the window.
 On the other hand, things weren’t quite so bleak. True, there was some sort of crap at work. I didn’t understand it and that frightened me. But as everyone knows, when one door closes another one opens. All I needed to do was force myself to see it.
I was about four minutes away from my street when I noticed him. He was an ordinary man, just one of many. But the text box above his head was brighter. I could spot it from 30 yards away. He looked around as though he sensed that he was being watched, and ducked into the closest bar.
Hey! Please stop! I missed my stop! Please!
The bus, which had just begun to pull away, braked sharply. Under the disapproving stares of the other passengers, I leaped out and pulled on my hood. I all but ran to the traffic light and waited for it to turn. If only my eyes werent playing tricks on me . . .
Excuse me, wheres the stop to Friendship Street?an ancient voice said next to me.
I looked to see who it belonged to. It was just some old lady. She was wearing a threadbare fur jacket, felt boots and knitted mittens, and wrapped up in two shawls. And of course she had a trolley bag. These ladies can never find a handbag big enough.
You need to go that way, maam. Friendship Street is over there.I waved my arm, indicating the direction.
But wheres the bus stop?she looked around.
On that side. Right in front of the traffic light. Ill take you there.
Oh, good boy, yes, please take me there.
She grabbed her cart and graciously offered me her arm. At that moment the light changed and we could cross. As I shuffled across the street with the little old lady among a swarm of passing pedestrians, I kept my eyes on the bar the man had entered. It looked like no one had come out. Excellent. We reached the other side just in time, when the dont walksignal had already started to blink warningly.
Thank you, young man, thank you.

Youve helped a civilian who was neutral to you.
+10 karma points. Current level: -90. You gravitate to the Dark Side.

I looked at the semitransparent notification that was scrolling fast in front of my eyes. Eureka. So if I helped nine more old ladies cross the street, Id make it to zero?
Maam, do you need to cross back to the other side?
Why would I need to do that?
Uh . . . so I can help you. To increase my karma.
Look at him, he’s completely off his face,in an instant the old hag turned into a fury. They get high on their drugs and then they hassle you. Get away from me right now!”
So much for her gratitude! I shrugged off my 10 karma points and headed toward the bar. What is it they say? “Good deeds will never make you famous?” Well, up yours! I just needed to think a little about what to do. Anyway, why was I trying so hard to get above zero? To start, I needed to find out what this “karma” was supposed to do.
I ended up in front of a locked steel door sporting a sign that read Tavern.That was all. Nothing indicating the business hours nor a colorful menu displaying Russian delicacies. They could have at least painted some appetizing pictures of borscht, meat dumplings, or aspic on the shop window. Otherwise, how would visitors know they could get a good meal here?
What an odd place. Hesitantly I pulled the door toward me.
I stepped into a small anteroom. In front of me, beyond a glazed wooden partition, was a large room. Tavern was the last thing youd call this place. "Restaurant" would be more accurate. And if you wanted to be even more accurate, it actually appeared to be an exclusive club.
The room was decked out in English-style arched leather armchairs, couches, small tables, and a bar in the middle of the room with a television above it. But most important, all the patrons had the same illuminated text boxes over their heads.
Except the information that was displayed kind of put me on my guard. Vivisectionist, Sorcerer, Wrathful, Mercenary, Guard, Swordsman, Artist_Chick, Runner, Armor-Clad Warrior, Coward, Archalus, Turncoat.
My eyes paused on the Archalus because this creature looked exactly like the classic image of an angel: light, flowing clothing, long hair, two wings folded over each other. The other beings too would stand out in the crowd because not all of them were human.
So youve decided to drop in on us, Korl?” a tall burly man asked, appearing out of nowhere on my left.
I jumped. The notification above his head said:


I nodded. “So I have.”
You know the rules.
It wasnt a question, but he was obviously expecting an answer. Id need to improvise.
Dont break the dishes and don’t get into fights?” I offered.
Something like that,he said with a smile. Come on in.
The Teleporter dissipated as if the wind had blown him away, only to reappear behind a table on the other side of the partition.
Now I had no choice. If I left now, Id look like an idiot. You never know, they might even catch up with me and beat the hell out of me.
I could rewind time, I suppose. Except that here, three seconds clearly wouldnt be enough.
To be honest, I’d never been afraid of being onstage, even though I’d never had the chance to perform before. But now, with some 25 pairs of eyes staring at me, I felt my palms and neck break out in a sweat. Thankfully, most of the eyes looking at me belonged to humans.
I noticed a stocky blond guy sitting at a distant table. He had the same fair complexion as myself - or rather, as the stranger who had recently settled into my mirror. He nodded first, obliging me to respond.
I stole over to an empty table by the entrance and sat down. The others soon stopped eyeing me openly, and a few of them resumed their chatter. The Sorcerer bartenderif the information provided by my Insight was to be believedscurried over to me.
Greetings, Korl. Dust or cash?
He handed me an open menu. I looked at it. Opposite each dish there was either a 1 or a 3, and an unusual image that looked like a mound of sand.
Cash,I answered.
The bartender waved the menu in the air. The indecipherable currency disappeared, replaced by familiar price lists. Now I could find my way around it. The prices suggested that this was a second-rate restaurant; I could bring a date here without going bankrupt.
Can I have a couple of minutes? This is my first time here.
Of course,he said with a nod and went back behind the bar.
Everything here was weird. Werent there any waiters? Actually, judging by the half-empty tables, people didnt really eat here. It looked to be more of a drinking establishment. OK, Id ignore that.
Now I had a chance to take a closer look at the representatives of all the different races or specieswhatever they were supposed to be. The guy nearest to me appeared to be human with pitch-black skin and yellow eyes. He had bizarre growths jutting out of his head which looked like a few meager strands of hair that were gathered together and covered with hairspray. They looked stiff, too. They must have been some sort of outgrowth, like small, flexible horns. According to my Insight, this guy was very Wrathful.
The Archalus was sitting nearby. He was sipping a beer, shooting the breeze with an ordinary person - as much as the things sitting here could be called ordinary. A bit farther away, a peculiar creature sat motionlessly: it had a human head and torso, but its limbs were clearly made of a dull alloy I couldnt identify. Armor-Clad Warrior.
There was only one girl. She was tall and slim, with large, expressive eyes and short chestnut hair. She was cute, if you ask me. She gave me a quick glance and then stuck her nose back in the sketchbook in which she was scribbling with a pencil. Artist_Chick.
All right, now I needed to act like everything around me was business as usual. I leafed through the menu. This place was anything but a humble tavern. If they had even half the dishes on the menu, they could safely claim a Michelin star.
Still, I wasnt about to experiment. I lifted my hand, beckoning the bartender. Id like the mutton dumplings and a pint of the Czech beer.
One moment.
The bartender took the menu and went back behind the bar, and thats when I saw real magic. He made a mysterious flourish with his hands. A clump of light that looked like a crumpled piece of paper flitted from his fingers. It rocketed up, circled for a moment, then flew toward the kitchen.
The Sorcerer caught my surprised look and winked. All right.
This was obviously not a demonstration of telekinesis with contactless combat. This was what you read about in books. Yet the bartender had done all of this with such a bored and indifferent expression as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Maybe for him this was nothing out of the ordinary.
I scratched the back of my neck and turned my eyes to the screen above the bar.
The news was on. But there was something different about it. National reports were interspersed with petty little stories from small-town studios I’d never even heard about. From what I could tell, no one had deliberately changed the channel.
Zoologists are sounding the alarm in Voronezh Province. The number of wolves has reached a critical level. The frequency of wolf attacks on people has surged. For retiree Lydia Sokolova, an encounter with a wolf was nearly her last.
It was so terrifying! I was heading home, I was almost there, and someone was puttering around next to the doghouse.
The search for a missing eight-year-old girl has been going on for a day. Vicky Novoseltseva left for school yesterday morning. But she didn’t make it. . . .

Oh, boy, that was our city. I recognized the presenter. That was definitely our city. I craned my neck to try to see the details, but my view was blocked by the stocky blond guy who had nodded at me earlier.
Haisa, brother,he said, offering me his hand.
Haisa,I said, guessing that this was some kind of greeting.
Have you been here long?
In town?
In this world,he said with a laugh.
Yes . . . a long time.
Ive only been here a month. And I don’t like it. It’s too hot here, even now. Its snowing out, but there’s no point.
Once again he looked at me steadily, evidently considering something, and then he spoke,
My name’s Traug. Im here for at least three months. I got into trouble in Elysium so I decided to sit it out here. If you need any help, come find me. The second house to the right from the city Gatekeeper. Korls always stick together, even the half bloods,he added after a short but meaningful pause.
He shook my hand again and left.
I set about trying to untangle all this information. He said that he hadnt been in this world long. And he came from someplace called Elysium. That was the first thing. And he and I were both Korls. That’s what the guard at the door and the bartender had called me, too. Since he and I looked quite a bit alike, I figured it was some race. But it was nonsense. Why Korls? I was a human. My parents were human, and so were my grandparents. Having said that... who really knew? As recently as yesterday, such thoughts wouldnt have entered my head.
OK, Id figure this out later.
Thirdly, he mentioned some Gatekeeper. Did he mean the one for the local soccer club? In which case his would be the second house from the stadium, right? Only there were no houses next to it. No, by saying “city Gatekeeper” he must have meant something else.
My thoughts faded so fast that I promptly forgot what I’d been thinking about, distracted by a fragrant plate of dumplings and a sweating glass of beer that had appeared out of nowhere in front of me. No, there was no magic involved. I was just so lost in thought that I hadn’t noticed the waitress. She was around fourteen, and she wore her hair in a bun. Most important, she was an ordinary person. She had a dull label over her head which informed me that in addition to whatever else she was supposed to be, she was also a Musician.
Thank you.
Like any other Russian, I had a lot of preconceived notions about mutton dumplings. Slaughtering and cooking lamb is an art in itself, and I didn’t have the knack for it. Most of us only ever taste this meat when it’s cooked poorly and has a sharp, repugnant odor - and then they say that we’re unable to appreciate it.
But these dumplings . . . they were so good that after the first one I was afraid that Id just choke on gastric acid. Juicy and sprinkled with chopped spring onions, they simply melted in my mouth. I only paused my eating to swill it down with some beer - and then I nearly lost my mind again.
You should never, ever drink quality draft beer. Because after that it’s impossible to swallow that foamy, rubbery beverage thats sold in this country. I had the impression that on the other side of the door stood Pilsen, the good old Czech city where authentic Czech brewers were making their fabled beer. There’s no way ordinary brew could be as delectable as this.
I sat back from my empty plate feeling happy and sated. I finished the beer and took out my wallet. It turned out not to be so cheap$6 for a portion of dumplings and $3.50 for the pint of their Czech ambrosia. What the hell, it was worth it. I didnt know if it was customary to leave a tip here, but I added one anyway and started for the door.
Still, the moment I’d polished off my dinner, I realized that I felt uncomfortable here. A bit like a farmer in ripped overalls who suddenly ends up at the White House. Every passing minute increased the risk of me being found out. So I did the only thing I could. I left money on the table and quietly exited. Fortunately, everyone, including the bartender, was fixated on the next gruesome story on TV.
I got outside and took a deep breath. It was warm and pleasant, and even the snow falling on my face felt familiar. And it wasnt hot at allthat Korl named Traug had been lying.
I strode over to the intersection and searched for an old lady to help cross, but had no luck. I crossed the street empty-handed and went to the bus stop. Miracle of miracles, my bus showed up almost immediately. I plopped down in an empty seat, ignoring the messages above people’s heads. I’d gotten sick and tired of it all in the last two days.
I sort of dozed off before I got to my stop and almost missed it. I jumped out at the traffic light as the migrant driver swore at me in his own language. Almost nine. All because of that foolish trip to the bar.
And what had I learned? Apparently, there were these creatures called Players. I wasn’t the only pretty face around. If I were to believe Traug, there was also this other world called Elysium. And maybe there were also others like it. The existence of all those different races suggested that that there might also be lots of worlds. The Players had their own currency which they called dust. I doubted that it was the same dust that collected on my shelves. What else?
I was lost in thought when I got to the door of my building. There was no one sitting on the benches. That wasn’t surprisingthere was a snowstorm and the wind was blowing hard.
I opened the security door and nearly knocked heads with the upstairs neighbors, a married couple.
Hello, Sergei. Nicky, why are you stopping? Let’s go.
But both I and the fifty-year-old Uncle Nick had stopped dead in our tracks. Because I was staring directly at another Player.

[1] These are names of Russian TV shows. Vremya (Time), Vesti (Tidings), and Novosti (News) are news programs; Comedy Club is an entertainment show.
[2] During shortages in the Soviet Union, furniture from Czechoslovakia was valued. Anyone who had any was considered wealthy.
[3] When people reach military age in Russia, sometimes they illegally purchase a military card to avoid serving in the army.
[4] Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut who completed the first spacewalk on March 18, 1965.
[5] Shawarma is a Middle Eastern dish that is popular in Russia. It contains pieces of chopped meat and vegetables rolled in lavash bread.

Release - July 18, 2019

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