Thursday, May 30, 2019

Invasion LitRPG series by Vasily Mahanenko

Invasion by Vasily Mahanenko
Book 1: A Second Chance

Release - August 8, 2019

Find out more about the series in interview with Vasily Mahanenko

Reality is cruel. The rising level of technological development has led to a rising level of unemployment. They're laying off everybody, from teachers to technical servicemen. What's the point of holding onto a person if they can be replaced by an advanced mechanism? But what are the people to do? How are they to live? Where are they to get money from? There is only one answer – Barliona! The official government project is gathering steam, luring more and more people into its net. Who knows how people will behave when they lose everything?
Brody West is one such person. Unlike most, he doesn't lose heart. A professional project manager with thirty years in the business simply cannot do that. He has a goal, and a clear understanding of how to achieve it. Nobody can get in his way – not the new class, not the strange friend, and not the unexpected foes.

Chapter 1

Whenever you experience hardship on a cosmic scale, you turn to a higher power. You might formulate it differently each time, but the sense is always the same: "Why me? Can't somebody else get sick, or die, or lose something important, just for a change?"
Stupid, pointless questions, but it's a rare person who doesn't ask them in time of woe. To keep your feet you have to be either dead cynical or deeply religious. Or a project manager, in which case forecasting and accepting risk is part of the job. I belong to this third category, so when I received news of my redundancy, I didn't stress over the question of my uniqueness, because it was bound to happen sooner or later. My miscalculation lay elsewhere – time frames. Occupied as I was with a two-year government project, I figured I was employed until at least its completion, during which time I would develop several business ideas, so that afterwards I could look to the future with confidence from the panoramic window of my own high-end office. It didn't happen.
In a world where Imitators – robotic systems with limited artificial intelligence – were taking over more and more jobs, there would soon be no place for the common man. Nobody now remembers how enthusiastically people greeted the first prototypes of the Imitators, originally designed for use in the hazardous manufacturing industries. And then quietly, with none of the original press and Internet fanfare, the robots established a firm foothold in education, medicine, industry, and everywhere else. Imitators didn't get tired, didn't demand wages, and completed their tasks precisely and punctually. Ideal workers. It was only after the mass layoffs that people wised up to what was happening. The powers that be declared the replacement experiment a success, and started kicking crowds of people out of their jobs and onto welfare. Pickets and protests were organized, but it was too late. The powerful and the moneyed of the world understood that the pros of replacement seriously outweighed the cons. In fact there really were only two cons: the general social unrest, and the resultant, ever-growing criminal situation. The government, garnering the support of interested parties, came up with a remarkably original solution – the virtual world of Barliona.
Relieved of work and a purpose in life, people needed, aside from food and housing, a new ideology. The total-immersion game was presented as the only escape from the drab calamity of existence. The government was aggressive in its promotion of the new virtual messiah to the masses. Everywhere glistened with conscription advertising images, ratings of game achievements were compiled, and new virtual celebrities smiled from media screens. Barliona was awesome, seductive, and carefree. But the real clincher was that in agreeing to a new life in Barliona, people were giving themselves over to total government welfare.
Municipal residential facilities were built in outlying districts – two-by-three-meter, concrete box rooms, with no windows, kitchens, bedrooms, or toilets, but this was compensated by continuous-immersion pods, fully equipped for all your needs. Newly unemployed citizens, who could no longer provide for themselves, would sign a contract with the municipality and receive ownership of such accommodation, along with a lifetime paid account. They were obliged to spend no less than twenty hours a day in the game, including sleep, and were generously allowed to pass the remainder of their time in the real world.
The idea exploded. The first to rush into Barliona were hordes of adolescents, only too happy to cast off their everyday cares. Under their whoops of joy, agreements concerning self-imposed exile were signed by unemployed newcomers, freeing up space on the Earth for those who had the money for a real life. Those who escaped to Barliona on the social program became known popularly as "vagrants," and nobody was offended.
The old residential suburbs were demolished, making way for new garden suburbs, sports and entertainment complexes, and vibrant mansion communities. The world changed its image, bowing to the will of the rich, with the tacit disapproval of everyone else. That was how natural selection usually worked.
"So what are you going to do?"
I sighed to stifle my irritation. In the last week, pretty much everyone had been bugging me with that question. My parents, ex-colleagues, friends – faux and true. But if my parents really were concerned, everyone else did not always hide their glee. And why should they? Those who had managed to hang onto their positions sensed their superiority, and those who had already been enlisted to the armies of unemployed were relieved they weren't alone. But absolutely everybody was dying to hear how I planned to remain solvent. Suddenly I developed a cunning plan.
"So what are you going to do?" Matt poured us another drink each and waited patiently. He wasn't one to gloat over the misfortunes of others. He was a childhood friend, one of the family.
"First up, I'm going to celebrate my divorce and the fact that I have no children." Not a great joke, but that evening was no time to be serious. I was just elated to see Matt for the first time in five years.
"Well obviously. Although I'm not convinced," he sniggered, frowning.
"Uh-huh. You were always pussy whipped. Relax, your wife's not here," I laughed, remembering Matt's other half. If there was ever anyone who shouldn't be complaining about family life, it was Matt. They were one of those rare couples who were blissfully happy raising children together. At least they were five years ago.
The first couple of shots washed away the stress of recent days. It really was great to see him and forget our problems for a while, and the booze unwittingly drew us into nostalgia.
We met on the first day of the first year. Neither of us shared the general excitement about starting school, and the example of my elder sister had shown us clearly that our happy-go-lucky yard games would be replaced by lessons and homework. Matt hated kindergarten and school. We stood together, panting under the burden of either existence or our school bags, and brushing aside everyone else's bouquets of flowers. Common troubles bind people together, and boring lessons and constant knuckle rappings from a spiteful teacher made us almost brothers. We were together throughout school. We fought, teased the girls, and received beatings from our fathers when our mothers tired of threatening us with the belt. At the time it seemed it would always be like that, sticking together through thick and thin because we were a gang.
But after school we went our separate ways. Matt hadn't found studying particularly easy at school, so higher education wasn't even a question. He was, however, a wizard with his hands, and with my help he enrolled on a college course in car mechanics, and found work in a nearby workshop, where he soon earned the respect of all the men. Then all of a sudden he met Liz, married her, and had kids, immersing himself in family life, but looking supremely happy with it. It's strange: as a car mechanic you'd think he would have been more worried about losing his job, but he assured me he had a reliable client base. As one of his regular clients used to say about the switch over to Imitator mechanics: "It's like pleasuring your woman with a vibrator when you have your own eager hands, a fully working member, and a head on your shoulders."
I had a different fate in store. A bachelor's degree, a second bachelor's degree, and a prestigious internship followed by a fulltime job in an incredibly high-end corporation. I started as assistant manager, and was then chief project manager in charge of implementing ERP-class information systems for thirteen years. It sounds terrifying, but all I actually did was ensure my juniors fulfilled their functions proficiently and on time. I soon got out of the habit of working with my own hands.
At first I hooked up with Matt once a week, discussing problems and sharing news, but those meetings became less and less frequent: once a month, then once a year, and for the past five years we didn't even call each other. Turns out I suck as a friend. Occasionally I would remember him and swear I'd finish work early the next day and call to ask how he was doing, or even pop round to see him, but I never got round to it. It's hard when you're working yourself into the ground fourteen hours a day. That's why my ex left me. She was sick of going to sleep and waking up alone.
I was laid off a week ago, and out of the blue Matt shows his face. Even though he hadn't phoned, he apparently kept abreast of my successes by looking at posts and photos in social networks. He was just wary of letting friendship get in the way of a "big boss," which amused me, but at the same time shamed me. Time had left us rungs apart on the social ladder, but my dear friend remained nothing but a true human being.
"You haven't answered me," persisted Matt.
"Matt, why do you keep banging on like that? We're having a good time, don't go and spoil it." I hadn't noticed my temper rising. I took a couple of deep breaths and added, "I'll find something. The Imitators can't replace everybody. They haven't taken over everything."
"Another round?" As if to disprove me, an Imitator-waiter appeared. Its subservient physiognomy irritated, but we couldn't refuse the offer, otherwise we would have to leave the establishment. The owners kept a strict eye on guests so they wouldn't be distracted from spending money. "I remind you that you can receive a discount by stating your Barliona login. The size of the discount depends on your character's level."
"Oh wake up, Bro, these monsters are everywhere," hissed Matt angrily, unembarrassed in front of the robot. "You know who doesn't have them? The army. Because it's more interesting to fight with live soldiers – you can be a real hero, even a spy. Intrigue all round, why the hell not? An RPG, in reality, with a Cargo 200 bonus. And they're way creative. All of them."
"What are you getting so wound up about? I thought everything was hunky dory with you?" His over excitement was getting to me. Surely it was me who had problems? And here he was getting all emotional.
"Hunky dory? What would you know? Five years ago everything was fine. Then it all went wrong." All of a sudden Matt wilted and looked glum. He drained his glass of vodka.
"The repair shop closed three years ago. Almost all the customers went over to the Imitators. They're fast, reliable, and free. That's a car manufacturer's lifetime guarantee for you. What could we offer to counter that? Exactly, nothing. Although we took the piss as best we could. We put a huge display stand of family photos by the entrance. Children, wives, parents, dogs. Get it? Pictures from a family album all about happiness. So that when the client picked up his pride and joy, he understood he was feeding someone and would have to come back."
Shocked by the news, I swallowed the lump in my throat. "Why didn't you call me?"
"What for? To say, 'Hi, mate! How's it going up there on Mount Olympus? Still building Hell's Kitchen for us?' You were building shelters, weren't you?"
"I was," I said. Up until then it had just been installing and setting servers for the social shelters. A government contract. Yet another project with no reference to specific people or goals.
We were silent, each thinking our own thoughts.
"Liz left. No money coming in, children to feed. Josh Spenning had a thing for her ever since school. Maybe you remember him? He's doing well for himself now, moved to a rich part of town, suggested she moved in too, he'd keep her. The kids are with her, and now they've got loads of toys, clubs, sport… I see them once a week. That's how 'hunky dory' it is." Matt spoke reluctantly and softly, as though afraid of what he was saying.
I felt even more wretched now, thinking I could have found out for myself, if only I'd been interested in his life. I could have been there to support him. Matt's family was everything to him.
"I'm such an asshole. I never called you once to ask how you were. You didn't call either, and no news is good news."
"Forget it. I'm not pissed off with Liz. What do I have to offer them, apart from a shelter? By the way, they're not bad little mansions. Well played!" he chuckled.
"Don't start. I'm sick of it myself." I'd asked for it, envisaging a pod in a concrete anthill as a home for my best mate. "If I can't find a job, I'll move close to you, we can be neighbours."
"Bro, you know me, I didn't drag you here out of self-pity," said Matt, shaking off his melancholy. "I've got a proposal for you. How are you with Barliona?"
"Not good. I started a couple of times and gave up. I can't be sitting in a pod with my job. It's not my thing anyway. Are you trying to entice me into your game? An 'Introduce a friend and receive a bonus' promotion stunt?"
"Something like that." He wasn't offended. "Listen, I've been in the game three years, and I haven't done half bad, for a vagrant. I've got money, connections. But I'm not blind. I see the clan officers taking most of the loot and leaving us with next to nothing. There are crowds of vagrants in Barliona now, so the clans don't cling on to us so desperately. If they're dissatisfied with something, they're told to get lost. A paid account, on the other hand, is something else. This is what I've thought up. It's not easy to earn money in Barliona, but it is possible. First, you need your own clan. While you've got money, you can subscribe, create a character, organize your own business. Remember school: I do the handiwork, you do the brainwork. How long did you spend just learning to manage things, Bro? Plus, with a paid account, you'll have kudos and bonuses all over the place."

Reference information
Account types
Social one-size-fits-all – A pay-as-you-go account for people living in social housing and prisons, with a compulsory contribution to the government of 30% of all income. In the game, players with this type of account have their name underlined in red (cannot be hidden).
Commercial account, beginner – An account with a monthly fee of 11 credits, without bonuses. Most popular with schoolchildren and students.
Commercial account, basic – An account with a monthly fee of 525 credits. Bonuses: Experience gained +1, Reputation gained +2.
Commercial account, premium – An account with a monthly fee of 2100 credits. Bonuses: Experience gained +3, Reputation gained +5. Favourable terms and offers from the game bank. Opportunity to become a member of the top private game clubs.

"You're suggesting I waste my time and money in Barliona, just to end up in a shelter even sooner? Instead of looking for a job? And swapping my commercial account for a vagrant one? Yeah, right!" The sceptic in me was fuming. "If only it was all that simple, Matt. Then half of us would be a Mahan. Dream on!"
"Who knows? Maybe it is a dream. But you have to believe in something. And I believe you'd make a damn good clan chief. We can find earners, buy a castle. I'll do the creative stuff. We'll earn a ton of cash, and everything will turn out all right—" He was interrupted by an electronic signal from the device on his wrist.
The Imitator came over: "Matthew Lorov, your reality time limit expires in thirty minutes. A taxi is waiting for you by the entrance. Payment will be debited from your account."
Matt rolled up his sleeve and shook his metal bracelet. Everyone on a social contract had one, to monitor their whereabouts, time-management skills, health, and other important stats.
"Damn convenient piece of kit." He winked. "If you change your mind, give me a buzz. And good luck in the job search."
He rose from the table, thought for a moment, and necked another shot.
"The pod will flush me out anyway, and the way home will be more chilled," he explained before waving goodbye. "Lead on, oh soulless one!"
The Imitator saw Matt out, and returned. "Another drink, or would you like to move to the VIP lounge?" The machine could see my account balance and was doing its utmost to reduce it. The VIP lounge entailed live serving personnel and doubled prices. Otherwise it was no different from the general bar.
"No, I'm good, thanks. Debit payment from my account."
"Your companion has already paid the bill," said the Imitator, before escorting me to the door. "Would you like to use the Sober Driver service?"
I refused, informing the robot I had autopilot, and climbed into my expensive car. Apart from a huge headache and no free time, my job as project manager had also provided me with a decent income. The car drove past blocks being readied for demolition. The alcohol and the conversation with Matt evoked thoughts of social inequality. High-rises were being knocked down, and new mansions built in their place. Mansions like mine – large, comfortable, and expensive. I'd never given thought to where the people would go. An entire district, hundreds of twenty-story buildings, a thousand flats in each, and each flat housing a family. Surely they can't all be in Barliona? Now was probably not the best time to think about it.
The following morning was fine and sunny, unlike my physical and mental state. I hadn't been that drunk for ages. My head pounded mercilessly, and my body begged to be horizontal again. It was only the nauseating, electronic, "Incoming Correspondence" signal that prevented me from the dying in peace. The sound came from the Smart Home management module, and indicated receipt of a letter from the management company. Taking a couple of shaky steps, I accepted I wouldn't be able to cope without the robodoctor, and trudged through to the kitchen to deal with my hangover.

Dear Mr. West, the management company Everything for a Present Future would like to remind you that your prepaid, one-year lease on a mansion in Sector 2, address: House 43, Street 2, terminates four months from today. Your current account balance is sufficient to extend the lease for two years, including advanced payment of utility charges.
Considering the absence of weekly deposits into your account, the management company would be happy to offer you a comfortable flat in Sector 5 at a price to suit you. You can browse all the options by following the link below. The price of a one-year lease includes: a two-room flat, with standard conveniences, direct connection to Barliona, and secure parking. The management company has studied your levels of social and intellectual development, and has selected the most suitable neighbours for you.
To extend your lease or apply for a housing swap, look in the My Profile section of the main menu.
We are pleased to be of service to our clients, and to make their future a comfortable present.

Piss off with your joyful concern! I've only been unemployed for a week.
Sector five was a high-rise ghetto on the outskirts of the city, a concentration of human desperation, crime, and all manner of disease. Even the police didn't bother showing their faces around there. And why would they? Let the dregs destroy themselves. Fewer people equals fewer problems. There was only one way out of there – into a long-stay pod, and I wasn't ready to give up my place in the sun, in the literal sense of that expression. Submitting to a momentary fit of rage, I flipped the finger at the entirely blameless management module, and extended the lease on my comfortable and expensive domicile for another year.
I spent the whole day checking my email, sending my resume to some of the bigger companies, and phoning work contacts. Nothing. Out of twenty companies, only seven responded, all of them with rejections. Project managers had been replaced with the new generation of Imitators. Looking at the employment sites was fairly damn joyless too. Every job offer had loads of replies, whether it was for a VIP-establishment waiter or a specialist in microelectronics. White-collar workers were no use to anybody. Reading forums, phoning acquaintances, and lunch with a particular big cheese proved no cause for celebration either.
By the end of the day I was seriously ready to contemplate Matt's proposal. People on the forums agreed about one thing: Barliona was now pretty much the only place where you could earn anything at all. So for want of anything better to do, I decided to do some homework on the subject, filtering out the adverts. A rigorous analysis of the information available took me two hours, and my conclusions indicated that Matt's suggestion was not an option. The game was created for people to spend money, not earn it. What the vagrants called earnings was peanuts compared to my usual take-home, and even then they hoarded it, scrimping on everything and paranoid about anyone taking anything. The comfort and security of your personal assets came at a price. Absolutely everything cost money, from use of the Bank to a Scroll of Flight to expanding your inventory. All this convinced me that Barliona was designed to relieve players of their money, time, and reason, and in no way to provide them comfort in their declining years.
An "Incoming Correspondence" notification flashed up. I opened my mailbox on autopilot. With all the stress and fatigue, my brain had switched off.

Greetings, Mr. West. We have perused your resume, and would like to invite you to an interview at our company for the position of project manager. The interview will take place…

"Yeees!" I shouted, without even reading the details. My body was gasping for any opportunity to make up its deficit in feel-good hormones. For the first time, I regretted not having someone close to share this small piece of non-binding good news with.
The company inviting me to interview was not a giant in some market or other. In fact I could only find a couple of mentions in the Internet. No scandals, quantum leaps, or participation in tenders, and oddly, everything I could glean about my potential employer came from their own website. A supplier of network equipment, with its own consulting and commissioning departments. Just what I was looking for. In years of managing projects, I had studied all this stuff in such detail I could work as a manager, architect, or design engineer. If they'd let me prove myself, that is.
My reply was quick and concise: Your offer is interesting, I am familiar with the company, I will definitely be there. Almost immediately I received confirmation that my letter had been read, and a few seconds later a new contact request appeared in the messenger application of my mail client: requests to be added to your list of contacts.
WTF? There's a real live employee sitting there? The system clock read 1:00 a.m. I clicked on "Accept Message."

HR department: Good evening, Mr. West. Please forgive me for disturbing you at such a late hour. I saw your letter and decided to reply.
Brody West: Good evening. No problem, I'm not sleeping anyway.
HR department: We arranged your interview for tomorrow at midday, but unfortunately the head of the department is flying out at 10:00 a.m. You can wait until her return, or come to the interview at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.
Brody West: Tomorrow at 8:00. Thank you for warning me.
HR department: ;) Pleased to be of assistance. We will expect you tomorrow at 7:50. I will order a pass for you.

Bloody hell! A smiley from a real live HR employee. And a live interview. Could it be a joke? Job interviews went virtual eons ago. My last live interview was about ten years ago. Nothing but a waste of precious time. Maybe this was just a test? To see how much I valued my time, and theirs?

Brody West: You mean I have to come to the office? Why not use conference call, especially since the head of department is flying out?
HR department: There's nothing to be afraid of J Live interaction at work is a company policy. Our staff consists only of people.
Brody West: Why?
HR department: That's not for me to say )) Come and see us and you will find out everything. Good night.
Brody West: Good night.

I was intrigued, to say the least. Good night? I googled Right Decision Ltd. with renewed vigour, but learned nothing new. Old links concerning charity affairs, and their website. That was it. There was no information whatsoever in the Internet about companies which had opted out of Imitator services. Some random company with a load of inconsistencies. How could you provide network equipment for Imitators, without even using Imitators? was still online. The silence of the empty house was stifling, and I wanted to continue our chat, the more so because my curiosity was getting the better of me.

Brody West: Can I ask you a question?
HR department: As long as it's just the one, and it's not about work )
Brody West: Why did you write to me here? You could have called tomorrow or advised me in a letter.
HR department: I saw the "Message Read" notification and figured you really needed a job )
Brody West: So you took pity on me?
HR department: That was your second question ) See you tomorrow.

So much for the chat. A cup of camomile tea was more comforting than the abortive chin wag, and I went to bed.
The interview with the head of the project management office was a walk in the park. I was tested on my knowledge of my professional sphere, asked to elaborate on details of successfully completed projects, and, as is usual, to comment on problematical situations, before being informed that on the whole I fitted their requirements. The working conditions suited me, as did the salary. The office manager waved away my questions about the project, saying I would find out everything if I got past the big boss, and after wishing me success, he headed off to an exhibition of new Imitator prototypes on a different continent. If only I lived like that.
A girl entered the conference hall and said, "Good morning. Could you please fill in these forms, and I'll take you through to Mr. Williams's reception room."
I silently took the papers from the outstretched hand of the clearly recent school leaver. She sat down opposite me, trying to look important, but her hastily gathered hair and ink-stained hands ruined her businesswoman image.
Paper forms?! A ballpoint pen?! Yet another anachronism to add to the list of the company's quirks. I hadn't held real documents in my hands for years. I'd even forgotten what a pleasant sensation quality paper could produce.
"My name is Helen. I'm your personal HR manager. If you have any questions, please ask."
"Hello, Helen. Was it you I spoke to today?"
"Today?" The girl frowned and wiped her forehead with dirty fingers, smearing ink on it. "No, yesterday… Ah, yes. I mean today."
So this was who I had to thank for the successfully rescheduled interview. This young, homely creature, on her first day at work. It explained a lot, especially the smileys. At that age feelings of compassion haven't yet atrophied, and the desire to show one's worth runs high. Not to worry, we've all been there; it passes with time. It was a good job our chat hadn't got off the ground; otherwise I would have been feeling very awkward just then.
"Helen, thank you for organizing the interview. You're a very responsible employee." I flashed the girl a friendly smile to thank her for her consideration. "Your diligence is literally written across your forehead."
I demonstratively wiped my own forehead, unsure how to drop the hint while not offending her sensibilities. At first she just frowned and mirrored my gesture. Then the penny dropped and she squealed.
"I've smudged my forehead again, haven't I? I just can't get used to this thing actually writing. Styluses aren't messy like that."
I smiled politely again and busied myself with filling in the standard HR forms, while Helen cleaned herself up with a tissue.
Twenty minutes later the sweet, though very young HR girl led me to reception and handed me over to a real office shark. It was etched into everything, from her stylish coiffure to the tips of her high heels. The high-class secretary was arranging documents, and with such dignity and focus that doomsday itself paled before the importance of the task. All I merited was a curt glance from her severe and impeccably mascaraed eyes, motioning me towards a visitors' chair. Not a single word. But who needs words anyway? Words would only have spoiled the whole magic of that silent, yet evocative film.
It was entertaining to see a real live secretary in action. Due to the efforts of directors' wives, secretaries had been among the first to be replaced by Imitators, relieving honest women of that particular headache. Were I conscious of my own uniqueness, I might well behave that way too.
The internal telephone on the table rang.
"Yes, Nathan… of course," said the secretary in an incongruously pleasant voice. She replaced the receiver and, looking at me coldly, nodded towards the office door. "You may go in."
A semidarkness reigned in the room, diluted by the light of a projector. On a small screen I saw the first slide of my resume. Nathan Williams was sitting at his desk and unhurriedly poring over the contents. He cut an interesting figure: expensive suit and tie, manicure, watchful stare, and no sign of plastic surgery to conceal his age. I had read on the company website that the owner of Right Decision Ltd. was over ninety, and for that age he looked amazing. In the comments it mentioned that he did not use a medical pod on principle, having on the staff a human doctor, who was just as ancient as he himself. Looking at his wrinkled face, that was easy to believe. His liver spots didn't add to Williams's charm, but in no way did they affect his working capacity. His mind remained ever alert and inquiring.
"Take a seat," said Nathan with some effort. His hoarse, forty-cigarettes-a-day voice was more suited to a ship's captain than a businessman. The slides changed on the screen – a photo, achievements from my previous places of work, personal information. I didn't recognize the last slide, which contained information from the security service. There couldn't be anything to be ashamed of. A career in a prestigious company obliged you to take good care of your personal and business reputation. Reaching the end of the presentation, the owner asked:
"Brody, what is your relationship with God?"
Only now did I notice the Bible on his desk and a large crucifix on the wall. Both objects looked very expensive, and several bookmarks made of torn pieces of paper protruded from the book.
I don't know what my face reflected, but long-forgotten obscenities swam up in my head. Fuck! You have to warn people in advance about corporate policies like that. I wasn't an atheist, but I preferred not to have anything to do with God. At all. Whatsoever. You could call me an agnostic – I believed there was something somewhere, but it didn't encroach on our lives and did not demand worship. With regard to faith, that was enough for me. But what do you say when your only source of income is at stake? I searched desperately for a correct response.
"I am christened. That was my parents' decision. But I don't go to church."
"You misunderstood me. I wasn't asking about your relationship to the institution of faith. I was asking about your relationship with God."
"That's a very personal question. Nathan, I need a job, and I don't know how to answer your question in order to get it."
The old man laughed. "Brody, there are no correct answers here. I'm just interested to know what sort of person wants to work in my company."
"I think I would best describe myself as an agnostic."
"Thank you for your honesty. People are losing their faith. It's tragic, but not without reason. Barliona can also be used to control the people, can't it? Hehehe."
I didn't know what to say, and shrugged my shoulders. I wanted this to end soon, and with some degree of certainty. It was crappy practice to philosophize on the subject of citizen-control techniques during a job interview.
"Tell me, Brody, what is good about faith? Why do people believe in God?"
"Because it's easier to overcome hardship. Some people don't have enough strength of their own, and faith supports them, humbles them. It's like an element of psychotherapy."
"Good. I like your answer. You've probably noticed certain peculiarities of the company. I shall explain. It's connected with my faith, and that, as you correctly stated, is very personal. Consider everything which doesn't fit into a normal framework for you, to be the folly of a pious old man. When all is said and done, what does it matter if I give you the opportunity to pay for a villa in sector two, and at the same time don't demand that you share my feelings? Right?"
He laughed again. With a couple of unconventional questions, he had checked my resolve in a stressful situation, and defined the limits of what was admissible. Whatever underpinned his methods of business organization, he acknowledged the right of his employees to choose their own faith, but demanded the same of them. It does no harm in this business to remember who pays who, and for what.
"And now to business. Tell me about yourself."
I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard this more familiar interview phrase. In view of the fact that my life story had recently flickered across the screen, the request was obviously loaded. A classic test of attention to detail. Without touching on information already provided, I had to flesh out my resume. Which was all well and good, but the facts needed sifting through scrutinously, otherwise the security service would not have done its job properly. Knowledge of such details allowed relations with the security team not to be spoiled from the word go. I had a set piece ready for just this situation.
"Brody West. Thirty-five years of age. Divorced. Employment history as project manager – over thirteen years. Three major and twenty-five smaller projects successfully completed. I prefer to use Gantt charts, and PMI methodology, considering other methodologies superfluous or inadequate. As tools for Gantt charts I use—"
"Enough," Nathan cut me off, twiddling his fingers nervily. A company owner is the last person who wants to hear the jabberings of a potential mid-level manager, which was exactly what I was banking on. "Have you been told about the project?"
"No. But I'm ready to take on anything lawful. My experience enables me to manage any size of project concerning the construction of network infrastructure. That's why I'm here."
Williams was quiet for a while, concentrating on the restarted presentation. After rubbing his red eyes, he pressed a button on the desk with a shaking hand, and said:
"You've got the job. But there are conditions. Go and have everything explained."
The secretary came in and stood by the door, holding it open. I said goodbye to Williams and left. The lady followed me out, sat down at her desk and, in a businesslike manner, held out a file of documents, saying:
"Brody, here is the decision of the personnel department concerning your candidacy. The director has already approved it."
The file contained my slides printed out on copy paper. When I got to the Conclusions page I was flabbergasted:
"Avoids solid social relationships outside the workplace? Seriously?"
The conclusions of the local psychologists stated categorically that I had problems communicating with other people outside work. When was I supposed to socialize and establish these "solid" relationships, if I was at work from eight in the morning till ten in the evening?
I stared at the secretary, demanding an explanation of what this had to do with the company. She took the file back and flicked through it.
"The conclusions are based on an analysis of the last four years of your life," she began. "You have no family, friends, or interests. Even in Barliona you're represented by a level-ten character. Your entire life is work. You are in a risk group."
"What risk group?" I asked, gobsmacked, still not quite grasping what they were trying to tell me, and unable to get my head round the surreal situation. The secretary slapped the file shut.
"The company is not interested in hiring employees with a risk of developing depression or neurosis from loneliness. If you notice, we pay particular attention to interaction, especially real-world interaction. Even our electronic document flow is kept to a minimum. Brody, has anyone ever made you work thirteen hours a day?"
"No, but work must be completed on time." Apparently the lady and I lived in different realities. In mine, any boss was happy if a person lived at work and for work.
"Mmm. So, you're a good project manager, but managing your working time is beyond you, right? Or were you just afraid to leave the office before the management?" She raised a mocking eyebrow. A secretary able to play with facts! "I must tell the girls to register you for the time management course. Don't worry, it's a common problem now. The director considers it necessary to remind employees about the importance of free time, socializing, and other pleasures."
"So to work for you I have to get married? Or will sexual relations with a long-standing partner suffice?" Angry that strangers were teaching me how to live, I couldn't resist a touch of sarcasm.
"If sex is supplied to you on a contractual basis, it doesn't count," replied the secretary, utterly unabashed. "Brody, do you need a job?"
I nodded gloomily, and she smiled at me almost humanly.
"Then let's dispense with these attempts to rub me up the wrong way. We are currently recruiting a team. The project begins in ten months' time. Your professional qualities are impressive. Your personal ones are cause for alarm. The latter is a priority for our company, but the former permits us to give you a chance. Attend our training course. Of course it's not exactly what you need, but you have to start somewhere."
"And how will you know when I no longer cause alarm for your psychologists and HR people?" I asked.
"That's no problem for them. While you're on the course, they'll watch you and suggest an individual approach to solving the problem."
"For example?" I already didn't know what to expect from these people.
"Anything at all. You can make it up for yourself. Meet up with friends, take interest in their lives, have lunch with your parents more often. If you find a steady partner, it can only be a good thing. Or join a clan in Barliona. You can socialize there. The main thing is that it should be just for fun, and not for the pursuit of some work-related goal. Understand?"
"I understand," I replied unenthusiastically. It irked me that people had weighed me up and were now giving me their recipes for normalcy.
"It's important for us to evaluate your ability to communicate with people outside work. During this time, Nathan is willing to employ you officially as an intern, with a salary of twenty-five percent of a project manager's full pay. If you accept, sign the last page. There's a pen on the stand."
Biometrics had long since replaced personal documents in our state, and a handwritten signature had lost all meaning. Your fingerprints and the retinas of your eyes were always with you, and when you held them to the scanner, you weren't worried about forgeries.
Tired of the weirdness and excessive questions, I just wrote my surname. I didn't have a specific flourish for these situations, because these situations didn't arise. I would deal with everything as it happened, since there was no other way out. I needed any work I could get, because I wanted my own house, a real piece of meat, and the real sun.
"Welcome to the company, Brody. Training begins in one hour. Helen will show you the way." The secretary folded my signed papers meticulously and filed them away.
"Okay, um…" I hesitated, realizing I still didn't know her name. "How should I address you?"
"Victoria, I still haven't been told anything about the project," I said, reminding her of the purpose of my visit.
"All information upon completion of your training. Helen, show Brody to the training hall."
The course turned out to be standard communication training, the likes of which I'd seen a gazillion times before. Never mind seen, I used to run them myself. For a good half hour, myself and seven other unfortunates were subjected to tired tropes explaining the importance of communication and live contact with coworkers. Badly, and by the wrong person. Little Helen, standing by the board, studiously drew adaptation graphs, recited wise quotes, and even read a short piece on the history of the Imitators, without understanding the first thing about it herself. It was clear she had mastered the methodology well enough, but she'd never actually been to an event like this. The result was a master class in how not to conduct a training session.
With my experience and the necessary knowledge, out of sympathy for the girl I gently seized the initiative and organized a Brownian Motion business scenario. One of the best ways to acquaint people with each other is to take the heat off by showing the need for nonverbal communication. It was curious to watch people who were used to exclusively digital interaction, blushing and becoming flustered in their attempts to think up new ways to greet another person – at first tactilely and silently, then tactilely and verbally, and by the end just verbally. After touching another person twice, they now found it difficult to readjust and greet them with only words.
Following that I introduced a standard scenario called, "Find five positive features of your neighbour," which forced them to enter into dialogue, communicate, and draw conclusions about somebody based on that communication. Helen forgot completely about her role and became actively involved in the game, and by the end of the session, the atmosphere was certainly warm, if not friendly. Eventually came the moment I'd been dreaming of since the very start – they let us go home. On the way out of the hall I was intercepted by a stern-looking woman, who turned out to be the head of HR and Helen's direct boss.
"Brody, I'd like a word with you."
I went back into the hall, to see Helen, now wearing headphones, tidying up and shaking her tousled head in time with the music. Seeing her superior in the doorway, she quickly removed the device and tried to adopt a serious look. It was comical, just like in school, I swear.
"Brody, these sessions are not suitable for you," announced the lady. "You've clearly had experience of something similar before. When was that?"
"Way back at the dawn of my rebellious youth. And since then I've often conducted them myself."
"You can tell. You helped me a lot," Helen chipped in.
"Helped?" the boss teased her. "He did your job for you. Should I give him your wages? It's shameful."
The dressing-down had been friendly enough, but the girl's eyes sparkled with tears. The lady and I pretended we hadn't seen anything. To encourage snivelling in the workplace was the height of unprofessionalism. We were agreed on that.
"The training is pointless for you." The lady steered our conversation back on course. "You were clearly in your element. You need taking out of your comfort zone, and we have a number of solutions. Please take a look at these."
An image flickered on the screen. At last, a glimpse of automation, a hint that this might yet be an IT company!
"A company trip to an exhibition of modern art… A fishing competition... A blind date... A character upgrade in Barliona… Stop, rewind! I agree to the training." And I'd thought we were done with idiocy for the day.
"Brody, concentrate on the matter at hand, which is to take you out of your comfort zone." She was relentless.
"I have another suggestion. You and I are business people, aren't we?" I wasn't about to give up so easily, and said, "You still have to do the adaptation course for the others. I can help Helen, teach her. For that we can keep… an upgrade in Barliona, and we can forget about my personal life."
She wasn't exactly fired up at the suggestion, and she fixed me with a heavy stare. But I didn't yield. Assistance came in a very unexpected form. Helen.
"Oh, Grandma, say yes. Brody can help me with my training, and I'll help him with his upgrade. And I'll introduce him to my friends."
The boss's stern manner disappeared in an instant, and she turned to her granddaughter:
"Helen, there is no 'Grandma' here! How many times do I have to tell you? Here I am Maria," said Maria before turning back to me. "Very well, Barliona it is. It's good enough for your purposes. I see your case isn't too far advanced. With your acumen, Brody, you need to build your career using social connections."
"And I will," I chuckled, looking poignantly first at Maria and then Helen. "So what's happening with Barliona?"
"We have a checklist for that kind of adaptation too."
The projector displayed a list of ten items.

Numerical value
Develop your character to required level (candidate chooses parameters)
Become a full clan member or create your own clan (clan size in both cases min. 20 people)
Pass Dungeon at any level as part of another group
Receive Friend status from other players free of charge
Fulfil socially important tasks which provide no game advancement
Give assistance free of charge to random players when they complete tasks
Ask for insignificant help from Social category players
Extended verbal communication with another player
>=2400 min per 6 mths.
Participate as a contestant in 2 festivals in Barliona
Receive 80 Agreeability points from a Barliona NPC

"On top of that, you will lead the course and teach Helen for six months, and then I will approve your socialization." The HR manager had pronounced my sentence.
"I'll be playing at home," I warned.
"You can play in the nether world for all I care… God forgive me," she replied. I was beginning to take a shine to the lady. "But you will spend two hours every day in the office. I shall be checking up on you personally. Now off you go, I'll be expecting you tomorrow."
I went home via the nearest Barliona office. I urgently needed a new pod with the standard frills, and the only game-connection devices at home were a dusty old helmet and gloves, the kind long since discarded by everyone.
Barliona had almost as many outlets as KFC or McDonald's. Each office had its own unique fantasy design based around a real object in the game: a medieval castle, an earth-goblin burrow, or a witches' hut. The person who dreamt all this up was a genius – it was both advertising and immersion in the game. And you couldn't miss it.
The office I came across was stylized as a country tavern. Everything was so real I could hear the creaking of worn steps under my feet, and the sweet aroma of food played with my empty stomach. The interior furnishings and decor also seemed authentically medieval. As you would expect, keeping house behind the oaken bar was an Imitator-innkeeper, and several "customers" – devil-may-care pirates or highwaymen – were drinking beer, playing dice, and poking fun at the serving girl. The most active and noisy were the Imitators; the rest of the crowd consisted of holograms. There wasn't a single person among the office staff.
"Good day to you, lord. What is your desire? I see this is your first time with us." An electronic menu appeared on the counter.

A new client is a favorite client!
In order to become our client, select a type of pod:
·     General continuous-immersion pod (GCI). Supplied free of charge. All standard features: medical unit; sanitation unit; bed sore prevention and massager; pleasure/pain impulse sensors; feeding tube.
·     Professional continuous-immersion pod (PCI). Supplied for an additional fee. All standard features, plus extras: full tactile sensation unit; olfactory centre; fitness module, allowing increase of real physical characteristics (agility, strength, endurance) whilst playing.
·     Professional transitory-immersion pod (PTI). Supplied for an additional fee. All the extras of the PCI pod, but without some standard features: medical unit; sanitation unit; bed sore prevention; feeding tube. Continuous game-connection limit – max. 3 hours. Interval between connections – min. 1 hour.
Familiarize yourself with the terms of the contract and the user agreement.

A multipage text appeared, of the kind which, due to the nature of my profession, I was used to reading in full and with care. Cutting corners wasn't an option anyway, because the system monitored my eye movements, turning the page accordingly. It was impossible to just scroll to the end of the documents and touch a finger to the scanner to confirm my agreement with the contents. I didn't learn anything new – just the customary buck-passing from the administration to the player. I'd prepared identical documents myself and knew all the nuances. There could be no fault-finding – if I died or went bust, it would be my own fault.
The system confirmed that my eyes had followed the text from start to finish, and opened a new window:

Touch any finger to the scanner screen.
Congratulations! You are a new, and therefore favourite client!
Select a type of pod and take the test to define the limit of your tactile sensation

Choosing a pod wasn't all that straightforward. The GCI was free, meaning I would save some money, but it was damn unpleasant when you could feel the feeding catheters, the urine-collection bag, and whatever else inside your body. My body mass, now in three figures, had long been hinting at exercise. The household robodoctor was forever complaining about my blood pressure, and sugar and cholesterol levels, and suggesting a diet and exercise plan, but I would refuse, citing a mad rush at work, a bad mood, the release of the new Star Wars film, or just that it wasn't Monday. Ultimately the choice was between the long-stay and short-stay professional models, and the advantages of the long-stay were obvious: I would fulfil the socialization tasks quicker, the built-in medunit would make sure I was losing weight and, significantly, in six months' time I would be able to give the pod to Matt. I'd be doing him a good turn. And I still felt guilty. Some things are worth loosening the purse strings for.
No sooner had I signed the contract than a crew of service engineers left for my house to install the pod, without even waiting for it to be fully tested. The pods gave the user a whole range of tactile sensations, to make the playing process as realistic as possible, but each one had its own sensitivity threshold, and so that the user didn't accidentally go schizo from overdosing on pleasure or pain, they ran checks before fixing the settings. My figures settled at roughly 30% pain and 80% pleasure. With high parameter readings, the conscious became addled or switched off altogether. In this respect I was statistically average – it would be easier to fuck me to death than beat me to death.
"Would you like to open an internal game bank account? If you do this the same day you sign the contract, we will offer you a discount." The Imitator had begun trying to flog me optional extras, as befitted any good worker.
I had read up on the Bank and the internal game accounts the previous evening, so I knew it was the same bells and whistles as the immersion pod. When a character regenerated, half the money they had at the moment of death remained at the place of death as a trophy. Beginners, of course, had nothing to lose, but as your level rose, so did your income, and thoughts of losing it would begin to torture everyone who was progressing. The Bank offered an automatic transfer of money to your game account, bypassing any pockets. No cash meant you couldn't lose it. Only vagrants refused, because for them, losing half their money was no scarier than the commission for opening and maintaining a virtual account.
"What terms are you offering?"
"Fifty-three credits to open the account. A yearly service subscription of fifty-eight credits. The commission for account transactions is two percent of the sum of the transaction."
"I hope that's without the discount?" I understood vagrants very well.
"The discount applies only to opening an account. Without it the fee is seventy credits. You can also merge a real account with a game account."
"No, I'll keep the game account separate."
"We have a promotion at the moment. If you top up your account with between one thousand and ten thousand credits, you will receive an additional twenty percent from Barliona. There is one small condition – you cannot withdraw the money for three months."
What a surprise! The last free gift I received was from Santa Claus. And that was bought by my dad. My account balance was no secret to the Imitators, and they were trying their hardest to con me into converting real money into game money, in strict accordance with the object of their existence. The less money a client had in reality, the less desire they had to return to that reality.
"Transfer fifteen thousand credits to my game account." Even so, the offer was very tempting.
"Would you like access to a mailbox?" The Imitator continued to list the services available.
"That will be all, thank you." I brought the conversation to a close. Being blessed with a brain, I would decide everything else after reading some forums and guides, and after a chat with my personal expert, Matt.
When I got home I was cheered by the news that the installation and setting of the pod would drag on into the late evening. I called Matt.
"Hi, mate! Can you talk?"
"Hi, Bro. I always have time for you. Just wait a second and I'll log out."
If anyone was going to diss modern technology, it certainly wasn't me. You could call somebody even if they were in their pod. The main thing was to know their number.
"Has something happened?"
"No, I just wanted some advice. I'm having a pod installed. Can you tell me how to go about starting? I killed off my old guy."
"So you decided to go for it?" he said thrilled. I didn't want to go into details over the phone, so I responded with silence, but Matt wasn't expecting anything else. "Cool! You've made my day."
"Uh-huh. Listen, you said you'd worked it all out. Let's meet and you can tell me who to play and where to begin?"
"Great!" He was genuinely excited. "But only in two hours, okay? I've got to finish a quest against the clock. Some guys are waiting for me. Then we'll discuss everything. Bro, shit! Buddy, we've got big work to do! We're gonna kick Barliona's ass for sure!"
Matt hung up, and I dialled the next number. I had a training session to prepare for.
"Vadim, hi, it's Brody West. All good, thanks. Oh, you know already? I've nearly found one, that's why I'm calling. How are you? Great. Listen, remember we ran that communication course years ago? Have you still got the teacher training and preparation plan? It should be on the server in the archive somewhere. Yeah, with the course. I fancy giving it a go. Yes, I know it's all out of date. Can you send it in an e-mail? Thanks. I owe you one."
Before meeting Matt, I had just enough time to fry myself an enormous marbled steak. While I had money, no one was going to stop me enjoying a slap-up meal.
We arranged to meet in the park zone just outside the city. Anywhere else would be difficult for him to get to. The social shelters were being built a ninety-minute journey from the edge of the city, and the reasons were compelling enough. Firstly, to minimize time spent by social citizens among the Free. The less a vagrant saw of normal, comfortable life, the fewer improper thoughts they would have; and if such thoughts did arise, then their realisation would not be far off – an hour tops. Secondly, so that endless concrete anthills wouldn't ruin the green delight the city had become.
The park zones were being developed directly outside the city specifically so the vagrants would have somewhere to stretch their legs. Beyond them was an exclusion zone which only public transport was permitted to enter. The state very charitably paid to deliver the wearers of the metal bracelets from their shelters to the park zone and back. To get to the city you had to take a taxi, and pay for it yourself.
I sat on a bench with a parcel of warm food on my knee and a bag of our favorite beer beside me. It was already evening, though at that time of year twilight draws in much later, so I saw Matt's gangly, jogging figure from a long way off.
"Hey! It's cool you came." He was panting, but it didn't stop him rejoicing at seeing me, and a little physical exertion. We embraced, and he plopped himself down beside me.
"Ah, living it up two days running! Decent food." Matt took his wrapper and got stuck into his kebab. His stomach would organize a revolution out of sheer joy.
"What do they feed you? If I'd known, I would have grabbed something more substantial," I said, opening two cans of beer. I'd already forgotten how easy it was to talk to Matt about simple earthly matters. At work everyone used office speak, even if they were talking about some new dish on the set lunch menu.
"Powdered gruel, like what they give babies. Very little pleasure involved, it's just to clear the pipes out so they don't get gunked up. So go on then, tell me. We haven't got much time." Matt somehow managed to chew, and chat between mouthfuls.
I took a swig of beer, then told him everything, just like at confession.
"Yes, you're in trouble now," he said. "Do you really want to work there? If you ask me, the people in Barliona will be more normal than there."
"Matt, they're offering me something Barliona doesn't have and never will – reality. Sorry, but I want to live here."
"Yeah, I get it. You don't have to explain. In six months you'll completely disappear."
"No, I like the idea of the clan. Let's try it. Six months for set up and development, then we'll need a powerful advertising campaign. Then I'll hand over management to you, and only login for a couple of hours a day."
"Like that, huh? What the hell do we need advertising for?"
"No offense, but even a genius director won't lead an all-vagrant clan to the top. We need advanced players with gear and money. It would be good to find a Maecenas or two. The Phoenixes and the Legends made names for themselves first, then people came flocking to them. Now they always have plenty to choose from. A well thought out advert is half the battle. So, Matt, we create a clan, we establish connections, we organize the collection and processing of materials, we do quests, we sign contracts with NPCs. And that's it – we're the victors in life. All we have to do is start and finish."
"You've already drawn up a plan?" asked Matt respectfully.
"Yeah, just now," I admitted honestly. "They're installing me a pod too, but I haven't got a clue. That's why I called. Come on, we've only got half an hour left."
"You're right. It's just a bit sudden." Matt snapped out of his daydreaming about a happy future, and looked balefully at his bracelet. "If only I could take this bloody leash off. Anyway, listen. A new continent has just appeared…"

Reference information
Continents in Barliona
Astrum – a continent for players in North America
Kaltua – a continent for players in Africa
Calragon – a continent for players in Europe
Celestial – a continent for players in Asia
Ratrandia – a continent for players in South America and Australia
Stivala – a continent introduced in the latest version of Barliona, with no geographical reference for players

For the remaining thirty minutes, Matt gave me the most important bits without going into too much detail. He really did have an idea. While doing some Blacksmith and Engineer business, he'd wangled a rare quest connected with materials on Stivala. After the first settlement of the new lands, players began to mine resources and sell them at auction. Prices for the demon ore were exorbitant, but it was still snapped up in seconds. Matt pushed the boat out too and bought a little ore and some other ingredients, whereupon, for perhaps the first time in the game, fortune smiled on him. After you created some object, the system offered a unique handicraft task, only it demanded lots of resources and funds. He couldn't boast either of these, but were he to have a reliable clan, it might all work out. At that moment he found out I'd lost my job, and he was struck by a ray of hope.
I needed to create my character on another continent, get busy with some Mining and Lumberjacking, bust a gut while making others work too (demanding ten percent to the clan), build a castle on the new continent to house the main stores, and wait for Matt to show up. His last piece of advice concerned expenses imperative for a comfortable game: an account in the game Bank, a mailbox, and a Communication Amulet with a game number. But I knew all that anyway. That was pretty much it: our master plan to nail some unreal megabucks.
I wanted to discuss the rest of the details over the phone, but Matt rejected the idea categorically. Pods and phones were wired, and great ideas stolen without scruple. We parted on that good note, and without me saying out loud what I thought of the plan. At first glance it looked utopian. At second glance too. And third. But what did I know about game economics? Nothing. Before you've done any digging around for yourself, it's silly to speak of the reality or unreality of any plan. Who was I to criticize without an alternative to offer?
Returning home, I poured the first of that night's succession of coffees down my throat, and fell to digging. For three hours I scoured everything available, all the way down to advertising descriptions, guides and official reference materials, until my head was in pieces. Most of what I read was almost worthless, and any essential information on the new continent was only to be found in fee-paying resources. Game specifics, extras, bonuses, advancement tips, videos – everything cost money, and sometimes quite a lot. Apparently this was due to an announcement by the Barliona Administration that people would no longer be able to influence the mechanics of the game. Some recent, large-scale bribery cases had forced the Corporation to take extreme measures – complete replacement of the development and support team by Imitators. Programmers, scriptwriters, designers, cartographers, project developers, and testers were all laid off. Now nobody could spill any beans. The market reacted instantly and prices rocketed. Not so much on legacy content, but you could easily make reasonable money from selling new content.
I decided not to use the sellers' services, preferring to rely on my own experience. On the official site, the most valuable information about starting the game concerned a bonus for commercial accounts. If a player created a new character but left the choice of race, class, and generation location to the discretion of the game, they received a bonus. Since I had no thoughts on the matter, and I only wanted Matt to see the right continent, I was delighted at the opportunity for random generation and the extra bonus for my lack of initiative. As long as the bonus was of use, of course.
When I finished the theoretical preparation for immersion in Barliona, the clock showed I only had three hours plus journey time before work. It was too late to think of sleep, so I decided to check out the pod.
Years ago I dreamt about a huge grand piano in the middle of the living room. That dream, adjusted for time, had almost come true. In the middle – though not of the living room; and huge – though not a grand piano. In its dimensions, the professional pod for continuous immersion in the virtual reality of the Barliona game world was consistent with an unrealized dream. Maybe someday I'd enrol on a course and climb in there to play Vivaldi or Chopin.
After pressing some buttons and carefully studying my new toy, I froze with indecision. To climb in or not to climb in?
Hell, bring it on! This ultra-modern coffin was thought out to the last detail. I didn't actually have to climb in to it, like in the vampire films, because the pod adopted an almost vertical position for loading and unloading the passenger.
Inside, to my surprise, there were no horrible probes, tubes for biowaste, or other suchlike fittings. Or rather there were, but they only appeared and were aligned while the pod was returning to its horizontal position, so the player didn't experience fear or discomfort. I didn't even notice the roof closing. A platform came out, I stood backwards onto it, and it went back in, depositing me into a chamber in the lower part of the pod, at which moment a hoop was lowered onto my head, taking over control of my brain. Absolutely no feeling of claustrophobia or being buried alive in a coffin. Cool!
I stopped sensing my body. All around was boundless and pristine space. And a message before my eyes.

Welcome to Barliona!
Description: We are delighted to welcome our new player! The initial settings of the pod are fixed. The sensory perception filters are set in accordance with your individual characteristics.
Important: You are entering the pod after a long absence from the game. Be advised that the Barliona game mechanics have been significantly revised. You will find a description of the changes on the official game site. A redenomination has been conducted, equating the value of gold in the game with the value of credits in reality.

The system confirmed that I'd read the message to the end, and the message changed.

Select a faction:
Kartoss | Malabar | Free Lands | Random

All the available selections were lit up in red. All I had to do was fix my eyes on an item, and it would instantly change colour to green, changing back as soon as I looked at another item. All clear with navigation.
There were actually many more factions in Barliona, but for our geographical location only these were available. Matt played for Malabar, so I didn't worry too much about my own selection there. The user agreement said the pod was able to read the upper layer of my thoughts. I fixed my eyes on "Malabar" and mentally pronounced:

Select a faction
Are you sure?
The "Selection Assistance" option provides the player with reference information concerning each faction.

"Yes! I don't need any assistance. My selection is Malabar!"

Selection accepted: Malabar
Select the race you would like to play for
<List of races available in Barliona and their descriptions > | Random

"Random generation." This phrase was the key to loading the scene I'd read about on the website.

Random generation of character selected
Necessary action: Define parameters for random generation (min. 4).
·     Faction
·     Race
·     Class
·     Name
·     Appearance
·     Geographical reference
·     Initial location

I shifted my gaze from one parameter to the next, making my selections, until only geographical reference was still red. Players from different factions could easily communicate and collaborate with each other, the only question being language barriers. Still, let's go for it!

Geographical reference selection
Necessary action: Select geographical reference for your character. After confirming random generation, you can only change your race or class after 30 calendar days.
·     Choose continent
·     Go back
·     Cancel random generation of character

"I need the continent of demons – Stivala! I confirm random generation of all other parameters!"
Instead of a message or a progress bar, in front of me appeared a gray-bearded and long-robed elder holding a staff. Resting his hands on the staff, he bowed his head in a dignified manner and said:
"Greetings to you, Free one! You have taken a decisive step." The old man pursed his lips deferentially and stroked his beard. "Such valour is worthy of reward. Barliona needs brave heroes, and it is encouraging that you are one such. Welcome to Barliona, hero Kvalen!"
He knocked on the ground with his staff, then crumbled into a cloud of pixels, leaving in his wake the parameters of my character.

Initial settings generated
·     Faction: Free Lands
·     Race: Tiefling
·     Class: Demon hunter
·     Name: Kvalen (name from "reserved" list)
·     Appearance: customized appearance of player
·     Geographical reference: Lok'dar, continent of Stivala
·     Initial location: Demon hunter training camp

What's a tiefling? Never heard of… demon hunter… I can run around as a hunter… Kvalen is, well, Kvalen, I don't care… All the rest we'll deal with later… "Start game!"
The white space darkened, and a ball of mist appeared ahead. It grew, curled, and stretched, forming a silhouette. The figure gained substance and was complemented with features, and when the mist dissipated I saw a horned, tailed, and hooved creature looking back at me. WTF! My first thought was, "That can't be my guy! It's a goat! All that's missing is the beard!" And in response to my indignation, a somewhat sparse beard suddenly sprouted. Shit! And where's my bonus?
The creature eyed me aggrievedly with its pitch black eyes, with no whites. I looked it sceptically up and down, and gave the mental order to "give us a twirl." This is what they call "customized appearance of player"? The gray canvas coat didn't hide my spare tire, and novitiate's trousers refused to stay up on it. Way to go, tolerance! Although it's true I was even fatter in real life.
So, tieflings are humans with tails, hooves, and goat's horns. If I bumped into my ex in Barliona, she would definitely say, "I always knew it." She would also add that it was a hint at my subconscious and a manifestation of my real alter ego. Ugh, I'm definitely going to change it in a month. I can just imagine Matt's face.
With that thought, I decided to learn how to change my parameters. The beard had materialized, after all. I began mentally saying what I wanted to change, and assessed the results. The original image really was a work in progress waiting to be tweaked. I altered the length and ramification of the horns, the appearance of the tail, the colour of the skin and eyes, and various other things, until I got bored.
Since the game was 18+, I ordered the tiefling to undress, and appraisingly sized up its figure.
"I want a six pack stomach!"
The game responded humorously by drawing lines over the bulging belly. I see you're no idiot.
"I want a sinewy, muscular body with fifteen percent body fat. Oh, excellent!"
My gaze shifted down. Well, it was my customized body, and nobody had actually complained. I decided to leave it as it was.
Making peace with my character's image, I found the Save button with my eyes and read it mentally. Another message appeared:

Birth of a Tiefling scene launched
Description: The Birth of a Tiefling race scene launches every hour. Next launch in 32 minutes. You will be put to sleep while you wait. We wish you a pleasant game!

The tiefling assumed a sprinter's crouch before charging in a flash towards me, horns down. I felt odd and tried to step out of its way, but couldn't – I didn't have a body. At the last moment, when I realized collision was inevitable, I screwed up my eyes and… felt nothing. No impact, no pain. But I couldn't open my eyes.
The feeling of space suddenly changed. There was no time to even pin down or keep track of the moment. I was just suddenly aware of myself drowsing in a comforting liquid and experiencing fantastical blissfulness. I floated with closed eyes, occasionally bumping into something soft and warm, rejoicing in my own being, and that of the warm, soft thing, and in our bumping. I loved this thing, and I loved our gentle physical contact, and it responded in kind, for in the ocean of bliss there is room for all. There is no need to waste your breath on spite and aggression. Everything around is invoked to give us happiness.
"Arise, my children! Your hour has come. It is time to emerge into the light." A delicate and seductive voice sang out. Only a mother could speak so tenderly. Mother. I wanted to approach her, and was afraid to uspet her with my inertia. I must hurry! I reached out towards the voice, straining to open my eyes. It wasn't easy, but I tried. Mother would be angry if I was blind or came last. She didn't like failures, and ate them straight after their birth. There was no place for weaklings among demons.
I broke out in a cold sweat from head to toe. What freaking demon? When I understood the absurdity of my own thoughts, I opened my eyes. Then I screamed. From shock. A normal reaction for a person who finds himself swimming in a lake of molten lava. The world around was so natural, its colours so deep and voluminous that my vocal cords seized up with fear and my cries were cut short. I managed to save my conscious by concentrating on the game interface buttons, which did not disappear even when I blinked. My brain accepted this as a weighty argument in favour of virtuality, and was calmed. It's just Barliona, I'm in virtuality, surrounded by a pod, nothing more. Everything's fine.
I breathed out heavily and looked around. There really was a lake of lava surrounded by cliffs. The horizon line was hidden some distance away, behind the tall, rocky barrier. Leaden clouds hung low in the sky, showering rain down on me through the thunder and lightning, though the water drops evanesced before they could reach the ground. The lava did not burn; quite the opposite, it was warm and comforting.
Aside from me, another dozen heads were swimming in the lake. Oddly, I couldn't see a single other player among the newborn tieflings. They were all NPCs. In a state of ecstasy from their unity with the lava – primogenitrix matter – they also floated eyes closed. My hand reached out by itself to touch my new accoutrements. Curious sensations. Neither the tail nor the horns felt alien, just like I'd had them all my life. Completing my examination, I swam a little front crawl, all the while contemplating my fellow clansmen. Until I realized my mistake – I was not alone here from the real world. Alongside me was a player from the social shelters, for some reason bearing the simple name Eredani.

Reference information
Character names
Within Barliona every character's name is unique. To provide uniqueness, and to satisfy players' desire to be named as they choose, composite names are used, consisting of two or more words. There is also a register of "reserved" simple names. This is a fee-paying service. Reserved names can be used free of charge by Premium Account holders, or when a player selects random generation for his character (min. 3 parameters). Simple names are also assigned to prisoners, using min. 10 letters.

When the player noticed me, I nodded to him in greeting, but instead of replying, he pointed to something behind my back. I turned round and immediately began paddling backwards and swearing loudly. It was going to take a while to get used to Barliona. On the shore of our jacuzzi stood the High Demoness Ireness, and behind her, chained to the wall, hung an array of tormented and barely alive beings: orcs, humans, elves. The demoness made a pass with her hand, and one of the victims doubled up in pain. The creature, a onetime paladin, choked on his own shrieks, before his body went limp and gray, and another tiefling surfaced beside us, luxuriating. A life for a life was the name of this sanguineous scene.
Turning again to the vagrant, I saw him swimming with broad strokes towards the opposite shore. A sensible decision. I had no desire to hang around under Mother's gaze myself, so I swam after him, carefully detouring around blissed-out tieflings. We reached the rocky shore at almost the same time, but I chose to climb out a little way from Eredani.
I pulled myself half out of the lava and was immediately pierced through by a savage cold. Once upon a time my wife had convinced me to buy a cryochamber, saying something about rejuvenation and rebooted immune systems. Still young and in love, I allowed myself to be talked round without going into the details, but by the time I was wearing wafer-thin clothes and strange footwear with metal heels, I felt most out of sorts. I entered the first chamber without a fuss, simply because I didn't know what to expect, and was greeted by a temperature of -60. I had to be manhandled into the second chamber (where it was -120) by my colleagues, motivated by the fact that it was already paid for, and assured I wouldn't notice the difference. Only then did I realize what the iron heels were for: those fuckers outside could hear if I'd died or still hadn't quite yet attained the grade of White Walker. The only thing that got me through the ordeal without strangling anyone, was remembering I was a real man and could not disgrace myself in front of my dear lady.
Similar sensations awaited me when I hauled myself out onto the shore. But seeing Eredani, who had pulled himself out first, produced a muffled "Woah, shit!" and dived straight back in, and understanding there was no one around to flaunt anything to, I followed his example. Immediate relief and drowsiness, and no wish to exit the lava again. If anyone felt so inclined, they could dig me out.
"In the name of Light!" A hullabaloo to wake the dead came crashing through the thunder and the snarlings of the demoness. "Die, spawn of the Abyss!"
Lightning bolts skidded across the lava and produced a light, but nevertheless unpleasant prickling on the skin. New dramatis personae entered the stage: a sparkling gold warrior, a girl dressed in snow white, and a heavyset, bearded man with a shield twice his own size. My little knowledge of game classes and races was enough to identify a paladin, a priestess, and a warrior. Or alternatively, a human, a she-elf, and a dwarf.
"You're too late, light one!" hissed Mother, adding ultrasonically, "They are all mine!"
My body quaked at the shrieks of the primogenitrix, and the upper part of my viewer was occluded by a slew of vibrantly coloured pictograms. Mother's debuffs did us no harm; the demoness guarded her children most attentively.

Reference information
A positive status effect on a player, created by increasing one or several of their characteristics. A buff may affect a player indirectly, increasing, for example, their Agreeability to NPCs. The duration of a buff may be specified, or may last until cancelled by the player.
A negative status effect on a player, differing from direct damage. As a rule, for any stat which may be increased by a buff, there is a debuff which decreases it.

"You have no power in this world!" answered the paladin no less loudly. He raised his hammer up to the heavens, where it shone brighter than the sun. "In the name of Eluna!"
"Bastard," said Eredani, wincing with pain. The paladin had fixed the whole vicinity with light magic, unconcerned for our wellbeing. The slightest movement was enough to burn your whole body mercilessly, and it occurred to me that thirty percent pain was too much for me. Trying not to move, I observed the unfolding spectacle. The scriptwriters had gone a touch overboard on pathos for my liking.
"Your paladins were the first to be sliced up," laughed the demoness, blind to the light emanating from the hammer. "But do not weep, they did not die in vain, for they allowed my children to enter Barliona. It is their home now and you cannot banish them from it. See how strong my children are. It was the power of the paladin's death cries that made them this way."
"Beast! Go back to where you came from! I banish you!" cried the priestess, and the white Eluna merged with the yellow light of the paladin's hammer. The demoness could not hold off this two-pronged attack and she began to wither, as her recent victims had. I remembered from the guides that fire could not harm a high fire demon, and only sacred light could have any effect on them. Ireness was in a really bad way, and in her death throes she threw out crimson threads to her prisoners, mummifying them on the spot. The instantly released power she kept for herself, though there was little of it, and she was not about to die quietly:
"You shall never achieve anything! This world will be ours!"
The demoness scattered like ash, and all was still. Gone was her monotonous gnarling, gone were the prisoners' wails, gone was the thunder. And in that ringing silence, the footfall of the paladin rang out like the blows of his hammer.
"They are all dead, Bartalin," said the girl sadly, after inspecting the prisoners shackled to the rock face. "She took their souls with her. I cannot revive any of them."
"Lorgus, unloose them." Even when he wasn't shouting, the paladin's voice was powerful. "The brothers deserve a proper burial."
Servants appeared and, under instruction from the dwarf, began to release the mummies from their chains and lay them on stretchers. The paladin and the priestess approached the lake.
"Spawn of the Abyss!" said the paladin with ill-disguised hatred, and spat. His spittle evaporated before it hit the lava.
"Do not be so harsh, Bartalin. They are the sons and daughters of our brothers." The priestess was more tolerant towards other races. "Children are not responsible for the sins of their parents. Give the volcanic tieflings a chance."
"You ask too much for the demons! There is only one place for them in Barliona – the eternal chains of the demonologists!"
"They are not demons, Bartalin." The she-elf was insistent. "Our blood runs in them too – the blood of elves, of humans, of dwarves, of orcs. Do not let the memory of that blood die! There are ever fewer warriors. Ireness will return. Be prepared! Instruct the tieflings and send them to fight her. Better a half-demon should die than a human or an elf. We will choose those who can stand against the will of Ireness, we will purify them, we will train them, and we will send them into battle."
So that's the way it is! Mercy comes in no pure form. The priestess saved us not out of kindness, but for the sake of her fellow tribesmen who were hunted and killed by Ireness. Expendables – that's what tieflings were to the she-elf. Hypothetically, Ireness could only have killed us. We were unfit to be used as food or for bearing new children.
"As you please, Abigail," the paladin relented. "Do with them as you will."
The priestess nodded. An inexplicable force drew me up out of the soothing hot liquid and left me hanging in the air. The cold immediately fettered my body and my mind, but before I blacked out, I heard the order:
"Lorgus, we need more stretchers! We are taking the tieflings with us."
My consciousness returned in a couple of seconds; at least, that's what the system clock showed. I was lying inside a warm dome, which is why I no longer felt cold. The lake among the cliffs had transformed into a stony dungeon with steel bars at the window and a small iron door. Apart from myself, and two wizards holding up the dome, there were also two elves: the familiar snow-white Abigail, and a certain Uldaron, dressed in leather with chainmail reinforcements.
"I'm not sure," said Uldaron, looking me over like a horse at the fair. "Too many disadvantages, too much hassle. The fiery nature and demonic essence must be suppressed, otherwise he'll die. But that will make him weaker. What do I want with a warrior like that? The first weakling he runs into will knock him down with a stick."
"His enemies are demons. He has good defense against them. All the rest is irrelevant. He's a Free citizen, he can come back from the Gray Lands. If they knock him down with a stick, he will get up, dust himself down, and continue. Such warriors are exactly what we need now."
"Then let him be a warrior!" muttered Uldaron, dissatisfied. "Why make a demon hunter out of him?"
"Because these are the only two left!" said the priestess. "You should have come to the assembly on time, then you could have chosen your own Free citizens! They all came. Uldaron, you know you can't not take them. Either you take them, or your training camp will be closed down and all the recruits redistributed. The choice is yours."
"Oh, I'm riddled with doubt now!" he quipped. "Let me think. So, either they shut down the training camp, or I take these two waifs. I really don't know, it's such a difficult choice."
"Quit clowning around. Consider the tieflings a challenge."
"Purify them and dispatch them. I'll figure it out as we go along." This was already the second NPC to concede an argument to Abigail. Did she have high Charisma or something? On the surface you wouldn't say so.
"Brother Lektor, he's all yours," called Abigail, and another priest entered the cell. This time a human. I got goose bumps just from the look of him. Brother Lektor had a malicious look about him. Not spiteful, but just that – malicious. And heavy.
"Dome!" he ordered, swinging his censer harder and harder and filling the cell with smoke. The wizards lowered their hands, and the heat sphere around me disappeared. "Now get out!"
The NPCs vanished into thin air, and for the third time recently the cold descended on me. I hunched over on the floor, searching convulsively for the Escape button. However, either the cold affected my brain that way, or I wasn't allowed out according to the script, because there were no buttons on the status bar. The game did not want to release me until the end of the scene.
"Don't hold your breath, you're not going to die." Kindness was not brother Lektor's strong suit. He waved the censer above me until I was totally enveloped in black smoke. The cold left me, giving way to weakness. The priest proceeded to whine a prayer in a mind-numbing recitative in an unfamiliar language, and then sprinkled my head with a gray power. Resigning myself to my current situation, I wearily shut my eyes and waited for the end. The cold was gone, and sooner or later the script would come to an end.
"I name you Kvalen!" After the purification process Abigail preferred to endow me with my name herself. "Henceforth you are a tiefling – half-demon/half-human. Arise, Free citizen of Barliona!"
I tried to get to my feet, but it was futile – my body was wooden. Every movement was a struggle requiring maximum effort. Sensations and my perception of the world were too natural. During the scene I forgot a couple of times that everything around was virtuality. Which is why I remained lying on the ground, waiting for whatever would happen next. I wasn't in the habit of putting myself out much in the real world, and I couldn't make myself overcome pain just like that and stand up in a virtual one. It wasn't about pressing buttons in a comfortable armchair.
"And this is a demon hunter?" asked Uldaron in disgust. "He can't even get up off his knees! Take him to the training camp! I hope he'll have the brains to escape from there by himself."

Birth of a Tiefling scene completed
Description: Birth of a Tiefling race scene completed. We wish you a pleasant game!

Some control buttons appeared on the progress bar, and I pressed Exit. Fuck Barliona with its continuous immersion! I should have agreed to that fishing date.

Chapter 2

Jumping around the room, shivering, while trying to get dressed, I couldn't seem to get my foot into my trouser leg. Shit, why was it so cold? It felt like the next ice age had decided to kick off in my house. Having eventually dealt with my clothes, and tapping out a Morse-code message with my teeth, I skipped sprightly to the kitchen in search of something warming. Oddly, the thermometer was showing the usual 23°.
Bundled up in a blanket and armed with a cup of cognac-laced coffee, I hit the Internet to find the answer to the perennial question: WTF? The cognac entered my system in small doses and was exclusively for medicinal purposes. Namely to warm up and calm down. It worked.
The seasoned gamers on the forum assured me the cold I was experiencing was absolutely normal after the first few immersions. It was like a phantom pain, the body continuing to feel what it had recently experienced in the pod. With time the brain became used to the virtuality, and would react correctly to changing conditions.
Next in line for research were the tieflings. Who were they, and what did you eat them with? Ha ha. If I'm honest, I didn't understand the nature of the bonus I'd undertaken all this for. The more I read about Kvalen's race on the official website, the more questions I had for the developers.

Reference information
A closed race. A half-demon, born of a fire demon and a creature of another race. Appearance depends on the demon parent, but all representatives have horns, a tail, hooved lower limbs, and monotone black eyes. In order to adapt to life in Barliona, tieflings have lost their demonic power, fire resistance and enhanced survivability. Their demon ancestry has resulted in Barliona residents' negative attitude towards half-demons.

Race abilities of fire tieflings
·     Increased basic value for Agility (+3 each 10 levels) and Intellect (+3 each 10 levels)
·     Increased fire resistance (+50 %)
·     Increased demon magic (+30 %)
·     Increased resistance to demon magic (+50 %)
·     Total-darkness vision

Race weaknesses of fire tieflings
·     Decreased basic value for Strength (-3 each 10 levels) and Stamina (-3 each 10 levels)
·     Increased harm from Barliona magic (+30 %)
·     Inability to study Barliona magic
·     Weak reaction of healing incantations to Barliona magic (-50 % to healing)
·     Growth rate for Agreeability to NPCs also decreased by 50 %

A search for the term "closed race" bemused me. If the guides were to be believed, players could not choose their own race, class, or anything else marked "closed." However, apart from myself there was another player swimming in the lava, and he was on a social contract. Interesting.
Over and over I reread the information and weighed up my prospects. I categorically disagreed with the developers that having a goat as your character was a great bonus, but there was nothing I could do about it. According to the rules of random generation, I would have to run around cloven-hooved for a month, maybe longer. Things weren't looking good. Not only would NPCs be hostile to me because of my demon genealogy, but players would also turn up the heat.
I didn't know how to go on. If I deleted my account and created a new one, I could only recoup my money in three months' time. And the refund system was very unclear. I wasn't about to risk my savings, so I wrote an official enquiry to client support concerning a refund and having being made a tiefling. Everything by the book.
"Hi. Are you asleep?" After finishing my letter I called Matt, only glancing at the clock when it was already too late.
"Hi," he replied croakily, before yawning into the microphone. "I'm asleep."
Sleep in Barliona was never sound, but social players had no choice. They had no time or place to relax.
"Shit, I wasn't thinking."
"Rom, call whenever you like. There'll be time for sleep."
When I understood how stupid my reason was for waking him up at half six in the morning, I hesitated.
"I wanted to ask you… I've created myself a character."
"Ah," he said and was silent, either groggy from being half asleep, or surprised at the fervour with which I'd dived into Barliona. "Great. What's your name? Height? Weight? Are we going to wet the baby's head?"
"Horns, more like. They called me Kvalen. Have you heard of tieflings?"
"The half-demons? I read something in the news. I don't remember. What, have you made yourself a tiefling? They're hardcore!"
"It wasn't me." I had to confess what a genius I was to have found such a great random generation scene. "I'm sitting here wondering whether to delight in my goat-legged bonus, or delete it in a month."
"Ah, that's why you're calling?" Matt sighed with relief. "I was worried something had happened. Ditch it and create a new one. The simple name is cool, but it's not worth the hassle – nobody likes demons. It'll be a massive pain in the ass. Even demonologist's are getting strange looks. It's not much of a bonus."
"I can't delete it straight away, only in a month. What am I going to do? A whole freaking month on my butt, then start all over again."
"Well… let's meet today and discuss a strategy. I'll think of something to keep you busy for a month."
"Why bother meeting? I'll call you when I get back from work." It occurred to me that every time we spoke Matt suggested getting together.
"No, let's have a beer," he insisted, although he quickly added, "Or are you busy? In which case we can meet tomorrow."
"I'm not busy. It's just a ninety-minute journey for you. And what the hell for? Just don't say that evil foes are tapping our phones and stealing ideas."
I heard a deep snuffling sound, one that I'd known since childhood. Matt was brooding.
"Well? Say something," I said.
"What is there to say?" he mumbled. "Just a bit longer and I'll be back, Bro. In there I'm a druid with a unique task. Out here I'm a vagrant whose wife and kids have left him. Nearly everyone's gone from our block. They live in Barliona. And all the rest come out looking angry and bottled up. You can't talk to them, or have a drink with them. I reckon I'll lose it soon and get stuck in there. I've already got no reason to leave the pod every day. I see the kids once a week, and that's for an hour. I don't have time for anything else."
I felt for him, but didn't know what to say. I'd always felt awkward when it came to showing sympathy and support.
"Okay. I'll just sort work out, buy some beer, and be on my way to yours. I'll call."
"I'm not going to say no. I'll be waiting," he said. I was just about to hang up when he said, "Wait! I've just thought about your tiefling. Nobody knows anything about them. Or about demon hunters. It's a new race, a new class, a new continent. Just smell the cash! Don't be too hasty about leaving the training camp. Go for a walk, have a look around, make a video, draw a map. You can do a lot of trading in a month, make some contacts in the top guilds. What's wrong with that? Then you don't need to delete your guy."
"Agreed. I'll do some thinking," I said.
Whichever way you looked at it, Matt was right. I hadn't seen any rates for information about the new continent. With the proper handling, my goat had a good chance of becoming a golden antelope.
"Matt, can you do me a favour? Sometimes I don't get obvious things, just because I don't think about them. Next time tell me straight, without that spy paranoia. You heard it yourself – I'm socially challenged. I've even got a psychologist's note."
"Go to… work, socially challenged. Pack it in with the self-reflection. I'm going to sleep."
The situation with Matt worried me more and more. Was I a friend or what? He definitely needed dragging out of the shelter. Yet again I prowled the expanses of the Internet, trying to work out how to restore him to normal society. After flicking through a couple of legal reference bases, I realized I knew lots about turning citizens into vagrants, but nothing about the reverse process. My entire experience was not enough to render the legal documents unambiguously. They'd done it deliberately. It was advantageous to the government to have everybody sitting in Barliona rather than exacerbating the situation in the world with their irrelevance. With the thought that I needed a consultation with a good lawyer, I closed my laptop and went to work.
All contemporary learning had long since been transferred to virtuality. People slid into their pods to mingle with teachers, other students, and simulation programs, and got excellent results in no time and with minimal expense. But Right Decision Ltd. didn't cut corners, and out of a sense of duty I decided to comply.
Helen was waiting for me in the empty hall, ready to absorb the wisdom of my experience. Just like a million years ago, instead of a tablet she had a graph-ruled exercise book and a ballpoint pen. Where did she even manage to find them? Couldn't you find an ink pot, my little eager beaver? Instead of the expected lecture, I dumped a stack of printed sheets in front of her.
"Right. We are not going to waste each other's time. Memorize this lot by Monday. Inside out, down to the last comma. If you learn it earlier, call me and we can start putting theory into practice. If not, I'll punish you on Monday."
"How?" Aghast, Helen looked from the papers to me and back.
"I don't know yet." I frowned and said, "Helen, don't think about the punishment. Concentrate only on fruitful work."
"I'm not asking about the punishment," she said, raising her voice. "How am I supposed to learn all this? Don't you have an electronic version? I could throw it in the emulator and listen to it in the pod."
"Not likely, my girl! It wouldn't be corporate to use the blessings of civilization like that. What's your character in Barliona?"
"A paladin."
"There you go. You like facing hardship head on. Open the first page and read it to yourself. If you don't get it, read it again. Quote it from memory. If you make a mistake, read it again. Repeat the cycle until you've learnt it all by frigging heart. During this time I will allow you to use swear words in conversation with me, to make the learning process easier."
"I… I'll tell grandma! This is absolute nonsense!" shrieked the girl.
"Then I'll punish her too. I choose the teaching method. Of course if grandma doesn't agree, everything's open to discussion," I said calmly.
"Hch-hm," resounded the diplomatic cough of the HR boss from a speaker. "Maria sees no need to interfere and revise the terms of your socialization. Old methods of instruction are just as valid as new ones."
I broke out in a wide smile. "As you wish."
"We're not allowed to spend personal time on work. Had you forgotten?" continued the girl stubbornly.
"You will learn everything by end of business today," stressed Maria.
"But there are two hundred and thirty-six pages of font size ten! I'd rather die than learn all this using your old-fashioned methods."
"Helen! Don't be so childish! Have you been given a task?" barked Maria in such a tone it went right through even me.
"Yes," said the girl in a whisper. Grandma was perfectly capable of becoming a strict department head when she saw fit. The faded Helen collected her papers and headed for the door.
"Helen, why are you such a muddlehead? No one's taken the scanner away," her beloved grandmother grumbled after her. Helen paused for a second, and with a shriek of, "Thanks, grandma," she flew off to fulfil her task.
"Maria, I could use a lawyer," I said before the lady signed off. "I want a consultation on a personal matter. Would that be possible?"
"It would. They'll help you in reception. Come and see me afterwards. And Brody, don't scare the girl. Otherwise it'll be me doing the swearing. And we don't want that now, do we?" came the reply, before the intercom shut off.
I could have argued with Maria about how to educate the youth, but she was right, I genuinely didn't want that. After quickly squaring everything with Helen as planned, I went to reception, where Victoria was leafing lazily through pages on a tablet. I approached and strained my neck to have a peek at how the director's assistant entertained herself when she was left alone. No doubt reading valuable advice from silly women's magazines. Noticing my interest, she turned off the screen, not allowing me to confirm my suspicions.
"Good morning, Brody. How can I help?" Her right brow was raised high, demonstrating a disparity between her polite tone and her real feelings concerning my early appearance. A display of true professionalism.
"Good morning, Victoria. Could I talk to the company lawyer concerning a personal matter?"
"What matter?"
"A personal one."
"Brody, what kind of lawyer are you interested in?" she asked, rolling her eyes pointedly and making me feel stupid.
"A civil one."
"You can talk to me."
"You're a civil lawyer?" I didn't believe her.
"Does that make you feel uncomfortable?" Victoria could work her eyebrows superbly.
"No, not at all." I shrugged. I wouldn't have been surprised if she earned some extra cash cleaning the office after work. You never know. "I need some advice concerning a citizen-welfare contract."
"Brody, could you dispense with the verbiage and be a bit more specific?" She still looked relaxed, but I discerned a barely noticeable change in her posture.
"I have a childhood friend. I recently found out he's on a social contract. How can we get it annulled?"
"You want to become socialized in favour of your friend?" Her voice became icy. "That's a bad idea, Brody."
"No, I just want to help him. And please don't lecture me." I drew forward. She wrinkled her nose.
"Have you been drinking?" she asked.
Jeez! How keen is your sense of smell to sniff out a drop of cognac?
"Just coffee." I urgently had to regain face and feign unease. "I had a pod installed late last night, and decided to try total immersion. I didn't get any sleep, and this morning I mistook a bottle of cognac for a bottle of syrup. It happens."
Victoria narrowed her eyes sceptically. "You do understand how stupid that sounds?"
"I understand," I said, smiling widely. "But it's the truth. You've seen my resume. No problems with alcohol. So what about this consultation?"
"You'll get your consultation. But first tell me, why do you want to restore someone who's already given up and gone to Barliona?" The secretary looked like someone who was confident in her right to demand answers. I tensed up.
"He's my only friend."
"Okay, so you get your friend out. What then?" She narrowed her eyes further, unpleasantly now, and leaned in towards me. "If you don't succeed, you are aware that your friend will burn up? Will you be able to forgive yourself?"
I felt uncomfortable with the turn our conversation had taken. Victoria was conducting the interrogation harshly. However, my gut feeling was not to get pissy, but to calmly convince her of the seriousness of my intentions.
"Burning up" was a real threat for people who were forever returning to the shelter. Not for everyone, of course – for about ten percent – but it was enough for folks to start talking about the problem. Something broke inside people, robbing them of their self-awareness. All that remained was a body, and the ability to eat, sleep, breathe, and defecate. In all other senses the person was as good as dead. Interestingly, the luminaries of science could find no evidence of damage to the brain on either a physical or a spiritual level. There was also the question of what was worse: disappearing into Barliona forever, or burning up.
"I'll have nothing to forgive myself for. I'll sign him up for retraining. You can't do that in the shelter, because the social pods are only connected to Barliona servers. He'll get certified, and then we'll find him a job. The Imitators aren't everywhere."
"Repeat that to yourself more often." The lady averted her gaze, and now answered me as a generic lawyer. "Citizens on a social contract may have their contract annulled only if they can provide evidence of financial security. It might be a work contract, in reality or virtuality, it doesn't matter, the main thing is it's not short-term. Or if the citizen is a dependent, according to family legislation. But that's irrelevant to you. Or are you related?"
"No. Do they demand a regular income?"
"It must be equal to or more than minimum wage. There are no stipulations concerning the kind of work. General director or street sweeper. But it must be official. You can also register your relationship, in which case we'll consider it as a factor in your socialization." There wasn't a trace of a smile in the woman's eyes. I wondered if she was always like that, or it was just a reaction to my question.
"No, thank you. We'll get by old school. For the training period I'll take him on as a driver or personal assistant. I've seen my neighbors do it. It shouldn't raise any questions."
"No, it shouldn't. Brody, I must repeat that if you can't find your friend a job, after he returns to the shelter he may burn up completely. And you'll have no more friends." There was a hint of something other than human sympathy in Victoria's voice. "Have a good think before signing a contract and registering him with the municipality. And it would be better if your friend decided for himself if he really needs this or not."
It was a harsh point, but fair, though nobody in the world could have convinced me we wouldn't make it work. After thanking Victoria and taking my leave, I went to see Maria. No lessons were planned for that day, and I wanted to sort Matt out as soon as possible.
"Brody, Nathan likes the way you've got into the swing of things. He thinks that for the period of your training you can run a course for all candidates."
"Why all? We could just work with the ones that are taken on."
"The company can afford to work with everyone. Even if we reject a candidate, a course like that will still be useful to them. Don't forget, people have lost their jobs. Live interaction will encourage them and help them determine their future."
"I understand. What will I have to do?"
"Design a five-day course. Candidates will be sent to you every week in groups of five to seven. When you finish on Friday you will write me a short report. As a former director you will immediately see who works well in a team and who is a lone wolf. You evaluate only their professional qualities and whether they can adapt or not. Helen will help you with everything, and study at the same time. Then later she'll take over."
"Okay. I'll have everything ready by Monday."
"I wouldn't expect anything less." Maria nodded her satisfaction and sighed. "Brody, stop this nonsense. What was wrong with the pod? It's a quick and effective way to study. You can only reject the blessings of civilization to achieve certain goals, not out of spite!"
"That's the way it was, Maria!" I pretended I didn't know what she was talking about. "Firstly, Helen must be able to solve problem situations. Secondly, since it didn't occur to her to use the scanner, she would have learned to calmly get into a routine. I understand your loyalty to her, but the youth need conditioning."
"The youth indeed. I understand your position. Have a good weekend."
Organizing a work contract was no problem. The Imitators in the municipality blocked part of my finances to provide six months' salary, accepted my pledge that I would provide the employee with permanent accommodation, and gave the go-ahead to annul the social contract. Now I just had to convince my friend.
"Ahh, that's good," said Matt, taking a large swig of beer. I stretched myself out beside him and was quiet, allowing him to offload. "Just to sit and look, and not worry some bandit's about to lynch you from behind. Not to have to hide or be on the look out. To appreciate what you're eating. Can you hear my stomach rumbling? Music to the ears! The last year's been terrible. Sometimes I climb out of the pod and punch the wall till my fist bleeds. It's nothing to worry about, I'm fine. In the pod you quickly forget what it is to feel, but punch the wall and you immediately understand that it's for real out here. Blood, pain, friendship, love. And that you climbed out into reality for a good reason. Get it?"
"I get it, Matt. Actually, I have a proposal for you." It seemed like the right time. "Come and live with me."
"Yeah right. I'll just throw off these leg irons and run and get my stuff." Matt sniggered and shook his bracelet. "This is no place for vagrants."
"I'm not joking," I said, getting out my tablet and showing him the documents. "By decision of the municipality, I can hire a personal assistant, and provide him accommodation and a stipend of a thousand credits a month. Official employment with all the trimmings. They've already approved the annulment of your social contract. If you agree, that is."
"Rom…," his voice faltered.
"Matt, don't get all emotional. I need a friend, not an assistant. Alive and healthy. And your kids need you too. I'm not doing this for the laugh, so don't think I am. You're going to be working like a dog. In six months you've got to finish the course and get certified. Staying in the shelter is not an option. You know your pods are only connected to the game. Engineers will always be in demand, and with certification you'll find work quickly."
"I haven't got anything to pay for training with," said Matt, turning gloomy. "Banks don't give loans if you have a shelter back story."
"I'm not a bank, and I'll give you one. You can pay it back when you find a job." I tapped on the screen and showed him a list of vacancies for engineers. "Look how much work there is. Get trained up, get certified, and off you go. Barliona isn't going anywhere. There'll be plenty of time for playing. Well, what do you reckon?"
"I'm thinking," he mumbled.
I gave him a minute, then said, "Finished?"
"Finished what?"
"Thinking about burning up?"
"What freaking burning up? Leaving Barliona and burning up are the same bloody thing! I don't want to be a burden on you."
"Don't be daft. Put your finger on the scanner and let's do this. You're not going to be a burden."
"What, that's it?" he asked incredulously. I nodded.
"You're kidding," he muttered and touched the screen. A metallic clicking sound, and the bracelet unlocked and fell into his lap. The liberation was symbolic – the manacles were off but they didn't disappear, a reminder of the time factor and the dwindling finances. We had half a year to get our feet on the ground.
We went straight to the municipality, where we handed in the tag of slavery and officially confirmed Matt's status. Then we went to the sales office for a new pod. He refused point blank to accept a professional model, and I didn't force the issue, as I understood how he felt. I didn't forget myself either, reducing my pain threshold to ten percent and buying a Mailbox and a Communication Amulet. Together they cost me nearly two hundred and twenty credits. No small sum for standard gaming communication gadgets. We took the installation guys home with us. After the age it had taken to install the professional model, the standard pod only took half an hour.
"Bloody hell! What on earth do you need a mansion like this for?" Matt entered the house and was immediately impressed.
"Andrea wanted to live in sector two, so I rented this as soon as my salary would allow. Then she left, and I couldn't be bothered to move. I got used to it."
"Shit, you're an oligarch! I bet you've got a miniature golf course in the back garden."
"Uh-huh, and a wine cellar." It was amusing to see Matt in such wonder. I was so used to it I'd stopped noticing.
"Where's this wine cellar? Are you going to give me the grand tour?" he asked.
I tried to insist on a full excursion, but he didn't want to hear it. As a result, we sat on the steps in the cellar, uncorking bottle after bottle. That day Matt didn't even find out about the billiards room and small swimming pool. Never mind, all in good time. He had his restoration to celebrate, and nobody has nerves of steel. He wound down to the max, me keeping him company officially, and as soon as he passed out I lugged him up to his room and onto his bed, to have a good sleep and then remember what a hangover was. Without the robodoctor. It would be good for his health to sober up by himself. Who was complaining about not having any feelings?
After wandering around the house for a bit, trying to get used to not living alone anymore, in lieu of dinner I slipped into the pod. Everything else could wait. Now I wanted to sort out those tieflings and demon hunters, since all the information on them in the Internet I'd have to pay for. A few minutes of initiation, and my hooves were shining in the dull rays of the Barliona sun. Welcome back. Kvalen, in his familiar canvas trousers and shirt, with no protection, was resurrected in the middle of a small temple made of sand, surrounded by smooth boulders. Up ahead, about two hundred meters, were some wooden buildings like old barracks, whence came a ringing sound, shouts, and an unpleasant smell. No, not a smell. Something imperceptible, without distinct qualities, yet invoking an unpleasant sensation of chill. Trees grew all around, and try as I might to make anything out through them, I could see nothing. Only tables of properties popping up and obscuring the already limited view – common maple, crumbly oak, heather shrub, magnolia vine. I gave several mental orders, after which everything began to appear only on request. Although there was now a good view of the mountain range which concealed the horizon line. I could even see the snowy peaks without binoculars. The location was picturesque and fairly sizeable.
"Are you going to be admiring the view for long?" An unpleasant voice distracted me from studying the landscape, and alongside me materialized an NPC marked, "without level". The human called Tarlin turned out to be a demon hunter like me. His face was disfigured with scars, as though it had suffered a bear clawing, his right ear was completely gone, and he had a prosthetic left hand. But none of this stopped him from training new recruits, for Tarlin was the drill sergeant of the training camp.
"I don't know," I replied. My previous Barliona experience had taught me that picking a fight with an NPC for no reason was more trouble than it was worth.
"I'll give you a pointer." He was courtesy itself. "You see the barrack? You have precisely thirty seconds to reach it. If you don't make it, you're toast. A fast-track plunge into the Abyss. What are you waiting for? At the double, march!"
I couldn't remember the last time I'd run anywhere, so I decided straight away to challenge the sergeant. Slowly, maintaining composure and dignity, I left the temple and headed for the designated barrack. Generals don't run, they relocate decorously. If you set off at a gallop so much as once, someone's guaranteed to put a saddle on you or harness you to a cart. Like I had nothing better to do than run!
"So that's the way it is, huh?" Tarlin said knowingly, before the ground suddenly disappeared from under my hooves. My back and buttocks hurt like hell, and the space in front of me began to spin at an incredible speed. I didn't immediately realise that the instructor had grabbed me by the tail and begun to whirl me round like a hammer. And in the same way, like a hammer, he launched me towards the barrack. I had the wind knocked out of me first by the flight, and then by the sensation of free fall. It wasn't classified as dangerous, so it wasn't blocked by the system. My crotch tickled unpleasantly – I'd always hated fairground rides and everything to do with them; even skiing and skating made me feel sick.
No matter how I tried to level myself out in flight, maneuvering my arms like an eagle its wings, it was all in vain. I hit the ground horns first, and the impact knocked my combative mood for six, despite my ten percent pain threshold.

Damage sustained!
Health decreased by 99: 1500 (fall to ground) – 0 (physical protection)
Remaining Health: 1 out of 100

I managed just one convulsive breath out before Tarlin was by my side, repeating the throw and reducing the distance between me and the barrack. Then again. And again. I didn't sustain any more damage – Health had frozen at "1", and didn't wish to decrease all the way to "0", which would strip me of the possibility to avoid competing in athletics competitions as a missile. In the nursery – for a training camp cannot be anything but – it is impossible to destroy a player.
"The exit's over there. Go and wave your attitude around in the open world!" With one more throwing motion, Tarlin hurled me all the way to a shimmering sphere, a one-and-a-half-meter ball of lightning, and the second I landed, electrical charges flickered over the surface of the portal. Next to it, frozen like an idol, stood a small demon. Its pathetic mug and total absence of wit indicated that all that was left of it was its skin. The Light ones had burned out its essence, leaving him one function – to manage the portal.

Reference information
Portals in Barliona
Static: Connect two points in space. Operated by subjugated demons. Not available for acquisition by players for personal use; located in large cities or key points in Barliona.
Breach: Have a static point of departure and a dynamic point of arrival. The static point is operated by subjugated demon, whose level must be at least five times higher than the level of the lock. The portal takes energy directly from the lock. A portal demon cannot be bought, it can only be subjugated, have its essence burned out, and be tethered to a portal.
Custom: Created by three Wizards. Enable transfer to any point on the continent. Cost of maintenance: 30 % Energy per minute; Energy potions may be used during maintenance.
Teleport scrolls
Created by wizards, both NPCs and players. Enable transfer from any point on the continent to a specific point indicated in the scroll. Cost of using scroll always set according to zone 5.
Scale of distance and cost
Barliona charges a fee for using all types of portal. Players may set a surcharge to make a profit, usually 10–20 % of cost of transfer.
·     Zone 1. 0–50 km. Cost: 11 gold
·     Zone 2. 51–100 km. Cost: 32 gold
·     Zone 3. 101–200 km. Cost: 84 gold
·     Zone 4. 201–300 km. Cost: 137 gold
·     Zone 5. 301+ km. Cost: 210 gold

After creating a character, any player could leave the nursery without training if they considered they had the strength to bring all comers to heel. All abilities could easily be gained automatically, without instuctors. This was done for those impatient ones who thought the open world more attractive than the nursery. I was not one of them; I had plenty to do in the training camp.
Tarlin took my silent inaction as a sign of resignation and, readjusting his grip on my tail, dragged me back to my point of rebirth, clearly longing to see me run. A couple of times the interested faces of demon hunters flashed by, among whom I could make out a human, an orc, two elves, and not a single tiefling. The players grinned as they watched me go. Evidently it wasn't every day they got to observe the taming of a shrewish half-demon.
When we got back to the point, the instructor flipped me over onto my feet. Drums and flutes began to play in my head from the abrupt change of position, and I felt sick again. It seemed my vestibular apparatus was not yet adjusted to the new reality. Tarlin produced a flask, forced my mouth open, and poured the contents into me. I had to swallow, or else I risked choking. The nausea past immediately, and my Health level shot up to maximum.
"The barracks! Thirty seconds! At the double, march!" Tarlin rapped out, making no secret of his hostility.
This time I didn't argue. It isn't a sin for generals to run during hostilities. I shot off so fast my hooves sparked, but when I got to the designated point, I froze and considered how I felt. In the real world, any acceleration without warming up meant wheezing and giddiness; here I didn't so much as pant. I liked the feeling of having an agile, lissom, strong body. Tarlin stood next to me and didn't intervene. He waited patiently until I familiarized myself with my recently created character. I opened the characteristics window and became absorbed in reading.

What first caught my eye was the absence of Liveliness. The very same headache which had made everyone more attentive to the game. You'd constantly had to remember how long you could run, jump, use your abilities, and carry out physical activities. Even I, a lowly level-ten player, had my fill of sorrow with Liveliness. One day I was whacking a hare in a clearing, but didn't notice my Liveliness level in time, and dropped to the ground like I'd been poleaxed. I couldn't stand, couldn't sit, couldn't move my arm. There was no one about to pour water into my mouth, so I simply lay there, enjoying the clouds and waiting for automatic recovery. But the fluffy beast didn't wait, and began to knaw at me like a carrot, forgetting it was a herbivore. Level one hare-mob gnaws level-five player! If Barliona had a Darwin Award for the stupidest death, I would definitely have won it. And more than once. Now there was no Liveliness and you could work out actively and not worry about getting tired. It's probably the only time when advocates and opponents of changes in Barliona were united – without Liveliness the game became more dynamic and easier to master.
I did a few squats, eyeing the table carefully. Nothing changed, but the "3" on the Agility scale showed that skills grew during the process of carrying out an action. The four turtles holding up the mechanism of Barliona were included in the Main Characteristics block, and were called Stamina, Strength, Intellect and Agility. All parameters depended on them, from Energy and Health, to Attack and Chance of Avoidance. Each characteristic had its own scale of growth. Squats didn't increase anything, but running at full speed had an impact on Agility. The people on the forums were right – now the scale filled up only as a result of real physical exertion. You couldn't boost Agility by sitting in a chair, dangling your feet and picking your nose. You had to run, swim or jump, balls to the wall. Then "mass" would grow too, just like in reality. When you gained a new level, your main characteristics automatically increased by a point and you earned two bonus points, which you could spend on either additional characteristics or a specialization. You couldn't boost the four turtles like that. If you hadn't assigned your bonus points within five minutes of levelling up, the game did it for you. If there was nowhere to assign them, they burned up. Not very nice, but very convenient for beginners. Especially those who didn't like spending time to "think," considering it a relic of the past.
There was nothing else of interest in the characteristics window. Attack and Protection had some formulae, but I wanted to deal with them with a calculator, and in reality. There was no reminder of the bonus for registration, which was disappointing. Everything else was pristine.
"Twenty-eight seconds!" Tarlin waited for me to get bored of looking at my virtual doll, then continued to roast me. "Two hundred meters in twenty-eight seconds! Were you running on all fours?"
"I can't go any faster, I need to train," I said honestly. In the real world, honesty and self-criticism were an excellent way to disarm your opponent. Why shouldn't it work in Barliona?
"So what are you doing here when the training camp's empty?" The instructor abruptly changed the course of the conversation. Now I was guilty of not training. Which was better than being seen as a weakling.
"Can you begin by enlightening the unenlightened?" I stuck to my guns. "Which course is meant for newbies? I don't want to turn up at the advanced one and have everyone die laughing at my failure. Who would be responsible for their deaths?"
"You're going to retch like a pregnant tortoise on the first one anyway." The impervious instructor waved a hand in the direction of the assault course. "It's that way. The instructor's name is master Gurt. Muster is every six hours. Latecomers and no-shows take a dive into the Abyss. You'll be living in this barrack. Go and register, then get training, newbie. I don't want to see you until you've completed the course with full marks.

Task received: Step 1. Start of training
Description: Class-specific task. Complete newbie assault course. Minimum completion score: 7 out of 10. Completion time unlimited.

·     Experience +5
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction +1
·     Access to next training step
·     Bonus for course completion with full marks: +1 to all main characteristics

First up I went to check out the barrack. It was almost empty, only one of the twenty bunks occupied. The game obligingly offered me the choice of the free ones, and since I wasn't planning to spend the night in Barliona, I put my hand on the bed closest to the exit. I froze. Only now did it strike me how easy it was to walk on hooves; no less so than on feet. And I might have been born with a tail. Focusing on my glutes, I wiggled my buttocks. A good looking lad! Pfft, a good tail, and it would come in handy in the game, as a third lower limb or an extra argument in a fistfight. The main thing was to tense the right buttock at the right time. Imagining my backside clenching there and then in the pod, I couldn't resist a sarcastic smile. So that was it, the tieflings' bonus – a toned butt for free! I would have to push the idea to the masses on a women's forum. It was quick and cheap, and if you waved it around like a huge fan, in a month you could be posting "before and after" photos.
"What are you smiling about, goat?" A gruff voice returned me to the game. Here we go!
Two level-three players barred the way to the training camp. Braksed the elf and Kurtune the human, sharing the second name Vartalinsky. They must have been brothers, at least in mind. Outwardly the pair looked very different from the players hovering behind them. If the rest wore simple shirts and trousers, and many even had no shoes, Braksed and Kurtune were not badly kitted out: full leather armour, rings, chains, helmets, and heavy belts with several bags. Even by my inexperienced reckoning they were dressed more than sufficiently for level three of a closed location. What were guys like those doing in the nursery?
"Smell the light!"
Something bright lit up in the hands of the elf, and the light produced an unpleasant chill in my body, making me twitch. The feeling was the same as when I was reborn in the temple. Back then I'd thought it was a smell, but I was wrong – it was the effect that light magic had on me. The closer it came, the worse the pain and shivering. Reflexively I shoved a fist out in front, wanting to punch the scumbag, but it went straight through Braksed completely unhindered. They couldn't lay into me on the training camp, but ruining a tiefling's physical and mental health with light magic would be a piece of cake.
"I don't get it," frowned Braksed, turning a blind eye to my attempt at retribution. "Why isn't he doubled up?"
"You're all fingers and thumbs," said Kurtune. "Give it here."
He grabbed the shining sphere and set it to maximum brightness. These guys were in a group together because they could collaborate. My body felt the chill once more. I'd reduced my sensitivity threshold to ten percent just in time.
"What's going on here?" Supervising Instructor Drumm appeared just as the pointlessness of the Vartalinskys' actions was becoming apparent. The menacing werewolf, covered from head to toe in thick fur, looked funny in his demon hunter's leather clothes, but his natural charm, bestowed on him by Barliona's artists, precluded any joking on the subject – his contemptuously raised upper lip bared sharp fangs, and the look he gave to everyone around was particularly noteworthy. It was the look you gave to the dead wood beneath your feet.
"Let's exorcise demons!" laughed Braksed and Kurtune, ignoring the charisma of the NPC. I breathed a sigh of relief – there were even school kids here! These two were no older than twenty, and had no brains and no brakes, but enough attitude to pave a road out in the sticks. Mummy and daddy had given them money, but not bothered with manners. The gilded youth in all its loathsome glory. Adolescents who had lost their minds to overindulgence and tedium. Multiply that by the opportunities of Barliona, and you get players with no mind at all disobeying the rules.
"The light of Eluna has little effect on tieflings. If you want to banish a half-demon, ask your parents to buy you a brain." NPCs could also pick out the golden guys. "Have you completed my task?"
"No." Kurtune stroppily screwed up his face. "We've still got two hours."
"I'll be waiting for your results. Put the Drop of Light back where it belongs. You'll be penalized for using it." Drumm cast another disdainful glance over us and went off to attend to his business. The scene was boring without him, so I went to find the newbie assault course.
"Flea-ridden mutt," spat Braksed. "Three thousand gold!"
"Forget it, our folks will cough up." Kurtune waved it away and called to me: "We haven't finished with you, goat-boy!"
He got no reaction, so he caught me up and blocked my path, but I walked right through him like he wasn't there. Blatant disregard is one of the most terrifying punishments for them. At home they were used to everyone licking their asses, and they demanded the same here. Braksed shouted after me that he'd find me in reality and chastize me, but all my attention was now on the training camp.
Next to the portal was a small muster station. On one side of it stood barracks – four for players and one for instructors. On the other side were two assault courses enclosed by a low fence. A newbie course and a basic course. Beyond them were another two – the mid- and high-level courses, along with an obscure wooden tower similar to a high diving board. "Minimalism and practicality" was evidently the guiding motto of the cartographer who created this place. A huge hullabaloo and the shouts of the instructors could be heard – the training process was in full swing.
"We haven't finished with you yet!" I caught one last threat from behind me before I stepped onto the course and all external sounds disappeared – the magic fence had superb sound insulation, and only let noise out. Nothing should distract a student from his training. The newbies' course consisted of ten obstacles one after another. You had to walk, crawl, run or jump, avoiding a swinging axe, spiked clubs, firewalls, sharp spears, and other devices that would hamper your painless transfer from point A to point B. There were no safety mats or stage props, only red-hot iron and fire. There was a player on the course as I arrived. He skipped nimbly under the swinging chopper, flew between the incandescent slabs, scarcely touching them, scrambled adroitly over the barbed-wire net, and frustratingly didn't react in time to a spike appearing from out of the ground.
"Seven out of ten, an excellent result," boomed master Gurt, a green orc. "Marcon the Spoiled, I give you access to the basic level. Access to this course remains open to you until you complete all ten obstacles. Next!"
Marcon's fall didn't send him to be regenerated – with one Health point he lay on the ground and waited for a healer. The next player stepped onto the course. He passed the first three tests with relative ease, but a powerful blow to the chest on the fourth knocked him out.
"Three out of ten. You're a waste of space!" Gurt was not happy with progress. "Number four to the start!"
The number "11" appeared in the upper part of my viewer – I had evidently received an electronic ticket to join the queue of fortunate souls. The bad news was that I had to attempt the course without any previous training.
"Number four to the start!" repeated Gurt louder.
Number four was in no hurry to take his place, making everyone wait. Players milled about, exchanging quizzical glances and wondering whose turn it was.
"Eredani!" Gurt shouted out a familiar name. "Where the hell are you? On the course, at the double!"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move over by the fence. Eredani sat and looked gloomily at the course, ignoring the instructor and everyone else.
"You want to go back to the Abyss?" asked Gurt, and the tiefling twitched. Begrudgingly Eredani stood up and moved slowly to the start, dragging his tail flaccidly. After clambering up onto the platform, my horned fellow tribesman shivered, closed his eyes and took off at a pace. The first test was the slabs crashing into each other. Even I, who had never once stepped on a course before, could have got through, but not Eredani. The slabs collided, crushing the tiefling under the sound of his doleful "oofs" and "aahs", and a second later we watched empathetically as a compacted briquette fell to the ground.
"Again?! Nought out of ten. Waste of space. Next!"
The duty priestess restored the tiefling's health, and Eredani quietly headed back to his place by the fence. I went a little closer to the course, to train mentally along with the players attempting it. It would very soon be my turn, and of all my predecessors, nobody had got further than the fifth test, which was making Gurt all the more angry and disconsolate. When my turn came, the orc just waved a paw, unhopeful of my success. And I must admit I didn't let him down. The first test really was too elementary to embarrass myself on. But next came the spikes popping up from below, and no matter how long I studied them for, I could see no pattern in their appearance. As a result I crashed out almost immediately, straight after passing the first test.
"One out of ten. Waste of space!" said Gurt. He had a good look round the group and said, "Get training! You're demon hunters, not legless, blind pieces of meat! You've got to be quick and agile, not slow, crawling tortoises! The next test is in five hours. Get to work!"
The training camp shimmered and faded, and in its place appeared ten separate simulators, the same as on the course, only you weren't required to have completed the previous levels. Players rushed to their problem sections to work on their movements. I noticed that several demon hunters were able to train simultaneously on the same piece of equipment, passing effortlessly through each other's projections. Each had its own virtuality, which was both good and bad. Good because you could watch and repeat the movements of an experienced player. Bad because you could become confused with all the projections, and not notice a trap under your feet. Before joining the others, I wanted to clear up an important question with the instructor.
"What's the point of training?" I asked Gurt as he approached. "We're newbies. Shouldn't you be teaching us abilities?"
"If it's abilities you need, the portal's just there," he said irritatedly and pointed at the twinkling sphere. "You can have abilities and skills and everything you desire. While you're here, you do as I tell you. And right now I'm telling you the Abyss awaits you. I was going to send Eredani again, but since you're so inquisitive, you can go instead. I can't stand loudmouths. I'll be waiting by the tower in twenty minutes. If you're not there, you're out of the camp. Now get training!"
In my viewer appeared two timers. One was a countdown to my Leap into the Abyss; the second was my estimated time to the tower. Very convenient. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't forget and you wouldn't be late. I tried to make eye contact with the other players to ask about the jump. Unfortunately they were already aware of Gurt's temper, and looked away to concentrate more painstakingly on their exercises, paying no interest in what was happening around them.
Only the tiefling Eredani remained sitting by the fence, not even attempting to climb onto the simulators. Just the chap I needed. Gurt said he'd been in the Abyss. Eredani watched distrustfully as I approached and sat down next to him.
"I've been sent to the Abyss. Can you help?"
If you want to get in with someone, make them feel superior. A request for help is a good start, as you can kill several birds with one question: show him his importance and your helplessness, and most importantly, discover more about him. That way you'll know immediately if he's a degenerate.
"How? Go instead of you?" Eredani's voice was neither friendly nor malicious. It was the voice of someone who wanted to be left alone.
"No, I'll be fine. But there's nothing in the guides about the Abyss, let alone about jumping into it. I'm led to believe you've been there. What can I expect?"
"A thousand gold," he said. But of course! A player from a social shelter couldn't not think about money. A thousand gold was an average monthly wage in our world. Not bad for a simple question.
"I see. Forget it then. Good luck in the game." I stood up, intending to pass at least one test before the Abyss, despite still not understanding what they were for.
"Wait," said Eredani. "How did you end up a tiefling?"
"You mentioned something about a thousand gold," I shot back. "I'll tell you with pleasure."
"An exchange? Information for information?"
"Sure." I sat back down. I saw nothing wrong with disclosing the secret of my birth, since any player could read about it on the site, but I'd just heard about the Abyss for the first time. "You first," I said.
"Agreement." This one word made me take Eredani seriously. And when I read the text he gave me, he gained my respect. He didn't offer me a standard agreement on ten pages of unintelligible, confusing text, but rather a one-page document on which our exchange was clearly described. You have to work with contracts for many years to be able to whip up a sample like that out of thin air.
"It's a quality text, thank you." I signed the document.
"Thank you for what?" Eredani didn't understand.
"For the pleasure of reading a literately drawn-up contract. There are too many windbags around. Lots of clever phrases, but no common sense."
"Are you a lawyer?"
"No. You have to edit documents after them too."
"What's a bright fellow like you doing in Barliona during working hours? Have they abolished office slavery?"
"Waving my tail about and butting folk with my horns. Let's make it a closed agreement." I wasn't about to divulge my personal information to the first person I came across.
"Okay. How did you become a tiefling?" Eredani managed to ask the first question. I calmly told him about the bonus and the random generation of my character. Everything was open source, so he could check for himself. A green tick appeared next to my name on the list of current agreements. Barliona was acknowledging that I had completely fulfilled my part of the contract.
Eredani was silent for a time, staring blankly ahead. I was just beginning to worry about him, when he suggested another exchange.
"I don't want to say it out loud," he explained and sent me the text of another agreement. "A free piece of advice for the future – keep quiet about how you became a tiefling. It's a closed race, not accessible to players. They're running tests at the moment. Most likely you were taken on to test the effect of the bonus on class and race balance."
He was quiet again, allowing me to read the new agreement. In order to give information to another player, you needed writing implements and paper, which cost money. So as not to spend money on paper, the cunning bugger had put everything he knew about the Abyss in the text of the agreement. Regardless of the fact that he was level one, Eredani was far from a newbie in Barliona.
Scrolling down to the right place, I immersed myself in reading. What was a leap into the Abyss? A long rope was tied to the player's legs, and he was pushed off a platform into a separate location called the Abyss. Most demon hunters hauled weapons out of there. Then they purified them using Eluna magic, and gained enhanced attacking properties against the beasts of the Abyss. Some managed to retrieve armour; others – accessories. Players had even begun trading extracted objects. But there was a minus – every leap was accompanied by maximum possible pain. Jumpers had to remember that the Abyss was not intended for live players. Even if you turned sensations completely off, the leap enabled an Abyss debuff, which increased sensations by ten percent and was disabled only when you left the training camp. Anybody could survive one jump; some could survive two; only the few could survive more. However, as Eredani had written, this was all irrelevant to tieflings, for in the Abyss you were looking for weapons. Your task was to lasso yourself a demon, suppress it, and use your abilities to constantly recharge your remote demonic essence. In this lay the enormous difference between our class of tieflings and the other races. Everyone else used light magic, while we used demonic magic. It was a parallel path of development, which is why they ran the test, because they needed to evaluate the balance of the class. Eredani hadn't written anything about capturing demons, because he logged out for his leaps. So basically he hadn't told me anything directly useful to me. General information about everything and nothing. You call that experience? Barliona, however, was satisfied, and with a second green tick the agreement was closed.
"I overheard your question to the instructor. We could do another exchange of information," Suggested Eredani.
"For what?" I asked. Eredani was turning out to be quite the wheeler dealer.
"What did you leave behind in Barliona?" For some reason he was curious about my presence in the game.
"That's personal information, and I'm not exchanging it for the nonsense you gave me. I can read about training on the forum myself. I haven't asked why a social player with so much experience is only on level one and his sensations aren't turned up to the specified thirty percent."
"And you are right not to ask," he sneered. "You won't be told where to get off."
"Fine. I'll go and try a couple of obstacles before the jump. Thanks for the agreement, it'll come in handy as a template. By the way, I'm Brody."
I extended my hand to him. Being called by your real name in Barliona wasn't the done thing, although it wasn't forbidden either. As a profoundly real person, it was far more usual for me to call someone Dave than AFingerUpYourNose. The tiefling's eyebrows shot up when he understood my gesture; he wasn't expecting it. There followed a second's bewilderment, before he nonetheless shook my hand:
"Victor. But I prefer Eredani."
"Noted. Good luck in the game."
I only had time for the spike test. On the first attempt I understood that the spot where the spike appeared from rippled ever so slightly just before it shot up. Just a second, but in theory it was enough to skip to a safe section. In training the spikes didn't cause any damage, only pain, and you were flung to the ground, just like in the real thing. After three attempts I understood it wasn't my day. I didn't move my leg or my arm or my tail out of the way in time, and each time the spikes knocked me down.
The timer began to flash red – I had to get to the tower fast. The navigation arrow showed me which way to go, and I legged it as fast as I could. Again I had no shortness of breath or decrease in speed or any other parameter. I felt like Superman, moving mountains without turning a hair. I even jumped a few times while I was running, to check how high you could go, and I left the ground by a whole two metres. Working as a counterweight, my tail allowed me to hold my balance going round corners. Oh, to have skills like that in the real world!
"Up there." The duty priestess at the entrance to the tower pointed the way up some stairs, and I bounded up them two or three at a time. Were my adrenaline levels running high or something? It seemed the only explanation for experiencing such exhilaration from controlling my body. I liked being a quick and nimble tiefling.
Gurt was waiting for me on the upper platform with a rope in his hands. There was no one else around.
"You're not just a demon hunter. You're a tiefling," he began, tying the rope round my ankles. "So there are different demands on you. In the Abyss, close your eyes and feel your essence. They may have burned out the demon in you, but you can't fool Mother Nature. She'll show you what to do next. Find a demon in the Abyss, subjugate it, and drag it out here. We'll make a demon hunter of you, not an empty husk. When you want to get out, tug twice and I'll pull you up. Go!"

You have started the Taming the Demon scene
Description: You can use demonic abilities only after subjugating a demon. Complete the test and gain access to abilities.
·     The following abilities will become accessible to you: Demon Subjugation, Demon Retribution, Demon Strike, Automatic Attack, Tail Strike.
·     You will be able to gain new abilities as you level up.

The orc gave the rope a tug to check its strength, and pushed me off the platform. "Fu-u-u-ck!" was all I could shout. He should have warned me. An announcement flashed before my eyes, but I couldn't read it. I tried to help myself as best I could by waving my arms and tail around. It suddenly became cold, and a sharp pain pierced my whole body from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. Even my horns hurt, although I had somehow forgotten they even existed.
By the time I felt a massive jolt bring an end to my fall, the platform was high above me. The Abyss was aptly named – visibility was zero in the murk. But I gradually became used to the nagging pain, and tried to get my bearings. First I brought my hand right up to my eyes – nothing. One thing was most definitely absolute: either the darkness surrounding me, or the transparence of my body. At least the interface icons were in place, so I wasn't one-on-one with "nothing". Taking a deep breath, I took Eredani's advice and began to flail my arms about, trying to latch onto something. My hand touched cold metal, so I felt it. Whatever it was, it was sharp, cold, and had a handle, and that was enough for me, so I took it. I waved my free arm around some more. Nothing else. Now it was time to use Gurt's advice. I hadn't a clue what "feel your essence" meant, but I obediently closed my eyes and tried to tune into sensations. I was still in pain, but it was tolerable. The tip of my tail began to itch, so I clenched my buttocks, leant my head back, and scratched it with a horn. Two of the body parts I'd gained in the game had already come in handy.

Progress of the Taming the Demon scene
Progress description: You were able to perceive your own demonic essence, and you can now invoke a demon.
Special conditions: You are granted a bonus for random generation of your character. The rank of your subjugated demon will be 3 higher than standard.

At last! The first mention of the generation bonus. I'd already begun to suspect Barliona had successfully forgotten about it.
"Mother weeps for her sons," came a drawled and sinister murmur. "She is grieving. Help her! Come back! Become one of us!"
My eyes filled with tears. Mother! I have betrayed you. I defected to the enemy, became one of… What was all this?! Why the hell was I getting these obsessive thoughts?!

Regress of the Taming the Demon scene
Regress description: You lost perception of your demonic essence.

Like that, is it? After chasing the tiefling out of my head, I had become Brody West again. The rope twitched. The supervisor had felt a change and wanted to know if I was ready to come back up. I wasn't. I was all fired up.
My tail brushed against my horns again, advancing the progress of the scene. The ominous murmur was right on cue. My head swam, like after a shot of vodka on an empty stomach, but this time I was mentally prepared. Again I pitied the outcast Ireness, deprived of her children, and I felt utterly discouraged by the knowledge of my own treachery, but a small, stubborn part of my conscious sneered insidiously at these emotions thrust upon me. My identity didn't go anywhere, but it slackened the reins and allowed the situation to develop by itself. My head hurt from being in two consciouses simultaneously, but this pain was even an advantage just then. It was much sharper than the pain inflicted by the Abyss, and it helped me focus.
"Ireness wants you back! Come with me!" The dismal murmur rang out right next to my ear. The enforced conscious rejoiced, recognizing the voice of Ireness's daughter, the archdemoness Aniram.
Reference information
Hierarchy of demons in Barliona
Supreme Demon: A creature without level. There exist only three Supreme Demons, who are the heads of their houses. They answer directly to the Emissary of Chaos. The Supreme Demons fight each other continually for territory. In Barliona they can only dwell within a one-mile radius of the Ziggurat of Defiance. They are the strategic commanders of the invasion.
Higher Demon: A creature without level. The generals of the army invading Barliona. They answer exclusively to their own Supreme Demon. Depending on the strength of the Supreme Demon, at any one time between three and ten of his Higher Demons can dwell in Barliona. They are the operative commanders of the invasion. Their residence time in Barliona depends on the will and strength of their Supreme Demon.
Archdemon: An officer of the army of demons invading Barliona. They are copious in number and strong, and subject to the invocation and suppression of their will. They command demons and lower demons, and are always surrounded by their corteges. They can dwell in Barliona for 6 hours, after which they are banished to the Abyss for 18 hours. Their residence time may be increased by means of sacrifice.
True demon: A deranked archdemon. Subject to the invocation and suppression of its will. A lone wolf. They can dwell in Barliona for 12 hours, after which they are banished to the Abyss for 12 hours. Their residence time may be increased by means of sacrifice.
Demon: A soldier of the army of demons invading Barliona. They are strong and have a human intellect, due to which they are not blocked by Barliona. They are subject to the invocation and suppression of their will. Lone wolves, although they can unite into groups. Demons of different houses feud with each other, and are occasionally prepared to cut deals with citizens of Barliona in order to banish a demon of a rival house to the Abyss.
Lower demon: The cannon fodder of the army of demons invading Barliona. Copious in number and devoid of intellect, they are not blocked by Barliona, because it sees them as aggressive animals. They conform to a herd instinct, and are subject to the invocation and suppression of their will. They run in packs, and if for some reason they become left behind, they enter hibernation.

The overwhelming joy of seeing my elder sister all but totally engulfed me, but I managed to retain consciousness by using mathematics. Previously, whenever a member of a project team did something stupid or openly sabotaged a job, I would mentally calculate the square of a three-digit number. You can't shout at your subordinates; you can only discuss their degeneracy with their direct bosses in the hope of getting a more suitable replacement. I tried as hard as I could. Mathematics allowed me to handle my emotions then, and it helped me to focus now – Aniram was whispering something to me about Ireness and her inner turmoil, and I was squaring 329. Waiting until I could feel the aura right up close to my ear, I took a wide swing with my free arm, trying to catch the archdemoness. My hand fell on something cold and hairy, and was soon gripping a hefty clump of hair.
"What are you doing?" asked Aniram, before I tapped the rope twice with my pick. Gurt reacted instantly, and I shot upwards, dragging the archdemoness behind me. She tried to free herself without hurting me, but as soon as a glimmer of light appeared, she sank her talons into my shoulder and started to howl, "No-o-o!" We exited the Abyss together.
"Don't let her slip away!" shouted the orc. Swearing, I took my newly procured instrument between my teeth and, securing my grip on Aniram's hair, held her like a loved one, enwreathing her with all my limbs and even my tail. Aniram squirmed frenziedly, biting and scratching, and beating me with her tail. Her Health level dropped instantaneously to "1" and froze. The archdemoness's luck had run out – she couldn't kill me in the training camp.
"Stone! Hoop! Seal the outer boundary!" Concise orders were given. The death throes of my captive gradually abated, and my body was wracked with a chill. I opened my eyes. Alongside Gurt stood Uldaron, the head of the camp, and Abigail, the priestess who had purified me. The latter's hands glowed, creating a light dome. Aniram wilted completely into a spineless doll.
"You can let her go now," commanded Uldaron. I unclenched my fists, and the prisoner collapsed to the ground. The light of Eluna was concentrated on the archdemoness, releasing me from my distress. The orc helped me to disentangle myself and stand up.
"Not a bad catch." Gurt grabbed the pick from me, nearly knocking out my teeth in the process. "Well balanced. Sturdy. Could take a lot of heads off."
I looked dubiously at the ordinary-looking pick. If you removed the dark fog curling around the handle, it was no different from any other. Gurt turned it this way and that, clicking his tongue, before reluctantly giving it back to me.

Demon Pick of Power
Description: A rare object, used for mining ore.
·     Damage: 10 (Physical)
·     Mining +1
·     Strength +1
·     Stamina +1
·     Possibility to develop Demon Sinews without forfeit

"Go and see master Dheire," Gurt advised me. "He'll teach you to use the pick correctly."
"Don't distract him, Gurt," said Uldaron with a reminder of the reason for our mini-muster. Aniram was now totally drained off all willpower, and sat staring into space. "Go, Kvalen. You must be bound."
I obeyed, though entering the dome of Light was particularly unpleasant.
"I had to burn out your internal demonic essence, otherwise Barliona wouldn't become home for you," said Abigail. "But we have found a way to return tieflings to combat. The spurious power of a demon! You can use your abilities again, though I should warn you straight away that your demon must remain a demon, and conscious. You can't clap on everlasting chains like the demonologists. You are obliged constantly to crush any attempt to resist. Remember, every thirty minutes that you use your demonic abilities, the demon will try to hurt you. If it succeeds in taking the upper hand over you, it will return to the Abyss, and you will have to endure the subjugation procedure again. Now get ready! You must put your demon to sleep and strengthen the bond. I shall restore her will."
Two new buttons appeared on my abilities panel. One was flashing fast and furious, inviting me to fulfil Abigail's demand and complete the subjugation scene. I followed the directions and Aniram disappeared. At last I was a real player with abilities.

Training a Demon scene completed
Abilities gained:
Demon Strike: You project purified demonic energy at your opponent, inflicting 100 % damage to their Attack parameter. The opponent must be no further than 50 meters from you. Cannot be used in motion. Requires an active demon. Cost: 20 Energy.
Demon Retribution: A passive ability. You subjugate a demon and gain the ability to use demon magic. The demon resists subjugation, creating a diversion once every 30 minutes. The demon chooses the optimal strategy to ship you to the Gray Lands. If you die, the demon is freed and returns to the Abyss.
Demon Invocation: You invoke/dismiss your subjugated demon.

"A good catch," said Uldaron praisingly. "It's not every tiefling who can fish out an archdemon first time round. If you can get along with it, you'll become a worthy warrior! Abigail, purify the pick."
The priestess directed the light of Eluna onto the procured object. I was concerned that the properties of the pick might change during purification, but apart from the fog, everything remained in place.
"Let's go." The orc motioned me towards the newbies' assault course. "I want to see how you use the abilities you've gained."

Task received: Demon Strike training
Description: A regular task. Use the Demon Strike ability successfully five times in succession.
·     Experience +5
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction +1

I went with my gut feeling – no changes. The fact that there was an archdemon somewhere close by, albeit asleep, was a matter of indifference to me. Throwing the pick over my shoulder, I trudged off after Gurt.
"Kvalen, wait a second!" A player hailed me by the entrance to the course. Shukir the Vaunted, a level-three human. He wasn't quite as well equipped as Braksed and Kurtune, yet he was also clearly no simple player. His leather coat sparkled with chainmail reinforcements, and his patchwork trousers looked built to last, but the most striking thing distinguishing him from all the others was that he was wearing shoes. I stopped and waited for him as he hurried towards me.
"An interesting show you put on up in the tower," said Shukir genially. "I've been here a week, and that's the first time a player's emerged from the Abyss hugging a demon. Can you show me the video? I want to have a look at the beast's mug. We have to know who we're up against, otherwise it's scary as hell. I'll even pay you. I haven't got much gold, but I can find twenty."
"You just want the face?" I asked. Shukir made a good first impression, especially after Braksed, Kurtune and Eredani. He told me about his problem, asked for help, even offered to pay… Wait a minute! That's a classic manipulation ruse. And as if to confirm my suspicion, he added:
"Actually, the whole jump would be better. I still have two more jumps, and what if I bump into one of them? Did the pick come from the Abyss too? What properties does it have? Here, take the twenty."
Crafty sod! Offers an exchange, gives me twenty gold, then mentions the pick, shifting my attention to it. If I was less cynical, I'd have taken the money and gladly helped the afflicted soul. Then I'd have kicked myself – Barliona is no reality; a verbal contract and the voluntary wish of each participant in the deal is enough there. I would have to part with my video. But Shukir was overlooking one thing – two could play at that game.
"No, twenty's not enough." I dug my heels in, playing the simpleton, and declined the exchange. A demon was nothing compared to what the camp chief whispered to me after the jump. My Reputation had flown way up after the catch.
"Give me a break!" Shukir didn't believe me. He couldn't not say anything; he didn't like demons.
"I swear on Barliona! Up there Uldaron told me how to become a worthy warrior. Only an idiot would leak information like that for twenty. And anyway, I should probably offer it to the Phoenixes first."
I was enshrouded in a snow-white glow – Barliona had accepted my oath. You weren't allowed to misuse such affirmations of your words, on pain of punishment, but this was a fitting moment.
"Consider you've already offered it to the Phoenixes." Shukir persevered, taking the bait. "I'm here on their behalf."
"You're lying." I eyed him warily. "Why would they want to reset a player? Thanks, of course, but I'll contact them directly later. Maybe. Or maybe I won't. Rumor has it the Dark Legion are also buying up information."
"A hundred gold for the video of your dive." Shukir upped the stakes dramatically. "And another fifty for the pick."
I was about to milk Shukir a bit more, when Eredani suddenly crawled out of his corner and unceremoniously butted into our conversation.
"Kvalen, don't agree. A video from the tower is worth substantially more than that. You're being taken for a ride."
"Butt out, Eredani, I'm done with you." Shukir's amiability faded.
Eredani paid him no attention and continued to talk me round, but I was sceptical of his desire to help.
"There aren't many demon hunters. Even fewer tieflings. Tiefling demon hunters are in single figures. You should already have worked out for yourself the specifics of our mechanism. If Uldaron told you something, keep it to yourself!"
Keeping calm on the outside was difficult. What the hell was Eredani doing minding other people's business? I had to wrap it up, but leave my net cast wide for the future:
"Eredani's right, Shukir. Sorry, but I'm not ready to sell information from Uldaron just yet. I should study the market first, otherwise I'll be underselling myself."
"A thousand gold right now for the full video from the tower!" Shukir had lost his patience.
The negotiation was back on. I pretended to be looking for support from Eredani, and unexpectedly noticed the shadow of a smirk flit across my congener's face. It was fleeting, barely noticeable, but so articulate that the answer came to me instantly.
"Get outta here! Ten for the whole thing, not a penny less."
"Are you out of your mind?! Where did you get a price like that from? I'll give you fifteen hundred for the lot. That's for your eyes!" Shukir was seething. It was time to make a concession, otherwise the whole deal would break down.
"Three thousand, but only for the clip of what Uldaron told me. That's my final offer. I'm not going to haggle myself into a loss." I wasn't best pleased with myself, and waved a hand to drive home the point.
"Deal!" Shukir threw me a clipboard viewer. Bloody hell! Three thousand gold for a few seconds of video! Had everyone gone nuts? I'd have to put in thirteen hours a day for two weeks to earn that sort of money. What was happening in people's heads that they were prepared to pay so much for a chunk of computer code? The most important thing now was to keep a lid on my jubilation.
I didn't even have to cut Uldaron out – the system did it automatically. I just needed to check the excerpt didn't include anything unpaid for, and press the Exchange button. Slightly short of three thousand entered my account – the Bank was fastidious in regard to its two percent – and the system made a suggestion:

New specialization available: Trade
Description: Your ability to drive a hard bargain is impressive! You are a true trader. Every specialization point increases your discount with NPC-traders from 0.1 % right up to 50 %.

Accept! As a potential clan chief, this specialization was compulsory.
"You?!" roared Shukir after looking at the video. The system obligingly censored the player's vocal outrage which followed. "Where's the information about levelling up?"
"That's all the boss told me," I replied nonchalantly. Of course the advice to "Gain the upper hand over the archdemon" wasn't worth three thousand gold, but I wanted to teach Shukir a lesson. If you're going to manipulate people, you must be prepared to be manipulated yourself.
"Give me my money back, you bastard!" demanded Shukir. It was verging on the orgasmic to observe his ire-distorted face.
"The terms of our verbal agreement have been fulfilled, and you've received all the information. If you have any objections, refer them to a lawyer." I could be quite headstrong when the need took me. "If you don't require any more information, I won't presume to detain you further and distract you from the game. Have a nice day!"
I turned around and unhurriedly entered the newbie course. Shukir tried to stop me, yelling threats of divine retribution, but it fell on deaf ears since I had no intention of returning the money. The troublemaker didn't have access to the course, so he couldn't hound me there. Eventually things quietened down – the Phoenixes representative had been making a lot of noise. Although no, I was still being shadowed. Eredani stood beside me and, his eyes on everyone training, announced, "I want my cut. I reckon I'm due half."
I'd been expecting it ever since he'd come over and tried to help. I turned silently and expectantly towards him.
"Everyone around here knows Shukir," he said. "And his business. After your tussle with the demon on the tower, I knew he'd latch on to you. Everyone knows you're a newbie in Barliona, down to the last deer. When I saw you were going to milk him, I decided to help out a bit. You wouldn't have been able to finagle him out of three thousand on your own. He's not stupid, but he is a tightwad. The least you could do is return the favor."
"So that's your game," I said. The first time we spoke, I'd taken Eredani for a reasonable guy. Evidently I'd been too impressed by his agreement. Matt was right – Barliona had changed. If before people had played for the enjoyment, now it was for the money. Everyone wanted to make a profit, and preferably at the expense of others.
"Sorry, Victor. I didn't ask for your help. Plus you nearly ruined the entire negotiation. Newbie doesn't mean idiot. If you think I owe you, there's a Dispute Settlement button in settings. The lawyers will sort it out. Good luck in the game!"
"So you're not going to give me my share and earn my goodwill?" Eredani had lost all sense of proportion. It wasn't a nice feeling to be wrong about people.
"What do I need with someone so generous?" I asked sarcastically.
"I suppose you don't," he agreed and backed down. "Good luck in the game."
Dismissing the tiefling, I went to find the supervisor. Gurt was standing by some sparring dummies and looking impatiently in my direction. The instant I reached him, he boomed, "You took your time! Invoke the demon!"
The Invoke Demon button began to flash, like a prompt for retards. One click and Aniram appeared. An animated buzz from the direction of the simulators indicated the archdemoness had been spotted, but she paid no attention to the folks around her. Her hate-filled gaze was fixed on me alone. Her hands and feet were manacled by a white cloud, so, unable to get her claws into me, she was trying to burn through me with her eyes. Poor NPC! If only she knew how often I had to put up with looks like that in the real world! Especially when I had to remove someone from a project because of their incompetence.
"Traitor! You will be cursed and banished from the Abyss!" Getting no reaction to her stare, Aniram had to add some big words. The orc peevishly screwed up his face – the demoness's voice enabled debuffs. They had no effect on the tiefling, but everyone else in the vicinity got an unpleasant earful.
"Tell her to shut up," said Gurt, retreating from us and drinking a white liquid from a flask. I specifically sought out the orc to see the result – the debuffs disappeared as if by magic. I assessed my abilities and pursed my lips, dissatisfied – not one of them allowed me to control the conscious of the subjugated demon. I decided to follow the old-fashioned route, and said:
"Don't open your mouth unless ordered to do so!"
"I'll tear out your heart and ram it down your throat! And without any orders from you!" Aniram didn't bat an eyelid. "You'll be begging me for death! Mother will reward me!"
No new debuffs appeared. So that was how Demon Retribution worked! Aniram hadn't attacked me, but everyone else, to damage me in training. In confirmation of this, a countdown timer appeared in the upper part of my viewer: Minimum time to next diversion. I chuckled – it would seem my "pet" had a mind. What was the point of creating a diversion if I was ready for it? She would save up her strength for thirty minutes and then strike when I was least expecting it. It didn't exactly make for a comfortable game.
"Select a dummy and perform a Demon Strike," ordered Gurt, reeling from the debuff.
The next button began to flash on the panel, and several of the dummies closest to me lit up in white. I knew the game was played by people with varying levels of education, but such detailed prompts were excessive. Highlighting the nearest target, I pressed the button. Aniram bent over backwards, and a dark cloud burst from her breast. It flew towards me and into my hands, arousing a feeling of oneness. Memories of the warm lava and Ireness's soft voice zipped through my head. My body reacted, quaking in ecstasy, something it had sorely missed. My fingers tensed spasmodically, and at that moment a snow-white flourish struck the dummy. Task progress: one out of five. The buttons flashed again, making me go into settings. Of course! The Newbie parameter was selected in Game Regime. By default, Barliona tried as much as possible to guard people against thinking, doing everything for them. I selected "lower than average", and the flashing ceased. That was more like it! Completing the remaining strikes was no problem. Aniram put up no resistance, and didn't try to stitch me up; she just bent over and gave me part of her demon essence.

Demon Strike training task completed
·     Experience gained +6, until next level – 994
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction increased by 3

I was seriously distressed at the damage I'd caused. Demon Strike was a magic ability, and given that my Intellect was lower than low, and I had no magic weapons, twelve Damage points was not easy on the eye. Were I to lock horns with even a level-one player with a hundred Health points, I would have to use the ability ten or so times. In that time any half savvy player would tear me to shreds and still have time to toast some bread over the fire. Conclusion – don't engage in open PvP without being properly kitted out. The bonus from the basic commercial account increased Experience by one point and Reputation by two. I was itching to buy myself a Boosting Gem, but no sooner had I opened the in-game store and seen the prices, than the desire evaporated all by itself. Spending that sort of money just then was stupid.

Reference information
Training speed and Boosting Gems
Training speed – The parameter determining how quickly a player gains Experience. A coefficient increasing Experience. Default setting 0 %. Increases due to obtainment of a special Boosting Gem. At any one time a player may have only one Gem.
Boosting Gem – An object increasing the speed of training. Can be obtained only from the game administration. May not be resold to another player. Types of Gem and prices:
·     Gem +10 %, minimum +1 experience. Price: 1050 gold
·     Gem +20 %, minimum +2 experience. Price: 2100 gold
·     Gem +30 %, minimum +4 experience. Price: 3150 gold
·     Gem +40 %, minimum +6 experience. Price: 4200 gold
·     Gem +50 %, minimum +8 experience. Price: 5250 gold

"If you train hard and always use your abilities, you'll grow into a worthy demon hunter!" Gurt officially signed off on my task, and returned to the other recruits. The orc's words struck me as strange, and I opened my character window. Indeed, five Demon Strikes had increased my Intellect by five points, one for each strike. 995 more strikes and I would increase my Intellect by one point. How freaking simple! I had to hammer away at a dummy for half a year in order to bump up a characteristic to a more or less respectable value!
I dismissed Aniram, but the countdown to the next diversion didn't stop. More bad news. I couldn't do anything to my pet, I couldn't freeze the timer, and I couldn't use my abilities without a demon. Too many "I couldn'ts". Deciding to see what this would lead to, I went over to the simulators to polish up my moves. I got so caught up in the feeling of control over my own body that I lost track of time. I hated running, jumping, and squatting in reality – my unwieldy body and shortness of breath constantly resisted my desire to exercise. There was nothing like that here. I literally flew through the simulators, and the logic of our actions became clear – a demon hunter had to be quick and agile in order to escape danger. We weren't supposed to get mixed up in open conflict with enemies. Our core rotation was: leap away from opponent, keep opponent at a distance, constantly batter opponent with Demon Strikes. No Leeroy Jenkins here!
The next two hours I spent working honestly on completing tests. Fortunately for me, Marcon the Spoiled didn't content himself with seven tests out of ten, and stayed on to practice the last three. I shadowed him on the machines, trying to remember each movement, but then he suddenly disappeared to reality. His character faded away right in the middle of a test, as a result of which myself and the rest of the brethren following him all fell to the ground. Some sooner, some later, but everyone collapsed. I was the first. My Agility scale rose to 748, and I at last felt depleted. No physical fatigue, only mental. At the end of the day, repeating the same thing over and over is hard work. I needed to switch off, so I decided to take a stroll around the training camp, but as soon as I exited the assault course, my body was seized by that familiar chill.
"You again! Smell the light!" Braksed was once again ensconced in his battle station next to our course. I ignored his cloying odium, far more concerned as I was with the state of Eredani, who was lying on the ground, wheezing, hunched over in a most unnatural position, and tearing at his chest with his fingers. Braksed laughed, pleased with the result, and that was the last straw. I was no great philanthropist, but I couldn't stand open travesties of justice. I couldn't damage the player directly, but Braksed himself had given me a fantastic idea. Aniram, my dear, enter!
"What the hell?!" The elf stood transfixed. The archdemoness's spectacular entrance did not go unnoticed. Her wings spread wide, Aniram hovered above me, intent on flattening me like a bug as soon as the light of Eluna touched her. It still hadn't occurred to the aggressor to switch off the Drop of Light.
"I will drink your soul! I will make you pray for death!" Her target had suddenly changed. I wasn't going anywhere, so her priority was now to rid herself of the Light she so hated. A deafening crack, an earthquaking tremble, and all around was rent with the wild shrieks of a pack of lower demons. Aniram had called up six canine beasts, and pointing her wings at Braksed she roared, "Kill!"
The dogs rushed to obey the order, and the noise from the camp was joined by two abominable sounds: the wail of the security system, and the cries of Braksed being torn apart. A player's pet, just like a player himself, could do nothing to an opponent, but this restriction did not extend to invoked animals. A shadow flickered and the pack was dust. Drill sergeant Tarlin was the first to reach ground zero, but it was too late – Braksed lay prostrate, one Health point to his name, emitting toe-curling screams. The lowlifes had had a splendid romp, and pointed out Braksed's need to visit a sales office to decrease his pain threshold. The player was so panicked he hadn't even thought of exiting virtuality, exposing himself to the demons' jaws.
The satisfied Aniram folded her wings, devoured me with a bloodthirsty look and, spraying everything around with her hatred, spat, "You're next, traitor!"
Tarlin frowned, and I hurried to get the archdemoness out of harm's way. If he killed her, I would have to dive into the Abyss again, something I wasn't burning with desire to do.
"Pick up Eredani and follow me," ordered Tarlin. "You attacked a Free citizen. Punishment awaits you!"

Upgrades gained
·     Experience gained: +6, until next level: 988
·     Reputation with Light of Barliona faction increased by 3

Yeah right! What were the bonuses for?!

Release - August 8, 2019

Find out more about the series in interview with Vasily Mahanenko

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