Sunday, September 1, 2019

Reality Benders: A Jump into the Unknown

Reality Beders:
A Jump into the Unknown
by Michael Atamanov

Release - October 23, 2019

Introduction, part one. Deposal Demand

Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory
Palace of the Ruling Council
Small Council Chamber

"Princess, with all due respect, only members of the ruling Council and invited speakers are allowed inside the palace." Said the watchful head of the palace guard, standing in the path of Minn-O La-Fin's luxurious levitating throne. As he spoke, the gray-haired guardsman got down on one knee to express his immeasurable respect for the ruler of the First Directory and his liege lady while still upholding his duty and not allowing ancient law to be violated. The dozen armed soldiers guarding the entryway followed their commander's lead and also got down respectfully on one knee, all the while maintaining vigilance and keeping hold of their weapons.

The noble princess, looking unbelievably haughty and majestic in her traditional garb, which was meant exclusively for members of the ancient La-Fin ruling dynasty, opted not to get into a verbal skirmish with her subject and turned around in silence, looking to her companion for support – the young but already quite authoritative mage diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi. The respected sorcerer impatiently pushed aside a muscle-bound middle-aged man in the gray garb of a rightless nonmage, who was loaded down with boxes and parcels, then unhappily moved aside a short servant girl standing behind the flying throne and stepped out in front:
"Guard Commander Uei-Lu Ot-Tosh! I am mage-ruler Mac-Peu Un-Roi, chief councilor to the La-Fin Dynasty. I will also be giving a speech at the council of mage-rulers today!"
The head of the palace guard stood up and gave a bow of respect, this one lacking the piety he used to address his liege lady.
"Mage-ruler Mac-Peu Un-Roi, I know you well and am prepared to let you enter. But who are the other people in your group?" The tip of the wand in the guardsman's hand, sparkling with electricity, pointed at the miniature servant girl and heavily-laden muscleman. "Neither of your companions’ descriptions fit the head of the First Directory, Coruler Gnat La-Fin. I don't know them, so I cannot allow them to enter!"
Mac-Peu opened his mouth to answer, but kept silent, not wanting to blatantly lie. A tense pause took hold. Then Princess Minn-O La-Fin spoke up for the first time. Her voice carried so much confidence and majesty with its metallic ring that anyone would agree they were hearing the voice of a born ruler:
"My husband, Coruler Gnat La-Fin was not able to attend the council. He lives on the alternate world where magic is atrophied, and travelling between worlds takes time. Unfortunately, time is something Coruler of Humanity, Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez did not deign to provide us when he announced an urgent session of the mage council. So I will be speaking in the name of the ancient La-Fin dynasty of mage rulers! These two nonmages are my servants and they will not be coming with me!"
The lead guard bowed respectfully to the ruling lady, but still did not make way. The young mage Mac-Peu Un-Roi had to come up closer and explain, lowering his voice to a whisper and trying to speak only with the commander, not the common palace guardsmen:
"Commander Uei-Lu Ot-Tosh, you must be aware that Princess Minn-O La-Fin was seriously wounded by the blast at the funeral of her grandfather Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. My lady lost her legs and is not able to move on her own, or take care of even her most basic quotidian needs. So the Princess's servants are absolutely necessary. As it is, we strove to minimize the size of our group as much as possible and did not take any mages as to reduce friction with the Council of Rulers even though, as ruler of the First Directory, she is entitled to a splendid retinue and many mages of all kinds."
The lead guardsman furrowed his brow and started thinking. This situation really was turning out somewhat complicated. Outsiders were categorically forbidden from entering the palace however, without these two servants, it was doubtful the council session would take place at all. After all, the great Archmage Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez wasn't going to be lifting the crippled Princess personally and setting her on the podium. And he certainly wouldn’t be readjusting her dress if necessary, or carrying her out to the toilet. And that was when the chief guardsman made up his mind:
"Alright, the servants may enter. But first I must search them to make sure there's no dangerous items concealed in their clothing. I'll also need to give the throne a thorough inspection. As for you, honorable Mac-Peu Un-Roi, I ask that you leave your magic wand at the entrance. Regrettably, those are the rules!"
The Princess nodded in silence, allowing her retinue to be personally inspected. They checked very carefully, but didn't turn up anything suspicious. The burly man carrying all the stuff was found to have a holographic screen generator – a completely standard model, the kind used for indoor speeches just about every day. The servant girl was wearing no jewelry, and didn't even have pockets in her clothing, so she also made it through the inspection unimpeded. A few minutes later, the Princess's retinue was back on its way and, after walking into the main hall of the palace, turned a corner into a room where upcoming speakers in the Small Council Chamber could get some rest or clean themselves up.
Just after the doors closed behind them, the mage diviner gave a happy chuckle:
"See, Princess Minn-O, I told you it wouldn’t be too hard to sneak Roman Pavlovich and Tamara into the palace!" When he saw fear on the ruler's face, Mac-Peu hurried to add: "Don't be afraid, we can speak openly here. The palace was checked thoroughly this morning, but no microphones, spy cameras or other foreign objects were found. The only room the guard did not check, as per tradition, was the council chamber itself."
Up on the levitating throne, Minn-O adjusted the uncomfortable high collar of her dress and sat back wearily in her chair:
"Although I have never entered this palace before, I am perfectly familiar with the way things work here. Ever since an order from my great grandfather Coruler of Humanity Archmage Yuho-Loru La-Fin more than two hundred years ago, both the Large and Small Council Chambers have been off limits to everyone except members of the Ruling Council and invited speakers."
"And yet we both also know that is not the whole truth, Princess," the mage diviner said with a smirk and wily chuckle. "An exception is made for one lone cleaning woman who regularly tidies up all around the palace. In her forty years of flawless service, she has earned the complete trust of the guard. But the cleaning woman just so happens to be from the First Directory, and a faithful subject of yours, so she got everything ready yesterday."
Princess Minn-O took a heavy sigh. The young ruler was extremely displeased with all this. It was a great shame, but there was no way to stay in power than to spook the Ruling Council a bit for political influence. The talented mage seer had studied all possible lines of the future a day prior and warned the Princess that her enemies from the other magical dynasties were in quite a decisive mood. According to him, it was inevitable that Minn-O La-Fin would suffer at least attempted mental attacks during the council session. And it was just as inevitable that the council would end with a vote to demand she be stripped of her post as head of the La-Fin Faction in the game, and that Coruler Gnat La-Fin be deposed as ruler of the First Directory in the real world.
The Princess was not afraid of mental attacks. There was a girl in her retinue from the other world by the name of Tamara who had a unique aptitude for blocking magic. Minn-O was not particularly afraid of the outcome of the vote of nonconfidence because the La-Fin Faction, which she led, had put up impressive results in the game that bends reality. According to reports from humanity's Geckho suzerains, the La-Fin Faction was currently the most advanced and strongest faction not only from the magocratic world, but of all the factions on the virtual Earth as a whole. Her report about the faction's success, and her achievements aimed at defending the entire world would surely have a positive impact on the members of the Ruling Council and thus preordain a positive outcome. But nevertheless, the Princess was trembling and so she agreed to her advisor’s Plan B, just in case the threat of impeachment became too real.
"I'd have never agreed to such a thing if not for your prediction that they might ask me to step down and strip me of all my titles. But you are correct, advisor. If we cannot come to an agreement with the Ruling Council the nice way, we'll have to try something mean! But for now I am not so much worried about the mages of competing dynasties. If your words are to be trusted, we will be able to handle them all in the end. But my husband will be outraged when he finds out what happened! Leng Gnat La-Fin loves me, values me and would never have released me into a hornets' nest without all the relevant information. But much worse, Gnat never forgives attacks against him. And it is hard to look at the threat of impeachment any other way. All that could lead to a huge war. And I pity the sorcerers who dare stand in my husband's path!"
Mac-Peu Un-Roi didn't answer. He really had spent over an hour checking back over the most probable future lines and seeing all kinds of different endings to today's session of the Ruling Council. And that included outcomes the Princess was better off not knowing...
"Fourteen hexagons, one at level five and two at four. An advanced high-speed road network. Expansive northern and northwestern territories for future growth, partially already cleared of aggressive NPC's. The hexagons that directly border the Geckho spaceport are also very nearby and primed for capture. That could lead to the La-Fin Faction having total control over overland transport of extraterrestrial goods and trade with the suzerains. "
The mage-rulers in the council chamber began to buzz. But it was more dismay than approval. It was very strange. Princess Minn-O was speaking at such a high level for the first time, but that didn't exactly make her a novice in rhetoric. The heiress to the ancient ruling dynasty had been trained in many skills that might come in handy for a Princess, including the art of speaking in front of large groups of people. All the Princess's tutors remarked upon her implicit talent for rhetoric. Minn-O could convince even her most venerable opponents, subdue any audience to her will and force them to empathize with what she was saying. For that very reason, Coruler of humanity Thumor-Anhu La-Fin sent his capable and intelligent granddaughter to represent the First Directory and La-Fin dynasty at all kinds of gatherings, and Minn-O always performed admirably.
So the Princess had a rich experience with public speeches and figured she would be able to predict the audience reaction in advance. Now she was reporting on the successes and military victories of the La-Fin Faction, so she imagined that the Council of Rulers was going to react, if not with elation, then at the very least with approval. After all, if one of the key factions of the magocratic world was doing well, that was good for all of them. However, the audience was behaving unexpectedly. Everything was strange today. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. The Princess was basically saying the right things, backing it all up with facts, diagrams and illustrative images. She made pauses where she was supposed to, capably played with volume and pacing, but still she couldn’t sense the audience reacting the way they were supposed to. It was as if the mage rulers weren't listening to her. And if they did react to the Princess's words, it was more likely to be negative. That had her upset and on guard. But nevertheless, Minn-O continued her speech:
"As of the present day, the La-Fin Faction comprises seven thousand three hundred players. And recently our population has been growing at an exponential pace. In fact, we will be surpassing the ten-thousand-player mark within the next seven or eight days. As soon as that happens, our capital hexagon will advance to level six, which will allow us to bring a total of fourteen thousand one hundred players into the game. As far as I know, none of the other factions of the virtual planet can even come close to boasting such successes!"
With a remote control, she flipped to the next slide on the huge screen, showing the construction of a grand freight port in the Tropics – a hexagon recently captured from the Human-3 Faction and transferred to the La-Fin Faction in a peace treaty. The plan was for a port with a plethora of docks which was to serve as the main logistics hub of the eastern shore of the bay for four factions: La-Fin, Relict, Human-3 and Human-6. That would guarantee a good stable income, commensurate with the profits from trade with the Geckho spaceport. What was more, the planetary shield generator being erected on the nearby Rocky Island required truly colossal amounts of materials of all different kinds and most of it was planned to be delivered by sea, so a large port would be necessary for the survival of humanity as a whole.
Nevertheless, as soon as she began commenting on the construction of the port, the Princess stopped midword because Coruler of humanity Onuri-Unta La-Varrez abruptly stood up. The strongest archmage of modern times and her main opponent, in his day he had done quite a lot to make miserable the life of her grandfather, Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. The fearsome sorcerer, wearing a black robe with gold embroidery, was hammering his magic staff into the floor, reverberating with every step toward the podium and stopped a few steps from Minn-O.
"Did I hear you right?" Coruler Onuri-Unta's voice was powerful and booming, fully belying the old man's respectable one hundred and fifty years. "Girl, do you really have the gall to stand there and claim your faction is doing well? In fact you are making a real mess of things. Perhaps your young years make it hard to comprehend, so allow me to explain. Every player in your faction with magical abilities will flee at the first possible opportunity. So how can there be any talk of development and increasing your faction’s numbers, if there are no players in your faction capable of occupying key leadership positions?! Or do you imagine that nonmages can occupy these posts?"
The ghoulish old man fell silent, awaiting the Princess's imminent response. When Coruler Onuri-Unta finished, the room burst into a storm of applause. By all appearances, the audience by and large supported the Archmage's point of view. The Princess winced in pain not once over the course of her speech today had the room supported her even with the most tepid ovation. But here her opponent's very first salvo was met with unmitigated delight. Bad! Very bad! Just then, her advisor Mac-Peu Un-Roi's mentally transmitted words rang out in her head:
"Careful, Minn-O! They're all expecting you to slip up! Be extra delicate when formulating your response!"
But the Princess already knew that perfectly well. In the magocratic world, there was one ancient law that had served as a bedrock principle for millennia. It read: "Common rabble, ignorant of the art of charms may never be equal to the wizarding kind." A more modern way to phrase the archaic piece of legislation would be that people without magical abilities are forbidden from holding upper leadership posts, which traditionally are reserved for mages.
However, the population of Earth had grown, and the majority of people were born with no magical abilities. At present, out of a total population of eleven billion, there were less than forty-five thousand mages, which is to say, for every child born with a predilection for the art of charms, a quarter million newborns were born into the "common rabble." And thus, more and more exceptions were found to the ancient law all the time, because it was not possible for every city, large enterprise and scientific laboratory to be headed by a person with a talent for magic. The apotheosis of these "exceptions" was the rise of General Ui-Taka, who had taken the Second Directory by force and proclaimed himself king. The rulers of the remaining thirty directories could huff and puff all they liked, make reference to their wizarding majesty and ignore the self-proclaimed ruler, but that did nothing about the fact that they were in no condition to stop or impede the highly successful general.
But mentioning those exceptions here, in the palace of the mage rulers, the very heart of the magically-imbued world, would be a huge mistake. Minn-O understood that perfectly, so she said something that, in her opinion, the audience would like to hear:
"Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez may well think that, because my magical abilities were discovered so late in life, I must be speaking out against the order of our world. I'm afraid I have to disappoint him. I am the heiress to an ancient dynasty of mage rulers, the La-Fin family, so you'll hardly find a person as zealously devoted to upholding the historical laws and traditions as I. All posts and professions which are legally proscribed for those with magical abilities will go to mages and that is that. And the fact that a number of traitors will flee the faction, six of whom are here in this room," Minn-O said directing her laser pointer at a group of people squirming unconfidently in their mage robes in the Fourth Directory section, "has no effect on our eventual success. The First Directory has sufficient magically-gifted citizens to replace our detractors. In fact, the crew of a ship generally celebrates after the rats have fled!"
For the first time since she began her speech, there was some applause though it was fairly tepid and fell silent as soon as Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez turned to the chamber with a frown of dismay.
"Let's say you're right. Although I still cannot see where Princess Minn-O will get so many mages for her faction. However, the main issue today is something different. Recent events have shown that the La-Fin Faction is supporting our opponents from the alternate world, and that its soldiers are fighting side by side with our common enemies against the magocratic world. And that I simply cannot understand! It is obvious that only one of the worlds can remain by the end of the game’s tong of safety, and it will be whichever one has a greater number of game hexagons. So it is our shared mission to make absolutely sure that our world is the one that survives! And not to work for the enemy and destroy our shared future!!! In connection with that, I demand the Ruling Council conduct a vote of nonconfidence in the head of the First Directory Coruler Gnat La-Fin and his wayedda, head of the La-Fin Faction Gerd Minn-O La-Fin! They must be deposed for colluding with the enemy!!!"

Introduction, part two. Consequences

By the end of his speech, Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez was essentially screaming, stoking the situation and trying to impress upon his opponent with the gravity of his accusation. The chamber was also buzzing indignantly in support the old archmage and didn’t let the Princess respond for quite a while.
"They'll have to be pushed a bit," the voice of Mac-Peu rang out in Minn-O’s head. "We didn't want it to come to a conflict, but our opponents have left us with no choice. Smear them! Use the counterarguments we prepared yesterday for that very accusation!"
Minn-O La-Fin waited patiently for the hubbub to quiet down, then started to answer with a mocking smile:
"How deplorable it is to see that advanced age has robbed one of the three Corulers of humanity of his clarity of mind! And it's doubly vexing that a mage who was so great in the past has spent the game’s statistic points not on Intelligence but on a belated attempt to increase muscle mass and paper over childhood insecurities!"
"Come now, pitiable wayedda of a space pirate. Mind you don’t overstep your bounds!!!" shouted the insulted Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez, trying to talk Minn-O La-Fin down. But she was no longer listening to him, her microphone now louder and continuing her story:
"Well, if my opponent ever did improve his Intelligence, he might be able to take a more critical look at his own words, rather than telling a blatant lie to the council of mage rulers! And meanwhile, an elementary logical example can break down all the Coruler's arguments: it is easily possible that the dominant faction on the planet could be one containing players from both worlds! And if Leng Onuri-Unta La-Varrez had ever even once improved his Intelligence, he may have reached this definitive counterexample on his own and realized his conjecture that one world will be destroyed is very far from a certainty indeed!"
Princess Minn-O took a brief pause and, noting with satisfaction that the rulers were finally listening closely to her and even discussing, she continued her speech:
"So then, let me direct the honorable mages’ attention to the fact that even the wise suzerains of humanity the Geckho do not know yet what will happen to two split worlds after the tong of safety runs out. They say there’s insufficient data. And I am now stating the official position of the Viceroy of Earth, Kosta Dykhsh. Refuting it means not only putting one's self in a stupid light, but also subjecting all humanity to harsh reprisals for disrespecting the suzerains! The Meleyephatian Horde does not know what will happen to a double world with bifurcated space either, even though they have been investigating the game that bends reality for over three thousand years. The Union of Miyelonian Prides also does not know, even though my husband Coruler of humanity Gnat La-Fin has spoken with the wisest and most authoritative rulers of the Miyelonian race. And so Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez cannot possibly say that with such certainty after being in the game for all of five minutes. He does not even know elementary things and yet, despite that, he is making a laughingstock of himself by making far-reaching categorical prognoses!"
"Minn-O, what have you done?! You should have kept to the facts, without pejorative comments about the age and mental capacity of Coruler Onuri-Unta! You made the head of the La-Varrez faction look like a liar and damaged his Authority before his subjects in the most serious fashion! The Archmage will never forgive that! You have just cut off almost all positive lines of the future!"
The mage rulers in the chamber started buzzing in dismay and even stomped their feet because it was hard to take the Princess's words any other way than as a direct insult toward one of the three respected Corulers of humanity. Minn-O herself also understood that she had crossed a line and overplayed her hand, dispelling the audience's budding sympathy. But she wasn't the least bit sorry for what she'd done. Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez opened his mouth a few times, preparing to respond to the accusations of incompetence and lying, but in the end he waved a hand and plopped down dismally into his seat looking like a beaten dog.
It was some time before the hubbub quieted back down, and only thanks to the interference of another Coruler – Archmage Anri-Huvi La-Shin stood up and called for silence. After that he turned to Minn-O and shook his head in reproach:
"Such harsh words are not befitting of a highborn Princess! I believe a representative of the ancient and glorious La-Fin dynasty should be ashamed of such intemperance. But most importantly: I did not hear a response to the allegation that magess Minn-O is working for the enemy! And meanwhile those are truly grave allegations which threaten the most severe consequences for the leaders of the La-Fin dynasty, who have now lost the trust of the ruling Council!"
Minn-O clenched her teeth until they cracked, trying to restrain herself this time at least while also not revealing her disappointment and despair. Overall, she was hoping for Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin to at least take a neutral position because he was always considered a friend of her family. The fact that the second Coruler of humanity supported the allegations came as a heavy blow.
"I was simply not allowed to finish, respected Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, so I was not able to give an explanation. And as for the harsh words, it's hard to maintain calm with Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez and his vassals constantly trying to mentally attack me and break my train of thought! What's more, I was not the one to start throwing around insults such as 'inexperienced girl,' and 'pitiable wayedda of a space pirate.' By the way, the fact you called me a wayedda means your information is out of date. Coruler Gnat La-Fin raised my status yesterday from wayedda to senior wife."
"I confirm!" mage diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took a step toward the podium. "The ruler of the First Directory, Coruler Gnat La-Fin declared Princess Minn-O his senior wife yesterday and left her in charge of the La-Fin faction on her personal request. Maintaining contact with neighbors, expanding faction borders and grand building projects mean that someone with decision-making authority must always be present. And that is why Leng Gnat embarked upon a spaceflight without his wife Minn-O La-Fin."
The news made the mage rulers light up because it seriously changed the speaker and impacted the political lay of the land. And a lone shout rose up from the chamber as well:
"Princess Minn-O, do you care to comment on why Coruler Gnat waited until now to do that? Was it out of desire to secure the property of the La-Fin dynasty before this meeting? After all, after being deposed, the senior wife of a directory leader may lay claim to a portion of the dynasty's property, unlike a travelling wife."
Minn-O turned to see who that was and smiled with the very corners of her lips:
"My husband would hardly be guided by such mercantile concerns. It's just that, until recently, the position of senior wife was occupied. Perhaps if you took a greater interest in the galactic news, you’d know that the human Leng Gnat La-Fin performed a ritual marriage dance with Leng Keetsie-Myau, commander of the Miyelonian fleet in this part of the galaxy. So formally, she was considered my husband's wife and it took some time to smooth over that little misunderstanding. At any rate, the amusing episode also had an upside: the Miyelonian race has officially renounced all claims to our planet, so we now have one less potential invader!"
Minn-O La-Fin was expecting the mage rulers to react positively to that, however nothing of the sort came to pass. In fact, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin knocked the Princess down a peg and demanded that she respond to the allegation she was working for the enemy rather than "retell the amorous adventures of a space pirate."
"Space pirate???" she again started losing control. "If I were you, Coruler Anri-Huvi, I would be more careful with my expressions because the fate of your faction’s starship hangs on nothing more than my husband's peaceable nature. As you know, the dispatchers and customs officials of the space port are subordinate to the viceroy of Earth Kosta Dykhsh. And the viceroy is fiancé to Uline Tar, a close friend and business associate of my husband. So the 'space pirate' Leng Gnat is well aware of the La-Shin faction’s dilapidated three-hundred-year old scrap heap’s planned route, as well as its cargo of gemstones!"
The old Archmage Anri-Huvi reeled, went pale and clutched at the heart region of his chest. The news of the threat to the starship clearly shocked the old man. It was immediately apparent that the La-Shin faction had invested serious funds into the purchase of the second-hand shuttle and had placed a big bet on the starship making a successful trade run. Some attendants ran over to the Coruler, grabbed him under the arms and carried him to his seat, pouring some support elixirs down the old man's throat on the way.
As she watched the fuss, Minn-O winced in disgust. The archmage Anri-Huvi was nearly two hundred years old. Any strong emotional trauma could kill him, but still he was slinking in to argue with her and making allegations against her faction. Without waiting for the old man to be brought to his senses, Minn-O continued:
"As for the allegations, which are ludicrous on their face, let me assure you all that no one is doing more to safeguard our world than my husband Coruler Gnat! Searching for extraterrestrial allies, new technology, constructing a planetary shield..."
"Healer! The Coruler's heart has stopped!" an agonized cry tore out, interrupting Minn-O's speech.
What is this?! A huge buzzing crowd was instantly gathered around the archmage, who was crawling impotently on the floor. The members of the ruling Council jumped up from their seats, many trying to get over to the unfeeling body and shouting advice. Just then, mage diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took advantage of the commotion and approached the podium. With a gesture, he called for Minn-O to lean down and whispered into her very ear:
"This has turned out bad! Now no matter how this ends with Coruler Anri-Huvi, there will be no avoiding a vote to strip you of your titles! And I checked. The whole chamber is inclined against us. What's more, they came in feeling that way, and the whole spectacle of you making a report and answering questions was just an empty formality. They all knew the outcome in advance. Everyone here has been promised a share of the La-Fin dynasty’s wealth, so they will all vote to depose. Even the mages sitting in the First Directory section have been bought, lock stock and barrel. In fact, everyone in this chamber is a ravening jackal who rushed over here so they wouldn’t miss their piece of the big pie."
 "Good thing we came prepared then!" Not a single muscle so much as twitched on the Princess's face when she heard the worrying news. She just readjusted her grip on the remote she’d been using to control the slides and pressed a button she hadn't touched before.
The image of the port under construction changed. An image came up on all the holographic screens that looked something like thermal transfer or a microchip, with a little red light pulsing in the middle of it. The change in image didn't catch the mages' attention right away, but gradually the sound in the chamber fell silent. All that remained were the healers fussing around next to Coruler Anri-Huvi, who had been brought back to his senses with artificial respiration. The others were all silent and awaiting commentary from Minn-O. And she didn't keep them waiting long:
"Respected members of the Ruling Council! This is quite a long story, and I will start from the beginning, with the history of this palace. As you most likely know, there was a devastating great war between the magical dynasties two hundred years ago. At a certain point my great grandfather, Coruler of humanity Yuho-Loru La-Fin was on the verge of defeat and there was a Council of Rulers session held in this very chamber on whether or not to depose him. In fact, at the time, the Palace of the Ruling Council was half destroyed and it was restored just for the occasion. That was also when this furniture was installed in the Small Chamber. You have all probably noticed how disproportionately thick these hefty crimsonwood benches are. And trust me, this is relevant to the story. You see, Coruler Yuho-Loru La-Fin had each of the many dozens of benches in this chamber packed full of nitro-plastic explosive the most powerful explosive known to humanity at the time. Fortunately, that vote went how the head of the La-Fin dynasty wanted and there was no need to blow up the Council of Rulers at that time. But history, you see, tends to repeat itself. The furniture in the Small Chamber hasn't been replaced in those two centuries, we just had to switch out the old detonators with more modern ones there’s one beneath every bench and you can see them on the screens. Hey now, stop that! No one stand up!!! Silence in the chamber!!!"
The mage rulers who jumped up from their seats in fear after Minn-O La-Fin's shout were forced to sit back down. Such a silence came over the meeting chamber that Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin's rapid breathing became audible as he lie there on the floor. And meanwhile, the Princess's servants who had been sitting meekly in the corner previously, walked up to their master. The large man lifted Minn-O delicately and moved her from the podium to her levitating throne. The lady then took the dangerous remote from the Princess's hands.
Unhurriedly making her way to the exit between the rows of benches filled with mage rulers sitting stock still in agitation, Minn-O La-Fin commented:
"I could go on about the absurdity of the allegations against me and my husband Gnat La-Fin for ages, but you wouldn't listen. Yes, I am perfectly aware that each of your votes has been bought and that there is no cause to expect an honest outcome. But still I will try to make a fair survey. Respected mage rulers, answer me this. Do you really consider it acceptable to depose the ruler of the First Directory a man who is doing more to ensure the continuation of humankind than the lot of you taken together? On that note, I bid you farewell, and my trusted servants will stay behind to make sure the vote is fair. If they don't like the way it turns out, you have only yourselves to blame!"
With these words, the Princess unclipped the microphone from her dress and, accompanied by the mage diviner, left the meeting chamber. As soon as the doors closed behind the Princess, the miniature girl got up on the podium with the dangerous remote raised high in her right hand:
"Don't even try to take control of my mind, it's no use!"
The girl was speaking a language not of this world, but a few of the mage rulers understood it regardless. At the very least the La-Fin Faction’s six former spymasters who fled and joined the La-Varrez Faction would.
"Gerd Tamara!" they all shouted out in concert.
Based on the groan that rolled through the room, many of the mage rulers were familiar with her name and it inspired nothing short of horror. They didn't expect anything good from such close contact with the fanatic paladin.
"Yes, it is I!" with these words, the paladin girl pulled the ash-gray mask off her face with her free left hand, revealing herself as a native of the other world. "Gerd Tamara, the worst nightmare of the mages of all your cursed factions! So there isn't going to be any vote! Thousands of years ago, my ancestors banished you vile spawn of magic from their world. But you just wouldn’t leave well enough alone, coming back into my world through the game to spread your sorcerous blight! But I’m not worried because today your reign shall come to an end! How long have I dreamed of this moment – to be in the very epicenter of the magical infection and destroy all the mage rulers in one fell swoop! I am not the least bit sorry to give my life for this holy mission! My only regret is that I had to let one of you go – while discussing today's plans, I promised the mage diviner that I would let him escape and paladins always keep their word."
"What about Princess Minn-O La-Fin? After all, she's also a mage who wields considerable power!" Despite the tension of the moment, one of the mages was bold enough to ask a clarification, perhaps merely wanting to dissuade the strange girl with her icy emotionless face and earn himself a few extra minutes of life.
"Princess Minn-O?" she asked with a happy laugh that looked somewhat strange and even frightening with her practically immobile facial muscles. "You really haven't figured it out? Minn-O doesn't have any magical abilities! All of her apparent magic is a consequence of the fetus in her womb, generated when the magical genes of people from two long-separated worlds came together. Minn-O's child will grow into a powerful mage. A very powerful mage. But the thing is, no matter how profoundly I hate mages, I was not prepared to kill an unborn child. Especially the child of a person I care so deeply for!"
The ruler of the First Directory's procession was getting ready to head out. Many armored defensive antigravs were hovering above the earth ready to take off at any moment and disappear into the low cloud cover.
"Advisor, how do you think the vote will turn out?" Princess Minn-O La-Fin's eyes were plastered to the armored glass of her luxuriant flying vehicle, staring at the exit from the Palace of the Ruling Council and awaiting her companions, who were taking longer than expected.
The mage diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took a good bit of time to answer. Choosing his words carefully and avoiding categorical statements, he cautiously suggested that Tamara might be taking advantage of the convenient opportunity to detonate all the explosives in the chamber regardless of how the vote went. However, despite all the advisor's careful couching, Princess Minn-O understood what was happening:
"Diviner, you must have known that was going to happen! Admit it! All your talk about a 'plan B' and trying to scare the Council of Rulers before the vote were just to make me agree to take part in all this. Is that right?
Mac-Peu didn't have time to answer. A fearsome thundering blast rolled through the surrounding area, popping ears and spooking all the birds out of their trees. The squat pyramidal Palace of the Ruling Council, two hundred steps from the armored antigrav, sank. The tip of the structure collapsed into the building. A second later, everything was obscured by huge dust clouds.
"That's all she wrote..." the advisor commented calmly. "You were not deposed. You're still Princess of an ancient dynasty and the ruler of a faction in the game that bends reality. We were also able to avoid a big war the other directories won't be capable of such a thing any time soon. All that remains is to inform the news channels that Emancipation from Mage Tyranny terrorists committed yet another heinous crime, this time bombing a session of the Council of Rulers. The fact that we survived is a pure miracle and only because you finished your speech earlier than scheduled and left. There can be no complaints for us the palace guard will confirm that they searched our group carefully and that we didn't bring any hazardous materials into the palace."
"And the cleaning woman?" Minn-O shuddered. "She'll say that she installed detonators under the benches in the chamber!"
"The cleaning woman?" the advisor asked with false surprise, raising his brows and his eyes gone wide. "Princess, didn't I tell you that she died this morning? Cardiac arrest. A real tragedy. Although it’s no surprise at her age. Basically, I plan to put some money aside to pay her family a respectable compensation for her many years of impeccable service."
"Mac-Peu, you're a monster!" Despite the Princess's emotional statement, deep in her soul she didn't blame her chief advisor one bit and even agreed that there was no other way.
"No, Princess Minn-O. I am not some bloodthirsty monster. I simply put my faith in your husband and am doing everything so that Leng Gnat's plan to save our world from space invasion will come to fruition!"
The ruler of the First Directory spent a few seconds in silence thinking over what she'd heard, but then she demanded impatiently:
"Let's take off already! Tell the guard we're getting out of here. Otherwise it'll look weird that we didn't leave the scene of a terror attack right away, despite the clear and present danger. Although... wait! Someone is coming out of the demolished building!"
And in fact, enshrouded in dense clouds of dust, a small figure emerged with a staggering gait. It was a girl with her head pointed down. The Princess and her advisor exchanged surprised glances.
"Wasn't she supposed to die?" reproach cut through in the Princess's voice directed at her servant for not carrying out his highly important mission correctly.
The mage diviner shrugged his shoulders. He truly had not seen this possible future.
"Maybe it's for the best?" Minn-O La-Fin asked pensively. "Order her arrested! We must show the rulers of the thirty directories a living terrorist. They'll be thirsty for blood! Here we have a real live member of the sinister terror group Emancipation from Mage Tyranny!"

Chapter One Back Underway!

A day earlier
The game that bends reality
Near space in the vicinity of planet Earth

"The bird has flown the coop!" Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov's disappointed voice made me shudder and unstick my tightly closed eyes.
I found it easiest to bear the high G-forces like that, with my eyes closed. And when the frigate took off from such a massive planet, at times it got up to 5 G. Oh well, it's my own fault. I asked them to rush the takeoff and fix only the most necessary things on a priority basis. And the three broken gravity compensators, in the estimation of the repair bots, were not high enough priority to merit repair.
My teeth clenched in strain; I was squinting at the radar screen. Damn! We didn't make it. My Tolili-Ukh X frigate had just gained elevation, punched through the planetary atmosphere, while the Kurimiru shuttle belonging to the La-Shin faction had already entered a hyperspace jump. We were just some five minutes late... Although most likely the enemies were watching for our takeoff and would have slipped away no matter what.
"Navigator, were you able to determine their trajectory?" It was tremendously difficult to speak. My Gnat's meager 17 Constitution made it a real slog to do anything worthwhile in such high G forces. Nevertheless, I was holding out for the time being and didn't even put on my +1 Constitution rings this time because, as the famed captain of a star frigate, I needed to get used to such things.
"Yes, Leng Gnat. I established the vector of their hyperspace jump. I'm calculating an end point now... uh..." old Ayukh stroked his nose with his huge paw, his other paw operating the instrument panel at tremendous speed. The experienced Geckho seemingly didn't even notice the 5 G's. "The Kasti-Utsh system, as we supposed. But they've taken a rather strange angle, too far from the space station. They'll be off by almost a million miles."
Based on the movement of his meaty lips, the Navigator was saying totally different numbers and dimensions, but I was already used to the game automatically translating units of measure to fit what a human from Earth might know.
"Almost a million miles? Does that put them outside the security zone of the Kasti-Utsh III space station? Very good! We'll be able to intercept them! Ayukh, began calculating a hyperjump to those coordinates! Dmitry, as soon as we leave orbit prepare the ship for a long-distance jump. The Navigator will give you a vector. Actually... Both of you hold up. No rush," I removed my headphones and, overcoming the forces in my arms and legs, turned my mobile armchair dashingly and scooted over to the copilot's workstation.
Now, San-Dun Taki-Bu was sitting in the copilot's seat. A highly experienced level-91 Pilot who had long piloted Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin's antigrav, he was undertaking his first space flight on a real starship. I could sense the Pilot's emotional background state: very high tension, and seemingly the G-forces from the spaceship's takeoff had nothing to do with it. San-Dun was clearly shy to be in the presence of the ruler of the First Directory and was so scared of making a bad impression on me that his knees were quavering. That must have been evidence of his experience with the previous leader, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, who was famed for his difficult character and quickness to violence. Furthermore, the copilot was very embarrassed not to know the Geckho tongue, the primary mode of communication among my crew. Now for example, all the instruments and panels at his workstation were labeled in Geckho, merely doubled in the magocratic-world language on little plastic stickers so San-Dun could read them.
I gave the copilot an encouraging shoulder pat, praised his capable control of the frigate stabilizers in the dense atmosphere and asked to be put through to the Engineer on the ship's internal communication system.
"Orun Va-Mart, I'm reminded that you said you saw the Kurimiru in the spaceport with your own eyes. Back then you said their old heap of scrap didn't even have a decent hyperspace drive but instead something utterly not up to the task, along the lines of a lawnmower engine. Could you give me an estimate for how long it will take their bucket of bolts to fly from Earth to the Kasti-Utsh system?"
In response, our fluffy-tailed Engineer gave a pained groan through the speakers, then Orun Va-Mart requested that I wait until we leave orbit for an answer, because the harsh G-forces were making it hard to think. I gave a satisfied chuckle. What could I say? I guess I found a crew member who was worth at dealing with G-forces than me! By the way, a thought flickered by that I should check how the other first-timers were doing. And there were a whole four of them on the frigate: not only the level-91 Pilot San-Dun, but also the level-47 Bard Vasiliy Filippov, Anya the pseudo human of unknown level and the level-105 Shocktroop T'yu-Pan. Though I wasn't worried at all for the last two Constitution was a priority characteristic for the Morphian, while the muscular Shocktroop would feel wonderful even at the kind of forces that would turn my Gnat into a pancake.
Vasiliy Andreyevich Filippov also answered my internal comms request that: "it’s like my arms are full of lead and there's a sheet of cement pressing down on my chest, but still it's nothing worth bothering the captain about." Fortunately, the G forces were already diminishing and within three minutes it was all back to normal, then the artificial gravitation system turned on making life on board the starship entirely comfortable. Almost right after that came the Engineer's reply:
"Captain, with a drive from an old Cyanian frigate, the Kurimiru shuttle will take eleven ummi to jump from Earth to Kasti-Utsh."
I considered it. Eleven ummi? That's approximately sixty hours if you put it into more familiar units of time. My modern Tolili-Ukh X frigate would take just eighteen hours to make that distance. And even if you consider that hyperspace jump time was now reduced by a quarter from bonuses thanks to the experienced Navigator in my crew, the difference still made an impression. Space technology had really come a long way in the three centuries that had passed since the Kurimiru was first built!
If we started now, we'd have to drift around uselessly in space for forty hours and change, waiting for the slowpoke La-Shin faction shuttle to reach its destination. What to do with all that time? Visit the nearby trade hub Kasti-Utsh III? We really did need to make another visit to the space station. Last time, due to the abundance of Miyelonian military on the station, I was unable to meet the antiquities trader, even though I was very interested in the Relict artifacts he had purchased from the pirates.
However, the ancient artifacts of the long-vanished race cost a pretty penny, and I was already pretty hard up for cash. To be more accurate, I had pretty much no money. But then the La-Shin faction cargo shuttle came along just at the right time, drawing my interest back at the Geckho spaceport. The shuttle was practically assembled of pieces found in various scrap heaps, and had no value in and of itself. But still I was planning to capture it because, if a Dark Faction enemy had a starship, that threw a serious monkey wrench into my plans. In fact, it went so far as to threaten the established balance of power on the virtual Earth.
Now I wasn't exactly foaming at the mouth to destroy or steal the starship (although I won't argue, those kind of ideas were of course coming to mind), but showing Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, leader of the La-Shin faction, which terrestrial faction was the big dog in outer space would come in very handy. Especially in light of the quickly approaching deposal vote at the Council of Rulers vote in the magocratic world. I left Princess Minn-O on Earth and she assured me there was no cause for alarm, she would give a worthy speech and the mage rulers would vote the way we wanted. But still, having levers of influence before an important vote for one of the three influential corulers of humanity would be very beneficial.
The dispatchers at the Geckho spaceport eagerly informed my business partner Uline Tar that the Kurimiru was making a course for the Kasti-Utsh III station. At the same time, those very same space port employees whispered to the Geckho Trader that the human shuttle captain by the name of Mart-Ton La-Shin was inquiring about the price of rare-earth metals and large faceted gemstones out in the galaxy. He wanted to know so badly that he even paid a tidy sum to a Geckho trading agent for a print-out of current purchase prices on the Kasti-Utsh III station. And after that, the members of the La-Shin Faction started loading some kind of heavy metal containers onto the Kurimiru shuttle and preparing for takeoff...
The space port employees who told my business partner all these things dropped strong hints that, now that Captain Leng Gnat had pirate status, he might be interested in this information. Also, as if in passing, they mentioned that, under pirate law, providing information entitles you to one tenth of the take. The cautious Trader made no promises to the corrupt employees, just said she’d tell the captain about the high value goods. And what could I say? It really was very useful information. The Kurimiru shuttle was of interest to me just for its own sake. Packed full of gemstones and expensive rare-earth metals, it might actually be worth something.
At any rate, I left the option of flagrant piracy for only the very worst case scenario, preferring first to negotiate with shuttle captain Mart-Ton La-Shin from a position of power. Based on his name, the captain was somehow related to Coruler of humanity Anri-Huvi La-Shin, so he could probably be used to communicate my offers and demands to the coruler, as well as for discussing political and economic issues both in the virtual game and the real world. And again to offer help selling goods at reasonable prices before the naive earthlings got taken for a ride by some local streetwise junk dealer who would rob them blind. But as I said before, spending forty hours and change just waiting for the shuttle would be an unjustified waste of time.
So then, what to do? I asked Ayukh whether he'd solved the assignment I’d given him to find the coordinates of an object in space knowing only the flight time from it to four other points. To my dilettante's eye, it seemed like a very simple task. But the Navigator previously expressed great doubts that it could be solved at all. In his words, in real space, a straight line is practically never the optimal flight route between two distant points, and often they are filled with horrible curves and have lots of loops for accelerating around massive bodies. Still, there was no faster way though. Furthermore, we had to consider the variable nature of space itself in the cosmos, gravity extremes and the impact of the displacement of heavenly bodies on the flying object, which had been underway for millennia with a constantly variable but still sublight speed.
And now the Navigator spent a few minutes loading me down with professional terms and descriptions of how hard it all was before giving his final result. Old Ayukh was very proud that he had completed his mission.
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-one!
"So that means the location is about six and a half days flight with our frigate?" I asked, picking the most important part out of the Navigator's whole long speech, which was just packed with technical terms.
Old Ayukh gave a satisfied groan, turned his monitor to me and pointed a clawed finger at a bright marker.
"Captain, my calculations point to these coordinates."
"Whats there?" I moved my flying armchair a bit closer and also got up close to the screen.
The gray-haired furry Navigator zoomed in the star map and read the pop-up aloud:
"The H9045/WE system. A 3FF red-dwarf star. Long-distance scanning has never shown any planets. There is a ring-shaped dust cloud, perhaps the remnants of a destroyed comet or planetoid, but there are no large objects in it. The Meleyephatian map also has very little information about this star system: a dim red star, a ring cloud, an asteroid belt. No data about any of the spacefaring races sending ships or search probes, and the prognosis of finding anything with a scan like that is hopeless. No one has attempted to claim the system yet either."
I winced in dismay when the gray-haired Ayukh mentioned the Meleyephatian map out loud. Although the Tailaxian girl Valeri-Urla had not installed espionage devices here on the bridge, I still thought it better not to mention the fact that we had anything to do with the crystal drive where the map originated. After all, it was the cause of this whole big space war.
Six and a half days... I considered it. Obviously the search for the mysterious base of the Relicts could wait for now because we had more easily available and nearby targets to fly to. The space trading hub Kasti-Utsh III for example. Although there wasn't much for us to do there without space currency. At the very least we could fly out there to release the Morphian. The wise Vaa, who was now in the form of Anya from First Medical, wanted to get off at the first inhabited station we found. Before parting ways, the Morphian had asked to speak with me one-on-one, without anyone else there to listen. Vaa wanted to know everything about my interaction with Fox, and also promised to tell me something interesting in order to "repay in kind."
However, we had some trouble finding a secluded place for a chat. My whole ship, with the exception of perhaps the captain's bridge, was stuck full of espionage devices like a pincushion. Beastmaster Valeri-Urla had my personal permission to carry out her Tailaxian prison guards' assignment and she did so with great zeal. But it was hardly possible to talk privately on the bridge either. One of the two pilots or the Navigator was always on duty, and the Medic coming in would make the crew ask questions I didn't want to answer. Furthermore, a third of the crew looked on Anya with a good degree of suspicion and even hostility – she was thought to be behind the bio-weapon attack under the Dome, so her every step was being scrutinized. The Morphian herself, perfectly able to read the emotions of intelligent creatures she came across, realized in her first minutes on the frigate that she had made a serious mistake in her choice of human form. However, it was too late to change the human female body now – on such a small starship, the switch would not go unnoticed and would only aggravate things. I told Vaa about the spy equipment of the Meleyephatian horde and advised the Morphian not to reveal herself and just spend most of her time in her bunk with Uline Tar. Yes, my business partner had relinquished the spot freed up by Princess Minn-O La-Fin, who was back on Earth to the new medic girl.
Tamara wanted to be at Minn-O La-Fin’s side along with her adoptive father Roman Pavlovich. To be honest, I was hoping to the very last moment that the whole trio would be reinforcing my crew, but I read the Princess's mood and realized she wanted to stay home and handle faction affairs. Alright then, I wasn't planning to go dragging anyone into space after me, so I didn't wait for my wife to make an embarrassed request and offered to let Minn-O stay. Furthermore, I declared the Princess my "senior wife." It would be better that way – my wife was expecting a child and danger-fraught space adventures as a "travelling wife" were medically unwise. Furthermore, if my chat with the Kurimiru shuttle captain didn’t go smoothly for some reason, Princess Minn-O could serve as an alternate channel for communication with Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin.
I shuddered and turned my head, coming back to reality. The crew was still awaiting their captain's decision on where to take the newly remodeled frigate. Okay then...
"Dmitry, for starters let's make a couple loops around the planet and test all the on-board systems before our long-distance flight. And most importantly we can finally make a complete map of the virtual Earth with all the continents, seas and archipelagos. I'm sure this information will be appreciated. The terrestrial factions are probably sick of 'playing Civilization' and blindly probing into the darkness to discover new territories. I'll set the ship scanners to search for energy and heat sources so we can add all inhabited nodes to the map as well. Then..."
I turned the spinning chair to the Navigator and asked Ayukh whether he still had the coordinates of the platinum mine we discovered way back with Captain Uraz Tukhsh. I had it all recorded on my old Prospector Scanner, but I had to give it up to the Great Priestess of the Miyelonians with all the data it contained. In theory, I could go and find the same asteroid again and use the same ship scanning system settings, but what if there was an easier way?
"Yes, Captain Gnat. I have everything saved."
"Great! Then right after we compose a map of the planet, let's fly there! If the rich platinum vein is not being worked, we can sell its coordinates to some asteroid miners from the Geckho rolls. I bet we'll earn one hundred thousand crystals on that at the very least and it’ll be quick. And if there is another Meleyephatian mining facility there," I said with a predatory grin, "we'll have to teach the smuggler another lesson. He can't go around being so disrespectful, this is beyond the pale!"

Chapter Two. Platinum Mine

I stopped the Starship Pilot, who was about to start the frigate on its next loop around the planet to pass over a strip of previously undiscovered nodes:
"Okay, Dmitry, that's enough! The planet's geography is not all that complex, let's not waste time coloring in a couple more dark islands. We have bigger priorities to attend to."
In fact, all that remained were a few undiscovered regions outside the effective zone of the Tolili Ukh-X's scanning systems, but the map was ninety percent complete. What was more, I didn't see any even remote resemblance between the virtual planet and the real Earth. It had two continents, one of which was truly gigantic and occupied practically half the surface of the planet. Something of a Gondwana. The second was seven times smaller and its shape was distantly reminiscent of a waning half-moon. But that was precisely where the Geckho spaceport and all the territory of the factions I knew were located: Relict, Human-3, Human-6 and La-Fin. I was more interested in the small continent than the huge one, and I ordered the pilot to pass over it two times so we could better see the territories of our closest neighbors.
We were quickly able to identify the territory of the Chinese Human-1 Faction, which I already had an approximate idea of. Based on the fires and energy sources, the Chinese faction had at the very least nine nodes, although their further expansion was impeded by the ocean on one side and impassable snow-capped mountains on the other. However I did see that they had a fleet. Their numerous transport ships spoke to an established connection with overseas territories.
I also knew the coordinates of the La-Varrez faction’s hexagons, and I was able to get a good look at them from space. And I was most of all interested not even in the capital hexagon, which had been rebuilt since our attack, but a construction on a tall-mountain-encircled little square that looked just far too much like a space port. At the very least, I saw a two-mile long landing strip, hangars, shipyards, a dispatcher's tower and even an electromagnetic catapult. Based on all that, the darksiders were having problems with insufficient power in their booster engines, and they were using other methods to try and get the heavy starship into orbit. I saw traces of a fire and burnt ship fragments. Seemingly a previous attempted takeoff ended in catastrophe. In any case, it looked very much like the Dark Faction was preparing for a space race in secret and building its own starship.
The big continent then was populated by a plethora of factions I saw hotbeds of development chaotically strewn through the endless virgin forests and thousand-mile swamps of the virtual Gondwana in ragged strips. It was entirely impossible to determine which faction was behind which island of civilization from orbit. But I was planning to take a very close look when I got back from my space flight. After all, we would have to bring representatives of both parallel worlds into contact!
Another consequence of studying the virtual Earth via scanning from orbit was that my Scanning, Cartography, Electronics and even Eagle Eye skills were levelling rapidly. In fact, Gnat hit level 86. And thought that skill growth was unambiguously joyous, the fact my character only leveled up once came as a slight disappointment because I was hoping for more. I still fondly recalled the hour-and-a-half-long survey expedition on high-speed antigrav through the Human-3 Faction territories that gave me five new levels just after I started. But now, mapping out a whole planet was only good enough for +1...
I had to admit with sadness that the happy days of quick levelling were behind me and wouldn't be coming back. Now every new level would come harder and harder. Nevertheless, I looked with pride at the window of the game menu showing my Gnat's statistics:
Leng Gnat. Human. Relict Faction.
Level-86 Listener
33 + +5
29 + 2
Luck modifier
Drones controlled
1958 of 1958
Endurance points
1385 of 1430
Magic points
1388 of 1612
Carrying capacity
62 lbs.
Medium Armor
Eagle Eye
Danger Sense
Mental Fortitude
Machine Control
Attention!!! You have three unspent skill points.

I had been actively using Magic and Endurance points during the scan and by controlling ship systems, so they hadn't yet gone back up to max. But disregarding that minor issue, my character was coming together handsomely. I had laid a great groundwork for the character I was to become: a terrifying mage psionic with a slant toward mental control of technological systems of all kinds. I had also dug around in the game menu settings and added "Authority" and "Drones controlled” to the basic character sheet. They were switched off by default because the vast majority of players never used them. In addition, when I was digging around there I saw a number of intriguing disabled parameters like: "Maximum number of pets," "Immunity to damage time," "Invisibility sphere radius," and even "Sex change cycle duration." So all those things must have applied to some classes and races in the game.
What was there to say about levelling Gnat's skills? I was still quite far from the First Legion's requirements, which were main skills at least one and a half times higher than level. But my psionic abilities had broken away from the pack and were quickly improving. Astrolinguistics and Cartography weren't too far behind either, which pointed to my active use of them in my gameplay style. I also had a plan for quickly levelling Scanning. To that end I had a whole hundred geological analyzers in the hold awaiting their hour. By the way... I might be able to use a couple of them very soon.
"Navigator, give the pilots the coordinates of the asteroid with the platinum mine!" I asked Ayukh and was getting ready to leave the bridge because I had nothing to do there for the nearest three to four hours when, suddenly, the frigate started spinning clockwise on its front to back axis. I even had to grab for the edge of the instrument panel so I wouldn’t fall over.
My dismay must have been so clearly reflected on my face that both pilots shot out in concert in different languages:
"Captain, that was not me!"
Both were pointing at their counterpart as the source of the vexing error. I demanded an explanation first from main Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov.
"Captain, if you need specifics, it is quite a challenge to control the Tolili-Ukh X’s third and fourth maneuver thrusters, which have engaged in a right-left turn. And the first and second, which govern vertical pitch, were already active. If you release these levers here, it will go into spin mode. And I don't have enough hands to keep control over all these thrusters at the same time, especially when I also need to break the main thruster. After all, this frigate is Meleyephatian, and their race has twice the limbs of a human. So when I was alone at the helm, I put linear movement on autopilot and just maneuvered left-right and up-down. But that is inconvenient and takes too much time, which became especially clear in aerial combat. So San-Dun and I agreed to share the load. But we went out of sync the copilot jumped the gun and started a right turn before I gave my command... It's definitely his fault!"
The copilot gave approximately the same story, but he thought the spontaneous spinning of the starship was Dmitry Zheltov's fault. The main pilot, in San-Dun's words, was supposed to be responsible for the main starship control parameters and stay out of the copilot's hair after giving corrections on pitch angle, banking and yaw. San-Dun even worked up the courage to ask the head of the First Directory to appoint him main pilot because he had twice the seniority and was more experienced with his "thirty years in aviation," unlike the young Space Military Academy graduate.
And although San-Dun was complaining to me in the language of his magocratic world, Dmitry Zheltov surprisingly understood him and was sincerely outraged:
"Let's just see which of us is more experienced when it comes to piloting space vehicles! I have dozens of hours of real flight and even a few combat take-offs, as well as hundreds of hours on training simulators in the Academy!"
A serious conflict was brewing between the two respectable pilots, so I had to subdue it and even give a little magical push to put the spark out:
"What am I hearing?! Two members of my crew are having a pissing contest! You might as well just drop trou here and now and take out a ruler!!! A shameful display! It makes no difference to me how you share responsibilities, but by the time the frigate reaches the asteroid belts, there better not be any more spontaneous spin-outs! Otherwise I'll have to have you both put under arrest until the end of the flight and take over piloting myself! Got it? Good. I'm going to send you both to Gerd Ayni the Translator. She's a very capable Miyelonian and has already learned Russian and the language of the magocratic world, so she can help you communicate."
Psionic skill increased to level ninety!
I invested Magic Points so generously into my emotional send-up, that my mana was just about down to zero. But still, it worked on both pilots and then some! They both assured me they could find agreement in professional matters and that there would not be any more friction between them! If that was so, then good.
Back in a normal tone, I told San-Dun not to worry about his "linguistic isolation." Gerd Ayni the Translator would be giving daily Geckho lessons for new crew, of which we had four, as well as all other takers. I didn't make an exception for "Anya from First Medical" either. Let the Morphian sit out the required hours in lessons rather than me thinking up some plausible explanation for how an earthling managed to learn an alien language over a few brief conversations with Kosta Dykhsh.
Feeling like I'd done my duty, I called up Ayni and told the pretty orange "kitty" her mission. And although studying the language was not officially required, it would be a clear boon to those who wished to remain part of my crew.
From twenty miles away, the large dark asteroid looked entirely unremarkable and bland. There wasn't a single crack on its smooth surface, nor even craters from collisions with meteorites or other heavenly bodies. Just over a mile long and pear-shaped, it was made of mixed silicates of iron and nickel. One side was practically flat, as if a piece had been cut off the cosmic fruit with a giant knife.
"Captain, that is definitely the asteroid! Or rather its largest remaining fragment," the gray Navigator compared his records again and confirmed. "The trajectory just shifted. It seems to have collided with another massive body."
Looking at the data from the locator, I shook my head in doubt:
"It doesn't look much like a collision. If that was the case, there would be fine debris and dust scattered around the main body. And where is the other ball in this game of cosmic billiards?"
I played around with the settings on my ship scanning systems, adding filters for density, radioactivity, albedo and other commonplace parameters to remove neighboring heavenly bodies from the three-dimensional model of the pear-shaped asteroid. Yes, this was the very same formerly molten rock where we had once found a covertly installed automated facility for harvesting precious metals. However, before us now was an utterly commonplace space rock, like hundreds of thousands others in this asteroid field. And the dimensions, density, and the other parameters of the asteroid all fell within average ranges. If I came across it for the first time now looking like this, I'd have flown right past without even noticing.
"Yes, I recognize that fire-pocked stone. But a significant part of it has broken off, somewhere around a quarter of a cubic mile. But there was no asteroid collision here. This was something entirely different: a nuclear explosion!"
The scanner’s radioactivity filter had in fact picked up clear traces of heavy transuranium elements on the flame-swept shard, the kind that should not have been there in theory. Superheavy atoms are artificially created through nuclear fusion, have a short half-life and quickly disintegrate, so they are never found in nature. But there were transuranium elements here, and the only explanation I could see was that someone had cleaved the precious asteroid by nuclear explosion to quickly reach the platinum ores in its core. And at the same time, that someone changed the shape of the huge stone and its flight trajectory, perhaps intentionally so the trespassers that discovered it and pilfered their automatic mining setup would lose track of it among the millions of identical ones nearby. If we'd come a month later, we would never have been able to find this thing.
"I don't see signs of any mining tech," I admitted to the crew members, myself very surprised. "I am unable to find the automatic rigs or any other large metal objects either by scanning or visual survey. But we left a ton of equipment behind last time! An automatic ore enrichment plant, drilling equipment, heavy loaders and lots of other valuable things which Captain Uraz Tukhsh was not able to load onto his little Shiamiru shuttle."
"Maybe the illegal miners finished up and took their equipment with them?" Uline Tar suggested, also staring wide-eyed the familiar asteroid.
We already knew that no Free Captains had approached the administration of the Earth spaceport for a license to harvest platinum on asteroids in the Solar System. So Uline was perfectly justified in calling the owners of the automatic equipment smugglers and illegal miners.
"But if they were planning on packing up shop, why blast the huge asteroid with a nuclear explosion? And before that they wasted a bunch of power drilling down and setting charges. No, I think this was something totally different. They wanted to increase the scale of their business by getting to the richer veins to harvest as much platinum as quickly as possible."
My business partner winced her furry face, making an expression of severe doubt:
"After their equipment was stolen? Somehow I can't believe it..."
"Yeah, they don't give a damn about the theft! Even at the pace they were mining before, they could recoup what they lost on the mining equipment in a couple days. If their speed went up, they could afford to lose that much just about every day. Uline, there are hundreds if not thousands of tons of platinum here and extracting all that treasure would take more than one tong. All those riches must still be inside the asteroid, so the illegal miners won’t have gone anywhere. They must be hiding..."
My business partner's eyes glimmered when I mentioned the quantity of precious metal contained inside the space rock. Uline Tar turned on her palmtop, quickly made a couple quick calculations and groaned in satisfaction.
"Seven hundred million crystals at least. I certainly wouldn't abandon something like that. In fact, if I had a way, I'd have bought up around fifty automatic devices and guarded them until they scraped everything of value out of the bowels of this asteroid."
"So what are we going to do, Captain?" Dmitry Zheltov cut into my conversation with Uline, himself bored in the pilot's seat, not yet having heard clear instructions for himself.
I brought up a three-dimensional diagram of the asteroid on the monitor and remarked:
"Here is where we landed the Shiamiru. But there was no valuable ore nearby, so Uline and I flew on a flying board approximately to here, which is where we found the mining setup before. We could land there again, but there are more promising locations to try," I said, placing another marker on the recently formed cleavage of the heavenly body. "I suggest we land the frigate somewhere around here. We can run a scan and see ores that were previously out of reach. That will help clear up how much precious metal this thing contains. And if the illegal miners are still at it, they'll have hidden their equipment somewhere nearby."
The Tolili-Ukh X frigate slowly lurched into motion, tapering into a spiral as it neared the asteroid. Nine miles. Eight. Seven...
Successful Perception check!
I noticed some movement on the surface of the heavenly body and immediately pointed the camera at it and zoomed in the image as much as possible. Well, well! A rectangular roof colored to match the surrounding landscape slid aside, revealing a long shaft. Something unrecognizable with many legs crawled out onto the surface of the asteroid. It seemed to be alive. Only when the strange creature crawled all the way out and deployed itself, pointing its six barrels upwards, did I finally identify the threat:
TT-67A Immolator automatic high-speed plasma turret.
Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-four!
Strange that the threat-warning skill hadn’t piped up before but, in any case, we had to act right away! I cried out in a voice not my own:
"Dmitry, full speed ahead! Combat alert!!! Dodge the incoming fire!!!"
The experienced Starship Pilot reacted instantly and jerked the helm toward himself. At the same time, San-Dun started a dodging maneuver and increased power to the frontal shield. The frigate called back with an unhappy grinding of its fuselage, reacting to such crude treatment of its space-age technology. The siren wailed; the emergency light flickered alarmingly on the instrument panel something just broke.
However, for the most part, the fan of bright red strokes sailed past our ship. Just a few landed on our energy shield, bringing it down eleven percent. But it wasn't the only automatic turret. I could see more many-legged dangerous robots being hauled out onto the surface in another few spots from hatches opening to the surface. And they immediately started strafing the offending ship. We took another few hits but, fortunately, a few seconds later, the frigate was closer to the asteroid and out of range of the turrets.
"Plasma cannons practically point blank... It's a miracle we survived!" Ayukh wiped perspiration from his brow. I never knew Geckho could sweat from anxiety like people.
"For anyone still wondering if the illegal platinum miners are still on the asteroid, there’s your answer!" Uline Tar barked nervously and turned to me: "As you see, Leng Gnat, the location is occupied and the smugglers are well prepared for defense. What should we do? Fly away?"
Fly away? I was surprised to hear my business partner make such a foolish suggestion. Now, with proof positive that the illegal platinum miners were still active on the asteroid, flying away would have been a very strange move on our part. Yes, we'd have to struggle with the platinum mine’s automatic defenses, but that just meant the end reward would be all the more worth our while!
 "Dmitry, land the starship on the first marker I placed. And you, Uline, better see how much we can sell those five automatic TT-67A Immolators for."

Chapter Three. Big Brazen

"So then, crew, attention!" I called out to everyone in the frigate’s common room. "Be on heightened alert. No one is to leave the game. Uline Tar, Eduard Boyko, Dmitry Zheltov, Gerd Ayni Uri-Miayuu and Tini will be coming outside with me. Ayukh and San-Dun are to stay on the bridge. Everyone else follow the orders of Supercargo Avan Toi. He'll tell you what help is needed to clear out the cargo hold and make room for trophies as fast as possible."
The gloomy Supercargo gave an important nod and took most of the crew with him down to the lower deck. The only crew member I hadn’t mentioned was the spiny Jarg, and trying to get him to help with loading and unloading made about as much sense as trying to get milk from a bull. I then turned to the five players who were going to come out with me:
"Let's check our space suits, then fill our air tanks to the brim. We'll leave through the front airlock so we don’t get in the others' way. We have two levitators, so the first one will have three riders. Uline Tar will pilot the first levitator, Dmitry Zheltov the second. As soon as we leave the ship, make sure to clip on the tether. Outside the artificial gravitation zone around the frigate, there are virtually no attractive forces, so try not to fly off the asteroid. The last thing we need is to go around collecting our crew as they float helplessly through space."
"Captain, will magnetic soles work here?" Eduard asked, alarmed and still not having ever worked on the surface of a small object in space.
I reassured the Space Marine that this asteroid was composed mostly of iron-bearing ores, so the magnetic soles of a space suit would work wonderfully here, automatically turning on every time a foot was lowered. At the very least, we had no problems with them before.
"Let’s split up into two groups and fly along the cleavage of the asteroid. Maintain extreme caution minimize radio communication, stay behind cover, try not to stick out or attract the attention of security systems. Our goal is to find a good platform, maybe even a few on different sides of the cleavage to place a gravity crane. As a matter of fact, it is currently being unloaded from the cargo hold and assembled by Avan Toi and the remaining crew."
Based on my distance estimates, the gravitation crane would easily be close enough to grab the six-barreled plasma turrets one after the other and bring them closer, meanwhile leaving the hazardous security systems outside of our direct line of sight. And from there, it would all be simple: when the Immolators were within range, I was planning to deactivate them with Machine Control. After that, we’d just have to fold up the robots nice and compact, then load them into the cargo hold. Then after all the illegal miners' security systems were disarmed, we could get to packing up the mining equipment. I suspected they were now mining from inside the asteroid, and that we would find a tunnel entrance somewhere in the middle of the circle formed by the five plasma turrets.
Yes, certain complications could arise if the robot guards went back inside burrows. In that case, we'd have to somehow bait them out before capturing them with the crane, but that didn’t seem all that difficult, so I wasn't especially worried.
"What's on your mind, Jarg?"
The spiny Analyst had actually been trying to draw my attention for a minute already, blowing himself up dangerously to a practically balloon-like state, then deflating himself again. After he gave me permission to speak, the Jarg donned the Universal Translator on his neck and told me why he was so worried:
Big brazen smuggler. Very strange. So confident in alien territory. Must understand. Knowledge. Who enemy. Maybe. Dangerous. More trouble than worth.
Uhh... It wasn't hard to understand what the Analyst was driving at. He was suggesting I weight all the risks before acting. What could I say? He was right. We really did have no idea who we were tussling with and who owned this whole mining complex. There could be no doubt they were rich. Compensating losses with such ease and reinforcing security was something only a player with a fortune in the millions could afford. Furthermore, they probably had established connections with traders and the administration of nearby space stations and planets, given they were mining large quantities of platinum and other precious metals without drawing unwanted attention. So the "big brazen smuggler" could be a very influential and powerful figure indeed. I asked the crew members what they thought about the identity of the illegal miner.
"Yeah, what's the difference?" Dmitry Zheltov asked in surprise. "No matter who it is, they're breaking the law. Without a proper license or paying the required taxes to the owners of the star system, they're mining precious metal. So we're doing a good deed, punishing a brazen fool. What's more, they will have no way of determining our identity and finding us!"
"Not quite, human. There is a difference, a big one actually!" my ward Tini joined the argument unexpectedly. "It's one thing for some unknown Free Captain to mine platinum at their own peril. It's another thing entirely if the Pride of the Bushy Shadow, or the Agile Paw or some other violent group is behind the illegal business. I myself wasn't a member of the Bushy Shadow for very long, but I can say for sure that the pride has secret mines for precious metals all throughout lots of star systems. And quarrelling with them will land you some real big problems! But even worse is if the mining is being conducted here by a flagrant criminal organization like the Hive of Tintara," when the Miyelonian adolescent mentioned that organization his ears lay back. "Their invisible web is weaves through almost half the galaxy. Such serious players really do not appreciate being messed with. They especially dislike when someone tries to take their things. They dislike it so much that they hire headhunters. And not just in the game, in the real world too!"
"Calm down Tini. The Hive of Tintara has nothing to do with this," the Trader interrupted the Miyelonian teen's groaning, seemingly having heard about the organization and its dark reputation before. "Every facility that belongs to the Hive of Tintara is marked with an easily identifiable warning symbol," the furry Geckho lady said, drawing a series of whimsically intersecting strokes in the air with her paw.
"That is the Trillian symbol for 'Execution,'" Gerd Ayni said.
"And there was nothing of the sort on the automatic equipment we took from here last time with Captain Uraz Tukhsh!"
After Uline said that, Tini and Ayni noticeably brightened up. They were clearly afraid to tangle with the dangerous Hive of Tintara. My mind started to wander, though. I was hearing about the Hive of Tintara for the first time, but it was seemingly a very famous mafia gang in the galaxy, and even pirate prides were afraid to cross them. Though that made me think of the Trillian merchant Ussh Vish in a different light. He was free to visit the pirate station Medu-Rho IV and I had bought him some magical jewelry there. If my memory didn’t deceive me, that very symbol for "Execution" was engraved on the space crocodile’s breastplate.
But I was well acquainted with the prides of the Agile Paw and the Bushy Shadow. And it was highly unlikely the mine belonged to the Pride of the Agile Paw. The gang lead by the casino owner on Medu-Ro IV had only gotten into the precious metal business a month ago, and they didn't know about the Solar System back then. But I wouldn't say no to giving the Pride of the Bushy Shadow another pinch. Maybe even more painful this time so the pirates would learn not to mess with me!
So I voiced my decision:
"Plans stay the same. As long as we don't see the symbol of the Hive of Tintara... And if we do see it, the plans still don't get called off! Have you checked your space suits? Great! Then let's put them on and get out there!"
Authority increased to 64!
We ran into a little problem at the airlock: Uline Tar and Eduard Boyko went out first in their hulking armored space suits, and together they took up almost the entire decompression chamber. Only the Starship Pilot was able to somehow fit with them. The others had to wait for round two. Who could have thought that such a purely technical thing would have such a profound influence on how this played out?
A scream of fear rang out instantly in my headphones from Uline Tar, after which the icons of all three characters went dim in the group interface. Did they die?! What happened out there??? What was worse, "Anya's" voice rang out in fear:
"Captain, enemies just outside the ship!!! Avan Toi's group has been massacred. The only survivors were me and Denni Marko!!! We lost the gravity crane and the heavy loader!"
What a sticky situation! Just moments after we landed, we'd already lost two thirds of our crew... I ran as fast as I could to the bridge of the ship so I could take a look around with the external cameras. In the meantime, I activated my Scanning skill and even whistled at the sight no more than ten feet from our unmoving frigate were the huge multiple-legged mechanical robots traipsing around and examining the dead bodies of my crew! The Immolators weren’t hiding in their burrows as I thought. Quite the opposite. They ran over to where our ship landed and met the players exiting the frigate and the equipment they hauled out with fire from their plasma turrets.
I flew onto the bridge, throwing open the doors noisily. A sense of despair and dismay reigned. San-Dun turned on the inactive monitors too late. Ayukh could only stand pointlessly in the middle of the room looking lost.
"Leng Gnat, the enemies appeared so fast that we weren't even able to warn anyone," the gray Navigator justified himself, lowering his head in shame just like a person. "We noticed the movement on the monitor too late. Furthermore, as bad luck would have it, I cut power to most of the equipment here on the bridge to give the Kirsan repair bots a chance to fix the analyzer structures damaged by the firing. So when we were attacked, the motion detectors and most of the external cameras were turned off... It's all my fault, captain!"
Alright, what the heck... I just waved a hand because I also considered myself at fault. Was it really so hard to guess that the mobile guard robots would want to come check on their target after it left their range, and run over to where it landed?! Especially given that the distance here was miniscule less than a mile!
And meanwhile the five robots finished examining the dead bodies, even finished one of them off with a point-blank shot, then they dispersed in different directions and froze, pointing their plasma cannons at the frigate. I started tensing up in fear, figuring the starship was about to be destroyed, then I would die. But no shots were fired.
"Why are they not attacking?" San-Dun asked about a minute later, his eyes also fixed to the external camera screens watching the fearsome titans glinting in the rays of the bright sun. All five of the Immolators were still there and holding the Tolili-Ukh X in the sights of their thirty barrels.
I had an answer to the Pilot's question:
"They think they took everyone down and now they're simply standing guard over their prey and waiting for their masters. Or they're confident we have no way of escaping their trap and flying away. In any case, there's no sense in them shooting because an undamaged frigate has a significantly higher value than a heap of debris. For now. I'm sure that if we try to turn on the thrusters or activate our turrets, the frigate will be destroyed in an instant."
I repeated the last sentence two times, the second especially for Denni Marko, who was sitting in the gunner's seat. After that, Denni jerked his hand away from the firing control system in fear and confirmed that he was not going to do anything without the captain's order.
The situation was really coming together unpleasantly. But it wasn't altogether hopeless. I waited for the Scanning ability to reload and activated it again, watching the marker that appeared on the mini-map curiously:
Immolator Meleyephatian automatic security complex. Chance of making inoperable 67%. Total control chance 51%.
Not bad at all my chances of taking control of one enemy robot was over half! And of course, I tried to do so immediately.
Psionic skill increased to level ninety-one!
Machine Control skill increased to level ninety-two!
Before I could even start to celebrate, though, the other four Immolators instantly turned and destroyed their mutinous counterpart! Damn!!! One hundred sixty thousand crystals out the window.
You have reached level eighty-seven!
You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six)
Well, at least the game system generously rewarded my Gnat with experience for destroying the huge dangerous robot. And the level-up slightly mitigated the bitter pill of disappointment. But Uline Tar wouldn’t be too happy. My furry friend already considered the Immolators our property and had even begun searching for a buyer. Oh well, it would be a lesson for the future: it's never a good idea to count your eggs before they hatch.
I suspect that if I had simply turned off the robot, the result would have been similar one of the Immolators acting strange would not have gone unnoticed and the others would have taken measures. No, I needed to try something a bit different... I took out my Prospector Scanner and a geological analyzer.
"Ayukh, cut power to the frigate! The defensive shield won't be able to help us now, if the robots decide to attack. And better to sit a bit in the dark than having to change out a bunch of fried electronics later!"
While the Navigator carried out his unusual assignment, I set my device to maximum power electromagnetic pulse. And once the frigate’s interior was immersed in darkness, I activated a metal tripod.
Scanning skill increased to level fifty-seven!
Electronics skill increased to level eighty-one!
Done! I looked at the results of the scan and saw four inactive Immolators with their limbs all stuck out into contorted poses. Great! I should have done that right away! I ordered Ayukh to turn on the power again, then asked the experienced Navigator whether he could reprogram the guard robots so they wouldn't attack us when turned back on.
"No, captain, I cannot. I don't have either the experience or skills to do that. You'll have to ask Vasha and Basha. They're both Heavy Robot Operators and are actually specialized in setup and control. But I can fold them up and load them into the hold. That won’t be hard at all. And just in case, I'll disconnect the Immolators' lead terminals from their power blocks."
"Better have Denni Marko and Gerd Ayni do that. You have a more important mission: go into the real world and get in touch with Uline, Avan Toi and Vasha and Basha. Do you have their contact information? Okay, great! Find out where they set their respawn points. If they're on the Kasti-Utsh III station, have them stay there and wait for us. If they changed it to Earth... Well, we'll have to think up another way out of it. It's too risky to land the starship on a massive planet without an experienced Starship Pilot. Although..." I turned to San-Dun, who was listening in but not understanding much. "Perhaps this is our Copilot's chance to prove his mettle!"
"Master Gnat, I managed to open it!" Tini, impossibly satisfied, disconnected the code breaker's interface cable from the panel of a massive metal-ceramic gate which had been blocking our path into the tunnel just a few seconds earlier.
I watched the two-foot-thick door slipping into its wall slot. I noticed a cloud of ultra-fine dust flood out of the tunnel. By the looks of things, there was still some air inside the asteroid before we opened the external gate. Watching the dust slowly settle and disperse, I turned my gaze to an opaque distortion dome that flowed with all the colors of the rainbow yes, the entrance to the underground complex was hidden behind active camouflage. After that, I read my ward's information as he picked up his tools:
Tini Wi-Gnat. Miyelonian. Relict Faction. Level-90 Thief.
Ninety??? I had not even noticed the clever little thief overtaking me in level. Though I had to admit that the Miyelonian youngster was constantly improving his skills. Breaking down doors and turning off security systems was getting easier and easier for him. And the kitten's confidence was noticeably increasing alongside his abilities. He was already bold enough to jump into conversations with adults and voice his opinion. I praised my capable ward and turned my forehead light a bit brighter, then walked first into the tunnel that led deep into the asteroid. However, it turned out to be quite short and ended in a cave filled with all kinds of technology.
I even gave a whistle in surprise and delight. We came to the right place! A nuclear generator. Two drilling installations. Six, no, a whole eight automatic mining rigs, and with them three enrichment plants. Several heavy all-terrain loaders. Storage was filled with metal containers ready for shipment. I opened the first container I came across and pointed my flashlight inside. Wow!!! The box was filled to the brim with platinum sponge! And there were fifteen others just like it!!! We just solved all our financial problems!!!
For the next half hour, along with the two Miyelonians, I walked between the rows of functioning automatic mining rigs, which gave off a slight vibrating hum. I peered into the huge vats of acid where chemical processes were separating inert platinum from other metals. One after the other, I opened the boxes of enriched finished product and a blissful smile spread across my face from ear to ear.
I strongly reconsidered hauling all the valuable equipment away. We'd take the finished product, of course. We'd even take one loader on the frigate to replace the one we lost. But all these mining rigs, the nuclear power unit, the camouflage dome and enrichment plant we'd leave in working order. Let them keep doing their thing, but now for me and my crew instead! In the real world, Ayukh would get in touch with Uline Tar, who was most experienced in these matters, and the Trader could get us platinum mining rights through all the proper channels. After that, defending the mine would fall on the shoulders of the official Geckho authorities.
Although... As far as I understood the apathetic and lazy Geckho administration, they wouldn't lift a finger without the proper stimulus. No, we had to try a different tactic. For example, offer a share of the mining enterprise to Viceroy of Earth Kosta Dykhsh. Let's say we give the representative of the suzerains a third of the income from platinum sales and in return he protects the mine! As far as I knew the viceroy's character, he would find the funds for space security if it meant personal gain. He would even place a sizable garrison right here on the asteroid. That really was a good option. The illegal platinum miner, no matter who they were, would hardly want to tangle with official authorities and Geckho troops!
All that remained now was to make sure the secret of our discovery wouldn't get out. I crouched down to make my height match the Miyelonians', and set the armored gloves of my space-suit onto my companions' shoulders. I saw that both crew members were listening to me carefully, so I started pouring a generous amount of Magic Points into each sentence I spoke:
 "Ayni, Tini, no one outside of our crew can find out about these valuables! It's very important! Our future depends on it! Uline and I need time to become the legal owners of all this equipment, and the less players know about it, the higher our chance of keeping it all in one piece. So no matter how you might like to boast about your achievements, not a word to anyone! That especially goes for you, Tini. You know what I'm talking about."
Psionic skill increased to level ninety-two!
Mysticism skill increased to level forty-two!
After a five-second delay, the kitten gave a nod. Loyalty to his captain and excitement at the chance of a big score outweighed his loyalty to the Great Priestess of the Miyelonian race, to whom the kitten was still sending regular reports to about the voyages of the Listener Leng Gnat. Then Tini bared his little teeth, unable to contain his joy:
"Just think, the 'big brazen mine owner,' the Jarg mentioned earlier is now my captain!"
Gerd Ayni also furrowed her brow in satisfaction and confirmed that she would keep quiet. Just great!
"Then come help me carry these boxes! We'll bring them on the frigate together with the loader. I don't see any reason to stay here on the asteroid longer than we need to. As soon as we have it all loaded, let's take off!"

Release - October 23, 2019


  1. God this is such a good series, my favorite before this was big ears and his crew. Such a great author just wish he could be translated faster, but I know y'all need time to get it right and I appreciate it just sucks waiting.