Friday, November 15, 2019

World of the Changed: No Mistakes by Vasily Mahanenko


World of the Changed
by Vasily Mahanenko
Book 1: No Mistakes


Release - January 6, 2020



Chapter 1


Congratulations!
You discovered a dungeon during the prerelease!
Once the official game version is released, you’ll get a well-earned reward.
And you’ll get an even better reward if you beat the dungeon!

Yeah, bite me, sis! Like I was ever going to be getting you a new phone…you’ll be fine with your old one. Next time you’ll think twice before making a bet with your elders!
“Mark are you screwing around on your phone again? Doesn’t that ever get old? You should try something useful instead of turning your brain to mush,” Chris muttered angrily. Another time, hearing the boss say something like that might have gotten to me, but not right then. He wasn’t mad at me or my phone; it was the trip. The road we were on barely deserved the name. The pavement had ended a couple kilometers back, and it was like the car had suddenly stumbled onto the scene from an old war movie. Dirt, mud, potholes. I could practically hear the shells whistling overhead, the wounded groaning nearby. Sheisse, sheisse, nicht kapitulieren…


“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Chris exclaimed when something scraped against the bottom of the car, which shuddered to a halt. “Whatever, we’re here. Time to walk.”
“What about our stuff?” I hit the pause button begrudgingly and dropped my phone into my pocket. The release was just a few hours away, and I’d been counting on beating that dungeon. Could the timing be any worse?
“We’ll get them later—the presentation isn’t for another three hours. It’s a kilometer to the village. Let’s go.”
I opened the door and glanced down sadly at my white sneakers. It wasn’t the death they’d dreamed of. Anything but that. The grayish-red clay was almost up to the car’s running boards. That damn GPS and the skip traffic function! Where could there possibly be traffic here a hundred miles from the city?! And what kind of VIP village needs a children’s entertainer? They didn’t have enough money for their resort?
There was a squelch, followed instantly by a string of curses from the boss. His shoes, which cost a month’s salary for me, had just introduced themselves to the local scenery. That was my signal. If Chris saw that I was holding back, he would fire me and hire Joker. The bastard had been gunning for my job for a long time, and I wasn’t about to let him have it. Ignoring the new hue my shoes took on, not to mention my quickly soaked socks, I went over to the trunk and pulled out two large bags. Chris was the entertainer. And a good one. The kind that was invited to perform even in the rarest of air at the top of the social hierarchy. And me? I was just the guy he had carry everything around, strong, durable, and cheap. You don’t have to pay much when you’re talking about a student working a side job in their spare time. The only thing that cheered me up was that my extensive collection of autographs was going to pick up some new entries, making it even more valuable. Chris didn’t accept just any invitation. Especially when it involved trudging through the mud.
The look on the face of the guard at the security checkpoint didn’t bode well. Instead of the usually tubby character who’d been fired from government service for drinking and was happy spending the rest of his days doing crossword puzzles with the button to open the gate next to him, the guard was a hulking character with the figure of a young Schwarzenegger. Angular cheekbones played nervously, barely visible behind his collar. Pointedly sliding the bolt back on his automatic, he barked threateningly.
“No begging! Get out of here!”
I ducked behind the boss, not a fan of people pointing weapons at me. Chris, not quite the coward I was, just pulled out a piece of paper.
“We were invited. Here’s the pass.”
Another fighter stepped out of the checkpoint, that one a copy of the first. Just as powerfully built, he was rough-looking and dangerous. He leveled his gun at us and signaled to his partner, who only then stepped over to Chris. They don’t play around! After studying the document and shining an ultraviolet lamp on it, the first character walked my boss over to the checkpoint. I found myself there a couple minutes later. Our bags were disemboweled, our pockets were turned inside out, we were stripped down to our underwear, and it was only then that boredom replaced the vigilance in the guards’ eyes. Their job was done. We weren’t terrorists, and they could return to whatever it was they’d been doing before we got there. As I stuffed everything back into the bags, I noticed the first guard pull out his phone. A familiar intro popped up on the screen. I wasn’t the only one enjoying the new game.
The castle we arrived at was built with a clear hint at the owner’s taste for Beauty and the Beast. The two structures weren’t similar; it was that the master, having lost his true love, built himself a tower, locked himself up inside like the beast, and got to work waiting for his beloved beauty. Judging by the merry laughter coming from around one of the pools, there were quite a few beauties there auditioning for the role. The owner himself was a homely weed in the surrounding flowerbed: short, pudgy, and bald with sagging cheeks. When he saw us, he waved a fat hand welcomingly. A butler showed up beside us instantly to bow to Chris.
“The master asked me to help you freshen up. Come with me.”
Then he turned to me.
“I don’t have any instructions for you. Margot, please take our guest to the summer veranda and make sure he washes up. Scrub the path, too. We wouldn’t want anyone getting dirty.”
That last thing he said was a reference to the trail my wet pants were leaving behind them. I squirmed under the butler’s gaze. It was like he was looking at empty space.
“Mark, can you get the drone ready?” Chris looked at me inquiringly. That was something he usually took care of, but we were running out of time before the event.
“I’ve seen you do it a hundred times,” I replied frankly.
“Great. Get yourself ready and take care of that—and hurry.”
“On it.” I sounded better than I felt. It was one thing to launch a toy; it was quite another to be responsible for a piece of professional equipment worth north of ten thousand bucks.
The girl with the beautiful foreign name of Margot coupled it with a clearly provincial nose spattered with freckles. She led me off to the veranda and handed me some clean clothes that were neither new nor my size, though I didn’t have much choice in the matter. After washing up, I got to work on the drone. Four blades hummed rhythmically as the unit soared into the sky. The weathervane on the roof of the villa twitched from side to side, but that didn’t worry me. The drone’s powerful motors and 17-inch blades held its position even in a strong wind. I’d flown it before, so I took the liberty of giving it a test run around the villa, pausing above the pool to admire the beauties clustered there before coming in for a landing. And that was all that was needed from me until the end of the event. Chris’ baggage had been hauled to the location, the drone was ready, and I wasn’t standing out. Later, I’d have to collect it all and get the car out of the mud—the boss certainly wasn’t going to deal with that. I was the perfect employee.
There was only one thing on my mind right then. Settling onto one of the couches, I pulled out my phone and frowned—the battery was down to 30%, and my charger was in the car. Although…that should be enough. I checked my email to find nothing urgent or important. Squirrel had texted me that she was off to see a friend and wouldn’t be back until that evening. That meant there was nothing to eat at home, as the little one would sooner go hungry than make something. With no messages on social media, I tapped the icon with a tremor of anticipation. The intro flashed by, the rest of the world faded away, and my stalker stepped into the dungeon.

Congratulations!
You beat a dungeon during the prerelease!
Once the official game version is released, you’ll get a well-earned reward.

A satisfied smile spread across my face. There were just twenty minutes left before the official release—I’d made it in time.
World of the Changed exploded onto the market out of nowhere, suddenly becoming all gamers everywhere could think about. The astounding graphics, the intuitive controls, the lack of microtransactions, the ubiquitous advertising… It wasn’t an hour before World of the Changed was on every TV, every radio station, every bus. Millions and millions of users were awaiting the official release to jump in and start destroying mutants and monsters. Among them were my sister and me. We quickly made it to the tenth and final level available in the prerelease, after which Squirrel announced that there was nothing else to do. Sure, it was interesting, but the real fun was coming later. I’d just proven her wrong, however. And not only had I found the real fun; I’d also been able to beat it, taking out a champion and collecting some kind of bonus for myself. Even if it was meaningless bells and whistles, it was still nice.
We were down to the final minutes before the release. The action was kicking up around the castle, laughter was breaking out, fireworks were soaring skyward, everyone was rushing over to wish the master a happy birthday, and girls were running around in their bathing suits. I was out of the action, the perfect place for me. Parties like that weren’t my speed.
“Here you go.” Margot appeared to place an enormous tray down on the table. Lids were lifted, and the savory aroma of meat hit my nostrils. My mouth watered treacherously. The last time I’d had food that good was… Well…probably the last time mom cooked for us… When she was still alive.
A lump formed in my throat. It had been two years since my parents died, and I still hadn’t gotten used to it. Squirrel had been thirteen. They were going to take her away to a children’s home, but my uncle stepped in and helped set up custody. As a twenty-year-old, it was hard for me to take on responsibility for the family. I did it, though. I didn’t drop out of school, and I found a job. There wasn’t money for the little joys like food and alcohol, which was why I used games to relax. The best were the ones where you didn’t have to pay. And that’s why World of the Changed seemed perfect—I’d spent the previous month investing all my free time in it.
“Who are you to Chris?” Margot asked as she sat down on the edge of the couch and brushed back her curls. I smiled carnivorously—it was the same as always. Chris got the fame and glory; I got the curious servant girls. There were no pangs of conscience, either, as I was a twenty-two-year-old not planning on giving up sex for at least the coming forty years.
“Oh, that’s a long story,” I whispered back mysteriously. Margot scooched closer and bent over to hear me better. Her face approached, and I was measuring her up for a kiss when her pupils suddenly dilated. She let out a wild scream. I lurched backward—Margot was screeching so loudly that it sounded like she was being torn to pieces. The girl threw herself onto the floor in a fit of convulsions, her squeals continuing. Other cries came from the other side of the door. I jumped up and looked out the window—everyone was yelling and rolling around on the ground. Men in slick suits, girls in bikinis, guards, all of them. A chill ran down my spine. What’s going on?! Is it terrorists?
Suddenly, my phone vibrated. An enormous green button reading Activate antidote and a countdown appeared on the screen.
30… 29… 28…
I shuddered and looked back at Margot, who was no longer making any sounds. Something strange was happening to her. She was still screaming, only her screams were silent. The convulsions were still there, too—she twisted her arm so violently that I heard the horrifying sound of crunching bones. But that wasn’t even the worst part. Her pretty face was starting to swell, becoming blue, deformed, and engorged.
My phone vibrated so hard it jumped around the table.
15… 14…
Complete bewilderment came over me. I couldn’t do anything to help Margot, but there was no point just standing there next to her. What if it’s contagious? A biological weapon, maybe? I grabbed my crazed phone only to almost drop it. I didn’t know this model could vibrate like that. To shut it up, I jabbed the damn button. The vibrations stopped.
But that didn’t make anything better.
For a few moments, I forgot everything—Margot and her suffering, the people on the other side of the door, even myself. Because a small, two-milliliter syringe filled with a green liquid had appeared in my hand. It did so gradually, almost as if the product of a high-speed 3D printer. A fire burst into my chest, and I remembered how important oxygen is to humans. After taking a deep breath, I hurled the mysterious thing onto the couch. What the…?!
But the devil had gotten into my phone. Another green button appeared: Watch video. In hopes of bringing reason back to the device, I gave in and…
Yet another curse escaped my lips. It was hard to wrap my mind around the image on the phone.
It was me in the video. My face, the clothes I was wearing, even Margot twitching in the background. On the screen, I went over to the syringe, picked it up, and plunged it into my leg. A green check mark appeared, though that wasn’t the end of the video. It rewound to the beginning. Once again, there I was, standing there with a grin on my face as I looked at the syringe. I turned away demonstratively, after which I dropped to my knees and started writhing around the same way Margot was. The camera dropped slightly lower to show the girl. My hair stood on end. Margot was gone, in her place some kind of beast barely reminiscent of a human. It had enormous teeth, long claws, spikes all over its body, and deformed, bulging eyes. The arms and legs had turned thick, stubby, and lizard-like. Snapping its jaws, what used to be Margot leaped up to the ceiling, threw the door open, and disappeared. The camera went back to show my bluish face. An X appeared to show that I’d failed the mission, and the video ended. It was replaced by another countdown.
30… 29… 28…
I looked over at Margot and nearly vomited. The girl’s face was exactly like the one I’d seen in the video. Her body was also starting to change, turning from human into monster. Her right arm burned intolerably. I held a hand up in front of my face, and that time I couldn’t hold back the spasm—my fingers were lengthening and turning blue. That did it. In one leap, I was next to the couch, where I grabbed the syringe and thrust it into my leg. There was a flash of pain, the world around me started to spin, and I was swallowed by an encroaching darkness.
Waking up suddenly, I found that I didn’t even have a headache. The first thing that occurred to me was how much I had to have drunk to have a dream like that one. But that thought was chased away quickly when I looked up and saw the drooling beast staring hungrily at me from a couple meters away. I had to wonder if my underwear was still clean. The scraps of clothing and the beads around its thick neck told me that the beast really was what was left of the cute girl. A third thought hit me, and I quickly held my hand up to my face. A wave of relief washed through me—my fingers showed no signs of a bluish tint or deformation. Hooray! There was at least some good news in all the chaos.
Once again, my phone buzzed, and the monster growled menacingly. It crouched like a cat ready to pounce, though something held it back. I pulled my gaze away to look at my phone. Wondering fleetingly if it really was mine, I ignored that idea. What was on the screen was far more important.

Welcome to World of the Changed!
Number of registered players: 105,778,331. An additional 500 million creatures were selected randomly from the number of former players and added to the list of players on Earth.
Have fun!

It took a while for that to register. So, this is the release? What, is this an alien invasion? The whole thing was a plot to enslave Earth? But why wouldn’t they just make everyone monsters then? Why make it so complicated?

The game will begin in ten minutes.
Get to know the status table for your character.

I automatically tapped the button that came up, and it was followed by a small table:

Status table
Name
Mark Derwin
Coins
0
Level
0
Titles and ranks
None
Attributes
Strength
1


Stamina
1


Agility
1


Skills
Pistol shooting
1

Before I really got a chance to study it, a new window popped up:

Because you did a great job during the prerelease, the following bonuses are accessible to you:
Beginner. For getting to the highest level (3 coins and 50% off all items at the store for two hours).
Small. For finding a dungeon (8 coins).
Medium. For beating a Champion (12 coins).
Large. For beating a dungeon (KORT-I energy pistol).
Skill: Pistol shooting +1 (1).
Loyalty bonus. The game was open on your phone when it launched (Attribute syringe).
Would you like to accept your bonuses?

And there were the two bonuses, one a green check mark and the other a red X. There was no doubt in my mind which I was going to pick—the green button swirled away. The space around me drifted oddly. Two items appeared in my palm: a familiar syringe filled with a green liquid and a miniature pistol. Almost like I’d slipped out of reality for a second, my heart stopped at I gazed down. That’s some kind of magic! The pistol fit my right hand perfectly, almost as if made from an impression. Of course, it was unusual, with neither a bolt nor a safety. Something more like a blaster from a fantasy movie.

One minute until the game launch.
Careful! There’s an aggressive monster within three meters of you.
Get ready for battle and remember that there are no respawns in World of the Changed!


Chapter 2


A pungent smell hit my nostrils. I almost sneezed. The monster’s saliva dripped onto the floor, bubbled, and hissed, kicking up a green mist. Its eyes fixed on me, it once again crouched, tucked its tail under it, and got ready to spring forward.
I aimed my KORT-I, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. What if everything that was going on was a figment of my sick imagination? What if there weren’t any monsters, and I had just lost my marbles? Margot might have been trying to tell me something. I was ignoring her, holding an arm out to protect myself. And I wouldn’t have been holding a pistol since there was no way I could have found something like it around there. But which option was more realistic? The one my eyes were telling me was true or the one my brain was proposing?
Suddenly, there was a burst of automatic gunfire and a few explosions off in the distance. The monster perked up its ears like some kind of watchdog before turning to look out the window. I followed its example and…
That was a mistake. My chest sagged under the weight of a heavy blow, ribs crunched, and I flew backward against the wall, yelling from a pain in my leg. The carnivorous beast had ripped an enormous chunk of flesh off my hip and was swallowing it whole. Chewing be damned. I couldn’t move as the pain shot through me, and with my last shreds of consciousness I pulled the pistol’s trigger. Short blue rays shot out of the barrel. The monster shrieked, trying to jump away, but it just toppled back onto the ground. My first shot hit an appendage, my second slammed into the body, and my third finished it off. But more blue streaks continued pouring into the corpse—it took an effort for me to stop shooting.
A shiver ran through my body. The awful wound on my leg was bleeding. When I brought my sleeve across my mouth, it came away slick with blood, and my ribs were certainly broken. Breathing was difficult. Medical shows from TV popped inopportunely to mind—what if my lung was punctured and I was living out my last few seconds? What a shame… I was going to die from some chick-turned-monster, and not as the result of a heroic feat of valor. And she wasn’t even that attractive… Sis would definitely needle me for that one…
My fading consciousness suddenly swung back into sharp focus. Squirrel! She’d gone off to see a friend, which meant she was somewhere out in the middle of the whole nightmare. I wanted to scream, but the only thing that came out of my mouth was a gurgle. I had to do something. If I didn’t, I was definitely going to kick the bucket. My glance fell onto my phone, which was lying near the couch. An attempt to move just brought with it a new bout of pain that just about finished me off. In addition to the burning in my leg and chest, there was something wrong with my back. A chill ran over me again, the world started to darken, and I did the only thing I could. I stretched my arm out toward my phone. If I have to die, I’m going to go down fighting.
Something slapped lightly against my palm. I felt cold metal. Opening my eyes with difficulty, I stared dully at the phone in my hand. Where did that come from? There was nobody next to me besides the riddled monster, and I didn’t think Margot’s ghost had come back to give me a hand.
The screen blinked actively. I focused my attention, reading the text. If there was anything that could help me then, it was that lifeless pieces of glass and metal.

You won your first battle and affirmed your right to life.
Level +1 (1).
Attribute point available.

I’ll deal with that later! My shaking fingers slipped across the screen, opening tabs that turned out to be useless when it came to the state I was in. After closing yet another window, I went back to tapping and finally came up with a new inscription:

Welcome to the store.
You have 23 coins in your account.
50% discount active (1 hour 35 minutes).

Sweat and blood trickled into my eyes. They burned mercilessly, though I kept reading the product descriptions in the Most Popular list. I had no other way to look for help. The items on the screen changed once again, and I finally saw something:

Small regeneration kit. Completely regenerates your health in 8 hours. Single use. Cost: 10 coins (20 without your discount).

I frantically jammed my finger at the picture. Some kind of confirmation popped up, but my tortured brain had enough on its plate trying to maintain consciousness. A syringe started taking shape in my hand. Unlike the first, this one was enormous, a good ten milliliters. It didn’t come with instructions, so I went with the usual, burying the needle in my good leg and pressing down on the plunger. There was another flash of pain that proved too strong for mе.
There was no way of knowing how long I laid there unconscious. All I knew was that there came a moment when I started hearing the world again, only I didn’t feel any pain. I had to clear my eyes of dried blood before I could open them. And the first thing I saw was the monster. It hadn’t gone anywhere. A glance down at the wound on my hip told me that the bleeding had stopped, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up when I took a closer look. A bunch of black dots were rebuilding my flesh basically the same way the pistol and syringes had appeared. I was being printed.
I felt some things in my mouth. Spitting them out, I froze yet again—it was my teeth. Capped, yellow, and with cavities. I hadn’t had money for a good dentist, so I’d gone the free route, though that experiment had ended when they “accidentally” pulled the wrong tooth. Judging by the size of the cavity on one of my teeth, I would have had a major problem on my hands in another two weeks or so.
Running my tongue along my jaw and expecting to find gaps there, I was surprised to no end when every tooth was in place. I ran a finger along them—all there, and even the two on the floor had been replaced. And it was only then that I noticed how well I could see the writing on a sign hanging on the far wall. There was no sign of my nearsightedness. Taking a deep breath and feeling no pain in my ribs, I had a hard time holding back a joyful shout. It worked!
I was healthier than ever.
On the other hand, I didn’t have long to enjoy the feeling. My phone started going haywire again in an effort to grab my attention.

Low battery. If your phone turns off, you won’t be able to earn coins.

That meant another visit to the store. This time, I knew what I was doing. The item I was looking for popped up right away:

Energy block. +10 hours of charge. Universal device suitable for any energy consumer. Cost: 0.5 coins (1 without your discount).

I had just 13 coins left, but I splurged on four blocks to have on me for a rainy day. Small dock stations that fit my phone perfectly appeared in my hand. Connecting one of them to the device, I just grunted—I was starting to get used to miracles. The dock station melted away the same way it came, and my phone’s battery jumped all the way up to 100%. Better than sitting next to an outlet for hours.
Still unable to get up, I crawled over to the syringe. It was only when I got to the couch that I belatedly remembered the pistol. My KORT-I was over by the wall, nearly drowned in a puddle of blood. The episode with the phone sprang to mind. It too had seemed inaccessible only to appear unexpectedly right next to me. Reaching a hand toward the weapon, I imagined it returning to nestle carefully in my hand.
Nothing. The pistol just laid there in the pool of blood, not moving a millimeter.
My inquisitive mind refused to take no for an answer, and I tossed my phone away from me. Just in case, I kept it fairly close. Reaching toward it worked—the device flew over and settled in my palm. Ah-ha! A second attempt with the pistol came up empty. Again, I sent my phone flying, this time all the way to the far wall. Again, it came back. So that only works with my main device? Got it.
The syringe finally in my hands, I sent its contents into my hip. My phone screen instantly reacted with new messages:

You used an attribute syringe.
Would you like to boost your current values or unlock a new attribute?

A new one! During the prerelease, I’d more or less worked out the principles behind World of the Changed. My character was a stalker, and I’d only gotten as far as I had because I’d been incredibly lucky: out of the hundreds of available attributes, I picked Regeneration, which had proven most valuable for me. The ability my character gained to lick even the deadliest of wounds had been what had let me beat the Champion, the final boss in the dungeon. And since that worked on the phone, I figured it would work in real life. The only thing that had saved me after my first go-in with a monster had been the coins I still didn’t really get. I couldn’t risk that again, so…

Regeneration +1 (1).

I dumped my extra attribute point into Regeneration without a second thought, boosting the value to 2. The wound in my hip started itching; the number of black dots doubled. A couple minutes later, I was on my feet and even taking a few steps. I hobbled over to the pistol and picked it up, feeling much better. Three shots, practice showed, were enough to turn a monster into a corpse. There wasn’t a description on the gun itself, so I turned to my phone:

KORT-I energy pistol. Ignores physical armor. Blocks regeneration. Charge lasts 100 shots (92 left). Sighting range: 25 meters. Cost: 50 coins (100 without your discount).

That mention of blocking regeneration grabbed my attention instantly. What, those beasts can heal themselves, too?! How is anyone supposed to kill them if they didn’t beat a dungeon? I thought back to the automatic gunfire and grenade explosions. That was probably the guard at the checkpoint! I suppressed the urge to dash off in search of him, figuring wisely that the fact that the gunfire had ceased meant he was no more. At least, there was nothing I could do to help him right then.
As I continued exploring my phone, I found my way to the main menu. There were a few buttons at the top level next to Store and Your Character: Take Picture, Call, and Share Coin. I wasn’t about to be sharing anything right then, so I let that button be. Everything in me wanted to call Squirrel, but I waited on that, as well. I was afraid to learn that she was no longer in the land of the living. She hadn’t beaten a dungeon, which meant she didn’t have a weapon. And so, putting off that moment, I tapped Take Picture and…
I stared in disbelief at the all-too-familiar functionality. There was the camera; there was the button to take a picture. Seriously? There I was in the most advanced game ever created, one capable of printing items out of midair and turning 90% of the population into terrifying monsters, and it had a selfie camera?
Catching the defeated monster in the frame, I took the shot. I wasn’t about to carry my trophy around with me, and that was as good a reminder as any of my first victory.

You took the first picture of 1 dead inferior monster. 1 coin received.

There was a ding, and the number 12 appeared next to my battery indicator. The entire extent of my wealth. You’re kidding me! So they give you coins for pictures, and not kills?! That’s ridiculous.
Just in case, I touched the body, expecting to get some kind of loot. There was none. No flask of blood, no mage-epic machine gun, nothing. The only thing I got from the beast was a single coin, and I’d had to take a picture of it to get that. I looked at my pistol and went back to the store. Damn it! Surviving was going to be harder than it had seemed a few minutes before.

Charge block for energy weapon. Charged energy block sufficient for 100 shots from an energy weapon. Works for all weapon types. Cost: 15 coins (30 without your discount).

Deciding that there was no sense waiting any longer, I tapped the call button. There was only one contact, and she was marked as a relative: Squirrel Derwin. The game had deleted everyone else.
“Mark, is that you?” Squirrel answered after the first ring. My sister was speaking in a whisper, barely able to keep from crying, judging by her voice. Someone hushed her from the background. She fell silent.
“Where are you?” I tried to keep my voice low, as well.
“In the metro. Mark, what’s going on… They’re changing… They’re… They’re eating them!”
“Quiet, I know. What kind of bonuses did you get?”
“Dude, if you’re going to be calling, I’ll shoot her,” came a rough whisper. “I’d rather sacrifice one than twenty. Short answer: we’re in a metro train car underground. The changed are all around us, just not in here. If you want to help, send coins. We need food. Okay, that’s it… Hey, don’t touch that! The windows have to be covered!”
The line went dead. I felt better, even despite the rough call. Squirrel was alive, and someone there with her had adapted quickly. It was finally that Share Coins button’s turn to shine. Ten coins were subtracted from my account, and a few seconds later I got a kiss emoji and a thumbs up. Texting wasn’t available. That just left the little moving pictures.
Okay… Sis is in a train car. They don’t have food, and farming coins is difficult to impossible. I have to get her out of there, though that means making sure their whole group survives. I knew Squirrel would rather die of hunger than keep food from the others. Up came the store:

Food. A supply of nutrients and water sufficient for 1 person to last 1 day. Cost: 0.5 coins (1 without your discount).

They were good for that day, leaving me twenty-four hours to find another twenty coins. That was twenty pictures. I can do this!
The wound in my hip had nearly closed, which let me make my way over to the window and look around. The monsters were there. A pair was taking on the kennel, where a German shepherd was whining in fear. Several others wandered the courtyard looking for food, with a new kind of monster, definitely different from the one by the couch, at their head. It was taller, stronger, and clearly in command. Almost as if it could sense it was being watched, the beast started sniffing the air. I crouched down and crawled away from the window, hiding behind the couch. As if it was going to do anything to protect me. The delicious smell of roasted meat hit my nostrils, and my stomach growled—I hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. Knowing that I was making a mistake, I pulled the tray closer and started stuffing my face. For the first time in a long while, I both enjoyed the food and chewed it thoroughly with my new teeth. There was no reason to avoid particularly hard pieces.
After a satisfied burp, I realized that I was starting to feel human again. It was time to try killing monsters, and the most important thing there was figuring out how many and where they were. Wait a second, I have the drone remote! Chris hadn’t had time to pick it up, and I had to assume that his distaste for video games meant he wasn’t going to be coming back for it. The only thing I could do was hope that he was in the half percent of lucky ones the system had selected.

New device detected.
Would you like to connect your Matrice-210 RTK drone to your phone?

As soon as I picked up the drone remote, my phone let me know that it wanted to be in charge. And that was fine with me—I didn’t want to carry around any more devices than I had to. Something loaded quickly, and another button appeared on the screen: Drone.

Drone expansion functionality unlocked for the store.

Putting off the urge to check out the new tabs, I launched the machine. It responded beautifully, even better than it had with the old remote. Having adjusted to using the phone, I sent the drone on a familiar flight pattern around the villa. The monsters instantly reacted to the flying device. Shrieking with frustration at their inability to damage it, they leaped along behind, crashing through bushes and toppling statues. By the time I got to the pool, there were already a good twenty of the beasts in hot pursuit. Half of them were the big kind. More spikes, longer claws, and astonishing agility. One of them took a running head start before leaping into the air, soaring through the air, and throwing out its arms. I had to send the drone shooting upward to barely avoid having it taken out. Of course, I couldn’t get close to the villa, either—there were plenty of monsters on the roof. I also noticed a few patches of blood by the pool which told me that one of the guests had been a player. They’d just gotten very unlucky with where they’d activated.
A couple minutes later, the drone hovered over the checkpoint, bloody carnage stretching out below. The remains of monsters were everywhere, some even moving despite terrible wounds. The checkpoint doors were blown off, the walls were broken down in some places, and the only conclusion I could draw was that the guards had sold their lives dearly. Starting, I turned the camera back toward the field of battle. There were at least thirty of the beasts lying there. If I can get over there and take a picture, I’ll pick up thirty free coins! That meant another day for Squirrel, and another day for me to think of a plan.
But how was I going to get over there?
I brought the drone back toward the villa. The pack followed, though a couple stayed behind to chase some cats. Leaving the drone to hover out of reach, I started thinking. There was no way I was getting out of there without a pitched battle, so I needed eyes on the street. There was no counting on the doors—the beasts would take them out with their first pass. A look around the area showed me the perfect spot for a stand: the bathroom. There was a long hallway leading toward it, and if I could set it up right, the monsters would have to make their way down it. I stepped into the bathroom, which was as big as a swimming pool, said a prayer even though I considered myself an atheist, grabbed a shampoo bottle, and hurled it at a mirror I’d set up in the living room.
The shards of glass fell to the floor. Instantly, the door flew off its hinges. Three beasts burst in, attracted by the sound and in hopes of finding fresh meat.
I took my time aiming—I needed to be careful about spending my pistol charge. Hurling another bottle to attract attention, I watched as one of the monsters caught it in midair and buried its teeth in the plastic. Shampoo flooded its mouth. Three pairs of dark eyes stared at my end of the hallway, and they tore down it a second later. But regardless of how fast they were coming, I was ready.
A headshot dropped one of them. It fell, holding up the other two. And while they were busy picking their way past the newfound obstacle, I took a second shot. There was no way I was missing from six meters away. The second body hit the ground, and a third clump of blue energy hurtled out when it did. Three shots, five seconds, a hundred burned nervous cells.
A glance at the screen told me that there were no new opponents nearby. The main crowd hadn’t heard my little diversion. Creeping out carefully, I went over to the clump of bodies and touched them again just in case they gave me loot before the picture. No such luck. Making sure the three all fit into the frame, I tapped the button.

You took the first picture of 3 dead inferior monsters. 3 coins received.

That raised several questions, only I didn’t know who had the answers. The most important one was where my experience was. Since I had a level, killing three beasts should presumably have given me some. How else was I going to earn it? But there was no bar, no scale, nothing to give me an idea of how many monsters I had to destroy to level-up. The other unpleasant issue was the ability to take a picture of all the bodies at once. So if some sly player out there hides until the end of the battle, they can just steal all the coins? And that “first” had me worried. While I’d been assuming that I got coins because I’d taken a picture of the beasts for the first time, I was starting to wonder if I’d get coins for them if someone else had already taken a picture. I’m going to have to be careful around other players…
Ha! There I was, only three kills in, and already dreaming about surviving. There were at least thirty monsters out in the yard, which meant I was going to be busy. Speaking of which, time for the next shampoo bottle. A couple of the creatures looked to be close enough to hear the noise.
The bottle bounced off the couch, and my stomach dropped when I heard the sound of glass breaking. The entire crowd hunting the drone turned to find where the sound had come from. With a drawn-out yelp, they dashed toward the summer terrace. I hiccupped in fear and dropped onto the floor of the bathroom, my pistol clutched tightly in my hands. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. A shiver ran down my body.
Here we go…


Chapter 3


A bloody mess, I wallowed in the bathtub, wishing for nothing more than an end to it all. There just wasn’t enough energy to keep on fighting. I picked up my phone and used my one miraculously surviving eye to survey the gloomy messages on the screen:

Cannot restore eye. Regeneration level 5 required.
Cannot restore left arm. Regeneration level 15 required.
Cannot restore legs. Regeneration level 15 required.

I’d pulled off the win, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. There was nothing left of me. I needed a complete regeneration, but that cost twenty coins, not to mention a charge for my pistol. And there was no sense going anywhere unarmed. The monsters I’d taken out could give me the thirty I needed for an energy block, but that would have left me a legless, one-armed, and one-eyed invalid. The perfect fighter in a world of monsters.
And it had started off so well! The beasts had come piling into the hallway, more getting in each other’s way than helping. That had let me gun them down one at a time until I started to think that I might even live to see the other side. Sure, the higher-level monsters took two or three shots each, but they died the same as the rest. The movement in the hallway stopped, and I looked away just for a second to catch a glimpse of the veranda using the drone. That was a mistake. Well, to be fair, nothing much would have changed even had I stayed focused. Despite my best-laid plans, the attack had come crashing through the ceiling. All I’d had time to do was hold up an arm to protect myself. A searing pain had scorched its way through my arm and legs, and the beast ripped a claw through my face. Almost crushing my skull, it left me bereft of an eye, a cheek, and part of my neck. I don’t even know how I survived. How I fought off the attack. How I wasn’t utterly demolished. Yes, I fired away, yelled, even jabbed the remaining stub of my arm into the mouth of one beast to use it as a shield against its friends, after which I’d fired a couple shots into its eyes. The last one met its end in the bathtub—my pistol had run out of charges. Even seriously injured, it had been in no hurry to die. I turned on the water, jammed the plug into the drain, and threw myself on top of the creature. It thrashed around in agony before going still. At least they’re not amphibious. I slipped into the water, leaving just my head sticking out above it. A grin even spread across my face somehow as the icy water numbed my body. The burning wounds became bearable. My face was still on fire, but I wasn’t about to submerge myself completely. I had my sister to think about, and she didn’t have anyone else besides me.
With a groan, I held out my arm and took a picture of the hallway. The phone vibrated suddenly, too violently for me to hold onto it. But even after it splashed into the water, it kept going strong—there was some kind of report on the screen. Channeling my inner Jedi, I waited until the device slapped against my palm. It took some concentration for me to read the messages. That done, I stared blankly at a point on the wall, doing my best to wrap my head around the new information:

You took the second picture of 3 dead inferior monsters. 0 coins received.
You took the first picture of 23 dead inferior monsters. 23 coins received.
You took the first picture of 11 dead superior monsters. 55 coins received.
You took a picture of an interesting superior monster kill. Bonus received: 3 coins.

Somewhere deep down in my soul, even numbed as I was by the cold water, a flicker of hope was kindled. Without a single twinge of conscience, I spent fifty coins on a regeneration kit and an energy block for my pistol. The remaining thirty-six coins stayed in my account for later. Squirrel needs to eat, too…
Pulling myself out of the tub, I collapsed onto the floor. I really needed to stick the energy block in my pistol, but I just didn’t have the strength. The pain returned with a vengeance the second I left the cold water. With my last remnants of consciousness, I buried the regeneration syringe in myself. My final thought as the darkness took hold was that I was happy I’d been able to attract all the beasts with the drone. There weren’t any potential unexpected guests to worry about.
I only woke up that time when the healing process finished completely. It’s hard to describe the feeling I got when I rubbed my regenerated hand across my regenerated legs. A tear might have escaped my eye. And even though my body craved action, there was no sense leaving even my flimsy cover without night vision. Another battery went to charge my phone. But that gave me an unpleasant thought—what if Squirrel’s phone was dying, too? How was I going to get in touch with her? Ignoring the stranger’s warning, I gave her a call. The answer came almost immediately.
“Mark?” came a whisper belonging to a man I didn’t know. All I could think was that the worst had happened. A white film settled in front of my eyes, my head buzzed, and I barked back at him.
“Bitch, if you did something to her, I’m going to—”
“Mark, it’s okay, I gave him my phone,” I heard my sister say in a muffled voice. “You need to talk to him.”
“Buddy, I’m sorry, I didn’t think about how you’d take that.” It was the stranger again. “I’m Wart. Thanks for the coins—you seriously bought us some time. It’s just that…”
“You need more.”
“We do. My phone and Squirrel’s are the only ones with any battery left. The rest are dead, we have those creatures everywhere, lots of them are superior, and I think there might even be a champion. They’re wising up too quickly. We need a weapon, at least a pistol.”
“A pistol? I don’t have a coin machine over here, and the beasts don’t like giving them up.”
“I get it, I get it. But you have to understand, we’re not going to survive without help. We could use a couple coins just to charge some phones—I’m hoping some of us have relatives that can share. I’d sell my soul to the devil for a few damn coins at this point.”
“Can you make do with sixteen for now?” I asked begrudgingly. I know, I need to worry about myself, but there are people there… And my sister… I hated myself for my weakness.
“Buddy, you… Yeah, that would be great.” Wart’s breath even caught in his throat.
“You’re responsible for Squirrel. If anything happens to her, I’ll find you, even if it’s on the other side. Got it?”
“Yep. I’ll do everything I can. So, you found a dungeon, too?” Wart asked suddenly. Somehow, the picture in my head was of a guy around forty with the hefty midsection of an inveterate gamer. That was how he’d been able to so quickly pick up what was going on in the world.
“I didn’t just find one; I beat it. Okay, hang tight, and I’ll figure something out.”
Sixteen coins found their way to Squirrel’s account, and I went back to the store. To go from victim to hunter, I was going to need another purchase.

Strength field – I. Protection from physical damage, up to 10 attacks. Cost: 20 coins.

A small chain with a large red gem appeared in my hand. I fastened it around my neck, the hair on my body standing up from the static electricity. It was like a second layer of skin appeared. Of course, it wasn’t a panacea, and the incredibly quick monsters could land ten blows in a matter of seconds, but it was something. I could buy something more powerful later.
One more time, I pulled up my status table. There weren’t any changes besides that first skill appearing. How do you level all this up? Just with injections? But that still didn’t explain how experience worked or how to get to the next level. There weren’t any syringes for that in the store. Damn, this is hard without help!
Status table
Name
Mark Derwin
Coins
0
Level
1
Titles and ranks
None
Attributes
Strength
1
Regeneration
2
Stamina
1
Agility
1
Skills
Pistol shooting
1
Suddenly, something strange caught by eye, grabbing my full attention and making me quickly charge my pistol. The monsters were gone. There weren’t any in the hallway; there weren’t any in the bathroom. Not a one. The weak moonlight was enough to tell me that much, and I had no idea where they’d gone. Did someone collect them while I was unconscious? Why didn’t they do anything to me? Or do the bodies melt away after you take a picture of them? I was going to have to check into that. The drone was on the ground not far from the veranda. When its battery died, just like any other professional piece of equipment, it carefully landed rather than dropping like a miniature meteorite. I had to see what was going on by the checkpoint. If the bodies there were gone, somebody was alive in the village, and I had to find them. Surviving in numbers is always easier.
It turns out that being a hero is no walk in the park, especially when there are dozens of mutants howling on the neighboring properties. I had to fight once again, that time with myself, before I could leave the veranda. And when I got to the drone, I let out a breath with a cloud of steam. The cold night air was brisk, invigorating. For a little while, I couldn’t figure out how to use the docking station—the plugs were different. But when I held the thing up to the drone, a slender cord detached itself from the device, the dock station disappeared, and some condensation appeared on the drone’s body. I very much hoped it wouldn’t impact its balance. The drone’s little lights blinked merrily, and I hurried back to the veranda. It was cold and dangerous outside. There was a bedroom on the second floor, and I wrapped myself in a blanket, shivering from the cold. Ah, what I wouldn’t do for a cup of hot tea right now…
Nothing had changed at the checkpoint. The bodies of the monsters were right where they’d been earlier. And that meant that they disappeared after being photographed, though I was still going to have to see that with my own two eyes. I kept the drone high in the air to make sure it didn’t attract any unwanted attention. Flying over the town, I didn’t see light in any of the villa windows. Either the survivors were hiding or there weren’t any of them left. It was a good distance to the nearby villages, but I still pushed the drone higher to see what there was on the horizon.
I couldn’t stifle a happy cry—somewhere off to the west where the city was, there were lights. And they didn’t look like fires. Actually, my impression was that they were spotlights, lighting up the vicinity. People! There have to be people there! A warmth made its way through me. Talking with survivors on the phone was one thing; seeing them was quite another. I made up my mind to head in that direction the next day. Finding Squirrel from there was going to be a piece of cake.
There was nothing but complete darkness to the east and north, though my heart again skipped a beat when I looked south. Flashes of blue light told me that someone was firing off game weapons. Hooray! Not only had the people there survived, but they were also fighting back. For a couple seconds, I thought about heading down there, though I quickly put that idea to rest. Squirrel was in the city, and that was all I needed to know.
I headed out to hunt as soon as the sun appeared over the horizon. To start with, I took the drone for a trip around the villa to attract the changed, though I was surprised when nothing took the bait. They had to be out there. If only judging by the number I’d killed, I knew they were.
Checking the veranda out was easier in the light of day, though I still wasn’t able to find any clothes. I had to step outside barefoot and wearing nothing but my underwear. My phone and energy block were in one hand; my pistol was in the other. The cool air caressed my body, and I shivered. It was chilly. And quiet.
Almost as if reading my mind, a monster yelped on the neighboring property. The call was taken up by a second, then a third, a tenth, and soon the whole area was resounding with their howls. And just as I’d predicted, I could hear some coming from the villa next to mine. Four of the beasts looked out a first-floor window, threw their heads back, and joined the chorus. That was strange—I hadn’t noticed that kind of synchronicity the day before. The doors burst open as the quartet piled out onto the street. One was superior, the other three inferior. They stopped to sniff the air, and the hair on my neck stood up, not at all from the cold. A new voice made itself heard above the rabble. Everything fell silent, and even the monsters who’d just come out of the villa pinned their ears back. They’re scared!
Concealing myself behind some bushes, I made my way closer to the four. A few deep breaths oxygenated my blood and calmed my nerves. I sank to one knee. Aiming steadily, I took my first shot. One monster down. The rest froze and looked around, which gave me my opening for a second shot. Another inferior down, but they saw me that time. Letting out a deathly shriek, the remaining pair dashed toward me. They turned out to be incredibly, unexpectedly fast across the open ground, to the point that I paused and lost the upper hand. Sharp teeth flashed; jaws clamped down on my skull. That popped my ears, and the rest of the battle happened in complete silence. The monster wrenched his neck, throwing me to the side, though I crashed into the second one and sent it tumbling. That was a turn of events it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t have time for an attack. We flew into the bushes, a bundle of arms and legs, but I was the only one to reemerge. One shot was enough to quiet the inferior monster forever. Its superior friend shook its head and tried to get a grip after its unsuccessful attempt at a bite. Dark blood trickled out of its mouth, shards of teeth coming with it. A couple shots put it out of its misery. I held out a hand, summoning the phone I’d dropped.
There were two charges taken out of my strength field, but I was happy. The experience had taught me that it wasn’t worth taking on the beasts out in the open. They were just too quick.

You took the first picture of 3 dead inferior monsters. 3 coins received.
You took the first picture of 1 dead superior monster. 5 coins received.
You cleared the Initiation Zone of monsters.
Level +1 (2).
1 attribute point available.

Finally! I was thrilled to level up, though I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten it for. Was it killing monsters or clearing the location?
Without bothering to hide, I headed toward the pool. The dozen dried pools of blood left no doubt that there had been other players at the event. I bent over the only thing that was left of the first poor guy—the ubiquitous phone.

Player Chris Vertonen. Status: Dead. Cash: 3 coins.

You’re kidding me! The boss had played the game, never letting on. And the three coins was the bonus for getting to the maximum level in the prerelease. Who would have thought that Chris had been into the game?
Right next to the coins was a button that read Collect, and tapping it rewarded me with a ding from my own phone. Plus three for me. Almost as if its work was done, Chris’ phone disintegrated, slipping through my fingers and falling to the ground as a fine dusting. See you, boss. You were a good guy.
But that made me think—did I really want to go find other people? Human nature is a tricky phenomenon, and it’s simpler to steal from whoever’s closest to you than it is to go out and do the work yourself. What if everyone takes the path of least resistance and starts killing other players as well as monsters in the struggle to survive? If they did, other players would be the first targets. We were easier to take out, and we gave up coins with much more ease.
I didn’t get lucky with the other phones—they were all empty. When I got tired of tramping around barefoot through the pools of blood, I headed back to the house. Careful steps around the shattered glass took me up the stairs to the second floor. It had once been luxurious up there, though most of the interior was demolished by that point. The monsters had apparently been so disappointed with the owner’s poor taste that they’d gnawed the walls and furniture to pieces. I finally found a closet in one of the bedrooms and got to work picking out clothes.
Heading down to the kitchen, I got some food in me. There wasn’t any electricity, so I had to eat it cold. And I grabbed a butcher’s knife while I was there—sometimes, good old physical damage comes in handy.
Incidentally, I wasn’t thrilled with the ones in my strength, agility, and stamina attributes. While the following two were more or less on the money, as I’d never been that fast or good at running long distances, I definitely had some strength to me. Chris hadn’t just hired me for my gorgeous eyes, after all. I was stronger than the other candidates for the job, having spent years working out. That was what made me a good pack mule for him. The problem was that the game apparently didn’t count that, handing me those embarrassing ones everywhere.
Sighing deeply, I pulled up my attributes. I really needed to get my regeneration up to five so I could start healing serious wounds, my eye being a good example, but being as weak as I was meant that there wouldn’t be anything left to heal. The monsters could take me out with a sneeze. And so… A new syringe appeared in my hand.

Strength +1 (2).

When I woke up, the sun was high in the sky. The process had been staggeringly painful, and my body twitched just thinking about it. There was no way I was going through that again. It felt like thousands of needles had been jabbed into me at once, tying my nerves up in tight little knots. I’d always thought I’d felt real pain when I visited the free dentist, as the only anesthetic he’d had on hand was the earplugs he’d used so he didn’t have to listen to my screams. But I’d been wrong. Real pain was what I’d gone through eight hours before. It had been so intense, in fact, that my heart had stopped.
I stood up and gave myself a once-over. There was a lightness, and muscles had appeared. For instance, the biceps I noticed were bigger than anything I’d had even when I was working out. The six-pack abs were a pleasant surprise, too. My erstwhile belly had taken the brunt of student years spent playing video games, to the point that Squirrel had taken to calling it Peter and giving it a jiggle every time she walked by. But everything was perfect down there—I looked like one of the trainers at the gym. That was going to take some getting used to.
My phone buzzed so suddenly that I jumped. As I read the text on the screen, I realized that getting to my sister was going to be anything but easy.

Congratulations!
You managed to survive the first day of World of the Changed.
Mission functionality unlocked.
Player ratings unlocked.
***
Monster levels increased by 1.
A level 1 Larva appeared in your current location.
***
New mission: Clear the village. Description: Kill all the monsters in Riverside village. Monsters left: 183 inferior, 42 superior, 1 champion.


Chapter 4


Just an hour later, I was putting my new strength through its paces. And the pain was worth it.
The mission had me intrigued, especially that bit about the champion. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was holed up in the enormous villa at the end of the road. That was the biggest building in the area, which made it no surprise that the monster had made it home base. Physically, the creature looked something like a triceratops—horns and spikes atop a beast the size of a trash truck. It just moved much faster than its cousin, and it also had bolts of lightning flashing periodically from its front horns. Damn, a monster with abilities! That was what I’d been most afraid of in the prerelease, what had sent me back to the respawn point over and over again. The smaller monsters dragged food over to the champion, the slower ones catching lightning bolts in their rear end. But it was when two women were dragged over that I realized the creature had to go. It sniffed them over, snorted, and, from what I could tell, decided that one of them was fit for consumption. She was scarfed down on the spot. Turning to the second, the champion bit off her limbs, licked her wounds to stop the blooding, and had her dragged off into the garage. The beasts were acting in unison and with a purpose that surprised me. They weren’t at all like animals. No, it was more like some kind of society, just a terrifying and alien one.
I wasn’t about to send the drone into the enormous garage—there were too many monsters in the area. Bringing it back, I checked out the neighboring property and noticed about ten of them there. They really had changed overnight. The inferior beasts were bigger, with protective plates and additional spikes on their heads. Their superior friends hadn’t fallen behind in the arms race, though it looked like their benefit was more intellectual. All of them were acting deliberately. And that scared me. Could that be because there’s a champion nearby? That would have explained why Wart mentioned his suspicion that there was another one in the metro.
To take one example, the smarter changed didn’t chase the drone around anymore. I had to take them on myself, though that gave me the chance to try out my upgraded strength. Three of them came at me. The first fell to a shot from my pistol, and I dodged the second, though the third was too much for me. As I watched the jaws slam closed around my neck, shattering the thing’s teeth and taking a charge out of my protection, I did what any guy would have done in my shoes. I buried a smooth right hook in the monster’s chin. The result exceeded my wildest expectations: there was a crunch, and the inferior creature’s head snapped back. Its enormous hulk flew overhead and landed nearby. I was pretty confident it wasn’t about to get back up.
In one fluid motion, I turned and sent a charge into the back of the beast that had missed with its attack. It screeched and rolled across the ground, digging in with its claws. My shot had gone right through its spine. Picking up the butcher’s knife, I decided to see what it could do. One foot on the creature’s back, making sure it couldn’t crawl away, I reared back and slammed the blade home. My hand went numb; the handle slipped right out of my hand. And the whole thing turned out to be futile—the massive blade had only made its way a couple centimeters into the monster’s body. I pulled it out with an effort and tried again, though the result was the same. Non-game weapons were practically worthless against the beasts in the game. A shot ended the monster’s hopes of regeneration. One picture later, and I was staring unhappily at a couple new messages:

You took the first picture of 3 dead inferior monsters. 3 coins received.
You took a picture of an interesting inferior monster kill. Bonus received: 1 coin.

The beasts really were stronger and faster, which was why I’d been hoping for a concession from the system in the form of additional coins. But that didn’t happen. If they level-up again tomorrow, it’s going to take multiple shots to kill each one. There was no way I was going to be able to level-up myself—all my coins would go toward energy blocks. And what about Squirrel?
Clearing the property was easy—the creatures were running around on their own, and there weren’t any superiors. But I sighed after taking the pictures. I was moving too slowly. No, it wasn’t that my agility was holding me back; I just couldn’t take on more than one at a time, and that just got me one coin each. There wasn’t much you could get for the chump change I was pulling in. Food, charge, a first aid kit. Everything else cost serious money. Taking a deep breath, I headed onward. The coins weren’t going to earn themselves.
It took me the rest of the day and another cleared villa to reach the checkpoint.

You took the first picture of 12 dead inferior monsters. 12 coins received.
You took the first picture of 4 dead superior monsters. 20 coins received.

I was happy to get the coins, though I would have preferred more. Thirty of the thirty-two I picked up went toward an energy block for the pistol. That meant that I really only came out two coins ahead, not to mention the little progress I was making toward completing the mission and the stiffness in my muscles. The constant action was straining my single stamina point.
The drone told me I was clear to move out. It felt strange moving across the open ground, though I had no choice—I had to get closer if I wanted better pictures. Experience had taught me that they only counted from a distance of thirty-five meters or less. And that was great news. If someone wanted to steal my kills, they’d have to look me in the eye while doing it. The problem was that drone pictures didn’t yield coins. Not a video, not a picture, nothing! I’d spent a while digging through the store looking for a way to take remote pictures, but there was nothing.

You took the first picture of 32 dead inferior monsters. 32 coins received.
You took the first picture of 13 dead superior monsters. 65 coins received.
You took a picture of 5 interesting inferior monster kills. Bonus received: 5 coins.
You took a picture of 3 interesting superior monster kills. Bonus received: 9 coins.

My jaw dropped slowly as I took the pictures and read the notifications. And there you have it: the difference between a professional soldier and a student you hire as a gofer. The bodies I’d already taken pictures of disintegrated into a dark ash. Their lives already over, they’d just been waiting for somebody to stop by and cash in. And that was perfect—you didn’t have to worry about burying them. People were eaten; monsters disappeared. There wasn’t going to be anything heavier than a few kilograms left on Earth soon enough.
I was about to head out when I noticed another body in the corner of the checkpoint. For some reason, the monster hadn’t disappeared after I’d taken the picture. Could it be alive? I glanced inside the bullet-riddled space and gasped—the body of one of the guards was lying right there. All that was left of Schwarzenegger’s once-stunning copy was a bloody pile. No legs, no arms, guts spilling out, face mangled. The beasts hadn’t finished eating the fighter, and I had a new mission. The hero who’d given me so many coins needed a good burial.
His chest rose and fell right back. A low wheeze broke out, and with it shivers down my spine. He was alive! I had no idea how, but the stump of a human was fighting desperately for life. Dashing forward, I stopped short when I saw the syringe next to his head. It was too big to be for regeneration. No, there was an extra attribute right there on the ground. They cost a thousand coins in the store, and I knew the kind of difference they could make. If the single strength point had been so huge for me, another stamina point, for instance, would let me run all the way to the city. A tremor ran through my arm. I was addicted, and my drug was right there in front of me. The soldier was dying anyway. I would be strong enough to kill the monsters with my right arm tied behind my back, strong enough to find and save Squirrel. All I had to do was leave him there. If I healed him, he would definitely ask what happened to his attribute point, and did I need that? Of course not! I needed to just pick it up and keep on walking. Keep killing, keep sending Squirrel coins, forget about someone I couldn’t save…
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. The delusion passed. I really did pick the syringe up, though I was going to give it to the guard as soon as he regenerated. I’ve never been a rat, and I’m not starting now. Sending twenty coins to the store, I used the regeneration syringe on him without a twinge of regret. His breathing evened immediately. Doing my best to stuff his insides back where they were supposed to be, I picked the guy up and headed back to the villa I’d cleared. That was enough adventures for one day.
As it turned out, I’m not a particularly curious person. And I never would’ve thought that. The regeneration process had me intrigued, and I wanted to see it happen until the guy’s limbs started printing. That did me in. It was an unpleasant sight, and I couldn’t eat any of the many delicacies I found in the kitchen the rest of the day.
Everything had been so hectic that I fell fast asleep after sending Squirrel 30 coins. She needed them, and it also told her that I was still alive. There was no reason to eat up my battery calling her—it wasn’t the time to chat about nothing. A thumbs-up came in reply. She was alive and happy to get the gift.
Sleep crept over me, and even my battles against the hordes of the changed weren’t enough to disturb it. Wrapping myself up tightly in a blanket, I waited anxiously to see what the next day would bring.
Unfortunately, my morning started off with an unpleasant surprise.
The guard’s body had regenerated perfectly. I even felt a pang of jealousy—I was the one with two strength points, and he was the one with the perfect body. When I stepped into the room, he was sitting there staring out the window. I greeted him; he didn’t reply. I came closer, and there was no reaction. His gaze was fixed on some point off in the distance. And when I waved a hand in front of his face, there was no response. His expression was blank, he was rocking slightly, and he had no interest in what was going on. Even his phone was lying on the floor.
I picked it up, read a couple lines, and growled in frustration. Are you kidding me?

Player Brighton de Croyt. Status: Insane (unable to restore intellect), level 1. Cash: 3 coins.

Not sure what to do, I plopped down next to him. There weren’t many options. I could carry him with me to the city, where he would be a constant liability, or I could forget about him, leaving him there to be eaten by the beasts. Neither option worked for me. But nothing else came to mind. The thought popped into my head that I’d wasted twenty coins on him, but I quickly brushed it aside. There was no way I could have known what would happen. I’d done the right thing.
Pulling out the attribute syringe, I turned it around in my hand, putting off doing what I’d already decided on. Brighton didn’t need it. He didn’t need anything anymore, including his three coins. I took them, after which I grabbed my phone and added a point to my pistol shooting skill. There was no way around it—I needed to get stronger.
In went the needle…

Pistol shooting +1 (2).
Your body will need 10 minutes to complete the change.
Energy pistol section unlocked for the store.

My fingers twitched, a splitting pain made its way through my head, and my eyes felt like they had sand in them. I dropped to the floor, ready to slip off into unconsciousness, when it all suddenly stopped. My pistol was in my hand. I frowned, not remembering picking it up. But I forgot all about that when I looked over at Brighton. It was like some functionality had migrated from my phone to my brain—there was a barely visible green glow covering the guard. And when I focused on a part of his body, percentages appeared, from ten to a hundred. The maximum values were all around his head and heart; the lowest were on his limbs. I pointed my pistol at one of his legs, and a red dot as well as a value of 35% appeared. The farther I went up his body, the higher the values grew. I stopped at his head—100%. Everything made sense. I realized what the numbers were, and I knew what I had to do with Brighton.
My trigger finger tightened. A single burst of blue energy shot out of the pistol. Reflexively, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of my first real kill. The monsters didn’t count.
Sleep well, Brighton. I’m sorry I tried to wake you.

You took the first picture of a dead player. 10 coins received.

An impenetrable mask fell over my face, only a twitch in my eye giving away my true emotions. I’ll be damned if I go find any other people until I have some real protection. Rage gripped me, and I was happy to recall that there was an uncleared villa across the road. There was something I needed to do.

You took the first picture of 9 dead inferior monsters. 9 coins received.
You took the first picture of 3 dead superior monsters. 15 coins received.

I only started feeling like myself again when I took the last few pictures. One more building was clear, and I was one step closer to completing my mission. Taking out the monsters was much easier—I studied their weak points ahead of time, which meant I only had to spend a single shot on each. Inferior or superior, they were all the same.
As I hunted the area for hidden monsters, I went down into the basement, where I found an enormous steel door standing open. Switching on a flashlight I found nearby showed me what was inside. On the other side of the door, there were even rows of weapons—pistols, submachine guns, heavy machine guns. The villa owner had an arsenal big enough to wage a small war. Either he’d been quite the enthusiast, or he’d been about to organize a little revolution in the area. And while I didn’t know all the ins and outs, and my knowledge of how to use the guns in front of me was primarily based on a few trips to a shooting range, movies, and YouTube videos, it wasn’t that hard. I got to the end of the row and found myself staring down the barrel of a heavy machine gun. The name even popped into my head: a Browning M2. A high-caliber American weapon, it wielded fearsome firepower. There were boxes loaded with cartridge belts next to it, and I grinned unpleasantly. If the beasts outside could stand up to that thing, my little pistol wasn’t going to have any effect. It looked enormous, though I found to my surprise that I could pick it up. Sure, it was heavy. But it was more “ooph” than “oh damn.”
I spent the rest of the day hauling the gun and its ammo boxes up to the roof of the next building over. There was a beautiful tower atop it, perfect for what I was thinking. A few boxes of grenades and a couple Kalashnikovs followed it. They were there to take out the fastest monsters, though the centerpiece of my plan was the M2.
It didn’t turn out too difficult to work. Pull the bolt back, open the feedway, slip an ammo belt inside, close the feedway, slide the bolt forward, set it to automatic, and pull the trigger. The only thing that worried me was the kick, though I prepared for that by carrying a few sacks of sand up to the roof. One went behind my back; the others held the stand down against the roof tiles. The whole thing was jerry-rigged, of course, but I knew it would work for a few minutes. Swinging the barrel around toward the champion’s lair, I paused. Go for it or wait for tomorrow?
After glancing up at the sun, and then the neighboring villas, not to mention another emoji from my sister, I made up my mind. I couldn’t keep putting off my problems. It was time to finish up with the village and move on. The only thing I was missing was some music from my phone, but I cleared my head, aimed at the champion, and pulled the trigger.
Let’s do this!
It’s hard to convey the feeling of absolute power that came with those first few rounds. I’d never shot a gun of that caliber, and so I just wasn’t ready for what happened. The oversized rhinoceros was thrown back against a wall and pinned there until the glow around its body died away. I spent an entire belt on the monster before I was able to break through its defenses and turn it into Swiss cheese. Quite a few clicks later, I realized the belt was done. It took just a few seconds to replace it, and then I redirected my attention from the lifeless champion to the onrushing horde. Little fountains of sand and stone kicked up on the road. Giving no thought to saving ammo or taking care of the gun, I kept the trigger firmly pressed. It was a one-time experience—there was no way I was going to lug that thing around with me. Monsters howled from the properties I hadn’t yet cleared as the gunfire drew their attention. Another belt, and I was pointing the gun almost straight down. The quick little buggers had already made it to the tower.
The Browning jammed on the eighth belt. A bullet had wedged itself sideways, but I didn’t have time to fix it. Time for grenades. Press the lever, pull the pin, drop it over the side. Just the way I’d been taught. Once I’d gone through three boxes of them, I picked up a Kalashnikov. The wounded monsters weren’t giving up—digging the remains of teeth and limbs into the stone, they crawled toward me. But the weapon turned out to be incredibly ineffective, taking half a clip to kill each of the creatures. And that was only when I was shooting them in the head. Tossing aside the useless gun, I grabbed my pistol. The green numbers popped up. One shot, one kill.
I had to head back to the store twice for new energy blocks. Oddly enough, the high-caliber machine gun only really worked against the champion, proving weak against the faster inferior and superior monsters. The grenades weren’t up to the task, either. Losing a limb or two wasn’t enough to stop the bloodthirsty beasts.
My arm was starting to shake from the exertion. The red dot bounced around, I started missing, the dead bodies piled around the base of the tower, and my head was buzzing. But then suddenly, it got quiet.
It took the breeze playing around the tower, the leaves rustling, and my vibrating phone to tell me I hadn’t gone deaf.

Clear the village updated. 183 inferior and 42 superior monsters killed. Monsters left: 1 champion.

I was stunned. Glancing in the direction of the rhinoceros, I saw it still lying motionless against its wall, the enormous holes in its body visible even from where I was. It’s alive? How?!
When I tossed the sandbags aside, shell casings poured down the stairs. The door was demolished from both sides, so I had to go through the building. The idiot changed had come straight at me without thinking to go that way.
The champion really was still alive. Bloodshot eyes followed me as I stepped closer, and it even tried to get up and shoot lightning at me. Its broken horn put paid to that idea, however. The holes were big enough to stick a hand through, and I decided to record the moment for posterity. The pictures of the bodies went who-knows-where. But that one I wanted for myself. Turning the camera to selfie mode, I made sure the champion and I were both on the screen before tapping the button to take the picture.

You took a picture of a live champion from less than 3 meters away. 100 coins received.
You took a selfie with a live champion in the background from less than three meters. 300 coins received.
***
You’re the first player in this location to take a picture of a live champion from less than 3 meters. Free attribute point received.
You’re the first player in this location to take a selfie with a live champion in the background from less than 3 meters. Free attribute point received.

My heart practically stopped when I saw the two small syringes forming in my palm. That’s… That’s…
A hoarse groan and heavy sigh forced me to turn around. The job wasn’t done yet.
There wasn’t a single spot on the creature’s body that gave me 100% damage. I had to fire ten shots into it before my phone started to vibrate.

Clear the village complete.
Would you like to collect your reward?
Level +1 (3).

Of course! A wave of happiness overwhelmed me, and I fell to my knees and burst into tears, thrilled that the whole thing was over. I couldn’t hold back the rivulets coursing down my face. I didn’t want to, either. My body shook, I felt turned inside-out, and a howl burst out of me. The emotions that had built up over the previous two days demanded to be released, and I did nothing to hold them in. It was only when night fell that I came to my senses, burrowing into the still-warm body of the champion. I might have even gotten some sleep.
A glance at my phone told me that my sister had tried to call several times. Either she was worried, or something had happened. My itch to see what my reward was fought with the urge to find out what was going on with her. The latter won out.
“What happened?” I asked in a whisper as soon as she answered.
“You’re alive?” she exclaimed too loudly, and I heard Wart hushing her in the background. “I thought you…”
Squirrel broke down, and someone in a better state to talk took her phone.
“Mark, it’s bad. The monsters started dragging the train cars somewhere, and they’re going to get to us by morning. If we don’t get a weapon, I’m not going to be able to do what you asked me to do.”
“I didn’t ask you to do anything; I gave you an order,” I barked, myself unsure of where that came from. “You’ll get your weapon. Two hundred coins. That’s enough for a pistol and three energy blocks, plus some extra for food.”
“Send it over.” Wart was past thanks, and we both knew that I wasn’t just doing him a favor. It was the only way to save my sister.
When I hung up, I thought for a second and sent two hundred and fifty coins, leaving myself two hundred and twelve. Phones only lasted ten hours—not so long—and there were twenty people in the train car. Each of them would need a battery, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive in our god-forsaken world.
Alone with my pile of bodies, I finally tapped the button to collect my reward. A point on the ground next to me started to glow, growing quickly until it turned into something inconceivable. When it was complete, I swallowed and carefully picked it up. Mother of god! Where have you been all my life? Things would have been much easier with that baby.
I caressed my reward, realizing that I knew exactly what I was going to spend my three attribute points on.

U-II energy rifle. Ignores physical and energy armor for opponents up through level 2. Blocks regeneration for opponents up through level 2. Blocks one random ability. Charge lasts 200 shots. 1 upgrade slot. Sighting range: 500 meters. Cost: 8000 coins.
***
Rifle shooting +1 (1).
Your body will need 10 minutes to complete the change.
Energy rifle section unlocked for the store.

Release - January 6, 2020


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