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

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.

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
Mark Derwin
Titles and ranks



Pistol shooting

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…
Release - January 6, 2020

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