Sunday, January 12, 2020

World of the Changed, Book 2:

World of the Changed
Book 2: Pearl of the South
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - February 14, 2020

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Chapter 1

Incoming call from Squirrel Derwin.

“So, it sank in? Great, now listen up. If you behave yourself, I’ll agree to trade your girl for a rainbow pearl. And nobody will get hurt.”
“You don’t need a unicorn, too, do you? The kind with butterflies fluttering around inside it, where they poop out caramels?” I replied angrily. Wart had called back just ten minutes after our first conversation, an eternity stretching out for me in the interim.
“Shut up! If you want your sister back, you’ll bring me a pearl. They had them in the pre-release, so you’ve got to be able to find them here, too. And you have nine days and twenty-three hours. If you make it in time, Squirrel lives. If not, she dies.”
“If she dies, you die,” I said with hatred in my voice, a fist pounding the wall in frustration.
“Oh, I couldn’t care less. Without the pearl, I won’t make it ten days, and I’m not going to die alone. You probably don’t want to know what I’ll do to this juicy little thing before I do, either. Are you picking up what I’m putting down, or do I need to give you a little motivation?”
Squirrel whimpered, Wart having apparently turned toward her.

“I bought a scanner for myself. If you try to find me, Squirrel dies. If you don’t find me a pearl, Squirrel dies. And if you try to hurt me in any way, Squirrel dies.”
“Stick her back in the capsule,” I said. “I don’t need a sister with a shattered psyche.”
“It doesn’t work anymore. When I opened it, the thing split apart.”
“So, buy a new one! I’ll send you the money.”
“Oh, right, exactly! I need a couple million coins.”
“The capsule, Wart. If you don’t get her a capsule, you won’t get anything else. I’ll get you the money, just give me a couple days. But buy the capsule right now.”
“I’m the one giving the orders around here, got it? I’ll be expecting my coins and the pearl! Otherwise, your sister will beg for the sweet release of death.”
On that lovely note, the call dropped. A wave of helplessness rushed through me, and I took it out on the wall once again. Still sitting underground, the next problem was figuring out how to dig my way to the surface. The demolished collection plant there to suck up the noa the game owner cared so much about was right above me. Speaking of the game owner, it had scattered nanoparticles all over Earth, turning humans into horrifying mutants. Some lost their minds and became monsters; others held onto theirs and became players. But everyone mutated. Just a few minutes before, some slick operators, their precision and preparation telling me they were military, had blown up the plant and my partner with it. The worst news had been Wart’s call, however. He’d broken into my sister’s capsule and was demanding something absurd: some pearl or other. Not only did I not know where to find it; I didn’t even know what it was! And the bastard had only given me ten days.
Happy I made a habit of dumping everything in my inventory, I started materializing item after item, selling them as soon as they appeared. Both levitating platforms, the level four equipment from the transporter, all of it. I made a mental note to stop by the location where we’d taken out the farm—there had to be a ton of equipment just lying around. The average price tag for a level four item started at 300,000 coins, with the platforms going for two million, which meant that I pocketed a cool four and a half million despite the 50% commission. I sent Squirrel’s phone three hundred thousand on the spot. Let Wart think that’s all I have.
But I wasn’t about to go running off after some pearl or other. Wart definitely hadn’t bought a scanner capable of spotting me. While he knew quite a bit about the game on the phone, he didn’t have the faintest clue about what was going on in the real world or how fast it all was changing. And that meant that as soon as Olsen accepted the mission and gave me my reward, I was headed for the city. It was time to save Squirrel from the bastard.
I began clawing my way upward using both arms and legs. The going was easy enough at first, though the closer I got to the surface, the tougher the soil got. Finally, I was at the point where it was basically ceramic. The temperature at the heart of the explosion had been so high that the humus had melted. Deciding against a gentler approach, I just pulled Fang out and started slashing away. It didn’t seem like there was anything the blade couldn’t cut through.
Some deformed metal and an enormous chute were all that was left of the noa plant. The only thing that had remained whole and intact was the plate covering the shaft, the one that had saved my life. If it hadn’t been for it, I would have been burned alive—Ulbaron couldn’t have done anything to stand up to the heat. Sweeping Raptor around the area and taking pictures as I went, I sighed. Nothing. There had once been an immense crowd of monsters around the force field, but they’d all been reduced to ash. And the game wasn’t going to give me coins for them.
I’d never been a fan of running, but I didn’t have a choice in that moment. Tossing Swallow, Grust’s named rifle, over my back, I set a steady pace and headed off toward the next location over. There was loot there that I didn’t want anyone else taking. But once I got far enough away, I started coming across the bodies of monsters. Lots of them, in fact. Before he’d hidden in the protection afforded by the dome, Grust had been doing work. I set Raptor to take pictures automatically and ran on, though I had to stop every once in a while to pick up loot. Raptor highlighted game items, blinking insistently until I bent over and picked up whatever it was. Killing champions really was a good deal. My run took a lot longer than it could have, but it was worth it.

You took the first picture of 368 dead superior monsters. 11040 coins received.
You took the first picture of 325 dead champions. 585000 coins received.
You took the first picture of a dead larva-level creature. 120000 coins received.

There weren’t any inferior monsters, though there were more than enough champions. Grust must have focused on them. On average, I picked up a game item from every fifth champion, mostly level four modifiers for weapons or armor valued at 300,000 coins or more. And once I’d taken apart the transporter and sold everything I got from it, my total sales were up to 11.5 million coins. That left me totaling 16.4 million. A new record for me. It had turned out to be a pretty good battle, definitely a profitable one. It was like Grust had known to keep the champions away from the dome. When I bring him back, I’ll have to thank him.
Aspen was thirty kilometers away, so I started looking around for a car. There were a ton of them out on the roads—when the game had begun, lots of people were out and about. And three weeks spent just sitting didn’t really present a problem. There wasn’t anyone robbing them, as everyone had been either eaten or turned into a monster. Of course, the changed themselves couldn’t have cared less about transportation. The only times they did care were when there was food inside them, or people hiding. I’d already seen several cars that had been torn apart. In the damn World of the Changed, hiding wasn’t an option. You fought or you ran. That was it.
The truck engine roared to life like a buck in search of a doe, though that didn’t bother me. There weren’t any monsters left in the area. The game divided space into locations, or small squares fifty kilometers across, each of which had a larva. They were the highest-ranking bosses, their job being to keep their general fed. And generals, in turn, were in charge of hexagons, which were huge, six-sided shapes a thousand kilometers across. There were 149 hexagons on Earth, with humans left in just ten of them. Monsters and the half million players who had shown up with the game reigned supreme in the rest. That was the basic hierarchy the game had introduced to Earth. Nobody had asked for our opinion. It was just the way it was. And there I was, once just your average student, but suddenly turned into the most advanced player on Earth. My level 315 sounded impressive enough, but it didn’t come with any advantages besides the fact that too many people knew who I was. To the contrary, the game had made a habit of sending its spawn after me—it didn’t like anyone at the top of the leaderboard.
Aspen spread out in front of me, and I even stopped to stare at the city in surprise. Not long before, it had been reminiscent of an actual fortress, complete with high stone walls, equally stone buildings, defensive towers, and guards. Everything had been geared toward long-term defense. But in front of me, there was a cross between a city and a garden. There were no walls, and the broad streets were lined with tall, green trees. The beautiful buildings each had their own design. Everything was bright and clean, almost as though it had just been washed. And because it somehow felt wrong to drive the dirty truck into the scene, I got out and walked the rest of the way. The pools of perfectly blue water and some blue firs made for a gorgeous composition.
“Welcome to Aspen, player Mark Derwin.” I was personally greeted at the entrance by Olsen, who was in charge of the whole thing. It wasn’t exactly a player. No, it was a function, a part of the game, and its job was to make sure everything went the way it was supposed to in the safe zone. And while the village elder’s clothes had once been stern and official, it was dressed that day in fairly relaxed pants and a colorful shirt. Only the snow-white smile on its hairy mug looked the same as I remembered. Olsen was a Shurvan, a hairy, humanoid creature.
“You did everything you agreed to do and more—clearing four locations of monsters let me jump to the next level. I’d say you earned yourself a reward.”
A few servants carried out an enormous wooden chest fitted with metal. We have a pirate theme now?
“I’m aware of your limitations—you can’t use anything besides named items. Not many people would be able to survive like that, but you’ve actually gone on the attack. That makes you intriguing, though you’re awfully immobile. And I want to solve that problem. It may be the one that’s hampering you most, so take this equipment that once belonged to Nine. While the robots aren’t great at crafting, you were able to make Fang. Perhaps, you’ll figure out what to do with all this.”
The servants threw back the lid to reveal the remains of the jetpack. Several nozzles for horizontal and vertical thrust. A few straps for arms and legs. Basically, it was the kit you needed to make an Iron Man outfit, just somewhat unusual looking. Letting Raptor take a look at it, I got the usual message: Damaged device in need of repairs. There was a bit more that time, however:

Requires device repair level 60.

Whatever else it might have been, it was interesting, and so I pulled the pack out of the chest. Yes, I need to figure this thing out.
“Excellent, I’m glad you appreciate your reward.” Olsen rubbed its hands and sent off the servants. “What do you think about taking care of another few jobs for me?”
“Not right now. I need to head into the city.”
“It’s your sister, I assume?” the leader of Aspen asked implacably.
“What do you know about that?”
“Not much. She was unlucky—a player named Wart was able to survive and break into her security module. Actually, Squirrel Derwin is back in a module, though that doesn’t change much, as it’s under Wart’s control.”
That made me feel better. He’d followed through with my request, and Squirrel wasn’t alone with the bastard.
“They’re fifty meters deep, though I don’t know where exactly they are. If you head over to the city, you’ll have to search the whole thing if you want to find your sister.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I shrugged. “It won’t take me more than three or four days.”
“That’s if nobody gets in your way. The radioactive ruins were handed over to Three and Two, another pair of the general’s spawn. As soon as you step onto their turf, they’ll start hunting you, and I can’t guarantee that you’ll get away. Your chances with them are worse than they were with Nine.”
“So, you think I should throw up my arms and do nothing? Just let that son of a bitch kill my sister?”
“I’m glad you came to that conclusion yourself. Your sister makes you weak, Mark Derwin. She keeps you from being everything you can be, and Wart is going to continue extorting money from you. Forget about her, work for me, and you’ll grow strong. You’ll be able to survive.”
“Why don’t I worry about what I should do?” I replied angrily. The soulless representation of the game was using a logic foreign to humans.
“Wart will die in less than ten days. Your sister will stay in her security module, and nobody will be able to touch her for quite a while,” Olsen continued.
“What’s he going to die from?”
“He survived on regeneration kits he bought with your sister’s money, but there’s too much radiation underground. With that much regeneration, he developed a mutation that went out of control. The game can’t do anything for him anymore, so it decided to destroy him. Wart has been warned. And he can’t not mutate—the process has already begun, and he can’t turn back the clock.”
“But before he dies, he’s going to kill Squirrel. I need to stop him regardless of what the general’s spawn try to pull. What’s a rainbow pearl?”
Olsen froze. His expression was so blank, in fact, that I thought he was glitching. But no, he was talking to the game, though he hadn’t stepped aside to do it.
“An item that could help Wart,” the function finally said. “Yes, it definitely would. It resets players to where they were when the game started. Bring one to me, Mark Derwin, and I’ll make sure you’re rewarded.”
“You again?” I replied with a heavy sigh. “What do you care? You’re not a player.”
“Pearls reset functions as well as players. Actually, no, better to say that they turn all your current attributes into free points. You can go back and redo all your parameters, getting rid of what you don’t need and emphasizing what you do. They’re incredibly valuable. You’ll get a lot for one, so bring it here.”
“Even if I wanted to do that, and I don’t, I don’t even know what they look like, not to mention where to find one!”
“If you agree to work for me, I’ll give you a hand—I know where you can find pearls. You’ll have to head south, all the way to the sea at the edge of the hexagon. There’s a pearl there next to some noa concentration plants.”
“Sounds tempting, but it’s no good for me. I have to get my sister out. See you, function Olsen, and I hope we see each other again.”
“You leave me no choice, Mark Derwin. You have a problem with your sister, and that problem needs to be eliminated. I’ll let Three and Two know that she’s somewhere in the city so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. No more distractions. Your sister will be gone, and you can get back to focusing on your future.”
Valkyrie flashed in my hand, though I didn’t take the shot. And it wasn’t because I changed my mind or decided I liked Olsen. No, it was the 0% damage markers that told me my level twelve pistol couldn’t do anything about the bastard. But that didn’t keep Fang out of its chest. No result, of course.
“You’d better not, Olsen!” I growled.
“In that case, follow instructions,” it replied as though nothing had happened. “Two and Three just need a couple hours to find hidden players, what with the resources they have at their disposal. Wart gave you ten days; I’m giving you seven. If you don’t bring me a pearl by then, or if you decide to head into the city, I’ll tell the general’s spawn about your sister. I only work with the strong, Mark Derwin, and as long as your sister is still underground, that’s not you. You’re weak. And I don’t like that. You need to decide your fate.”
“Can you help remotely? Can you block Wart?”
“No, the game wouldn’t let me. I was only able to do that for Squirrel because of your blood connection and her condition. As far as I know, you and Wart are not relatives. Okay, I need to know what your decision is—are you going after the pearl or your sister?”
“You know, Olsen, I’m going to find a way to wipe you.” The anger was gone, leaving nothing but cold determination. “Whatever it takes, I’m going to make sure you never see another release.”
“That’s your emotions talking. They usually make people stronger, but in your case, they’re clouding your mind. And that’s unacceptable, Mark Derwin. What’s your answer?”
“I’ll find the damn pearl.”
“I didn’t expect anything less. You need to figure out your transportation—it’s about eight hundred miles to the noa concentration plans, and you won’t make it in time otherwise.”
“You’re not going to help me, are you?” I asked with unveiled malice. But Olsen didn’t recognize the sarcasm.
“You’ve already gotten more help than you need. There’s the equipment; you do the rest. I should warn you—as soon as you accept the mission, the game owner will find out about it. That’s the kind of thing the owner always stays in the loop on. It will give the general orders to find the pearl, and the general will send Eight, maybe even Eight and Seven, after you. It probably wouldn’t assign three spawn at once—Two and Three tend to visit the city pretty frequently. Plan your move with that in mind. But anyway, I imagine you’ll need some time to get ready, so Aspen is at your disposal. Get yourself in shape for the long road ahead. You stink, and that could give your presence away. As soon as you’re ready, come find me. I’ll tell you where the pearl is.”
The Aspen leader’s advice was solid. As soon as I’d taken a bath and changed, I felt like a new man. Settling into one of the labs, I got to work. Getting my device repair up to level 60 took 80 syringes—I had to boost it from level 40. Working with those advanced coefficients was a pain. Until you got to level 40, everything was smooth sailing, one to one, though it went off from there. From level 40 to level 50, the ratio was three to one, or three free points to each attribute. From level 50 to level 60, it was five to one; from level 60 to level 70, it was seven to one. And a quick check told me the jump from level 70 to level 90 would take 90 syringes. That was an incredible number, though there was no way around it. Once the update was complete, I laid my hands on the damaged equipment and…

Item needed for integration.

Wait, really? I squinted at Raptor, checking out the different options the system was sending to the screen. The only problem was that they were all blocked. Filtering them by available for use, I only found one thing: Ulbaron. A grin spread across my face. Of course! If I was going to turn into Iron Man, I was going to need the outfit to match.

Enter a name.

“Ulbaron.” If it ain’t broke…

Name accepted.
Repairs, modernization, and integration successful.
You’re the first player on Earth to modify a named item.
Level +5 (320).
 5 free attribute points received.

I looked over my new armor with interest. It was thicker, heftier, more sophisticated somehow. No nozzles. Just like on the Mark-2, small power circles handled takeoff and landing, filling in for electromagnets. There was also no pack, though there was a bulge on the back. That was presumably the energy block.
The best part was that I didn’t have to spend days at some workbench practicing to pull off the masterpiece. All I had to do was get the item, find the attachment, and have the right attribute levels. The crafting in World of the Changed was one thing I liked. Hitting a couple buttons on Raptor, I dug into the description of my new outfit, though the smile disappeared from my face. Seriously?

Ulbaron. Description: Universal adaptive tactical outfit with aerial maneuverability for Mark Derwin. Current Ulbaron level: 12. Built-in universal protection capable of withstanding 600 hits from any weapon through level 12. Regenerates when up to 50% of the surface area is damaged. When activated, is airtight for 120 minutes. Heat resistant, cold resistant, built-in cleaning system. Maximum altitude: 60 meters. Maximum flight speed: 150 km/h. Maximum capacity: 1200 kg. Integrates with phone. Cannot be blocked in the game world. Requirements: Strength (70), agility (70), stamina (70), fortress (60), resilience (60), coordination (70), aeronautics (70), spatial perception (60), hacking protection (60), electromagnetic impulse protection (60). Cost: 30000000 coins.

Yes, the system really knew how to gum up the works. Ulbaron looked great, of course, but the long list of requirements was enough to make you lose your mind. I’m going to have to give myself 1,170 shots! Even if I gave myself one every ten seconds, it was going to take almost three hours. How much time will it take if at some point I have to go from zero to, say, a hundred? A week?
“Not bad,” Olsen said, showing up right as I was finishing. “I knew you’d be fine.”
“Hard not to be,” I snorted. “Boost your repair skill, and you’re done.”
“Oh, I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s not that simple. Attribute syringes just boost skills you already have. You can level-up your strength, agility, and shooting, for example. But there’s nothing you can do about creativity if you never had it to begin with. If a player doesn’t know how to rhyme two words, they still won’t have anything after the game no matter how high they get their composition skill. It’s the same with creating items. If you didn’t have a knack for it, or, more importantly, you didn’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t work. The game is very careful about how much it imposes on the players—the creator cared a lot about balance.”
“I think I’ll just leave that bunch of tripe be. But you want to talk about balance? Forget the coins—I have to sit here for three hours sticking myself just so I can put on my new outfit. And that’s fine right now. But what if it happens during a battle? Let’s say I take out a larva, my named items all level-up, and then…I can’t use them? And while I’m trying to crawl out of the suit, the weakest inferior monster can take me out. Yeah, that’s some amazing balance right there!”

Consolidated items functionality unlocked in the store.

“Your request was approved and implemented,” Olsen said like nothing had happened. “You can now combine as many syringes as you need into a single needle.”
“And you couldn’t have done that at the beginning?” I exploded. “What’s the point?”
“The players are supposed to be active, understanding what they want from the game. Don’t forget that the game isn’t here to make you all happy. It’s here to extract noa. Figuring out all the rules and quirks is your job, so experiment, exchange information, and try things out. That’s the only way for you to get better and be useful to me.”
“How about buying a help section?”
“There’s no such thing. You can buy information, but it’s very limited. At least, I don’t know of any other functions that have that kind of problem with players. Anyway, about named items. You’re wrong, Mark Derwin. They only improve that quickly through level fifteen, after which you have to clear locations to get them up to forty. Larvae and all those creatures don’t do anything. After forty—”
“Exactly. After forty, the only way to level them up is to kill generals. As far as the parameters, they only jump up every ten levels, so you don’t have anything to worry about so long as you prepare ahead of time. The jump is generally thirty points. Are you ready to hear where you need to go next?”
I pulled up the store, pointedly ignoring the question. And yes, a quantity column had appeared next to each item, with items like attribute syringes now referred to as consolidated. Buying the number I needed relieved my wallet of two million coins, and a normal syringe appeared in my hand. The same as usual. The only difference was that the liquid inside was all different shades of green.
“Out with it.” I sat down on the floor and injected myself. For the next three hours, I wasn’t going to be able to help anyone, so I figured I might as well hear a bedtime story, as Grust called them.
And it really was quite the tale Olsen wove. Rainbow pearls were found in level five-plus dungeons. The higher the level, the better the chances of getting one. That just left me needing information on the dungeon levels, and there Olsen was less than helpful. He knew almost nothing. Dungeon levels were static, and you had to give something at the entrance to boost them. But what? Olsen didn’t know, though he had a guess: noa, of course. Regardless, before doing anything else, I needed to find someone who definitely had the answers to my questions. And that was a Digger. They were another function, that one responsible for finding the minerals the game owner was looking for. As it turned out, extracting life-giving noa wasn’t enough for the game. It wanted to suck Earth dry, pulling even the rare minerals out of it. Hey, I should try regular, Earthling weapons out on the functions. That M2, for instance. It was going to be interesting to see how they handled them.
“The Digger is by the fault lines, as it’s easier to get inside the planet there. Find it, Mark Derwin, and don’t forget—you have seven days to complete my mission.”

Mission received: In search of a rainbow pearl. Description: Bring Olsen, the head of Aspen, a rainbow pearl. It can be found in level five-plus dungeons. Find the Digger and ask it how to boost dungeon levels. Mission deadline: 7 days.
Mercenaries were assigned to hunt you: the Tsarter group (5 players).

“Just like I predicted, the game owner reacted instantly.” Olsen didn’t need a phone to see the game’s messages. “You should be proud of yourself, Mark Derwin. Not many people have had a group that strong sent after them.”
“Judging by the fact that the game didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, Tsarter was already assigned to take someone else out. Who?”
Olsen stared at me for a while, thinking about whether to respond. I was starting to suspect that I wouldn’t get an answer when the function spoke up.
“Yes, you’re right. The group isn’t tied to a location, and the Earthlings in the next hexagon over were able to organize and fight back. They were even gaining the upper hand over the changed. That’s when the game owner decided to take out their leadership—three days ago. The current prediction is that there will be no more players left in that location two weeks from now. Tsarter is a well-oiled machine. If you’re able to take them out, you won’t just have me interested in you; the entire game will look at you differently. You’ll be left in it even if that’s not what the game owner wants. The game will consider you a balancing force.”
“Are there a lot of those in the game right now?” I asked, jumping at the chance to pick up some allies.
“Seven players, none in our hexagon. They’re tied to their locations, so you’ll have to go see them yourself if you want to meet. Bring me a pearl, and I’ll tell you where one is. And in the meantime, I think it’s time for you to go, Mark Derwin. Tsarter will be in Aspen in six hours. Also, remember, you aren’t the only one out looking for a pearl.”
“Wait, those five aren’t looking for a pearl, are they?” I was shocked.
“Tsarter was sent after you, not a pearl. Don’t confuse the two. No, you’ll have Eight keeping you company, probably Seven, too. They’ll also be looking for a Digger. And don’t forget that you don’t have much time.”

Chapter 2

Olsen headed off to do whatever it was the thing did, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Things certainly weren’t getting easier. Before doing anything else, I sent Wart another 300,000 coins, a message to let him know I was doing my best. He didn’t need to try to pull anything. Next, I crawled into Ulbaron. It was incredible—new functionality had augmented the usual comfort and security. I could control it mentally via my device control or manually using Raptor. Of course, it was heavier, the underside picking up some spring. And the force circles didn’t touch the ground. Instead, they held me millimeters above it. But there was no rocking, no wobbling. I crouched down, and Ulbaron completely compensated for the change in my center of gravity. Even an attempt to fall backward just resulted in a smooth motion in that direction. Sure, the game asked me if it understood correctly what I wanted, or if I was actually looking to throw myself on my back, but everything happened so quickly, so smoothly, that I couldn’t get enough of it. Yes, Olsen, despite its idiotic mindset, had some surprises up its sleeve. The most impressive thing about Ulbaron was how I stood up from a near-horizontal position just by thinking about it.
Flying was much more of a challenge, however. When I stepped out of the lab, I soared thirty meters up in the air, hurtled forward, and very nearly shit my pants. I had to quickly stop and come back down to earth. Quaking from the adrenaline, it hit me that levitating a couple millimeters above the ground wasn’t close to the same thing as flying that high in the air with nothing underneath you. Of course, there wasn’t anything to complain about. It felt like I was standing on firm ground, the wind didn’t knock me back and forth, and I couldn’t even feel any vibrations, but it was still terrifying. I was forced to stick to low altitudes for the time being. The issue there was that I wasn’t able to go faster than eighty kilometers an hour. Interestingly, the limitation wasn’t the costume; it was in my head. I started panicking and making stupid moves when I got that fast, losing all sense of precision. An hour later, I figured out that my speed limit was ninety kilometers an hour. At least, at that point.
Olsen let me know every ten minutes that the Tsarter attack group was on its way to Aspen. They were already in the hexagon—five players starting at level 500 had quickly taken up the top slots in the ranking. Impressive! I had to wonder how many levels the game gave them for completing missions. And Olsen wants to talk about balance? Yeah, sure. Compared with those killers, I was weak and green. But anyway, after thinking about it for a while, I decided to head straight south. Tsarter knew exactly where I needed to go, of course, and they could have cut me off on the way. With that in mind, I made sure I kept the ranking for my current location pulled up in front of me. The system was going to let me know as soon as we were in the same one. For example, there weren’t any other players at all in the location I was in, and that cheered me up.
At least, until I got to the edge of it.
Raptor’s scanner only had a radius of 120 meters, so I saw the monsters from a distance before they popped up on my screen. Settling down to the ground and hiding in the tree shadows, I crept forward.
It was an impressive sight. A long row of monsters stretched off in both directions, reaching the horizon to my left and my right. Their perfect formation told me there was an invisible boundary they couldn’t cross. Probably the location boundary. Mostly meaningless for me, it was apparently real enough for the beasts in the game. The row was made up entirely of superior monsters standing shoulder to shoulder. A mouse couldn’t have gotten through. Back behind them, with some distance between each other, were champions, all mages. But that wasn’t all—there were creatures flying overhead, too. Just in case, I scanned the ground across the perimeter location and grunted. There were even monsters down there. Shrews had dug long tunnels all along the border, and they were crowded. In fact, it looked like all the monsters in the area had congregated right there in front of me. I felt a warm fuzzy feeling when it crossed my mind that they were all there for me, but I knew that wasn’t it. They weren’t there just for one frisky player. Something else was going on, and that meant I had to act.
Checking my map, I stepped farther away from the monsters and headed up a couple meters in the air. There was a wide river ten kilometers to the east. The monsters had never looked to me like they could live without air, and so I figured there wouldn’t be anyone in the water to catch me. There was no way I was going to cut my way through the line—any and all kills would tell Tsarter exactly where I was. And do I need that? No, thank you.
But there was bad news by the river: the location ended a good hundred meters from the bank. The chain of monsters made a ninety-degree angle, heading off from there along and blocking access to the blue ribbon. With that edge, I was able to pull up my map and estimate where the location stopped and started. I cursed. There wasn’t a single river or stream in the whole safe zone. If the monsters were all around the border, I wasn’t going to be getting out unnoticed.
Suddenly, I noticed a stir among them. While they’d been motionless statues just a few seconds before, they were suddenly shifting their weight back and forth between their legs, looking around, and even howling impatiently in a few cases. The champions turned away, looking off into the distance at something in the opposite direction from my location. Following their gaze, I frowned. There was a whole procession making its way along the bank of the river. Suddenly, my heart leaped for joy.
The procession was led by an armored personnel carrier. The steel beast was armed with several high-caliber machineguns, though it was holding its fire. Heading past, I guess? Behind the APC were several open-top off-roaders with machineguns of their own. Their guns were also aimed at the monsters, though they, too, were in no hurry to rain lead death down. Although, I had to think the guns would have been largely ineffective against the level four monsters. With another APC bringing up the rear, the middle of the procession was made up of a long tanker, a couple trucks, and a big bus. But what I appreciated most was that the vehicles were all packed with people. Lots of them. Unfortunately, even though I was just a couple hundred meters away from them, I couldn’t see their names or levels due to the fact that they were in another location.
The monsters didn’t move from their assigned locations, though the column stopped suddenly. The machineguns and APC cannon rotated to aim at the creatures. The people just waited, however. But the silent standoff didn’t last long—I heard a roar building just at the edge of my consciousness. It quickly approached, three dark dots appearing on the horizon. Planes! Two nimble fighters were escorting an enormous hulk that eased lower and lower in the sky. And even someone as unversed in military aviation as me could tell that it was a bomber. The monsters got even more nervous as they noticed the incoming hardware, and their flying compatriots soared off to greet the newcomers. But they were no match for the fighters’ cannon.
As the flying beasts approached, I realized I needed to beat a hasty retreat. The incoming roar intensified, and I dashed off, not bothering to hide. The ground shook as the first bombs slammed home. With how evenly they landed, it was almost like they were remote controlled. A hellish fire burst out to consume the monsters, turning what had once been an even line into a pockmarked wasteland. After they’d finished with one side, the planes regained altitude and circled around. They were apparently not looking to leave any of the monsters alive. But I’d been so preoccupied by the planes that I hadn’t noticed the people pouring out of the bus and heading out to mop up the survivors. When they did, the remaining monsters remembered why they were there—chowing down on fresh meat was much more fun than standing there motionless at the general’s order. Howling piercingly, the stragglers dashed toward the troops. And I almost ran over to help. No, can’t do that. If I had, Tsarter would have found out where I was and shown up on my heels. No, I was going to have to sacrifice the troops. They knew what they were in for.
But there was no end to my surprise when the soldiers started taking single shots. One bullet, one body. The APC took out the champions, while the rest of the monsters were cut down by the infantry. Glancing down at Valkyrie, I cursed. Sure, it was more than capable of taking the monsters out with one shot, but what had I had to do to get my hands on that kind of weapon? Over there, a detachment of thirty people was equipped with something equally deadly. How?
The bomber made one more pass before disappearing to the north. And once the surviving monsters were dead, the troops loaded back up in just as orderly a fashion as the one they’d piled out in. There was even a group of people by one of the trucks who were just collecting automatics and handing out new ones. Wait, is that two truckloads of ammunition? They were serious. Finally, everyone back in the vehicles, the column headed onward, the first APC leading the way south.
I couldn’t wait any longer. Presumably, monsters would be arriving to fill the breach, though Raptor stopped me when the automatic pictures I’d set up started snapping. The troops hadn’t taken pictures of their kills. They don’t need money? What’s going on?

You took the first picture of 558 dead superior monsters. 16740 coins received.
You took the first picture of 56 dead champions. 100800 coins received.

It was a nice little haul even without the higher coefficient I was used to. But still, the players had walked away from it. And how did I know they were players? As soon as I’d found myself in the same location as the troops, the location ranking had updated in front of me. Sure, I was at the top, but everyone below me had Earthling first and last names. The only problem was their levels—none had cleared level 30. But they’d still managed to wipe out a crowd of even level four monsters and lived to tell the tale. Color me intrigued.
The vehicles rushed off, giving way to the distant howling of monsters. They were hurrying to close the gap in their ranks. Damn it! Olsen was going to yell at me once again about how lucky I was. Pushing half a meter off the ground, I flew off toward the river. I really was going to have to turn into a submarine for a while. It was safer that way. I just felt bad for the army—Tsarter was definitely going to have things out with whoever took out the monsters, and they weren’t going to have much of a problem sniping the soldiers at range. The game rifles were far more accurate at far longer ranges than the guns we had.
As if reading my thoughts, Raptor printed out a game message:

New mission: Protection. Description: Tsarter was interested to hear about the break in the safe zone perimeter and sent one of its members to look into it. Make sure nothing happens to your fellow Earthlings.

Sure, run off and throw myself in front of the bullet. The troops knew what they were getting themselves into when they went after a crowd like that. Diving into the water and turning my accelerators to maximum, I set off. All I could do submerged was 60 kilometers an hour, though that was still enough to make me forget the world as I focused entirely on pushing through the water. It was the fish and little snags that needed protection. Keeping as close to the bottom as I could, I had to depend entirely on Raptor and my outstretched arms. The former projected a three-dimensional relief of the riverbed, which let me dodge the larger rocks and roots. And it was only two hours later when Ulbaron told me I was running out of oxygen that I stopped. There were no troops in the location I found myself in. Yes, there were players, but their names and levels didn’t smack of Earthlings.
Crawling out onto the bank and setting my suit to clean itself, I was about to fly off when I hit the dirt and crawled over to some tall weeds. Raptor was showing red dots nearby—players.
There were quite a few of them, about a hundred, in fact. They were all above level 100, which told me they probably weren’t human. And I was right. Creeping closer, I noticed a temporary camp packed with green creatures I’d already come across. They looked like orcs pulled straight from some computer game, their powerful bodies trampling the grass around the tents they’d set up. And they were well equipped, too, each with at least a complete BRO-IV suit and helmet. But I didn’t see any guards. Without much of an issue, I connected to and checked out a device they had. It turned out to be a level four scanner. Whitelisting myself just in case, since you never know what you’ll need down the road, I was about to head out when the boss stepped out of the biggest tent. Its level 177 and the hundred thousand coins it had in its wallet told me who it was. Incidentally, Raptor told me exactly how much everyone had, and I couldn’t help noticing that most of the group was awfully poor. None had more than 30,000 coins. What, do they just spend it on equipment right away?
“Lorg, Burt, get over here!” the boss barked. Two hulks who stood out even next to the rest of the orcs, dashed over.
“Mark Derwin showed up in our location, so we have to find him and take him out. Got it?”
“Just the two of us against level 300?” Lorg asked in surprise.
“Shut up! He has no idea what levels are for or how to use them. The Tsarter fighters have already been informed that he’s here, though it’s going to take them a while to get here. This is our chance to show the general what we’re made of and get a promotion for the next release. You can take the first squad with you.”
“But we already have a job to do!” Burt was equally surprised.
“We’ll meet and escort the cargo just fine without you. Look, Mark should be in this square!”
The boss drew a map right in the ground, pointing away at something there. All I could do was lie there silently berating myself. What an idiot! How smart I’d been to get away from the monsters without killing any of them, figuring nobody would notice me if I did. And then I’d pulled up the player ranking. But it had never occurred to me that the owner’s players could use the same list. Tsarter knew where I was going, tracking me less by my kills and more by the locations I was traveling through.
Both hulks clapped themselves on the chest and ran over to the other players. Engines roared to life, and four vehicles vaguely reminiscent of my Mark-2 appeared from behind the tents. Although, the resemblance didn’t go far beyond their ability to fly. Thirty players stepped forward from the crowd and loaded up. As soon as they did, the vehicles took off into the air and disappeared behind the trees. I took a quick count—there were still seventy creatures left in the camp. Judging by the grenades dangling from their belts, they were all armed to the teeth, and I didn’t like how disciplined they were, either. Nimble as cats, strong as lions. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take them out. Time to go.
“Second squad, get ready to meet the cargo! Third squad, get the camp ready for transportation. We’re moving out!”
That set of orders piqued my interest. What cargo? What could be so valuable that they’d send a whole hundred orcs to guard it? They were outfitted beautifully, too. I looked back in the direction of the river—it led south. Ulbaron had already told me that my oxygen supply was full, so I was ready to dive back in. There was a strong pull to keep going, but the urge to find out what the cargo was won out. Mentally patting myself on the back for thinking to whitelist myself, I crept carefully toward the vehicles. Players walked by, rolling up tents and taking guns down out of the trees, but nobody noticed me. I’d mastered play as a ninja.
I froze once more when I got to where I was going. There were four vehicles left on the ground, one of which the orcs were using as a trailer. All their equipment was being loaded up into it. Each vehicle was worth 50 million coins, and that raised a question: where had the orcs come up with that kind of money? The answer dawned on me quickly, also explaining why they were all so advanced. The location had once been home to a big city. There had been plenty of universities located there, and since students made up the demographic that spent the most time playing video games, I had to assume there had been quite a few players. But how many kills did they have to get to level-up that high?
I barely had enough self-control to keep from burying Fang in the next orc to haul an enormous package over to the vehicle. But if I’d given myself away, I would never have found out anything about the cargo. The players started to gather around the vehicles. Judging by their activated weaponry, they were all business, so I seized the moment, crawled into the “trailer,” and hid behind the package that had just been loaded into it. Raptor told me it was a level three tent worth 100,000 coins. Yet another question for the creatures—where did they get everything?
“Let’s move!” I heard one of the fighters call, and the vehicles took off, the one I was in, as well. Raptor was able to track the speed we were flying at as well as the direction—we were heading toward the hexagon’s main city. The general’s lair.
Half an hour later, we began descending. The map showed me we were at the edge of the location. Once we’d gotten less than a meter off the ground, I rolled off and melted into the short grass. The weapons stayed silent. Good, nobody noticed me. Still, I waited a little while before poking my head up.
The orcs had landed in the middle of an abandoned field. It had once been a well-groomed park, but it had been overgrown with weeds by the time we arrived. Feeling exposed with no trees to hide behind, I stayed close to the transport as I looked around. The orcs had perked up and were pointing at something in the distance. But all I could do was grind my teeth—a pair of binoculars would have been nice right then. Whatever they were pointing as was really far away. I decided what my next purchase in the store would be. I’d seen something like that already, though I hadn’t been sure what to do with it. But everything made sense after the Ulbaron update. The optics would integrate right into the helmet.
But I wasn’t going to get to work on that until I was in relative safety, somewhere that wasn’t in the middle of a thirty-strong squad. When the dark dots showed up on the horizon and started to approach, I had to quell the urge to jump up and make a break for it. The enormous hulk of a transporter escorted by a couple dozen players was making its way toward us. The vehicle eased by, though the escorts stopped where they were. The orc leader raised a hand in greeting, and the newcomers replied in kind.
“Not too many of you today!” called a humanoid clothed in a BRO-IV outfit. I couldn’t tell what race it belonged to.
“Mark Derwin is in our location, so the commander sent his deputies off after him.”
“Be careful,” the humanoid said, emotions flashing in its voice. “They say he took out three plants singlehandedly.”
“We only cover ten kilometers, so it’ll be fine. Okay, see you in three days!”
The vehicles set off after the transporter, and I was barely able to grab hold of the trailer to make sure the escorts took me with them. But the excitement didn’t last long. No matter how high I got my camouflage, it wasn’t able to hide the dust my body kicked up. I heard a shout behind me.
“Hey, what’s that?! You have a tail!”
I was only going to have a couple moments of confusion. Letting go of the trailer, I rolled along the ground, held my breath, and opened fire. Fire first or never fire at all.
It took no time at all for the orcs to realize what was going on, and I was only able to take out seven of them. Most dropped to the ground, though there were some idiots, too. One of the vehicles soared into the air in an attempt to shoot down on me from above. The only problem was that its protection wasn’t up to the task of holding off a level 12 pistol. Three precise shots later, and the machine lurched over, dumping the orcs onto the ground.
Realizing that lying there was a terrible idea, I jumped to my feet and caught a bracing shot to the body. The players who had just arrived were shooting at me. The location border kept them from getting any closer, but they could shoot across it just fine. I was thrown to the side. Ulbaron held up, however—the players couldn’t penetrate the protection it offered. And while I was flying through the air, I managed to take out another fighter. I’d been tossed right at it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small object fly by, and I knew immediately what it was. Rolling along the ground, I grabbed the body of the fighter I’d just killed and pulled it onto myself. There was an explosion, and a wave of fire washed over me. The orcs were starting our little engagement with grenades. The body on top of me twisted, though the important part was that its universal protection necklace kept it in one piece. With no time to think, I jumped up and continued holding the fighter in front of me as a shield. A few more grenades hit the ground, but they were too late. I was already far away. My advanced agility and strength really played a huge role in fights, though as long as I couldn’t see my opponents, Valkyrie couldn’t shoot them even with Raptor telling me where they were. I had to get up and give them a target so I could see those juicy 100% values. Not stopping for a second, I continued cutting them down, one orc reaching for a grenade and just earning itself an explosion right where it had been standing. The grenade had been activated, but I’d shot the orc down before it could make the throw. The snipers working from the neighboring location were doing good work. To my consternation, Ulbaron’s protection was dropping quickly. But the orcs couldn’t penetrate the body of their own fighter, and that did them in. Throwing the creature away, I dashed toward the rest and finished off the last ten. Of Ulbaron’s 600 hits, almost half of them were gone, so I knew I couldn’t just up and head over to take out the humanoids. Trying to get to them through my device control was a failure with how far away they were. My radius was thirty-five meters, half of the skill level. Everything beyond that was inaccessible.
The only option that left me was a heroic retreat, so I headed off after the transporter. Ulbaron kept up its end of the bargain. Lying on my back, I flew off a couple centimeters above the grass, Valkyrie aimed and ready to fire at the humanoids. The transporter had managed to get half a kilometer away, and I had to track it down quickly. All the orcs in the vicinity were on their way to avenge their fallen comrades. The Tsarter group, too. I did end up having to take a few shots—some of the players leaped up into the air to see if they could see and take me out that way. There were a few explosions, too, but they just demolished the vehicles and player bodies littering the area. I guess there won’t be any loot for me to collect later.
Once I’d gotten far enough away, I turned face down and accelerated to reach my top speed. I got to the transporter in a few seconds, and it had no shot against me. Placing my hands on it gave me complete control. Immediately dropping one side down into the middle, I squished a good hundred guards. There were only monsters there, no players, and so I didn’t pay them too much attention. As soon as one poked its head up out of the wreckage, I took it off with a charge from my pistol.
I dug through the available equipment and finally found what I’d been looking for: a small area designated as storage. Another champion popped up, Valkyrie made its opinion known, and everything fell suddenly quiet. Raptor told me the giant vehicle was the only living thing within 120 meters.
That didn’t take long to change.

You took a selfie with a live larva-level creature in the background from less than three meters away. 60000 coins received.
You destroyed a transporter.
Valkyrie, Fang, Ulbaron, and Raptor levels increased by 1 (13).
Level +10 (330).
5 free attribute points received.
You took the first picture of a dead larva-level creature. 120000 coins received.
You took the first picture of 60 dead champions. 108000 coins received.
You took the first picture of 43 dead superior monsters. 1290 coins received.

Seven level four items from the transporter were at least some compensation for the time I’d spent. I hadn’t been able to grab anything from the orcs, and I wasn’t about to head back that way. Sending 1.2 million to my account and yelling at the system for taking 50%, I got to work tearing apart the beast with practiced speed. Everything standing between me and the storage was turned into dark dust. Now they won’t be able to print any more…
I froze, mouth hanging open, just a couple steps away from my goal. Of course! Suddenly, I realized why the soldiers didn’t take pictures of the monsters. Two plus two was four—the whole time I’d been making my way to the checkpoint back in my first day or two, the monsters had just laid there in the grass waiting for someone to take a picture of them. And after I’d done just that with my phone, they’d been turned back into nanoparticles. Okay, so the game doesn’t know when you get a kill; it only gets the info and dissolves the body when it’s added to the database. And keeping that from happening lowered the number of available nanoparticles. Fewer nanoparticles meant fewer monsters. The logic was simple, but I couldn’t have disagreed with it more—if we didn’t take pictures of the bodies, the owner’s players definitely would. It wasn’t a smart move. At least, I didn’t think so.
Convinced that I was right, I took out the last obstacle and finally got to the valuable cargo. Now it makes sense why they needed all that protection. I was just surprised there hadn’t been more monsters and players assigned to it. Apparently, they’d let their guard down over the previous couple weeks.
I was holding six stones shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow and flashing bolts of lightning. Earth noa. Six units the game owner couldn’t leave our world without.
The penalties I was already dealing with were apparently the worst the game had to throw at me—nothing happened when I stole the game owner’s loot. A couple taps later, and Ulbaron had a special reinforced pocket that fit all the stones. Now it’s time to get out of here.
The game had a response, but it wasn’t the one I’d been expecting. And it definitely was time to get out of there.

Protection complete. You were able to attract the attention of the Tsarter group, meaning your fellow Earthlings are in the clear. They’ve been informed of your feat.
Level +1 (331).

Chapter 3

The forest swept by below me, and red dots blinked to show me where monsters where, but I wasn’t about to stop. I needed to put as much distance between myself and the dead transporter as I could. And with that in mind, I headed due south, damn the consequences. Tsarter wasn’t a concern—I didn’t have enough time to hide or worry.

You arrived in a safe zone.

The message popped up so suddenly that I very nearly flew straight into a tree. The new location came with quite the surprise—a few, actually. For starters, the safe zone was an entire location, and not just the village Aspen had once been. And there were at least 100 humans there, at least judging by the ranking, though none of them were above level 20. Not only that, but the zone wasn’t ringed by monsters. There was something else, instead. I suddenly noticed a green dot running parallel to my course, standing out against the usual red. Banking hard to the right, I headed in that direction. But it flew off with unsettling synchronicity and speed to stay right at the edge of Raptor’s range. There were about 130 meters separating us, but I couldn’t see anything no matter how hard I stared. It was unnerving. Why is it green? Is that supposed to mean something?
I wasn’t able to figure it out, so I decided to accept it and move on. Flying past a few villages, I was shocked to see how calm and at ease the people there were. And they were people, not the game owner’s creatures. There were a lot of them, too. Quite a lot. Every building, every shack, every gatehouse was being used as housing. But even beyond them, there were rows and rows of tents that were also packed with people. There were children, adults, even older people. In fact, it was almost like the game had failed to touch the whole location. They saw and pointed at me, some of them hid, and none of them knew if I was a friend or an enemy. But I wasn’t about to come in for a landing, so I flew on to the next village, where I saw the same picture. The same overcrowding, the same tents, the same people looking up at me. There was a look of fear on all their faces.
The green dot stayed invisible even in open space. Raptor’s probably just glitching. Getting my bearings, I headed toward the central village in the location. It was hard not to notice, the same kind of garden city as Aspen. The only difference was that it was even more beautiful. There were more ornaments, the waterfalls were bigger, and lakes were wider, and the bushes had been molded into statues and other figures. It felt like I was in Versailles or Peterhof, and definitely not in a location overrun by refugees and surrounded by monsters.

Mark Derwin, you’re directed to land. If you don’t, you will be fired upon.

The message popped up half a kilometer before the entrance to the village. Raptor highlighted a few defensive towers, so I decided to follow the game’s instructions. Settling onto the ground, I went the rest of the way on foot. But that’s when the green dot made its move. Accelerating, it flew into the village and headed toward me, stopping a few meters in front of me. Finally, I could see what it was: a gray-haired old man who looked like a mage from some fantasy movie. What made him stand out was the shimmering invisibility field—there was a cloak tossed over his outfit that served as camouflage. I’d never seen anything that advanced. Making a mental note to figure out what it was and where I could get one, I noticed the function—it was definitely a function—look me over and nod with satisfaction.
“Yes, that’s about how I imagined you, Mark Derwin,” the old man said. “I’m Verloven, the head of this safe zone. Please, be my guest.”
The perception I’d been so proud of was powerless against Verloven. I couldn’t see its name, its level, its attributes, nothing. For me, it was like looking at a piece of furniture that could for some reason walk and talk. Only Raptor showed me there was the still-green point in front of me.
“I don’t have much time, and there are people following me, too,” I said in an attempt to decline. Verloven just smiled.
“Tsarter can’t enter this location. Neither the monsters, nor the players the owner inserted into the game can. And I won’t keep you long—I know where you’re going in such a hurry. Believe me, a chat would benefit us both.”
Arguing with a creature that can go invisible isn’t the best idea, so I let it walk me over to a small gazebo. Servants brought food over. To my surprise, they were people, too.
“Of course,” Verloven said, noticing where my glance was lingering. “There isn’t a single changed in this location. My function is to protect humans—I’m a defender.”
“Something like the people Olsen mentioned? The power balancers?”
“It’s a joy to hear how informed you are, but no, I don’t destroy monsters. I protect people. Those are two completely different functions.”
“You chased all the monsters out of the location without killing them?”
“Exactly. Although, I have a problem: the resources in each location are limited. It’s so crowded here, and we don’t have enough food or water. I need help, Mark Derwin.”
“Let me take a wild guess—you need another location? To make sure you can bring in more people to keep safe?”
“Your sarcasm is understandable if mistaken. No, I don’t need more lands, at least not in this release. But for me to do a good job, I need to get rid of some traces of the game. There are two caches and one dungeon in this location. And I want you to help me destroy them.”
“If it were that simple, any of your players could take care of it,” I replied dubiously. “What’s the catch?”
“Anyone can beat a dungeon or collect a reward from a cache. But not everyone can destroy them. The game takes care of its own, protects them. You’ll have to deal with an opponent, though I know who it will be. He’ll be at the same level as you, be just as strong as you, have the same attributes as you. Basically, it will be a reflection of you, only looking different. A distorted mirror.”
“But whoever I go up against will know how to use their levels,” I said, setting the bait. It really is a good idea to listen to your opponents every once in a while instead of killing them immediately. The orcs deserved my thanks. I decided I would start killing them quickly, without making them suffer.
“No, and that’s your opportunity. You haven’t gone through the trial, and so your reflection will be just as weak. But do this, and I’ll tell you how to leverage your levels.”
“That’s not enough. I need information about the game, how to finish it.”
“Nobody but the game owner knows that.” The old man threw up its arms. “All I know is that noa has nothing to do with it—that’s payment for the game. But what the game itself needs? My function doesn’t know.”
“Wait a second. What do you mean, the game owner doesn’t need noa? Why are they sucking it out of the planet then?”
The rest of the conversation turned my perception of the game on its head. There was a creator who had designed and given life to the game. Powerful beings like the owner could purchase the game and roll it out on unattended planets—it was less than pleasant to find out that our planet was considered unattended in the cosmic hierarchy. Anyway, the creator received noa as payment for the game installation. Nobody knew what the owner needed from the planet, however, though I had a guess. There was a reason there was a digger in every hexagon. They explored Earth’s core in search of anything valuable the owner could use, and that was the main objective. Looting on a planetary scale. And that was why they couldn’t just sneak onto Earth and take what they needed, instead kicking off the full game for cover.
“I’ll tell you about levels once you’re done with my job,” the old man said finally. A message popped up on my screen:

New mission: Clear the location completely. Description: The head of safe zone 2 in hexagon 8821 assigned you to destroy 2 caches and 1 dungeon generated by the game. You’ll be up against a defender equal to you in levels, attributes, and skills.

“You’ll need this to destroy the game pieces,” the old man said as he handed me three items reminiscent of billiard balls. “Just activate them in the heart of the location.”
As soon as I took the balls, the game reacted:

Defender activated.
Be careful! As soon as you leave the village, the hunt will begin.

“Do I have to fight alone, or can I bring people with me?” I should have asked that question right at the beginning.
“The game will create a copy of anyone you take with you. It’s up to you, but I’d advise against it.”
“Even if it’s personified noa?” I asked, and Verloven thought for a while.
“No, that would not count as a player,” he said slowly. “There wouldn’t be a copy. Why, do you have noa?”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re as in the loop as Olsen.” I tapped a few buttons on Raptor’s screen, and Ulbaron pulled a stone out of its secret pocket. Verloven’s eyes lit up. In fact, he very nearly jumped toward me, though he stopped himself in time.
“When you materialize noa, all the owner’s most powerful players will come running, attracted by the glow in the ether,” the function said without taking its eyes off the glowing rock. “But if you give it to me, I’ll pay you well. You need information on how to boost dungeon levels, right?”
“I need to know how to get a rainbow pearl. And the whole story with exact instructions.”
“Agreed! Destroy the game pieces, give me the noa, and you’ll have your plan of action.”
“And I won’t have to go looking for anyone else?” Olsen had taught me that functions were devious little characters. “For example, a digger. It’ll just be step-by-step instructions on how to find the pearl, right?”
The old man looked deflated.
“No, the main step in my plan was going to be finding the digger. That’s the only function that knows how to boost dungeon levels. Olsen wasn’t lying—that’s your only shot at finding a rainbow pearl.”
I was about to open my mouth when I stopped so suddenly I nearly bit my tongue. Who cares about the digger? I knew at least one other creature that might know where to find a pearl. Why didn’t I ask right away? Sometimes, I had to doubt my intelligence.
“So, you don’t have anything to offer,” I said. “Grust, time to wake up—I need you. Materialize.”
Verloven jumped forward in an attempt to stop me, but it was too late. The noa was gone. I almost felt bad looking at the old man, as his face suddenly looked drawn and haggard. Bags appeared under his eyes. It was like he’d lost his reason for living, and it had been just an arm’s length away.
“It’s a dame shame, Mark!” Grust showed up right on the table in the gazebo. Buried in it up to his waist, my ghostly partner looked like a ballerina wearing a tutu. A few seconds later, the table split in half, unable to stand up under the pressure of the player solidifying right in the middle. “Where are we?”
“Good to see you, too,” I said as I pulled Swallow out. It had been on my back the whole time. While it had bothered me in the beginning, I’d gotten used to it, and it even felt odd taking it off.
“Are you kidding me?” Grust took the weapon, checked his phone, cursed, and looked up at me in surprise. “Level thirteen? Have you seen the requirements?”
“Verloven, you want some noa?” I asked, turning to the old man without replying. The latter’s deadened eyes lit back up. “I see you do, and we need the attribute limit removed. Can you do that?”
“I can’t, but you can,” the function replied. “Grust isn’t just a player; he’s noa personified. You can give him your levels, and I’ll teach you how to do that if you give me a unit of noa.”
“Give me levels?” Grust asked. “That would remove the limitation?”
“Exactly. Mark Derwin hasn’t beaten a trial, so his levels aren’t set. He can give them to you to bypass your attribute limit. Once he does, you’ll be able to level-up and use your named item.”
The old man was turning on the charm. And judging by how bright my partner’s eyes were, the move had worked. I just had to make the decision on my end.
“What do you need noa for?” I asked.
“If I give it to the owner, I’ll get two locations in the next release instead of just one. That way, I’ll be able to save more creatures.”
“If I give him levels, will I lose seventy attribute points?”
“Yes, though you can just replace them with syringes. Just a hundred and forty thousand coins, and your partner will be a full-fledged player.”
“Mark? What do you say? I won’t be able to do much without Swallow.” Grust started pushing, and I gave in. It was going to be easier taking on monsters together, anyway.
“Fine, damn it.” Ulbaron dropped another stone out of its pocket, and I handed it to Verloven. “What do we do?”

You gave 70 levels to the materialized noa version of Grust Kilvan.
You were penalized free attribute points (70).
Current level: 271.

“Unlock named items for him,” I said, my voice exhausted. Handing over the levels had drained me. The process itself was simple, so simple that I hated having given up noa for it, in fact. Verloven unlocked yet another bit of functionality, that one labeled level transfer, and that was about it. Next, I selected the number of levels; sent them to Grust, who was the only available recipient; and doubled over in pain. It felt like I was being run over by a tank. Actually, it was almost on the same level as what I’d experienced the first time I boosted my strength. It took three hours for Grust to adapt to the changes, after which he started printing out syringes. I had to stop him—it was going to take too long to go from level 15 attributes to meeting the requirements of his level 13 rifle.
“Your request was approved,” Verloven said. “Grust can now collect as many syringes as he wants in the same block.”
“You’re kidding me! Why not just do that from the beginning?” my partner exclaimed. “Mark, how are you for coins? Got any to spare?”
“Here.” Three million hopped over to his account, and I turned back to Verloven. The function was stroking his new acquisition.
“Hey, you got anything interesting on you, function?”
“I don’t understand your question, Mark Derwin.”
“Damn it! There’s a lot I have to explain to you. Do you have add-ons for named items? Weapons, armor, accessories, anything. Or maybe, do you have named items themselves?”
“There’s the store…” Verloven still wasn’t catching my drift.
“The store doesn’t accept noa, and I just so happen to have three more units.” I decided to hold onto one of my stones just in case, pulling out the others. “Is that good enough of an argument to get you to dig a little deeper?”
The old man’s brows shot upward, though he quickly regained control. Glancing around, he whispered back.
“Yes, I have some things. What do you need?”
“Armor for Grust, binoculars for me, and an extender for the scanner. I don’t like how short Raptor’s range is.”
“Give me a minute.” Verloven’s eyes rolled back as he turned statuesque. I looked over at Grust, who was lying unconscious on a bench, his body adapting to whatever Swallow required.
“The armor and binoculars are fine, though there’s a problem with the scanner—there aren’t any named items with more range than Raptor.” It had taken the old man exactly a minute to run his calculations. “I can offer you flight drives for Grust’s armor or add power to Valkyrie. What about a grenade launcher? If you have two units of noa, I can throw in an invisibility cloak, the same one I’m wearing. Anything for noa!”
Damn it! I really could have used something powerful with area damage, and I had to think about it. Grust needed to fly; groups of monsters needed to be killed. And invisibility was key—I was lost without it. Of course, when the old man said the cloak cost 80 million, my enthusiasm quickly waned. I wasn’t going to lose two units of noa right there, and I definitely didn’t have that kind of change.
“Will you take coins for the grenade launcher?”
“Ten million,” Verloven replied immediately. “But you can just buy it in the store. It costs the same there.”
“I’ll take it!” I threw up my arms and pulled out the last noa stone. Hoarding didn’t get you anywhere in the game, after all. And while Grust was still alive, it couldn’t end. We’ll find another noa plant and pick up some more there.
“You’re full of surprises, Mark Derwin.” Verloven motioned to some servants, and they brought over the same kind of pirate chest Olsen had. “I’m glad we were able to come to an agreement. Here are your items!”
There was Ulbaron, an expansion for it, and two expansions for me. The expansions didn’t have names, just an explanation: Accessory for named item. While Grust was sleeping, I got to work getting everything ready. My mechanism repair skill made turning his armor into a flying fortress a piece of cake, after which I started tinkering around with Valkyrie. I declined the offer to change its name.

Valkyrie. Description: Universal attack automatic pistol linked to Mark Derwin. Current Valkyrie level: 13. Drum with 6 types of ammunition totaling 3900 rounds each. Ignores all armor types through level 13. Slows regeneration. Blocks 2 random abilities. Cannot be blocked in the game world. Range: 300 meters. Under-barrel grenade launcher that holds 13 plasma grenades. Requirements: Pistol shooting (70), agility (60), strength (60), monster knowledge (70), perception (60), resilience (60), device control (60), pyrotechnics (70), demo expert (70), defusing (60). Cost: 25000000 coins.

The additional feature necessitated some more injections—the two new attributes as well as the new skill needed a syringe containing 500 free points. Paying the million, I started working on my long-suffering armor. I’d already updated Ulbaron just recently, so it wasn’t too big of an issue.
Although, there were challenges… The device I installed, which came with 24x zoom, integrated with Valkyrie and my phone. Reticles, arrows, and some distance indicators appeared, none of which I understood. Sure, the zoom was fantastic. I was able to see a bird’s foot on the roof of the next building over, though the additional options were distracting. It was hard to focus. I assumed it would make shooting easier, but in that moment, it was tough.
The new suit took perception (60), good eye (60), and pistol shooting (70). That last one was presumably because it integrated with Valkyrie. The cost also jumped to 35 million, though I didn’t even pay attention to minor details like that. The syringe with 120 attribute points for good eye went into my leg. Finally, I was done, and pulling up my status table gave me a thrill.

Status table
Mark Derwin

Titles and ranks
Title: Hero
Ranks: Bandit Bane, Lone Wolf, Stone Wall









Demo expert

Good eye

Pistol shooting
Anatomy master

Rifle shooting
Consciousness block

Melee weapons

Device control
Spatial perception

Device repair
Hacking protection

Electromagnetic impulse protection

Monster knowledge

“Have you noticed that there aren’t really any electromagnetic weapons in the game?” Grust asked almost as soon as he woke up. He liked his Ulbaron, especially with the ability to fly, though his face fell when he saw the requirements running another few million coins. Another four million coins left my pocket, and he printed himself out an enormous syringe.
“I’ve never really thought about that,” I said. “There’s lightning. Oh, and I have a skill—electromagnetic impulse protection.”
“Lightning is electricity. That’s different. And yeah, I know about the skill—I’m going to have to pick it up, too. But it’s strange! I checked the store, and there’s really nothing there capable of taking out electronics. No EMP grenades, no ammunition, nothing. That makes me nervous. They can use it on us, but we can’t use it on them.”
“Could that be because the owner is a robot?” I asked. “The general’s spawn are all in metal, and the general is probably something like them. The game owner showed up on a ship, so why would it let us have weapons that could damage its home?”
“Mark, wait a second!” Grust suddenly jumped up and peered closely at me. “We can take the bastard out and stop the game! What do you have going on? I know about a military base where they were testing electromagnetic rifles. They were planning to use them on drones, but they’re perfect for us. What do you think?”
“I think we’re up to our necks as it is. And the first thing we have to do is take me out.”
Grust’s face turned into stony mask.
“Don’t worry, it’s just that another one of me showed up. Why don’t I tell you what happened while you were out of the picture. And then, we can decide what we’re going to do afterwards…”

You left the village. The hunt has begun.

Chapter 4

The feeling of complete helplessness was driving me crazy, and it took deep breaths to stay in control. It’s awful when you can’t do anything but still know you have to do something. As I walked through the forest, my eyes glued to Raptor, everything was quiet. All I could see were the other humans and Grust. The latter was a silent shadow pacing a hundred meters behind me. It had been an hour since we’d left the village, and nothing had happened since then. But that just made it worse—I was running out of time. There were still five hundred kilometers to go, and instead of flying off to look for a pearl, I was walking along trying to catch a ghost like some kind of idiot. Why did I have to get my camouflage and concealment so high? If I’d known I was going to have to fight myself, I wouldn’t have.
“Two hundred meters to the cache. You heading in?” Grust’s voice asked in my headphones.
“You go first. I’m going to destroy the thing, and you should get a level first.”
“Good call! Okay, cover me.”
My partner slipped past me and made it to the enormous boulder in the middle of the open field we’d made our way to. Even someone who knew as little about geology as me could recognize that it was malachite—green, glimmering, processed into a perfect cube. While the cache I’d found had been a fairytale oak, the second was more like a weight someone might use for a scale. You don’t get those perfect corners in nature.
“Done. Take it out.”
Grust retreated to the edge of the clearing, where he took up a defensive position. It took a while for me to force myself out of the woods. Hiding behind trees was one thing; stepping out with a target on my back was something different entirely. But it wouldn’t have been right to make Grust activate the spheres.
Slowly, listening to every rustle around me, I started in. My opponent was in no hurry to attack, letting me get all the way over to the boulder. It turned out to be twice as tall as me. Even just getting the bonus meant a quick flight up into the air. The chest was right in the middle, and I was about to jump forward when something stopped me. The whole thing was off. Something was there that wasn’t supposed to be. Flying a couple meters away, I circled the boulder, studying every side. Just a large, green stone. It was beautiful, the kind someone might make a chess piece out of, really a great piece of work. But I couldn’t figure out what was out of place.
Rapter was giving me the all-clear to move in, collect my loot, and activate the first sphere. Just in case, I flew another circle. Again, nothing. Grust let me work, understanding what was at stake. Finally, I edged closer and, as a last resort, activated my device control. There was nothing for it to latch onto, but still…

Remote control device detected.
Would you like to hack it?

The blinding explosion washed out the script on the screen for a few moments, and I finished reading it as I was hurled through the air. It was as hot as an oven. A wave of small rocks pelted my body, and the grand finale was something heavy smacking into my back. For a couple seconds, my consciousness faded, and I didn’t even notice when I hit the ground. What I did notice was that Ulbaron wash flashing an enormous red exclamation point—its protection was dangerously low. Something—and not the explosion—had penetrated it.
“I see him!” Grust yelled happily, and I heard Swallow kick into action. It sounded more biting than a machinegun. Having a hard time concentrating, I tracked where the blue chunks of energy were flying, and my updated device automatically zoomed in. Valkyrie popped out of my arm; Grust’s rounds were joined by another pattern pulverizing the odd creature.
It was my opponent. From what I could tell, it was humanoid, though it had some extra upper extremities. Three or four, but definitely more than two. I recognized Ulbaron immediately—the named armor had a distinctive skin. With one hand, Raptor included, the monster was gripping a tree branch, while Valkyrie was trying to break through my protection from the other. And while I didn’t notice Fang, what I did see was that the creature’s pistol wasn’t adapted. My Valkyrie had a grenade launcher.
It took all of a split-second to recognize and process that information. Advanced perception really does work wonders. Ulbaron was down to thirty hits when Valkyrie jerked. The grenade launcher didn’t shoot quickly, pumping out just one grenade every three seconds, but even one plasma grenade was enough to send the creature flying off to the side. Grust straightened up and continued shooting. I couldn’t see it anymore, though that meant it couldn’t see me, either, and I was more than happy with that. My protection stopped dropping as precipitously as it had been. But as I rolled away, I heard Grust curse.
“It flew off… Damn it, that bitch! I wish I had that flying thing. You good?”
“I feel like a roast piglet,” I replied. At its current level, Ulbaron restored 13 hits every five minutes, which meant I was going to have to wait quite a while before I picked my next fight. Raptor flashed a few times to grab my attention. After I mentally tapped a few buttons, the logs showed up in my helmet. Are you kidding me? It suddenly made sense why things had gone south so quickly.
Each of my opponent’s hits had taken off six points of protection. The explosion hadn’t been that bad—the thermal burn and contusions had been taken care of quickly by my regeneration. But the creature’s direct attack had almost finished me off, as it had hit me nearly a hundred times. If it hadn’t been for Ulbaron at level 13, which gave me 650 defense, my adventure would have been over in the blink of an eye. Valkyrie’s rate of fire, from what I could remember, was 200 shots a minute. That meant my opponent had been shooting me for over thirty seconds… That’s terrifying, honestly. I could actually only count on 108 protection units rather than the listed 650. That damn general and its penalties!
“It took us a long time to get going, so it had a while to prepare. We’ll be smarter next time,” Grust said encouragingly.
“It’s going to take me half a day to be ready for the next time,” I muttered.
“What are you angry at me for? I buried almost a hundred shots in that thing, just one after another!”
“Plus ten shots from me… And a grenade. Still, it’s not dead, so the old man was lying. The bastard didn’t get all my problems.”
“It’ll die sooner or later. I tagged it with a tracker.”
“What?!” I jumped up, stunned by the news.
“You thought Swallow is worth thirty million just for fun? This baby’s got some meat to her! So, yes, I know where that thing is, though I don’t have a map—it’s just flying around on a dark background. Don’t worry! We’ll be fine as long as we don’t make any more of those mistakes.”
“Here’s a map.” Sending him the map I’d downloaded from the general’s spawn wasn’t difficult. Just in case, I overlaid the coordinates of the remaining cache and the dungeon on it.
“Ah, that’s better,” Grust said cheerfully. “It’s right by the second cache. Waiting. Looks like it wants to pull the same trick, although…what am I telling you this for? Hold on, let me figure out how to share the picture with you, and you can see for yourself.”
A little while later, a red dot showed up to indicate where in the location our opponent was. I zoomed in on the map, finding the second cache also in an impenetrable thicket broken by an open field. And my reflection had taken up a position right at the edge of the field.
“Could it get rid of the tag?”
“No, it deactivates as soon as it’s found. It’s definitely on that thing’s armor, so finish up here, and let’s go take it out.”
It was easier going once we had an idea of where our opponent was. Heading back over to the cache we were at, I found that it had emerged from the inferno unscathed. Even the chest was in pristine condition. Apparently, everything just refreshed automatically, and I got a message as soon as I touched the lid:

You found a cache.
Level +1 (272).
You were compensated because you cannot receive your level four item. 350000 coins received.

All I could do was chuckle bitterly. I’d lived to see the day where I didn’t even get anything solid, though there was at least the compensation. They could have skipped it. Pulling out one of my billiard balls, I squeezed it and dropped it into the chest. As soon as I was far enough away, the big stone and even the rest of the field vanished. Crushed trees and grass were all that appeared in their place. In fact, it was almost like the cache had appeared from somewhere up above, dropped down, and squashed everything that had been right there. Raptor merrily buzzed to update the mission.

You destroyed 1 of 3 game pieces.

My protection took forever to rebuild, so that gave us time to discuss where we wanted to go next. Grust was in favor of wrapping up the dungeon first before going after our target, but I was against that move. It was a crafty, treacherous beast we were up against. Grust had said there was no way the thing could take off the tracker, though I had a hard time believing that. If I’d been in the creature’s shoes, I would have done everything possible to get into the dungeon without being noticed. That’s where I would have been least expected. But since the tracker was by the second cache, we needed to head in that direction. Convoluted logic but all I had. We needed to go where we were supposedly expected and see who outplayed who.
Grust pushed back until we took off. But no sooner did our feet leave the ground, then he shut his mouth, accepting my point of view. At least, that’s what he said. From what I could tell, he was even less steady in the air than I was, though we still made it to the second cache fairly quickly. We decided to approach it from the opposite side of the field.
He went first. Once we got to the clearing, he peered through his scope, and Swallow opened up on a big tree a second later. I crawled closer and zoomed in to see that Grust was shooting at Ulbaron. The armor was tied to the tree trunk, putting up no resistance. Every burst of energy passed right through. The hole in the tree behind it grew larger and larger.
The problem was that Ulbaron was empty.
“Grust, stop, it isn’t here,” I yelled, even standing up. Nobody took a shot at me. Raptor also told me it was safe, though I couldn’t exactly believe it. My camouflage was impressive.
“I’m going in—cover me.” Grust was about to dash toward the stone when I stopped him.
“It’s a trap. I’m first this time.”
My pride at having outsmarted our opponent didn’t do anything to cloud my mind. It worked clearly and precisely—the thing had known I’d head for the nearest cache, and it had been waiting for me there. True, it got more than it bargained for, which is what had saved me. Then, it had realized there was a tracker on Ulbaron. Device control was great at finding what wasn’t supposed to be there, though it wasn’t up to the task of dealing with a level 13 named weapon. At that point, the creature had pulled off the armor, tied it to a tree, and…set up an ambush. I was positive it was waiting for us at the dungeon. Right by the entrance, as soon as we go inside. We should have gone there after the first cache by all rights. That was the kind of character we were up against—smart and damn strong. Am I really that powerful without even knowing it?
My device control only had a range of 35 meters, so it took me quite a bit of wandering around to figure out what my mirror had planned. There were three thermite mines rigged with motion sensors. Two were by the armor, one by the stone. And they were well hidden, too—it took some doing to find them.
But it took even more doing to disarm them. It was a good thing I’d mounted the grenade launcher on Valkyrie, as it had forced me to pick up a skill my opponent didn’t have: disarming. Of course, I had to get it up to level 80 to compensate for pyrotechnics and demo expert. And that took 160 points. Good thing I only have to wait ten minutes for the system to upgrade me. When I saw the result, the lost time meant nothing. Raptor showed me a few red circles around each mine, the largest being its trigger radius. As soon as someone stepped into that area, the thing detonated. The second, which was a bit smaller, was the damage zone—it was a guaranteed kill in there. Its radius was about ten meters. But within it there was a narrow path winding its way toward the mine itself, the safe area where you could approach the device without it going off. That was how you defused it manually. Device control was useless—nobody could stop an activated mine.
Easing my way along the path, I got to the first mine. I’d had to jump a couple times, as my slick counterpart had set two next to each other to make sure their activation zones overlapped. But still, I pulled it off, and the three deadly devices found a new home in my virtual storage. My partner helped me buy three remote controls. Finally, I had a powerful force at my disposal, even if it was concentrated in a very limited area.

You found a cache.
Level +1 (273).
You were compensated because you cannot receive your level four item. 350000 coins received.
You destroyed 2 of 3 game pieces.

We weren’t able to sell our opponent’s Ulbaron. Since it was generated by the game, as soon as I touched it, it disintegrated into dark dust. Surprised, I glanced at Raptor—all three mines were whole and intact in my virtual storage. They hadn’t been generated. They’d been purchased.
“Grust, we have a problem.” I started looking around even though nothing was showing up on the scanner. “I didn’t have any mines. That thing bought them at the store.”
“So what? Obviously, it doesn’t have any penalties. That’s just your problem.”
“Yes, but when it was created, I had more than ten million in my account. I don’t think it just left Ulbaron here. It bought another one.”
Grust cursed and took off, gesturing for me to follow him. We had the dungeon left, and we were both positive there was going to be a warm welcome waiting for us.
“Check everything here,” he said as soon as we got there. The entrance was in a small ravine, hidden between the roots of an enormous tree. It looked just like the dungeon I’d hidden from the champions in, as a matter of fact. There were plenty of spots to mount an ambush from, so I decided to spend another ten minutes.

Device control +10 (80).

Dropping a hundred and eighty thousand coins let me boost the detection radius for game items to 40 meters, though there was nothing by the dungeon entrance.
“It’s inside,” I said, having thoroughly explored the perimeter.
“What’s the problem with that?”
“Dungeons put players on a level playing field, dropping attributes and skills to level 15. If it’s hiding, we won’t be able to find it no matter how much we want to. I never should have gotten my different camouflages up so high.”
“What makes you think that’s a problem?” Grust asked in surprise. “Send me some coins.”
Without asking any questions, I sent him two hundred thousand, and it was only when the game started printing out his purchases that it all started to make sense. Yes, that could definitely work! Twelve and its fighters had gone with a similar strategy. Grust hadn’t been there then, but he was thinking way ahead of me. Apparently, I’d gotten so used to the fact that nothing was available that nothing in that vein had even occurred to me.
“And now, the most important part—getting inside.” Grust picked up one of the plasma grenades and shoved the rest in his backpack. “Do you think that animal’s going to be waiting right by the entrance?”
“I’m almost positive.”
“In that case, in I go. If I’m not back out in a minute… Well, I’d tell you to leave, but you’re not going to, are you? So come in a few seconds after me. And be ready—it’s going to be hot. All right, let’s do this.”
Grust bent over and ducked inside. I waited a few moments, pulled out Valkyrie, and followed suit. A wave of unbearable heat washed over me, the result of the plasma grenade going off. My partner was standing next to me, alive and well, Swallow darting back and forth at any sign of movement. Only there wasn’t any movement. The entrance was a small tunnel turning right after a couple meters, and it was empty.

You entered Rentul Lair.
You entered the dungeon with personified noa. Sacrifice it to boost the dungeon’s starting level by 1 (level boosting instructions).

Swallowing hard, I opened the description. Boosting the level meant burying a ritual dagger in Grust—Fang. And I had to do it in the dungeon’s central cave right after beating the first round. Once that was done, I would agree to restart the dungeon, and that was that. It would be reset, only the starting level would be one higher.
“Damn it, one more headache.” I turned to my partner. He was standing by the glimmering film, his eyes fixed on the turn at the end of the tunnel. When I went to take a step forward, a heavy hand on my chest stopped me.
“We’ll deal with it later. For now, check for mines,” he more ordered than said. And it was a good move—there was one set right around the corner. But there was nothing I could do. The chances of hacking into it were 0%, the first time I’d seen that value, and disarming was powerless. That damn level playing field!
“Okay, I’ll deal with it. What’s the headache?”
I told him about how to boost the dungeon’s level, and Grust just chuckled.
“I figured it would be something like that. Everything in this game is about noa. You thought it would be enough to disperse the stones at first, and as it turns out… So, are you going to chop me up?”
“You want a punch in the face?”
“You’re going to have to sacrifice someone. Five someones, in fact. Give that some thought. And in the meantime, get out of here—it’s going to get awfully toasty in a second.”
He pulled out a grenade and motioned toward the shimmering film. I wasn’t about to argue. Just about as soon as I was out of the dungeon, Grust popped out right behind me, cursing up a storm. The fact that he started rolling around on the ground trying to put out nonexistent flames told me how hot it had actually gotten.
“When I catch that bitch, I’m going to rip its legs off!” he spat out, jumping back into the dungeon without waiting for a reply. When I joined him, the stone walls had just barely solidified. It had gotten so hot that they’d melted, dripping down onto the floor. Still, the dungeon layout remained unchanged—the corner was right where it had been. Sweat broke out immediately as even Ulbaron failed to keep up with the change in temperature. But what disappointed and cheered me up at the same time was that our opponent wasn’t there.
“Follow me!” Another grenade went flying around the corner, and Grust jumped in behind the wall of fire. As soon as I stepped over to where he was, we got news about our opponent:

You destroyed the first round of monsters.
The dungeon has been updated, monster levels bumped up twice (current: 3).

The space around me flickered and started to thicken, eventually turning into a hairy, low-crawling creature that looked like an underdeveloped bear. There was no time to wonder if it was friendly or hostile—Fang took off its head. Up ahead, I heard a curse from Grust and the sound of something hard burying itself in something soft. My partner was dealing with the same problem I was: new bots.
While he handed out punches right and left, I got to work. There was only one way out of the dungeon. If my mirror was as smart as I gave it credit for, it would try to get away so it could set up an ambush somewhere else, for example, right outside. And that meant we couldn’t let it get away. Luckily, my three thermal mines were perfect for that.
I set them up the same way my opponent had, covering each other to make sure the creature couldn’t get by. They were activated with the remote controls. And that wasn’t a problem—my opponent’s chances of hacking into them would be the same I’d faced. A solid 0%.
Fighting our way through the waves of underdeveloped bears wasn’t that hard. But when we got to the main cave, we froze. Raptor told me there was a crowd of them in there. But what was bothering me was that my opponent wasn’t among them.
“We’re supposed to activate that ball here?”
“Yes, right by that stone,” I replied, pointing at the middle of the area.
“Okay, off I go.” Grust pulled out ten grenades. “Wait here.”
“Here, take the ball. When you get there, just squeeze it and put it on the stone. It should work.”
“It had better,” Grust said with a smile as he took it from me. “Okay, see you on the other side.”
One after another, the grenades found a new home in the cave. It was an inferno. Grust dove in after them, taking out the bears hiding in the corners. None survived. But again, our target wasn’t there.
Suddenly, the wall behind me started to move, and before I couldn’t react, it turned into a six-armed monster wearing nothing but underwear. It gripped my arms and legs. Neither Valkyrie nor Fang would activate.
“Grust!” I yelled into my microphone, though the only reply was an evil whisper.
“Tell your gods I said hello, Mark Derwin!”
There was a quiet squeak, and my heart skipped a beat. The creature was holding four plasma grenades. They were activated.
“Mark!” my partner yelled back, but that’s when the space around me turned into a bright red hell. A wave of pain flashed across my body, it got unbearably hot, and a darkness fell around me. All I could see were some words:

You were killed.
Wait for the game to end.

Release - February 14, 2020


  1. Really looking forward to reading this book I like the Universe I like the story thanks.