Tuesday, March 3, 2020

World of the Changed-3: Noa in the Flesh by Vasily Mahanenko

World of the Changed, Book 3
Noa in the Flesh
by Vasily Mahanenko

Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B084D5SLBN
Release - April 2, 2020

Chapter 1

Everything happened so quickly that nobody had any idea what was going on. Except me, of course. And while some might call what I did betrayal or a dirty trick, for me, it was the only thing to do. If I’d had another chance at a “dirty trick” like that, I would have taken it without a second thought. Earth was for humanity—there was no room on it for aliens. No matter how useful they were.
Closing my eyes, I thought back to everything that had happened, letting myself sink into the experience…
“Not a fan of being pinned to the wall, Mark Derwin?” Green-skinned Villian, head of the Tsarter mercenary group, flashed sharp teeth. The group was the mysterious game owner’s personal guard, the owner being the cause of the problems on Earth that had turned 80% of the population into terrifying monsters. The rest were equally monstrous, just with their wits still about them. But that wasn’t enough—a whole crowd of other players was thrown into the mix, too, players generated by the system itself. And while the natural changed were tasked with surviving, the aliens were just there on Earth to get rich. That included everything from resources to prisoners to game items. Anything they could turn a profit on or use to boost their status in the next release. The Tsarter mercenaries were among the arrivals, and they specialized in taking out over-achieving Earthlings.

“You promised to help. How?” I asked as I watched Villian burst out of the armor. Not long before, with the help of Grust, another Earthling, I’d been able to take down what was a dangerous opponent and imprison it inside a suit of steel armor, an odd if effective jail. But right then, the green-skinned player was tearing its way out of it, and there was nothing I could do. Squirrel, my sister, had been kidnapped again. And that time, the situation was much more dangerous. The player with the numerical name, the one everyone called Two, had set conditions: either I work for it, or Squirrel would be destroyed with no chance of getting her back. I couldn’t let that happen. And with that in mind, I’d decided to do something I would never have stomached before then: work with the enemy. When it came to my sister, I would have heard the devil out so long as it was offering an escape from my predicament.
“To start off with, you’ll take care of a job for me, and then we’ll go ask Olsen what Two wants,” Villian replied as it stretched and worked its stiff muscles. “Maybe, things aren’t that bad.”
“A job for you? My sister was kidnapped!” I shot back indignantly.
“You were given three days to make your decision.” The alien was harsh and insistent. “Nothing will happen to her in that time, and you can use it to find leverage on the general. Something it would be willing to trade your sister for.”
“I have the pearl,” I said in surprise, slipping my hand into my pocket just to make sure. It was right where I’d left it.
“It’s as good as gone,” Villian replied with a snort. “I was promised a certain something for it, so it’ll be coming with me. Call it compensation for not killing you as soon as you let me go.”
My face twisted into a scowl, though I said nothing. The alien laughed gloatingly and directed the LTS due west—out of the hexagon. We flew for a little while in silence. Each of us found ourselves lost in our thoughts, at least until Villian suddenly pointed at Mary.
“I’m taking the female, too.”
She hadn’t woken up, though that was going to be happening shortly.
“What do you need a human for? All about that interspecies mating?”
“You’re an idiot, Mark Derwin. The female is a ghost morph—the game automatically adapts her to fit the ideal inside each person’s head. For you, I’m sure she looks like a fat, bald guy, but for me she’s gorgeous with green skin. Call her payment for my services.”
“The pearl isn’t enough?” I asked sarcastically. The reply was patient.
“The pearl is payment for me not killing you. Mary is for my time. What, you think I don’t have anything better to do? There’s still plenty of looting left to do on Earth, and here I am spending time on you and your miserable sister.”
I ground my teeth helplessly. After all, I’d known I was letting the genie out of the bottle, and I’d also known it wasn’t a nice blue one like in Aladdin. There were never going to be little birdies tweeting out their happy songs around us. And because of that, all I could do was shut up and follow Villian’s instructions. It had my named items, which meant I was its hostage. But there was something I could do.
“You still need to tell me which locations the owner’s team is in.”
“You’re not going to have time to worry about that,” Villian started, though I just kept pushing.
“Why don’t I decide what I do and don’t have time for? Which locations are closed? Or are you going back on your word? I’ll bet the game would have something to say about that, though I have to figure out how to talk to it. Hey, functionality! I have—”
“Fine, fine, you can have your locations!” the mercenary said too emotionally. Judging by its face, the game did have a way of pushing the aliens. At least, it had a way of pushing Villian.
I perhaps could have gotten down on myself for what happened next, but I didn’t. The move was the right one. Villian held out a palm, and the game instantly printed its phone out of nanoparticles.
“Look,” the mercenary said disgruntledly. That was its last word in our release. Bending over the screen to see the pictures flicking by, I let my right hand work off on its own. And even with how agile and quick the Tsarter leader was, it wasn’t good enough. Fang slipped easily into the green bastard’s brain to release a charge of necrotic energy. There was no slow-motion shot—it was fast, accurate, and deadly.
Just that one little mistake made by the great player cost it a mountain of future problems. The game instantly told me about them:

You can collect 4 items at your maximum available level (current equipment level: 7).
Level +5 (407).
You killed a player from the owner’s personal guard.
You can collect 1 named item in the store.
Level +20 (427).
10 free attribute points received.
You destroyed a player with more than 5 obligations in the current release.
For each unfulfilled obligation, Villian Po will receive a penalty for 1 release.
For each unfulfilled obligation your defeated enemy had, you can collect any item at your maximum available level (current equipment level: 7).
The Tsarter group lost its leader for more than 5 releases and was disbanded.
Tsarter Bane rank changed to Tsarter Liquidator.
The owner removed the Tsarter mercenary group as its personal guard.
20 free attribute points received.

Villian’s body shriveled up like a balloon that sprang a leak. Its phone dropped out of its hand, though I grabbed it before it hit the ground. What I held in my palm was the only reason I’d been willing to work with the bastard. My only chance at survival.

Hacking store… Successful! Access to level 8 items unlocked.
Hacking wallet… Successful! Available: 788227000 coins.
Hacking personal data… Successful!
Hacking contact list… Successful!
Hacking map… Successful!
Hacking storage contents… Successful!
Hacking phone functionality… Successful!

Just to make sure I didn’t run into any problems, I pulled up the virtual storage and started printing out all the valuables the Tsarter leader had accumulated. I started with what was nearest and dearest to me, of course.
Valkyrie—an automatic pistol with six ammunition types that stored up to 6,600 rounds of each. And that was just at level 22. As the gun improved, the ammo drums were going to get bigger, meaning I wouldn’t have to reload them as often. It also had a barrel-mounted grenade-launcher with 22 plasma grenades that worked beautifully for taking out large swathes of enemies.
Raptor—a replacement for my phone that attached to my arm and worked as a scanner, detecting all opponents with camouflage less than level 110 thanks to its level 22. Not only that, but it also let me hack other players within a radius of 22 meters even if I couldn’t see them. If I’d had it in the dungeon, I would have frozen everyone.
Zelda—a camouflage cape that cloaked me in invisibility for 22 minutes and restored 22 seconds of invisibility every five minutes. It was fantastic, as it took perception or detection above level 110 for anyone to see me.
And finally.
Ulbaron—my fortress, my armor. My everything, really. The built-in protection could withstand up to 1,100 hits, though the hexagon general was so mad at me it had dropped seven times to only 157 hits. But at least I was practically immortal in the other hexagons. And then there were the little, unimportant details like 220 minutes of complete hermetic seal, the ability to fly up to 110 meters in the air, the binoculars with 24x zoom, and the comfortable air conditioning. Actually, no, the air conditioning isn’t unimportant—I’ve really been missing it.
Fang, my deadly friend, was sitting off to the side next to the pile of items. First, I’d already had it with me. Second, I’d created it myself using a blade I’d come across randomly in a dungeon. And third, it didn’t have a special description. All it did was sacrifice players, giving them a debuff. Or, as with the mercenary leader, bring down judgement from on high. It sure felt good to do someone dirty after they’d taken out so many million humans. Nine releases isn’t enough! I would have sent Villian off for a lifetime of hard labor if I could have.
Finally, with everything in place and a cool stream of air hitting my face, I stopped the LTS at an altitude of about a kilometer. Ulbaron will be able to get this high eventually. But in that moment, I was thinking less about the future, and more about the pile of items I’d printed out from Villian’s storage.
Lots of it was intriguing. First of all, there was the heap of named items. On the one hand, they were useless—I couldn’t even read about their attributes. But on the other, just the way they looked told me a lot about their functionality, not to mention giving me a way of finding them in the store. Villian hadn’t struck me as a collector, so I could only assume that each was important to it.
There was Valkyrie, a half-ruined Ulbaron, and Raptor. I’d seen all of them before, so I quickly disintegrated them into the atmosphere, returning their nanoparticles to the game. But a few other items did catch my attention. First and foremost, there was a small box that looked to attach to your shoulder. It didn’t take much looking before I found a similar item, though I wasn’t sure why Villian had picked it up. This thing is pointless!

Shulma. Description: Universal expansion producer. Current Shulma level: 22. Lets you add up to 22 different expansions. Cannot be blocked in the game world. Requirements: Expanded consciousness (100), device repair (100), device creation (100), integration (100). Cost: 100000000 coins.

I couldn’t figure out why an empty container like that would cost so much. There were also the requirements I didn’t have, attributes that obviously weren’t primary or even secondary for me. And then there was the fact that the store refused to show me the expansions Shulma offered until I actually bought it.
It was intriguing, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. Sure, I had eight named items or expansions to pick up, though I didn’t know what else was going to catch my eye. There was no sense spending one of my bonuses on something so pointless just to see why it cost so much. Terrible use of resources. With that in mind, I set Shulma off to the side and got to work on everything else. Most of the other devices I didn’t find, though one thoroughly intrigued me to the point that I picked it up right away.

Fartira. Description: Universal device used to hide player information. Current Fartira level: 22. Lets you hide your player information. Can withstand perception and detection through level 11. Cannot be blocked in the game world. Requirements: Camouflage (100), introversion (100), concealment (100), consciousness block (100), noiseless (100), willpower (100), trackless (100), closure (100), inner harmony (100), device control (100), resistance (100). Cost: 200000000 coins.

Fartira was twice as expensive as Shulma, its requirements exceeding even Zelda’s. Still, I was positive it was useless on its own—I was definitely going to have to buy add-ons that would keep me out of the list of the location’s best players. Incidentally, I really need to get my detection up to level 150. That would keep me safe from the kind of unpleasant surprise the Tsarter leader had engineered for me. I need that, and I meet all the requirements. I’ll take it!
Just as I’d predicted, as soon as the object appeared and set up shop on my right hip, the store unlocked access to additional expansions. There weren’t many, though all of them demanded a closer look.
The first kept its owner off the list of players in the location. The second was for the hexagon. The third was for the entire game. Also, you couldn’t just go straight to the third; you had to buy the preceding two first. And all of them cost a billion coins. Are you kidding me? How do they possibly come up with these numbers?! After thinking for a while, I decided to limit myself to the location. It’s okay if everyone knows I’m somewhere in this hexagon. That still didn’t narrow things down much.
The Fartira expansion added some requirements, though there weren’t any I didn’t already have: hacking (100), perception (100), and scanner (100). The last one surprised me, though there wasn’t anyone around to answer the questions it raised. I had a hard time imagining what it needed scanner for. But whatever. The most important thing was the end result, and I was a fan—as soon as I clipped Fartira back on my hip, that time with the expansion in place, Mark Derwin disappeared off the list of players in the location. Of course, I was still there on my own list, only my name at the top was semi-transparent and without an indication of the place I was in. Perfect!
It didn’t even matter that I was down to six bonuses. That should be enough to get Ulbaron even better.
I was sick and tired of thermal explosions turning my armor into an oven and me into a roast goose. Also, it made it too easy for people to hit me over the head. In both cases, of course, my protection held up, only the impact still left me battered and unable to think. I needed to fix that.
But there wasn’t anything in the list that worked for that. Finally, annoyed, I bought a couple extra plates of armor to double the number of hits I could take (2,200 total, and 314 in my current location). The only problem was that I had to add device creation (100) and integration (100), buying a total of 1,040 free points. But the added protection was worth the cost. It also helped that integration was a secondary attribute, which meant it was going to cost less to upgrade in the future.
When I realized I wasn’t going to be getting anything else, I went back and picked up Shulma. The additions I’d made matched its requirements, after all. And when the store unlocked the list of expansions, my eyes widened. I wanted them all, and I wanted them right then.

Muscle activity blocker. An injection that blocks the target’s muscle activity with the exception of their breathing and heartbeat for 12 hours.
Regeneration blocker. An injection that completely blocks the target’s regeneration for 12 hours.

Injections, injections, and more injections. There were a lot of them, all for different situations, though each had to be purchased separately at a cost starting at 100 million apiece. From the descriptions, the blockers could be mixed, which cut down on how long they lasted. And you always had to add a regeneration blocker if your target had regeneration. The other injections didn’t work otherwise.
I decided to leave one named item in reserve, picking up three blockers (muscle activity, brain activity, regeneration). And I’d also found out that the sedative didn’t work on everyone. Villian had woken up after a double dose even though I’d been counting on a good two or three hours, at least.
On the other hand, I knew exactly what I needed for Ulbaron. It was a small expansion you controlled mentally, though it also kicked in automatically when your brain went inactive. The device only had one function: it stuck you with a regeneration needle, getting rid of all other elements your body might have been injected with. It could be stocked with up to 22 syringes and met all my requirements. Needless to say, if I’d had something like that during my battle with the mercenary leader, it would have been anyone’s guess who came out on top.
Once I was done with the named items, I started working my way through the rest of Villian’s junk. First came some meaningless statuettes. They’re probably valuable, but to whom? I decided to toss them into my inventory for the time being. A few level six items came next, and I frowned—what was the mercenary doing with crap like that? Suddenly, however, it dawned on me that they’d belonged to Four. Villian had grabbed them just to make sure I couldn’t get my hands on them. But I was in no hurry to sell them regardless of the fact that I knew they were useless to me. And once I’d made sure there was nothing I could use, I started digging around the phone itself.

Virtual storage-VIII. Description: Phone expansion. Lets you store up to 80 game items in virtual space. Item materialization takes 1 second. Cost: none, is a rank reward.
Virtual exchange-VIII. Description: Phone expansion. Lets you exchange game items for coins at 100% of their value. Cost: none, is a rank reward.

A smile spread across my face—it was a good thing I hadn’t sold the loot right away! Getting rid of the commission was huge. Taking the opportunity, I sold everything I couldn’t use, picking up a cool 54 million coins. That’s amazing!
The contacts and store purchase history were interesting, though they didn’t do much for me. And that left just two things. The first was the map. Villian had just recently stripped my phone of everything I’d taken so long to collect, so it was time to get my revenge. Five complete hexagons with detailed information about what was where, along with seven locations marked as closed—that was perfect. Those locations were where I was going to be heading shortly. The mercenary leader had seen a few things as it had done its dark deeds, though one thing remained the same—the Tsarter headquarters was exactly where I remembered it being. And while I’d had to figure it out from the other players’ maps, Villian’s had it marked in black and white.
That was where I was off to next. Villian had been right about Two giving me three days to make my decision, and I really did need to maximize them. That should be enough to fly over there and see what’s what. My hope was to find something so valuable the general would be willing to turn Squirrel over in exchange for it, though I also knew that each of the Tsarter fighters had their own coterie of prisoners. I needed to get them over to the safe zone.
But even that wasn’t the most interesting find. Remembering how I’d been able to set up one of the general’s spawn, I dug deeper into the settings and checked through the messages. There weren’t that many, though there was one exchange that got my heart racing.

Lirkun Po: Head, I found the dungeon! <Coordinates>. None of ours were able to make it inside, so it has to be the one.
Villian Po: Great! Send the prisoners there and have them try to go in. We need more data.
Lirkun Po: We tried. The prisoners died before they even got halfway through. There isn’t much data—the difficulty is too high, and the prisoners just don’t have the skills. I think we need a natural player with the right class and plenty of levels locked in.
Villian Po: Okay, I have one like that. From what I can tell, he has the demolitions subclass. I’m not positive about his main class, though it’s pretty likely it’s infiltrator. Everything points to that. If it all works out, he’s going to work for us, too. We’ll have him beat the dungeon, so find a local weapon and bring it over to the base.
Lirkun Po: Got it. Are you going to tell him about the dungeon and what happens afterward?
Villian Po: Yes, I think so. I’m planning on making him one of us in the next release. He shows promise, though there’s a lot he needs to learn. Can you handle that?
Lirkun Po: You know my price. Two red explosions, and I’ll teach a Shurvan.
Villian Po: You’ll get them as soon as I’m back on base.
Lirkun Po: Sounds good.

Oh, wow, so Villian really did want me to join them. That also meant I had the coordinates for a mysterious dungeon that didn’t show up on the map. Interesting news. But there were some nuances and consequences I didn’t know about, and I had to wonder if I’d taken Villian out too quickly. Maybe I should have interrogated him before killing him… On the other hand, I did know one other creature who had the information: Lirkun Po. And we hadn’t yet met.
My assumption was that I could find Lirkun at the Tsarter base, which meant I needed to go there. But first, as always, I needed to get myself leveled-up. I’d long since been planning on getting all my values up to 130, though I’d never had the coins. With my new attributes and skills, that took 66,500 points, or 133 million coins. And that’s just to get everything up to level 130! It was brutally expensive.
But I didn’t stop there. My next priority was getting everything to 160, which would mean I’d be able to get my named items up to level 40 without a problem. Although, when I checked to see what the damage would be there, all I could do was sit back in horror.
To get my primary attributes up to that level, it was going to take 196,000 free points, or 392 million coins. And, sure, I did happen to have that on hand.
It was simpler with my secondary attributes—some of them were already up to level 150. Pushing them higher meant spending 120,000 points, or 240 million coins… That’s all…
The cherry on top was the other attributes and skills. They went for 1,080,000 free points, or 2.2 billion coins. Where the hell am I supposed to find that many? A few seconds before, I’d been fabulously wealthy, at least, in my own eyes, though a quick calculation told me I was…two billion short?! And that was including what I had in my account.
Emotions ran high, none of them positive.
Whatever, screw it. I decided to boost my primary and secondary skills and attributes, also making sure I could hide from anyone with an eye out for noa. That wasn’t too expensive. I was also going to have some left over so my partner could…
My stomach sank when I thought about Grust and his new group. He was bringing Milady and Little back to life, and they were going to need named items and enough syringes to survive. That was going to cost the same enormous amount I’d already poured into myself. Forget about them and move on with my life? I could, but…
I hated that “but.” No, I couldn’t do it, not with Grust, at least. And that meant I wasn’t going to get anything up to level 160. Level 130 was just what I was going to have to live with.
Turning the flying vehicle around, I headed off toward Verloven’s location. My partner was there, not to mention some things I needed to take care of. A couple spare units of noa were burning a hole in my pocket—I could use them to buy something off the function. And he can have the succubus.
“Mark, where’s everyone else?” As if reading my mind, the girl gasped and sat up, staring at me with her staggeringly beautiful eyes. A tight feeling gripped the lower half of my abdomen. And that’s just from her looking at me!
“You saved me? You’re my hero!”
Before I knew what was happening, Mary had stripped off everything she was wearing. That did it—I didn’t put up any resistance when her arms closed around my neck. Stroking my armor, she started whispering sweet nothings to me. My mind went blank, my problems melted away, and…

Control lost.
Regeneration shot. Foreign elements eliminated from body.

It felt like someone had dumped a bucket of cold water on my head. The blocker syringe appeared in my hand, and Mary squealed when she felt the sharp object pierce her firm behind. The motionless, naked body dropped to the floor of the flying vehicle—I could breathe again. No, I need to give her to Verloven as soon as possible! I didn’t need any more of those adventures.

Chapter 2

“Nobody’s happy to see you here, Mark Derwin,” Verloven said as soon as I landed next to the gazebo. The function was obviously moping around, unhappy with all and sundry—even someone as dense as me could see that. And while Grust was nowhere to be seen, the rating told me he was definitely in the location. Milady and Little were, too. He’d brought them back to life.
“I thought about your offer,” I said with a nod in Mary’s direction. “And I’m willing to trade her.”
“What do you want?” The old man’s expression remained indifferent, though his glistening eyes betrayed his interest.
“Information. Lots of information. Plus, I need to buy some things off you.”
“There are limits to what functions can share, so I won’t be allowed to answer all the questions you might ask. Wait a second, what do you need to buy that you can’t get yourself? You already have access to level eight!”
“I need eight green explosions,” I said, and then I grunted. Verloven’s eyes looked like two saucers.
“What? That’s impossible! How do you even know they exist?”
“Also, five red ones,” I continued, ignoring Verloven’s indignation. “They work past level thirty, right?”
“Well, yes,” the function nodded dumbly. It quickly came around, however. “But that’s impossible! I wouldn’t be able to give you that many even for the slave girl—neither you nor I have enough coins.”
“I have these, however.” I showed the function my remaining noa.
“That doesn’t do anything.” It was surprising, but the old man didn’t appear impressed. It was like I’d shown him some regular rocks instead of noa. What’s up with that?
“What’s up is that the game values noa at 50 million coins.” I’d apparently asked that last question out loud. The whole coin system wasn’t something I’d ever understood, so Verloven was kind enough to explain it.
“Nothing is free in the game; everything has its price. The system pays you for taking pictures of its units—monsters, but alive and dead. Especially the dead ones. That’s how it understands which resources it can free up, launching its standard cleanup process. In your case, since you have a level seven penalty, the general is charged the extra amount as the initiator of the penalty. But it doesn’t just print those coins out of thin air. It… No, you’re not supposed to know that. But it goes for everything—nothing is generated for free in the game. Remember our trade? I was only able to give you named items for noa because their value was less than fifty million. Zelda cost much more, which was why I told you it cost two units. So, going back to your explosions, the green ones cost a hundred million. Apiece. For me to give you the eight you’re looking for, the game needs to be paid 800 million. And as much as I might like to make that happen, my location doesn’t have access to resources like that.”
“But there are some discrepancies there,” I replied. “I get bonuses, and they’re free. It doesn’t matter how much the named item is worth—it could be a billion coins. And then I can sell it. Who pays for all that?”
“Have you tried doing that?” the old man asked slyly. “Go ahead—I see you have one named item bonus remaining. Pick anything worth more than twenty million, and then try to sell it. I want to see your face.”
I didn’t like how Verloven was jeering at me, but I decided to play along. Just in case something went wrong, I picked up the Fartira expansion that kept me hidden at the hexagon level. And as soon as it printed out, I happily opened my virtual exchange and…
All I got back was the same bonus I’d just used.
“The game pays careful attention to make sure nobody tries to cheat,” Verloven said. “You can’t sell named items worth more than ten million. Also, you can’t sell other players’ named items or items worth more than ten million that you were gifted. Nobody can. The money it costs to buy those items is allotted by the creator itself, and it makes sure nobody takes advantage of the system. You won’t be able to get rich off that pile of level eight bonuses you have.”
“But I’ve sold items…” I started, though I stopped short. Still, Verloven understood my train of thought.
“Were they worth more than ten million?”
All I could do was mutter that they weren’t.
“Your slave girl really is unique. She’s incredibly valuable, just not in this release. And so, because she’s an investment in the future, if you’re willing to trade her, I’ll give you two…okay, two green explosions and the right to ask a few questions. Only, like I told you, I won’t be able to answer all of them.”
“For example, the ones about what the owner needs from Earth and what the blood it’s looking for is?”
“I’m glad we understand each other.”
“Deal!” I cast one last glance over at Mary’s beautiful figure, and my heart skipped a beat. Maybe, this is a mistake. If you believe what you hear, there isn’t much enjoyment you can’t get out of a succubus. Of course, they come with just as many headaches.
“Here are your explosions.” Verloven held out two green spheres as his servants ran over to my flying vehicle and unloaded the motionless body.
“If she isn’t human, how was she able to resurrect me?” I asked belatedly, my eyes following the procession.
“That’s what’s special about them. They can resurrect any creature since they’re the same race as them, though that’s not what they’re most valued for…”
“Yes, I figured that out.” It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders when the cavalcade of servants disappeared around the corner. Without thinking much about it, I activated the explosions, making the trade irreversible.

You used a green explosion (2).

“You’re well equipped,” Verloven said when the glow around my items died away. “But I see your weakness there.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t follow your heart, running around freeing location after location. If you were to do that, your named items would level-up too quickly. The next jump will be at level thirty. All your parameters will need to be at level 130—are you ready for that? Do you know what the prices are up there? The number of free points you’ll need?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied bitterly. “This isn’t my first time.”
“Players usually pick two or three named items and develop themselves in line with their requirements to make sure they… Oh! You don’t know…”
“I don’t know what?” I asked with a frown.
“Coins you spend leveling yourself up don’t count toward the release results. That’s why everyone tries to stick with the amount they need to get the job done here and now. And then, they either leave their coins in their account, which doesn’t make sense, or they spend them on equipment they hide in caches, warehouses, or anywhere else. It just has to be linked to them. That’s the only way coins benefit you and push you up the ranking.”
“I couldn’t care less about that,” I snorted. “I need to be strong right now.”
Verloven didn’t have an answer for that.
“What else would you like to know about the game, Mark Derwin? Or can we wrap this up?” the old man asked, more from a sense of etiquette. Its eyes kept glancing back at its house.
“Yes, here’s something: there are dungeons that are only for natural players. What are the nuances I should know about?”
“I’m not even going to ask how you know that.” Verloven didn’t answer right away, though he did eventually. “Yes, dungeons like that do exist. They’re closed for aliens. Also, game items don’t work inside. Anyone who makes it in becomes the same person they were at the start of the game—no upgrades, no updates, no classes, none of that. In my releases, nobody’s beaten one, so I’m not sure what kind of reward you can expect.”
“Can personified noa go through them?”
“Good question. Your very existence depends on the game… No, I’m not sure. If it’s really bothering you, head in and find out. Just be aware that you might die as soon as you step foot inside.”
Got it. Either Verloven was being evasive, or it really didn’t know about the dungeons. I was going to have to find one of my old friends from the Po family.
But that was later.
Right then, wasting no more time, I headed off to find Grust. He was by a river, where he’d set up a nice little picnic. Little was splashing around in the water—he looked happy to be back in the land of the living. The lovebirds, decorum and security thrown to the wind, were cuddling in their underwear in the shade of a tree. They looked carefree. It was like all the problems on Earth had disappeared, and I felt a heaviness inside.
“Oh, Mark!” Grust called happily when he saw me. Milady let him go with clear reluctance. “You’re by yourself? Where’s Squirrel?”
“Two got her,” I replied. My partner’s face darkened, though just for a couple moments.
“Well, I got mine back,” he said, nodding toward Milady. “It’s so nice not to risk your life…”
“And?” A sneaking suspicion took hold.
“I was just thinking that I can’t lose them again. Not now. We’re going to have to die one way or another, and I’d like to spend our last days together. It’s safe here, we have enough coins to live like kings, and Verloven doesn’t mind. Mark, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to go our separate ways. I’m done with generals, monsters, and all the rest of them. I’d like my last few weeks to be quiet. And with my girl.”
“Baby, are you coming?” I heard Milady call over. She was making a point of ignoring me.
“On my way!” Grust held out a hand. “It was fun, Mark, but I want to live for myself for a while. I’m sorry if that messes up your plans.”
“I get it,” I replied, shaking his hand. Our group disappeared, and I was alone—physically and from the game’s perspective. But the worst part was that while I couldn’t have disagreed with him more, I completely understood. If I’d been able to get Squirrel back, I would have found some spot in one of my locations or there in Verloven’s, and it would have been impossible to drag me out. But it wasn’t to be. The damn robots had my sister.
Grust nodded and walked away. Little yelled something over, waving and laughing loudly. The look Milady deigned to give me was anything but kind. Anyway, Grust had a kind of family, and there was no place for me. My partner had been replaced by an emptiness deep inside.
I put a good bit of distance between myself and the happy group to make sure I didn’t bring them down with my mood. Really, I’d had high hopes for Grust. For Milady and Little, too. I’d figured we’d get strong together, form a quartet, and… Whatever, moving on. World of the Changed taught you to only ever rely on yourself. And that was yet another reminder.
Sitting down under a tree nowhere near the people living in the location, I pulled up the trials. My mood made it the perfect time to get in a little sadomasochism. A couple tries, I figured, and I’d have my will to live back.
And while I was ultimately right, it took me more than two trials to clear my mind. I went through an entire series of them, in fact.

You locked in 28 levels. 22 levels were discarded in favor of the game.
Current level: 405 (282).
Adaptive vision +2 (6).
You locked in 41 levels. 9 levels were discarded in favor of the game.
Current level: 396 (323).
You locked in 34 levels. 16 levels were discarded in favor of the game.
Current level: 380 (357).
Impenetrable skin +3 (15).

I didn’t have enough spare levels left for reinforced internal organs, but that was perfectly fine by me. When you have fire and electricity doing a tango on your skin, your head clears almost instantly. I wasn’t sure I would have had enough mental fortitude to make it through another round.
Once I’d caught my breath and gotten my emotions under control, I suddenly realized what I needed to do next—level-up. I was no alien. Coins meant nothing to me. At least, they meant something, but there was no point stockpiling them. I needed to get stronger.
Pulling up my virtual storage, I started printing out the six items I’d gotten after the previous dungeon. Wait a minute, why are there six of them? I definitely remembered five in the pirate chest. Let’s see. The armor was most important.

BRO-X tactical equipment kit. Description: Tactical outfit made of ultrastrong material capable of withstanding a direct hit from level ten monsters. Slots and pockets adjustable to fit the needs of the wearer. Integrates with the owner’s phone and weaponry. Built-in universal protection against up to 2000 hits from all weapons through level ten. Fire-resistant (up to 2000 degrees), cold-resistant (as low as –150 degrees), built-in cleaning system. When activated, is airtight for 300 minutes. Regenerates when up to 90% of the surface area is damaged. Requirements: <list of requirements > Cost: 50000000 coins.

The requirements for the wearer were intriguing. All values for level ten equipment started at 130, though I’d seen a monster handling a level ten scanner with no problem. Was it really that advanced? I had a hard time believing it, but facts were facts.
The worst part was that the BRO-X suit was in some ways superior to Ulbaron. At least, it was in terms of its resistance to heat and cold. It offered specific numbers; my suit didn’t. Of course, there wasn’t much benefit to that, as my phone had told me the epicenter of a plasma grenade blast clocked in at over 3,000 degrees. Neither Ulbaron nor the BRO-X suit were capable of withstanding that. Still, it helped to know exactly where you stood.
Musings notwithstanding, I just went ahead and traded the suit in for coins. There was the suit, a pistol, a rifle, and even a couple items for the LTS. All of them were worth fifty million, and Raptor suddenly went crazy when I sold the last one.

You’re the first natural player in this release to have more than 1 billion coins.
Moneybags rank changed to Fat Cat.
Level +1 (381).

I checked my account in surprise and found that there really was an entire billion coins there. That was a nice feeling, though it was ultimately pointless—I needed another two to really feel comfortable. Okay, what’s that sixth item?
It turned out to be a sheet with something engraved on it. There were no additional attributes or anything else like that. Only the name:


Taken aback, I read the text that was etched into it.

You beat a level 11 dungeon. Because the maximum equipment level in this release is 10, you were awarded compensation for each equipment level you were not able to receive. The compensation is 100 million for each item (5 total), and you can spend it on store items that are not permitted to be sold.

That was a surprise. Finally, the game was recognizing the problems I was dealing with and trying to make up for them. Verloven, I have something for you!
The function made no bones about trading me five explosions for the sheet. From what I could tell, it was happy to cash in on some of its supplies.

You used a green flash (5).
Valkyrie, Fang, Ulbaron, Raptor, Zelda, Fartira, and Shulma levels increased by 5 (29).

Perfect! One more level, and I was going to be into the red.
But right then, I paused.
Pulling out Fang and staring at it, I thought back to how I’d boosted the dungeon level. Right, by sacrificing alien players. I had Fang, I could catch the players… And It didn’t have to be ten like the last time; I could go for fifteen, say. That would have been easy enough with my level 29 equipment. Adding in level ten items at 50 million a pop… And the store has more than just explosions! There were attribute syringes, for instance. I think I might have just figured out how to pick up the coins I need.
And if that was the case, I needed to get myself ready for level 40 named items. You never know when you’re going to get lucky. Just as I’d planned, I went ahead and got my primary and secondary skills and attributes up to level 160—that was 632 million gone just like that. Next, I stopped and checked to see what the requirements for Ulbaron and Fang were. I had to make sure that even if I somehow jumped straight to level 40 named items, I wouldn’t be left without my armor or dagger. That would be the end!
But there were some problems. Fang, damn it, took 672 million coins to get everything up to level 160. Ulbaron was even worse at 736 million. Of course, they had some things in common—resilience, for instance—though I still didn’t have nearly enough.
Ultimately, I settled on Valkyrie. It turned out that my favorite little automatic pistol was the easiest to get up to where I needed it to be—all it needed were pistol shooting and resilience. Everything else was already at level 160. And not only that, but I needed both of those for Ulbaron. That made the decision an easy one, and so I went for Valkyrie before spending everything else on what I needed for my armor. Little by little.
Pulling up my status table, I smiled. I was going to be a hard nut to crack.

Status table
Mark Derwin, demolitions infiltrator
381 (357)
Title and ranks
Title: Liquidator
Ranks: Con Man, Fat Cat, Tsarter Liquidator, Bandit Bane, Lone Wolf, Stone Wall
Body reinforcement
Impenetrable skin
Steel bones
Adaptive vision
Reinforced internal organs
Demo expert
Good eye
Monster knowledge
Device control
Anatomy master
Spatial perception
Device repair
Inner harmony
Pistol shooting
Melee weapons
Consciousness block
Hacking protection
Electromagnetic impulse protection
Expanded consciousness
Device creation

The three hours it took my new attributes and skills to update flashed by. I even slept a little, though the best part was that I grabbed a shower. And shedding the stink felt so good I even thought about buying a level eight portable shower in the store—yes, they had them. The only thing that stopped me was that I didn’t have most of the attributes in the list of requirements.
Soon enough, I flew off into the air, a new man happy with life. I was rested, angry, and decisive. Turning Zelda on to go invisible, I hurtled out of the location. But I wasn’t going where I’d planned—the timer told me I had a bit more than two days left before my meeting with Olsen. I had time to wreak some havoc in the hexagon.
Marching to the tune of the aliens’ drum was getting old. I wanted to have my own say, for example, by heading over to the general’s location and asking it personally what the hell it wanted with our planet. Sure, that was dangerous. But I really was sick and tired of the whole thing. It was time to attack, force my opponent into making a mistake. Just in case, I handed Grust two units of noa and asked him to give me a call once a day. If I was killed, he could bring me back.
But even with my decision made, I still didn’t fly straight. To the south of the general’s location was a closed zone, one where someone from the owner’s team had set up camp. I couldn’t have cared less what the spider-like creature was up to. It needed to be destroyed. The aliens can try to figure out what I was doing in that location, maybe even spread their forces a little too thin. That was only going to play into my hands.
Still, even with the best-laid plans… Just a couple kilometers outside Verloven’s location, Raptor started going off its rocker.

Interception device detected!
Note! You’re in radar detection range.
Note! Surface-to-air missile launch detected!

What the hell? I’m invisible!
A few streaks were jetting toward me. I panicked, not sure what to do, though my body reacted faster than my brain. Valkyrie sprang into action—Raptor aimed; the gun fired away. It was so effective, in fact, that some shards of metal already incapable of exploding were all that reached me.
My camouflage and invisibility were gone. And as I was focused on shooting down the next barrage of rockets, I missed another opponent. A thick ray of energy smacked directly into my chest, and Ulbaron groaned under the rapid temperature increase. It was hot. Really hot. I howled like a banshee and dropped like a rock to dodge the second shot.
Finally, I saw the problem—three gigantic metal hulks the general had assigned to come hunt me down. Two destroyers and a locator along with them. So, that’s how they were able to see me! Level 160 attributes apparently weren’t enough to stay off the device’s radar.
All those thoughts flashed by as I flew toward the ground. The rockets left me alone, and the ray stopped battering me, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the end of the story. I would have happily gone up against a destroyer one on one. One on two, even. But with the locator helping them out, all my advantages as an infiltrator were wiped out. If they could see me, my claws were drawn.
It was bad. I had to do something, and I had to do it quickly. Whatever I did, I wasn’t going to make it to Verloven’s location.
The ground was just about ready to accept me in its loving embrace when I turned sharply at the last second to fly off horizontally. The field I was hurtling past turned out to be mined, and the mines started going off. Turning a sharp 180 degrees, I flew right toward the two enormous irons. All hell had broken out behind me. There was no flying into the air, and flying straight ahead was also problematic.
This is a nice little pickle.
It was an unpleasant feeling knowing that I’d been read like a book yet again. I’d only decided to go visit the general and the owner’s team member at the last moment, so the destroyers wouldn’t have had time to mine the area even if they’d been able to read minds.
I have to get out of here!
And as that happy thought was making its way through my head, it was joined by a powerful strike from some piece of metal or other. I lost control and tumbled across the ground. Just before I smacked into a tree and turned it into woodchips, it crossed my mind that I’d gotten lucky—I was out of the mine field. At least, I won’t blow up! Still, the giant irons were just a few kilometers away.

Chapter 3

My thoughts jumbled around in my head, which was ringing from the blow.
The destroyers definitely knew where I was. How? The locator was helping them. That miracle device was able to track game items across an enormous radius—I’d already come across one of them. A thick beam of high-caliber energy flashed above my head to shred the ancient trees like fresh grass. As it exploded with a crash, the area around me was filled with black smoke and cinder. The wet wood burned unwillingly, smoking up the air.
Hm…that could be my chance!
It took mere seconds to get all my named items off me. Then, I stripped off the coat and pants I’d bought, even removing my underwear. There I was, dressed in exactly the outfit I’d been wearing when the game started. Throwing the lot of it into my virtual storage, I cursed. Five units of noa and the rainbow pearl were lying on the ground at my feet. After quickly grabbing them, I broke my phone, crawled away until I found a nice, little hollow, and dove in to hide from my assailants.
And I was just in time. It only took the destroyers a few moments to get to where I was, and I heard what sounded like an indignant whistle. The machines got to work flattening the ground. As the trees and stones crunched and scraped, my teeth grated against each other—even the stumps left over after the shootout were being demolished. A couple times, the destroyers ironed their way over me, though the hollow I’d found was deep enough to keep me in the land of the living. It didn’t save me from a few crunched ribs, however.
Everything happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to mount my own counterattack. There it was—as soon as the ground had been leveled, the next weapon was brought to bear. Electricity again?
The charge the destroyers sent surging through the soil just about punched my ticket. Suddenly, the smell of burnt meat hit my nostrils, and the metallic pair instantly reacted. Drone showed me the two red dots dashing to and fro across the battered field, stopping for a few moments at each corpse. Animals, I guess. Concentrating on the nearest destroyer, I was about to try to hack into it when another charge hit me. And that one was much more powerful.
No longer able to hold it in, I whimpered in pain. I might crack if this keeps up. A destroyer-topped platform squished me into the ground yet again, and I decided to make my move. The noa and rainbow pearl stayed in the hollow, while I grabbed the flying machine and hurtled off together with it.
My back burned—the platform was flying low, and the ground was practically scraping the skin right off my back. No matter how tightly I pressed myself against the machine, I still left a deep furrow in the ground. It was just a good thing we were off in the country. If we’d been in the city center, I wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the pavement.
Unexpectedly, the machines stopped moving and started giving off a wild squeal. Drone showed me that one of them was hovering right above the hollow where I’d left the noa and rainbow pearl. You bastards!
No more charges were forthcoming. It may have been tough to catch my breath with the hunk of metal pressing down on me, but I was still able to regain some of my wind. And that let me go to work. All right, it’s my turn now.

Devices available for connection.
Destroyer ST-17, destroyer ST-18.

Judging by the numbers, I was under 17, and so I went after 18. It was just a shame I couldn’t reach the locator.

Sum total of your skill levels: 640 (device control: 160, hacking: 160, perception: 160, anatomy master: 160).
Sum total of ST-18’s defenses: 400 (hacking protection: 100, resistance: 100, resilience: 100, willpower: 100).
Probability of successful hack: 37.5%.
Attempt 1… Successful.

Perfect! Block the idiot and… Wait, what was that?

You destroyed a larva-level creature.
Level +20 (401).

There was an explosion, and the destroyer I was under lurched, pressing me even harder into the ground. And when the crimson mist cleared from my eyes, one of the red dots denoting the big irons had disappeared from Drone’s radar. What just happened? I hadn’t done anything… Did they equip it with some kind of self-destruct functionality?
I had lots of questions and no answers whatsoever. The flying platform I was lying under headed over to where its comrade in arms had died, though it made the quick journey without me. I’d let go of the brackets and remained right where I was. Of course, it wasn’t pleasant when the platform ground its way over my face and chest, though at least it didn’t break anything vital. Damn, those trials really do boost your pain tolerance! Even with my chest gashed straight down to the bone, I knew I’d been through far worse. And once I was sure I hadn’t been seen, I decided to crawl over toward the locator. It was just half a kilometer away, having taken up a strategic position on higher ground. The perfect spot for tracking everyone and everything. I knew the battle would be won if I could hack into it—I wasn’t about to blow up the second destroyer, as logic told me the area around me would light up in a hail of rockets if I did that.
Looking around, I was surprised to see what the remaining destroyer was doing. Instead of continuing the hunt for me and bathing the soil in electricity, it was digging through the remains of the dead destroyer like some kind of bum going through a dumpster. And while I didn’t understand at first what it was doing, the whole thing suddenly hit me—my noa and pearl were there in the hollow. The metal giant had detonated right on top of them. Wait, so what happened to my loot? The explosion didn’t destroy the stones, did it? Give me my stuff back! I was so peeved that I was about to crawl back when I stopped dead in my tracks. Chills even ran down my spine. The chances were good, at least 200%, that the destroyer had let the general and its high command know that it had found the pearl, which meant everyone and their mother looking to get on the general’s good side would be on the spot within half an hour. The entire hexagon was about to converge on that one little item. After all, if even Villian had prioritized the reward the boss had offered for the pearl, it had to be an awfully tempting one.
For some reason, I felt the sudden urge to crawl back into my armor. It was so strong, in fact, that I instantly decided how I was going to make that happen—turning away from the destroyer, I crawled back toward the locator. That was my shot.
The sly machine was sitting in one spot, though safety was still number one. It was impossible to get through the early warning system set at about fifty meters away from it. At least, that’s what I called the hell it was unleashing within that radius.
On the other hand, I didn’t need to get any closer. Even without Raptor, I was perfectly capable of using my device control, as my level made it possible to hack into anything within 160 meters. They had to be in open space and within line of sight for me to reach that range, of course, but that was precisely the situation I was looking at.

Probability of successful hack: 37.5%.
Attempt 1… Successful.

Block… Wait, no! No blocking!
As soon as I had access to the locator’s inner workings, an interesting thought crossed my mind. I was planning on getting into the general’s location. And the battle I was currently in had taught me where humans placed in the grand scheme of things—no matter what I was wearing, no matter how high I got my skills and attributes, a good locator could still find me. And that tended to lead to all kinds of unpleasantries being hurled in my direction. No, I need to be smarter about this.
The trick I was thinking of had worked once, and I didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work a second time. Taking care to calculate every move, I pulled up the locator’s settings. Raptor was going to be indispensable when it came to whitelisting myself, and I was going to need my phone to get to Raptor. That all took time. A second or two for my phone, a second for Raptor, and another second to strap it onto my arm. In other words, I had to blind the locator for what felt like an eternity.
But how? How was I going to get the system to glitch without triggering the self-destruct mechanism? I wasn’t really sure why the destroyer had exploded, though I assumed the locator was rigged with just as many explosives. And I wasn’t going to be able to take control. There were too many question marks, and my knowledge of mines was too limited.
Time was of the essence, so I decided to sacrifice a pawn. I wasn’t sure how good the machine was at handling multiple targets at the same time, but I couldn’t think of anything else, and so poor Drone came soaring down out of the clouds right at the destroyer. At first, the latter didn’t pay it any attention, though that quickly changed when Drone got to the remains of the dead destroyer. It had seen that my invisible little friend had an arm it could use to get my loot back.
Wait a second! Why hadn’t it occurred to me to hide the noa and pearl inside Drone? It had a special compartment there for just that purpose. Unbelievable! When am I going to get some smarts?! Such an obvious move, and still… The emotions had clouded my mind.
While I was busy berating myself, the game printed out my phone, following it quickly with Raptor. The locator perked up and even popped out another antenna. As it was clearly working in tandem with the destroyer, I saw the killer robot stop digging around and turn toward me. It needed just one good hit to end me, but it was at exactly that moment that Drone dropped its invisibility and reached its arm out toward the crumpled remains of the first destroyer.
Even from my distance, I heard the enraged squeal the big machine let out as it turned sharply to greet its new opponent. Drone banked hard to the side, though the robot was faster. One flash, and the part of my brain responsible for Drone went blank. It had died the death of the brave. The destroyer began turning toward me to finish the job, but that’s when Raptor appeared in my hand and stretched toward the locator. Come on, baby, don’t let me down!

You added yourself to the white list.

The destroyer finished turning toward me, took aim, and…nothing.
Slowly, almost as if it couldn’t believe what was going on, the machine turned back to the remains of its comrade and resumed digging around for the pearl. There was almost no time left until the players I assumed were coming were going to get there, so I had to hurry. No longer hiding, I dashed over to where the explosion had taken place. Nobody paid me any attention. The locator wasn’t acting up, so everything was all right, and that was the second destroyer’s undoing.
Yet another explosion rocked the location—as soon as I blocked the machine, the self-destruct system kicked in. Time was running out, though I still stopped to print out Ulbaron. I had no desire to make my way across open ground without it. The good news, at least, was that I’d still gotten credit for taking out the destroyer.

You destroyed a larva-level creature.
Level +20 (421).

The explosions had left no loot behind, and that hurt. As I’d been going through the fight, I’d been at least looking forward to a few million hitting my pocket at the end. But no, the general was taking care to choke off my income. Well, there’s one way I can still make some money. It wasn’t much, but it was still something.

You took the first picture of 2 dead larva-level creatures. 280000 coins received.

Placing my hands on the still-hot metal, I didn’t bother trying to pull it off the way the second destroyer was going about it. Things were easier for me—I could turn all the different parts into dark dust. I’m not sure why the destroyer didn’t just do that. It was way faster.
The pearl was right there in the hollow where I’d left it. Of course, I did have to print out Fang and dig around in the brick-hard earth, though nothing had happened to my treasure itself. The noa was in good shape, too—all five spheres had made it through the thermal processing. Although, to be fair, they’d turned softer, more compact. I’d never seen noa like that before.
Shrugging and assuming it was just a visual effect, I picked the stones up and—

Concentrated noa was processed at temperatures exceeding 5000 degrees.
Absorber attribute unlocked: <Description hidden, must become an absorber in order to unlock>
You can absorb processed noa to begin your journey as an absorber.
Time left to make your decision: 42 seconds.

I froze. Five balls of heated noa were lying comfortably in my hands, though it didn’t hurt to hold them. Actually, I got the sense that they were somehow more real, or the way they were supposed to be. The timer ticked steadily downward, the noa cooling in lockstep with it. Their suppleness also receded.
What’s an absorber? What does it absorb? How? Why?
With the edge of my consciousness, I noticed that the locator was telling me about a friendly target that had just gotten into range of its radar. Some player or other was less than ten kilometers away and closing fast in its quest to make off with the pearl. That did it. Even if something bad happened, I figured, I still had the pearl, and so I could just reset myself back to the way I’d been at the beginning. Fine, I’ll do it. How do you absorb noa?

Place processed noa in your mouth and swallow.

Oh, hey, there’s a tip! That meant the process wasn’t entirely unique, as it had been built into the game functionality. The stones tickled my tongue, almost the way a hot pepper might have. Swallowing, I immediately started printing out Valkyrie. My new opponent was coming in way too quickly.
But the process didn’t have time to finish. A gust of wind caught the half-printed pistol and whipped it off into oblivion along with the remains of the trees, the locator, and the approaching players. I found myself in the middle of an enormous, perfectly smooth cone. Looking around in amazement, I couldn’t help but notice the edges far off on the horizon. My stomach grumbled, and my muscles twitched as though from an electric shock, but I didn’t feel any kind of discomfort. I was thrown around, battered, and shaken. Some kind of black liquid oozed ominously from my skin. Still, I felt fine. Great, in fact. I felt purified, free of the damage that had been building up. The only problem was that my brain was putting up a fight—it was like it didn’t want to part with something important to it, though it calmed down when the black liquid beaded on my face.
I’d heard of nirvana before. And in that moment, I understood that it really did exist, and that it had taken me in its arms. All my cares were gone. I was pure. Enough. Complete. It was hard to find the words to describe how I felt.
But that’s when the text popped up:

General notification!
An absorber, a creature belonging to the creator and bereft of game limitations, was born in World of the Changed!
The game owner set a 1 billion coin reward for the destruction of the absorber.
You are the third absorber to appear in the entire history of the game!
Startup bonus received: you can add a personal quality.
Processing available qualities…
Note! You are the creator of Fang, a named item. Quality selected automatically.
Quality received: Sacrificial offering. Description: You can saturate targets with necrotic energy to sacrifice them. Limitation: All creatures within a radius of 2.9 meters away from you are sacrificed. You can expand the radius of sacrificial offering by leveling-up your named items.

An unusual stream of information had cascaded down on me, something about qualities and requirements that I didn’t really understand. I’d apparently stuck my foot in it yet again. Still, I didn’t get what it meant to be an absorber, not to mention how that limited me as a player.
“What’s an absorber?” I yelled into the air. I wasn’t expecting an answer, which made it quite the surprise when I got one.
“You’re an absorber,” a voice that was very much alive responded. Turning quickly, I found that a ghost had appeared behind me. It was amorphous, with no arms, legs, or head. Just a concentrated cloud, though I somehow still knew it was talking to me.
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“Absorb noa,” came the simple reply. “That’s your main objective.”
“Some details would be nice. This isn’t the kind of thing you come across every day.”
“You made the decision yourself, not forced by anybody. Absorbers are outcasts. Nobody likes them. Safe zones will no longer open their doors to you, and you will be hunted until you are destroyed by both players and functions. Everyone will be trying to take you out.”
A chill ran down my spine. I’m really in a pickle this time. The ghost continued.
“As an absorber, you have no in-game limitations. The game’s nanoparticles no longer work on you, and you’re entirely dependent on noa. But that’s your weakness. You have to absorb at least one unit of noa every twenty-four hours—that’s the only way you can survive.”
“But what’s the upside? The advantages?”
“There are no advantages to being an absorber. You’re just a creature with a different game mechanic—the creator made you to collect compensation from the owners. In fact, the creator is even okay with letting planets live if it can get enough compensation. Each living world has exactly one million units of noa, though the units swallowed by the absorber remain there forever. We can call that your advantage. The more noa you absorb, the better the chances that your planet will be able to survive. Also, for every unit of noa the owner doesn’t receive, it slaps down a hefty penalty. That’s why everyone’s hunting you—if they kill you now, they won’t have to pay as much.”
“What about the quality I got? Is that some kind of bonus?”
“It gives you at least a shot at living a little longer. The creator takes care of its creations, so you’ll be able to use sacrificial offering even without your dagger and regardless of the level and development of your opponents.”
“But I can still use the dagger itself, right? And the rest of my named items?”
“Sure. Almost nothing has changed for you, with the exception of your new quality, the new requirement to absorb noa every day, and the fact that everyone wants to destroy you. Everything else is the same as it’s always been. It’s just like I said—noa is now responsible for your existence instead of nanoparticles. So, no need to boost introversion, closure, or expanded consciousness anymore. It’s impossible to see you in the ether.”
“I need them for Zelda,” I replied automatically, though the ghost said nothing. The silence dragged on, and I decided to ask another question.
“What now?”
“It’s up to you. You have twenty-four hours to find and eat another unit of noa. By the way, you can’t absorb it in advance—every day, you need another unit. You aren’t just personified noa anymore. You’re an absorber. Good luck, Mark Derwin! I wouldn’t stick around this location—it’s going to get crowded with players, the changed, and a variety of functions.”
The ghost started to dissolve away, and I realized I still hadn’t gotten an answer to my main question.
“Wait, who are you?”
But the answer wasn’t forthcoming. My mysterious interlocutor had disappeared, leaving me alone with my problems.
The first thing I did was pull up my status table. If any changes had been made, they were going to be reflected there. But there weren’t many. The titles and ranks section had changed, leaving me with the lone title of absorber and not a single rank. And that was pretty much it. Worried that Valkyrie might have been printed out and destroyed, I opened my virtual storage, though everything was fine. My pistol was right where it was supposed to be. I quickly strapped all my named items on and sighed in relief—in that moment, I was alive and well. The fight wasn’t over yet.
The second important thing I had to do was take care of my own safety. Grust answered immediately, almost as if he’d had his phone in his hand waiting for me to call.
“Hey! Well, you really did it this time. Verloven is furious, and he told me to get you over here as soon as possible.”
“Do you have the noa?” I asked without bothering to say hello. It really had been a good idea to hand Grust a couple of the stones before leaving the location. I’d bought myself two days to react and put together a plan.
“Of course! Are you about to die?”
“No, I just need them. Fly over to the edge of the location. It’s important, so get there right now, and without Verloven. There’s only one thing he wants to do with me…”
“Got that right—a whole billion! It’s pretty obvious what he has in mind for you,” my former partner replied with a snort. “Okay, I’ll be there in five.”
“Great! Call me when you get there.”
I was going to have enough noa for two days… In that time, I had to find more, preferably a whole bag of it, and figure out what to do about my sister. That latter problem really had me stumped. The battle with the destroyers had shown me how powerless I was against a locator, at least, as long as I was wearing game equipment. And I was positive the general’s location would be even more heavily defended. After the changes that had just happened, I also had to assume the general wasn’t as willing to work with me.
Okay! I still had two days to find more noa and rescue Squirrel. That was enough whining—it was time to work. The monsters weren’t going to destroy themselves, and I needed to save the planet. A measly seven units of noa wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind.

Chapter 4

The red timer in the bottom left corner of my field of vision was my life sentence. If the ghost was right, as soon as the number dropped to zero, it was game over for me. The prospect wasn’t a great one.
But I still found a positive for myself: the noa Grust gave me went right into my inventory. Having the absorber status had changed something in the settings, and the game no longer gave me problems when I tried to send the stones off into virtual reality. Sadly, the same trick didn’t work with the rainbow pearl. I was forced to drop it into my pocket.
I flew around the crater under cover of the invisibility Zelda offered. The ghost had been right—I got the feeling all the players in the hexagon had gathered in one spot. The variety was impressive. Some races I’d already come across, though they turned out to make up just a small portion of the army that had invaded Earth. There were all kinds: robots, giants, creatures with fur and long teeth, tiny beasts, and others that dashed around nimbly. And they weren’t just on the ground, as the air was packed with thousands of flying machines, winged creatures, and all the other players that were able to fly one way or another. The latter worried me most—it took a special player to get their hands on Ulbaron and its flying modules.
The key figure in the entire menagerie was Two. Off looking like a colossus, the general’s spawn was giving orders to everyone else there. And it wasn’t an iron astride a platform; Two could move around confidently on its own two legs, though it was hovering above the rest of the ground in that moment. I zoomed in as close as I could to check out my opponent’s armor. It was… Perfect? No, not that. It was exquisite. Even my advanced Ulbaron looked like a cheap knock-off in comparison. When my perception kicked in to give me a picture of the inner workings, I sighed in disappointment—I’d never come across anything like that. The general’s spawn was one solid mechanism without a single weakness. When I tried to think of a comparison, the T-1000 from the classic movie was the only thing that came to mind, and it was made of all kinds of self-contained parts capable of adapting to meet any threat. In fact, Two didn’t have any vital nodes. Everything was spread out across its body to the point that it would have remained dangerous even if you tore off its legs, arms, and head, and left an enormous hole in its body. I also assumed that it was capable of splitting itself into multiple parts that could attack from different angles.
I wasn’t even sure how it was possible to take it out… There was just hacking, though something told me I’d have to hack every individual part. Whatever the case, I was in no hurry to engineer a confrontation.
Although… The T-1000 had been unbeatable, too, though a few choice words and the aborigine’s quick wit had proven equal to the task. There was a way, I just wasn’t seeing it. I’ll find some liquid nitrogen and give that thing a bath. And then burn it alive.
Zelda had just ten minutes of invisibility left, so my only option was to beat a hasty retreat while quelling the urge to drop a few dozen thermal mines on the players from above. They were going to live to fight another day.
I decided to stick to the plan. Making my way over to the closed location had been my intention, and so that was what I was going to do. But once again, life got in the way of my plans. Just as I arrived at the edge of the funnel, Raptor told me I was getting a report. And that surprised me to the point that I had it push everything to my screen.

Condition: critical. Damage localized. Repairs required. Communication channel with head dispatcher lost. Antennas damaged. Requesting permission to go for repairs. Details: <list of damage>.

I stared at the message in shock for a few moments. Why had the locator, which, judging by the signature, was what had sent me the message, suddenly decided to ask me for help? Raptor quickly found the device, which had somehow survived the blast I’d triggered. It had toppled over onto its side and looked like a termite-ridden stump. There were scratches, gashes, and holes everywhere. Really, I was impressed it was still alive.
Valkyrie leaped into my hand, and I began trying to figure out how I could get rid of my opponent as quietly as possible. But that was when it asked for help once again. The text was the same—it was almost like the machine was fighting for its life. Realizing full well that I was making a questionable move, I used Raptor to send it a message.

Mark. Explain why you’re contacting me.
Locator. Player in white list. Antennas critically damaged. Repairs needed. Cannot contact base.
Mark. Where is the repairs base?
Locator. Location 48. Transport not required.
Mark. You have permission to go for repairs. Head to location 48.
Locator. On my way.

My breath caught in my throat when I realized what the locator was asking me for. Location 48 was the general’s headquarters. The iron brotherhood apparently all got their repair work done there, which meant… Well, it was time to take a risk.
Raptor did a scan of the locator’s body, finding several convenient niches large enough for a person to hide in. Creaking and sparking, the locator pulled itself up onto its thick legs. I didn’t want to distract it from its important assignment, so I alighted on its body and ducked into one of the openings left by the explosion. Once inside, I deactivated my invisibility and started tossing everything I had into my inventory—paranoia was fast becoming my middle name. Nobody could know that I was inside the locator, not even someone random who just happened to be watching. And it didn’t take a genius to realize that the machine was going to be thoroughly scanned before it was permitted into the general’s location. That meant I had to go dark, with no game items to give me away. It wasn’t my first rodeo.
The locator shook and wobbled from side to side, though it trundled onward toward its destination with admirable tenacity. The explosion had damaged most of its components, and it was flying on a wing and a prayer. Between the point of the detonation and the general’s home base were eight locations, or four hundred kilometers. At the rate we were going, it was going to take us a day at best to get there. But I wasn’t in a hurry. If there was anything World of the Changed had taught me, it was patience. When you had to wait, you had to wait.
“Status report!” I suddenly heard someone bark, and the locator sent it out. I was copied in. The good news was that it didn’t have anything in it about a Mark Derwin.
“I’m comandeering you,” the voice said, making me tense up. Hey, find your own transport!
The stranger continued.
“There’s an assignment for you from the general. Follow me—we’ll get you repaired.”
Surprisingly, the locator even tried to argue back. There was no mistaking the tone the machine used as it hummed away.
“It’s not for long,” the stranger cut in, apparently understanding the robot language. “We need to meet the cargo and get it to the storage. And since locators are scarce right now, we need every one we can get. Mark Derwin can’t get his hands on the noa.”
I even stopped breathing in my effort to avoid giving myself away with a happy cry. Apparently, the locator had run up against a unit escorting a transport. Perfect! The only problem was that I was going to have to make some changes to myself—I was tired of being blind as a bat as soon as I took off all my equipment.
It was time to cash in on my bonuses.
The locator changed course and headed off toward the strangers’ repair base, and I used the time to print out my phone, no longer worried about having to make it through a scan. Then, I started digging through the store.
Okay, then.
What was most important for Drone, as I was going to name my flying pillow again? First and foremost was the flying base, not to mention the camouflage system and universal protection. That was three bonuses. Of course, there was the high-resolution camera, the scanner, and the cartographer, without which I wouldn’t have been able to send Drone off anywhere at a distance. That was three more. Adding a level eight machine pistol, an arm, and a storage took up the last three. I was left with no bonuses remaining, and I knew there was no way I was going to be sacrificing my new toy unless my life depended on it.

Drone universal drone. Description: Eighth-generation flying device. Range: 600 km. Flight speed: 450 km/h. Maximum altitude: 20 km. <List of expansions>. Requirements: device control (130), device repair (130), agility (130), camouflage (130), introversion (130), concealment (130), consciousness block (130), trackless (130), pistol shooting (130), monster knowledge (130), anatomy master (130), perception (130), cartography (130), good eye (130), spatial recognition (130), electromagnetic pulse protection (130). Cost: 2000000000 coins.

The list of requirements came as an unpleasant surprise, though there wasn’t anything too bad. I had all the attributes and skills, and even at the level they needed to be at, so the flying pillow sped off as soon as it was updated. The only thing I did was stuff the rainbow pearl into it—my investments were paying off. Turning its invisibility on, Drone flew out and started following me, streaming the feed to my phone.
Speaking of the feed, there was something I’d been meaning to do for quite some time. Having figured out the description, I headed over to the store and bought a syringe with 16,270 free points that cost almost all of the coins I had left. The last 6.3 million were there for a rainy day. They wouldn’t have gotten me anything serious, anyway.

Decoding +160 (160).

I got lucky in that the attribute was primary for the infiltrator class. Judging by the description, it was going to let me understand robot speech, with all the little squeaks they liked to make, and also work more closely with machines. But the most important thing was that the attribute helped me see the feed from Drone. I was tired of staring at my phone—it was time to give my consciousness a boost.
Just as I’d suspected, the squad of thirty humanoids was walking out in front of my mangled machine, the procession heading in the direction of the city we could already see off in the distance. Drone set off ahead and found the base, one of a few factories the monsters had occupied with their equipment. The players weren’t very high-level—nobody in the location was above level 100. The average level was just above 70. But that seemed odd to me, as everyone, including the troops around me, looked awfully nervous. It didn’t take long to figure out why, however, as a quick look of the location ranking told me I was right there at the top. Nobody was above level 100…with the exception of me.
Yes, when I’d taken off Fartira, I’d been unmasked, showing up once again in the lists. That was presumably what had gotten the group riled up. And they weren’t the only ones—the list of top players began to change rapidly. Three and Four headed up the impressive reinforcements. But what took me aback was that they were both below me in the ranking. Pulling up the hexagon ranking, I found myself in…
Sweet mother… I wasn’t anywhere in the top hundred. It was populated exclusively by some kind of steroid-chomping monsters. Hey, what about fair play? Where’s the antidoping committee? The player in 99th place was at level 733, while the top slot was occupied by someone named Elhar Gee—level 1233. How many people did he have to kill to get that high? The game owner had pulled its entire army into the hexagon to take me out as quickly as possible.
Soon enough, the horde was going to be in my location. At least, unless I stopped fooling around. There weren’t any scanners powerful enough to find me, so I had to wonder why I was there getting my inner exhibitionist on. Time to put some clothes on!
It didn’t take long for high-level players to show up and squeeze me out of first place. Sooner or later, they were going to check everything and eventually find me. And I couldn’t let that happen.
Getting my equipment on in the darkness I’d consigned myself to turned out to be easy enough. My named items fell into place; my name dropped off the list. I could practically hear the sigh of relief making its way around the location. Surprisingly enough, the immortal creatures were in no hurry to go see their forefathers—everyone wanted to live a little longer. There was more to steal, more dirty tricks to play.
“Hurry, before he comes back!” the brigade commander barked.
“He won’t be coming back,” another fighter said. “He’s an infiltrator, and this location is packed. No, he’ll be out there looking to catch loners, not coming after crowds.”
“Hey, don’t be underestimating the enemy—no relaxing.” One more player had joined the group, and I tensed up when I realized I couldn’t see it on Drone’s scanner. Raptor couldn’t reach that far, so all I could do was keep an eye on it. Perception didn’t work through walls, unfortunately. But the one thing I could say for sure was that the newcomer was wearing Ulbaron, armor I would have recognized even if the feed hadn’t been high-resolution.
“What are your orders, Osler?” the commander asked, telling me who I was dealing with. Osler Der was the top player in the location at level 849.
“Repair the locator,” the player replied before suddenly running some kind of scanner over the machine. There was no describing my shock, as I was right there sitting inside with all kinds of game equipment. Fang sprang to life, and I was ready to cut my way out and make a break for it when I realized that the scanner was just there to identify damage.
“I have no idea how it survived,” Osler said with surprise. “Good work intercepting it—Mark won’t be able to sneak up on us as long as it’s around.”
“What would he care about us for?” the brigade commander grumbled. “He’d be better off taking out a noa plant—”
“And cut off his own oxygen supply? Mark is an absorber. He can’t live without the plants, so he’s going to come after them only as a last resort. No, his best bet is to intercept transporters and their cargo. That’s why the local general ordered us to distribute our forces—Mark won’t know which one has the noa. Okay, get to work! We’re already behind schedule.”
I didn’t like Osler. It was too smart, almost like Villian, and I could only wonder where the owner found fighters like that. I’d assumed Villian was the most dangerous player around, the head of the owner’s personal guard, but in that moment I recognized how wrong I’d been. There were players who were much stronger, much higher-level, much scarier. To pick up one level, you had to kill a hundred thousand people. Level 849 therefore meant killing almost 85 million Earthlings. Even if Osler got some of those levels for completing missions, it still took out a good fifty million. But…wait a second! I wasn’t sure where it had even found that many. Most of Earth’s population had been turned into monsters… It was strange. From what I could see, there were a good hundred players at or above level 700. If they’d each killed 50-80 million people, how did the math work? At the very beginning of the game, there’d been that message about how there were just a bit more than a hundred million Earthlings left. My memory is failing, my math is off, or there’s something I don’t know about how aliens level-up. One more factor to consider was whether they showed up in the game with existing levels or had to start over.
My head was spinning. And really, what did it matter to me? All I cared about was that they died there on Earth, and I was going to do my best to make that happen.
The locator’s legs gave out just a couple hundred meters away from the factory. I was nearly crushed by the collapsing metal, though Ulbaron saved the day—it quickly hardened to keep me safe from what would have been an unpleasant death. Drone showed me the players tossing ropes around the locator and dragging it into the factory, though I decided not to send my little friend in. There were just too many variables in too small a space. And that left me relying on my scanner and Raptor. Finally, the latter reached Osler, and I had to doubt if it could have taken Villian out even at the latter’s much lower level—it was at level 849, though its Ulbaron was only at level 14. Damn, even Grust had better named equipment! What’s that about? On the other hand, it made sense why Drone couldn’t see it, as the six-level difference was too much for its scanner to overcome. But why did it even come after me? The owner would have presumably told it what level equipment I had. Or maybe, it doesn’t know.
“Get to work! We only have five hours to put this baby back on its feet,” came a shout, and the area filled with strange sounds. As far as I knew, repairs meant using nanoparticles to fix the damage, with no need for the circular saws I heard kicking into action immediately following the order. Still, the aliens were cutting, hammering, and welding away. It got so noisy, in fact, that I had to turn the volume down in my headphones. And the whole process took forever—three hours, at least. In that time, I gained continuous access to Drone, which meant I no longer needed my phone to watch the feed. I was even able to get some sleep. That didn’t keep me from missing the main order I was waiting for, however.
“Set up the antennas! Reboot the system!”
That was when the excitement began. I’d written myself into the locator’s access list, and I was worried about how the machine would react to me once it was restarted. Placing both palms on the body, I kept refreshing my device control to make sure I connected to the dead machine as quickly as possible. Finally, there was a spark, and the locator’s consciousness began to return. The process struck me for whatever reason as a well filling with water. I wasn’t sure why my brain picked that particular visualization, though the device’s inner workings appeared in front of me the second the final drop of water was in place. And while I’d been afraid the machine would go bonkers telling everyone I was there, the white list remained unchanged by the reboot.
“Status!” Osler called, and the locator replied with a series of quick squeaks. And even though I’d been expecting to understand the machine language, my mouth still dropped open. No longer were the squeaks just empty sounds. Instead, I could differentiate between and even interpret them.
“System tracking functionality at 100% power, scanning range at ten kilometers. Scan depth: 30 levels.”
“Boost scanning range to thirty kilometers.”
“Additional processing power needed… Changes approved, resources obtained. Scanning range increased.”
“Is Mark Derwin showing up on your scanner?” Osler, the bastard, knew how to ask the right questions. I really was on the scanner, just not the way it was thinking. I was a friend, not an enemy. Yet again, I tensed up.
“Within a radius of thirty kilometers, Mark Derwin is not among the creatures subject to scanning,” the locator replied, and I could have adopted the thing right then and there. It had responded precisely and without going into detail. The reply satisfied Osler, though it was in the details that the devil was. And while I wouldn’t have thought to clarify that moment, it seemed surprising that an experienced player well-versed in the game logic wouldn’t think to check and see if I were on any lists not subject to scanning. Or is Osler not that experienced? Villian, for example, definitely would have known to dig deeper.
“Let me know as soon as he shows up on your radar,” Osler said before yelling over at someone else. “Clear! We can move out—Mark left the location. Any idea where he might have headed?”
“Either to a closed area or a noa concentration plant. He needs to find noa, and soon, too,” the second player replied. “You stick with the convoy—get the noa to storage. Once you’re done, grab the locator and get back here. I have an idea where the absorber might be hiding.”
“Okay, Elhar,” Osler replied. A red warning light went off in my head. Elhar Gee for whatever reason seemed like a much more dangerous opponent than Osler, and while the voice had come from right next to the locator, the player wasn’t showing up on either Drone’s scanner or Raptor’s scanner. That only left two options that I could think of. The pair might have been talking remotely, or the latter might have been so advanced that I couldn’t pick it up. And I very much hoped it was the former. I was screwed otherwise.
Nothing else happened as work was completed on the locator. Nobody tried to climb inside—everything happened on the outside. The players had remembered how to fix equipment, and I finally had some space as the twisted metal eased back into place. The supports straightened up on their own, nodes and components appeared out of nowhere, and things were back to the way they were supposed to be. I even had to look around for a new, more comfortable spot.
Finally, the moment had arrived, and locator pulled itself up onto its thick legs. Heading out of the factory and into the open square where the rest of Osler’s little army was waiting, I found myself only able to get a visual head count. Raptor’s scanner didn’t pick up all the players, and Drone didn’t have anyone, as per the usual. A quick glance told me there were three hundred high-level players in the area. Presumably, they belonged to Osler, as it was the most advanced.
“The noa convoy is half a day away,” Osler said, addressing the group. “Our job is to make sure the cargo gets to the storage safely. The locator will help us keep the absorber visible if it tries to attack us, and you’ll all need stimulants. It’ll take us about a day to get to the storage. And nobody will be sleeping. Okay, move out!”
The locator jerked and set off smoothly after the army. In the meantime, all I could do was pull up my virtual interface and stare sadly at the two spheres of noa. The first was going to be swallowed in about twelve hours, and the number of enemies around was rising inversely to the amount of time I had left. Screw it! That wasn’t the first time things had looked dire for me.

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Release - April 2, 2020

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