Friday, May 1, 2020

League of Losers by Michael Atamanov

League of Losers
by Michael Atamanov
Book 1: A Cat and His Human

Pre-order on Amazon -
Release - June 30, 2020

Introduction: An Argument in a Restaurant

“Young man, they’re going to kill you!”
I tore my gaze away from my bloodied fingers, stopped my fruitless attempts to pull out the shard of glass stuck deep into my palm, my dripping red fingernails sliding off it. My eyes lifted. The speaker was a tall and slender man in an old-fashioned dark suit with fancy golden buttons and cufflinks. Weird clothes. For some reason, they made me think of the days of Sherlock Holmes, Queen Victoria, Alice in Wonderland. All the stranger needed to complete the look of a late nineteenth-century English gentleman was a top hat and gold pocket watch. His clothes were entirely unsuited to the weather. Even in my army dress uniform, I was boiling. What was it like for him..?
In the meantime, the odd stranger repeated that phrase of his again, that they were going to kill me. Only this time, he went into detail.

“They’ll knife you twice as soon as you leave the restaurant. A grievous wound to the liver. But the second thrust is worse, the one that cuts through the mesenteric artery. You will bleed out. The ambulance called by your ex-girlfriend will fail to get you to hospital in time, Andrei.”
I shivered. I hadn’t mentioned my name. But then I realized that it had come out a few times during the recent fight, while my girlfriend, unfortunately now ex, tried to shout sense into me and pull me away from her new boyfriend. All the same, this strange man’s words made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. How could he know what was going to happen? With such precise details of future events? But the stranger obviously believed what he was saying to the very end!
He was either a madman or just brave, I didn’t know which… If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t have gotten mixed up with a guy who’d just been in a bloody fight, his emotional state obviously not most receptive to advice and lectures. Nonetheless, I saw no sign of fear in the stranger’s eyes. On the contrary, he emanated icy calm. He was absolutely certain that he could deal with me if he had to. To be honest, that scared me more than his creepy predictions.
He wasn’t young, but was still far from old. It was tough to figure out his age — his dark hair contrasted sharply with his gray streaks and too-youthful skin without a hint of a wrinkle. His eyes stood out — black, sharp, piercing straight through me. If not for those eyes and the gray streaks in his hair, I’d have said he was thirty-five. But no, nobody that age had eyes so piercing, full of the wisdom of long life. Smooth, olive skin. Drawn face, thick brows, aristocratic nose. It wasn’t just his age that was hard to figure out, but his nationality too.
Who was he? Where had he come from? He sure didn’t look like a waiter or restaurant musician — I’d seen the workers’ uniforms at this joint; they were nothing like this. And he was too confident, his voice too used to giving commands. Maybe the restaurant owner? The man stood patiently, awaiting my answer to his warning.
“Um… Why will they kill me?” I said, trying to argue with this strange man after the long pause. “I could call the police, and they’d come and scare off those bastards. Or I can go out through the back door and avoid any deadly knifings.”
The stranger thought for a moment, then shook his head and spoke with a strange certainty in his voice:
“No, Andrei, that will not change your fate. Calling the police will only delay, not prevent, the inevitable finale. As will an escape through the restaurant’s back door. In that case, the killer will simply ambush you outside your apartment building. Karina has already reported your address to your foe’s vassals.”
I got upset. I recalled with crystal clarity that nobody involved in the recent fight had spoken my ex-girlfriend’s name aloud. And what was that strange word, ‘vassals’? Not ‘lackeys,’ ‘stooges’ or ‘thugs’ as any modern person might say. The half-forgotten word ‘vassals’ smelled like musty tomes.
A madman, for sure! Now he sighed as if he really felt sorry for me. He slowly sat down at my table and languidly stretched out, crossing his hands on his belly, fingers intertwined. I couldn’t help but notice the massive golden signet rings inset with large gemstones adorning the man’s carefully manicured fingers. At the same time, for some reason it became unbearable for me to look the man straight in the eyes. I broke off my gaze, looked down again at my broken hand.
What surprised me was the feeling in my gut that he was right. No doubt my ex-girlfriend Karina had passed on the address to her new love interest, so he and his buddies could easily find me. Karina knew which apartment I lived in; we’d spent some time there together. Stupid! Stupid! Everything had turned so stupid! For the last three months of my army service, I’d felt that something had gone wrong in my relationship with Karina. Back when my girlfriend stopped sending her daily string of messages of love, declarations that she was waiting for my tour of duty to end. At some point Karina started giving monosyllabic answers in our calls, tried to cut off the conversation quickly, saying it was an inconvenient time — she was about to do an exam, she had a girlfriend visiting, didn’t want to talk with someone else around…
I swept a crystalline salad dish off the table onto the floor. It had somehow survived the recent fistfight, but now the heavy dish smashed with a piercing ring, sending shards of glass and remnants of Greek salad across the floor. The bouquet of flowers that Karina hadn’t picked up met the same fate — rich red roses fell to the floor and I trampled them mercilessly. The restaurant’s customers turned at the noise and shook their heads in clear disapproval as they observed my antics, but none of them seemed eager to get involved and draw my attention. On the contrary, as my rage-filled eyes crossed the hall, the other diners hurriedly turned away and took to studying their plates. Nobody wanted to try talking me down. Alright! I unclenched my fists.
Only the man sat at my table maintained complete equanimity as he watched me… no, not with judgment at all, but with interest, as if waiting for something. My anger and annoyance was slowly abating, giving way to the fatigue and desolation that follows outbursts of emotion. I followed the example of my surprisingly calm new companion and sat down at the table with him. Then I spoke, tired and indifferent:
“So my fate is predetermined, and Annushka already spilled the sunflower oil…”
The strange man suddenly perked up, raised his head, looked at me in surprise. A pleased smile stretched across his thin lips.
“Oh, you should have said! For you see, he didn’t like my suit, and I had no golden watch in my jacket pocket. Excellent, Andrei! It’s so nice to meet someone so well-read, to talk to someone so intelligent and discerning. I also love the meeting at the Patriarch Ponds in that great master’s book. That means I won’t have to introduce myself. Let’s get straight down to business.”
As if by magic, small metal tweezers appeared in the man’s hand, and he offered the instrument to me. Somewhat in shock from his words, I placidly took the tweezers. Grimacing in pain, I somehow managed to get a grip on the shard of glass in my hand and pull it out. It started bleeding again and I stemmed the flow with a napkin the man offered.
“Thank you… But please don’t look at me like that! I’m not usually this violent. I know I don’t come off too well from this,” I said, feeling truly awkward over my recent explosion and especially my appearance; face covered in bruises, hand bloody, dress uniform collar torn, the left shoulder pad displaying my Corporal rank hanging off… “But today was a bad day! My ex-girlfriend’s new loverboy is going to need a trip to the dentist. And probably a surgeon too, since I messed up his nose pretty good. Look at all that blood on the floor!”
The man stayed silent, and I wasn’t expecting him to answer anyway. It was dumb to brag to a perfect stranger (and particularly one of a less than human disposition, if my suspicions were correct) of my daring deeds in a restaurant fistfight. I sobered a little and told him I was listening.
“Good, Andrei. I’m sure you already know the first outcome of recent developments: you can leave everything as it is, and you will die today.”
I gave a quick nod, surprising myself with how calm I was. The man had already mentioned my death, and more than once. But right then, I wanted to hear the other options of how things might go — after all, this chat was for a reason, right?
The mystery man smiled happily.
“Yes, young man, you are very perceptive. I really do have something to offer you. No, no, I don’t want you to sell your soul,” the stranger suddenly laughed, and I blushed. He read my fears and doubts far too closely. “My dear Andrei, you have such outdated views of our interests. There are almost eight billion people on the planet Earth, and the truly righteous among them can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There are more than enough sinful souls to go around. The deficit of a millennium ago has long since disappeared. No, it is something else entirely that interests me and mine.”
My creepy interlocutor fell silent as a frowning and decidedly official-looking restaurant manager in a severe suit with a bow-tie approached our table. I saw it. He was about to ask me to pay my bill, plus all the property damage I’d done, and then leave his respectable establishment and never show my face there again. I couldn’t fault him for that at all. I was even a little grateful that he and his colleagues intervened in time and stopped the fight, preventing the posse of my defeated and floored opponent from rearranging my face. Four on one, and two of the attackers had knives. How was that fair?!
I was already mentally preparing myself to listen to all the tedious lectures, and even put my hand in my pocket, ready to take out my wallet and pay. But I was wrong. No lectures came. The manager wordlessly placed two shot glasses of vodka on the table — one in front of me, the other in front of the important gentleman in the dark suit — then called over an older cleaning lady and ordered her to clear away the mess of glass, food remnants and blood on the floor.
“Let us return to our conversation,” the man suggested. He downed his vodka, then looked at me in surprise. “You aren’t going to drink, Andrei?”
I mechanically took my glass, held it and… put it back on the table. My mood was too far gone.
“I’d prefer to keep my mind sharp for such an important moment,” I explained. My answer seemed to satisfy the man.
I didn’t bother voicing the second reason, that it was best to stay sober before the police arrived, and arrive they would; they’d have gotten a call about a fight in a downtown restaurant already. That way, when they questioned me at the police station over the fight with the rich kid and his ‘vassals,’ they couldn’t say I was drunk. The stranger seemed to read my thoughts, as another clever comment showed.
“When your flashes of impulse release their grip on you, you become an incredibly perceptive man for your twenty years.”
“People have told me that all my life,” I admitted, since I really had regularly heard similar from all kinds of people. “But I can’t do anything about it!”
I really do seem to be two completely different people at once. One is calculating, careful, not rash, even a little boring. Thanks to his diligence and love for the exact sciences, I was nearly the best in my class in the state exams, and was accepted into the most prestigious university in the city. And the opposite of that nerd is the second me — impulsive, explosive, spontaneous in his decisions. Leaps before he looks. Fun, companionable, very popular with the ladies. He got me kicked out of university in the first year by getting tangled in a bad idea involving fake tickets to concerts and sporting events… Incidentally, my girlfriend Karina was the one that pulled me into that. Oh, well. Didn’t matter anymore. The army draft saved me from more serious consequences in that fiasco.
“It’s great to have two characters. It can lead to the most interesting outcomes… But let’s get back on track. What do you think about starting your life over, Andrei?”
Seeing nothing but confusion on my face, the stranger decided to explain further.
“No, I don’t mean being reborn and living your life’s path again from an ignorant infant onwards. I mean this: keeping your memories and all your knowledge and life experience, but fundamentally changing your life. Sending you to an entirely new world. Unexplored. Primal. Mysterious. Dangerous. And at the same time a hell of a lot of fun, that I can promise you!”
The offer was a great surprise to me. I couldn’t answer right away. First I wanted to clarify a point of some importance.
“Do I understand right that it won’t be on Earth?”
“Yes, you understand perfectly,” the gentleman in the old-fashioned costume confirmed without hesitation. “There’s no sense whatsoever in starting a new life here on Earth. The Great Game on this planet has already reached its final stages, the outcome is already clear. And although this was, as it were, ‘easy mode’ for humanity — no competitors, wild beasts your only danger, all demonic creatures barred from your world — your civilization has nonetheless passed the peak of progress and is inexorably dying, rapidly degrading, and fast descending into a passive consumerist society.”
The man spoke confidently and assuredly, although I immediately noticed a contradiction.
“If demonic monsters can’t enter this world, then why do we have so many fairytales and legends of them, even references to them in religious texts? How do people know about demons at all?”
“Another point to you, Andrei,” the stranger laughed, clearly pleased. “You’re very perceptive. But I’m sure you can appreciate that isolated summonings of lone demons by complex ritual are one thing, and a full-scale demonic invasion is quite another. Incidentally, note that you also have no dragons in your world, but almost all your civilizations have myths of them. Although there were dragons in the last, long since ended Great Game, in which you humans defeated the atlanteans and forced them out.”
The last Great Game? Atlanteans? Oh, right, the dialogues of Plato, ancient and lost Atlantis, the Great Flood that destroyed it, all that stuff… My creepy new friend seemed to be talking about that ancient era of prehistory. So there were dragons around then too?
“I get the demons and dragons,” I said. “But why has humanity ‘passed the peak of progress’? What I see tells me otherwise: advanced computing technology, satellites, spaceflight…”
“You never quite made it all the way out into space. Maybe you’ll build a temporary base on the Moon, but that’s about it. Computers? Fool’s gold that distracts your race from real problems. Science in its purest form has stagnated and now serves only corporate interest and increasing profits. In addition, even over many millennia, humanity has failed to unite. There is far less unity in the world than a thousand or even ten thousand years ago. Alas, you poor humans have lost. And not to some outside enemy or competing sentient species, but to an inanimate object: money.”
That was no fun to hear. I wanted to object, but I knew deep down that the man was right about a lot. Humanity was further away from conquering the stars than it had been thirty, let alone sixty years ago, in the days of Gagarin and Korolyov. Now it was all about money, money and more money. Distant planets and stars were far too expensive to reach, and promised no profit. No good to anyone. And there was no hope of the situation improving; only the richest, most cunning and least principled ever gained power in the ‘developed’ countries that set the policy of humanity as a whole. Countries with no interest whatsoever in changing the situation…
“You have it exactly right, Andrei,” the creepy stranger congratulated me again. I no longer doubted his supernatural abilities. “All we had to do was await a certain stage of humanity’s development, then plant the idea of money in your heads, then of a political structure that gives power to the most cunning and unscrupulous, and your civilization was doomed. Even my opponents in the Great Game admit this and are willing to concede defeat in this round. For this very reason, the conditions in the new game have changed: the human species now has competitors, even several. They will not necessarily be your enemies, although considering your human nature, I imagine that conflicts with competitors are inevitable. That said, players of the Great Game have a whole world of limitless possibilities! Each can become who he wants, and those are by no means empty words! You can grow wings, you can breathe underwater, you can do anything! And what’s more, everyone has multiple lives! This is an interesting new addition suggested by the other side, since it is the very fear of losing one’s only life that has often hindered the brighter side of human nature, the thirst for new knowledge in particular. But the main condition: in order to maintain experimental integrity, only volunteers will go to the new world, with complete knowledge of the significance and immutability of that step. We are not allowed to pull anyone in by hook or by crook. So I await your decision, Andrei.”
A new, unexplored world? Multiple lives..? It sounded interesting! Inside, I’d already made my decision, especially since the alternative was being stabbed to death by gangsters. And why not say it straight: there was nothing in particular to tie me here. My parents were dead. My beloved girlfriend cheated on me and left me for someone else. Friends? My school friends moved away. I never did get along that well with anyone in the army. At least not well enough to consider anyone there a close friend. My elder sister was the only relative I had left, but she had her own family, her own life, and no room in it for her good-for-nothing younger brother. Right now, my sister, her husband and their two kids were vacationing at a resort. They’d left me to look after the apartment. My departure wouldn’t upset her too much. Might even be a relief.
Long story short, I made my decision and told the stranger so.
“A wise choice, Andrei. I admit, I don’t usually have to spend so much time on a potential player. Usually, once they’ve accepted that they’re about to die, they agree to everything without a second thought just to avoid death. You’re somewhat different. It was very interesting to talk to you. So I’m going to give you a gift. Two gifts, actually. Firstly, Andrei, you will have ten lives, not nine like everyone else. Secondly, something even more valuable than an extra life: I’ll give you a day to pack. Those on the edge of death usually aren’t given that luxury. They go into the game with what they happened to have on them. Don’t say I never help you out! Leave your sister’s apartment tomorrow at precisely nine o’clock at night. Don’t forget to bring the kitten you picked up yesterday, or else it’ll starve to death in your apartment. You don’t want that on your conscience!”

Chapter One. A Day to Pack.

I woke up to a thin ray of light lancing through the gap between the solid window shutters. I glanced at the clock on the wall and jumped up in shock: already half past nine in the morning! The army traditionally woke you up at six, and you got used to it quickly. Half past nine! Hadn’t slept in so late in a long time. Oh, my head..! I moved too quickly and groaned in pain. My head was splitting, my mouth was dry, I could barely move my tongue. Guess I got pretty drunk yesterday… Where, with who? For what occasion? I didn’t remember… Although… Yesterday was supposed to be my long-awaited reunion with my girlfriend Karina after our long time apart. I took so long getting ready! Spent hours cleaning and ironing my dress uniform, bought expensive roses.
My memory started to come back, but only in fragments. I recalled standing a long time outside the window of a jeweler’s, trying to figure out whether I had enough money to buy two gold rings if everything went well on my date. Yep. I’d made my decision to propose to Karina, to make our relationship official, tried and tested as it was by long separation.
How did the date yesterday even end? And how did I get back home? I couldn’t remember a thing… And what was up with my left eye? My vision didn’t seem right somehow. I tried to touch my face and winced in pain. Rising from the bed with a groan, I walked over to the mirror. Woah! My left eye was red and swollen, encircled with a fat purple-black bruise. I noticed another huge bruise on my right shoulder, and felt other grazes and aches all over my body. Must have upset someone yesterday. Who? Maybe my headache and memory loss were somehow connected to my injuries? Must have gotten a hard hit on the head. Maybe even a concussion. My hand was pretty beat up too. I examined the wounds. Bruised, bloody fingers, a deep cut in my right palm… Did I fight back? Couldn’t remember a thing…
A mournful, whining mewl from outside the closed door interrupted my examination of my injuries. I hurried to open the door. A fluffy ginger kitten jumped spryly into the room on three legs, stretched. The little guy galloped comically over to me, raised his tail straight up, rubbed his head on my bare leg. Hungry, no doubt. I’d picked him up off the street the day before last, after seeing a car hit the poor little dumbass as he tried to cross the road. I’ve always thought of myself as a cold kind of man, but I couldn’t just walk past that. I walked up, looked at the orange fluffball whining in pain and fear, picked him up. The kitten’s back left leg hung lifelessly. Thick dark blood trickled from his nose.
He’d got it bad. I didn’t know if he’d survive. I didn’t have my own home yet, I was staying with my elder sister after coming back from the army, but I still couldn’t leave the helpless little thing to die. I took the kitten with me. Did my best at home to knock together a splint for his broken leg, put iodine on his wounds. The poor guy was in a real bad way the day before yesterday. I even lost hope that he’d pull through. But yesterday, the kitten started to come round, limping after me all over the apartment, falling down again and again as he learned to walk on three legs. I fed my foundling warm milk, cut up little pieces of sausage for him. After my date with Karina yesterday, I’d planned to buy a litter tray and some decent cat food…  
Wait! The kitten… Don’t forget to bring him with you… Or else he’ll starve to death in the apartment… An avalanche of missing memories crashed down on me. Vividly, clearly, I recalled every minute of yesterday.
I arrived on time at the restaurant, ordered a meal for two, waited ages for Karina. She turned up with a surprise; her new boyfriend and his sidekick buddies were with her. What an asshole! If he wanted to talk to me man-to-man, to explain the new situation, he could have come alone. I swear I would have had enough pride and self-respect to hear out him and Karina both, and then just leave, wishing them happiness. Only my rival hadn’t come alone. He brought three thug friends with him as backup. On top of that, Karina’s new friend was arrogant and rude. He threatened me, insulted me. There was no way we were going to have a calm conversation. He didn’t even introduce himself. Just launched into threats and abuse!
All I got from his boastful rant was that he was the deputy mayor’s son and a close relative of the city attorney. Effeminate and big-headed, handed the best of everything on a silver platter from birth. Used to always getting his own way, and always having others do his dirty work for him. Just like now; my cocky opponent hoped to stand aside while his three lackeys gave me a good-old-fashioned beatdown in front of my ex-girlfriend with their chains and knives.
That greedy little rich kid could think twice this time! I saw the way things were going and decided to strike first. Swinging my arm as hard as I could, filling it with all my pent-up anger and despair, I drove my fist into his jaw hard enough to send the spoiled kid’s teeth flying across the restaurant! Then I thrashed the bastard with my hands, feet and the remains of a chair that I’d just broken over the head of one of his buddies as he jumped at me with a knife. I kept beating the grinning bastard, now devoid of any sign of arrogance, until his three bloodied and frightened hounds dragged their master from the room as he spat blood and insults at me.
But I didn’t just remember the fight. My conversation with the mysterious stranger also floated to the forefront of my mind, from his first words to his last. Then I felt all kinds of bad. I sat down heavily on the chair. 
It was too unbelievable to be true. Did I imagine it? Did the meeting really happen? I didn’t know. I sat five minutes, sifting through my thoughts, feelings, memories. Of course, I could have just imagined all this crap, or maybe my hits to the head brought it on. But how did I get home? The easiest way to find out was to call Karina and ask her. Forget that; I had no desire whatsoever to talk to my cheating girlfriend. And hell, I doubted Karina wanted to talk to me after I beat up her new peacock.
I sat a little longer, took a deep breath, made a decision; better I look the idiot for spending all my money on hiking equipment than find myself in danger and absolutely unprepared. I took out my wallet and counted my cash. Not much, to put it bluntly. But, surprisingly, I still had it all down to the last cent — I’d taken a look at my cash before the restaurant too, and I’d had the same amount of money then. So how did I pay the restaurant..? And the taxi fare home? I guess the gentleman in the old-fashioned suit helped me out. That was a serious point in favor of the reality of what happened.
I warmed up some milk a little on the stove, poured it into a dish, put it on the floor.
“Have a drink, furball. I gotta go for a while.”
I locked up the apartment, called the lift, went outside and stopped to think. What did I need to take on a hike anyway? What dangers could await me in an unknown, primeval world? I had no clue. I’d need at least a weapon, some hiking equipment, good clothes. The Hunting and Fishing store nearby was a good place to start.
Green-brown camo waterproof jumpsuit with a hood and mosquito net. Camping mat. Backpack. Cooking pot. Flask. Compact chainsaw. Axe. Folding spade. Good hunting knife. Compass. Another knife, this time multi-functional, with various blades and tools. Half the money I started with was gone just like that, and I’d only just begun.
To my great sorrow, I had to abandon thoughts of a hunting rifle — the salesman started asking to see a firearms license, medical clearance and marksmanship certificate. He hinted that all the required documents could be drawn up in twenty minutes, even gave me a price. I just shook my head mournfully — I didn’t have that kind of money.
What if I took out as many loans as I could from the banks, borrowed from old acquaintances? I pushed the thought away. Sure, it might be my last day in this world, but I still didn’t want to be remembered as a cheat and swindler. No, I could get by on the money I had, although it would be tough in a world full of danger without a firearm. With no less sorrow, I also had to forgo a tent — too expensive for my humble pocket.
What next? Survival matches? No, they’d run out quick. Better to buy a firesteel, a stick of alloy that sparks easily when hit with a stone or knife. I got a good, bright flashlight that ran on batteries, and a solar charger for them. A durable climbing rope and metal carabiners. A few spools of fishing line of various strength and thickness. A plumb bob. Fishing hooks. A couple of the cheapest floats. I didn’t buy a rod — not enough money left, and I could cut one out of any suitable branch anyway. In the army (I served in the engineering corps), my buddies and I did just that; before big drills, we had to clear areas for helicopter landing pads in thick forests and live for several days on the banks of lost taiga streams. Instead of disgusting freeze-dried rations, we ate perch and even delicious whitefish roasted on an open fire. 
Alright, that was all for Hunting and Fishing. Now for the hardware store. A claw hammer. A big axe to add to my small hiking axe — both as a weapon against denizens of the forest and a time-tested way to cut down trees. A skein of steel wire. Plane. Mortise chisel, bevel-edge chisel. A few packs of nails. A small roll of thick polyethylene sheeting.
There my money ran out completely. But I wasn’t too concerned; I already had the tools I needed to survive, enough to build myself a little house. And feed myself by fishing if I found a lake or river.
All day went on packing. A little frying pan (I doubted my sister would mind). Oats. Salt. Spices. Needle and thread. A whole pack of durable plastic bags for garbage (a great way to keep things dry). Not everything fit into my backpack, I had to repack a bunch of times and ram everything down. That caused a new problem: weight. The pack was too heavy to move easily. I had to leave behind half the oats, pasta, sugar and salt, and some clothing. Tragic as it was, I had to leave behind my army dress uniform too.
At half past six I got the call I was both hoping for and fearing. It was my ex-girlfriend, Karina. Only instead of the expected excuses for her cheating and treachery, I heard entirely different words:
“I hate you, Andrei! You beat Eddie into a coma. He has a major bleed in his brain. A group of the best neurosurgeons in Moscow has been flown in. They’re operating on my fiancé’s brain right now. But I overheard the doctors telling Edward’s parents the chances of a full recovery are slim. The city attorney, and he’s Edward’s second cousin, has sworn to hit you with the maximum possible sentence. And the deputy mayor said the best option would be for you to be ‘accidentally’ shot while resisting arrest. So here’s my advice: right now, go and hand yourself over at the closest police station and confess. That might get you a lighter sentence. If you can’t do that, I’ll tell the police where you’re hiding…”
I switched off the phone, cutting off her bullshit. What the hell was Karina talking about?! Seriously? Confess?! Four of them came at me with knives and chains! It was self-defense! And I had no sympathy at all for my wounded opponent — if it weren’t for my decisive action, my skull would be split in place of his. Only I didn’t have the connections or the funds to summon a troop of the best neurosurgeons from Moscow and pay them…
Incidentally… I looked at the mid-range smartphone in my hand. Why did I need a phone in another world? I got dressed quick, hurried to the city market while it was still open. There, without even haggling, I sold my phone to a second-hand stall at the market. Didn’t get much for it, but some is better than none. I walked straight into the closest pharmacy and spent all that money on bandages, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine drugs; I might have to eat unusual and unfamiliar things, and food poisoning or allergies were worth considering.
The last minutes to the deadline of nine o’clock at night oozed by as slow as treacle. I was long ready, sat down, fully clothed, constantly checking the clock. Right before my departure, I ate my fill and fed the kitten too. No, I wasn’t planning to take the cute ginger furball with me. A primeval world full of danger was an entirely unsuitable place for a maimed and limping house cat. I’d bring the cat outside and leave him by the entrance to the apartment building, with a couple of bags of cat food. Only what happened next upset all my plans.
At ten to nine, while I was pouring some fresh hot tea into my hiking flask, a police siren called out from the street below. Blue lights lit up my walls. I took an interest, walked to the window. Two police cars with flashing lights and sirens on had pulled up right to the entrance to my building. Eight cops emerged from them, guns in hand. They asked something to a couple of old women sitting on a bench nearby, then decisively approached the entrance.
Were they after me? My heart pounded in fear. My ex-girlfriend Karina may well have been angry and spiteful enough to sic the police on me. She knew all about this apartment — we’d been here a few times when we were students together. We studied, and… found other, more fun things to do. The memory of the ‘accidental’ death option was still fresh in my mind. I wasted no time. Without waiting for the kettle to finish boiling, I switched off the stove and hurried to the apartment door. Threw on my backpack, tied the axe to my belt. I nearly forgot that kitten in my hurry, but saw him by the door and took him with me.
The lift was already coming up, about to hit the eighth floor, my floor. I didn’t even have time to lock the apartment door. With the heavy backpack on my back, I ran up the stairs. On the eleventh floor, I stopped and listened.
Just as I’d feared, the lift stopped at floor eight. Police surged out of it. Didn’t take them long to see that the apartment was unlocked. With crashes and shouts, they broke into my former abode. Only half a minute later, the assault team realized they were too late. A voice said the kettle on the stove was still hot, sent the team to cover the main exit and check all the apartments between floors one and sixteen. They also said I was an armed and possibly dangerous criminal. I didn’t feel like going down and explaining to the cops that they had it all wrong. I continued upwards, trying not to make any noise, until I hit the sixteenth floor. Worse luck. There was no stairway up to the roof on this side of the building. That was it, then. Trapped…
I rang the doorbells on all the apartments on the floor, wanting to hide inside one, but they all turned out to be empty. This was bad. Real bad! It looked like I had a couple of minutes left to live. But just as the SWAT team reached the fifteenth floor, just as I thought they’d spot me at any moment, a bright blue oval lit up on the concrete wall next to me. No way… The promised portal to another world? I looked at my watch. Exactly nine o’clock at night, down to the minute. Enough thinking. I walked right into the shining passageway, already hearing shocked shouts from the cops behind me — they’d seen me and the mysterious portal. But it didn’t matter anymore.
I was gone!

Chapter Two. [Andrei] Ghost Train

“Another one!” a female voice said. I opened my eyes.
Where was I? On a train..? The last place I expected to be was sitting on the lower bunk of a sleeper car, and a perfectly ordinary one to boot. Opposite me sat a young woman with wild, wet hair, holding a frightened, tear-stained boy who looked about twelve. It was chilly in the train car, cold even. The woman and her son wore only wet bathing suits. The train wheels thundered. I saw a snowy forest through a dark night outside the window. The train was headed somewhere, through dark and cold. I wondered; where? This was far from what I expected from a primeval world. They shouldn’t have railroads, that was for sure.
I was about to ask my companion in the car about this strange place, the sudden change of season from summer to winter, the night train’s route, but I froze with my mouth half open. Something far more important than my half-naked companions and the sleeper car caught my eye. Somewhere in the top left of my field of view, multicolored bars began to appear one after another. Red. Yellow. Gray. At the same time, floating hints appeared to tell me that they were meters of health, fatigue and hunger. All three bars were full. Before I could recover from these sudden life changes, a fourth bar appeared at the bottom of my view, this time empty. According to another hint, this was my progress bar to the next level.
What the hell..? Levels, hit points, experience… Where was I? Inside a computer game somehow..? That wasn’t part of the deal! That guy didn’t mention any of this! What came next only confirmed my suspicion of a virtual game; text appeared above the heads of those sitting across from me:
Elayne Makarova. Human. Female. Class undetermined. Level 1
Anthony Makarov. Human. Male. Class undetermined. Level 1
A similar message with my name and surname must have appeared above my head, because the woman suddenly addressed me by name, her teeth chattering with the cold:
“Andrei. Do you… hap-happen to h-have a spare sweater or warm… warm clothes?”
Her mouth emitted a cloud of condensation with each word. The air in the car felt close to thirty degrees, if not even lower. Without hesitation, I unclasped my backpack — I had a wool sweater in there, and a warm flannel shirt. Elayne started telling their tale while I dug through my pack.
“My son and I were on a boat when it s-s-suddenly overturned in the waves, and we st-started sinking. Anthony and I c-can’t swim. We w-went under and started falling to the b-bottom… But then… Th-that strange light appeared. I didn’t even th-think about it. Just agreed to a n-n-new life. I t-turned up here alone. I was so scared that my s-s-son stayed behind in the water and died. But a few seconds later, Ant appeared n-next to me. Only a wet b-bathing suit and swim trunks aren’t s-suitable clothes for this place at all. I tried to take the curtains off the windows, but my h-hand goes straight through them. Thank you, Andrei!”
My clothes turned out to be far too big for my traveling companions, but they weren’t about to complain. The woman pulled the sweater on over her wet swimsuit and pulled the shirt over her son’s head, rolling up the too-long sleeves. In the meantime, I tested Elayne’s words, reached for the curtains on the window. Funny and creepy at the same time… My hand passed right through them like they were incorporeal! Was I a ghost? Or were the curtains themselves immaterial?
I noticed something else. My progress bar to the next level had filled a little! Not much, maybe five percent, but that meant I’d done something that the game rewarded, and made a little progress to level two. I didn’t see when it happened, though. When I gave the clothes to the other passengers? When I tried the curtains? Damn shame that I hadn’t had time to fill my thermos with hot tea. My partners in misfortune could have used it. Their teeth chattered. And I suspected that would have filled up my progress bar even more.
“Don’t suppose you could find some winter clothes for me too?” I looked up and saw a grizzly middle-aged man leaning out of the top bunk. He reeked of tobacco and stale whiskey, and for some reason, smoke.
The man’s hair was scorched on the left side, and there were burnt holes in his dirty t-shirt and sweatpants. I guessed he’d fallen asleep drunk with a cigarette and set fire to his apartment.
Badass. Human. Male. Class undetermined. Level 1
I didn’t answer right away. First I wondered about the new guy’s strange nickname. Why no name/surname? You could do that? How did you change your name? Suddenly, my character summary appeared before my eyes:
Andrei Bestuzhev-Kislyakov
ATTENTION!!! You can change your name only once before level 5.  
Human. Male.
Level 1. Class undetermined
ATTENTION!!! Game class is determined automatically at level 10 based on the skills you gain and your play style. Your class may be updated/corrected further until you reach level 25. After level 25, your class cannot be changed and you will no longer be able to use skills incompatible with your game class.  
Currently suggested class: Thug, Soldier, Fighter
Character stats:
Strength 17 (+15% damage dealt in close combat)
Agility 18 (+20% reaction speed, +20% action accuracy)
Intellect 11 (Effect unknown)
Perception 12 (-10% range to vision, hearing, sense of smell)
Physique 20 * Your high Physique gives your character special abilities
Luck Modifier -3 * Your extremely low Luck gives your character special abilities
ATTENTION!!! You can redistribute up to three stat points
Character attributes:
Health: 132 / 132
Stamina: 187 / 187 (high attribute for a character of your level)
Mana: 0 / 0
Max burden: 75 lbs
Mutagens used: 0
Notoriety: 0
Character skills:
Hand-to-Hand Combat 1 * Mutagens not used
ATTENTION!!! 1 of 6 possible skills at level 1 chosen
Character’s special abilities:
Hardy Brute * Ability available to creatures with significantly negative Luck
+10% resistance to cold, heat, poisons, radiation and other aggressive effects  
Resilience * Ability available to creatures with high Physique
+15% resistance to cold, heat, poisons, radiation and other aggressive effects  
Regeneration * Ability available to creatures with Physique at 20 or above
+1 Health per minute
The only thing that bothered me was that I got resistance to the external environment both from my Physique and my Luck. That seemed a little redundant. Or did they stack, giving me +25% defense in total against external forces? That would be great. As for the rest, I’d gotten a pretty good character. Strong, agile, resilient, tough. A born fighter. Only my pathetic Luck bothered me. What did Luck do anyway? A game hint appeared instantly:
The character’s Luck modifier influences your chance of hitting with any long-range weaponry, your chance of being wounded when falling or taking damage, your winnings in gambling games and your chance of dealing critical damage to a foe. Luck does not influence your chance to find trophies, but does increase your chance of a more valuable find.
Not much, then? Not much. I could do without Luck. I’d never liked gambling, and I didn’t have any guns. I planned to fight with my axe. Chance of getting hurt from a fall? But I had good Agility, so I shouldn’t fall too often. I saw no reason to redistribute my character stat points.
But my name… That I really wanted to change. I’d never liked my double-barreled surname, I was self-conscious over it. No idea why my parents were so proud of it. The Bestuzhevs were a very old noble family in Russia, with roots stretching back to the seventeenth century and the time of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great. The traditions of the Bestuzhev nobility dictated that daughters kept the surname, which is what led to all the Bestuzhev-Ryumins, Bestuzhev-Marlinskis and so on. But now the twenty-first century was knocking! All those high and mighty titles disappeared long ago! Anyway, my distant ancestors’ family tree might have been in the same orchard as the Bestuzhevs, but only just. Cousins who-knows-how-many-times-removed. Silly to fancy yourself a descendant of aristocracy on that basis. On top of that, the Bestuzhev family name comes from, as our history teacher in school taught us, the Russian word ‘besstyzhie,’ which means ‘shamelessness.’ My classmates called me ‘shameless’ for years. I’d rather skip that in this world…
Alright, could I remove my surname from my game nick? Turned out I could. Only I couldn’t just set ‘Andrei’ as my name:
Error. A player with that name already exists.
What was I supposed to do, use Andrei_1, Andrei123 or some other dumb substitute? Bullshit. And if unique names were already in short supply, then how many generations until every possible name was taken?
I tried to just change my game nick completely. I wanted to choose something short and snappy, but still threatening, showcasing my strength and courage, with a reference to my army service. All the good names were taken. Hero, Fighter, Gunner, Grunt, Soldier. I tried another dozen similar options, but they were all taken too. How many people were in this game already?!
‘Sergeant’ turned out to be available. Why not? Perfectly good nickname for a soldier. Maybe I only made it to Corporal, but I still rushed to grab the nick Sergeant before someone else stole it.
“Well, soldier boy? Got any warm clothes for me?” my neighbor on the upper bunk drew my attention again, pulling me away from inspecting Sergeant’s stats.
This Badass guy had some attitude! His pants looked just fine, and he had a t-shirt, albeit a little ragged, and sandals covering his feet. In comparison with the other passengers in the car, he was doing alright. Over on the lower side bunk, a dark-haired and completely naked girl had just appeared, staring around in horror and belatedly covering her nudity with her hands.
Margarita Ovchinnikov. Human. Female. Class undetermined. Level 1
She was going to have a rough time with no belongings, not even clothes. As for me… Compared to the other travelers on this weird train, I looked a rich man. Who was I to judge Badass for wanting to be better equipped to face the new world? Now I understood what a huge leg-up I’d gotten by having a whole day to prepare. Next I needed to use that advantage to do something useful toward leveling up my character, and maybe make some new friends.
I dug out some warm socks for my bunkmate up top. Badass immediately pulled them over his grimy feet and pointed to my rubber boots next to my backpack.
“Give me the boots too, don’t be greedy! My health is too low to walk in the snow barefoot. Don’t worry, soldier boy, I’ll pay you back! I’ll help how I can! I’ll give my shoes to that mommy over there,” he pointed at Elayne Makarova, who was listening to us.
Should I really give Badass the boots? He looked like the type who’d been around the block, seen and suffered a lot. Maybe he really would come in handy? The new world promised to be dangerous. A friend and ally could be useful.
“Here! Enjoy!” I passed the boots to Badass and pulled out a spare t-shirt too, to give to the mortified brunette, who, having tested the corporeality of the curtain, was now covering herself up with all her might.
But what was this? Under the mass of stuff in my backpack, I saw a shining blue card. Looked like a playing card. I’d packed everything myself and was certain it wasn’t in the backpack before. I picked up the strange item, examined it. Really did look like a playing card. The material felt like tough cardboard, maybe plastic, hard to tell. One side had a weird runic inscription, the other — a snowflake. What was this strange thing..?
Your character does not have enough Intellect to identify this item.
“It’s a one-time-use magical artifact that causes a snowstorm,” the naked Margarita said suddenly, surprising herself. “Huh! How do I know that?”
I grabbed the old t-shirt, for which I’d opened my bag in the first place, and gave it to the naked girl. The progress bar to level two filled up to twenty percent.
Potential class removed: Thug.
Potential class added: Sheriff.
“Thanks, uhm… Sergeant! I’m Margarita,” she introduced herself for some reason, although everyone could already see her name.
Feeling the curious gazes of the passengers on her, Margarita hurried to put on the long t-shirt, which reached almost down to the girl’s knees, and spoke decisively, answering their unvoiced questions:
“Yeah, alright, I’m an idiot! I cut my wrists in the bath. What..? The cuts are gone..?” the girl looked at her wrists in amazement in search of the cuts, but saw nothing. “Strange. A couple of minutes ago there were cuts on my wrists. I really just wanted to scare my parents. They overreacted to me getting a boyfriend. I thought mom and dad would come running when I screamed, see me in the bloody bathtub and save me. And they’d get a good lesson on listening to what I have to say. But… I overdid it, I must have nearly killed myself. So much blood! All the water was red! I tried to call for help, but they didn’t hear me, and I was too weak to get out of the bath… If it weren’t for the angel, I would have died.”
The angel??? My gentleman in the old-fashioned suit seemed more closely related to the devil. It seemed different candidates were met by recruiters from different sides in the ‘Great Game.’ After the girl finished, I looked out the window. Did I dream it, or was our train slowing?
“We’re braking,” Badass confirmed, climbing down from the bunk with an old man’s wheeze.
Now I saw he was a little man, hair thin at the back, his whole body covered in prison tattoos. Through a big hole in his t-shirt, I could see a cathedral with four domes on his chest. Four ‘stretches’? Badass stared into the darkness of the window a long while, then suddenly spoke to me:
“Well, soldier boy, you coming along to find the train conductor? Let’s find out where this train of ours is headed. And we can ask that bastard why it’s so cold in here too!”
I hesitated a moment, deciding whether to take my backpack. Better not to risk leaving such tempting spoils lying around. I picked up the pack. Too late I remembered, knelt down and searched under the table and cots for my lame kitten. The ginger fluffball was nowhere to be found. Well, all the better for him. I followed Badass out into the corridor, already full of people, and we hurried toward the conductor’s cabin. There were so many people on the train! They sat two or three to a bunk. Many even stood in the corridor. Every single one looked confused, bewildered, even afraid. Badass and I caught surprised looks, but nobody spoke to us, let alone tried to stop us.
The convict threw open the doors to the conductor’s cabin… And found no one to complain to. The cabin was empty. And it seemed like it had been empty for a very long time. Maybe it had never been inhabited — we saw no conductor’s possessions, no mattress or sheets. In the meantime, the brakes hissed — the train was stopping. I glanced out the window and saw a bright light ahead, some dark figures. Our train was expected…

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Release - June 30, 2020

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