Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Range: The Keepers of Limbo by Yuri Ulengov

The Range, book 1
The Keeper of  Limbo
by Yuri Ulengov

Pre-order on Amazon
Release - December 14, 2020

Chapter 1

Earth Federation, Orion System. Rhapsody, Sector 3 of the Gray Zone—conditionally safe zone of the Range. Drop-off zone.

The rescue pod hit the ground so hard that for a moment I lost consciousness and my guts nearly jumped out of my throat. Hey, at least I wasn’t blown to pieces. I could have been. If the engine turned off ten seconds earlier, I would be dead meat by now.
Technically, the brake engine should be running until the landing is completed. Technically, the pod should have been scrapped long ago. And it was—with me in it. The mechanics responsible for the drop-off don’t give a shit about the passenger’s wellbeing, and wasting fuel to ensure a soft landing for someone like me…? As one of my cynical friends would say, “Forget about it!”
After hitting the ground, the pod jumped up and bounced from rock to rock like a frog. The safety system, of course, had been shut off. Dangling from the belts (thank God they hadn’t been removed!), I clenched my teeth, trying not to bite off my tongue, and prayed for only one thing: that the next hit wouldn’t be fatal. Whether my prayers were heard or whether I just got lucky—I’m not sure but I survived. The pod, deformed and twisted into a smashed can, finally stopped. Wasting no time, I began to untangle myself from the belts. In theory, there was nothing in the pod that could explode but there were other dangers beyond just fire.
“Welcome to the Range!” an AR greeting flashed before my eyes.

Yeah, whatever. I kept fighting with the belt buckles, jammed at the worst moment as if by Murphy’s Law.
“Attention! You are in the Gray—conditionally safe—Zone. Aggressive fauna and mechanisms are absent. Remember: weapons of danger level 6 and up are banned in the Gray Zone. The use of such weapons has serious consequences. Please see Help for details.
NewVision Corporation strongly recommends that you insure your life and health. In the event of your death, compensation will be paid to the persons you specified.
Error. The player has been identified as prisoner No. 33286AN, sent to the Range under the sentence substitution program. Insurance: not available. Introductory briefing: not available. Help: not available until progress level 5 and initiation.
Be careful and pay attention. Don’t forget to pick up your starter pack.”
Thanks, guys!
I unbuckled the last belt and tried to open the hatch. Yeah, right! It’s pretty amazing that this bucket of bolts didn’t fall apart upon entering the atmosphere. Hopefully the emergency unlock system still works. I didn’t really want to be buried alive in this can.
I found a big mushroom-shaped button and kicked it. The squibs popped, the pod swayed—and the blown-off hatch flew off into the darkness. I felt a wave of cold wind. Damn it, that’s a sure way to get pneumonia! Of course, the climate control in the pod wasn’t working either. I nearly boiled alive during the short descent from orbit and now I was all drenched in sweat. Well, at least I was still breathing. I slipped the starter pack into my chest pocket and stretched. I needed to get out of here as soon as possible.
I was sure they were already waiting for me outside. Mutts, vultures, scavengers—they had different names here. The small fry, level 3 max, unable to act independently and save up for an upgrade. Bastards, only capable of trapping zeroes—dispirited, frightened, not yet adapted to the surroundings and without time to even look around—at the start. Vultures never go deep, where they are likely to fall prey to the higher-level inhabitants of the Range. No, they live here, in the Sandbox. They die here, too, when they come across a more prepared zero like me.
As I rushed out of the pod, I saw a shadow moving dangerously close to me and jumped to the side. Good timing!
An unidentified object whistled through the air right where my head was a second ago. I grabbed a piece of brick from the ground and threw it with full force into the darkness, towards the sound. I heard a thump and a squelching noise. The implant displayed another system notification. No time for it now. I blinked, swiping the message aside. I’ll read it later.
I heard a clink—the vulture dropped the rod—and darted to it. My fingers scraped the stone and closed around the “handle” with twine wound around it. Again, good timing. I heard the sound of a pebble flying off a shoe behind me and turned around as fast as I could, swinging my improvised weapon. The metal clinked and my arm was nearly paralyzed. With my rod, I intercepted the blow of another rod that the vulture, barely visible in the darkness, had swung at me with all his might. Having no idea how to fence using construction materials, I kicked the dark figure that appeared in front of me in the shin. The figure hissed in pain, and I followed up by hitting it in the head with my left fist. The attacker swayed, losing his balance and giving me a few precious seconds to grab the rod with both hands and bring it down on the vulture’s head. There was another squelching noise; the figure sunk to the ground and I heard the sound of hurried footsteps in the distance. Realizing that no easy prey was in the picture, the rest chose to leave the battlefield. All the better for me. Actually, I should be getting out of here, too. What if there were other freeloaders around here?
I picked up the rod and quickly searched both scavengers. One had a flask of water, the other had a pack of universal ration and a carefully filed-down strip of metal that had been turned into a handmade knife. Well, that’s a good start. A bag would be nice, too, so that I wouldn’t have to carry everything in my pockets but oh well. It can wait. Okay, there was something else I needed to do.
Trying not to puke, I began to pull off the clothes from the bigger scavenger. He didn’t need them anymore but I did; flaunting my orange prisoner’s jumpsuit around here wasn’t a good idea. Granted, almost ninety percent of us here were prisoners, but the jumpsuit gives one away as a newcomer, unable to get more suitable clothes. Besides, it drew attention, not allowing you to blend in.
After changing my clothes, I chose the direction opposite to where the vultures had fled to and began to make my way through the night.
Cold. Dark. Deadly. Those were the first three words that came to mind if I were asked to describe this place. The dank March wind threw a handful of icy drizzle in my face, as if saying hi.
Walking was difficult. I encountered a few large boulders and parts of the path were blocked by rubble. This part of the city was hit the hardest. Several blocks lay in ruins and it was hard to maneuver among the piles of rubbish and debris of synthetic concrete. Still, I couldn’t slow down. Anyone within a few miles’ radius could have seen the pod landing, and I was a hundred percent sure that many would have liked to try their luck and get at least a flask of water and a pack of universal ration included in the starter pack.
Gradually, I approached the surviving city blocks. The rubble became smaller and less frequent, and soon the first buildings—your usual nine-story apartment buildings, very typical for all remote colonies—appeared in the distance. Fast, cheap, livable. What else do you need? The colonists—for the most part, miners, mining minerals, or factory workers, processing these minerals—were not picky at all. In the five years that a standard contract lasted they made so much money that they were willing to suffer through it. Back in the metropolis they lived on a grand scale, so that in a few months, having squandered everything they earned, they would go to the next shithole to work hard for the good of the Earth Federation.
I myself once fell for the amount listed in the contract and joined the army. Who knew that the war of the colonies would break out in a year, and in a few months a Xenos fleet would fall into our space out of nowhere and you would have to fight for your life instead of just hanging out at remote outposts? Admittedly, at least my chances of survival were higher: intensive training, a small-arms system and the assault armor are good assets to have when dealing with rebels and aliens. Miners and other sloggers weren’t as lucky. Still, we were the ones saving the workers from the assault of the Xenos. While they just had to survive one attack when waiting to be evacuated, the planetary assault forces risked their lives every day.
Yeah, it’s hard to believe. Only two months ago I was the commander of an assault company. Now, I am prisoner No. 33286AN who chose the Range as an alternative to the electric chair. Life can be fickle.
The rubble was completely gone by now, and I was making my way through a badly damaged but still standing residential area. I had to be three times as cautious here; you never knew who could be hiding in the darkness. They could have made me a long time ago and could be following me now, waiting for a chance to attack. It may be paranoia but at the Range paranoia is not a mental disorder but a quality required for survival.
I sat down, hiding behind the hull of a mobile, forever frozen by the side of the road, listening and peering into the darkness as hard as I could. Having lost their prey, scavengers would have started to scurry and eventually given themselves away. Most likely, no one was around. That’s good.
A pit—dug out as a foundation for a new building and abandoned afterwards—showed black in the distance. Next to it, I saw a temporary construction module and decided to make it my first rest stop. I needed to sit down, catch my breath and think about what to do next. Getting warm wouldn’t hurt either. The dank wind blew through the frayed leather jacket and torn-up sweater that I had taken off the dead scavenger. At least the walls of the construction module would shield me from the cold.
After waiting for a bit, I began to move towards the module, trying to keep in the shadows.
The module door creaked treacherously and I froze. Silence. Had I been followed, they would have attacked me by now. At least here I could catch my breath.
I sat down on a sunken chair and launched the notification bar.

Player No. 7892 eliminated. You earn 500 XP.
“First Blood” achievement received.
Player No. 7895 eliminated. You earn 500 XP.
Congratulations! You unlocked a new level.
Current level: 1.
Points to the new level: 2,000.
Attention! You receive premium currency from user Firestone. 300 credits have been credited to your account. User comment: “Great start!”
We would like to remind you that credits received from users can be spent on upgrades and additional resources. Continue to please viewers to get more premium currency.
Attention! Initialization available. Complete initialization to learn how to use the game interface.
I blinked the menu to the side and cursed through my teeth. “Great start!”, my ass! It couldn’t have gone any worse. I’ve spent less than an hour at the Range and already have two bodies to my name. Although I shouldn’t be feeling too bad about it—the bastards deserved it. Based on their serial numbers, they landed on the planet together, possibly as part of a group. It wasn’t hard to guess what had happened to the others. Most likely, the third one, who escaped, was from the same group. I know exactly how these scumbags unlocked their first levels. I don’t really care about them. But it’s going to get worse. Not everyone at the Range is scum that deserves to die. Many find themselves here because of different circumstances. Take me, for example. But if I want to survive here, I’ll have to forget about that. To me, they are just nameless players, each with the singular goal of killing me to earn extra points and currency. The main thing is to convince myself of this, and then, maybe, I will succeed.
I called the interface again, activated the link and looked at the menu that expanded in front of me.
Subject No. 33286AN. Code name: none.
Status: prisoner. Sent to the Range under the sentence substitution program. Edict of the Government of the Earth Federation No. 43897, amendment No. 4 dated 2/31/2385.
Sentence: life imprisonment. Decision of the Supreme Court of the Earth Federation No. 876456 dated 3/12/2387.
Insurance: not available.
Race: Terran.
Level: 1.
Subject abilities:
Strength: 8. Above average.
Endurance: 10. Above average.
Agility: 10. Above average.
Perception: insufficient data.
Accuracy: insufficient data.
Combat efficiency: insufficient data.
Armor: 1 (low-quality outerwear).
The values are obtained based on the analysis of the subject’s physical condition parameters and their comparison with the average parameters of other players in the Gray Zone. The values may change with the installation of implants and augmentations, the use of armor and equipment, and the move to other areas of the Range.
Specialization: none.
Initialization completed. To gain access to other interface functions, the store and specialized applications, reach level 5 and complete initialization of the basic implant.
Hmm, “above average.” Well, that’s better than nothing. The main thing now is to use these “above average” parameters correctly. It’s also important not to sit in one place. Life here means constant movement. If you have to hide, at least do it better than I just did. I have to keep moving. Just need to search the module first. What if there’s something useful here?
I minimized the menu, took a sip of water out of the flask, placed the rod so that it was easy to reach, and began to look around.

Chapter 2

Earth Federation, Orion System. Rhapsody, Sector 3 of the Gray Zone—conditionally safe zone of the Range. Drop-off zone.

The construction module was completely empty. I couldn’t find a single tool or object in there. No wonder. This sector is used as a drop-off zone. Everything was cleaned out long ago, either by the inhabitants themselves or by my former colleagues before them. Even prisoners weren’t dropped into the red or orange danger level sector. Everything here has been ransacked and looted. It feels like even the dust has been plundered. I suspect the inhabitants of the ruins only survive on what the so-called humanitarians—drones carrying containers with water and food—drop for them. Mind you, they do this not out of charity, as one might think, but only to make the show more spectacular.
NewVision Corporation, which sells broadcasts from Rhapsody, knows a lot about the shows, and the government of the Federation, exhausted by the war and barely starting to recover, is doing everything to please it. It is thanks to the corporation alone that the planet, which would have taken billions of credits to clean up and rebuild, not only doesn’t bring a loss but also generates some kind of profit. In addition to the lease paid by NewVision to the treasury, the Federation doesn’t have to worry about taking care of tens of thousands of prisoners who, on their own accord and for peanuts, clean up sectors with red and orange danger levels, ruins and wastelands, still full of hostile Xenos mechanisms and psychotic Terran autonomous military equipment that can’t be deactivated remotely. Fifty years from now, when the lease expires, the Federation will get a safe planet where minerals can be mined again. The fact that at that time it will have to deal with tens of thousands of prisoners, accustomed to the absence of the law, living brutally and by the “might is right” principle, doesn’t bother the Earth Government now. They have a lot on their plate. In some way, I understand them.
Alright, this place is worthless. I need to go deeper into the sector. There, I’d be more likely to come across something useful and less likely to meet someone cruising along the drop-off zone and hunting newcomers. Even vultures are not very scary if they don’t attack suddenly. A stone thrown straight at your head will kill you just as well as a firearm or an energy weapon. It won’t make a difference for me. I need to look for shelter. Heroic deeds won’t do me any good on the very first night. No one will appreciate it. Besides, without a plan and clear understanding of the situation, the chance of dying before reaching the second level is too great. One can say I got lucky by running into small fries in the beginning. In the future, I may meet more formidable opponents but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m stuck here for the rest of my life or until the end of the planet’s lease. All I can do is adapt.
I looked around. In front of me was a parking lot, filled with rusty and, in some places, burnt-out hulls of mobiles. On the right was a two-story coffee shop with a wooden terrace, not spared by fire. Behind the coffee shop towered the nine-story apartment buildings. I stepped aside, looked closely... and decided not to go there. Everything looks far too inviting there: there are plenty of spaces to hide; the yard is filled with mobiles; and the houses adjoin at a 90-degree angle, leaving only a crack in between—small but big enough for a person to slip through. A bottle, its contents still intact, is lying in the open. Nope, I’m not going there. The place is too good for an ambush. The bottle only confirms my suspicion. There’s no way resources would just be lying on the ground like that. Not here. Nope, fuck that. I’ll go the other way, to be safe. They’ll have to wait for other fools to fall for it.
On the other side, the road made a turn and went down in a straight line, about 800 feet, surrounded by a mobile parking lot on the right and a high fence on the left. It was too dark to see what was next. Maybe it was a dead end, an ambush at the end of the road. Maybe not. I wouldn’t know until I got there. But for all its unattractiveness, this way looked much more attractive to me. My intuition has finally kicked in. I tend to trust my intuition; it’s saved me more than once.
I adjusted the collar of my jacket and started moving along the road, trying to keep in the fence’s shadow.
Walking without making any noise was impossible; the road was covered with mud and puddles that produced an audible splash every time I stepped in them. Fortunately, the noise was successfully muffled by the dank wind, howling and hurling what felt like rain or sleet in my face. Perfect weather for a place like this. Cold, damp, gloomy, dirty... I caught myself longing for my favorite jacket that I had to leave in my old—other—life. Even though the jacket would instantly turn me into prey for those dying to get such a practical thing, it didn’t make a big difference. Those whom I’m going to face are willing to kill for virtual experience. They don’t care about what kind of clothes I’m wearing. Though, when they see that I’m wearing a TriDex jacket—waterproof, extra durable, and at the same time heated and breathable—any inhabitant of the Range will try to kill me carefully to avoid splashing too much blood on it. In normal clothes, they will just kill me without thinking too much about it. That’s the only difference. What does it matter now, though? The jacket was left in the closet, at the house that will now go to the Federation, and I’m here, on Rhapsody, splashing through the puddles, wearing clothes that I took off the vulture I killed... Enough distraction. What do we have here?
The road ahead of me curved to the right, making an almost 90-degree turn deep into the residential area. In front of me was a small front garden with a path crossing it. As far as I could see from here, the path adjoined the walkway that stretched between the buildings. On the left was a long nine-story apartment building, fading into the darkness along the walkway, with other buildings lining it on the right. I snuck through the front garden and hid behind the rusty trading module, behind the front garden, carefully peering into the darkness until my eyes started to hurt. All looked safe. A deceptive impression, though.
As if to confirm my suspicion, a pulse rifle sputtered angrily somewhere in the distance. In the silence, pressing down on my ears and disturbed only by the howling of the wind, the shots sounded very loud and clear. A piercing cry tore through the night, subsiding quickly. It seemed that someone was being killed. Although, people are killed here all the time, some—like this, with their killers risking their experience points being reduced for using energy weapons in the Gray Zone or even getting on the Most Wanted list—and others—like I killed the vultures at the start recently, silently and fast. By the rules. To be honest, I like the second option better. If, of course, you can say that about killing someone.
I heard shouting and footsteps somewhere on the other side. They were getting closer. All right, I need to find shelter. That’s enough adventure for the first night. I need to find a place to rest and then wait for the daylight to carefully look around and come up with a plan. I’ve got some food and water. All I need to do now is to lay low and wait, absorbing any information available to me. But where?
Actually, taking one of the apartments would be ideal. The buildings are large. There are a lot of apartments. If I’m being smart, I can turn one into a relatively safe hideout. No one’s going to go apartment to apartment without a reason. I just need to make sure not to draw attention.
The only thing is that this plan has a few bottlenecks. The first one is the building entrance. It’s too easy to monitor and too hard to move around silently. If I run into someone there, who knows what’s going to happen? Besides, it’s easy to block.
The second bottleneck is the front doors. How am I supposed to get in without keys or tools? I can’t. There’s no way I can open the steel doors with my bare hands, and hoping to find an unlocked door is stupid. If the door is unlocked, it means that someone has been inside. And there is always a chance that this someone will come back. This prospect doesn’t sound good to me at all. I need to act differently. And I think I already know how.
Right in front of me, on the first floor of the long nine-story apartment building, was a store that had been ransacked, of course. But it wasn’t the store or, specifically, what could potentially be found inside, that I was interested in. It was the roof overhang, from which I could have easily reached the second-floor balcony. The balcony was protected by strong bars and an insulated glass unit made of metalized polyplastic material, but it wasn’t this balcony that I needed. I needed the third-floor balcony, located next to the one with the bars. This one wasn’t glazed at all. Most likely, the apartment door was also standard and lightweight. I could take it out with a kick and then barricade it from the inside. Okay, that sounds like a plan. Now that I have a plan, I can’t just sit around. I need to get off my ass and do something.
I strained my ears—all seemed quiet. No shooting, no screaming. Screw it!
I got out of the front garden, crossed the walkway—quickly but trying not to make any noise—and hid in the store’s shadow. I hunkered down, looking around and listening to the night. I could hear some noise but it was too far away to concern me. Let’s go!
I stood up, jumped up, grabbed the edge and pulled myself onto the store’s overhang. The first stage has been completed. That’s good. I secured the rod behind my back, took two short steps to run up, put my foot on a ledge of the wall, jumped up again and grabbed the balcony bars. Damn it, slippery! Hissing through my teeth and kicking my feet, I finally found support. Okay, good. Now I need to grab the bars a bit higher and climb onto the windowsill. Done. Now let’s carefully shift to the right. Shit, the fucking windowsill is clattering! Alright, here comes the edge. Let’s carefully move to the next balcony. Oh, this one has horizontal bars. Great! Now it looks like a piece of cake!
As I climbed higher, I clung to the ledges of the balcony I was going for. Let’s face it, the horizontal ledges in synthetic concrete weren’t designed for climbing but I needed them more to maintain balance. The main thing was not to think about what would happen if I fell from a third-floor height. It could be nothing, or it could be a spinal fracture. Or I could fall on a spike, sticking out at the bottom... Nope, “No thinking!” I said. A quick jerk—and I grabbed the railing of the unglazed balcony. Now the other hand—pull up... Yes!
I rolled over the railing and lay on the cold floor for a few seconds, recovering. Phew! I’ve gotten soft and wasn’t really ready for all these stunts. I need to get back in shape before it’s too late.
Okay, enough. No time to lie around! Get up!
The balcony was empty. There was absolutely nothing I could use, except for an empty polyplastic bucket and a dirty rag. How could I possibly use these items? I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head. Okay, what’s next? Look through the windows. It was dark—I couldn’t see anything. Damn it. Well, I had no other choice. Let’s go in.
As I thought, the balcony door was cheap and flimsy. I listened closely to make sure that I hadn’t drawn anyone’s attention, positioned myself and slammed against the door with my shoulder.
The door flew open. I quickly grabbed it with my hand to prevent it from hitting the wall, took a step forward—
Out of the darkness, someone jumped at me, knocking me down and slamming my head against the wall.

Pre-order on Amazon
Release - December 14, 2020

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