Sunday, January 17, 2021

Reality Benders-7: Cause for War by Michael Atamanov

Reality Benders-7: Cause for War
by Michael Atamanov

Release - March 19, 2021

Introduction. Horde Conference


The Vaare Star System, Meleyephatian space

Gas giant satellite Vaare I-III, Horde space docks

Mobile communication center



The huge spherical room which had previously served as a construction hangar for the Horde's large landing ships had been hurriedly refit as a long-distance communication center for hosting an emergency fleet conference. That was because the preexisting communication points on every military base or large starship couldn’t be used due to security concerns voiced by Meleyephatian analysts. Their formidable adversary had already shown that they could quickly trace signals to their source and send starship strike groups there to destroy the Meleyephatian Horde's command centers. In an effort to avoid unnecessary loss of starships and personnel, military engineers had refit a structure at the orbital docks of the uninhabited Vaare system as a communications center in record time. Meanwhile, another group of military specialists had anchored a large number of gravity mines in nearby space because they had proven most effective against the adversary's small starships in comparison to thermonuclear munitions or antimatter charges.

Right on schedule, the holographic projectors on the inner surface of the hangar lit up. In the darkness, the glowing figures of the Horde's leaders appeared one after anotherthe grand admirals of its fleets and its political leaders. Eleven arachnids of the twenty-one on the list... Twelve... Fourteen... Eighteen... They waited another thirty seconds, but the three absent leaders never showed up.

The conference had been called by Krong Laa a level-402 Strategist, commander of the First Fleet and the formal leader of the Meleyephatian Horde whose mandibles were now twitching in dismay. Although he had backed away from the demanding task of managing the huge interstellar state and had long been on the periphery of the known galaxy, expanding the horde's territory and bending ever more races to his will, he was not expecting such flagrant disobedience as skipping a conference called by the supreme leader. Was this a rebellion? An attempt to undermine his Authority in hopes of lowering his rank? Just in case, the Krong got off to a cautious start:

"I do not see commander of the Third Fleet Grand Admiral Kung Rou. Leng Tou, Vassal Race Coordinator and Kung Maa, Head of Foreign Intelligence are also missing. Can anyone explain their failure to appear at such an important gathering?"

The answer came from Kung Paa, the Horde's Chief Analyst who had already stood unshakably in that position for one hundred seventy tongs. The wise and elder level-322 Analyst, all organs and appendages on his once living body having long since been replaced with cybernetic prostheses, had only the cybernetic implants and crystal memory drives enhancing his brain to thank for being counted among the living attendees of this conference rather than as a robot. Kung Paa had earned a reputation for always having his finger on the pulse of events occurring throughout the galaxy. But mere knowledge is not enough. It is much more important to use that flow of information to make far-reaching conclusions. And in that regard, the Chief Analyst surpassed even the Jargs.

"My Krong, the Third Fleet was stationed at the incursion point in the Kharsssh-O system and was first to give battle when our powerful and highly numerous foe suddenly appeared. Out of the fleet's three thousand five hundred starships, according to my data, just one hundred twenty small-class ships were able to escape. The fleet's flagship has been destroyed, and the commander's respawn point was located there."

The Krong's agonized chirr rolled through the hangar, echoing many times off its walls.

"What an idiot! I see the many tongs of peace and local quibbles with weak enemies such as the Miyelonians and other riffraff were long enough that our admirals forgot to observe elementary security measures! And I suppose half of the crews were also in the real when our foe attacked, otherwise I cannot comprehend the crushing defeat. He and his fleet would have been nice to have in the Aysar Cluster. Things have really been heating up there lately! In the blink of an eye, he'd have learned extreme awareness and readiness for action at any moment. Has Kung Rou come back in the real world? If so, he should be executed for incompetence immediately!!!"

"Yes, the Commander of the Third Fleet has returned. I was also able to obtain a report from him on the defeat and his losses. But after that, the main Throne World data centers were destroyed by our adversary along with millions of virt pods. And there have not been any further messages from the Kharsssh-O system in any reality. Our enemy is jamming all comms channels. Coordinator Leng Tou was on the Throne World as well. He perished according to reports corroborated by several independent sources. It is unknown what became of Foreign Intelligence Chief Kung Maa. He was in the Paku-Uuu star system, which came under attack after the Throne World. But I would venture to guess that Kung Maa managed to escape, given his personal cloaked frigate has not been found on the list of losses. Also, our Foreign Intelligence Chief is too cautious a player to get caught in such a foolish trap."

The Krong stayed silent, though he wanted to chirr in outrage. Yes, reports from the Throne World had been of the most awful sort for the last several ummi, but to hear things were that bad... He turned all twelve of his mobile eyes on the Chief Analyst and pronounced in a flat tone:

"I have been in a hyperspace jump with my fleet for the past three ummi and cut-off from communication. The panic-monger yellow journalists in the media keep jabbering about tens of thousands of starships of an unknown race appearing out of nowhere. And supposedly, a quarter ummi was all it took for them to wipe out every orbital fortification in the Kharsssh-O star system, which took hundreds of tongs to construct and were considered impenetrable. I trust those are exaggerations, yes? The Trillians couldn't even fight their way through to the Throne World with their royal fleet despite the fact that, at that time, it rivaled ours both in number and firepower. Tell me, advisor that this is untrue, and our orbital artillery is holding strong and fighting back!"

"Regrettably, that is not so, my Krong," Kung Paa understood that the ruler, famed for his quick temper, would not like that answer but right now it was more important to get the truth across than to sugarcoat distressing information. "We have credible reports of at least seventy-four thousand small-class enemy starships and over three hundred large ones equivalent in size to our battleships but surpassing them in firepower by approximately thirty times. The battle in the Kharsssh-O system was fast-paced and it was all over in just a quarter ummi. The enemy fleet neutralizes all starships attempting to leave the planet, while enemy battleships have switched to bombarding the Throne World. At the same time, no landing ships have been spotted in the Kharsssh-O System, nor any of the other systems under attack. All that has led us to believe our adversary means to destroy our infrastructure and population rather than capture planets favorable to habitation."

The Chief Analyst's tale was picked up by Grand Admiral Khii, Commander of the Second Fleet.

"I was receiving data from the battle in Kharsssh-O until the enemy cut off long-distance comms. They were attacking our Third Fleet, star fortresses and orbital artillery installations without regard for their losses from the outset. They lost over four thousand ships but destroyed all of the Throne World's defensive structures. In the first phase of attack, there were many documented cases of small enemy interceptors sacrificing themselves by slamming into our artillery or large ships at high speed and self-detonating. And that was happening in the real world, where respawn is impossible. My Krong, we have come up against a group of fanatics without the slightest fear of death. They sacrifice themselves for something they must be strongly convinced of without the least bit of hesitation, gladly even."

The Senior Psionic entered the conversation just then, all eight of his limbs weighed down with magic rings to improve his Intelligence, psionic abilities and mental power.

"Our psionics have confirmed that theory. According to the fragmentary thoughts we have managed to read, the 'composites' as they call themselves believe us to be an ancient nemesis something along the lines of a religious symbol of evil and they believe themselves to be conducting a historic holy war to bring our tyrannical reign to an end. We have yet to truly comprehend what 'ancient evil' they have taken us for. But the Composites are completely opposed to negotiations and will stop at nothing to destroy us. They are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to achieve their hallowed goal."

The Krong kept silent, then spoke up, not hiding his frustration.

"All religious wars, regardless of what hokum the rulers declared at the outset about 'ancient evil' or 'uncompromising holy struggle that cannot stop until total victory,' quickly trail off as soon as the people start hearing about the heavy losses they have incurred. A switch flips in their brains. 'Unshakable' dogmas change while the most notorious fanatic leaders are replaced with more flexible politicians. The Trillians were also once considered implacable religious fanatics, but we forced them to come to the table. However, there is another aspect of this story that's bothering me. Have we ever gone to war with the Composites before? I cannot recall such an enemy in the Horde's entire history."

The answer to that question also came from the Chief Analyst:

"No, my Krong. Neither the Meleyephatians nor our vassals have ever encountered the Composites before. I have checked every archive. In fact, it isn't even theoretically possible because our enemy came here from a different galaxy, which is now known for certain. I believe with a high degree of probability that our race was set up by other players in the game of grand interstellar politics. I can say with a probability of over seventy-two percent that the Trillians are behind the attack. Twenty-three percent it was the Miyelonians. And I put four percent on the Geckho. In any case, I assume that whoever was behind this invasion will be found in our galaxy, and we probably know who they are."

"Serious accusations. Tell me, on what basis did you reach these conclusions?" Krong Laa's chirr clanged with a metallic edge, which did not bode well for whoever would be found at fault in the audacious attack which had led the Meleyephatian Horde to lose its capital.

Kung Paa was eager to explain:

"As shown by battle reports and investigation of Composite ship fragments, our enemy starships' main weapons are pulse emitters, which instigate a quadrupolar destabilization reaction. To be blunt, it's a rare weapon around here. However, not long before the invasion, something a lot like it was used in the Trillian-controlled Taikhirhh-o-Tsykh star system. Meanwhile the hyperspace drive design used on the small Composite ships was patented by a Trillian corporation less than fifteen ummi ago. And that means the Trillians must have had contact with the Composites before the invasion and exchanged information with them."

The reasoning really was strong. All the Horde leaders at the conference agreed. However, Krong Laa was in no hurry to declare war on the Trillians and asked to be told the theories that could possibly implicate the Miyelonians or Geckho. The Chief Analyst explained:

"A Human Free Captain by the name of Kung Gnat figures prominently in both. A remarkable figure, I have put together a whole dossier on him. A swashbuckler with tremendous luck, he is a known confidant of Geckho leader Krong Daveyesh-Pir having completed special assignments for him in the past, and currently. He is also working for the Trillian royal family, having been rewarded by them for an unspecified outstanding feat with a functioning quadrupolar destabilizer, which is fitted on his frigate Tamara the Paladin. The best Gunner of the Trillian race was also transferred to Kung Gnat's crew to man it."

"Oh my! So, the Trillians are caught up in all this again," someone pointed out. But rather than get distracted the Chief Analyst continued:

"Furthermore, Kung Gnat is privately acquainted with a potential ruler of the Union of Miyelonian Prides Kung Keetsie Myau and, is in fact officially considered her fiancé. I have no doubts that the Great One has also assigned this man missions of particular importance because Gnat and his crew were mentioned in the incident on Medu-Ro IV which served as the official pretext for beginning the sixteenth space war between us and the Geckho and Miyelonians. So then, Free Captain Kung Gnat is one of the most highly regarded experts in ancient races, particularly the Relicts. We have intelligence suggesting a near one hundred percent chance that Kung Gnat is in possession of Relict technology capable of instantaneous space travel. Indeed, Kung Gnat is the only individual known to be capable of travelling to another galaxy in order to carry out this special assignment from his highly placed employers. Meanwhile, the Free Captain is not an independent figure. He has neither financial nor military power of his own. He is merely a middle-man and cunning agent engaged in someone else's war. Anyone out there could have hired his services."

"A truly remarkable personage," the ruler of the Meleyephatian Horde agreed. "The one thing I cannot comprehend is why none of you thought to try and hire this man to work for us. Diplomacy Advisor, I direct this question to you. Why is Kung Gnat not on our side? The Meleyephatian Horde would have plenty of missions for a clever swashbuckler who can travel instantaneously throughout the Universe."

"My Krong," the Diplomacy Advisor tucked in his appendages, making himself appear half as large before continuing his answer. "Kung Gnat did in fact offer his services to the Meleyephatian Horde in the past, and more precisely to our vassals from Tailax. However, the Prelates of Tailax committed a staggering act of foolishness and blackmailed the Free Captain, threatening his home planet and his female. Our partnership ended there, and soon after Gnat was declared an enemy of the Horde. Now the Free Captain is working for the Geckho, assembling an army of vassals on his home planet for the war effort against us on an order from Krong Daveyesh-Pir. Furthermore, Kung Gnat has been granted official protection by Kung Keetsie Myau. The First Pride intercepted a group of assassins sent by Tailax to Kasti-Utsh III and the Great One warned us that their peace treaty with the Meleyephatian Horde could be annulled if the Horde's vassals do not cease surveillance of her marriage-dance partner."

The ruler's reaction was predictably harsh.

"Just what we need right now! To be back at war with the Union of Miyelonian Prides! I demand that everyone involved in that failing be executed at once! Kung Gnat is no longer to be regarded as an enemy of the Horde, and he is to be informed via unofficial channels that I wish to speak with him personally. But enough about that swashbuckler. I need a situation report about the war."

The Chief Analyst quickly deployed a three-dimensional holographic screen of data arrays and started reading off the information.

"My Krong, we have lost four thousand combat ships including four battleships and two planet destroyers, which amounts to approximately fourteen percent of the Horde's total military might. The Composite has lost around seven thousand small-class starships and two battleships. It is still difficult to comprehend how significant that is to our enemy, because there are more of them coming out of the portals in Kharsssh-O constantly and the flow of starships shows no sign of stopping. Other than the Throne World, we have lost the three star systems closest to the invasion point. Communication with them has been lost. Battle is still ongoing in eleven more, but I see no chance of holding onto them. That's the bad news. Here's the good: The Second Fleet pulled off a difficult win in Larsssh-U, fighting back the Composite's attack and wiping out over seven hundred small enemy ships. The Fourth Fleet has joined forces with the Eighth and is heading toward the engagements. The Sixth Fleet has been recalled from the war against the Geckho and also redirected against our new enemy. In eight ummi, we will have a strike force in the Parsssh-O and Uparssshi systems of eleven thousand ships for my Krong to deploy as he sees fit. We have begun evacuating the population and manufacturing facilities from the most vulnerable systems near the fighting, for which we have deputized civilian ships. An order has been given to mobilize all our space docks to replenish the Horde's losses and all our vassals have been issued new accelerated production plans."

The rest of the Chief Analyst's report was cut-off by an emergency message from the communications officer:

"Attention! Composite ships in near space! One hundred sixty small Dero-class interceptors! They are approaching the mobile communications center!"

"Conference adjourned!" Krong Laa declared, setting an example by switching off his long-distance communications.

One after the next, the glowing holograms of the Horde's leaders went out the participants were leaving the conference.

"They sure detected this command center quick..." the Senior Psionic spoke out in dismay, glancing at a timer and performing calculations.

He received a response from the Commander of the Eighth Fleet, who had brought up a video feed from the space dock's external cameras for himself.

"Yes, very quick. And until we figure out how our foe is doing that, our flotillas will be constantly on their back foot. That's all. They're already coming over. On the other hand, we now have a chance to take down some of their starsh..."

The Grand Admiral was unable to finish. The mobile communications center disappeared in the bright flash of a large number of high-power gravity mines exploding in near space.

Chapter One. War Between Heavens and Earth[1]


I was in the dispatcher tower at the Geckho space port standing at a panoramic window in the restaurant area. The high perspective gave me an amazing view of the terrestrial space port which was unusually cluttered with spaceships. The great number of yachts, landing modules from passenger liners and shuttles belonged to guests at the wedding of Gerd Uline Tar and Viceroy of Earth Gerd Kosta Dykhsh. They ran the gamut from the tiny-looking Shiamiru cargo shuttles to a huge Kitivaru trade ship. A couple Sindirovu interceptors belonged to local Geckho services while three interceptors parked in a separate group belonged to the Relict Faction. My frigate Tamara the Paladin was surrounded by scurrying technicians under the watchful eye of chief Engineer Orun Va-Mart the Miyelonian and Supercargo Avan-Toi the Geckho, checking weapons systems, trading out fuel blocks and attaching proton torpedoes to suspension fittings. But all that space tech got lost on the backdrop of the three truly gargantuan large landing ships of the Third Geckho Strike Fleet, each of which was around as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza and even distantly resembling it in shape.

There was a half-mile-long line of Army of Earth troopers stretching out from every landing ship. Troops from a multitude of terrestrial factions, walking and wheeled combat robots, innumerable cargo trucks of equipment. The sight of it was majestic and even epic. Fifty-three thousand players. A bit more than the ruler of our suzerains Krong Daveyesh-Pir had demanded from Earth, but it wouldn't have been right to refuse those wishing to take part in the first combat operation of this scale our planet had ever seen. The troopers were overflowing with pride at the fact they were representing our world and were champing at the bit to prove to all the great space races throughout the galaxy that our humanity was worth something.

"Captain, should you perhaps go address the troops?" suggested Gerd Ayni Uri-Miayuu the Miyelonian, standing next to me and also transfixed by the spectacle. "They will be pleased to see the Kung of Earth and it would be good for your Authority."

It seemed like a sensible idea, but still I refused.

"I am not in command of this operation," I crossed my eyes at the pushed-aside tables in the far corner of the restaurant where a group of military professionals were holding a conference. The ruler of the Second Directory, the massive General Leng Ui-Taka was gesticulating wildly and poking his fingers into an electronic tablet lying on the table as he tried in elevated tones to drive something home to his staff officers and a representative of Third Strike Fleet Commander Kung Waid Shishish also attending the spontaneous gathering. Something had upset the highly experienced Strategist and he was telling the hulking Geckho officer his issues without mincing words.

Generals from the armies of Russia, Germany, China and the USA listened carefully to the representative of the magocratic world, nodding along and seeming to be in full agreement with him. Which could not be said for Gerd Avagi Dykhsh, sitting on three chairs at once in his heavy shock armor and insisting on his own point of view, stubbornly not wishing to hear his opponents. I had no experience commanding troops, so I stayed out of it. But nevertheless, I would have to figure out what they were disagreeing about eventually.

It was somewhat strange to see Human-3 Faction member Gerd Alexander Antipov the "fed" Inquisitor in the company of the highly placed military officers, but the ruler of the Second Directory approved his candidacy and even insisted on bringing the experienced counter-intelligence operative on as a staff officer. I must admit I didn't understand that decision, but still I kept my amateurish advice to myself. I felt like an outsider in general at this whole grandiose event, something like the pointless fifth wheel on a cart. My role was over as soon as the Krong of our suzerains' assignment was complete and the Army of Earth was formed. And now I was in deep thought, not totally understanding what to do next.

Fly off with the rest of the fleet on my starship? But first of all, one frigate wouldn't make a difference in battle against hundreds and even thousands of combat ships. Secondly, I wasn't even told where the landing ships were headed. When I asked that question to a representative of the Commander, Gerd Avagi Dykhsh was as delicate and respectful as possible, but he nevertheless firmly asserted that it was confidential information he did not have the right to disclose.

Naive. Naturally, I read everything I needed from his thoughts. The Third Strike Fleet's rallying point was the Ursa Star System. As an aside, I took direct part in its capture from the Meleyephatians and in many ways made it happen. But as for where the fleet would go next and what role the Army of Earth played in its plans, Kung Waid Shishish's representative himself didn't know. Maybe they really were destined for the Un-Tau Comet like the Viceroy of Earth told me in confidence during his wedding. Though now, with the Meleyephatians tied up in a new war, the Third Strike Fleet could have different plans.

Fly to the rallying point on my own? That wasn't likely to have a positive reception. Even though Kung Waid Shishish considered me something of a "lucky charm," he had not ordered me to join the fleet. Take care of my own affairs? For example, I could meet and have talks with other Geckho vassals like the Jargs and Esthetes and reach agreements for them to work together with the humans of Earth, as Gerd Kosta Dykhsh advised. Or I could get to work on the "mission of epic difficulty" the Trillian Royal Family had assigned me. But it would seem like a strange decision to stay out of the fiery space war when the army I had assembled was preparing to spill blood with thousands of my subjects from the Relict Faction taking part in the action. Put pressure on Gerd Avagi Dykhsh and insist on joining in? I was afraid I'd have to fall back on psionics to accomplish that, and I didn't want to go looking for trouble. The Geckho officer seemed quite overconfident and stuck-up. He looked upon us human vassals like unintelligent children with no understanding of space warfare blurting out uncalled-for suggestions.

The only being the Third Strike Fleet representative would listen to was Fox. Kung Eesssa, the legendary Betelgeuse Planet Devouress had centuries of experience conducting wars of all scales and could influence the Geckho military officer with her indisputable Authority. But the Morphian disappeared as soon as the test in the arena was over and I had yet to see her again. She just tossed out a couple sentences in parting, saying she would find me when the time came to fulfill the promise and she needed my help. The Morphian melted into a crowd of thousands, probably preparing to leave the planet on one of the many starships. If she had not done so already some of the wedding guests had already left Earth, while combat shuttles were regularly flitting here and there, so it was highly likely Fox had already made it far away from planet Earth.

Fame increased to 110.

Authority increased to 114!

Such game messages had become normal to me as of recently and I wouldn't have paid them particular attention if not for the text that followed:

ATTENTION!!! Free Captain Kung Gnat has been removed from the list of enemies of the Meleyephatian Horde. The Horde's opinion of you has improved to Neutral. Free Captain Kung Gnat may travel through Meleyephatian Horde space once again. Access to space stations and planets of the Meleyephatians and all their vassals is once again unrestricted!

Now that I don't get at all... After everything I had done in the past summoning an armada from another galaxy to attack the Meleyephatians and assembling the Army of Earth to go to war with the Horde the very last thing I was expecting was for them to suddenly warm up to me. Or was this not to do with me at all? Perhaps the Horde was calling on Free Captains from throughout the galaxy to go to war with the new dangerous enemy or at least for paid help regardless of their past and providing full amnesty? After all, the Meleyephatians probably needed a huge number of starships both for conducting battles in space, and for evacuating players from the systems under attack and transporting cargo and troops.

That was the very story preferred by my personal assistant Gerd Ayni as well, who had also seen similar messages before her eyes much to her own surprise. The Miyelonian assumed the Horde's affairs must have been going very poorly given they had fallen back on such extreme measures. Or had they come to a general resolution to summon Free Captains, and would later be making corrections and crossing out enemies that had been invited? In any case, there was no reason to hurry to Horde space, and in that regard I stood in complete solidarity with my orange Translator.

"Free Captain Kung Gnat is requested in the long-distance comms room!" the voice message came rolling down the dispatcher tower corridors, making me shudder.

I didn't wait around for the elevator and hurried up the spiral staircase. Meanwhile, the thoughts were racing around my head in a frenzy. Could someone from the Meleyephatian Horde really want to talk to me and explain the strange jumps in my reputation? And was it really possible to receive messages unimpeded from a hostile government in the midst of a bloody space war? And could it possibly backfire on me to be in contact with our suzerains' adversary?

But I was wrong. I was "merely" getting a call from Krong Daveyesh-Pir, ruler of the Geckho. I instantly fell to one knee and bowed my head respectfully before the high and mighty figure. But I must not have done so quickly enough, or a slight look of disappointment showed on my face because the huge Geckho rumbled out menacingly:

"What, human? Expecting to see someone else?"

The question wasn't as simple as it seemed, and I needed to think up a plausible explanation for my behavior quickly so I wouldn't seem insufficiently loyal.

"I beg forgiveness, my lord. I have indeed been waiting for a message from someone else for a few ummi, which is why I had a moment of confusion. It was a member of my crew, a woman who is dear to my heart by the name of Valeri-Urla. She left my ship unexpectedly to an unknown destination. An influential relative of my business partner Gerd Uline Tar promised to figure out where the human woman went and tell me."

The huge Geckho gave a loud growl through his teeth but it wasn't malicious at all. In fact it was approving and even contained notes of happiness.

"Ah, youth... I understand. I was the same way when I was chasing my headstrong second wife all around the galaxy, boarding her starship over and over again. I can help you look if you can't find this beautiful shrew on your own."

"Thank you for the offer, my lord, but it would be... too much or something. Like using thermonuclear warheads to hunt quail."

The Geckho liked my response and gave another satisfied rumble.

"Alright, if you say so, human. But I have come to you for a different reason. I have been told that you completed my assignment. Ahead of schedule even. Well, I value loyal and trustworthy go-getters, and my reward will be generous. Choose what is most to your taste. A star cruiser so your ship will match your newly elevated status as Kung, or two planetary shield generators for Earth?"

For the time being, I had no need for another ship I had no one to crew it, and a cruiser wouldn't be able to fit beneath the mobile Relict laboratory's camouflage field and thus could not travel with it through the Universe. But defensive field generators? How did the great Krong Daveyesh-Pir know what I needed so precisely? I was not brave enough to ask that question aloud.

The ruler, clearly satisfied by my surprise, snarled out happily:

"It would have been hard not to notice superconductor circuits, high-capacity energy storage, polyfrequency emitters, powerful generators and load-bearing elements necessary to construct planetary shields all starting to disappear from markets in this sector of the galaxy at once while a string of freighters started lining up outside your home planet. Well, it's a fine initiative and I am perfectly happy to support a trusty Geckho vassal complete such a noble endeavor. The generators will be delivered unassembled as soon as possible and even unloaded at whatever point on your planet your Engineers request."

Amazing! That made providing for Earth’s defense significantly easier because now we only had to scrounge up seven more of the twelve expensive and quite hard to assemble generators rather than nine. I would determine where to install them and find the specialists required to assemble and service them. Either from my Relict Faction or one of the many other terrestrial factions. I could even pressure the leaders of the terrestrial factions into helping me find the perfect staff. At the end of the day, am I Kung of Earth or what?!

For some reason, the suzerain leader's generosity put me on guard though. Two planetary shield generators were worth around a hundred fifty million Geckho crystals. Even without paying for delivery, that came to eighty-five or ninety million monetary crystals. Even for a Krong, that's a substantial sum of money to just go throwing around as gratitude for a job well done. And as a matter of fact, the next few words out of the suzerain leader's mouth proved that my doubts and worries were not misplaced.

"But now, Gnat, I want to discuss more important matters. Tell me, human, why has the Relict space tech you possess not yet been delivered to your suzerains' specialists for study? Is that not your express duty as a member of a vassal race?"

Danger Sense skill increased to level one hundred forty-two!

How hard it is to always be talking with the Geckho Krong... I could just never get used to his wild mood swings. Just one minute ago, the ruler was heaping on gratitude for my loyal service and giving me generous gifts but now, with steel in his voice, he was demanding more out of me and clearly prepared to punish me severely for disobedience. But to give him the laboratory... No way, I need it for myself! I started my response by carefully selecting my words with an understanding that no one could test them for plausibility. No, no lies. Such an experienced individual would see right through that. Only the truth, but just leaving a couple things out and adding in a few personal theories. And no psionics either because that could be detected and end very badly indeed.

"My Krong, I would be glad to hand over the laboratory to my suzerains, but it isn't as easy as it sounds. The mobile laboratory does not belong to me and does not obey me. It is controlled by its own artificial intelligence, which sometimes communicates with me and works with me because it takes me for a Relict. That is facilitated by the fact I wear Listener armor, understand the ancient race's language, and have a living Relict in my team. But sometimes the system tells me I have failed a check or lack the requisite access level to the Relict Pyramid, then the station goes out of control and even tries to kill me. There are enough security systems and combat drones in the laboratory to take down me, my entire crew and my frigate. In such instances, I have to reboot the entire system and try to reestablish our relationship. There is a distinct possibility that one day I may find myself unable to cope with the complicated system and the mobile laboratory will toss me out. But I am going slowly and steadily toward my goal, trying various methods to get the security systems entirely under my command though for now it is still far off. I need time, possibly a lot of it. I can provide Geckho scientists with a highly-detailed scan diagram of the ancient laboratory with all its hubs, modules and systems."

"Now that's a different matter entirely! Blueprints will do perfectly well, human!" the ruler latched onto my offer eagerly, and I even started to get the impression the Krong was getting more out of me than he was hoping. "Another planetary shield generator will be sent to your home planet as soon as the Geckho receive a crystal drive containing blueprints of the laboratory's equipment."

I exhaled. I had seemingly squirmed my way out of a tricky situation. I even made another crucial step toward keeping Earth safe from space invaders. Meanwhile, the fearsome Geckho changed the topic again and I heard notes of sadness and anxiety in his words.

"The Par-Poreh royal family is no longer talking to me. The Trillians didn't even congratulate the civilization of Shiharsa on our most important holiday the day of the great unification of Geckho clans. That has never happened before. The Trillians have always sent their congratulations and their ambassador has always come bearing gifts as a token of our friendship. It is a worrying sign. My Analysts believe Krong Pino Par-Poreh the Third and his relatives are considering starting a war against my people because all Geckho and vassal fleets have been sent off to the hard-fought war against the Meleyephatian Horde. To make matters worse, based on recent intelligence, there have recently been secret negotiations between the Trillians and Union of Miyelonian Prides. They must be discussing joint operations against my people. Miyelonians are famed for stabbing allies in the back soon after fighting side by side with them. I suspect that, if not for the Horde's new enemy, the point of no return would have already been passed and they would already have made their decision. By the way..."

The Krong looked at me hesitantly, knitting his furry brows.

"Tell me, human, the Composite starships going to the Meleyephatian Horde Throne World was that your doing?"

Well I'll be damned... My heart pricked with a sense of impending trouble. A direct question I will not be able to quibble when answering. Deny everything? I didn't want to take on such a heavy burden, while the ruler of the Geckho race didn't have any proof of my involvement in the invasion. Even in my own crew, only a very restricted circle of players knew of our role there. They could even be counted on one hand. Or did Krong Daveyesh-Pir actually have proof of some kind? After all, my Navigator Ayukh was a Geckho by race and one of the few in my crew to know where we had been and where we jumped. Despite all his loyalty to his captain, it was easily possible the Navigator might have felt compelled to tell his people's intelligence services about such a critically important event. And so I decided to speak the truth.

"Yes, my lord. After contact in a different galaxy with the powerful and extremely aggressive Gukko-Vahe Composite, I made a deliberate decision to jump to the Meleyephatian Throne World. I did so just in case the Composite ships could track our jump and follow me to our galaxy. I thought it was a good idea to turn the Gukko-Vahe Composites on an enemy of the Geckho and weaken the Meleyephatian Horde."

"Good thing you admitted it, Kung Gnat because it was a test of your honesty to your suzerain ruler," he buzzed out, then growled in satisfaction. "Nice move, human! I approve! The Trillians and Miyelonians must be trying to figure out how to act now. This is the perfect time to try and talk them out of their aggressive plans. Do you understand me, Kung Gnat?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Great then. I place my hope in your diplomatic abilities, Kung Gnat. At the end of it all, Earth's humanity doesn't want a war against two great space races either."

The highly powerful Geckho signed off.

I found myself still kneeling in the long-distance comms room and trying to get my scattered thoughts together. Holy crap, what a little job I'd been tossed! As for the Miyelonians, sure. I could discuss the issue with Keetsie Myau. It was not of course guaranteed I could sway the Great One's decision, but at the very least she would hear me out. But the Trillians? Krong Daveyesh-Pir was clearly overestimating my influence on them. Other than my contacts with the Hive of Tintara, and the obligation I had taken on to complete the "Mission of Epic Difficulty," there was nothing connecting me to the Trillians. So, should I perhaps get working on that mission then?

Chapter Two. To the Stars!


I did go out to address the troops in the end after a quick chat with my Chief Advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi the Mage Diviner about urgent matters. We decided in the end to place the second planetary shield generator in the Chinese Human-1 Faction's territory. The third on the large continent would go on a node belonging to my own Relict Faction former territory of the Human-25 Faction. My Chief Advisor assured me there would be enough laborers to get the job done, even though it would require bringing two and a half thousand players to another hemisphere of the planet on Geckho ferries and Sio-Mi-Dori landing antigravs.

As for the other three construction locations, I entrusted the Mage Diviner with selecting them and negotiating with the largest factions of both worlds himself. In theory, the La-Shin or La-Varrez factions could provide capable specialists in sufficient number as well as the American Human-12, South Korean Human-0 or Japanese Human-4 along with another half dozen terrestrial factions. I decided not to bother the Russian Human-3 Faction just yet because a significant number of their player laborers were now tied up erecting the first shield generator on Rocky Island and a thermonuclear power plant in the Centaur Plateau node, which was intended to provide electricity for neighboring nodes. In any case, there were plenty of options, so the Mage Diviner assured me he would have no issues and would handle it together with our faction's Diplomat Leng Thomas Mueller.

After visiting the Geckho dispatchers and easily receiving permission for Tamara the Paladin to take off in half an ummi, I went with my tailed assistant Gerd Ayni and demure bodyguard Gerd Imran down the elevator to the ground-floor of the terrestrial space port. The line for loading into landing ships was just as long as before with thousands of troops sitting on their knapsacks beneath the scorching sun. Not far away, the H3-Faction players were waiting, and I headed their way. When I arrived, the players stood up to greet the Kung of Earth.

"You're such a big deal now I'm afraid to even approach you, Gnat!" I didn't recognize the First Legion player in a heavy armored spacesuit right away, but it was Shoot_to_Kill. The hardened veteran had reached Gerd rank and become commander of one of the squadrons waiting to ship out. With a welcoming nod to Imran and slightly apprehensive glance at the orange Miyelonian next to me, assuming she was actually Fox who had rankled everyone so badly during training, the level-106 Gunfighter extended a hand to me. I greeted my old friend warmly and asked what was taking so long to load them into the starships.

"Yeah, who can say... You're the bigwig out here, Gnat. Only you can order the furballs around. Us people are too little. We just do what the suzerains tell us. As far as I've heard, heavy equipment is being loaded first to get the starships balanced properly. We were told to wait, so that's what we're doing."

It was odd to sense timidity in a man I had once grown accustomed to viewing as higher in level and much more experienced. The other First Legion troops watching our conversation looked on me as a deity fallen from the heavens. It actually made me feel a bit awkward. I promised to talk with a representative of the Third Strike Fleet and figure out what was taking so long.

Authority increased to 115!

"Kung Gnat, have you heard the latest news?" he changed the topic unexpectedly, lighting up. "During a speech to the European Parliament yesterday, a deputy from Austria unexpectedly spoke Geckho and asked everyone to give opinions on Earth's troops being sent to fight in a space war. His microphone was cut off and they tried to shut him up, but several deputies from Germany stood in his support. They started asking how long we can keep the truth about human contact with other spacefaring races a secret. Someone even brought up the example of antigravity drives, resonance and plasma cannons patented recently by German corporations as evidence of extraterrestrial technology infiltrating planet Earth. The scandal that kicked up was highly publicized and the broadcast of the European Parliament session was cut off. I don't even know how it all ended. What do you think? Will our politicians finally open up about the game that bends reality?"

I for some reason doubted that severely, which I told Shoot_to_Kill and the other listening troopers openly. In our world, over the last few weeks there had been anomalies in Antarctica and a few other areas that had "dropped out of space." Earth's astronomers had been detecting strange anomalies on the Moon and deviations in the trajectories of various astronomical bodies. Every day there were more and more facts to suggest game reality was seeping into our real world, and that our two parallel worlds were trying to collapse in on each other come what may. But for the time being, all that was being ignored by prominent politicians and all mention of the game that bends reality was ruthlessly censored in all mass media.

After all, for the powers that be, admitting that there exist more advanced civilizations and that our Earth is but a mere grain of sand in the scope of grand space politics would be equivalent to death. Who would reckon with terrestrial governments when there are much more powerful entities above them? Who needs terrestrial computers, automobiles, airplanes and other 'modern marvels' when all that is hopelessly antiquated junk, many centuries behind truly modern technology? Who needs trillions of paper dollars, a currency that is not in use anywhere else in the galaxy?

"Stupid on their part," my orange Translator cut in, revealing a flawless knowledge of Russian. "Your politicians and ruling clans won't be able to keep silent and deny the truth forever. One day, the new reality will be revealed. There's no avoiding it. What will your stubborn politicians say when starships belonging to the Meleyephatian Horde or other invaders appear in the sky? Will they continue to admonish their subjects not to believe their own eyes, claiming that none of it is true?"

I responded to Gerd Ayni that it wasn't all so hopeless. Leading politicians and the heads of highly powerful corporations are for the most part very smart and insightful. They won't go blindly denying the new reality. In fact, they will instead try to adapt to the new conditions and strive to retain their high status if at all possible.

Ever since my last meeting with the curators of the Dome project, I knew that the existence of the game that bends reality was no secret to the world's most prominent politicians. And now that I had become Kung and had the chance to talk with representatives of the largest terrestrial factions, I knew for certain that more and more famous people were entering the game that bends reality. Politicians and their family members, business tycoons, famous athletes and celebrities. In fact, the same thing was happening on my version of Earth as on the magocratic world, albeit with a slight delay, with the powerful now competing to see who could be best at the game that bends reality. There were now even "commercial factions" like H13 and H33, where prominent politicians, bankers and CEOs of large corporations levelled their characters with tight security at an accelerated pace under the watchful eye of experienced players. There were even now companies that could boost a person's Fame to get them the rank of Gerd.

"I have already seen such players," Shoot_to_Kill spat scornfully out of his cracked-open helmet visor. "There are even some in our Human-3 Faction, though the 'backup' Russian Human-23 Faction specializes in them more. Senators and Duma deputies along with their extended families. They're good for absolutely nothing don't wanna work, and you can't send such famous people out to stand watch at the border. You definitely won't get them to work in the mines either. They just use the game to treat chronic ailments and take up virt pods in the corncobs under the Dome which could be used to greater effect."

"However, I have heard that they pay our faction good money," Nelly Svistunova spoke up, another familiar First Legion veteran. "And they bring valuables into the game which are traded for monetary crystals to Kosta Dykhsh's dealers or sold here in the space port."

"Yeah, I know..." Shoot_to_Kill winced in dismay. "When they first enter, they bring large faceted gemstones into the game as well as gold and platinum jewelry worth millions of dollars and rare-earth elements. They've even brought purebred kittens and puppies into the virtual world. There is demand for terrestrial animals from the Geckho, though I don't know what the furballs are using them for. Those kinds of players want to become as rich in the virtual world as they are accustomed to being in our reality right away. A certain percentage of our faction's red crystals come from these noveau-riches. Also in the real world the Dome project's financing has been improving by leaps and bounds. In fact, we now have everything you could ever ask for under the Dome. But nevertheless I believe that politicians and their spoiled kiddos are worthless ballast. Fifty decent Technicians or Engineers would bring more money to the faction in the long-term perspective."

The conversation went no further than that. The song In the Army Now suddenly blared out to the entire spaceport from the speakers on the dispatcher tower. I don't know when or how a drive of terrestrial music was brought into the game, or how the Geckho found a compatible player, but it fit the moment perfectly so I smiled in approval. Though in my personal view, the song Blood Type[2] would have been a better fit. The only problem would be that not very many of Earth's troopers would recognize or understand it unlike the highly popular hit by the groups Sabaton and Status Quo. Just as the music turned on, the troops stood up and started moving, slowly snaking into the bowels of the huge Third Strike Fleet landing craft.

"Best of luck to the First Legion in the war against the Meleyephatians!" I sent off my old friends, to which Shoot_to_Kill assured me that his troops would not bring shame to Earth or its Kung and would never retreat no matter how grueling the battle.

In any case, the troops considered me involved in this military operation. I caught myself also thinking that no matter how I tried to abstract myself from it and remember only my assignment from the Krong of my suzerains. I just couldn't stay out of such a historic event. I stood on the space-port field for at least another half hour, seeing off the endless columns of Army of Earth soldiers and getting a sense of their overall mood. They felt pride both personal and for our entire world, thirst for adventure and slight tension, confidence in their abilities and an insurmountable desire to prove to the whole galaxy what the humans of Earth were capable of.


The frigate Tamara the Paladin was ready for lift-off, the whole crew had taken their seats. Every box on the pre-takeoff checklist had been ticked, the engines were warmed up and takeoff permission had been duly granted. But rather than give the final command, I was glancing at the clock and awaiting my wife. Princess Minn-O La-Fin had been told the Ruler of the First Directory was heading on a long-distance space voyage, and so I was expecting her to show up. And just then my wayedda's shuttle appeared from the direction of the sea, took a wide curve over the landing field and set down carefully five yards from the gangway. I went out to greet my wife and help her out of the flying vehicle.

She looked a bit pale, but she was moving with confidence and her happiness to see me was as sincere as could be. I gave Minn-O a warm hug.

"How are you?"

"The doctors say I'm out of the woods and the child is no longer in any danger. That has already gone out on First Directory news and our subjects are jubilant."

Strange answer. The feelings of our subjects were the last thing I cared about. Minn-O and our child's health was of much greater importance. I lifted her in my arms and carried her into my ship, setting her in an armchair in the common room. My Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa extended her a glass of water at once and the Princess accepted it gratefully, took a few sips and set it aside.

"My husband..." uncertainty and anxiety slipped though in the shaking voice of the ashen-skinned beauty. "I cannot go to space with you. If I do, I am afraid I might lose the child... You will have to appoint another wayedda."

Ah, so that was what had Minn-O so worried. In the laws of the magocratic world, a wayedda was required to accompany her husband everywhere, which in her situation was a great risk. The high g-forces and hazards of deep space are not the greatest thing for a woman going through a difficult pregnancy. The Miyelonian Medic backed the Princess up.

"Calm down, I was not planning to put you or the child at risk. Stay in Pa-lin-thu under doctors' supervision and go into the game as much as you can. And as to reassure you and shut up all those in the magocratic world who wish us ill, from this very minute you are my senior wife once again. I will make an official declaration to that effect."

They seemed to be simple words, but the Princess suddenly burst into tears. I even had to calm her down. The crew members in the room stepped out so Minn-O wouldn’t be embarrassed.

"That is nice," she said, drying her tears. "My husband, are you aware that the uprising of Tamara's fanatics is settling down? After the only nonmage ruler Ui-Taka swore allegiance to you, and after it was confirmed that Tamara is working for the Ruler of the First Directory, the cities we'd lost control of are returning to the fold with their legal rulers one after another. There still are of course the looniest fanatics who will fight to the very end, but their support among the population has fallen noticeably. All the news channels keep talking about the new laws Archmage Coruler Gnat La-Fin will be announcing any day now."

I shuddered when I heard the strange new title of Archmage and figured I had misheard, but then she confirmed:

"Yes, yes, my husband! That is what they're calling you now the only Archmage in the whole magocratic world. Even members of the great mage-ruler dynasties of La-Shin and La-Varrez have confirmed that title for you, tripping over each other to do so and forgetting about all their hostile moves in the past, swearing their allegiance to you. The people expect new laws and a general thaw for the common population. Your support from the people is greater than ever. And not only in the First Directory. I'm even thinking..."

Gerd Minn-O La-Fin fell silent, unable to find the courage to finish her sentence. I had to make use of psionics and read what the Princess was afraid to say out loud.

"My husband, if you name yourself the sole ruler of the magocratic world, you will find enough supporters to make that an official reality. There will be resistance both from the old mage-ruler dynasties and Tamara's fanatics, but it will be possible to suppress that resistance by force. Think about it. This kind of chance only comes around once in a lifetime. My grandfather Archmage Thumor-Anhu La-Fin would have done exactly that, as would any relative in my paternal line. Prove yourself a true ruler of the great La-Fin dynasty!"

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred twenty-five!

Danger Sense skill increased to level one hundred forty-three!

The transition from weepiness to cold calculated suggestion of starting a great war for power went too swiftly. I was on guard even before the system messages appeared before my eyes. No, I couldn't bring my tongue to call my wife harmless and fluffy. No matter what, the Princess was a member of an ancient dynasty of mage rulers. But even for Gerd Minn-O La-Fin the suggestion was too cruel. That put me on guard and made me squeeze out through my teeth in dismay:

"I'll consider it. But if you try to attack me with magic again, you'll spend the rest of your pregnancy locked up in a clinic."

A look of utterly sincere panic was shown on Minn-O's face.

"My husband, I swear it wasn't me! I never even would have dreamed of doing such a thing! It was..." the Princess lowered a hand and rubbed her slightly rounded belly.

What??? Was my wife seriously suggesting my unborn son had done that? Was that even possible? Minn-O nodded to say I understood everything properly.

"Our future child possesses powerful psionic magic and already had his own opinion on the matter. Within him is concentrated the might of a great many generations of mage rulers of the ancient La-Fin dynasty, multiplied by the power of magic from your world. The Mage Diviner told me that our son's power will know no equal. The thread of the probable future is still very thin and fragile, but our son will potentially be able to unite the various branches of humanity under his rule. He could be the one to make humanity into one of the great spacefaring races. As a matter of fact, we stand to become a dominant power in the galaxy."

Just what I needed... What I heard made my head spin. After all, the Mage Diviner hadn't told me anything like that even though we had a substantive discussion about all kinds of important matters earlier in the day. And then it hit me with abundant clarity that my Chief Advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi was not so much loyal to me as he was to my yet unborn son who he sees as the hope for restoring the magocratic world to its bygone glory and making a decisive step forward for all humanity. I meanwhile am just a tool to provide my son a springboard for future achievements. And I will be gotten rid of as soon as I'm no longer needed.

I didn't even know whether to be happy or sad. The news was just too ambiguous. Alright, time will tell. I extended a hand cautiously and rubbed my wife's belly.

"Keep him safe, Minn-O! Our son is our greatest treasure. I will try to make his life as safe as possible by defending our world against all possible invaders."

As soon as Minn-O's shuttle took off and left the space port's danger zone, I ordered the airlock closed and we took off. Time for new achievements. Distant stars awaited!

Chapter Three. Habitable Rings


I don't like taking off with its going through the atmosphere, violent shaking and high g-forces. Your arms and legs feel heavy as cast lead, the blood pounds in your temples, it's hard to move. I wanted to close my eyes and disassociate from it all but doing so just made matters worse. I started to feel nauseous. I even had a cowardly thought flicker by that I should leave the game for twenty minutes to skip this unpleasant part of the flight. But I shooed it right off it isn't proper for a famed Free Captain to do that. It looks weak and would be bad for my Authority. Furthermore, this time the unpleasant sensations were nevertheless bearable. It used to be much worse. Which is why I tried a new tactic I opened the star map and attempted to keep my mind busy. I was most of all interested in the Rorsh star system with its space prison for particularly dangerous criminals. The deadline was ticking ever nearer, and it was not a great idea to take lightly the threats of the space mafiosos from the Hive of Tintara.

The space atlas said that Rorsh is in Meleyephatian space, but it had no inhabited planets or settlements. No surprise. A secret prison has no place in a normal star atlas. I switched to the more complete map I had in Tamara the Paladin's navigation computer. That map contained additional information from a secret crystal drive we'd captured from the Meleyephatian Horde and it did show the prison. It also depicted a Meleyephatian military base located in a nearby asteroid belt. Hmm... I was intrigued and read into the accompanying information. The map indicated the ships normally based there, consisting of a squad of twelve Pato-Vee interceptors, ten Tolili-Ukh X modular frigates in "heavy shock" configuration and one Mirosssh-Pakh II assault cruiser. Not all that many if you think about it, but easily enough to take care of my twinbody. And although it may have been outdated information and that flotilla could have been called into the war with the Geckho or their new enemy, I still needed to assume the prison was under guard and I would not be able to simply capture it just like that.

By the way, I noticed that the Rorsh system was not very far away from the zone of conflict with the Composite. Just two ummi’s flight from the Throne World for my frigate, and even less for speedy Dero interceptors. The military base staff and prison guards were probably now on tenterhooks shivering in fear for their lives and expecting dangerous starships to appear from another galaxy at any moment. I suspect the Meleyephatians will be glad to see any aid sent by the Horde. Especially if it proves true that the Composite invaders are jamming comms and orders from the Throne World and other systems under attack are not reaching the system. There was something there and the localized lack of information was something I could try to use be portraying myself as an emissary from command. Though it's still risky. The prison guards might have clear instructions to shoot down all starships entering their zone of responsibility. Especially those on the enemy list. It would be better to set aside breaking Prince Hugo out of prison until the Meleyephatian Horde's true opinion of me was cleared up.

I turned my attention to other points in the galaxy that piqued my interest. The Cleopians, Esthetes, Jargs and other Geckho vassal races... Yes, I needed to meet up with all of them to establish political and military ties. I was particularly interested in the Cleopians. With many legs and arms, the clunky looking creatures had no discernable sense organs and were covered in a thick layer of green and brown hide. Something like living trees or treefolk from fantasy literature but smaller in the game that bends reality.

The Cleopians were famed for their dogged persistence and ability to go without food due to photosynthesis, sucking nutrients from soil, water and even air. Entirely impervious to poison and hard to kill with laser or other light firearms, they could even survive quite a long time in a total vacuum or while being hit with harsh radiation. With no gender, they could increase their population by fission and cleavage, giving them a reproduction rate other races could not even approach. To split a Cleopian with a blade would mean only creating a second opponent. For the same reason, grenades and explosives were entirely ineffective against them. Every chip or scrap of a Cleopian's body could live independently and would with time transform into a fully-fledged individual. Fairly languid and apathetic in their day-to-day lives, they could spend a long time in one position, not reacting to the outside world while storing up energy. But in critical situations they could move quicker than Miyelonians while their roots and outgrowths could get through even the heavy armor of a Geckho. On top of that, they were very smart with highly advanced science and culture. The Cleopians made space flights and even conquered distant planets long before they ever encountered the Geckho.

According to the description, they made ideal soldiers and colonists, capable of quickly spreading throughout the Universe and settling even planets other races would find inhospitable. But that was not the whole truth. Although Cleopian research vessels could be found throughout the galaxy, and their traders and mercenaries were frequent visitors to populated Geckho and Trillian stations, the Cleopians lived exclusively in the Serpea star system, having settled every planet within it and even all large asteroids. Serpea was the only place that interested their race, and Cleopians only felt truly themselves in their home system. And given all planets in the star system that could be settled had already long since been brought into the fold, the Cleopians had begun to actively build up nearby cosmos. There were more and more homes made out of old starships orbiting around their system's blue star, more and more new force-fielded palaces drifting through space all the time.

Meanwhile though the Cleopians were constantly at war between one another for better spots beneath the light of their blue star, they did not see particular reason to take part in external conflicts. Still, they were loyal Geckho vassals and carried out all the suzerains' orders, providing the requisite number of troops to the Geckho army and all that. But the race's entire history was one of endless squabbling between members of the ruling dynasty for a place in the sun between the clans they controlled. That was how Kung Eesssa the Betelgeuse Planet Devouress got her hands on the full case of Precursor stones she was awarded them for help getting rid of a whole list of relatives of the current Cleopian ruler King Edeyya-U. Furthermore, he knew a suspicious amount about ancient races, particularly the Relicts. I badly wanted to meet with him and figure out the reason the Cleopian ruler was so incredibly knowledgeable. Well and naturally come to an agreement with the Cleopians to cooperate in trade and military affairs.

I was also interested in the interspace "pocket" the Relict Hierarch used after coming under siege. Rescuing him was my mission, and for completing it I'd been promised a higher rank on the Pyramid. Even though it was fraught with danger. If the Relict under my command Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh joins together with the Hierarch and goes against me, the risk of losing the mobile Relict laboratory would be too high. If it goes so far as a talk with the Hierarch and the automatic Precursor hunters guarding the ancient ship let me through to the besieged starship rather than destroying my ship as soon as I entered space under their protection...

"Captain, we have exited Earth orbit. What are your further instructions?" the voice of my main pilot Dmitry Zheltov tore me from my study of the space map, and I closed the screen.

Yes, my method of distracting myself from the takeoff had proven one hundred percent effective. The unpleasant sensations just passed me by as the starship emerged into space. On the big screen I could see the blue ball of my home planet. Clouds, seas and continents below them. On that backdrop, I could distinctly make out the two interceptors of the Geckho's terrestrial services passing through the atmosphere, having taken off after us.

"Are we waiting for the Relict laboratory?" suggested my Navigator Ayukh, but I responded negatively.

"Now it is not only those two interceptors," I pointed at the markers of the approaching Geckho starships. "All the great space races want to know if we're going to summon the mobile Relict laboratory. And if we do, they want to see how so they can do the same without us after. I wouldn't be surprised to discover a whole fleet of cloaked frigates next to us right now representing all the great space races. So we will just sit around doing nothing as if we are having a hard time establishing contact with the overly independent Relict technology. And that is in fact truly how it is. For some reason, I can't sense the station responding..."

That was not actually true, and I had already been mentally communicating with the laboratory, preparing it to accept coordinates for an instant transport. But my Navigator and all the others in the crew could not be allowed to know that. A captain must have his secrets.

"Alright. No sense in waiting," I said out loud a minute later, straining to put a frustrated and disappointed expression on my face. "Ayukh, I want you calculating coordinates for hyperspace jumps to three systems. Write this down. The Serpea system, exiting a few thousand miles from the third planet. The Rorsh star system. There are no planets there, so just keep away from the asteroid belt. And finally, the subspace pocket we landed in once because of the Precursor symbiotes. You should still have all the parameters for that jump saved. Send all data necessary to complete those three warps to my monitor."

If the Navigator was surprised by his Captain's strange order, he didn't show it and quickly started clacking his claws on the keyboard. Soon, columns of numbers appeared before my eyes. I launched a program to reformat the data for Relict computers and mentally transmitted the order to the mobile station. A response came in saying the command had been received and my link with the laboratory had been severed.

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred fifteen!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred twenty-six!

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred twenty-eight!

Excellent! I wiped the perspiration from my brow. That was hard work! I'm not sure anyone else currently alive in the galaxy would have been able to pull it off. Well, apart from perhaps the Relict Hierarch who I had been tasked with rescuing by the Pyramid and was currently in stasis. But what mattered was that it worked, and the priceless mobile laboratory was sent to the coordinates I indicated to await new commands. And we would be getting on our way. I turned to the senior pilot.

"Dmitry, set a course for vector seventeen one oh four eleven. Accept coordinates from Ayukh for a jump to the Serpea system. We will be warping to the Cleopians, a Geckho vassal!"

The pilot started turning the frigate, watching the digits run across his screen when suddenly he turned to me with a look of surprise and doubt on his face.

"Captain, that will push the limits of our starship technically. The spatial disruption is too long, our energy supply will go down to two percent charge. It's a whole six ummi in hyper. We've never made such a long jump before. Just to be safe, should we break it down into two jumps?"

"No, no need. I've checked it twice," our experienced Navigator cut in, notes of offense slipping through in his voice due to the doubts voiced about his professionalism. "It's within range, though just barely."

The pilot looked again at me with worry and simultaneously hope, but I got up from my console and headed to leave the captain's bridge, showing with my whole appearance that the conversation was over. Our Jarg Analyst got up from the neighboring workstation and hurried after his Captain on all six legs, trying to slip through the still barely open door the space "armadillo," due to his short stature, was unable to reach the door opening device. I ordered the card reader on his bunk door to be placed lower than the others, but the other ones in the starship stayed at the same height because otherwise the taller Geckho would start to have problems getting around.

Our Analyst picked up the pace in the hallway and caught up to me. After that, he stopped in front of me and slipped the Universal Translator around his neck:

"Captain Gnat! Needed Cleopian. Living on habitable rings of planet. Ring three. Sector nineteen. Permission from secretary. Appointment only. Long time. Otherwise no see. Cleopian bureaucracy be scare."

It was a fully understandable message, and I myself had already read in a guide about the location of the space palace of the ruler of Serpea and the habitable rings and knew where to go. But I was interested in how the Analyst knew which precise member of the Cleopian race I was headed to see. What inputs had he used to make his conclusion that I wanted the ruler specifically rather than one of his hundreds of millions of subjects? Or had the Jarg learned to read thoughts?

"No, not reading. Thoughts. Jargs cannot to do. But the word Serpea was just one time. Spoken. Within these walls. Meleyephatian Gerd Eeeezzz 777. Telling about work for Betelgeuse Planet Devouress. Working for Prince Edeyya-U, ruler of Serpea-III and habitable rings. I am to hear and listen. Then I look who is now. He is Prince. Leng Edeyya-U the Sixth. Elderly King of Cleopians. Survived seven hundred eighteen assassination attempts. Now admits no visitors. Without long, long checking."

So there it was... The unforeseen difficulty. I didn't want to waste a bunch of time on bureaucratic negotiations and checks. Was I really flying to Serpea for nothing? But there was no way back now based on the sudden brief sensation of falling and flickering lighting throughout the ship, there had indeed been enough energy and the Tamara the Paladin had already entered a hyperspace tunnel leading to the Cleopian homeworld.

Chapter Four. High-profile wards


Six ummi in flight. To translate that into time units more familiar to humans from Earth, it was a whole thirty-three hours cooped up in a relatively small starship. And I couldn't much go into the real world. First of all, safety instructions recommended against leaving the game in a "red zone" where your in-game body would never disappear. And second, even if I did go into the real world, what was there for me to do on the Miyelonian station Kasti-Utsh III? Go looking for adventure on my backside? I had a few too many foes, so Kung Gnat appearing in public places had become a liability as proven by the recent attempt on my life in the restaurant on the Miyelonian station. But what then? Sit tight in my hotel room under guard of the First Pride and stare out my panorama window? A boring activity and unbefitting of the Kung of Earth.

Furthermore, I was totally unprepared for a possible meeting with Kung Keetsie Myau. I didn't know where the commander of the Fourth Fleet was currently, but if the Great One still was on Kasti-Utsh III, it was a very real possibility she would want to meet me. And what did I have to say to her? Keetsie Myau had unambiguously expressed an interest in the mobile Relict laboratory and even warned me what would happen if I refused. The Union of Miyelonian Prides would go to war against the Geckho, which would be the single most unfavorable outcome for my home planet, meaning an invasion would be unavoidable. I didn't want to give away the invaluable laboratory but wheedling and trying to hide behind a fog of promises wouldn't work against such an experienced Truth Seeker. That was why I had been going into the real world only when necessary for the last few days, which meant short breaks after I died in training without so much as leaving the tiny room around my virt pod.

There was one other reason I was not burning with desire to go into the real world. Of a personal nature. I suddenly had the distinct realization that, in many ways, I had been trying to reach Kasti-Utsh III because I stood to possibly meet Valeri the Tailaxian there. Her visits to my hotel room always ended unexpectedly and often even outgrew themselves into psionic duels. But even that had its charm. The obstinate and proud beauty was grateful to me for saving her from her prison masters and didn't even try to hide the fact she liked me. But all the same she had issued a serious challenge to my abilities and I had to prove my power and validity. After Valeri fled, the Kasti-Utsh III space station no longer held any attraction for me. As a safe haven for my physical body it was also a poor solution and I had even considered changing my exit point into the real world.

A delicate knock at the door distracted me from the sad thoughts and I unlocked the door to the captain's bunk. In the doorway stood my business partner Geckho Trader Uline Tar. Strange. The Captain's First Mate always had access to my chambers and could simply open the door with her own key, but now she preferred to knock.

"Something was telling me you were down in the dumps," Uline closed the door after her and took a seat on the flying armchair. "Did something happen?"

"No, not really. I just feel empty or something," I poured some orange juice into a set of glasses on the table and handed one to the Trader, who loved the sour beverage. "The last few days have been a real wild goose chase between assembling the Army of Earth and the exhausting training sessions, then handling a bunch of day-to-day issues for the Relict Faction. I've been sleeping only two or three hours a night. I'm immeasurably tired. And now that all that's over, I am too tired to even gather my thoughts. I need to compose a speech for my subjects in the First Directory and the entire magocratic world. My citizens are impatiently awaiting new laws for their planet to live by. But I realize that I have neither the emotional state nor the proper mood."

"Then I guess I came at a very bad time," Uline rumbled out and bared her teeth in a semblance of a smile. "The thing is just that the start of every new journey in the past has been marked by a celebration for the crew. You would buy sweets, delicacies and drink and put on a feast in the common room for the crewmembers to talk amongst themselves in an informal setting. That really helped all our different races gel together. But just now I realized that you aren't throwing any sort of get-together..."

Damn! She was right. With all the activities of the past few days, I had somehow overlooked a very positive tradition in my crew and forgotten to buy up everything I needed at the space port. And now it was too late, we were already in space. And even in a hyperspace jump where getting cakes and booze delivered would be a problem.

"I suspect, Gnat, that you spent a good amount on my wedding and other important purchases, so now you're strapped for cash. And so I took it upon myself to buy and organize everything. The feast table in the common room is set and you're all the team is waiting on. Beyond that, we now have something to celebrate."

Uline didn't say what though, expecting me to guess. Had I overlooked something again? But what? I considered it unsporting to use psionics and read the answer from Uline's thoughts, so I tried to guess on my own. There were no new crew members no one had taken Gerd T'yu-Pan for their boarding team, which even prompted a bit of stomping from the Army of Earth troopers who dreamed of coming to join my crew. Miyelonians and Geckho aren't much for celebrating birthdays. Could it perhaps be one of the Humans' birthdays? Or perhaps some kind of important state holiday for Trillians or Jargs? No, not likely. Mentally running down the possible reasons for celebration, I made an honest admission to my business partner that I did not know.

"Tini Wi-Gnat has become a Gerd! Come along and congratulate your ward!"


Tini accepted my congratulations and basked in the rays of glory. The once ungainly and disheveled bush-league pickpocket I had first met on the pirate station Medu-Ro IV was now a proud and capable level-106 Thief. A specialist with knowledge of three galactic languages as well as all kinds of locks and security systems, he was a skilled and fearless hand-to-hand fighter with a good understanding of electronics, particularly surveillance and password sniffing programs. And although by Miyelonian standards, Tini was still an underage adolescent, it was no surprise he had been elevated to Gerd status. My ward was now a recognized figure, and even enjoyed a certain amount of authority. From the thoughts I'd recently "overheard" from Tini, I knew that the adolescent had bought himself a condo in the real world in a residential tower on the secure neutral planet of Porish II, which had a primarily Miyelonian population, and deposited half a million crypto into his bank account.

Now Tini was dancing with Amati-Kuis Ursssh, our Chef-Assassin whose efforts were in many ways to thank for today's celebratory luncheon. Despite their different races and especially sizes, their dance together was harmonious and even beautiful. The entire crew was watching the couple and applauding.

"Captain Gnat, I say we have a drink!" with two glasses of alcoholic cocktail in his paws, Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa staggered over to me, smiling his big toothy grin.

In my view, our Medic had already had plenty of alcohol for today. Especially considering how much trouble he got into last time, overdoing it with liquor after the complex surgical operation to remove the bugs from Valeri's body. On the other hand, knowing about the accelerated Miyelonian metabolism, I was absolutely sure the booze would go through his system very quickly. Removing my arm from the orange Translator Ayni, who I had been embracing and was squeezed up against me, herself also exhausted after the last few days and dozing off on my shoulder, I took the glass and had a drink with the Medic.

"My captain," Gerd Mauu-La spoke out in an utterly sober voice, lowering his voice to a whisper and giving his whiskered snout a nod toward the sleeping Ayni, "how long can you torture her with your ambivalence? Y'know she's up to her ears in love with you. The whole galaxy is talking about it. So take her as a wayedda," the Miyelonian struggled with the foreign word. "Miyelonian law permits such arrangements, and the priests of the Temple of the Great First Female are willing to give their blessing. I heard so from the mouth of the Great Priestess Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo herself when the incarnation of the Great First Female was answering questions from pilgrims about your relationship. As a Medic I can also say it would be physically possible, though of course no offspring would result."

They just keep crawling into my life with their uncalled-for advice... If it were anyone else, I probably would have sent them on their way, quite rudely even. But this was a member of my crew who only wanted to help, so I gave a response.

"I like Ayni. I have never hidden that. But still I don't want to move too quickly and put the cart before the horse. We are both totally happy with where our relationship is right now. Furthermore..." I looked and made certain that all other team members were busy and not eavesdropping. "Ayni was given a chance to advance our relationship and get rid of all the interracial limitations. When we were here in this very room using the Precursor crystals from Big Abi's pirate treasure, that was why I suggested she take the black stone which started to glow purple when unthawed. She could have become a human lady. But she refused."

"I didn't realize it at the time. And made the biggest mistake of my life..." the orange kitty piped up, opening her eyes to show she was not asleep and in fact listening attentively to my conversation with the Medic. "But nevertheless, esteemed Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa, I ask that you stay out of my life. It's awkward enough to have every Miyelonian Pride talking about me and deciding how I should live my life and what to do. I just feel nice with my Captain. I can sense his warm feelings for me, and that's all I need."

Ayni placed her head on my lap and closed her eyes to show the topic was no longer up for discussion. The Medic apologized for the lack of tact and went off to pour himself some more alcoholic cocktails. But just then... A strange silence suddenly lulled the din of the party, drawing my attention. I looked up.

The reason they all clammed up was a Human girl appearing in the common room barefoot wearing shorts and a light blue t-shirt. Gerd Soia-Tan La-Varrez, a runaway from the La-Varrez Faction who had joined my Relict faction and given me magical backup during training. Had that underaged fool exited the game on my very starship?! And now after resting in the First Directory, had she come back into the game to find herself in deep space aboard the Tamara the Paladin? Apparently so. But I ordered her to remain on earth because perilous space is no place for a little girl.

Looking around, Soia-Tan locked eyes with me and walked confidently in my direction. All team members made way, letting the unexpected visitor through to the Captain.

"Coruler Gnat La-Fin, I have come to join your team!" the little squirt declared in Geckho, clearly so they would all understand her, her small face poorly concealing a smirk as she relished the baffled looks on a large number of spacefaring races.

Now there's a declaration... I stood up and took a skeptical look at the little knee-high. A level-sixty-seven Psionic Mage. Yes, she had of course leveled pretty well over our joint training sessions. But Gerd Soia-Tan had no spacesuit, no weaponry, and really nothing worth mentioning. She had even accidentally left her sandals behind somewhere. And what kind of help would she be in space battles? Or what if the starship suddenly lost pressure or had to land on a planet with unbreathable atmosphere? She would die right away. By the way... Was that not a way out of this?

"Hey kid, where's your respawn point?" I asked sneakily, inconspicuously setting my right hand on the grip of my Annihilator.

But Soia-Tan clearly saw what I was doing. A few seconds of anxiety and discomfort on the girl's face gave way to poorly concealed jubilation:

"Now it's here, in this room Coruler Gnat! I am with you, and you won't get rid of me so easily!"

So, what to do now? I took my hand off the Annihilator. No, the nice way to handle this would be to shoot her two or three times as a lesson for making such a bold move, but that wouldn't solve the problem. Now we'd have to hire a starship in Serpea to send the little sorceress back home to Earth. And she'd need a large, reliable escort because the little Psionic Mage had both the ability and foolishness to take control of the guards' minds and run away.

"I for one like the little girl's moxie!"

The unexpected commentary belonged to Destroying Angel, which was a surprise all on its own. The German gunwoman was generally known to be tight-lipped and practically never said anything. Every sentence had to basically be dragged out of her with a set of pliers.

"Capitan. Good news. Gerd Soia-Tan. Will come in handy. Very useful. For all. If does not to die."

Uh, what the heck?! Now my Jarg Analyst was going to bat for the little pipsqueak. Then Captain's First Mate Uline Tar unexpectedly declared that she would buy a small light space suit for the human girl as soon as we reached the Serpea star system. After that, it wouldn't have been right for me to play the malicious monster and send the little mage back to Earth. I would have to let Soia-Tan La-Varrez join my crew...

"I'm giving you seven chores around the starship for disobedient behavior! You will scour the decks and help out Amati-Kuis Ursssh in the kitchen," I rendered my verdict. "And don't think you'll get special treatment because of your young age. Around here, even Princess Minn-O La-Fin had to work just as hard as everyone else..." there I cut myself off for a second, having realized the La-Varrez dynasty girl was also a Princess by title. "Svetlana Vereshchagina and Destroying Angel will hopefully share some of their clothes and shoes with you. As for where you'll stay..."

"Captain, I request you place the newcomer in my bunk! After all, she has left her family and is also technically your ward, just like me. She is also a Gerd in status, so she and I are equals."

What? This day just kept bringing me surprise after surprise. Tini Wi-Gnat, proud of his personal bunk on the starship and having categorically refused all attempts to put anyone else with him was now suddenly suggesting this on his own? Come on, that just couldn't be! Unless... I looked at the Mage Psionic class of the little sorceress who was currently putting on a falsely innocent face and looking ashamedly at the floor. Was it perhaps possible that my team's unexpected gregariousness was not in fact coming from a desire to do good, but rather mind control from the newcomer? After all, I had been told on more than one occasion that Gerd Soia-Tan La-Varrez was a true star of the ancient La-Varrez Dynasty of mage rulers and had massive potential as a psionic. She was even used actively in the war against Tamara's fanatics where the young Psionic Mage had made quite a good showing. Soia-Tan could even boast combat experience in the real world unlike myself.

And given that, the newcomer had even more potential in my eyes as a useful team member, so letting her join Team Gnat was completely justified. I just needed to dot all the i's first.

"Listen, little one. If you use your abilities on team members without my knowledge again, you'll be sent out the airlock to learn how to breathe in a vacuum."

By the embarrassed blush on Soia-Tan's face, I could tell right away I wasn't wrong, and she had used psionics. I frowned.

"And if you try to attack me..."

I didn't finish because the little sorceress hurried to cut me off.

"No, no, Archmage Gnat La-Fin. You won't have any problems from me. I am not suicidal, and I understand who gave me refuge in the First Directory."

Chapter Five. Soia-Tan La-Varrez, Space Witch


I opened my eyes on the cot in my captain's bunk. I finally got plenty of rest! To feel rested after so many days of frenzied racing around was quite unusual, but very nice! The clock told me I had another two ummi in the subspace tunnel ahead of me, so there was no rush to go anywhere. Out of an old habit, the first thing I did was scan the ship by activating the corresponding skill I had to figure out what was happening on my frigate!

So. The number of markers on the minimap matches the list of team members, which is most important. The only one on the bridge is second pilot San-Doon Taki-Bu. Main pilot Dmitry Zheltov and Ayukh the Navigator are resting after their shifts. For some reason there was a big crowd in the bunk of twin brothers Basha and Vasha Tushihh. There I saw the markers of Gerd Uline Tar, Taik Rekh the Gunner and even Avan-Toi the Supercargo. And just how did five large Geckho fit into one small bunk? And what were they up to in there? I zoomed in. Ah, I see. They're playing Na-Tikh-U, a common way for Geckho to pass the time during long flights. This was clearly a tense match if it had amassed such an audience. The only oddity was the fact my Jarg Analyst was also taking part in the game. Ever since the Jarg outplayed the twin brothers Basha and Vasha fifty times in a row, they had refused to sit at the three-dimensional holographic board with him again. Now, seemingly, the two Heavy Robot Operators had been joined by the Supercargo and the three Geckho were trying in concert to beat the Analyst at this three-dimensional chess with elements of randomness, cheered on by another two of their furry compatriots. Alright then, let’s see. I personally wanted to know how it turned out.

Chef-Assassin Amati-Kuis Ursssh was in the galley along with the little Princess Soia-Tan La-Varrez. Yes, she was being punished as she should have been. Though now I took yesterday's incident with a smile. Why curse when I myself was once just as disobedient, constantly shocking H3 Faction leadership with my unexpected moves.

A whole group of people was gathered in the exercise room, including the Miyelonian Medic and Trillian Gunner Gerd Ukh-Meemeesh. Based on the positioning of the markers, my bodyguard Gerd Imran and boarding team commander Gerd T'yu-Pan were trying to once and for all settle which of them was the bigger badass. The last time they went head-to-head on the strength trainers and barbells lasted until Imran tore an intercostal muscle. That was why the Medic was standing by. And this time, the beautiful Svetlana Vereshchagina and Destroying Angel had come to watch the athletes as well. The NPC Dryad was also there, so the dispute was one of principle this time and neither of them were going to simply give in. No big deal. Exercise is good for my team's characteristics and skills, while any possible wounds would be quickly healed by the game.

The remaining crew members I found in the common room around the Bard. As you might imagine, Vasily Filippov was again playing his guitar surrounded by grateful listeners. It should be said that the professional soldier really had a knack for performing his own compositions, and the game had a very good reason for awarding him that specific class. A nice activity. Overall, everything was quiet aboard the Tamara the Paladin.

The only thing that bothered me was the Relict Gerd Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh, who was again sitting alone in his bunk rather than coming out to join the rest of the crew. The Relict ignored attempts by the team to get to know him and took as little part as possible in shared activities. With time, that could be a problem. All my attempts to get the Relict out of his shell and integrate him into the crew had not yet met with any success. Gerd Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh preferred to be alone, going into the real world whenever he got the chance and spending a long time missing there. I knew the Technician was busy at the far away Syam Tro VII Refuge getting the artificial planetoid's systems back up and running after millennia of inactivity. He was talking with the sanctuary's artificial intelligence and they were trying to figure out a way to get the equipment back online. He was looking for failures in the power supply lines, replacing inoperable elements, and sorting through spare parts for devices that had stopped working properly. He was also slowly but surely draining the flooded levels, trying to get into the still inaccessible rooms of the huge complex.

Working all alone was hard on Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh physically, but above all emotionally. The upwelling of enthusiasm I had seen in the Technician after his successful exit into the real world had slowly faded. He hadn't encountered any living Relicts, and it was an unbearable burden for the member of a once numerous ancient race to constantly see the hundreds of thousands of empty virt pods. Furthermore, food had become a serious issue. The hydroponic farms weren't operating because their seeds and spores had died out over the millennia, while the so-called "invar" the Technician was planning to hunt turned out to be quite dangerous and themselves nearly ate the last Relict in existence, leaving him with a severe wound. They bit three of Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh's limbs off his carapace and tore into his soft yielding belly, just about disemboweling the Relict. How these mysterious predators looked I had yet to uncover because Gerd Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh's explanation contained lots of vague and even contradictory elements. Somehow they were both aquatic creatures and able to move through the dark narrow corridors the water had already been pumped out of. Perhaps the term "invar" actually referred to more than one biological species. Or various stages of maturity of the same creature like chrysalis larva adult.

Fortunately, the game healed his wounds. And given enough food in the game that bends reality, his physical body could go a long time without anything to eat. But it was mainly only to dine, heal and rest after long grueling work that Gerd Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh came back into the game. The Relict didn't feel at home in my crew and avoided talking with the rest of the team.

In theory I could have sent him Relict Faction players to help out. After all, there was nothing stopping me from finding volunteers to set their exit points into the real world as virt pods in the refuge. However, that would be a potentially deadly venture. There was a serious risk my people would find themselves in complete darkness with unknown atmospheric composition and dangerous predatory invars scrounging all around. Or they could find themselves on a completely flooded level.

No, I did not want to put my people at risk. Beyond that, when I tried to discuss helping the Relict repair his shelter, he came out strongly against the idea. For Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh, the Syam Tro VII Refuge was his civilization's last remaining territory and he did not want to allow outsiders to visit. I read in the technician's thoughts that he was planning to use the shelter to settle the Relicts we might find on the Hierarch's ship. And the Syam Tro VII Refuge not being ready to receive the survivors was the only reason the Technician had yet to insist I keep my promise and go help the Hierarch at once. Which was fine by me.

So alright, I had figured out the situation on the frigate. I got dressed and cleaned myself up. But before going to see the team, I took care of one last important thing I needed to decide what direction to take my character. Until recently, I had been doggedly levelling my Gnat's skills toward being able to one day use the Tachyon Bender. But now that the accessory had taken its place in the ancient Listener armor suit, I needed a new reference point to shoot for. I opened my stats window.

Kung Gnat. Human. Relict Faction.

Level-109 Listener







39 + 7


35 + 2



Luck modifier


Controlled drones

3 of 3



2570 of 2570

Endurance points

1832 of 1832

Magic points

3187 of 3229

Carrying capacity

62 lbs.







103 * First specialization taken






111 * First specialization taken





Medium Armor

104 * First specialization taken

Eagle Eye

113 * First specialization taken





Danger Sense

143 * First specialization taken


131 * First specialization taken

Mental Fortitude

128 * First specialization taken

Machine Control

116 * First specialization taken









Attention!!! You have three unspent skill points.


There was an ever-stronger slant toward psionic abilities, but guns and everything connected with them were lagging behind. I was also bothered by Scanning though it was a skill I used all the time, every time it cooled down as a matter of fact, I had only gotten it up to eighty-one even though my character was already at one hundred and nine. I had to do something about that. The nice way would be to take an armful of geological analyzers and visit a series of asteroids in search of valuable minerals. At the same time, I would be pulling up Minerology and Cartography. However, where was I supposed to find the free time for that?

It would also be nice to start visiting the firing range regularly to bring up my lagging shooting skills. That was much easier to remedy though we'd be in flight for another two ummi, and I could do some shooting at the frigate's gun range. Astrolinguistics I could also improve by talking with Trillians, the Relict and the Jarg in my crew.

But first and foremost my Gnat was a listener, and that class was intended to use psionics and work with mechanical devices. The total number of Magic Points and their restore speed were becoming more critical all the time. And so I invested all three free skill points into Mysticism then closed the window and went out to see my team.


"Son of a...!" I could hardly resist using psionic magic when a sinister figure wrapped in a dark robe came around the corner of the hallway to greet me with a hood over their head.

"Greetings, Captain Gnat!"

Before me, her eyes staring ashamedly at the floor with a heap of dirty dishes in her hands stood Gerd Soia-Tan La-Varrez. She was dressed in something resembling a hybrid between a Catholic nun's dark habit and the grim reaper’s mythical robe. I don't know where Svetlana Vereshchagina and Destroying Angel had dug up the dark robe on the star frigate, but I had questions for them. I asked the young sorceress to set the dirty dishes on the table and follow me, going straight into the gym.

When the captain came in, the team started their training exercises while Gerd Ukh-Meemeesh the Trillian helped the boarding team leader as he wheezed in tension, plucking the five-hundred-pound barbel off the man's chest with one hand without apparent effort.

I gestured for the Assassin and Gunfighter to step forward, and asked:

"I won't ask what roleplay games you were keeping this habit in your wardrobe for," I pointed at the embarrassed Soia-Tan standing next to me. "But do you really think this is any way for a thirteen-year-old girl to dress? Couldn't find any decent pants or dresses? You must be big fans of Star Wars given how you’ve dressed our Psionic Mage. She's basically Soia-Tan La-Varrez, space witch!"

 "Why not? Our enemies' morale will take a hit as soon as they see her!" Space Commando Eduard Boyko laughed happily, and a few other crew members supported him.

But I didn't find this mockery of a high-level Princess from the ancient La-Varrez dynasty to be anything to laugh at. Which I told the team.

"But, Captain, she asked us to sew her that exact outfit!" Svetlana Vereshchagina objected, clearly not understanding the reason for my dismay. "For me to carry out the girl's request, I had to sacrifice my camouflage Assassin suit, and Destroying Angel cut up one of her dresses."

"Did you ask for this?" I turned to the little Princess for explanations and she nodded to confirm.

"Yes, Coruler Gnat La-Fin. I... it wasn't much, just a tiny bit, but I did some digging in the crew's thoughts and realized it would be a dramatic look. But that wasn't the main reason!" the girl practically shouted out the last part when she saw the frown appearing on my face. "It's just that I keep having the same dream over and over again. But this time it was especially clear and vibrant. It's like a warning or a vision of the future. Here it is."

A flood of thoughts and images came crashing down on me. Indistinct, blurry. I had to relax and put down my mental defenses to make sense of the "picture."

A huge room. Human guards lining the walls in power armor. Behind them... unidentifiable tall creatures that are definitely not human. Massive insects that look like praying mantises, but not Meleyephatians and not Relicts. Before them, a carved throne and seated upon it is a plump middle-aged monarch in a dark-blue army uniform with gold epaulettes. The King's face has an old jagged scar running across his whole cheek and forehead. Good thing his eye didn’t get hurt. There is a young Queen sitting to the monarch's right with a doll face and pure white hair. To his left... That's odd. It's an empty chair. And above it on the wall is a portrait of a very dramatic woman with red hair and a bright crimson dress to match with a deep neckline. And in the middle of the room... Surprising. Two girls with their hands thrust forward standing opposite one another wearing identical black robes going down to their very feet while the air between them sparked and hummed with tension.

The vision flooded out of my mind and I found myself again standing in the gym of my frigate, Tamara the Paladin. But for some reason my hands were shaking, and my Magic Points were down to zero. I wiped sweat from my brow. What even was that?

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred thirty-two!

"I am the smaller of the two girls," the Mage Psionic told me. "I don't know who my opponent is. All I know is that she finds it hard to walk and barely speaks. But at that she is an extremely powerful psionic and deadly! And this is not simply a meaningless dream. I consulted with relatives, then Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi the Mage Diviner. They are all of the opinion that I am seeing a probable future. A very important episode in the lines of the probable future, the outcome of which will define the course of history. And it is a battle I cannot lose!"

Chapter Six. The Price of Domination


"Captain, don't be mad, but this isn't your thing!" the leader of the boarding team Gerd T'yu-Pan patted me condescendingly on the shoulder, taking away my last still unthrown knife.

I confess that, after spending several hours in a row shooting a light rifle at erratically moving targets and levelling my shooting skills by tiny bits, I was fed up. I brought up my Sharpshooter by one point, but that was all. The result clearly did not justify the time wasted. Now here I was trying to take part in my troops' training session where they were learning to throw knives at targets shaped like Meleyephatians and various other spacefaring races. Some might cringe at that and ask what good are knives in battle when everyone has a modern laser weapon? But Gerd T'yu-Pan had a different opinion, saying starkly that the enemy cannot fire a gun with their hand disabled. They can't use Psionics either, with a knife sticking out of their head and the large head was in fact the weak point of the spiderlike Meleyephatians, who also usually did not wear armor there, or armor that left it only partially covered. Furthermore, there was nowhere in the galaxy where melee weaponry was banned unlike firearms, which were forbidden on many space stations.

But... not on mine. Without the corresponding skills and with utterly middling Agility, my Gnat could only hit the target every other time, which was to say nothing of the fact that some of them didn't go in at all or bounced away, much to my embarrassment. Compared to the others, especially Chef-Assassin Amati-Kuis, seemingly having been born with throwing knives in her hands, I looked truly weak and at times even comical. But I didn't give up and asked to be given one more chance. This time I decided to change tactics and use Intelligence rather than Agility, which my character was much stronger in.

The six knives laid out on the table raised up into the air, hovered there for a second and went racing forward. Hit! All six targets fell, hit the weak spots, which were labeled with red markers. A few of the targets I actually pierced straight through, which even the strongest team members couldn't do. The condescending smiles on my team's faces gave way to looks of surprise. Another batch of blades, and another rousing success.

"Ooh... ah!" my Chef Assassin shuddered in fear when the miniature poison blades attached to the top of her claws broke away from their anchors and went spinning in the air like a fanciful carousel of danger.

Go! Obeying my will, all six of the poisoned missiles stuck into the exact center of the distant target with such dense grouping that it would be hard to do any better by hand. Gerd T'yu-Pan walked up to the target, looked it over and gave a few approving claps:

"Impressive!" the huge Shocktroop suddenly got down on one knee and tilted his head. "Mage-ruler Gnat La-Fin, I beg apologies for my insolence. I forgot what powerful mages can do and allowed myself unforgivable words. It will not happen again! I swear it!"

Successful Authority check!

That cursed servile attitude toward mages, beaten into him since childhood... But the thing I was not expecting at all was for the other members of the boarding team to follow their leader and bow as well. Even Imran, who had no relation to the magocratic world and had been with me since day one in the game copied T'yu-Pan's gesture and got down on one knee. Tini, too. Taik Rekh, as well. Even the Trillian girl Amati-Kuis lowered the front half of her body to the very floor. I could feel an invisible but undeniable wall going up between my team and me. It was as if I had fallen out of the social circle and become an outsider.

I didn't enjoy the scene and rebuked myself for the lack of restraint. I never should have put on this Telekinesis show and demonstrated how vast the chasm was dividing Kungs from Gerds, much less common players. I mean, what was the point? Was I so hard up for Authority? Did I want to bolster my self-esteem and show off in front of my own team?

The only one left standing was the little Princess of the La-Varrez dynasty, Gerd Soia-Tan. The little mage on the other hand liked what she had seen and didn't even attempt to hide the smile of satisfaction. My assistant Gerd Ayni also hesitated for a few seconds, but stayed upright nevertheless.

"On your feet, friends. And get back to training," I said in the sudden silence, after which I tried to somewhat smooth over the negativity and blow down the new wall of alienation. "Gerd T'yu-Pan, let me remind you that you are not only the head of the boarding team, but also my advisor in magocratic world affairs. I expect honesty from you, not servility. And that means sometimes not only is the occasional insulting comment okay, but in fact necessary. When you're done at the range, come to my chambers. We need to talk."

The leader of the boarding team bowed respectfully, and I turned to little mage Soia-Tan La-Varrez.

"Little one, I also expect you in the captain's berth for a meeting. It is important for me to know what the old dynasties will think about my proposed changes, and you will do great as a representative of the La-Varrez mage-rulers. For you it will be a chance to prove yourself and be given a place in the future government, so I expect you to bring the utmost engagement, seriousness and openness."

The young psionic girl's eyes lit up and she promised to give everything she had to prove herself.


I was sitting in my bunk looking through the Relict Faction's innumerable pages of financial reports and unpaid bills. I'll admit, it was enough to make me scratch my head. No, I had heard from my Chief Advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi that finances were strained, and he even had to pawn one of the three Tiopeo-Myhh II interceptors to pay some vendors. But still I didn't think the situation was quite that dismal. We had definitely gone into the red with this explosive expansion, new nodes, many construction projects and army draft... To be more accurate, we were down seventeen million Geckho monetary crystals. And although the Kung of Earth's Authority and reputation as a swashbuckling Free Captain allowed several contracts to be paid after fact for already delivered weaponry or construction materials, and the suppliers didn't demand payment upfront, that day was nevertheless inexorably approaching.

We would have to pay four and a half million monetary crystals just to my business partner Uline-Tar for delivery of planetary shield generators on the huge Kitivaru transport ship. That contract though was for payment upon delivery and unloading, so we had another ten days before it was due. The other issue was that I for now saw no sources of financing I could use to pay Uline in any kind of reasonable timeframe. The platinum mine on the asteroid and trade profits brought the Relict Faction and its leader money, but all that was going to paying off a snowballing expense account. And I was forced to constantly invest my personal finances into supporting my own faction. In fact, it was only thanks to those investments that the situation had not spun out of control and turned into a complete catastrophe.

The Relict Faction had been given a claim to twenty-three nodes on the southern peninsula but getting them up to level two would take investment around sixty thousand crystals a piece, not including expenses for developing the infrastructure there. Doesn't sound like much when taken separately, but in total it added up to a tidy sum. And other than the "southern strip," we were building a high-speed causeway to the Chinese Faction, oil refineries and petrochemical plants, a cargo port and a thermonuclear power plant. We also couldn't ignore the six new nodes on the western shore of the bay around the Geckho spaceport or the three distant nodes on the opposite end of the continent that previously belonged to the North American H8 Faction.

And after all, there weren't only big construction projects on the "small" continent. I also had the "big" continent of the virtual Earth to think about, and everywhere needed money, money and more money. And beyond level-one and -two nodes, the Relict Faction also had level three, four and even five. All of them needed to be developed and built up, while the future development costs would be an order of magnitude higher. Another good chunk of money was going to the new ambitious project to get together spaceships for the Relict Faction. Blueprints for them had been drawn up by the greatest Constructor of all terrestrial factions Gerd Alex Bobl after studying the technology of other spacefaring races together with a whole team of Scientists and Engineers from allied factions.

The first two Sio-Fa-Urukh corvettes ("Defender" in translation from the language of the magocratic world) were Near-Earth Atmospheric fighters and were already being assembled in hangars on a site once occupied by the plains of the Poppy Fields node. In fact, two thirds of the parts for the corvettes had been made at my Relict Faction's factories. We were only buying particularly hard-to-produce parts such as defensive shields, gravity compensators and modern computers. We had also not fitted the ships with hyperspace drives to bring down construction costs. We only planned to use the corvettes inside the Solar System anyway. The Sio-Fa-Urukhs were fitted with enhanced shields though as well as fully-fledged maneuver drives and main thrusters, as well decent laser and rocket weaponry. These starships cost no more than two million Geckho crystals, but in battle a Defender could easily go toe-to-toe with a Meleyephatian frigate in Raider or Long-Distance Raider configuration, or a pair of interceptors. What mattered most though was that the Relict Faction could produce such corvettes all on its own in the medium-term, meaning it would no longer depend on deliveries from deep space.

I didn't even consider freezing expenditures on the corvette construction lines to save money Earth having a space fleet was of vital importance. I couldn't just stop some of the construction either because there wasn't that much time left before the countdown would be up and to successfully complete the mission of keeping both planets in existence, I needed to control more than fifty percent of the virtual planet's game nodes. And that meant ever more aggressive expansion, a constantly expanding roster of players for completing tasks, capturing more uninhabited territory and... again more expenses for building them up. Yes, with time all these acquisitions would start to turn a profit, but right now the new nodes brought only expenses.

Furthermore, the thirty-percent tribute we paid to the suzerains on all resources extracted and profits on goods sold was a heavy burden to bear. Yes, the Geckho were rubbing their hands together in glee when they saw their vassal factions’ significantly higher income streams and were using these funds for constant construction work next to the spaceport and at other locations on the planet. But for the Relict Faction, this tribute was a heavy yoke and the only possible way to be rid of it would be for Earth's humanity to receive independence. But a step that decisive would require expanded military capabilities as well as financial and political clout.

Then what to do? Where to get money? Take out a loan from a Geckho or Miyelonian bank? I suspect that such a famed Free Captain won't be turned away, especially if I put up my starship Tamara the Paladin as collateral. The price of my twinbody with the best equipment was sixty million Geckho crystals at least, so the loan was sure to be approved. However, I very much did not want to find myself in servitude to a bunch of slick alien financiers. In fact, my Danger Sense skill piped up when I even considered it.

My musings were interrupted by Gerd Uline Tar, who this time used her key to come into the captain's berth without knocking. The huge furry Geckho woman plopped down next to me and growled out:

"Gnnnat, you sad again? Ever since Minn-O and Valeri-Urla left the crew, it's like there's no light in your life."

"It isn't about them... well, they are part of it. It's just that there are problems building up all around me. And the team's behavior today really upset me..."

I told my business partner what happened today at the gun range and my other concerns. The burdensome political crisis in the magocratic world. Financial problems. I couldn't spend too long in the real world. I wanted to get it all off my chest, and there was no one else for me to pour out my soul to. The Trader listened to me carefully, never once interrupting. Then she responded to all points in detail.

"Such is the price of domination, Gnnnat. The Relict Faction declared itself the hegemon of terrestrial factions, and now there's no turning back. You'd be eaten alive. You can only afford constantly accelerating forward motion, even if it is inevitably linked to expenses. And I must admit, I am surprised there haven't been any attempts on your life. Earth leaders both from your world and the magocratic one aren't just going to let their rule slip between their fingers and getting rid of you would be the most obvious solution. Always remember that and stay on guard in the real world. As for finances, I can help. I'll look for delivery contracts we can pick up in Serpea and see what goods are most promising for trade. Furthermore, it wouldn't be too hard for me to get thirty million loaned by relatives. In fact, they offered during the wedding to help 'build up my trading enterprise.' I could get a large amount, too... A very large amount even. But that would require a specific project outline showing dividends and some kind of guarantee. And what about the team's opinion..."

Uline rumbled in satisfaction, embracing me with her powerful big paws, squeezing me tight and, looking me top to bottom, bared her teeth in a happy smile.

"Don't you worry about that, Gnnnat. Such is a leader's burden. There's no way to become a big influential Kung while remaining a normal player, open to a talk with anyone they come across. Even after I became a Gerd, I noticed old girlfriends who used to come to me just for a chat or some gossip about their gentlemen callers started giving me a wider berth. They're afraid to bother me over minor issues, not wanting to distract me from important issues as one of them admitted. Now just think how much different it is for a Kung! As far as most players are concerned, you're a legend, an untouchable star. They're afraid to even approach you. But know that you have loyal friends you can always be yourself around. I am one of those friends. And I think I have an idea for how to boost your mood..."

A measured knock at the door interrupted Uline's speech, and my business partner sharply fell silent midsentence. And even slowly covered her mouth with a broad furry paw as if she'd just said something she shouldn't have. What idea was that? I used Psionics a bit later and realized that "boosting my mood" was somehow connected with going into the real world and my tailed orange girlfriend Gerd Ayni the Miyelonian. I didn't even try reading thoughts because I was so let down. Now Uline Tar was trying to give unsolicited advice about my relationship with the orange Miyelonian Translator. I admit, I was expecting my business partner, someone who knew me quite well, to do something less banal and predictable.

Then, somewhat ashamed, Gerd Soia-Tan La-Varrez and Gerd T'yu-Pan walked into the captain's bunk. My business partner didn't embarrass them further with her presence and went out into the hallway. I pointed the pair to an armchair and couch, after which we started discussing the changes I as ruler of the First Directory and one of the three remaining mage-rulers and sole Archmage wanted to make to the magocratic world.

No, I was not planning to touch the fundamental principles of magocracy because that would be just too radical a step. Society wasn't ready for such big changes and would be up in arms. But repealing the majority of the utterly senseless limitations to the rights of people with no magical abilities was an obvious move. For example, common people could not hold offices such as the CEOs of large companies or banks, heads scientific institutes or high administrative posts such as city mayors, provincial governors or Directory leaders. The example of the very successful and respected ruler of the Second Directory General Ui Taka showed that this ban was now antiquated, was not being upheld and had to be repealed.

The ancient ban on "mixed" marriages between mages and nonmages was also begging for repeal. With boisterous declarations about the sanctity of ancient law, mages regularly broke it when they stood to gain an example of that were the marriages of Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin's nonmagical children, or the classic example of Minn-O La-Fin, who was going to be forcibly married off to a mage from house La-Varrez for the sake of the ancient La-Fin dynasty's inheritance.

The two parallel judicial systems for mages and nonmages was also an outdated concept, and I suggested bringing them together. But the most important step I proposed was the creation of a parliament with members elected from the common people of all sixteen Directories. That would serve as a safety valve to let out societal tension and give a chance to the most well-known and active citizens with no magical powers to express themselves in a fully legal fashion with no rebellions or revolutions. The old Council of Mage Rulers would retain the right to veto laws passed by the parliament, but I was certain the wise mages wouldn't abuse that so the peoples' uprising that scared so many would not happen again.

And at the pinnacle of the pyramid of power would be three rulers chosen from among the very strongest mages on the planet, as it was before in the magocratic world. I named myself one of the corulers, another spot was reserved for a member of the La-Varrez dynasty. As for the third candidate, I was willing to put it up for discussion with all the ancient dynasties. I also turned down the chance to give myself more authority than the other two corulers, even though in theory there was nothing to stop me from taking such rights. Yes, I remembered my conversation with Minn-O La-Fin where she suggested I make myself the sole ruler, but I wasn't confident I could do that without a lot of bloodshed.

Despite how easily understandable my theses seemed, a bunch of nuances and challenges cropped up, so the discussion lasted a while. For example, how to protect a judge presiding over a mage psionic's trial. Mental defense would be absolutely necessary, otherwise the defendant would be guaranteed to walk away scot-free no matter what crime they may have committed. Or the number of parliament members and strict formula governing deputies per territory depending on population. Also how to avoid that parliament grinding to a halt if two or more Directories found themselves at war.

We even invited another three natives of the magocratic world Engineer San-Sano, Timka-Vu the Machinegunner and San-Doon Taki-Bu the Pilot to join in the talks. And the longer we discussed the new changes, the finer details and sticking points we uncovered. But then suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by a message on the loudspeaker from Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov.

"Kung Gnat, please come to the captain's bridge. Your presence is required," the player's voice was shaking in worry.

A few seconds before that I sensed our frigate leave hyperspace into normal space. Had something gone wrong with our exit from hyper? Some kind of technical glitch? I instantly hopped up out of the flying armchair and dashed off to my workstation. Woah... This really was something that had to be seen in person. The blue star was so bright that even our dimming filters couldn't fully suppress the blinding light. The huge spindle-shaped space station was two hundred fifty miles from us. Other than that there were thousands of stationary and moving objects on the radar and big screen starships, autonomous shuttles, palaces of the local elite flying through space and the shells of old starships refitted as residential structures.

Cartography skill increased to level ninety-one!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level one hundred twelve!

But that wasn't the most important part. Very near our frigate, there was a whole flotilla of Meleyephatian combat ships. No less than two hundred. Frigates, support ships, a pair of strike cruisers and even one huge battleship, an unusual shape for the usual Meleyephatian heavy ship. I read its information. Pikiuro, meaning "splendor" in Miyelonian. Strange. A Horde ship with a Miyelonian name?

I looked it up in the ship search engine and read the information that came on screen. It had been captured at dock in an uncompleted state during the most recent conflict between the Horde and the Miyelonians, eight tongs ago. After the peace agreement, the Union of Miyelonian Prides had attempted on several occasions to purchase the huge ship back, but the leaders of the Meleyephatian Horde were unwavering in their refusal. To them it was as honorable a trophy as the severed tail of an enemy on one's helmet to a Miyelonian. The computer also told me the Pikiuro was currently serving as flagship for flotilla seventeen, which was part of the Horde's Eighth Fleet, which was taking part in the war against the Geckho.

So all these ships are at war with the Geckho... And they probably had not come to the home system of a Geckho vassal by accident. The nearest of the Meleyephatian Horde ships were less than one hundred miles away, so our frigate was easily in shooting range of the flotilla's on-board cannons.

It was too late to make any evasive maneuvers. Furthermore, our equipment had already detected abnormal interest in the Tamara the Paladin from the Meleyephatian flotilla we were being scanned actively by several of the ships. But why wasn't the combat alert sounding automatically?! I asked that question to the officers on the bridge.

"I don't know either," Dmitry Zheltov shrugged his shoulders. "I wanted to do it manually, captain, but the on-board computer marked all ships on the tactical grid as neutral, with white dots. And the Meleyephatians really are not displaying any aggression, just scanning our ship. They aren't even targeting. Their ships are waiting in line to dock at the Serpea-III station. And the Cleopian patrol ships aren't attacking them either!"

Impossible! It sounded preposterous. Sure, I can understand about our frigate. I am a Free Captain, and basically neutral again. The Meleyephatian Horde had revoked my enemy status for some reason. But why weren't the local spaceships and defensive artillery attacking the Meleyephatians? The Cleopians are Geckho vassals, and the Geckho are engaged in a bloody war with the Meleyephatian Horde. Meanwhile, the Horde's ships are in Cleopian space and being provided access to dock, service and repair. Has something in this life escaped my understanding? What the heck is going on?

[1] A reference to the song War (Война) by late Soviet rock band Kino.

[2] A very popular song by late Soviet rock band Kino about the dehumanizing experiences of the Soviet-Afghan War where one’s blood type was supposedly indicated by a patch sewn on the sleeve of their uniform.

Release - March 19, 2021

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