Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Range: Lords of the Ruins by Yuri Ulengov


The Range, book 2

Lords of the Ruins

by Yuri Ulengov



Release - May 14, 2021


Chapter 1.

Earth Federation, Orion System. Rhapsody, Sector 3 of the Gray Zone—designated safe zone of the Range. The ruins, near the Green Zone.

It took us about 24 hours to reach the Green Zone borders—we had to make a stop to take care of Margot and take a desperately-needed rest. By the time I caught up with my friends, I was on a brink of collapse. Diss’ condition was no better. On top of being severely exhausted, I was also withdrawing from the stimulants, heroically fighting occasional bouts of nausea, dizziness and weakness. I knew I could power through, of course, in the most extreme case if needed. But that wasn’t the case. We intentionally avoided busy routes, found a dilapidated house with an intact basement, locked ourselves in it and fell asleep, breaking all the rules, not even bothering to have someone keep watch. Screw it. No one was following us—we checked, and the probability of running into someone random in this area was very low.


In the morning, Diss and I were woken up by a familiar but almost forgotten smell. Before we could even open our eyes, we found ourselves in Margot’s arms. She had nearly gone mad with happiness when she woke up and saw us sleeping peacefully next to her. The last thing she remembered was Sculptor strapping her to the operating table so when she came to, she thought she had lost her mind. Realizing that she was safe and sound, Margot did the best thing a woman can do for a man if she wakes up before he does—made coffee.

We set out for Elysium after dark, not wanting to risk our lives in the last hours spent in Limbo. Forty minutes of cautious climbing through the ruins—and the greenish flickering of the force field around the Green Zone was right in front of us.

In spite of the late hour, the work was in full swing at the border: the floodlights were shining brightly; the construction printers were humming, erecting the wall block by block; the workers were bustling about; the melted synthetic concrete was hissing, pouring into the bed of a new road. Numerous guards were scattered around the perimeter, monitoring the approaches. Unlike the inhabitants of Limbo, they were wearing simple armor and armed with automatic rifles. And I’m sure they weren’t prohibited from using them.

“Stop right there!” A voice came from the darkness. “Don’t move. Hands off the guns. Who are you? Where are you going?”

“We’re from Limbo. Going to Elysium,” Diss answered curtly. “We’re new.”

“Ah, fresh meat,” the fighter grinned, emerging from his hiding place. It seemed to me that he was being careless but as I looked more closely, I noticed two more fighters covering for him. “Okay. Well, go to the perimeter. They’ll scan you there, read you the rules and let you in. Just don’t touch the guns—we shoot without warning. And don’t get into anything. It’d be a shame to die under the steamroller when you’re so close to the goal.”

We thanked him and headed towards the wall behind the force field. It was about a mile away. Hmm, what are they building here?

“They’re expanding the Green Zone,” Diss said as if he could read my mind. “The goal is to clean up Rhapsody, remember? They’re gonna build a new perimeter and then transfer the turrets, scanners and force field generators here—the safe zone will be a few miles bigger. The unrelenting march of human civilization in all its glory,” the light-worshiper chuckled. “In less than a century, the planet will be habitable again.”

“Sounds optimistic,” I snorted.

The entrance to Elysium was fronted by a massive airlock in the wall. As I approached it, I had a strange feeling as if someone was watching me. I grinned as I glanced around. No wonder! There were dozens of cameras mounted on the wall. Having been out in the wild and completely out of touch with civilization, I’d totally forgotten about the feeling of being watched.

A red light above the airlock turned on and lines of text ran before my eyes, just like during implant initialization.

Attention! We have received a request to pair the implant with an external device – IS-3 Green Zone identification system. Confirm pairing?

Yes/No/Cancel

Yes. What’s next?

Pairing request accepted. Connecting... Identifying the player... Searching the database...

Match found.

Subject No. 33286AN. Codename: Altai.

Status: prisoner. Sent to the Range under the sentence substitution program. Edict of the Government of the Earth Federation No. 43897, Amendment No. 4 dated 2/28/2385.

Verdict: 25 years at the Range. Decision of the Supreme Court of the Earth Federation No. 876456 dated 3/12/2387. Modified decision: internal order No. 987009 issued by NewVision Corporation on 6/22/2387.

Insurance: not available.

Race: Terran.

Level: 16.

Request to enter the Green Zone: approved.

Permitted length of stay: 48 hours.

The light switched to green, the airlock doors opened and a new message popped up before my eyes.

Welcome to Elysium, Altai!

Congratulations! You have reached level 10, completed the initialization of the basic implant and may now leave Limbo. You have 48 hours of stay in the Green Zone. The countdown will start the moment you exit the airlock. You can increase your length of stay in Elysium and earn additional credits and XP by completing the assignments given by the Administration.

Weapons of all types are banned in Elysium. The penalty for violation is death. You will learn more about the rules of staying in the Green Zone at the introductory briefing.

An introductory briefing? Fine, let’s see what this briefing’s about.

I stepped into the airlock first, followed by Margot. Diss was the last to enter and the door closed behind him as soon as he did. Fluorescent lamps in the ceiling turned on and a clear, pleasant female voice came from an invisible speaker.

“You are about to undergo disinfection. Please close your eyes and hold your breath after the beep.”

The buzzer sounded and I hurried to follow the instructions. Warm jets of air with a pungent chemical smell hit us from all sides. Interesting. During the war, after landing on the planets captured by the Xenos, we also underwent mandatory disinfection but there were no unpleasant procedures. Apparently, they were trying to save money on prisoners once again. Well yeah, that makes sense.

Disinfection lasted twenty seconds. Then we were showered with clouds of thick steam saturated with a water solution and dried with hot air. After that we were informed that the treatment was completed.

The light above the airlock turned green, the doors opened and we finally set foot in Elysium. Or not?

We were in a large building with a row of identical steel doors along the wall. In the corner stood an all-terrain vehicle, loaded with armor and weapons, which looked very much like a do-it-yourself project. There was another airlock on the opposite wall.

Suddenly, a mist flickered before my eyes and a girl appeared out of nowhere five steps away from me. She was of medium height, with short black hair and a nice body, dressed in a tight-fitting gray uniform: a jacket with a stand-up collar and trousers tucked into high boots. Red letters on the left side of her chest read NewVision.

“Hello! My name is Alice. I will be your assistant and guide during your stay in Elysium. I will help you get settled in and give you an introductory briefing. Please say ‘ready’ if you are ready to start,” she said with a smile and in a friendly voice—the same voice we heard in the airlock.

It was only her slightly unnatural tone of voice and the way she froze in anticipation of confirmation that made me realize she was not real and only existed in AR.

“Ready,” we said in near unison.

“Excellent,” the projection, very naturally, shook her head to get her bangs out of her face and smiled again. “You are granted a forty-eight-hour stay in Elysium so let’s not waste time. You are now in the so-called quarantine wing. It has an infirmary and a locker room. If any of you need urgent medical care, you can get it here. Before you enter the inner space of the Green Zone, you must rent a locker in the locker room and leave your weapons in it. The cost of renting a locker is two hundred credits per day. The first 24 hours of rent during your first visit to Elysium are free of charge, after which the specified amount will be deducted from your account automatically. Would you like to go to the locker room?”

We looked at each other and I nodded. Seeing no response, I realized that the neural network, artificial intelligence or whatever was controlling this projection was probably voice-controlled and said, “Yes, we would.”

“Great, please follow me.”

The projection girl turned around and headed towards one of the doors. We had no choice but to follow her. As we approached the door, it slid to the side smoothly, revealing a spacious hall filled with arms lockers.

“The use of weapons of any kind is strictly prohibited in the Green Zone. Please take this warning seriously,” the projection kept talking over her shoulder. “Order in Elysium is maintained by members of the Phoenix Group. This is one of the most efficient private military companies in the Earth Federation. Its employees don’t like silly jokes and provocations. Sometimes they may give you a warning but more often they just shoot to kill. Please avoid getting into conflict situations and do not provoke them yourself.”

Alice stopped by a row of lockers.

“Free lockers are indicated by green light. You can rent multiple lockers or put all your weapons in one. But remember: only the one who pays the rent can open the locker.”

“No point in spending extra money,” Diss shrugged his shoulders. Margot nodded in agreement. I stepped towards the locker and touched my bracelet to the reader. The bracelet vibrated. I confirmed renting the locker for two days and immediately paid for the second day without setting up auto-renewal. We’re not here for long.

I took off my backpack, figuring it was stupid to drag it around with me, folded the crossbow, took the ax off my belt and the Executor with its sheath off my chest and shoved it all into the backpack and put it in the locker. The others did the same. As I tried to stow the captured shotgun I’d been carrying around with me next to it, I got a warning from Alice.

“Modified weapons cannot be stored and must be disposed of. The disposal chamber is located at the end of the hall. The cost of disposal is one hundred credits.”

What the hell? So, not only am I being forced to dispose of a clearly expensive automatic shotgun but I’m also being charged for the cost of disposal? That’s crazy!

“And if I refuse?”

“If you refuse to comply with the internal rules of the Green Zone, you will be expelled or destroyed,” Alice said with the same sweet smile.

Wonderful.

Gritting my teeth with anger, I walked towards the disposal chamber, activated it with my bracelet, confirmed the charges and threw the shotgun and the ammo belt in. The chamber lid slid shut and I returned to my friends who had just finished stowing their ammo.

“Excellent,” the projection girl smiled. “Now that the formalities are over, we can finally begin our tour of Elysium. Please follow me.” And with those words, Alice headed for the exit.

***

“The Green Zone encompasses about four square miles,” Alice continued. “As the Orange Zone is cleared, Elysium expands, taking over the Gray Zone area. According to NewVision Corporation, Elysium is projected to grow at a rate of two miles per year. On a global scale, this doesn’t seem very fast but as the number of players at the Range grows, the clearance goes faster. That is why we are in dire need of players who can effectively operate in the Orange and Red Zones. For the assignments completed there, the Administration generously pays in credits and experience points...”

So far, Elysium hasn’t lived up to its name in any way possible. The newly paved road meandered through the ruins where you could hear the machinery humming and workers shouting. The ruins were cleared for construction sites, with construction waste fed into recyclers on site to be turned into raw materials for the printers. Automatic excavators dug trenches for new foundations while people looked after the equipment and carried out the tasks for which it was impractical to use machines: crushing slabs, hauling carts filled with garbage to the recycler and clearing the way for the excavator. Basically, they did all the hard labor.

“About a thousand people are constantly working on the expansion of Elysium. In general, these are players who are not interested in leveling up and for whom safety, a roof over their heads and a guaranteed allowance are more important. However, the restoration work has its disadvantages. The rules forbid such players to have any personal property. The workers live in separate, shared premises and are prohibited from entering the center of Elysium. The working day lasts sixteen hours. They don’t earn experience and credits and their stay at the Range can never be revised...”

Uh-huh, I see. This looks like your typical labor camp for low-level criminals. You work all day long for a bowl of bland, watery soup and a hard bunk in a shared barrack, without days off or vacations, day after day, year after year, until you have served your entire sentence. Sure, there are advantages, which some would consider pretty significant: you don’t have to look around every second in search of someone who wants to kill you and you don’t have to have someone on watch every night. But I don’t think I could do that. Even Limbo is better than this place. At least in my opinion. A short but vibrant life is better than daily, monotonous and mind-numbing labor. Nope, definitely not for me.

“Elysium is not the only safe zone. Similar zones are scattered throughout the planet and serve as outposts for clearing Rhapsody,” Alice kept going. “This is where players can rest, get treatment, trade and install implants. However, the islands of the Green Zones are surrounded by the ocean of Inferno, the Red Zone that has been exposed to radiation and biological contamination. Inferno still has a high concentration of quasi-living mechanisms of the Xenos, living organisms morphed into monsters due to exposure to xenovirus and the out-of-control war machines of the Earth Federation. It is along the border of the Red Zone that the forefront of the war for Rhapsody is. And it is there that players write their names into the history of the second conquest of the planet and gain fame, experience and credits...”

Ha! And they’re also being fed to morphs and turned into charred corpses by the weapon systems of robotic combat platforms and pulse rifles of their fellow players who are dying to get their guns, armor and credits. Alice makes it sound very tempting, especially in contrast to the life of worker ants we’ve just observed. I’m sure those less experienced would fall for her narrative. On one side of the spectrum is a dull, gray life filled with exhausting, monotonous work. On the other are exploits, adventures, fame, piles of credits... I know exactly why the Corporation does it—cannon fodder is always in higher demand than regular workers.

Another wall—this time lower—appeared ahead. Standing at the gate were two men in high-impact jet-black suits with a flaming phoenix on their chests. They were holding impressive-looking guns, with their faces hidden behind the impenetrable helmet visors. The Phoenix Group, mercenaries who maintained order in Elysium. The fighters barely glanced in our direction, just slightly turning their heads. Once the gates opened automatically after identification, they lost all interest in us.

“We are now entering the heart of Elysium. This area encompasses living quarters, biotechnology laboratories, the armory and the command center. While you are in the Green Zone, you can rent a room or bed in the living quarters, purchase and install sets of implants and augmentations in laboratories, choose armor and weapons in the armory and receive assignments from the Administration in the command center. There is also a recreational area where you can relax and unwind after raids. Where would you like to go now?”

I looked at Diss and Margot.

“I don’t know about you guys but I need to rest. Sleeping in some house’s basement is not what you’d call a good night’s rest. I also think there’s a hot shower here. So I’m all for spending the first eight hours doing absolutely nothing.”

Seeing Margot’s eyes light up at the mention of a hot shower, I smiled. Diss also supported the decision. I instructed Alice to take us to the living quarters. The projection smiled cordially and walked forward, continuing the briefing.

 “Living quarters are divided into shared and individual rooms. Beds are available for rent in shared rooms; this is the cheapest accommodation in Elysium. Individual rooms are more expensive but they are isolated, equipped with soundproof walls, a shower stall and a food synthesizer. Please select where you would like to stay.”

“Individual rooms!” we exclaimed almost simultaneously. Of course! Staying in a shared room was the last thing we needed right now. We didn’t come all the way here to wait in line for a shower and be woken up in the middle of the night from snoring from the next bunk.

“Very well.”

The center of Elysium didn’t look like the Promised Land either: gray, model buildings erected by construction printers, total absence of any vegetation, everything is gloomy and strictly functional. AR was doing its best to spruce up the surroundings, displaying brightly colored signs on the buildings and showing ads for armored kits, weapons and various gadgets. But if you turned it off, everything looked utterly bleak: synthetic concrete and polyplast with rare inclusions of metal. Even the standard mining towns on remote colonial planets didn’t seem so gray and dull.

At least we began to see some people. Other players hurried along the wide street in different directions. Almost all of them had their data hidden. I’d say the general haste was the hallmark of this place. Nobody wanted to waste even a second of the hard-earned time spent in the toxic territories.

For the most part, all the passersby we saw were hardened fighters. You didn’t need to scan and ID them to figure that out. Many had armor on; some had inexpensive implants that weren’t even disguised with synthetic skin. It makes sense. Every penny counts; there’s no point in spending money on decorations. Here, no one would be surprised by bionic prosthetic arms bulging with quasi-muscles, steel plates completely covering the skull, or mechanical enhancers. You won’t see this on civilized planets and even less so on Earth where it’s considered bad form. But who would you show off in front of here? When you have to spend all your time fighting for your life, concerns about beauty and decency fade into the background. Every penny goes towards combat efficiency; every credit goes towards armor and weapons. Cosmetic plastic surgery? No freaking way! That won’t help you kill the enemy unlike prosthetics with servo drives that make you stronger and faster. Goodbye beauty—hello efficiency!

There were newcomers like us, too. They could be easily identified by the leisurely manner with which they moved about, by the interest with which they looked at the local sights, and by their conversation with no one in particular—communication with the AR assistant looked funny from the outside.

Several times we came across the guards. The fighters of the Phoenix Group walked in pairs and threes, without hurry, holding their weapons at the ready and looking around attentively and tenaciously. It was easy to believe that if anything happened, they’d shoot to kill without asking any questions. For them, everything and everyone around was garbage. However, they weren’t looked at with fear or hatred—to the locals, the threat of being disconnected from the system was more worrisome than the mercenaries’ guns. There are no fools to organize a riot here as all the rebels who stayed back in Limbo were now six feet underground.

“We’re here,” Alice announced as we approached a long, one-story building made of gray synthetic concrete. “These are mid-range living quarters with standard individual rooms. If you wish, you can move to the recreational area where you can rent luxury apartments—”

“No,” I interrupted her, “mid-range is just what we need. Standard individual rooms will do us just fine.”

“The cost of accommodation is five hundred credits per day,” the projection stated. “It is deducted automatically. As newcomers visiting Elysium for the first time, you get a twenty-five percent discount on the first day of stay. The rent will be automatically deducted from your account each day of your stay. Please confirm.”

My implant displayed a request and I confirmed it without looking. I started to realize that we would be charged for every little thing here but didn’t care about doing the math at the moment. Thank God I have enough credits on my personal account that I don’t have to worry about small expenses. And we also have a team account where the reward for destroying Sculptor’s gang went to. So I don’t have to sweat it for now.

The door to the living quarters opened and out stepped a short, frail man who kind of looked like a rat. Giving us a worried look, he sidled past us and trotted down the street.

Inside the living quarters was a very long hall with identical doors. Most of them had red lights on, which seemed to indicate that the rooms were occupied. We had to walk more than halfway down the hall to find something available.

“Please touch your bracelets to the doors to confirm that you want to rent and secure the room. You can choose the access mode later. By default, access is granted only to the person who rented the room.”

I did what the projection said. There was a beep and the green light on the door changed to red.

“Alright, guys. I’m gonna sleep at least until noon. I suggest you do the same. Let’s get in touch tomorrow when we wake up and come to. Sleep well!” I wished Diss and Margot good night and walked through the doors. Alice’s projection blinked and went out.

Inside was a fairly spacious room divided into two parts. The main area was occupied by a bed with a huge info panel on the wall in front of it and a large horizontal pod, similar to a cryogenic one, in the corner. The second part contained a simple polyplastic table with a couple of chairs, a cupboard and a food synthesizer. There was also a shower stall and a washing machine. Barely able to conceal my excitement, I headed for the shower stall, stripping off my clothes and throwing them on the floor. Screw it, I’ll pick them up later! For now, it’s shower time!

After standing under the hot jets for at least half an hour, I came back to reality only when the system displayed a notification that I had used up the standard daily allocation of water. As I read that the “Night” rate was activated on the water meter, according to which the cost of the consumed water would be added to the room bill, I cursed and grabbed the toiletries.

I got out of the shower half an hour later, all steamed out, unusually clean and absolutely happy. Done! Now sleep! I just need to collect the clothes scattered around the room and load the washer.

As I was about to fall into bed, Alice suddenly reappeared in the center of the room.

“Sorry for the intrusion but I want to point out that you can use a multifunctional recreational chamber for a fee. The deprivation mode will allow you to completely disconnect from the outside world while the brain rhythm correction function will immerse you in pleasant dreams. By paying extra, you will get access to the sexual simulation program. The database contains images of all popular men and women in the Earth Federation. If you wish, you can create your ideal partner using an advanced virtual designer.”

While I was trying to figure out how to respond to the neural network, it continued.

“And also,” Alice narrowed her eyes slyly, “you can use my image in the simulation. This is a very popular service,” the girl’s image blinked and changed. Now, instead of a strict corporate uniform, she was wearing black lace lingerie, a belt with stockings and high-heeled shoes. “The cost of the service is one thousand five hundred credits. Trust me, you’ll like it,” she said, suddenly starting to sound seductive.

“Go away!” I growled, finally finding my voice. “Lights off! Door locked! Do not disturb mode until noon!”

“Of course,” the projection smiled shyly. “Do not disturb mode is activated. If you change your mind, you can always use the offered services and call me by saying my name clearly. By the way, three hundred credits were deducted from your account for the personal assistant services,” Alice added. There was a touch of mockery in her voice. “Enjoy your stay!”

“Get lost!” The projection blinked and slowly faded. Before she disappeared into thin air, I caught a glimpse of some sort of resentment on Alice’s face. What the hell?

The lights went out. I groped my way to the bed and sank into the ergonomic mattress. Before falling asleep, I couldn’t help but think that this world had gone completely insane if there were people willing to pay money they earned from killing others for simulated sex with an assistant bot.

It’s probably nothing new, though.

 

Chapter 2.

Earth Federation, Orion System. Rhapsody. Green Zone, Elysium’s living quarters.

For the first time since I landed on Rhapsody, I felt like I finally got a good night’s sleep. I woke up before the alarm went off and just lay there for a while, staring mindlessly into the darkness. The forgotten feeling of security, the warmth, the anatomical bed mattress... Before, I always thought that I needed more than this to be happy.

I waited for the alarm to go off, stretched with a sigh of delight and got up. Lying in bed feels great, of course, but things won’t just take care of themselves. The timer counting down our remaining time in the Green Zone in the corner of my eye can’t be paused either.

The light came on automatically as soon as I got out of bed. At first it was dim but later, when the system recognized that I was awake and not going back to bed, it gradually became brighter. As I took the washed, disinfected and dried clothes out of the washer, I cursed through my teeth, realizing that my underwear and socks were still in the backpack I had left in the locker at the entrance. Well, at least these are clean now. I don't think buying a new set in Elysium will be difficult.

After getting dressed, I activated the synthesizer and studied the menu for a couple of minutes, unable to believe my eyes. Having spent several months surviving strictly on universal ration—first in a prison cell and then in Limbo—I had completely forgotten what normal food was. Sure, it could barely be called normal: after all, there are no natural ingredients in synthesized food and “dishes” are made using different combinations of flavor additives and chemical elements mixed in the correct proportion with the food substrate. But damn it, this is so much better than the tasteless ration biscuits I’ve been eating!

First, I ordered coffee. Real coffee hadn’t existed for a long time but the drink was so popular that hundreds of scientists rushed to solve the problem—and they succeeded! According to those who were lucky enough to try real coffee, its substitute was nearly as good in terms of taste and its invigorating effect as the real thing. I had nothing to compare it with though, so I just took the mug out of the synthesizer, sniffed the air, inhaling the aroma, and set it on the table to cool down. I entered a few more codes to order meat with a side of mashed potatoes and sat down at the table to finally enjoy the drink.

“Good morning, Altai!” Alice’s projection appeared so suddenly that I almost choked on hot coffee. Damn it, she can’t do that! I need to go through settings to stop the assistant from appearing whenever she pleases.

Alice was wearing her corporate uniform again, looking professional, composed and collected.

“Do not disturb mode will be deactivated in 10 minutes. During your sleep, one attempted unauthorized access to the room has been recorded. Play the recording?”

I frowned. Attempted unauthorized access? Who could have come to see me?

“Play it.”

A projection screen unfolded in front of me, showing an image from the camera mounted in the doorway. For a couple of seconds the camera showed an empty hallway and then I saw...Margot?

Wrapped in a robe, she hesitated in front of the door for a few seconds, with doubt clearly visible on her face. Margot raised her hand to knock on the door but changed her mind and turned around to leave. But then she froze, shook her head, turned towards the door and knocked on it quickly, as if not giving herself time to change her mind. She stood there for a while, listening closely, and then muttered something and quickly left.

The image faded, leaving me in deep thought. I’m not a naive young man, of course, and I can easily imagine what a woman might need from me in the middle of the night. It’s just...I don’t need this, especially at this moment. No doubt, Margot is very attractive for my unassuming taste but... I don’t want to explain to anyone why I’m not looking for any relationship, even one with a single purpose, right now. I just don’t need it. And I don’t think anything will change in the near future.

Also, I don’t want anything but cooperation and support from our small team. I mean, Klaus already gave into his petty jealousy. And how did that end?

My mood was completely ruined. I glanced at my watch—it was noon. According to the timer, I still had nearly thirty-six hours left in Elysium. I still have time before I have to meet the others and I need to spend it wisely. I finished my coffee, set the mug aside and activated the personal assistant.

“Alice,” I called out loud, “give me info on implants and augmentation that can be installed in the Green Zone.”

“On it,” the projection replied.

An InfoNet panel expanded in front of me. After glancing at it quickly, I realized it’d take a while, so I ordered more coffee from the synthesizer, dimmed the light and immersed myself in reading.

***

“Before proceeding with the selection of implants and augmentations, you need to choose your in-game class,” Alice instructed. Realizing that it’d take me all day to figure it out on my own, I ordered her to help me. After all, since I’m paying for the services of an assistant, I need to get my money’s worth. Assuming her new role, Alice—now wearing large-framed glasses and holding a pointer—was standing by the InfoNet panel, introducing me to all the nuances and subtleties.

“In-game classes are designed to simplify the selection of implants. Each of them has several different configurations, balanced and designed for the most effective interaction. Currently there are three global classes: technical class, support class and main—action—class. Each class has specializations. For the technical class, these are Worker, Medic and Engineer. Support class specializations are Cover Fighter, a/k/a Striker, Defender and Heavy Assault Trooper. Action class specializations are Enforcer, Shooter and Spy,” Alice paused for a second and looked at me, as if assessing how well I was absorbing the information.

“The choice of class depends on the style of play and on whether the player is going to interact with a team or prefers to play alone.” These gaming terms, as well as the very concept of a game in relation to the Range, were hurting my ears. I felt sick to my stomach but there was nothing I could do about it. After all, for me and the other prisoners on Rhapsody, life here is a constant fight for survival, but for tens of millions of people throughout the Federation clinging to their monitors and visors, it’s just a game, a show for entertainment. I felt anger boiling inside me and had to double my effort to focus on Alice’s lecture.

“Cover Fighter, a/k/a Striker, is a specialization that is best used in team play. They are the main firepower on their team. Strikers are armed with heavy machine guns and a grenade launcher as an additional weapon. If quasi-living and morphed organisms are expected to be the main enemy, the grenade launcher can be replaced with a jet flamethrower, which is more effective in such engagements.”

A three-dimensional figure of a big fighter, wearing armor, a helmet and a large raid backpack, appeared on the InfoNet panel. The fighter was holding a heavy machine gun, with its belt connected to the backpack. A grenade launcher with a revolver-type magazine could be seen on the fighter’s shoulder.

“The task of the Cover Fighter is to suppress the enemy with fire and cover the team,” Alice continued. “Strikers carry a large amount of ammunition and heavy weapons, so the emphasis during implantation is on endurance and carrying capacity. Despite the fact that Striker’s lifespan in battle often determines the survival of the entire team, heavy armor is not typically used: it reduces the already low mobility and slows down maneuvering.” Alice paused to make sure that I’d absorbed the information before continuing.

“Defender is another purely team-based specialization. Defender also belongs to the heavy infantrymen class. They are armed with a machine gun but, in addition to it, carry a portable force field generator, which, depending on the intensity of exposure to enemy weapons, is capable of protecting several people. You can make the Defender most effective by pairing him with a Cover Fighter, thus creating an almost invulnerable firing point. However, due to the high cost of equipment and weapons, few of the smaller teams can afford two of such fighters at the same time.”

The screen displayed the Cover Fighter’s twin brother. The image began to move and a transparent dome covered the fighter’s figure for a few seconds. The dome grew bigger and bigger and then the force field blinked and disappeared.

“Due to the heavy weight of the force field generator, the Defender’s ammunition load is less than that of the Cover Fighter. This disadvantage can be mitigated by using armor with reinforced drives or by implanting an internal exoskeleton, which is a complex, expensive and irreversible procedure.”

The image on the screen changed again and I flinched when I saw the familiar armor—the kind I wore myself not long ago, similar to the armor of the tourist I killed in the Gray Zone.

“Unlike Striker and Defender, Heavy Assault Trooper is an attacking unit. They are armed with a machine gun or a multifunctional small-arms system with a smart module. Automatic shotguns of various models are most often used as additional weapons. The main task of Heavy Assault Troopers is to break through the enemy’s battle formations and inflict maximum damage on them. Heavy Assault Troopers are indispensable for clearing buildings, in which case an assault tactical shield is added to the configuration. Due to the increased mobility requirements, the armor of the Heavy Assault Trooper is one of the most expensive armored kits; it ensures high maneuverability while providing a high level of protection to the fighter at the same time.”

I took the food out of the synthesizer and began pensively moving it around the plate with a disposable fork. Okay. Before making a decision, I need to hear all the info.

“Thanks, Alice, let’s move on.”

The projection readily continued, “The technical class includes—”

“Skip it.” I wasn't interested in that right now. Our team is too small to have a separate medic or engineer, so the focus should be on something else.

“The basic action class includes Enforcer, Shooter and Spy. Enforcer is a versatile fighter, a light infantryman, who can perform almost any function, both in team play and alone, if necessary. The Enforcer specialization does not require special skills, making it the most common at the Range. However, keep in mind that without special modifications, it is better to use light weapons for this specialization. This is how an optimal balance between mobility and firepower is achieved. By combining various implants and power-ups, Enforcer can be used to create a truly universal soldier that can perform virtually any task.”

A light-armored fighter with an assault rifle appeared on the screen. Well, that’s clear. This is your standard infantryman. Unsurprisingly, this is the most common specialization.

“The Shooter specialization, in turn, is divided into two more subtypes: Special Ops Sniper and Infantry Sniper, a/k/a Marksman. The Special Ops Sniper operates mainly in isolation from the main unit and performs tasks related to the covert elimination of the enemy and the destruction of enemy’s manpower and equipment from long range. This specialization is characterized by heavy sniper weapons and a special configuration of installed implants aimed at achieving maximum stealth and marksmanship.

The Marksman is a combat unit operating as part of the main unit. Their tasks are focused on the destruction of important targets among the enemy’s manpower: support fighters, commanders and officers, and other shooters. Marksmen usually operate at short to medium range. They have matching weapons and a set of implants aimed at high firing efficiency, mobility and maneuverability.”

I looked at the screen where Alice showed both types of shooters and nodded to myself. Marksman is probably what we need. It’s the perfect specialization for Margot given her bow skills. The only question is how good she is at handling a gun. Whatever, that’ll come with time. She’ll learn. She’s naturally skilled at target shooting, implants will help with the rest. Then she can master her skills in simulation, at the shooting range and in combat conditions. I should talk to her about it.

“The Spy specialization also contains three modifications: Stalker, Scout and Marauder. Once a fighter has mastered the Stalker specialization, they can act both as part of a team and alone. Stalkers are excellent trackers and guides. This specialization is characterized by a high level of stealth. At the same time, Stalkers are able to act as Enforcers, effectively working at medium range using light and medium weapons. The implant configuration includes, among other things, an increase in the fighter’s range of hearing, sight and smell.”

The screen displayed a fighter with equipment and weapons resembling the tourist guide we spared in the village. Well yeah, that’s what a stalker is. I remember Diss talking about him. A useful specialization: you can act in a team and alone.

“The Scout is a light spy whose main purpose is reconnaissance, gaining the enemy’s rear, sabotage and jamming or disabling electronic weaponry. The Scout’s main skills are stealth, high mobility and maneuverability. They are armed for silent elimination of single opponents and sabotage, which makes them the least protected class.

The last of the Spy class is Marauder. This is the most protected member of the class. Their main purpose is to act alone but they are also quite effective as part of a team. Marauders use medium armor, light and medium weapons, are mobile, stealthy and can sabotage or engage in open conflict with humans and morphs. The name of the specialization was chosen for a reason: it is Marauders who accept assignments to search for valuable information in the ruins and biomaterial in the wastelands of the Orange and Red Zones.

Marauders are well protected from various types of exposure, including radiation and electromagnetic waves. They are able to fight at close and medium range, scout the area and coordinate the actions of the rest of the team. In essence, it is a well-protected Enforcer with the enhancements of a Stalker. Marauder is one of the most expensive modifications and requires certain skills, which is why this fighter type is not particularly popular at the Range.”

“Thanks, Alice.”

I threw the empty plate into the recycler and slumped onto the bed with my clothes on. Damn, this is interesting!

Initially, I thought that Heavy Assault Trooper was the right specialization for me. However, after I thought about it, recalling some episodes from recent days, I started to have doubts. Stealth and speed were my main weapons in Limbo. I doubt things would be different at the Verge. Sneaking around ruins in heavy armor doesn’t seem like a good idea. And if you think about how I managed to take out that tourist guy—without armor, armed with just an ax—it becomes very clear that I should reconsider my choice.

A heavy assault trooper is good as a part of a team, in close combat and, preferably, in the company of several others of the same type—the more the better. Assuming that the enemy has no heavy artillery or air support, a company of planetary assault troopers is capable of leaving nothing but scorched earth behind. Alone, though... Alone, a heavy assault trooper can be chopped to pieces by a cunning guy with a battle ax. So there you go.

The other support classes don’t suit me either, and I’m not particularly interested in being a sniper. Our team is small, so we need to choose the most versatile and useful specializations. Considering this, Marauder looks very attractive. I wish I had time to play with the configurator and create a virtual fighter model but I really need to go to the lab now. Installation of implants requires recovery and our time in Elysium is running out. We still need to stock up on armor, weapons and equipment, and figure out the assignments. So much to do in so little time. We need to hurry.

“You have an incoming video call,” Alice announced. “Caller ID: Diss. Allow the connection?”

“Allow,” I nodded. Good timing! Let’s do this!



Release - May 14, 2021



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