Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Nullform-1 by Dem Mikhailov

Nullform, book #1
by Dem Mikhailov

Release - April 5, 2021

Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NGVGYK1

Chapter 1


Operation log:

Hydration – complete.

Assembly – complete.

Resuscitation – complete.


Did green letters just flash before my eyes? But my eyes are closed. How am I seeing letters? Words, even...

Assembly? Hydration? What's that supposed to mean? Damn, my head hurts. And my left elbow... and my lower back. It hurts so bad I want to puke. Constant, exhausting pain. Horrible pain. Not like I got hit or something. It's more serious, something chronic... I know it for sure... or do I just feel it?

"Hey! Eleven! Come on, wake up!" I heard an impatient, angry voice on my right.

The voice was a woman's, and she was shouting right into my ear.

"Double ones! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"

I tried to move my lips, only managing to grind my teeth and croak out a few hoarse noises. This set of miserable actions and sounds coalesced into a barely-audible request:

"Don't yell at me..."

"There's no time for this, Eleven! None. Ugh, why did I agree to this? Get up! The alarm's about to go off!"

"Alarm?" My mind felt sluggish, like I couldn't catch up with what she was saying. Nothing made sense.

Almost nothing.

I was being ordered to stand up. She was calling me Eleven, which wasn't my name. My name... what's my name? My name... I can't remember.

Who am I?

Nothing but indifferent silence echoed in my head. My mind was desperately searching for the information I wanted, diving into the depths of my memory – I could even hear the splash of imaginary waves – but I found nothing below the surface. I wasn't even surprised. In that moment, I realized the oceans of my memory were empty. There was no life in there at all. Not one single little fish that could give me at least some information about my past. All the wriggling life forms of my memory had been caught in a fine net and taken far away, so far that my mind had no chance of ever catching up.

"Come on, nullbie! Get up!"

Nullbie? Is she talking to me?

Eleven. Nullbie.

"Come on, double ones! Get up, I'm begging you! They'll punish me if you don't!" I could hear fear in the woman's voice. A feral, involuntary terror.

The fear in her voice made me feel so awful that I forgot the pain in my head, arm, and back. Shoving my body's protests aside, I moved, groaning, and managed to roll onto my side. Only then did I realize I had been lying on my back. I spat and felt something sticky roll slowly down my cheek. As I tried to move my arms, a stabbing pain bad enough to make me scream out loud shot up my left arm. All right...Got it, I'm lying on my left side. Better take a look around...

I felt a twinge of panic as my eyelids twitched, but wouldn't open. What is going on?

"Hang on, I'll get that..."

A rag scraped my cheek roughly – too roughly. Like a cheese grater running across my face. I was instantly alert, my drowsiness fading.

One more try... This time my eyes obediently opened, only to be hit with unbearably bright light. A groan escaped me and I squeezed them shut again. I twitched, involuntarily moving my left elbow, which caused horrible pain to wrack my entire body. Something was very wrong...

"My arm…" I croaked, not opening my eyes. "My left arm…"

"Yeah, bad luck about those arms," the female voice answered. "But your own base parts, your torso and head, are in fantastic shape. The legs are pieces of shit. But the arms are even worse."


"I said you got a crappy set. Real garbage. You hit the shit jackpot, Eleven."

"Why do you keep calling me Eleven?"

"It's written on your chest. Double ones. Now get up! The alarm's gonna go off, then it's time for inspection! We have to be standing over there by then! So get up!"

"I think I'm sick... I feel so awful... Water... I need water..."

"Later! Stand up, Eleven! Stand up! Come on. I'll help you."

It was like she didn't hear me at all. I felt unbelievably bad. Completely disoriented, weak to the point of helplessness. I couldn't feel my arms and legs, other than the nebula of pain around my left elbow. My back hurt, too, and my temples throbbed. I felt nausea rise in my throat, but then it slowly retreated back into my stomach.

Something terrible must have happened to me. Was I in an accident? Maybe. I don't remember anything. Maybe I hit my head...

"My memories..."

"Erased, of course! You're a nullbie! No memories. They're all locked away."


"Listen to me! If you don't get up now, I'm leaving without you. And you won't make it to the hallway alone. You'll miss inspection, which means you'll get no work and no pay! And then how will you pay for your limbs? They're on loan, and you have to pay for 'em every day! How will you pay for food? Or showers? Snap out of it, Eleven! If you don't eat and drink today, you're a goner!"

I listened very carefully, even through the haze of weakness and pain. I tried my hardest to understand her, but still, nothing made sense.

What is she talking about? Is she crazy?


The sheer terror and pain in her voice...

I gave myself some time. Just a little. Ten seconds to get myself moving. I slowly counted down from ten to one. My pain and weakness eased up the slightest bit. I seized at the chance.

Two! One!

I twisted sharply, rolled over onto my stomach, and got my stiff legs under me. My right hand hit the wet, sticky floor with a slap and started helping my torso straighten itself. I opened my left eye a little. Closed it. Opened the right eye. Closed it. Come on... come on...

Strong hands grabbed me and helped me up. I opened both eyes, noticed a dirty metal wall, and immediately leaned against it. Then I looked down, and froze in shock. I saw my stomach. Flat, muscular, no softness whatsoever. I could see clearly-defined, athletic abs. The skin over them was loose, wrinkled, and shot through with veins, but it looked like something temporary, like it would be back to normal soon. But below that... not the wide elastic band of the boxer shorts I was wearing, not the shorts themselves, but lower. My legs. But... how could such an athletic torso and strong hips sprout two spindly, match-thin legs, like an old man's? What the hell? I stared down at the knobbly knees, the bare feet with blackened toenails.

My arms...

I turned my head slightly to look at my left arm. And helplessly swore in shock – the arm attached to my muscular shoulder was impossibly thin, the elbow blue and swollen. The right one was in similarly bad shape.

What the...

"Follow me! Hold on to the wall," said the woman.

I finally saw her. She was very young, with dark olive skin, a trim figure, and short hair cut badly. She was missing an arm. Below similar shorts to the ones I wore, she had two muscular legs as black as coal. There was an old scar on her right cheek, and her forehead was crossed with a fresh red one. Her left eye was swollen, the beginnings of a bad black eye. Her lip was split too. I saw two digits on the skin above her shirt. Nine and one.

"Come on! Come on."

A rough push had me obediently taking my first step, holding on to the wall for support. Even then, I almost fell – my legs could barely support my body weight.

"It'll be easier once your legs get stronger."

This is definitely not a hospital. And she's definitely not a nurse. Or an orderly.

"What's going on? What happened to me? Why"

"Listen! Just shut up and keep walking. You'll get activated in the main hallway, and then you'll understand everything. It's as simple as that. And I'll get my two sol. Everyone's happy! Just keep walking..."

"Activated? Sol?"

"We're almost there. This way... One more step..."

The next step brought me somewhere slightly brighter. It was a hallway. A wide hallway, with dirty floors. We weren't alone. A crowd of people surrounded us, more or less in the same state as me, but more emaciated, worn-down. The men were all wearing shorts, and the women had shirts on as well. But their limbs... their limbs... My eyes adjusted to the light and flitted from one body to the next, but my mind just couldn't process what I was seeing. It looked like some sadistic giant had torn off all their arms and legs, then stuck them haphazardly back onto random bodies.

What's going on?

How many times had I asked myself that question? Probably a hundred times in the last three minutes.

I started as a siren suddenly wailed, and the people around me seemed to come to life. Everyone quickly and simultaneously stood tall, bringing their shoulder blades together, putting their hands on their hips, smiling and trying to look relaxed.

"Straighten up, double ones!" Ninety-One hissed. "Don't lean on the wall! Stand straight and tall, like you're bursting with energy!"

I dropped my eyes, pressed my chin to my chest, and finally saw the two bold black digits on my left pec. The stranger wasn't lying. I was Eleven.

I looked around at the people standing nearby. Nobody, nobody was touching the walls, even though everyone had been leaning on them just a moment before.

It made my flesh crawl. They all looked like terminally ill patients with painful smiles plastered across their faces. The expression of someone dying in hospice who puts on a brave face for their visiting family members while screaming internally, afraid and unwilling to die.

I stood up straight and almost passed out. I barely managed to stay balanced, freezing in the straightest position I could manage, resisting the urge to slump down to the floor and scream from the pain in my head. The world was going dark before my eyes. I was ready to fall over, no matter how much Ninety-One pleaded with me. But a steady mechanical hum started somewhere above me, and I raised my head. All I saw was an emotionless camera sticking out of a large metal dome that moved along a rail on the ceiling. There were at least twenty of them on the dome, all pointed down at the people standing in the hallway. Several lasers scanned my face and chest, sliding across the numbers there. One paused on my right shoulder. I glanced over and saw a long barcode I hadn't noticed before.

I heard a click, then another...

The first came from the ceiling, but I heard the second one inside my head. I shuddered and stared stiffly ahead, bewilderedly reading the lines of green text that appeared:

Interface activation – complete.

Event log (3):

Assembly – complete.

Resuscitation – complete.

Interface activation – complete.

Something began to blink in my peripheral vision, and I heard a gentle, repetitive ringing sound. Ninety-One let out a long sigh of undisguised relief.

"Those two sol are mine..."

The ceiling dome hummed as it moved down the hallway. The people around me started smiling and talking. Yawning, stretching, chatting with the people next to them – the tense atmosphere had vanished. I staggered, and my back slammed against the wall. My knees went weak, and I slid down to the floor. Ninety-One started to step back... then hesitated halfway through, stopped, let out some kind of strange curse, and sat down next to me. She helped me get a little more comfortable, then started to speak in a hurried voice:

"You still have some time. Half an hour. If you look to the bottom left you can see the clock. That's where the timer settings are, too. Anyway, you'll hear a beep. That means it's time for breakfast. Just follow everyone else."

I shook my head weakly. Just the thought of trying to eat made me feel nauseous. Water, though… That appealed to me. Just a few sips...

A stinging heat flooded my cheek as Ninety-One slapped me. She lowered her voice, anger in her eyes:

"Don't be an idiot, Eleven. I know you feel terrible. But you can't skip breakfast. Your body is nutrient-deficient. You need every calorie you can get. Okay?"


"Eat, no matter how hard it is. The portions are tiny, anyway. And drink as much water as you can manage. After that, when you're feeling a little better and get your current status..."


"Your current status! You'll figure it out. Just learn the interface. That's the most important thing."

"Got it. What–"

"You can shove your questions up your ass, Eleven! My bonus job was simple: wake you up, get you standing, and bring you to the hallway. It's done. I got my reward. The only reason I'm still here is out of the goodness of my heart. Get it?"

"Got it."

"Good. One more piece of advice for you: don't trust anyone! And don't agree to anything. Got it?"


"Never lend anyone money, not even one sol! Not one!"

"What's a sol?"

"It's money! Coins! The absolute most important thing for all of us here is to earn our sol day in, day out! You have to pay four sol every day just to rent your set!"

"Set? What the hell does that mean?" I burst out. At least I still had emotions – I had almost started to worry I was actually a robot. But no.

"This," she reached out with her one arm to touch each of my arms and legs in succession. "Is your set. Every day, the system takes one sol for each limb. Four total for the set. No discounts." She stood up, smiling bitterly.

"Hold on..." my mind was grasping at whatever it could just to stay focused. "What about you? Do you pay three sol every day? Because of..."

She glanced at the cleanly cut-off stump by her shoulder and grinned again.

"I pay for four, too. Since it was my own fault I lost this arm. And that means they take one sol from me every day for jack shit. One last piece of advice for you, new guy: don't forget about the casual."

"About the what?"

"You'll understand later. Keep an eye out for your number – eleven – on the screens. If you see it on one of them, be quick. You only have minut, then it's the next player's turn. And stay alert, make sure you don't get jumped – games are rare, and everyone wants to play. They won't think twice about tripping you up or even knocking you out."

"What the–"

"Just be careful! And watch the screens. They're only on in the evenings, since there are jobs to do during the day."

"I don't–"

"You'll figure it out. Good luck!" She bent down and clasped me on the shoulder. "Be strong. Survive. That's what matters. See ya!"

She left, leaving me slumped against the wall.

I was in pain, serious pain. The throbbing in my back was more or less tolerable, but my head and my left elbow... the longer I sat there, the more I wanted to gnaw off my left arm and bang my head repeatedly against the wall. I had to distract myself somehow...

What had Ninety-Five said? No, it was Ninety-One. Ninety-One... I had to remember. Judging by the others' overall lack of any reaction to my pain-contorted body lying against the wall, Ninety-One was the nicest person around.


Why numbers? I mused. Why not names? Don't people usually go by the name their parents gave them? Everyone has a first name and last name. And they bear them proudly their whole lives...

My head... My vision started to go dark. I felt myself slide slowly onto my right as my lungs released a hoarse, rattling wheeze. A snippet of conversation floated by:

"The new guy is a dead man."

"Yeah. Someone's gonna get three extra sol for his interment."

"Lucky bastard..."

Are they talking about me? Me, a dead man? I started, propped my bad arm against the wall, and forced my body upright so my back was resting against the wall. Through the haze of pain, I turned my head and looked to the side. I saw crowds of people, but it was like I was looking through a grey fog. They walked up to the walls, or maybe right into them. When they appeared again, they were chewing or wiping their mouths. Drinking... they're drinking! There's water over there!

What did I need right then?

The answer was obvious – water. I needed water, and the more, the better. I remembered one of the lines that had flashed before my eyes:

Hydration – complete.


Something dry was successfully made wet. Or at least slightly moist, if my theory was right, and the text was referring to my body. It made sense so far.

Assembly – complete.


My rented limbs, as horrific as that sounded.

Resuscitation – complete.


No explanation needed.

If I put two and two together... my dry body was successfully saturated with water, then given the first available limbs, and finally reanimated, bringing me back to some miserable form of existence. Then I found myself in some kind of storeroom, where the one-armed Ninety-One had shaken me awake.

My head was pounding, distracting me from my attempts to think rationally. Everything inside me felt like it was about to give out. The wrinkled skin on my stomach started to shrivel again. I felt tightness in my cheeks and forehead, and my eyes could hardly move in their sockets, like they were stuck.

Water... I need water...

Stand up!

My legs obeyed me with a jerk. My shoulder scraped along the wall. I rested my right palm against its solid presence, and leaned forward, forcing my lethargic, slow, trembling legs to take the first step. You got this... Come on... You're so close... Move your rented limbs, Eleven. Move 'em. I had to remember to keep my left elbow close to my torso, because I knew if one of the indifferent people walking by bumped it, I'd be right back on the floor, writhing in pain. I probably wouldn't be able to stand up again, and then someone would earn their three sol for my interment... Why did they say interment, not funeral?

Why did I get an old man's arms and legs?

Why did they stitch someone else's limbs to me in the first place?

Where are my real arms and legs?

I took a look at the shoulder that rested against the wall. An ugly red scar encircled my shoulder. Were the arms and legs attached to my body along with the joints? Was it some kind of advanced technology or just a hack job? And why don't I remember anything?

After another step, my shoulder brushed against a square door in the wall. It was flush to the surface, narrow, and high, but outlined with a thick green line that made it easy to spot. A small black glass square sat at the bottom. I looked briefly at the people nearby, getting my bearings, then stepped in front of the door, moved back a little, and paused.

A robotic voice indifferently identified me.

"Eleven. NWL."

Those same words flashed in front of my blurred vision:

Eleven. (NWL)

The door silently slid upwards, revealing a deep, well-lit niche with a rounded, perforated-steel armchair. The armrests were wide – very wide. The whole structure stood on one round leg. I awkwardly turned myself around and sat down, glad to give my legs even a few moments of relief. The door closed silently, cutting me off from the corridor and any passing glances.

Closing in 01:59… 01:58…

The first thing I saw was a large plastic glass of water rising from the armrest. I grabbed it in one shaky hand.

Reminder: return the water container to its original position after consumption.

I raised the cup to my chapped lips and began to drink or, rather, pour the precious water into myself, not stopping until the glass was empty of every last drop. I put it back in the armrest, looking hopefully at the glass I had emptied so quickly through the gray fog and iridescent ripples that flashed across my vision.

Closing in 01:41… 01:40…

I heard the sound of water. The glass filled up again.

First (of three daily) water limits reached. (NWL)

The text appearing and disappearing in my field of vision didn't surprise me anymore.

It's like augmented reality, right? I'm pretty sure it's a common thing.

I drank the second glass just as greedily, not spilling a single drop. If I had estimated the volume correctly, I now had a liter of water inside me. I hoped my tissues would absorb it quickly.

Injection. (NWL)

A glowing green animation started playing. A little human figure sat in a little chair, not moving, while big green numbers counted down from three to zero above him. That was it.

What are they about to inject me with? Is this a good idea?

Yes. I had to go along. I was pretty sure they weren't going to try and kill me.

I heard a hissing noise and closed my eyes. The countdown started.


I gasped as something jabbed sharply into my lower jaw.

Two. Another fiery shot.


And a third.


Procedure complete.

Immunosuppressant injection (NWL) – complete.

Daily vitamin injection (NWL) – complete.

Anesthetic injection (O) – complete.

First meal dispensing.


There was a click, and a little yellow-gray cube popped out of the other armrest right by my hand.

This was my first meal? Not much of a breakfast... it couldn't have been more than one square inch.

I took the cube, slowly and carefully raised myself out of the armchair, and went out into the hallway. The door slid silently closed behind me. What was that place? An infirmary? A dining room? Both?

Left shoulder braced against the wall, I half-walked, half-slid back to where Ninety-One had left me. Everyone was still ignoring me, so I did the same to them. Instinct told me that if I started asking questions, they'd just tell me to piss off.

I was feeling blissful. My pain level was quickly dropping, passing bearable and still receding to just about barely perceptible. I have to...


That was a familiar voice! I grinned at my one-armed friend as she approached. She didn't smile back, just stared at my clenched fist. I quickly got my bearings and extended the fist with the cube inside towards her.

"Here, take it. Will you answer a few questions for me?"

"I told you to eat, even if you have to force yourself. This is food. Food is energy. You need energy to work and earn sol at the end of the day. Food is no joke. Eat it."

"I already learned something useful." I smiled. "Take it. Even with all the willpower in the would, I couldn't eat a single bite. Seriously, I can't even bring myself to chew it."

"You don't have to." She took the cube and tucked it into a small, handmade bag at her waist. "You just have to work up some saliva and put the cube on your tongue. It dissolves in a few seconds, mixes with your spit, and then you swallow it. And there you have it: breakfast. Or lunch. Actually, it's better to put it into your water and drink it like a shake. What did you want to ask me?"

"I have a lot of questions," I admitted. "But first, I need to sit down."

"Make it quick. The sooner we get to work, the better our chances to finish whatever jobs we have for the day. Sit down and ask your questions."

I sat down, joyfully realizing that my legs had become a little stronger and were doing what I wanted them to. Not wasting another second, I asked the first question that came to mind:


"Normal Work Load. Think of that as your rank, nullbie."


"One-time, single dose. So they gave you painkillers?"


"Everyone gets that shot on their first day to keep 'em from going totally insane from the pain."


"Volitional Nullform."

"I don't follow…"

"I don't really understand it myself. It's our status. You, me, everyone else here – we're all nullforms. And we agreed to it of our own free will. Just like we agreed to have our memories locked away."

"Speaking of memory..."

"Everyone's is gone. Don't ask people about it too much – they don't like that."


"What else?"

"Where are we?"

"Up shit creek without a paddle."

This blunt expression was really the best description of my situation. Not even a creek. A whole damn river! I ran my nearly-wet tongue around my mouth and asked again:

"What did you say?"

"You heard me, double ones. We're fucked. Hopelessly fucked. And the only way out is to die."

Her point of view seemed too hopeless for me. I didn't remember anything about myself, my personality, but some instinct told me I was an upbeat person. Optimistic.

And here I was in this grim world, where despair hung so thick it was almost viscous... I saw only the dying embers of life in the eyes of this one-armed girl, so young and yet so jaded.

"Next question, Eleven."

"So NWL is my status. And Nullform is my status. What does all this mean? I don't get it."

"Think of it like this. Nullform is... who you are, okay? You were born a nullform, you'll die here a nullform. Nullform is part of your identity, and your name, like everyone else here. I'm Nullform Ninety-One. You're Nullform Eleven. That's how it works."


"NWL is your internal status. You keep it as long as you do the jobs the system gives you every day. This is important, Eleven. If you don't do your job, you're screwed. They'll cut your rations, won't pay you sol, and you'll get deeper into debt for your limbs. They'll even cut your immunosuppressant dose. Keep your NWL status at any cost. Once we're done wasting time with our little chat, go see what job you have today and get to it."

"But I can barely even stand! The pain's only just easing up now. Something inside me cracks and pops every time I move. Something's wrong. I feel terrible."

"Nobody gives a fuck!" the girl snapped, whipping her hand back to slap me on the same cheek as she had before. "Nobody cares how you feel! Everyone's just waiting for you to drop dead and hoping the system assigns them to your interment! Extra sol!"

The burning pain gave me focus, made me think straight. The haze clouding my thoughts eased up a little. Anger rose up inside me. She hit me. I felt emotions. Pain, embarrassment. I was angry. The haze was almost gone.

"Hit me again," I asked. "Harder."

"Don't tell me you liked it..."

"No, it made me angry, and made me want to kick you hard enough to–"

"I get it. All right."

A slap... and sharp pain in my unfortunate cheek. I shook my head:


"I gotta go now."

"Just a few more questions!"

"Listen... you act like there's so much for you to learn! You probably already know at least half of what the oldtimers know."

"Just one more minute."


"But seriously, where are we?"

"Nobody knows. Or if they know, they're not saying. Don't bother asking."

"Something's really wrong with my left arm," I showed her my swollen elbow. "They gave me a bad set. I mean, old and flabby I can deal with, or weak, but it's still supposed to work, right?"

"Can you bend it?" the girl asked me sharply, eyeing my elbow.

"Well... it hurts to bend it. I got that painkiller shot, but still–"

"That's not what I asked, nullbie! Stop whining! Can you bend it?"

My anger rose again, mixed with annoyance. Is that how you talk to someone with a giant blue tomato about to burst instead of an elbow? Can I get a little compassion here?

"Hold on..."

I gritted my teeth and moved my left hand, clenching and unclenching the fingers, then started the worst part: bending my arm at the elbow. I immediately groaned in pain. It was a wrenching pain that seemed to tear my nerves apart, pain too strong for me to handle, even on painkillers.

But I did manage to bend my arm. Not all the way, but it definitely bent.

Ninety-One shook her head uncertainly and stood up.

"You're out of luck, Eleven. Your fingers work, your wrist turns, your shoulder's okay, and the elbow bends. Your arm works."

"But when I bend it I can barely move from the pain."

"Your arm works," she said again, "and no one cares if it hurts. Especially the system. They won't give you a different set, or a new arm. If something happens to your arm and it's your fault, you'll be one-armed like me. If you lose both arms or legs, you'll end up a total cripple. Then you either die of hunger or give up the rest of your limbs and become the lowest of the low, doing horrible things for food and water, inching around like a worm with a human face..."

She shuddered. I shuddered too, imagining what kind of things a person with no limbs would agree to do… Someone who couldn't work, but wasn't willing to die.

"What if I don't want to humiliate myself like that, but don't want to starve to death either?"

"Then you crawl on over to Medos and ask for the final injection. Once you confirm that's what you want... well, that's the end of that."


"Listen..." she leaned in. "Don't think too hard about it. All you have to remember is this one thing: just do the job the system gives you every day. That's it. You won't have any problems. The marks on the walls, floor, and ceiling will show you how to get around. Don't ask anyone for directions! You're lucky you met me. There are tons of dirty griefers here who look like normal people, but are actually rat bastards. They'll send you the wrong way and make you late, or maybe even lock you in somewhere, and then you're done for. If you don't finish your job, you'll get your first warning... Don't ask anyone anything. Do your best not to look like a snot-nosed noob! Try and figure everything out yourself. If you do need help and have to ask for it, never agree until they tell you exactly what it'll cost, and in front of witnesses – reliable witnesses! Otherwise things will get messy."

"Okay... But what's a–"

She didn't hear me.

"Once you get used to this place, find a permanent party. A strong and reliable partner. Or better yet, two. You'll help each other. Work together. Protect one another. If one gets sick, the others can help out and do their job for them. Do you understand me? You need a party. An official one, approved by the system. You're a weakling, more or less one-armed. You should look for a tank. Someone strong, tough, brave. Someone who won't run away from the first plux he meets."

"God damn," I swore, shaking my head. All this new information was too much to process.

What was this bitter girl talking about?





I knew the first three words, at least. Old gaming terms. But this wasn't a game! I was alive, I could feel pain. I understood fuckall. Wherever I was reminded me more of a prison than anything.

Plux? What the hell was a plux?

"Good luck!"


"What else do you want? I've earned this breakfast twice over!"

"Join my party!" I said, looking up at her, hugging my knees to my chest with my good arm. The left one still lay lifelessly on the floor.

"You think I want someone like you in my party? Listen, new guy... Double ones... Don't get offended, but... imagine how you look from here. What can you possibly do?"

"You don't know what I can or can't do," I said. "I don't even know what I'm capable of yet. Don't judge me so quickly."

"No. I don't want you in my party."

"That's not what I meant. I wasn't asking to join your party. I want you to join mine."

Her only answer was a quick laugh as she waved me off, then turned and started down the hallway. Before she had gone more than a few steps, I shouted:

"Think about it! My offer still stands!"

She left.

I used my right palm to make sure that the floor under me was dry and not too cold. Ninety-One's words about getting sick had stuck with me. All around, people passed me by, heading in all different directions. Most of them looked down at the floor, shuffling their feet as they walked. Their limbs... What could I say – I had good reason to be jealous. But three minutes of observation made me realize that no one had truly 'young' limbs. I saw a lot of scars, even missing fingers.

Am I missing digits?

I looked at my hands and feet, then breathed a sigh of relief – at least I lucked out with something. The only thing missing was the very top joint of my left pinky. That, I could deal with.

I assessed my arms and legs sighing again, but in disappointment. They had stitched me to me a set of junk. A set of complete trash.

How's my torso?

My outward appearance told me a lot. My torso was toned and athletic, with solid pecs and abs. My neck felt thick and sturdy. My back muscles were strong, too. But my lower back... something hurt in that area, but I could barely feel it. Later, when the painkillers wore off, the pain would be stronger, but I probably wouldn't notice. I'd be too distracted by the explosion of pain in my left elbow, which would overshadow anything else.

My elbow looks horrific...

But at least my headache was gone and I could think clearly. My whole body felt like it was coming back to life. Joints still cracked, but it wasn't as noticeable. I heard my stomach rumbling, and my intestines churned. The weird feeling of tightness in my neck disappeared, the stiffness gone, letting me move more freely. I hoped my back would start to feel better soon. After that, maybe the elbow would heal, too.

Status. System. Ninety-One had repeated those words over and over. And that rhythmic blinking on the edge of my vision... I moved my eyes slightly and saw, as expected, one blinking green word:


The word started to blink faster as soon as I looked at it. Another green animation played, showing that I could use the virtual interface by moving my eyes or the fingers of either hand.

I decided to try the more familiar way. I put my right hand on my knee, then touched my thumb and pointer finger together three times. A clearly visible cursor appeared. I used my pointer finger to direct it to the MENU button and clicked.

Physical Condition.


Number: Eleven.
Rank: Nullform (volitional)
Current status: NWL (three standard meals per day and standard water ration)

That was all it told me. It wasn't much. Did these three measly lines really need their own submenu?

Physical Condition.

Overall physical condition: normal.

Limb condition and status.
URL: normal.
ULL: normal.
LRL: normal.
LLL: normal.

Are they kidding? The abbreviations were simple enough to understand. URL was Upper Right Limb.

I clicked on ULL: normal. I heard a barely-audible sound, and a notification popped up:

Access denied. (Insufficient rank – Nullform)


That's why the menu had such limited information – it was limited by my rank. I couldn't go deeper into the menu. I tried the next submenu.


Balance: 0
In debt: yes
Debt details:
Limb lease: 4 sol.
Immunosuppressants: 1 sol.
Vitamins: 1 sol.
First meal: 1 sol.
First water ration: 1 sol.

Total debt owed: 8 sol.

I carefully studied each line, rubbing my forehead thoughtfully. The cursor began to move around the virtual screen. Wow. I already owe the system 8 sols that I don't have. I had a long day ahead of me, and going by the information from the first submenu, NWL status got me water and three meals a day. So two more liters of water and two more yellow cubes? That would mean I would owe 4 more sol by evening. I did the math. I'd owe the system 12 sol by the end of the day.

I looked at the last submenu in the list. The most promising.


Job: Collect gray slime. Easy (O)
Description: Collect and deliver forty standard containers of gray slime to the receiver unit.
Job location: Zone 3, Block 6.
Deadline: Evening end-of-work alarm.
Compensation: 15 sol.


That was all...

More math. Fifteen minus twelve is three. If I could manage to get up, find the location in the description, and do the job, I'd be out of debt and have three sol to my name.

Three sol...

Was that a lot or a little?

A little, of course. Enough to pay the daily rent for three out of my four limbs.

That was all the information in the green menus. I closed the menu, got rid of the cursor, and looked at the real world in front of me. Now that the haze of pain was gone, I realized I had been mistaken – it wasn't just a hallway, it was a street. In fact, the whole place had a very urban atmosphere. The morning rush. People heading off to work by themselves or in groups. There was nothing even hinting at some form of mass transit, but maybe this was a pedestrian street.


Things were pretty bleak. The people around me looked sullen and gloomy, but there were calm faces as well – even a few smiles.

Was it too soon to panic and decide I'd been dragged down to hell?

Yeah, too soon.

I still had a lot of questions, but that motivated me, gave me another reason to stand up and make my awful limbs start working. If I can just get my legs going... they should get stronger once I start using them, right? At least a little. Enough so that I could walk without using the wall for support.

I noticed something on the wall across from me.

Different colored lines stretched across the top, each with an arrow and a description. The green arrow on top was labeled Zone 3, and there was no mistaking the direction. Thanks. Now I knew where to go, at least. I leaned on my right arm, tucked my left arm in close to my body, and started to stand. I very slowly engaged my legs to push my body upright, feeling my hip muscles kick in. My knees cracked and popped. Must be dehydration. What I wouldn't give for just one more liter of water…

Hmm... what was I supposed to do with my... biowaste? I doubted I'd have to go anytime soon, but it was something worth finding out.

The arrows on the walls answered me. The closest toilet was about fifty yards away. Great.

All right, Eleven. Ready to get moving?

"El," I said quietly. El sounded much better. Come on, El! Just take the first step...

I lurched forward and shuffled my right leg forward. Putting all my weight on it, I grasped at the wall for good measure and took another step. Joy bubbled up inside me. I'm moving! I'm walking! And much better than I could half an hour ago. My body was coming alive.

What's the saying? I move, therefore I am? Something like that...

Oh, right!

I do, therefore I am!

Another step! And another!

A flashing screen suddenly made me jump in surprise. Well, I didn't exactly jump – my feet never left the ground. But I definitely flinched. I moved away from the wall and looked over at the large, bright screen. A brief scan of the hallway showed similar screens lighting up all over. People were stopping and starting at the screens with inexplicable tension and expectation. Someone next to me whispered fervently:

"Let it be me. Let it be me. Let it be me."

The number 11 flashed clearly and distinctly against a background that had probably once been white, but was now faded to an off-color shade of yellow. In slightly smaller letters below it were the words:

"Game Challenge!"

A timer was counting down on the screen – 59 seconds, 58...

The tension broke as the people around me seemed to sway and exhale as one. I heard disappointment, angry words. Someone was cursing my number. And it was definitely my number on the screen. Some kind of game challenge was about to happen, and the system had chosen me to accept it...

Release - April 5, 2021

Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NGVGYK1

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