Friday, April 27, 2018

Reality Benders - 2: External Threat by Michael Atamanov

Reality Benders, book II
External Threat

by Michael Atamanov

Release - July 23, 2018

Introduction. Through enemy eyes

Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory
Palace of the ruling council
Small meeting hall

In an austere ceremonial black toga free of any regalia or adornments, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin strode with dignity up an illuminated path to a podium. From the corner of his eye, the old man glimpsed rows of cold glowing eyes in the silent gloomy room. The ruling Mage didn’t even need his psionic abilities to sense the tension in the room or realize how eagerly these lower-rank rulers would devour him if he made an error or demonstrated any hint of weakness or timidity. All these mages feared and respected only one thing: power. So, as Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin walked through the room, he couldn’t allow even a single muscle on his majestic and proud face to twitch.

The high mage had to leave his usual staff at the entrance to the palace. The guards there had been insistent, though flawlessly polite and decorous, that he surrender his magical weapon. They allowed him to take a replacement, though. And now, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin was bracing himself with that toothless façade of a staff as he walked. That bothered the old mage and gave him yet more reason to consider his current position very shaky indeed. After all, he had been allowed to keep his magical aid during every other meeting for the last forty years. Sometimes, when the council sessions went on too long, it’s powerful magic was a great support for his achy bones.
Any other day, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin would have made a huge scene, demanding he be treated with respect as a noble Coruler and elder. He was one of humanity's three highest lords, so the insolent guards that dared make him leave his staff at the front gate deserved nothing less. In fact, they should have been turned into puddles of protoplasm or carbonized statues. But today was not the day to stoke tensions. After all, at this meeting of the Coruler council, they were to discuss whether he was fit to serve as a faction leader in the game that bends reality. And after a string of misfortunes in the last few days, his faction really was in a rough position, casting his competency and wisdom into doubt...
Ever since it was discovered, the game that bends reality had captivated the minds of the ruling aristocracy. It truly offered limitless possibilities and new knowledge to discover. Furthermore, if one’s magical power grew in the game, it also increased in the real world. It could cure any disease and, with a few exceptions, grant absolute immortality. All that made it so desirable to be one of the few players that some candidates had even fought duels to the death. So, it came as no surprise that all three corulers of humanity wanted to watch over and direct their society’s progress in the game, and were even taking direct part, each as the head of their own faction.
The virtual project had already brought a good deal of astonishing discoveries and advanced science by centuries, so the ruling council made it a societal priority. Just one word from a faction leader, and valuable resources would be requisitioned to bring into the game to be traded for alien technology. Whole institutes of analysts and diviners worked to determine the most effective strategies for building up and dealing with neighboring factions. If a faction leader needed someone of a particular profession, they could recruit straight from the top of that field regardless of the draftee’s actual wishes. The need to dominate in the game had superseded all real-world problems. There was a famine in the Third Directory, for example, and an anti-mage uprising in the Sixth. Recently, the self-styled monarch of the Second Directory had even been allowed to join the ruling council. Sure, he was a successful and popular military commander, but he was the first person without magical abilities to sit on the council in the last eight hundred years.
Thumor-Anhu La-Fin was scheduled to speak third. The other two corulers had already finished their speeches, where they had intelligently proven their right to lead not only in the real world, but in the game that bends reality. And now the ruling council would hear from Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. He knew they’d have lots of questions for him, so walking to the podium felt more like he was going to the gallows.
Just before he reached the rostrum, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin slightly turned his head and glanced at the two other respected Corulers. Anri-Huvi La-Shin was wearing a bright red ribbon on his toga, meaning that he was chairman of this meeting. A good sign! Unlike Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez, he did not harbor a personal disdain for Thumor-Anhu and would not try to bury him with trick questions and acrid remarks. Anri-Huvi La-Shin was almost a friend, insofar as camaraderie was even possible between members of the upper aristocracy. Sure, Anri-Huvi La-Shin would probably demand a political favor for his loyalty. Perhaps he would want his son to join the ruling council, or have his youngest wife appointed to a leadership position in the still unfinished thermonuclear powerplants. None of that was impossible, though.
Just then, a huge screen lit up behind the speaker's back, and the room went quiet, hanging on his every word. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin confidently spouted off numbers and performance metrics, not even looking at the image behind him, demonstrating an excellent memory and sharp mind. His colony was progressing intrepidly. He had five hexagons, all with high development, and two neighboring ones were on the verge of colonization. The capital hexagon had reached development level four. His faction now had over three thousand seven hundred players. And they had a burgeoning productive sector. His faction was fully self-sufficient in everything from food to high-tech weaponry. What was more, trade had been established with the Geckho suzerains and a high-speed road to the Geckho spaceport was under construction. Neighbors, though... The Leng thought this part was most important, so he spent the lion’s share of time on it. All experienced politicians understood perfectly that it was better not to try and hide a sore spot, because that would only give an opponent the opportunity to put it in a worse light. No, Thumor-Anhu was going to give his more favorable interpretation first.
In his words, his faction had been saddled with quite boisterous neighbors. Sure, there were no problems with the harpies and other mythical creatures. They were all primitive NPC's. But the nearby player faction was a bit more of a challenge. The H3 Faction was very warlike, and they had around fifteen hundred players. What was more, the majority of the enemy faction was made up of professional soldiers with plenty of real-world combat experience. So, despite Thumor-Anhu’s superiority in numbers and technology, direct confrontation had not brought the desired result. Even still, after every skirmish, the factions just returned to their initial positions, so nothing was lost per se. But the H3 Faction had captured quite a bit of weapons and equipment. And not only were they using them in battle, they were learning to copy them, which threatened to level the playing field in terms of technology.
But, Leng La-Fin had decided to change strategies, and was no longer trying to finish off his dangerous neighbors with a single decisive battle. All his projections showed that the H3 Faction was progressing more slowly than his. What was more, they didn’t have any mages, and thus lacked a division that could detect the effects of psionic suggestion and control. So, he was now going to try to infiltrate the enemy with magic and use active propaganda to defeat them by indirect methods. And that path had already borne fruit. One of the top leaders of the H3 Faction had been working for Leng La-Fin for a long time, providing valuable information right from the enemy headquarters. And yesterday, he was successfully evacuated over the border into the capital hexagon.
"And Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin calls that a victory?As the old mage feared, Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez had latched onto the weakest part of the report. His most valuable agent fled and can no longer provide any value. How is that something to celebrate??? That is a complete failure! Also, considering he has superior technology and three times more players, it’s difficult to comprehend how he cannot win a battle!!!"
It took all Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s patience to maintain a calm facial expression. In his report, he hadn’t said he had three times more players. Three thousand seven hundred versus fifteen hundred was nowhere near that. But his opponent probably wasn’t just making a mistake. He wanted to draw attention to the numbers issue. He must have known about yesterday’s bombardment of the grain hexagon. It had lost two development levels, and now Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s faction had to trim its numbers by seven hundred. Before the battle, he did have a three-fold advantage, and Onuri-Unta La-Varrez clearly wanted to shine a light on that aggravating fact.
Gathering his thoughts and emotions, the elderly mage started answering with an even and unexpressive tone:
You mustn’t underestimate our opponent. Despite their incompetence in the magical arts, the H3 Faction has a counterintelligence service that runs like clockwork, and they have exposed several of our spies. And an agent as valuable as ours, with access to top-secret plans, can be revealed with ease by giving him specific information, and waiting to see if it falls into our hands. Our agent came under suspicion, so we immediately pulled him out. He will be provided everything he needs and can be used as proof that we uphold our promises. What's more, after we established players can move between our factions and come out of a virt pod different from the one they entered, it was time to test whether bodies can be brought from the parallel world into our own. Now that we know they can, we can sway many hesitant H3 Faction members. And there will be more of them with every day, because our implanted thoughts will have already gotten into their heads and uprooted their whole loyalty system...
Based on the buzz of approval, the audience was mostly in agreement with Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. What was more, help came just in time from the chairman:
Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez is seemingly not taking into account the geography and history of the parallel world, and so has forgotten that the H3 Faction represents the largest country there. They have defeated big coalitions of other the factions we've encountered on a number of occasions. So, despite Onuri-Unta’s indisputable success, destroying the H11 Faction just after they entered the game, and vassalizing the H8 Faction are not exactly points for comparison.
Such timely support would certainly have to be paid for... Honestly, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin himself didn’t even know all these subtleties and made a mental note to study the matter. The report continued. Thumor-Anhu was particularly afraid of mentioning the significant ransoms he had paid, and the temporary ceasefire, but the council of rulers had basically no comments. And really, there were no problems right up until the end of the speech, which was about yesterday's fierce battle.
“Aha, more evidence that Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin has no talent as a military tactician or strategist!!!” Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez said, taking the floor with statements that bordered on flagrantly insulting. “You’d have to be trying to fail with such a colossal advantage and the element of surprise! And it was such a crucial mission!”
The audience went silent in fear when the false staff in the great mage’s hands suddenly began to glow with summoned energy. However, it went dim just as quickly. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin overcame his emotions and stopped the deadly force from spilling out nasty curses. His opponent was not suicidal or an idiot so, if he was so blatantly provoking Thumor-Anhu, he would most likely have tended to his defense. He probably had some friends in the meeting hall, who had his back if magic came into play.
Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez, you should get your information from more reliable sources.Not a single hint of annoyance or any other feeling slipped through in the calm voice of the old mage. Because all the goals of our attack were achieved. The enemy's oil production and refining facilities in the swamp hexagon were destroyed. That strikes a heavy blow to their mobility and ability to fight in the near future. You see, the H3 Faction is just now beginning to incorporate antigravs, while all their native transportation technology requires petrochemicals. They were beginning to expand into the rocky coast, but that is now a big question mark due to the lack of fuel. Also, the H3 Faction can no longer trade with the Geckho for the same reason. To restore control over the swamp hexagon and repair their citadel, demolished bridges, pontoons, dams, and defensive structures, they will need four days at least. And it will take four more days for them to rebuild all their oil production facilities. And ten days later, the ceasefire will be over. The we can just destroy it all over again...
But what about the heavy losses of manpower and forced retreat from the swamp hexagon? And the raiding party?The man just wouldn’t back down. But it was already clear that Onuri-Unta La-Varrez was continuing to argue just out of inertia, because his arguments just kept getting weaker.
We weren’t trying to take control of the swamp hexagon. It is too hard to supply, and we'd have to place a disproportionately large garrison there due to its proximity to enemy lands. Were our losses significant...? Sure, thousands of our players were sent to respawn. But I already mentioned that we were up against trained professional soldiers, and the average level of the H3 Faction is higher than ours. Whats more, we were up against the First Legion in the swamp hexagon. That's the enemy's most elite force, so it would be somewhat naive to expect our losses to be equal.”
Before continuing his speech, Thumor-Anhu made a short pause and took a sip of an energizing elixir. His old legs were shivering treacherously in exhaustion, and the mage even had to lean on the false staff, so he wouldn’t fall over in front of the whole council. What was more, he needed that pause to gather his thoughts, because the hardest part was yet to come. The enemy raiders just waltzing into his territory, and especially the identity of its leader were especially delicate topics for the high mage. But he wouldn't be able to just keep quiet about it. After brief consideration, the experienced politician decided to tell them everything that happened.
So, the raiders... Yes, it was a complete surprise to us when they showed up behind our lines in the middle of the harsh battles in the swamp hexagon and rocky coast. After all, we thought our agents would let us know about any enemy combat operation in advance. But as our defector has already explained, even the H3 Faction leadership was caught completely off guard by that raid. And they were more destructive than we ever could have imagined. It took some time to get any forces back from the front, so the consequences of their attack were very severe. The infrastructure of the grain hexagon was severely damaged, and it will take time to rebuild everything they destroyed. What's more, the experimental Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav crashed while trying to pursue the raiders. We still haven’t established a cause. There are qualified experts on the crash site now, but this accident will push back the timetable for putting such craft into serial production. As for the leader of the raid, it was Gnat, a player I’m sure many of you have heard of...
The most cunning member of the H3 Faction? The one who managed to take the granddaughter of Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin prisoner two times? He also sent you to respawn once if memory serves.
That question came from the chairman himself and, I suppose, that was for the best. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin knew that there were rumors about the provocative behavior of a certain Gnat. They said he disrespected the Leng right to his face and had brought shame on the noble Minn-O La-Fin. He knew that was savored by his foes. But now, inside the council hall, there was no incitement about insulting a Leng,or even dishonoring a noble girl.Sure, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin was clearly formulating the question as delicately as possible and was probably hoping to reap the dividends of this in the future. But he deserved nothing less.
Yes, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, that’s the man. By the way, I advise all the other rulers to look into this Gnat, because I am certain this won’t be the last time you hear of him. Hes quite remarkable. I’ve had my eye on him for some time now. He’s still a newbie, yet he has no respect for the law or his authorities. In his world, he was a criminal. In the H3 Faction, they hate him for killing a commander, disobeying orders and behaving provokingly. That might make you think he’s just some hoodlum, and the best he could hope for is hard labor. But strangely, despite all that, Gnat has already achieved the rank of Gerd. And our Geckho suzerains are crazy for him. They take him with them into space and even, despite all their assurances that they will not interfere in conflicts between vassals, one word from Gnat, and they flew in on a spaceship to evacuate him in the middle of battle!"
At these words, a buzz came over the meeting hall. The council was discussing heatedly, unable to hide their astonishment. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, very satisfied with the effect he produced, made a brief pause, allowing the audience to say their fill, then continued his speech:
Do you know what Gnat brought the scientists of his faction to study after his last expedition into outer space? An Annihilator of an ancient race, a working armored spacesuit of an unknown civilization and... this is a real doozy! A highly detailed blueprint of a Geckho starship!
The audience started making a racket again. Some council members even jumped out of their seats. But this time, the old mage gestured for silence so he could continue.
I see, respected rulers, that you also appreciate the scale of the problem. Who knows what Gnat might bring with him from his next journey into space, and what technologies that might give our enemies? Potentially, it is a grave threat to our faction’s technological advantage!
He must be stopped!someone shouted out, and Thumor-Anhu La-Fin agreed eagerly:
Precisely! Respected rulers, I know perfectly well that you have dragged my name through the mud in private and laughed at my doddering foolishness. You say that I, a respected Leng and faction leader, am paying too much attention to an unremarkable player and mock the five-thousand-crystal bounty I’ve placed on his head. Well, I'm doubling it. What is more, I officially guarantee shelter to any member of the H3 Faction who helps us take Gnat prisoner or neutralizes him in the real world! My agents will try to spread this information as widely as possible, so that every member of the H3 Faction knows! I want Gnat to constantly be on edge, so he cannot sleep, so he sees a potential murderer in everyone he meets. He cannot be allowed to trust any of his allies. Even if I dont ever pay that bounty, no person can live with such constant stress for long. Gnat will be forced to choose: either leave his home planet forever or join us of his own accord! And my intuition tells me he’ll choose the latter!
The end of the great mage's speech was met with a standing ovation. Out of the corner of his eye, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin saw that both other Corulers were also applauding. Complete approval! He wouldn’t be losing his ranks, titles and fortune today. Now he just had to keep those promises.

Chapter One Back to Space!

The first change I noticed back aboard the Shiamiru was that not all the bunk rooms were full anymore! On my last flight, there were huge hairy Geckho sitting on every cot and pull-out chair, so I had to share a bunk with three other crew members. But now, walking down the corridor, I saw upper shelves folded up and unoccupied. There were even a few empty ones down below.
Gnat, six crew members refused to renew their contracts,Uline Tar whispered when I remarked on the strange circumstance. “That has Captain Uraz Tukhsh very worried, though he wont show it. But let's discuss that later. For now, buckle up. Were taking off.”
And what about my injured friend?I asked, worried about Dmitry Zheltov. After all, was his first time on this shuttle and he didn’t understand a single word of Geckho. But Uline Tar reassured me:
There's a medic working on him right now, so everything is fine. The human pilot was assigned to the second bunk, together with the Navigator and Senior Engineer. A place of great honor, by the way!
And where are our bunkmates Vasha and Basha?The end of my question was drowned out by the roar of the space shuttle engines, so she seemingly didn’t hear it.
Anyhow, I had already spotted the two huge twin brothers in the neighboring bunk. Both of them bared their teeth at me in greeting and seemingly said something, based on the way their lips were moving. I waved back, but it was a chore with the heavy G-forces. What was more, the G-forces were gradually increasing. After some time, it became totally unbearable... My back was pressed into the seat so hard I thought I heard my bones crack. On our last takeoff, it felt somewhat less severe. Seemingly, the blood was flowing out of my head because my eyes went dim. I was balancing on the edge of consciousness, and only able to hear my heart pounding...
No, I couldn’t die like that! Before my faculties finally left me, I threw open the menu and brought up my statistics:

Gerd Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Level-38 Prospector
Luck modifier
817 of 998
Endurance points
140 of 580
Magic points
Carrying capacity
26 kg
Medium Armor
Eagle Eye
Danger Sense

I needed to put one stat point into Constitution right away! I felt slight relief, but it was not enough and didn’t last very long. Another point into Constitution! I brought it up to 15.
And the difficulty retreated. That was either my improved stats, or our flight evening out. I strained to catch my breath and turned my head to look at Uline, who was spitting out swear words:
I guess our brainless captain forgot to turn on the gravity compensators! Or something broke again. He’s so clumsy, it’s like his arms grow out of his ass!”
So, this was not normal. That put my heart slightly at ease. Not wanting to worry about the stat and skill points anymore though, I kept that window open. But I spent some time thinking over where to put my remaining points. What exactly did I need?
Strength? After raising Constitution, Strength had become my lowest statistic, just 13. It influenced my carrying capacity, ability to use heavy weaponry, how far I could throw objects, my damage in hand-to-hand combat... On the other hand, did a Prospector or Listener really need high Strength? The answer was not obvious.
Agility? The only statistic I had never increased. It influenced my ability to use higher-quality weapons from the Rifles group. Even if that was my only motivation, it was enough. The Krechet carbine and Annihilator required all my Agility, so I had no chance of higher quality guns without raising it. Alright, I'd put one point into Agility, bringing it to sixteen. But I still had five of the eight stat points I’d gained from achieving the rank Gerd.
Intelligence? For a Prospector, working with complicated electronics, it was a very, very important statistic. And I suspected my high Intelligence was helping me study Astrolinguistics and Cartography as fast as I was. I had no idea whether the Listener class the game recently offered would need high Intelligence, though. But in any case, I was not planning to change my class before the end of my contract with Captain Uraz Tukhsh. That could put me and my whole faction in an awkward position. I wasn’t sure if a Listener could even use a Prospector Scanner, which is precisely what I’d been hired to do.
Anyway, I decided to add one point to Intelligence, raising it to 20. And then... I spent a long time batting my lashes at another parameter changed by my decision:     
Magic points

Just then, a blue bar came up below my life bar. Did I now have mana?! Cool, sure, but also terrifying. And what could I do with it? What could I spend Magic Points on, and from a technical standpoint, how did I use them? I hadn't gained any spells, so I was at a loss.
Overall, I was initially planning to invest just one stat point in Intelligence, but I couldn't hold back and added another just out of curiosity, raising it to 21. My number of magic points immediately grew to 119. But what good was that?
Alright, enough fun. I still had Perception, the main stat for my Prospector. I was somewhat upset because, when I put on the new Listener's armor suit, I had to remove my infantry helmet. The problem was that my IR Lens, which raised my Perception by 2, was clipped to my old headwear. But that couldn't be helped. Either the armor suit or the helmet and Lens... Or was I wrong? I'd have to ask the ship's Mechanic whether he could attach the IR Lens to the black Listener's helmet. But that was for later. Now I had to spend my last three stat points.
I put another into Perception, bringing it from 21 to... why 23 not 22??? How? What made it go up by two? Fortunately, a very timely hint jumped in, telling me that, for every point invested in a stat past 20, another was added as a specialization bonus. How nice!
But that had me at an impasse because I now wanted mutually exclusive things. What was best: invest the two remaining points in Perception, raising it to 26, or throw another into Intelligence, bringing that up to 23? But that would leave me with one more point... I thought for a long time, but decided my Prospector's main stat was Perception, not Intelligence, so I should improve that. So then, both remaining points into Perception, and I'd have a fantastic 26!!! Now I was a detection fiend! No secrets would get by me!
I just happened to finish as Uline Tar undid her safety belts and stood up to her huge height:
"One of these days, the captain's bad piloting is gonna kill us... I wouldn’t be surprised if, after this trip, we have only half a crew. Who wants to risk their life so an Aristocrat can play pilot?! The only plus is how much more space we've got. As the only woman on board, I even got my own bunk! Anyway, I need to get dressed!" with these words, the Trader lowered a metal curtain, closing the door and blocking off her bunk.
This was the first time I'd seen a bunk closed. Normally, all the bunks were left wide open. I thought I should probably leave as not to embarrass the furry girl while she changed, but Uline kept me on the bench, placing her heavy hand on my shoulder:
"Gnat, you can stay. You're not a Geckho, so it doesn’t matter if you see.”
She was speaking loudly on purpose, clearly counting on the Geckho from other bunks hearing. At the same time, she showed me a familiar gesture, placing her hand to her lips. I used to think it meant "we'll talk about it later." But clearly it had a somewhat different meaning: "keep quiet."
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level thirty-six!
Intrigued, I waited to see what was next. Uline Tar pulled a folding table out of the wall and, one after the other, set out sixteen specially-cut large red crystals.
"Gnat, this is your share for selling the broadcast rights to the clip from the Relict base," she said barely audibly, just with her lips. "It's sixteen thousand. Put it in your inventory and show no one. It's a very hefty sum. Many in the galaxy would kill for less. Vasha and Basha got the same amount and, as far as I’ve heard, will be leaving the Shiamiru after the next voyage."
I followed her sage advice and stashed the crystals in my inventory. At the same time, I asked the experienced Trader if a person like me could put my savings in a Geckho bank.
"The civilization of Shiharsa has just one bank: The Bank of Shiharsa. That’s all we need." She answered bizarrely. "I know for sure that the Miyelonians, Trillians, Meleyephatians and other space races are forbidden from using the Bank of Shiharsa, so our potential enemies cannot harm the Geckho financial system. But maybe a member of a vassal race could have an account... I'll be honest, Gnat, I don't know. I need to check the law. But these synthetic crystals were invented for Geckho to pay our vassals, so it is probably not allowed. And now, Gnat, please turn around. I am going to get changed, and I also need to put on makeup."
I didn't argue, sat cross-legged on the edge of the bench, turned toward the wall and opened my inventory. I had plenty to do. During the recent raid into Dark Faction territory on Zheltov's starship, I'd filled my backpack with plunder without even particularly looking at it. I knew for sure that I had thrown some decent Medium Armor in there, a Dark Faction chameleon cloak and a futuristic laser rifle, which I could not use due to class restrictions. There were some other strange artifacts from the crashed antigrav as well. I could not determine their properties, but I stuck them in my inventory anyway. Now was the time to sort through all this junk because I was on the verge of over-encumbrance, which was getting uncomfortable.
Above all, I checked the Prospector scanner. The enemy antigrav was very nearby during my scan, so there was a chance... with my heart aflutter, I opened the diagram. Yes! I had a highly detailed three-dimensional blueprint of the Dark Faction's Sio-Mi-Dori shock landing antigrav. It would be an excellent gift for Gerd Ustinov and our other scientists!
After that, I got to the armor. It was a thick dark-colored jacket, made of two layers of dense synthetic fabric with defensive inserts in the chest, back and shoulders, which were something between ceramic and thick plastic. I had taken this armor at the site of the Sio-Mi-Dori crash not yet knowing that I would soon receive the Listener's suit. I figured I could grow into it once my kevlar jacket wasn’t good enough anymore.
Dark Faction assault division commander defensive suit
Chemical defense +12, Radiation defense +12, Armor 34
Statistic requirements: Constitution 14, Strength 14
Skill requirements: Medium Armor 30
Attention! Your character has insufficient Strength to equip this apparel. Minimum Strength: 14.
The armor weighed nineteen pounds, which took a third of my carrying capacity. In every parameter, it was worse than my Listener's armor, so I had to decide what to do with it. It would be a big shame to just throw it away. It was superior to the armored jackets commonly used by my faction, but it was too heavy and bulky to keep carrying around. Should I ask Zheltov and see if he can use it? I was sitting in thought when, just over my ear, I heard Uline Tar's voice:
"By the way, Gnat... no, no, don't turn around yet! I just wanted to suggest you ask the captain to keep the crystals for you. He can put them in the safe in his cabin. But you will have to explain where you got it all from, and that is best avoided! The problem is that Vasha, Basha and I haven't told the captain about this little side hustle. There was no reason for him to know, because its none of his business. And we, of course, did not give him our crystals."
"But aren’t all Geckho payments electronic?" I asked in surprise, to which the trader answered with a smirk:
"Usually, yes. But your home planet... don't get offended... is such a backwater that half of the services available throughout the galaxy don't work there, including electronic banking. So, they just sent us a code to enter in an automatic terminal to get the money in crystals. Well, what about the safe?"
I thanked Uline for the offer, but still refused. I didn't want to snitch on my comrades, and I was calmer knowing the money was with me. This way, I could use it at any time, not having to ask permission whenever I wanted to spend it.
"You know best. Anyway, you can turn around now! And help me hold the stencil here on my shoulder. It's awkward to dye with just one hand."
I turned around. My companion, having removed her armored spacesuit and now wearing a fluffy little robe with a crude drawing, was dying her thick black fur. To do that, Uline Tar had stencils with geometric patterns pressed tight against various parts of her body. Then she used a liquid lightener, maybe even regular old hydrogen peroxide, that she dripped out of a little tank. So that was how she made the shimmering patterns on her black fur.
Of course, I helped Uline, and even did one stencil on her back all on my own. I didn't see anything unusual or shameful in it, although the fashion-conscious furball was clearly embarrassed. According to her, the Geckho female grooming process was considered very intimate, and the only Geckho appropriate to ask for help would be her best friend. But in that there were no other women in the crew, Uline decided to ask an alien, thought she wasn't sure that I would agree. As a return favor, Uline allowed me to keep my things in her cabin and even use a few bags.
My conversation with the Geckho Trader was interrupted by a roar of dismay from Captain Uraz Tukhsh coming from a speaker behind the door:
"Gnnnat, to the bridge at once! Your assistance is required urgently!!!"

Chapter Two. Copilot

When I reached the captain's bridge, what I saw was frighteningly surreal. The room was strewn with overturned chairs and broken glass, and the senior engineer was lying on the ground growling in pain with his head bloodied, rubbing his jaw. Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov, for some reason buck naked and smeared with some green substance, had his back pressed into a corner and, with his shaking right hand, was pointing the pistol back and forth from the captain to the navigator, shouting hysterically and demanding he be sent back to Earth. In his left hand, raised high above his head, Zheltov was squeezing a fragmentation grenade with the pin removed.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty.
"Zheltov, what are you doing?!" I shouted in a voice not my own.
The man, backed into a corner, turned his head to my shout, then reacted very strangely, pointing the loaded pistol at me. It seemed the pilot didn't recognize me in the new energy armor and only grew more confused. I had to remove the helmet and show him my face.
"Gnat... uh... Gerd Gnat?!" Zheltov lowered his pistol and slid down the wall on his back, now totally incapacitated. I was afraid he might unclench his hand with the grenade, but my Danger Sense skill wasn't alerting me to anything, so there must have been no risk. And in fact, the professional soldier slowly put his pistol in the holster, picked up the grenade pin from the floor and put it back in the primer.
"Where were you, Gnat?! And where are we?" The pilot's voice was quavering, betraying an overpowering emotional tension.
Hmm... Strange questions, especially the second one. I asked Zheltov if he remembered being taken on as a copilot for the Shiamiru.
"I was hired to fly a spaceship?! I don't remember," the Starship Pilot admitted. "The last thing in my memory was leaving the Dark Faction tower, bodies all around, everything swimming before my eyes and me nearly falling over. I was bleeding, my Health Points were almost drained and, unfortunately, there was no first aid kit, and our medic was dead... And after that... I'm not sure... the starship landed, and you told me to wait while you went somewhere... Then I was dragged by the armpits and saw a black screen with the words, ‘Your character is unconscious.’ I just kept lying there, but nothing changed. I even left the game. I wanted to ask how the battle was going, but everyone was still busy. I got back into my virt pod and suddenly came to my senses from the G Forces. It was just like our summer training sessions. So, I open my eyes and see that I'm lying on a table and a big-toothed animal is looming over me. In one hand, he's holding a little knife and, in the other, he's dripping some green sauce onto my body from a gravy boat. So of course, I kicked him away, jumped off the table and ran down the hallway. I can't find you, there's just... these things," Dmitry led his hand over the captain, navigator and Geckho in the doorway, "and they're all growling and baring their fangs!"
I probably should have reassured Dmitry and patiently explained the situation, but I... couldn't hold back and broke down laughing! And I laughed until I cried, not able to stop for a long time, just falling victim to more and more fits of laughter. When I told the Geckho why the pilot was acting strange, the furballs all joined in and nearly rolled across the floor. I had never seen Geckho in such a state. The huge furry creatures were rumbling through tightly closed teeth, baring their teeth and writhing into the most unbelievable grimaces.
If I didn't know that was what their laughter looked like, I would probably have been very scared. So just in case, I warned my friend that these Geckho were laughing their heads off, not trying to scare him. Seemingly, Dmitry Zheltov grew embarrassed:
"Yeaaaah... I bet they all think I’m a psycho freak now. My Fame even grew to four... Gnat, you've gotta apologize to those two Geckho I knocked out for me."
I walked up closer and reassuringly patted my friend on the shoulder:
"It's nothing, don't worry! The Geckho are naturally forgiving and, as far as I can see, are not mad at you. Last trip, I accidentally cut off the electricity on the whole ship and it was no problem. The furballs forgot eventually and even hired me for another journey. The main thing now is to prove you're a good pilot and start learning Geckho. You should at least be able to understand the captain's commands. There's no getting around that. And at level fifty, you'll have to take Astrolinguistics. Then there won't be any problems with understanding."
And so Zheltov, concentrating fully and wincing from the strain, was sitting in the copilot's seat. It was just a bit too big for him. I was standing next to him and translating all the explanations of the screens, levers, buttons and other equipment in the starship command center.
"This little handle is inertia dampening for the fourth cycle of the left maneuver thruster. It's used when turning the shuttle horizontally to the right to dock at a space station. The station’s gravity cranes take over from there. You just need to give them your vector. And make sure you remember that the little handle should go opposite the direction you want turn. Alright, that's almost all! I hope, Dmitry, that you understand something at least."
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level thirty-nine.
Electronics skill increased to level twenty-six.
The copilot placed his hand on the lever and moved it into the position I told him to, mechanically memorizing it. Then he nodded in confirmation, although he was somewhat unconfident and even seemed afraid. Uraz Tukhsh gave a growl of satisfaction and continued his explanation. I got straight back to translation:
"Alright, now this is for turning left and right in low gravity conditions. Used when flying near type-six satellites, comets and large asteroids. One level higher, skipping the fourth row and moving onto the fifth. Turning the lever right and left gives shuttle turn direction. It will also switch the second and first maneuver thrusters into neutral position."
"Alright, Gnat, I can't learn anymore," Zheltov groaned. "My head is bursting with all this new information. It’s about to pop! First row, second, pull compensation, gravity thruster aberration... Too much new stuff! Tell the captain I need a break! I've already leveled Starship Piloting to eight!"
What a pity... After all, according to the captain's plan, we were about to get to the ship's scanners and radars. That was of great interest to me because I was hoping to use the ship's scanning equipment in my Prospector work and had plans for quickly leveling Cartography and Electronics with them. And there was just a tiny bit before I'd reach level thirty-nine. My progress bar was already ninety-seven percent full, so I needed just ten more minutes of studying terminology, and I would level up. But seemingly, it was time to end our class. Zheltov had been learning the spaceship controls for three hours and had just about fried his brains. I myself wasn't tired at all, just happy at the rare ability to absorb some new information.
"Alright, Dmmmitry, get some rest!" Uraz Tukhsh agreed, letting the copilot go. "We'll continue the lessons in half an ummi. And to give you a kick in the pants, let me warn you: you will be landing the Shiamiru on the asteroid yourself, and whether or not you manage will determine whether you can stay in my crew!"
When I translated that, true horror was reflected on Zheltov's face:
"Is this guy sick in the head?! This is the first time I've been at the helm of such a craft. I can't understand a single written word of their language, and he's trusting me to land?! What if I wreck the shuttle? I'd never pay off a ship like this! Hell, all humanity would never pay it off!"
I understood perfectly that, at any moment, the captain could take control of the starship and correct an error, so the risk was not particularly grave. Zheltov also understood that, and was only so upset at having this exam sprung on him... And seemingly, Uraz Tukhsh managed to pluck the right strings in the Pilot's heart, because my friend asked me to tell the captain that he would need only half that much break, then he would be ready to get back to training.
"Now thats great!" he bared his teeth in satisfaction and turned to me. "Dmmmitry is progressing fast. He gained two levels in half an ummi, so he'll be ready when we get to the asteroid belt. But you, Gerd Gnat, have to prove yourself as well. The asteroid belt is huge and contains billions of objects. Most of them are just worthless chunks of ice, stone and nickel-iron composite, though. We made thirty voyages and two hundred landings before we found anything even remotely interesting. And your mission as a Prospector is to improve that ratio and, in a voyage or two, find us an asteroid with valuable minerals. If you can do that, I will offer you a permanent position.”
Well, for the first time, he was giving me a concrete set of conditions and an official promise to hire me if I succeeded. I formulated the mission in my head. Considering the ones I'd bought in the space port, the ones given to me by Gerd Tamara, and the ones Uraz Tukhsh had acquired, I had eight geological analyzers. And that gave me eight chances to find something of value if I wanted to prove myself a worthy Prospector.
After leaving the captain's bridge, I ran into Dmitry Zheltov in the corridor. He was waiting for me:
"Gnat, here's what I'm worried about: we left the planet without getting approval, and the faction leadership doesn't know what happened to us! They might think we've been taken prisoner or, even worse, defected to the Dark Faction!"
I tried to reassure my friend and told him I had radioed Ivan Lozovsky and informed him that we both left with the Geckho. But the Starship Pilot just kept panicking:
"That isn’t how it’s done! We need permission for this trip, even though we’re already on it, as well as a proper mission. So, I'll exit the game right now and issue a report, as is required!"
I realized that it was worthless to argue. For a law-abiding disciplined military man, accustomed to following protocol, the very idea that one might act of their own accord without the precaution of orders from above seemed unthinkable and even blasphemous. I reminded Dmitry that he had just a quarter ummi before the captain wanted him back, which meant one hour and twenty minutes. I asked him to also bring news about the cease-fire with the Dark Faction. What was the situation on the front? What were our losses? Did we manage to hold onto the Eastern Swamp node? Did the Second Legion break out of that encirclement in Karelia? I was interested in everything.
Dmitry nodded... and his character froze right in the corridor, blocking the already narrow passage. Ugh, damnit! Was it really so hard to figure that he should go into his bunk before exiting the game, so he wouldn’t get in the way??! Space was a red zone, so game avatars wouldn’t disappear here ever. And before the captain or anyone else got mad, I asked Vasha Tushihh to help me bring the heavy body into the second bunk, where his bed was. The huge Geckho picked up the petrified body like a feather and carried it to a free cot.
I was not about to leave the game to give some report, though. Plus, it hadn't been very long since I'd reentered the game. Just six hours, so I was afraid I wouldn't be totally healed and would still have fractures and wounds on my body. That might make it hard to move. Also, I was busy in the game. Taking advantage of the brief respite, I headed to the ship's Mechanic. I had some work for him.
An hour later, my wallet was two thousand six hundred crystals lighter, and the lion's share of those expenses went to attaching the IR Lens to the Listener's energy armor helmet. I suspected that the furry Mechanic had taken me for three times more than the going rate, because the work itself took ten minutes at most, and didn’t cost him any materials. On the other hand, I had nothing to compare it with and any work with a unique object like my energy armor involved a huge responsibility, which demanded a high skill level. At any rate, the IR Lens was now fixed tight onto the helmet. If needed, I could lower it over my right eye, and it worked the same as before.
The ship mechanic threw in some weapon modification work for as a bonus. Above all, he expanded the Krechet's magazine to fourteen rounds, improved its damage by 15% and reduced the weight by almost a third. The experienced mechanic also made a couple changes to the Dark Faction shock laser rifle, which I couldn't use due to class limitations against automatic weaponry. Now it fired only single pulses, had a more powerful battery and would shoot more quietly.
Dark Faction laser pulse rifle (modified)
Range: 1800 feet
Damage: 1300-2800 HP
Firing speed: 11 shots per minute
Statistic requirements: Agility 15, Strength 13.
Skill requirements: Rifles 45, Marksman 20
Battery charge: 100%
Attention!!! Your characters Rifles and Marksman skills are too low to use this weapon. Minimum skills: Rifles 45, Marksman 20.
Sure, I'd have to grow into it, because I still needed a bit more skills, but I'd taken a shine to this rifle with its futuristic appearance and ability to shoot over a quarter mile in silence. My character could be taken out by two or three hits with such a rifle, despite my good armor and Listener suit, so I was hoping I could take down similar-level enemies in two shots at most, if not one.
Finally, Dmitry Zheltov came back into the game and immediately found me. Based on his alarmed appearance, I guessed that something unpleasant had happened. And I was right. The Starship Pilot's first words made me shudder:
"Tyulenev defected to the Dark Faction! Once on enemy territory, he addressed our guys on radio and said all that mess in the Eastern Swamp was just to distract our faction, so he could get across the border. He said our faction had already lost the war, and others should follow his example. That traitor managed to get in their heads before our guys figured out how to jam the signal.”
It was not only worrying news, it was breathtaking. Apparently, for the last several months, the Dark Faction knew about all our operations and plans, all our strong and weak points, all our passwords and codes, and the location of our minefields, supply lines, firing positions and buildings. And that was not all.
"But there's also good news, Gnat. Three things, actually! The Eastern Swamp node held out, though it was hard going. When reinforcements reached the citadel with Gerd Tarasov at the head, there were just five defenders left alive!!! After all the commanders died, Nelly Svistunova led the defense and she is now considered a hero! Beyond that, the Second Legion in Karelia wiped the floor with the Dark Faction division that attacked them and took more than thirty dark-siders prisoner! After interrogation, they're being exchanged for resources and four of ours, who were just captured in the Eastern Swamp. And most importantly, our voyage with the Geckho now has the official blessing of Radugin himself. He gave me the mission of gathering information about the mannerisms and culture of our suzerains, space, technology and so forth. Also, Gnat, they really want to see you in faction headquarters for a report about the raid behind Dark Faction lines, how you became a Gerd, and your new armor suit."
"What do you mean about the raid? Didn't you tell them?"
"Of course. But the faction leaders wanted to hear your side." With these words, Zheltov grew embarrassed and looked at the floor. "Ivan Lozovsky is bothered by how easily we crossed Dark Faction borders. Dozens of experienced recon groups before us tried to cross in the west both from the Graveyard, and the Golden Plain where we crossed, and in the east from the Great Caves. But every time, it ended in failure... It is, of course, nonsense to suspect us of working for the Dark Faction but I think that, after Tyulenev defected, the faction leaders are gun-shy and testing everyone for contact with the enemy..."
My mood collapsed. I never would have thought that one of the four participants in the raid could fall under suspicion after all we'd done for the faction. What ingratitude! In many ways, it was our plan that helped us keep the Eastern Swamp node. After all, who could say how the situation might have turned out if we hadn't diverted three hundred Dark Faction soldiers! Would the five last defenders of the citadel have managed to hold off the enemy with three hundred more enemies against them? I really didn’t think so!

Chapter Three. Endless Asteroids

I spent three and a half hours on the bridge of the Shiamiru as it hovered hundreds of thousands of miles from the endless asteroid belt. On the screen, even the naked eye could see the boundless trail of dots. The ship's locator could detect millions or even billions of heavenly bodies ranging from grains of dust to genuinely colossal asteroids dozens of miles wide.
"Your conclusions, Gnat!" Captain Uraz Tukhsh sat back in his main pilot's chair looking stately with a glass of purple bubbling drink in hand. He was looking very relaxed as if to say this was entirely up to me.
I spent a long time looking at the screen in thought, then asked the captain to filter out all the dust particles and leave just the heavenly bodies large enough for our shuttle to land on. Uraz Tukhsh quickly changed the settings, but the number of spots on the screen looked about the same.
"Now run a gravity scan and put a density overlay on the map."
"Why don't you do it, Gnat," the Geckho unexpectedly suggested. "Not so long ago, I explained the settings of all the ship locators and scanners for Dmmmitry, and you translated. So, I want to see if you learned anything!"
Did my employer really think I had just been stupidly translating without memorizing?! The scanners were of enormous interest to me and, in the process of the captain's explanation, I raised my Electronics skill by five levels, to thirty-one! And that was saying nothing of my two new levels in Astrolinguistics. Plus, my character was now level thirty-nine!
What could I say? I wanted to make a clear demonstration to the captain what my high Intelligence could do! I chuckled, walked over to the control panel and quickly changed the settings. I overlaid density, which changed the picture completely. Now, there were two colors dominating the map, one for iron-nickel composite asteroids, and another for those made of iron-magnesium silicates such as olivine.
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-eight!
Cartography skill increased to level forty!
Electronics skill increased to level thirty-two!
Mineralogy skill increased to level fourteen!
You have reached level forty!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: seven)
I filtered out those commonplace and unremarkable asteroids, then zoomed in and showed Uraz Tukhsh the remaining fifteen objects:
"Here are the largest asteroids closest to the Shiamiru, with unusual density. Some are too light, as if they contain an empty space and some are too heavy, which means they’re made of something other than iron, silicon or nickel. We could further constrict the search by running a radioactivity search. That would give us heavy metals like thorium, uranium, actinium..."
The captain picked his jaw up off the floor and turned to the navigator, who was just as shocked. He had a frog in his throat, though, and couldn’t say a thing.
"Can you really do that?" Uraz Tukhsh finally asked, astonished. His black eyes were squinting comically, and he was breathing heavily through his nose.
Clearly, I had done something unusual, because the Geckho were staring at me. I had to explain:
"It seemed like a good idea to combine the results of various scans. Although the ability to manipulate the settings like that does require Scanning, Cartography and Electronics. This ship’s scanner has pretty high requirements. But now, we have a new question: there are fifteen potentially interesting objects, but I have only eight geological analyzers."
Authority increased to negative 7.
Well, well, what an unusual message! For the first time since being made a Gerd, I managed to impact the authority parameter, raising it by one.
"And what do you suggest, Gerd Gnat?" Uraz Tukhsh set his glass aside and turned in my direction, listening attentively.
"If you aren’t opposed, I would recommend first checking the nearest asteroid," I pointed at a large object just one hundred twenty thousand miles from the Shiamiru. "It is at the very edge of the asteroid belt, so it will be the fastest and easiest to reach. It has a suspiciously light core. It either has a cavity, perhaps of artificial origin, or water with heavy hydrogen isotopes. When we get closer, I’ll try to construct a 3D model of the asteroid with density gradients, maybe that will clear things up. But if I cannot do it from a distance, one or two scans from the surface would be enough to determine the nature of the core. If it is not of interest, we can check that huge rock over there, but it’s in a pretty dense cloud of small debris, so it might be hard to reach," I said, removing the size filter and pointing at the millions of dangerous stones hurtling through space.
"So, let's check the easy one first," the captain agreed and pointed at the copilot. He was listening carefully to our conversation, but I doubt he got the idea. "Let's just come right in for a landing, not stop to scan from space. I don’t want to lose the momentum, and it will be easier for Dmmmitry to make his first landing."  
I wished my friend luck and gave him the light spacesuit and armor of the Dark Faction shock division commander. The copilot's eyes went wide in astonishment, so I figured he liked the gifts. He even began mumbling out something like, "I can't accept this, it's too expensive."
"Take it, take it, don't be shy!" I perked my friend up. “The spacesuit doesn’t even belong to me. I got it from the captain. But while you're working for Uraz Tukhsh, you can use it. With time, you might even be able to buy it off him."
I left Dmitry to prepare for landing, hurrying off to my spot in the bunk. I was now twenty-five pounds under my carry weight, and I was nearly jumping for joy. It felt so great to walk without being encumbered!
In the bunk, I warned Uline Tar that this landing would be our copilot’s first ever, and the Geckho woman followed my example, buckling her safety belts. Ten minutes later, the sound of the engines changed tone and became louder, but I was surprised to find it was not as loud as past landings. And the thrusters weren't humming in overdrive with those frightening hysterical whistles and creaks that punished the ears. Also, my Danger Sense skill didn't warn of imminent threats. All that followed was a slight bump I could barely feel, and our shuttle set down easily. It was actually the lightest landing I'd ever experienced.
"Let's congratulate Dmmmitry on his first landing!" the captain's voice rang out on the loudspeaker, and the whole crew of the Shiamiru rumbled happily.
Uline Tar also bared her teeth in satisfaction and quickly unbuckled, changing instantly out of the colorful robe back into her spacesuit.
"Tell your friend he made a good first impression. If he keeps going like that, he can join the crew! Hell, that was so good he could be main pilot!"
The captain's voice rang out on the loudspeaker:
"Technicians to the exit! Fasten down the shuttle, but do not open the cargo hold! Gnat and Uline come next! I hope, Gnat, that you have enough sense not to do a scan right next to my ship! Take the third levitator and fly at least five hundred steps away, better a thousand! Everyone else, remain on ship."
I checked the settings of the Listener energy suit once again. One tank of air was enough for six and a half hours, the magnetic soles could be turned on or off, and the miniature rocket backpack allowed me to shoot over small crevasses in low gravity. I suspected this was nowhere near everything the relict suit could do. There were complicated electronics in the chest and back, and I couldn’t believe they were only to support the energy shield. But I didn’t even come close to understanding how to activate the ancient suit’s hidden functions.
"Gnat, don't sleep! The technicians have already fastened down the shuttle. It's time for us to go!"
I hurried down the corridor after the huge Geckho woman. This time, I didn’t mind being clipped to Uline Tar with the safety lash. There was nothing insulting in it, and I really shouldn't have gotten so mad before. It was just a precautionary measure. But then the external door went aside, and I saw a winter wonderland. There were ice cliffs, compressed by millennia, that reflected millions of sparkles both from the sun and the Shiamiru's spotlights.
Without leaving the artificial gravitation zone around the shuttle, I crouched and pried loose a piece of ice with my knife, crumbling it between my gloved fingers. Just normal frozen water, even if it had borne millions of years of severe radiation and thus contained a somewhat higher proportion of heavy hydrogen isotopes like deuterium and even trace amounts of tritium. Nothing of value. Technically, they could be harvested for nuclear powerplants, but that would require heavy-duty processing equipment, lots of time, and organized logistics. We had nothing of the sort.
I found a stone in a cliff and broke it loose. On closer inspection, it was just chondrite, the most common type of meteorite that fell on Earth. It was composed of a mixture of iron and magnesium silicates. I already knew there wouldn’t be much to find here, and we could just leave.
Mineralogy skill increased to level fifteen!
Mineralogy skill increased to level sixteen!
So, the game algorithms agreed. But Uline Tar had already taken out the levitator and was waiting for me with clear impatience. Knowing the Geckho lady's passion for flying on the hoverboard, it seemed wrong to deprive my bunkmate of that satisfaction. Also, just flying through unknown areas on the levitator would quickly level my Cartography skill, so it seemed dumb to pass that up.
I decided to tell Uline my conclusions anyway. With the tip of my boot, I wrote a phrase in Geckho on the crumbly ice: "There's nothing of value here. But if you want, we could just take a ride." Uline spent a long time looking at the broken line, then silently erased it with her wide sole and pointed to the levitator.
"So, where are you gonna scan?" the Trader asked into the microphone, clearly for the captain and crew's ears.
"Over there, on that distant ice spire!" I said, pointing at a high peak of ice three miles away.
"Well Gnat, hold tight. Get ready to fly!" Uline warned me. Then she gunned it to breakneck speeds, making sharp turns and loops as she doubled around stones and spires of ice.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-one!
When we reached to top of the ice peak, I could see the spooky dark side of the asteroid. In the ghostly dim starlight, I could see only the barely visible contours of steep gloomy cliffs.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-two!
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-one!
Fortunately, the Geckho racer had enough sense not to try and ride in the dark, and she stopped the flying board. After making sure we couldn't be seen from the Shiamiru, Uline took the laser pistol off her belt, pointed it at the nearest stone surface and, making a constant beam, burned a bright red line into a stone:
"Thanks, Gnat! You're the only one in the crew that understands me. If you ever become captain of your own starship, call me up. I’d join your crew no questions asked!"
As I initially supposed, scanning with the geological analyzer didn't uncover anything of value on the asteroid. It did confirm my observation about the stone and ice structure of the core, though. I couldn’t exactly call it a total waste, either because I raised Scanning to thirty-nine, and Mineralogy by two whole points to eighteen. Also, this trip with Uline finally broke the ice between us. I now had a true friend among the Geckho, and the Trader's unexpected confession made me think.
On the way back to the Shiamiru, to get a better idea of how this virtual Universe functioned, I asked Uline how much a starship cost. The Trader's answer made me bite my lip. The oldest jalopy ships with minimal equipment and nearly dead thrusters went for around four million crystals. No one would agree to insure a wreck like that, though. Our Shiamiru had run the captain six and a half million. A speedy interceptor ran from twelve million on up, and that was without weaponry. It needed to be bought separately. And cruiser like Leng Waid Shishish’s could be obtained for four hundred million crystals, if not half a billion. So, even the cheapest spaceship cost such an unbelievable amount that all I could do was sigh heavily and change the topic.
We told the crew the scan had not borne fruit so, as soon as Uline and I got back, the shuttle started off from the asteroid and made for our next target. Four hundred thousand miles as the crow flies but trying to go straight through the dangerous asteroid belt would be equivalent to suicide. So, the captain was going to take a big hook out into empty space, returning to the asteroid belt when we were closer to our destination. I explained the captain’s new route to Dmitry Zheltov, who had already changed into the shock armor, and the copilot steered the shuttle confidently along it.
We calculated that everyone who wasn’t busy on the bridge had around an hour and a half of free time. Uline locked herself in her bunk, and I didn't bother her, instead hanging out with Vasha and Basha. The twin brothers confirmed their intention to leave Uraz Tukhsh's crew after the next voyage when their contracts were up. They didn't want to keep working for an unfortunate captain, hoping to find another starship that would take them on.
All the while, the brothers were playing a three-dimensional game called "Na-Tikh-U" for money. It involved moving variously-colored pieces shaped like space ships along a glowing three-dimensional holographic board with planets, minefields, space pirates and other threats. My interest was piqued, so I asked the huge Geckho to teach me the game after a round ended in Basha's victory and his brother set thirty crystals on the table.
An hour later, I understood the rules of Na-Tikh-U and had even more or less learned all common tactics used in the entertaining pastime. It was like a hybrid of three-dimensional chess, backgammon and dice. Na-Tikh-U could be played by two, three or even more players at once, and temporary alliances against a common enemy were just as common as their sudden implosion and backstabbing former allies.
I eventually learned to beat Basha and Vasha, even though the brothers joined forces against my space fleet almost from the very beginning. It was hard, but I intuitively figured out how to make a very effective defense from my remaining pieces and, at the most critical moments, luck was on my side, handing me the exact rolls I would have asked for. The large audience that crowded the bunk by the end, entertained by our lively discussion and colorful commentary, greeted my victory with a roar of approval.
Fame increased to 35.
Authority increased to negative 6.
You have reached level forty-one!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: ten)
"So, you beat our loaders. But they can’t even count to four without using their fingers! Let’s see how you fare against me!" Uline cut in acridly, also having stepped out of her bunk to see why there was so much racket.
I wasn't opposed, but I didn't have time to play with Uline. An alarm came on over the starship intercom, warning the crew we'd be landing soon. We all had to go back to our places and buckle in. And the landing again went so smoothly I didn't even realize we’d touched down. Dmitry Zheltov was beyond reproach yet again and had earned all the applause that came his way.
Well, it was time for me to get to work. Unlike the last asteroid, this one gave me cause for hope. Its high density meant it probably contained something more interesting than iron or nickel. So, after placing three of my ten skill points into Sharpshooter, so I would at least meet the requirements for my pulse rifle, I put the remaining seven into Mineralogy, raising it to twenty-five.
Then, together with Uline, I left the Shiamiru. This asteroid looked utterly unlike the previous one. You might think two stones flying through space would be identical, covered with glimmering ice, frozen plains and spires. But this one was a brownish red, and smooth like a huge piece of cast metal. It was shaped like a potato, and was two miles long, and one in diameter.
"That way!" I said, pointing at what looked like a crater formed by a meteorite slamming into the surface. I figured that would be the best place to scan the core.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-three!
Uline sped off on the levitator and was preparing to go down when, suddenly, colorful electrical sparks blasted out around us. It looked like everything was melting. I was totally disoriented. And it should be said Uline was as well. The light show made her twitch in fear and lose her balance.
Danger Sense skill increased to level sixteen!
I cannot say how, but I twisted my body, unclipped my bindings from the somersaulting levitator and, after flying off the board, slid ninety feet on my stomach, leaving a long deep trail on the dark and surprisingly fine-grained surface. But I didn't bounce off and fly off into open space, I just slid along the fine sand, as if this asteroid had its own gravity! And what was even more surprising, everything abruptly grew brighter, as if there was suddenly artificial lighting!
I started getting up to look around the strange area, but the tether ran out of slack, giving me a sharp jerk and plonking me back onto my stomach. Uline was making a series of somersaults, then slammed into some building with her massive body... and it wasn’t really a building but something like a vehicle on folding supports. Her high-pitched shriek rang out in my headphones and her words were mixed with groans:
"I think I broke my front right arm! And the levitator is smashed to bits... It won’t even be good for parts now. Gnat, what is this place? Look up! You can't see the stars!!!"

Chapter Four. Mysterious Development

I had already noticed that, instead of the usual dark sky with millions of stars, there was an opaque white dome, which occasionally sparkled with electricity. What the heck was this thing?
I ran a scan (not with a geological analyzer, just the icon), and looked with great interest at the objects depicted on the mini-map: "Meleyephatian Automatic Processer," "Drill," "Meleyephatian Small Robot Loader," "Artificial Gravity Generator," "Automatic Ore Enricher," "Storage Containers," "Distortion Field Generator..." Seemingly, in search of valuable resources, we had hit upon a place where someone else, hiding from prying eyes, had already processed all the ore. I wonder what they mined here in such secrecy?
"Gnat, Uline, what happened?" Our friends on the Shiamiru were listening closely, so of course they noticed Uline shouting about the busted levitator and her broken arm.
The Trader wanted to answer and say what happened, but I gave a rapid wave and placed my palm up to my lips. Then I called her over to the automatic processor, went over to the nearest container, removed its lid and studied the contents.
Mineralogy skill increased to level twenty-six!
What is that?the Geckho woman asked in incomprehension and even disgust, seeing the gray powder that filled the small container almost to the top. "What nasty stuff... Is it radioactive?"
I fearlessly lowered my hand into the container and lifted out a handful of the fine gray powder. Even with the artificial gravity, which was just a fraction of what I was used to, I could feel how heavy it was. I practically immediately guessed what it was, but decided it was better not to share this news with the whole crew. Carefully pouring it back into the container, I took out my weapon and inscribed a long Geckho phrase on the ground with my laser rifle.
"This is platinum sponge, the product created by chemically processing platinum ore. After this, it is typically purified and smelted into ingots. I'd guess that the automatic processer has collected around six hundred fifty pounds of platinum. We still need to figure out who all this treasure belongs to, though."
After finishing the phrase, I got worried that the Geckho lady wouldn’t understand how much a pound was. Although... the game algorithms had automatically translated measurement units for me many times before. Maybe it would be translated for Uline as well? The Trader lowered a glove into the heavy powder and thoughtfully let the precious metal slip between her fingers. After that, she asked for my laser rifle and wrote her own phrase next to mine:
"Gnat, what difference does it make who it belongs to? I know our captain well and am sure that Uraz Tukhsh won’t turn down a treasure trove like this. In fact, I bet he’ll ask me to find a market where we can sell it all secretly. As for you, Gnat, now is the time to take your share. Take as much platinum as you can carry."
Seeing me looking closely and predatorily at the filled containers, Uline Tar hurried to clarify her suggestion, scribbling another line:
"Keep in mind that your contract with the captain assumes normal gravitation, not local. So, don't be a thief. Because I know you. That's a big backpack and, on this asteroid, you could carry out all the platinum by yourself, especially if you turn off the artificial gravity."
After thinking, Uline Tar lowered her barrel again and carved another phrase:
"Gnat, I've got an offer. I agree to temporarily hold some of your things, but only if we can split the extra platinum two ways."
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level forty-two!
I met gazes with my friend and gave a distinct nod of agreement. And while I set all my things out of my inventory and handed them to her, Uline Tar quickly erased our writing with her foot, activated her radio and said:
"Captain, I have two pieces of news: one good and one bad. The bad: Gnat and I broke the levitator. It's in pieces. It cannot be repaired. The good: we found something, and you should come see it firsthand. I know you’re gonna like it!"
The captain came on the heavy loader, and he brought his senior engineer with him. As I guessed, they had quite a sharp reaction. Uraz Tukhsh walked around the whole area, sticking his nose everywhere and jumping with such joy that, at one point, he accidentally left the artificial gravity zone, jumped off the asteroid and nearly flew off into open space. The safety tether pulled him back, though.
The Supercargo was called off the shuttle, and the captain asked him to bring the radio jammer with him. Their conversations were not intended for the rest of the crew. The Trader and I were right next to the automatic processer the whole time, though. No one chased us off, and we managed to hear everything they said. We were already aware of the valuable finding, so the captain simply saw no need to hide anything from us.
Uline described the captain's reaction spot on. The question of whether to take the platinum or not was not even up for discussion. The captain and his helpers were talking about something I didn’t expect. They wanted to take not only the ore, but also the Meleyephatian processer, drill, enricher, loader, gravity generator and distortion generator. The Supercargo was opposed, saying such a large object would not fit in the Shiamiru's cargo hold, especially given that our automatic processer already took up more than two-thirds of the room. All the same, the captain was taken with the idea and couldn't be stopped:
"The equipment is worth too much to leave it! That processer alone will get go for seven hundred thousand crystals, and the whole setup must be worth a million! Maybe we should unload our stuff temporarily on a neighboring asteroid, hide it and cart this off to sell?"
"We can’t hide it nearby..." the main engineer said dubiously. "The owners of the processor are not gonna be happy when they notice that it’s gone. The first thing they'll do is look for tracks here on the asteroid, then scan everything nearby. And who knows how good their search equipment is."
Uline cut in to answer the seemingly rhetorical question:
"If they could afford this Meleyephatian processer and the rest, they aren't exactly poor. And seeing how they found such a great deposit, they must have very high-quality search equipment."
"Seems like it," the main engineer agreed. "A functioning processer can be detected practically from across a star system with good ship scanners. Sure, if it's well hidden that may not apply, but you never know. Also, it would be a huge shame if we fly off to hide our processer, and the owners of this one come back before we do. After all, who knows what kind of security systems they have here? It could well be that a signal has already been sent out and they know we’re here."
After that, the arguments stopped for some time. The Geckho went silent, exchanging somewhat frightened glances. I even guessed the captain might be rethinking it and would leave the equipment. But I was wrong. The threat of exposure just hardened Uraz Tukhsh's determination:
"So, here’s my decision! The equipment will be packed up and loaded into the cargo hold, and our processer will be tied down to the Shiamiru’s external fasteners..." The captain intercepted the main engineer and Supercargo’s objections with a gesture. "Yes, I am aware that we will not be able to land on a planet like that and would burn up in any atmosphere. I also understand that, if we try to dock at any normal station, we'll be stopped, and the rumors about this incident will spread farther than we can allow. So, we're going to a place that won’t care if our cargo is unusual, and it won’t matter who we are and what we brought to sell."
"I hope you are not referring to the pirate station Medu-Ro IV!" Uline Tar declared with clear alarm.
"That's exactly right," the captain answered. "And don't turn your nose up, Uline. It isn't a pirate station, it just belongs to captains who think more independently than most. For that reason, Geckho laws don’t hold sway there, nor do that of any other spacefaring race. Sure, last time we ran into troubles, but that doesn't mean this time will be the same. Medu-Ro IV is the largest independent trade hub in this part of the galaxy, and we can unload both the platinum and this whole drilling setup no problem. And, seeing as how we don't have any proper registration documents, that’s just what we need. Think for yourselves, after a mere four ummi, we'll be rich! And not a word about the platinum when we get to the Shiamiru! The rest of our crew should be led to believe we found just an abandoned automatic processor. We have the legal right to take that. The equipment is of Meleyephatian origin, which means they should never have been in Geckho space in the first place!"
Back in the shuttle, I asked the unhappy and burly Uline what the story was with the problems on the Medu-Ro IV station. My bunkmate, even gloomier and less talkative than usual, first refused to answer. I figured it wasn’t worth pushing, and just got to my own business. But suddenly, the Trader had a change of heart and decided to bring me up to speed:
"It's a sad story that could come back to bite us in the ass again... As you know, Uraz Tukhsh is from a well-known family of Geckho aristocrats. And his origins sometimes guide his behavior more than they should. And the captain used to be even more arrogant. The inhabitants of Medu-Ro IV don't take kindly to such behavior. The station belongs to freebooters, and the majority are of Miyelonian origin. That means Miyelonian is the common tongue on the station, and all payments are made in the Miyelonian currency, crypto. To be honest, I didn't know that and, in many ways, it was my fault that we came to Medu-Ro IV for repair in the first place. It may be hard to believe, but Uraz Tukhsh used to be an even worse pilot and we had to come in for repairs on a regular basis. Anyway... the captain didn't have any of their currency to pay for the repair, even though he had more than enough crystals... Perhaps, if Uraz Tukhsh had been politer with the Miyelonians, we could have come to an arrangement. But the captain’s noble instincts took over and he just couldn’t bring himself to act decent..."
Uline went silent midsentence, as if considering whether it was worth continuing the story. But then she made up her mind:
"They accused him of bad faith, and Uraz Tukhsh threw a fit, even challenging the freebooting captains to a duel. But the Miyelonians are famed for their skill in hand-to-hand combat. Our captain got his ass handed to him in both duels. His opponents weren't even trying to kill him, they were just having fun with him, crippling him with their bare hands for all to see... Then, Uraz Tukhsh was thrown in prison and the Shiamiru was impounded until our captain's influential relative Leng Waid Shishish came in and smoothed things over."
Hmm... Quite the nasty story. I understood the captain's decision to fly to the Medu-Ro IV station even less now. I myself would be ashamed to show my face again. They made him look so pathetic! But I was no Aristocrat. And perhaps I just didn't understand what it was like to play that class. Maybe Uraz Tukhsh wanted to improve his Authority stat or something and was trying to prove he had become a respected and fortunate captain. Who could say? But another part of Uline's story caught my interest:
"Say, what is the exchange rate from Geckho crystals to... what did you call the Miyelonian currency... cryptos or something?"
My bunkmate lowered the curtain into our room and bared her teeth predatorily... actually no, it was just a smile.
"Gnat, your question shows just how little experience you have. You could only ask something like that just after finding out about the great spacefaring races. You see, any great civilization eventually reaches a point where they can easily exist on their market alone, without any outside investment or resources. For such a self-sufficient civilization, alien or foreign money is not only unnecessary, it’s a threat. Considering how huge the Universe is, a financial system can only be stable with extreme protectionism."
I did not understand her and asked for a better explanation of why investment was not needed and even dangerous. Uline, as much as possible, tried to explain the issues:
"If a free flow of outside investment was allowed, what could stop the Miyelonians from buying up strategically important resources and industries from the Geckho, and just closing them all down? It would be easy to do. At any time, they could just make an infinite amount of their own money, exchange that for crystals and, before the Geckho knew what was happening, our neighbors would own everything! Get it, Gnat? So, currency exchange is done centrally on the level of state banks, under the watchful eye of financial inspectors on both sides and in a very limited amount. Unauthorized currency exchange is a serious crime. The absolute minimum punishment is confiscation of property!" Here, Uline Tar lowered her voice to a whisper and continued. "That is officially, of course. In reality, the exchange rate on Medu-Ro IV is seven crystals for one crypto, and almost every trader takes part in this illegal exchange, even though it isn't discussed openly. And a trader is almost sure to refuse to exchange currency for a first-time buyer, or someone who is potentially unreliable. Trust must first be earned.”
"So Uline, are you trusted on this station?" I asked. The Trader snarled, showing her sharp teeth:
"What a provocative question! Have I broken the law? No, Gnat, I haven't. And it isn't because of any deep respect for the institution, they just don't know me, so they don’t trust me. But there’s nothing to stop traders from buying goods from one race and selling them to another. It's hard to detect such trade, and no one really wants to. As long as the volume stays relatively small, everyone prefers to close their eyes. Overall, I could easily exchange currency, but the rate wouldn't be optimal. For those with a reputation who have earned trust, there are other ways as well: contraband, black-market exchange offices, fictitious deals, money laundering and millions of other ways... That is exactly what the freebooting captains do, and the Medu-Ro IV station is the largest trade hub in this sector of the galaxy where deals can be made between members of different races. Also, all kinds of fortune hunters unload their spoils there, and you can see some really freaky ships from all corners of the Universe at the docks, including those belonging to space pirates wanted throughout the galaxy!"
What could I say? After this detailed explanation, I more or less understood what attracted our captain to the station. I had one question left. I asked the experienced trader what the value of platinum was.
"Purified, in ingots with a stamp from one of the respected trading houses sixty-eight hundred crystals per pound. But in this crude form, it's about half that. By the way, I told Uraz Tukhsh that you took your share. The captain didn’t mind.”
While she said these words, I was watching the facial muscles of the furry lady carefully and would put my head on the chopping block to say that, instead of "pound," Uline had said something else. It seemed she said a different number, too. And although I was already familiar with the weight units of the Geckho race, the algorithms of the game that bends reality were still translating units for me.
"I heard the captain doesn't want to lose half the value of the precious metal, so he isn't going to sell the platinum in crude form. Uraz Tukhsh is going to find a person on the station to purify it, cast it and certify the bars. I suppose I'll do the same. What about you?"
I had thirty-two pounds of metal in my backpack. The potential profit was over one hundred thousand crystals, even if I sold the platinum as unrefined powder. Of course, I didn't want to lose half the value, but I doubted Uraz Tukhsh could find honest business partners on the pirate station that wouldn't throw him under the bus. So, I hadn’t made up my mind yet.

Chapter Five. Medu-Ro IV

A twenty-two-hour journey... As strange as it seemed, I had no problem keeping busy for the duration. First, I helped Dmitry Zheltov learn the instruments, translating the captain's words. After that, I had a Geckho writing lesson myself, which was again given by the strict and quarrelsome navigator Ayukh. The short elderly Geckho was especially ferocious today, giving more and more complicated tasks with more and more new words and an emphasis on mathematical and spacefaring terminology.
Elliptical plane... Back point traverse... Relative bearing... Sideslip angle... Mainstream speed vector... Ionic and gravitational thruster interlink system... Ship stress tensor... Adaptability of graph theory for the warp beacon system...
But there was a certain sense in how hard he was pushing me. Gnat's Astrolinguistics skill was leveling very fast, especially considering the bonuses from the old Navigator’s Pedagogy skill. But taking it all in was just frying my brain! After an hour, I was about to howl and climb up the wall, but I made myself concentrate, staring at the loops and broken lines on the tablet screen. At a certain point, Dmitry Zheltov tried to join our Geckho lesson, but fairly quickly the Starship Pilot left the bunk with a look of endless shame and even fear.
By the end of the second hour, when I was about to give up, a double message jumped in:
Intelligence increased to 22.
Intelligence increased to 23.
How? I mean, I wasn’t especially surprised the stat had gone up two times. Any added point after twenty gave a bonus, after all. But I’d heard from my faction that a stat would only increase for the second time after two or three weeks of use! Either I had been misled, or our trainers didn't know, but a stat could grow much faster if it was used very intensively. At any rate, that gave me a second wind, and I was again bursting with energy, soaking up new information like a sponge. Another half hour later, I earned another portion of messages:
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level forty-five!
You have reached level forty-two!
You have received three skill points!
Wow, awesome! And although I was willing to keep going, the old navigator himself was tired and gave up:
"Gnat, you're young and never tire. It’s like you’re a computer! But I'm a living being... Let's finish the lesson, I can barely think..."
Authority increased to negative 5.
Uline was watching the scene, and her eyes squeezed into barely visible slits, while her breathing grew strained and raspy. When the old navigator left the bunk, the Trader commented in astonishment:
"I never thought such a thing was possible! You made old Ayukh tired! By the way, Gnat, you missed a very curious spectacle! While you were studying, your friend was offered food for the first time on the starship. Naturally, the traditional spicy Geckho stew was the only thing on the menu. Well, Dmmmitry sat for a long time after the first spoonful, all red with his cheeks puffing out, then he said every curse word he knew in any language. He's seemingly already learned around a dozen phrases in Geckho! But the funniest part was that Dmmmitry finished it all, then asked for seconds!"
I went off to look for Dmitry and discovered him asleep on a bench in the second bunk. Woah! The Starship Pilot, lying there in his armor, had already reached level forty-two just like me! I was reminded that, before the raid behind Dark Faction lines, Dmitry Zheltov was just level thirty-two. It had only been a day since then, but my friend had gained ten levels! What an appetite he had for his profession!!!
My attention was drawn by the senior engineer, Dmitry's bunkmate:
"Gnat, tell Dmmmitry when you get the chance that he shouldn't leave the game in space. This is a red zone and his body froze in a doorway. I dragged him to a cot, so he wouldn't be in anyone's way, but that is not how it should be done. According to our safety regulations, one must never go offline in space because surprises are always possible, and a character stranded the game is useless to the rest of the crew and vulnerable. If he wanted to sleep, he should have done it in game. His real body could rest just fine from that."
Useful information. I’d take it into account! I promised to have a talk with my friend, then decided to follow the senior engineer's sage advice and got some rest in my bunk before we reached the space station.
Uline woke me up. She was lying on the neighboring cot in a short fluffy robe reading something that must have been amusing, because she was rumbling happily through her teeth, like a purring kitten. When she saw me stir, my bunkmate covered the screen of her tablet with a hand, then turned it all the way off. I didn't embarrass the furry lady and pretended I hadn't noticed. I felt very well rested, beyond belief really. Looking at the clock, I discovered that nine hours had passed.
"We won't make it to the Medu-Ro system for another ummi, so you woke up too soon!" Uline said.
I answered something like "this world is full of so much interesting stuff, I can’t just always sleep!" Uline rumbled back happily, unfolded the table and started setting up a game of Na-Tikh-U.
"Gnat, how about we play then? No one else on this ship is any match for me. Some don't even know how to play, and the others are too stupid or unlucky."
Sure, why not? I didn't want to just waste the next few hours on mindless entertainment, though, so I added a condition:
"Not long ago, you said I was a total newbie and sometimes ask stupid and weird questions that immediately reveal my deep ignorance. And you were right. I've got a million questions about this world, alien races, and the rules of the game that bends reality. But who can I ask without opening myself up to mockery? Heck, some of my questions could even cause trouble. I need someone I can trust! So, let's do this: as we play Na-Tikh-U, you can fill me in on things I don’t know. You in?"
The Trader agreed, and while she opened the game box and generated a map, I asked my first question:
"There are rumors that a player can change faction. And not just the tag next to the name on their clothing, but completely move their body in the real world to another place. Is that true? And how is it physically possible?"
Uline had already finished generating the game and suggested I go first. And while I thought over the placement of my pieces on the map, the trader started to answer:
"Yes, that is true. I am not an electronics specialist and don't know the finer details, but I can say for sure that, while playing, the physical body is like 'cut out' of the world. I read about one case that happened a hundred tongs ago during a war between Geckho clans. The attackers reached a base of their sworn enemies, but they were hiding in their virt pods. The enraged attackers shot through all the pods, riddling them with holes, then broke them into pieces in search of the bodies. But, other than twisted metal and electronic chips, there was nothing there. Eventually, the Geckho hiding in the game made peace with that clan, joined it and left into the real world in a one of their virt pods. But how that happens, as I already said, I have absolutely no idea."
Very interesting. But that meant the traitor Tyulenev could completely defect, not just joining the Dark Faction in the game, but moving his obese body all the way into another world. How could he even get into a pod, the fat bastard!? So, when Minn-O La-Fin praised my blue eyes and said girls in her world would like them, she knew it was possible I might meet them one day.
Fame increased to 36.
Authority reduced to negative 6.
Authority reduced to negative 7.
What was that??? My game with Uline couldn't have caused all those messages, so it must have been something in another place. It was probably in the H3 Faction, and my name was put in a negative light, given the nature of the messages. But what could have happened? I got distracted and made an obviously stupid move in Na-Tikh-U, which Uline immediately jumped on. I looked at the starships that had broken through my defenses and admitted defeat, suggesting we start a new game.
"Uline, why are there magic points in my character stats? What can I use them on and how?"
"Gnat, do you actually have magic points?" she answered with a question.
That’s the thing, I do! One hundred forty-four magic points. And I don't know if that's a little or a lot."
Uline thought for a long time before answering.
"There are some game classes that actively use magical abilities from the get-go: Shamans, Psionics, and conjurers of all kinds. There are other classes that are restricted from using magic: Traders, Mechanics, Scientists, Soldiers. But there are also classes in neither category, who can gain magic points under certain circumstances. One example of such a class is Healers. They can heal with skills or medicine from first aid kits and get along without magic just fine. But some Healers do have magic and use it in their work. As far as I know, other than mana you need a skill to actually use magic. But you'd better talk to our ship healer. He knows much better than me and might actually be able to help you."
This game of Na-Tikh-U was stretching on, and at times it seemed I might win. But eventually Uline came out on top due to her greater experience and extensive knowledge of winning strategies and combinations. I suggested we play again.
"One more question, Uline. How long can a player stay inside a virt pod? Basically, how long will a real body last, with only virtual rest, sleep and nourishment?"
"Your questions are making me scared," the furry girl admitted. "I really hope, Gnat, that you aren't planning to test that! I recommend strongly against it! Yes, the body can exist for some time perfectly well, three or four days at least. When our crew was under arrest on Medu-Ro IV, I spent four days in the game with no break. The prison cell there was a yellow zone, and I was with a bunch of suspicious guys, so I was wary of being robbed and stripped bare while my character was helpless and vulnerable. I've heard some talk about eight days max. But every race has a different physiology, and the time can change. At any rate, sooner or later, you hit the wall, and a body left inside will die. And I strongly recommend against finding out where it is!"
I won the next two rounds, and the last was a crushing defeat. Then Uline, clearly roused by my double victory, suggested we play one more for keeps. And this time, she wanted to bet something serious:
"Gnat, I bet my Annihilator! You should bet something just as valuable, your Listener bracelet or some platinum!"
I really wanted the Annihilator, and I figured I had a higher chance of victory than her. I knew the rules of Na-Tikh-U now, and my high luck modifier gave me a leg-up. But still I refused.
"No matter who wins, the other would be upset. Uline, I really value our friendship and don't want to lose it over the Annihilator, no matter how bad I want your gun. But if you want to get rid of it so bad, name your price. Maybe I'll have enough to buy it."
Authority increased to negative 6.
Was it just me, or was Uline embarrassed? No, that was clearly embarrassment. The Geckho lady covered her eyes with her semi-transparent eyelids and lowered her snout.
"I was wrong, sorry... You guessed it, Gnat. I cannot use the Annihilator, because I don't have the Rifles skill. Also, I've never engaged in combat before and don't plan to, so the Relict weapon is worthless to me. What can I say? My price is one hundred thousand crystals. I'll take the platinum as payment at a fair rate."
I set out sixteen large crystals on the table in silence, each valued at one thousand, then poured out a handful of the metal powder. It was half the platinum I had. I looked at Uline inquisitively, and the Trader set the Annihilator on the table in silence. After that, she waited a few seconds and... added her Na-Tikh-U box and a little remote control.
"This is a roll manipulator. It can change any roll to whatever you set," my bunkmate told me. "You can figure out how it works on your own. Gnat, I have to admit, I purposely lost to you in the last two rounds. I wanted to make you bet big. But I changed my mind after what you said. Just one more time, I was wrong. I’m sorry."
We were stopped by Dmitry Zheltov walking in. The copilot looked alarmed and, right at the doorway, said that the faction was very upset by my prolonged absence and they were expecting me to give a report.
"Did something bad happen? Or is the leadership just testing the length and strength of their leash?"
"Both. Something bad happened and they're mad you’re acting so independent," my friend admitted. "Radugin has a new deputy, and it really looks like he's from the FSB. He wants to talk with you. Radugin and Lozovsky are just as impatient. In your place, I wouldn't keep annoying the leadership. You should leave the game as quickly as possible. They aren't mad quite yet, but if you keep ignoring their commands, it might backfire.”
I promised to leave the game right after the Shiamiru docked on the Medu-Ro IV station, and I found a safe green zone. I also told Dmitry about that space was a red zone, and the Geckho didn’t like him leaving the game here, because it violated their safety regulations. The copilot looked seriously embarrassed. Clearly, he didn't know that. But he quickly came to his senses and said:
"Anyway, we're already in the Medu-Ro system and the captain has set a course for the station. If I understood Uraz-Tukhsh correctly, he will be doing the docking, because he needs to talk with the dispatchers and follow their commands.”
"How did you understand such complicated Geckho without the Astrolinguistics skill?" I asked in surprise.
With a happy smirk, Dmitry answered that he hadn’t. Instead, the captain put on a long and complicated pantomime to communicate that. The Geckho aristocrat tapped his clawed fingers many times on his furry chest, then pointed at the control panel and imitated moving the levers. The he pointed at the microphone and speakers, then his tongue and ears. Even the dumbest person could guess what the captain meant by that.
"I'd like to see that," I laughed, imagining the amusing spectacle. But then I grew serious and said: "Dmitry, I'm leaving the game at the station as promised, but there is one little thing. When I went into the virt pod a day ago, my knees were shattered and my leg was broken. I have a hard time believing regeneration healed me already and I would feel really stupid if I left the game but couldn't climb out of the virt pod on my own. Plus, I have to go down the corncob!"
"Don't you worry about that, Gnat! I'll leave a bit before you and come help. What's more, I've heard that cameras were added to the corncobs to keep tabs on all the kernels. I'm sure that, as soon as yours opens, someone will notice!”

Chapter Six. Under the Dome Again

I wanted desperately to see the huge space station as we approached! I imagined its miles-long body stretching into space surrounded by swarms of death-dealing starships of every imaginable shape. It sounded unforgettably fantastic. But the reality was anticlimactic. Nonessential personnel were strictly forbidden from being on the bridge during the complicated landing procedure. That had me crawling out of my skin, but hopefully this was not my last space flight, and I would eventually be able to take in every detail.
When approaching the station, Uraz Tukhsh was steering the shuttle. As usual, his abilities were lacking. In fact, he didn’t even have a lot of the skills needed to be a decent pilot. My bunkmate carefully buckled up and even suited up in full outer space gear. She just kept moaning and groaning about Uraz Tukhsh's bad driving. But today, luck was on the captain's side. Sure, the Shiamiru sometimes jostled us and spun on its axis but, in the end, we made it into dock successfully, then got snatched up by the station's gravity claws and set down gently in our hangar.
"All this stress is going to make me go bald!" Uline moaned in dismay. She then unbuckled, tossed a long attentive gaze over me and commented: "My advice to you, Gnat: change out of that Energy Armor into something more basic. You'll draw unwanted attention, and that is not what you want at a pirate station. The locals here are not exactly welcoming. In the blink of an eye, they'll knock you senseless, strip you down, and rob you blind! And only leave the space port zone with a large group... although even that’s no guarantee you’ll stay safe.”
As if confirming Uline's words, the captain's voice thundered down the corridor:
"Attention! We have arrived at the Medu-Ro IV station. I remind you that this place is not exactly friendly. So, external hatches are to be kept shut at all times! An enhanced security force must always be keeping watch over the main airlock! Do not leave the space port zone unless absolutely necessary. The rest of the station is crawling with trouble, and there's nothing to do there. Few of the locals understand Geckho, and they do not accept our crystals. But even in the space port zone, stay on guard! I don't think I need to tell you about space pirates. Just keep your distance. Do not get into any conflicts! And anyone who plans to leave the Shiamiru must change their respawn point to a safe area near our shuttle. I will not fly back through the galaxy to come get you! I understand that these rules may inconvenience you, but please be understanding. We'll only spend a few days on Medu-Ro IV, no more. And we will leave this unfriendly station as soon as we’re through with our trades."
It was no surprise that, after such an unequivocal warning, almost all crew members opted to remain on the Shiamiru. Just Uraz Tukhsh, Uline and a couple big strong Geckho, who were serving as bodyguards, left the ship. I was also preparing to leave the shuttle, but a bit later. I didn't want any of the crew members to see where I left the game. I was afraid they might take advantage of the brief period of vulnerability after I logged out but before I disappeared. I told Dmitry I was leaving and asked him to meet me under the Dome. He didn’t take the same precautions, and simply headed to his bunk, laid down on his cot and went offline. Lucky devil! He didn't have anything valuable in his inventory to worry about. I couldn't say the same...
I wasn't planning to go far from the Shiamiru, but it was still a risk to display the energy armor suit to the inhabitants of the pirate station. So, following Uline's sage advice, I changed into my old kevlar jacket. But that caused a small issue. There was no longer enough room in my inventory! The Relict suit had a large backpack and additional space for storing small items on the side and both legs. Now, I didn’t have that, and had to store the bulky armor suit as well.
I had to take my Krechet carbine and ammo along with five of seven geological analyzers out of my inventory and put them in a bag under my bed. But every cloud has a silver lining. This meant I wouldn't have to lug an extra fifteen pounds around, which was not bad. I threw all three free skill points into Rifles, raising it to forty, then headed out of the starship. The twin brothers Basha and Vasha were armed to the teeth and wearing heavy armor, keeping watch over the airlock. Of course, they didn't stop me, just wished me luck and advised me to be careful on the pirate station.
Then the airlock slid aside, and I took a look around. The ninety-foot long Shiamiru was hovering about a yard above the floor in a brightly lit boxy hangar. It was so gigantic our ship looked like a midge. Apparently, this place could host starships of much larger classes than our ship. Also, I couldn't tell while inside the Shiamiru, but our shuttle was leaning pretty far to the left. Seemingly, our balance was thrown off by the automatic processer clamped awkwardly on the outside of the ship.
The gravity on the station was approximately equal to that of earth, so I jumped onto the metal floor without fear. First, I walked to the back wall out of curiosity. It contained a force field that shimmered with all the colors of the rainbow. It separated our hangar from a colossal vertical shaft. Apparently, that was what we'd come from. Yes, exactly! Right before my eyes, automatic robotic loaders carried a small sleek starship up the seemingly endless tube. The ship had a long needle-shaped body that smoothly transitioned into a mono-wing. Very pretty! I sensed something predatory and dangerous in it. Ugh, I couldn't identify the ship without my IR Lens. It was quite far away, and the forcefield made it look somewhat blurry. Although... my scanning icon was lit, so I could try that. While on board the Shiamiru, I stopped using it regularly, because it didn’t give me any new information, so the progress bar wasn't moving. But here on the station, that was no longer true.
Tiopeo-Myhh II Miyelonian Long-Distance Interceptor.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-two.
Scanning skill increased to level forty.
Long-distance interceptor? It was clearly made for atmospheric flight; otherwise, why would it need such a sleek shape? But meanwhile, another ship came into view. Large and almost ball-shaped, it had no visible portholes, hatches or other gaps in its spherical body. The huge number of antennas (or some kind of stick-shaped objects) made it look like a sea urchin. It passed through the shaft just one hundred fifty feet away so, even without scanning, I managed to see the bulky giant in great detail.
Yaoo-Krom U. Miyelonian light cargo ship.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-three.
Light?! The diameter of the Yaoo-Krom U was no less than three hundred feet. I was afraid to even imagine how huge a medium one might have been, much less a heavy cargo ship! By the way, my Eagle Eye skill had leveled two times in two minutes! If I stood at this energy field staring at all the ships passing by on the other side, I’d hit Eagle Eye one hundred in no time!
But as if refuting my optimistic hopes, I didn’t see a single starship for the next ten minutes. Too bad... Alright, the time had come to leave the game. There would probably be someone waiting for me under the Dome. After making sure this hangar was a green zone and placing my respawn point as the captain ordered, I chose the menu option "Exit Game."
Would you like to review your statistics for this game session?
Sure, why not? I opened it.
Time in game: 32 hours 42 minutes. Your character leveled up 10 times, gained 11 statistics points and 82 skill levels.
Not bad, not bad at all! I noticed again that this game did have experience, though it wasn’t explicit, and that I had earned an earth-shattering 252730 points of it.
You killed 27 players and 11 NPCs. Session ended because: player exited game.
Here I thought for a moment. I guess I had killed twenty-seven players. That would have been the crew of the Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav, and the Dark Faction commandos on board. Add to that the ones I'd shredded with the grenade while defending the comms tower, and it was obvious where I got all that experience! When had I managed to take down eleven mobs, though? I didn’t remember killing any... Maybe there were pests in the fields I torched in the raid, and it was counting that? No other explanation came to mind, and I had no way of checking.
I opened my virt pod and shuddered in fear. There were dark figures looming over me again. Deja vu! Fortunately, my eyes quickly adapted to the change in light and I saw it was my friends. I was being greeted by Imran, Dmitry and Anya.
"Don't move your right leg!" the medic warned immediately. "The fracture may not have healed yet, and the damaged meniscus could still be weak. Wait, Gnat, move your hand. Let me take the bandage off your face! Woah! Your nose is good as new! The stitches can come out now, too."
I couldn't hold back and felt my nose, which I couldn't even touch two days ago. There were no painful sensations now, but I could just feel a certain tension. Must have been stitches pulling at the edges of the wound. With my friends’ help, I left the virt pod, stood up and very carefully tried to put some weight on my right leg. I felt a pain and immediately decided against trying to walk. No, it was too soon. Whatever the healing effect of the game that bends reality, my broken leg and torn meniscus had not healed in the past day and a half.
"Kirill, brace yourself on my shoulder!" Imran offered, and Dmitry Zheltov helped me from the other side.
Like that, all three of us slowly started down from corncob number fifteen. The boys mostly kept silent, but Anya was babbling like a motormouth. Before we got to the bottom, she told me about Tyulenev's defection, the widespread destruction in the Eastern Swamp, and Radugin's new deputy. I asked her to tell me more about him.
"His name is Aleksandr Antipov. Some soldier, maybe a cop, I didn't find out anything else."
"He's probably FSB," Dmitry cut into the conversation, and Anya easily agreed, saying that she didn't understand what the difference was.
"He came under the Dome yesterday, but in one day he managed to get Gerd Tamara in a tizzy along with many other respected players. He talked with Imran and me too, but he obviously didn’t suspect us of anything. All his questions were about you."
Anya sharply went silent, because we were already at the bottom of the spiral staircase and had come face to face with a group of players waiting there. I immediately recognized them all. Gerd Tamara, her second-in-command Roman Pavlovich and her two constant companions, a pair of tall muscular brutes.
"Gnat, we need to talk! Not for long, just three minutes. And everyone else, please leave us alone!" Once again, the short frail girl said this with such a surprisingly powerful intonation and boundless confidence in her right to give orders that none of my friends could object. "You too!" Tamara said, turning to the armed soldier guarding the entrance to the corncob, and he walked away unquestioningly.
It was uncomfortable to stand on my one good leg, so I sat down on the bottom step. The dark-haired girl lifted the hem of her long dress and sat next to me.
"For starters, Gnat, I want to thank you! Your unexpected intervention changed the balance of forces in Karelia and allowed the Second Legion to go on the counterattack. Unfortunately, not everyone in the faction understands that, but I am acutely aware that our victory in Karelia was all thanks to you. And in many ways, we only kept the Eastern Swamp because of your raid as well. So, I wanted to ask: did you read my note?"
I confirmed that I had found the sheet of paper in my radio just in time and read her warning. And that was why I didn't inform the faction leaders about my raid, which kept the traitor Tyulenev from learning my intentions.
"Tell that word for word to Radugin and his underlings, that’ll handle two thirds of their complaints right away!" the girl advised me. Then she abruptly changed topic: "Gnat, three hours ago, many sources informed us that the Dark Faction is promising ten thousand crystals for your head."
I just laughed carelessly and answered that Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin placed too high a value on sending me to respawn. For that kind money, I would agree to take a fifteen-minute break all on my own. But my joking was in stark contrast to Tamara’s stone-cold face.
"You don't get it, Gnat. He's offering ten thousand to kill you in the real world, not the game! Either that or kidnap you in the game and bring you alive to Dark Faction territory. Also, Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin has officially promised sanctuary to whoever kills or kidnaps you. He will even bring the person’s body into their world!"
Aw hell... The smile crawled off my lips and was replaced by an expression of gloom and worry. This was quite the cause for dismay. Two thirds of my allies hated me with a passion, and some of them would kill me even without a reward. What was more, the persistent dark-sider propaganda and speeches from the traitor Tyulenev were leading many on our side to believe the H3 Faction's days were numbered. Given that, there would surely be a few people to take them up on their offer.
By the way... was that what caused the recent boost of fame and fall in authority? The news about a bounty on my head? What was more, a reduction in authority, as far as I understood, could be caused by allies thinking worse of me. That meant I had gained some enemies, who were probably willing to kill me for the Dark Faction's bounty!
"Gnat, this is more than a serious threat!" Tamara assured me, though I understood that perfectly myself. "So, whether you like it or not, I am giving you two of my bodyguards! The will always accompany you under the Dome and subdue any person who even thinks of threatening you. They’re tested soldiers and I have no doubt in their loyalty and mastery."
I didn't resist or refuse protection. I sincerely thanked Tamara for the concern. Then she turned her head and happened to meet eyes with me. I wasn't wearing any dark glasses, and I got afraid I might accidentally read her thoughts as I did before with Anya. But Tamara held steady, in fact locking gazes, and staring deep into my blue eyes...
"Warn Gnat about the Antipov being a federal agent? Probably not worth doing. Gnat is a grown boy and can figure out how to talk with people like that on his own. In fact, he'd only get angry that a little squirt like me dared give him advice. Gnat clearly thinks I'm too young and inexperienced. Oh well. Should I tell him my birthday is in a week, and I'm turning seventeen? I'm already almost an adult. No, that'll come across like I'm asking for a present. Better let him know but not directly. As if on accident. Then I'll see his reaction. Why is Gnat looking at me so weird? Is there something wrong with my face? Maybe he noticed the scar under my lower lip. Or is my cheek twitching again? Oh! He smiled at me!"
Tamara unexpectedly smiled back, but it seemed somehow unconfident and tortured. No, it didn't just seem that way! She told me why:
"I can see by your reaction that it didn't come across as natural. Yeah, Gnat, I'm not used to being happy or smiling... It seems so easy. Every baby knows how to smile from birth. They laugh and don't even think about how to do it. But my facial muscles atrophied over the long years of disuse, and I lost the ability to convey emotion. I practice in front of a mirror, but so far I can only make a predatory scowl, not a warm smile."
"It looks just fine, Tamara. You have a pretty smile. I can't see the scar under your lip either, and your cheek isn't twitching. I'll give you a present next week! But don't say a word to anyone about what you just learned! If it is the only way of exposing traitors, no one can know about it!"
Yes, I was taking a serious risk by revealing my secret ability to read thoughts to the leader of the Second Legion. On the other hand, I needed to trust someone with it, because I couldn't do much on my own. Gerd Tamara was definitely not working for the Dark Faction and could be a very useful ally. Leaving the dumbstruck and blushing girl sitting on the step, I stood heavily and called my friends over, as well as the two Second Legion bodyguards she'd assigned to me.
"Take me right to headquarters! If the leadership is so desperate to see me, it would be wrong to make them wait!"

Release - July 23, 2018

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