Book: A Jump into the Unknown



A Jump into the Unknown

A Jump into the Unknown

a novel

by Michael Atamanov


Reality Benders

Book#5

Magic Dome Books




Reality Benders

Book #5: A Jump into the Unknown

Copyright © Michael Atamanov 2019

Cover Art © Ivan Khivrenko 2019

Cover Designer © Vladimir Manyukhin 2019

English translation copyright © Andrew Schmitt 2019

Published by Magic Dome Books, 2019

All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 978-80-7619-083-2




This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is entirely a work of fiction. Any correlation with real people or events is coincidental.




Table of Contents:

Introduction, Part One. Revocation of Titles

Introduction, Part Two. Consequences

Chapter One. Back Underway!

Chapter Two. Platinum Mine

Chapter Three. Big Brazen

Chapter Four. Getting a Team Together

Chapter Five. A Requested Stop

Chapter Six. There Weren’t Enough of Us

Chapter Seven. Backed into a Corner

Chapter Eight. Under Siege

Chapter 9. A New War

Chapter Ten. Reinforcements

Chapter Eleven. Preparing for a Counterattack

Chapter Twelve. Up in Smoke

Chapter Thirteen. Pyrrhic Victory

Chapter Fourteen. Without the Horse we Rode in on

Chapter Fifteen. Horde Liaison

Chapter Sixteen. Conflict in the Crew

Chapter Seventeen. The Ruler’s Burden

Chapter Eighteen. Twinbody Landing Craft, Enhanced

Chapter Nineteen. One Against All

Chapter Twenty. Forsaken, but not Broken

Chapter Twenty-One. Too Famous

Chapter Twenty-Two. Return to the Stars

Chapter Twenty-Three. Pirates or Saviors?

Chapter Twenty-Four. Pirates or Victims?

Chapter Twenty-Five. Enemy of the Horde

Chapter Twenty-Six. Saving Valeri

Chapter Twenty-Seven. Electronics and Medicine

Chapter Twenty-Eight. Black Hole

Chapter Twenty-Nine. Damaged Goods

Chapter Thirty. Blast from the Past

Chapter Thirty-One. The Long Road to a Mystery

Chapter Thirty-Two. Jump into the Unknown


Introduction, Part One. Revocation of Titles

Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory

Palace of the Ruling Council

Small Council Chamber

“PRINCESS, WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, only members of the ruling Council and invited speakers are allowed to enter the palace,” said the watchful head of the palace guard, standing in the way of Minn-O La-Fin’s luxurious levitating throne. As he spoke, the gray-haired guardsman got down on one knee to express his immeasurable respect for the ruler of the First Directory and his liege lady but he was still unwilling to shirk his duty and allow ancient law to be violated. The dozen other armed soldiers guarding the entryway followed their commander’s lead and also respectfully got down on one knee, yet maintained vigilance and kept hold of their weapons.

The noble princess, looking unbelievably haughty and majestic in her traditional vestments, which were meant exclusively for members of her ancient ruling dynasty La-Fin, opted not to get into a verbal skirmish with her subject. Instead, she just turned around in silence and looked to her companion – the young but already quite authoritative Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi. The respected sorcerer impatiently pushed aside a muscle-bound middle-aged man who was loaded down with boxes and parcels and wearing the gray smock of a rightless nonmage, then unhappily shoved a short servant girl standing behind the flying throne and stepped out in front:

“Uei-Lu Ot-Tosh, commander of the guard! I am mage-ruler Mac-Peu Un-Roi, chief advisor to the La-Fin Dynasty. I will also be giving a speech at the council of mage-rulers today!”

The head of the palace guard stood up and gave another bow of respect, though it lacked the piety he reserved for his liege lady.

“Mage-ruler Mac-Peu Un-Roi, I know you well and am prepared to let you enter. But who are the other people in your group?” The tip of the wand in the guardsman’s hand, sparkling with electricity, pointed at the miniature servant girl and heavily-laden muscleman. “I have been given a description of the ruler of the First Directory, Coruler Gnat La-Fin, and neither of your companions seem to match. I don’t know them, so I cannot allow them to enter!”

Mac-Peu opened his mouth to answer, but kept silent as not to tell a blatant lie. A tense pause took hold. Then Princess Minn-O La-Fin spoke up for the first time. And her tinkling-metal voice carried so much confidence and majesty that anyone would concede that it belonged to a natural-born ruler:

“My husband, Coruler Gnat La-Fin was unable to attend the council. You see, he lives in the world where magic is atrophied, and travelling here would take far too much time. Unfortunately for us, time was something Coruler of Humanity Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez did not deign to provide when he announced this urgent session of the mage council. So I will be speaking in the name of the ancient La-Fin dynasty of mage-rulers! These two nonmages are my servants and they will be accompanying me!”

The lead guard bowed respectfully to the regal lady but still did not make way. Young mage Mac-Peu Un-Roi had to come up closer to the commander and explain, lowering his voice to a whisper so the common palace guardsmen wouldn’t overhear:

“Commander Uei-Lu Ot-Tosh, you must be aware that Princess Minn-O La-Fin was severely wounded in the terror attack at the funeral of her grandfather Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. My lady lost her legs and is not able to move on her own, or take care of even her most basic day-to-day necessities. So the Princess’s servants are absolutely indispensable. As it is, we strove to minimize the size of our group as much as possible to reduce friction with the Council of Rulers. We did not even take any mages despite the fact that, as ruler of the First Directory, she is entitled to a magnificent retinue containing many mages of all kinds.”

The guard commander furrowed his brow and started to think. This really was more complicated than it looked. Outsiders were categorically forbidden from entering the palace however, without these two servants, it was doubtful the council session would take place at all. After all, great Archmage Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez wasn’t going to be personally carrying the crippled Princess and setting her on the podium. And he certainly wouldn’t be readjusting her dress, or carrying her out to the toilet. And that was what made up the commander’s mind:

“Okay then, the servants may enter. But first I must search them to make sure there are no dangerous items concealed in their clothing. I’ll also need to give the throne a thorough inspection. And as for you, honorable Mac-Peu Un-Roi, I humbly request that you leave your magic wand at the entrance. Regrettable as it may be, rules are rules!”

The Princess gave a silent nod, consenting to the search of her retinue. And they were very thorough, but nothing suspicious was found. The burly pack-mule was carrying only a holographic screen generator – a completely standard model like anyone might use to provide visual aid to a speech. The servant girl was wearing no jewelry, and didn’t even have pockets in her clothing, so she also made it through the inspection unimpeded. A few minutes later, the Princess’s retinue was back on its way and, after walking into the main hall of the palace, turned a corner into a room where those about to speak in the Small Council Chamber could get some rest or tidy themselves up.

Just after the doors closed behind them, the Mage Diviner gave a happy chuckle:

“See, Princess Minn-O, I told you it wouldn’t be too hard to sneak Roman Pavlovich and Tamara into the palace!” When he saw fear on the ruler’s face, Mac-Peu hurried to add: “Don’t be afraid, we can speak openly here. The palace was checked thoroughly this morning, and no microphones, spy cameras or other foreign objects were found. The only room the guard did not check, as per tradition, was the council chamber itself.”

Up on the levitating throne, Minn-O adjusted the uncomfortable high collar of her dress and sat back wearily in her chair:

“Although I have never entered this palace before, I am perfectly familiar with the way things work here. Ever since an order from my great grandfather Coruler of Humanity Archmage Yuho-Loru La-Fin more than two hundred years ago, both the Large and Small Council Chambers have been off limits to everyone except members of the Ruling Council and invited speakers.”

“And yet we both also know that is not exactly the whole truth, Princess,” the Mage Diviner said with a smirk and wily chuckle. “An exception is made for one lone cleaning woman who regularly tidies up all over the palace. In her forty years of impeccable service, she has earned the complete trust of the guard. But that cleaning woman just so happens to hail from the First Directory, and be a faithful subject of yours, so she got everything ready yesterday.”

Princess Minn-O took a heavy sigh. The young ruler was extremely displeased with all this. It was a great shame, but there was no other way to stay in power. They would have to spook the Ruling Council a bit and put the fear of God into them. The talented mage seer had studied all possible lines of the future a day prior and warned the Princess that her enemies from the other magical dynasties were in quite a decisive mood. According to him, it was inevitable that Minn-O La-Fin would suffer at least attempted mental attacks during the council session. And it was just as inevitable that the council would end with a vote to demand she be stripped of her title as head of the La-Fin Faction in the game, and that Coruler Gnat La-Fin be deposed as ruler of the First Directory in the real world.

Now, the Princess had no fear of mental attacks. The “servant girl” in her retinue was actually a Paladin from the other world by the name of Tamara with a unique aptitude for blocking magic. And Minn-O was not particularly worried about the outcome of the vote of nonconfidence because the La-Fin Faction, which she led, had put up impressive results in the game that bends reality. According to reports from humanity’s Geckho suzerains, the La-Fin Faction was currently the most advanced and powerful faction not only from the magocratic world, but of all the factions on the virtual Earth as a whole. To her eye, the report she was about to give detailing her faction’s success, and the strides it had made toward providing for defense of the world as a whole were sure to have a positive impact on the members of the Ruling Council and thus a favorable outcome was preordained. But nevertheless, the Princess was feeling jittery, so she agreed to her advisor’s plan B just in case the threat of impeachment became too real.

“I’d have never agreed to such a thing if not for your prediction that they might request that I step down or strip me of all my titles. But you are correct, advisor. If we cannot come to an agreement the nice way, we’ll have to try being mean! But for now I am not so much worried about the mages of competing dynasties. If your words are to be trusted, we will overcome them all in the end. But my husband will be outraged when he finds out what happened! Leng Gnat La-Fin loves me, values me and would never have released me into a hornets’ nest without all the relevant information. But if they do try something, I truly pity them. Gnat never forgives attacks against him. And it would be hard to look at a threat of impeachment any other way. If they did that, it could lead to a huge war. And I feel sorry for the sorcerers who dare stand in my husband’s path!”

Mac-Peu Un-Roi didn’t answer. He had spent over an hour checking over all the most probable lines of the future and seeing all kinds of different endings to today’s session of the Ruling Council. And that included outcomes the Princess was better off not knowing...

* * *

“Fourteen hexagons, one at level five and two at four. An advanced high-speed road network. Vast northern and northwestern territories for future expansion, which have already been partially cleared of aggressive NPC’s. The hexagons that directly border the Geckho spaceport are also very nearby and primed for capture. Very soon, the La-Fin Faction may have total control over overland transport of extraterrestrial goods and all trade with the suzerains. “

The mage-rulers in the council chamber began to buzz. But it was more dismay than approval. It was very strange. Princess Minn-O was speaking at such a high level for the first time, but that didn’t exactly make her a novice in rhetoric. Since childhood, as an heiress to an ancient ruling dynasty, she had been trained in many skills that might be relevant to a Princess, including the art of public speaking. All the Princess’s tutors remarked that she had an implicit talent for rhetoric. Minn-O could win over even the most venerable opponents, subdue any audience to her will and force them to empathize with whatever she was saying. For that very reason, Coruler of Humanity Thumor-Anhu La-Fin often sent his capable and intelligent great granddaughter to represent the First Directory and La-Fin dynasty at all kinds of events, and Minn-O always performed admirably.

Because the Princess had rich experience with public speaking, she figured she could predict the audience’s reactions in advance. She was currently reporting on the striking successes and military victories of the La-Fin Faction, so she imagined that the Council of Rulers was going to react, if not with elation, then at the very least with approval. After all, if one of the key factions of the magocratic world was doing well, that was good for all of them. However, the audience was behaving unexpectedly. Everything was strange today. She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. The Princess was basically saying the right things, backing it all up with facts, diagrams and illustrative images. She took pauses of the perfect length in all the right places, expertly played with her volume and pacing, but still she wasn’t sensing the proper reaction from the crowd. It was as if the mage-rulers weren’t listening to her. And when they did react, it was generally negative. That had her upset and on guard. But nevertheless, Minn-O continued her speech:

“As of the present day, the La-Fin Faction comprises seven thousand three hundred players. And recently, our population has been growing at an exponential pace. In fact, we will be surpassing the ten-thousand-player mark within the next seven or eight days. As soon as that happens, our capital hexagon will advance to level six, which will allow us to bring a total of fourteen thousand one hundred players into the game. As far as I know, none of the other factions of the virtual planet can even come close to boasting of such success!”

With a remote control, she flipped the huge screen to her next slide, depicting the construction of a grand freight port in the Tropics – a hexagon recently captured from the Human-3 Faction and officially transferred to the La-Fin Faction in a recent peace treaty. The plan was for a port with a plethora of docks which was to serve as the main logistics hub on the eastern shore of the bay for four factions: La-Fin, Relict, Human-3 and Human-6. And it would provide good stable income, commensurate with the profits from trade with the Geckho spaceport. What was more, a planetary shield generator was being erected on the nearby Rocky Island and it was going to require truly colossal quantities of material of all different kinds. Most of that was planned to be delivered by sea, so the large port would be necessary for the survival of humanity as a whole.

Nevertheless, as soon as she began speaking about the construction of the port, Coruler of Humanity Onuri-Unta La-Varrez abruptly stood up, cutting the Princess of midword. The most powerful Archmage of modern times and her greatest opponent, in his day he had done quite a lot to make Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s life miserable. The fearsome sorcerer, wearing a black robe with gold embroidery, hammered his magic staff into the floor with every step he took toward the podium. With the sound of his last knock still reverberating off the walls, he stopped a few steps from Minn-O.

“Did I hear you right?” Coruler Onuri-Unta asked, his voice powerful and booming, fully belying the old man’s respectable one hundred and fifty years. “Girl, do you really have the gall to stand there and claim your faction is doing well? In point of fact, you are making a real mess of things. Perhaps your young years make it hard to comprehend, so allow me to explain. Every player in your faction with magical abilities will flee at the first possible opportunity. So how can there be any talk of development and increasing your faction’s numbers, if your faction has no players capable of occupying key leadership positions?! Or are you under the impression that nonmages can occupy these posts?”

The ghoulish old man fell silent, awaiting the Princess’s imminent response. When Coruler Onuri-Unta finished, the room burst into a storm of applause. By all appearances, the vast majority of the audience supported the Archmage’s point of view. The Princess winced in pain – not once over the course of her speech today had the room supported her even with the most tepid golf-clap. But here her opponent’s opening salvo was met with unmitigated delight. Bad! Very bad! Just then, her advisor Mac-Peu Un-Roi’s voice rang out in her head:

“Careful, Minn-O! They’re all expecting you to slip up! Be extra delicate formulating your response!”

But the Princess already knew that perfectly well. In the magocratic world, there was an ancient law that had served as a bedrock principle for millennia, which read: “Common rabble, ignorant of the art of charms may never be equal to the wizarding kind.” To rephrase the archaic piece of legislation in more modern terms, people without magical abilities were not allowed to hold upper leadership posts, which were traditionally reserved for mages.

However, the population of Earth had grown since that law was written, and the majority of humans were born with no magical abilities. At present, out of a total population of eleven billion, there were less than forty-five thousand mages. And that meant for every child born with a predilection for the art of charms, a quarter million newborns entered the “common rabble.” And thus, more and more exceptions were found to the ancient law all the time. It was just not possible for every city, large enterprise and scientific laboratory to be headed by a person with a talent for magic. And the apotheosis of these “exceptions” was the rise of General Ui-Taka, who had taken the Second Directory by force and proclaimed himself king. The rulers of the remaining thirty directories could huff and puff all they liked, make reference to their wizarding majesty and simply ignore the upstart ruler, but that did nothing about the fact that they were in no condition to stop or impede the highly successful general.

But mentioning those exceptions here, in the palace of the mage-rulers, the very heart of the magically-imbued world, would be a huge mistake. Minn-O understood that perfectly, so she said what she thought the audience most wanted to hear:

“Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez may well be under the impression that I must be speaking out against the order of our world that because my magical abilities were discovered so late in life. Well, I’m afraid I have to disappoint him. In fact, I am heiress to the ancient La-Fin dynasty of mage-rulers, so you’re unlikely to find a person more zealously devoted to upholding historical law and tradition as I. All posts and professions which are legally proscribed for those with magical abilities will go to mages and that is that. And the fact that a number of traitors will flee my faction, six of whom are here in this room,” Minn-O said directing her laser pointer at a group of people squirming awkwardly in mage robes sitting with the Fourth Directory rulers, “has no effect on our eventual success. In fact, when the rats flee a ship, its crew is usually inclined to celebrate! Furthermore, the First Directory has sufficient magically-gifted citizens to replace these dissidents. “

For the first time since she began her speech, there was some applause though it was fairly tepid and fell silent as soon as Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez turned to the chamber with a frown of dismay.

“Let’s say you’re telling the truth. Although I still cannot see where you will get enough mages for your faction. But regardless, the main issue today is something else. Recent events have proven that the La-Fin Faction supports our opponents from the alternate world, and that its soldiers fight side-by-side with enemies of the magocratic world. And that I simply cannot abide! It is obvious that only one of the worlds can remain at the end of the game’s tong of safety, and it will be whichever one has a greater number of game hexagons. So we must all work together to make absolutely sure that our world is the one that survives! And to that end, there can be absolutely no working for the enemy and threatening our very future!!! So for that reason, I demand the Ruling Council conduct a vote of nonconfidence in the head of the First Directory Coruler Gnat La-Fin and his wayedda, head of the La-Fin Faction Gerd Minn-O La-Fin! They must be deposed for collusion with the enemy!!!”




Introduction, Part Two. Consequences

BY THE END OF HIS SPEECH, Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez was essentially screaming, adding fuel to the fire of indignance and trying to impress upon his opponent with the gravity of his accusation. The chamber was also buzzing in support of the old Archmage, which kept the Princess from responding for quite a while.

“They’re gonna need a bit of a push,” the voice of Mac-Peu sounded in Minn-O’s head again. “We didn’t want it to come to this, but our opponents have left us with no choice. Smear them! Use the arguments we prepared yesterday to counter that very accusation!”

Minn-O La-Fin waited patiently for the din to settle, then started to answer with a mocking smile:

“How deplorable it is to see that advanced age has robbed one of the three Corulers of Humanity of his clarity of mind! And it’s doubly vexing that a mage who was once so great squandered the statistic points the game bestowed upon him in a belated attempt to increase muscle mass and paper over childhood insecurities rather than improving his Intelligence!”

“Come now, pitiable wayedda of a space pirate. See that you don’t overstep your bounds!!!” shouted the insulted Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez, trying to talk Minn-O La-Fin back from the brink. But she was no longer listening to him, turning up her microphone and continuing:

“Well, if my opponent ever had deigned to improve his Intelligence, he might be able to take a more critical look at his own words instead of telling a blatant lie to the council of mage-rulers! And meanwhile, an elementary logical counterexample can break down all the Coruler’s arguments: it is easily possible that the dominant faction on the planet could be one containing players from both worlds! And if Leng Onuri-Unta La-Varrez had ever even once improved his Intelligence, he may have come to this thought on his own and realized his idea that one world is sure to be destroyed is nothing more than empty conjecture!”

Princess Minn-O took a brief pause and, noting with satisfaction that the rulers were finally listening closely and even discussing what she had to say, continued:

“So then, let me direct the honorable mages’ attention to the fact that even humanity’s wise Geckho suzerains do not yet know what will happen to two split worlds after the tong of safety runs out. Insufficient data, they say. And I am now stating the official position of the Viceroy of Earth, Kosta Dykhsh. Refuting it would not merely make you look foolish, but also subject all humanity to harsh reprisals for disrespecting our suzerains! The Meleyephatian Horde does not know what will happen to a double world with bifurcated space either, even though they have been exploring the game that bends reality for over three thousand years. The Union of Miyelonian Prides also does not know, even though my husband Coruler of Humanity Gnat La-Fin has spoken on the subject with the wisest and most authoritative rulers of the Miyelonian race. And so Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez cannot possibly say that with such certainty after being in the game for all of five minutes. He does not even know the basics and yet he insists upon making a laughingstock of himself by spouting far-reaching categorical prognoses!”

“Minn-O, what have you done?! You should have stuck to the facts, without pejorative comments about the age and mental capacity of Coruler Onuri-Unta! You made the head of the La-Varrez faction look like a liar and damaged his Authority before his subjects in the most serious fashion! The Archmage will never forgive that! You have just cut off almost all positive lines of the future!”

The mage-rulers in the chamber started buzzing in dismay and even stomped their feet because it was hard to take the Princess’s words as anything other than a direct insult toward one of the three respected Corulers of Humanity. Minn-O herself also understood that she had crossed a line and overplayed her hand, dashing the audience’s budding sympathy. But she wasn’t the least bit sorry for what she’d done. Archmage Onuri-Unta La-Varrez opened and closed his mouth a few times, preparing to respond to the accusations of incompetence and lying, but in the end he waved a hand and plopped down dismally into his seat with the look of a beaten dog.

It was some time before the clamor quieted back down, and only because the other Coruler, Archmage Anri-Huvi La-Shin, stood up and called for silence. After that, he turned to Minn-O and shook his head in reproach:

“Such harsh words are not befitting of a highborn Princess! I believe, as a representative of the ancient and glorious La-Fin dynasty, you should be ashamed of such intemperance. But most importantly magess Minn-O: you did not respond to the allegation that you are working for the enemy! And those are truly grave allegations which threaten the most severe consequences for the leaders of the La-Fin dynasty, who have now completely lost the trust of the Ruling Council!”

Minn-O clenched her teeth until they cracked, trying to restrain herself this time while also not revealing her disappointment and despair. Before today’s council session, she was hoping for Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin to at least take a neutral position because he was always considered a friend of her family. The fact that the second Coruler of Humanity supported the allegations came as a heavy blow.

“I was simply not allowed to finish, respected Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, so I was not able to give an explanation. And as for the harsh words, it’s hard to maintain calm with Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez and his vassals constantly trying to mentally attack me and break my train of thought! What’s more, I was not the one who started throwing around insults such as ‘inexperienced girl,’ and ‘pitiable wayedda of a space pirate.’ By the way, the fact you called me a wayedda means your information is out of date. Coruler Gnat La-Fin raised my status yesterday from wayedda to senior wife.”

“I confirm!” Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took a step toward the podium. “The ruler of the First Directory, Coruler Gnat La-Fin declared Princess Minn-O his senior wife yesterday and left her in charge of the La-Fin faction on her personal request. Someone with decision-making authority must always be present to maintain contact with neighbors, expand faction borders and manage our grand building projects. And that is why Leng Gnat embarked upon a spaceflight and left his wife Minn-O La-Fin at home.”

The news made the mage-rulers start buzzing again because it seriously changed the speaker’s status and impacted the political landscape of the whole world. One lone shout rose up from the chamber:

“Princess Minn-O, do you care to comment on why Coruler Gnat waited until now to do that? Was it out of desire to secure the property of the La-Fin dynasty before this meeting? After all, after a directory leader is deposed, his senior wife may lay claim to a portion of the dynasty’s property, unlike a travelling wife.”

Minn-O turned to see who that was and smiled with the very corners of her lips:

“My husband would hardly be guided by such mundane concerns. It’s just that, until recently, the position of senior wife was occupied. Perhaps if you were paying closer attention to the galactic news, you’d know that the human Leng Gnat La-Fin performed a ritual marriage dance with Leng Keetsie-Myau, commander of the Miyelonian fleet in our part of the galaxy. So technically, she was my husband’s senior wife and it took some time to smooth over that little misunderstanding. At any rate, the amusing episode also came with an upside: the Miyelonian race has officially renounced all claims to our planet, so we now have one less potential invader!”

Minn-O La-Fin was expecting the mage-rulers to react positively, but nothing could have been farther from reality. In fact, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin knocked the Princess down a peg and again demanded that she respond to the allegation she was working for the enemy rather than “recount the amorous adventures of a space pirate.”

“Space pirate???” she again started losing control. “If I were you, Coruler Anri-Huvi, I would choose my words more carefully because the fate of your faction’s starship now hangs on nothing more than my husband’s peaceable nature. As you know, the dispatchers and customs officials of the space port are subordinate to Earth’s Viceroy, Kosta Dykhsh. And the Viceroy is fiancé to Uline Tar, a close friend and business associate of my husband’s. So the ‘space pirate’ Leng Gnat already knows the route that will be taken by La-Shin faction’s rickety three-hundred-year old rust bucket, as well as its cargo – gemstones!”

Old Archmage Anri-Huvi reeled, went pale and clutched at the heart region of his chest. The that his starship was under threat clearly shocked the old man. It was immediately apparent that the La-Shin faction had invested serious funds into purchasing the second-hand shuttle and had placed a big bet on the starship making a successful trade run. Some attendants ran over to the Coruler, grabbed him under the arms and carried him to his seat, pouring some sustaining elixirs down the old man’s throat on the way.

As she looked on, Minn-O winced in disgust. Archmage Anri-Huvi was nearly two hundred years old. Any powerful emotional trauma could kill him. Still he was the one who started arguing with her and making allegations against her faction. Not waiting for the old man to be brought to his senses, Minn-O continued:

“As for the accusations, which are ludicrous on their face, let me assure you all that no one is doing more to safeguard our world than my husband Coruler Gnat! Seeking out extraterrestrial allies and new technology, constructing a planetary shield...”

“Healer! The Coruler’s heart has stopped!” an agonized erupted, interrupting Minn-O’s speech.

All hell broke loose! A huge buzzing crowd was instantly gathered around the Archmage, who was crawling impotently on the floor. The members of the ruling Council jumped up from their seats, many trying to get over to the leader’s unconscious body and shouting advice. Just then, Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took advantage of the commotion and approached the podium. With a gesture, he called for Minn-O to lean down and whispered into her very ear:

“This is all turning out wrong! Now no matter how this ends now, there will be no avoiding a vote to strip you of your titles! And the whole chamber is inclined against us. I checked. What’s more, they came in feeling that way, and the whole spectacle of you making a report and answering questions was just an empty formality. They all knew the outcome in advance. Everyone here has been promised a share of the La-Fin dynasty’s riches, so they will all vote to depose. Even the mages sitting in the First Directory section have been paid off, lock stock and barrel. In fact, everyone in this chamber is a ravening jackal who rushed here as fast as they could to make certain they would get their piece of the big pie.”

“Good thing we came prepared then!” Not a single muscle twitched on the Princess’s face when she heard the worrying news. She just readjusted her grip on the remote she’d been using to control the slides and pressed a button she hadn’t touched before.

The image of the port under construction changed. The new picture on all the holographic screens looked something like thermal transfer or a microchip and it had a little red blinking light in the middle. The slide change didn’t catch the mages’ attention right away, but gradually the din in the chamber fell silent. All that remained were the healers fussing around next to Coruler Anri-Huvi, who had been brought back to his senses with artificial respiration. The others were all silent and awaiting commentary from Minn-O. And she didn’t keep them waiting long:

“Respected members of the Ruling Council! This is quite a long story, and I will start from the beginning – with the history of this palace. As you most likely know, two hundred years ago, there was a devastating great war between the magical dynasties. At a certain point my great grandfather, Coruler of Humanity Yuho-Loru La-Fin was on the verge of defeat and the Council of Rulers convened in this very chamber to discuss whether or not to depose him. In fact, at that time, the Palace of the Ruling Council was half destroyed and it was restored just for the occasion. The thing is, that was also when this furniture was installed in the Small Chamber. You have all probably noticed how disproportionately thick the crimsonwood benches are. And trust me, this is all important to the story. You see, Coruler Yuho-Loru La-Fin had each of the dozens of benches in this chamber packed full of nitro-plastic explosive – the most powerful bomb-making material known to humanity at the time. Fortunately, that vote went how the head of the La-Fin dynasty wanted and there was no need to blow up the Council of Rulers at that time. But as we all know, history has a funny little way of repeating itself. The furniture in the Small Chamber hasn’t been replaced in those two centuries, so all we had to do was add more modern detonators – there’s one beneath every bench. And the design on screen is a schematic of their inner workings. Hey now, none of that! No one stand up!!! Silence in the chamber!!!”

The mage-rulers who jumped up from their seats in fear were forced to sit back down. Such a silence came over the chamber that still prostrate Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin’s rapid breathing was suddenly audible. And meanwhile the Princess’s servants, who had been sitting meekly in the corner, walked up to their master. The large man lifted Minn-O delicately and moved her from the podium back to her levitating throne. The woman then took the dangerous remote from the Princess’s hands.

And unhurriedly, making her way to the exit between the rows of tensely seated but stock-still mage-rulers, Minn-O La-Fin commented:

“I could go on and on about the absurdity of the allegations against me and my husband Gnat La-Fin for ages, but you wouldn’t listen. Yes, I am perfectly aware that each of your votes has been bought and that there is no cause to expect an honest outcome. But still I will try to take a fair survey. Respected mage-rulers, answer me this: do you really consider it acceptable to depose the ruler of the First Directory – a man who is doing more to ensure the continuation of humankind than all of you taken together? So on that note, I bid you adieu, and my trusted servants will be staying behind to make sure you all vote your conscience here today. If they don’t like the way things turn out, you’ll have only yourselves to blame!”

With these words, the Princess unclipped the microphone from her dress and, accompanied by the Mage Diviner, left the chamber. As soon as the doors closed behind the Princess, the miniature woman got up on the podium and raised the dangerous remote high in her right hand:

“Don’t even try to take control of my mind, it’s no use!”

The girl was speaking a language not of this world, but there were a few mage-rulers who understood it. At the very least the six former La-Fin Faction spymasters who jumped ship to the La-Varrez Faction would.

“Gerd Tamara!” they all shouted in concert.

Based on the groan that rolled through the room, many of the mage-rulers were familiar with her name and it inspired nothing short of horror. They didn’t expect anything good from such close proximity with the fanatic Paladin.

“Yes, it is I!” with these words, the Paladin girl pulled the ash-gray mask off her face with her free left hand, revealing herself as a native of the alternate world. “Gerd Tamara, the worst nightmare of all mages, no matter which cursed faction you belong to! So, to be perfectly clear, there isn’t going to be any vote! Thousands of years ago, my ancestors banished you vile magic-spawn from their world. But you just couldn’t leave well enough alone and dared to intrude upon my world through the game to spread your sorcerous blight! But I’m not troubled by that, because today your reign comes to an end! How long have I dreamed of this moment – to be in the very epicenter of the magical infection and destroy all mage-rulers in one fell swoop! I am not the least bit sorry to give my life for this holy mission! My only regret is that I had to let one of you go – while discussing today’s plans, I promised the Mage Diviner that I would let him escape. And Paladins always keep their word.”

“What about Princess Minn-O La-Fin? After all, she’s also a mage who wields considerable power!” Despite the tension of the moment, one of the mages was bold enough to ask a clarifying question. Perhaps he merely wanted to distract the strange girl with an icy emotionless face and earn himself a few more minutes of life.

“Princess Minn-O?” she asked with a happy laugh that looked somewhat strange and even frightening with her practically motionless facial muscles. “You really haven’t figured it out? Minn-O doesn’t have any magical abilities! All of her apparent magic is from the fetus in her womb, spawned when the magical genes of people from two long-separated worlds made contact. Minn-O’s child will grow to be a powerful mage. A very powerful mage. But the thing is, no matter how profoundly I hate mages, I was not prepared to kill an unborn child. Especially the child of a person I care for deeply!”

* * *

The ruler of the First Directory’s procession was getting ready to head out. Many armored defensive antigravs were hovering above the earth ready to take off at any moment and disappear into the low cloud cover.

“Advisor, how do you think the vote will turn out?” Princess Minn-O La-Fin’s eyes were plastered to the armored glass of her luxuriant flying vehicle, staring at the exit from the Palace of the Ruling Council and awaiting her companions, who were taking longer than she expected.

Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi took a good bit of time to answer. Choosing his words carefully and avoiding categorical statements, he cautiously suggested that Tamara may have seen this as a convenient opportunity to detonate all the explosives in the chamber regardless of how the vote went. However, despite all the advisor’s careful couching, Princess Minn-O quickly saw what was happening:

“Diviner, you must have known this was going to happen! Admit it! All your talk of a ‘plan B’ and just spooking the Council of Rulers before the vote were only to make me agree to take part. Is that right?”

Mac-Peu didn’t have time to answer. A fearsome thundering blast rolled through the surrounding area, popping ears and spooking all the birds out of their trees. The squat pyramidal Palace of the Ruling Council, two hundred steps from the armored antigrav, sank. The tip of the structure collapsed into the building. A second later, everything was obscured by huge dust clouds.

“That’s all she wrote...” the advisor commented calmly. “You were not deposed. You’re still the Princess of an ancient dynasty and the ruler of a faction in the game that bends reality. We were also able to avoid a great war – the other directories won’t be capable of such a large undertaking anytime soon. All that remains is to inform the news channels that Emancipation from Mage Tyranny terrorists committed yet another heinous act, this time bombing a session of the Council of Rulers. The fact that we survived is a miracle and only because you finished your speech earlier than scheduled and left. And there can be no complaints against us – the palace guard will confirm that they searched our group thoroughly and that we didn’t bring any hazardous materials into the palace.”

“And the cleaning woman?” Minn-O shuddered. “She’ll say that she installed detonators under the benches in the chamber!”

“The cleaning woman?” the advisor asked with false surprise, raising his brows and widening his eyes. “Princess, didn’t I tell you that she died this morning? Cardiac arrest. A real tragedy. Although it’s no surprise at her age. Basically, I plan to put some money aside to pay her family a handsome bonus for her many years of impeccable service.”

“Mac-Peu, you’re a monster!” Despite the Princess’s emotional outburst, deep in her soul she didn’t blame her chief advisor one bit and even agreed that there was no other way.

“No, Princess Minn-O. I am not some bloodthirsty monster. I simply put my faith in your husband and am doing everything in my power to bring Leng Gnat’s plan to fruition and safeguard our world against alien invasion!”

The ruler of the First Directory spent a few seconds in silence thinking over what she’d heard, but then she demanded impatiently:

“Let’s take off already! Tell the guard we’re getting out of here. Otherwise it’ll look weird that we didn’t leave right away, despite the clear and present danger. Although... wait! Someone is coming out of the demolished building!”

And in fact, enshrouded in dense clouds of dust, a small figure emerged with a staggering gait. It was a girl, and her head was pointed down. The Princess and her advisor exchanged surprised glances.

“Isn’t she supposed to be dead?” asked the Princess, reproach for her servant’s failure cutting through.

The Mage Diviner shrugged his shoulders. He truly had not seen this possible future.

“Maybe it’s for the best?” Minn-O La-Fin asked pensively. “Order her arrested! We must have a living terrorist to show the thirty directories. They’ll be thirsty for blood! Here we have a real live member of the sinister terror group Emancipation from Mage Tyranny!”


Chapter One. Back Underway!

One day earlier

The game that bends reality

Near space, in the vicinity of planet Earth

“THE BIRDY HAS FLOWN the coop!” Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov’s disappointed voice made me shudder and unstick my tightly closed eyes.

I found it easier to bear the high G-forces like that, with my eyes closed. And when the frigate took off from such a massive planet, at times we got up to 5 G. Oh well, it was my own fault. I asked them to rush the takeoff and fix only the what was truly necessary. And our three malfunctioning gravity compensators, in the estimation of the repair bots, did not make the cut.

My teeth clenched in strain; I was squinting at the radar screen. Damn! We didn’t make it. My Tolili-Ukh X frigate had just gained elevation and punched through the atmosphere, while the La-Shin Faction Kurimiru shuttle had already entered a hyperspace jump. We were just some five minutes late... Although most likely the enemies were watching for our takeoff and would have slipped through our fingers regardless.

“Navigator, were you able to determine their trajectory?” It was tremendously difficult to speak. My Gnat’s meager 17 Constitution made it a real slog to do anything worthwhile in such high G forces. Nevertheless, I was holding out for the time being and didn’t even put on my +1 Constitution rings this time because, as the famous captain of a star frigate, I needed to get used to this kind of thing.

“Yes, Leng Gnat. I was able to establish the vector of their hyperspace jump. Calculating end point now... uh...” old Ayukh stroked his nose with a huge paw, his other paw operating the instrument panel at tremendous speed. The seasoned Geckho seemingly didn’t even notice the 5 G’s. “The Kasti-Utsh system, as we thought. But they’ve taken a rather strange angle, too far from the space station. They’ll be off by almost a million miles.”

Based on the movement of his meaty lips, the Navigator was saying totally different numbers and units of measure, but I was already used to the game automatically tailoring that information to make it easier for me to comprehend.

“Almost a million miles? Does that put them outside the security zone of the Kasti-Utsh III space station? But that’s great news! We’ll be able to intercept them! Ayukh, begin calculating a hyperjump to those coordinates! Dmitry, as soon as we leave orbit, prepare the ship for a long-distance jump. The Navigator will provide vector. Actually... Both of you hold up. No rush.” I removed my headphones and, overcoming the forces in my arms and legs, turned my mobile armchair dashingly and scooted over to the copilot’s workstation.

Sitting there now was San-Doon Taki-Bu. A highly experienced level-91 Pilot who had long helmed Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s antigrav, he was currently on his first trip to space in a real starship. I could sense the Pilot’s emotional background: very tense. And seemingly the G-forces from the spaceship’s takeoff had nothing to do with it. San-Doon was clearly shy to be in the presence of the ruler of the First Directory and was so scared of making a bad impression on me that his knees were quavering. That must have been evidence of his experience with the previous leader, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, who was famed for his difficult character and quickness to violence. Furthermore, the copilot was very embarrassed not to know the Geckho tongue, the primary mode of communication among my crew. Now for example, all the instruments and panels at his workstation were labeled in Geckho, merely doubled in the language of the magocratic world on little plastic stickers for San-Doon to read.

I gave the copilot an encouraging shoulder pat, praised his capable operation of the frigate’s stabilizers in the dense atmosphere and asked to be put through to the Engineer on the ship’s internal communication system.

“Orun Va-Mart, I’m reminded that you said you saw the Kurimiru in the spaceport with your own eyes. Back then you said their old heap of scrap didn’t have a very nice hyperspace drive. In fact, you said theirs was utterly not up to the task, along the lines of a lawnmower engine. Could you give me an estimate for how long it will take their bucket of bolts to make it from Earth to the Kasti-Utsh system?”

In response, our fluffy-tailed Engineer gave a pained groan through the speakers, then requested that I wait until we leave orbit for an answer. The severe G-forces were making it hard for him to think. I gave a satisfied chuckle. What could I say? I guess I found a crew member who was worse at dealing with G-forces than me! Incidentally, a thought flickered by that I should check how the other first-timers were doing. And there were a whole four of them on the frigate: not only level-91 Pilot San-Doon, but also level-47 Bard Vasily Filippov, Anya the pseudo-human of unknown level and the level-105 Shocktroop T’yu-Pan. The last two didn’t worry me at all though – Constitution was a priority characteristic for the Morphian, while the muscular Shocktroop would be just fine even at the kind of forces that would turn my Gnat into a pancake.

Vasily Andreyevich Filippov also answered my internal comms request, saying that: “I feel like my arms are full of lead and there’s a sheet of cement pressing down on my chest. But still, it’s nothing worth bothering my captain about.” Fortunately, the G forces were already diminishing and it was all back to normal within three minutes. Then the artificial gravitation system turned on and made life on board the starship entirely comfortable. Almost at once, the Engineer gave me his answer:

“Captain, the drive I saw on the Kurimiru shuttle came from an old Cyanian frigate, which I estimate will take eleven ummi to jump from Earth to Kasti-Utsh.”

I mulled it over. Eleven ummi? That’s approximately sixty hours. My modern Tolili-Ukh X frigate could make the same run in just eighteen. And even if I considered that my seasoned Navigator was bringing down hyperspace jump time by a quarter, the difference still made an impression. Space technology had really come a long way in the three centuries that had passed since the Kurimiru was first constructed!

If we started now, we’d have to drift around in space doing nothing for forty hours and change, waiting for the slowpoke La-Shin faction shuttle to reach its destination. What to do with all that time? Visit the nearby trade hub Kasti-Utsh III? We really did need to make another visit to the space station. Last time, due to the abundance of Miyelonian military on the station, I was unable to meet the antiquities trader, even though I was very interested in the Relict artifacts he had purchased from the pirates.

However, the ancient artifacts of the long-vanished race cost a pretty penny, and I was already pretty hard up for cash. To be more accurate, I had basically no money at all. But then the La-Shin faction cargo shuttle came along back at the Geckho spaceport. The shuttle looked to have been assembled from parts somebody picked up at a few random scrapheaps, and had no value in and of itself. But still I was planning to capture it because, if a Dark Faction enemy had a starship, that threw a serious monkey wrench into my plans. In fact, it went so far as to threaten the established balance of power on the virtual Earth.

Now I wasn’t exactly foaming at the mouth to destroy or steal the starship (although I won’t argue, those kind of thoughts were coming to mind), but showing Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, leader of the La-Shin faction, which terrestrial faction was the big dog in outer space would come in very handy. Especially in light of the quickly approaching nonconfidence vote at the Council of Rulers in the magocratic world. I left Princess Minn-O on Earth and she assured me there was no cause for alarm – she would give a worthy speech and the mage-rulers would vote the way we wanted. But still, I wanted as many levers of influence before the important vote as I could get. After all, my position as Coruler of Humanity was on the line!



The dispatchers at the Geckho spaceport were all too eager to inform my business partner Uline Tar that the Kurimiru was making a course for the Kasti-Utsh III station. At the same time, those very same space-port employees whispered to the Geckho Trader that a human shuttle captain by the name of Mart-Ton La-Shin was inquiring about the price of rare-earth metals and large faceted gemstones out in the galaxy. In fact, he wanted to know so badly that he even paid a tidy sum to a Geckho trading agent for a print-out of current prices on the Kasti-Utsh III station. And after that, some people from the La-Shin Faction started loading heavy metal containers onto the Kurimiru shuttle and preparing it for takeoff...

The space port employees who told my business partner all these things dropped strong hints that, now that Captain Leng Gnat had reached pirate status, he might be interested in this information. Also, as if in passing, they mentioned that, under pirate law, informants are entitled to one tenth of the take. The cautious Trader made no promises to the corrupt officials, just said she’d tell her captain about the high-value goods. And what could I say? It really was very useful information. I was interested in the Kurimiru shuttle just for its own sake. But packed full of gemstones and rare-earth metals, it might actually be worth something.

At any rate, I was reserving the option of flagrant piracy for the very worst case scenario, preferring first to negotiate with shuttle captain Mart-Ton La-Shin from a position of power. Based on his name, the captain was somehow related to Coruler of Humanity Anri-Huvi La-Shin, so he could probably be used to communicate my offers and demands to the Coruler, as well as for discussing political and economic issues both in the virtual game and real world. And again to offer help selling goods at reasonable prices before the naive earthlings got taken for a ride by some streetwise junk dealer just waiting to rob them blind. But as I said before, spending forty hours and change waiting for their shuttle was an unjustified waste of time.

So then, what to do? I asked Ayukh how he was doing with his special assignment – finding the coordinates of an object in space knowing only the flight time from it to four other points in the Galaxy. To my dilettante’s eye, it seemed like a very simple task. But the Navigator was highly doubtful that it could be done at all. In his words, in real space, a straight line is practically never the optimal route between two points, and often they are filled with horrendous curves and have plenty of loops for accelerating around massive bodies. Still, such circuitous routes were the fastest way to travel. Furthermore, we had to consider the variable nature of the fabric of space, gravity extremes and the impact of displacement from other heavenly bodies on the object, which had been underway for millennia with a constantly variable but still sublight speed.

And now the Navigator spent a few minutes loading me down with professional terms and descriptions of how challenging it all was before giving his final result. Old Ayukh was very proud that he had accomplished his assignment.

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-one!

“So that means the location is about six and a half days flight with our frigate?” I asked, picking out the most important part of the Navigator’s long-winded and highly technical speech.

Old Ayukh gave a satisfied groan, turned his monitor toward me and pointed a clawed finger at a bright marker.

“Captain, my calculations point to these coordinates.”

“What’s there?” I scooted my flying armchair a bit closer, getting right up to the screen.

The gray-haired furry Navigator zoomed in the star map and read the pop-up aloud:

“The H9045/WE system. A 3FF red-dwarf star. Long-distance scanning has never shown any planets there. There is a ring-shaped dust cloud, perhaps the remnants of a destroyed comet or planetoid, but there are no large objects in it. The Meleyephatian map also contains very little information about this star system: a dim red star, a ring cloud, an asteroid belt. No data about any of the spacefaring races sending ships or search probes and, with what we know, the prognosis of finding anything is hopeless. No one has ever attempted to claim the system either.”

I winced in dismay when the gray-haired Ayukh mentioned the Meleyephatian map out loud. Although the Tailaxian girl Valeri-Urla had not installed her espionage devices here on the bridge, I still thought it better not to mention the fact that we had anything to do with the crystal drive where the map originated. After all, it was the cause of this whole big space war.

Six and a half days... I considered it. Obviously the search for the mysterious Relict base could wait for now. We had more accessible targets to fly to. The space trading hub Kasti-Utsh III for example. Although there wasn’t much for us to do there without space currency. At the very least we could fly out there to release the Morphian. The wise Vaa, who was now in the form of Anya from First Medical, wanted to get off at the first inhabited station we came across. Before parting ways, the Morphian had asked to speak with me one-on-one, without anyone else there. Vaa wanted to know everything about my interactions with Fox, and promised to tell me something interesting in order to repay me “in kind.”

However, we had some trouble finding a secluded place for a chat. My whole ship, with the exception of the bridge, was stuck full of espionage devices like a pincushion. Beastmaster Valeri-Urla had obtained my permission to place them there after being ordered to do so by her Tailaxian prison guards. And she did so with aplomb. But it was hardly possible to talk privately on the bridge either. One of the two pilots or the Navigator was always on duty, and if I was seen fraternizing with the Medic the crew would ask questions I didn’t want to answer. Furthermore, a third of the crew looked on Anya with a healthy suspicion and even hostility – she was thought to be behind the bio-weapon attack under the Dome, so her every step was scrutinized. The Morphian herself, perfectly able to read the emotions of intelligent creatures she came into contact with, realized in her first minutes on the frigate that she had made a serious mistake in her choice of human form. However, it was too late to change the human female body now – on such a small starship, the switch would not go unnoticed and would only make things worse. I told Vaa about the espionage equipment of the Meleyephatian Horde and advised the Morphian to just spend most of her time in her bunk with Uline Tar. Yes, my business partner had relinquished the bed that once belonged to Princess Minn-O La-Fin, who was back on Earth, to the new Medic girl.

Tamara wanted to be at Minn-O La-Fin’s side along with her adoptive father Roman Pavlovich. To be honest, I was hoping until the very last moment that the whole trio would be reinforcing my crew, but I read the Princess’s mood and realized she wanted to stay home and handle faction affairs. Alright then, I wasn’t planning to go dragging anyone into space, so I didn’t wait for my wife to make an embarrassed request and offered to let Minn-O stay on my own. Furthermore, I declared the Princess my “senior wife.” It would be better that way – my wife was expecting a child and risky adventures in space as a “travelling wife” were medically unwise. Furthermore, if my chat with the Kurimiru shuttle captain didn’t go smoothly for some reason, Princess Minn-O could serve as an alternate channel for communication with Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin.

I shuddered and turned my head, coming back to reality. The crew was still awaiting their captain’s decision about where to take the newly remodeled frigate. Okay then...

“Dmitry, for starters let’s take a couple loops around the planet and test all the on-board systems before our long-distance flight. And most importantly, we can finally make a complete map of the virtual Earth with all its continents, seas and archipelagos. I’m sure it will be appreciated. The terrestrial factions are probably sick of ‘playing Civilization’ and blindly probing into the darkness to discover new territories. I’ll set the ship scanners to search for energy and heat sources so we can add all inhabited nodes to the map as well. Then...”

I turned the spinning chair toward the Navigator and asked whether he still had the coordinates of the platinum mine we discovered way back with Captain Uraz Tukhsh. I had it all saved on my old Prospector Scanner, but then I had to give it up to the Great Priestess of the Miyelonians along with the data it contained. In theory, I could have gone and found the same asteroid again by reusing the same settings on the ship’s scanning systems, but what if there was an easier way?

“Yes, Captain Gnat. I have everything saved.”

“Great! Then right after we compose a map of the planet, let’s fly there! If the rich platinum vein is not being worked, we can sell its coordinates to some asteroid miners from the Geckho rolls. I bet we’ll earn one hundred thousand crystals at the very least, easy money. Plus, if there is another Meleyephatian mining facility there,” I said with a predatory grin, “we’ll have to teach the smuggler another lesson. He can’t go around being so disrespectful. This is beyond the pale!”


Chapter Two. Platinum Mine

I STOPPED THE STARSHIP PILOT, who was about to start the frigate on its next loop around the planet to pass over a strip of previously undiscovered nodes:

“Okay, Dmitry, that’s enough! This planet’s geography is not all that complex, let’s not waste time coloring in the last few dark islands. We have bigger things to attend to.”

In fact, all that remained were a few undiscovered regions outside the range of the Tolili-Ukh X’s scanning systems, but the map was ninety percent complete. What was more, I didn’t see even a remote resemblance between the virtual planet and the real Earth. This one had two continents, one of which was gigantic and occupied practically half the surface of the planet. Something of a Gondwana. The second was seven times smaller and its shape was distantly reminiscent of a waning half-moon. But that was the one where the Geckho spaceport and all the factions I knew were located: Relict, Human-3, Human-6 and La-Fin. I was more interested in the small continent than the huge one, and I ordered the pilot to pass over it two times to get a more complete picture of our closest neighbors’ lands.

We were quickly able to identify the Chinese Human-1 Faction because I already had a vague where it was. Based on the lights and energy sources, the Chinese faction had at the very least nine nodes, although their further expansion was impeded by the ocean on one side and a range of impassable snow-capped mountains on the other. However I did see that they had a navy. And their numerous transport ships spoke to an established connection with overseas territories.

I also knew the coordinates of the La-Varrez faction’s hexagons, and was able to get a very good look at them from space. But what had me most interested was not even in the capital hexagon, which had been rebuilt since our attack – they had a structure on a little platform encircled by tall mountains that looked just far too much like a space port. At the very least, I saw a two-mile long landing strip, hangars, shipyards, a dispatcher’s tower and even an electromagnetic catapult. Based on all that, the darksiders were having problems with underpowered booster engines, so they were using other methods to try and get the heavy starship into orbit. I saw the aftermath of a fire and a scattering of singed ship fragments. Seemingly a prior attempted takeoff ended in catastrophe. In any case, it looked very much like the Dark Faction was preparing for a space race in secret and building its own starship.

The big continent then was populated by a plethora of factions – I saw hotbeds of development chaotically strewn in patchy strips through the endless virgin forests and thousand-mile swamps of the virtual Gondwana. It was impossible to tell which faction was behind which island of civilization from orbit, but I was planning to take a closer look when I got back from space. After all, we had to make contact with all of them, regardless of which world they hailed from!

Another consequence of studying the virtual Earth from orbit was that my Scanning, Cartography, Electronics and even Eagle Eye skills were levelling rapidly. In fact, my Gnat hit level 86 overall. And though the skill growth was unambiguously good news, the fact my character only leveled up once came as a slight disappointment because I was hoping for more. From time to time, I still looked back fondly the hour-and-a-half-long survey expedition I took on high-speed antigrav through the Human-3 Faction territories just after I started. I leveled up five times in that relatively short trip. But now, mapping out a whole planet was only enough for +1...

I had to admit the bitter truth that my days of fast and easy levelling were behind me and wouldn’t be coming back. Now every new level would be coming harder than the last. Nevertheless, when I looked at the game-menu window that showed Gnat’s information, I felt a distinct twinge of pride:

Leng Gnat. Human. Relict Faction.

Level-86 Listener

Statistics:

Strength

14

Agility

18

Intelligence

33 +5

Perception

29 + 2

Constitution

17

Luck modifier

+3

Drones

2

Parameters:

Hitpoints

1958 of 1958

Endurance points

1385 of 1430

Magic points

1388 of 1612

Carrying capacity

62 lbs.

Fame

75

Authority

63

Skills:

Electronics

80

Scanning

56

Cartography

77

Astrolinguistics

91

Rifles

57

Mineralogy

56

Medium Armor

60

Eagle Eye

82

Sharpshooter

42

Targeting

37

Danger Sense

63

Psionic

89

Mental Fortitude

97

Machine Control

91

Mysticism

43

Attention!!! You have three unspent skill points.

I had been actively using Magic and Endurance points during the scan and controlling the ship systems, so they hadn’t yet gone back up to max. But disregarding that minor hiccup, my character was coming together beautifully. I had laid a great groundwork for the character I wanted to become: a terrifying psionic mage with a slant toward mental control of technological systems of any and all kinds. I had also dug around in the game menu and added “Authority” and “Drones” figures to my basic character sheet. They were switched off by default because the vast majority of players never used them, but thankfully it was customizable. And while digging around in the interface, I saw a number of other disabled parameters that caught my eye, like: “Pet limit,” “Immunity to damage time,” “Invisibility sphere radius,” and even “Sex-change cycle duration.” So all those things must have applied to some classes and races in the game.

And what could I say about levelling Gnat’s skills? I was still quite far from what the First Legion required, main skills at least one and a half times higher than level. But my psionic abilities had broken away from the pack and were quickly gaining ground. Astrolinguistics and Cartography weren’t too far behind either because my gameplay style made active use of them. I also had a plan to level Scanning quickly. To that end I had a whole hundred geological analyzers in the hold awaiting their hour. Speaking of that... I might get the chance to use a couple of them very soon.

“Navigator, give the pilots the coordinates of the asteroid with the platinum mine!” I asked Ayukh. Then I was getting ready to leave the bridge because I had nothing else to do there for the next three to four hours but, suddenly, the frigate started spinning clockwise on its front to back axis. I even had to grab for the edge of the instrument panel so I wouldn’t fall over.

My dismay must have been distinctly reflected on my face, because both pilots shot out in concert in different languages:

“Captain, that was not my fault!”

Both were pointing at their counterpart as the source of the vexing error. I demanded an explanation first from main Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov.

“Captain, if you’re looking for specifics, the Tolili-Ukh X’s third and fourth maneuver thrusters, which are quite challenging to control, have engaged in a right-left turn. And the first and second, which govern vertical pitch, had already been activated. If you release these levers here, the frigate goes into spin mode. And I don’t have enough hands to manipulate all our thrusters at the same time, especially when I also need to break the main at the same time. After all, our frigate is of Meleyephatian design, and their race has twice the limbs of a human. When I was alone at the helm, I put linear movement on autopilot and just controlled left-right and up-down. But that is inconvenient and takes too much time, which became especially clear in aerial combat. So San-Doon and I agreed to split the load. But we must have had a communication breakdown – my copilot jumped the gun and started a right turn before I gave the command... It’s definitely his fault!”

The copilot gave approximately the same story, but he thought the spontaneous spin-out was Dmitry Zheltov’s fault. The main pilot, in San-Doon’s words, was supposed to be responsible for the main starship control parameters and stay out of the copilot’s hair after giving corrections on pitch angle, banking and yaw. San-Doon even worked up the courage to ask the head of the First Directory to appoint him main pilot because he had twice the seniority and with his “thirty years in aviation,” was more experienced than the recent Space Military Academy graduate.

And although San-Doon was complaining in the language of his magocratic world, Dmitry Zheltov surprisingly understood him and was sincerely outraged:

“Let’s just see which of us is more experienced when it comes to piloting space vehicles! I have dozens of hours of real flight and even a few combat take-offs, as well as hundreds of hours on training simulators in the Academy!”

A serious conflict was brewing between the two respectable pilots, so I had to put a stop to it. I even give a little magical nudge to put out the spark:

“What is this I hear?! Two members of my crew are having a pissing contest! Okay, might as well just drop trou and take out a measuring tape!!! This is just embarrassing! It makes no difference to me how you share responsibilities but, by the time the frigate reaches the asteroid belts, there better not be any more unplanned spin-outs! Otherwise I’ll have you both locked in your berths until the end of the flight and take over piloting myself! Got it? Good. I’m going to send you both to Gerd Ayni the Translator. She’s a very capable Miyelonian and has already learned Russian and the language of the magocratic world, so she’ll be able to help you communicate.”

Psionic skill increased to level ninety!

I poured Magic Points so generously into my emotional send-up, that my mana was just about down to zero. But still, it worked on both pilots and then some! They both assured me they could find a way to be better coordinated professionally and that there would not be any more friction between them! If that was so, then good.

Back in a normal tone, I told San-Doon not to worry about his linguistic isolation. Gerd Ayni the Translator would be giving daily Geckho lessons for new crew, of which we had four, as well as any other takers. And I didn’t make an exception for “Anya from First Medical” either. Let the Morphian sit out the required hours in lessons rather than me thinking up some plausible explanation for how an earthling managed to learn an alien language over the few brief conversations she’d supposedly had with Kosta Dykhsh.

Feeling like my duty was done, I called up Ayni and told the cute orange kitty her mission. And although studying the language was not officially required, it would be a clear boon to those who wished to remain part of my crew.

* * *

From twenty miles away, the large dark asteroid looked entirely featureless. There wasn’t a single crack on its smooth surface, nor even craters from collisions with meteorites or other celestial bodies. Just over a mile long and pear-shaped, it was composed of mixed silicates of iron and nickel. One side was practically flat, as if someone took a giant knife to the cosmic fruit and cut off a slice.

“Captain, that is definitely the asteroid! Or rather its largest remaining part of it,” the gray Navigator compared his records again and confirmed. “The trajectory just shifted. It seems to have collided with another massive body.”

Looking at the data from the locator, I shook my head in doubt:

“It doesn’t look much like a collision. If that was the case, there would be debris and dust scattered around. Also, where is the other ball in this game of cosmic billiards?”

I played around with the settings on my ship scanning systems, adding filters for density, radioactivity, albedo and other commonplace parameters to take neighboring objects out of my three-dimensional model of the pear-shaped asteroid. Yes, this was the very same fire-kissed rock where we had once found a covert automated facility for harvesting precious metals. However, before us now was an utterly nondescript space rock, looking like hundreds of thousands others in this asteroid field. And the dimensions, density, and other parameters of the asteroid all fell within average ranges. If we were coming across it now for the first time, we’d have flown right past without even noticing.

“Yes, I recognize that fire-pocked stone. But a significant part of it has broken off, somewhere around a quarter of a cubic mile. But there was no asteroid collision. This was something entirely different: a nuclear blast!”

The scanner’s radioactivity filter had in fact picked up clear traces of heavy transuranium elements on the flame-swept shard, the kind that theoretically should not have been there. Superheavy atoms only come into being through nuclear fusion, have a short half-life and quickly disintegrate, so they are never found in nature. But there were transuranium elements here, and the only explanation I could see was that someone had cloven the valuable asteroid with a nuclear explosion to quickly reach the platinum in its core. And that same someone must have changed the shape of the huge stone and its flight trajectory, perhaps intentionally so the intruders that discovered and pilfered their automatic mining setup before would lose track of it among the millions of identical ones nearby. And they very nearly got away with it – if we’d have come a month later, we would never have been able to find this thing.

“I don’t see signs of any mining tech,” I admitted, myself very surprised. “I am unable to find the automatic rigs or any other large metal objects by scanning or visual survey. But we left a ton of equipment behind last time! There was an automatic ore enrichment plant, drilling equipment, heavy loaders and lots of other valuable items Captain Uraz Tukhsh was not able to fit in his little Shiamiru shuttle.”

“Maybe the illegal miners finished up and took their equipment with them?” Uline Tar suggested, also staring wide-eyed at the familiar asteroid.

We already knew that no Free Captains had approached the administration of Earth’s spaceport for a license to harvest platinum on asteroids in our Solar System., so Uline was perfectly justified in calling the owners of the automatic equipment illegal miners.

“But if they were planning on packing up shop, why blast the huge asteroid to smithereens with a nuclear explosion? And before that why waste a bunch of power drilling down and setting charges? No, I think this was something totally different. They wanted to ramp up their business and get to the richer veins so they could harvest as much platinum as they could as quickly as possible.”

My business partner winced her furry face, making an expression of severe doubt:

“After their equipment was stolen? That’s somehow hard to believe...”

“Yeah, they don’t give a damn about the theft! Even at the pace they were mining before, they could recoup what they lost on the mining equipment in a couple days. And working even faster, they could afford to lose that much just about every day no problem. Uline, there are hundreds if not thousands of tons of platinum here and extracting all the treasure would take more than one tong. All those riches must still be inside the asteroid, so the illegal miners won’t have gone anywhere. They must just be hiding...”

My business partner’s eyes glimmered when I mentioned the quantity of precious metal contained inside the space rock. Uline Tar switched on her palmtop, quickly made a couple quick calculations and groaned in satisfaction.

“Seven hundred million crystals at least. I certainly wouldn’t abandon something like that. In fact, if I had a way, I’d have bought up around fifty automatic mining rigs and kept them under guard until they’d scraped everything of value from the bowels of this asteroid.”

“So what are we going to do, Captain?” Dmitry Zheltov cut into my conversation with Uline, himself bored in the pilot’s seat, not yet having heard clear instructions about where to go.

I brought up a three-dimensional diagram of the asteroid on the monitor and remarked:

“Here is where we landed the Shiamiru last time. But there was no valuable ore nearby, so Uline and I took a flying board to approximately here, which is where we found the mining setup. We could land there again, but I think there are more promising locations to try,” I said, placing another marker on the recently formed cleavage of the heavenly body. “I suggest we land the frigate somewhere around here. We can run a scan and see ores that were previously out of reach. That will help clear up how much precious metal this thing contains. And if the illegal miners are still at it, they’ll have hidden their equipment somewhere nearby.”

The Tolili-Ukh X frigate slowly lurched into motion, tapering into a spiral as it neared the asteroid. Nine miles. Eight. Seven...

Successful Perception check!

I noticed some movement on the surface of the heavenly body, immediately pointed the camera at it and zoomed in the image as far as possible. Well, well! A rectangular roof colored to match the surrounding landscape slid aside, revealing a long shaft below. Something unrecognizable with many legs crawled out onto the surface of the asteroid. It seemed to be alive. Only when the strange creature crawled all the way out and deployed itself, pointing its six barrels upwards, was I finally able to identify the threat:

TT-67A Immolator. Automatic high-speed plasma turret.

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-four!

Strange that my threat-warning skill hadn’t piped up before but, in any case, we had to act right away! I cried out in a voice not my own:

“Dmitry, full speed ahead! Combat alert!!! Dodge the incoming fire!!!”

The experienced Starship Pilot reacted instantly and jerked the helm toward himself. At the same time, San-Doon started a dodging maneuver and increased power to the frontal shield. The frigate called back with an unhappy grinding of its fuselage, reacting to the crude treatment of its space-age technology. The siren wailed; the emergency light flickered alarmingly on the instrument panel – something just broke.

However, for the most part, the fan of bright red lines sailed past our ship. Just a few landed on our energy shield, bringing it down eleven percent. But it wasn’t the only automatic turret. I could see more many-legged dangerous robots being hauled out onto the surface in another few spots from hatches opening to the surface. And they immediately started strafing the offending ship. We took another few hits but, fortunately, a few seconds later, the frigate was closer to the asteroid and out of range of the turrets.

“Plasma cannons practically point blank... It’s a miracle we survived!” Ayukh wiped the perspiration from his brow. I never knew it before, but Geckho sweat when anxious, just like people.

“For anyone still wondering if the illegal platinum miners are still on the asteroid, there’s your answer!” Uline Tar barked nervously and turned to me: “As you see, Leng Gnat, the location is occupied and the smugglers are well prepared to defend themselves. What should we do? Fly away?”

Fly away? I was surprised to hear my business partner make such a foolish suggestion. Now, with proof positive that the illegal platinum miners were still active on the asteroid, flying away would have been a downright bizarre move on our part. Yes, we’d have to fight the platinum mine’s automatic defenses, but that just meant the end reward would be all the more worth our while!

“Dmitry, land the starship on the first marker I placed. And you, Uline, better see how much we can sell those five automatic TT-67A Immolators for.”


Chapter Three. Big Brazen

“SO THEN, CREW, listen up!” I called out to everyone in the frigate’s common room. “Be on heightened alert. No one is to leave the game. Uline Tar, Eduard Boyko, Dmitry Zheltov, Gerd Ayni Uri-Miayuu and Tini will be coming outside with me. Ayukh and San-Doon are to stay on the bridge. Everyone else follow the orders of Supercargo Avan Toi. He’ll tell you what help is needed to clear out the cargo hold and make room for trophies as fast as possible.”

The sullen Supercargo gave an important nod and took most of the crew with him down to the lower deck. The only crew member I explicitly did not include was the spiny Jarg – trying to get him to help with loading and unloading made about as much sense as trying to get milk from a bull. I then turned to the five players coming out with me:

“Let’s check our space suits, then fill our air tanks to the brim. We’ll leave through the front airlock so we don’t get in the others’ way. We have two levitators, so one is gonna need to take three riders. Uline Tar will pilot that one, Dmitry Zheltov the other. As soon as we leave the ship, make sure to clip on your tethers. Outside the artificial gravitation zone around the frigate, there are virtually no attractive forces, so try not to fly off the asteroid. The last thing we need is to go around scooping up crew floating helplessly through space.”

“Captain, will magnetic soles work here?” Eduard asked, alarmed and still not having worked on the surface of a small body in space.

I reassured the Space Commando that this asteroid was composed mostly of iron-bearing ores, so the magnetic soles of a space suit would work here just fine, automatically sensing every time a foot started down and switching on. At the very least, we had no problems with them last time.

“Let’s split up into two groups and fly along the cleavage of the asteroid. Maintain extreme caution – keep radio communication to a minimum and stay behind cover. Try not to stick out or attract the attention from the security systems. Our goal is to find a good platform for a gravity crane, maybe even a few on different sides of the cleavage. Avan Toi and the other crew members are unloading our crane from the hold right now, so let’s step to.”

Based on my distance estimates, the gravitation crane would easily be close enough to grab the six-barreled plasma turrets one after the other and bring them closer while leaving the hazardous security systems outside our direct line of sight. And from there, it would all be simple: when the Immolators got within range, I was planning to deactivate them with Machine Control. After that, we’d just have to fold up the robots nice and compact, then load them into the cargo hold. Then after all the illegal miners’ security systems were disarmed, we could start packing up the mining equipment. I suspected they were now mining from inside the asteroid, and that we would find a tunnel entrance somewhere in the middle of the circle formed by the five plasma turrets.

Yes, certain complications could arise if the robot guards went back inside burrows. If they did that, we’d have to somehow bait them out before capturing them with the crane, but that didn’t seem all too difficult, so I wasn’t especially worried.

“What’s on your mind, Jarg?”

The spiny Analyst had been trying to draw my attention for a minute already, blowing himself up to a dangerous practically balloon-like state, then deflating himself again. After I gave him permission to speak, the Jarg put the Universal Translator around his neck and told me what had him so worried:

“Big brazen smuggler. Very strange. So confident in alien territory. Must understand. Knowledge. Who enemy. Maybe. Dangerous. More trouble than worth.”

Uhh... It wasn’t hard to understand what the Analyst was driving at. He was suggesting I weigh all the risks before acting. What could I say? He was right. We really did have no idea who we were dealing with or who owned this whole mining complex. There could be no doubt they were rich. Compensating losses with such ease and reinforcing security was something only a player with a fortune in the millions could afford. Furthermore, they probably had established connections with traders and the administration of nearby space stations and planets, given they were mining large quantities of platinum and other precious metals without drawing unwanted attention. So it was a distinct possibility this “big brazen smuggler” was some very influential and powerful figure. I asked the crew members what they thought about the illegal miner’s identity.

“I mean, what difference does it make?” Dmitry Zheltov asked in surprise. “No matter who it is, they’re breaking the law by mining precious metal without the proper license or paying taxes to the owners of the star system. So we’re doing a good deed, punishing a flagrant idiot. What’s more, they will have no way of finding out who we are, much less finding us!”

“Not quite, human. It could make a difference, a big one in fact!” my ward Tini unexpectedly jumped in. “It’s one thing if it’s some unknown Free Captain to mine platinum at their own peril. But it’s another thing entirely if the Pride of the Bushy Shadow, or the Agile Paw or some other violent group is behind the illegal enterprise. For my part, I wasn’t a member of the Bushy Shadow for very long, but I can say for sure that the pride has secret operations to mine precious metal in lots of star systems. And tussling with them will land you in hot water! But it could be even worse if a flagrant criminal organization like the Hive of Tintara is behind this mine.” When the Miyelonian adolescent mentioned that organization, his ears laid back. “Their invisible web weaves through almost half the galaxy. Such serious players really do not appreciate being messed with. They especially dislike when someone tries to take their things. They dislike it so much that they hire headhunters. And not just in the game, in the real world too!”

“Calm down Tini. The Hive of Tintara has nothing to do with this,” the Trader interrupted the Miyelonian teen’s groaning, seemingly having heard about the organization and its gloomy reputation before. “Every facility that belongs to the Hive of Tintara is marked with an easily identifiable warning symbol,” the furry Geckho lady said, drawing a series of whimsically intersecting strokes in the air with her paw.

“That is the Trillian symbol for ‘Execution,’“ said Gerd Ayni.

“And there was nothing of the sort on the automatic equipment we took from here last time with Captain Uraz Tukhsh!”

After Uline said that, Tini and Ayni noticeably brightened up. They were clearly afraid to tangle with the Hive of Tintara. My mind started to wander though. I was hearing about the Hive of Tintara for the first time, but it was seemingly a very famous mafia gang, and even pirate prides were afraid to cross them. That made me think of the Trillian merchant Ussh Veesh in a different light. He was free to visit the pirate station Medu-Ro IV and I had bought him some magical jewelry there. In fact, if memory served, that very symbol for “Execution” was engraved on the space crocodile’s breastplate.

But I was well acquainted with the Prides of the Agile Paw and Bushy Shadow. And it was highly unlikely the mine belonged to the Agile Paw. That gang was headed by the casino owner on Medu-Ro IV and had only gotten into the precious metal business a month ago. And they didn’t even know about the Solar System back then. But I wouldn’t say no to giving the Pride of the Bushy Shadow another pinch on the cheek. Maybe make it even more painful this time so the pirates would learn not to mess with me!

So I voiced my decision:

“Plans stay the same. As long as we don’t see the symbol of the Hive of Tintara... And if we do, the plans still don’t get called off! Have you checked your space suits? Great! Then let’s put them on and get out there!”

Authority increased to 64!

We ran into a little problem at the airlock: Uline Tar and Eduard Boyko were first into the decompression chamber and, in their hulking armored space suits, the two of them took up almost the whole thing. Only the Starship Pilot was able to somehow fit with them. The others had to wait for round two. And who could have predicted that such a purely technical issue would have such a profound influence on the course of events?

A frightened scream from Uline Tar rang out instantly in my headphones, after which the icons of all three characters went dim in the group interface. Did they die?! What happened out there??? To make matters worse, “Anya” then shouted fearfully:

“Captain, enemies just outside the ship!!! Avan Toi’s group has been massacred. The only survivors were me and Denni Marko!!! We lost the gravity crane and heavy loader!”

* * *

What a sticky situation! Mere moments after we landed, we’d already lost two thirds of our crew... I ran as fast as I could to the bridge of the ship so I could take a look around with the external cameras. In the meantime, I activated my Scanning skill and even whistled when it gave a result – the huge multiple-legged mechanical robots were no more than ten feet from our unmoving frigate traipsing around and examining the dead bodies of my crew! The Immolators weren’t hiding in their burrows as I thought. Quite the opposite. They had run to where our ship landed and greeted the players exiting the frigate with fire from their plasma turrets.

I flew onto the bridge, throwing open the doors noisily. A sense of despair and dismay reigned. San-Doon had turned on the inactive monitors but it was too late. Ayukh meanwhile could only stand pointlessly in the middle of the room looking lost.

“Leng Gnat, the enemies appeared so fast that we weren’t even able to warn anyone,” the gray Navigator justified himself, lowering his head in shame just like a person. “We noticed the movement on the monitor too late. And as bad luck would have it, I cut power to most of the equipment here on the bridge to give the Kirsan repair bots a chance to fix the analyzer structures damaged by the plasma fire. So when we were attacked, the motion detectors and most of the external cameras were off... It’s all my fault, captain!”

Alright, what the heck... I just waved a hand because I also felt like this was my fault. Was it really so hard to guess that the mobile guard robots would want to come check on their target after it got out of range?! And I mean, the distance here was miniscule – less than a mile!

And meanwhile the five robots had finished examining the dead bodies, even finishing one of them off with a point-blank shot. Then they all went in different directions turned and froze, pointing their plasma cannons at the frigate. I started tensing up in fear, figuring the starship was about to be destroyed, then I would die. But no shots were fired.

“Why are they not attacking?” San-Doon asked about a minute later, his eyes also fixated on the image from the external cameras and watching the fearsome titans glinting in the rays of the bright sun. All five of the Immolators were still there and holding the Tolili-Ukh X in the sights of their thirty barrels.

I came up with an answer to the Pilot’s question:

“They think they took everyone down and now they’re simply standing guard over their prey and waiting for their masters. Either that or they’re confident we have no way of escaping their trap and flying away. In any case, there’s no sense in them shooting because an undamaged frigate has a significantly higher value than a pile of debris. For now. I’m sure that if we try to turn on thrusters or activate turrets, we will be annihilated in an instant.”

I repeated the last sentence two times, the second especially for Denni Marko, who was in the gunner’s seat. After that, Denni hastily pulled his hand away from the firing control system in fear and confirmed that he was not going to do anything without an order from his captain.

The situation was really coming together unpleasantly. But it wasn’t altogether hopeless. I waited for the Scanning ability to reload and activated it again, watching the marker that appeared on the mini-map with curiosity:

Immolator. Meleyephatian automated security complex. Chance of making inoperable 67%. Total control chance 51%.

Not bad at all – my chances of taking control of one enemy robot was over half! And of course, I tried to do so immediately.

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-one!

Machine Control skill increased to level ninety-two!

Before I could even start to celebrate, though, the other four Immolators instantly turned and destroyed their mutinous counterpart! Damn!!! One hundred sixty thousand crystals out the window.

You have reached level eighty-seven!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six).

Well, at least the game system generously rewarded my Gnat with experience for destroying the huge dangerous robot. The level-up slightly mitigated the bitter pill of disappointment. But Uline Tar wouldn’t be too happy. My furry friend already basically considered the Immolators our property and had even begun looking for a buyer. Oh well, it would be a lesson for the future: never count your chickens before they hatch.

I suspect that if I had simply turned off the robot, the result would have been similar – one of the Immolators acting strange would not have gone unnoticed and the others would have taken measures. No, I needed to try something a bit different... I took out my Prospector Scanner and a geological analyzer.

“Ayukh, cut power to the frigate! The defensive shield won’t be able to help us if the robots decide to attack anyway. And better to sit a bit in the dark than having to change out a bunch of fried electronics later!”

While the Navigator carried out his unusual assignment, I set my device to give an electromagnetic pulse at maximum power. And once the frigate’s interior was submerged in darkness, I activated a metal tripod.

Scanning skill increased to level fifty-seven!

Done! I looked at the results of the scan and saw four inactive Immolators with their limbs splayed out in contorted poses. Great! I should have done that right away! I ordered Ayukh to turn on the power again, then asked the experienced Navigator whether he could reprogram the guard robots so they wouldn’t attack us when turned back on.

“No, captain, I cannot. I don’t have either the experience or skills necessary to do that. You’ll have to ask Vasha and Basha. They’re both Heavy Robot Operators and are actually specialized in setup and control. But I can fold them up and load them into the hold. It won’t be hard at all. And just in case, I’ll disconnect the Immolators’ lead terminals from their power units.”

“Better have Denni Marko and Gerd Ayni do that. You have a more important job to do: go into the real world and get in touch with Uline, Avan Toi and Vasha and Basha. Do you still have their contact information? Okay, great! Find out where they set their respawn points. If they’re on the Kasti-Utsh III station, have them stay there and wait for us. If they changed them to Earth... Well, we’ll have to think up another way out. It’s too risky to land the starship on a massive planet without an experienced Starship Pilot. Although...” I turned to San-Doon, who was listening in but not understanding much. “This could be our Copilot’s chance to prove his mettle!”

* * *

“Master Gnat, I got it open!” Tini, impossibly satisfied, disconnected the code breaker’s interface cable from the panel of a massive ceramic-composite door that was blocking our path into the tunnel just a few seconds earlier.

I watched the two-foot-thick barrier slide into a wall slot then saw a cloud of ultra-fine dust flood out of the tunnel. By the looks of things, there was still some air inside the asteroid before we opened the external door. Watching the dust slowly settle and disperse, my gaze caught on an opaque distortion dome that flowed with all the colors of the rainbow – yes, the entrance to the underground complex was hidden behind active camouflage. After that, I read my ward’s information as he picked up his tools:

Tini Wi-Gnat. Miyelonian. Relict Faction. Level-90 Thief.

Ninety??? When did the clever little thief overtake me in level? I didn’t even notice. Though I had to admit that the Miyelonian youngster was using his main skills constantly. He seemed to be having an easier and easier time breaking down doors and turning off security systems. And the kitten’s confidence was noticeably improving alongside his abilities. He was already bold enough to jump into conversations with adults and voice his opinion. I praised my capable ward, turned my forehead light a bit brighter, then walked first into the tunnel, which led deep into the asteroid. However, it turned out to be quite short and ended in a cave packed full of all kinds of technology.

I even whistled in surprised delight. We had come to the right place! A nuclear generator. Two drilling installations. Six, no, a whole eight automatic mining rigs, and with them three enrichment plants. Several heavy all-terrain loaders. Storage was filled with metal containers ready for shipment. I opened the first container I came across and pointed my flashlight inside. Wow!!! The box was filled to the brim with platinum sponge! And there were fifteen others just like it!!! We just solved all our financial problems!!!

For the next half hour, along with the two Miyelonians, I walked between rows of active automatic mining rigs, which gave off a slight vibrating hum. I peered into huge vats of acid where chemical processes were separating inert platinum from other metals. One after the other, I opened the boxes of enriched metal and a blissful smile spread across my face from ear to ear.

I strongly reconsidered hauling away all the valuable equipment. We’d take the ore that was ready to sell, of course. We’d even take one loader on the frigate to replace the one we lost. But all these mining rigs, the nuclear power unit, the camouflage dome and enrichment plant we’d leave in working order. Let them keep doing their thing, just for me and my crew instead! In the real world, Ayukh could get in touch with Uline Tar, who was most experienced in these matters, and the Trader would get us platinum mining rights through all the proper channels. After that, defending the mine would fall on the shoulders of the official Geckho authorities.

Although... As far as I understood the apathetic and lazy Geckho administration, they wouldn’t lift a finger unless we provided the proper stimulus. No, we had to try a different tactic. For example, offer a share of the mining enterprise to Viceroy of Earth Kosta Dykhsh. We could offer the representative of the suzerains a third of the income from selling the platinum in return for protecting the mine! As far as I knew the viceroy’s character, he would find the funds for space security if it meant personal gain. He would even place a sizable garrison right here on the asteroid. That really was a promising idea. The illegal platinum miner, no matter who they may have been, would most likely not want to tangle with official authorities or Geckho troopers!

All that remained now was to make sure the secret of our discovery wouldn’t get out. I crouched down to make my height match the Miyelonians, and set the armored gloves of my space-suit onto my companions’ shoulders. I saw that both crew members were listening to me carefully, so I started pouring a generous amount of Magic Points into each sentence I spoke:

“Ayni, Tini, no one outside of our crew can find out about this! It’s very important! Our future depends on it! Uline and I need time to become the legal owners of all this equipment, and the less players know about it, the higher our chance of keeping it all in one piece. So no matter how badly you might want to boast about your achievements, not a word to anyone! And that especially goes for you, Tini. You know what I’m talking about.”

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-two!

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-two!

After a five-second delay, the kitten gave a nod. Loyalty to his captain and excitement at the chance of a big score outweighed his loyalty to the Great Priestess of the Miyelonian race, whom the kitten was still sending regular reports to about the voyages of the Listener Leng Gnat. Then Tini bared his little teeth, unable to contain his joy:

“Just think, the ‘big brazen mine owner,’ the Jarg mentioned earlier is now my captain!”

Gerd Ayni also snorted in satisfaction and confirmed that she would keep quiet. Just great!

“Then come help me carry these boxes! We’ll bring them on the frigate together with the loader. I don’t see any reason to stay on this asteroid longer than we need to. As soon as we have it all loaded up, let’s take off!”


Chapter Four. Getting a Team Together

SECURITY DID NOTHING to impede my entry to the Dome administration building. Although I was seeing most of the armed people for the first time, they clearly knew me because they all fell into a respectful silence when they saw me coming. And my sensitive hearing caught a heated exchange of whispers behind me: “There he is, the Gnat!” I’m not sure what kind of drivel the Dome residents were filling the heads of the “outside” security with, but I could hear respect and admiration in their voices. I walked down the corridor, opened the door to Ivan Lozovsky’s office and six pairs of eyes immediately fixated on me. I could read confusion, perturbation and even a certain measure of fear on their faces. It looked like they were frankly just not expecting me to show up.

“Gnat?” Lozovsky asked, not trying to hide his surprise.

I have to admit, I was also surprised. Although I expected to see Human-3 security director Alexander Antipov, encountering members of my crew in the office caught me off guard. And that included Dmitry Zheltov and Vasily Filippov, but also Imran and Eduard Boyko, who weren’t even tangentially related to directorship positions. All four of them were already in the Relict Faction, so Lozovsky had no authority over them. Nevertheless, after their characters died on the asteroid, they had all run over to see him.

“What, Kirill, did your picture-perfect fairytale finally come to an end? I heard your starship got taken out in the asteroid belt,” I could hear a distinct measure of schadenfreude in Ivan Lozovsky’s voice as he sat back stately in his armchair. “And if the council of mages in the parallel world also votes to depose you, what of your former accomplishments will you even have left? Nothing more than a wet fart. Even your closest allies already know that,” the director pointed at all the members of Team Gnat in his office.

The mask of respect and politeness I was accustomed to seeing on the face of the leader of the Human-3 Faction finally dropped. Ivan Lozovsky considered me well and truly beaten, so he figured there was no more reason to put on airs. Okay, I’d keep this in mind for the future...

I’ll admit, until that very moment, I was going to tell the Dome directors what happened on the asteroid, and inform them about the valuable trophies I captured and my plans for the future. I also wanted to share a map of the virtual planet with my former faction, blueprints for the mobile security robots, and perhaps even a share of the profits from the platinum mine. And why not? It could solve the Human-3 Faction’s severe deficit of space currency, and allow humanity as a whole to develop faster. But after such flagrant boorishness on the faction leader’s part and his jeering mockery of my supposed failures, I had an abrupt change of mind. I already had my own faction, so I’d keep my funds and spend them on my projects! Still I didn’t respond to Ivan Lozovsky’s rude line of questioning, instead turning to the members of my crew:

“All the Geckho in the crew, all the Miyelonians and those from the other branches of humanity remained loyal to their captain and faction leader. So I find it very frustrating and surprising that only the natives of my own homeworld tucked their tails between their legs and ran back to their former leaders at the first sign of trouble, doing their best to curry some long-overdue favor!”

Three of the crew lowered their heads dejectedly when I hit them with a heavy gaze, feeling that my criticism was fair. But Eduard Boyko jumped ardently to his own defense:

“Captain, you are wrong! I have remained loyal to you through and through! I’m not here for any untoward reason! It’s just that the Dome director summoned the frigate crew here to tell him about the disaster on the asteroid and I came along. Also...” the muscle-bound redhead hesitated for some reason, and his sentence was finished by Imran the Dagestani:

“We also had a conference and decided to come clean about the fact you are hiding the wanted runaway Anna in our crew. It seemed wrong to keep that from our comrades, who that no good hussy tried to kill in cold blood! I still can’t forget the look in Irina Chuskovkina’s eyes while she died in my arms! Kirill, I was always on your side and I still am, but I just couldn’t keep quiet about Anna. It would have been a disgrace and dishonor to my name!”

I took a deep sigh, covered my eyes and slowly counted to ten, trying to calm myself down and not say anything I might come to regret.

“With all due respect, friends, what could you possibly have had to say about the events on the asteroid? You all died one second after the external hatches were opened! And furthermore, what could you possibly know about Anna being in our crew? For your information, the real Anna is still in the care of Earth’s Geckho Viceroy, Kosta Dykhsh. She is staying in a residential building not far from the spaceport where other humans are not allowed.”

“Is that so? Very interesting...” came Antipov the fed, first to fill the lingering void of silence. “But then who was on your ship when it left Earth, Kirill?”

I just shrugged my shoulders because I didn’t really know:

“I can only say that it is an entity by the name of Vaa and that, two hundred years ago, it was already considered old and wise. Most likely, it is a Morphian of some unfathomably high level. Anyway, it has never been shown as a Morphian in my scans, even though it has fallen inside my scanning radius a number of times. My Prospector Scanner couldn’t clearly identify the entity either, twice giving bizarre responses... Very strange... anyway, it doesn’t matter. Much more important is that the monster terrorizing our lumberjacks in the forests of the Capital node is no more. I have taken it with me.”

Ivan Lozovsky crossed his arms on his chest for show and threw himself back into his armchair, not making any comment. The others were not deterred though and started exchanging glances and discussing amongst themselves. Clearly nobody was expecting this twist in the story of “Anya from First Medical.”

“Good news!” the fed must have decided to take the initiative in this conversation, given the faction leader was sitting with a sulky look. “Okay, can you tell us what became of your starship then? Was it really attacked and destroyed by walking Meleyephatian robots, as your crew said? Or were you able to escape?”

The room awaited my response eagerly. But I had already decided to be difficult and refused to answer:

“According to documents signed by all of my crew, the status of the Tolili-Ukh X frigate is top-secret and not to be disclosed to anyone outside the narrow circle of our crew. In any case, as for whether the frigate was destroyed or escaped, you four,” I led my gaze over the members of Team Gnat, who were watching me attentively, “stay out of matters that don’t concern you and get back into the game! There is a freight-passenger shuttle taking off from Earth for Kasti-Utsh III in a quarter ummi. Captain’s assistant Uline Tar and the rest of the respawned crew are waiting on you to buy tickets and leave Earth. I will meet you at the space station.”

No objections or arguments followed. All four of them stood up at once and headed for the exit. I also wanted to leave with them and had in fact already left, but Alexander Antipov caught up to me in the hallway:

“Gnat, I’d like to apologize for Lozovksy’s behavior. There’s a good reason for it, believe me. I just can’t say anything yet. I have also signed nondisclosure agreements. You’ll find out in a few days. And another thing. I understand that this might be bad timing, but still...”

The fed extended a thick packet of stapled papers. A table with names and some numbers... What is this? Looks like a printout of character statistics. I raised a surprised gaze.

“At the high-profile player meeting you said you needed more people for your faction, and that you’re willing to prioritize candidates from the H3 Faction. Well I had my commanders conduct a survey of our troops and draw up a list of volunteers right after that. But then we all got wrapped up in the war with the Dark Faction and didn’t have time. Basically, it may be a bit late, but here is the list. It contains four hundred and eight people, so you have plenty of options.”

“How many now? A bit over four hundred?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

I was under the impression that the players of the Human-3 Faction mostly had a fairly lukewarm opinion of me, in some cases even hostile. But here a whole four hundred of them were expressing a desire to join Team Gnat... Surprising. And nice to hear, holy cow!

“These aren’t all players from our faction. The list also contains Germans, and even some from the Chinese faction. The printout gives their names, in-game professions, levels, statistics and a very brief overview. And take note, there are even a couple Gerds on the list! I understand your time is vanishingly short, and the shuttle with your crew will soon take off from Earth, but maybe next time...”

I finally let the unhappy mask slip from my face and smiled happily:

“Actually I rented the freight-passenger shuttle myself to transport equipment for the planetary shield generator from nearby space stations. So the starship will take off only when my business partner Uline Tar gives the go-ahead!”

A satisfied smile also appeared on Alexander Antipov ‘s face:

“To be honest, knowing you, I’m not the least bit surprised. I bet your frigate is doing just fine too. But you don’t have to say anything.”

I tried to communicate mentally, but he averted his gaze. He knew perfectly well about my psionic “mind games” and didn’t exactly have a burning desire to find out what it felt like to have his thoughts read. Okay then, he had that right. I briefly glanced at the closed door into Lozovsky’s office and, lowering my voice to a whisper, admitted:

“The starship is fine. There were a few losses right after landing, but we dealt with it. And we made out like bandits. But we probably won’t be able to do any selling without my business partner Uline – I don’t have any connections among the traders on Kasti-Utsh III or any other stations for that matter. And popping by the pirate station Medu-Ro IV would be akin to suicide because the Pride of the Bushy Shadow has it out for me.”

So why did I decide to be open with the security director? First of all, he would have found out soon enough no matter what. Second, I now had a vague suspicion that the winds of power under the Dome were shifting. Ivan Lozovsky was just too sour and constantly lashing out. It wasn’t the usually cautious diplomat’s style at all. It was as if he didn’t care anymore. And Alexander Antipov was acting too independent. It seemed like he knew something.

And by the looks of things, I was right. He also lowered his voice to a whisper:

“What can I say, Gnat? Honesty for honesty. Today was the day of our regular report to the curators on the state of affairs in the Human-3 Faction. It was a special session, given how much has been going on recently. But the curators didn’t want to let Lozovsky come. The official reason: the still-active quarantine of the Dome made Lozovsky a potential carrier of a deadly disease, so he still had to steer clear of densely-populated Moscow. But everyone knows perfectly well that it’s nothing but a flimsy formal excuse. After all, they could have arranged for the report to be given remotely via video conference or by some other method.”

The fed fell silent, giving me time to think over what he said. Then I looked over to the leader’s closed door just in case and continued:

“The negotiations with the Dark Faction have shown clearly that our Diplomat no longer holds effective decision-making power. And that he is utterly impotent when it comes to obtaining new technologies. For a long time now, all new acquisitions have come through you. And Lozovsky’s main trump card – his close relationship with the Diplomat of our suzerains – has also faded recently. I mean, Kosta Dykhsh talks more with you and your furry friend Uline. Well, and the obvious screw up when our faction violated a treaty and was fined by the suzerains also did not work in our Diplomat’s favor. And neither did his close relationship with Anna the traitor. Put it all together and draw your own conclusions.”

All that pointed to the idea that Ivan Lozovsky had made too many mistakes as faction leader and fell into disfavor. Okay then, I’d keep that in mind. I thanked him for the interesting and useful information. After that, mulling the conversation over, I started to make for the exit but the fed stopped me again and continued:

“And there’s something else you should know. We received confirmation of something you told us before: there might soon be inaccessible territories in the real world. Four days ago, a satellite over Antarctica discovered an area that looks very similar to the Geckho space port – just as you warned. There is another inaccessible zone of ten by twenty miles that appeared yesterday just forty miles from Novosibirsk. The spatial distortion is only apparent from significant elevation. On the ground, the anomaly cannot be observed. People simply pass right through it without noticing, travelling dozens of miles in the blink of an eye. But it’s also causing errors in nearby navigation systems, so the Novosibirsk airport has been temporarily closed even though it’s the largest in Siberia. And the people have been making a big stink. Sooner or later, that’s bound to catch the eye of our country’s leadership. I have heard top-secret whispers that the curators will want to have a talk with you in a few days. And your main job is going to be finding the cause of these spatial anomalies, Leng Gnat!”

I thanked him again and, pointing at the pack of papers in my hands, said:

“I’ll need around and hour to skim through this list. I only want the best of the best. After that, the people I choose must be informed and immediately brought into the game. If they cannot reach the Geckho spaceport on their own, have them say so. I’ll send a Sio-Mi-Dori to pick them up. Space suits, weapons and equipment are all preferable, but not required. I can provide everything my team will need. And I’ll mark a couple more combat characters than needed. Dark Faction Shocktroop Gerd T’yu-Pan will make the final selection at the spaceport. He also respawned in the space port along with the rest and, given that he is in charge of my boarding team, I say let him pick the hardest and most dangerous killers, the kind whose mere mention will one day make the Universe shiver!”


Chapter Five. A Requested Stop

I WAS AWOKEN by an insistent scratching at my door, as if a cat were asking to be let back in after coming back from a prowl through the neighborhood. It took a few seconds to finally wake up and get my bearings. So, I was in the game, and I fell asleep in my captain’s bunk. I saw no sense in going into the real world to rest. First of all, this was space, a “red zone” and my character wasn’t going to be disappearing regardless. And second, with Tamara transferred into the parallel magocratic world, my room under the Dome felt somehow empty and dreary.

But why so quiet? The strange silence shook me from my slumber and made me jump out of bed instantly. You see, a starship flying through hyperspace is never supposed to be silent. It’s always making some noise or another: the measured hum of the engines, the barely perceptible buzz of the power unit, the crackle of the gravity compensators. Sometimes you can even hear the fuselage creaking under strain. But there was none of that now, and that had me very afraid!

I heard the scratching again and opened the door. In the doorway was the Miyelonian Translator Gerd Ayni. The orange kitty’s hair was standing on end, and she looked worried:

“Captain Gnat, you’re needed on the bridge. Something strange has happened.”

With a brisk gait, I headed for the bridge. Everyone who was left after the asteroid was already there. Even Vaa the Morphian came to catch a glimpse of the unusual scene. And it really was a sight to behold: there were three plasma clouds spinning unhurried circles around our frigate in the vast expanse of space. Satellites?! And a whole three!!! Had anyone ever seen something like this before? And by the way, why was the starship in normal space, not hyper? I asked the last question out loud.

Ayukh the Navigator tore himself from the external camera monitor and commented:

“Captain, the Symbiotes appeared suddenly, and three of them at once. Right after that, our hyperdrive turned off and the frigate got spat out into normal space. Then a bit later, our defensive shield also got cut. Before the shield was turned off, there was an attempt to attach an ‘external device’ to our power unit, and it succeeded. We had given a satellite access to our power source before, so it figured it was entitled to do so again. But as it stands, the situation is not great: the Symbiotes have taken over our power and are distributing it as they see fit, siphoning it to themselves while keeping all our laser cannons and thrusters switched off. And without a qualified Engineer, I’m afraid that we’ll have no way of taking back control.”

“There is also a nonstop stream of weird symbols on that screen,” the orange Ayni pointed a clawed paw at my workstation’s flickering monitor. “Ayukh called me to figure it out, but I have never seen symbols like them before and the framerate is too high for Miyelonian eyes.”

I saw the little blotches as soon as I came in, but I figured the monitor was just malfunctioning. Hrm... Problem. But my Danger Sense wasn’t making a peep, so there was also no immediate threat. We had simply been stopped for investigation.

“So, what is this place?” I asked, sitting at my workstation and trying to fire up my instruments.

The Navigator looked confused. It seemed like he hadn’t even asked himself that question yet. The Geckho typed some commands into the console and a detailed answer came back ten seconds later:

“The H9051/WD system. Or to be more accurate, the very edge of it. The ‘juncture’ with the neighboring K0987/AA system, so to speak. Three uninhabitable planets – a roasting hot sphere by the star and two gas giants. According to the guide, this system is considered unstable and, in seventy million tongs, the two large planets will collide. The neighboring system is a white dwarf with no planets. Overall, nothing of interest. A random point where we got spat out of a hyperspace tunnel.”

“Random? Then what is that?” I sent the Navigator some data from the ship’s locator:

Distance: 670 miles. Debris from starship of unknown design.

Distance: 3597 miles. Debris from starship of unknown design.

Distance: 12508 miles. Unknown ship. Signature not found in database. Most likely belongs to class “long-distance scout ship” or “assault cruiser.”

Distance: 17863 miles. Debris from Trillian research probe.

Distance: 20788 miles. Debris from starship of unknown design.

A true ship graveyard... It must not have been a coincidence that we were yanked out of hyperspace in this very spot. Something peculiar was going on here. Ominous even. And it wasn’t just the dark unresponsive starship twelve thousand miles away. I tried to use the frigate’s scanning equipment to take a closer look at the mysterious “assault cruiser,” but the screen immediately went dark. The Symbiotes didn’t like what I was trying to do, and cut power to the starship’s scanning devices. Those rats!

The Navigator then stroked his nose with his paw thoughtfully and agreed that this location was not merely random:

“Yes captain. This is the boundary between star systems and seemingly a gravity rift, a weak point in the fabric of space. For that reason, many routes in hyperspace pass through this point in some way or another. And there’s something else I find strange: we have flown this way before, yet this is the first time the Symbiotes have taken an interest in us.”

I was reminded of a system warning I got when choosing the name of my new Relict Faction. It said the name had its own history, which might lead to unexpected allies and enemies. Seemingly, we were now observing a consequence of that very ancient history. Okay, but that was all empty conjecture. What to do right here and now?

Seemingly, the only way out was to establish contact with our captors. The three Symbiotes could have destroyed our frigate long ago, but they hadn’t and were waiting for something. But what? It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, given they’d flooded our communications system with messages. Like it or not, we’d have to figure them out. I turned my attention to the flickering screen. Hrm... I couldn’t make head or tail of it, and to my eye there was no real way to do so.

I tried to put it on pause or take a screenshot. That made things a bit better, but there was also precious little to be happy about – the screen was displaying columns of vertical dashes and slanted lines which seemed impossible to assemble into sensible text. Was that really the language of the Precursors?

“Kirsan, you’re needed on the bridge!” I mentally called the mechanoid repair bot.

And why not? The repair bot was around back in the times of the great war between the ancient races and perhaps would be able to understand the language of the Mechanoids’ archnemesis. Thankfully, it only took a couple seconds for the white-painted flat metallic millipede to poke its head out of the ventilation and gracefully descend the vertical wall to the floor.

When I asked about the writing on the screen, Kirsan asked the Jarg to lend him his Universal Translator and answered:

“Situation to understand. Ancient enemy. Aggression. Question. Wait for answer. Countdown. Then attack.”

Well, well! So the symbols on screen weren’t simply a rendering of disjointed signals. The satellites, as it turned out, were asking us a question and now waiting for an answer. I asked Kirsan what exactly the satellites wanted to know, and how much time we had to answer.

“Question. Who are you? Answer. Forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty-five... “

What??? I became the very definition of the word “overwhelmed.” My heart grew tight in anxiety and fear. My arms and legs turned to cotton. The panic stopped me from concentrating or thinking rationally. I can’t say why my danger-warning skill was still silent, but now the game algorithms were spewing forth double-time:

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-five!

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-six!

Forty seconds. Thirty-nine. I had a momentary thought that I should spend all my free skill points right now because some of them were from more than a day earlier and would get burned up if my character died, which was now quite probable. But I didn’t do that just yet. My frigate was too important. I had to try and use the time I had left to save my starship.

“Leng Gnat, human!” I said my aloud, but the Symbiotes didn’t react in any way. Kirsan was still counting down the remaining seconds before the ship would be destroyed.

“They don’t understand Geckho!” the wise Vaa kindly hinted, though I had already figured out myself that the Precursors must have vanished long before the first Geckho or any other modern race made it into space.

I needed to answer the Symbiotes in the Relict language. But how? The frigate’s computer system didn’t support it. I could only enter commands vocally or mentally in Geckho and Miyelonian. Well and in theory I could also use Meleyephatian, though I hadn’t ever tried. But Relict? I hadn’t even ever spoken it before. My only experience with it was in written form. I didn’t even know the proper way to pronounce all the symbols.

“Leng Gnat, human!” I turned away from the instrument panel and tried to use my Listener Energy Armor to send the message.

Kirsan’s relentless countdown took a pause. Did it really work? As it turned out, no. After a few moments of silence, the repair bot answered dispassionately:

“Relict weapon. Relict armor. Relict drone. Relict class. Relict alliance. Information false. Lie. Twenty-three. Twenty-two. Twenty-one...”

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-seven!

So they think I’m a Relict! As a matter of fact, what else would the Symbiotes think after seeing so many obvious references to their ancient enemy on my character?! I realized it was absolutely pointless to argue.

“Relict Gnat, level-87 Listener!” I instantly corrected my message and, while the plasma clouds figured out how to respond, I hurried to add: “Specialist in the second rung of the Relict Pyramid. I have earned the gratitude of the hierarchs for the large amount of data I transmitted to the Pyramid. As a sign of thanks, I was issued an additional drone. I have also been given permission to use level-two modifications in my Energy Armor!”

Authority increased to 65!

Fame increased to 76.

This time, the silence lasted a lot longer. Around a minute at least. Finally, Kirsan relayed the response:

“Important Relict. We observe long time. Were not sure. Now sure. No reason to kill. Will respawn. Negotiations better. Information. Why here? Why is your body not Relict? Why bad, primitive starship?”

After the end of the long message, I spent a few seconds waiting in great trepidation, but the countdown did not resume. My feeling of worry also completely evaporated. The Symbiotes had changed their mind about killing me – “no reason, will respawn.” Instead the Precursors, or perhaps automated systems of theirs, decided to take advantage of the very rare chance for a chat with an ancient enemy so they could perhaps learn something new.

I had known the Symbiotes were interested in me for a while – maybe starting from the exact moment they first saw me wearing the ancient Listener Energy Armor. But they “were not sure,” as the Symbiotes themselves told me. Then I got the Annihilator, changed class to “Listener,” got the Small Relict Guard Drone and took over the Relict Faction. After all those changes, the “automated Precursor systems,” as my Small Guard Drone called the plasma clouds, had made up their minds, which is why they decided to stop me for an interview.

“I answer one question, you answer one question,” I suggested because I had a whole wagonload of questions for these satellites, plus a little cart’s worth to boot.

“Agreement. First Relict answer. Why here?”

The message came directly to me, displayed on the inner surface of my Listener Energy Armor helmet rather than the Meleyephatian frigate’s communications systems. The Symbiotes must have figured this was a faster and more convenient way to communicate. And I understood right away that any attempt to answer something like “just passing through, didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers” was not gonna fly. The Symbiotes wouldn’t believe I came upon this strange location at random. I had to improvise:

“Communication with the Pyramid is encumbered. Main communication channels have been blocked due to military activity. I have been using emergency channels. The Hierarchs used them to send me coordinates for where to go to get my reward. But I couldn’t make it...”

It was of course nonsense, but nothing more plausible was coming to mind. And technically it wasn’t such a massive lie. I really had worked out the coordinates of the Small Relict Guard Drone and was planning to fly off to get it soon. And funnily enough, my answer was accepted!

“You’ve come to the right place. The Relict Hierarch’s ship is here. It’s been here a long time. The siege has been underway for fifteen thousand tongs. There’s no way to pierce through the energy barrier. You have come to its call. Exactly right.”

What??? Good thing I was sitting, otherwise this shocking news would have knocked me off my feet. There was a Relict ship around here?! Maybe it was the starship of unknown design twelve thousand miles away. Just think. A real spaceship from the epoch of ancient civilizations. The value of that thing would be even more off the charts than that of the half-demolished ancient Relict base! This could be worth millions and millions of monetary crystals!

No matter how my conversation with the Symbiotes ended, I need to immediately make sure this information got recorded somewhere.

“Ayukh, take down the coordinates of this location,” I ordered the gray-haired Navigator. “And don’t only save it in the frigate’s memory, take them down in your communicator in case the ship gets destroyed. It’s an intriguing location, and I suspect we’ll be back here. And very soon at that!”

The Navigator gave a satisfied rumble and hurried to carry out his captain’s order. I then got back to the task at hand. So, now it was my turn to ask the Symbiotes a question. What did I want to know most of all? Where to find the remaining Precursors, of course. Not merely tech that survived down to our times, even if it was very refined and deadly. I was after living members of the ancient race. So that was the very question I asked.

“Strange question. Precursors everywhere. Colonies throughout the cosmos. You yourself are of Precursor blood. Many tongs have passed. Knowledge is forgotten. But the Precursors yet live.”

The answer again struck me like a dusty bag to the head. I had Precursor blood?! How could that be? Or did he mean not me specifically, but people as a whole? Human colonies really were strewn throughout the Universe in a strange manner. Did that maybe mean we were descendants of the mysterious ancient Precursor race? While I batted my eyes, trying my damnedest to digest the information, another question followed:

“How so? You are Relict. But of Precursor race.”

The answer to that question was not too complex. I simply gave a brief retelling of my personal history, which the satellites found to be wholly sufficient. But I had to give serious thought to my next question. What one question could I ask to find out something that would strengthen not only Gnat, but my world as a whole? Should I ask about the coordinates of ancient Precursor bases where I could come find weapons or ancient technologies? That was exactly what I asked in the end. But that question was clearly not well thought-out:

“There is no data about remaining military or scientific centers of the Precursors from the times of the Great War. Everything destroyed. All dead. Destroyed by Relicts. Destroyed by Mechanoids.”

How frustrating! I guess I just wasted a question. Damn! But I tried to compensate for that with my next answer – about the “primitive” starship I came here in. I said the frigate was constructed by one of the younger races that settled the Universe after the Great War, so it wasn’t all that high-tech. But I had supposedly been promised an ancient starship, the very same one the Relict Hierarch was on. Could I take it for myself?

“Last order received via automatic military command interceptor branch 178: eliminate Relict hierarch. And we will pursue that order as long as is it takes.”

“And?” I didn’t see an answer to my question, so I decided to ask again. “Can I take the ship? It has been fifteen thousand tongs since you were given that order. The hierarch died eons ago!”

“We cannot know that for certain. He may have been put into stasis, then time would have no sway over him. So the ship must be destroyed. Session terminated.”

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-two!

Session terminated? Come on, what complete nonsense! If the satellites hadn’t devised a way to break through the Relict starship’s energy barrier in fifteen thousand tongs, they would just spend the next few million years in fruitless attempts to get through its impenetrable shield! But what if I could find proof that the Relict Hierarch died? In that case, could I take the ancient starship?

But I didn’t have time to ask. My frigate suddenly came back to life. The control panel activated, the thrusters hummed to life, both main and maneuver. Every one of the starship’s systems returned to normal one after the next. The gravity compensators started humming in dismay, mitigating the excessive forces. The ship completed a maneuver and quickly started gaining momentum.

“I’m not doing anything! The ship is flying itself!” San-Doon Taki-Bu the copilot showed me his hands to prove he was not touching any of the control levers.

And meanwhile the world around us started to congeal. A flurry of energy showed that a hyperspace tunnel had been formed and our frigate was being sent somewhere. Then literally one second before the jump, a few lines of text ran past on the inner surface of my helmet:

Valuable information source detected. Level of trust: high. Interface session confirmed. Recording transmitted data. Transmission complete. Listener, this data is of enormous value to the Hierarchs, and must be relayed to the Pyramid!

I didn’t even realize right away that the new portion of messages didn’t come from the Symbiotes. By the looks of things, it was the exact opposite and from their enemies. The Listener Energy Armor made contact with a “trusted” source, which retransmitted its data to the Pyramid. Clearly the crew of the besieged ship or some smart computer system on board the ancient spaceship had detected an opportunity to send news to “their team” on my departing frigate.

“Captain, we have returned to our previous route and are flying to Kasti-Utsh III,” the Navigator commented with slight surprise. “Fortunately, the satellites lost interest and sent us out of their spatial ‘pocket.’“

“Spatial pocket?” I asked, latching on to the unfamiliar term.

“Yes captain. This area is inaccessible to starships in real space and even in the virtual world of the game that bends reality. It is simply not possible to reach. It’s as if this location does not exist in customary coordinate systems.”

“But then how...” I bit my tongue just in the nick of time, stopping myself from spilling the beans about the mysterious ancient starship and especially the mysterious Relict Hierarch on board. “So that’s it? There’s no way back?”

“We can get there, but it won’t be easy,” Ayukh reassured me and gave a satisfied rumble. “We’ll have to calculate everything very carefully – first we need a tunnel vector, then where to cut the hyperjump. The only way into this ‘pocket’ is through hyperspace. But don’t you worry captain. I’ve got all the information saved, so I can get us back!”


Chapter Six. There Weren’t Enough of Us

MUCH TO MY CHAGRIN, I still didn’t get the chance to be alone. I started hearing a quiet scratching on my door again, and again it was Gerd Ayni. The little orange kitty was unconfidently shifting from one foot to the other, embarrassed and clearly feeling uncomfortable:

“Captain Gnat... it may be none of my business... but I’d like to speak about Anna. The human girl is behaving strangely.”

Now that caught my interest. What had that Morphian gone and done to arouse suspicion this time? I motioned for the Miyelonian to come into my cabin. I even activated Scanning so I could make absolutely sure that the espionage equipment was fried when I used the geological analyzer and was still out of order. I really did not want the Prelates of Tailax to overhear me saying there was a Morphian in my crew.

“Tell me, what seems to be the matter with Anna? But first sit down, please,” I motioned to a soft deep armchair or couch where she could sit. “Would you like a light cocktail? Or something stronger perhaps?”

I only made the offer out of politeness, well and at the same time to slightly calm down the noticeably worried Miyelonian female. But the effect was more the opposite. Gerd Ayni’s ears started shuddering in worry and embarrassment, which made her innumerable earrings start to tinkle. She refused a beverage and took a seat on the very edge of the flying armchair, her front paws placed modestly on her knees.

A strange reaction. I took a quick peek at my guest’s emotions. Ayni was embarrassed and even slightly afraid to be around me. The Miyelonian also thought I was flirting with her for some reason, which made her feel deep shame. Not wanting to make her even more nervous, I suggested we get to business.

“Captain, when we encountered the satellites today, at a certain point Anna dropped her guard and demonstrated an excellent knowledge of the Geckho tongue. The human girl understood what you and the Navigator were saying perfectly. She understood what Kirsan was telling you, too. She even corrected your Geckho! And that came just after I finished her very first lesson in the language, where she was barely able to put two words together!”

As she said all that, Gerd Ayni was getting more and more upset, shivering with her whole body and even starting to slightly hiccup.

“And another thing... I noticed that this is clearly not Anna’s first spaceflight. She was just acting too confident for a beginner. She knew where to find everything... how to use the intricate technology. And another thing... captain, don’t think I’m crazy, but I saw the Medic girl reading the language of the Meleyephatians! There’s a placard on the wall in the hallway about how the fire-extinguishing system on the starship works, and the human lady was reading it closely! Leng Gnat, I’m quite sure that Anna is not the person she pretends to be!”

I gave a satisfied smile and clapped my palm a few times, demonstrating admiration at the Miyelonian’s quick wit and attention to detail.

“Bravo, Ayni! Well done! And you’re the only one in the whole crew to notice! But you’re right, Anna is not a human. She’s a Morphian...” When I saw how rapidly the orange kitty’s face turned sullen and depressed, I hurried to add: “And no, she is not the same Morphian who took your appearance and killed the incarnation of the Great First Female, thus ruining your life. This is a totally different individual.”

Despite my explanation, Gerd Ayni bared her teeth fearsomely and her fur stood on end, making her look twice as large.

“It doesn’t matter, captain. I hate all Morphians! Every last one! Their whole stinkin’ race! It’s a shame the Meleyephatians didn’t exterminate them when they had the chance. Oh Leng Gnat, you can’t even imagine how badly that Morphian ruined my life! You only see me here, in the game. Here I try to look sprightly and happy with life. In the real world, that is not how I am. My family and friends have all turned away from me. I lost my job. And after some religious fanatics trashed and burned my room two times, I got expelled from the whole residential block of the space station. I lost everything! And for what??? What did I ever do to Fox to deserve having my life so brutally torn to pieces?!”

By the end of her emotional speech, Ayni was weeping audibly. The little orange kitty crawled down off the chair onto the floor and covered her face with her paws. I knew well that Miyelonians were generally quite bottled up with their emotions, and that they would never bear their soul where a stranger might see. The fact that my friend was allowing herself such a stormy expression of feelings in my presence served as another sign of boundless trust. And I appreciated that.

I crouched down next to Ayni on the floor and, after a second of hesitation, embraced the Miyelonian and squeezed her hard up against myself. And meanwhile I was nowhere near sure that this individual of a different space race would perceive my act as intended. It was possible she’d feel insulted and take it as a forceful restriction of liberty, for example. Fortunately, the orange kitty, miniature even for the Miyelonian race, reacted positively. Ayni pressed herself up against me, poked her snout into my shoulder and began to weep.

For three minutes, the Miyelonian woman was not able to hold back her tears, complaining how unfair this world was between sobs. Nobody wants me. No shelter. No money. An outcast. And the situation could never be fixed – her face was imprinted too deeply into the consciousness of hundreds of billions of Miyelonians, and was just too firmly associated with the scumbag who murdered their sacred figurehead. And it also turned out that Ayni used to have an admirer – a young hot-blooded employee of the customs service on Medu-Ro IV. They were even planning to hold a marriage ceremony in the temple of the First Female. But after the story with the slaying of the Great Priestess, her admirer did everything he could to distance himself from the “murderer,” breaking all contact and flying off in an unknown direction.

I didn’t interrupt Ayni and didn’t try to say any words of consolation. I just pressed her up against me and listened, listened, and listened... Well and very cautiously, I tended to her deep psychological trauma and bitter memories with magic.

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-three!

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-three!

That helped. the Miyelonian gradually calmed down. Finally, Ayni wiped away her tears with a paw and quickly twisted out of my embrace:

“Oh! Captain... Leng Gnat... I beg your apology... I don’t know what came over me! My nerves are on the fritz. It won’t happen again! Please let me leave now. I’m going to my cabin.”

Of course I didn’t make the Translator stay after her sharp turn to embarrassment, just opened to door into the hallway. But I did take a bit of license, carefully touching the tip of my finger to the Miyelonian’s fluffy cheek to brush away a belated tear:

“Don’t be sad, Ayni. Yes, the world is harsh and unjust. But know this: here on this frigate you have friends you can count on. They will never turn away from you and will always be there to help!”

The fluffy beauty gave a grateful growl and then bowed very deeply at the waist just like a human would. Once in the corridor she stopped short, turned and shot out an unexpectedly frank admission:

“Leng Gnat, I was embarrassed to say it with others around, but I admire you! Very few players could wriggle their way out of a situation as treacherous as we had on the asteroid. And nobody other than my amazing captain could have made it through an interrogation by three whole Symbiotes! The world really is harsh and unjust, but the greatest injustice in the Universe is that you were born a man and not a Miyelonian! Otherwise, all my thoughts would be consumed with how to become your female!”

After shortly after her surprising confession, Gerd Ayni returned to her ferocious embarrassment. She even crouched on the floor, pressed her ears down and covered her head with her paws. I took a step closer and, my arms extended, helped her up. Then I answered the easily embarrassed Translator:

“Thank you for your frankness, Ayni! I want you to know that I have also liked you since our very first encounter, and it is a great shame that you are not a member of the human race. And another thing. I am not all-powerful, of course, but I could solve a few of your problems. And not only the financial ones. They’re actually the easiest. I’ll go have a talk with the Great Priestess Leng Amiru-U Mayaoo and ask her to reign in her fanatics.”

* * *

The Morphian entered my cabin approximately half an hour later. By that time, I had already discovered the data packet in the ancient armor suit’s file system. It may have been ready to be sent to the Pyramid, but it was also encrypted. I didn’t know any way to decrypt such a large file, and overall had a very cloudy understanding of the Relicts’ labyrinthine information storage system. It wasn’t the usual local folders with network addresses, but rather a primrose path of interwoven levels and solid blocks. And most of the levels were off limits to me. I couldn’t find any utilities or executable files, nor a “user’s manual” or any kind of guide.

Thinking it might help me solve this task another way, I invested all six free stat points into Machine Control, raising the skill to 98. But I didn’t notice any changes and that made me slightly upset. I could have spent the valuable skill points on something more useful. Basically, I just busted my brains for nothing. At least I almost filled my overall progress bar and hit level 88.

When Vaa appeared, quietly opening the door and unabashedly entering the captain’s bunk, my investigation into the data system was put on hold. False Anna, having carefully locked the door, plunked herself down in a flying armchair without asking permission and looked around my bunk matter-of-factly. The collection of Miyelonian trophy tails hung on my walls along with unusual weapons and other various baubles drew the Morphian’s attention, but it wasn’t for long. Vaa even expressed disappointment:

“I was expecting a bit more from the quarters of a pirate in good fortune. But it doesn’t really matter. I’m here about something else. I noticed the Miyelonian Ayni’s treatment of me abruptly changed for the worse after she spoke with you. She might as well be hissing at me now. I suppose there must be some kind of explanation for that. Could you maybe tell me what’s going on? Also, the Kasti-Utsh III station is coming up soon. I’d like to get out there. So I wanted to have a talk with you, Captain Gnat, because I might not have another chance.”

The Morphian was imitating Anna’s voice extremely faithfully, although I did catch a couple of strange intonations or words with incorrect stress. Vaa hadn’t yet fully mastered Russian, but I was shaken by how fast she was progressing.

“Vaa, we can be frank. I have deactivated all the espionage equipment,” I said and... froze with my mouth open because now it was Minn-O La-Fin sitting in my cabin instead of Anna. And for some reason she was wearing a scandalously short little housecoat and huge fluffy slippers.

Vaa got the skin color slightly wrong at first, imitating a badly sunburnt person from my world, but she adapted quickly, making herself a Minn-O completely indistinguishable from the original.

“See that Gnat? I’m giving my best for you,” the Morphian imitated my wife’s voice very faithfully as well. “I could sense that Anna the Medic was really bothering you, and everyone else on the spaceship. I figured you’d find this more pleasing.”

“Thanks, of course...” I hurriedly averted my gaze because the Morphian had started experimenting with the length and openness of the little robe, going so far as to try a complete lack of clothing, all the while attentively studying my reaction. “But still I think it’d be better to change to a more neutral appearance! Anyhow, you’re not wrong. I really have been thinking about Minn-O a lot, but it’s because my wife is currently giving a speech before the council of mages, and there’s a lot riding on it.”

“If you say so, captain,” came the disheveled Miyelonian Engineer Orun Va-Mart, now sitting in front of me wearing a grease-stained work smock and holding a set of socket wrenches in his paws. “So then, what’s the matter with Ayni? What have I done to draw her ire?”

I told her everything that happened on the Medu-Ro IV pirate station without hiding a thing, including when all the suspects were interrogated by Truth Seeker. I told her the observant and clever Translator’s suspicions about Anna. Then as requested, I recounted all the details of my relationship with Fox and our delivering the heavy and secret container to the virtual Earth. Vaa was listening extremely closely, just asking clarifying questions from time to time. When I finally finished, the Morphian said pensively:

“Now I understand why Fox chose you. You don’t feel negatively about my race, which is quite hard to find. But I still don’t think I should be apologizing to your bushy-tailed friend, because I had nothing to do with her woes.”

She changed form. Not right away, but in a few iterations, correcting the result depending on my hints and emotions. But in the end, Vaa took on the form of the anthropomorphic fox by the name of Fox.

“A strange creature. Half man, half beast,” the Morphian commented on its own appearance with surprise. “And I must admit that I haven’t yet figured out which of my acquaintances this Fox you speak of could be. Sixty tongs ago, when I entered anabiosis, mortally exhausted after being doggedly pursued by the Meleyephatian Horde’s detectives and hired assassins, there were around three hundred Morphians left in the Universe. I knew them all by name because they were all my wards. Many were also my daughters or even copies of me. But none of them could even come close to the lethal combat abilities you described. Although, so much time has passed...”

“Hold on a minute, Vaa,” I decided to clear up something I didn’t understand, “does that mean all Morphians are female?”

“No, human. Morphians don’t even have the concept of gender. To give the simplest example of how we reproduce, every individual is able to split in two in a critical situation,” a blurry motion and there were two Foxes sitting in the armchair, bearing their teeth in satisfaction. They were the spitting image of one another. “While one copy distracts enemies, usually at the cost of their own life, the second can find a place to hide. But you must understand that these are not two separate individuals, rather one with a unified consciousness, regardless of how many bodies it inhabits. Sometimes that can be useful and even necessary to survive, but in times of peace it becomes a burden.”

The fanged little Foxes recombined, and Vaa gave a satisfied smile, watching my surprised reaction.

“But under a favorable circumstances, a Morphian can also bear offspring. One time in their whole life, they give birth to around two thousand spawn. And so Leng Gnat, when you said a group of extortionists captured a starship with our young on board, it really scared me! The thing is, we once created such a ship. Our race’s greatest and in fact only hope is that our spawn on that evacuation vessel were in fact able to survive. We sent it off from a hidden sanctuary after it was discovered by our enemies, and put it on course to a place the Meleyephatians and Trillians, who don’t much care for our race, will never find it. So the idea it might have been captured terrified me.”

The Morphian sharply fell silent, thinking about something or remembering the past. So I finished her thought:

“So that means, they found...”

“No, human!” the “Miyelonian Engineer” even jumped off his seat when he heard that and started nervously pacing the cabin. “If the Meleyephatians or Trillians discovered the Morphian ship, they would destroy it immediately without the slightest hesitation! No, here we have something totally different... I don’t know for sure... I was gone too long, so I don’t know who is behind all this or how the extortionists are communicating their orders to my Morphian brethren. But the old channels of communication are still around, so I’ll try to find my surviving friends and get all the information from them.”

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-eight!

The Morphian fell silent. At a certain point, I felt a foreboding prick in my heart. By all appearances, the dangerous Vaa thought she said too much and was seriously considering sending me to respawn to get a potential witness out of her hair. I got on guard, preparing to grab my Annihilator and stun the Morphian psionically, but Vaa decided against her plans and even started to feel ashamed.

“Sorry, Leng Gnat. At a certain point, I started to think you might be behind the whole blackmail racket. It just looked too suspicious, you always being nearby ‘by chance’ and all. But no, the timelines don’t add up...”

“Vaa, allow me another question,” I decided to change the dangerous topic. “I’ve heard a lot about the Meleyephatians exterminating the Morphians. In fact, I have heard two diametrically opposed stories of those events. Could you maybe tell me what really happened? You would have been around for those times, after all, as far as I understand.”

“Yes, I was around. And really, why not tell you?” the Morphian agreed with ease, seemingly even delighted to surface from her onerous thoughts. “I wasn’t the one who suggested replacing the leadership of the Meleyephatian horde with members of our race, but the plan to take control of one of the most fearsome governments in the Universe looked so rewarding and vastly promising, that all Morphians agreed to it unanimously. Yes we understood it was risky, but it was our historic chance, our destiny. And not just that. Even knowing that the operation was a failure and ended in calamity, if I could go back in time, I would make the same choice again. I would just make sure to give a few well-timed pieces of advice and orders to my friends to help avoid the blunders that became our fatal ruin.”

What? I couldn’t believe my ears! The Morphian race had practically been annihilated. Its last remaining members were hiding from retribution in the game that bends reality, basically as NPC’s. But the lesson hadn’t stuck. In fact, Vaa the Morphian was itching for the chance to do it all again. She just would have tweaked a couple of details of a plan that led to the near extinction of her race! That was simply unthinkable to me! That was exactly the same as Adolf Hitler in 1939 finding out about the fall of the Third Reich six years later, then declaring to the citizens of Germany: “Yes, it will be a disaster, a defeat that will claim millions of lives. But I still want to do a bit of fighting! I’m just gonna change one thing. In 1942 I think I’ll try moving a couple divisions from the Rzhev region to Stalingrad. Then it’ll all be a real ass-whooping!”

“Oh, I can sense your indignation, human,” Vaa laughed, easily reading my emotions. “For you, a member of a different race, it can’t be understood. But you need to understand our society, our history, our psychology. After all, why should a Morphian kill other creatures and take their place? It isn’t only for nutrition, after all. That is too primitive and does not require filigreed mastery in the art of imitation. No, our purpose is to replace powerful enemies with members of our kind and, after determining how their group or even race behaves, to safeguard all Morphians from attack. The whole past of the Morphian race, all our ancient tablets and precepts were leading up to that very ATTEMPT. We could have taken all the races enslaved by the Meleyephatian Horde and instantly become potentates of the Universe. To me, that lofty goal was worth the risk!”

I shook my head, not agreeing with the debatable conclusion. But the Morphian wasn’t interested in what I thought. What’s done is done, and the past can’t be changed now. So Vaa continued:

“Quietly and inconspicuously, we eliminated and replaced more than forty thousand rulers, fleet commanders and military leaders of the Meleyephatian Horde with our own. And we devoured their corpses as to leave no trace. I myself replaced the ruler of the Rowonti-Tor system, Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh.”

A moment later, the Miyelonian Engineer was gone and a huge eight-legged giant spider was standing in my berth. Atop her natural chitin armor, she was wearing Relict Energy Armor – almost the same as mine but refitted for a Meleyephatian instead of a human.

“But then our grand plan fell through... Minor slip-ups and irregularities that may have gone unnoticed on their own started piling up and that allowed the Meleyephatians to uncover the conspiracy. The Morphians tried to resist for some time by stopping the spread of the wave of information, taking news channels under control and instituting a harsh regime of censorship. But there weren’t enough of us to stop the leak and replace everyone who discovered the truth. Just think, if we had replaced just thirty or forty more individuals, our plan would have come off and the Universe would belong to the Morphians! But the information did end up leaking, and our attempt ended in catastrophe. The Meleyephatians struck back fast and hit hard.”

Vaa the giant spider jumped forward fast as lightning, and her ghastly mandibles clamped shut around my neck. At the same time, her many arms wrapped around me, rendering me motionless. It all happened so fast I didn’t even feel fear, much less take any defensive actions. My Danger Sense was dead quiet as well, so there was no real reason to be afraid. Fortunately, it was not a full-blown attack – the Morphian was just demonstrating another of its body’s abilities, and illustrating what it looked like when a Meleyephatian “struck fast and hit hard.”

The giant spider unclenched her mandibles and retreated. I felt my throat unconfidently with my hand but no, it was all fine. I didn’t find any wounds. Hrm... I was never afraid of spiders before. Even the biggest spiders. But now I couldn’t even look at the dangerous creature without shivering. Especially given that Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh looked truly ghastly: her sharp fangs, glimmering with toxic slime, her dozen unblinking eyes, the deadly spines on her four agile and strong front legs. The giant spider was a dangerous predator all on her own. But if you add an outstanding intellect and impressive psionic abilities, which the Meleyephatians were famed for, she was a true death machine.

However, the Meleyephatian ruler’s appearance was not what I wanted to discuss with the Morphian. Instead I asked:

“Vaa, I see that Tishhh-Ukhshhh wore Relict armor like me. Where did that come from?”

To my enormous surprise and pity, the Morphian had absolutely no interest in the topic of ancient artifacts:

“I can’t say for sure. Most likely from one of the Relict outposts. Around that time, the Meleyephatians found a few objects of the ancient races drifting through space. It said so on the news. But I never paid much attention to the topic. I didn’t understand all the fuss, and I still don’t. So some vanished races left a bunch of old junk behind – what’s the big deal? Us Morphians see no use in it. Morphians can wear clothing and armor, but that old suit, as far as I remember, required a few skills I lacked, so I did my best to get rid of it quickly as well as a few other compromising articles. By the way...”

Wow! The giant spider’s eyes were mobile! Just like a snail’s or crab’s, her eyes extended out of her head on thin little stalks and all turned to me at the same time, while the giant spider’s face was still turned the other direction! I didn’t know Meleyephatians could do that.

“I thought up a way to thank you for your help, Leng Gnat! First of all, I will not kill you. You have probably already realized that. Technically, Morphian rules state that anyone who has witnessed our true nature must be dispatched at once. And, let me be frank, at the outset I was planning to take down your whole crew as soon as the starship entered dock at the space station. Your respawn time would have been long enough for me to get through control and hidden safely in the endless corridors of the massive station. But I was stopped by the fact that Fox let you live, deviating from accepted practice. So I thought a bit and decided I would do the same.”

Holy crap! Pretty weird to suddenly find out, someone wanted to kill you and most likely also eat you instead of expressing their gratitude. After all, the Morphian had spent this whole flight smiling sweetly at me and all the other members of Team Gnat, all while thinking over the most effective way of killing my whole crew. Vaa then, having returned to the form of Anna from First Medical, continued:

“Second, Leng Gnat, given you’re interested in the artifacts of the vanished races, I know of a stash spot you might be interested in. Here are the coordinates. I hid the Queen of Rowonti-Tor’s armor suit there along with a few other ancient items! The hiding spot is in Meleyephatian space. But you are a neutral Free Captain, so they shouldn’t detain you.”


Chapter Seven. Backed into a Corner

WE WERE ASSIGNED to dock 11 this time, but the dispatchers again gave us a hangar practically at the very center of the huge discoid Kast-Utsh III station. And as far as I could tell from the docking license, its dimensions were just as modest as the last time. I suspect that after the Tolili-Ukh X frigate miraculously made it into the tiny hangar before, the dispatchers added a note to their database reading, “holy crap, it actually fit!!!” And now, from here on out, my starship would probably always be given spots just like this one.

Pilot San-Doon looked so concentrated and serious it gave me goosebumps. With Gerd Any translating commands from the dispatchers, he professionally directed the maneuver thrusters to turn the Tolili-Ukh X frigate around, reduce speed and, strictly following our provided vector, bring the ship to the dock’s capture area. A slight shiver followed, letting us know our ship was firmly held by the gravity crane and we could turn off our engines. Only after that did the Pilot wipe the tension from his face and allow himself to smile:

“Leng Gnat La-Fin, I did it! I have to admit, I was not expecting I could do that!!!”

I gave the pilot an encouraging shoulder pat. Good job! Perhaps it wasn’t quite as confident or quick as main pilot Dmitry Zheltov would have done, but what mattered was that he did what needed to be done. Experience and mastery would come with time.

And again the gravity crane dragged our starship down a two-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel at an impossibly slow speed. And although this was San-Doon’s first time on a space station and he was positively gaping in surprise, staring wide-eyed and commenting in delight on the endless rows of exotic starships in the hangars, I was already used to it. Furthermore, I had something more important to attend to. The Navigator and I were trying to figure out the hiding spot coordinates Vaa told me, which I had faithfully recorded on a piece of plastic with a felt-tipped pen.

“No, no. Other side,” I corrected Ayukh, who started entering data into the navigation system from the rectangles scratched into the back side of the plastic. “Turn it over. I wrote on the other side with blue pen. But wait... What is that? Is that actually legible Miyelonian?”

The experienced Navigator gave a rumble of satisfaction and said it was the coordinates of an object moving along a fixed trajectory. Well, well! Now that’s a surprise! When Vaa the Morphian started giving me the number, I simply couldn’t find anything appropriate at hand and took down the info on a piece of plastic I pulled from my inventory, just on the back side. I should have shown this shard of plastic to the Navigator right after finding it in the pirate captain’s berth. We could have solved this now ancient mystery and figured out what secrets the head of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow was hiding.

“Here’s what’s written in marker” said the Navigator, zooming in on his work monitor. And right before our eyes unfolded a map of a lifeless planetoid pocked with innumerable craters. “Meleyephatian space. Approximately forty days’ flight for our frigate. The Rowonti-Tor system, sixth satellite of the second planet. Somewhere around here,” a set of crosshairs pointed to one of the small craters.

Ayukh stroked his nose with his paw in thought, checking the numbers on the plastic again and staring at the screen, after which he added:

“The last number is negative, which must mean the point is located beneath the surface. Something is buried there and not too deep!”

That sounds exactly right! The stash of ancient Relict artifacts was buried not far beneath the surface of an uninhabitable planetoid. Although... it was pretty far from us. Forty days in flight. No matter how badly I wanted to reach the ancient treasure quickly, we were too pressed for time to waste forty days each way. No, that was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

“Okay, and the second set of coordinates? The ones scratched into the plastic?”

This time the Navigator spent a longer time calculating, but eventually finished up and said:

“The uninhabitable C9004/AW system, which has a small black hole next to a double star. It is considered unstable, but the first of the stars won’t be swallowed up for at least four hundred million tongs. There are no planets in the system, just an ice comet, which has a very elongated elliptical orbit centered around the system’s center of mass. By all appearances, the coordinates do not point to the comet’s core, but one of the small objects in its tail. It’s hard to say what it is exactly. The scratches here only give orbit period and a precise time.”

“Is it far from us?” I asked without particular enthusiasm after his last answer. But this time, Ayukh’s replay perked me right up:

“To cop a phrase, it’s stone’s throw. It’s the next system over from Kasti-Utsh. Just one ummi’s flight. A bit less even.”

Ugh, why didn’t I show this piece of plastic to the Navigator before?! We could have been looking for this treasure instead of sitting around out practically penniless on a Miyelonian station for the next few standard days, awaiting our crew. But clearly the black hole system would be our next destination right after we got the crew back together and intercepted the Dark Faction freighter near the station.

* * *

“I regret to inform you, Leng Gnat, but you and your crew cannot enter the Kasti-Utsh III station,” the bushy-tailed orange-furred registration service worker pressed a button on his instrument panel, closing the glass door in front of us.

What?! Neither I nor Gerd Ayni, Tini or Anya from First Medical, who were all with me, could have ever imagined this. What do you mean we can’t enter the station? Why not?

“The captain has pirate status, level two even. Leng Gnat’s entry in the database is marked ‘banned.’ Pirates like him are not allowed to visit the trading station.”

“But I have already been to Kasti-Utsh III with the very same pirate status! They let me through no problem before, along with the rest of my crew! What changed in the last few days?”

I was not simply shocked. I was deflated because, if I wasn’t allowed to visit the trade hub, all my other plans unraveled. I couldn’t sell the platinum or the four dangerous guard robots. And I couldn’t visit the antiquities trader or buy necessary goods for our onward flight. This put us at risk of true catastrophe! And no matter how I busted my brains over my unexpected ban, I still couldn’t understand the true reason.

Maybe Miyelonian Fleet Commander Kung Keetsie-Myau had somehow guessed that the valuable crystal data drive had slipped through her paws, got seriously offended at me and was doing this to show her anger? Unlikely, to be honest. Furthermore, I had already righted that wrong, handing the crystal off to her through Second Geckho Strike Fleet Commander Kung Waid Shishish. Or perhaps the workers had traced the Jarg back to my frigate? I was reminded that the administration of the Kasti-Utsh III station had serious problems with my spiny Analyst. And although I left the Jarg back on the frigate, perhaps their anger at him was transferred to me, his official captain? I also found that somehow hard to believe. Might it be due to the Morphian? No, that was insane. No one from around here could have known there was a Morphian in my crew.

Tired of getting wrapped up in guesses, I asked the registration service worker to tell me the real reason for my ban, because clearly my pirate status was not the issue here.

“I have no way of knowing, Leng Gnat. My job is merely to check documents,” the plump, well-fed Miyelonian with shiny golden-orange fur returned my identification crystal as way to say the conversation was over. “Next!”

I probably would have dutifully turned around and trudged back to my frigate, but I heard Gerd Ayni’s voice sound out in outrage behind me:

“Captain, he’s lying! He knows everything, he just doesn’t want to say! He has a rank-five registration-service employee badge on his bracelet. That means he has complete access to arrival data. I myself worked for the registration service for quite some time, so I know perfectly well that pirates are only denied access to public trade hubs starting at danger-level five. And in practice, individual employees make a lot of exceptions to that rule! Some Free Captains are let through even at danger level nine!”

“Shut it, you murdering scum!” the rude Miyelonian hissed threateningly at my Translator. “You’re about to earn yourself a lifetime ban from all Miyelonian planets and stations! In fact, it’s weird they haven’t banned you already!”

Authority reduced to 64!

Gerd Ayni took a step back in fear and closed her mouth. I on the other hand flared up. How dare this overfed Miyelonian insult and humiliate a member of my crew, especially a high-profile one?! I was about to intervene before I received a system message notifying me that my Authority had dropped. That served as a catalyst, adding to my anger and determination.

“Shut your snout you flea-ridden ball of mange!” The registration service employer crouched down in fear at my exclamation and stayed like that, perfectly still with his eyes glazed over.

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-four!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level ninety-eight!

You have reached level eighty-eight!

You have received three skill points.

Only after did I realize what I’d done. A magic attack on a registration service employee in the line of duty... That could lead to a very serious mess... There was no end to the trouble that could land me in. At the very least I could be expelled from Kasti-Utsh III, if they didn’t confiscate my ship and add me to the list of individuals banned from Miyelonian planets and stations. However, I absolutely could not allow a member of my crew to be insulted and have their snout dragged through the mud in my presence – otherwise what kind of captain would I be? And I’d like to see that Miyelonian try and prove that I used magic against him! Without bringing in Truth Seekers, it would be practically impossible – no logs, no traces. And with my high psionic defense, extracting information from me was not such an easy task!

There was no longer an easy way out, so I continued putting pressure on the Miyelonian:

“Look me in the eyes, you overfed piece of shit! Yeah, like that. And now tell me why I was banned from visiting Kasti-Utsh III. For some reason I can’t catch any of your scatterbrained thoughts. Think a bit harder if you still know how!”

Amidst the very powerful fear, disconnected fragments of thoughts and emotions, something sensible finally broke through:

“This man is dangerous. He is going to kill me. Just the way he’s looming over me, staring with his ghastly glimmering eyes. And he has a terrifying reputation. Oh well, no matter. I’ve already earned twenty crypto for tipping off the Pride of the Bushy Shadow that their man has arrived. So I won’t be going to respawn for nothing. And if Leng Gnat does kill me, he still won’t be able to get onto the stationthe doors are closed! I added a criminal marker to his documents, so half the job is already done. And he won’t be able to leave the station either. Now we just need time so the pirate pride’s goons can get here. They’re already rushing this way. And then I’ll get more than just twenty crypto. As the informant, I’ll be entitled to ten percent of the take. The dispatchers said he has a large shipment of platinum on board. So we cannot allow Leng Gnat to enter the station and sell it!”

Oh, how interesting... It was just this fatcat’s everyday greed, conspiring with station dispatchers to place a criminal marker into my file for a payoff. I didn’t know whether a rank-five employee had the authority to do that or not, and it didn’t make much difference. Much more important was that there were killers working for the Pride of the Bushy Shadow rushing this way! And as bad luck would have it, I only had six crew members, and only Denni Marko was of a combat class, a Bodyguard. This is about to be a real shitshow, there’s no other way to put it...

No, I was not afraid, not even a little bit. But my rage was simply overflowing! The pirates had me caught in a trap... or to be more accurate, they thought they did. What they don’t know is that I’m not going down without a fight! And when you back an animal into a corner, it’s twice as dangerous! My brain was working full bore, scrolling through all my options. First of all, could I count on any help?

“Ayni, you have a better idea how this all works. Is the Pride of the Bushy Shadow really allowed to just send goons into our hangar and attack us on Kasti-Utsh III? Can they get away with it? I thought this was a place of law and order, not some pirate station. Shouldn’t the authorities step in?”

“You’re right about that, captain. No one would dare attack us and think they could get away with it. Unless the Pride of the Bushy Shadow pays the required fee to the station owners and officially declares war. Then it would be purely our concern. The station won’t interfere. But war is a costly indulgence, so I don’t think...”

Ayni didn’t finish her sentence because we all suddenly saw identical system messages:

ATTENTION!!! The Pride of the Bushy Shadow has issued an official declaration of war on the Relict Faction! Zone of conflict: all interior areas of the Kasti-Utsh III station, except residential sectors and the administration floor. A deposit of one hundred twenty thousand crypto has been paid. Combat activity shall begin immediately and last until one of the parties achieves total victory or the losing side pays the victor reparations of four hundred eighty thousand crypto.

 

Fame increased to 77.

* * *

Hrm... Not good... By the looks of things, I could no longer count on station security for help. I was encountering this for the first time and immediately asked Ayni all details of these administratively permitted conflicts. We could end the war immediately by paying the reparations. Then the aggressor would not be allowed to initiate another war against us for the next five standard days. All structural damage to the station and damage to property belonging to uninvolved players would be paid by the losing party as well. And there were essentially no other limitations or rules to speak of – kill one another as many times as you like and however you like, as long as it doesn’t bother other players!

Tini cut into our conversation and said:

“News channels are always eager to buy footage of such battles. They have a ravenous fan base all throughout the Galaxy. Captain, if you like, I could take a video.”

And really, why not? We could touch up the footage after if needed, cut out anything we wanted to keep secret, then sell the recording. And my kitten made another suggestion as well – that we bet money at a gambling machine because “permitted” battles always drew the interest of station residents and local bookies alike. But I declined that. I didn’t have any money to spare, or confidence that we would in fact emerge victorious.

So what were our options here? A cowardly thought bubbled up that I should try and sell all our platinum and just give the pirates their payout, but I immediately decided against it. We hadn’t been beaten yet, so it was too early to consider surrender. I was also opposed to just quickly leaving the station. First of all, we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our dock with the criminal marker. Second, in ten to twelve hours the rest of my crew would be arriving to Kasti-Utsh III and I couldn’t just leave them to be torn to shreds by bloodthirsty pirates.

Okay then, so what should we do? We were short on time, but our opponent would need some time to gather their forces and run down the corridors of the gigantic station. So we’d have to prepare and show those pirates just how badly mistaken they were to think of us as easy prey! For starters, I needed access to a service terminal – there we could enter false information to throw them off. But first I need to somehow get rid of the corrupt Miyelonian still sitting there limply, staring dumbly at a fixed point. I couldn’t simply kill him. I saw video camera lenses right above the employee’s booth. And although mental attacks couldn’t be detected by camera and microphone, a physical attack would surely be noticed at once.

I needed to come at this from another angle and take advantage of a tradition of the Miyelonian race:

“Tini, challenge that scumbag level-57 Administrator to a ritual duel! He insulted our Ayni, he insulted your captain, he sold us out to our enemies!”

“Yes, captain!” my ward took a decisive step forward, pulling out an excellent pair of daggers that had once belonged to Big Abi himself. But then the kitten sized up his opponent, froze and looked at me: “Leng Gnat, this tub of lard doesn’t look like much of a fighter. What if he refuses?”

“He won’t!” I reassured my ward, not clarifying that the “tub of lard” was under my control and would do exactly as I commanded. “He’ll accept the challenge. And if he doesn’t have any blades, lend him your backup set. Say the ritual phrase and take your opponent over there,” I pointed to a section of corridor out of reach of the security cameras.

Mentally, I sent detailed instructions to Tini:

“Don’t kill him right away. Immobilize him and make sure you take the bracelet off his pawthat’s the key to the registration service terminal. Then take him out. But also take his tail just in case. I understand that this level-57 fatso is not a serious opponent for you, but we don’t want any problems with his Pride of the Heavenly Eye.”

My ward confirmed with a silent nod that he understood, and turned to his opponent, asking in proper form:

“Ah-sahntee maye-uu-u rezsh shashash-u?”

It’s probably not worth giving a detailed description of the duel because the overfed Administrator offered no resistance. Even though I released his mind, it was still entirely one-sided. Tini disarmed and immobilized his clumsy slow-moving opponent with virtuosic talent, tore off his bracelet and then, in the gruesome tradition of Fox the Morphian, put on a real snuff show, disemboweling his opponent in the literal sense of the word. And while the corrupt official died of severe blood loss and terminal wounds, the young Thief had the time to clean out his inventory.

So then, step one of the plan was complete. Now on to step two. Again mentally, I sent a message to Vaa:

“The body must be devoured. Leave no trace! Then turn into that same Miyelonian. It’s in your own interest! Spend a bit of time as him, then you can disappear on the station without a trace.”

Knowing nothing about the Morphian, Tini gasped in horror when he saw a human girl suddenly get down on all fours, turn into a voracious fanged monster and throw itself on the bloodied corpse. Gerd Ayni, although she was more aware, also had a hard time fighting back nausea as she watched the disgusting spectacle. And meanwhile, in just twenty seconds, Vaa had cleaned up all traces of the duel and taken the form of the fat Miyelonian administrator.

“Great! Take the key and activate his service terminal. Gerd Ayni can tell you how it works. And for starters, close the armored doors leading from the hallway. That’ll earn us a bit of time and force our enemy to look for another way in! Then change our frigate’s stationing bay – have the gravity crane bring our ship to a more spacious hangar, and have it position our nose cannons toward the door into the hallway. Then delete that from the system log so they won’t know we restationed – make them search for us!”

“Captain, we could also mark hangar 11-766 as our new location,” Ayni suggested and explained for the others: “According to the database, there is a Trillian escort destroyer there being repaired after a battle with Miyelonian pirates. They’re very serious guys and have their own scores to settle with pirates, so they definitely won’t be happy to see our foes.”

“Great! Do that then!” I approved the Translator’s suggestion. “And now look and see what kind of forces our opponent has at their disposal. How many Pride of the Bushy Shadow starships are currently docked here? And how many pride members are currently on the Kasti-Utsh III station?”

The “fat Administrator” started reading the terminal closely, with Ayni actively helping him figure it out. After a bit of time, they found the answers:

“Leng Gnat, the Pride of the Bushy Shadow has three starships here. Two Tiopeo-Myhh II interceptors in hangars down the seventh maneuver tunnel, and an Akati-Po II ore carrier at dock ten. Between the three ships, there are seventeen registered crewmembers. And there are another thirty-five members of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow living on the station.”

Alright, I see. Fifty players, and nowhere near all of them of combat class. Not all that many really. But still more than enough to take us down.

“Friends, let’s give the pirates a nice little distraction! Ayni, you said that two of their interceptors are stationed in the same maneuver corridor? Great, clear one of the interceptors from the database and give an order to move the second starship to the ‘free hangar.’ Override all possible collision tests. Have the gravity crane just jam the ship in no matter what it takes. Would that be doable?”

“Yes captain,” Gerd Ayni answered meekly, fearfully pressing her ears down as she clearly had a vivid imagination of what would happen when the two fairly fragile and expensive starships collided.

But she didn’t argue and her clawed paws started flying over the screen, tracing figures to give commands to the station’s robots. And while the Translator was busy, I gave out my next portion of instructions:

“Then remove the criminal marker from me so that we can go onto the station, and so our frigate will have permission to leave dock. Done? Great! And the pirate frigate is already underway to the new dock? Just wonderful! And now the most important part: we have precious little time, but we also need to sell off our cargo, buy a bunch of stuff and make a couple last-minute hires.”


Chapter Eight. Under Siege

OUR FIRST FACEOFF with the pirates came fifteen minutes later. That showed that our enemy was extremely self-confident and severely underestimating us. The group of Miyelonians tried to open the metal barrier into our corridor with their laser knives and got blasted to smithereens by the Jarg, who crawled out of a nearby ventilation shaft and self-destructed. The spiny Analyst asked to be used that way because, and I quote:

“Pirates to know. Jarg is in Leng Gnat crew. Dispatchers scanned frigate. While entering dock. That is how know about little crew and much platinum. One time Jarg explode. Can to surprise. Earn time.”

That sent a group of twelve pirates to respawn. Not bad! Fifteen minutes for them to respawn, then they’d have to take the miles-long path down the station’s corridors again... So that meant the Jarg earned us half an hour. Tini then opened the gates briefly and picked up our enemies’ loot, even though there wasn’t much of interest: gloves with slight bonuses to thief skills, mismatched blades, a platinum earring giving +1 to Constitution... Not exactly pure garbage but, as far as trophies go, nothing to write home about.

And I was able to watch the whole thing because Gerd Ayni linked us into the security camera system, providing seven thousand stationary viewpoints and a few flying drones to watch from. Now, without leaving the frigate, we could see all the corridors and rooms on the huge Kasti-Utsh III space station. I jumped from camera to camera, trying to find my enemies from the pirate pride but somehow I never saw any. In fact, there was nothing to even suggest a state of war. The Kasti-Utsh III residents and visitors were just living their lives as normal: talking, working, arguing, fighting, and eating food. Law enforcement wasn’t doing much out of the ordinary either, although they had isolated a section of corridor a third of a mile long near dock eleven to keep outsiders away from the combat zone.

“Captain, they’re talking about us!” Tini flipped the big screen to local news.

The journalist – a cute black kitty with a mask of light hair on her face wearing nothing but ultra-short shorts – was interviewing a clearly embarrassed middle-aged Miyelonian in a constantly shifting chameleon suit.

Gerd Undi Ar Miyeyauu. Miyelonian Female. Pride of the Sweet Voice. Level-148 Journalist.

Kars Un Dit. Miyelonian. Pride of the Bushy Shadow Level-113 Saboteur.

They really were talking about us, me to be more precise. The saboteur replied to the Journalist that the Tolili-Ukh X frigate was stationed in a blocked area, and the humans would have nowhere to hide. And that it could all be ended with one decisive attack, because Leng Gnat had extremely few crew members. However, “boss man” Gerd Abi Pan-Miay had asked them to wait for him – the leader of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow had lots of pent up grievances for their insolent opponent, and he wanted to tell me them in person. “Big Abi” and a crew of hardened killers were already on their way to the station so, in somewhere around an ummi, I could expect activity and reports from the scene. For now I just had to stay patient and wait.

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level ninety-nine!

I could tell the Saboteur was lying even without the pop-up system message. It wasn’t like I was some trained physiognomist of the Miyelonian race, it was just that this old fighter was a very poor actor. And the Miyelonian wasn’t lying that Big Abi was rushing to the Kasti-Utsh III station with a gang of killers either – that part actually seemed like the truth. But he was lying when he said, “until the pride leader gets here, we will just stay patient and wait.” The Saboteur was clearly saying that because he hoped Leng Gnat and his team would see the interview and let their guard down. Looks like our opponent was scheming and trying to get the element of surprise.

And there was another aspect of the old Miyelonian’s words that drew my attention. He said it would be “one ummi” until Abi got here, but that was too short for a flight from the Medu-Ro IV pirate station where the Pride of the Bushy Shadow had their main base. However, it lined up very well with the flight time from the C9004/AW system, the one with a black hole. Merely a coincidence? Or did Big Abi go to check up on his stash spot? If he did, it was easy to comprehend. The pirate leader really had overextended a bit recently – he lost the contents of his treasure cache on Medu-Ro IV, then his main starship to boot. So anything was possible. I wondered whether Gerd Abi Pan-Miay could find what he was looking for in the tail of that comet without the piece of plastic giving its precise coordinates.

On screen, the interview was ongoing and the tailed Journalist’s next question made me perk up my ears:

“ So Kars Un-Dit, you say victory is assured and that you could take down your opponent with one decisive pounce at any time, because Leng Gnat has very few fighters. But then how do you explain the fact that the Pride of Agile Paw – the clan that controls the Kasti-Utsh III betting office – recently dramatically changed the odds on your war? For our viewers out there, not long ago they were accepting bets at eleven to one point zero seven, meaning they had no doubt the Pride of the Bushy Shadow would emerge victorious. But now odds are in favor of the human, at one point two to seven. And that number just keeps growing!”

Fame increased to 78.

Authority increased to 65!

In response, the Saboteur started burbling something disconnected about gambling being an inherently risky endeavor, but he should have just kept quiet – then he might not have started looking so pale. Now even the most unsophisticated viewer could clearly see this fighter didn’t know what happened, and had a weak grasp on the situation overall.

“Captain, I actually want to know that,” my ward Tini piped up. “Why is the Pride of the Agile Paw so convinced we’ll win all of a sudden?”

I kept quiet, not especially wanting to comment. I said nothing about my close connection with the head of the Pride of the Agile Paw, although I did value the useful acquaintance highly. Even my crew didn’t know that a few Team Gnat fighters took part in that pride’s robbery of the pirate treasure vault. And now I had to admit that the Pride of the Agile Paw’s presence here on Kasti-Utsh III came as a pleasant surprise to me because it gave me hope we could work together to both of our benefits. Yes, the Pride of the Agile Paw was behind betting operations on the station, but could they maybe also help me sell off a bit of platinum? After all, they recently got into the precious metal trade!

However, I have to admit I was having serious difficulties selling the twelve seven-hundred-pound containers of platinum sponge – local traders were stubbornly ignoring all positions I put up in the trade system. Without my business partner, professional Trader Uline Tar, I had to take a deep dive into the settings of the trade system on my own. But it was not all that easy. And I must have done something wrong, because even at prices one third lower than market value, my wares garnered absolutely no interest. Or perhaps they were simply not visible in the system.

However, if I could sell the shipment of platinum, even at a steep discount, I’d end up with fourteen or fifteen million Geckho monetary crystals or just over two million crypto, which would immediately solve a boatload of problems! The most obvious application for the cash was hiring hundreds of experienced mercenaries for a one-time strong-arm operation. Then in one day, all that would remain of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow on this station would be memories!

But I still hadn’t answered Tini’s question, so Gerd Ayni instead gave a plausible explanation for the abrupt change in the odds:

“The Pride of the Agile Paw is very shrewd. They’re professional swindlers and they have informants everywhere. They must have dug up something about us. For example, maybe they noticed that we hired a Programmer to set up combat robots.”

Everyone fell silent and simultaneously turned their heads to the monitor, which was transmitting from a security camera in the cargo hold. There was a small eight-legged Meleyephatian there reflashing the software for the TT-67A Immolator plasma turrets.

Wizzz 889. Meleyephatian. Renegade Nest 56. Level-63 Programmer.

The Meleyephatian was wearing nothing but a red bandanna, hiding some of his many eyes for some reason and a wide toolbelt around his abdomen. It was going to be a difficult job – the Immolators were self-teaching robots, and loyalty to a master was hardwired into their code. But Wizzz was very familiar with their system architecture and, operating with four, six and at times all eight of his appendages, he was performing a number of operations at once: replacing the memory block, wiping something and reprogramming something else, all while restoring and updating combat programs.

But the Programmer was not very precise, carelessly throwing tablets of programming utilities, nuclear batteries with bundles of cable, crystal drives and memory blocks all over the metal floor of the cargo hold. Wizzz was also constantly chewing something – some kind of tonic or perhaps narcotic grass, and his dark spit was dribbling onto the floor and nearby items. And all the while, the Meleyephatian was talking to himself, arguing and even cursing. I got intrigued and asked Ayni to translate what the Programmer was saying. It turned out to be a string of curse words mixed together with professional terms like:

“...this isn’t the right coding, you asshat... Ah, I’m an idiot. This is version 0.91 and it uses a patch from the Trillians... look at the hardware, dumbass, this is a jailbroken version off the black market... oh rip out all sixteen of your eyes, numbnuts. The version number on the memory block is 0.93... don’t you see, there’s no signal in the blue wire... you should have your arms torn out, moron! ... so, what if we attach the battery?! ... retard, delete the loyalty file quick, otherwise this Immolator will put us all in the grave...”

At a certain point, the Meleyephatian even smacked his head too hard with a jointed arm, then he spent a long time apologizing to himself. I have to admit, that took me aback somewhat. However I never made any remarks to the hired specialist – let him work as best he knows how, just as long as the difficult and risky task got done as quickly as possible. After all, we might need the combat robots soon to deflect a pirate attack.

When a Meleyephatian responded to the urgent work request for a programmer, I was dumbstruck. I had never had close contact with one of their kind, which looked like giant spiders. I also had a bias against the Meleyephatians – in some way or another, their Horde was threatening my native Earth. But Wizzz, despite all his behavioral quirks, ended up making quite a positive impression on me. Furthermore, he really did understand how to program complicated technology – the Meleyephatian had the documents and certificates to prove it. I also ran a quick mental scan on the Programmer and that confirmed a high level of expertise. By the way, Wizzz also helped Gerd Ayni extract data from the registration service terminal and send it to the computers in the frigate hangar. Things that seriously challenged our tailed Translator were solved by the Programmer in just ten seconds.

I was also struck by the fact that none of the Geckho or Miyelonians in my crew felt any hostility toward Wizzz, even though their races were locked in a brutal space war. Was it maybe because he was a renegade? By the way, who were these Meleyephatian “renegades?” I started looking up the information in my guide, but Ayukh saved me some time and gave a detailed retelling:

“Groups of Meleyephatians who do not share the militaristic and predatory ideals of the Horde. Renegades are far in the minority and try to distance themselves from Meleyephatian society. Still, they are not exterminated or banished – in the Meleyephatian worldview, war between members of their race is simply inconceivable. They just separate themselves and are ignored. As soon as a critical mass is reached and those disaffected with the ‘central line of the horde’ form a large enough group, the renegades form their own ‘nest’ with its own leaders and principles, but continue to live on the very same planets and stations as members of the mainstream Meleyephatian horde. In case of external threat, renegades will defend their home no less fervently than other Meleyephatians but, in all other circumstances, they are peaceful and do not take part in combat.”

I see. That means this Meleyephatian is not an enemy of humanity and is not a threat to Earth. I relaxed somewhat and turned back to the security cameras. Our opponents were clearly up to something and I had to figure out what. I wasn’t especially afraid of a direct attack down the corridor from the station. Even if the Pride of the Bushy Shadow threw all their forces into the attack, in the long wide corridor my Small Relict Guard Drone could cut down all fifty players in a matter of minutes. As soon as they got past the metal barrier and inside its range, goodnight. And then they would know about my deadly flying guardian and probably think up some way around it. But for now the ancient drone was the ace up my sleeve.

The ventilation? Maintenance shafts in the corridors? When I took part in an assault with Miyelonians, the bulk of the attackers crawled in via empty spaces above the main corridor. Now it was seemingly going to be something similar... except this time they would be sneaking into hangar 11-766, which contained a Trillian escort destroyer and a crew specialized in fighting pirates. Good luck! I hope sparks fly!

But my Tolili-Ukh X frigate was thirteen hundred feet further down the corridor in a totally different hangar, number 11-753. At any rate, I was using my Scanning skill regularly, keeping an eye on the situation and checking the ventilation and other approaches, so they would not be able to steal up unnoticed.

So, what is that? I noticed some activity on the monitor, which was set to a camera beyond the isolated sector of the corridor. A small group of Trillians was walking or more like slithering up to a guard post, and after a brief exchange of words, the Miyelonian guardsman let them into corridor number eleven, which was closed for the duration of the conflict. Seemingly, the Trillian destroyer’s team was coming back to their ship – there were no other starships in the combat zone to speak of. We’d have to open the metal barrier and let the crew of the nearby ship through. I zoomed in to get a better look at the Trillian and my heart started racing:

Gerd Ussh Veesh Trillian. Gray Trillian subrace. Level-146 Trader.

My good acquaintance. A friend in fact! The “magic jewelry” merchant from Medu-Ro IV. I was still wearing the +3 and +2 Intelligence rings I got from him. Gerd Ussh Veesh, as it turned out, was also a member of the Hive of Tintara mafia. I was not wrong about that. There it was – the symbol for “Execution” seared into the space crocodile’s chest plate. Interesting. Very interesting. Meanwhile the group of Trillians crawled over to the metal barrier and stopped.

The trader turned to the video camera, raised the front half of his body and gave a cordial wave of his foot. An utterly human gesture – Geckho and Miyelonians greeted each other and showed good intentions with totally different body language. Seemingly, Gerd Ussh Veesh knew that I was watching him and was showing that. Alright then, I decided not to annoy the important guest by making him wait and sent Tini to open the barrier:

“Tini, that’s Gerd Ussh Veesh. You probably remember him. Go greet our honored guest and lead him to our ship with all possible respect. I suspect that the space merchant has come bearing news. I hope he can tell me why the Pride of the Agile Paw is so convinced of our victory.”


Chapter 9. A New War

THE TRILLIAN HONKED and rasped in his language, expressing a storm of delight to see me, then he extended an armored sharp-clawed foot. I already knew this gesture and, removing my helmet, let the alien “crocodile” touch my bare neck with his sharpened claw as a sign of trust. In his turn, the Trader eagerly exposed his chest, allowing me to touch a vulnerable gap in his armor with a sharp knife.

Gerd Ussh Veesh gave a satisfied honk and clicked his tongue, walking a circle and looking over my excellent Tolili-Ukh X Meleyephatian frigate. With the look of a connoisseur, he studied the stabilizers, landing supports, laser cannons and thrusters. After that, leaving his two impressively large Bodyguards at the gangway, the Trader walked or rather crawled after me to the starship. There he greeted Gerd Ayni and Tini, who he knew well (in fact, we were all locked up together and suspected of killing the incarnation of the Great First Female of the Miyelonian race!), then gratefully accepted a glass of alcoholic cocktail from the orange Translator. His split tongue slithered into the glass and he gave a satisfied hiss, savoring the drink. But he quickly set the glass aside to show that he’d come on business.

“My human friend! I’m glad to see you in good health!” said the merchant, finally switching to Geckho. “I heard on the news that you got yourself into a tiff with some Miyelonian pirates. I wanted to help because you’re my friend but I see you’re doing just fine on your own. That’s some serious hardware!”

The huge Trillian pointed a claw at a monitor, which was showing the Meleyephatian programmer testing the first of the Immolator robots. And it was already on its feet. The walking robot was obediently carrying out the commands and most importantly was behaving peaceably. So it looked like the reprogramming procedure had been a success.

“Yes, that thing is no joke,” I agreed, meanwhile realizing that I should have turned off the screen so our secrets wouldn’t get out. At any rate, I hurriedly sent my flying drone to a more distant section of the frigate hold so my guest wouldn’t see. And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust Gerd Ussh Veesh. More the opposite. I simply thought it best to keep my cards close to my chest.

“Four Immolators! The Pride of the Bushy Shadow will come to severely regret tangling with you, Leng Gnat. They are probably already at a standstill now that Kung Keetsie-Myau has commented the conflict and said she wanted to have a talk with you.”

Well, well! I had a very hard time keeping the ambivalent look on my face and not showing how astonished I was. So then, the Great One was aware of events on the station and had even made a public comment. And on top of that, she wanted to have a talk with me. I wonder what exactly she said to make the bookies change the odds of this war so abruptly!

I didn’t even have to ask that out loud or give any mental commands. Tini, Ayukh and Gerd Ayni had already guessed what I wanted and were poking at their palmtops, racing to be the first to find this information for me. And meanwhile I responded to the respected Trader that I valued my acquaintance with such an influential individual as the Miyelonian Fleet Commander Kung Keetsie-Myau, but still didn’t expect her to intervene in such a mundane conflict. I was already doing fine, especially if I could smooth over a minor issue I was having with trading.

The Trillian honked in satisfaction. Seemingly it was equivalent to happy laughter:

“A trading issue? My human friend, I suspect that you cannot sell your platinum. Is that right?”

I didn’t try and deny it, just confirmed that was what I was referring to.

“It’s because the Pride of the Bushy Shadow has lain claim to your cargo and declared they will take the platinum containers as spoils of war – both as booty and a security to end the fighting on Kasti-Utsh III. See, in these kinds of wars the official aggressor may specify something belonging to the defending party as collateral against potential reparation payments. So there has been a temporary hold placed on your thirteen containers of superfine platinum powder in the trade system. If you lose and don’t have the money to pay up, your opponent will confiscate the platinum. And they’ll probably take your ship too. The pirates are very mad at you and burning with desire to compensate all their losses.”

Damn! That scared me, especially the possibility of losing my starship which had been quite a pain to get in the first place, and which I had invested so much effort and funds into. But I finally knew why I couldn’t sell the precious metal. This was now a critical situation – without the money from the platinum, I had no way of winning this war. Even with the ancient drone and four Immolators, the pirates would take down my small team sooner or later.

My mood sunk beneath the deck of my ship. At that moment, Gerd Ayni pulled away from her palmtop and raised her snout, clearly looking to make eye contact with me so she wouldn’t have to say anything out loud. Seemingly, the Miyelonian was the first of my companions to find the required information. I met eyes with the orange kitty.

“Captain, the Great One really has commented on the war on Kasti-Utsh III. Kung Keetsie-Myau has opined that the best possible end to your smoldering conflict would be an official duel between the two leaders: the human Leng Gnat and Gerd Abi Pan-Miay. A duel could settle all your disputes once and for all. And the Great One also said that if it really does come to a duel, she would be willing to bet a million crypto on Gnat to win. She said her ‘marriage-dance partner’ had made a lasting impression on her with his handling of her strongest admirer her future husband Gerd Lekku. And if Leng Gnat doesn’t let her down and wins the duel with the pirate leader, Keetsie is willing to give you an audience and offer ‘something of interest both to the human and his entire planet.’“

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-five!

Well, well... I led my gaze over the popup message. The Miyelonian fleet commander simply left me no choice, giving me an unambiguous condition for an audience. Sure, Kung Keetsie-Myau only surrounded herself with the best of the best and the right to speak with the Great One had to be earned. However, why did the vaunted commander think that the pirate leader would agree to a duel with me? What possible reason could Big Abi have to take a risk and agree to a duel, if his pride was in a position to win regardless? I asked that out loud.

“What do you mean?” Tini asked in surprise at the way I posed the question. “That would give the leader of the pirate pride a massive boost to Fame and Authority! Big Abi is already very respected in pirate circles. With a win like that under his belt, the other prides might line up behind him. There is a distinctly possibility he could become a Leng if he can take down a man everyone thinks will win. And based on the betting, that is exactly what you are. Gerd Abi could also hit it big at the betting agency if he wins, and he is definitely a gambler! So captain, if you challenge Big Abi to a duel, he’s sure to agree!”

“You’ve faced off against the Pride of the Bushy Shadow and its leader before,” the experienced Trader added to my ward’s admonishment. “He’s a dangerous, unprincipled pirate. Gerd Abi may well agree to a duel with you, but he will try to make it the final chapter of your story. And before that, he will send his goons to destroy your property and take everything of even the most remote value. So a duel would not take the place of a war with the pirates, but it could finish it.”

Okay, sounds plausible. I really did have to think about this a bit. But what to do now? Hold down the fort with all the reprogrammed Immolators and send the Small Relict Guard Drone into battle? And meanwhile invite that black-furred Journalist to our ship and, after saying our point of view on the origins of this war, challenge the fearsome pirate to a duel with the whole galaxy watching?

I was torn from contemplation by Gerd Ussh Veesh:

“Say, human friend, how can I help? You want a couple of my best guards for a bit? You want me to cover your frigate as it leaves the station maybe? Or give you a loan with your starship as collateral perhaps?”

I shook my head “no.” I was not willing to risk my ship. But a different idea came to my mind:

“Buy the containers of platinum from me!” I suggested. “Now there’s paying business! Right now, no one will take the precious metal even at a severely reduced price. But when the war is over and the hold is removed, you’ll easily be able to earn thirty percent profit!”

The space crocodile considered it and lamentingly rasped through his teeth:

“You’re asking me to take a big risk. I could lose my trade license if someone finds out. The punishment for trading in disputed and confiscated goods on Miyelonian stations is very harsh. Worse than for contraband. I wouldn’t get away with just a fine. I’ll take one container max. My bodyguards will take the box to the neighboring destroyer, but first we have to get all the security cameras in the corridor turned off...”

“One box won’t be enough,” I interrupted the Trader. “That won’t be enough money for me. At least three boxes! Wait, don’t argue, hear me out. Furthermore, you can bet that I’ll lose, then I’ll throw the thing. Remember, the odds right now are seven to one, so every million you put in now will earn you six. You stand to make a fortune! And I think such sound advice merits sharing the reward with me.”

Gerd Ussh Veesh started honking indignantly. However, he calmed down fairly quickly and, lowering his voice to a whisper, said:

“Alright. Three boxes of platinum. Half a million crypto. But keep in mind what a big risk I’m taking here, human. For help like this, I get to ask you a favor in return. Do you agree to that?”

Danger Sense skill increased to level sixty-nine!

Yes, I know, I know. I didn’t much like what was happening either. No system messages needed. Out of the corner of my eye, I unwittingly noticed the burnt-in rune for Execution on the armored gray Trillian’s chest. Gerd Ussh Veesh was a member of the Hive of Tintara, which had an extremely murky reputation, and promising a favor to a space mafioso could come back to give me quite the painful nip in the ass in the future. But I didn’t see any other way out. I had only six crew members and no money to pay the reparations. If I didn’t agree to the Trillian’s condition, I was in for a big defeat in the war with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow. And that would lead to a severe loss of Authority. Then the influential leaders of the Miyelonian race might lose interest in me. And to top it all off, I’d be losing my valuable cargo and perhaps even my frigate. Overall, it could be a complete shellacking and the end to all my hopes and dreams. So I told the Trader I agreed and extended a hand, sealing my understanding with the space crocodile.

* * *

There they are! They’re crawling single-file through the ventilation shaft, just as I thought. So they did figure out where our frigate ended up. Seven... then a group of eight, and another group a bit behind that makes... Twenty-five players! Woah! The Pride of the Bushy Shadow had thrown half of their current player base into this attack. That was probably everyone they had who knew how to hold a gun.

Scanning skill increased to level fifty-eight!

Ugh, I wish there was a way to send a stream of scorching hot plasma down that tube! Then we could take out all three groups in one go! I turned on the ship loudspeaker and asked Ayni, who was standing next to me:

“Ask Wizzz how it’s going with the Immolators, would you? We might need them very soon.”

Thirty seconds later, the orange Translator relayed his response:

“Wizzz says that one is almost good to go, but hasn’t turned on yet. It’s currently having updates installed for all its combat programs and undergoing compatibility testing. He’s still working with the other Immolators.”

Damn! At this key moment, none of my combat robots were in fighting shape. Although... An Immolator was not the best choice here. The ventilation was up high, just under the hangar ceiling. The robot could barely hit it. And it would be even worse at shooting along the shaft. Seemingly, like it or not, I’d have to deploy my small Relict Guard Drone – the flying sphere was just the right size for the ventilation system.

Targeting skill increased to level thirty-eight!

You have reached level eighty-nine!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six).

Woah! That surpassed all my expectations! The drone shot off down the shaft like a speeding bullet, absolutely wasting our opponents. Just five seconds and all the attackers were gone! Now the pirates wouldn’t be bothering us for another fifteen minutes. This was the very time to get to the next part of my plan.

I thought through the order of my actions one more time and, wishing myself luck, opened an offer I’d saved in the faction-leader menu under the Diplomacy tab.

ATTENTION!!! The Relict Faction has agreed to pay the Pride of the Bushy Shadow reparations of 480,000 crypto. War over!

 

ATTENTION!!! 5,766 crypto has been withdrawn from your account to compensate damages sustained by the Kasti-Utsh III station.

 

Fame increased to 79.

Authority reduced to 64!

Authority reduced to 63!

Authority reduced to 62!

The defeat came at a heavy cost to my Authority. But that was predictable and even inevitable. Almost immediately, my wallet gave a buzz. Finally the offers for the ten platinum containers I put up at lower than market prices were taken off hold and the Traders (or more likely automated trading bots) were hurrying to buy my high-value goods. Then a few error messages also jumped in, saying I no longer had all the platinum – the game system had noticed the three missing containers.

No matter. The most important part was done. I told Tini and Denni Marko to get in touch with the purchasers. I needed to get delivery addresses to punch into the conveyor belt transport system – I checked the balance in my wallet. Almost one and a half million crypto. Not bad! But where was the money from Gerd Ussh Veesh? Did the Trillian really scam me and decide not to pay the “reward” for my timely advice?

Thankfully, I was being unfair to the Trader. A split second later, my balance went up another eight hundred thousand crypto. The space crocodile had kept his word. Good. I activated the Diplomacy tab yet again. Did the pirates think they’d already won? Try this one on for size! The stakes of the game are about to go up!!!

ATTENTION!!! The Relict Faction has issued an official declaration of war on the Pride of the Bushy Shadow! Zone of conflict: all interior areas of the Kasti-Utsh III station, except residential sectors and the administration floor. A deposit of one million crypto has been paid. Combat activity shall begin immediately and last until one of the parties achieves total victory or the losing side pays the victor reparations of four million crypto.

 

Fame increased to 80.

Authority increased to 63!

Authority increased to 64!

That almost compensated my lost Authority. In fact, considering the double Fame boost, it all turned out for the best. Then Gerd Ayni touched my shoulder, drawing my attention:

“Captain, Wizzz is saying that two of the Immolators are ready.”

Just two? Oh well, should be enough. I’ll take Denni Marko, Tini and Gerd Ayni with me, plus the Relict drone along with them. Most important is not wasting time! We only have fifteen minutes to make a counterattack before the Pride of the Bushy Shadow’s main forces will have respawned.

However, I was interrupted before I could start issuing orders. The familiar voice of my business partner Uline Tar rang out in my headphones:

“Ain’t this just the way it goes. I leave you alone for one minute and what do I find? War, bodies and destruction! What have you gotten yourself into this time?”

How happy I was to hear that nagging voice! And the next voice as well, which belonged to Dmitry Zheltov:

“Captain, we have arrived. Sixteen players, four new. Stationed at hangar 8-505. Ready for battle. We await your orders.”

That was just amazing! My respawned team got to the station before Big Abi and his cutthroats! Now we had a complete advantage in combat power! But yikes. I did not envy the pirates of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow!


Chapter Ten. Reinforcements

TO THE THUNDER of the several-ton Immolators walking behind us, accompanied by Gerd Ayni, Tini and Denni Marko, I entered hangar number 8-505. In the center was the dumpy Shiamiru shuttle, which had been through so much, already prepared for its next voyage. Its Geckho crew was loading heavy containers of equipment for the planetary shield generator into the hold. When the walking combat robots arrived, the Geckho stopped just for a second and turned their heads, then casually got back to loading. It was as if a pair of Immolators just walked past their ship every day. I suspect they had paid for extremely limited stationing time on Kasti-Utsh III, and their cheapskate captain was rushing them to leave so they wouldn’t get hit with an overstay fine.

However, the group of players sitting on bales and bags at the very farthest wall of the hangar shot up in surprise, unable to believe their eyes. Or perhaps they were remembering their previous encounter with the Immolators. For many of them, it was not a particularly pleasant memory.

“Gnat?!” Uline Tar was first to come to her senses, throwing herself at me and very nearly strangling me in her embrace.

The Immolators jerked and all at once turned their cannons toward the huge Geckho woman. But clearly they saw her allied status and ignored the “attack on their master.” And they did the same to the big group of players jubilantly rushing over to greet me.

“Captain? Why war? And where did you get these big bastards?” asked Dmitry Zheltov, shaking my hand and not even trying to hide his surprise.

I took my sweet time to answer because I was also fairly surprised. Above all at the low number of newcomers (I was counting on fifteen to twenty to round out my forces). But I was also taken aback to see an NPC Dryad among the new players:

Nefertiti. Dryad. Antiquity Faction. Level-90 Artisan.

The supple-figured swarthy Dryad, whose only clothing consisted of a broad army belt with knives and three armor sheets that seemed glued to her body, picked up a bag clearly planning to follow the other newcomers.

“Who’s the stripper?” I didn’t even have to point for them to know what was bothering me. Everyone understood perfectly well.

“Leng Gnat La-Fin, she... I didn’t take her with on purpose, the Dryad came of her own accord...” boarding team leader Gerd T’yu-Pan the Shocktroop was embarrassed and stopped himself midsentence. But another player hurried to intervene:

“Commander... uh... Leng Gnat, the Dryad is with me! She’s my wife!” said a blocky muscleman, stepping out in front and hiding the NPC Dryad behind his body. Almost black with sunburn, he was carrying a heavy machinegun rakishly over his shoulder. Much to my surprise, I recognized the player. In fact, he was my original commander in the game that bends reality:

Kisly. Human. Faction [undefined]. Level-90 Machinegunner.

Kisly had leveled up pretty well since I last saw him! I remembered a man having a much more modest level. But the persnickety boarding team commander Gerd T’yu-Pan had selected him, so he must have seen him as a good fighter. But how was I supposed to understand his faction being “undefined?” What was more, he had no faction tag on his armor. I asked my question out loud.

“Commander...” he winced. Clearly this was not the most pleasant topic for him. “The Second Legion got a new leader, Rupor. And right away he started ranting and raving, instituting strict discipline and upending what he called Gerd Tamara’s ‘Cossack[1] democracy.’ Anyway, I ended up catching hell from the new commander and he punished me severely to make a point. I did give him a good reason though... I was accused of abandoning my post on the Centaur Plateau, which made me late for the arrival of a transport... But it was to attend my wedding in the Dryad village and, in their customs, such festivities are supposed to last all night!”

Kisly finally stepped aside, showing me his wife. By the looks of things, the Dryad did not understand spoken language, but she had a great sense for intonation. After she realized the storm had passed, she stopped worrying and began to smile.

“And afterward, the directors of the Human-3 Faction said a lot of very harsh and nasty things about Nefertiti and our relationship. Just so you know, we have a very true and sincere love, honest to God! In the end I had to choose: either the Dryad or faction membership. And so I left the faction. I wanted to go join the Germans in the Human-6 Faction, but they have way too many players as is. I even considered staying in the game forever and becoming an NPC, even if that meant mortality. But then I found out Team Gnat was looking for players and I came for the try-outs.”

“For the record, we did not choose to take the Dryad on the starship,” Dmitry Zheltov cut in. “We left her at the spaceport, even though she was twisting her hands all around and begging with gestures for us not to split her and her husband up. But once in space, Nefertiti appeared next to Kisly on the shuttle as if nothing had happened!”

Excuse me? I raised my brows in surprise. But none of it surprised Kisly:

“Yes, my wife respawns next to me whenever she dies or the distance between us becomes too great. During a tense firefight with the Dark Faction, when they were pressing in on us on the island in the middle of the swamp, Nefertiti was fighting alongside the rest of our faction. And three times she respawned at my side! She is no longer truly an NPC, but nearly a fully-fledged player, even though she can’t go into the real world.”

Well, well! Something like the situation with the Morphians. Also something in between an NPC and living player. Or perhaps like an NPC pet which would also continuously respawn next to its master. That warranted a consultation with Valeri the Tailaxian. The Beastmaster knew how pets worked much better than me. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that Kisly still referred to Human-3 as “our faction.” Seemingly, even though he was no longer a member, he still unconsciously felt like he belonged to it. Oh well, I used to be the same way. I only started to truly recognize that I now had my own faction in the last day or two.

“Alright, Kisly. I accept your explanation. I see no reason to restrict or forbid the NPC Dryad. She will just come back again and again regardless. I don’t know what Artisans are good for yet, but Uline Tar will find a use for your wife and put her to use. But make sure you keep her quirk in mind as well – otherwise we might send you onto an asteroid with a group of other soldiers and end up with Nefertiti dying in an infinite loop with all the accompanying consequences. After all, can a Dryad even wear a space suit?”

“No, Dryads cannot wear armor of any kind. Most of them don’t even wear basic clothing and think nudism to be natural and attractive. Dryads also consider it natural for men to stare at them. I had to explain to my wife that nakedness is not always viewed as normal in human society, and Nefertiti agreed to cover her body at least somewhat.”

I personally had no problem with the Dryad’s appearance. Really, if you think about it, why should a Meleyephatian Programmer be able to walk around the starship in just a toolbelt, but not a Dryad Artisan? And even Gerd T’yu-Pan, who was once very embarrassed to see Gerd Tamara naked, had seemingly already grown used to his underling’s wife’s appearance and had no problem with it. But Denni Marko on the other hand was thunderstruck, staring wide-eyed at the unusual NPC. And that earned him some grief from Valeri. I could sense the waves of annoyance and jealousy emanating from the Tailaxian lady from here.

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-six!

Successful Perception check!

I slowly lowered a hand and allowed the invisible Little Sister to sniff my palm. And after determining the creature’s position, I even risked trying to pet the dangerous Shadow Panther. And she was just fine with that.

“You’re finally learning how to treat Little Sister!” a stream of thoughts from Valeri rang out in my head. “She missed you, captain. As, by the way, did I.”

Valeri-Urla was teasing me again. But I didn’t respond to the Tailaxian’s provocative message, just turned my attention to the three remaining newcomers. There was another I already knew:

Svetlana Vereshchagina. Human. Human-3 Faction. Level-94 Assassin.

Though I knew her as the phy-ed instructor for Human-3 Faction newbies, she was also a capable First Legion killer. I wonder who is training newcomers under the Dome now. Wearing a form-fitting Dark Faction temperature-regulating scout suit, she was smiling carelessly although I could feel her internal tension and lack of confidence. I could have read her thoughts if I wanted, but I didn’t. I had no questions or remarks for my new teammate. Svetlana was a strong fighter in close combat and a clear boon to our boarding team.

I turned to the remaining two. A light-haired young man in a shapeless ghillie suit and a blonde lady in a track suit the colors of the German flag. Very similar faces. Twins? That looked very possible, although they were of different genders:

Destroying Angel. Human. Human-6 Faction. Level-78 Gunfighter.

Grim Reaper. Human. Human-6 Faction. Level-72 Sniper.

And they both went by a nickname? They were standing very close to one another as well. Unusual. Noticing my interest in the newcomers, giant boarding team leader Gerd T’yu-Pan walked up:

“Captain, I only took four people from the whole list of candidates you sent. And it wasn’t that the rest were bad fighters. Nothing of the sort. There were some very solid candidates from the First Legion, and the Second Legion too. There was also a Monk from the Chinese Human-1 Faction I liked. He had an intriguing hand-to-hand combat style. But I was instructed to take only the best of the best, and only those that wouldn’t shine too bright and would be willing to bust their butts and work as part of a team. Kisly made an immediate impression on me. He was much stronger and more dangerous than his level might suggest, able to hit any target at two hundred yards with short machine-gun bursts, and seemingly able to even outdo Geckho in feats of strength. Svetlana has also proven herself a master killer.”

“But these two?” I nodded at the two Germans standing nearby. “Their level isn’t too impressive. Seventy. Most of the people in the crew are already ninety or above. They’ll be the farthest behind.”

“Destroying Angel is a seven-time champion of your world and a two-time Olympic champion in a sport involving cross-country ski racing and ancient rifle marksmanship. I think it’s called biathlon. Nimble, high endurance, deadly. She also has a solid grasp on the language of the magocratic world and is quickly making strides in Geckho as well. She can understand us right now perfectly well, for example. And yet, she’s standing still as a statue. I was never able to make her flinch even though I was really trying and provoking her on purpose. If I’m not mistaken, her name is Laura, but she doesn’t respond to that name, only to the nickname Destroying Angel. But she can shoot fast as lightning and with deadly accuracy. Look!”

T’yu-Pan suddenly threw a small red crystal toward the hangar ceiling – the lowest denomination of Geckho currency.

“Fire!”

The shot was nearly instantaneous. Despite my high Perception, I had a hard time telling exactly when the snub-nosed rifle appeared in her hands. In the space of a second, the weapon was stashed back in her inventory and the crystal had been dashed to a sprinkling of red dust.

Eagle Eye skill increased to level eighty-three!

Okay, impressive! And she was a seven-time world champion and a two-time Olympic champion. A true star of the Human-6 Faction! It was definitely worth letting her join Team Gnat, despite her fairly modest level.

Her brother (and it really was a twin brother, I was not wrong) as it turned out had not taken to sport and instead pursued the life of a professional soldier. A shooting instructor. A sniper with real-world combat experience. T’yu Pan turned on his palmtop and started reading off the places he’d served, words unknown in his world. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. The Central African Republic. Then he was sent to play the game that bends reality in the ranks of the H6 Faction.

“I think he even shot me once in Karelia,” the Shocktroop laughed with no resentment, turning off his computer. “And there’s another interesting peculiarity. When brother and sister are working together in a group, they both get a twenty-percent bonus to accuracy and action speed.”

Well, well! Interesting to know that twins had that feature. I’d have to ask Basha and Vasha Tushihh if they also got bonuses from working together. And if the German soldiers got bonuses from our Bard on top of that, they’d make a truly spectacular pair!

When I’d finished meeting the beginners and looked at the time, I had my team line up and told them their mission:

“As I’m sure you’ve all realized, we’re at war with some Miyelonian pirates. Veterans of Team Gnat already know, but I’ll explain for the newbies. The Pride of the Bushy Shadow has been trying to trip us up for a long time, and brawling with them is practically a daily occurrence at this point. Those cosmic scoundrels only understand the language of force and, after every beatdown we give them, they go quiet for a bit to lick their wounds. In the past we would hole up for defense. But for the first time, we’re truly stronger and can go teach the local Bushy Shadow just how bad they messed up when they decided to go against us!”

Authority increased to 65!

My crewmembers started buzzing. I heard war cries from all directions. After I said that, no one was afraid of the pirates anymore. In fact, they were raring for a fight.

“Captain, I have a question,” raising his hand before like a schoolboy, Space Commando Eduard Boyko stepped forward in his heavy exoskeleton suit. “Sorry for interrupting your fiery speech. But there’s something I’m failing to understand. When was it that we holed up and defended ourselves exactly? When we broke into that dock and pinned the pirate captain to the wall by the ears? Or when we attacked and capture the pirate treasure vault on Medu-Ro IV?”

“I bet he means a bit earlier, when we captured the pirate interceptor in open space,” Tini the kitten answered Eduard with a predatory smirk.

I smiled and didn’t tell my friends off for poking holes. I understood that it was just nerves before a fight and Eduard was trying to show off to the new girls and boasting of his past feats. So I simply continued:

“When I said we holed up, I was talking about our most recent encounter when we were just seven against fifty pirates. We had to defend ourselves and repel an attack. But you know my rule: the best defense is a good offense! So now, with the balance changed, we are going for the kill! And we will come at them with excessive force to make a point. We’ll even have to be extra cruel so we don’t merely win, but smack the Pride of the Bushy Shadow down so hard they’ll never want to tangle with us again. We have around four hours until the pirate pride’s main forces get to the station. Let’s spend that time intelligently and wipe out the Bushy Shadow’s fighters to get the pirates shivering in fear! We’ll destroy and capture everything the pirate pride owns here on Kasti-Utsh III. And after that, we’ll secure our flanks and be ready to greet pirate leader Big Abi and his goons right at dock and try to take them out there along with their starship! We’ve got four million crypto riding on this, that’s twenty-eight million Geckho crystals. A lot of money. A damn lot I’d say. That’s what the winner of this war stands to gain. And I am planning to spend a significant portion of it improving the starship and buying the very best weapons and armor in existence for my crew! So, let’s get this party started! We’re gonna tear them to pieces!!!”


Chapter Eleven. Preparing for a Counterattack

THE FIRST TARGET I selected was hangar 7-226 in the seventh maneuver tunnel. It was where we’d manipulated the registration service terminal into jamming the two pirate interceptors in together. The station services had yet to uncover our meddling and Ayukh and San-Doon were back on the frigate using the thousands of security cameras to keep tabs on the station. The Navigator had just sent me a message that our opponent was concentrating forces in hangar 7-226 – both the pirates who respawned after the last unsuccessful attack and the other members of the pride of the Bushy Shadow. There were more than forty armed players, including some with heavy weaponry, which the old Navigator said included mobile rocket launchers and plasma cannons.

Our march down the corridors of the space station with two gigantic Immolators in tow did not go unnoticed and the pirates were well prepared to resist the dangerous heavy robots. I don’t know whether our opponents were planning another attack or about to hunker down and go on defense, but I decided not to squander the opportunity and attack while all my foes were concentrated in one place instead of dispersed throughout the gigantic station.

I placed the rattling several-ton Immolators at the tail of the procession, and sent the flying drone out in front, then led my armed squadron down the corridors of the station. The Miyelonians we saw on the way pressed themselves against the walls in fear, many taking out cameras and filming our march. By all appearances, this was an unusual sight for the residents of Kasti-Utsh III. That was when I realized that I had never seen huge combat robots here on the station before. That gave rise to a few vague suspicions and I called up the orange Translator to figure them out:

“Ayni, as a former station employee, is it allowed to use heavy military vehicles in an official war inside a station?”

“No, of course not,” the Miyelonian said without a second’s doubt. “It is not allowed to use powerful gravity or thermonuclear charges either. That kind of weaponry could blow up a whole hangar and damage other parts of the space station as well.”

The fluffy kitty winced in pain as an Immolator tried to fit into a gap that was too narrow and low for it, taking down a billboard hanging above and leaving a sizeable dent in the plastic wall. Hrm... You could definitely track our procession by the wake of destruction. And the Immolators had yet to even fire up their cannons!

“Then why hasn’t anyone stopped us?” I asked, hoping for clarity.

Gerd Ayni bared her teeth happily, tousling her whiskers and showing her flawlessly white sharp little teeth:

“I was wracking my brains over that myself before our reunion with the rest of the team. But then I realized that the rule against using such weapons in narrow corridors on the station seemed so obvious that they never actually bothered to come up with a punishment for violating it. No one ever thought someone would actually break it! I opened the rules for Kasti-Utsh III visitors to make sure and it actually doesn’t contain any penalties for using heavy or excessively destructive weaponry. I suspect they will add one later today. But for now I say go for it, captain!”

Gerd Ayni was obviously cheered up by the bureaucratic oversight. And it really was funny. But that Miyelonian administrator’s cock-up was only to our advantage. Just then, Uline Tar walked up closer to me and quietly said that she had completed my mission and secured the rights to the platinum mine. But the Trader hadn’t told me the concrete details just yet because financial agreements between the starship’s co-owners were supposed to be kept between us.

“Captain! The pirates are carrying tanks of gas into hangar 7-226!” the old Navigator’s alarmed voice rang out in my headphones. “I can’t tell what exactly they contain. It could be toxic. The Jarg also guesses poison gas. And another thing, captain. The Journalist who was interviewing the guy from the Pride of the Bushy Shadow before is there. It looks like she convinced him to take her with so she could report live from the scene.”

Poison gas? An outsider in the combat zone? I stopped short and turned to my companions. At the very best half of my players had spacesuits so, if the pirates released toxic gas, it could mean out serious trouble, taking out half my crew in one fell swoop.

“Uline, our newcomers urgently need gas masks at the very least, preferably space suits. Look around for somewhere nearby where we can quick buy what we need.”

The Trader took my request completely in stride and, turning on her palmtop, started examining offers. At the same time, I turned to my business partner for a consultation – did we stand to land ourselves in hot water if we accidentally harmed or even killed a member of a pride that was not involved in the official war?

The furry Geckho lady tore herself from the screen of her palmtop, rolled her eyes back thoughtfully, fell silent for five seconds, then honestly admitted that she had a poor understanding of Miyelonian tradition. Instead, Miyelonian Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa gave an answer:

“Attacking outsiders and especially killing them is categorically forbidden. That would be a very serious crime! And war with another pride does not serve as justification!”

“Yes, that is true, Leng Gnat,” Gerd Ayni Uri-Miayuu cut into the conversation. “I suspect that the pirates took the Journalist specifically to use as cover. That will not only turn law enforcement against us, it will make the Pride of the Sweet Voice demand compensation or even join the war on the pirates’ side.”

Okay then, I see. I’d have to take the outsider into account. I ordered my crew not to harm the Journalist under any circumstances. Beyond that, I mentally told the Immolators and Small Relict Guard Drone to immediately cease fire if there was a risk of hitting any neutral character. I was not at all sure that such a complex order would be properly understood by the robots, but it ended up working.

Machine Control skill increased to level ninety-nine!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred!

The system messages were nice but nothing special. Briefly glancing at them, I was planning to get back to the conversation, but... before my eyes appeared a new message, which was blinking to draw attention:

ATTENTION! You may now choose your first specialization in the Mental Fortitude skill.

What? I have to admit, I was baffled and even somewhat taken aback. I’d been in the game that bends reality for almost a month and a half at this point, but this was the first I was hearing about skills having specializations! If I told someone that, they’d laugh at me. But how was I supposed to know? Most players thought me something of an expert, asked me for advice and followed my example. Although... here I was reminded that my wife’s ghoulish grandfather Gerd Avir-Syn La-Pirez once uttered the phrase: “Just wait ‘til you find out what happens to skills at level one hundred fifty.” To be honest, I didn’t give that the proper attention at the time. So seemingly, another specialization would become available at level one hundred fifty, given this was my “first.”

So, how does one go about choosing a specialization, and what kind of choices are there? I opened the game menu and started flipping through tabs. There it is! The information was located in the skills tab, and I started examining the text closely. Okay then, plenty of intriguing options:

                  Control more than one creature’s mind at the same time.

                  Increase mental attack range by 300%.

                  Increase mental defense by 50%.

                  Reduce Magic Point expenditure for maintaining mind control by half.

                  Reduce impact of negative Intelligence difference.

                  Complete immunity to having images, feelings and emotions read from your mind.

I suspected that choosing the last one would completely break Morphians’ ability to read pleasing forms from my mind to adapt themselves to. Well, it would be hard on any race that orients itself on emotions or images in other peoples’ brains rather than thoughts. Without that kind of feedback it would be extremely hard, if at all possible, for them to appease someone. It would be an obvious choice in a universe teeming with Morphians. But given that the dangerous predators had practically been driven extinct, the perk was practically useless. Although who could say? There might have been other races out there with similar abilities.

In any case, I didn’t choose that specialization. I also skipped over the second to last one. With my 33 Intelligence points (38 even, with the rings) encountering a creature with high enough Intelligence to trip that perk would be a vanishingly rare occurrence. And saving Magic Points was also irrelevant to me. With my high Intelligence, I was doing just fine for mana. But I did spend some time mulling over the first three options in the list. I felt like I needed all of them. Defending myself from mental attacks, increasing my mental range, and controlling several targets simultaneously. Finally, I made my choice:

Specialization chosen for Mental Fortitude: Control more than one creature’s mind at the same time.

Great! And it took effect at once. Now I didn’t have to change between my robots to give them orders. That would be a big time-saver in crisis situations!

That lit a fire in my belly and I decided not to just stop and rest on my laurels. I had a whole two other skills (Psionic and Machine Control) that were just about to one hundred as well. And I was sitting on six free skill points, which I could use to get them there. I say go for it!

Psionic skill increased to level ninety-seven!

...

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred!

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred!

ATTENTION! You may choose your first specialization in the Psionic skill.

ATTENTION! You may choose your first specialization in the Machine Control skill.

Great! I impatiently got to studying the available perks. For starters, I looked at what I could do with Psionic:

                  Create a mental link with other players for a joint attack. *

ATTENTION!!! All parties in the mental link must have this Psionic-skill specialization.

                  Increase power of psionic attacks by 30%.

                  Increase duration of mind control by 300%.

                  Reduce Magic Point expenditure when attacking players and NPC’s with lower Intelligence than you by half.

                  Reduce the impact of negative Intelligence difference.

If similar Mental Fortitude skill specialization is chosen, negative Intelligence difference is no longer penalized at all.

ATTENTION!!! Negative Intelligence difference cannot be higher than 10.

                  100% success chance for psionic actions against targets with Intelligence 7 or more points lower than yours.

An interesting selection, but a few of the perks looked fairly useless to me. For example, the last one. Were there really enough NPC’s and players with Intelligence between 28 to 31 for it to be worth wasting a whole perk just to make psionic attacks against them a sure thing?! And the negative Intelligence difference perk also seemed questionable: were there really any titans of the mind out there with enough Intelligence to top my outrageous 38? Perhaps the Truth Seekers of the Miyelonian race if anyone. Maybe some real egg-head scientists, engineers or prominent mages as well. In any case, they were sure to be pretty rare birds, so using a perk on them felt wasteful.

So what then? Increase the intensity of my mental attacks? Or gain the ability to form a mental bond with other mages? I suspect that’s what they were using on me down in the La-Fin Faction underground prison. I was not able to withstand a joint attack from all three of them. But in my circle there was only one player with psionic abilities.

“Valeri-Urla, what is your Psionic skill level?”

The space girl took the mental question in stride and answered without turning in my direction, all the while conversing with Denni Marko:

“One hundred thirty-four. Progress is going very slow. In the last year, the skill has only gone up four levels.”

“So what did you take as your first perk?”

“Ah, that’s why you’re asking, Leng Gnat. Did you just hit Psionic one hundred? You’re wondering if we can form a mental link? I also considered that specialization. But who did I Have to join forces with then? I took the reduced penalty for psionic actions with negative Intelligence difference. You try living in a society enslaved by Meleyephatian psionics, then you’ll understand why. It was the only way to make sure I had the right to my own opinion. So captain, does that mean your Psionic level is just one hundred? Weird that I lost our mental duel then. I’ll have to give it another go. And let me remind you that you promised to talk with me in a private setting about politics and many other kinds of things my prison keepers will be interested in. You shouldn’t keep them waiting. The Prelates of the Church of Survival are already upset that the espionage devices I installed have stopped working.”

I promised not to have that talk soon and let her go. So, the mental link perk is out – I don’t have any mages to partner with. Too bad. Okay then, this was a pretty easy choice:

Specialization chosen for Psionic: Increase power of psionic attacks by 30%.

It was also fairly simple to choose a specialization for Machine Control. Again my options were reducing Magic Point expenditure and increasing range or duration of control. I was also offered +1 drone slot. But that just made me give a sad chuckle because I knew that there were no other Relict drones left in this area of the Universe. And I saw no reason to take something less deadly – a slight boost to my character’s damage dealing ability was did practically nothing compared to my murderous drone. So I took a different one:

Specialization chosen for Machine Control: Chance of taking control of a machine or making it inoperable increased by 3%.

ATTENTION!!! Specialization active only if success chance is already nonzero.

An extra three percent... Not all that much at first glance. You might think there isn’t much difference between 75% and 78%. And overall, in every case when the chance of success was fairly high, it wasn’t obvious this perk had any use at all. But the situation started to look far different with an extremely difficult task. For example, if the probability of opening a critically important door was just 0.000001%. That’s vastly different from 3.000001%. The former is practically impossible. But the latter just means setting aside an hour or two of time to regenerate Magic Points until the task is complete!

There was also another reason for choosing that exact perk. I still had that mysterious starship on the brain. The one that spent millennia in a spatial pocket under siege by attacking Symbiotes. The ship of the Relict hierarch. What would happen if we could fly up close to the ship and establish contact with the starship’s systems? I understood the Relict language more or less, so most likely I would be able to communicate with it. And you never know. Maybe we’d be able to study the security systems and take down its defenses? I suspect it will not be easy. But it was exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking of 0.000001% versus 3.000001%.


Chapter Twelve. Up in Smoke

THIS WAS A TOTALLY different matter! Now my whole crew was packed into nice space suits, so we didn’t have to worry about toxic gas anymore. What was more, I didn’t even have to spend my own crypto to buy ammunition. My business partner paid the supplier out of her own personal savings. And when I approached Uline Tar to offer compensation, the Gecko woman just waved it off:

“We’re partners, that means we should both be investing in the starship and crew. Let me play my part too. I have money now, so I can afford it. When filling out the contract for joint control over the platinum mine on the asteroid, I got a solid payout from Viceroy Kosta Dykhsh. I suppose that my future husband payed me with my own money, which I transferred to him to cover the costs of our future wedding. But that doesn’t matter. What is important is that we don’t have to sit around penniless any longer. We’ll be getting one and a half million crystals every standard day now from the mining operation.”

Not bad, not bad at all. And meanwhile Vasily Filippov and Gerd T’yu-Pan had worked out a plan of attack. The first line was to be composed of the two giant Immolators, with twin brothers Vasha and Basha Tushihh and Eduard Boyko the Space Commando all wearing exoskeleton armor right behind. All three of the troopers also linked their energy shields together which made them even better (which Orun Va-Mart helped them do. He was also responsible for keeping their shields at full capacity during the fight.). This forward group’s main mission was to blow the gates into hangar 7-226 and block the narrowest point so the forty nimble Miyelonian pirates could not slip past and get to our less-armored crew behind.

The front line fighters were to be healed, ideally remotely, by Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa. And supporting fire would be provided by the second line: the German death-bringer twins, a Sniper and Gunfighter, Gerd T’yu-Pan the Shocktroop, Denni Marko the Bodyguard and Kisly the Machinegunner. Dmitry Zheltov also asked to be placed on the second line, although it was a pretty big stretch to say his Starship Pilot profession made him appropriate for short-range firefights.

After that came the nimble but poorly armored melee fighters: the Miyelonians Tini and Gerd Ayni with their lethal blades, along with newcomer Assassin Svetlana. Their mission was to clear enemy breakthroughs and protect our soldiers without getting out in front. Imran was appointed leader of that group. The Dagestani Gladiator was also armed with death-dealing blades and able to quickly move around the field of battle but, unlike the others, he had heavy armor.

All the rest were supposed to stay back. Vasily Filippov, who was only allowed to wear light armor, was told to survive by any means necessary so his Bard bonuses could stay active on our whole group. And he increased the resilience and movement speed of everyone, as well as improving accuracy for our twenty shooters. All those advantages were worth a lot and came only from having the Bard in our crew.

Beastmaster Valeri-Urla was also supposed to hide out in the back and simply survive. After all, I didn’t bring the Tailaxian along to shoot her laser pistol. No, she was here as the master of an invisible and deadly Shadow Panther. However, we were only going to use Little Sister in battle if there was no gas attack, otherwise the beast would just die right away. We also had to keep the Medic and Engineer out of the fray for the most part. Some of their skills required a wounded or damaged ally to be in their immediate vicinity though. So both players were given complete freedom and I was relying on their professionalism.

Uline Tar the Trader and Avan Toi the Supercargo I wanted to just send back to the starship because I had severe doubts about their worth in a fight. But Uline puffed up and promised to get “very mad,” if I sent her back. The gloomy Supercargo then clipped a Miyelonian trophy tail to his helmet – he’d earned it here on Kasti-Utsh III fighting side-by-side with me and Tini. But we had to leave him. We left the NPC Dryad as well, who would simply get lost here on the station and not be able to find the right ship.

So then, my crew’s positioning was all clear. All that remained was to figure out my place in it. I suspected I belonged in the first group, given my Listener Energy Armor provided excellent protection and had a 12,800-point forcefield keeping me safe and sound. However, boarding team leader Gerd T’yu Pan thought otherwise:

“Leng Gnat La-Fin, your place is in the back next to the Medic and Engineer. Coruler, you control the two Immolators and a flying drone. The squadron cannot afford to lose that firepower.”

Frustrating. With my Annihilator and the ability to mentally turn my most dangerous opponents against one another, I could be of value as a close-combat fighter too. But what could I do from the back? The robots could tell friend from foe all on their own. I didn’t need to help. Just stand and watch while my crew fought all around me? I looked with hope at Filippov, but the highly experienced military strategist was in solidarity with his counterpart from the magocratic world:

“Captain, don’t you think I want to be on the front lines with a fully-auto in my hands, shearing experience off dead enemies too? Unfortunately for us, the squadron needs us alive. So we need to stay safe in the back lines.”

* * *

A straight, well-lit corridor. The metal gates we were heading toward were five hundred feet away. I could already clearly make out the Miyelonian writing above it: “Hangar 7-226.” There was no possible cover for enemies in front of us. Scanning also didn’t reveal anything suspicious in that section of corridor. Nevertheless, something was off. I could sense it.

The ventilation grates? Yes, there were a few ventilation outlets lining the corridor. And I suspected the poison gas was going to come right out of there. But I wasn’t too scared of a gas attack. We were prepared for that. Something else was bothering me.

This was too easy. The Pride of the Bushy Shadow was just letting us walk up to their sanctuary unimpeded. No barricades with gunmen crouched behind them. No laser or plasma cannons in the corridor strafing our squadron as we approached. There weren’t even any niches in the walls or ceiling concealing automatic turrets. You have to agree that’s weird, right? All my intuition was simply screaming that this was too easy and there had to be some hazard we hadn’t noticed. But my Danger Sense skill wasn’t making a peep.

Ugh, if only I had my wife Minn-O La-Fin by my side! The Princess of the magocratic world had a very finely tuned Danger Sense. I couldn’t even come close. Minn-O would have immediately confirmed my fears or told me the coast was clear. But Minn-O had stayed home and now she couldn’t help me here. And meanwhile I needed to make my choice. As it was I had already spent ten minutes standing in indecision, and the soldiers behind me were showing more and more signs of impatience.

“Well captain?” this time the standard question, in its tenth recent iteration, was asked by Denni Marko.

“I can’t see any danger,” I admitted honestly and behind me I heard a collective sigh of relief. “Nevertheless, we’ll wait for now! Let’s send one of the Immolators out in front.”

The several-ton robot walked forward and confidently headed down the corridor, its cannons fixated on the closed hangar door. There the Immolator covered half the distance, now two thirds...

Danger Sense skill increased to level seventy!

And that was when it all started. A bright red spot suddenly appeared in midair next to the heavy walking robot. And a second later, the gigantic Immolator crumpled and was pulled forward, bending and twisting its metal. The crunch of the armor plates and snapping of cannons was audible even from a hundred yards. The corridor walls in front of us also started bending in, some panels ripping away from their anchoring and getting pulled into the fray. In ten or fifteen seconds, the horrible crunching and scraping sounds were over. Then a rough three-ton ball of steel and plastic fell to the floor and thundered down the corridor in our direction, quickly gaining speed. I heard a few of my team members scream in fear behind me, and the hair under my helmet stood on end.

But the ghoulish bowling ball didn’t make it far. The second Immolator shot out a series of blasts, destroying the approaching ball of melted debris. Still vaguely ball-like, it flew another couple yards then fell apart and debris was strewn around the floor. All members of my squad were silent, not feeling capable of saying a single word. We almost just died!

“How lucky that we didn’t go with the robot!” Gerd Ayni broke the silence and started quivering.

“I can see the edge of the gravity crane’s range,” Basha Tushihh said, pointing an armored paw at the corridor before us. “We must not walk past that line!”

I had already figured out that the combat robot had likely been sucked into a very powerful gravitational field. A gravity crane working at full power? Most likely. They were often used for moving cargo, and many starships had them. But what could we do now? How to get out of the trap?

The obvious solution was to disable the gravity loader. But the problem was that I couldn’t see the machine anywhere on my mini-map. Too far away. And so I couldn’t use my Machine Control skill. I had to walk up closer.

Was I afraid? You bet I was! Basha Tushihh said that the gravity loader couldn’t operate beyond a line of small fallen wreckage, but it never had a reason to create a high gravitation zone beyond that. Things I’d learned in school helpfully jumped to mind, reminding me that gravitational forces diminished quadratically over distance. That meant that the attractive forces could still be very significant even ten steps away from the death zone. I could just be sucked in and killed.

But still this was a virtual game with its own rules. Anyhow, we all set our respawn points next to the entrance to corridor seven, so no Team Gnat players stood to suffer serious consequences if they died. Furthermore, the spacefaring races had advanced antigravitation technology and were perfectly capable of limiting the forces to a set zone. I was reminded of the way artificial gravitation zones ended just beyond starships when I was on comets before. Clearly something similar was being used here. I slowly walked forward.

After forty steps, I stopped ten yards away from the danger line. I couldn’t go any further. My heart gave an alarming prick, warning me of danger. But the Scanning skill just so happened to hit its cooldown time at that precise moment, and I immediately activated the icon. Got it! There we go! On the backdrop of many other items and dozens of markers for living creatures, walls and stationary starships, almost on the edge of the mini-map draw area, I saw what I was looking for:

Gravity loader. Chance of making inoperable 32.7%. Total control chance 18.1%.

Door control mechanism. Chance of making inoperable 27%. Total control chance 12.4%.

Scanning skill increased to level fifty-nine!

Great! First of all, I was interested in the loader. There was no need to take it under control. Breaking it was all the more I needed to do!

No luck. No again. Nope. It only worked on my fourth attempt. My magic points had gone down by more than half – each attempt cost my character quite a bit of mana. I was just burning through the stuff. I supposed it would be best to have Tini take care of the door. As a Thief, he would have an easier time than me. I only had a 12.4% chance of taking control...

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-four!

My Magic Points started gradually coming back. I then turned and shouted to my friends that the coast was clear. The huge Immolator took the first bold step forward. My friends then started off cautiously and unconfidently behind it. My crew had almost totally overtaken me... when suddenly I heard a hiss all around us. Streams of gas started pouring out of every ventilation grate and the corridor was instantly clouded with thick greenish-gray smoke! I couldn’t see farther than an outstretched hand!

Successful Perception check!

Some lightning-fast shadows slipped past. Lots of shadows. And almost immediately, two icons in my group window went gray – Beast Master Valeri and Engineer Orun Va-Mart were both dead!!!

“The pirates are out of the hangar and on the attack!!!” I shouted at the top of my lungs and almost immediately took a painful blow to the back. One of the Miyelonians was trying to stick his blades between my shoulders.

To hell with you, you don’t get to take my life! The Listener Suit’s forcefield drooped by a quarter but held fast. However, the discouraged Miyelonian was not fast enough to dodge my counterstrike. The first right hook of my armored glove made contact with the pirate cat’s ear, and he stumbled back. Half a second later, I shot his big-eared head clean off with the Annihilator.

Medium Armor skill increased to level sixty-one!

Rifles skill increased to level fifty-eight!

Sharpshooter skill increased to level forty-three!

Take that! Now you’ll appreciate how dangerous it is to attack Gnat! Then I realized that the Miyelonian pirate was dressed lightly and had no gas mask or breathing apparatus. Did that mean the gas had no effect on him?!

“This is just thick smoke, it isn’t toxic!” I shouted into the microphone, trying to talk over the din on the channel.

My fighters were all speaking at once, creating a garbled racket so I couldn’t make out anything. Furthermore, there was constant deafening fire from a machinegun and a few high-speed cannons. And we were taking serious losses the entire time – Uline Tar and Destroying Angel’s icons went dim. A second later Vasily Filippov also died. Denni Marko’s life had also fallen into the red zone (the Bodyguard was taking some of Valeri’s damage, and all of his own), but then he was back up to maximum an instant later – our Medic was a consummate professional.

“Everyone stop talking!” I barked, trying to restore order. “Okay now you can speak, but only if its relevant!”

Tini was the first to report:

“Captain, the enemy has broken through and is attacking our unarmored players! Ayni and I are barely able to hold them back! There’s too many of them!”

“And they’re as nimble as umbuks from Vuyez IV!” cried Vasha Tushihh, adding a couple of unpublishable phrases. “I can’t even hit them point blank!!!”

“How can you see anything in all this smoke??? I can’t see a damn thing! I’m firing blind over here!” Eduard Boyko shouted with notes of hysteria in his voice, generously showering the nearest wall with bursts from his automatic cannon.

Hold up! Miyelonians could see in the dark, so the smoke screen wouldn’t be bothering them. Geckho also had infrared vision. But what was making me so stupid?! I lowered my helmet’s IR lens. Woah, now that’s a lot better! Dozens of nearby red silhouettes started flickering. I heard the clang of metal on metal. I stashed the Annihilator. It was totally useless in this situation – no one was attacking me, the battle was twenty yards away. But then I took out the Targeting System.

Ugh, I wish I could tell which of these nimble little Miyelonian silhouettes is an enemy... So, by the looks of things, that one standing far from the main action is my Medic. Tini and Ayni would have to forgive me later, but I had no way of sorting the rest into friends and foes. I needed to hand out targets to the “blind” human shooters and helplessly frozen robots as quickly as possible. And I started generously doling out easily visible red markers to the skirmishing Miyelonians.

Targeting skill increased to level thirty-nine!

Targeting skill increased to level forty!

Targeting skill increased to level forty-one!

You have reached level ninety!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: four).

Tini’s icon went gray – my ward had died. It was either our enemies or friendly fire, I had no way of knowing. But Gerd Ayni was smarter and, at the first sign of danger, she made a lightning-fast pounce in my direction. I recognized the Translator and quickly removed the target marker from her. At a certain point, Kisly, Basha and Vasha all died. The Medic just about managed to “raise” the heavily wounded Imran, but he got killed next to the body of the Dagestani Gladiator. And I swear up and down I didn’t notice when, but our Starship Pilot had also died. Denni Marko was fighting like a lion, his health back down in the red zone. The Bodyguard’s fatal error was the fact that he stopped and took out a first-aid kit. Three pirates at once saw their opening and ended the bothersome enemy. Anyhow, a second later they were all lain low by a shot from the Immolator’s plasma cannon. And then... the battle came to an abrupt stop. I couldn’t even believe it when I glanced at the time and realized that the whole bloodbath lasted less than two minutes.

With a woeful gaze, I looked over my few remaining allies. Six of us had survived, not counting the Small Relict Guard Drone and the Immolator. Me, Gerd Ayni, Svetlana Vereshchagina, Eduard Boyko, Gerd T’yu-Pan and Avan Toi. The smoke gradually cleared, revealing a huge number of corpses strewn about the corridor and the wide-open doors to hangar 7-226. There were no enemies left inside. I knew that for sure. There was no sense for the pirates to divide their forces. They were hoping to win and I had to give them their due. They had come close.

“Loot them!” I commanded, myself falling to the floor completely drained. “Then we can go see the ships we captured.”


Chapter Thirteen. Pyrrhic Victory

I WALKED AN UNHURRIED CIRCLE around the starships in the hangar, looking them over with an owner’s eye. Two Tiopeo-Myhh II Miyelonian interceptors. Not the latest model. I had already encountered third-generation models, and heard about a fourth. But it was quite a widely used ship regardless, and large number of them furrowed the expanses of space. The pirates of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow had already dragged the interceptors apart in the expansive hangar, so they were no longer touching.

One of the interceptors needed its nose cone totally replaced, and the cockpit also needed work. The other starship was worse. The whole tail stabilizer set-up was crumpled. The chassis was full of holes, the paneling was torn, the longerons were topsy-turvy, the main thruster was literally hanging on by a thread, and all the cables and wires leading to it were severed. But still I was delighted. After we arranged for them to be squeezed in here, they could have been looking much worse. I am not a qualified Engineer, of course, but still I figured both interceptors could be put back in working order and honestly quite quickly.

Sure, I would need to get their captain’s keys – the flat crystal cards were hell to copy. But when the Meleyephatian Programmer Wizzz 889 was listing his professional competencies, he mentioned that he had reflashed captain’s keys before. I figured he said that for a reason. The strange Meleyephatian renegade was hoping that a famed pirate like Leng Gnat might find him more work. It wasn’t all that legal, but it did pay well. At the time, I pretended not to hear and didn’t draw any attention to it. But now I was keeping in mind that if I didn’t have a full set of keys by the end of the conflict with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow, I still had a way to use the captured spaceships.

Some might say I was counting my chickens before they hatched. The war with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow was still ongoing and anything was possible. But I had no doubt I could defend my take. Even if all fifty pirates respawned in this hangar at the same time, my robots could cut them all down in short order. But the Miyelonians were also not idiotic enough to set their respawn point in this hangar because they knew we were coming. That would leave them vulnerable to another immediate death which came with grave consequences. No, the pirates would definitely have taken pains to avoid that.

“Captain, look!” the Translator said as she walked up, her space suit already back in her inventory and dressed in light shorts. She extended me a luxuriant black tail.

Tail of Undi Ar Miyeyauu, level-148 Journalist (trophy).

 

Well crap... So in the end we did kill the neutral player. Bad. But on the other hand, what was this Journalist hoping for being on the battlefield and in a curtain of smoke to boot? To my eye, this was a very predictable outcome. And the blame for the Journalist’s death fell squarely on her own shoulders.

“Throw it out and say we saw nothing?” Gerd Ayni suggested, and at first I wanted to agree, but then I got a better idea:

“No Ayni, attach it to your bandanna! And pin up the five next most interesting trophies alongside it.”

The little orange kitty looked to me in fear, batting her eyes in incomprehension. I had to explain:

“Ayni, as promised, I will have a talk with the Great Priestess about your problems. But I think you’re approaching this all wrong by framing yourself as an unfortunate victim, despised by all, persecuted and slighted. Try a different tactic. You’re a proud member of the Miyelonian race, a successful adventurer with fame throughout the galaxy. You’re lightning-fast, dangerous, and quick to violence. You have a foreboding reputation. In the eyes of your race, you are the very incarnation of death! Many players try their whole lives to reach that level of recognition. So I say don’t try to fix anything. In fact, you should emphasize your reputation and use it to your advantage! Let everyone in the Universe think you cannot be so much as touched unpunished! And don’t avoid talking with other Miyelonians, either. In fact, go out to meet them. But all the while make sure you behave provocatively and cocky, as befits an astonishingly beautiful lady and the companion of famed pirate captain Leng Gnat!”

The little orange kitty gave a tortured smile, hoping all the while that I was joking. But I was deadly serious.

Successful Authority check!

And Gerd Ayni made up her mind! Her ears, previously pressed down in fear, shot back up. She bared her sharp teeth in a predatory grin, decisively took out a multi-colored bandanna and pinned the trophy tail to it.

“I’ll try, captain! And I’ll talk with that Journalist myself. I’ll explain to that whiner how stupid it was to get involved with a pirate pride that was going up against Team Gnat!”

Gerd T’yu-Pan and Eduard Boyko walked up. Both soldiers were overexcited:

“We finished gathering trophies. there’s some pretty nice little items – good guns and blades, plus one of the pirates dropped a wallet with five hundred crypto.”

“And I found a packet of this stupefying herb on one of the dead guys,” Supercargo Avan Toi joined the conversation. “It could get us five thousand crystals if we find someone willing to buy drugs.”

“Throw it out!” I demanded harshly. “The last thing we need now is problems with the local authorities for trafficking in illegal substances!”

Authority increased to 66!

The gloomy Supercargo didn’t dare disobey. Svetlana Vereshchagina walked over, the only newcomer to survive. And I noticed the Assassin was carrying a set of new blades and was again wearing the form-fitting Dark Faction thermoregulating suit. By the way... It occurred to me that Svetlana was wearing that suit right after the battle.

“Space suit not comfy enough?” I asked and received an unexpected reply:

“Not at all. It’s just that when you shouted that the gas was not hazardous during the battle, I immediately changed into this suit. It made me invisible to IR lenses they may have been using in the thick smoke. It’s a tactic that has proven itself in battle with the Dark Faction many times.”

Aha... Good explanation for why Svetlana survived, despite the lack of armor. The Miyelonians just couldn’t see her! It might seem like a small difference. Space suits also have good thermal isolation, but the Miyelonians still could see players in them. I’d have to keep that in mind for the future!

The respawned members of my squadron appeared in the corridor in a noisy crowd. The two captured starships predictably aroused interest and shouts of elation. The Engineer then immediately climbed inside to familiarize himself with the equipment and review the damage, accompanied by the Starship Pilot. Uline Tar quickly ran some calculations and said the pirates should be ending the war basically at any time. The value of the trophies we had taken, even in damaged form amounted to approximately four million crypto.

Just then, a voice rang out in my headphones. It was the Pilot we left back on the frigate:

“This is San-Doon Taki-Bu, over. The Meleyephatian Programmer has finished his work with the Immolators and went to sleep right in the cargo hold. The Navigator and I tried to wake him up, but he seems seriously intoxicated. And another thing... Gerd T’yu-Pan, I recommend you go into the real world to receive some important information for our captain!”

Important information? My wife probably had something to tell me. Gerd T’yu-Pan froze a step away, awaiting my permission. I confirmed, giving the leader of my boarding team permission to leave the game, and the huge Shocktroop’s figure froze motionless before disappearing thirty seconds later.

“Mayday!!!” Eduard Boyko yelped at the exact instant I noticed a new yellow marker on the mini-map. “Neutral player!”

“Do not shoot!!!” my shout stopped my team, who were surrounding the frightened and perplexed Miyelonian Journalist with guns drawn after she respawned right in the middle of the hangar. The giant Immolator also thundered and clanged over to the scene and, with all six barrels at the ready, stood waiting for my command.

The dark colored kitty sunk, her ears pressed back in fear and her paws covering her ears, but then she lit up when she saw me:

“Leng Gnat... I wasn’t expecting such a warm reception. I am Undi, a Journalist with a local news agency. I am quite a recognizable figure here on Kasti-Utsh III! I am now making a report on the official war between the Relict Faction and the Pride of the Bushy Shadow. And I would like to...”

She says so much and so quickly! With an impatient gesture, I put a finger to the Miyelonian’s mouth to stop the black kitty’s stream of words.

“Tini, search her! Confiscate all weapons and communications devices!”

“You don’t have the right! I’ll file a complaint...”

Then she tried to hit me!!! I had no choice but to act mentally. Gerd Undi froze motionless with her right clawed paw raised, just opening and closing her mouth soundlessly.

“I just saved your life,” I answered in a calm tone, not giving the Miyelonian control back over her body just yet. “If you had just hit me, you’d have changed to ‘enemy’ status that very second and my robot guards would have smoked you. Dying twice in a row is a serious blow to a character’s statistics. And don’t you worry about your property. We’ll give it all back safe and sound after the war is over. We won’t make you go anywhere either. Stick around if you like. If you have any questions, you can talk with Gerd Ayni.” I pointed at the orange Translator, who was stroking the black trophy tail on her head with a predatory smirk. “Or the other members of my team. As for me, I’m a bit tied up right now.”

Authority increased to 67!

The Miyelonian gave a silent nod to show that she accepted my conditions. By all appearances, we had just managed to avoid a conflict with the Pride of the Sweet Voice. Leaving our guest in the care of the orange Translator, I got back to looking over the interceptors. I quickly discussed my ideas for restoring the starships with Engineer Orun Va-Mart, then looked around for Vasily Filippov. The war with the pirates wasn’t over yet and I needed to get our next moves approved by the experienced military man. Attack the pirate ore freighter? Or do something else, for example find every piece of property connected with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow on this station, including things they were trying to sell? I needed to repay the pirates in kind for blocking my trades!

I discovered Vasily Filippov sitting pensively on an army backpack near the door into the corridor. The middle-aged man, by the looks of things, was voluntarily playing the role of sentry. I didn’t see much need for that. First of all, the Small Relict Guard Drone was already keeping watch, racing to and fro up and down the corridor. Second, my team was still in control of the video camera network and could see everything happening on the station.

Vasily Filippov’s dispirited look made for a stark contrast with the rest of the crew’s air of jubilance. I figured he, as the person who planned our strategy for the recent attack, was feeling guilty for the big mess (and it would be hard to call it anything else). I mean, things didn’t exactly go to plan and ended with significant losses. And yes, that was partially what had him in such a foul mood. But there was something else:

“Captain, Imran, Denni Marko and I searched both starships thoroughly, but we didn’t find any heavy weaponry. And the old Navigator told us the pirates had rocket complexes and plasma cannons. Where could that have all gone?”

Good question. That was a riddle that truly deserved some thought. You can’t exactly hide heavy weaponry in your pocket or backpack, yet the pirates didn’t bring anything like that into play in the recent battle. Did they haul it off somewhere else? But how if my team was surveilling all the corridors? We must have missed something. Something very important...

Unfortunately, I got distracted. Gerd T’yu-Pan was back in the game. With nary a glance at the huge Shocktroop, who looked afraid to even breath too loud in my presence, his eyes directed firmly at the floor, I realized something truly terrible must have happened.

“Captain... uhh, Coruler Gnat La-Fin, have you spoken with your wife Princess Minn-O La-Fin lately? Or your advisor, Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi?”

Although the Shocktroop was trying to come at this very delicately and maintain distance, from his intonations and especially emotions, I was able to read positively savage fear in the pit of his stomach. He was afraid I’d be mad at him for bad news.

“Don’t say a thing! Just look me in the eyes!” I ordered... and was submerged in the thoughts of the decorated veteran.

“The collapse of the world as we know it. No one knows what to do. Every event on the whole planet has been canceled. Even the inter-directory wars have ceased. Seven days of mourning. No one knows what will happen next. Every TV channel is showing the same thing. The terror attack bloodbath. The Ruling Council of Mages has been wiped out. There are only three sorcerers left on the whole planet with Mage-Ruler status, and they’re all from the First Directory: head of state Coruler Gnat La-Fin, his wife Princess Minn-O La-Fin, and their Chief Advisor Mac-Peu Un-Roi. The three of them must swear in a new Ruling Council with all the most powerful remaining mages as quickly as possible. And no one has any idea what will happen if the representatives of the First Directory act stubborn and don’t do that. No one knows what to do. But one of the terrorists was taken alivea native of the parallel world, a Paladin named Tamara. She is being interrogated now. Other members of the terror group Emancipation from Mage Tyranny are being arrested all around the globe, along with all individuals with any ties with or even sympathy for their cause. The arrests already number in the millions. The mage judges are working around the clock at breakneck pace. There were practically no innocents among those detained. And the sentence is almost always one and the same: the death penalty! Gerd Tamara herself might be executed. In the cruelest way possible, in five days on the central square of Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory.”

* * *

My eyes went dark. I lurched and nearly fell over. Good thing the Shocktroop came over fast enough to grab my flagging body before it hit the floor. A set of strong hands (or paws?) fairly unceremoniously laid me down and raised my head. Someone capable and clearly experienced, opened my helmet’s faceguard...

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-five!

What a nasty smell! Smelling salts?! I waved it off and quickly distanced myself. The Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa hunched over me in alarm. Other than the vial of smelling salts, the Miyelonian had a pneumatic injection gun glimmering in his hand and ready to go. I tried to reassure the Medic:

“It’s nothing to be afraid of. I just overtaxed myself psionically. My Magic and Endurance Points both went down to zero.”

The orange tomcat gave a nod of understanding, stashed the pneumatic needle and extended me a flask containing a piercingly violet bubbling liquid. I drank it down obediently. So sour! But it really did help! My endurance and magic bars started quickly filling up.

My thoughts returned to events in the magocratic world. The horror! I needed to get in touch with Minn-O right away and find out all the details. But then, as if I didn’t have enough troubles for one day, a hysterical scream rang out in my headphones. It was Ayukh the Navigator, who I’d left behind on the frigate:

“We’re under attack! Fifty pirates from the Pride of the Bushy Shadow! Somehow they got in from the corridor without us noticing!!! The ship is taking fire from heavy rockets and plasma cannons! A-a-a-ahhhhhhh!”

Damn! Damn! I hopped up and quickly got my team together. However, a message thirty seconds later from San-Dun showed that there was no longer any reason to hurry:

“Captain! The enemies have been eliminated by the two Immolators and the Jarg, who self-destructed in the middle of a group of them. But the thing is... Everything is on fire, everything is melting... Ayukh the Navigator died. Only the tail section and right part of the fuselage with the gunner bay survived. I’m afraid our frigate is beyond repair...”

ATTENTION!!! The reward for destroying your starship has been paid. Captain Leng Gnat’s danger rating has fallen to 1.

 

What?! My starship, the apple of my eye, which I’d invested such vast amounts of effort and funds into had been destroyed??? A howl of rage tore itself from my throat, which made the Medic and all the others take a step back. I immediately shot to my feet:

“Imran, Uline, Valeri, Eduard, Vasha Tushihh! You stay here! You’ll answer for these two interceptors with your life! Everyone else, follow me to hangar 10-107! We’re gonna capture the pirate ore freighter!”

But we were too late there as well. Before my crew could even run out of the corridor, a large portion of messages ran in front of my eyes:

ATTENTION!!! The Pride of the Bushy Shadow has agreed to pay the Relict Faction reparations of 4,000,000 crypto. War over!

 

ATTENTION!!! You have received 28,230 crypto* to your account. The remainder of the reparations has been paid as trophy property (please find list in attachment).

 

* payment amount agreed upon with the Administration of the Kasti-Utsh III station. If you do not agree, you may dispute it in a court of the Union of Miyelonian Prides.

 

ATTENTION!!! You may not declare war on the same opponent two times within a period of five standard days!

 

Fame increased to 81.

Authority increased to 68!

We won. But it came at a huge cost! A pyrrhic victory[2], there’s nothing else you can call it...


Chapter Fourteen. Without the Horse we Rode in on

I WAS SEVERELY SLUMPED in a levitating armchair next to a huge wall-length panorama window holding a glass of nonalcoholic tonic in my hand and looking pensively at a huge brownish-orange gas giant – the third planet from the Kasti-Utsh system’s sun, along with its numerous satellites. The local star wasn’t putting out enough light to be dangerous from here, so the smart electronics automatically turned the windows from tinted to perfectly clear, allowing guests of the hotel room to take in the fantastic view. A truly beautiful and majestic sight!

My business partner Uline-Tar was splayed out comfortably in an identical flying armchair next to me. After the tense day we’d just had, the formidable Geckho woman was plainly burned out and relaxing, having turned on the vibrating massage mode in the armchair’s options for her back and shoulders, and closing her eyes a long time in bliss. In the corner of the room, there was a round levitating table hovering motionless with a touch screen on it, which my business partner and I were using to keep an eye on the starship market and to plan through possible future operations. There were plenty up for sale, and some were even quite intriguing. Here on Kasti-Utsh III, it was even possible to obtain a light cruiser but, as usual, everything hinged on finances. Not having reached a common opinion and tired of arguing, Uline and I decided to take an hour’s break to eat dinner and unwind.

The Trader’s palmtop gave a beep. My business partner peeled open her lemon-yellow eyes with clear distaste, read the message and, immediately enthused, turned her spinning armchair in my direction:

“Hey, we found a buyer for the wreckage of our frigate! See Gnat, I told you someone would buy it quick. I’ve seen even more damaged modular frigates get bought for parts before. We ended up getting eleven million crystals along with all the hardware. We’re in the green!!!”

Eleven million... Somewhere around a third as much as the Tolili-Ukh X frigate in long-distance raider configuration would be worth if it could be repaired. Frustrating, of course. On the other hand, after the quick little war we came out with two Tiopeo-Myhh II Miyelonian interceptors. Ten minutes ago, a representative of Kasti-Utsh III station administration brought me the captain’s keys and documents for them, so Wizzz the hacker didn’t even have to break anything, and the mercenary Programmer was sent on his merry way. Even considering the repair costs, the two trophy interceptors were worth twenty-seven or -eight million crystals, so it was easy to understand why the Trader was happy. To her, it felt like a profitable deal. We “traded” one starship for two smaller and more nimble ones and, with the reparations added in, we came out on top.

But nevertheless, I couldn’t force myself to be happy no matter how I tried. And although I had distanced myself from the events of the recent war and somewhat calmed down, I was still admonishing myself. I just couldn’t understand how we could all be so blind and self-confident! And I was thinking not only of the failed assault, which had turned into a chaotic slaughter, but also the unexpected pirate counterattack.

After all, back when we jammed the two pirate interceptors into one hangar, we gave the Pride of the Bushy Shadow and their dispatcher flunkies a clear demonstration that we had gained control over the station’s computer system. The Miyelonians must have known that perfectly well, but didn’t stop us or do anything to impede our unauthorized access. We were allowed to just get deeper into our confusion and start thinking ourselves in control of the situation. But at a certain point, they started editing the footage from the security cameras. My crew back on the frigate didn’t notice the pirates preparing for the assault, or dragging their heavy weaponry closer to our Tolili-Ukh X hanger, or setting their respawn points nearby. And so, when the forty pirates respawned all at once, their joint attack came as a complete surprise. And as a result of that blindness, idiocy and self-confidence, we lost a starship...

Yes, we got the two Tiopeo-Myhh II interceptors in return. And that wasn’t all so bad. However, it would be a day before either of them would be ready, and the second would need a whole three days. Until that point, my whole team and I were essentially “without a horse,” stuck on the station. On top of that, all twenty Team Gnat players would have to squeeze in pretty tight to all fit in the two miniscule interceptors. We’d have to forget about all notions of comfort or personal berths. Stools in the corridor – that was the most my crew members could hope for in these dinky vessels. And to make matters worse, try as we might, the three Immolators wouldn’t be able to fit in the cargo holds, even folded up. They could just barely fit one each (although according to the Engineer and Supercargo, that would put them both a ton and a half over their ideal weight), so it was looking like we’d have to sell the third Immolator. And an interceptor with a ton and a half overload would lose all its strong points, becoming just a tiny uncomfortable cargo ship.

Add to that our lack of a second Navigator, and both pilots lacking the skill for steering highly maneuverable ships, and a bunch more associated problems... Overall I was feeling inclined to sell the interceptors and buy another one like we had before. But Uline Tar intelligently noted that we could not sell the trophy ships at full price until we were done repairing them. And that meant waiting around for three days...

I also missed the extremely rare chance to have an audience with Miyelonian Fleet Commander Kung Keetsie-Myau, which stung all the worse after hearing the Great One had some kind of “interesting offer” for me and humanity as a whole. The war with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow ended without me dueling the pirate leader. And no duel meant no conversation with the famed commander. The Great One made that crystal clear. As far as I’d heard from the news, the flotilla of three Pride of the Bushy Shadow starships had reached the Kasti-Utsh system and recently docked at the station. However, their leader Big Abi had announced that, with the war already over, he saw no reason to waste five days on Kasti-Utsh III when he had more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere in the galaxy. And so, as soon as he bought everything he needed and balanced his team between his two ships, the fearsome pirate was planning to leave the Kasti-Utsh III station.

When asked directly by the black-furred Journalist (the very same who covered the war on the station), about a duel with Leng Gnat, Big Abi replied that despite his fearsome reputation, he respected Miyelonian law and was not planning to attack a neutral player. Furthermore, with a smirk., Big Abi asked the representative of the Pride of the Sweet Voice how she thought a duel between a strong warrior and powerful psionic might go. If the warrior didn’t provide for mental defense, he’d lose before the battle even got started. But if he just put on a helmet to block thoughts or any other similar defense, the psionic mage would be sure to lose. I saw Gerd Abi making that speech on the local news, and it gave me the impression that the fearsome pirate wasn’t exactly raring for a fight. And to be honest, I didn’t want to go up against the lightning-fast Miyelonian either, if he was going to be completely immune to my mental attacks. So by the looks of things, my audience with Kung Keetsie-Myau would have to wait...

Our mission to intercept the La-Shin Faction’s Kurimiru shuttle also ended in complete failure. How annoying! And then the monstrous events in the magocratic world... Damn! And I suspected that Tamara had some terrible scheme in mind, given she despised magicians with every fiber of her being and yet was so eager to enter the magic-imbued world. Although to my eye, the idea she’d committed an act of terrorism looked hard to explain. Where would a dainty girl with no knowledge of their alien world have obtained explosives and how did she sneak them into a well-defended building? I had more questions than answers...

My furry companion, growling in satisfaction at the massage, opened her eyes and said:

“You know Gnat, it makes a lot of sense to see you in a deluxe room in a space hotel! It’s like you were born to live this life!”

And my answer may have been a bit too petty:

“I hope I was made for bigger things than pointlessly lounging in a hotel, no matter how chic the interior.”

“Oh come on. Don’t be a buzzkill!” she grumbled, sitting more comfortably in her chair and adjusting her robe. “How long have you been in the game that bends reality? Less than fifty days? In such a short amount of time, most players from your home planet haven’t even left the two or three nodes around their initial base. The extent of their dreams is to save up enough monetary crystals to one day buy a blaster. But you have two starships, your own faction and a team of loyal players who would follow you to the ends of the Universe! So you can afford to play in comfort – what’s so bad about that?”

I didn’t answer because a delicate knock came at the door. Room service? Not likely. If I understood correctly, this room was exclusively serviced by domestic robots. I was feeling too lazy to get up from my armchair and turn on the observation system, so I acted on old habit and activated the Scanning icon.

Human man. Level-72 Sniper.

Human woman. Level-78 Gunfighter.

Both markers were blue, meaning allies. Had the two German beginners come to get to know their captain a bit better? In the space of a second, I changed out of my lounging clothes (which I only allowed Uline Tar to see me in) and into the matte-black Listener Armor, then mentally unlocked the armored front door. Ten seconds later, both players of the German H6 Faction were standing in front of me. They were both trying very hard to restrain their emotions, but I could see on their motionless faces that the majestic spectacle out the window was making an impression on them. I had booked just three rooms in the hotel: one expensive deluxe suite for fifteen hundred crypto a night for me and Uline Tar, and two simpler rooms for the rest of the team to relax in. The other rooms must not have come with a panoramic view of space.

“Captain Leng Gnat,” said Destroying Angel, first to come in and start speaking, “my brother and I have come to express our gratitude and pride at the fact we were considered worthy to join humanity’s first outer-space combat unit. Yes, our level is lower than almost everyone else in the team for now. But we assure you that we are prepared to train to the point of exhaustion, and even near death. And we’ll be sure to catch up to the others soon enough!”

That left me with no doubt she had overheard my conversation with Gerd T’yu-Pan about the beginners’ low levels. Okay then, I hadn’t changed my perspective. They still needed to grow into the team a bit to be able to provide effective help.

“Und, vee are speaking in ze name of our diplomat... Geh-neh-ral? Kanzler? Ze biggest player of unser block, ummm... fraction,” Grim Reaper grew ashamed, unable to find the correct word in Geckho, and just let his sister take back over.

“Leng Gnat! Human-6 Faction leader Leng Thomas Müller has tasked us with communicating a political proposal. The H6 Faction is willing to sign a military and political alliance with the Relict Faction. And we’re willing to accept any level of integration, right up to complete unification.”

What? I was generally hard to surprise, but some things are hard to take in stride. I sharply stood up and mentally darkened the window without a remote so the view of outer space wouldn’t distract from the important conversation.

“And does Leng Müller realize that each faction can only have one Leng?”

The twins exchanged glances and Destroying Angel answered again:

“Yes he does. And he is willing to let you take charge of our three nodes and eight hundred ninety players.”

It cost me great effort not to reveal my astonishment.

“Who made that decision? And what do you get out of it?” I asked the two most obvious questions.

“The council of directors considers it the most correct way forward. Recent events have proven that the Human-6 Faction is far behind the Dark Faction in terms of technical development and military force. We were very nearly eliminated from the game because of it. Further conflict with the parallel world is entirely possible, so our people want a guarantee of safety. And who better to provide that than a Dark Faction ruler himself?”

“Uh... slight clarification,” I said, wanting to make sure they didn’t have the wrong impression. “The La-Fin Faction or Dark Faction in your understanding is not led by me, but my wife Minn-O La-Fin.”

“But it is you, Leng Gnat La-Fin, who rules the people in their parallel world,” said Destroying Angel, demonstrating a fairly sophisticated understanding of both real-world and in-game politics. “Furthermore, a good number of players from the magocratic world are already members of the Relict Faction. And you already have a few German players as well. As far as I can tell, we get along famously. Furthermore, we have a common goal: to safeguard planet Earth by completing a planetary shield in a very limited timeframe. And let me express my confidence that the Human-6 Faction’s hundreds of experienced Builders, Engineers, and Mechanics could help solve that global mission. After all, everyone knows we love an honest day’s work.”

Okay, a very strong and right-minded argument. And that was what made up my mind.

“And also ze island... we lost our capital, it ist a painful memory... wiss players returning to ze island, zis take away ze scars,” Grim Reaper’s explanation may have been a bit tongue-tied, but it came across as sincere.

And I understood perfectly well that the Human-6 Faction had taken the loss of their island capital node in war with the spooky Dark Faction very hard. And it was hoped that getting back the island hexagon, even in this very confused way, via political union with the new owner of the island, would smooth over old grievances and anxieties.

“Okay, tell Leng Thomas Müller that I accept his offer! The German players shall join the Relict Faction and Germany shall obtain complete access to all technologies known to my faction. I also suggest we integrate our factions carefully, to make sure Leng Müller can retain his status without violating any game rules. I can think of a few ways, but he should discuss the details with my advisor Mage Diviner Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi. He can be found on the island hexagon.”

Authority increased to 69!

The brother and sister bowed in perfect syncopation and were about to leave when I stopped them:

“I noticed your rifles. Firearms made to order by the greatest craftsmen on earth. Not a bad choice, but not great to use in space. Firearms are hopelessly antiquated out here, plus powder won’t light in a vacuum. My lovely business partner Uline Tar can help you figure out the electronic trade catalogue. Get yourselves some better weaponry – something that matches your skills and that you can grow into. And another thing... I have heard that you two aren’t spending much time with the rest of the crew or speaking with them. I understand it’s still your first day, you don’t know anyone yet. You must be embarrassed and everything. But it still isn’t right! Captain’s orders: learn to play Na-Tikh U from the Geckho twins Basha and Vasha and get good enough to beat them! That will help you communicate with the team, and give your brains a workout. Plus the Geckho twins can teach you their language, and not just the literary variety.”

The brother and sister headed for the exit, opened the door into the hallway and I heard Destroying Angel give a short scream of fear. What was this? Were we under attack? The Annihilator appeared in my hand instantly. Uline Tar hopped up and changed into her space armor. But it wasn’t an enemy that made Destroying Angel afraid. In the hallway, clearly shaken by the human woman’s sharp reaction, was a lemon-yellow spider the size of a calf shifting unconfidently from one foot to the next.

Ayzzz 117. Meleyephatian. Nest of Eleven-Eyed Male 1376-Reborn. Level-117 Trader.

The Meleyephatian saw me, turned all his mobile eyes in my direction and spewed out a couple chirrs, which I took to mean he was happy to meet me. The Trader was speaking Miyelonian and, although it was easy enough to understand, he had a very strong whistling accent, and he was constantly making cracking sounds:

“Leng Gnat! Just the man I was looking for. What a joy! I am Ayzzz. I deal in artifacts of ancient races. My friends told me Leng Gnat had taken an interest in my modest shop and was even asking how to get there. But I just couldn’t keep waiting for such an important and busy guest. My business, you see, is quite particular. There aren’t exactly throngs of visitors looking to buy ancient objects, so I gathered my bravery and decided to pay you a visit on my own. Because Leng Gnat,” the Meleyephatian pointed at my Listener Energy Armor and Annihilator at the same time with his two upper appendages, “is a connoisseur of ancient artifacts and must be interested in some items from my wonderful collection!”


Chapter Fifteen. Horde Liaison

I HAD LONG BEEN PLANNING to drop by the ancient artifact trader’s shop, but circumstances or urgent business were always getting in the way. But here the Meleyephatian had come to my hotel room to show me his wares on a three-dimensional holographic screen he unfolded. I could see the ancient items from all sides, turn them around, zoom in and out and even read their game data. There were so many intriguing items it was hard to know where to look first.

Stone disks covered in Relict writing. I understood the language perfectly well, but this was all technical mumbo-jumbo: unfamiliar abbreviations, system names I’d never heard of, numbers for levels and streams, the professions and names of those responsible for transmitting data to the Pyramid. By all appearances, I was looking at an ancient digital memory drive containing invaluable information. These stones could potentially raise the shroud of mystery from the mysterious Relict race and answer many questions for me and all contemporary beings. But how to extract information from stone disks? There were no devices in the modern world that could read them...

Mineralogy skill increased to level fifty-eight!

That pop-up message amused me. Beyond the fact that the drives were made of polished dark-gray and black stone (I didn’t even know their composition, my university knowledge was worthless here), I couldn’t tell a thing. Nevertheless, the difficult-to-level Mineralogy skill got a boost, which was very nice. But I left the collection of stone disks behind and kept scrolling.

Relict nuclear batteries. Oh! Just what I need! My very last one just so happened to be in my Listener Energy Suit now. The Annihilator, fortunately, after Kirsan’s modifications no longer required such rare artifacts to power it, but I still needed them for the armor suit. And they were used for the forcefield, all the electronic “guts,” and to send messages to the Pyramid. One message from the mysterious starship of the Relict hierarch was already ready to send to the Pyramid. The only thing holding me back was that sending it had a high probability of burning through the only battery I had left, as happened before the attack on the pirate treasure vault. So I bought all of the Trader’s nuclear batteries – four of them at a thousand crypto a piece. An indulgence, of course, but now I didn’t have to worry about my unique armor losing functionality when I needed it most.

Okay, let’s scan through the catalogue a little more. A perfectly preserved Relict skull that even had bits of desiccated flesh left on it. Hmm... How familiar! I zoomed in to take a closer look at the elongated mass of bone with huge eye sockets. Taking my attention the wrong way, the Trader lit up:

“A true star of my collection. A completely intact skull of one of the mysterious Relicts! Only four such skulls are known to exist. The others are all held by museums and science laboratories and, just so you know, those are in much worse condition. You are the head of a faction named ‘Relict,’ so I say you simply must own one. I’ll give you everything for about a million crypto!”

I didn’t answer and turned to Uline Tar.

“Yes, this is the skull I took from the Relict outpost, and which was stolen from me by pirates from the Pride of the Bushy Shadow!”

The Trader reacted instantly and chirred out that he would remove the item from his catalogue until its rightful ownership could be established. He said he valued his reputation above all and would never deal in stolen goods out of fear to lose clients, many of whom were VERY big-time players. After that, I started thinking Ayzzz might return the ancient skull to Uline Tar, but no such luck. The Meleyephatian trader preferred to quash the topic and flipped to other sections of the catalogue. I came under the firm impression that Ayzzz 117 was still intending to sell the stolen skull, just to other less scrupulous buyers.

I got back to looking. A Small Control Bracelet, severely damaged. A perfect copy of the one I had in the slot on the right sleeve of my Listener Energy Armor, just missing a couple pieces. I wondered if I could put it on my left arm. I would have gotten it and tried to fix it, for the +15% bonus to my suit’s forcefield capacity if nothing else. But the game system told me the corresponding armor slot was already filled. Okay, so it was a right-arm bracelet. The trader’s catalogue had nothing for the left. Let’s look further.

Fragments of ancient vehicles which could no longer be identified. All kinds of antique garbage. More garbage. A few items were dimly familiar. Seemingly I had seen them at the Relict outpost. Hm... And what do we have here? A flat dark box with circular edges. Based on its extremely particular input jack, this box was meant to be placed in the rear slot of a Listener Energy Armor Suit in place of an air tank. If I remembered correctly, Basha Tushihh had picked this item up at the Relict outpost, but I couldn’t read the hunk of metal’s information before. I could now though:

Tachyon bender (accessory for Devourer armor).

 

Creates a 16-inch-wide time-delay cocoon around the player for a duration of 1.3 seconds (level-2 modifications such as this require permission from the Relict hierarchs to install).

Required class: Inquirer, Listener, Punisher, or Devourer.

Statistic requirements: Character level 125, Intelligence 33, Perception 33.

Skill requirements: Medium Armor 125, Electronics 125, Eagle Eye 125, Danger Sense 125.

Attention! Your character lacks the Perception required to use this object.

Attention! Your character’s level is insufficient in the following skills: Medium Armor, Eagle Eye, Electronics, Danger Sense.

Attention! Your character’s level is not high enough to use this object.

Attention! This object is for the Relict race and cannot be used by Humans.

I didn’t have much of an idea what a sixteen-inch-wide time delay cocoon was, but it sounded both promising and fantastical. Meanwhile, despite the large number of warnings about why I couldn’t use it, it would be well within my grasp soon enough. Sure, I’d have to level my skills and character and remove the racial restriction with the help of a good Mechanic, but then we’d be all set! And this item was seemingly made especially for me – the only Listener in the game that bends reality. By the looks of things, I had a new goal!

However the Trader had noticed my interest and was already rubbing his four hands together in anticipation of massive profit. I’d have to work on my acting ability. I flipped further through the catalogue, looking over the wreckage and other trash. Then in a bored tone, I asked the Trader where the actually interesting Relict items were, such as Annihilators, Energy Suits and other artifacts of that level. Did he really only have trash and stuff the Geckho and I had recently removed from the Relict outpost? Where were the items from other earlier finds? At the end of the day, where were items from the collection of the Meleyephatian Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh, ruler of the Rowonti-Tor system? After all, nowhere near all the Queen’s artifacts had been stolen and hidden by the Morphian. There must have still been many ancient items around.

“I see, human, that you have a sophisticated understanding of ancient goods,” hissed Ayzzz 117.

“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve just been lucky enough to chat with a couple Morphians.” Seeing the Meleyephatian looking tense, as if ready to jump me, I hurried to add: “I know the old story of your races’ irreconcilable conflict. And I have to admit that I am not exactly thrilled by the Morphians’ habits either. But nevertheless, I have heard the story of Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh being replaced and her relics being hidden let’s say firsthand – from the false queen herself.”

While Ayzzz 117 digested the information, I scrolled the holographic screen back, returned to the Tachyon Bender and asked its price.

Successful Fame check.

Successful Authority check.

“Ah just take it as a gift from me,” the Trader surprised me with unexpected generosity. “That item is only of interest to Devourers. It’s useless to anyone else.”

So there’s the use of grinding Fame and Authority!!! To secure good relations with a potential buyer, the Trader decided to give me an item he considered worthless free of charge! I thanked the Trader, and it cost me massive effort to keep calm and not reveal my excitement. Seemingly, he only had the Intelligence to read the item’s name, not characteristics. I suspected that if Ayzzz were able to read the properties of the Tachyon Bender and knew that Listeners could also use them, the price would have taken off into the stratosphere.

The automatic system promised to deliver the item within a quarter ummi. Excellent! In an elevated mood, I got back to flipping through the catalogue. A large collection of Precursor bracelets made of dark bronze, a few of which I couldn’t read the properties of even with my 38 Intelligence. And the ones I could recognize often left me baffled:

Bracelet of Palenteus (right, from the Ruler of Paala set).

 

+25 Consul Recognition. Initiates compatibility check in response.

Statistic requirements: Character level 75, Perception 25, Agility 25.

Skill requirements: Cartography 125, Rhetoric 125.

Attention! Your character’s Agility is not high enough to use this object.

Attention! Your character lacks the Rhetoric skill.

Attention! Your characters Cartography skill is insufficient.

Based on the extreme skill and statistic requirement, this must have been a very valuable and important item. But what did it do? What was this “compatibility check” it was referring to? What were consuls? And what was Paala?

I even summoned a flying table and used the built-in computer to run a search in the Kasti-Utsh III database. But the Miyelonian guides didn’t have anything about a Palenteus or Paala. Neither did the Geckho Uline Tar, who dug through her race’s databases on my request.

Or this other strange item of the same category:

Bracelet of Reflection (indestructible).

 

+2.3 seconds Informicon delay. Chance of reflecting an Appeal +17%. Energy Barrier reduced by 4%.

Skill requirements: Medicine 125, Surgery 100, Field Surgery 80.

Attention! Your character lacks the skills Medicine, Surgery and Field Surgery.

By the looks of things, this artifact was made for healers specialized in combat medicine. But still, for Christ’s sake, what did this bracelet actually do???

There were plenty of Precursor bracelets. However, although I familiarized myself with the Trader’s entire collection, I didn’t find anything else I could use. Even worse was that fully a third of the items remained unidentified. The Trader himself didn’t even know the properties of these artifacts. But the ancient “magic” rings, pendants and earrings were another matter entirely. That was all simple – they boosted a player’s characteristics and skills just the same as modern ones. A few were being sold without their original gemstones – just empty settings. But others were still in “working” condition. For example a +3 Strength ring. Many combat classes would want this artifact!

“Six hundred thousand Geckho crystals,” the Trader coolly named his price. Without a word, I flipped further through the catalogue. Strength was not Gnat’s main characteristic and, for that kind of money, I could find something better. Or I could just save the money. I might need it very soon to buy a new starship.

But in the end I told Team Gnat about the rare item via radio. Of course, chances were slim that any of my people could find that kind of money...

“I’ll take it!” came an exclamation from my ward Tini. “I actually need to bring my Strength up – then I can wear nicer armor, and use Big Abi’s blades without penalties.”

“I wouldn’t say no either,” came Eduard Boyko the Space Commando, “if someone can loan me fourteen thousand crystals until our next big score.”

I tried to pick my jaw up off the floor. Where did my kitten get that kind of money? Just a month ago, he was poor as a church mouse! Eduard surprised me as well, to be honest. I mean, I knew the Space Commando had money. I was reminded of how he very recently offered to gift his exoskeleton armor suit to Gerd Tamara, intending to buy himself a better one. Furthermore, the Space Commando, as the hero of the assault on the pirate vault on Medu-Ro IV had been given a larger share of the take. But almost six hundred thousand crystals... I shook my head skeptically and turned to my business partner Uline Tar for an explanation.

“His share of the gold he carried out of the treasure vault. I helped Eduarrr sell it myself. Plus three days ago, Eduarrr sold me his share in the Tolili-Ukh X. So it all adds up,” my business partner explained. And a few seconds later, noticeably quieter, she added: “A very smart move on his part, as we learned today.”

So, I could understand everything with Eduard Boyko. And Tini the little thief was also getting money regularly. Both his salary as a crew member and from his Miyelonian caretakers. Plus the nimble, bushy-tailed kid was constantly snatching up anything left out in the open... Okay, it was alright for a player to have professional secrets, especially one with such a difficult class. I decided not to interrogate Tini about where he got the money.

After a brief debate over the ancient +3 Strength ring, it went to the Space Commando (Tini loaned him the rest of the money). Uline Tar helped set up the trade and the fancy platinum ring with a huge ruby disappeared from the Meleyephatian Trader’s catalogue. I then turned to the next sections of the ancient artifact collection.

The race with the most items represented was the Mechanoids. There were even complete and restored Mechanoid armor suits. Judging on how they looked, they were intended for gigantic flat millipedes approximately 15 feet in length. But at that, a significant portion of the mechanoid artifacts were damaged or had only come down to our age in the form of debris. That made it all the more surprising to discover surviving equipment in a repairable state – a few uncanny rings of identical metal triangles levitating around an invisible axis and a black basketball-sized sphere with an inactive screen to go with the slowly spinning hovering device. Must have been a targeting system.

Mechanoid spatial cutter (accessory for heavy-cruiser-class starships and above).

 

                  Requires a subatomic energy source of medium or high power.

Allows an area of 550x550x550 to be permanently cut out of game space.

Effective range: 3460 miles.

Rate of fire: 1 pulse / 28.7 minutes.

Mass: 4120 lbs.

Statistic requirements: Perception 22, Agility 22.

Skill requirements: Heavy weaponry 140, Resonance Weapons 50 or Gravity Weapons 70, Electronics 50.

Minimum level and class combinations: Level-80 Gunner, level-80 Heavy Robot Operator, level-100 Shocktroop, level-120 Gunfighter.

Attention! Your character’s Agility is not high enough to use this object.

Attention! Your character lacks the following skills: Heavy Weaponry, Resonance Weapons, Gravity Weapons.

Attention! The Listener Class is not allowed to use Heavy Weaponry.

Now there’s an item!!! You could destroy a whole starship once every half hour with this baby. Or a fortress. Or wipe out a whole settlement along with its residents. And I didn’t even know where they would respawn if their res point got “cut out” of the game world. The Spatial Cutter, not in mechanism of action, but effectiveness of application – one shot and done – reminded me of my Annihilator. It was just a bit heavier, more fearsome and far-ranging in its possible applications.

It reminded me of a weapon from the novels The Star Kings and Return to the Stars by the great American fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, which contained a similar weapon: “The Disruptor,” a force that annihilated not matter but space. A forbidden and semi-mythical doomsday weapon only permitted when mankind truly risked total annihilation or enslavement. How was that different from my case? Earth was under threat of invasion from space and enslavement! Take the most dangerous invading starships out of the picture and maybe our shield could hold out until help arrived. Yes, the Spatial Cutter did does require some very particular skills, but I was sure we’d be able to find a player who could operate it on our planet! And if we couldn’t, there was still time to make one from scratch and grind him up to the proper levels! Although... I was putting the cart before the horse. First of all, I needed to know where I could find “subatomic energy sources.” I couldn’t find anything about them in the guide.

“I can see, Leng Gnat, that you have an interest in that artifact,” the Meleyephatian trader’s chirring voice tore me from my deep contemplation. “Perhaps the honorable Leng can tell me just what that obscure part of my artifact collection actually is?”

After a second’s delay, I realized with relief that the Trader didn’t have the Intelligence to read the information about the Spatial Cutter. In fact, Ayzzz 117 was not a high-profile player at all. And even though he was absolutely laden with Intelligence rings (and Meleyephatians can wear a whole eight bonus-conferring items), his Intelligence was nowhere near my sky-high 38. And to my eye, there was no benefit to telling this member of the Meleyephatian Horde about the imba item in his stock.

“This is a Mechanoid geological drill, as far as I can tell from the description. As a Free Captain engaged in the search for valuable metals on asteroids, it really did catch my eye. And I might have bought it. But I just can’t understand why it is has to be attached to a ship or how it could ever work without being attached to the power system. Here it says it ‘requires subatomic energy source.’ You ever heard of anything like that?”

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred one!

Danger Sense skill increased to level seventy-one!

The Trader didn’t believe me and decided to extract the information directly from my brain! My good humor blew away like the wind. How dare he attack a high-profile player like that?! The Annihilator instantly appeared in my hand, and I touched the tip of its barrel to the head of the huge yellow spider.

“Stop rummaging through my brains this instant! And get out of my sight before I shoot you!”

But the Trader’s reaction to the weapon and threat was not at all what I was expecting. The Meleyephatian spread his arms wide to show that he wasn’t planning to go anywhere, then deafeningly chirred out in offense:

“You must be mistaken, Leng Gnat! I have done nothing untoward!”

But... regardless, I could still feel thoughts trying to pierce through my mental defenses like a flaming scourge, lashing into my mind.

“If I were in your place, human, I’d put my weapon away! I have come on assignment from the Prelates of Tailax. I am your liaison with the Meleyephatian Horde as a whole and Tailax in particular. And I have some important information for you: an answer to a question. But I don’t like it when people try to trick me. So before I tell you anything, I need to check...”

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-three!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred two!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred three!

I don’t know what Ayzzz 117 was able to read from my mind (if anything) but, based on the three Mental Fortitude jumps in such a short time, the Meleyephatian Trader was constantly repeating his desperate attempts to psionically break down my mental defenses. It felt like someone was ramming a smoldering stick into my eye and trying to break through the back of the socket. But physical pain wasn’t going to make me give in. Pain could be tolerated. But at any second, the Meleyephatian might read that I told Geckho Diplomat Kosta Dykhsh about the Meleyephatians attempting to recruit me! I absolutely could not allow that!

Fire!!!

The Trader’s front right appendage vanished in a bright flash. All that remained of his chitin arm was a footlong stump off the carapace.

Rifles skill increased to level fifty-nine!

You have reached level ninety-one!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: seven).

Yes it was an alarming situation, but I still took note of my weapon-skill boosts and level-up. For a flash, I even had an insidious thought that the spider-like Trader had another seven arms, and this could be a good opportunity to grind my skills. However, after my one shot, the Meleyephatian immediately surrendered. I stopped feeling the fiery stick boring into my head.

The Trader jumped up and twitched fitfully in pain, his jointed arms jerking at random. Then he hissed out in dismay:

“What have you done, human?! My cover is blown! It will be very hard to get another ring like that one!”

What was he talking about? But then I noticed that the Meleyephatian Trader’s description had undergone a striking change. In fact, he was no longer a Trader at all:

Leng Sooweesssh Eleven. Meleyephatian. Nest of the Horde Frontrunners. Level-207 Spy.

Level two hundred and seven! And he’s a Leng!!! I made a big mistake starting a conflict with him! Still, before I could even get scared, I heard a vile sound somewhere between a whistle and near ultrasonic peep. It made my teeth clench until they cracked... and the lemon-yellow spider collapsed on the floor in a lifeless heap. I turned in surprise. Uline Tar was standing with her eyes wide in horror, all the while squeezing an unusual weapon in her furry paws: a short squat tube that grew wider at the end, which was also lined with metal rings.

Successful Intelligence check.

Ah, I see. An Infantry Resonator, a Geckho close combat weapon that destroys the nerve cells and internal organs. I had seen one like it in the trade catalogue when I was looking for a weapon to buy for the Human-3 Faction’s army. But I didn’t buy any then, because resonators are entirely ineffective from farther away than three or four steps, which made using them in modern warfare a technical impossibility. Beyond that, it was not a very discerning weapon, cutting a wide and indiscriminate swath of destruction. Some weapon skills (perhaps Sharpshooter or Pistols) could choke that down, but Uline had once confessed to me that her character had no weapon skills at all, which meant the Geckho lady could do little more than point it in a general direction and shoot.

“I set the Resonator to kill Meleyephatians only,” the Geckho woman answered, as if reading my thoughts.

I nodded in silence, not clarifying that the forcefield on my Listener Energy Armor had drooped by fifteen percent. If not for that, I would at the very least have been severely disabled and paralyzed by the shot. And yet Uline said something else with a mixture of delight and fear:

“Gnat, I just went up eight levels at once! Who even was that Meleyephatian? And why did he attack you? Woah look – he’s a Spy!!! We have to tell the administrators of the Miyelonian station that we unmasked an enemy agent!”

I myself didn’t fully understand why the peaceable looking Trader suddenly decided to attack me mentally. Maybe what I said about the Relict artifact was too far removed from what he could see with his lower Intelligence and was trying to find the truth. Although... I was no longer confident that the level-two-hundred-seven prominent Spy had lower Intelligence than me. In any case, I quickly searched his valuable corpse while it was still there to loot. A few plastic belts, a blindfold, a bunch of junk I could barely understand and...

Captain’s key (main) to Tolili-Ukh X frigate.

 

I believe in fate. As I believe that coincidences are never truly random. Just after I lost my space frigate, when was busting my brains over where to get a new ship, this idiot drops a glowing blue crystal as loot which would allow me to take a frigate exactly like the one I had before. It would have been hard to imagine a clearer hint from on high about what to do next. And who cares that it was sure to have consequences and the Meleyephatian agent wouldn’t like what I was doing. It was his fault for attacking me first!

Not hesitating for a second, I activated my radio and called my crew for an emergency council.


Chapter Sixteen. Conflict in the Crew

THE ONLY ONE in the whole crew who knew about my secret understandings with the Prelates of Tailax was Valeri-Urla, but the Tailaxian girl was tactful enough not to mention it. To the other members of the crew, it looked very strange indeed that a high-level Meleyephatian Horde Spy was interested in their captain. And the false Trader attacking a prominent player (and an attempt to forcibly read someone else’s mind would surely be regarded as an attack) was completely beyond the pale for some of them. Most of my crew shared my outrage and were crying out for “spider” blood. After all, sending the discourteous Spy to respawn once was clearly not enough punishment. That brute needed to be taught a lesson and full bore!

When I told them my idea to break into the Meleyephatian Trader’s hangar and capture his frigate, my crew was quite enthusiastic. Yes, that it probably more fit the spirit of space pirates than the crew of a respectable and peaceful Free Captain. But I had pirate status, so we were in fact pirates! I wasn’t at all afraid that the official authorities of the Kasti-Utsh III station might intervene in my squabble with the Meleyephatian Spy who bit off more than he could chew because I had a story to tell the Miyelonians and something to show them:

Eye of Leng Sooweesssh Eleven, level-207 Spy (trophy).

 

My business partner Uline Tar took an identical trophy “spider” eye for herself. She was unexpectedly bubbling with martial spirit and ended up being the loudest voice in favor of attacking the enemy of the Geckho race. Her position was shared by all Geckho and Miyelonians in my crew, along with most of the humans.

Just Valeri-Urla was being cautious, telling us things like all members of the Meleyephatian race were born psionic, and them noticing that someone was holding back information was a totally commonplace affair. The Trader could have done it completely by accident, out of habit, and this was not a very serious breach of etiquette.

The only one who was categorically opposed to the planned attack was Denni Marko. The bodyguard reminded everyone in very emotional and blunt terms that the Gilvar Syndicate, where Denni lived in the real world, was a vassal of the Meleyephatian Horde. And the rulers of the Syndicate might really dislike his role in this whole story. But fear for his own fate was not the deciding factor in Valeri’s long-term companion’s position:

“We is really pirate? We is really going to war with Meleyephats?” Denni Marko looked from side to side, staring tensely at the crew and searching in vain for support. “I to be choose normal contract and no to sign this crazy venture! This is big stupid! I no to choose signing you contract if I know before!!!”

Denni was determined to be indignant about the fact that he was not clearly informed Captain Gnat might embark upon foolhardy ventures when signing his contract. By the way... Denni Marko had a big black eye covering half his face. In fact, the Bodyguard’s left eye was all swollen and could hardly open. I wonder who he got into it with and when? Could it be that Denni’s bad mood was not only because of the upcoming raid, but something else as well? I looked over my team attentively.

Eagle Eye skill increased to level eighty-four!

Kisly’s face also had fresh wounds on it, and the knuckles of the Machinegunner’s right hand were all bloody. Nefertiti’s emotional background was extremely tense and bothered as well. The Dryad was very angry at her husband and could not calm down. Valeri-Urla, whose mood I read very cautiously, was also on edge. Clearly something had happened there to make Denni Marko, already famed for his difficult temperament, get into an especially bad mood.

Nevertheless, the Bodyguard was asking very reasonable questions and I was even having a hard time finding answers to them quickly. As a neutral Free Captain, I was supposed to stay out of galactic politics, be on the side in all wars. And if I did support one side in a conflict from time to time, it couldn’t be too regular or high-enough level to arouse suspicion of working directly for them. But even still I had already helped the Geckho and Miyelonians on a number of occasions and was an active participant in military operations on the Geckho side, which did not go unnoticed by their Meleyephatian opponents. I was reminded of the secret negotiations on the back of the sea turtle in the middle of the bay, when the Prelates of Tailax tried to make me aware that I was “on the verge” and soon could find myself declared an enemy of the Horde. If I aggravated the conflict with the Meleyephatian Spy, again finding myself going against the Meleyephatian Horde, there was a high probability that I would be irrevocably crossing their “red line.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t just turn tail and pretend like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. That would also be wrong-headed. Maybe Meleyephatians were used to having their minds read, and didn’t think twice about digging around in the brains of enslaved peoples to read whatever they wanted to know. But I am not a slave! I am a proud Free Captain, a prominent player and I cannot allow a representative of the Meleyephatian horde to use me as a doormat! Furthermore, it was very possible that our uncovering a Spy would leak to the station owners. Then the Miyelonians would have a good reason to be outraged that their guest Leng Gnat didn’t warn them first. By the way... I could actually play that up! What if I tried to get the Tolili-Ukh X frigate with diplomacy rather than force?

“Denni, you’re absolutely right. We really shouldn’t rush this, or do anything without thinking it through. We’ll try to get by without any bloodshed. Valeri-Urla! I need you to go into the real world and send a message to your prison guards from me. Listen close, it’s gonna be lot to remember!”

After that I sent everything mentally because I didn’t want the other team members to hear my top-secret message:

“Message from Leng Gnat to the Prelates of Tailax. The Meleyephatian Spy on the Kasti-Utsh III station made a serious misstep and exposed himself. And now Leng Sooweesssh Eleven, leader of the Nest of Horde Frontrunners has some very big problems: the Miyelonians will not let someone with so many important secrets off their station and will surely take him prisoner. And the Miyelonians have methods of cracking even a nut as tough as a level-207 Spy. Then the whole Nest of the Horde Frontrunners could be exposed, dealing a huge blow to the Meleyephatian spy network as a whole. Or Leng Sooweesssh Eleven will have to kill himself to keep his secret and just die, die, and die until his final death. But I would like to propose a different way out. I am prepared to save your careless Spy and evacuate him from the Kasti-Utsh III station to a safe location. Providing this service will my reputation seriously at risk, so my price will be: the Tolili-Ukh X star frigate that previously belonged to Leng Sooweesssh Eleven and which is now stationed in hangar 1-108. To my eye, that is a fair price and just compensation for the fact that an agent of the Meleyephatian Horde attacked me mentally. It would also be legal to take the frigate by force, because Leng Sooweesssh attacked me first, but I would like to maintain good relations with Tailax and the Meleyephatian Horde as a whole, which is why I am suggesting this alternative. I need the Prelates’ answer as quickly as possible while we still have a way of getting the Spy off the station. Valeri, did you memorize that? Excellent!”

“I have memorized it and will reproduce it accurately. But Gnat, before I leave the game, I must tell you one important thing. Denni Marko and I broke up. Yes, we are finished for good. One of the reasons was that he started flirting with that Dryad, and she was receptive. I mean, I’ve been feeling like ending things for some time, and there are many other reasons. I am a proud Great Huntress and I alone decide who is worthy to be with me. Denni has proven himself unworthy. I have spoken with him already and told him my decision. Denni Marko will be leaving your crew right after our next voyage as soon as his contract is up. So captain, you should get another space gunner ready to replace Denni Marko.”

The Beastmaster’s message knocked me off balance. In fact, I even ran out of Magic Points without noticing. Denni Marko would be leaving the team soon? I was going to lose the man responsible for operating my ship’s cannons? Unexpected and highly unpleasant news! And now I understood the reason for Kisly and Denni’s conflict – of course it had to be a woman, even if she was an NPC.

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-six!

From there, with my mana bar empty, I had to speak to Valeri vocally. Thankfully there was nothing secret or compromising to either me or the Tailaxian lady in the rest of my message to the Prelates of Tailax:

“Valeri, tell them this. An item in the antiquities trader’s catalogue caught my eye: the Mechanoid Spatial Cutter. Leng Sooweesssh 11 will know what I am referring to. Anyhow, I would like to acquire the artifact. In return, I am willing to provide the precise coordinates of the place where Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh, ancient ruler of the Rowonti-Tor system’s relics are hidden. So, a stash full of Relict treasures in exchange for a Cutter which Leng Sooweesssh has a high likelihood of losing anyway when Miyelonian special forces reach his ancient artifacts store and warehouse. So have him think quick. And finally, one last thing. Tell him that I really don’t like when people dig around in my head. That really bothered me and I truly hope this vexing incident will be the first and last time it occurs. If not, no further contact!”

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred one!

Mysticism skill increased to level forty-seven!

Authority increased to 70!

The Beastmaster nodded in comprehension and froze motionless. Half a minute later, her character disappeared into thin air without a trace along with the luxuriant Shadow Panther weaving between her master’s legs.

* * *

I estimated that Valeri’s mission would take about half an hour. It wasn’t likely to go faster because the imprisoned girl’s message was first going to have to reach representatives of the Meleyephatian Horde with decision-making authority. Then it would have to be checked. The important Meleyephatians would probably want to have a chat with Leng Sooweesssh Eleven to ask his perspective. Then it would take some time to discuss and reach a decision. And although the Meleyephatians were likely not going to try and delay their answer, I had half an hour on my own at least, which I wanted to put to good use.

First of all, I conferred with Gerd Ayni, who had a good understanding of station services, and I sent a message to the local dispatchers: the Tolili-Ukh X frigate in hangar 1-108 is a financial security for a large deal with the artifact Trader Ayzzz One Hundred Seventeen, so I request that the starship be forbidden from leaving the station for the next quarter ummi.

Successful Authority check!

It’s good to be a prominent player! The dispatchers didn’t ask any personal questions, and my request was carried out. I was merely asked to pay a five-hundred-crypto fee for something or other and say when the ban could be lifted. Excellent! Now the Meleyephatian Spy couldn’t flee the station for the next hour and a half. But I was in no rush to tell the station owners that I had discovered an enemy Spy quite yet, justly fearing that the Miyelonian special forces would immediately step in and all the false artifact trader’s property would be confiscated.

A flying courier robot appeared – it was the Relict nuclear batteries I ordered. Excellent! And right away, not putting off the important task, I got to sending the Relict hierarch’s long-prepared message to the Pyramid. I opened the game menu to a decision that had been waiting quite a while:

Listener, a data packet has been compiled for transmission to the Pyramid. Send data? (Yes/No)

Of course “Yes!” In response, I received some painfully familiar messages. It was still impossible to contact the Pyramid:

Listener, critical error: no response from the Pyramid.

Attempting to use backup channel.

Listener, critical error: no response from the Pyramid on backup channel.

Further course of action undefined. The Pyramid is unavailable!

Transmission cancelled.

Yes, it was all absolutely the same as the last time I tried. I would have to wait for the next message. Luckily, it didn’t keep me waiting.

Listener, in case of military action, all public communication channels would be blocked. Thus the algorithms have determined that the most probable reason the Pyramid cannot be reached is WAR! Given the extraordinary situation, we suggest using an emergency channel to contact the Pyramid. (Yes/No)

I chose “Yes” again, and again the screen went dark: the nuclear battery’s was totally drained and all the electronic guts of my Listener Energy Armor ceased to function. But this time I didn’t panic. I knew perfectly well what to do and quickly changed that battery for a new one. But... for some reason, the armor suit’s electronics didn’t come back online! I just saw a few scant lines of system commands and error messages. I changed that battery for another one, but again it was no use.

How the stress of that moment didn’t turn me gray, I do not know. I was terribly worried. After all, what would I do if my unique ancient armor had stopped functioning for good?! That meant I’d lose contact with the second Small Relict Guard Drone forever, and all functionality associated with the Pyramid, which was to say nothing about my simple lack of any other armor.

I manually restarted the system and entered the boot menu. I spent a long time reading the scant lines about different levels and incomprehensible abbreviations. Whereas before I didn’t waste a ton of time figuring out the data storage structure of the Relict computer system, now I didn’t have any other choice. And although it took me a while, I eventually got down to the armor suit’s file system! There, after a long time plunking through known system commands, I got the system rights I was after, went one level higher and discovered an option that could possibly help: “Run system check for compatibility with all peripherals.”

I ran the check and it immediately became clear that the nuclear batteries I’d just bought were different from the kind I was using before: different power output, different characteristics, different production run. The ancient armor suit called the new batteries “hopelessly antiquated,” but was nevertheless able to reconfigure itself to use them. And it all worked!!!

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-four!

Medium Armor skill increased to level sixty-two!

Electronics skill increased to level eighty-one!

Electronics skill increased to level eighty-two!

Electronics skill increased to level eighty-three!

You have reached level ninety-two!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: ten).

Woo hoo!!! I was very proud of myself. In fact, it went beyond that! I had just figured out the inner workings of an ancient artifact all on my own and fixed it!!! Very few people in the modern world would be capable of such a thing. Ten free skill points... I suppose I’ve been saving them up long enough. Now was the time to start spending them intelligently. Five points right into Danger Sense. Let’s bring up that skill to 76. It is absolutely vital to my survival. And five points into Medium Armor – severely lagging compared to my other skills. And meanwhile, to be able to use the Tachyon Bender I would need to hoist that skill all the way to 125. Okay, done!

Just then I heard a bell: the robot courier had just delivered me a metal box containing the Tachyon Bender – a level-two modification for the Listener Energy Armor. Excellent! And going off Boyko’s shouts of delight in the hallway, his +3 Strength ring came with it.

* * *

The next step in my preparations was talking with Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa, so I invited the Miyelonian Medic to my room. And although Uline Tar was also there, I trusted my business partner completely and even invited the Geckho lady to also take part in our conversation. For starters I told my huge assistant that Denni Marko was planning to leave our team soon, and we would need to find a good Gunner to replace him. Then I got to the main topic:

“Here’s the thing,” I turned on my Prospector Scanner, unfolded the screen, opened the file and showed it to the Medic. “A detailed scanning map of Valeri’s body. I made this image on Earth without her knowledge and at a great distance so the electromagnetic pulse wouldn’t damage the implants in her body. Nevertheless, you can see everything perfectly on the three-dimensional diagram. Transmitters in her head and neck, implanted cameras and microphones, a microscopic bomb in one of the atrium of her heart, a bunch of other implants all over her body. Basically, Valeri-Urla is a puppet who is forced to carry out her masters’ commands and spy for them. Gerd Mauu-La, copy this diagram and study the file very closely. I expect you to draw up a plan for surgical operations to remove all this spy equipment from the human girl’s body such that nothing left inside Valeri can explode or inject her with poison. If need be, I could deactivate the implants temporarily, but they’ll eventually come back online because they are powered by the constant attacks of her white blood cells.”

The Miyelonian didn’t say a word and connected his palmtop to my Prospector Scanner, then copied all the data he needed for the job. And right away he immersed himself in studying the three-dimensional model. And based on the tailed Medic’s look, he saw this task as very, very difficult. Nevertheless, in around three minutes, Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa came back to life and assured me that he saw a solution and was up to the task.

“Great! We can carry out the operation in space during a hyperspace jump. Then there will be no connection with the outside world, and our manipulations with Valeri’s body will go unnoticed by her prison-keepers.”

“But after the starship leaves hyperspace, the fact we removed all the implants from your ‘kentu on’ Valerrr’s body will be discovered regardless!” the Geckho Trader noted justly.

I smiled involuntarily and not only at “Valerrr.” The Geckho always adapted human names to their phonology, but the words “kentu on” meant “sweet girlfriend.” Based on the other context, my business partner was telling me plainly that she knew just how much I cared for Valeri-Urla. And I didn’t deny the obvious. Yes, I really did like the Tailaxian girl with the surprisingly huge eyes of a nocturnal creature. It started at our first encounter on the Medu-Ro IV pirate station. And that made freeing Valeri from captivity very important to me. Naturally, its importance wasn’t quite as high as saving my home planet, but I would have given a lot to rescue the cute little Tailaxian from her grim imprisonment!

“Yes, Uline. The surgical intervention is sure to be detected. That’s why we need to take insurance not only in the game, but also with Valeri’s real body. We need to get it out of that Tailaxian prison and bring it somewhere safe. Get in touch with local companies that offer real-body transfer services. Remember when you told me they had that service here on the Kasti-Utsh III station? You know, when you offered to have my body brought over from Earth?!”

The furry woman gave a groan to confirm. Yes, she remembered that conversation perfectly. I refused to abandon the Human-3 Faction, which many thought was doomed, to save my body and move it to a Miyelonian station.

“Then step to and find someone who can transfer Valeri’s physical body! It needs to be done quickly, because our conflict with Leng Sooweesssh Eleven might rub the Meleyephatian Horde the wrong way. Both the Gilvar Syndicate, and Tailax are vassals of the Horde, and we must safeguard our team against possible issues in the real world. The Meleyephatians shouldn’t have any problems with Denni Marko – he will already be outside my crew. But still I think offering to also transfer Denni’s body to a safe location would be the right thing to do. And another thing...” here I thought for a few moments before continuing. “Also find out whether they can provide virt pods to players without changing faction and how much that might cost.”

I wasn’t just asking about possibly using rented virt pods for no reason. My Relict Faction didn’t have any corncobs of its own, so my players had to use their previous virt pods, which essentially now belonged to a different faction. That seriously limited their freedom of movement and opened me up to possible espionage against my players. Furthermore, I was constantly keeping in mind that one day, if something I did bothered the wrong person, Ivan Lozovsky for example, we might be banned from accessing the Russian corncobs. That would really throw a monkey wrench into this whole operation. Now it was time to gain true freedom and take down the Sword of Damocles from above our necks!

A delicate knock came at the door, and the huge Shocktroop Gerd T’yu-Pan came into the room, his footsteps booming in his new exoskeleton armor. It was the very same kind the Geckho twins and Space Commando Eduard Boyko had. Apologizing for the intrusion, the leader of the boarding team turned to me in the language of the magocratic world:

“Coruler Gnat La-Fin, your wife Princess Minn-O La-Fin and Chief Advisor Mage-Ruler Mac-Peu Un-Roi request an audience with the ruler of the First Directory. They are already at the Geckho spaceport in the long-distance communication booth and are ready to start at any time.” I asked where to find the nearest space communication point here on the station and, as it turned out, it was just a hundred paces up the hallway.

After relaying the official message, the huge veteran suddenly got down on one knee (which looked like a real undertaking in such cumbersome armor!) and added something of his own:

“Milord, I’m sure your conversation will turn to the fate of the captured Paladin Tamara. Her crime is of course among the most severe a human can commit, but Gerd Tamara didn’t know the laws of our world at the time. I would like to request both personally and in the name of many La-Fin Faction troops who respect her valor and courage, to take into account this mitigating factor and commute her sentence from death by quartering to a fast painless method: firing squad or lethal injection.”


Chapter Seventeen. The Ruler’s Burden

THE MIYELONIAN long-distance communication booth was nothing like a Geckho one. No mirrors with infinite reflections here. Instead there were white walls that seemed to flow as if covered in running water, their surface giving a blurred and shifting reflection. I couldn’t properly see myself in their surface, just some black lines and spots oscillating on a dark backdrop. And at that something about the room just felt uncanny. Not only the reflections. Inside there was no echo, no sounds from outside. All noise was simply absorbed. And the air was motionless and perfectly matched my body temperature. I was so uncomfortable that I might have even lost my mind if I had to spend a prolonged time inside. Just for experiment’s sake and simply to distract myself from the oncoming nausea, I activated the Scanning icon. To my surprise, the draw area was tiny: just a twelve-foot-diameter circle, as if there was nothing beyond the white walls – just the empty space of the cosmos. And maybe it was that way. After all, I didn’t much understand how instantaneous long-distance communication worked. At any rate, the mere thought of bursting out through the white walls filled me with true dread. It would be certain death!

Scanning skill increased to level sixty!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level eighty-five!

Cartography skill increased to level seventy-nine!

Danger Sense skill increased to level seventy-seven!

Woah! My little scanning experiment in this unusual space brought a rich harvest of skill ups! I’d have to do some more experimenting one of these days. I may have just found a method of accelerated levelling. But then the light in the little room went out and I saw a very realistic hologram of Minn-O La-Fin in an idiotic old-fashioned dress with a high collar and Mage Diviner Mac-Peu Un-Roi bowing respectfully on one knee next to her in a long red wizard’s robe.

“Greetings, my husband!” the Princess started the conversation with an overly official tone, but noticed that it bothered me and immediately shifted to a more casual mode. “You must be busy. You’re up six whole levels!”

I didn’t respond to my wife’s awkward attempt to steer the conversation toward inappropriately light topics and furrowed my brows fearsomely:

“Minn-O, I expect a clear and extremely candid retelling of the events at the Council of Rulers. Then I want to hear the same from my Chief Advisor.”

I spent the next ten minutes listening and my frown grew deeper with every passing second. I had no idea the situation could have gone so far! And Minn-O deflated right away. There wasn’t even a trace of her pomp and pride remaining. Now she was afraid of a painful punishment and, with tears in her eyes, was trying very hard to lay all the blame on the Mage Diviner. To hear her tell it, she knew nothing of my Chief Advisor’s true intentions, or the Paladin girl’s plans.

I admit, I was surprised and even ashamed. I had never seen my wife looking so pitiful. Minn-O always kept a sense of pride and courage about her, even when taken prisoner, naked and tied up. That was the version of her I always knew. But now, she was weeping like a little girl and humbly begging for forgiveness. Seemingly, I had accidentally touched some deep and very painful memories. Probably, her ghoulish great grandfather Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin forced the Princess to make reports just like this every time she messed up or had a stroke of bad luck starting in childhood. But now I was in the role of ghastly judge, and Minn-O was truly afraid of me!

The Mage Diviner on the other hand was perfectly composed and level-headed. He honestly admitted that he had seen this possible line of the future, and had taken measures to make sure I avoided being deposed as ruler of the First Directory, even if it required a bit of bloodshed. But Mac-Peu also said that he never thought the Paladin girl would survive. That was a spontaneous fluctuation of the lines of fate. Regardless, he was absolutely certain that Tamara would never give up her coconspirators even under the harshest torture possible.

After his report, both speakers fell silent, awaiting a decision or perhaps more accurately sentence from the ruler of the First Directory with great trepidation. Despite the massive distance between us – hundreds of billions of miles, I could distinctly sense that Minn-O and Mac-Peu both considered themselves guilty: for hiding their plans from me, for not handling the Council of Rulers better, and for subsequently trying to hide it from me. Meanwhile, Minn-O was terribly afraid of a “little” or even “big dose of pain.” That was the punishment the Princess thought her ghoulish great grandfather Thumor-Anhu La-Fin would have doled out.

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred two!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred four!

I of course didn’t punish the Princess physically. It was never in my style to subject someone to bodily harm, especially my legal wife while she was with child. Nevertheless, I thought the Princess had behaved unworthily. Both when she tried to cordon herself off and when she let Gerd Tamara serve as a scapegoat.

“Minn-O, here is my decision! I am upset with you, and quite badly! You have proven that you are utterly not up to the task of being my first wife and head of the La-Fin Faction in the game. You lack the confidence, majesty, Authority, and willingness to answer for your actions. So from this very moment, I am relegating you back to the rank of my Wayedda! You will put the La-Fin Faction under my Relict Faction’s direct control and you are to find yourself a seat on the first starship headed for the Kasti-Utsh III station to link up with the crew. You’ll be more useful on the starship, and then I can keep an eye on you.”

The whole spectrum of emotion ran across Minn-O’s face: clear relief at receiving a less harsh punishment than she was expecting, joy that she would soon be meeting her beloved husband and just a tiny bit of embarrassment at being cursed out. Seemingly, my wayedda thought this was the most correct and fair outcome nevertheless. Furthermore, she already considered faction affairs tiresome and totally boring. I then turned my attention to the Mage Diviner, who was still down on one knee:

“Mac-Peu, you are guilty of hiding your plans from me and of not even trying to interfere in Tamara’s fate to improve her lot. After all, if that little girl told her torturers your role in this, the situation would be very unpleasant indeed. And that goes for all three of us as well as the First Directory as a whole. I might even say it would be critical. At the very least, it would mean war with thirty directories of the magocratic world. However, I will give you one chance to remain my representative in the game that bends reality, and my Chief Advisor in the real world. Prove yourself capable of handling your role! Arrange for the captive Tamara to be kept more humanely without interrogations or torture, and summon healers for her. Stay her execution until I can personally appear in the magocratic world and decide her fate. Do not confirm any suggested candidacies for membership in the Council of Mage-Rulers! That is a direct order from me! Beyond that, representatives of the Human-6 Faction will be getting in touch with you soon.” The Mage Diviner nodded to say they already had accepted my offer! A united faction, complete union, equal rights, complete access to technologies and resources. But I also wanted him to find me a way to have a private conversation with General Ui-Taka. I was sure I could find something to offer the famed military leader!

* * *

When I left the long-distance communication booth, Valeri-Urla was there waiting for me, already back in the game. The Beastmaster was smiling in satisfaction and looked to be in an excellent mood, which stood out like a sore thumb. Her Shadow Panther was also in a happy and playful mood, invisibly bounding in my direction and just about knocking me off my feet. Little Sister placed her heavy clawed paws on my shoulders and started licking my face with her scratchy tongue. Woah! If I had to guess the dangerous beast’s weight, I’d say it was around 450 pounds. I had a hard time keeping my balance, but still didn’t curse at the playful creature. In fact, I squeezed the Shadow Panther tight and pet the back of her neck and back tenderly, which made Little Sister purr and fall out of invisibility, revealing her pure white fur and drooling toothy mouth.

“She likes you!” Valeri commented with a smirk. “I’m afraid if I ordered her to attack you, Little Sister might not obey me now. But anyway, Leng Gnat, I’ve come bearing good news. Your offer to trade the Relict artifacts for the coordinates of the hiding spot has been accepted! Furthermore, they offered to add the Tolili-Ukh X frigate on top as a bonus.”

So in other words, did they also accept my first offer, to give me the frigate? Interesting, very interesting! The Tailaxian girl told me the finer details mentally, all the while pretending to simply be playing with her sweet pet:

“Gnat, your message about a valuable Meleyephatian Spy being exposed was checked and found to be accurate: the starship belonging to Trader Ayzzz 117 was in fact blocked from leaving the station with no explanation. So they accept your offer to evacuate the Meleyephatian Spy. But there is one necessary condition: along with Leng Sooweesssh Eleven himself, the other members of his spy ring will have to be taken off the Miyelonian station as well, around forty Meleyephatians. What do you say, captain? I have to send your decision to the Prelates of Tailax. If yes, a personal trade contract will be drawn up in your name: you tell the coordinates of the Queen Tishhh-Ukhshhh item cache and in exchange you will receive the Spatial Cutter and Tolili-Ukh X frigate. The Meleyephatian troops will move onto that ship and exit the game as not to be discovered during scans by station services. Then, the Meleyephatians will leave the ship once you reach a safe destination.”

Danger Sense skill increased to level seventy-eight!

A sense of incoming trouble gave my heart a nasty prick! The suggestion to transport forty experienced Meleyephatian spies on my starship felt very much like deception, betrayal and death. And really, what was to stop these Meleyephatians from capturing the valuable frigate by force once we were in space and taking out Leng Gnat together with his whole team, which wasn’t even all that big? Especially if a couple of the forty Meleyephatian players were even close to as high-level as their commander.

Nevertheless, I didn’t rush my refusal. Yes, there could be no doubt. Leng Sooweesssh Eleven was planning to deceive me and take back his frigate and the Spatial Cutter as well most likely. But... Why not pretend that I trusted them and agree just for appearances? Then I could take some precautionary measures without them noticing.

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred five!

What is happening? Is someone trying to mentally probe me? It didn’t seem to be Valeri-Urla. She was busy playing with her resplendent beast, who was running in circles with a muted growl, playing keep-away with his master’s hair clip. But who then? I pensively raised an eye and discovered a security camera mounted on the ceiling right above Valeri and I. Seemingly, someone was keeping an eye on us. It probably did look weird that I was keeping silent for so long instead of talking with a member of my own race. Plus the prison-keepers tracking Valeri via her implants might have guessed based on my silence that we were having a mental conversation about topics that could not be discussed aloud and suspected we were scheming...

Something had to be done. Ugh... do or die! I took a decisive step toward the Tailaxian, embraced her and pulled her toward me. Valeri-Urla was so taken aback by my brashness that she just meekly let herself be kissed.

“I feel like someone’s watching us,” I mentally told my companion without breaking the kiss. “So I’m doing my best to make this look natural. Anyway, go into the real world and give my answer to the Prelates of Tailax: because they made alterations to my conditions, I have a few changes to theirs. First, I need an answer to the question about bifurcated space I asked the Prelates of Tailax previously. Second, I am adding a new demand: you must be transferred from the Tailax faction to my Relict faction. Only then will I allow you to remain on my starship. If the Meleyephatians do not want to lose their eyes and ears in my crew, have them let your leash out a bit. As soon as my conditions are met, have them draw up the contract. I agree to evacuate the whole group of forty Meleyephatian. Have them come onto my frigate and leave the game. But tell them not to come back into the game until at least three ummis after takeoff from Kasti-Utsh III. By then the starship will be at a different station where the Meleyephatians can leave in peace.”

I finally unlocked my arms and let her go. I was afraid to take a slap, and she didn’t leave me waiting. However, it was not some meek little slap, but a right-hand uppercut straight from her shoulder to my jaw. She really put a lot of power into it. Woah! For such a dainty looking girl, she really packed a punch! I could immediately sense that she had either attended a professional boxing school or had lots of street-fighting experience. Valeri-Urla took a step back, stuck a lock of fallen hair back in place and, not looking me in the eyes, sternly said:

“I was born and grew up on a wild primitive planet, where women value men for their decisiveness and strength. So I will forgive you this one time. By the way, you didn’t have to use the excuse that someone is watching us and tracking us. You could have just come and kissed me. I would have let you do it. But don’t you dare try again! I am a proud Great Huntress, the owner of a complete set of trophies from the Forest of Horrors. I am the only person to have amassed such a collection on the whole planet of Paradise III, and the right to be with me must be earned!”

After she finished expressing her dismay, Valeri again left the game into the real world and, before her character fully disappeared, I received an unusual but expected message:

ATTENTION!!! Leader of the La-Fin Faction Minn-O La-Fin proposes unification with the Relict Faction on the following terms: the La-Fin Faction shall join the Relict Faction in its entirety. Do you accept? (Yes/No)

 

Minn-O reacted quickly and set it all up! Of course “Yes!”

ATTENTION!!! The Relict Faction’s player limit has increased from 261 to 16,433.

 

Fame increased to 82.

Authority increased to 71!

ATTENTION!!! Leader of the Human-6 Faction, Leng Thomas Müller proposes unification with the Relict Faction on the following terms: formation of a unitary alliance of the two factions.

 

Failed Authority check! Required Authority parameter: 100

Failed Fame check! Required Fame parameter: 100

Error!!! None of the faction leaders have reached the status of Kung. A unitary alliance cannot be formed between the Relict and Human-6 Factions.

 

I before I could even get surprised at the German faction leader’s antics (he must have tried to form an alliance between our two factions in the Politics tab of the game menu to maintain the status quo with him as faction leader), the message changed:

ATTENTION!!! Leader of the Human-6 Faction Leng Thomas Müller proposes unification with the Relict Faction on the following terms: the Human-6 Faction shall join the Relict Faction in its entirety. Leader of the unified faction shall be Leng Gnat (as the player with the highest Fame and Authority). Leng Thomas Müller shall become an official and legally authorized representative of the Relict Faction in contact with the suzerains and other factions on Earth. Do you accept? (Yes/No)

 

There we go. Now this is a totally different! Should have done that right away! And although the role Thomas Müller had chosen for himself was probably better suited to a professional Diplomat like Ivan Lozovsky, I still confirmed by answering “Yes.”

ATTENTION!!! The Relict Faction’s player limit has increased from 16,443 to 16,878.

 

Fame increased to 83.

Authority increased to 72!

Authority increased to 73!

The Relict Faction’s maximum player limit is now 16,878... Intriguing, but I wonder how close to that total we already are? As faction leader, I can check at any time. Ten thousand three hundred seven. Now that really is cool! Not long after my start, I’m already up to ten thousand players! A whole tumen[3]!

As history tells us, it only took two tumens for Batu Khan and his commander Subutai to subdue the whole Caucasus and Volga region, then smash all the disjointed Russian principalities and generally slash their way into Eastern Europe in a whirlwind of blood. And although my plans weren’t quite as aggressive as those of Genghis Khan and his ilk, ten thousand players really was badass! As far as I could remember, I now had the largest faction of the virtual Earth under my command, and two of my game nodes were guaranteed protection by the great spacefaring Geckho race. And if you consider that we were also better-off financially than the other earth factions, had easier access to the Geckho spaceport, more advanced extraterrestrial technologies, the ability to purchase the very deadliest weaponry and our own starship (or more like three, as a matter of fact), the political picture of the future virtual world order was coming together splendidly.

Then Dmitry Zheltov entered, tearing me from contemplation. The Starship Pilot was agitated and in a rush, nearly running down the space station corridor. Seemingly, he had come with some less than pleasant news. From a good distance, Dmitry shouted:

“Gnat, you’re needed at once in the real world! I don’t know the details; I was just asked to tell you that the leaders of the Human-3 Faction and curators of the Dome project have some serious issues with your actions in the game and demand an explanation.”


Chapter Eighteen. Twinbody Landing Craft, Enhanced

IT WASN’T EXACTLY hard to understand why they summoned me. The directors of the Human-3 Faction and the curators behind them, who were highly placed government officials, had discovered that they no longer had any control over events on the political map of the game world. In fact, they must have no longer even understood what was going on. After all, everything used to be easy to understand: to the west – the seacoast; to the north – ghoulish Dark Faction foes; to the east – impassable swamps teeming with NPC forest spirits, but containing oil deposits; and to the south – savage and backwards NPC Centaurs. And their relationship with both neighbors was clear and unambiguous: drive back and push out the NPC’s, defend against the Dark Faction.

But then everything changed. We made friends with the Centaurs, which opened up a path south, where we found the now allied German faction. Then they took us to war with the Naiads and we lost the sea. We managed to lose and regain control over the Eastern Swamps. Then a bloody war with the Dark Faction very nearly ended in the complete destruction of several factions of our world, and an epoch of chaos descended. And now, our political entanglements formed a ball so convoluted the devil himself couldn’t unravel it. To the north the La-Fin Faction was still the Dark Faction, but not quite anymore. “Not a friend, not a foe, but still[4],” as Vladimir Vysotsky might have put it. And the La-Fin Faction gained two of the Germans’ eastern nodes after the war, which put them to H3’s south as well. Then the western shore was also settled by Germans in a node that was being prepared as a “backup airport” for the Human-3 Faction. And in the middle of the sea, the Germans’ original capital of Rocky Island was first captured by the La-Fin Faction but then the island faction changed names for some reason. And the sea itself was still teeming with predatory Naiads, who were not open to productive discussion.

And when the curators of the Dome project started getting more or less used to the new political lay of the land, as if by magic, the “everything pizza” of geographical neighbors suddenly became one huge unified Relict Faction! And it surpassed the Dome’s population by four times and surrounded the Human-3 Faction on three sides. And looming over this odd new state was the figure of Gnat, who had recently been a player of the Human-3 Faction. And so they decided to summon me to get the whole story “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak. And based on the officious tone of the message, upper leadership still considered me to be the same student gamer they’d strong-armed under the Dome, entirely dependent on my directors and guided exclusively by their orders.

However, I no longer thought that myself. As a matter of fact, I was not even sure I had to answer to anyone at all. The days when I had bosses, directors and other kinds of trainers in the game were gone. Now I was a “high-profile” player, and I could take care of myself. My dependence on the Human-3 Faction was very weak indeed. It was just a shame I hadn’t yet bough my own virt pod on the Miyelonian space station. Then my team and I wouldn’t depend on the whims of the Dome leaders one bit.

“Dmitry, I can’t leave the game right now. I’m in the very heat of some important negotiations to acquire a new starship to replace the destroyed one. There’s a lot of money riding on this. So tell the leaders of the Human-3 Faction this: ‘Let them wait. I’ll come into the real world once I’ve wrapped up my affairs.’“

The former Military Space Academy’s eyes went round in surprise, himself accustomed to obeying orders unconditionally. He must have been having a hard time digesting the fact that a demand from Dome leadership could just be blatantly ignored. Although... maybe I was wrong and what surprised Dmitry Zheltov was the fact we were buying a new starship.

ATTENTION!!! Personal trade contract received (see attachment).

 

I opened the link and read the lines attentively. Yes, it was all above board, no deceit. The Spatial Cutter and the Tolili-Ukh X modular frigate in “twinbody enhanced landing craft” configuration would be made my property right after I entered the coordinates of the stash spot into a special field in the trade form. I wasn’t quite sure what twinbody meant, much less how it could be “enhanced,” but its assortment of modules and weaponry was impressive. The annex also said that Valeri-Urla the Beastmaster, who had already left the Tailax Faction, had been given an answer to my question and would tell it to me in person.

Chasing off the foolish thought of tricking them and giving incorrect coordinates (I assume such fraudulent activity would lower my Authority severely, and provide a reason to have the trade deal annulled in court), I filled out the form, carefully checking every number, then pressed “Confirm.”

Fame increased to 84.

Authority increased to 74!

“Wait, stop! Don’t go anywhere just yet!” I grabbed the Starship Pilot as he was preparing to leave the game. “I just got a yes from the seller and signed the contract. So let’s all go see our new frigate!”

* * *

Wow! So we could have had one like this all along??? I was standing with my mouth agape, looking over this marvel of Meleyephatian design.

Two standard Tolili-Ukh X frigate bodies were smoothly linked by a special middle module, which simultaneously served as a command bridge. It looked something like a space catamaran. And it also had a standard hyperdrive, two very powerful main thrusters, an enhanced set of maneuver drives and two separate power units. The back part of the starship contained a forcefield generator, and it was clearly from a ship of larger class than frigate. It also had huge sickle-shaped sweepforward wings, which allowed the ship not only to land on the surface of massive planets, but also to make controlled flights in atmospheric conditions. A whole four (!!!) gunner cabins, ten (!!!) laser cannons plus two advanced gravity torpedo launchers. A full set of combat electronics – a jammer for enemy navigation systems, a stasis net, and a targeted hyperspace drive disruptor. Two sets of residential sectors. Two manually-controlled landing modules that could be fired like missiles, each made to hold twelve fully-armored soldiers – a dream for any space pirate! A spacious cargo hold and, the cherry on top, a small antigrav shuttle in a special dock in the tail of the starship.

“This thing might as well be a light cruiser!” my business partner Uline Tar admired, walking a circle around the starship and rumbling in delight.

“In terms of shield capacity and firepower, yes. It is equivalent to a light cruiser,” agreed Engineer Orun Va-Mart, writing down the parameters of various systems and making some calculations. “But in terms of maneuvering and speed, this ship is almost as good as an interceptor! I never would have thought it possible. They’ve combined the practically incompatible, but I’m especially surprised that they managed to get the energy balanced. What a miracle! This thing is the embodiment of elegant design with its mutually compensated overload of the dual particle streams from its power units, which gives it enough power to accommodate a whole three cruiser-class modules. Whoever dreamed this up is a true genius of engineering thought!”

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-five!

I didn’t always understand what the Engineer was talking about. That skill boost was because I had learned some new terms, but I was studying the ship parameters myself from the captain’s tablet and just couldn’t find the words to adequately express my admiration of this starship. This thing can do some fancy footwork! It was no interceptor, of course, but still was very respectable. Amazing speed! And what impressive firepower! In battle, one of these was equivalent to three Tolili-Ukh X frigates in “long-distance raider configuration” like I had before. But the problem was that, to fully service all its systems and realize the ship’s full potential, it needed a crew of forty-five or even fifty players. I though had less than half that.

“As I thought...” Dmitry Zheltov came down the ladder to the bridge with a sour look on his face. “Captain, we can’t go anywhere just yet! Everything is written in Meleyephatian. I can’t understand a damn thing! And the image on the screens is flickering so fast I can’t even make anything out. Instead of a normal helm, this has a weird roller in a spiral-shaped slit. There aren’t even any pilot seats yet, just brackets on the floor to hold onto! It’s like I’m back on our old frigate when Ayukh and I just got it out of the underground factory!”

We couldn’t use the ship? I started to get upset, but bushy-tailed Engineer Orun Va-Mart reassured me:

“Nothing to worry about, captain. Replacing the instrument panels with ones better suited to other races won’t take too long. And neither will installing stairs instead of these ghastly wall brackets, or getting adequate furniture for the residential berths. And as luck would have it, we are at the largest trade hub in this part of the galaxy. We can just buy everything we need here! I think we should set aside six or seven ummis for reconfiguration. If of course Uline Tar will set aside the funds.”

Uline Tar looked at me, waited for a nod of confirmation and, after calling the Supercargo and Engineer, the two of them took a deep dive into calculating exactly what we’d need to reconfigure our starship.

“Human. New ship. Very expensive. But didn’t give interceptors up. Two. Does not compute. Finances. And second role does not compute. After Uline Tar,” the Jarg Analyst, bouncing amusingly down the starship corridors after me, was practicing forming complex logical chains and did in fact truly point out a few clear discrepancies.

I had to explain, and fairly loudly at that, so all crew members would hear me, that I had gotten this starship in exchange for the coordinates of an ancient Relict artifact cache, which false Anya told me. And the damaged interceptors... here I filled my lungs with air and spoke decisively:

“We will not be selling the interceptors! As soon as they’re finished, both interceptors will be sent back to Earth. I’m starting to build a space fleet to patrol the Solar System and defend my home planet!”

Authority increased to 75!

I was afraid that one of the crew might object and say the two interceptors were our shared trophy from the war with the pirate Pride of the Bushy Shadow, and it would only be fair for everyone to get a piece of the big pie. But no, it all went smoothly. Even my furry friend Uline Tar didn’t have anything to say, though the Trader always had a very reverent attitude toward money. But here her share, around four million crypto, had just slipped through her paws. My business partner may have been too busy discussing the purchase list with my crew. But most likely she was totally baffled and didn’t know how to share the profits of our joint enterprise after I made such a large contribution as a swanky new starship.

Finally, Uline Tar walked over to me and, running her eyes over the purchase list one last time, said the total:

“Two million eight hundred twenty thousand crystals is what it’ll cost to reconfigure the frigate and buy all the furniture. That’s the minimum. Or four million crystals if we’re going for luxury. In any case, we need to know where to get all that money.”

I transferred Uline four million in silence. That was approximately half the money I had in my personal account. That made a clear impression on the Trader, who was imagining a long hard slog to gather the funds needed to modernize our starship. Uline spent a long time in thought, staring at the screen of her palmtop. And I think I knew what had her worried and doubting. Much had changed since our initial understandings. I no longer needed her money so badly. Well, to be more accurate, I didn’t need it at all. On the other hand, to be fair, Uline was the one who killed the level-207 Meleyephatian Spy. And that was the key event that opened up these new horizons for us. In fact, in theory, the captain’s key to the new frigate was her trophy. Sure, Uline wouldn’t have been able to do much with it on her own, but still the key was worth quite a lot. In any case, as business partners, the time had come to discuss new “rules of the game.”

“Our understandings remain in force. A third of the take will still be yours,” I reassured my friend with a mental message.

The Geckho lady bowed in silence – not a common gesture for Geckho, she must have seen humans doing it. By the looks of things, keeping the status quo intact was more than fine by her. Then she walked up closer as if she wanted to say something or make a request, but just shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, unable to work up the courage to say anything. And Uline Tar didn’t communicate out loud, instead meeting eyes with me and suggesting that I read her request mentally.

“Gnat, we have more room on the frigate now. Do you think I could have my own berth now? Like Tini?”

I couldn’t hold back a smile. So this was what had my friend so upset! My ward Tini did in fact have a separate berth on the old frigate, which was a source of jealousy for the rest of the crew and a real bone of contention. A few of my crew, especially “high-profile” players, had also asked me for their own berth, but I refused them all because there wasn’t enough space before.

My ward was given that privilege as a reward for stealing the trophy tail of the Great Priestess of the Miyelonian race from Fox the Morphian and thus earning us the funds to fix up our first starship. And I was planning to continue providing the little Thief his own berth. I made him that promise with no expiration date or reservations. And my word was worth something!

Now, Uline Tar was coming to ask for her own bunk... Okay then, I could afford to make an exception and underline her special privileged position as first mate, especially given that most crew members considered my business partner the true owner of the ship. Although our cleverest crew member, the Jarg Analyst, had already started to suspect that Uline was now subordinate in our joint enterprise. That made raising Uline Tar’s status in the eyes of the crew all the more proper.

I signed off on Uline Tar getting a separate berth, which I immediately told all team members nearby.

“Thank you, captain! Oh...” Uline froze with her eyes open wide in surprise. “I... I just became a Gerd!!!”

Our Uline has become a high-profile player!!! I was first to congratulate my gorgeous friend on the important in-game milestone. After that, congratulations started pouring down from all sides. Uline Tar was respected and loved in the crew for her fairness, restraint and good judgement. After a diffuse “congratulations” to the object of public admiration, as if in passing, Tini added that he was nearly up to the requirements himself and might also become a high-profile player soon.

“Tini, you’ll be the fifth member of the ‘flying above the crowd’ club on our ship!” Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa guffawed, clearly playing on the traditional translation of the ancient word “Gerd” as “elevated above the crowd.”

“Sixth,” I corrected the Miyelonian Medic. “Gerd Minn-O La-Fin will be returning to our crew. She’ll reach the station in one day.”

The news of my wayedda’s return caused a storm of jubilation among all those who knew Minn-O. Even Valeri-Urla, who had hinted at warm feelings for me on a number of occasions, was sincerely delighted at the Princess’s return, which surprised me quite a bit. I was actually expecting the Tailaxian to have the exact opposite reaction to her rival coming back.

I must have spent too much time staring at Valeri, and thus attracted her attention. Or maybe the Beastmaster really had managed to read my thoughts. In any case, Valeri-Urla gave an astonishingly accurate mental answer to my unasked question:

“You’re probably wracking your brains over why I have a good opinion of your wayedda. You want me to answer as honestly as possible? You simply haven’t yet earned the right to be with me, and that means I have no reason to be jealous of other beautiful women around you. Furthermore, there is only one role I would accept for myselfyour sole or at the very least senior wife. So your junior ‘travelling’ wife doesn’t bother me one bit. But again, I repeat, don’t get ahead of yourself. Denni Marko and I knew each other for five years, and he never earned the right to be with to me.”

The mental contact broke off just as suddenly as it began, leaving me in a state of deep contemplation. Valeri spent five years stringing along an admirer! No wonder Denni finally lost it and turned his attention to other women. And another thing... I might have been wrong, of course, but I was getting the impression that over the course of our relationship, Valeri-Urla had examined me and found a “key” to my mental defense. She just had too easy a time slipping her thoughts into my head. I shook my head sharply, driving off the flood and returning to what was going on around me.

Gerd Uline Tar, still overjoyed about her promotion, loudly philosophized aloud:

“Fame is traditionally considered the very hardest parameter to improve. But with our Captain Gnat, that is not the case at all! There’s always something unusual happening with him. The words ‘Leng Gnat’ are constantly in the ears of people throughout the galaxy. His black energy armor suit is always on their screens, and his glowing eyes always blinking on the news. And though it isn’t always positive, our captain is being discussed, so it doesn’t matter. Most importantly – his Fame is growing. And along with it, Leng Gnat’s companions’ Fame is growing. At this rate, we’ll have a starship team made up of nothing but Gerds and Lengs soon enough!”

Everyone around laughed, having found my first mate’s words an amusing joke. I laughed along with the rest, but I was thinking to myself that Uline was right in many ways.

I really was dreaming of having only the best of the best in my crew. After all, growing your level and skills is not the only way to get stronger. There is another, more effective method – investing the eight extra statistic points awarded after achieving “status.” And that first promotion to the rank of Gerd required high Fame. And that meant increasing that parameter for my crew members! Any flashy events Team Gnat took part in needed to be broadcast to as wide an audience as possible!

“Ayni, I’ve got something for you,” I said, cautiously embracing the orange kitty by her waist and pulling her away from the rest of the crew. “Do you still have the contact info of that dark-furred Journalist that was shooting footage on our war with the Pride of the Bushy Shadow? Excellent! Get in touch with her and say that we might have some nice material in the works for her. But to get it, the Journalist will have to take a short space flight on our ship.”

Gerd Ayni didn’t understand one bit of my vague explanation, but promised to pass it along to her acquaintance.

“Alright. Now the most important part: I want you to get in touch with Miyelonian counterintelligence. Yes, you heard me right. And don’t looks so afraid. I have important information for them. Tell them that Leng Gnat has reason to believe that his recently acquired frigate has several high-level Meleyephatian Horde Spies on board in an inactive state. I believe they are planning on secretly escaping the Kasti-Utsh III station that way, having finished an assignment to track the Miyelonian fleet. If they ask what made me think so, tell them intuition, and a few thought fragments I read from the Meleyephatian artifact Trader Ayzzz 117. If they want to check my words, have them look for Ayzzz 117 on the station. I suspect they will not be able to find him, because he will be leaving Kasti-Utsh III shortly.”

The Miyelonian turned serious and looked tense. She reminded me more of a hound ready to snap than a peaceable inoffensive Translator. Gerd Ayni promised to get in touch with Alliance of Miyelonian Prides counterintelligence, just clarified what I wanted the Miyelonians to do about it.

“Have a squadron of Miyelonian players sneak onto my starship as covertly as possible. We have limited space and narrow corridors, so we’ll need fast hand-to-hand fighters with traditional Miyelonian blades. It would be good for them to bring Resonators along, too. They’re highly effective against Meleyephatian weaponry, as practice has shown. Well and Paralyzers... or whatever they have for capturing enemy players alive. I suspect that fifteen to twenty high-level fighters will be enough. And all of them should have strong defense against mental control. Have them sneak onto the ship and immediately exit the game. Then they will patiently await our signal that the Meleyephatians have revealed themselves, and enter the game all at once to teach them a lesson!”

I stopped, looked at my fluffy friend and made a suggestion:

“And by the way! You could serve as our ‘signal!’ At the first sign of Meleyephatians on board, you leave the game and call for help. Have them give you a button or find some other method. And then the soldiers, lying in wait in their virt pods, can enter as well. A classic ‘log-in trap.’ My friends and I used to use that tactic often in online games... anyway, it doesn’t matter. Most important is making sure the Miyelonians don’t sleep through it and do in fact intervene. And just imagine what great footage that will make for the Journalist! In my world, news agencies would be so eager to get their hands on that tape, they’d rip it away from you arms and all! I also have one condition – the Union of Miyelonian Prides will be paying for all damage incurred by my starship in the course of the battle!”


Chapter Nineteen. One Against All

ON MY WAY DOWN from corncob number fifteen, I ran into a whole delegation of directors and important Human-3 Faction players: Ivan Lozovsky, Valentin Ustinov, Igor Tarasov, and Alexander Antipov. Also in their midst for some reason was a member of my crew, Vasily Andreyevich Filippov, even though the Bard’s faction had already changed to Relict. They all looked high-strung and were rushing me along:

“Hurry up, Kirill! Second exit, get to the chopper! They’ve been waiting for us in Moscow for some time already!”

Past the residential buildings and service structures, they led me to a whole other way out of the Dome I didn’t even suspect existed. But what was really so surprising? In more than a month and a half living under the Dome, I had not once taken pains to really get to know the place, spending practically all my time in the game that bends reality. Security let our group through without even the barest check, and we literally ran down the well-lit corridor to the elevator shaft. The second exit had a high-speed elevator, and it took our group to the roof of some tall building. There was a cold pouring rain, and shaggy dark clouds low enough to nearly touch the buildings. And just ten yards from the elevator door we discovered a military-style chopper ready for liftoff.

“Hurry up, let’s get in!” Alexander Antipov was nervous. “We’re already forty minutes late! Oh my, I can just tell we’re gonna get chewed out for being late!”

The helicopter was already spinning up its rotors and we ran forward, bending down low. I didn’t even have time to plop down in a seat before we took off from the platform and, at a height of just one-hundred-fifty feet, started tearing off directly south. Through the gaps in the dark clouds, I got my bearings and could approximately see where the huge underground Dome facility was located. It really was completely underground – you couldn’t even see a slight hill on the surface.

“To Onega-3,” Antipov reminded the pilot, but the flyboy seemingly already knew that.

I tried to start a conversation with Vasily Filippov to find out what we would be discussing, but the Bard only answered that he had also been urgently pulled out of the game, so he knew just as little as me. The experienced military specialist noted only that: “If we’re going to Onega-3, it means this is a very serious matter. They don’t have meetings there for minor issues.”

The flight lasted at most ten minutes before the rotor-winged vehicle landed in the fenced-in territory of a military compound. We jumped out before the rotors came to a complete stop. From there, we walked at a quick pace through innumerable corridors, until we unexpectedly found ourselves on a brightly lit stage in a small room that was totally immersed in darkness. Despite the subterfuge, my vision was good enough for me to see everyone’s faces. There were thirty people, mostly wearing army uniforms.

On the stage, there were seven armchairs arranged in a semicircle, two of which were already occupied by people I didn’t know. First was a gray-haired bearded man with the appearance of a typical professor wearing a toxic green athletic suit labeled “H23 Faction” that looked wildly inappropriate on him. Next to the professor was a young redheaded woman of thirty years in a severe business suit, and she was the one currently speaking based on the microphone and projector remote in her hands:

“Yes, my players are still quite low level, seventeen on average. And in fact, as was justly noted here, only eleven of the H25 Faction players can be said to belong to combat classes. Even that takes some stretching. But we were created as a scientific and medical taskforce, not some band of cutthroats! The NPC Orcs are very numerous and more powerful than us. But still I’m sure we can get our second node back. We just have to prepare better this time!”

I took a closer look at the screen, which was showing the map as known to the Human-25 Faction. One level-one node on the shore of a very large river. They had lumber and clay harvesting operations, and two sewn fields. But by all appearances, the H25 faction players hadn’t so much as set foot on the other side of the river, and knew little about what was there. In fact, they didn’t know much about the game world at all, restricted to just the five neighboring nodes, two of which were impassable and mountainous. In the neighboring node to the north, there was a symbol marking a destroyed fort. That must have been what they were discussing.

Hmm... If I understood this correctly, the H25 Faction was in hot water. After all, there was nothing to stop the NPC Orcs from attacking the only remaining node and wiping their level-one fort off the map, taking their last remaining claim with it. If I were in the Orcs’ place, I would have done just that and eleven players of middling level would not have been able to stand in my way.

Meanwhile, the middle-aged soldier with major patches hosting the session addressed the room:

“Okay then, thank you Valentina for your first report and we wish the Human-25 Faction a future full of growth and blossoming. Does anyone have any questions for her?”

For whatever reason, they all kept quiet as if they couldn’t see the imminent catastrophe. Maybe they really didn’t? I had no choice but to raise my hand:

“Unfortunately, I missed a large portion of the speech, and perhaps you covered this. Valentina, can you tell me the coordinates of your game node?”

“337-218,” she immediately reacted.

“Umm...” I tried to mentally conjure a map of the virtual Earth, which I had recently composed by scan from orbit and subsequently studied in depth. “The Geckho spaceport is at 57-478. Nodes are eleven miles across... that means you’re about thirty-seven hundred miles from the space port on the big continent. The nearest seacoast is five or six nodes to your south-east... And I think... Yes, that river flows directly into the ocean...”

“What good is all that pointless information to her?” Ivan Lozovsky interrupted me impatiently, not hiding his annoyance.

“Well, Ivan, I will be using that information to direct a Geckho ferry to her territory. In two or three days’ time, expect a shipment to come up the river with essential goods. Building materials, provisions and seeds, vehicles, weaponry. And a Relict Faction squadron consisting of three hundred men: two hundred high-level soldiers and one hundred Engineers and Builders. I’ll send a couple assault antigravs as well so the Orcs won’t be able to destroy the Human-25 Faction’s only base.”

I was expecting words of gratitude, but instead my offer was followed by an active exchange of whispers in the darkness, which quickly grew into a buzz of dismay. The host told me the common opinion:

“We are nowhere near sure that the Human-25 Faction should accept your offer of help. As everyone in this room knows, the game opens up truly limitless possibilities in the spheres of medical treatment and pharmacology, and the H25 Faction was created for the express purpose of conducting medical experiments. Much of their research is top-secret, as are their results. And absolutely none of it can be allowed to leak! For that reason, it is extremely undesirable to have players from the parallel world in our territory. Furthermore, the Dark Faction has proven itself dangerous on a number of occasions, and no matter what they’re calling themselves now, they’re still a threat. Three hundred troops could easily take down the small fortress’s garrison and destroy the fledgling H25 Faction. We cannot allow that!”

Holy crap! The Dome project curators didn’t even consider my Relict Faction an ally or friend. In fact, they looked on me as a potential enemy! And meanwhile, the distress on Valentina’s face was so potent that it hurt to look at her. The leader of the Human-25 Faction was desperately hoping for help, and was perhaps in a critical situation on the verge of destruction. But here they simply flatly stated she could get no support.

“The antigravs will come no matter what these stool pigeons say,” I mentally told her, and she shuddered in fear. “But they can only carry a limited amount of cargo, so they’ll only be bringing the absolute essentials: tools, firearms, and a detailed map of your continent showing your nearest human neighbors. The NPC Orcs that have been bothering you, you show my troops where their settlement is and they’ll take care of them. Our Sio-Mi-Dori flying assault vehicles will grind them into dust. Right after completing that task, my troops will fly back and not even enter the H25 Faction’s base, so you don’t have to worry about keeping your secrets safe. And as for ferries and additional support, I’ll leave that up to you. No one knows the situation better than you do. Should I send them? Or are you afraid to anger the curators? No need to say anything out loud. Just nod if the situation is critical and your faction truly needs help.”

Valentina turned her head toward the darkened room, spent a few minutes looking pensively into the darkness, then shook her head “no.” Either I was mistaken and the Human-25 Faction wasn’t really in such a grave state, or its leader was afraid to cross the curators. In any case, a refusal is a refusal. I wasn’t going to impose my help.

And meanwhile, the time had come for the Human-3 Faction to make its report. And I was in for a bigtime jolt. When the gray major conducting the council session asked the leader of the Human-3 Faction to please begin his speech, up stood... Igor Tarasov!!! What was going on??? Fortunately, the host quickly explained:

“As our first speaker already said, the Human-23 Faction has met another very strong and successful group in the game, the American Human-12 Faction. This is a very important and promising contact, and we made the decision to transfer our high-level and high-profile Diplomat Gerd Ivan Lozovsky to the Human-23 Faction to help us get things off on the right foot. And in Lozovsky’s place, we appointed Leng Tarasov new leader of the Human-3 Faction.”

Wait a second! Tarasov had become a Leng? It seemed to me the order of events here must have been a bit different than the host was saying. Leader of the First Legion Igor Tarasov was the highest-level and most respected player under the Dome and, by the looks of things, he was the first high-profile player in our faction to achieve high enough Authority and Fame to progress to the next rank. After that, the game algorithms would have automatically made him leader of the Human-3 Faction, taking Ivan Lozovsky’s post. To the careerist diplomat, that was a dead end, and Lozovsky probably asked the curators to transfer him to a different Russian faction. Then his request was approved because they found an easy excuse: the important contact with the American faction required an experienced diplomat. That was most likely how it all went down.

I was only half listening to Igor Tarasov’s speech, because I already knew most of the information. The only thing that really freaked me out was that he made no differentiation between the Relict, La-Fin and La-Varrez Factions, lumping them all together under the entrenched label of “Dark Faction.” And none of the curators made any remarks to the new Human-3 head about the incorrect terminology. For my part, I was just itching to ask Tarasov and all the others:

“The Germans are part of the Relict Faction, along with some former H3 Faction players. By your logic are they also part of this so-called ‘Dark Faction?’“

But I held it together and kept silent. I was already able to sense a wary and even negative opinion of me from a few of the men in the room, so I was trying not to exacerbate things.

And Meanwhile Igor Tarasov, initially somewhat skittish in front of high-level leadership, quickly calmed down and conducted his report with a good deal of confidence. The Human-3 Faction’s numbers were growing steadily and getting very near to reaching two and a half thousand players. The defensive structures in the Karelia node which were destroyed in the last war with the Dark Faction had been rebuilt. A new defensive line had been constructed to the south, where they now had a border with the Dark Faction between the Rainforest and Tropics nodes. Pieces of a Miyelonian starship that fell into the bay (I suspected they were referring to armor panel fragments from the crashed cloaked frigate I allowed Gerd Ustinov to collect) had been sent to the Prometheus laboratories for study.

From there, the faction head talked about some new problems:

“The speed of road building in the southern nodes has fallen by sixty percent and is continuing to go down because the NPC Centaurs and Minotaurs are leaving en masse, upset at their compensation. The usual rate of one Geckho crystal per day for three plus grub and beer is no longer good enough for the NPC’s. All attempts to talk sense into them through chief Centaur mare Phylira have not ended in success. And our attempts to pressure Phylira...” Igor Tarasov cast a gaze of displeasure at Diplomat Ivan Lozovsky, “lead to the Centaur Matriarch reneging on agreements she made previously with the Human-3 Faction. We will not be receiving further territories from the NPC Antiquity Faction.”

Now that was interesting! I shuddered because it was news to me.

“And how much do the NPC builders want then?” came a question from the room. He replied with a sour look:

“They want no less than their fellow tribesmen are getting for the construction of the port in the Tropics node. The rich Dark Faction pays generously, four crystals a day for each Centaur, while the stronger Minotaurs are earning a whole six crystals a day. Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of money. So I’m afraid that soon all three thousand NPC’s that used to work for us will pick up and cross the border to help build Leng Gnat’s port.”

For some reason, they all looked at me. And I could read clear disapproval in their gazes as if it was my fault the Human-3 Faction was low on space currency. Meanwhile, Igor Tarasov continued his speech. And the more he told me about the faction’s plans for continued development and expansion, the further my eyes crawled into my forehead in surprise. The leader of the Human-3 Faction was proposing spooking or even in fact attacking the NPC Centaurs in order to expand to the south then, circumventing the two coastal nodes belonging to the Dark Faction, to unite with the territories of the Human-6 Faction!!! To hear him tell it, they needed a direct road to their German allies that would not be blocked by the Dark Faction in case things got heated so their shipments of titanium concentrate wouldn’t be cut off. What the crap?! I couldn’t hold back and, stopping him midword, stood up and grabbed the microphone:

“I’m getting the impression that you never even look at the political map of the virtual world. Otherwise how else can I explain the sheer mind-boggling nonsense you are currently discussing with such utter sincerity?!”

I heard resentful outbursts. The curators were decidedly opposed to my brash words.

“Kirill, you’re forgetting your place!” Vasily Filippov tried to stop me, afraid at where my antics could lead. But I didn’t listen and continued:

“Well, how else do you explain what you said about the Human-6 Faction??? That faction hasn’t existed for a while now! The German players all joined the Relict Faction. Their leader Leng Thomas Müller became my deputy and advisor for political affairs. And anyway, how many times can you confuse the names of your neighbors, lumping them all under one banner into this mythical, nonexistent ‘Dark Faction?’“

“Mythical? Nonexistent?” Igor Tarasov, leader of the Human-3 Faction objected sincerely and very emotionally. “Gnat, my First Legion was spilling blood in pitched battles with the Dark Faction before you ever entered the game!!!”

“No, you were fighting against the La-Fin Faction of the magocratic world,” I corrected the decorated veteran. “There has never been any group by the name ‘Dark Faction!’ There are several groups in the game from the magocratic world: La-Fin, La-Shin, La-Varrez and another ten or so others, but they aren’t connected and are in fact often hostile to one another. The name ‘Dark Faction’ came from a poor understanding of the politics of the parallel world and, I suspect, low Intelligence of the player who made first contact with them, which kept them from being able to properly identify our new neighbors.”

And although I was using a normal tone with Tarasov with no scolding or insulting language, for some reason they didn’t let me finish. The microphone in my hands was simply switched off. The gray-haired major conducting the council session announced:

“For speaking out of turn and making provocative statements impeding the course of the meeting, I hereby revoke Kirill Ignatiev’s speaking privileges!”

I was simply burning in indignation, but still I set the inactive microphone aside and sat back in my seat. Vasily Filippov was to the left of me and whispered:

“Kirill, don’t go looking for trouble. I beg you. Don’t turn the curators against you. They have been invested with great power, and a great amount depends on their opinion of you!”

Human-3 Faction security director Alexander Antipov tried to whisper approximately the same thing from the right. And I didn’t argue, though I did not think I much depended on any of the people in this room anymore. The only thing they could do was to forbid me from entering a virt pod and lock me in the real world. As soon as I got into the virtual world, they had no hold over me.

Near the end of his speech, Tarasov turned to his opinions of a potential war with the Dark Faction. He said their neighbors were restless and he didn’t know what to expect out of them. Fully serious the whole time, they were arguing, making various points, even discussing a very strange idea from one of the generals in the room to attack preemptively. In his words, the best defense is a strong offense! I was trying not to show how I felt about all that, but their level of ignorance of the true state of affairs and their idiocy (there’s no other way to call it) were at times off the charts.

The next speaker was head scientist Valentin Ustinov, and it just bored me. They were still the blueprints of starships, vehicles, long-distance space communication devices and planetary shield generators that Gnat brought them. Rapid progress was not expected in any area. What was more, while carrying out laboratory tests on the hyperdrive I brought them, they accidentally broke it. Fixing it was going to be problematic, but still they were trying. Studying living tissue samples from Miyelonians and Geckho at the Prometheus. A few graphs, complicated chemical formulas. A decision was made to transfer the biological samples and results to the Human-25 Faction because that was more their profile. Then they repurposed that laboratory for studying the composite materials that made up the armor plates from the downed Miyelonian frigate.

Having learned my bitter lesson, I didn’t try and give advice or suggestions even though it would have been no problem to pick up a cheap hyperdrive on Kasti-Utsh III to replace the broken one, along with a full set of technical documentation about the long-distance Miyelonian scout frigate Tikon-Mra V. And that would include the makeup of their armor plates and even the technology to produce them. Overall, I was just very bored. My microphone was switched off and my right to participate in the discussions had been revoked after they decided I was bothering everyone and talking out of turn. However, I was coming more and more under the impression that I’d outgrown this discussion.

Finally it came my turn to make a report and my microphone was turned back on.

“Kirill, I beg you. Go as light as possible, be open and no stupid stuff.” Vasily Filippov whispered and I promised to restrain myself.

However, the first question about the affairs of the island-based Relict Faction made me give a predatory smile. They were so far behind the times! I was not going to hide the truth, or smooth over the sharp edges, so it was easily possible many of them wouldn’t like my responses. Seemingly, the curators of the Dome project, who’d grown accustomed to feeling omniscient and omnipotent, were in for a real shock. Oh, just you wait and see!


Chapter Twenty. Forsaken, but not Broken

“ISLAND FACTION? With all due respect, uh... Major Kudryavtsev, your information is badly out of date. The Relict Faction is currently in control of eighteen game nodes – on the west, north and east shores of the bay as well as Rocky Island – and contains more than ten thousand players. To be more accurate, ten thousand four hundred seven at the time I left the game. And my current maximum is almost seventeen thousand, so we have a very solid footing to build on. Plus, if you consider the fact that our capital hexagon will be the first territory on the virtual Earth to reach development level six in about a week’s time, our limit will go up another fourteen thousand, making our potential to take on new players truly limitless. We have it on good authority from Geckho Viceroy Kosta Dykhsh that Relict is already the largest of all factions on the virtual Earth and, in ten days, we will triple our numbers at the very least.”

A Jump into the Unknown

In point of fact, Kosta Dykhsh actually said that about the La-Fin Faction. But given that faction had joined mine in its entirety, I wasn’t bending the truth one bit. And meanwhile, a dismayed buzz kicked up in the room again. Seemingly, the fact that Human-3 had a faction four times larger than it right at their doorstep came as an unpleasant surprise to the curators. I also made a clear demonstration of my psionic abilities, which made a definite impression. I saw that at least three of the people in the room hurried to don dark glasses. Naive. As if that would help.

“So, where did the Relict Faction get that many players?” the very same gray Major Kudryavtsev asked his next question, absolutely drenched in flagrant mistrust. “After all, as far as I know, just five days ago your faction contained no more than 87 players – the limit for a level-one node.”

“Yes, that is indeed true. But as I already said, the German Human-6 Faction has joined Relict in its entirety, and they had just a hair shy of one thousand one hundred players. Beyond that, my faction has taken on around fifty players from the Human-3 Faction, the Geckho, Miyelonian, and Jarg races as well as two extraterrestrial branches of the human race: Tailax and the Gilvar Syndicate. But regardless, the basis is made up of people from the magocratic world, and specifically natives of the First Directory. And I rule over these people not only in the game but also in the magocratic world, so a Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav cannot take off from one of our airports without me knowing. That was why I was very surprised to hear about your ‘restless neighbor’ who you don’t know what to expect from. And I was even more shocked to hear you openly discussing plans for war with my faction.”

“Well, that is the reason we’re having this meeting. To review all possible ways the game could unfold and make decisions, perhaps even very difficult ones,” objected a buff manly man wearing a Hero of the Russian Federation star on his dark civilian jacket.

It took a bit of doing, but I was able to read his full name, the agency he represented, and some other information that was best left unsaid even here in a room in the Onega-3 complex, which was shielded against possible bugs. Anyhow, I wasn’t about to go running into trouble, so I suppressed the urge to showily address him by name and rank.

“Let me save you some time and explain everything. In terms of military might, the Relict Faction is one of the strongest on the virtual Earth, perhaps even the strongest. our economy is advanced, and can provide our army everything it needs from provisions to assault antigravs, laser rifles and heavy exoskeleton armor. We have direct access to the Geckho space port and can purchase any kind of weaponry in space, even the most advanced. We also have the financial capability to make such purchases. We have three combat starships, a large army and, as I said before, a virtually limitless ability to take on new recruits. But that isn’t even the most important part. Two of our nodes are guaranteed safe by humanity’s all-powerful suzerains, the Geckho. So no faction on the virtual planet whether acting alone or as part of a large alliance, will be able to defeat us. I am currently saying all this not in order to rattle sabers or threaten you. Not at all. In fact, I want to cool down all the hotheads I’ve heard speak today. I also would like to remind you that I gifted a Geckho safety guarantee to the Human-3 Faction’s capital node. So even in theory, our factions could never fight to the point of annihilation. And so I say we put an end to this topic once and for all!”

By that point, I was not expecting approval, but maybe at least a reduced degree of dismay. But I got nothing of the sort. Strange. Obviously I wasn’t taking into account the specific reality of the room: to the curators of the Dome, the very idea that they had lost control over the situation and that someone was progressing successfully without their knowledge was categorically unacceptable.

I was asked to talk about the political structure of the Relict Faction – where did it get such a strange name, and whose side was it on in the stand-off between our world and the magocratic one? Which country was supporting it? I was very excited, because that was a right-minded question and I finally had a chance to get my ideas through to these people.

As for the name, I didn’t editorialize or get bogged down in the details. I just told them the game system suggested it because my character is famed as an investigator of ancient races, and I picked it.

After that, I got to the most important part: the answer to a question I was asked long ago, and which I had finally found an answer to via Valeri from the Prelates of Tailax and leaders of the Meleyephatian Horde behind them. When the tong of immunity ran out, the bifurcated space of our parallel worlds would synchronize and the only version of the planet that would remain would be whichever one controlled more nodes in the game that bends reality. Thus, if the factions of our Earth controlled less than fifty percent of the game nodes in one year and a half, our version of the planet had a chance of disappearing without a trace. The only survivors would be those in virt pods during the end of the tong of safety. And those players would have to seek out a new faction urgently or they risked turning into NPC’s. Naturally, the same went for the magocratic world and its players.

Everyone in the room fell silent. The only sound was the quiet hum of a fan. Yes, it was shocking information, and not easy to digest.

“Does that mean we can expect an implacable war of annihilation?” came a question after nearly thirty seconds of silence.

“War is the most obvious way of keeping everything we hold dear. But I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the right way, either. In fact, I’d say it’s wrong on its face. Because there is another way: we could save both versions of our world. To do that, the dominant faction on the virtual planet has to be one with broad representation from both worlds. In that case, both planets will be spat out into the real world on opposite phases of the same orbit. And that is precisely the goal I am pursuing in the game. Making it a reality is the very purpose of the Relict Faction. But it must be noted that it will create two inhabitable planets, making both vulnerable to space invaders. Even one inhabitable planet is a juicy target for aggressive space polities. But two...” I shook my head in doubt. “We wouldn’t stand a chance at peaceful existence. Someone would attack for certain. The Trillians, Meleyephatians, Cleopians, Esthetes... The list of potential enemies is long. And I wouldn’t cross our Geckho suzerains off it.”

“Do you really think the Geckho would turn against us?” came shouts of surprise.

“Yes, they might. In the past, their race has simply taken planets they were obliged to defend. And when I asked directly about the Geckho’s further plans for Earth, Viceroy Kosta Dykhsh started to threaten me and forcefully ordered me never to raise the topic with him again. But that is still a distant problem. For now, we need to solve more pressing issues. First of all, I am interested in getting more players from our world to restore the balance in my faction, and would be happy to accept as many as fifteen thousand.”

I was intending to spend a long time telling them about my Relict Faction: the grand construction of the planetary shield, the search for locations for the other eleven generators, the germ of an Earth space flotilla, the desire to receive help from other factions. After all, I shouldn’t be pulling this whole sleigh on my own! But I was cut off midword, demanding I stick to the facts and also that I “cease the unwelcome propagandizing of a foreign faction.”

The next question was about finances. How did the Relict Faction get such enormous monetary resources, that they can order goods to be delivered from space, and afford to pay good wages to thousands of living players and NPC’s working on two grand construction projects?

“Trophies from the space war between the Geckho and Meleyephatians, which my team took active part in. Trophies stolen from the treasure vault of a group of space pirates on Medu-Ro IV. Trophies from a cloaked frigate shot down over the bay named Big Abi. Trophies from my war with the Miyelonian Pride of the Bushy Shadow. Selling the coordinates of a stash of Relict artifacts. Well, that and my share from a platinum mine I discovered on an asteroid, which now belongs to my companion Uline Tar and her fiancé, Viceroy of Earth Kosta Dykhsh.”

“But don’t the instructions and internal rules dictate that Human-3 players surrender all valuable trophies and space currency to their faction in return for all kinds of goods and services both in the virtual game and the real world?”

Was this an attempt to accuse me of something? If so, the complaint looked not merely contrived, I’d even call it silly: what could the Human-3 Faction possibly offer me that would be equivalent to, let’s say, one million Geckho crystals? Or the hyperspace drive they had already broken in the Prometheus laboratory? A slightly larger room under the Dome and slightly longer-aged brandy? I tried to put that to them as delicately as possible, doing my best not to touch on the Human-3 Faction’s meager finances. Unfortunately, I was not successful. In the comments and trick questions that followed, the curators time and again returned to the fact that the H3 Faction would have the Geckho crystals they needed if I just surrendered my money to my home faction as I should have.

Ugh, I didn’t want to ask for trouble and touch on such a delicate topic, but seemingly there was no getting around it. So I reminded the curators that I had brought the Human-3 Faction truly colossal amounts of space currency before on several occasions, even giving it as a gift. But where was it now? Three million crystals had been stolen because the location of the Miyelonian smugglers’ landing site was leaked. And by the way, they still had yet to find the informant in their ranks. Meanwhile, another million crystals I sent as a gift was spent by the leadership of the Human-3 Faction to arrange a terror attack in the parallel world at the funeral of Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin.

Most likely, a living alien or person from that parallel world walking into this chamber right now would have had less impact than what I actually said. The uproar was so great that I winced in pain and started wishing I had of earplugs to protect my sensitive hearing. For starters, both the curators and H3-Faction leadership started accusing me of flagrant lying. I was ready for that though, and answered calmly that I had proof and could provide at least two witnesses: Viceroy of Earth Kosta Dykhsh would confirm the exact amount I sent to Ivan Lozovsky, while ex-leader of the Second Legion Gerd Tamara would confirm that the Human-3 Faction held secret negotiations with people from the magocratic world and transferred them that money to commit a terror attack.

“By the way...” A shocking thought suddenly visited me: what if all the important people sitting here, who considered themselves very nearly omniscient, still didn’t even suspect the political crisis underway in the parallel world? “I’d like to ask one more question: are you even aware of the fact that the Council of Mage-Rulers has been eliminated in its entirety by a second terror attack, which was planned and executed by Gerd Tamara and her assistant Roman Pavlovich? And that Gerd Tamara has been sentenced to death by quartering, and our dear girl is going to be executed in Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory four days from today?”

No, the curators did not know that. And the reaction to the news was stormy, ranging from unhidden glee to horror at the fact that two players had unbound our enemies’ hands with such an irresponsible act. To hear them tell it, nothing was off the table in the parallel world’s counterattack now. The mages had already demonstrated an ability to enter our world unnoticed, so the bio-weapon they used under the Dome might seem like just puppies and rainbows in comparison with what may have been coming next. Assassinating political leaders. “Accidents” at strategic military facilities the world over. Unsanctioned nuclear rocket launches. Anything was possible. And that was basically the end of the council session. The players on the stage were asked to leave. Clearly they thought we should not hear what they were going to say next.

I had already started getting up to leave with the others, so the host’s next sentence directed at the security officers put me into shock:

“Detain Ivan Lozovsky and Kirill Ignatiev. Both for unsanctioned activity running counter to public interest. How long can someone remain outside the game without harming their character? Something like seven or eight days, isn’t that what we determined? Well, Kirill will spend six days in a cell to cure his ‘space madness.’ Hopefully that will be enough time for him to remember where he comes from and what side he should be on. The way he was talking with such familiarity about the Dark Faction put us all on guard. Ivan Lozovsky’s fate then will depend on the investigation...”

“No! You cannot detain me in the real world! My starship is supposed to take off from Kasti-Utsh III in one day! It’s very important! Many things hang in the balance, perhaps even the fate of planet Earth itself!”

But they didn’t listen. Two beefy officers took me under the arms and, not harshly but certainly uncompromisingly led me down an underground corridor. I could have taken control of their minds and demanded that they release me, but what would good would it have done? I wouldn’t have been able to leave this well-guarded military compound and get back under the Dome then. So all I could do was walk with my head down, admonishing myself for my big mouth.


Chapter Twenty-One. Too Famous

IT WAS LIGHT OUTSIDE. Ragged gray clouds crawled across the sky. It smelled of freshly-tilled soil, a nearby forest and damp. I didn’t want to sleep anymore. I threw back the comforter, got up off my cot and, my bare feet flopping on the cold floor, walked over the partially open window. I spent a long time staring at a neatly trimmed lawn and tall fence of reinforced concrete slabs with barbed wire running along the top. There weren’t any bars on the windows, just a mosquito net that was fairly easy to remove. But I was on the third floor and knew there was a military compound outside, which made the very idea of escape seem unrealistic. And where would I go anyway?

In the day and a half I’d been in here, my outrage had passed, as had my hunger strike, explicit shouts out the window and all other expressions of disobedience. In their place came a wave of apathy. Six days... Well, four and a half now. What to do with all that time?

I had already gotten enough sleep to compensate for the exhaustion of my last few days and watched a couple shoot-em-ups and horror movies on the cable television they provided. I even practiced my psionic abilities, making the sentries standing watch at my door – first Private First Class Sergei Ivushkin from Kerch, then Corporal Vasya Koshechkin from Vladivostok after him – run up and down the corridor, do fifty push-ups and four hundred squats until they could barely stay on their feet. I could have ordered them to open the door and let me in, but I decided not to ruin the soldiers’ lives. They feared me enough as it was...

What’s this? My sensitive hearing detected footsteps in the corridor. One person. Who could it be? It was still too early for breakfast, or a change of guard. I had already realized that I had been placed in a room on the otherwise vacant third floor of the officers’ dormitory, so this new visitor could only have been coming for me. After a brief exchange of words, I heard the clinking of keys. Corporal Koshechkin was hurrying to open the door.

“Hey there, Kirill,” said Igor Tarasov, leader of the First Legion and new head of the Human-3 Faction as he walked into the room. The very familiar Dome resident was currently wearing a black ceremonial marine uniform with Major patches. Based on the two medals on his chest, he had been to war. Though I suspected that already.

I just kept silent because I didn’t see any reason to cheerily greet on a man who had been actively attempting to bury me at the recent meeting with the Dome curators. So I kept looking out the window.

“Oh come on, Kirill, enough sulking! It wasn’t me who sent you here.”

Tarasov looked from side to side, critically examining my new digs. A dinky little room. Bare whitewashed walls. An unadorned lightbulb on the ceiling. A little table and chair. A television on the wall. A cabinet for clothes. An unmade cot. A door into a half bathroom. And that was basically it.

“Hmm, not exactly five-stars... And not your comfy room in the leadership building under the Dome either...” my uninvited guest commented.

“Also not a deluxe room on the Kasti-Utsh III space station with a view of the stars, which is where I left the game,” I decided to speak nevertheless. “Has something happened? Why did they decide to send me back early? After all, I assume you didn’t just come to pay me a visit and have a chat?”

I guessed right. That was immediately clear from the way the officer turned beet-red and averted his eyes. Igor Tarasov scooted a chair over and took a seat.

“Yeah, so here’s the thing... I don’t even know where to start... A lot has happened in the last few hours. Your advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi instituted a transport blockade, cutting my faction off from the Geckho space port. And he sent over a burly German Diplomat named Leng Thomas Müller with an ultimatum from ruler of the First Directory Princess Minn-O La-Fin: either her husband be set free and allowed to enter the game within twenty-four hours, or the Relict Faction will declare war on us and destroy all the Human-3 Faction’s nodes except the capital. I take such threats seriously, so a heightened state of alert has been declared under the Dome. All players are armed and standing guard on our borders. And it’s not that I fear another war, but I also don’t think we have anything to gain from such a conflict. By the way, that German also threatened to summon the Russian ambassador in Berlin to the German Foreign Ministry to issue a note of protest. But if that happens, it’s out of my hands – the diplomats will have to settle this on their own.”

Oh wow, now that’s intriguing! I gave an unwitting smile. Props to Minn-O. She showed her mettle and made her neighbors bite their fingernails. And just look at the way the former head of the Human-6 Faction is striving to prove his worth! I’d have to have a personal meeting with Thomas Müller to get to know him better. I like his initiative!

“And by the looks of things, that isn’t all the news.”

“Yes. One hour ago I was summoned to the new residence of the viceroy of the suzerains on Earth, next to the space port. I don’t speak a word of Geckho, but I could tell Kosta Dykhsh was unhappy both by his fearsome roar and the way he was stomping his feet. And the new translator girl they sent with me just about burned up in embarrassment when she translated all his elaborate curses and threats. She enriched her lexicon with so many choice Geckho expressions that she leveled up three times.”

The military officer removed his black beret and wiped the abundant sweat from his brow. I was very surprised to see how anxious he was, but his next few words explained everything:

“Then as fate would have it, one of the four incarnations of the Great First Female of the Miyelonians – the honorable Priestess Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo – got in touch with Krong Daveyesh-Pir and accused the furball leader of violating their commitments as allies. In her words, flagrant excesses were perpetrated on good friend of the Miyelonian race Leng Gnat in exclusive Geckho territory when he was arrested on trumped up charges and not allowed to enter the game. And the Krong... whew... uh, how to put this lightly... was taken aback and promised the influential Miyelonian Priestess to figure it all out. He sent a message to that effect to Kung Waid Shishish, whose sector of the galaxy we fall under.”

Here Major Tarasov wasn’t alone in being struck with a cold sweat. I was also panicking. The leader of the Second Geckho Strike Fleet Kung Waid Shishish was famed throughout the galaxy for his explosive temper, harsh nature, unwillingness to compromise and for never taking half-measures. The commander knew me personally and, I suspect, after a kick in the pants from his overlord, didn’t take too long figuring things out, just transmitted his displeasure directly to his Viceroy on Earth, Kosta Dykhsh with plenty of vulgarity and abundant threats.

“That’s exactly right, Kirill. But Kung Waid Shishish was already aware that you had been detained,” Igor Tarasov added. “As it turns out, Miyelonian news channels were reporting that a wicked military junta on Earth had arrested the human Leng Gnat – one of the most famous human beings in space and a close personal acquaintance of Miyelonian Fleet Commander Kung Keetsie-Myau. After that, Kung Keetsie personally got in touch with Kung Waid Shishish and expressed her dismay at the Geckhos’ inability to maintain order in the territories they control. So Kung Waid Shishish was already on edge when he got that kick in the pants from above...”

Hmm... On the one hand, it was good that such influential forces were taking an interest in my fate. But on the other... My prior experience with the commander had given me a perfect understanding of the fact that Kung Waid Shishish had no real concept of goings on in the outskirts of the galaxy on a remote planet by the name of Earth. And so the blind rage of the suzerains could end up damaging every terrestrial faction indiscriminately.

“And that is why Viceroy Kosta Dykhsh, who had so much vitriol poured onto him from above today, was so brusque. By all appearances, the Viceroy’s seat has begun to totter. Furthermore, this has jeopardized his wedding, a fact the Viceroy also shouted about. Overall, Kirill, the curators of the Dome project requested that I tell you they’d overstepped, and said you are free to go. They also suggested I apologize to you in the name of their ‘military junta,’ but I have to think you don’t give a rat’s ass about that. Just get back into the game quickly. Lots of people are waiting for you there. There’s a helicopter waiting to take you back.”

* * *

Once in the helicopter, much to my surprise, Igor Tarasov broke down laughing:

“Kirill, I can’t believe you go the Dome curators to cave! But it doesn’t matter. It’ll be good for them to take a little smack on the nose. Around here, they might as well be gods. Faction supplies, financing, the inflow of new recruits, just about everything depends exclusively on their whims. But on a cosmic scale... they might as well not exist. The galactic news just called them: ‘a military junta.’ It will be a good lesson for them in the future: think seven times before any sudden movements in regard to you and your faction.”

“And what about Lozovsky, any idea what’s going on there?” I asked out of curiosity.

“Yes, but... I’m sorry, I’m not gonna tell you. All I can say is what people who live under the Dome already know. Ivan’s quarters were searched and they discovered narcotics. Phenylcyclohexylpiperidine, also known as PCP or ‘angel dust.’ Investigators are currently figuring out whether the former leader had been taking it for long, how he got the drugs into a controlled facility, and which other faction players might also be consuming illegal substances.”

Igor Tarasov fell into a pensive silence, then abruptly changed topic and turned to another important event. “Five hours ago, the NPC Orcs attacked and torched the Human-25 Faction’s fort, slaughtering all defenders without exception. And ever since they’ve been killing every player who comes back at the respawn point. The curators are holding another council at Onega-3, this time thinking up ways of saving the people now caught in a death trap. After all, it is well known that a certain number of character deaths in a row can cause the person playing them to die for real. So the lives of one hundred and six people, most of whom are employees of scientific laboratories now hang by a thread.”

“I’m reminded, Kirill, that you said something about a Geckho ferry,” the leader of the First Legion remarked, referring to a suggestion I made at the council. “Too bad they didn’t listen to you then. Three days underway via ferry is a completely acceptable timeframe. The scientists can just wait it out in our world no problem. And as long as your offer remains in force, I humbly request your assistance.”

Having learned from my past bitter experience, I was in no rush to agree.

“And what about the Dome curators?” I reminded him of their categorical refusal when I offered help before.

The major lowered his head, looking downcast and made an honest admission:

“Nothing has changed. The curators are still not willing to allow people from the other world into the H25 faction’s laboratories. Even if those selfsame laboratories are completely destroyed by Orcs, and nothing of value remains. They demand that I as head of the largest Russian faction send a landing group to evacuate the scientists and destroy all traces of their biological research. And the latter is even more important than the former.”

“Why is that?” I asked, truly surprised because the priority of the Russian military was always saving people first.

“Something very peculiar was being developed at those laboratories and it cannot be shown to outsiders under any circumstances. They may have been dissecting Geckho and developing toxins for their race, for example. If such information were to be leaked, that would mean the end of humanity as we know it. Or perhaps they were creating interspecies hybrids – like adding the segments of the elven genome that give them immortality to human DNA to extend our lifespan. By the way, they were trying to do that in the Human-3 Faction laboratories in the Eastern Swamp, and made some strides. But then the curators ordered all research to be urgently wrapped up and transferred to the new faction. Maybe those experiments were successful and immortality is too valuable a discovery to share.”

The helicopter was already touching down on the roof of a building, but Tarasov and I were still in no hurry to leave the rotor-driven vehicle.

“Gnat, if I could do it on my own, I wouldn’t have asked. As it stands, I have no way to commit three hundred high-level soldiers to a long-term expedition, nor do I have the crystals to pay to send them via ferry to another hemisphere of the planet. And a smaller division wouldn’t be able to hack it – the most recent attack involved over four thousand Orcs. My niece was working in the Human-25 Faction laboratories at the time. A graduate of the Novosibirsk State University, she’s a level-26 Biologist by the game nick Candy. Save her and all the others! And you know I’m good for it. I’ll find a way to repay you. I don’t give a damn what the curators say now!”

I finally made up my mind and told Tarasov my plans:

“I’ll send the ferry. And I will also send all available Sio-Mi-Dori assault-landing antigravs. If you can spare some troops for the operation, then good. But if not I can handle it. And we won’t be evacuating anyone – it’s too early for them to give up and retreat. Instead, the landing group will clear the node of hostile NPC’s and help them build a new fort. I’ll admit, I don’t give a damn about the biological laboratories or the experiments they were conducting, but any node on the other hemisphere of the virtual planet with a stable link to corncobs is of enormous value to me. I need locations to build the other eleven planetary shield generators, and ideally they will be constructed all over the surface of the planet. The only way our Earth stands a chance against an invasion from outer space is if all twelve generators can be switched on while we’re still protected by the game.”

“Sounds good!” Tarasov extended me a broad calloused hand, sealing our agreement with a handshake.

We jumped out of the helicopter and headed for the elevator. Once in the corridor heading into the giant Dome, the leader of the Human-3 Faction made up his mind to ask a question:

“Kirill, be honest. Is there going to be a war between our factions? No need to sign any official treaties or anything, your word is enough for me.”

“There will not,” I assured him. “We have no real bones of contention. And I am very much counting on the help of qualified Engineers and Builders from the Human-3 Faction. For the cargo port, a thermonuclear power plant, laying underwater cables and the planetary shield generator itself on Rocky Island. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the planet’s term of safety is ticking away inexorably. So war in nobody’s interest right now, period!”

“Okay, if there won’t be war, I’ll call my people back from the front and direct them toward the betterment of the Human-3 Faction. We need to build a road east through the wetlands and marshes. Our scouts have reported inhabitable lands in that direction, though they are teeming with dangerous creatures. And while the road is being built, we need to handle the Centaurs and their hard-headed Antiquity faction...”

What? I stopped short.

“Believe me, going to war with the Centaurs would be a huge mistake! As bad as the war with the Naiads, if not even more horrible and irreparable. Do not rush into a conflict you stand little chance of winning. Speak with Centaur lady Phylira personally, don’t go through any middle-men. She likes attention and respect. Give her some pretty little bauble as a gift, she’ll appreciate it. Matriarch Phylira is a natural-born woman like any other, even though she is an NPC mare. Then you’ll have no problem reaching an agreement with her. If it’s too hard, I’ll be back to earth in two weeks. I can try to talk with Phylira on my own. I’ll bring her gifts from the stars. She will love that.”

The two of us walked up to the foot of corncob number fifteen and I started bidding Tarasov farewell, preparing to enter the game. I was already taking my first steps up the spiral staircase when the leader of the First Legion called out:

“And Kirill, you are gonna save Gerd Tamara, right? I know she’s a weirdo and her mind is a bit off kilter, but our troops under the Dome really respect and love her.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know the current situation with the arrestee and it ran counter to my principles to promise something I was not sure I could accomplish. But Igor Tarasov took my silence in his own way.

“Yes, I heard Tamara has committed a terrible crime. And I understand that as ruler of the First Directory you are obliged to act within the bounds of the law. But if there is no way to stay her execution... at least let Tamara die quickly and painlessly!”


Chapter Twenty-Two. Return to the Stars

I FLEW UP to the fourteenth floor of the corncob without even losing my breath. Finally my virt pod! How I missed it! The black plastic lid obediently slid back with a light touch, revealing a soft cushion below. So, what the heck is this?! On the plastic side of the virt pod there was a scrawling nasty inscription scratched in: “Gnat is a greedy son of a bitch!!!”

My excellent spirits after the early release fizzled out a bit. I looked pensively at this local example of “cave painting.” I wonder who I offended this time and how. After all, it couldn’t have been some unknown beginner who just entered the game and only knew me through rumors. No, the guards let this person enter corncob number fifteen, which meant they worked here. And that meant they started playing the game approximately the same time as I did – somewhere around seven weeks ago. By local standards, that would make them a pretty respectable player at level forty or maybe even fifty, but here they were behaving no better than a schoolyard bully...

And in theory it wouldn’t be all that hard to find out who this bully was. Everything under the Dome was recorded on security cameras, and I knew for a fact there was one pointed directly at my gaming cabin. Just check the footage from the last two days and it would be settled. The vandal that damaged this valuable technology would be revealed. But first of all, I wasn’t feeling up to going back down fourteen floors to tell someone about an incident that really wasn’t that significant. And second, sure they could find the player, but then what? They wouldn’t be expelled from the faction or anything. They’d just put the fear of god into them and let the person go.

But nevertheless, I was in no rush to enter the game. Instead, I walked over to the thick glass window and took in the view over the subterranean Dome from fourteen stories up. There were no people in the park or on any of the athletic fields. And that was no surprise. Leng Tarasov still had them all on combat alert, and everyone was in the game preparing to repel an invasion of Relict Faction marauders. Hrm... I breathed a heavy sigh. What a shame. That was how I became an outsider to the Dome players. And although this was a world away from what happened before – at the very least no one was coming after me with fists and brass knuckles – nevertheless it was hard to count on friendship while in charge of a faction most players considered an enemy. So I was in for more and more expressions of discontent like this one.

And though after my release I was on the verge of changing my mind about obtaining a new exit point into the real world – in the end the Dome curators learned their lesson and would be much more cautious before giving me another shake-down – now I wanted again to get rid of the invisible but all too palpable target on my back. With such unhappy thoughts in mind, I entered the game. So, what’s changed? I opened my character sheet:

Leng Gnat. Human. Relict Faction.

Level-92 Listener

Statistics:

Strength

14

Agility

18

Intelligence

33 + 5

Perception

29 + 2

Constitution

17

Luck modifier

+3

Drones

2

Parameters:

Hitpoints

2080 of 2080

Endurance points

1519 of 1519

Magic points

1798 of 1798

Carrying capacity

62 lbs.

Fame

90

Authority

77

Skills:

Electronics

83

Scanning

61

Cartography

80

Astrolinguistics

95

Rifles

59

Mineralogy

58

Medium Armor

68

Eagle Eye

85

Sharpshooter

43

Targeting

41

Danger Sense

78

Psionic

102 First specialization taken

Mental Fortitude

105 First specialization taken

Machine Control

100 First specialization taken

Mysticism

49

I blinked because I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. How much Fame now??? A +6 (!!!) boost to the figure, which Uline Tar said was the “hardest to level.” You just have to get your name doing the rounds on the galactic news for a day, then have that catch the eye of the rulers of a couple great spacefaring races. By the way, it would be hard for me to convince the Prelates of Tailax I was still reliable or at the very least neutral with such authoritative representatives of hostile governments publicly interceding on my behalf.

So, and what do we have here? I had already closed my character data, but there was an obtrusive message obstructing my field of view, this one bright red and in Relict:

Listener! The data you sent is of enormous value. Hierarch (a set of symbols I didn’t recognize, probably a personal name) needs your help. No allied military squadrons detected nearby. So you have been assigned an obligatory mission: to rescue (the same set of symbols) at any cost. As a reward you will be promoted in rank to rung two with corresponding change of class.

I spent a long time staring at the message. My mind was just wandering in complete disarray. What to do now? Drop everything and fly through hyperspace to the “pocket” where a flotilla of automatic Precursor hunters had spent the last few millennia besieging the ship of the Relict Hierarch? I doubt they’d be very happy to see me show up on the battlefield again. Most likely, the Symbiotes would simply destroy my starship so I wouldn’t trip them up, then continue the siege. But my mission didn’t proscribe a specific term of any kind. And if the Symbiotes hadn’t been able to get through the ancient starship’s defenses for several millennia, a couple more days or weeks wouldn’t make much difference.

I dismissed the message on the internal surface of my helmet faceplate, but another one instantly came to replace it:

Listener! In the most recent period, your share of data transmitted to the Pyramid was 100% An unbelievable result! The Relict hierarchs are proud of you! From this point forward, your Energy Armor may accept level-3 modifications (maximum). You have unlocked the front left arm slot for additional accessories and an additional drone slot. You have also been permitted to change gender ahead of schedule.

Searching for available units

Searching for available units

I was really hoping the game system was looking for a drone and not a gender-change unit. Otherwise, I was in for a huge shock and my wife Minn-O La-Fin a massive disappointment. But I already knew how the drone search would end – there was nothing compatible in the nearest sector of the galaxy. However, I was mistaken!

Appropriate unit found.

You have received a Large Relict Guard Drone.

Large?! Very interesting! I had already witnessed the impressive combat capabilities of a Small Guard Drone with my own eyes. A Large one was probably even deadlier. Now I just had to figure out where that drone was. I opened the drones tab. And in fact, a Large Relict Guard Drone had been added to the list. And how long would it take to reach me?

Estimated time in flight: 344,802 years, 87 days, 6 hours, 52 minutes.

I was planning to figure this out the same way I’d found the small drone, by gathering flight-time data from a few points and giving them to the Navigator to find the end point. But I noticed the flight time was within a few minutes of the Small Guard Drone’s. That could not be a coincidence! By all appearances, my two drones were at the same base, which was lost somewhere in space. Okay then, that just raised the priority of flying there as quickly as possible!

* * *

“The captain has returned!” my coming to the common room of the starship was met with a storm of utterly sincere jubilation from the crew.

Uline and the twin brothers Vasha and Basha just about strangled me in their embraces, while the rest of my team was just about as extreme in their reaction. Minn-O gave me a big kiss. The guys shook me by the hand. All three Kirsan repair bots slithered out of wall gaps and enthusiastically wriggled their many arms, greeting their captain and at the same time showing that they had followed me to my new ship. Even the spiny Jarg wrapped all eight of his tentacled arms around my right leg and left me with a few dark spots of smelly mucus on my armored boot to remember him by.

“Big joy. The highest expression of feeling,” the spiny Analyst explained through the Universal Translator.

I’d have to get the armor cleaned somewhere now... But still it was damn nice to know I was loved and valued! Then I noticed Gerd Undi Ar Miyeyauu the Miyelonian Journalist standing near the noisy group and recording with a professional camera attached to her helmet while making commentary for her viewers.

I had to immediately turn serious as to match the image of a stern captain. I asked the officers whether the ship was ready for takeoff and they reported back that modernization had been complete for a while, systems had been checked and the frigate was ready for takeoff. The only thing they were waiting for was me. I ordered all starship systems prepared for takeoff and requested the corresponding permission from the station dispatchers. Half of the crew immediately ran to their places.

“Allow me to present your two new Gunners,” Uline Tar informed me with clear pride at a job well done, turning on her tablet and showing me their resumes.

Taik Rekh. Geckho. Clan Waideh-Rekh. Level-111 Gunner.

Gerd Eeeezzz 777. Meleyephatian. Renegade Nest 55. Level-163 Gunner.

“They are now both at their workstations calibrating the targeting systems and setting them up to their liking. There were another six that wanted to join our crew, but I told them to take a hike. Their level was too low, and they had no combat experience. The days when we would take any old person are behind us. Now you are famous, so lots of people would love to join the crew of successful Captain Leng Gnat. That means we can afford to be choosy and take only the best of the best. These two are veterans of large wars and many local conflicts. Just the clan name Waideh-Rekh is itself the highest recommendation and confirmation of mastery you could ask for. They don’t take soldiers that aren’t worth their salt. Eeeezzz 777 then is quite old by Meleyephatian standards but spent over sixty tongs in the military and another chunk of time with pirates, including serving as a mercenary under the Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse, Kung Eesssa – a celebrated Meleyephatian commander of what was once the galaxy’s largest private military company. Because of that, Eeeezzz’s services come at three times the price of normal gunners, but I’m sure he’ll be worth it.”

Okay then, awesome! I finally would have real professional Gunners. Looking over the changes since I was last here, I strolled through the decks, peeking into residential rooms and utility areas. The standard of the works was just amazingly high. I had nothing to say.

I walked to the captain’s bridge. Woah! Now that is impressive! In the middle of a small round room, there was a glowing three-dimensional tactical screen displaying the position of nearby objects in space. In front of me, a whole hemispherical wall was showing an image from external cameras and giving the complete illusion of transparency and forward view. To the left and right were two pilot’s chairs specially adapted for human use and already occupied by Dmitry Zheltov and San-Doon who were testing the thrusters. Past the star map was the Navigator’s seat with Ayukh in it, then my workstation, which had a large screen displaying the status of all starship systems and data from the ship scanners. And to the left of that was another empty chair. I wonder who that is for? I raised an inquisitive gaze to Uline.

“I have seen similar Meleyephatian starships where that place is occupied by a senior tactics or communications officer or the captain’s senior bodyguard,” my business partner explained. “But our crew doesn’t have any of those positions.”

I didn’t like that... An empty seat meant unrealized possibilities. Should I place the Bodyguard there to take a portion of my damage (from high G-forces for example) and put me more at ease? But Denni Marko would be leaving soon and my crew didn’t have any other Bodyguards. After a moment of thought, I lit up:

“But we do have an Analyst! There are times when I need the Jarg’s advice urgently. Especially in tense combat situations. It would also be helpful for him to be able to get more information so he can make better prognoses. So I say we give it to...” Damn! I had again forgotten the hard-to-pronounce name of my crewmember and looked at my notes, “ Uii-Oyeye-Argh-Eeyayo.”

“But he’s a Jarg...” Uline was not able to finish, but clearly wanted to mention his race’s explosive tendencies, which could lead to everyone on my bridge being stuck with hundreds of sharp quills.

“The instability of Jargs is greatly exaggerated, as is their lack of control over the self-destruction process. Our Analyst has been with us in some very sticky situations including during a space battle, an emergency landing and when our ship was attacked on the asteroid. And he was calmer than many others. But to reassure everyone, we could place a transparent defensive dome around the Analyst’s seat. Uh... what?”

I didn’t finish because my wayedda Gerd Minn-O La-Fin had come into the room and was insistently pulling me out by the arm:

“Husband, let’s go. I want to show you our new berth! I picked out all the decor myself!”

The Princess was behaving somewhat strange. It felt like she had something else in mind. What did she mean “our berth?” I was assuming I’d be staying alone in the captain’s berth. But I didn’t argue or make a scene. I just got up from my seat, thanked everyone for a job well done and asked my business partner Gerd Uline Tar to quickly get in touch with her fiancé Kosta Dykhsh to reassure him about their wedding and tell the Viceroy of Earth that I had already been released. Then I followed Minn-O up the stairs to the second deck.

My berth, as it turned out, was in the right fuselage closest to the stairs. I walked inside the small room and took a look around. Neon lighting, new futuristic furniture, interactive “living” wallpaper. A huge landing strip of a bed. A desk for working at with a massive data screen. Trophies and souvenirs on the walls taken from the old frigate and brought to the new ship in the exact same condition they were in before. Okay then, nice and comfy!

Behind me, I heard the click of the magnetic lock closing. I turned with a smile, figuring my wife missed me and wanted to test out our new bed. But Minn-O’s face didn’t even have a hint of glee, and certainly no indication of amorous intent.

“Husband, we need to have a serious talk about a new problem. I’m referring to the situation with the Paladin girl Tamara.”

I winced, bracing myself for the worst. Was my Chief Advisor not able to stay the execution? Or was it perhaps carried out ahead of schedule? Or did Tamara break under torture? But none of the ideas that came to mind were correct. Seeing no comprehension on my face, Princess Minn-O La-Fin realized I’d spent the last day and a half in isolation without access to news, and explained it all on her own:

“Our advisor Mac-Peu did as you ordered. In your name, he had the criminal transferred from the Tower of the Damned, to a normal if well-guarded prison. However... yesterday, despite the large number of guards, the prison was stormed by a crowd numbering in the thousands. The walls were blown up in three places, the detainees were freed, and prison guards for the most part were slaughtered. The few surviving guards say it was a ghastly sight: the crowd was running straight into the machine-gun fire, utterly unconcerned for their own lives. The fanatics died by the hundreds, but just kept running forward, shouting abusive slogans toward the mage-rulers. And some of the attackers were carrying placards with Tamara’s portrait, while the majority of them were wearing yellow bandannas with the words: ‘As good as dead. Not afraid to die. Emancipation from Mage Tyranny.’“

Minn-O La-Fin was clearly afraid, and I understood her fears perfectly well. In her world, the power of the mage-rulers was maintained only through fear. If that went away, the few mages would be simply torn to shreds by the no-longer obedient masses because, for every person born with magical talent, more than one hundred thousand were born with no sorcerous abilities. Perhaps the political structure had remained solid until now, but recent events at the funeral of Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin and especially the Ruling Council showed that mages were also mortal, and it was completely possible to kill them.

I did my best to reassure my wife and asked her to tell me what happened next.

“What’s to tell? Communications weren’t working near the prison at the time, which speaks to treachery and sabotage. Furthermore, there is evidence that some of the guards changed sides and joined the rebels, stabbing the others in the backs, then opening the main gates. That was how they managed to pull off their scheme and take the prison. A group of military consultants who came a few hours later reported that most prisoners had fled and, among the hundreds of dead bodies, there was not a single one matching the description of the girl from the other world. I’m afraid I don’t know where Tamara the Paladin is now or whether she is still alive at all. But even if Tamara died in the mayhem, she has already become a symbol of the antimage uprising. And that is truly frightening!”


Chapter Twenty-Three. Pirates or Saviors?

FINALLY! THE FRIGATE was slinking so slowly toward the station exit, it seemed like the Kasti-Utsh III maneuver tunnel would never end. All the time I was sitting back in my armchair on the bridge and sorting through documents from the virt-pod rental company. Seven days of quarantine... Mandatory complete vaccination before first entrance to common areas... sanitary processing of all items in my bag... used clothing would be burned and a clean replacement set would be ordered... thick fur would be processed with a special bactericidal gel (I wonder if armpit or groin hair would count as “fur”), a mandatory six-day antibiotic treatment... opening a deposit account in a local bank with no less than three thousand crypto to guarantee my ability to pay...

The last part had me especially intrigued and I searched for how to do it. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that complex. You transfer funds in the game to a certain account, then get that same amount in the real world. But you could only withdraw and use what went above the three-thousand-crypto minimum. After a moment of thought, I transferred a whole fifty thousand – what if I had unforeseen expenses out there?

“Captain, where shall I set the route?” the Navigator pulled me out of my thoughts.

I had my answer ready for some time already, and I set an orange marker on the star map for Ayukh:

“The Taikhirhh-o-Tsykh system, second planet. Spaceport eighteen.”

“Do we have business with Trillians?” the old Navigator asked in surprise.

“Indeed we do. So let’s test the frigate’s systems here near the station, then we can go into hyperjump to Taikhirhh-o-Tsykh II.” I didn’t delve into the details, returning my focus to the documents connected with transferring my real body.

As a matter of fact, my choice of the Taikhirhh-o-Tsykh system was nowhere near a coincidence. It appealed to me for two criteria. First of all, it was halfway to the mysterious H9045/WE system where my two Relict drones were waiting. And second, I was looking for a place where it would be possible to unload the forty dangerous Meleyephatian spies (if I was not in fact mistaken, and the huge psionic “spiders” did not try to steal my frigate). For obvious reasons, Miyelonian stations and planets, as well as systems belonging to the Geckho were not suited to such purposes. And I did not want to try any stations belonging to the Meleyephatian Horde – back on home turf after evacuation, the spy ringleader Leng Sooweesssh Eleven might get up the gall to try and dispute my right to his ship. And so I chose the Taikhirhh-O-Tsykh system, which was neutral to everyone, belonged to the Trillian race and could be legally visited by any starship.

“We have left the station,” Dmitry Zheltov commented, referring to our successful crossing of the forcefield and entrance into the vacuum of space. “The dispatchers has assigned us vector 12-9-43. Beginning maneuver and main thruster test. San-Doon, you’re on thrusters two to five...”

I suppose it was also time to me to get to business and test the frigate’s scanning systems. Radar. Lidar. Gravity scanner. Neutron scanner...

Electronics skill increased to level eighty-four!

Scanning skill increased to level sixty-two!

Wow, there were so many ships around the station! The three-dimensional holographic screen depicted a true Hong-Kong harbor: dozens of starships were leaving the Kasti-Utsh III station, while hundreds of vessels of the most unbelievable shapes and dimensions were waiting in line to enter dock. Massive freighters and ore carriers, nimble shuttles, bulky space-ice collectors... The ship list on screen made a big impression. It even included a Kurimiru shuttle. So, the old man is still kicking… I thought they all got retired eons ago. But not this one. It was drifting aimlessly around five hundred sixty miles from the station...

Wait a second!

I checked the data on screen again. Exactly. There could be no doubt. The unnamed Kurimiru cargo and passenger shuttle was drifting in space at a significant distance from the rest of the crowd. It had to be the La-Shin faction shuttle I was intending to intercept, but it should have reached dock a while ago. Could this really be a coincidence?

Suddenly worried, my heart started beating faster. It looked like we would have the chance to intercept the gem shipment after all! I placed a marker on the target for the Navigator and both pilots:

“Approach to eighteen hundred. This might be just the thing we were looking for.”

“Captain, that is our quarry. The same. Which you speak on Earth. No doubt. Must capture. Landing. Board. Hurry!” the Jarg voiced his conclusions through the Universal Translator from his seat next to me and... well, well. The Analyst had already reached level 88! The “space armadillo” was really coming along quick!

Given even the Analyst had confirmed my guess, I didn’t spend any more time hesitating and turned on the ship’s loudspeaker:

“Combat alert! Everyone take their seats! Boarding team, prepare for action!”

I was immediately pushed back hard into the seat; something even made a cracking sound in my neck. Those damn G-forces again... According to the instruments, we were at four point five G’s, and that was with all of the gravity compensators back in working order! Without them, we’d have been well over two hundred, and the whole crew would have died almost instantly, slathered on the starship walls like so much hot butter. I looked at the Starship Pilot in dismay. He’d gotten carried away:

“Dmitry, let’s try and avoid such aggressive maneuvers in the future. We’re just going to approach cautiously and take a look.”

“Sorry captain, my mistake,” Dmitry Zheltov was seemingly a bit scared by how quickly the new frigate could accelerate. “It was smoother in the training sequences. I’ll be more cautious in the future.”

Copilot San-Doon was also impressed and commented:

“We have two very powerful main thrusters, and the mass of the twinbody is actually lower than the single frigate’s was. Minimal inertia. In a race, we could even give interceptors a run for their money now. This ship is so fast we should have called it ‘Cheetah,’ or ‘Peregrine Falcon.’“

I smiled because I also didn’t believe right away that this twinbody had less mass than a ship with only one fuselage. But Engineer Orun Va-Mart explained that this was no mistake. Our external plating and antiradiation layer were made of more expensive and higher quality materials, our composite frame was lighter weight, and our ultramodern thrusters weighed less as well. But the biggest factor was the so-called “mass coupling effect,” which brought our ship’s weight down by up to a third due to clever placement of the gravity compensators. I had to just trust their professional opinions rather than relying on my eyes and sensations.

My new starship really was remarkable. A true wonder of Meleyephatian shipbuilding. I was afraid to even consider how much the original owner spent building this masterpiece in the first place. So, should I give such an amazing ship its own name? In the past, I chose not to do so out of fear that I might draw unwanted attention from these very same pirates. But now my Fame was higher, and naming a ship also had plenty of upsides. First and foremost, it would give a Fame boost to captain and crew. And according to Ayukh, it also conferred small bonuses to speed and maneuverability which certainly couldn’t hurt. But I was vehemently opposed to the names the Pilot suggested. Naming a ghastly ship after an animal was, to my eye, bad form (the Millennium Falcon excepted of course – that’s a classic and rare exception). But a combat starship named “Coruler La-Fin” would make an impression on the heads of the other Directories of the magocratic world. And that would loosen their tongues for negotiations on the coming order of the world. Or... the thought was so crazy and foolish that my heart stopped for a second. Yes, that’s just what I’ll do!

Over the loudspeaker, I issued an order to my first mate Gerd Uline Tar:

“Uline, update the ship documents and send a message to the station that our Tolili-Ukh X frigate has been given a name: ‘Tamara the Paladin.’“

The Trader reacted with utter calm. So the ship had a name now, big deal. But Pilot San-Doon Taki-Bu was also listening and his eyes went positively rectangular in surprise. Not even a minute later, Princess Minn-O La-Fin flew onto the bridge hissing in indignation:

“Husband, I know your warm feelings for that mercurial little bitch, but everything has a limit! Naming a starship after your lover in the presence of your living wife goes beyond comprehension!!! And do you understand the gravity of what you’ve done?! By giving your spacefaring frigate that name, you are signing off on support of a terrorist! The magical dynasties will be extremely upset! That is... well it might not be guaranteed to lead to war, but... but...”

With icy calm, I looked at my incensed wayedda. Minn-O met eyes with me, lost nerve and fell silent midsentence. Only after my wayedda calmed down did I answer. And mentally at that, so copilot San-Doon Taki-Bu wouldn’t overhear:

“Yes, the other dynasties are not gonna like it. But right now, they’re all headless and have no way to pressure us, so I honestly don’t give a crap. As for the antimage uprising in the First Directory, make no mistake. I am no fan. I especially do not like the fact that some prison guards went and joined the rebels, and that every day their numbers will grow. But by naming my ship ‘Tamara the Paladin,’ I am showing the rebels that I hold their leader Gerd Tamara in high esteem. Furthermore, I will force all people with common sense to think she may have had my consent to do everything she did. After all, starships names are not given lightly. Furthermore, members of the La-Fin dynasty survived the terror attack, which in fact left us the sole remaining legally recognized mage-rulers, which also supports the theory that Tamara is working for the rulers of the First Directory. Furthermore, it’s always easier to ride a wave of protest than try to stand in its way. So, now I have something to speak about with Tamara. Get that meeting scheduled.”

“But husband, how?” Gerd Minn-O La-Fin was completely at a loss. “Tamara is currently the most wanted criminal of the magocratic world and is hiding from investigators!”

“In the next three days, Tamara will be forced to enter the game that bends reality at least for a minute, and that means we can simply wait for the Paladin girl by the side of her virt pod. No, no. This will not require any sort of violent operation to shoot and detain Tamara. It should be enough to simply communicate to Tamara that I would like to speak with her. Her character is at the Geckho spaceport, right? There is a long-distance communication room there, we just have to set up a time.”

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred three!

Mysticism skill increased to level fifty!

You have reached level ninety-three!

You have received three skill points!

A new level! Not bad at all! Then out loud I asked Minn-O La-Fin, who had just come back from the real world whether she told my Chief Advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi that we need to help the Human-25 Faction get out of a tight spot as I asked. The Princess assured me that the Chief Advisor had received the information and already given all the relevant orders. In one hour, two ferries of Relict Faction troops and builders would be departing for the other hemisphere of the virtual Earth – they would clear the node of hostile NPC’s and prepare a staging area for my faction to establish itself on the neighboring continent.

* * *

After my remarks to the Starship Pilot, we didn’t accelerate so unpleasantly fast again. Our frigate was taking a wide arc toward the old shuttle, first to three thousand, then to a mere twenty-five miles – in space, that may as well be point blank. We held the Kurimiru in the sights of our nine laser cannons and were ready to throw a stasis net or deactivate its hyperspace drive at any second. But the shuttle was just drifting aimlessly, not reacting at all. Strange...

I ran scan after scan to clarify the status of the shuttle and grew more and more surprised at what I found. No energy shield. Thrusters not working. A total lack of weaponry. But an energy source was detected inside – the power unit was just fine. And eight... yes, precisely eight living creatures inside. All our attempts to establish contact with the crew of the ancient shuttle went unanswered. What was happening?

“No players with necessary skill,” the Jarg offered up a possibility. “Captain not in game. Pilot not in game. Communications officer not in game.”

Very strange, although... And then it dawned on me! Most likely, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin’s close relative and captain of the Kurimiru shuttle Mart-Ton La-Shin was not the only crew member that belonged to the upper magical crust of society. In fact, all the senior officers were likely noble mages. And that wasn’t the extent of things! In the laws of the magocratic world, such major positions could only be occupied by mages, and probably those of a very high rank. So that meant they were all likely at the ill-fated council of the Mage-Rulers and had died in Tamara’s terror attack! So, the shuttle had come out of hyperspace and was now just drifting aimlessly while the remaining eight shuttle crew members didn’t have the skills to take the helm!

“They’re in a disastrous position. And not only do they not present a threat, they have no way of contacting the outside world or activating their thrusters,” I voiced my conclusions. “Dmitry, short advance! Let’s get up practically point-blank, two or three hundred yards. I want to try and establish contact with the Kurimiru crew mentally.”

Five miles... Four... Three... Got ‘em! At just over two miles, I managed to sense some faint echoes of emotion, then thoughts.

“Panic. Resignation. Suffocation. Sweat dripping into eyes. Forty minutes’ worth of oxygen in the best case. Then death is assured. Little San-Sano is already unconscious. It would probably be most humane to slit her throat while she still can’t feel anything. Although what’s the point? She’ll still have to respawn a number of times. And die just as many. Exiting into the real world will be just a reprieve from final death. This is a red zone, and her virtual body will be dying time and again regardless...”

I quickly broke the psionic contact. It was so arduous to read and feel all that. Ugh! My brow started to sweat. God forbid I ever find myself in such a hopeless situation, slowly dying of lack of oxygen...

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred four!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred six!

I turned on the loudspeaker and turned to the Engineer:

“Orun Va-Mart, you’re a starship specialist. Can you tell me if old Kurimirus had oxygen regeneration units?”

The tailed Engineer’s reply came in almost instantly:

“Yes, captain. All models of Kurimiru and the first run of Ytsuke which initially replaced them had no oxygen regeneration capabilities. They carried condensed air in tanks.”

“I see. Then Gerd T’yu-Pan, this will be your first outing! Mission number one: within half an hour... correction, within one tenth of an ummi, your landing crew must infiltrate the Kurimiru shuttle and rescue the eight people on board. Prepare both landing modules for evacuation. Some of the people on board are unconscious due to lack of oxygen. I will try to explain them how to open the dock airlock for us. But I’m not certain it will work. They can barely breathe, which is to say nothing of moving or doing anything that actually requires brainpower. And Medic Gerd Mauu-La, prepare to receive patients! Mission number two: efficiently remove the Kurimiru’s entire cargo, then deliver it safe and sound to our frigate. And do not open the boxes or containers!”


Chapter Twenty-Four. Pirates or Victims?

AT THE TABLE in the middle of Tamara the Paladin’s state room, eight exhausted and tortured players were sitting eating a meal in identical uniforms of black and green, the heraldic colors of the great La-Shin dynasty of mage-rulers. Seven of them were big brutish men of combat classes with levels ranging from ninety-five to one hundred twenty, and the eighth was a dainty level-87 Engineer lady with fire-red hair. All the guests were clearly feeling shy in the presence of the ruling couple of the First Directory, but hunger took precedence nevertheless, and the food on the rescued astronauts’ plates disappeared as if by sorcery. I was not afraid of aggression on my guests’ part, so I didn’t even take any guards, but Gerd T’yu-Pan wanted to attach five soldiers to me “just in case.”

I had already determined from their stories that the old Kurimiru shuttle didn’t have enough power to take off from Earth, so their captain Mart-Ton La-Shin had skimped on basically everything that could possibly reduce the ship’s weight, even by a fraction of an ounce. Estimated flight time to Kasti-Utsh III fifty-nine hours? That means just two oxygen tanks – exactly enough for sixty hours if you really scrimp and keep only a minimal crew on board for the majority of the flight. They took only enough food for two modest meals, some very small and lightweight high-energy rations. One point five quarts of water per person. One set of light cotton clothing per crew member, cloth footwear and no personal items allowed in their inventory. The troopers carried light laser pistols (more for show than actual fighting) and not a single extra energy battery.

Cots, armchairs and even internal heat isolation plating and antiradiation protection had been removed to reduce mass. And meanwhile they were hauling as much cargo as possible to sell: five large galvanized containers with bars and rods of lutetium, praseodymium, ytterbium and other rare-earth metals. Plus Captain Mart-Ton La-Shin had a box of large and flawless precious stones in his inventory. Unfortunately, that most valuable part of the cargo had gone up in smoke along with its captain.

For the ten days prior to takeoff, the crew was put on a semi-starvation diet and their weight was further reduced with hours of grueling physical exercise while wearing thick rubberized suits, all while having to take pills of furosemide and other diuretics. But in the end, their goal was achieved – the rickety old starship broke free of Earth’s gravitational field and entered a hyperspace jump. However, no one had considered the harsh radiation, the fact space was a “red zone,” or the risks associated with moving their respawn points onto a starship. In the end, they started having problems almost immediately due to lack of oxygen because, even when the players went into the real world, their avatars remained in the game, consuming the already limited supply of oxygen. And so they made a harsh decision and killed the inactive avatars. Then the captain and two senior officers left the game and never came back...

“So what should I do with you?” I asked a niggling question. “None of you know any galactic languages, so even if I bring you to the Kasti-Utsh III station, you will simply disappear. And sending you off with a translator who does know the language of the magocratic world – Gerd Ayni, Gerd T’yu-Pan or my wife Gerd Minn-O La-Fin – would be wasteful. I need all of them here on the frigate. I could sign you onto my crew and take you into deep space. But I have too good an understanding of the magocratic world’s strict laws and I know that you would be accused of treason back home for working for a competing dynasty. And you wouldn’t be the only ones put at risk of the death penalty by that, all your close relatives would be in danger as well.”

“But Coruler Gnat La-Fin, I am an orphan! I have no relatives!” the red-headed lady raised her eyes to me with hope, her face framed by two silly pigtails that stuck out in different directions.

San-Sano. Human. La-Shin Faction. Level-87 Engineer.

Another Engineer on the frigate couldn’t hurt... Should I set her up as Orun Va-Mart’s assistant then? But I didn’t answer fast enough. A combat alert siren suddenly rolled through the ship.

And I didn’t even have time to think about why, because three Meleyephatians materialized right there in the state room. The huge spider-like troopers were wearing additional armor over their chitin and holding weapons at the ready in four hands. A moment later, the head of the human Gunfighter nearest them, who had been enjoying a peaceful meal, flew clean off, severed by the swipe of a sharp claw, which the space spider had at the end of each of its eight arms.

“We’re under attack! Time to fight, let’s go!” I shouted into the microphone of the helmet that was instantly on my head, meanwhile falling out of my chair onto my back and transitioning into a somersault.

Danger Sense skill increased to level seventy-nine!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred seven!

Medium Armor skill increased to level seventy!

Jump to the side! Roll! Use a metal stand as cover! I was acting on pure intuition, not thinking at all. And I was making the right moves! The wall where I was just standing melted a second after I got out of the way, subjected to dozens of shots from a very high-speed and destructive weapon – all three of the spiders were focusing on me, their most dangerous target. And they weren’t only using their guns, they were also attacking psionically. My head was humming, as if someone smacked it with a heavy bag. It was hard to think. Furthermore, the armor’s forcefield was down by fifteen percent. In the end I did take a couple hits.

The Annihilator appeared in my hand. Hit the Scanning icon! I need to know where my enemies are without peeking out from behind cover! Put markers on them!

Scanning skill increased to level sixty-three!

Targeting skill increased to level forty-two!

Oh! One of the enemies is right next to my cover! Fire! I jumped up and shot the Annihilator twice from three feet away. Miss! Miss! Meleyephatians move so quickly! The spider I was shooting practically point blank had some clever way to dodge, jumping to the side, then up and hanging from the ceiling, its clawed feet hooked into the lighting domes.

“Coruler! Kill this one while we hold it down!” came a blood-curdling scream from a level-116 human Shocktroop.

Three bloodied and injured La-Shin Faction troops were pinning a Meleyephatian to the floor and trying to pull the weapon from the spiny beast’s arms. Another Meleyephatian meanwhile was racing around the room, successfully dodging laser pistol bursts from Gerd Minn-O La-Fin and two other humans, shooting back all the while.

I evened out my breathing, aimed and, trying not to mind my two new chest wounds, shot the creature right in the head. And when I looked at the Spy being held against the ground, I noticed he was level 162 (!!!). I hit with the Annihilator at thirty feet!!! A personal record!

Medium Armor skill increased to level seventy-one!

Targeting skill increased to level forty-three!

Sharpshooter skill increased to level forty-four!

You have reached level ninety-four!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six).

Seems like slim experience for killing such a high-level enemy... Maybe the game system was splitting the experience between the four of us. Anyhow, I had no time to think. The Meleyephatian on the ceiling nimbly crawled right over me, spraying Gnat with fire from his two high-speed snub-nose laser rifles. My Energy Armor shield started to fall at a catastrophic rate. I rolled aside, trying to kill or at least repel the pesky enemy as I did, but it was like he was possessed. Miss! Miss! Miss! Miss!

The Annihilator battery lost all charge. I jumped back from the old cover, which was now all shot through and rolled again, taking shelter behind the corpses of Minn-O La-Fin and the girl with red braids, which were draped across an overturned chair. My arms were shaking with panic. I nearly dropped my reserve Annihilator battery. An alarm siren wailed through the ship to inform us that one of the sectors had lost pressure. The plastic ceiling panels caught fire, filling the state room with acrid black smoke. The automatic fire suppression system kicked into gear – all the doors automatically locked, cutting us off from the rest of the starship, and sending foamy water spraying out of the jets. Meanwhile, a stream of carbon dioxide gas was released from a set of slits that opened in the wall.

Danger Sense skill increased to level eighty!

“There won’t be any breathable air in here soon!” I shouted to my allies, just three of whom remained, immediately marking a now open cupboard in the wall for their benefit. “Oxygen masks on!”

I can’t say whether they understood me in the din of battle, but I suddenly had bigger concerns. The huge Meleyephatian sharply jumped off the ceiling, knocking me off my feet and pinning me to the ground with all his weight. Seemingly, he’d started doubting his ability to get through my Listener Energy Armor shield and decided to come in and bite my neck with his razor-sharp mandibles. But that was an error of the crudest variety. First of all, the ancient armor suit’s thick metal was not exactly the kind of thing you just casually bite through. Second, with him at absolute point blank, I did not miss! A massive hole the size of a soccer ball appeared in the giant spider’s chest plate. And my second shot split the dangerous foe’s carcass in two!

Medium Armor skill increased to level seventy-two!

Rifles skill increased to level sixty!

Sharpshooter skill increased to level forty-five!

I didn’t get another level-up, although my progress bar to ninety-five went up ninety percent from that one kill. I didn’t look at the dead enemy’s level, but it must not have been that high. All wet with water and covered in a sticky orange slime, I stood up and extended an arm toward the final enemy, who was lying on top of a bloodied human man and preparing to slice into him with his claws:

“Die, foul beast!”

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred five!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred eight!

You have reached level ninety-five!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: nine)

The giant spider in metal armor with a transparent hood on his head just stayed stock still, his two frontmost arms extended to land a finishing blow on the prostrate human. It was a miracle, but I saved the last of the eight La-Shin Faction players.

Timka-Vu. Human. La-Shin Faction. Level-112 Machinegunner.

Ugh... We could catch our breath a bit now – I was holding the enemy down tight, and still had more than enough Magic Points. Beyond the partitions, I could hear an active firefight and screaming. Despite the suddenness of the attack, a few crew members were still alive and offering resistance to the intruders. I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the other frigate sections, but the situation in the state room was under control.

“Timka, looks like you got lucky. You got rescued twice today.” I took a sturdy cord out of my inventory and threw it to the dark-skinned curly-haired boy, who was standing up and looking around in a daze, wearing absolutely threadbare clothing. “Take this and tie up that Meleyephatian’s arms while I hold him down! And don’t be too careful, just yank his arms behind his back! And hurry up before the other enemies come pay us a visit.”

Timka-Vu started twisting the Meleyephatian’s segmented arms with a crunch, seemingly breaking something and severing tendons. Yes it was cruel, but I didn’t know any other way to immobilize the dangerous eight-legged freak. Hmm... Something in the captured enemy’s face seemed dimly familiar. I took a closer look.

Successful Perception check!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level eighty-six!

Woah! I know this Meleyephatian! Although he was wearing a full set of silvery armor instead of a leather belt and red bandanna, and his name, class and level were totally different this was Wizzz 889, there could be no doubt. The very same stoned Programmer with bizarre mannerisms that fixed the Immolators for me!

By the way, speaking of the Immolators... Two of the three dangerous robots were not folded up, they were simply lying in the cargo hold in an inactive state. I could try to turn them on from a distance and send them against my enemies along with the Small Relict Guard Drone, which I couldn’t exactly locate at the moment. By the way, what was it actually doing without any commands from me? Odd... In theory, the Small Guard Drone should have been automatically attacking the Meleyephatians as soon as the game system identified them as enemies. But I never got any system messages to say it killed enemies, earned me skill-ups or anything. I opened the drones tab and everything became clear. The small drone on the starship was inactive. Either something had disabled it, or it had been totally destroyed. Seemingly, the Meleyephatians had taken the Pride of the Bushy Shadow’s negative experience into account and thought up a way of taking my trump card out of the game.

I’d have to manage without the ancient drone somehow. Especially given the shooting on the starship had practically fallen silent. There was just the odd lone shot coming from somewhere in the right fuselage of the double ship. One of my troops was still holding out over there. But nevertheless, there would be enemies coming into the state room at any moment. We needed to stop them or at least distract them somehow. But wouldn’t it be risky to turn on the Immolators, given one of the Meleyephatians attacking my ship set them up? It would, of course, though I doubted there would be any malware in the code. The false Programmer set up the robots a while ago, when no one was even thinking about evacuating Meleyephatians on my frigate. In fact, I didn’t even have this frigate yet! But something else had me afraid. The bulky and clumsy robots with their colossal firepower might just blast my fragile starship to smithereens. But still, I didn’t see any other way out.

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred one!

On my command, both of the usable Immolators got up and headed to leave the cargo hold. Based on the thundering blasts coming from the neighboring corridor, the metal door blocking the robots’ path had been blown away in a combined volley from their twelve plasma cannons. Ugh. I wish I knew what exactly was going on there so I could control the combat bots on my own rather than relying on their algorithms. If I were in my berth, I’d simply patch into the security camera system from the captain’s terminal. But now I’d have to invent another way... I tried to mentally access one of the robots’ video cameras.

Hard. I don’t even know how to go about trying. But just when I thought I was making some progress...

“Coruler Gnat La-Fin, the enemy has been tied up!”

Jesus God damn Christ! I was ready to strangle Timka-Vu with my own hands. He distracted me at the absolute worst time and broke my concentration. But I held back and, mentally counting to five, simply ordered the soldier to search the Meleyephatian, then take his weapon and anything else of any value. And meanwhile, the firefight on the ship started back up with renewed vigor!

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred two!

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred three!

You have reached level ninety-six!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: twelve).

Twelve points to spend!!! Excellent! And I hope that is not the end of it. So then, Immolators. Suppress and burn these spiders to ash! Show no mercy!

But just then... Three feet away, a new player entered the game. A short and scruffy Miyelonian in shining white armor holding two glimmering blades in his paws. The tom-cat got his bearings instantly, stashed his blades and stuck a gas mask on his snout. I couldn’t see the level or name of the soldier, but only members of the First Pride wore white armor. They were the best of the best, the elite of the Miyelonian armed forces. And that meant this big fluffy beast of the north had come to take down the Meleyephatian invaders. And based on the way the firefight increased in intensity throughout the starship, he hadn’t come alone.

Not paying any attention to the two surviving people, the First Pride soldier examined the bound prisoner efficiently. Gracefully, clearly knowing what he was doing, he opened the Meleyephatian’s helmet and stuck a cloth soaked in some intoxicant right between the dangerous mandibles of the prisoner’s lower jaw. The Meleyephatian fell silent right away, knocked out cold by either a narcotic or paralyzer. The Miyelonian then closed the prisoner’s helmet, walked over to a wall panel and opened the doors into the corridor with no hesitation.

“Timka, don’t you dare! He’s on our side!” I warned the foolish La-Shin Faction soldier, who was aiming his laser pistol at the Miyelonian’s back. “In fact, we’d better go help him!”

But they didn’t need our help. The battle was over very fast. The Scanning pictogram finally reloaded and I activated it, then familiarized myself with the results and shook my head in pity. Only three members of my crew were still alive on the frigate: boarding team commander Gerd T’yu-Pan the Shocktroop, new (though that depends on perspective) Gunner Gerd Eeeezzz 777, and the last of the three Kirsan repair bots, which managed to hide in a narrow utility cavity beneath the floor in the left fuselage.

* * *

I slowly walked the corridors of the blood-soaked starship, looking over the dead bodies of my comrades and the Meleyephatian raiders, studying the carnage and shaking my head grimly. Seven Meleyephatians were taken prisoner, including the one I captured. The leader of the Nest of the Horde Frontrunners himself then, Leng Sooweesssh Eleven we were not able to take alive. I found his body shot full of holes next to the corpses of Destroying Angel and Grim Reaper. I checked the loot right away. Such a high-level player as him might have had some very interesting stuff, but the only trophy that dropped was a silver band from an ancient Precursor signet. But it was missing the stone itself, which made it utterly useless. What a pity.

And as for my ace in the hole – the Small Relict Guard Drone was lying on the floor, having rolled behind some collapsed shelving. Externally, it was undamaged, though inactive. I’d hand it off to Kirsan to see what could be done. And right next to it was the body of Ayni. Honestly, I couldn’t tell whether the Miyelonian was in the game when she was killed or if the Meleyephatians shot her inactive avatar while the Translator was out calling in help. In any case, Gerd Ayni did her job and the First Pride got here before it was too late.

I also found the body of the dark-furred Journalist Gerd Undi Ar Miyeyauu beside her bloodied video camera, which was still recording. At first I wanted to erase everything because there could potentially be compromising material. But I changed my mind. She died a hero’s death and pursued her journalistic endeavor to the very end. To my eye, that meant Gerd Undi had earned the material on her camera. I turned it off and put it in my inventory. I’ll give it to her next time we meet.

And then I came across the first survivor. It hurt to look at boarding team commander Gerd T’yu-Pan. There wasn’t even a scrap of undamaged flesh left on him with all the tear wounds and laser hits. His armor was torn to shreds and the Shocktroop’s life bar was pulsating in the range of one or two percent. Nevertheless, when he saw his captain, he tried to stand but the First Pride Miyelonian Medic attending to him shouted not to be ignorant and to get back down.

Gunner Eeeezzz 777 meanwhile I discovered at his workstation. Huge even by Meleyephatian standards, the blue-chitined veteran was huge. He removed his armor, which was shot through in several places and was laying a sticky medical tape over the two stumps where his left lower legs once had been. Even with six legs, it looked like a challenge, so I offered to help, which the Meleyephatian accepted. When I asked whether he might need to see our professional Medic, Eeeezzz 777 responded in badly broken Miyelonian:

“Captain not worry no for reason. Nothing. Business as usual. I live through worse. Leg to grow back. I shoot cannon again soon.”

I turned my attention to the four bodies of the Meleyephatian trespassers in the nearest corridor and residential berth. The three-hundred-year veteran Eeeezzz 777, despite his Meleyephatian race, remained true to his captain and resisted the incoming aggressors with verve. I also noticed that the Miyelonian troopers were not touching the Meleyephatian Gunner and basically were doing their best to pretend he wasn’t here.

On the captain’s bridge, which the ship’s automatic security system tried to stop me from entering with a warning about pressure loss and other possible risks, chaos and devastation reigned. The monitors were smashed to pieces and covered in claw marks and gunshots. The bodies of Ayukh and the two pilots were both entirely desiccated and frozen. There were also some icy chunks of unidentifiable flesh strewn about... seemingly the remains of the Jarg. And the wall facing the cargo hold had a big hole in it. Seemingly that was the Immolators being a bit too zealous, or perhaps a grenade. But worst of all was the wall-screen, which had been broken straight through in several places, leaving nothing behind it but the vacuum of space. And that was how the air had been sucked out of three of the frigate’s sectors. Fortunately, the corridors of the combat ship were fitted with airlocks, so the rest of the ship still had adequate pressure. I walked closer and examined the holes up close. I pulled out one of the triangular quills stuck in the wall very carefully and looked at it. So it was the force of the Jarg’s explosion...

A Kirsan wriggled out of somewhere (not the white one, one of the two simply metal ones) and also started studying the holes with its many mechanical little eyes and even stuck its thin arms into the holes. I pointed the repair bot to the dangerous quill in my hand and the holes in the body of the ship:

“Do this first. The holes need to be patched up, then make sure you collect all these dangerous poison-covered little scales and burn them in the trash incinerator. And remind me when we get to the next decent station to buy some enamel paint. I’m gonna paint you green so I can tell you apart from the other one.”

Then I left the repair bot and depressurized sector behind and headed to find the leaders of the Miyelonian elite squadron. We had to discuss what to do next. But first I came across San-Sano. The pigtailed redhead had seemingly set her respawn point on my ship and already come back. When I asked about that, she smiled in embarrassment:

“Coruler, it was much worse on the Kurimiru shuttle. Death there was assured, and it would be an arduous and torturous way to go. So all our people set their respawn points on your frigate as soon as they had the chance. The others will be here a bit after me. I just got sent in first to see...”

“Whether you’d die?” I finished her sentence. “Did you know that the gallant ‘ladies first’ tradition dates back to the stone age? When big strong warriors wanted to check if a cave contained a bear or saber-toothed tiger, they’d send one of the weaker women in first. How many millennia have passed, yet nothing has changed!”

I wanted to leave the engineer girl and go look for the commander of the Miyelonian squadron, but he found me first. The short but wiry Miyelonian came up the spiral staircase and stopped a step away from me wearing an armored space suit which for some reason was not white but blood red.

“Well met! I see Leng Gnat that you are alive and still wearing my trophy on your helmet. What can I say? It’s nice to see!”

Authority increased to 78!

What? Did we know each other? I only had two trophy tails on my helmet: one from the swindler at the Medu-Ro IV casino and another from Kung Keetsie’s fiancé. As far as I knew, neither of them served in the First Pride. I’ll admit, I was somewhat at a loss. The Miyelonian removed his helmet, and I finally saw the space cat’s name appear over his head:

Gerd Lekku. Miyelonian. Pride of the Sharp Claw. Level-193 Brawler.

Well, well! So it was Kung Keetsie-Myau’s husband-to-be. I hope Gerd Lekku won’t demand satisfaction after I forced that tattoo on him. And why was he here instead of at the Great One’s side? I didn’t try and act clever, just asked both questions directly.

“Satisfaction? Are you joking, Gnat? The thing you did changed me from one of Keetsie’s fifty odd admirers into her only one! I owe you bigtime! And as for why I’m here... The commander was informed about a group of enemy Spies tracking her fleet on Kasti-Utsh III and trying to leave the station on a frigate belonging to a man by the name of Gnat. I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that the Great One has been following you with great interest and sometimes even intervenes in your fate. So I didn’t wait for Keetsie to send one of her officers to arrest the Meleyephatian spies. I just volunteered. And it was the right move. Keetsie was very grateful... In fact, I was surprised just how much she appreciated it.”

The fearsome Brawler fell silent and gave a satisfied purr. Clearly his memories of his last interaction with Kung Keetsie were pleasant. I didn’t have anything to add and, after a brief pause, Gerd Lekku continued:

“The Great One gave me a team of twelve soldiers from her personal guard. The information we were given led us to believe we’d be facing around ten opponents, but it turned out to be several times more. But it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. It’s just a pity we couldn’t capture the ringleader. Some fool on your team sent him to respawn. But Leng Sooweesssh Eleven will respawn on the Kasti-Utsh station somewhere, so he’s as good as captured...”

Gerd Lekku cut off midsentence because our starship gave a sudden jerk, then another. Notes of hysteria were added to the even hum of our thrusters. And the squealing sounded somehow foreign. What is going on?

Danger Sense skill increased to level eighty-one!

“I know that sound!” commented the Brawler, his ears perked up. “Our starship has been caught in a stasis net, and the hyperdrive blocked.”

Damn! Just what I needed! I turned on the microphone and told the Gunner to take his seat at the laser cannons.

“Wait Gnat. There’s no need for shooting yet!” the Brawler stopped me. “They clearly don’t mean to destroy the frigate, but capture it. Otherwise they’d already be shooting. I want to see the crazed moron planning to board a ship with the First Pride inside!”


Chapter Twenty-Five. Enemy of the Horde

“LEVEL ONE HUNDRED ninety three! Coruler, did you see that?!” the Engineer girl couldn’t hold back an astonished comment right after the Miyelonian Brawler left to gather his team.

The redhead’s spontaneity had begun to amuse me. I think I really will keep San-Sano in the crew. If of course she’s worth anything as an Engineer.

“I’ve seen higher-level and stronger players. I even defeated that same one before. See, his tail is pinned to my helmet.”

“Wow!” she said, only just having noticed the Miyelonian trophy tails. “It’s cool that you... But Coruler, what’s happening? Why are all the Miyelonians running around like crazy?”

As a matter of fact, the group of five First Pride troops in high-tech armored white spacesuits was dashing past us toward the docking airlock with blades in their back sheathes and guns in their hands.

“They’re preparing for battle,” I answered with all the ambivalence I could muster. “Our starship is just about to get boarded and the Miyelonians are getting ready to greet the invaders.”

“Well, well!” San-Sano led a gaze over another group of Miyelonians who were rushing and reloading their weapons as they walked. “It’s fun out here in space. You never get bored. Don’t you think I should... you know... have some kind of weapon so I can help defend the starship?”

“You?” I couldn’t hold back a smile. “Are you a Space Commando or Shocktroop? No? Then best leave that to the professionals. Those Miyelonians in white are the best hand-to-hand fighters in the Universe and will be just fine without you. Better you run over to the power unit and shield generator,” I said, motioning down the corridor and even placing markers on the devices. “There’s a very intricate coupling between the units there and your mission is to keep it all in working order. Honestly, everything is written in Meleyephatian and Miyelonian, but with good Intelligence and high enough skills, you’ll be able to figure it out. So go study the ship systems, given you’re now the only Engineer on our frigate. If you can handle that, then consider yourself part of the team.”

San-Sano shrieked for joy and shot off like a bullet. I then strolled through the frigate. The corpses from the recent battle were already disappearing one after the next, but the traces of destruction remained. Walls shot full of holes, doors blasted off their hinges, damaged hardware. We’d have to go back in for repair, which was turning into a nasty tradition. Although, maybe I could get the Union of Miyelonian Prides to shell out for it? After all, that was my condition for bringing their soldiers in to detain the Meleyephatian Horde’s spies. Honestly, that was all merely spoken, and I didn’t ever get any written confirmation from the Miyelonians. Thinking those unhappy thoughts, I walked over to the gunner cabin of the right fuselage.

Gunner Eeeezzz 777 had already taken his place despite the amputated limbs. The other Gunner position was taken by a First Pride soldier, whose name and game class I couldn’t see. I walked up closer to the gunners, wondering if the monitors were still alright. Well, well. Would you look at that! Even though everything had been blasted to smithereens on the captain’s bridge, and it was utterly impossible to steer the ship from there, a large portion of the frigate’s hardware was still in operation, namely the locators and targeting systems. And the targeting system monitors were precisely how I finally managed to see what was going on in nearby space.

The Kurimiru shuttle, abandoned by its crew was drifting slowly away from Tamara the Paladin, already at a distance of two hundred fifty miles. But I saw three new markers that were much closer. A landing module big enough to hold ten or twelve soldiers was quickly approaching our frigate. Meanwhile, one hundred twenty miles from Tamara the Paladin on a course parallel to ours were two small starships: a Tiopeo-Myhh II interceptor, and a Shiamiru shuttle for some reason, though it had been reoutfitted from the standard cargo-passenger model into some semblance of a combat ship. I couldn’t believe my eyes. These pirates really had some nerve. Two ships of such a small size could fit a crew of fifteen to twenty players at best. And they had come to capture a twinbody frigate, which should have been crewed by a team of forty fighters? And that was to say nothing of my ship’s incomparably greater firepower!

“Get ready to shoot the interceptor on my command!” I said into the microphone, addressing all gunners on the frigate, both on the right and left sides. “I’ll place a targeting marker, toss on a stasis net and hyperdrive blocker so the interceptor can’t get away. After we destroy the Tiopeo-Myhh II, turn right to the Shiamiru.”

Eeeezzz 777 verbally confirmed he received the order. The First Pride player then raised his right paw to signal that he had also heard my command.

Authority increased to 79!

The frigate gave a light shudder, meaning the boarding shuttle had touched down. These dumbshits couldn’t figure out how to get wet in a rainstorm! They didn’t even reduce speed before landing! They’re gonna break off my docking node like that! But before the pirates started cutting into my plating with their plasma torches, I took out my captain’s tablet and opened the third docking airlock to let our “guests” inside.

What next? The time had come! I had been preparing for a while and, right after opening the airlock, I activated my frigate’s combat electronics. I could have also been controlling this via the captain’s tablet, but I preferred to work mentally. At this point I was just more accustomed to it, and it used a larger number of skills, which helped me level.

Target markers on both enemy ships! A stasis net on the interceptor! Block the enemy’s hyperspace drive!

“Fire!!!”

Targeting skill increased to level forty-four!

Electronics skill increased to level eighty-five!

Sharpshooter skill increased to level forty-six!

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred six!

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred four!

You have reached level ninety-seven!

You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: fifteen).

Gorgeous! A combined volley from nine laser cannons made the enemy interceptor bloom like a flower of fire, lighting up near space with the flash of a nuclear explosion when their power unit blew. The nine hits might have been enough to take down the light interceptor on their own but, based on the Sharpshooter skill boost, I also landed a crit. That worked out great!

Now to direct my combat electronics at the Shiamiru... Son of a bitch! We weren’t fast enough! As if it was already in a low take-off state, the shuttle stretched out in a long line of light, entering a hyperspace tunnel. That pilot must have had high Danger Sense, no two ways about it.

But I didn’t sulk. The pirate ships were out of our hair, and that was what mattered! Now we needed to deal with the landing party. I took the Miyelonian Journalist’s video camera out of my inventory and ran over to the third docking airlock, which the pirates were just about to crawl out of. Yes, that was no mistake! I didn’t get my weapon ready, because I understood perfectly well that this would not be a battle as such. But I did think it would be good to get footage of the fearsome pirates bursting into the ship hooting and hollering only to find themselves face to face with the fearsome First Pride.

Oh wow, very flashy! The fifteen stock-still and tense Miyelonians were standing in two rows, the first kneeling. Before them was a unidirectional forcefield flickering with multicolored sparks. Their fifteen barrels were aimed at the metal hatch, and its handle was already turning to open the airlock door. I got a better grip on the camera so I wouldn’t miss the action. Okay, here we go!

A powerful blow blasted the hatch open, and three whooping Miyelonians ran into the corridor then immediately fell to the floor all at once. The tone of their hollering immediately shifted from threatening cry to howl of pain. By all appearances, the trio had been attempting to make a quick burst and get behind the ship’s defenders, but slammed painfully into the forcefield, perhaps breaking some bones in the process.

The ten pirates that followed them – one huge Geckho, two armored Trillians and seven Miyelonians, all of them from the Pride of the Bushy Shadow – proved more cautious and didn’t rush in. But the look on their snouts when they saw the well-prepared First Pride was in a league all its own! Different space races, different facial muscles, but still the expression of distress on their snouted faces looked very similar. And no, there was no fear, not even a little bit. They just looked surprised, disappointed and most of all mad at the injustice of fate – they were counting on a rich haul and capturing a valuable starship, but all they got was a massive let-down!

I had seen similar visages just once in my life – on me and my two university friends when we all showed up to the birthday party of a common acquaintance, a female classmate with loose morals. She promised us a fun night with wine, dancing and lots of pretty girls. But we didn’t have a pass to get into her dormitory, so we waited until dark then climbed up to a second-story cornice where the girls had left a corridor window propped open for us to get around the ill-tempered watch-lady downstairs. Once we got inside, we started proudly strutting toward their room with shouts of joy. There was loud music coming from inside and... we ran straight into the disgruntled dormitory headmaster and two police officers who had come after a neighbor complained about the noise.

“Weapons on the floor!” Gerd Lekku commanded, and none of the pirates dared disobey.

Just the leader of the attack remained standing with blades in hand. I knew him well. It was Gerd Abi Pan-Miay, aka Big Abi, leader of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow. I saw the fearsome Brawler, fiancé of the Great One, grow stern and give a threatening squint. He was not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. Big Abi had just half a second left to live.

“Wait!” I shouted, stepping out in front, the unidirectional forcefield letting me through without the least bit of resistance. “The pirate leader would be happy to surrender and drop his weapons, but I’m controlling his mind. Gerd Lekku, wait a second. I have a small personal matter to attend to with Big Abi.”

The red-armored fighter lowered his barrel, and his example was followed by the other Miyelonian defenders.

Authority increased to 80!

For starters, I took the limply frozen pirate leader’s always swanky scimitars from his paws. Say what you like, but this tomcat knew his way around a blade! Now Gerd Ayni would be getting a set of magnificent daggers to compliment the ones already owned by Tini my kitten and Imran the Gladiator. I stashed the valuable weapons in my inventory and, checking the video cameras one last time, walked a circle around the pirate leader, getting a close-up of his snarling face. The white-garbed Miyelonians next to me were already tying up the other pirates, tightening plastic ties around their paws and placing an adhesive strip laced with paralyzing toxin on their snouts. I then was savoring my moment of triumph:

“I was worried after the official war between the Relict Faction and the Pride of the Bushy Shadow ended without me and Big Abi getting to meet in person. But here I get a personal visit. What a delight! And you’re attacking my frigate in open space, by the same token unbinding my hands! What you said before about duels between psionics and melee fighters was absolutely correct. But where’s you’re mental protection now, Gerd Abi? Where at the very least is your tinfoil hat, or stockpot helmet? Instead you... aha! Changed into some fancier rings for the Agility bonuses!”

I did not hesitate to enrich my stock of “magic jewelry” with his two +2 Agility gold rings. Not a bad haul! After stashing the valuable loot, I continued my monologue into the microphone:

“In my world, we have something called the Darwin Awards. Every year they get handed out to the person who accidentally caused their own death in the stupidest way. This year, I suppose the top candidate will be leader of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow, Gerd Abi Pan-Miay. You really should have thought it through before deciding to try and board a starship loaded with First Pride warriors! And this dunce came raring for a fight with a psionic, but took absolutely no precautions and brought no mental protection! Just look at the way you’ve been pulverized, Big Abi! You used to have a whole fleet, a pirate pride of your own that was feared and respected. But now you come to attack with nothing but one interceptor and a hastily refit cargo ship! What, did your treasure trove on the ice comet in the C9004/AW system run dry? That’s right, I know about your secret treasure. Your own pirates told me their captain’s secret, hoping I’d give them a share. And have no doubts – your hiding spot has already been cleared out.”

I was purposely mocking the fearsome pirate to make him think about his hidden treasure, the coordinates of which we had found on a piece of plastic and then worked out with Navigator Ayukh. I wanted to know whether there was anything left there, or if Big Abi already gone and got it.

“Hate. Burning, immolating. An enemy until the end of my days. I’ll get my revenge, even if it kills me! An image of a small heavenly body, a shard of a planetoid. Ice. The cold of space. An aura of debris particles travelling almost at the speed of light sparkling around a small black hole. Yes, there. Not too deep. Frozen in ice. A container of...”

Aw, dammit! The mental link was broken before I got to the most important part – what was the valuable object hidden in the pirate’s treasure? But I had bigger concerns than reading my captive’s mind. Gerd Abi was doing everything in his power to free himself from the invisible shackles. He was prepared to break all his bones if that was what it took! I had to put all my effort forward to keep control over the mind of the raving captive. But I did understand the biggest part: based on his fitful bursts and the stream of burning hatred directed at me, there must have been something still hidden beneath the surface of the ice asteroid. Okay then, we’d have to fly over to the neighboring star system and check it out. But for now... I picked up the knife and cut off the pirate leader’s tail very carefully, at the very root:

Tail of Gerd Abi Pan-Miay, level-151 Starship Pilot (trophy).

 

ATTENTION!!! Gerd Abi Pan-Miay’s danger rating has fallen to seven!

Fame increased to 91.

I saw no sense in continuing to hold him mentally and handed the wailing pirate leader off into the competent paws of the First Pride. They quickly twisted his arms, cuffed him and “switched him off” by placing a tranquilizing adhesive strip on his tongue. Gerd Lekku promised me that the dangerous pirate would not be in a state to do anything or go into the real world for the next four to five days. From there, the courts would decide his fate. Considering the conclusive evidence of his attacking a neutral starship, the head of the pirate pride risked a lengthy prison term. But if his bank account had enough crypto in it, he might get away with just a large fine. In any case, I had five days at the very least to repair my starship and visit the pirate treasure.

“Captain, we is have Miyelonian guest!” The voice in my helmet belonged to Meleyephatian Gunner Gerd Eeeezzz 777. I hurried over to the monitor.

Okay then, that was easy to predict. The nuclear blast in space caught someone’s attention, and a squad of Miyelonian fighter ships from Kasti-Utsh III was already heading in our direction.

Gerd Lekku had a talk with station leadership, which I was not present for. The Great One’s fiancé told me only the result of their discussion: my frigate Tamara the Paladin would be towed with all prisoners on board to the Kasti-Utsh III space station and allowed to skip the line. Once inside, the repair would be carried out with Miyelonian funds.

My ship was already being dragged down the station’s maneuver tunnel by the gravity crane when a flickering bright red portion of system messages appeared before my eyes:

ATTENTION!!! The Meleyephatian Horde’s opinion of Free Captain Leng Gnat has fallen to the level of “hate!” You are no longer allowed to enter Meleyephatian Horde space. Henceforth, access to all space stations and planets belonging to the Meleyephatians and all their vassals will be denied! If you come across any Meleyephatian Horde ships in space, your starship will be attacked on sight!

 


Chapter Twenty-Six. Saving Valeri

IT WAS PROBABLY inevitable. The Prelates of Tailax, and their overlords in the Meleyephatian Horde were no fools, and I wouldn’t have managed to keep up the charade forever. It was just a shame that they uncovered it so early. I was hoping to string them along for another month or two, winning some time for myself and new technologies for Earth. It was a shame that it didn’t work out. Forty percent of the known star systems in the galaxy were off limits to me now? Oh well! Outer space is infinite, so I’m sure I’ll find plenty of room for me and my starship.

I wasn’t worried for myself one bit. However, all my thoughts immediately turned to the pretty girl with massive eyes. The Tailaxian prison-guards were fully capable of finding and killing her through the implants in her body and that went for both the virtual and real worlds. I suspect that if I had ever once expressed even a hint of interest in Valeri, she would already have been dead. Both as punishment for her failing to recruit me, and to teach me a lesson.

Valeri-Urla was in the game now. I got in touch with my business partner Gerd Uline Tar and asked her to assemble the whole crew in hangar 6-103, where my frigate had been stationed for repair. She immediately told me that Denni Marko considered his contract complete and left us with the words: “To hell with the pirate life! I’m sick of constantly dying!” Denni tried to get Nefertiti to come with him, and the NPC Dryad considered it but, in the end, decided to stay with her husband Kisly the Machinegunner. Not a word was spoken about Valeri. And if someone else from the crew was missing, Uline Tar would certainly have mentioned it.

And then, finally, hangar 6-103. Much more spacious than the ones the dispatchers gave us before. The two fuselages meant we needed more space than an ordinary frigate, so it was a welcome change. Without waiting for the ship to come to a complete stop and lower the gangway, I opened the main hatch and gracefully hopped down the seven feet to the metal floor. I walked over to my team, who were standing at attention in a neat line, and started my speech with some scathing words:

“You all deserve a horseradish-lubed halligan bar shoved up your asses! Are you a team of professionals, or a paltry band of whipping boys? Why is it that after every fight, no matter how brief, the only survivors are me and Gerd T’yu-Pan along with another random crew member or two? Greasy hooker’s ass! Why do the rest of you just drop like flies?”

I saw my crew lower their heads under my heavy gaze. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Little Sister the Shadow Panther stealing up behind me, but she stopped herself and decided to come play with me when I was in a better mood. Even the two respawned Kirsan repair bots could sense my state and, their many arms folded across their chest, were keeping their heads down.

“Repair this at once!” I said, tossing them the Small Relict Guard Drone, which was still malfunctioning for some reason, and the metal millipedes hurried into the frigate with the drone as not to test their captain’s patience.

“Valeri, fall out of formation! I’m going to need you soon so I can try to send an important message to the Prelates of Tailax through you.”

Whew! It felt like a heavy stone had fallen off my soul. For some reason I had absolutely no doubt that Valeri’s Tailaxian prison-guards were currently watching me via the implants in her body. And meanwhile deciding whether the best time to kill their prisoner was with everyone watching to prove a point. When I said I had an important message, they heard that and stayed the girl’s execution for a time. Okay, I’ll have to try and use that.

I walked down the line again, trying to look each of them in the eyes. I stopped in front of Destroying Angel and Grim Reaper. The German brother and sister pair’s levels had grown explosively! They’d almost caught up to me!

“None of these biting words apply to the two of you. I’m perfectly satisfied with your performance. Sure you didn’t survive but, by some miracle you managed to take down a high-profile level-207 Spy before you died. When I saw the ghastly Meleyephatian ringleader’s corpse, it looked like a screen door!”

But as for Kisly, Svetlana Vereshchagina, Imran, Eduard and all the other soldiers I was decidedly unhappy, and said so openly. No matter how sudden the Meleyephatian attack may have been, that was why I had fighters in my crew – so they could quickly respond to threats and offer resistance! I survived killing two attackers, and took another one captive. Meanwhile, the whole rest of the crew was only able to take down five Meleyephatians, and three of them were killed by newcomer Eeeezzz 777. That was a shameful result. I might even call it humiliating!

I sharply fell silent because the gangway came down behind me and the eight rescued La-Shin Faction soldiers came down. No matter how great my dismay may have been, I was not going to dress down my team in front of outsiders. This was strictly between us and none of their business!

However, not all eight of the La-Shin Faction players were outsiders as such:

“Gerd Uline, come over here! The redhead,” I pointed at San-Sano, who had already scared up a light spacesuit to replace her thin cotton clothing, “sign her up to our crew as second Engineer and assistant to Orun Va-Mart. She has proved herself quite intelligent. In fact, she was able to figure out how the synchronized power units were setup all on her own. We need clever minds such as hers. And have Gerd Ayni bring the others to hangar 8-505. We rented a Shiamiru shuttle there to transport cargo to the Relict Faction. Have the Translator tell the captain to bring them to Earth and let them out at the Geckho spaceport. And then start trying to sell the rare-earth metals we captured. I need those five boxes of lanthanoids and other goods sold within one day!”

Much to my surprise, curly-haired Machinegunner Timka-Vu stepped out in front. He didn’t speak a word of Geckho but somehow understood we were talking about him among other things. The muscular dark-skinned guy in torn black and green clothing got down on one knee and began:

“Coruler Gnat La-Fin! I most humbly request you take me with you as well! I am a capable and fearless warrior, a great shot and I have won several Army competitions in un-gaki, a kind of martial art. I am prepared to swear allegiance to house La-Fin. And I promise you will not regret it if you deign to take me in!”

Intriguing. Very intriguing... I looked at the leader of the boarding team, but Gerd T’yu-Pan just shrugged his shoulders indefinitely. He didn’t know anything about the Machinegunner and thus could not give an answer.

“Can you tell me about un-gaki?” I asked, wanting at least one question answered. And I got a long-winded detailed reply that un-gaki was a form of no-rules fighting that used a wooden slat as a stand-in for a knife along with hands and feet. A “knife” to the eyes or heart counted as a fatal blow, and the receiving fighter would be eliminated. The rules permitted strangling and submission holds, as well as matches with more than one fighter. And that could take the form of “team versus team” or “everyone for themselves.”

Okay then, my interest was piqued! Of the eight La-Shin Faction players we rescued, Timka-Vu was the only one to survive the Meleyephatian attack. I’d have to test how good he really was and see whether I saved him by coincidence or it was a sign.

“You’ll fight against two warriors at once,” I suggested to the level-112 Machinegunner. “If you can take them, you’re in. Captain’s word! If you can’t, you’ll be sent to Earth along with the others. Do you accept my conditions?”

Successful Authority check!

The dark-skinned athlete pulled off his torn shirt in silence and started flexing his wrists. I ordered my team to form a thirty-foot-diameter circle, then ran my gaze over them. I figured choosing Gerd T’yu-Pan the Shocktroop as an opponent for Timka would be too harsh. The experienced veteran was a big bruiser. He would tear the young Machinegunner to shreds even one-on-one. Gerd Ayni or one of the Miyelonians? That wouldn’t even be a fight, just a series of fast movements and stabs to the back. What about Imran? The Dagestani sambo fighter had raised a hand to volunteer. And my wayedda Minn-O also raised her hand next to the Gladiator. So, my wife wants to limber up and prove herself? Why not? Her pregnancy isn’t all that far along. The child won’t be harmed. I announced my decision:

“Up against Timka-Vu will be Princess Minn-O La-Fin and Vasha Tushihh!”

The huge furry Vasha gave a satisfied rumble and entered the circle. Minn-O changed out of her usual spacesuit into a form-fitting track suit. However, the dark-skinned fighter’s reaction was as instantaneous as it was unexpected: Timka-Vu... laid down on his back, admitting defeat!

“I could never hit Minn-O the magess. She’s a member of the La-Fin ruling dynasty! I’d be hanged for that back home,” the Machinegunner explained.

Damn! Again I had overlooked a peculiarity of the magocratic world. Did that mean all Minn-O’s trainers and phy ed instructors in childhood were court mages? After all, someone must have taught the Princess to fight. But Timka-Vu was clearly not a court mage, so I had to tweak my choices:

“Imran and Vasha Tushihh! Uh, no!” I stopped Timka-Vu from taking out his wooden knife. “And all three will be using real blades!”

* * *

It was amazing! The battle had everyone on tenterhooks from the first second all the way to the last. And that with the fact that Timka-Vu very nearly lost right at the beginning, when Vasha Tushihh displayed surprising speed for his four-hundred-fifty-pound bodyweight, got up next to the dark-skinned fighter and grabbed him by the shoulder with a clawed paw. Blood spattered. Raising the human body over his head with a roar and holding it in his outstretched paws for several seconds to the jubilant cries of the audience, the massive Geckho threw Timka-Vu forcefully back-first onto the hangar’s metal floor. The thundering crash was so loud I figured the dark-skinned fighter was dead. But no! The level-112 Machinegunner’s life bar fell into the orange, but he still had thirty hitpoints left. Cripes! I would have died if someone threw me like that!

Meanwhile, the enraged Geckho discovered much to his surprise that his opponent was still kicking and let out a war cry, then forcefully slammed his heavy right fist into the fallen Timka’s stomach, knocking the wind out of the dark-skinned fighter. The blow was as forceful as could be! But Timka was still alive, and Vasha meanwhile... froze in fear when a steel blade came to a stop one millimeter from his eye.

“Vasha Tushihh is eliminated!” I declared and immediately stopped Imran, who was already getting a better grip on his knife, about to finish off his barely moving enemy. “Break! Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa, stop the wounded fighter’s blood loss!”

Vasha, upset, stood heavily and shuffled over to the audience where his crewmates gave him approving pats on the back. While the nimble Miyelonian Medic fussed around closing up the tear wounds on the dark-skinned fighter’s shoulder, I took a thermos from my inventory containing a cocktail for restoring Endurance Points.

“Timka, catch!”

The Machinegunner sitting on the floor got his bearings, extended a hand and caught the flying vessel, giving a clear demonstration that his coordination was just fine despite the fresh wounds. He opened it, sucked greedily at the thermos and, a few seconds later, threw it back empty.

“Thank you, Coruler! I’m ready to continue!”

Timka-Vu stood decisively despite the fluffy Medic’s objections and walked into the center of the ring. The audience greeted the return of the dark-skinned fighter with shouts of elation and applause. Even Imran bowed in respect, expressing reverence for his rival’s determination and bravery.

What came next was a series of repositionings, blows and blocks interspersed with the sound of metal clinking on metal. The Dagestani’s agile slicing very nearly brought the fight to an end, but Timka dodged against all odds, avoiding a stab to the chest by falling to the floor and rolling. Imran’s serrated blade meanwhile went in up to the very handle and got stuck, embedded in a floor grate. The Gladiator’s next unarmed minute was rough going, but you don’t earn the rank of “Sambo Master” for nothing! It’s has great techniques for fighting empty-handed against a knife! And soon Timka’s dagger flew out of the circle, knocked away by a spin kick. After another series of blows, I announced another break because now both fighters needed medical attention.

“I think that’s enough!” I voiced my decision. “Timka-Vu has proven himself worthy of joining our team. Gerd Uline Tar, sign him on!”

Shouts of delight rang out from all directions. Even the repairmen sent down by the dispatchers at the hangar entrance were whooping for joy, expressing their approval of the hard-fought battle. And they started congratulating the dark-skinned sweat- and blood-soaked fighter right away. The crew of Tamara the Paladin greeted its new member very warmly. I then sent a mental message to Medic Gerd Mauu-La:

“As soon as you’re done with these two, go over to the long-distance communications cabin at the end of the hall. And don’t forget to take your flying coffin of tools with you. The time has come for the complex operation to remove all implants from the Beastmaster’s body.”

The orange Medic gave a nod of comprehension without turning his big-eared head in my direction. Great! Then I called Valeri and, in an even tone, said that her and I needed to go to the nearest long-distance communication cabin to talk with Tailax because the Meleyephatian Horde was reacting “very strangely.”

Five minutes later I was standing at an automatic terminal and, casually blocking it from Valeri’s view with my body, paid for a whole ummi in the cabin. Yes, it cost a pretty penny. But Valeri’s life was worth incomparably more to me!

Once inside the long-distance communication cabin with its constantly changing fluid-like walls, totally cut-off from the outside world, I explained to Valeri what we were really doing. I was worried the proud Beastmaster would just laugh my fears off, but the Tailaxian girl wasn’t the least bit surprised:

“You know, Gnat, I could sense something was up! I’ve been feeling an ache in my chest all day. I even went to Mauu-La for a consultation. I thought I was having heart troubles. My Danger Sense improved three times as well, but there was never an obvious reason... I guess that means my prison-guards sentenced me to death as a punishment for failing to recruit you. Thankfully, I’m safe here inside the long-distance communications cabin. But I won’t be able to stay here forever!”

I told Valeri about the operation I’d been planning with the experienced Miyelonian Medic to remove her implants. I even turned on my Prospector Scanner and showed her the placement of all the microcapsules on the three-dimensional image. The Beastmaster was intrigued and spent a long time staring at the diagram of her body, turning it every which way. Then she laughed:

“So, I guess you were peeking when I was swimming nude in the sea by Rocky Island. Secretly taking pictures of a naked girl... Shame on you! Pervert! Okay, I’m joking. Sorry captain. I’m just very nervous. After all, you probably know this but no one has ever successfully removed all the tracking microcapsules before. Tailax is famed for it – the invisible leash its intelligence services put around their prisoners’ necks is impossible to remove. One wrong move and... kaboom! My heart’s in tatters or a lethal poison is coursing through my veins. And after all, in my case the operation will have to be carried out twice – first in the game, then in the real world! But I still agree to risk it.”

She crouched down and extended an arm into empty space. A moment later, Little Sister was right there, presenting her neck for her master to stroke. The Beastmaster spent a long time staring into her pet’s eyes, sending a mental message to the Shadow Panther. Then out loud, so I would hear, she said:

“Be a nice girl until I get back. Do what this man says. And if I never come back...” Valeri took a sigh of pity, little tears quivering out of her huge hazel eyes. “Then Gnat will be your new master!”


Chapter Twenty-Seven. Electronics and Medicine

THE OPERATION was entering its eighth hour. I just had to pay for another ummi on the long-distance communication cabin, because our time was almost up. At first I was sitting in the nearest automatic cafe, sating my hunger with Miyelonian treats and watching the local news on a big screen. Then I moved to the captain’s berth in my frigate. The Miyelonian Medic forbid me from being with him in the long-distance communication cabin, saying he had to maintain a sterile environment, so I had no idea how the operation to remove all Valeri’s tracking microcapsules was going.

On the ship though, repair was in full swing. The clanging, the shrieking of metal being cut and smell of slag reached me even in the captain’s berth, which had not been damaged in the Meleyephatian attack. Princess Minn-O couldn’t take all the noise and exited into the real world. The other crew members also tried to request leave to exit the game but I exercised my authority and sent everyone not involved in the repairs to the shooting range. I’d had enough of seeing my crewmembers’ corpses after every firefight! Let them train at the firing range, level their skills, improve their survival chances and learn to work together as a team!

Now I was regretting that I didn’t have Fox with me. She really knew how to make people sweat their guts out! No messing around or goofing off with her. The deadly Morphian was quick to punish for disobedience and had a perfect awareness of all her students’ health and endurance levels. That made it a bad idea to act smart or try and save strength. Fox was the ideal trainer, making people push themselves to the point of exhaustion, and spar to the verge of death. Gerd T’yu-Pan and Svetlana Vereshchagina could conduct classes too, of course, but they were no competition for the ghoulish space fox.

But I stayed put and didn’t go to the shooting range with the others. First of all, I was currently undergoing my required uninterrupted three-days in game before I could change my virt pod location. A chance death in that time would be extremely bad. Second, I figured Gerd Mauu-La the Medic might need me at any moment.

The wall screen was showing a rerun of the local Kasti-Utsh III news. I frowned and turned off the monitor, because I’d already seen the leader of the Pride of the Sweet Voice’s “masterpiece.” What a bitch that Journalist was! To pervert and warp material like that! There wasn’t a single word about me or my crew. And meanwhile, the only reason I brought Gerd Undi Ar Miyeyauu on that flight was to raise the Fame of myself and my crew!

According to the dark-furred Journalist, she was working off a hint sent in by fans who worked for station security. Detecting a sensation with her journalistic sixth sense, the Miyelonian snuck onto the starship where a special operation was being planned to detain a Meleyephatian spy ring. And the video clip I shot showing the First Pride ready to repel the attack was included. Yes, it was powerful footage, but Gerd Undi took credit for the scenes and her journalistic success. The rest of the video was quite erratic – fussing around, guns firing, the camera falling on the floor, a mess of articulated spider legs... Gerd Undi was trying to hide that she had been found and killed by the Meleyephatian spies, which made the report vague and hard to follow. But at the same time, she claimed to be an example of self-sacrifice for the sake of valuable footage! The report contained a few more scenes I shot – the Meleyephatians tied up with satisfied First Pride soldiers standing next to them. There wasn’t a single word about the frigate Tamara the Paladin, or Captain Gnat and his team! She never even showed the attack of the Pride of the Bushy Shadow or Big Abi being captured. And that, after all, was the part I was most hoping would get airtime. I wanted to screw up my implacable enemy’s Authority, but most importantly send a message to the Great One that I fulfilled her condition and defeated the pirate leader.

Clearly sensing my frustration, the Shadow Panther, who was lying at my feet, gave a growl of dismay and lifted her head in worry. Little Sister had refused to eat ever since her master left and was always trailing right behind me, clearly afraid to lose me too. I gave the huge snow-white beast a scratch behind the ear:

“Yes, Little Sister, I am also worried about Valeri. But everything will be fine!”

That calmed the panther down a bit, and she lowered her snout onto her paws again. But I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d already spent my free skill points (five each into Medium Armor, Danger Sense and Eagle Eye). And studied the sprawling Relict-language texts in my Listener Energy Armor because I finally tracked down the guides and “help section” in the operating system. Well, not exactly operating system. That’s too simplified a term, this was... I just didn’t have the words to describe it. Too complex and all-encompassing, a sort of generalized method of creating and systematizing everything – from computer files all the way to planets and galaxies.

For a moment, I even thought I might have touched upon the great mystery of creation if not of the Universe itself, then certainly of the game that bends reality. It was possible that top Relict Hierarchs were in fact behind its creation. Either that or they were first to discover it and adapt it to their needs, changing reality at their discretion. However, I simply lacked the Intelligence, skills, knowledge and even Relict-symbol vocabulary to really make sense of what I was reading. Too complex. Yes, my Astrolinguistics was up to 97, and Electronics 88. However, after the hundredth message saying I’d failed an Intelligence check, or lacked this or that skill, I realized it was time to give up. I’d hit my limit for one day. To make matters worse, I couldn’t focus. I was constantly distracted and I was not working effectively at all.

Still under an impression from what I read, I even tried to study written Meleyephatian from wall panels in the frigate corridors and instrument arrays. But then I got stuck, not understanding how to connect the words I knew with the webs of thin intersecting lines. But nevertheless, I had made up my mind to study the spoken language of the Horde with the help of the Translator Ayni and Eeeezzz 777. After all, they controlled forty percent of all star systems in the known part of our galaxy.

“Captain, can you come over here?” the Medic’s voice rang out in my headphones. I had long been expecting him, but was also afraid when he finally contacted me.

A starship captain looks undignified and silly running down a corridor, but I didn’t give a damn about appearances. Two minutes later, I was standing next to the long-distance communication point. The shaggy orange Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa, leaning against the wall on his back, was standing on shaky legs and fitfully trying to swallow a pill of some kind. Was it really all that bad??? My heart simply stopped in despair. Fortunately, the healer explained that he was merely very tired.

“My Endurance Points are down to zero and barely coming back via the usual methods. No, no. I certainly shouldn’t have any alcohol now!” the Miyelonian refused when I offered him my thermos of restorative cocktail. “I need my paws steady and my mind clear. The hardest part of the operation is still ahead. Leng Gnat, remember when you said you can temporarily knock out the electronic implants? I think it’s time. Otherwise, I’m stalled out. I don’t understand how to disarm all these tricky little devices. Now... another three minutes forty-seven seconds and we’ll go into the operation room.”

Despite the tension of the situation, I was holding back a smile. The Medic had clearly said that time in “loyas,” a unit of time used by his race, but the game algorithms automatically translated them for me into minutes and seconds. Sometimes, the automatic replacement was useful, but right now it felt unnatural and silly. I might even call it a bug in the game that needed fixing. But the Relicts had died out, so nobody had made any updates or patches to the game that bends reality for thousands of years.

“Alright, captain. Ready!” Four minutes later, the Medic found the strength inside himself to continue the several-hour operation.

Leaving Little Sister in the corridor, I followed Gerd Mauu-La into the long-distance communication cabin. Woah! Everything was so different. The walls of the small room were draped in glowing white fabric, apparently so their shifting colors wouldn’t distract the surgeon, and to provide additional lighting. I read the popup message:

UV Panel (medical implement).

 

Ah, and they’re also bactericidal... Not bad, not bad at all. In the middle of the room hovered the familiar “coffin,” but it was now completely unpacked and there were bundles of wires and all sorts of tubes leading to a number of drips that stretched from it into Valeri’s body, which was lying on a levitating ovular surface. Three round drones the size of an apple were slowly circling over the girl’s body with a slight buzz, scanning and feeding their results to a data panel.

Valeri herself then... I swallowed nervously... had her skull open, her ribcage split, and ribs sticking out in different directions... her right eye was out of its socket and hanging by a thin thread of sclera and blood vessels... there was a large number of surgical cuts all over her body... Jeeze! There was no blood, but still a wave of nausea swept over me. No, I could never be a surgeon. Not for me.

Successful Constitution check!

I looked away and discovered a glass mug on a table next to me with fifteen tiny metal balls inside, each a millimeter or two in diameter – the capsules that had already been extracted.

“Captain, I have already removed the bomb from her atrium. As well as everything else I could figure out. But here,” the Medic pointed at her trepanned skull, then at her left calf, then at somewhere inside her open stomach and finally her popped-out eye, “these six devices are all linked together by a complex system of some kind. As far as I can tell, removing any of them will cause all the others to self-destruct. And they exchange data via nerves and blood vessels using ion conductivity. I might be able to take out this microcapsule in the wall of her bowel, but I am not certain and afraid to risk it.”

I took out my Prospector Scanner and the metal tripod. I looked dubiously at all the complex electronic medical equipment providing Valeri’s life support and shook my head. No, cutting power to everything here with a powerful EMP was not an acceptable way out.

“I am of course no Medic, but do the nerves of a human eye really lead directly to the bowel? Or the blood vessels of the brain directly to the calf? As far as I remember from school, humans have two separate blood circulatory networks, and the brain is supplied separately from, for example, the legs.”

“That is true, captain,” the Miyelonian turned on the tablet and, in the air next to him there appeared a three-dimensional hologram depicting the human circulatory system. Another couple flicks of the tablet and another hologram was placed on top with a diagram of the nervous system. “I have been studying your race’s body structure for the last several days. The signal circuit is intricate, and the linkage between the microcapsules is accomplished by a very unconventional method.” The Medic placed six red points on the hologram. “Some of the remaining implants in the female’s body are in fact not connected between each other.”

Gerd Mauu-La reached for the flying box of tools and took out something that looked like a wiring tester with two contacts on the end of some thin wires.

“Here, look captain!” the Miyelonian touched the slit in her leg with one, then placed another on her bare brain. “There’s a signal! This one goes through the nerves, not the veins. But put them here,” he said, moving an electrode from her head to her open stomach, “and it’s gone! There must be a way to take all these devices out. After all, they must have been installed without killing the body in the first place. But we need to do it in the right order, and figuring out what it might be is a very difficult little brainteaser!”

* * *

“No, first we need to pinch this blood vessel so the signal won’t get through!” Gerd Mauu-La was tired but in very high spirits as he placed a pin on the patient’s carotid artery and very skillfully pulled the penultimate capsule out of Valeri’s head with electromagnetic pincers. The tiny metal ball rolled around the glass bowl with a ringing sound, joining the twenty other identical ones.

I erased yet another little circle from the diagram on the electronic board. I was too drained to even feel happy. The medic and I had spent three whole hours solving this puzzle! We composed diagrams, talked through the order, argued, erased everything and started again. That raised my Electronics skill by four points to 92 while my progress bar to level 98 filled up by two thirds. The Miyelonian Medic levelled up a full two times, hitting 106. But I would spit in the face of anyone who said those two levels came easily! Not even close! He was pushing his abilities and skills for all they were worth, working to the point of complete exhaustion.

And now, finally, the last microcapsule was removed and tinkled into the bowl with the others.

“Do you know what you’ve just done?” I asked, turning to the Medic. “You are the first individual in history to remove the Tailaxian leash! I deliberately hid this from you, but it was previously considered impossible.”

“Yeah? It really was difficult,” said Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa, slinking onto the floor, completely drained. “When I get old, I’ll open a clinic providing this unique service to natives of Tailax. But today, I’m getting drunk! As soon as I stitch up the human female’s body. Valeri will have scars, but they won’t be too noticeable and will last only until her first respawn.”

“Think you could do it again in the real world?” I asked, my voice shuddering treacherously, because there was a huge amount riding on my question.

The Miyelonian turned his big-eared head in my direction, looked me right in the eyes and gave a silent affirmative nod.


Chapter Twenty-Eight. Black Hole

“WE’RE COMING out of hyper!” Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov warned everyone, and I tore myself from the captain’s tablet where I was setting access permissions to various parts of the frigates for my team. Only I would be allowed in the captain’s quarters along with First Mate Gerd Uline Tar, my wife Gerd Minn-O, and Gerd Ayni Uri-Miayuu (I gave her that right because I trusted her completely). And Uline requested privacy, so I didn’t let anyone into her room. For another example, I closed off access to all other crew members’ rooms to my ward Tini. Have him level his Thief skills some other way.

Live video from the external cameras was being projected on the big semicircular wall. The dimming light filters kicked on immediately because it was too bright out there. Wow! Stunning! I set the tablet aside, entranced by the beautiful sight. Very unusual. A double star. And the orange dwarf star really did look like a dwarf on the backdrop of the main blue star. And both of the stars had long protuberances, weaving baroque spirals of fire that extended into space toward the blinding glow of a halo that was no less bright than the stars itself – a black hole was pulling in and devouring matter from both stars at once, sucking the particles into its gravity well until they reached unthinkable speeds.

Cartography skill increased to level eighty-one!

“Not is suitable. Close danger. No escape,” the Jarg Analyst warned both pilots just in case, although everyone on the starship already understood perfectly well how dangerous it was to get near a black hole.

“Hmm, if you get sucked into a black hole in the game that bends reality, will your character respawn or not?” asked San-Doon Taki-Bu, the copilot.

The Jarg gave the man a look of scrutiny and sympathy, like how one looks at an unthinking baby. I didn’t suspect the space armadillo had such a pronounced and intuitive understanding of facial expressions. Or was I just used to the Jarg and understanding him better?

“One never must to go in black hole. Alive. Breaking body. Very gravity. Dome of light, no return. Long time before. That’s it.”

“What???” the Pilot asked, pulling a surprised face. Clearly he could not connect the choppy phrases coming from the Analyst’s Universal Translator.

“The Jarg is saying that any being will die due to the massive gravity long before they actually enter the black hole,” I translated the spiny many-legged armadillo’s words.

But that answer wasn’t good enough for the copilot either.

“Captain, I already understand the risks associated with high gravity. That wasn’t my question. What if you place your respawn point on a starship and it gets sucked into a black hole? Obviously you’d die long before you get inside. But let’s imagine a player went into the real world in advance, with their character alive and well. Where would they reappear when they go back into the game? Or would there even be any way to play again? If the gravity is so high that it traps even photons, would a black hole ever release the character?”

“How is that any different from setting a character’s respawn point, let’s say, in an active volcano? Or in a vacuum? That would also mean final death. Both of the character and the real player.”

“But when dying in molten magma or let’s say a nuclear blast, the player will just get spat out into the real world. And they could do so several times before dying once and for all. But our mind, our thoughts are in essence nothing more than a magnetic field formed by particles. And black holes trap all particles without exception. And this is not just any mere game, it is based in completely real laws of physics. So, is there a way for the mind to break free and allow the person to enter the real world?”

Hm... Interesting question. Although I don’t think anyone will volunteer as a test subject. The Jarg also kept quiet, seemingly not knowing the answer.

“Captain, we need to go that way!” the Navigator ended our dispute, having completed his calculations and placing a marker on the other side of the black hole. “We can’t see the ice comet yet, but it’s somewhere over there.”

I turned on the ship scanners. Yes, looks like the tail of an ice comet. Many objects ranging from tiny ice cubes to bodies a few miles in diameter. I filtered out every object that was too small or too large. Still too much. Bring down the range a bit more. I saw an ice asteroid approximately two to five hundred yards in length in the thoughts of pirate captain Abi-Pan Miay. That left just three asteroids on the scanner. But which one was it?

I placed all three on the tactical map and commanded the pilots to come closer. I ran another scan, this time trying to see the structure of the heavenly bodies and discover foreign substances distinguishable from frozen water, carbon-based acids and ammonia that might be embedded in them. No, that was the wrong approach. All three ice asteroids contained very large blots.

Well, should I land on every asteroid and search there using a geological analyzer? That would take a long time. I’d rather not...

I generated three-dimensional diagrams of the asteroids and started turning them over on my monitor, trying to line up one with the picture from Big Abi’s memory. Not it. Definitely not it. And that doesn’t look right either. It shouldn’t have those chips or melted parts. This comet must have passed near the local stars at some point. Hold up! Now this really looks like it! I shifted the perspective a hundred yards to the side. There it is! The very same!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level ninety-two!

Cartography skill increased to level eighty-two!

Mineralogy skill increased to level fifty-nine!

Scanning skill increased to level sixty-four!

You have reached level ninety-eight!

You have received three skill points!

I couldn’t tell how Mineralogy entered into this. I already knew the composition of ice asteroids without any data from the instruments, but still it was nice! And level ninety-eight already! A little bit more and I’d hit a hundred. Then I’d be able to take three additional skills for my Gnat. I removed the two unneeded markers from the map, leaving only the correct one, then told the pilots to cautiously approach the asteroid. After that, I turned on the ship’s loudspeaker:

“T’yu-Pan, prepare a landing module! Uline Tar and I will fly in. And send five or six strong troopers with laser cutters and shovels. Your choice.”

Not even one minute later, First Mate Uline Tar came on the bridge. The Geckho Trader was carrying a large tablet with a picture:

“I was thinking about our team’s increased fame. And I figured all members of Team Gnat should wear an emblem on their armor to make them easier to recognize. Here, I drew one up. Using it will increase all of our Fame and Authority.”

With hardly a glance at the screen, both pilots independently started whinnying like mares. And to be honest, they had a good reason. It was a drawing of very cutesy little gnat, flying mirthfully through the air and carrying a gun that was far too large for it. But that wasn’t the first thing that jumped out. Alongside all its spindly legs, the little gnat had a pointedly gigantic member like that of a human male. And it was three times larger than the insect itself. Hrm...

“Ah, so who drew it?” I asked the Geckho woman, trying my damnedest to stay serious.

“Minn-O La-Fin at first. Then I showed it to Eduard Boyko, and our Space Commando told me she accidentally drew a female gnat, and it should have been male. So I corrected the drawing myself.”

Both of the pilots were nearly falling off their seats with laughter. By their reactions, Uline could easily tell something was off, but she couldn’t really grasp what it was exactly. The Geckho woman didn’t have the slightest idea about the insects of my planet, a fact our Space Commando took full advantage of without a speck of conscience.

“Put it back to the way it was,” I advised the huge furry lady with a calm voice. “With a set of family jewels like that, your little gnat wouldn’t be able to fly... The aerodynamics are abysmal, that’s why the pilots are laughing. And by the way, how is our Medic doing? Has he come back to his senses?”

“He’s still sleeping it off.” It’s always the last person you expect. Gerd Mauu-La was always so quiet and well behaved...

Yes, our Medic got hammered and behaved like a real scoundrel, painting the town red. He tried to capture new crewmember San-Sano in his embraces and assured the human girl that “orange fur is a sign of sincerity.” Meanwhile, he told our new Engineer that “Captain Gnat doesn’t understand Medicine for shit, and human females have not two but three blood circulation circuits.” San-Sano, not understanding a word of Miyelonian was plainly afraid of the misbehaving orange tomcat. Then the piss-drunk Medic came by my captain’s berth (that was in fact one of the reasons I decided to set crew member access to different rooms) and tried to help me paint the Kirsan repair bot green with his unsteady paws. He took the paint sprayer from me, shot green at the wall and mirror, covered himself in paint, then tried to take a sip from a can of solvent, assuring me that it was some kind of exotic cocktail. Playing it safe, I pushed Gerd Mauu-La into the corridor and the Miyelonian went off in search of further adventures. He danced a lezginka[5] with a dagger in his teeth on the table in the state room (I suspect Imran taught him, who else?). He found Valeri just after she started coming to and assured her that he knew “what makes her tick.” He fought with Little Sister (the Shadow Panther simply wanted to sniff the strange-smelling Miyelonian and was spooked by his inappropriately aggressive reaction, but didn’t kill him for it). Boarding team leader Gerd T’yu-Pan even suggested we tie up the drunken Medic until he sobered up, but I wouldn’t allow it. Gerd Mauu-La had accomplished something extraordinary and earned the right to cut loose.

“Five-minute warning!” came Dmitry Zheltov. Uline and I headed for the landing modules.

Once in the corridor, where we had more privacy, the Geckho woman whispered that she’d done as I ordered and transferred ten percent of the proceeds from selling the rare-earth metals to the informant from the Earth spaceport. It may have only applied to pirates, but it was a tradition. Who were we to buck it? Uline kept a third of what was left for herself, while the other one million four hundred seventy thousand crystals were transferred to my representative on Earth Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi, as I requested. Yes, we needed lots of monetary crystals to pay for the labor of thousands of living players and NPC’s. And Uline Tar sent the Spatial Cutter in a large container to Earth as well – there was absolutely no reason to haul such a heavy and most importantly expensive artifact around space.

“What about the Kurimiru?” I inquired. “Did you manage to sell it off?”

“Some Miyelonian museum of astronautics bought the antiquity for seventeen thousand crypto. With no documents, no captain’s key and no stupid questions.”

I nodded – I was just fine with that. I was surprised we even found a buyer for that bucket of bolts. The team coming down to the asteroid with us was already waiting next to the landing module – a thick elongated “torpedo” with a pilot’s cabin, landing compartment and set of thrusters. Standing there were Shocktroop Gerd T’yu-Pan, Space Commando Eduard Boyko, Gladiator Imran, Assassin Svetlana Vereshchagina, and Gunfighter Grim Reaper.

I ran my gaze over the gathering of fighters and advised the head of the boarding team to take a burly Geckho along as well. We were going to have to break through hard-packed ice and do a lot of digging.

“Then Basha Tushihh!” Gerd T’yu-Pan suggested, and I summoned the Heavy Robot Operator to the exit.

* * *

While Gerd T’yu-Pan and Basha Tushihh got our flying vehicle fastened down to the surface, screwing anchors into the ice and attaching them with cable (and this was not an unnecessary precaution, considering the gravity was essentially nil), I took a look around. Pressure was less than three pascals – just 0.00296% of what it normally was on Earth’s surface. The temperature was minus 341.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The background radiation was off the charts, and it was harsh neutron radiation at that. But I wasn’t worried for my own sake because the Listener Energy Armor was very well protected against radiation. The others though would have to take antiradiation medicine after we got back. Gravity, as I already said, was near zero, and magnetic soles were absolutely no help – one careless step and say hello to open space! We had to walk in a chain, relying on the players with jet- and gravity-packs. Nevertheless, my companions, the majority of whom were on an asteroid for the first time, were in high spirits and eagerly sharing their bright impressions and emotions. I understood them perfectly; it really was beautiful here!

Cold black ice underfoot. Loose, not like normal. If not for the gravity being so low, my space-suit boots would have sunk in and gotten stuck. And it wasn’t water, but frozen ammonia with a hint of nitrogen. In these conditions, the nitrogen was already beginning to sublimate, transitioning from solid directly into a gas, which explained how there was any pressure at all. Most likely, every time the comet’s orbit took it near the two local suns, the surface of the asteroid would boil. Even now there was no clear horizon. The light fog of the evaporating gas made everything look washed out.

Above us in the darkness of space, we could see bright spiral protuberances shooting out beyond the horizon and intertwining. Starting out distinctly orange and blue, the zigzags gradually changed into an identical shade of white. The light was so bright it drowned out distant stars. Even with my high Perception I practically couldn’t see any. I suspect the remaining team members couldn’t see a single one. The black hole then was simply behind the asteroid from our landing site, as were the two local stars. I sent my Small Guard Drone over the horizon – both to take a look around and snap a few pictures of the black hole and twin stars. I’d get them printed out and hang them in my berth in memory of this unusual location.

I activated the Scanning icon, carefully examined the responses, then cringed. No dice! Nothing even close to a treasure encased in ice was shown on my mini-map. But I didn’t let that bother me. We had only approximately determined where to go, while the skill had quite a limited radius. It would be better to just use the Prospector Scanner to get a read on this whole small asteroid in one go.

“This way!” I suggested, taking another look at the diagram we constructed on the starship. “Another forty steps. Wait, stop. It looks a lot like it’s somewhere around here. Imran, Eduard, tie me down to a screw anchor so I don’t fly away. Then everyone step back fifty yards so you won’t get hit by the electromagnetic pulse.”

I wrapped the safety line around my belt and adjusted the length with a carabiner so my feet would touch the surface. I made sure my friends were a safe distance away, then took out my Prospector Scanner. So then, how should I put the settings? I was not interested in looking for metal. But cavities, structural analysis, and foreign materials were just the sliders I was looking for. I slid them all where I wanted them and took out a Geological Analyzer. I sent my drone away to protect it from the pulse, because it was already back from its circumnavigation. I opened the metal tripod and stuck the pointed tips into the loose ice.

Scanning skill increased to level sixty-five!

Mineralogy skill increased to level sixty!

I glanced at the screen of my Scanner and... there we go! There it is! Fifty feet to my right, at a depth of approximately fifteen feet beneath the ice, my device said I would find a smooth sturdy rectangular box. Based on the composition, it was mostly metal and plastic. Some kind of small container! I got my bearings and placed a marker for all to see:

“Everyone grab your shovel!”


Chapter Twenty-Nine. Damaged Goods

WHEN OUR GROUP came back to the ship, it seemed like the whole crew was there to meet us. Everyone could hear our discussions over the radio, so they already knew we’d found the goods under the ice and dug them up. The corridor leading away from the airlock chamber was so packed with curious onlookers I could barely fit.

“Well, what’s in the box?” rang out from all directions in every possible language.

“Hold on,” I said to stall the most impatient. “The box is in the airlock chamber right now. Basha and Imran are cleaning off the frozen ammonia so the inside of the ship doesn’t fill up with smelly toxins. When they’re done, they’ll bring it into the state room, and we can all see for ourselves. But as you seemingly already know, we found a metal chest and, by all appearances, it’s very ancient. And its locked, so Tini all our hopes are with you!”

My ward’s ears perked up and he bared his teeth in satisfaction. As far as I’d heard, our little thief had acquired one of the best, if not the very best set of lock picks available on Kasti-Utsh III for an insane amount of money. And it supposedly gave him additional bonuses to his Thief abilities. He was probably burning with impatience to test out his new gadget.

I had at least an approximate guess about what was inside the container because I scanned it. A thick shell containing a chamber with sixteen slots, just three of which were full. The slots held round little stones each the size of a cherry. Most likely they were unique precious gemstones or insanely expensive amber given the lengths the pirate captain went to hide his treasure.

The airlock doors opened and in came Basha Tushihh and Eduard Boyko in exoskeleton armor, hunched over from the weight of the container and carrying the large metal chest by its handles. I winced because it still stank of ammonia regardless of how much they tried to clean the space ice off the trophy. The ship’s automatic air analyzers immediately detected the smell, and the ventilation kicked into full power, driving off the noxious fumes.

“Heavy?” Kisly asked. “Need help?”

“I was lifting it with one hand on the asteroid,” the Space Commando answered, shuffling his legs with difficulty. “But here I’d say it feels like nine hundred pounds at least. Better not try without an exoskeleton suit. And the handles are hard to grip. Careful! Out of the way! Don’t accidentally touch it. It’s as cold as hell!”

Yes, cooled down to negative three hundred fifty degrees, the metal burned worse than boiling water. The crowd split slightly to let the two brutes through. I then held the doors to the state room open, helping the loaders.

“Put it right on the floor because the table might not be able to hold it. Yes, right here. Tini, you’re up! And be careful you don’t burn yourself on the metal!”

The Miyelonian teen put a pair of thin cloth gloves on his clawed paws, turned on his flashlight and attached it to the bandanna on his forehead, then started looking the chest over from every angle. The metal box didn’t have a padlock, nor a keyhole in the typical sense of the word. I had already figured that out. It only had a narrow long slit in one of the walls, like the kind for reading a bank card. And an incomprehensible collection of symbols on the metal lid – perhaps an inscription in a language I didn’t know or maybe a partially-erased decoration.

Three minutes passed. The audience even started getting a bit bored. But suddenly our Thief gave a happy snort and took what looked to be a normal metal knitting needle out of his inventory. After that, clearly knowing what he was doing, he walked a circle around the chest and stuck the needle all the way into a tiny little opening I’d overlooked. He pulled it out, took out a normal electronic tablet (at the very least it looked like one) and placed the needle right onto the screen. He studied the resulting diagram of variously colored rectangles for around a minute, then confidently grabbed one of his flat lockpick keycards and placed it on the tablet screen alongside the needle. He then led the electronic card along the long slit and everyone waited with bated breath until we heard a loud metallic click.

The little thief gathered up his tools with no apparent affect and walked aside:

“Done! Somebody open ‘er up! ‘cause I’m pretty sure this lid is too heavy for me...”

After a second of silence, everyone started making a din, congratulating Tini and expressing their admiration of his mastery. Yes, it was impressive. The little thief had made a clear demonstration to the rest of the crew that nicking Imran’s razor was not the extent of his abilities and he earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. By the way, Tini also hit level one hundred. My ward’s level was now higher than mine!

With my permission, Basha Tushihh opened the lid of the chest and everyone leaned over to be first to see the trophy. Based on the exclamations of surprise, it did not contain precious stones.

“Captain coming through!” I pushed through with difficulty.

Yes, just as I saw on the screen of my Prospector Scanner. A dark receptacle with sixteen little slots, thirteen of them empty. The remaining three contained little stone balls – two bright gray and one blacker than the darkest night.

Uncanny stone ball (Precursor artifact).

 

Your character has insufficient Intelligence to identify this item.

Required Intelligence to identify (Error!!! Parameter undefined!!!).

Minimum level to use: 1.

Minimum Constitution to use: 1.

So what is this? All my crew members looked at me in incomprehension awaiting an explanation. I meanwhile didn’t know exactly what we had dragged onto my frigate. I suddenly heard a sharp, obviously dismayed trill filled with fast clicks and whistling.

“What do you think you’re doing?! They cannot be unfrozen! They’re going to activate at any moment!” Gerd Ayni translated what our Meleyephatian Gunner Eeeezzz 777 was saying for everyone else.

“Does he know what this is? Ask... Oh hell! Eeeezzz, what is this thing, do you know?”

In general, Gerd Eeeezzz 777 knew how to express himself in Geckho and Miyelonian, but his panic must have made him say his warning in his native language. I didn’t realize it right away either, but I had just been having a perfectly normal conversation with him.

“Yes, to know. Rare. Forbidden item. Close lid now! Stones will get warm and starting glow. Then is over, too late. No for selling. You lose much, much monies.”

And then, as the Meleyephatian veteran predicted, something happened to the stones. A tiny sparkle started to glow inside each one, growing brighter with every passing second. Not even thirty seconds later, the black stone changed into a dim little dark-purple light-bulb. And the formerly gray stones were now glowing an emerald green color! But most importantly, the stones had changed description!

The once black stone became if anything, even more uncanny:

Character reroll code.

 

Allows the user to choose any race, appearance and game class while maintaining present level. Allows all skill and statistic points previously earned to be redistributed at will.

Minimum level to use: 1.

Minimum Constitution to use: 1.

ATTENTION!!! Once activated, codes must be used within 300 seconds! 297 seconds remaining... 296... 295... 294...

And the two gray stones turned into something completely different:

Character age adjustment code.

 

Allows a character’s age to be changed at will, with instantaneous corresponding changes to body in all realities.

Minimum level to use: 1.

Minimum Constitution to use: 1.

ATTENTION!!! Once activated, codes must be used within 300 seconds! 295 seconds remaining... 294... 293... 292...

Damn!!! What curious little items. They let you get around the game’s restrictions and laws! No wonder that Eeeezzz called them “forbidden.” Only... how to use them?

And then my heart gave a painful prick, indicating an as-of-yet indistinct but quickly building worry.

Danger Sense skill increased to level eighty-seven!

Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred nine!

It wasn’t a fully-fledged psionic attack, but still someone was trying to “probe” me mentally. And I even knew who it was. The crippled level-163 Meleyephatian Gunner was standing in the corner of the state room and already suited up in his combat armor. The only thing stopping Gerd Eeeezzz 777 was that he just wasn’t confident he could take down twenty players and make it to the sacrosanct chest in time. But the temptation was very strong.

The Meleyephatian was of very advanced age and wanted one of the green balls to rejuvenate himself! Or so I thought. And because of that, the three-hundred-year-old seasoned veteran was now on the verge of violating both his contract and the mercenary code by attacking his own crew. Even when his Meleyephatian compatriots were attacking our frigate he didn’t feel this kind of hesitation. But for the unique chance to shed the heavy weight of his many years, he was willing to do whatever it took!

“Don’t you dare!” I said mentally, and Eeeezzz 777 shuddered in fear.

Successful Authority check!

The Gunner immediately fell silent, his damaged combat armor stashed in his inventory. I then walked over to the metal chest and cautiously, afraid to be burned by the cold, touched the glowing green ball with a finger. Okay, it was even warm. It was easy to pull out of its slot. In the silence that fell, I walked up to the Meleyephatian and extended him the ancient artifact:

“Here! You need this most.”

The blue spider’s many mobile eyes stared at me in mistrust. After that, very slowly and cautiously, still waiting for the other shoe to drop, Eeeezzz 777 extended his upper right arm and carefully took the glowing ball from my hand. And immediately stuck it into his mouth!

Four seconds later, the Meleyephatian started changing color. Orange. No, now white. Dirty brown. Almost black. And finally he stopped at lemon yellow with small orange highlights down the sides of his shell. Meanwhile, the player’s description never changed. Regardless of the variations, the spider before me was still Eeeezzz 777, level-163 Gunner. I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe he was trying to set different ages for his character before he eventually settled on one option. By the looks of things, the color of a Meleyephatian’s chitin shell depended on age.

“Done. Captain. I was immeasurably grateful. I owe you. You not is doubt I!”

Authority increased to 81!

“Any decent captain would have done the same. By the way, give your armor to a Kirsan repair bot. They’ll be able to fix it up in no time at all.”

And the second green ball. I handed it to our wise and gray Navigator Ayukh with the words:

“You’re still too green to get put to pasture, my furry friend! You’re such an experienced Navigator it would be a shame to see the day you’re no longer plying the cosmos!”

The whole crew burst forth with shouts of delight and applause, approving of my choice.

Geckho don’t cry when overcome with emotion. No, that’s a human response and they don’t have it. But the furry alien’s meaty lips started shivering slightly as he gave a quiet whimper, which meant the same thing. Ayukh swallowed the glowing green stone and a few seconds later transformed before our very eyes. His shoulders spread in pride; he grew significantly taller. His fur meanwhile changed from scruffy brown with obvious streaks of gray into a shimmering shade of chestnut. What was more, our Navigator grew a shock of light hair on the front of his head like a fashionable person’s bangs!

“Look at you now! What a dashing man!” Gerd Uline Tar commented on our shared acquaintance’s transformation. “Now I’m asking if maybe I was a little too rushed announcing my wedding.”

And finally the last remaining ball. That one really made me think.

“Eeeezzz, what will happen if we don’t use the ancient artifact fast enough?” I asked just in case.

“Precursors. Automatic hunter is appear. To destroy starship. Kill law-breaker. Forbidden item. Not allowed in game. Kung Eesssa is die once like this. Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse. Fleet flagship lost.”

I see. I had to make up my mind about what to do with the dangerous but simultaneously unique and useful item right away. I had two and a half minutes.

“Ayni! You wanna shed the burden of your ghoulish reputation as the murderer of the Incarnation of the Great First Female? Be reborn in a different body without such a difficult past? That way, no one will recognize or disparage you. Maybe you’d even like to become human.”

But the orange Miyelonian just shook her big-eared head and took a step back, hiding behind the other team members.

“No, captain. My life is just getting back on track. I learned to take advantage of that unique fact. I’ve been making friends. I bought a mansion. By the way, thanks for the money. No, I’m content with my fate and do not want to change it!”

I was somewhat surprised and even a bit upset. To be honest, I was hoping Gerd Ayni would want to become a human woman. That would be... anyway, not important. No means no. I didn’t try to insist. I turned my gaze to our Bard Vasily Filippov. I remembered hearing he was very bothered by the game classes he was offered initially, which kept him from strategizing for the Human-3 Faction army.

“Vasily Andreyevich! Here’s your chance to correct the game’s error and make yourself a Strategist. Or whatever else you like!”

“N-no, Gnat. I pass! I spent half a life waging war. I’ve been to every big hotspot on our planet. Enough. That’s behind me now. I have a new life and I’m enjoying every minute of it. So many songs left to write! So many plans! And I’ll be more useful on the ship as a Bard.”

Gerd Minn-O La-Fin? She refused before I even finished asking. Valeri-Urla? I looked at the girl, now fully back to health after her operation. But I also knew she would say no before I even asked. The Tailaxian beauty had already found a way to get free of her bonds, and I saw no other obvious reason for her to change her life. And yes, I was not wrong. The Beastmaster shook her head “no.”

“Captain, maybe you should use it.” Eduard Boyko shouted.

I shuddered in fear. No way I was changing race. I’m a human! And to lose the unique Listener class, and along with it my Energy Armor, three Relict guard drones and everything I’d achieved in the game? No! Not in a million years! The only class change option I would accept was progressing further down my chosen path and becoming one of the Relict Hierarchs. And the Pyramid had already told me how I could achieve what I wanted – by entering the besieged starship and rescuing the ancient Hierarch. I intended to follow that path to a “T.” Should I try this trick to get around all the challenges and straight to what I wanted? That was basically cheating. I always had nothing but scorn for cheaters and would kill them in computer games whenever I got the chance. And most likely the class I was aiming for wouldn’t be on the list. Otherwise there would have been other Listeners, Devourers and Thinkers before me, and the game system wouldn’t have given me a message saying I was unique.

“Forty seconds!” Gerd Uline Tar warned me. “Make up your mind quick!”

I led an inquisitive gaze from one team member to the next but always found a negative response. And then, pushing the people in front out of his way, Kisly the Machinegunner stepped toward the metal box:

“Captain, can I have it? Well, not for me, but this thing could make my wife Nefertiti a living player!”

Okay then, a very noble goal. I pulled it out of the slot and extended the violet ball to Kisly:

“Here! But hurry up, time is ticking!”

The level-93 Machinegunner, not too tall but so beefy that he was nearly rectangular, took the violet pill from me and handed it to the NPC Dryad. Nefertiti accepted the unexpected gift, gave her husband a grateful kiss on the cheek and started staring at the strange glowing ball.

“Fifteen seconds!” Uline Tar warned, her voice starting to quaver.

“Down the hatch, you stupid bitch!!!” Eduard Boyko shouted, unable to resist.

Kisly said something to the Dryad, but she had no reaction at all. Then he gestured to her to say she had to eat it. Nefertiti was clearly surprised and couldn’t believe him. It looked like she had her mind made up and thought we were playing a trick on her. But then Kisly grabbed the gift, forced the NPC Dryad’s mouth open and stuck the glowing stone as deep in as he could. Nefertiti swallowed.

Everyone around breathed a sigh of relief. The frigate was not going to blow up now. And with only four seconds remaining.

“I actually doubt that the NPC Dryad will know what to change in her character settings,” Princess Minn-O La-Fin commented skeptically.

To be honest, I also had my doubts. I didn’t even have a clue where in the character settings you could find the hidden parameter that defined if someone was an NPC or living player. Or how an illiterate NPC Dryad ever would. I started to regret giving the stone to Kisly.

Around a minute passed, but nothing happened. The Dryad just remained a Dryad. But the automated “hunter” wasn’t coming for our souls either. Oh well, to be frank, it wasn’t exactly the worst possible outcome.

And then... the Dryad changed into a huge pure-white Centaur mare! When her husband Kisly saw it, his jaw dropped in shock. A moment later, there was a silver rhinoceros in the middle of the state room. Then a dolphin. A female troll. A large hairless gorilla with floppy breasts. Then she started changing a few times a second. Some were truly very freakish. I was not fast enough to even see what form Nefertiti was trying every time.

“Looks like this could go on a while,” Destroying Angel commented. “A woman can spend hours trying on outfits in a clothing store. But this isn’t just a dress. Here she can change her whole appearance.”

“I bet she won’t stop messing around until she starts to get hungry!” Dmitry Zheltov guessed.

“We might as well have just handed an unlocked smartphone to a baby,” Svetlana Vereshchagina chuckled glumly. “And the baby is pressing all the little red buttons, opening a bunch of apps at the same time and visiting god knows what sites by clicking the flashiest hyperlinks. We’ll be lucky if she doesn’t buy her parents an excavator on credit.”


Chapter Thirty. Blast from the Past

BECAUSE THE DRYAD was clearly going to be taking her time, the crew members gradually dispersed to get back to their business. But I asked the Meleyephatian Gunner to wait for me in the state room a couple minutes. Then I hurried to the bridge to talk with the pilots and rejuvenated Navigator. The main question now was: where to fly? Going to the Trillian Taikhirhh-O-Tsykh system didn’t make sense anymore. We didn’t have the Meleyephatian Spies to shelter in neutral territory anymore. We could take a break at any other midpoint on our way to the H9045/WE star system, where my two ancient combat drones awaited. Unfortunately, it was not possible to make it there in just one jump – the distance was too great and we would need a stopover point.

“How about the H5540/A system?” the Navigator opened the star map and pointed at a dim light-gray dot. “It’s halfway to our destination and in a belt of weakened hyperspace, which is very convenient. It will bring down our flight time considerably. Furthermore, the system is uninhabitable. If I understand correctly, that is a plus right now.”

Yes, having no one see us at our midpoint was a big fat plus. First of all, we had no reason to demonstrate our flight vector (and it was possible to approximately determine someone’s destination from their midway point). Second, I needed to keep in mind that I was now an official enemy of the Meleyephatian Horde. And there would always be someone willing to sell me out to the Meleyephatians if they saw my starship.

The pilots started preparing the frigate for a hyperspace jump. I meanwhile returned to the state room. Kisly alone was next to the empty chest and his wife, endlessly repeating barely audibly: “Please just don’t change into some ugly crocodile.” Also in the room were Ayni the Translator and the Meleyephatian Gunner.

I asked the Translator to stay because I wanted to start studying the language of the Meleyephatian Horde. And so Eeeezzz 777 spoke his native language, while Gerd Ayni translated it into Miyelonian for her captain. First of all, I wanted to know how the Gunner came to know about the rare Precursor artifacts. I mean, I understood that my new crew member had spent a long time serving as a mercenary under the legendary Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse, but was he really close enough with Kung Eesssa for her to entrust him with her personal secrets?

Gerd Ayni then translated the Meleyephatian’s chirring:

“No, of course not. I was a normal soldier back then at a modest level one hundred or one-oh-five. But I just so happened to be present for a trade deal involving just such an artifact. Our shuttle flew to the client with me in the Gunner’s seat. Kung Eesssa told us all to keep an eye on her and keep our weapons drawn. It was a top secret meeting and took place in the cryochamber of a factory, which I found very strange and suspicious. The individual she was meeting was a Cleopian aristocrat, who was giving her the payment for capturing him a star system and brutally murdering all pretenders to his throne until they couldn’t respawn. And he paid our commander with a chest just like this one. But it was full and had sixteen of the unprepossessing little stones. First I thought Eesssa would be outraged – we spilled blood and lost six cruisers in those battles. But our reward was basically somebody’s garbage. However, the commander knew perfectly well what it was, and had seemingly requested it specifically.”

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-eight!

The Meleyephatian walked over to the open chest and pointed a claw at the empty row:

“There are supposed to be four white stones here. When unfrozen, they start to shine gold. They each give +8 statistic points just like when a character is promoted to Gerd. Kung Eesssa immediately had all four of them brought to a warm room nearby and gulped them down.”

Wow! Plus thirty-two statistic points! And she probably ended up with much more, considering the extra bonus point for every two invested after a statistic hit twenty. That was... it just knocked the wind right out of me. Even the slowest-witted being in the Universe could eat a couple of those and bring their Intelligence up high enough to go toe-to-toe with the brightest scientist. The weak could gain super strength. The clumsy could become fantastically graceful. You could take a combat character and pump up their Constitution so much that their hitpoints would be off the charts, their regeneration would instantly heal wounds, and their defense against physical damage would allow them to take a massive number of blows and hits without any armor necessary.

And meanwhile, the Meleyephatian continued his story:

“The next row contained four dark-gray stones. They lit up red when activated, and gave two level-ups a piece.”

“That’s all???” I couldn’t hold back the surprised exclamation.

After how imba the other Precursor artifacts were – instantaneous rejuvenation, the ability to change appearance, or an extra eight statistic points – two levels seemed like a very modest reward.

“Oh, Captain Gnat! Don’t be offended, but you’re still too low-level to appreciate the value. You’re at ninety-eight, so you’re still levelling-up once every ten days. Maybe even more. But just imagine how hard it will be for me to get from 163 to 164! It will take a quarter tong at the very least! And you have to make sure not to die that whole time, otherwise your progress bar will zero out! And some players are level two hundred, or even higher! Just imagine how hard it is for them! Many players would give an arm and a leg for a double level-up without hesitation!”

Uhh... To my eye, the Meleyephatian’s example was not convincing. To a space spider like him, the difference between seven and eight arms wasn’t be all that much. But a human, with half as many appendages, would be much more sensitive to losing arms or legs. But I understood what he was driving at overall and was even prepared to concede that Eeeezzz 777 may have been right. There is a certain category of high-level player that would pay generously to make quick progress.

“And for the record, the Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse was able to recoup all her lost starships and pay all her many mercenaries with the proceeds from just two of the stones.”

“So where did the Cleopian aristocrat even get these uncanny artifacts?” Gerd Ayni asked, not merely translating for me, herself also interested in the topic.

“How should I know?” The Gunner asked in surprise. “Found it somewhere. Bought it. Inherited it. At any rate, the Cleopian kept calling the stones ‘forbidden,’ and said ‘the game that bends reality despises them and strives to delete them.’“

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ninety-nine!

These Meleyephatians had a very strange language. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to speak it. The human throat just wasn’t made for such trills, whistles and clicks. But sure, I could understand when they spoke. I had already figured out a couple simple words of Meleyephatian in fact, like “I,” “you,” “Gnat,” “stone,” and another odd few.

“I also seem to recall one mysterious sentence from the conversation with the Cleopian. And what made it stick in my memory was that it was bizarre and hard to parse. That the stones were created before the war of ancient races by the Prime Precursor as a counterweight to the ‘Relict Hierarchs, who had crossed all bounds and altered the rules of the game, bending all realities to their will.’“

I asked the Gunner the name of this Cleopian aristocrat, who seemed to know a surprising amount about the affairs of ancient races. As it turned out, his name was “Prince Edeyya-U, ruler of Serpea-III and its inhabited rings.” I’d have to make a note of that. And sure, many years had passed (somewhere around thirty tongs, as the Meleyephatian told me). But who could say how long Cleopians lived? Maybe the savvy Prince was still alive and perhaps even well. Eeeezzz 777 for example had been kicking for three hundred years already, and would now live to see three hundred more.

“So, what ever became of the Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse?” came another question from my orange Miyelonian friend.

“It isn’t clear, the story gets all muddled... Kung Eesssa always concealed the location of her virt pod from everyone. And it’s no surprise. The Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse had made more enemies than anyone alive at that point, so the commander’s caution was easy to understand. But one of her Meleyephatian officers noticed that Kung Eesssa left the game and spent quite a long time in the real world. And people were keeping very close track of that sort of thing back then. Memories of the attempt to decapitate the Meleyephatian Horde were still too fresh. Rumors started flying. There were attempts to locate her virt pod. And after that, Kung Eesssa just disappeared.”

“Was she perhaps afraid for her life in the real world and, in order to throw them off the scent, used one of the stones to change appearance?” the Miyelonian suggested.

I started tittering, surprised at Ayni’s slow-wit. Anyone could have guessed what he was hinting at. Someone who’d suffered from the actions of a Morphian should have been first to realize where the Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse went!

“Perhaps the widely despised war leader was found and killed IRL. Or maybe Kung Eesssa didn’t need the ancient Precursor artifact to change her appearance and avoid pursuit,” the Meleyephatian cautiously guessed. “But that’s just speculation. And no one can check now.”

By the way... that was actually a very intriguing line of thought. Two hundred years ago, the wise Vaa was put into anabiosis. And she said none of her Morphian friends or clones had such crazy combat characteristics as the one who killed the incarnation of the Miyelonian Great First Female. But now I was hearing from the old Gunner that there was an old “Meleyephatian” war leader who invested a huge number of statistic points into her character one hundred ten years ago. That could not have been a coincidence. Especially given that there were not many Morphians left, potentially just two: Vaa and Fox.

* * *

The tone of the thrusters changed – Tamara the Paladin had entered hyperspace. It was going to take eight ummi to reach Taikhirhh -o-Tsykh, forty-four hours in earth time. So there was plenty of time to get some relaxation. Nevertheless, I was in no rush to let my crew take leave.

“Mandatory practice for the whole crew! Two hours of Endurance and Strength training. We had athletic training devices installed in the frigate for that very purpose. Then start training shooting and reaction time! Not with real combat weapons, of course. We got pistols and rifles that shoot light and a set of targets to go with them. There’s a ‘firing range’ in the empty cargo hold. And finally, we’ll all be sparring both with and without melee weapons!”

I was afraid my team might grumble, but there was not even a hint of it. Either my authority was already high enough for them not to dispute captain’s orders, or my team was thinking back to the results of our recent battles, which could not be called anything other than shameless, and they were trying to remedy the situation.

Wow! I finally saw Vasha and Basha Tushihh’s true strength. Both of the giant twin Geckho brothers could bench press a half-ton barbell! It impressed everyone. Vasha then even broke the strength meter. But as for Endurance, Kisly knew no equal. Our Machinegunner could run at twice his carry weight for longer than anyone else, even outdoing his direct superior Gerd T’yu-Pan. I was not distinguished by my physical prowess, losing out to almost everyone in most exercises, but I still trained honestly, not even thinking of slacking off. And my Authority not only didn’t suffer (which I was slightly afraid of), it in fact went up!

Authority increased to 82!

Shooting. Here first place by a long shot was shared between Gerd Minn-O La-Fin and Destroying Angel. My wayedda’s hit percentage was a bit lower than the two-time Olympic biathlon champion from my world, but the Princess was the only one to also detect all threats and avoid taking any hits from the active targets. In group exercises the same two, reinforced by Grim Reaper dominated all the other teams.

I raised my Sharpshooter to 48, Rifles to 63 and Targeting to 47, but that wasn’t even the most important thing. I finally saw the germ of what I wanted my team to become. They were working together professionally, delegating functions, helping one another and using the strong sides of their classes to their advantage. They were using different tactics for every battle, moving fast, linking shields together, focusing on the same targets, using suppressing fire and shooting blind, using targeting markers and paralyzing enemies. The contours of a more intellectual, cohesive fighting style were starting to reveal themselves. Everyone knew their role and position, and tactics were instantly adapted to any change in situation.

And finally, sparring. Here I confess I stayed out of the fray, referencing my superior position. But it wasn’t because I was afraid to lose. I just learned that there is no reason for me to fight without using magic. It was like playing suicide chess with one hand tied behind my back, and there was no benefit in terms of levelling. But if I just let loose, with my Intelligence figure, I had a 100% chance of taking anyone on my team under control, possibly even two or three at a time. So I adopted the role of arbiter, making sure everyone followed the rules and empowered to stop the fight instantly if a participant’s life was at risk.

Gunner Eeeezzz 777’s performance was a highlight. At a certain point, the experienced veteran took on the role of trainer and, asking for a pause in the battle, walked into the center of the circle and started explaining the best way to take down players of every race. Miyelonian pain points and deadly close combat moves that took advantage of them. Taking down tall and beefy Geckho. How to quickly dispatch a Trillian. How to kill a Cleopian both instantly and silently. How to paralyze an Esthete with a loud scream. Seven ways of dealing a lethal blow to a human. The right way to stun and strangle a Jarg so it won’t self-destruct. How to put a Meleyephatian into shock with pain in order to block the nervous system and stop them from using their psionic abilities.

The mercenary who once worked for the Planet Devouress of Betelgeuse clearly had vast experience in killing players. And I even saw some familiar elements in the series of moves he demonstrated. Fox had used techniques like that when killing the incarnation of the Great First Female of the Miyelonians and disemboweling the Geckho troops from Uraz Tukhsh’s team.

“Captain, Nefertiti snapped out of it!” a message over the loudspeaker came from Dmitry Zheltov, who was keeping watch. Yes, our main pilot was missing the training session, remaining as the sole person on the bridge.

“Only Kisly come with! Everyone else keep training!” I ordered, and hurried to the state room.

I was baffled. Where were the changes? Nefertiti was still the same as ever, an NPC Dryad. All I could see was that her hair had changed from black to swamp green, but even her hairstyle was the same. Did we seriously just waste a unique Precursor artifact on dyeing an NPC Dryad’s hair? By the looks of things, yes! Reminds me of the old Russian saying, “using a microscope to hammer in nails.” In fact, I suppose we had just outdone it and found an even more irrational application for an even more intricate and valuable object. If a Journalist ever found out about this, we’d be the laughingstock of the whole galaxy! Although... maybe we should publicize the fact ourselves. After all, it would bring up our Fame. On the other hand, my Authority was sure to take a hit. And it would be big...

“Captain, my wife’s class also changed,” Kisly said.

Oh yeah, I didn’t notice that right away. The level-68 Artisan was now a level-68 Jeweler. Okay then, she could sculpt beads out of clay and weave ornamental vases out of cane now, or... Wait! Some information suddenly sprang to mind. The Human-3 Faction sometimes used to trade “magic” rings and bracelets with the Centaurs of the Antiquity Faction, but we never figured out where they were getting them. What if Dryads, or more like their Jewelers were the ones making them?

I dug around in my inventory and took out the silver band of an ancient Precursor signet that dropped from a dead Meleyephatian Spy. I added to it a unique rare large and flawless pearl given to me by Phylira.

“Can you combine these two things?” I asked Nefertiti with a bit of worry, asking the question again mentally.

The Dryad took the items and clicked her tongue in delight as she looked over the astonishing pearl. The band also earned the Jeweler’s approval. But Nefertiti didn’t do anything with the rare items, simply held them in her hands and kept mum.

I asked again. Zero reaction. Finally I decided to meet gazes with the NPC Dryad and I was flooded with a wave of thoughts:

“You finally figured it out! You’re a bit slow, eh?! You people are just so dimwitted. And very strange. You forced me to eat a unique, rare and most importantly very powerful stone which I could have turned into a magical item with extremely powerful properties. And then you just left me there. I was asking for help, too. I was totally lost and had no idea how to get out of those alien bodies. And you just walked away, laughing at my impotence!”

I felt a prick of shame. Yes, we had basically given a baby a smartphone, but we never even tried explaining how to use it. And after that, we simply left the Dryad alone in her calamity and walked off to different parts of the starship.

“I figured out how to get back to my normal body all on my own. I just made myself a bit prettier. Be honest, do you like it? This silver band carries the remnants of old magic, by the way. Leng Gnat, should I leave its properties as they are? Or do you need it enchanted some other way?”

“What properties does the band carry now?” I asked aloud again, doubling my question mentally.

Kisly, standing next to me, immediately shuddered and began to fuss:

“Captain, do you understand her?! Can the Dryad really understand spoken language? Why hasn’t she said anything all this time???”

Nefertiti had no reaction to her husband’s spray of questions. I see. So she doesn’t understand spoken Russian, just direct transmission of thoughts. Nefertiti then answered my question:

“Leng Gnat, it gives a boost to... Respect? Esteem? I’ve forgotten the arcane word for it.”

“Authority?” I suggested and the Dryad lit up:

“Yes! Authority. The higher quality the stone it carries, the more powerful the signet’s effect. A pearl like this can give an Authority boost of...” the Dryad splayed the five fingers of her right hand, spent a long time looking at them, then put one down. “This many!”

Psionic skill increased to level one hundred seven!

Mysticism skill increased to level fifty-one!

I led a quick gaze over the pop-up system messages and mentally returned to the topic of discussion, thinking over the NPC Jeweler’s offer. A +4 boost to Authority? That would make a nice little ring. I’m sure some politician would love to have it before an election. But what good was it to me? I’d also understand if the boost was somehow critical for me. You know, if it would get me up to the next status or something. But now...

Based on my reaction, the Dryad Jeweler guessed that I was not particularly interested.

“I could also change it to a different magical enchantment. It would give a boost of this much as well,” the Dryad again showed me her right hand, “but it would be hard and cost a lot. A whole lot!”

“I need to improve my Intelligence. How to explain it? Uhh... Brains. Mind. I want to be smarter. Can you do that?”

“It will cost an insane amount,” the Jeweler warned.

In reply, I asked her to tell me precisely what constituted an “insane amount” in her conception. The Dryad pointed to Kisly:

“The very best armor that exists for my husband. And for me, a bar of gold that weighs the same as I do. And a separate room here on the flying boat. And in it a kiln and jeweler’s implements. Then I’ll have to strive, train and hone my abilities. But if I have all that, I will be able to make a signet to finally make you smart!”


Chapter Thirty-One. The Long Road to a Mystery

THE “VERY BEST ARMOR” was the easiest thing to get. The Machinegunner couldn’t wear powered exoskeleton armor, but Kisly had an excellent heavy armor suit of Geckho production he bought on Kasti-Utsh III, which looked like Imran’s. I gave the armor to the white Kirsan to modify to the Machinegunner’s specifications: reduced weight, slots to attach weapons to a metal arm, and a reconfigured built-in targeting system in the helmet, which was not well suited to human eyes. The Mechanoid repair bot confirmed that it was all possible, and immediately got to work. I also didn’t foresee any problems finding a piece of gold weighing 82.49 pounds (the exact weight of the Dryad). I had money, and the price of precious metal meant it would be cheaper than even a +3 Intelligence magic ring, which was to say nothing of the unbelievable +4.

But converting one of the residential berths of the frigate into a Jewelry workshop for the NPC Dryad caused a certain amount of grief because the team members in the other rooms had to squeeze a bit. After growing accustomed to a certain level of comfort, the players were not happy to make concessions. That annoyed me because, once we had a full crew (and for a twinbody frigate, that was around forty players), they’d all be packed in like sardines. But now, having one or two roommates in a berth meant for four players was practically taken as a violation of their rights.

After all, Medic Gerd Mauu-La also had a doctor’s office all to himself for storing medicines, hardware and receiving patients, but nobody was outraged over that. What made a Jeweler less worthy than a Medic? She also needed quiet and concentration to do her work. And despite all the whining and dismay, having a specialist who could create “magical” rings, bracelets and pendants with bonuses to statistics and skills came with obvious benefits.

In the end, the Jarg had to move in with Meleyephatian Gunner Eeeezzz 777, who was also joined by the other gunner Taik Rekh the Geckho, who had taken a serious wound to the shoulder in a sparring match. Timka-Vu joined the Geckho twins. Gerd T’yu-Pan and Eduard got Miyelonian Engineer Orun Va-Mart. You couldn’t say everyone was happy, but still they didn’t go against their captain. Meanwhile, I was trying my best to put people from various spacefaring races and worlds together as not to form cliques made up of one species who wouldn’t talk with the rest of the crew.

The only place it turned into an open conflict was the women’s berth. There were just too many different big personalities in one room. The proud and at times cagey Tailaxian Valeri-Urla was unwilling to compromise and blew up any spark of conflict into a raging forest fire. The high-profile Miyelonian Gerd Ayni demanded her roommates observe her elevated status at all times. The noisy and chatty magocratic native San-Sano was actively learning Geckho and wouldn’t shut up even for a second. And we found the limits to phlegmatic German Destroying Angel’s icy calm. Her armor of affected indifference belied a nature that was ready to take sudden action, and it was not always well considered.

If I also considered the fact that the huge Shadow Panther was always near her master Valeri, and that the Dryad Nefertiti simply couldn’t be placed in a men’s berth, we had a truly serious problem on our hands. First and foremost with Nefertiti: the NPC Dryad was entirely uninterested in contact with Geckho or Miyelonians, but I didn’t want to put a half-naked Dryad of loose morals in a bunk with young human men. That would make conflicts inevitable. In the end, we had an unhealthy explosion risk in the women’s berth. Our gorgeous ladies couldn’t even stand a few days in close quarters together. Someone had to go.

“Valeri-Urla will not stay in the captain’s berth!” Princess Minn-O La-Fin immediately named a condition, sensing in the pretty Tailaxian a potential rival. “But I would agree to take in San-Sano. As a matter of fact, I need a servant on the ship.”

But I didn’t appease my wife’s aristocratic nature, instead choosing a different way to solve the conflict. My business partner Gerd Uline Tar, who had long been friendly with Gerd Ayni, agreed to accept the Miyelonian in her personal berth, which had been such a sticking point recently. Destroying Angel then preferred to move into the berth with her brother and the two pilots. There just so happened to be a free cot in there, and none of the men minded.

* * *

Two days in flight before coming out of hyperspace, then a ten-minute pause to calculate the next jump and pump energy into the hyperspace drive. Then another two days in hyperspace... It gets to be a monotonous bore on the one hand. But on the other, it’s a convenient time to build cohesion in your crew. I was trying hard to get all players to spend as little of those four days in the real world as possible, and as much time busy and fraternizing as they could instead of keeping to themselves. Athletic training. Space language lessons for newcomers and others. Keeping watch. Eating breakfast and lunch together. Our Bard gave a solo guitar concert with a mixture of classic Russian bard songs[6], and some of his own composition. A team Na-Tikh-U tournament. Russian Preference[7] for those who wanted to play. Dances. More training. Target practice. Gerd Uline Tar’s birthday – my furry business partner hit her forty-ninth year, the very pinnacle of youth by Geckho standards, when they were thought to be in peak physical condition.

The crew congratulated her with all due gravity, prepared a bunch of pranks for the captain’s first mate (as per Geckho tradition) and gave her some very nice gifts. Furthermore, we had a celebratory dinner and a raucous party. During it, the third Kirsan, which hadn’t yet received its own color was painted by the whole team: we each took one segment of the flat millipede and painted it to our liking. And the ladies didn’t limit themselves to just background, they drew flowers and intricate designs. The repair bot was flailing its feet and whiskers all the time, never tiring of telling us through the Universal Translator that it was happy to have the crew paying it so much attention.

* * *

Right after Tamara the Paladin entered its second hyperspace jump to our final destination, I went into the real world for the first time of the trip. I was seriously worried, because I had no idea what to expect in my new location or whether getting my physical body out from under the Dome had in fact been a success. But it all went smoothly – when I opened the lid of the virt pod, I found myself in a small rectangular room with a typical virt pod fused to the wall. Plastic white panel walls, a cold rough floor, dim diffuse light. The only door obediently slid aside, letting me into a tiny little room with a fold-down table, built-in dresser and data touch screen. The next metal door was locked, and a message in Miyelonian lit up to tell me the door would open automatically after I completed the quarantine procedure. The door itself was shabby and quite scratched up on this side – some predecessor of mine must have been impatient and tried to break it down.

A full course of generalized antibiotics in variously colored pills was already sitting on the table for me to take. In the dresser was a set of new clothes to replace my current ones, which had to be incinerated. The cheap fabric and cut of the garment reminded me of a hospital gown. And the pants were too short and had no belt or waist fastener, so they fell off me very quickly. Nevertheless, I changed clothes and took the medicines as instructed. Only after that did a data panel activate, showing a countdown timer before the doors would open to let me into the rest of the space station. Twelve ummi, or approximately sixty-six hours. There was also a terminal with food and drink on offer, but I didn’t buy anything and just went back into my virt pod.

Once back, I had a surprise waiting – before my eyes was a game message awaiting my decision:

ATTENTION!!! Leader of the Human-25 Faction Gerd Valentina Koval proposes unification with the Relict Faction on the following terms: the Human-25 Faction shall become a vassal of the Relict Faction. Do you accept? (Yes/No)

 

Very strange. Not knowing what happened when the ferry brought the Relict Faction landing party and builders to the larger continent, not knowing the overall situation with the aggressive NPC Orcs and other neighbors, I couldn’t take such an important decision blind. And why vassal status rather than simply joining my faction outright? Was Gerd Valentina Koval prepared to accept vassal status, but not to allow my players access to her laboratories? And how would the curators feel about one of the Russian factions coming under my care? There were too many unanswered questions, so I refused and pressed “No.” Then I sent Minn-O into the real world to have a talk with chief advisor Gerd Mac-Peu Un-Roi to find out all the details.

* * *

We were still underway. Back to training on the exercise machines and shooting practice. Both team and individual exercises. Individual fights, team fights, close combat work. I had to intervene in a spar for the first time. The Shadow Panther, who was utter calm up until that point, unexpectedly perceived Valeri’s fight with Taik-Rekh the Gunner as an attack on her master. And she sunk her teeth into the huge Geckho’s just barely healed right forearm. Little Sister was actually aiming for the neck, but the fighter managed to dodge and throw up an arm. I immediately used Psionic and stunned the huge beast, and the unfeeling Shadow Panther was carried off and locked up. But still we had to stop the fights for a bit. The tear wound caused a huge amount of blood to pool on the floor. I suspect that if a player with less hitpoints had been in Taik-Rekh’s place, they’d be dead and respawning on Kasti-Utsh III which would leave us down a crew member until the very end of our journey. Fortunately, that was the only critical moment of our whole four-day flight.

But in any case, the four days stood out for me as packed with events and full of tension. In that time, I raised my Psionic and Mysticism by a whole three points to 110 and 54 respectively. That’s right, I had to do a lot of mental influencing, convincing, reassuring, and invisibly pushing. I raised Targeting to 50, Rifles to 66 and Sharpshooter to 51. And during yet another Meleyephatian language lesson, I ended up hitting level 100 in Astrolinguistics and 99 overall at the same time!

Out of many possible perks to Astrolinguistics, I chose to learn written languages at an advanced pace. Reading text in other languages was something my Gnat had to do often, so it really came in handy. And that left me with six free skill points, which I invested into Medium Armor, bringing it up to 85 (I had gotten one level the “natural” way by essentially constantly wearing my Energy Armor).

* * *

Those days really exhausted me, emotionally most of all. And my passion-filled nights with Minn-O La-Fin were just what I needed to relax and blow off steam. My beautiful wife had become better versed in amorous play, and was eager to try anything new at times losing control over herself, giving herself up to her feelings and holding nothing back. My Authority even went up at one such intimate moment. I suspect the sound isolation on the frigate may have been a bit lacking.

Once when we were lying in bed embracing after a storm of passion, I admitted to Minn-O that I had known about her pregnancy for a long time.

“You’re going to have a boy!” I told her what I knew about the fetus from my scans. “And our boy is already a Psionic Mage with sensitivity to magic, a true successor to the ancient La-Fin dynasty.”

“Yes, Medic Gerd Mauu-La has already told me the gender. But I didn’t suspect you also knew... Well, all the better. I have been wracking my brains over how to get the child out of the game and into the real world for the last few days. Thumor-Anhu said it was possible. But for the life of me, I don’t know how...”

I reassured my wife that there was nothing especially complicated in the procedure. I had read through all the subtleties in the Miyelonians’ data reference system. Once the pregnancy entered late stage, we’d be able to see the “future player’s” base characteristics. He still wouldn’t have a name or class, we’d only see race, gender, level zero and a life bar. Thankfully, with my Scanning skill, I could already see more than others would see months down the line. Or perhaps I was helped by the fact my Scanning skill was somewhat distinct from the usual kind and used Magic Points.

In one way or another, even incomplete information about the fetus was enough for the mother to be able to enlist the unborn child in their clan/faction/pride and thus request a free virt pod be made available for the new player. The optimal time for “entering information about a new player” was thought to be ten ummi before birth. That gave the “new player” time to get their own virt pod before being born. Meanwhile, a boy would be born in the real world as well and, when the mother came out into the real world, he would disappear from the game along with her and appear in his own virt pod in the real world. Easy peasy!

Sure, there were certain risks that had to be considered as well. Like a child could become an NPC if assigned to a faction too early, thus becoming independent in the game before its time. A child would also become an NPC if the parents did not take care to provide a virt pod before birth. But that wasn’t the scariest possible outcome. A mother being pregnant in the game was accompanied by a pregnancy in the real world, but trying to give birth outside the game to a child conceived in it would kill the baby in all realities, often also leading to the death of the mother. There was more information about the late pregnancy (I didn’t see about people specifically, the article was only about Miyelonians, so it specified “late” as beginning at one hundred twelve days) saying that any death of the woman in the game could cause the fetus to be lost, and the farther along she was, the higher the risk. And that went all the way up to 100% guaranteed loss of fetus if the mother died and respawned in the game during the last few days of the pregnancy.

“In other words,” Minn-O decided to clarify, “soon I won’t be able to die in the game that bends reality. And as soon as I feel the first contractions, I should send a request to the faction leader, i.e. you. You can add our son to the Relict faction and, after birth, he will appear not only in the game, but also in the real world. Which of the worlds will he appear in: yours or mine? After all, the Relict Faction could have free virt pods in either one.”

Good question... I honestly admitted that I did not know the answer. But I immediately reassured my wife that, no matter what, our boy would be provided a suitable exit point, and my faction would come up with a way to provide for mother and child to be together.

Minn-O spent some time in silence, thinking strenuously. I could sense my wife’s worry and could have read her thoughts, but I didn’t. Among mages that was considered bad form. Finally, my wayedda admitted what exactly had her so worried:

“It’s been more than three days already, but Gerd Tamara still hasn’t shown up next to her virt pod. It’s very strange. And even more strange is that the rebels are broadcasting propaganda videos with Tamara in them from illegal stations hidden in hard-to-reach locations. And the Paladin girl is calling for open rebellion, seizing weaponry and slaughtering any and all mages. Your stupid girlfriend must have found some other way to enter the game.”

It really was strange... I for one did not know any way to change virt pods from the real world. Although Gerd Tamara, to put it lightly was strange and attempting to understand what she had planned was doomed to failure. Even knowing about the seven- or eight-day limit one could spend outside the game, Tamara might have consciously chosen to sacrifice herself. Or she might have been afraid of an ambush and thus avoiding her virt pod.

Meanwhile, based on Minn-O’s words, the anti-mage uprising in the First Directory had not been quelled, and attacks on the mages were only growing more frequent. The military advisors of the La-Fin dynasty even said they were no longer convinced of the loyalty of several First Directory military groups. Furthermore, the rebellion had spread geographically, and flare-ups of anti-mage violence had been recorded in the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Directories as well. My wife even told me she was afraid her world might belong to Gerd Tamara’s fanatics before our son was born, and there would be no room for a magically talented child in it.

I promised Minn-O not to let that happen. She immediately settled down and nuzzled up to my shoulder, smiling placidly. I on the other hand couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, thinking over the poorly timed uprising. Should I turn my ship around and go back to Earth? Stupid. Especially with the hidden Relict base where I was planning to pick up my combat drones and possibly luck my way into useful technologies and artifacts less than one day’s flight away.

Offer to negotiate with the leaders of the uprising? No, there’s no point trying to reason with fanatics. They are deaf to rational argument. Still, most of the people fighting under such loudmouth leaders were in fact decent folk who could (and had to) be reasoned with. This simply was not the time for civil unrest, and I thought they could understand. We had a bigger task at hand – saving humanity. Yes the mage-rulers were cruel and at times treated their subjects brutally. But space invaders would be much less kind, and you didn’t have to look far to find examples. Tailax – enslaved, the Gilvar Syndicate – enslaved. Other planets had been wiped out by the Meleyephatian Horde. In some cases, whole races were pulled up by the root, often not leaving so much as a name behind. The people want the best future for their children? I want the same for my child. So in many ways our goals coincide. However, a good future would be absolutely impossible with our planet in the hands of occupying aliens.

But why wasn’t Tamara entering the game? And what language was she conducting the propaganda in, or talking with her allies for that matter? As far as I knew, the former leader of the Second Legion didn’t know how to speak the language of the magocratic world. Maybe she wasn’t being translated properly in the propaganda clips, and they were perverting her words? Unfortunately, I didn’t have any answers to these questions yet.


Chapter Thirty-Two. Jump into the Unknown

“CAPTAIN, THERE’S NOTHING larger nearby!” Ayukh the Navigator looked at the data in the star reference guide and on our instruments again and again. “The largest asteroid is half the size of our frigate.”

I could see that for myself. The asteroid belt of the H9045/WE star system had absolutely no large objects in it, and I was running into this rare occurrence for the first time. Usually, among millions of smaller ice and rock chunks, there were a few at least a third of a mile in length or even several miles. But here, the largest object was a gnarled and flame-kissed iron-nickel asteroid no more than one-hundred-fifteen feet along its very longest axis. Just in case, we flew up closer and gave it a scan, but it was the most average asteroid you could imagine, containing no hidden surprises whatsoever. Meanwhile, scanning the dust cloud revealed only objects around the size of fine grained sand particles.

And nevertheless, there must have been something in the unusual H9045/WE system. I could still see the Small and Large Relict Guard Drones in my drone tab, and even order them to fly to me. Flight time for both drones was around three minutes, so there was nothing stopping me from simply summoning the pair. However, I was in no rush. After all, the drones were not merely drifting through space – otherwise, we’d have picked them up on the frigate’s scanning systems. No, they were inside an invisible object of some kind that none of our scanners could detect. If I removed the drones from it, finding the camouflaged Relict base would turn into a total crapshoot!

“Slight advance toward the red star. We’ll try a game of hot and cold.”

The Shadow Panther lying at my feet suddenly began to purr and rub up against me. After the time she attacked an allied player in a sparring match and learned her painful lesson, Little Sister hadn’t left my side for a second and was constantly trying to atone for her guilt.

“Hey now, out of my way!” I pushed her slobbery snout. “Go see Valeri.”

Little Sister jerked her tail in offense and left the captain’s bridge, disappearing as she went. I then asked the drones their flight time again. Three minutes twenty seconds. The time had slightly increased.

“Dmmmitry, turn the frigate around! We’re getting farther away. We need to go the opposite direction. Yes, great! Time is pressing.”

We changed the ship’s vector several times, gradually coming closer. Two and a half minutes. One minute forty seconds. Now just one minute. But still we couldn’t see anything! The locator, lidar and even gravity scanner couldn’t detect any objects in our direct flight path.

The Large Relict Drone was twenty seconds away. Okay, I think that’s enough! The last thing we need now is for Tamara the Paladin to slam into some invisible object at high speed. I ordered the pilots to disengage thrusters and stop the starship.

“Small Relict Guard Drone, come to me!”

There it is! From out of nowhere, just a few miles away from our ship, a metal sphere the size of a basketball suddenly materialized in the void of space and was immediately detected by the locators and other ship systems.

“We’ve found it! The Relict base is just over a mile away!” I shouted into the microphone in a frenzy, wanting to share my elation with the team.

“That’s just great, Captain Gnat! We’ll take it from here!” an unfamiliar whistling voice suddenly came over the intercom speaking Geckho with a very strong Meleyephatian accent. At the same time, several ships of Meleyephatian origin appeared just a few miles from my frigate.

Two cloaked frigates, a light cruiser, an assault cruiser and a long-distance scout ship. Almost at once, all five of the ships turned into red markers on the tactical map. Enemies!!!

Danger Sense skill increased to level eighty-eight!

“Dmitry, full speed ahead!” I shouted before I even read the next message. “Combat alert!!! Ayukh, get us out of battle! We need coordinates to enter a hyperjump quick!”

The frigate’s siren started wailing, my crew ran to their posts. I was pressed back into my seat with triple force, but this time I was delighted by the G forces, in fact wishing the ship could go even faster. We started getting farther from the enemies. I even had a flicker of hope that we’d manage to escape. After all, Tamara the Paladin had pretty sporty acceleration.

“We’re being targeted! We’re under attack!” Copilot San-Doon shouted in alarm.

And our forcefield really did take a slight dip. The two cloaked frigates first started firing from their laser cannons, then the other ships as well. It wasn’t critical yet – Tamara the Paladin had a strong shield, but still it wasn’t nice. Much worse was that we got “caught” by their combat electronics! That robbed us of our biggest advantage: speed!

“Captain, we have been hit with a hyperdrive disruptor and two stasis nets! Three nets now! We’re losing speed fast!” Dmitry Zheltov commented in a surprisingly calm voice as if telling me about the weather forecast back home.

Our main thruster started wailing in strain, working at the edge of its capability. But nevertheless our starship was slowing down. Our speed couldn’t save us now. And our hyperspace drive was blocked. We couldn’t beat them in a fight either – their firepower was significantly higher than ours.

“You’ll have to give me my ship back!” only after that did I finally recognize the nasty voice. I don’t know how Leng Sooweesssh Eleven managed to get off the Miyelonian station or how he found me, but it was the leader of the Nest of the Horde Frontrunners. I had no doubts.

“Keep dreaming! I’d rather blow this frigate to smithereens than let you take it back from me!”

I placed a marker on the probable location of the hidden Relict base. I didn’t have any idea what exactly was there, but it was our only chance.

“Pilots, accelerate in that direction! We’ll try to hide behind the space distortion shield! Gunners, fire at the nearest frigate with all cannons! I’ve placed a targeting marker on it!”

Electronics skill increased to level ninety-three!

Targeting skill increased to level fifty-one!

What, don’t like that?! The enemy frigate took a few hits and started dodging maneuvers, simultaneously accelerating to leave the battlefield. Cloakers generally had weak shields because their camouflage systems used too much energy. So a cloaked frigate couldn’t stand up against concentrated fire from nine laser cannons for long.

“Going somewhere? Nuts to you! You won’t make it!” I shouted. And literally at the last second, we managed to place a disruptor and stasis net on the ship, not letting the cloaked frigate escape. Half a mile from us, space was lit up by a bright explosion. One opponent down!

Targeting skill increased to level fifty-two!

Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred five!

You have reached level one hundred!

You have received three skill points!

Congratulations! You have unlocked three additional skill slots!!!

Any other time, I’d be celebrating the landmark level and the ability to choose three new skills for Gnat, but I could not think about that now. Our ship was sure to perish. Even though it was a twinbody, and the shield was enhanced and firepower improved, Tamara the Paladin was still a frigate and couldn’t stand up against two cruisers in a firefight in open space.

“You wanna know how I found you?” the Meleyephatian Spy asked, getting on my nerves. “Because you have MY ship! It’s unique, it’s my pride and joy! It still holds many secrets you never uncovered. I heard every word spoken on the frigate and was tracking your every move, human. I know about the ancient Relict base in the H9045/WE system and we even got here first. Do you really think an experienced Spy couldn’t get off of the Kasti-Utsh III trade station? It was no problem for me! I even got here before you. We checked the whole system and couldn’t find anything. But you found it for us!”

He was lying about the ship! I scanned the whole thing, every berth, every utility area, but I never found any bugs or any other espionage equipment. Although... maybe he wasn’t lying? How else could he know so many of my secrets?

Tamara the Paladin’s defensive shield was falling before my very eyes, especially when the enemy assault cruiser’s cannons hit. The Mirosssh-Pakh II was the main combat ship of the Meleyephatian Horde. It combined massive firepower and a sturdy defensive shield, the workhorse of most interstellar conflicts in modern times. By the way, the starships were assembled for the Meleyephatian Horde on subjugated Tailax.

All my attempts to take out the targeting system on that highly dangerous enemy ship with combat electronics ended in failure. The assault cruiser was still firing, and every volley it landed sharply reduced our frigate’s shield.

Thirty percent. Eighteen. Seventeen. Two percent...

I tried to launch both of our torpedoes at the enemy Mirosssh-Pakh II cruiser, and it looked like a gesture of despair – both of the missiles were destroyed by the cruiser’s high-speed cannons before they even got close. We were done for. No more shield. We would not survive another shot.

I summoned the Large Relict Guard Drone into the firefight to help the two Small ones, and they got the second cloaked frigate out of the fight. But it didn’t wait around to meet the same tragic fate as its counterpart, just hyperjumped away. With one less stasis net on Tamara the Paladin, our frigate started to accelerate again. Were we really going to make it?

But then... At first I didn’t notice, but my Large Guard Drone was dashed to pieces by a direct shot from something very powerful and deadly. Then it hit our frigate as well. The rough blow just about made me fall out of my seat, and I painfully hit my left hand on a work panel. My eyes went dark from the sharp pain. I think I broke my wrist. The lights flickered on the starship and the characteristic siren rang out to say we’d lost pressure. Damn! They did hit us after all!

“Captain, the tail section of the frigate has been hit! We lost our hyperdrive!” there wasn’t even a trace of Dmitry Zheltov’s former calm left. The Starship Pilot was shouting in panic at this point.

And I understood his despair perfectly well. With no hyperspace drive, we could not leave this star system. Flying to a neighboring system in normal space would take years. Hundreds and thousands of years, in fact. With no hyperdrive, this was no longer even a starship in the literal sense of the word, just a ship for leisurely flights inside a system. And the captain’s tablet showed me that our troubles were not limited to a lost hyperdrive. The cargo hold had been completely destroyed, the right corridor took damage and the two outermost residential berths as well. Our right stabilizer was missing a big chunk, and so was one of the laser cannons.

“Uline, report on losses in the crew!” I demanded, but my first mate’s answer was not forthcoming.

The terrified voice of Medic Gerd Mauu-La did ring out in my headphones though:

“Leng Gnat, Gerd Uline Tar is dead! The explosion also killed Kisly, Gerd T’yu-Pan and Timka-Vu. Gerd Ayni has been severely wounded and is losing blood! I’m evacuating her from the depressurized section, then I’ll try to stem the bleeding.”

Looks like this is the end... One more hit, though it was glancing, and the frigate was destroyed in all new places. And then, when no hope remained... our starship started to creep through the distortion field surrounding the Relict base! From my workstation, it looked like our ship’s two fuselages poked into a colorful soap bubble, then went inside.

The image on the large wall screen changed. The whole “bubble” of camouflage was in fact tiny, a mere thousand feet in diameter. Our frigate’s left nose casing was just about touching the inclined steel spindle of the small space station!

“Stop the ship!!!” I shouted to the pilots. Thankfully, they’d already seen and were able to avoid a rough collision.

Just one mile away, outside the bubble, we could still see the Meleyephatian ships in space. By the looks of things, they lost track of us as soon as Tamara the Paladin entered the secret location behind the distortion screen!

Danger Sense skill increased to level eight-nine!

Eagle Eye skill increased to level ninety-four!

Cartography skill increased to level eighty-three!

Before my eyes, a bright red warning appeared in Relict on my helmet’s faceplate:

Security system not detecting adequate response. Identify yourself immediately or you will be destroyed!

A second later, the very same message was repeated word for word on the monitor of the frigate’s communication system. Despite the threatening content of the message I was in fact delighted to be able to communicate with ancient automated systems, and to have the chance to show off my knowledge of the ancient language:

“I am Leng Gnat the Listener! I am here in service of an assignment from the Pyramid to collect two drones that belong to me.”

No answer followed, and the ghastly sensation of death on the horizon didn’t leave me, so I quickly continued:

“I have earned the gratitude of the hierarchs for transmitting highly important data to the Pyramid and have been given permission to use level-three modifications on my armor. I am here in pursuit of a special assignment from the Relict hierarchs!”

Finally the alarming message disappeared. The automatic security system had made up its mind about the man that disturbed its millennia of peace:

Listener, right to visit confirmed. Access to research base permitted. Docking permitted.

Awesome!!! Just a minute earlier, I was mentally prepared to die and respawn at the far-off Kasti-Utsh III station, but now I was about to jump and shout for joy.

“Captains, the Meleyephatians have lost us! They’re no longer shooting!” San-Doon the Pilot couldn’t contain his emotions and shouted in elation, but I called for silence with a gesture – I was still communicating with the security system and couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Listener, we require clarification of the status of the ships beyond the perimeter. System not detecting adequate response. Listener, is that your escort?

“No, they are enemies! They were searching for this Relict research base and even attacked my ship!”

Fame increased to 92.

“Human, where are you hiding? It doesn’t matter, I’ll find you soon enough! You can’t hide from me!” despite the threats, the voice of the leader of the Nest of the Horde Frontrunners contained a certain amount of uncertainty and bewilderment.

But overall, the level-211 Spy had the right idea. All three Meleyephatian starships changed course and headed straight for the bubble concealing the secret Relict base.

Two absolutely identical texts appeared on the inside of my helmet and onscreen:

Listener, correction. They are not searching. They HAVE FOUND the secret research base. Location no longer secure. Defensive transportation protocol initiated. Random coordinate selection underway. Hyperspace jump calculation underway. Listener, your ship and this entire research complex will be transported to a random point in the Universe.

Transport will commence in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1.. TRANSPORT!!!


End of Book Five

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Deadman's Retinue (An NPC's Path Book #3) LitRPG Series

by Pavel Kornev

New LitRPG Series!!!

Adam Online Book #1, 2 LitRPG Series

by Max Lagno

New Pre-orders!

Avatar of Light (Interworld Network Book #2) LitRPG Series

by Dmitry Bilik

The Wastes (Underdog Book # 2) LitRPG Series

by Alexey Osadchuk

Level Up: Update (The Knockout Book #2) LitRPG Series

by Dan Sugralinov

New Pré-commande (French Edition)!

Testeur de trames (L’Herboriste sombre Volume 1) Série LitRPG

de Michael Atamanov

ALL BOOKS BY MICHAEL ATAMANOV:

Perimeter Defense LitRPG Series:

Sector Eight (Perimeter Defense: Book #1)

Beyond Death (Perimeter Defense Book #2)

New Contract (Perimeter Defense Book #3)

A Game with No Rules (Perimeter Defense Book #4)

The Dark Herbalist LitRPG Series:

Video Game Plotline Tester (The Dark Herbalist Book #1)

Stay on the Wing (The Dark Herbalist Book #2)

A Trap for the Potentate (The Dark Herbalist Book #3)

Finding a Body (The Dark Herbalist Book #4)

Reality Benders LitRPG Series:

Countdown (Reality Benders Book #1)

External Threat (Reality Benders Book #2)

Game Changer (Reality Benders Book #3)

Web of Worlds (Reality Benders Book #4)

A Jump into the Unknown (Reality Benders Book #5)

Short Stories:

You're in Game!

(LitRPG Stories from Bestselling Authors)

You’re In Game-2

(More LitRPG stories set in your favorite worlds!)




In order to have new books of the series translated faster, we need your help and support! Please consider leaving a review or spread the word by recommending A Jump into the Unknown to your friends and posting the link on social media. The more people buy the book, the sooner we’ll be able to make new translations available.

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About the Author

MICHAEL ATAMANOV was born in 1975 in Grozny, Chechnia. He excelled at school, winning numerous national science and writing competitions. Having graduated with honors, he entered Moscow University to study material engineering. Soon, however, he had no home to return to: their house was destroyed during the first Chechen campaign. Michael’s family fled the war, taking shelter with some relatives in Stavropol Territory in the South of Russia.

Having graduated from the University, Michael was forced to accept whatever work was available. He moonlighted in chemical labs, loaded trucks, translated technical articles, worked as a software installer and scene shifter for local artists and events. At the same time he never stopped writing, even when squatting in some seedy Moscow hostels. Writing became an urgent need for Michael. He submitted articles to science publications, penned news fillers for a variety of web sites and completed a plethora of technical and copywriting gigs.

Then one day unexpectedly for himself he started writing fairy tales and science fiction novels. For several years, his audience consisted of only one person: Michael’s elder son. Then, at the end of 2014 he decided to upload one of his manuscripts to a free online writers resource. Readers liked it and demanded a sequel. Michael uploaded another book, and yet another, his audience growing as did his list. It was his readers who helped Michael hone his writing style. He finally had the breakthrough he deserved when the Moscow-based EKSMO - the biggest publishing house in Europe - offered him a contract for his first and consequent books.

Michael is now the author of three bestselling LitRPG series: Perimeter Defense, The Dark Herbalist and Reality Benders which are already considered the classics of LitRPG.


[1] The Cossacks were a loosely organized frontier people who lived in paramilitary communities in modern-day Ukraine during the middle ages. One of their defining features was a sort of democratic self-organizing.

[2]Pyrrhus was a king of antiquity and second cousin of Alexander the Great. After he lost nearly his entire army in a hard-fought victory over the Roman army at Asculum in 279 BC, he is reported to have said: “One more such victory and we are undone.” Ever since, the term pyrrhic victory has meant a victory that comes at too high a cost, and which is essentially equivalent to defeat.

[3] Tumen – a tactical unit of Genghis Khan's Mongol army consisting of ten thousand riders.

[4] Vladimir Vysotsky was a famous and widely loved Soviet bard or folk musician who often clashed with the government. This line comes from his Song About a Friend, originally released on the soundtrack to Vertical, the 1967 film about mountain climbers.

[5] A militant folk dance of the Caucasus region typically in a frantic 6/8 time.

[6] A genre of stripped-down singer-songwriter music popular in the 60’s and 70’s in the Soviet Union typified by the often illicit and political works of Vladimir Vysotsky.

[7] A Russian card game.


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