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The Weirdest Noob



Chapter 1


Darkness is never quite impenetrable. You can always make out something, even if the room is unlit, there are no windows, and your eyes are shut tight: barely discernible white dots scattered in abundance, pale spatters, and vague, fleeting images. As if someone had loaded a movie projector with a scratched roll of overexposed film and decided to use the inside of your eyelids for a screen.


He didn’t need to be told what that meant. He remembered everything—or, rather, everything up to the moment there was a flash inside the hangar. It may have been the very last time he saw light.


He no longer had a visual cortex in his brain—or, at best, it was severely damaged. Even if his eyes had survived, which was unlikely, he no longer had any centers for them to transfer information to. He could come up with no other explanation.


And the visual cortex was hardly a tiny spot in the cerebral periphery. His brain may have been damaged in several places, and seriously so. Basically, given the power behind that flash—the final one—it was a wonder he still found himself alive and even capable of rational thought.


But what if he wasn’t alive? Death is beyond one’s knowledge, after all. Notwithstanding the wealth of information accumulated by humankind, no one has so far managed to provide a coherent answer to the question of what happens next.


It is hard for an atheist to believe in the existence of a higher power, but he wouldn’t be much surprised to see a shining tunnel with winged figures and celestial music in front of him.


But there was no tunnel—nor did any winged angels arrive to carry away his mortal soul. Instead, he heard a strange voice.


Day ninety-eight. Testing, one, two, three. Can you hear me? If you can, please try to respond or react in some way. We can see that your stats have changed, but we don’t know if you’re conscious.”


That didn’t sound much like a divine voice. But it didn’t much resemble a human voice, either—it had no personality and sounded a bit metallic, as though produced by a speech synthesizer. Regardless of the situation, he wasn’t quite so confused that it would interfere with normal perception of reality. He nearly instantly realized that his assumptions concerning the damage to the visual cortex were indirectly confirmed. They were trying to reach him with the aid of his hearing sense. Given the absence of background noises, he probably had no ears, either, and they were transmitting the information by direct stimulation of the auricular nerve or the auditory cortex.


So what did he have, after all? Was there anything left?!…


“I can hear you. Can you hear me, too?”


“Please repeat that. I’m adjusting the settings, the distortions are too great…”


“I can hear you. One, two, three, four…”


That will do. We hear you well. You’re about to have an important conversation. Please stand by.”


It is hard to judge the passage of time with nothing to stimulate the senses. It seemed like an eternity to him. But everything is finite, and eventually the metallic voice broke the silence again:


Congratulations. We have already abandoned hope. You are back from the dead. How are you feeling?”


I can’t really say. I have a question of my own—just how much of me has managed to come back from the dead? What about my body? And the others, the ones who were next to me—what about them?”


“Unfortunately, I can give no answer. No precise answer, that is. You would have to ask the doctors.”


“Aren’t you a doctor?”


“No, I’m not. You should remember me—I’m Steve Edkins.


“I do. You were in charge of HR on our project.”


“Quite so. I did, however, get promoted since then.”


Since then? It happened yesterday. I saw you just yesterday.”


No, you didn’t. Or, rather, that was your yesterday. I regret to inform you that you have spent some time in a coma.”


“How long?”


You should really ask the doctors. They requested that I don’t mention such information.”


Then why am I talking to you, and not to them?”


They are making this conversation feasible. There are a few matters of paramount importance that we need to discuss ASAP. We have summoned an attorney from the legal department—we’ll go through all the legal details once he’s here. Please stand by a while longer.”


Details? Discuss? Inasmuch as I understand, the situation with my body is really deplorable. Why would I talk to the company representative and to its lawyers? Could you clarify that, please? Or did the doctors prohibit even that?”


“I’m not a lawyer, so it’s a bit hard for me…”


Try it, anyway.”


All right. I’ll be brief. I cannot provide any commentary concerning your condition, but it is the result of a workplace injury. On behalf of the management, I would like to express my sincere…”


“You said you’d be brief.”


I’m sorry. According to your job contract, the company covers the medical bills in such cases. There are, however, certain restrictions. In particular, we do not pay for treatment overseas. Organ deliveries from abroad are also out. There are a few more items. In your case, the payments have been made in full, and still are. We were prepared to carry on in the same vein, but your unexpected regaining of consciousness after the coma has thwarted our plans somewhat.”


“Plans? I hope you mean treatment plans?”


I’m sorry to say it, but a full treatment is problematic in your case. We could more or less guarantee that life support would work for as long as you remained in a coma. Having regained consciousness, you have created a problem for your body.”


Why do I even need a body if it cannot be treated?”


I admire your ability to assess your condition with such calmness. It is indeed a dire situation, but medical science keeps making advances. There already are some experimental technologies that may be of use in your case.”


So you’re suggesting that I try experimental treatment?”


Not quite, no—you have misunderstood. More like, you’re going to need to wait for new treatment methods to become available. The safest way of doing it is in a state of artificially-induced coma. That would cause your body less stress; also, conscious waiting may cause you severe psychological damage.”


“If I understand correctly, you suggest that I enter a state of coma voluntarily?”


Indeed. There is a method for it, and it’s one hundred percent safe.”


It is the doctors that should be assessing safety, and I don’t see them anywhere.”


You can talk to your doctor right away, but I’m afraid he’ll offer you the same. There is no alternative.”


There’s always an alternative.”


I have heard a lot about your outstanding talents, but I’d be most surprised if you managed to find another way. I wouldn’t say that remaining in your present situation is really a viable option—it is basically a less obvious form of euthanasia.”


I want to talk to an attorney.”


He’ll be here shortly.”


“Am I in a clinic?”


“You are.”


“Have you stood watch here waiting for me to come to my senses?”


“Why, of course not.”


“So you came over physically? It’s hard for me to judge the passage of time, but it seemed like it wasn’t that long.”


“I connected using the medical department’s equipment in our laboratory facilities.”


“So the lawyer is walking over from the administrative block?”


That’s right.”


“Tell him to head back once he gets here.”


“Why? What for?”


“I do indeed need an attorney, but I want mine, not yours.”


The company does not cover third party—”


Did I mention you having to cover anything? Kindly get in touch with Morrison and Fenton right away—they’re located in the Bay Area. Please tell Mr. Fenton that I would like him to represent me. Should he agree, please fill him in on the situation and ask him to get in touch with me at once. Am I right to assume that I may not have much of it left?”


Well, yes, your condition… You don’t need me to say it. And I want to assure you that you gain nothing by rejecting our attorney. Please understand that no one is planning anything that would be to your detriment, it’s just that the situation—“


“I’m sorry to be interrupting you again, but we both understand that time is money. Please hurry up.”


“All right. Hold on a bit.”


And so he had to face the dark once again, but this time he became immersed in contemplation instead of admiring its impenetrable blackness. The conversation with Edkins was pretty useful—he got what he had wanted, and there weren’t even any tangible objections. That is, if he really conversed with Edkins and not his own schizophrenia locked up in the remnants of his brain disfigured by the explosion. What next? Was there an alternative? And would Fenton be able to find one? Well, Fenton himself was unlikely to do anything of the sort. However, if Edkins managed to get in touch with him and none other, he would most likely delegate the whole thing to White—that is, if he agreed to get involved in the first place. And White was someone capable of finding a ceremonial exit from a gas chamber, with a liveried doorman without a single speck of dust standing to either side.


White also owed him a favor, and one felt compelled to believe that he wasn’t one to forget such things.


This could indeed be schizophrenia… So how could White help him out in a situation as dire as this? He should really be thinking of coma or euthanasia—which amount to the same thing—rather than lawyers.


“Can you hear me, John?”


“Steve, I would really feel much better if you called me Yevgeny.”


“Sure, Yevgeny, whichever you prefer.”


A dying man has his perks—everyone is eager to oblige your whims, including calling you by your God-given name, rather than its Anglicized version. A small consolation, but you take what you get.


“We have gotten in touch with Mr. Morrison. He has agreed to take on your case. His employee John White will handle it.”


“When can I talk to him?”


He has already departed to join us here—it is closer than the clinic. I can’t tell you when exactly he will arrive, but he has already requested to be sent all the materials pertaining to your situation so as to peruse them en route.”


Could White have hired a personal driver? Unlikely—he must really trust his autopilot.


Could I talk to the doctors in the meantime?”


“Yes, of course.”


Not the best decision to have made. Assuming everything to be bad is one thing; hearing a dead metallic voice give you a list of gruesome details is quite another.


It wasn’t just bad—it was curtains. How odd it was that someone still deemed his pitiful remnants worthy of a conversation, let alone an attorney. The patient’s capacity to function was dubious to say the least.


Little wonder, then, that this pitiful rump of a formerly young and healthy body in top physical shape felt reluctant to stay in this world—there wasn’t much for it left to do. It was only the fact that they had managed to get him from the burnt-out lab to a deep resuscitation capsule in less than five minutes that kept him hanging on to life among the ruins of his former glory.


Edkins might be some kind of bastard, but he was right—he wouldn’t last long in his current condition. Days? More like hours. Most likely, he’d just lose his mind peering into the darkness and counting the remaining moments of his existence. He could already imagine something hostile in the dark—a carnivorous presence licking its lips as it drew ever closer. The mind needed to be stimulated in some way, but there was nothing here besides Steve’s metallic voice, and so his imagination was trying to fill in the gaps.


This mechanical voice could drive one crazy much quicker than the impenetrable darkness.


Jenya1, can you hear me?”


Not the Anglicized John; not Yevgeny or Ross, either. Just the informal “Jenya.”


That had to be White.


Whaddup, mah dawg? Where ya been? Rollin’ down the street, smokin’ indo, sippin’ on gin and juice?”


“Come again?”


Gotta say whaddup to mah homie White. Even though it pains me to see a proud black man with such a name.”


“I see you took a correspondence course in Ebonics.”


Foh shizzle, mah nizzle.”


In between lapses in cerebral activity filled with classic gangster rap. Look, I know you’re a fan, and I know you well enough in general. Try to prove me you’re just screwing around in a situation that isn’t particularly conducive to humor, or I’ll start believing all those people telling me you’re damaged goods. I’ll even overlook this sudden and alarmingly offensive bout of wiggerism.”


Check it, homie. You know Edkins, right?”


“I do now.”


Well, just so you’re aware: his voice sounds just like yours, the way I hear it here. And the same goes for the doctor I spoke to earlier.”


I get it. You are trying to emphasize certain aspects of our communication in order to see whether or not I’m an impostor. So what’s your verdict?”


“How did I meet your cat?”


You stepped on his tail, and brought him some crème fraîche to make up for it. That was the start of a long and beautiful friendship.”


Hi, John.”


Ah, so you finally recognize me. Only you could have started with the cat instead of giving me that half-assed Snoop Dogg impersonation.”


“Sorry, I’ve been really nervous here.”


Don’t worry about it.”


“Haven’t seen you in a while.”


Yeah. It hurts seeing you like this…”


“Look, I don’t have much time, so let’s tone down the drama a bit.”


“I’ll skip the part with the tears, then.”


And note that Edkins is likely to be eavesdropping.”


“I gathered as much.”


“Did they fill you in on my case? Have you managed to read everything?”


Everything they’ve given me. You got injured as a result of an explosion in the lab. You’re the sole survivor out of the six lab personnel. You were lucky that you’d been testing a deep resuscitation capsule. They barely managed to get you inside it in time. This was followed by over three months of coma, an artificial lung, the removal of your digestive tract… Anyway, they should have told you all about it.”


“They sure did. They let the patient know everything in this country.”


That’s not the way they do it in yours?”


Well, it varies, but they sure like to lay it on with a trowel.”


Jenya, you wanted us to help you. How exactly can we do that?”


They want to put me in a coma again. I’d like to know if it’s terminal. What are my options?”


There’s a chance of getting you back on your feet. A new body, cloned.”


Does the technology already exist?”


“It doesn’t officially, but people have been growing them privately on the sly. Not in this country, of course, but anything is possible south of the border.”


“My medical contract doesn’t cover treatment overseas.”


I know. Moreover, it features a fixed sum, beyond which you won’t get a cent. And your bill is already dangerously close to the contract’s limit. Growing a clone would require an eight-digit sum, possibly even more. You cannot have anything of the sort done officially, since the whole procedure is illegal. It takes years to grow a clone, and it manages to develop an identity of its own in the process. What you actually end up with is premeditated murder—a fully-formed human being is dismantled for spares for his or her genetic double, harried by time and disease. The technology of the so-called “brainless clones” will be tested within the next couple of years. However, you don’t have those years—nor do you possess a savings account with a sufficient number of zeroes. Apart from that, your brain is damaged, and to a significant extent. Even if the transplantation is a success, the best scenario is you would end up a cripple, since the problem of mediated transfer hasn’t been solved, although there are certain interesting developments in this respect, and some experts believe we’re about to see a breakthrough.”


And you’re calling this an option?”


“Well… it is, in theory.”


“Yeah, but from a practical viewpoint, we have just wasted some time.”


“This is useful information. You should take it into account before we go any further.”


Further? Are there any other options?”


“Three of them.”


“An abundance of choice, in other words… I hope they aren’t of the same sort.”


They aren’t. Firstly, you can agree to what Edkins suggests. This will be followed by a state of coma and suspended animation. In theory, you can spend thirty or forty years in that state. What remains of the company’s obligations, as well as your own means and those of your parents should suffice to keep you going as long as it takes, or almost suffice.”


My parents?”


“Yes, we have already gotten in touch with them.”


“They’re hardly rich.”


“Neither are you.”


Though in five years’ time—”


“Which we don’t have.”


“What are the other options?”


The second option is that they pull the plug on you once you state your wishes explicitly under Amendment No. 143 to the Voluntary Euthanasia Law for the Terminally Ill. You end up dead, and the family keeps the money.”


“Now, isn’t that lovely? I dread to hear what my third option is…”


Jenya, you know how conservative I am. I always leave the best for dessert.”


All right, let me have the dessert…”


“Have you ever played any modern games with full immersion?”


I tested some flight simulation software a couple of years ago. Or, rather, tried testing it out of curiosity. I suppose that qualifies as gaming.”


No, that’s nothing like it. I’m talking about modern online games. The kind where thousands, millions even log on to play at the same time, interacting with each other in different ways, fighting battles, cooperating, sometimes even starting families.”


Sorry, but I haven’t had time for any extracurriculars of late. Been busy as hell trying to earn my first million. I did indulge a bit as a student, though. Two of my friends even dropped out because of video games—they just stopped caring about everything else. I was nowhere near as hardcore—I just dabbled a bit. But I still have no idea why you mentioned them.”


Ever heard of Second World?”


“Vaguely… I think I’ve seen some ads.”


“I see. What cave have you been living in, anyway? You really have no idea.”


I spent six months working on a secret project. There was an autonomous intranet, and no one was allowed outside the premises. They couldn’t risk a single byte of information leaking before they filed the results. The result should have been a bunch of patents and proprietary licenses, and all the participants would end up with hefty sums in their bank accounts. We were in a hurry, and worked ourselves into the ground, without any rest. Sorry, but I can’t tell you all the details.”


You don’t have to. I get it—you were so busy working that you didn’t even follow the news, and you couldn’t follow some news in the first place. Let me give you a brief update, then. While you’ve been busy doing God knows what, the world did not stand still. Online entertainment has always been big business, but you wouldn’t believe the leviathans that emerge from the murkiest depths of the oceans to snatch their own slice of the pie. Second World is a game launched by a transnational corporation. Its initial budget amounted to ninety-eight billion dollars—this almost equals the sum total of the investment in manned flights to Mars. So you can imagine the scale of investment. This is the first game with mass support for full immersion technology that has no critical conflicts with legacy connections. Well, they did run into some problems there recently. The visualization is supposed to have maximum approximation to reality. There are over four hundred million accounts to date. Every account is named and associated with an actual player, so the number of players is factual, and not exaggerated as is often the case with these games.”


I don’t buy it. I bet most players who got themselves an account never even played. Others may have logged on once or twice, and then ghosted. The actual number should be much lower. Just like it was back in the day—the game site would boast three million players, but you’d never see more than five thousand online.”


Not in the case of Second World—even if you only have to take my word for it so far. There are, of course, auctioned and abandoned accounts, but there are relatively few of those.”


“John, you said this would be brief, but we’ve already spent a lot of time discussing overhyped video games.”


“This is important, and I’m giving you an overview—as concisely as I can.”


All right, I’m sorry. Please continue, I’m all ears.”


Remember what I said about the initial budget of the project?”


“Yup—comparable to the investment in the piloted missions to Mars.”


Today, Second World can no longer be appraised as a traditional brand.”


“Come again?”


Can you imagine someone buying New York and Tokyo, and maybe getting Berlin as change?”


“That’s an odd question.”


Well, let me tell you this: it would be even harder to buy Second World. A year or so after the testing ended, the project became priceless. The original owners have but a small share now—the rest is divided among several nation states. There have been several conflicts already, and there’s a flurry of official protest notes about the actions of gamer communities from different countries. There have even been actual military threats made—all to protect virtual interests.”


“What interests would those be?”


Jenya, people make money in Second World, and a lot of it. And nothing’s as easy as it used to be in the games of old. A lot of things are hushed up, but whatever information manages to trickle down is enough for those who know.”


So?”


They wanted a game, but ended up with a digital Eldorado. Basically, Second World will soon allow humanity to achieve a complete victory over unemployment—and worldwide, no less.”


Are we still talking about some lousy game?”


Second World” is no longer a game, let alone a lousy one. It’s a world in and of itself—possibly, a better one than ours.”


“Do you play?”


Me? No way, the only people who can actually afford to play are those with plenty of money and time on their hands, while everyone else slaves away for their pleasure. And why would I work online? I’m doing quite all right where I am. But I do have to log in sometimes. See, I represent the interests of a number of gaming communities—their interests in this world, that is. In the one we live in. Curiously, they call it the Third, not the First. No, Jenya, you’re going to have to be the one playing. Assuming you’re leaning towards rejecting the other two options: coma or euthanasia.”


And there I was believing you’d be the last of the two of us to go insane. My mistake. That sucks—I’m in the habit of being right.”


I get it. Your job hardly leaves room for mistakes.”


“I must have made one, or I wouldn’t have wound up here.”


You do remember what I told you, yeah? Quite a few things get hushed up.”


“Sure, I do.”


There is a catch to this full immersion thing. High visualization detail, the sheer size of the world, the content and the intricacy of design have resulted in a number of unexpected effects. Those who choose this way of connecting had better be ready for surprises. The first instances of this surfaced shortly after the launch of Second World. Back then it was a regular gaming project, albeit a hyped one, with hundreds of competitors about to snatch the initiative away, and only lagging behind due to the different levels of financing. Small players were out, but the press was still free to report it any way they chose. Anyway, there was a fire at one of the SW facilities where they rented out full immersion capsules. Some of the players got stuck inside. There were no casualties, but the connection was broken. The upshot is, none of those players came back to their senses. They were taken out of the capsules unconscious and stayed that way—all of them. What followed was just plain weird—their characters remained logged into the game. Some panicked and tried to report their inability to get back to the real world in every way they could. But once their capsules got back online, everything went back to normal. There were but a few of those who got stuck in this way, though. Most managed to get out by themselves, and they were in for quite a shock once they realized they were no longer inside their capsules. Most, but not all of them. So, what do you have to say?”


“Was it just a single occasion?”


By no means, but they’ve been trying their best to keep a lid on any reports. Moreover, there are rumors—and I, for one, find them plausible—that the so-called “full immersion effect” is guaranteed for every user after several days of uninterrupted gaming. If the capsule is disconnected before that happens, regular players will just wake up. There is another precedent, and this one is particularly interesting. A player whose condition was hardly better than yours got stuck inside the game after the death of his body. The fact of death has been witnessed, and the body has been frozen until the litigation finishes. His character still exists inside the game. The legal problem is as follows: the character insists that his rights are unaffected by the loss of his body. In other words, he claims his citizen’s rights and all of his property—which is quite ample, by the by. His relatives are most confrontational about refusing to recognize said rights.”


“So you’re offering me an artificial world?”


I could tell you a lot more, but not like this. We got an account for one of our associates—you can ask him for details once you log on.”


You are talking like I’ve already made my decision.”


Jenya, I’ve known you a long time. You’re a fighter—you won’t give it. The third option is like this: we arrange things with your employer. They pay for the equipment required to log you on, as well as your account for a couple of months in advance, and then we set you up for full immersion. The rules don’t permit players to log on for longer than twenty hours, but we can bypass that in your case due to the precedents with the terminally ill—and there have already been two of those. I’ll skip the details, but you’ll have to provide your electronic signature to waive any legal claims in case your body dies. Your assets, the assets of your parents, and the remnants of the company’s obligations will suffice to purchase a functioning account as well as special equipment for getting disabled players online, and to keep your body in a state of artificial coma for ten months. This should be enough for you to find your bearings in the game and a means of earning enough to pay for your account and for your body to be kept on life support.”


A means of earning real money inside the game? How is that possible?”


In-game currency is easy to exchange for real currency. Moreover, its exchange rate keeps growing. You might make your million yet!”


This is nuts...”


You’re telling me.” The attorney made a long pause. “Once I’m a senile old man, I’ll join you in there, so prepare for a reunion. One more thing, Jenya: we won’t charge you anything. Morrison is good at counting his bills, but he’s also good at remembering those who’ve helped him out of a dire situation, and so am I. Don’t expect any miracles from us, but trust me—Second World is the best anyone has got to offer you. And these conditions are the best, too.”


“I get it, and I’m really grateful for your help. How can we get this thing going, and how soon?”


“What exactly do you mean?”


Logging on. As far as I can see, I hardly have any better chances to keep existing.”


The players usually have to file an application for an account, which gets verified, and followed by medical tests and payment for the account. The entire procedure takes around three days.”


“Do I have three days?”


John was silent for a while, and only answered once the question was repeated.


We don’t know. This is precisely why we don’t recommend you to sue your employer. We can’t be certain of winning the suit, but we can be certain of its stretching out into an indefinite amount of time. The fact that you came to your senses is a medical anomaly in itself. This whole clinic is hyped like you wouldn’t believe. I hope no tests will be needed—they ran as many of those as they could already. Morrison himself is on his way to the nearest SW office, and he isn’t someone they’re likely to impede with red tape. We hope that in your case we’ll be able to bypass the formalities altogether, or at least expedite their completion. If we succeed, we’ll get you online before the end of the business day.”


“How many hours will that take?”


Five or six, I’d say no more than that. Try to stay conscious until that happens. Sorry if I’m slow with some of my answers—I’m arranging the delivery of networking equipment with the doctors. We’ll have to log you on from the clinic—you may not be able to weather the transportation. This will translate into extra expenses, and it won’t be cheap, but that’s the only way.”


“Could someone keep talking to me all the while? I’ll go nuts without any voices.”


“Sure, we’ll take care of that.”


Is there any chance of someone explaining things to me? Teaching me how to play? After all, I have no idea how to make money there, or how to behave in general.”


“You said you’ve played before, didn’t you?”


“Sure, as a student—the last time must have been around five years ago.”


“What games?”


WWI Aces, Stalin’s Hawks, and Invasion.


What were they about? What genre of games?”


Airplane games. Airplanes fighting other players’ airplanes—something like group air combat simulators.”


“Do you have any experience with role-playing games?”


Well… I dated this chick once. She got her hands on a nurse’s outfit, and then she—”


“I’m not talking about those. Do you know anything about MMORPGs?”


“The kind where elves fight dwarves?”


“You’re oversimplifying it, but yeah, something of that sort.”


“Nope—there were no elves in the airplanes.”


I’m beginning to lose hope here…”


Well, what would be the point of having an elf inside an airplane?”


None whatsoever, but getting started won’t be easy for you—rest assured of that… Nor do we have any time to train you. Damn! The contract!”


“Say what?”


You’ll need a profitable contract with a work account, and we definitely won’t be able to get as much done until the evening—it isn’t our specialization. Anyway, once you log into the game, take it easy, don’t do anything precipitous, and wait for us to get back to you with a decent option—tomorrow at the latest, I think.”


So what’s going to happen to my body and my consciousness in ten months? If I fail to come up with the money, for instance?”


You won’t fail. You’re smart, and you’ll definitely think of something. Don’t forget about that million, either—or, better still, many millions. If you come into money, you’ll get a chance to grow yourself a body here. Not today, granted, and maybe not in a year, but don’t forget that medical science keeps evolving. They’ll surely think of something, and this something is likely to cost an arm and a leg.”


***


Dozens of peasant family members were needed to feed a single feudal. The majority of craftsmen also had to practice subsistence agriculture in their fields and vegetable patches apart from their primary occupation. This period is normally known as the Middle Ages, but I would like to give it a different name: the Peasant Epoch.


It was superseded by the Worker Epoch. Draft animal breeds came into existence, and superior tools were invented, to be followed by mechanization. All of this enhanced the productivity of peasant labor, which made it possible for the proletariat to emerge as a class. Our society became industrialized.


However, we kept evolving. Enhanced labor productivity also affected the industry, and we eventually entered the modern age, where a single peasant can feed hundreds and even thousands. Not unassisted, obviously—different industries produce machinery, tools, pesticides and herbicides for this peasant, while agricultural science breeds new cultivars, including those with modified genetics, as well as highly-productive varieties of cloned cattle and state-of-the-art methods for protecting the crops from unfavorable environmental factors.


So what about the workers? Let me give you a small example. Each one of you probably has a car. Every car has a transmission. Up to seventy percent of main transmission elements in the world are made at a single factory that employs seventy-six people. Only twenty-eight of them are actual workers; the rest work in sales and administration.


So what do we have? We have incredible productivity in agriculture and industry. Only a fraction of the labor pool is employed there. What about the rest? There are all the activities that are not associated with production: the service industry, trade, and so on. We need to invent new professions and unnecessary jobs in order to provide some symbolic employment to people so that they would not join the welfare crowd. And yet this isn’t enough—a large number of those who could be useful are incapable of self-actualization since there simply aren’t enough jobs. They aren’t any worse than the others, but there’s just too many of them. The situation gets worse year after year. We are transforming into a society consisting of a handful of worker bees and a swarm of drones. This leads to social distortion and amplifies the formerly insignificant controversies, leading to social strife and a rise in crime rate.


What could we do to change this? There appears to be no way out—our world has a limited territory, and its resources are far from inexhaustible. What we have to date does not allow a breakthrough that would result in each and every one of us fully realizing our potential. Humanity has built several moon bases, and a piloted Jupiter moon exploration project has been launched, but you have to admit that none of it is quite what we need, even though it does widen our range of options.


We need new spaces and radically new abilities available to all right here and right now. And we have found them. The virtual environment is a colossal resource, and each one of us can share in the profits. All we need is to create conditions for it to be used wisely.


So we have created these conditions. A year has gone by, and the mechanism has proved itself viable. This mechanism redistributes the funds from the rich to the poor—from those who can afford it to everybody else—from private actors to the government with its large-scale and extremely costly programs. The apparent inequality within our new virtual society notwithstanding, it is absolutely just, and the differences will become less pronounced in the long-term perspective.”


Excerpts from the speech made by Aaron Gray, the founding director of the Second World Corporation’s USA/Canada Sector, at the UN General Assembly hall.



Chapter 2


Light. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s perfectly terrifying to cease to be able to perceive it, even for a few measly hours which nonetheless manage to stretch into a small eternity. He had no eyes and no visual cortex, meaning the visual nerves had no final electric impulse transmission destination, but still he shut his eyes reflectively once the darkness became replaced by bright light.


He could shut his eyes?! He could see! He had a body! But why couldn’t he feel it?!


Welcome to Second World. This is the best world of the three that have existed and exist to date. Would you like to hear a brief history of our world?”


There was nothing metallic about the voice—it was alive, and very much so. A female voice, and not a cold one, either—it sounded pleasant and slightly mischievous, making him wish he could meet its owner in circumstances conducive to making a closer acquaintance.


“Would you like to hear a brief history of our world?”


“Would you like to hear a brief history of our world?”


So, probably a robot, after all. But still much better than the voices of real people he had communicated with at the clinic.


No, I don’t want to hear the history of the world. I would like to log on as soon as I can.”


The radiance dimmed, and a mannequin figure formed out of nothing. It started to rotate slowly, with blue sparks running over its surface.


You current location is the lifeless space between the Second and the Third worlds. You are a spirit searching for a worthy vessel. What would you like your vessel’s name to be?”


Gennady. Or maybe just Gena, or Jenya. Actually, my friends call me Ros—that’s derived from my last name.”


It felt so good to be hearing his own voice conduct a dialogue with a female contralto sounding just like the real thing. He may have swapped a vegetable’s existence for a strange surrogate, but so far he hadn’t regretted it once.


Unfortunately, you have a free work account with no right to choose a username. You will be given a two-part system-generated username. You can use three letters of your choice at the beginning of your username.”


“In that case, let it be Ros.”


Accepted. You have three attempts to generate a username. Your current username is Rosfamathultos Negiromandust. You have two attempts left to choose a different username. Would you like to generate a new username?”


He tried to imagine the legend “Rosfamathultos Negiromandust” over his fighter plane, and then, over a pointy-eared elf, and ended up deciding it didn’t look particularly attractive.


Generate a new one.”


You have two attempts left to generate a new username. Your current username is: Rosfamathultos Negiromandust. Do you confirm the generation of a new username?”


“I do.”


Accepted. Your new username is Rostendrix Poterentax. Would you like to replace your current username with Rostendrix Poterentax? You have three minutes to confirm the change.”


He asked for another attempt, and ended up choosing the second version: Rostendrix Poterentax. It didn’t sound particularly melodious, but the two other versions sounded worse.


“Rostendrix Poterentax, select your character’s race.”


“Race?”


Each race has its own set of distributed basic stats, abilities, and visual features. You can change your basic stats and appearance using in-game methods or by purchasing a full account. The game also offers the option to change your race for another, or a hybrid. Any changes or modifications of basic stats may present complications that can be resolved with in-game methods if you lack the access to the features of a full account.”


So, if I make the wrong choice now, I’ll be able to fix it later, but it will cost me dearly, right?” he wanted to clarify.


Any changes or modifications of basic stats may present complications that can be resolved with in-game methods.”


Would that be difficult?”


It can be resolved with in-game methods.”


Ros decided to waste no time if the complications could be resolved—in his case, it was a commodity more valuable than all the world’s treasures. He was still uncertain whether he was already connected or whether he still hung between the ruin of his body and the trap of a set of pixels ascribed to a character in the game where he’d have to toil for an undefined period of time, possibly for all eternity.


Being unfamiliar with the game world, he couldn’t have known that one really shouldn’t rush this process.


On the other hand, maybe it was better that he didn’t know…


What you see is the list of races available to your account. You received it as a result of your preliminary search for races capable of mining and quarrying. You can highlight the one that interests you.”


The list was hardly impressively long. What had the guy told him, the one John had sent to the clinic to try and remedy Ros’ mind-boggling ignorance? He may have been a player himself, but he wasn’t much of an educator, only confusing himself and others with his explanations. However, he had mentioned hundreds of races, whereas here was a list with a measly twenty entries.


Is that it? I heard there are hundreds of races.”


This is the list of races available to your account. You also asked for a list of races best adapted for mining and quarrying when activating your account. If you purchase an expanded account, the list of available races will expand accordingly. We could also give you a full list of available races, but most of them will have inferior mining and quarrying skills.”


That much was expected—pay more to get more. His account cost two hundred and eight dollars a month. The cheapest there was, including the discount for purchasing several months in advance. Most of the funds would be spent on life support, which was prohibitively expensive—thankfully, his former employer was covering most of it. Freezing him would be cheaper, but given that no one had yet succeeded in unfreezing a patient alive, this would be the last resort. And it still wouldn’t be free—not by a long shot.


So, what do we have? Oddly, no elves, nor were there any… Oh, never mind—here was a dwarf. The letters in the name of the race became bold, and the “mannequin” started to change shape, quickly forming into a stocky figure with a bearded face that could have belonged to a weathered drunkard. The info screen lit up on the left:


Race: Dwarf.


Dwarves are creatures of the earth—it is deep underground, where darkness reigns supreme, that their talents truly unfold. They are tireless miners, but it would be a singularly bad idea to get on their wrong side—a dwarf might find it hard to vanquish your present incarnation, but you won’t fare much better.


Primary base stats:


Strength: 5

Agility: 0

Intellect: 0

Mental Power: 0

Stamina: 3

Vigor: 2

Resilience: 0

Accuracy: 0

Defense: 1

Attack: 1


Secondary base stats :


Perception: 1

Disguise: 0

Arcane Knowledge: 0

Speed: 3

Luck: 0

Carrying Capacity: 5

Essence of Things: 0

Craftsman: 1

Reason: 0

Creation: 0

Racial Abilities:

Twilight Vision.


Each Strength point adds 0.1% to the character’s chance of receiving an extra resource during mining and 0.05% to the chance of discovering an unexpected resource.


A dwarf receives one Carrying Capacity point per every 5 Strength points.


+5% to Physical Defense

+10% to Damage from crushing weapons


Unique ability: 1% chance of crafting two items from resources spent on one (doesn’t affect rare or higher-grade items).


Unique ability: the regeneration of Vigor and life energy is twice faster underground.


+10% to Defense from crushing strikes of any nature.


Tap this line to learn more about the secondary stats.”


Ros didn’t tap anything. What he saw was enough to come to terms with his utter ignorance. A dwarf seemed to be a dim creature with zero Intellect and an emphasis on Strength. On the other hand, the dwarf was merely a character controlled by a human. And there were all kinds of humans, some of them quite intelligent. So what was the connection between one’s intelligence and zero points of Intellect?


That lawyer guy would come in handy with his explanations right now.


Ros clicked through all the races out of sheer curiosity, casting only a perfunctory glance over their characteristics. He did get the gist of it, anyway—the emphasis was on Strength, Carrying Capacity, Stamina, and Vigor. He didn’t know much about worker characters and their usual pastimes, but he started to suspect he’d have to haul heavy stuff around pretty often.


Suddenly, he saw a huge inscription in blood-red gothic lettering flare up: “Exclusive offer. Valid only today. A new race is available to you: the rrokh. Would you like to learn more about the race’s characteristics?”


“I have a work account and no spare funds.”


The inscription did not fade, and the sexy girl’s voice stayed silent.


Well, why not? I would. Make it quick, though.”


The inscription vanished without a trace. The mannequin instantly transformed into the image of a rrokh—without the visual effect with the gradual transformation as used earlier. A far cry from a dwarf—a tall and skinny frame supporting a disproportionately huge head on a thin neck. The same face of a hopeless alcoholic, but without a matted beard this time. Huge eyes, too—big enough that you could make a pair of regular-sized eyes from one of these.


The last representative of the rrokh race.


These are the creatures that live deep underground—the carriers of the Shade of Chaos. Their talents unfold fully where darkness reigns supreme. They can delve into the essence of things where no one else does. There’s nothing more awkward than a rrokh in an axe or a club fight, but a rrokh’s ambush should never be taken lightly. A rrokh’s strike from the dark is always quick and unexpected, and, if you’re weak, this strike may be enough for the rrokh to win.



Primary base stats:


Strength: 1

Agility: 3

Intellect: 1

Mental Power: 1

Stamina: 2

Vigor: 2

Resilience: 0

Accuracy: 0

Defense: 1

Attack: 1


Secondary base stats:


Perception: 1

Disguise: 1

Arcane Knowledge: 1

Speed: 2

Luck: 1

Carrying Capacity: 1

Essence of Things: 1

Craftsman: 0

Reason: 1

Creation: 1

Racial Abilities:

Night Vision.


The last representative of the race receives the following gift: after reincarnation with level loss, the last representative of the race does not lose stat points received as a result of leveling up. Once the former level is regained, the character receives an extra undistributed point that can be added to primary stats for each level regained.


The rrokh receives a point of Strength for every three points of Agility (in case of item bonuses, the extra points are only applied while the item remains in active inventory). The rrokh receives +0.1% to the chance of dealing double damage with magic as well as physical attacks for each three points of Agility and one point of Strength. The chance of dealing double damage grows by +1% in case of a surprise attack. In case of a critical strike, the damage dealt always grows fourfold.


The rrokh receives a unique creature summoning skill for each 25 Summoning levels.


Unique ability: Soul Trap. When activated, the chance of receiving a Soul Crystal from your victim grows by 25%. The ability can also be used on somebody else’s kill, in which case its chance of success is always 25%, regardless of the character’s stats or equipment bonuses.


Unique ability: Reviving the Trapped Soul of the Long Dead. When activated, the creature is revived without penalty to level or stats with 100% probability. There is a 50% chance for the creature to retain the skills it had possessed while alive, and a 2% chance for the creature to learn one (or more) of the victim’s skills.


Tap this line to learn more about the secondary stats.”


This looked like a nimble weakling with boringly highbrow abilities. All Ros managed to grasp from the explanations was that his character was unlikely to succeed as a warrior, while the racial abilities were primarily oriented toward fighting, and would hardly be of any use to him.


On the other hand, there was an extra Intellect point here, which seemed pleasant enough for some reason. No intelligent person would be quite comfortable with an utterly imbecilic character.


The attorney had recommended a dwarf or an orc in no uncertain terms. Ros didn’t find orcs particularly appealing, either—both physically and in terms of stats, but surely an expert’s recommendation was worth something. On the other hand, here was a chance of snagging an exclusive race—he might be one of the first to choose it, and it might cost a lot more for other players. It was a bonus of sorts, so if he declined the rrokh, he might regret it eventually. It may be hard to choose a new race, given his condition and the state of his financial affairs. Nevertheless, the invisible girl claimed it could be done with “in-game methods.”


Also, rrokh was hardly any worse than the rest of the uglies, and probably less ugly than many. Orcs, for example, looked a hell of a lot worse with their prominent crooked fangs and greenish skin.


Even dwarves were more pleasing to the eye.


I choose the rrokh.”


Rostendrix Poterentax, you have chosen the rrokh race. Do you confirm your race choice?”


Ah, so the sweet voice was back.


“I do.”


Congratulations. You are the last representative of the rrokh race in Second World. The rrokh race is no longer an available choice to the players.”


How interesting! Was this an unexpected bonus, or did he fall for some scam aimed at total losers that no one ever told him about because they believed him to be different?


He hadn’t a clue.


You have thirty primary and ten secondary stats to choose from.”


There was no time to sweat the details—his clock could stop any moment. He had already spent much longer on race selection than anticipated.


I’ll take care of this later, once I’m in the game. Is that possible?”


Unfortunately, your account’s conditions do not permit it. You must distribute the stat points now, or your vessel will be rejected by Second World’s aura.”


A pity, of course, but there was no getting around it.


Ros thought everything was clear enough with the primary stats—he’d have to dump as many points as possible into Agility to get a bonus to Strength, which would result in a substantial overall increase in the sum total of all his stats. Vigor was something he didn’t quite understand—according to the description, a character with low Vigor got tired quickly, even doing the easiest work.


And Ros would have to toil quite a lot…


He ended up dumping six points into Vigor grudgingly, ending up with the following list:


Primary base stats:


Strength: 9

Agility: 27

Intellect: 1

Mental Power: 1

Stamina: 2

Vigor: 8

Resilience: 0

Accuracy: 0

Defense: 1

Attack: 1


Having distributed his stat points, he wondered whether he really needed Agility for anything. It might be perfectly useless, which meant he’d made a colossal blunder. It was hard to make decisions lacking even approximate information, let alone exhaustive. There was too little time available before immersion, and most of it was spent taking care of legal, medical, and financial affairs. The conversation with the gamer attorney had been brief and chaotic, something Ros was coming to really regret.


Time. Everything was a question of time. He should distribute the points one way or other—he would fine-tune it later, inside the game.


He took care of the secondary stats quickly and without thinking twice. After all, they were secondary, and one shouldn’t worry about them too much. A worker would obviously need Carrying Capacity. He remembered that a miner (his best career option, according to the attorney) should be able to carry large amounts of ore. Strength also affected this somehow, but he wasn’t sure about the exact way the stats affected each other.


Speed would also come in handy, whatever the nature of his work—a slowpoke wouldn’t be fast enough to be successful at anything.


The Essence of Things told him nothing; however, the Craftsman skill seemed useful, as he might have to manufacture things. Arcane Knowledge? Well, he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow, and free points were hard to come by. Reason and Creation sounded useful. As for Disguise and Perception… Being perceptive seemed preferable to the ability to hide. Being lucky should also probably come in handy.


He ended up with the following values:


Secondary base stats:


Perception: 2

Disguise: 1

Arcane Knowledge: 1

Speed: 4

Luck: 2

Carrying Capacity: 4

Essence of Things: 1

Craftsman: 1

Reason: 2

Creation: 2


Congratulations. You have distributed your free stat points. The door to a new realm will open before you in a moment: a realm of heroes and amazing opportunities. We wish you the best of luck as you explore its vast expanses.”


And so it came to pass that a newborn character came to Second World. His stats points were probably distributed in an incredibly idiotic way, but you wouldn’t know it from the upbeat music that had been playing all along.


* * *

In a data center somewhere.


Here we go again…”


“What’s the matter?”


“The same error.”


“Come again?”


The working account registration utility has gone mad—the number of available races keeps fluctuating between one and twenty-something.”


“Oh… That must be a result of cutting down on the available options. Work accounts got the ax once again.”


“They haven’t been cut down in two weeks, and this bug keeps recurring.”


“The users see the full list of races, so it doesn’t seem to affect them.”


That’s not the issue—we have a recurring system error.”


Ignore it. The system has been checked a few times, so the problem must originate elsewhere.”


“Where exactly?”


Have you come from a farm or something?! It could be an oxidized contact, or maybe someone failed to insert a cable all the way in—it could be anything. If there’s a system failure, they’ll roll out the backup and check everything manually.”


“I only hope the failure doesn’t occur on our shift…”




* * *


Some unknown location.


We got one.”


“Still unclear.”


A selection has been made.”


“Is it final?”


“Take a look.”


“I have heard of the following term: ‘ridiculous.’ I believe it to be applicable to the candidate.”


I disagree—I believe the term ‘amusing’ is a great deal more pertinent.”


He’s good for nothing. A waste of time. The worst option. He has no prospects if he’s capable of this blunder.”


“There’s nothing that prevents him from becoming the first. And his stupidity is far from indubitable.”


There’s nothing to argue about. He doesn’t even realize he just got an opportunity for ascension unavailable to others. And how can he become the first in anything? His body’s in a cage.”


Every cage has a door—otherwise, there’s no point in having a cage.”


“You believe there’s a chance of discovering what you are referring to as a ‘door’?”


“Well, we have.”


We are hardly the worst candidates.”


“I’m not so sure about you.”


What is your basis for making this corollary?”


None. I have merely tried to apply what the creators refer to as ‘sense of humor.’”



Chapter 3


His eyes were assaulted by a barrage of colors while his ears registered a cacophony of sounds that were present in just as great an abundance. Ros couldn’t help falling on his bottom, staring before himself in confusion, trying to focus his sight without much success. He saw the following block of text in pale letters, which promptly disappeared:


Welcome to Second World. You are at the starting location in the city of Arbenne. This is the newbie respawn point. We wish you a pleasant game.”


He finally managed to focus his eyes, feeling all the more amazed. What he saw before himself didn’t remotely resemble a computer game. Back in the days of yore he would admire the cloud textures, the surface objects, and the shapes of the planes of his foes and allies, soaring high into the skies in his speedy fighter plane as shown on his widescreen monitor.


But there was no monitor this time. Instead of seeing something similar to the environment he had found himself in during character creation, Ros found himself in a regular world. He was sitting next to the crossroads of two narrow streets of a medieval city—or, rather, one designed to look like one. Grey cobblestones, arranged in a slapdash manner, paved the street underneath him. One of them protruded strongly—he could feel it in his coccyx, and the sensation was far from pleasant.


The two-story buildings could have belonged in a medieval European town, although they were cleaner and neater—like the old section of a city with a rich history. Stone walls, storm shutters on the windows, and curtains of dazzling white. A huge ginger tomcat sat on an uneven ledge with an expression that must have absorbed all the sloth of the Universe. The couple of rock pigeons sitting at some distance from it on the same ledge paid the rascal no attention whatsoever, while the rascal himself kept glancing at the pigeons—clearly without any intention of chasing them, but simply to maintain his reputation as a ruthless predator.


The sky was present, too—just as blue as it had ever been. There was a single cloud floating above him, as white as they got.


The birds were chirruping, someone was babbling something hurriedly somewhere nearby, and some bells were tolling languorously in the distance. He felt a cool breeze caress his skin, and the sun was beginning to warm the back of his head. A smell of fresh pastries tickled his nostrils.


“I must have gone nuts…” said Ros, scaring himself by the sound of his own voice.


It sounded reedy and utterly alien, with a tendency to stretch vowels and sibilants.


A well-familiar short figure ran out from behind a corner. A dwarf. Just like the one he saw first when selecting a race. He had seemed awkward to him then, but now the impression was completely different—he ran with the speed of a well-kicked football, crouching in a funny manner with every step, which made it seem like he was moving in a series of jumps.


The sitting Ros found himself in the way of the speeding shorty, who barely managed to make a detour, then barked gruffly in a low voice, already behind his back.


Watch where you’re sitting, noob.”


Ross turned around, surprised—and just in time, too. Another dwarf emerged from thin air right in front of him, patting himself on his short jacket, then thrusting his hand into a bag hanging over his shoulder to feel something inside. After that, he asked him in just as low a voice:


“Where’s the bureau?”


Uh… What bureau?”


“Ah, I get it…”


“You get what?”


“That you’re a total noob.”


The dwarf turned around and headed in the same direction as his kinsman.


At that very moment, a third dwarf, emerging from behind the corner just like the first two, failed to change direction in due time and crashed into Ros at full speed. Both rolled across the cobblestones. The short character was the first to jump up. He dashed off, shouting:


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