Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Edge of Reality by Andrei Livadny (Chapter 1)

Chapter One
Logout

I was slumped in a sagging old chair.
Toxic gray haze wove patterns behind my studio's window. An industrial haze of the real world. Welcome to technosphere. The green indicator of hermetic sealing glowed reassuringly. Unlike the cyber world, here any equipment failure could result in some very nasty consequences. No amount of buffs could help you here.
It took me several minutes to come round. For the last six months, the virtual capsule with its massage rollers and life support modules had been serving me as a clothes dump. Why, might you ask?
I'll tell you. By then, I had abandoned the relative safety of a virtual capsule in exchange for new experiences unknown to me before. Now I didn't need the holographic screens with their poor version of cyberspace; I didn't need the capsule's impact membranes poking my ribs. I always carried the virtual world around with me. A small implant had been fixed behind my ear like an earpiece, hugging my temple and part of my cheekbone, sinking millions of its nano needles into my skin.
Its flesh-colored plastic concealed unknown quantities of chips, all forming a complex neural system connected to my personal nanocomp bracelet. That was all it took. The future of the gaming industry.
A product of the highest-end technologies, this neuroimplant processed gaming sequences in its artificial neural network which in turn formed series of impulses it then sent directly to the brain. The neural network was learning constantly, generating new sensations, even those totally alien to the real world.
Risky, you might say?
I wouldn't argue on this one. But I didn't care, anyway. A man who's long sunk to the depths of cyberspace has more dangerous things to worry about, each of them capable of sentencing him to a long and agonizing death.
Like boredom, for one.
You can't fight boredom. To me, living in the real world is unbearable. It's gray and poor. And don't even try to convince me otherwise. I'd made my choice and burned my bridges. The virtual capsule had been great - until a certain moment when my mind had learned to tell truth from fiction. I wanted to live there, in these worlds of infinite possibilities, but every day had been worse than the one before it. The 3D space kept losing its depth. My eye had learned to see through illusions. All I could see was the shell of my high tech prison. I struggled with depression, losing my mind, as I realized that there was no way the virtual world could ever replace the real one. Which was why I'd agreed to this experiment. It had brought thrills back into the game, offering lots of new opportunities previously unavailable to me.
I scrambled off the chair and shuffled my feet into the kitchen to feed my precious biological body.
The little icons before my eyes didn't disappear. The artificial neural network couldn't be switched off - it just changed interfaces, closing or opening certain options. Glancing at the clock, I dialed the delivery service for my late dinner. A couple of minutes later, the hydraulic elevator hissed. A capacious cylinder rolled out into the receiver tray. I picked it up and sat at the table, pulling the sides off and ripping open the seam along the middle. The wrapper unfolded, becoming a placemat laden with everything one could need. Food, drinks, each in its own airtight container. Healthy and nutritious, but most importantly, convenient. No need to go anywhere.
I had two meals a day and slept in the virtual capsule. So practical and familiar. So safe.
A mental disorder? Absolutely. I am the first to admit it. Still, I wouldn't change anything.
I'd received my first holographic nanocomp for my twelfth birthday. Since then, the real world had gradually faded into insignificance. I was increasingly reluctant to come back from the game. Had it been down to me, I'd never have come back at all. But unfortunately, our technologies still weren't up to much. This neuroimplant I had was the first sign of things to come.
I was thirty-nine. Single, well-off, commitment free. How I earned my living... I'll tell you about that later.
I ate unhurriedly as I skimmed through my mail and PM box, deleting most messages with a swipe of my eyes.
Having discovered nothing of interest, I opened the search engine and entered Phantom Server.
I had to admit it had piqued my interest. The rest, as experience had taught me, was purely a question of application.

No results found matching your search criteria.

The incoming call icon flashed insistently. It was from the developers of my unique wetware. Vultures. They had to have their daily report on the dot.
Okay, okay. A promise is a promise. My eyesight clouded, blurring out of focus, while the artificial neural network scanned my mind, uploading some of the more memorable neurograms.
A test model, yeah right. The implant's developers promised that the finished version would comply perfectly with the Privacy Law. Somehow I didn't believe them.
Having finished with my daily report, I rose and walked over to the window, feeding the wrapper with its unfinished dinner into the macerator on my way. I just wasn't hungry.
No results found, they said? I stared at a city enveloped in a cloak of emissions. The urban landscape served as an abstract backdrop to the more and more search reports that flashed before my eyes. No results found.
Could whatever had happened simply have been my imagination playing up?
No way. Impossible. It wasn't for nothing I'd uploaded my daily report. Had they found the slightest malfunction in the implant, they'd have already been on my case by now, telling me to switch on the dedicated communication channel, "sit comfortably and try not to think about anything".
What were they waiting for, then? Hadn't they noticed the sudden surge of emotional activity in my logs?
Anxiety was growing within me. I could definitely smell a rat there somewhere.
Should I leave it as it was? Should I maybe take a shower and go to bed? Then first thing tomorrow morning I could start looking for a new game world that could become my life's purpose for the next few years.
Still, the spark of awakened curiosity began to burn me from inside - the anxiety within me growing, inexplicable. What if everything that had happened was the neurocybertechs' setup?
Admittedly, I hated feeling like a half-dead mouse at the mercy of a fat cheeky cat. It always gave me the desire to strike back.
The Phantom Server.
The name sat like a thorn in my memory.
Now. I'd had this implant for about a year. I'd already worked a few things out and come up with a couple of backup scenarios in case someone tried to use me as a guinea pig.
Time to forget it. I'm perfectly happy, I reminded myself. I peeled off my clothes and headed for the shower. The neural network was safely sealed within its plastic casing. Water couldn't damage it anyway, but the developers wanted to minimize any risks considering the device's cost. I'd long noticed that the mnemonic interface shut down every time I took a shower. I also knew about the micro slot in the machine's lower part. Currently it was empty, but I'd already found out, by very careful trial and error, that it was perfectly adapted for a 1Tb memory card. A couple of them I kept at home just in case, filled with pre-recorded neurograms of deep sleep.
I picked the slot's lid with my nail and pushed the card into its groove without locking it. It wasn't yet time. I turned the water off, toweled myself dry and jumped into the capsule, leaving the lid open. I set it to repose mode and moved my body around, making myself comfortable. Like, I was fast asleep.
After a few minutes I touched the implant, pushing the card in until it clicked. I'd done it many times before. Predictably, the icons of the internal interface faded.
I waited some more, just to be on the safe side, then slid out online. Reality disappeared. I closed my eyes and entered a very rare login I virtually never used.
The chatroom was crap: empty and boring. I entered a code phrase. The PM window flashed, the cursor blinking inquiringly.

The Chrystal Sphere. Agrion. The Tavern.
OK.

My message had been accepted.

* * *

The tavern was noisy and packed with players. There, no one could tell me from a newb. I walked in humbly, looking for an empty table at the back.
"Hi," a rather scruffy goblin took a place next to me. I looked at his hands. The sign was correct. I showed him mine.
We spoke quietly without attracting any attention.
"So you finally decided to make a few bucks? It's been a while. How's it going?"
"Fine."
The scruffy goblin was in fact my first online employer, no less. We went back quite a while, doing business together - for whatever good it had done us.
By the age of fifteen (by then I had already sunk in cyberspace but was still devouring various gaming worlds indiscriminately regardless of their genre) I'd realized that the best and most interesting bits lay beyond the average teenager's financial and age restrictions.
Well, parental control chips were easily hacked by amateur experts the same age as myself. This problem could be easily fixed - unlike the financial one. I'd long given up on my studies and even managed to get a student loan, immediately splurging it and unable to keep up with the compound interest. I could sense I was walking a tightrope, no - running a tightrope, keeping my balance purely out of habit.
I played passionately and without mercy. I didn’t have time to level my chars properly. The way things were going, I was looking at a career as a low-level PK - a Player Killer - as I kept clutching at straws in the na├»ve belief that the loot from the killed players would allow me to stay in the game for just a little longer, trading it in for in-game currencies.
Which was when, as luck would have it, I'd met Arbido. I'd never known his real name - nor had I even tried to find it out. He, however, had a complete real-life rundown on me.
Our first meeting had been brief and in many respects unpleasant (for me at least) but, as I later found out, very productive.
He promised to pay off my loan and sort out my school innuendos. Naturally, he couldn't upload any knowledge to my head but at least he seriously promised to improve my grades and make sure no one pestered me in the future.
What did he want in return? My gaming skills. My yet undeveloped talent that I'd been wasting so uselessly. Actually, he wasn't interested in my talents at first. My initial jobs were quite primitive. Have you ever heard of a dedicated driver? You haven't? That's funny. The idea is, you are granted access to a client's gaming account. Then you get all sorts of tasks, from completing certain quests that the client either can't or won't do himself - or even leveling his char. Some of the tasks can be rather mind-numbing, like ore crafting or collecting certain ingredients. But once you become acquainted with a particular world, learning its secrets and tricks, it takes you less and less time to complete your tasks.
That's how I'd started earning online. Working as a char driver was only the beginning. Soon they began entrusting me with more complex - and dirtier - jobs.
Gradually I started learning the lay of the land. I would register a character in some popular game world, level it up, then sell it through Arbido. Or use it myself. I was accepting orders for artifacts or unique armor you just couldn't buy - because they were dropped by particular mobs.
If you'd like to know more about it, it's no secret. An Internet search will provide you with a long list of these and similar paid services.
Arbido had a rather solid business. He had thousands of players working for him in most popular games. He was very correct, too: ripping off a client just wasn't worth risking his reputation. Recently I'd worked for him on a few VIP orders even though I didn't need the money any more. I was quite capable of earning my own way now. The game had taught me that.
The goblin's familiar squint landed on me. "I've been following your progress," he said. "This is a young world. Completely virgin. Should we bleed it dry?"
I shook my head.
Arbido raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Don't you think you're taking the game too seriously? You need to shed this Paladin role once in a while," he said with fatherly concern in his voice. "Very well now, what is it? My time is money, you know that. How many Easter eggs have you found?"
He never wasted himself on little things. What he needed was gold mines and mithril fields. Oh yes, I knew of a few, plus a few more locations that were off limits to average players. They would only be open after a couple of years. But me, I did know how to arrange a premature global event that included mass raids on the unexplored territories. I was the one with the portal keys.
"I've come to you as a client," I said.
He frowned, trying to imagine me as a customer. "Spit it out."
"I need an account at Phantom Server," I said matter-of-factly, not even questioning the doability of my request.
He immediately knew what I meant. The search engines didn't, but he did! His stare became decidedly prickly.
"Don't you think you're getting too big for your boots?" he grumbled. "What's wrong with this one?"
"Boring."
"Then you should create an alt character. Try some other ways of leveling him. This world has potential. You're not bored, if you ask me. You're just plain lazy."
I cast a surprised glance at him. He'd never been known to reject a client.
"Just say you can't do it," I shamelessly upped the ante.
"It's a shady project," he shook his head. "A closed world stuck in the alpha testing stage," he frowned, probably realizing he'd said too much. "Are you fishing?" his practiced stare halted at my temple. Naturally, my current avatar had nothing there at all, no signs of a neuroimplant whatsoever, but you couldn't keep a cat in a bag for too long. I hadn’t told him anything. He must have found out about it via his own channels. He was one influential motherfucker.
I gulped. "No, it's a clean game. I wanna try. I'll pay you."
"You idiot," he answered ungrudgingly as he thought about something. "Didn't you hear me? They're alpha testing it. It's a closed shop. No paying members. If they didn't invite you, it means you're not good enough. No idea what at. You can knock at their door, no problem. They might even let you in. But then it gets weird."
"Please explain."
"Please pay. If you're so smart it's gonna cost you."
"How much?"
A six-digit sum appeared in the interface window. It wasn't in any of the in-game currencies, either. Arbido was playing it big and proper. At the time, it didn't even occur to me that he might be trying to protect me from any potential problems.
Greedy bastard. He knows I don't have that kind of money.
"How about a swap?" I offered a solution.
"For what?" his stare was cold.
So I made a counter-proposition. A list of all the yet undiscovered - and unmapped - unique locations plus some artifacts from my own little stocks.
"Not enough."
"Are you raving mad?"
What was wrong with me today? I just couldn't control myself. I hadn't even noticed the moment when the spark of initial interest had transformed itself into a little bonfire of still unclear but already pressing desires. I felt like a last needer but I could do nothing about it.
"As you wish," he shrugged and stood up, about to leave.
"No, wait," I threw in the closed locations and the portal keys.
He sat back down, reproach in his stare. "Aren't you gonna regret that?"
"Regret what?" I flashed him a stubborn fearless smile trying to suppress the ever-growing anxiety. "Happy with the price now?"
"Yeah. Now look. This is how it works," he got straight to the point. "This is a new-generation game, the game of the future," as he spoke, the information I'd just swapped was changing hands. "How long since you've had the implant?'
"About a year."
"They've been testing the Phantom Server for five years now. They only accept veteran players. They want single loners - those who have no family or friends in real life."
"What's the catch?"
"Not many of them come back. They log in and that's the last you hear of them. I do know that all of them had these same neural network implants installed first. Just like yours. Also, there're rumors, of course. About worlds being breached. Virtually all games have had incidents of those. All sorts of weird creatures crawling out of the woodwork. According to my information, they're all from the Phantom Server. But there is no direct evidence. The admins make sure they cover up all trace."
I listened, piecing the information together.
The first game based on direct neurosensory contact? That was breathtaking. Every ounce of adventure spirit within me cheered at the news. I'd already had the opportunity to experience one side of this new technology. Admittedly, I was impressed. What could be waiting for me there if every object in that world was interacting with the neural network?
Surely Arbido simply was unable to grasp it all. But I, I could see it clearly: the only reason those players hadn't come back was because they didn't want to! My craving for a new adrenaline fix had got out of control, bundling reason into the farthest corner of my mind. As long as my brain was dominated by my selfish urge, it blanked out any suspicions the old man could offer.
"You don't think they might have died there, do you?" he snapped, ripping the wings off my hopeful dream.
"Why would they?"
"These things are dangerous," Arbido glanced at my right temple again. "They cause brains to pack up."
"Know of any cases?"
"No I don't. But I have reasons to believe it. Trust me."
"You can stuff your reasons-"
"So you've made up your mind, then?" he asked with a bitter smirk.
"Yes, I have! You can't talk me out of it."
"Well, suit yourself. Go back home. And wait."
"I'm gonna stay here a bit, I need to auction a set of armor."
"Leave it to me. And all your other accounts, you need to either sell them or rent them out to me."
"Depends on the price."
"Have I ever had you over?"
"Very well. I can do that. You can keep the money for the time being."
"Why?"
"You never know. I might need some cash injections, whatever."
He didn't say anything, just sat there all grim and gloomy as if I was already dead.
"So is it a deal?"
Arbido nodded. Moments later, his avatar disappeared.

* * *

Logout

Night had swallowed the real world. I was pacing the room, stopping and staring out of the window trying to while away the anxious hours of waiting.
You think I'm an addict? A nutcase? Take a look out the window.
The stepped silhouettes of the megablocks pierce the clouds. Smog envelops the wind-pervaded city stretching half the continent. The buildings' blank walls are prudishly covered with eerie holograms; rivers of lights flow between them, disappearing into the clouds of all-pervasive emissions. The city gasps, struggling for breath, still alive and full of energy - but in all honesty, it's been hopelessly dead for a long time.
Only the serves can survive outside the sealed house units. It's their planet now. The only place for me and billions of others that still guarantees some semblance of sanity is cyberspace.
When I was young I used to think it was infinite. But with time I started to understand that most virtual worlds are just copies of each other. What used to take your breath away - the world, the gameplay - had long faded. My disenchanted mind demanded new experiences, but where was I supposed to take them if I'd done it all already hundreds of times in a hundred different ways?
Leaving the boring predictable cyberspace and going back to the miserable real life was especially unbearable. Many of you can relate. It's driving you mad, the glimmer of unknown new experiences tearing your mind apart.
The game of the future! Alpha testing, so what! I wanted so badly to give in to this new neuronet-technology world.
No incoming messages.
Waiting was unbearable. But this agonizing anticipation felt too good. A selfish cocktail of craving and adrenaline.
At three in the morning, the interface blinked.
I opened the message.
A link address. A user's name. A password.
I shivered uncontrollably as the capsule whirred its start-up gears. Why did it take it so long!
I climbed inside. The life support sensors clung to my skin.
Warning! You're entering a restricted area.
I entered the user's name and password.
Neuronet connection activated. Neuroimplant connected.
I closed my eyes, collapsing into the void.

* * *

The Phantom Server. Login

I was shaking.
I couldn't think straight. Never had my introduction to a new game world been accompanied by such a bunch of weird and painful sensations.
I couldn't see a thing. I tried to move but I didn’t feel my body. My temples throbbed with a fading pain.
All the interface icons were gray.
A painful tingling sensation pervaded my muscles. My unfocused mind barely registered some of the vague shadows that slid past. A whimpering, similar to a child's crying, filled my brain.
I wheezed, ripping my lungs with the effort.
I was lying on something hard and covered in frost. That's all I could tell at that moment. The air was cold and depleted of oxygen.
Messages flashed before my mind's eye.

Mind expander: not installed
Metabolic corrector: not installed
Reflex enhancer: not installed
Semantic processor: not installed
Alternative start conditions met.
Alternative start initialized.

By then I had half-caught my breath and was now courageously waiting for all the opening fanfare. You know what I mean, a full-dimensional visual masterpiece.
The pain returned in a flash. I failed to suppress a shriek. A hot breathing burned my cheek, forcing me to open my eyes. Their first 'visual effect' was incredible. Some ugly creature the size of a monkey was trying to bite through my weird gear, its fat neck ring preventing the monster from sinking its teeth into my throat.
Mechanically I struggled with the failing muscles, trying to whack it nice and hard. The creature leapt back and disappeared into the darkness, crying like a little child.
That was spooky.
I couldn't believe their authenticity levels. I could still feel the creature's hot greedy breath on my cheek. Adrenalin was clouding my gaze crimson. Shivers ran over me; I was well and truly feverish.
Slowly the interface icons lit up one by one, coming to life.
Immediately I opened the logs and checked the entry,

A Kicker, a 15-level Xenomorph, is trying to bite your throat.
Your aggressive reaction scares the Kicker who runs away.

Yeah, right, I thought struggling to sit up. This had to be a newb location by definition. Why level 15 NPCs? Why the alternative start? Where was my character generation menu? Where were all the talent trees and available skill points? Where... where, in fact, was I?
It was cold. I was freezing in the heart of some wintry void. The floor was smooth - definitely not earth or stone. Was it some kind of artificial installation?
Messages started flashing before my mind's eye.

New quest alert! Alone.
Explore the location. Try to find at least one human being.

New quest alert! The Sleep of Reason.
In order to gain access to the character development panel, you need to find and install a mind expander.

New quest alert! It's Your Problem.
In order to survive, you need to find and install a metabolic corrector.

New quest alert! The Price of Freedom.
In order to be able to move between locations, you need to find and install a reflex enhancer.

New quest alert! I Can Hear Them.
In order to understand the language of Xenomorphs, you need to find and install a semantic processor.

Epic quest unblocked: Phantom Server.
In order to unblock new skill tree branches and activate the global story, you need to find out who created the world around you.

I opened the character generation menu.

Zander. Level 1. Human

A human body outline, gray slots, weird armor.
I studied the prompt.

A light armored suit. No integrated weapons. Contains five slots for dedicated cyber modules. Not hermetic without a helmet. The environment sensor reports 10% oxygen content. Toxic contaminants content: 20%.
Effect: you are struggling to breathe. Every minute without protection deprives you of health and life. In order to survive, you need to install a metabolic corrector or find a helmet.

I heard more whimpering and whining that now sounded more like hysterical laughter. It seemed to be coming from all directions.
I burst out coughing. They were right: breathing was a struggle. The location swam before my eyes. I saw double.

You have received a dose of toxins.

What were they thinking of! I scrambled to my feet and struggled to focus, looking around.
Judging by the echoing sounds, the location was huge. I couldn't see its walls. The floor was covered in ice. No idea which way to go: the place was sinking in this hostile, arctic, toxic haze.
For the first time in years I felt lost. This was like none of the game worlds I'd ever been to. On one hand, my curiosity grew with every heartbeat. It had been a very long while since I'd experienced anything like this. A half-forgotten intoxicating feeling of an invalid leaving his bed for the first time, greedily taking in all the revived sensations.
In the twilight depths of my mind, Experience was holding a whispered counsel with Caution, making it clear: this was one hell of a world. They call it an alternative start? I'd very nearly had my throat torn out!
I had to think fast. My every breath stripped me of hits. I needed to find the helmet.
Question: where did they want me to find it? I activated the quest and switched over to the map. No direction markers. The location was swimming in the mist of war. It looked as if the difficulty levels of the alternative start were all maxed out. Specially for some hardcore lovers.
The first impressions made it clear: it looked as if I was stuck here for quite a while. Firstly, I had to find my respawn point. Normally they're situated in safe locations where the sheer amount of neutral characters saves the newbs from immediate mortal danger.
Doubtful. This Price of Freedom quest worried me a bit. In the absence of their mysterious Reflex Enhancer I could resurrect right here. Somehow I didn't think I could change my bind point. I had a funny feeling that this 'alternative start' had been introduced for a reason...
I cast another look around me, trying to inhale as little as possible. The game designers must have been away on holiday when this particular level had been introduced. The emosphere made your blood curdle. The far-off whimpering and wailing really worked on your nerves, and the cold drove you to frustration. There was also no stage setting worth mentioning.
Occasionally the floor echoed with distinct vibrations, easily recognizable as someone's heavy gait.
Never mind. I've seen worse than this. Guided by the sounds, I tried to choose a safe direction.
The icy sheets of mist clung to my shuddering body. The laughter and the whimpering seemed to distance somewhat. My heart fluttered in my chest, my breathing refusing to obey me. The life bar had already begun to shrink before I'd even met a single target!
A few minutes later I noticed an enormous mound of small sharp-edged bits of debris. Was it a rockfall? I turned and staggered toward it. The toxic fog thickened, acquiring a greenish hue. Every breath I took resulted in acute pain. Those neuroimplants were quick learners. So I wanted authenticity? There it was, the whole nine yards of it. I doubled up in a paroxysm of coughing. Everything was swimming before my eyes.
I swung round to a rustling sound, just in time to glimpse some squat silhouettes through the haze. Mechanically I picked up one of the angular stones, not even noticing that I'd cut myself. I had no gloves. The unknown creatures disappeared from sight, replaced by a message,

You've received critical damage!

Since when? No one had even approached me yet! I stared at the piece of rock I still clutched in my hand. It was glowing - dimly and unevenly. A barely noticeable glow. I focused on the item.

Radioactive ore. Effect: radiation sickness. Any intervention is currently impossible. In order to neutralize the deadly exposure, you need to find a metabolic corrector.

Suddenly I become quite disillusioned with both the gameplay and this particular scenario. My life bar kept shrinking rapidly. My legs were shaking. I retched violently and collapsed to the floor, convulsing.
The brief agony ended in paralysis. The spasms stopped. Darkness encroached on me, devouring my mind. At the last moment my vision sharpened; I could see a ruptured domed ceiling overhead. My gaze penetrated the haze, making out the futuristic outline of a spaceship. It had rammed the ceiling and was forever stuck in the framework. The rockslide that had just become my ignominious and agonizing undoing was the ore that had poured out of its holds.

* * *

A respawn

The heavy steps shook the floor.
The toxic haze; the ground covered in a thick layer of ice; the whining noises in the dark. Been there. My fists clenched. Instinctively I waited for the monsters to attack, feeling angry, lost and deceived. Talk about a stupid death. What an embarrassment for someone with my twenty-five years of gaming experience.
What on earth was going on? The developers' main objective is to ease new players into the game, permitting them to embrace their new reality. Not alienate them! I could imagine the newbs' reaction to this kind of alternative start. They'd just slam the Logout button, end of story.
 I felt cold lying on the icy floor. I stood up. I felt like crap. I hadn't exactly lost interest but was dangerously close to doing so. Couldn't they give me a chance to do some leveling for a change? After the top bucks I'd paid them?
My anger kept mounting.
I hadn't yet pressed the Logout button out of principle, even though I had every reason to believe the location glitched big time. I ought not forget that the game was still in alpha testing. Trying to stay cool, I sent a technical support ticket describing all the problems I'd encountered.
No reply. The whimpering and the laughter were growing closer, approaching from three different directions.
I could make out a squat ugly shape in the haze. Barely visible, the creature was running on all fours.
A Kicker. Level 15. Xenomorph.
Time to move my respawn point. Wish I knew how to do it though. I had no suitable skills nor artifacts. The interface had no relevant options at all.
My anger mounted some more. Calm down, I told myself. I needed to disconnect, then try to login again. I could see no other way. Trying to fight three level-15 mobs was an exercise in futility. I just hoped that the alternative start was a glitch. Next time I'd find myself in a normal location.

* * *

Logout

Slowly I came round. My apartment was warm but I was still shuddering from the rheumy cold that had permeated my bones.
My throat felt raw from the toxic fumes. One might think I'd really inhaled them. Wretched implant! High authenticity levels were all good and well but there had to be certain limits!
I gulped down some water without leaving the capsule.
Okay. Let's try it again.
I entered the address. The familiar message popped up.

Warning! You're entering a restricted area. You must have made a mistake.

* * *

Login

The toxic haze stirred.
I held my breath. Hearing the scampering sounds of approaching footsteps, I swung round. Too late. One of the monsters had already taken a powerful leap. The creature rammed my chest. A paw rose to claw me, sending fireworks of pain as it slit my head open.
Blood gushed onto the floor. I collapsed, unable to stay on my feet. The creature sprang back.
Grrrgrrr. The hunching silhouettes circled me in the dark, closer and closer.
I crawled back. The depth and intensity of feeling were mind-boggling. Everything I'd experienced before was just a shadow of what I was feeling now. Blood gushed into my eyes - I could taste it, my hastened breathing tearing up my lungs, defying all gaming stereotypes.
Their authenticity levels were going through the roof. I was gasping, struggling for breath. Blood-curdling instincts escaped my subconscious, breaking the age-old ice of boredom. I was driven by one need alone. I had to survive, whatever the price.
Grrrgrrr, a shadow rushed out of the gloom.
Mechanically I threw up my left arm to protect myself. Sharp teeth sank through the armor into my flesh, mauling the muscle. Pain pierced me from shoulder to tail bone. Everything went dark. A hoarse scream escaped my throat. Two other xenomorphs met my insane glare, apparently unsure about assaulting me. They recoiled as if they'd been burned and began circling me at a distance, whimpering hysterically.
Wheezing, I grabbed the monster by the scruff of its neck with my right hand and forced the creature off me, seeing its hateful furrowed face. Its eyes burned greedily, its teeth hurriedly munching on a piece of my flesh.
The room swam again. Deluded with pain, I rammed the creature's head against the floor in a fit of uncontrolled fury. Again. Again. And again. The gargling sounds, the crunching of bones breaking - I watched it all through some crimson daze, unable to stop.

You've received a new level!

The message sobered me like a slap in the face.
My fingers slackened. I looked around, but the two other xenomorphs had disappeared somewhere. Their mocking hair-raising laughter had stopped. Silence hung in the air. The new message script contorted before my eyes.

You've received a new level!
Congratulations! You've received a unique human ability: Berserk. In case of your fighting unarmed with less than 5% Health, you'll be able to ignore the enemy's defenses, dealing only critical damage.
The sight of you terrifies your enemy. They flee, unable to attack you.

I slid down onto the bloodied floor. Some of the ice had melted, forming little red puddles. I kept shuddering. Then I began to retch. I couldn't help it. I was convulsing in revulsion. A hum in my blocked ears replaced the piercing silence.
My left arm hung listlessly. I didn't feel it.
The life bar was barely glowing. The pain wouldn't subside. My injuries bled. So this was your game reality of the future?

* * *

The Berserk still seemed to be working. I could neither see nor think straight in the all-consuming agony.
I had nothing to staunch the bleeding with. I didn't have a single shred of fabric with which to make a tourniquet.
My stare stopped at the xenomorph I'd just torn apart.
Loot was loot. Even though my stomach protested fiercely. The entire gameplay seemed to be defying convention. Take this Kicker, for instance. What kind of monster was that? A regular monkey with slightly more dangerous teeth and claws. And how about the emotional backdrop? What was so terrifying about it? I'd seen much worse mobs and spookier locations where your teeth literally chattered with horror. And what was this? An empty space fitted with some toxins and a handful of monkeys. Child's play, you'd say: I was getting a bit jumpy, that's all. And you'd be right, of course. Only the problem was, I couldn't move my hand. I watched blood, hot and sticky, dripping from my fingers. Each breath stripped me of some hits but also made me feel physically sick. You wanna try?
My inner opponents promptly shut up, demoralized.
I crouched next to the xenomorph and turned him over. Did you enjoy your breakfast, you bastard? His face was a mess of blood and gore. His skull had cracked. His teeth were gone.
So how was I supposed to search him? I could agree to lots of things but this was pure trash. What kind of developers did they think they were? He had no gear, for crissakes! All he had was his own skin covered with matted hair. Did they want me to cut his belly open?
Squeamishly (I'd never thought I was squeamish before) I touched the monster's belly. Ah! That was clever! He had a pouch there. Just like a kangaroo.
I pulled out some incomprehensible clot of slime. I weighed it in my hand, studying it, trying to focus.

A symbiont. Under normal conditions, strips you of 100 pt. life. Offers a one-off restoration of 1000 pt. life if you're wounded. Metabolically compatible with the Kickers, Dargians and the Haash. Its effect on human metabolism is unknown due to the fact that it has never been tested on humans.

I sensed the familiar weak spark of curiosity. I wasn't going to consume something as disgusting as that, of course. I didn't even know how I was supposed to install the wretched thing.
The lump then stirred, stretching out a semblance of a tentacle - it must have sensed blood.
Better safe than sorry, I thought as I stashed my loot away into one of my gear pockets while looking around, listening intently. What was that saying I'd heard - You can never be too paranoid? I couldn't agree more.
It looked like I didn't have to fear another respawn soon. The blood had already caked. The pain abated. I still struggled for breath but my life bar was gradually restoring. I couldn't fight to say the least, so I had to be cautious and act quickly before the scared xenomorphs returned.
Only then did the thought strike me: what did I even know about the Phantom Server?
Nothing, apparently, not to mention whatever meager experience I'd already had. Judging by the quests I'd received, this was some kind of technogenic world. No wonder I'd seen that spaceship or whatever it was. The very name xenomorph, too, suited the theme.
So where was I supposed to be?
Well, that I had to find out, didn't I? The obviously artificial smooth flooring could mean anything. The toxins? Likewise. I had to explore the location. As I'd already found out, the choice of direction was vital. The thicker the haze, the more toxic it was. The green glow was also pretty clear: I had to avoid it, at least until I got myself some decent gear.
I didn't even notice when this Berserk thing had worn off.
Yes, it looked like my life bar had grown a bit. Five percent or so. I tried to make a furious face to scare off any imaginary NPCs, but winced. The gaping wound that stretched from my chin to the crown of my head smarted immediately. Never mind. I looked scary enough as I did. I couldn't see myself in the mirror and it was probably for the better.
The haze seemed thinner in one particular direction. So that's where I headed toward the unknown.

* * *

This time I'd chosen the right direction. The haze thinned out quickly. I could breathe easier. Then I started coming across some weird objects.
Unfortunately, they did little to change my opinion of the designers' skill and attention to detail. Various molten structures suggested that this place had witnessed some incredibly high temperatures.
I tried to explore a few of them. I'd stop and focus, touching a surface that looked like glass strewn with air bubbles. Pointless. The interface wasn't working. I had a funny feeling that the developers didn't really know what it was they had erected here or how we were supposed to use it.
You think it absurd?
But did you ever have to test a shamelessly raw product? I had. And I'd had the same feeling as I did here: lots of empty locations with markers that were supposed to represent most gaming objects. Utterly boring. Vast spaces where you could walk for miles without encountering anything of note.
Wait. The interface seemed to work, finally.
Now if I concentrated hard I could see the blurred, shimmering outlines of the items lurking inside the molten overhangs. I couldn't make out any details, though.
But it had to be something truly valuable.
The vitrified surface had cracked in places. I began exploring a few of these weak spots, wincing as I tapped them with a clenched fist. I didn't try too hard. My life was restoring slowly. Their regeneration rates were crap. It had been ten minutes since I'd fought the xenomorph but my every movement still hurt.
Whatever had they hidden in there? I was dying to find out. My decades of gaming experience screamed that this was some long-abandoned site. Possibly, I was the first person to have ever made it here. The items could turn out to be priceless - unique, the only ones of their kind.
There you have it. I was already drooling over it. Leaving all this booty behind was worse than nonchalance - it was a crime. Especially in my situation when I had no chance to do some proper farming.
So what did they have inside?
At that moment I sensed an unpleasant nagging feeling, as if I were a bug being watched. As if someone was deciding whether to squash me or leave me be.
I stopped and looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The same darkness as everywhere else, studded with the flowing outlines of vitrified mounds.
But the objects that were inside them, I could see them much clearer now! The nagging feeling had left me, replaced by a message,

You cannot fully explore the concealed items without a mind expander.
You need to install a mind-expanding implant or purchase a mobile scanner. You can also destroy the obstacle with a suitable tool of your choice. Chances of damaging the item: 90%.

Oh well. I heaved a sigh. Those implants again. Where was I supposed to get them?
Never mind. I could always come back. I switched over to the location map. Aha. This was where I'd found the radioactive ore. And this was where I was now. I added a placemark. I absolutely had to come back at the first opportunity and do my bit of archeology.
In the meantime, my life bar had grown to thirty percent. More messages kept flashing, reporting available skill points, but at the moment I had nothing to spend them on. All of my char's talent branches were still closed.
The Admins never replied to my ticket.

* * *

I slowly limped toward a yellowish glow I'd noticed from afar. I'd been in the game for an hour already. So far, my initial impressions had been mixed.
The terrain gradually changed. The annoying toxic haze was now gone. The enormous ceiling had become lower while the molten objects had become more diverse. Here they were taller, repeating the shape of some of the unidentified devices, forming chimeric figures, columns and arches leading me from one room to the next. There were more sources of light here. Some of those weird shapes glowed weakly, too. Now the damage to them seemed superficial; soon it was gone completely.
I had already realized that I was walking away from the epicenter of some ancient disaster. Subconsciously I expected the normal gaming process to start any minute now: the low-level NPCs would arrive, putting everything back into place.
As I took a closer look at the massive devices surrounding me, I noticed that most had been reduced to mere skeletons. Someone had done a good job ripping out everything that was still salvageable or usable. Exactly. It made the artifacts still concealed within the molten shapes all the more valuable.
If I could only find a suitable tool, go back and try to break into the vitrified mounds...
Deep in thought, I missed the new danger entirely. The floor became steeper and caved in, forming an enormous impact crater that sneered at me with its stumps of broken concrete beams and fractured construction steel, bunches of cables snaking everywhere. I slipped and lost my balance, tumbling over, cutting myself on the sharp edges of the metallic debris.
I somehow managed to grasp onto some eroded pipe or other and clung to it, casting cautious looks below.
It was a good fifty-foot fall, no less. A yellow light seeped through an ugly gaping hole below, framed with some gleaming metal. The crater was deep, almost vertical at its center. As I grabbed at the dangerously squeaking bits of crumbling ancient pipework, I looked around, taking in the opening panorama. The crater's steep sides were littered with mummified remains. Everywhere you turned, you could see bits of unknown creatures stuck between the warped pipes and the snaking cables. I noticed several steel lines disappear inside a hole at the bottom and some sort of jury-rigged welded grating that had apparently been added after the crater had appeared.
My eyes were getting used to the dim yellowish light, allowing me to see new details. Apparently this was a regularly used route and a place of many a desperate combat. Only a few of the bodies impaled on the protruding bits of construction steel looked like victims of an accidental fall.
A sudden bout of vertigo made me cling to the crumbling pipes.

You're deprived of oxygen! -2 pt. to Strength, Stamina, Agility and Perception. You can't survive much longer without a metabolic implant!

I know, I know.
I froze trying to sit out the bout of sickness - which in fact had saved me some much more serious problems.
Long shadows rushed below. A muted screeching sound crept through the rarefied air as about a dozen skinny sinewy creatures hove into view underneath and shinnied up the grating. They had no clothes on, only the familiar slave collars.
I focused on one of them. This time the interface reported without delay,

A Haash. Sentient Xenomorph. Level 17. Pilot. Current status: Prisoner.

Sentient they may be, but their frame gave me cause for serious concern. The Haash were over eight foot tall, skinny but incredibly strong, with a reptilian-shaped skull. Their arms were long, ending in four-digit hands with strong multi-phalanxed fingers.
I froze studying them, pretending I was part of the surrounding scenery, as more shadows appeared below and began scaling the grates. This time they were stocky armor-clad warriors.
Again I focused, but much to my disappointment received no information whatsoever.

Without a mind expander, you cannot identify an opponent in a pressurized suit. Find and install the implant in order to read the stats of your opponent's armor and weapons.

Well, that remained to be seen. The squat "gnomes" definitely looked familiar.
I kept watching. The Haash creatures had already scrambled up and disappeared from view.
The gnomes climbed noisily albeit with equal ease. The hum of their micromotors and the clatter of steel reached far even through the rarefied air.
A raid! This was a raid!
I counted about fifty squat figures in total. They were followed by some truly weird creatures: a separate group of what looked like jelly fish hovering in the air.

The Guides, the interface reported.

Chills ran up my spine - purely mentally, of course, considering I was dripping with sweat trying to stay inconspicuous.
The Guides definitely seemed to be the ones in control of the raid. I squinted till my eyes hurt, following their unhurried travel. Their jelly-like bodies permeated with some gristly cartilage substance were generously stuffed with various cyber modules. This became especially clear when one of the creatures brushed against a sharp metal fragment. I expected it to rip the thing open. As if! A force field flashed open. Molten metal splashed everywhere. The creature's translucent body filled with a visible grid of what looked like white-hot wire - the power fibers connecting the multitude of implants into one integrated system.
Dangerous things.
A couple of dozen heavily loaded Haash followed up the rear. Despite all their power and stamina, they staggered under the sheer weight of the huge cratefuls of equipment, struggling to climb up the grating.
I decided to check the information I'd received earlier. Locking my stare onto the last Haash in the group, I read,

A Haash. Sentient Xenomorph. Level 21. Pilot. Current status: Prisoner.
You can set a Prisoner free by destroying the collar's control module. Doing this will affect your reputation. Not all Humans will appreciate your helping a Xenomorph escape. This will affect your reputation among certain human groups depending on the levels of xenophobia they practice.

Finally some good news! I'd already started to think this was a game for some rather sick individuals. Then again, why not? Lots of people play for goblins, orcs and other mythical creatures - so why not xenomorphs?
While I was thus thinking, the Haash group in the rear had already climbed out of the crater and disappeared from sight.
I breathed a sigh of relief, then asked myself: now where could this raid be heading? They're not after my unique items by any chance, are they?
Stop it, I told myself. No need to be greedy. I'd already done well for my level 2. I took a closer look at the crater's almost vertical walls with their mummified bodies pinned to the mauled metal. This was my chance to find something worth my while. I needed to get some gear and weapons before I even thought of pushing my luck further by going down the crater.

* * *

I decided to leave the grating well alone and start from the opposite side of the crater.
My first impression proved to be wrong. This wasn't a crater - not technically, anyway. I'd no idea what could have caused a huge hole like this to appear nor why would its walls, initially quite shallow, had suddenly grown so steep.
Forcing my way through the chaos of misshapen metal wasn't easy. In actual fact, the structure's walls resembled a layer cake conceived by someone far removed from the culinary profession.
Imagine strong sheets of unknown metal interlaced with compact layers of various technogenic filling, such as pipelines of various diameter, power ducts (which I'd initially mistaken for reinforced steel), unidentified devices and narrow service tunnels.
I counted five such layers in total, their contents partially gutted, broken and molten. Their mechanical guts hung out, interwoven, forming an unstable and dangerous support.
I took my time climbing over. Every now and again the seemingly reliable objects betrayed my expectations, collapsing or dissolving into a treacherously loud avalanche of rubble. If I lost my grip, I'd fall to my death. My respawn point was located in the worst possible place. Considering the raid that was heading in that direction, I had better not take any chances.
I froze every time the debris came crashing down, but no one had arrived to check out the suspicious noises. Gradually I got a handle on it and threw caution to the wind. I advanced faster now.
The unusual - I'd say, excessive - authenticity levels kept reminding me of themselves. The palms of my hands were now covered in blisters. Every muscle in my body ached. Any reckless movement made my heart miss a beat.
I couldn't help it. My neuroimplant seemed to have a life of its own. It got completely out of hand, playing with my instincts and reflexes. Apparently it wanted me to know what it really felt like, doing aerobatics fifty feet up.
Whew. I made it. A five-foot pipe led deep into the floor's mysterious depths. I crawled inside it and lay there restoring my breath, my muscles sore and shaky from the unusual exercise.
Once I caught my breath, I rolled over onto my side. A yellowed skull grinned back at me, pieces of flesh still sticking to the bone. A "gnome". Let's see what you have for me, buddy.
His pressure helmet lay some distance away. I reached out and picked it up to study it.
Not my size, definitely. The catches didn't fit, either. I focused to read,

Cargonite helmet. Part of the Cargonite armor suit. Equipped with an integrated combat scanning system. Typical of the Dargian civilization and worn by Dargian pilots, raiders and scouts. Effect: +1 to Armor. The device in the slot is a slave collar controller. The device is damaged and not in working order.
You can improve or alter the helmet to fit your own size. In order to do this, you will need a molecular converter (you will have to provide the blueprints of the desired alterations). Alternatively, you may have it done by a master craftsman in possession of the Alien Technologies Expert ability and Repairs and Science skills. Skill points required: 70.

They didn't want much, did they? I turned the helmet over in my hands and found the slot they'd mentioned. When I tried to prize the damaged device out, the following message appeared,

Skill required to remove the module: Repairs. Points required: 25.

They did like to complicate things. I put the helmet away into my generous hundred-slot inventory. The weight was a problem though. Considering the low gravity, I could carry a hundred and fifty pounds. I had no idea how it was going to affect my speed and agility, but I had my doubts. How was I going to climb down those flimsy gratings if my weight had doubled?
So he was a Dargian, then. The "gnome"'s mummified body stuck to the pipe. I turned him over, disregarding the disgusting crunching sound. One of his arms came off. Further inspection brought another discovery and yet more disappointment. His Cargonite armor didn't fit my body type, and I only managed to rip a couple of implants out of his body. Their stats were reduced to three question marks and a reminder that I needed to level up Science.
Thanks for the tip. The implants - the cyborgizing modules - weighed next to nothing, so I took them along.
The discovery I'd meant was the weapon.
It looked like a submachine gun. The entire length of the barrel was bulging with the casings of electromagnetic accelerators. The stock housed battery slots. That much was clear. But how about actually using it?
This time I was in luck.

IMP34, the interface reported. Suitable for use by all humanoid-type creatures. Weapon class: impulse. Bullet propulsion is produced by battery-powered accelerators.

The two indicators of the micro nuclear batteries glowed yellow. All the mechanical parts seemed to work. The rate of fire slider and the stiff firing button looked simple and well-conceived.
 I couldn't help myself. I just had to try it. I had to find out how it worked, didn't I?
The result was impressive. It was a good job I'd had enough sense to point it at an old crate fifty feet away. The single shot sounded woolly. The impact produced a burst of flame as the bullet evaporated the timeworn metal, leaving behind a fire-polished hole the size of a fist.
The blast wave shuddered through the air. I ducked inside the pipe and lay low, waiting for all of the location's NPCs to come running and make a quick job of me. I changed the clip and braced myself.
I kept waiting. The pulse in my temple clocked up the seconds.
In the last hour, I'd been indecently lucky. No one came.
I'd tested my weapon. Things were looking up.

* * *

I scrambled further on but encountered nothing extraordinary. Most bodies proved to belong to the Haash and the Dargians. They'd had one hell of a fight here! The traces of combat were everywhere. Molten gaps in the metal, impact craters of energy weapons; in places, whole sections of utility lines had been cut cleanly as if with a knife.
The Haash's gear was way too large for me. Shame. Too much weight with nothing to show for it. I expanded the map and added all the details I could, marking down every item I'd found in order to come back. If only I could find a vendor trading in armor and hi-tech devices. I picked up two more types of impulse weapons: something that looked like a handgun and an analogue of a 12-millimeter sniper's rifle. This particular Haash had fought to the last. I counted about a dozen and a half dead Dargians around his position. Hit by his large-caliber, their armor was only good for the scrap heap.
I was seriously tired. It was time to log out and give myself a break, but I knew from experience that leaving a char in a place like this even for a short while was asking for trouble. A couple of times I glimpsed the xenomorphs' stooped outlines almost out of my field of vision. I didn't get the chance to have a better look but I took the point.
Better safe than sorry. I had to find a safe place before taking a break.
As I collected the loot, I moved closer to the grating. There, I'd have to decide whether to go down or climb up.
Going down was risky but promising. Climbing up probably wasn't a good idea. All I could find there was more xenomorphs, toxins and radiation, with the added danger of walking into the raid. Alternatively, I could find a pipe or a service tunnel and climb deep into it, barricading myself in.
Was I the only smart one here?
During my next stop, I took a good look around. The damaged lines seemed to be occasionally releasing bursts of toxins that immediately faded, dissolving into the air. Exactly my point. Why wouldn't xenomorphs use these pipes as ready-made holes to live in?
The low oxygen content didn't make my life any easier, triggering regular bouts of vertigo and nausea.
That's sorted, then. I had to go down.

* * *

Casting cautious looks around, I was approaching the makeshift steel grating, or the "bridge", as I mentally baptized it, when I had an impossible, incredible stroke of luck.
My eye fell on something familiar. I peered at it. That's right. Something gleamed a blurred purple amid the heaps of debris, the hue identical to that of my own armor.
Without a second thought, I climbed the short distance up, grabbing at the sagging bunches of cables at the risk of falling to my death as my arms were already shaking with exhaustion.
A mouth of a rather narrow tunnel opened up in front of me. Before it hung a small platform, apparently made with whatever had come in handy. On top of the platform was a hideout. The glow I'd noticed was produced by a gauntlet.
A human? I pulled a rusty sheet of steel away. Behind it was indeed a hiding place.
I crouched, shaking my head. Whoever had made this was a hardcore type. He hadn't been interested in small scale, but had lain here in waiting for some big game. A large-caliber sniper's rifle, quality gear, prearranged escape routes - and still he hadn't made it. He was literally chopped down by energy charges. His armor hadn't helped him much. For some reason, I immediately thought about the jellyfish "guides". I had a funny feeling they were the only ones capable of making such a job of a human body. Besides, the laser beams seemed to have hit him directly from above.
I still couldn't understand lots of things. Take me, for instance. Having received deadly doses of both radiation and toxic gases, I had respawned wearing full gear. Why were these bodies slowly decaying here then, armor, weapons and all? Or was he an NPC?
Lots of questions, no answers.
His armor looked very similar to mine. I threw caution to the wind and began collecting the trophies. It took me a minute to work out the jammed fixtures of his helmet. Finally I was able to remove it - and I looked away.
Sick motherfuckers! I felt my jaw lock. It was the first time in my life that picking up loot made me feel like a grave robber.
A human skull stared back at me with its sunken eye sockets framed with long matted blond hair.
A girl?
I lay the skull gently next to the body. I wanted to turn around and leave but stopped myself just in time.
Arbido had been right. The three years I'd spent playing a paladin had seriously affected my head. This wasn't the Crystal Sphere anymore. And I wasn't the level 430 top player.
Trying not to look at the skull, I crouched and picked up the helmet.
Not a trace of human flesh inside. The discovery made me feel better. Apparently, these bodies didn't belong to dead players. Could they be part of the gory interior design?
I put the helmet on. The locks clicked shut. The neck ring rotated close. The dull milky visor began to clear. I glimpsed a brief sequence of incomprehensible system messages. With a hiss, the row of lights lining the helmet's rim flickered and went out.

You're not suffering from oxygen deficiency anymore, the interface reported breezily, immediately throwing cold water over my excitement, Warning! The battery charge of the life support system is dangerously low!

Well, this I could probably manage. I had already begun to find my way around this new world. I picked up a damaged rifle and studied its stock. Predictably, I found two micro nuclear batteries still intact in their slots. I replaced my old ones with these.
The power lights changed their mode to a dull green.
Excellent.
I didn't have any qualms about getting myself a pair of gauntlets. The blisters on my hands had by then long burst. I avoided looking at my bleeding hands nor did I have to: the pain wouldn't let me forget about the damage done.
Once I finished putting my new gear on, I received a message,

You have collected a full set of light pressurized gear.

I studied the bonuses it offered. Apparently, now I could resist the toxic haze, low levels of oxygen and even spend up to two hours in a vacuum. That's what the charge still left in the batteries would last: two hours. I also discovered ten empty slots for additional equipment.
The helmet only had one option - which had to be extremely expensive considering its purpose. It was a set of electronic sights complete with a self-adapting system of enemy vulnerability analysis and a ballistic calculator which computed all environmental factors such as gravity, atmospheric density, wind direction and force. Absolutely indispensable for extreme long-range sniper missions.
Actually, I could use it too, couldn't I? Why not? Now I could finally hunt a few xenomorphs if I wanted to. I could do a bit of leveling, if the ammo and remaining charge in the batteries allowed.
The idea was good, with the exception of a few cons. My talent branches were still blocked. I could still grow in levels, of course, simply accumulating the new available skill and ability points. Choosing specialization, however, required some quality thinking to make sure I didn't repent at my leisure later on in the game. At the moment, I didn't have enough information about the Phantom Server world to be able to make this kind of decision.
But plain leveling wasn't going to do me much good, either. Game rules dictated that my opponents grew in levels, too. Fighting them on bare hits alone wasn't an option.
Some predicament. Should I go hunting or should I continue gathering intel, searching for the apparently so indispensable implants?
As I pondered over this, the pain in my hands was replaced with a prickling sensation. My character's cartoonish outline in the tiny status window had turned green.
Yeah, right. Was this world geared toward technology alone?
I removed my left gauntlet and studied the palm of my hand. Just as I'd thought. Not a trace of the injuries I'd received, imagine the regeneration rate! Having said that, the life support bar had shrunk considerably. There's no such thing as a free lunch - or a free miracle. Everything has its price.
The hunt would have to wait. I needed to stock up on batteries and other supplies before everything else.
My gaze chanced upon a mummy's withered hand. The creature must have been a quest NPC, I thought noticing a dull metallic glow.
A ring?
Exactly. I carefully removed it, trying to study it, but no amount of focusing helped me this time. More question marks were all I could see.
Okay. I had to start playing at some point, after all.
I slid the plain ring onto my own finger and very nearly screamed with pain.
The metal was melting! I tried to pull the morphing ring off my finger, but I could just as well pull my own finger off. My vision blurred, a sudden numbness touching the back of my head. My legs gave way under me. I slumped down, trying not to faint, and lifted my left hand, overcoming the ever-growing pain.
The liquid metal had run, forming what now looked like a signet ring made of quicksilver. Its surface formed a diamond-shaped blob which began growing a multitude of stalks very much like the microscopic pins of my own neuroimplant. I broke into a cold sweat, watching them grow. Then they began filtering through my skin.
I suppressed a scream, gnashing my teeth, wriggling with pain and horror. To hell with such authenticity!
Grinding my teeth, I wheezed, sweat dripping to the floor. Tears welled in my eyes.
My left hand throbbed from wrist to fingertips. A net of blood vessels appeared under the pallid skin, fiery red as if they transported liquid plasma and not blood.
I balanced on the edge of consciousness, forcing myself to stay aware. No idea why, considering the agony was dreadful. You'd think I'd have been happy to zone out for a couple of minutes - but no, I stayed awake even though the torture seemed to never end.
An intense aura enveloped my hand and flared up, dripping sparks. Then it went out.
My ears rang. In the crimson darkness a new message flashed before my eyes,

New quest alert! Alien Mind.
Availability: only Humans
You have found and absorbed a techno artifact of the Founders. Find four more in order to put together a complete module.
Reward: Unknown.

That's when it finally clicked.
I turned my head slowly and looked at the remains of the blonde girl. Her skull grinned ungainly, staring at me in silent sympathy as if foreseeing my own fate.
I remembered Arbido's warning.
No. I couldn't believe that this girl was a dead player.
I had to come back to this question at some other point in time.

* * *

The remaining descent went without any new surprises.
The armor was comfortable, leaving plenty of space for movement. I used my new sniper system to study the way ahead but it didn't detect any traps or enemies lying in wait.
I slung the gun over my back and slid down the cable. Had it not been for the gauntlets, it would have stripped my skin to the bone.
I landed in a rather small room flooded with a dull yellowish light. No furniture, no equipment - I only noticed the gaping holes in the walls where some sort of mountings had been ripped out of them. I caught a glimpse of a bending corridor through a rather human-size doorway.
The only way was straight on.
Honestly, I wasn't a big fan of technogenic post-ap worlds but I was left with no choice. Besides, they kept continuously rekindling my interest, adding a liberal dose of cheap thrills.
The silence was dull and muffled. Mechanically I glanced at my left hand. The pain was long gone and so was the numbness. I was dying to remove the gauntlet but I stopped myself just in time. The moment wasn't quite right.
The short arching corridor took me to a large low-ceilinged hall. Here, the air was very rare. The sound of my footsteps died on the noise-reducing flooring that felt spongy and springy underfoot.
I looked around. The place resembled a large looted warehouse. Everywhere I looked I could see broken containers - oblong with rounded corners. Lots of sectionalized bulkheads hindered my advance. The shelving within them fit the murky-green containers perfectly.
I proceeded slowly and carefully, casting an occasional glance on the map. The gun in my hands had offered little security so far. I knew from experience that until I had tested it in battle, the two of us wouldn't be inclined to trust each other.
Nothing special was as yet happening, and still tension was growing inside me, a mind-chilling premonition ringing like a taut string.
Another bend. Another sectionalized bulkhead. This time the containers weren't broken but just lay there in a heap. I tried to prize one open. No way. Not a sign of a lock or any other access device.
Yet another bend. On the map, the outline of the room could be seen clearly. Beyond it, everything was dark. Was it a dead end?
There was one way to find out.
I stepped out, bracing myself for whatever might come next. I expected anything. But not this!
This was beyond all expectation.
I slowed down, unthinking, oblivious to everything around me, not even noticing the containers behind my back that had begun to glow with the same coursing of static. Then their tops fell apart into segments that began to open like mechanical flowers.
But I hadn't seen it yet. This understanding would come later. Now my gaze was slowly sinking into the Void.
An entire wall of the large room was in fact an enormous observation window. Beyond it, billions of bright stars clustered generously in space.
I was smitten. Slowly I approached the window, amazed at the clarity and the thinness of the material that separated me from the vacuum and its eternal cold. More pulses of energy shimmered across its surface.
A force field?
All the questions crowding my mind had faded away, losing their importance. Countless more details came into view. I could see a large ledge one level below, its ribbed surface arching toward the stars. Its compartments were shaped rather like launch pads - some were empty while others offered a glimpse of spaceships ready to take off. Judging by their size, they must have been airspace hybrids.
Two planets glowed at a distance. One was yellowish brown surrounded by several rings; the other a light bluish gray blotched by swirling clouds.
I started shaking. A multitude of tiny sparks could be seen moving on the foreground of the magnificent constellations. Immediately my helmet reacted to my mental state, enlarging the sparks and bringing them closer one by one, switching between potential targets.
Enormous space stations floated in the dark. A plethora of cargo and warships scurried between them.
Before I could get a good look at them, the helmet switched to other objects. Several clusters of some technogenic Leviathans drifted through space, their outlines dark and menacing, their hulls gaping with past impacts. I was looking at the aftermath of a space battle between some ancient Titans!
My heart sank in awe. The sheer scope of it dwarfed you, teasing your imagination. All this knowledge to pursue! Would one life be enough to explore every corner of this stellar system? And what if there were even more of them here? I focused on one particular spark of a spaceship orbiting the grayish-blue planet until it zoomed in to a reasonable size, descending, actually entering the planet's atmosphere!
Yeah, right. Did they mean you could land on a planet here?
That could expand the already-impressive world to the size of infinity! And that was only what I could see and grasp now. By the fact that the stars were stationary I concluded that the space station I was currently on didn't rotate, which must have left scores of unknown objects hidden from view. I could only guess about the true scope of this world.
The scintillating shock of this sudden change of scenery began to release me. I wasn't yet trying to process what I'd just seen but I was already celebrating all the new opportunities multiplied by the new gameplay's doubtless authenticity.
A suspicious noise distracted me from the scene. I swung round, instinctively raising my weapon but having no chance to shoot first. Lightning-bolt discharges hit me from every direction at once.
For a split second, the armor had withstood their pressure. Then my muscles froze solid.
You've been paralyzed!
Several mechanical creatures were approaching me. They looked like spheres a couple of feet in diameter, with lots of sensors. Their ribbed tentacle-like manipulators writhed around freely.
Dargian combat drones, my interface offered helpfully.
Another lightning bolt hit me. Everything went dark.

* * *

I came round in a dark personnel module, cramped and dirty, divided slap-dashly into tiny little cells.
My armor was gone and so was my gun. I was dressed in some crumpled oversized gray clothes. On my neck was a slave collar.
I could barely see and I definitely couldn't think straight.
Through the thick gloom I glimpsed a few Haash-like shapes. One huddled on the floor in the cell next to mine; another clenched the bars of one opposite, piercing me with his glare; the third one was crouching, whining and rocking from side to side.
That was me done here. Enough for today! All I could feel was a mind-numbing exhaustion bordering on indifference. Never before had I ever been so depleted both physically and morally.
Should I just sit there cursing myself for being so gullible? What was the point? I definitely hadn't been the first one who'd frozen open-mouthed at the observation window, dumbfounded, exposing his back to the conveniently arriving drones.
A noob trap.
Very well. So I'd lost my gun and my gear. They hadn't killed me on the spot which meant they intended to use me. For the time being, my avatar wasn't risking much - meaning, things were unlikely to get worse.
That was settled, then. Time to log out. I needed a break and a bite to eat, as well as some quality sleep and time to think my options over.
I pressed the virtual button. Instead, a message popped up,

Your current status: Prisoner. According to the Terms and Conditions you accepted by signing, you cannot exit the testing mode while being imprisoned. We strongly recommend you activate the in-mode by sending a remote command to your capsule. If you are unable to do so personally, send a message to our technical support team to visit your current physical location.

They were too much! All my apathy was gone in a flash.
I hadn't signed any terms or conditions! I hadn't even seen them!
I cut myself short.
Arbido. The bastard! He'd signed it electronically in my name, hadn't he? How else was he supposed to register a Phantom Server account for me?
I pressed the logout button again.

New quest alert! A Prison Break.
Find a way to escape from your current imprisonment. In order to do that, we strongly recommend you activate the in-mode. If you are unable to do so personally...

With a swipe of my eyes, I got rid of the message and crouched on the floor.
The Haash opposite was still staring at me. Whatever.
I fell deep in thought, none of it particularly rosy. The moment I was out of here, Arbido could kiss his reputation goodbye. Then again, what was the point of him risking it for the dubious pleasure of setting me up? No. I wasn't buying it. He couldn't not have read the TAC before signing it. Not with his experience. Something smelled very badly here.
This logout ban should have sent alarm bells ringing. Then again, he had warned me - or at least hinted at it. So what had he been playing at? Had he hoped I'd become a mindless chunk of flesh wound with cables? And what were my prospects like now? A lifelong coma in the tender care of miscellaneous life support systems?
After a while, the door clanged open. One of the "gnomes" walked in, accompanied by two drones. The lights went on automatically. The Haash stepped back into their cells trying to stay as far from the passage between them as possible.
Still brooding, I studied the gnome. Disgusting. There was nothing human about him. A pushed-in nose, a pair of nasty beady eyes. A long face, an enormous toad-like mouth. Instead of hair, his head was covered with warts. What a heinous creature.
I focused on him.

A Dargian. Level 22. Sentient Xenomorph. Slave Driver.

He had tons of hits - at least five hundred. Below I saw two purple bars and an orange one. Let's presume that the purple ones signified the two drones' status. Where did that leave the orange one? A particular skill? An energy supply?
Pointless trying to second-guess it. I was going to find it out sooner or later, anyway.
I just couldn't work out what had prompted them to come up with such crippling imprisonment terms?
There was a catch there somewhere, I just knew it. I also knew that getting to the bottom of the logout ban wasn't going to be easy. Still, I would do it.
In the meantime, the Dargian stopped in front of my cell.
I didn't avoid his stare. I had nothing to lose. Somehow I doubted they'd changed my respawn point. But still I didn't want to find out.
He grinned, as if reading my thoughts, and pointed at the Haash. On his signal, the drones bent their ribbed tentacles and peppered the prisoner with impulse charges.
Blood and pieces of flesh flew everywhere. Then I noticed the air shimmering green to my right.
A respawn.
The Haash winced with pain, growling under his breath. Point taken. They made it perfectly clear that my death would be equally painful and ignominious, followed by my immediate reinstatement as a slave.
Lesson learned. I put this particular Sentient Xenomorph on my personal KOS list. For those not in the know, KOS stands for Kill on Sight.
He grinned again. The magnetic locks clicked. The door of my cell slid aside.
I lunged forward, aiming for his throat. My collar self-constricted, strangling me. The ever-watchful drones rewarded me with two paralyzing charges.
I didn't lose consciousness. I hurt, fury clenching at my throat harder than the collar itself. All pointless.
The Dargian entered my cell and lifted me in the air. He laid me on the floor and unbuttoned the top of my clothes.
I tried to struggle free but failed. My muscles were lax and unmoving. For a few moments, the gnome watched me. Finally, satisfied with my helpless state, he produced a narrow box made of black plastic and touched a sensor button on it.
A servomotor hissed gently. A bluish glow escaped the inside of the box. Five identical devices in their respective nests radiated an intense light, each reaching out with thread-like charges of energy that probed the air around them blindly, as if groping for a... a victim.
The Dargian gave me a dirty look. His gaze focused. His fat fingers touched my right upper arm, squeezing an invisible pressure point. Pain surged through me.
Anatomy had never been my forte. He, however, seemed to know what he was doing, feeling for a large nerve center. He found one and wheezed, reaching for his box, then reconsidered. His gaze focused again, studying me. His short fat fingers reached for my throat.
Cold sweat erupted on my forehead. I was immobilized and utterly helpless while he grunted with contentment, feeling the vertebrae at the base of my skull.
No, he was wrong again. His beady eyes grew harsh. The Dargian was getting nervous, apparently unable to find the problem. I can't have been the first human prisoner they'd had here, but now things seemed to have gotten out of hand. Something wasn't working right for him.
My paralysis seemed to be wearing off. I tried not to show it but the gnome's keen eye immediately noticed my cheek twitch.
More paralyzing charges tore at my mind, plunging me into a brief but welcome slumber. Then reality returned, drenched in pain and fear. The neuroimplant flooded my brain with an entire range of painful feelings available for all those billions of credits invested in its development.
The objects and actions around me came back into focus.
The Dargian leaned over me, panting heavily. In one open hand he held a glowing ball of thread-like energies. In the other he clenched some sort of surgical tool. The Haash craned their necks, watching the scene in silent tension. I thought I noticed a glint of sympathy in one's stare. That was the thing that finally did my head in.
Suddenly I knew. Arbido had been right. This was a place of no return. First the neuroimplant turned the game into reality; then the developers' sick mercenary imagination joined in, wishing to evaluate, at these early testing stages, the adaptivity threshold of the human mind, creating neurogram databases and trying to determine the authenticity level at which the game's world would turn into a virtual tomb.
I assure you it's very scary when you suddenly realize that the monster coming for you is real. That the rusty iron hook that he uses to strike sparks on the wall could soon tear your flesh apart. This is when the game ceases to exist. At these authenticity levels, the brain just can't tell the truth from fiction. One blow followed by going into pain shock could result, instead of a respawn, in a very real dead body. No amount of the "in-mode" could help here.
All this flashed through my mind as some sort of intuitive epiphany.
So all those dead bodies in full gear I'd believed to be part of the scenery were in fact dead players?
No. It didn't sum up. I refused to believe it!
The black box in his hands jolted.
A wound gaped in my upper arm, reeking of burned flesh. There was no blood: the laser discharge had seared the blood vessels closed. The Dargian bent down, grinning. The ball of crackling electric charge slid off his hand right into the wound.
It doesn't hurt!
My eyes popped out.
It doesn't hurt! It's a game! It can't hurt!
My mind shut down mercifully.

* * *

I survived but it took me some time to recover.
I had no idea how much time had passed. The wound on my arm had closed, leaving an unpleasant tingling sensation under the skin like the crawling of a tiny mechanical bug.
The icon of a new system message kept flashing. I opened it.

I Can Hear Them: quest completed!
You have successfully implanted a semantic processor module. Now you can understand the language of the Xenomorphs!
+1 bonus to Intellect
+2 bonus to Perception
You've reached the next level! You have new Talent and Characteristic points available!

I was surprised to discover a letter from the Admins. Had they finally replied to my ticket?
Oh no. This was much more serious:

We inform you of the following actions we have undertaken:
1. A support group has been dispatched to the address you provided.
2. The capsule has been serviced, including the activation of the in-mode and replacement of life support cartridges.
3. We have studied the existing neurograms in order to optimize the neuroimplant's functionality. Feedback levels have been lowered seven percent. Thank you for your cooperation.

Scumbags.
Then again, what was the point in spouting bile now? It had been my decision from the start.
I chose not to argue with myself. Instead, I checked my inventory. Much to my surprise, I discovered all my possessions still there: the Dargian carbonite helmet, a full set of human pressurizers and three types of weapons.
The slots in my gear worked too. The only thing missing was the fact that all the batteries were empty, armor as well as weapons. Without them, my gear was little more than a heap of technojunk.
I activated the Prison Break quest but found no prompts. It was swim or drown.
What was the deal with my new abilities?
I looked around me. Indeed, my perception seemed to have upped a notch. I could see much better in the dark.
It was time to try this semantic thing. I looked around me, searching for the Haash who'd looked at me with sympathy, and tried to strike up a friendship.
"Hi. How did you end up here?" I asked the first thing that came to mind.
He paused, casting a sideways glance at the fellow prisoners. Then he nodded.
The mnemonic inbox blinked its icon. Mind boggles. Were we going to converse telepathically? My interface had no virtual keyboard: the advent of the neuroimplants had rendered them obsolete.
Are you a Human?
I crouched, leaning my back against the cold wall, and closed my eyes. Nice to meet you.
It felt weird. My very first attempt to use the mnemonic chat. Forming phrases in my mind wasn't easy. My name's Zander.
I'd already noticed that characters had no nicknames here but I'd explained this away by the fact that I'd so far only met NPCs.
Apparently, I'd been wrong.
I was speaking to another player!
My... name's... Charon.
I opened my eyes and tried to focus. That's right. I could see nicknames now. Did that mean that I couldn't identify the players properly without this semantic thingy of theirs?
I hurried to check my KOS list.
That's right. The char's information had grown. The Dargian's nickname was Rash.
Charon? Have you been here long?
Two full orbits, he answered promptly but obscurely.
Two what?
Two complete circles of the station around the star.
"You mean two years?" I couldn't conceal my astonishment. Were the developers raving mad? Two years? The skin on the back of my head tingled, growing taut. I gulped, trying to calm down. "Have you tried to escape?"
"Impossible," the Haash answered darkly.
Well, that remained to be seen.
"What's the problem?" I struggled to pose clear-cut questions. I needed information badly. Personally, I wasn't going to stay here long.
"Rash is strong. You can't remove the collar. It will strangle you. The drones will paralyze you," Charon listed the problems one by one. "We have nowhere to run," he added after a pause. "This station has suffered a lot of damage. It's not easy to survive here."
"How about the other stations? And the planet?"
"They won't let us in. And the planet belongs to the Dargians. It's their world."
I felt curious. "Where are you from, then?"
"I'm from another star system," he answered calmly.
I paused, thinking. I didn't want to play father confessor to the guy just to find out why he'd chosen a xenomorph as his character. The gaming worlds had their own etiquette. He'd tell me himself when he was ready. If he didn't, then I'd just have to consider him a xenomorph.
Very well. I opened the inventory and checked my helmet's stats. The broken device was still there. Rash was going to regret his oversight.
I addressed Charon again, "Are you a pilot?"
"Yes."
Excellent. Time to try out more complex message options. I wasn't sure if I could do it but surely it couldn't be more difficult than sending an MMS?
I closed my eyes trying to recreate the view out of the observation window just before the drones had attacked me. The view of the station's docking facilities.
The Haash followed this mental picture with interest. This kind of communication sent shivers down my spine. Still, I was getting used to it.
"You know what it is?"
"That's Yrob!" despair was rapidly draining from his voice.
"Which is?"
"One of our ships. We arrived at this system," he faltered, "in a big ship. We wanted to study the Founders' stations. The Dargians attacked us. They destroyed the mothership. Our group broke away and landed here. Then they captured us."
"I see. What do they want from you? How do they use you?"
"They want to use our knowledge. To study our ships."
"And none of you has ever broken down and told them anything? After two years?"
"We have. We showed them. After torture. But they can't. They don't know how to. These are our ships. They're not easy," he faltered again, searching for the right word, "not easy to customize. Lots of things will have to be changed."
"Are they flightworthy?"
"There's nowhere to fly to."
"How about the station next to this one? Who controls it?"
"Humans. Your race."
"Are they a problem?" I remembered the warning message about potential repercussions of my mixing with 'xenomorphs'.
"They'll kill us."
"How do you know?"
"We divided into two flights during the attack. My group headed here. The other went to the other station. The humans took them prisoner. Then they killed them."
"It's been two years. Lots of things have changed since," I said confidently even though I didn't know much. One problem at a time. At the moment, the Haash were my only chance of getting out of here. It wasn't that I was trying to take advantage of Charon. But I knew that in order to survive, a gaming world was obliged to have a well-developed economy. If the Dargians owned the planet and the humans were in possession of the station, they were bound to engage in intensive trade with each other. Which lowered xenophobia levels by definition. This I knew from experience.
"We can't escape."
They had broken Charon's spirit well, hadn't they?
"We can still try!" I, on the contrary, was filled with resolve, my mind replaying various options, going through the details of my daring plan.
"We can't."
"Why? You don't even know what I want to say!"
"We don't have enough ships. Only three are still functional. And we are many," he sent me a mental image. At least fifty Haash prisoners!
"We can escape together, the two of us," I came up with a solution.
A long pause hung in the air as he mulled over my words, exchanging a whispered word with other prisoners.
"If I escape, the Dargians will kill them."
"Not necessarily," I expected him to say something like that, so I'd come up with a suitable response. "All they need to say is that it was all your idea. That they're happy to serve their masters. Trust me, it'll work. In fact, you can just blame everything on me!"
"Will you help us?" the Haash sidled over to their bars, hope and mistrust in their eyes.
I felt uncomfortable. What could I promise them with my laughable level 3? Still, I couldn't even consider this torturous imprisonment for much longer. So I answered confidently,
"I will! You've been suffering here for two years already. Do you think you can take it for a little bit longer?"
They nodded.
No sooner than I gave them this questionable promise, a message popped up,

New quest alert! The Ties that Bind.
Help the Haash to escape from the station. Deadline: 50 days.
Reward: doubtful, unknown. Your relationship with the Humans may deteriorate considerably.

I paused, thinking. It was no good trying to get out of here without a pilot and a ship.
Whatever. Once the Logout button was back on, I'd have plenty of time to think it over.
I pressed Accept.

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