Thursday, March 26, 2015

SURVIVAL QUEST by Vasily Mahanenko (Chapter 1)

Vasily Mahanenko

The Path of the Shaman. Step 1: The Beginning.


Chapter 1. Introduction

"... to find the defendant Daniel Mahan guilty of hacking the control program of the city sewage network, resulting in total system shut-down, and sentence him to confinement in a correctional capsule and resource-gathering labor for the term of eight years, under Article 637, section 13 of the Penal Code. The place of confinement will be automatically appointed for the defendant by the system. Should the prisoner meet the conditions stipulated in Article 78 Section 24 of the Penal Code, the defendant will be given the opportunity to transfer to the main gameworld. The Court appoints the defendant the following specifications: race Human, class Shaman, main profession Jeweler. The sensory filters are to be turned off for the entire term spent in the capsule. Parole is possible if the defendant pays an amount totaling one hundred million gold gaming coins. The sentence is final and cannot be appealed."

They say that God is Truth. I don't know, really. Maybe that's how it is - it's not something I ever checked, so I'm not going to argue. But all arguments are evil and a great evil at that. And that's a Truth against which there's no argument. A play on words, if you like.
Let me introduce myself - I am Daniel Mahan, as it has already been mentioned. I am a thirty year-old specialist in IT security and everything that involves. I am a freelancer, periodically hired by corporations for finding exploits in the virtual game of Barliona. This game had filled the whole world with itself and had become the entire world for some. I cant say that I am the best security specialist, but Im in no way the worst either. Something between a genius and totally useless. Fair to middling.
Each year all the specialists officially involved in looking for exploits in the Game must go through retraining. What it was we had to be retrained in remained a mystery to us, because for many the search for exploits was the only source of income. But the Corporation had strict demands: if you want to look for weaknesses without breaking the law, you had to go through retraining. Moreover, the additional training mainly meant the study of new laws that increased the punishment for hacking and we were never shown any tools or methods for finding exploits. The Corporation kept a stringent control over preventing any internal know-how from being leaked to outsiders, especially to the likes of us. Today we might be honest and rule-abiding and tomorrow any one of us could turn into a malicious attacker and try to break into Barliona.
At one such retraining session I ended up sharing a table with a fairly attractive girl and striking up a conversation with her. Unfortunately she was, of course, also a freelance artist, as all those engaged in finding exploits in the game called themselves, whether they actually worked anywhere or not. I was all set to start throwing around clever and obscure terminology, expecting the girl, stunned by the brilliance of my mind, to fall into my arms. Far from it. Marina turned out to be clever and sufficiently professionally experienced: her main job was providing information security for the city sewage system, while the search for game exploits was just a hobby.
Well, well. Never tell a girl, especially a smart girl, that her place of employment is not worthy of having a freelance artist working there. We started to argue. And then, struggling to come up with anything better, I threw in my killer argument of why you shouldn't work in a sewage system, which seemed a sure win to me: "It stinks there!"
It would seem that she had been irritated with this kind of comment once too often. So irritated, in fact, that she left my table and put an end to our developing acquaintance. What a pity. I had already started to make certain plans. Well, never mind. I immersed myself fully into yet another report on how the new law was increasing the punishment for the hacking and destruction of programs. Heigh-ho! Now they give eight years for hacking. This is serious. In the break between the seminars Marina sat next to me again.
"So you say that a job like mine is only fit for amateurs?"  she said in an irritated tone, and I noticed how a crowd of onlookers started to gather around us. 
"Listen, I never said anything of the sort. I didn't say that you were an amateur: I said that this kind of work cant be worthy of a professional of your caliber."
"It's the same thing. If I am working there it means that I'm not good enough to work somewhere else, which means that I'm a talentless idiot!" It's no use arguing with a girl in a state of rage. You wont prove anything to her and youll end up looking like a fool to everyone else.
"Let's talk about something else. It's my fault. I'm sorry for my poor choice of words. I invite you for a truce over a cup of tea, coffee or whatever you prefer. I don't want to quarrel with such a beautiful and enchanting lady," I made an attempt to pull the carpet form under Marina's feet. Better for her to be indignant because of my compliments than on account of her work.
"Tell me, do you have a wife or a girlfriend?" I involuntarily shuddered at this question and automatically shook my head. It seems Marina was going on the offensive, pulling the carpet from under my feet instead. My thoughts were confirmed when her next question virtually floored me:
"Would you like to go out with me? Do you like me?" Damn, what is it with women these days? Now they are the ones throwing themselves at men; although I admit that such 'attacks' made me more than happy. Marina really was an attractive girl, pretty, with a slightly upturned nose, so I thoughtlessly nodded to her. 
"Listen up, everyone!" Marina suddenly shouted. "If in a week's time Daniel manages to break through the security system I installed on the city sewage system Imitator, I solemnly promise to be his girl for at least a month! Without showing in any way that I find any of it unpleasant. But if he fails, then hell spend a month working as one of the waste collector cleaners. So ready to make this bet? A test server would be set up for you with a full copy of the working system, and your hacking attempt would be officially recorded as a test of our security. By tomorrow youll receive all the necessary papers, ensuring that you remain clean in the eyes of the law," said Marina and gave me her hand to shake on it.
Who forced me to take this bet? I could have dismissed the whole thing as a joke and brushed the whole conversation under the carpet. We would have gone for a pint of beer together and parted our ways in peace. But no, Marina's eyes drilled me with such force that I involuntarily shook the hand in front of me.
"Great! Tomorrow you will get the scan of the request to check the security of our system and its virtual address. In exactly a week's time Ill be here again either with a job offer for you or fully prepared for a date. The time is ticking, hero!"
A murmur of approval went through the crowd around us and made me go into a total stupor. Marina left and people I knew, as well as strangers, started to come up to me and slap me on the back, shake my hand and offer their services in hacking. Of course, if such a girl risks herself for a whole month, everyone should lend a hand. And if I failed, it would mean a good laugh at my expense when Id be working the sewage waste collectors.
They are right when they say that the rarest friendship in the world is a person's friendship with his own common sense. Who stopped me from heeding it? But once I committed myself there was no retreat. I spent two days gathering information about the II of the city sewage system and about Marina, and then started to work.
Of course it would be a bit much to call intellect imitation programs 'I.I.': everyone will immediately starts thinking that this is real artificial intelligence and beating themselves in the chest and screaming that in our world this cannot be done and, even if it can, humanity can do without such a 'boon', because then the machines will replace humans and we will all die out. One must not mix up completely different concepts, or it would be like trying to compare 'soft' and 'green'.             Imitation programs have no personality matrices. Naturally, if you program them right, they will show emotion, character and the rest. You could even get them to do it so well that when interacting with them you would struggle to tell right away whether you are even dealing with a program; but they lack the key component, which is self-awareness. Thus a program would not ask questions like "Who am I? Why am I here? How much will I get paid? When is my holiday?" It just wouldn't unless, of course, such a parameter had been included in it from the start. And this means that it would not get anxious on account of its place in the world and would carry out all of its functions to the letter. With time, imitators, as such programs came to be called, started to be used in all spheres of human life, fully replacing human beings. And not just human beings - even pets (or rather robots that looked like pets) became a permanent feature of our world, having replaced their real animal counterparts. Of course, some, staunchly clinging to the old ways, still keep these balls of fur in their homes, but each year the number of such people grows smaller. Do you want your beloved pet to work as an alarm clock, a vacuum cleaner, an iron, a security guard and so on and so forth, while not shedding fur, making a mess on your carpet or ruining your furniture? Would you have something which, on top of all that, in no way differed either in looks, behavior or touch to a familiar house cat? Then give us a call... Damn, I think I'm getting side-tracked here.
They say that with the creation of intellect imitators humanity was only one step away from creating artificial intelligence, a full-fledged robotic mind, but this is little more than speculation. After all, there are rumors that artificial intelligence had been created some time ago somewhere deep in military laboratories, that it is currently in operation and is making itself very useful. In general, with the appearance of the imitators life became happy and carefree. But the resulting unemployment brought little joy to anyone, so the tension in society following the emergence of the imitators constantly increased...
Right, I'm getting carried away again. Backtracking.
I won the bet. In two days Ive gathered all the information available on the net on Marina's education background and on the seminars and training sessions she attended. If she did anything, it must have been based on something she already studied, rather than inventing the wheel from scratch. Having bought myself new hardware in order to keep my beloved notebook safe from the defense systems that vigorously attack computers of hapless hackers, I started on the break-in. I didn't even try to hide behind a chain of servers, as is usually done by the break-in gurus. Why would I? I was working strictly as ordered and only one person could track my activities on the test server, namely Marina. I was convinced that she would spend the whole week stuck at work, waiting for my attack. So there was little reason for me to encode anything. The actual break-in only took me a few hours. I was right: a very rare but effective defense system was used. Naive girl. The author of this defense system was one of my acquaintances and when I contacted him and described the situation, I was soon told how to circumvent it. Not even to circumvent it, but where to start digging.
"The defense is solid, but it depends on access settings," said my friend. "In large cities this is an issue, especially if there is a bunch of idiotic superiors with different demands. Everything might be fine during the initial installation, but once it starts to operate there might be leaks – ‘dead soulswith rights of access to the setup. Here a simple administrator would be of little help leaks with access rights of such an organization are beyond his level!"
In the end things turned out exactly as he said. After just a couple of hours' work the analyzing program produced several potential leaks that I could work with. Now I regretted getting the new hardware, having erroneously thought that everything was going to be very complicated and dangerous. I spent two days preparing the password attack, so I had little doubt of my success.
A wise person once said that the devil is in the detail. It turned out that several numbers were confused in the extremely long test server number (346.549.879.100011.011101.011011.110011.)  Who made the mistake - I, when I entered it, or Marina when she wrote me the letter, still remains unclear. What in fact happened is that I was working not with the test system, but none other than the real and functioning system, which controlled the sewage system of the whole city.
This is why I am currently in court listening to my sentence being read out.
I broke into the server, in the process completely crashing the II of the city sewage works. And it turned out that after the imitator went down, the large lake in the centre of the city, just opposite the City Hall, was turned into a very foul-smelling entity. The unforeseen had taken place - the II administrative perimeter was turned off leading to a jump in pressure and the collector pipe under the city bursting in several places. And if the underground breaches remained unnoticed by the majority, the breach at the centre of the lake resulted in the crowds of demonstrators, which usually gathered in front of the City Hall demanding the ban of the imitators, suddenly remembering that they had urgent business elsewhere. The same went for the people in the City Hall. And in general, the whole city centre was suddenly gripped by a strong desire to visit their relatives in the countryside, where the air was so clean and fresh.
This case gathered a lot of publicity and everyone decided that this was a terrorist attack. There was a protest demanding that a stop should be put to the imitator-powered services and the investigators started digging around to find the party responsible.
I worked without trying to cover my tracks, so finding me did not present much of a challenge. I really did not try to hide: as soon as I became aware of the consequences and of the fact that the police were looking for the culprit, I confessed and gave myself up. I did not believe that my punishment would be very severe - I might get reprimanded or fined. No more than that.
How wrong I was! The police had gathered so much material that I could only shake my head in astonishment as I read it. Someone became ill from the smell and filed a suit against the city. Someone didn't like the appearance of the lake that I 'updated', and decided to sue the city. Some others simply sued the city not to seem out of touch with the general sentiment. On the whole, the losses that the city suffered amounted to no less than 100 million, which was laid at my feet in its entirety. I tried to defend myself with the piece of paper that said that I was hired to do this, but the sewage works lawyers dashed all my hopes, asserting that the paper was signed by someone who lacked sufficient authority to hire external specialists and was thus invalid. This meant that, in effect, I carried out a hacking attack with all that it entailed. And it really entailed quite a lot. In general, all the damages were hung on me. And they threw in hacking charges on top of it too. During the investigation I, as someone who gave himself up, stayed at home with a signed undertaking not to abscond. I kept myself busy by taking a good look into how I could help myself in Barliona. But the more I read, the more I understood that there was nothing I could do that would help me. Nothing at all.
It so happened that the upkeep of prisons became extremely expensive for the Government. Yes, that's just the one Government I'm talking about, since at a certain point the territorial fragmentation on our world had come to an end. I did not witness these events myself. The unification happened before I was born and the history lessons stated that this was the common will of all the fellow citizens of the world. Yeah right, the will of the fellow citizens. More likely the heads of governments came to an arrangement between themselves and presented the people with the fact. But, never mind. This is not important. So, as soon as the imitators became an established feature of our world, increasing the number of the unemployed, prisons began to get filled up at a catastrophic rate. The Government faced a global question: how to solve the problems with public disorder and the increase in the number of criminals? There was a need for a 'carrot'.
And then, Peter Johnson went before the Government with his proposal. He was the owner of the factory that made capsules for virtual reality games, including the game named Barliona. It was an ordinary game, designed in the 'Sword & Sorcery' style, with a medieval setting, no firearms or combustion engines, featuring magic, orcs, dwarves, elves, dragons and many other things that did not exist on the real world. Like all similar games, the gameplay in Barliona involved full immersion, which was ensured by the virtual reality capsule. And these were the capsules that the Johnson factory made. Inside the capsule the player became inseparable from his character and felt everything that the character in the game would feel, including taste, shape of the objects, pleasure, tiredness and pain. Although the regulating authorities demanded that all the senses that the player could feel in Barliona were blocked by default. In order to turn on the sense perception it was necessary to go through psychological evaluation of mental capacity and get tested for the degree of sensitivity, in order to determine the extent to which the senses could be turned on in the capsule. The corporation looked after its players. The capsules were calibrated individually for each person and supplied him or her with every necessity for a long time: from food to physical training through stimulation of muscles with electrical impulses. People could spend months and even years inside a capsule without feeling any physical discomfort on leaving it.
What was Mr. Johnson's proposal? For a modest fee he proposed to put all the prisoners inside his capsules and send them to special locations within Barliona, where they would spend their time in useful activities, like resource gathering. The Government liked the idea and a year-long experiment involving such a virtual prison led to them buying all the rights to Barliona and appointing Johnson General Director of a new state corporation. All the necessary laws were passed for securing the status of a state-run game for Barliona and the Government itself acted as a guarantor of the game currency, facilitating its free exchange for real money. This was followed by an advertising campaign and funds started to flow into the game. Virtually anyone who was dissatisfied with his life ran to Barliona in order to cheat the government and earn money on quests, resource gathering and killing mobs, and so live without a care. Such naive little children. The completed quests produced game money, which could be easily exchanged for real money that was clear enough. However, any action within the game also demanded some sort of payment, however little. If you wanted to stop in an inn, you paid, if you wanted to get something, you paid, and so on. One of the most important inventions for draining money out of the players were the Banks.
One of the core rules in Barliona states that when a character dies the player loses fifty percent of all the cash he had on him. At the next death he lost another fifty, and so on. Of course, if a character was killed by a mob, after reviving in a couple of hours he could always go to his place of death and pick up the lost money, which would be lying on the ground. Unless it was picked up by another player first. But usually players did not die from mobs, but at the hands of other players, who made it their goal to make money on such kills. Such players had many penalties imposed on them: it was permitted to kill them for eight hours after they themselves had attempted to make a kill; killing a PK (player killer) came with a reward, which could be collected from any representative of the authorities; a PK gained no experience for eight hours after the killing and so on; but nevertheless there existed players who liked killing others, even if only inside a virtual world. This is why the Banks emerged. If a player gained some money, he could put it in a Bank for storage. A one-off payment gave you a card to be used with an account that no-one else was able to access. Keeping such an account cost 0.1% of the total money deposited, which was paid to the Bank on a monthly basis. It might not seem like much, but even one thousandth of Barliona's total turnover is an enormous amount of money, which is why the Corporation would never close down the PvP (Player versus Player) mode of play.
The Corporation's next step for making profit was selling off the results of the prisoner's work to the main game world. Arbitrary generation of resources by the Corporation was prosecuted under the law and special committees kept a close watch to ensure it didn't happen. However the sale of resources obtained by people serving a sentence was a totally different story: such resources were validated by real work. In general everyone has been happy and satisfied with this arrangement for the past fifteen years, ever since Barliona was officially given the status of a state game. The gamers enjoyed a high quality game, the Corporation received unthinkable amounts of money while continuously improving their creation, and the prisoners stayed in special locations and gathered resources. At the present time about 25% of total Earth's population over 14 years of age plays Barliona and this number increases every year. The only limitation imposed on the characters was that until a player turned 18 he or she had no way of using the PvP mode - either as a victim or as a hunter. The Game was very strict in enforcing this.
One more fact about the prisoners serving time in Barliona should be brought to light. It is a fact of some importance. Around seven years after the launch of Barliona a gang of delinquents beat up and raped a girl by the name of Elena. Her surname was Johnson and her father's name Peter. She was the daughter of the Corporation's director. She and her friends had the poor judgment to go for a ride in one of the rough areas of the city, which still housed those who disagreed with the introduction of imitators and who had no intention of logging into Barliona. As it always happens in such cases, they suddenly ran out of gas.
Naturally, the perpetrators were found almost immediately and Johnson himself intervened in the trial. No, he did not even bother to arrange a capsule accident. He did something else. Following the trial a law was passed that regulated the turning on of the prisoners' sensory stimulators. The capsules initially came with special filters that regulated the level of sensations, but these were completely removed for those who attacked Johnson's daughter. I don't know what the observed results of this were, but in about a year's time the law was extended and now all prisoners served their sentences with their sensory filters disabled. The rate of crime fell sharply and there were hardly any repeat offenders. The prospect of having to gather resources with disabled sensory filters was a very effective crime deterrent.
So there you have it. I will now tell you a little about what I was given.
Character race: Human. It was the first race created in the game and the only race that has no additional bonuses except faster reputation gain with the NPCs (Non-Player-Characters). They don't have the ability to generate a stone skin, like the dwarves, nor do they have sharp vision and extra proficiencies with bows, like the elves. Only reputation. The Shaman class was also one of the weakest classes in Barliona. It is universal, allowing you both to do damage and to heal, but in a one-on-one combat it lost out to virtually all other classes. The summoning of the Spirits just took too long. My skill specialization of Jeweler also had little going for it: in Barliona only the richest people could afford to spend time on perfecting this skill. All the things made by Jewelers adornments, rings, necklaces, decorative objects could be easily bought from NPC traders. The Jeweler's main useful skill, the cutting of precious stones, was not worth the effort that had to be spent on it. Precious stones are worth a lot, but in order to obtain the materials to make them, you had to spend months mining and processing ores. And even if some were obtained, the chance that the stone would spoil during the cutting process was very high. Of course it was possible to train in other skills, which were virtually endless in number, but it came with a serious restriction: none of the additional professions could exceed the primary one by more than ten points. It was a stupid limitation, but nothing could be done about it.
Another downside was that my Hunter, whom I had spent several years building, and in whom I invested quite a lot of money, was to be deleted, because only one character at a time was permitted in Barliona. After you were set free it was possible to keep the character played during imprisonment and to continue playing it, but many could not find the strength to do this. It was psychologically difficult. As far as the Hunter was concerned, all the items and money that he earned would either be handed over to me after eight years of swinging the pick, or, should some miracle happen, after I am permitted to leave the mines for the main gameworld. Sometimes criminals are released, most probably by mistake, from resource gathering to spend the rest of their sentence in the main game, after they hand over 30% of the money that they earned to the Government. Otherwise there are no limitations you can develop, level up and get to know people as you like. The only sign that a player is a prisoner is a red headband, which various quest-giving NPCs tend to dislike and which could only be removed if you pay one million gold to the Treasury. In other words it cannot be removed.
And the worst thing of all was that Marina never appeared. She didnt turn up at the trial or at my home, while I waited for the conclusion of the investigation. It was as if she vanished. Was the eight years of my sentence worth such a frivolous girl?  I think not.
Well, in you jump!" laughed the technician as he put me into the capsule. Everyones a comedian. With one voice all the newspapers in the city called me Sewage System Killer, probably the mildest nickname I was given during this time. The main thing was for this name not to stick with me while in prison. Lightning flashed before my eyes and for a while I was unconscious.
Attention! Barliona entry through prison capsule TK3.687PZ-13008/LT12 in progress.The cold metallic voice, whose message was repeated with a running line of unpleasant white text, sent a chill down my spine and I immediately came to myself. The voice, devoid of any emotion, made you feel uncomfortable. This was done on purpose: I knew that a voice could be soft and have a calming effect. The initial parameters have been set and cannot be changed.  Gender: Male.  Race: Human. Class: Shaman. Appearance: identical to the subject. The scanning of the subject has been completed. The synchronization of the physical data with the features of the chosen race has been implemented. Physical data has been set. Starting location has been chosen. Place of confinement the Pryke Copper Mine. Purpose of confinement: the harvesting of Copper ore. Character generation has commenced.
In the initial loading window I was looking at myself wearing a striped robe with number 193 753 482.  It would appear that quite a few prisoners have gone through Barliona in the last 15 years.  The robe was supplemented with prisoners trousers and boots, whose total value could be seen in their striped pattern. Even the boots were stripy, at which I couldnt help smiling. I looked like some sort of a zebra. One could say that I was dressed at the height of fashion. The pick in my hand completed the bleak picture of Myselfmaking it clear what I would be doing in the coming years.  Only the pick wasnt stripy, something to be thankful for, at least.
Enter a name.  Attention: a prisoners name cannot be composite.
Well, the technician did cheer me up after all. He did that by giving me, for some unknown reason, the opportunity to choose my own name. The gaming name in Barliona was provisionally unique: in the same gaming environment you could meet three hundred Bunnys, a hundred Kittiesand endless numbers of Pwners, but the uniqueness was guaranteed by a composite word.  For example you could easily see Pwner the Great and Pwner the Charming next to each other, but there were no two Pwner the Great's in Barliona. However, prisoners were not allowed to pick a composite name for themselves, because usually these were generated automatically.  But if they deleted my Hunter...
Mahan,I said, setting all my hopes on the fact that the name of my Hunter, who was taken from me, was already deleted from the system but not yet picked by anyone else. So what if I liked to play with this name? That's what I've become use to, despite the fact that it was just a surname.  Moreover, my hunters name had only one component, and I bought it from another player for almost ten thousand gold and had no wish to see all that money go to waste.
Choice accepted. Welcome to the world of Barliona, Mahan. Users connecting from prison capsules have no access to the introductory training area. You will be transferred directly to the Pryke Copper Mine.  We wish you a pleasant game.

There was a flash of lightning and the world around me filled with colors. Though for some reason among these colors grey predominated.

If you can`t wait to find out what happens next the full novel is available on Amazon at 

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