Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Start the Game (Galactogon: Book #1) by V.Mahanenko - Chapter 2

Chapter 2. Training Sector.

Lying as comfortably on my mattress as my cell’s cold, hard floor allowed, I began to study the details of Galactogon’s political world. A prison is a prison, but no one could forbid me from popping back into reality, gathering everything that Stan had prepared for me, sending it to my character’s mail account and reading as much as I wished. While I was at it, I figured out how the mail system worked. It was a very interesting system and could be best described as “there was no system.” More precisely, players couldn’t communicate with each other remotely without having specialized equipment to do so—transmitters, communicators etc. As a result, the beloved mail system that all games had and which could be used not only to send each other letters, but also to store things (quite a lot of things actually) did not exist in Galactogon at all.
However, the designers had made one concession to the player himself, which is precisely what I took advantage of now—and that was the player’s personal PDA. This item, which the player could never lose even through death, was a device in which you could make various notes and things. These could then be synched with a special component of the gaming capsule and thereby receive textual information from the outside world.
And so, the political system of Galactogon
There are a total twelve Empires, united unto three alliances, which are in a state of armed neutrality with one another. Officially, the Imperial armies remain at their bases or academies; however, mercenaries and players can do whatever they feel like. Trade routes exist both between and within the alliances; however, to prevent enemies from encroaching deep into their territory, each empire has specialized trade planets which are protected, at times, better than the governing planets. Money is critical in Galactogon because it can solve basically any problem. The Qualians have several trade centers: Adriada, Raydon and, the most popular—Shylak XIV, where more than 60% of commerce with other empires takes place.
The Qualian Empire is part of the Altan alliance, which includes the Precian and Anorxian empires, as well as Vrakas—not an empire, but a single enormous organism controlled by several individuals. Whereas the Qualians and Precians are humanoids (having two arms and legs and one head, all attached to one body), the Anorxians and Vraxsis are robotic and insectoid respectively.
As a player who’s started out playing for the Qualians, I can freely travel to any allied empire, having offered my services and requested to land on one of the hundreds of possible planets. The other alliances are closed to me, however. More precisely, they are open to all players except for me—travelling from one alliance to another costs money—real money. It’s one of those things you just have to pay real money for in Galactogon.
The twenty days flew by almost unnoticeably, spent in reading and dividing my labors: I would spend my daytime in real life and my nighttime in solitary, rolled up in a ball on the tough mattress, observing yet another dream…On the whole, I had no difficulties serving my sentence. The only thing I regretted was that twenty game days ended up becoming a month of real life, during which the other eleven players were going through training and setting out on their quest for the billion-pound prize.
It seems that my mysterious neighbor really did depart this mortal coil—there were no further knocks during my remaining time in solitary. In fact, there were no other sounds at all, except for the daily buzzing of the dumbwaiter, lowering the next meal to my humble abode. At least the food here was plentiful…
Stan never managed to find a single mention of solitary confinement in the Training Sector. The jail reserved for rowdy recruits came up, as well as several references to underground tournaments held in it (thus bringing the value of the beard’s information down to zip), but there was simply no mention of solitary. Not once—even in jest. It was as if the dripping walls didn’t physically exist and the place I was in was some kind of febrile dream. No big deal. Judging by the description of jail, if a player ends up in it, then he is even prohibited from studying during his incarceration, whereas I will be able to understand all the basic aspects of life in Galactogon soon enough and from there set out to find that billion-pound check.
“Recruit Surgeon—step out!” Barely had the incarceration timer reached 00:00 when the door to my cell opened and I was paid a visit by a guard with a rubber club underarm. “Or do you like it so much here that you’ve decided to spend your entire training in isolation?”
Oh, but this guard has wit! I’m noticing that the developers endowed the locals with a decent intellect—not reserving it simply for the key NPCs. Sometimes in Runlustia, you’d start flirting with some servant girl and she’d just look at you with bovine eyes, totally missing your drift. Even a slight pinch below the waist would hurt her and summon the guards for attacking an NPC. In that game, the developers had not tried too hard to “humanize” each and every NPC, but focused only on the important ones. But here, your ordinary guard was capable of sarcasm—and pulled it off so well that you’d think he was simply created for the purpose. Recalling the local bozo-bully whose job it was to kickstart recruits into moving toward the allocation center, it became clear to me why players were gradually switching more and more to Galactogon. The realism here was an order of magnitude higher than in other games I’d played. In any case, that was my opinion in that moment, and only time would tell whether it was accurate or not.

Mission: Deliver package to Qualian citizen Zaltoman located on the trade planet Shylak XIV (Coordinates: 7446244 х 3366181 х 4642990). Mission deadline: 2 hours.

My emergence from solitary was marked with some news. The first—the good news—was that I only had 10 game days remaining in the Training Sector. My twenty days of solitary had counted after all. Unfortunately, that was it for the good news. It turned out that the thirty days of training were divided into five units—repair, science, harvesting/mining, flight training and assault tactics. Each non-core unit entailed four days of instruction followed by an exam. If the player passed, he would earn a novice rank in that field. The rest of the time was reserved for teaching the player’s core occupation—in my case, flight training. If the player failed his core exam, he had only two ways out—either switch his occupation to one in which he had passed the exam, or start all over and redo the Training Sector—another thirty days. In my situation, Repair, Science and Harvesting/Mining were already off limits—I could no longer get official work in these fields. I could let that go—but the most upsetting thing was that I had missed eight days of learning how to fly a ship! And, as though in deference to Murphy’s Law, from solitary they sent me straight into a pop quiz that the instructors had arranged—cramming a bunch of us into some ship simulators…
One glance at the constellation of buttons speckling the ship’s navigation panel was enough to bring me into utter despair. I had not the slightest idea of what to do. Any log-out into reality during training was strictly punished with an automatic Fail, so I hadn’t much of a choice but to push anything that I came across, hoping that something would work. Damn! If someone were to ask me, for example, where Shylak XIV was and what role it played in Qualian trade policy, I could have replied without hesitation. But how to pilot this ship …Well, I had purposefully skipped this topic in my time during solitary, naïvely assuming that I would start my training from scratch upon release.
“Are you sure you wish to engage the Accelerator?” No sooner had I pushed some blue button than the simulator replied with a notification on the ship’s flight screen.
No,” I declined, pressing the only button I understood, the one that said: “Abort.” The inscriptions on the other buttons were utterly unintelligible, having nothing in common with human language. Instead, they were covered with some kind of squiggles, crosses and circles. I could have been mistaken, but, more than likely, this was the Qualian language. In that case, I’d have to study it too. So much fun…
Are you sure you wish to engage the stabilization system?” another notification from the emulator brought me to despair. For eight days, the recruits were lectured on the principles of flight and ship instrumentation—the right buttons to press and the right order to press them in. And not just eight days, but 192 hours of training, during which you could—forget players—teach a monkey to fly a spaceship. No doubt, everyone except for me was already on Shylak trying to find Zaltoman.
Yes!” If I understood correctly, the green button beside “Abort” would confirm the action—and the time had come to take a risk. Either I would fail my training now, or take off—logically speaking, one would probably want things to be stable before zooming off through the atmosphere.
Stabilization System has been engaged! Warning: No force field detected! Warning: Fuel pumps inactive!—followed by ten more similar warnings. “Your ship has been destroyed! Please leave the simulator—you have failed in your mission…”
“Recruit Surgeon!” Scarcely had I tumbled out of the giant steel box that served as the model of a ship when one of the Qualians got in my face. “You have failed the mission and are disqualified from further piloting instruction! For the time remaining in this unit, you are being transferred to the logistics division! You will prepare the nourishment for those who place their education first.”
Well, that’s definitely it now. Since I’ll have to start the Training Sector all over again either way, I can’t afford the luxury of wasting time on becoming a marine. From what I’ve managed to glean about this occupation, the player becomes quickly bogged down in an immense hierarchy—Private to Sergeant to Lieutenant to so on. A marine can’t go off to travel freely before his first battle. If he does so, he’ll be listed as a deserter on all military bases and will suffer an imperial Rapport malus that reflects this status. I don’t need that and I definitely don’t want to run around in an armor suit with blaster in hand terrifying the aborigines. I want to fly, therefore…
I was already familiar with the sequence of menus leading to the delete character dialog, so it only took a few movements for the final delete confirmation to pop up, after which the Training Sector would welcome a new and somewhat wiser Surgeon, when suddenly:
“Move it!” the Qualian growled rudely and pushed me in the back, reminding me of his presence. Tripping over a step in the staircase, I stretched myself out the length of six stairs, triggering the laughter of my escort. “Only worthy recruits have the right to stay on their feet! The other chaff must crawl to the kitchen on their stomachs!”
The smirk on the Qualian’s face was so irritating that a plan of revenge ripened in my mind. It’s dumb, of course, to seek vengeance against a script, but to delete a character who suffered naught but humiliation in his short life…As a paladin, I could never brook such injustice!
“What’s up kiddie? Are you upset?” the Qualian continued to sneer. It was precisely these words that finally pushed me to action. Producing the pacifier from my inventory, I aimed it right at his sneering mug and activated it.
If I have to leave this game, let my parting be a memorable one.
Like I managed to point out, the denizens of the Training Sector are not very fond of armor. Even the guards were wearing simple leather jerkins, which may as well have been cuirasses considering that almost all the instructors and recruits wore breezy clothes made of some light fabric. I had nothing to lose, since deleting my character would destroy all the items I had acquired, including my two pacifiers. In fact, all that could happen now was a nice bit of entertainment.
And so, I smeared the Qualian’s sneering mug across the ceiling, smashing him up over and over again. He tried to resist at first, splaying out his arms, but I quickly snapped them against the very stairs he had kicked me into not a minute ago. The nine-foot ceilings did not offer enough height to accelerate him properly, so it took me a while to hammer the Qualian to his death—about thirty seconds. Hardly had his formless mass crumpled to the floor (with, to my surprise, not a drop of blood escaping it) when I received another notification about decreased Rapport with the empire and heard a siren begin to blare. To hell with it! I spent twenty days sitting around in full solitary and now have every right in the world to entertain myself!
I didn’t bother searching the Qualian’s body—it would do no good against the guy in the mech suit and the money would vanish upon deletion anyway. So I got out the second pacifier and returned to the hall with the flight simulators. As I recalled, the ceilings were much higher there.
After a little while, I confirmed a very important fact—you really can’t destroy other players in the Training Sector. I didn’t disrupt anyone’s training, but whenever a player emerged from his “box,” smiling triumphantly, I’d lift him 20 feet into the air and let him plummet. It took only two such flights to bring the recruits down to 1% health, but that was it. I couldn’t finish them off beyond that. Laying around the floor and cursing at me, the players now looked unable to get back up—it seemed they needed medical assistance. This only made me happy, as now they couldn’t get in my way.
“Drop the pacifier!” came the booming command. The hall’s vaulted roof parted and a marine in a mech suit, accompanied by much dust and gravel, came flying in. Performing a pretty bank and thereby demonstrating his tight control of the jet engine strapped to his back, the marine stopped, hovering a few yards before me. Well, that’s an end to my spree, I guess. The pacifier is useless against the active defense and isn’t much of a weapon to begin with, seeing as how it’s designed to lift things and…Hold on! Lift things?!
“I’m dropping it,” I burbled, pointing the beam at one of the big simulator crates. Ample in its dimensions, this piece of equipment would weigh in at about a ton if not more. If the pacifier could do nothing against the active defense, then we could try a different approach…
“I’m counting to five! One! Two! Three!”
A hit!
One pacifier was not capable of lifting an emulator. I established that much right away. Then again, I also established quite quickly that two pacifiers work wonderfully swell in tandem, allowing you to lift what one cannot.
A hit!

New level reached: Your B-class pacifier has reached level 13. Durability, number of charges and energy have been restored by 30%.

It took a while to pound the marine into the floor—about a minute—and this pleasure cost me two simulators, the first breaking in half without having done any damage worth mentioning. I was lucky in that each blow would stun the marine for a few moments, allowing me time to lift the second simulator before he could point his weapon at me.

You have earned a new title: “Maniac.” You have reached Rank III of the “Enemy of the Empire” and “Murderer” Achievements, without having left the Training Sector. The shadow guilds of Galactogon are now aware of you.

Smiling to myself, I dismissed the notification—quite a dubious achievement, or rather title. It’ll sound very pretty along with my name—“Maniac Surgeon.” Quite a ring to it! Having sent several other guards and instructors, who came running into the hall, to flight, I paused and waited, not wishing to leave such an advantageous place. If another marine shows up, I’ll have several other compelling arguments for him in the form of simulators…as long as they show up one at a time and once a minute, otherwise…
Master, I’d like to inform you that news of your actions in the Training Sector has triggered a wave of outrage among the new players. The fora already bristle with demands to the administrators to get involved in the ongoing conflict and punish the perpetrator. That is, you. I will continue to monitor the news…
My desire to delete this character and forget this nightmare ever happened was so great that it took all my willpower to take ahold of myself and approach the vanquished marine—my personal satisfaction indicator was not quite there yet. Bending over the pile of wreckage, once a handsome and self-assured Qualian, I touched the barrel of some black rifle when…

Qualian Marine Armor. Weight: 212. Durability: 23%. Item class: D-44. Resistance to all attacks: 112. Maximum weight to carried items: +400.
Qualian Assault Blaster. Weight: 12. Durability: 23%. Item class: D-44. Damage dealt: 60 (Radiation). Charges: 98 of 100.
Acquired credits: 588 GC.
Your Rapport with the Qualian Empire has decreased. Current Rapport: -43.

It took only a moment for me to realize that my fun was just beginning! One or two hours won’t change the things much and I’m morally compelled to try out such a miracle gift fallen from the heavens. Qualian Marine Armor plus a blaster with 98 shots…What could be better for a player who is consciously heading toward resurrection?
“I wrote down your name! You’re dead meat! I’ll find you IRL!” the players went on frothing helplessly. I paid them no attention, however. The suit of armor was much more important to me. Coming to grips with the realization that I had no idea how to pilot this piece of equipment and that I might cause harm to myself doing so (by the way, what kind of injuries can a character suffer?) I pushed the “Engage” button. Let’s see what happens…
The nice thing about the suit was that I didn’t have to put it on piecemeal. It instantly embraced me, helpfully showing me its control interface. Crap! Once more, I found myself facing a bunch of buttons with strange inscriptions. Though, this time I wasn’t hampered by the emulator’s limitations and so, leaving the somatic interface, switched into Third Person mode.
“Master, I continue to receive messages about…”
“Don’t panic! Stan, I need complete and, simultaneously, concise information about how to pilot Qualian Marine Armor. You have ten seconds, get on with it!”
“I have collected the requested information and sent it to your PDA. Master, I strongly advise you cease your aggression towards the Qualian Empire and…”
Stan’s further advice remained a secret, as I switched back into First Person mode. Nothing had happened while I was gone. The players continued to strew the floor in a cursing heap. Marine reinforcements had not yet shown up and the guards and instructors were either dead or had decided that they had no business being there. Smart of them!
In Runlustia, I was used to the mechanic that even if the player hadn’t the requisite skill to wear full plate armor, he could still don a steel cuirass and calmly head into the fray. Sure, he wouldn’t benefit from the cuirass’s special attributes—say, stat bonuses or magic resistance— but defense against physical attacks was enabled automatically. In Galactogon, this aspect turned out both more complicated and basic at the same time.
First of all, the player can use any item he finds in Galactogon’s vastness, as long as this item doesn’t require multiple players to control it at once.
Second of all, to use this stumbled-upon item, the player must know the correct combination of buttons to press—for, in Galactogon everything has buttons.
And third of all…The correct combination of button presses can be found in real life just as in the game—which is what I decided to do now.
The Qualian Marine Armor turned out to be a pretty interesting device. It was about eight feet long and made of some kind of alloy which fully covered the player, while moving him along the ground on two legs supported by powerful and clingy little paws. Judging by it all, a marine could even move vertically without much difficulty—as long as he could find places for the paws to cling to. The player’s legs only reached down to the suit’s hips, so losing an appendage did not actually hurt the player. The same applied to the arms. I could see several screens which showed everything that was happening around me. But even if the cameras were damaged, the cockpit surrounding me was transparent. This was probably to help you understand where you needed to flee to if it came to that…
According to the information Stan sent over, the instrumentation panel before me could be controlled with my eyes, allowing my arms and legs to focus on controlling the armor’s movements. It followed that if I wanted to walk, I just needed to walk inside the suit—though only after finding a way to turn it on. And precisely this was what they spent four days of training on.
Red-green-blue-red—the armor vibrated palpably. This sequence activated the suit, allowing the player to start inputting commands. The screens went pitifully red, indicating that my suit’s durability was critically low, but at the moment this was meaningless—I only needed it for a few hours. Next, I needed to transfer control to my arms and legs in order to move…Activate vision…Microphone…Stabilizer…Shields…
Who cooked all this up?! To make the first step, I had to enter twenty different commands in sequence, adjusting the suit of armor to my body. Nevertheless, I persevered and got through the lot of them, knowing that next time this would be much easier. In fact, it was already clear what I had to do.
“Stan, I need instructions for how to use and reload a Qualian Assault Blaster!”
It took me about five minutes to absorb the principles behind the suit’s operation and to get a handle on how to keep my balance without cracking up the crowd of fallen newbies around me. These were five minutes which were gifted to me by the instructors’ and guards’ unwillingness to disturb me with their presence. Aiming the primed blaster at the mess of newbies, I turned on the PA and said, “Nothing personal, you guys. This is just target practice.”
I pulled the trigger. So I’ll waste one shot—at least I’ll be certain that the blaster works…

You have earned a new title: “Destroyer.” You have destroyed another player in the Training Sector. The shadow guilds of Galactogon are now curious about you. This title is logged and tracked officially. Number of players who have this title: 388.

The lights went out in the hall, submerging us in darkness. A single beam of light sliced through the opening above. The siren, which I had already become accustomed to, fell quiet for a moment and then erupted so loudly that the newbies on the floor began writhing, trying to stop their ears. Oh so this is how they want to play! An attempt to break my will with sound? How will the developers explain their use of this sonic weapon to the other players?
“Surgeon!” came a deafening roar, stifling the newbs’ moans. “Put down your weapons and come out with your hands up! You have five minutes to make up your mind!”
What, am I no longer considered a recruit? Well, well…
The siren fell silent along with the other players’ moans and, as I watched astounded, basically all of the recruits turned transparent and then vanished entirely. I’d guess they simply logged off into the real world—though a few remained.
“Hey, Surgeon, can you hear me? Wave your hand if you can!”
Waving my blaster at the remaining player to tell him to leave me alone, I continued to watch the doors with interest. I was wondering whether the assault would come through the roof or through the doors. I was still extremely insecure about my ability to pilot this craft—I sure wouldn’t have tried to fly the way that marine had done it—so I knew that I needed to be prepared to resist without the benefit of maneuverability.
“Perfect,” the prone recruit went on. “My name is Lestran. I’m a repairman but I also just passed the piloting exam. If you take me with you, I’ll help you get off this planet! Better think fast—pretty soon you’ll have no time for me.”
“Getting out of here isn’t possible! And even if we do, the Empire is closed to us,” I replied neutrally, as if everything was under control and I knew exactly what I was doing.
“You don’t trust me? Fine, but I know all about the pirates—if you doubt my abilities, check my status—I even won a local tournament. Do you even know how to get to it?”
“Through the jail with the guard who has the thingy on his sleeve,” I ventured, growing more curious about this player. “Big deal…I’ve gotten myself a suit of armor—but you don’t see me bragging about it—whereas you keep going on about some tourney…”
“Listen, I enrolled in training on purpose, so that I could get to the pirates. You, as I understand it, have already basically done it—but without my help, you’ll never get off this planet! I spent seven months finding a way out of here. Without me, you’re not going anywhere for at least as long! So make up your mind: Either you’re about to delete and restart, in which case everyone is already pissed at you anyway, or you can trust me and take me with you. You got three minutes left!”
What else could I do? Trusting my experience, I made my decision: This player needed something and I could use that to my advantage. Anyway, as long as the current events didn’t take up too much of my time, I could allow myself to go on playing. I could always delete Surgeon, but I was still curious what the Qualians would do and how Lestran wanted to escape the Training Sector.
“The armor has a medkit—first, you’ll need to heal me. The button combination is gel-pax-pax-glar-kree.”
“Let’s speak human, okay? Qualian may as well be Greek to me.”
“So how’d you manage to start the suit?” Lestran asked surprised.
“The buttons are color-coded—blue, red and so on.”
“Bunch of nonsense…Alright, hang on a second…The medkit is blue-red-red-orange-green. I can’t believe I’m even doing this…If anyone finds out, they’ll laugh their…”
“If it works, it works,” I replied, bending down over Lestran and putting my arm beside him. Barely had I entered the necessary combination when a needle extended from my suit’s index finger and punctured the recruit’s body. His health began to rise.
“Okay, now stay on my heels! We’ve got two minutes before they come!” yelled Lestran, jumping to his feet and running toward the doors. “Move it! We need to descend to the lower levels.”
Lestran ran out of the hall so confidently that I had no other choice but to follow him.
“Shoot it,” I took thirty or so heavy, metal-clanging steps, when I almost ran into him, standing still and pointing with his hand at a niche in the wall. “You need to knock that down with your blaster.”
“Knock what down?”
“The wall! What are you waiting for? The passage to the levels we need are on the other side!”
I didn’t bother to ask how this player could be so sure of himself. Instead, I pressed myself to the opposite wall, aimed the weapon at the wall and pulled the trigger. Instantly, I hoped that Lestran had managed to dart behind a corner. Fragments of rubble flew everywhere, reducing the Durability of my armor by 1%. This was followed by my temporary ally’s invective:
“You dingbat! You couldn’t wait until I took cover? What are you standing around for? Heal me!”
Before I could administer another dose of the healing injection, I had to remove two large boulders that had pinned Lestran to the floor. The wall’s demolition had turned out very realistic—there was so much dust that I even thought I was back in real life for a second. Typically, most games try to avoid taxing the capsule’s system resources on rendering such insignificant details.
Bit by bit, the outlines of a passage began to flicker through the dust. Opening the instructions I had received from Stan, I entered the command to turn on the floodlights. Two bright beams split the murk and our eyes encountered a steep winding staircase, running both up and down.
“This way!” Lestran ordered joyously and deftly squeezed through the opening in the wall. “We need to go down!”
“One second,” I replied, squeezing through the opening with some difficulty, after which I stuck my arm and blaster back through it and took several shots at the walls and ceiling of the hallway we had come from. In a few minutes, the assault would commence and I didn’t want to leave an obvious trace of where we had gone. Let them suffer a bit removing the boulders, while I got to be Maniac for a bit longer. I needed to find out after all, how Lestran had learned about this secret passage.
“Right on!” the player agreed with me, descending several steps lower. “No one knows that you can bust through there and since it’s all buried now, they’ll think of looking in the hangar last of all.”
“Do you know what’s up there?” I pointed up the staircase.
“Sure. General Trank’s office—he’s in charge of all of Training Sector Alpha-332. I managed to find this stairwell during my last life, but they caught me in the office and sent me to jail—and boy did my imperial Rapport suffer a hit. So I had to start all over…Otherwise, this is a very curious building, which I’ve managed to dig around in quite sufficiently by now…”
“So what’s the deal? Do you think they’ll look for us there?” I asked Lestran, pausing my descent. “Is it very far up?”
“Look for us?” Lestran also halted his descent and even climbed a few steps back toward me. “Doubt it. The office is three floors up and…Wait, don’t tell me you want to go take a look?”
“Well what do you think would be better: If we approach the pirates with data we’ve stolen from the computer of the executive officer of the Training Sector or simply show up willy nilly saying ‘take us as we are—we’re so cute, after all?’” I said, applying pressure to Lestran’s sore point. Why was he so set on getting in with the pirates? And why wouldn’t I use that fact to my advantage? From my time in Runlustia, I could safely say that the offices of commanders typically had something worth stealing. At the very least, there would be some nice items up there.
“Let’s go,” Lestran made up his mind, squeezed past me and began to ascend. “Though, on second thought, wait here. If there’s anyone in the office, we won’t go in—we can’t let them know where we are. If there’s no one in there…I gotta say, I’m damn lucky to have met you! What’s your guild anyway?”
“Let’s do that later—the loot’s getting cold!”
Lestran merely smiled and began climb the stairs.
Just then, a menacing and mighty voice shook the entire building: “Surgeon! You refuse to listen to reason and will therefore be placed under arrest until the investigation has been completed! Commence the assault!”
“It’s clear up there.” My partner said, returning. Then he nodded in the direction of the rubble, “D’you hear? They’re looking for you already.”
I could hear one of the Qualian commanders issuing orders through the wall: “First team take the rec area. Second team, you’ve got the exam hall. Third team—you take the mess. Fifth team—lecture rooms.”
“Those boys are not playing around,” Lestran smiled again. “Come on. The general’s office is empty.”
“Why this is just paradise,” whispered Lestran, as soon as he stepped into the office. “How things have changed in here!”
My new partner’s astonishment was justified—we really had found a nice place. The ubiquitous gray walls of the Training Sector were covered bookcases. I could already see pacifiers, blasters and energy cells strewn about their shelves. There weren’t any force fields, so Lestran instantly dashed to the weapons rack and grabbed the first blaster he could get his hands on.
“Now we can play war for real,” he said satisfied. I, however, stopped in my tracks: What if my partner decided to use his weapon against me and then give me up to the locals, claiming that I had taken him hostage?
“Chill,” Lestran laughed seeing me hesitate. “I don’t betray my friends.”
A desk covered in papers and a holographic screen occupied the center of the office, so while my partner armed himself, I took a seat in the general’s plush chair, causing it to wince beneath my armor’s enormous weight, and commenced with some industrial espionage. Unable to understand the value of each separate paper, I photographed everything that got underway with my PDA, having first plugged my comm cable into the desk’s data port. The office computer wasn’t password protected, so I simply tasked my PDA with copying whatever it got its little hands on. Thank god I didn’t have to worry about the device’s memory—the player’s PDA had seemingly limitless resources.
“Check out what I found,” Lestran whispered to me loudly. His voice was so happy that I was forced to give up photographing the papers for a second. “This is an access key to a frigate!”
“My escape plan had been to hide in the hold of a cargo ship or transport—one of the ones in the hangars below—but now, we can fly out of here on our own! With our own ship!”
“Do you know how to fly it?”
“Why sure! I’ve done the Training Sector eight times already, trying to get in with the pirates!”
“How many crew does a frigate need?” I again restrained myself from asking why Lestran was so eager to join the baddies. As far as I understood it, he had decided for himself that I was motivated by the same purpose and therefore could trust me.
“That’s the beauty of it! The two of us will be enough!”
“There’s one problem though—I never took the classes…”
“You know your colors, don’t you? You can check out how to do it right in real life later. Oh boy!” my partner exclaimed once more upon opening a wardrobe.
“What now?”
“Oh—no big deal…Just, here—catch!” A symbolical bag of money came flying in my direction—the developers of Galactogon, it seems, had decided to implement the transfer of money between players in a manner that was universally recognizable. Being utterly symbolic, the bag could contain anywhere from one credit to several billion. The symbol here mattered more than the size.

Acquired credits: 15,339 GC.

“That’s exactly half, I swear,” added Lestran. “When you’re done with the data, change your clothes.” My partner indicated another wardrobe: “There are some pretty good class-C clothes in here—with high resistance stats. Plus several medkits, grab them too. I’m gonna check out that safe, for the time being.”
Acknowledging my partner with a wave of my hand, I turned my attention to my PDA’s display, which had projected a strange notification: “General, you requested information that has been classified as ‘Secret.’ Please enter your access code…”
It seems that my PDA had already copied everything that there was in the office computer and had begun to send its little tentacles further out, where, of course, it encountered some protection. Knowing that to go on would be probably pointless, I nevertheless ran a search on the data I already had for the string “Code”…Who knows those developers were thinking…
“Access Code Accepted. You have gained access to the KRIEG Project…”
The KRIEG Project? The same one that the mysterious stranger had mentioned in solitary? To my immense surprise (and grave failure on the part of the general), the access code was recorded in a plaintext file with the very descriptive name “Access Code.” The file contained only one line, which once entered in the password prompt, allowed me to peek where I shouldn’t have. I say “shouldn’t have” because literally a moment later, the following notification appeared on the screen: “Unauthorized data transfer detected. Download progress: 77%. Access to Project KRIEG has been limited. General, please remain in your seat—you will shortly be contacted for verification…”
“Lestran, we’ve got a problem!” I instantly apprised my partner. “It looks like we need to get out of here!”
“General Trank!” A holographic head of some Qualian appeared about three feet above the desk and began yelling with a voice full of authority. “On what grounds…WHO ARE YOU?”
Counting my blessings for not having removed my armor, which kept my face a mystery to the screaming head, I slammed my fist down on the comm’s holo-crystal, cutting the transmission. I ain’t scared of you, hollerin’ head…
“You’re right, time to boogie,” Lestran agreed, throwing two blasters over his shoulder. “I’m not getting anywhere with this safe anyway—don’t have the skills for it…Are you going to change or not?”
“Sure,” I said and, not wishing to make my friend suspicious with my hesitation to grab some more loot, approached the indicated wardrobe and opened its doors. To my further satisfaction with the mechanics in Galactogon, I didn’t have to remove my armor to change the clothes underneath. It’s not that I distrusted Lestran, but…
“What do you think?” smirked Lestran, once I literally froze in my tracks before the wardrobe. Under the clothes and the medkits (which quickly took up residence in my inventory), the wardrobe also contained one item which, having read its description, caused me to swear in surprise:

Journeyman’s Satchel with Anti-Grav. Weight: 1. Item class: D-44. Decreases weight of items in satchel by 200.

“There were only two of them. I took one for myself. Nice little item, eh?”
The item was more than nice. Considering that things in Galactogon have their own size and weight, having an extra two hundred units of carrying capacity is simply a godsend to a starting player. Along with the money I’d accumulated, I was beginning to loathe the idea of deleting my current character. Pirates, after all, could be a swell crowd to run with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I would have to read a bit about the game’s shadow guilds.
“Stan, my man, gather all the information you can find about pirates in Galactogon and copy it to a separate file. I’m interested in both locals as well as human pirates,” I ordered, popping momentarily out of the somatic interface. I was unwilling to leave this question for later. If we ever did manage to get off this planet, I wanted to know everything there was to know about piracy in Galactogon.
“Alright, let’s scram,” Lestran offered, approaching the door and pushing a bookcase onto it. The door was hung to open inward, so unless our pursuers decided to use their weapons, it would take them a long time to break into their boss’s office.
“Let’s go,” I agreed, but then, feeling suddenly mischievous, I inquired: “Where’d you say the safe was?”
For a player dressed in marine armor, breaking a safe out of the wall was a question of several seconds. Several strange cables ran from the safe to the wall. These I cut with my built in knife. If that was the alarm, then it wouldn’t do us much harm, and if that was a dead switch that destroyed anything inside the safe…Well…we could simply consider ourselves unlucky. Putting the safe in my bag, which could easily accommodate this new weight due to its newly upgraded carrying capacity, I set off after Lestran.
“Here we are,” my partner whispered, peeking through a slit in the hangar’s door panel. “There’re three engineers in the hangar repairing something. Shall we wait until they leave?”
“We don’t have time to wait. Pretty soon the general will return to his office and find the door blocked. Even a local can do that math. You took several pacifiers, didn’t you? Those are quite powerful against defenseless creatures. I don’t suggest we use the blasters—might damage the ships.”
“In that case, you get those two on the right and I’ll take that one on the left. I’m going in!”
The procedure for restraining the careless technicians was in no way different from the earlier one involving the instructors and the guards—lift them up high and let them down (not lightly). Repeat as necessary. To my immense surprise, there was no one else in the cavernous hanger. Either there was a personnel shortage here, or everyone had taken off to help track down some renegade player—me, that is.
“Check these beauties out,” Lestran uttered lovingly after he had dealt with his engineer and gotten a chance to look around the hangar. It contained nine ships—two frigates, five interceptors, a harvester and a transport. It became more and more evident to me why gamers loved Galactogon so much—up close, the vessels were quite impressive. Still not knowing which frigate would be ours—the green one or the blue one—I simply marveled at the stately might of each ship. Each line and curve was exactly where it needed to be. Two giant beam cannons in the nose cowling and two more in the fairings of the forward fuselage made the frigate seem like a formidable weapon. Each frigate was about three hundred feet long, much larger than the smallish interceptors and the harvester. Only the pot-bellied transport approached it in its dimensions; however, even for an inveterate landlubber like me, it was evident that you couldn’t get far in a tub like that.
“The blue one is ours, I’ll tell you what to do!”
We couldn’t help but grab four repair bots along our way to the ship. Since repair was Lestran’s main occupation, he was fully capable of not only controlling these strange, arachnoid creatures, but could also fix my armor with their help. Over the past hour, I had gotten so used to my suit, that I didn’t even notice it anymore. That which had initially struck me as incredibly inconvenient (for example, the HUD) was gradually beginning to seem ideal to me. Maybe I should become a marine after all?
The entrance to the ship was right behind the forward bulkhead. With a trembling hand, Lestran put the access key to the door, which instantly opened with a slight hiss of steam.
“Look at that! Alright, Surgeon—let’s figure out whose ship this is now rather than later. The system is asking me about it—which one of us should I register as its owner?”
“Me,” I replied without a second thought. “One of us can’t fly it. You said so yourself, so we’ll play together. But if it weren’t for me, you’d still be doing the Training Sector over and over again. That’s number one. Number two is that since we’re heading to meet up with some pirates, the ship owner has to be the one whom they’re interested in. Otherwise they’ll just attack us, take the ship and then tell us to get lost. I already received a notification that Galactogon’s shadow guilds are curious about me. Have you gotten one?” I turned to Lestran, eloquently tipping my head to one side.
“Well then the robots are mine!” Lestran burbled petulantly. “And we split the loot 50-50!”
“That works for me.”
“What a greedy pig you are,” my partner said, still unwilling to calm down. He did something on the panel before him and I received a pretty welcome notification:

You have earned the “Captain” Achievement. You are now the owner of a spaceship.
You have acquired a space frigate. Weight: 250,000. Item class: D-77. For a detailed description of the frigate, please consult the ship’s manual.
You are the first player to own this frigate and have the right to change its name. The current name is Dratistan.

Uh, excuse me, but no! I have very little desire to go flying around in something called the Dratistan.
“Couldn’t think of anything more clever?” quipped Lestran, when the ship’s name changed. “Sit here. I’ll explain to you what sequence you need to press the buttons in. I’ll sit beside you and plot our course. Do you even have a slight idea of where we need to go?”
“I do. First into space and then to some backwater planet without resources. We’ll leave the ship there, then pop out of the game and check out the instructions. I won’t take a single step further until I know how to fly. By the way, how are you on time?”
“I’m fine. I’ve got a month at least.” Lestran pointed at a dark-red, almost maroon, button and continued, “Check it out, first we need to start the reactor and after that…”
I listened eagerly to Lestran’s introductory lecture on piloting a space frigate. Of course, I could absorb the entire process this very night by finding some emulators, but at the moment we needed to take off and fly away, having broken through the planetary defense ring—and that, as my partner pointed out, was a problem in and of itself. Especially, he underscored, for a ship with a name like ours.
Listening attentively and writing down the sequence of commands, I smiled to myself: Today would see the maiden voyage of The Space Cucumber. My Stan would be happy to hear the news…

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