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by Michael Atamanov
The battle was coming to an end. One thousand five hundred dreadnoughts were in siege mode conducting orbital bombardment on the planet below, turning all its space defense structures into dust and preparing landing zones for the space marines. A few hundred lumbering battleships were covering the heavy siege ships, while the faster assault and strategic cruisers, together with the interceptors, happily raced through the star system after the remnants of the enemy armada. All the other allies were out collecting trophies. There was such an abundance of valuable loot this time – it stretched as far as the eye could see. All visible space was carpeted in fragments of broken ships...
I took off my headphones and moved my chair away from the computer desk. I was still so excited from the massive space battle that my hands were shaking. Each side had thousands of players! I went to take a sip from my beer can. Damn, it's empty already. When had I had the time to down a half liter of beer? I had to tear myself from my chair, stand up and hobble over to the kitchen fridge. There wasn’t any more of my favorite local unfiltered brew. The best I could do was a bottle of dark Czech beer at the bottom of the vegetable drawer that a group of old college buddies had left there two weeks earlier. It reminded me of my younger days when my friend Pavel used to buy a whole crate that we never finished. It's not my favorite kind, but it's still a bit better than average. As usual, the opener wasn’t where it should have been in the box on the table, so I had no choice but to open the bottle with a fork before taking a foamy swig so cold it hurt my teeth. Praise the Lord!
I walked over to the window. There were some lights hanging from the curtain rod left over from a New Year’s party. New Year’s was three weeks ago at that point so the decorations should have been down already. All the same, for the hundredth time I was just not feeling up to standing on a stool and climbing up on the window sill. I looked out at the street. Winter had come in all its darkness. A cold wind whistled as it swept its way up the street. It was just past six in the morning, and the cold black sky wasn't even offering a hint of sunrise yet.
I looked into the cold haze out my window and held back a yawn. I had had to wake up with my alarm clock this morning at 3:30 A.M., then spend a whole hour gathering half-sleeping soldiers for the CTA (Call to Arms!!!) that had been announced yesterday and sneak our whole assault fleet between two stellar regions to the site of the grand battle. The unexpected arrival of our fleet on the battlefield brought chaos to the ranks of our numerically superior enemy. We attacked immediately, even though they outnumbered us twelve to one. We took advantage of the opportunity and got into battle formation, targeting a pre-prepared list of enemy commanders we knew to be talented, as we regrouped.
Our plan went off without a hitch. The enemy commanders were sent to medical centers for respawn, which effectively took them out of the game for a while. All they could do was swear pointlessly in chat or try to awkwardly manage their troops through video from allied streamers. They had been deprived of the ability to react in a responsive manner to the quickly changing situation. The enemy armada, lacking adequate command, flew cluelessly in circles through space, which we took appropriate advantage of, radically thinning the herd of these bumbling deer. Moreover, any time the enemy was able to replace a downed fleet commander and get some kind of resistance together, they would already be outnumbered three to one, and in a situation like that there was no way my well-trained high-class soldiers could lose. After that, there were some long firefights and chases, in other words, tons of fun before the bloody battle ended in our unconditional victory.
Shivering from the cold in my apartment, I turned the knob on the radiator slightly and went back to my computer. The enemy station had already been taken over by our alliance. Huge transport ships were hauling in everything our alliance's military and industry would need for our new home. Our boys had already finished looting the wreckage of the enemy ships and were preparing to overtake the reserve combat ships from the intermediary station all on their own.
An atmosphere of unrestrained joy and celebration reigned in game chats. Dozens of unread private messages and chat invitations flashed on my screen. I immediately turned them all down because I was too tired and not in the mood to explain myself to anyone. I was just skimming the first line of the messages, not making a special effort to read them any further. There were people thanking me for a job well done and others wondering how long it would take them to get compensation for lost ships. Allies were congratulating me on the victory and tactfully reminding me about my earlier promise to give them half of all captured territory. Enemies were threatening to get revenge and take back their lost station. Some of them were even sputtering silly threats that they would find my IP-address, find me in real life and break my arms and legs, but there weren't many of them. I even came across enemies who expressed their admiration at the operation in broken Russian or English. Basically, just like usual. I was on the verge of deleting all unread messages without even looking at them, but one message just kept calling my attention. It was from a player I didn't know by the name Space_General123. Much to my surprise, he wrote in perfect Russian:
"Great job! Congratulations! I was listening in on your voice chat and watched the whole battle from the sidelines, start to finish. It was a very precise operation. I especially liked that fake panic. Really believable. I'm sure the enemy spies bought it. But enough empty words, let's get down to business. I have an offer that you might find interesting. There’s a job that you fit the profile for. A big alliance needs an experienced fleet commander. You'll be paid entirely in real money, no virtual bytes. Let me know if you're interested."
My hand froze on the mouse button as I sat there, not deleting the message. A big military alliance? And also is it a Russian-speaking one or at least one with a lot of Russian-speaking players? I considered it seriously. I was pretty sure I knew all the more-or-less serious alliances in the game. There really were quite a few Russian alliances out there. Well, to be more accurate, mixed Slavic alliances, including the one I was in then. There were three really serious ones, but none of them needed fleet commanders. Though there were rumors that the permanent leader and commander of one of the top alliances was about to get married, or something, and quit computer games completely. But I had talked to him literally yesterday, and he had a ton of big plans, so he didn't really seem like a person playing their favorite online game for the last time.
Plus, this weird guy, what was his name... Space_General123, wrote that he had been listening to our private voice channel. I looked at this mysterious character's information. A complete zero, made just three hours ago. Obviously, it was the alternate character of some other, much more experienced player who didn't want to reveal their identity. Nevertheless, he was listening in on our channel. That means he was either from our alliance or had somehow found out our secret password. In the first case, it would have meant that one of my thoroughly vetted people was working for the competition. In the second, it would have meant that one of our pilots had given top secret information to a stranger! It’s hard to even say what would have been worse. In any case, we'd have to root out the traitor in our ranks, so I sent a message back:
"It's hard to answer right away like this. It might be something I'd be interested in. It all depends on the conditions."
Almost immediately, he sent me a voice chat invitation. I put on my headphones and got ready to listen carefully. I had an ear for voices. Ever since I was a child, I had been able to discern minute changes in a person's intonation and uncover fraud or bald faced lies. Plus, I knew a lot of my team by voice and would have been able to pick them out, even if they were purposely disguising themselves. All the same, this guy's voice was new to me.
"Hi! I'm glad you agreed to hear me out." Judging by his voice, he was already quite a bit older than 40, but definitely not old yet. "Does it bother you if I speak informally? You're a young guy, it just doesn't seem natural to put on airs for you. You can call me Georgiy Innokentievich."
I did my best to call him by his full name but, in my sleep deprived and slightly drunken state, my tongue wasn’t in any condition to pronounce such a tooth-shattering combination of sounds on the first go. My admirer wasn't offended though, and even chuckled back at my awkwardness:
"I don't know what my parents were thinking when they gave me that name. Not many people can say it right all the time. My international partners don't even try to pronounce it. To make it easier, they just call me Mr. G. I. You can do the same. Or call me George, or even Gordy, but that might be a bit too familiar.”
"Alright, Georgiy, what do you want from me?" I asked, deliberately not identifying myself by name and also choosing a name option for him that he had not recommended. I also opted to speak informally.
¬"As I already told you, there's a job to be had, with good pay too. So good that you won't have to work anywhere else, or do anything but your favorite activity. In fact, that would even be a necessary condition of this arrangement. Nothing can be allowed to distract you from carrying out your mission..."
I couldn't hold it in anymore and laughed into the microphone. How naive this guy was! Did he really think you could hire a good fleet commander for the game under these conditions? I've obviously been taken for some kind of complete gaming addict who can sit for days on end in front of a monitor washing down delivery pizza with cola.
"That's impossible," I answered, laughing back. "I have a contract already with this alliance, and it's plenty good for me."
"You contract was completed as soon as you'd finished the mission at hand and taken the base," said my new acquaintance, revealing a surprising level of familiarity with my agreements with alliance leaders. "Now, your soldiers can spend some time fattening up in a new place and saving their money. There isn't supposed to be an active war for at least six months, so the alliance has no need for a fleet commander. And what kind of contract did they give you? Two hundred bucks a month for beer and cigs? Laughable! I'm talking about actually good money."
That's where he really got my interest. I don't know how he'd found out what I was getting paid or the specifics of my contract. Obviously, my employer had said a bit too much. But I really had suggested these exact conditions a few months earlier, and at the time they had seemed like a good deal: two hundred dollars a month, and for that, I'd agreed to train fighters every evening after work and on weekends and make them into a flight team that could win a war against a coalition of Eastern European alliances. For some reason, after Georgiy's speech, the conditions I had once negotiated for no longer seemed like such a good deal.
"What city do you live in?" wondered my mysterious acquaintance for some reason. For a reason I don't even understand, I answered honestly that I lived in Moscow.
"In Moscow!? That's impossible! I'm from Moscow too!" Mr. G.I. cried out in joy, as I suddenly picked up on his native Muscovite accent, which I hadn't noticed before for some reason. "Well, listen up then. Seeing how you're not gonna sleep anyway, let's meet up in an hour somewhere at a restaurant and discuss all of this one on one. Is anything open in the capital at this hour? Do you want to go to The Wishbone bar? It's by the Sokolniki metro station. Do you know where that is?"
"Do I know where it is? I live right next door!" I even got a bit offended at his lack of trust in my knowledge of my native city. "The only thing is that we need to reserve a table in advance. You can't just show up!"
"At seven A.M., in this blizzard? It's probably totally empty." "Well, I'll reserve a table under my name in any case. Sound good? It’s a deal. We'll meet at exactly seven at The Wishbone!"
The call cut off. I looked at the clock. It was six twenty in the morning. The mirror on the wall told me I was unshaven, disheveled, wrinkled, and swollen after a sleepless night drinking beer until morning. My employer seemed like a very mysterious person, so I wanted to create a favorable impression. I had to go to the bathroom, looking around my bachelor pad on my way for some more-or-less clean socks and an iron that I knew was hiding somewhere.
* * *
At exactly seven, I walked into The Wishbone. A pretty hostess took me from the entrance to the coat room, took my coat and pointed to the far corner of a totally empty, early-morning room, where a hefty man in an expensive-looking suit was sitting solemnly at the only occupied table. He was younger than he had come across over the phone. Not fifty, but no more than thirty or thirty five. Next to Mr. G. I., there were two men standing at attention who looked a lot alike, as if they were twin brothers. They were his bodyguards, and they were wearing identical gray suits. Both guards were keeping careful watch over how close I came to Georgiy. As soon as I got within fifteen feet of their employer's table, they both simultaneously reached with their right hands for the holsters hanging from their belts. Holy shit! They weren't even trying to hide the fact that they had guns on them! I was a bit taken aback by the guards’ wildly inhospitable behavior, and so I stopped sharply in place.
Georgiy said something very quietly, but both bodyguards heard their employer and pulled their hands back from their weapons. After that, my strange acquaintance said something else, but this time much louder so I could hear it. He asked his guards to leave us alone so we could have a confidential conversation. I took the seat I was offered and stretched out my hand to shake his: "Ruslan!"
Mr. G. I. froze for a few seconds as if he did not know whether to greet me, but then his expression faded into a smile and he answered me with a handshake, "Georgiy! Well, nice to meet you!"
My acquaintance's palm was quite soft to the touch and somehow feminine, as if he had never been subjected to either physical labor or exercise. And so what? It's not like that was impossible. Maybe he was the son of some Moscow politician. He had been living in complete luxury since childhood. He'd never had to worry about money or getting into an elite private school and meeting all the "right" people. Then to celebrate his graduation from University, his parents bought him a job as deputy director at a huge company, and Georgiy had never had to work his way up the career ladder from the very bottom.
As I looked over Mr. G. I. surreptitiously, they brought our food: grilled trout, a huge plate of shrimp with hot sauce, and a charcuterie plate. And alcohol too, of course: there was vodka in a rounded carafe and some kind of wine. I emphatically refused the vodka. Mixing that with the beer I'd just drank would make for a killer cocktail, and getting drunk in front of a potential employer wouldn't be smart. My new acquaintance didn't argue and poured me a glass of light white wine. We toasted to our meeting, and I couldn't hold back any more. I had to ask:
"So, what alliance are we talking about here, Georgiy? It's weird, because I basically know all the big alliances in the game and I can't for the life of me remember any fleet commanders leaving recently..."
"Ruslan, who told you we were talking about that game in particular?" Georgiy inquired, interrupting my awkward attempt at guessing.
His question threw me off. “Then what game are we talking about, if we aren't talking about the one we met in when we talked this morning?” I asked with a smile, thinking he'd been trying to make a joke. But he was dead serious.
"The game I'm talking about is called Perimeter Defense. It's a big game with a hundred thousand players.
"Perimeter Defense? I've never heard of it..." Seeing my confusion, Georgiy poured us both some more booze and made a toast, given that it had become clear that our conversation would be going on for a while. I noticed that my acquaintance wasn't chasing his alcohol with the food on the table.
"Where do I start?" he began. "You probably understand that rich and famous people also want to get away from hum-drum, everyday life by playing computer games. But add to this that those who have grown accustomed to considering themselves members of the elite are not at all happy with the fact that some players have a less than professional attitude, the so-called ‘casuals,’ who start to ruin the atmosphere of the game. Plus, games that are out there for normal people don’t satisfy such sophisticated gamers at all, neither in graphics nor in plot. Are you following me?"
Who does Georgiy take me for? Does he think I'm a total loser who cannot understand even the simplest words? Why spoon-feed me everything like a baby? Nevertheless, I held firm and didn't let my annoyance show, just nodding quickly up and down. Georgiy continued at a leisurely pace:
"One day the inevitable happened. A few rich people got together, talked it over and decided they would make a totally different game only for an elite private club. It wasn't very hard to make it happen. Most companies that make computer games eked out and still eke out a fairly meager existence and will go ravenous at the sight of a big order. The made men I just described – you can even call them oligarchs – had everything they needed to bring their dream to life: an ocean of money, excellent designers and artists, the best programmers, and script writers. The clients were finicky and demanded maximum realism and the feeling that you were truly there. Nothing was too small for them, even the most minor details in the game world were reworked dozens and even hundreds of times. They demanded realistic and totally unique voice acting for every character, unique appearances for different races, changing weather, and an elaborate economy. It was a very ambitious project. But, one day, development ended and the game began.”
My new acquaintance poured another glass of vodka and wine and offered me a drink. And once again, he didn't eat anything with it, despite the fact that there was more than enough food on the table. Georgiy coughed. It looked like his gulp of hard alcohol had gone down the wrong pipe. Breathing out with difficulty, he continued:
"There are rumors that, in reality, there are a whole bunch of games out there only ‘for a select few.’ Maybe that's true, but I won't lie because I don't have that information. I personally can confirm the existence of only one such game. It's not likely that you would have heard about it. But just accept it as fact that there is a game that no one ever writes about in computer magazines, isn't advertised on television, and isn't even findable by Internet search. Nevertheless, it is a very high-quality game. Its graphics are practically indistinguishable from reality, and you feel so much like you're in the game that you end up just living in that virtual world. Getting in is no easy proposition, you have to have recommendations from other members of the private club...”
Here Georgiy paused, because a waitress had come up to our table to take the dirty dishes. Taking advantage of the pause, we had another drink and he continued, though he had started slightly slurring his words:
"So that's what I'm saying... There's this game, it's called 'Perimeter Defense...' But I've already said that... The game is about space and star ships. Like the very far future of humanity. There's a huge, practically limitless cosmos and a character wouldn't even be able to fly to the edge of this virtual world if they had their whole life to do it. And, in it, there is a big and fairly strong Human Empire, which occupies just under one hundred star systems and two or three hundred inhabitable planets. What's more, you can visit every planet with your character, and all these planets are different. You'll never find two that are identical. The designers really put a lot of effort into it. Other than the Empire, there are a few hundred small states with all different forms of government... Some of them are Empire vassals, some are allies, and some are avowed enemies. Close to the borders of the Empire there are mostly Human states, but the further you go into space, the more variety you'll find in terms of species... So, I didn't tell you yet, but there's a whole bunch of alien races, I won't even tell you how many exactly right away... And, actually, I don't think there even are any players who know how many races there are all together... Yeah, and what difference would it make anyway?"
Georgiy poured me another glass of wine despite my protests. I was already feeling like I'd had one too many. I was in a really strange state. I felt like I'd be drunk soon, but I didn't understand how or why. Obviously, being this tired and not having slept was having an effect, because wine couldn't have such a strong effect on its own. Nevertheless my acquaintance proved to be stubborn, so I had to pick up the glass and drink it down. After that, he picked up a pickled mushroom on his fork and waved it around, continuing:
"All these races have really confusing relationships among themselves. It’s a hell of a mess trying to navigate their friendships, military alliances and irreconcilable hatreds. But none of that matters. What does matter is that there are these other, totally bizarre species that are one hundred percent different from those ones. I don't even know how to describe the difference between these ‘monster’ aliens and the ‘friendly’ aliens. The only thing I can say is that they're one hundred percent different. Very strong. Very dangerous. Very aggressive in nature. There isn't much known about them yet, except that they look different from one to the next, but all of them are deadly dangerous. It isn't even known if there's only one species or a few different ones. We don't know if they're working together or if they're solitary. But these freaks are attacking our galaxy from different sides, conquering territory as they go. And that's exactly what players are supposed to do: stop the invasion. And those, essentially, are all the rules of the game. What do you say?"
Georgiy took a look at me, clearly waiting for my commentary on his story. To be honest, I hadn’t understood a thing, though of course the thought of being able to take a look at this "game for the chosen," even out of the corner of my eye, was very tempting. I nodded, and Georgiy poured us both another glass. I mechanically picked up the wine glass and wondered aloud:
"So, what's my role in all this?" Speaking turned out to be harder than I thought it would. I was also slurring my words at this point.
"You? Didn't I tell you? Really? Strange... Well, listen up then. You'll be leading one of the Human fleets – like, you'll be playing for me. Actually, it's me who's the commander. It's my character, but I'm sure you'll play better than me. You're supposed to defend Perimeter Sector Eight. It's not the hardest sector, but also not the easiest. You'll have a small squadron of ships, as well as some resources and finances. There aren't many attacks on your defensive sector now, but they’re growing more frequent. You just need to hold out."
"I don't understand. What interest do you have in this if I'll be playing for you?" I asked in surprise.
"It's hard to say... I'll be honest: It turned out I had no potential as a strategist, and so far I haven't put up impressive results in defense either. But, all the same, I cannot shame myself before the other players. There are very influential people who play this game, and I want them to think I'm a capable fleet commander and a talented leader. It's useful for my career – which is why I'm prepared to pay you well to play for me for a while. Let's say... six months to start. But just keep in mind that it isn't going to be entertainment for you, but real work. You'll have to put all your energy into completing your mission. There are two main rules. The first is that you cannot under any circumstances tell anyone that you're playing in my place. The second rule is that you cannot break character, tell other players about real-life news, or tell anyone about your life outside the game. That really bothers people. They came into this virtual world to escape reality after all. If you ever break either of these rules ¬– it's game over, the character is banned and, basically, we'll both be in a lot of shit. I hope you understand that."
"I see, I see..." I responded, finally wondering about how much I'd be getting paid.
Georgiy named an amount. It was about four times more than I was making at my current full-time job. Nevertheless, I immediately sensed a restless waver in his voice and figured that I could be asking for quite a bit more.
And, actually, he turned out to be quite generous in this regard. I was able to negotiate three times better conditions compared to Mr. G. I.'s original offer. I could barely keep myself from screaming in delight for the whole restaurant to hear. It was unbelievable! For that kind of money, I'd have been willing to spend day and night in the game! Of course, I'd have to quit my job to devote more time to this mysterious game. But what kind of a job was that anyway? Part-time database programmer... what a joke.
"So, technically, I'll be playing someone else's character? Am I going to be sent the password and screen name?"
"No, nothing like that," chuckled my new acquaintance happily. "I doubt that your computer at home will be able to deal with the graphics and, well, I'd prefer to avoid any potential ‘crashes’ due to connection problems. So, you'll play from my place. It's a sin to spoil one's impression of an excellent game due to an insufficient level of immersion, which is why I’ve ordered the finest equipment. I already have a virtual reality helmet. I got the suit too. The virtual reality capsule I ordered is held up at customs for now, but, if they deliver it, your work station will basically be outfitted with all the best equipment."
Virtual reality capsule? It seemed scientific progress had left me in the dust. Unfortunately, I was not able to clarify that point, as the waitress came by again to switch out the dishes and bring us more plates of different delicacies. To be honest, food wasn't agreeing with me at all at that point, and it was even just starting to ask to be let back out. Was it from overeating or had I just drunk too much alcohol? And that after a morning beer?
Georgiy's monotone voice came to me as if through a thick fog. He kept droning on about the game's strict rules and how I could never reveal that I was taking his place. I looked in his direction from under my eyebrows, getting ready to say that I already had it all figured out. But the words were sticking in my throat. For some reason, it began to appear as if Georgiy was not wearing an expensive dark suit from a couturier, but some weird, almost military, dark blue tunic with gold epaulets. I shook my head to banish the illusion. The strange vision passed. Georgiy went back to normal. I put on a dumb smile. What a vision!
¬"Are you listening to me?" Finally, Mr. G.I. had successfully gotten through to my drunken consciousness. "We still have to sign an official contract. We can't do it without a contract, because this is serious money. What are you doing, sleeping? Hello, don't sleep! Concentrate!"
I nodded, but my big stupid grin wouldn't leave my face. All that money! I'll have to get a driver's license and buy a car, first thing... After that, I'll have to trade in my rented one-bedroom apartment for something more fitting... Or maybe just buy my own apartment right away? Is it going to be enough money for an apartment? The thoughts were slogging through my head with huge difficulty, which is why I was not able to calculate how much I was supposed to be getting for six months at this job. It was six months that Georgiy said, right? Or was it not six?
The smiling waitress came by again, but this time her tray had a stapled packet of carefully typed-up papers. I noticed that the waitress wasn't wearing the strictly mandated restaurant uniform, but it didn't really register. For some reason, she was wearing a strange, very revealing, semitransparent outfit made of wide, pink ribbons that wrapped around her waist, arms and legs with bizarre bobs hanging down from them. After that, my attention trained in on the papers she'd brought. What is that, my contract? But when would the waitress have had time to print it out? And is printing out papers even a waitress's job? Or had the contract been prepared in advance and she was just bringing it out?
"In duplicate, as legally required. Acquaint yourself with it and sign on the last pages," explained Georgiy, his voice cutting through the haze. For some reason, he was wearing the dark blue military uniform again.
I really tried to read the whole contract, but it turned out to be a pointless exercise. The lines were jumping around before my very eyes and, what was more, something was off with the letters in them somehow. Except for the word "contract" in capital letters on the first page I couldn't read a thing. One of Georgiy's bodyguards came up to the table, but this time he wasn't a person but some kind of gray, bipedal lizard wearing bone armor. One thing hadn't changed though: he was still wearing a gun on his belt, but this time it wasn't a pistol but some kind of device that looked like a hair dryer.
"My Prince, we must hurry. Time is running short," uttered the lizard in an alarmed state.
"I know!" answered Georgiy sharply in his uniform. "But do you see how smashed he is? We were supposed to bring him in an unresponsive state, but now he's completely asleep! Miya, don't let him fall asleep!"
The girl wearing the pink ribbons skirted around the table, came right up close to me and sat on my knee. Without warning, she took a peck on my lips, and I tasted her floral, dark-purple lipstick.
"Hey, hey, that's quite enough!" The one who they called “Prince” dragged his right hand, weighed down by many rings, across the table and turned the contract laying before me to the last page. Miya foisted an obviously quite expensive pen on me. It even looked like a real Parker, with a golden nib. She jabbed with her finger where I was supposed to sign. Georgiy started to hurry me:
"Sign it now! It's time for you to get to work!"
With my limp hand, I mechanically squiggled out my signature on the long line. Then, I produced another signature on the second copy of this incomprehensible contract they shoved in front of me. And after that my consciousness left me at last, and I fell face-first into my unfinished plate of trout and salad scraps.
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Release date: December 15 2015