Sunday, January 3, 2016

New book is in the LitRPG series Phantom Server!

Happy New Year! You`ve got a good present :) Read openenig chapters of The Outlow (Phantom Server: Book #2) by Andrei Livadny.

Chapter One

The Darg System. The Founders' Station.
Active respawn point

The ragged edge of the space station's deformed deck hung over my head. I was lying on the icy floor of one of the destroyed modules. The gas giant's brown light reached through the gaps in the station's hull, diffusing in the tangled mess of bent support beams and casting its meager light on the ancient structures.
The place was at the mercy of vacuum and subzero temperatures. The visor of my helmet was raised. My lungs had just exploded with the decompression. My face was contorted in a spasm. Frozen blood clung to my lips. I shouldn't have been feeling any of this but the high levels of my cyborgization had raised me above death.
The Outlaws who'd trapped me and hacked my pressure suit had no idea that, in the brief intervals between the torturous succession of respawns, I was still capable of perceiving everything around me. I really should learn to use this ability, an alien thought was slowly snaking down my artificial neurons.
Stars gaped through the jagged holes in the station’s hull, their fine pattern dominated by the brown gas giant — Wearong — within its ring of satellites. Further on I could discern the pale blue and gray of planet Darg the size of a pea: the only habitable planet, populated by xenomorphs.
The asteroid belt sparkled with reflected light. Clusters of debris floated in close proximity to the station: evidence of many a space battle that had spanned millennia. In their midst drifted the Founders' gigantic ships, silent and overflowing with ancient mystery.
This was the gaming world of Phantom Server. The new-generation virtual reality based on neural network technologies.
Who was I, might you ask? And what was I doing here? How had I ended up being cybergized and why was I lying on the mangled deck of a long-abandoned space station in a pool of my own gushing blood?
My name's Zander. That's the only thing I can tell you now. The game mechanics know no mercy.
My helmet's visor went down automatically and hissed shut. A flash of emerald light burst through the gloom, breathing hot life into my frozen body, then went out.
I gasped for breath, tasting blood in my mouth. My teeth shattered in uncontrollable agony.

R... u... n... !

This wasn't a gaming message. The new command swam before my eyes, distorting.

Time until decompression: 55 seconds

I struggled back to my feet, busting my lungs, losing precious moments. There was nowhere to run here. I'd tried it all already. My fighter ship was docked about five hundred feet away. No way could I make it that far. Should I try to control it remotely?

Sorry. Your network connection is blocked.

Pointless. They'd trapped me in respawn purgatory, killing me time and time again hoping I'd speak.

R...u...n... !

I was alone in the vacuum. Every sixty seconds my hacked suit went into maintenance mode, decompressing.
I ran. Blindly and randomly, as hard as I could.
I ran past mauled modules and crumpled bulkheads, past deformed doors blocked in their frames — nothing I could use.
No one was trying to stop me. The Outlaws had nothing to worry about. I couldn't escape anywhere in the sixty seconds I had. As for the respawn point, they were the ones controlling it.

Time until decompression: 15 seconds

The corridor curved. To my right I noticed the towering shaft of an obsolete gravity elevator leading deep into the alien station's bowels.
Without hesitation, I dove in.
My individual gravity generator changed settings automatically. I was dropping into the unknown, staring down into the depths at the destroyed decks until I noticed a faint marker almost out of my scanners' range. It kept growing like a powerful new beacon taking over the ancient structure.

Time until decompression: 3 seconds
2 seconds...
1 second...

I didn't make it, did I?
Slowly my helmet's visor began rising.

* * *

The bottom of the elevator shaft was littered with debris. I was lying amid mangled pieces of spars.

Zander. Level 20. Pilot. Time left until respawn: 1:59:32.

The agonizing pain had faded away. The shock of yet another death had dissolved into the thick darkness. My frozen body was motionless; far-off specks of light overhead reflected in my eyes. Normally, I shouldn't be aware of anything at the moment but my Synaps mind expander remained operative, its sensors collecting available information byte after a laborious byte.
This had to be a bug. I had no leaning toward mysticism. The closed alpha testing of Phantom Server had completed. The game developers were now preparing it for launch, installing updates and introducing new locations, fine-tuning the gameplay. The Eurasia Fleet had already entered the star system, its ships, station modules and cryogenic platforms manned by beta testers. I had a funny feeling they were going to be quick and efficient, priming the ground for an endless flow of new players. And as for us — I meant the meager few who'd survived the neuroimplant tests — we'd either have to find our place in this new reality or add to the gruesome scenery of the abandoned station levels.
The light was growing brighter — closer. My mind expander lagged noticeably, struggling to focus on the vague outlines of two Outlaws clad in heavy pressure suits. They were descending — apparently, after me.
My consciousness was now barely kindling within my neural implants which probably explained why my thoughts were now cold and academic. All emotion had been temporarily suppressed, stripping my perception of any extras and turning the world into a pencil sketch. I couldn't move. I just hoped that the next patch would be able to solve this problem. Everything in Phantom Server hinged on technology. Prompt implant upgrading was vital to a char's leveling. Feeling like a broken machine in between respawns was far from pleasant, I tell you. No one was going to like it.
Jyrd bent over me. Level 50, Outlaw Elite. A scanning wave surged over me. He cussed.
“And?” I didn't know the other's voice.
“You were right. It's an hour fifty-eight minutes now, not ten minutes! The timer is disabled, too, you can't change it. The countdown is the only thing that works. They and their updates!” he must have meant the game developers.
“Are you gonna wait?”
“You have other ideas? Another respawn or two, and he'll tell us everything he knows.”
“Obstinate bastard,” the other one said. “Normally they're begging you for mercy after two or three reincarnations. How many has this one taken — ten, twelve?”
“I don't care. I'm not leaving without the Founders’ ship's coordinates,” Jyrd kicked my frozen body. “Leave him alone. We've asked him nicely. If he doesn't understand it, well, tough. Next time we'll be killing him slowly.”
That's where he was wrong. There was no way I was going to tell him the ship's coordinates. Safely stashed away in the depths of the asteroid belt, the Founders' ship held everyone I cared about. In this reloaded world, this Goliath of a ship equipped with a mobile respawn point was our only chance to become a power to be reckoned with.
Then again, I shouldn't be too sure. Considering the 100% authenticity of the experience provided by my neuroimplant, I stood little chance under torture. I had to get out of here, but how? There was no help coming. In order to get back to the station, I'd have to reclaim the only available fighter ship. So the arrival of the Haash cavalry itching to rip the Outlaws apart and rescue me was out of the question, I suppose.
Very well. Daydreaming was no good. I could only count on myself. I'd never been to this part of the ancient station but I knew from experience that the lower decks still preserved some semblance of an atmosphere, albeit rare and toxic. But the metabolic implant would allow me to breathe there for a while. It was going to hurt, but as long as it allowed me to lose my enemies and avoid yet another respawn, it was worth trying.

* * *

Beyond our reality, the world is devoid of emotion.
My mind expander was still working, and I fully intended to use this unexpected advantage. My thinking still impartial, I concentrated on the choice of an optimal escape route.
I'd left my fighter ship (camouflaged) in one of the station's outer docking modules, about five hundred feet from the respawn point where — so I'd believed — Liori was supposed to have respawned.
I'd been so sure I'd rescue her. Instead, I'd fallen into the trap which I now had to escape from.
When I respawned this time, I'd only have sixty seconds, just as before — which is why I opted for the cluster of obsolete gravity elevators that dissected the station's floors and decks, reaching all the way down into the depths of the ancient structure rife with mysterious transformations. The energy anomaly I'd noticed earlier had grown, taking the shape of a slowly expanding translucent sphere. According to my sensors, the lower decks were now witnessing the activation of the ancient alien systems. There, force fields were kicking in, preserving the rarefied air and offering me a slim chance of escaping the Outlaws, mending my pressure suit and returning to my fighter ship.
“You see that, Khors?” Jyrd's voice sounded in the headphones. He must have noticed the changes, too. “Whatcha think's going on in there?”
“Service pack installation,” Khors replied with confidence. “I bet the station's transforming within the set limits. Wanna have a look? We still have time. Aren't you interested what the developers have come up with? It's probably already jam packed with mobs and-”
His voice broke. He stood bolt upright. “Jyrd, come here, quick!”
Could I really feel the shiver that ran up my spine?
Theoretically, I couldn't. But I did sense it nevertheless.
A bright flash exploded a few feet above the floor, sending bolts of lightning into the walls and evaporating all matter in its way. A cloud of incandescent particles rose into the air.

You're observing a phenomenon known as Molecular Mist. In order to study it, you must be in possession of 75+ Science and a scanner file.

I immediately remembered the Phantom Raiders that had destroyed the Argus station's entire population. Before they'd appeared, I'd seen identical incandescent clouds form by the edge of the asteroid belt, gradually taking the shape of the Founders' murderous ships.
Gossamer charges of lightning kept slicing through the air, intertwining, forming a cocoon, solidifying until the reddish mist shaped a human outline, sinister and impossible.
This wasn't a human being, I swear to you. More like a top-level mob. What were the two Outlaws waiting for? They didn't seem in a hurry to flee — on the contrary, they stepped back and froze, watching the molecular transformation from a safe distance.
The figure exploded with light. The matter inside the energy cocoon flowed, distorting, forming diamond-shaped armor plates, servodrives, sensors and other devices.
Then it was all over.

Avatroid: 35/150. Level: [unavailable] Abilities: [unavailable]

Not all of the Molecular Mist had been used to form the figure. Some of the particles landed onto my armor and my exposed face behind the open visor.

You've received nanites. Total number: 254. Class: universal.
For your information: the number of nanites is insufficient for forming objects. We recommend you increase the number of nanites by replicating them.

In the meantime, the figure stirred. The creature turned its head and raised its arm as if willing to make sure that its artificial body had all the necessary functions. Oxidization flaked his armor. The scorched spots on the walls of the elevator shaft were gleaming weakly.
My mind expander was registering every detail of the unfolding scene.

You have created a scanner file. A phenomenon recorded: Materialization. In order to study it, you must be in possession of 100+ Science.
New skill available: Mnemotechnics. Requires 7 Intellect, 7 Learning Skills. Accept skill: Yes/No.

Yes, absolutely. I focused on the icon and only then realized I couldn't do it. Technically, I was “awaiting respawn” and as such couldn't receive XP and skills. Neither could I accept new quests.

Thank you. You've received a new skill: Mnemotechnics. Level 1.

My headphones clicked, tuning in to a new frequency.
“Jyrd?” Avatroid turned slowly.
“I'm listening,” Jyrd's voice rang with fear. This member of Outlaw elite, one of the founders of the Technologists clan could barely conceal the animosity in his voice behind the false veneer of respect. And I used to think he was the alpha dog here. Apparently, I’d been wrong.
“What did I tell you?” the creature's furious roar echoed in the headphones. “First you scan! Then you think! And only then you act! How many reincarnations has he been through?”
I had a funny feeling he was talking about me.
“You idiot! I can see the fragments of two neuronets inside him! You should have removed them!”
“He,” Jyrd nodded at me, “stole our ship. The frigate that the Dargians had been restoring, he took it!”
“I'm not interested in your dealings with xenomorphs! The only thing that matters is the reincarnation modules!”
This spawn of alien technologies loomed over me, prompting my mind expander to glitch.
A mental scream ripped through me. I demand immediate patch installation! Nothing should happen in the time lapse between a player's death and his reincarnation!
No one heard my protest, of course. My mind resembled a crystal ball rapidly covering with a fine net of cracks. My perception faded. Still, Avatroid didn't finish what he'd started, as if encountering a sudden insurmountable obstacle.
“You!” his servodrive-wound arm went for Jyrd. The man shrank back. “You've ruined them! They respawned with him, in his body! They share the pain and the memory! I can't remove them!”

A note added: Common pain.

The message blinked and disappeared. I waited curiously for Jyrd to reply. My out-of-reality state had its pros, apparently. Only a second ago, a technogenic alien monster had all but ripped out my brain and all the implants within it, and there I was, cool and impassive, taking in every word of their conversation.
“Do shut up, will ya?” Jyrd snapped, losing his respectful patience. “Those modules had already been inside humans. Their neural matrices are less than useless. All the original data is gone. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.”
Avatroid froze: a blood-curdling figure towering over me, its dull purple aura dripping to the floor. Not a mob. Not an NPC. Something entirely alien to human understanding.
“I am the only one who decides if a module is usable. What if one of them used to belong to the station's controlling AI? Any shred of leftover information can contain the key to my ultimate resurrection!”
“Right,” Jyrd grinned. “What do you want from me, then?”
“Kill him! Destroy him once and for all! Block his resurrection point!”
My fake impassiveness flew out the window. Was this freakin' tin can nuts or something? Without the respawn option, my physical body that had been left to the tender care of the in-mode life support modules would cease to receive signals from my identity matrix!
Jyrd nodded without much thought. He knew perfectly well the meaning of the creature's demand. Killing someone “once and for all” meant that their avatar would stay forever trapped in the world of Phantom Server, adding to its sinister stage props. What it also meant, in case of “definite death”, was that the player's dead body rejected all the implanted devices.
“I'll do as you say,” Jyrd said firmly.
“Good,” Avatroid rumbled. “I have other things to do.”
He turned round, having already lost interest in both me and the Outlaws, and faded into the dark depths of the ravaged decks.

* * *

His heavy footsteps sidled away.
Khors cussed. “Gives me the creeps every time I see him. Off we go, then? To block Zander's respawn point?”
“No,” Jyrd snapped.
“You fucking nuts? You've just said you'll do it!”
“Khors, please. We need the ship's coordinates. He respawns one more time and we'll have them.”
“But what if Avatroid finds out?” Khors asked anxiously. “Did you see where he went? It's hell down there. Can you imagine how many new mobs now populate the lower decks, thanks to this update? They'll rip our Frankenstein apart before he knows it.”
“That's his problem,” Jyrd snapped back. “That would be too simple, wouldn't it? He'll have those mobs for breakfast, trust me. And I can't see what you've got to do with it!” he lost it.
“Quit aggroing,” Khors said. “Can't you just tell me what's going on?”
“And you don't see, do you?” Jyrd frowned. “I can't control him anymore, is that clear? This evocation was a good idea but I have a funny feeling it's time we call it a day. Enough playing with fire. So basically, I won't be too upset if he doesn't come back.”
“All right, all right, but who's going to respawn those devices for us?”
Eh? 'xcuse me? I remembered the uncompleted quest I'd received at Argus. Could that alien thing really resurrect machines?
“I'm sure we can work it out ourselves. I've already leveled Replication, Disintegration and Materialization up to 10,” Jyrd fell silent, making it clear he didn't enjoy the conversation.
“This Avatroid creature is a piece of work, I agree,” Khors heaved a sigh. “He gives me the creeps. Once an alien, always an alien. He overdid it with destroying Argus too. Not everyone is going to like your decision, though. Especially now when the Eurasia is about to land. We'll never hold our asteroid bases against it without Phantom Raiders. Did you hear their scouts' reports?”
“Not yet. Didn't have time, did I? I was too busy learning to use the Destructor. Anything interesting? Make it short, please.”
“In short, I can quote Admiral Higgs. ‘We know who assisted the xenomorphs in taking over the Argus station. All the Outlaws will be apprehended and eliminated,’ he says.”
“Oh. Sounds too posh for a player.”
“So it should. The Admiral and all the senior staff are NPCs,” Khors replied. “Level 200+. So are all the pilots, the landing troops and the colonial infantry. They're all around 100, not more. The players are few at the moment. Most likely, they'll be connected within the next twenty-four hours via the cryogenic platforms interface. According to the book, they've spent the ten-year journey in suspended animation.”
Jyrd didn't seem to have liked the news. “What's with their equipment?”
“Our stealthers only managed to inspect two of their hangars. They've scanned the latest airspace fighter, the Stiletto. Up to 100,000 armor. 10 megawatt shields. If I can be brutally honest, Condors are rust buckets next to them. We also managed to copy the signature of their assault module. Now that is something. Its performance characteristics are still being assessed but it's pretty clear that this little bird will make quick work of any of our shields. So if I were you, I'd give it another thought. It might not be the right moment to fall out with Avatroid quite yet.”
Jyrd paused, pondering over his words. “Khors, would you like to go back to real life?” he finally asked.
“You nuts? What am I supposed to do there after five years in the in-mode? At least here I'm alive! Back there I'm just a shriveled mummy hung with IV drips. And that's the best-case scenario.”
“Then we need to think realistically. Our world is here. We're going to squeeze the ship's coordinates out of Zander now. This will allow us to disappear off Eurasia's radars for a while. This star system is big enough. We'll get some cover, too. And in a month or two when the game finally goes live, there'll be plenty of normal players around. True, if we withdraw now, we risk losing some of our bases in the asteroid belt. But this way at least we can return one day and become a force to be reckoned with, considering all the technologies we've studied. I'll tell you more: Admiral Higgs might have just turned the name, Outlaws, into a buzzword. We might see a whole bunch of new clans take it as part of their monikers. That might allow us to blend in with the crowd at first and stage our comeback as planned. We could restore Argus, I suppose, and make it into our citadel.”
“That's all well and good but who's gonna cover our asses for us now? You told Zander that the developers have lost control of the game. But that's bullshit, can't you see that? Who do you think installed this update? Besides, when the Phantom Raiders arrived, the admins were prepared, don't you think? They were a bit too quick on the draw. Did they know that our experiment with Avatroid would end up in a massacre?”
“It may have been a massacre, but we survived it,” Jyrd pointed out.
“Answer my question.”
“You really want me to?”
“Very well. The developers are only one side of the story. There's another force in the game, and this force would do anything to control Phantom Server. We have an agreement. That's all I can tell you at the moment.”
“Do you mean that whatever happened on Argus is only an echo of real-world power games?” Khors insisted. “You were promised the station, then someone intervened, is that it? Do you imply that Zander,” he nodded at me, “was allowed to activate the alternative plot line simply to highjack the Founders' frigate right from under our noses?”
My blood ran cold with his speculations. The information scalded me like icy water, soberingly lucid. So my mind expander's continuous work between respawns wasn't a glitch? Someone wanted me to see Avatroid and hear this conversation?
But who? The game developers?
I didn't think so. They were too desperate to rid the game of any alternative scenarios, impatient to release it as soon as they could.
Jyrd's mysterious protectors, whoever they were, wouldn't bother to clue me in, either.
Who, then?
Was this guy right suggesting some “third force”?
“Let's go, Khors. Time is an issue. How much time left till he respawns?”
“Fifty-three minutes.”
“We need to find a sealed module and get everything ready. As I said, this time we'll be killing him slowly. Until he sings.”
Their voices died in the distance, the words consumed by the crackle of interference.

* * *

The Founders’ Station. Respawn

I resurrected in a flash of emerald light.
At first, I couldn't breathe. My every muscle was paralyzed with pain, my brain ripped apart, my thinking disjointed. I ignored the first batch of system messages. I had more important things to do.
Wheezing, I scrambled to my feet. In a swipe of my eyes, I injected myself with a bumper doze of exo — my emergency stock. The small capsule containing alien metabolites gave me +50% to Strength, Stamina and Agility, leveling my chances in any potential combat with Outlaws.
So where were they?
The floor noticeably vibrated underfoot. Flashes burst through the dark, erasing it, playing with shadows. A geyser of molten metal rose above the remnants of the living modules, its incandescent spray spilling crimson clouds into zero gravity.
Exo ran through my veins, dissolving in waves of fever. Reality bled through in large brushstrokes. I could see three assault modules approach the station, their shields pulsating as they deflected blows, their guns rattling as they mopped up a landing zone.
The update: installed. The game developers' intent had breathed an ancient mechanical life into the station's silent halls. According to my scanners, the place was crawling with NPCs. The only active respawn point was drawing mobs like a magnet, also serving as a reliable beacon for a group of ships that had just broken away from Eurasia's main force.
I ran a quick check of the area. The bodies of three Outlaws lay on the floor nearby, their suits ripped by missiles. Unfamiliar nicknames. The mechanical remains of shot-down serves were everywhere. The battle for the active respawn point must have been desperate.
Engines flashed closer and closer. An assault ship was approaching an enormous hole in the station's hull. I darted and ran, sticking to the route I'd laid earlier. A fine emerald line was leading me down into the station's ancient depths. They weren't safe anymore, I knew that. Still, I had no choice. For me, nothing had changed. The countdown was on. According to the alternative plot conditions that I'd accepted, my faction relationship with the Eurasia Colonial Fleet members had turned to hatred. So I had only one way. Down.
A familiar corridor, the gravity elevator, its shaft behind a crumpled bulkhead. A weak light seeped from inside.
I had no time to ponder over it. Forty-five seconds left.
I dove into the vertical shaft, flying past mangled pieces of gravity compensators. I landed on my feet, somehow keeping my balance, and began climbing over the debris, noticing the tell-tale molten dents in the walls. So I hadn't dreamed up Avatroid, then.
Thirty-five seconds.
I turned a bend, dove into a breached hole and ran through a succession of adjoining modules, noticing the ancient machinery glitter with indicator lights. The station's systems had activated — and I thought I knew who was trying to control them right now. This was a risky and very iffy undertaking. Most of the cyber modules sparked, some exploded; the dilapidated pipework puffed out flakes of frozen atmosphere, its giant snowflakes floating in the vacuum.
Another elevator shaft.
I dove into the dark, leaving the weak light behind fading rapidly.
Twenty seconds.
My legs gave with the impact. So! They had gravity here already. I cast a quick look around, noticing a forced door of a module down yet another corridor. The weak shimmer of a force field shielded the doorway. Just what I needed. I could see a murky haze swirl behind the shield: the place had an atmosphere.
Five seconds.
The iridescent shimmer of the force shield closed behind my back.
My helmet's visor began to open.
Instinctively I held my breath. The vitals' indicators quivered, then jumped into the red zone.
Radiation. Toxins. Only seven percent oxygen.
For a short while, the metabolic corrector would allow me to breathe the toxic air. But the Outlaws had prudently stripped me of my life support cartridges, which meant that the implants were going to syphon my body's resources.
I took a tentative breath. The room swam before my eyes. I was seeing double.

You have received a dose of toxins.

I willed my eyesight to focus, simultaneously trying to force the visor close and restore the suit's settings. To no avail. My interface was blocked. I couldn't deactivate the maintenance mode, couldn't remove the suit. Its force shield was inoperative.
I cast a haunted look around. The module was small. Insulation still smoldered on molten cables. I could hear the screech of some machinery working behind the bulkheads. Holographic screens glowed dimly, dispersing the gloom but not showing any data.
My heart was pounding. Exo was wearing off. My throat was raw with toxins. A mob lurked in the corner, glaring at me with its unblinking stare but unable to attack, crippled by a Critical Failure debuff.
Great work on the developers' part, thank you very much!
The mob could wait. He was no imminent threat. I had nothing to finish him off with, anyway. My integrated weapons didn't work and clubbing him with a piece of rusty pipe could prove counter-effective: every breath I took stripped me of ten points Life. I had to find an emergency life support module, I told myself, trying to be proactive and failing. I'd escaped the Outlaws but that was about it. I had nothing to replace the hacked gear chips with. And I wasn't skilled enough to reprogram them.
I glanced over the remaining control consoles, reading the faded instructions. I had no problem understanding the Founders' language. Courtesy of the Dargians, I still had the semantic processor with its auto translate function. I followed the instructions and soon found a removable panel in the wall marked as Reserve Suit. The panel concealed a niche. Inside it, I discovered something very interesting.
On the niche's floor lay a three-digit pressure glove made of a material unknown to me. It was soft but strong without visible seams. I saw several connector sockets. Apparently, they had been used to secure an entire pressure suit but its other elements must have disappeared over time. Judging by the clamps' size and their respective positioning, the suit was meant for a humanoid-type creature slightly taller and larger than man.

A Founder's Glove.
Item's class: Rare, Reproduced. Skills required to activate special abilities: Mnemotechnics, Technologist and Alien Technologies.

I had no idea what this “reproduced” thing might mean. I'd never come across anything like it before. I wasn't pleased with the level restriction, of course, although I had no idea how I could use this three-finger gizmo.
I looked over the glove and shoved it down my inventory. I was pretty sure I'd be able to study it at a later date. It would probably give Jurgen a heart attack.
Until this day, I hadn't come across a single picture or description of Founders. So apparently they had three-digit hands, just like the Haash.
Apart from the empty clamps, I also found a hemispheric panel with three round indentations on it. A sign by the panel read, Turn knob to activate emergency systems.
The device must have been very old. Touching it wasn't a healthy idea. Still I decided to take the risk.
Straining my fingers, I turned the hemispherical knob. A sharp hissing sound echoed under the ceiling. With a pop, the atmosphere grew muddy.
Space is a tough environment. One wrong step here can mean sudden death.
I was lucky. The murky white particles turned into mist. My suit's sensors pinged, choking on the sound. Radiation levels remained the same while the concentration of toxins dropped dramatically. The oxygen indicator froze at 12%. Either the chemicals had lost part of their properties or those Founder creatures who'd built the station didn't need much. One more mystery on the Founders' list of secrets.
Very well. At least now I breathed in only the bare minimum of toxins.
Mechanically I gave the mob in the corner a wide berth. He was level 70 against my 20. Much as I would have liked to, I wouldn't have even left a scratch on his steel body, even if I found some old piece of steel to brandish.
The floor and the bulkheads kept shuddering. In the brief time it had taken me to study the room, the artificial gravity had gone off and come back on again a few times. The light had gone off too at some point, then the ceiling panels resumed their weak yellowish glow.
I thought I knew what was going on. The installed update had turned the ancient space station into a complex multi-level dungeon, and each of its decks promised a player an unforgettable experience. Because all those Eurasia staff needed someplace to do their leveling, didn't they?
Actually, they'd already started doing exactly that. The assault modules I'd noticed must have served as cover and landing support for a raid.
I sat down, trying to level my breath and calm down. I needed to concentrate. The activation of this ancient emergency system now gave me the chance to recover my senses.
One of the icons on my interface flashed insistently,

You have unread messages!

Very well, let's have a look.

Quest alert: Immortal Hardware. Quest completed! The rumors have been confirmed. The Outlaws are in possession of a technology allowing them to resurrect all weapons and devices destroyed in combat.

Shame I wouldn't get any XP as I couldn't close the quest. Argus had been looted and burned. I knew nothing about the vendor's fate.
Never mind. I'll live. I opened the next message.

Quest alert: Shadows of the Past. Available within the alternative plot line only.
By watching Avatroid's manifestation, you've created a scanner file containing information about the Founders' unique technology: Materialization. You can either study it yourself or hand it over to the science department of the Eurasia Corporation.
Reward: In the former case, you will acquire a new skill unavailable to other players. In case of surrendering the information to the science department of the Eurasia Corporation, your relationship with the Fleet's senior staff will improve to Neutral.
In order to study Materialization you will need the following skills:
Technologist, level 30+
Mnemotechnics, level 30+
Alien Technologies, level 30
Other abilities required: Replication, Disintegration and Object Replication.

They didn't want much, did they? The quest rather resembled some sort of sick indulgence offer. I suppressed a smile. Had they just offered me a potential way out? All I needed to do was contact the players who'd just landed on the station and hand the information over to them?
Yeah, dream on. Who did they think I was to surrender the unique intel to some corporate wusses and lose the opportunity to acquire a new mysterious skill? They could wait! In the worst-case scenario I could always sit it out here with my friend the mob until the Haash fixed their ships. I didn't for one second doubt that both Arbido and Charon would do their best to throw together a rescue mission.
Next message:

New ability available: Steel Mist. To find out more, switch to the Alien Technologies tab.

Now this was interesting. I glanced at the mob to make sure he was still immobilized by the Critical Failure debuff, and began reading,

You have received 214 Universal Nanites. To initiate their self-replication, enter the activation code and the corresponding command in the Founders' language.
Once the nanites' numbers have grown, you will receive the Steel Mist ability. Availability: by default. The nanites will generate a false signature, concealing you from low-level detection systems.
Please note: If in the course of your research you come across additional commands, the list of available abilities will grow automatically.

Finally something I could use! Once again the gloomy world of the Phantom Server had unexpectedly managed to reveal a fresh facet.
I kept reading,

As your Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies skills grow, you can improve your nanobot colonies for combat and defense use. You will also be able to replicate them which in turn will make new character abilities available to you.
Mnemotechnics level 30 will allow you to create a control module (used to operate ten independent nanobot colonies of various specializations). In order to do this, you must have a Founders' neuronet implanted.

There it was, the new unique development branch! My chance to acquire new skills and abilities based on an extinct civilization's technologies unavailable to other players!
The temptation was great. But so were the risks.
Jurgen had made a point of warning me about the potential dangers of using the Founders' neuronets. He'd even offered to neutralize them but I'd refused, hadn't I?
Never mind. Not the first time. Certainly not the last. In for a penny, in for a pound. I could fully relate to the old adage: this was the kind of haughty old-fashioned wisdom I'd been used to in fantasy worlds. God knows I'd played enough of them.
I had to make a decision. Every breath was still stripping me of a few points life. Nothing fatal yet, mere fractions of a percent, but my throat was rasping again; I was nauseous, dizzy and weak. Time to move it. As Arbido used to say, “We don't have time for a slow dance”.
Gosh, how I needed them both now — him and Charon!
Never mind. I had to concentrate. First and foremost, I needed this nanites activation code. Where was I supposed to get it?
I opened the Notes tab and began reading,

Common Pain:
The Founders' technosphere used to be controlled by AIs which were comprised of basic neuronet modules capable of linking together to form complex structures. The number of basic neuronet modules you currently possess: 2. Activation conditions (sharing 10 reincarnations) are met.

New icons appeared on the mind expander control panel, offering me the following options:

1. Block the artifacts
2. Join the basic modules into a higher-level neuronet
3. Perform test activation
4. Allow full access to the mind expander
5. Allow restricted access to the mind expander without joining the artifacts into a higher-level neuronet.

Oh great. It didn't look as if there would be guidebooks on this subject available in the foreseeable future. I could surely use the Technologists' help. But Jurgen had stayed behind on board the Founders' frigate and without communication, I had no way of asking him.
I'd have to look into it myself.
I ignored #1 for the time being. I'd love to know what could happen if I joined the artifacts together into a single neuronet.
I pointed my eyes at a virtual button. Yes! A prompt popped up,

Warning! You're about to create a level 2 neuronet. The initial data may be damaged if the modules used to belong to AIs of different specializations. Expected outcome: Reincarnation 2/150. Would you like to proceed?

Chill enveloped the back of my head. Was this how the Outlaws had created Avatroid? It was probably not such a good idea. Should I give it a miss, maybe? Just block both neuronets and forget about it until better days?
Yeah, right. How about my new abilities, then?
The last few hours had allowed me to appreciate the emotions of a twig tossed into the rapids. Honestly, I was already fed up with going with the flow. Time to recapture the initiative and turn to unorthodox development routes. With all my lack of sympathy for the Outlaws, I couldn't but admit that Jyrd was right: in the world of Phantom Server, technologies were king.
My gaze alighted on the next icon,

Perform test activation.

* * *

I expected anything but not the thick sticky darkness that clouded my mind.
Had the mind expander frozen? That was all I needed!
Just as I was thinking this, two shadows formed in the twilight recesses of my mind.
Emotions flooded over me: pelting me with dread, breathing warmth into me.
Everything happened in a rapid succession of contrasts. The first figure exuded paralyzing cold. Under my fixed stare its features gained a definite resemblance to mine. We know very little about the Founders' AIs. Jurgen had once said that they could copy the matrix of a human mind, but only on condition that contact was long and uninterrupted. Such cases had been few — and all of them, according to Jurgen, had had lethal consequences for the humans involved.
I looked at the gloom-wrapped copy of myself with mixed feelings.
I'd only had my first neuronet for two months or so. True, it had helped me out a few times when the going had gotten critical but we'd never had any conscious interaction that I could think of.
The more intently I peered at it, the sharper the image grew. And the closer it came into focus, the less I liked it. There was something repulsive about my face as if I was staring into a convex mirror; I could see indifference — no, disdain — on the curving lips of my smirking copy. In his eyes I read, You're too weak and worthless — too primitive.
Struggling to maintain self-control, I memorized his ID code that was shaped as a translucent pictogram, then focused on the second figure.
This image exuded warmth. It flowed, distorting, like a mirage born of a heat haze. It didn't have a face. My attempt to zoom in on it in order to add detail had the opposite effect: the blurred figure shrank into the darkness, fearing our merging as if begging me silently, please don't.
Fire and Ice.
Two opposite feelings burned my mind; crumpled my soul.
These were only chains of artificial neurons that, as chance would have it, had been braided into my nervous system.
This wasn't how I'd imagined my first contact with ancient AIs! Had Avatroid indeed been right and every implanted neuronet soaked up its host's emotions, thoughts and urges?
“Liori?” the bitter whisper fell from my lips, the one word summing up everything that we hadn't said — everything that we'd feared and failed to say to each other.
My phantom twin smirked with disgust.
No, I hadn't been mistaken. For a brief moment the familiar features came into focus — the little flames in her eyes, flickering and expiring.
“Zander, I'm dead. This is only my ghost dwelling in your mind. I'm sorry. Very soon it'll be gone, too. I will dissolve in your identity... forever...”
Her image rippled into a haze of tiny ash-like particles which transformed into the symbols of the Founders' language and whirled toward me in a blast of scorching wind.

* * *

The interior of the module swam before my eyes. Messages started popping up just below the icons of my mental interface,

Test activation: complete
You have received nanites activation code.
Three new command sequences available: Replication, Steel Mist, Object Replication.

New ability received: Replication. Your nanites are now able to increase in numbers, forming a fully functional colony. The self-replication of nanites requires a source of energy and a suitable material with at least 10% cargonite content.

New ability received: Steel Mist. The nanites will generate a false signature, concealing you from detection systems at a ratio of 1 to 5 (that is to say, a level-2 Steel Mist can protect you from level-10 detection systems, etc.)

New ability received: Object Replication. The nanites can generate stable molecular bonds, recreating particular items or devices provided their data is available.

New task alert! Reincarnation.
You have made direct contact with the Founders' neuronet modules. You must make a choice. Allow them access to your mind expander or block them forever.
Decision deadline: 24 hours.

Oh, great. At least they gave me twenty-four hours to make up my mind! All these mind games had already started to get on my nerves, adding the bitter note of irreparable loss to my desperate curiosity for what was awaiting me next.
Trying to suppress the gnawing thoughts, I opened the Mnemotechnics tab and entered the nanites activation code.
The pain subsided — it now lurked deeper, a dull ache in my chest. The unusual sensations nagged at me. I found it annoying. Game worlds always have space for outbursts of emotion, we're only human after all, but I'd never had it this bad — frustration slicing through my heart, plunging me into the depths of desperate grief.
She couldn't have died! She must have respawned somewhere — I wish I knew where, but still...
I cut the thought short. The activation code worked. Immediately the nanites seeped out, forming a tiny cloud that stayed in my field of vision wherever I looked.
Right. First of all I needed to replicate them. The thought helped to distract me from the sudden upsurge of emotion.
The procedure seemed pretty straightforward. I just hoped the entire process had been automated enough not to require any specialist knowledge on my part. I focused on the icon, activating it.

To create a molecular mist, you need the initial material and a source of energy. Please specify an unneeded object suitable for utilization.

Ah! That was a pleasant surprise! I didn't have any micro nuclear batteries to spare but I immediately thought about the mob! Could this Replication thing be actually used as a combat device? Let's see if we can outsmart the ancient technologies and squeeze an extra ability out of them?
Following my command, the barely visible cloud of nanites turned into a semblance of a whiff of smoke and reached toward the mob, filtering into its works. And then...
A blinding flash of light illuminated the room. A humming column of fire engulfed the ceiling. It singed me, the blast wave slamming me into the wall. The ancient mob had disintegrated into a swarm of incandescent particles that immediately filled the whole room.
I couldn't breathe! Oxygen levels were at 0, depleted by the fiery blast. Toxin concentration had jumped to 100%. My life bar was rapidly shrinking.
What had I been thinking of!

Replication complete.

I was enveloped in a smoky veil of hundreds of thousands of nanobots.
My lips cracked, my skin was taut against my cheekbones. The reserves of my body were rapidly depleting, losing the uneven battle with the toxic atmosphere.
10% Life... 9%...
I used both my hands to force the helmet's visor down — impossible. The drivers were blocked. My fingers kept losing their grip. I'd have given anything for a piece of sealing plastic the right size!
Symbols of the ancient language flashed before my eyes.

Command sequence activated. The replication matrix accepted.

In a flash, nanites formed an impervious membrane blocking my view and sealing the helmet.
A breath of clean air burned my lungs. I exploded in a bout of coughing.
I couldn't see a thing.

Warning! Your life support resources are at 5%. Please replace the cartridge ASAP.

I didn't have any spare ones! The Outlaws had stripped me of them!
My face was stinging, my eyes running. The metabolic implant was in overdrive.
The nanobots had just saved me from certain death but who'd issued the order? How had they known exactly what they had to do? My two AI modules had been temporarily blocked as the task demanded, so they couldn't have affected the situation.
This was going way beyond the scope of normalcy. I was used to relying on my gear, my weapons and implants — but as it turned out, there were other ways of survival, too. Destroying the mob had been a bad choice. I should have considered the consequences before creating a molecular mist in a sealed module.
Gradually my breathing calmed down. The helmet remained pressurized. I still couldn't see a thing though. I switched over to my mind expander which showed me a detailed picture of the vandalized module. Its walls were molten, exploded equipment still smoking. In the far corner, a small impact crater emitted a red glow. The force field protecting the entrance had deactivated.
What's with my suit's drives? I made a tentative movement. They seemed to be okay. I could move. The servodrives didn’t seem to have suffered. The armor had withstood the blast. I had enough metabolites to last me another couple of hours. In that time I had to get back to the outer decks; and once there, my ship was virtually within reach.
First things first. The logs.
I opened the file and scrolled through the messages.

10:01:39 You’ve initiated the process of nanites replication.
10:01:42 You’ve specified an object suitable for utilization
10:01:47 Molecular mist created
10:01:48 Damage received: 347 pt. thermal damage. Blast wave damage: 34 pt. Radiation damage: 105 pt. Durability of all pieces of gear dropped 12 pt.
10:01:50 You’ve suffered toxic exposure. Damage received: 39 pt.
10:01:51 Your metabolic implant has restored 20 pt. Health
10:01:52. You've suffered toxic exposure. Damage received: 39 pt.
10:01:54 Your metabolic implant has restored 18 pt. Health
10:01:55 Nanites have received a mnemonic command. Source: mind expander.
10:01:55 The mental image recognized. The replication matrix accepted.
10:02:03 Nanites have restored your gear's hermetic properties.

So! This new development branch had exceeded all expectations! My Mnemotechnics skill was still at a humble level 1 but it had already saved my life allowing the nanites to replicate an image they had extracted from my mind!
I understood of course that this protective membrane of nanites was in fact the most basic of objects — but the prospects of their use defied imagination. I couldn't stop thinking about Avatroid, replaying the scene in my mind, watching the incandescent particles swirl around forming his sensors and devices, servodrives and various elements of his weapons and armor. Did that mean that once I leveled it up I'd achieve the same heights of artistry?
A small swarm of leftover nanites was hovering in my field of vision. Could I issue another command to them, maybe?
I selected a replication matrix and held my breath, visualizing a life support cartridge. Immediately the nanites reacted by swirling into the air, changing their symmetry and forming an unstable outline of the desired and much needed object. It gained shape and substance, then dropped on the floor with a thump.

For your information: the nanites colony has been split. 30,546 of its elements have formed stable molecular bonds and can't be reused. In order to use nanobots, you must replicate them again.

I lifted the cartridge and looked it over with a sigh. This was a dummy. Perfect in shape and size but made of homogenous material that looked like porous plastic. Not a hint of the chemicals inside.
Well, what do you expect at level 1? Visualizing an object was the easiest thing. I still needed to know its structure and purpose.
I shoved the useless thing into my inventory. I absolutely had to level up Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies too. I also needed to get hold of the Technologists Clan's databases, copy them and store them in the mind expander. Those were the schemes of hundreds of devices I might need one day and my memory just couldn't hold them all.
All in all, things were looking up. The main thing now was to get back to the ship and return to the asteroid. I had the funny feeling that Jurgen and I had a few things to discuss.

* * *

Having left the vandalized module, I returned to the already familiar elevator shaft and began the long and slow climb up, grabbing at the ledges of the gravity compensators. My power was seriously down, my servodrives at 30% of their capacity. I could forget the gravity generator: my batteries were way too low.
The ancient depths echoed with disturbing sounds, scanners flashing warning scarlet lights barely within range. The climb took the wind out of me. My strength dwindled. Still, I couldn't stop now.
Finally I reached the outer decks. Not so long ago, this area had been completely depressurized but now I could see a yellow mist swirl leisurely just above the floor. I peered around. Why didn't I see the decompression emissions?
Ah, that's why. A weak shimmering light sealed the holes in the breached hull. The Founders' power shields must have kicked in, their weak force fields holding the leftover atmosphere.
So far, I'd been in luck. The raid had headed for the station's lower decks, its uneasy progress manifesting itself by occasional tremors and the echoing of far-off blasts. The Eurasia players were taking it seriously, mopping up the remains of the station's destroyed modules competently and thoroughly, the gloom revealing the mauled whimsical shapes of ancient mechanical mobs.
They got me interested — naturally. It would be stupid to miss such an opportunity, especially because my suit had a technological scanner installed.
All mobs had suffered serious damage. The raiders had even stripped some of them of their armor (cargonite is always in high demand) but I still had plenty left for myself. I began scanning their various modules, parts and units. So far, their purpose was unclear but I was sure that I could use the files to study them and hopefully use them at some later date. Also, I noticed that the bar of Alien Technologies kept growing with every scanned device.
I opened my interface. The update had affected that, too!
If before I'd had to choose the main characteristics and their values before installing the implant — and the only way to exceed the 10-pt limit was by either using the gear's stats, some special abilities or exo formulas — now each characteristic has its respective bar to register its growth.
I glanced over the main characteristics:

Zander. An Alt Outlaw. Level 20. Pilot

Intellect, 7 (+1 semantic processor bonus, +0,125 current research)
Strength, 7 (+0,15 continuous exercise)
Willpower, 7 (+0,5 coping with stress)
Agility, 5 (+2 reflex enhancer bonus)
Perception, 5 (+2 semantic processor bonus, +0,7 usage of neuronets, nanite control)
Stamina,      5 (+0,7 survival in an extreme environment)
Learning Skills, 7 (+0,3 creating unique scanner files)

Piloting of Small Spacecraft, 10 (+0,1)
Piloting of Medium and Large Spacecraft, 4 (0,0)
Combat Maneuvering, 7 (0,0)
Navigation, 9 (0,0)
Mechanic, 1 (0,0)
Repairs, 4 (0,0)
Alien Technologies, 1 (+0,25 creating unique scanner files)
Mnemotechnics 1 + 0,75 (nanite control)
Combat skills, 7 (0,0)
Light weapons 7 (0,0)
Heavy weapons, 7 (0,0)
Energy Weapons, 9 (0,0)
Accuracy 9 (0,0)
Critical hit 1 (+2% chance of dealing critical damage to your opponent)
Defense (the use of advanced gear courtesy of the Technologists Clan)

Replication 1 (2 nanite colonies available)
Steel Mist 1
Object Replication 1.

The update didn't affect any of the unique abilities I'd received earlier:

Friend of the Haash
+1 to all characteristics every time you fight alongside the Haash
Whenever you fight unarmed with less than 5% Health, you're able to ignore the enemy's defenses, dealing only critical damage.
The sight of you terrifies all creatures under level 20. They flee, unable to attack you.

Robot Technician
+10% to damage dealt to all machines

Another innovation: a new bar on my interface, indicating the levels of my “Physical Energy”. Currently it was down 30%, apparently signifying the degree of my fatigue. Not that the developers really needed to have added it. Thanks to the absolute authenticity of the experience, I knew well enough when I had to stop and give myself a break.
As I scrolled through the character development information, my eye chanced upon the familiar words, Creating unique scanner files. I decided to check my idea. I went back to the nearest already-scanned robot and rescanned several of its modules. Alas, no gain in Alien Technologies this time.
Never mind. I knew where I could level it. The Founders' frigate that we'd won in battle with the Dargians was a treasure trove of ancient technologies. It was chock full of yet unstudied devices. Surely I could earn much more XP scanning them than these few mangled parts of long-broken serves.
While I was thus consumed by my excuse for scientific research, an alarm beeped. Sensors had detected the signatures of three assault modules.
The echoes of battle in the depths of the station had died away which by itself wasn't good news. Either all of the raid members had been killed or they had mopped up one last deck and decided to come back. In either case, it was time for me to make myself scarce. One of the modules was about to dock with the station while the other two were covering him from their orbits.
I could sense a weak source of radiation. It felt as if my skin was tingling. They were scanning me. It would be stupid to stick my neck out so I broke away, turning off into the maze of destroyed living modules. I knew the way. In another five hundred feet or so I'd come to the tunnel leading through the hull structures, and from there my Condor was only a stone's throw away.
Soon I exited the area of weak radiation, leaving it behind.

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