“Oleg, have you ever played computer games?”
Gleb's colleague Zoriana sat by her computer entering my data into the company's database. First name, family name, date of birth, social security number, that sort of thing.
She had cropped hair and funny earrings shaped as iridescent butterflies. Intelligent eyes glistened behind glasses. Twenty years old max.
“Do Tetris and tank simulators count?” I asked.
She smiled without taking her eyes off the monitor. “Any bad habits?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
She typed away. “Good. Basically, that's it. All I need is your signature.”
“Be my guest.”
“Not so fast,” she smiled. “I know you're serious about it. Gleb told me. It's not that. First you need to familiarize yourself with the game's content. You need to choose a race and profession.”
“Does it really matter?” I asked.
“You see, Oleg,” Zoriana adjusted her glasses and smiled condescendingly, “computer games of today are a far cry from those like Tetris. They are millions of years apart, so to say.”
Unwilling to argue, I raised my hands in the air. “I give up! Let's choose a race.”
“Excellent. I like your attitude. I'm going to take you to a class A test module so you can see for yourself.”
The test module looked like a cross between a dentist's chair and - I couldn't help laughing at the thought - one of those hairdresser's chairs from the 1970s with a huge bucket-shaped bowl over your head.
Ignoring my merriment, she walked over to the machine and began keying in some information on the monitor built into the “bucket“. She must have probably heard her fair share of clumsy jokes about the machine's weird shape.
“Make yourself comfortable, Oleg. The process will take much longer than you might think. I suggest you use the bathroom first.”
I shook my head and climbed onto the hard seat.
She finished adjusting the settings. “Relax,” she said, “and don't turn your head. It's not dangerous. Now close your eyes.”
With a quiet beep, the “bucket” came down, covering my head all the way to the chin. I felt Zoriana take my hand and press my fingers against a hard surface.
“You can open your eyes now. The sensor panel is next to your right hand. The panoramic screen is right in front of you. Do you have a cell phone?”
“It's the same principle. I'm uploading the content. That's it. I'm leaving you to study it. If you need me, there's an icon with a ring bell in the top right corner of the screen.”
“I see. Thanks.”
“See you later.”
The program upload bar began to grow, changing its light from yellow to green as the percentage increased. It felt like sitting in a 3D theater. I even lifted my hand, hoping to touch the image.
The speakers exploded with a fanfare riff. I hurried to put the sound down. Basically, the thing was quite easy to use - no more difficult than my phone. The interface pleased the eye. The font was clear, the graphics high quality. Apparently, people enjoyed playing games in these machines. If they spent so much money on it - actually investing in it - then they must have. Whatever. So far, I wasn't that impressed.
Never mind. Let's do it.
The world's history came first. But I had no interest in all those myths and chronicles. They must have been packed solid with useless information dear to the hearts of some die-hard fantasy fans. Me, I preferred facts. What's there? - Aha, Newbie Guide. Professions. Let's click it.
Farming, crafting, services... So! Each category had hundreds of pages! Blacksmith, Street Sweeper, Stable Hand, Fisherman, Herbalist, Water Carrier, Sewage Collector, Farmer, Gardener...
The mind boggles. Zoriana was right: I wasn't going to leave this place any time soon.
I clicked on the filter: Most Popular.
A hair stylist, a landscape designer, a manager... okay...
Filter: Best Paid.
Number one on the Best Paying list was Mine Digger. I didn't look any further. Mine Digger it was.
Now race. Which ones were the most popular for this particular profession?
The huge bulk of racial choice #1 filled the screen. Muscles bulged under his gray hairless hide. His sinewy arms wound with veins hung to his knees. A walking shovel, like. What's your name, handsome? A Cave Horrud. Basic characteristics: Strength, Speed, Survivability, Defense, Agility. As for his additional abilities, I really needed to look into them.
Additional Ability: Force of the Mountains
Effect: +0.5% to Strength with every new skill level
Additional Ability: Power of Will
Effect: +0.8% to Speed with every new skill level.
This was more or less clear. The guy was strong but too slow. Next. A Rock Rhoggh. More of the same, only slightly smaller. Slightly less Strength, a bit more Speed.
The next down the list was Dark Dwarf. What about you, buddy?
Additional Ability: Free Miner.
Effect: +0.5% to chance to mine twice as many resources with one swing of the pick.
Additional Ability: Dark Vision.
Effect: +0.1% to chance to mine a higher-level resource in one swing of a pick.
He was followed by a regular dwarf with similar characteristics. Basically, the bulk of players seemed to prefer strong and slow guys. They apparently thought that speed had no use in underground mines. Others went for dwarves and Dark dwarves whose additional abilities offered resource bonuses.
I checked their contracts. They offered three types of payment: by the hour, by piecework and “extracted value“. Now what was that? Aha, I see. Same as the two above but it also took into consideration the resources' price. I might take piecework plus extracted value.
So where was I? Oh yes. A normal dwarf or a Dark one? I definitely wasn't going for the first two beefcakes. As far as I was concerned, too much muscle never solved a problem.
I repeated my search, adding Strength and Speed to the search characteristics. Same story. Oh well. I'd have to go for Dwarf, then. Why not? His characteristics were not bad. Also, as far as I remembered, these were underground dwellers, a race of mine diggers - at least if the game developers stuck to the traditional mythology.
I clicked Reset Settings. Wait a bit. What's that now?
I repeated my search. Indeed, the moment I filtered search results by popularity, I got 124 search results. But the moment I removed it, the search came back with 125 results. Same thing happened when I tried to filter the search results by Strength. Why? The search filter seemed to have overlooked a race. Was it a glitch? It shouldn't be. This was a big corporation.
So how was I supposed to find the missing race? Did they expect me to scroll through all the pages? No. There had to be a better way.
Then I figured it. I filtered the search results by page views. Got it. I entered 0 into the page view results and waited. There! But... was this a joke?
The picture of a puny little man appeared on the screen. He had a shaggy beard and unkempt hair. I gave him a closer look. His shoulders were narrow but his forearms were rather strong. All he needed was a sailor's uniform complete with hat and pipe to look like the epitome of a weathered seafarer.
His complexion was tinged gray; his eyes glared at me from under his bushy eyebrows. His hands were large. Actually... it all fit. What would that ten-foot monster of a Horrud do in a narrow low-ceilinged mine? Together with the other one, the Rock Rhoggh, he was destined to farm cheap ore. And both kinds of dwarves looked like sawn-off wardrobes with knee-long beards - way too broad around the beam to toil in narrow tunnels. Even if creatures like these had indeed existed, they must have looked different.
Never mind. No sense in me getting so wound up. So what's your name, buddy?
Okay. And how about his abilities?
Additional Ability: Shrewd Operator
Effect: +1% to your chance of raising skill level with every 20 resources farmed.
Additional Ability: Back Door to Success
Effect: +2% to your chance to raise the Shrewd Operator ability 1 level with every 100 resources farmed.
Did that mean that the second ability affected the first one? In other words, I'd only have one because they were interconnected. Crafting... what a shame I couldn't try it out.
I spent at least another hour reading up on the Ennan. As if it could change anything. I peered into his sullen face. “What do you say, buddy? Should we try it?”
He didn't say anything, just kept staring into space.
I gave it some more thought and calculation. Finally, I pressed Select.
You've chosen the profession of Mine Digger. Confirm: Yes/No.
You've chosen the race of Ennan. Confirm: Yes/No.
Enter the name by which you would like to be known in the game.
We're sorry. The name is already in use. Would you like to enter another name?
Good question. A small window popped up: Ennan Name Generator. Let's try it. I entered Oleg and cringed at the results. No good... definitely no; but this one might actually work. And this one? Olgerd...
Welcome, Olgerd! Well done!
Right. I pressed the bell. Time to get out of this contraption.
Zoriana reappeared after a few minutes. “Are you all right? I was worried. I was about to check on you myself.”
“You've been sitting here for nearly four hours!”
“No way! I thought it was thirty minutes at most.”
“Yeah right! And you haven't even started playing yet. This was only a test module. Now I would ask you to follow me.”
“What do you mean, I wasn't playing?”
She gave me a funny look, then turned round and headed for the exit. I shrugged and tagged along.
We came back to my brother's office. He sat there staring thoughtfully at the monitor. The silence was only disturbed by the quiet hum of the computer cooler and the clicking of a mouse.
I sat in front of him waiting. They were taking themselves too seriously here. No idea what all this hype around this Mirror World was about. If you asked me, this was just a flea circus. And a very expensive one at that.
My brother kept staring at my results. What was wrong? What could he see there?
“I see, said the blind man,” he rubbed his forehead.
“That's what Dad used to say. His favorite expression.”
“It was,” he agreed without taking his eyes from the monitor. “He couldn't just say ‘I see’, he absolutely had to add ‘said the blind man’. I got the habit from him.”
“Me too,” I said.
He smiled bitterly. “We have a lot in common, don't you think?”
I paused. “How's your Mom?”
“Sick. And yours?”
“She died seven years ago.”
We fell silent. The mouse kept clicking. The cooler switched off.
“All done,” Gleb finally looked up at me. “I've saved your escapades in our database. Where did you find him? I didn't even know this race existed.”
I shrugged. “Pure chance.”
“Never mind. Now it's only the checkup left to do and we can sign you up. That's tomorrow. Now you need to go and get some rest.”
“Just a few tests. It's obligatory. Government's requirement.”
“Is it so serious?”
“It is. There were certain problems just after the game's release,” he waved my silent question away. “It's nothing, really. That's it for today. I'll be expecting you tomorrow at nine a.m. Go and get some rest now.”
I struggled to my feet. “Thanks, man,” I offered him my hand.
“Don't mention it. I just hope it works out for you.”
I smiled and nodded, then headed for the door. Things got rolling.
I couldn't wait to share the news with my wife. All the way back to my rented apartment I imagined her eyes and her smile when she hears the news. I couldn't stop thinking about how it all was finally over. We'd be together. Sveta was bound to be happy for me and my brother getting to know each other. I was already forty; he thirty-five. We were grown-up people ourselves now. We had to understand that our parents had had their own agendas that had nothing to do with their children.
I couldn't wait till tomorrow. Time was an issue.
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