For my beloved wife
“You need to understand, Mr. Ivanenko, that our bank can't see you as a potential borrower,” the teller looked into my eyes, faking sympathy. A drop of sweat rolled down his fat clean-shaven cheek. The man stretched his plump pink lips in a buttery smile. His little white hand which never could have held anything heavier than a knife and fork kept tweaking the knot of his tie. Even when he clenched it occasionally, I couldn't see the knuckles of his plump fist.
“Why, have I ever missed a payment?”
My wife and I make sure we always have an emergency fund on our account at all times. We call it “the last cartridge“: we must have the money, come hell or high water. On the first of each month, the bank always gets its pound of flesh, whatever the circumstances.
“No, not at all!” he threw his chubby hands in the air. “I wish we had more clients as punctual as you are.”
“So what's the problem, then?” I touched the bridge of my nose, trying to rearrange the non-existent glasses.
Talk about the power of habit. The glasses had bitten the dust two weeks ago, when I’d fainted for the first time in my life. I wasn't taken ill, no. According to the doctor, this was exhaustion (as he’d put it). My nerves were in tatters. And what with the insomnia, no wonder I'd fainted. Plus I'd broken my glasses, which had been a shame indeed. Now I had to squint whenever I wanted to see anything. But I just couldn't afford a new pair. Every bit of money available had to go on my daughter's treatment.
“You need to understand,” the clerk continued. “Even if you had three lives, you'd never be able to pay back the kind of sum that you’re asking for plus what you already owe us. You’ve got nothing to remortgage anymore. You have no relatives who could act as guarantor. Your wages are below average. Your wife doesn't work, if you excuse my indiscretion-” this cute and cuddly individual promptly shut up, apparently reading something unkind in my glare. I heaved a sigh, trying to calm down, and looked aside.
Losing it now would be the worst thing to do. This loan was vital for us. For my daughter, rather.
It had all started with some heart murmurs she’d had. According to the doctor, it was perfectly normal in a three-year old. She’d grow out of it, he'd said. She hadn't. Christa was now six, and her heart - her second heart - wasn't doing too well. Her own had burned out within the first year.
To raise money for the surgery, we’d promptly sold our apartment and our country cottage. We'd had a quiet celebration away from prying eyes when we'd learned that there was a donor heart available. Others might judge us: having a donor heart meant that someone's child had just died. Those who never spent nights by their dying daughter's bedside will never understand me. I didn't care what they might think. All I cared was that Christa lived.
The surgery had been performed in Germany, by a team of expert surgeons working for a top clinic. The doctor had assured us that if the transplanted heart took, our girl would live happily ever after. Tearful with joy, we'd believed him. For a whole year our faith in his words had taken root in our own hearts. Christa's health had largely improved. She wasn't short of breath anymore. Her nails were now pink, not blue. My girl was strong. The doctors kept telling us that a young body like hers was bound to overcome the disease.
Then the troubles had returned.
Chronic rejection, we'd been told. Apparently, her blood was the problem.
They’d implanted my girl with a prosthetic heart complete with a twenty-five pound battery to be recharged every twelve hours. We'd been told this was the latest breakthrough in medicine. A temporary measure while they looked for a new donor heart. If ever they found one.
We'd been waiting for a week when Dr. Klaus came to see us. He'd told us we were on their “risk list“. In other words, they'd blacklisted us. Christa's body had rejected the very first donor heart, thus bringing her back to the bottom of the waiting list.
I remember the pain and tears in my wife's eyes silently asking, 'So this is the end, is it?' Mechanically her pale lips kept counting the number of extrasistoles of the prosthetic heart ticking loudly in my daughter's chest. They'd warned us that patients who'd undergone this kind of surgery were prone to psychopathological disorders. But in our case, Christa had taken the ticking and slight vibration in her chest all in her stride. She even joked that she had a “ticking heart bomb“. But Sveta - my wife - wasn't so strong. She'd check the battery and all the connectors every half-hour and almost stopped sleeping at night listening to the beat of the mechanical heart. Only when the first orderlies arrived early in the morning, would she doze off despite the sounds of the television, her hand still resting on her daughter's chest.
Dr. Klaus had finished his spiel, but he wasn't in a hurry to leave. We tensed up like two hyenas about to charge their prey. Was there hope after all? According to him, there was.
With his every word, my wife's brow cleared. Apparently, about a year ago a Japanese laboratory had succeeded in growing a functioning human heart. And more importantly, it had been successfully implanted in a patient here, in this particular clinic, by Dr. Klaus himself. The Japanese used the patient's own DNA which in our case was a perfect solution.
This had been a miracle - the one we so desperately needed. Dr. Klaus kept talking, describing the whole procedure. We listened to him, already visualizing our baby alive and healthy.
His mention of the expenses had brought us swiftly back to earth. Dr. Klaus had already contacted the Japanese. The whole process, from the initial “conception” stage until the realization of the grownup organ, took about two months, give or take a week. If you counted the cost of the procedure itself including the transportation and surgery plus the hospital bills and the unavoidable taxes, we were looking at two hundred fifty thousand dollars. That's with all the discounts offered, both by the Japanese and the clinic itself. When later I checked their price list, I discovered that they basically shared the profits. To grow a heart cost just a tad more than implanting it.
Had we been shocked by the price? Honestly, we hadn't. We were happy. When Dr. Klaus had tactfully left, giving us some time to consider his offer, we hugged and cried. At that moment, we hadn’t even thought where the money was going to come from. All we were thinking about was that our girl was going to live. Gone would be this piece of steel in her chest ticking like a time bomb. Gone would be the bed. Christa would have a proper human heart! She would live!
We'd signed the full board contract with the German clinic. They’d sent a DNA sample to the Japanese but they wanted an advance payment of fifty thousand dollars to proceed. They'd asked for seventy thousand first, but the Germans had helped us to bring it down. And once we transferred the money into the Japanese account, my girl's heart would start to grow.
I'd signed all the papers, kissed my family and took the first flight home. Hope gave me wings.
My wife Sveta had stayed on in the clinic. We had just enough money for three more weeks in the hospital. I had to hurry.
“Mr. Ivanenko!” the cuddly clerk gingerly touched my hand. “Are you all right?”
I startled. “What is it? Sorry...”
The clerk snatched his hand back in a very feminine gesture. “I thought you were unwell.”
“Well,” I said, peering at his name tag, “Mr. Antonov, you have no idea how unwell I am. Never mind.”
I slapped my knees and rose. “I suppose I'll be off, then.”
“Have a nice day,” he mumbled at my back.
As I walked out of his cubicle, my gaze was attracted to a colorful poster: smiling faces, medieval attire. I didn't read what it was about. I had other things to do.
I lingered on the bank’s doorstep, holding the door open for a portly lady, when I heard,
“Mr. Ivanenko! Please wait!”
Mr. Shantarsky, the bank’s manager, stood in the doorway of his office, smiling at me. An imposing face, a touch of gray at his temples, an expensive suit and good shoes. Everything about him told you that this forty-five-year-old man was perfectly happy.
I heaved a sigh. I really should go and speak to him. You never know. He might help.
Shantarsky swung his office door open wide, letting me in. “Do come in and take a seat.”
A gold watch clinked on his groomed hand as he gestured to a soft chair. “Would you like a coffee?”
“I'd rather have some water, thank you,” I said while my mind raced, coming up with suitable arguments for the forthcoming conversation.
He closed the door. “A coffee for me, please,” he addressed his secretary, “and some water for Mr. Ivanenko.”
I caught a whiff of his expensive aftershave as he walked around my chair and lowered his agile body into his seat. His vivid blue eyes stared at me with compassion.
I didn't for one second doubt he was sincere in his sympathy.
“I bet you're angry with me,” he smiled. “You probably already have a conspiracy theory about it. You must be thinking that I decided to get rid of you and sent a clerk to deal with you.”
“Why would I,” I waved his suggestion away. “The thought didn't even cross my mind. You're too busy. Nobody expects a bank manager to wait hand and foot on his every client.”
“I can if the client needs me,” he grinned. “In the West, apparently every client has access to the bank manager's office. No one would even dare object. We here still live in the Middle Ages.”
I smiled back. I couldn't agree more. I remembered a bank back in Dresden: I’d gone there to change some money and I was watching this old lady who’d walked into the reception like an icebreaker and headed directly for the manager's office without as much as a knock on the door. The manager had jumped up and begun fussing around her, offering her a chair. At the time, I’d thought she was their millionaire client but no, they’d explained to me later, she was a regular retired old lady like any other.
The door opened, letting in the secretary with a cup of coffee and a glass of water on a tray.
“Thank you,” Shantarsky said.
“Thanks,” I repeated, reaching for my glass.
“Actually,” Shantarsky went on, “back in Europe I've never seen a bank manager have his own secretary, let alone one who'd make him coffee.”
“Neither have I,” I agreed.
We paused, sampling our drinks, then continued our conversation.
“Back to what I just said,” Shantarsky continued, “I think I owe you an explanation. I've only just flown back from Munich an hour ago. I’ve only had time to take a shower and down a quick breakfast. I haven't even seen my family yet but went straight to the office. And there you were, just leaving. Had I not known about your problem, I wouldn't have stopped you.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate your concern.”
“We do care for our customers and their problems.”
There it was, the rush for all things Western rearing its ugly head. He was sitting here repeating stale catchphrases and referring to Western work ethics while I wasn't really sure how he'd have behaved in the above retired-lady scenario. I could see that now he was trying to force his own agendas on me. Most likely, she'd have never made it past his secretary. He was too used to the luxury of a personal assistant's services which he'd have never been entitled to had he really worked in the West. There, only top directors had personal assistants. I knew this from experience. I'd done my fair share of traveling and been to all sorts of offices, bank outlets included. Everybody needs an expert interpreter like myself. And here I was sitting opposite this small fry that felt entitled to his own secretary and unlimited supplies of coffee and brandy... enough.
What was wrong with me today? I really should watch my tongue now. None of this was any of my business. I had other objectives to take care of.
“Thank you,” I repeated. “I really appreciate it.”
Shantarsky nodded. “So you need a loan,” he said with a smug expression.
I nodded but said nothing. Straight from Munich, yeah right. Pull the other one. He'd been sitting in his office all along, following my conversation with the clerk. I just couldn't work out what he wanted from me. I was as poor as a church mouse. My houses had been sold, my money spent.
'I do indeed,” I finally said.
“My colleague has explained our situation to you, hasn't he?”
I nodded again. At some point, the tables had turned. Only a moment ago I was quite prepared to plead and beg. Now something had changed. He needed something from me.
The thought was relaxing. I had nothing he could take from me. It made me curious.
“I'm terribly sorry but we don't decide these things. We follow orders,” he pointed a meaningful finger at the ceiling.
“So nothing can be done?” I played along.
He shrugged. His cold blue eyes locked into mine. “If you had a guarantor...”
So that's what it was about! Come on, spit it out. “I'm afraid I've got no one who could stand guarantee. Apart from my wife, of course.”
“And your brother?”
At this point, I could see through his little scheme. “We don’t have much to do with each other.”
He was my brother in name alone. I'd been nine when Dad had left us. I’d only met his other son decades later. The meeting had been neither particularly warm nor cold - it had been bland. He was the one who'd found me. We'd met, seen each other and parted. Just before we left, he told me that Dad had died fifteen years ago. Before he died, he'd asked him to find and meet me. That was it, basically. I was curious though how they knew about Gleb. Then again, why should that have surprised me?
“What a shame,” Shantarsky chanted. “According to our information, your brother is doing very well. He has an apartment in the center of Moscow and a large country house. With him as guarantor, your loan is as good as settled.”
Something clicked in my head. My first impulse was to grab the phone and call him. Thank God I still had his number! He'd left it to me just in case. The solution was so simple!
Then I felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me. This just wasn't right. I smelled a rat there somewhere. Did they really take me for an idiot? Or did they think I was that desperate?
“I'm afraid it's not that simple. I'm sorry. I do appreciate your concern.”
He heaved a sigh and gave me a look of disappointment. Oh well. Sorry to have rained on your parade. But I still had to call my brother. He needed to know about this conversation.
He sprang from his chair making it clear our meeting was over. We shook hands and I headed for the exit - again.
I needed money. I needed it now. We had very little left, barely enough to keep Christa in the clinic for two more weeks. That was all we had left in our bank account. Then we still had to find the fifty thousand dollars for the advance payment to the Japanese. And even more money to pay for the clinic.
I staggered. Was I shaking? It didn't look as if anyone in the bank had noticed. Good. Sympathy was the last thing I needed now.
Call my brother. The thought filled my mind, drilling through it. That could be a way out. Surely he'd understand our situation. Of course he would. I wasn't asking him to gift it to us. I'd work to pay it back. All of it, interest included. I'd work my butt off for him.
As I stepped out, my eye fell on the familiar poster with its medieval costumes and happy smiles. I slowed down. I decided I might as well check it out.
I reached into my pocket for my broken glasses. Only one glass had survived my fall even though it had cracked in the process. Had someone told me ten years ago that I wouldn't be able to afford a new pair of glasses! Having said that, of course I could. But I didn't want to. I could do without them. Every cent we spent was shrinking Christa's time in the clinic.
So, what did we have here?
The virtual lands of Mirror World await you!
Live out your most secret dreams in our world of Sword and Sorcery!
Become a Great Wizard or a Famous Warrior!
Build your own castle! Tame a dragon! Conquer a kingdom!
All those desperate, lonely and insecure - Mirror World offers you a chance!
There you can start to-
I didn't read any further. What a lot of bull. Strange that the bank was hung with these ridiculous offers. Strange? Wait a second...
Normally, all such glamorous offers have strings attached. The said strings are usually denoted in a very fine inconspicuous script, like Times New Roman. Let's see...
Ah, there it was:
Industrial Mega Bank offers consumer loans to finance your work and account upgrade in the Mirror World virtual game.
What did they mean by “loans to finance work?” Logically, the game probably needed programmers and web designers. Would they be interested in interpreters, I wonder? Actually... what was the point? So they might offer me work for a wage, then what? I needed an enormous amount of money and I needed it now. The money left from the sale of our apartment and country house was dwindling rapidly.
Never mind. First things first. I had to talk to my brother, and then we'd see. I could use a well-paid job anyway. Asking for a loan was one thing, but then I'd have to pay it back somehow.
If the truth were known, for my daughter's sake I'd be happy to sell myself into slavery. Then again, who would need a nerd slave like myself? I'd pop my clogs the next day in hard labor.
I walked out into the street and took in a lungful of fresh air. Then I took out my cell and scrolled through my contacts for Brother.
The phone was ringing. That was a good sign: the number was still in use.
“Hi,” Gleb's voice was as strong and confident as I remembered it.
“Hi. How d'you know it's me?”
“Easy,” he chuckled. “I've got your number listed as Brother.”
“I suppose I should be happy to hear it,” I said with a bitter smile.
“That's up to you.”
“I've got you listed as Brother too.”
“Do you really?”
“I watched you enter my number into your phone that day.”
I paused and took a deep breath before speaking.
He beat me to it. “You have problems?”
“You can say that.”
“Are you in town?”
“Got something to jot my address down on?”
I got there in no time. In fact, I'd splurged on a taxi. My inner money counter was spinning, deleting minutes from my daughter's hospital stay.
Finding my brother's workplace proved almost too easy, for me at least, despite my failing eyesight. You had to be blind not to notice the familiar medieval fonts.
The sign on the front door read,
Mirror World. Terminal #17
The door was flanked by announcements identical to those in the bank, only these were the size of a movie poster.
I stopped at the reception to explain my business to a security guard. He made a phone call, received a confirmation over an intercom and let me through with a detailed explanation of where to go exactly.
I took the elevator to the fifth floor and looked for #105. The total absence of any signs or directions puzzled me. Only numbers. Then again, what did I care?
Gleb rose from his desk. We shook hands. His palm was dry and warm. And strong, just like Dad's. When I was little, neighbors used to recall how he'd bent nails with his bare hands just for fun. I was pretty sure Gleb could do so too. Me, I took after Mom: both in build and in mental abilities.
“You don't look well.”
He stared at me, his steely gray eyes unblinking. His face was big and rough. Broad shoulders. Not an ounce of fat anywhere.
“Thanks,” I mechanically touched the bridge of my nose, readjusting the non-existent glasses. “You really took after Dad.”
“I know,” he said, pointing at a soft chair. “Go ahead, spit it out.”
He was never one to mince words.
I began tactically. I told him about my conversation in the bank, mentioning the bank manager's knowledge of his financial situation and his suggestion to involve him as a guarantor. In doing so, I was steering him toward the only question he was bound to ask. Which he promptly did.
“I'll look into it. What do you need the money for?”
I'd rehearsed my spiel several times on my way there and until now, everything had gone as I’d planned. I gave him a brief run-down of Christa's situation: her heart, Germany, the Japanese, her life...
When I stopped speaking, Gleb sat thoughtful, staring out of the window. Finally, he seemed to have come to a decision. He turned to me. “I don't think I can be your guarantor.”
It took all of my self-control not to crumble. Never mind. I'd have to find another way.
“But,” he interrupted my train of thought, “I can get you a job.”
I sighed. “Thanks. God knows I need one. But to be brutally honest, this advance payment is much more important.”
“You don't understand,” he interrupted me. “I'll help you get a job here in Mirror World and I'll pay for your account.”
“You wait. Just listen. The moment Shantarsky finds out you work here in the Glasshouse - that's our insider slang for Mirror World - he'll give you the loan. Maybe not all of it but I'm sure he'll give you thirty thousand at least.”
“You did say you still had something in the bank, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “Seven thousand two hundred twenty-three dollars and thirty-four cents.”
“Love it! Add to it the thirty thousand the bank will give you. I'll top it up. Plus I'll pay for your account which is another twenty grand.”
I whistled in amazement.
“That's including my discount as a company worker,” he explained. “The standard Daily Grind package costs twenty-five grand.”
“That's why all the banks are promoting it like crazy!” I said. “Question is, is it really worth it?”
“What do you think? Why would your bank collect all that intel on me?”
“So you're in it too?”
“How does it work?”
He rubbed his chin. “Imagine a virtual world inhabited by a multitude of races, where every character is a living person. The immersion is so realistic you risk forgetting your real life. Imagine if you used to be a hen-pecked bookkeeper, and here in the Glasshouse you become the best swordsman in the whole kingdom. You choose your own build and appearance. Once a nerd and a loser, you're now handsome and rich, one of the best warriors, enjoying both property and the attentions of the opposite sex. The only problem is the cost of the account itself - but as you probably understand, some spoiled daddy’s boy has no problem with that. And as for a regular Tom, Dick or Harry whose thirty-day trial period is about to expire, where would he go? He'd go cap in hand to the bank. He's already an addict, see, dreading to lose what he's gained.”
“Not really. A money-making machine, yes. We're talking billions here.”
“I see. But what about a job?”
“That's not a problem. The game developers have thought of everything. In the game, everything is just as complex as it is in real life. Imagine for a second that you're a spoilt rich kid buying yourself an account. For you it's peanuts. So you've created a super warrior char for yourself. You buy a castle for him and some land. Rich people keep investing in the game all the time, by the way. The developers even had to introduce a monthly payment limit in order to prevent inflation. So your character keeps growing but you can't level him up properly without, say, improving your reputations. Lots of them there, as you can imagine. In order to improve a reputation, you need to complete certain quests which in a hundred percent of cases suggest collecting some resources or crafting something. Besides, this is still a world, however virtual, so its streets need sweeping, its plants need watering, and so on and so forth. Because if your castle or town is dirty and unkempt, it'll begin losing its reputation and with it, a certain number of bonuses. Lots of bonuses there, by the way. It's enough to make your head go round. So do you really think that this spoilt rich kid would buy himself an account just to become a stable hand or a street sweeper? No, what he does he hires other players to do his dirty work for him and pays them in the in-game currency which can be exchanged for real-world money. At the moment, the exchange rate is 1:1. That is to say, one gold piece is worth one dollar. Every bank in the world will accept it.”
I paused, digesting it all. “What other accounts are there?”
“There're also Bronze, Silver and Gold ones.”
“What's the difference, then?”
“The price, the plan, the initial configuration, lots of things.”
“Can you please explain?”
“All right, there's the Bronze plan. It costs fifty grand. The initial configuration includes a basic set of gear. Access to the game from public modules. In other words, you start as a pauper. Silver costs a hundred and fifty grand. They'll install your personal virtual class B module in your home. You'll have the right to choose your own seigneur. Then there's Gold. Half a million bucks for the rich and famous. It offers all sorts of bonuses and freebies, including your own plot of land. Its size can be upgraded for an extra charge.”
“This is crazy,” I repeated, dumbfounded. “Very well, so what about this Daily Grind account?”
“Daily Grind is a zero-level account. The player can't kill anyone but he can't die, either. He's technically immortal. This type of account is created for work alone. The plan includes the profession itself, some tools and a free access to public modules. Or rather, it's the char's employer who pays for all that, allowing his employee to work on his territory without a care in the world. If it's a mine or a corn field, then they should already be mopped up, free from any potential mobs. Oh, and another important thing. The char's level of Craftsmanship keeps growing regardless of his level.”
“How does that differ from Bronze?”
“Like all other regular players, they have to wait till they make level 10 to choose a profession. They'll have to pay for their choice and for the toolkit, too. And their level of Craftsmanship is directly linked to their own level.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, the game has a multitude of resources of every level, from zero to relic.”
“I see. A level-10 player can't farm a relic resource.”
“Exactly. I'll tell you more: even a level-200 player can't do so.”
“And what's the top?”
“At the moment, there's nobody in the game above level 300. The top player is level 285, I think. His name is Romulus from the Steel Shirts clan. They're known as SS to common players.”
“But you don't really need to know that. You just do your work and that's it.”
He glanced at his watch. “Let's do it this way. I'll take you to my assistant now. She'll show you exactly how it works. It's her job, anyway. I mean, she can do it much better than I can. I'm afraid I'm a bit pressed for time. Agreed?”
I nodded. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
For the first time, he gave me a warm smile. “It's all right. We're brothers, aren't we?”
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