The checkup was a joke. I received the once-over from a “doctor” and had to fill in a few questionnaires. Then I was taken to a gym where I was fitted up with sensors and instructed to lift weights, run and do sit-ups. I even managed to do six pull-ups. Zariana watched my exploits closely, marking something down in her notebook.
Finally they released me. It took them an hour to calculate the results. Gleb entered the office, beaming from ear to ear. What was he celebrating? Then again, he was probably just happy for his brother.
“You got twenty-five points! Not bad at all. I've seen fitter people never make twenty. That’s what I call letting your head do the work!”
“Why, does it matter?”
“Well, for one, had you failed to make fifteen points, you'd have been disqualified.”
“Wow. Why didn't you tell me so?”
“I couldn't. We have very strict rules about that. The fine print. Spontaneous testing. But it doesn't matter. Everything's fine. I was sure you'd make it.”
“Me too, sort of. And secondly?”
“Secondly, the developers have a rule. The test points are a bonus added to the players' main characteristics. Now when you log in, apart from the standard initiation package, you'll also have these twenty-fine points. It's up to you how you're going to distribute them.”
I shrugged. What did he expect me to say? I didn't have the slightest idea what I was getting into. Sveta had told me she'd seen their ads on TV. The thing looked legit. Then again, gone were the days when you could actually believe what they said on TV. Or should I say, you could never believe it.
“Once you get to the Glasshouse, you'll wish you'd earned more points. Everyone does. They even joke about it. One thing I can tell you, you can never have too many bonus points.”
Again I shrugged.
“Very well,” he said, “let's get on with it. Your account is halfway complete. All you need to do now is confirm your settings, and off you go. Next thing. The actual hiring, the signing of the contract and the distribution of tools take place in Mirror World. Here we can't influence your decision. One word of advice. Keep an eye on the in-game news. Try to deal only with established players. Find a way to join a strong clan or guild. The first day is crucial. Today you'll be logging in from here. Next time you'll already be using your employer's module. Your objective is to land a work contract in Mirror World. The longer its term, the bigger loan they'll offer you. And one last thing. Don't overexert yourself. The human mind is an unpredictable and poorly studied piece of gear. Everything you do in the game affects your body. That’s just the way it works. Remember the other thing Dad used to say?”
“A sound mind in a sound body?”
“Exactly. Only here it's the other way round, sort of. As long as your mind is sound, so is your body. You'll see what I mean. Good luck.”
The JT class module resembled a horizontal sunbed. I faltered. I had this funny feeling... it looked too much like a coffin.
“Are you okay?”
A young guy of about twenty-five looked at me sympathetically. I lowered my eyes at his name tag, squinting.
Andrew. Module unit controller
“I'm fine, thanks,” I said. “Just a bit dizzy.”
He smiled. “It's all right. It happens. People do get last-moment jitters. And then you just can't pull them out by their ears. Please remove your clothes and take your place.”
I did as he asked of me. The warm gelatinous bed enfolded over my body. It felt like lying in plum jelly.
“Please don't move.”
I froze. Andrei crowned my head with a complex-looking device. “Close your eyes.”
I did as I was told.
“I'm going to count to ten. One. Two. Three. Four. Five...”
His voice began to distance.
Now I had to strain my ears to hear him.
Silence fell, boundless and perfect. Had I just died? I was enveloped in pitch darkness. No, I couldn't have been. My thinking was perfectly clear. I tried to speak but I couldn't. I tried to turn my head after a fashion. It felt as if my body was gone.
My glance chanced on a tiny white spot. I focused. It kept growing. Now it was the size of a tennis ball... a saucer... looming ever closer until it had grown to the size of a window.
Light consumed me.
The sound of falling water assaulted my eardrums. A fresh breeze touched my face, mixed with a veil of moisture. My body convulsed. I sensed a few pebbles under my open hand. All of a sudden I could feel them throughout my entire body.
I pushed away from the ground and sat up. “Jesus Christ almighty!”
Somehow they had magically transported me from their labs to this beautiful waterfall. I felt the warm rocks. My hand then brushed over some shrubs growing in a crevice in the cliff. This was a hundred percent real. Impossible!
I took in a deep breath. The air was sweet. Trees rustled in the wind. I could hear birds chirruping. The waterfall rumbled away.
“I must be going mad!”
Confounding me even more, a 3D sign appeared before my eyes. I startled. The letters faded, then filled again with color.
Welcome to Mirror World, Olgerd!
In order to enjoy the world in its entirety, please complete your account registration.
Would you like to complete your account registration now?
I focused on Yes.
Congratulations! Registration complete!
You have 15 points available!
You have 25 bonus points available!
This would have to wait. I wasn't in a hurry. I tried to get up and failed.
You cannot move.
Ah, so that's how it worked, then. I invested one point into each. My body began to obey me albeit reluctantly as if in slow motion.
I added another point to speed. Much better, but still too slow. Two more. Excellent. It wasn’t as if I needed to run around here. I tried to walk about for a bit. It felt okay.
Now Strength. I picked up a rock small enough to close my hand around it. Good. How about this one the size of my head? As if! But my trade as mine digger called for some serious weight lifting.
I added one point to Strength. I still couldn't lift the bigger rock. Another one. Yes! Perfect.
From what I'd read the day before, I had to go easy on points. If I wanted to bring a characteristic back to zero, I was going to lose half the points I'd invested in it. So I had to give it a good think. Just imagine how many points I'd have had to invest in Cave Horrud, with his bulk? And here I'd gotten away with only a few.
So, what did we have here?
Strength: 3 pt.
Speed: 4 pt.
I had 33 points left. Not bad.
I walked over to the water and peered at my reflection. An Ennan stared back at me. He had my face and body build by default - I made sure not to change the settings. So there we were! As large as life and twice as ugly!
I touched the water. It was cool, the kind you'd expect water to be in the mountains. How did they do it? Was it my mind with its knowledge of what water should be like affecting my perception? Or was it some different mechanism entirely?
I had a good eyeful of the new me. Then I checked the map. It offered a helpful view of all the nearby settlements. The largest of them, Leuton City, was about two miles away. So that’s where I decided to go.
I marched away: first along a trail winding around cliffs, and then through a forest, turning my head this way and that like a five-year-old boy on his first trip out of town. The area was admittedly impressive. Giant ancient trees loomed overhead, threatening to squash me with their bulk. The numerous meadows were crowded with flowers of every color of the rainbow. This riot of color was astounding. And even more astounding was the world’s authenticity.
After some ten minutes, I began to feel fatigued. My breathing became labored. My legs grew heavy. I had a splitting headache. It felt as if I’d just single-handedly unloaded a truckful of bricks. Something was going wrong.
Aha! I saw it:
Basically, a ten-minute walk had just consumed almost all of my energy. Not good.
I perched on a large fallen tree covered in thick moss. Time to look into this. Where was it now... here!
Effect: each point gives +20 to Energy
Let’s do some math. Ten minutes of brisk walking equaled 35 Energy. So! Apparently, in this world walking was a luxury.
I splurged three points on Stamina. Which gave me,
Wow! Twelve already? I’d had five only a moment ago! I could breathe easier now, even though my legs were still heavy. Which meant that sitting still restored your Energy. Finally some good news. Never mind, I’d apparently have to travel in stops and starts. Yes, it would take me some time. But I couldn’t help it.
And that’s how I continued on my way: the moment I started feeling tired, I immediately found myself a nice comfortable spot to rehabilitate.
When I was crossing a large field, a colorful cavalcade of riders in shiny armor caught up with me. I’d just sat down to recuperate. No idea what prompted them to stop. Could be either my unkempt looks or the silent amazement in my stare. Whatever.
The enormous head of a black horse hovered over me, glaring at me with its evil eye, quite prepared to trample me. The smiling face of a perfectly beautiful young girl beamed at me from behind the horse’s back. Emerald eyes, golden locks, a full bosom, a rod-straight back and a perfectly shaped body.
“Greetings, O wanderer!” she had a musical voice, strong and cheerful.
“You shaggy dog! You should bow when you see a lady!”
Another horse soared over me. Its rider looked utterly awesome in his head-to-toe armor.
“Please don’t, Sir Gregor,” the girl’s voice chimed again. “Can’t you see he’s a newbie? Aren’t you?”
She seemed to be addressing me. “I am. You’re absolutely right.”
“I am, my lady!” the man snapped at me. “Then bow as low as you can, peasant!”
The bully’s horse seemed about to crush me like a walnut. “Young man,” I addressed the rider, “how dare you talk to me like that!”
His black eyes turned into slits. “Oh, I dare!” his steel-clad hand reached for his sword.
“Gregor! Please don’t!” the musical voice assaulted my eardrums.
“Only for you, Lady Isa,” the bully lost all interest in me and nudged his horse forward, covering me with a thick cloud of dust. I burst out coughing.
“Thank you, my lady,” I said, trying out new forms of speech. “It’s my first day today.”
“We’ve all had our first day here,” she flashed me a winning smile. “I can see you’re all empty. Hey, Aragorn!”
Another rider approached. His armor was different from a knight’s traditional suit. Navy blue, it was covered in some fancy script. Beautiful.
“Yes, my lady,” Aragorn lowered his head.
“Please help this poor soul,” Lady Isa made a cute face.
The dark knight smiled. Silently he reached his hand out to me.
The entire cavalcade raced off, leaving me to choke in the filthy dust.
I began cleaning myself up. It took me some time to notice a system message that had apparently been there for some time,
You’ve received a blessing: Dark Hand.
Effect: +10 to Energy every 30 seconds.
Duration: 2 hrs.
I stood there blinking like an idiot, watching my Energy bar approach the 100% mark.
“So, noob, are you sufficiently impressed?” someone growled behind my back.
I swung round. A Cave Horrud in the flesh stood not five paces away from me. He was at least ten foot tall. Powerful muscles rippled under his thick grey hide. I’d seen a rhino in a Madrid zoo once: that’s the kind of hide he had.
Most of all he resembled a large chunk of rockfall.
The Horrud grinned, exposing his crooked fangs. “Enjoying the view?”
I gulped. Looking at computer pictures while wearing that stupid bucket on my head was one thing. Encountering this monster IRL was quite another.
“Cat got your tongue?”
“Eh, sor-sorry,” I mumbled.
“Look at this noob,” he growled, baring his teeth. “Never seen a Horrud before?”
“Only in pictures in the test module,” I admitted.
“Is this your first day in the Glasshouse, then?”
“My first hour, more like.”
“Aha, that’s what it is! I see. A Daily Grinder. A fellow mine digger! Er... an Ennan? What the hell is that?”
“How d’you know all this?” I asked him.
“Jesus,” the Horrud shook his head. “You are a noob, aren’t you? Focus on the space just above my head.”
Race: Cave Horrud
Account type: Daily Grind
Profession: Mine Digger
Skill level: 9
“How interesting,” I said pensively.
“Nice to meet you, Olgerd,” he roared.
“Nice to meet you too, Gr... Grrych...”
Preorder ProjectDaily Grind (Mirror World Book #1) now!
The full novel will be available on Amazon Kindle on March 30 2016.
special bonus art-cake from Marina Osadchuk-Shostenko