Countdown (Reality Benders, Book #1)
But as we learn to play this mysterious game, the countdown timer is ticking away. And no one can say exactly what will happen when Earth’s safety is no longer guaranteed.
At long last, an extraterrestrial civilization reached out and the First Contact was made. No one on Earth took it for the genuine article, though. Even fewer appreciated just how little time our new suzerains had promised to keep our planet safe. But the end of their address showed humankind how to access a mysterious game. The purpose of this game is unclear. No one can say where its servers are located, and its inner workings are beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, the game slowly gained momentum, pulling in more and more players. Soon enough, it became impossible to ignore that events in the game had a direct impact on our reality. And not only ours...
But as we learn to play this mysterious game, the countdown timer is ticking away. And no one can say exactly what will happen when Earth’s safety is no longer guaranteed.
Introduction. First Contact
How many ways have writers, astronomers, philosophers and military theorists imagined humanity's first contact with a celestial intelligence? Earth’s observatories receiving intelligible signals from deep space? What about the discovery of interstellar artifacts or even living aliens when excavating ancient burial mounds or pyramids? And the appearance of ominous extraterrestrial starships over our major cities? Heavenly bodies falling to Earth, UFO's crashing? Meeting brothers in intelligence on far-off planets? Invasion? War? The extinction of everything alive...?
But when it really happened, it looked like a stupid joke, hoax or intrusive advertisement, so humanity didn’t believe it was the real First Contact. One day, a popup window appeared on many popular websites, blocking off the whole screen. Despite every computer user’s habitual and instant reaction, it was impossible to close. It played a video showing a furry humanoid that was somehow distantly reminiscent of the abominable snowman, but with thick dark-red fur. The tall bipedal alien had piercing black eyes, a flat dark nose and a wide mouth. Its clothing was somewhere between a suit of armor and a helmetless spacesuit. The first thing it did was raise a clawed hand and give a friendly wave to its captive audience. With a very strong accent, the humanoid gave a speech adapted to the language of the receiving country:
"People of Earth, by right of first discovery, the civilization of Shiharsa declares its authority and jurisdiction over your planet. We will provide one Tong of safety to your world, but the fate of humanity depends exclusively on what you do with that time. You have now made sufficient progress as a species, and may take part in the great game, the game that bends reality. So, come play and earn the right to take your place among the great spacefaring races!”
That was followed by strange diagrams and blueprints, then the fifty-second clip ended, and the popup window closed all on its own. You surely understand that only stupid people would believe such a primitive and artless sham. Even the most gullible viewers thought it was just an actor in a hairy suit delivering a clumsy advertisement for some new computer game.
But some naive individuals had questions. Television studios invited experts to inspect the “blueprints” from the ad, and they all came to the unanimous conclusion that even the most surface-level examination revealed them to be pure gobbledygook. The technology depicted, they assured us, didn’t even have a power hookup, so it could not work even in theory.
Interest in the video of the furry alien didn’t last long. The ad kept coming though. Eventually, when yet another movie, news site, or sports broadcast was interrupted by the obnoxious popup, no one cared what it was for, and just got mad. Unhappy internet users the world over installed pop-up blockers and wrote all kinds of complaints to the tech support services of affected sites.
The authorities tried to combat the viral ad and threatened grave consequences to the mysterious hackers who’d played this stupid practical joke. Sys admins learned to quickly block the bothersome video. Data-security specialists tried to determine its source, but it was skillfully masked. They all assured us, though, that they would soon pick up the trail of these impudent scofflaws. And although they were never tracked down, after just a few weeks, the ads stopped coming and the whole earth breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Thus, the greatest event in human history, settling an age-old dispute about extraterrestrial intelligence, came and went as a chaotic flop. Sure, lots of people noticed it, but practically none of them realized what it was.
There were lone enthusiasts, though, who wanted to find out more about “the game that bends reality.” Despite the expert testimony calling the designs absurd, these stubborn weirdos believed they had seen a miracle and some even built the device depicted in the blueprints...
Chapter One. Online Tournament
Yes, we knew it was risky and illegal. We understood perfectly that we’d be booted out of university and fly home with a whistle, if it was discovered that we were hosting these for-profit online gaming tournaments. And especially if they found our gambling software. Nevertheless, we took the risk. Why? Hard to say. At first, it was easy to understand. My roommates and I organized the very first tournaments from our dorm and purely for money. After all, we were borderline-poor university students. But, after we'd earned some cash, we simply couldn’t stop ourselves. By then, money no longer played the biggest role. Adrenaline, the thrill of the game, respect among our classmates and popularity with girls were motivation enough.
We understood perfectly that, as the scale of the tournaments grew, more and more people would find out what we were up to. That would make it harder and harder to hide it from our teachers, the police and university security. All the tricks we used to maintain the anonymity of the players and organizers were primitive. Eventually, serious information-security professionals would investigate, and the jig would be up. We were keenly aware of that. More and more often, my friends and I would say it was time to close up shop or say that the next online tournament would be the last. But that was always followed by another one, then another and another...
This time, our grand PvP tournament had attracted students from every dorm in Moscow. It had begun midday on Saturday and was still underway now, at five o’clock in the morning on Monday. Out of eight hundred players initially, just thirty-two had filtered through the qualifying matches. And I was among them. Yes, unlike my roommates, who handled the servers, encryption software and bookkeeping, I often took part in the online battles. And, a decent chunk of the time, I even won, earning the sizable monetary prizes.
And I never used any “immortality mods,” cheat codes or other unfair methods. All I needed was my powerful computer with a top-of-the-line graphics card and good processors, fast ping, knowledge of game maps and weapons and, most importantly, nimble fingers. I always used different pseudonyms and was sure none of the usual players had guessed that the same person had won many of the recent tournaments.
And now, I was playing. With the virtual reality helmet on my head, and my fingers on the buttons of the ergonomic glove controller, I was totally immersed. To me, the outside world just didn't exist...
I was running up a steep spiral staircase to the third and highest floor of a luxurious palace. I stopped to catch my breath. Endurance practically at zero, my thick column legs were shaking, and my sides were puffing out like a smith's bellows. I rasped heavily and opened my mouth like a fish out of water. There was just not enough air. How hard it was to be a giant!
I spontaneously chose an Ogre Fighter just a minute before the start of the final match. The randomly selected map was a medieval castle with huge gloomy rooms, narrow passageways and steep staircases. That would be very disadvantageous for the Drow Archer I'd played in the earlier stages so, at the very last moment, I changed it up.
I had never played such a large character before, and the inconvenience of this heavy body came as an unpleasant surprise. My six-hundred-fifty-pound Ogre was unable to run or clamber up drainpipes. Even a steep stairway was a serious obstacle, eating up all my endurance. Also, there was nearly a second of delay between inputting a command and the character reacting, which was particularly hard to get used to.
That inertia nearly cost me my life in a recent scuffle with a crafty Human Assassin, who had easily dodged the blows of my huge two-handed pole-ax. I had to take an unusual tact – I wound up to swing my weapon but, instead of striking, I splayed my arms and jumped forward. That knocked the crouching man off his feet and I luckily managed to pin my agile opponent to the floor. The main advantage of the Assassin class was mobility, and I’d deprived him of that. So, I finished him off easily, just twisting his neck with my bare hands. That assassin was my fourth frag in the final, so I had just thirty-seven percent life remaining. Too little to win. A critical situation.
While my endurance dawdled back up, I opened the leaderboard. After nearly an hour of gameplay, just four of thirty-two players remained: my Ogre, a Human Spearman, an Elf Archer and another unknown character. Since no players had managed to spot them yet, their race and class were listed as a question mark. And meanwhile, this unknown person had racked up three kills. Pretty cool. Must have been some kind of invisible stealth character, attacking people from behind while cloaked.
An alarm rang out, informing me that the tournament would be over in five minutes. I needed to hurry. I opened the map. There was a long straight corridor behind the closed door in front of me. If I were playing an elf archer, I would be keeping watch for my opponents there, shooting them down from afar. A very convenient place. I needed to keep that in mind.
Loudly throwing open the doors, I made a decisive step forward, then took a sharp jump back. And right then, a long arrow with red fletching slammed into the doorframe at the level of my head! I was not wrong. The Elf Archer had hidden exactly where I supposed. Not wasting a second, I ran forward, giving a terrifying savage roar. A loud shout could sometimes cause enemies to freeze in confusion and fear, which was a real boon. The effect was only increased coming from a huge man-eating giant.
Even the greenest amateur can understand that one arrow to the chest will not stop a massive killing machine. Where was a feeble archer to aim? Obviously, for the head, which would do increased damage. So, just as the elf loosed her bowstring, I blocked my face with the broad blade of my pole-ax.
Clink! I got lucky. The arrow ricocheted aside, and my weapon gave a shudder. Dumb move! She should have shot at my legs and slowed me down. Then she could get a couple more shots off. But the pointy-eared Elf was acting too predictably. After that failure, she lost courage. Staying in place, she loosed another arrow, then tried to run away. But it was too late! I hacked diagonally down from the right, and the pretty long-eared girl's head rolled along the stones, lopped off by my heavy pole-ax. A fifth frag! And without losing any health!
I stopped and opened the map again. There wasn't much time left. Where could I find two more enemies? Just then, as if answering my question, a distinct yelp sounded out twenty steps in front of me, behind another door. Another enemy down. I wonder who died this time? I opened the player table. The name of the Human Spearman went dim, then the number opposite my last remaining rival flipped to a four. And again, the victim didn't manage to see his killer. Skillful bastard, no two ways about it...
In the upper right corner of the screen, the timer was ticking away, telling me there were just two minutes until the end of the match. If several players survived to the end, a rematch would trigger, and the eight best cyber-athletes of the final would meet again on the same map. Oh, please not that. After the prolonged gaming marathon, I could barely think as it was. What was more, I had an important test in third period today, which I wanted to study for then, ideally, get a little sleep. Well, forward! Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Throwing the door open, I quickly leapt back, repeating the trick I used on the Archer. But no one attacked me. Strange. Somewhat calmer, I looked around. The gloomy little room was strewn with furniture. It had two exits, one to the left and one to the right, but they both led to the same semi-circular ivy-covered balcony. There was also a round hatch in the ceiling and a rope ladder hanging down. Perhaps the mysterious stealth character was up there. But most likely, my opponent was still somewhere in this small darkened room, hiding in invisibility and waiting for me to slip up. Now, my mission was to discover them without exposing my vulnerable back. Many game classes could land a critical hit by stabbing a rival in the back, and that meant increased damage.
I cut the rope ladder down, then made a crisscross in the air with my pole-ax and abruptly led the blade along the floor a few times. Nothing. Either my enemy was skilled enough to dodge silently (which was hard to believe), or just wasn't here. But then, where were they? Waiting up above? Hardly. After all, they probably also wanted to end this here and now, not play a rematch. Could they really be waiting for me on a sunny balcony? Come on, that was nonsense. Why would a stealth character come out of the shadows?
I looked around again. There was simply nowhere to hide in this small room. Shelves, a little table, an open cabinet with crooked doors. Cutting through space with my weapon again, I convinced myself that my opponent was not here. Another alarm screeched out. Just one minute left in the final. So, I needed to make up my mind. Should I go out onto the balcony through the right door, or the left? My rival must have been waiting for me behind one of these doors. They were probably sitting in invisibility and me agonize right now. Luck of the draw. Would I manage to come face-to-face with my opponent and kill with my advantage in strength, or would I make the wrong choice, get stabbed in the back and lose?
With a heavy sigh, I made my decision and... with all my might, spending all my endurance, I slashed the cabinet with my pole-ax!
My heavy weapon cut into something soft. Bingo! Instead of boards and splinters, blood spattered, and a cloven body fell to the floor. A Shapeshifter. This class sat in waiting to attack an unsuspecting victim from behind, usually killing them in one blow. They were used very rarely in online tournaments because they moved slowly, had to be right next to their victims, and would be absolutely helpless if the first blow didn’t kill. Unexpected choice, but I had to admit that it had very nearly brought them victory.
“Hell yeah! Did you see that?!” I shouted joyfully to my roommates, removing my virtual-reality helmet.
My dorm room was full of people wearing the dappled gray uniforms of the Moscow Police Department. My friends were pinned to the floor, their wrists cuffed behind their backs.
“Yes, we saw,” chuckled a mustached man holding a snub-nose machine gun. He looked to be in charge here. “How ‘bout you make like your friends and get on the floor, spread your legs and put your hands behind your back. Don’t make me repeat myself, champ.”
Chapter Two. Expelled
“Am I gonna be expelled?” I asked when the important investigator finally found the time to interrogate me.
“What do you think?” the middle-aged mustached officer answered with a question. Based on his shoulder loops, he was a captain. He skimmed a stack of papers on the table and signed a few of them. “It would have been just fine if you and your little friends were only playing computer games instead of studying at the best university in the country. Can’t say I’d approve, but at least I could understand. But you just had to let people make bets! So, there’s nothing I can do here. Russian Federation Criminal Code article 171.2 item 2. Up to four years in penal custody. Kirill, you really did step in it.”
I shuddered, then nodded stupidly. Of course, I already knew this, because I had looked last year to see where our illegal enterprise might land us. Four years in prison... I groaned and shuddered, trying to gather my scattered thoughts. I was so exhausted and panicked that my head was working very slowly. Before this, I had spent three unpleasant hours on a bench in lockup at the local police department. My cellmates were a group unbearably stinking bums, who had also shit themselves. I did everything in my power to stay away from them and not sleep, but I did drift off eventually. A little while later, I was shoved awake by a police sergeant, and he led me down the hallway into this office. I was told he was an investigator, but he didn’t ask me any questions, just confirmed my first and last name and the short biography in my personal file.
And I answered his questions eagerly. Yes, I am Kirill Viktorovich Ignatiev, twenty years of age. A native of the small town of Suzdal in the Vladimir Oblast. No brothers or sisters. I don’t remember my mother. I wasn’t even four when she died. But my father died relatively recently. It hadn’t even been three years. He was a geologist, and his group happened upon some illegal gold miners in Eastern Siberia, who didn’t want any witnesses to their criminal enterprise. After that, I stayed in Suzdal with my aunt, finished high school and was admitted to the Geology Department of Moscow State University.
The investigator listened attentively, marking something in his papers. Then it was as if he forgot I existed. He turned on his computer and searched for a long time, scanning through screens of text.
“And where are my roommates?” I asked just to break the prolonged silence.
The officer finally tore his gaze from the screen, set the ball-point pen on the stack of papers and looked attentively at me.
“Those two losers? For now, they’re being held in a cell and not told what will happen to them. It's the usual procedure. We’re we’re trying to make them nervous and fill their heads with horror stories. And tomorrow or the day after, when they're morally prepared, we’ll offer them a simple choice: either go to court for the illegal gambling software, or voluntarily join the army. Your sidekicks haven’t finished their mandatory reserve-officer training programs, so they’ll go serve as privates in the engineering corps. That's usually where students expelled from the Geology Department are sent. They’ll serve the Motherland, gain life experience and get a good lesson about what happens to lawbreakers.”
I considered it, but it was very hard to think in my sleep-deprived state. On the one hand, it was good that there was some alternative to prison. On the other, I had no idea why the officer was telling me that, and why I was being held separately from my classmates. Former classmates, to be more accurate.
“And why am I being held separate from my friends?” I finally asked.
“Because you, Kirill, are not a mere participant, but the ringleader of this whole illegal enterprise. It's been quite the public fiasco, and someone has to answer before the law. Although as for you, it isn’t decided yet. We need to first confirm some details. Maybe we’ll stick you with your friends, then you can all go build pontoons and raise bridges in the Far North or something. Although, it’s also possible that you’ll have a richer choice than your roommates."
The officer fell silent and again delved into his documents. I meanwhile tried to understand what exactly he had in mind, and what details he might be interested in. I was left in silence long enough that I started nodding off. But suddenly, the telephone on the investigator's table rang and I nearly jumped in surprise. The officer took the telephone, silently listened to a message, then lowered the receiver.
“They've just finished decrypting all of your accounting, and the list of prizewinners and totals from all the past tournaments,” he shared, not hiding his self-satisfaction. “Now, all the players can be punished. Some will be expelled, if they’re already struggling. The rest will be given a quick kick in the ass to put them back on the straight and narrow. But as for you...” the man stopped sharply, setting a few pieces of paper out before him. He gave a whistle of surprise, underlined something with a pen, then raised his eyes. “Based on the finance reports, Kirill, you played in fifty-three online tournaments. Twenty-seven of them you won, and you ranked high enough to get some money in all the rest. Is that right?”
“Yes, yes it is,” I said, not trying to worm my way out of it. “I only fell below prize level in two tournaments. In the rest, I got at least some reward. Although what does that matter now...?”
However, based on the noticeable change in his behavior, my results were important for some reason. The investigator carefully placed all the papers on the table in a plastic folder, covered it and leaned in my direction.
“Strange as it may seem, it really does matter. Just yesterday, we got a very unusual request from the tip-top: compile a list of inveterate gaming addicts from Moscow's student population and send that up the chain. Luckily, we happened to find all the information we needed on your game server.”
“Who might want a list of student gamers?”
The mustached officer shrugged and sat back in his chair.
“I only know what I’m told. Some institute in the Moscow Oblast working on virtual reality wants a few experienced gamers to test their programs. I don't know how many vacancies they've got and I don’t know the exact conditions but, for you, this is a great alternative to prison clothes or army boots. So think, Kirill. Such a chance doesn’t come along very often. You can avoid punishment and get a good job instead. Just think fast. This loophole won’t stay open forever.”
I considered it feverishly. Work for a bit in an institute in the Moscow Oblast while all this brouhaha settles down? It sounded amazing! Even if the salary was modest, that didn’t matter now. What was more, apparently, they weren’t going to confiscate the money I’d won, because all my debit cards were still in my wallet. So that meant I had some savings to live on.
“What's to think about? I'm in!” I loudly declared. “Where do I sign?”
Chapter Three. Comrades in Misfortune
I was awoken by a girl shouting angrily in surprise.
“So the freaking contract with the institute is for two years?!” the girl moaned, nearly in hysterics.
I peeked open an eye and... finally woke up. I was in an unfamiliar place, a dark room, filled with bags of cement and old furniture. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings and remember where I was. Some hangar or warehouse I'd been brought to directly from the police department in a vehicle with blacked-out windows. To be honest, I couldn’t say how long the drive was or which direction it went, because I fell asleep as soon as I hit the seat. I only remembered being pushed out, led into this room and told to “wait for the rest of the group.”
My body was aching and numb. I'd fallen asleep in an unmerciful pose on the hard and uncomfortable bench, which was like those usually found in bus-station waiting rooms. The kind with armrests between the seats so bums couldn’t spend the night on them. But today, I was so tired I somehow contrived to splay out my extremities and lie down. But when I tried to move, I felt a sharp pain in my numb leg.
“Well, well. The yogi awakens!” someone quipped, which was met with laughter.
I somehow got out of the trap, straightened up and turned to see who else was in the room. Three young men and two young women, the whole group approximately my age. Were they also expelled gamers, taken to work at the mysterious institute?
Maybe, but one of the girls didn’t fit the image. She immediately caught my attention. A flashy long-legged blonde with a pretty doll-like face, she a mind-blowingly perfect figure and... a clever attentive gaze that immediately undercut the rest and betrayed a high intellect. She had on a stylish travelling dress and shoes, a designer bag and expensive emerald earrings. This elegant beauty didn’t look like the kind of person who needed virtual worlds to replace reality.
The other girl, in contrast, was totally unremarkable: short, dark-haired and modestly dressed with a pair of thick glasses perched on her nose, something of a classic plain jane.
“Hey everybody!” I greeted them all with a smile. “Did I miss anything interesting? I heard someone mention a two-year contract?”
“Yeah, Artur,” the plain jane pointed at a long-haired hippy-looking boy with an ring in his left ear. “He said that, in his dean’s office, he was presented with a two-year contract.”
“Yep, totally!” the hippy confirmed. He was dressed in tattered jeans and a black t-shirt with a Pink Floyd logo. “I got expelled today. I was already in my third year! It’s a long story, but they had their reasons. I tried to fight it, though, and even wrote a statement to the dean like, I’d learned my lesson and wouldn't do it again bla bla bla... But that asshole said I have to prove I meant it, and work on a special assignment in a paramilitary institute in the Moscow Oblast. He said they’d reinstate me after I’m done. And he made me sign a contract that said ‘two years’ in black and white.”
Artur finished his speech, lowered his head and fell silent. The others were also silent and looking unabashedly at me.
“What about you? Expelled student, like the rest of us?” asked a squatting boy. His hair cut short, this was the most gopnik-looking person imaginable. He was wearing a black leather jacket, track pants, running shoes with no socks, and a newsboy cap. To complete the picture of the classic low-class Russian, all he’d need was a black eye and a rumpled Belomorkanal cigarette in his mouth.
I had nothing to hide, so I told them my real name and said I had been expelled from the Geology Department of Moscow State University because, instead of studying, I had been playing an online game for money.
“Just like the rest of us,” the plain jane chuckled bitterly. “While you were asleep, we all introduced ourselves and figured out that we were all in the same online tournament. What was more, we all got to the final. Worst of all, I almost won the last round with my archer. I was one of the final four surviving players. I had a stroke of bad luck. I missed a few times and a fighter shredded me...”
“You should have shot at the ogre’s legs and walked backward so he couldn’t get you,” I said, giving some belated advice. The girl exclaimed in astonishment:
“So that was you, Kirill?! It was your ogre that killed me? You won the final! You probably got a ton of money, come clean!”
“Hmm, how the...” I got embarrassed and lowered my gaze to the floor. “Sure, I won, but I didn’t get a single kopeck. As soon as I took the helmet off my head, the cops had me in cuffs. I didn’t even get up from my comp.”
Here, a previously silent muscular boy who looked to be from the Caucasus region cut into our conversation. Until then, he had been trying fruitlessly to get his cell phone to work.
“As for the tournament, I'm telling you – it was the organizers that called the cops! After all, only they knew all the players IP-addresses. And they gave us all up to the fuzz so they wouldn’t have to pay out. They just pocketed all the money, the sons of bitches!”
Everyone there held the same opinion. Curses and abuse flew at the tournament organizers. And I complained loudest of all so no one would suspect me of having a connection to the mysterious conmen. Finally, everyone had said their fill and fell silent. I took advantage of the pause and asked everybody to introduce themselves again.
The blonde said she was Anya from First Medical. She didn’t regret being expelled at all, because she couldn’t bear the sight of blood, and it was all her parents’ stupid idea to push her into medicine in the first place. The second girl was called Masha and, skipping over the details, said she was a grad student at a technical university in Moscow, and was also glad to be out of school. For her, it was a prolonged torture with constant lack of money, and humiliating begging for stipends and dorm rooms.
The gopnik grudgingly squeezed out that his name was Denis, and that we “don’t need to know the rest, because that’s all in the past.” The last guy was more open, though. He said his first name was Imran and that he was a sambo expert. Imran had graduated last year from the Athletics Institute at the top of his class but was in no rush to return to his native Dagestan, continuing to live by hook or crook with his friends in the dorm as he waited for his golden ticket.
“Some friends promised good work in Moscow, but something happened,” he said, getting into the details of his failed plan.
Imran spent another minute poking around with his phone, then stuck it back in his pocket, saying:
“Can’t connect to the network, the stupid thing! It’s probably this damn iron roof.”
“That is part of it,” came a derisive voice from the darkness. “But this is a military site, so there are also signal jammers.”
Along with the rest, I turned to the voice and saw a middle-aged strong-looking man in a dark-blue uniform jumpsuit. On his sleeve, there was an unusual colorful emblem with a gold Greek helmet inside a white circle. Under that was a crest and cursive writing that read “Second Legion.” He didn’t seem to be armed, but his military bearing and army experience were immediately apparent.
Without letting us think over what he said, the man motioned into the dark depths of the hangar:
“Walk that way, into the darkness. In the very corner, you’ll see a stack of roofing tiles. Move them aside and go down the stairs beneath them. Go down into the tunnel and walk until you’ve reached the dome. The other newbie groups are already here. The intro session will begin shortly. The meeting hall in the dome is not very big, so make sure you hurry. The presentation lasts a few hours, and latecomers have to stand.”
We quickly found the tiles. It was a stack of twenty, and they were absolutely immovable. But a light push launched a hidden mechanism and the whole stack slid aside. There was a round hatch underneath, and when we opened there were metal rungs leading down into the darkness. Imran went down first and soon shouted that he'd found a switch on the wall. A second later, a light turned on below, and everyone could see that it was actually quite a short ladder.
But the tunnel, lit sparsely by dull bulbs, seemed endless. We walked for a long time past unadorned gray concrete walls, looking at the pipes and bundles of wire along the floor. A few times, our group's path was blocked by metal doors, but they opened silently as soon as we walked up to them. Despite myself, I was impressed at how sturdy the doors were. Each was ten inches thick at least, if not twelve and made of strong hard metal. Finally, after yet another door, we discovered a ladder up.
I batted my eyelids, getting used to the bright light in the small room. A beefy guardsman standing next to a metallic frame, again in a blue Second Legion uniform told us to place our documents, phones, wallets, keys and other objects on the table.
“You won't be needing those for a long time,” he assured us. His partner, standing not far away, gave a chuckle.
Anya from First Medical was standing at the front of the line. She blushed an unexpectedly deep shade of red and spent a long time hesitating about whether to demonstrate the contents of her bag with everyone around. I had no idea what could be so compromising, and I didn't find out, because the guards asked us to walk away and spare her the embarrassment.
But then came my turn, and I also was forced to shake out my pockets. My government ID card, my now invalid student ID, a handful of change, an unopened pack of condoms and keys to my now former dorm room. After that was my wallet with the debit cards that gave access to all my savings... I was made to walk through a metal detector, then quickly and professionally searched. After that, sure that I hadn’t hidden anything, the guard returned only the pack of condoms. The rest he placed in a large transparent \ bag and sealed it with a special device.
“I don’t even know if that's a good sign or a bad one,” Denis commented spitefully on the selective return of my property. After me, it was his turn.
“Don’t hold up the line, keep moving into the dome! Remember, your number is one thousand four hundred seventy!” the military man hurried me along, attaching a numbered label to my bag.
Before that, plain-jane Masha had received 1469, while hippie Artur was 1468. So, the numbers went in order. That meant almost fifteen hundred people worked in this mysterious “dome.” The scope was impressive. This must be a very, very serious project!
The guardsman stuck my bag through a little window in the wall and someone immediately grabbed it. Then I walked down the corridor, repeating my number to myself and trying to memorize it: “One thousand four hundred seventy!”
Chapter Four. Subterranean Dome
I had heard the word “dome” a few times, but I was not expecting it to be this large. Just as its the name implied, it was a reinforced concrete hemisphere, but of truly unbelievable dimensions. The diameter at floor level was no less than a quarter mile. The far wall was blurry and lost in a blue-gray haze. The top was on the order of a hundred, and maybe even a hundred and sixty feet high. A vast number of bright spotlights high above our heads created the illusion of a midday summer sun. Under this Dome, there was a little residential neighborhood with apartment buildings, a soccer field, a few tennis courts, a green park and white sand paths.
“Woah, I had no idea there was anything this huge in the Moscow Oblast,” said Artur, also impressed.
“And it isn’t even all that far from Moscow. Our drive from downtown took only an hour,” Masha added. “Although there are some big hangars along Dmitrovskoye Highway, they are many times smaller than this...”
“Guys, look!” Anya shouted, pointing at a silver cigar-shaped object flying just under the ceiling.
I turned my head and first took the aircraft for a helicopter. However, its strange sleek shape, lack of rotors and total silence showed that it was unlike any flying vehicle I’d ever seen before.
“Is this some kind of joke?!” We exchanged glances in complete incomprehension.
After hearing our surprised exclamations, a blonde in a silver track suit, her skin red from an evening run, stopped next to our group.
“Newbies? It’s obvious. They're testing an antigrav built with Miyelonian designs. It’s actually the second prototype. A bad pilot crashed the first one a month ago on one of the corncobs.”
“Ah, that clears things up. Of course, it's just a normal, everyday antigrav. We should have known!” Denis answered, clearly trying to get a rise out of her. “We see this stuff every day. And no duh it slammed into a piece of corn!”
The girl didn’t answer, just sized-up the boor with her gaze, furrowed her brow contemptuously and continued her jog. Her uniform had the number 343 on the back, alongside the skull of a bull with large horns. Below that, in angular Gothic script, there was text reading: “First Legion.”
“Based on her number, she's been under this dome for a long time,” I said thoughtfully, advising the gopnik not to start a fight with the locals.
In reply, he swore rudely and said not to try and teach him any lessons. After that, Denis went off the handle and started discussing the body of the athlete in totally vulgar and insulting terms. Then, he began to generalize about all women. He didn’t manage to finish, though, doubling over after taking a sharp jab to the stomach from Imran, who was standing next to him:
“Don’t you dare insult women around me! You have a mother, I have a mother. Everyone has a mother. You must be respectful to those who blessed us with the gift of life.”
The conflict did not continue, although the gopnik spent some time whispering unintelligible threats. We walked down the sand path and stopped at a fork next to a sign with directions. It had three arrows:
Shooting range. Corn. Labyrinth.
There was no sign of a conference hall, meeting room or introductory information session, so we stopped. Fortunately, I spotted two guys playing tennis not far away and hurried to ask them the way. They answered me eagerly and, in a few minutes, our whole group had taken their seats in a small semi-circular room reminiscent of an enclosed summer movie theater. There were already fifty people there and, although there were seats for everyone, we were nearly late. A man tall enough to play basketball wearing an austere business suit was testing the microphone, preparing for his speech.
“Ivan Lozovsky, deputy director of the Dome and diplomat of our faction,” he introduced himself and asked for the light to be turned off.
Then the room went dark, and the screen behind him lit up. There was an anthropomorphic creature looking back at us from the screen with thick brown fur and wearing a bright crimson cloak over a suit of metal armor. It had powerful brow arches, a broad forehead, black eyes with no pupils, a wide nose and a massive chin. Its furry ears were pressed against its head and its tightly pursed lips had the protruding fangs of a predator. Both of the humanoid’s hands were gripping the handle of a wide glistening blade.
“So then, newbies, I’ll start from the beginning. Before you is Krong Daveyesh-Pir. He is one of the rulers of the powerful space-faring Geckho race, and the all-powerful sovereign of expansive territories in our galaxy. Among those territories, by all interstellar laws, is our home planet of Earth. I understand that may sound unbelievable and shocking, but the fate of humanity is entirely in the hands of this creature. Let me clarify one thing: the Geckho are not our enemies. They're more like our protectors and mentors. In any conflict with another race, they will fight on our side. However, you must always keep in mind that Krong Daveyesh-Pir has the right and power to remove humanity from Earth and even entirely annihilate our civilization, if we express the slightest disrespect of or disobedience to our Geckho suzerains.”
In the room, not only did all conversations go quiet, everyone was so shocked they started to skip breaths. The presenter then made a brief pause and made sure that everyone understood the importance of what he'd said, then continued:
“Now that we all understand our political reality, let's discuss why you were all brought here: the Dome, the game the bends reality, and your role in all this.”
I was probably the only person in the room seeing the fifty-second clip of the furry alien for the first time. I remembered hearing about it annoying internet users the world over last year, but it just so happened to come at a difficult period in my studies. I had recently fallen in love for the first time, lost interest in school and gotten three failing grades. I was on the edge of expulsion so, I spent days on end in the library, studying textbooks, writing summaries and preparing painstakingly for my tests and exams.
But, like millions of people the world over, if I had seen this clip last year, I most likely would not have believed it was the First Contact, either. Now, however, after Ivan Lozovsky’s message about our shaky position, I watched the video with rapt attention. One Tong of safety, how long was that? I was not ashamed to stand and ask the presenter.
“Excellent, very good question!” the diplomat answered, inspired. “We studied the Geckho race’s time reckoning system a while ago, and a Tong is approximately three and a half years. But there are two unclear aspects. First of all, we know that, on the Geckho homeworld Shiharsa, time passes more quickly than on Earth, so a Tong there would be somewhat shorter than it would be here. Six percent shorter, and that is no more and no less than two months and seventeen days. Second, we still haven’t received an answer about when the countdown began. The clips of the Geckho messengers were broadcast for twenty-three days and, each time, they gave the very same one Tong. Some even believe the countdown started, not when the information was first broadcast, but when the first virtual reality pod was built on Earth and the first human entered the game that bends reality.”
“Virtual reality pod?” asked four-eyed kid, his interest piqued by the odd term.
“Yes, that’s right, a virtual reality pod. The blueprints at the end of the clips show the general design of virtual reality pods, and how to assemble them. Each diagram is a different element, but it’s all fairly logical and fits together. The first one was assembled in South Korea one year and seven months ago. The first person to enter the virtual world was named Kim In-Hun, a young engineer from a South Korean electronics company. He was also the first person to successfully pass the Labyrinth. Fortunately, he had the good sense not to stray far from where he entered and left to tell the authorities what he’d found. Soon, another few researchers entered the game, then a whole group of thirty Korean soldiers. A month after that, our military intelligence discovered a construction project near the city of Yeongju, a subterranean complex called Nop-Eun Ogsusu, which in translation from Korean means 'tall corn.' Very soon, we also built a couple virt pods and we started construction on the subterranean Dome base in the Moscow Oblast, which is where we are now located...”
“You mentioned a labyrinth. What was that about?” the nerd interrupted the presenter again.
The diplomat gave a dissatisfied cringe, but still answered:
“Yes, after creating a character, every newbie appears in the center of the Labyrinth. It’s supposed to help you get used to the virtual body, train your skills, and test your aptitude. If a new player gets out of the labyrinth within a certain time limit, they will earn extra stat points. It's a very rare chance to strengthen your basic attributes. Other than that, you can basically only level them by training. For that very reason, we have an exact copy of the Labyrinth next to the administration building, and you must learn it by heart before entering the game. Approximately one half hour is given to exit the labyrinth. You must learn to finish it in fifteen minutes. Only after that will you be allowed into a virtual reality pod. Then, when you finish the labyrinth, you are not to spend any stat points. You must take down all your parameters and exit the game. Our experienced mentors will look that over and tell you what skills to take to play effectively and what statistics to reinforce with your unused points.”
“And what about this ‘corn?’” Our four-eyed colleague just wouldn’t shut up, even though some in the hall had begun to hiss at him.
The diplomat finally changed to the next slide and, instead of the furry face of our alien master, we saw a tall cylindrical building that looked quite a bit like a corncob.
“The corn question is the last one I’ll answer right now. If you want to know anything else, ask after my speech, otherwise we’ll never finish,” Ivan Lozovsky said unhappily. “So, the corn and its purpose... One lone virtual reality pod can be placed anywhere, and it will work, drawing energy from the gravitational and electromagnetic fields of our planet. But with multiple pods, it's much more complex. We now have hundreds and must arrange for them to work in concert. After all, a newbie merely entering the game isn’t enough. They must appear precisely in the right place and be correctly identified by the system as a member of our faction...”
The diplomat took a quick break and splashed some mineral water into a cup. In fact, due to the number of people in the room, it was getting quite hot, and I could stand to wet my whistle as well. He took a few swallows, then continued:
“By the way, our faction is called Human-3, or H3 for short. That abbreviation will always be shown on your equipment, and it cannot be removed or erased. The Koreans are H0, which means we were the fourth human faction to enter the game that bends reality. Returning to the corn... This arrangement of virtual reality pods was taught to us by the Geckho. It is a tall structure with a central core and separate kernels for each pod. In theory, the height of a ‘corncob’ is unlimited. But in the Dome, we started with one hundred pods per cob, which results in a twenty-story structure. So, your group will be working in corncob number fifteen. It is ready now. We’re working on number sixteen already but getting another hundred people to join our faction is going to take quite some doing!”
I perked up my ears, preparing to listen to the important information about our player limit the difficulties connected with it, but the diplomat’s speech was interrupted by the deafening wail of a siren. The sound, which was shrill and rattled my bones, reminded me of an air-raid drill. My ears started twitching, then shivers ran over my whole body. After that, a voice thundered out, filling the Dome:
“ATTENTION, THIS IS THE DOME DIRECTOR. BORDER POST FOUR IS UNDER ATTACK! THE DARK FACTION HAS INTRUDED THROUGH A FOGGY PASS! MORE THAN FOUR HUNDRED ATTACKERS! FIVE ENEMY TOP PLAYERS HAVE BEEN SPOTTED! TO ARMS!!!”
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