YES, WE KNEW it was risky and illegal. We understood perfectly well 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 well 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 gig would be over. 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 some 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 had 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'd had to use an unusual tactic – I'd wound up to swing my weapon but, instead of striking, I'd splayed my arms and jumped forward. That had knocked the crouching man off his feet and I'd 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'd finished him off easily, just by 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 next to me at headheight! 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 have got 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."
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