"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 of 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 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 District 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 District 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?"
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