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 had 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 a 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 Moscow. 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 crumpled 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'd all gotten 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 bean. 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 steel 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 blinked, 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!"
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