I HAD HEARD the word "dome" a few times, but I wasn't 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 about 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 gut 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 didn't 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.
"Greetings, I am Ivan Lozovsky, deputy director of the Dome and our faction's diplomat," 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 of 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 half an 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 gulps, 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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