AND AT THAT, intro session was put on hold. Ivan Lozovsky said he was not only a diplomat, but also a high-level player, and that it was of vital importance that everyone who could hold a gun went to the front lines. So, the diplomat rescheduled the rest of his two-hour speech to seven AM the next day.
There were lots of questions being asked, some about the Dark Faction, others about how many border posts we had, and some even more general about the overall situation. But Ivan Lozovsky didn't answer of them. Instead, already in the doorway, he turned and told us to head to the residential area and get situated in our dorms, then go to the cafeteria and eat dinner, familiarize ourselves with the daily schedule and rules of the Dome and get some rest. Starting early morning the next day, we were to return for the rest of this presentation, then study the Labyrinth and generate our characters before we finally entered the game that bends reality.
We left the meeting room. The siren was wailing everywhere. Many people were running in the same direction.
"Looks like it's serious. Maybe we should go help?" I suggested but didn't find any support.
They all made excuses, saying we'd been given clear instructions on what to do this evening, and no one wanted to break the presumably strict rules on their first day. I took a heavy sigh and walked off after the others. The path to the dorms passed between the corncobs, and I finally saw the tall buildings with my own eyes. To say I was astonished wouldn't even begin to cover it! They were cylindrical columns two hundred and thirty feet tall, with spiral staircases looping around the outside. The glass kernels protruded from the sides and each housed a metallic germ. Clearly, these were the virtual reality pods.
"Hey, there's ours, number fifteen!" Masha said, pointing at one of the corncobs.
I stopped and, pointing my head up, looked at my future workplace. The height was intimidating. We'd have to go up those stairs day in and day out. Good thing I wasn't afraid of heights, otherwise I had no idea if I'd make it.
Other than the big easily visible number fifteen on a concrete post at the entrance, there were player numbers from 1401 to 1500 inside. I also noticed people rushing into every tower except that one. In a rush to their pods, they were pouring into their corncobs. I looked at number fifteen again. Strange. There were no guards at the entrance. What could stop us...?
I wanted to tell my new acquaintances but discovered that they were already quite a ways down the white sand path. I was all on my own. What if...?
I trusted my intuition. It had practically never led me astray. So now, as with the spontaneous character change in the final round of the online PvP tournament, I could feel in my bones that I needed to learn this new game and not waste any time.
Carefully, expecting someone to shout at me at any second, I headed to tower number fifteen. No one stopped me, and no one even seemed to notice. Now more confident, I started climbing higher and higher up the spiral staircase. Ugh, it was unbearable. Could they really not build an elevator?! By the time I'd reached the eighth story of the tower, my legs started to shiver from the strain . My pod was on the fourteenth floor, though, and when I'd made it up there, I was practically crawling on all fours, with my tongue hanging out in exhaustion. Ugh!
I saw my number 1470 on the wall, and a short corridor leading to a small glassed-in room with a metallic ovular bed in the middle topped by a transparent lid. My virtual reality pod! I stood there, looking at the high-tech device and admiring its smooth flawless curves. The lid easily slid aside as soon as I touched it. The bed, covered with a soft porous material was alluring and called me to lie down as quickly as possible.
Should I take off my shoes? Did I have to get undressed? There were no coatracks in the room, but that didn't mean anything. I looked at the neighboring towers through the transparent glass. In corncob number eleven, right at my level, an unfamiliar lady walked into her little room and, quickly closing the lid, lay down in her pod right in her clothes and shoes. Alright, no need to undress. I carefully stepped onto the springy cover. Alright, it held my weight. I lay down and wanted to stretch my arms for the lid, but it had already started moving on its own. At that, the lid material, which had seemed like glass, became opaque and everything looked totally black. Not like coal, or the color of a raven's wing, but some absolute darkness that didn't reflect any light whatsoever.
"An ideal black!" I thought as the world around me changed.
* * *
I found myself in a tiny round room with totally white walls, ceiling and floor. There was just over a step of space on all sides. The source of the dim light was not visible, and it seemed to be streaming in from all directions. The only object other than me and the cold smooth walls, was a large body-length mirror.
Neither glass nor metal, it was some kind of image projected on the wall. Everything I did was reflected in it, but I could turn the image with my mind and see myself from all sides. And I did that, taking a critical look and cringing in dismay.
My hair was far too long. I should have gone to a barber long ago... A moment later, I saw myself in the mirror with a close short cut. Wow! And what if I left it a bit longer, with slanted bangs? The image changed obligingly. And if I change my hair color? No, I don't like that. Let's go back.
I finished playing with my hairstyle and left it a sumptuous shade of black, then moved on to eye color. I wanted emerald green eyes. They were generally considered the rarest! It looked pretty good but didn't go with my hair at all. What about an icy blue? And hey, why not make my eyes glow like a wizard's? It looked fearsome, but I left it that way.
Now for toned muscles. I wanted to be tall, have broad shoulders and all that... I tried to give myself the flawless body of the athlete, so any girl would want me, but I was just a weenie and couldn't change my body composition. In some parts, I could only change the skin tone and remove or add birth marks and scars. Too bad. But alright, what next?
Name: Kirill Viktorovich Ignatiev
The words appeared over my image in the mirror, and I shook my head in dismay. No, that won't do. Anyhow, did I want every random person I met to know my real name? What if I made someone mad? This would make me too easy to find in the real world.
So... I managed to shorten it to Gnat, but I couldn't remove it all the way. Gnat? That was my nickname in school, so it felt natural. Alright, let it be Gnat. What next?
Available classes: Geologist or Prospector
What the crap?! This was a violation of my rights! Why only two? What if I wanted to be a tank driver, sniper or even starship pilot? I tried to widen the miserly choice in all kinds of ways or go back to a previous menu, but I couldn't do any of it. Only Geologist or Prospector. Dang... So, how were they different?
Geologist. Specializes in discovering and mining valuable minerals, sedimentary deposits and ore veins. As level and skills grow, mineral discovery chance and extraction volume increase.
Primary skills: Minerology, Forager, Explosives.
Class limitations: May not equip heavy or power armor. May not use sniper weapons or rocket systems.
All the information I needed was shown on the mirror above my character. Alright, I see. So then, what made the Prospector different? Instantly, obeying my mental request, the mirror displayed a different text:
Prospector. Specializes in discovering secret locations, anomalies and minerals with electronic scanning devices. As level and skills grow, discovery chance and value are increased.
Primary skills: Electronics, Scanning, Cartography.
Class limitations: May not equip heavy or power armor. May not use sniper rifles or automatic weapons. May not pilot starships or any kind of flying vehicle.
Ugh, dang... the Prospector class had so many limitations! And although I was intrigued by searching for hidden locations and anomalies, being unable to use automatic weapons seemed like a serious handicap. I'd be helpless at sniping range, too. But the Geologist class had similar problems. At medium or close range... I didn't know. I had no idea what kinds of weapons were available in the game. Perhaps there would be something non-automatic, but still totally fine. But maybe not...
I pulled up the information about the Geologist again. Seemingly a more balanced class, and such a path felt right, considering my education and training. I was ready to make my choice, but then my eye caught on the words "mining" and "extraction."
What did that mean? After discovering useful minerals or ore veins, I would be forced to mine them all on my own? My character had a bonus to extraction, so who better? That unhappy perspective threw me. I didn't want to spend the next two years of my life breaking rocks with a pick. I might go mad from boredom...
But the words "secret locations," and "anomalies," on the other hand, were tempting to any gambling man. The Prospector path also seemed to promise other interesting aspects. So, I made up my mind.
The mirror went dim, then I saw a table:
Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Luck modifier +2
Hit points 176
Endurance points 114
Magic points 0
Carrying capacity 53 lbs.
I read it carefully. It was hard to say if it was good or bad, although the low Constitution did upset me. Just ten points. And also, having zero magic seemed less than ideal. It wasn't that I was expecting spell-casting abilities from a Prospector, more like the opposite. But seeing that part of the table meant magic did exist! And if that was the case, my level-1 Prospector had lower magic than someone else.
Anyway, I could read short hints on all the statistics. For example, Strength influenced the amount of weight a character could carry, how far they could throw objects, and damage done by melee weapons. The number of health points, meanwhile, depended on Constitution, level and a class multiplier. About magic, it said that the amount of "mana" depended on Intelligence, level and game-class coefficient. Clearly, the Prospector simply had a zero there.
Overall, I didn't discover anything new. All my character's statistics were as usual, more or less like I'd seen in other games. All I didn't understand was "fame." How was it calculated, and what were its effects? Either it was some kind of "karma," a positive or negative number depending on previous actions, or a modifier that influenced the reaction of other characters in the game world. After all, it's one thing when you're asked a favor by a totally unknown person and, you couldn't care less if they are offended by your refusal. But it's quite different, if the very same thing is asked by a famous figure, respected by all.
I quickly realized I couldn't edit any parameters in the table, and I would have to accept what the game system gave me. The only prompt asked whether I was familiar with the introductory information and ready to enter the game world or would prefer to wait and think.
The right thing to do would be to leave the virtual reality pod, wait until tomorrow, listen to the two-hour introduction, then study the Labyrinth, and pick up from here. But it's so hard to tear yourself from a new toy!
I understood that as soon as I gave my confirmation, I would be dropped into some labyrinth made to test my abilities. I had a perfect idea of how mad the leadership would be if I failed the test and lost the chance to strengthen myself. On the other hand, I wasn't a child. This wasn't my first time in a videogame. I already understood how to move and orient myself. I was a fairly experienced gamer and had seen the darkest depths of many game worlds. I mean, come on, this labyrinth was made for newbies. With all by abilities and experience, how could I fail?!
So, concentrating and wishing myself luck, I confirmed that I was ready for the test.
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