THE PICTURE CHANGED instantly. The mirror disappeared, and a semi-circular gap in the wall replaced it. It was filled with a glowing blue force field that periodically glistened with sparkles and electricity. And then, one after the other, I saw little bars of different colors. One for life, one for endurance and another for hunger. When each bar appeared, a popup hint appeared before my eyes with a notification, so I had no misunderstandings or questions about the new features.
I turned my head, but the semi-transparent bars remained in the upper left part of my field of vision as if glued there. They didn't obstruct my view or annoy me, though. All the scales were at maximum, and I nodded in approval, speaking aloud for an unknown moderator:
"I understand, no questions. Except one. What am I supposed to do, go through that force field? Is the electricity gonna shock me?!"
Predictably, I didn't receive an answer, but a small icon appeared at the bottom of the screen showing several concentric circles, like ripples left by a stone in a calm pond.
Scanning. Class ability. With skill growth, scanning radius and discovery chances will increase, type of results will expand, and reload time will decrease.
Well, well! What is this? I use echolocation like a bat? But what about the electronic scanning devices mentioned by the class description? I was somewhat confused, especially because I was unable to test my new ability. The little icon remained inactive.
Meanwhile, my introduction to the game abilities continued. A progress bar appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Using skills and performing other actions fills the progress bar. When the bar is completely full, character level will increase. Dying zeroes out the progress bar.
ATTENTION!!! If the progress bar is at zero, dying will cause your character to lose one level, some skills and all unused skill points. Dying again with progress bar still at zero will cause your character to lose two levels and even more skills.
Now that was very important information. First, dying in the game was entirely possible, and it was not final. Beyond that, if the progress bar was even a bit filled, death wouldn't cause any serious or irreversible consequences. However, death with an empty progress bar came with a hefty penalty.
By the way... I looked at the empty bar and my level-one character. What did that mean? If I were to die right now... was there a level zero? Or would I just die once and for all? I started feeling a bit beside myself. I suddenly didn't want to go through the force field and test this out.
Meanwhile, Gnat's inventory opened. A jean jacket and jeans, a turtleneck, a pair of tennis shoes, and underwear. The items of clothing were in their equipment slots and had almost no properties, just +1 armor from my jean jacket, but it was half worn down. Most of the boxes were still empty. No headwear, my belt slot was inactive, no weapon, either main or secondary, no gloves, glasses, bracelets or rings. In my so-called "backpack" there were just six slots, one of which was occupied by a pack of condoms...
Great equipment for a test. No compass, no coil of rope, no set of colored chalk to mark dead ends or turns I'd already been down. Not even a basic flashlight if it got dark or the most primitive knife. I sharply came to my senses and was astonished by my recklessness. What had come over me? Why sneak unprepared into a place I knew nothing about?!
A wave of fear swept over me, replacing my rash self-confidence. I had already nearly made up my mind to try and open the virtual reality pod, but the glowing force-field flickered, went dim and turned off. Just then, a countdown timer appeared in the lower part of the screen. I was given thirty minutes to get out of the labyrinth...
* * *
Naturally, I was no longer thinking of exiting the game. Onward! I had nearly walked through the doorway when the scanning icon changed color from gray to violet. I could use my skill! I immediately turned around to see how the gap looked from the other side. But the wall behind my back was totally smooth and stable, without the slightest sign of gaps or holes. A one-way portal! Dang! There was no way back. Now I could only look for the way out.
Anyhow, there was plenty of diffused light coming from the walls, so I wouldn't need a flashlight. But where to go? I could only see smooth white walls everywhere. About ten feet above me, there was a solid ceiling. Perfect time to try out scanning.
I didn't know if it was the scan, but a map of the corridors suddenly appeared at the bottom of my screen, showing a ring labyrinth. And what was more it wasn't only the parts I could see with my own eyes. It also showed behind the walls. Nice! So that's what scanning could do!
But the reload time was a whole ten minutes, and the draw distance on the map was not very large, just fifteen steps or so. I could only see a couple of rings of wall, gaps and forks. However, it was valuable to know that the labyrinth was circular, and that I was in its very center.
Just thirty seconds later, basing myself on the map, I ran down the only corridor leading outward, leaving the revealed part, then stopped at a fork. Right or left? I turned left at random and ran along the wall, as is usually advised for those trying to escape small mazes. Following one wall was a reliable, though fairly slow way of finding an exit. But I guessed that this labyrinth was not large, as it was designed to test the abilities of new players. So sooner or later, this method would lead me out. It was also important to walk quickly so I would exit the labyrinth in the time allotted. What was more, I immediately noticed that, as I moved through the labyrinth, the map grew larger. This was child's play! I couldn't even get lost!
Wait... four minutes after starting, I reached a small round room with a ramp down and a ramp up alongside three other doors. My confidence blew away like the wind. The main difference between multi-story labyrinths and one-level ones, other than their greater complexity, was that following one wall no longer guaranteed exit. What was more, this meant there must have been much more ground to cover than my extremely slow method could handle. I needed to change tactics.
I expanded the map to the whole screen to get my bearings. No hint had told me how to open the map, but it happened automatically, and that surprised me. So, had I gone far from the center of the labyrinth?
Just one look at the interactive map and I began to howl in impotent rage — all the sections I had already been through were gradually disappearing! The center was already entirely erased, and the other corridors were also going away. So, I had an approximation of how long the map would last: three minutes. Just what I needed! How could I get my bearings in this multi-level labyrinth?!
Leave marks or objects at the forks so I wouldn't duck into a dead end multiple times? Sure, that was an option. I took out the pack of condoms from my inventory, ripped a small piece of colored cardboard from it and threw it down the hallway behind me. It was meant to mark places I didn't need to go again. I didn't delve into the upper and lower floor yet and continued running through the maze.
My endurance points were gradually falling, and I was starting to get tired from so much running. Another five minutes, maybe six and I'd have to change to a walk. In this indefinite nerve-wracking situation, the only good part was that my progress bar was filling up slowly but surely. So, even if my Prospector managed to die in the labyrinth, my character would respawn.
My scanning icon turned purple again. I immediately made a scan and looked at the map. Another circle thirty steps in diameter, including part of the room with ramps I had run through. What was more, based on the map, I would end up back there soon. I'd chosen the wrong hallway. So, a minute later, there were two corridors marked with a piece of torn-off cardboard.
Just one unchecked corridor remained on this level, but I decided to go up it. I was now running totally at random, ignoring some forks and diving down others. A few times, I saw holes in the floor, which I had to jump across, and another time I had to crawl through a small section of corridor with a low ceiling. Then suddenly... I was in a circular ramp room. What was more, some hallways were already marked with cardboard! How?! I had gone up already!
But there was no time to fill my head with such questions. I was already down to less than ten minutes. I went down a floor and was no longer running so much as keeping up a fast walk with short bursts — my endurance was hovering around zero.
One more scan...
And then, when I had almost no hope left, I saw the outer edge of the maze on the map! The circle of halls and walls just ended on one side! I also noticed a marker on an internal wall very near me. I hadn't seen anything like it before. I got my bearings and turned toward it, then found an unusual section of cracked wall. Probably, this wall was weak, and could be broken...
But what was the point of breaking through if I had already seen on the map that I could also go the normal way?! I didn't break the wall, just ran to the outermost hallway. Perhaps the exit was somewhere there.
Unfortunately, I didn't find an exit in that section. All paths led back to the center of the maze. But I did discover something else — a part of the outer wall with cracks! If I broke the wall here, I'd be outside the maze!
* * *
After breaking a hole in the wall, I emerged into a dark void. There were just six seconds left on the timer. I fell painfully face-down from a decent height onto sand, which knocked the wind out of me and made my nose bleed. My clothes were all dusty, my knuckles were bloody, and both of my tennis shoes were now tattered and untied. My health bar was balancing somewhere around thirty percent, while my endurance had been at zero for some time. But I'd made it!
Five stat points received
Scanning skill increased to level two!
Cartography skill increased to level two!
Fame increased to 1.
"Strange way of leaving the maze. I see Leng Radugin finally followed our sage advice and stopped giving his recruits information about the Labyrinth."
This was said just a step from me, and with a strange and entirely unfamiliar accent. The voice was dull, quiet and too distant, as if it belonged to someone who didn't care what happened to me.
Writhing in pain, I raised my head... and found myself gazing at a pair of worn metallic boots about size twenty five if not thirty.
Kosta Dykhsh Geckho. Clan Waideh-Dykhsh. Level-56 Diplomat
An alien! I couldn't afford to give an impression of weakness and worthlessness. It might reflect badly on the whole human race. I gathered my strength and got to my feet, though I was still stumbling around after the fall. The huge furry humanoid towered over me by two heads, carefully looking with his piercingly black eyes and tusked grin, as I tried to stand upright. He had the very same metal armor as the extraterrestrial from the video clip. And perhaps, this was Kosta Dykhsh.
I bowed respectfully, hoping it would look like a gesture of deep respect, and not an inability to stand.
"Greetings! My respect to the great and powerful civilization of Shiharsa!"
In response, the diplomat made a cough or laugh. It was like a muted bark through tightly clenched teeth.
"I see, Gnat, that you were told about my race. But stop trying to express reverence. It doesn't come across as sincere. But I want to know, did you pass the labyrinth test?"
"It was hard and, I seemingly had an unusual method, but I think so," I smiled with my bloodied lips. "I got five points to improve my statistics."
"Five? Excellent result. That means you didn't know about the maze. Usually, the Leng of your faction prefers not to risk it. One in the hand is better than two in the bush. His words. Recruits learn the way through the labyrinth by rote before entering the game. Sure, they get just two points, but that's guaranteed. I'm glad your commanders have allowed newbies to risk it and test their mettle."
I got embarrassed and lowered my gaze.
"Yes, well, no one said I was allowed. Everyone was busy because of the Dark Faction attack, and I just walked in."
"I was a bit perplexed by your outfit," the humanoid shook his head in reproach like a person. "Oh, your bosses are gonna give it to you tomorrow. What do your people say...? Ah! You'll get knocked into next week!"
"How do you know? I passed the test! No one judges the victors!"
But Kosta Dykhsh was certain my punishment was inevitable. As it turned out, the problem was not only my badly-considered risk. The diplomat told me that, when newbies first enter the game that bends reality, their inventory contains everything they had on them in the real world. It was the only way to bring the things we needed to survive and grow the colony into the game.
Dielectrics and superconductors. Circuit boards and processors. Batteries and molybdenum steel springs. Machine parts and rare materials such as lanthanoid alloys or transuranium elements. Every newbie was supposed to carry useful cargo for the needs of the colony. Everything we couldn't produce or didn't have the resources for. Plus, thermal lenses, optical and collimator sights, hard-to-produce bullets and detonators, and personal weapons...
The more the diplomat told me, the gloomier I became. First of all, I no longer hoped I might not get chewed out. Now at the very least because I hadn't brought any useful things and had thus disadvantaged our whole faction. Second, what was I supposed to equip myself with? Just keep running in this ragged jean jacket and torn tennis shoes?
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