I COULD NO LONGER see the maze. There was just sand, the odd short bush and the somewhat distant treetops of a tall dense forest before the crimson horizon. I shouted in surprise that the Labyrinth was gone, and Kosta Dykhsh explained that the mysterious structure appeared only at the very beginning of the game, was not part of the main world, and was impossible to return to. The Geckho diplomat told me he had been standing on the doorstep of his home and listening to the far-off battle when I just popped into the air ten feet up and splatted into the earth ten steps from his dwelling.
I had already seen the hemispheric metallic structure nearby. It looked like a tent or small yurt, with a dull greenish light emanating from it. It was giving off the tempting aroma of roast meat and aromatic spices. But only after the diplomat reminded me did I also notice the distant flashes on the dark horizon and strange crackling sound.
"The enemies are attacking your main base," the diplomat explained, yawning carelessly and demonstrating his large sharp predatory teeth. "They already managed to get through to the second row of fortifications. I don't remember them ever getting this far before."
"Shouldn't the Geckho be supporting us?" I asked hopefully, which made him truly surprised.
"Whatever for? Both you and your opponents, as well as all other factions on this planet are vassals of the Geckho race. We do not intervene in your internal struggles. We merely trade with all and take our tribute. If your world is attacked by the aggressive Miyelonians, though, or anyone from the Meleyephatian horde decides to found a base here, we will defend you. That is our duty as your suzerains and protectors."
We spent a bit longer standing there, watching the flickers of the far-off battle, then Kosta Dykhsh lost interest and turned around, preparing to return to his tent.
"Tell me, diplomat, are there many races in the cosmos?" I asked somewhat belatedly, and the Geckho stopped.
"There are plenty. And all races are different. They each have their quirks." The diplomat considered such an answer sufficient and was preparing to end the conversation once and for all, but I stopped him again.
"Kosta, how might one learn to speak the language of your kind?"
The furry giant didn't even try to hide his surprise:
"Gnat, why would you want to do that? You're a Prospector, not a Diplomat or a Translator. You're never gonna have to talk with any Geckho other than me. I know the language of your faction, and that is well enough to communicate."
But those seemed like empty pretexts, and the diplomat was clearly happy to see me expressing interest in his language. So, I answered with a slight bow:
"You are a great space-faring race with a great culture and history. You possess colossal amounts of knowledge in various spheres of science. All that is extremely valuable to me, and humanity as a whole. There are probably a huge number of texts with truly invaluable information for my people, but they cannot be understood without knowing Geckho..."
The furry giant gave a bark of approval and a line of text appeared before me:
Kosta Dykhsh offers you the Astrolinguistics skill. Would you like to take this skill?
Of course! For some reason, I was certain that the Geckho diplomat was nowhere near the only representative of the alien civilization I would meet in the game that bends reality. Understanding their language would be a huge plus!
You have taken the skill Astrolinguistics level 1.
A heavy furry paw came down on my shoulder, which made me somewhat bend at the knee. With a reassuring pat, Kosta Dykhsh barked in approval:
"Gnat, you're the third person in the whole H3 faction that wanted to study our language. I like that you do unusual things. That's just how the game is played. Don't stay in the confines others make for you. So then... if Leng Radugin and his retinue scold you too much, refer to me. Tell them the Geckho race approves."
After these words, the furry giant wished me a good night and crawled into his tent. I meanwhile blinked in amazement, looking at the lines of text that ran by:
You have reached level two!
You have received three skill points!
Fame increased to 2.
Attention!!! All skill points that have been saved for more than 24 hours will be lost if your character dies.
Well, well! Level two so fast! And I'd met a Geckho diplomat! Now life will get easier!
* * *
Walking a bit further from the tent in order not to embarrass the Geckho or disturb his sleep, I sat down on a boulder covered in dry lichen. It was still warm from the daytime sun. I opened my character's stat table and familiarized myself with all the numbers unhurriedly and thoughtfully. I needed to use my stat and skill points to eliminate weak spots and reinforce my strong sides.
Yes, I understood perfectly that newbies were advised against taking this important matter into their own hands and expected to rely on experienced mentors. But in videogames, I preferred to think through my own development plan rather than copying others or taking advice. Also, the Geckho Diplomat had advised me to forge my own path.
Five free points... Very little, if you think about it. Where would they find the greatest use? Above all, I was interested in Constitution — my weakest stat.
A character's Constitution determines the total number of Hit Points and Endurance Points, as well as resistance to disease, poison and radiation. Higher Constitution will speed up healing and decrease bleeding time. Characters with high Constitution can hold their breath for longer, and are also more resistant to corrosion, encumbrance and high gravitation.
Considering how hard it had been for me to finish the newbie Labyrinth, this game must be very difficult and hardcore. There lay a huge number of challenges and dangers before me, and my character's survival would depend on hit points and endurance points, which were derived from Constitution. My pitiful ten points there were not good enough. So, I'd invest two points in Constitution!
My health grew right away to 211, and Endurance to 125. It even felt my lung capacity increase, my ribcage expand, and my turtleneck stretch and rip a bit. Also, the fine abrasions on my hands and face immediately healed over. It was an amazingly pleasant sensation to suddenly feel healthier! It took massive effort, but I resisted the temptation of putting another point or two into Constitution. No, enough. Moderation in all things.
Now, Perception. After all, it was not just the aggregate of vision, hearing and other senses. For my Prospector, it was the most important statistic, as it directly determined the success chance of my scanning. So, I added one point, raising it to twenty. I instantly perceived that change as well. The dusky evening around me became sharper, and the cannonade of the far-off battle was now more distinct.
On to Intelligence. After all, it was not just for mages. My Prospector would have to work with all kinds of electronic scanning devices and other complex high-tech instruments, so Intelligence would certainly come in handy. One more there.
There was just one statistic point left. Increase Strength? It was a good idea. I'd be able to carry more spoils of war. And my muscles would grow visually, which was also a plus. Or should I go for Agility? Or another point in Perception?
But then I realized I was totally ignoring one statistic — Luck Modifier. It could also be improved.
A character's Luck Modifier increases hit chance with any type of ranged weapon, success in gambling and critical damage dealt.
Attention! For the Prospector class, as with any other class, the Luck Modifier does not increase discovery chance but there is a certain chance the things you find will be of higher value.
It sounded, of course, tempting. But I wished I knew what that chance was, at least approximately. Ten percent or, maybe, just one one-hundredth of a percent? The difference was very, very significant. Was it worth the trouble? By which I meant, was it worth investing in the Luck Modifier?
After a minute of thought, I decided to take the risk and spent my last free point on the Luck Modifier, bringing it to +3.
I finished with the stat points, now onto skills. There were three points to spend here. It was irrational and dangerous to save them up for the future in a game that bends reality. Unlike most games, just one death could burn them up. So, I needed to use them, if not right away, then at the very least within twenty-four hours.
Scanning, as Gnat's main skill, seemed to be the obvious choice. But I could level it simply by periodically activating the icon, which I was already doing every time the skill reloaded. Cartography? That, it seemed, was leveling all on its own...
Probably, it would be wisest to place the points into skills that I didn't yet understand how to level. For example, Electronics or Astrolinguistics.
Electronics skill increased to level two!
Electronics skill increased to level three!
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level two!
Now,with all my points spent, the time had come to go somewhere. I couldn't just sit all night on this stone, after all. I stood up and looked around. It was totally dark. There were bright and unfamiliar stars in the sky. I wasn't such an astronomy enthusiast, but I could find the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt or the North Star in the night sky. But I didn't find anything among the millions of pulsating stars. I also dismissed a thought about the Southern Hemisphere quickly. There was no Southern Cross either. So, I wasn't on Earth...
* * *
The warm night wind rustled my hair, thousands of crickets were fiddling frantically, and bats occasionally flitted overhead. If not for the colored bars of life, hunger and endurance, the progress scale, and the map before my eyes, I might have taken the world around me as genuine.
Where to go? There was a scary black forest on two sides, dense as a solid wall. A fearsome howling sound was coming from somewhere beyond those trees. Clearly not the best place to walk at night, especially unarmed. And so, I decided to head toward the distant cannonade where my faction's soldiers were holding the line. I laced up my raggedy tennis shoes, then went to find my allies.
I had no idea what I would say to them or how to explain my appearance. But probably, they would at least hear me out and tell me what to do, where to go and how I could help. I walked straight through a flattened field until I hit upon a road. First, I saw it on my mini-map, then a minute later, I was standing on the dusty well-trodden path with clear tire tracks. Right or left? I chose left at random and saw a sign a quarter mile later at a fork. Two wooden arrows pointed the way to the nearest structures:
Prometheus Technology Complex 2 miles
Shooting Range 0.5 miles
I had no idea what they did at the Prometheus, and I wasn't sure I'd find anyone there at night anyhow. The shooting range was much closer and probably under guard all day and night. That meant there would be people there from my faction, and that I would be able to go to them for help and explanations about the game.
In both directions, there were fields of a tall strange grain. Before I'd managed to go half way to the firing range, two messages cropped up simultaneously:
Scanning skill increased to level three!
Cartography skill increased to level three!
Not bad, not bad at all. My scanning radius grew noticeably. I activated the icon again and, on the roadside one hundred feet away, I saw a group of round red markers. Danger? I crouched down at once and quietly crawled off the road on my stomach into some high grass. A short while later, I managed to see the enemy:
Field Pest. Insect. Level 4.
It was a spiny bug the size of a spaniel. A whole group of the scoundrels was devouring our crops, destroying my faction's fields! I had to stop them, but how? I understood perfectly that trying to attack the insects unarmed or even with a stick would end very badly for me. A level-2 character had, to put it lightly, very bad chances against seven or eight level-4 enemies, even with a decent weapon. But I was unarmed, so there was no way. I was just six hundred fifty feet from the firing range, though, and I might find support there!
Carefully, trying not to make noise or reveal myself, I crawled in a wide arc around the dangerous insects. To do that, I had to get deep into the field opposite the Pests.
Would you like to take the skill Farmer?
Would you like to take the skill Stealth?
These messages surprised me so much I shuddered. No, I didn't want Farmer, it didn't fit my character. But Stealth? At the very least, not now. These were just a few partially blind overgrown bugs, not enough to scare me into taking a skill.
I refused both suggestions and, further from the bugs, went up on the road and ran to the shooting range at full speed. A few minutes later, I looked over the closed gates and high sturdy chain-link fence. It was totally dark at the exit. The grounds weren't lit either. In any case, I shouted loudly a few times, calling for security. But I already rationally understood that there was no one here. Either this place was not guarded at night, or everyone capable of holding a weapon was on the front lines, fighting back the Dark Faction onslaught.
Had I really shown up here for no reason? I looked through the fence at the dark angular buildings of the firing range. Storehouses, containers, plaques that were too far to read... I spent a long time squinting and tried to make out at least the nearest one on the wall of the covered brick building and seemingly guessed one word: "Arsenal." That's where the weapons were!
Now, I had to get through the fence somehow. My first idea was to simply climb the ten-foot-high chain-link fence. But that was a no-go. There was barbed wire strung atop it and it was affixed with porcelain insulators. I didn't see any warning signs like "Danger!!! High voltage!" But I still didn't risk it.
Instead, I walked up to the locked gates. Next to the nearest post, I found a metal pad with numeric keys. Ugh, I wish I knew the code...
Successful Perception check
I noticed that the buttons: "1," "3," "8," and "0" were more worn than the others. Curious... these buttons had been pressed most of all. And if some numbers in the code were not repeated, then there were only factorial four combinations (1*2*3*4), which gave twenty-four possible options. Not too many. I could try to press them all.
The code 3180 worked. The lock clicked, and the gates slowly moved aside.
Would you like to take the skill Break-in?
I laughed. What kind of "break-in" had this been? Child's play, not a serious obstacle! But this time, I didn't dismiss the message and read the skill description.
Break-in. Allows a character to overcome electronic and mechanical security systems, open locks of any type and take control of automated defense systems. Minimum statistics: Intelligence 15, Agility 15, Perception 15.
Hmm, bit of a mixed bag... The Break-in skill combined hacking, programming, lock-picking, and skill with various other thief's tools. Well if this was the terminology the devs had chosen, let it be simply "Break-in." A useful skill, not for everyone, but also not made for boring gameplay. I had to have it!
You have taken the skill Break-in level 1.
Great! Feeling inspired, I walked through the grounds of the firing range, looking around in search of something useful. My scanning ability reloaded at the perfect time, so I now had a map of all these buildings. After that, it became easier to find my way around.
Above all, I was interested in the arsenal, where I could hopefully find a weapon. But there was a massive lock on the metallic door. I walked up and looked closer.
Your Break-in level is insufficient to open this lock. Requisite level: 18.
You lack the tools required to open this lock.
Alright, I guess I couldn't even try. I walked further into the complex. Soon, my eye was caught by a pile of boxes wrapped in plastic film, and I acquainted myself with the markings on the packaging:
82-millimeter grenade launcher grenades... 122-mm howitzer rounds. That would pack a punch... Power cells, what the heck were these?! Handheld antipersonnel grenades, twenty boxes. I could use these against the bugs, although it may have been a bit overkill. I'd mow down the new plants, and I couldn't use them if the bugs ran at me. Although it still was a good idea not to forget grenades. I opened the map and placed a marker. No hint told me to do that either, I was helped by experience from other games.
Then I left, heading for the firing range itself, with rows marked by little flags, bags of sand and targets in the distance... Under a nearby canopy, there were tables for assembling and cleaning guns, and a large locked safe. This also had a numerical keypad like the other one but, this time, only three buttons were worn: "2," "5," and "6." A three-digit combination? I checked all six possible options quickly, but none of them worked. It wasn't quite so simple...
Successful Perception check
The 5 key was a bit more worn down than the two or six. Perhaps it was used twice in the code and this was another four-digit combo. So it was! The second code I checked, 2565, was correct.
Break-in skill increased to level two!
You have reached level three!
You have received three skill points!
Ha! It worked! I opened the heavy creaking safe. Inside, in even rows, there were fully automatics, a couple of machine guns and a few other weapons. The safe also held boxes of rounds. Bingo! I was starting to love this game!
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