FOR STARTERS, I wondered what might happen if I tried to use an automatic or machinegun. After all, my class limitations said unambiguously that I could not use an automatic weapon, and I wanted to figure out what that meant. I reached for a machine gun and picked it up:
PKP Pecheneg 6P41N 7.62-mm machine gun (modified)
Statistic requirements: Strength 15, Constitution 16.
Skill requirements: Machinegun 16
Class requirements: Shock Trooper, Machine Gunner, Space Commando
Attention! This weapon contains unidentifiable modifications from a space-faring race.
Attention! Your character has insufficient Strength and Constitution.
Attention! Due to limitations of the Prospector class, you cannot use this weapon.
Ugh, dang! Three whole reasons against it… I could carry the heavy gun, but equipping it in my weapons slot was impossible. That was clear, no more questions. I placed the Pecheneg back in the safe and checked a few different types of automatic. The situation was similar. I couldn't place them in my main or alternate weapon slot.
But as for the rifles, everything was different. I could get the weapon into the slot, but the scatter radius took up my entire field of view. There was no accuracy to speak of. I could shoot it only in a general direction. What the crap? First, I blamed it on the fact I'd checked a shotgun, but the Saiga, which was renowned for its accuracy, was the same.
Not right away, but it dawned on me that I needed to take the right skill to effectively use the weapon. But which one? The answer was in the weapon description. Every carbine, rifle or shotgun had a description that showed requirements. They all needed the Rifles skill, and beyond that, had requirements for Agility, Perception and Strength. So, Rifles:
Rifles. Determines proficiency with non-automatic smooth-bore and sawn-off firearms, rail guns, pneumatic and plasma weapons (except sniper or heavy rifles). Improving this skill increases shooting accuracy and unlocks more advanced weaponry.
You have taken the skill Rifles level 1.
Then, for the first time, I considered how many skills a character can even have. Was there any limit at all? I opened my information and started studying the settings. Unfortunately, there were limits:
Below level 10, a character may have up to 8 skills
Between levels 10 and 24, a character may have up to 10 skills
Between levels 25 and 49, a character may have up to 12 skills
Between levels 50 and 99, a character may have up to 15 skills
Between levels 100 and 149, a character may have up to 18 skills
Above level 150, a character may have up to 25 skills
Well, well... How many had I already taken? Scanning, Electronics and Cartography had been with me from the very beginning. Astrolinguistics, Break-in and Rifles I'd already taken. That meant I had just two remaining skill slots, out of eight. Yikes! I had basically just started...
It seemed Stealth and the rest would have to wait. I'd first talk with my faction and find out what was vitally necessary both for my character and the whole colony.
Now it would be nice to shoot a bit to level my Rifles skill.
I took the most basic hunting rifle, which had only one requirement, skill level one. It was called just Old Rifle. I picked up a handful of rounds and walked over to the sandbags. The spread circle was half its previous size, but remained very, very large.
I aimed, shot, went to check the target and shook my head dejectedly. I hadn't hit once from one hundred fifty feet. I returned a few times for bullets and shot probably around a hundred times, raising my Rifles skill to level three before I got my first hit. After that, I almost immediately hit the target again, and again.
I put all three of my unused skill points into Rifles, then got a significant reduction in my scatter circle. Of the next ten shots, seven of them hit the target at least somewhat. Alright, enough abusing the old rifle. I was at level six now and could use a better gun.
Two more weapons were now available to me: "Simple double-barrel 12-caliber hunting shotgun," and "Simple 6.35-mm PCP pneumatic rifle." Everything was extremely clear with the double-barreled shotgun. There was only one box of 25 cartridges with large leaden shot. Its large spread was made up for by its application: short distances or point blank as the last option in a critical situation. I gave it just one lone shot to test it out, shredding the target sheet from five steps away. That'll do. The overgrown cockroaches devouring our crops would certainly not survive that.
But as for the air gun, I had my doubts. To me, air rifles belonged in children's attractions and carnival shooting games, not alongside serious weaponry. I filled its air reservoir with a special pump and tested the weapon in action. Its accuracy wasn't bad, but as for force, it was predictably somewhat weak. From fifty steps away, it might not even pierce the chitin armor of the large bugs. However, it was the best rifle I could use, so I'd have to risk it and get closer to the Pests.
I took the pump and two boxes of metallic bullets of a hundred rounds, then put the ammunition in my pockets, slung both guns over my shoulders and headed out on my first hunt in the game that bends reality.
* * *
Carefully applying the gun's safety catch and locking the outside fence behind me, I returned to the road and unhurriedly started on my first serious mission. The distant cannonade hadn't fully stopped; however, the explosions and gunfire crackle had become noticeably rarer. The battle was gradually quieting down, although I also had no idea who had won.
My ripped tennis shoes were clearly hindering me, and periodically catching on the dirt, making noise and giving me away. So, I removed my shoes and went barefoot. Nearer the bugs, I crouched all the way down, stealing up on my haunches. Taking the air rifle in my hands, I looked excitedly into the dark. I was ready to throw myself to the ground at any second. Step by step, I got closer to where I saw the large bugs before. My heart was pounding. It was quite a tense moment.
Would you like to take the skill Silent Walk?
I was caught off guard by the text. I was aiming and instantly fell to the ground. Dang! I couldn't afford to get startled like that! I stood with a grumble and shook the dirt off my jeans. No, I didn't want that skill, or any other. My mind was made up — nothing new until I'd talked with the other people. Hey, wait, where'd the bugs go?!
They were around here somewhere. Although... I wasn't sure. Ugh, why didn't I mark where I'd seen the dangerous pests on the map? Carefully, waiting for an attack at any second, I started to look for tracks, either the stalks I'd flattened when I left the road to crawl through the grass. Or plants trampled by the Pests. But I didn't find anything. Maybe they'd eaten their fill and crawled away? Or maybe this wasn't the right place?
Fortunately, my scanning ability reloaded, and I activated the icon.
Scanning skill increased to level four!
There they were, the scoundrels! The bugs were noticeably farther from the road than before, practically on the edge of my scanning circle. There were seven. I determined the direction to the targets and walked toward them. I stopped a hundred thirty feet from the nearest Pest and, evening out my breathing, aimed the air rifle. Fire!
A short quiet clack sounded out, and the air-propelled bullet sped off toward the target. No effect. The bug I'd fired on didn't stop devouring our food. I shot again. And again. Nothing. Either I was constantly missing, or the bug didn't care one bit about the tiny metal bullets.
And then, when I was about to get closer to my victim, I hit! Even from a distance, I could hear the clear sound of impact. And the bullet went through its shell!
The contours of the bug lit up an alarming crimson. I saw a life bar over the insect. It was down to half. It spread out its three-foot wingspan and the huge spiny Pest lifted into the air with a heavy buzz. It determined my location, turned and flew at me.
I was hoping the bug would crawl. Then I'd have managed to kill it with the air rifle at this distance. But I had already considered that it might fly and was planning to run away if it did, luring the insect farther from its buddies, then shooting it with the shotgun.
But it was flying much faster than I planned. I couldn't run away from this. And I certainly wasn't expecting all the Field Pests to swarm and race toward me. What was more, there weren't just seven, there were more than thirty!!!
I shot from the hip at the wounded bug and missed again, then put the air gun away and took out my shotgun. I had to shoot practically point blank, just seven to ten feet, but the large pellets from two barrels tore the bug to shreds!
You have reached level four!
You have received three skill points!
But then I realized the tragedy of my situation. I had just barely reached level four, and my progress bar was empty, so my inevitable death would lose me a level, three skill points and some skill levels. And now, with a ghastly hum, there were three enraged beasts flying straight at me!
Surviving in this situation was hardly possible, but there's death and then there's death. If I managed to do something that filled the progress bar by even a hair, then I stood to lose practically nothing. That thought fully occupied my consciousness. It was surprising, but I wasn't afraid of death. I was only afraid of dying stupidly.
I ran headlong for the road, hopping like a hare and dodging the bugs divebombing me. I ducked away from two or three insects, and kicked another like a soccer ball, but then I was knocked off my feet by a blow to the back. It felt like a red-hot knife had been driven under my right shoulder blade.
My life bar immediately sagged to half. Dang that hurts!
Poison! You will lose 5 HP every 3 seconds for 3 minutes.
Bleeding! You will lose 4 HP every 3 seconds for 40 seconds.
Well, that meant death... I didn't have enough health points to survive these negative effects. Strange as it was, I was entirely calm and stuck to a clear goal for my remaining seconds: take at least one enemy with me.
I abruptly rolled onto my back, throwing off the bug that had got me, and sending another back with a punch, then stood back up. I tried to reload the shotgun with my trembling hands, dropping cartridges in the tall crops.
Would you like to take the skill Dodge?
Would you like to take the skill Sprinter?
Would you like to take the skill Hand-to-Hand Combat?
Would you like to take the skill Entomology?
These obtrusive skill suggestions were getting in my face! Would I really be reading this spam in the very last seconds of my life?! With a kick of my bare foot, I sent another bug flying back, finally reloaded the double-barrel and met the next enemy with a shot from both barrels as it sped at my face. Got it! I hit!!!
Rifles skill increased to level seven!
My face was spattered with stinking orange goo, but that didn't matter now. I could clearly see that the progress bar was more than a quarter filled. And then... I suddenly felt better.
Healing effect applied.
Your wounds have healed.
As I was reading these messages, I was suddenly stunned by thundering fire. Just above my ear, someone was mowing down the Field Pests from a high-caliber and very loud weapon. On the mini-map right behind me, I suddenly saw a marker, a green circle. Ally!!! However, I would put my head on the chopping block to bet that, just a few seconds earlier, there had been no one there.
I turned around sharply and stuck my nose into a worn sheet of armor with a Second Legion emblem. I looked higher. And higher. And higher. There was a ten-foot-tall armored robot standing next to me spitting fire from a high-caliber machine gun as the Field Pests flew away in panic. To be more accurate, it was not a robot. There was a frail dark-haired girl firing the machinegun, inside an automatized armored suit. She was a young beauty who looked to be no older than eighteen.
Gerd Tamara. Human. H3 Faction. Level-78 Paladin
My team! Not ceasing fire, the girl started rebuking me:
"Who let you out alone at night, newbie? And who said you could waste these rare cartridges?!" Here, the girl lowered her head, met gazes with me, shuddered in fear... and stuck me through the chest with the wide sharp blade on the right arm of her suit, killing my Gnat in one blow!
* * *
The world went dark. After that, I saw only bright red words on a black background:
Your character has died. Respawn will be possible in fifteen minutes.
Would you like to review your statistics for this game session?
I was so dumbfounded that I didn't immediately react to the question. The words soon faded and disappeared, then the virtual-reality pod opened. But I spent some time lying on the soft bed and, looking dumbly at the ceiling in disbelief.
An ally killed me, a member of my faction... Why? What for? Could my actions in the game really have been taken so negatively that my character deserved to die? Was I now a criminal?
But first, that Tamara had saved me from the bugs and even healed me. What happened after that to make her opinion turn on a dime? And by the way, from a technical standpoint, how had she healed me? After all, she hadn't given me medicine or made any injections. Alright, that isn't so important. The much bigger question was what I should do now.
Because no one had yet come to arrest me, I crawled out of my virtual reality pod and went down the spiral staircase from corncob fifteen. It was "night" under the dome. The majority of the spotlights had been turned out, which submerged the huge space in partial darkness. Also, I could see sprinklers driving unhurriedly over the park paths.
Once down, I didn't see anyone waiting for me. No one wanted to see me, and what was more, no one was preparing to immediately arrest me. I calmed down and quickly walked to the dormitory complex, asking the night guard where my dorm room was located. The tranquil sweet-looking lady, totally not surprised to see me arrive at three o'clock in the morning, found me o
n her list, gave me my keys and explained in detail how to find my building and room.
I was on the third floor in a four-person room. Three beds were already occupied, and one was empty. I immediately recognized all three boys I had come to the Dome with: Artur, Denis and Imran. I took the towel, soap and toothpaste from my bed, then headed into the bathroom. And there, I looked in the mirror and nearly dropped everything: looking back at me was a boy with close-cut black hair and piercingly blue eyes that glowed in the darkness.
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