"FOURTEEN-SEVENTY, Tyulenev would like to see you," said a small boy of around fifteen with a shaved head, tapping me on the shoulder.
Children under the Dome? Startled awake mid-dream, I figured this was just an extension of my fantasy. But no, the bald kid wasn't going anywhere. Standing next to my bed, he continued to try and rouse me. I suppressed a yawn and sat up, now looking around consciously. It was still dark out the window. My roommates were sleeping.
"What time is it?" My phone was the only time-telling device I owned, and they'd confiscated it, so I had no way of knowing.
"Just after seven," the boy answered quietly. "Daytime lighting will be turned on soon. Get dressed quick and go see Tyulenev. He's a serious man and does not appreciate having to wait."
"Who is this Tyulenev, and where can I find him?"
The boy shook his head in reproach, as if I had just asked the stupidest question he'd ever heard. Thankfully, he at least did give a detailed answer:
"Tyulenev is third in command under Radugin, head of the Dome. A real big shot, he develops individualized levelling plans for each team member based on the faction's needs. His office is in the administration building. Don't make Tyulenev wait. He's already in a bad mood..."
I asked the boy what had our third-in-command so uptight, but he didn't answer. He just made sure I was really up and had understood what he'd told me, then quietly left as I stewed in anxious guesses.
But I had some idea why he might be upset if staff issues were his domain. My mindless rule breaking!So as not to annoy him even more, I got up, dressed myself and washed up. I got startled again when I saw myself in the mirror. Hmm... My eyes were still purplish blue, glowing and totally inhuman.
Just five minutes later, I knocked on Tyulenev's office and entered. He was a corpulent man of middling years. Despite his loose clothing, I could see his huge gut sway with every movement. It was quite strange to see such a fat man under the Dome. Everyone else I'd met down here had a fit athletic figure.
"Take a seat," said Tyulenev pointing me to a chair near the table, "and tell me about it."
My superior then spent a few long seconds staring at my face, studying my eyes, after which he gave a snort of delight and turned his gaze away. I obediently sat down and asked what he wanted me to tell him about.
The man frowned and answered with a now more official and severe tone:
"One thousand four hundred seventy, we received a report about you from a very respected player, Second Legion Commander Gerd Tamara. She said you were loitering around during an official CtA and wasting rare ammunition. Now I need to know: how did you even get there?! So, tell me in chronological order what you did in as much detail as possible."
I had nothing to hide. I felt my motivation was noble and praiseworthy, so I told him I went up the corncob and into my virtual reality pod out of a sincere desire to help the faction. I described how I'd edited my appearance changed my eye color, adjusted my name, and familiarized myself with my character statistics...
"Tell me more about that," the fat man unlocked his computer to enter my data. "Strain your memory. I need all your character's initial parameters for our records."
For my part, I didn't have to try very hard to remember. I could recall my initial stat table perfectly: Strength 12, Agility 15, Intelligence 17, Perception 19, Constitution 10.
"Doesn't add up. Something must be off," the fat man objected after hammering in the numbers. "Every newbie is given exactly 75 stat points regardless of race or profession, but yours adds up to just 73..."
"And Luck Modifier +2," I added. He nodded in satisfaction.
"Alright then, sounds like a decent character without serious imbalances," Tyulenev commented. "What class did you get?"
"My options were Geologist or Prospector. I chose Prospector..."
The fat man's kindhearted attitude blew away like the wind.
"No, no, no! That was a mistake!" Tyulenev exclaimed and stood up sharply, even damaging the seat a bit.
His gut swinging, my superior headed to the coffee maker. He just kept criticizing my choice and wouldn't calm down:
"You should have exited then and consulted with me! It's too bad. You could have done such great things as a Geologist! That's all down the drain now! You have high Perception and positive luck, so that would have been perfect! We could cover so many gaps in our colony with a Geologist like that! But instead, we have another worthless player... We already have a starship pilot, a space commando, and a paleobotanist. Well, it looks like team useless has four members now. You'll be assigned menial labor like taking out trash and digging ditches."
Extremely surprised by the volatile reaction, I asked boldly what was wrong with my Prospector.
"Everything is wrong with him!" the fat man shouted, his hands shaking in agitation as he dropped cubes of refined sugar into his mug. "The Prospector class is meant to work with electronic scanning devices. But human beings don't have such technology! And I cannot tell you how long it will be before we develop it, or if we ever even will!"
I nearly fell off my chair from the shocking news. We didn't even have the technology?! Well I'll be damned! What could I do now?! All the other players would be able to level their primary skills, but I'd be left behind! Apparently, Tyulenev felt irritated and dejected, just like me. He was sulking and, seemingly, had lost interest in working on my development path.
I was utterly discouraged as well. But I tried to reassure him by saying I'd passed the maze and been given five stat points for my performance.
"Five?" Tyulenev asked, perking up. I told him how I'd spent those points and he marked it down in his computer.
I was expecting reproach or at least commentary, but the fat man had no reaction. I continued with the story of meeting the Geckho diplomat, walking down the road at night and breaking into the arsenal. Tyulenev didn't interrupt me once. He didn't even comment on me taking the Astrolinguistics skill, which I figured he'd also think of as wrong.
Only when I'd finished, after describing the short battle with the bugs and dying at the hand of the paladin girl, my boss said thoughtfully:
"I understand Gerd Tamara's reaction. She was on duty last night. Her nerves must have been fried. Plus, she got fragged twice. Everyone in her Second Legion respawned at least once, too. The Dark Faction assault was strong and focused. But most importantly, the Dark Faction took two of her soldiers prisoner. Tamara was especially upset by that."
"But can murdering a faction member in cold blood really be justified by the frazzled nerves of that... Gerda? Or Gerd? What is it? I've never heard of a name like that before. Gerd?"
The fat man looked at my strangely and shook his head in reproach:
"I can see right away, Gnat, that you are still inexperienced and practically know nothing about the game that bends reality... Gerd isn't some last name. It isn't a title and isn't a military rank... How to put it... It's more like an achievement or rank. It comes from an ancient proto-language used all over the game that bends reality and means something like 'worthy' or 'esteemed.' It's an achievement that cannot be bought or received by vote. It is automatically placed before the name of a player that becomes widely-respected in their faction."
"Are there higher ranks?" I asked right away. "I think I heard the Geckho diplomat refer to the Dome leader as 'Leng.'"
"Yes, 'Leng' is the next highest rank. It means 'viceroy,' 'faction leader' or, if you'd like a more direct translation: 'master of the fortress.' After that comes 'Kung,' which means 'leader of many divisions.' And highest of all is 'Krong,' top of the hierarchy. So then, there is a clear rule: A Gerd is immeasurably higher in status than simple players and never have to explain their actions. To you, a Gerd is like..."
Tyulenev faltered, trying to come up with an apt comparison and I suggested:
"Like a Geckho?"
"Exactly! Great comparison! Exactly right! You are not always required to obey them, but you must give them respect and not enter into conflict with them. In any dispute between human and Geckho, the Geckho is always right. It is the same way with Tamara. She killed you, so she must have thought that was the right thing to do, and now she has no need to justify herself or apologize to you."
Somewhat strange logic, but I understood that it was useless to argue. Rules are rules.
"But could I at least know why she did it? After all, I need to understand what I did wrong, so I don't do it again!"
The fat man went silent for a bit, then suggested I look in the mirror.
"Your eyes! They're inhuman. Also, glowing eyes are a kind of calling card of Dark Faction mages. They are our most cunning and insidious enemy. Tamara has many unsettled accounts with them. But the leader of the Second Legion is also a splinter in their ass. She is the only one who can use magic in our entire H3 Faction. Perhaps, when she saw you on her way to the arsenal, a person with glowing eyes, she thought it was a trap and acted on instinct."
"But the night receptionist and the page boy today also saw my eyes, and they didn't react!"
The fat man laughed happily and turned the monitor to me:
"So you thought, Gnat! Here, look at your personal file. There are two more reports. Today, two thirty AM. The night receptionist suspected you might be working for the enemy. And the second came at six ten this morning from the boy that woke you up. He requested the Security Service to test you for magical abilities. What were you thinking when you created your character? Ask the supply officer to issue you some sun glasses as soon as possible so you don't cause so much panic."
I had no objections, I just asked him to tell me how many of our players had that higher status, so I could morally prepare and not fall victim to their hot temper.
"In our faction, only three players have the status Gerd. They are a level-88 Sniper, First Legion Commander Igor Tarasov, a member of the Russian army and the highest-level player of our faction; a level-77 Scientist, head of the science complex Valentin Ustinov; and the level-78 Paladin you met yesterday, Second Legion Commander Tamara. And that's it."
Just three? Great. If I memorized these three names, I could behave naturally with everyone else. Meanwhile, it suddenly grew light out. The many spotlights under the Dome were turned on. Daytime here had begun. Tyulenev also noticed the coming of morning, but had a somewhat strange reaction, closing the thick curtain over his window.
"Old habit," he commented. "When I was brought under the Dome, I had stage-five diabetes. And it was type one, which is worse. My doctors said I had two weeks to live at most, and more likely a matter of hours. My retinas had deteriorated, and light gave me a horrible headache. But, like many here under the Dome, the game that bends reality saved my life. A healthy character in the game means a healthy body here on earth. My diabetes went away, and my vision returned to normal, but I still cannot bear bright light."
I kept silent, digesting the valuable information. As it turned out, many people under the Dome had once been hopelessly ill, and the game had cured them. After all, the bald fifteen-year-old who woke me up this morning, had most likely ended up here for a similar reason. Meanwhile, Tyulenev calmed down and we finally returned to the topic at hand.
"I don't see anything criminal in your actions, Gnat. You were acting on noble impulses and, although your gameplay was somewhat chaotic, you did a good job. Sure, you entered the game without permission, but that reflects more on the fact that no one was guarding the corncobs. You didn't study the labyrinth, but you still passed the test, and no one judges winners. Sure, we could have sent forty-five pounds of supplies into the virtual world with you but, in that case, I suspect you wouldn't have succeeded."
I agreed fully with my boss. Even without the extra encumbrance, I finished just six seconds before my time was up, with my endurance nearing zero. If I had forty-five pounds of bales and boxes on me, there was no way I'd have made it. So, Tyulenev continued:
"Your only serious oversight, as I already said, was the improper choice of class. But that isn't as hopeless as I first thought. You have two more skill slots. You must now take Mineralogy and level it as a priority alongside Scanning. Consider that an official order. You will work as assistant to our other Geologist, because Mikhalych is too old, and it would take him ten years to climb around all the cliffs and hills in our faction's territory. And as for an electronic scanner... well, I saw one in the electronics shop at the Geckho base. I can't remember how much it cost. We have a severe deficit of Geckho currency, so we only use it to buy things we really need. But let that be a dream for you in the game. If you save up the funds to buy yourself a scanner, you won't have to languish as a Geologist's assistant, you can be a fully-fledged Prospector!"
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