THIS TIME, when entering the game, I didn't fall from up high. I just appeared standing on even ground. The place, though, was the exact same — right next to the Geckho diplomat's tent. Kosta Dykhsh himself happened to be there again as well, speaking with Ivan Lozovsky. It was somewhat unusual to see him not wearing an austere business suit, but a spotted camouflage smock over heavy armor. The sniper rifle slung over his back just added to it. But he was at level eighty, which inspired respect.
I walked up closer to the conversing diplomats.
"Kento duho, Gnat!" the furry humanoid greeted me with a slight bow.
"Kento duho, Kosta Dykhsh!" I echoed the Geckho diplomat and gave a bow, which inspired a fit of bark-like laughter.
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level three!
Ivan Lozovsky spilled out a long sentence in Geckho, turning to our resident suzerain, but I didn't understand one bit, just my name, which was repeated a few times. Kosta Dykhsh, clearly justifying himself, answered in his own language. Then he pointed to me and repeated in Russian:
"I didn't make him do it. Gnat wanted to learn Geckho all on his own. I told him not to, but he insisted."
"Why would he need that skill? To study a foreign language, one must speak it with a native. But how can Gnat do that? He's a Prospector and will spend practically all his time hiking around remote cliffs and swamps!"
The diplomats returned to the alien language and argued for three minutes. I even thought I caught a few select phrases in Geckho. Then my Astrolinguistics improved again:
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level four!
Finally, Ivan Lozovsky finished his argument and turned to me, looking critically at my street clothes and bare feet:
"Gnat, you should run to base to get some decent attire. Actually, wait... It'll take you more than an hour to get there on foot. I'll call a driver."
He took the radio from his belt and barked an order:
"Zheltov, get your starship to the furball's house. I need you to bring someone to base."
In reply, a high-pitched squeal came from the radio then two barely distinguishable words: "Three minutes."
"Furball?" Kosta Dykhsh asked, baring his teeth. I'd seen that expression before, and it wasn't a threat, but an imitation of a human smile.
"Well, I figured your race needs an informal name, and you get offended by Wookie, yeti and abominable snowman!" Ivan Lozovsky chuckled.
"Yeti and Wookie are entirely different races. What's more, they are fictional. Humans using such terms for the Geckho shows ignorance," Dykhsh answered very seriously. Then, he suddenly started barking or coughing through clenched teeth. "Furball is fine. It's mostly an accurate description, so I cannot be mad."
I tried not to be surprised at the casual, and even friendly interaction between the two diplomats. After all, Ivan Lozovsky himself had implored us to treat all Geckho as respectfully as possible. And that was putting it lightly. But Kosta Dykhsh didn't object, and even seemed to like it, so our diplomat must have known what he was doing.
Just then, I heard a strange hum and whistle in the distance, and soon an astonishing vehicle flew in from the forest. It consisted of a set of curved metal pipes welded together, attached to four bucket seats and something that was not quite a steering wheel, not quite a helm. The craft was somehow reminiscent of a racing buggy, but instead of wheels on the ground, it had three horizontal metal disks that made it hover. This makeshift transport was piloted by a young redheaded man covered from head to toe in fresh mud and wearing an old-fashioned racing helmet and leather overalls.
Dmitry Zheltov. Human. H3 Faction. Level-28 Starship Pilot
Starship pilot?! Was this the guy Tyulenev mentioned earlier? I suspected we didn't have a starship, so now he was working as a pilot of this... what was this by the way? The strange machine didn't touch the ground and hovered four inches in the air. It didn't look like an air pillow, or magnets. So, was this an improvised antigrav?
Ivan Lozovsky pointed me out to the pilot:
"Bring this newbie to base, right to Vasiliadi's warehouse. Tell him to give Gnat proper equipment, because he's going on patrol soon. Also, stay on call. There are going to be lots of trips today. We've got a big group of newbies. Fifty people."
The red-headed boy whistled in surprise, then pointed me to the front passenger seat. I didn't need to be asked twice and hopped right in. The vehicle sagged a bit to one side. The pilot abruptly turned the helm in one direction, restoring balance and evening out the flying buggy:
"Wo-o-oah! Careful! Can't you see? We're hovering here. This takes a gentle touch. By the way, make sure to buckle up, otherwise you might fly out when we turn. Also, there are helmets in the back. Put one on.You might need it."
I took his sage advice, donned a protective helmet, sat back in the seat and buckled the seatbelt. At that, I noticed a gnarled word scratched into the back bumper: "starship."
"We've got a couple of jokers in the faction..." the pilot said, when he saw me looking. "As soon as I get it repainted, they scratch it back in. But one day, I'll catch them in the act and then I'll show them!!!"
"Is that because of your class?" I clarified, hoping not to seriously offend him.
"What else could it be...? I was brought in from the Mozhaysky Military-Space Academy. I graduated with honors from a special course to pilot near-space vehicles, successfully passed a harsh selection process and was sent under the Dome. And when I got there, the game offered me just two professions: Starship Pilot, or Heavy Robot Operator. Of course I chose the first... But no one told me how far our faction was from getting actual starships!"
Dmitry grated his teeth and turned the helm without warning, which made the vehicle jerk sharply forward, pressing me forcefully into my seat.
"You in a rush? You care if we go around the forest?" the pilot enquired, not turning his head as he maneuvered between bushes and stones at enormous speed. "It's just that, it rained yesterday and there are little streams everywhere. I got stuck in one earlier and, with two of us, we'll probably hit another. My batteries are low. These pancakes don't have enough power. I'll have to charge up at base..."
Cartography skill increased to level four!
Only then did I notice with surprise how quickly my progress bar was filling. Another minute, or minute and a half at most, and my character would hit level five. I was actively using some skill. Cartography? Seemingly. On the dark unexplored map, a strip was slowly being colored in. So, riding the blisteringly fast buggy, leveled Cartography many times faster than going on foot.
Cartography skill increased to level five!
Scanning skill increased to level five!
You have reached level five!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: six)
Whoo, if I rode around like this a couple hours, just think how much I would level! But, unfortunately, we were already there... He gave the vehicle another sharp jerk and we went around a rather sparse grove, then I saw a tall reinforced-concrete wall with watchtowers. Before it, there were rows of barbed wire, trenches and firing points for heavy artillery. The hovercraft slowed down, took a bridge over a river, then stopped next to the open gates.
Dmitry Zheltov removed his helmet and took his hands off the helm. I followed his example and removed my helmet. A guardsman with an automatic walked up and trained a strange camera-like device on us. His partner meticulously studied an image on his tablet. Clearly, we were being checked. We waited patiently until a command came in from the sentry up above:
"All clear. Come on through!"
* * *
The mountain of items on the table before me grew at a frightening speed. A whole camouflage uniform. A helmet strung with mosquito netting. Ballistic goggles. A knife in a case. High boots. A canteen. A belt. Kneepads. A backpack. Tactical gloves... Was I supposed to wear all this???
"You want light or medium armor?" asked Vasiliadi, the huge hairy stock keeper.
How should I know? The Prospector class only forbid heavy and power armor. This was the first I was hearing about medium and light. I asked for medium. He plopped down a kevlar jacket with extra inserts.
"Have you already taken the Medium Armor skill? Otherwise, there's no reason to pack on the extra pounds. It won't do any good!"
By the way, the stock keeper was right... I had already taken Mineralogy as my seventh skill, as directed by my boss, and was busting my brains over the last one. That was right! Protection!
You have taken the skill Medium Armor level 1.
"Don't even ask for 12-caliber cartridges. We haven't had them in stock for a long time. But we've got a ton of air rifle slugs!"
"But what's the use of that...?" I asked in disappointment. But Vasiliadi disagreed:
"Don't say that! Before we had a production facility for automatic bullets, even the First Legion used air rifles. Sure, they had a higher caliber and power than your 'burp gun' but, just so you know, a 9-mm PCP pneumatic rifle can splatter the brains out of a bear! But a weapon like that needs high skill. At least level-30, and preferably higher."
Level thirty? My rifle skill was still just seven, so I had a long way to go... I asked what he had for Rifles thirteen or even ten, which made the hairy stock keeper chuckle:
"What are you talking about, Gnat?! I've got a serious arsenal here, not just playthings. To be more accurate, I have weapons for level-zero beginners, with no skill requirements, but you'll get a better one. Level the skill to at least twenty, then come back and we'll take a look. Or ask our mechanics. They can improve your weapons for some coin. All kinds of modifications are available: accuracy, damage, silence. By the way, you asked about Kisly. Here he comes."
I turned sharply and saw a sprightly old man with his head shaved bald and a full,thick black beard. But I ignored his unusual hair distribution. The first thing that caught my eye was his perfectly square figure. Kisly was not tall, a half a head shorter than me. But at that, his shoulders were those of a real brute. Each arm was the width of my leg, and although his huge fists were not watermelon sized, they were at least as big as a cantaloupe. And Kisly's voice, as immediately became clear, was about as loud as a foghorn:
"Gnat, why the hell aren't you dressed?! We're leaving in ten minutes, and you're not ready!"
"They told me to be ready by ten, but it's just nine fifteen..." I tried to object. But the commander barked in reply:
"You dolt! We're supposed to be at the Border Post Eight on the Antique Beach by ten. But it's a half hour away! Get dressed quick!"
I caught myself off guard with how quickly I changed clothes but, just thirty seconds later, I was standing before the commander with all my items equipped. Kisly nodded in approval, but couldn't hold back a snicker:
"Gnat, what was that? You have experience getting changed in a jiffy? Maybe your girlfriend's parents come home at odd hours? Did you forget you were in a game? Just open your inventory, set the object in the slot and it appears on your body. You didn't have to hop on one leg to get your pants on."
Dang, that was dumb... I really hadn't considered that, in a virtual world, I could just move objects in a window and not have to monkey around with buttons and laces. Meanwhile, the radio on Kisly's belt started sounding. With a sullen face, the high-level soldier listened carefully, confirmed and signed off. After that, he flared up again:
"What is this preschool?! Listen, Gnat, there are another two coming with us. Some newbies. They say you know them. Zheltov is bringing them here right now. But, we've got a few free minutes, so set your respawn point on the base and use up all your skill points, if you've got any. Antique Beach is fairly calm, but you still might die there."
I didn't ignore his valuable advice and dug around in the settings for how to change my respawn point. Ah, there! Some coordinates and even a mini-map. Apparently, my respawn point was right where I'd first appeared in the game that bends reality. I even managed to find the Geckho diplomat's tent on the mini-map.
Would you like to change your respawn point?
Yes, I would! I found a spot on base free of buildings and set new coordinates to respawn at in case of death. Great! Now I needed to spend my skill points up.
All six into Scanning and Minerology, as Tyulenev wanted? I would have done that, but according to my calculation, I would hit Scanning level six any time now. Since arriving to base, I had activated the icon a few times, so it would be dumb to lose the progress. Meanwhile, it would be totally irrational to spend my free points on Mineralogy. The very first levels of a skill always come fast, and I figured I'd first get to five or seven the usual way before wasting any valuable points.
So, hoping greatly that Tyulenev would never find out, I put all six points into Rifles, raising it to thirteen. Patrolling the border was a dangerous and important mission, and with my harmless "burp gun" (as Vasiliadi had disrespectfully called it), I felt very unsafe.
This book is a part of a 4-book series.
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