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“It makes me think of my life, my nonexistent accomplishments and my overall abilities in incompetence.”

Markus Zusak, I am the Messenger

ONLY LEVEL 6!

Never before had I felt so utterly worthless.

Only earlier that morning, I’d had the same social status as Alik, that drunken lowlife!

Me, Philip Panfilov, the next great Russian author (sarcasm intended) — and Alik! He and I shared the same place in the world’s food chain!

While my Yanna (provided she was still mine) was already level 8.

I kept walking blindly until I very nearly bumped into a moving car. Followed by the driver’s cussing, I hurried across the street. My head was teeming with exclamation marks. Too many shocks for one day. My sensitive psyche of gamer-turned-blogger just couldn’t take it any longer.

As I walked, I kept screwing my eyes trying to locate something in my internal view that might allow me to open that wretched stats window and distribute the points I had available. No such luck. The only thing I found was an inconspicuous debuff icon.

Nicotine Withdrawal

Duration: 14 days

Your body is deprived of nicotine!

Nicotine takes part in your body’s metabolism. -5% to Metabolism

Warning! High probability of a spontaneous Enrage!

Warning! Your aggro radius has increased!

-3% to Satisfaction every 12 hours

I chuckled. My previous attempts to quit had never come with a deadline. Only two weeks? Before, the sheer thought of having to struggle with nicotine dependency for the rest of my life had made me panic.

I might actually counter the debuff. I could drink more coffee and do more exercise. I might also try to raise my Satisfaction numbers with some nice tasty food. Having said that, wouldn’t my favorite books and movies have the same effect?

So basically, it was a no-brainer. I knew I could do it.

I still couldn’t find any character stats. Or my stats, rather. So I stopped scaring the passersby with my wild eye movements. Pointless. I might give it another try later at home when no one could see me.

As I walked along the boulevard, I noticed my first quest giver, Mr. Samuel Panikoff, busy reading a fresh copy of his newspaper. The old man was oblivious to my presence so I decided not to disturb him.

I popped into a nearby KFC restaurant and got myself a bucket of chicken wings to go.

I don’t like eating in public. I much prefer doing it in the comfort of my own home, hunched over a favorite book. My Dad gave me this habit. I know it’s not good for you but it’s my top guilty pleasure and I’m not giving it up for the world.

As I waited in line, I checked my smartphone notifications. My inboxes were groaning with missed calls and messages, mainly from fellow clan members. A couple of calls were from numbers I didn’t know. They could be job offers. I called back but no one picked up.

Never mind. I’d have to check my emails once I got home.

A new system message came up,

Hunger

You’re experiencing food deprivation!

-10% to Metabolism

Warning! Your body lacks glucose!

Warning! Your body lacks amino acids!

Warning! Danger of muscle mass decreasing!

Debuff received: Weakness

-1 to Stamina every 24 hrs.

-1 to Agility every 24 hrs.

-1 to Perception every 24 hrs.

-1 to Intellect every 24 hrs.

-1 to Strength every 24 hrs.

-2% to Satisfaction every 2 hrs.

-3% to Vigor every 2 hrs.

That was nothing to sniff at. Even though I couldn’t quite work out its mechanism, my knees felt weak as if I had indeed received a debuff.

The bucketful of wings smelled awesome. I had to really exercise my willpower not to scoff the whole lot on my way home. No wonder: last time I’d had something to eat was dinner with Yanna last night, and now it was already past midday.

Yanna. My chest groaned stronger than before, pushing the euphoria of my earlier clinic visit to the background of my mind. All the joy of what was happening, including the new level I’d just received, had faded into insignificance.

I can’t tell you what had prompted my next step. It could have been the desperation of losing her. Or it could have been the hunger debuff affecting my judgment. In any case, instead of going home and trying to work out the mysterious game’s interface as I’d planned, I turned round and headed for Yanna’s workplace. Her company office was only a few blocks away.

Clutching the KFC bucket under one arm and the MRI envelope under the other, I hurried over there, ignoring the passersby’s surprised looks.

How many movies had I seen where the hormone-driven hero, instead of saving the world or going about his own business, hurried to reunite with his loved one instead. How many books had I read which described exactly the same scenario. And how angry had I been with the author or screenwriter, how passionately had I hurled the book across the room when the said hormone-driven hero would reject a good job, a lump sum of money or even the offer of superpowers simply to keep the woman he loved.

“You idiot!” I’d yell at the hero. “What do you think you’re doing? Go put a knot in it and do something useful!”

Now as I walked, I said the same things to myself. It didn’t help though. My legs kept carrying me to her.

I only stopped by the entrance to their posh business center. I needed to catch my breath. I was sweating like a pig. I wiped my face with my sleeve, dropping the MRI envelope into a puddle of rainwater in the process. I bent down to pick it up and sensed her gaze on my back.

I must have looked a sight: soaked and disheveled, standing in the middle of a filthy puddle fumbling for my envelope in the water. Plus that damned KFC bucket in my other hand.

I’d been here a few times before to pick her up, and every time she’d asked me to wait for her outside. Did I embarrass her? Had I been so dumb not to realize it?

She’d never invited me to their office parties, either. “It’s okay, you can stay at home and play with your computer if you wish, we’re not obliged to bring a spouse.”

And I’d so readily agreed every time she’d said it...

Bracing myself, I picked up the envelope, shook the water off it and turned round.

I’d been mistaken. The person who stared at me wasn’t Yanna at all. It was their security guard — a bundle of muscle wrapped in a cheap black suit — who mumbled something into his radio as he gave me a hooded look.

Max “Boss” Bosiara

Age: 29

Current status: security guard

Social status level: 3

Class: wrestler. Level: 4

Unmarried

Relationship: Dislike 15/30

Only level 3? Poor bastard! Even Alik had a better social status. And he was already disliking me? He didn’t even know me.

I was so pissed with this “Boss” as if it was his own fault that Yanna had left me. What had the system message said about “spontaneous Enrage”? This must have been it.

The thought had calmed me down a bit. Still I couldn’t resist getting even with him.

Copying his body language, I produced my cell phone and spoke into it, holding it close to my mouth,

“One, two, three, do you read me? Over...”

He gave up first, averting his gaze, then turned his back to me.

Stupid, I know. Still, it distracted me for a bit. My fixation with Yanna seemed to have subsided a little.

I walked home hung with debuffs like a Christmas tree. I was too tired to jog.

Once home, I peeled off my sodden clothes and shoved them in the washer, then headed for the shower to remove all trace of today’s legwork. I’d been rushing around like a headless chicken all day — but my Stamina hadn’t even budged.

I had lunch listening to the monotonous dripping of the leaky tap. I couldn’t even taste my food. Having finished, I made myself a cup of hot black tea. That was better. The Weakness debuff was already gone. Later, I might also have some strong coffee to give my Metabolism a boost.

Once I cleaned up after myself, I received an optimistic message,

You’ve consumed 378 calories.

Warning! The food you’ve eaten contains chemicals which may be detrimental to your health!

Warning! +0,00039% to your risk of developing cancer!

-0,071345% to Vigor

-2% to Metabolism. Duration: 12 hrs.

Ooh. Life is a bitch. I’d basically swapped one debuff for another. These days whatever you picked up from a supermarket shelf was bound to contain some “detrimental chemicals”. Thanks a bunch, mister game designer. You can warn me all you want but I’m not giving up fast food even if you keep dishing me up debuff after debuff!

I slumped into my decrepit leather chair. It groaned under my weight, creaking, then succumbed to its fate. I took a big swig of coffee, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate.

As always after a meal, I was dying for a smoke. I was too used to having a cigarette in my mouth whenever I needed to think. Still, I ignored the urge and took a few deep breaths, then focused on the task at hand. I needed to see the game’s interface.

My field of vision filled with blurred flashes of iridescent light. I noticed a dark shape moving in a row of amorphous spots. It was rather small, diamond-shaped, but most interestingly, it appeared to shimmer.

When I concentrated on it, the spot began to come into focus. Now I could see it clearly: a black diamond bearing the sign of a red exclamation mark.

I opened my eyes. The sign hadn’t disappeared. It hovered in mid-air in front of me like a 3D movie effect.

I reached out to touch it. Predictably, my hand went right through it. I tried to mentally “click” it.

It worked! A dialog window opened,

You’ve received a new social status level!

Current social status level: 6

You’ve unblocked a new skill: Insight I

Skill type: Passive

Now you can connect to the universal information field in order to see your data and that of the world around you, within the limits of your skill level.

Skill points available: 1

Accept/Decline

“Yes please! Accept!” I shouted.

Nothing happened.

I focused on the Accept button, mentally “clicking” it.

The world imploded onto me.

* * *

WHEN I FINALLY came around, I was lying on the floor in the fetal position. I must have fallen from the chair.

The room was dark. I could see the night sky through the window.

I tried to scramble to my feet but my arms gave under me, sending me face first back onto the floor. I very nearly fainted again. I rolled onto my back and waited for my numb body to wake up.

My eyes were itchy as if I had sand in them. My whole body was stiff. I was drooling from the corner of my mouth. Still, my mind was crystal clear as if I’d just had my brain formatted and a new OS installed.

I rubbed my eyes until finally I realized: those were no grains of sand.

They were icons and status bars.

I had my interface opened!

Unlike a traditional game interface, this one didn’t have any of the pretty bells and whistles. The edge of my vision was lined with several gray icons covered in black symbols. They were positioned along the top border which made them look a bit like eyelashes.

In order to “control” them, I had to roll my eyes. Then an icon would grow and come into focus, becoming clickable.

I glanced over the symbols without opening anything yet. A human silhouette; a book; a globe; an exclamation mark, and a question mark.

Not much. So where was my one-size-fits-all non-dimensional inventory bag?

I tried to move the icons around. It worked. I positioned them at some distance from myself. Now they looked like road signs hovering in the air a few feet away from me.

The status bars were located in the lower part of my field of vision. The already-familiar Vitality bar (or health bar, I suppose) was red, about three-quarters full. The one next to it was yellow, only half-full. I focused on it. This was Satisfaction.

Finally, in the lower right corner of my vision was a blue bar, full to the brim.

That just had to be mana.

All 100% of it.

Mana. Magic.

I was already envisioning myself hurling fireballs as I single-handedly battled a whole army (provided there was a war on) or stealthing into the bank vaults of some get-rich-quick scammers in order to retrieve their bankrupt old-age victims’ savings, or confronting a bunch of mafia toughs and bringing them to justice...

Bummer!

This was a fail to end all fails.

The blue bar meant Vigor. Vigor, of all things.

Well, what could you expect from someone who’d designed a red (not green!) health bar?

Actually, whose idea was this?

Who had come up with all the system messages? Normally, game makers hired special people to write them. But this wasn’t a game, was it? This was real life. I wasn’t dreaming. My brain was perfectly healthy, so no chance of hallucinating, either.

Where did it all come from? All these gaming terms and the system itself? Who calculated my social status or my Satisfaction points?

If you took that guy, the security guard — “Boss”, wasn’t it? If I asked him about his purpose in life, what would he say to me? Would he say he was a level-4 wrestler? I don’t think so. He might say he’s a security guard, or a human being, or a bodybuilder, an athlete, an avid angler, or her mother’s son — take your pick. His answer would depend on the timing and the asker’s identity. Still, according to the system he was a wrestler, period.

And how about Yanna? A level-3 office worker? Yeah yeah.

In any case, why was it happening to me of all people?

Just think of the mayhem that would have ensued in the social media if something like this would have become known! A RealRPG! This wasn’t some viral video of a cute cat or a celebrity wardrobe malfunction. The Internet would have exploded!

Still, there was no sign of any such breaking news anywhere. I’d spent the last forty-eight hours scouring all the newsfeeds and tabloid sites; I’d even posted a few questions on various forums with provocative titles like “What would you do if...” In those posts, I’d described my own case as a gamer’s fantasy. Admittedly, my posts had garnered a wealth of replies — but none of the commenters seemed to have taken my question seriously. Some dude called Igor_Bogeyman even wrote that he would have “leveled up soccer” and “finally brought Russian soccer under the spotlight”. His comment was seconded by several more guys — probably enough to make Russia’s new soccer team in time for the World Cup.

I tried to remember everything that had happened to me prior to this weird glitch in my perception. Still, I couldn’t think of anything. I might have overdone on WoW, that’s for sure. But that wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, was it? If you think of it, Bruce Banner had had to suffer a blast of gamma radiation in order to become Hulk. Peter Parker became Spider-Man after he’d been bitten by a radioactive spider. Tony Spark had built a powered suit of armor which turned him into Iron Man. Virtually all superheroes had a very clear transition from “before” to “after”. While in my case...

Having said that, my ability to divine other people’s attitude to me was a superpower, wasn’t it? In which case I too had a “before” and an “after”.

One thing I couldn’t yet work out was what had actually happened in the period between the two.

I’d read a book once where the MC was ported to a world that worked similarly to an RPG game. His surprise lasted for, like, half a paragraph. He looked around himself and immediately started leveling up. As in, Look at me! I’ve got a level-1 Observation skill! Cool! I should be leveling it! Because while you sleep, your opponents are leveling up. He then spent hours “observing” while lifting some weights and prancing around in order to improve his Strength and Agility too.

What a lot of BS.

Admittedly, I too had acted stupidly at first. Just think of me hopping and skipping all the way to the newsagent’s to get the old man’s paper! But that was understandable. I’d still been in shock. In moments like those, your brain goes into auto pilot. Which in my case meant switching to familiar patterns of game behavior.

And as for my going on a jogging marathon after Yanna had left me — well, that was an experiment of sorts. An important one, too, which had allowed me to finally work out the logic of this new game world...

No, not a game world, of course. Just the world the way I saw it now. How else did you expect me to do it? It wasn’t as if there were any guides or manuals available.

Let’s take XP, for instance. How were you supposed to earn it? Where were you going to find mobs and how were you supposed to smoke them? How about quests? I hadn’t received any XP for the sole quest I’d completed, fetching the paper for Panikoff. Since then, I hadn’t come across anything that even marginally resembled a quest.

And what was this social status thing, for crissakes? Was it the same as Popularity? Or Fame? Hardly. Could it mean your contribution to society?

My head was about to explode with all the questions. Never mind. As my Granddad used to say, you should do it one step at a time.

I needed to study the interface and the stats, everything that the few available icons had to offer. I had to work out their leveling scenario — but that might take some trial and error. I’d almost run out of money; new bills were coming soon; my fridge was empty. I needed to find a job. I also had to contact my clanmates, explain the situation and take a hiatus from the game. Then there was Yanna...

So basically, I had myself and my problems to sort out, relationships to mend and a life to fix. Once that done, I could finally afford to look into all this and decide whether it was a gift or a curse, then try to locate the person who’d bestowed it on me and why. Following that, I could always save the world if necessary.

I focused on the icon depicting a human silhouette and pressed it.

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About the author

boblak

Bio: Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.

This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.

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