“Trying to understand someone is like hugging a cactus. We all have to do it sometimes. Then one day when we need it the most someone might hug us back.”
Robert Downey, Jr.
HAVING RETURNED home from the station, I quickly donned my workout gear, put Richie on a leash and headed to the park. I also got rid of the garbage on my way. Strangely enough, I always felt a surge of satisfaction whenever I tossed a garbage bag into the trash can. I didn’t even need a system freebie message to encourage me.
“So what do you think, Richie? Let’s have a nice run!”
Richie nodded back to me. I started running — slowly at first, adjusting my breathing and preparing my body for the task. Once I’d broken into a light sweat, we began to speed up. The Caffeine buff added a spring to my step. My lungs, finally free from the many years of tobacco gunk, worked like clockwork now that my blood pumped oxygen instead of carbon monoxide. The dog kept running up and down, sniffing every suspicious object in his path.
On my third lap, I turned off the tarmac and headed through the woods. I’d already identified every item I’d come across. Every bench looked as if I’d known it since childhood.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities that might open once I’d made level 3 in Insight. For instance, if you found a lost item, the system would immediately give you the owner’s name and show his or her position on the map. How cool was that? Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought of counting the number of times I’d had to identify an object to make level 2. Most likely, I’d need ten if not a hundred times more in order to make level 3.
I remembered how drained I’d been when I’d located Oksana’s whereabouts. Should I check my Spirit numbers?
It wasn’t a number but a percentage. To make things worse, it was quite low. Or could it have also been affected by my attempts to locate the missing children at the station? Or by my leveling Insight? Did that mean that Spirit powered system abilities?
Once I’d returned to the tarmac, I summoned Martha and spent the rest of the run communicating with her. Trying to save my breath, I contacted her mentally.
“Hi Marth. Are you all right jogging in that dress? Don’t worry. You can wear what the hell you want. You’d better tell me what Spirit does.”
“Spirit symbolizes your ability to take action, mentally as well as physically. The higher your Spirit, the higher heights you can reach in your lifetime.”
“How does it affect system skills and stuff?”
“It doesn’t affect them. It powers them. Without high Spirit numbers, you can’t use system skills at all. Remember you asked me about something I couldn’t reply to straight away?” she paused, waiting for me to remember.
She went on, “I need to warn you about your current low Spirit reading. My visual appearance requires it, as well. I can disappear any moment now, I’m afraid. I could lower its energy consumption, but the result might not be to your liking.”
“Never mind. Just do it.”
Martha’s body disappeared, leaving only a very basic animated head. It always looked directly at me regardless of its position and used standard emotionless turns of phrase which were repeated in subtitles below.
“Would you like to set up your current virtual assistant settings as default?” the head asked without moving its lips.
“Yes, please. So how fast can Spirit levels restore?”
“That depends on your hidden Spirit regeneration ability.”
“Can I speed it up?”
“You can, through sleep and meditation. Some users also use prayer.”
“Only some? Can it help in my case?”
“Access denied. Insufficient faith levels.”
She couldn’t be serious, surely? “Which faith? You mean, religion?”
“Not necessarily. Still, a certain belief in a higher being of your choice is required.”
Jesus. Really? I knew of course that faith could work miracles. Like, statues of saints weeping real tears, church officials opening offshore bank accounts, airplanes exploding at the sound of God’s name. Surely making my Spirit regenerate double quick was peanuts for a force like that.
Still, I was curious why Martha had mentioned a “higher being of my choice” instead of just saying ‘God’ or ‘Allah’. “Could you give me a list of higher beings who could boost Spirit regeneration?”
“Access denied. Insufficient authorization levels.”
“Yeah right. Is it my personal-use license again? Or what now?”
What new mystery was this? Were religions illegal in the next century or something? In any case, this old format of contacting Martha felt like déjà vu. I almost missed her gum-chewing sarcasms.
I finally stopped and collapsed onto the nearest park bench. Today I’d covered a bigger distance. Overall, running felt easier and faster.
Richie was tired too. He slumped onto the ground next to me and began panting with his tongue hanging. I reached out to stroke him. He lowered his ears and wagged his tail.
A new system message appeared in front of me, obstructing the dog.
Your Stamina has improved!
+1 to Stamina
Current Stamina: 5
You’ve received 1000 pt. XP for successfully leveling up a main characteristic!
My already good mood soared even higher. Yes, I might still be a wuss who didn’t dare wear glasses in public. My Stamina might still be half that of an average person — but by the same token, I was now almost twice as enduring as a week and a half ago.
Overcome with excitement, I grabbed Richie’s head and gave him a hearty smacker on the nose. He licked my face with abandon.
“Get away, Rich! You stink!” I said, wiping my face.
Martha’s pixelated head watched us impassively.
Talking about which, I still had this Spirit thing to sort out. And what if higher levels of system skills required more resources than I could ever amass?
I asked Martha about it. “Does Spirit grow numerically? All I can see now is percentage, a bit like Satisfaction. Does it have a set maximum value?”
“No, it doesn’t. Spirit development isn’t static. You can develop it through self-analysis, awareness, bringing harmony to your thoughts and perfecting your body.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“You should try to look at yourself through another’s eyes in every situation, sir. You need to observe yourself.”
This switch to “sir” was a bit unexpected. It reminded me of the Major earlier that morning who’d done exactly the opposite. Still, in her case it was probably just the result of lowering her energy consumption levels which must have disabled her personalization module.
“Whenever you disapprove of your behavior, thoughts or emotions,” she went on, “you need to reflect upon it, try to pinpoint the reason for it and decide what you can do to prevent it from happening again. You should try to think only of really important things. Things that do make the difference. You should also perfect your body.”
“Yes, yes. A sound mind in a sound body, I know. Still, how would you level up Stamina?” I asked, remembering my own clumsiness and the task I’d added to the list only an hour ago.
“You need to do special workouts aiming to improve your balance and coordination. You should also do some weight training to strengthen your muscles and tendons.”
Was it my imagination or was this version of Martha an absolute bureaucrat? She was talking in vague clichés without actually telling me anything. Could it be why the task hadn’t been closed yet? Very well. I might have to look up some balance and weight training workouts on the net.
“Martha, does the system improvement of Luck require any preliminary training?”
“No such training is necessary.”
“Thanks a bunch, Marth,” I still treated her like a human being out of habit. “See you later.”
I opened my characteristic tab. Time to invest the level point I’d received into something useful.
Strength: 7 (a Comfortable Track Suit: +1)
Agility: 4 (a Comfortable Track Suit: +1; a pair of Speedy Sneakers: +1)
Stamina: 5 (a Comfortable Track Suit: +1)
Charisma: 13 (a Comfortable Track Suit: +1)
The numbers in brackets weren’t included into a characteristic’s final reading. Which was good for me because it saved me the trouble of using a calculator just to see my real results without all the gear bonuses. In fact, they weren’t even round numbers. For instance, my sneakers added 1.364 pt. to Agility but I’d changed the settings to round off numbers the night I’d been personalizing the interface.
In actual fact, those fractions of a point could make all the difference. After a moment’s hesitation, I changed the settings back.
I focused on Luck. A little box opened,
You have 1 (one) available characteristic point. Accept/Decline
This time I unhesitantly pressed Accept.
Warning! We’ve detected an abnormal increase in your Luck characteristic: +1 pt.
Your brain will be restructured in keeping with the new reading (8) to comply with your current level of decision making.
The world blinked. I found myself at the center of a great void. I couldn’t even feel it: I couldn’t feel anything. Light, sound, smells, gravitation — everything was gone. The one remaining sense — that of touch — put its imaginary hands in the air, surrendering to the great nothing.
It only lasted a split second. Then I was back sitting on a bench in the park. Richie was busy scratching his ear like mad with his hind leg. The fierce blinding sun; the transparent blue sky; the perfumed abundance of tree blossoms; a bumblebee buzzing over my head...
For some reason, my ear started itching too, so badly that I wanted to bury my little finger deep enough in it to scratch my very brain.
I rose from the bench and looked around. Everything seemed to be okay. I didn’t feel as if I’d changed. Still, according to the system, my Luck had grown. What a shame I didn’t get any XP for leveling a system characteristic.
“Richie, come,” I said, reattaching his leash. “Let’s go now. Heel!”
We entered a local mini market and filled a trolley with a few days’ worth of groceries: some veg, a packet of chicken breasts, some precooked hamburgers and fish cakes, ravioli, milk, tea, coffee, rye bread, cheese, ham, eggs and various condiments. Seeing as I was trying to drink a lot these days, I also picked up a few large plastic bottles of water and a six-pack of sparkling mineral water. After some thought, I headed for the butcher’s and added a packet of cheap offcuts for Richie.
Dragging it all back home was quite something, I tell you. Still, I got all my groceries to my apartment door in one piece.
As I walked, I continued weighing up my options. Finally I decided that the best thing to do was probably to continue investing all available points in Luck until I raised it slightly above average. After that, I could switch to Perception which shouldn’t be underestimated, either. The ability to notice little things was an important asset for anyone, not just writers. I could always level up physical stats by working out alone — at least until I hit my first plateau. Then I might consider boosting them with some system points too, but not necessarily, considering I still had Intellect to level up. Now that I’d witnessed the ease with which the system had reprogrammed my mind and body, I was reassured that such an Intellect boost was bound to make me smarter.
And as for the remaining skill point, I couldn’t think of a better investment than using it to boost Learning Skills. Made sense, didn’t it?
That decided my priorities for the time being. As soon as I was back home, I had to invest the system point into Optimization and set up Learning Skills as my primary skill. Then I’d mark the Playing World of Warcraft skill as secondary and convert its 8 points into 4 additional Learning Skill points.
Each Learning Skills point increased the Learning Rate. One point gave you +10% to Learning Rate at level 1 and 25% at level 2. And at level 3, you received +45% to Learning Rate with each new point you invested. If I wasn’t mistaken, at level 7 your Learning Rate increased 175%!
And if you counted the stat booster’s effects which tripled your XP gained from skill use, then added 50% to Learning Rate for having set it as primary skill... you could easily see that my new skill acquisition would be eight times faster than that of an average man. One year of nonstop practice could turn me into a big author or a brilliant salesman, a hacker, a multilanguage translator, a lawyer, a politician, an expert in any field, or even a poker champion. And how about chess or snooker? Or even, if I approached my physical training seriously, an MMA fighter!
Having said that, the latter was a bit of an overstatement. No amount of stat booster could make you an MMA fighter in one year. Eight years sounded more like it.
I now had only one thing left to decide: who I really wanted to become. And I had to make up my mind pretty soon, too.
Even though I wasn’t yet sure what I should concentrate on, I received a new message,
Task Status: Choose the skills and main characteristics to level up
XP received: 200 pt.
+5% to Satisfaction
Apparently, when I’d entered the task on the list, my only objective had been to decide how to invest my available Optimization point.
As I cooked lunch, I finished reading my marketing book.
Task Status: Finish reading the marketing book
XP received: 300 pt.
+5% to Satisfaction
I also received 2% to my Reading Skill and another 5% to my Sales Skill. There was no system message informing me of it. I only found it out when checking the skills status bars. It might be peanuts but they all added up, bringing me closer to the next skill level.
After lunch, I Googled a list of best general-interest non-fiction books and added them to my online library subscription. Not all of them were available but those that were, provided me with enough reading matter for the next year. I also added a list of marketing literature recommended by Pavel. I might have to alternate the books from the two lists. That would allow me to level up three things at once, improving my Intellect and boosting my Sales and Reading skills.
Wistfully I thought about sci fi, my favorite reading matter of all times. I might actually read a page or two before bedtime, why not? After all, nothing broadens our horizons like a good sci fi book, which in turn was bound to positively affect my Intellect.
I felt very uncomfortable without my computer. Before, it used to be my main entertainment center as well as my sole window to the world. I’d wake up by lunchtime, have a quick wash and boot it up straight away. In the evening after dinner, I’d return to it, spending all day in the same position. Quite often I hadn’t even bothered to go AFK at all, taking my meals right in front of the computer screen. Predictably, my muscles were flabby, my joints creaky and my belly too big for my waistline.
Dammit! Had it not been for this surprise interface, I’d have wasted my prime years just sitting on my backside. Thank you so much guys, Khphor or whoever you are, and First Martian Company, Ltd. Funny I hadn’t even remembered that weird dream properly, only a few blurred images devoid of any details, but I’d somehow remembered the name of the giant alien demon.
In the absence of the computer, I now had plenty of spare time. Before, I’d never had it simply because... oh well, never mind. Before, I’d always been too busy. I had daily quests to do, my Reputation with various factions to improve, achievements to complete, a cool mount to obtain and once I had obtained it, I’d had to go and find another one even cooler than the one before it. There had been raids to call up, tactics to study, and hundreds — thousands — of hours spent on collecting an epic gear set which in less than six months would become obsolete and I’d have had to start it all over again, from one update to the other and from one patch to the next.
What I had now was also a game. I was basically doing the same things. Only now I had to perform them in real life, the only difference being that here, my achievements would never become obsolete.
At first I wanted to leave my Optimization gig till bedtime. Then I remembered that I might not have to sleep in my bed the coming night. So I decided to do it before leaving for the gym. You never knew, my new improved Learning Skills might help me pump weights too.
I opened the skill list and scrolled it all the way down.
You’ve unblocked a new skill: Optimization I.
Allows you to select primary and secondary skills.
The development of primary skills will take 50% less time than average. The development of secondary skill will take 50% longer than average.
Allows you to convert secondary skill points to primary ones at a 2 to 1 ratio, with the consequent deletion of the secondary skill.
Cooldown: 3 days
Warning! In order to activate the skill, an undisturbed 12-hour period of sleep is required. Please ensure your location is safe. You are recommended to adopt a prone position.
Skill points available: 1
Oh. I’d completely forgotten that unblocking the skill would render me comatose for hours. I glanced at the clock. It was almost 3 p.m. That meant I might have to reschedule my gym session, as well as my date with Vicky. Leveling took priority.
I dialed Vicky’s number. “Hi there,” I began subtly. “How’s it goin’?”
“Hiiii!” Vicky’s cheerful voice replied. “I’m fine, thank you! How was your dinner with your parents?”
I smiled. “It was okay. A family get-together, if you know what I mean. I’m calling you about tonight...”
“Have you chosen a movie yet?”
“Not really. Actually, I meant to tell you...”
I could hear her hold her breath.
This was all wrong. It just felt wrong.
“I haven’t chosen a movie, no,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t care. Any movie will do as long as we watch it together.”
“Likewise,” she mouthed.
“I’ll come pick you up at seven.”
“Okay. I’ll be ready.”
I sat there staring at the phone. A great feeling of relief flooded over me. You should always keep your word. Especially when it concerns little children and those who fall for you. Any such disappointment is like a big black smudge tainting their colorful inner world. Who knows which unkept promises would become the last stroke which could color it black?
Also, I had to be honest with myself too. If I’d made a decision to go to the gym, I had to do it. Also, if there was one thing my jogging experience had taught me it was that starting was the hardest bit. Once you eventually did start, the rest was plain sailing. And then you’d be happy you’d done it.
I did a bit of mental calculation to see how long it would take me to pick up Vicky and take her to the nearest theater. I checked its showtimes and couldn’t believe my eyes. They were running Warcraft, of all things! I’d missed it when it was first released as I’d been lying in bed with a serious case of fever. And later, I just hadn’t had the heart to watch it on the computer screen: it felt like a sacrilege.
I suffered a chain of flashbacks. My first steps through Elwynn Forest. Me in Plaguelands, fighting Scourge. Our Illidan raids in Outland and the Northrend campaign. Azeroth, destroyed by Deathwing. The mysterious Pandaria and the Orcish Horde of Draenor. Battling demons in the Broken Isles...
Not the best choice for the first date, I know, but.. I couldn’t just delete twelve years’ worth of gaming experience from memory. I really wanted to see how they’d adapted it all for the screen.
I needed to talk to Vicky when we got to the theater. She might actually agree to see it.
I checked a few online articles and videos about how to improve Agility. Then I added those admittedly simple exercises (like standing on one foot) to my workout program. I had to do them daily, either at home or in the gym. Now that I’d upped my Stamina twice, Agility was my weakest point.
Task Status: Find out how to improve Agility
XP received: 20 pt.
+1% to Satisfaction
I still had some time left, so I started checking online articles about the best martial arts for street fighting. I didn’t aspire to anything more than that. All I needed was some self-defense tips. Although opinions were divided, most experts seemed to be in favor of boxing, Muay Tai and combat SAMBO. The pros of boxing lay in its extreme simplicity and efficiency. Muay Tai was characterized by the combined use of all body parts and its efficiency at both long and middle range as well as in a clinch. And the fortes of combat SAMBO were in the fact that it was a complex system which had borrowed the best techniques from a great variety of martial arts, from wrestling, punching and kicking to submission locks and chokeholds.
As a total dummy, I should probably start with boxing. It wasn’t as esoteric or difficult to practice as the other two.
The moment I made that decision, I received another system message,
Task Status: Choose a martial art to level up combat skills
XP received: 30 pt.
+1% to Satisfaction
Excellent. I was now halfway through to my next level 8.
XP points left until the next social status level: 3410/8000
Now I could finally go to the gym.
I packed my bag, left Boris in charge of the coop and walked to the gym.
The practice came as a pleasant surprise. The same weights I’d struggled with the week before seemed very light today. My coach Alexander added a couple of small ten-pound weights to my bench press. Easy! Hey, where’re my Strength points?
“This is normal,” Alexander smiled at my enthusiasm. “This is what happens when you start training. For the first six months to a year you can expect crazy improvement. It’s quite possible to triple or even quadruple your initial results.”
Once I was done with his routine, I remembered my own: the Agility training. I headed for the room next door, filled with girls busy doing yoga and stretching exercises. Slightly embarrassed under their surprised glances, I performed the entire routine, about twenty minutes in total.
It took me another twenty minutes to take a shower, get dressed and drink a protein shake, after which I hurried straight home. Time was running short, and I still had Richie to walk in case I didn’t sleep at home tonight.
“Come on, Richie, get on with it! Chop chop!”
He wasn’t in a hurry, though. The pooch took his time sniffing every tree trunk and blade of grass in the park. Just my luck. What difference did it make to him where to do his business?
I took a picture of him and sent it to Vicky with a message,
If I’m late, it’s all his fault.
Aww, he’s so cute! she immediately texted back. Don’t hurry, we have plenty of time.
Her message was pleasantly devoid of all the pretentious emojis which was a welcome change from Yanna.
After another half-hour, having sniffed his fill of all sorts of unsavory things, Richie finally did his dirty business. I took him home, calling a taxi as I walked. At home I stuffed a couple of 5,000 ruble notes into my wallet just in case and walked back downstairs.
Had I still smoked, I would have smoked a cigarette, just to add an extra touch of indulgence to this fine evening. My mood was.. how can I explain... you know, it’s like having butterflies in your stomach in anticipation of seeing someone very special.
Yagoza’s HQ pavilion was empty. I wondered how Alik was doing at his new job. Would he be able to stay in the rut of a daily working routine without relapsing?
That’s when he showed up.
Not Alik, no. The fat guy.
 SAMBO (a Russian acronym for “weaponless self-defense”) is a Russian type of martial art developed in the early 1920s for the needs of Soviet police and NKVD officers.
 5,000 rubles is about $75 at the time of writing
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.
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