“Friday, Muslims don’t work. Saturday, Jews don’t work. Sunday, Christians have a day off. And on Monday, you have a revolution!”
FATSO DID INDEED live up to his moniker. Even his tent-size T-shirt failed to conceal his flabby belly spilling over his shorts elastic.
I momentarily tensed up. The puffy slits that he had for eyes looked very serious. I had no doubt he was heading toward me.
A yellow exclamation mark hovered over his head: he had a quest to give me.
Yeah, right. What might that be? “Lend Fatso some money for a bottle of vodka or buy him some alcohol of your choice. Reward: 5 pt. Reputation with Fatso”? Or what was it?
“Good morning, sir,” he said.
I just loved it. They’re always polite when they want something from you.
Still, tonight he didn’t at all resemble the drunken bully I’d met the day before. He was clean shaven, his hair combed. I even caught a whiff of some cheap deodorant.
“Morning, Rus,” I said.
“I’d like to talk to you,” he faltered. “It’s Alik... he told me where to find you.”
“Oh,” I checked my phone for the taxi I’d called. It was already nearing my house. “Why?”
“Sorry, man... I’d like to apologize. And have a few words.”
“Actually, I’m just about to leave. I have an appointment.”
“Sure,” he hunched up, suddenly listless. He reminded me of a deflated balloon. “I’m sorry,” he turned round and walked back, retracing his steps.
I watched him leave. Suddenly I felt terribly sorry for him. His Vitality was below 60%. Could my rejection become the last straw in his already miserable life?
Besides, I just didn’t like having unsolved problems and unfinished situations.
“Hey,” I called after him. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
He hurried back, swinging his fat hips in a most ungainly way.
“I just wanted to apologize,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath, “for what I said to you last night. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
As he continued to explain, I realized what my own mistake had been last night. It had actually been my fault all along. When I’d approached Alik like an old friend, I’d made it clear to the rest I was one of them. Fatso had apparently thought I was one of Alik’s buddies and decided to play a prank on me to “punish” me for being late to their “party”. And when I’d punched him, he’d apparently “acted on reflex”, he now explained.
The cab was already waiting for me.
“It’s all right,” I said. “No hard feelings. Anything else? Just spit it out, man, I really must be going.”
“I’m looking for a job,” he mouthed breathlessly, as if afraid that Yagoza might overhear him and condemn him for such a shameful desire. “Alik said you helped him. Could you help me too, by any chance? I have a family, you know.. I just don’t know what to do anymore...”
“What can you do?”
“Anything! I’m good with my hands, you know. I can fix anything. I’m not sure if I can lift weights though. I’ve got a bad back,” he cast me a guilty glance as if his back presented an insurmountable obstacle to his job hunt. “One thing I can do well is plumbing. That’s something I’m really good at. I won’t let you down, here’s a tooth!”
A new quest box appeared in my mental view.
In the Gutter
Help your offender Ruslan “Fatso” Rimsky to find permanent employment
XP: 200 pt.
Reputation with Ruslan “Fatso” Rimsky, unemployed: 50 pt.
Current Reputation: Indifference 0/30
Why did I receive more XP for him than for the identical quest issued by Alik? Should I open my own recruitment agency, maybe? That was something worth considering.
I clicked Accept.
Now what could I do for him? I could check all the plumbing vacancies in town, I suppose. I could collect KIDD points on all potential employers and run them through a quick search to see which one was more likely to hire him. That couldn’t be too difficult.
“Come to see me tomorrow evening, okay?” I said. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m in number 204.”
He threw himself on me and gave me a big hug, pressing me to his soft, ample bosom. “Thank you so much, sir!”
“Nothing to thank me for yet,” I wormed out of his embrace. “See you tomorrow. And please go easy on the booze. If they give you the boot, I won’t help you again.”
“Not a drop!” he flicked his front tooth.
Well, well. Famous last words. Never mind. The main thing was, I could and would help him. The rest was none of my business.
As I rode the cab, I tried to work out what was happening to me. Why did I respond so eagerly to any pleas for help these days? Was it about closing quests and earning more XP points? Or did I really want to help all those people who kept crawling out of the woodwork?
I didn’t know what to say to that. What I did know was that I probably wouldn’t have bothered to help the likes of Fatso or Alik in my old pre-interface days. Or even Marina, for that matter, despite all her cuteness, as long as I viewed her as my job competition.
Did that mean that this funny gaming system was gradually changing my very philosophy? Or was it simply my knee-jerk gaming habit of accepting each and every quest that came my way?
As the cab pulled up by Vicky’s apartment block, I realized what a patent idiot I was. I’d arrived for our date empty-handed, without as little as a bunch of flowers.
I was about to make a dash for the nearest flower shop when she walked out of the front door and beamed on seeing me.
Too late. I walked toward her.
“Hi,” I gave her a peck on the cheek.
She did the same. “Hi Phil.”
“Please forgive me. I was in such a hurry I completely forgot to get you some flowers.”
“Good!” she laughed. “Imagine how I’d have looked with them. Also, my hands would have been full.”
I took a closer look at her. She was pretty in a very wholesome way. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a plain white T-shirt. No makeup. The faint shampoo scent on her long hair was the only sign she’d actually made an effort.
I needed to stop comparing her to Yanna. That wasn’t going to take me anywhere.
“Are we off, then?” she said, pointing at the cab.
I nodded. She climbed in first, I followed.
We rode in silence. I loathed wasting time on small talk but didn’t want to discuss any serious issues in front of the driver. Whatever happened between us had to stay between us. I was happy enough that she’d reached for my hand and clenched it hard. By the end of the ride, her hand was wet.
As we rode the mall escalator, we turned to each other and asked in unison,
“What would you like to watch?”
We both laughed.
“How about Warcraft?” I offered. “I used to play the game for a long time and couldn’t wait for the movie to come out..”
I began telling her why I missed the film’s release when she interrupted me,
“Phil, please. I don’t care what we watch. It’s been ages since I went to the movies. And by the way, I used to play it too. Not the one you’re telling me about but the one where you had to build houses and armies.”
“You don’t mean it! That’s it, then! Let’s go see Warcraft!”
We were lucky to buy the last two good seats, at the center of the fifth row. The only other available seats were those on the very edge and those in the front row. They weren’t the best choice for either watching a movie nor having a romantic date.
We still had a couple of minutes left so we went to the bar and bought ourselves some coke and a large popcorn to share.
I might have to jog it off tomorrow. I had a funny feeling that my Agility would improve with some weight loss.
By the time we entered the theater, the lights were already dimmed. I walked to our seats feeling like an icebreaker, trying not to push anyone and stay on my feet without spilling any of the popcorn or coke. Vicky followed in my wake.
We’d very nearly made it to our seats when the film’s credits started, white on a black background. The theater plunged into darkness. I was forced to stop. When finally the credits had finished and the bright beginning of the movie illuminated the theater, I saw that our seats had been taken by some guys drinking beer.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong seats.”
“Piss off,” one of them said without looking at me. “I’m watching the movie. Plenty of empty seats around. Just go and sit there.”
And who might you be? Aha. Yuri Shamanov, age: 23, a system administrator. According to his stats, his Mood was high and so was his Interest in me.
And what was that status bar over there?
“Excuse me,” Vicky piped up. “These are our seats!”
People in the back rows began to hush indignantly. As we’d stopped in front of somebody else’s seats, those people weren’t too happy with the situation, either.
I turned to the screen and immediately recognized the most epic of the game’s locations familiar to everyone who’d ever played it, the one with the giant orc battling the human.
“There has been a war between orcs and humans for as long as can be remembered,” Durotan’s voice said off screen.
I focused back on Yuri. The new status bar was in fact Fear. He seemed to be afraid of me.
I focused on his buddy. That one seemed to be frightened even more. They were obviously scared they’d have to vacate the seats.
All this had happened almost instantly. I heard the Yuri guy talking tipsily back at Vicky, saying something undoubtedly rude and insulting.
I activated all of my 15 Charisma points (including the 2 pt. clothes bonus).
“Listen, you idiot,” I forced myself in front of his seat, blocking the screen view.
I was seething with righteous anger, for two reasons. Firstly, I had a lady to protect. And secondly, because I was missing the opening of the movie I’d been so looking forward to seeing. “Vacate our seats now! You too!”
No idea whether it was my tone, my words or my glare, but both of them rose silently and headed sheepishly for their own seats at the end of the row.
We took our places.
For the first time in my life, I saw the orc who’d given his name to the Horde’s new home...
I liked the film a lot, mainly because I was still nostalgic. I missed Azeroth...
“Good film,” Vicky said, as if answering my unasked question.
“Thank you so much,” I said whole-heartedly.
“What’s that for now?”
“For liking the film I liked too.”
Then I remembered our dinner agreement. “Are you hungry? Or are you one of those girls who never eat after 6 p.m.?”
She laughed, then joyfully pulled up her T-shirt, revealing a very flat stomach. “You really think I need to lose some weight?”
“How about we grab something to eat, then?”
“Me wants food. Me hungry,” she hooked her arm through mine. Together we headed toward one of the non-fast-food places.
Task Status: Take Vicky to the movies
XP received: 10 pt.
+1% to Satisfaction
Funny that the system had listed this as a task to begin with. Not that I minded, though. Or was it supposed to be some socially meaningful action?
Once in the restaurant, Vicky quickly leafed through the menu, then ordered a Greek salad, a medium rare steak and half a lager. I ordered the same minus the salad.
They brought our beers straight away. I took a large gulp. “Have you been working at Ultrapak for long?”
“Three years,” Vicky took a sip of her own. “I started as office manager. Than they transferred me to HR. I had to learn lots of new things, of course, but I like it.”
“Isn’t it funny I know you longer than I’ve been with the company?” for some reason, I found the idea quite arousing.
“It is indeed.”
“Aren’t you sorry you hired me?”
“I liked you already during the interviews,” she said pensively. “I tried to convince Pavel you were a good catch. But judging by how he treated you the first day, I hadn’t been very successful. I’m so happy you made it.”
I smiled. “Why, because I showed myself as a competent sales professional with a good gut feeling?”
“Also,” she raised her glass. “To you!”
“To you too,” I said.
We clinked our glasses and sipped our drinks.
Afterward, she told me a bit about herself. She’d married early; after she’d divorced, she’d had to juggle two full-time jobs to provide for her little daughter and pay for childcare. What I liked about her, her story was devoid of any drama. Like, she’d done what she’d had to do.
Her earnestness demanded a reciprocal gesture. So I told her about myself, not even trying to gloss over certain things. About most of my life spent playing computer games. About sponging off my wife which was the exact reason why we’d split up. About Yanna’s lack of faith in my literary talent.
I also said that I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I felt for my ex-wife these days. My love for her still seemed to be smoldering.
Vicky fell silent, staring at her empty glass and apparently trying to digest my confession. Both our glasses were empty. I made a sign to the waiter to refill them.
“Vicky? Are you all right?” I asked.
I was pretty sure she was. According to her stats, her Mood was still great and her Interest in me quite high. Still, I wasn’t comfortable. For some reason, her opinion meant a lot to me.
“Can I be honest with you?” she said.
“I’m just afraid you might get back together again. But it’s not gonna happen tonight, is it?” she said with a sly smile. “So tell me, orc slayer, will it be your place or mine?”
* * *
VICKY FELL ASLEEP around 3 a.m., her body wrapped around mine. Tonight we hadn’t been in a hurry. We’d taken our time making love. Our bodies seemed to have realized that they were free to do this any time we wanted. Why should we rush and exhaust ourselves? It was entirely up to us what to do with our lives and our bodies.
I studied Vicky’s face in the moonlight. I hadn’t been so fond of anyone for a long time. Gingerly I retrieved my arm from behind her head and went to the kitchen to get a drink of water.
Then I remembered. I’d wanted to activate Optimization, hadn’t I? This would be as good a moment as any. I didn’t have my whole life to do it. My license would expire in a year.
I returned to the bedroom, lay in bed next to Vicky and activated the interface.
New unblocked skill available: 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 skills 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
I clicked Accept.
Warning! In order to reorganize your brain’s neural networks, you will now be suspended in a deep sleep. Please ensure-
I fell asleep before I could finish reading the message.
THE NEXT MOMENT, I opened my eyes.
I was wide awake.
Behind the closed curtains, the sun stood high in the sky. Boris the cat was treading unhappily all over me. Richie was licking my hand.
I was alone in bed. Vicky was nowhere to be seen or heard.
My head was perfectly clear. I was at home. Vicky was already gone. It was Sunday afternoon. I’d activated Optimization.
Which was exactly what my interface was trying to tell me,
You’ve activated a new skill: Optimization I.
Primary skill points available: 1
Secondary skill points available: 1
In order to receive more primary and secondary skill points, you need to level up the skill.
Would you like to select a primary skill?
Yes, I would. Learning Skills, definitely.
The moment I thought so, I received a new system message.
Thank you! You’ve just selected Learning Skills as your primary skill. From now on, it will be listed at the top of your available skill list.
The development of your chosen primary skill will take 50% less time than average.
Please select a secondary skill.
I concentrated, focusing on Playing World of Warcraft.
The system accepted my choice without even asking me to confirm it.
Thank you! You’ve just chosen Playing World of Warcraft as a secondary skill associated with your current primary skill. From now on, it will be listed at the bottom of your available skill list.
The development of secondary skill will take 50% longer than average.
Would you like to convert the 8 pt. of your secondary skill (Playing World of Warcraft) into 4 pt. of the primary skill associated with it (Learning Skills)?
Yes / No
I felt slightly jittery like a poker player who’d just risked all his chips in an all-or-nothing at the final table. Even though he might know he’s got a strong hand, he’s still nervous about the potential outcome. What if I woke up a complete vegetable? Messing with your brain wasn’t a healthy idea, as any stroke survivor would tell you.
Still, I clicked Yes.
The system offered another warning,
The optimization of your chosen skill requires time. It will take 30 days to reorganize your brain’s neural networks. The reorganization process will be performed during your deep sleep phases during that period.
Warning! Your secondary skill will be deleted without recovery option.
Your memories of all the events associated with the development of the deleted skill will be preserved.
Accept / Decline
I “clicked” Accept.
All the system windows closed, leaving only the skill tab. The Playing World of Warcraft skill turned gray and inactive. The Learning Skills was now highlighted blue. When I focused on it, a message appeared,
+50% to development rate
Excellent. I’d just activated the biggest cheat in my freakin’ life, and it had only taken me three minutes.
I felt a powerful urge to make a dash to the shop and get some cigarettes. I could use a couple. Instead, I got up and walked into the bathroom.
A note lay on the floor by the bed,
Hi, Orc Slayer. You slept so well I didn’t want to wake you up. Thank you for being so gentle and for the wonderful evening overall. Give me a call when you wake up.
My Vicky! I absolutely had to call her. I just couldn’t help myself.
She sounded happy to hear me.
“Hi Vick. I’ve only just woken up, can you imagine?”
“Thanks for calling me,” she breathed a sigh of relief. “I was getting worried. You must have had a hard week.”
“You could say that! Thanks for not waking me up. And thank you for the wonderful evening. See you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” she paused, “my love.”
She hung up before I could reply. For a while I sat there grinning like an idiot until I very nearly received a Lovey Dovey debuff. Then I rose and headed for the shower.
Later, as I was making my very belated breakfast, I remembered Fatso’s quest and the missing children task. Dammit! Half the day was already gone. I had very little time left to do everything I’d planned.
A guilty Richie cowered in the corner. He’d done his business — a very big one — on the open balcony, unable to hold it for much longer.
I rushed around the apartment like a headless chicken, cooking and then eating my breakfast on the run, feeding the pets, starting the laundry, cleaning the balcony mess, getting dressed for my jogging practice, studying the available plumber vacancies online, writing the companies’ names down, marking their coordinates on the map, then establishing the missing children’s locations. Five dead. One teenage girl still alive.
Fatso had promised to pop by in the evening. Which was only a couple of hours away. I grabbed the Major’s business card and ran out.
I ran through the park and jogged a few more blocks to the nearest bus stop. There I took a bus to the city’s western suburbs.
The bus was near empty. As I rode, I studied the plumbing vacancies, collecting the KIDD of all potential employers. My Spirit was below 50% already. I just hoped it would be enough to land Fatso a job.
At the terminal, I got off the bus and headed for the nearest shop where I bought a small bottle of vodka and some paper napkins.
Then I used the location map to detect the nearest computer club and headed over there.
The club’s room was packed — mainly with children and teenagers. The place reeked of stale sweat. Heavy-duty cussing hung in the air, which sounded admittedly funny when uttered by those thin puerile voices.
“I’m so *** salty!”
“Nice panic pick, man!”
“You piece of ***!” shouted Victor Snezhinsky, social status: fifth-grade student.
His mastery of obscene lingo was amazing. The kid was only eleven years old and he already had level 4 in Swearing Skills! The guy was an expert!
The club looked so shabby I doubted they had video surveillance there.
I went over to the desk and bought some computer time. They sent me to a computer at the far end of the room. Its keyboard was falling apart, the mouse sticky and unpleasant to touch. Still, I didn’t mind. On the contrary.
I went to a proxy site and used it to register a temporary email account which would be deleted within ten minutes.
I used the address to send a letter to the Major’s email. No greeting, no signature, just the list of the children’s names and their respective locations.
I pressed “Send” and breathed a sigh of relief.
Done. The task was closed:
Task Status: send Major Igorevsky an anonymous message reporting the whereabouts of the missing children
XP received: 500 pt.
+10% to Satisfaction
They were generous with the XP this time, weren’t they? I had very little left to make the next level. My Satisfaction was close to 100% — but no Happiness yet.
XP points left until the next social status level: 4220/8000
I struggled with the desire to start WoW just to see if I’d indeed lost my skill. Then I easily remembered the tactics I’d used against Archimonde, the last boss of Hellfire Citadel. Of course. The Optimization process hadn’t begun yet. It would only start next time I went to bed.
I opened the vodka, poured some on a paper napkin and wiped the keyboard and the mouse clean from any fingerprints. I even wiped the mouse pad, the desk itself and, in an enthusiastic bout of cleanliness, the filthy computer screen.
Time to go back home. I didn’t want to make Fatso wait on my doorstep. He must have done enough waiting in big guys’ offices.
I flagged a cab. As I rode, I did an advanced search on all of the companies which had a plumber’s vacancy. Much to my surprise, when I entered “90% probability of hiring Ruslan Rimsky”, there were only two marks left on the map. By the time I’d copied their names and contact numbers into my phone, the cab had arrived.
Halfway to my front door I remembered I’d meant to call Yanna and ask her if our Tuesday divorce appointment was still valid. I dialed her number. I waited for a long time but she didn’t pick up, so I hung up.
She’d broken her phone, hadn’t she? Still, the call seemed to have gone through. There’d been no “temporarily unavailable” message.
I checked the map just to see where she was. Yanna’s location was marked in one of those new elite residential suburbs where the likes of me would never be admitted.
Never mind. If she didn’t reply, I’d text her later.
Fatso was already hovering by the front door. “Hi, man. I thought I’d come earlier. Is that okay?”
“You did the right thing,” I said. “Have you got a pen? Never mind, just mark it down in your phone.”
I dictated to him the two companies’ names and addresses.
“Should I tell them you sent me?” he repeated Alik’s question almost verbatim.
“Just tell them you came by yourself,” I too repeated myself. “Good luck!”
He shook my hand, showering me with ramblings of gratitude.
“Don’t thank me yet! Go and get the job first,” I forced my hand out of his shovel-like mitt, gave him a slap on the shoulder and hurried home.
The laundry had already been done. I hung it out to dry, trying to think of the things I still had to do. It looked like I’d done everything I’d planned, and I still had some time left before bedtime.
Then it dawned on me. I gave Kira a ring, then called my parents. I told Dad about the missing girl.
The news of her discovery made him ecstatic. “Well done!” he repeated several times.
Afterward, I took a leisurely walk with Richie, enjoying the fresh night air.
Once back home, I had dinner and started the next book on my list. About ten p.m. I climbed into bed and continued reading. I had to get up early in the morning in order to iron the laundry and pop into the gym for a bit of a workout. And then there was Richie, dammit! I just wished Sveta would return soon. I was pretty fed up with having to walk that dinosaur amongst canines.
Later that night, I was awoken by a phone call. This was quickly becoming a habit.
Yanna? That’s right. That was her picture grinning at me from the phone screen. “Yanna? Good night to you too!”
“This isn’t Yanna, you scumbag! It’s Vladimir!”
“Who? Vladimir? Very well. What do you want, Vladimir? And who the hell are you?”
“I’m her boyfriend. What the hell do you keep calling her for?”
“Eh?” I asked, trying to put my sleepy brain in gear. What did he want from me?
“Give me your address, you useless moron! We need to talk. Man to man.”
Then I finally remembered. This must have been the Vlad, Yanna’s latest acquisition.
 Here’s a tooth: an old Russian criminal oath meaning “you can take my tooth out if I lie”.
 Flicking a front tooth is a Russian gesture used by seasoned jailbirds instead of saying, “Here’s a tooth!”
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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