“You stink of sin.”
Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party
BACK WHEN we’d first met, Yanna and I had gotten on like a house on fire. A pattern had started to form: we’d spend nights going on extended raids from the relative comfort of my place where she would then crash later in the morning.
After a couple of weeks it had become pretty clear we were living together. In the mornings, both of us would leave: she to work, me to college. In the evenings we’d grab a bit of sleep, then keep burning the midnight oil.
The only thing left for us to do was move her stuff to my place and legalize our relationship just to keep our parents off our case.
That was when her exes had started calling, as well as new aspiring suitors. At first she’d pick up the phone and patiently explain that she was now happily married to another. After a while, she stopped taking the phone. And some time after that, she asked me to answer their calls.
“They just won’t listen, will they?” she complained. “Can’t you speak to them? Like man to man? Just to make it clear? I’m so sick and tired of them all!”
So I started taking their calls. Not many of those guys were sober, either. They’d just demand to speak to Yanna. Some disappeared off the radars as soon as they found out they were talking to her husband. Others kept a respectable distance for a while, patiently awaiting a new chance. A marriage isn’t set in stone, you know.
But even my existence had failed to discourage some of the more persistent alpha males. They demanded to know my address in order to, as Vlad had just so eloquently put it, “talk man to man”.
Yanna had always been popular in all kinds of social circles, from old college friends to accidental encounters with spoiled rich brats.
Now, however, the tables had turned. In Vlad’s eyes, he was now the boyfriend trying to get rid of an overeager admirer.
The situation was ridiculous. I needed some sleep. I hadn’t slept well for several nights in a row now.
“Listen, Vlad. How about you get lost? I’m trying to get some sleep. Call back in the morning and I’ll give you the address.”
Funny he had to ask. He'd come here to collect Yanna’s stuff, hadn’t he?
“What did you say?” he slurred, drunk as a skunk. “Who do you think you are? Where are you now? I want the address!”
I began to seethe with righteous anger. The Nicotine Withdrawal debuff must have played its role in this too, as I seemed to be going into spontaneous Enrage. I needed my sleep, too. And now there was this moron, thinking he had the right to order me around!
I was about to give him the address, then meet him with a sword. A proper real-life sword, a replica Frostmourne which I’d had made to order by a top craftsman for top bucks.
I opened my mouth to give him my address. Still, it didn’t feel right. I’d do it differently this time.
“I’m in Leafy Hollow. Kulikova St 256,” I offered a fictitious street number. “You can come if you think you’re brave enough.”
A new system message popped up.
Congratulations! You’ve received a new skill level!
Skill name: Intuition
Current level: 5
XP received: 500
“Who’s brave enough? Me?”
As I studied the message trying to work out how my last words could have affected the development of my “sixth feeling”, Vlad went on and on, promising to inflict all sorts of problems on me, including lots of pain and suffering.
“You wait there, you scumbag! I’m on my way,” he hung up.
But seriously, what did you want me to do? Judging by my upped Intuition, the mysterious game system seemed to be happy with me.
Or was I supposed to apologize to him saying I was only a husband who wanted to talk to his wife and ask how she was doing? Should I try to appease an idiot who hadn’t even bothered to ask her who’d called? I don’t think so! He could go and stuff himself. Also, I wasn’t quite ready yet for any physical confrontation. I couldn’t expect Alik to arrive conveniently on the scene every time I needed some assistance.
So if the guy didn’t learn his lesson and kept calling me, I might just remind him of my real address. Let him come. We had a few things to discuss “man to man”.
As soon as I’d made this decision, I received another message,
Congratulations! You’ve received a new skill level!
Skill name: Decision Making
Current level: 5
XP received: 500
What was this, Christmas? I had a mere 2,000 XP left till level 8, courtesy of Vlad and his uncontrollable bouts of jealousy. Thank you very much, man. Great job.
But still he’d ruined such a great dream for me. I’d been dreaming of having a family picnic in the countryside: my parents, Kira and little Cyril, Vicky, her daughter and myself. We’d just started a nice BBQ and then... and then that bastard had called.
I tossed and turned for another half-hour, unable to sleep. I kept thinking about Vlad, wondering if he’d already left.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer so I opened the map.
Oh no. He was sitting in some Irish pub. Yanna wasn’t even with him.
I checked her location. She was still at her parents’. In which case, how could he have used her phone? Had they had an argument? Had he taken her SIM card just to spite her? Talk about soap drama.
Thus thinking, I finally fell asleep, perfectly dreamless this time.
My mental alarm clock awoke me at 4.50 a.m. The room was very cold. The sheets didn’t keep me warm. A leaden sky hung low behind the window, spitting chilly rain. The balcony door was open.
My entire body ached. The sheer thought of having to climb out of bed and get ready for the gym, then walk there under the cold rain, walk the dog, press my business suit and go to work, then spend all day pitching to clients... Why was I doing all this? Did I really need it?
Without opening my eyes, I curled up in my comfy little hole under the sheets and started thinking. The only reason I’d had to get up so early was because I had a job to go to. Had it not been for that, I could have had as much sleep as I wanted. I could go to the gym at some other time more convenient for me. How about Richie? Well, if he got really desperate while I was asleep, there was always the balcony. He was going in three days’ time, anyway.
What else? Ah yes, money. I actually didn’t need that much. My freelancing gigs earned me enough to pay the bills and buy groceries. And now that I had my interface, I really should try and search for some treasure — like a missing object of art, for instance. Or start a missing-persons bureau. Or become a bounty hunter. I could even open a recruitment agency offering a 100% employment guarantee.
If push came to shove, I could always level up my poker playing and start winning millions in online competitions. True, bad luck could thwart any amount of skill. But in the long run, my expertise would play its part, allowing me to raise my stakes a few hundred at a time, methodically increasing my bank roll while living within my means.
Any of the above scenarios would allow me to spend much more time leveling up. It especially concerned vital skills such as Insight. You never knew what it might offer me once I’d made the next level. I might be able to locate new mineral deposits or even detect sunken treasure ships. Or I might open a dating service guaranteed to find you the perfect partner. All these things made up part of the universal infospace, provided you knew how to look for them.
Thus daydreaming, I’d lost a precious quarter of a hour that morning and very nearly gone back to sleep.
No matter how logical my musings might have seemed to me, the fact remained I was lying to myself. To add to this, I was breaking my commitments, thus lowering my social status. In other words, I’d relapsed back into my old habit of coming up with larger-than-life excuses in order to justify my own laziness.
By signing a work contract with Ultrapak, I’d given them a promise to turn up. They weren’t just an abstract name for me, either. They were all real people: Vicky, Pavel, Mr. Ivanov, Greg, Cyril and Marina among all the others. I’d promised them to be part of their team: one of the many cogs in the mechanism which ensured its reliable function in society.
I’d promised to help Marina, too. I still needed to know what was happening to Cyril healthwise. I’d promised to take care of the dog: he was my responsibility.
Also, it would be nice to move to a better apartment. Nothing too extravagant: all I needed was a clean place, well furnished and well maintained, preferably in one of those new builds.
I know it might sound petty like some sort of middle-class suburban dream. But then again, why not? What was wrong with wanting a pretty place with an Italian shower, a large-screen TV on the wall, a cool coffee maker and a clean elevator with all the buttons working? Was it too much to ask our alcoholic neighbors not to relieve themselves in the lobby or stop drinking in the playground in front of the children? Having said that, seeing them drinking behind the shabby rows of dilapidated communal garages behind the apartment block didn’t please the eye, either.
Thus thinking, I suddenly realized I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror, violently brushing my teeth. I was really pissed with myself for having lost these precious minutes. By now, I could have already had my coffee and been on my way to the gym.
Yes, I was in a hurry. I threw my gym equipment into the bag and rushed out into the rain. I pulled the hood over my head, slung the bag over my shoulder and ran, leaping over the rain puddles.
It had already become a habit for me to review all the pending quests and past events. The Optimization process should have already started, too. I tried to remember my last WoW boss tactic just to check it.
A boss. Which boss? Dammit! I’d forgotten everything about my last instance raid. Did that mean the Optimization process had already started?
I tried to recall my WoW class and abilities. They seemed to be all right. I still remembered their names as well as all the buttons and rotation. Very well. It was early days yet.
Once I got to the gym’s locker room, I changed into my workout clothes and jumped on the scales.
How much? I couldn’t believe it! According to the scales, I’d lost over 4 lb. since my last gym session.
My coach wasn’t there, replaced by a colleague: a stocky Caucasian highlander called Arslan. He asked me a few questions about what I used to do earlier, then sent me to do the warmup.
The session was over before I knew it. I felt good. I managed to add some more weights to my presses: from 5 to 8 pounds, depending on the type. Alexander had been right: my shriveled muscles, shrunk from years of disuse, were now greedily absorbing all the exercise I could throw at them, jumping at their chance to grow and expand.
The System seemed to have noticed it too:
You’ve received +1 to Strength!
Current strength: 8
You’ve received 1000 pt. XP for successfully leveling up a main characteristic!
The above message had found me in front of the locker room mirror as I dried my hair. I just couldn’t help it: I stood up and struck a Schwarzenegger-type pose, flexing my non-existent muscles.
A bodybuilder who happened to walk past chuckled good-naturedly. Sorry, man. I might look puny next to the real Arnold — but compared to how I’ d been two weeks previously, I looked slightly better already. No wonder my jeans belt was falling off me.
My Agility training seemed to have garnered some results too. I’d gained 6% since my last practice. The fact that I was losing weight must have had something to do with that too.
From the gym, I hurried straight home. I had fifteen minutes to walk Richie and I had no desire to stay in the rain any longer than necessary.
As I walked, my phone rang. It was Yanna’s number again.
“Yes?” I answered it cautiously, not knowing who I might be speaking to.
“It’s me,” Yanna’s voice said. “Did you call Saturday night?”
“I did. Is our meeting on Tuesday still on?”
“I don’t think so. We seem to be having a conference which would last through Tuesday and Wednesday. So it’s probably Thursday or Friday. Is that all right with you?”
“I suppose so,” I replied, slightly disappointed that this divorce thing seemed to be dragging on and on.
“Good. Talk to you later.”
“Yanna, wait. You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m flippin’ fine! Why would you ask?”
“Well, probably because it was you who called me Saturday night.”
“Ah. Don’t worry about that. That’s nothing. I was hanging out with the girls. We’d had a few drinks and I remembered how I used to trust you all those years. The faith I’d had in you. I spent the best years of my life supporting you. It just felt so unfair.”
“I understand,” I wheezed as I tried to walk fast.
“You okay? Why are you out of breath?”
“Fine. I’m walking home from the gym. I need to go to work now. Are you having an affair with that Vlad person?”
“That’s none of your flippin’ business. Did you say the gym?”
“Well, if it’s none of my business, then he’d better stop calling me drunk in the middle of the night. He wanted to know why I’d called you. Does he know we’re still married? Which is my second question.”
She didn’t reply. There was a long pause on the phone.
“Don’t worry. He won’t call you again. I’ve just sent him packing. Bye.”
She’d sent him packing! She was simply teaching him a lesson. She’d keep her distance for a couple of days, ignoring his texts and phone calls, then she’d kindly deign to forgive him. Been there, done it.
I walked Richie, then left my apartment again, followed by his indignant barking. I could understand him. He was lonely. I’d read somewhere that dogs didn’t have a sense of time. And if so, Richie must have been really suffering from those extended periods of solitude. The company of Boris didn't count, even though Richie seemed to consider her a member of his new pack with me as top dog, he as beta and Boris, as a miserable omega misfit.
“Courage, Private!” I crouched and patted his chops. “Only three days left, then you’ll be back with your family! Behave yourselves, you two. Boris, that especially applies to you. Keep your claws away from that couch before it falls apart!”
Boris theatrically turned away and began grooming herself free from my ungrounded accusations.
I took a minibus to work. I could read the book as I rode. Reading non-fiction is quite different from reading fiction. With non-fiction, you can’t just skim the pages, impatient to find out what happens next. I forced myself to take my time over each paragraph. Although it slowed down the reading process itself, it allowed me to absorb much more information, thus leveling up Intellect. The last book had brought me 300 XP points which was an excellent motivation to spend every spare moment reading.
It was actually amazing how everything seemed to fit together. The process of reading improved your Intellect while every finished book brought you more XP which added to your existing numbers, bringing you closer to your next level. And every level gained gave you a stat point you could then invest into any characteristic of your choice — like Strength, etc.
If you followed this logic, a 22nd-century bookworm should be a mountainous bodybuilder. “Just look at that beefcake!” old babushkas would gossip on a park bench. “What a wardrobe of a man! He must be an avid reader!”
I made it to work almost on time, just as all the others were entering Pavel’s office for a briefing. I couldn’t see Cyril anywhere. I took a seat next to Greg.
“Where’s Cyril?” I whispered to him.
“He went to the clinic to take some tests this morning,” Greg replied. “He’s probably still there. I told Pavel about him.”
“Thanks. How was your weekend?”
“It was okay. I do miss Alina though,” he admitted. “I tried to make up with her-” he promptly fell silent, realizing something was wrong.
Silence hung in the air. Dennis — Marina’s ex-mentor — chuckled.
“Mind if I continue?” Pavel asked. “Or are you having your own briefing? Phil? Don’t you think it’s a bit too early to start ignoring discipline and subordination?”
“He’s our new prima donna,” Dennis added his two cents.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “I was asking about Cyril who seems to be seriously ill. I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“How mature,” Pavel commented, then went on with the briefing.
An hour later, we set off to do our rounds. Marina had some good news. She’d been contacted by one of the companies we’d visited last Friday and offered an appointment. They seemed to be interested.
We decided to go directly there.
As I was about to leave the building, Daria the receptionist stopped me and told me to see the bookkeepers’. Did they want to pay me my bonus already?
They did indeed. A portly payroll accountant handed me a fat envelope containing twenty-five thousand rubles. No signature required.
I’d already forgotten the last time I’d been paid in cash. For the last year and a half, my freelance assignments had been my sole source of income, paid electronically or via bank transfers.
“Spoiled rotten,” she grumbled in response to my thank-you. “You’ve only been working here for what, a few days? Are you Ivanov’s relative or something?”
“Exactly,” I replied, peering at the stats that hovered over her head. “I’m his tenth cousin fifteen times removed.”
I was dying to play a prank on her but promptly reconsidered. Making fun of payroll accountants is never a healthy idea. “Are you related to him too?”
“I wish!” the equally portly chief bookkeeper grumbled without raising her eyes from the paperwork in front of her. “Then we might be able to finally pay all the wages on time.”
“Enough of your nonsense!” the payroll lady waved me away. “First cousin to the devil, you are.”
As Marina and I walked across the lobby, we stumbled right into Cyril. Waving his hands in excitement, he began telling us all about his visit to the clinic.
“Phil, I owe you big time, man! You saved my life, you know that?”
“Why, did they find something?”
“Something! They say it’s emphysema! One of the deadliest things around if it goes untreated! The things they did to me! They spun me around, kneaded me, listened to my insides and made me blow into a tube. Then they sent me for an X-ray which showed it up as clear as daylight. Another six months, and I might not have come out of this alive! Surgery isn’t always successful, they said. They’ve prescribed me a whole bagful of stuff: pills, injections, the works. I’ve got to quit smoking, I’m afraid. The whole thing has cost me a fortune. But at least I’ll live.”
“Congratulations!” Marina and I repeated, sincerely happy for him.
“This had been the worst weekend of my life,” he continued. “I was beside myself with worry. But at least now I can finally breathe. I’m gonna quit smoking and lose some weight. And I’m gonna take all their medications! I was just about to smoke my last cigarette. You wanna keep me company?”
“I’m afraid we have an appointment,” I said. “We’re already late as it is. Actually...” an idea started to form in my head. I really needed to become friends with these guys. And now I knew how to do it.
“I’ve just received my bonus,” I said. “How about we go somewhere tonight and celebrate?”
“Count me in,” Marina said.
Cyril grinned. “Me too. And Greg, if you don’t mind. Both of us could use a proper meal. You can’t survive on microwaved pizzas for much longer, if you know what I mean. Who else are you gonna ask?”
Vicky, definitely, but could I do it without drawing unnecessary attention to our relationship? Or should I leave her out? I really needed to discuss it with her. The decision had to be mutual.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “I can’t afford to invite the entire department. My bonus just won’t stretch that far. You guys are the only people I actually talk to.”
“That’s even better,” Cyril nodded his approval. “Much more fun without that crowd. Ah! I nearly forgot to mention Lola’s sending her respects. Your doctor, remember? She asked when you’re gonna come to see her.”
Marina’s eyes narrowed into slits.
“Never, I hope,” I said, trying to turn this into a joke. “So you’ve got my permission to chance your arm.”
“I might,” he said. “She’s a fine woman. Intelligent and beautiful, and a doctor!”
“Come on, Phil,” Marina interrupted us. “We’ve got an appointment to make. They must be waiting for us already.”
“Good luck,” Cyril replied. “You two coming back for lunch?”
“Maybe. There’s one more thing I meant to tell you. About this last cigarette thing... please don’t. It’s better this way. You’ve quit already. You’ve got a life to live.”
Cyril shrugged. He reached into his pocket and produced a lighter and a half-finished pack of cigarettes. He fumbled with them for a while, then crumpled the pack in his hand and lobbed both into a nearby trash can.
“That’s right!” I said.
I was happy for him. The game system, however, seemed to be happy for me.
You’ve received 500 pt. XP for performing a socially meaningful action!
XP points left until the next social status level: 6720/8000
The game seemed to be training me like a dog. Whenever I did something good or took care of other people, I received a reward. Still, much to my surprise, the rise in my XP had left me completely unenthusiastic.
We didn’t make it back in time for lunch. Right after our first appointment with a packaged foods factory director (which made pizzas among other things — with compliments to those two, Greg and Cyril), we had to email all the information to their lawyers who were drawing up the contract. Then we moved to the next interested client on our list. This time it was a pastry shop.
Marina got the first contract. In my opinion, that was only fair. After all, she’d been the one who’d pitched them. No idea how the “universal infospace” was going to process this result — but I’d received a new system message even before we’d signed the contract,
Quest alert: Help a Struggling Student. Quest completed!
You’ve successfully helped your fellow trainee Marina Tischenko to close a sales deal for packaging products produced by Ultrapak, Ltd.
XP received: 900
+10% to Satisfaction
Your Reputation with Marina Tischenko has improved!
Current Reputation: Amicability 25/60
Soon after midday, I closed my first deal as an Ultrapak staff worker. The pastry shop owner — a stout lady with a sharp glare and a garish manicure — had immediately begun pressurizing me for more discounts, insisting they pay after delivery. Still, all her attempts had failed miserably in the face of my 15 pt. Charisma. By the end of our meeting, the pastry lady had thawed out to the point of giving me a hug, pressing my face to the expanse of her generous bosom.
I couldn’t help smiling thinking about it. This place would have been Fatso’s dream job. Marina too kept laughing on our way back, remembering the scene.
In fact, Marina’s behavior worried me a little. She was definitely flirting with me. She’d thread her arm through mine as we walked, and whenever we rode a cab, her thigh would “accidentally’ brush against mine.
I won’t lie to you: her advances flattered me. Still, I had no intention of capitalizing on them in any way.
She definitely felt at ease around me. She treated me like a peer and old friend. By lunchtime, we’d found ourselves in the opposite part of town, so we popped into a café and ordered the menu of the day. And — this was quickly turning into a pattern — as soon as I finished my meal, I received a new social status level message.
Alik’s quest message had popped up first,
Quest alert: Help Alik Find a Job. Quest completed!
You’ve successfully helped your neighbor Romuald “Alik” Zhukov to find regular employment.
XP received: 400
+5% to Satisfaction
Your Reputation with Romuald “Alik” Zhukov has improved!
Current Reputation: Amicability 55/60
This jump in Satisfaction resulted in a level 1 Happiness buff. Add to this my ecstatic joy at having received a new level. The combination culminated in a spasm of pleasure so powerful that I doubled up, unable to stand on my rubbery legs.
Congratulations! You’ve received a new level!
Your current social status level: 8
Characteristic points available: 1
Skill points available: 1
My body careened out of control. Trying to keep my balance, I grabbed at the tablecloth and pulled it to the floor with me. There was nothing I could do. My vision darkened. I was literally exploding with ecstasy. To the casual observer it must have looked like an epileptic fit.
The bout of pleasure lasted longer this time. I felt like that idiot from the old joke: “Who are all these people?”
When I finally came round, Marina’s anxious face hovered over me. “Phil? Are you okay? Someone, call an ambulance!” she kept shouting at the top of her voice.
“I don’t need an ambulance,” I said, scrambling back to my feet. “I’m fine.”
I told her the truth. I felt better than ever before.
“Are you okay?” a woman asked me — apparently, the café manager.
“I’m fine, thank you. I’m sorry about the mess. Please add all the broken plates to the bill.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “Just take it easy. You sure you don’t want to see the doctor?”
“I might,” I said. “Thanks.”
I paid the bill and added a generous tip. Holding Marina’s hand, I walked out of the café.
Once outside, she lit up a cigarette. Her hands were shaking. “Phil, I think you do need to see the doctor.”
“I’m okay. Don’t worry,” I racked my brain for a believable explanation. If I had to lie to her, so be it. “I have a very rare brain condition. It’s not life-threatening. But it does give me occasional fits like that one. Now you understand, don’t you, why I can’t drive?”
She shuddered as if imagining me behind the wheel. “Of course.”
By the end of the workday we’d finally made it back to the office from where we sent the duly signed supply agreements to our new partners. Greg and Cyril hadn’t arrived yet. As we waited for them, I told Marina to start cold-calling other potential clients from our list.
“Don’t drag it out,” I said. “Just tell them you’re an Ultrapak representative offering them packaging materials at 30% less than they currently buy.”
“Yes, sir!” she saluted before reaching for the phone.
I listened to her pitch, using the pauses between calls to offer some advice and corrections and congratulate her on her work.
That was how Dennis found us.
“I can see you’re comfortable here,” he said, addressing me. “Isn’t it a bit too early setting your backside down in the boss’ chair?”
“I’m very comfortable, thank you,” I replied. “No, I’m not setting my backside in anything. You happy with my answers?”
“Maybe,” he cracked a sarcastic smile, baring his teeth and even gums. I had a very bad feeling about his smile. “That’s not what I heard.”
“Phil, leave it,” Marina said. “He’s not worth it. The guy is a total nincompoop.”
“That’s a big word coming from such a tiny girl,” Dennis announced out loud, attracting the others’ attention.
“Leave her alone,” I said. “I don’t give a damn what you heard. Just piss off, will you?”
“In a moment,” he said with the same nasty smile.
Judging by the silence, the entire department had stopped whatever they’d been doing and were now watching us.
“Just one last question,” Dennis continued. “Has this slut already put out for you?”
“So what if I have?” Marina announced, wiping the smug smile off his face. “Are you jealous or something?”
Dennis turned pale. “Did you hear that?” he spat out, turning to all the others. “I’m gonna write a report about these two and their professional misconduct! You’re all my witnesses!”
I jumped to my feet, fully intending to punch his lights out. My Self-Control still needed a lot of work.
“Phil, don’t!” Vicky’s voice sliced through the silence.
Seething, I swung round, searching for her in the room. A new system message dropped into my field of vision, blocking the view.
Your Reputation with Victoria “Vicky” Koval has decreased!
Current Reputation: Dislike 15/30
“What’s going on in here?” Pavel’s voice demanded.
I heard some disjointed explanations of what had just happened.
“Right,” Pavel said. “You three, into my office. Now.”
By the time I’d finally closed the system message, Vicky was already gone.
 Frostmourne: in World of Warcraft, the legendary runeblade owned by the Lich King.
 A Caucasian highlander: a native of one of the many republics located in the Caucasus mountains.
 Babushka (Russian) — literally, “Grandma”. Here, an old lady.
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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