Esk’Onegut, one of the interdimensional universal travelers, ended his life on Earth in the twenty-first century in the body of a Russian student whose name sounded far more exotic than his nickname — Craster. Ilya Pashutin, a student in his final year of a journalism course, had little interest in journalism and studied at the university only at his parents’ insistence. More specifically at his father’s, a former soldier who had given his son an ultimatum: army or university. Ilya chose the second one, along with... games.
Esk’Onegut found the world of computer games so gripping that he’d spent almost all his waking hours from the age of ten sat at a computer. For Esk, this was his ninety eighth reincarnation, and, like every traveler, he got stronger from life to life as he earned Tsoui, which meant, in a long-dead language, ‘balance of deeds’, something that determined one’s influence on the harmony of the universe. Tsoui points could be spent to turn the Wheel.
You could spend Tsoui points to turn the Wheel as many times as you liked, as long as you paid. Millions of sectors were marked on it. Many were empty or unfavorable, but there were also very powerful ones that gave the current body supernatural abilities: incredible strength, ludicrous speed, deadly combat skills, magical or creative abilities...
The talents spread across the Wheel were split into four levels: from common to peerless, the best in the world. Esk vaguely remembered winning the skill of becoming invisible on the Wheel in a previous life. That had been a good one! That world probably still had legends about the thief whose body he’d inhabited for almost six years.
On Earth, the concept that Esk had found closest to Tsoui was karma. Only he was certain that karma was a blasphemous fiction, because it took into account actions measured by the scales of individuals themselves and those around them. In Tsoui, the traveler’s deeds were weighed by their influence on universal harmony. After all, every action, every word, caused ripples in the past and the future of the entire universe.
Esk had ended up in Ilya’s body when the latter reached the age of four. While his mother wasn’t watching him, the young boy fell under a rapidly moving metal seesaw in the small park outside his house. His innocent spirit was moved to the universal archive to await its next revival, if it had one. And Esk’Onegut set up shop in little Ilya’s body. It just so happened that at that very moment, he’d died in the last one.
In his life before Earth, he had reigned as emperor on a peripheral planet in the Galaxy, enjoying total power and his very own cult of personality. The finest women, the best intoxicants and narcotics, delicious meals, the fulfilment of all his whims, from the simple pleasures to the most perverted...
In truth, he had become the worst emperor in the history of that planet, whose name he could not recall due to the effect of the Waning. It was no wonder he’d been poisoned.
The Waning was the curse of every traveler. The effect wiped memories from previous lives, but the knowledge of their existence remained, along with the memories of the last minutes before death. And the shorter the time between lives, the more Esk remembered. Before his imperial reign, he had been a great musician and singer who had wrote his own songs. He knew that, but, lightning strike him down, he could not remember a single line of what he had written.
His memory of his years as an emperor, his ninety eighth life, remained with Esk in Ilya’s body. He was so sick of power and authority that on twenty-first century Earth, he wanted nothing to do with it. With the taste of all those accessible and inaccessible joys of life still fresh in his memory, Esk discovered the world of computer games on Earth. Realizing that virtual worlds were basically the same as what he did, only on a smaller scale and with the ability to switch between worlds and virtual bodies at any moment, Esk fell headlong into them.
By the end of his earthly journey in the body of twenty-year-old Ilya Pashutin, Esk had earned minus Tsoui thanks to his idleness and indifference to the world around him. Not only had he spent his entire life on Earth without using the Wheel, Esk’s luck also seemed to have turned negative.
And when Fortune turns her back on you, it’s pointless to make stupid jokes. Esk’Onegut, or Ilya Pashutin to everyone else, died before his time, hit by a car while rushing to a lecture after a sleepless night at his computer.
God, anything but that! Esk thought, with an entirely earthly god in mind; he still considered himself an earthly student. There’s a guild raid tomorrow! I’m going to miss it... Vanka will be pissed.
In the next moment, he moved to another world and another body. Here it was — his ninety ninth rebirth. His ninety ninth world.
Twenty five again! He sighed inwardly. He’d have to learn a new body, study a new world... He was sick of it.
Esk opened his eyes and tried to move his limbs. His legs weren’t listening. That sometimes happened when the new body functioned differently from the previous one, but the genome was clearly identical — human. It seemed there was something wrong with the body.
Deciding to deal with it later, Esk immersed himself in the input data.
Esk’Onegut, life ninety nine.
Influence level: 9.
Tsoui points: -971 (negative value).
Orion Arm, Milky Way, Solar System, Planet Earth.
Universe variation: #ES-252210-0273-4707.
So he was still on Earth, but in a parallel universe. That was good, he wouldn’t have to relearn too much. Not like when he’d revived in the body of an eight-armed reptile. But the fact that his Tsoui points were in the red — that was very, very bad. Why were they so far in the negative? He hadn’t done anything bad, he’d just played computer games!
Reincarnation unavailable. Tsoui point balance must be above zero.
Right to reincarnation with negative balance: exhausted.
One-time Wheel spin privilege: available.
Esk swore internally, mentioning all the gods he’d known from previous lives. As an emperor, he had gone into minus points for the first time in all his incarnations, but he was sure he would earn the Tsoui back in Ilya’s body. He’d decided to simply not do anything that could negatively affect his balance. As it turned out, doing nothing carried a harsher Tsoui penalty than all the deadly sins performed in the emperor’s body...
After landing in the body of the future Russian student Ilya, Esk had used his one-time spin of the Wheel, but an empty sector came up. Good that it wasn’t negative, at least. He could have gotten some curse like an incurable illness or limited mental abilities. He didn’t have enough Tsoui points for more, he’d wasted too much as emperor. Wasted and lost.
Having decided that since he had no right to reincarnate again, then he had to start living as soon as possible, he returned to the real world and realized that he was lying in a deep, stinking puddle. The smell was nightmarish. Esk grimaced and tried to stand, but couldn’t.
The water covered his face, went into his eyes, nose, mouth and one ear. It was extremely unpleasant.
Making an effort, Esk’s mighty spirit absorbed the personality of this new body, including all its skills and memories, and corrected the body’s damage and defects on the cellular level.
Then, stumbling, he lurched to his feet and looked at the new world around him.
Some grimy youths stood at the edge of the puddle, their mouths wide open in amazement. One of them — Esk-Luca realized that it was Karim — shouted, wide-eyed.
“What the hell, cripple, you can walk now?!”
The memory of Luca Dezisimu, crippled seventeen-year-old son of the dead gladiator Severus, finally settled and structured itself in Esk’Onegut’s mind. The cripple’s personality boiled with such fury that Esk recoiled, as it were, retreating before the primal anger of the helpless pariah. He felt uncomfortable.
Damn! He was tired of living. Life wasn’t just pleasure, but also sadness, grief, pain, hunger, the loss of loved ones, the need to strive and achieve... Centuries, no, millennia of ceaseless living had wearied the universal traveler.
The traveler mentally whispered: Damn it, live then. I’ll watch. And then he handed to the former cripple the reins over the body, the Tsoui system and the mind.
Luca, incredulously clapping himself on the sides, on his arms and legs, realized that he was absolutely healthy.
He raised his head and cast a baleful gaze on Karim.
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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