Be the first to read the first book of Galactogon, the new LitRPG series from the bestselling Russian author V. Mahanenko!
“What say you, Nerps—shall we go out with a boom? Who’s got what?” asked our guild leader merrily and, without waiting for a reply, used his scroll of Withering Fog. At once, an ashen cloud descended on the immense forest that, with its rare creatures and plants, represented the extent of our in-game empire. If memory served, there would be nothing left of it all within the hour—save a scorched barren that even the mobs would shun. As the guild leader’s spell did its work, the nearby palace of our Emperor became the target for every rare and powerful spell that had accumulated in our guild’s coffers. Actually, some of these spells were more than rare—they were legendary, one-of-a-kind. Though, then again, a spell like Black Death, which will instantly lay waste to an entire city, isn’t exactly suitable for public circulation. The Black Death is unaffected by population, you see: It doesn’t matter if it’s cast on a hovel with two or a megalopolis of millions—everything dies.
Although most of our group seemed perfectly merry destroying what we had spent several years defending (from hordes of demons, monsters or just ordinary players looking to make some coin), personally, I saw nothing worth celebrating. Everything I had—right down to my pants—I had already sold to the merchants, who went on doing business as usual, zealously coveting their hard-earned coppers despite the imminent apocalypse. To our chagrin, the merchants were not interested in spell scrolls, so the only thing we could do was either throw the parchments away or…
Or use them to raise a franchise of hell right outside the Emperor’s Palace.
The game’s admins had declared today the darkest day in the fifteen-year history of Runlustia. Today would see the official endgame—played out in-game as a meteor falling from the sky. Today the final cataclysm would take place and neither new expansions, nor free trial periods, nor new scenarios or unique items would reverse it. The game owners had done everything they could, but no one can compete with Galactogon at the moment. And so, even the monster that was Runlustia’s game world was forced to exit the stage. The present is no place for dinosaurs…
You were killed by the “Black Death” spell. You cannot be resurrected because the game is shutting down. We wish you all the best and thank you for the time you have spent with us!
And that was that…
Eight beautiful years of life as an Elf Paladin (one of the top Tanks—I am not a humble man—in the history of Runlustia) had reached their end. Eight years of dashing about sword-in-hand all over this virtual world, grinding my Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and forty or so other stats. Eight years—of which I had spent five supporting myself entirely through this game, guiding low-level players through dungeons, dominating PvP arenas and tournaments, signing sponsorship deals…There were neither sponsors, nor deals, nor players now…I had enough money theoretically, but there’d hardly be enough for another six months of the kind of life I’d grown accustomed to. I had not yet figured out what I’d do next. The last month in general had turned out to be a month of cataclysmic changes—I lost my job, I lost my favorite game (in which I’d become used to spending up to twelve hours a day) and I lost my girlfriend who suddenly decided that there was no future with me after all. There were no words for it all—only feels.
“Welcome back to reality, Master!” Emerging from my gaming capsule, I was greeted by my smart home. Literally like that: “Master”—you could hear the capitalization and all. The cocoon’s cover closed behind me, switching the capsule into a state of hibernation and me into a state of contemplation. To be one of the best takes more than being in the best guild or having the best weapons and armor—you have to have the right equipment in real life too: equipment that’s tailored to the needs of the game. This is exactly the kind of equipment I had outfitted my house with and yet, today, it had already become a mere monument to itself. Customized specifically to Runlustia, my cocoon was no good for anything else. I could of course update the software and chisel and hammer the cocoon to fit another game’s requirements; but I also understood that attempting this kind of refit was likely beyond my powers. If I ever did decide to dive into another virtual game world, I wouldn’t feel right without a new cocoon customized specifically for the game in question anyway. If you’re going to do something…
“Alex, what’s up!” A call from one of the few people who qualify for the vaunted title of “my friend” tore me away from my mandatory evening jog. The habit is many years old—my father forced me to run, claiming that no cocoon in the world with all your simulators and gizmos can replace good old physical exertion (a controversial claim, nowadays, considering modern advancements in cocoon construction). He nonetheless managed to instill in me the habit of torturing myself on a treadmill. And I am grateful, I guess—the jogging helps me think.
“Nada. What’s up with you?” I replied, toweling off my sweat and pausing the machine. “What are you getting into?”
“Nothing at the moment—but I’ve been thinking…Do you want to hold a wake for our characters? I mean, we were inseparable for seven years.”
“Eight,” I corrected Alonso.
“What’s the difference—let’s go drink!”
“Will Lucy let you go out?”
Lucille was Alonso’s wife. How that meathead managed to wangle one of the city’s prettiest girls, no one knew, including he himself. But—no use arguing with facts—the two had been a full-fledged family unit for four years now and were raising a son just as feckless as his daddy. In his paltry three years, this little wonder had managed to brick the family smart home system three times already. It reached the point that Alonso began carrying the boy constantly in his arms, proudly explaining that the family was raising a future master hacker…who, according to me, was just another blockhead with his hands sprouting from the wrong place. Then again, no one asked my opinion, Lucille least of all. She and I have had more than our share of disagreements—we’ve had everything short of armed hostilities.
“Nothing doing. I got her permission before I called,” came Alonso’s self-satisfied reply. “D’you see Qi Wen cast the Black Death? It wasted the entire city all to hell—hold on…What sweetie? I’m not swearing! Okay, okay, ‘hell’s’ a bad word too, I get it…Anyway, what was I talking about?” The captive of connubial life returned to me finally (and they try to tell me that THAT is a good thing? Love, comfort, security?) “I wish we had that scroll when we were taking Landir Keep! Remember? Alright, we’ll meet up at the bar at six. We can talk about it then. Later!”
The siege of Landir Keep was one of Runlustia’s most memorable scenarios. The unapproachable citadel had been occupied by a dark necromancer who began sending his undead armies into all four empires of the realm. It took the players seven weeks just to break the keep’s defenses and another three to clear the citadel entirely. And all this happened live, 24/7—the players never stopped their assault, periodically substituting each other. It was a good time…
“Alexis Panzer?” The next phone call caught me at a very inconvenient moment.
“That’s right,” I muttered from my half-full bath, angrily looking where the warming current of water had just been. One dumb feature of the smart home is that if someone calls you, the house automatically adjusts all the settings necessary to take the call. I made a mental note to block all incoming calls during bath time—I like my baths. “Pardon me, who am I speaking to?”
“You can call me John. Would it be possible to meet with you this evening at six? I have a business proposition for you.”
“Excuse me, John, but Runlustia has been shut down.” Realizing what the caller was getting at, I quickly dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s. Considering that the website advertising my services had not yet been taken down, John was either a player wishing to skip the early level grind with my help or a sponsor wanting to place some advertisement on my character.
“I am aware of Runlustia’s closure. I am likewise aware that you are now unemployed. I wish to offer you work for precisely these reasons—work that is related to your favorite pastime—computer games. What do you say?”
“You’ve piqued my interest,” I replied, sitting up. John was completely correct—I was unemployed and so had to grab any offer involving games with both hands, legs and also teeth, just in case.
“Before anything else, allow me to ask you one important question. Your answer will determine our subsequent conversation. What do you know about Galactogon?”
“Galactogon?” I echoed surprised. “As far as I understand it, Galactogon is a game set in space. The players have space ships—they fly around and try to destroy each other…Oh! There’re also planets—that is, moons or asteroid belts—I can’t remember the correct term—where you can mine resources. I’m sorry, I am not very familiar with that game world. I would need time to prepare myself better. About a week should do—then, I’ll be able to tell you whatever you need to know about it.”
“Are you saying that at the present moment you have absolutely no grasp of this game’s nuances?”
“That is correct.”
“I beg your pardon for the intrusive question, but would you be willing to aver this in front of a polygraph machine?”
“I see. I propose we meet tonight at six. I will explain everything to you then. A car will come to pick you up. May I inquire as to your address? One major request: If you really don’t know a thing about Galactogon and want to get the job, please don’t read a single thing about it. This is very important. Have a good day!”
The tap water and the music came back on, as well as whatever movie I had been watching on the holograph…But my thoughts left this comfy situation far behind. One thing was clear—I wasn’t going to make it to the bar this evening. Work was more important. My hands reflexively reached for the virtual keyboard—before I jerked them away. During my time as a Tank, I had learned a valuable lesson—if the clients want something, it’s best to give it to them. This one had requested that I avoid any information about Galactogon, so no question about it. It’s not that hard to survive without knowing something for eight hours. Better call Alonso and tell him that I won’t make our meet up.
The main thing is not to think about the white elephant in the bath…Don’t think about the white elephant in the bath, Alexis…
I had never imagined that our city had a real, full-blown palace just outside of it. But there it was—located in a sector that was closed to fliers and the general public. A portion of the compound was entirely covered with protective domes, so all you could do was wonder what lay beneath them—but that someone had built an authentic, real castle in there—from stone and wood and all…That—I definitely had not expected.
The conference room that I was ushered into reminded me somewhat of the Emperor’s private chambers in Runlustia. It was just as beautiful, just as grandiose—and just as brainless from the perspective of defense. Although, what unwanted guest could make it to this room alive anyway? The massive oaken table, evoking the epoch of the first French Revolution, occupied half the office. Along the perimeter of this colossus stood five armchairs which, at first glance, conceded nothing to this table in style—but which on second glance must have begun their lives as furniture around the time the London Underground first opened to the public. The rest of the interior decoration lived up to these luxurious furnishings.
“Please have a seat,” said the steward who had ushered me in, indicating an unoccupied armchair. “The masters will be here soon.”
Two of the five chairs were occupied and, judging by the looks on their occupants’ faces, I understood that these people were prospective employees just like me. If my logic didn’t betray me, there was about to be a discussion. Hmm…I was beginning to like this situation more and more.
The first prospective hire I studied was a girl of about twenty-five. Even her roomy clothes couldn’t conceal her well-toned body—she was one of my people. “My” meaning that she was a gamer like me, who spent most of her time in a virtual world, while her game capsule tended to her physique IRL. Based on her outward appearance I wouldn’t have called her an amateur either. She had gray eyes, medium-length blonde hair, a slightly-turned up nose and thin lips. Most likely, I thought, this lovely person’s discerning gaze had already processed the value of my clothes and shoes, my manner of walking and sitting and had arrived at its conclusions—which were clearly not in my favor. On the whole, the vibe I got from her seemed to say, “I am a woman, so the whole world owes me.”
I liked the second applicant better—men are reasonable creatures in general, by and large. I liked him because, having cast me one fleeting glance, he gave me a friendly nod and closed his eyes, sinking back into slumber. I understood him very well. War is war, but war can wait—sleep, on the other hand, should happen whenever the opportunity presents itself. You never know when the chance will come again. By the look of him, the dark-haired guy also turned out to be a virtual aficionado but, unlike the girl, he wasn’t afraid to show it—the tight black T-shirt pleasantly emphasized his body’s athletic build. A mere two- or three-hour workout at the gym or in a gaming capsule wouldn’t bring one’s body into such condition—I know as much from my own experience. And so, there were currently three players sitting at the table including myself. All of us had come from Runlustia or some other MMO that had recently shut down. And all three of us had been offered work in Galactogon. Well, well—let’s see how this turns out …
After a ten minute wait the door opened and the Masters, as the steward had called them, entered the office. One rapid and discerning glance was enough for me to almost choke. I instantly jumped to my feet and greeted my seniors with the customary deference I had honed as an imperial courtier in Runlustia. Out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed that both the girl and the dozing guy jumped up along with me…So he wasn’t sleeping at all but assessing the situation with eyes closed. This made me like him even more—it was too bad that only one of us would get the job.
“Please take your seats,” said one of the newcomers, taking our reactions for granted. He was the owner of factories, ships, shopping malls, cinemas and whatever else one could own in our world. According to official and unofficial data, he had been the wealthiest man on our planet for going on ten years already, yearly increasing his net worth exponentially. It was he who owned Galactogon and it was he who was responsible for my current unemployment.
“Gentlemen and gentlewoman, please excuse the delay,” said the second Master, the President of our long-suffering nation. “We needed to receive full confirmation that you met all our requirements. Now, we can safely say that all of you fit our needs.”
All of us? Were they really going to give the job to all three of us instead of just one?
“And what is it about us that fits your needs?” the girl instantly jumped in, utterly unfazed by the newcomers’ social status. Okay, I’ll say something nice about her—this Iron Lady had a very pleasant voice.
“For the sake of the experiment, we need three volunteers who are utterly unfamiliar with the subtleties of Galactogon,” explained the first Master. “After receiving your polygraph release forms, we ran a quick check and confirmed that you were telling the truth. My analysts investigated what you have studied over the past two years—please, no need to fret, Constantine—and confirmed your lack of experience with the game. In this manner, we’ve determined that you three, by virtue of your ignorance and your professionalism, are just who we need. All three of you are professional gamers who have until recently supported yourself through your craft: Alexis in Runlustia, Constantine and Eunice in Draanmir. By the way, why did you never consider my game?” the first Master suddenly asked. “I’m almost a bit insulted.”
“Personally, I saw no point in it,” the girl piped up first again. I made a point to remember her name, Eunice…some kind of ancient name. “If you want to be the best, you can’t get distracted by other trifles. Besides, I had my hands full with Draanmir’s constantly evolving world.”
“I agree,” Constantine finally spoke up. There’s truth in the observation that a long time spent playing as one particular class leaves its mark on the player—leaning back in his chair, Constantine had practically dissolved in it, as though he was unconsciously trying to seem less conspicuous. Then, it struck me: In Draanmir, he must’ve been a Thief, a Rogue, an Assassin, a Ninja…The title may vary game to game, but the idea remains the same—stealth multiplied by surprise. Interesting…and who was Eunice then? “I had no time to study anything that didn’t seem useful to me.”
I simply shrugged my shoulders, demonstrating that they wouldn’t hear anything novel from me and I didn’t much feel like repeating things.
“In that case, let me explain the gist of our proposal,” the President began. “Perhaps you are familiar with the immortal short story by Mark Twain called ‘The £1,000,000 Bank Note?’”
Having received three nods to the affirmative, the head of our nation went on:
“Excellent. That makes my explanation much easier. My friend and I,” the President nodded at the mogul beside him, “recently encountered a disagreement between us. Namely, I believe that it is impossible to achieve anything in his game without investing real money. He, on the other hand, claims the opposite—despite the fact that the media has already christened his project ‘a cash vacuum,’ which pumps the players for their last few coppers.”
“You want us to establish ourselves in the game without any investment?” the girl popped up again.
“Patience, my dear,” the mogul cracked a smile which, to be honest, made me cringe and try my best to dissolve into my chair too. Noticing that the girl’s reaction was similar, I made a mental note never to butt into the conversations of the almighty of this world. Not good for your health that…
“As mentioned,” the mogul went on, “we did not see eye to eye. And, because any mention of real people who had reached the apex of the game without investing a single real coin, was contested, we decided to conduct an experiment. To that end—”
“Ahem,” the President coughed, drawing attention to himself. “I thought we agreed that I would be the one to outline the challenge? If you go on, you’ll pile on a bunch of limitations and then good luck finding a way out. And so! We have created a planet in Galactogon and on this planet we have hidden a single, unique item. Your task is to start playing from the very beginning, find this planet and, as a final touch, pick up this particular item. I should tell you right away that no one will be able to pick up this item without having the right skillset, but whoever does will receive a check in the sum of one billion pounds sterling.”
“What’s the catch?” this time, I couldn’t help but blurt out. No one simply gives away presents like this—so logically, now should come the information that would put an end to any hope of winning this prize of prizes. One billion pounds is…well, it’s everything! It would guarantee a carefree old age for my great-great-grandchildren. It was definitely worth fighting over.
“There is no catch, as such. The planet’s location is known only to a select few of the game’s locals—that’s what we call non-player characters (or NPCs) in Galactogon. You will have to figure out who they are on your own. But even this is not the main thing. All three of you will start the game in specific circumstances. One of you will start without a credit in your pocket, just like all new players. Here, I must note that buying credits with real money is strictly forbidden and is grounds for disqualification. Another one of you will receive a monthly salary equivalent to a senior researcher’s monthly salary. This will be credited to your in-game account. The third player will also receive monthly payments to their game account, but these will be equivalent to a senior researcher’s annual salary. You can spend your funds as you see fit…Well, I mean the two of you that will have such funds. For all three of you though, the only objective is to reach the planet with the billion-pound check. We’ll cast dice to determine who will play what role.”
“But that can’t be all the conditions, right?” I asked, understanding perfectly well that a player with unlimited money would be in the winning position from the get-go. In which case, how could such an experiment be considered objective?
“Yes, there are several further conditions. The player with the annual salary—or as we will call him, the unlimited player—can only play the game no more than four hours a day. One minute more and he will be disqualified. The semi-limited player can only play eight hours, while the third has no time limitations whatsoever and can play all he wants.”
“Why would two individuals as famous as you decide to bet on three ordinary players?” I asked the question that probably should have been asked at the very beginning of the conversation. “I mean, something could happen to us. We could become depressed…or even, I don’t know…come down with something serious and be unable to go on.”
“This is precisely why there aren’t just the three of you,” the President smiled. “There are altogether twelve players, distributed evenly across the game’s twelve empires: Three professional gamers who specialize in Galactogon; three professional gamers who don’t know anything about the game (that’s you three); three ordinary, as you call them, users who are merely familiar with Galactogon; and a further three ordinary users who have absolutely no experience with games at all. That’s twelve players, who shall tomorrow set out in search of our little scroll.”
“What type of interface can we use to play?” Constantine asked.
“Despite the fact that your question is somewhat over my head, I will attempt a response,” smiled the mogul. “You may play the game either in Third Person mode—that is, with a VR headset—or through the First Person somatic interface—that is, with a gaming capsule. I should mention that the game does not have…but no, you will discover the rest on your own. Now, I have a question for you. Do you agree with our proposed terms and do you agree to this job? By our calculations, the search could last several years, so we are prepared to offer you a monthly stipend in an amount that is, again, commensurate with that of a senior researcher. We don’t want you to be worried about money during your quest. There are no strings attached to this—you can spend all two years lying around on your couch for all we care. All you have to do is make that first, initial log-in. That is, you must be in-game tomorrow by 6pm. The only limitation is that there can be no alliances or teamwork among the participants to the wager. Each one of you has to play for himself or herself alone. There are many empires in Galactogon and you will be starting your games in ones that are at war with each other. As I already mentioned, there are twelve of them altogether. If you are willing to set out on this journey and agree to all our terms, please place your palm on the screen.”
A hologram of the contract materialized before our eyes. Getting comfortable and entirely forgetting the others’ presence, I began to meticulously peruse the document. Regardless what piles of gold were glinting in the distance, it was mandatory to familiarize myself with my rights and obligations. Without that, forget it.
“I was sure that you would all agree,” the mogul said with satisfaction as soon as all three of us had signed the contract. “In that case, let’s cast the dice. Eunice, as the only lady, we will allow you to roll the dice first…”
Eunice rolled a 17, Constantine a 12 and Alexis (me, that is) a 9. Two 2s and a 5 isn’t the luckiest throw and it put me firmly in the rearguard…Welp! No unlimited game for me, I guess.
“And so we have determined the order of selection. Eunice, which of the three games types do you choose?”
“The second—the semi-limited.”
“Affirmed. And you, Alexis, will play the limited game type then. Affirmed. In that case,” the President got up from his chair, leading us by example to stand up as well, “tomorrow morning all three of you will be visited by technicians who will install specialized Galactogon capsules and VR headsets. The game itself commences tomorrow precisely at six in the evening. Tonight you will be accommodated here in the palace. We want to ensure that you will set up your characters without any preliminary research. After that, no help is bad help, pardon the tautology. But not yet. Oh! One more thing: Please notify all your relatives that you will be unavailable until tomorrow evening. We don’t want them to worry needlessly. All incoming calls are blocked in the palace. Best of luck to all of you and thank you for participating in our little experiment!”
“Please follow me,” the steward from before appeared beside us. “I will take you to your chambers.”
“Guys, since we’ll be locked up here together for the next day, I propose we celebrate the sad, sad passing of our respective game worlds,” I offered at our communal dinner. Thank god that the Masters had not forbidden us this essential tradition—odd, seeing as we had been accommodated in different rooms, even different floors, to prevent any chance of our interacting. They were a strange bunch, these Masters…A game, after all, is just a game—it shouldn’t have any effect on real life! The fact that we might hate each other in the virtual world didn’t mean that we should feel the same about each other in reality. I mean, this was like kindergarten!
“Agreed,” Constantine upheld my proposal. “While we’re at it, let’s pool anything we know about Galactogon. It’s silly to compete in real life—there’s more than enough of that in-game.”
Now didn’t I say that men are a sufficiently reasonable bunch..?
“Oh no,” Eunice instantly cut him off. “I don’t see any point in sharing knowledge that could help me win…But I’m always down to hang out…Can I get some wine?”
“And you and I will get into some scotch, okay?” Constantine glanced at me slyly. Hah! He thought he’d found himself a chump!
“Of course! If we’re going to celebrate, than palace single-malt is the only proper way!”
(Three hours later.)
“…Hic! And then we came flying in on griffons when everyone was expecting an assault from the ground. Why, we darkened the skies!”
“…Alex, what class do you think is better—a Pal or an Assassin? Wanna bet I’d get you? I would show up with decoys and then…”
“…I was an officer in the toppest clan in all of Draanmir! Why, the newbs would send me tribute daily…”
“…All men are scum! You simply can’t be trusted! Hic! Unreliable, unfair, weak…”
“…Tss! You’ll wake him up! Hold onto me! Alright, leave him here—someone’ll pick him up in the morning…Wanna come over to my place?”
“WHAT?! I am a respectable woman!…It’s my place or no place!”
I can’t see a thing—I hope this is it…At last, my own palatial chamber…”
“Orders, Master?” asked my smart home upon my return.
“Block all calls. For the next several days, I don’t exist. Make me dinner for tomorrow, the standard plate. And look up everything that has anything to do with the game Galactogon.”
“It shall be done. Please note that you have missed your morning workout, which may negatively—”
“Turn off nagging-wife mode,” I interrupted the program. “Get to work.”
The specialized Galactogon cocoon—delivered as promised by the Masters—both stunned me and inspired my curiosity. The humongous box, stylized to look like a spaceship, occupied basically half of the room I dedicated to my gaming bells and whistles. Furthermore, the cocoon was a 2-in-1 monster of a device, including not only the gaming capsule but also the VR headset. Knowing that I simply wouldn’t forgive myself later for starting the game in Third Person mode, I got into the spaceship cabin and closed the lid. A wonderful design! Regardless of how the experiment turned out, I would be asking them to let me keep this wonder.
A screen unfurled before my eyes and images began to flash upon it, submerging the player in a specific state—full immersion…
Welcome to Galactogon!
Character generation complete! Starting empire selected! Please choose your starting occupation …
Okay…If I understand correctly, my character, just like the Empire, has already been chosen for me. Alright, that just means I’ll have less to fret over. As I understand it, I’ve been assigned to the Qualian Empire. At the moment, I don’t know what this means, so no point in bashing my head against it. Onwards—name. I’ve already been assigned one…Mmmkay…From here on out, I will be called “Surgeon.” I’ll have to see how many Surgeons there are running around this game already—as I understand it, in Galactogon, names don’t have to be unique…But surely, someone else has picked this one already? Weird, I wonder how the mail and notification system works then…I mean, there must be some unique identifier!
Fine, I’ll figure that out later too. Since it’s asking me to pick an occupation, let’s do that. What do we have?
…Marine, Engineer, Navigator, Gunner, Harvester, Scientist, Ship Commander…
I’ll be damned! More than fifty classes, each of which has its own rank and skill-tree! Now I see why those two dear fogeys didn’t want to give us a chance to study the FAQs. I hate doing it, but it looks like I’ll have to choose randomly—the strengths and weaknesses of this or that class are utterly unknown to me. I always thought that Galactogon was just about some kids flying around in spaceships, but here I see that a commander is just one of many possible jobs! Tough choice this…
Not wanting to be too smart for my own good, I chose the one that I’d heard the most about.
You have chosen to develop as a Ship Commander.
Please note that you may change your character’s occupation after you have graduated from basic training.
Have a good game!
A flash of light and I merged with my character…Hello, Surgeon!
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