[ Next Level ]

[read in russian] 

Author's  foreword:  this story came to me in my dream. I started writing
it  early  in the morning, and my hard disk had failed at this very time,
unrecoverably. I was forced to restore the text as I had remembered it. I
hope  no  quake-heads  would  eat  me  alive  or  kill  me in the nearest
toilet... :)


                               Next Level
                      (C) Vadim Petrakovsky, 2000
                English translation by Dmitry Rubinstain


 - Have you found here any good?

Really,  what  good  stuff  may one find here? Nothing, just boxes, not a
single item...

 - Er... who is it? - I was stunned.
 - It's me, - the text appeared in the top left screen corner.

Right,  that  should  be  Igor kidding again. But wait, it's been about a
week since Igor went on vacation with his spouse.

 - Who are you? - I typed the question.
 - Is it important for you?
 - Yes.

Yeah,  that  must  be Yurka, our sentinel. We often play Quake deathmatch
with him.

 - Yurka?  Is  it  you? Come on, stop kidding, come to me and we'll have
   some beer.
 - This is not Yurka, - my interlocutor was definitely taunting me.

Very  well,  let's  lift your guise right now. I took my radio and pushed
the "Transmit" button.

"On air":
 - Security Department, please come in!

Some hissing, then click:
 - Security is here.
 - Yurka, it's me. Stop kidding, my beer is getting warm over here.
 - Kidding... Vad, what the hell?
 - Where are you now? - what a silly question.
 - I'm inspecting the building, will be on your floor in 5 minutes.
 - Come here, I need to talk with you.

The text appeared on the screen again:
 - I'm not Yurka, you're wrong. Trust me.
 - Who are you then?
 - Will it be better for you if I tell you?

Hmm... This is the way people go nuts. Definitely, somebody was playing a
joke on me. But what the... Again I took my radio. "Transmit".

"On air":
 - Security Department, please respond!
 - Security.
 - Yur,  that's me again. Tell me, is anybody inside the building, except
   us?
 - Vad,  you're  crazy!  Weekend, Saturday... hisssss.... nobody here...
   hsssss... what happened?

I feel some tension in his voice.

 - No, nothing, just some thoughts. Will you come here?
 - Already on my way. Over and out.

Yeah,  great. Of course, I understand it's April, 1st... Fools day... but
not in this way...

 - You're still doubtful? Forget it, it's all in vain, - the words were
   seemingly mocking me. - Tell me why are you here? Everybody is having
   their  weekend,  but  you're  at  your  workplace.  Is  it  a  kind of
   entertainment for you?
 - No, I just came here, - I could not devise anything with more sense.
 - Do you really love to communicate with computers this much?
 - Yes, I do, - what the hell? Who do I speak with?!

The door lock clicked softly, beeped and unlocked. Yurka comes in.

 - Hello! And where is my warming beer?

I stretched my hand to a bottle. And my hand freezed half way to it.

 - You see, I'm still here, - that joke was becoming too annoying.

I pushed the "T" key and prepared to type...

 - Hey, where is it?
 - Yur, excuse me, just a second.

I took a bottle of "Klinskoe beer" from my large bag.

 - Here you are.
 - What is happening here? - asked Yurka with interest.
 - Oh, just a Fools Day joke.
 - A-ah, got it. My wife mocked me today. Kinda they called and told her
   I'm  fired,  - Yurka laughed, opening the bottle with his lighter. - I
   was  sleeping  that  time,  and  did  yet trust her at first, shouting
   "why?", and she just laughed...
 - Yeah,  right, I'm having something like that here, - I opened another
   bottle too.

Yurka sipped half of a bottle at once:

 - Well, I gotta go inspecting. Will come to you in a hour or so. Why the
   hell  are  you doing at workplace anyway? I'm getting paid for sitting
   here at least, but you... You need a spouse, definitely. She will cure
   you from all that 'puters bullshit at once, - Yurka giggles.
 - Come  here, of course. I had installed 3DFX on a couple of computers,
   we'll have some hangout.

The  lock  clicked  softly behind the sentinel. And I was already reading
the next line of text:

 - And what, you're still being such a stubborn?
 - Stubborn  in  what? - I was going mad already. Because of not knowing
   what is happening here.
 - Trust me, just trust me...
 - Trust in what? Who... - I typed that and stopped short. Really, that's
   the way people are going insane.
 - Trust in me.
 - But who are you?
 - In  old good days people trusted in goblins. These goblins lived in
   houses and guarded them, helped the good owners. Later, the computers
   appeared...
 - You're the 'puter...
 - No, I don't like it. Call me Sasha. It was my name once...
 - Once?  You're concealing something, - Oh, my God, what am I doing! I'm
   speaking with my own lunacy's creature.
 - Yes,  I  am.  Maybe  it's  hard  for  you  to  speak  not seeing your
   interlocutor's face?

Yes,  that  was  right.  That's  why  I  never like chatting. I responded
approvingly.  Suddently  another player's figure in a green suit appeared
on  screen just near my one. I slapped the Ctrl key instinctively, but it
was only a flash instead of usual blood streams.

 - Well,  well, that's the way you're greeting your guests! - the figure
   grins.

I  just  was ready to swear no Quake players have any face expression. But
the figure standing ahead of me definitely had.

 - I'm sorry, it was just a reflex, - I was really upset.
 - Don't worry, it's ok. And what? Will we speak?
 - Yes, surely...
 - Then let's go down, it's draught here. By the way, what's your name?
 - Vad... ouch, no, killer99, - what a bullshit.
 - No-o, Vad is much better, - Sasha giggles, - do you have a microphone?
 - Of course.
 - Turn it on then. It should be not very convenient to stab the keys.

I plugged the mic's jack into my sound card's back.

 - Do you hear me? - I spoke, feeling myself somewhat stupid.
 - Yes, it's ok. You should hear my voice from the speakers too.
 - I hear you.
 - Well,  let's go, I'm getting cold. It's rather cold here today. There
   is a door, let's go down to the cellar.

Sasha  turned  around and ran to the door. He jumped over the lava stream
and  turned  to  me  again.  I  ran  after  him. Near the door I stopped,
checking my armour and bringing up a machine gun.

 - Drop your weapon, - said Sasha to me. - You will not need it.
 - What? There is... - I stopped myself and just took the gun away.

The  door  opened  with  a  slight  hiss. Sasha entered. He walked into a
guardian  gunner,  and  I  almost  can  swear  they  exchanged a friendly
handshake.

 - Come here, don't be afraid, - Sasha turned to me.

I approached them.

 - Look, this is Vad, - Sasha stepped aside, introducing us.
 - I  already  know him, - the guardian slid his helmet's glass up. - He
   had killed me so many times. Yesterday he blew me up with grenades, a
   day  before  punctured  me with a machine gun, right from a jump.
   Vad, that was great!

I was feeling absolutely lousy.

 - Hell,  don't  take  offence! - the guardian even squated a bit. - I'm
   understanding you very well.
 - Vad, - it's Sasha. - We have to go!
 - Good luck! - I shook guardian's hand with all my heart.

He smiled and touched his blaster:
 - And  please,  don't  throw  grenades  to  me,  it's  very painful and
   unpleasant... Best luck, guys! - he closed his helmet again.

We continued our walking. Steps echoing through a dark hallway.

 - Do you know everyone here? - I asked.
 - Yes.
 - Strogg too?
 - Yes, my girlfriend introduced him to me.
 - That's one... of those girls with launchers?
 - Yes, one of them. They are very good, but rather unhappy. Cyborgs are
   always unlucky. You know, when you shot a cable off their heads, they
   were  suffering  so  much.  But  you finished them off with a shotgun.
   Albeit  I  can  not  blame you. Ha-ha! They were very beautiful girls,
   you'll love them!
 - And you... - I paused. - You'll introduce me to them?
 - Sure! A couple of them already fell in love with you! - Sasha jumped
   up and grabbed the stair.

I  did remember. Yes, of course, I did. When I passed through this level,
two  girls  were  frozen and did not shoot me at all. I had them splashed
around with launcher, grinning to myself about program glitches. God, why
I  was happy to do that?! And how can I turn things back, what can I tell
them? But Sasha just walked ahead.

 - Don't get lost! - he hurled over his shoulder. - It will be unpleasant
   a bit right ahead.

We  were  out to some court. Everything was right, except the green slime
lapping hear us.

 - Come on, jump and run to that lift, - said Sasha.

I ran after him. We got to the lift at the same time.

 - You  understand,  -  Sasha  turned  to me. - They cannot die, they're
   eternal.  Just  until  you type "delete". They're doomed to love, hate
   and suffer forever. Just understand it. But they're alive, alive... -
   he stood still. - Just until you type...

I  was  standing  and  looking at him. Sasha leaned against the wall, his
face distorted with suffering. I came closer to him.

 - Yes... We have to go. - Sasha straighted his suit.

We entered the large hall. Gunner approached from behind the boxes, Sasha
ran  to  him  and showed him something. The gunner relaxed his hand and I
got myself from inside the box. Sasha waved at me and I approached them.

 - Here,  take  it, - gunner's voice was hoarse, he handed me a card. It
   fit pretty well on my suit's right side.
 - What is it? - I was getting used to a new world around.
 - It's the "one-of-us" ID card, - Sasha said. - Let's go ahead.

Sasha  was  fervorous  to  show  me  everything  around.  I  followed him
obediently, it was no matter for me already. I was already living in this
crazy  world.  Those  worlds  displayed by cyberpunk classics, those were
nothing!  I was already sucked from my chair into this crazy world, I was
here, I was stepping on green grass with my steely boots, I was recoiling
from hot rivers of fiery lava!

 - Be careful, - Sasha warned.

We entered the main reactor hall.

 - Step to the right!

I  whisked  into  the  console  closet.  Sasha walked ahead. I heard some
silenced  speaking. Why am I hiding? Was it me who annihilated cyborgs on
this  level?  But I physically was unable now to raise my blaster against
any  single  one  of  them.  And  all the girls I had torn apart in meaty
pieces, I could not forget this. No! It's over! The war is over today and
forever, and Sasha will help me to stop it.

 - Vad, where are you? Come here, but do it slowly.

I crawled out of my hideout's darkness.

 - Come  on,  you wanted to see the girls, - Sasha giggled. - I just had
   notified them. They wait for you already.

We  passed near the hideous cyborg, he grins with his naked skull and the
cables attached to his head bond.

The  lift  brought  us into a gallery. Light was flickering, catching the
parts  of  rusty  walls  and shining rivets. The next corridor greeted us
with a wan light of shimmering lamps.

We  came  into  a  hall  with  terminals  and sensual sighs come from its
darkness.  I  took  out  launcher  and  aimed  it  into the middle of the
darkness, but Sasha grabbed its barrel and held it down.

 - Not  having  enough of it, or what? - he hissed. - There are not only
   them here.
 - Sasha,  I'm  sorry.  I'm  a  bit  out  of myself. I'm first time here.
   First...  but  not the first time at all. Once, a long time ago, I was
   here... I imagine what these miserable cyborgs had seen. Crazie with a
   launcher,  who  jumped back and forth and tore them apart in pieces...
   and then discharged his blaster, unexhaustible because of some strange
   whim  of  game  designers, into the remains... For them to splash with
   bloody meat pieces... And speaking into the intercom, that it is clear
   here,  they  may approach... But Sasha, what about our guys, all these
   cyborgs  are  made  from,  those  I see inside these hellish machines?
   Those crawling in jail blocks?
 - The world is cruel, - he said silently.

I  looked at him. He most likely was on the enemies' side. I brought up a
gun and shot him. Blood sprinkles from Sasha's body and he settled on the
floor,  but  he didn't make any attempt to respond in the same way. I was
violently  filling  the  body  with  rockets,  even  pieces  were already
destroyed...

 - You're satisfied? - I shudder, when Sasha touched my shoulder.
 - What? But I just had...
 - That is. I told you we're eternal. And, even more, we even don't care
   whenever or not you type "delete".
 - Let's  go ahead, - said he softly. - It's so hard to understand one's
   soul  in  a  war  world.  You're  just running in a box of your jailed
   consciousness, pulling the trigger, standing and waving your gun. Just
   try to understand,  we're all here, unhappy to the bone, and all we're
   doing  is  waiting  for a foreigner, a visitor from outside... But the
   owner pushed us into battle, a deadly one...
 - Sasha, forgive me... - I wiped my tears.

I came to the wall, brought up a launcher and... pulled the trigger.

Light, blinding, scorching light.

 - You'll never approach anything this way. But they have seen that... -
   said Sasha with a husky voice. - They've seen. But why are you testing
   their  love  once  again? What for?... It had seen too much already...
   Come to them, don't be afraid. They love you. Just like I do, like all
   this  cruel world does. Find your happiness, just once, without saving
   a game on every dark corner, on every corridor turning... I feel sorry
   to part with you, trust me. And we'll meet again, that day you'll have
   the  war in your own soul over, the day you'll never be reloading your
   gun on slightest hiss...

And  with these words Sasha had turned into a fountain of colorful sparks
and dissolved into a darkness.

 - And where are you going? - I shouted after him.
 - I'm...  -  Sasha's voice roared under the hall's roof. - I'm going to
   the next level.





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