[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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