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Old 01-19-2002, 08:15 PM   #1
Durwyn
Elminster
 

Join Date: January 4, 2002
Location: New York
Posts: 415
This is a very interesting story. Anyone who considers themselves a "fan of computers" or is just interested in the area are to read this [img]smile.gif[/img] . This was originally written by one of my Russian friends, later I had the honor to translate it... Enjoy! I know its long but trust me, ones you get to Chapter 3 you wont be able to get your eyes off it!

----------------------------

* PART 1. The Diver *

0

I want to close my eyes. This is normal: a colorful kaleidoscope, a
whirlwind of bright sparks - it looks beautiful, but I know what is behind
this beauty.
The Deep. It is called so in English but it seems to me that the
Russian word {glubina} sounds better. Having broader meaning, it changes an
attractive label into the warning: THE Deep! Sharks and octopuses live here.
It's quiet, and presses, presses, presses by the endless space which doesn't
really exist.
In general the deep is kind, in its own way of course. It accepts
everybody. It requires just a little strength to dive, but so much more - to
reach the bottom and to return. The first thing to remember: the deep is
dead without us. One must believe and not believe in it at the same time.
Otherwise one day you'll not be able to surface.

1

The first movements are the most difficult. The small room, the table
in the middle of it, computer wires from the UPS go to the computer, the
thinner wire plugged into the phone jack. The sofa stands by the wall, under
the luxury carpet, the small fridge is by the opened door to the balcony.
The necessary minimum. Five minutes ago I checked what's in the fridge, so
I'm not threatened by hunger for today.
I turn my head, to the left, to the right - the light darkens in my
eyes for the moment, but it's only a moment. Nevermind, it happens.
- Are you okay, Lenia?
The speakers are set for the full volume, I frown and say:
- Yes.. Lower the volume.
- Lower the volume... lower... lower... - agrees Windows-Home .
- Enough, Vika. {complete form: Victoria, never used in the novel}
Good program, docile, quick-witted and friendly one. Not without too
much self confidence, as any Microsoft product, but I have to put up with
it.
- Good luck, - says the program, - When should I expect you back?
I look at the screen: the woman's face is floating there, framed by
orange sparks, the young and cute face but nothing special. I'm tired of the
model beauty.
- I don't know.
- I'd like to have 10 minutes for self adjustment..
- Okay, but not more. I'll need all resources in 10 minutes.
The face on the screen frowns: the program extracts the keywords.
- Only 10 minutes, - says Windows-Home obediently, - But I must draw
your attention one more time to the fact that the level of the tasks you set
for me does not always correspond to the volume of my RAM. The desired
extension is...
- Shut up. - I rise. "Shut up" is a definite order, the program doesn't
dare to argue after that. I pad to the fridge and get a can of Sprite. The
liquid cools the throat. It's almost a ritual - the deep always dries the
throat. With the can in my hand I come out on the balcony, into the warm
summer evening.
It's almost always evening in Deeptown. The streets are lit by the
bright light of neon signs, cars softly growl scudding along the streets,
and people move in neverending stream. Twenty-five million of permanent
inhabitants: the biggest megapolis in the world. Faces can't be seen from
the height of eleventh floor. I finish my Sprite and throw the can down
returning into the room.
- Not ethical... - mutters the computer. Ignoring it I leave the room,
put on my shoes and open the door. The staircase is empty and brightly lit,
very-very clean. While I deal with the lock, the tiny bug tries to fly in
through the half opened door. Oh well, lamers are having their fun. With
irony I watch the persistent insect - the steady flow of air blows from the
apartment pushing the bug back out... Finally the door is closed, the bug
knocks against it in the last effort, a short flash - and it falls on the
floor.
- Should I file the complaint to the landlord? - asks Windows-Home. Now
the voice comes from silver clips on my shirt's collar.
- Go ahead - I agree. I always forget to explain to the program that
the landlord is myself.
The elevator waits for me. Usually I use the stairs... peeking inside
other apartments along the way. Nobody lives there anyway... but now I'm in
hurry. The elevator goes down - very fast. I pad out into the street, look
around, maybe the insect lover is still near? But there's nobody suspicious
nearby, everybody mind their own business. The bug was a passer by
obviously, a serial work. These are being crushed on the streets,
exterminated in the apartments but they keep coming.
I was having this fun too in my time, it was extremely seldom when
those bugs managed to bring any interesting info.
- Lenia, the complaint from tenant #1 was received by the "Polyana"
company.
I mumble, - Ignore it, - watching the man that walks along the street.
Gee, this is something! The mixture of younger Arnold Shwarzenegger and
older Clint Eastwood. Very funny. The man notices my sarcastic look and
walks faster.
I raise my hand and the yellow limo stops by the sidewalk in an
instant.
- Lenia, your complaint was ignored!
- Nevermind...
This can go forever, but I have no time for games now... I get into the
car, the driver, a smiling guy with the perfect hairdo dressed in starched
shirt, turns to me. I prefer this type of drivers: well trained and brief
ones.
- Deep-Transit Company is glad to welcome you!
He doesn't say the name - the program stopped the taxi anonymously.
- How will you pay?
- Like this, - I say getting the revolver out of my pocket and hit the
guy on the temple really hard. He tries to block me but it's too late. I
look at his pale face, shook him by the collar and order:
- Al-Kabar block.
- This address doesn't exist - says the driver. He's knocked out and
conquered.
- Al-Kabar. 8-7-7-3-8. - the simple code opens the access to
Deep-Transit's service addresses. I could manage without hitting the driver
but in this case information about the ride would remain in the company's
files.
- You've got it, - the driver is cheerful and helpful again.
The car is off. I look into the window: residence blocks fly by, packed
with skyscrapers inhabited by Deeptown's small fry and huge luxury corporate
offices. Long gray IBM buildings, splendid Microsoft's palaces, tracery
towers of AOL, a bit more modest offices of other leaders of computer
industry.
There are plenty of others of course: furniture, grub, real estate
sales firms, travel agencies, transportation companies, hospitals... even
the least alive and kicking company tends to open its office in Deeptown.
It's this abundance that Deep-Transit flourishes on. Traveling on foot
across the city is a long fun. We fly along the freeways, stop on
intersections, enter tunnels and cross road junctions. I'm waiting. I could
order the driver to go the shortest way but in this case he would need to
contact dispatching office and I would leave the trace...
The city ends abruptly - like the wall of palaces and skyscrapers was
cut off by the huge knife. The city loop road and the forest across it, the
thick and wild forest... that separates from the fuss those who doesn't want
to make a show of themselves.
- Slow down, - I order when we pass the mango growth and approach quite
a type of the mid-Russian thicket, - Stop by that next path.
- It's still a long drive to Al-Kabar...
- I said - stop!
The car stops. I open the door and make a couple of steps from the
limo. The driver waits obediently. I wait too - for the break in the
traffic. Why would we want witnesses? Ah, finally...
I aim to the car and shoot. The revolver is not very loud, the kick is
slight, but the car takes fire in an instant. The driver sits inside looking
forward. Several seconds, and Deep-Transit has one cab less.
Good. Let everything look like drunk punks having fun... I enter the
forest.
- Not ethical... - mumbles Windows-Home from the clips.
- Have you optimized yourself already?
- Yes.
- Okay, now I need help. Look for the cache, access code: "Ivan".
- The glowing tree, - says the program.
I look around. Bingo. Here it is, the huge oak tree, glimmering with
the magic blue light. Glimmering for me only. I approach it, put my hand
into the hollow and grab the big heavy package. Then I change into white
linen shirt and pants, tie a patterned belt around, hang a short sword in a
sheath on it, put several little things in pockets. I made this cache
several days ago, illegally using one of the computers belonging to the
Transcaucasian Railroad's transportation department. The programmers are
weak there, they will not notice this little invasion for a long time.
- Where's the stream? - I ask.
- To the right.
I bend over running water and look at my reflection, hit it with my
hand several times, then start moving my finger over it, erasing. Now the
blond stately robust fellow looks back at me from the troubled mirror. The
face is good natured looking and plain to aversion.
- Thanks, - I say to the program and rise. Standing still I enjoy the
forest, hell knows for how long didn't I get here out of the city's
stench...
- Waiting for me, aren't we, Mr Nice Guy? - the question from behind
the back. I turn around - the huge wolf, up to my chest in height, emerges
from the bush.
- Maybe for you, - I answer admiring the wolf. Hell, he's awesome! He's
really gray, and not simply gray but of exact blackish/grayish wolfs' color.
The fur is felted here and there, a burdock is stuck to the right forepaw.
- Shouldn't I eat you, Mr Nice Guy? - asks the wolf and bares his
teeth, his fangs are yellow like smoker's, one is missing totally.
I improvise mockingly, - Why would thou brag emptily, run thouself onto
my mighty sword? Better serve me well!
The wolf smiles and sits down, - And what the payment will be, the
mighty warrior?
- Three grands each, - I inform him.
The wolf nods, satisfied, rubs his muzzle with a paw and asks, -
Al-Kabar?
- Good guess.
- Mission?
- Theft.
- Who's the customer?
I just shrug. The answer is as rhetoric as the question. The customers
don't like to disclose themselves.
- Let's give it a try, - decides the wolf, - Are you ready?
- Quite.
- Let's go.
I scramble onto the wolf's back and he runs through the forest in
relaxed pace. I instinctively duck the tree branches, the wolf snickers. Let
him have some fun.
In a couple of minutes we leave the forest. The yellow sand is under
the feet now. It's very hot, and wind blows make me to narrow my eyes. The
chasm nearly 100 meters wide is ahead, and the Eastern styled city can be
seen on the opposite side. Minarets, domes, everything in
orange-yellow-green colors. Pretty nice. Not far away from us there's a...
well, let's call it the "bridge" across the chasm: the thread, thin as a
string. One its end is on the city wall, the other is being held in the hand
of the ugly stone statue around 10 meters high. The statue's face is quite
terrifying.
- Looks like a tough piece of work... - notes the wolf, - don't you
think you've sold yourself too cheap, Ivan The Prince?
- God knows... - I answer examining the statue, - I was warned about
the bridge...
- What are you gonna steal?
- Ripe apples...
- Oh, so this is the reason for all this masquerade... - snickers the
wolf again, - And what is inside the apples? {here is a reference to the
Russian fairy tales of course...}
- I dunno, - I spring down from his back, keeping my hand on his fur, -
Okay, gimme a second, I'll grab some soda and will be right back...
- Go ahead, - agrees the wolf gazing around.
I half close my eyes.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours... let me go, abyss...
I shivered slightly and stood up; tiny screens before my eyes, the
desert, the chasm, the statue and the city in the distance is on them, very
nice drawing. Al-Kabar has good designers.
The virtual helmet is heavy, one of the most sophisticated models by
Sony: with excellent color screens, great speakers and built-in microphone,
with air conditioner producing the air of the necessary temperature. Now
it's a desert heat... I took off the helmet and put it on the table, by the
keyboard. The familiar woman's face appeared on the monitor.
- Lenia, are you interrupting the immersion? - came out of the
speakers.
- No. Hold on.
In the real world my room is the same as in the virtual space. The
difference is though: it's not a warm Deeptown's summer evening behind the
windows but the rainy St. Peterburgh autumn. It's drizzling outside, the car
honks in the distance. I opened the fridge and took a can of Sprite. Let's
really drink... I couldn't resist the urge to look from the balcony. Of
course, the empty can that I threw out into the street in virtuality, is not
there. Well, let's eliminate the differences.
My hair were damp with perspiration, I wiped them with a shirt that was
scattered on the chair, sat by the computer, checked the cable of the
virtual suit that connects it with the computer's deep-board. The suit was
working, slightly slowing down my movements as if I was walking on the sand.
The left leg was slowed down a bit more than the right one: the program
glitches again. Ah well, I'll fix it later.
Putting the helmet on is the same as to enter the hot oven. Those
Al-Kabar's fouls surrounded themselves with the most uncomfortable
conditions...
Again I was looking at the virtual world, but it is yet too much like a
cheap cartoon: a grainy image, a nice but rough drawing. Computers can't
handle anything better.
And that's okay. What is the deep without the human after all?
I blinked once, relaxed trying to enter virtuality by my own and failed
of course. I'm not in the desert, I'm at home, by the keyboard. I had to
type the command:
deep
[Enter]
The multicolor whirlwind flashes out above the desert image. For one
more second I could see the screens, the soft cushion inside the helmet,
then the consciousness began to drift. The brain tried to resist, but no
use, the deep program affects everybody.
But there are some people - one out of 300.000 - those who don't lose
the link with reality completely. Those who can surface from the deep on
their own. The divers.
People like me, for instance.
The wolf smirks to me, - Got your whistle wet a little?
- Yup.
I examine myself: is everything fine? My body in virtuality - the
simple drawing, translated to one or another point of Deeptown or its
suburbs by the computer, but the sword on the belt and little things in the
bag are not just simple pictures. These are shortcuts, program launchers
which I'll need soon.
- Here is the plan, - I decide. - I'll cross the bridge alone. Then
I'll bring out the trophies and we take to our heels.
- The decision is yours, - agrees the wolf.
I walk on the sand, the hot wind doesn't calm down, it even seems that
the grains of sand sting the eyes. This is not the helmet's merit anymore
but my brain feels what I should have been feeling in the real desert..
The statue steadily comes closer and becomes more and more real. The
horned head with grinning mug, the hands bulging with stone muscles. Some
kind of evil genie possibly, I'm too weak in Arabic mythology. The thin
thread is held by the monster's left hand.
The horsehair bridge.
I start climbing up the monster's leg. How ridiculous must my body look
like now in the empty apartment - shaking, pulling up by the air.... don't
loose concentration!
The last meter is the most difficult. I lean against the thorny stone
knee, try to reach its hand - and fail. Definitely, lawful Al-Kabar's
visitors have some other way....
As for me, I have to climb the granite phallus of the monster first. I
can hear the wolf snickering below. Shit. Isn't it really funny?!
I'm on the palm finally, trying the thread with my foot - it shakes
slightly. Very-very far below - the cliffs and blue band of the river.
- Use some courage, hero! - shouts the wolf.
Common virtuality inhabitants can't cross this bridge... something's
wrong here.
The hand I'm standing on starts shaking and closing into a fist slowly,
the thread bridge shivers, ready to tear. The awoken monster's grinning
muzzle is over me.
- Who are you? - he roars so loud that my ears ache. In Russian by the
way!
- A visitor! - I shout trying to free my feet from the grip of the
granite fingers.
- No visitor comes with the forbidden! - laughs the monster.
His forefinger flies towards me as if to crush me flat. I duck
forcefully, but the monster just points at the sword.
Yeah, right, this is not Deep-Transit's simple and defenseless driver
program, this is an excellent security system with pseudo intellect, one
degree higher than Windows-Home. How did it determine my native language?
- The visitor doesn't come uninvited!
- I was invited!
- By whom?
I have to stake my all...
- You don't have the right to know this name!
- I have the right for everything, - informs the monster.
And the fingers clench.
Now the exit into reality is expected, as a result of the 'deadly
impact', otherwise the brains can imagine the real pain shock, with all its
consequences. Only those suicidal would turn off safety locks of the deep
program.
Or the diver.
My battered body is scattered on the monster's palm, the skull is
crushed, one eye looks into the hot dusty sky, another one - at the stony
nail. The genie laughs loudly, satisfied and shouts:
- You who came as a wolf, remember his fate!
Bingo. This is how he figured out our language: he just heard us
talking.
Though, he wasn't smart enough to understand whom is he dealing with...
The monster turns into stone again. I wait for one more second, then
stand up. The body assembles back together slowly. The ordinary user would
now wake up in reality by the reproachfully chirping computer.
Does the security program consider the existence of divers?
The monster is motionless. I'm dead, long time dead.. I step on the
hair bridge carefully...
- Who are you?!
Oh my, again... Looks like it reacts to the touch of the bridge. Even
worse.
- The one who is not at your mercy! - I reply.
- But whose mercy you're at?
Something new.
- Allah's, - I answer randomly.
This time the monster just slams me with the free hand, so that I
partially flow over the palm's edge and utters instructively:
- It's not for you to mention the name of the Almighty, you thief.
The wolf rolls on the sand laughing maniacally. I can see it with the
eye that stayed intact.
Well, the program's humor seems to be more American than Arabic... I
lie in thought, then stand up again. The monster is yet still.
- Any detour, Vika?
- This is the only external channel, - informs me my computer
immediately.
The voice is drifting and lifeless... I really need to upgrade the
RAM... - All other Al-Kabar's lines open by the order from inside only.
- Force solution? - I touch the sword's handle. The local virus is
tiny, I even don't need to download it from home. To unsheathe the sword, to
make one blow and...
- The channel will be destroyed.
Oh sure. Not for nothing does the monster hold the bridge in his hand.
If the security program is destroyed - the hair above the chasm would break.
- ■■■■.
- I can't understand...
- Shut up....
I examine the monster. The stone eyelids half closed, little drool
stalactite hangs from its mouth. Just a fake, entourage for nervous
virtuality people. Just an ordinary security program on the server gateway.
Somewhere inside the hair is the communication channel with Al-Kabar block.
The signals circulate along, ordering to let pass or to crash the uncalled
guest...
- Hey, Ivan The Prince, I'm in hurry! - shouts the wolf.
Right, it's high time to act. So far the program hurled me back
independently, but the next time the real Al-Kabar's programmers might take
over, both 'virtualists' and conservative ones...
- Animate the Shadow, - I order.
The dark silhouette on the palm stirs, gains the volume, stands up,
fills with color. I make an ugly face to my copy, it grimaces in return.
- Move the Shadow. Look for the password, - I order again.
One second - the computer 'moves' its HD, loading everything known
about Al-Kabar into the shadow's memory. Then the copy steps on the bridge.
Of course, it'll yield nothing, except some time.
- Who are you?! - roars the monster, grabbing the shadow. I hardly
manage to avoid its moving fingers, crawl along the clenched fist, jump on
the thread...
- And who are YOU? - I hear from behind. Then the right hand's blow
knocks me down to the monster's feet. I break into tiny pieces, lie supine
looking up at my twin that wallows on the palm.
Yeah right... Great job.
- Who are you? - asks the monster again.
- The one not on your mercy, - the twin keeps distracting the guard.
- Whose mercy you're on then?
- Only mine.
Interesting, how many more different deaths did the monster save for
the thieves? Just look at his teeth... horns.. well, even the phallus might
do too..
- Why did you come here?
- To find the power over myself.
- Go ahead and find it.
The palm opens, the monster turns into stone. The twin stands on the
edge of the palm motionless.
- Vika, where were the shadow's answers taken from?
- From the open Al-Kabar's file: "Virtual job request procedure".
The wolf pads closer, whispers, - What happened?
I explain.
- Hey, Ivan The Prince, aren't you Ivan The Stupid by chance too? {yet
another folklore hero }
I can't beat that. Of course I HAD to look through ALL files, not just
through the stolen data about the inside organization of the block.
- Vika, merge.
I'm kinda being pulled into the shadow, now this body is the main one.
The one already allowed to step on the bridge.
The victory is Pyrrhic though. The guard reported about the visitor
that tries to cross the bridge. This means I'll be warmly welcomed there.
The single that tries to fight the crowd is doomed, in any space, even
virtual one.
Well, nothing else to do. It's time to go... along the hair bridge.
Honestly, this procedure is almost impossible, even for the
professional rope-walker. This bridge is just that: the thread above the
chasm. The towers of Al-Kabar are alluring and unreachable in the distance.
Abyss-abyss... I'm not yours...
I closed and opened back my eyes. The picture is before me: the chasm,
the thread, the buildings in the distance. Just funny... Looking where I
step, I started to shift my feet along the thread carefully.
It's just a picture. It's no gravity there, the drawn body can't have a
center of gravity. Just step on the thread and everything will be okay...
Funny thing, as it turned out, the bottom of the chasm is not drawn at all,
meaning that it was me, my mind which added the mountain river down there.
Somebody else could see trees or lava flowing.
Now, when my subconsciousness doesn't take part in the game, the
distance is covered fast. Half a minute - and I'm over there.
The thread ends at the crest of the city wall. The crest is wide and
there's already a couple of people, obviously waiting for me. They're drawn
pretty well - kind of pot-bellied robust guys with swords on their belts,
one in the turban, and the other just bald. Stepping on the wall "bricks" I
whisper:
- Vika, turn the deep on.
Fiery sparks before my eyes. Yes, do I abuse turning the
subconsciousness on-off today. Severe headache, heartbeat and general
feel-down are guaranteed tomorrow. Nevermind. Good if I manage to live until
tomorrow at all.
And here are the welcomers - now in the normal human form.
- You reached us quick, guest, - says the bald one. He has a friendly
face of an Arabic guard from the production of "Sindbad The Sailor" done for
kids. The second one looks grotesquely Arabic too, but is much more
sinister, he flashes his eyes and holds the sword handle tightly. Oh great,
the only thing I ever missed is the battle virus in my computer.
- The others were slower?
- Nobody ever crossed this bridge before, - kindly informs me the bald
guard, - It's impossible for the human to keep balance on the horsehair.
- It means that the heaven stays empty, - I sigh. Looks like it's not
me who leads the events anymore but they lead me. I don't like this turn...
- Well, but the Hell does always have plenty of space for everybody.
Nice promise.
- Move it.
Nothing else to do but to obey. Let's be submissive and polite. When in
Rome, do what the Romans do.
The wide steep stairway leads down from the city wall. We descend. The
good-natured guard before me, the wheezing ill-wisher behind me. I ignore
him carefully, looking at the bald patch of the friendly one. He has a big
wart exactly on his cinciput. Interesting, is it really drawn or my
subconsciousness tricks me? It's not reasonable to leave the deep just to
check such a trifle though.
The Al-Kabar block is not big, not more than a square kilometer in
virtuality. It means nothing though. Some companies, like Microsoft for
instance offer whole palaces for their employees to work: it's cheap and
effective. Some others do with such puny little rooms that one can wonder -
what is virtuality here for at all.
Obviously Al-Kabar is one of those. I peek into the window of the low
stone building that we pass by.
Equipment... too unfamiliar one to identify, several people by the
tables. One of them holds a test-tube in his hands. Ha, chemical experiments
in virtuality! Something new. It's worthy only if they work on some very
poisonous substances... or bacterial environments. Okay, let's note this.
- Where are you taking me? - I ask the guard. The Bald Patch doesn't
turn around, but answers:
- To the Director of the corporation.
He doesn't name him, but it's said enough. Al-Kabar is an international
corporation that specializes on pharmaceuticals, telephone communications
and oil extraction if I'm not mistaken. Despite all Arabic entourage, it is
managed from Switzerland. Friedrich Urman, it's director is the person
important enough to not talk with just any visitor.
The warmest welcome is being prepared indeed...
We stop before the little wooden grape twined arbor, I'm pushed forward
from behind and enter. The guards stay outside.
The lodgement looks much more spacious from inside, the huge pavilion,
the pool in its center where shining sleepy fish floats slowly. The table
with two armchairs stands nearby, lots of flowers, I even start feeling
scents.
And nobody.
Well, let's wait; I sit down in the armchair.
A slight fog before my eyes, an expected one. My communication channel
is being examined. They try to determine where I came from, the volume of
data I can receive and transmit per second, the programs that I have with
me...
Go ahead, do your job... Six routers, rented for one single use that
transmit the signal, and each of them tough enough to break. And in the end
- the commercial Internet gate in Austria through which I entered
virtuality.
I'll leave the trace but it'll lead to nowhere.
They can break my connection at any moment, kick me out of the block,
but this will give them nothing... all thingies-programs that I have will be
invoked immediately. A little will remain for examination. But I'm very
interesting to them, no doubt...
- The first router is traced, - informs Windows-Home.
Pretty quick. I shake my head and at this moment the opposite armchair
is not empty anymore.
Mr Friedrich Urman neglects Arabic coloring, he wears blinders,
variegated shirt; an aged, lean and serious man.
- Good afternoon... diver, - he says. In Russian. The voice sounds
unnatural, filtered through the interpreter program.
So this is the reason for such an honor.
- I'm afraid that you're mistaken, Mr Director.
- When we created the bridge half a year ago, we pursued the single
goal, Mr Diver: to detect you. The person being in virtuality could never
cross it, - Urman smiles sparingly, - For the first time in my life I can
see the real diver.
One-zero... not in my favor.
- Well, for the first time in my life I can see the real billionaire.
- So you see, our meeting is fruitful already.
Windows-Home whispers,
- The second router was traced...
Urman frowns - looks like he's informed about something too. Then
inquires:
- Excuse me, how many servers did you pass through to come here?
- Unfortunately, I don't remember.
Urman shrugs.
- How may I refer to you?
- Ivan The Prince.
Brief pause, then he smiles, Somebody have explained him.
- Oh, the Russian tales' hero! Are you Russian yourself?
- Does it really matter?
- You're absolutely right... Well, Mr Diver, as far as I understand,
you penetrated our block illegally...
- Oh really?! - I'm in shock. - To be honest, I just was looking for a
job. I saw your ad, crossed the bridge... obeyed those strange guards...
One-one.
Friedrich Urman clasps his hands:
- Oh, sure! We have no complaints whatsoever, Mr Diver. Except maybe...
those odd things that you have with you.
Slowly, demonstratively I empty my pockets: a comb, a handkerchief, a
small mirror.
- Here. Do you want me to give you my sword?
Urman waves his hands:
- Geez, what for? We surely aren't gonna fight, are we? Let's just
talk...
- Third router was traced.
- It's such a pity that less and less time remains for our talk, - I
sigh.
- Yes, it's never enough time. Well, Mr Diver, I have the reasons to
suspect that some persons would like to obtain some of our technologies, and
even managed to hire a diver... in order to reap where they have not sown.
- The apples, - I add.
- Exactly. We have a good Russian programmer working for us, he created
a nice design for data storage... - Urman claps his hands and the air dims
between us, becoming dense. One moment - and the small tree appears, all
sown with the fruit. - I suppose that the most interesting thing among these
is that small green apple on the lower branch.
I look at the desired fruit. It's small, not ripe and wormy.
- How do you think diver, how much could our competitors pay for this
file?
- Around ten grands, - I raise the price somehow.
Urman looks at me surprised, makes it more exact:
- Ten thousand dollars?
- Yes.
- To be honest, even 100 thousand would be not enough... Okay. Let's
assume that I offer 150.000 to the person that tries to steal the file, on
the condition that he agrees to work for us... for the regular, very good
salary.
- What is that, cure for cancer? - I ask.
- No. In that case it would be priceless. It's just a cold reliever,
but very, very effective. We're about to start its production but only after
the less effective medicines are sold out. So, what do you think about my
offer?
- I'd hate to let you down, - I say trying hard not to think about the
offered amount, - But the divers' code explicitly forbids agreements like
this one.
- Very well, - Urman rises, - I expected such an answer, and I respect
your position.
He pads to the tree and plucks the apple with some effort. His lips are
moving: he
obviously says the password. - Take it.
The apple is in my hand. It's very heavy: two Megs at least. It's
useless to try to copy it, the only way is to bring it out with me. I put it
in the pocket - I mean, attach it to my virtual 'shell', then look at Urman.
- I stake all, - says Urman seriously. - I sacrifice an extemely
perspective technology. You can give it to Mr Shellerbach and convey my
personal kind regards to him. There's one single thing I'm asking for -
please, return here after that and let's discuss the permanent cooperation.
I wouldn't hide from you the fact that right now we are in a desperate need
of diver's services.
- Fourth router is traced... fifth router is traced... alarm! Alarm!!
Alarm!!!
- Okay, - I rise too. So sudden.. I never suspected that the serious
businessmen are able to make such generous gestures. - I promise to come.
But if you'll excuse me now...
- No Mr Diver, now YOU please excuse me. You'll easily leave our
territory, but not before your real address is determined, in order to
guarantee the validity of the promise just given.
The trellised pavilion's walls darken like being covered by thick
cloth. I make a step - it's really difficult. Urman starts moving jerkily,
everything flows in my eyes, the apple in the pocket draws me to the floor
with great force, Windows-Home's voice dims and loses any tones:
- Al...a...rm... a...l...rm...
So that's how it goes. Billionaires are good players. Meaning, their
servants - to which number they try to add me.
- Vika, drop the details! - I whisper trying to reach the table. I wish
the program would understand and obey without more questions...
The pavilion changes. Ornaments are gone, the flowers lose buds and
some small leafs, the texture of Urman's shirt becomes rough. But I manage
to reach my toys on the table and grab the handkerchief. These personal
hygiene thingies are very useful.
One wave of the handkerchief, slow as if underwater, and the shiny
plane of light cuts through the falling asleep pavilion's little world. Some
people call this program "the sticker", others - "the road". Both
definitions are true. The program searches for someone else's communication
channels and starts using them for its own benefit.
Very-very new, rare and almost faultless program.
A part of the wall ruins, opening the exit out to the street.
Obviously, I utilized Urman's personal channel. I grab the comb and the
mirror and run.
The sharp ragged spears start to emerge from the wall: Al-Kabar's
security program. I jump forward in a desperate attempt to pass between the
spears.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
The air conditioner blows icy air out. A slowly moving strip is on the
screens - percentage of transmitted data, and the gap, contracting rapacitly
under it - the comm channel being tightened. This is how the beauty of the
most intense virtual fights looks like in reality. Stripes, characters,
digits. The battle of the programs, modems, bytes of data.
Hell no! It's too disgusting and dull.
- Deep! - I ordered.
The head responds with pain - I don't care. I storm between the spears,
fall on the floor. The shiny band flows along the street crashing everything
on its way. The buildings crumble, the wall blows up with a thunder-like
sound. The band flies across the chasm. Now full speed forward!
Those two guards run to intercept me, both with swords, but I've
unsheathed my own already. Whose virus is faster and more agile?
Mine.
This is the gift from Maniac, my friend a computer virus specialist.
The deadly gift - the air under my sword takes fire and hits the guards with
a dragon belch. They burn in an instant turning into charcoal black
carcasses.
Maniac really does love cool effects. Now the guards' computers are
completely busy with an extremely important task of calculation of PI number
with a million digits precision. They even have no resources left to eject
the operators from virtuality. Very good, let them lie in the deep for a
while instead of changing the computers.
- Not ethical... - mutters Windows-Home dolefully.
I rush along the band. The channel is excellent, I'm above the wall in
a couple of seconds. The band under my feet pushes me forward. I laugh
loudly and look back.
Wow!
Just look what's going on in Al-Kabar! The streets are flooded with
people, the other guards already run along the band, and something huge,
snaky and unpleasant crawls out from one of the buildings. It's better not
to look longer.
Faster...
The band jumps over the monster genie and sets itself against the
ground. The guard is alive again, it shakes, outstretches his paws up so
that the hair bridge breaks but can't reach me. Neither can he move from his
position: it's fixed firmly on its comm channel.
On the last meters the band starts shaking suddenly and tries to kick
me back: Al-Kabar's programmers have restored the control.
But it's too late, I'm on the ground already and the Wolf rushes to me:
- Jump on me NOW Ivan, time to scarper!
I leap on the wolf in an instant, look back for the last time. The
guards jump down from the band and the winged shadow soars above the chasm.
- Sux!!! - I mutter the favorite virtual folks' curse. 'Sux' means a
'frozen' computer, a glitching program, an acescent beer, a trolleybus that
had left the stop just at the moment you arrived... In this case - such an
intense pursuit. We don't have time to copy the data from the apple
comfortably and to dissolve in the thin air afterwards. We must run and
tangle our traces.
My partner in the wolf's hide can do it perfectly.
We rush across the desert, then turn into the forest. The blurry
shadows run behind - the guards sacrifice their scary images for speed.
- Is the pursuit close, Ivan The Prince? - asks the wolf .
- Very close! - I confess.
- Gee, I'll never get you outta here Ivan! - roars the wolf .
I take the comb and throw it behind my back. A deafening crackle, the
comb's teeth scatter around, fall on the ground and start growing turning
into huge trees. Guards' movements between them become slow as if they're
falling asleep - the space is overfilled with the unexpected objects and the
enemies' computers are jammed by the mass of junk data.
Unfortunately, this is an old trick and there's plenty of methods to
fight it. Most guards manage to narrow the field of vision or to drop image
details, passing the dangerous place successfully. To be exact, not the
guards themselves did that but their deep-programs. Those stopped were
mostly enthusiastic amateurs pursuing us just for fun.
- Oh Ivan, my strength is exhausted! - screams the wolf. I can't
understand whether he's really worried or plays the fairy tale so
recklessly.
It's the mirror's turn now. When I throw it back, my usually restrained
Windows-Home screams:
- NOT ETHICAL!
Sure it's not! This is not an innocent prank with quick growing baobabs
anymore, and even not the local virus sword but a logical bomb of extreme
power.
Where the mirror fell, the lake appears and starts widening. Some
guards run into it and 'drown', disappear without a trace. Others stop on
the bank helplessly. All comm channels are blocked completely in this area
of virtuality. It'll be impossible to pass here for at least two more hours,
then the lake will dry.
- Where have you got these thingies? - asks the wolf.
- From Maria The Skillful, - I answer after a second of hesitation.
Honestly, it was that nickname that gave me an idea of today's masquerade.
The wolf won't betray, he might need the similar programs too one day.
- I'll note that, - says the wolf gratefully, glances back quickly and
asks, - What is your third entree, the mighty warrior?
The dragon flies after us - the battle interceptor program of the
highest grade. The dragon has three heads - obviously three human operators
plus the usual weaponry: claws, teeth and flame. A hundred of various
viruses and tough protection. It slows down just a little above the lake.
- The third was used the first, - I confess.
- Couldn't you take more?! Play fairy tales too much, just three items
and that's it? - growls the wolf. He isn't right of course, one can't carry
too many viruses, but we both start losing the nerve.
The wolf decides something and turns aside sharply, running even
faster. Then he stops by the big mossy stump, so suddenly that I fly on the
ground over his head, examines me intently and jumps over the stump.
I prefer to use the water to change my image: a stream, a river or at
least a pot full of water. The werewolves are conservative though.
The wolf capsizes and turns into human: a young man in modest gray suit
and patent-leather shoes. My diver friend is as elegant as always. As soon
as landed, he stands, jumps again and turns into my exact copy.
- Vika, the stream, - I order getting his idea. But the former wolf
already grabs me by my shoulders and throws over the stump shouting, - No
time for this bull!
It's a small pleasure to be affected by the foreign morphing program. I
just have time to say: "Vika, freeze" to prevent the careful Windows-Home to
resist the change.
For a long time wasn't I in the wolf's hide, since when virtuality just
appeared and everybody had fun with morphing. Luckily, I don't have to stand
on all fours, I change only visually. I take off the sword, give it to the
new Ivan The Prince, he grabs the weapon and jumps onto my shoulders.
- Come on, you lazy sack of bones! - he shouts hitting my sides with
his heels. I dash forward, and just in time: the dragon appears above the
trees. It swoops on us and releases three flame streams. The fire flares up
right on our way.
- Run! - screams my partner and adds in a whisper, - See you tonight,
at the usual place...
I jerk sharply, throw him down from my back and flee, hurled by curses.
The dragon circles above for little longer, then lands by the fairy
tale hero. The cowardly partner doesn't interest him. Just as expected.
I run away, whispering:
- Vika, copy new files!
The fight rages behind me. Not for long though, the werewolf just has
time to hit the dragon with his sword once, but the virus is harmless to the
armor of the interceptor program. The white snowy cloud arises around the
werewolf and he ceases to move.
Freezing. It's over. My friend have left the game - he's at home
already, takes off his virtual helmet, and his exact copy stands before the
dragon - with all stolen programs... in case he had any, of course.
The dragon hits him with his paw gently and it scatters down in icy
fragments. All three heads bow down to him, searching for the stolen apple.
I'm running away.
The apple in my pocket becomes lighter and lighter - the data flows
into my computer. I dodge between the trees, then stop so that it'd be
easier for Windows-Home to download the file. The dragon's roar reaches me,
it haven't found the apple and understood what happened. Who is faster?
The dragon flies up again. It will find me easily - movements in
virtuality leave traces. I just stand still and wait.
- File transfer completed.
Yes! I won!
- Exit, - I order.
- Really? - asks Windows-Home.
- Yes.
- Exit from virtuality, - informs the computer. The colorful sparks
flash before my eyes, the world loses its bright dyes, turns into the pale
and flat picture.
- You successfully exited virtuality! - cheerfully informs
Windows-Home. The voice from the headphones is sharp and too loud. The deep
blue color with a small figure of flying or better to say, falling man is on
the helmet's screens, the well known emblem of the Deep, the Abyss, the
virtual world.
After taking off the helmet I looked at the monitor, blinked several
times. The same picture there.
- Vika, thanks.
- No problems, Lenia, - answered Windows-Home. I taught it this small
courtesy a week ago, it's always nice when the program looks more humanized
than it really is.
- Terminal.
The blue changed into the terminal's panel. I manually connected to the
sixth router, the last one to remain intact and canceled my access. Then I
canceled my temporary address in Austria.
The main threads are broken. Try to find me now Al-Kabar guys, filter
all files in search for Ivan The Prince. The diver have broke free from the
trap.
Not using the voice control anymore, I shut Windows-Home down, entered
3D Norton's table, opened disk D: where all my virtual trophies are stored
together with a small viruses collection. Here it is, my apple: 1.5 Meg
file. Looks like the simple file for Advanced-Word. A couple of smaller
files are attached to it though... security programs? I launched the
scanner, especially developed for these types of surprises.
Yup, just as I thought: identification programs which are supposed to
destroy the file if it gets to somebody else's computer.
We know this far too well... And are insured against it for a long time
already: identification programs simply can't see my computer. It's these
dangerous things that I always store on D: disk. The scanner located some
surprise inside the text file itself too - a tiny program, supposedly
starting in response to an attempt to read the file. Just as should have
been expected. I copied the file to the magnetic diskette, then to the
optical one and started to disembowel the fruit of Al-Kabar's orchards.
It turned out to be impossible to kill the security programs without
destroying the file. I had to just knock them out, disable them. Then I got
busy with the inner surprise. I cut the file into twenty pieces, extracted
the guard program. It turned out to be an absolutely unfamiliar polymorph
virus which (and it was most unpleasant) have managed to stick to my
computer. After two hours of intensive work, interrupted only twice - to
take an aspirin tablet and to visit bathroom, I became convinced that I'll
not be able to disable the virus.
It was late evening, the time when hackers just start working. I packed
the virus with a text fragment and called Maniac.
I had to wait a couple of minutes until he picked up the phone. I was
lucky: he easily could hang about in virtuality, indifferent to any calls,
fires, floods and other annoying trifles of life.
- Yes?
- Maniac, it's me.
Hacker's voice softened a little.
- Hi Lenia, what's up?
- The new virus for your collection.
- Toss it here! - said Maniac, hanging up instantly.
I started the modem and sent Al-Kabar's surprise to greedy hands of the
virus creator, then opened the fridge, took out bread and sausage and moved
to the kitchen to set the teapot on the stove. It'll take Maniac at least
half an hour to examine the virus. For the first ten minutes he'll break it,
then for 20 minutes more he'll admire its structure, will laugh looking at
unsuccessful solutions and frown finding some ideas he missed himself. Right
since the Moscow Convention that resigned with the inevitable and legalized
the production of nonfatal viruses, he specializes in making them. His
viruses are excellent, capable of freezing any computer, but never
destroying the data.
But Maniac called in three minutes.
- Visited Al-Kabar, huh? - asked he in a honey sweet voice.
- Yes. - it made no sense to lie, - You managed it so fast?
- I didn't manage it. This is my virus, buddy.
I couldn't find anything better than to mumble, "Well... sorry about
that..."
Maniac, in the real life just Sasha {Alexander}, was deadly serious:
- You what, have stolen a program from them?
- Not exactly... But in general yes, this was hidden in the file...
- Have you contacted anybody via modem? I mean, since you received the
file.
- No.
- Lucky you, - informed Maniac, - You see, this is not just an ordinary
virus, it's a postcard.
I didn't understand and Maniac explained:
- A postcard with return address. If the virus detects the
communication hardware on the computer, it attaches the second letter to any
of yours: a tiny, invisible one... a postcard. Without any text but with
your return address. The letters leave together but later, already from the
other computer, the postcard is forwarded directly to Al-Kabar's security
department.
I froze inside.
- I've killed the virus on the computer...
- You've killed not the virus itself, but its false 'reflections'
created by it especially for distraction. Commonly used programs don't
detect the postcard yet, it's still too rare.
- What should I do?
- Treat me with beer, - smirked Maniac, - Now you'll receive a special
'cure' from me, the special antivirus. There's no hints in it, you just
start the .BAT file and it checks your machine. Note that it'll work for
long, this is not a commercial product, just ... my personal insurance from
my own virus.
- Thanks.
- Um-hm.. Lenia, you've nearly got into really big trouble.
- Too many hackers were bred, - I growled out, - Shit, why haven't you
ever tell me about this thing?
- But how could I know you are so deep in computer burglary? -
reasonably objected Maniac, - Next time let me know when you are about to
break into cool places. Okay, start your modem.
In a couple of minutes I launched antivirus.. It was really slow,
informing that a postcard is detected every minute. The polymorph have
plagued the whole computer.
It was really close.
Glancing at the screen, I've built a huge sandwich, poured a hot tea
into the cup and came out to the balcony. It was already dark outside and
raining slightly, the air was damp and cold.
It's overconfidence that kills divers. We don't fear the virtual
world's dangers and this lulls our vigilance.
But the most annoying thing is that we are all amateurs. For some
reason, no divers shape out of hackers - they percept the virtual world as
the real one.
Though it was me, the so-so computer artist from the small computer
games company that went broke three years ago and who got an old computer as
a dismissal pay, who DID become a diver. One of the hundred on this planet.
I was lucky.
Possibly, I was just lucky.

10

Not more than five years ago the virtual world was nothing more but the
sci-fi writers' creation. Computer networks, virtual helmets and suits
already existed, but all this was only profanation. Hundreds of games were
created where one could move in the spacious and colorful cyberspace but
virtuality even couldn't be mentioned.
The world created by computers is too primitive, it can't be compared
even with cartoons, not to mention movies. Thus, the real world is
completely out of question. One could run around in the drawn labyrinths and
castles, fight with monsters or with his own friends who sit by the
computers as well. But even in the worst feverish ravings it was impossible
to confuse reality and illusion.
Computer networks allowed people all over the world to communicate, but
it was nothing more than exchanging character lines on the screen... in the
best case - the drawn face of your interlocutor could be on the screen too.
The real virtuality required too powerful computers, extremely high
quality communication lines, titanic work of millions of programmers. It
would take several dozens of years to build the city like Deeptown.
Everything had changed dramatically when Dmitry Dibenko, the former
hacker from Moscow (now the wealthy US citizen) invented The Deep: a tiny
program influencing human subconsciousness. They say he was crazy about
Castaneda's books, liked to meditate and smoked grass. I surely believe in
it. His former friends confess that he was cynical and lazy, a sloven and
very so-so professional. In this I do believe too.
But it was him who gave rise to the deep. Ten second clip displayed on
the screen is harmless by itself. If shown on TV (I heard it was dared to be
done in some countries), the TV watcher won't feel anything and will not
become a movie character. Dmitry himself just wanted to create a pleasant
meditation background for his computer, and he did, let it circulate along
the Net and didn't suspect anything for two more weeks.
But then, one day some Ukranian guy looked at the colorful plays of the
Deep program, shrugged and launched his favorite game - Doom: drawn
corridors and buildings, terrible monsters and brave hero with a shotgun in
his hand. A simple 3D game, the whole era of 3D games was started with it.
And he 'fell' into the game.
An empty floor of the Patenting Bureau (it was a late evening) where
the guy worked, disappeared. He couldn't see his computer anymore. His
fingers were hitting the keys making the drawn figure to move, to turn, to
shoot, but it seemed to him that it's HIM running along the corridors,
ducking the fiery balls and snarling monsters' mugs. He understood that this
is just a game, but he didn't know why it became real and how to exit it.
The only thing he could do in this situation was to go until the very
end. And he did it despite the fact that it turned out to be much more
difficult now.
The slight wound now became not just the lowered percent of 'strength'
on the screen, but something the wound is supposed to be: pain, weakness,
fear. He realized that the bloody floor becomes slippery, that the stony
slab behind which the shells are hidden is really heavy, that ejected shells
are hot and rocket launcher's recoil nearly knocks him off his feet, that
the health potion is bitter and loathsome, that the armor turned out to be
made of thin metal plates and is pretty lightweight - but a little too baggy
and has uncomfortable ties on the back. In around three hours the shotgun
trigger started to jam, he had to hit it slowly and carefully, moving the
finger from side to side.
By 5 am he finished the game. The monsters were cast down. The game
menu had appeared on the stone wall before him and he pushed the shotgun's
barrel into it with a scream.
The illusion dissipated, he was sitting by the peacefully droning
computer, his eyes watered, the keyboard under his stiff fingers totally
ruined. The key he was using as a shotgun trigger was stuck.
The guy shut down the computer and fell asleep right by the table. The
employees that soon arrived noticed that his face and hands were badly
bruised.
He told about what happened and of course nobody believed him. Only by
the evening, thinking about what could happen, he remembered about Dibenko's
meditation program and suspected wrong.
The whole world was in fever a week later. All corporations except
computer and software ones suffered tremendous losses: everybody starting
from programmers and ending with secretaries and janitors, wanted to visit
the cyberspace personally.
With Dibenko's light touch the program was named 'Deep' and began its
march all over the world. The studies proving that around 7% of people are
not affected by the abyss were still ahead, as well as those proving that
being in virtuality for more than 10 hours a day might lead to nervous
disorders and pseudoschizoid syndrome. Just a month left until the first
death in virtuality when an aged man whose destroyer was burned in a space
war above the intellectual purple reptiles' planet, died of a heart attack
right by the keyboard.
It couldn't scare anyone anymore.
The world have immersed itself.
Deeptown was created by Microsoft and IBM on the Internet.
The main advantage of virtuality was simplicity. It wasn't necessary to
draw buildings and palaces, human faces and machines in all detail, just the
general outline and several small recognizable hints. The brown wall divided
into squares is a brick wall. The blue above is the sky. Blue pants - jeans.
The world submerged and wasn't going to surface back. It was so much
more interesting in the deep. Even if it was yet not available to everybody,
intellectual elite swore it's allegiance to the new Empire.
To the Deep.

11

It was midnight when I finally cleaned the computer up from the
postcard virus and packed the bagged file (in virtuality it'll look like the
ordinary diskette now). The head stopped aching and the sleepiness
disappeared completely. No Deeptown inhabitant sleeps at night, right?
- Vika, restart, - I commanded.
The thoughtful female face on the screen frowned:
- Really?
- Sure.
The screen dimmed slightly, the image blurred. Then the hard drive
started blinking indicating system restart. My machine is just Pentium, not
a 'serious' one but I still can't make up my mind to substitute it with a
newer computer. It's reliable enough.
- Good evening Lenia, - said Vika, - I'm ready for work.
- Thanks. Connect to Deeptown... use the regular channel.
Modem chirped dialing, I put the helmet on and sat down.
- 28800 connection, the channel is stable, - said Vika.
- Turn the Deep on.
- Done.
Light blue on the screen, flash, then - colorfulness.
How did you manage to create the deep program, Dima? With your
shattered mentality, basic knowledge in psychology, and no knowledge in
neurophysiology? What helped you?
Now, when you're rich and famous, what are you trying to do? To
understand how it dawned upon you or to invent something more amazing? Or
just lead your dissolute life and smoke the grass as much as you want? Or
wander along Deeptown's streets all around the clock looking at your
creation?
I wish I knew that, but - not to be in your shoes, because you're not
more than the ordinary virtuality inhabitant, even with all your millions
and Octium prototype as a home computer. The Deep holds you as tightly as
any provincial programmer from Russian remote who saves money for months
just to visit Deeptown once.
You're not the diver, Dima, and this is why I'm happier than you.
... The same room, but there are neon sign flashes and slight noise of
moving cars outside.
- Is everything okay Lenia?
I look around.
- Yes. I'll go for a walk, Vika.
I pick up the diskette and put it into my pocket. The portable CD
player lies on the shelf among several books and the pile of CDs. I insert
ELO's CD into it, put on headphones, push 'play'. 'Roll over Beethoven' -
just what I wanted. Accompanied by the cheerful music I leave the apartment
and shut the door.
No bugs this time. Standing on the sidewalk, I raise my hand and stop
the cab. This time the driver is an aged man, stout and very intelligent
looking.
- Deep-Transit is glad to welcome you Lenia.
I get inside and nod:
- To the 'Three Piglets' restaurant.
This address is well known to the driver. We move fast, a couple of
turns and we're before the odd building: partially stone one, partially
wooden, partially built of straw mats.
I enter the too familiar restaurant and look around. It is divided into three parts - Eastern
cuisine is served in the 'mat' one, European - in the stone one, and Russian
- in the wooden one obviously.
I'm not really hungry; virtual food subjectively satiates, and being in
dire straits I usually eat in 'Three piglets', but now I just have to wait
for my partner.
I walk directly to the bar, behind which the robust man is standing,
taking off the headphones as I walk.
- Hi Andrei.
Sometimes the owner serves his virtual customers himself, but today
it's obviously not the case. The bartender smiles but it's just an automatic
courtesy:
- Hi! What would you like to drink?
- Gin-Tonic with ice, as usual.
I watch bartender mixing the drink. Tonic is the real Shweppes, Gin is
the decent Beefeater. The liquor companies allow to use their trade marks
and products' images in virtuality for just a symbolic charge: it's a good
advertisement. Pepsi is free at all: it was their marketing trick. Coke
costs as much as in reality though.
And it has good sales.
I take the glass and sit by the empty table, watching the guests: it's
always interesting.
The number of men and women is approximately the same. Absolutely all
women are perfectly beautiful and of all types: from blond Scandinavians to
charcoal black Africans. Most men are terrible freaks. No, it's not true of
course, just my subconsciousness notes all follies in men's virtual shells -
disproportionately muscular figures and too recognizable physiognomies of
movie stars glued to body-builders' bodies.
Exception is made for the women though: they all are beautiful.
I take a sip of Gin and lean on the table relaxed: oh it feels good...
No real bar or restaurant can be compared with the virtual one. They
always cook great here. You never have to wait to be served. The huge dose
of alcohol won't cause hangover.
But having a real life experience, one really can feel drunk... and
subconsciousness dives into the alcohol drug cheerfully. They say that the
body's natural narcotics - endorphines start being produced then. True or
not, intoxication doesn't disappear instantly when one exits virtuality.
- Sorry, may I please?... - the young girl sits down by my side. Blond
hair, clean, slightly dim skin, a simple white suit, a little golden
medallion on her neck: most likely, a program of some sort. She's pretty
cute and thanks God, not recognizable: either she designed her face by
herself or used some rare seen painting as a model or found a cute but not
too familiar face in some movie.
- Sure, - I turn to her. The bartender already gives her a glass of
wine: 'Emperor', the Chilean one. This girl has a good taste.
- I see you here pretty often, - informs the girl.
DZZZ! the alarm signal in my head.
- Amazing, - I note, - I don't visit this place so often really.
- But I'm here almost always.
Lies.
I can exit virtuality right now and check a couple of dozens of control
photos stored in the computer: the visitors of the bar for the last two
months. It's always useful to remember new faces. But what for, I know well
enough that I never met her before...
- I was wearing different faces, - looks like the girl guesses my
thoughts, - while you always wear the same one.
- Changing faces is too expensive, - I begin my self-humiliation, -
It's stupid to botch up Schwartzenegger or Stallone from yourself, and I
can't afford hiring the image specialist.
- The Deep itself is expensive enough.
She calls virtuality with a Russian term and I like that...
...But not her overall behavior...
I shrug. What a strange talk.
- Excuse me... you're Russian, right? - asks the girl.
I nod. There are lots of Russians in virtuality: nowhere else in the
world the computer time usage is controlled as poorly as in our country.
- I'm sorry... - the girl bites her lips slightly, she is obviously
excited, - Of course I'm terribly tactless but... What is your name?
I understand.
- Not Dmitry Dibenko. This is what interests you, right?
The girl looks at my face intently and nods, then quickly drains her
glass dry.
- I'm not lying. Honest. - I say softly.
- I believe you, - the girl nods to bartender, then reaches her hand
out to me, - I'm Nadya.
I shake her hand and introduce myself:
- Leonid.
So now we know each other and can be less ceremonious. The deep is
casual: overly polite tone is offensive here.
The girl casts her hair back from her forehead, the natural and
graceful gesture, then gives her glass over to bartender; he refills it
quickly. She looks around the hall.
- How do you think, does he really visit virtuality?
- I don't know. Probably. Are you a journalist, Nadya?
- Yes, - she hesitates for a moment, then takes out a business card
from her purse and gives it to me, - Here...
The card is complete: not only Email, but also phone number, first and
last name. Nadezhda Mesherskaya, the 'Money' magazine, a reporter.
Windows-Home is silent, it means that the card is 'clean' - it's really just
a card, without any hidden surprises. I put it in my pocket and nod:
- Thanks.
Sorry, it'll be no return courtesy, but it doesn't look like Nadya
expects it.
- This deep is a strange thing, - she says sipping her wine, - I'm in
Moscow for instance, you are in Samara somewhere, that boy - in Penza...
'That boy', looking like the cute Mexican from a soap opera notices her
look and raises his chin proudly. Yes, one can't deny her power of
observation, he's really Russian...
- There's a crowd of Americoses, - she goes on without a glimpse of
respect, - that weirdo is a Japanese obviously... just look at the eyes he
drew for himself. Every nation has it's own complexes... And here are we,
playing the fool in nonexistent restaurant, having nonexistent drink,
hundreds of computers burn up energy, processors heat up in effort,
megabytes of senseless data are pumped over the phone lines back and
forth...
- Data is never senseless.
- Yes, maybe, - Nadya glances at me quickly, - Let's better call it not
topical one. And what, is this really a new era of the world's technology?
- But what did you expect? The file exchange and discussions of
processors' quality? We're humans after all.
Nadya frowns:
- We're people of the new era. Virtuality can change the world, but we
prefer to mask it to fit the old dogmas. Nanotechnology used to imitate a
drink is worse than a microscope used as a hammer...
- You're Alexandrian, - I make a guess.
- Yes! - she replies with a slight challenge in her voice.
Alexandrians are the followers of one Petersburg sci-fi writer. They
either proclaim the merge of the human with a computer or expect some sort
of fantastic blessings from virtuality, I'm not sure.
- What are you doing in this senseless place then? - I ask.
- I'm looking for Dibenko. I want to ask him, did he really imagine it
like this? Does he think that what's going on is right?
- I see. But don't you really like this place?
Nadya shrugs.
I stretch my hand and touch her face.
- The warmth of the hand, roughness of wine, coolness of the evening
breeze and flowers' scent, splashing of the warm waves and prickly sand
under your feet, don't you really like it?
- There's a real life for all that.
- But does it coincide in reality often enough? Here it's enough to
just open the door, - I point at the small door in the corner of the
'Japanese' part of the hall, - and all that will be there. Or, didn't you
ever wish to stand in the forest clearing in the chilly autumn morning, by
the steep river bank drinking hot mulled wine from the round goblet... and
with nobody around?...
- The owner of this restaurant must be a romantic person,- says Nadya.
- Of course.
- Leonid, all that you've mentioned is right. But the right place for
all these pleasures is in reality.
- Reality is not always affordable.
- Just as virtuality is, Lenia. I don't know where you get money from
that allows you to visit here so often, and it's none of my business anyway,
but billions of people never were in the deep.
- Millions of people never saw a TV set.
- Virtuality must NOT be an artificial substitution of reality, - says
Nadya with conviction.
- Yes, sure. Let's turn the paupers and miserable ones into information
storage, let's become impulses in the electronic network...
- Leonid, you know the teaching of Alexandrians through hearsay only. -
says Nadya with conviction, - Come visit our Church some time.
I shrug. Possibly I will some time, but there's plenty of interesting
places in the deep. The whole lifetime isn't enough to visit all of them.
- I have to go, - Nadya stands and throws a coin at the bar, - I have
half an hour more today and should visit a couple more places.
- In search of Dibenko? - I nod, - But maybe it's better to... you
know, a warm sand, a Hawaiian beach and some Chilean Red [wine]?
Nadya smiles:
- This won't be work anymore Lenia. The evening beach and the wine...
then I'll want continuation. But virtual sex is funny only if you're at
home, behind the tightly shut door. I connected from work: six computers in
one room and all are occupied. Just imagine how will I look like for my
colleagues.
She's absolutely sincere and clever. Good girl, I really hope she's
just as open and bright in reality too.
I nod, - Good luck then.
- Thanks, oh mysterious Anonymous, - Nadya bends to me and kisses my
cheek.
- Lenia, marker! - whisper the clips on my shoulders.
I take an antivirus handkerchief and wipe the lipstick print from my
cheek, wave a finger to Nadya with a warning:
- Girl, I DO prefer to stay mysterious.
Looks like she feels confused, but has enough nerve to shrug and walk
away without hurry.
Shit. She spoiled everything, stupid.
It was such a nice talk...
I toss off my glass and snap my fingers to call the bartender:
- Gin-Tonic, fifty-fifty.
Bartender frowns but mixes what was requested. Shit, should I order
Tequila with tomato juice, what face will he make, huh?
- Lenia?
I turn around. My Werewolf friend stands nearby: a white suit,
patent-leather shoes, a bit old fashioned tie, the face a bit strained.
- Hi Romka {Roman}. Have a sit.
- Who's the girl?
- Nothing interesting.
We divers are always paranoid slightly, it can't be helped.
Too many people want to know our real names.
The Werewolf draws in the air noisily and frowns:
- She tried to mark you!
- I know. Don't worry, she's just a journalist.
Romka sits and nods to the bartender who makes terribly ugly face but
gives him a full big glass of Absolut-Pepper. It makes me sick to even watch
Roman drinking. But he just
makes a wry face, wipes his lips and returns the glass. Maybe he's alcoholic in reality?
I Dunn.
We hide from each other not less than from our enemies. We're too
valuable merchandise: a depth fish, freaks shimmering with a magic glow, any
shark dreams to try our taste...
- Did you manage to get the apple out? - asks Roman.
- It's fine, - I fling my jacket open and flop on the shirt's pocket, -
the trade article's in place.
The Werewolf relaxes a little.
- What about the buyer?
I check my watch:
- In ten minutes. At the river bank nearby.
- Let's go? - Roman takes his glass.
I scoop mine and we exit the restaurant door that is hacked through the
stony wall. In the small lobby I say softly:
- Individual space for us both. Grant access to the person who tells
the password 'gray-gray-black'.
The ceiling replies, - Understood.
Now, regardless of how many visitors would like to walk in the virtual
space of 'Three Piglets', we'll never see them, only the buyer whom I told
the code.
There's a forest behind the second door, the Northern one, primeval and
pristine. The cold wind chills to the bone, I huddle up. My companion is
absolutely indifferent to the cold. Maybe his helmet is simpler, without air
conditioner?
Who knows...
He earns not less than me, but maybe he has a huge family? Or maybe
Roman really is alcoholic who squanders grands in just weeks?
There's a small stone hut behind us: this is how the restaurant looks
like from this side. We walk along the path slowly, sipping our drinks.
- Do you like pepper vodka? - I ask the Werewolf incidentally.
- Yes.
It's said dryly and without further comments. I wish I knew who you
really are, Roman.
But it's impossible: virtuality is cruel to the careless.
We come to the river bank: the steep covered with low thorny bushes.
The wind is strong and I narrow my eyes. The sky is covered by dark gray
clouds. The river is not exactly mountain one but with rapids and very fast.
The flock of some birds can be seen in a distance, I don't know what exactly
are they: they never fly closer. The table stands by the steep, there are
bottles of Gin, Tonic and Absolut-Pepper on it. Also, a big nickel plated
thermos full of mulled wine: a tasty one, with cinnamon, vanilla, pepper,
coriander and nutmeg. Three wattled chairs are by the table, we sit and look
at the river.
Beautiful.
The white foam on the rocks, the chilly wind, the full goblet in my
hand, bluish grey clouds swirling above. It'll be snowing tomorrow, if
'tomorrow' existed in virtuality.
I take a sip, - I wish I knew where this river was taken from.
- More beautiful place never have I seen in my life... - pronounces the
Werewolf in a strange voice.
Oh right, it's like this always. Everybody have their own associations
and analogies. Maybe this landscape means something to Roman. For me it's
not more than just a nice place.
- Have you been here before?
- In some sense.
Interesting.
- What are those birds, Roman?
- Harpies, - he answers without even looking. Whoops! and his glass is
empty again but he doesn't get drunk anyway.
My, how I hate the mystery covering us! We fear each other. We fear
everything.
- Well, but the weather is nice... - I toss in randomly.
- Yeah.. snowy is this summer... - says the Werewolf and looks at me
with irony. He recognizes this place, it does stir something up in his soul.
It's not for me to know what exactly.
I fill the heavy ceramic cup with mulled wine, sniff the aroma. The
snowy summer? Who cares! There's nothing better than a lousy weather.
- Lenia, do you smoke grass? - Roman holds me the cigar-case.
- No.
Maybe he really is alcoholic and drug addict...
- They say it's much more harmless than alcohol and tobacco.
- They also say chicken are being milked in Moscow...
Roman hesitates, but lights the cigarette anyway.
Shit. Nadya's arguments don't seem to me so crazy anymore.
I drink my mulled wine, Roman smokes anasha {marijuana}. In a couple of
minutes he throws unfinished cigarette down with a knock and says:
- Kiddies' fun. Lap me some wine.
- It's a mulled wine.
- What the hell is the difference...
Now we both sip the hot wine with spices. Roman nods:
- Rulez... {Note: the same word is in Russian original as well as
'Sux' in part 2 by the way}
I agree. 'Rulez' is something cool: a cold beer, a computer of seventh
generation, a beautiful girl, a virus killed successfully... a mulled wine.
We sit by the steep and feel good.
- What was in that apple?
- New cold reliever, a very effective one.
Roman frowns:
- This costs six grands?
- This costs a hundred.
- Ahhh... - Roman's jaw drops.
- Let's wait for the buyer.
The Werewolf nods:
- It's your operation, it's you to decide.
The buyer shows up in some ten minutes, when I start to worry already.
I knew him only under a nick 'Hardened', and he knows me as 'Gunslinger'.
The buyer is tidy and imperceptible, wearing a regular suit, having hard to
remember face: a young guy with a briefcase.
- Good evening, Gunslinger! - the voice is too even: Hardened
communicates through the interpreter program.
- Good morning, - I answer looking at my watch. Just a small mutual
game, to figure out the diver's time, to determine what time zone he's in is
not too little to know already.
- Oh, don't I really love your humor?.. - Hardened sits on the third
chair, looks at me questionably, - Have the crop ripened?
- Quite heavy did those apples turn out to be, - I take the diskette
out and put it on the table, - To be honest, I would expect these troubles
to be more appreciated...
- Didn't we have a deal? Six thousand dollars.
I pull my hands apart:
- According to you, it didn't worth more.
- Do you think otherwise?
- Well... You see Mr Shellerbach...
Hardened shudders.
- ... You got mistaken for at least an order. Of course the cold is a
trifle.. but who would like to lie flat in bed with high temperature and
runny nose, how do you think?
- Not me at least, - Shellerbach The Hardened's face changes. Now he's
an aged man with the resolute but nervous face. - But I assumed that the
diver's word is piously.
- I don't deny it. I'll give you the file, - with a slight knock I send
the diskette across the table, - But next time not a single diver will even
move a finger for you. You violate our ethics, Mr Shellerbach. Any job must
be paid according to it's complexity.
Shellerbach picks up the diskette ans freezes. I drink mulled wine
watching him. The Werewolf is silent: this is my operation.
At last Shellerbach have finished the download and his glance becomes
sensible again.
- Well? - I ask.
- Fifty, - says Hardened.
- To each of us?
He is silent, for very-very long time. This is Money, alive, real
money, not taxable, arrived from nowhere and went to nowhere.
- Your account?
I give him a piece of paper, an account number in Switzerland on it.
- Negative interest... you're very careful Mr Diver...
- I have no choice Peter..
He gives up. I know his real name while he doesn't know mine. The bank
will never give me away, even if the International Jury states that I'm a
man-eater and is guilty of genocide. That's what the negative interest is
paid for: for complete safety.
- Fifty to each of you. I make a gesture of a good will, Mr Diver!
- Excellent.
Several seconds - and a hundred of grands flow into my account. This is
much, very much! Many years of serene life in virtuality.
- Will you agree for the further cooperation?
I open my checkbook and look at the figure with pleasure, then I write
a check for 50000 and give it to the Werewolf.
- It's quite possible.
- What about a permanent contract?
- No.
- What are you afraid of, diver? - there's a curiosity in Shellerbach's
gaze.
What am I afraid of, hmm?
- I'm afraid of my name being known. The real freedom is in mystery
always.
- I understand, - Shellerbach agrees and looks at Roman askance, - Are
you the diver too? Or just a walking virus deposit?
- Diver, - says Roman.
- Well... Good luck gentlemen... - Shellerbach pads a step away, then
stops, - Tell me... how is it: to be a diver?
- It's very simple, - replies Roman, - One just needs to know that
everything around is just a game, a fantasy.
Shellerbach nods and pulls his hands apart:
- I can't, alas...
He walks away along the path, we watch him leaving. Then I fill our
goblets:
- For the luck!
Roman obviously haven't yet understood the scale of what have just
happened, he silently looks at the goblet in his hand:
- Tell me Lenia, are you happy?
- Sure.
- Big money... - he examines the check, then raises the goblet quickly,
- For the luck!
- Yeah, for it... - I agree.
- You won't disappear from the deep, will you?
- No.
Roman nods with obvious relief, makes a sip and says:
- You know, it's interesting to work with you. You're... unusual.
For one moment it seems to me that we're approaching that impossible
point when divers open to each other.
- Same here, Roma.
The Werewolf stands up, sharply and quickly:
- I gotta go, visitors...
He dissolves in the air, the goblet falls down and rolls away clinking
and bouncing.
- Good luck to you too Roman. - I say into the void.
Loneliness is the seamy side of the freedom.
I can't have friends.
- The bill! - I growl into the void angrily, - Now!

100

The most vexing is that I don't want to sleep at all: it was too lucky
day probably.
I return to the restaurant. Some guests have left, some new ones have
arrived, an American crowd still laughs at their jokes.
I need a walk.
I leave 'Three Piglets', hesitate for a moment: should I stop the cab?
- then decide to walk. I eventually leave the central streets and approach
Russian blocks. In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting places in
virtuality, the place where one can just chat.
About anything at all.
I see long rows of buildings, small squares and parks between them,
either crowded or empty. I study intricate plates. Some of them are obvious,
others are deliberately vague.
'Anecdotes'
'Talks about nothing'
'Sexual adventures'
'Strange place'
'Oats growing!'
'Books'
'Martial arts'
People come here to discuss the certain topics, this is the echo of
pre-virtual age. More serious clubs are located further, where one can get
an advice on technical questions, to argue about software or even buy
pirated programs cheap. All that is of a little interest for me.
I enter the little park with the plate 'Anecdotes' on the gates. This
place is always crowded, noisy and messy. This park looks very much like
'People's culture park' of the 60's. The little orchestra is playing in the
corner, obviously not a real one, the people are sitting on the benches
drinking beer and chatting. I sit a little aside.
The guy dressed in jeans and snow white shirt climbs on the small
wooden stage. He's absolutely featureless. The audience glances at him
lazily.
- Once Shtirlitz have left his house... - starts the guy.
{ A side note. Shtirlitz is the main character of very popular Russian
13 episode 1972 TV series about the Soviet spy in Nazi headquarters. The
story takes place in February-April 1945. Shtirlitz investigates the
attempts of the separate talks held between Allen Dalles and high-ranked
Nazis. This series was a real hit then (and still is!), and, as it always
happens with something much loved (or hated) in Russia, it gave rise to an
enormous amount of anecdotes, mostly hilariously stupid or one-liners based
on 'game of words'}
The girl nearby whistles loudly and throws a beer bottle at the guy. I
understand her perfectly: 90% of all anecdotes told here is an ancient junk.
This club is most loved by the newbies in virtuality... who don't yet
realize the little fact that there's nothing new under the sky. One have to
spend not more than half an hour here to believe: Cain killed Abel only for
the latter's love to tell the old {'long bearded'} anecdotes...
Despite the whistles and shouts the guy finishes telling his anecdote
and runs from the stage looking around in a primed way. Lonely applause can
be heard: geez, who could imagine... I look around for the bar, it's in the
far corner of the park. The girl gives me a bottle of beer without a word.
- Thanks.. - I make a sip. The ice cold 'Heineken' raises my spirits
instantly.
One more guy ascends the stage, this time much more individual looking
one, reminding me the Baltic type. His face looks roguish and I prick up my
ears. The guy glances at the small booth in the corner of the stage askance.
- Gentlemen! - he shouts. Hm, he's really Baltic unless it was my
subconsciousness that made me hear the accent. - 'Lithocomp' company is
honored to offer you the lowest prices for the following...
A-haaa... no questions.
I look at the booth too: the moderator's hiding place. Every club has
the person who watches the talks to correspond to the declared topic. The
question is though: is moderator on duty now or will react later?
He's here.
The booth's door opens and the sturdy man emerges from inside lazily,
holding the pretty sinister looking device in his hands. The Baltic guy
notices him and starts chattering
really fast: - ... hard drives: 'Quantum Lighting', 'Western Digital'...
- Not on topic! - the moderator says lazily but with suppressed rage
and shoulders his weapon. The audience goes quiet enjoying the show.
The barrel recoils and the brightly shining red cross-like object flies
towards the merchant with a shrilling whistle. The Baltic tries to duck but
no use: moderators never miss. The fiery cross or 'plus' as it's usually
called, sticks to the merchant's shirt: three such 'pluses' in total - and
he'll be banned from 'Anecdotes' club forever.
The crowd laughs approvingly.
- Hey, maybe it was the way the anecdote was supposed to begin, huh? -
shouts somebody out from the audience. The moderator shakes his finger to
him with a warning, then aims at the Baltic again. The guy quits his
attempts to scrape the shiny plus off his shirt, jumps down from the stage
and flees.
- Wheee, crush 'im! - the crowd instigates the moderator but he's in
the kind mood today, he flings the plus-thrower behind his back and retires
into the portable toilet-looking booth.
- 'Lithocomp'... - says the girl nearby thoughtfully. - I should check
their prices, it's time to change the HD...
Well, at least some success was achieved by the merchant after all.
Another humor thirsty one ascends the stage.
- Once, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.... {yet another mega popular
anecdote characters, taken NOT from Disney movies though, but from Russian
animated series produced in70's, FAR cooler one than Disney's IMHO}
I start feeling myself bored to death.
Just why Shtirlitz and Pooh anecdotes are so popular in virtuality?! Is
it some weird kind of psychologic aberration?...
- Thanks for the beer, - I say to the girl and walk out of the park.
My mood can't be called lousy, but it's odd. I toil myself along the
clubs' buildings. Through the barred windows of the Martial Arts club I can
see the fragile built Eastern looking guy demonstrating some complicated
moves. In the open air type cinema called 'Movies' the imposing man gestures
energetically standing before the screen. I peek inside and hear:
- Cheap stuff! This movie is a disgusting cheap stuff!
Boring-boring-boring, Ladies and Gentlemen...
Alexandrians are probably right: we have turned the virtual world into
the parody of the real one, but parodies are never better than the original,
their goal is different: to mock it, to show its awkwardness and stupidity.
But we can't change the world, and this parody makes no sense. It's not
a dash forward but just a step aside.
- Vika...
- Yes Lenia?
- Stop me a cab...
- Okay.
Maybe it's worthy to ride around the city, or to go to an entertainment
center.
The Deep-Transit's cab stops by me, I open the door and get inside. The
driver is of some absolutely new type, never seen before: the bearded man in
ripped T-shirt and tattoos on his shoulders. Does he imitate Punk or
something?
- The car will arrive shortly, - informs Windows-Home.
Now I realize that the driver haven't even told the traditional
greeting; that we're moving already even if I haven't told the address.
- It's only one road from here, - says the driver and turns to me with
a smirk. He has a scar on his cheek and decayed teeth. It's not a program
obviously, it's a real person.
- Stop the car.
- That's against the rules, - the driver grins steering carelessly.
{The whole scene hints to another Russian hit movie called "The Diamond
Hand", released in 1968. It's a great comedy about a modest aged Soviet
engineer who went to the sea cruise abroad for the first time and was
confused (and misplaced) with a jewelry smugglers' courier.}
Uh-oh.
- Vika, exit! - I command.
No answer.
- Your little program doesn't hear you, - informs the driver, - Stay
put, okie? It'll be the best.
I never heard about virtual abductions before.
- Who are you?
The Beard just smiles.
Of course there is a way out: unavailable to the ordinary Deeptown
citizen: to exit the Deep by myself and to break the connection.
The question is though: isn't it exactly what they expect from me?
Revealing myself as the diver, and to break the connection while I'm in the
'car', the transportation program which is probably capable of tracing the
telephone line?
Geez, just why did I connect from the main address today, now it's an
amateur's task to determine my personality!
- What do you want?
The driver ignores me, but watches nevertheless, examining me with
curiosity of the hunter who managed to shoot the firebird.
- Okay, you have asked for this, - I say trying not to panic and take
the revolver out.
Six bullets - six different viruses. It's a weak weapon but I rely on
the variety of loads, maybe the kidnapper's protection won't stand it.
Three bullets just go through him without 'seeing' the target. Good
antivirus, prevented the detection of its computer. One bullet flattens and
falls on the floor: the virus is killed. Other two shells don't fire at all:
viruses are neutralized right in the barrel.
That's all.
I hit the driver with the revolver's handle, also the weak virus that
knocks out the simple programs like Deep-Transit well, but now there's no
effect of course.
- Don't flutter, - advises the driver watching how I pull the door
locks. Everything is sealed completely and I submit myself. At any rate, no
information is unnecessary.
We move on, and again I try to contact Vika - without any success. My
voice communication channel is blocked.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
The car's interior is on the helmet's screens. Wow, drawn great: this
is well recognizable sporty 'Lancia'.
I laid my hands on the keyboard, typed in several commands, pressed
Enter.
It worked.
deep
Enter
I'm in the car again. The driver looks back at me cautiously. I spin
the revolver in my hand thoughtfully: it's loaded again, and the pocket is
weighed down by a grenade.
- The parcel was received? - asks the driver.
Now it's my turn to play the game of silence.
- I wonder how?
- You know my friend, if I run out of ammo, it's the definite order to
refill my supplies. - Smugness of a petty hacker is in my voice. Quite
plausible legend: the fact that my computer have loaded the new portion of
viruses into my revolver doesn't reveal the diver in me.
The driver thinks for a while.
- Let's delay shooting a little, okay?
I shrug indefinitely. The Beard says soothingly:
- We've arrived.
The car really stops by the unfamiliar building: the gray cube without
windows, with the only door, very wide like in the garage and heavily
armored as if in warning - it'll be tough to enter uninvited. Usually these
buildings hide either banal consumer goods warehouses or luxury apartments
inside.
- Let's go? - suggests the driver.
I keep silence.
The Beard hits accelerator without a word and the car jumps directly to
the door. In a moment before the impact the door flies open letting us in.
It's really a warehouse.
Lots of shelves along the walls, boxes with colorful labels of famous
manufacturers. Tons of good merchandise. This place is either an office of
the big dealer or the thieves' hiding, which seems to be more likely.
The doors are unblocked already, now the car's function is performed by
the walls of this building. I still have no connection to Vika.
- So? - I ask getting out of 'Lancia', - What the hell do you want?
The driver looks past me. It's stupid, but I turn around.
The man without face stands in the corner of the warehouse.
A black cloak length to the floor, a silver clip in the form of the
rose on his chest, curling hair of some odd ash color but pretty natural
looking but instead of his face - a gray haze like condensed fog. Such
tricks are forbidden in the city but one can do that at home, but what for?
If one wants not to be recognizable, it's possible to pick the standard face
from Windows-Home set: it's the hell of those there, while the missing face
with such unusual
dress is just stupid. But looks impressive nevertheless.
- Semen, leave us, - says Man Without Face.
The driver nods, turns around and leaves somewhere into the shelves
labyrinth. His steps fade slowly and I note that the echo is excellent here,
maybe to make it impossible to move around unnoticed.
- You are the diver, - says Man Without Face.
Oh sure. Today's tradition: somebody tries to catch me again, for the
third time already. God loves the Trinity...
- Maybe. And you're Bill Gates possibly. - I reply.
Even if he smiles, I can't see it for sure.
- Possibly.
Yeah right. The owner of Microsoft in pursue of divers along the Net.
Firstly, he makes money by more traditional means, secondly he doesn't speak
Russian himself. But... who knows how perfect interpreter programs might be?
Emotionless tones is the tradeoff of serial made and cheap ones.
- Let's not play the fool, - I say. - You decided that I'm the diver?
And dragged me here for interrogation. I'm afraid you'll be disappointed.
- This morning two hackers, one of those being the obvious diver, stole
the file with the technology of the new pharmaceutical product from
Al-Kabar. - Man Without Face is patient and strict, - I have no idea how
much did they promise to pay you for that, but luckily Mr Friedrich Urman
had informed the diver that the real price would be a hundred thousand. Some
psychological assumptions follow: like the one that the diver will get rid
of the hot file immediately. Like he'll demand exactly a hundred grands from
the buyer. Like he'll transfer the money to the very secure account.
No, that can't be... real professionals are working in banks. Nobody
could trace me.
- Let's assume also that two hackers divide the amount equally. And now
it becomes really interesting, my friend. Money transfers happen every
second in Deeptown, but the transfer of exactly 50 000... from one private
party to another... The account numbers stay secret, but the place where the
payment took place is much more easily determined. Do you follow my thought?
That's it. Very simple.
I was traced from the very 'Three Piglets'. Roman had left instantly,
while I decided to walk a little.
To find an adventure for my stupid ass.
Why the hell did I share equally with him?!
- Very interesting story. How does it relate to me I wonder?
Even if my interlocutor has no face I know for sure he's smiling.
- One has to lose with honor, Mr Diver.
I haven't lost yet, but he doesn't know that.
- Sure, impossibility of being caught is what makes divers what they
are. - says Man Without Face, - What are the program obstacles for you? All
you need to do is just to concentrate... and off you are, back home... to
disconnect manually.
Um-hm. Thanks for the tip. It'll be the moment of connection being
closed when I'll be traced...
- In 24 hours, when the safety timer snaps into action on my computer,
- I shout, - your perfect idea will crumble and you'll be sorry of your
stupidity! I'm an honest guy, I pay the taxes! I'll stir up all the Deeptown
police!
- Maybe, but unlikely, - says Man Without Face, - Well, if we are
convinced that you're the honest hacker, - the great amount of sarcasm is in
his last words, - then we'll have no grudges against you.
- You'll be caught! - I threaten him, - And then - excommunication
forever!
Excommunication is the most dreadful threat for any Deeptown citizen:
it's too hard to live without virtuality if one visited it even just once.
- I don't think it'll happen.
The man without face throws his cloak open with an experienced stripper
gesture. There's a rainbow disk on the inside: a swirling glowing spiral
surrounded by blue.
Oh my. He's from the police himself. At least commissar if he has a
rainbow badge.
- Oh great, go ahead... - I say in a cheerless voice, - I knew that all
cops are ass holes, but not to this extent..
- Just listen to me for the start.
- What else is left for me to do? - I shout, - What?!
I pull out the revolver and thrust all six bullets into the door. Six
ricochets. The boxes with software on the shelves start to blow up and burn.
The sprinkles on the ceiling come to life with a hissing sound and viruses
get terminated in a second.
- Stop being hysterical, - says Man Without Face, it seems to me that
there's a slight
doubt in his voice. I throw my revolver at him, it comes through and falls down under the
wall.
- Do you want me to calm you down?
His voice is ice cold and doesn't promise anything good.
I sit down on the floor, squeeze my head with hands and whisper:
- Assholes... ■■■■■■■ assholes..
- We don't care about your pranks in the Deep, diver. The theft is bad,
but it was high time for Urman to get knocked on the nose.
I'm whining quietly, rocking from side to side.
Man Without Face ignores my performance.
- The crime always existed, it exists now and will exist. I'm not Jesus
and I don't pretend to complete innocence myself. I have my own goals.
- And I have my little legal business! What do you want?
- That's better. Mr Diver, have you heard about the Lost Point? Or
about the Invisible Boss?
What I was expecting the least were the ancient fables.
- 'Point' is the old term for the terminal network user?
- Yes, the user of Fidonet... this one existed some time ago.
- Maybe I've heard about that... Is it about the guy who was killed by
electric shock being in virtuality? And his consciousness somehow stayed
alive in the Net?
- Yes. The youth with a pale face and burned clothes who asks everybody
whom he meets to report to the 13th Moscow hub that the point 666 was
lost... And about the Invisible Boss?
- Give me the chair, - I rise from the cold concrete floor.
- Follow me.
We go to the right, behind the shelf with Mac software. Illiquid stuff,
only a few people now use these computers. There were humans and
Neanderthals, then IBM and Apple. Stub evolution branches aren't viable. The
small table piled with papers is behind the shelves, two chairs by it. We
sit down.
- Invisible Boss is the tale of the same times. - says Man Without
Face. - Boss was the higher step in Fidonet hierarchy. It was boss to whom
those who wanted to become points and join to virtuality addressed their
requests to... There was no virtuality back then though... The legend told
that sometimes the newbies managed to find a very good boss for themselves,
who provided the network access at any time, high transfer rate, connection
to any club... those were called echo-conferences at that time.
I nod automatically.
- And everything was fine usually, - looks like Man Without Face
haven't noticed my negligence, - until one of the points found out that the
phone number that he used to communicate with his boss doesn't exist, and
the boss himself was not seen or heard about by anybody. After that
Invisible Boss used to send the letter to all his point saying, "Why do you
pursue me?" and disappear.
- Undoubtedly rich the folklore was, - I agree. - I also remember about
the crazy moderator, and the echo-conference called 'Die here!'
- I started with Fidonet as well, - says Man Without Face.
I stay silent.
- Mr Diver, unlike Urman I'm not trying to ascertain your personality.
But you know what the funniest thing is? We both need you for the same
purpose.
- To capture the Lost Point?
Man Without Face laughs softly.
- This is just a fable... that was born in the junction of times when
Internet and Fidonet turned into the united virtuality. Very few people
remember them now. Just five years have passed, and look how much was
forgotten.
- Nothing was forgotten, it's buried under newer information, but is
still alive.
- All the same diver, the essence doesn't change.
- Well, but today the new legend was born.
- Which one?
- About Man Without Face.
My interlocutor shakes his head.
- Hardly will it be so intriguing as the youth dressed in smoking
clothes...
We both laugh quietly.
- So Mr Diver... have you ever played in the 'Labyrinth of Death'?
- Possibly.
- Do you know that two divers cooperate with them?
- I can assume that.
Even two? I was sure that 'Labyrinth' manages with only one rescuer..
- I can give you their addresses... either network or the real ones.
Wow!!!
- One of them is Ukranian, the other one is Canadian. The first one
lives...
- No, - I say with some effort.
- How interesting! I was sure that it's the common dream to determine
the diver's personality! Including the divers themselves!
- This dream is one of the worst and base crimes... according to our
code.
For the first time I admit that I'm diver. Hardly my interlocutor had
any doubt about that though.
- One problem have arose in "Labyrinth"... and those two can't manage
it... - Man Without Face bends across the table, takes a piece of paper and
writes the short address. He does right that doesn't try to give me the
business card, I'd never take a file from him. - These are my coordinates.
After you visit "Labyrinth", offer your service to the management and try to
solve the problem, contact me. Ask for... Man Without Face.
He doesn't want to make it clearer and as it seems he doesn't have even
a little doubt that I'll rush to "Labyrinth" at once.
- Why would I want to do that?
Man Without Face takes a small badge from the cloak pocket. It looks
pretty like the police badge but its background is white and there's not a
spiral in the center but a tiny sphere woven of the thinnest threads.
- That's why.
The badge is on the table between us. I look at it but don't dare to
touch.
What if it disappears?
When Lady Winter received the order from Cardinal Richelieu (SP???)
saying "Whatever is done by this person was done for the benefit of France",
it was a bit less cool.
The legendary Complete Licence Medal is before me: the right for just
anything that's possible to do in the deep.
Friedrich Urman would open the door and escort me to the bridge
personally if he saw this badge.
He probably would hire killers later though in order to settle the
scores with me but in the deep he would be extremely polite.
I've never seen the Medal with my own eyes before. I know that Dmitry
Dibenko received the same one in his time: for the creation of the deep
itself.
One must accomplish something vitally important for all virtual space
for any of his actions to be considered right from now on.
- It will wait for you on this table, - says Man Without Face, - You'll
get it... in case of your success.
I nod silently.
- Note that there'll be other aspirants, - informs Man Without Face, -
We're looking for divers everywhere in the deep, and will find many, and
will tell them the same I've told you.
- What's there, in "Labyrinth"? - I ask turning my gaze away from the
Medal.
- I have no idea. This is what worries me.
I allow myself to smirk, tell me that you don't know...
- Until now everything that was happening in virtuality had their
analogies in the real world. Entertainment, business, science,
communications...
Interesting that he ranked entertainment first...
- Now something have changed.... Good luck to you diver. You can go
now.
Man Without Face nods in the direction of the door.
- I'll leave by my own way.
- You decided to reveal yourself?
- Sure not.
At parting, I look in the foggy oval of his face.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
I took off the helmet and stretched my hand to the modem hesitatingly,
then pulled the phone wire from the jack.
- The line is broke! - informs Vika
- I know, girl.
That's it, mysterious anonymous. It's that simple. Not a standard exit
which is possible to trace but an instantly broken thread.
It's barbaric of course, but absolutely no data exchange between my
computer and the one where the warehouse is modeled.
- No dialtone, - says Vika, - Check the wiring.
- Shut down.
- Really?
- Yes.
The blue background with the white falling figure fills the screen.
- Now it's safe to turn off your computer, - whispers Vika sleepily.
Good night to you, the most loyal of my friends... I turned the power
switch and turned off the modem. I need a quiet night, let all mail wait
until the morning. It's already 3:30 am though... the sky becomes lighter.
And I want to sleep so much! The head is aching of excess information.
I pulled off the virtual suit. Man, does it stink of sweat, it requires
cleaning for a long time by now... Then I plopped down on the sofa. Good
that I didn't do the bed yesterday. How farsighted have I become...
For three years already, I suppose.

110

It was a quarter before one when I woke up. The TV set that turned on
at 10 was muttering quietly. Unpowered computer was reproachfully silent on
the table.
- Oh it feels good... - I whispered into the ceiling.
I need to change the apartment, to buy the normal one-bedroom in the
downtown, in a good brick house, with the view to the Neva river... not in
this proletarian district, rotten and blown through by all winds.
Then we'll move Vika into new 'apartments': I'll buy the new 'Septium'
brand name, with preloaded licensed software, with a couple of hundreds Megs
of RAM... with the 1000 Terabyte holographic HD, cordless modem and
super-sensitive Siemens microphone... with a color printer, Dunn what for,
but let it be, a decent scanner instead of the manual piece of shit, a
dedicated phone line... Geez, even 50 grands isn't enough!
On the other hand... why would I need two rooms in the apartment? Even
here the kitchen is empty anyway: I moved the fridge and microwave into the
room long time ago, and it's closer to get the water in the bathroom.
Okay, this is decided: let's celebrate the move for Vika. It'll not be
a shame to invite friends then.
I rose, padded to the fridge and took out a can of beer. I don't drink
before noon usually, but it's almost 1PM already. What a good time I woke up
at!
The light 'Schultheiss' seemed almost strong in the morning. It's over,
good bye 'Amsterdam-Navigator' and 'Bavaria-86', the good friends of poor
hackers. From now on - only 'Guinness', 'Heineken', 'Kilkenny'... and
instead of Belgian boiled sausage the decent Moscow 'servelat' {raw-smoked
hard sausage} and a real ham. And also... well, I'll buy the coffee maker.
Down with instant coffee!
When for the first time in two days I started to shave and cut myself
quite tangibly, New Russian's fantasy suggested me to get 'Shick-Protector'
also. Nothing else could come into my mind after that, just some messy ideas
about the second phone line and second modem - in order for Vika to be able
to download mail and do some other simple tasks while I'm traveling in the
deep.
It's a bit far too much though. Even Maniac doesn't have second phone
line.
By the way, I owe him beer, it looks very much like he saved my life
yesterday.
And it's better not to procrastinate with it: I've got the suspicion
that I'll be able to treat him with nothing more than just 'Navigator' in a
week... well, quite a beer too, a strong one, with original taste...
I turned the computer on, connected to the Internet and transferred
$5000 to my St. Petersburg account without any virtuality, just in 10
minutes. Then I checked my wardrobe, chose the decently fresh shirt and old
but clean jeans, put my passport and Visa card in the pocket. What else? Ah
yes... the beer.
The shabby 5 liter canister was standing sadly on the balcony. I
unscrewed the cap and sniffed inside: it smelled of soured 'Zhigulevskoe'
{classic Russian beer }. I had to wash the canister in cold water, then
in hot one, then in cold again. Then I've put it into the bag that stayed
here from previous apartment owners (I never have time to get rid of
garbage) and walked out.
My, how much cleaner and neater my staircase in virtuality is! And
unlike here, no eternal smell of flooded basement and stray cats!
Having left the side streets I stopped by the road and raised my hand;
I had to stand like that for quite a time. Finally one junky 'Lada'
condescended to stop.
- To the 'Kredo-Bank', - I said.
As strange as it seems, the driver knew the way.
In around 20 minutes, parted with the remains of my cash I was entering
the palace of hidden and evident capitals under glassy stares of security
guards.. In 20 minutes more, filled with various checkups, numerous phone
calls to the bank's main office and requests to specify the account number,
the bank clerks became kinder and finally gave me out $1000. In rouble
equivalent of course.
And in quarter of an hour more I entered the Irish pub 'Molly' on 36
Rubinstein Street. It's not too crowded in the daytime and this helped me.
The Big Mugs {security guards } by the entrance were relaxed and just
froze dumb when they saw my canister. I passed the cloak room solemnly and
entered the neat twilight of semi-basement, approached the bar and smiled to
the bartender.
Luckily, bartender in 'Molly' is British. Whatever one can say, but
they are far superior than we are in some aspects. He smiled and gazed at me
questionably.
- Good afternoon, Christian, - I said. - May I ask for 5 liters of
beer?
He definitely wasn't used to sell the beer by liters. But it took him
only five seconds to regain his smile.
- Which beer?
- 'Zhigulevskoye'.
The guards behind my back who for some reason decided to visit the hall
together with me, started to breathe heavily.
- Just kidding, - I explained, - 'Guinness' of course, - And I gave the
canister to Christian.
Self control seems to be one of the most important qualities of the
best European bartenders, and Christian is one of them. He picked the
canister up casually, weighted it in his hand as if to estimate it's volume
and started to fill it from the sparkling faucet.
Big Mugs behind me were silently going crazy, and it amused me lots.
- Please wait for the foam to settle, - said Christian with a strong
accent putting the canister on the bar. Wow, what a cool guy! I visit
'Molly' pretty seldom and never noticed him to be so proficient.
- Okay, then one more mug to drink here please, - I said and turned
around.
Big Mugs pretended to study the bottle rows behind Christian's back.
Okay. Until they are sure in my paying capacity, I won't be able to drink my
beer in peace.
I dragged out a pile of small notes from the right pocket of my jeans
and started to examine it. The guards' breathing became faster again.
Shit, do I really look that lousy?!
A thick pack of hundred thousand rouble notes emerged from the left
pocket. I put three notes on the bar, took the mug and turned around.
Have anybody really stood here? No, looks like I was imagining
things...
Having seated by the nearest table I silently enjoyed the best beer
invented in this sinful world. Then I took my canister from the merry
bartender (Europe! One can't affect him so easily), and after short
hesitation took the change too. He'll do without it: the beer isn't cheap
itself.
It's no difference in the Deep though: either 'Bavaria' in cans or
'Guinness' from the
barrel, the cost is the same. Now I managed to stop the car much quicker, or it was just
the time running faster? I jumped into the rattling 'Volga' and shouted
cheerfully:
- Whip it up to Maniac!
A pair of very big and round eyes gazed at me.
- Get out, - said the driver in the same brief manner.
When stopping the next volunteer to earn easy money I kept reminding
myself that I'm not in virtuality where patient Vika will turn the simple
voice command into understandable address.

111

Maniac lives on Vasilievsky [Island] {a district of St.Petersburg}.
Panting, I climbed to the fifth floor: at the time this house was built,
elevators were yet a novelty, and rang at the door. One, two, three...
pause.. one, two. Even if Maniac is in the Deep, the computer connected to
all apartment wiring will submit to the code ring at the door and eject
Maniac from virtuality.
The steps sounded in the depth of the apartment, I closed the peephole
with a finger
quickly.
- Who? - asked Maniac gloomily.
- Racket requested?
Pause. Obviously Maniac is just from the deep and has a little mood for
humor.
- Who?!
- Shit, it's me, me! - I removed the finger.
Maniac rattled with locks opening the door.. I entered. He was dressed
in virtual suit right on the naked body, with a shotgun in his hand. The gun
was huge, with it the slim and narrow shouldered hacker looked like a kid
playing war game.
- Wow, - I just said.
- Yeah... I was fumbling in one guy's comp... hardly managed to get my
ass outta there. - Maniac was brief, he locked the door, glanced at the
canister and asked sympathetically, - Dire straits again?
- No, not really.
- I have a couple of bottles of 'Baltic'...
- I's 'Guinness' here, - I declared proudly. Maniac looked at the
canister thoughtfully and hurled:
- You pervert...
I followed him to the small neat kitchen and asked cautiously:
- Where's... yours...?
- With her folks.
- Quarreled again?
- Why quarreled? - said Maniac indignantly, - Does the wife's not being
at home immediately mean that we quarreled? She have just... decided to
visit Mommy... well okay, we have quarreled a little..
- Why so?
- Ah... I've passed the red light...
I nodded: it's very difficult to live in the deep and be married. What
the hell betrayal is in visiting the virtual brothel? It's all unreal there!
But Maniac's spouse got hurt anyway...
We sat by the table, Maniac searched the fridge, got the pack of
franks, a piece of cheese, then brought two huge clay glasses from his room.
I filled them with beer solemnly.
- Gee, it's really 'Guinness'... - admitted Maniac drawing the letter
'M' on the thick foam.
- For the Love, Shurka.
- Um-gm... - Maniac said gloomily and drained his glass, - Yeah. Love.
Shit, the devil tempted me! I had to flee... a couple of lamers was on my
tail... So I decided to visit 'Strawberry Fields'...
- What the hell for?
- Don't you really know what security systems those brothels have? -
Maniac was surprised, - This is where senators, Duma deputies, businessmen
... other money sacks always are. Security will cut you off from your
pursuers at once!
I shook my head, didn't know that. It's a shame to confess but I never
visited those 'establishments' before.
- So well... I decided to wait for half an hour, - went Maniac on with
his story, - But you wouldn't just hang there alone like stupid, right? So I
called for one girl... we were just sitting, drinking beer... 'Guinness'! -
confessed Maniac in a sudden frank manner, - Well, and... somehow it
happened... and in the very interesting moment - THWAP! a hit on my mug! The
girl kisses me but I feel freaking pain... and then... unprogrammed exit
from the deep... Gal'ka ripped the helmet out of the port..
He poured himself more beer. I nodded sympathetically: unprogrammed
exit is a very unpleasant thing.
For not-diver, that is.
- It'll be fine, - I said, - Not for the first time, not for the last
one either...
- She said, it WAS the last time, - informed Maniac gloomily. - I
haven't visited these brothels for a year! My suit is even without sex
stimulator!
- Well, mine's with it, - I said, - I just never visit these.
- Too bad for you. Have your fun while young.
In fact, Maniac is two years younger than me but he's a cool hacker
while I'm just an ordinary 'newbie', and also he's married, and for the
second time.
- Okay, relax. You'll make peace tomorrow.
- We will, - agreed Maniac, - So at least today I'll have to have the
most fun possible...
We exchanged understanding smiles and sipped more beer.
- Buy the woman's suit for Gal'ka, - I suggested, - Drag her into the
Abyss... and no problem! {same in Russian original}
- Yeah, thanks a lot...- growled Maniac with evident caution in his
voice, - Have you ever seen the women who have tried the virtual sex? Their
psyche is... different. No normal male will ever satisfy them!
I nodded, even if I couldn't really imagine women went crazy about
virtual sex. I could imagine the men though, many got crazy over that,
that's why I didn't hurry to try it. Experiments with adventure thirsty
girls is one thing, but the professionals from virtual brothels is a very
different case.
- For the health, - I offered.
We drank and filled the glasses for the third time. The canister was
halved and we felt much better.
- For the hub 5-0-83,207... - said Maniac, - For old good 'Fido'...
We drank in silence and without touching glasses, like we would for the
dead.
- Everything changes, Shurka, - I said quietly. - It was a 'network of
friends', the chat about just anything, envy at the Internet, profanity
towards Microsoft. But now there's neither Internet nor Fidonet, only
virtuality, and Windoze is the best program for it.
- They're hack-workers, - proclaimed Maniac stubbornly, - You what,
still use Windows-Home?
- Yep.
- Maybe you're right, - sighed Maniac drearily, - A pleasant voice,
advices about amount of 'brains' and hardware quality... Pah!. No need to
think at all, just drag the arrow along the screen and gaze at the piccies.
- And what about you? Still fooling with 'poluos' '? {OS/2: 'half-os'}
- Why 'fooling'?!, - said Maniac with indignation, - It's the best OS
if not to count UNIX! I've installed the new version 2 days ago, it rocks!
- I hear this every time I visit you, - I said, - "Have installed...
new version... fucked up my brains for three days until managed to tune it
up..." While I have Windows-Home for two years already.
- Everybody gets what suits them best... - admitted Maniac, and asked
suddenly, - Hey Lenia, how did you manage to burglarize Al-Kabar using
Windoze by the way?
I looked aside.
- There were rumors on the Net that two divers have swindled Al-Kabar,
- said Maniac insinuatingly.
I made the last attempt to deviate:
- Why two? One diver and one.... assistant.
Maniac laughed softly:
- Don't consider me a lamer Lenia, otherwise you'll receive such a nice
'hello' in the mail that you'll have to reinstall whole freakin' HD from
scratch... Divers never pick an ordinary guys to assist them.
I kept silence looking at Maniac.
- I see, - he said. - Well, for the luck. For the rich fools and smart
hackers.
We touched the glasses.
- What was there Len'ka?
- Runny nose reliever.
- Really? Cool...
We chewed a couple franks each and I was drearily thinking that my
anonymity was broken after all. Yesterday there were three attempts to catch
me.
Today I was just 'calculated'.
- Lenia, I don't know a single diver personally, - said Maniac, - And I
ain't gonna hunt for them. I don't have any complexes... especially towards
my friends.
- Thanks, - I said.
- But you know... Just one question.
Sure, any hacker always has just one question. They think that it's
possible to ask something after which all divers' mysteries become clear.
- Well?
-What does the diver do when he decides to exit virtuality, just thinks
like 'I want to return to reality' or what?
- I heard that one diver... - I looked aside, - Mutters the stupid
rhyme.
- Which one?
- Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours.
- And that's it?
- Sometimes he adds: "Abyss, let me go."
- And that's it? - asked Maniac dolefully.
- Yes.
- My, how simple...
Maniac searched in his pockets, took out the pack of 'Lucky Strike',
lit the cigarette, then said with a slight resentment:
- It was so much simpler before. There are hackers, honest 'newbies'
and lamers. The first ones can do everything, the second ones are learning.
The third ones are stupid, it's not a sin to scoff at them. Just look at
yourself: as you were a 'newbie' always, you're still the one.

I agreed.
- But then the deep emerged... it seemed that all our dreams come true.
- Maniac laughed bitterly - But in reality-hell no! I, the cool hacker, - he
declared with a challenge, - am just one of the millions in the Abyss...
well, just a little smarter possibly, I have some experience after all. But
sometimes... such shit happens anyway...
He kept silence for some time, twiddling the frank in his hands, then
informed:
- I ate a mouse a couple of days ago.
- What?!
- A computer mouse.. Well, not the mouse itself, it's too hard... just
bit off the wire.

- Why? - I asked numbly.
- It was an accident... I was in the deep.. We were sitting in
"Rainbow" with some guys, drinking beer with smoked fish... Well, I ran out
of fish and took some from Max's plate..
- But Max doesn't drink beer!
- He drank 'Fiesta'. {orange soda}
- 'Fiesta'?! With smoked fish?
- Well, just for a company.. - Maniac sighed, - And well, possibly it
was too far to get to his plate, so... looks like I jerked a bit in reality.
When I exited - gee, the mouse's wire is bitten off! And, like... some wire
is missing...
- Does your stomach ache?
- No, nothing so far...
We filled our glasses.
- Or this, - Maniac went on, - Do you know "Labyrinth of Death"?
- Yes, - I sobered up in an instant.
- I decided to have some fun not long ago, and entered the 17th level
directly. They added so many stuff there recently! It's a nightmare of a
game... well, in brief, I was stuck.
- What do you mean?
- I couldn't pass to the next level, but without passing it the exit
menu doesn't pop up.

- And?...
- And I was sitting there for thirty-six hours, - said Maniac with
rage, - The whole company of us idiots gathered there. We were shot dead at
least ten times each, then we just blocked ourselves out in some basement,
sang the songs, firing back at the monsters... until our timers went up.
- You have thirty-six hours limit of continuous being in the deep?
- Twenty-four now.
- What about Gal'ka?
- Ah, she was... at mother-in-law's place... Len'ka, what time limit do
you have?

- I removed the limit, - I confessed.
- I see... diver... - Shurka laughed forcefully. - Shit, I never
completely believed in you, even if suspected.
- Whom, me?
- Sure. Why the hell would the 'newbie' need battle viruses and
antidotes?
I feel a little sad. Something have changed in our relations, and too
sharply. Maybe it'll pass in some time...
- Shurka, I can't do anything - except to exit virtuality, any program
for me is just a heap of senseless symbols and a launching file.
Maniac nodded.
- I understand. But just tell me, would you like to change places with
me? What is more interesting: to create the deep or to rule it?
I'm silent.
- Pour me some beer, - sighed Maniac.

1000

I was at Maniac's place until late night, 'Guinness' was followed by
'Baltic #6', and for the dessert Shurka dug out the Christmas 'Kronenburg'.
Neither Irish nor Petersburg nor French beer failed.
In the depth of my soul I was glad that I had opened to somebody. My
hacker friends are divided into two groups: the first one keeps secrets
until after the first bottle of beer, the other one kinda forgets all
secrets by that point. Shurka belongs to the second one.
At least now he'll know what for do I need all this various virus soft
which I drag out of him by all cunning means.
- How much simpler would it be if the deep wouldn't be so strong of an
addiction, - I was thinking in the cab on my way home. - How much more right
and simple... There wouldn't be a division into the lucky and the
unfortunate ones which can't be overcome. There wouldn't be that ridiculous
situation: excellent programmers not being able to cross the border between
reality and illusion, and clumsy guys like myself who don't even notice this
barrier.
There wouldn't ever be envy to each other and eternal hunt.
But is it my fault? I don't know why it happens myself, what flaw of
consciousness makes one a diver, and it is of course a flaw since we are
such a minority. It'd be stupid not to use this ability but too dreadful to
offer it for everyone's study.
That's how it goes: somebody can do long jumps of eight meters,
somebody writes poems, somebody is not dependent on virtuality. But why, why
it's so few of us, so few that one should count not even in percent but by
person?
- Here? - asked the driver.
- Yes, thanks.
I paid him, got out of the car and went towards my house feeling
inflated like a balloon. Now I have to either fall asleep submitting myself
to the morning hangover or to submerge into the deep: it cures hangover
well.
On the second floor of the staircase where the light is on always for
some reason, five teens were sitting, playing cards right on the floor,
talking about something in dimmed voices... No, not talking, it'd be better
to say growling to each other. I knew two of them, other three were
unfamiliar. A little pack of smaller carnivores. They'd eagerly rip the
loner apart in a dark corner but here I'm safe: carnivores don't hunt near
their den.
- Hi, - said the guy who lives in the apartment above mine, in the same
type of studio, together with his parents and older sister who often comes
back only by the morning. Walls and ceilings in this house are thin enough
for me to be well posted on all their troubles and quarrels.
- Hi, - I said.
- Lenia, do you have cigarettes?
I'm at least 15 years older than him, but these guys keep me as almost
one of their age, maybe because I'm not married and empty beer cans prevail
in my garbage.
- Hold on.
I'm not smoking myself, but there's always a pack or two of cigarettes
at home for
visiting hackers. Smoking is their professional trait. The guy waited by the door patiently
while I put the canister on the floor and was searching in the closet.
- Here.
He nodded gratefully opening the pack, I waved my hand-keep it-and
closed the door. The carnivores should be fed. A little. So they wouldn't
become too impudent and would retain an idea of me being a 'nice guy' even
in their alcohol intoxicated minds.
I undressed quickly, threw the clothes on the bed and came to the
bathroom, stood under cold shower for a while.
No sleeping tonight, the deep is waiting.
For all day long I tried not to think about Man Without Face and the
Medal of Complete Licence lying in the warehouse but now, in the darkness
when virtuality was coming close I couldn't help not to think about that.
The Man and the Medal.
The whip and the cookie.
What so strange could happen in "Labyrinth" that even two divers
couldn't manage, the professionals who work if anonymously but as permanent
contractors nevertheless? Those who know "Labyrinth" as palms of their
hands...
Something having no analogies?
Very odd.
I dried myself, threw the towel into the bowl with laundry, returned to
the room, turned the computer on and started to pull on the virtual suit.
- Good evening Lenia, - said Vika.
- Hi old girl.
Female face is smiling on the screen. No, possibly I'm wrong, I need to
set the different reaction to 'old girl' - slight resentment, pouting, a
look cast slightly aside.
- Any mail?
- Seven letters.
- Read.
There was nothing interesting in the mail: invitations to visit two new
clubs, price lists of some small trading company, the letter from Maniac
sent in the morning...
- Delete everything, - I said sitting by the computer. I plugged the
suit in and put on the helmet. - Vika, connect to Deeptown... through the
spare channel. Person number seven.

I didn't use this connection for at least three months, as well as the
'person number seven': steel colored suit, black shirt, a necktie, high
leather boots, slim agile body, swarthy narrow face, hair long to the
shoulders, low and powerful voice.
- Spare channel, person number seven, - confirmed Vika.
The rainbow before my eyes, greedy flaming of the fiery wave, the deep.
I'm sitting in the tiny room: the bed, the table with the computer on
it, not mine but absolutely abstract one, the door. "Journey Start" Hotel.
Those Deeptown inhabitants who just occasionally visit the Deep rent rooms
here for cheap.
- Is everything okay, Lenia?
- Yes.
I open the door and leave. There's the long corridor with doors
outside, by one of those stands Sylvester Stallone looking at his hands with
admiration.
- Hi Sly, - I say passing by. Almost for sure the guy is Russian, and
what's definitely-he's a newbie.
- Do I really look like him? - asks the guy with hope.
- Yeah... - I stop. The beer makes my mood benevolent, - Are you new in
the deep?

- In what? Ah yes.. new.
- It's a bad form to put on appearances of famous people, and also the
sign of newbie. Try to construct your own personality... use
'Bioconstructor' for instance and work a little.
- 'Bioconstructor'? - asks the guy confused.
- Yes. A very simple program with Russian interface, it is scattered
around on all servers in the novice directories.
- Thanks... - 'Stallone' drags himself along behind me. I notice that
he started to stoop as if being ashamed of his appearance: a good sign.
We enter elevator together and descend to the first floor. The lobby is
pretty spacious, four porters and two guards are always watching there.
- Come to any of them, - I advise, - And ask for consultation: where to
go for the start, how to act...
- It's embarrassing...
- It's embarrassing to be a fool. These guys are here just for that: to
help you. When in the streets ask for advice the people with an open hand
sign on the sleeve, they are volunteer helpers, or policemen. Have you set
your timer?
- Yes, sure! For two hours!
- Very good. Spend 15 minutes to talk to the porter and you'll save
much more. Happy sailing!
- Happy sailing! - says admired novice behind me. It's so nice to be an
old-timer...
I wink to the porter and nod towards 'Stallone' in case he'll be too
shy to ask for help himself and leave the hotel. I raise my hand and the cab
stops immediately: this is not reality...
- Deep-Transit is glad to welcome you, Gunslinger! - says the driver.
- To "Labyrinth of Death", administrative building, - I reply.

1001

There exist the games and The Games.
The difference is in longevity.
Computer industry releases up to 1000 games every year, both intended
for the Deep and for ordinary users.
The game usually 'lives' actively for around half a year. It is
distributed legally and through the pirate channels, is being discussed, all
its intended and random tricks are being caught. And then it dies... kept
only by a couple of hundreds of fans.
Sometimes exceptions happen - and then the game lives for years. Many
new, much more perfect and beautiful games appear but the old one retains
crowds of fans too.
And there are three exceptions that are alive since the pre-virtual
era: 'Doom', 'C&C' and 'Mortal Combat'. They have changed dozens of times of
course but these were more cosmetics than real changes.
'C&C' is a strategic game, it's virtual space is the whole planet. On
this humble target range those never-to-be Napoleons and Zhukovs eternally
fight for the world's dominance commanding nonexistent armies in imaginary
headquarters. Tank tracks are rattling there and missiles fly up to the
skies, new terrible weapons are being developed, world's capitals are being
burned to ashes by nuclear explosions. One doesn't need to be quick or keen
in this game, strategic thinking is most important. They say that the
Military watches this game very attentively and sometimes successful players
get offers to join the army. Some people seem scared by that, the others are
attracted on the contrary. I have played these 'adult tin soldiers' a
little. In my opinion the game is harmless and quiet. Dressed in a beautiful
uniform, you walk with a cup of coffee back and forth in the headquarters
crowded with trained aides and say : 'Ummm.. what if we drop an H-bomb at
Los Angeles?'
The game have changed a little last year, now one has to start it as a
lieutenant being in command of a small regiment in tactic battles,
submitting to somebody else's orders and to rise slowly up the hierarchy
until he reaches the rank of the Chief Commander of his country. Now there's
a possibility of coups, betrayal, guerilla war 'against everybody'... I
don't know, the game have become more interesting possibly, but I liked the
previous rules more.

'Mortal Combat' is even simpler. This is a scuffle in virtual space.
One might put on one of hundreds of ready-to-use guises or build his own and
to take part in a multiple day tournament for the right to fight the main
villain that plots to conquer the Earth. This is the useful game, nowhere
else can one steam out his sick emotions like on the gloomy arenas of
'Mortal Combat', hitting his enemy with the heel on his forehead of
thrusting magic spells onto him. Good game, I visit it once or twice a month
but some people never quit the duels. They say that if one doesn't abuse
magic which unfortunately is not available in reality, it is possible to
learn to fight pretty well. I doubt it though: the hit that one feels with
the help of virtual suit is one thing but the real steel reinforcement that
you'll be hit with in the street is absolutely different.
And of course there's 'Doom', that very game getting into which had
ushered the beginning of the virtual era.
It's main area is called simply "Labyrinth of Death". This really is a
labyrinth: 50 levels, some of them located in buildings and underground
vaults, others-on the streets of the Twilight City, an imaginary megapolis
captured by an alien civilization. It's the Deep within a Deep with its own
laws and rules.
The game starts at the first level - the half ruined railway station
where the player arrives by the section car, with a single gun as a weapon.
The station building is crowded with monsters - former Twilight City
inhabitants, and other players. It's difficult to say who is more dangerous:
monsters are armed better but the players are smarter than machines
obviously. One can find weapons, defense gear, first-aid sets and food in
the station building. When one leaves the first level, he gets to the second
one: the highway full of abandoned cars... and of course, of other players
and monsters. In order to win one must reach the 50th level, the ancient
cathedral in the downtown and to destroy the alien ruler. It's very hard. I
did it before but since then "Labyrinth" have changed at least ten times:
new buildings, weapons and monsters were added. And of course, new players
have arrived: game addicts who can't imagine their lives without shooting on
the streets of Twilight City.
It's an interesting game, mainly because it requires constant
communication with other people, not just 'fighting to death' like in
'Mortal Combat', not diplomatic notes and threats exchange like in 'C&C' but
direct communication: making unions, convincing others, some small worldly
wisdoms...
But just what so unusual could happen in the "Labyrinth"'s space?


1010

"Labyrinth"'s administrative building is a two story house in
Deeptown's suburbs, faced with rose colored coquina. It looks peacefully and
neat, more like a residential building than an office. Maybe American middle
class families use to live in houses like this. Labyrinth entrance is a bit
further and obviously it looks much more impressive. I stand in the garden
and examine the guard by the entrance. He's dressed into masking overalls,
the standard players' uniform, with carbine in his hands. His muzzle has
absolutely 'impenetrable' expression, he stands motionless like a statue. Is
he a human or not? It's foolish to ask, at least because one can't
distinguish well made program from a human at once. I pass the guard and
find myself in a small hall. The bright sunlight beams through windows,
small tables and soft armchairs stand along the walls. More solid table is
in the center of the hall, a smiling girl sits by it: the secretary and most
likely live one.
- Good afternoon, - I say.
The secretary's face changes a little.
- Good afternoon, - she replies. The voice is soft and nice, looks like
I was switched to Russian employee.
- I need to meet with the management, - I begin without ceremonies.
- Please be more specific if possible.
The girl is the courtesy itself but it's not easier to break through
her barrier than through the monster by Al-Kabar's bridge.
- I have a confidential information for "Labyrinth"'s management.
- But still I'd like you to state the goal of your visit briefly.
Ah well...
- I'd like to relay to Mr Guillermo Aguirre that I'm informed about the
small problem that have arisen recently and about the fact that divers
cooperating with you had failed to solve it. I'm going to offer my services
in solving this problem.
The secretary nods.
- One moment please.
She stands up without a hurry and enters one of the inner doors. I wait
patiently. Everything is very cute and patriarchal: no computers, no
monsters. It's not the office of the most expensive and dreadful ride in the
history but a small toilet paper sales firm.
The girl is away for long, I get tired of standing and sit into one of
armchairs, browse through newspapers scattered on the nearby table. It's
quiet and peaceful, no other visitors except me, though they in fact are
present most likely. We just can't see each other and they communicate with
other company's employees.
- Mister...
- Gunslinger, - I say standing up. - Call me Gunslinger.
The girl nods.
- Mr Guillermo Aguirre will receive you.
Slight curiosity in her voice, it looks like she had no idea that any
problems might arise in "Labyrinth".
I enter the door and freeze.
This is beautiful.
The hall is in the form of unequal sided triangle, one wall is
completely transparent and one can see the city from the big height, lighted
by red sunset light. Not Deeptown but Twilight City most likely. The table
of "Labyrinth"'s security manager, Mr Guillermo is horseshoe-shaped, three
monitors are installed on it, a keyboard and nothing else. Mr Guillermo
himself already rises to meet me, he's aged, lean, very suntanned, dressed
in blinders and T-shirt.
- Hello, - he says stretching his hand to me first. - So you are the
Gunslinger, yes? Call me just Willy.
Okay, let it be Willy.
I shake his hand.
- You said so interesting things, yes? About problems, divers, help...
- Willy laughs and waves his hands, - Boom! Boom! That help?
Very interesting interpreter program, the strong accent, parasite words
like Guillermo speaks Russian himself. One starts feel different towards the
guy immediately.
- Let's be honest, okay? - I offer. Willy-Guillermo knits his brow and
nods. - I'm diver.

- Yes?- inquires Willy politely - And what is that?
I smile in return and say:
- I think that your Ukranian and Canadian employees would explain that
to you quicker. I mean the divers working on permanent contract with you.
Willy looks at me silently for a long time, then nods:
- I thought that Anatol is Russian. He's Ukranian?
Yeah, Man Without Face is informed much better than "Labyrinth"'s
security manager.
- These are just details.
- Take a seat Gunslinger... - Willy moves an armchair to me then pads
to the window looking at the city poured by blood colored blaze, - So,
you're diver?
I nod.
- This is very interesting. Unusual! - Willy raises his forefinger, -
Everybody look for divers, everybody have requests, business, questions...
you came to us by yourself.
I stay silent.
Willy turns around and looks at me.
- You have a nice suit Gunslinger, - he says, - It'd be good to add...
a small cap to it. A small gray cap.
I see. A simple test.
- Vika...
Willie smiles: it's the same little trick as was done by Man Without
Face, I'm cut off from my operating system, I could expect that type of
surprise.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
It turned out that my head is aching badly. Must be the beer...
I took off the helmet, grabbed the mouse, launched 'Bioconstructor',
hastily opened the 'Clothing' window, then 'Headgear', found something
looking like beret or cap. Then I filled it with steel gray color and hooked
it on my figure, person number seven, Gunslinger...
deep
Enter
Beret is on my head. I'm not sure whether it's what Mr Aguirre wanted
or not but he looks satisfied.
- We value the divers' work. - says Willy. - But our permanent
employees quite manage it. We need time, small. We'll offer you interesting
work, yes?
I shake my head, beret slides to the side.
- Mr Guillermo, - I say respectfully but resolutely, - I'm talking
about one certain problem which I want to help "Labyrinth" to solve.
I see his eyebrows raised in surprise.
- Recently a strange accident have happened in "Labyrinth"...
I fall silent and wait for his reaction. Willy is obviously deep in
thought.
- Accident? - he nods towards the window, - We have thousands of
accidents here every day. War! Shooting! Cheerfulness!
Was Man Without Face really mistaken? I start feeling myself like an
idiot.
- Your divers... - I start. - Did they manage their duties yesterday
for instance?
This is the only thing I know: "Labyrinth"'s divers hadn't justified
hopes.
- Ah! - Willy nods, - Ah! Unfortunate!
I nod just in case.
- Is it a problem? - Aguirre becomes serious.
- As far as I know, yes.
Pause. Guillermo weighs something in his mind.
- Mr Gunslinger, what do you know?
It's no use to lie, the man before me is not the one it's worthy to
bluff with.
- Very little. I was informed that there's a problem in "Labyrinth",
that your divers failed to solve it. I was asked to render an assistance to
you.
A pause again. I'm anonymous and it's risky to let me into unpleasant
sides of the Company's life but Guillermo has a 'good nose' for troubles and
methods of overcoming them.

- You'll sign a single-time contract? - his tone becomes quick and
business-like.
- Yes.
- Complete nondisclosure of the situation, - he adds, - with all
possible penalties.
- Yes...
- Please Gunslinger, - he points at his table. I pad closer being sure
that it'll be now when I'll sign the cooperation documents but Willy points
at the monitor in the middle. - This is 33rd level of "Labyrinth" Mr
Gunslinger, 'Disneyland'.
I look at the level and don't like it at all, at least because when I
was there last time it looked completely different.
- Very-very bad level, - says Willy. - Hard. This is the beginning:
'Russian Hills' {roller coaster}. This is... - he puts his hand on the
keyboard and the picture slides a little aside, - a Grabber Demon. Bad!
Gee, as if good demons ever came out of "Labyrinth" creators' minds...
- This is him... - one more touching the keys, - Unfortunate.
Guillermo keeps silent, not for theatrical pause - it's nothing unusual
on the screen. He's just thinking.
- So the problem is this Gunslinger? Yes?

1011

No ordinary Deeptown inhabitant can exit the deep by himself: he'll
just never see the computer, won't be able to enter the exit command or to
contact the operating system with voice. It's only in virtual houses with
drawn analogs of real computers installed where subconsciousness gives a
kind break. One can exit the deep only where it was entered: in his
imaginary home which might be a palace or a hut but with a 'real' computer.
That's why timers exist. They are plugged into all programs, from
Microsoft's Windows-Home to Russian 'Virt-Navigator' and 'Deep-Commander'.
The longest time for being in the deep is 48 hours, the time during which
the human won't die of starvation and water loss. Reasonable users always
set their timers for less though: a couple of hours, a day... Maniac who set
his timer for 36 hours was already an exception. The waking of somebody who
have spent two days in the deep is.... a foul smelling sight.
Of course it is possible to break and disable the timer. Or to break it
and add a couple of zeros to the number '48' but such kamikaze are rarely
found and their end is mournful.
Like Unfortunate's.
It's impossible to pass "Labyrinth of Death" in a single attempt, one
can't just have strength for that. The drowsiness retreats in virtuality but
there are the limits of stamina anyway. That's why players get access to the
game menu at the end of each level where there's an option to save their
coordinates and to exit to the outer deep, to exit in order to return later.
But sometimes there are optimists that decide to pass "Labyrinth" in
one attempt to repeat that very first legendary submersion into virtuality.
They break the security timer, sometimes by themselves, sometimes using some
hacker's program, they cut off their guaranteed retreat and dive to the very
bottom.
It's the divers who drag them back. All big game centers have
communication with somebody of us. The biggest ones even keep anonymous
employees on permanent contract. It's cheaper to pay us than relatives of
the player who died of exhaustion.
I was looking at Unfortunate. He was dressed in regular masking
overalls, protection mask-helmet and had only a gun as a weapon: he either
entered the 33rd level like this or was killed here already. After demise in
"Labyrinth" the player is being restored at the beginning of the level
automatically, with minimum of gear.
- This is ridiculous, - I said.
- What? - Guillermo is interested.
- For how long is he there?
- For 39 hours. We trace players since their getting into the system.
So Man Without Face got interested in Unfortunate almost as soon as he
got into "Labyrinth"? He watched him attentively and began his search for
divers immediately.
- His timer could be set for 48 hours.
- Yeah. Ah, how unappetizing! - sighs Guillermo, - Pee-pee, poo-poo
into the virtual suit... EWW.
Why did Man Without Face set the alarm?
Nothing terrible have happened yet anyway, it's just yet another self
confident game addict.
- Does he sit like this for a long time?
- For almost 24 hours, - nodded Guillermo, - Yes, it's strange. He
tried to pass the level for five times... then submitted himself... sat by
the entrance.
- And what did you do?
- We've sent Anatol, - Guillermo pulls his hands apart, - He can do
that... to lead to the end of the level...
- And?...
I have to drag the information from him with wild horses, not because
Guillermo hides something from me, he just can't understand what exactly
interests me, he got used to communicate with well prepared divers that
understand everything on the fly.
- Please explain the situation in an orderly fashion, Willy.
Guillermo nods.
- The player entered the level 39 hours ago. He was killed 5 times,
very quickly.
- By the Demon?
- Oh no... he poof-poofed the Demon! By other players. Then he sat down
and is still sitting. We sent Anatol, he drove the Unfortunate and they were
both killed. Anatol started for the second time but they failed again: the
customer was killed. Anatol was very angry, he shot dead everybody there, -
Guillermo laughs leniently, - Today divers were supposed to try together.
I'll request the report, yes?
- Yes... - I say not turning my eyes from the screen. A young guy is
there, dressed in overalls and holding a gun. What scared Man Without Face?
Why does he think that events don't have analogies? Why does he offer the
Medal of Complete License for a simple task? - Willy, have anything else
strange happened?
I get the weak hope that the different task was meant.
- No.
- Nothing?
- Nothing-nothing! - Guillermo parts his hands - We take care of our
customers. Everything is under control in "Labyrinth".
I'm looking at the screen, waiting.
- A-ha... - sais Aguirre curiously, - yes-yes... There were two more
attempts to lead him out this morning... and three times more in the
afternoon. All failed.
- And surely you didn't know about that? - I can't resist to be
mordant.
- We don't fetter our employees' initiative, - answers Guillermo with
dignity, - The situation isn't critical yet.
Of course he's right but I get a slight, vague anxiety. Who is he, the
player gotten into trouble, US President, the Pope, Dmitry Dibenko?
- Who is he? - I ask aloud. Guillermo shrugs.
- This is unknown.
- You don't control your users?
- We're an entertainment center, not the KGB, - he answers with taste,
- Information can be stolen. How do you think, will the solid top corporate
manager or Arabian sheikh be happy if some tabloid publishes an article
about their adventures in the drawn world?
- And what's so bad?
- For you - nothing. The ordinary person will laugh. But solid people
like little-little when they are laughed at.
- Can you cut him off manually?
- How?
How, really? Even if they trace the line using which the player entered
the Labyrinth and cut off the connection, nothing will change. The person
would just be hung in the void or the world around him would freeze like a
photograph depending on what his subconsciousness would decide. It's the
same as to cover the drowning person with a non transparent cover so that he
would not bother the rest of the swimmers.
- Please trace his channel anyway...
- It's very hard, - Guillermo points at the city outside with imposing
gesture, - Now there's 2036... excuse me, 2035 players already... This is
2035... no, now 2037 phone lines. All that is delivered to 28 main servers,
then is being divided into levels and processed by our own and rented
computers on all continents. We use 4 satellites to synchronize the data
exchange. Either Internet user or an unorganized one who called one of 700
company numbers can connect to "Labyrinth"...
- I see... - No, it's possible to trace Unfortunate anyway but this fun
will be so terribly expensive that it's useless to try to convince Guillermo
to do it. - Can you summon your divers here?
- They are not online now.
It's understandable too, if they really tried to get Unfortunate out
for whole 24 hours then they must simply sleep sluggishly now, one of them
in Ukraine, the other one in Canada. Maybe they curse aloud in their sleep.
- Okay, - I decide. - Is it possible to enter the 33rd level directly?
Guillermo looks aside.
- Have you played long time ago? Do you still have your records saved?
- No...
- Then you'll have to go from the very beginning.
This is what I didn't expect.
- What's the bull? All games have service channels for traveling
between levels. Are you an exception?
- Yes.
- But why?
- "Labyrinth" has a big prize fund for setting new level record or fast
finishing the entire game.
- I remember, but... is it a big fund?
- The main prize is half a million dollars. This money will go to the
one who manages to pass all levels and destroy the Alien Prince in 47 hours
59 minutes! - the commercial type solemnness starts to sound in Guillermo's
voice.
Oy-oy-oy....
Why am I not a player?
- This is big money, - notes Guillermo for some reason, - Yes? Any
codes that give nonsusceptibility or full weaponry and gear to the player
would be figured when one talks about half a million. Any service channel
would be found and used. We would be forced to pay prize amounts too
often... or to be exact, never.
- But how do your divers work?
- They had passed "Labyrinth" previously. They have records on all
levels, in all dangerous places. They need just a couple of minutes to get
where they need.
Great beginning...
- How much time does it require to reach the 33rd level?
- From 25 hours to infinity.
What was Man Without Face counting on anyway? If "Labyrinth"'s divers
fail to get Unfortunate out in 24 hours it means it's impossible at all...
Guillermo is silent watching me.
- Can I get level maps at least? - I ask, - Complete ones?
- No. There's no complete maps in existence. "Labyrinth" changes
constantly and on its own. This is not a movie, not a book after all
Gunslinger. This is the whole world, the miracle world! The miracle can't be
static.

* PART 2. "Labyrinth" *

0

The Portal through which "Labyrinth" is connected to the rest of the
deep is really beautiful. It's a huge black marble ark going up into the
sky. Purple sparks slide along it back and forth and low rumble is emitted
by the stone, sometimes accompanied with deep nonhuman sighs. The ark's
entrance is filled with swirling red fog.
And right into this fog people are coming, slowly as if mesmerized.
Maybe not all or them are real, some of them are created by "Labyrinth"'s
sysops for more solemnity but it's impressive anyway.
I join the common flow.
- Hey...
The guy walking by my side touches my shoulder:
- What's your name?
- Gunslinger.
- I'm Alex.
- Nice to meet you... - I turn away, but the guy doesn't leave me
alone.
- Going to the first level?
- Yes.
- Let's go together? It's much simpler, honestly!
I examine him. He has obviously individually created appearance, his
manners are somehow insolent but self confident.
- We'll pass 5-6 first levels together, - he goes on, - they are simple
but it'll be easier to warm up. After that we'll separate if you want. Well?
- Okay.
We shake hands and walk side by side. The bloody fog envelops us,
nothing can be seen around anymore. The voice comes from the sky:
- Your entrance mode?
- Pair entrance! - says Alex, - Alex and Gunslinger!
- Pair entrance, - I repeat, - Gunslinger and Alex!
The fog dissipates slightly. We're standing by the section car that
rests on the rusted rails. Two overalls are scattered on it together with
two mask helmets and two guns. All our 'fellow travelers' have vanished
somewhere. We check the chargers and change.
- There'll be a trap by the station building, this is obvious... -
mutters Alex, - We can't relax... Where are you from, Gunslinger?
- From Mommy and Daddy.
No more questions arise. We climb the section car and start pumping the
lever. The old rattletrap accelerates quickly, we move through dissipating
fog.
- Gunslinger, do you like [Stephen] King or what?
- Why?
- Well, your nick... or you just shoot well?
- You'll see.
We leave the fog. The rails are going along crumbling embankment, the
station building is ahead burned like the Reichstag building after the
storm. The likeness is improved by the red flag on the dome. Either it's an
entourage detail (some Westerners are still setting their scores with the
communism), or some Bolshevik have decided to commemorate the revolution
anniversary. The latter is more likely, November 7th is in three days.
- Now look attentively and be prepared, - says Alex from behind my
back, - The trap is there for sure. You know, everybody needs the spare
charger...
- I know, - I say turning around. I shoot twice and the already aimed
gun falls from the hand of my short-time ally. I bend down to him. Alex
gulps the air with his mouth looking at me with senseless eyes. The program
gives him 5 more seconds to understand his defeat. - And in fact, I like
King too, - I inform him picking up his gun.
That's all. I had one gun with 8 cartridges, now I have two guns with
14 cartridges.

I throw the body down over the section car's skirting, under the
embankment, onto the pile of similar looking bodies. It was me who was
supposed to end up there according to Alex's plan.
- I was playing 'Deathmatch' when you even couldn't reach up to the
keyboard, - I friendly say in parting. The body will decay quickly, in
around 6 hours. That's how it is made here, otherwise all "Labyrinth"'s
space would be filled up with bones.
The station building gets closer. I look at it trying to understand
what have changed since my last time here. It seems to me that tower at the
right wing was missing before.
The section car passes the frozen train, new and clean one, with people
sitting by its windows. Their bodies are covered by some grayish film. This
is the refugees' train that the aliens had burned when it attempted to leave
the Twilight City. I look at the 'refugees' that sit decorously along the
windows. Oh yeah. Lamers you are, dear "Labyrinth"'s creators. You have no
idea what the REAL evacuation is and how do REAL refugees look like.
I jump over the skirting and roll down the embankment. Let the
overconfident newbies ride to the very building. I'd better do it on my own
feet... slowly.
This will be more reliable.

1

The first level is simple by definition. It must be like this in order
for the newbies to draw themselves into the game and believe in their
strengths... in order to come here more and more times. I approach the
station building from its left wing and quickly check several familiar
caches: in the sewer, in the power lowering booth and in the cabin of the
overturned locomotive that lays across the tracks. There's nothing in the
sewer, in the booth I find two chargers, and a sandwich wrapped in
transparent wrapping is in the locomotive. No people or monsters show up yet
and this is odd.
I approach one of the building's side entrances, stop by it for a
second, then dash inside.
A-ha.
Two mutants run to me, two petty human-like demons. They are covered by
some greenish mossy nasty stuff, rifles are in their knotty hypertrophied
paws. The austere styled, 'professor' looking glasses remain on the face of
one of them.
I shoot them point-blank, they even have no time to open fire. I change
the charger and approach the bodies. Their rifles are destroyed by the
bullets. Pity. One can't go very far with just a gun.
I walk through the building: the series of empty befouled halls, blood
pools, walls covered by some desperate slogans and curses... Not a station
building but the Brest fortress. {The fortress on Soviet-Polish border that
was one of the first to be attacked by the Nazis in the morning of June 22,
1941} According to the game's legend it was here where the last battle
between the city police and the aliens took place. I know that one can find
a dying sergeant somewhere in the building's basement who will tell the
terrible story of invasion and will give away his rifle before he dies. But
I'm too lazy to search for this tear-squeezing, endlessly dying program. I
check some more caches one by one, finding brass-knuckles which I
immediately put on my left hand, a couple of hand grenades and finally a two
barrel carbine.
A couple of times I can see the human figures in the distance but they
don't start the hunt and I leave them alone too: no time for that. I go to
the exit to the building square. There, on the table with a bloodied female
corpse under it... it always lays there... the computer is quietly working.
The game menu is on the screen. I save my game, refuse an offer to quit and
move further, to the second level.
Holding the rifle in my hands I run out of the building, creep to the
road bending down low and hiding behind the trees. Not for nothing: I'm
being shot at from somewhere like the higher stories of the building. They
miss.
Most likely it's a human, monsters are dumb but keen.
The square is full of slightly dusty but quite operable cars. Their
owners had boarded that train... I'm hiding behind the boxy and crumpled
Ford and wait.
I always wait here...
In around five minutes a human dashes out of the building and
approaches the cars in quick runs.
I raise and aim my rifle at him. The guy stops, he wasn't ready for a
trap now, at the very end of the level...
- Get in! - I motion at the Ford with my rifle's barrel. Looks like the
player doesn't understand me. I can't see the face from behind his mask but
even if I could, the drawn face will say nothing about his nationality but
he doesn't look like Russian.
- Get into the car and drive!
He understands, the interpreter program have kicked in. He approaches
slowly, opens the door and sits inside.
- Hey! - the voice is hardly heard. I turn around not losing the sight
of my captive. The slightly familiar figure stands in the breach in the
dome. Alex. Wow, he managed to catch up with me, he entered the game again
and caught up. Looks like it was him shooting at my back... - I'll make you!
Do you hear me?! No peace for you! I'll make you!
The certain international gesture from me causes him to open volley
fire but he has only a few loads while the distance is big. Throwing the
rifle aside he tries to aim at me with a gun and at that moment the purple
shadow rises behind his back. Geez, the fiery chokers can be encountered on
the first level already. The glowing paws grab Alex by the throat and he
falls down on his knees, flutters and shoots over his shoulder. I'm too lazy
to wait for the outcome.
I sit into the car. The prisoner who submissively waited until the end
of the talk, starts the car. He drives slowly, turning around often as if
expecting a shot at the back of his head.

The highway is quite busy. Huge trailers try to catch up and ram us a
couple of times. I lower the window and shoot them with rifle aiming at
tires and windshield. These are just trifles yet, the monsters,
"Labyrinth"'s creations. It's not them whom we should be afraid of.

The man in the front shudders when I shoot at first, then gets used to
it.
The real enemies wait for us at the road junction. Three cars are
blocking the road, armed people are hiding behind them, one stands openly in
a casual, self confident pose. He has rocket launcher in his hands.
Shit. I have heard that there is heavy weaponry in the station building
somewhere but never bothered to check.
- What will we do? - asks my prisoner.
One should be an idiot to try to fight the gang like this alone, it's
easier to submit yourself and sacrifice some of your weapons hoping to be
let go after that.
- Slow down gradually. Stop after my third shot.
He nods silently.
The bandit with rocket launcher looks at us amused, waiting.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours... let me go, Abyss...
I looked at the picture accustoming myself. The bandit... cars... the
back of my driver's head ... the sight's cross in the middle of the screen.
The cheater I am.
I stretched my hand, touched the mouse, moved it along the pad. The
cross slid along the screen.
Here we go.
I opened fire, shooting with the left mouse button and reloading the
rifle with the right one. The bright yellow shells flew across the whole
screen, the headphones rumbled. After I shot those three who were visible, I
moved my shooting at the cars. It's not easier to hit the fuel tank in
virtuality than in reality but when you shoot at the drawn silhouettes, this
is the task for a kid.
deep
Enter
What the hell, didn't I tell you to stop?!
- Stop! - I shout to the driver.
He stops right before the burning cars and turns around. Even through
the dark glasses of the mask terror and admiration can be seen.
- How did you do that?
- Get out.
He obviously waits for one more shot, but I plainly point at the
bodies, both shot by me and killed in the cars' explosions. Go gather the
weapons. He won't dare to try to shoot me now. The speed and accuracy
demonstrated by me is practically impossible for an ordinary player, only
for the diver... and an old doomer who is used to the mouse.
Doomers already were divided into 'keyboardists' and 'mousists'. The
eternal argument who is cooler was never solved: virtuality had come.
Now I dot the "i's".
One of the bandits is still alive. His foul language is so colorful and
intricate that his national origin is obvious. The player's face is covered
with blood, one hand is partially ripped off, with the other one he tries to
reach the first-aid set. Only 5% of strength had left in him but the set
would save him.
I pad closer, he notices me, jerks and shouts:
- Who? Who are you, asshole?!
And another 'multistory' phrase follows.
- Gunslinger, - I reply aiming the rifle barrel at the swearer's
forehead. I don't like when one curses like this. Either the girl or a kid
could be in my body after all.
We have to spend at least five minutes to gather all the trophies. Now
I'm equipped excellently: guns, the rifle with an optical sight, the
carbine, the rocket launcher, first-aid sets, grenades, the armor vest. My
prisoner is equipped no worse, he just doesn't have the rocket launcher.
It's impossible to drag away such a pile of iron in reality, but here
we all are Rambos a little.
- Let's go, - I say to the prisoner, getting into the car. He
understands without translation.. We drive along the highway, I can't resist
and shoot one more trailer using the rocket launcher. Of course I leave the
car firstly... Labyrinth"'s creators had a good sense of humor and I don't
want to watch my insides on the car's ceiling at all.
The second level ends at the suburbs of the Twilight City. We leave the
car together and save our result using the computer which is diligently
working on the ruins of a small cottage. Only after this my fellow traveler
calms down. I wave my hand to him and go towards the sever cover hatch. The
most reliable way through the third level lies through shit. A few people
use it, it's too disgusting despite the shower at the end of the level. But
I don't care, I'll pass the sewer looking at the screen and moving the
mouse.
- Hey! - shouts my fellow traveler behind me - Why did you need me? You
are the coolest one I've ever met!
Maybe he expects the reply like 'it's easier together' or even an offer
to go together further, but I didn't like that he almost crashed into
burning cars, so I tell the truth:
- I don't know how to drive and it's too long to walk on foot.
He just stays by the computer, bewildered and overfilled with
impressions. And quite well equipped for the beginning of the third level,
by the way...

10

I pass 14 levels. In 7 hours. The legend was born today.
Corpses and ruins were left behind my back. Only on the 6th level I was
delayed for a while: it's very-very new and unwonted. Then I was stuck on
the 12th, I've encountered similar levels before but the arena is always the
arena and crushing a hundred plus monsters is not like pushing three
buttons.
Fortunately other players almost never interfere anymore. The rumors
are creeping across "Labyrinth" crossing levels with the ease impossible
even for divers. The deep is not an obstacle for rumors, nothing could ever
stop them.
Rumors are diver's enemy but now they spread fear across and this works
to my advantage.
By the end of the 14th level I realize that I can't stand it anymore, I
get out of the deep for a moment and see that it's almost 7 am. It's only
bad for computers to be shut down, the opposite is true for humans.
The 14th level is the city's sport center. The computer with the game
menu was standing on the judges' table by the huge swimming pool where
corpses of crocodile-like amphibious monsters were lazily swaying in clear
water. It's quite difficult to kill those so I had to use the plasma gun to
boil up the water in the pool. When the water cooled down, I dived in the
stinky broth and waited for the pursuers for about 10 minutes: two
hysterical players, the guy and the gal that followed me for three levels
already. They were in hurry being sure that I'll leave the sport center
immediately and stormed into the hall recklessly yet beautifully: the guy
with the plasma gun by his belt and the gal with the carbine atilt. I
launched a rocket at them, right from underwater and they both vanished in
the fiery swirl.
I crawled out of the pool leaning upon the boiled monster's body and
looked into the crater. Nothing was left there, the guy's plasma gun's
energy cells had detonated.
- I'm the Gunslinger, - I say anyway. It had become a ritual already
and I like good traditions.
I save my result: "Gunslinger, 14" and click the exit button: we'll do
everything right and honestly, I'll have a rest and return, return for sure.
The hatch opens in the floor by the judges' table and after jumping
into it I find myself in the changing room.
The exit from "Labyrinth" is as solemn and magnificent as the entrance,
though it's a different solemnity, a cheerful one. The room with pink marble
walls, bright sunlight in the ceiling window, soft armchair, the table with
fruits and food, the huge carved redwood closet. I take off my armor,
helmet, masking overalls and stuff it into my 'individual closet' together
with the pile of weapons. Only I will be able to use the goodies I've earned
when reentering "Labyrinth". I take the shower and change. That's it, time
to go. I don't want to break the program, enough headaches for me, after all
it takes just 5 minutes to get to the hotel and exit in a regular fashion.
The changing rooms' doors lead to the spacious hall with columns from
where Deeptown's streets can be seen. This is the border between the
Twilight City and the rest of virtuality, as vague as a sound barrier in the
ocean.
The hall is usually empty: players leave their changing rooms without
hurry and then, in groups or alone they go to nearby restaurant "BFG-9000"
or to "Kakodemon" bar to drink for their victory or defeat...
Today almost 100 people have gathered here and it was my merit. It
seemed that everybody killed by me were present. Everyone leaving changing
rooms is being closely examined as if they could see and remember my face
under the mask-helmet. I'm being examined too but probably I don't fit into
the image of merciless Gunslinger which they remembered during last moments
of the game.
I approach the nearest group, the talk dies there and the muscular man
with a square
chin asks sharply:- Gunslinger?
Luckily, I get what he means and nod...
- Yeah... - resentment and rage are on my face, - With a rocket
launcher, ass hole... and then says: "I'm the Gunslinger!"
Hm, it's a bit overdone possibly... it's pretty hard to hear just
anything after being hit by the rocket, but Gunslinger's figure is already
surrounded by mystical aura and my words about the rocket launcher are
accounted as usual looser's excuses.
- You're the hundredth, - says the squared-chin guy, - I'm Tolik
{Anatoly}
- I'm Lenia.
- Gee, he killed a hundred people on the spot, sucker! - informs Tolik
with admiration and hate, - Just where did he come from, I wonder... Meet my
friends: Jean, Damir, Katya... He made us all in the 9th level.
To be honest I don't remember, it was too noisy there: the one before
the last attempt of the players to get together and crush the impudent
Gunslinger in a body.
- And me - on 15th! - I say, - I was moving so well, but he...
- Have you heard this? - shouts Tolik, - The Gunslinger had moved on to
the 15th!
The crowd answers with excited buzz.
I wave my hand hopelessly and head for the exit.
- Hey! - shouts Tolik, - Won't you wait for him?
- I don't have a rubber pocket! - I reply, - You'll soap up his mug by
yourselves...
- This is true, - nods Tolik, - If we manage to recognize him.
He suspects me anyway but just can't confirm his suspicions.. I nod,
make the next step and see Alex.
My first victim stands a little aside, silently listening to the
dialogue with interest, it looks like he ain't gonna interfere. It's
vendetta, one on one.
Works fine for me. I pass by him... a couple of seconds more and I'll
enter Deeptown's street...
- Gunslinger! - I'm called from behind and a hundred of people exhales
together.
I turn around, the voice was too insistent, it's no use to play the
fool anymore.
It's not Alex, it's Guillermo.
- Gunslinger, - he comes closer, - I'm sorry to take your time... You
have beaten 8 level records, yes?
Maybe. I look not at Guillermo but at the hundred of my recent victims.
Their looks don't promise me any good.
- The management have decided to inform you that you can't pretend for
the declared prizes... yes? Because you work on contract with us.
Thanks God, he talks quietly at least now and we can't be heard.
- I wasn't going to, - I inform him feeling dizzy of rage.
Looks like Guillermo understands that he began this talk at the bad
moment, but he was ordered to.
- Nevertheless, we want to pay you a little bonus... 200 dollars... in
appreciation of your intensive work. You've made a very good publicity for
"Labyrinth"... we can barely handle the flow of new players.
He pauses, looks around the hall and says in apologizing tone:
- You can drop by to get the money right now, with me. There are many
exits from our office.
Thanks a lot. What I don't like is to be pushed into the swamp to be
cordially offered a helping hand afterwards.
- I'll come when I have the chance.
Guillermo sighs and pulls his hands aside as if to say, "I'm the
dependent guy, was ordered to tell you that..." He leaves somewhere into the
depths of the hall, into some service corridors.
99 pairs of eyes look at me.
- I'm the Gunslinger, - I say.
99 pairs of feet get off the floor. No, 98.
Alex stands where he was, just pulls the long sparkling gun from his
bosom and shouts:
- Run you sucker!
I don't like the name but the advice is good. All insulted ones, except
maybe Alex understand in the back of their minds that they were killed
absolutely fairly but right opposite is being shouted out and that's why
everyone is ready to avenge those friends of theirs who were hurt for
nothing, forgetting that they also were competitors very recently.
I run like crazy.
Several shots can be heard from behind - Alex desperately tries to stop
the pursuers, then shouts behind me:
- I'll make you by my own.......
The shout cuts out: he's not the one with the virus weapons usable in
Deeptown streets or maybe "Labyrinth"'s security came into action.
I run like crazy.
The last thing I need at this point is to dissolve in the air. If
insulted players understand that I'm also a diver, the hunt will turn into
badgering.
But man, if somebody knew HOW I want to sleep...
The side street, another, and another one. I lower level of detail to
increase the speed and almost pass the building with the sign "Any
Amusements" in four main languages of Deeptown.
To my luck the sign is big enough and I understand its meaning in time
as well as recollect Maniac telling me about virtual brothels' security
systems.
The choice is simple and I storm into rotating glass doors.

11

The 'retro' style is accepted here: massive soft furniture, the wide
table with big decanter on it, plates with fruits. The silent bearded man in
the corner looks like a furniture item. Who knows, maybe it's in fact a
security program.
And along the wooden stairs from the second floor descends the dark
haired woman in long dress. She looks a bit older than 30 and has such a
detailed face that I almost feel tempted to leave the deep to look at it in
a normal way in order to understand how it was possible to achieve so
unusually human appearance.
The woman comes closer and I finally understand the meaning of the
words 'ripened beauty'.
It's really so, she has nothing of that youth that reigns Deeptown
streets and obviously no idea of innocence comes to mind and very good that
it doesn't, she doesn't need it at all.

The woman stays silent and smiles. I feel that the pause comes too long
and mumble:

- Hello...
She nods.
- Good evening.
- It seems to me that it's night already, - I say.
- It's always evening here.
Well, let's note this.
- Call me Madam, - the woman goes on.
- I'm...
- No name please, it's not necessary at all.
- I'm Gunslinger.
She nods.
- Very good. Did you drop by for a business... - a smile, - or are you
just hiding from annoying friends?
I instinctively look at the glass door, silence and emptiness is behind
it.
- Don't worry. Those who enter here don't see each other. Never.
- In the second case I'll have to leave obviously? - I inquire.
- No. We're always glad to have guests. You can just sit here, drink
some coffee or wine.
- Coffee, - I decide.
The silent guard disappears behind the door. I pad to the sofa and sit
down, Madam sits across me with a smile.
- Don't such random guests ruin you? - I ask .
- There's nothing more useful than random fortuities. Besides, we have
a rule: the guest must at least browse the albums.
I look at her confused.
- The pictures of the girls.
- Ah yes, the pictures... - I finally get it, - Sure. With pleasure.
The guard brings coffee in small pot, Madam accurately pours it into
cups.
I put a little sugar in it and make a sip. Coffee is strong and
fragrant, very hot. Even the sleepiness retreats as if I have really taken
some caffeine in.
- Should I show you all albums? - asks Madam.
Looks like she puts a double meaning in the question but my head is
still too slow and I nod. Madam smoothly crosses the hall and takes several
thick albums in hard covers of differently colored velvet from the closet,
puts them on the table before me.
- I'll return to my room if you don't mind Gunslinger. If by chance...
- she smiles, - something interests you, just call for me.
- Okay, - I agree.
On the stairs already, Madam stops and adds:
- By the way... if you like the picture and want to see it in more
detail, rub the image with your finger.
I nod and drink my coffee glancing at the albums.
Do they have any emergency exits here I wonder? Most likely they do.
Though I also can pretend that my timer worked and to dissolve in the
air. In any case I'm saved. I've got the better of the hundred of enraged
doomers, earned the doubtful fame and came 14 levels closer to Unfortunate.
Maybe he'll be dragged out before I reach him but I did my best anyway.
Coffee was finished, I looked into the pot... just look, it's full
again! The magic thing from '1001 nights'. I fill the second cup and pick up
the black album. Looks like African women are here?
It turns out that no.
There was a picture of the girl chained to the chair on the very first
page. The thick brick wall was behind her, her head thrown back and the face
can't be seen but half naked body promises much. The chains are shiny, with
purposefully big links. The leather lash lies under girl's feet on the
floor.
O-ooo-kay...
I close the album and put it on the corner of the table. Let it wait
for sadists/masochists.
It's definitely "All Amusements".
I look at the cover rainbow. Let's try to guess. The blue cover, for
instance.
Hm, I guessed right. The Hollywood actor was smiling merrily from the
first picture, the one named as a sex symbol for the third year already..
He's dressed in leather jacket, high boots and lacy underwear. Wow my
friend, just look how lucky you are...
There's no title under the picture obviously. Even if the poor cutie
who never suffered from homosexuality tries to sue the brothel, it'll be
very hard to prove anything. The photo is slightly altered and nobody will
accept it as an evidence except for those of course who were in the deep and
know how the brain excited by the deep program imagines things. But those
who really know virtuality know its main law as well.
The freedom.
In everything and for everybody.
Probably this is right...
I put the actor on top of the lady in chains. Let them have their fun,
poor martyrs.
The pink album. Is it really lesbians? Strange...
No, just couples. Two girls with defiant stares, one stands on her
knees, the other leans onto the first one's shoulders, gazing at me.
No-no-no. Not today. Not after 14 levels of "Labyrinth". Just lie aside for
now, you'll not be bored together either, I can feel it.
The brown album. My imagination gives up, and I have to open it.
The old woman in flabby dress.
Oh my God, it's really for all tastes! Stirred up by curiosity, I rub
the picture with my finger. The old lady on the photo becomes alive, smiles
winsomely, starts dancing tripping with her legs and unbuttons her loose
overall.
Granny, you're ■■■■■■■ crazy...
I put the brown album on top of the pink one and start laughing loudly.
The guard in the corner glances at me but stays silent. I can't help it
and ask:
- Do the ... customers happen?
I poke the brown album with my finger. The guard nods slowly.
The violet album. I turn it over in my hands trying hard to think of
anything, then open it at the first page carefully: what if granddads are
there?
She-goat.
I mean it: she-goat, the young one, whitish, with sharp short horns.
I don't laugh, I'm too exhausted already. But it's impossible to take a
real goat into the deep so it's either a human operator or a program... that
imitates sexual stereotypes of the young spoiled she-goat.
Granny, go milk the goat.
The three albums remain: the white, the green, the yellow. I open the
white one, for some reason being tortured by thoughts of elves, angels and
other heavenly creatures. Wrong guess, it's just women. As it should be, the
famous top-model dressed in an evening dress
from Cardin is on the first page. Okay, I'll examine the dress later. I weigh the green album
in my hand. What else have left that could feed the mighty erotic fantasies?
Kids, of course. I open the album. A-ha. Juvenile millionaire, the movie
star and aging housewives' favorite. Go help your Granny to hold the goat
kiddo.
The yellow album. I guessed right again. The girl's face is vaguely
familiar, I think she's an actress too. The entourage is amazing: the beach
spreading to the horizon under the rising sun. Instead of tanning idly,
better bring the bucket of goat milk into the house, baby.

Having finished with the most 'all' of offered amusements, I fill the
goblet with wine, gesture at the pile of albums with non-traditional
partners, the guard picks them up silently and brings away.
I had to take a better look at that one, with animals. I wonder, are
there young crocodiles and the swans, ripened as Madam? Though, even if
there are not, they'll be organized at the customer's request. Even the
green squid or pit-bull.
I start looking through the white book making the girls to strip from
time to time.
The choice is staggering. The movie stars and models end quite soon,
followed by unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar but cute. I can't help myself and
look at the very end of the album.
The clean white sheet is there and the title: "Draw your own happiness
yourself".
Yeah, nobody would leave this place unsatisfied.
I start to browse the album faster. After all, it's possible to look at
naked beauties, both still and moving, by less expensive means that being in
the deep.
The African in palm leaf skirt on her hips, the Eskimo in furs, the
Korean on the mat, the Polynesian with the ring in her nose... there's no
racism in virtuality.
I turn the pages even quicker. One page, another and another...
Vika.
I freeze gazing at the girl that smiles to me every morning.

100

Madam appears quietly as a ghost, sits by my side and asks:
- Do you want more wine, Gunslinger?
I nod. Looks like I have spent a long time sitting here and looking at
Vika. It was an evening twilight on the picture, she sat on the railing of
the wooden verandah, the dark forest could be seen behind her, the dim
yellow lantern in the high grass, the black mirror of the pool.
- We have many different customers here, - says Madam thoughtfully, -
Some of them prefer movie stars, others - goats...
A slight smirk.
- Who is this girl?
Madam looks at me puzzled.
- Does she have a real prototype? - I ask.
The brothel mistress leans on my shoulder and looks at the picture for
a long time.
- I don't have right to answer such questions Gunslinger. I even have
no idea. It's thousands of faces here. Many of them might seem familiar to
you, - a slight grin, - but this is not more than just a coincidence. Does
she remind you somebody?
- Yes.
- Somebody real?
- Not exactly... - I cut my one-side openness, - Madam, can I... meet
this girl?
- Of course, - our gazes meet, our faces are close, irony and mockery
are in her eyes. - Ten dollars an hour. Forty dollars a night. Our prices
are moderate, affordable to any hacker.
- You're cruel, - I say.
- Yes. When it seems to me that a nice young gentleman starts getting
crazy, I'm cruel.
I take out the credit card.
- Forty dollars?
- Yes.
She accepts the money, hesitates, then says:
- Gunslinger, please listen to one story... Once there was a small
silly girl, she studied in college, liked to hang in discos and to flirt
with guys. And she loved a singer. He appeared on TV often, was interviewed,
his pictures always were on magazine covers. He was a good singer and he
sang about love. The girl believed in love very much.
- I know how these stories end, - I say. Not only Madam can be cruel.
- Once the singer arrived in her town during his tour, - Madam goes on.
- The girl was on all of his concerts. She jumped out on the stage with
flowers and the singer kissed her cheek. Of course she had got what she
wanted. On the second evening she entered his hotel room and left in the
morning only. And never came to his concerts since. No, the singer really
turned out to be a nice guy and a beautiful man. He was tender and sweet,
sharp minded and cheerful. The girl didn't regret anything. But she didn't
believe in love anymore. You know why?
- She mixed an illusion and reality, - I answer.
- You understand. Yes, sure. It would be better if he was dumb and
dirty bastard. It would be much better. The girl would find the other ideal
or would still love the singer's image. But this way... it was too much like
a mirror, the love to reflection, the true and perfectly clean one. She
really had met her dream, had found her ideal while it must be loved from a
distance.
I nod.
Sure, Madam... Of course, the wise brothel mistress. Definitely,
all-knowing master of love and sex.
I know.
- I'm sorry Madam, please remind me, have I paid you already?
The woman sighs.
- Follow me Gunslinger...
We ascend the stairs, there's a corridor, doors. Madam takes me to the
door with number 6 and touches my shoulder.
- Take care Gunslinger... And by the way, the story that I've told you
- it happened not to me. But I know lots of such stories.

101

There's not a room but a garden behind the door, the night garden,
crickets chirp softly, the air is fresh and cool, the dense grass is under
my feet.
What did I expect after all? The hotel room with a squeaky bed and
sheets damp due to frequent washes? This is what's good about virtuality:
one can make the house's inner space as big as desired.
I walk towards the lantern light in the grass, my movements are slow
and sluggish, drowsiness have almost retreated but the lead-heavy exhaustion
have come instead.
I see the small house, either a good 'dacha' or a modest cottage,
nobody around. The lantern shines lonesomely and sadly. For a moment it
seems to me that merciful Madam decided to leave me alone. No, hardly.
Compassion is one thing but the business is always on the first place.
I sit by the lantern - this is an antique kerosene lamp in net case.
Those are used to descend underground. Into the deep.
The tiny moth circle around the lamp, bounce against the glass
powerlessly trying to break into the light. Humans are much more stupid than
the moth, they always manage to find a fire to burn their wings, that's why
they are humans.
I don't hear the steps, just the hands lie on my shoulders, unsurely,
shyly as if accustoming.
- Is it always so silent here? - I ask.
- No.
I shiver. Even her voice sounds familiar.
- It depends on the guests.
- I like silence, - I say, still not turning around.
- Me too, - she agrees, maybe in order to make a good impression on me,
maybe sincerely.
I dare to turn around.
She looks just as on that picture. A short skirt, not a 'sexually'
short one, just comfortable summer clothes, smoke grayish blouse, gray
sandals on her feet, dark hair tied up with a narrow band on her forehead.
The girl looks at me seriously, examining me as if I'm not the customer whom
she has to serve but really just a guest whom she might accept or kick out
into the night.
- I was called Gunslinger all day long today but you better call me
Leonid.
She nods in agreement.
- And... if you don't mind, - I add. - If possible, I'll call you Vika.
The girl stays silent for so long that I decide that I have hurt her
accidentally. But finally she just asks:
- Why? Do I remind you somebody?
- Yes, - I confess. - I'll forget anyway and will call you by that
name. Let's better avoid this.
- Okay, - she agrees sitting down by my side, outstretches her hands
and warms them above the lantern as if above the fire, - I get used to names
easily.
- Me too.
We sit in silence. I feel falling down slowly - deeper and deeper...
- Vika...
- Yes, Leonid?
- Will I look very stupid if I fall asleep now?
- I don't know, - she says, - Was it a hard day?
- The hard ones are still ahead.
- There's a bed in the house.. as you understand.
I nod. I don't want to stand up and leave alive silence for the dead
one.
- But if you want, I'll bring you comforter.
- Thanks, this would be just great.
She rises and I gather remains of my strength.
Abyss, I'm not yours... let me go , Abyss...
Firstly, I went to the bathroom. Luckily the suit and the helmet have
long enough wires. Then I lagged to the sofa and fell on it throwing the
pillow aside: the head in the helmet is lifted high enough even without a
pillow. My neck will grow numb by the morning, but I don't want to leave
now.
- Vika, turn the deep on... - I whispered to Windows-Home. The colorful
whirl follows and I'm in the deep again.
- What did you say? - Vika stands by me. The one that is alive...
almost...
- No, nothing.
I take the comforter, spread it out on the grass and lie down. The girl
sits by my side. I look up at the stars, they are so close, so alluringly
bright. I lack just transparent light wings to fly up and crash against
invisible glass...
- Vika, aren't you lonely here, in this nook?
- Why do you think it's a nook?
- The stars are too bright.
- No. I like it here...
She lies by my side and I shift on the comforter a little to give her
more space.
- Do you like the sky? - asks Vika.
- Yes. I like to look at the stars. But I have no idea what their names
are.
- Why would they need the names we give them... - Vika touches my hand.
- Look, the star have fallen. Just above us.
- We could go and search for it, - I say seriously. Vika doesn't answer
right away and I understand with horror that I'll have to rise now.
- No, - she decides. - Your feet are failing you Gunslinger. We'll look
for it in the morning. It'll just cool down by that time and it'll be
possible to pick it up.
- It's too much light in the morning, - I note. - Better tomorrow in
the evening.
- You're strange, - says the girl quietly. - Okay. Let's look for it
tomorrow.
- Had you ever found a fallen star?
Vika stays silent but I can feel how she shakes her head.
- Virtuality took the sky from us, - I whisper.
- You understood it too?
- Of course. The world leaves into the deep, into reflection of
reality. Why would one fly to the Moon or to Mars if any planet is reachable
here and now? The passion have gone. The interest have gone too.
- But computer technologies are developing rapidly.
- Oh really? "Octium" is not more than just very cool "686"... - I
purposefully call Pentium-Pro by unaccepted name. - Nothing new was invented
in last five years, we are just marking time.
Vika laughs softly
- Oh geez... an argument about technological developments... Leonid,
you're in the brothel, remember?
- I know... You're bored?
- No, but... I just have weaned of the talks like this...
She pauses then slightly touches my cheek with her lips.
- Sleep. You falter, Lenia.
I don't argue, I don't want to argue with her.
All the more, she is right.
I close my eyes and fall asleep - instantly.

110

I see a dream. I often see dreams - the consciousness gets so exhausted
during the day that relief is absolutely necessary, it's what the dreams are
for, to save us from overload of impressions, to finish what was left
unsaid.
I don't remember my dreams usually, just messy remains whirl in my
head, not completely understood. But now the dream is bright and imprints
into consciousness, maybe because I sleep in virtuality.
I'm standing on the stage, the heavy curtains' cloth is behind me.
There's a man with a guitar on the stage, he's motionless as if chained by
invisible chains. He sings but the words don't reach me. It's the deep
between us, the Deep that became alive, that turned into transparent wall. I
strain myself trying to walk to him, to break the wall and to hear the words
but the deep is heavy and resilient like a rubber slab. It throws me back, I
fall on my knees and freeze, unable to move. The singer turns his head and
looks at me. It seems that he starts to sing louder, but I can't hear him
anyway. I'm chained by the deep, I'm swaddled, helpless.
The singer nods and turns away, I suddenly understand that this is
Unfortunate from "Labyrinth", the one I have to save... to save instead of
standing on my knees under invisible rubber heaviness.
But I have no strength anyway.
From the opposite side of the stage, from behind the curtains another
man appears. He's dressed in camouflage overalls and has a shotgun in his
hands, he looks at me, smirks and raises his weapon. This is Alex.
I shout, - NOOOO! - but the sound is bogged in the deep.
Alex shoots, the bullet breaks the guitar's neck, the strings scream
curling up in elastic rings, the silence barrier breaks. I jump up, the
heaviness disappeared. The singer looks at the dead guitar with surprise.
Alex pulls the lock of his gun, I jump, knocking the singer down and
blocking him by my body.
- I told that I'll make you, - says Alex.
He shoots, the bullet hits my chest, tears my heart into pieces, goes
through and stabs the singer. His body shivers and becomes dead.
This means - it's over. This means - I was too late.
I rise and go to Alex. My heart doesn't beat anymore, but I don't care.
I'm the diver, the only enemy of the deep, the guard between the worlds, the
one who had to be here in time. I got used to live without heart, it's not
that simple to kill me.
The audience roars behind my back, whistles and stamps their feet.
- I've made you, - says Alex and lowers the shotgun.
Vika comes out from behind his back, outstretches her hand - there's
greasy looking gray ash in it.
- I found that star, - she whispers and opens her hand.
The ash streams down to the floor circling in the air.
And then I die.

111

Awaken, I swallow the air greedily. The sun have risen already, the air
is intoxicating fresh.
Vika sleeps, pressed against my shoulder, shrunk of the chill.
Very nice dream I've had indeed...
Like in that anecdote about Freud... "You know my dear daughter,
sometimes there are JUST dreams..."
They say that it's a bad sign to sleep in virtuality.
- Vika... - I touch her shoulder, she shivers but doesn't wake up. I
rise and cover her with the comforter. The lantern in the grass had went
out. I go to the house.
It is small, just one luxury bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. I take
cream, cheese and pate from the fridge, make coffee on the small stove,
several sandwiches, put all that on the small tray and return back to Vika.
She's still sleeping.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
Well, not bad of a rest: 3 pm. I visited the bathroom, got myself into
order, even brushed my teeth holding the helmet under arm, returned into the
room, took a can of soda, yogurt and a piece of sausage from the fridge. A
stupid combination but who cares what I eat in reality? The main thing is
just to stuff the stomach.
The Vika on the computer monitor is dozing too. I felt the slight shame
before the program whom I'm being unfaithful to with the human.
deep
Enter.
I caress 'almost alive' Vika's hair and whisper, - Time to wake up...
She opens her eyes, looks at me in puzzlement, then smiles.
- Thanks.
- For what?
- Well... I had such a great rest. It doesn't happen often.
- I brought the breakfast.
- This is MY duty, - sighs Vika with imposed resentment, - Thank you,
Leonid.
We drink coffee and eat sandwiches. Somewhere far in the forest the
bird's voice rings.
- I had a bad dream, - informs Vika.
- About the stage? - I ask and my heart stops as if pierced by the
bullet again.
- No, it was like I found the fallen star but it have already burnt.
Utterly.
The heart shivers again, it echoes in the temples, hollowly and dully.
It's a bad sign to sleep in virtuality.
What links were between us, fallen asleep in the deep? Unheard whispers
and sleepy grimaces, strained muscles and shaking eyelashes - everything was
melted into electronic impulses and was transmitted through the deep.
To touch the one who was by my side.
Sleeping, just as me.
To slip into her dream.
It's a bad sign - to sleep in the deep.
- We'll look for it tomorrow, - I say. Vika looks at me ironically and
asks:
- You're what, a millionaire's nephew?
I shrug.
- I want to see you again. Just to see you.
She hesitates before asking:
- Tell me... Don't I attract you?
- Sexually?
Vika nods.
- You do.
- Then... why?
- This shouldn't be so easy, - I also can't decide to finish at once, -
And it should not be for sale.
- Lenia, you go crazy.
- Maybe.
- You even don't know who I am. This, - she raises her hands to her
face, - is a mask. A make-up. I can be whoever.
I'm silent, you're surely right, I don't argue.
- I can be old in reality, - says Vika without mercy. - Or terribly
ugly. Or perverted male. Do you understand?
I understand. It's doubtful about the male though...
- Don't be stupid, Lenia, don't fall in love with the mirage.
- I just want to see you again.
She decides finally.
- Come to "Amusements" and ask for Vika. Without 'order'. Okay?
- Won't Madam be angry?
- No.
- Okay, - I touch her hand. - Deal.
We finish coffee and sandwiches, Vika looks at me but says nothing.
Let her.
I rejoice inside. Inside I'm concentrated and business-like.
I'm a 20-year old again, flirting with the whimsical coeval. The only
difference is, the thought about the bed doesn't thrill me as much as then.
Together we leave the garden, exchanging meaningless phrases. The door
stands right on the grass, reminding of the scene from some old kid's movie.
Vika opens it and enters the brothel's corridor, I follow.
It's quiet and sad in there.
The customers never see each other. Come here everyone and find your
cure..
- My time is over, - says Vika, - my timer will come up now.
I nod. It's pretty understandable, the timer is a holy thing.
- Thank you.
- What for?
- For the fallen star.
Looks like she wants to say something, but obviously her time was
really up.
Vika dissolves in the air.
I whisper, - Bye... - and descend the stairs. There is another guard in
the hall now, I wink to him and pad to the door, not waiting for the answer.
- Gunslinger!
I turn around.
Madam stands on the upper landing, leaning on the railing heavily.
- I think you shouldn't have come here, young man.
-Maybe, - I agree, - But it so happened.
Madam sighs and turns away. Let her.
I don't need Deep-Transit today, I still remember the route of
yesterday's flight, and the exit from "Labyrinth" and the entrance are just
five minutes apart.. I walk along ever-evening Deeptown's streets, looking
around, expecting the ambush.
But either the pursuers' passion have exhausted since yesterday, or
their finances had.
- I'm Gunslinger! - I shout entering the red fog in the portal. Others
turn to me and I laugh raising my hands up to the lightning pierced arch, -
I'm Gunslinger! Gunslinger!!!


1000

Today I've become the Death and the Death have become me.
This happens sometimes.
I cross "Labyrinth"'s levels almost without hiding, shooting the
monsters and passing the other players. The players try to avoid me too.
Except those who feel offended since yesterday or consider themselves
heroes.
Those I kill.
I was killed myself twice too. At the first time I've lost all my
weapons and was thrown back to the beginning of the 19th, the water level.
The whole team had worked here, at least 20 people, I can't imagine what
"Labyrinth"'s servers manage to coordinate actions of such a crowd.
I feel offended and kill them all, one by one, catching them in the
swampy growth that covers the city's water reservoir, diving and dragging
them under water where I could survive longer than any of them because of
leaving virtuality. To the last of them, it was Tolik if I'm not mistaken, I
cut the throat with the razor sharp leaf of the alien sedge. This is
something new in "Labyrinth"'s program - the possibility to use improvised
means.
Then I gather their gear and proceed forward.
On the 24th level, this is the bridge that connects industrial and
residential blocks of the Twilight City, Alex catches up with me.
I'm finishing passing the bridge, the procedure that mostly requires
the sense of balance and strong nerves than the ability to shoot well.
Fortunately, I have the method proved back on the hair bridge of Al-Kabar.
The explosion bangs before me when I jump from the last slab that hangs
over the chasm. The fiery whirl blossoms on the bridge, I'm thrown against
the concrete parapet by the explosion blast.
Alex stands at the beginning of the level. When I look in the
binoculars found in the main cache of the 20th level, I manage to examine
him better. He has just a minimal gear - a carbine, a rocket launcher and a
couple of first-aid kits.
- Gunslinger! - he shouts and waves his hand.
He has plenty of loads but doesn't shoot. I don't either.
- I'll make you pal! - he shouts, - Do you hear me? You're dead!
He follows me from the very first level and almost manages to catch up.
Maybe he's a diver too, one more candidate for the Medal? My nerves start
failing me, I leave the deep, catch Alex in the sight's mesh and launch
three rockets one by one.
Somehow he manages to evade them and explosions thunder behind his
back, ripping into pieces some poor guy who just have entered the level.
Alex is stunned too though, he squats and shakes his head trying to rise. I
aim the launcher again but then lower it. The anger have passed.
- Cool down, you lamer! - I shout throwing the launcher behind my back
and leave the level. If he's not a diver, he'll get stuck on the bridge for
quite long.
The monsters get to use me well on the 31st level. It's at least a
couple of hundreds of them here, beginning with the weak and dumb mutants
and ending with the scum flying, jumping and digging into the ground and
asphalt.
I'm standing at the beginning of the level for approximately seven
minutes - this is the skyscraper's lobby and shoot the cheerfully gathering
monsters. Carbine shells are over as well as the rockets. I throw away the
useless weapons. I'm being wounded twice and have to use several first-aid
kits.
The lobby's window cracks and the half transparent muzzle shoves
inside. Other monsters keep running in.
I take the plasma gun from my shoulder and open fire. I have lots of
energy cells, so far saving the most powerful weapon available.
The level is burning. Blue lightning bolts of my shots ruin the storeys
together with monsters and other players. I burn the whole block down to the
ground.
The monsters calm down. I move through the wreckage.
Several attacks more, much weaker this time.
I leave the level being empty. Very, very nasty level. The monsters are
far less smart than the people despite any programmers' efforts, but they
suppress by their numbers.
I was instantly killed on the 32nd level. There was a guy with
winchester at the entrance and he shot me point-blank. I don't have any
ammunition, I try to run towards my enemy to beat him to death with
brass-knuckles, but three bullets in a row blast the remains of life out of
me.
I begin the level again from scratch, without the armor and with just a
single gun, as usual.
Blacked out with rage, I shoot the bastard approaching him is zig-zags,
he drops his winchester and falls backwards. I start hitting his head
against the asphalt, with each blow shaking out one percent of strength. He
doesn't even defend himself, just mumbling cheerfully:
- I killed Gunslinger! I killed Gunslinger...
I take all his weapons - he had too little unfortunately, and leave the
half dead idiot for the monsters to lacerate.
The good thing is, this level - "shopping mall" - is pretty easy, a
little break for those who survived the 'mincer' of the previous one. It's
long rows of supermarkets and small shops... if one doesn't go too far into
them, there's no particular danger.
I obtain the carbine, the rocket launcher, the armor vest and some
ammo. Then, not getting into fights, I proceed to the exit.
To Unfortunate... damn him.
When I enter the Disneyland (the blood stained doll and a pile of
little bones by the cheerful entrance), I start thinking that Unfortunate
could have been saved already. This would be funny.
But Unfortunate is still here.
I look around for some time to remember the surroundings. When I passed
"Labyrinth" for the last time, this amusement park was not here. The 33rd
level was unpleasant but quite standard.
Unfortunate sits by the fence of "Russian Hills", huddled up... I still
prefer to call them "American Hills". From one side he's covered by the
elegant booth with the ride control mechanisms, from the other - by the wall
that encircles all "Disneyland". A comfortable place, it's impossible to
stalk him unnoticed. I would hide here too.
But not for so long anyway, not for more than two days.
I approach Unfortunate openly, raising empty hands. He doesn't react.
Maybe he's sleeping.
Maybe he's dead.
Death in virtuality is quite an unpleasant thing. I saw one such
corpse... the most horrible thing was that it was "alive" - continued to
walk along the street, colliding with passers by, shaking, repeating last
convulsions of its unlucky owner. He was shut down manually, after two hours
of his channel tracing. Nasty thing is it - the dead body walking in the
street...
But Unfortunate shivers and raises his head.
- Privet! - I shout - Hello! Ne strelyaj! Don't shoot!
He doesn't answer, but doesn't rise the gun from his knees either.
- I came to help you! - I hear the rustle behind my back and turn
around. Some guy with the plasma gun looks at me in shock.
I wave my finger at him and nod - go on.
It's not necessary to convince him, he recognized Gunslinger and is not
very eager to compete in keenness.
- Let's talk! - I say approaching Unfortunate, - Okay? I'm your friend!
Go steady!
Looks like he doesn't want anything, neither to befriend, nor to shoot
me.
I squat by his side, outstretch my hand and carefully take the gun from
him. He doesn't resist.
- Do you understand me? - I almost shout. And Unfortunate condescends
to answer.
His lips move and I more guess than hear: "Yes..." {in this case - in
Russian}
At least something. The compatriot...
- Are you here for long? - I ask carefully. Interesting, have he lost
the sense of time already?
He nods. At least this he does understand.
- Is your timer on?
No reaction.
I shake his shoulder and repeat:
- Did you turn the timer on? Is the timer on?
Unfortunate shakes his head. Uh-oh. The worst case. I turn around -
most likely Guillermo watches me, and shout:
- You see? He can't exit by himself! Trace his channel!
I don't quite believe in the success of this though. Thus, I'll have to
drag Unfortunate to the end of the level and convince or force him to push
the exit button there.
Though, it's nothing impossible in this.
- Now we'll stand up and go, - I say softly, as if talking to the
little kid. Although, he surely might be one who managed to seize upon the
desired toy in his parents' absence. This happened before. - Can you walk?
An unsure nod.
- Let's rest, - I understand that I talk nonsense, Unfortunate 'rests'
here for more than 30 hours already but I go on: - We'll rest, eat and go
forward. There'll be nothing terrible anymore. I'll lead you.
I take off my mask-helmet, the air is clean enough on this level and
open the package with food. I give him a huge sandwich and a can of soda.
The virtual food won't help his body but will give him a fake vivacity in
the deep.
I take a bite, chew and look at Unfortunate. He just sits with the
sandwich in his hand.
Yeah. A hard case. I wish I came here a day earlier.
- Eat, - I urge him. I outstretch my hand and take his mask off. The
red oval from the respirator stays on his face. Otherwise, it's a pretty
nice face, a normal, not a standard one: the blond young guy, just his eyes
are tired and dim. - Come on! - I encourage him.
He raises the sandwich to his mouth and starts chewing slowly. Good. A
piece for Mommy, a piece for Daddy, a piece for Uncle Diver... Maybe he's
really just a little kid?
- My name is Gunslinger. What's yours? - I ask. He doesn't answer, too
busy with his
food. - How old are you?
The last question is a serious offence. Everyone is equal in
virtuality. If he has at least a little experience in Deeptown life, he'll
certainly answer... Oh, HOW will he answer...!
But he's silent.
Hard work is ahead.
Well, the prize isn't small either. I wouldn't ever exchange it for
precious "Labyrinth"'s half a million. It's impossible to buy the Medal of
Complete License - a single case like this would immediately ruin it's
value.
- Feel better? - I ask Unfortunate. He nods. - Very good. Stand up.
He raises submissively and I return him his gun. This is not more than
just a symbolic weapon on 33rd level, but at least he'll feel himself more
confident. I really want to believe in this.
- And now let's go, calmly and confidently.
I'm an idiot.
I forgot about the 'grabber' demon around the corner, forgot how
Guillermo demonstrated it to me. I walk along the "American Hill"'s fence,
stepping like in the parade.
And surely the demon grabs me cheerfully with his long hand, rakes me
up and raises into the air. The demon looks like a stomp, covered with
tentacles... baobab's stomp most likely. The toothy mouth is in the center
of it, strong seven fingered paw grows from the butt, now turning me over in
the air, kneading, turning me into an accurate, one-bite meatball.
The Unfortunate's gun whispers: "Tak-tak-tak", shooting the charger out
at the monster.
Hanging in the air, I have time to be amazed by his strange posture:
the body bent forward, his shoulders drawn back, the gun is in outstretched
left hand.
It's impossible to kill the demon with this weapon.
But the paw suddenly stops breaking my ribs, weakens and I fall from
the three meters height right down into the greedily opened gob.
To my great luck, the monster can't chew and swallow anymore. I
scramble out of the stinking hole trying not to look at the teeth at least
ten centimeters long. There are shreds of clothes on them. Not mine.
I'm covered with saliva and it hisses on my armor vest. I wipe myself
with tufts of yellow dry grass, then pad to Unfortunate. He's relaxed,
sluggish and barely alive again.
It appears so...
- Thanks, - I mutter, press the first-aid kit to the hand, it clicks
injecting the medications and disintegrates. Pretty well was I crumpled.
- You're welcome, - Unfortunate says quietly but clearly. Though, this
name doesn't quite fit him anymore. To kill the demon with a gun!
Theoretically it's possible though. "Labyrinth"'s creators declared
many times that one can kill any monster with a gun or even by the
brass-knuckles. Theoretically. If one knows one single super-vulnerable
point on the monster's body.
But I haven't heard about such deeds yet.
I drop the winchester from my shoulder and give it to Unfortunate. He
takes the weapon melancholically.
I'm armed with the launcher. It's only four loads there, but we'll try
to get more now.
- What is your name? - I ask.
No answer.
What the hell... let you be Unfortunate then.

"Disneyland" is made beautifully. I Dunn whether it copies any real
park or only embodies the fantasy of game designers. But the monsters riding
the view wheel, throwing the fireballs at each other must have been born in
somebody's sick mind. The sight is so amusing that I look at it for a couple
of minutes before shooting a rocket at the wheel's pivot. Explosion and it
falls on it's side slowly. Debris flies at least 20 meters high.
I look at Unfortunate askance: will he appreciate the show?
Not in a freaking bit.
- Let's go, - I growl. Looks like I start to get used to my silent
companion.
We pass the water rides. There's blood in the pools instead of water.
Some boats sliding along the purple smooth are filled with sitting
skeletons, others are empty. The nasty shrilling screech is heard -
mechanisms were not made to work in this type of liquid.
Disgusting.
And over there - the whole family of mutants: two adults and three
little ones in bright flower patterned dresses, made themselves comfortable
for the picnic. On the small gas stove they fry a piece of leg in leather
boot. I waste one more rocket. They don't even try to run: those are not a
fighter monsters but ones created just to pump up the dread.
I wish I could find the one who created all this vileness and kick his
ass. Not in virtuality.
- We'll soon be there, - I say to Unfortunate. - You do pretty good.
He nods, as if with slight gratitude. Why did "Labyrinth"'s divers
waste so much time?
The guy proceeds great.
Together we deflect the attack of the flock of petty flying monsters.
Unfortunate shoots sparingly and keenly, leather wings break, clumsy bodies
fall down and burst.
- Let's go, - I say.
It's only by the big concrete field with small cars sliding along it
where the little delay happens.
There's a little kid in one of the cars, a little black boy. He steers
trying to dodge from three mutants that drive him across the field with
screeching laughter. Once the kid passes close to the fence glancing at us
with utter terror.
Unfortunate raises his carbine.
- This is not a player, - I explain tiredly. - This is a part of the
program. Some bonus points. You rescue the child, take him to the safe place
and get some weapon or an armor as a bonus. Let's go, no need to waste the
time.
But Unfortunate had obviously lost the contact with reality completely.
He starts shooting.
Three shots - three mutants. They try to fight back throwing fireballs
at us but Unfortunate is quicker and much more keen.
The giant spider crawls out from somewhere attracted by shooting sounds
and starts pouring on us the bursts from the machine gun implanted into his
muzzle. I have to meddle. Two rockets - under the cat's tail {wasted. ;-P
}... more precisely: under the spider's mandibles.
The silence falls, just the kid who have got out of the car squats and
cries.
- Let's go, - I decide. Now nothing is left but to bring the kid to the
shelter and take the well earned ammunition.
We walk through the fence torn by machine gun fire and pad to the boy.
I lag slightly, pick at the spider's remains with my foot trying to figure
out whether it's possible to use his machine gun.
Slime, chitin and iron debris. Nothing to look for.
Unfortunate approaches me holding the kid in his hands carefully and I
feel sympathy to him involuntarily. He's a fool, turned off the timer and
got lost in the deep, but he's a nice guy after all.
- Where are your parents? - I ask the boy hoping that the proggy is not
too complicated and I won't have to waste the time for persuasion and care.
The boy silently points at the building nearby. Thanks God...
We approach the building, I keep the launcher ready, Unfortunate is not
battle-worthy.
The entrance looks suspicious to me, the door is torn from its hinges
and screeches, even if there's no wind. Behind it is full darkness. Windows
are covered with blue moss from inside.
- There? - I ask. The boy nods. I raise my foot above the threshold.
- I'm sorry... - the boy whispers clearly, - they said that they'll let
Mommy go if I...
In the last instant I manage to jump back and the jet of fire misses
me. Something is heavily moving inside the building and rolls on the floor.
I launch my last rocket in there.
An explosion bangs, but sounds only become louder after it. The boy
screams, breaks free from Unfortunate's hands who tries to hold him, but the
kid scratches his face, slips down and rushes into the door.
- Mommy!!! - his thin scream can be heard followed by the muffled champ
and the silence falls.
- What a nice walk for beer it was... - I mumble dragging Unfortunate
by the shoulder out from the building. He seems to be ready to storm inside
after the boy, right into the welcoming gob of the unknown monster.
- Why? - he whispers, turning to me, - Why did he do this?
It's useless to explain him the logic of "Labyrinth"'s creators, he
obviously takes everything what's going on seriously.
- They forced the boy to lure the passers by into the ambush, - I say,
- They threatened to kill his mother. That's why he submitted.
Unfortunate stays quite for some time as if thinking over my words.
Then asks:
- And why did he rush inside?
At least now my ward have become a little more talkative.
- He was afraid for his mother.
- We need to help them, - says Unfortunate gripping the carbine more
comfortably.
He's definitely ready to crawl even in the devil's gob.
- They're already dead! - I shout, - They have perished, believe me!
He believes and lowers the weapon. Thanks God he doesn't insist on
revenge for the poor kid.
We go further.
I have an empty launcher, the Unfortunate's winchester has 10 loads at
the most. Aren't we armed great?... What a beautiful walk.. And when I
notice the guy standing in some 100 meters from us with the corner of my
eye, my mood becomes even more lousy.
- Knock him off, - I command. Unfortunate turns to me in surprise.
- Why?
Sure. If he believes in reality of events he would never shoot at
people. What a nice guy.
- Give me the weapon! - I insist, looking at the stranger intently. Is
it Alex or not? Gee, how I need my binoculars now...
- No! - says Unfortunate firmly and hides the winchester behind his
back.
I even don't want to argue with him, I just stand and watch the alien.
He studies us too for some time, then steps behind the building's corner and
vanishes.
Looks like it wasn't Alex.
- Let's go, my grief you...
In half an hour our situation improves a little. The purple clouds in
the sky disappear opening the evil Southern sun. We're almost near the exit
from Disneyland. Unfortunate managed to deflect the attack of two
spider-like monsters, I find the loads for the launcher and the plasma gun
with one energy cell. The life becomes better.
We take a break in the shade of the ruined pizzeria. This time I don't
have to ask Unfortunate to eat. He chews the last sandwich very
concentrated, I watch him. I don't need food, but at least he could offer to
share it, lamer...
- Why did you want to kill that man? - asks Unfortunate.
I don't dare to tell him that his gear would be useful for us.
- He could attack us.
- No. Dick is good.
- Dick?
- Yes. He tried to help me. This morning.
My brains screech in strain.
So, one of "Labyrinth"'s divers watches us? Without interference,
without offering help. All this is odd.
- Is Anatol good too? - I launch a probe.
Unfortunate shakes his head energetically, but doesn't try to explain
the reasons for his dislike towards the second diver.
- What about me? - this becomes interesting. Unfortunate stops chewing
and thinks.
- I don't know yet, - he concludes. Then adds in apologetic tone, -
Most likely, good.
It's better not to stop the talk. I carefully take Unfortunate's hand
and say:
- Do you understand that everything around is virtual reality?
- Yes.
Perfect. This is half of success.
- Hey kid... What is your name?
- I can't say, - he confesses with obvious regret.
- Are you sure?
- I can't.
- Kid, you're in virtuality for one and a half day already. this is
much, very much. Your body is tired, it requires rest, food, water...
I really hope that my voice sounds insinuatingly, like hypnotizer's.
- I need to exit, - he agrees.
- I'll help you, - I promise again, - We're already close. but if
something goes wrong, it'll be easier to help you by other means.
Unfortunate swallows the remains of sandwich and looks at me
questionably.
- Tell me your Net address, - I ask, - "Labyrinth" will inform your
providers, they will send a guy who will eject you from the deep manually.
There's nothing shameful in this, I swear, it can happen to anybody.
- No, this is impossible.
- Listen to me... If you are so shy about what happened, or fear
something... I'll personally come to you. Wherever you might be. I'm a
private party. I don't care about "Labyrinth". I just want to solve your
problem! Do you believe me?
- Yes.
- Then tell me the address... - for a moment I think that I've won. I'm
really ready to jump out of the deep, to buy the plane ticket and go to
Unfortunate's home, even to the Sakhalin [Island] or to Magadan.
- No.
Annoyed, I hit the wall and hurt the finger bones.
- Then stand up! - I command.
The exit from Disneyland is made inside the mirror labyrinth. The
labyrinth inside "Labyrinth"... I start feeling dizzy imagining this
inclusion of virtual spaces.
- Okay... - I say when we pass the stone statue of the moustached old
man with the pile of some sort of ad brochures in granite fingers. The
statue watches exiting players sadly. - I'll go in front of you. You'll keep
close behind, okay? And try to notice the enemy first, you have keen eyes.
- All right, - says Unfortunate.
We enter the mirror labyrinth. In the beginning it's just a corridor
with mirror walls, then it begins to branch, alternating with columns and I
lose orientation completely. There's ten pairs of divers and Unfortunates
around me. The world breaks into pieces, rotates and flows.
Shit.
It's absolutely different from the mirror labyrinths they like to show
in cheap sci-fi movie tales. It's impossible to confuse reality and
illusion, no matter how directors try.
Here it's no difference.
I think about leaving the deep, though it'll not help: the detailed
illusion will be replaced with the schematic one, that's all.
- Careful, Unfortunate! - I warn, mechanically calling him by the name
invented by Guillermo.
He doesn't protest.
We wander in the labyrinth for twenty minutes and finally enter the big
hall.
It's a mirror one also: 13-edge prism. Computers are installed along
the walls. It's the exit!
And just under the ceiling there are small balconies where monsters
stand in pairs. I haven't seen those before - big bulging eyes, long hands
holding carbines firmly, scaly bodies.
Except this, they're quite human-like.
- Get back! - I shout, and Unfortunate seems to try to jump back into
the mirror corridor.
But at this moment monsters open fire.
Bullets pierce the mirror floor, sharp needles stick into my body. I
shoot at random at one of the balconies, clearly understanding that only one
of them is real, all others are just reflections.
The fiery whirl, the hall overcasts with a smoke. The shots are
thundering, my right hand is wounded, I jerk with pain, throw the heavy tube
of the launcher at the left shoulder. I don't even have time to exit
virtuality.
And Unfortunate rushes back.
We stand side by side, shooting at the damned mirrors and they shatter
with mocking jingle. I'm wounded one more time, scream but continue
shooting.
The last rocket doesn't find its aim too, I throw the launcher up, at
one of the still intact balconies, hit it - the glass!... - grab the plasma
gun and make the hard choice between the last two targets.
Wrong choice.
The blue fiery blast hits the dimming mirror.
The energy cell is empty.
One of the monsters is dead, either hit by the shot or just badly cut
by the shattering glass. But the second one continues shooting. His carbine
is aimed straight at me and he hits the trigger.
Unfortunate covers me with his body.
The whole volley hits him and he sinks down. The monster recharges his
carbine, quickly, with experience.... and I stand frozen, unable to
comprehend what happened. And anyway, I don't have anything to answer with,
I don't have any loads.
The shot thunders right above my shoulder, deafening me. The fiery
sphere flashes on the balcony, burning the monster down to ashes, splashing
tenacious threads of charges in all directions trying to find any other
target.
BFG-9000.
The weapon that I failed to get in my hurry rush through the levels.
I even don't look who was shooting and bend down to Unfortunate.
His face is a bloody mask, the chest is torn by the bullets but he's
still alive - five farewell seconds given by the game.
- Reflection... - he whispers.
I wipe the blood from his face and rise.
The husky guy in full armor stands behind me, weapons hang on him like
ornaments on the Xmas tree. His face is dry and calm, breathing filter
pulled down on his chin.
- It's hard to kill the Alien Prince's escort guards. - he says. The
voice is quiet but one can feel boiling emotions under this calmness.
- You're the diver... - I say.
- You too.
The armored giant doesn't look like the guy who was watching us before.
- Anatol'?
He nods and I remember divers' courtesy rules.
- Leonid, - I introduce myself.
"Labyrinth"'s diver nods, throwing the bulky "BFG-9000" on his
shoulder.
Most likely we had met at some gathering, he just was in some other
body, as well as I was though.
Anatol' pads to the Unfortunate's body, looks into his face and nods
again.
- As always.
He slightly kicks him as if making sure that Unfortunate is really
dead.
And then I hit him on the face, hit so hard that Anatol is thrown
against the wall.

1001

Dick, the second "Labyrinth"'s diver, whom Unfortunate called a 'nice
guy', is the one who pulls us apart.
We fight for around five minutes, without intention to kill each other,
just venting out the rage and hate. Dick pushes the barrel of his "BFG-9000"
between our bodies and informs quietly:
- Three more hits and I shoot.
Anatol looks at him askance, lets me go and then hits me under the ribs
in a short blow. I catch my breath and kick him in the groin. Now it's
Anatol's turn to writhe in pain.
Dick calmly waits for the third hit but we stand still.
- Good, - decides Dick lowering his weapon. He speaks Russian, clearly
and almost without accent, - D-divers... motherf***ers.
- This imbecile lamer... - hisses Anatol, - This asshole...
- Cool down, - advises Dick. - He went well, I was watching. Not always
honestly, but always well.
Dick is not high, lean and lithe, but in this pair he's the boss.
Anatol calms down and starts wiping the blood from his face. I get busy with
the same.
- You played well, - says Dick, - but everything isn't that simple.
- I understood that, - I agree shifting my gaze from the Unfortunate's
body, - What's going on?
- Explain him, An, - throws Dick out and sits on smoked shattered glass
of the floor.
Anatol winces as if was asked to eat a handful of leeches but submits
himself.
- Did you weirdo really think we're playing the fool here? - he asks.
- You know better, - I growl.
- We try to drive him out every hour! - screams Anatol, - I led him
seven times! And Dick - eight times! Do you understand, dumbass? We know
every corner here! We can smell when something changes! Understand?
I start to understand.
- Had Guillermo told you that we're trying to pull the guy out? - asks
Dick in a dull voice.
- Yes, - I sniffle with my broken nose.
- Great! - cheers up Dick, - Then why the... - he swallows the swear
and just waves his hand tiredly.
- Who is this guy for you? - asks Anatol looking at me with a heavy
gaze.
- Who?
- Unfortunate! - shouts Anatol'. He obviously wants to kick the body
one more time to illustrate his words but stops just in time. - Your
brother? Your brother in law? Who is he? You're what, in really dire straits
that signed for doing our job?
- Well, I can see how YOU do it.
- Anatol' asked right, - notes Dick, - Who is he for you?
- Nobody.
- Listen man, if you know his address, it's better to drag Unfortunate
out manually.
- I don't know his address, - I say, - Can you believe me? This is just
a customer. I was hired to save him.
- By whom?
- I don't know either. The guy had no face.
I watch their reaction, but there's none. They took my phrase about Man
Without Face as a figure of speech.
- No better, - says Dick.
- No easier, - Anatol' mechanically corrects him, - No easier. {The
Russian saying was here... Impossible to translate adequately. :-/ }
- Thanks, - Dick looks at me askance, - What's your name, man?
- Leonid.
Dick nods.
- You know me as Crazy Tosser. {same in Russian original}
I just blink. Crazy Tosser is one of the oldest and respected divers,
an aged cheerful pot-bellied guy... at least he has this appearance on the
gatherings. So this is where Crazy earns his living...
- Guys, I ain't gonna take over your job, - I say. - I have a definite
request - to rescue Unfortunate. I couldn't refuse.
Both divers soften instantly. Looks like yesterday's stir and my
headlong journey through "Labyrinth"'s levels have planted certain
apprehension into their minds.
- You're doomer, right? - asks Anatol' - One of the old ones...
- Yes.
- Oh well... You were going fine... - says Anatol' turning away. - I
heard the stories. Even if a half of those is bull...
- Thanks, - I say. Nice words are pleasant even for a newbie... {remake
of another Russian saying.... It gets harder... }
- It's impossible to save Unfortunate, - says Dick.
- What? - I feel lost.
- Impossible.
- Dick is our fatalist, - smirks Anatol, - Okay. Sit down, I'll
explain.
We sit around the Unfortunate's body and Anatol' starts his story. I
listen, skipping details and remembering the main facts.
Unfortunate doesn't tell his name and address.
Unfortunate is a perfect shooter... and would he be more lucky he could
pass "Labyrinth" in one day and get all the prizes.
Unfortunate never shoots at other players.
- What? - I ask.
- What you've heard. He doesn't shoot at the players. He kills the
monsters in a snap, -mutters Anatol, - One feels envious seeing it... But he
didn't shoot at humans even once. When I was dragging him out for the first
time, it was the thing why I failed. I was sure he'll help...
- He "flows"... - I say - He considers what's going on real... well no!
He said it himself that it's virtuality around...
- Um-hmm, - agrees Anatol - He didn't lose orientation but the humanism
is his quirk.
- Religion? - I guess, - Pacifist?
Anatol just shrugs.
- So it were the players who killed him each time?
- The fate killed him, - Dick enters the talk, - He was killed by
players, by monsters, by ruined ceiling, by ricochet, he drowned in melted
asphalt and fell down from the height. Fifteen deaths, all different.
- It's impossible, - I note. - Unless he does it himself.
- If he's suicidal, then he must be very-very cunning, - Dick doesn't
agree, - Everything looks like an accident. It's just too many accidents
already.
- Dick thinks it's his karma, - says Anatol - He had earned this fate
somehow. And whatever we do, it's impossible to get him out.
- Crazy, this is bull, - I say. Dick just smiles, - Guys, isn't there
ANY mean to shut the player down forcefully? Without knowing his address?
"Labyrinth"'s divers look at each other.
- Don't hide it, - I beg, - It's serious..
- There was a method, - confesses Dick. - Anatol have tried it.
I look at Anatol waiting for explanations.
- Thirteen deaths in a row, - he answers reluctantly, - If the player
perishes thirteen times in a row with interval of less than five minutes,
the program kicks him out without notice. This is a barrier for absolute
dummies.
I still don't understand.
- I tried it this morning, - says Anatol, - I haven't drag Unfortunate
through the level, just stood at the beginning of it and started to kill
him. Thirteen times, then two times more, I thought that I did a mistake in
count. And nothing happened!
- Stop! - shouts Dick jumping up, - Leonid, one more step and I'll kill
you. This is a game, understand?
I retreat from Anatol. Dick is right, one can't measure what's going on
in "Labyrinth" with the real world's or even Deeptown's measures. This is
deep within the deep.
- How did he respond? - I ask.
- I explained everything to him before! - Anatol hardly refrains
himself too, - Don't think I enjoy that! I explained everything, was
shooting at his head with the carbine. I thought maybe he'll resist somehow,
but in the beginning he tried to hide, then just sat and waited!
Now it's clear why Unfortunate thinks so about him.
- Leonid, it's a game, - repeats Dick. - On the 17th level you had to
shoot the boy tied to the tunnel door in order to pass. Did you do it?
Sure I did, it was impossible to untie him...
- That was just a program Dick, a drawing and a sound file. It
prevented me from getting to the real guy.
- And how many people did you shoot in the first day earning
reputation? - shouts Anatol,- And don't tell me about fair fight! You're the
doomer of the old training, you're diver! All "Labyrinth"'s heroes don't
have even a half of your abilities in a fight! You can jump out of the Deep
and not feeling any pain! You can shoot like being in the shooting-range!
You can walk along the wire as a rope-walker!
He silences and frowns, - Was Al-Kabar your work?
I nod.
- Beautifully done... - Anatol calms down as fast as he fires up, - So
listen up, Leonid. We won't interfere in your business. Make a try. But
don't vent out on us! We're doing our own job.
- And now it's our turn, - adds Dick. - Return in six hours. If we
don't get the guy out by that time, it'll be your turn again.
I don't argue. They are hosts, I'm the guest. I rise and walk to the
computer by the wall.
- Hey Leonid! - shouts Anatol' behind, - Do you know why you couldn't
kill those escort guards at once?
I shake my head.
- The programs can cheat too. Wherever you shoot, only the last target
will be the real one.
Well, thanks for info... I touch the keyboard and save my result.
- In six hours! - says Dick behind my back, - Not earlier!

1010

This time it's much less people in the column hall, but still around 10
people stand sipping beer and obviously waiting for me.
I go past them.
- Gunslinger!
I turn around. Two unfamiliar guys and long haired girl come towards
me.
- I'm Gunslinger, - I agree.
- Who are you? - asks stooping guy with glasses. Many people pick such
peaceful looking appearances to distract the vigilance of their rivals.
Looks like it'll be no fights with shooting today. Very good; yesterday
everybody were pissed but their minds cooled down a bit as of late.
- This is not important.
- Gunslinger, what do you want? - the girl joins the talk, - Are you
just playing?
- No.
- What do you want then? You were seen on the 33rd level all day. Are
you stuck?
- No.
Delegation makes no headway, then the guy in glasses raises his hands.
- Peace Gunslinger?
- Okay, - I reply puzzled.
- People fear to go through the 33rd - he explains, - About half
hundred of them gathered on the 32nd. Gunslinger, if you won't purposefully
shoot the players, they won't touch you too. Otherwise the big hunt is gonna
be declared, and not only in the Twilight City.
- Very good, - I agree, - But one condition... there is a guy with the
pistol on the very beginning of the level. He must not be touched too.
The guy in glasses and the girl glance at each other.
- Deal, Gunslinger.
We shake hands.
- Let's go to "BFG"? - suggests the girl.
The deals are usually celebrated with beer, and I have six free hours
anyway, so I nod. The rest of the group joins us and we leave the column
hall in a dense group. I look around - either Alex is not among my
companions or he hides in the different body.
- Guys, if anybody breaks the deal and attacks me...
- It'll be your and his problems, - confirms the guy in glasses.
- Great.
- Gunslinger, are you doomer? - asks the girl.
- Yes.
- Maybe yet played on the 'threes' {386}?
- On 'twos'.
- 'Doom'? On the 'two'? - asks the guy in glasses ironically.
- Sure not. 'Wolfstein'.
The crowd buzzes approvingly, most of them had only heard about the
most primitive of 3D games.
- By the way, - says the girl, - I've recently met a guy, he entered
Deeptown from the 'three'.
- What?! - the guy in glasses looks shocked.
- What you heard. As is, without the helmet or suit. He said he's a
drafted sergeant, sits somewhere in tundra on the space communications
station. Their equipment would just fit a museum, but they have a connection
to the Internet through some military local server. He installed
deep-program on 386-DX, entered Deeptown through some gate and ventured into
the city. I noticed him because of his gait, shaky and jerky, obviously due
to a crappy modem.
- Bull, - the guy in glasses shakes his head, - it's impossible to get
into virtuality on the 'three'.
- Why not? Quite possible, if with 'sopr'. - objects somebody.
A long argument starts, about whether it's possible or not to enter
virtuality on IBM-386 and whether the math coprocessor will help in this
process. I just listen but don't meddle, even if I know the answer.
It's possible.
I started with the 'three' myself, also without helmet or suit, just
like that hypothetical soldier in the most unusual leave in history. But
this information is not for giving away.
In the meantime, the hall livens up. The guy with the guitar appears
from somewhere, swarthy and long-haired. He smiles shyly, waves his hand and
steps into the green substance which hisses under his feet. Then he walks
into the center of the green zone, sits on the chair that stands on the
small concrete patch and starts tuning his guitar without a hurry. I wave
back to him, even if he can't recognize me in the Gunslinger's image. This
is a legendary person in the Deep, one of the old hackers, and also - the
bard. Our paths didn't cross for a very long time. He usually sings in
"Three Piglets", where he even has a small share as they say. He's quite
indifferent to "Labyrinth" and the fact of his being here is a rare luck.
The singer brushes his hair off his forehead and starts singing.
The girl claps her hand against the table following the rhythm, the
beer flows like a river. I get to know all the company, making Vika to
remember all faces and names just in case. Using my distraction, one of them
shakes my hand for the long time and sticks a primitive marker onto my
shoulder. I pretend that I doesn't notice anything, hug the guy in a burst
of friendliness and throw the marker back at him.
Go ahead and trace me now, lamer.
The fun reaches its peak, everybody's happy, including the smart lamer.
My head is already full with intoxicating fog, I stand up and smile to
the players, - I have to go.
Nobody asks why or tries to make me stay longer. Being in the Deep
isn't a free fun. I make my way among the tables, imaginary cubes hiss above
my head, opening and spitting out monsters. I force myself not to duck.
I have around 5 more hours. Now "Labyrinth"'s divers are busy with
Unfortunate, but for some reason I'm sure they'll fail.
Turning into the alley, I stop. Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours....
As a first thing after getting the helmet off, I opened the fridge,
took out the soda, sausage and yogurt. It's time for lunch.
Everything is quiet on the screen. Gunslinger stands propped against
the wall, rare passers-by don't pay attention to him. Some queer fellow
whisks into "Amusements'" door.
- Hey, not to Vika! - I said following him.
- I haven't understood you Lenia, - replied Windows-Home.
- Never mind, - I said hiding my eyes, - Everything's okay.
I start feeling uncomfortable suddenly, what if somebody have come to
that, virtual Vika? I imagined myself starting the fight in the nonexistent
brothel and smiled but began to eat much faster anyway.
- Lenia, - said Windows-Home, - I must do my monthly reminders to you.
- Fire away, - I growl.
- To call your parents, - reproachfully says Vika, - I can dial the
number, but this will require the phone line to be freed...
- No.
Not very nice of course, but I better call them in the evening.
- To pay your utilities.
Yeah, it's better not to postpone that. They can shut down the phone
line in the least desirable moment...
- Thanks.
- To clean the apartment.
I looked around quickly. Yup, it'd be great to wash the floor and to
wipe the dust and to paint the rusty central heating unit.
- Thanks Vika, acknowledged.
- Also, one more time I draw you attention to the fact that the level
of the given tasks doesn't always correspond to the capacity of my RAM...
- Shut up.
I put my hands on the keyboard, pushed the empty yogurt carton down to
the floor so that it wouldn't hinder me.
deep
Enter
I glue off of the wall, enter brothel's glass doors and Madam comes out
to meet me.
- You're early today Gunslinger.
- Well, at least not for long this time.
Madam smiles and strokes my cheek.
- Just don't take the girls in.
- I'll try, - I reply with a voice of well behaving kid.
Madam nods, not really sure and turns to the guard:
- Escort him to the service area. To Vika.
- Thanks a lot! - I say from all my heart. Madam waves her hand tiredly
and goes to the stairs. The guard nods at the little door that he stands by.
With a little confusion I follow him, into the very heart of the
brothel.
There's a clean corridor, the summer forest behind the windows, the
river and the bright sun. Heh, but Madam said it's always evening here...
still want some sun, don't you?
The row of doors along the corridor, no names or numbers on them but
the pictures instead. Kittens, puppies, mice, hares... It reminds a
kindergarten a little, but a half naked blonde suddenly looks out of one of
the doors, oys, vividly covers her breasts and jumps back inside.
I try to keep the straight face. There are rustles behind the doors
when I pass them, the light noise can be heard. I know that if I turn around
I'll see a dozen curious faces looking into the corridor. That's why I don't
turn.
The guard stops by the door with a thoughtful black kitten on it and
knocks.
- Yes? - I hear the voice that I instantly recognize and start
slightly.
- A visitor, - replies the guard.
- Let him enter.
The guard taps me on my shoulder slightly and walks away. He's asked in
whispers about something from half opened doors, but doesn't reply.
I enter, followed by the mocking gaze of the kitten.
The room looks like a hut in the mountains. The window is opened and
the gusts of chilly wind enter the room, the noise of the river can be
heard. Vika sits on the simple wooden chair by the window, studying her face
in the little mirror, the quite up-to-date cosmetic set is on the table
nearby.
- Hi, - she says, - Sit here quietly for a little bit, okay?
I nod and look around. There are watercolors on the walls, unfamiliar
ones, almost all of them show the mountains, the fog and pine trees. They
seem monotonous at the first glance, like creations of a hack-worker,
prepared for the weekly sale but I look closer and nod in approval, these
are not a 'stamping' made by experienced hand but rather a series.
- How would you call them? - asks Vika without turning around. It's
nice to have a mirror.
- I Dunn, - I confess, - I always had problems with names. Well, for
instance...
I pass along the walls, touching frames carefully. The mountains or
maybe just one mountain but at different points of view, dense lashes of the
fog, pine trees stuck to the slopes. The morning chill and dry liquid air.
The ringing stream, rustles of wind, as if the picture can make sounds.
- Labyrinth, - I say, - Labyrinth of reflections.
Vika makes-up her lips ans agrees thoughtfully:
- Maybe... The main thing: it's vague. They buy better with such names.
- These are your pictures?
I'm amazingly slow minded lately.
- Yes. Doesn't look like that?
- It does. But I just thought you selected them with good taste.
- Geez, men... - Vika stands up at last. She is dressed in the white
linen knee-long dress, sandals, the silver pendant hangs on a chain from her
neck. - Is it supposed to be a first date compliment?
- The second date, - I try to joke.
- No, the first one. It was work in the morning.
- Okay, then I'll start telling you compliments, - I mumble, - You're
clever, beautiful, talented...
- Add 'punctual' to it, - Vika ties her hair with a white band.
- No, I better say - generous. It's a heroism to sell such paintings.
- Nonsense, - Vika waves her hand lightly, - I sell the originals,
these stay with me. They are better.
She didn't notice her mistake, and I'm really glad for it; I say
quickly:
- Why?
- They sound.
Oh, that's what it is... The sound of wind and splashing of water
coming from the paintings wasn't an illusion.
- The new art is being born, - I say.
- It was born long time ago and not only one new art. We just don't
understand yet that this is an art. When the cave people were drawing deer
on the walls it wasn't instantly recognized as an art either.
- Well, in this case all Deeptown is a work of art.
- Sure. Not all of it but some places sure are. Come here.
Vika grabs my hand without ceremonies and drags me to the window.
- Look.
Now I see, Vika was painting from nature... but do such mountains
really exist? The central peak - hardly. It is at least ten kilometers high,
it breaks out of the mountains chain as a proud rebel. The clouds circle its
crest, unable to cover it. The mountain looks like cut into layers - the
dark green of the forests, the light green of alpine meadows, the snowy ring
and the gray lifeless granite of the peak itself.
The lake is spread out between the mountain and our hut which stands on
considerable height too. The lake is not too big but is perfectly round, I'd
say - looking drawn if it wasn't so alive. The water is dark blue, heavy, on
the point of freezing.
I stay silent.
- Don't you fear it's just an entourage for whimsical customers? - asks
Vika.
- Yeah right... They'll manage without it.
We look at the mountains.
- Did it take you long to draw that? - I ask quietly.
- Two years, - says Vika carelessly.
I nod. One could spend even more time on this. These are not standard
beauties outside the window being sold on every corner. It seems to me that
even if I take a very strong binoculars I'll not have to imagine anything,
the picture is done completely, full volume.
- I want to descend there, - says Vika looking at the lake.
I silently nod in agreement.
- It's scary though, the path is too hard, - Vika sighs, - If you tie
the rope to the window it's easy to get out there. But the landslide
happened on the North slope half a year ago and it's most likely that the
path is blocked.
I turn and look into her eyes. No, she doesn't joke or laugh.
- You want to say that all this is alive? - I ask, - You can enter
there, climb the mountain, swim in the lake?
- The water is freezing, you'll catch cold.
- And this all lives? The snow is falling, avalanches and storms
happen?
Vika nods.
- A separate server is needed to support such space!
- Two servers. One is completely full, the other one also supports the
whole 'institution'.
I swallow the cold air and ask:
- So... why do you work here then? Any company would hire you as a
spatial designer, just let them look into this window!
- I have my own reasons, - says Vika in a slightly raised tone and I
understand that the question was inappropriate.
The freedom for everybody and in everything.
Who knows, maybe she likes to be a virtual prostitute?
- Thanks, - I say.
Vika frowns in puzzlement.
- Thanks for letting me to see it, - I explain, - You don't bring just
anyone here, right?
- No. But will you show me your paintings? - she asks with a smile and
I start. - You said you can't think out the names. It means, you had to do
it before.
Uh-oh... My fault too and like Vika I haven't noticed that.
- I'm not drawing for a long time, - I confess, - It so happened...
Maybe for good, I can't do anything like this anyway.
She doesn't even try to argue politely, she knows what she is worth.
- You know, I wanted to invite you to the restaurant, - I say, - If you
want...
- No.
I feel myself spat all over. For some reason I was sure that Vika will
accept, that she'll like "Three Piglets", that we'll stand above the
mountain stream; even if it wasn't me who created the landscape I love it
anyway...
- I understand, - I say.
- No, you don't. It's not because of the customers, it's a quiet hour
now anyway and the girls can work for me. I want to invite you myself, to
our restaurant.
I can't understand but accept. Vika examines me critically and
straightens the collar of my shirt.
- Good enough, - she decides, - Let's go.
- Is it far?
Vika just smiles and grabs the small leather purse from the table. We
enter the corridor and I notice that the doors don't squeak in curiosity
anymore. We walk hand in hand, with decorum, like well-behaving kids on a
walk. The corridor ends with winding stairs, I count 7 turns until the heavy
velvet curtains block our way. For a second I think that the space is
'turned inside out' here and now we'll exit into the lobby on the first
floor.
- Don't be surprised by anything, - says Vika and steps forward.
I follow her being absolutely sure that I'll be able to do it.
We exit to the sea shore.
The sunshine colors the sky in orange and gold. The sea breathes
tiredly, caressing the shore. The sand under our feet is black, the entire
beach is coal black. I know that such beaches exist, I never thought it's so
beautiful.
White tables under umbrellas are standing on the shore, some people
sitting by them. All are alive, not program fakes, I feel it instantly. Most
of them are girls except two muscular guys by the table closest to the water
and also a lean guy in blinders by the bar.
- This is our recreation area, - whispers Vika, - Let's go.
We sit by the empty table, Vika turns to me:
- It's self service here. Go to the bar, bring me some champaign.
I walk over sticking in the sand. Three men and twenty women watch me.
Everything looks extremely strange, as if a terrible typhoon had swept along
the shoreline blowing away hotels and houses but leaving only this part of
an open restaurant. The impression is enhanced by the door through which we
have entered - it stands in the sand lonesomely.
- Hi there, - says the guy by the bar quickly and shoves me his hand.
I shake it automatically.
- Vika prefers dry champaign, - says the guy, - But don't take the
French one, take Abrau-Durso, it should be somewhere to the left under the
bar... Are you here for the first time? I never saw you before. A quiet day
today, all girls are here. Now they'll have a topic to discuss...
He chatters with the energy of Robinson who have met Friday for the
first time. He has a very vivid face, a couple of teeth are missing.
- Gee, I like you, - says the guy, scratching his stomach, sunburned
skin peeling off, - Hell, I really like you! Hee-hee... scary, huh? No, I'm
not working here... well, I do but not like this... be careful not to be
suddenly liked by those two by the water!
I start feeling dizzy already, I squeeze out a pathetic smile, take a
bottle of brut from the ice filled bucket and a couple of high wine-glasses.
- Here, look... I was tanning too much yesterday! - says the guy in the
meantime, tearing off a long piece of peeling skin. - I had a bet with the
girls that I'll be sunburned, they didn't want to believe me. They come this
morning - and I'm really burned!
He pushes the pitiful remains of his hide under my nose.
- Cool, huh? Worked like hell all night making tan simulation. I should
try to offer it to somebody, they'll really grab it from me together with my
hands... but I won't give my hands to them!
I nod hastily and run away with my trophies. Vika waits for me choking
the laughter.
- Who is that? - I ask lowering myself on the chair. The soft whisper
of waves by the shore seems to be the greatest bless.
Vika continues to laugh, then becomes serious.
- This is our computer genius, the hacker and the guard, the master of
hard and soft... You can call him Computer Wiz or just Wiz. He likes that.
Just don't call him Zuko.
- Zuko?
- Yup. He loves those instant beverages: "Zuko", "Spreem", other
chemical stuff. The girls call him that, it really hurts him.
- But why is he... so weird? - I ask carefully.
- I Dunn... Maybe he scares our gays off, maybe he's really like that.
I examine the guys by the water askance and they also watch me
discussing something. Then one of them is slapped on the lips slightly by
the other one and turns away in hurt feelings.
I start feeling uncomfortable but Vika continues to smile and I ask
with forced curiosity:
- Why would you need the guys? Can't the girls always manage the job?
- Sure. Remember the blue album?
I remember. The devil tempts me and I ask:
- And where do you keep those she-goats?
We laugh together and the tenseness disappears.
- This is a program, - confesses Vika, - We tried to put on animals'
bodies but the behavior turns out inadequate. The customers for that don't
happen often but at least we have everything. Any weirdness.
I pour the champaign into the glasses, we touch them.
- Good, - says Vika.
- Yeah, not bad, - I agree putting down the empty glass.
- "Abrau-Durso" is never bad. It's just for you - "not bad". I just had
a doubt how will you act in such a company.
- Hm, what's so special? - I ask in the tone of somebody who walks in
the company of gays and prostitutes every day.
Vika thinks for a while.
- No, you don't think so yet, - she says, - But it's okay. The most
important is that you at least express agreement. It means, you'll make
yourself to believe in it later.
- May I? - Computer Wiz stands by the table, somehow weirdly bent over
and with a pleading grimace, - aren't you discussing me? I hope don't
interrupt? May I sit?
- Sure, - sighs Vika looking doomed. The Wiz plops down on the empty
chair, gets the glass and one more bottle from behind his back in a
juggler's gesture: some kind of banana liquor.
- Vikochka dear, thanks! - he says, - I started to think I'm doomed to
perish alone! Want some?
Vika fills her glass with champaign in an answer, I also decline the
liquor. The Wiz pours it in his glass.
- For our acquaintance! - he proclaims, - I'm Computer Wiz!
- I'm Gunslinger, - I say mechanically.
- Oy! - The Wiz leans back on the chair, - Don't kill me! It's you who
keeps "Labyrinth" so excited for the last two days, right? Vika, my
congratulations, you've befriended the cool doomer! He makes everybody cry!
He kills and kills, to the left and to the right!
- Is it true? - asks Vika.
I just nod.
- I'd never imagine.
- Well, I guess I should surprise you too.
- Hey Gunslinger, don't make too big mess in "Labyrinth"! - exclaims
the Wiz, - Otherwise I'll take a leave from Madam, will move myself over
there and will rip everything into shreds! I'm a peaceful guy usually but
it's a nightmare when somebody pisses me off! Hold me three, two will
fail... I remember once...
- Wiz, - says Vika, - We were talking, we have a serious talk. Could
you please chat with Tina or Lena?
The Wiz nods sadly.
- It's always like this... Okay-okay, I'm leaving. Nobody likes me...
- I like you very much but Tina is depressed since yesterday. Cheer her
up, I know you can do it.
- No problems! - Wiz brightens up. He picks up his bottle and in a
dancing walk moves over to the table where the dark-haired splendid girl
drinks vodka intently.
I just shake my head.
- This is our own small world here, - says Vika, - A pretty quiet and
peaceful one. By the way, all girls come hear in their main bodies, not the
ones we put on for the customers.
- So this is your main body in virtuality?
- Yes.
I make the next step.
- And the name too? Your name is Vika?
- In the Deep - yes. That's the only reason why I allowed you to come:
you guessed it right.
She smiles sadly.
- In the beginning I even thought that you're some sort of a spy, a
hacker or a diver, that you had identified my personality...
My heart starts beating hard.
- And what about now? Do you still think so?
Vika shrugs:
- Who knows? But I like you. I just want everything to coincide this
way by itself... in a wonderful and beautiful way.
I don't have time to reply, the curtain on the door opens and the
girl's face pokes in for a second:
- Natasha, Tina, your call. The green and the yellow albums.
The splendid girl by whom the Wiz have already made himself
comfortable, throws the bottle at the door. Vika rises a little.
- Alice! - she says quietly but clearly, - Substitute Tina!
The girl by the nearby table nods but Tina raises her hands in protest,
- Vika, I'm alright.
She talks through the interpreter program but even through it one can
hear feelings of tiredness and anger.
- I'll work as a kid, it's okay... That Cap pissed me off yesterday. {a
nick here}
One of the gays stands up and quickly moves between the tables, he hugs
Tina's shoulders, whispers something to her and gently makes her sit, then
looks at Vika questionably.
- All right Anjei, - she agrees, - Thanks.
The gay and one of the girls exit. Vika sits down and drinks her
champaign in one shot, then suddenly says in a hissing whisper,
- Assholes. All you males are assholes.
- Who is Cap? - I ask.
- A customer. A constant one. I usually work with him myself but
yesterday... I was busy.
- With me?
- Yes, - she replies sharply. - The girls shouldn't work with him, they
are out of themselves afterwards.
- What does he need?
- The red album.
I recollect yesterday's evening.
- I haven't seen that one.
- It's an inclusion into the black album. It is not shown just to
anybody. - Vika rises, - Damned... Sorry Lenia.
I rise too.
- Did you want to invite me somewhere?
- Yes...
- So go ahead!
Back in the lobby, I look around expecting to see Madam but she doesn't
show up. I call the taxi and tell the address: "Three Piglets". Vika cools
down slowly. I want to ask her about Cap and the red album but stay silent.
I can't. Not yet.
- So, I showed you how we live, - says Vika, - Interesting, isn't it?
- It's okay, - I say, - Not too bad.
- Okay... - Vika takes cigarettes from her purse, clicks her lighter, -
Not too bad...
I don't like when girls smoke, even if in virtuality.
- Vika, what did you expect of me? Screaming "How terrible!"? I'm not a
hypocrite. Raptures? I can't see any reason for that either.
She touches my hand lightly.
- Sorry Lenia. I'm little worried for girls. You know, you're a random
customer. You were fleeing from pursuit, ran into the brothel, went crazy on
my picture... Sorry. You don't have anything to do with that.
We approach "Three Piglets". There's no 'rush hours' in virtuality:
zone time canceled this term but some random fluxes and refluxes happen. For
instance, now the hall is packed.
We elbow our way to the bar and I shout, "Hi Andrei!" to the bartender.
- Hi-hi... - says Andrei, giving a glass of cocktail to somebody, - And
who are you?
Wow, it's really him, not a program.
- Leonid, - I reply.
Andrei knits his brow, he never saw me in this body and makes
precautions.
- Hey man! - I say in a scary whisper, - What's wrong? Tortured by
taxes again? The racket filched your file stuff? Just tell, we'll find...
Andrei leans over the bar and shouts:
- Ah! Haven't recognized you! Just look how you've grown! A real man!
Vika hesitates nearby patiently, obviously feeling out of place. Just
like I did in the brothel's recreation zone.
- You want it as usual? - asks Andrei and outstretches his hand towards
the bottles.
- Gin-Tonic, fifty-fifty, - I smirk, - It's me, it's me. We'd like to
sit somewhere above the river. Alone.
Andrei frowns slightly and looks under the bar, at the terminal.
- Are all channels busy? - I'm horrified.
- We'll find one for you, - decides Andrei. He pushes some button, - A
penny deal... Oh, what a perfect timing! Sudden disconnect, one channel's
free! Go ahead, quick!
I grab Vika's hand and pull her to the stone wall of the restaurant. In
the tambour I order:
- Individual space for us two. No access to anyone else.
- Acknowledged, - whispers the ceiling, - No access. You're guests of
the restaurant. "Three Piglets" wishes you a nice rest.
- How cool, - says Vika ironically, - And you're their permanent
customer?
- Yes.
I don't tell her all the tiny details, like about that little diver's
fraud when I found and kicked some racketeers' butts. They stole original
financial files from restaurant's owner. If I failed to persuade that gang
of undereducated hackers, Andrei would have to fork up quite an amount...
either for racket or for Deeptown's tax inspection. But in this case...
everything ended in peace, even racketeers were happy... to get out of this
so easily.
We enter the autumn.
Vika stops for a second looking around, picks decayed leaf from the
ground, crumbles it in her hands, touches the tree trunk.
I wait. Usually I waver the same way when I enter unfamiliar virtual
spaces. I also usually leave the deep to evaluate the real look of the
landscape. Vika can't do that but spatial designers must have their own
methods.
- Beautiful, - she whispers, - Maybe Carl Siegsgourd himself worked.
I'm envious.
- Yours is not worse. - I console her but Vika shakes her head.
- Not in everything, he has an excellent sense of measure, while I can
be carried away easily.
She kicks fallen leaves in childish manner, they slowly fly up and fall
down again. Their flights are over already.
- Let's go, - I take her hand and lead her to the river. The table is
laid for a banquet. The specialty of the house - fried pork 'a-la Piglet' is
on the table in a big plate, also my favorite mulled wine and decent set of
other wines.
Vika doesn't look at the table, she stands by the steep looking in the
distance. I stand by her side. The stream washes over leaves of a fallen
tree on the opposite bank. Looks like it was a storm lately. This space is
alive too, just as Vika's mountains.
- Thank you, - says Vika and I feel great. I think I yet should show
her the sea shore and the part of old Moscow that are adjoined to the
restaurant but all this - later. I'm sure that we'll yet have time for that.
Otherwise why is everything?
- You know, I leave my space very seldom, - says Vika, - I don't know
why.
She hesitates, then goes on:
- Maybe I'm just afraid to meet those who comes to us... to see them as
the ones they can be- kind, cheerful, nice people.
- Why?
- Then it'll be true that all people are bifacial. You know, we're a
garbage can Leonid. The one in which all shit which was accumulated in
peoples' souls is dumped. Fear, aggression, unsatisfied desires, disdain to
themselves. I think your "Labyrinth" is the same in this way.
- It's not 'mine'. I'm there for business.
- Then it's easier for you. But who comes to us? Milksops who can't
wait to become men... who grew tired of being ones, some guys pissed off by
their girlfriends with a wish to swagger... Some of them come and try all
albums. They say: "We must try everything in this life."...
Again I restrain myself and don't ask why the hell does she work there
then.
- Why do we drag the worst that we have in the future with us? - says
Vika
- Because it does exist and we can't do anything about it. Just imagine
that everyone around us are gentlemen in tuxedos, ladies in evening dresses,
everybody speak in clever beautiful words, are nice and civilized...
Vika laughs softly,
- I don't believe in this.
- Neither do I. No society change, be it technical, social or a complex
one like the Deep, ever changed individual moral principles. Everything was
postulated: from disdain towards the bond-slaves to brotherhood and
equality, from ascetism to complete license. But the choice was always made
individually. It's stupid to say that virtuality have made people worse than
they were and it's naive to hope that it'll make them better. We were given
an instrument and it depends on us whether we'll build using it or crush
skulls.
- Wrong instrument, Lenia. Everybody understand that they are really at
home or at work, sitting by a computer in a helmet or just gazing at the
screen and therefore everything is allowed. It's a game, a mirage.
- You're speaking like Alexandrians.
- No, I don't like their approach either. I have no wish to turn into
the stream of electronic impulses.
- Vika... - I put my hand on her shoulder, - It's not worthy to guess
or worry. The Deep is only 5 years old. It's yet a child. It grabs
everything it can reach, speaks nonsense, laughs and cries irrelevantly. We
have no idea what it'll grow into, we don't know whether it'll have brothers
and sisters that will be better. We just must give it some time.
- We need to give it a goal, Lenia. We have dived into this world
without defining for ourselves what have we left behind. Being unable to
live in one world we have created another one and we don't know where to go,
what to aspire to.
- The goal will appear, - I say without great confidence, - Again, just
allow it some time... let the Deep to become aware of itself.
- But what if it did already? - says Vika mockingly, - ...and became
alive? Like in imagination of those people who never been here? Maybe there
are people here among us that don't exist in real world? Reflections of
void? What if you or me don't really exist at all? And what if all our ideas
of reality are just fantasies of the Net that became alive?
Suddenly I feel scared.
No, I don't think that I don't really exist.
And I'm almost sure about Vika.
But I think I know the candidate for being the 'reflection of void'...
Vika goes on as if wishing to drive me crazy:
- Just imagine how it can happen. Hundreds of thousands or maybe
millions of computers are already plugged into the Net permanently. Flows of
information rush between the continents, accumulate on different
hosts/routers, in machine memory. Nonexistent spaces live according to their
own laws, change. Leaves are falling, our steps leave traces, our voices
start avalanches. Information copies over, becomes tangled, mixes. Docile
programs create plaster casts, shells but who knows how soon those shells
will be filled with real intelligence?
- Any hacker will die of laughter listening to you, - I say in a
'wooden' voice.
- I'm not hacker. I just see what is going on around and I try to
imagine what would somebody who came from nowhere think if he appears in
Deeptown being sure that he is alive and real? Grimacing buffoons? People
running around in "Labyrinth" and cheerfully killing each other? Psychos
having fun in brothels? Everything that exists in reality we have here too.
The sky and the Sun, mountains and seas, cities and palaces. Spaces within
spaces, the mixture of times and nations, merits and vices. Everything!
Everything and nothing. We need only what we hate in real life. Death,
blood, fake beauty and borrowed wisdom. So what might the Deep think of
people if it learns how to think?
I stay silent, remembering Unfortunate who kills monsters with a pistol
but never shoots at players. Who doesn't tell his name and address. Who have
spent two days in the virtuality already but his tongue doesn't falter of
thirst and his feet don't stagger. Who doesn't understand that the kid that
flees from mutants is nothing more than a hundred kilobytes of a program on
the 33rd level's server.
I remember the words of Man Without Face: "Something have changed now."
This was the direct hint, together with memoirs about 'Invisible Boss' and
'Lost Point'. Something had happened that doesn't have any analogies except
in the folklore.
I start to shiver.
Accidents can't happen fifteen times in a row - "Labyrinth"'s divers
would rescue Unfortunate... if the Net itself wouldn't resist that. There's
nowhere to get Unfortunate out, he lives in this world only. He's chained to
"Labyrinth"'s world, the world of shooting and betrayal, blood and ruins. He
dies and resurrects not understanding what happens to him.
- Vika... - I whisper, - Vika, God forbid...
- What? - she looks at me and makes one step from me, - What's wrong
with you?
- God forbid you're right... And I do think you're right.
She grabs my hand, squeezes it strongly, almost painfully and shouts:
- For how long have you set your timer? Where do you live? Lenia, wake
up! You're alive, you're real! I'm talking nonsense!
It feels funny: Vika was scared for me.
- I'm fine, - I say, - I'm alive and real. I'm not having
Deep-psychosis. But I know the guy who can't be alive.
As strange as it seems, Vika calms down. If I were her, I would feel
even more scared.
- I had met those too... - she declares.
I shake my head.
- Vika, I know a man who behaves just as in your fantasy. He doesn't
tell reality and virtuality, he lives in the Deep, not plays.
She gets it instantly, - In "Labyrinth"?
- Yes.
- This is called lost sense of reality... it's neural related, but
nothing more.
- I saw what is it when the nervous system fails... This... is
different.
- Lenia, - Vika smiles, - I've told lots of nonsense and scared you...
You know, similarities are confusing.
I want to tell her about Man Without Face and Unfortunate. About
accidents that became systematic. But I signed the contract and promised to
keep it confidential.
And also - I'll have to confess that I'm diver.
I have enough experience of such confessions.
I can imagine what do the girls think kissing the diver, "Now he'll
leave the Deep and my face will turn into the mask of tiny pixels. He's free
here and I'm a prisoner."
I don't want Vika to think so, don't want it to be a wall between us.
- You're right, - I whisper and Vika snugs close to me.
We stand above the steep, kissing each other, the river roars below and
the wind tousles our hair. A lonesome bird's cry, a momentary flash of the
sunlight is the clouds, the leaf carpet beneath our feet. It's soft and
smells spicy. I take off Vika's dress and she helps me to undress too. I
kiss her body, my lips touch the live warmth, it's not me in the Deep but
the Deep inside me, it's our world around, I'll never leave it, we'll get
lost in these forests and will find a way to the mountains seen from her
window.
Vika whispers something but I can't hear words, we are too deep, we
left the boundaries of all spaces.
Then there comes a short moment when spaces merge.
We are together despite all distances and uncertainties.
- Don't leave me Gunslinger, - whispers Vika, - Just dare to leave me.
- I'll never leave you, - I say. We snuggle together, the wind slides
against the skin, damp leaves cool my back, I look up but clouds whirl
circling above, one moment - and I'll fall into the sky, will lose myself in
realities following Unfortunate.
- Who are you Lenia?
But I can't answer, I hug Vika again and our lips touch making all
words empty and unnecessary.
My time is up, - whispers Vika, - I'll have to leave... soon.
I understand, hug her even tighter as if I can stop the timer on the
opposite end of invisible thread, to hold her in the Deep for a minute, for
a second longer...
- Come to me again, - Vika raises her head and rises on her elbows
above me, - Come today, I'll wait for you.
I nod, reach out for her but it's too late.
Her body turns pale and dims, dissolves in the cloud of violet sparks,
the dress melts on the ground like a handful of snow. One moment and I stay
alone under the sky that wants me to fall into it, to be lost in cloudy fog,
to become one more human who doesn't understand the border between the
worlds.
And Vika will be with me always, we'll become equal and I'll never have
to answer the question with a kiss...
I shake my head and force myself face forward into withered leaves.
It happens, all divers know the moment when they want so much to become
just like the others.
I need to flee.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours... Let me go...
Tiny screens before my eyes, cool wind from the conditioner.
- Ate me? - I asked the Deep, - Tasty, huh? Aren't your teeth aching?
The deep was silent. It had nothing to answer, it have lost again.
As if the world have broken into two halves, the one where it was love
and the one where I was rolling on the floor hugging the void. Damn this
split personality after which one feels himself an idiot!
I took off the helmet. The body was feeling like stuffed with cotton
wool. I need a good sleep. I outstretched my hand and tore the virtual
suit's cable from the port.
- Device fault! - said Windows-Home scared, - Lenia, check the plug of
the virtual suit!
- Pause, - I said standing up and stretching. The suit needs washing.
I entered the bathroom, undressed and padded under the shower, stood
there for a minute feeling tight jets of water on my face. Then picked the
suit up from the floor, took a piece of laundry soap and began washing it.
Yup, this is how they usually ruin costly things - being too lazy... or
too shy to bring it to the cleaners.
After washing the suit with extreme care, I hung it on the hangers and
that on the hook above the bathtub. The water started flowing down.
Squeezing the fabric that has hundreds of tiny wires, sensors and pressure
imitators inside is even more insane than washing. Well, let's rely on
Philips' reputation, maybe they even took the Russian carelessness into
consideration.
My old virtual suit, Chinese made but still quite decent one, was lied
about in the closet. I was going to sell it all the time but never found a
time to post an ad in the Net. Now I was happy I haven't.
After pulling on cheerfully colored knitted fabric I walked along the
room for some time. Feels quite okay, it became a little tight but not too
much. I even started whistling something waving the suit cable in the air.
Vika's words are nonsense. She really was imagining things and I've
lost my sense of critic. The Net is nothing more than just hundreds of
thousands of computers plugged into phone lines. Virtuality is just a trick
of subconsciousness.
Electronic intelligence is impossible on the basis of Pentiums and
'forths'. Any computer specialist will explain that to you if he won't feel
too lazy to argue with an obvious stupidity.
I plugged the suit into the port and Windows-Home declared cheerfully:
- New device was detected! Do you want to install it?
- Yes.
My main suit will be drying for at least three days. Let Windows-Home
better install the old suit properly.
- Movement sensors... test passed... pressure imitators... test
passed... power consumption... test passed... critical overloads'
limitation... test failed! Warning, the given virtual suit model doesn't
conform to acceptable safety standards! Discomfort is possible during
virtual contacts! It's not recommended to...
- Proceed with testing. - I ordered. All Chinese made suits suffer this
drawback - unacceptable one from the point of view of Western Europeans or
Americans. If the concrete slab squashes me in virtuality, the suit might
react too eagerly and leave a pair of bruises on my body.
To be honest, I don't care much.
- Testing complete. I recommend to cancel device installation.
- Complete installation. - I said putting the helmet on.
- Are you serious? - asked Windows-Home.
- Yes.
- Device installed, - agreed the program with grief.
deep
Enter
The wind blows stronger, I shiver stepping back from the steep. My head
is wet and it's not too comfortable to stand here.
Especially being alone.
I pick up the thermos and pour myself some mulled wine, take a couple
of sips just to warm up a little. We yet will come here again, together with
Vika. I really hope she liked it here, there's not too many places in
virtuality that I like unconditionally.
- See you, - I say to the river, to the wind and to the autumn forest,
then pad to the exit.
If I walk to "Labyrinth" I'll just kill the rest of the time and the
divers will finish their attempts to save Unfortunate.
For some reason I'm sure they'll fail.

1011

The first thing I see entering the 33rd level is Anatol sprawled on the
grass. My first thought is that even a professional can fail but Anatol
raises his head and waves to me.
Unfortunate is also here - in his corner.
- Hey Gunslinger! - it is obvious that Anatol is not going to change
his horizontal position into vertical one, - Crawl over here!
I sit down nearby and nod questionably.
- We're gonna refuse from that... - Anatol nods towards Unfortunate, -
...assignment.
I stay silent, letting him to relieve himself.
- I don't believe in karma, - says Anatol, - If one brings the guy to
the exit with such a care as if he's a crystal vase but he still dies, it
means he wants it himself.
- Oh?
Anatol lowers his voice to whispering:
- Look, you have your own reasons to save him... go ahead and try. But
think first - he's in the Deep for two days. Have you seen such heroes
before?
- Yes.
- Hoarse voice, walks like a robot, understands everything from the
third attempt... Right?
I look at Unfortunate and shake my head.
- So, it means that he eats and drinks, he visits bathroom and orients
himself in what's going on.
Anatol rises a little and squats.
- Gunslinger, this guy thinks we're idiots. Either he's here on an
assignment from the management checking how we're doing our job or he's
another diver, just as we are. Or both at the same time.
I have nothing to say. Of course Anatol is right. There's no other
options from the normal logic's point of view. But I just have some problems
with 'normality' as of late.
- Crazy came to see the management, - says Anatol, - Either they
confess that they are checking our abilities or they stop demanding
impossible from us.
- They'll conclude that Unfortunate is a diver.
- See?
- This is a very comfortable version Anatol. Some diver trickster
making fun of entertainment industry and his colleagues... Of course, nobody
would shut down "Labyrinth" because of such a trinket.
- Gunslinger, I dragged him through the whole damned level, - says
Anatol tiredly, - I've shoot all guards in the mirror hall...
I nod, it's sure possible with his gear and experience.
- You know what happened next? - an anger appears in diver's voice, -
He dropped his carbine. And it shoot him right between the eyes!
I stay silent. What can I say? Unfortunate doesn't want to leave the
level...
- I'm completely exhausted... - Anatol spits on the grass, - I can't
even look at this asshole anymore, not to mention to save him...
- Anatol, nothing is done without reason.
- Then what does he tries to achieve? Huh? Well, I'll tell you. He
wants us to cancel our contracts! To get the warm place himself! Alone or...
in a pair with somebody. With the diver who will kinda save him!
He looks into my eyes and I take the challenge.
- You accuse me of double play?
Divers never frame divers. It's too little of us. That was the main
purpose of the Code, that's why we meet three times a year neglecting our
usual caution and mutual distrust.
If the divers start fighting each other in Deeptown the whole Net will
suffer while the Net's well-being is the most important thing, it has enough
enemies in the real world beside that.
- I don't know, - Anatol lowers his gaze, - Maybe not. I'm sorry. But
you're being framed too. Who ordered you to save Unfortunate?
- The anonymous. I have a channel to communicate with him, but I fear
it's for a single use only and too well secured one.
- Can this anonymous guy be diver?
I shrug.
- So make your conclusions. We have already failed, you've stirred up
the whole "Labyrinth" but you'll flop too. Then some Unkie will arrive from
nowhere, will save Unfortunate and get the contract.
Anatol stands up, unties the armor on his chest and offers in a
business-like tone:
- Fire.
- What?
- Kill me. Then you'll be able to get all my gear. Or you're gonna
fight the war with the carbine?
I hesitate and Anatol shakes his head:
- Gee Gunslinger, you're just like Unfortunate himself...
He presses the plasma gun to his chest and pulls the trigger. A short
blow, blood splashes out but he's still alive. Huge is the strength of
"Labyrinth"'s divers.
- ■■■■ this! - croaks Anatol and shoots again.
The armor is bloodied all over but I try to ignore that. I take it off
of him and pull on myself, then I pick up weapons and ammo.
Either Unfortunate doesn't look at us or he just doesn't react to such
an unusual gear exchange procedure.
I pad closer and sit down beside him. Everything is like in the first
time: lowered head, dull eyes behind the mask. Is he really the diver, now
sitting by the computer with a sandwich and a cup of coffee? Glancing at the
screen from time to time, ready to jump into the Deep at any moment - and to
start to take me in...
- Aren't you bored here? - I ask. One second pause... Interesting, what
did he use it for: to think of the answer or to start the deep-program? Then
Unfortunate says hoarsely:
- I don't have a choice.
- Why not? Let's exit "Labyrinth". Have you ever been in "Three
Piglets"? Or in "The Old Hacker"?
Unfortunate shakes his head.
- It's much more interesting there, - I say. We sit side by side, I
hold BFG-9000 on my laps, ready to burn any enemy at any second. We'll
definitely pass with such a gear. We can't fail. But I'm not in hurry for
now, - Thank you by the way.
- For what?
- You covered me in that mirror hall.
Unfortunate takes off his respirator. I suddenly notice how strange his
gestures are. Some rare softness and fluidness - as if every movement is a
pleasure for him. Narcissistic actors act this way sometimes but unlike them
Unfortunate doesn't irritate me.
- Does it require any thanks? - he asks with irony.
- Yes, - I reply, - Of course.
- Wouldn't you do the same?
- No, if I were you.
Pause. Looks like Unfortunate is surprised.
- Why?
- You're in trouble. It's you whom I must get out of "Labyrinth".
- It's not me who is in trouble, - Unfortunate shakes his head.
- Are you a diver? - I ask directly.
- No.
- Listen man, stop taking me in. You're in the deep for more than two
days. You must be dying of thirst and hunger by now.
- Thirst is not the most terrible thing.
- So, what is more terrible?
- The silence.
- What?
- The silence, Gunslinger.
He looks into my eyes and I don't pull away my gaze, our faces are very
close.
His eyes become alive, there's no more dull helplessness in them. The
black deepness... the endless darkness as if I look into the sky where all
stars came out simultaneously, into the maelstrom of darkness, the silent
one that drags into itself, beyond the border of worlds.
- The Silence, - he whispers.
I can feel it, this Great Silence which he tries to tell me about and
it's good he doesn't say a word now. Any words are helpless, they only
scratch the layer of the Silence too weak to break through it and only
hinder to comprehend it.
The Silence.
Whoever you are Unfortunate, you know more about it than anybody else
in this world.
One more second - and I'll fall into the Silence, will understand
Unfortunate.
I don't want to understand him!
- That's what I fear of... - he says and the delusion disappears. I
just sit beside him, two drawn guys exchanging vague phrases.
Is it possible to get crazy in the Deep I wonder? Maybe I'll be the
first?
- Why did you kill yourself? - I ask.
- When?
- Anatol pulled you through, you dropped your carbine and shoot
yourself into forehead. Do you want to tell me that it was an accident?
- Accidents don't exist.
- Then why?
- Anatol won't be able to get me out.
- Why?! - I shout. The talk of two deaf people, answers that don't
explain anything.
Unfortunate doesn't reply.
Ah well, so be it.
Enough riddles for me, I'll just get him out of here. He won't have any
choice - not any except to leave the level.
- Get up! - I shout, grab Unfortunate by the shoulders forcing him to
stand up, pull his pistol out of the holster, discharge it and throw away.
- Go! March!
He doesn't argue - geez, if he would even try to... I'll drag him out
on my own shoulders if necessary.
He won't have any choice.

We pass the Disneyland, I shoot the monsters not sparing the ammo, I
have more than enough for this level.
The rocket launcher gets red-hot of constant shooting, I burn my
shoulder even through the armor. Nevermind.
We see the kid that flees from three quick demons on the car ride
again. This time he's not black though but Latin-American. Gee, those
American racial complexes... Unfortunate stops dead and we have to repeat
the short duel with demons and the machine-gun spider. Then we move to the
building the kid pointed at. This time Unfortunate holds him really tight
and he can't break free. I enter the door instead of him. The hall is filled
with half transparent shaking wineskin with teeth almost completely. Rockets
pass through it without blowing up. I burn the beast using plasma gun,
wasting two energy cells.
A couple is twitching in the next room, tied with a sticky cobweb: a
man and a woman. They are guarded by a petty monster who even doesn't try to
attack me but rushes to kill the prisoners instead. I shoot it with the
carbine and free the kid's parents with Unfortunate's help. Further
everything happens along the standard scenario: the tale of dreadful alien
invasion, advises on passing the mirror labyrinth and the solemn gift: the
plasma gun. Programs are primitive, they even don't notice that I already
have this weapon. I yawn taking the gift. The rejoined family walks away.
Everything is disgustingly vivid - the kid walks between his Mom and Dad,
clinging to their hands... One should assume that they'll successfully get
out of the Twilight City. I glance at Unfortunate - he's quite serious, as
if he have really saved three lives.
We proceed towards the mirror labyrinth, I still don't give any weapon
to Unfortunate. The least I need now is the trick with falling and shooting
winchesters.
- Okay, - I command, - You will stop by the hall entrance. You will
wait for me to call for you. Then we quietly come to the computers, and you
get your ass home, outta here. Okay?
- Yes.
- Do you understand me? You won't do anything stupid, will you?
Unfortunate looks me in the eyes.
- Stupid - is to cover you?
- Yes! I'll sort everything out by myself and you will get out of here,
understood?
- Understood.
Oh, I don't believe in his sincerity... but I have no other choice. We
pass mirror corridors, I tap Unfortunate on the shoulder by the hall
entrance. He stops obediently.
- Wait here. Wait for me and I'll be back, - I say. I make a step
towards the entrance but can't help it and turn back to him.
- Look... whoever you are... I'm so tired.
Unfortunate nods.
- I'm sick of this insanity, - I go on, - Promise me that you won't
jump out into the shooting. Promise me that you won't go anywhere. I want to
get you out and to return home.
- I'll do everything as you say, - pronounces Unfortunate and I
suddenly believe him.
- Thanks, - I whisper before storming into the hall.
And the fiery carousel starts.
The Alien Prince's Guards fire at me from thirteen balconies, I shoot
back - point- blank. BFG-9000 burns three mirrors at once, the hall is
filled with silvery smoke. Bullets drum against my armor knocking me down to
the floor. I shoot while falling down, rotate quickly on my back as if in
the forgotten dance of my youth - "break", then shoot three more times.
Three mirrors, three mirrors, three mirrors...
The last reflecting edge, and now I see the real balcony with two
monsters on it, washed over with green blood. My BFG have seriously damaged
their scaly bodies while my armor is still fine, even if crumpled and
red-hot, but still reliable.
The last shot - the fiery blast, the scratching sound of secondary
discharges... Monsters scream dying, turning into whirls of black ash.
And the silence falls.
The mirror hall is burned to the ground and ruined, just the computer
screen triumphantly glows in the midst of the mess.
- And the silence came... - I whisper rising on my knees. Thanks for
the armor Anatol, many thanks... - Hey Unfortunate!
The quiet sound from the corridor - a hesitating step... and two short
popping sounds - carbine shots.
I don't need any explanations.
And I don't need any comfort.
I drag myself towards the entrance, step over Unfortunate's bloody
corpse and look into the reflective infinity of the corridor.
Alex is standing surrounded by his ghostly twins lowering his carbine.
He has remains of the armor on him, the face covered in blood, the carbine's
barrel points down at its reflection on the floor.
- I'm out of ammo, - he says.
I throw away BFG, pull the gun from behind my belt and push the barrel
into Alex' forehead with such force that he shrinks back.
I even don't have anger anymore.
Alex waits for the shot silently.
- Sit down, - I say lowering my weapon, - Sit down, you bastard.
He sits down, I sit by him on the floor and the body of Unfortunate who
was so unlucky again blindly stares at the ceiling.
- Why did you kill him?
- I... wanted to kill you, - says Alex, - I was after you. I feared to
be late, I haven't noticed that he was unarmed.
- Okay, then why me?
Alex smirks.
- You shoot me down on the first level, have you forgot?
- No. And this is the only reason?
- But we had a deal to go together, hadn't we?
Oh Lord, why do you punish me?
- Do you want to say that you weren't going to shoot me yourself for
the spare cartridge?
- I was considering that, - confesses Alex calmly, - But I had not
decided yet. And you killed me.
At this point the laughter gets me, I fall on the floor, nudge my
helmet into Unfortunate's leg, hit the floor with my hand.
- You freak! - I shout, - Dumbass!
Alex feels hurt for some reason.
- I had not shoot you! - he shouts, - But you had!
- Man, are you screwed! - I say, - ■■■■■■■ avenger... unfinished
Zorro... I'm diver! Do you understand? The guy whom you shoot down is for
two days in the Deep already! His timer is off! He will croak if I don't get
him out! And you, with your complexes... idiot, idiot...
- Diver? - Alex repeats dumbly.
- Diver! - I don't care about our eternal conspiration now, - I'd spit
on this "Labyrinth" from the 40th floor! I'm trying to save the human - and
you're playing war games, sucker! How old are you, kid?
Alex doesn't reply at once, but does anyway.
- Forty-two.
I get the next laughter attack.
Here it is, Piter Pan's kingdom, the island of eternal kids.
The war games' lover, entering his fifth decade.
There's no age in virtuality. Both a solid aged businessman and an
immature youth who managed to get to the computer with modem at work - are
equal.
Everyone has a right to run along drawn labyrinths remembering kids'
rules of honor and shouting, "Not fair!".
Everyone can play noble heroes and brave knights forgetting that the
life is much more complicated than ten Old Testament commandments.
- I'm really sorry, - says Alex, - I didn't know that you're doing such
an important job...
Oh Lord, how funny... No, nothing serious, I've just dropped in here to
pee.
- If I can help somehow... - says Alex in muffled voice, - ...to pay
for the time you've spent...
- You can't buy the time. - I reply. It would be really better if Alex
was keeping to act like a young programmer... - The guy in whom you've stuck
your ■■■■■■■ bullets is now dying somewhere of hunger and thirst!
- I'm really sorry, - Alex rises and pads to me. I look up at him, not
even trying to stand up. - It's just that you were acting in non-ethical
way. You had shot me without any obvious reason.
It's useless to talk to him...
- Maybe I was wrong, - his voice gains some strength, - But you should
understand that your initial conduct was the reason for all that followed.
Obviously, you're younger than me...
I look at the ceiling, at the dead bony Unfortunate's face.
- Though, you should understand like I do that we are in the unreal
world, the one that doesn't exist, - pontificates Alex, - This is a
dangerous illusion... people can easily lose their life's guiding points,
their moral norms, they can submit to the feeling of complete license. Maybe
my actions were not completely right but I always try to keep usual human
categories. "Labyrinth" is a game but it embodies eternal ideals. Ideals of
chivalry if you want, the fight of the good against the evil.
Yet another illusion fighter. Geez, how many of those do I remember -
the people who tried to make the Deep the exact copy of the real world. The
funniest thing that the most noisy one among them was sci-fi writer...
- You were acting not honestly from the very beginning, - says Alex, -
and here... is the sad conclusion. You know diver, it was always like this.
From the very world's creation. All the history is the living example!
- ... And in the boiling cauldrons of past slaughters and troubles... -
I whisper, - ... there's so much food for those petty brains of ours...
Alex shuts up.
- Have you squared your accounts with me? - I ask, - Go ahead, tell me,
have you? Or you also want to shoot me by yourself? Come on, do it!
I throw a pistol to him and outstretch my hands apart.
- I... didn't mean that... - mumbles Alex, - If you would just admit
your being wrong, it would be quite enough...
- I admit it, - I say, pressing the rocket launcher's tube opening
against my chest, - I admit it. I should had waited for you to shoot me. Now
you're satisfied?
Alex retreats one step, waves his hands in protest. Obviously he's not
satisfied with such an outcome, he haven't yet justified himself.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
The trigger is so hard, I barely managed to pull it.
Blood on the helmet's screens.
And complete silence inside me.
No, I haven't pulled the unfortunate player from the Deep, and haven't
tried to outwit my unprincipled colleague. It's just how it IS.
The virtuality itself have risen against me.


* PART 3. Man Without Face *

0

I was present at the birth of virtuality, I was one of the first to try
Dibenko's program and I don't have any common person's mystic fear of the
computer at all.
Calculating machines can't be intelligent.
Vika might dream about self-born electronic mind - I can't believe in
that. Everything that's going on in the deep is nothing more than just
mutual interference of various programs. If anything goes beyond the frame
of the possible, it means that some person is standing behind that.
But who, who can be behind eternal deaths of Unfortunate?
A good diver or just any experienced Deep inhabitant are sure capable
of faking their death again and again. All those dropped carbines is a bull
but why the Net itself plays up to Unfortunate? Why have Alex managed to
catch up with us exactly at the moment when Unfortunate was left unattended?
Is it just a coincidence?
Even more, two professionals driving Unfortunate to the exit couldn't
guard him against coincidences either?
I can't believe in that.
I'm sitting in the "Labyrinth"'s cloak room after reentering the Deep,
humiliated and defeated, a loser diver who thought he's more intelligent
than the others. Abyss-abyss... how easily did you squash me. The fight is
lost if the enemy haven't shown up.
Not without reason had Man Without Face promised me such a reward for
the Unfortunate's rescue. He knew much more than he said. Keen shooting and
good reaction won't help here.
That means, I have to stop banging on the drawn door either. It's time
to look for the real way out.
I throw the armor and the rest of the gear into the closet, enter the
shower and squirm under ice cold jets for a minute. Then the anger comes to
replace helplessness and confusion. Great. Hello, anger. You are what I
really need. Enough of games according to the rules.
I dress and enter the column hall.
- "Labyrinth"'s administration requests Gunslinger to visit Security
Service manager, - rings out in the air immediately, - "Labyrinth"'s....
I'm being watched upon when I come to the door which Giullermo passed
last time we met. I push it - unlocked.
This time the administration building is busy. I was let into the
common space of "Labyrinth"'s sysops - I can see them and vice versa. Hardly
I'll interest anybody here though. I pass the corridors looking at the glass
doors - the terminals are behind them, guys and girls sitting by. Big halls
are behind some doors, with scale models on top of huge tables,
"Labyrinth"'s levels' scale models - hills and ravines, buildings and ruins,
rivers and blazing fires. People walk around them lazily. There, one guy
leans above the model and pours some nasty greenish slush into a small
stream. The stream starts bubbling. The guy nudges his coworker nearby who
glances at defiled landscape and shrugs.
So this is how levels are constructed. Or rather their skeleton which
then will live its own electronic life, inhabited by monsters and players.
It will excite imagination of "Labyrinth"'s habitues for several months then
it'll be changed.
- Are you Gunslinger?
The girl approaches me quietly and unnoticed, she's blonde and cute.
- Yes.
- Let's go, Mr. Aguirre is waiting for you.
I follow her. In general I know what they'll tell me now but why not to
spend several minutes on formalities?
Guillermo stands by the window into "Labyrinth", the dark silhouette
against the blood-red blaze. Everything is well thought through in the
triangular shaped room - the office's owner seems small and lost against the
window but draws attention at the same time. The visitor is on the crest of
the pyramid and feels himself important involuntarily... and uncomfortable.
- Oh, Gunslinger! - Guillermo moves to meet me in energetic pace, - Sit
down, sit down...
- You cancel the contract? - I ask directly.
Guillermo stops and rubs his nose bridge.
- Mmmm... yeah... Have you talked to Anatol, Gunslinger?
- I have.
As if he didn't controlled our talk...
- Gunslinger, you agree with our divers' opinion, no?
- No.
- Why?
- Will it change anything anyway? - I ask in return. - You have already
decided to give up with the rescue.
- I didn't decide. - says Guillermo, slightly accenting on "I".
- But you cancel the contract anyway?
Guillermo sighs.
- We appreciate your attempts to help... very appreciate.
His speech becomes noticeably incorrect and I understand: Guillermo
doesn't use interpreter program, he knows Russian, and knows it damn well.
It's pleasant to know but I'm not surprised: Russians make a considerable
part of the players, maybe because our famous native lack of system is still
alive... and many companies pay for their employees' fun instead of for
their work in the Deep.
- ... But there is an opinion that now we encounter the action of
hostile diver. Proceeding with rescue means supporting his plans. Right?
I nod. There's no confidence in Guillermo's voice but I have nothing to
oppose to "Labyrinth"'s divers' words either.
Yet.
It's useless to argue.
- The company will pay you a bonus, - says Guillermo, - We even can
argue about the amount... a little.
He smiles friendly and a bit slyly.
- The amount is up to you., - I say.
Guillermo looks at me intently then sits by his table and draws the
check. The gold plated Parker in his hand, the checkbook was issued by Chase
Manhattan. The amount doesn't strike me as much as it could happen before
Al-Kabar operation but it commands respect nevertheless.
- Thank you, - says Guillermo solemnly, handing the check over to me.
It's nothing more than just a formality, the money have already been
transferred to my secret account given in the contract but anyway it's
pleasant to hold the nonexistent check in my hand.
I nod and shake Guillermo's hand. That's it, I can get out. The little
boy was given a candy and kicked out of the adults' company which plays
serious games.
- For the good parting? - Mr Aguirre gets the bottle from under the
table, the real French Armagnac. It doesn't cost much more than Coke in
virtuality but the gesture itself is pleasant, as if Aguirre has no doubt
that the taste of this drink is familiar to me.
We touch glasses and I make a small sip. I'm not a big lover of cognacs
and brandy but it's flattering to be considered a connoisseur of noble
drinks for a minute anyway.
- I can guess how you will spend this money, - says Guillermo suddenly.
- Well, how?
- They'll return to the "Labyrinth"'s account, - Guillermo smirks.
- Nope.
He raises his eyebrows in surprise.
- You will give up? Yes?
- I'll rescue Unfortunate but I have enough money for this. As for this
check... I'll return it. In order for you to change the amount.
Guillermo nods, he was expecting my insistence and is quite satisfied
with the promise.
- Good luck, diver.
- If something unexpected happens in "Labyrinth"... could you please
notify me? - I inquire, - Unofficially?
- Your address, - says Guillermo in business-like manner.
I give him my business card with the Net address, it's not my real
'coordinates', just a mailbox where I can get the letter for Gunslinger
after supplying the password.
- Do you want me to call the taxi? - asks Mr Aguirre at parting.
- Thanks Willy, it's not necessary.
I stop the Deep-Transit's cab a couple of blocks away. Not that I was
afraid of shadowing but it's better not to change good habits.
- Al-Kabar block, - I order. This time the driver is a nice red haired
woman with tiny wrinkles around her eyes, excellently made face.
- This address doesn't exist, - she disappoints me.
- Al-Kabar. 8-7-7-3-8.
- Acknowledged.
The car starts, streets flash by. I ask Vika to change the masculine
look of Gunslinger to the ingenuous mug of Ivan The Prince. One second - and
the white-clad hero is reflecting in the rear-view mirror.
Pictures, just pictures and nothing more. Now Deep-Transit's programs
toss my comm channel from server to server, preparing to connect me to
Al-Kabar - to bring me to the horsehair bridge with the genie guard. Nothing
more than pictures. The Deep can't have its own intellect!
But despite anything, I don't feel myself so confident in my own
thoughts.


1

The desert meets me with its hot breath and the genie - with deafening
roar:
- You dared to come back, the thief of thieves?
Good program... with memory.
The genie tears his legs from the sand, makes one step, then another.
The hair bridge stretches and rings slightly but does not tear yet.
Something new - Al-Kabar's programmers have added mobility to the guard
program!
- Stop! - I shout raising my hand, - I came to Friedrich Urman! I'm not
in your mercy!
The giant fist quivers above my head, sparks scratching between the
fingers.
- Unfamiliar virus detected! - whispers Windows-Home in alarm, -
Attention! I turn the "Web" on!
The space covers with slight mist, the antivirus program "Web" starts
to cut off a part of incoming information trying to guard the computer from
the virus. Not an ideal defense, a good virus will slip into my computer
anyway but I don't stop Vika - she's in panic... if this word is appropriate
here. The genie's shape flows and becomes blurry.
- Who are you? - roars the monster, its voice is distorted too.
- Diver! - I shout having nothing to hide this time.
- Wait! - orders the genie. Sparks on his palms go off and Vika stops
the "Web".
Nothing else to do and I wait. The monster is motionless, just its eyes
sparkle examining me with a strong, almost physically felt gaze. It was just
a joke last time - I was let into the mousetrap because they were sure I
won't be able to escape. Now, having their butts kicked, corporate
programmers are able to cast all creations of their fantasy on my head and
I'm sure that among them is a lot of those that might terrify not only me,
not only Maniac but even the old guy Lozinsky himself. It's a perfect time
to remember tales about viruses that destroy the hardware...
- Go ahead! - the monster becomes alive again.
I step onto the hair bridge.
Abyss-abyss...
Now not two cartoony guards meet me but the whole crowd with weapons.
If I were escorted like this last time I'd never be able to steal a
megabyte file.
The guards drive me along the streets in the icy silence, I expect that
I'll be taken to the same veranda as it was before but our procession moves
past it, right to the gloomy gray building.
They are what, going to imprison me? It's ridiculous, divers are
invincible. It's possible to prevent us from stealing files but not to lock
us in the virtual world.
Some guards stay outside, four others take me into the confinement. Two
in front of me, two others behind my back, swords unsheathed. Oh, they
definitely will set a virus in my machine, in full volume. Those who
happened to survive winchester's crash would understand me. Once, in a tiny
and almost unprofitable operation I managed to catch a very cute virus upon
my stupid head. It mixed the FAT and partition table of my hard drive in a
uniform cocktail. Maniac spent the whole day trying to recover the remains
of data from the dead winchester and saved almost everything while I was
bubbling some nonsense about pirated game CD which I had caught the virus
from.
If even those dumb guys managed to infect my computer with such nasty
thing, I'd better not even try to imagine what those guys from Al-Kabar are
capable of.
The door slams heavily behind my back, closing. The confinement is in
pitch darkness, I walk by touch, being pushed in the back. Obviously my comm
channel is narrowed to its limit to prevent me from stealing anything else.
All visual images are cut off.
- Stop! - I hear the command behind and freeze obediently.
Those who surround me can obviously see me absolutely well which
doesn't make me feel better.
- You had the cheek to come here again Ivan?
I recognize Urman's voice or even the tone of his interpreter, and turn
trying not to goggle my blind eyes.
- That was the deal.
- Oh really?
- You gave me the file voluntarily in exchange of the promise of the
later meeting.
The pause, a pretty long one. I'm not lying and Urman finds himself in
a stupid position. It's so good - not to lie. What for anyway? There's so
much truth in this world that lies become unnecessary.
- What do you want?
- What do *I* want? Nothing. It was you who asked me for next meeting,
so I guess you have something to offer?
Silence again. Obviously Urman wasn't expecting me to return after his
attempt to trace me. I add just in case:
- Don't try to trace my channel by the way. Otherwise I'll leave.
The silence becomes too long and I can mentally see Urman ordering to
his guards, "Hey, kick his ass..."
- Restore his channel completely, - orders Urman. - And stop the
surveillance.
The bright light. I narrow my eyes studying the insides of the
confinement through half-closed eyelids. Gloomy heavy walls, tiny reflecting
glass windows behind the bars on top of them. The table and chairs around it
located in the center of the room.
- This is a meeting hall, - explains Urman. He's dressed in a business
suit with a tie. Maybe his dress is automatically adjusted according to the
interior, I've heard about such tricks. - Here we conduct the Board of
Directors' and some other meetings.
I see, the most secured place in the corporate virtual space. One won't
escape from here as easily as from the veranda...
I have nothing to run away with though: I came absolutely unarmed.
- Leave us, - Urman continues ordering.
The guards submit immediately.
- Thanks Friedrich, - I say.
Urman nods silently and sits in one of the armchairs, I set myself
nearby.
- So... Have you sold the... apple? - inquires Urman.
- Yes, thank you.
- I'm really glad for you.
It looks like he is not really angry and this makes me suspicious.
- I hope it haven't too much complicate the financial situation of the
corporation?
- No, not really.
I look at Urman questionably.
- I forgot to tell you last time that the cool medicine has a tiny
drawback, - notes Urman, - A side effect. We found it almost by chance... I
suppose that Mr Shellerbach and Trans-Pharm-Group won't run into it.
I start feeling uncomfortable.
- Don't worry diver, it was not your responsibility to test the safety
of the drug, - laughs Urman. - Nothing fatal, by the way... neither cancer
nor terratogenious effect... but the patients won't be happy.
Al-Kabar have made a little insurance... I wonder what side effect
might the cold reliever have? Changing the skin color into green, impotence,
baldness? Urman won't tell.
Well, from now on I'll cure my cold with aspirin only for the rest of
my life.
- Okay, let's forget mutual offences! - offers Urman generously.
I nod.
- As I told you before, I have an interesting offer for you... - says
Al-Kabar's director. - A permanent employment.
- No.
We look into each other's eyes. They say the eyes is the mirror of the
soul. The question is whether our virtual bodies do have souls or not?
- Some divers do have permanent contracts, - notes Urman, - So... it
means it isn't forbidden?
- No, it is not but there's a certain difference between working for an
entertainment center or a virtual investigation bureau and the work for you.
In a month or two or three you'll 'calculate' me.
- And you fear publicity so much, Ivan?
- Sure I do. We are the alchemists of the virtual world, the wizards.
No normal princeling would ever let the alchemist out of the comfortable
dungeon... so that he couldn't invent gunpowder for the enemies.
- So sad... - Urman doesn't argue. - In many points you're right,
Russian diver. Excuse me but I know that. Your voice was processed by the
analyzer and it was definitely not the interpreter program.
I don't argue with him either, such a peaceful and nice talk, we are so
loyal to each other - what a beautiful look.
- Well then - I offer you a single time collaboration! - says Urman
cheerfully, - The work is easy and we pay well.
- Do you really think it's so easy to get Unfortunate out from
"Labyrinth"?
The bull eye! Right in the center! Urman's face twitches, then he takes
his emotions back under control, just a tic under his left eye remains. One
to zero! No, five to zero!
- Please explain me what do you mean? - asks Mr director
unconvincingly.
- After you.
Either they'll kill me now or will open their cards.
Urman certainly can stand the blow.
- One of our corporation's fields of business is demographic control of
Deeptown.
I shake my head - I didn't get it...
- I mean the number of virtuality's inhabitants at any moment of time,
with exact precision, by district, building, space in space like ours.
- Why? Who gave you the right for this?
- It was a common decision, approved a year ago. - shrugs Urman, - In
order to compare the load on separate servers, to tie these figures to exact
time of day, all this allows to coordinate the work and to reduce the cost
of virtual space usage. AOL was one of the main customers, smaller companies
had joined too.
And again my neglect to open information puts me in a spot.
- We were controlling according to the number of input-output signals
on servers, - Urman goes on, - It's very simple and reliable, very
efficient. Servers report the figures every two minutes. Nobody's rights are
violated while we can know the total number of people in virtuality. It's
not a surveillance, just statistics.
I nod.
- The number of computer supported objects in each space fraction is
being controlled in parallel. Thus we know how many people present in this
or that part of virtuality. We get reports every two minutes as well. It's
easy to understand that if we total the number of all active objects in all
parts of virtuality we'll get the already known figure - the number of
people that entered the Deep.
I understand.
- The figures didn't match?
- Yes. There's one person more in virtuality than it should be.
Computers can see him, he functions in cyberspace but he never connected to
the Net.
Urman rises, waves his hand and the huge screen unwraps on the wall, on
top of concrete and steel mesh. I rise too. This is the map of Deeptown and
its suburbs looking like sewn of tiny patches. Each patch is a server that
supports this part of space. The fine red 'rash' is on top of patches, these
are gates, phone lines which are used to enter the Deep.
Looks beautiful. All bourgeoises are window-dressers.
- We can check the data by districts, - informs Urman, - For
instance...
He steps to the screen, reaches it and points at Al-Kabar's block with
a finger. The numbers 1036/1035 flash up on the display above the screen.
- Is it clear?
- Your servers support 1036 people in your space, including me. And
everybody except me are connected through Al-Kabar's own channels.
- Sure. It's too risky to let the secret information to pass through
somebody else's lines, even if those are owned by most reliable providers.
We have our own channels in 12 cities where our employees live.
- But you can't detect Unfortunate like that!
I pad to the map, find "Three Piglets" on it, bethink just in time and
poke my finger to the nearby 'institution'. I was there just a couple of
times and didn't like it, too noisy and pompous.
63/2
- This is the more common picture, right? There are 63 people hanging
in the restaurant's space but only two used its own phone channel to
connect.
Urman nods.
- We detected "Labyrinth" by other means.
I don't consider that it's a cunning and not very friendly interlocutor
before me anymore. I'm really curious how to figure out the means they used
to detect the person that never entered the Deep.
- Okay... It's not feasible to trace every and each connection signal:
too expensive, too time consuming and also forbidden.
Urman looks at me with such smugness as if it was him who solved the
problem instead of ordering to do it to his specialists.
Let's think, it's useful sometimes.
Here we have a flow of electronic impulses. It's not important now
where it came from. This is just data - the simple 3D image of a person,
Unfortunate. It enters the computer that serves the "Labyrinth"'s 33rd
level, either through the modem or directly into CPU. The computer places
the image to the beginning of the level and gets prepared to control its
movements, to broadcast its voice to other players, to calculate the effect
of its shots, to move the gravels pushed by its feet. Well, and of course to
send the images that the player sees with his left and right eye, the sounds
that he hears, the pushes he feels through the virtual suit...
Stop - where to send if he never entered the Deep?
The glitch happens here. The computer processes Unfortunate's actions
but doesn't know where they came from, and where to send the results. Can
this be reflected on the server's performance figures? It should but on very
specific ones, something like the ratio between the volume of CPU processed
data and the data sent/received through the modem. One should look for this
information beforehand in order to find the server with an uninvited guest
in several hours...
- You were expecting him, - I say, - You knew that he will come!
- We assumed such possibility, - specifies Urman, - The person able to
enter virtuality by himself should have appeared sooner or later.
- Without a computer? - I say these ravings which - how funny - will
not seem the ravings for anyone far from computers and networks! This is as
ridiculous as to imagine somebody who can connect directly to the phone
line, it's just plain stupid.
But Urman might be all but stupid. He's a common millionaire who
extracts incomes for Al-Kabar from everything: from the Earth's bowels,
retransmitter satellites and runny noses.
- We are not alone to work on alternative means of interactions with
computers, - says Urman, - Keyboard, mouse, helmet and suit - all these are
the remains of pre-virtual era. The next step is direct connection to the
visual and hearing nerves. Plugs... - he rotates his finger by his temple,
either doubting his sanity or trying to illustrate the socket implanted
behind his ear. - But this way requires too much work on the society's
mentality. It's much harder to break people's psychology than to drill the
skull and to plug a chip into the brains. If we could avoid that... if we
could to just enter virtuality... the world would turn over.
- And you want to turn it over so much?
Friedrich is serious.
- When the world turns over my friend, being the first who stands
upside down is the most important thing.
I stay silent, I have nothing to say. Would I want to enter the Deep
without computer? Without Vika behind my back? Without the fear before the
virus weapons? Without interference on the phone line and without eternal
pursuit for modems' speed?
Funny question, of course I would! But I just don't believe in this.
But I really want to believe.
- As far as we know, the divers on contract with "Labyrinth" have tried
to drive Unfortunate out, - says Urman carelessly.
I nod, their intelligence works well. Just what wouldn't the dollars do
if applied in the right time and in the right amount!
- ...And also someone, known as Gunslinger, - adds Urman, - Also the
diver, I assume?
- Yes, it was me.
Urman nods.
- Then I expect the promised explanations.
Maybe the best thing at this point would be to whisper "abyss-abyss"
and to vanish but I just can't do that after Urman's sincerity. The hole in
the skull is really much simpler than the hole in one's life principles.
- Soon after our first meeting I was forced to meet...
Urman raises the eyebrow.
- Yes, that's right, *forced* to meet a person whose name I don't know.
He offered me to sort out the situation that emerged in "Labyrinth". He
didn't explain any details. Only later did I understand that he was talking
about Unfortunate.
- We call him Swimmer, - notes Urman, - in analogy with you gentlemen.
- Basically, that's it, - I say. I really hate to be interrupted.
- Was the reward promised to you?
- Yes.
- A big one?
- A huge one... - I can't help myself and add: - I'd say that you won't
be able to offer me more.
Urman is very serious, the talk became a business one but he doesn't
yet argue or try to prove Al-Kabar's coolness.
- How had that person found you and why exactly you?
- He organized the dragnet for the divers and I... had exposed myself a
little.
- Do you have any ideas of his personality?
- Absolutely none, - I say honestly but maybe not honestly enough:
Urman is silent, looking into my eyes questionably. Maybe my words are
analyzed by the lies detector and somebody reports the results to him...
- Just one more detail. He knew about my visit... to you. And he was
well informed about the talk that took place. The fact that you wanted to
offer me the same job was also known by him.
Urman holds the blow. Hadn't he hold enough of them in his life? But
the shaking eyelid can be seen on the mask of tranquility. It's always
unpleasant to learn about the spy by your side.
- Thank you, diver.
I smile leniently. What a trinket... Let the two spiders twitch in
their cobwebs...
- Can you tell anything about Swimmer?
I shrug.
- Nothing special. Just a person. Sometimes there was an impression
that he has Deep- psychosis, he takes what's going on too seriously.
Otherwise he's quite adequate.
Urman nods. It looks like they have managed to plug to "Labyrinth"'s
computers seriously and to control the events. This makes me to ask:
- Have you tried to trace Un... Swimmer's signal anyway?
- There's no signal at all.
Either Urman suffers the sincerity attack or is really interested to
persuade me completely...
- "Labyrinth"'s servers do not broadcast Swimmer's data, to neither
direction. He... hangs on the level by itself.
So it's true... the human who entered the virtuality directly?
- "Labyrinth"'s administration still tries to trace his comm channel, -
throws Urman in, - but according to our experts they'll make the same
conclusions in five, or at most eight hours. Then the real panic will start.
I can imagine. The level will be isolated or maybe even the whole
"Labyrinth of Death" will be freed of players. The direct tunnels to the
33rd level will be hacked hastily, if they don't exist yet doesn't mean that
it's impossible to create them. All monsters will be turned off, all
buildings will be frozen so that Unfortunate wouldn't be accidentally hit by
the fallen brick. Then the crowd of psychologists, hackers, officials,
Anatol and Dick - all they will flow into the empty level, will surround
Unfortunate with care and endearment, will bring him to the exit on their
hands...
I can assume for sure that they won't need my help then.
- Do you agree to collaborate with us?
I look at Urman, he doesn't seem to joke.
- I'm already working for somebody whose name I don't know.
- He might promise you very much, that mysterious Mr X, but have he
rendered you any assistance?
I shake my head.
- If you are really Gunslinger, you could realize that the ordinary
methods are not applicable to Swimmer. A couple more attempts won't change
anything. And then "Labyrinth" will be isolated and the... ride's... owners
will start solving the problem.
He pronounces the word 'ride' with some obvious defiance.
- Whoever hired you, he did it not because of your diver's talents.
- Then why?
Now he have confused me.
- It would be much easier to buy "Labyrinth"'s divers or to hire a
group. Yes, it's hard to figure your real names but it's quite possible to
meet you and offer you a job. This is how you earn your living after all.
Your mysterious employer was attracted by something more serious than just
an ability to exit virtuality.
It seems I have all reasons to bloat in pride but I start feeling even
more worried instead.
- And I think, - says Urman thoughtfully, - that he was right. Swimmer
is the job for you. The main one in your life and I can help you to achieve
a success.
Hardly can he offer me the Medal of Complete License. Whatever else,
but *such* things can't be bought, but the bid is big and the reward might
be very-very huge.
Why would I need the Medal if I can stop my unlawful activities in
virtuality for the rest of my life?
- Have you signed the contract? - asks Urman.
- No.
- Just a verbal agreement?
- No.
- What worries you then?
I stay silent. I have no idea why do I cling to Man Without Face's
offer. He forced me to meet him, he had sent me to "Labyrinth" without
explaining anything. And his promise might be just a bluff too.
- I need to think.
- All right, - agrees Urman. - It's almost guaranteed that you have
five more hours... obviously you'll visit "Labyrinth" once more?
I nod indefinitely.
- I'll undertake my own measures, - says Urman, - You will definitely
notice them diver and will be able to make your choice.
- Vague, Friedrich. {In Russian 'vague' and 'foggy' is the same word}
Urman frowns in confusion while the interpreter program figures out
that I'm not talking about the weather.
- Why on the Earth I'm so valuable to you?
- You'll find that out dear Ivan the Prince. Oh by the way, what is
Swimmer's nationality, what do you think?
- Russian, - I reply mechanically.
Urman nods mockingly
- Maybe-maybe... See you later, diver. Think and make your decision.
As these words are spoken, the doors open and the guards enter but this
time their swords are sheathed.
- You'll be escorted to the bridge, - informs Urman.

10

Either I'm not watched or this is being done skillfully enough for Vika
to raise the alarm. I ascend the wall under the guards' looks and step onto
the horsehair bridge.
How many meters will I be able to walk without exiting virtuality I
wonder?
One step, another - the thread shakes under my feet, I feel dizzy. The
blue bands of rivers and hot orange glow of lava lakes are hundreds of
meters below, between conglomeration of cliffs.
- Hey diver, you're staggering! - the mocking call from behind.
I'm not just staggering, I'm falling down already.
Maybe this is how Moslem sinners fall down trying to pass into their
Heaven, to tender houries and the mountains of rahat lakoum...
My feet slip, I fly, grab the thread and it indifferently cuts my
fingers off. The air blows into my face coldly and strongly, inviting to my
short journey, the cliffs rotate below, growing and showing needle sharp
crests. When I touch the rocks, Al-Kabar's server will report that I'm under
terminal accelerating forces and the exit deep-program will be launched.
But I'm not interested at all in what colors will be my death painted
by my imagination.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
Blood on the screens, a familiar image.
I took off the helmet, leaned onto the table and pulled the phone cable
from the socket.
- Communication breakdown! - said Vika, - No dialtone! Check the plug!
- It's alright, - I mumbled plugging the cable into place, - Restart.
- Seriously?
- Yes.
Blueish color and the falling human figure on the screen. And nasty
feeling in my soul.
I'm stuck in the very serious matter. If Al-Kabar, "Labyrinth" and
those who stand behind Man Without Face start fighting... Oy!.. It's better
not to fall between such millstones. The best thing now would be to forget
about virtuality for a couple of weeks, to play ordinary games, to drink
beer with Maniac, to upgrade the computer, to travel somewhere to Antalia
{the Turkish resort, very popular in Russia} where it's still warm, to swim
in the sea.
Of course, I'll have to forget about Vika, the real one, and for a long
time.
To bid a farewell to the dream about the Medal of Complete License.
And certainly, to cross Unfortunate out of my memory.
Who is he anyway to worry about him so much? Homo Computeris? Computer
human, able to enter virtuality without any phones-modems? So what? It's not
worthy to hope that his ability - if it really exists - is so easy to
acquire.
All kinds of specialists will study him, make encephalograms and
measure all possible and impossible parameters. Unfortunate will be placed
before various types of computers, they will turn modems on and off, bring
him to the phone lines and hide him in underground bunkers. And they will
demand - enter the Deep! Tell us what you feel! What feeling do you have in
the thumb of your left foot when you enter virtuality and how does your
stool change after three days in the virtual world... Thus will he spend the
rest of his life somewhere in the heavily guarded estate in Switzerland or
in the Texas desert, in some CIA research center. One very valuable and
respected guinea-pig.
Maybe he's Russian though, a Russian citizen. If I throw the info about
him in the open Net or to the proper authorities...
I even laughed of my own naivety. So what? Will the ole' good Russia
really send its carriers and tank squads to guard Unfortunate? Wasn't it
enough talented programmers taken out of the country - say, 14-year old
Sasha Morozov, a guy from Voronezh was flown out by the charter flight. Just
maybe our intelligence service would gather the remains of its past bravery
and would intercept Unfortunate just in order to lock him forever in its own
research center somewhere in Siberia or the Ural Mountains.
When the Deep was created, the Freedom was its banner.
We are independent of all corrupt governments, shabby religions and
Puritan moral. We are free in everything - and forever. No information can
be secret - and we have a right to discuss whatever we want. Freedom of
travel can't be limited - and Deeptown will never know any borders. We'll
fight for our right to have all rights. We'll purge only those from our
ranks who will rise against the freedom.
Lord, how naive and enthusiastic were we!
The people of the new cybernetic world, of the free and unlimited
space!
The people reveled in the freedom, playing with it as a kid risen from
the bed after the long illness, cheerful and proud by ourselves. The Deep's
interests - everything for it, for the name of it, forever... amen.
But why do I still believe in all these funny slogans with the same
enthusiasm as I had being a kid, believing in communism?
Why do I want to believe so much, despite everything?
Breaking the laws, trashing someone else's computers, stealing someone
else's 'intellectual property', not paying taxes to my poverty-stricken
country, not trusting anybody except a handful of friends - and still to
believe in something warm and fuzzy, clean and eternal? In freedom, kindness
and love?
Maybe I'm just from the breed that can't live otherwise.
And well, nobody really prevents me from believing in freedom further,
after I change my entrance channels and the Net address.
It's so simple - to believe.
I was looking at the 3D mesh of Norton's table, at the neat lines of
directories and subdirectories. Three gigabytes, all completely full.
Service programs, viruses-antiviruses, pieces of Vika's "consciousness",
audio files and games, stolen data and new books, unpublished yet. Here is
"Hearts and motors - in the travels again" by Vasiliev, here is a fresh
mystery by Lev Kursky, prolific like piranha (?), here is Oldi's novel that
have made so much noise. I can go out now, buy lots of beer, print a couple
of books on my old LaserJet and land on the sofa. To sleep - as much as I
can! And those Mr Urman whose real face I'll never see, and Mr Without Face
whom I'll never see all the more can feel free to fight over Unfortunate
with Willy-Guillermo...
I never liked stupid people and kamikaze.
I picked the phone from the case of my 'five' and dialed Maniac's
number. I was lucky again, he was neither hanging in virtuality nor
sleeping.
- Allo!
- Shura, it's me.
- Ah... - Maniac lowered his tone a bit.
- Are you busy?
- Well... a little.
- Writing a program?
- No, peeling potatoes... Galya is cooking.
- Congratulations.
- With what? - Maniac pricked up his ears.
- With your reconciliation!
- Ah... yeah... okay.
I'd better not abuse his time, especially after the recent rejoining
with his spouse.
- Shura, tell me please, is it possible to enter "Labyrinth" with
weapons?
- You mean the virus? Isn't BFG enough for you? - Maniac is obviously
amused, - Your kidding. This is a space within a space, created with exactly
defined purpose. It's easier to smuggle the virus into the Pentagon, then to
pass through "Labyrinth"'s filter with it.
- Wasn't it you who made the filter for them?
- No, - confessed Maniac with regret, - Not me. But I know who and how
had made it.
- So how?
- Your image is copied when you pass the portal. If you have any
programs with you, any programs, those are cut off. Just your exact copy
passes into the "Labyrinth"'s server.
- And there's no way to bypass? - I inquired helplessly.
- Think.
- Don't I have to think too much lately? - I growl, - Shura! Just tell
me, can I break through the filter?
- Only walls can be broken... by foreheads, - said Maniac
instructively, - What happened?
- Very lousy situation. Extremely lousy.
- Lousy for whom?
- For all the Deep. And for one good guy.
- And what about you? - asked Maniac directly and I remembered "Three
Musketeers" involuntarily.
- Complete shit, believe me.
Maniac didn't reply at once, he even began to whistle something.
- Shurka!
- Will "Warlock-9000" be okay for you?
- What is that?
- A local virus. As usual.
- Will it pass the filter?
- Maybe.
- Shura, don't I distract you too much? I mean... from potatoes. - I
said, possessed by the sudden guilt.
- No, I'm finishing already...
I don't like cordless phones, it's enough radiation for me already from
my dear computer. As for Maniac - on the contrary, he can't imagine his life
without them. And now also, he stands pressing the phone to his ear with a
shoulder, tearing the peel off potatoes.
- Pour it in for me.
- Just to pour it in?
- Yeah, - I asked gathering all my impudence.
- Hold on, it's not that easy. What apps do you use to create your
images?
- Various ones... "Bioconstructor"... "Morphologist"... "Guise".
- I see. What personality will you use when using the virus?
- Personality #7, Gunslinger...
- What is the file's extension?
- Huh? Extension? Hold on...
- Fire the terminal up, - said Maniac tiredly, - Set the complete
access for the password... say, "12345".
- One-two-three-four-five, - I repeat dumbly.
- In numerals! - specifies Maniac, - I'll tune everything by myself.
- Thanks!
- Not that fast... You'll owe me beer...
Maniac sighed one more time and threatened before putting down the
phone:
- I'll call in 5 minutes. Your old girl in on already, waits for me and
is as docile as a schoolgirl. Is that clear?
I rushed to the computer. In three minutes Vika agreed to submit to the
one who calls with the password "12345" and moved over to the kitchen to
cook myself a supper. I haven't even filled the teapot yet when the phone
rang in the room and then connecting modem started whistling softly.
I'm stupid after all... and kamikaze.
Though, it's ridiculous to love myself too much, I can afford to be
stupid for some time.
I just had time to drink some tea with jam found in the sideboard, then
refilled the mug and returned to the room. Maniac was just disconnecting
from my computer having left the burning red line on the screen: "Took some
your old junk to read and play virus plugged in instructions by voice in a
minute".
Maniac have carelessly omitted all punctuation.
Exited into Norton, I found the file of Gunslinger's image (it's
extension was most trivial: .clt), and started to compare it to the other,
unchanged images. Nothing have changed that I could have noticed.
As expected.
Maniac called in five minutes and quickly explained what and how I
should do. I could only shake my head when I got just what did he do to my
image "#7".
Obviously, "Warlock-9000" was something he was preparing for a long
time, kept for the very special cases. If this thingy is used even once,
hundreds of plagiarists will follow.
- Beer, beer and more beer... - I said turning the phone off. Nobody
can tell though whether I'll be able to provide him this beer or not.
I was going to raise such a storm in the Deep which it haven't seen for
quite a while.
The storm it deserved.

11

- The terminal is on, - reported Vika. I clicked the connection icon,
and was on "Russia On Line"'s server in several seconds.
The address left by Man Without Face I remembered by heart: some Polish
server which doesn't really mean anything. It's just a router, the signal
will pass a couple or more countries on its way to Man Without Face.
There was no video support on that server, no drawn muzzles or animated
photos on the screen. A severe styled menu in Polish and English, some ten
more languages supported, including Romanian and Korean... no Russian. Our
brotherly nation doesn't favor us too much, alas. I replied to operator's
greeting and asked to establish connection with "Man Without Face" {in
English in the original}. The operator switched to the Russian keyboard
driver in half a minute and asked me to name the addressee in my native
language.
"—Ґ«ъўҐЄ ЃҐ§ ‹Ёф ", - I typed in.
They started to throw me from server to server. The first two were open
ones, I couldn't tell anything about the next three. Then I saw "Please
hold" on the screen. In Russian by the way.
I was holding for fifteen minutes.
First five minutes quietly and modestly, then - getting a beer from the
fridge and putting the old "Nautilus" album in the CD-player. Good singer
Butusov is... until he starts trying to write the lyrics himself.
I remembered my dream, where was a singer on the stage and poor Alex, a
prophet dream in some sense. But why did I imagine Unfortunate as a singer?
Never had I any familiar musicians in my life, and risked to sing myself
only in complete solitude.
"Who?"
I pulled myself to the screen and typed without much thinking:
"Me"
"How goes, diver?"
"I suppose you know that."
I would give very much to find out who is he - Man Without Face.
"Yes."
"I can't handle it."
"It's your problem."
"Not only mine."
A short delay - either Man Without Face was thinking or there was a lag
along the lines somewhere.
"What do you want?"
"Help."
"I can't help. Everything you need is inside you."
If he was here, a real person, I would say something to him that is
possible to say only or even better not to say at all. So I said that aloud
but the Net has its own norms of communication and my fingers typed:
"Who is he?"
"You were told already."
The spiders. The spiders, stretched their thin threads into each
other's dens. Urman watches after "Labyrinth" while Man Without Face
controls Al-Kabar.
"Was that true?"
"Maybe"
"I CAN'T HANDLE IT!" - I typed in CAPs.
"Pity."
And almost instantly the line have appeared in the bottom of the
screen: "Addressee have disconnected."
- Connection broke! - confirmed Vika, - Do you want to reconnect?
- No, - I replied. For some reason I didn't have any doubt: the Polish
server won't connect me with Man Without Face again.
Maybe he feels offended that I've told about him to Urman. Maybe he
have just lost faith in my abilities.
The result is the same in either case.
- Vika, am I smart? - I asked.
There's almost 1000 keywords stuffed into Windows-Home. Sometimes it's
possible to make really funny talks with the computer... almost intelligent
ones.
- What answer would you like to hear? - deviated Vika as usual when the
words were not formulated as an order but were unclear to her.
- The honest one.
- I don't know Lenia. I really wish I could answer but I really don't
know.
- Stupid you are, Vika.
- And you're a boor.
I laughed. If anybody not familiar with modern operating systems could
hear me he would decide for sure that my Pentium is intelligent.
- Sorry, Vika.
- That's okay, I'm not angry.
Intellect and its fake... Where is the border between them? We already
talk to our computers, they greet us and wish us good night. Many people
including me spend most of their time in virtuality. But it's not a victory
of the human intelligence, just a fake of the victory, bright colored
banners and fireworks above the void. Higher processor speed, more memory -
and the computer gets human look and feel. But nothing more...
And Unfortunate - he can be a program too. Just as cunning as Maniac's
virus, penetrated through the filter, rooted itself in the 33rd level's
server, the one able to support the talk and to shoot the monsters.
- Shit!! - I shouted.
It's so simple! Just a hundred of phrases said sometimes in the right
time, sometimes irrelevantly. The program that learns on its own words,
returning you your own thoughts, obediently following its naive rescuers...
Sure it doesn't need any comm channels.
What did I tell Unfortunate, what did he reply? I strained my memory.
I don't know... It might be a program. Then both Al-Kabar and Man
Without Face were too wide of the mark.
Good if I'm right, the riddle is solved quite simply.
The Silence, Gunslinger...
I shivered, remembering the void that rolled over me after his words.
A program?
Unfortunate, carrying the drawn kid with such care...
A program?
- I can't understand a thing, Vika, - I said, - Absolutely nothing, and
you can't help me.
- Can I help? - replies Vika inopportunely.
- No!
- Who can then?
I was silent for a while before replying.
- The real Vika. The Deep!
- Deep program start?
I put my hands on the keyboard instead of an answer.
Deep
Enter.
The darkness on the screens is lined by falling stars, the rainbow
spiral whirling before my eyes, erasing reality, pulling me towards
Deeptown's skyscrapers.

The first second is the most difficult one. The room is the same, but I
know, all this is an illusion, a mirage.
- Is everything okay, Lenia?
I rotate my head. The room is okay. It's me who is different.
- Personality #7, Gunslinger.
- Acknowledged...
This time my appearance changes painfully long, nothing can be done,
it's an inevitable cost of the weapon.
- Is everything okay Lenia?
I stand up and look at my reflection in the mirror.
- Yes. Thanks Vika.
I open the fridge looking for soda. Sprite is over, only Coke has left.
It'll do.
- Good luck, Lenia.
- Thanks.
I drink the most popular beverage in the world greedily which - how
funny - was created as a diarrhea relief... Urman estimated that I have five
hours more, now only four have left. I can almost feel how somewhere in the
great distance, on other continents, the various officials' brains screech
in strain, starting to comprehend the Unfortunate's phenomenon. Very soon
the 33rd level will be shut down, very soon the hunt for Unfortunate will
start. It's not important whether he's a human or a program, I'll get him
out.
- Call the taxi, - I say leaving the apartment. I descend in a small
clean elevator and open the doorway.
An old Ford is waiting for me, the driver is a sleek young guy in a
white shirt, an exact copy of the one that I killed two days ago before
penetrating into Al-Kabar. I even feel shame looking at his friendly smile.
- Brothel "Any Amusements"! - I growl.

100

It looks like Vika made Madam to establish a special status for me.
When I enter the lobby, I see the three men in there. All three pull their
heads up, in all three's eyes is confusion and fright. They don't see each
other, two of them are even overlapping in space looking like some kind of
ugly siamese twins.
These two are stately blue eyed brunettes, standard bodies from
Windows-Home's kit, obviously put on for disguise. The third one is a
swarthy robust guy with a cleanly shaved head. The common feature of all
three is their look, the one of somebody caught being busy with pressing out
pimples.
So, I'm now what, have the same rights as the brothel's employee? I can
see all three customers, enter the service areas...
- Hi... - I say raising my hand limply. All three nod quickly. One of
them puts aside the green album with artificial negligence, the other one
casts the purple one aside. Only the shaved guy continues to look through
the black album stubbornly, curiously studying the pictures.
I approach the guard, he opens the door before me obediently and I
leave the lobby sparing the visitors from their soul tortures.
Nobody is going to escort me but I remember the way. The corridor is
empty, some doors are opened. Bursts of laughter can be heard from behind
one of them. There is a small pavilion surrounded by blossoming sakura, the
gentle spring sun shines in the sky, the cone of Fuji is seen in the
distance. Two girls are drinking tea inside, noticing me they wave their
hands cheerfully:
- Hi Gunslinger, want some tea?
- N...no, - I mumble and walk away quickly. An absolutely naked girl
steps out from the other door, without even a hint of shyness.
- Vika is busy! - she says, - Maybe you'll stay with me for a while?
I'm boooored!
There's no hint in her words whatsoever and the thought about having
sex doesn't excite her more than the process of inhalation-exhalation.
There's something dreadful in the situation itself... in all those cheerful
and friendly young girls.
I suddenly realize what do they remind me of, some old sci-fi book
about merry young people who are busy with their favorite work, who spend
days and nights at it, they are friendly, they are always ready to help
their friend, they are unable to say a single bad word about each other...
It's like a distorted mirror, the false reflection. The evil had put on
the dress of good and as strange as it may seem, it fit!
- Thanks, but I'd better wait in her room, thanks again... - I say
smiling desperately.
The girl pouts sorrowfully and disappears in her room. I go further
until my look meets with the black kitten's on the picture.
- Meow! - I whisper softly pushing the door. The kitten opens his tiny
maw, mews in return and freezes again.
The mountain hut is empty, just the wind from the opened window
flutters the short curtains. Leaned against the window-sill, I watch the
mountains for quite a time. No, this is impossible, to create the whole
world absolutely alone and not for fame and money, not at an order, just for
herself and even never enter it!
To create it just in order to know that it exists, right here, behind
the window: the sparkling snow on the mountain crest, the endless blue sky,
rocks on the slopes, the black moss under pine trees, birds soaring in the
skies and squirrels scurrying about in the trees. The world of silence,
cleanliness and serenity, the world where the word 'filth' is not invented.
I think that Unfortunate would like it. I really hope he will like it.
- Lenia?
Vika enters quietly and it takes me by surprise.
- I'm sorry... didn't they tell you?
She shakes her head.
- I just wanted to be with you... for a little time, - I start make
excuses involuntarily, - Are you... all right?
Vika nods.
- You shouldn't dive in the Deep so often, - I say approaching her, -
have you at least had some snack?
- A little... It's a flood of customers today.
She doesn't look aside, she got used to consider this a work but it's
something wrong with me. I can feel a cold lump in my chest, quick and
pungent like a snow in the frost. I swallow some air and say:
- Do you really have to work so much... Madam?
Vika goes to the window and asks without turning back:
- How did you find out?
- I felt it.
- Leave Leonid. Leave forever, okay?
- No.
- Why the hell do you pester me? - shouts Vika turning back, - Why the
hell would you need a prostitute as a friend? Get out! I like that, okay? I
like to ■■■■ a hundred of times a day, to change bodies, to order the girls
around and to pretend that I'm one of them! Is it clear? Is it?
I just stand there waiting for her to vent it out, then pad closer and
stand by her side by the window.
I can't talk now and can't touch her, but it's dangerous to stay silent
either, though I have no choice and I wait for I don't know what.
The mountains start and the floor begins to shake under the feet. Vika
shouts clinging to the window-sill, I grab her by the shoulder and set the
second hand against the wall. The earth is quivering, the white mountain
caps start flowing with a white smoke, stretching down tentacles of
avalanches. The huge rock whirls down by the window.
- Mommy... - whispers Vika sinking on the floor, looks like she is more
excited than scared, - Duck, Lenia!
I fall down beside her and just in time - a good load of stony shrapnel
blows into the window.
- Fifth degree at least! - shouts Vika, - Seventh!
- Eighth! - I suggest. Hardly had she ever seen the real earthquakes,
otherwise she wouldn't be so cheerful now.
The hut's floor is still shaking but much less now, with a small
convulsive shiver.
- Cool, - whispers Vika sprawling on the floor. I catch her look and
touch her cheek gently, - Don't be mad at me Lenia.
- I'm not.
- The customers... piss me off sometimes.
- The Cap? - I remember.
- Exactly.
- Who is he?
Vika shrugs.
- I don't know. He wears different bodies and doesn't tell anything
about himself. He only... - she smirks, - always wears a cap. That's why his
nick.
- Is he a sadist?
- Yes, maybe... but a special one.
Her lips whisper a short obscenity.
- You what, accept any customers here? Even those who make you climb
the walls?
Vika stays silent.
- I thought you sort out the worst idiots. If it's possible to identify
Cap beforehand...
- We accept everyone.
- What is it, a kind of the company honor? "Any Amusements"?
- You might assume that.
Looks like the earthquake is over, I rise and look into the window.
Avalanches still move, the river below is blocked by landslide and fills in
slowly, searching for the new bed.
- It calmed down, - I whisper involuntarily, as if my words can wake
the nature up again, - Vika, why did you make the earthquake?
- I don't have anything to do with it. This world lives by itself, I
don't have any control over it anymore.
- Not at all?
Vika glances at me, rises and studies the changed landscape.
- Absolutely. The world becomes real only when it gains freedom.
- Just as a human.
- Sure.
- Do you believe in freedom so much?
- You don't have to believe in freedom. When you have it, you can feel
it yourself.
I think I expected her to say these words.
- Vika, what if some man... a good man is in trouble... If he can lose
his freedom forever... would you agree to help him?
- I would, - she replies calmly, - Even if he's not that good a man.
This is a principle of a sort if you want.
- I need to hide somebody.
Vika shakes her head in some funny manner, so that her hair scatter on
her shoulders.
- Lenia, what are you talking about? Hide where?
- In virtuality.
- What for?
- He can't exit.
- You're talking about the one in "Labyrinth"?
- Yes.
- Lenia... - Vika holds my hand, - How long ago were you in the real
world?
- Half an hour ago.
- Really? Don't you need some help yourself? I have... - she bites her
lip, - one familiar diver. It's true, they really exist!
How funny...
- Do you want me to ask him to meet you?
- Vika...
She calms down.
I'm not used to such care, to be honest. This is my profession - to
take care of people who got lost in virtuality.
- I'll help, - says Vika, - But you're wrong... I think.
I don't have time for arguments now.
- Thank you. Are your security systems reliable enough?
- Quite. Do you understand something in that?
I nod. Of course, I can't create the security program myself but I had
to break those so many times that it's high time to consider myself an
expert.
- You can talk to the Wiz about that.
- Will he tell me?
- Not to you, and neither to me, but to Madam...
Vika hesitates and looks at me as if asking to leave. I go to the door,
but she calls:
- Lenia.. Don't. I want you to look.
She pads to the wall, waves her hand and the boards part, opening a
small door.
It's a light behind it, a cold bluish lifeless light. Vika's silhouette
stays in the doorway for a second, then disappears inside and I follow her
even if I don't want that at all, like hypnotized.
It's a shed. Or a morgue. Or Blue Beard's museum.
Shiny nickel coated hooks stick out from the walls, human bodies hang
on them, almost reaching the floor with their feet, girls for the most part,
light and dark haired, several reddish ones, one is completely bald. Also
several middle-aged women and a couple of old ones, several girls and boys.
All eyes are opened and empty.
- This is my costumier room, - says Vika. I stay silent, I can
understand that anyway.
Vika walks along slightly rocking bodies, looking into the dead faces,
whispering something as if in greeting. Madam is hanging somewhere in the
end of the first dozen. Vika looks back at me making sure I'm watching and
snugs close to the splendid body of the brothel owner, hugs it as if in the
outburst of perverted passion.
Nothing happens for a second, then - I can't catch the moment of change
- Vika and Madam change places. Not Vika but Madam backs from the helplessly
hanging body.
- That's it, - says Madam in her low voice.
- Why... in such a disgusting way? - I ask, - These hooks... this
morgue... why? Vika?
Madam looks at Vika, nods sadly:
- Vika my dear, why? Should we explain to Lenia?
Vika, threaded on the hook by her nape stays silent.
- In order to never forget, Leonid. Not to forget for even a second -
they are not alive.
I look at Madam, far more calm and wise than Vika, and if to approach
it unbiased - much more beautiful.
- You had to see it, - says Madam.
- I have.
We exit the 'human meat warehouse' through the other door, the one that
leads into Madam's room. This is a completely different world. There's a
noisy and crowded beach behind the window, the hot sun in the sky, the room
itself is full of luxurious old furniture, books are scattered everywhere
along with opened candy boxes, clothes, cheap jewelry and golden bracelets,
half-empty perfume bottles, playing cards. The huge bed under the plush
canopy is uncovered, the slipper is lying under it. A variety of started
bottles is in the sideboard, the dusty guitar hangs on the wall, Persian
carpet on the floor is bitten by moth and is stained with wine in patches.
- Now you can try to guess which me is a real one, - says Madam.
I ain't going to. There's no other truth in the world except the one we
want to believe in anyway.
We don't stay in Madam's room for long and I'm glad about that very
much, it's too stiffly in there.
- Lenia, sometimes I tend to think that you're just a young boy, - says
Madam, - one can't be so naive after all.
- Why not?
- It's too hard to live that way.
- Nobody had promised me it'll be easy.
I walk by Madam's side thinking about how could we look from the side.
A pale and tall Gunslinger fits to be Madam's son in his age but there's no
resemblance between them. Maybe it must look like a disguised aristocrat 's
visit to the cheap brothel.
- Steep stairs here, - warns Madam.
- I remember.
We enter the recreation area and the girls under umbrellas greet Madam
with cheerful squeals. The gay splashing in the water just by the shore
quickly stands up and waves his hand. The tousled head of Computer Wiz pokes
up from behind the bar and ducks back down quickly.
- You see, Vika is not here, - says Madam to me loudly, then
protectively puts her hand on my shoulder, - Girls, Gunslinger will wait for
his girlfriend here! Don't hurt him!
The general meaning of the answers summarizes to the idea that they'll
hurt me for sure but I'll like that. Madam waves her finger at the girls,
then goes to the bar. The Wiz appears at once, as if feeling her
approaching.
- Talk to Gunslinger, - Madam asks him gently, - He has some
questions... answer all of them.
- Absolutely all? - inquires Wiz.
- Absolutely.
- Well Madam, don't say later that I forced this out of you.
- I wish it was necessary... - sighs Madam.
I'm waiting for Wiz by the table which stands a little aside from the
others, the girls don't need to hear our talk.
- Champaign! - declares Wiz, approaching me, - Hi Gunslinger! You're
drinking champaign, right? I don't, it's too many bubbles in it, my stomach
rumbles after that!
He moves in an odd manner, very smoothly as if being on asphalt. I
glance at his feet, they don't touch the sand: the shabby slippers are on
Wiz's feet, with tiny wings growing from their sides that hammer the air
quickly.
- I'm drinking champaign with the girls only, - I refuse, - Do you have
vodka over there?
- Everything is there! - Wiz plops the bottle of caustically violet
colored liquor on the table and runs away with unclaimed Abrau-Durso. Just
in a minute he returns in the same gliding manner with a bottle of Ursus
vodka, a crystal pitcher filled with water and a package of Zuko.
- Here, mix that...
I never tried Ursus but it's a good vodka as they say. Hoping that
subconsciousness will work out the taste for me, I pour in a cup. Wiz grabs
the pitcher and mixes the beverage by himself using his own hand as a mixer.
We're in virtuality after all... mo germs here. I swallow the vodka in
one shot and take a mouthful directly from the pitcher, then ask:
- Where did you get this cute footwear from?
- These slippers? Ah, made them myself today... was sick and tired of
bogging in the sand. You like them? You see, in Deeptown it's possible to
walk on the floor only. So I had to glue a piece of floor to the soles. It's
no problems now: walk on air as long as you want, until tired!
Wiz laughs and makes several small steps, ascending almost to the table
level, then crosses his legs, falls into the armchair, opens the liquor and
drops to the bottle with a smacking sound.
- Superb thing! - he declares, - Sweet-sweet! Real Cura ao!
- Do you spend the whole day here?, - I inquire.
- Whole day? Ha! I exit this place to eat something, and pardon me, to
visit bathroom!
- Madam says, all security here depends on you.
- Wrong word! Everything depends on me here.
- May a stranger enter here?
- And how could we earn the living if we wouldn't let them in?
- I'm not about that. Is it possible to penetrate into the brothel's
service areas?
- Institution's! This is not a brothel, but Institution! No, it is not.
- Absolutely?
Wiz sighs and becomes more serious.
- Are you hacker or lamer?
- A 'newbie'.
- Okie, I see... The absolute security doesn't exist. The closer you're
to the absolute reliability, the less comfortable you feel in virtuality.
It's a quadratic dependence here - your ability to receive and to transmit
data falls as the security level becomes higher. The most important thing is
to find the optimal ratio between comfort and security. Our security system
was created with the elements of artificial intelligence. When breaking
attempts are detected, the warning is broadcasted, additional passwords are
implemented, dummies are activated...
- Dummies?
- Autonomous mobile security programs, phagocytes. I call them dummies,
they are all dumb. Why don't you drink?
I pour myself more.
- If an intensive attack happens, - Wiz goes on, - then the degree of
security grows unlimited, up to the complete encapsulation of the
Institution. Of course it never happened before, but it's meant to work this
way.
- So you want to say that the security IS ideal after all?
Wiz hesitates, the vanity which he obviously has struggles with
objectivity.
- No... If the big group of professionals would plan the break-in,
they'll be able to enter before the defense starts to work in full volume.
But who on the Earth would want to do that, huh?
I understand that it'd be stupid to expect any different answer.
There's a sword for any shield.
- Thank you, Wiz.
- Ah, don't mention it! - he waves his hand, - Do you want to make your
own security system? Drag it in here, I'll help. Or better yet, let's go to
your place! - Wiz fires up, - I'll do everything myself, I'm so bored of
sitting here!
I shake my head, he guessed wrong.
- I'm just interested in how it's handled here.
- Ah, you're the auditor? - starts Wiz, - Hushhh... I've got it, I'm
quiet... Why haven't Madam told me immediately?
Who might audit the brothel I wonder? What for? Very interesting... but
I don't dare to question Wiz any more.
- Okay, time to go... and Vika must have freed already. - I say. Wiz
becomes solemn and serious instantly:
- You watch it, don't hurt her!, - he warns, - she is... a great girl,
I'd kick anyone's ass for her.
Wiz sighs and looks at the sea dreamily.
- I have just wanted to score her but you were the first... - he
confesses, - You know, she had a great crush on me... or maybe even still
has... but don't worry, I never take girls from my friends.
Some time ago I thought that the soap opera computer guys are
completely fictional characters. Hah! If it just was really so. They do
really exist.
- But don't you even think to approach that blondie! - he adds, - She's
so desperately in love with me, she suffers that for almost half a year...
The poor girl laughs aloud hugging her friend, not suspecting about her
ill fortune.
- Or maybe I'd go after Natashka... - thinks Wiz, - they're all such
lovable types here!
He picks up his liquor and moves towards the laughing blonde in a
dancing walk, while I use the moment to get out.

101

I must have done a couple more turns on the spiral stairs than
necessary and descend into the lobby. The recent visitors are not here
anymore, they must be enjoying the life's pleasures already.
Just one guy stands by the table browsing through the black album,
short and stooping, with a face like of a famished marmot, with long strands
of hair breaking loose from under the cap that's hung low above his eyes. I
almost pass him going to the door into the service area when I get it. In
the meanwhile the guy had put the album back and started to move towards the
door.
- Hey, Cap! - I call him.
He stops and turns around slowly, his eyes are empty and as cheerful as
the ones of the boiled fish.
- You're Cap, - I repeat.
No reaction whatsoever, the guy goggles at me absolutely blankly.
- I don't like you! - I say with a sudden joy, - Do you hear me? I
don't like you at all!
- 'Haha' three times, - replies Cap averting his pale gaze and turns to
the door again. He doesn't have any curiosity at all. He's a compatriot at
least.
- Stop! - I shout into his back and he stops, waiting indifferently, -
You shouldn't return here anymore, - I say.
Cap smirks - the first emotion on his face, but it looks so mechanic as
if I'm talking to a program instead of an alive person.
- What do you want here?
Looks like it's the question that he's ready to answer.
- Some collective psychology research.
- Conduct it elsewhere.
His pale eyes examine me from feet to the head.
- Do you work here?
- No.
- You're mutant then.
I feel myself lost after such a weird characteristic and Cap explains:
- The loss of social and ethical orientation. Personality
decomposition. What an inevitable and disgusting metamorphosis.
Already opening the door, he adds:
- Boring...
...Vika's voice reaches me by the exit:
- Leonid, wait! Don't!
It's quite difficult to get back to my senses. I realize that my right
hand clings to the belt and the left one squeezed in a fist. I look at Vika
feeling how my fury slowly fades.
- Was it Cap? - I define just in case.
- Yes.
- I think I'm starting to understand your reaction.
- Have you cooled down already? - inquires Vika, - Good boy. Let's go.
I'm already feeling uncomfortable of my recent outbreak. Strange, I
never thought it's so easy to start me, by in general quite meaningless
words.
- Who is he, Vika?
She feels that she'll have to answer this question.
- Nothing special. Just a person who thinks he has a right to judge
everyone around.
- Virtual prostitutes for instance?
- Not only. I know a couple more places where Cap conducts his
experiments.
- He said something about psychology...
These words amuse Vika for some reason:
- The person that is unable to be creative always tries to justify his
destructive behavior. Very often this is done in a form of aloof watching of
the world's imperfections, especially ones such as our brothel...
We enter the door from which the black kitten is smiling, and Vika goes
on:
- Psychology is a very simple science according to the general opinion.
People aren't able to hammer the nail in by themselves or to rhyme at least
a couple of lines never doubt in their ability to understand - and to judge
others. In extreme cases it becomes the essence of their lives and the
source of self-confidence.
- Who are you, Vika?
- A psychologist. PhD, if you want to know.
She sits down, sweeps the gravel from the table. The room obviously
needs cleaning after the earthquake. Since there's no second chair here, I
just squat nearby.
- And your Thesis' subject is?...
- "Abnormal behavioral reactions' sublimation in the virtual space
environment".
As if in apology, she adds:
- It's common to formulate this way.
I see...
- You're studying those like Cap? - I ask, - The real hunter for the
fake ones?
- No, and for a long time by now, Lenia. It was interesting to study
for half a year or more. But now - all they are similar, that Cap and others
alike. All pathologies are the same and if you know one psychopath, you can
guess the behavior of thousand of them.
- Then why?..
- Because they exist. The destruction that comes out of them can hurt
just a couple of people here. In the real world they'll leave a trace of
broken lives, poisoned love, ridiculed friendship after them. Maybe even
blood. But here they are harmless, all their arrogance, animal reactions and
self-conceit is just a dust, dust on the wind.
- But it's hard for you here!
- So what? It's not real me who is hurt but a drawn one.
- Vika...
- I beg you - don't meddle in the Institution's business. Otherwise
Madam will cancel your access.
She smiles and I feel confused.
- Okay, I'll not meddle in the Institution's business inside it.
- What about outside?
- This is a matter of my personal freedom.
Vika parts her hands.
- Leonid, how old are you?
- What about exchange? - I ask quickly, - Information for information?
Nobody does advertise their biographical data in virtuality but Vika
doesn't have any idea how much am I not used to it.
- Okay Leonid. I'm 29.
Before I answer, I have time to rejoice.
- 34.
- I'd never think that, I'd give you just a little more than twenty.
It's not necessary to mention that my fears were quite opposite.
- Virtuality is deceitful.
- No, virtuality is like an ice, we freeze into it once and forever.
It's impossible to take off our first mask. We can invent hundreds of bodies
afterwards, but that, very first one will be evident always.
- Madam was your first mask?
Vika picks the purse from the table, takes the cigarette from it and
lights it.
- Yes Lenia. We had got a grant for the research of human sexual
behavior in virtuality, the Westerners were a little crazy about that... at
least one third of all information in the Net was tied to sex somehow. So
I've invented this personality - a brothel owner, self confident,
experienced, the one who saw everything in this life.
- You were successful, - I admit.
Vika exhales the smoke and asks with a slight irony:
- Maybe I'm really like that deep inside, how do you know?
- I don't care.
I'm lying of course but Vika doesn't argue.
- Did Zuko reassure you?
- Almost.
- He's a good specialist. You can confidently bring your friend here.
I look at the watch, there's still some time left.
- It's not that easy, Vika. It's very important to guess right and come
to fetch him in time.
- You hackers are funny folks, - says Vika. How interesting. Geez! I
was considered a cool programmer.
- Will you allow me to sleep here for a while?
- What?
- To sleep. I'm in the Deep for almost 24 hours while it'd be better to
work with a 'fresh' head.
Vika - how wonderful - approaches this business-like.
- Do you want me to wake you up?
- Yes, in two hours.
- Sleep, feel yourself at home, I'll wake you up myself.
She pats me on the head, the gesture that would fit Madam better but
I'm pleased anyway. She nods at the bed and exits through the door that
leads into costumier room. In a minute Madam will come out and will go to
order the girls around.
In the meantime I do something not very polite, I get a spool with a
thin thread from my jacket's pocket, the little weight is tied to the end of
it.
The wind doesn't calm down outside the window, the thread is waving but
I let it go to the end nevertheless. When the weight touches the slope I
glance at the thread: each meter is marked with red paint.
Seven and a half meters (~24 feet). Bed sheets won't help here. Ah
well, there must be some ropes in the brothel, at least in the rooms
intended for sadomasochists.
I throw the spool outside feeling a little uncomfortable but convincing
myself that most likely Vika would allow this little experiment. Haven't she
said to feel myself at home anyway?
I plop down at the narrow bed, right on the comforter and close my
eyes. But just before I allow myself to fall asleep, I exit virtuality
anyway and order Windows-Home to wake me up in two hours.
The sleep comes almost instantly. For some reason I hope to see
something prophetical and with a plot again, like as it was the last time
when Alex shoot Unfortunate but what I see is a complete mess.
The rainbow shining above Deeptown, its blinding bright flashes look
like deep program, but this rainbow is built of ledges, it's the biblical
stairway to Heaven. I walk along it just as Computer Wiz in his slippers. I
realize that the colors have different density - I fall in being on violet
and blue layers, lean against the green ones slightly and step against the
yellow ones confidently. The city below me is colorful and bright, I can see
it through the multicolored mist.
I even know in my dream why do I ascend into the sky. Somewhere up
there is a crystal dome of the Deep which had divided the world in two. I
must break it, either using the Maniac's weapon or with my bare hands, no
matter. The crystal would crack and stream down on the city, in a blinding
bright star rain, because the stars are undoubtedly made of crystal, of a
pungent crystal that reflects the light of our eyes.
And then something would happen; maybe the stars will burn us or maybe
they'll have time to cool down and will fall right into the hands set below.
I don't know for sure what do I want.
It's just most important not to make a mistake and to strike right in
time. This time had already been defined, the time when I'll be able to turn
the barrier into millions of crystal stars, it have almost come, the time...
- It's time... Time, Leonid.
I open my eyes accompanied by Windows-Home's whisper, a couple more
seconds passes until I finally realize where am I. A moment later Vika
enters.
- You're awaken already?
I nod, sit down on a messy bed and rub my forehead. The head is heavy,
I had to either sleep more or not to sleep at all.
- I'll make coffee, - says Vika.
Leaned against the wooden wall I watch her. She takes a small sack with
coffee out of the dark sideboard, dark not because of dirt but because of
its age, then grinds the beans with a small manual polished brass coffee
grinder, lights the fire with experience. I can smell the dry pine wood,
boiling coffee and some abstract, not medical cleanliness... either the one
of a water in a mountain stream or the one of the hot sand under the sun.
So good.
I can whisper my rhyme and exit into reality, to make a real coffee and
even to spice it with remaining cognac, to wash my face with a cold water.
I'll be damned if I do that.
Everything is real here: the clean air, the live water, coffee grounds
on the bottom of a cup, Vika's caring look. Outside there's only an
abandoned dusty room, dampness and rotten water from the faucet.
... Too often do I feel that suicidal wish to become just as everybody
lately ...
- Some cognac? - asks Vika and pours me a little cup of Achtamar.
- I have five more minutes, - I say, - Then... it'll be time.
- You'll return not alone?
- I hope so.
- Take your friend by the hand when you enter, in this case he'll be
given privileged status too. I'll ask Wiz.
- Thanks.
- You'll thank Madam for that. Everything depends on her.
- We're good friends with Madam, she'll allow that. - I smile.
I have time to drink two cups of coffee and two cups of cognac before
my time really runs out.
I have to go.
Vika starts to clean the room when I exit, and involuntarily I remember
fake families that started to appear more and more often as of late, all
these couples that live in different cities renting common apartments in
Deeptown. They say that they love to do house work, to vacuum clean and to
do laundry - as if imitation of common life would make their union a real
one.
"Do you have a family?"
"Yes. My wife is a prostitute, we have a small mountain hut in the
brothel. You're welcome to visit us, she'll make a great coffee. It's always
clean in our place, even after the earthquake."
I start feeling dread, just because such picture doesn't irritate me at
all.
The situation requires an urgent solution, any solution.
I lag along the street to the entrance portal, pass by a small pavilion
of some airline company with a bored operator inside. The beggar is perched
by the pavilion, this is also some new phenomenon - paupers in virtual
space, they weren't here just a month ago.
The beggar is clean but ragged and scraggy, his figure is a bit
transparent and moves jerkily - it's how they try to demonstrate the low
modem speed and the weakness of the software.
- Help me... - moans the beggar. {In English in the original}
- The God will give, - I inform him.
- Mr Hacker, at least one dollar... - cries the beggar behind my back.
They say that the majority of those beggars are Russians. They say that
none of them needs money, this is just a new fun for the "New Russians", a
rare amusement, to beg, to be in the pauper's skin for some time. It's like
a fashionable and effective psychic therapy. Maniac once swore that he
managed to glue a marker on one of such beggars who turned out to be a
director of a big bank.
- I worked for Microsoft, - mumbles the beggar lagging behind, - Once I
called Windoze a buggy proggy and praised OS/2. Bill Gates had personally
fired me the next day and included me in the black list. I was a cool
hacker... Look how low did I sink...
- What interruption is your modem hung to? - I shout turning back to
him, - What does the display of the message "Press this button to begin" in
Windows-Home depends on? Three best ways to freeze Windoze? Who invented
texture graphics? The best protocol for the modems manufactured by....
The beggar flees.
Looks like Maniac was telling the truth.
But at least these amusements are less dangerous than the car races
that were stylish among Neuve riches a year ago. That was the reason for the
private cars to be forbidden in Deeptown, after which Deep-Transit had
triumphantly occupied the transportation service niche.
The encounter with the beggar amuses me and by the time I approach the
"Labyrinth"'s portal I have a completely different mood: a battle-like one.
The crowd is dense as usual, "Labyrinth" is still functioning which
means that everything was calculated correctly, but the fear to run into the
shut door at the last second doesn't let go of me. I elbow through the
players in hurry and only when I type in my code and enter the 33rd level I
finally calm down.
Let's begin!
I'm Gunslinger!

110

It's windy on the level. The metal cabin of "American Hills" squeaks,
rocking, half slid from its rails and hanging above the very head of
Unfortunate.
Great, one more mean of death is found.
- Hey! - I shout, approaching him, - It's me!
Unfortunate raises his head, maybe it's a good sign.
- Bored?
I sit down by his side and Unfortunate takes off his respirator
himself, looks at me tiredly and hopelessly.
- Are you a human or a program? - I ask directly. Unfortunate shakes
his head: go ahead and understand the negation the way you want...
- Do you know that you've got the nick 'Unfortunate'? - I say, - But
you know man, even biblical Iov was more lucky than you! Your bad luck is
something really unique!
Finally he replies:
- This is not only my... bad luck.
- Do you want to say you were rescued bad?
I'm talkative and bucked up like after a good drink, I need to stir up
Unfortunate a little and, as stupid as it might sound, I need to become sure
that he's not a program.
- I was rescued well. It's that just nobody could cross the border.
- What border?
- Of consciousness.
Unfortunate is patient in his explanations, but so what? They don't
clarify anything.
- Let's go away from under this shit, - I nod at the rocking cab, - We
have very little time.
- You won't be able to anyway... - whispers Unfortunate but stands up
submissively and moves aside.
- We'll see, we'll see...
I'm waiting for I don't know what... for the action promised by Urman,
for the level's shutdown?
- Unfortunate... may I call you that? Do you like poetry?
Silence.
The program might imitate the talk, making answers from my own words,
but no program can create anything by itself.
- "My uncle's a man of honest rules", - I recite, - Go on! Huh?
Unfortunate?
He looks back at me with such an irony that I feel uncomfortable:
- "... When seriously fallen ill..." Say Gunslinger, do all Russian
divers know only Pushkin by heart?
- Anatol'?
- Yes. He "remembered the wonderful moment".
I could just laugh at my own stupidity, at all those clich s hammered
into mind. Instead I ask, feeling as something breaks inside, either the
notorious 'border' or just a common sense:
- Well, what did Dick read you? Shakespeare?
- Carroll, - the answer comes from behind.
Dick stands close, Anatol in some 5 meters away, with BFG at the ready.
- Just as you, I sat by his side, - says Dick, - I sat down...
He sits facing indifferent Unfortunate and says: {in English here}
Twas brilling, and the skithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
I wait in fascination, and Unfortunate goes on:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
From the huge distance I hear Windows-Home squeaking in warning and
whispering:
- Impossible to translate! It doesn't present in the main dictionary!
Impossible to translate!
Dick looks up at me and asks:
- So Unfortunate is Russian according to your opinion?
Didn't Urman ask the same question?
- Who are you? - I ask Unfortunate. He smiles and rises, - Who the hell
are you?! - I shout.
On vstal pod derevo i zhdet
I vdrug graahnul grom...
- says Unfortunate.
Anatol laughs and goes on:
Letit uzhasnyj Barmaglot
I pylkaet ognem!
{a part of one of Russian translations}
A real psycho clinic, and I'm the dumbest patient in here.
- Get out diver, - orders Dick, - The rescue games are over, everything
is much more serious than you might think.
As if in confirmation of his words, a thick mechanic siren roar sounds,
so strong that my ears start aching. Then the silence falls, only alarmed
monsters boo, scream and chirp. A female voice falls from the sky, covering
all sounds:
- Attention! Vnimanie! To everybody located on the 33rd level of
"Labyrinth of Death"! You must leave the game area immediately! This is an
official warning! You have 30 seconds to exit the game area! You may use
your weapons to commit suicide and to return to the "Labyrinth"'s column
hall. All necessary explanations will be provided, reimbursements will be
paid. Attention! To everybody...
- Do you need help? - asks Anatol aiming his BFG at me, - Or maybe
you'll do it yourself?
- You'll hurt Unfortunate too, - I say and Anatol nods, throws BFG
aside and takes the rocket launcher instead.
But right at this moment I tear out the leather Gunslinger's belt from
under my overalls. It's just an ordinary belt - as long as it stays on my
body.
Once in my hand, the leather strip shrinks with a boom, stretches in
length, enveloping itself into blueish sparks. Maniac have made Warlock-9000
in a form of lash. One stroke - and the lash outstretches, greedily trying
to break free from my hand, the end of it strikes against Anatol's armor.
The blue fiery stream flows along the lash, sucking into Anatol's body.
This is a real battle weapon, for it there's no difference between the armor
or bare flesh. The diver disappears in the swirl of purple flames, falls
through the ground. The whirlpool doesn't calm down though. The fiery crater
buzzes, slowly becoming wider.
- You! - shouts Dick, - You've smuggled the virus!
Our faces are colored by the blue glow, Unfortunate looks at the
growing twister in enchantment. I just nod, the words are unnecessary.
- Fifteen seconds... - says the voice from the sky.
- You've hit Anatol! You've broke the Diver's Code! - Dick doesn't
attempt to take the weapon and I'm glad he doesn't: I don't want to kill
him.
- Everything is much more serious, - I repeat his own words.
The new sound comes - the sound of breaking glass, crashing walls,
squeaking of the metal being crumpled.
The silvery ring falls down from the purple clouds, the darkness
following it, as if the giant glass is covering the 33rd level. I would
think that this is how the level's encapsulation looks like if there wasn't
terror and confusion on Dick's face.
Al-Kabar have entered the game.
But Dick blames me in everything, he tears the carbine from his
shoulder - and I react without thinking. The lash hits his neck, beheading
him with enthusiasm of unemployed butcher.
One-two! One-two! The grass ablaze!
Vzee-vzee... the grazing sword...
- says Unfortunate.
I grab him by the shoulders and push towards the fiery crater. The new
twister grows where Crazy Tosser was behind our backs.
- Why? - asks Unfortunate.
We must hurry up. Now, when "Labyrinth"'s and Al-Kabar's hackers fight
over the 33rd level it's a high time to flee. Warlock is not only the
killer, it's also a tunnel drilled through the Deep.
- In order to return! - I shout pushing Unfortunate into the blue flame
and jumping after him.
The fire.
We are falling.
The spiral of blue fire is a tunnel wall, the violet mist is its flesh.
The foggy mirrors appear under our feet, we break them as we fall, the
faces in the mirrors are like shadows, the spaces like pale watercolors.
Ruined railway station of the first level... the hospital of the
21st... the Cathedral of the 50th! I even can see the grinned muzzle of the
Alien Prince, a fiery blink from his on-shoulder rocket launcher - but we
have flown by already.
Deeptown street - faces of passers-by, the hood of a taxi, the ad "Only
after you work for..."
The bookstore - the rainbow of covers, the girl in glasses looking
through the magazine, rustling of pages like thunder in my ears, the guy at
the cash register...
Blue lightings crawl along my arms.
Unfortunate in the cloud of greenish fire.
A supermarket - an orange jam jar blinks past my eyes - empty.
A pet shop - a white bunny in the cage.
Are there hallucinations in the Deep I wonder?
"Warlock" must calm down, the counter of passed spaces is built into it
but Maniac didn't promise that it'll work properly. He didn't have a chance
to test the virus.
A valley, unbelievably flat, burnt, four vehicles crawling across it...
Either clouds or just a sea of white down, crystal trees until the
horizon, white-haired old man in the ground long chlamys looking after us un
confusion, sounds of harps...
The purple and black whirl, low rumbling roar, sulphurous stench and
steel sparkling in the dark...
Blue discharges pierce through us, every hair on the skin scratches and
stings as if rooting into the body...
A green clearing with a small puppy running across it, crazed by
enthusiasm and energy, yelping behind our backs.
Stop Warlock, stop already!
A stormy sea, the stars in gaps between the clouds, salty taste on the
lips, a tiny yacht sliding down the wave, a boy naked down to his waist
clinging to the cordage, harpoon in his hands....
A twilight, round hall, the walls built of screens, the seat looking
like a throne...
This mirror doesn't break, pulls us inside itself - and throws out on
the cold marble floor. No time to check the bones, I jump up raising the
lash to strike.
But it looks like there's no obvious danger. The solid middle aged man
is perched on the throne, dressed in something unbelievably luxurious and
military type at the same time. His chest is covered with decorations. He
doesn't seem to see us - all his attention is drawn towards the creature on
the biggest screen. The creature looks like a huge red ant.
- We must join our efforts! - pontificates the man, - Together our
races could...
I help Unfortunate to stand up. We fell into some game server, that's
not bad.
- Humans have made their lying nature evident! - snaps the ant from the
screen, - We will disperse the very memory of you like a dust in the wind!
The screen dims, the man presses his hands against his face and rocks
from side to side.
- What is this? - asks Unfortunate.
- A game, - I explain looking around in a search for an exit. There is
a door but it doesn't seem like it's possible to just open it. The room
looks as a command bunker of some sort of a missile base, as it is shown in
the movies. The austerity of the interior is only spoiled by a torn hole in
the ceiling - some purple mist still flows down from it along with mirror
splinters that fall from it and shatter into dust on the floor. "Warlock"
still works, clung to several nearest servers.
- What is the game about?
- Star wars.
I pad to the man, the steps to the throne are made of crystal: it's
very slippery and damned uncomfortable.
- Hey, human race savior! - I tap the player on the shoulder.
The man straightens on the throne, the miser man's tears well in his
eyes.
- Deneb! - he orders. The screen flashes, the officer appears on it,
the number of his decorations close to our player's. - Colonel! Move the
squadron to the Sol's orbit!
- But Emperor, our planet is defenseless...
- The main thing is to retain the cradle of the human race! - speaks
the Emperor abruptly.
The colonel nods, suffer on his face:
- Your order will be fulfilled, Emperor!
I block 'Emperor's' view with my hand. Maybe he doesn't see us? But the
man pushes my hand aside and mumbles:
- Interference... communication unreliable...
Oh Gosh! Just see how did I find some work for myself suddenly...
Deep-psychosis at its height. The man just doesn't WANT to see us - this
wouldn't fit into stereotypes of the simple strategic game he's so deep
into.
- How to exit? - I shout, - Exit!
He outstretches his hand, pushes some button. He doesn't take us by
consciousness, but unconsciously he's ready to do everything to get rid of
'interference'. His movements are limp and unsure: at least 24 hours in the
Deep. The door rumbles behind my back, opening.
- What's the matter with him? - asks Unfortunate.
- Deep psychosis.
I turn back to the door, we must hurry: 'Warlock' must have left some
traces, they will be detected sooner or later while the poor Emperor's timer
is on most likely.
- Are we leaving? - asks Unfortunate.
Yes, I did break the Diver's Code when using weapon against Anatol and
Dick but I'm diver anyway, the Deep's guardian. Who will do it if not me?
- Vika! - I command.
- Lenia? - the voice of Windows-Home is dull and muffled, the machine
is overloaded and doesn't have any more strength for goodies.
- The standard set of gear.
Pause, a very long one - then the pockets start feeling heavy with
load.
I rip off the remains of the overalls from me - was it tattered in the
fall through mirrors? - and stay in the Gunslinger's costume, I wrap the
lash carefully and it turns into a belt again.
- What are you gonna do? - Unfortunate is curiosity itself.
- Drag him out!
Now I need to intercept the comm channel that connects the player with
his computer at home, then to break the security system, hardly it's too
complicated - obviously the guy is a typical 'newbie'. Then I'll have to
either run the exit deep-program or to just nullify the timer.
I take sunglasses from the left pocket and put them on, the darkness is
almost complete, just one sparkling orange winding thread at the base of the
throne can be seen. Here it is, his channel. I look around the room and see
my own navel-string, scattered on the floor in rings and disappearing in the
tunnel gnawed through by 'Warlock'. That's bad, it means we haven't
connected to the player's server but entered from nobody knows where. My
channel now may circle through the different continents, jump up through
satellites, slide along fiber optics along the ocean floor... Too many
spaces have we passed on our way from "Labyrinth"... and they are still
near: I can see flashes of light in the tunnel, dimming pieces of threads
fall from it from time to time.
And there's really no signal coming from Unfortunate, or there is but
too well hidden for my simple scanner: just a dark silhouette watching me
working.
There's a little metal box in my right pocket, I open it - a sparkling
emerald beetle lies on the soft padding, moving his paws. I pick him up, he
tries to break free aiming at my own channel. Oh no pal, not there...
I put the beetle at the throne base and step back. The beetle freezes
for a moment quivering his head, then dives into the orange thread.
Now we'll wait and hope that there's only a standard antivirus set
installed on the Emperor's computer.
- Who?
For a moment it seems to me that I hear Unfortunate's voice: just as
smooth and unemotional, but when I turn around, it's four of us in the hall
already... if to consider the 'Emperor' as a real events' participant. The
glowing white thread is hanging from the tunnel, a long writhed figure on
its end. Its contours are distorted, movements are jerky and erratic. The
guy looks around but hardly can he see what's going on. Lord, from what
distance have he fallen from, how could he survive the tunnel journey? Well
done 'Warlock', nothing I can say...
- None of your business! - I growl as aggressively as I can. If the
anonymous is just a common Net user he won't be able to hinder me. But the
guest obviously doesn't like my reaction, he outstretches his hands and
flexible glowing cord starts crawling towards me. Not to me to be exact but
towards my channel.
Very funny. Nobody could make such situation on purpose - to drag
I-don't-know- whom out, starting to rescue an idiot with deep-psychosis
half-way, and on top of that all to bump into a hacker with a set of service
programs.
At least good that his channel is extremely narrow, barely alive. I
take and pull on 'gloves', grab the cord and tie it in a knot, then advise:
- ■■■■ off. I'm diver.
Usually this works instantly, but the guest either considers himself
the coolest in the Deep or doesn't believe me.
- Whoever you are, even Papa Carlo! - he replies.
{Papa Carlo - the character that substituted Gepetto in Russian
retelling of 'Pinocchio' done by Alexei Tolstoy. Mentioning Papa Carlo as a
Very Important Person in a talk bears a stressed sarcasm.}
The second cord is faster and tries to squirm from my hands, small
clips grow on its end. I catch the cord almost by my very channel and
squeeze it with pleasure. The 'gloves' knock the program down without a
hitch. I wish I could do the same with the 'guest', but the gloves won't
work here and I'm too reluctant to use 'Warlock': it works way too
powerfully, I even didn't expect such an effect. Also Unfortunate circles
around the hacker, having lost all interest in me. The former doesn't notice
him, obviously looking through the scanner too, seeing the comm channels
only.
- Look, what do you want? - I ask, adjusting to the guest's vocabulary,
- I'm working!
- Me too.
The wooden voice of the guest irritates but it's a miracle that I can
hear anything at all: his channel's thread is thinned to its limit, the
figure starts quivering, the head rolls at its side, the nose slides on his
cheek but the hands become longer for that. The view is amusing and my anger
disappears.
- Listen you freak... I'll have to drag you out too some day! Get off,
the 'newbie' might croak!
Finally he understands that it's serious, he stops pursuing my channel
but gets something like a flashlight instead and casts a beam on the
'Emperor'. Some semi-active scanning program. Let him watch, there's nothing
secret in my methods.
- The customer's system under control. - whispers Windows-Home.
It's impossible to tell beforehand how will the insides of the other
computer look like if one looks from the Deep, so I prefer the simplest way.
I nudge the 'newbie' - he rolls down from the 'throne', sits on the floor
clumsily. I take his place, take 'gloves' off and grab the orange thread
with bare hands, pulling it.
- Vika, terminal!
The screen unwraps before me. A-ha... "Virt-navigator", a nice
operating system but the one intended for somebody with an instinct of
self-preservation, not for the 'newbie'- experimentator. It's a penny deal
to turn off the timer on it.
And so this loser ruler of the galaxy did... he have already spent 28
hours in virtuality!
I'm too lazy to mingle with the timer, so I just find the urgent Deep
exit file and run it. Deep program doesn't submit at once, asks for
confirmation. And they call it 'urgent exit'...
The "Emperor" moans quietly and grabs his head, tries to walk towards
the door. I jump from the throne, wrapping up the terminal with a wave of my
hand, grab the man by the collar and push him towards the throne, ordering:
- Take the helmet off! Shut down the machine!
- I... I didn't mean to... - mumbles the 'emperor'.
- I'll mail you the bill for your rescue, - I cut him off, - exit, now!
The man's hands jerk to his head, then hammer the air erratically, his
figure dims, the orange thread disappears. I take the glasses off.
The hacker under the tunnel opening is almost ghostly already, he
rotates his head slowly looking around. That's how the legends of miracle
making divers are born.
- Let's go, - I say to Unfortunate who still circles around the hacker,
looking up into the tunnel opening, from where various garbage still pours
in. - Come on!
I have to drag him away by hand, like a kid. The hacker stays in the
empty hall, he's still full of curiosity. The hole in the ceiling narrows
slowly and his channel will be broken in around ten minutes. Ah well, let
him sort his own problems out by himself - if he's so damned cool...
The door leads us out into a small hall with seven more similar doors
and an elevator shaft. Somewhere nearby the leader of red ants dreams on his
throne, the wily plans are plotted by the ruler of intelligent medusas and
by other game addicts...
- Why did you glue yourself to that hacker? - I ask Unfortunate in
elevator but he doesn't answer.
Let him, the most important thing is that I've finally got him out of
"Labyrinth", just from under the nose of two mighty corporations!
Elevator brings us to Deeptown's street, I look around. There's the AOL
tower, long rows of hotels, the green of the park - this is "Giltoniel's
Gardens". A-ha, not too bad: we are on the border Russian, European and
American sectors of the city. Unfortunate raises his head and pronounces:
-‡ўя§¤к Ё Џ« ■Ґбк: •ъ§оЁ■ ‘ЁюЁца !
I follow his look: the colorful neon sign is glowing above the building
that we've just left: "Stars & Planets: Master of Sirius". {Engl. In the
original}
A famous company, it's worthy to offer them diver services - the work
is easy but earnings are stable.
- Unfortunate, what language is native for you?
- You don't know it, - he waves his hand.
I make a guess:
- Basic maybe?
We both laugh.
- Okay, - I agree, - You're alive, you're not a product of computer
intelligence.
- Thanks.
- But who are you?
Unfortunate shrugs and studies passers by with curiosity of somebody
who entered virtuality for the first time.
- Take the mask off, - I advise and pull respirator from him myself, -
No need to scare the people.
- Will we go anywhere else? - asks Unfortunate.
To be honest, I have no idea myself. I was fearing a quick and
energetic pursuit which we'll need to flee with much noise and blood. Then
we would rush to "Amusements" immediately.
- Let's walk a little, - I decide. - Have you ever been to the Elvish
Gardens?
- No.
- Let's go then. Not that it's a super attraction, but.... - I start
talking, but it looks like it isn't my fate to be a guide today.
The bright rainbow flashes up in the evening sky dimming the stars, the
crystal ringing is heard: a symbol of the Net-wide broadcast. It was used
for only 5 or 6 times on my memory.
And I can guess what they will convey now.
- Taxi! - I scream, stretching my hand. A car stops by in an instant, I
push Unfortunate inside and get in myself. The driver - a young curly-haired
black girl - turns to us with a smile.
I don't have a revolver with me now, so I just pull the gloves on and
knock the girl out with a fist. Unfortunate doesn't protest, he can
correctly tell real people from programs.
- To the brothel "Any Amusements"! - I order and the girl submits.
The car jumps forward.
- Citizens of Deeptown!
The voice is coming from everywhere, nobody can hide from it in a cozy
car interior or behind the walls of the house.
- This is Jordan Reid addressing you, the city's Security Service
commissar...
I know Reid, he's a nice guy even if an American, one of those who is
ready to communicate with divers and to tolerate minor offences for the sake
of the whole Net's well being.
- An important message is being broadcasted... please pay attention...
- mumbles the girl.
But I'm attention itself already.
- A crime was committed on the territory of "Labyrinth of Death" around
half an hour ago, a crime that is threatening the very existence of Deeptown
itself. - says Reid.
Mother of God! What is that?
- Two persons, one of them is a diver, are charged of using a virus
weapon of a type forbidden by the Moscow Convention. It is a polymorphic
virus with labeled 'Warlock-9000', with unlimited ability for spreading.
What's this bull? Never would Maniac make such a virus!
- One of the virus' characteristics is interception of control over
communication hardware. Al-Kabar Corporation and "Labyrinth of Death" are
among the victims.
Now it becomes clear to me. When the fighting rivals understood that
their prey had escaped, they united and charged me of everything, including
destruction of the 33rd level.
Great. Now just try to prove that 'Warlock' have only drilled a hole
for us and then died peacefully as any decent legalized virus should. Even
if to surrender the source code to the police, nobody would take a risk to
acquit me. Who knows how could 'Warlock' interfere with "Labyrinth"'s
virtual space?
- Shit, - I whisper.
- Is it bad? - asks Unfortunate.
- Much worse.
I pull my hand over the girl's shoulder, grab a phone from the
dashboard and dial Guillermo's number.
- Now you can see the appearance that was used by suspects in
"Labyrinth", - informs Jordan, - We offer these individuals to arrive to
Deeptown Security Department voluntarily. I would also request anybody who
knows these individuals to contact me.
Our portraits flash up in the sky, then me and Unfortunate are
demonstrated full height and in motion.
Looks impressive, especially when I cut off Dick's head with the lash.
- Assholes, - I mumble ungluing myself from the window.
Connection establishes in around 10 seconds.
- Hello! {in Engl}
- Hi Willy, - I say quickly, - How should I understand that?
A pause.
- Ah! Gunslinger? Where are you?
- In a car.
I don't risk, the knocked off transportation program doesn't report its
location.
- A misunderstanding have happened, - says Guillermo quickly, - Come
here, we'll fix everything.
- Drop your charges first.
Willy sighs:
- Gunslinger, this is not in my... aaa... powers.
- Too bad. I'll call you later. - I promise and put the phone back.
We approach the brothel and a new problem arises - what to do with a
car? It's not the easiest task to destroy the program completely. If I let
it go - Deep Transit would restore control over it sooner or later and will
figure out our route.
I'll have to get help from Deep-Transit itself...
I take a box with an emerald beetle from my pocket, put the glasses on,
then command:
- Unfortunate, get out.
I exit the car after him, throw the dumb insect inside and shut the
door. The result follows immediately.
Deep-Transit doesn't guard its cars too well preferring to tolerate
small pranks like my free and undocumented rides, but they mercilessly crush
any attempts to penetrate into their servers. It's impossible to defeat
their security with primitive programs such as the beetle.
The cab dims and dissolves in the air - the comm channel was chopped
off at the very first attempt of the beetle to crawl into the foreign
computer.
- Let's go, - I poke Unfortunate slightly and grab his hand. If there
are any customers in the lobby now - we're in deep trouble. But we are lucky
- it's nobody there, even the guard is missing.
- This is brothel, - I inform Unfortunate just in case, - You can
browse the albums.
He shakes his head.
- Why I'm not surprised? Follow me...
We almost run along the corridor. I expect employees to look from
behind the doors again but it's absolutely silent. Nobody around at all! As
if the brothel died.
I push the door into Vika's room prepared for that she'll not be there
either. Unfortunate hesitates behind my back.
- May I congratulate you Leonid? - asks Vika in an icy voice.
It's so clean in the hut as if no earthquake had ever happened. I don't
know about others but I usually make such a cleaning being in the lousiest
mood only. A little boombox have appeared on the table, Vika have changed,
now she's dressed in gray jeans and a jersey of the same color.
And also, she expects my explanations if to judge from her tone.
- You have heard the commissar?
- Who haven't? - Vika rises and I pad back hurriedly. When the woman is
mad, the man better not to resist. - So you've saved your... friend. Have he
saved you guy?
Unfortunate shrugs smiling, and Vika slows down a little.
- What is your name?
- Unfortunate.
- Um-hm. So listen here pal, don't take your chances, just stay by the
window and be silent!
Unfortunate submits and Vika moves towards me. Oh, the wrong
personality have she chosen for that - it's Madam's manner.
- So, you've saved... So you've fucked Al-Kabar and "Labyrinth"...
- Vika, they're lying! - I say hurriedly, - 'Warlock-9000' is a local
virus, it conforms to Convention's standards!
- And do they lie about the diver too? - shouts Vika, and I finally
understand what exactly did piss her off, - Do they? Or somebody else is
lying?... somebody else!
I don't have a big experience in getting slaps in the face, I hold the
aching cheek and stand still as a pole. Unfortunate obediently looks into
the window but obviously he could hear the sound well.
- Diver? - Vika is still boiling, - Diver? And I was so damned stupid
to offer you help! Couldn't you tell me that you're diver yourself?
- No, - I whisper.
- Why? You don't trust me?
I'd never believe that God created a woman from Adam's rib. Never, as
well as in that the man was created from clay, but of the different sort.
The reasons we find for becoming mad are too different.
- I thought I could lose you.
- And so you... - starts Vika and silences.
- It's impossible to love somebody who sees the Deep without illusions.
I know Vika, I tried to uncover before. It... always happens. You would
start to hate me. Imperceptibly. You wouldn't even notice what had
happened...
I keep talking, already knowing that it's over. We might stay friends
but nothing more. No woman in the world would love somebody who sees her
face as a mesh of color pixels.
- Yes, I had to tell you, - I whisper, - Immediately. I'm sorry, I
couldn't. Would you ever have a nerve to confess that you're diver?
Vika stays silent, there are tears in her eyes that don't really exist.
There's a wall between us, from now on and forever.
- No, - she says quietly, - I couldn't either. I... didn't want to lose
you.
I think I went crazy.
So what if I hug her tightly and there's no wall between us?
- My work... it's because of it. It's too disgusting when everything is
for real. I don't know how it happened... it was too dirty... I was scared
and had fallen from the Deep...
- We say - surfaced...
- Surfaced...
Unfortunate looks at the mountains, he's a great guy, he can strand
like this all day.
- I always surface. That's why I always take the worst freaks, because
I don't care...
I have a question that I'll never ask but Vika answers herself:
- There, by the river I didn't exit... for the first time in my life.
Honest.
I believe her as all men from the beginning of times do.
Only our faith becomes the truth in this world.

111

Vika makes coffee and even Unfortunate cheers up a little. We sit down
around the table, fresh cream is in the small pitcher, a pile of white sugar
is in the sugar bowl, the full bottle of Ahtamar waits for its turn. Though,
Vika pours the cognac into cups immediately.
- For your success, Lenia, - she says.
- Such successes are cheap, - I reply.
- Why?
- Net-wide search.
- So what?
- I'll have to leave. This personality is exposed and Gunslinger was
seen here.
- By whom? - Vika says as if she doesn't understand all complexity of
the situation. - By my girls?
- By them too.
- They won't tell anybody. Or do you think that virtual prostitutes are
loyal to the powers of this world? You know, we had seen them all without
pants... corporations' directors and companies' presidents. The people who
usually lash the woman before going to bed don't evoke any pity.
- According to you they are all perverts.
- Sure not, - Vika smiles, - But these are the guests that are
remembered. None of our girls would squeal on Gunslinger. All the more that
you never made orgies and weren't disgusted to sit with us.
- Are you sure?
- Lenia, all our personnel is from Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia,
Kazakhstan. What do you think, does the love towards the government or big
business exist there?
- I've never noticed such perversions.
- That's my point. For your success!
We drink cognac, Unfortunate joins us. His face is emotionless as if he
have sipped some tea.
- What about Cap? - I remember - This is the one who remembers me for
sure!
- Not that breed. Well defined asocial type... he won't squeal on you.
- He seemed capable of much to me.
Vika drums her fingers against the table.
- Lenia... Cap always takes the red album. This is a special group,
where everything is allowed. Not just chains, lashes and petty sadist's
delights, but any atrocities. Murders, body dismemberment... should I go on?
- Thanks, that's enough.
- So, Cap never does anything of this. He comes to us to socialize...
to talk.
- And that's how he pissed everybody off?
- Lenia, when the solid unkie orders the red album, brings the girl to
the dungeon and rips out her throat screaming "I'm a vampire!", this is
lousy, disgusting but understandable. It's just an illness. When a plain
looking youth sits across the girl and starts a 'sincere talk' with her...
when he spends money to prove her in a couple of hours that she is a slut
and a dirty beast, that she doesn't deserve to live on Earth... this is much
more terrible, believe me.
- Why? - Unfortunate enters the talk suddenly.
- Because it's a curse. The right to judge and the right to rule. The
right for the Truth. It's easy to sort it out with a stupid person or a
beast. It's much more difficult with somebody who considers himself
superhuman, a clean, clever and pure one. Generals fighting for peace,
rulers destroying corruption, perverts condemning pornography - oh Lord,
haven't we seen enough of them? Maybe this is a kind of curse that overhangs
above the mankind? When they promise order one should expect chaos, when
they defend life - death comes, when they defend moral - people turn into
animals. You just have to say - I'm above that, I'm cleaner, I'm better -
and requital comes immediately. Only those who don't climb the pedestal and
never promise any miracles do bring good into the world.
I can feel that they have become engaged seriously and meddle quickly:
- Stop! Vika, let's do without disputes about good and evil! In such a
way it's possible to declare killers and thieves justs!
- You're a thief yourself, - notes Vika.
- I help to distribute information.
- And the pickpocket teaches the people vigilance. But does the single
mother with many children whose purse with a whole salary was stolen need
such a lesson?
I have millions of objections. I can try to explain that stealing
somebody else's files is not the most important in diver's work. Hacker can
be much more successful in that without even entering virtuality, and
there's a big difference between stealing the data and copying it: I never
leave empty computers behind. What the hell is the difference for the
mankind who will be the first in producing new shampoo or cold reliever?
But I don't want to argue with Vika.
- I'm sorry, - she touches my hand, - I'm wrong.
- Why not? You kicked my butt well...
- I'm sorry... You see Unfortunate, we have fallen in the world of pure
information, the world of complete licence. One can fight, lead a dissolute
life, engage in hooliganism. There's no laws ready, and most important - the
human mentality isn't ready. There's almost no punishments in the Deep -
even if they excommunicate you from the Net, it's possible to reenter under
the different name. One can get into troubles stealing data, but even here
restraining norms are minimal. Go ahead and try to prove to the jury that it
was Mr John Smith who stole a new game from Microprose's server, smuggled it
to Vanya Petrov who released it to the market in a pirate manner with the
help of Van Xo. It's a world of unprovable crimes and fake deaths. Only the
pain in the soul remains real - but who would ever measure this pain that
slid across the wires and squeezed your heart? We have nothing left except
the moral, the funny shabby moral. And we realized that it's so much more
comfortable to be a scum or a saint than a human... just a human, a real
human.
- But what is that - a human? - says Unfortunate, - Just a human, a
real human?
- I'd explain you, - I reply, - If I was God. Cut this out you two,
okay?
- But I'm really curious, - Unfortunate still talks in a quiet, even
somehow indifferent tone but there's a spark of excitement in his eyes.
- You're the human.
- Why?
Really, why? Wasn't I ready to consider him nothing more than just a
cunning program? I feel confused but Vika also looks at me waiting for an
answer and I say:
- I don't know. You didn't shoot people in "Labyrinth", you rescued
nonexistent kid... But this is an extreme stupidity... You cite Carroll in
original but the human is not just a crammed load of knowledge... You're in
the Deep for the third day in a row and you're still fine...
Vika looks at Unfortunate in surprise.
- And nobody knows how did you enter virtuality... but this is not a
human indication but the opposite...
He waits patiently.
- You know, this is something inside us, - I say suddenly even for
myself. - You're a human for me... because I'd like to be your friend.
It seems that Unfortunate is confused.
- We're all wearing masks here in the Deep, maybe it's for the better,
maybe it's closer to the truth. I don't know. When you exit into the real
world, you might turn out to be a very unpleasant type. But here and now I
consider you human. It's impossible to explain.
- Then maybe it's for good that I can't exit into reality? - asks
Unfortunate. He looks at Vika and smiles shyly, - The thing is, I'm not a
human.
Here we go again.
Insanity, part two.
Vika smiles examining Unfortunate, and my heart sinks.
- Vika... he doesn't lie. He never lies. - I say slowly standing up -
When he doesn't want to reply, he just says nothing... - I take her hand and
pull her from the table. Unfortunate watches us, sadly and calmly.
- Was it a joke? - Vika nods to Unfortunate questionably.
- No.
- He can't joke, - I confirm. - You really can't exit the Deep?
- No.
- Are you a human?
- No.
- Who are you?
Silence.
- You see? - I almost shout, - He doesn't reply!
- A minute ago you called me a human, - says Unfortunate, - You even
said that you'd like to be my friend. Was it true?
Now it's my turn to be silent.
- You said that the truth is here and now, - he goes on, - Anyone may
be himself in the Deep, without any makeup. Only the soul... if to believe
in it.
- Yes! - I say, - Yes, it was true!
- Then what scares you? My confession?
I nod. Vika snuggles close and I can feel how she shakes. I didn't
expect her to be so scared.
- Why didn't you tell before? - I shout.
- I told you enough, Leonid.
At this point Vika starts to laugh excitedly.
- You're crazy, both of you! You're not human? - she breaks free,
approaches Unfortunate, takes his hand, - Tell me!
- What do you define by the term 'human'?
- A bipedal creature without feathers!
- I'm NOT a human.
The nightmare goes on. Unfortunate plays his games, Vika is confused
and I don't know anymore how to break the chain of riddles and omissions.
Computer mind is impossible! It's not time yet for it to be born. But I
can't consider Unfortunate's words a lie either!
The phone ring that tears the silence is like a salvation.
Vika steps back from Unfortunate, opens the door of the sideboard. A
cordless phone lies there among scattered jars, packages and boxes.
- Yes? - says Vika without averting her gaze from Unfortunate.
The voice in the handset is loud and confident, I can hear it well and
recognize it immediately.
- I'd like to talk to Gunslinger.
- Whom? - Vika is genuinely surprised.
- Gunslinger. Tell him that Man Without Face wants to talk to him.
I step forward and take the phone.
- Talk.
- Firstly, I'd like to congratulate you Gunslinger. Secondly, I suggest
you to come out.
- No ■■■■■■■ way. - I reply.
- Gunslinger, we have no time for games. I'm standing by the main
entrance. But this time I outstrip our competitors for a couple of minutes
only, no more. Al-Kabar could trace your route. Come out.
- And what's next?
- You will get the promised reward and I will get Unfortunate.
A loud phone, a very loud one. I look at the blonde guy who doesn't
consider himself a human, at frowning Vika.
- I think he doesn't want to go with you, - I reply, - I'm sorry.
- Gunslinger, we had a deal...
- I didn't promise to give you the guy. I've got him out of "Labyrinth"
and all the rest is our own business.
- You take too much responsibility on yourself, diver.
- At least somebody must make decisions, right?
- Well, you've made yours.
The voice vanishes. In a second the floor quivers, pushing us to the
ceiling, the log walls crunch, bending. A picture with a waterfall on it
falls on me and the sound of water returns me to my senses.
I rise and crawl along the kicking floor. This is not an earthquake,
this is the brothel's walls falling apart, they break the security system so
naively praised by Computer Wiz.
Though, if nobody broke into the hut yet, it means that the security
wasn't too bad after all.
- Vika!
I help her to stand up, her face is in blood, the jersey sleeve torn
off.
- Bastards, - she whispers.
Only Unfortunate haven't fallen down, he stands propped against the
wall, outstretching his hands to the sides to keep balance.
- I'll come out of the bui... - he starts, but the next explosion booms
and muffles his words, - It's inevitable...
- Do you want to surrender?
- No, but...
- Then stop fluttering! - I shake Vika slightly, - Are there any ropes
in the room?
She shakes her head in confusion.
- We need ropes!
Vika turns to look at the window, she understood.
- We could jump...
- We'll kill ourselves, there's seven and a half meters to go!
Fortunately Vika doesn't notice the exactness of the figure, otherwise
I wouldn't avoid a untimely scandal. Women are made of a different clay.
- On the third floor... - she starts, and then the door flies open. I
tear the belt from my body and it turns into lash with a soft hiss. But
there's neither Man Without face nor his mercenaries in the door, Computer
Wiz hangs there balancing on his winged slippers. The corridor behind his
back is enveloped in colorful glow, flashes and as I look at this carnival
blur, something starts happening to me - my movements slow down, lose their
precision...
- Wow, 'Warlock Nine-thousandth'! - screams the Wiz cheerfully seeing
the lash in my hand, flows into the room, shuts the door and my sudden
fatigue disappears. - Vika, where's Madam?
- I'm for her!
- Brothello is under attack! - Wiz is still having fun - The first
floor was freakin' swept out to hell! The braker is on but they move anyway!
He flies to me, grabs my sleeve and asks excitedly:
- Saw this illumination? So much junk info is flowing to their modems,
any computer would choke! Well, except the good one... Vika, so where's
Madam?
- Can we hold out against this?
- No, sure not! Cool profies are working! But never mind, everything is
being logged, we'll file such a protest - don't worry... Where's Madam, I
won't start active systems without her order!
Vika's body flickers, she broadens in her chest and hips, the face
melts like wax. So that's how looks the diver from the side when exiting
virtuality and changing body.
- Fire up everything you have, - orders Madam.
- Oh! Ah! - Wiz thrusts his eyes open in theatrical surprise. Can he
ever stop playing I wonder? - I knew, I knew that!
His hands are busy not with a show though, he gets a small console from
his pocket and starts typing in some commands.
- We won't hold out anyway, Madam Vika!
- We must get out, Wiz.
- Madam! - Wiz presses his hands against his heart, - I can't help with
that so quickly, the diver is necessary here!
- It doesn't anything to do with divers, - I wave my hand towards the
window, - The rope is necessary!
- To hang yourselves up? - laughs Wiz. He crosses his legs, falls on
the floor and starts pulling off his slippers not stopping to chatter - Geez
how funny, that weirdo on the third floor, you know, the one who likes sex
for three, he never tells anything about himself, was so scared that jumped
out of the window! He fell into the pool and now splashes there screaming
that he can't swim and he's the State Duma deputy and we must save him...
He throws me the slippers.
- Take these, the power is unlimited, you'll descend all three! Madam,
why didn't you ever tell that Vika is your mask, I'm not tattler, I wouldn't
tell anybody!
I pull the slippers on, the wings quiver excitedly and thresh against
my fingers. Funny: Madam is Vika's mask for Wiz, for me it's vice versa.
- Oh, what a load of scandals will we have now... And who are you man,
huh?
Unfortunate doesn't reply, maybe he feels dizzy too, just as me?
Computer Wiz looks like a multitasking operating system which is
simultaneously busy both with buffoonery and a serious work. I can't do
that.
- Thanks, - I say trying to stand up. Wiz nudges me under my elbow and
holds while I'm balancing in the air getting used to it. The feeling is
absolutely weird, this is not a jet knapsack which is used on some
"Labyrinth"'s levels, but a real walking on air.
- Just like on stairs, - whispers Wiz, - Like ascending-descending
stairways.
- Wiz, how much more time do we have? - Madam looks around the hut
business-like, hangs Vika's purse on her shoulder, then starts pulling jars
and packages from the sideboard and throwing them out of the window with a
basketball player's moves. I doubt we'll have time to pick all this stuff up
but I don't argue.
- Just for a little parting kiss!
- Then let's postpone it until our next meeting. Please Wiz, try to
hold them as long as you can... Chatter with them or something...
- I'll try... - confuses Wiz suddenly, - Well... I don't know how...
- Vika, return into your body, - I ask examining Madam's mighty
dimensions, then approach Unfortunate who still clings to the wall.
- Man, I don't care who you are, a human or a program. I tend to agree
with both!
He looks into my eyes silently.
- I don't want to give you to those freaks. I'll try to rescue you. Do
you believe me?
Unfortunate stays silent.
- I still want to be your friend, - I say, - Whoever you might be.
He makes a step towards me, I add:
- Please... Let's not give those bastards a pleasure to get us!
I think I've said something wrong.
- Good - regardless of the evil? - inquires Unfortunate.
- How else? - Wiz enters the talk suddenly. He have plopped into the
armchair, crossed his legs and became suddenly serious, - If there's no any
starting point - everything becomes senseless.
Unfortunate silences and obediently pads to the window with us. Vika -
not Madam, but Vika - have already climbed the window-sill and looks down
with a strange expression.
- You what, fear heights? - I ask a bit too late.
- Come on, don't lose the time, huh! - shouts Wiz behind us. I turn
back to look at him - his fingers are threshing against the console while
the roaring starts behind the door as if of the Boeing on the runway.
Somebody's scream is almost muffled by the roaring. Flames scurry along the
wooden door.
- Wiz, what about you?
Computer Wiz smiles and takes something from his pocket that looks most
like a chicken egg.
- I have this.
- What's that?
- You'll see. - promises the Wiz.
Vika and Unfortunate hang on my shoulders so simultaneously that no
other command is required. I step over the window-sill and place my foot on
the air. The air holds.
The wind hits me on the side, the river noises some 100 meters below, I
start feeling dizzy. I must exit, exit the Deep.
But I just... don't want to see Vika's face as a colorful pixel mesh.
Initially I was going to descend onto the slope but now I see it won't
make sense: the path is blocked with boulders... damned earthquake! I go
forward and down, above the slope, the canyon, the roaring mountain river -
to the opposite slope, covered with green thickets.
- I even fear to fly planes... - whispers Vika. I avert my look from
the chasm below and look at her.
- Hold on, baby...
- Have you... surfaced?
- No!
She shuts her eyes for a second, then raises her head:
- Lenia, exit! Don't torture yourself!
Yeah, right... keep waiting.
I'm of a different clay.
- Take care guys! - shouts Wiz behind. He must have leaned out of the
window.
- 'Guys'! - whispers Vika with indignation, - All you males are same!
- Vickie, and a thousand and a half kisses for you! - goes on Wiz.
I'm glad now that he's so talkative. I still have a hundred meters
ahead to cover.
I look to the left - Unfortunate's face is absolutely calm, he looks
down in the chasm below with a joyful childlike curiosity. That's whom I had
to let to put the slippers on.
I have no idea why did Vika be so modest praising Siegsgord, her space
is not any worse, maybe even more real.
The pine tree branches sweep me across the face, the violet colored
cone flows past my eyes. As strange as it might seem, I now believe that
those exist.
I'm spiraling around the pine tree descending lower and lower. The
cliff with a small hut perched on it was left on the opposite side of the
canyon, Wiz is not in the window anymore.
- Lenia.. - whispers Vika when it's still a meter and a half left to
the ground and unclenches her hands. Shouldn't have done that: she lands
fine while me and Unfortunate are in a worse position, I tumble down to my
left side, the slippers beat the air convulsively, unable to hold us.
A small pile.
Isn't it too many falls for one day, especially in the Chinese suit
with its weak limitations for hit strength?
I shake off the slippers that hang in the air before me and stand up
gulping for air greedily and rubbing the bruised side. Unfortunate moans and
squats.
Vika looks at us with confusion.
- Was it painful, guys?
- No, everything is just great! - I growl helping Unfortunate to stand
up. The dense green canopy is above and the slope in some five meters away.
The water rumble muffles the rustling of needles under the feet. It's so
good to be on the solid ground again!
- Lenia...
- Passed that, - I cut off. I can understand what is a height fright
after all, couldn't pass Al-Kabar's bridge in the Deep myself. We're out of
the brothel, and this is the most important thing. We're not in the space
attacked by Man Without Face's people. The mountains created by Vika for her
'own consumption' surround us, the mountains where never was a single human.
The space within a space, a secret world that lives according to its own
laws, and the hut on the slope is the only door into it...
The thick orange-black fire strikes from the hut's window, the log
walls instantly start burning in a hot quick fire. Wiz said we'll see, and
he was right, it's difficult not to notice how the file bomb works. The only
exit into the normal Deep is burning before us.
- I hope you're there... Man Without Face, - I say.
- What did he promise you for Unfortunate? - asks Vika.
I squint my eyes at the failed trade subject and confess, - The Medal
of Complete Licence.
- What?
- You what, have never heard about it? It's the one Dibenko got for the
creation of the Deep, the right for any actions in the virtual world.
Vika smiles.
- It's more than money, - I say, - an absolution of any sins...
- They swindled you, Lenia.
- Why?
- Lenia, the Medal of Complete License is unique only because it exists
in one single copy. Any other created copy is considered a fake
automatically and is destroyed. I know that, I... knew a guy who tried to
make a copy.
The funniest thing is that I'm not surprised for even a little bit. I
wink to Unfortunate and say:
- You really must be a very important guy... if even Dimka Dibenko is
ready to sacrifice his main treasure for your hide...
Unfortunate shakes his head:
- No, I'm even more important.

* PART 4. The Deep *

0

From the food thrown by Vika through the window, only the glass jar of
jam and the paper pack of crackers have survived, as if in mockery of the
physics laws. The rest of the stuff slipped in the gap or was broken against
the boulders. In my opinion, it made no sense to store any food but we
picked up the jar anyway.
Maybe it's an inertia of consciousness, the panicked greed of mind that
sees wild nature around.
- Do you have any plan? - I ask Vika.
- Why me? It was your idea to flee through the window, - she objects
reasonably.
- We didn't have choice.
- We did. You're diver after all.
I nod at Unfortunate.
- And who is he?
Vika have grown tired of this question during a single last hour. We
sit down on a soft grass, in the tree shade. A white smoke still whirls
above the remains of the hut.
We silently watch Unfortunate who wanders over the slope, touches pine
trees, picks up some needles and pebbles from the ground. The city dweller
who have found himself in the wild for the first time, an If castle
dungeons' prisoner who was able to escape.
- Leonid, I must have been speaking too emotionally about computer
mind... - starts Vika, - So - he is a human. An ordinary human who takes you
in.
- He is in the Deep for three days.
- Stimulants, or he's a diver too.
- His comm channel can't be traced.
- A well hidden one.
- Two big companies and Dibenko are after him.
- It's enough stupid people in the world.
Okkam's blade is a wonderful thing, it cuts all mystic off clean,
together with meat.
- Vika, you're psychologist... are there any tests for telling people?
She laughs quietly.
- Sure not. These were never needed yet.
- I've seen a method to check in some sci-fi book...
- Do you really think that some scheme invented by a writer while
drinking a cup of coffee would work?
- We should try at least, - I'm holding my ground, - There are
institutes that study artificial intelligence problems after all. They must
have something worked out. There are fans who invent abstract tests... for
the future. I'll exit the Deep and will browse the Internet a little.
- And how are you going to return? There's no entrance into this space
anymore. - Vika laughs bitterly, - I think it's lost at all, forever. A
closed system, it will live in the computer by itself.
- A good hacker will be able to break a passage.
- It would be a different world then. The mountains will resist until
the end, if somebody breaks in here, they'll lose their freedom.
I understand her very well but I hate such a prudent pessimism.
- You'll draw the new ones.
Vika doesn't feel hurt.
- Next time I'll draw the sea. The sea, the sky and islands.
- ... And don't forget an emergency exit.
- Spaces live according to their own laws... - Vika stands up. - There
might be an exit, Lenia. When these mountains were built, the program was
searching for other landscapes, on all open servers. It was stealing pieces
from there... - she smiles in confusion, - And it had left some loopholes, a
tiny ones. If we manage to find one of those, we'll be able to exit.
- This sounds better already.
As a very last resort I have 'Warlock', but it's too risky to use it:
the enemies would notice the trace of the virus.
- We must get out of here, - decides Vika, - We have 5 more hours until
the dusk. If the attackers manage to restore the hut, it'd be better to be
as far from it as possible.

1

We stop only when the sun disappears in the paling of the mountains and
the orange sheen in the clouds fades. We managed to walk some 10 kilometers,
and this is much, very much. As for the night - only suicidal people wander
in the mountains at night.
The last quarter hour we spend gathering brushwood. Fortunately, it's
plenty of it around, we're on the border between the forest and the Alpine
meadows. Together with Unfortunate we drag in the small pine tree fallen of
the wind and I tear the small branches from it, scratching my hands, then
arrange them in a cone pile.
- That's enough, boys, - decides Vika. She lights a cigarette and makes
a fire quickly and with experience.
The supper is very symbolical - raspberry jam and dry crackers.
Unfortunate doesn't care at all: he chews with an appetite of electrical
mincer. I can't down a single piece, I wish I could have a big chunk of
fried meat with hot sauce and green peas, with a couple of bottles of cold
beer. And all this is so close! One just have to exit the Deep, reenter,
come to "Old Hacker" or "Three Piglets"...
Me and Vika glance at each other without an agreement.
I'm not sure whether she dreams of pork with beer or of trout with
white wine, but not of a cookies with jam for sure.
- Tastes good, Unfortunate? - inquires Vika.
- Um-hm.
- What do you eat usually?
- Nasty things...
Her patience ends instantly.
- Now hon, listen to me...
Unfortunate pulls his hand back from crackers and looks at Vika
questionably. We are on one side from the fire, he's on the other.
Opposition.
- We've got a problem, - starts Vika, - And this problem is you. Maybe
you don't understand the situation we have now completely... well, I'll try
to define it then. Correct me please if I make any mistake, okay?
Unfortunate nods. When you press somebody, it's very important to give
him an opportunity to object... or at least to pretend to.
- You were in "Labyrinth" and couldn't exit by yourself, right? Leonid
have spent tons of time and money to save you and he did that, right?
Not quite - "Labyrinth" paid for my work initially... but I stay silent
and Unfortunate nods obediently.
- Lenia rescued you and brought you to my place. A reward was awaiting
him, a very big one if he would hand you over but he didn't do that. As a
result, he's wanted as a criminal, he's searched for across all the Net.
Right? Then my Institution was ruined completely in an attempt to seize you.
It's not that difficult to restore the programs but "Amusements"' reputation
is lost forever. Now I'll have to start everything from scratch.
- I'm really sorry... - says Unfortunate quietly, - I.... I didn't mean
to bring so many troubles for you.
- Wait. We're still on the run. If you haven't got that already, I'll
explain to you: there's no ordinary way to exit this space. Exits might
exist but nobody knows whether we'll be able to find them in foreseeable
future or not. Me and Lenia are divers, we can leave this place at any
moment but we won't be able to return here, ever, and you'll stay alone
here. Maybe forever. That's the situation we have... from moral and ethical
point of view.
- I'm so sorry, - repeats Unfortunate.
- Let's talk about you now? It is you who is the reason for everything
that have happened after all.
Unfortunate shrinks but stays silent.
- You're either human or a creature of the machine mind. The latter is
doubtful though. If you're human, then you obviously can enter and exit the
Deep by yourself. Like divers, or even cooler. Right? Otherwise you wouldn't
look so fresh during your fourth day in virtuality. Would you like to argue
with that?
Silence.
- Come on man, I certainly assume such possibility, - says Vika, -
After all, a kilo and a half of brains is much bigger mystery than a gram of
silicon in a chip. I can imagine someone who managed to enter virtuality
without helmets, modems, deep program... And I even imagine his joy... and
some shock from this event. Why not to play the fool a little, why not to
envelope himself in a mystery? Everything is quite explainable. But try to
understand, it's not a joke anymore - you make us suffer, you make the
conflict harder and harder to resolve with each minute. Try to understand,
we can't tinker with you forever!
- I... I'm tired... just tired... - Unfortunate looks at me as if
seeking support.
No way.
- And the last thing - how we can resolve this situation, - enunciates
Vika, - It's ridiculous to proceed this way, lead-time of the conflict
wouldn't do us any good. If you don't want to uncover yourself or don't
trust us or don't want to spoil such a beautiful legend - just tell us and
we'll leave. Then the newbies will tell tales of The One Lost In The Deep...
If you consider us trustworthy, explain who you are and why you started all
this. You have two ways out, it's not that little.
She falls silent and I take and shake her hand gently. I never have
enough cool to lead the situation to such clarity, to the 'either-or' state.
- I... - Unfortunate stops and looks at the fire. Brushwood scratches
softly, sparks jump into the dark sky, - It's my fault. I'm tired, tired of
silence... I shouldn't have done that...
- What are you talking about? - asks Vika, maybe in a bit too sharp
tone. But Unfortunate is confused and demoralized now.
- Too quiet, - he mumbles, - It's impossible to comprehend beforehand,
never. All sounds became dead, all colors faded. Seconds - like centuries.
Billions of centuries. I was warned but I didn't want to believe.
He swallows some air and stretches his hand towards the fire. The flame
touches his fingers.
- Neither pain nor joy, nothing. A Great Silence. Everywhere. Eternal
Void. And the Void doesn't have any borders... I couldn't resist.
His hand pats the flame tenderly.
- I can't explain you anything. Leave.
I glance at Vika - now she'll get him... but there's only a reflection
of fire in her eyes, black night and red flames. The Silence Unfortunate was
talking about have touched her too, just as me last time.
I rise and pull Unfortunate from the fire. Auto-suggestion is a
powerful thing: having burned in virtuality one can expect real blisters. I
make him to squat by the stream and put his hand into cold water.
- Alrite, - I decide. - We'll sleep now. Just sleep instead of taking
each other in. Me and Vika will surface keeping connection, we need to eat
normally. As for you... do whatever. In the morning you'll decide what you
want after all.
Unfortunate silently splashes his hand in cold water.
I return to Vika, she is okay again but all her passion have
dissipated.
- Are you pliable to hypnosis? - I inquire. Vika snorts scornfully:
it's just a rhetorical question, there's no hypnosis pliable among divers.
If we manage to overcome the drug of the deep program, it's impossible to
get us with words.
- My point exactly, - I say, - We all can play the fool, but what about
dunking an interlocutor into Silence?
- I'm tired too, - whispers Vika, - You know, one more hour and I'll
talk such riddles that even Unfortunate will be envious...
- We'll go to sleep now. Then we'll surface without breaking
connection, to have a snack. Do you have any food at home?
- Sure.
- Excellent. Eat and get a nap. We'll come back in the morning and will
decide everything.
We do exactly that. I make Unfortunate to help me, together we get
three big piles of fur-grove and set them near the fire. The bed turns out
to be so comfortable that I hardly overcome the idea to neglect the supper.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...
The eyelids were so heavy, I hardly managed to part them. The fire was
dancing on the screens, fur-grove was rustling in headphones - Vika was
tossing and turning making herself comfortable.
- Lenia, are you interrupting the immersion? - asked Windows-Home.
- No.
I took the helmet off and looked at the watch.
Late evening. Not that late though to make it uncomfortable to visit
the neighbors. Beer can wait a little.
Having unplugged the suit, I calmed down the panicking computer and
looked at myself in the mirror.
A clown, with a plug on a belt. Should we scare old ladies a little?
Tights were lying in the laundry wash-basin. I picked 'em up and pulled
on over the virtual suit, rolled the wire and stuck it under the belt,
covering it with jacket. Not too bad, a normal guy, just a bit swollen one.
A guitar was ringing in the stairwell quietly. I peeked into the
peephole and opened the door.
A company of youth was perched on the patch between the floors, one of
them sang quietly torturing the strings:
- Oh the lonesome bird, you're flying high...
Seeing me, the teens seemed confused for some reason, just the neighbor
from the apartment above asked quickly:
- Lenia, do you have something to smoke?
I shook my head and noticed that the guy squints at the tights
distended on my side, just in the size of a cigarette pack. Hardly could he
guess that some people live with plugs by their belts...
I rang to the neighboring apartment, waited for shuffling steps and
suspicious "Who is there?". The old woman doesn't trust the peephole or her
own eyes.
- Lyudmila Borisovna, excuse me for God's sake... - I said into the
door, - May I please make a call from you? My phone is broken.
After a minute of hesitation the ancient locks started to rattle. I
squeezed into the narrow opening and the door shut close immediately.
- The youth sits again? - inquired Lyudmila Borisovna. The old lady is
70+ old and doesn't risk to argue with young punks.
- Yeah.
- Why wouldn't at least you tell them, Lenia! No rest whatsoever!
No sounds from the staircase can be heard here, the granny has the
powerful door but I don't argue:
- Sure I'll tell them.
- And what's wrong with your phone, huh? Didn't pay in time, got
disconnected?
I nod obediently, admiring her acumen.
- You like to chat too much, don't you? - growls the old lady. We had a
parallel number some time ago {two phones connected to one number}, but
obviously it was impossible to live like this anymore. I paid for the number
split and also subsidized the granny - a parallel phone was a bit cheaper
for her. I think she decided I'm an idiot. But our relations greatly
improved since.
- Sure, go ahead, call... - Lyudmila Borisovna nodded at the phone.
Obviously she wasn't going to leave me alone.
Ah well, curiosity isn't a vice...
I dialed Maniac's number trying to ignore dirty dial disk and sticky
handset.
- Allo?
- Shura, evening...
- A-ha.... - said Maniac in a satisfied voice, - Here he is... a
criminal.
- Shura, they...
- Relax, I'm sorting this out. I have a license for local virus
creation, they won't pick on this.
- Have you registered 'Warlock'?
- Of course, at Lozinsky's himself. All sources conform to the Moscow
Convention, so they'll get nothing.
I feel relieved a little. If the virus wasn't registered with some
antivirus creator, Maniac could get in a serious trouble. Certainly, I can
be accused of reckless weapon use or of damage... but they'll have to find
me first.
- Were you asked who bought the virus?
- Sure thing. I gave them your address... the most puny one.
A couple of years ago, when I just started to balance on the border of
the law, one diver advised me to buy a couple of addresses and to never use
them. So afterwards it were these nonexistent 'comrades' on whom all viruses
taken from Maniac were wrote off.
- I said that you paid a grand for the virus. - Shurka goes on.
- You know, it'd be right if I...
- Relax, I have 5 requests for 'Warlock' at this price already. -
Maniac laughs joyfully, - Coolness! I'm ready to buy beer for Jordan for
such an advertisement. The whole Deeptown is stirred.
- Isn't the sale forbidden?
- Not yet. They are studying the source. You better tell me where were
you an hour or a bit more ago?
- Well... As usual.
Lyudmila Borisovna coughed slightly, curiosity was fighting in her with
an old woman's greed. The hourly charge is the worst enemy of computer
people and windbags.
- Okie, in the Deep. I've dropped by, wanted to drink beer with you.
Maniac hesitates suddenly.
- You... look out of your door.
- What for?
- I rang, then sat on the bench outside, drank some beer, then ascended
and rang again... Then I left a couple of Holstens under your door. Light.
Look, are they still there?
I emitted the sound like the one of an old disk drive.
- Shura, what do you think, communism was declared this morning? What's
wrong with you?
- Well, you just look, maybe they're there... - mumbled Maniac.
- No, they are NOT there! I'm calling from the neighbors'.
- Ah well... what the hell...
Sometimes my mind falters when I deal with real computer guys. Maybe
Shurka had confused the real world and the Deep where beer costs peanuts?
- Tell somebody, they won't ever believe...
- Those who drank will, - noted Maniac gloomily.
- Come tomorrow around ten, - I asked, - We need to discuss something.
- Just don't forget to surface. I'll come.
- Bye Shurka.
I put the handset on the hook and looked at Lyudmila Borisovna
confused.
- Was it too long?
- No, that's okay, - the old lady shook her head, - It's the business,
don't I understand? What do you sell at least?
- Beer, - I said point-blankly.
- I liked beer myself... but is it really possible to indulge myself
having such a pension?
- Lyudmila Borisovna, what if I treat you, huh? - I offered joyfully, -
I just have some samples at home!
This would be the best way out, otherwise the old one will definitely
drag herself to my place to call from my phone... as a compensation of her
damages. But the people with weak nerves should better not enter my
apartment.
- Well, if just a bottle... - the old one livens up.
The youth on the patch traced me with greedy gazes when I was carrying
a bottle of 'Oranienbaum' to the next apartment. Needless to say, two
bottles of light beer for four sound loafers isn't serious.

10

I managed to find a callous frank in the freezer's depths. From canned
stuff only the tin of sprats have left, I bought it either in times of dire
straits or for nostalgic reasons.
I was sleepy to numbness but warmed up the poor frank anyway, took a
tin opener and installed two bottles of Pilsen Urquell on the table before
me. The supper in the candlelight - candles were quivering on the monitor: a
screensaver. The fire scratching coming from the helmet was very much in
place.
Let this Deep go to hell, together with this Unfortunate! Now, in the
real world, everything that happened seemed nothing more than some absurd
play. If Unfortunate doesn't confess tomorrow in the morning, me and Vika
will exit the mountain space. Forever. Let him tell his tales to the cliffs
and pine trees - they'll appreciate that.
I took a mouthful of beer and moaned in pleasure, then started opening
the tin, cut off the cover accurately, hooked it with a fork...
And almost fell from the chair.
A hundred of fish heads was gazing at me with reproachfully.
Somewhere in virtuality I wouldn't be surprised with such joke, but in
the real world...
I rummaged through heads soaked in tomato sauce trying to find at least
one whole fish. Nothing. Very diligently done. I imagined a fish-factory...
a kind of a floating giant... or the sprats are tinned on the shore? A
conveyor with this low-grade stuff. Girls, crazed of fish stench and
monotonous work... Now one of then takes an empty tin from the transporter
and starts stuffing the fish heads into it. A joke.
I really laughed, shuddering and closing the tin back. I had nothing to
eat but wasn't mad at the anonymous worker, on the contrary, everything
suddenly have seemed perfectly in place.
Stuck to the bottle, I finished the first Urquell.
You wanted miracles, diver? The computer mind and people entering
virtuality directly?
Come back to senses, diver! Here they are, miracles available to our
world! Stolen beer, sprats' heads stuffed with eyes, stuffiness and foul of
old lady's apartment, teenage punks in the stairways, annoying drip of water
from the faucet in the kitchen.
This is - life. Whatever stupid and boring it might be, and there
inside a helmet is just a tale created by machines and our own
subconsciousness. Our electronic escapism.
I opened the second beer, picked up the tin, came out to the balcony
and dumped out tin's contents into the wilted front garden. A feast is
awaiting stray cats this night.
- Not ethical! - I reproached myself. As strongly as in Vika's program
it is stuck into my mind that one shouldn't throw garbage out of the window.
But, unlike the machines we are able to ignore the bans. From
balconies.
As I was, with the beer, I entered the bathroom, unbuttoned the suit
glancing at the bottle. I didn't want to drink anymore.
- What is this long and cumbersome process for? - I asked rhetorically
and poured the rest of the beer down into the toilet.
I lagged to the sofa and turned off the light. For how much longer is
it possible to sleep huddled up by the table, with an electronic saucepan on
the head? It was quiet, very quiet, and even the teens on the staircase
stopped torturing their guitar.
Only the computer hummed smoothly and the candles were blinking on the
screen.
I turned over forcing my face into the pillow but the sleep was
retreating. There, in the Deep, the motionless dead Gunslinger's body is
lying. Does he miss me? Something, just a little from betrayal is in it.
- For the last time! - I moaned, rising. I put on the helmet, plugged
the suit into the port, laid my hands on the keyboard.
Deep
Enter.

I snuggle close to Vika in my sleep and she mumbles something, turning
to the other side. As quiet as her voice is, but I wake up. Looks like she
sleeps in the Deep too.
The fire is off. Maybe the morning is close but the darkness haven't
yet retreated, only red sheen from the dying fire can be seen. Unfortunate
lies a bit away like a motionless mat- bag. What if I reach you and nudge
you a good deal, huh? Just to see, are you here with us of exited the deep
and sleep in the warm soft bed?
I look up at the sky, into the black sparkling crystal. How did I say
that to Vika? "They've stolen the sky from us"?
Yes, they have, and the more people leave here, the further the stars
will become.
It's not only the stars though. There always will be somebody for whom
this world will stay out of reach: the restless teens who can't find work,
the girls from fish packing plants... Fish heads, accurately arranged in
rows in tins will come first. Is it just a joke or a silent cry, a protest?
Fish heads will come first. And only then human heads will start to roll.
Does the second advent of machine destroyers await us? The rebel
against machines, more and more incomprehensible and scary ones for average
citizens, or the way out will be found finally?
I turn over and look at Unfortunate. If you are the mind of the Net, if
you are the human who have conquered virtuality, then you might be that very
way out, the break through the barrier, the exit from this deadlock. Surely
Dibenko understands that if Man Without Face is really him.
Should I play noble hiding Unfortunate? If he is salvation, a merge of
two worlds?
I don't know. I'm just an ordinary man, accidentally having this stupid
resistance against the deep-program. This helps me to earn my piece of
bread, and sometimes - it even comes with a thick layer of butter and
caviar. But it's not me who should save the world or decide what is good and
what is evil for it.
I don't have anything except that funny shabby moral for which Vika was
grieving, but moral is a strange thing, it never gives answers but on the
contrary, it hinders from finding them.
It's much easier to be a just person or a scum than just a human.
I start feeling myself extremely bitter and lousy. A provincial
sportsman might feel so, included in the Olympic team and ordered to compete
with the champions. Not my destiny it is...
And at this moment a sound is born above.
I turn onto my back looking up into the blackish crystal again, and see
a crack in it - a blue stripe across the whole sky, a dazzling straight
arrow rushing down.
- What is it, Lenia?
Vika is already sitting, casting strands of hair from her face. When
have she woke?
Or when have I fallen asleep?
What is it around us, a dream or reality?
- A meteor, - I reply to Vika.
The blue arrow is lower and lower, a thin ringing trill is its train, a
clot of fire at the end - its spike.
- This is a star falling, - says Vika very seriously and I understand
that I'm sleeping after all.
Unfortunate doesn't move.
The crack draws across the sky to the end and plunges into the ground.
The blue strip dims - the sky knows how to cure its wounds. Only where the
star have touched the ground, a pale light is glowing.
- You promised me that we'll find a fallen star, - says Vika.
Everything is simple in the dream. I rise and give her my hand, we step
over Unfortunate and start descending the slope. It's wrong, one is supposed
to go up to reach the star, but one shouldn't argue with dreams.
The blue flame sparkles in the grass, neither burning nor casting
shadows. The star have fallen into the gully between two hills. A bit
further is a conglomeration of cliffs, absolutely out of place here, as if
torn from another world. This is important for some reason but now we only
look at the star.
A clean flame, a fuzzy fiery ball, very small one, one can hide it in
the hands.
I stretch my hand, touch the star and feel warmth, as tender as if I've
set my hands under the spring sun.
- Now I know what the stars are, - says Vika, - These are the splinters
of the daylight sky.
I'm about to pick the star up but Vika stops me.
- Don't. It is tired already.
- From what?
- From the solitude, from the silence...
- But now we are near.
- Not yet. We've passed our path but it's only half of the way. Let the
star believe in us.
I just shrug, I can't argue with Vika. I want to smile to her but she's
not by my side anymore, only the voice have left.
- Lenia, wake up!
What the hell, why...
- Lenia, Unfortunate is gone!
I open my eyes.
Morning, the pink light from the East, scared Vika's face.
Unfortunate is not by the fire. The sleep is great deceiver.
- Damned! - I swear jumping up, - When have he disappeared?
Vika fixes her hair, in the same gesture as in my dream.
- I don't know, Lenia. I've just woke, and he was gone.
- So here's the answer, - I whisper, looking around, - Here's the
answer...
Unfortunate's gone. Fled from the Deep. So everything was in vain?
No, not everything, I've met Vika because of him.
- He had made us to know each other, - she repeats my thoughts, -
Thanks for that at least.
I hug her, nudging my face into her hair. We stand like this for long,
the dawn brightens around, the snow crest of the huge mountain sparkles,
ripping the sky. It's no birds here, maybe Vika forgot to make them but the
mountains become alive even without them, filling with rustles of wind, of
leaves and grasses.
- I'll make birds for these mountains, - I whisper, - If we ever
restore your hut...
- I don't want to change the mountains, they are free! - objects Vika
immediately.
- The birds are free too. I'll just set them out through the window and
will say: "breed and multiply"!
Vika laughs quietly.
- Okay, try.
- What's so hard? - I summon up my courage - A simple program... I'll
study Bram, will make a behavior algorithm. I'll draw various chaffinches
and sparrows in the beginning, then hawks. Biogeocenosis... right? I've
forgotten, I think we studied this in the fifth form, at the lessons of the
nature study...
- Biologist you. Maybe you'll set free Zuko's slippers as well? Lenia,
let's surface now and go to some restaurant. Have you ever been to "Pink
atoll"?
- No.
- A beautiful place, Shultz and Brandt drew it. I invite you.
- Okay. Let's search before we go though...
Vika steps back from me and asks sharply:
- Search for whom?
- For Unfortunate.
- He exited the deep, why don't you understand?
- I do. But let's look for him anyway, okay? Maybe he wanted to go to
do pee-pee and fell into the canyon?
- So he deserves it... - mumbles Vika, agreed already.

Firstly we pass the edge of the nearest slope, looking down. Then Vika
searches the valley to the left from the stream, and I - to the right.
Involuntarily my gaze is attracted down into the gully where I found the
star in my dream: some cliffs can really be seen there.
But the business first. I must make sure that Unfortunate is not with
us anymore.
I even climb up a little, following our path, it's just for the sake of
it, to clear up my conscience.
And there, in the small crevice which we easily jumped over in the
light of the dimming day I find Unfortunate.
I stand above the crevice silently, looking at Unfortunate from a ledge
3 meters above him. A couple of minutes passes until he makes sure that I've
noticed him and raises his head.
- Good morning, Gunslinger.
I stay silent, I don't have strength even for the anger anymore.
- It's too hard to see in the dark, - utters Unfortunate an amazingly
fresh and genius idea.
It wasn't that much to fall but he was unlucky. Even from above I can
see that his right leg is swollen and Unfortunate is sitting trying not to
touch it. I get the slippers from behind my belt, put them on and descend.
- I'm sorry, - says Unfortunate when I pick him up and scramble out of
the crevice.
- Why? - I just ask.
- So that you wouldn't hesitate. I can't explain anything anyway.
- You're fool. Only suicidal ones are wandering in the mountains at
night... or the Black Alpinist.
- I never was in the mountains before. And who is the Black Alpinist?
It's quite a long way down to the camp and I have time to tell him the
tale of the Black Alpinist and that company that was dragging ball dresses
and tuxedos to the mountains, then several real stories. We approach Vika
when my store of the mountain legends runs out. I put Unfortunate on fir
branches scattered by the fire under Vika's icy glare and say:
- What can be better than the mountain walk without any gear? Only the
mountain walk with an injured one on the back.
I wonder, what will she do now.
- Give me the belt, - commands Vika.
I couldn't expect that much of aggressiveness.
- Vika, using 'Warlock'...
- Shit. You unfinished diver! I need a tourniquet!
I never was curious whether virtual clothes can tear or not, and don't
want to try - the mountain sun is cruel. So I abandon the idea of tearing
the shirt for tourniquets and give Vika my bandana.
She mingles with Unfortunate's leg for a long time, shaking her head
gloomily when he moans in reply to her careful touches.
- The shin is broken, - she sets the diagnosis, - Without a shift I
think, as strange as it might be.
- You're a doctor too?
- No, just a nurse, but an experienced one. I need more tourniquets.
I have to sacrifice my shirt after all and the jacket put on the naked
body looks as a complete mauve tone. We put Unfortunate's leg in a
self-constructed cast.
- Not even a single idiot, - now Vika allows herself to vent out her
anger, - not a single cretin in this world have ever managed to break a leg
in virtuality! What do you have in reality, huh? Do you have a broken leg?
- No... - mumbles Unfortunate.
- Thanks God for this at least.
We look at each other, our previous evening's battle mood have
vanished. One thing is to abandon a deceiver in the virtual world, and a
different one is to abandon a wounded person in the mountains, and the fact
that the mountains is a fake changes nothing.
- Let's go to those cliffs, - I suggest.
- Okay. I saw them in my dream.
One glance is enough and we don't say anything else. There's no laws
for unreality. Whatever it is, a dream or reality - we descended to the
fallen star together.

11

The cliffs are really out of place in this valley. The glacier might
bring boulders, but not such a huge lumps.
- Looks like it's really an exit to the different space, - agrees Vika
turning back to me, - Are you tired?
I shake my head. To be honest, my hands are tired to hold Unfortunate
but there's no time for such trinkets now.
- If the program had really broken through to some foreign server, -
reasons Vika, - then the channel will be one directional. We sure will be
able to exit but if we need to flee...
- As a last resort, we have 'Warlock', - I say but without much
confidence. I'm not too eager to fall into blue tunnels anymore: too weird
pictures did I see on my way.
- Okay, let's go. Maybe there's nothing at all over there. - Vika sighs
and steps forward. I lag after her. Unfortunate is silent, either feeling
himself guilty (which is right) or doesn't want to hinder. And this is a
right behavior too.
We move along the narrowing canyon. At some point I look up estimating
the height of cliffs. They are obviously higher than it seemed back in the
valley. Very encouraging sight indeed...
The pass becomes narrower and narrower, we can't walk side by side
anymore. I start to move my side forward, this way the risk to hit
Unfortunate's injured leg against the cliff is less. Maybe it would be a
good idea to put the winged slippers on, but this idea came to me a bit too
late, now I won't be able to turn and bend over. Vika swears quietly in
front of me having problems too, I gloatingly think that Madam with her
dimensions would be stuck long time ago.
It gradually becomes colder, an icy wind breaks into the slit from
somewhere. This is good, very good!
- Lenchik! - says Vika in a muffled voice, - Yes!
I see the light in front of me, blocked by her silhouette. Vika shifts
somewhere to the side and I step into her place. I hit the Unfortunate's leg
against the wall on my last steps anyway and he moans quietly.
The canyon brings us to a weird place.
There are mountains - but different ones. They are not just uninhabited
- they're wild, as if the life was here some time ago but then something
killed it. A twilight. Maybe it's day anyway but the sky is blocked by dense
lead colored clouds. Everything is enveloped in desolation and dull
melancholy. A path winds down the slope among black fangs of the cliffs.
- What is this? - asks Vika quietly, - Lenia?
I gaze around. No, this is a different space for sure, and I think a
familiar one.
- The Elves, - I say, - This is some role-playing server. They play
here.
- Like in "Labyrinth"? - speaks Unfortunate out.
- No, in a different way.
- We won't go far here, - says Vika gloomily, - Either we'll freeze or
the Elves will shoot us incidentally.
- We'll freeze first, - I say. My shirt was used for tourniquets and I
carelessly disposed of my jacket.
- That's okay, at least your exposed torso looks way too impressive, -
says Vika ironically. Good for her to talk, she has a jersey and Unfortunate
has masking overalls from "Labyrinth", it's quite warm.
- If we just had somebody to impress, - I stretch my hand, - Vika,
there's a path in front of us, we should get there and search for people.
- For the Elves.
- People, Elves, Dwarves, whoever.
The snow is almost knee-deep, we slowly lag along. Unfortunate whispers
guiltily:
- I don't understand anyway...
- Do you know who Tolkien is?
- He's an author...
- Just please don't recite "The Lord of the Rings" by heart, okay? So,
this is a virtual space created by his fans, role-players. They congregate
here, put on the bodies of his characters and play various plots, either
Tolkien's or other authors'.
- A theater, - decides Unfortunate.
- Well... sort of.
Unfortunate silences, completely satisfied by explanation while I'm
still quite far from complete clarity.
What server is it? What are the laws of this particular world? Where
are allowed exits located through which we could get Unfortunate out?
I even fear to think about what to do next.
The path is well treaded down as if a whole army marched here not long
ago. The snow melts as soon as it touches the path, maybe due to the magic.
Role-playing world lives according to its own laws, the magic exists here.
- Where should we go now? - with this phrase Vika sets the command upon
me. It's so fluttering to be trusted... I wish I could justify this trust. I
try to remember role-playing spaces' maps but abandon this idea immediately,
these are drawn by whoever wants to.
And at this moment I hear a quiet drumming from behind the nearest
cliff, either a mad horse with castanets on its legs or a giant with jaws
clattering of cold.
There's no time to think.
- Here, quick! - I whisper and dive into wilted fir grove, put
Unfortunate on the snow and press a finger to my lips, - Tsssss...
Vika and Unfortunate can't be seen from the path. I stand on it,
outstretching my legs widely and pull off the belt. 'Warlock' unwraps into
the fiery lash with a rumble.
I must look pretty scary, a gloomy male naked down to his belt, with
the shoulders powdered with snow. I ve modeled Gunslinger's body sinewy and
strong, it's immediately seen that he's a mighty fighter... and this glowing
lash in his hand too... any troll would be scared.
The clatter comes closer.
I make a bloodthirsty grimace and wait.
A little figure, hardly as high as my chest comes out from behind the
cliff.
A giant with clattering jaws indeed...
The face and build of the traveler is like the child's but something is
definitely wrong with his hormones: his legs, bare up to his knees, are
covered with thick fur. Oh yeah, with such paws it's cozy even in the snow.
A little drum hangs on traveler's chest and he beats on it with sticks as he
walks.
A hobbit.
That's good.
Noticing me, the hobbit stops dead on his tracks, even one drumstick
falls in the snow.
- Hee-hee... - I say evilly.
The hobbit doesn't drum anymore but his jaws really start to chatter.
- Who? - I demand, stretching 'Warlock' towards the hobbit. The lash
starts to lengthen excitedly and I have to pull it back quickly.
- Harding, s...sir! - whispers hobbit.
- Who? - I ask again in a normal voice this time. But poor hobbit is in
utter panic now, he even doesn't try to grab a small dagger carelessly stuck
behind his belt.
- H-harding, kind sir. S-sam sired Frodo, Frodo sired Holfast, Holfast
sired Harding...
- You, huh?
- Me, kind sir!
- Quite in vain!
- Yes, kind sir, - agrees Harding obediently.
- Don't 'sir' me! - I bellow, - And even more - I'm not kind at all!
I'm... - the sudden inspiration strikes me, - Conan! Brave Conan the
Kimmerian!
Hobbit definitely have heard of Conan, he starts to nod frequently, not
asking how the hell had Howard's character got into Tolkien's world. Though,
role-players are the folks that are easily carried away and such trinkets
don't limit them. I could even call myself Koschej The Immortal {a Russian
folklore evil character} if my build would allow me to.
- Where are you going? - I go on with questioning circling around the
hobbit. He turns around trying not to lose me from his sight.
- Catching up with the a-army...
- What the hell army?
- The Elvish one... We go to beat the Orcs and the Dwarves!
- Why?
- Because they are bad!
I start to be more and more sure that it's a little kid in the hobbit's
body. An adult would find more serious arguments and of course would try to
fight.
- Army... - I say thoughtfully, - Ah, yes! I remember, there was one...
The dread is in hobbit's eyes. He squints at the fiery lash, not
doubting the sad fate of the Elvish army anymore.
- I've heard that you hobbits are marsupial, - I inform, - Huh?
The hobbit shakes his head in shock and presses his hands against his
stomach.
- Any grub?
Brave Harding gives me his rucksack, where I find a couple of cookies,
a chunk of smoked meat, a flask; I soften.
- Provident you are, hobbit... And what is this?!
I hook out 'Snickers' from the sack's bottom.
The hobbit bursts into tears immediately. Yeah, the kid alright.
I tear the wrapping from the candy with teeth, bite off a half, the
rest of it I return to the hobbit. He stops crying at once.
- How do you think, will you beat the Dwarves? - I inquire. One can't
just rob the guy and let him go. What about to chat?
- We will! - nods the hobbit, - They make arrows from yew-tree, and
these are bad! And also they fight in 'hird', and this formation is bad...
{Hird - a native Dwarvish battle formation, a kind of phalanx, described by
Nick Perumov in his book "The Ring of Darkness"}
I don't have even a bit of eager to get into details of the quarrel
between the Elves and the Dwarves.
- Is a city far from here?
- Lorien is 5 miles away...
Something is wrong with geography here... oh well, never mind. If I
also could find out the server name...
- Who is ruling this land?
- Fair Legolas the Elf!
Alrighty, this information is enough.
- Go, - I say hanging the hobbit's sack on my shoulder.
Harding doesn't protest against the robbery. Even more, he shyly asks:
- Can I go with you Conan? They'll beat the Dwarves without me, I
guess.
Yeah right... I do really need that... I make an evil grimace again and
whisper:
- Don't you know that the hobbit is not only costly fur? Also it is
30-40 kilos of tasty, easily digested meat!
Books don't lie, hobbits really can run fast: just furry heels blink
away in the snow dust.
I return to Vika and Unfortunate in the best mood. They heard the talk,
so I don't have to repeat it for them.
- Here's the food, - I hand the sack to Unfortunate, - Now we'll make a
bed for you and will exit the Deep. We'll return openly, through Lorien,
with normal gear and will get you out of here. Okay?
Unfortunate nods.
- You'll have to wait for three-four hours... - I say thoughtfully, -
Is it okay?
Though we don't have any other choice anyway. I won't be able to drag
him under the snow, half naked, for five miles. Together with Vika we make a
bed from twigs under the old fir tree, put Unfortunate on it and hand the
sack with trophies to him. A light alcoholic beverage is in the flask, one
better not use it to warm up in the real frost but why not in virtuality?
- Let's surface? - I ask Vika, - We'll meet in three hours... say, at
the entrance into Legolas' server.
She nods, a moment - and her form dissolves in the air.
- Take care Unfortunate, - I say.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours...

100

I exited right in time, it's 9:45 AM.
- Immersion completed, - I ordered to Windows-Home and attacked the
fridge. Without any result, of course.
- Downloading the mail, - informed the computer.
Hurriedly dressed, I ran out to the street. Fortunately it was almost
nobody in the shop around the corner, and I was back by 10, just in time to
tap Maniac on the shoulder who was dolefully ringing my doorbell.
- Gonna down some nourishments?
- Yup. Will you?
- Me too. But later. - Maniac squeezed into apartment before me. While
I was shaking off my shoes, he was by the computer. When I padded to him, he
had already shut down Windows and was squirting along the Norton cube
marking file by file.
- What are you doing? - I asked in shock.
- Trying to save you from debtor's prison, - replied Maniac deleting
programs, - 'Warlock' was rehabilitated: a clean, not spreading virus, never
damaging data. Allowed to use in virtuality. Allowed to be used at one's own
risk...
My computer have lost a couple more files. The winged slippers seemed
to perish too...
- ... But "Labyrinth" and Al-Kabar have hung two and a half million
dollars in damages on you.
I even feel joy of such an amount.
- Why not a billion? There's no difference, I won't ever earn this much
anyway... and even never steal.
- Sure... it might have been billion... - agreed Maniac jerking the
mouse across the mousepad, - When did you clean the mouse last time? Now,
listen here. Gunslinger is no more, and never existed - on your machine.
Insert a different personality in the seventh position. If possible, provide
alibi... How did you manage to get them so, Len'ka?
- I've dragged one guy right from under their grasps... Saved.
- That's good of course...
Maniac have stuffed a diskette into the drive, started some program
from it.
- Now we'll clean your winchesters so well, there'll be no trace even
on the physical level. - he threatened, - Or, even better, just sell these
and buy new ones. Or throw them into the Neva river from the bridge.
I felt discomfort. Maniac would never panic without a reason.
- Got some vodka?
- Cognac...
- Not so good, but will do, - he frowned.
I gave him the bottle, ready for Shurka to pour an alcohol into
computer guts, for the complete guarantee of success... But he took a
mouthful himself, then extracted the ball from the mouse, breathed on it,
rubbed it against his sleeve and put it back. Then he informed:
- We'll commemorate the sale of three viruses. You advertised 'Warlock'
well.
- Shur, I need to go back...
- Gee, you can't be serious, diver! - laughed Maniac without turning
around, - You must hide now!
- I can't. Impossible.
He just shrugged and advised:
- Sell your winchesters anyway.
- I was going to upgrade the whole thing...
- Really? Well, so go ahead and sell it with all its guts. Or donate it
to some kids' club. You won't earn much for this piece of crap, while
kiddies will kick it to death in a week, nobody will be able to restore it.
Remembering the robbed hobbit I nodded uncertainly.
Maybe I really should rejoice the young generation with an old comp?
And just how proud I was when I bought it... Pentium! Two megs of video
memory! Sixteen megs of RAM!
- How can you live with this video card? - replied Shurka to my
memoirs, - Shit, it even doesn't receive TV?!
For around five next minutes I was lectured about cutting edge
technologies in hardware. Then Maniac sent me to cook breakfast and went on
with cleaning my machine.
I was cooking scrambled eggs - maybe 10000th portion of it in my life.
It's high time to invent single's anniversaries: 1000th tin of canned stuff,
100000th loaf of bread eaten dry...
- Shurka, I only have two and a half hours! - I shouted from the
kitchen, - Then I have to work!
- You'll not be late...
- I also still need to draw the new personality!
- Which one?
- A fairy tale one. An Elf or a Dwarf... No, an Elf is better. The
Dwarf will be beaten immediately.
- Since when are you befriended with role-players?
- It's a work., - I said setting the pan by the keyboard, - I need to
take a walk in their server.
- Lord, what can you steal there?! They are all beggarly! - Maniac
shook his head, - Brrr... Texts of Elvish anthems? The secrets of wooden
swords' manufacturing?
- No, I... forgot one thingy there.
- Ah... - Maniac nodded. Maybe he thought that 'Warlock' had gnawed the
exit into the role-playing server directly. - Just don't hurt them, okay?
They are funny folks, I wandered into those places a couple of times...
- You set up security for them?
- Me? For them? Come on, there's plenty of their own specialists! -
Shurka waved his hand, - There's lots of cool programmers.
I didn't like this news.
- Well, tell me at least what 'Warlock' looked like in action?
- Well... a blue crater, sparks and mirrors under my feet with
reflections of other servers in them.
Maniac raised his head:
- Wasn't there an elevator? - he asked in confusion.
- Come on, what elevator?! Just a hole in the floor...
- It's always like this, you invent something and it turns out like...
- growled Shurka, - Shit. Do you have cognac only?
We poured in a little, touched cups and drank. Shurka's programs were
still 'rustling' inside my machine.
- I've tried it yesterday... that rhyme... - said Maniac after the
second cup, - That "abyss-abyss" one...
I didn't ask him about results. If Maniac could manage to exit the
Deep, this would be what we are drinking for now.
- Lenia, if you ever find out why it happens... - began Shurka.
- I'll tell you immediately.
- Geez, and what a mess was it in one brothel yesterday... - Maniac
changed the topic. - Haven't you heard in the Net news?
I even felt confused.
- No...
- Some punks attempted to break the security of "Any Amusements"
brothel. There is one with this name... - Maniac half closed his eyes in a
sweet and delighted expression.
- They attempted?
- Well, they almost broke it but then their security have just cut off
all channels completely. That fight was worth seeing if Zuko doesn't tell
the bull.
- Who?
Obviously the expression on my face became too stupid. Shurka gazed at
me, then said quietly:
- A-ha... I see.
- You know Zuko? Computer Wiz?
- Don't you tell me you don't know him.
- Only in the Deep, - I don't attempt to lie.
Shurka shook his head.
- You think so? It's Sergey... the one who worked in the bank.
Uh-oh, what a news.
I know Sergey for ages. When I was working in that computer games
company, he was working there too, but I felt it absolutely impossible to
correlate the ever silent and phlegmatical programmer with the noisy
Computer Wiz.
- It's him?!
- Yup.
- Gosh, what a disguise... - I was only able to say.
- Well, just imagine if he would confess that he works for a brothel!
Isn't it a great topic for jokes? He still keeps everybody believing that he
botches proggys for that bank...
- Don't tell him that me is me, - I asked quickly.
- I won't. He didn't tell me any details either. Just questioned me
about 'Warlock'.
- Zuko recognized your virus! - I exclaimed remembering Wiz's joy.
- Well, yeah, I showed him around a month ago... - Shurka narrowed his
eyes, - Secrecy, damn it...
- Can he tell anybody?
Maniac shook his head.
- Not this is the real problem Lenia. Information has a property to
slip away. Some stupid little blunders and coincidences like this one...
They'll find you.
- Let them try to prove!
- Lenia... if you really did stomp on their tails so hard, they won't
bother to prove anything. All of us are tied too closely. Somebody knows
that Gunslinger and Leonid is the same guy. Somebody suspects that Leonid is
diver. Somebody guesses that Leonid is Russian. Virtuality is living by
information, by truth, rumors, guesses. And the most important thing is that
any information can be easily gathered and analyzed. If to try really hard,
one can learn everything!
- So what do you suggest?
- Get your ass out of here. - suggested Shurka pouring in the remaining
cognac. - It'll be bad that I won't be able to drink beer with you anymore
but... if you're dead, it'll be much worse... Shit, what, what the hell are
you doing?!
- I'm rescuing a person.
- One should do it until he's not in trouble himself!
I nodded. Maniac is right. There's the normal hacker's logic in his
words, not the one of the self-assured diver who can surface from the Deep.
Where would I surface if overtaken in the real world?
Complexes of physical weakness are strong in all virtual folks. It
hurts too much to feel that you're God in the virtual world, but just one of
the billions of ordinary people in the real one. That's why we all love
martial arts and war games, buy gas and pneumatic pistols, stubbornly attend
sport clubs and pump ourselves up in the evenings. Of course we want to feel
ourselves as invincible in the real life as we are in virtuality, sure so.
But we fail to.
And sometimes one can hear in the Deep: "Remember that guy? Some punks
had stuck a knife in him in the alley... got poisoned with fake vodka...
jumped out of the window, didn't even leave a note... crossed mafia's
path..."
We remember, we know.
Only in the world beyond the screen we're Gods.
- I need just a day more, I suppose, - I said quietly, - Then I'll get
out somewhere... to Siberia or the Ural Mountains.
- And don't tell anybody where you go, - nodded Maniac, - Don't even
tell me.
The cups were empty and he suggested:
- Should I run to the kiosk for more?
- I still have to draw the body.
- Shit. Run 'Bioconstructor'.
In a minute we were sitting side by side fighting over control for the
mouse and drumming against the keyboard. The first drawn body we had to
reject - it was way too provoking: two meter high hefty chap, with a huge
sword on his belt. All adventurers would pester him as Shurka noted and I
had to agree with him.
The next personality was harmless and even pitiful: a tattered old
beggar... maybe nobody would touch him, but he won't be able to carry
Unfortunate for five miles either. This time it was me who vetoed without
explanations.
But the third attempt was successful. The guy on the screen was quite
strong but with such a babylike innocent face that I felt sick. We dressed
him in the ground-long light-green chlamys and hung a rag bag onto his
shoulder.
- A healer! - said Maniac satisfied, - A human, healer. Nobody will
hurt you there without a reason, neither Elf nor Orc. Medicine is the thing
everybody needs.
He started to stuff some jars, retorts, dry leaves into the bag, taking
them from accessories menu.
- Will I be able to heal in the role-players' world?
- Sure. The situation there is like this - you come in this or that
image and initially have some strength. For instance, a martial art or
wisdom or gift of healing. The longer you live in that world, the stronger
your abilities are. If you call yourself a healer, you'll be immediately
able to fix small wounds or fractures, dislocations...
- How interesting, - I said looking at my new personality, I even
started to like it. - Thanks, I would dress as a warrior for sure.
- Yeah, and would get knocked on the head by some old-timer's sword.
- Well, and in what image did you go there?
Maniac was confused.
- You won't tell anyone?
- No.
- I was Ariel the Elvish warrior.
- Why?
- Tried to score Goromir.
For a second I froze. It's none of my business of course, but...
- Goromir is a girl, - explained Maniac quickly, - It's a bloody mess
over there, girls play men often and guys play women. I tried to score her
for half a year...
- Any success?
- No... Goromir befriended Dianel.
I don't dare to ask who was Dianel in reality: a guy or a girl, too
gloomy Shurka's tone was.
- If you meet Goromir there, say hi from Ariel, - adds Shurka, - We
parted quite... well. Friendly. Shit.
- I need the server with the city of Lorien, ruled by Legolas. Is this
a place where he... this Goromir of yours pastures?
- It's a 'she'! - cuts Shurka off, - I Dunn, haven't been at
role-players' for ages. We'll find out.
He loaded Vika and started to browse through servers using terminal. In
around five minutes the search was successful.
- Look! "Fair Legolas invites the wise Elves, the brave Humans and the
quick Hobbits to the great city of Lorien, for the days of the last battle
of the forces of the Good against the Orcs and the Dwarves have come!"
They'll meet you with an open hug.
- This isn't necessary.
- Uh... what about some more beer? You have an hour and a half more.
A beer after cognac? Well, but I really have a lot of time, with
Shurka's help we were through the drawing really fast.
- Okay, - I decide.

101

I locked the door after Shurka, fixed the door chain very-very
accurately, looked into the kitchen to make sure gas is off.
I didn't feel myself drunk. Four bottles of beer is nothing and cognac
doesn't count at all. Some odd wires, old slippers, scattered books were
tangling under my feet all the way to the computer - Shurka stumbled and
overturned the bookshelf when clung to it trying to keep balance. What could
that mean?
- Vika, any mail? - I growled.
- I didn't understand you, Leonid.
- Any mail? - I repeated slowly.
- Yes.
Maybe two liters of dark beer, drunk in haste is not that little after
all if Vika doesn't recognize my voice?..
I suppressed the fit of guilt and started to look through mail: some
crap only. I should also take a look at the Bulletin Board.
Of course, none of my employers or friends knows my real address. If
somebody wants to contact not just Leonid, but the diver, there's only one
way - to post an ad at the Bulletin Board which is just a computer with a
modem and lots of disk space to which anyone can connect and read all ads. A
coded label allows to filter out unnecessary posts, the code doesn't allow
lamers to fake the messages and the vague phrases of the letters themselves
will be clear to the addressee only. Complete anonymity and reliability. Go
ahead and try to extract secret information from love affairs, commercials
and idle chat.
It's not often that I find messages for me on the Bulletin Board, but
it was two of them today.
"Ivan! In the eve of the forest journey I'll wait for you at the place
where we did division. Gray."
This is Romka. We "did division" in "Three Piglets", and the eve of
Al-Kabar operation was a quarter of hour ago.
I sobered suddenly. Why would Romka look for me so urgently? He wrote
the letter this night. Did he do it himself or at somebody's bidding I
wonder? Man Without Face's, for instance?
The second message was expected.
"Seventy-seven. Where usual, as usual. Brothers."
Seventy-seven is my number. Brothers-divers are outraged...
According to the Code, I told my diver's name (also being the real one,
by the way) to Anatol and Dick.
According to the Code, they filed a complaint against me: I intruded
into their working territory and used weapons.
This can't be forgiven.
- Unfortunate... - I mumbled, - Bastard... What the hell are you doing
with me?
Damned the moment when I was lured by the Medal of Complete License and
rushed to rescue you!
- Vika, submersion, - I ordered, - Personality number seven... Healer.

I know three Romka's personalities, even four if to count the wolf. But
today he appeared in a new one: a little scraggy youngster in glasses and
with tousled hair. He stands by the bar, gazing around and in no way reminds
an accurate Roman. I recognize him only when he drinks a glass of pepper
vodka in one shot.
- Romka?
- Lenia?
We shake hands.
- Wanna drink? - asks the guy.
- No... I've... already, in reality.
- Alcoholic, - mumbles Roman. Yeah, says who? Considering his immunity
to alcohol... - Len'ka, do you know in what deep shit you are?
- Yes. How deep?
- A complaint was filed against you... by somebody called Anatol' and
Tosser. Details of the charge were not yet made public.
I nod. - I know about that.
- What, there are more troubles expected?
- Tons.
We often work together, I sympathize the werewolf and looks like Romka
returns that.
- Lenia, what's the matter?
- Think a little.
Roman frowns and suddenly takes off the glasses nervously.
- Is "Warlock" your work? - he whispers.
- Good guess.
- It means that "Labyrinth"...
- Shhhhh... - I remember Shurka's words about spreading of information,
- Let's not talk about that.
Romka calls the bartender - today it is a program obviously - and
refills his glass.
- Gee Len'ka, this is cool... - he mumbles, - Man you're in trouble...
Up to the neck!
I suddenly understand that the werewolf is not scared by the severity
of my troubles, neither does he worry about me - he's admired! He's ecstatic
of such turmoil of action, of being himself lighted by a sheen of the
scandalous fame. If we, being completely selfish, still can see an idol in
another diver then I became one for Romka.
- If you need my help during sorting the things out, you'll get it, and
not from me only!
Maybe I'll need that... maybe I'll get it. Roman is a very social guy,
and a recognized leader in a narrow circle of divers-werewolves.
- I'll have to leave anyway, and for a long time, - I confess honestly.
Roman blinks quickly:
- What? From the Net? Are you serious?
It can't be more serious... I nod.
- Oh... and how will you live? - asks Romka in confusion.
Only we, the virtual world dwellers, can understand each other.
How can one live without the time, compressed by the Deep, without
instant travels from the cool of the restaurant to the hot sand of the
beach, without drawn jungles and imaginary mountains, without endless
boiling flow of information, without ancient anecdotes and just finished
books, without masquerade of bodies and costumes, without hundreds,
thousands of friends and acquaintances living in all parts of the world?
How?
One must visit Deeptown to understand what he loses.
- I don't know Romka... But "Labyrinth" and Al-Kabar...
He nods. Everything is clear: elephants fear mice in tales only, and
against these corporations we're not even mice, but just plant-louse.
- Lenia, if you need money... - says Romka suddenly. - I can return my
part. You did almost all the job after all, and it was you who suffered.
You'll need it if you're going to hide.
I shake my head, Romka is a good guy but I don't need such sacrifice.
- If possible... I'd like to ask you for a different thing...
- Whatever you need!
- I'll have to flee, to tangle my traces. I don't want to use hotels...
if it'd be possible to stay at your place for a couple of months, until the
noise calms down...
I don't know myself why do I ask for that. Maybe I just don't want to
leave the Deep completely? To be able to watch the virtual world at least
through Romka's eyes? To feel the electronic pulse, to swallow
information...
- I won't be a burden... - I add.
But looking at Romka's face I understand that the offer didn't pass.
- No.
- Sorry. - I shrug, - I understand.
We fear each other anyway, it's easier for us to sacrifice huge money
and to calm our conscience with that than to disclose who we are.
- You don't understand a thing... - mumbles Romka, - Do you want me to
give you my real address? A city, a street, a house?
- No.
- I really can't receive you, - he averts his look, - These are...
family problems.
We build palaces for ourselves in the Deep, but what about the real
world?
For instance, I can accept guests despite the size of my apartment, but
what if for the one of the same size Romka has a wife, mother in law and
three snotty kids?
- Understood, - I put my hand on his shoulder, - I really understand,
no offence.
But Romka looks past me anyway.
- I should go, - I say.
- Will you be at the meeting?
- Sure.
- And where are you going now?
It's a great temptation to keep mysterious silence and this surely
would be the most reasonable choice, but I reply anyway:
- To scare the Elves a little. I need to go, Romka. See you.
When I leave "Three Piglets", he takes one more glass of vodka. Lord,
this is atrocious! Or is he such a strong diver that doesn't feel
intoxicated of so much alcohol?

Role-players don't advertise themselves much. There are exceptions like
"Elvish Meadows" but this is more of a tourist attraction where the fairy
tales' characters earn their living... or rather money to pay electricity
and phone bills to be exact.
The server where Lorien is built belongs to somebody in Russia, this is
all that I could find out without breaking laws, and the company that hangs
there is mostly Russian- speaking. Of course I could drop by there as a
tourist too, but who knows how this would end? This is just like if a
Christian would arrive to Mecca and immediately drag himself to see the
Black Rock in boots, hat and with a golden plated cross on the chest.
No, I'd better be a newbie who read too much Tolkien, Howard, Perumov
and all those others who paid their tribute to the romantics of swords and
dragons!
I get out of the cab by the shabby two floor lopsided wreck. I must
admit that the squalor of the building is done well, it's much harder to
imitate poverty and desolation than wealth and splendor.
The whole street here doesn't shock with beauty though: some blind
buildings, warehouses, offices closed until better times. Role-players don't
like noise. Vika isn't here for some reason, just some Elf hangs about the
entrance: a fragile golden-haired creature of vague gender and age, dressed
in light-green tights and darker jacket, a bow and a quiver with arrows is
behind Elf's back.
I stop by the door and wait. The Elf squints his eyes at me, then takes
a cigarette and lighter from the bosom. He inhales then releases a cloud of
smoke. Smoking Elf isn't a look for the weak nerved person: looks like he
would die after the very first inhalation, illustrating the harm nicotine
might cause... Geez!
- Vi... - I start and cut off, what if it isn't her?
- Vi-vi! - says the Elf cheerfully, - Both Vi and Mi... Lenia?
The voice is changed too, must be a sound correction program. It looks
as if Robertino Loretti have got into virtuality somehow.
- You? - I ask just in case.
Vika understands my doubts.
- Hobbit isn't only costly fur! - she informs joyfully, - Recognized
me?
- Why the Elf?
- We're on their territory after all, it'll be safer.
- And what's your name?
- MacKerel.
- What?!
- A nice Elvish name. I'm from the Scottish Elves.
I get a slight suspicion that Vika also got a use of something
'cheering up'.
- So... who are you, he or she?
- I didn't draw the details, didn't have time for that, - declares
Vika-MacKerel carelessly, - We'll act according to situation.
It's stupid to hang by the building any longer and we enter. A narrow
dark corridor, the walls covered by some sort of graffiti of a battle genre.
A white shining glows at the end of the corridor, a human figure can be
guessed vaguely behind it.
- Who are you? - we are called.
- We heard the summons of fair Legolas and came to help! - I shout.
- Stay where you are! What are your names?
- MacKerel of the fair Loch Ness Elves! - declares Vika.
- Elenium the Healer, from the country of Tranquilia! {Elenium - a
tranquilizer drug}
Vika elbows me under my ribs but nothing can be done - the name is
already invented and told.
The man that hides behind the shining, thinks.
- Did you come together?
- Yes, - answers Vika. She takes the leadership and I'm glad, I'm not
in the best mood now to play the fool thoughtfully and seriously.
- And what could befriend the fair Elf and the human healer?
- In a fight with the Orcs I was treacherously wounded with a yew
arrow! - exclaims Vika. She still avoids defining her gender. - If it wasn't
for the magic powers of Elenium, you wouldn't see me now stranger!
I stand there with a stony straight mug but it takes a great effort.
- What will you say Elenium?
- A gang of foul Dwarves, formed in a hird... - I remember the tale of
the little hobbit, - treacherously attacked me! If it wasn't for MacKerel's
bravery, I'd.... I'd...
I don't know how to finish and just cover my face with both hands.
Silent laughter sounds very much like crying.
The glow gives way and the old man steps into the corridor. His moves
are so abrupt and the voice is so young that he doesn't fit for more than
20.
- I'm glad to welcome the brave Elf and his... her... - he hesitates, -
his wise healer friend! You're safe now!
- Thanks, - I whisper.
- You, wise Elenium, get 10 points of skill, five of stamina and five -
of strength, - informs the old guy, - As for you... errr... MacKerel... you
get 10 points of skill, 10 of stamina, 10 of strength and 10 - of bravery.
- Hey, why was I left without bravery? - I say with indignation.
- Tears don't fit men! - proclaims the old man grandly, but MacKerel
backs me up using the obvious fact that the gatekeeper sympathizes him... or
her.
- Elenium cries his bitter tears in the memory of his older brother
Seduksen who perished by foul Dwarves' paws! {Seduksen - another
tranquilizer}
Oy, I think Vika overplays...
Luckily, the young old guy either doesn't know pharmacology or has a
sense of humor.
- Okay, you'll get 5 points of bravery, - he decides generously. -
Thus, enter the fair city of Lorien and gather your strength before the
final battle!
Obeying to his gesture, we enter the shining and discover a massive
iron door at the end of the corridor.
- Seduksen the older brother you say? - I whisper standing behind
Vika's back.
- Oh come on, don't be mad...
Then we enter the streets of Lorien.

I stand there for a couple of minutes, looking around. Damned, it's
really beautiful!
Giant trees with snow-white rind, dark green and crimson gold of the
foliage. Paths paved with white stone. Some kinds of platforms and dwellings
are built in the trees, connected with wooden stairs.
- Nice work, - comments Vika professionally, - Fine fellows, to build
all this just of pure enthusiasm...
I could note that she herself had built the mountain world of pure
enthusiasm but I don't want to remind her about the country that is maybe
lost forever.
- We need to find an exit, - decides Vika.
We walk along the white path enjoying the surrounding beauty. The air
is fresh and sweet, slight frost bites our cheeks. There is no snow, maybe
the Elvish magic dissipates the clouds. Medieval music can be heard on the
limit of hearing. Too bad there's not many people around, everybody must
have left to beat the Dwarves and the Orcs.
Under one of the snow white trees a fire is set and a grinding wheel is
installed. A robust hairy man tries to sharpen the sword using the wheel,
under the Elf's supervision.
- Don't just pass by, travelers! - calls us the Elf and we stop. - Are
you new around?
Vika nods.
- Aren't we related, the Highborn one? - asks the Elf Vika.
- No, my fair brother, - she waves her hand, - Tell us please how can
we leave the city and catch up with the army.
The Elf frowns.
- Your skill isn't too high. Stay with me, learn to sharpen swords.
Just three hours - and your skill will grow up five points!
Yeah right, what a joy - to rotate nonexistent grinding wheel to get
nonexistent skill!
- We're in hurry, - says Vika.
- Then ascend this mallorn, - the Elf nods towards one of the trees. -
Just 6 hours of physical exercise on the stairs - and you'll get 7 points of
both strength and stamina!
It seems to me that the Elvish sword sharpener is simply bored. His
ward obviously finishes getting his 5 skill points and the Elf will have to
sit here alone.
- It's a pleasure to listen to your speech, oh Highborn Elf, - declares
Vika, - But we're anxious to be in the battle.
- Then go there! - the Elf waves his hand gloomily and goes for the man
with a sword, - How do you sharpen it? Look just what are you doing! Is it a
sword or a silverware, huh? I won't count your skill!
We leave in the said direction hastily. Gee, it's austere here.
Lorien's charms fade somehow.
- And I thought they only do swordfights here... - whispers Vika in
surprise.
- No, they also study Elvish and Dwarvish languages, sharpen swords and
daggers, study medieval economics, write ballads and legends.
- Oh yeah, tons of useful experience indeed...
- Sure, you wish you could just shut all RP servers... - I suggest
spitefully.
- No, this is their right, - Vika doesn't yield to my provocation, -
it's just a bit dull. Yet another chewing gum for the brains.
- Well, do you know how many more subcultures of this sort exist? At
least these don't do drugs or organize revolutions.
- Lenia, I don't dream of uniformity. Everyone finds fun according to
his taste. But all this is escapism, the flight from the real life.
- Or course it is. Stamps collecting and playing poker, big politics
and tiny wars with the neighbors - all this is the flight from the real
life. There's no common valuables in the world, so one must find some tiny,
very tiny goals. And to sacrifice his life to them.
- Ya know, this way one would want to even believe in Communism.
- Well, why not? The beautiful and big goal. And as for sacrificing the
life for it - this is a tradition actually...
MacKerel the brave Elf looks at me sadly.
- Lenia... Elenium... What about you, do you have any goal in you life?
Any goal? Not to just steal a couple of grands, not to have fun with friends
in restaurant, but the Goal?
- Yes, - I say honestly.
- Is it a secret?
I pause for a second.
- You know... I'd like to never need to get the keys from my pocket
when I return home.
Vika in her Elvish mask averts her gaze.
- It's very-very small and ridiculous, - I say, - It's not even
sharpening of nonexistent swords... or studying psychos in the virtual
space. And of course it's not communism or world-wide revolution. But I just
want to ring by my door - and it would be opened.
- I want this too sometimes, - answers Vika at last, - But I already
had to come back home when the door could be opened. And... it wasn't always
fun.
Get it diver, right on the face...
- Lenia, let's go, we must get Unfortunate out. - says MacKerel the
brave warrior.
So we walk to the wall that girds Lorien. It's more crowded here: a
dozen of recruits earn their strength points under the supervision of Elvish
sages, fencing with their swords and shooting at targets. Buyers walk along
the row of shops where the merchants earn their skill points. They maybe
earn something too. A tattered artist draws portraits of all who wants them,
a magician (probably a petty wizard) juggles with fiery balls. The life
boils up. A guy with the guitar, a human but dressed in the green Elvish
costume sings:
A traveling minstrel knocked into the castle gates
And a young maid opened the door for him...
A little group of listeners doesn't look too enthusiastic, so the bard
cuts the ballad off, looks around and shifts to some terrible kind of local
chastooshkas:
Once an Elf named Legolas
Hit nazgul right in the eye!
That's why poor old nazgul
Nearly drowned in the river!
The crowd likes this awkward little song much more, they applaud, throw
small coins to the minstrel and laugh. We pad off silently.
- Do we need anything? - Vika points at the shops.
- What about money?
- Look in your pockets.
I put my hand into the pocket and really find 5 copper coins there.
- These are automatically given to everyone who enters, - explains
Vika, - I heard about that.
In one shop, after an excited bargaining with the merchant, we buy two
flasks of local wine and two short daggers. We're not going to fight anyway,
so we don't need all those swords, spears and halberds that are being sold
in the shops, but attraction to weapons is something genetically etched in
the man's organism. Under reproachful Vika's gaze I wander along the
displays studying the means of extinguishing of my kind. It's dark in the
shop, but burning candles are installed under displays' glass near the
weapons. The light reflecting in the blades is bloody red. I remember the
flower sellers who put candles in their aquariums with flowers in winter.
Life and death are so close, their dresses look almost similar.
Two people sit by the table in the corner of the shop, not familiar
ones, I almost pass them but then stop.
A short robust guy dressed in white is unfamiliar, but...
- ... Puke inducing stuff! - says the robust one behind my back, -
Cheap and cheesy. Not a dime worthy. Complete degeneration in everything.
I suddenly feel a disgust like I felt once being a kid, long time ago,
when swimming in the river I surfaced and saw a huge toad on the bank right
before my eyes. The guy behind straightens a cap pulled low over his eyes
and goes on:
- Your RP was unusual before, it contained some healthy element. Now
it's total bullshit and crap.
- Look, it's too much... - replies the one who sits with Cap, - The
youth needs to have some fun...
- I always tell what I think. I tell the truth. - declares Cap flatly
and I suddenly understand: this is not a figure of speech, not a mistake. He
really thinks so, he doesn't divide himself and the truth.
Ohmygosh...
- That's why nobody loves you, - objects Cap's interlocutor.
- Ha. Love is a lie already. When you record everything in dynamic,
this becomes obvious.
The merchant across the display notices that I froze above it and
livens up. He pads to me and pushes his finger into the glass under which
the sword lies.
- A very, very good weapon! But you can buy it only if you already have
100 skill points!
Cap harps on behind my back:
- The game lowered to the needs of the herd, it had lost its developing
role. Strength points, minstrels, magicians... Crap! Think about it.
- Do you want to look at the sword? - asks the merchant politely.
I cast a glance at Cap. His interlocutor, one of the famous role
players obviously, asks:
- So what do you suggest?
- The situation is absolutely clear already, - declares Cap, - I'd
prefer to look whether you'll be able to find an adequate solution...
- No, thanks, - I say to the merchant, - I'm still way too far from 100
points.
I exit the shop, into the fresh air, to awaiting Vika. Looks like she
haven't noticed her former customer.
- What were you looking for there? - asks Vika.
- For a life.
- Found it?
I shrug, - Doesn't seem so.
When we proceed to the city gates, past the minstrel, past the magician
and fencing recruits, I suddenly understand a strange thing.
There's a lot of truth in Cap's words, in the ones he tells to the
girls in brothel or to the Elves in Lorien. The truth is the disguise of
cynicism.
Maybe this is a goal as well - to consider oneself the Truth. To step
through the Deep as a proud prophet of it, sweeping a dirt of peoples' vices
from white cuffs with disgust, to suffer for the Truth and to accuse the
lies.
And all this is because of one single reason - of being unable to love
people.
I see this world and it's funny for me to see the kids sharpening drawn
swords, studying Dwarvish language and selling the void. But it's not yet
IT... One more step is required, a very little one - a bit further. Not to
love.
Neither mysterious Unfortunate, nor the silly little hobbit, nor the
virtual prostitute Vika, nor the merchant in the shop, nor the minstrel with
guitar, nor Romka the werewolf, nor Man Without Face...
Nobody.
It's so simple after all, they all are full of drawbacks. One can be
mad at all of them, and to despise all of them... No, not that. Not to be
mad but simply not to love.
I feel like opening some kind of heavy and narrow door and looking into
another world, the sterile white one, frozen down to absolute zero, dead and
clean as the computer CPU.
- Vika, - I whisper, - Vika...
Why do we go to rescue Unfortunate? Why is all this long and cumbersome
process?
- Vika...
She looks me in the eyes and I can see her through the Elvish image,
under golden curly hair and pale aristocratic face, a usual and real one. My
Vika. The one who doesn't need any explanations.
- Say "love", - says she.
I shake my head. I can't, I'm still there, in the cold whiteness of the
mocking truth. Truth and love are incompatible.
- Say "love", - repeats Vika, - You can do it.
I make my choice.
- I love, - I whisper weakly.
- Friends and foes...
- Friends and foes... - I repeat.
- And I love you, - says Vika.
A wonderful city Lorien is, nobody laughs at the Human and the Elf that
hug each other by the city gates.

110

It's good to walk along the winter road if the whole army marched there
before you. The snow is tread down well, it's impossible to get lost. Tokens
of noisy, incoherent and fussy life can be seen everywhere.
A pine tree, with arrows poking out of it. Either a spy was suspected
by the Elves or they just argued whose eyes are keener and whose hand is
stronger. Most likely the latter.
The traces leading a bit to the side, two piles of tobacco ashes. One
can just see two leaders stepped away to have a pipe while the army marches
by. One of them was a wizard with a staff and the other - a warrior with a
sword. Here are the traces: the round one of the staff and the narrow one of
the sword sheath.
Here was a short stop, the snow is well tread to the left from the road
and just lightly touched to the right. Oh sure, the Elves step so lightly
that the snow holds them. So here two parts of the army were instructed by
their leaders.
The five mile way would be long in the real world. Fortunately,
role-players are not millionaires to spend months reaching their enemies.
The road falls under our feet miraculously fast. Maybe role-players agreed
to consider it an action of the spell...
We ascend to the cliffs and start circling along the path. Several
times it seems to me that I recognize the place where I was scaring the
hobbit but it always turns out that I'm wrong. The road was created in a
hack-workers' way, assembled from repeating elements.
Finally Vika notices the tracks going into the fir grove from the road.
Not well enough did we hide Unfortunate, any fighter lagging after the army
would notice him. Without an agreement we walk faster, what if he's not here
already?
But Unfortunate is there and even not alone. He sits leaning against
the tree trunk and tells something to the hobbit, drinking from the flask.
The hobbit, squatted against Unfortunate laughs effusively. Noticing us, he
jumps up and grabs his little dagger.
Just look at him... this kid can be brave, at least when a helpless guy
is behind his back.
- We're friends! - says Vika raising her hands. - We came with peace!
- I'm Elenium the Healer, - I support her. Will Unfortunate recognize
us I wonder?
- Hi Lenia, - he says with a smile.
- I'm Harding! - informs us the hobbit hiding his dagger, - Haven't you
seen Conan around? A tall guy with a fiery sword?
- That Conan have robbed the kid, - says Unfortunate very seriously,
only his eyes are smiling.
- No, he's not that bad! - the hobbit defends his offender suddenly, -
He then left all my supplies to Alien {exactly this word is in the original,
but in Russian transcription}, he understood he needs them more!
- To whom? - me and Vika ask together.
- To Alien... - repeats the hobbit not suspecting anything, - To him.
He broke his leg.
How interesting.
I approach Unfortunate and undo the cast on his leg, then shake out the
contents of my bag to the snow. I don't have a slightest idea about how to
heal in this imaginary world.
- So your name is Alien? - I ask. Unfortunate keeps silence.
I open one of the jars, the stinky green ointment is inside. I roll up
the trouser-leg and spread it along Unfortunate's leg. After a little
thinking I also stick several dry leaves on top of it and declare:
- The fracture will heal in five minutes.
The situation is absolutely simple. I'm able to heal the wounds in this
world. Unfortunate appeared here with an injured limb. Now, when I opened my
bag and spent some of its contents for Unfortunate, the computer that
supports Lorien and its suburbs must restore the functioning of the drawn
body.
- What if it doesn't work? - asks Harding curiously.
- Then we'll carry your... hm... friend to the city.
- Thanks, - says the hobbit sincerely, - I have only 3 strength points,
I wouldn't be able to lift him.
He hesitates for a moment, then asks:
- Will you manage it alone?
- Sure.
- Then I'll run, okay? Back to the city... I was here for so long, will
be punished for that.
Surely a kid.
- Okay... Run, - I say feeling conscience-stricken. Harding trots to
the path, then shouts:
- But beware of Conan! Just in case...
Vika whispers in my ear:
- Conan the Victor over Hobbits!
- Cut this out, - I ask, - It's shameful enough already...
We wait for several minutes in silence, postponing the talk with
Unfortunate. We need to wait for the healing results first.
- Okay, stand up, - commands Vika.
Unfortunate leans on the leg, unsure, rises a little, makes one step,
another...
- Does it hurt? - I ask with curiosity of the real doctor.
He shakes his head.
- Then let's go to the city.
- And what's then? - Unfortunate squints his eyes at Vika, but she is
silent, I have to reply:
- Then you'll have to make your choice after all. We don't have any
more time for riddles.

One can't call the return to Lorien a triumphant one. The guards by the
gates look at us disdainfully - we have left two hours ago and obviously
didn't catch up with the army. There's no malicious phrases though, but I
decide to explain anyway:
- He convinced us to train more, - I nod at Unfortunate, - Not too much
use from us yet.
An explanation not worse than any other. Let them think of us as of
newbies, too self assured in the beginning but repented in time.
- Is this Lorien? - asks Unfortunate while we drag ourselves along the
snow-white trees tangled by stairs like Christmas trees with garlands.
- Exactly. Now we'll exit to the street and will finally fix our
business. - I throw carelessly.
- I can't explain anything anyway, - says Unfortunate.
- Then we'll part. We'll part forever, man. - I don't lie and don't
blackmail him. I need to hide, a long and boring task. To hide in small
one-horse towns where calculators are called computers, and Vika needs to
restore her business.
Vika looks at me askance but stays silent. She understands, she knew
that I'll have to leave.
Unfortunate raises his head and looks into the sky pierced by mallorns.
- You can stay here if you want, you don't have to pay phone bills, do
you? - I ask.
- No.
- ... And neither have you to exit into reality to have a snack.
He remains silent.
- You'll earn a thousand points, will become cool and respected, - I
reason aloud, - Some time I'll come here, will knock quietly and ask: "How
can I find the wise Alien?". And maybe then you'll take a risk to tell me
the truth.
- I don't have too much time either, Leonid.
- Oh come on! What does a couple of years mean to you... after hundreds
of years ... of silence?
Unfortunate stops, we gaze into each other's eyes.
- Hey guys, it looks like I became the less informed in our company
suddenly. - says Vika.
- Everything is simple, Vika. Very simple. When you cast aside the
impossible, then unbelievable becomes the truth.
Even Unfortunate is in disarray.
There's still something missing in that long chain of conditions that
would allow him to talk.
- Let's go, - I ask, - Let's not confuse poor Elves... we'll never
become a part of their tale.
The exit from Lorien is through the same gateway, only this time the
gatekeeper doesn't bug us with his questions.
- Make your decision Unfortunate, - I say opening the door, - I'm not
joking, I'm really tired of these riddles.
Only exiting into the street I understand that it'll be me to decide
anyway.

Man Without Face stands five away meters or so, with hands crossed on
his chest, gazing at us with the fog from beneath ash-colored hair, the
black cloak spread above the dirty pavement. And he's not alone.
Three bodyguards stand behind his back, two more fly in the air a bit
further. Their flight isn't made as ironically as Zuko's winged slippers -
droning jet knapsacks are behind their backs. They are not high, just a
couple of meters above the ground and the whole scene reminds me of some
ancient, pre-virtual era game...
- Bravo, diver, - says Man Without Face.
Vika is the first one to come to herself.
- Were it your assholes who ruined my institution? - she starts
aggressively.
The fog above the cloak's collar waves slightly.
- Check your account baby and then decide whether you have any right to
feel hurt.
Another move - the nonexistent face turned towards me.
- The warehouse where we had our talk is located at 42 Nukem Street. Go
and take what was promised to you.
How dashingly. A whip and a cookie. A very sweet cookie.
Man Without Face steps forward and stretches his hand towards
Unfortunate.
- Let's go, we have a lot to discuss. I know who you are.
Unfortunate doesn't move.
- We can make a deal. We must make a deal. I don't know what conditions
do you have, but everything can be decided... - whispers Man Without Face
ingratiatingly. He doesn't look at us, we're bought and swept from the
gameboard.
That's what he thinks of course.
- You haven't been to Russia for too long, Dima, - I say and Man
Without Face freezes, - You can hang your medal above the toilet bowl.
- You want to say your not for sale, Leonid?
We're even, he knows my name too, and maybe even my address as well.
- Yes.
- Don't go suicidal. I prefer to pay well for the job well done, and
learned that not in Russia by the way.
- I didn't work for you. And you're risking as well.
- How comes, I wonder?
- What if I tell Urman about you? To Friedrich Urman himself? He is
very anxious to join the mystery too.
Man Without Face laughs.
- Diver, you're just plain stupid! To Urman himself? None of the guys
of his rank ever does business in virtuality personally. The aides exist for
that: the secretaries, twins, facsimiles if you want, the very well trained
aides... The ones intended for doing business in virtuality.
I hold the blow. The slap is good, I never suspected such subtleties. I
thought that the businessmen should aspire into the Deep as passionately as
any ordinary man. But I hold the blow, I don't have another choice.
- What's the difference, Dibenko? I can report you to Al-Kabar, but you
can't do anything to me, I'm diver.
- Even divers have their weak spots.
He's bluffing, he must be bluffing. I turn to Unfortunate and ask:
- Do you want to go with him?
- It's for you to decide, - says Unfortunate. He's the only one now who
doesn't have a single bit of fear. He, and also those Dibenko's gorillas,
but in their case the reason for that is different.
- We're leaving, - I say and take Unfortunate's hand. As strange as it
might seem, but I'm sure that Dibenko won't stop us. He's not an idiot,
after all! If he just understands what's going on...
- Kill those two, - orders Man Without Face.
We're standing too close to each other and the guards don't shoot.
Looks like they are ordered to keep Unfortunate safe no matter what. The
couple in the air just continues to fly, but those three on the ground storm
towards us.
Do unarmed people need much? Just several machine gun butt hits -
several viruses thrust into our machines - and we'll disappear from the
battlefield. Maybe the brave Elves of Lorien are now watching us through the
blind wall, but they won't meddle, they have enough of their own bravery and
battles.
But it turns out that not only the Elves are watching us.
I duck the first blow, trip the guard up and he falls. They have to
play according to the common rules in Deeptown... I'm trying to snatch out a
machine gun from him in a weak hope that this virus set was created as an
autonomous file object...
... A long grey shadow jumps down from the roof of the Elvish hut. The
wolf knocks down one of the flying bodyguards and drops him on the pavement
as easily as a cardboard puppet. One click of his jaws and the man stays
motionless. The wolf jumps aside, and right in time: the second flyer starts
shooting at him. Bullets pierce the indifferent body that starts to float
up: the knapsack is still working. The wolf rushes to us.
Man Without Face steps out from his way in fluid motion but the wolf
was not going after him, he bites into the throat of one of our opponents.
The time seems to slow down, I see how the third bodyguard fights with Vika,
and I throw my opponent on him.
The wolf bites through the bodyguard's neck in an instant and pounces
on the remaining pair. The werewolf is too excited to imitate the pure
wolf's behavior - he rips his enemies with teeth and batters them with paws
in a cat-like manner. The greenish sparkling dust pours from his claws - the
virus weapons have entered the battle.
The machine gun lies by my feet, I pick it up but the program has the
user detector of course, the trigger is fixed under my finger. I just throw
the weapon at the guard who flies towards us, and he starts to shoot
reflectively - too fast and incoherent reaction, and also the dangerous one
in this case. The volley hits the machine gun that rotates in the air and
the battle program's security fails. An explosion - the whole virus package
gathered in the machine gun image, works simultaneously. The poor flyer is
the closest one to this bloody mess - and he gets it all. He flames up
disintegrating into formless pieces right into the air.
- Run! - growls the wolf, jumping up from the motionless bodies, the
bloody saliva drips from his fangs, the fur stands on its ends. I step
towards Romka, pat him on the back and whisper - "thanks."
Man Without Face is the last one alive, he stands there quietly
watching the demise of his guards.
- Run! - the Wolf growls again, not averting his glare from Dibenko.
- The Fellowship of divers? - says Man Without Face mockingly, - I
never expected that.
He's too calm. I nod to Vika and Unfortunate and obediently they start
retreating. Me and Roman stay - two against one. But this one is too
unruffled.
- Again I suggest you to bethink yourself Leonid, - says Dibenko to me.
- Get out of here, will you?! - hisses the wolf glaring at me with
greenish human eyes and leaps on Man Without Face.
A nice leap, this time even quicker and more accurate than the previous
one from the roof. The jaws click squeezing Dibenko's neck, forepaws scratch
his chest. Now, standing on his hindpaws, the wolf is much higher than a
human.
- You sucker, - says Man Without Face.
He lifts the wolf by the scruff with one hand and throws him back
towards the Elvish hut. The blow is so hard that the wall gives way and the
wolf almost flies into the corridor, but jumps back up immediately and leaps
on Dibenko again. The blow wasn't just a blow - the wolf's hide flames with
a pale glow. The virus was stuck in Romka after all. He must have turned all
the security off for the sake of speed and accuracy. But even now, when the
virus is mincing his computer, he still fights.
I run. Everything else is not important. Romka was watching me - just
how did he manage? He lunged into this fight to give me the chance and it's
stupid to lose it.
Vika stops Deep-Transit's cab ten meters further down the street,
pushes Unfortunate inside and waves her hand to me. Then her face distorts
in terror.
A disappearing howl of pain scratches my ears from behind and in the
next moment Man Without Face grabs me by the shoulder. It's too hard to
compete in speed with somebody who has 'octium''s prototype as a home
computer. One blow - and I fall on the pavement. Man Without Face who
invented the Deep, leans over me.
- I was patient, - he says.
I spit into the grey foggy mask, just a symbolic gesture - the ability
to spit is not implemented into the virtual body. I'll have to make a hint
for Computer Wiz...
Dibenko moves his hand along the face as if wiping the spit off, but in
fact he's not that squeamish: his fingers scoop a handful of fog and form a
sort of a snowball, looking as if made of a dirty city snow.
- Get it diver. Happy dreams to you.
Then the snowball flies towards my face, unwrapping into an endless
cloth. It's not gray anymore - it's colorful, sparkling, reflecting,
cheerful and pattern-covered. Too late I understand what does this
colorfulness remind me.
Abyss-abyss...
Too late.
Deep-program covers me and there's no strength to duck it.
Abyss-abyss...
The cloth still burns and doesn't seem to fade as the honest lawful
deep-program should...
Abyss-abyss...
I dive deeper and deeper, I fall into this colorful chasm, into the
endless chain of false reflections, into the colorful labyrinth, into the
madness and unconsciousness.
There's no timer on my machine and nobody will come to my door with the
key.
Abyss-abyss...
I can't surface as fast as the colorful whirl pulls me down!
Abyss-abyss...

111

Composure first of all.
As I heard, it's a favorite saying of some of our cosmonauts, but just
who remembers the heroes of the past days now?
Composure.
The panic kills faster than the bullet.
The endless kaleidoscope surrounds me: the rainbow, the fireworks, the
working deep-program. How simple - and unexpected. The diver can surface but
what would he do if the water comes in faster than he swims up?
I don't know yet.
I make a step and succeed as strange as it might seem. The world have
lost its reality, turned into the mad abstract artist's painting. The
swirling orange band flies by, curls into the ring, tries to tie around my
head. I tear it off: I can't see my hands, but the band flies aside as if in
hurt feelings. The small fountains of white dust rise from under my
invisible feet, an emerald rain starts falling, each drop is a tiny crystal,
painfully stinging the body.
And the silence, a dead silence, almost the one Unfortunate was talking
about...
Be calm.
Where am I now? Walk along Deeptown's streets with outstretched hands
and looking forward blindly? Or fell down somewhere into the depth of
Dibenko's computer? Or maybe I'm spread throughout the whole Net like some
mythical character?
Be calm.
First of all, I'm at home. I'm at home, before my old computer, in the
helmet and the suit. The keyboard is somewhere before me, the mouse to the
right. If to grope the keys and to enter the exit command manually...
No, it's impossible, and not just because I won't feel the keys beneath
my fingers. My consciousness got used to just imitate the movements long
time ago: I don't stretch my hand, but just jerk it weakly, I don't jump but
just raise from the chair a little, not walk but move my feet under the
table. Illusions. The Deep.
- Vika! - I say, - Vika! Exit from virtuality! Vika, I cancel
immersion! Exit!
No effect.
I took the possibility to communicate with Windows-Home from the Deep
for granted, to download and to transfer files, to exit the Deep, to inquire
about the machine resources. If it were so simple... there wouldn't be any
need for divers. Now, in the common virtual dweller's hide I'm in the common
rights.
I can't feel the real world.
I can't cry for help.
I'm drowning.
Be calm!
I try to take off the helmet that I can't feel. Useless. I run, pull
away hoping to tear the wires. Hardly have I moved even a bit.
I close my eyes. I need to switch off from the deep-program, not to see
it, not to dive deeper.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours, let me go...
I repeat this hundreds of times - the poor pupil in the diver's school,
dolefully writing the same sentence in the notebook over and over again.
Abyss-abyss, I'm not yours, let me go...
Nothing changes.
There, in the infinitely far real world, my motionless body sits by the
computer and the deadly rainbows reflect in my opened eyes.
Dibenko have got me.
Did he invent this trap accidentally, trying to learn how to surface,
to invent the life-buoy but actually invented the cement bowl attached to
the feet instead? Or was it exactly what he wanted to do: not to pull all
virtuality dwellers to the divers' level but to descend us to the common
one?
Maybe I'll never know that.
What happened to Romka? Did Vika have time to jump into the car or is
she wandering in the colorful snowstorm too while Unfortunate walks away
with Dibenko, silent and submissive?
I need to return to find out.
The world around calms down a bit. Either the color storm gained some
system or I got accustomed to my surroundings. Let's assume that the emerald
rain falls from above, so I now have one reference point. Let's try to
walk... slowly, easily... to that stubborn orange band for instance that is
still fidgeting there before me.
The band lets me to come close, then flies away. I have time to notice
that the emerald rain tattered its edges. The orange band is curled into the
Moebius ring, as if it's... it's independent from the space that surrounds
it!
Looks a bit too intricate for the deep-program...
I move towards the band again - and again it doesn't let me touch it
and flies away.
What's going on anyway? Have this mad world formed around me or is it
just a trick of my own subconsciousness?
I follow the band, any direction can be correct - if directions exist
here at all. The rain thickens, the crystals become thinner turning into
needles. I lower my head to protect the eyes and keep walking. I like what's
going on for some reason: somebody fights with somebody.
It means I have a chance.
Neither distance nor time here, all measures are merged. Maybe one hour
have passed, maybe three kilometers.
Maybe the madness have come.
The band soars ahead but its movements are slower and less sure. It's
just an orange rag now, tattered by the rain. The last leap - and it falls
down raising the geyser of white dust.
Is it over?
I stand over remains of my strange guide. What now? No more guiding
line. I close my eyes - and hear a weak distant sound. Deep program doesn't
work with sounds! They say, or maybe these are just rumors, that Dima
Dibenko's computer didn't have a sound card.
I keep walking.
The sound becomes louder but not clearer. The forest stream can babble
like this, or the distant surf, or the candle flame. Whatever, even if it's
an echo of the Big Bang! I need this sound, this lack of silence!
One step, another.
Even through the closed eyelids I can feel that something have changed.
I open my eyes. The world's colors seem to be faded. The emerald rain
have lost its brightness, became pale: not gems but dirty bottle glass is
pouring down from the sky. The white dust under my feet is barely seen.
And the blue star is shining ahead. A splinter of the blue sky.
Either it became bigger or I grew smaller, but the sparkling blue
sphere is right above me now. I stretch my hands touching warm rays, and
fall into the star.

The wind.
The cold wind blows into my face.
I rose from the snow-covered ground. Wherever I look - the plain, flat
as a table, no horizon can be seen. The sky is covered with orange tangling
threads, a blue light streams through them. And also - foggy jets flowing
above the ground, changing brightness and density, flying against the wind
and soaring up to the orange mesh of the sky.
I shook the snow from my knees and looked at my hand. A strange snow -
crystals are too big, friable and not sticking together. They hiss on my
hand and fly away in a light smoke.
- I'm glad you came Lenia, - says Unfortunate from behind.
I didn't have time to turn around, he almost shouted:
- No... don't!
The plain enveloped in fog, the cold wind, the crumbly snow... I
swallowed the lump that stuck in my throat:
- Unfortunate... thank you.
- I had to help, - he replied very seriously, - At least to try. You
rescued me after all.
- Not very successfully...
- But you've led me out. I felt bad there...
- I can guess that. But you could pass "Labyrinth" in an hour... in 10
minutes.
- Lenia...
- You could just exit, or could beat all the records.
- No, I couldn't.
- But why?
- Haven't you understood yet? - surprise showed in his voice.
- You didn't want to kill?
- Yes.
- But all that wasn't for real!
- For you.
- I won't ever be able to be like you.
- But this isn't necessary at all, Gunslinger.
- You know, - I said fighting the temptation to turn around, - Once,
for just a second it seemed to me... only for a second... that you're
Messiah. Do you understand?
Unfortunate is very serious.
- No Leonid. I wouldn't like to be your God. Neither of those that you
created. They are too cruel.
- Just as we are.
- Just as you are, - echoed Unfortunate with sadness in his voice.
- Is it a dream? - I asked after a while, - Everything I see around?
He was silent for very long, the one behind my back who asked me not to
turn around.
- No Lenia. Even if it is, it's not yours.
I understood.
- Thank you.
I wasn't cold, maybe because he wanted so. The gray grained snow didn't
burn me, and neither did foggy jets. Maybe it was easy for him, maybe
required an enormous effort? I don't know.
- Did you have time to escape? - I asked.
- Yes. We're driving through the city now. Vika gives one address after
another to the driver... Looks like she doesn't know what to do.
Unfortunate paused for a moment, then added:
- And she's crying also.
Orange bands whirl in the sky, an eternal dance below the hot blue sun.
Maybe it's beautiful after all...
- Tell her I'm alright.
- Is it true?
- I don't know. Will you help me to get out of here?
Unfortunate didn't answer.
- Will I be able to get out?
- Yes. Probably.
- Tell Vika that everything is alright.
- She won't believe me.
- She will. She have almost understood too. Tell her that there's a
"Polyana" company in the Russian district of Deeptown. It owns just a single
house, a kind of dull concrete 12- story building. Wait for me there, by the
second doorway, in exactly one hour.
- Anything else, Leonid?
- No. That's all.
- It'll be very hard, Gunslinger. - Unfortunate stammers, - You're
accustomed to fight the Deep. The force and the push. You're a good swimmer,
you always managed to surface from the whirlpool. But now it won't work.
- Aren't you accustomed to rely on the force?
- Depending on what force, Gunslinger...
Something touched my shoulder lightly, either in parting or to
reassure.
And then the orange threaded sky fell on the snow covered ground...

I rise - in droplets of colors, in kaleidoscope of sparks. The deep
program works. I still can't see my body.
Only a faint memory of the touch lives in me.
I still remember that world, I'm still living there, in an alien
distant dream...
- What the hell are you doing, Dibenko? - I whisper into the crazy
silence. - We can't... we can't treat him our way.
He can't hear me, the accidental creator of the virtual world, he
continues his pursuit after Unfortunate, a hunt for the miracle but I must
find him to explain how wrong he is...
I close my eyes and stretch my hands to the sides. Colorful flashes
behind closed eyelids - the deep program continues to envelope my brains.
First of all - be calm. There's nothing demonic in it, it's a sparkling
trinket, the one that hypnotizers rotated before their patients' eyes -
that's what the deep program is. A trinket of the electronic age. There's no
border between the dream and the dream within the dream. It's me who builds
these barriers, who convinces himself that he's drowning.
But now - it's time to surface.
- Abyss... - I whisper almost tenderly, - Abyss-abyss...
We were building it, placing bricks of computers on the cement of phone
lines. We raised a huge city. The city that has neither good nor bad in it -
not until we come.
It was hard for us in the present. There, where the passion of many
days of somebody's program cracking and of many months of writing our own is
not understood. There, where they talk not about falling prices for a Meg of
RAM, but about rising prices for bread. In the world where the killings are
real. In the world where it's so hard for the sinners and the saints and the
common people alike.
We built our own city that doesn't know borders, we believed in it's
being real.
Time to surface.
We wanted miracles and we inhabited Deeptown with them. The Elvish
glades and Martian deserts, labyrinths and cathedrals, far-away stars and
sea depths, a place was found for everything.
But now - it's time to surface.
We got tired to believe in kindness and love, we wrote the word
'freedom' on our banner believing in our naivety that the freedom is
superior to love.
Time to grow up.
- Let me go, abyss, - I ask, - Abyss-abyss... I'm yours.

* PART 5. Unfortunate *

0

In the beginning - it is dark.
All the colors of the world have gone in an instant.
I didn't notice when and how it happened. The deep program just was
here, but now there's nothing at all.
Maybe this is how divers die, falling to the very bottom of the virtual
space, burning down their brains and not perceiving anything anymore?
But the darkness fractions into the mesh of tiny squares, changes
brightness and colors return.
I'm standing with my forehead pressed against the wall, the drawn wall
of the drawn house.
Weird. Looks like I've entered the virtual space without turning the
deep program on at all, but I'm not just looking on the helmet's screens,
I'm kinda really here! It's just the world isn't real anymore, it became
drawn and cartoon-like.
I step back from the wall, squares merge turning into brown rectangles:
bricks. I look at the sky - dark bluishness with sparse stars. Houses and
palaces are lined along the street, looking like kids' drawings: sharp
contours filled with colors. This little house is the brick one, this fence
is wooden, fur trees in the garden... Steel tubes with yellow patches on
their spikes are stuck along the street - lampposts... Fake, just a fake.
More decent parts of the city are drawn better but I'm somewhere in the
suburbs now, the world around was created with simple programs and is
maintained by weak servers.
But the funniest thing is that I'm quite real myself! The shirt sleeve
torn in the fight, scratched hands... I raise my hand closer to the eyes and
can see every hair, a dirt under nails and the skin bruised against
fingerbones.
A real human in the cartoon.
I start to shiver. This is something new, it never happened before.
What did the deep program do to me, been run a thousand times? What did I do
to it when surfaced from insanity?
The sound flows closer from behind. I turn around and see the bus
moving along the street: a huge two storey rattletrap, made of glass almost
completely. The bus is drawn pretty thoroughly, even its wheels are
rotating. Caricature faces are glued to the windows: kids, adults, elders.
The Deep-Transit's emblem is on the bus' side.
I just stand, gasping for air, looking at the motionless faces. Well,
why would they be different - mimicry can be expressed only by very good,
tuned programs, aimed for the single user. These are just tourists.
The bus stops, the people exit it awkwardly, an elegant gentleman
dressed in bright- red overalls is in front: the guide. All men are dressed
absolutely the same in suits with ties, just a single black guy in the group
is in jeans and t-shirt. All faces are indifferently well- shaped, like a
second line villains' in kids' cartoon series. The women are all in
luxurious dresses, much better worked out than their faces, wearing jewelry.
Also a flock of kids with cartoony big eyes and a group of elder men and
women dressed in blinkers and with cameras. The guy in the wheelchair is the
last to exit the bus with the help of others.
- Hi! - shouts the guide to me and waves his hand. His mouth opens but
no mimicry can be seen either.
- Hello... - I force out a smile and the satisfied Deep-Transit
employee turns to his wards:
- What attracts you most... {In English in the original}
I hear a slight hissing and the guide's voice becomes barely heard. A
dry, vaguely familiar voice drowns it:
- What you interests most in this district Deeptown? We can see good
known... - a pause, - famous, renowned center of book selling, where they
will offer to your attention any literature... - a pause, - any books,
magazines, newspapers, paper media published since...
I blink as a kid who ripped open his beloved teddy bear to find soiled
rags, crumpled paper and somebody's dirty sock inside. Gee, and I valued
Windows-Home's interpreter program so high! I was amazed how fast and
correctly does it translate from any of the five official Deeptown's
languages!
Yeah, fast is true, but all correctness is ensured by our own brains
only, as it picks adequate words from the mess.
- Also there are, located, known, popular restaurants "Arthur's Sword"
and "Four- Ten". If we walk on forty-three street hundred meters or bit
more, then we will come to place of entertainment for grown-ups, adults.
A slight noise in the tourists' crowd, one should assume that they
smiled.
- You have two hours of free time, - declares the guide.
I think I know where am I. That faceless gray dome nearby is "famous,
renowned" book center named after some American president. If I'm on the
43rd street, then I'm on the opposite side of the city. What a walk! I look
at the watch, scared, and the panic fades, we left the Elvish realm only 20
minutes ago!
The tourists wander away: the couples to restaurants, singles - to
adults' entertainment places mostly. The guy in the wheelchair together with
the grey-haired lady and the black guy rolls away towards the book center.
The guide gets the cigar of a considerable size, definitely not the cheapest
one, drawn better than his face, bites off its end and lights it, then moves
towards me.
Will it be always like this now?
Is this a kind of victory over the Deep that I wanted?
No.
I'd rather be deceived further, seeing the city and the people instead
of the mixture of kid's drawing and the primitive cartoon. I'm not a judge
for this world, and neither am I an indifferent watcher from aside. I'm a
part of the Deep, flesh of Deeptown's flesh...
I hide my face in my hands, looking into the darkness, I don't know
whom I should ask, the Deep or myself, but I ask anyway.
Be myself, Abyss...
- Have a cigar, fellow, - says the guide friendly. He smiles, opening a
cigar case for me. The collar of the red overalls is unbuttoned, the pen cap
and the notebook stick out from the pocket. I can bet they weren't there
before. His face is open, kind and attractive, just as it must be for a guy
who shows the Deep to inexperienced newbies.
- Thanks, I don't smoke...
Everything is normal, just as before. Even better.
I'm yours, Abyss, I can be the real human in the real Deeptown or the
real one in cartoony city. Maybe I even can be the drawing walking among
real inhabitants.
Thanks, dear Dima Dibenko. You wanted to throw me out of the game or
maybe even to kill me, but something have gone wrong. I even can guess what
exactly. Unfortunate have helped me after all, he gave me part of the
strength that he has. So my sincere thanks go to him.
- Ah well, as you wish, - the guide doesn't feel hurt by my rejection
and hides the cigar case into his pocket. - You're an old timer here, right?
- Right, - I confess.
- I'm Kirk, - the man introduces himself, - Don't I really look like
him?
He probably means some play's or folklore character? I never was
inquisitive about the simple American mass-culture.
- Not really, - I answer randomly.
- And this is right! - Kirk supports me, - The resemblance must be in
your heart!
He releases a jet of smoke into the sky and skillfully rolls the cigar
from one corner of his mouth to another.
- I'm from Seattle, - he decides to go on with the talk even if I
didn't introduce myself in return.
- And I'm from St. Petersburg.
Kirk taps my shoulder cheerfully:
- Yeah! I know, been there!
I'm pleasantly surprised but his next words disappoint me:
- Nice town, - shares Kirk his impressions, - I had a girlfriend
once... such a severe girl! And you know, it so happened, the carburetor
went down right when we were passing St. Petersburg one evening. So we had
to stop for a night.
He winks to me slyly.
It'd be great to visit Tom Sawyer's native town, but now this
self-importance pisses me off.
- I'm from the different St. Petersburg, the one in Russia.
- Russia! - Kirk is pleasantly surprised, - There's St. Petersburg too?
- Yup. And Seattle - where is it? In Canada or Mexico? - I inquire.
Kirk chews his cigar unable to understand whether I'm kidding or really
don't know such an outstanding city.
- It's in America!
- Which one, South or Latin?
No, even if he's a typical and real American, he's a nice guy
nevertheless, he laughs and slightly pushes me on the stomach.
- Great! Cool! I'll visit you, later. I'm planning to visit Europe when
I'm 45, will go see your city too!
- Sure. You're welcome to.
I'm so exhausted by the deep program that stand here and eagerly
support this ridiculous talk.
- I'm giving a ride around to the tourists, - Kirk goes on, - father's
business. It's great! Today we were going through the city, one girl kept
asking to show her the diver. I pointed at one guy outside, said, "Diver!".
They almost overturned the bus when all of them rushed to that side to look.
We laugh together.
- We seldom come here, - Kirk smooches his cigar, - But Sam kept asking
to show him the book center, se we decided to stop here... not too far for
him to go, and also restaurants are close... and stuff... Sam is the one in
jeans and t-shirt...
- Huh? That black one?
Kirk chokes on his cigar from such an outrageous racism. How dare one
to call the black one - black!
- Well, I have to go, business... - he mumbles and quickly moves to the
bus without saying goodbye. I just shrug. Oh citizens of the mighty country,
if you just could realize how ridiculous and stupid your complexes are!
But it's time for me to go too. I raise my hand and the cab readily
appears from around the corner.
- Deep-Transit welcomes you! - says the driver. As if purposefully he's
black and I laugh quietly, getting into the car.

1

The drive takes quite long, Deep-Transit connects to "Polyana" company
through quite a bunch of intermediate hosts. My computer is not powerful
enough to support appropriately the whole house where I rent an apartment
from myself, so "Polyana" is hosted by someone's rental server, somewhere in
Byelorussia I suppose. It's not too expensive and I ain't gonna change this
order even when I buy a real machine instead of my current Pentium.
On my way I have fun making the world around drawn and real in turns.
Now I succeed in this without effort. Even more - I can change the space
perception in fragments. A drawn car passes our real one. A real girl walks
along the drawn street. Two guys stand chatting: one is real, another one -
cartoony.
Even if it's insanity, I really like it.
I make the Volvo I'm riding in drawn and pull my hand through the
window. A slight pressure on my skin - and the hand feels the wind outside.
Fantastic!
The world around belongs to foreign servers, I'm just passing here,
maybe it's even impossible to get here by an ordinary means... while at any
moment I can exit, fall from the speeding car. Something have shifted,
messed up. I don't dive into the Deep anymore, I really live in here!
In a block from my house I ask the driver to stop. I know this
neighborhood very well, it belongs to the couple of big Russian banks, not
officially of course. Financiers don't see any real use of such
'investments', but the programmers working for the banks had set a dwelling
here on their companies' expense. What boss from 'New Russians' would ever
find out that his computers don't only make debit to meet credit, but also
support a part of Deeptown's territory?
It's the best place to test the newly acquired abilities.
Lots of people hovers about here: it's the downtown, both living
quarters and entertainment centers are pretty close. I walk along the street
looking for more or less quiet corner.
This one looks okay: a tiny park with small fountain and a couple of
benches, attached to a blind wall of the highrise, made simply but with
taste. Ignoring the sign "No dogs allowed!", a red haired girl walks on the
grass with a kitten in the lead. Hm, well, pretty logical - the ban is not
for them. The kitten is obviously pissed by the nasty lead, he stops from
time to time and tries to tear it off with a paw. I smile in return to the
strict girl's look and make her drawn in a moment effort. The kitten stays
real, he's sunny-red, just as his mistress, quick and fidgety.
Virtual pets is one of the most profitable businesses in Deeptown, the
second after computer games of course. The Japanese love to keep those -
maybe because it's impossible to keep the real ones in their pencil-box
apartments? Also those pets are being bought by those poor ones who love
cats and dogs but suffer from allergies...
I sit on the bench, by the couple that softly whispers to each other,
examine the blind wall listening to the purling of water in the fountain. If
I'm not mistaken, there are computers of a very well known bank behind it.
Should I give it a try?
Ah, what the hell, I'm already charged for millions in damages, one
wouldn't be sorry about the hair when his head is taken off...
Calming myself with the splinters from the people's wisdom treasury, I
still can't make up my mind. The couple is nuzzling not paying any attention
to me. I hope they are lovers divided by thousands of kilometers, not just
seekers of safe adventures.
The kids run back and forth along the wall: a girl and two boys,
holding color chalks in their hands and excitedly covering the wall with
graffiti. I can hear cheerful shouts: "Hey Janka, Andryushka's monster was
scarier!" ... "Sevka, come on, give me the red chalk, will you?". Looks like
somebody have brought their offspring for a virtual walk. Finally the kids
calm down and start drawing. The girl draws the samurai with a sword, the
sword is almost real. Chubby glasses bearer Seva runs along the wall
picturing something like a snake that swallowed an elephant. But the snake
gets a barrel and I understand that it's just a tank. Skinny and swarthy
Andrei diligently wheezes drawing an impossible monster. Maybe
intentionally, maybe he wanted to draw a man...
I stand up and pad towards the kids.
- Hey guys, could you draw a door? - I ask all three.
The question have definitely puzzled them, but after a short debate
they start working on the requested together. The door is being drawn with
excitement, mutual taking of chalks away and arguments about whether they
should draw a keyhole. I wait patiently. Finally the drawing is finished and
the young talents look at me with demand: will I appreciate their work or
not?
- Cool, - I say honestly, - Thanks a lot!
The door looks in fact good. It is drawn right between the elephant's
trunk... errr... the tank's barrel and the samurai's sword. It has a
keyhole, and a handle, and even hinges.
- You have really helped me out! - I confess.
The kids wait stubbornly.
Then I make the street around drawn, make a deep breath, relax and turn
the door into the real one.
It's just an illusion, not more than an illusion of course...
I stretch my hand and pull the door towards me, once and again.
No effect. What was I expecting after all?
In anger, I kick the real door in the drawn wall and it sweeps open.
It opens to the inside... Wow, it worked!
The kids scream from behind, not scared or surprised but cheered
mostly. Followed by these screams I enter the impenetrable wall.
And get into the bathhouse.
The ancient Romans who were real experts in this, along with the
thrifty Finnish and heated Russians would burst with envy: it's a huge
marble hall, the glass dome above is slightly covered with snow, cold winter
sun beaming through it. A round pool is in the center of the hall, a dozen
of men cools down in it. The mountains and a steep slope can be seen through
the windows, several more guys, the boldest ones run down the slope raising
fountains of snow dust. The heavy wooden door swings open and a skinny guy
runs out of the sweating-room with a scream, dives into the pool and starts
jumping on one place raising waves. The bald fat man wrapped in the sheet
drinks beer by the bar, glancing at the pool with condescension.
The urge to drop the pants and join the company is big: what a guys
these bank programmers are, what a cool ones! They had set themselves quite
well... I just wonder, don't they get wet in sweat in reality while
polishing themselves in the sweating-room with birch besoms?
And gosh, I've really entered!
The columns around the pool still cover myself from the others' looks,
but it won't be for too long. The dressed guy in the bathhouse is a weird
sight. I turn around - the door is gone.
Ah well, I don't care.
I enter the wall. The bathhouse is good but I'm interested in something
else. Something that doesn't have any analogies in virtuality at all...
But it looks I've got into the wrong place again: a gloomy desolate
quarters, a row of tanks is in the center of it, the water noisily splashes
in them. Along the row a conveyor band is crawling, something looking like
detergent powder spills into the tanks from the holes in the ceiling. All
this looks like some terrible automated laundry from an old sci-fi novel.
I'm about to move further when one tank turns over and spills its contents
on the conveyor band.
Lots of dirty water and a couple of kilograms of money.
I'm so shocked that jump out of virtuality even without reciting my
usual rhyme.
The numbers were on the helmet's screens, accurate columns of numbers,
tables, vague phrases. I took the helmet off. Sure, why would anyone
graphically picture the process of money transfer or, even more, their
laundering? But my smart subconsciousness being used to the pictures, did
it's best!
The head was aching badly. Was at a result of a multiple-time deep
program? Or just a consequence of that overstrain that I experience now?
What's the difference?
I took an open pack of Analgin from the table, looked into the fridge.
One can of Cola was still there. Choking, I chewed the tablets, washed it
down with soda. Bear with it just a little more my poor organism, the main
part is still ahead. Before returning to the laundry I glanced to the watch:
a quarter before two. I should munch on something...
Blades hollowly bang in tanks, laundering money. Dollars, Deutsche
marks and roubles crawl along the belt conveyor, I watch this endless flow
that has either someone's sweat or blood behind it. What happens if I take a
couple of millions from there? For some reason I'm sure they will appear on
my account. Maybe I'll plug to the isolated bank network and will type in
the order for money transfer, even not knowing about that. Maybe the bank's
computers will do all operations themselves, submitting to my will only.
I'm not just a thief resistant to the deep's hypnosis anymore, I'm the
deep itself, a part of it...
I lean over and pick up a 100 dollar note. It is even possible to
remember it's serial number. It's possible to do so that it never appeared
here at all according to the bank's documents.
Everything is possible now - or almost everything.
I throw the piece of paper back on the conveyor belt and pad to the
wall. One step - and the world fades, falls down, turns into the flat scheme
under my feet. A huge sheet rolled out into the void, I soar above, looking
at the threads of the streets.
Here's my house.
I dive down to it, pierce the plane of the scheme, feel asphalt beneath
my feet. No more efforts, no more rhymes and begs to the deep. I don't ask
my body to breathe after all, do I?
Vika and Unfortunate stand by the entrance, talking. Then Vika notices
me and silences in confusion. I wave my hand, walk towards them and Vika
runs to meet me.


10

I shut the door of the entrance and mingle with the lock for some time.
Vika still holds my hand, and it's quite difficult to start security systems
using one hand only. Finally I just order the door to shut. The lock clicks
and the light of the alarm system starts blinking. Unfortunate raises his
head - looks like he felt something.
- What did he do to you? - asks Vika. Only now, when we're isolated
from the outer world she relaxes a little. Probably I wasn't right not
hurrying to her at once.
- The deep program, - I find the simple reason, explaining to her what
happened. - The cycling deep program, the endless dive.
Vika frowns, she understands.
- It was impossible to surface.
- But you...
- ... Found a detour, - I say glancing at Unfortunate askance. - Vika,
how did it look like from aside?
- Dibenko threw something at you... - she knits her brow, remembering,
- Like a handkerchief of some kind... and you fell into it. It looked like a
very powerful virus.
- What about Romka?
Vika looks at me in surprise.
- The wolf. It's Romka, the werewolf diver, my friend.
- He burned him, down to ashes. He just grabbed his throat and he
blazed up.
I stay silent, what can I say? Visual effects of the virus might be
different, the most important thing is how did it influence Romka's machine.
I was always thinking he has a weak computer, like mine, maybe even without
magnetooptics. If Man Without Face had used a brute-force weapon, Romka will
have to reinstall all soft from scratch.
- Lenia...
I nod. It's not the time to express sympathy about others' troubles.
It's never enough time for that though...
- Let's go, - I nod to her and Unfortunate. - I live on 11th floor.
- Who else lives here?
- Nobody. Now - nobody. - I say squeezing into the elevator cabin. I
push the button, a jerk and we crawl up. Vika frowns, she really fears
heights... even of this type.
- Did anyone live here before?
- Well... in some sense, - I evade her question. The doors open and we
exit to the stairs. Unfortunate looks around curiously.
- Here's my palace... welcome... - I say unlocking the apartment, then
add for Unfortunate only, - Returning the visit?
He nods.
Vika enters first, she delays by the threshold as if thinking whether
she should take off her shoes or not. Sure not and she understands that.
{When entering an apartment, Russians usually leave shoes worn outside by
the entrance. Special slippers are used inside apartments.}
- The bathroom-toilet and the kitchen are to the right. The room and
the balcony are to the left. - I inform politely.
Vika looks into the room carefully, her look slides across the faded
wallpaper, stops for a second on the computer table, sofa, fridge and
dresser. She's possibly disappointed. Sure!
- It's strange... - says Vika and I feel that she exits the deep for a
second and looks at my living place from reality.
Go ahead... I just don't want to be in your sight at this moment.
- Let's go, - I pull Unfortunate's hand. - Want me to teach you how to
brew coffee?
Unfortunate walks into the kitchen instead of an answer, quickly
chooses the most expensive and at the same time the best coffee from the
number of packages, takes the biggest coffee pot and the salt dispenser.
- A-ha, - I just say.
- Hundreds of servers have cooking recipes, - notes Unfortunate, - A
girl from Rostov have added one more 5 minutes ago, quite interesting one.
Should we risk to try it?
It would be strange to hope that I can teach him anything. Except maybe
the ability to shoot at people.
But I doubt this is an ability he'd appreciate.
- Be at home, - I just answer returning to the room. Vika sits on the
sofa examining the bookshelf.
- I'm back, - I inform her and Vika closes her eyes, just for a moment,
to return into the deep.
- It's strange, - she repeats. - Lenia, for some reason I've been
expecting...
- ... To see the palace?
- No, not necessarily the palace, but at least something...
- Something like your hut?
She nods silently. I can quite understand her confusion: she was
definitely sure I'm a spatial designer. But she saw a pathetic apartment
instead, even if well drawn but definitely not deserving an honor to be
immortalized in virtuality.
- Follow me, - I say, - Unfortunate, we'll leave for a minute! If
something happens, we're in the stairwell somewhere.
Vika follows me obediently. It's clean and quiet in the stairs. I put
my finger to my lips:
- Hush... Don't disturb anyone...
- But you've said there's nobody else in the house... - whispers Vika.
- But what if not? - I answer mysteriously, pad to the door opposite to
mine and take a piece of bent wire from my pocket. It's just like I imagine
a picklock. Vika waits, already intrigued.
I pick at the wire in the lock and of course it opens. Sure, it was
planned this way... Then we enter.
It's a big three room apartment {'two bedroom' according to American
standards}. Some clothes - jackets and cloaks hang on hooks by the door. A
kid's bicycle is leaned against the wall. Footwear is scattered along the
wall. I give slippers to Vika, change myself and say:
- It's a habit to change footwear inside here. The family is big, four
kids, they would take too much dirt from outside... and the floors are cold.
{Floors are almost never carpeted in Russia, they are either painted wood or
vinyl covered. Some rugs and carpets are common but these never cover the
floor completely.}
Vika stays silent, she have accepted the rules of the game.
We look into the kitchen - an old Polish kitchen furniture is there,
yet from the Soviet times, lots of spices' jars, some sorts of pickled
veggies and jams in big cans. The pot with hot borsch is on the stove top
together with a pan of meat rissoles. A quiet green street can be seen
outside the window and Vika glues to it instantly. Kids shout outside on the
playground, a woman walks with an old slow poodle just by the doorway.
- Who lives here? - asks Vika.
- I know only their names - Viktor Pavlovich and Anna Petrovna. Their
older daughter Lida finishes high school, and they also have three boys:
Oleg, Kostya, Igor'.
After some hesitation I add:
- The poodle is named Gerda. In general I don't like when pets are
named by human names, but they wanted so.
- What city is this?
- Vitebsk. I think it's Vitebsk.
Vika turns her back to me and says strictly:
- Don't come into my view.
For a minute or so she examines the kitchen after exiting virtuality.
Then, having dived back, she turns to me and asks:
- Is it everywhere like this?
I nod.
- Masters are absent but their apartments live, - whispers Vika, - A
shirt on the back of the chair, toys scattered on the floor, a leaking
faucet and trash swept under the sofa by the single... Right?
I keep silence.
- Len'ka, are you normal at all? - asks Vika quietly, - I was building
mountains where is no people, where shouldn't be any people... it's strange
too maybe. I just don't like people too much.
- Don't lie, - I ask her.
- ... And you have built the house in which nobody will ever live...
No, the house which is *almost* inhabited: a smoking pipe in the ashtray and
the hot teapot on the stove... Modular 'Maria Celesta' {kitchen furniture}.
Lenia, what for?
- I didn't have right to lodge them really, to think out characters and
faces, griefs and joys. Let it be like this... the things only. They also
can tell a lot.
I still think she doesn't understand, can't understand completely and I
say hurriedly:
- A guy lives one floor below, a music lover. He's from Podol'sk.
Sometimes he's too carried away and cranks his tape player so loud that it's
necessary to knock into his wall. But he's a nice guy, he makes the volume
lower at once. He has a great collection, cassettes, vinyl, CDs, a little of
everything. Vinyl mostly, it costs peanuts now, nobody needs it, and he has
a Vega turntable, an old one but it works fine. On the sixth floor a weird
type lives, I think he's an engineer, works on a plant in Tula, they were
making weapons before, now - some consumer trinkets. He dreams of writing
'love mysteries', he invented this sort of a genre... So he writes them,
types on a typewriter in the evenings, but never shows to anybody. He
understands himself that it comes out bad, he's a rare type of
'graphomaniac', a harmless one. I took his writings sometimes, looked
through, it's really rubbish, but so kind and naive one, he should have been
born in the XVIIIth century...
Vika doesn't reply and I go on, understanding already that I've made a
mistake, I shouldn't have shown her this empty apartment, and even less - to
tell her about others, she won't ever understand this weird stuff, these
ravings that I was building for two years...
- There's an old woman on the third floor, she lives alone in three
room apartment, her life is hard, I know... especially because she's from
somewhere in Ukraine, from Kharkov, I suppose. She turns the TV on only when
the soap opera is being shown, and even then she keeps the brightness down
thinking that less power is being consumed this way and the tube doesn't
wear off... But she fears to sublet the rooms or to change her apartment,
maybe this is right... I seldom visit her, I can't help her anyway, and it's
dreadful to see how she is living. Especially before the holidays, you know,
the most terrible-looking poverty is the one that tries to celebrate the New
Year. Her children have forgotten her, or maybe she never had them or they
were killed in wars, she has a picture on the wall - a guy in the Russian
military uniform...
Vika keeps silence.
- There's a couple on the second floor, they are funny. Married for
just a year, from Ufa. They quarrel all the time, then make peace, sometimes
one can hear them from the staircase... sometimes the cup gets shattered,
sometimes they shut the door with such force that plaster falls down. But
anyway it seems to me that they'll never divorce, something keeps them
together, either some secret or love or both; love is a great secret too,
you know... And the three room apartment there is empty... just empty. The
Jewish family lived here, then they left, selling the apartment to some
mediator company which still can't get rid of it... probably they've boosted
the price too much, the apartment is in Moscow, in a good district...
I'll suffocate in this silence, in her not saying a word.
- The disabled old man lives on the first floor, he moves with
crutches, possibly the most noisy and caustic person in whole Kursk. He
brawls in shops, quarrels with neighbors, I always pass the first floor as
fast as I can, fearing to run into him, but it's not right, it's not his
fault that he became what he is, it's life... Life.
I can understand myself how ridiculous does this word sound here.
Life? What life - in the drawn apartments of the drawn house, in these
concrete crypts where only things remember people. Only neutron bomb would
appreciate this, not an alive woman.
I'm really an idiot, a clinical case. Ah well, still for good: Vika can
start working on her new thesis.
- Len'ka, - says she, - My God, Len'ka, what happened to you?
Oh yeah, here comes...
- Forgive me, - she says, - All my screams... about the work with
psychos... about all those assholes... if I was hit like you...
- Vika... - I can't understand a thing anymore.
- Somebody deserted you, betrayed you? You lost the ideals you wanted
to believe in? And you gave up? - she asks quietly, - You don't believe that
you can help somebody, to do a bit of good? And you ran away here, into the
deep, into the fairy tale? You really can love but you fear your love?
- I can help - here. Here only. At least by dragging the ones who got
lost out of this drawn world. But you know, one drowns not when he can't
swim, one drowns when there's no more strength to stay on the shore. And the
shore... it's not in my power anymore.
- You don't see any hope at all there, in reality?
- I do - now. Now Unfortunate have appeared.
- Lenia, you hide something! Do you know who is he?
- Yes I do, and it means that there's a hope. If they could became as
they are, then we'll be able too.
- But who are - "they"?!
How can I explain? How to make her believe in impossible, in something
for which the tabloid pages is the best place?
- Vika, he almost said that there... back in the Elvish city. Their
servers don't support English, this is the purely Russian party. He called
himself an Alien.
Vika shakes her head, she understood, but she doesn't want to, she
can't believe.
- He's an alien, Vika. He's not from the Earth.
- He's a human...
- In some sense - yes. Much more human than we all are. Better than we
are, and maybe even the one that we'll never be able to become.
- Lenia, why do you think so?
- He doesn't even have the body - here. Yes he flew, by the most usual
and boring way, from one star to another. Do you remember his words about
the Silence?
Vika shivers.
- It's dreadful to imagine for us but he had passed all this. Hundreds,
thousands of years, the void and silence, the darkness with nothing in it. I
even think that his ship is immaterial...
Vika shakes her head and freezes suddenly. I turn around - Unfortunate
stands in the corridor.
- I was calling for you, - he says, - I came into the staircase and
called. Then just entered, the door was opened.
We don't reply. Then Vika asks:
- You aren't human?
- No, I'm not. Let's go, coffee is ready.

11

We sit and drink coffee; I don't like the girl's from Rostov recipe.
Strange that I'm able to distinguish the subtleties of taste at all.
- A choice stuff, - says Unfortunate putting the cup aside, - I think.
- Can you feel the taste? - inquires Vika.
- Yes.
- How comes? Taste in virtuality is nothing more but the memory about
what we tried in the real world! If you aren't human, then...
I can feel her aggressiveness growing, but can't do anything.
- I'm trying to imagine whether so much salt should improve the
coffee's taste or not. I think not.
- Did you try something like coffee before?
- Only when visited you. I... - Unfortunate looks at me and hesitates,
- I can't even say that I eat at all.
Looks like it's some threshold beyond which Vika loses patience.
- You're lying, - she says with conviction, - Look, you're just lying!
You know what? Just go to the Viner Square, it's the UFOlogists' club there!
They'll be so glad to meet you! They'll believe you!
- I don't ask you to believe me. - replies Unfortunate softly.
I jump up:
- That's enough, both of you! Vika, I believe him!
- Lenia, you are just convincing yourself! - Vika deliberately ignores
Unfortunate. - You aren't the specialist in computer technologies, are you?
You couldn't trace his signal and believed in all that? He's human, his
behavior and knowledge are human! He's human! Can you prove me wrong?
Unfortunate gazes at the wall.
- I can't. He can. - I look at Unfortunate's face, - Tell her, I beg
you. Prove it to her.
- I can't prove anything.
- You helped me to get away from the trap, - I whisper, - I don't know
how, but you did give me a part of your strength, your abilities, remember?
Please, do the same for Vika!
Unfortunate raises his look at me.
- Leonid, I gave you nothing. I don't have a right to meddle into your
life.
- But...
- You could do it, yourself. You only lacked the faith in this to be
possible. You needed the goal worth fighting for. You had met me and got
this goal, you believed that everything is still ahead, that the world won't
crumble as a house of cards, won't crash down into the deep. I only helped
you to find your faith.
I shake my head, no, I couldn't! I couldn't do it myself!
Unfortunate doesn't avert his gaze.
- I gave you nothing Leonid, nothing but troubles. I'm really sorry. I
don't have right to make such presents.
- Listen fellow, don't take me in, okay? - says Vika sharply.
- Unfortunate... Alien... - I put my hand on his shoulder, - But you'll
have to prove who you are anyway, you'll have to explain, maybe not to us,
but to the scientists and politicians...
I stop at the half-phrase. Unfortunate shakes his head.
- I won't explain anything to anybody, this is senseless and not
needed.
- But the contact...
- What IS the contact? - he smiles, - A shiny starship on the lawn by
the White House? A long legged blonde presents flowers to the purple
crocodile in a space suit? The holds full of machines and devices, the
galaxy encyclopedia recorded on 1001 synthetic diamond? The cure for cancer
and the means to control the weather? Or, rather... something else. Flying
saucers burn cities, the mankind leads a guerilla war against the
intelligent jellyfish? You'd rather believe in this Leonid, isn't it true?
Just remember the man in command of star armies, remember "Labyrinth"! Are
these - the contacts? You believed in me, you decided that I'm an alien,
that the moment of contact have come...
- But if you came to us, - I shout, - Then there IS something! You do
want to say something to us!
- No.
That's it. I understand and it makes no sense to talk any further.
- I just live here. You can't even imagine Leonid how different we are.
I'll never step on the ground - I have nothing to step with, and I won't be
able to shake your hand - I don't have any.
- But you're human here! - says Vika.
- Yes. If you want to know the sky - become one. If you want to know
the star - become the star... - Unfortunate glances at me and smiles, - If
you want to know the deep - become the deep. I became the human, as much as
it was possible.
- It's your method of knowledge? - asks Vika ironically.
- Yes.
- What for, if we are so different? If we don't need each other?
- I'm tired. I was alone for too long. - Unfortunate either apologizes
or tries to convince her, - I needed this memory... the city and the people,
the taste of coffee and the smell of fire. It all was alien for me but now
will stay forever. Your distrust and Leonid's faith. Those who were killing
me and those who were rescuing. I didn't mean to cause any trouble for you,
I didn't want to meddle. This is a norm... not to cause harm.
- Your norm... - I say.
- Yes. You live according to the different laws. It's not for me to
judge which ones are better.
- Then you found the best place to appear on Earth, - I nod to
Unfortunate, - The freedom and no interference, all life's colors, from
black to white.
- Of course.
- For some reason I thought differently, - I say, - That you could not
only take from us... the tastes and smells, the words and colors... but also
to teach us at least something... No, sure not how to extinguish clouds or
to cure flu... At least - kindness.
- Leonid, kindness is just a word. I can't kill a living creature. But
it's not a moral, it's more of a physiology.
Now it's really finish.
I wished to find an answer, an ideal, to find a miracle which didn't
have a place for it on Earth for a long time. The one that came from the
stars or was born by the Net - it doesn't matter. Maybe Man Without Face
understood that when he offered me to go into "Labyrinth".
But the miracle doesn't care about us, it's completely alien and its
kindness is not more elevated than a contented belch.
- If I try to explain you my ethics, - says Unfortunate, - I'll have to
switch to the language of Physics laws and mathematical formulas. If I try
to explain science - I'll have to write poems and to paint. Do you
understand? The difference is not in the level of development but in the
basis itself. We have nothing to take and nothing to give to each other.
Whatever I've got is just memories, emotions. But do you really think
they'll retain their human form?
- Yes, so I thought.
- It was a mistake, Leonid. I'll leave you soon and everything will
change. I'll change myself, and so will my memory.
I step from the table and look into the window, at Deeptown's
illumination flashing outside. Man Without Face, maybe you were right? It's
impossible to approach Unfortunate with human measures. I tried - and look
what came out of it.
- Let's assume, - says Vika behind my back, - that you're not lying.
You're really an alien. The one from the stars, let's say, the one who has
nothing in common with humans. Then tell me...
Maybe Vika really starts to believe. Now, hiding behind the words
"let's assume" she will try Unfortunate about his ethics and culture, about
his ship's construction and interstellar journey principles. Good idea
too...
- I'll leave you for a minute, - I say without turning around.
Vika doesn't protest, probably she thought I gonna exit the deep
temporarily.
Nope...
The drawn wall, the drawn window - I break through them, make a step
and find myself above the city. Buildings, neon signs, pedestrians, cars...
I'm not here anymore, my body have vanished, I just glide in the air, as if
hackers' dreams and Hollywood directors' fantasies have become true, it's
the virtuality as it must be, the freedom of directions and forms.
Further... further...
I make a round around Microsoft's palace, a huge, monstrously bloated
building all covered by windows, descend trying to determine the direction
towards the Elvish server. Just along this street...
Most likely I'm invisible for others.. I speed above pedestrians'
heads, faster than Deep-Transit's cars, switching from server to server.
What am I looking for anyway? For the trace of the battle that was over
a couple of hours ago? The virtual time is condensed, there's no traces to
find anymore but I must do it anyway.
Here... An Elvish hut, an empty street. A taxi cab blinks in the
distance and vanishes. I step on the pavement and turn back into human.
Dibenko's bodyguards' corpses have disappeared already, either they
were removed or decomposed by themselves. But at the place where the
werewolf was fighting with Man Without Face the asphalt is still melted and
pressed in, the only token. So what will it give to me?
I walk around the dent considering whether it'll make any sense to drag
search programs from home and to reconnoiter the space. Of course not, the
ordinary methods won't help here.
A taxi cab drives from the alley slowly and approaches me, too slowly
for it to be a coincidence, Deep-Transit is famous for its speed. Oh well, I
had to expect the ambush.
I'm so sure that Dibenko will emerge from the cab that I don't
immediately recognize the man that appears.
- Gunslinger? Huh? - exclaims Guillermo cheerfully, approaching me, -
You, Gunslinger?
I stay silent. I still like "Labyrinth"'s chief of security service and
this is very vexing.
- You're Gunslinger? - requests Guillermo, - I just want to be sure,
tell me!
- Hi Willy, - I say. He beams in a smile:
- Hi! I knew it, I knew... - Guillermo eyes the melted asphalt and
tsks, - Cool. It was tough. Yes?
- Yes.
- Gunslinger... - Willy parts his hands, - It's really-really
unpleasant to me, honestly! I was even against charging you in damages! But
there, - a hurt glance up, - they decided to scare you. This isn't the right
method!
- So what's now?
Guillermo sighs and sits right onto asphalt without mercy to his fancy
suit. I sit by his side. So here we are, by remains of Romka's funeral fire,
like two hippies of different generations, one is settled down but still
liberal, the other one in the height of his protest.
- I did suspect that this accident was caused by you, - says Willy, -
quite unusual and bloody fight. Yes... I was waiting for you on my own...
errr... risk.
- Why? - I ask, - Will you try to detain me? You'll fail. It couldn't
be successful before, and even less now.
Guillermo pricks up his ears but doesn't ask anything:
- No-no, Gunslinger! It's absolutely not that I'm sure that our
troubles is your fault! Maybe some frictions with Al-Kabar were the reason?
Huh?
He winks conspiratorially. Like a quiet rebellion against "Labyrinth"'s
management.
- Gunslinger, I'd like to restore our cooperation. After all, you were
the first to suspect something unusual in Unfortunate and you shouldn't
suffer for that!
- Thanks.
- But we can't be left aside either! Penetration have happened on our
territory, right? In juridical sense the question is very complicated, it's
easier to solve it in a good will... in a human way. We're humans, aren't
we?
What I'd never expect from "Labyrinth"'s guys is such pep. How quickly
did they get what's going on!
- Willy, - I say, - It's useless. You know what our common problem is?
- Al-Kabar? - asks Guillermo quickly, - Or Mr X?
- No. Willy, we all want something from Unfortunate. I was dreaming
about some kind of goodness for everybody. You know, a common, abstract
happiness and stuff which he could bring...
Guillermo nods in understanding.
- You obviously wanted to become famous, to get your share in
distribution of technologies that he could give...
A protesting handwave. Oh yeah, sure, "Labyrinth" is not a commercial
organization, we heard these songs before...
- Willy, he doesn't want to communicate with us! At all. He doesn't
need us.
It seems that I've really shocked him.
- Doesn't need us? - he exclaims.
- Absolutely. He stopped here to get some rest and now he's going to
resume his journey amongst the stars.
Guillermo makes a couple of chewing motions and asks again:
- A journey amongst the stars?
- Yes...
- What stars?
It seems we don't understand each other...
- Willy, Unfortunate is an alien form of life, I think some energy
based one, his mind cardinally differs from...
I shut up. Somehow ridiculous does all this sound! Now, when
Unfortunate is not near, I feel a kind of scepticism Vika felt.
- Energy based form of life... - repeats Guillermo very politely and
gently, as if talking to a sick person, - Yes. Interesting.
Which one of us is the bigger idiot?
- Willy, let's exchange information. To begin our cooperation.
- I think I know your information already, - Willy winks slyly, - Huh?
- But I also can meet Unfortunate at any time and talk to him. Huh?
- Do you have him? - asks Guillermo quickly.
I remain silent.
- As a token of cooperation... - mumbles Willy. Oh, it wasn't his
initiative to come here! Or at least, not only his. Now "Labyrinth"'s
management decides in panic whether to allow him to talk to me openly or
not...
- I can leave, - I note.
- Okay! - Willy raises his hands, - I surrender! You've won,
Gunslinger! You've won as usual!
I ignore the compliment but Willie doesn't expect any reaction. He rubs
his forehead and pronounces solemnly:
- It was not at once when we evaluated the Unfortunate's phenomenon.
It's our big mistake. "Labyrinth"'s attention to its customers have played
the positive role though... When yours and our divers' efforts proved
useless, we started to search for Unfortunate's entering channel. We
searched and searched... and failed.
I'm waiting for the next part. Guillermo winks cunningly and goes on:
- Are you familiar with the parallel worlds theory, Gunslinger?
- From sci-fi literature.
- It's quite a serious theory, Gunslinger. Other worlds might exist in
parallel with ours, invisible, unreachable... but quite real ones. We can't
- yet - communicate with them in a normal way. But virtuality is a different
thing. Flows of information live according to their own laws. Computer
network is the most powerful device for entropy reduction in the history of
mankind. Independently from our will or wish it influences the physical laws
of the Universe. Information flows stream along the Net, they condense
creating the centers where the very nature of the Universe transforms.
- Information can't change the laws of nature, - I say quickly.
- Oh yeah? When the structure complication happens in the limited
fraction of space - it influences the whole Universe. Very weakly of course
but the bases of the world vibrate a little anyway. Every object created by
humans contained both positive and negative 'charge'. The club carved from
the tree branch wasn't just a weapon, no! It was an anomaly phenomenon, an
ordered structure in the chaotic world. But this was compensated - at least
by the pile of shavings and sawdust. The book became a bit more complicated
structure. The volume of information and chaos caused by its creation were
not exactly equal already but this phenomenon was also compensated after all
- at least by the fact that many books were not worth the trees cut to make
paper for them. What added to that for the first hand, were the books that
beared an anomalous complication of information in themselves. I'm not
talking about reference books that mostly reflect well known and useless
information but about those that led to the birth of new ethics and
perception of the world. They started to influence the people's life, to
lead to entropy, to destroy. It was like a curse: the more informative the
book is, the more did it shake the world. The humans were unable to
simultaneously bring an order into the world and not to add chaos. Computers
is an absolutely different case, it's information in its purity. It arrives
from different directions, it gathers, multiplies. It doesn't vanish without
a trace - to give away a file with data is absolutely not the same as to
give away a jewel or a favorite book. It tears the Universe's space,
violates the balance between the order and the chaos.
Guillermo silences to catch his breath. He's excited, he definitely
wanted to tell all this out.
- And so, in such points where the human deeds create the new
understanding of the world, where the very human look at the life changes -
the unusual happens. The border between the worlds breaks there, and the
miracle is being born, and the creature from the other world, maybe a human,
maybe not, right?... is able to come to us. To encounter our moral, culture,
our dreams... to absorb all net's knowledge in itself... and to freeze,
terrified.
What can I answer him? To tell about the fallen star?
- As far as I understand, Unfortunate declared you that he's an alien
from the other planet? - asks Guillermo.
I nod. Maybe it's not exactly so though, he never told me directly, he
just never rejected my guess.
- Was it his own version or he confirmed your guess?
- Confirmed... - I mumble.
- A normal thing to do, - decides Guillermo, - To admit his own alien
nature but to give a wrong direction. He has a right to fear us. His
civilization is a peaceful one most likely while we are not the kindest
creatures...
It was a long time since I was nudged face forward into the dirt this
way.
- We considered different theories, - says Guillermo, - We analyzed
Al-Kabar's versions - about the machine mind, mutation that gave birth to
the 'human computer'. But... our specialists tend to smile. We were thinking
about an alien from the stars. This would be beautiful... too beautiful to
be true. We have a good team of psychologists, they work on the data
available to us, we have good programmers, they are working too. But still,
the theory of parallel worlds remains the most likely one. Al-Kabar worked
with people too little, their approach is mechanistic and Urman is too far
from modern technologies. No-no. Not a computer mind, not a human merged
with a machine. Maybe... - a condescending smile, - an alien. Maybe, -
Guillermo's face becomes serious, - a creature from a parallel world. Let's
find out together. Without a force, without... any fights, - Guillermo pokes
his hand at melted asphalt with disgust, - Let's sit together and talk.
Let's forget mistakes, offences, claims. Let's explain that we're not so bad
after all, that we shouldn't be feared. Let's stretch our hand...
His hand stretches to me but I'm silent, unable to take and shake it.
Whoever he was, Unfortunate, he tried to help me.
He was - and is - better than many real humans.
- I can't accept your offer Willy, - I say, - I'm sorry. You might be
right, but I don't have a right to decide.
- But who has, Gunslinger? - asks Guillermo quietly.
- Only him, Unfortunate. He doesn't want to tell anything. He named
himself an alien, a guest who grew tired of loneliness - and now he wants to
leave. It's his right. It's his decision. He didn't do anything bad to
anybody, he just got lost in our ridiculous world. I helped him to exit, I
showed him... I hope I did... that the deep is not bloody fights only. If it
wasn't enough - well... let him go, either in his parallel world or to the
distant stars. He's free, as much as we are.
Guillermo looks as if he have grown lean. He looks at me, sadly and
tiredly. Probably he said the truth, and hardly does he wish bad to
Unfortunate. It's just a difference in approaches.
- So you'll let him leave Gunslinger? - he asks, - The mystery will
disappear for long, or forever... and nobody will know who was Unfortunate?
- Freedom, Willy.
- You Russians always were considering a state, a society above the
person, - says Guillermo, - This isn't the right approach, but you're
Russian after all, aren't you?
- I'm the citizen of Deeptown. There's no borders in the Deep, Willy.
Guillermo nods and rises slowly, awkwardly, looks at the cab that waits
for him. There's several Al-Kabar commandos inside most likely. Or probably
my friends Anatol and Dick...
- Have Unfortunate given anything to you personally, Gunslinger? - asks
Willy.
- Probably.
- Can I know what, or see? - inquires he with a sudden shyness.
I look at him, then bend over the crater in asphalt. The werewolf diver
perished here two hours ago, my poor workmate Romka. I didn't see how it
happened, but I can imagine.
The flame envelops the wolf's body, it means that the Man Without
Face's virus had penetrated Romka's computer. His machine's winchester jerks
deleting data and damaging utility programs, communication breaks. Romka
falls from the deep, from his desperate and hopeless fight.
I feel the smell of burned fur, see the pale fire, the body is squeezed
with a spasm... and I vanish, falling through the drawn asphalt, into the
long gone comm channel.

100

The flight.
A flow of sparks pierces my body.
Spiral lightnings sweep at my face.
I feel pain and for the first time in virtuality I understand - it's
not an imaginary one. It's just a weak echo of the pain that tortures me in
the real world. I'm doing something that a human can't, shouldn't do, I
communicate with computers directly, walk through the Net pulling data from
programs terminated long time ago.
It's painful, hard but I must overcome that.
It seems that I moan and scream, pressing nonexistent hands against my
forehead, a red-hot nails are hammered into my eyes, the skin is torn off
with a sandpaper. It's a retribution for the impossible.
When I come back to my senses, there's a door before me.. I'm lying in
the corridor, a long and dull one, with hundreds of such doors. Is it one of
the virtual hotels?
The pain haven't faded yet but became weaker, softer. It's possible to
rise from the floor - very carefully, to lean against the cold wood of the
door with forehead.
So you enter virtuality from temporary addresses too, Romka?
I push the door without even thinking that it can be locked and almost
fall into the room. Posters with half naked beauties are on the walls, a
table with drinks stands by the wall. It looks somehow strange... An
unfamiliar man sits with his back towards me, drums at computer keyboard
murmuring something out of tune. A half empty bottle of gin and an ashtray
full of cigar butts is by his hand. The man is just finishing a glass of
cheap 'Hogart'.
- Hi Romka, - I mumble, trying to get a grip against the wall. The man
turns around, looks at me in confusion, then jumps up, catches me on his
hands and drags towards the armchair.
Now I can let it slip...

Romka brings a full glass of gin under my nose and the smell of juniper
finally returns my consciousness.
- Take it away, I'll puke... - I push away his hand.
- Len'ka, is it you? - asks the diver unbelievingly.
- Me...
- Come on, drink, you'll feel better!
- Damned alcoholic, - I whisper something that I never got a nerve to
tell him before, - It's you who can gulp pure Gin down.
- Want me to add some tonic? - guesses Romka, - It's fine for me just
like this...
He splashes most of the glass' contents out on the floor, fills with
tonic and gives it to me. This time I don't refuse, I drink feeling the
blessing numbness streaming all over my body.
- How did you enter? - asks Romka, - The door was closed!
It's too hard to explain why closed doors don't hinder me anymore. I
wave my hand and suck in the rest of the liquid.
- And how could you find me?
- I just could... - I answer indefinitely, but it seems that Romka is
glad to see me too much to keep trying me.
- Did you manage to get away from that bastard? - he asks.
- Yes...
- What an asshole! - swears Romka, - He busied me alright!
- How did you crawl out?
- The virus was a clean one. It froze my machine but croaked after
restart. Everything according to the Convention, but cool, damn it! - Romka
laughs forcefully, - What an enemies have you got, Lenia!
- Feel envious?
- Yup! - confesses Romka sincerely, - I feared you'll have no time to
escape...
- We had...
- She's pretty fancy, that chick of yours, - winks Romka.
I nod, looking around more attentively. Romka's living place is really
strange. All these beauties on the walls... plenty of cigars and alcohol on
the table, a couple of fresh issues of Playboy on the bed together with a
teens' pop-music related newspaper...
Romka averts his gaze.
- Do I distract you too much? - I ask.
The werewolf glances at the working computer, lines of a primitive
program on its screen...
- Not really... I was preparing for a test... Never mind.
- What test?
- Informatics.
- How old are you, Romka? - I ask, suddenly 'regaining my sight'.
- Fifteen.
I start laughing and see how the man opposite me clings his jaws
gloomily. I laugh, Romka stands up, lights a cigar, pours Gin into his glass
and asks finally:
- Well, and what's so funny?
- Romka... - I understand that I behave badly but I have no strength to
hold it back... - Romka, have you ever drink vodka in glass shots or pure
Gin?
- No.
- And don't even try. It was really dumb of me not to notice this
before. You... you behave with too much fortitude to be an adult man!
- Is it so noticeable? - asks Romka gloomily.
- No, not that much... It's kinda unusual though...
- Why unusual? There's many teens among werewolves.
- How do you know?
- Well... Probably we're more sincere to each other. Those who are
older than 18 seldom can live in a non-human appearance. But it's fine for
us.
Plasticity... plasticity of mind. I look at Romka and think that there
must be a lot of teens among those diver friends of mine who tell dirty
anecdotes too excitedly, or always demonstrate their coolness. It's easier
for them to pass the barrier of the deep program. Easier - as strange as it
might seem. Their mind have grown on the movies and books about the virtual
world, they know that Deeptown is drawn not only in their minds but in their
hearts too. They won't drown.
Maybe there'll be more of them and divers will stop hiding.
- Romka, do you connect from your computer?
- From Dad's. I was always punished whenever caught in virtuality. Dad
thinks it's only debauchery and fist fighting here. So I had to enter
somehow... to notice what's going on in the apartment. When the door is
opened, I can hear that.
- I'm glad you're fine, Romka.
The werewolf nods:
- And how I'm glad! I have a strimmer, but restoring all disk is a
pain. You were looking for me to find out how I am?
I really want to say "yes" but it'll be a lie.
- Not only... I also wanted to ask for your advice...
- And now you don't want to?
He's right, I don't, but after these words I don't have any way out.
- Romka, a strange thing had happened to me... - I rise, pour Gin into
my glass, two fingers thick, add tonic. - In the Net I've run into a guy...
who is not really a human.
Romka waits patiently.
- I even don't know, where's truth and where's lies, - I say, -
Possibly he's an alien from the stars, possibly he's a guest from a parallel
world. Or maybe he's a creature of the computer mind or mutant that connects
to the Net directly, without a computer. He's being searched for by at least
two big companies...
The werewolf nods, I don't need to name "Labyrinth" and Al-Kabar to
him.
- ... And Dmitry Dibenko.
- Dibenko?
- Exactly. They want to get at least something useful from him. But he
wants to leave. Forever.
- And you're thinking whether you have to give him away?
- Nobody can stop him, I'm sure. But in any case... it's a different
world, right Romka? A different knowledge, different culture. Maybe they'll
manage to persuade him, to learn at least something from him. Just a bit of
his knowledge might become a new stage of evolution for the mankind.
- It might, - agrees Romka willingly.
- ... Because after all, he could... change me somehow. I would never
find your trace without new abilities. I don't know whether I have a right
to stay silent and hide him.
- You want my advice? - asks Romka with some sudden fright, -
Seriously?
- Yes Romka. Right because you're a kid yet and I'm an old cynicist.
Tell me, does one person have a right for a miracle?
- No.
I nod, I didn't expect any other answer, but Romka isn't finished yet.
- Nobody has a right for a miracle. It's always by itself. That's why
it's a miracle.
- Thank you, - I say and rise.
- Are you hurt?
- No, on the contrary... I'll go home. It's great that you're fine...
Already in the doorway, I stop for a moment and add:
- ...And don't be so hard on alcohol. You're grown-up Romka, don't try
to prove it. Good luck on the test.
- Thanks! - shouts Romka behind me.
Miracle - it's on its own...
I walk along the hotel corridor, smiling to Romka's words.
This impatience of mind, this great unsatisfiable thirst...
To understand, to explain, to conquer!
The miracle must be tamed and docile. We even made God a human - and
only after this we learned how to believe. We reduce miracles down to our
level.
Maybe it's good, otherwise we still would hide in caves, feeding the
Red Flower set out by the lightning with wood.
You're a great kid Romka, you managed to get a right conclusion going
the wrong way, as if walking along the mirror labyrinth, hitting the glass
but passing it after all. I can't yet understand why are you right Romka,
but you're right anyway...
I pass by an indifferent porter, open the door - Deeptown street,
people, cars, neon signs. I know what can change the world. I can give a
miracle to the world.
But I have no right to - because it's alive.
It's on its own, there's neither our life, nor our joys, nor our griefs
behind it. What does separate me from Unfortunate - a cold of space of
unimaginable eternity of the other world? What's the difference, he's alive
anyway!
I walk along the street not raising my hand for the joy of
Deep-Transit, this is known in all details Russian block, I'll manage on
feet. I need to understand Unfortunate completely before he leaves forever,
I have to say, to do something.
The church block - gold covered domes of the Orthodox temple, Catholic
cathedrals, modest synagogues and Moslem minarets, stone lace of
Alexandrians' temple, black pyramid of Satanists, and - as the best of all
mocks - a fiery red sign above the pub, the den of friendly, suffering from
a little overweight sect of Beer Lovers.
I could show you much, Unfortunate. Zoos where Steller's cows and
mammoths live, book clubs where they argue over good and clever books,
exhibitions of spatial designers where new worlds are being born, a medical
conference where the doctors from all over the world meet to consult a
patient from some God forsaken provinces... They won't let us to the
conference of course, but I'd hack the door and we would stay silently in
the corner watching how an American anesthesiologist and a Russian surgeon
plan a surgery for a miner from Zaire... I would take you to the Opera where
every musician is the citizen of the world and to the play where everybody
in the audience is a part of the action. We would bow to all gods in temples
forgetting that they are evil. We would stand by the playground where kids
ride 'real' racing cars and would sympathize with Greenpeace people who save
hedgehogs on European highways. Deeptown's picture gallery would take at
least a month - it's impossible to pass at once through the Hermitage and
the Prado gallery, the Tretyakov's Gallery and the Louvre... But at least
one day you could sacrifice for that instead of sitting under "Labyrinth"'s
blood-red sky. In the student block you would help a freshman from Vologda
to conquer the Resistance of Materials course's mysteries, and I'd tell the
Canadian artist why it's not necessary to make too much detailed elaboration
for the autumn forest. The deep isn't an evil world at all, not a fist fight
and debauchery. Is it my fault that your way here had passed through
fighting arenas and brothels, with pursuit on your heels and uncertainty
ahead?
But who knows, maybe it wasn't just a coincidence. You had chosen this
path yourself: "Labyrinth", "Stars and Planets", "Any Amusements" and the
Elvish Lorien... You absorbed the deep and showed, not to yourself but to
me, what it really is, all intolerance and stupidity, all aggression that
lives inside us. And you know not worse than me: the virtual world doesn't
consist of this only.
Such a pity that you're right after all, Unfortunate. The world is
never judged on its best qualities. Otherwise fascism would be a golden age
of technics, of fast planes and mighty engines instead of concentration
camps' chimneys and a soap made of the human fat.
You've made your judgement and explained why it is so.
Do we have any right to feel hurt?
Do we have any right to hit ourselves in the chest and shout "We're
kind!" ?
But you can't, you shouldn't take just this with you - a human
dirtiness and the beauty of desolate mountains, the technology serving vice!
Otherwise why we are in the deep? What do we worth at all?
... I'm standing by the door of the Catholic cathedral, luxurious and
suppressing, great and ridiculous. I can enter and pray to an ancient God
that doesn't exist after all. I can return home and shake Unfortunate's hand
in parting. And neither decision will be right.
- Leonid?
The person that approached me is completely unfamiliar: he's short,
with unexpressive dull face, dressed in old shabby jeans and stretched
sweater. He's dull and ordinary, not in virtuality is his place but in the
queue for carry-out Zhigulevskoye {beer}. But he knows my name - it means
he's an enemy.
- Who are you from? - I ask, - Al-Kabar?
The shortish guy doesn't avert his look.
- Leonid, you saw me in a different appearance. Without face.
- Dmitry?
- Yes. Maybe we should address each other less officially?
- You're an asshole, - I agree.
- Leonid, I ask you for a talk, for just five minutes of talk.
Is it really the main Dima Dibenko's guise? I saw his picture, long
time ago, he was too young on it. So, he's plain and ordinary? A little dog
- a puppy forever. Was it this guy who invented the deep program and dunked
the whole world into the deep? The one who grabbed millions and had got the
share in Microsoft and AOL? The one who was the first to understand that
Unfortunate is a visitor from the Outside?
- Five minutes.
- Leonid, let's go somewhere...
At least his voice doesn't correspond with his looks too well: if he
ever could speak in requesting voice, it's now in the past.
We walk around the cathedral, Dibenko opens the door into the garden
with the intricate key. It's quiet and silent here, willows, poplars,
straight paths... stones... of familiar shape.
- Shit, - I just say.
- Yes, it's a graveyard, - mumbles Dibenko, - I... I like to come here.
It calms me down somehow... brings me a philosophical mood.
Probably there's nothing unusual in this. I look at grave monuments, at
the alleys, at the girl that sits on the grass by the small bust, hiding her
face in her hands. It's not a mourning human, it's just a drawn weeper, an
electronic equivalent of marble angels.
Virtuality is life but life can't be thought about without death. So
friends bury here those who will never dive in the deep again, will never
put on the virtual helmet anymore.
"He believed in the miracle" - short like a curse, the phrase on the
nearest stone.
Forgive me, anonymous man. You believed in miracles and jumped into
colorfulness of the virtual world. But now, the memories of you lie here,
and somewhere in reality your grave overgrows with tall weeds. Your friends
come here spending half a dollar while the soil that took you gives birth to
a new life. Maybe it would be more honest for your friends to expend a
couple of hours of their lives - to get a shot of vodka by your real grave?
It's freedom! I'm not the one to judge.
- I'm listening, Dima.
Dibenko has red eyes, as if he lacked sleep lately, and crumpled face.
He dragged me into the miracle which doesn't need me, he finishes divers off
as blind kittens. But he created this world and I must listen to him.
- I don't ask how you got away, Lenia, - says Dibenko, - As I
understand, you've got your reward after all...
- What reward? For what?
- For betrayal, - Dibenko looks me straight into the eyes, - What, does
the word hurt? It *is* betrayal! Betrayal of all of us, all the people that
live today! You've managed to become his friend, I knew you'll be able to do
this, I knew and that's why I hired you, you and nobody else! It must have
been a mistake. What I could offer in return was nothing...
- Dima, do you understand what have virtuality become?
- The freedom!
- Then what do you blame me for? We are in no right to demand anything
from Unfortunate! In NO right!
- And why not? - Dibenko leans against the tombstone of the "miracle
believer" and smirks, - Okay, let it not be formulas and drawings... not
vaccines and recipes of the fair society. But couldn't he at least give us
hope? To all of us! If he came - it means everything will be fine! If he
exists - it means we didn't choke to death on the freedom!
Looks like I miss something again.
But Dibenko goes on and I stay silent.
- Do you think I knew what I was doing then?... No! I got drunk,
sozzled, plastered! I glued myself to the machine, I neither wanted to sleep
nor to play, I felt sick of work, I began to compose a color palette, some
image rhythm... I really wanted to add music to it but the machine was a
piece of crap, without a sound card!
So the legends are true...
- I don't know how! - shouts Dibenko, - It was IT that wanted to be
born, not me who did it! It's the deep itself, came through me - into the
world! I understood, I felt it - but I'm not a creator, just a conductor, a
pen moved by somebody's hand! It reached me from far away, through the
darkness, through the silence, reached me and made me to create! It! The
deep program!
I suddenly shiver, and not because Dmitry mentioned the silence, just
because this feeling is familiar to me too: a terror of the creator who
can't understand what and how he created.
- Some people called me genius... - a little man with shadows under his
eyes grabs my hands, - Others called me a dumbass who found the pearl in a
pile of dung! But neither is true! The deep came into the world through me.
It means - somebody wanted that to happen! Not now... later...
Dibenko looks at me, with greed and awe, whispers:
- Did he tell you at least anything? Just a hint... where is he from? A
year, century, millennium?
- Dima... - I mumble, - Just why do you think...
- When you escaped, - whispers Dibenko, - You were trapped, you
couldn't escape from my machine. But you did... you blasted all data away
from the disk and escaped! Was it him who taught you? Was it?
It's a pity to look at him. I don't like pity so much - it kills as
well as the hate does, but now I want to pity Dibenko.
But just the voice... his voice doesn't sound right. This is how a
great actor in the tragic role can humiliate himself.
- You can't even imagine, - says Dibenko, - how much effort have I
spent for this! What I was risking with... with my position in Al-Kabar's
Board of directors, with my agents in "Labyrinth"... You wouldn't
understand, you still can't understand that over there, in Russia... But I
split you up, I traced your channel! I know who you are! Leonid, I know your
address in Deeptown! Polyana Company, apartment 49. You're in my hands! I
can find out your real address too! But I don't want to threaten you, I just
ask: let's be together!
Looks like the time have made a full circle, not Guillermo but Dmitry
Dibenko offers me his hand now.
- They can't understand, - he whispers, - Whatever. Aliens from
parallel worlds, space aliens, machine mind... Bull! There's nothing out
there but us! In the past or the future days - only us!
I understand...
- One can believe or one can laugh, - Dibenko hits his fist against the
poor tombstone, - But the only thing without borders is the Time. Computer
network lives and will live, and the memory about this guy will outlive all
of us! Information doesn't have any limit in time, Unfortunate, he peeked
into the past of the humankind. From that wonderful 'far away' to which we
will never live to see, from the future of the Earth - he stepped into the
virtual world's childhood. Okay, okay, let us be ugly and wild! But can't he
tell us at least something? Can't he give us... a faith?
- Dmitry, but why? Why do you think so?
- Because I know! - Dibenko looks into my eyes, - I couldn't create the
deep program accidentally! It's as if I would shoot - and hit a thousand
targets in a row! I'm not a genius at all, I'm an ordinary man. Just there,
in the future, they decided to create virtuality. Possibly, it was
predetermined. Maybe they just needed a bridgehead... an observation point
to look into our world. So I became... a pen in someone's hand...
- A bridgehead? - I ask, - A bridgehead means war.
- Yes! And one must kill at war... and to take prisoners.
- Do you know how many hypotheses exists about Unfortunate?
- Yes.
- What if he's not from the future but from another world?
- Let it be! Even more reasons then! He's in our world and here are our
laws! We must understand who is he.
What does he want from me after all?
I look at Dibenko: trembling lips, tired eyes, shabby and low
appearance. What does he want? Does he want me to change my mind? Does he
want me to hand Unfortunate over to him? In any case it's not in my powers.
We'll just waste the time...
The time...
He knows my name and address. He knows where I live in virtuality.
He even could trace me at Romka's place.
And now he's biding his time.
I step back and rush to the gates. Dibenko looks as I leave not trying
to stop me, only a smile appears on his face - a proud smile of an actor who
played his role well and now listens to an applause.

101

The cab rushes past me as if my raised hand doesn't mean anything
anymore in Deeptown. I jerk after the car, wave my hand again...
Useless. This is war.
How did Dibenko manage to cut me from Deeptown's transportation system?
Possibly he has a share there too?
Well, but I don't need Deep-Transit anymore, do I?
An already familiar feeling when the city around falls flat turning
into a scheme. I soar above it, drag myself through the distance, through
foreign computers - towards my house...
... And I hit the wall.
I can see the house, a highrise inhabited by things - but I can't get
inside. Something have changed in the space itself.
I make myself real, not inside the building itself, on the sidewalk by
it.
The house is burning.
It's not a fire but a fantastic illumination. The walls are changing
the color and brightness, each grain shines like a diamond. The whole house
is like a ridiculous squarish diamond under the floodlight ray.
And there are people, many people: uniforms of the city's security
service, "Labyrinth"'s and Al-Kabar's guards... The ring of cordon around
the house, snipers with carbines, machine-gunners behind transparent
shields, the gunners with jet knapsacks floating in the air. I emerged
inside the ring, and hundred of barrels aims at me instantly.
The spiders have made a deal and have spread their web together.
- Leonid! Raise your hands and come closer! - the voice booms above the
street. A group of people can be seen behind the ring of guards, in the
rainbow flashes of illumination: Urman, Willy, Man Without Face, commissar
Jordan Reid.
Wow.
What an honor for me! Where can a poor diver go? All official and
unofficial rulers of the deep have gathered by his house!
- Leonid, come closer, slowly! - repeats Reid. His voice echoes along
the street.
At least they are trying to keep an impression of their actions being
lawful: the operation is carried out by the police. I walk under the aiming
barrels, under the scrutiny of hundreds of computers, every step of mine is
measured and estimated, every byte of data is under invisible control...
The guards in front of me give way letting me in. Guillermo looks
aside. Urman - who in fact is just Urman's secretary - smirks mockingly.
Dibenko, in his mask again, is indifferent.
I address to Reid ignoring them all:
- What's going on?
- You're charged with unlawful penetration into secured information
space, in using weapons which caused a serious material damage, in hiding
the information that is vitally important for Deeptown, - raps Jordan out, -
You're detained for examining the circumstances.
- And what is my house charged with? - I ask, but it's impossible to
confuse Reid:
- The search for the evidence is being carried out.
I turn around to the burning building. Search? Hell no! Conservation.
Freezing. Overflowing of comm channels with data. Will Unfortunate be able
to deflect the attack or even his powers won't be enough here?
- I surrender, - I say, - I admit all charges. I request... this to be
stopped.
Jordan shakes his head, with a slight sympathy in his look but with
determination.
- Don't try to hide in reality, - he warns, - We requested Interpol for
your physical arrest.
The dread rolls over me - extinguishing the will, taking all strength
away. Who knows, maybe there, back in reality, gloomy commandos in black
fabric masks already stand behind my back?
A real prison, a real trial - this isn't an excitement of virtual
fights. It's a rotten hay mattress, a skilly which recipe haven't changed
since Stalin's times, bars on the window and escort guards not blemished
with an intellect.
Or my dear native police haven't yet learn to work fast despite it's
desperate wish to exchange the Russian citizen for a dozen of obsolete
portable radio communicators?
Abyss-abyss - and to run...
I look at drawn faces, at the armed guards. There's no borders for the
miracle hunters. They've dived into the deep from all corners of the world -
in order to tear off, to rip out a piece of mystery, wherever could it be
brought into our world from.
And frenzy takes me over.
- Jordan... I give you exactly ten seconds... - I whisper, - To all of
you. Ten seconds to get your asses out of here.
- Collect yourself, Leonid! - this is Reid.
- Gunslinger, let's find a compromise... - this is Willy.
- Your strength has its limits too... - Man Without Face.
Oh my God, they fear me! Me! Alone against them all, primed, with an
ancient computer behind and an empty hands!
Why?
- I don't know how you still hold out, - starts Dibenko, - but...
- Five seconds, - I say.
And the guards start shooting, either without an order or I just have
missed it.
The fire and pain.
Everything that was invented for years of the deep's existence,
everything well tested and most secret - everything for my honor...
I stand in the middle of the fire and see the dread on the faces around
me, and even in the gray fog of Man Without Face - the dread...
Why am I still here, remaining in virtuality instead of taking the
helmet off before the gray display of the killed machine?
I pull myself towards the guards, not with hands, just with a gaze -
their bodies crumple like fabric puppets under the heel, fall apart in
ashes, drain of steam, freeze, collapse into points, dissolve in the air, as
if my gaze reflects all nastiness that pours my way.
Five seconds given for my enemies pass and the street is empty, just my
house still burns and those who had set fire to it stand near.
- It's in the deep only where you're God, - says Man Without Face. He
doesn't threaten me, just reminds.
- Oh really? - I pad closer to them, - Reid, now IRS computers will
learn that you had misappropriated a couple of millions... Urman! All
Al-Kabar's data is in free access! Willy! "Labyrinth" is dead! Levels are
deleted, maps are lost, monsters have fled! Dima! Your fingerprints belong
to a serial killer!
I give them a couple of seconds to conceive that and add:
- One minute... and it will be so!
I don't know if it's possible, I don't know the limit of my powers, I
even don't know where they came from.
But they believe me.
- What do you want, diver? - shouts Urman. Reid shoulders him aside and
roars:
- Your conditions!
Did I guess right about his taxes?
- You'll stop the hunt.
The miracle is before them. But they have what to lose.
Urman and Guillermo look at each other, Al-Kabar's director nods.
- We cancel our charges Jordan, - says Willy, - It's not necessary...
to engage Interpol.
He nods to me very slightly. So it was just a threat?
Lies. Lies everywhere.
With a corner of my eyes I can see people approaching us along the
street, the ordinary citizens of Deeptown. Now, as the cordon is gone, they
can satiate their curiosity.
Let them watch.
Jordan grabs Dibenko's shoulder and shakes him slightly:
- Did you hear that? The operation is over! That's it! Turn your
systems off!
So it was Dmitry who froze the building? Police had not enough guts for
that?
Man Without Face shoves commissar aside, he looks at me only. He's the
only one who doesn't care about my threats. Not because he doesn't believe
in them and not because he's ready to compete with an American juridical
system, totally run through with computer technologies.
He's not ready to refuse the miracle. We're compatriots after all, the
highest idea had screwed up our brains alike, even if in different
directions. A whisper comes from the foggy mask:
- You're betraying the entire world...
- I'm rehabilitating it.
- You don't want to share, diver. You've got your reward... and
betrayed us. Ah well. Don't forget to take the Medal - you'll have something
to justify yourself with.
I remember the warehouse, the boxes with soft, the table where the
Medal of Complete Licence was left.
I reach through the distance that is no more, and the heavy medal lies
into my hand. I examine it for a second: the white background and the
rainbow colored sphere, the cobweb of the Net surrounded by innocence and
purity.
- This is yours, - I say and throw the Medal to Man Without Face. The
medal touches the black fabric of the cloak and sticks to it. Nice... - I
haven't earned that. And you... you created the deep, and stop repeating
that you couldn't do it. You could. By yourself. Thank you. But don't think
that we all owe you anything. This world will live, will fall and learn to
stand up after that. It'll never force to talk anybody who wants to stay
silent, and will never shut the mouth of the ones who want to talk. And
probably it'll become better...
I turn around and walk towards my house.
Dibenko haven't yet turned off the programs that froze the building in
the diamond crust. But I ain't gonna ask him for anything. I pull the door
and enter the staircase that shines as Aladdin's Cave of Wonders. It's just
that illumination dims behind my back, fades completely. I rip the foreign
program, gaining step after step from it.
I ascend, just two and a half hundred steps to go up.
Rustles and noises can be heard behind each door, my drawn little world
livens up as I pass by. Fragments of music and muffled talks, rattle of
shattering glass and rhythmical hammer hits, slaps of bare feet against the
floor and squeal of a drill can be heard from behind my back.
I can't even remember now, when and what was I programming surrounding
myself with nonexistent neighbors. Weirdo am I. Just as anybody is...
I know that I can remove all freezing at once, with one effort, but I
don't do that. Let the way up will be slow, step by step, sweeping the false
sparkle from the walls, waking up the life in empty apartments. I'll never
enter this house again.
Baby's whimpering and the buzz of a broken faucet, dog's barking and
goblets' ringing. I have nothing to memorize and nothing to be sad about.
These were my crutches but I've learned to walk on my own.
The last bend of the stairs, for a moment I stop by my door made of
diamond grains. My tiny face is in every one of them, one of the numerous
faces I was putting on in the deep.
I breathe at the door - the diamonds dim, darken turning into icicles,
melting and flowing down in water droplets. Cry for me abyss, I have nothing
to cry for.
I enter and instantly see that nothing have changed inside, Dibenko's
program had no power here.
Unfortunate and Vika stand by the window, looking outside.
I approach - and Vika silently takes my hand into her, and we look at
Deeptown, three of us.
The street is swarming with people, a dense solid crowd, Deep-Transit's
cabs stay a bit further along the sides of the street and people still keep
coming in order to freeze, looking up at the house.
And only right under the window the people give place, there's a ring
of emptiness surrounding Man Without Face. He also looks up as if being able
to see us. I even want to believe that he can.
- He's not evil at all, - I say to Unfortunate, - He's only impatient.
- I don't accuse anyone, - agrees Unfortunate.
- Then leave, - I ask, - It's high time for that.

He looks at me for some time, the one who came into the deep as
Unfortunate, as if trying to see my real face, to understand what I might
feel now.
- Are you hurt? - he asks in the end.
- No. Just upset, but this is different.
- I feared that you'll be hurt: I broke your dream, didn't I?
- Which one?
- You dreamed that virtuality will change the world, will make it
cleaner, will give power and kindness to the people. You tolerated what
angered you, smiled to what annoyed you...
Unfortunate stretches his hand, puts it on top of my and Vika's joined
palms.
- You believed in the moment... one single moment that would redeem all
sins and mistakes. I killed this faith.
It's even funny for me to listen to these words. Does he really think
so?
Did I really think so?
- It's not the deep, Unfortunate, - I say, - Not this deep.
He nods.
- Do you remember the mirror labyrinth, Leonid?
Sure I do...
- The deep gave you millions of mirrors diver, the magic mirrors. One
can see himself, one can see the world - any of its corners. One can draw
the world and it'll become alive, reflected in the mirror. This is a
wonderful gift. But mirrors are too obedient diver, obedient and deceitful.
The mask put on once becomes the face. The vice turns into finesse, the
snobbery into elite stuff, the spite into sincerity. The journey into the
mirror world isn't an easy stroll, it's too easy to get lost.
- I know...
- That's only why I'm talking to you - because you know. I would like
to be your friend too, Leonid.
He smiles sadly, then adds:
- But it would be a very strange friendship...
- Alien and Russian - brothers forever? - inquires Vika sarcastically.
{A mock of the Stalin's times song: "Stalin and Mao watch upon us... [...]
Russian and Chinese - brothers forever."}
So Unfortunate didn't convince her, not at all. For her he's still a
human, a cunning hacker taking everyone in...
I'm mirthless but I say:
- I'm not asking who you are. Believe it or not, but I don't care... An
alien from the stars or from another dimension, or the machine mind. But you
know much more then we do anyway. Tell me, what will happen?
- It depends in what mirror you are looking, diver.
- Then I'll choose, Unfortunate, and I'll be very picky. Now - leave.
He removes his hand from ours.
For a second nothing happens, then the wall behind hid back starts
bending, curling up into a funnel.
Unfortunate makes a step back, into the shiny tunnel leading towards
unknown, towards the blue sun and orange bands flying beneath it, into his
world. His body shivers and blurs, cascades of colorful sparks streaming
from his skin. For a moment it seems to me that I can see - see the one who
visited our world.
But most likely, I just want to give the miracle a name too much.
- Remember us... - I say to escaping flashes of light, - Remember us as
we are...
The house begins to shake, the walls become transparent, then pale
green, then brick ones, then made of paper. The ceiling crawls up and bends
in a dome, the floor turns into the mirror, the light in the window passes
all spectrum colors and burns our silhouettes on the paper wall. The
apartment turns into a huge hall as if all directions were stretched by an
order.
The tunnel narrows slowly, but there's still time... to jump after
Unfortunate - and to see where he came from, to tear the mask from the
miracle.
- Lenia, what is this? - shouts Vika.
- The data, - I answer. The wind begins to blow through the apartment,
a room pomegranate in a flowerpot blossoms, a pile of CDs on the shelf
starts playing all songs simultaneously. - He copies the data, brings
everything he learned with himself.
Half transparent shadows rush past us. Alex with the carbine at ready
runs by, then a monstrous spider rushes by, stepping with its paws, that
imaginary family which we rescued in "Labyrinth" goes down the tunnel too. A
huge tree flies away, rotating as a propeller, a hobbit with a scared muzzle
minces out, a flying Man Without Face's guard with a fire breathing jet
knapsack stalks out in huge jumps.
Then me and Vika walk in. Hand in hand.
- Remember us, - I repeat, - Remember...
The tunnel narrows more like a cameras's aperture. At the last moment
the flying slippers of Computer Wiz squeeze into it, flapping their wings.
Then the room returns to normal.
- I don't believe that he's an alien anyway, - says Vika, in unsure
voice but stubbornly, - If he's a good hacker, then he could...
She silences when I hug her shoulders.
- Please Vika, don't, - I ask, - He have left, haven't he? Forever.
It's not necessary to argue now, we can just believe.
There's a noise in the street, an exchange of opinions. Have they seen
at least anything of what we did? It doesn't matter. The new legend was born
in the deep.
- He have left, but we stay, - says Vika, - and there's a hunt after
you.
I nod, slowly releasing her, step to the window and look down. Man
Without Face is still motionless.
- Leonid the diver must leave too. - I agree.
- Will you miss your house? - asks Vika. How great it is when it's not
necessary to explain anything.
- A little... like I'd miss a kiddie's three-wheeler.
I return to her and hug again, her lips find mine.
And this is something that will never leave from now on.
- Abyss... - I call silently.
The house shakes again when the rental server in distant Minsk receives
the command. Magnetic head slides along the disk surface - deleting.
One turn - and the first floor with the scandalous pensioner
disappears. Another turn - and the sixth floor with the quiet graphomaniac
is gone, another - and the tenth floor with vinyl collector is no more.
My computer livens up and the apartment walls fade. I don't look at the
table, but I know well that the drawn Vika on the display smiles to me - for
the last time. Programs don't feel sad when we delete them, people do but I
have no choice. If you get lost in the mirror labyrinth - break the mirrors,
reach for the light...
A crowd bursts into shouts when my house dissolves in the air. Poor
Jordan will have to prove that it wasn't his fault.
We fly above Deeptown in a hug, looking into each other's eyes.
- Great... - whispers Vika.
- I have no idea myself how I do it...
- You have no idea how you're kissing? - she asks in surprise.
... No, never will I understand a woman's logic.
By the connection of the Ukranian and Baltic blocks, near a
supermarket, I find a quiet spot between phone booths and a fountain. This
is where we come out from. Not at once though.
- You're erasing all your traces? - inquires Vika.
I nod in silence.
- Do you hope they'll not find you?
- I'll try. Maybe they'll be able to figure the city out... but even
this isn't likely. It would be better if they won't know even this.
- What about trusting me?
- St. Petersburg, - I say. I want so much to hear that we're
compatriots, but Vika frowns.
- Piter... Lenia, wait here, okay?
I wait. She runs into the supermarket while I reach the Minsk server
again, checking for any trace that might have left, then move along all
spare addresses, even along those never used - and kill them scratching all
data from everywhere mercilessly - from strimmers and magnetooptics,
Bernulli's storage and optical disks. The last one to be cleaned is my ISP's
disk. That's it. Now I never entered the deep.
Vika returns.
- Got into a long waiting line, can you imagine? - she laughs.
- An urgent shopping?
- One thing.
She waves a farsightedly folded plane ticket before my face, I just can
see where is she about to fly.
- Are you free in the morning?
- Don't you fear to fly?
- What can I do, it'd be too long by all other means... Will you meet
me?
- What flight?
- Wait for me by the information booth at ten in the morning.
A little game of independency... I can reach the cash register in the
supermarket right now and find out who and from where have just bought the
ticket to St. Petersburg.
But of course I won't do that.
- How will I recognize you?
Vika shrugs her shoulders.
- We'll see. How about you?
- I'll hold a red rose in my teeth, - I inform gloomily.
I can understand Vika perfectly. One thing is to fall in love in the
virtual world, while to meet in reality is an absolutely different case.
It's too scary to talk about yourself. I don't know whether I would have
guts to offer to meet first.
- Then see you at ten by the info booth, - decides Vika, - Let's try
not to be confused?
- Okay.
- I'll leave now, alright? - she half asks, half informs, - I yet have
to gather my stuff...
- It's cold here already, - I warn.
- Here too...
Vika becomes half transparent and crumbles in a whirl of sparks.
Beautiful is her exit from the deep.
My time is up too.
I wink to a passer-by who stopped watching Vika's exit and disappear
from virtuality.
The screens were dark. Completely.
I took the helmet off.
The golden background of Windows-Home was glowing on the display, Vika
is gone.
Enough of loving the drawn people.
We'll exit the Internet manually...
I opened the terminal window and stared at the blinking line dumbly.
No dialtone!
I'd better pay my phone bills in time.
I picked up the phone anyway and listened to the silence. Then I
checked the logs: the phone was disconnected three hours ago, by the end of
the working day, according to the habits of phone switchboard workers.
So you were right, Mr Urman's virtual secretary... It's really possible
to enter the deep without any technical devices.
I pulled the suit off and lagged myself to the bed.

111

The TV set woke me up. I was lying, snuggling in the comforter - the
heat wasn't yet turned on, so it was cold, and listened to announcers'
chatter. {The heating in Russia is mostly centralized, meaning: one boiler
station for a part or even for a whole town/city... so the time of turning
the heating on in fall or off in spring doesn't depend on the wish of those
who lives in houses at all... The hot water supply comes from the same
source. Now imagine what happens when this boiler station goes down in the
middle of the winter for a couple of weeks... OOPS. Tons of fun. :-/}
Politics, economics, currency exchange rates... Will yesterday's
commotion in virtuality make it to the news reports I wonder? Maybe it will,
somewhere between the news about a popular singer's arrival and sports,
among the rest of the funny things. Television likes to make reports from
Deeptown. It's funny for a philistine to watch cartoony landscapes and drawn
people. Probably it's good that we're laughed at, if only we weren't
feared... weren't hated...
I raised my head and glanced at the watch scared, they must have been
stopped since yesterday. A usual thing, I always forget to wind it. I found
the remote control lying by the bed and displayed the time on the TV screen.
7 AM. Good, I won't be late.
The whole body was feeling broken-down, the head was heavy as always
after the series of long and frequent dives. A human isn't adapted to
virtuality too well. Maybe a year or two will pass and the moment of
requital will come to all Deeptown's citizens: some kind of paralysis,
blindness, heart attacks. Then Dibenko's name will be dragged through the
mud, the companies that made their bets on virtuality will ruin, and serious
scientists will report that they foresaw it long time ago and were
restlessly warning...
We'll see. In any case I'll have a chance to feel the disaster among
the first.
Or maybe on the contrary - the breakthrough I was dreaming about and
Dibenko was waiting for will happen. What I could do yesterday will become
possible for everybody. Two worlds merged together: virtuality and reality,
just make one step and enter the deep, without any crutches...
I rose and made my bed, washed the floor, wiped the dust, then raked
all clothes out from the closet and was digging in the pile for five minutes
in search for anything decent. It's too hard to take care of your wardrobe
if you got used to draw all your clothes, from briefs to tuxedo.
Jeans and sweatshirt. Will do.
Dressed, I walked along the apartment once more glancing at the
computer that was working all night long. A line was slowly crawling across
the screen: "Lenechka, the deep is waiting!"
Let it wait.
No, my attempts to make an apartment to look any better failed. The
chronic chaos of the single's apartment was only enhanced by clean floor and
the garbage removed out of sight. Oh well... let's appear in complete
beauty. If Vika ever dealt with hackers, she won't be scared.
I turned the computer off, and being at the exit already, I remembered
that even haven't attempted to get the kitchen into order... Oh no, that's
enough, this deed isn't for me.
After closing the door hastily, I called the elevator. The plastic
button, burned through by a cigarette butt was hardly glowing. It was
heavily smoked inside the cabin for some reason.
Not so beautiful as in the deep, sure not.
The elevator dragged me down slowly, past ten floors, past my neighbors
of the concrete box whom I didn't know, and even never attempted to know.
One can think out other's lives, can sympathize and mock nonexistent
people... But how hard is it to know them - those alive and real ones, to
make just a step closer.
What if Vika won't come? What if she changes her mind, feeling the same
thing that I did: one cannot merge two worlds?
I imagined myself in the airport - a ridiculous figure, a fugitive from
the virtual world crawled into the world of alive. The pale untanned mug,
clothes that never require ironing, the eyes, red as the druggie's. And then
Vika appears, beautiful and slender, fashionably dressed... or maybe even
worse. A stooping girl in glasses comes out, in baggy dress and the coat of
several years ago's fashion...
God knows what would be worse...
I quietly moaned, almost living through our common shame and mutual
disappointment. Elevator doors parted right at this moment and a little girl
with a terrier led on a leash stepped back scared.
Oh great, now even kids dash aside...
I squeezed past the cheerful dog and dragged myself down along the
stairs towards the exit.
- Good morning! - said the girl quietly behind me.
I forgot how to greet people, didn't I?..
- Good morning, - I replied, smiling belatedly and ran outside.
For some reason I'm sure that Unfortunate wouldn't forget to say that,
he would even also pat the dog on the neck and the dog would plop on its
back, pleased.
I had enough money now, I could even take a taxi to the airport proudly
but I didn't want to hurry. I feared that wait, oh how I feared it... I had
a couple of hamburgers for breakfast by some kiosk, warmed up ones but
obviously not fresh made. I wanted beer but under the seller's condescending
look I dared for soda only.
The bus to the airport was almost empty. Some sleepy company with huge
trunks, girls with a very bright make-up according to the latest fashion. I
stood in the back of the bus watching the belt of the road crawling away.
Maybe I shouldn't go...
It was a quarter before ten when the bus stopped at the airport. I
crawled out with an optimism of the one condemned to execution, stood under
the drizzling rain for some time before entering the building.
Maybe the weather is too bad for flights...
It was warm and noisy in the airport. The kids, excited by the flight
ahead were running around their parents, the 'shuttle merchants' were
gloomily dragging their packs along, the line of lightly dressed people was
forming for registration for some Southbound flight. {'Shuttle merchants' -
a kind of tiny business, common to Russia. They travel to China, Turkey or
some other country, buy the goods from wholesalers or on local markets
(usually these are dirt cheap clothes of crappy quality), and *personally*
take those back to Russia (by a charter flight when several merchants hire a
plane or just by a regular passenger flight). Then the goods are either sold
(personally again) on some retail (flea-kind) market or are resold to
smaller merchants (yeah, there are even smaller ones!)}
I studied the flight info on the display - there were no delayed
arrivals.
Maybe Vika didn't come...
Four planes have landed during last half an hour. Vika could have come
from Tashkent, Riga, Khabarovsk or Moscow... And if she set the time with
reserve, then all Russia is at her disposal and almost all of the abroad.
I lagged to the info booth, several people was standing there but
neither woman looked like Vika to me, I felt that from the very first sight.
All faces are so much different, so many homely, tired and worried
ones. It's not so in the deep, and to no purpose possibly...
I leaned against the wall and waited. Half an hour is my usual
indulgence to women's unreliability... But I'll make an exception for Vika,
will wait for an hour. Or two. I'll stick to this wall until militia unglues
me.
So good would it be to have a good notebook now, with radio modem, to
run the deep program, to dive, to search through all airline companies'
files...
I closed my eyes.
The deep was lying before me.
The black velvet, the bottomless precipice, pierced by colorful
threads. The tiny sphere of the Earth that tried a new apparel on. The deep
was waiting, I could see sparks of the planes leaving and landing,
whirlpools of information processed by computers, I saw a distant Deeptown's
buildings. Just to reach out - and I'll be there, I don't need machines
anymore.
Somebody nearby, right in the airport, was entering the deep using his
notebook. I stood behind his back for a moment and looked with his eyes.
This is my world.
The generous and boundless, noisy and slovenly, the human one. It'll
become better, will change with us, we just need to believe in this, not to
wander in labyrinths when the exit is near, not to fall in love with
reflections when alive people are by our side. And possibly the next visitor
to the deep won't become the only Unfortunate who can't shoot at the people.
I exited the Net, the figures have changed on electronic wall clock:
ten sharp.
- And where's the red rose?
It was the most dreadful - to turn and to look at Vika, harder than all
feats in the virtual world...
She was exactly the one I was drawing, the one that smiled to me from
the screen every morning. The one that lived in my dreams.
Just her hair are a little lighter and the haircut is a bit shorter,
and her eyes don't laugh - they are scared... just like mine are now. But
this is my Vika, the girl in jeans and light jacket, with the bag over her
shoulder.
We both lived in our real bodies in the deep. The best mask in the
world is your own face.
- This rose is still being grown, - I say.
Vika relaxes a little.
- I feared... that you'll promise me to draw it.
- Oh no, - I whisper, - Enough of drawn flowers...
I take her hand, we'll stand here like this for a second, looking into
each other's eyes.
Before we go home.
__________________
<b>-Durwyn Foehammer</b><p><i>\"Don\'t you go a-meddling with old stone or cold wights or prying in their houses, unless you be strong folk with hearts that never faulter.\"</i> - J.R.R. Tolkien
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