|This article does not cite any references or sources. (August 2009)|
||This article consists almost entirely of a plot summary. It should be expanded to provide more balanced coverage that includes real-world context. (March 2011)|
|Original title||Конкуренты, Konkurenty|
|Publisher||AST (Russian edition)|
|2008 (original Russian edition),|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
|Pages||352 pp (Russian edition)|
A Moscow freelance journalist named Valentin Saphonov finds an ad on a pole from the Stellar Time Agency, inviting people to sign up to become a pilot of a space fighter. Assuming this is an ad for a computer game, Valentin goes to the address specified in the ad and is greeted by an attractive woman named Inna. She warns him that everything he is about to do is for real. She explains that, upon his agreement, a copy of Valentin's body and consciousness will be created on a remote space station, where he will receive a spaceship and will be involved in a fight against aliens. After walking him through several rooms, Inna sends Valentin through the back door of the office, explaining that his alter ego is already on the station. Valentin, believing all this to be a prank, decides to conduct an investigation of Stellar Time. He soon finds the gaming website for the popular Russian MMORPG StarQuake. He registers under the nickname Katran (Russian: "катран" — "spiny dogfish"), unaware that his alter ego has received exactly the same nickname. Eventually, Valentin realizes that his character lives his own life and that all this may be actually happening.
Valentin's double quickly ends up being kidnapped by the Seekers, a sect of people who believe that all they are experiencing is a computer simulation, just like in the Matrix. Valentin (AKA Katran) and his instructor Lena (AKA Driver) end up on the icy planet Nigredo, where all water (in every form) is black-colored but normal otherwise. The planet contains the hidden base of the Seekers. Master reveals that they have managed to obtain the plans for building an ultimate WMD — a weapon capable of extinguishing a star in a matter of minutes. They plan to use the Extinguisher to force those who have sent them into space to either unplug them (if everything is indeed a simulation) or return them home. After purchasing a new ship from Roman, Valentin and Lena go back to the Platform, where they have to face a tribunal-like hearing (albeit much less formal). During the hearing, a massive fleet of aliens known as the "Bugs" attacks the Platform, and every pilot is mobilized to defend the station. Many pilots are lost in the battle, but they manage to destroy most of the enemy ships and force the rest to retreat.
Meanwhile, on Earth, the original Valentin realizes that something strange is happening with his in-game character and decides to investigate further. He contacts Lena via ICQ and invites her over to discuss in-game events. However, he quickly realizes that someone is trying to prevent their meeting from occurring. Lena arrives to his apartment, where she confirms his suspicions that everything they have been told at the agency is true — there really are copies of them somewhere out there, flying spaceships and fighting. Valentin receives a call on a phone which he turned off the day before, where an unknown person threatens him to drop his investigation and just play the game. The unknown person turns out to be a sniper on a neighboring roof. Valentin and Lena barely manage to escape in her car. They drive to Oleg, an acquaintance of Valentin, who is intrigued by their story. At Oleg's apartment, Valentin decides that they must contact their doubles and get them to return to Earth in their ships to threaten the agency. He takes a screenshot of the game's 2D star map and sends it to a local astronomer. Surprisingly, the astronomer fairly quickly manages to determine the location of the Sun on the game's map. Lena logs into the game as her other character (whose ship is operated by a bot in space).
In space, Valentin and Lena are tasked by the administration to fly to a faraway planet, which has an abundant supply of certain rare elements needed by the Seekers to complete the Extinguisher. It is there that Valentin receives a message from his other self. The message explains how to find the Sun on their star map (about 330 parsecs away). They realize too late that the Seekers have tricked them and have made off with a substantial amount of the necessary elements, giving them all they need to build the weapon. They return to the Platform, where Valentin decides to share the information about the location of the Sun with Vadim Reshetov, an administrator, only to be knocked out and imprisoned by him.
On Earth, in the middle of the night, Valentin and Lena decide to go to the agency and demand answers. They arrive to find two dead bodies (the agency's security guard and a young Jewish boy), who seem to have shot each other. They find the original Inna and Reshetov there and force them to explain everything. Apparently, Reshetov was approached by a shapeshifting alien several years ago who offered to trade alien technology in return for Reshetov's agency sending people into space. Reshetov considers himself to be a businessman and a patriot, as he wishes to use the new technology to help Russia. He does not know the identity or motives of his mysterious benefactors, and their emissary (the security guard) is now dead. He offers Valentin and Lena positions at his agency, and they accept, realizing that there is little they can do. They resolve to try to convince every visitor to leave, but their attempts are revealed to be futile, as people yearn for this sort of adventure.
On the station, the other Reshetov receives a message from the original and makes a similar offer to the duplicate Valentin and Lena. However, Platform sensors then detect the Seeker fleet close to the system's star. Reshetov sends Valentin and Lena as negotiators, as they know some of the Seekers personally. After docking with the Seekers' flagship, they once again meet Roman and Master. However, Valentin then realizes that their ships have likely been rigged to explode by Reshetov in an attempt to stop the Seekers. The bomb on Valentin's ship is thrown into space, while a Seeker takes Lena's ship far from the fleet and sacrifices himself to save the others.
After finding out the location of Earth, the Seekers decide to undertake the long journey home. However, at their first stop, they are ambushed by an enormous "Bug" fleet. Roman orders everyone to follow him, as he sets course straight for the system's star (a blue supergiant later revealed to be Rigel). As they get closer, being chased by the "Bugs", Roman launches the Extinguisher missile, which explodes in the upper photosphere. The weapon creates an enormous shockwave which destroys the alien fleet, at the same time leaving a small tunnel at the epicenter, allowing the Seekers to pass through the exploding star. They jump to the next system, only to find a massive "Bug" ship waiting for them. Instead of attacking, the aliens send a message to the fleet, revealing their agenda for sending people into space and attacking the Platform every so often. Apparently, they use the humans to fight their offspring to weed out those with genetic weaknesses, as only the strongest would survive. This is a form of population control. That is why they have built the station and made a deal with Reshetov (and, possibly, others). They explain that nobody is forcing humans to go into space — they make this choice freely, as the agency employees are supposed to explain the situation truthfully. The reason for human infertility is simple — the "Bugs" believe it would be cruel to allow humans to bring children into an environment where they are constantly threatened. The "Bugs" make it clear that the Seekers (or anyone else, for that matter) should not attempt to reach Earth using ships, under the pain of death. The Seekers realize that they have no choice and decide to go back to the Platform. Valentin and Lena follow them, hoping that humanity may one day rival the "Bugs".
- Valentin Saphonov (AKA "Katran"): the protagonist of the novel. He is 35, single, no children. Works as a freelance journalist. Does not have a steady job, as good newspapers/magazines do not want to hire him, and he has too much self-respect to work for the bad ones. A brave man, capable of coming up with unexpected solutions to problems.
- Lena (AKA "Driver"): member of the Silent Star Clan and an instructor for newbie pilots on the station. In her early 30s, single, no children. On Earth, works as a taxi driver (hence the nickname) due to her love for automobiles. Earlier attempted to blackmail the Stellar Time Agency, which caused the agency to actively prevent Lena and Valentin from meeting.
- Inna: employee of the Stellar Time Agency, whose job is to send all who are willing to the Platform. Her duplicate in space is an administrator of the Platform, whose task is to greet new arrivals and allocate them initial funds and quarters. She was the first human to arrive on the station.
- Vadim Reshetov: the head of the Platform administration, whose word is the law. Capable of betraying those who trust him. He is 42 years old, divorced, and has a grown daughter. Reshetov is a former KGB operative. His duplicate on Earth is the founder of the Stellar Time Agency. He was the second human to arrive to the station.
- Boris (AKA "Pale Fox"): employee of the Stellar Time Agency. In space, he takes care of various "delicate" assignments of the administration. On Earth, he is used by Reshetov to hold patents on technology received from aliens.
- Bogomolov: emissary of the Bugs on Earth. Keeps an eye on Stellar Time as a security guard. His last name hints at his insectoid origins ("bogomol" is Russian for "praying mantis").
- Oleg Begunov (AKA "Runner"): system administrator for a local newspaper. He is 25 years old, single, no children. Breaks the traditional nerd stereotype by being in excellent physical condition and liking sports, art, and adventure. While he is a StarQuake player, he never visited the Stellar Time Agency, so his ship in space is flown by a bot.
- Leonid Levinson: a young boy from a nice Jewish family. Decided to look for adventure after an argument with his mother. Ended up on the Platform with his violin. Since entertainers are rare out there, he was forbidden to become a pilot and forced to play in a local bar. The original Levinson attacks the Stellar Time headquarters and sacrifices himself to kill Bogomolov.
- Roman: member of the Seekers, a clan which believes that they are not really in space but in a Matrix-like computer simulation. While he looks like a heavyweight boxer, Roman has a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence.
- Zinovy Piluchenko (AKA "Master"): head of the Seekers. He is 38 years old.
The world of the novel
The events of the novel take place simultaneously within the universe of StarQuake and in modern-day Moscow. Most of the characters are people who answered the ad and visited the Stellar Time Agency. Those who agreed to be duplicated will have their copies live in outer space. If the duplicate survives for three years, his or her memories will be copied into the mind of the original. The duplicate's finances will also be transferred to the original and converted to the appropriate currency. Until then, the one who remains on Earth can register on the game website and follow his duplicate from the viewpoint of his character. The duplicate finds himself on the main space station named the Platform (or the Bun due to its shape). He is given 1500 starting credits, for which he can buy a primitive ship and perform various tasks, including asteroid mining, interstellar trade and transportation, fulfilling tasks (i.e. quests) assigned by the administration or other players, and exploring remote star systems. While earning credits and gaining experience, the player can raise his level and purchase a new ship. The pilot of a more powerful ship can become a space pirate or join the ranks of the volunteer patrol service. Also, the player can join one of the many clans, which are constantly engaged in struggles with each other for resource-rich planets and star systems. Besides being a pilot, the duplicate can also choose another profession either on the Platform or on a colony. The most valuable professions are engineers and scientists, who can study unknown technology for human use. Technicians are also valuable, as they repair and maintain the pilots' ships.
All known planets in the vicinity of the Platform contain only plant life. Some planets also contain fossils of long-dead animals. It is assumed that they died out due to infertility approximately 1000 years ago. It should be noted that none of the women who have arrived to the Platform are able to conceive children. The cause for this is unknown.
Food, clothing, and various devices are created using the so-called "synthesizers", machines capable of flawlessly replicating physical objects based on a built-in program. The synthesizing process consumes matter and energy. It is necessary that the source matter contain all the necessary elements for an object to be reproduces (i.e. synthesizers cannot transmutate matter). For example, a synthesizer will be unable to create an object made of iron if the source material only contains carbon.
Ship-producing synthesizers are only present on the Platform.
Occasionally, a highly-advanced alien race nicknamed the "Bugs" attacks the human colonies and the Platform.
- StarQuake online game (Russian)