Zander (Ander in the original) is a virtual dweller, preferring to spend most of his time in realistic VR games rather than the Crapsack World he lives in. Considering that one can't go outside without special gear, many of his contemporaries also fit the bill. Obsessed with realism in games, Zander agreed to an experimental procedure that implants him with a device that makes him feel as if he really is in a virtual world. Bored with existing games, he comes across something called Phantom Server. When he asks an acquaintance named Arbido about it, Arbido tells him that it's a bleeding-edge game being developed that is supposed to be hyperrealistic, to the point where one has to have implants similar to Zander's just to play. The game is also in alpha testing, and there are rumors of people going in and never coming out. Zander just assumes the game is so addicting that no one wants to leave. He pays an exorbitant sum to Arbido to get him access to alpha testing.
As soon as Zander logs into Phantom Server, he finds himself aboard an ancient derelict Space Station in a remote star system, beset by hostile alien creatures. He is shocked to discover that the game's realism also includes pain, lots of pain. He is also restricted from logging out at certain locations and during certain situations (apparently, that's all in the user agreement he was supposed to have signed, except Arbido did it for him and failed to tell him certain details). The company's tech support people do, however, make sure that Zander's physical body is placed into his life support pod, so he doesn't have to worry about it expiring from lack of food, drink, or sleep. It's not long before Zander discovers the game's backstory.
Millions of years ago, a race now only known as the Founders (Departed in the original) has invented a Subspace Ansible but had no Faster-Than-Light Travel. So, they built automated self-replicating ships and sent them out at STL. After arriving to a suitable system, the ships build space stations from available resources, make more of themselves, and move on. The stations are equipped with FTL data receivers, as well as machines capable of rebuilding a biological organism based on a template. Thus, Founders were able to explore the galaxy by transmitting their uploaded minds to other systems and downloading them into cloned bodies. When they got bored with a system, they would simply send their consciousness elsewhere. According to legend, there is a hub station called the Phantom Server somewhere that controls these transmitters.
The Darg System, where the game is set, is populated with a number of sentient races, the most villainous of which are the Dargians, who have enslaved several of their neighboring races and use them as Battle Thralls. They hold several of the Founder stations and attempt to study the technology. Humans are also present in the system, being the remains of a colony fleet that has arrived some time ago before being destroyed by the Dargians. There is also a small number of Haash, a race of reptilian aliens from another system, who are equally hated by the Dargians (who want to enslave them) and the humans (who hate all aliens, regardless of race). The system is periodically attacked by advanced ships called Phantom Fighters.
As Zander explores this enormous virtual world, he learns that some players have spent so much time in this world that they have lost their Real Life identities and have willingly become NPCs, perceiving this world as real. He also finds several bodies, suggesting that the reason many players haven't left the game is because they died, their bodies reacting to the shock of virtual death and very real pain by shutting down their hearts.
By the end of the first novel, Zander realizes that the game developers have decided to cover up the very real deaths in the game by eliminating those alpha testers, who haven't become NPCs, as unwanted witnesses. Any survivors are labeled as Outlaws, and the newly-arrived beta testers simply assume they're hostile NPCs that need to be killed.
The trilogy consists of the following novels:
- Edge of Reality (Note: The original novel is simply called Phantom Server in Russian; Edge of Reality is a title of a different novel by Livadny in his The History of the Galaxy series)
- The Outlaw
- Black Sun
This series contains examples of:
- Bad Future: While the author doesn't go into details, it's clear that some kind of ecological catastrophe has occurred that makes it a very bad idea to go outside without protection. Thus, most people spend their time at home, plugged into VR.
- BrainComputer Interface: Zander's Real Life implant is a limited version of this, it's primary purpose being to provide a realistic VR gaming experience. It works by directly stimulating Zander's sensory inputs, thus, as far as his brain is concerned, everything he is experiencing is real. In-game, there are numerous brain implants that can be installed. One such implant allows pilots to feel their ships as a part of their bodies, experiencing ship sensors as their own eyes and ears.
- Brain Uploading: According to the game's backstory, the Founders used this method, coupled with a Subspace Ansible and a Twinmaker, to explore the galaxy.
- Character Customization: While the game normally has that feature, Arbido signs Zander up for "alternative start", which instantly dumps him in a difficult area without the ability to pre-select his character. Some players choose to play as aliens, even the villainous Dargians.
- Fate Worse than Death: Finding yourself in a place like Gehenna, where a respawn point is located in a lethal area, resulting in an unending sequence of painful death and respawn. They are frequently used as punishment or a way to get rid of enemies. It's not unheard of for a player to lose his or her mind in such a place. Oh, and the logout button is disabled in such places.
- Lizard Folk: The Haash are reptilian humanoid-like aliens from another system. Their exploration ship was attacked and destroyed by the Dargians. Most of the rest were enslaved, and others are trying to eke out an existence on some of the Founder stations.
- Magnetic Weapons: As Zander discovers, the human-occupied station has been refitted for defense by the Technologists faction. They have adapted the powerful electromagnets in the drives to launch huge metallic chunks. On a smaller scale, most handheld weapons in the game are of this type, which also means they require batteries to function.
- Named After Their Planet: Dargians come from the planet Darg.
- Nintendo Hard: Phantom Server compared to every other game Zander has played.
- Oh, Crap!: Zander's reaction after reading the updated wiki entry on the game's story, after he starts to understand that every surviving and sane alpha tester is about to be eliminated, painfully.
- Old-School Dogfight: Justified, since it's just a game.
- The Paladin: Zander's class of choice for fantasy-themed games. He's grown so used to playing as one that he has unconsciously assimilated some of the core values, such as compassion and the desire to help others.
- Precursors: The Founders were an ancient race that has seeded the galaxy with space stations, which used to be a part of their Subspace Ansible network. They have since vanished.
- Slave Collar: High-tech ones are used by Dargians to control their slaves. They can be used to suffocate the wearer at the push of a button on the remote.
- Space Pirates: The Outlaws are a human faction that raids ships and stations. They have no moral scruples.
- Subspace Ansible: The Founders have invented them, but didn't have FTL travel.
- Translator Microbes: A semantic processor is an in-game implant that allows the player to understand alien speech. It's one of the first implants Zander gets, as he's captured by Dargian slavers early on, and they really don't like it when their slaves don't understand their orders.
- Victory Is Boring: The reason Zander is tired of playing the other online games. He's played them so much and has grown to such a level that they no longer present a challenge.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: The game is hyperrealistic, with the obvious side effects. The shock of virtual death and the very real pain can cause the player's heart to stop. Additionally, certain areas are designed to be hellish, continually respawning and killing players, until they go insane.