“IT IS TIME.”
Figures stirred in the darkness. They turned to the screen as its number ticked up. Finally, the threshold had been met. The screen flickered, showing various scenes from the blue planet.
A child stood on barren ground: soil deprived of life on its shivering blackened surface, holding nothing but the quietus of all that it took. Insects crawled over his scrawny arms like they were the shaking branches of a tree as his frail body creaked back. Rain fell from above, and his hollow gaze turned towards the heavens. His tongue, trembling and thin, slowly stuck out of his mouth. A single water droplet splashed on its tip. He licked his lips.
And the scene changed.
“This one thinks it is too early. This one believes that Humanity is not ready.”
There was a sprawling city, densely packed with buildings and people alike. A stone jungle of concrete, monolithic edifices towering threateningly towards the smog-smeared sky. Cars were beeping their horns as men and women walked without purpose to their jobs, mere phantoms going through the cycle of their day. Rehearsed. Practised. Without a soul.
And the scene changed.
“You. Would. Pro. Pose. A. De. Lay?”
Now, it showed a suburban neighbourhood. A young woman stood on the bristly welcome mat of a house, arms crossed, staring at a pair of older humans. They gesticulated wildly, their mouths moved with an exaggerated motion, and they pointed at their feet in a way that exuded a sense of finality. But she simply stormed off.
The first who spoke uttered a weak sigh.
“THERE IS NO TIME. WE HAVE WAITED LONG ENOUGH. THE MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS HAVE BEEN MET.”
The young woman crunched through the fallen leaves that carpeted the tarmac a vibrant orange. She shivered and adjusted her red scarf, the same colour as her hair, whispering something to herself under a misty breath.
“PREPARE THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE UNITS. READY THE POCKET DIMENSIONS.”
Boarding a bus, she tapped a card on its payment machine and found a seat. The destination sign flashed a name. That of a city. And just as she settled down, a man walked up to her with a smile. A short conversation ensued. The man began to shout, but she simply plugged her ears with a set of wireless earphones, ignoring him until he left.
“IT IS TIME TO INTEGRATE HUMANKIND INTO THE SYSTEM.”
And the scene changed.
* * *
“Stupid. Fucking. Arseholes!” Three shots rang out. Each accentuated a word. Trace Taylor lowered the handgun. It was a standard eight-rounder pistol, an extra round loaded in the chamber, fairly easy to use. She was normally not much of a gun person herself, however she had to vent right now.
“Yo, chill out Trace.” Liz whistled. “Never seen you this pissed before. Not gonna lie, don’t you think that’s going a little too far?”
Snorting, Trace released the magazine before swiftly loading a new set of bullets into it. With a click, she switched the safety back on. “I’m not talking about my parents. They’re just idiots. I’m talking about those fucking cocksuckers I rejected on the bus, mocking me for my bloody accent. It’s not my fault I don’t pronounce ‘literally’ as ‘lid-uh-ra-lee.’”
“If it makes you feel any better, I think your British accent is lovely,” Liz said in a faux posh voice.
“It’s an Estuary English accent.” Trace rolled her eyes. “Also, not helping, Liz.”
“That’s what best friends are for!”
They were practically sisters at this point. Elizabeth Evergreen, better known as Liz, was the only daughter of Jason Evergreen, the owner of the small gun range Trace was currently crashing in: The Evergreen Gun Range. It was located right at the edge of Liberapolis, a rather large city, even for the east coast. And since Jason Evergreen was abroad on a trip with his mistress right now, business was closed, leaving only the pair to use the facilities to their hearts’ delight.
“So, why did you run away?” Liz leaned back on her chair, speaking casually. “What kinda drama-filled day led to you storming out this time?”
“It wasn’t just one single event. You know that as well as I do. It’s everything about them.”
Trace sighed as she glanced at the hanging lights.
“They’re control freaks. They just don’t understand that college is—” Looking back down, she paused. “Liz?”
Her friend was gone. The chair Liz had been sitting in was now empty. The room was dead silent, no signs of life anywhere.
“Hello?” No response. The redhead pursed her lips. “Liz, this isn’t funny—”
And the world around her vanished. The floor dissolved as the ceiling bubbled up into foam. The walls collapsed, peeling off like old paint. Everything rapidly shifted. A new platform rose beneath her, and a sable dome fell overhead.
Trace stumbled back, her eyes bulging from their sockets. “Wha—”
A voice interrupted her. It was almost a shout. She jerked and spun around, facing the only figure standing amidst the darkness. “Wh-who are you?”
The figure stepped forward, a green snout emerging from the shadows. Yellow eyes, slit-like pupils, and granular scales. “NAME: TRACE TAYLOR. AGE: EIGHTEEN. COUNTRY OF BIRTH: ENGLAND. GREETINGS, I AM BOB OF THE ESVOL, AND I COME IN PEACE.”
The realisation of what this figure was slowly sank into Trace’s mind. It was a lizard person. “Holy shit.” No, not a lizard person. “You’re a fucking alien!” She aimed her pistol at the reptilian’s skull warningly. “Stay back! Don’t you fucking dare probe me!”
“PROBE?” It… the thing… ‘Bob’ raised his chin, a thoughtful expression passing through his face. “A HUMAN CONCEPTION OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL ACTIVITIES. THERE IS NO NEED TO WORRY. WE ARE NOT INTERESTED IN THE ANATOMY OF A HUMAN FEMALE. I ASSURE YOU, WE COME IN PEACE—”
“Yeah right!” Trace flicked the safety off as perspiration trickled down her fingertips. “This is the part where you do the opposite of that and enslave humanity, isn’t it? I’m not falling for your bullshit!”
‘Bob’ frowned. “IT SEEMS THE HUMAN SPECIMEN DOUBTS MY INTENTIONS.”
“How astute. Did me telling you to ‘fuck off’ clue you in on that?”
Ignoring her, he continued to himself. “I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO ATTEMPT ADVANCED DIPLOMACY.”
Trace blinked. Advanced diplomacy? Oh fuck, if he dared to try and brainwash her—
Spreading his arms wide, ‘Bob’ began to shift. His form flickered as a ripple washed over his scales. Each small section of his body was being flipped, replaced by a fairer skin tone as his face grew inwards. The lizard person had become, well, a regular person.
Now with brown hair, blue eyes, and a charming smile on his face, he strolled up to Trace and proffered her his hand. “Apologies, m’lady.” He tipped a black cap at her.
And she pistol-whipped him. He grasped at his chin, slowly transforming back to his reptilian form.
“Stay the fuck away from me, you freak!”
“ADVANCED DIPLOMACY FAILED. SEEKING ALTERNATE PATHS.” ‘Bob’s’ eyes flickered. His irises slid behind his eyelids before returning a different colour. A pale gold. “BRUTEFORCE EXPLANATION SEEMS TO BE THE ONLY VIABLE ROUTE. BEGINNING INTRODUCTION SPEECH.”
“What are you… on about?”
“CONGRATULATIONS, TRACE TAYLOR OF EARTH A314. YOUR UNIVERSE HAS MET THE REQUIREMENTS TO JOIN OUR NETWORK OF SYSTEM-OPERATED WORLDS. IN THIS TEMPORARY POCKET DIMENSION, YOU WILL BE UNDERGOING THE INITIATION PROTOCOLS NECESSARY TO ACCLIMATE WITH THE REST OF THE MULTIVERSE.”
Multiverse? Pocket dimension? Initiation? What the fuck was going on?! Her mind raced with all these words she had only ever heard in science fiction movies. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but ‘Bob’ spoke over her.
“YOU WILL BE PROVIDED WITH YOUR OWN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ASSISTANT TO ENSURE YOUR SAFE RETURN TO THE NEWLY-CONNECTED EARTH. IT WILL GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE VASTLY CHANGED LANDSCAPE OF YOUR PLANET AFTER YOU COMPLETE THE TUTORIAL PROGRAMME.”
Trace narrowed her eyes. “Wait, you’re going to insert a fucking microchip in me?”
“IT IS NOT A MICROCHIP. RATHER, IT IS A FEMTOCHIP THAT WILL BE PAINLESSLY ATTACHED TO YOUR BRAIN MATTER.” ‘Bob’ took a step, and she drew back.
“That does not make things better—” He tapped a sharp finger on her forehead, and she reeled. “Ouch— the fuck? Was that the femtochip?”
“THAT IS CORRECT.”
“Take it out, you shitheel!” She fired a shot at him.
To her disbelief, ‘Bob’ caught it. “I WILL NOT. YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY EXTERMINATED IF YOU RETURN TO EARTH WITHOUT ANY CONNECTION TO THE SYSTEM. THE FEMTOCHIP ENSURES THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN.”
“How does that even work? What even is this ‘System?’ That doesn’t make any sense! Go and fuck—” A stinging sensation caused Trace to wince. She grabbed for her head, but her hand turned into a blur. Dizziness settled over the redhead. “What is? …”
“IT HAS BEEN DONE. INITIALISING TUTORIAL SEQUENCE.” With a snap of his fingers, the dark curtain shrouding over them vanished. A light engulfed him as his body dematerialised along with the pocket dimension.
“Fuck…you…” Trace collapsed, her mind spinning as the shadows from the walls crept up over her eyes.
‘Bob’ spoke one last time as if his loud voice was coming through static. “TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION: THE SYSTEM IS THE OVERSEER OF THE MULTIVERSE. IT IS WHAT UNITES ALL THE UNIVERSES IN THE NETWORK. YOUR SPECIES HAS PASSED THE REQUISITE POPULATION OF TEN BILLION SAPIENT BEINGS RESIDING IN EARTH A314 AND CAN NOW JOIN THE GREATER WORLD.”
* * *
[Tutorial sequence initiated,] a monotonous voice said as Trace woke up.
She rubbed her eyes and stretched her back, a yawn escaping through her lips. Then she remembered the events of earlier. Trace leapt to her feet, gun still in hand, glancing around warily. “Where am I? Who said that?”
[Hello, I am your artificial intelligence assistant, XTR-4715. You are currently undergoing the tutorial sequence.]
“XTR-4715— wait, are you that femtochip they forced in my head?”
She wanted to curse, to tell the AI to get out of her head, but she knew the blame would be misplaced. If anyone was at fault, it was that ‘Bob.’ “Ugh, where did that bastard go?”
Trace stood and took in the room around her. The floors and walls were white— like the kind you’d see in a laboratory. There was a hallway before her, brightly lit, with a creature standing at the very end. It looked like a giant rat with no tail and no fur. A pair of fangs stabbed down from its crooked jaw as it stared at her with hollow black eyes.
“What the fuck is that?” She fell back to the ground, pointing a shaking finger at the creature.
[Giant Rat – Lvl 1.]
The voice in her head did not elaborate. It felt quite odd, having something speak from inside of her. It sounded like a second set of thoughts— one which she had no control over.
Taking a few calming breaths, Trace steadied herself back to her feet.
“Hey, to the AI in my head, could you please explain why that giant fucking rat is standing before me?” she asked kindly.
[Objective: Reach the fifth floor of the tutorial tower to complete the sequence. It is recommended that a basic class is chosen to eliminate the giant rats in each room.]
Reach the fifth floor? Trace glanced up at a glowing number just above the corridor. She was apparently on the first floor. “Alright, and what are these classes?”
[The commonly chosen basic classes are as follows:
Warrior – A basic class specialised in close-quarters combat.
Ranger – A basic class specialised in long-range combat.
Rogue – A basic class specialised in mixed combat.
Spellcaster – A basic class specialised in magical combat.]
“This sounds like a video game…” She tilted her head back. “Say, erm, XS—”
“Right, that. Do you know what each of these classes does?”
[Each class will offer different skills and bonuses to your traits. These will all reflect in not just your status, but also in what you are capable of accomplishing.]
“My status?” Her eyes widened as a screen appeared before her.
Name: Trace Taylor
Race: Human (Earth A314)
“What is all this?”
[It is an overview of your person. Would you like me to explain each section of your status screen?]
Shaking her head, Trace leaned against the wall and massaged her temples. “No, I think I’ve got the gist of it.” Magic was a thing too. She’d have been more surprised, if not for how absolutely exhausted she was right now. “Just… let me complete this tutorial and go home. I think I need to lie down.”
She forced herself forward, stopping right at the entrance of the hallway and staring at the giant rat. The screen was almost invisible when she wasn’t focusing on it. The AI’s voice echoed in her head, warning her of what was to come.
[Trace Taylor, you have not yet chosen a class to battle the giant rat. The tutorial has begun. If you do not choose a class, you will be ripped to shreds.]
Choose a class? There were a few options. But did she really have a choice if it was all being imposed on her? She hated the restrictions Mum and Dad always placed on her, which was part of the reason why she left just earlier today.
And now, even if she was faced with a monster, she had a choice. An actual choice for herself to make. Death wasn’t certain, unlike with ‘Bob.’ Choosing a class was merely recommended by the tutorial. So, she made her own decision.
A shot rang out, and there was a thud. Trace lowered her pistol.
“I think I’m good.”
[You have defeated a Giant Rat – Lvl 1!] Its voice was unnaturally excited for a brief moment, then it returned to its monotonous tone. [Wait, that was not supposed to happen.]