The following short story was used as my first monologue in the book club, then called, “Thought: An Examined Life” now, more commonly referred to as “The Positive Perspectives Book Club”. I intended it to be an interesting break from the more formal, instructive findings of the previous monologues. I loved the idea of being inspired to create art by the philosophical texts which we were studying. While the decision to write a fictional narrative was decided ahead of time, the story itself was indeed inspired by the texts that we read that month for the club. Since then, the story has been edited for clarity, but remained mostly unchanged in spite of my developments in the characters and story.

I believe the story to be functional in the traditional short-story sense - it stands alone. However, in preparation to writing the story, I described a world and outlined several important times and events in the overall timeline. These ideas morphed into outlines for a quintet. After some debate about whether these additional stories were even worth writing, I decided to move forward with a rough draft in the form of serial novels. My intention is to write all four books in serial form within about a year of time (weekly posts, or more). However, it is likely that this ambition is not balanced with my abilities.

My goals for this endeavor are very clear: to practice writing. If the quality is suitable, and the opportunity becomes available, I will also use them to practice publishing. My goal is to make writing fiction into a personal hobby, but I also have more serious fictional endeavors in mind. Thus, I seek to practice this hobby, and welcome all feedback and critique.

This short story is a subset of the timeline in the second book in the quintet. So, in some small ways, it’s a spoiler. I have no book names in mind yet, so by posts will be titled simply according to book and chapter unless I figure something better out. Without further ado, here is the story that started it all.

~~~

“Hey Slayer…” The words came through the VR helm that the young man was wearing.

“I told you not to call me that anymore, ChubbyGenius!” replied Electron, with a little extra disdain than seemed warranted. The words were almost enough to break his focus on the plethora of shapes, vectors, and symbols surrounding him in VR space.

“Fine, Electron, and sorry for breaking your concentration, but this is really important.” That was enough to entirely break Electron’s focus. He flung his arms back and forth a couple of times and made a gesture to bring his caller’s avatar unto the VR space with him. A scrawny, yet ominously cloaked figure appeared before Electron with the name “PhilosopherKing” floating above his head.

“You just made me lose four hours of work on the LogicFlow level! This better be good.” Electron glared savagely at the figure.

“Ele, listen, I beat the level two hours ago,” the PhilosopherKing stated flatly.

“WHAT? We’ve been working on that for two YEARS! Aren’t you excited? Why aren’t you telling me until just now??” Electron shouted, the sentences and questions all running together.

Before he was even finished, the reply came. “I know, I know, and trust me, I am excited. But something really weird happened… in the--the real world.”

“You’re kidding, right? Have you been working on humor again? Because that isn’t funny, Phil, it’s, just--ridiculous!”

“No. You don’t understand. I know this sort of thing never happens, but it did, to me, just now. I think it might be a real adventure,” replied Phil with nervousness and excitement clinging to the edges of his voice.

Ele didn’t know what to say to that. Phil wasn’t in jest. Did something really happen? What could it be? As far as Ele was concerned, nothing interesting ever could happen in the real world. A hint of nervousness and fear arose within Ele now as he contemplated the possibility. In a tone distorted with fear, he asked the inevitable question. “What is it?”

“It’d be easier if you just came and saw for yourself.”

“What, you mean in person?” Ele laughed back. Virtual Reality was the standard method of interaction. It was frivolous to meet someone face-to-face for almost any purpose.

“Yes! Just come over, please…”

Phil and Ele had known each other their entire lives. They were in the same baby group and helped each other through the standard education that all children received until they were twelve. Not that either of them needed the help, but the peer-to-peer interaction allowed them to complete school in far less time than it otherwise would have taken, allowing more time for the far more interesting Past-Time games and activities which existed in VR. Unfortunately, once they were moved out and independent, they had been given houses many miles apart from one another, despite their mother’s houses being practically next-door.

Transportation on Planet Zero, as they called it, was easy enough. Just use your Augmented Reality (AR) glasses to summon a transport, strap yourself in, and it goes to your destination. It used to be fun, reclining in the transport with the transparent dome above, watching the city fly by. But the excitement had died off after the first few trips. The city was nearly uniform, so there wasn’t really much to look at. House units were stacked eight high, and eight wide, as far as the eye could see. They were all identical, and simply looked like off-white walls from the perspective that the transport provided. The pathways that formed a grid throughout the city were hardly any contrast; they were only simple metal surfaces that were just a bit shinier the walls. While there were occasionally some buildings that were used for other purposes, even those looked the same from the outside. There was no longer any need for the retail, restaurants, or service centers that existed in the old world, and the inhabitants of Planet Zero knew no different.

But Ele was too busy considering what could have happened at Phil’s house to observe his surroundings. The miles passed by quickly, and he felt the transport slowing down to a stop before he knew it. The only other times he had come over to Phil’s house was to share meals, but even those times had become more irregular since they grew up beyond the “graduated” age of twelve. He stepped out of the transport pod, which instantly floated off to its next destination. The wall directly in front of Ele opened, revealing Phil inside his house.

The houses were small, compact places, and would be hardly comfortable if more than one person was expected to live in them. Each of the walls acted as storage, hiding away some component necessary for living. Cooking equipment, a place to sleep, and of course the Past-Time systems could all be accessed by opening or closing various components of the house.

Phil had everything put up when Ele entered. Even his VR headset and activity surface were put away. “Come in, friend.” Phil said quietly. Ele entered, the door automatically rematerializing behind him.

And there it was. A gaping hole in the floor, about two feet in diameter, with what appeared to be its hinged lid propped open. Black darkness, starkly contrasting anything that Ele or Phil had seen before in the real world. Both were silent, staring down at the floor. It was some kind of tunnel. They could see the upper rungs of the ladder within the hole. Ele’s heart rate increased as the reality of the matter sunk in, adrenaline and fear coursing through him from head to toe. It was several moments before either spoke.

“What… happened?” Ele intoned, his very voice seeming to be sucked down the darkness of the pit.

Phil managed an easier reply, as the initial shock of the matter had already subsided for him. “Well, you see,” Phil replied, “I beat the LogicFlow level that everyone thought was unbeatable, and I freaked out. I started dancing and jumping up and down, then I tripped on something, or I fell down… I’m not really sure which… and I hit my head a little. I might have passed out, but when I opened my eyes, there was a seam, like a little ridge, on the floor.”

“Phil, this is more than a seam. What did you do? Wouldn’t you normally call Maintenance for something like that?” Ele said.

“Well sure, normally I would. But I was so excited, and the seam hadn’t been there before, I’m sure of it. I was so confused that this rubbery floor surface would just distort like that. I knew something wasn’t solid underneath it, so I decided to take a look for myself before calling Maintenance. I cut the rubber along the line of the seam, and found this hidden door thing, like there might be in an adventure game. I opened it, and here it is, the hole. I freaked out some more, then called you.” Phil said calmly, happy to have summarized the situation so cleanly.

Several more moments of silence passed, then Phil spoke up again. “So, are you ready to go?”

“WHAT? NO WAY!” Ele shouted back.

“HUSH Shhh.. shh..” Phil said, laying a hand on Ele’s shoulder. “Nobody else can know about this for now. Not before we understand what it is.”

“Fine,” said Ele, “But I don’t see why you want to go down that thing. It seems incredibly dangerous.”

“What? You don’t want to go adventuring in the real world? What’s the point of all this past-time, and being the best at LogicFlow, and all the school we got if we’re never going to do anything for real?” replied Phil, slightly exasperated.

Ele was beginning to calm down from the initial shock and realized that Phil was probably right. But it wasn’t like they would never do real stuff. They were as likely as any to get recruited to the high-intelligence jobs, especially if their high scores on the Past-Time games were any indication.

“We will do real stuff, just not yet.” Ele shrugged.  “You know as well as any that people don’t get called to jobs until they’re older than we are.”

“Oh, come on, I’ve heard stories from others in Past-Time who have jobs that they’re not anything special. Only the people who go to other colonies get to adventure. Sure, a job is better than doing nothing, but not much. This is our chance – probably our only chance – to have a real adventure.”

Ele still needed a bit more reassurance, but it was his own words that finished convincing him. “I guess we don’t have to go that far anyways if it is dangerous.” Ele said, “But how will we see in the dark?”

A big grin came across Phil’s face. “That’s the spirit!” he said approvingly. “I wondered the same thing, but when I tried to check the hole for info using my AR glasses, I could see pretty far down! It’s like they have actual night vision like in some of the Past-Time games.”

“Really?” replied Ele, kneeling to investigate the hole with his AR Glasses on. “Huh, that really does work. I guess we never needed to see in the dark before now.”

~~~

The boys collected some supplies before beginning the descent. It was nearly half an hour of climbing before the scenery changed at all. The monotony of the ladder was only interrupted by occasional mutterings between the boys; mostly either of complaint due to fear, or thankfulness for the hours they had spent maintaining a high level of fitness.

“I don’t know if we should keep going. We might not be strong enough to climb back up,” said Ele worriedly, nearly breathless.

Phil, who was ahead of Ele, peered through the darkness down the remainder of the ladder. “No! Look, we’re almost to the bottom!” Soon enough, the boys were standing on a dusty surface, the likes they had never seen before. The AR Glasses did wonders in the pitch-blackness, providing a little light, and amplifying it greatly so that the boys could see well enough despite the all-encompassing pitch blackness.

Indeed, there was no light at all. It was like stepping onto an entirely different planet. Dirt, dust, and decay were hardly a concept where they lived, yet this place was full of it. Looking around, the boys could see several things that simply took their breath away. Huge buildings were crumbling, and exotic structures of various old-world attractions were decaying all around them. The ground was unlevel and chaotic, and littered with metal and stone-like debris. Vague sounds like dripping water and the occasional crack or crunch could be heard in the distance, echoing eerily  through the vast expanse. Rifts in the ground were open in various places, leading even deeper down into the darkness. Colossal piles of rubble littered the landscape, each shape being too irregular and vague to understand its former function. It was effectively a greyscale world, since the AR glasses couldn’t brighten much of the small amount of color that remained in the darkness.

If Phil and Ele had felt fear before, when they saw the pit initially, then only sheer terror and panic could describe what they felt now. The long journey down had helped them steel their nerves to some extent as they overcame the initial hurdle of beginning, but now the length of the way down only served to reinforce their separation from the world above. Each of the boys now fantasized about what monster was about to leap out from behind that mound of rubble, or what alien creature would crawl up from the rifts in the earth. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of one another’s presence, either of them would have fled the stark scene.

After nearly a minute of looking around themselves, rotating their vision slowly around the area where the ladder met the ground, Phil whispered forth into the darkness.

“Wow.”

The word itself was a startling sound to them both, fragmenting the sleeping stillness of the long-forgotten place. But soon, they resumed some semblance of normal dialogue. The boys marveled at the bizarre place for some time, before deciding to begin exploring.

“This way looks safest. Let’s explore a little before heading back,” said Ele.

“Sure, but I’m going to make some sort of map for this in AR… hold on.” Phil said. After a few minutes of programming his AR glasses, using his eyes and mind to interface with the computer, he shared a sort of mini-map with Ele.

A short laugh came from Ele when it came up in his display. “Wow, you really are treating this like a game,” Ele teased, with a hint of sarcasm.

“If it’s useful in a game, it’s useful here,” retorted Phil.

In this manner they continued, exploring this ghostly underworld for some time. After a few hours had passed, the boys returned to the ladder, and slowly climbed to the surface, exhausted.

Laying on the floor, Phil gasped to catch his breath. “We really can’t let anyone know about this.”

“Yeah…” Ele said, also breathless.

“We have to come back and explore this place more. We need some codeword for when you’re coming over.” Phil said after sitting up. He rose back to his feet, and shut the trapdoor over the hole, surprisingly veiling it from existence. The floor retained a sort of crease it in, a dark seam, but hardly notable.

“Darkness,” Ele suggested.

“Darkness? Well, I guess that works.” Phil shrugged.

Ele also sat up, and rose to his feet. “I’ll be back as soon as I’m physically recovered.” The boys stayed together, sharing a meal before Ele returned the way that he had come. He could hardly sleep that night, or the next, or any other night that he spent in him own home. It seemed somehow distasteful compared to the vast expanse of darkness that he spent his time exploring.

~~~

In this way the boys went adventuring down in this underworld every couple of days, or as often as they could manage. This went on for some months before anything truly interesting was found. While they had acquired relics, built a camp, and even spent several consecutive days without returning home, time didn’t matter much down there, or anywhere on this dark surface of Planet Zero. This place simply served as a more visceral version of the VR Past Time games that the boys were well versed in.

All of that changed when they found the time capsule.

“Phil, look at that!” Ele said, pointing to an oddly square shape amongst some other rubble, sitting on a badly damaged slab of concrete.

“What is it?” asked Phil, rhetorically.

“It’s like a crate, or ark, or alter… or something.”

The boys carefully navigated their way through the rubble, eyeing the object with a mixture of curiosity and awe. It was indeed a large, stone box. But as they grew closer, their amazement grew. There were words inscribed on the lid of the stone crate; indeed, the first words or communication of any kind that the boys had seen in this underworld. Despite the thick layer of dust, which was removed with some effort, the inscription was still legible.

“‘To the Overworlders:’” Ele excitedly read.

“I guess that’s us?” Phil asked. “We did come from pretty far above, after all.”

Ele continued, “‘Judgement has come, and we have been found guilty. We will all die, and those who have ascended may live on. Please consider this place an oasis here - a peace offering from your servants below. I have collected these things and stored them for you to use to restore order and peace to all men. -Paul M.’”

“What the…?” Ele said incredulously, after finishing reading.

“Was this guy crazy? Overworlders? Judgement? Peace offering? …Let’s open it.” Phil exclaimed with unabashed excitement.

It took some time for the boys to figure out how to break the seal, then more time to muscle off the heavy lid, but they managed it. Stale air escaped the surprisingly clean interior of the stone box. Everything inside was kept or wrapped in some preservative material. Books, mostly, filled the crate. Artwork, weapons, and a couple of pieces of technology occupied the rest of the space. The boys sorted through the items, neither understanding what the weapons were, nor seeing the beauty in many of the art pieces. The books were by far the most interesting part to the boys.

“More words…” Phil said, opening one of the odd things. Books didn’t exist on Planet Zero anymore, at least in this format. Philosophy, history, and many forms of art were long forgotten concepts.

“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” Ele read from the book he picked up. “God? Heaven, Earth? Whaa?” he said with confusion, as the words had long ago lost meaning.

It took some time, but the boys collected the books and brought them all back to the ladder. There was a collection of philosophy books, some sort of set, as each was labeled the same, and had a number assigned to each volume. There were several books labeled “Bible” or “Holy Book”. Other books seemed to just list words and definitions, while yet another series of books, labeled Encyclopedia, explained words and concepts in more detail.

Each one of these books enthralled the boys to no end. After making such a discovery, their interest in adventuring and exploring waned. Their efforts turned to transporting the books into their own homes, reading them around the clock. It was several months of study before they really began to understand the foreign concepts, and many of the books remained extremely confusing to the boys. While they didn’t mind reading to themselves in their respective houses, most of the deep discussion of topics happened in person, and they would still sometimes go down the pit to discuss things in more detail in their camp, now comfortable with staying for several days, or so long as their supplies lasted. This underworld somehow made them feel more at home than their own overworld houses.

“Government, Philosophy, Spirituality… we have no concept of these things in our society – we don’t even have a concept of society!” Phil said one day, as they were relaxing in their camp. These new ideas, once unknown to him, had begun to change his thoughts and perspective.

“I know,” Ele replied. “These books seem to speak literally of a world where these concepts did exist. I think that world is here, where we are now. These ruins used to be something amazing.”

“What do we do about it?” asked Phil. “Doesn’t it seem right for spirituality, government, love, all of these things to exist?”

“I think so…” Ele replied thoughtfully, “But it seems as if Planet Zero has forgotten all about it. How are we supposed to reintroduce these things, when we don’t even have a society to reintroduce it to?”

The discussion continued likewise on that day, but it was some time before any good ideas developed. Phil studied Sir Thomas Hobbes works more thoroughly than the others, finding the concept of morality and societal structure enthralling, as well as the fact that Hobbes referenced one of the other books, the Bible, so often. There surely was something special about that Book. Phil gradually realized that Hobbes’ entire work, and the works of several other authors, were deeply affected by this Bible.

Ele, on the other hand, found the more fundamental works more compelling. He took some time to read all that he could from Plato and others, and even was able to find some commentary of the most complicated texts in the collection.

“What if we could create a society, or rebuild some civilization on planet Zero?” suggested Phil one day at the camp. It had been about a year from the time that they first discovered the books, and in that time, each of the boys had grown a deep conviction that there was something wrong with Planet Zero.

“We could, maybe, but we need some structure for that.” Ele contemplated briefly.  “Perhaps a new Past-Time game which encouraged people to form friendships and societies?”

“I was thinking the same thing, but it would be so different from what we have today… Would anyone even be interested?” Phil was excited at the very prospect of change.

Ele smiled back. “Exactly. Something new and different might be enough to get everyone to play. Everyone could be part of developing the societies, and therefore part of them.”

The idea developed immensely from there, and the boys set out to develop the game. It only took the boys a couple of months of development before the game entered the beta stage, due to the fantastic tools available to game developers. Past-Time verifiers, people who had the real job of approving or rejecting Past-Time activities, were able to play the game at that point. It made quite a stir in the group, and the game would have been rejected outright if the verifiers had only played individually. After all, the game did allow for in-game violence between players, had a very competitive nature and scoring system, and allowed players to design their own realms with their own rules for social structures and tools for organization – all of which were against the normal rules for Past-Time games in some form or another. However, the verifiers played collectively on the same realm. They created systems, growth, and economies. They played with concepts and structures that they had never even known could exist before. They worked together and grew friendships with each other.

Before they made the final decision on the game’s validity, the group discussed their opinions with each other. “It’s not encouraging or directly participating in violence. It’s not encouraging of or requires competition, at least not the kind where there are true winners and losers. It’s not allowing people to really make their own games or goals, it simply allows for the goals to be modified within the game.” These were the sorts of reasons and counter-arguments that the verifiers gave to each other in order to justify the full release of the game.

Because the game was so different from others, and allowed players to develop new personal and interpersonal skills that they never knew existed, the game’s popularity swept over Planet Zero like an epidemic. After several months of play, the game had been standardized into two forms. One realm of the game valued players who created efficient and effective societal rules and political structures. In this format, players gained the most points for developing and participating in cities which had structures that could handle all sorts of crimes, and judge fairly between players. The other popular realm of the game valued players who were servants to their own societies and cities. The highest scoring players were those who studied their work of public service, and effectively grew their society, encouraging morality in themselves and others.

In both forms, there were many non-player characters intermixed, such that it was difficult to tell between player and NPC without researching outside of the game. These NPCs created interesting and difficult situations constantly for players to participate in and were constantly being upgraded and improved by the game developers. It was in no small part due to the original two developers that these were the two main formats of the game.

As time passed, the game’s scoreboards showed players who had developed aptitudes for judging in the first realm, and legislating and effective public servanthood in the second realm. These high-scoring groups of players regularly met with one another, growing true friendships and communities amongst themselves, as did the various other groups of players who played towards different goals. Yet it was these two groups in particular who were considered the best at the game, and by implication, best suited for leadership of in various roles.  

It was these two groups, and the two original game developers, who were chosen by the so called “real job selection system”  to the highest honor of Planet Zero – colonizing other planets. The game had effectively selected the players who would be best suited to perform well in the revered space program, and every player recognized that the selected people were well-suited to the task. The same day that the selection message went out, Ele went to Phil’s house to talk with him, presumably, for the last time, as it was likely they would be separated by lightyears after they left Planet Zero.

“Did we accomplish anything?” asked Ele.

“I don’t know… but I think so.” Phil replied. “People think more now. They have friends and communities, and common goals within our game.”

“I know… but it’s just a game. What about the real world? What about our government here? What about improving the lives of people on Planet Zero? What about that crazy message that we read on the crate years ago?” Ele trailed off into a thoughtful silence.

“Yeah… you’re right, there’s still more to do here. But I think we started something. We have real jobs now, and the most important jobs ever, in fact! We get to work on new societies, new governments, new planets now!” Phil was hopeful.

“So that’s it then… We just leave and never see each other again?” Ele said, tearing up as the words came from his mouth.

Phil embraced Ele, a gesture that had they had only read about before. It felt comforting, it felt calming, it brought peace.

The two men spent the rest of the day with each other, eating together, laughing together, and crying together. Then Ele went home, for the last time.

One more sleepless night passed for Ele, but Phil managed to sleep in peace.

The next day, the men were transported to the space program facility. The domes on the transports went opaque as soon as the men went in, as the location was secret. When they arrived, amongst the crowd of other colonists, they were directed by various robots and signs to their seats on the many spacecraft which were launching today. It was a simple enough process, and they were told that more instructions would arrive as they were needed. The colonizing educational materials and more flight information was to be provided in transit.

Ele and Phil boarded their respective shuttles. It was nearly as exhilarating as the day when they first ventured into the underworld, yet it seemed somehow less visceral, somehow unreal. The shuttles launched, and several of the passengers fainted from the sheer pressure of the lift-off forces.  Shaking, loud noises, and general chaos ensued during the launch… then there was near silence. As their ears adjusted, the uneasy breathing of the other passengers was the only sound breaking the stillness. Twenty minutes had passed, and several people on each flight were starting to become worried. Where was the leader? What were the instructions? What about the colonizing education?

As the murmuring grew, the passenger’s seat belts were loosened, and retracted automatically back into the seats. Complaining turned to confusion, but it didn’t last long. A louder sound occurred, a squealing, a breaking. Air grew quickly thinner. Large doors opened on the sides of each of the spacecraft, sucking all passengers, everyone who had been recruited for the colonization program out into the cold blackness of space.

Ele panicked, trying and failing to grab ahold of something before being flung out into open space. He felt his lungs collapse, an intense cold, and soon, nothing. Phil felt fear, and yet did not panic. Instead, he turned his focus to the stars, in awe of the vast expanses that no one on Planet Zero could observe. He cried out to God, as the characters in the Bible had, “God, please save me.” His mouth moved, as his body floated away into nothingness.