Sensitive Program

“It worked!” Ted shouted at the dawn. He extended his arm forward and wiggled his fingers at the tall oak in his back yard. He felt a tingling around his hand, but nothing happened. “Come on! I feel it!” He clenched every muscle to try and force something to happen. The tingling increased, but the cool morning air around him remained undisturbed. His frustration reached a tipping point; he threw his coffee mug at the ground then stormed back inside. He went straight to the nightstand in his room.

“Hey, node!” he grabbed the card-sized pane of glass he found the previous day.

[Yes, Ted?] the node replied with a soft, feminine voice; the words she spoke also appeared on the display.

“Where’s the magic?” He grumbled at it.

[Magic has been activated on this Earth as you requested.] the node replied.

“Like hell it has. It’s completely normal outside, why isn’t anyone using it?” He carried the node back outside as it to prove nothing was different.

[Magic is only accessible by certain AlterNet classes.]

“Classes? You didn’t say shit about classes yesterday!” he whined.

[Information on Races and Classes can be found in the tutorial that you skipped.] Ted sighed.

“Fine. Give me the tutorial.”

[Tutorial is not available.]

“WHAT!” Ted squeezed the node in anger; he tried to break it, but it did not even bend. “What the hell? Why can’t I do it?”

[Tutorial is only available to first-time users. You saved new changes. You are no longer a first-time user.]

“Fine, I don’t need the stupid tutorial. Make me a wizard, that’s a class, right? Every game has a wizard class.”

[Confirmed. The Wizard is a popular AlterNet class.]

“Alright, then. Wizard me up.”

[Wizard class is unavailable.]

“WHAT’S THE PROBLEM!??”

[AlterNet classes are only available to players.] Ted let out a long, low rumble in his throat as he let the anger wash over him. He was close enough to feel magic in the air; he was starting to regret rushing through the setup the day before. He was so excited that he wanted to play with all the features himself, without the tutorial holding his hand. He grew so frustrated at its attempts to push the tutorial on him that he repeatedly asked it to shut up. He took in a deep breath, then exhaled.

“Alright. How do I become a player?”

[All Zero players are required to complete the tutorial first.]

“What the hell’s a Zero?” Ted mumbled aloud, then corrected himself before the node answered; he did not want to get off track. “Forget it. Fine. How can I become a player if I can’t do the tutorial?”

[NPCs are ineligible for the tutorial.]

“NPCs?” Ted did not play a lot of games, but he knew what a non-player character was. “I’m an NPC?”

[Confirmed. You are Ted the NPC.]

“BULLCRAP! I found you, why am I an NPC?”

[All Zero players are required to complete the tutorial first.] she repeated.

“How do I find the tutorial again if I skipped it?” Ted asked.

[Skipping the tutorial automatically tagged you as an NPC. You are no longer eligible.]

“RAWWWaaaRG!!” The damn holding back Ted’s anger gave way. He raged and threw the node down at the soft green grass. “THAT’S THE WORST GAME DESIGN EVER!”

“The AlterNet hasn’t been a ‘game‘ for a long, long time,” the same voice said. It sounded clearer, closer somehow. Ted looked at where he threw the node. White dots floated upward off the node and swarmed in the air as it disintegrated. The dots coalesced into an ivory-like, floating, feature-less mannequin. Even without a mouth, the voice sounded like it was coming from it. “I hope next time you have a wondrous opportunity before you, you’re less of an ass about it.” The white mannequin flew out of Ted’s yard leaving him alone without magic.

Well Planned

Peter’s bedroom door slammed open; the sudden ‘bang’ jolted him awake. He sat up in time to half-catch a cool, heavy shotgun. His mom tossed it to him as she entered the room. She was dressed and covered in protective layers. The knee and elbow pads that Peter had outgrown still fit her smaller frame. She made a show of looking out all three of his windows; then, she turned around to him.

“It’s time, they’re approaching,” she said. “Get up, get dressed. We have to move,” she said. She walked to the door and stood just outside with her back to him.

“Mom… what’s goin-,” he began to ask but she shook her head.

“Move now, talk later,” she said. “Hurry up.” Peter realized that her back was the only privacy he was going to get and he slid out of bed to change out of his pajamas. After he was dressed he grabbed the shotgun from his bed.

“Ready,” he said.

“Let’s go.” His mom rushed down the hall and out the front door; Peter followed. He did not know what to expect to see as he stepped out into the neighborhood; but, he did not get it. The quiet neighborhood was as eerily peaceful as it was every Saturday morning. The dawn sky wasn’t bright enough to turn off the lamp-posts yet. Peter glanced at as many houses as he could but it looked like he and his mom were the only ones awake.

“Mom?” he tried asking again as he joined her in the car.

“Shh!” she said curtly. She started the car and immediately turned up the radio.

“Ladies and gentlemen I cannot stress this enough. This is not a drill.

As unbelievable as it may seem,…” the announcer gave an audible sigh. “The dead have come back to life. We’ve got zombies,” he said.

“NO WAY!” Peter shouted; he grinned widely and turned to his mom. “Is he serious?!!!” he asked. Peter always held a fascination for the idea of a zombie apocalypse. He read ‘survival guides’ and would share his plans with anyone that would listen. Deep down he guessed it would never happen. But, he consoled himself with the deeper knowledge that he did not know that it wouldn’t happen. And now, apparently, it had. His mother nodded while keeping her eyes on the rod. She pointed out a bloodied, decomposing straggler as they drove by.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“What’s today?” she asked.

“Saturday,” he answered.

“And where did you always say is a great place to go if there’s a zombie apocalypse on Saturday?” she asked. Peter’s eyes widened. He sat up straighter in his seat as pride filled him. 

“You’re using my plan?”

“Well it’s not like I had one,” his mother said. “I do listen to you sometimes.” Peter’s excitement grew as his mother turned left. Now that he knew where they were going he also knew how close they were. He could see the large wooden sign at the end of the street. “Putt-land.”

In Peter’s mind, Putt-land was the perfect fortress. The main building was surrounded by elaborate obstacles meant to challenge golfers. He had ideas for how to best utilize every obstacle for perimeter defense. The park was closed most days until the afternoon, but they always got a food shipment on Saturdays.

He was surprised to see several cars, many of them familiar, parked at Putt-land along with the truck delivering their stock.

“What’s going on?” Peter glanced at the main sign.

“Putt-land presents the AlterNet!”

“What’s the AlterNet?” he asked as his mother parked. She shrugged and got out of the car. “Well, whatever it is, these people are lucky they’re here today,” he said when he was out of the car.  “That looks like Johnny’s car, I hope he’s here,” he added and pointed to a red pile of rust that was once a car.

Peter and his mother rushed across the mock draw-bridge to the main building; the bridge covered a three-foot gap. Peter knew it would be easy to convert it into an actual working draw-bridge. He ran into the building and drew everyone’s attention. A small crowd of about 20 people all turned and smiled at Peter.

“SURPRISE!” They shouted. And he was. Peter stopped in his tracks and stared at the crowd, trying to take in the whole scene. Upon closer inspection, Peter recognized more than half of the faces in the crowd. He noted a banner above their heads that proclaimed “Happy Birthday!” A large chocolate cake sat on a nearby table surrounded by disposable cake plates and forks.

Despite the thoughtful, loving surprise his friends pulled off, Peter still felt a bit of disappointment.

“So… no zombies?” he asked with the same sad tone of a child who’s double-checking that he’s not getting dessert. The crowd chuckled as one; they all more or less expected that reaction from him.  Johnny, Peter’s best friend of four years, stepped forward with a big grin.

“No zombies. Not here, anyway. But…,” Johnny took Peter under his arm and guided him to one of the rear corners. He stopped and showed Peter a human-sized ditch dug into the ground. “…There are alternet places you could check.”