Author note: This is another of those "summarize six months in a chapter" type deals. Except this time it's six years. I tried making it as coherent as possible, it's still somewhat rambling. Earth is boring without some extreme changes, what can I say?
Also, heroes gotta come from somewhere. There will be less of that in the future when Alex has more than his own thoughts going on.
Alex Barrett had been through Hell over the past few years. During that time, he had lost everything he had - no, he'd come to the irrefutable conclusion that he'd never had it at all. All those trappings of an allegedly "normal" life had proven to be illusions. As Mr. Barrett did not see through the illusions, he was fooled by them. While he'd been devastated by each loss when it happened, Alex was also the case study in "That which does not kill you makes you stronger."
He'd avoided all the usual cattle coping mechanisms - primarily different variations of drugs and alcohol and dealt with the grief without them. Though, this wasn't to say he wasn't without his coping mechanisms. Or flaws...
"Fuck!" exclaimed the articulate gentleman in question at no one in particular. His profanity echoed through the otherwise empty house and was soon followed by many more just like it. While the forty-seven year old Alex had plenty of years and life experience behind him, he seemed content to carry on in this manner for quite some time, much like a fourteen year old with Tourette's Syndrome.
For you see, Alex Barrett had defeated or otherwise avoided all of his enemies save one. Alex Barrett. Haunted by his own memories and tormented by the negativity of the prior experiences, he'd find himself dwelling on the dark past as he did not believe he had any future, much less a bright one.
At one point, he did. Though he'd heard of it late, on account of not following video games at the time, he'd heard about this "Phoenix Rising Online", about the Arks that'd let you immerse yourself fully, and the extensive rumors that you could live there - not in some mere "game," but in a fully functional alternate dimension that was far more interesting and far more likely to survive than this one was. Though exceedingly expensive, he'd almost had enough of the rapidly collapsing currency and rapidly appreciating desperation to afford an Ark. Almost.
It was then that Mr. Barrett first collided with the chain of disaster. His "loving" wife, who'd spent the last few years on fast food delivery, ensuring that his wallet would shrink and her waistline would grow, decided that she'd take this moment to redeem him for cash prizes. Whether she was aware of the windfall that he had hidden away or was merely moving onto the next mark was unclear. Regardless, she had little trouble robbing him blind - she needed only accuse him of sexually molesting his son.
Mr. Barrett did not have a son - they'd interfere with her stunning "career" in HR for some bloated corporation or another, and no proof was ever provided that any such biological child existed. Nor was such proof necessary - a female's word was Divine Law, and going against it was Blasphemy of the highest order. Anti-Simpitism had, by this point, completely eclipsed anti-Semitism as something you only do to show your complete opposition to and renouncement of the unnatural order of the natural world.
What's worse is, it didn't have to be this way. Despite rampant and overzealous censorship, knowledge of both problem and solution had been common knowledge and public domain for quite some time. And Alex had been warned repeatedly, at every stage of the way, against his current course of action. He'd arrogantly dismissed all these warning signs, even when they were proven right before his eyes. For his delusional efforts, he was mocked as a simp, beta, NPC, and many others. Though he was quick to fire back with what was ironically the most predictable NPC line - incel, he knew even back then that he was the one not having sex, and marriage was a mistake he regretted making.
What changed things for him and cured him of his weakness was the knowledge that the "Gatekeeper" he'd come to idolize for living the life every man wishes he could live and every real woman wishes she could live beside and one of those who had mocked him most zealously in the past were, in fact, the same person.
The assorted corrupt, collapsing governments of Earth were widely overstepping their bounds and flailing blindly in all directions. A part of that had involved doxing this "Gatekeeper" in an attempt to destroy his reputation as he was proving a bastion of hope for far more men than the aging Alex.
Needless to say, their efforts backfired spectacularly. Yes, there were plenty of those triggered by his very existence and at anything and anyone remotely like him - but they were NPCs and so would have reacted in such a manner regardless.
What everyone else saw was some "Literally Who" random who easily could have been them rise to a position of power, prominence... and more. He even had the fucking cape to complete the superhero look - though those who were historically illiterate made some very false and very painful misassumptions about his sexual orientation.
What Alex saw is that, knowingly or not, this same figure had expected more of Alex... and been disappointed. As Alex did not learn from the mistakes of his own father, who he'd lost under similar circumstances to his own, he was left without good strong male role models. It was inevitable that someone filled the gap. And holy shit, what a lead to follow!
It left him with no time to be depressed for sure, as it was all spent honing his body and mind, learning all the Truths of the world he'd rejected in his hubris, and all this while encountering a steadily escalating range of threats that really proved the idiom "Encountering enemies means you are going the right direction."
Of course, there was far more to life on Earth than learning of female nature, especially throughout this collapse. His interest in "White Supremacist" activities such as health and self-improvement had not gone unnoticed. Unbeknownst to him, a team had been dispatched to capture him and take him to a reeducation camp for processing.
However, he never encountered such a team, as they'd gotten into a spirited debate over the comparative debates of mariachi and rap music. Sick kinetic beats were broken out, and the contest was deemed a draw as both competitors were unable to battle.
Of course, this didn't prevent Mr. Barrett from being framed for the murder/suicide of attackers he was unaware of the existence of. Fortunately, diversity proved not their strength again, giving him plenty of warning to flee.
Alex was Jonesing for this new life because the first time he'd felt alive. Finally, he was in his element! You see, before the various layers of collapse started, allowing entire employment sectors to be shut off like light switches, among other things, Alex was a contractor with a particular set of skills. Namely, he specified in building those heavily fortified and heavily hidden underground bunkers favored by those who believed that the end of the world was coming.
By the time it may have very well been, he was out of work. But he still remembered the location of every project he completed and kept tabs on his commissioners. And there were a few about whose rightful owners had either failed to escape the fate he was currently fleeing from, were sold out by neighbors or family members in exchange for relative pittances or who had simply been executed with impunity for any reason or no reason at all.
If the law were to change such that anyone could become a criminal at any time, best you have plenty of safe houses. Especially since, in the aftermath of his false wife, anyone who hadn't betrayed him already promptly did so. Some were there for the same reason she was - looting resources, so someone without monetary value was without any value and promptly discarded.
Others were the quintessential "optics cucks." The NPC's programmers informed them that anyone who had negative experiences with females may have negative views on them - and rather than recognize that as human nature, they manifested their inhuman nature instead by deeming that any wrongthinker and anyone associated with any wrongthinker is reeducated. Cue the rats - including many neighbors and family members fleeing preemptively so that they could save themselves. This included many whom he had saved considerable amounts of money or even the lives of.
Still others were likely always opportunists, but he believed in nonexistent concepts such as the good of others, and so he was fooled by scams that, in retrospect, he should have known better about. Well, nonexistent on Earth.
A good part of the reason this forty-something going on sixty-something man had followed the story of the Gatekeeper with such a child-like fascination wasn't just because the men were men and the women were women, though that was a factor. It was because they had a true Band of Brothers going, something Alex had never seen in his life. Not with his old construction crew, who also treated him like a pariah. Not during his time in the military, where he learned that fighting for his own country was fighting for the wrong country. Not in any of the various groups he'd joined or seen. It filled him with such awe and longing - and rage he'd been denied it that...
He was sitting here in this empty house, cursing the unfathomable future he'd missed while reflecting on the grim past.
Fortunately for the frustrated old man, this point in the story marked the end of his pain for a while. He was able to successfully and safely sneak into one of his safe houses - well, his after he used the "back door" key to reclaim it from the long deceased owner before either a more competent squad of thought police could be dispatched or one of the locals sold him out in exchange for one of the cheapest hamburgers formerly on the cheapest fast food restaurant's menu. Made of beef, not bugs!
Here, a simple Truth manifested - People Equals Problems. The reverse was also true - in solitude, he could heal, and his safehouses were configured such that he was hidden from the world but not entirely isolated from it. He could isolate himself, practicing social distancing from the real pandemic - the NPC plague while healing, building himself, and remaining comfy while watching what he now knew to be Clown World burn in the dumpster fire of its own ignition.
So it was that Alex avoided the worst parts of the collapse. Online news being what it was, it wasn't entirely clear exactly what he missed, but going by all credible and collaborated sources, he'd ducked out just before the collapse and genocide really got going, and so he was spared the dubious pleasures of the various mass control mechanisms, open slaughter and warfare on the streets, and reports that Earth had made a very terrible mistake in its dealings with the PRO exodus - one that had spawned the most credible source - the Gatekeepers. Yes, plural, that was also certain.
Even there, though, details were intentionally vague. All Alex knew was that while he was getting his training routine on, Earth was getting completely BTFO again and again and again by a force which, by all rights, should have been too small and primitive to challenge them at all. But then, Alex's own experiences in the military had taught him that little brown men with outdated rifles and trucks could do the same thing if they were fighting for a purpose instead of a paycheck. Substitute quantity for quality with what could best be described as superpowers? Not a chance!
The lack of distraction from the whole no more siege mentality thing gave the aging veteran plenty of time for more training. Much of this training was actually mental - something he'd largely neglected prior. He'd do everything from solving puzzles to attempt to predict the outcome of detective stories in advance to prancing about like a pirate after hearing that eyes are like any other muscle - straining makes them stronger, and so using one eye at a time improves vision. Though he had no codified verification of this, it did seem to work.
After numerous comments on the Gatekeeper Tales, he'd also tried utilizing deductive reasoning as much as possible outside of mystery fiction. It didn't seem very practical, mainly because NPC actions were entirely predictable once you understood they were NPCs and quit expecting human traits that weren't present. But again, without a codified measurement of progress, who could tell? And the Gatekeeper Tales were quite explicit about this - that instant feedback was so crucial for perfectly optimizing methods. Not that he became demotivated when he didn't see progress immediately, but he didn't know if he could do better.
Some of his efforts were physical, though those were limited to body weight exercises - the previous owner would have died of obesity-related complications by year's end even without an external source like a mass extermination. Naturally, no exercise equipment was left behind, nor could he get away with walking down the street carrying some - he was White.
The prior owner had also left behind seven firearms, all fully loaded, unused in his defense, and unused for a long time prior. Because they were rare and highly decorated custom works, any one of them could have been sold to get Alex an Ark on release day. The boomer former owner also had two sons, both of whom Alex knew to be in a far worse financial position than even their same-age peers, much less him. Any one of those would have sold for enough to keep them alive, even at post-inflation prices.
That fat fuck either never considered the idea or rejected it, likely with a "Fuck you, I got mine!" or the like.
Sure, Alex has also learned plenty of the world itself - including that children were nothing more than weapons against men, but that was only with female influence corrupting them. Since the mother who had stolen them away died the same way that his ex-wife did? Namely, refusing to call a mentally ill man in a dress a woman, after which he sodomized her to death with his feminine penis? Be there for your boys, even now that they are young adults.
Needless to say, Alex only mourned the passing of the sons. They deserved better than the degrading world they got, and at ages thirty-one and twenty-nine, respectively, they were never alive at a time when even the illusion of something better existed. They had been more internet savvy, of course, and so had avoided many pitfalls the older folks didn't know better about. But at the end of the day, Clown World was no place for men, and so they quit being men.
They also quit being alive when one instance of wrongthink had them executed for being a "fucking White male!" by their stalwart allies after a raid on an "alt-right neo-Nazi compound" (an ordinary, generic suburban neighborhood) was soundly rebuked by the most racist union of Mexican cartel members, some black men who rejected the worst aspects of their culture, and what could best be described as "le 56% meme" - hardly people all that concerned about race.
Fuck around and find out, indeed!
Alex was sensing that something was changing in humanity. It changed far too slow to be relevant, but while before, everyone aside from a few who already had nothing to lose would have gone the way of that boomer and died like a bitch without even attempting to fight back, this sort of thing was just common enough to give some hope that humanity would prevail - at least until the false hope crowd hijacked it and reintroduced complacency.
It was all because of that Gatekeeper. The one thing that was absolutely unambiguous about him is that he never liked Earth from the start, and the ongoing conflict turned that into a zealous and quite frankly terrifying hatred. Only the most supreme of braindead, soul-voided NPCs could possibly believe such a man would be saving them even before he stated outright he wouldn't, which is precisely why they did it.
Alex didn't believe there was anything worth saving either, primarily because of a combination of this reaction, and having everyone he knew turn on him for various, often petty reasons. Yet, it seemed he was the only one that viewed the unlikely dark hero as inspiration instead of a replacement for the divine.
Well, nothing external anyways. He'd lost or never had all that. All he had left was himself. So be it. He'd become his best self.
That said, Alex's other attempts at training proved lackluster. He'd learned of fiction roughly based around the concept of the world of PRO but found that most of the works were nothing like it. They couldn't be more different, even.
Even this old man, whose experience with games beforehand began and ended with playing vintage platformer games with neighborhood children before he was accused of being a pedophile solely on the grounds of being a man and run out of the boy's lives by single mothers, knew that the author's understanding of how games and gamers work was fucking bullshit.
Not only that, but if their systems encouraged anything, it was either the same mindless consoomerism that everyone could already get with currently available technology, impractical or even self-destructive behaviors that are only relevant to PRO if you wanted to know where the Earth's enemy faction was coming from, or both. Usually both.
The systems were also even more lacking in depth and complexity than modern games were - which, given that within their narrative, they were designed by anything from advanced AI to hyper-advanced aliens to interuniversal forces who'd literally honed and refined the System for billions of years? They should at least be on par with what one gamer writing for fun could come up with.
Yet another example of any standards being excessive standards, it seemed.
He'd also checked out books in the genre written by authors of other nationalities. While those were generally of much higher quality as works of fiction, they too were useless as a teaching tool as they tended to just take the classic MMORPG model from the old school days and then add in the futuristic elements of the setting.
But then, did anyone entering the world of PRO know what they were in for in advance?
Concluding that he was overthinking it, Alex put down the fiction books and began hitting the nonfiction. It proved exceedingly difficult to obtain these ancient volumes, and not just because he was hiding in a hole at the time. One thing Alex had discovered very quickly is that history was written by the victors - and that wasn't him. Learning what had truly happened in the past became an immense challenge. Yet, it was one worth overcoming.
What he read was more outlandish than most of the fiction works he'd dismissed as irrelevant. But Alex believed this true history, as insane as it sounded, and it was undoubtedly far more inspirational than an endless cycle of humans killing and raping each other for petty reasons. This, perhaps, is the only reason he kept his sanity while isolated in a room for months.
Ok, some of his sanity. Though Alex was isolated by necessity, he wasn't psychologically suited for this and envied those who could avoid everyone for months or years at a time and likely be better off for it. Mild extroversion and a dim, antisocial view were a horrific combination.
All he could do was keep moving and acting to distract himself from his nihilism.
At one point, a few months after the initial release of PRO, the chaos just... stopped. The government, which had been zealously protecting and serving the shit out of the people, abruptly withdrew, leaving the broken buildings and bodies where they lie. The restrictions on essentials, such as food, abruptly vanished, though there wasn't any food left to restrict outside of the black market. It was as if something or someone just... turned them off.
With them off, the chaos was off. The survivors cowered in anticipation of more beatings that would not come, and when they didn't, they began crawling out and returning home sooner or later.
Which is how Alex had wound up in a house, cursing at no one. Though, the following message to appear would really give him something to swear about...
A wave of strange energy passed over the middle-aged man, making his muscles tingle and shift oddly, as the voice pronounced, <Gain experience points by overcoming challenges.>
"Oh shit..." he whispered, though this time it was not suppressed frustration that drove him but awe. A moment later, the power turned off, though as Alex wasn't using it for anything, this proved a mere annoyance.
That tingling feeling in his muscles intensified, and as he began thinking about it, a series of messages appeared in his mind as though they were shared thoughts.
[Welcome, new Player Character Alex Barrett. Now adjusting...]
[Everyone must start at level 1 with 0 XP. Your prior life experiences have elevated you to level 8 with 31,644 XP.]
[You may trade this XP for the following benefits:
Reverse physical aging (cannot reduce by more than twenty years/baseline adult age of mid-twenties). Cost is dependent on the health of the subject and the degree of change.
Acquire currency (starting rate 1:1, increases if large amounts are obtained at once).
Enhance attributes. Cost scaling with level. Cannot bypass Tier limits.
Enhance skills. (starting rate 1:20, increases if large amounts are obtained at once). Note: Skill XP costs vary drastically depending on the scope of the skill.
Purchase items. Items are not normally available from shops and will be well suited for your individual strengths. Warning: Very expensive.]
[All XP must be spent before advancing to the next step.]
"What changes have already been made by this system implementation?" Alex asked, receiving a pleased feeling in response. It was the right question to ask. At the same time, he carefully crept up to the edge of his window and peered out. What others remained on the street had wandered outside, looking lost and confused. Did they even know what an experience point was? Likely not - gamers were wrongthinkers, don't you know?
A massive wall of text appeared before Alex's eyes. A moment later, it was replaced by a much more concise message.
Intelligence check passed.
Wisdom check passed.
After another moment, it was replaced with another slightly longer but much more coherent and informative message.
Changes to the environment:
Electricity and electronic devices cease functioning.
Internal combustion engines cease functioning.
Devices based on chemical propulsion cease functioning.
Other chemicals react differently or unpredictably.
'No firearms?' Alex released the breath he didn't know he was holding. There wouldn't be any boomers shooting him through the cardboard walls of his house for any 'Fuck you, I got mine!' moments. While it made Alex's own rifle and sidearm nothing more than expensive paperweights, he was confident that as much as he liked guns, he could adapt to a gun-free world better than those who had never considered the possibility of other weapon types.
'No vehicles either... good, most of my known enemies are far away.'
Changes to self:
Natural health regeneration is greatly accelerated. You are still subject to normal human limitations, such as no regeneration of limbs without having obtained this ability elsewhere.
There is no resurrection available below the Divine level. Make it count!
Changes to self (PC only):
Lesser Soulsight - identify if a person is a PC or an NPC on sight*.
Seeing the asterisk, Alex couldn't help but examine it for more detail. What followed looked like a note directly from the creator of the system:
Soulsight is an extremely powerful ability, and to give even a fraction of it to every level 1 human is utterly unprecedented in the collective one million, two hundred and three thousand, six hundred and forty-five Earth years that we have developed and maintained systems for preserving the best aspects of species and cultures...
'Excuse me, what the fuck?' Alex blurted, but no one answered his rude inquiry.
However, we found that in the nine million, five hundred seventy-six thousand, one hundred and fifty simulations we ran without it, not only did zero end in victory for the Last Bastions of humanity, but they more often than not faced total defeat before even reaching level two!
"It's... over nine million," Alex pronounced in a very distressed but normal volume voice. Nothing was broken in the maneuver.
With the extra help, the humans were consistently able to survive long enough to establish themselves and even achieved victory in nearly thirteen percent of cases!
For this reason, we engaged minimum interference protocols. You face a steep uphill battle, soldier. Don't tumble back down it.
'Why does that sound like a message directed at me personally?' Alex thought, not expecting a response. The poor man about jumped out the window when he got one. Fortunately, the small crowd that was wandering about aimlessly didn't notice his presence.
<That's because it was. Hello human. I am Celeste.>