Hank pulled the brim of his hat lower and leaned back in his seat. Outside the train, the landscape blurred past, the Manatech launching their tiny vehicle at such speeds that distance, or at least the distance that was within the confines of the Zone, meant nothing.
Although Hank’s brother was a giant dick, he had something that Hank wanted, so Hank was unwillingly dragged from the Class C City that Hank called home, Mottles, towards one of the two Class A Cities in their Zone, East Providence. Of the two, Hank would much rather travel to West Providence, which was the technological hub upon which their whole Zone turned; meanwhile, Hanks current jaunt would take him to the political capital.
More than anything else, Hank hated politics. He hated the posing, he hated, the rhetoric, he hated the quick shifts between enemies and allies that happened so quickly that it wasn’t even worth the time to grow close to anyone.
Humans were built on connections with others, Hank believed. And he believed that politics was the practice of self-mutilation of genuine and personal connections. It all left a very bitter taste in his mouth.
But Hank supposed he should consider himself somewhat lucky. The early days after the arrival of the System were chaotic and dangerous. Even though the upper echelons of humanity had been warned, and had concentrated weapons, scientists, and supplies in this one location, it had still been touch and go for a while in the week that followed. Although soldiers had been warned that a great enemy would be coming, they expected soldiers, or tanks, or planes.
They didn’t expect demons, or chimera, or fucking goblins.
During that time, Hank hadn’t known about the oncoming storm, he had just gotten lucky to be stationed as a park ranger near his nation’s capital. At the time, he was just a hiking enthusiast who loved the sights and smells of the country, and his brother was a nobody, working as a clerk for a Senator from the South.
Hank sighed and shook his head angrily. When one of the train’s attendants walked past, he raised a hand and mimed taking a shot. She smiled politely and nodded, even though there was thinly veiled judgement in her eyes. Hank didn’t care, he just hoped she knew to bring him whiskey. Maybe he should have mimed sipping it.
But then he would have been dishonest, wouldn’t he?
While the soldiers and the politicians were struggling to remain in control of their tiny fiefdoms during the initial monster incursions, the scientists had holed themselves up in what would become West Providence, and begun to experiment. Very quickly, they realized they could gain Levels in strange, almost abstract Skills like Scientific Theory, and Organic Chemistry, and they pushed a lot of boundaries in those first weeks, frothing at the mouth in the presence of this tangible progress.
Very quickly, there were many deaths and accidents, but there was also progress: Plasma weaponry, manatech, and power suits were just a few of their more widely known inventions. There were huge jumps in farming and pharmaceutical technologies, which would have been worth billions of dollars in the past, but now were relatively useless, due to the positive benefits of the System.
But of course, the greatest contribution of West Providence, and the reason that they maintained their status as a Class A City, despite pressure from East Providence, was due to Ghost.
While most scientists were fascinated by the tangible, Thomas Karman was drawn towards a different pursuit: Artificial Intelligence. Not as a pursuit in and of itself, of course, he was too much of a scientist for that. But Dr. Karman wondered whether it wasn’t just people and monsters that were slaves to the System.
Could their creations earn the System’s approval as well?
For 3 months, Dr. Karman slaved away, working and creating. He tried different structures, different mediums, different evolution paths for the different intelligences. During that time, humanity had largely righted itself. Increases in Stats and Skill Levels allowed the army to quickly sweep through the monsters, establishing safe areas where people could live without fear of an ogre climbing through their window.
Even if he was being modest, Hank was at the forefront of that effort. Before the System hit, his hobbies included creating his own bullets and putting himself beyond the range of cell service in order to truly experience the raw, beautiful danger of nature. Now that danger came knocking, and Hank’s bullets were an invaluable tool against the invasion...
Many, in the early days of his rise to prominence, suspected that Hank would very quickly run out of room to grow. After all, his Skill related to shooting pistols and empowering pistol bullets, so undoubtedly he would soon be passed by snipers, or soldiers with assault rifles and proper training. But everytime Hank would find himself in a dead end, the System would provide a Path, a new Skill, an opportunity.
First the Dead Shot Skill, then the Trick Shot, then Mana Reinforcement, then the Mana Detonation.
It was… wonderful, in a sick way. And Hank could admit to himself now that he had lost himself in that feeling.
Then, Thomas Karman was successful. He created an AI that could grow and Level in the System. It was slow, much slower than humans, for whatever reason, but it worked. Ghost was born.
Very quickly, West Providence flooded the air with small drones. Then they began to spread cameras in a more conventional way, hacking into the traffic network, at least the portions that continued to work. They sent men out in the field, carrying cameras. With these vantage points, Ghost began to learn.
After gathering a sufficient amount of data, Ghost began to make predictions. Small things at first, but then on the movements of monsters, and the optimum way to prepare to gain a Class, or the superior Paths available, and how to acquire them. It took a month, but very soon East Providence was swayed; Ghost was a powerful tool, and they intended to use it.
Thomas Karman and the then President of the United Humans Force, the UHF, brokered a deal. Ghost would be able to classify things in different categories, but the UHF Parliament would always retain the ability to pass laws regarding on how the treatment of the ranks was different.
Ghost’s first mass categorization related to cities, setting West and East Providence up as the core of the Zone. Ghost’s second categorization labeled monsters and categorized them as different metal ranks, Copper through Diamond, according to their power. Ghost’s third and final initial ranking put Citizens in different tiers, 1-5.
Well, it was one through five in name only, because the highest tier at that time was Tier 3, and Hank was one of the three people in that tier.
The attendant returned, thankfully with something dark, even if it wasn’t whiskey, and Hank threw it back with a bitter smile on his face. How bright and hopeful Hank had been in those days. It was a fleeting, almost tragic naivety. At the time, Hank had been a powerful supporter of the categorization of people and monsters, thinking of all the good it could do. His brother had been right there with them, the Howard twins the vocal minority urging for Ghost’s virtues. The higher tiers would face the danger, the lower tiers would understand when certain threats were beyond their ability to deal with.
Hank had swiftly learned what a fool he had been, and how much a label could warp people.
Three weeks after the Citizenship Tiers were instituted, a Tier 3 man raped a Tier 1 woman, and his defense was his higher Tier entitled him to superior privileges.
“Well what can you do,” Alan Howard had said, an embarrassed smile on his face, “This is America. People will say the stupidest shit.”
At the time, Hank had been close to agreeing. It was just one fool, and the court denied that defense. The man was thrown in jail. But…
But it set a tone. Of course, it was clear that one couldn’t flaunt the law. But many wondered, based on the language of the judges, whether the decision would have been the same if the crime was a less severe one…
Of course, realities of the world being what they were, the man was let off on probation after 6 months. And once he was freed-
Hank stopped himself right there. Thinking about that whole ordeal would just piss him off even more, and with how today’s schedule was being lined up, Hank wanted to start out in as good of a mood as possible.
Unfortunately, the train was already pulling into the station.
Hank ordered two more shots to go.