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Science Fiction Teens & Young Adult Adventure

“So, what you're saying is that being part of the dumbest, weakest, and the most talentless species is actually a good thing?”

The green alien stares at me with his five yellow eyes. We're sitting in his tiny office just in front of the heavy lead door that says “Simulation in progress – don't disturb” in big red letters. He's waiting for an answer, clipboard in one of his tentacle-like hands, but all I can think about are his eyes and if all five of them are really that necessary, like, when it comes to eyes, isn't less more? But then I remember that one-eyed Martian asking me the same question, and snap right back to the present.

“Well, when you put it like that,” I say and force out a little laugh, but the alien's not laughing. I clear my throat. “All I'm saying is that the same inconsistency that everybody hates about humans is the very quality that makes us so great.”

The alien leans forward in his chair that makes a creaking sound. “Great?” he says in challenging tones.

“I mean, not great. More like, 'okay.' Passable at best,” I add hurriedly and think how many more times I'll have to swallow my pride and throw my own species under the proverbial space bus.

I know the answer to that, of course – as many as it takes. All I've ever wanted is to be a Watchdog – the coolest and most exclusive job in the Multiverse – and this green alien, my interviewer, is holding my fate in his multiple tentacles.

The alien stares at me and bares his sharp yellow teeth. It takes me a moment to realize that he's smiling. “The problem with your answer, Miss R,” he says, “is that you're actually not quite as inconsistent as you think you are.”

I narrow my eyes at him, not understanding what he's saying, and he elaborates. “See, I already knew you were going to give me the whole 'inconsistency is what makes us humans so special' spiel. And not just because every human who passes through my office says the exact same thing, but because of our human algorithm.”

I tilt my head. As far as I know, no algorithm's ever been able to figure out humans, simply because so many of us are cheating, lying bastards that don't fit into any box.

As if he could read my mind, the alien continues. “I know that you humans like to think of yourselves as some unique little butterflies, but this algorithm's got you figured out to a tee. Not only your behavior but your line of thinking as well.”

I don't say anything but in my mind I scoff. Oh, yeah? We'll see about that, I think.

“For example,” the alien says. “Right now you're thinking 'We'll see about that.'”

There's a short silence. Well, okay, the algorithm got one right, but that could easily just have been an educated guess.

“And right now you're thinking that that was an educated guess,” the alien says.

I open my mouth to deny that, just to mess with his stupid algorithm, but he's faster.

“And right now you want to deny that, just so you can mess with my stupid algorithm.”

There's a short, stunned silence.

Holy crap! I think. This algorithm is pretty legit.

“And now you're thinking that this algorithm is pretty legit,” he says. “It's likely that, in your mind, you used the word 'Holy' followed by some expletive. Probably 'crap.'”

I deadpan at him. Thinking, apparently, is dangerous around here.

“Anyway,” he continues. “We could carry on with this conversation through the algorithm, but it's tiresome and frankly quite boring. So tell me, is there anything you want to ask me?

I lean back in my sweaty plastic chair. Now that I've learned that I have no original thought, I seem to have little to say. I look at the big whirring machines that look like printing presses behind the alien. “You need all of these machines to figure humans out?” I say at last.

He follows my gaze. “Oh no,” he says and lets out a laugh. “Those machines are to figure out the Martians.”

“Ah, that machine then?” I point over his shoulder at a gadget that looks like a big printer.

“That? That's for the Venusians.”

“Those two in the corner?”

“Mercurians.”

“That little metal one in the back?”

“That's my toaster.”

“Huh.”

I draw in a breath and narrow my eyes at him. “So, the machine to figure out humans..?”

He shakes his head. “There's no machine,” he says. “I told you. It's an algorithm.” To demonstrate his point, he turns his computer screen to face me. I stare at the black screen with confusion. ”What am I looking at?”

“That line in the upper corner.”

I direct my gaze at the blinking white cursor and the three words next to it.

“'Hello World 24?'” I read.

“Yep. That's you.”

I blank at him. “So what you're saying is,” I start, “the whole essence of humans is captured in 'Hello World 24?'”

“Yes,” he says. “A simple algorithm for simple species.”

He must have read my thoughts again because he continues, “You shouldn't feel bad. We have figured out most species in the Multiverse. Except for cats. Cats are still an enigma.”

I let out a sigh. “So, is this your roundabout way of saying that I didn't pass the interview? That I'm not going to be a Watchdog?”

“That's not up to me to decide, dear girl.”

“It's not?”

He gives me that toothy smile again, and points behind himself at the door that says “Simulation in progress – Don't disturb.” “You think those sims are there only for their decorative value?”

Suddenly I feel hot and a little dizzy. No, not a sim, anything but a sim!

Simulations are kind of like virtual reality, except the experience feels realer, and the ones who go into them don't come back as their normal selves.

“I have to do a sim?” My voice is hoarse.

“Well, how much do you want to be a Watchdog?”

Unfortunately, I know the answer to that.

***

“And you're all set.” The white-clad purple alien with three eyes and ears takes a step back to admire her job well done a.k.a me strapped tightly into the simulation seat with three different seatbelts, arm and leg bands, goggles, and a helmet with wires sticking out. She glances at my interviewer, who gives her an approving nod, and then lowers the seat into a horizontal position.

I listen to my own breathing growing faster and faster, as a dozen different worst-case scenarios compete in my head, but one by one, I push them away. It's okay, I tell myself, whatever happens in this simulation, it's just make-believe. There's nothing I can do that could cause any permanent damage.

“Ready?” my interviewer asks and I snap back to my lousy reality. I glance at him and give a little nod – well, as much of a nod as I can being tied up like this.

He smiles. “Good,” he says, “Oh, and I forgot to mention one more thing: if you die in this sim, you die in real life.”

There's a short silence.

“Kind of an important thing to forget, wouldn't you say?” I manage at last.

He shrugs. “Well, does it change anything?”

I try to draw a deep breath but the straps are too tight. “That depends,” I say. “What is the success rate of this?”

“For humans? 0.01 percent.”

Wow, I think, those are some awful odds.

The alien raises one of his eyebrows. “Well?” he says. “Still wanna do this?”

I think about it for less than a second. Admittedly, losing my life at such a young age would kind of suck, but being a Watchdog is all there is for me.

“Yes,” I say with conviction. “I do wanna do this.” I give him a triumphant smile. “Your algorithm didn't see that coming, did it?”

He shrugs. “It did,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I have to ask, it's protocol. Anyway, do you have any questions before we start?”

My mind is a blank. “Umm...no?”

“Great. Have fun, then!”

And with that I hear him push down the lever on the right side of the seat. It makes the same sound as opening a can of soda, and then, my surroundings start to swirl, shift, and take new shapes. I can hear my own breathing getting louder inside my helmet as I watch my feet land on something white. Right in front of me appears a pink sky and a mountain about 30 feet away. On my right side, something that looks like a rooftop about 150 feet below from where I stand starts taking shape. I feel cold and my ears are plugging up, and I realize why that is. The altitude. I peer down and see a sharp drop into something that looks like a sea of lava. An inch-by-inch piece under my feet breaks loose and I helplessly watch it disappear into the blood-colored soup.

“Holy...” is all I manage before I'm interrupted by a “ding.”

Welcome, comes a voice, startling me, I am the System.

I hold my hand to my heart, as if trying to prevent it from jumping out of my chest. “System?” I whisper, my lips quivering, partly out of panic, partly out of cold. “Where am I?”

Don't you recognize it? The System says, almost mockingly. This world was built to imitate the home of your ancestors – Earth. We even added a skyscraper just for the hell of it.

I glance at the rooftop on my right and realize just how high up I am.

It works by the same laws of physics as your ancestor's planet, for example, gravity is the same as that on the Earth.

Hm, no big jumps then, I think.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, the System continues, is to get from where you're standing to the mountain in front of you. The only problem is that it's 30 feet away and surrounded by a lava lake that would certainly boil you alive if you were to end up there.

I look down at the lake with steam rising up, and let out a gulp.

Also, the System continues, you're standing on top of an iceberg that's melting. A little global warming there to make you feel right at home.

Or to add insult to injury, I think.

Anyway, the longer you stand there, the more likely it is that an avalanche will sweep you down into the lava, so act fast. Ready to play?

I look around myself. How on Multiverse am I supposed to make it to the mountain?

“No tools?” I say.

For tools and special features, select an avatar, the System says. Select avatar now?

“Yes,” I say. “Select avatar!” And right away, three different avatars – like half of the village people from the before-before times – appear in front of my face. The System explains their features, strength and weaknesses, and I opt for a cowboy-lookalike, whose specialty – according to the description – are long jumps and using a lasso. His tools are a rope, spurs, and a hat. Naturally, I'm only interested in the rope.

“Select,” I say and a green rim appears around the cowboy.

Avatar selected, the System says, Play now?

“Yes,” I confirm, and, just like that, I find myself standing on top of that iceberg again. Another piece of ice cracks loose under my slippery spur boots, and I trip and land down on my face in the snow and ice. I feel myself beginning to slide off the cliff, and dig my clumsy man fingers as deep into the snow as I can. Wow, snow is cold. Who knew?

I force myself up, my hands trembling uncontrollably, and find a steadier place to stand. I look at the mountain and consider my options. The rope, I think. Maybe I could...

Whoa, whoa, whoa! comes the System's voice in my ears. The rope is nowhere near long enough to do that. You ain't lassoing cows here, cowboy!

Okay, I think, and glance down at the skyscraper.

Don't even think about it! comes the voice again. That rooftop is way too far down. Remember that little thing called gravity? Unless you want to end up like a human pancake, you shouldn't attempt that.

I feel the ice cracking under my feet again, and suddenly my legs are off the ledge. I shriek – like only a cowboy can – and close my eyes. I wait for that awful feeling of free fall in the pit of my stomach but when I open my eyes again, I realize my upper-body is still on iceberg, holding on for dear life. I look down at the lava that undoubtedly is making the ice melt even faster. It's only a matter of time before it'll devour me, too.

“System!” I yelp desperately. “Pause game!”

No pauses.

“Shit! Go back?”

No shits and no going back.

“Give up?”

No giving up.

I would scream but I'm afraid the frequency of my voice would just make the ice break faster. I try to think of my options but in my heart of hearts I know it's over. There's no way down that's not going to end up with me swimming with the lava cakes.

They say that in your last moments, you think about the things that matter the most to you. I find myself thinking about my family. My mother's sweet smile and warm hugs. My father's sad eyes when I told him I wanted to be a Watchdog. And my cat Perry. That little ball of fur that always... always...

Something crosses my mind, an idea, something I cannot quite articulate yet, but it gives me enough energy to muster all the strength I have left in this cowboy body and swing my legs back onto the iceberg.

I squeeze my eyes shut and my mind travels back to that room with the alien saying that the algorithm was able to anticipate my every move, just as it would do for most other species as well. There was a gadget for every species in his office, all except for one – cats.

“System!” I shout. “Change avatar!”

There's a short silence.

At this point of the game?

“Change avatar, dammit!” I scream.

Fine. It's your funeral, comes the System's voice and half of the village people appear in front of my eyes again. I have no intention of choosing any of them. A few things I'm sure of: a) There's no way the government would fund simulations for all individual species, which means that this simulation was meant for all species. And b) I would bet anything that all species don't use these village people as avatars.

“System,” I say. “Search avatar!”

At first, there's no answer, and then: Search word?

“Feline.”

Search loading.

For a while I'm worried that I was wrong, or that maybe I'm only able to access the avatars of my own species, but then three different feline options pop up in front of me.

The System starts reading the options out loud. Panthera pardus, Felis catus domesticus...

“Catus domesticus,” I blurt.

Selected: Felis catus domesticus. Loading strengths and weaknesses, the System says, and at that moment, I feel the ground under me shaking. A piece breaks loose and makes me grasp at anything I can get my hands on.

“No time,” I shriek, “Return to game! Return to game!”

With a whoosh, I'm back on that iceberg, and for a moment, I allow myself to feel hopeful. There are two things I know about cats: 1) they are said to have nine lives and 2) they always land on their feet.

I look down and see that my cowboy boots have turned into white little paws. Between my paws, I see a belly that touches the ground. Jeez! I'm not one for body-shaming, but I'm pretty sure that if this cat had nine lives before, it's used eight of them on gluttony.

I'm left with only one chance – landing on feet.

Again, another piece of ice breaks loose under me, and I climb up. Despite the belly, my balance is much better than as a human, but just as I'm about to make my next move, my avatar sits down and my paws start pushing the ground.

“What's happening?” I say with alarm.

Spontaneous kneading, the System says. It's part of the avatar's weaknesses.

“Oh crap!” I can't do anything but wait for the kneading to be over, as the ground thunders under me, and then jump up higher.

I turn to face the skyscraper.

Wait-- What are you doing? the System says and I realize that if it had to ask, it wasn't able to anticipate this move.

“Hail Mary,” I say.

The System must realize that I'm measuring the distance between the iceberg and the roof of the skyscraper with my eyes, because it tuts. You're one crazy human, it says.

“Oh,” I say, “You don't know the half of it.” And with that, I draw a deep breath, run as fast as I can, and take a leap into the unknown.

December 19, 2020 04:58

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6 comments

21:13 Dec 25, 2020

Woooooow. The entire story is so good, I'm amazed that you aren't at least 3th place on the leaderboard! Keep going!

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Katariina Ruuska
22:29 Dec 25, 2020

Aaww, thank you so so much, Emmie!! I'm so glad you liked it, and your comment totally made my day :)

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22:32 Dec 25, 2020

Thank you! Could you read some of my stories, maybe? I'm working on lots of genre styles, like poetry-mysteries, fantasy-funny, and romance, plus some suspense styles and I want to know what people think of it. :)

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Katariina Ruuska
22:34 Dec 25, 2020

Sounds great! And yes, of course, I'd love to :)!

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22:35 Dec 25, 2020

Thank you, I spend so much time working on them, and have been trying so many different styles, so let me know which is best, You don't have to read them all, the first two "most recent" alone are polar opposites. :)

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Katariina Ruuska
14:42 Dec 19, 2020

This story is set in the same universe as my previous one "Forty-Two Parsecs Yonder," but I think it works quite well as a stand-alone, too. I hope you enjoyed :)

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