The Wasteland Express

2.1.2022

It’s been a little over two months since you arrived in the community of Bright Lights. It was a dangerous and demanding trek to find, but you’d heard it was a major trade hub for the region and a place to uncover the answers you’ve been seeking. The truth was a little underwhelming. Sure, they’ve got a small data archive and even some very unreliable, limited access to what remains of the WorldNet, yet so far neither have produced anything of use.

Unfortunately staying at home wasn’t an option. With M.o.M.’s (Manager of Managers - the synthetic intelligence responsible for coordinating all of your community’s infrastructural subsystems) central data repository reaching end of life, something had to be done. She was exhibiting odd behavior and errors were already beginning to creep into her community maintenance subroutines even before you left your home in New Flag. Someone with expertise in synthetic intelligence and in-depth knowledge of electronics repurposing and repair had to go out into the wider world to find or fabricate replacement parts before something critical like the power grid or the water reclamation system failed. You were the closest thing to such an expert available, so here you are, in a trading post/salvagers meetup, in the middle of the desert, fixing up people and machines and trying to figure out what to do next.

This week has been a bit better, if a bit stranger. Unseasonal rains have kept the dust to a minimum and you’ve even seen a patch or two of blue sky. Some looter… ahem, reclaimer… came in with a nearly complete data term from the ruins of You Ma. He was hallucinating, telling stories of ghosts, doorways to other times and places, and proclaiming the end of all things, (as if that were news!) On top of that, some individual calling themself “The Hunter” just arrived on the Wasteland Express carrying a command staff that looks like they pulled it fully intact from the living hand of some war times cyber-general. They’ve got a lot of people nervous, but so far the most dangerous thing they’ve done is order the mystery stew from Old Ed’s food cart.

The Wasteland Express pulled into town yesterday groaning, rattling and spewing clouds of steam. People have been telling you about it since your arrival and it was overdue even then. You thought maybe they were just hazing the newbie in town, yet there it is, and you can’t deny it’s something to talk about.

The Express is a huge beast of a vehicle, larger than any functioning machine you’ve ever seen, large enough to carry most of Bright Lights’ population as passengers (if they didn’t mind traveling as freight) while employing the rest as crew. It’s a stunning example of post-war ingenuity; salvaged steel mingled with components from a myriad of sources all beautifully repurposed into a trackless locomotive capable of traveling the Desolation Road all the way from the remnants of Sands of Di Eggo to the City of Winds. That’s more than 2000 miles of hostile environment filled with radioactive waste, bandits, strange cults, mutant creatures, and the occasional rogue autonomous defense system. Anything that can reliably traverse all of that is a marvel of engineering and determination.

It turns out the Express was delayed by damage suffered when it was attacked by a herd of ghost bison. You’ve made a pretty sum and learned a lot from assisting with the repairs. The conductor was sufficiently impressed with your skills that you’ve been offered passage in return for labor for as long as you can keep things running.

But a short conversation may alter your plans.

You’re startled out of your work when a voice behind you says, ”There’s a 99.79% chance that your problem is a bad capacitor. I’d guess it’s the slightly enlarged one near the bottom.”

Turning, you see The Hunter up close for the first time. They’ve got perfectly smooth skin, undamaged by the desert sun and sandstorms, androgynous features, and eyes that seem to be constantly scanning and evaluating their surroundings. Something about them is slightly unsettling and you try to figure out what it is as you replace the swollen cap.

“I’m currently a synthetic organism, specifically an amalgam of engineered bio-tissue, cybernetic implants and a cerebro-nanoprocessor neuromesh. Some people find me disturbing, apparently in some cultures I fall uncomfortably within the uncanny valley. My apologies.”, they explain, as if predicting your unease.

“Uh, sure…”, you reply, uncertain what to make of this interaction.

“My name is Hunter of Butterflies for the Improvement and Evolution of all Sentient Entities, but you can call me The Hunter, or just, you know, Hunter. I’m honored to meet you.”, they say, sticking out a hand.

“Nice to meet you too, Hunter.” you respond as you shake their hand, “What can I do for you?”

“Let me buy you a meal at Mr. Ed’s and I’ll give you the whole story. It’s been a couple of different incarnations since I last had taste buds and I admit to some real curiosity about his D-Road Surprise. What do you say?”, he inquires.

Nodding, you seal up the guts of the Express and follow Hunter over to Old Ed’s food cart. A free meal is a free meal, after all.

Ed’s is a makeshift affair, constructed from the bed of an antique cargo truck, modified to be pulled by Ed’s mule and outfitted with solar grills and a couple of refrigerated beer taps. You take a seat at one of the folding tables and adjust the sun shade to cover your seats while Hunter gives Ed your orders.

Hunter returns and sets a frosty mug in front of you. “Beer is almost enough to make this limited form worth it”, they sigh once they’ve swallowed their first sip.

After taking a swig from your beer you say, “So, you have a story for me?”

“Yes, the data shows that you are most likely to respond positively to full disclosure and a direct approach. I belong to an organization that wishes to improve things and we believe you can help.” they say.

“Improve things? What things? And how am I supposed to help?”, you ask, finding their idea of “full disclosure” to be somewhat lacking.

“It’s a bit hard to explain, but our goal is to improve everything, to help instantiate the reality that is most beneficial for all sentient beings, to give them all the best chance to be their best selves. Using math.” he smiles, as if that should clarify things.

“I’m afraid I’m still a little confused…”, you reply.

“Yes, it’s complicated, and speech is such a limited form of communication. Let me try again, we have developed technologies that allow us to identify what you might call ‘points of critical instability’, instances in time and space where a small nudge can have outsized effects on events. We call them Butterflies for short.”, they explain.

“And it’s not just events, it’s usually events and sentient beings together that create a Butterfly.”, they state enthusiastically. “That’s where you come in. Our most advanced calculations indicate that if you and I travel together, to elsewhere and elsewhen, there’s a 89.53846154% probability that we’ll act as a very large Butterfly indeed! This probability of success on such a large scale is unprecedented!”

“This sounds more than a little far-fetched to me. I’ve got things I have to do, people who are depending on me, I can’t just go off chasing butterflies!”, you respond.

“Yes, the parts for your community maintenance systems. I understand their importance. Let me make you an offer and then I’ll show you something that might dispel some of your doubts.”, they suggest.

“Go on.” you respond grudgingly.

“If you’ll come with me, to the places and events that we’ve identified, we’ll provide your community with a better than new, more advanced community manager when we’re done, if it’s still needed of course.”, they offer.

“Our calculations indicate that if we proceed through a nearby temporo-dimensional portal to wherever it may lead there is a 96.2957746478873239% chance that our actions will substantially improve the existence of a large number of sentient beings. That would be the most advantageous course of action.”, they continue.

“If you must have your parts before we proceed, then there is a 73.324% chance that we will still catch our Butterfly if we travel to the City of Winds to obtain what you need.”, they finish.

“What about Sands of Di Eggo?”, you ask. “That’s a lot closer and the Express is going there next.”

“The probability of a successful outcome is very low for every permutation of that choice. I can’t go there with you.”, they say sadly.

“Before you decide, let me show you something.” they tell you as they produce a battered datachip. “This was difficult to obtain, but it is authentic. Please verify it.”

You slot the chip into your portable and check its cryptographic signature. You are shocked to see that it authenticates as your own. You activate the message file it contains and are stunned to see a holographic projection of yourself, looking older and far more battered, but obviously you.

“If you’re watching this then you’re dead, or at least you will be. I should have gone with Hunter, I’ve seen enough to know that now. Make a different choice and maybe you’ll have a different outcome.”, this older you falls silent and the holofeed shuts off.

You know that the sort of tech that could produce a being like Hunter could fake your digital signature but you can’t imagine why they’d bother. Still, you don’t know what to think of this but you have to make a decision.

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.

Do you:

A: Go with Hunter to the ruins of You Ma and travel through the portal there.

B: Wait in Bright Lights with Hunter until the Wasteland Express returns and take it to the City of Winds.

C: Leave with the Wasteland Express when it departs for Sands of Di Eggo without Hunter.

D: Tell Hunter you will have nothing to do with them, then shadow them to learn more about what they’re up to.

(If you’d like to vote on our stories, influence Verses lore, what happens next, game mechanics, and even future cards. Then join our Discord at http://discord.gg/verses)

[Historian's Note: At Bright Lights it was unanimous that the Hunter of Butterflies should be followed through the portal in You Ma with 12 votes in favor.  1 vote was cast for each other option, but all by someone who also supported Plan A.]

After some deliberation you decide that Hunter’s offer is the surest way to secure the parts you need. You also realize that you’ve become exhausted by watching the world slowly fall apart around you. Despite the few inspired works of creation that get produced, such as the Wasteland Express, most people are just trying to slow the collapse of what remains of civilization. This feels like it may be the only chance you’ll ever have to change that.

“OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Where is this ‘portal’ we’re supposed to go through and when do we leave?”, you say with new determination.

“I’m so pleased that you see the value in what we’re doing! The optimal moment to enter the portal has been calculated to occur 46 hours, 22 minutes and 36 seconds from right now and our timing will remain close to ideal for 9 minutes and 59 seconds after that. The portal is in the ruins of something that used to be called the You Ma Proving Ground, some sort of military base. We should be able to get there in just under 2 hours. I recommend you gather your belongings, food, and water for a long trip; then get some rest.”, they reply.

You’ve avoided the local ruins during your stay in Bright Lights. What’s left of You Ma is a little more radioactive than you’d prefer, and while you don’t believe in literal ghosts, you’ve seen enough weirdness to keep you cautious. Plus, the best salvage has all been coming out of what’s left of an immense military base, apparently this Proving Ground, and you do believe in autonomous defense systems.

Unfortunately, your destination is very nearly in the middle of that base.

“Are you sure we can get there without getting vaporized? I’ve heard there’s still active security once you get past the outer perimeter.” you ask worriedly as you work your way deeper into the installation.

“Yes, there is a 45.888% chance that we will encounter at least one patrol drone. That is why I acquired this.” they say, gesturing with the command staff. “I have no desire to use it on organic sentients, but it should allow me to re-task any defense systems we encounter.”

Reassured, you continue on through the ruins following Hunter. This far into the base, buildings are strangely intact. Outside of a heavy covering of dust and a few broken windows, they look like they’re just waiting for people to come back to work.

Hunter leads you into the largest of these buildings, past offices and cubicles that seem only recently abandoned. There are dusty coffee mugs and even paperwork on some of the desks. Eventually, you pass through a security door and the building simply ends.

There is an open space in the center of the structure, perfectly spherical, cutting through walls, offices and ceiling, leaving the edges polished smooth. In the exact center of the space is a glowing blue-ish white globe, about three meters in diameter, that seems to emit a hum just at the edge of hearing. It gives you a strange sense of vertigo just to look at it.

“That’s our destination, and just over 34 minutes to spare.”, Hunter whispers.

The room is silent, outside of the strange hum, and you also feel the need to whisper, “That’s the portal? What created it?”

“Our analysis suggests it was an almost impossibly unlikely interaction between an extremely energetic explosion and the physical housing of an Autonomous Ego State, what you could think of as an exceptionally advanced synthetic intelligence.”, they murmur sadly.

You’re both silent after that, waiting for the moment to step through. After what feels like hours, Hunter says, “It’s almost time. Are you ready?”

At your nod Hunter takes your hand and continues, “We should enter together. On 1. 3, 2, 1.”

You step into the sphere. You feel a wave of indescribable heat, followed immediately by a chill that paralyzes you. Out of the corner of your eye you think maybe you do see a ghost and then…

You stagger and nearly fall as you trip over a stone step. Looking around you struggle to make sense of what you see. You’re at the bottom of a stair leading up to a stone balcony or platform overlooking a vast city. A being in some sort of ceremonial outfit or uniform stands upon it, gazing out. Towering, natural, stone structures rise around you, buildings clinging to their sides. Most confusing of all is an enormous vehicle hanging in the air, so outside of your experience that for a moment you wonder how the Wasteland Express got here, and how the hell anyone got it up in the sky!

You have no more time for contemplation as angry shouts ring out behind you. Turning, you see several heavily armed and armored figures charging at you, their guns drawn. Hunter gestures with their command staff and a blue semi-circle of energy springs up between you and your assailants, deflecting the energy bolts from their weapons. Hunter grasps your hand more tightly and, dragging you with them, takes a running leap from the platform.

After a drop of at least 100 meters, Hunter once again activates the command staff and your descent slows to a more sedate pace.

“If my data files are correct, the man on that platform is Emperor Inago III, ruler of the Mettugi Empire. The events that unfolded during his reign led to the death or displacement of more than 300 million sentient beings. If there is a Butterfly here that can change that, our actions can indeed make things better!” Hunter says in a tone of awe.

[Archeo-Teleo Linguist's Log: I am scheduling myself for another full medical check-up after my mission to the Non-Between in Fantasia.  One cycle I went to sleep and everything but the hair at my temples was normal, and the next I woke to find many things around the Initiative had changed.  Some things are subtle, and some not so small.  There are not as many hot spots on our tensions maps, there are a few more agents from every Verse here, and the Knowledge Corps campus is twice the size I remember. That said, when I requisitioned the medical check-up, the administrator quizzed me to the Nth degree citing that we needed to be mindful of our joule usage since our operations were so extensive.  I checked with my team from the Non-Between and others from the Initiative, and I seem to be the only one who thinks anything has changed.

SHK-E Assessment: The Para Initiative gained small amounts of HEART, SAFETY, and a substantial amount of KNOWLEDGE all at an enormous cost of ENERGY.

SAFETY: Poor
HEART: Excellent
KNOWLEDGE: Good
ENERGY: CRITICAL

Para Initiative Reputations: Interventionist

Para Initiative Inventory:
‍Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People
Gloomspark Portarray]

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