You walk into the hall and notice three rows of chairs laid out in front of you. They are facing an old wooden table with a chair and a whiteboard behind it at the far end. Several people you vaguely recognise are already occupying some of the chairs facing the front, but you easily find one for yourself to sit upon.
Just as you begin to sit the room falls silent and everyone collectively turns their heads towards the rear of the hall. The unmistakable clank of the instructor’s mechanical leg can be heard echoing down the corridor. You find your gaze drawn to the leg as he stumps past. It’s not like one of those fancy prosthetics from the olden days you have heard about that looked like the limbs they were designed to replace. This one is crude and functional with metal plates and servo motors, nuts and bolts and all. You get the distinct impression it has been cobbled together from spare parts found in a junkyard.
While the instructor continues his way to the front with a rhythmic clank, you look around the hall. The ceiling and walls are curved and covered in ancient pale blue tiles. There are no windows. Your grandparents told you when you were still a nipper, that this was an old underground tunnel network where people travelled around in great beasts of iron and steel. They might have been pulling your leg though, as it’s not like they were even alive before The Shattering. You just know it as Safe Haven and to you it is home.
Running the length of the hall down the middle of the ceiling and at its highest point, is one long row of fluorescent lighting, giving the hall a harsh contrasting mix of bright light and deep shadow. The instructor places some notes on the table and looks up from behind it, his face lit in sharp relief.
“Is this it then?” he sighs. “No more coming? Well we’d better start,” he intones gruffly. “My name is Harris and my task today is to prepare you for going Topside.” He stands there surveying the small group of onlookers, with only the servos in his leg making a sound. You could hear a pin drop.
“Right then,” he begins abruptly and turns to the whiteboard. “Let’s start at the very beginning, because that is in fact where it all begins. Now some of this I expect you will already know.” On the board in big red letters he writes the word ‘Prehistory’ and underlines it forcefully. He turns back to face you with his hands on his hips.
“When we talk about prehistory, we mean anything that happened before The Shattering. God alone knows what knowledge we may have lost from before, but gone it is. That’s not the half of it though. Things have become so muddled since The Shattering we can only make a best guess with the information we have available.
“What we know about life before The Shattering has mostly been passed down through the generations by word of mouth. Although you will likely get as many different answers as the people you ask. As I said it is a muddle.” He pauses for a moment to reflect.
“We believe Earth was populated mostly by humans and some other lower life forms. Our records indicate vast cities, which could have been home to millions of people. Where you sit right now is directly under the ruins of one such city.
“Humanity was technologically advanced before The Shattering. We know this from images and some ancient machines that survived. It may be possible when you are Topside that you will be lucky enough to find an artifact that still works. You are advised to use extreme caution if you do. It would be better to bring it back here for our scientists to investigate.
“At some point humanity discovered cracks in the fabric of reality. Tears in time and space that you could literally walk through. These Portals led to other worlds. Times and places far from here and other dimensions too. It is believed the Saurian species for instance, originated from an alternate version of our Earth, although as I say, it is muddled.
“As well as being gateways we learned that the Portals themselves were a great source of raw energy. We adjusted our technology to take advantage of that and it became evident that some individuals were even able to harness that energy without resorting to the use of crude machines.
“With the Portals came opportunity and we seized upon it. It was an age of discovery and we gave little heed to the warnings.”
“And then the walls of reality were shattered.” At this point Harris turns to the whiteboard and writes ‘The Shattering’. “During the time of The Shattering the Portals no longer offered a bridge between worlds, because there were no other worlds to bridge between. Reality had come crashing in upon itself, blending the different times and places into one.
“You can see why I keep telling you that it’s all a muddle. Maps from before The Shattering are useless now, because it is all different. History as we knew it was roundly beaten and thrown out with the other drunks. We no longer knew who or where we were.
“The Shattering itself caused great devastation, but as you may have guessed we weren’t alone in this. We became stuck in a place with finite resources and limited space. Imagine all of your relatives from the last two hundred years coming to your home, eating your food and expecting to stay indefinitely. Then imagine your future relatives coming to stay at the same time.
“There was undeniably tension. As a result our political systems crumbled and there was war.” Harris pauses, his eyes focused on something you can’t see.
“I suppose I had better tell you about some of the things you may find when you go Topside.” Harris regards you and the others gathered round before he begins.
“The first and most obvious thing to talk about is the city above, as you’ll see it for yourself soon enough. The city is mostly in ruin. Ancient buildings of brick and concrete – or what’s left of them – stand broken and derelict. They’re a reminder of the bad days when we were at war with anyone and everyone. Make no mistake The Shattering destroyed a lot, but far more damage was done by machines of war and we can’t claim to be guilt free on that front.
“Nature has reclaimed what it can, so don’t be surprised to find yourself picking your way through trees and it’s a good idea to carry a decent blade for hacking through the undergrowth. It also – I might add – serves as a handy weapon should the need arise.
“We send out teams to keep the foliage down around the entrances to Safe Haven and we maintain a few areas of farmland nearby to keep us all fed. You may be asked to go and help out on guard duty at some point. Don’t think it’s a cushy job, because there are raiders and worse out there.” Harris smiles grimly, revealing yellowed and uneven teeth. “It’ll keep you on your toes at least.”
He walks around to stand in front of the desk and addresses you. “We aren’t the only humans around these parts. There are plenty of less civilised individuals that seem to be doing quite well for themselves out there, mostly at our cost. One such individual calls himself the Chief. If you ever meet him…” Harris leaves the sentence hanging and absently strokes his mechanical leg. “Send him my regards.”
He turns again to write on the board. You see the words ‘Raiders’, ‘The Chief’, ‘The Old Man Of The Tower’ and ‘Others’ in red writing. Harris faces you again.
“Roughly in the centre of the old city you will find a tower. It’s older than the rest of the city by a long shot and it appears to have escaped the ravages of The Shattering and the subsequent war. It sticks out like a sore thumb, so you can’t miss it.
“The Tower is home to The Old Man and the creatures that guard that place. We don’t class him as an enemy as he keeps mostly to himself, but his motives are unknown so approach with caution if you should ever go near. We don’t know how old he really is, but he knows things. Things that any normal or right minded person shouldn’t know.
“He has a retinue of unusual creatures at his beck and call, the most visible being the Stone Guardians at the gate and walking the parapets. Believe me, you don’t want to go messing with them.
“Now that’s what you can expect to meet on a normal day Topside, but it’s not all. Not all. There are other things good and bad that might be hiding out there, or wandering through. Certainly if you start traipsing outside the city you can expect to meet all manner of strange things.
“The Saurians are a species of lizard. They are clever like us and walk on two legs like us. They share a pretty similar history to us as well, which is why we think they came from a parallel dimension or something like that. We would like to find out more about them if we can and it may be they have the same goals as us, so keep an open mind if you meet one and don’t start another war.” He looks at each of you pointedly before continuing.
“Then there are those that look like us, but aren’t like us. It’s like they walked right out of a story. Hell some of our scholars think so called inspiration was simply a weakening of the barrier between our worlds and that thoughts of them leaked into our brains. Rubbish I say.
“Anyway, I am speaking of Dwarves, Elves and Halflings. I will say this now to get it out of the way. Whatever you have heard before, put that behind you, because these aren’t the cuddly creatures from some fairy tale you heard of as a kid. They are cunning and devious and not always friendly. Well, except for the Halflings although I suggest you keep an eye on your belongings around them.
“Now, do you believe in monsters? Well you should, because they damn well believe in you!” Harris almost spits the last word out and jabs a finger at you.
“We don’t know everything about everything that is out there, but speak to a few of the veterans and they’ll tell you some stories. Vampires and werewolves, ghouls and goblins, giant beasts with teeth and claws the size of you and me… Just be on your guard.”
Harris picks up a stack of papers from the desk and starts handing them round. “I could go on, but there’s not much more I can tell you without showing you myself. Before I take you through to the assessment room, I need you to write a few things down about yourself. There’s a personal information section at the top you need to fill in. When you are done hand in your paper to Stevens in the assessment room. She’ll take it from there.”