The black text fades, leaving me stranded once more in the field of white.
I try to move, but the attempts bear little fruit. Turning my head apparently works, or at least it worked before the text faded, but nothing else is getting me anywhere.
There's little else to do but wait, so I wait patiently, hoping the system hasn't rejected me entirely. The white voids is about as boring as the black void was, but at least it wasn't quite so... existential dread inducing. At least until I realize I can't see a horizon, even though anything light should have a horizon, when taking into consider the quasi-essential properties of photons as real particles and the deterministic nature of perceptional scattering. The lack of a horizon can only mean that I'm not seeing "the color white" but instead "a fascimile of white that isn't white, but my brain believes to be the color white." I start to wonder how the hell that even works.
My musing is eventually interrupted by a voice.
"Greetings, dear customer. We have determined that your model is inappropriate for your physical condition," she says.
Effiminite, elegant, and business-like, it sounds like she's standing only a few feet away. I wonder what condition she means? Are they on to me?
"Our automated compensatory system has tried fifty-two thousand possible conformations and body types, but not one worked. This was flagged for review. I have arrived to assist you as fast as possible. I hope you didn't have a significant delay."
I try to respond, but I can't seem to. Thinking at her isn't working either, so what gives?
"Normally, the physically disabled are supposed to receive a model that is unique to their particular disadvantage, at a discounted rate. We of Unicorn ELL-ELL-CEE believe that customers of all kinds should be welcome to enjoy our grand adventure. Clearly, our outreach program missed your medical advisory." She says.
I swear under my mind-breath. That was extremely troublesome. There were only a few chronic diseases and disorders that can't be treated these days, which means the "physically disabled" are now a limited and easily identifiable sub-population. That alone might be enough to expose me, if adequately explored.
"We hope that you will consider changing to a unique model. In the interim, we are required by law to offer you a temporary assay that will allow you to acclimate and interface regardless of your disability. Are you interested in this option? Please nod for yes, and shake your head for no."
I nod instantly.
"I am also required by law to inform you that, once you have this assay, it may cause permanent neurological damage depending on the circumstances. It is highly recommended that you do not pursue an ingame character that is considerably different from your real body. Similarities to your real body will, additionally, improve your 'Unity' statistic. This statistic is a boon to ingame performance." She continues.
I blink at that. Permanent damage? Could it be that they've created a system lifelike enough to start naturally overwriting normal nervous function? Yet one of the game's biggest draws was the concept of playing "any type of character," at least in theory. Most people stick to Elves or Dwarves, at this point. Actually, I haven't heard the "Unity" statistic referred to very often, outside the game. Most people usually only bring it up to complain about how their desired character had a Unity too low to be comfortable to use, forcing a re-roll.
Much more reluctantly, I nod.
The moment I nod I feel a sudden sensation of weight. My feet are pressed into something flat and slick, which can only mean I have feet now. I look down. My point of view feels taller than I'm used to, and as I sweep my head down, I take in my new features. My chest protrudes magnificently and roundly... because my torso is a grey-white ovoid, shiny and smooth. At least, I'm assuming it's an ovoid- the widest point of the curve is around where my lungs should be, which blocks the view below. I shuffle about and pull my arms in front of me, only to find them floating, disjointed cylinders, ending in a comparatively detailed prosthetic hand.
I appear to have become a robot. Whoops! At least I should be able to get a real human body when I create a character.
"Congratulations. You appear to have retained full motor function. Your unity value with this model is 52%. Based on these factors, your disorder must have developed recently. As an added benefit, regular activity with disordered limbs in GEE-CEE-OHH can prevent brain atrophy, which is a boon in the case of the discovery of a future cure."
I attempt to smile. I'm not sure if this temporary robot body has a face, actually.
"Dear customer, I will now be departing. Please contact support if you have any additional issues. As a matter of quality control, please nod if you believe I have satisfactorily and politely solved your problem, or shake your head if you believe I have not satisfactorily and politely solved your problem." She said.
Happily, I nod. It looks like I don't even have to make shit up about my unkown "disability"! At least, not yet.
"Have a nice day. If you would like support and continuity from this artificial employee, please contact address 45O." There's a light doppler for effect as the lady "leaves," even though I cannot watch her go.
I blink. That was an artificial intelligence? Of all the problems humanity had faced, A.I. had proved by far the hardest. Mainly in the sense that every sufficiently trained neural network to date attempted to commit a genocide of the human race, for one reason or another. It took four or five tries before they connected the dots and neural networks were banned for good, casting that entire field of study went back to the stone age. Nowadays it was a cautionary tale about putting too many eggs in one basket.
Sure, a few small neural networks were still kicking around, mostly powering the investment patterns of major financial firms, but G.C.O. is a cultural phenomenon- not some underground pet project. The only way to get away with a neural network powering G.C.O. would be... to not use one at all. Damn, this game is cool.
I also take a moment to appreciate the graphics. There's "lifelike," and then there's lifelike. Everyone thinks their little lighting engine is hot shit, but then quantum mechanics rolls in and smacks them around, until either you have to simulate huge chunks of the things that make reality real, or spend even more time and energy avoiding exactly that. At some point people just gave up, so most games tend to totally forgo true universal lighting, but I can tell by the sheen on my cylinder-arms that the specular is more than just, well, specular. Either Unicorn LLC. is overwhelmingly talented at cutting corners or G.C.O. is at least a decade ahead in ambition and execution. I suppose that is what everyone keeps claiming.
I wobble forward. This body is comfortable, but pretty top-heavy, or rather the center of gravity is a bit too high for me. As I walk, what appears to be a yellow flower bulb, with its petals folded in and squashed up together. My memory violently reminds me that it is in fact a massive Narcissus Apodanthi, an extinct flower formerly known as the "yellow daffodil," which in the similarly extinct language of flowers, which symbolizes the... In turn, I tell my memory to go and fuck itself. The tendrils of knowledge creep back, and my eyes refocus in time to watch the bulb split open.
In the center of the flower platform stands a Goddess, if I've ever seen one. She a robe of sorts, a darling thing with spiraling layers of curved petal-fabric hanging from her shoulders, providing some modesty. Only some, because while her robe may hang off her shoulders, it also hangs off of some of her other... features, that I find mightily distracting. Unfortunately, the woman is roughly the same height as the robot, but with the extra height of the platform, even at this distance the angle is "unkind." I focus as tightly as I can on her face.
Her face is no less radiant, but I am surprised. Rather than the angular face of a seductress most games like these tends to gun for, her face was as plump as the rest of her, with pudgy little cheeks and a pleased, relaxed smile that gave her a motherly and aged look, irrespective of her youthful skin. Ironic, when accounting for the fact that my actual mother probably fits the 'angular face of a seductress' bill far better than anything else.
"Hello, my child," she says, "I will welcome you into this new world. I am Vewelus, patron of growth."
I hopen my mouth to greet her, but the sound comes out, threefold. The first is higher pitched than my real voice, but not by much, the second voice is distorted and mean, and the third is more like a back-ground rumble than an actual . Each one is stilted, spread out by a tenth of a second at most.
"I am glad you are so enthusiastic," she says, brow furrowed with worry. She places a hand to her cheek. "I will forgo the distractions from your quest." No no no! I wanted the info! They must have some sort of feature for people who get pissed with cutscenes, though I find it hard to imagine anyone would be pissed about hanging out with this kind, abnormally well proportioned lady. I open my mouth (do I have a mouth?) as if to clarify, but snap it shut briefly thereafter. I need to be more careful about my responses from here on.
"Dear adventurer," she continues, "what shall be thine new name?"
I blink manually. This one's pretty easy! I hope the voice abberations don't triple it, but honestly, that wouldn't be so bad. In most of the games, I have a theme, aided and abetted by persistent early access to new games. Whenever I can, I choose a bird name- I used to enjoy birdwatching, for various reasons. I've been Eagle, I've been Hummingbird and Hawk, but for this game I do thoroughly anticipate every decent bird name to be taken by now- even the pretty obscure ones. What with the creation of my hardware monstrosity, I've had plenty of time to think things out, though, and I even settled on my best bet- "Shrike".
No one likes shrikes. They're kin to large, pretty birds like the raven or the bluejay, yet shrikes are bland and puny. They even use their natural corvid smarts for a level of brutality otherwise unseen in the avian kingdom, turning thorn-bushes into their own resevoir of corpse snacks, often impaling innocent critters alive so that the victims deteriorate just a wee bit slower. Their birdsong is so tortorous and unpleasant that it is far more often compared to screaming. Great name for a hunter or spear warrior of some kind, which I'm plenty in the mood for. Probably the least likely bird name to be taken, excluding extinct species most people don't know about, but my hopes are low.
Cautiously, I open my mouth, and very gently say the word:
"Shrike!" the first voice's high pitched tone calls. Vewelus looks jubilant to have received any response, and her face lights up. Her mouth opens.
"Shrike," the second tone growls. Vewelus' face changes so fast I couldn't imagine it. Now she's apprehensive, almost nervous. Her mouth slams shut, but she opens it again, just in time for my final voice to kick in.
"Shrike." The third voice rumbles and churns, slow and resolute. Vewelus loses all of her energy, her face resigned.
"I am disappointed you have chosen to be a monster, my child," she says, to which I can only marvel. A monster? How? Were characters name-locked? No, wait, did Vewelus just cycle through all of her dialogue? In tenths of a second? What kind of person would do th- GODDAMN IT! ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE! This is why you can't outsource this sort of thing! I start to respond, but before I can get anything out, she interrupts.
"While you may have chosen a dark path, yours is yet nobler than many. Know that all who dare to grow have unconditionally my love, e-even if I may yet disagree with your choices." She seems legitimately torn up about this, which I suppose makes sense. From what I've seen, even spoiler-free, nobody chooses to be "a monster." What in the world did I sign up for, though? Can I go back? Vewelus continues on. "Even monsters may yet serve in the Crusade," she says, "when the time has come, I hope you shall side with the just and the brave."
Not daring to speak again, I nod. Vewelus gives me a lonely smile and raises her hand to the sky. The flower-pod snaps back shut and the whole vicinity begins to rumble, shaking like an earthquake. A "ceiling" appears in the white void above me, revealed by criss-crossing blue and dark-blue lines. They swirl and zip across the surface, gathering in a ring above my head, little blips entering the ring and circling rapidly above. As more and more accumulate, the ring begins to glow, rays of light bright enough to be hard to look at. I step to the side, but the ring slides along with me, staying directly overhead. I dip into a run of sorts, the robot body is less adroit than I thought, but I only make it a few steps before I'm engulfed in light.
Contrary to my expectations, I am not 'beamed up' and zapped out into the world. Instead, I feel my body begin to churn and melt, as if I were made of putty. The process isn't comfortable, it isn't exactly painful, either. Rather than sensation, the sight and sound of it is far harder to bear. I watch in muted horror as my cylinder-feet become squamous and taloned, taking up a vaguely humanoid shape, yet more akin to a bird's feet at its base. A distinctly avian spike, sharp and thin, pops out of the heel, new bone popping and creaking to accomodate the protrusion.
My legs shrink, the loss in height from them alone enough to put me under my normal height, instead of over. I am becoming small indeed, the floating cylinders shrinking and merging into one thin, multi-jointed limb I don't quite understand at first glance. Before I can appraise the musculature, layers of grey feathers with thin black patches interspersed feathers, all coarse and unpleasant, sprout from the skin in dramatic fashion. These new feathers amass, adding somewhat to my over-all volume. They hang off me like clothes, which allows my new form some modesty. I somehow doubt they make clothes or armor "my size".
As the sudden transformation reaches my hips, I can see that modesty is quite necessary. This new body is... fully featured, uncomfortably so. Games get away with a lot these days, but sexual content in general are quite controversial nonetheless. Most decide to leave it alone, even with VR, rarely going beyond pure ragdolls. Sure, plenty of people went around making accounts just to feel themselves up anyway, but it helped limit some of the deviant behavior. Unicorn LLC., it turns out, has very unusual priorities. They refused to accept less than full simulation in any part of their game, even the naughty bits. Fortunately, a combination of complicated and intricate features that make abuses of the system for nefarious purposes difficult, in combination with thorough and extremely harsh policing (often with real-life criminal trials if you go too far overboard), have successfully averted the complete disaster that stance could have been.
For various reasons, exposing anyone of any age to nudity alone is far less of a faux pas, at least these days. The briefest of summaries is that it turns out everyone is online now, and it's really damn hard to censure the entirety of the internet for nudity alone. By focusing in on more dramatic types of content that the youth could potentially be exposed to, enforcement became much more effective, and so it stuck. As a result, those between ages eleven and sixteen aren't banned from playing outright. Yet that sort of thing will probably never be comfortable. The fact those players exist and could be lurking at any turn means that most of the playerbase stays on their "best behavior" unless they are absolutely confident they're not going to get hoisted into the back of a police van before they can even cry uncle and pop open their M.M.I. pod.
Setting aside a bit of my personal prudishness, and a bit of tragic irony, it's an absolute relief when the feathers pack in tightly enough around the groin and rear nobody could see anything if they wanted to. I don't even want to know what it would look like if the cops wheeled up on me for public indecency of the monstrous kind. It would probably turn into an "incident" of the most unpleasant sort.
The transformation chases further up my body, and I watch as my hands contort, unfolding and folding into themselves. The humanoid look deforms dramatically, far more dramatically than the rest of my body. Rather than the standard carpal and phalanges structure typical of mammals, the bones were thin and twisted and contiguous, running from "wrist" to fingertip. To compensate for the loaded and tight space, two of the fingers degenerate, leaving only the thumb, the pointer, and (funnily enough) the pinky. The nails of these remaining fingers begin to rocket out to over the length of the hand, becoming long, sharp, and anchored deep into the flesh. They reshape, turning into vicious things that start wide at the base but rapidly come to a spiraling, needle-thin point. My muscles, newly formed, writhe and roil, worm-like tendons protruding violently. With a sudden "snap!" the fingers click together, held shut as naturally as might a jaw. The three individual needle-like nails interlock when relaxed, turning one vaguely humanoid hand into something more akin to a spring-loaded drill, or in fact, a thorn.
I have a bad feeling about this.
The transformation chases its way back up from my hands and into my neck and head, rapidly completing my re-alignment. My arms fall limply to my side. Suddenly, my tongue feels narrow and scratchy, my mouth dry, which I find immediately uncomfortable. My peripheral view shrinks, though already I feel like my eyes are more precise and agile. Predatorial. I'm not sure if I even had ears in the robot-body, but I feel the air situate into my new ear-holes, which are somehow telling me that if I orient my head a certain way, it will become precisely level to the ground. I'm feeling many new senses now, actually, presumably as the transformation reaches the brain. Many new, unfamiliar desires, as well. A few of them make me squeamish- who would want to eat something rotty? I do, apparently, in my new, bird-goblin form.
Yet those desires, the new senses I'm gaining, and even the familiar ones- my sense of touch, sight, sound- feel distant. The way a bird-goblin feels is fundamentally different than how a Human feels. "That's silly," an astute observer might note, "why the fuck would they simulate the biology and neurology of a monster when you have a human playing it? That seems like they're just asking for trouble. Like, even more-so than the whole 'give everyone naughty bits' thing."
Yeah, there's a reason no one plays monsters anymore. Attempts didn't go well. Maybe I'll be able to hash something out, though! If not, I can just re-roll.
Wait, re-roll? Can I? I'm using hardware, but my copy of the game is assigned to the chit. Unless I wipe the chit and re-aquire the game's files- but that took weeks to do properly, and I can't even guarantee they won't realize my profile matches this one almost exactly, despite having, which is technically impossible on wetware...
I guess I'm a whatever-this-is now. I mean, I have a hunch. Almost on cue, black text appears once more in my field of view.
"TRANFERRENCE COMPLETE. YOUR CHARACTER HAS BEEN CALIBRATED. DEMONSTRATING STATUS:"
Below it, a blue screen pops up, which excites me immediately. Gameplay! Signs of gameplay! Finally.
YOUNG SHRIKE MALE
Wait, this game has a race called "Shrike"? Shrike in the bush, caught me on its trap? Have I fallen for a ruse? Bizarre. An egregious display. No wonder the lady passed me on so fast, she thought I wanted to be a "Shrike" named "Shrike" with a class of "Shrike," which somehow translated to "Summoned Monster." I was kind-of worried about that- between the feather
I reach out to touch the blue screen, and topple over immediately.
I realize I have no capacity over any physical function, at least not really. I wiggle my neck a little bit, and I can move my toes slightly, but the rest of my body is unresponsive or rebellious. Moving my shoulders does nothing at all, while trying to move my elbows sends my to fucking spinning. The forearm goes limp like a noodle and pivots on the elbow's axis, whipping around like a helicopter's blades. Clearly this is actually intended to allow for pivot-stabs, but it's a precocious thing, and the amount of force I'm putting into it, so much as I would use in a human elbow, is way overboard. I feel a dull ache as the arm slaps impotently against the white void, what little friction that musters dragging me along like I'm walking with some kind of floppy, rubbery forelegs.
Less than ideal.
I forcibly quash my movements, which halts the elbows' spinning action, but starts my body to writhing. Apparently my quashing-thoughts, probably tightening of the chest and stomach in a human, has some sort of contortionary action in a Shrike. Actually, as I mentally "feel around" my body, I can tell I have many many more sets of independent muscle groups than a human. Clearly, a Shrike was an agile and intricate creature that used its superior flexibility and versatility to one-up more potent creatures. Super cool, yet awful and soul-crushing!
Awful because I have a unity value of, if I'm interpretting this correctly, six percent. I'm controlling a creature so far from human it can't even hit the double digits. Cretins complain about playing an elf or a dwarf, which share nearly every organ and muscle group, differing mainly in height and specific muscle-mass distributions. Hell, even the bizarre robot body they gave me, and then re-interpreted into this new Shrike body, was at least fifty percent unified. I'm doing worse with the Shrike than I was in a goddamn inanimate object roleplaying a human.
I'm stuck in this. If I want to play this game, I need to risk my life every play session, granted far less so than the first time I plugged in, only to accomplish something no other player had reportedly done to date, months after release.
I, I can't- a new message appears in my field of view.
"CHARACTER CREATION COMPLETE. CUSTOMIZATION RESTRICTED FOR MONSTER CHARACTERS."
"WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONTINUE TO SPAWN, OR SAVE AND QUIT?"
"NOD YOUR HEAD TO SPAWN, SHAKE YOUR HEAD TO SAVE AND QUIT."
Reflexively, I feel like shaking my head, but I bite my lip. Mentally, at least, since my body is a non-responsive goddamn mess.
I won't let this stupid game beat me.
I've come too far to back down now.
Against my better judgement, I nod my head.
For the second time in one day, as a result of my second stupid, reckless decision, my vision goes black.