"Hello, Drew. Welcome to the afterlife."
The moment I became aware that I was hearing a voice, I saw the shape of a robed figure in front of me -- the source of the voice, I assumed. But what was interesting to me was not the figure, but the complete lack of anything else in my field of view -- although the figure was in a standing pose, it appeared to be suspended in empty space.
I started to look around me, but quickly realized that there was nothing to look at. For a brief moment, it occurred to me that if I could perfectly see the figure standing in front of me, then there must have been some light source present, something illuminating their form, but a quick glance upward confirmed that there was nothing up there. I wasn't staring into blackness, per se -- it was more as if I was staring into nothingness.
"You're not going to heaven or hell," said the figure in front of me. "Or at least, the afterlife is what you make of it. I suppose it could be a heaven or a hell, depending on your choices, but if you're thinking that heaven you can locate, you won't find it by looking up there." The figure, androgynous in both form and voice, pointed a finger upward.
Did they misread my upward glance -- searching for whatever light source seemed to be illuminating them -- as an attempt to look toward the heavens? If so, that meant that the figure standing in front of me wasn't omniscient -- the only insight they had into what was running through my mind was what they could infer from my gestures.
The figure took a few steps forward. I tried to make out their face, searching for some kind of expression, but it appeared to be a blurry haze. For a moment, I thought that it might be my near-sightedness -- I reached up to touch my face and confirmed that the glasses I usually wore weren't there. However, I quickly realized that while the figure's face seemed to be an indistinct fuzzy haze, I could clearly make out the contours of their robe. It took a moment for me to realize that I could see the robe's fabric, because while its material appeared distinct, its color seemed to be slowly shifting, from a bright pearl white to a light magenta to a light lavender.
"Who are you?" I said to the figure.
"I'm your guide to the next chapter of your existence," said the figure.
"Do you have a name?"
"I do," said the figure, "but it is one that you would have difficulty pronouncing. You may call me whatever you like."
I hesitated. I wasn't sure that I was ready to give this indistinct being a name just yet.
The figure seemed to sense my hesitation. "Some of your world have compared me to Athena," said the figure. "Perhaps you would find it similarly useful as a term of address.
"Alright, Athena," I said.
I suddenly realized the figure standing in front of me no longer had a hazy, indistinct face. I could make out sharp features -- deep, piercing brown eyes, high cheek bones which gave the impression of elegance, and olive skin tones. I could see long, black hair that fell behind the figure's shoulders, and that coupled with a face that seemed distinctly feminine in shape gave me the impression that I was standing in front of a woman, perhaps of Mediterranean descent. Greek? It would match the name...
I wasn't aware of the exact moment of transformation, or whether there had been a "transformation" at all or just a change in my senses -- could it be that choosing to call the figure by the name "Athena" had given her this feminine appearance? If I'd offered the name "Zeus" instead, would I be staring at a white bearded man? Or had others before me chosen the name "Athena" because they had seen what I was now seeing?
"I am only your guide from one life to another," said Athena. "The details of existence that I can share with you are limited to that -- your last few steps in your previous life, and the first few steps of your next life."
"I'm leaving a life behind," I said. "That was the life I had in Denver, right? Physics grad program? I'm remembering that right?"
"Indeed," said Athena.
While she continued to speak with the same voice that I had categorized as "androgynous" in my mind the first time I had heard it, hearing that voice come from the lips of a figure that had the appearance of a woman recontextualized it in a way that was hard for me to perceive as anything other than feminine. Or had the voice actually changed in some subtle way?
"So," I said, "if I'm leaving that world behind, I suppose it means I died. Do you happen to know how?"
"You died in your bed," said Athena. "You had a heart attack shortly after midnight."
"How is that possible?"
"You had what the doctors of your world might describe as a congenital heart condition," said Athena.
"I've never been diagnosed with anything like that," I said.
"Perhaps if you had, you could have received preventative treatment and your life on that world might have been longer."
Well, there was no arguing with her there.
"There is nothing forbidding you from dwelling on your past life, but in my experience those who focus more on what lies ahead seem to do better," said Athena.
"'Do better?' In what sense?"
"Do better at their next life," said Athena.
I nodded. For a brief moment I considered delving through my memories to see if I had any recollection of dying from an unexpected heart attack, but what would be the benefit of that? At best, I would be reliving the moment of my death. Forward focus.
"I've constructed a world which I think you will be compatible with," said Athena.
She raised a hand, and a flat surface -- a table -- appeared between us. I looked at the table, and realized I was staring at what appeared to be a topographical map. I could make out the shapes of red mountains and barren yellow valleys and a few foothills speckled with patches of green and brown. The topography started to shift, zooming in on one of the wooded foothills, until the world in front of me was large enough that I could make out the tiny shapes of what appeared to be deer moving on one of the hills.
"This seems like a nice world," I said, feeling dumb as I said it. I didn't know how else to describe what I was looking at or what exactly I was comparing it to, but the idea that my afterlife might be life on this world seemed to be a bit of a relief -- it looked familiar enough. I didn't know exactly what the 'afterlife' -- or perhaps it was merely 'the next life' -- held, but the thought had briefly occurred to me that the next chapter of my existence might be something outside my zone of familiarity, like maybe being a sentient star in the vastness of space, or maybe not being sentient at all. This world looked earth-like in its topography, it had flora and fauna that looked like what I was familiar with, and given the way that fauna was prancing about, it seemed to have familiar gravity.
I suppose it made sense -- Athena had said this world would be one that I was "compatible" with.
"Seems like a nice world?" Athena repeated my words back to me, and I found myself cringing a bit as she said them. "This world is not always nice." With a sweep of her hand, the landscape in front of us changed, and I saw three people on a hill, running from a large beast at least three times their height. The image on the table spun in front of me, and as the table turned, I saw that the beast chasing them was a deformed monstrosity with one eye in the center of its forehead, much like the cyclopes of Greek mythology. I looked at the trio of men running from the cyclops -- actually, upon closer inspection, one of them appeared to be a woman with short hair -- wearing what looked like flimsy makeshift armor that probably wouldn't protect them if the cyclops ever got close enough to strike.
I watched with a morbid sense of fascination and horror as the three people ran across the landscape with the cyclops behind them, when a small burst of fire seemed to strike the cyclops' head, directly in the eye. The monster reared back, gripping its head and covering its eye with both hands, letting out a terrifying groan. My eyes followed a smoke trail, looking for the source of whatever had struck the cyclops, and I spotted a robed human figure who was right in the middle of a throwing motion -- a throwing motion that sent another fireball hurtling toward the cyclops' face, this time striking it in the hands that were covering its eye.
The three armored people who had been fleeing did an about face and ran back toward the cyclops, weapons drawn, striking its legs -- one of the men used what appeared to be a mace, while the woman and the other man slashed at the beast's legs with bladed weapons. The cyclops reached down, but it appeared to be moving its arms blindly, groping and failing to find the people underneath it that were deftly avoiding its hands. The mace-wielder delivered a blow from behind that seemed to strike it right where its achilles tendon might be -- if this beast even had an achilles tendon -- and it stumbled backwards. The mace-wielder fell to the ground and rolled out of the way just as the cyclops handed where he had been standing.
The woman jumped onto the cyclops' neck, raising her sword and driving it straight into the beast's eye. The cyclops fell limp, and the four figures let out a cheer.
"So, this world has monsters," I said.
"But those monsters can be beaten." Athena nodded again.
I studied the celebrating figures more closely, which at this point seemed to be carving the beast apart, probably trying to scavenge useful materials from it. I noticed that the mace-wielder who had brought the monster down seemed to have pointed ears and a thin, wiry frame. I turned to Athena. "Is he an elf?"
"This world is modeled after the legends of your own," said Athena. "It is populated with challenges that mimic the challenges in the stories told in your world."
Between the name "Athena" and the appearance of the cyclops, I had started to wonder if perhaps this was a world modeled on Greek mythology, but the appearance of a Tolkein-esque elf seemed to dispel that idea pretty thoroughly. If this world was specifically designed for "compatibility" with humans who'd just left earth, I suppose it made sense that the world would be a mish-mash of various mythologies. If you were trying to design a world that humans would want to live in, of course you'd look at the stories humans told to look at what kinds of trials they might be faced with. It was a way to avoid designing a utopia, a kind of "heaven" devoid of goals or conflict in a way that would likely leave people miserable even if it was "paradise."
I nodded. "It's a world based on the stories that we shared and enjoyed."
I looked at the scene on the hill with the dead cyclops. Suddenly, the cyclops seemed to melt into non-existence, and a burst of color appeared over the head of the woman who had delivered the killing blow. I could just barely make out the shape of the yellow glow above her head -- a pair of numerals.
I heard a faint voice from below. "Level twenty!"
"Nice!" said one of the men standing next to her. "Now you can finally equip that tier two broadsword."
I blinked and looked at Athena. "Is this a game?"
"It is a world created based on the legends and stories of your world," said Athena. "It is among the newer worlds, based on the cultural sensibilities of modern humans."
"No, I mean..." I gestured to the table. "Would I actually be living in this world? Or would I be just looking down at it like this, controlling an avatar instead of actually living in the world as a human?"
"You would inhabit the world," said Athena. "As a human, perhaps."
"Or perhaps an elf, or a dwarf, or something like that?"
Athena nodded. "Those are also possibilities, several among many."
"Why does this world work like this?
"We studied the stories told in your culture to look for rules which might govern an uplifting existence," said Athena. "Many people in your world seem frustrated by the fact that their lives seem to be governed by rules which they don't always understand."
I nodded. "The definition of 'healthy' food, for example. For decades, people ate high-carbohydrate diets, following a 'food pyramid' model, because there is no universal measure of health. It's something you can't quantify."
"It is difficult to quantify health," Athena said, subtly correcting me. "By providing measurements of attributes such as an individual's health, stamina, or strength, it becomes easier for those individuals to understand the causal relationship between their actions and their improvement as individuals."
The view of the people on the table zoomed out, and I found myself looking at the form of a field of plains bordered by a mountain range.
I crouched in front of the table and folded my arms, rocking back and forth on my heels as I considered what Athena had just shown me.
"Are you upset by what you've seen?" said Athena. I detected a bit of hesitation, maybe a hint of concern in her voice.
"I'm fine," I said. "I just need to think." I settled into my thinking pose.
The rocking motion of shifting my weight from the front to the back of my foot helped me concentrate in moments when I wanted to block out any kind of distraction, and crouching with my center of mass low to the ground helped me keep my balance as I rocked. I was aware that it was a pose that made me look very odd, but it was a way to deal with stress that developed during my years as a graduate student -- and my physics department, like any research lab, seemed to tolerate a few quirks and eccentricities such as the ones that I'd developed as coping mechanisms during that time. Seeing a 23-year-old crouched on a stool and rocking on his heels as he muttered to himself about microfluidics could scarcely be considered outside the realm of ordinary in most of the labs I'd worked in.
Athena remained respectfully silent as I considered the scene that had just played out in front of me. Clearly, this world I'd just been shown was based on some kind of game-like progression system. A game-like existence. What would it be like to live in a world where my progress and growth was measured in the form of discrete integers? I could see the advantages. There was a reason that people found video games so addictive -- I myself had spent many late nights grinding away in RPG quests, striving toward goals that had no application to my real life, solely because I enjoyed the feedback loop of killing monsters and watching a level go up. What if I could live a life where I could get that same kind of borderline-addictive feedback loop and improve myself, instead of an avatar?
The fact that so many people tried to 'gamify' aspects of their life using things like workout apps seemed evidence that maybe that sort of existence was more desirable, or at the very least, a better way to move toward self-improvement. But would it be a better life? What if I became dependent on that feedback loop, spent a lifetime there, and then found myself thrust back into a world more closely resembling the earth I had come from?
I stopped rocking and looked up at Athena. "This world you've just shown me, that could be my next life. But what comes after?"
"You may be reincarnated in the same world," said Athena. "Or, perhaps, if you amass enough power, you may elect to ascend to higher planes of existence and be able to construct worlds of your own."
"Power, huh?" I considered Athena's words. Gaining enough power could make me into maker of worlds -- that would probably put me in league with whatever Athena was. She seemed to be a deity of sorts, having the ability to create worlds and presumably pluck people out of limbo and them to the worlds she'd created. Then again, the life of an entity like Athena might not necessarily be an enviable one. I turned to her and asked, "What exactly does this 'higher plane of existence' mean?"
Athena's eyes seemed to look away from me for a moment, as though she were contemplating something before responding -- a bit of a surprise for a woman whose answers had, up until this point, all come promptly.
"I once came from a world such as yours," said Athena. "A world of emergent order. I design worlds, so that people progressing from worlds of emergent order may live a better existence."
"Emergent order," I said to myself. I understood the concept -- emergent order meant things progressing without kind of intention or goal, like the market principles that allowed economies to develop even in the absence of controlled central planning, or the principles of evolution that caused life on earth to eventually produce humans without the intervention of an intelligent entity guiding the development of species and civilization with any sort of intention. Of course, this lack of intention did result in occasional dead ends and missteps along the way.
"So," I said, "in this world you've designed, I suppose nobody has an appendix."
"My designs are not perfect," said Athena. "But I like to think they are a bit more refined than the world you come from, or the worlds I've designed before. I couldn't ethically justify sending you there if I thought otherwise."
"Ah," I said to myself. "So, will I be your test subject? Just collecting data until you develop the next version of this world?"
"It is inevitable that with each iteration, my designs will improve," said Athena. "That does not mean I am reducing the inhabitants of this world to test subjects."
"And this world--" I gestured to the table. "This is your latest design?"
"In that case," I said, "I'd be a fool to pick anything else, right? If you're going to ask me which world I want to be born into, this is the one I'll choose."
"I am glad to hear you speak so resolutely," said Athena, "but that is not a choice I am asking you to make. This world had already been determined as your destination. Your choice is not what world you will be born into, but what life."
"What life? What, like I get to choose a race and profession?"
"I cannot offer you that degree of control," said Athena. "If everyone asked to be born as an elf, and that conflicted with my design priorities, it would be a problem. Furthermore, you might ask to be born into this world as an elf without fully understanding all of the implications that life would entail. You would not be making an informed decision. However, I can offer you a limited degree of choice. By determining your priorities and what sort of existence you desire, I can find a role for you accordingly."
"Ah, I see. Do you have a questionnaire or something? Some kind of personality test?"
"Just one question," said Athena. "What do you desire most -- love, power, or knowledge?"
"What exactly do you mean by 'love' and 'power' and 'knowledge?'" I said. "Can you explain those a bit more?"
"I'm won't give you any further explanation," said Athena. "Part of the test is seeing what choice you make based on the meaning you attach to those words. Any one of them might mean something different to you than it does to someone else."
"So," I said, "you're saying you can't explain 'love,' because 'love' means something different to me than it does to someone else."
Athena said nothing.
"I mean, if you really wanted to select an appropriate life for me, you'd want way more data than just a single word, right? Especially when what I mean by that word might be totally different from what someone else might say when saying the same word. There could be two people standing here, both of them could say the word 'power,' but it would mean different things.'"
Athena remained silent.
Athena was probably looking to some context to figure out what my one-word answer -- whatever it was -- ultimately meant. Was she reading my mind to divine the intent behind my words? That didn't seem likely. One of the first conclusions I'd made about Athena was that when I had looked up, trying to find a light source, she'd interpreted it as someone looking toward heaven. If she couldn't read my mind in that moment, it was unlikely that she could read my mind in this moment.
But while Athena didn't seem to be able to read my mind, she did seem to know the details of the life I'd lived -- that I was from Denver, and that my name was Drew. Probably lots of other things, too. Then, if she was looking for some context to understand the meaning of my one-word answer, it would have to be the life I had lived.
Athena remained silent.
I folded my hands in front of me and assumed my thinking pose. "I'm going to need a moment to think about this."
"Take all the time you need," said Athena.
"Do you really mean that?" I said. "You don't have anywhere you need to be?"
"Time does not work for me as it does for you," said Athena, in a way that suggested that any attempt on her part to explain that statement further would be beyond my comprehension.
"Alright." I silently rocked on my heels, turning each of the words over in my head, pondering what the consequences of giving that word as an answer might be.
I didn't really like the idea of choosing 'love.' While my life was not one devoid of family, friendship, or romance, I had never been much for displays of physical affection, and if I said 'love,' there was a chance that Athena might interpret that as a statement on my part that I felt regret for having lived a relatively closed-off life. The idea of the pendulum swinging to the other side and being born into some existence where physical affection was part of daily existence didn't particularly appeal to me. And it didn't help that when I thought of a profession defined by 'love,' the first thing that came to mind was the world's oldest profession. I wasn't sure if this world had any similar 'love'-based professions, but I wasn't sure I wanted to take the chance -- especially considering that I had a much more difficult time thinking about what the benefits of a life defined by love might be.
The idea of knowledge was much more tempting, but it was an idea that I considered cautiously. If Athena knew my life, she knew about my physics background, and asking for more knowledge might get me one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of the universe. However, when I thought about the idea of comprehending the nature of existence, I found myself flinching away a bit. The truth was, despite the fact that I lived a life in pursuit of truth and knowledge the universe, I also lived my life in such a way that I kept myself intentionally ignorant about certain aspects of the world. For example, I stayed away from news media to keep myself oblivious to the constant deluge of daily political coverage, mostly because the idea of constantly monitoring problems that I had no ability to fix put me in a state of anxiety. I had spent most of my life avoiding social media for the same reason.
There was also the fact that, despite the fact that I lived a life mostly defined by rigid routine, I tried to deliberately inject spontaneity into my life. I was the sort of person who would occasionally take up hobbies for a week at a time, and then abandon them. I didn't consider that time hopping from hobby to hobby wasted -- I liked gaining a surface level grasp of many topics. Though it might sound odd, I actually enjoyed learning things more than I enjoyed knowing them. In a way, it was my lack of knowledge that made that sort of learning possible. I briefly had the thought that 'knowledge' might be a curse if it prevented me from ever watching and enjoying a movie with a surprising plot twist -- well, probably not a 'movie' in a world like this, but storytelling was a practice older than Hollywood, and there was probably a decent chance that this world had bards who would fill that role.
I also couldn't chase away the terrifying possibility that there might be certain sorts of revelations that could induce madness -- I briefly remembered Stephen King's 'It,' where seeing the monster's true form drove people insane, and more than a few Lovecraftian stories with similar premises.
Thinking back on my own study of science, ultimately my academic career was defined more about the pursuit of understanding than the pursuit of knowledge. Had Athena offered me 'intelligence,' I'd be a lot more eager to take her up on the offer, but the more I thought about the idea of choosing 'knowledge,' the less it seemed like an obvious answer.
Athena had also offered the possibility of 'power.' If this were a typical fantasy story, 'power' would be an obvious trap, and the hero would probably pick 'love' or maybe something like 'wisdom' or 'courage' instead, but in a weird way I had sort of already rationalized 'love' and 'knowledge' as potential traps, so 'this might be a trap' wasn't a strike against power specifically. The more I thought about the idea of power, the more it seemed like most of my objections to it were based on those sorts of 'heroic' stories rather than any honest appraisal of the concept.
Although 'power' might have been a trap in the context of a story about a scheming genie or a deal with the devil, Athena didn't seem like the sort of vindictive goddess or playful trickster who wanted to 'punish' people who wished for power by cursing them with miserable lives. If I was going to wander into any kind of 'trap,' the most likely possibility wouldn't be that Athena was deliberately trying to trick me, but that she might inadvertently misinterpret my request. I could think of a number of ways that a request for 'love' or 'knowledge' might inadvertently backfire, but it was hard for me to come up with idea of how 'power' could accidentally manifest in some unpleasant way. Maybe I could be cursed with super-strength and end up as some pariah who inadvertently crushed people's hands when he shook them or accidentally karate-chopped dogs when he tried to pet them, but that struck me as more of a funny image than an actual possibility.
Power could manifest itself in many ways. Of the three options, 'power' seemed like it might be the most fungible. And considering that I was deciding this to answer a very practical question -- what kind of life I would be reincarnated into -- that seemed like an appealing quality. If I picked 'knowledge' and were born as a scholar, my options might be more limited than if I picked 'power' and found myself born as a king or a baron. A king could always use his power to acquire knowledge, but it seemed much harder for a scholar to use his knowledge to ascend to the throne. And love...well, I wasn't sure what Athena's definition of love was, but I'm pretty sure that whatever kind of love I desired, I'd be able to earn it on my own provided I had enough time and resources, and 'power' and 'resources' seemed like pretty similar ideas to me.
The more I considered the idea, the more the idea of having a life defined by 'power' seemed like the best choice of the ones Athena had offered me. It seemed to limit my downside, and probably would give me the most options.
Plus, Athena's interpretation of the word 'power' was going to be informed by the life I'd lived. So there was a decent chance that I might simply become more powerful along the axis that I'd worked toward my entire life -- improved understanding. That might effectively be the same as answering 'knowledge' if she were using an interpretation of knowledge that aligned with something I'd find desirable -- it even fit with the cliche, 'knowledge is power.' And if that power translated into increased intelligence or understanding, even better. There was a decent possibility that answering 'power' would give me some of the possible benefits of answering 'knowledge.' However, the more likely possibility was that 'power' in this world would somehow be quantified by level. Perhaps, if I chose 'power,' I might start as a higher level than other beings in the world. It was hard to see the downside of that, especially seeing as how success tends to beget success.
There was another thing that made the 'power' answer appealing. Earlier, Athena had mentioned that it was possible to ascend to higher planes of existence -- to perhaps become the same sort of entity that she was -- if I amassed enough power. That was something she had said in response to one of my questions, when I had asked her about future lives. I didn't remember her exact wording, but I was sure that she had used the word "power" as the means by which one might ascend to higher planes of existence. It likely wasn't something that she told to everyone, which meant that I was probably operating with an unfair advantage -- there was a good chance that I understood the implications of the word 'power' better than most people who were forced to make this decision; others might not even know about the possibility of ascension. Athena had also said that I might "elect" to ascend -- the word "elect" implying that it was optional. If I found myself satisfied in Athena's world, then amassing power would not necessarily obligate me to ascend, but if I wound up unsatisfied with Athena's world, amassing power and ascending would be how I would escape it, perhaps creating a world of my own to live in. Not only did power seem like my best option for having a prosperous existence inside of the world, it also seemed like my best option for a possible escape if that became necessary.
I stopped rocking and suddenly realized that my legs were sore -- that was the downside of doing all of my contemplating in a crouched stance; it sometimes left me aching when I regained awareness of my senses. I stood up and looked at Athena.
"Power," I said.
Athena nodded. "Then may you live a life of power."
A glowing circle appeared underneath me. A moment later, I was enveloped in darkness, and Athena disappeared.
I waited in the darkness. Several moments passed, and nothing happened.
"Athena?" I said. Did I have to wait here in the darkness before being sent some place?
I tilted my head to look around, but felt my face hit something, and I suddenly became aware of the space around me. I could barely move my limbs, and there was something squeezing me from all sides.
I tried to look up again, and again I felt my face hit something. I had the vague sense that whatever my face was hitting was something hard, but it didn't seem to hurt much, so I tilted my head again, with more force, and this time I heard a cracking noise, and a tiny beam of light began to shine through the crack I had made.
I pushed my head up with all my might, feeling my face smash against the brittle surface of the ceiling above me, and peeked out at the world around me.
I was surrounded by mountainous crags an all sides. As far as I could twist my head around, all I could see was the red-brown texture of rock.
I looked down at the container that held me. There was some kind of white, curved enclosure, and I tried punching through it. I saw looked down, observing the container crack as I punched it, and my hands pushed through a pair of holes.
No, not hands. Claws.
I pushed outward with all my might, and felt the brittle container shatter around me. I spun around, watching as the white flakes scattered around me, and I saw a sheet of numerals appear in front of me.
A character sheet. For the moment, I ignored the rows of numbers, and focused only on the brightly-lit text at the top.
[You have hatched! Your class: Baby Dragon. Level 1]
Well, I guess this is how a 'life of power' starts.
Class: Baby Dragon
Health points: 20/20
Stamina points: 10/10
Claws: level 1
Scales: level 1
Mouth: level 1
Wings: level 0