It wasn’t his first time in virtual reality, so the deep darkness with the calming blue loading bar came as no surprise to Xavier. In fact, it made his heart beat all the faster. Well, his proverbial heart at least.
The world Xavier loaded into was a soft white color stretching endlessly in all directions. Lacking a body, Xavier floated around for a couple seconds before a gentle cough indicated that there was someone behind him. Turning his attention to face the figure of an unnaturally beautiful woman clad in a shimmering blue dress, Xavier would have smiled if he had a mouth with which to do so.
“Hello, traveler. I am Myst, your guide to the world of Nova Terra. As this is your first time logging into Nova Terra, I will take you through the tutorial. During this tutorial, we will work together to create a personal avatar for you to use during your stay in Nova Terra. Please be aware of a couple of restrictions on this avatar. First, you cannot swap your gender. Second, you are limited to a 20% overall change in your appearance. Third, your physical stats will be generated based on a full body scan and a few minor tests and initially will be linked to your real life body’s condition. Do you have any questions, traveler?”
“Uh...yeah. What stats are available?” Xavier had done as much as he could to prepare for this chance to play Nova Terra, but there was surprisingly little information outside the game.
“That is a great question, traveler. There are a few stats that you can see by saying Status. Please do so, and I will explain each.”
After saying “status”, a simple blue window popped up in front of Xavier.
“Thank you, traveler. As you can see from your status, you currently have nothing filled in. Once we begin the process of creating your avatar, many of those fields will be filled. Apart from your name, which is the final choice you will make before you begin your journey in Nova Terra, you will be presented with a number of race choices as well as a series of tests based off of your body scan. All six of the main races are available except in extreme cases, and some rare races are locked unless you meet specific qualifications.”
Without taking a breath, Myst continued, “Your max health and max mana will display in your status, as will your titles and any uncommon conditions, however, the rest of your stats will be hidden, as that would ruin the immersive experience. That said, I can still tell you about the basic stats. Strength governs how strong your avatar is as well as how much damage you do when using a melee weapon. Dexterity governs your avatar’s coordination and speed in addition to how much ranged projectile damage your character does.
“Constitution is your avatar’s ability to take damage as well as your endurance and damage resistance. Intelligence will govern how fast your mana pool recharges and how quickly you can process information. Wisdom is your avatar’s ability to make good choices and relate to other people. Finally, Charisma will govern how well other people relate to your avatar. Please note that there are hidden stats, as well, that you will have to discover on your own. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”
Xavier thought for a moment before responding. “How does my Intelligence going up change my perception of the game? I mean, how does the game simulate a person getting smarter?”
Myst stood still for a moment and then shivered, her perfect face taking on a slightly more human look. “That is a great question, traveler. The computer controller in your pod has been fitted with a completely non-invasive system assist that will slow your perception of the game’s time to allow you more time to think as well as several system assists that will help you do specific things like math or recalling information. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”
“Yes. How do I increase stats if I cannot actually see them? And what about skills? I don’t see a spot for them.”
“That is a great question, traveler. As you may be aware, there are no levels to speak of in Nova Terra. Instead, as you acquire skill and practice various activities, you will find yourself increasing in proficiency. To have an idea of where a player stands in comparison to others, they will need to compare their abilities, as in real life. There are a near infinite number of tasks that can grant you increased proficiency through training like gaining titles, skill at completing tasks, finding hidden stats, the rank of monsters you kill, and quests you complete. Think of each of these things as mini-games that have been optimized to help you gain mastery of various tasks.
“You might think of titles as a count of the things you have done in your adventures. Gaining a title is as simple as cooking your first meal to as complex as slaying a dragon and saving a princess. Completing some tasks will grant you specific bonuses while others will add to your reputation. In addition, there are some rewards, called advancements, that come with specific ability or skill increases based on your race. Additionally, please note that biological changes in your body will also be factored when you log in, which is why regular exercise is recommended for every player.
“In short, skills are handled the same way they are in the real world. While skill levels are hidden in order to increase immersion, the more you do something, the better you will be at it. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”
“Wait, then I have to manually do and learn everything?”
“That is a great question, traveler. That is partially correct. To increase your proficiency in a skill, you must use it repeatedly, like in real life. The learning time will, however, be shorter than the real world, and the more you practice, the more the system will assist you. Otherwise, you must master skills on your own. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”
“So, apart from the six fields in my status, I can’t see anything else about my progress?” asked Xavier, confused.
“That is a great question, traveler. That is incorrect, you will also be able to see quests, access an inventory, and contact the administrators. Nova Terra is not, however, a virtual reality game; rather it is a brand new world. It may be helpful for you if you think of Nova Terra as the real world with a few convenient advantages. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”
Thinking for a second, Xavier shook his head, “No, thanks. I am ready to start creating my avatar.”
“Excellent. Please wait while I complete your full scan and set up your base point.” A moment passed as Myst took out a small device and waved it toward Xavier.
The white landscape blurred and Xavier found himself in a modern-looking exercise facility. Machines of various kinds dotted the room, and music played in the background. For a brief moment, Xavier even thought he had returned to the real world. It was only when he realized that he was still disembodied that the feeling faded.
“Please enter the Fitness Assessment Android in front of you.” Myst pointed with her clipboard at the human-shaped robot standing in the middle of the room.
A thought sent Xavier floating toward the robot. As soon as he got close, there was a brief flash of darkness, and the eyes of the robot flickered to life. He looked down at the small, slim form of the robot with a mental frown. This new body was, at most, six feet tall and felt strange. It was as if his limbs were tied and no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t stretch.
“Thank you, traveler. I will now adjust your Fitness Assessment Android to the correct size. Please move each of your limbs when I ask you to.” Walking around behind him, Myst adjusted something on her pad and Xavier soon found himself much more comfortable.
The change in perspective was disorienting, but after a couple moments, he got more familiar with this new body. Standing, he very slowly lifted his right hand to examine it. The robot was thinner than his real body and felt much lighter as well.
“How does this body feel, traveler?”
“It’s okay. A little lighter than my real body. I sort of feel like I am in water,” commented Xavier, wiggling his fingers.
“Please wait while I recalibrate your weight, traveler.” Myst fiddled with her pad once again. As she moved sliders around, Xavier felt the familiar sense of heaviness settle on him. While it still was not as intense as the feeling in the real world, at least he didn’t feel like he was going to float away.
Once the adjustment was done, Myst directed him to an area along one of the walls. A short track stretched along the wall with pillars set at regular intervals on both sides. Directing him to stand at one end, Myst told him to move down the track as fast as he could once the indicator light went on. After he finished, there was a short, pregnant pause.
“Thank you, traveler,” Myst said in her sweet voice, a slight trace of confusion in her words. “May I ask why you walked down the track? I only ask because your physical statistics indicate that you could have completed the track much more quickly, if you chose to.”
Wait, running? Xavier felt blood rush to his face as he was overcome with embarrassment. Though, could he be blamed for his mistake? The last sixteen years of his life had been spent moving carefully and deliberately. It was no longer a conscious decision but an inbuilt reaction. If he needed to move, he did so with caution. If he didn’t, he kept his body as still as possible.
“Oh. Hmmm. Right.” Xavier tried to cover his embarrassment by coughing. “Can I try again?”
“Of course, traveler. You can try the assessment as many times as you need in order to feel comfortable in your avatar,” said Myst. “Apart from the look, this avatar will feel exactly the same as your in-game avatar. The primary function of these tests is to make sure you feel comfortable in your new body.”
“Oh?” Xavier looked around at all the different machines. “Okay, awesome. Let’s try this running thing again.”
As he walked back to the starting line, Xavier made a conscious effort to lengthen his steps. No one understood the concept of effective incremental change better than he did. For his next attempt, he walked the course again, focusing on stretching his legs out to their full stride. The feeling of taking a full step without experiencing the ripping feeling of his skin breaking open was at first strange, quickly turning almost euphoric.
After walking the course ten times, Xavier was able to break into a slow jog. He had jogged and even run when he was younger, so it was not a completely foreign movement to him. But it had been years. It was obvious from his awkward movements that he lacked practice.
“Hardness to softness, let go of stiffness. Hardness to softness.” Repeating this mantra in his mind, Xavier focused on sensing the stiff, hard areas of his body as he jogged back and forth on the track. Taijiquan focused on dissolving stiffness in the practitioner's body in order to create softness, which proved to be a big help as Xavier got used to running.
Like a machine, Xavier moved back and forth on the track. Sometimes jogging, sometimes walking, sometimes breaking into a sprint for a couple steps. He soon lost track of how many times he moved back and forth, but he had no intention of stopping. After feeling trapped in his own skin for so long, the unfettered movement was almost like a drug to him.
At first, the most he could do was a few jogging steps as he walked back and forth. It was as if there was a mental block that slowed him down instinctively. That didn’t last too long, and pretty soon he was able to jog the whole distance. After jogging back and forth twenty times, Xavier paused and stretched himself out. His muscles felt fatigued, but he was by no means tired. Still, it felt good to stretch .
Once he finished stretching, he moved to the starting line again and resumed his jogging, this time concentrating on breaking into a run for a few steps in the middle of the track. Unfortunately, the track was short, and his long legs took him to the end in only a dozen steps.
“Excuse me, Myst?” Xavier paused from his running. “Do you have a longer track? I feel like this one is too short. I can’t really run on it.”
Myst, seeing that the track was too short for him, adjusted something on her pad. The wall at the end of the track shot off into the distance as the room stretched. Once the straight track was a mile long, Myst stopped the wall and smiled at Xavier.
“Thanks.” Excited by the long, open space in front of him, Xavier took off, speeding up as he progressed. Soon he was pounding down the track, his long stride sending him down the track at a fantastic rate. At a full-blown sprint, his stride was only a bit under twelve feet long, causing the impression that he was devouring the distance.
Despite the building fatigue, Xavier could not stop running. He had heard about the phenomenon of the ‘runner’s high’ and had seen his aunt running a lot, but, for him, it was different. As he flew down the track and back again over and over, one feeling dominated the rest. Freedom. The pain and fatigue that started to build in his legs, the breaths that grew more difficult, all of that was crushed beneath an overwhelming sense of lightness.
For more than a decade, he had been shackled by his body, unable to express himself through any significant motion. So when he began to cut loose and run, it was like a dam bursting. All his pent-up feelings poured out in an unstoppable tide, forcing his legs to move. Almost completely absorbed in his frantic run, there was a very small part of Xavier that was thankful that his body was a robotic one. Otherwise, he would be bawling as he ran.
The exercise room was well lit, and Myst showed no impatience, waiting until Xavier exhausted himself completely. Unsure of how long had passed, Xavier lay panting on the ground, completely spent from his mad dashes back and forth. At some point, the ends of the track had connected, creating a giant loop around the room so that he did not have to turn around, but Xavier hadn’t noticed until he finally collapsed and was once more aware of his surroundings.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.