Queen Harvest Moon sat on her obsidian throne and looked down at the petitioner who stood wreathed in mist. "Why did you leap right into Hoofland?" she asked.
Like any newcomer to the queendom, her guest was a generic grey horse. Andre had human-like eyes and exaggerated proportions that made him look friendly but a bit cartoonish. Just days ago he'd been human, hurt and badly shaken from a near-fatal airplane accident, and he'd signed up to live in a game world. The details were hazy now, but there'd been brain surgery involved. He said, "I wanted to try a new life. I got some advice saying I should pick a specific part of the game to explore for a while, instead of wandering aimlessly through it. It seemed like a good idea to be something other than a generic human adventurer, so I wouldn't feel like I'd died and gone to heaven."
"Do you feel deceased?" asked the queen. She rose from her throne and crossed the blue marble floor to poke his fuzzy chest with one hoof. She was equine too, with an orange coat and a silver mane matching her crown. "Surely you accept that brain uploading preserves identity, or you'd never have done it."
Andre let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. In fact, he was surprised to have breath at all, and a heartbeat to notice. His body within this virtual world was arbitrary and could work on any rules the game allowed. "I know," he said. "I wasn't sure about the philosophy of it, but it seemed better than dying completely. So let's have at it, your majesty. Let me start a life of adventure. Or does every newcomer to the game try the sampler platter first, by shuttling back and forth between all the different fantasy and science fiction areas?"
Harvest Moon smiled. "Many are uncertain about where to live. I appreciate someone willing to try for depth instead of breadth in their exploration. Let's move on with the rules, then: tell me of the people you've met so far in this world."
A unicorn wizard had greeted him at the entrance gate, telling him to make friends with horses of various races as a starter quest. The newcomer recounted how he'd chatted up the wizard, then accidentally fallen off a cliff and been saved by a pegasus, then wandered around meeting more unicorns, a wingless "earthbound" stallion with a garden that seemed like a game in itself, and even a deer. "So far it's been hard to tell which of them are real people versus NPCs."
The queen nodded. "That's deliberate. We have a number of Tier-II people serving as background characters, and then there's the collective mind of the town itself. You've met them several times already. You've done well so far, newcomer. What race would you like to become, choosing from those you've met?"
"Definitely pegasus. I want to fly." Andre had been a pilot for decades, but never under his own power.
"Stallion, I assume? What colors, what build?" An interface window popped up to let him choose various options for his new body.
"It's still strange to see these windows," he said.
"Most of our players are still just seeing this world, our world, through a video screen. We are the strange magical beings who live here, who represent what it can be."
Andre looked around at the misty throne room. "And this place, this castle of yours, is something you created?"
"That's right. Less than a year ago I was a businesswoman facing sickness and death. Now, I'm working to make this fantasy land a place that everyone can enjoy."
Andre nodded, and turned his attention back to the window of character options. Magic and transformation were easy here; building a society might not be.
Once they'd worked out the details, Harvest Moon changed him to match his new body design. Her orange coat shined and she rose into the air on phantom wings of moonlight. A unicorn horn in the same pale gleam stood out on her forehead. With each flap the queen shed ghostly feathers that drifted to the floor and faded.
The newcomer stood awed by the magic of this ruler of Hoofland, his new home. One point made him step forward and speak, though. "Won't you run out of feathers from doing that?"
The queen laughed, pausing in the middle of charging a spell from her horn. "It's a particle effect, my new subject! I think I shall call you Sky Diver."
A swirl of moonlight lifted the newcomer up and spun him gently, so that he could focus on the sensation of his new wings spreading for the first time. They ached and itched like limbs he'd slept on, but feeling them there was worth any discomfort. Wings! he thought.
[Your race is now "Pegasus"!] announced a glowing message window.
Then, the significance of having had his brain dissected and recreated in this place hit him like it'd failed to do yesterday, his first day.
Yesterday had been his introduction to Thousand Tales, the game that he now lived in. He'd woken up in a generic hotel room as a copy of his old human self. He'd known intellectually that he was made of software now, and could do whatever he wanted. Sleep with movie stars and slay dragons, or vice versa; transform his body; go on quests; or just relax. But after some restlessness he'd hopped through a glowing portal to visit this land, Hoofland, specifically. He wasn't human physically, his mind had to be changing a little to give him control of his wings, and it didn't matter whether his aerodynamics made realistic sense because this world was designed to be a kind of heaven. It was bound to be right and good.
At least, if people like him tried to live up to the world they'd been given.
Andre -- no, Sky Diver -- landed gently on the floor and heard his hooves, still unfamiliar parts of him, click against stone. He craned his long neck to look over the deep blue fuzz covering his skin and the shaggy white mane and tail that topped it. He lowered his head before Harvest Moon, started to speak, and found that he'd been holding back tears.
The queen let her horn and wings fade. She ran one hoof along his mane and spoke gently. "Feeling a little unworthy?" Diver nodded and sniffled. She said, "None of us is perfect. Go forth and make others' lives better in whatever way you see fit."
Diver nodded again. "Thank you, your majesty. I'll try to be a great pegasus."
"Good. Go and explore what you can become. If you find this form appealing, then there are ways of learning to do even more with it. I leave them for you to find out."
The now-blue pegasus trotted out of the throne room and back to the castle hallway where other hoofers waited in line for an audience. He awkwardly raised one of his forehooves to wave to them, then fell over because he'd still been trying to walk. His muzzle hit the red carpet.
Another grey horse helped him up. "I saw you go in as a generic guy, so it's no wonder you're awkward. Just try not to fall off any cliffs."
"Already did that once. Are you part of the town's mind, or an NPC, or what?"
"I mean I'm playing Thousand Tales through a regular video screen. Been hearing the locals use 'Earthside' as slang for real-world stuff."
Diver shuffled his hooves nervously.
The other guy's ears perked. "Hey, are you one of the uploaders?"
"That's neat. What's it like for you?"
"I don't know yet. Just got here."
He was only experiencing this world like any other video game, then, through a screen. "I've been playing Thousand Tales for a while but haven't tried Hoofland yet. So you're an uploader?"
Diver nodded. "Just getting started."
"Well. Uh. Pleased to meet you. If you're new, I bet you're broke. How about helping me on a mission? I'm headed to the Labyrinth of Night and I need a pegasus in the party."
"All hail Harvest Moon!" said someone in the line, and the shout went down the row of waiting horses one by one. Except for the Earthside player, who didn't react. The throne room's doors opened and the next petitioner entered; a smug-looking red horse trotted out and ducked out of sight behind some marble columns.
Diver asked the grey newcomer, "What's the Labyrinth?"
He stood there blankly. A few seconds later he said, "Sorry, I was getting a drink. That's the quest area for getting full unicorn powers. Once I talk with the queen I'll be a unicorn! I'm usually online in the evenings, so if you meet up tomorrow at the castle gate and find me a willing earthbound party member, we can go adventuring."
Diver's wings wavered along his back, making him turn his neck to look at them. Long, bright blue feathers like a parrot's, tipped with white matching his mane and tail. The sight brought a smile to his muzzle, but he was still puzzled by the grey one's words. "Evenings, in what time zone? I think I'm only running at a fraction of real-time speed in here."
"Pacific. I'll have to sign out after my audience here; got some physics homework to do."
Diver waited around for the would-be unicorn to enter the queen's room, and saw him trot back out with a smile and a horn. Now he had a pearly white coat and black mane.
"Okay! I've got an official Hoofland name now. I also have an important spell." His horn glowed and a business card popped into existence, surrounded by a shadowy aura. "Call me Major Key."
Diver tried reaching out with one wing to grab the card, fumbled, then slapped it with one forehoof. The paper stuck to it. "Ground control to Major Key. I'm sorry; I have no way to carry stuff right now."
"It's a friend request. Just say 'accept'."
Diver waggled his hoof with the card stuck to it. "Accept." The thing dissolved into mist. Lettering wrote itself onto his vision: You are now in contact with Major Key! A moment later: (Don't worry; you're not actually required to be friends.)
"Well, obviously," said Diver, who'd grown up with social media sites that used "friend" synonymously with "advertising target".
"Nothing; the system looks like it's working. See you tomorrow?"
"Great. Nice meeting you." The unicorn sparkled, then slumped unconscious to the floor.
A trio of giggling fillies emerged moments later from a side passage, and began assaulting Key's body with sparkles, stickers, and marker pens.
"Hey, hold on," said Diver, when they were starting to braid his mane. "He's just logged out."
An unsmiling royal guard stamped one iron-shod hoof against the floor. "He has broken the queen's law against vagrancy. This is the first-time punishment."
Diver pictured him waking up looking like a pretty princess. "I'll take him someplace," he said, and shooed the filly trio away. He tried grabbing Key, recalled he had no fingers, pushed him instead, stumbled, and tried thinking of a way to grab him with his mouth that wouldn't be even more awkward.
"Need some help?" asked a sunny yellow mare who was passing by.
"Please. Do I drag him by the tail or what?"
The mare hoisted Key up onto her back like a sack of potatoes, and grunted. "You find an earthbound like me, that's what. Where to?"
"Thanks. Let's take him to the nearest inn to, ah, sleep it off."
The two of them left Noctis Castle, a fortress of obsidian and other dark stone that shined in the moonlight. Waterfalls streamed from the towers and filled a moat inhabited by lily-pads and pale herons. Beyond the drawbridge stood the town of Noctis, where paper lanterns lined the cobblestone streets.
"The name's Golden Scale, by the way."
Diver nodded absently to her as he followed. Colorful horses walked the streets or flew on feathered or bat-like wings through the town. Most of the stone and timber buildings had bright light coming through their windows, and fireflies danced just out of reach, yet the sky blazed with nebulae and twinkling stars. "No light pollution."
"You know how in a city, the light below blots out most of the stars? You have to get away from civilization to see what's outside it."
Golden Scale trotted along, tilting her head. "That's a stupid rule. You shouldn't have to pick between having stars and having enough light to see your own hooves."
A chill spread along Diver's spine, making his wings rustle. "Are you human?"
"Darn! Failed the Turing Test already." Scale adjusted the weight of Key on her back. "I'm part of Noctis. Not just a dumb Non-Pony Character, though!"
Weird. He was talking with one body belonging to a hive-mind. "All right. It wasn't obvious before, though. Do you do any adventuring? My vagrant friend mentioned needing an earthbound."
"Obviously he does. The queen seems to make half the unicorns fat these days, at least compared to the classic scrawny look. In the old days we stuck to canon, where unicorns were waifs wandering around forest groves or magic libraries, and any earthbound could uproot trees."
Hoofland, unlike the virtual world of Thousand Tales in general, was loosely based on an old cartoon. Diver had heard there were endless nerd arguments about that, but the reviews had said Hoofland was "surprisingly badass" and "deep for something where you can prance around as a pastel unicorn".
"What does tradition say about pegasuses?" he asked.
"Pegasi. The stereotype is that you're either warriors, stunt racers, or peaceful types who think controlling the weather is a normal job but who secretly want to fight race wars."
Diver said, "What? There's racism in the cute horse backstory?"
"What makes you say that? Oh! Oh moon. No, I meant the pegasi want to do racing and fighting. We're still learning about Earthside culture; do you humans actually fight wars over which tribe is better? Which race were you?"
"One of the darker ones," said Diver, and shook his head. "And sick of hearing about how that ought to define me and how I have to 'stand with my people against oppression'. I'm something different now, and I'm hoping we can get along in here better than out there."
"Sorry," said Scale, and her ears lay flat against her head. "Anyway, we're almost to the hotel."
"Good. I hear a storm coming."
"That's the hotel."
They rounded a corner past some apartments, and reached a dome made of thunderclouds. It looked to be the size of a football field, anchored by metal cables to the ground, and lightning crackled along its stabilized dark vapor surface. A large rubber-lined door was set into the cloudbank under a neon sign that said, "Nimbus Inn and Battle Dome."
Diver's wings stretched slightly to either side. "That's... kind of cool."
Golden Scale smiled as she reached up to adjust Key, who was drooling and snoring. "Good. We'll put him up here. They should have a cheap room available."
Diver had just pushed open the door with one hoof when he realized: "I haven't got any money yet."
A dusk-colored horse with bat wings and cute little fangs perked her long ears from the far side of the hotel lobby. "Fresh meat for the tournament!"
Diver stammered, "What?" The lobby was a slice at one end of the dome, empty but for a hovering blue crystal and some stairs made of wood leading down to a basement.
"I was going to offer to loan you some money," said Scale, "but Nimbus here has other ideas." She brushed past the pegasus and dumped Key onto the bare concrete floor, where he sprawled with his tongue hanging out. "Hey, Nimbus! This pointy newcomer almost got punished for vagrancy. Can you put him somewhere out of the way?"
"All for logging out where he was in plain sight?" Diver murmured to himself.
The batty one nodded enthusiastically and flapped over the front desk to land in front of her guests. She circled Diver, brushing him teasingly with her wings and making him sidestep like a nervous horse. "I'll give you a room for the day if you fight to the death in my arena. Sound fair?"
"I'm starting to question this world's economics," said Diver.
Scale said, "Seems like a fair trade to me."
Nimbus draped one wing over his back and gestured toward an inner set of doors with the other. "Another newbie, eh? This here's a good way to get used to being one of us. Learn how to use your new body, and figure out that you're an awesome superbeing now. How about it? There's always an audience this time of night."
Diver's head spun at the prospect of having to fight so soon, and for a crowd, but what the heck. He slipped free from Nimbus, trotted over to the hovering crystal, and pinged it with one hoof.
Save point set: Nimbus Inn and Battle Dome, said lettering in his vision. He'd been briefed about these things being where he'd come back if he were killed.
"All right," he said. "Is there someplace to train at fighting and flying? I just got this body minutes ago, and... wow. This is still my first night as an uploader."
"Wow, you are fresh meat," said Nimbus. "Tell you what. Let's haul your paperweight Earthside friend down to a room, get you settled in, show you the gym, and kick your tail out to do basic flight training." She loomed closer. "Then you can come back for your Brutal. Equine. Beatdown."
Bio: I'm a writer with several books up on Amazon. Many of these are in a setting called "Thousand Tales", where a virtual game world offers immortality under the rule of a friendly AI whose ambitions extend far beyond the game. See kschnee.deviantart.com for a larger gallery of stories, and check out novels such as "The Digital Coyote" or "Liberation Game" for my published fiction!