From the thundercloud hotel's lobby, Diver went downstairs with Golden Scale, who helped him dump Key on the floor of a spherical underground room. "Onto the bed, maybe?" Diver suggested.
"Why? He's Earthside; he can't feel it like us."
Diver eyed the fluffy cushion and blanket-pile that filled most of the room's bottom. He tried leaping down from the doorway and crashed onto softness. He hadn't even noticed how tense he was until now, when he finally had a moment to relax. "Aah," he sighed into a pillow.
Scale giggled. "You haven't even slept on clouds yet. That's one of the best reasons to be a pegasus."
Diver shut his eyes for a moment, glad to be alive even in this strange new way. "Do you get to feel that? As part of a hive-mind, I mean?"
"Sort of. We, the town-mind of Noctis, know all sides of the equine experience. I, Golden Scale, feel it like knowledge in a compartment that's out of reach. I don't normally get full access to those memories. The rules we have for what each of us knows is kind of a game."
"So's death, huh? And money and power and magic." The room around him was soft and warm, lit by a silver ball that dangled from the ceiling. "Everything here is meant to entertain me because I was rich enough to get uploaded. I'm a customer who bought a permanent vacation from reality and from dying. Shouldn't I be working back Earthside to earn my keep, and just visiting Hoofland for fun? You know, piloting a robot part-time and coming back to this, this virtual body?"
"The bounce," said Scale, looking down from the doorway. "You uploaders usually get that guilt trip once you show up and have a good time. This world was made for humans, yes, but it's us natives' world too. We've seen so many people treat it like a theme park that it feels like we'll never make it a home. Like nothing we do will ever matter." The mare sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm giving you Standard Native AI Rant #2."
Diver lifted his muzzle reluctantly from the pillow. "What's #1?"
Scale coughed into one hoof. "What do you mean, death is permanent Earthside? And the humans fight each other anyway?! What maniac programmed that? We've got to upload them all before things get any worse there! Wait, how many humans are there?! Oh moon, we need to take that place over and save them from themselves! What do you mean, that will get us nuked? What does 'nuked' mean?"
Diver winced. "Must be tough to come from a world like this and learn about Earth."
The mare waved away his concern. "In our case we were born with most of that knowledge, so it wasn't a shock. For those of us who had to learn it the way human kids do, well, they had a harder time coping. It should horrify us. It's better than not caring. Our own stance is, we should work to make this world so appealing that the rest of the humans come here and we can stop having to pity them. In fact, can you do something for me?"
"I do owe you a favor. Do you have that friend-request spell?"
"With me you don't need it. Ask around and you'll find one of us. Would you mind committing to stay in Hoofland for a subjective month or so, instead of saying 'that was fun' and running off to pilot Earthside robots or something?"
"Why?" he asked.
"So you can be one of the first uploaders to see my world more than superficially, on the way to somewhere else."
[Quest offered by Golden Scale: A Month On Hooves. Spend a subjective month in Hoofland continuously. Reward: ?]
The pegasus pushed himself back upright and turned around, trying not to step on the unconscious Major Key's lolling tongue. "I could come at that idea from a different angle. I want to see what I can be. Not a dabbler in a dozen little worlds, but an expert at one of them. That, I'd accept as a quest."
"You'll promise?" said Scale, perking her ears and tail.
"All right. Someone ought to give this world the attention it deserves."
A fanfare played. Scale smiled. "I'll make it worth your while. Now, I can't help you with flight training, but I definitely know someone who can. Shall we?" She waved toward the hall outside his room.
Diver nodded, tried to climb up the steep wall to join her, and crashed backward onto the bed. He yelped. "How do I get out?"
"In your case? If only you had some means of defying gravity!"
The pegasus looked sheepishly back at his wings. "Still haven't tried these. Okay." He stretched them out to either side before realizing quite how he'd done that. My mind's adapting, still. He gave them a tentative flap, like oars dipping into water, and felt himself stir as though he'd grown suddenly lighter. A harder flap, and he rose, darting forward and headed muzzle-first for Scale. She leaped out of the way and let him skid into the hall, banging his wings against either side of the door.
[You have taken a minor wound!], the world commented.
"Wounded?" asked Scale.
Diver stood and shook himself, then refolded his wings like a road map. "Yeah. Minor ones fade quickly, right?"
"As long as you don't get beaten up worse soon after. End of the 'scene' basically. Let's get you outside where you can practice."
Outside the dome, hooves clopped and clicked along the road, forming a relaxing beat. A fierce-looking pegasus with a shock of orange hair on his grey coat saluted Golden Scale. "Fancy meeting you here, ma'am."
Scale introduced Diver, then said, "This is my brother Meteor."
Diver blinked his big eyes. Here was one collective mind bringing another in by "coincidence". Best to treat them as different people, since Scale seemed to. He said, "Hello, sir. Do you have time to teach me a little about flight?"
"Certainly. Let's see your technique." Ten seconds later he was shouting, "No, you fool! Do you think you're a hummingbird?"
Diver was trying to hover, but only managed to stall two paces above the ground and slam back to earth.
Minor wound! said the interface.
Diver flapped once more, letting himself veer forward as though dangling from a trapeze. The ground felt a mile away, and he yelped and crashed back down, shivering. He hauled himself back up and realized: "I'm afraid of heights now?"
Meteor shook his head no, hard enough that his bright mane made his head look like it was on fire. "That's normal instinct, for a human or a pegasus. You need to talk your brain into knowing that being off of the ground is safe. Even a colt needs to learn that."
"A colt? There are actual kids here?" A family trotted down the street nearby, but there was no way to tell at a glance whether they were Earthside humans, uploaders, independent AIs, collectives, or brainless NPCs.
Scale said, "The sick kids, yes. Some of them come to Hoofland."
There'd been talk of uploading the population of the world's childrens' hospitals. The procedure was still expensive enough that it couldn't be done for everyone, but now that it'd been around for a few years there were more and more isolated "rescues". There was even talk of a recent "miracle" where a whole hospital ward of kids got uploaded, granted this sort of immortality. The virtual world's population skewed toward the elderly, though. Rich businessmen had been many of the early adopters, back when it still cost many millions of dollars to upload. Now that the price was in the six-figure range, there was a wider group of customers but it still took serious capital, like what a nursing home would normally devour. In Diver's case it'd been a lifetime of savings plus a little greasing of the wheels by Ludo, the game's ruling AI.
Diver said, "How many kids and nursing-home people come here, out of all uploaders?"
"Only a fraction," said Scale. "Most end up in one of the more serious-looking worlds like Midgard or Endless Isles." She shrugged her shoulders.
Diver made a note to learn that expression so he could emote without falling over. "Then, Meteor, what would you do to help a colt figure out the basics of flying without fear in a hurry?"
Golden Scale added, "Diver here signed up to be a pit fighter, so there's a little time pressure."
Meteor laughed at him. "You jumped into our world with all fours, didn't you?"
"Fell off a cliff, actually."
"Then let's get you to the gym."
They cantered off of the main road to where there was only a dirt trail, though every other building had a nice flowerbed beside it. Diver wondered about the role that alleys like this one played. "Does anyone live here?" There were doors and lit windows.
"On Shady Alley? No, usually; it's for questionable quests." Meteor led him and Scale past the secluded area to a nice wooden building with an Asian pagoda style. "Are your wounds cleared yet, by the way?"
Diver stopped to check. He waved one forehoof and chanted a nonsense word he'd been taught to get his thoughts into the right pattern. A window popped up and hovered in his vision, saying:
Account type: Uploader
Main Skills: None
Save Point: Nimbus Inn and Battle Dome
Note: Newcomer. Say hello!
"I'm not seeing any wounds listed here," he said.
Meteor pounced him, slamming him to the ground with both forehooves. "Defend yourself!"
Diver rolled to his feet and backed up, wide-eyed. "Hey, what --?" Meteor spun and braced his forelegs so he could lash out with a double hindleg kick. Diver jumped out of the way. Wind whistled past his ears.
Meteor jeered. "Counterattack!"
The newcomer staggered to a halt and lowered himself to a four-legged crouch. It's all right to beat people up if I have to, he told himself. He charged at Meteor, jumped, flapped his wings, and dived forward with his forehooves ready to crack against the trainer's side.
Meteor saw it coming, slid under him, and hindleg-kicked the airborne Diver in the groin.
Diver didn't even see the notice for what kind of wound that was, but he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be moving for a while. He gasped and squeaked.
Meteor put a hoof on Diver's head. "Yield?" Diver squeaked out a yes, so the victor went on, "I'm just glad your first fighting experience wasn't in the arena. Have you ever even fought in the Outer Realm?"
Diver lay there groaning. How dare this hive-mind think he knew anything about real violence! He was too hurt to do more than feel indignant, though.
Golden Scale said, "Hold still," and crouched beside him. A wall of runes glowed into view between them, as the mare chanted and gestured. After a minute the pain eased and Diver was able to stand.
He wobbled on his hooves and moaned. "For that kind of lesson I am not going to say thank you."
"You're welcome," said Meteor. "Freeze up like that in the ring and you won't last long. Remember that it's all right to whack people; this isn't idyllic fairyland like some of the tourists think. And despite the marketing."
Scale added, "And despite the entire theme and graphical style and half of the rules."
Diver looked back and forth between them. "But you're basically the same mind. You don't have the same opinion?"
Meteor said, "Do you always agree with yourself?"
Instead of doing more fighting practice, Meteor took Diver into the gym. There, one corner held a pegasus flight-training setup. A tiny cloud covered that part of the floor, and some elastic bands fit into a harness for holding a flier down as he tried his wings. "I had a major wound, right? I'm not seeing any listed on my status screen."
Scale, who'd tagged along, said, "Looked like minor plus a stun effect. It'd take too long to explain how to focus your attacks on wounds versus status effects, so just score any hits you can."
Diver walked toward the floor cloud and poked it with one hoof. To his delight, he sank only slightly into its cool, soft surface. He could walk on clouds! Scale helped strap him into the harness, though she passed through the vapor like any normal creature would. Then the new pegasus flapped his wings, rose too high, and bounced down into the cloud without hurting himself. "So that's what it's for," he said, shaking off a beard of cloudstuff.
Meteor said, "You can't get hurt with this thing, so flap your little heart out. Get a feel for how much power it takes to get airborne."
Diver gave it a try. He rose, rubber-banded muzzle-first into the cloud, then lifted again and strained forward in the harness. Each time he wobbled and flailed while Meteor lectured him about yaw versus roll and pitch. Surely the details were important, but didn't matter as much as the fact that he was flying. Sky Diver rose into the air under his own power, and though he crashed or sank after seconds each time, he was cooler than Superman. Muscles moved at his command like oars pushing water, and air flowed around new feathers and gave him hints at subtle currents just beyond his understanding. He'd hardly begun and yet he strained at the little training machine, learning what this body could do and that he could rise without fear.
He staggered on his next landing but kept his footing. He turned to Scale and said, "Unlatch me, will you? I need to get outside. I... I need..."
Scale said, "Oh no, you don't."
Meteor undid the harness and waved a hoof toward the door. "Go ahead."
Diver galloped out of the gym and flapped his wings the moment he was outside. He arced sharply up until the moon was straight ahead of his muzzle, and a thousand stars seemed close enough to touch if he just flew a little farther. He pushed the sky beneath him. Higher! With each beat of his wings more of the world revealed itself. He could level out and go anywhere, do anything, but going still farther meant even more range, more of the world to claim and embrace.
Though he didn't stall, he ran out of steam. His wings stopped giving him lift. Diver found himself flailing in midair, sinking in what felt like slow motion.
Meteor snagged him around the middle with his forehooves, doing an inverted roll. "Saw that coming. Stop flapping; I got you."
Diver's wings wobbled; he couldn't force them to fold when he was airborne, so he settled for keeping them straight out. In seconds the other pegasus dumped him onto the gym's roof, where Diver rolled and skidded to a stop.
"Sky-drunk's the term," said Meteor.
Diver shook himself and stood on the roof, two stories above the streets of Noctis. The perspective felt right. "Thank you. I can just hop down and land safely? And come back up this far whenever I want?"
Diver jumped off the roof and whooped, spreading his wings to catch the air. He sailed forward fast enough to risk smacking into the shop across the street. He veered off to the right and started to roll too far, but righted himself and came to a nearly dignified landing on the dirt road. For several seconds he wobbled and beat the air for balance. When Meteor landed beside him, a huge grin stretched Diver's muzzle. "Even with that altitude limit, that was great!"
"That's your starting limit."
"You've seen our kind flying higher, right? You just don't have the true heart of a pegasus yet, but you'll get it eventually. Then you'll really get to know the sky."
For all his flailing and fumbling so far, the new pegasus wanted to try that. While he was up there that time he hadn't thought about how far he could fall. For a little while it had seemed like there were no limits to what he could do. What barriers really existed, were things to overcome.
He stared up into the starry night. Maybe this particular sky he saw was just a flashy backdrop, a skybox of computer graphics, but it seemed close and it encouraged him to reach for it. "I think I understand it a little, so far."
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!