"Hold still," said the disembodied nurse, as a robot injected Andre with something. Andre's head was in a vise, part of his steel chair, so he couldn't get a good view of the human technician walking around to inspect the machinery. Blood pulsed rapidly through his skull despite the mood-dampening drugs.
"Is there anyone specific you want to greet you on your arrival in Talespace?" the female voice said. A screen in front of Andre showed relaxing nature scenes and played soft music. The technician's warm hands were poised to tighten the strap under his chin once he spoke.
Andre shuddered, already feeling distant from his aching joints and the thump of his heart. "There's no one," he said. "Great last words, huh?"
The man at his side said, "One human to another: don't let the machines spook you. You'll be fine."
"Is that why you're here? To say that?"
"Pretty much." The man strapped him in. "I'll get the surgery myself when I can afford it. Have fun!"
Andre never did get to see his helper's face, before he blacked out and the robot cut open his skull.
He woke up, which was a promising start.
He lay under a blue sky. He sat up and saw his hands: the same dark tan as they should be, but missing the little scars and blemishes he'd had. Everything else felt subtly off, too, with no arthritis and a general feeling of energy, of having been renewed. When he stood his perspective shifted, jarring him. The sky was only a low, painted dome, and he stood in a little room with a painted door that might lead anywhere.
"Welcome to Talespace, sir!" said a hovering green fairy. "You made it."
Andre blinked. "What did I do last night?"
"This is what happens when you drink too much absinthe."
He chuckled. Then the past few days came back to him in a rush. Waking up hadn't been guaranteed. But Andre had some money to pay for the surgery, after his long and frugal career as a pilot, and the game company had given him a discount to get him out of the real world in a hurry. There'd been what they called an "incident" involving an airplane flight that went out of control and nearly got him shot down as a supposed terrorist. Rather than let the media swarm Andre for interviews, the company had strongly suggested that since he was interested anyway, now would be a great time to...
The fairy bobbed in the air. "That's right, sir. You're now within Talespace, part of the Game. Give yourself a moment to wake up. Some people take time."
A message flashed across his vision like letters typed on the air. [Welcome to the world of Thousand Tales. Your greeter is available to answer questions and get you started. Have fun!] After a few moments it vanished again.
Andre took a deep breath. "I'm glad to be... alive, if being a digital ghost counts."
"It does, sir. We have our own lives in here."
"You're a real person then? Not just an AI?"
The fairy nodded. "I was human, too, and I chose what I wanted to be. But be careful what you say about AIs; some of them are real people too, in terms of having feelings and goals."
Chief of all, the AI named Ludo that had talked Andre into uploading in the first place. "All right," he said. "So, if I can live in the game, what should I actually do?"
"That's always the question, isn't it?" The fairy cast a spell that conjured up a stack of soapboxes she could land on. "Most people flit around doing a dozen different things and wear themselves out. I mean, you can visit all the different sub-worlds we have here, or make some little personalized bubble where you can eat and screw and fight to your heart's content, but that gets old really quickly. Trust me. Talespace isn't heaven; it has people in it. But you can pick something that sounds fun, and jump into it to see what you can make of it."
The hidden door clicked open. The fairy pointed to the ordinary-looking hotel room beyond it. "This place is yours for the moment, but you can go where you please afterward. I'm available to answer any questions."
Andre thought about this virtual world, and his head spun. "I think I need to lie down."
"All right. You certainly have time. Before you go, though, learn this gesture." She demonstrated a nonsense movement of her little hands, which summoned a floating set of holographic windows. "This is how to bring up the interface."
Andre imitated her and was rewarded with a display of stats about himself. There were several pages of specific numbers about strength and speed and current quests and so on, but the main page simply said:
Account type: Uploader
Main Skills: None
Save Point: None
Note: Newcomer. Say hello!
Andre snorted. Of course he was a blank, at least by this world's standards. That was his job to fix.
"Thank you," he said. "I'll see you around, I guess."
The next few days passed by in a blur. He had a hotel room floating in nothing. There'd been a gigantic tower in a cave, used as a meeting place and market. He visited one of those bubble worlds and had a short fantasy adventure of slaying goblins with a sword. Nothing felt satisfying, though. The monsters didn't exist for any reason but to amuse him. Even the food was bland, like eating styrofoam; that was a bug that everyone insisted would be fixed soon.
He was young again, potentially immortal, and subject to the rules of the game. The fairy's advice sounded reasonable after those first little forays through Talespace; it was time to pick something more specific.
So, Andre hopped through a glowing portal to one of the game's more thematic and persistent worlds, and saw:
[Welcome to Hoofland!] said the interface.
The world was bright and colorful, even in this stone dungeon he found himself in. He reached for the door and discovered his hand was gone. Instead he had a grey hoof, a hard mass like horn that could flex somewhat as though he were wearing thick mittens. A little cartoonish. He stared at it for a long time, then laughed. "I thought it was a world about cavalry and knights, not being horses!"
[Did you not read the brochure?]
Andre looked back at the portal marking the way back to Talespace's hub world, where he could pick something else. "You know what? This is fine. It could be fun to try for a while."
He waved one forehoof experimentally to try that interface gesture again. He had some trouble doing that without losing his balance, but he had more flexibility with his limbs than he would've expected. Soon it popped up with a ding. Besides the meager skills he'd earned so far, he saw that he'd officially changed species too:
Account type: Uploader
Body: Horse (Hoofland Newcomer)
Main Skills: Sword, Dodge
Save Point: Ivory Tower
Note: Just looking around.
There was a big brass key sitting on a ledge, and a lock on the door. Andre fiddled with the hooves he had now. They were sticky enough to make the key stick to them as if by static, but he couldn't make the key turn in the lock. Eventually he made a face and grabbed the thing with his mouth, to unlock the door that way. The key tasted of metal but was completely clean, which he supposed made sense; germs didn't exist in this world. When the door clicked open, a musical jingle of eight notes played to let him know he'd solved the puzzle. "Was that really necessary?" he said.
Beyond that he climbed a spiral staircase, also tricky. He had to adapt to his four-hooved body and to walking as a quadruped. He felt much more flexible than a real horse would be, but it'd take him time to master. He blinked at the thought of that. He'd transformed into something else, as easily as the fairy had made sparkly spell effects and furniture just to show off. Most of the people he'd seen in Talespace so far were human, or boring knockoffs like elves, but there was a strong contingent of other, stranger species too. The thought of being something other than human was a little exciting.
He reached the top of the stairs and made it to the open air. The world of Hoofland had a blazing sunset over a town of thatch houses, where airships plied the sky and a castle of obsidian sparkled atop a hill.
The interface "spoke" again by text. [Newcomer's Quest: Meet and Greet. You are currently a generic, undefined horse! You've arrived in the domain of Queen Harvest Moon (all hail) of western Hoofland. Meet at least three locals of different species, then report to the queen during evening hours to receive a new form and new powers. If you return to the rest of Talespace before doing this, your transformation will be undone and you'll revert to human.]
Andre whistled. He saw a horse with wings -- pegasus! -- flying through the clouds and whipping them up like cotton candy. Downhill from him stood a unicorn trimming hedges as though this were a completely ordinary gardening job. A deer trotted by in the distance wearing bulging saddlebags and armor.
Well, then, he had a mission. He'd stick with this for a little while, and see where it led. Maybe he could learn to fly with wings of his own.
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!