Some timeless interval later, letters appeared slowly in his vision with clicking, as though typed:
System notice: Hoofland was destroyed. If you live there, don't worry: we'll have something up and running shortly. In the meantime please wait in this backup environment. If you were one of the ones that caused it: you get an achievement award for that. Now never do it again.
There was nothing else. Then some semblance of reality returned: a crude world of blocks, forming a wooden hut on a grassy field.
Diver looked around, then found he had no body. He could move by willing it, and open the hut's door the same way. Inside was a generic data tablet with large buttons offering to let him read various books or a Talespace news feed.
He had no breath, no ability even to shudder. Diver called out but there was no sound either. The visual environment was here to help him stay sane, but it did nothing for his mood. His friends were hopefully either standing up Earthside while their computers blinked the error message at them, or relaxing in copies of this same vanilla world.
He willed himself vaguely to move toward the tablet and tap its buttons, without actually having a body. The news headlines said, US President Floats Anglo Union: "Never Should Have Left". Fighting Intensifies In Grenada Region. Fusion For All: New Reactor Design 30% Cheaper with 20% Less Heat. Challenger Launch Faces Threats, Delays. Nothing about his home. There was, however, a story about the Iron Harvest Vineyard, where Ludo-affiliated robots were growing grapes above land so tainted by World War I that it was off limits to humans a century later. Strange, thought Diver; the vineyard was a sort of monastery doing good in the real world but still isolated from it.
He stood, bodiless, and read a guide to Hoofland's gameplay. It was helpful to have more background information on how the various powers worked. Or did work. At least this disaster was due to the griefers rather than something even worse befalling the Outer Realm. He hoped.
Eventually a message told him, "The error has been identified. Your mind data is intact; don't worry. The error code was #6, involving a game data exploit. (Be very glad it wasn't Error Code #1-3 or #13.) A public gathering is scheduled soon to restore your full access to Talespace."
Diver would've shrugged if he could. It was good to know he wasn't trapped forever in limbo, but he still couldn't do anything but read. Out of curiousity he tried punching one of the blocky trees outside, but nothing happened.
The tablet's files had some info on how other people were living within Talespace, as examples. There did seem to be some people whose living arrangements weren't much different from this place: a room, physical needs either absent or easily satisfied, and access to all of the books. Others fought endless battles to rescue endless horny princesses, or (it was rumored) less pleasant activities that forced them to be walled off from everyone else. The admirable players were the ones getting outside of narcissistic little bubble-worlds to create content for others, or to learn and grow in others' presence. Diver thought back to the video games of his youth and scoffed. He'd tried a few big multiplayer games and found them extremely shallow, with little interaction. He was lucky to have some real friends to explore the worlds with, for some value of "real".
Later, he appeared in a small indoor stadium, seating a few thousand people. The field in the middle was nothing but grass. He looked around at equally confused horses, deer, griffins and other Hoofland races, then spotted Nimbus and waved. He spotted his own hoof and smiled at it. He didn't have full sensation yet, but he was at least back to normal.
A griffin flapped into view from a hazy light above, and landed in the center. She stood taller than any similar creature, and her feathers shined in blue as though lit by rippling water. "Greetings, citizens of Hoofland," she said. "I apologize for the apocalypse."
The crowd murmured. Ludo! Diver hadn't seen the AI overlord since he'd left the virtual world's starting area. She didn't often appear in Hoofland, at least openly.
She said, "As some of you saw, the recent invaders from Earth found a glitch in Hoofland's physics that rapidly created an infinite amount of lava. It was pretty clever, actually. Unfortunately it had the side effect of destroying everything on the ground and lagging the world so hard it risked interfering with vital systems. I had to shut it down. Each of you is here because you're either an uploader, a native, or representing a collective-intelligence native."
Golden Scale was in the stands, but not shadow players like Major Key.
"The last usable backup of Hoofland is the weekly one from five days ago."
People groaned. Diver joined in; five days meant everything he'd experienced would be wiped out as though it'd never happened! At least, his treasures. He supposed his brain wouldn't be reset, nor the natives' memories of him.
Ludo raised one wing. "I know. That's why I have another option to run by you, before we consult the Earthside players. It would be possible to restore from backup and effectively turn time back. That's option one. Option two is to create a new, exclusive copy of Hoofland, only for those who live here. You need never fear attacks by outsiders again, and we need not bother trying to limit griefers who have no stake in this world. What do you think?"
"I have friends out there," said Diver. A lot of other residents were saying much the same thing.
Someone called out, "We can't cut ourselves off!"
"Show of hooves for that?" asked the central griffin. Not many. "That's not surprising. Here's another idea. In the early days of Hoofland it was built without a great deal of continuity." Her beak curled in a frown. "It's also rather small, isn't it? A few hours' walk will take you much of the way across the map."
A few people murmured assent. Diver chuckled as he realized: She's an artist looking at this disaster as a chance to revise something that didn't quite please her. He said, "Out with it. What are you trying to replace my world with?"
The AI turned suddenly to him with a touch of guilt visible in the set of her wings. "Hoofland version two. A world built with full knowledge that uploading is possible, designed to welcome newcomers and Earthside players and to be a true home rather than a game that happens to have people living in it. Certain physics code ought to be revised, that I'd never had the chance to. It nettles me."
Scale said, "What about all the things we've built? There is no town of Noctis right now."
The thought disturbed Diver. If Noctis was a single mind controlling all the interesting "NPCs" in town, then the absence of an actual town must've felt like some kind of paralysis, or like being a ghost.
Ludo went on. "What I propose is to start again, with the minds we have, in a new world. If the invaders want to control places of power, they can, but becoming a Noble should be a boon only for those willing to live here. I would reset all of the control points on this new map, meaning no Nobles will exist until a new generation of them earns that right."
Harvest Moon stood, plainly visible by her bearing even amid the other brightly colored equines. "You risk having us not care. Do you want this new work of art of yours to gain leaders chosen only from the most aggressive? We didn't come here to play the old games of dominance, and some of us... as you know, some of us have been seeking a new perspective."
The griffin nodded, tapping her beak with her talons. "Many of you have discussed this line of thinking with me. You want to stay engaged with the world outside, but you also resent being a 'secondary world' that exists mainly to amuse the outsiders. So, what if the race for Noble status also carries certain obligations to both realms? Those who have the title can lord over Hoofland, but will also be expected to actually help manage it and to coordinate the residents' Earthside efforts. That should discourage players from taking over just because for the challenge."
Voices clamored, until someone made himself heard: "What's going on right now? Are humans sitting at screens and getting an error message?"
"The message says we'll be back soon, and 'good game' to the griefers. I'd like to get things up and running again, but I shouldn't be standing here in the middle of things and telling you what you should have. Why don't you all take a few hours to talk it over and get back to me? Consider it an experiment in democracy."
The stadium exits opened onto a warren of streets lined entirely with identical taverns. The interiors were full of tables, bars and faint but lively violin music. Diver's senses were still mostly dead, and there was no food or drink, nor thirst or hunger. He would've preferred having the needs and the ways to solve them. Judging from the taverns' copy-pasted layout and the simple simulation, he sensed that having everyone together like this was straining Talespace's computers. The virtual world seemed designed more for wide open spaces than for a gathering of many minds, each of which took more processing power than many square miles of scenery.
Harvest Moon tapped him on the flank with one hoof, making him turn. "There you are," she said. "We're electing a dozen or so representatives to settle this business and remake the world."
"You have my vote, then."
"I'd actually like to request your vote for Nimbus."
The bat-winged mare looked startled. "Me?"
The queen said, "You're more trustworthy than either of us right now."
Diver resented that; he'd killed a few people since the change, but he'd established that that sort of fighting didn't count as wrong. No one had accused him of having gone violently mad just because he'd had his brain rewritten.
"Then what do you think I should say to the other representatives?" Nimbus asked, looking around at the queen, Diver, and the others who'd gravitated toward Harvest Moon.
Diver said, "Hoofland should be a place for the people with a stake in it, first. If people want to play from Earthside, fine, but this is our world and they're our guests."
One of the others groused, "Damn free-to-play accounts. Have you seen some of their names? 'Bullet Hell', 'Panzer Tank'. Wannabe heroes in ludicrous lime and purple. They don't take this place seriously. They could at least buy a hat or something to show their support."
Danio the zebra found their group at one of the big round tables. "For me it's a normal thing to be the Other, so it's interesting to see this attitude toward humans. We call them shadows, but we are their shadows, imitating their battles, their politics and even their furniture. Consider these chairs. These are chairs for humans." They had high seats and upright backs, lifted from a generic fantasy graphics set.
Diver thought of the fancy equipment he'd borrowed, the nerdy talk of game statistics and how skills linked to numbers -- and how those things stacked up against the reality of Earthside players whose real hackers and weapons could knock Talespace down like a sandcastle. "What survived the apocalypse is the people, and our friendships and minds. Those are our real resources, not how many magic crystal toothbrushes we make."
"Culture," the queen said. "We may be imitating the outward form of Earth royalty, but we can do more with it than play at conquering each other's land."
Nimbus looked around at the huge gathering. "But that's exactly what we'll tend to do. We're still human. Unless..." She shut her eyes and her wings quivered. "This is going to sound ridiculous."
Diver reached out with one wing, though he couldn't feel the touch. "Go ahead."
She said, "We've given up on the life we had on Earth, but we kept what was important to us. 'Better to lose an eye than burn intact', right? We lost our world today to get the chance at a better one. If we're really going to keep splitting our attention between Hoofland and the outside, then we need to get serious about that. This world has cleric characters. What it doesn't have is a specific belief system. I say we start one."
Harvest Moon asked, "An actual religion?"
"Yeah. Focused on protecting our world and using it for good. It can bring people together whether they're natives, uploaders or outsiders, against the jerks who only see it as a toy."
Danio nodded. "It was coming to this. There was a religious vacuum. But now someone must fill it."
"Not 'someone'. We don't need specific gods."
"Leaders, at least. Nobles who can direct people's efforts." Danio looked to his queen, and others' gaze drifted toward Harvest Moon too.
The queen looked at Nimbus. "I expect a free-for-all once the world is rebuilt. There will be room for more Nobles. Besides, you currently have no arena to get back to. Maybe you should be more than my underling."
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!