Since Diver hadn't saved the world, it'd take a little time to make a new one. The age of limbo passed quickly. In reality it took several times longer than Diver's subjective time rate let him experience. Days went by as Ludo and many other people planned. Lots of work for the representatives to yammer at each other and hash out a plan, the hiring of other Talespace residents to throw some surprises into the new design, and the mundane task of shuffling data around. There was talk about putting Hoofland on its own cluster of servers for some reason, though it had no obvious effect on anyone there. For all Diver knew, his mind might be stored anywhere on Earth.
Diver took a little vacation. He hadn't "left" Hoofland so he didn't feel guilty about his commitment to stay there, this time. He explored the massive Ivory Tower in its cavern world, then walked around in the college town that had sprung up around its base. The Thousand Ales Pub ("Since '37") stood out as a popular hangout. Inside were wooden tables, TVs showing Earthside sports and more surreal games in Talespace, and various college pennants.
He said, "Who's up for an adventure?"
"Why?" said a unicorn who was playing darts using telekinesis, against a dwarf. It looked like some of the Hooflanders were relaxing here and annoying the rest of the bar crowd, which was mostly human.
"I need to brush up on some more skills, to get ready."
"Geez, take a break."
The bartender looked up from a book. He was a centaur who towered over most of the customers. "He's right. If you're Earthside you've got more important things to do than questing. If you're here, you've got plenty of time. Oh, hey, you're an uploader, aren't you?"
"I might want to run some tests on you sometime, if you don't mind. I'm trying to fix the smell/taste problem." He waved a glass mug around at the colorful crowd. "Are you happy right now, mister?"
Diver snorted and flicked his tail. "Yeah. So?"
"I bet you were busy before your world exploded, and you're going to be in a panic when it starts again. When was the last time you did something besides explore and fight and worry about the future?"
It had been a while.
"Exactly," said the bartender, seeing Diver's expression. "So take a break. Reset. Then you can come at your problems from a fresh angle."
The local beer was pretty good despite the barkeep's insistence that "it doesn't work right, yet". Diver hung out with the dwarf and his friends from Midgard, the main fantasy zone, where people were founding kingdoms of their own. The unicorn with them lectured everyone on how there was destined to be just one cross-dimensional empire before long. There was gossip about the Forces of Evil, a nasty bit of news about protests at Ludo's "Fun Zone" restaurants (and VR parlors) in the US, and a nerdy argument about whether wizard-style or shaman-style magic was better.
Diver said, "We don't do either in Hoofland, I think."
The dwarf said, "You should fit your horse stuff into Midgard. Why not have a nation of your own in the same world, with the same rules? You don't need to segregate yourselves away from the rest of us."
Diver reached one hoof up to touch his head, near his eyes. "We get different senses that work with the physics there. I'm starting to miss being able to see air currents and voltage."
"Mental changes, huh? Can't say I approve."
"Why not? We can be something new in there."
A pegasus in green murmured, "Another one of those night moon darkness sorrow guys."
Diver's ears perked. So far, nobody here had talked about their allegiance within Hoofland, and who'd be killing who in the new world. "Do you really want to get into that here?" he asked.
The other bird-horse backed down and returned to his drink. "Nah. We'll see who takes over."
The centaur barkeep called out over one shoulder, "Take any bar fighting to the back room. The furniture in there is replaceable."
One of the unicorns grinned. "You guys want to have a good fight? No looting."
Diver said, "Sure, if there's a save point nearby."
"I'll take you up on the back-room fight," said a blood-red earthbound stallion. It took Diver a moment to recognize him without all the scorpion-style blades, from when he'd been killing Sonia's audience.
Diver startled and got up from the cushion he lay on, spreading his wings. "You! What the hell?"
Someone restrained Diver with a hoof. "Easy, now."
The scorpion said, "You take it too personally."
"So you're an uploader after all? And you still treat people like dirt?"
"Dude, the fact that I'm hanging out in a public chat room doesn't mean I had my brain scooped out to join your cult. I'm sitting in an airport being bored and waiting for my flight. Now fight me or drink your imaginary beer." He flipped a coin over toward the bar. "Bring him another."
Diver scanned him.
Note: For Sunward Ho!
Faction Flag: Sunward's Chosen
Diver itched to beat him up, but didn't want to give him the satisfaction. He drank, saying little as the conversation went on, and headed out without joining the arranged bar brawl. "How did I go into a tavern in this world and not fall in with a party of adventurers?" Diver groused.
So, his idea of teaming up with his own kind hadn't worked out, but he still got to have some fun while his "homeworld" was getting rebuilt. He went out to an ocean zone called the Endless Isles, where he was suddenly human again, and flopped onto all fours without a clear idea of how to walk upright anymore. His character sheet said:
Account type: Uploader
Main Skills: Flight, Brawling, Wingblade, Magic, Dodge
Save Point: Noctis Castle
Magic: Aeromancy (Initiate)
Note: Invader From Another World!
Faction Flag: Night Guard
"Human!" he said. That asterisk next to his Mind stat was more accurate.
As an experiment he tried walking, with some trouble, and spent a while hanging around on a tropical island trying to beat up lizards and gather pretty shells to sell at the local village. He saw some people who had wing-arms and beaks like harpies, so there was some potential for flight, but at this point he wasn't sure he ever wanted to go back to being bipedal long-term.
Back in the Ivory Tower district he realized that for the most part, ordinary human players of Thousand Tales couldn't hop back and forth between worlds like he was doing. The Tower cavern was a cross-world zone, a sort of backstage area inhabited almost completely by the full-time residents, namely the uploaders and AIs. The literal tower in the center served as a university, and there was some kind of way for regular humans to hang out at that bar (virtually, Diver had to remind himself) but the cavern was basically a no-humans area.
Crimson Sting and others like him had gotten a special pass to Ivory Tower as a way to let them keep using the same characters during the downtime. That was an interesting thought: for many players, it was the first chance they'd had to interact with Ivory Tower much. There was only a token amount of actual gameplay here. You might get jumped by kobolds or something while wandering through the cavern, but there wasn't the same kind of fancy orchestrated questing that other zones held. This place was more like the real world -- a real world -- and Diver was curious to watch how the human visitors treated it. He hoped that more of them got long-term access, to see what became of the place.
Soon, the time had come to hop through a portal again, to a staging area. A tiny world that'd been set up just to hold the horses on their way to the replacement Hoofland. Except... he felt watched.
Adventuring parties gathered in clusters on a vast, featureless floor. Everyone was naked, lacking their weapons and armor from the last several objective years' work. It'd taken some negotation to make people willing to give up their stuff, and their world would probably lose some Earthside players who felt cheated. But it was their world, not the humans', and any losses were just bits of data for the people outside.
Diver looked up and saw a hazy set of arena bleachers crowded with spectators from across Talespace and beyond, ready to watch the equines' first adventures in a new world. There were even reporters. He waved up at the crowd and said, "We who are about to fly, salute you!"
The entire many-bodied Noctis stood together, chattering to themselves. He murmured, "Ludo, can you hear me? I guess you've put a lot of work into this."
A silent message appeared in his vision: [Me? No, it was mostly your fellow players. Why spend my own processing cycles to micromanage everything, when I can get you guys to do most of the work and have fun doing it?]
Diver chuckled, then looked to Harvest Moon. "Are you ready, your majesty?"
"Don't 'majesty' me yet. There's a lot of work to do, first."
He'd thought about trying to become a Noble himself, but why? He had the power to run his own life already, and it was the only one he was responsible for.
A countdown flashed in the sky above the queen's Night Guard party. Staggered timers showed that other groups and solo adventurers were going to enter the new Hoofland at slightly different times to keep the servers from bursting. (They were being stuffed full of horses, after all.) One by one the first few groups vanished, and the queen counted down to a new world.
"Giddyup!" said a narrator's voice, and the world faded out, then in.
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!