Tom's hands were sweaty on the swords as he faced down the masked figure. "None of that is helpful. The threshold of what?"
The one called System laughed, the sound tinkling like windchimes. "Let me explain. Unfortunately, you've suffered an accident, and now your soul is in limbo. I have been allowed to take it for my own purposes. Which are benign, I assure you."
Tom stared at the madman. "My soul, you say."
"You'll have it back when I'm done with it."
"Do you think it's more plausible that someone yanked you away from the meteor at the last second, and carried you away into a hidden jungle gym?"
"Who else are you keeping here? Was anyone else hurt by the impact?"
"Many people were, sadly. But the other person you seemed to see here was only part of my test."
Maybe this place was just an insanely elaborate prank. If not, he was being subjected to something impossible, from outside any reality he knew. He thought of the live-action roleplaying games he'd done in college so far, as a fun hobby. Those involved running around campus playing out heists or space intrigue. He had spent hours in the steam tunnels that connected the school buildings, searching for hidden treasure and shooting people with dart guns. Some students were really into these games and had cool costumes.
So it was on a wild hunch that Tom dashed forward and yanked off System's left glove.
System didn't stop him. Tom stared at what was beneath it: a starry void in negative, white space sparkled with points of multicolored darkness.
System wiggled its fingers and the anti-space slid along it as though its hand were only a window into elsewhere. "Do you wish to tear off my mask too? It's more of the same."
Tom's heart thudded. "You... you're serious. It's not a game."
"Oh, but it is. Due to the circumstances, I decided you'd be perfect for my game. Not my property, you understand; I merely run it. You'll find it more interesting than the one you came from. May I explain my offer, or would you like to touch my hand?" System held out the fleshless space that Tom had exposed.
Though he trembled, he touched System's hand. It felt like vacuum, pulling at his fingers, hot in tiny pinprick spots like the air above a birthday cake full of candles. Tom let go and stepped back, looking up into the mask. "I don't know the right questions to ask, now. What do you want from me?"
System said, "I want you to enter my world and make things more interesting. Your perspective as an outsider should help. And your particular background will help you adjust. Do you find this familiar?"
The masked one raised its gloved right hand and the air nearby rippled, creating a rectangle that floated there. Its edges were blurry, its interior that same white starfield, and it held text.
Class: Scholar 2
Divine Favor: Columbia
"What is this?" Tom said. There were more rows of information -- but System closed its fist and the window collapsed into nothing before he could read more.
"Come now; you know what this is, player of games. The power to call forth your profile is quite basic, in worlds that support it. The question is, will you play in my world at all, or accept your death and move on to whatever awaits you in your old world?"
Tom shivered. He'd crossed the line from worrying that he was being pranked and would get humiliated, to fearing that this was real. Whatever this place truly was, illusion or not, System had him in its power. "If you're serious, then what sort of world do you mean? If there are other powers than looking at a, a character sheet, then how do I get them? I need to know more."
"You do? For what?"
"To make a sane decision about whatever this is."
System held its hands behind its back. "It wouldn't do to tell you everything, but a clever fellow like yourself can learn from context. In my world several people have suffered fatal accidents or illness, sadly, and you have the chance to step into the shoes of one."
Tom said, "You mean, replacing a dying person? Can't I just jump into the world and be myself?"
"You shall be yourself, just in a different body and context. How you react to those is up to you."
A role to play, thought Tom. "And these people will just... go away?"
"They are all fated to leave my world, yes. Each one's soul will go on to our own version of the afterlife. Whatever that may be." There was a mischievous note in System's voice, now. "I won't spoil that. But here; peruse these vessels whose lives you may step into."
System clapped its hands and spread them, making the starry mass of its exposed fingers trail vapor in the air. A set of images and text appeared like posters hanging in the air. One of them said:
The Lucky Turnip-Farmer
Found a treasure that would have let him leave the farm behind, had he not been killed by bandits.
That one was a sturdy young man with a sunburnt face and calloused hands. Tom wasn't sure how lucky the fellow really was. He checked the next one.
The Ambitious Sage
Cast an epic spell that restored him to youthful vigor. It also exploded the tower he was in.
So magic did exist...
The Plucky Princess
Nearly as skilled at climbing and acrobatics as she thought she was.
"Wait, I could turn into her?" The princess wore practical travel clothes and had long blond hair tied behind her pointed ears.
System said, "Certainly. Other options await."
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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 "Virtual Horizon" or "Crafter's Passion" for my published fiction!