What if you suddenly find yourself in a realm of unexplored possibilities, where technology is indistinguishable from magic in all its splendor? A reality where each game location is a transformed physical world of one of the planets, interconnected through an interstellar network of portals? Where the player's "avatar" is a real physical body with extraordinary survivability? Indeed, it would be foolish not to savor the dream once you're in it!
But here's the thing... You remember nothing about yourself, and the "sandbox" of the intercivilizational game "Universe X" is a deadly place for newcomers. There is a line, beyond which recovery is impossible.
"Avatar creation completed."
I was surrounded by darkness. A glowing, green inscription was persistently flashing in front of my face.
In utter silence, I lay prone for what seemed like minutes. Trapped in a tightly closed space, stuck between dream and reality, I struggled to figure out where, and who, I was. The lid of the "container" opened abruptly, interrupting my train of thought. Blinding light poured inside, forcing my eyes to tear up.
Damn, that hurts!
Instinctively, my hand flew up to protect my eyes. However, something was wrong. My muscles were reacting quite slowly. It took a while before I managed to shield my eyes from the searing light.
"Оut," ordered an unseen voice. "Come on, move it!"
Strong fingers caught me by the shoulder and forced me to sit up. My body was obeying poorly, as if it had been sick for a long time. My arms and legs were shaking. I felt dizzy and unable to open my eyes. Whenever I tried to raise my eyelids, the light would blind me. I could only hope that the stranger, annoyed as he was, meant me no harm. I decided that it was better not to resist. When my feet touched the cold floor, I realized that I was completely naked. I should have realized that sooner. Compared to the warm and snug container, the "outside" was quite chilly. My skin was crawling. "I sure hope that this is not a morgue," I thought, somewhat distantly. The box they dragged me out from was akin to a coffin.
The unseen man grabbed me by the arm and dragged me away, almost throwing me onto a hard, cold seat.
"I'm going to inject vitamins to stabilize you. Don't move!"
The injector hissed. Something stung my shoulder. I twitched.
"Don't try to stand up until the vertigo subsides."
Was that a joke? As if I could even if I wanted to. There was no need to rush then. When you don't understand what's happening, it is always better to come to your senses first. I didn't need any new injuries. It wasn't long before the dizziness passed and I started to feel better. My muscles felt rejuvenated. Those were some potent vitamins. However, they made me feel itchy, so I scratched my shoulder. I cautiously opened my eyes. As the light was no longer blinding me, I had a look around.
The huge oval hall was full of rows of rectangular sarcophagi; all matte black, with strange glowing symbols on the sides. They reminded me of virtual reality capsules. There was about two feet of empty space between the rows. The left and right walls were completely covered with dozens of containers placed into square slots - storage chambers, most likely. In front of each sarcophagus was a seat made out of a grayish, spongy material. I was coming to my senses sitting on one such seat. The ceiling was a single light panel. The light wasn't sharp, but soft, yellowish and calm. It felt as if I was using my eyes for the first time. They were having trouble adapting.
The stranger that had pulled me out of my sarcophagus stood some five steps away from me. Judging by his looks, he seemed to be twenty to twenty-five years old, flaxen-haired, with a mix of boredom and impatience on his lean face. He was attending to a naked girl. "Birth rules" seemed to be the same for everyone, regardless the gender. The stranger was probably the resident technician. Let's call him "tech".
He growled something inaudible and helped the girl out of the sarcophagus. He sat her in a chair and used the injector on her shoulder, too. Once he was done, he moved on to the next sarcophagus.
This time I could watch the retrieval procedure from the beginning. I imagined the "instruction manual" for the process and, in my mind, it went something like this: run your fingers over the buttons on the side of the sarcophagus, wait till the cover rises vertically, throw in a couple of encouraging words like: "move it, dimwit!"…
…then roughly drag the patient outside.
The next patient was a man in his fifties, youthful-looking and athletic, with a touch of silver on the temples of his short black hair. He tried to act the moment his bare feet touched the floor, but was too weak to stand on his own. The tech led him to the chair before disappearing from sight.
Looking at the new patient's hair, I reflexively ran my hand through my own. Just as I thought, I was as bald as a cue ball. Not a single hair left. No wonder my head felt chilly. However, there was some sparse growth on my cheekbones and chin. Hopefully, it looked stylish.
My gaze returned to the girl. Leaning against the back of her chair, with her eyes closed, she was coming to her senses. Light flowing from the ceiling exposed her naked body. My curious gaze slid over the alluring curves. The girl seemed unaware of the strangers around her. She was quite the cutie; redhead, like a fox, a bit plump at the waist and hips.
Swearing silently, I looked away. It wasn't appropriate to stare like that. It would be nice if I could cover myself with something, too. Should I try and call the tech? No way. That would attract everyone's attention and make things awkward. Trying to make as less noise as possible with my bare feet, I peered into my sarcophagus. My intuition did not fail me. Near the foothold was a small baggage slot in which I found a singlet, shorts and a pair of shoes. Minimalism embodied, but it will do for now. I got dressed quickly and decided to be courteous to the girl. I retrieved a similar set of clothes from her sarcophagus and placed it on her knees.
"Are those…clothes?" she asked, still frowning. Her voice was pleasant and a bit hoarse after awakening. Thin fingers firmly grasped the bundle. She quickly felt it over and instinctively pulled it to her stomach to cover herself.
"Indeed it is," I confirmed amiably, trying to force myself to leave. Yet, I still stood there, examining her face.
She had mostly Caucasian features with a slightly elongated eye shape, which gave her an exotic charm. Lush, golden-red hair framed her pretty face and reached to her shoulders. Her lips were plump and nose moderately sharp. As I said – foxy. She looked about twenty years old. She had a nicely sculpted body.
Hey, heeey! Enough staring already! Have you got any decency left, man?
"Thanks," she said shyly, her eyes still closed.
Summoning all of my leftover willpower, I stopped gawking and went to help the man. I rummaged through his sarcophagus and threw the bundle into his lap as well.
"Here, buddy. Better get dressed before the lady wakes up. We don't want to make her uncomfortable."
It was time to find out where, and who, I was!
I was not amused. I couldn't remember my name nor my past. Nothing rang a bell.
From what I saw, there was just one exit from "the sarcophagus hall". The tech must have gone there. With resolve in my step, I headed towards the exit.
However, after just a couple of steps, the hall reverberated with a loudspeaker-amplified voice.
"Attention! All newcomers proceed to the briefing room immediately!"
I almost jumped in surprise.
The cat was out of the bag. I looked at my fellow companions.
Despite his age, the older man turned out to be an athletic type. He helped the girl up and, holding her by the arm, led her towards me; a picture of a caring dad, given the difference in their ages. I wondered if the girl was coming to her senses slower than we were, or was she just pretending to be helpless in order to evaluate the situation better?
I probably seemed like a distrustful character. How old was I even? It was hard to judge age by gut feeling alone. In my heart I was forever fifteen.
I carefully examined myself. I wouldn't call myself an athlete, but I was definitely not a weakling. My body was quite strong, even lean. Yet, my legs were somewhat skinny. Was it due to a life of skipped leg days or genetics, I didn't know.
I looked at my palms, and then turned my hands to check the back. My skin was smooth, but not the youthful kind of smooth. I was probably in my early thirties, maybe in my late twenties. An odd way of determining one's age, but the person's face and hands aged the quickest as they were exposed to the elements.
"Attention!" the thundering roar reached my ears. "All newcomers proceed immediately to the briefing room! For the slow-witted – speed it up, you dead amoebas!"
The tech was obviously asking for trouble. I would let it slide for now, since I still didn't know where I was and why I was there.
I entered the small and simple, but functional, briefing room. A row of worn out leather armchairs stretched in a semicircle along the silvery plastic wall. In the middle of the room was a table with a holographic screen floating above it. Everything was clean and quiet. The air smelled like sterile ozone.
At that very table sat the tech, observing the newcomers with an irritated glare. Only now, in the brightly lit room, did I manage to have a better look at him. Half of his right ear was missing and it clearly looked as if something sharp had cut it off. The faded scar was a memory of a wound from long time ago.
"Get in, sit," hurried the tech. "Hurry up! The briefing will be short. As soon as you step out of the 'Replicator' and get into the game world, you'll have to find your own answers."
I flopped into the nearest chair and, not paying attention to my companions, suspiciously glared at the tech. I felt like I took a hammer blow to the head. A game world. A Game. Damn it! Was it really that simple?
"What's the hurry?" I asked, raising my left eyebrow. "Will the world outside run away?"
"I'll explain for the wisecrackers," the tech awarded me with a cold stare. "I have been instructed to do so, after all. Players are required to use their own brains, so you will have to manage without ready-made answers. However, I must tell you the basics. By the way, we wasted a minute because of you."
"Please, go ahead," "Pops" glanced in my direction with a scowl, as if I didn't just ask a simple question, but actually did something terrible. "The girl and I are listening."
"The girl and I." I couldn't help but smile. That was quick. I myself wouldn't mind to get to know the pretty stranger better when the situation clears up, but he beat me to it. The girl nodded without objecting, the same stunned expression on her face. It seemed that the revival in the sarcophagus really was psychologically harder for her than it was for "Pops" and me. Well, as the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. Right now, there were more important things than personal relationships.
"So," said the tech, leaning back into his chair and glancing at us with an irritated expression of a man already bored to death, "you are probably trying to figure out who you are and why you don't remember anything. To save us some time, I will let you know that those were the conditions you voluntarily accepted before entering the game."
"And what's the game's name?" I asked. "''Go- God-Knows-Where', or does it have a specific name? Also, you didn't introduce yourself."
"That's two minutes of the briefing wasted." The tech shook his head in disapproval, looking at me as if I was an annoying insect. "If you wish to go on interrupting, let me know right now. I'll end the briefing, and you'll go into the world as is."
Why was he being so arrogant? Because we were "newbies"? This was just a temporary situation, after all. Capable newcomers usually quickly caught up with advanced players, the so called "pros". His attitude pissed me off. I hated being used as a doormat for no reason. I couldn't hold back my comment.
"Wouldn't your higher ranks kick your ass for sabotage in that case?"
"One more minute lost, rookie," the tech smiled with glee, clearly enjoying the situation and abuse of power.
"Enough already! Calm down!" "Pops" shouted.
"As you wish, buddy.…"
I crossed my arms and legs and tried to look independent. For the sake of my "companions", I'll keep my mouth shut. I didn't want to get anyone in trouble. "Foxy" looked at me surprised. Her beautiful green eyes observed me through long and thick lashes.
The tech still didn't bother to introduce himself. Well, if that was the case, I'll call him "Ears" for irony's sake.
Having made sure that order was restored; "Ears" started his lecture in a condescending, didactic tone.
"You are avatars of real people; their true physical copy with genetic modifications for increased survival. Regeneration of the avatars' bodies, for example, is ten times higher than normal…"
He glanced at me with suspicion, waiting for an interruption. I remained silent.
With nothing to complain about, "Ears" went on.
"Your first task is to get acquainted with the world and your abilities, which you will do in the starting zone."
"'Sandbox'", I thought sullenly. "The training area is commonly called 'a nursery' or 'a sandbox'. I do remember something useful, after all."
"The necessary survival kit will be issued to you at the inn," the tech continued. "The system assigned you identification numbers, but for further game interaction you will have to pick a nickname. Right now. Well?"
"'Well', what?" I said, raising an eyebrow. "Am I supposed to choose a name right away? That's the most important part of the game, you know?"
"The names are temporary. You can change them at level ten," he grimaced, annoyed, as if he had explained this a hundred thousand times already. "Time is ticking, you better think of something quickly!"
I looked at the girl and gave her a conspiratorial wink.
"Let it be 'Fox' for her. Or 'Foxy'. Is that okay with you?"
She smiled uncertainly and nodded. Contact established. She's a quiet one, got to stir her up before the other guy gets his hands on her.
"As for him," I nodded at the silver-haired man, "he's going to be called 'Pops'."
"Well, I got a nickname for you too," Pops grinned. "A perfect name for an asshole like yourself... 'Wisecracker'."
"Thanks, at least it's not 'Asshole'." I laughed, not even thinking about protesting or being offended. The names were temporary, after all. I'll think of something more interesting later. Nicknames usually get shortened and ''Wisecracker'' will eventually become "Wise". The name wasn't that bad. Maybe I should just leave it. Although, "Wizard" would have sounded better. "Wise" sounded a bit harmless.
"Accepted. Foxy, Pops and Wisecracker," "Ears" shrugged with indifference. He was probably already picturing himself in some bar with a drink in his hand, away from this tiresome enlightenment process.
"Moving on... There are four initial classes in this location – mage, rogue, warrior and cleric. Each class includes several basic specializations, or 'specs', and you can adapt your future development accordingly. You don't get to select your class. The system will do it for you. At level ten, you will be given the opportunity to change both your class and your nickname. You will have enough time to familiarize yourselves with the system and find out what your capabilities and preferences are. Furthermore, at level ten, you will also have the opportunity to select a profession. Work diligently and you will be rewarded with not only personal development but financial independence as well. A savvy player will benefit from both. Until you pick a profession, you will have access only to the basic 'gathering' skill. Do not be lazy. Pick up soul crystals, and you won't have any trouble supporting yourselves."
"Outside of this room is a world of magical technology. Get your shit together and get adjusted to the environment. Your progress begins in the most peaceful server in the game, fitting for newbies. However, there's plenty of danger here, too. Until level ten, you have only three lives. If you can't handle that, that's your own problem. The game will not waste resources on completely hopeless dumbasses who can't wipe their noses without help. So... welcome to 'Universe X! Good luck. I'm off to sleep."
The lights suddenly went out.
The room filled with darkness, instantly erasing the outlines of the surrounding objects. I flinched, feeling as if I went blind.
"Oh, what's happening?!" Foxy's voice was a mix of surprise and fear.
I heard her jump to her feet. Bumping loudly against the edge of the chair, Pops rose up hastily and muttered angrily.
"Why the theatrical effects?! Who will show us the way to the inn?!"
I knew how my unwitting companions felt. However, I decided not to act rashly. It was best, and safest, to remain seated. As expected, the situation cleared up in less than a few seconds. A quiet sigh came from the right and I felt a gust of fresh air. I immediately turned my head and saw a shadow quickly flash in front of the doorway. The damn tech ran out of the room.
Fortunately, there was light behind the door.
Having crossed the threshold, I ran down a short flight of stairs and came to a sudden halt. The sight before me was breathtaking.
I had found myself in an enchanting garden.
An acute, but pleasant smell came from the strange vegetation. A soft breeze rustled the arrow-headed leaves of the bushes framing the path. In them, coloring the darkness and fluttering from twig to twig, twinkled bright and rather large fireflies. Actually, they weren't fireflies. I looked closer and could not help but smile. What an amusing imagination the creators of this world had.
"Guys, these are fairies!" Foxy blurted excitedly, looking at the dwellers of the bushes with wide eyes.
"Yeah," I happily confirmed. "Buck naked ones, too."
Buzzing quietly with their transparent dragonfly wings, the tiny winged girls, the size of my palm, fluttered among the branches. Their bodies glowed from the inside with an amber luminescence. Their figures, although miniature, were extremely seductive and every proportion perfectly shaped.
"Had enough admiring?" chimed a nearby, low voice.
A tall male silhouette stepped from a lateral offshoot onto the path.
Two little fairies, obeying the wave of his hand and a flick of his fingers, immediately left the cozy thicket. They soared higher and hung above the stranger's broad shoulders.
His appearance resembled that of a typical starter-level mage.
His jacket and trousers were made of coarse grey fabric and his pant legs were tucked into knee-high leather boots. A bag was strapped over his left shoulder and an intricate pommel, made out of polished steel stylized into a solar disk with nine short rays, stuck out from behind his right. A wide-brimmed straw hat adorned his head. A wide belt, bearing both a short-sheathed dagger and a gleaming metal flask, encircled his waist.
The beating of wings intensified, and the feminine bodies flared brighter, illuminating the young, bearded face of the stranger. His eyes flashed cheerfully. He smiled benevolently and introduced himself.
"Call me Grant. Follow me, I'll show you to the inn."
He turned and confidently stepped into the darkness. The little fairies followed him, lighting the way.