February 1, 2032

It had an ostentatious name; RealityImproved, RI for short, and it was the next most significant innovation in gaming. Even more significant than TruVR, which let the player fully immerse themselves in a digital world and take full control of their avatars as though the digital body were their own.

"Now don't worry," the speaker was saying, "we're still a gaming company, and this is still a gaming platform, the best in the world. But this technology will fundamentally change the game in ways you can't begin to imagine." He's a charismatic and dynamic speaker and, even though I am watching the presentation through a screen half a world away, I am transfixed.

"The old game, the old world if you will, was incredible. You could fully immerse yourself in a fantasy realm where you could grab your weapon of choice and do battle with fierce opponents, sneak through ruins looking for treasure, be a savior to your people, or the very embodiment of evil." He vaguely summed up the premise of his company's old hit game, now over a decade old and still going strong. The game had allowed you to interject yourself into whatever scenario you could conceive. You could live whatever life you wanted within the digital world from the amazing and spectacular to the mundane. It's still amazing to me that people will log into the digital world and take on the role of the ancient farmer, tending his fields, and raising animals.

"It was amazing, but something was missing. Something wasn't quite on point. Can you guess what it was?" He asked rhetorically.

"The skill system."He answered, "We created a fully immersive world where you could do anything. Sword fighting, bow hunting, warfighting with modern firearms, track game through the wild, build a house or cook a meal. It was a full digital replacement for mundane, boring life. Almost."

"Take my last example of cooking. If you wanted to chop vegetables to roast for supper, you would equip item Knife, select ingredient Carrot, and activate skill Chop. Then stuff would happen automatically, and the finished product would appear before you. It was the VR version of the antiquated skill system used in the Role Playing Games of the Console era." Rumors had been abounding for years that the new game would address that exact issue.

"Well in the new world that won't be the case. Your abilities in the game won't be dependent on what your skill level is for a given skill; it'll depend on what you know how to do. So basically to chop vegetables, you'll have to grab the vegetables, grab the knife, and chop the vegetables. Beta testers can't even tell the difference between the game and real life!" Oh, my god, this was worth skipping school for!

"We think this will change, not just the game, but the whole simply, whatever you can do in the real world can be done in the game, and whatever you learn in the game can carry over into real life!" I don't think I've ever been this excited. "And when you factor in the altered chrono-flow within the game, you can learn or master virtually ANY skill in a fraction of the time it would take to do so in real life. The only thing that won't carry over is the physicality of it all."

The crowd was going nuts. Journalists were shouting questions, and fans were ; we. It was chaos.

"Yes, that is terrific news," He said when everyone calmed down, "but we aren't done yet. You may have heard that we acquired a small tech company that was working on teleportation, yeah? You guys remember hearing that? A few years ago? How about the ladies? Anyone?" The audience could barely contain themselves, "Well hold on to your socks folks, because we are about to blow your mind!"

A flock of birds took wing, darkening a patch of sky about 2 miles in front of him and something picked at his senses, more like the memory of sound than actual sound. He heeled his horse to a fast gallop intending to end this chase before they reached the swamp, giving themselves much more favourable fighting odds.

He had been hunting for over a week now, leaving the guttering flames to lap at the ruined village as he quickly picked out the tracks of the Orc war party that was responsible for the devastation behind him. Usually tracking them was a waste of time, even on foot they could almost match a horses speed at full gallop, and mounted they were virtually uncatchable.

He had been roused from his sleep amongst the tall grasses of the plains by the soft wicker of his horse, Bear. She had excellent instincts for danger, and he was awake immediately, the last vestiges of sleep a faint memory at the back of his mind as the early pre-dawn coloured the horizon to the east. At first, he wasn't sure what startled her, there were no animals native to this area that could pose a threat to either of them and before settling in for the night he had made sure to scan the ground for tracks and other signs of danger. One of the benefits of wandering casually is that you have nowhere to be and can, therefore, take your time on certain things. Then as he stood cautiously to a half-crouch, looking towards the village he had intended to arrive at just after dawn today, he saw the faint red-orange glow of fire. In mere moments it had expanded to what must have been the whole village.

He broke camp quickly, gathering the few possessions he had unpacked and putting them back in the saddlebags and then putting the saddle and bags on Bear, tightening the straps. He cast about for anything that had been forgotten and was satisfied that there was nothing. He was mounted up, and Bear was at full gallop almost before he had fully settled in. He loosened his sword in his sheath and readied his bow and arrows, thrilling at the prospect of the danger that awaited him.

He and Bear were in total harmony, dancing the dance they had shared countless times in the past, horse and rider becoming one deadly instrument of war. To his surprise four Orc scouts pulled in easily around him when he was less than a half-mile from the village, There shouldn't be Orcs this far south. One came close, reaching for Bear's reigns with an over-long arm. The Orc wasn't expecting any resistance and was totally unprepared when John leaped off his horse and onto the Orc's lizard-mount. With the ease of long practice, his arms snaked around the Orc's neck and twisted hard, giving a loud snap as the creature went limp and slid from the saddle to be trampled beneath his mount.

He took the Orcs abandoned reigns and whipped the animal into a sprint that Bear couldn't hope to match, but there was barely a seconds reprieve before the other Orcs closed the gap, slashing out with their deadly curved swords. He barely had time to draw his sword to intercept a decapitating blow. A frenzy of swinging sabres and clashing steel punctuated the night. His blade parrying and blocking with the deftness of countless survived battles. A powerful saber slash took his stolen mount from beneath him, and he threw himself into a roll, absorbing the otherwise bone-shattering impact of the fall and coming up to slash the leg from one of his opponents' mounts, returning the favour.

The Orc were a physiologically odd offshoot of humanity, with large, fierce eyes that could see as well in pitch dark as during the day. They were man-shaped but with smaller torsos and overly long arms and legs who's spindly appearance belied a frightening strength and speed. Their natural posture leaving them squatting with their knees up near, or even behind their shoulders, they moved with a cat-like predatory grace that was only made more frightening when they stood up to fight. An image bolstered by the pointed teeth in its grinning maw.

Dazed from the fall, even landing in the soft grass of the plains, it took everything he had to match blades with his gangly opponent, more than once he had to sacrifice his pack to absorb a strike he couldn't dodge or deflect. And then the other Orc's arrived turning it into a three-on-one fight.

He had heard the tales of the Orc's toughness and ferocity and only now realized how unprepared he was to fight them. He would have been killed and left in the grass for the carrion birds. But Bear arrived just in time to cause a fuss, trampling one with her front hooves, and spinning fast to kick her powerful back legs out, catching another in the head, its body turning to a boneless heap as it collapsed. Few things were as dangerous as a fully trained warhorse. The third Orc was surprised for just a split second, but it was enough for John to bury his blade to the hilt in the creatures slim middle. With a hard thrust sideways flesh and sinew ripped and Orc guts spilled onto the plains.

"Thanks, girl. I owe you one." He said, breathing heavily and he patting her neck. He took a moment to search the bodies for anything that he could sell or barter, almost falling over in surprise when the orc Bear had trampled was still alive despite the decidedly torn and rag-like appearance of its arm and chest where Bear had pivoted on it to kick its friend.

"Damn, you guys are hardy aren't you?" He thrust the tip of his sword through the creatures head, and it went still.

Finding a dagger of exceptional craftsmanship, some swords, and some various medals and a gold tooth or two, he was extra cautious to destroy the creatures brains before approaching. Better safe than sorry.

By the time he got to the village, there was no sign of human or Orc, just tracks in the torn up grass that he had no trouble following.

Now he was at full gallop, standing in his stirrups with an arrow nocked to his bowstring, ready to be drawn back and sent through Orc skull once he was within range. So far so good, he had snuck up on the scouts in the night and dispatched them quickly with the aid of stealth and surprise. Getting his first real look at his target, he saw a big cage of vine-lashed timber with big wooden wheels making a clear track to follow. A dozen Orc mounts were harnessed to pull, and many Orcs on foot were pushing. It made for very slow going.

He let his arrow fly and nocked another one, loosing it as soon as he had aimed and fully drawn. At this distance the flight time allowed him to have three arrows flying and another ready before the first struck its target, an orc at the back of the group, who fell silently with a shaft neatly bisecting its head. He loosed his forth arrow and grabbed another, flowing effortlessly with Bear as she surged across the plains.

Three more Orcs fell in this manner before one of them noticed and raised the alarm, his arrow was a second too slow to stop it. He loosed two more arrows, wasting them as the Orcs saw them coming and just batted them away. Then it was time to stow his bow and take up the sword. As he moved to engage the Orc nearest the human prisoners, he tossed off the bundle of Orc weapons he had collected, so that the humans could defend themselves.

The next second he leaped off Bear and tackled the Orc warrior with the finest armor, hoping that when the leader died the rest would lose heart and be easy to kill. The Orc was fast, strong, ferocious and highly skilled in the arts of martial combat. But so was John.

He had underestimated the scouts at the village, going into battle weighed down by various packs and pouches, things he usually wore while raiding tombs and ruins where he would rarely have to fight more than a few opponents of barely average skill and ability that sometimes hid there. This time he was unburdened by equipment that was unessential for killing.

The orc lashed out with his sabre; thundering blows coming in lightning quick, but its shock turned to anger as John utterly refused to be a quick kill, blocking, deflecting, or avoiding lethal blows as the two danced around each other seeking a winning stroke. John closed with the Orc, pressing blade for blade, both warriors jockeying for position and advantage. Finally, an opportunity presented itself. John dropped his sword, pivoting to the side and using his freed sword hand to chop the Orcs throat. Stunning the creature and gaining a moment's advantage. His dagger came free in his off hand, and he thrust up under the monstrous creatures chin and into its brain, snuffing out the vicious light in its eyes.

His little assault had gone off without a hitch, and the prisoners had been able to free themselves and take full advantage of the opportunity he had provided. He ignored the humans as he dispatched the few remaining Orcs as they scattered. When the fighting was done, he began to loot his dead enemies. When Bear came to his whistle, he started loading down her saddlebags, hoping to be on his way before the rescued prisoners could rope him into an escort mission. He was unsuccessful.

The elders were grateful and the women eyed Bear with the instinctive horse love that seemed innate in all women, artfully ignoring the blood and gore on the chargers hooves, and ooh-ing in amazement as a deep slash in her flank knitted itself back together when he poured a glowing blue liquid fire from a vile that he had produced from a small leather case attached to his belt. Bear loved the attention and no amount urging would convince the horse that they needed to be going now.

It took better than a week to get to the village, even with Bear harnessed to the wheeled cage pulling while only the pregnant women and elderly rode while the men pushed and the women and children walked alongside. Eventually, he was able to leave them at their village and head for home, where he could get a hot bath, barter his new goods away, see after his estate and duties, and sleep in his own bed.

He set off at an easy canter, taking in the majesty of the land he found himself in. Plains flowing as golden, emerald, scarlet, and even azure grains danced with the breeze. Foothills rolled in great waves of unbroken emerald to the west with dark mountains towering behind them. And before him, just over the horizon, was a verdant forest of mighty old growth trees holding up the sky. Not the kind of haunted forest you might expect in these times, but a majestic symbol of the King's power and protection in the realm.

The tops of the trees had just come into view over the horizon when a thick column of dust came into view as well. A large regiment of armoured soldiers. He kept on at his easy canter, guiding Bear to the edge of the King's road once the troop came into view. Even friendly soldiers hated having to move out of your way; they felt you should move for them and they should be free to march in formation down any of the Kings roads with impunity.

"Hail Mercenary, at work again?" Came a call from the man leading the column.

"Well met, Dav." John called back. It was uncommon for a civilian to call an officer by anything but an honorific and proper name if it was known, but they were practically brothers. The best of friends and in complete lockstep, sharing many daring adventures until a twist of fate had sent Daven to the military and himself on the path of the wandering swordsman.

"Where are you headed?" John asked as Dav signalled a halt.

"Out to Tolin." He said, indicating the direction John was coming from and the very village that he had left only two days ago, "A farmer came into the garrison almost a week ago saying the town was gone, raided by Orcs and no one was left. We're going to investigate. But I suppose you were there, and everything is fine now?" He asked with a knowing smirk.

"More or less." John nodded, "but it might be worth going there anyway."

"Oh?" Dav asked, quirking his eyebrow and signaling his lieutenant to come closer.

"Yeah, there was something strange about the way the Orcs attacked. Normally they only take what they can kill and escape with quickly, but there were almost forty people in a giant cage. It was slow going, and I didn't see any sign that any were killed or eaten, except in the initial attack. And why were they so far from the swamp and willing to take so long getting back?"

"I think you're right," Dav replied, "It would be worth going down there. The Orc's clearly wanted something, which means I wholly oppose it."

Sometimes it was hard to remember that Dav wasn't a real person. AI technology had come a long way.

The two friends exchanged pleasantries and soon John was back on the road, lost in thought as Bear charted their course, guided almost exclusively by her inborn desire for apples, oats, a good rub down, and her comfy stall in the stable.

March 28, 2028

"So how is it, John?" A man's voice emanated from a light that appeared beside him, flitting about like a lightning bug, but without the bug.

"It's incredible." John stated, "I still can't believe this isn't real."

"It is marvelous, isn't it." The voice said wistfully.

"Sometimes its hard to remember the accident or the hospital or anything but this place, and my life here in the games." John said, referring to his real life, and the car accident that left his mind intact but his body completely unusable to him, like a literal prison. "How am I anyway? Still a half-dead meat sack?" He asked.

"A little more than half, but you know what I like about you, John? You don't beat around the bush." The voice said, "But since you bought it up, I have bad news and slightly-less-bad news."

"Let me guess. I'm still a useless meat-sack but you saved money on your groceries by something-about-that-hotel-from-the-commercial?"

"I'm very, very sure that you used that reference wrong in at least four different ways."

"Sounds about right."

"Anyway, bad news; you'll never heal. Your mind is still completely disconnected from your body, and that's not likely to change. Now for the good news. I'm pretty sure I can fix you."

"How?" John asked, incredulous.

"You remember that Trans-matter thing I told you about?"

"You mean your stupid-its-not-magic-but-its-totally-magic teleporter?"

"Yeah that. Anyway, we've got it nailed down, we have all the algorithms locked in to be able to completely deconstruct and analyze a person on the atomic level, transport them at light speed and rebuild them exactly as they were. We'll be announcing it at a conference soon."

"That's pretty cool." John admitted in spite of himself.

"Totally." The voice agreed, "What we're working on right now is using a repurposed version of the technology in hospitals to help people heal. Break parts of them down molecule by molecule and put them back together in a perfect, non-broken, condition. We're taking it very slow because its a tricky ethical and legal minefield, and just plain hard as all hell, but it looks promising so far. We're currently working with wounded soldiers, police, and firefighters where the situation is like 'hey I know you're losing your leg anyway but can we try this thing first and see what happens?' They usually agree after I've taken out a cheque, written a one on it, and followed it up with a sufficient amount of zeros." Jim was so blunt when he was excited about his projects.

"Any luck so far?" John asked hopefully.

"Kind of. We can't do repairs yet, but we have a pretty solid success rate for being able to remove the limb and heal the stump, so that's something."

"That sounds like magic." John said with awe in his voice, "downright miraculous."

"Any sufficiently advanced technology can seem like magic to the uninformed." He quoted some forgotten philosopher.

February 1, 2032

He couldn't believe it; four years had passed from the time of that conversation. Four years in the real world, many lifetimes in the digital one. And now he was finally about to be unveiled to the world. Right as soon as Jim was done talking. It could actually be quite a while yet.

"…Well, hold on to your socks folks, because we are about to blow your mind!"

He paused for applause, but you could have heard a pin drop, almost a thousand people, and they barely seemed to breathe. The rumor mill had been churning for months; they just wanted the official confirmation of what they already knew.

"So I met John online. Lucky for the both of us, we were members of the same guild in the same game, at the same time. We adventured together and had tons of fun. But something seemed off; John seemed a little too at home in the game. He was just a little too good. And he knew everything about everything, almost literally. We branched out to other games, and he was almost always immediately way too good at those too. I joked that he must be on all the time to be so fluid in the Digital and, to my surprise, he said that at that point he had been logged in for almost five years. No breaks."

He was telling my story now, so I knew it would be my turn to go out soon.

"See John had been in a bad accident, that left him totally trapped within his own body. Deaf, blind, totally unable to move, and completely without sensation. His lungs wouldn't work on their own and neither would his heart. Or any other organs for that matter. By all standard definitions, John was dead."

He's describing a point that I've come to call 'the darkness.'

"John would have been relegated to an obituary, except that his accident happened near a research hospital that was testing our hardware as a way to communicate with their more invalid patients. And to their shock, John was still there." The crowd gasped. I remember the first point of light in the darkness, my consciousness being dragged into the machine.

"It was the first time that they had ever been able to communicate with an otherwise dead person, and they rushed to hook him up to life-support to prolong the encounter. And it just kept going. As a result of that, we have made huge leaps and bounds in our understanding of human physiology and how we work. You all owe John a huge debt of gratitude." He said.

"Do you want to meet him?" The crowd cheered.

"John, are you there? Can you hear me?" He turned to the screen behind him, intending to lead the audience to believe that I was still in a hospital bed recovering until the very last minute. Jim liked to shock people.

"I hear you, Jim." I said as I walked out onto the stage, just how we rehearsed. Stagehands rushed to bring out chairs and water and set up a sort of fireside chat situation. Jim feigned surprise and the crowd whipped into a deafening roar, mostly positive, that lasted until well after Jim, and I had sat down and gone off script just chatting a bit. Mostly he told me I was doing great.

"John, you've had quite an interesting few years." Jim said as the crowd calmed down, "Can you tell us a bit about it from your perspective, and what you plan to do next?"

"Well Jim, as you know I spent a LOT of time in the Digital while my body was unusable. I went on all sorts of adventures across all kinds of games and learned a lot of skills that I think would make me an asset to the military or something. I know people will argue that I'm a young man, and they might think its stupid that I'm going to potentially throw my life away on a battlefield somewhere when I just got a second chance. But I don't feel that young." Something was off. I couldn't put my finger on it, but every instinct I had developed across several lifetimes was telling me to be vigilant. "As you know time flows differently in the digital, I feel like I have lived several lifetimes, and in most of them, I served in the military in one period or another. I feel like its part of my soul. Although part of me would like to follow mom into law enforcement."

Suddenly there was a commotion in the crowd as someone I didn't recognize all but tore through the curtain behind the stage and time seemed to slow to a crawl. He wore a nondescript mask, like the one from classical theatre, hidden within the deep hood of a black robe that covered his head to foot, but something about the way it draped over his body made alarm bells rattle in my psyche. Jim had stood up to address the interloper, but his body language told me he had yet to recognize any threat.

Something was in the man's hand. I lunged for Jim and used a judo throw to off balance him and throw him into the crowd. He was still in midair when something from behind hit me like a crashing tidal wave, and I too was airborne. The world went black and I never even knew if I hit the ground.

To Be Continued