Summary: In a grim future, self-discipline and determination are tested through escapist methods.
As I cut down the Grand Dragon, I found myself returning to a real world I'd half-forgotten about. I was in a room with many of my peers, creche-mates still connected to their brain-to-brain interfaces. They still dwelt in a virtual fantasy world, avoiding its needs as much as they avoided those of the real world.
I'd been immersed in that realm so long, I'd almost forgotten why they sent us. That was by design, after all. It was possible to find enrichment, family, satisfaction, and pleasures of all sorts in the simulation. Non-invasive brain-to-brain interface made the sensations as intense as any in this world, and perhaps even more so. It was easy to spend one's adolescence, and even adult life, forgetting it was a test.
I was among the third or so that successfully met my requirements in the simulation, solving problems I was assigned in that reality in novel ways. It wasn't all a Platonic cave, for the simulation gathered data about key sociological and psychological insights. Chief among them was our grim present, with its rising seas, political turmoil, and unstable environment, was not one most people could cope with.
Societies worldwide had less resources than before. Therefore, it was important to invest them only in those with the most discipline and determination. That was how we survived in this dangerous world, while enabling a humane existence for those who did not wish to face it. Paradoxically, one of our rewards for "winning" the test was the ability to shape it. That was how the fantasy world's pantheon and politics changed, through the motivation of those able to move beyond daily concerns.
I wondered if that was how things were in the real world, too. That's certainly what the instructors wanted us to believe. The old systems were limited, far less able to identifying the truly creative and capable. Perhaps this era's method was better, or perhaps we simply had less resources and opportunities than the old days. Either way, I'd faced the dragons of one reality, and I had another's to deal with. I hoped I'd be as successful with these.