6 chapters free!

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

It had been a long and mentally trying day for Xavier filled with the normal medical tests and his overprotective aunt trying to do everything for him, but the end was in sight. Same old, same old. The hum of his massive motorized wheelchair and the squeak of his aunt’s shoes on the polished floor lulled him into a strange state of detachment. He had been down this hall so many times that it had become rote.

 

Lurking behind his aunt were six silent bodyguards. Xavier suspected they wouldn’t make any noise if they tap-danced across broken glass – ever present, silent watchers whose eyes never stopped evaluating everything around them for threats.

 

He had lived with his aunt since he could remember. After all these years the permanent, unsmiling, besuited bodyguards had become a familiar part of the background. So much so that Xavier almost didn’t notice when the guards opened the doors in front of him, checking for threats before they entered.

 

It wasn’t like he couldn’t open the doors and walk through the hospital by himself. He could, but the tendency for his skin to split open when he moved without his wheelchair and the tremendous pressure his bulk put on his bones kept him sitting still.

 

Thankfully, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. After years of theories on what was wrong with him, the doctors thought that they had finally figured out a fix for his condition. As the elevator headed down to one of the basement floors for his final checks, Xavier couldn’t help but be hopeful.

 

A chime announced the arrival at their floor, and the soft hiss of the doors snapped Xavier out of his reverie. The long, neutral hall stretched out into the distance. Pale pastels, intended to be soothing, presented the promise of tedium and wasted time. The bland hall was currently full, as a man in a delivery uniform struggled to push a massive crate down the corridor.

 

At a touch from his aunt, Xavier’s massive wheelchair hummed out of the elevator and down the hall, the large wheels squeaking against the hospital tile. Xavier looked up at the 8-foot ceiling, thankful that he was sitting. At least sitting down, he did not have to duck. Silver linings, right?

 

A nurse coming toward the elevator squeezed past the delivery man with a wheeled bed. Appreciating the soft curve of her backside, the delivery man leaned out for a second look as she passed him. Blocked by the large crate that was in his way, he leaned out to the side, causing his precariously balanced load to shift forward. Twisting to the side, the box began to topple toward the bed.

 

The nurse heard the scrape of the box as it shifted and only had time for a gasp before it came crashing down. In a desperate attempt to shield her patient, she threw herself across the bed and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the pain she knew was coming.

 

Yet the impending crash never came, and a couple seconds later she opened her eyes in confusion, looking up. And up. And up. Met with the sight of the largest person she had ever seen casually holding the massive crate, she stared in open-eyed amazement at the giant who had saved her.

 

Dark hair cropped short above a massive face with a rugged brow and a strong jaw gave the intimation of attractiveness, yet the ideal was ruined by the skin that stretched across his cheekbones, pulling back on the corners of his eyes, nose, and mouth, creating a grotesque caricature of superman. Just bigger. Much, much bigger.

 

The giant smiled at her and she smiled back, lost in the surreal situation until rapid splashes of red blood snapped her out of her dazed state.

 

“Oh, you’re bleeding!” she mumbled, still half in shock as she watched blood rain down from the giant hand that gripped the edge of the box to join a pool of blood that was beginning to form around his feet.

 

“Well, would you look at that?” responded Xavier, his deep bass voice echoing through the corridor as the bodyguards swarmed forward.

 

Twenty minutes later, Xavier sat next to his aunt while a nurse finished taking care of his wound.

 

“Always the hero,” Julia teased, poking at his broad shoulder. “You should have left it up to the guards rather than hurting yourself.”

 

“You’ve taught me better than that,” Xavier said with a slight smile.

 

Soon the doctor arrived and sat down next to Julia, handing her a large stack of papers. Xavier stayed in his wheelchair to avoid towering over the other two or breaking a chair. His hand had been bandaged to prevent additional blood loss, and a nurse had finished taking a blood sample to run some more tests. Holding his bandaged hand to keep the bleeding from starting again, Xavier looked at the doctor with some interest. Rather than the normal boring tests, it seemed from the doctor’s expression that something new was going to happen, and whatever it was, it would be a welcome break from the monotony of his normal routine.

 

Ever since he was little, and his condition was discovered, Xavier had been stuck in the same routine. Sitting, studying, slow Taijiquan exercises, and doctor’s tests. The school and Taijiquan practice were not so bad, but after so many years the sitting and doctor’s exams were starting to wear on him. There was very little excitement in his life, a fact that made him hyper-aware of any changes. Speaking of changes, his aunt had been trying to hide something from him, a birthday present most likely, and Xavier wondered if the visit today had something to do with it.

 

The doctor looked at Xavier and his aunt, Julia Lee, pushing his glasses back on his nose. As Xavier’s only surviving relative, Julia still had custody of Xavier until he turned 18 in two years, though no one looking at Xavier’s 8’ 9” frame would ever imagine he was only 16 years old.

 

After many years of testing and treatment that yielded no results, a fringe researcher had come up with an idea to help, and through cooperation with the Horizon facility, the doctor was here to suggest it.

 

Going over the information again with Julia and Xavier, the doctor explained, “Even though we’ve talked through this exhaustively, Ms. Lee, I still have to take Xavier through the process for the sake of both our legal rights.”

“Xavier,” the doctor turned to look at the giant boy. “If you choose to proceed, you will be undergoing a new type of nanodermatology treatment that is being referred to as CNB, Cutaneous Nanite Bonding. It is a new treatment that has been pioneered by a medical research facility in Switzerland. While it has not been cleared for general use, you have been approved to receive the treatment because it was developed using your body as a model. We’ve been aware of this treatment for a couple years but have been hesitant to suggest it because of your accelerated growth rate. Your tests over the last year have shown a significant decrease in growth so it became an option.”

Taking a deep breath, the doctor looked between Xavier and his aunt. “The only catch is that the treatment will take some time. Due to your higher-than-average mass we are estimating that it will take at least two years. During that period, you will need to be in suspended animation the whole time. I know it is a lot to take in, but how does all this sound? Do you have any questions or concerns?”

“It is a bit overwhelming, truthfully.” It took Xavier a couple moments to process before his deep voice rumbled out. “So, I’m going to be dead to the world, out for two years?”

“Ah, not quite,” The doctor jumped to his feet and grabbed a stack of papers from a cupboard, handing them to Xavier. “Suspended animation is a bit different from what you see in the movies. The classic example is someone frozen in ice for some time and then thawed out later, right? That is not what we are talking about. With the advent of Nova Terra, technology has developed to the point where we can take an individual’s mind to a new world, leaving their body behind for a short period of time.

“In order to facilitate longer periods of uninterrupted gameplay, Horizon, the company that makes Nova Terra, has developed what they call ‘extended suspension’ through the use of special game pods that monitor the health of the user and provide nutrition, muscle stimulation, and waste removal. Think of it as an extended vacation from your body.”

“You’ll be playing a game for two years straight,” Julia cut in. “That amounts to 14 years due to the time dilation. A single hour in the real world is equivalent to seven hours in Nova Terra.”

 

“Wait, so I’m going to be 30 when I get out?” Xavier asked, horrified.

“No, no,” the doctor laughed, waving his hands. “You will be 18. Only two actual years will have passed. It is a pretty interesting phenomenon when you think about it, but it is completely natural. In the real world, it is called being in a Flow state, where time seems to shrink or stretch based on the activity you are doing. Nova Terra keeps you in a constant Flow state, stretching time so that you experience seven times as much as you would in the outside world.”

“That does not seem safe at all.”

“It is, though. The human brain is a magnificent thing, and we have almost thirty years of research and study that demonstrate no side effects from this. You do not need to worry.”

 

Xavier was a bright kid, so he was particularly concerned about the possible impact of prolonged immersion on his brain. Despite his youth, he had finished primary and secondary school years ago and had even completed two degrees, one in Business Management and another in Urban Planning. After all, what else is there to do besides school when you could not move about?

It was a shame that, despite his smarts, he was unable to live as a normal person. Xavier had long dreamed of being able to see the new worlds that virtual reality had begun to offer, which made this idea immediately attractive. Xavier glanced at his aunt, who was watching him, trying to guess his feelings about this.

Xavier couldn’t help himself and let a smile spread across his face. Up to this point, his life had been tedious. It wasn’t as if he lacked for anything, no it was the opposite. There was no struggle, no effort needed. If he wanted something, and it wasn’t bad for his health, then his doting aunt bought it for him.

 

Forget the fact that he was many times richer than she was, she wouldn’t even let him use the absurd amount of money his parents had left him. Hemmed in and coddled by all who met him, the thing he wanted the most was freedom, and the idea of being in an adventure game like Nova Terra was an amazing opportunity to get that freedom.

Julia Lee gave a small sigh of relief. She knew her nephew well and it was obvious that Xavier was excited about this idea. After a few more minutes of talking some of the details through, she nodded at the doctor. Xavier would be sent into the game where he would spend the next two years of real time while the treatment worked to repair his body.

The papers signed, and a date set for the following week, Xavier and Julia made their way out of the hospital and toward the massive all-terrain vehicle that they drove. However, as soon as they exited the hospital doors, the flash of lights announced the gathering of paparazzi that seemed to follow Julia around like gnats.

“Ms. Lee, Ms. Lee, is it true that you are engaged?”

“Ms. Lee, what are your thoughts on the rising energy costs?”

“Ms. Lee, you are being accused of setting up a hostile takeover of DeHauser Energy. Do you have any comments on that?”

Their security was expecting it, and it wasn’t long before they were able to force their way through to the car. Pushing past the crowding reporters, the leader of the security team opened the butterfly door of their vehicle and pulled down the ramp before guiding Xavier’s chair up into the car and into its place where it locked in.

“Thanks, Henry,” Xavier nodded at the guard.

“Of course, Master Xavier,” the guard responded, his stern face breaking into a smile. All of Julia’s employees adored their giant charge. Glancing back at the paparazzi pushing against the rest of the security team, Henry grimaced. “Sorry about all the noise, sir. Next time we’ll use the private entrance.”

“It’s not a problem, Henry. The pictures are good for my aunt’s publicity.”

Julia, a drop-dead gorgeous blonde with a figure that even gods would kill for, was the most eligible bachelorette in the world, helped, of course, by the fact that she was also a minority shareholder and the CEO of Atlas, the largest energy company in the world. Rich, smart and beautiful, it was no wonder that the tabloids followed her like puppies. Seeing her grumble, Xavier couldn’t hold in his smile.

 

Most of the ride home was spent discussing Xavier’s coming immersion. Julia had played Nova Terra since its release and was well established. Combined with the fact that the majority of her business was done in the virtual city of Fantasia, Julia was well versed with virtual reality.

“Xavier, you should join me when you get into Nova Terra. This game is not the same as other games, and it takes a lot of work to get established.” Julia flipped her hair over her shoulder.

“Come on, you know that work is the last thing I’m afraid of,” replied Xavier with a smile.

“I know, I know. But you don’t understand how different it is. It is not like any MMO that you have ever played. There is no grinding, no leveling up, no health bars or anything like that. It’s pretty much real life and it’s as dangerous. To some extent, it is like the wild west. Untamed and lawless. Unless you have the strength to protect yourself, you are at the mercy of other players.”

 

“What about quests and storylines?” asked Xavier. “Don’t games have to have a story?”

“They practically don’t exist,” grumbled Julia. “Normal games have level progression; Nova Terra only has mastery. There are no experience points or anything of the sort. Want to learn to fight with a sword? Start practicing. Want to learn magic? Figure it out. There is no system assist or any sort of auto-targeting. The same is true of storylines. At least, there isn’t a ‘story’ that anyone has discovered. The game has history, but there is no final boss.”

“Wait, then what do you do?”

“You do what you want to do. You can do anything. You can live in a city and make shoes for NPCs. You can join a pioneering expedition and settle a wilderness town. You can hunt monsters and slay dragons. Well, not that last one. At least, no one has been able to yet. We’re working on it, though.”

“You’ve been playing for a long time, right? What have you been doing?” asked Xavier. He knew his aunt played Nova Terra, but they had never talked about it since he wasn’t able to participate, and she didn’t want to make him jealous.

 

“Oh man, let me tell you! We have the best mercenary corps in the entire game. Prettiest, too,” replied Julia with a smug look. “But this illustrates my point. It took me four years in real time to build up the Society of Roses. That is almost 30 years in Nova Terra! You can’t step into the game and expect to make quick progress.

“First I had to establish the group and then gather players. I mean, it took countless years for everyone to train to the point where they were good enough at fighting to complete the missions! And that is not even considering our reputation as a group. We only managed to get a permit to build our headquarters in the capital a year ago. If you take the time dilation into account, it took us 21 years in game. 21 years of calculated moves and hard work.

“We had to work our way up, managing our relationships with other groups and the powers in the world. Nova Terra is not like a game where each NPC has a couple quests and lines of dialogue. They all have their own lives; to the point that you could accept a quest and then come back and find that the person who gave it to you went and died. Or started a new business. Or got married or had a kid. At the end of the day, Nova Terra is another world. And like the real world, life moves along without you. If you’re serious about going it alone, you’d better be prepared to work for what you want. If you put in the time and effort, you will be okay. Nothing of value is going to come easy, but everything is achievable.”

Furrowing his brow, Xavier thought for a minute, his eyes drifting across the scenery outside his window.

“Then where is the fun? Isn’t the point of a game to provide entertainment? If Nova Terra is so hard, how is that different than real life? There must be something about it that draws people in. I mean, almost 70% of the world plays.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. It is fun. Really fun. It isn’t as uncomfortable as real life. Like, you don’t sweat no matter how hot you get. Everyone’s hair looks great no matter how much you have been running. It is like life, but with most of the uncomfortable and inconvenient parts edited out. But Nova Terra is more than that. When it first came out, it was a game, but when they built Fantasia it became as important as the real world.”

 

“Fantasia? You mean the city? Isn’t Fantasia in Nova Terra?”

 

“Not quite. It sits parallel to it. So, you can hop back and forth. Think same universe, different planet. I do almost all my business there because of the time dilation. That is the only way I have time to play.” Julia smirked. “Almost everyone in the business world uses Fantasia to handle their business and Nova Terra to relax.”


CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Seeing the large smile on his aunt’s face as she talked about Nova Terra, Xavier couldn’t help but think back over the many years he had lived with her. She had gained custody of him from birth after a tragic accident took the lives of his parents. Julia, only nineteen at the time, had stepped up to play the part of both mother and father to him. Not to mention, Julia had taken on a leadership role in his parents’ multi-million-dollar energy corporation.

 

Xavier hadn’t even made it to the hospital to be born when a drunk driver turned his parents’ joy at the coming birth of their first child to a nightmare. His parents had survived long enough to be brought back to the hospital emergency room, but both passed away during surgery. Miraculously, Xavier survived both the crash and the emergency c-section that followed. His aunt rushed to the hospital only to find her sister and brother-in-law dead.

 

Xavier had grown at a furious rate, dwarfing other children of similar age. His bones and muscles grew so strong and dense that he was walking by the time he was two months old and was almost four feet tall by the time he was one. This astounding growth left the pediatricians who were monitoring him dumbfounded. His ever-increasing diet fueled his rapid growth, and the doctors could only attribute it to some unknown form of gigantism.

 

As he got older, he began having problems. His bones, organs, and skin struggled to keep up with his massive frame. Almost daily his skin would stretch and split, leaving bloody trails across his body as his skin cells tried to duplicate. Despite his abnormal strength and the size of his bones, gravity began to prove too much for him. Facing this difficult situation, the doctors were at a complete loss, trying one failed treatment after another.

 

For the past sixteen years, Xavier had gone in and out of hospitals around the world, trying every conceivable method to solve the issue with his body. His aunt, who had proved to be a successful businesswoman in her own right, had spared no expense. She wasted a veritable fortune on treatment and research no matter how obscure.

 

In this unprecedented case, Xavier’s muscles and bones were almost 32 times stronger than normal, allowing him to move his 840-pound body like a regular sized person. However, even though Xavier’s body was much stronger than was reasonable for someone with his condition, far surpassing the limits of normal humans, his weight still caused him to struggle to support his body.

 

In fact, by standing to his feet, he easily broke the World’s Strongest Man deadlift record. Unfortunately, the pressure of gravity on his bones had caused numerous stress fractures in his hips and legs over the years, and, by the age of eight, Xavier had found himself unable to walk without a mechanized brace.

 

To complicate his situation, his medical condition caused him to be threatened by the danger of literally ripping through his own skin. The result of his massive musculature meant that any sudden action would cause his skin to tear open, accompanied of course by lots of blood and pain. Careful movement was still possible, and through technological aids like his electric wheelchair and his mechanized brace, his life could have a modicum of normalcy.

 

After getting home, Julia got him settled in his room and reminded him that his Taijiquan instructor was going to be coming in half an hour. While he waited, Xavier opened his computer to do some research. From what he knew already, Nova Terra was a gamer’s dream, but it differed from many of the games that existed previously.

“Information on Nova Terra,” Xavier said, watching the computer create a virtual library for him. Seeing the huge amount of information still streaming in, he narrowed the search. “Basic game information.” Soon he had a manageable amount of information in front of him, and he began to browse.

No visible stats, no damage counters, the game was touted as the first true alternate reality. If you could do something in the real world, you could do it in Nova Terra. The ads boasted unlimited freedom, restricted only by ability and resources. Judging by the variety of posts on the message boards, it wasn’t an overstatement to say that you could do anything in Nova Terra so long as it did not fall into the category of certain criminal acts.

Xavier had not even scratched the surface of the information on the game when a knock at his door let him know that his instructor had arrived. Clicking open the door from his computer, he moved to the edge of his massive chair and grabbed his robotic frame. Strapping his legs into the supports he pushed a button on the side of his chair, and with a hydraulic hiss, his chair pushed him up into a standing position.

Standing at five feet tall, Ms. Chen was dainty, with short hair and a gentle looking face. Although he was almost twice her size and countless times her weight, Xavier greeted her with the utmost respect. She had been teaching him for many years and was more of a grandmother to him than a teacher. The fact that he had once watched her completely thrash ten of his aunt’s best bodyguards at the same time helped, as well.

 

“Hello, sifu.” Xavier greeted his teacher, his mechanized brace helping him bow slightly.

 

“Hello, child. Julia informed me that you will be leaving us soon. Then we better get all the practice in that we can. First stance.”

 

“Only for a few years. Supposedly, when I get back out of Nova Terra, I will not need this brace anymore.”

 

With the assistance of the mechanical frame, Xavier was able to move through each of the stances that they had been working on. He had been doing Taijiquan for almost 11 years, but the nature of his condition had made progress rather hard. He tried passing from stance to stance smoothly, focusing on his breathing, relaxing his body to avoid stiffness and gathering his strength in anticipation of each of the moves.

 

“You’ll still probably be as clumsy as an elephant,” grumped Ms. Chen, pushing him to correct his stance.

 

There was always a slight clumsiness that could not be overcome due to the mechanical frame, but overall, Ms. Chen was satisfied with his efforts. After two hours of careful practice, she climbed up on Xavier’s massive chair to give him a kiss on the forehead.

Since he was rather sweaty, Xavier moved to his bathroom after saying goodbye to his teacher. He had designed his personal living space, so he didn’t have to duck as he walked through the door and into the massive shower. Peeling off his sweaty clothes, he showered and got changed. Each one of his actions was focused and deliberate. The more he thought about living in a world free of the danger of hurting himself with a simple movement, the more excited he became.  

 

The days passed slowly, too slowly for Xavier, whose anticipation grew every hour. Thankfully, there were tests to do to make sure nothing would go wrong with the immersion process, otherwise he might have gone crazy. As the day got closer his regular routine was interrupted as the hospital set up his pod and had him try it out.

 

For Xavier, who had never enjoyed the opportunity to pursue life the way others were able to because of his physical condition, Nova Terra promised a level of normalcy he had only dreamed of. While swords and magic and dragons were not normal, at least he could experience them the same way as everyone else.

Sitting next to the floor-to-ceiling window in his room, Xavier looked over the well-manicured lawn and neatly pruned trees that dotted the southern side of the estate. For years, he had been trapped. Trapped by his body, trapped by the perfection of a life where everything was handled for him. It was almost time to break free.

 

The day before his immersion, Xavier accompanied Julia to the Atlas headquarters to complete the final paperwork. Because he was a major shareholder in Atlas, they held a board meeting to explain his situation and set up the procedures for decision making while he was in Nova Terra.

 

“This paperwork is a drag,” Julia complained, flexing her cramped hand. “If I have to sign another paper my hand will fall off. You sure generate a lot of paperwork for someone going into a game. I can’t wait till you are finally in Nova Terra. Then I might finally get some time off.”

 

“Then you’ll finally have time to go on dates with one of the hundred guys who called you yesterday,” countered Xavier with a straight face, earning himself a scowl.

 

“Forget it. I am too busy making my guild the number one guild in the world.”

 

“Oh yeah? How close are you?”

 

“We are doing pretty well.” Julia sighed. “There are a lot of good players in Nova Terra and, unfortunately, they play together. We rank in the top ten, though the rankings tend to fluctuate a good bit. Considering the restrictions on our guild, I am quite proud of what we have achieved.”

 

“What sort of restrictions?”

 

“Well, we only accept women into the guild, and we are a pure mercenary corps, which means we do not take on anything that isn’t a mercenary job.” Seeing her nephew’s confused look, Julia smiled. “There are many things that a guild can do in Nova Terra. We handle requests from other players and NPCs. Other guilds might trade in luxury goods or sell production items in a store.

 

“Some even hunt for rare creatures or explore the game. With how large Nova Terra is, people haven’t even scratched the surface of the game. According to the rumors floating around, there is an entire storyline that we have not activated yet. But that is a rumor at this point. With all the different things that we could choose to do in Nova Terra, we have decided to focus on mercenary jobs.

 

“While we might take on a job to guard a merchant caravan or a bunch of miners, we won’t run our own caravan or do the digging for ore ourselves. We do have a production branch, but we use everything they produce ourselves. Because we restrict ourselves to a specific kind of work, it is a bit harder for us to expand than guilds with a diversified portfolio.”

 

“That makes sense, I guess. All those restrictions are self-imposed, right? What made you decide to play that way?”

 

“That is an old story,” Julia paused to tuck a stray hair behind her ear. “About thirty years ago, I was in another guild, but the leader was a total jerk, so I quit. When I quit, a bunch of the other ladies quit, as well. We wanted to show him that we could make a guild that was even better than his.”

 

“Thirty years ago? That would have made you, what? Four years old?”

 

“No, thirty years ago in the game. This was four years ago in real life.”

 

“Right. Time dilation. So, what happened to the old guild?”

 

“They ended up disbanding about three years ago, after we crushed them in a tournament. When we left, we took a good chunk of their core players and the three best player versus player casters in the game. PvP combat is a huge part of the game, so losing us crippled their ability to compete with the top tier guilds. Most guilds solve their problems through duels or team fights, so after we left, they suffered. All the other guilds started to pick on them. I mean, we did too, but we actually had a reason.

 

“After they collapsed, we continued to grow as we found other players like us. I don’t think there was ever an official conversation about it, the rules formed naturally based on what we are all interested in. I mean, there are only sixty of us. So, it isn’t like we are one of the big guilds. Sixty players is a nice size because we can split into squads of eleven. Ten mercenaries and one officer. We have five total squads with five players in our production division. The five officers are our guild officers, as well. Overall we have a neat little family.”

 

“It sounds like it.” Xavier could tell how proud his aunt was by the huge smile on her face as she talked about her guild.

 

The intercom buzzed, and Julia’s secretary informed them that the lawyers had arrived to handle the final paperwork for the medical treatment. It did not take long for the documents to get filed with Atlas’ lawyers, and after finalizing the documents for his immersion, there was nothing left for Xavier to do but wait. Waiting suited Xavier fine – after all, he felt like he had been waiting for his whole life. He would leave the business stuff to his aunt while he got ready for adventure.

 

The last two days passed, the time of immersion arrived, and his tearful aunt brought him to the hospital. The whole ride over she fretted and tried to convince him to immediately contact her when he got into the game. With a high mastery character and a fully formed guild, she could help him get used to the game in the shortest time possible – an offer that Xavier immediately rejected, of course.

 

“I want to play by myself at first. You know, take my time and explore. I have 14 years, for goodness sake. At the very least, I want a year on my own. Plus, your guild doesn’t allow men, so I can’t join anyway.”

 

“Believe me, Xavier, the game isn’t easy. Especially in the beginning. We have tons of experienced players who can teach you the ropes. Plus, the girls have always wanted to meet you! I am positive that they would make an exception for you, if you wanted to join. Like I said, it is not an official rule or anything like that. It just ended up that way.”

 

“I’m sure all the ladies in your guild are very nice, but I would like to spend some time on my own,” Xavier said, suppressing a shudder. Thinking about being surrounded by innumerable women like his aunt made his skin crawl. He loved her dearly, but one overprotective, clingy aunt was more than enough.

 

Unable to move him from this position no matter how much she threatened or cajoled him, Julia finally huffed and let it be, but only after extracting a promise that he would at least call her within the first year. A year in the game was only a bit more than a month and a half in real time anyway. The game had a video chat feature that would allow them to connect easily, and Julia went over how to use it with Xavier three times to make sure he understood.

 

A few hours later, Xavier had been prepared by the staff and was about to enter his custom-built pod. Bending down was awkward with his braces, but Xavier bore with the discomfort so that his aunt could give him a hug. Xavier consoled her in his slow, deep voice. “Don’t worry, Aunt Julia, I can still communicate with you and the doctors while in Nova, so I will be sure to let them know if anything is a problem. Think of this like boarding school. Plus, I will see you soon in game.”

 

Straightening back up, Xavier stepped over to the massive pod and watched his aunt leave the room. Looking around for his last view of the real world for the next two years, he shed his hospital gown, proving to the curious nurses that he was indeed proportional all over, and lay down in the pod, which began to fill up with a nanite-infused gel from the large nanite colony on the wall.

 

Twice the size of a traditional full-immersion pod, the device that had been customized for Xavier was quite impressive. Housing better processing power, multiple power system fail-safes, a state of the art monitoring suite and every other feature one could imagine apart from a mini-bar, the pod had cost a pretty penny, but Julia, ever business minded, had worked out a special deal with Horizon to provide special state-of-the-art backup batteries that Atlas had developed for their pods in exchange for this custom built pod.

 

Almost instantly the strong anesthetic put him under, and he fell into a deep sleep. Outside the pod, the doctor was glaring at the curious nurses while keeping one eye on the controls for the pod. It had taken almost three years of experimentation to come up with a mixture of anesthetic that was strong enough to put Xavier out without shutting his organs down, so the doctor paid special attention to the pod’s vital sign indicators to make sure there were no problems.

 

“Good luck, young man,” the doctor whispered as he headed off to settle his next patient.


CHAPTER THREE

 

 

It wasn’t his first time in virtual reality, so the deep darkness with the calming blue loading bar came as no surprise to Xavier. In fact, it made his heart beat all the faster. Well, his proverbial heart at least.

The world Xavier loaded into was a soft white color stretching endlessly in all directions. Lacking a body, Xavier floated around for a couple seconds before a gentle cough indicated that there was someone behind him. Turning his attention to face the figure of an unnaturally beautiful woman clad in a shimmering blue dress, Xavier would have smiled if he had a mouth with which to do so.

“Hello, traveler. I am Myst, your guide to the world of Nova Terra. As this is your first time logging into Nova Terra, I will take you through the tutorial. During this tutorial, we will work together to create a personal avatar for you to use during your stay in Nova Terra. Please be aware of a couple of restrictions on this avatar. First, you cannot swap your gender. Second, you are limited to a 20% overall change in your appearance. Third, your physical stats will be generated based on a full body scan and a few minor tests and initially will be linked to your real life body’s condition. Do you have any questions, traveler?”

“Uh…yeah. What stats are available?” Xavier had done as much as he could to prepare for this chance to play Nova Terra, but there was surprisingly little information outside the game.

“That is a great question, traveler. There are a few stats that you can see by saying Status. Please do so, and I will explain each.”

After saying “status”, a simple blue window popped up in front of Xavier.

 

Name: [None]

Race: [None]

Health: [N/A]

Mana: [N/A]

Titles: [None]

Conditions: [None]

“Thank you, traveler. As you can see from your status, you currently have nothing filled in. Once we begin the process of creating your avatar, many of those fields will be filled. Apart from your name, which is the final choice you will make before you begin your journey in Nova Terra, you will be presented with a number of race choices as well as a series of tests based on the result of your body scan. All six of the main races are available except in extreme cases, and some rare races are locked unless you meet specific qualifications.”

Without taking a breath, Myst continued, “Your max health and max mana will display in your status, as will your titles and any uncommon conditions, however, the rest of your stats will be hidden, as that would ruin the immersive experience. That said, I can still tell you about the basic stats. Strength governs how strong your avatar is as well as how much damage you do when using a melee weapon. Dexterity governs your avatar’s coordination and speed in addition to how much ranged projectile damage your character does.

“Constitution is your avatar’s ability to take damage as well as your endurance and damage resistance. Intelligence will govern how fast your mana pool recharges and how quickly you can process information. Wisdom is your avatar’s ability to make good choices and relate to other people. Finally, Charisma will govern how well other people relate to your avatar. Please note that there are hidden stats, as well, that you will have to discover on your own. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”

Xavier thought for a moment before responding. “How does my Intelligence going up change my perception of the game? I mean, how does the game simulate a person getting smarter?”

Myst stood still for a moment and then shivered, her perfect face taking on a slightly more human look. “That is a great question, traveler. The computer controller in your pod has been fitted with a completely non-invasive system assist that will slow your perception of the game’s time to allow you more time to think as well as several system assists that will help you do specific things like math or recalling information. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”

“Yes. How do I increase stats if I cannot see them? And what about skills? I don’t see a spot for them.”

“That is a great question, traveler. As you may be aware, there are no levels to speak of in Nova Terra. Instead, as you acquire skill and practice various activities, you will find yourself increasing in proficiency. To have an idea of where a player stands in comparison to others, they will need to compare their abilities, as in real life. There are a near infinite number of tasks that can grant you increased proficiency through training like gaining titles, skill at completing tasks, finding hidden stats, the rank of monsters you kill, and quests you complete. Think of each of these things as mini-games that have been optimized to help you gain mastery of various tasks.

“You might think of titles as a count of the things you have done in your adventures. Gaining a title is as simple as cooking your first meal to as complex as slaying a dragon and saving a princess. Completing some tasks will grant you specific bonuses while others will add to your reputation. In addition, there are some rewards, called advancements, that come with specific ability or skill increases based on your race. Additionally, please note that biological changes in your body will also be factored when you log in, which is why regular exercise is recommended for every player.

“In short, skills are handled the same way they are in the real world. While skill levels are hidden in order to increase immersion, the more you do something, the better you will be at it. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”

“Wait, then I have to manually do and learn everything?”

“That is a great question, traveler. That is partially correct. To increase your proficiency in a skill, you must use it repeatedly, like in real life. The learning time will, however, be shorter than the real world, and the more you practice, the more the system will assist you. Otherwise, you must master skills on your own. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”

“So, apart from the six fields in my status, I can’t see anything else about my progress?” asked Xavier, confused.

“That is a great question, traveler. That is incorrect, you will also be able to see quests, access an inventory, and contact the administrators. Nova Terra is not, however, a virtual reality game; rather it is a brand new world. It may be helpful for you if you think of Nova Terra as the real world with a few convenient advantages. Do you have any other questions, traveler?”

Thinking for a second, Xavier shook his head, “No, thanks. I am ready to start creating my avatar.”

“Excellent. Please wait while I complete your full scan and set up your base point.” A moment passed as Myst took out a small device and waved it toward Xavier.

The white landscape blurred, and Xavier found himself in a modern-looking exercise facility. Machines of various kinds dotted the room, and music played in the background. For a brief moment, Xavier even thought he had returned to the real world. It was only when he realized that he was still disembodied that the feeling faded.

“Please enter the Fitness Assessment Android in front of you.” Myst pointed with her clipboard at the human-shaped robot standing in the middle of the room.

A thought sent Xavier floating toward the robot. As soon as he got close, there was a brief flash of darkness, and the eyes of the robot flickered to life. He looked down at the small, slim form of the robot with a mental frown. This new body was, at most, six feet tall and felt strange. It was as if his limbs were tied and no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t stretch.

“Thank you, traveler. I will now adjust your Fitness Assessment Android to the correct size. Please move each of your limbs when I ask you to.” Walking around behind him, Myst adjusted something on her pad and Xavier soon found himself much more comfortable.

The change in perspective was disorienting, but after a couple moments, he got more familiar with this new body. Standing, he very slowly lifted his right hand to examine it. The robot was thinner than his real body and felt much lighter as well.

“How does this body feel, traveler?”

“It’s okay. A little lighter than my real body. I sort of feel like I am in water,” commented Xavier, wiggling his fingers.

“Please wait while I recalibrate your weight, traveler.” Myst fiddled with her pad once again. As she moved sliders around, Xavier felt the familiar sense of heaviness settle on him. While it still was not as intense as the feeling in the real world, at least he didn’t feel like he was going to float away.

Once the adjustment was done, Myst directed him to an area along one of the walls. A short track stretched along the wall with pillars set at regular intervals on both sides. Directing him to stand at one end, Myst told him to move down the track as fast as he could once the indicator light went on. After he finished, there was a short, pregnant pause.

“Thank you, traveler,” Myst said in her sweet voice, a slight trace of confusion in her words. “May I ask why you walked down the track? I only ask because your physical statistics indicate that you could have completed the track much more quickly, if you chose to.”

Wait, running? Xavier felt blood rush to his face as he was overcome with embarrassment. Though, could he be blamed for his mistake? The last sixteen years of his life had been spent moving carefully and deliberately. It was no longer a conscious decision but an inbuilt reaction. If he needed to move, he did so with caution. If he didn’t, he kept his body as still as possible.

“Oh. Hmmm. Right.” Xavier tried to cover his embarrassment by coughing. “Can I try again?”

“Of course, traveler. You can try the assessment as many times as you need in order to feel comfortable in your avatar,” said Myst. “Apart from the look, this avatar will feel the same as your in-game avatar. The primary function of these tests is to make sure you feel comfortable in your new body.”

“Oh?” Xavier looked around at all the different machines. “Okay, awesome. Let’s try this running thing again.”

As he walked back to the starting line, Xavier made a conscious effort to lengthen his steps. No one understood the concept of effective incremental change better than he did. For his next attempt, he walked the course again, focusing on stretching his legs out to their full stride. The feeling of taking a full step without experiencing the ripping feeling of his skin breaking open was at first strange, quickly turning almost euphoric.

After walking the course ten times, Xavier was able to break into a slow jog. He had jogged and even run when he was younger, so it was not a completely foreign movement to him. But it had been years. It was obvious from his awkward movements that he lacked practice.

“Hardness to softness, let go of stiffness. Hardness to softness.” Repeating this mantra in his mind, Xavier focused on sensing the stiff, hard areas of his body as he jogged back and forth on the track. Taijiquan focused on dissolving stiffness in the practitioner’s body in order to create softness, which proved to be a big help as Xavier got used to running.

 

Like a machine, Xavier moved back and forth on the track. Sometimes jogging, sometimes walking, sometimes breaking into a sprint for a couple steps. He soon lost track of how many times he moved back and forth, but he had no intention of stopping. After feeling trapped in his own skin for so long, the unfettered movement was almost like a drug to him.

At first, the most he could do was a few jogging steps as he walked back and forth. It was as if there was a mental block that slowed him down instinctively. That didn’t last too long, and soon he was able to jog the whole distance. After jogging back and forth twenty times, Xavier paused and stretched himself out. His muscles felt fatigued, but he was by no means tired. Still, it felt good to stretch.

Once he finished stretching, he moved to the starting line again and resumed his jogging, this time concentrating on breaking into a run for a few steps in the middle of the track. Unfortunately, the track was short, and his long legs took him to the end in only a dozen steps.

“Excuse me, Myst?” Xavier paused from his running. “Do you have a longer track? I feel like this one is too short. I can’t really run on it.”

Myst, seeing that the track was too short for him, adjusted something on her pad. The wall at the end of the track shot off into the distance as the room stretched. Once the straight track was a mile long, Myst stopped the wall and smiled at Xavier.

“Thanks.” Excited by the long, open space in front of him, Xavier took off, speeding up as he progressed. Soon he was pounding down the track, his long stride sending him down the track at a fantastic rate. At a full-blown sprint, his stride was only a bit under twelve feet long, causing the impression that he was devouring the distance.

Despite the building fatigue, Xavier could not stop running. He had heard about the phenomenon of the ‘runner’s high’ and had seen his aunt running a lot, but, for him, it was different. As he flew down the track and back again over and over, one feeling dominated the rest. Freedom. The pain and fatigue that started to build in his legs, the breaths that grew more difficult, all of that was crushed beneath an overwhelming sense of lightness.

For more than a decade, he had been shackled by his body, unable to express himself through any significant motion. So, when he began to cut loose and run, it was like a dam bursting. All his pent-up feelings poured out in an unstoppable tide, forcing his legs to move. Almost completely absorbed in his frantic run, there was a very small part of Xavier that was thankful that his body was a robotic one. Otherwise, he would be bawling as he ran.

The exercise room was well lit, and Myst showed no impatience, waiting until Xavier exhausted himself completely. Unsure of how long had passed, Xavier lay panting on the ground, completely spent from his mad dashes back and forth. At some point, the ends of the track had connected, creating a giant loop around the room so that he did not have to turn around, but Xavier hadn’t noticed until he finally collapsed and was once more aware of his surroundings.


CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

“Thank you for completing the running test, traveler,” Myst said, producing a small device that looked like a phone. “Please wait for a moment while I calibrate your results.” Myst waved the device toward Xavier, who felt strength flooding through his body. Within a few seconds, his body felt revitalized and full of energy! Oblivious to Xavier’s curious stare, Myst input some numbers into her pad and then escorted him over to a large pile of stones that had appeared in the middle of the giant room.

“Traveler, this next test is to determine the upper limit of your strength. Please select a rock and move it to the ring on the ground over there. You may repeat this action as many times as you want within sixty seconds.”

Nodding to himself, Xavier stretched his arms a bit and looked at the ring that was about four steps away from the pile. A regular person might have trouble moving even one of the large boulders that sat in the pile, especially considering that what would take Xavier four steps would take them twelve at the least. Xavier rested a hand on a particularly large stone, looking at Myst, who had pulled a stopwatch out of thin air.

“You may begin, traveler,” said Myst with a smile.

Taking a deep breath, Xavier squared his body up with the rock, bent his knees and lifted, promptly falling over.

‘What the…’ laying on his back on the ground Xavier stared at the large stone in his hands, wondering if it was made of styrofoam or something like that. He had braced himself to pick it up, but the stone was so light that he had put way more strength into pulling it up than he needed, losing his balance and falling over!

“Um, Myst?” Xavier said, holding the rock with one hand as he pushed himself to his feet. “There is something wrong with your rocks.”

“Traveler, would you like to abort the current test?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Xavier tossed the rock to the ground, watching in total confusion as it landed with an earth-shaking thump. The large stone acted like it was heavy while it was on the ground, but as soon as Xavier applied any force to it, the stone seemed to float! Testing an even larger stone, Xavier found the same to be true. No matter how big the object and how heavy it appeared to be, Xavier could lift it with absolute ease. “Myst, what is going on?”

Myst paused for a moment before shivering, almost as if she reset.

Then another moment passed as Myst shivered again. Waving her device once more, she stared intently at it and then frowned. The frown came and went so fast that Xavier almost thought he imagined it as the now happy Myst pushed some buttons on the device and waved a hand.

“Traveler, it seems that your strength currently exceeds the traditional metric, making it impossible to categorize. As a result, the anti-burden feature of Nova Terra activates every time you lift an object. Please wait while we re-calibrate the test.”

The rocks began to disappear one by one, and a series of massive logs appeared in their place. The logs, unlike the stones before them, were all the same size, but each had its weight written on the side.

“Please attempt to lift each log, traveler.” Myst pointed to the lightest log which read 100 kg.

If a kilogram was 2.20462 pounds, 100 kilograms would come out to 220.462 pounds, a weight that Xavier would not have any trouble with, even in the real world. His limit was closer to 230 kilograms or just over 500 pounds.

Approaching the first log, Xavier grabbed the two handles set in the middle of the log and heaved it up. Like the rocks he lifted, Xavier could barely feel the weight at all. Apart from brief feedback when he first began to move the object that indicated it had weight to it, there was nothing. It was like lifting a piece of paper.

“How strange, it is almost like the game is compensating for the weight once I prove I can pick it up,” thought Xavier.

The next few logs were the same, and Xavier soon came to the 200 kg log. This was close to his lifting limit in the real world, but so far, he had not felt even the slightest amount of weight from the logs he had been lifting. Planting his feet, Xavier grasped the handles of the 200 kg log and lifted. Unlike the rest of the logs, this one felt heavier, though by no means was it heavy. Tossing it to the ground, Xavier’s brow furrowed. Despite being heavier, the 200 kg log still felt like it was only a couple pounds in his hands.

‘I can’t be that strong.’ he thought to himself.

“Traveler,” Myst interrupted Xavier’s thoughts, “please lift the log at the very end.”

Looking down the line of logs, Xavier saw the log she was pointing to. It looked no different than the other logs apart from the 5000-kilogram weight written on the side. Quick mental math put it at 11,023.11 pounds, over five and a half tons! Xavier’s first reaction was to laugh. Who in their right mind would try to lift that much weight? If the log rolled on him it would crush him! But then the strange reality he was experiencing settled on him, and he began to wonder.

So far none of the weights he had lifted were a challenge in any way. Maybe the 5000 kg log was the same? Now curious, Xavier walked over to the log and rested his hand on it.

“Only one way to find out, I guess,” Xavier thought, squaring up with the log. Placing his hands on the log’s handles, Xavier took a deep breath, his massive fingers curling around them. Immediately, Xavier could feel the difference. The massive weight resisted his pull the way he expected it to and already he could feel himself fighting gravity.

With a low roar, Xavier yanked upwards, his massive legs sinking down into the dirt. It was heavy. Probably, the heaviest thing Xavier had ever lifted! For the briefest moment Xavier was unsure if he could lift the log more than an inch or two off the ground but then his competitive spirit burst to life in his chest and the rest of his body engaged, straining upwards.

A massive burst of strength suffused his muscles, and Xavier pulled the log up to his waist. He had seen bodybuilders lift large weights up over their head in a smooth motion using technique, but Xavier had no idea how to do that. Still, through brute force, he curled the log up from his waist to his chin, his arms and legs beginning to quiver. Panting, Xavier gritted his teeth and powered through, shoving the log up in the air over his head and holding it for a moment before jumping backward, letting go.

With a tremendous bang, the five-ton log smashed into the ground, leaving a large dent where it landed. Xavier clenched his fist in victory, a surge of satisfaction running through him. That was five full tons! After taking a moment to savor his accomplishment, he turned to look at Myst, who was staring at him, her eyes wide in complete shock.

“Well done, traveler,” stammered Myst after she recovered. “You have set a new world strength record! The previous world record of greatest weight was held by Paul Edward Anderson who lifted 2,850 kilograms in a back lift. You have beaten his record by 175%. Would you like to record your name so future generations know what you have done?”

“Hmm? Record my name? Is that like a leaderboard or something?”

“Yes, traveler. We record the names of those who complete monumental tasks so that all might know of their might and glory.”

“Oh.” Xavier thought for a moment before shaking his head. “Nah, I’d rather not. I’m playing this game to get out of the spotlight, not in it. The last thing I need is my name on a public list.”

“Very well, traveler, I’ll keep your name anonymous when we enter the new record.”

“Thanks. Now, can you explain what is going on with these weights? Why are some so light compared to others? It feels like the weight disappears when I lift them up off the floor. Well, except for that one.” Xavier said, his eyes resting on the various logs he had lifted.

“That is a great question, traveler.” Myst took a deep breath. “To understand the specifics of how strength and weight work in Nova Terra we must first examine the way strength and weight work in the real world. After all, Nova Terra is designed to mirror the real world without some of the inconveniences that exist in reality. This interaction can be understood with a simple example. Imagine we have two individuals. Both individuals are adults of average physical ability.

“The first person is equipped with metal armor, a sword, shield, and a pack of supplies. The gear he is currently wearing weighs approximately 25 kilograms. The second person is wearing light clothing. Each person begins to walk around a track. Given the extra weight that the first person is carrying, they will expend twice the amount of energy as the second, unencumbered person.

“Consider what would happen if they walk for two hours. Both will be tired, but the individual who has worn the armor will be more fatigued than his companion. Now, imagine that at the end of the two hours of walking, you asked them to each complete an obstacle course and participate in a life-threatening fight. It is obvious that the second individual will perform better than the first because they have more energy.

“During the early test of Nova Terra, players reported that even walking to task locations with all the equipment they needed to complete those tasks was too tiring. This resulted in an abysmal completion rate. The solution that we came up with was to implement the anti-burden feature. Nova Terra measures your weight and strength and drastically reduces the weight of items that fall below a specific threshold. This allows an average individual to carry approximately four times the normal amount of weight they could carry in the real world without experiencing the burden and fatigue that they normally would.

“Additionally, the weight of any items above that threshold are adjusted based on the strength of the individual and the amount of mastery they show in a particular area. Otherwise, there would be no way for a small or slight person to wield a greatsword or draw a non-composite bow. Since Nova Terra boasts the freedom to play as you want, we wanted smaller races not to be disadvantaged in this area.”

“Huh, that makes sense, I guess,” Xavier mused. “It would be a drag to carry tons of weight around all the time. But there is no way I would be able to pick up a ton outside of this game. Aren’t you artificially boosting my strength? I thought the game didn’t do that?”

“That is a great question, traveler. I’m still processing why you are able to lift so much weight. While there are races that boost the strength of the player, no racial bonuses have been applied to you at this moment. Your strength is an approximation of reality based on physics, your size, quality and quantity of muscles, strength of tendons, bone density, and a number of other factors. All of which were entered via scan when you first entered.” Looking as puzzled as Xavier, Myst clicked around her pad for a couple minutes before shaking her head.

“I see no anomalies in your scan. According to the data we have compiled, this is your approximate strength in a situation where your body has no prior damage. It is worth noting that your bones in the real world have millions of fractures and would not be able to support anywhere near this level of weight without shattering. But should you ever find yourself healthy, you would be able to exhibit this level of strength without issue.”

For a moment, silence reigned as Xavier tried to get his mind around what Myst was saying. So, if he was healthy in the real world, he would be able to lift five and a half tons? Did that mean that after he got out of the pod, he would have that level of strength? Unable to believe it, Xavier shook his head. Regardless, he wasn’t even close to healthy, so it didn’t matter one bit.

“Please browse the list of races available in Nova Terra while your scan is being completed,” Myst said, breaking Xavier out of his thoughts.

“Aren’t there more tests for me to do?” Asked Xavier.

“I do not have any additional tests that would present you with a reasonable challenge, traveler. Your physical state is too far outside the anticipated values for any of the tests we have ready to be effective. Thus, I am giving you the option to browse the races while we wait for your scores to be compiled.”

A large window filled with different races opened up in front of Xavier. Seeing that the six basic races were there as well as a button to scroll down, he started browsing all of the options. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Beastkin, and Demonkin made up the basic six races that occupied the world. Each had a racial advantage in the form of a proclivity to a subset of skills as well as a unique starting area. Further down the list were a number of Half races that would allow him to combine the various main races for a price. There were also new races like Seafolk, Feyfolk, Undead and many other fantasy creatures.

Each race came with various strengths and weaknesses, though in all cases, they were small adjustments on the player’s natural abilities. If you were a strong, fit person in real life, you might be slightly stronger by choosing a dwarf or slightly weaker if you chose an elf. But if you were overweight in real life, that would be reflected in your character in the game. That is why people were encouraged to work on themselves outside the game with regularity. After all, any advantage a person possessed in real life could be carried over to the game.

And this was true for everything, not just level of fitness. Influence could be brought into the game through the recruitment of other players, money could be brought in through the massive cash shop and the city of Fantasia, and knowledge was applicable due to how closely the game resembled reality. As Xavier scanned the races, he began to realize that choosing a race was a key part in developing a character who could take advantage of the myriad possibilities the game presented, by leveraging the one thing that all players brought to the game equally – their individual playing style.


CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

A full ten minutes went by as Xavier browsed the list with no movement from Myst. Finally, she shivered and spoke to Xavier with an uncharacteristically flat tone. “Your scan has been completed and your race choice has been assigned. Please select your race from the following list.”

 

Available Races:

Titan

The window in front of Xavier refreshed, and he couldn’t help but blink at it. Gone were all the choices he had been browsing, and in their place a single entry stood by itself. Confused, Xavier looked for a scroll button. Unable to find one, he asked Myst where his choices were. In the same flat voice, Myst said, “Your assigned race choice is displayed in the list. Please select your race.”

 

“But there is only one race,” protested Xavier.

 

“Your assigned race choice is displayed in the list. Please select your race,” responded Myst.

 

“But what about the basic races! Don’t I get to pick one of them?”

 

“That is a great question, traveler. No. Due to the results of your physical scan, there are no available playable races that fit within the allowance for adjustments to an alternate reality body. Due to the psychological damage that could be done to you when experiencing the difference in dimensionality between your real body and your alternate reality body, you cannot be assigned any race currently playable by player characters. Due to this, the system has chosen a race from within the lore that matches your physiological characteristics and has made the necessary adjustments, so you can play as this race. Your assigned race choice is displayed in the list. Please select your race.”

 

“Wait, you made a race for me?”

 

“That is a great question, traveler. No. We adjusted an existing NPC race so as to prevent the balance of the game from being broken and are allowing you and any other player who meets the requirements to play that race. Your assigned race choice is displayed in the list. Please select your race.”

 

“Okay… I guess I’ll choose my race from the list,” Xavier said sarcastically as he looked more closely at the single race that had been made available for him.

 

Titan. Even the name sent a twinge of disgust through him. He was playing this game in part to get away from the disadvantages of his massive size, and the game hadn’t even started before he was reminded of it! And what was with locking him out of the other options? Sighing in frustration, Xavier decided to just get through the tutorial. The game representatives and the doctor would be hearing about this as soon as he got out, that was for sure.

 

Clicking on the Titan, another screen popped up describing the race in more detail as well as displaying the various abilities of the race.

 

Titan – Unique

Now lost in the mist of time, this ancient race once ruled the world, rivaled only by the great Dragons. Long-lived and immensely strong, the Titans were masters of almost anything they put their hand to and created a far-reaching empire that is still ruled by the Elemental Giants. Little else is known about the Titans, and further information must be unlocked through discoveries in game.

 

 

 

 

Racial Requirements:

Titan’s Strength: To unlock this race a player must have the strength of a titan.

Titan’s Endurance: To unlock this race a player must have the constitution of a titan.

 

Accept Race?

Yes

No

 

“Wait a second. This can’t be right,” Xavier said. “How do I have the strength and endurance of a titan? I haven’t even started playing!”

 

“That is a great question, traveler.” Myst stopped talking and stared at him.

 

“Uh. Something must be wrong. May I talk to an administrator or something?”

 

“That is a great question, traveler. There are no errors. Your body is anomalous, meaning that it deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. As such, what is standard, normal, or expected cannot be used, and a new standard must be developed. Far from being at a disadvantage, you will likely find yourself the utter envy of all the other players. You are countless times stronger than even the strongest player, you have an excellent reaction time, and you have no noticeable mental impairment. Just because you are different and fall outside the norm does not mean there is something wrong.” Myst fell silent again, continuing to stare.

 

“Argh! Fine!” Hitting the ‘accept race’ button, a large mirror replaced the race screen, and Xavier was faced with an eight foot, nine-inch tall giant, complete with leather and fur clothing and a massive sword and shield. The only thing that separated the image from being the perfect example of a ferocious fantasy barbarian was that it was his own face that stared back at him.

 

Selecting a couple options on the side, Xavier was able to see what he would look like in different types of medieval fantasy clothing, including wizard robes and a blacksmith’s leathers. While not the most handsome, Xavier was passably good looking when his skin wasn’t all stretched out, though his size was so shocking to most people that his looks rarely registered. Still, it was a bit strange for Xavier to see this version of himself. He had often avoided mirrors in the real world due to their frustrating reminder of his ugly situation. The rugged strength of the face before him was a welcome sight.

 

Thoroughly annoyed at this whole process, Xavier tried to use the available slider to make himself as short as possible but was only able to reduce his height to 8’ 5”, a measly 4” below his regular height.

 

“Please be aware that no additional changes are available due to your avatar already being adjusted by 20%,” Myst’s flat voice commented. “Would you like to accept these changes or reset your avatar?” Grousing in his heart about the limits that Nova Terra put on changing one’s self when creating a character, Xavier reset his character and tried modifying some of the giant’s other features, only to find himself coming back to the maximum height setting.

 

Looking over the powerful and imposing figure in front of him, Xavier mused that maybe it wasn’t so bad to be tall. The fact that the game let him pick up a unique race went far toward mollifying his frustration, and it wasn’t like being large was new to him. After all, he had spent his whole life towering over those around him. Thinking more deeply about it, not being able to see over other people’s heads would be quite strange. He set his height to his real-life height and added some barbaric looking tattoos across his left arm and chest.

 

“That doesn’t look too bad,” Xavier thought, accepting the changes. Instantly, the robotic body that currently housed him twisted and grew, the metallic skin tone softening and changing to a dark tan. His shoulders broadened, and his chest widened as his height shot up another foot, leaving him towering over Myst.

 

Flexing his fingers and clenching his fist, Xavier could feel the power in them. Power that his hands in the real world lacked. There was a solidity about this body that his body in the real world didn’t have, a weightiness as if this body was somehow more real. Jumping in place, Xavier felt no discomfort whatsoever. Instead, he felt strong and powerful, as though he could take on the world.

 

“Thank you, traveler. Due to your race selection, your starting location has been locked. When you arrive at your starting location, you will be prompted to select your name. Once you have entered the game you will encounter many different situations and challenges that will require you to use your wits and strength to overcome. There is much to discover in Nova Terra, including quests, specialized classes, and secret treasure. Please enjoy your stay in Nova Terra!”

 

As the world of white faded away, Xavier found himself in a small stone room with a magic circle in the center. Standing at the door was a guard who stepped forward with a clipboard and said in a nervous tone as he looked up at Xavier’s towering bulk, “Ho, traveler. Please write your name for the record.”

 

Mulling over his name choice for a moment, Xavier wrote “Thorn” in the available space. After receiving a small package that included five pieces of bread, each barely big enough for a single bite, five equally small water skins, and five copper coins, he ducked through the door and into a bustling medieval city complete with cobblestone streets.

 

Welcome to Nova Terra

Welcome, traveler! In order to get your adventure started, please see one of the secretaries at Berum’s city hall to receive your first quest.

 

You have received 3 Destiny points that can be used to change your destiny.

 

The long cobblestone street, easily two carts wide, stretched to his right and left, and the colorfully painted wooden buildings that rose on either side presented a charming picture. Hawkers called from their storefronts, trying to attract the attention of the crowds that raced by. Players, easy to spot by their determined movements toward their respective destinations mixed in with the slower, less deliberate townsfolk NPCs who went about their daily lives, unaware of the incongruity between the players and themselves.

 

Xavier, no, Thorn, was astounded at how realistic everything was and could have been convinced it was reality if not for the box of text hovering in the middle of his vision. Dismissing it with a thought, he joined the flow of players. Despite standing a full two feet above the rest of the crowd, the players were far too preoccupied with their own tasks to pay attention to him. Plagued his whole life by the stares of others, a profound sense of relief swept over him as he looked around at the crowds hurrying by while paying him little to no attention.

 

In fact, despite his height, there were many other players that stood out far more than Thorn, who was dressed in the simple beginner clothing. Fanciful armor covered a myriad of races streaming by, giving full testament to the claim that Nova Terra was a place of diversity. Graceful elves stalked down the road, brushing past human warriors in massive plate mail armor. Short but wide dwarves cut a determined path through the crowds while equally short halflings slipped through like tiny fish.

 

Even more interesting were the odd Tigerkin that dotted the crowds or the Birdkin wheeling lazily overhead. Many of the more exotic races could not be seen, since they were more region specific. Demonkin were entirely missing from the city. From the research that he had done, it seemed that Humans and Demonkin formed the two main races of Nova Terra. Each race was part of an empire occupying approximately half of the continent.

 

It was the friction between these two empires that formed the primary conflict in Nova Terra, with the other races allying themselves with the two main races. Berum, the city where Thorn had spawned, was in the north-west, far from the front lines of the Human and Demonkin conflict. The far north of Angoril was a frozen land of tundra, ice-covered mountains rising like dragon’s teeth into the sky. Berum was located on a long chain of mountains that started in the far north, skirted the steppes and flowed all the way down to the Midlands along the western coast.

 

Deep forests and tall mountains marked the landscape around Berum, and the local population consisted of hardy human pioneers and taciturn dwarves who preferred to stay in their mountain fortresses.

 

After spending several minutes looking over the pop-ups that explained how to use his inventory and the limited number of other game features, Thorn decided to spend some time wandering around the city where he had started. Starting points in Nova Terra were based on a variety of factors and were divided into three different categories: rural, urban, and military. Anyone who spawned in a small town was considered to have a rural start while those who first spawned in a city had urban starts. Starting in a military fort was rare but had been known to happen, especially when the player had a military history in the real world.

 

Surprisingly, Nova Terra was quite adept at identifying what a new player was familiar with and using that knowledge to ease them into this new world. There had been some hubbub when Nova Terra launched because people were concerned that the system was reading the player’s memories, but Horizon’s public demonstrations to the contrary put them at ease.

 

Looking at his in-game map display, he saw the city he had arrived in, Berum, in the north-west of Angoril, the primary continent in Nova Terra. Even though the game had been out for a number of years, no one had managed to explore the entirety of Angoril, and many a guild was still focused on trying to map out the massive land. Angoril was roughly divided into eight sections, four in the north and four in the south.

 

From what he had read about Nova Terra, it seemed that each of these sections was a duchy, ruled by an appointed duke. In the center of the northern half of the continent, residing in the floating city that graced most of the advertisements for the game, was the Imperial city where the Human Emperor held court. Mirroring this, the Demonkin capital was located in the center of the southern duchies. But, rather than floating, the Imperial city of the Demonkin occupied the inside of a massive pit.

 

The southern and northern ends of the continent were temperate and had rotating seasons, but the four central duchies were closer to a tropical environment.

 

Apart from the continent of Angoril, there were three smaller continents that had been introduced in various patches, and each had a different theme. Rasyn, off Angoril’s eastern coast, was styled after Japan’s Tokugawa period. To the north lay Gerund, a Viking themed location that housed numerous barbarian clans while to the south was Moa’techa, the Mayan themed empire. Each of the smaller continents was also dominated by a specific race.

 

Thorn spent almost an hour walking around and taking in all the new sights and sounds of the city. It wasn’t until he heard someone complaining about the rate of loot drops that he even remembered this was a game. The sights and smells were mesmerizing to someone who had been closeted his whole life. Brought out of his daze by the reminder, Thorn decided to check where he stood before he made a plan of action.

 

“Status.”

 

Name: [Thorn]

Race: [Titan]

Health: [100%]

Mana: [100%]

Titles: [None]

Conditions: [None]

 

Racial Traits

Titan’s Strength: Increased resistance to mind-affecting conditions

Titan’s Endurance: Increased resistance to physical conditions

Titan’s Strength and Titan’s Endurance were excellent. Both were defensive abilities and complimented his massive innate strength. Extra resistance to anything was excellent as far as Thorn was concerned. After all, the more defenses the better.


CHAPTER SIX

 

 

“Uh, sir?” a polite cough brought Thorn back to the present. Tugging gently on Thorn’s sleeve was an intimidated city guard whose nervous companion was behind him, clutching a wooden nightstick.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Um. Would you, uh, mind moving, uh, to the side of the street?” stammered the guard, pointing to the side. “You. Er. You’re kind of blocking the traffic.”

 

“Oh man, I am so sorry!” Thorn exclaimed. He had been so engrossed in his status that he hadn’t realized that he was standing in the middle of a street, a long queue of carts bunched up behind him. While they could have squeezed by, the sight of his 8’ 9” frame had scared the drivers enough that they called over a guard to deal with the giant.

 

“No, no,” reassured the guard. “It is no problem at all.”

 

Stepping to the side, Thorn took the opportunity to ask the guard some questions. “I’m new to Berum and was a bit lost. Could you point me toward the town hall? I need to see someone for my starting quest.”

 

“Uh, you are a traveler? Sheesh.” Relieved, the guard put a hand to his chest. “I thought you were one of those barbarian frost giants. You had me worried there for a minute.”

 

“Frost giants?”

 

“Yeah. They’re huge like you, but people say they have terrible tempers. I heard one of them got mad and froze a whole city full of people. Everyone in the city, dead, just like that. Anyway, city hall? No problem.”

 

After getting directions, Thorn left the guards and made his way to the large building that dominated the center of the Public district. Berum was split into four main sections, each focused on a particular grouping of businesses.

 

The North district was residential and had the largest number of restaurants and businesses for entertainment. To the east of the city center was the Public district, where most business was conducted, based around city hall, while to the south was the Canal district, which was where all the goods going in and out of the city passed. The western part of Berum was called the Forge district, where the businesses that had to do with crafting were located.

 

City hall was a large, multi-story stone affair that gave the impression of a beehive as uniformed clerks ran around, this way and that. Players streamed in and out as well, eager to hand in their quests and get their rewards. Thorn made his way up the steps, ducking his head to pass through the door. Players instinctively moved around him, looking at him with curiosity. The guards, however, grew nervous as Thorn’s shadow fell over them.

 

Ignoring the guards who were readying their spears, Thorn passed by them into the spacious main hall, taking in the marble floors and pillars with glee. Thorn loved buildings that had enough space for him to stand. In fact, because of that, he had spent quite a bit of time studying architecture. He had always held the ambition of creating living spaces customized to his personal needs. A big smile on his face, he walked over to one of the secretaries who was staring at him wide-eyed.

 

“Hello, I’m Thorn. A new traveler. I was told I could get my first quest here?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” Spellbound, the secretary, a pretty brunette with a button nose and deep dimples had to look almost straight up to look Thorn in the eyes.

 

With a chuckle, Thorn crouched, reveling in his freedom of movement. In the outside world, this simple movement would have ended with bloody cuts in his skin and lots of pain. Nova Terra was different, and Thorn was free to move as he wanted. Crouching brought them almost eye to eye, a position much more comfortable for the secretary.

 

“You are big.” Still stunned, the secretary couldn’t seem to get past Thorn’s size. She stared at the hand he had rested on the edge of her desk. It was easily twice the size of hers.

 

“I am,” agreed Thorn, amused as always by the sheer unbelief on her face. “So… about that quest?”

 

“Hm, oh, right. Oh, I’m sorry, you surprised me,” the secretary stammered, embarrassed by her staring. Straightening herself out, she launched into the standard announcement for the first quest. “Welcome to Berum, traveler. Please hold for a moment while I scan you in. Once I’ve done that, I’ll get you the opening quest.”

 

Welcome to Berum

Welcome, traveler! You have arrived in Berum and are ready to start your grand adventure. To begin, visit the following places:

 

Edgar’s Emporium

Berum Training Hall

City Library

McCarthy Farm

 

After agreeing to the quest, Thorn thanked the secretary and strolled out past the worried guards, giving them a friendly nod on his way. Before he had started the game, Thorn had been nervous about all of the social interactions that he was going to be forced into; after all, most of his life had been spent alone. Thankfully, his friendly and cheerful disposition seemed to serve him well, and, so far, it had not been an issue.

 

Opening his map display, Thorn realized that each of the places that the first quest had him going was in a different section of the city. Obviously, the point of the quest was to get him used to the area. Though, if he had known that, he wouldn’t have spent two hours wandering around the town. His random stroll had taken him by all of the locations he needed to visit except for the McCarthy Farm, which was located right outside the city.

 

Retracing his steps, Thorn headed off to his first destination, the City Library. Located in the northern district near some of the upscale neighborhoods, the City Library looked similar to City Hall. Much of the architecture in Berum was similar, and the buildings, comprised of large stone blocks, gave a sense of longevity and stability. Unfortunately, Thorn still had to duck when going in.

 

The library was split into three floors, with a large open courtyard in the middle, covered by a stained-glass roof, creating a charming picture in the streaming sunlight. Players stood or sat in various library nooks, browsing through books they had taken off the shelves. Seeing that there was a central desk, Thorn headed that way, only to experience a repeat of his interaction with the secretary at City Hall.

 

“Hello, I’m a new traveler and this is my first time here at the library.”

 

“Wow, you are big,” said the wide-eyed elf after a moment of stunned staring.

 

“Uh, yeah. So, can I get a library card or something?”

 

“Library card? Oh, right. Yes, yes.” Pulling out some forms from underneath the desk, the librarian helped Thorn register himself, explaining the rules and regulations as he did so.

 

“You can borrow a single book at a time but only for a week at a time. Once that week is up, the book will automatically be returned to the library through the enchantment on the back. While at the library, you can read as many books as you would like, and if you want to return them, stack them on the return table. Make sure you don’t leave anything in the books like bookmarks, as they will be returned with the book as well.

 

“The three different library floors each contain different sorts of books. On the bottom floor, you will find histories, biographies, and books about the different races. The second floor consists of crafting, job-specific, and how-to books. The third floor is comprised of an eclectic mix of various ancient tomes and books in other languages.

 

“If you are having any trouble finding a book, you can use the scrying stones located throughout the library to search by title, author, or subject.” Pausing to scan the form that Thorn had completed, the librarian filed it away and then brought out a flyer. “We also offer accredited classes through NTU. They can be taken here in Nova Terra or in Fantasia where we have a campus. If you are interested in a class or a full degree you can sign up here at the desk. We accept in-game currency or universal credits.”

 

“I heard that degrees can transfer from the outside world, is that right?” asked Thorn.

 

“Oh yes. So long as the program was accredited, you can apply any degree to receive an equivalent in-game title. Would you like to apply a degree now?”

 

“No, I’m good for now,” replied Thorn, looking around at all the books. Reading was one of his favorite things to do, but now was not the time for that. In this new world where he could move, he didn’t want to spend his time cooped up inside.

 

Leaving the library, Thorn headed for his next location, the Training Hall. It was located in the Forge District near a large collection of smoke-belching smithies. The Training Hall comprised of a large open parade ground and a large gymnasium-style building located next to the city barracks. Inside the parade ground, a large group of local NPCs were running through sword training while a couple travelers smacked furiously at some scarecrows.

 

“Ho, traveler, are you here to unlock your true potential?” boomed a voice as Thorn entered the hall. Turning his head, he saw a man coming toward him dressed in a simple leather sleeveless shirt and brown pants. A large, thick metal studded belt with matching bracers and boots completed the classic look of the warrior trainer. “I can teach you to be the best warrior this world has ever seen! As long as you can pay, of course.” This last sentence was quite a bit quieter.

 

“Ah, you offer classes? What do they cost?”

 

“Haha! Of course I do! Best warrior training this side of the East Empire’s gladiator pits! The cost is 10 silver every three days for basic training, 50 silver for intermediate and 1 gold for advanced. You have to pay for a week at a time, and if you quit, I keep the money!” The large man tried to look down on Thorn, a task made difficult by the fact that he was a good two feet shorter.

 

“If you are interested, step up, and I’ll test you. This part is free,” said the trainer, walking over to a clear spot in the yard. Everyone else stopped what they were doing and looked over. Hamm, the trainer, would regularly invite people up to “train” for a fee, and then beat them black and blue in the name of testing before sending them to practice their basics.

 

“Here, take this,” Hamm tossed Thorn a practice sword while he readied his own. “Now, I want you to attack.”

 

Holding the sword that looked more like a dagger in Thorn’s massive hands, he swung it a couple of times before looking over at Hamm and moving toward him.

 

“Wait, wait! Not me, don’t attack me!” babbled Hamm while backing away from Thorn, his face white and his hands shaking. “Attack that dummy, over there. Actually, attack that one.” Hamm pointed to a training dummy farther down the line made of a strange black metal.

 

Shrugging, Thorn turned to go over to the other dummy as Hamm gulped in relief. Just now, when Thorn had swung his sword through the air, his arm moved so fast it almost disappeared. Though not close, Hamm could still feel the shockwave the training sword made as it whipped through the air! He had no desire to get hit by that. Even if he blocked it, a strike with that much force would break his arm! How strong was this huge traveler anyway?

 

Squaring up with the training dummy, Thorn concentrated. He had never used a real sword before, but he figured it was the same as the wooden practice swords he had used, right? The faster you swing the more force should be generated. Taking a deep breath, Thorn twisted his waist and, drawing the sword behind his shoulder, swung hard at the training dummy’s side. His sword blurred through the air and impacted into the side of the dummy with a boom, snapping the blade into pieces and breaking the dummy off its stand!

 

Amidst the silence that blanketed the training hall, Hamm walked forward to examine the ruined dummy. The side of the metal reinforced body had been crushed in on itself as the force of the sword slammed into it. As far as he could tell, the cutting edge of the blade had been angled wrong and had not actually cut into the now-ruined dummy. Rather, Thorn had used brute force, crushing the dummy’s splintered wooden side and bending the metal bands beyond repair.

 

This strength was far beyond what any normal traveler should be able to generate, making Hamm extra thankful that he had not tried to receive the blow himself. He could only imagine what would have happened to him if Thorn had aimed that swing his way. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Thorn, who was examining the now busted training sword. He shivered at the thought of being on the receiving end of that swing. Aware that everyone in the building was watching him, anger overtook his embarrassment.

 

“I said attack it, not destroy it!” blustered Hamm, only to be met with quizzical looks from everyone who was standing around watching. Realizing how stupid he sounded, he stomped over and yelled to hide his embarrassment, “And what sort of warrior breaks their weapon like that? If you were surrounded by enemies and your sword broke, what would you do then?”

 

“Ummm…I could…”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought!” interrupted Hamm, tossing Thorn the other practice sword. “Try again, but this time, no breaking the weapon!” And so began one of the strangest training sessions in the history of Nova Terra. Next to a growing pile of broken practice swords, Hamm yelled and blustered, berating Thorn for swinging too hard and damaging his weapon.

 

He yelled, “Power is fine, and speed even better, but the warrior’s most powerful advantage is based in control! Swing with speed, hit with power, but control your force, don’t let it control you!” Nearby, a couple of other native trainers stood watching, grins on their faces as Hamm got more and more frustrated at the inhumanly strong traveler who was making a mess of the training yard.