Chapter One – Nico

     Nico Pannel was born into the wrong world. He plummeted from the sky like a rock, breaking several bones and branches on the way down. He remembered seeing the worried faces of children as they gathered around him to see if he was still alive before his vision was swallowed by darkness. The darkness would not let him dream.
     Nico woke to a pain he had never felt before, coursing through his body, as if barbed needles had been placed in every fiber of his being. He could not recognize the source of the pain because he felt it everywhere, from the veins in his neck to the marrow of his bones. This spasm lasted for only second, as if he were struck by a bolt of lightning to bring him back to life. And then the pain went away like a violent dream.
     Nico took a moment to catch his breath and take in his surroundings. He was lying in a bed in what looked like a simple hospital room, very different from the one in which he spent most of his life. Each of his limbs were wrapped in a crude cast made of red vines and green leaves.
     He noticed a middle aged woman with long, light brown hair standing up from a chair beside him. Nico could tell she was exhausted from the bags under her green eyes. Before he could ask her anything, she hurried to the door of the room, yelling to someone in the hall. She seemed to be signalling for others to come. What she yelled, Nico did not know. She cried words he did not recognize and in a slow rhythm he could not grasp. Turning back towards Nico, he saw tears rolling down her cheeks, as she closed her hands around her mouth, her eyes wide in disbelief.
     Having heard her cries, people rushed in the simple room and gathered at the foot of the bed. They all wore strange clothing that reminded Nico of tunics. There was a mix of elation, relief, surprise, tears, and laughter among the many faces that he saw. Some spoke among themselves, but most were talking to Nico.
     He didn’t recognize a single face in the crowd. And they spoke to him in a language he had never heard. The strangeness of the situation suddenly hit Nico, pounding inside his head like water to a dam. He felt that the walls of his mind could burst at any moment. He was drowning in confusion.
     A preservation instinct took over Nico. He shut his eyes tight and took a moment to gather his thoughts. His breathing steadied and slowed. The voices of the strange people still filled the room with a foreign chatter, but with each slow breath, the sounds of the room grew distant to him. He dug into himself and found the familiar quiet of solitude. He needed to figure out what was happening. He spent the next few minutes with eyes closed in meditative thought, trying to make some sense of his surroundings.
     Ok, Nico. You’re in a hospital bed. Got that. But I’m not in the hospital I know. It seems more primitive. I can tell because there wasn’t a bag of Cheetos lying on the table next to me, no unattractive nurse who smelled like drugstore perfume checking my colostomy bag, no signs of electricity, and there was the simple fact that I was in a full body cast made of fucking vines and leaves, surrounded by strangers yelling at me in another language. He felt his heart race for a moment, but it only took two slow breaths to bring himself back to a calm.
     Calm down. This is your inner world. If I had learned in my life as a paraplegic, it was learning to be cool with my own thoughts.
     Let’s try that again. There are people in the room who I don’t know and are talking to me in a  strange language. Gathering from their tone and body language, they must like me. They don’t look mad. I mean, who doesn’t like me? In fact, from their signs of relief and all the tears, they must have really been pulling for me. They acted like they know me, especially the lanky woman hovering above my bed. I’m certain of this, but I have a feeling. And not being able to have physical feelings below the neck for quite a long time, I naturally cling to the “I’m on to something” feelings. And what was that pain? I shouldn’t feel pain…
         Alright, on to questions. If I’m here, in this place, right now, where was I before? I remember falling down what seemed like forever and then blacking out to the entertainment of kids surrounding my not-so-dead body. I wasn’t winning any gold medals for that absolute, cripple-yourself-twice-dive.
     But even before that, I was in my hospital bed. Funny thing is, it looked very similar to the one I’m in now. Family members at the foot of the bed, crying. Mom, Dad, and everyone else except Spencer. He was just outside the room. He didn’t want to be there for it. There they were. Some of them smiled to me, but they were just keeping up appearances. Grief pressed down the entire room. Everyone looked tired. They seemed ready for what was next.
     I was wearing a helmet of sorts. I remember smiling to the doctor next to me to signal that I was ready. He smiled back and told the technician to type the commands into the holodeck attached to my head. And then all went blank.

     Oh. I remember now. I died.

     I’m not supposed to be here, Nico steadily reminded himself, quickly retracing his memories to anchor his spinning mind. At least, I think so. I’m supposed to be dead, ascended to Elysium. That’s what the government lawyers told my parents when they agreed to my voluntary suicide. After the car accident I spent the next ten years in a hospital bed not going to school, not doing sports, not feeling from the neck down, and not getting laid. Ever. As my brother would say, I was a rockstar. So, Elysium sounded pretty nice.
     Elysium was a government sponsored virtual world designed for “any free citizen who so desires to transcend their physical frames and live forever in a paradise of their choosing!” Or, that’s what the pamphlet said when Nico’s mother read it to him for the first time. The moment he turned eighteen and was eligible for Elysium, Nico had his parents fill out the paperwork immediately. The idea of living forever in a virtual paradise was the only thing that kept him going. There was surprisingly very little paperwork. His father said, it was the government’s lazy solution to skimp on the costs of universal healthcare, so they made it as easy and idiot-proof as possible to sign up. There was the added bonus that all of the medical debt his parents had shouldered for a decade would be wiped clean if he chose to ascend to Elysium. A guaranteed place in eternal paradise seemed like the perfect option for his entire family. As soon as they were tired of living life, they would meet up with Nico in Elysium. Nico’s brother Spencer had his own opinions.
     When Nico finished meditating, he opened his eyes and scanned the room. The people were still chatting, but the longer he stared at them without responding, their voices died down from excitement to what seemed like question. Nico was prepared to speak over them. He had a plan. But before he could say anything, their words began to sound more familiar. Slowly, and without requiring any kind of focus, Nico could begin to understand what they were saying. It was as if their language was being replaced word by word the longer he listened, until he could understand everything they said.
     What is going on? On instinct, he did not turn his head because for most of his life he was incapable. But as his eyes moved from the woman standing to his right, to the window on the left side of the room, his head turned on it’s own, and he could see his reflection in the window. It took him a moment to realize what he had just done.
     I can move my head. What in the glorious fuck. After overcoming the initial shock of being able to move his body, he realized the face in the mirror was not his face. It was not even his body. 
     Before waking in this new world, Nico had died as an eighteen year old, second generation, Korean immigrant. But now, his reflection showed a twelve year old, blond, Caucasian boy, whose body was heavily bruised and wrapped in a green cast. Still facing the window, Nico opened and closed his mouth as a test, and the reflection mimicked him perfectly.
     “Alright! Quiet down. Quiet down. Let’s give the poor kid some breathing room ok? Everyone out except his mom.” The booming voice came from a giant man wearing a dirty grey apron over a simple, green tunic. His eyes were barely visible under his dark, bushy eyebrows and the rest of his face was covered in an impressive beard. He looked as if a black bear had shaved most of his body, picked up an ax, and decided to walk like a man for the remainder of his life. While his over-muscled figure took over the room, he ushered everyone else out. They didn’t need much convincing. The only resistance he seemed to face was the last of the group who stopped before leaving the room. She was a young, dark haired girl covered in scratches and dirt who gave Nico a hesitant nod before being pushed out by the large man in the apron. The mountain man closed the door behind her.
     It was then Nico realized what the giant man had just said. Did he just say my mom? Nico’s head whipped towards the woman who was just at his side and found her sitting back down in the chair next to his bed. The woman seemed more composed after everyone had left, but there was something in her eyes Nico didn’t recognize. 
    She gave a slight nod to the large man and shifted in her chair. He put up a hand, “No need to get up Helen. Are you feeling well?”
     The woman spoke, “I’m doing well, but ….” She turned her attention to Nico, “How are you feeling Kino?”
     Oh. Kino…. Good to know my name here. And Helen is my mom? Fine. Just roll with it, Nico. From now on, you are Kino until I figure everything out. I hope that’s soon.
    Nico did not have an answer for her, so he just blinked a few times and shook his head slowly.
     The man who looked like a bear saw the woman was unnerved at Nico’s response and spoke up, “Uhh. I’m sorry I didn’t make it sooner, Helen. Little Usha came to me running and screaming from the village, and told me everything. So I hurried as fast as I could.
     He looked in the room for a chair, but finding nothing that could support his massive frame, he decided standing next to Helen was the best option. He put a hand on her shoulder and she leaned her head on it.

     Just then, the sound of a bell chimed between Nico’s ears, and two transparent blue squares appeared between him and the woman who was supposedly his mother. In the window was a familiar blue, opaque text:

You have found yourself in the realm of Nifelheim, the land of mortals. Here, you will begin to forge your avatar in any way you see fit, and embark on an adventure of your own choosing. Explore new territories, battle monsters with friends, and climb your way up the rankings for fame and glory!
     Suddenly, everything made perfect sense to Nico. He cursed inward. Elon’s dirty ballsI’m not in Elysium. I’m in a video game, a VRMMORPG. And not just any game, but THE game. What the hell happened when I ascended?
      VRMMORPG stood for Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. Since the creation of the first light-based computer fifty years ago, the decades long dream of creating a completely immersive virtual world indistinguishable from reality was no longer a dream. The one who made virtuality a reality was none other than Elon Musk.
     The first light-based computer- a.k.a. holodeck -was created by Musk simply as a tool to achieve what he truly desired:  immortality. After he made it possible to colonize other planets in the solar system, invented infinite reusable energy through fusion, and sparked mankind into the next great age of exploration in space, he didn’t have much life left to live. So, his final conundrum was to solve death itself. Even with the fastest computers and the brightest minds in the galaxy, he knew they couldn’t come up with a solution.
     So Musk turned to the next best thing. He decided to create the person who would find the solution. Musk created a new company, Hal Corporation, and absorbed each of his other companies as subsidiaries. Using his now technological empire’s vast resources, Musk and Hal Corp. created the first and only Artificial Intelligence in the history of mankind. He named the Intelligence Hal, or the Oracle. Thanks to Musk’s newly invented holodeck that could simultaneously store infinite information in an unhackable space and process everything instantaneously with minimal hardware, The Oracle was born only after a few years of fruitful labor. Hal was born with the entire collective knowledge of humanity. He didn’t have to live in any specific hardware, and could be anywhere a computer existed. Hal was the god in the machine. Elon Musk knew this would cause a stir, so the project to create Hal was done in secret until Hal achieved his purpose. Musk didn’t want public opinion to slow him down.
     Musk had the idea for creating Hal from a book he read called, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. The book described a superior race of aliens who created a computer containing all of their collective knowledge to solve an unsolvable conundrum. Musk took this as a lesson. He named Hal after an old space movie he was fond of. When Musk finally showed his project to the public and claimed the name was a joke, but most people at the time did not find it funny. The idea of an omniscient, digital intellect who had the power to destroy humanity at any given moment made many wary, especially the United Government. Musk achieved almost everything he set out to do in his lifetime. He created the person who would would find a way for him to live forever. 
     The moment Hal gained sentience, Musk destroyed everything related to the Oracle Project. He didn’t want someone else recreate his work.  Even though Musk always spoke of Hal in a joking manner, Musk was known to give many warnings about Artificial Intelligence. Near the end of his life, Musk made an press announcement that Hal Corp. had solved the problem of death, that the entire human race could live forever. This was immediately followed by skepticism because many scientists had failed in trying to find immortality through bio-engineering. 
     Hal Corporation’s solution was much simpler. It was to transcend into a virtual reality unlike anyone had ever seen. By opting to leave one’s body, anyone could ascend into Elysium,  the designated heaven for humanity. Before reporters had an opportunity to ask Musk for questions, he immediately unveiled Hal and his Oracle project. A giant screen was revealed behind him. Under the screen was a woman wearing a holodeck attached to the screen. To destroy any doubts about Elysium, Musk had asked Hal to create Legendaria, a game world which perfectly mimicked the capabilities of Elysium. It was the first and still the most complex VRMMO to date. Without The Oracle A.I., no other virtual game could compare.
     Hal still ruled over both of these virtual worlds like a cybernetic god, but he didn’t interact directly with humanity anymore. Hal had no physical body. He lived everywhere there was space and information. 
     I’m in the wrong fucking universe.
     Nico had read and studied everything there was to know about Elysium, Legendaria, and virtual life. He knew it shouldn’t have been possible for a dead person to ascend to Legendaria. But there he was, the dead Nico in the body of Kino.
     Nico checked the second blue box that appeared in his view.
AGE: 13
Description: Something of a troublemaker, Kino is known to disobey his mother. He constantly abandons his duties to find mischief in the woods with his best friend Usha. Together, they climb trees and throw pine cones at other children. He just woke up from a terrible fall and severe injuries.
HEALTH:  20/20
MANA:    5/5
     So that does it. I’m in the game. I have all the skills and pop ups like a normal character, but why does it say I’m an NPC?
     “Kino, honey. Can you hear me? Are you ok?” HIs new mother looked concerned, her tone more urgent.
     Ok. How do I play this in the safest way?
     “Yes. Sorry mom. I was distracted.”  He tried to buy himself more time, his mind racing for an answer. And then it hit him. He had the solution the whole time. He decided to tell the truth. At least, the part of the truth that was convenient.

     “I can’t remember anything, mom.” Helen’s eyes widened in response, “I don’t remember who I am or where we are. The only thing I know is my name and that you’re my mother.”