Ch. 1 – How Not to Be a Hero

“I need a refresh on my absorption buff,” Roger said. He sat in front of his computer, headset firmly attached. His avatar on screen rolled to the side, avoiding the boss’s one hit kill.

“Sure thing. Coming right up,” one of the healers said. A second later the buff animation lit up his character, but it was already too late. His HP dropped below the critical mark, and the next crushing blow from the boss finished him off. He sighed, and leaned back in his chair.

“Thanks for nothing, scrubs.”

“Sure thing, noob!” the priest class leader replied. Roger didn’t say anything else as he watched the raid group slowly disintegrate. The plan went to crap as one key player after another was taken out. The last few ran around in circles throwing out spells at random, trying to delay the inevitable. They were all picked off too.

What a bunch of idiots, he thought. “Ok, guys. I’m off.”

Multiple voices instantly started complaining. “We’re supposed to keep raiding for another hour,” and “You’re our main, you owe us for the gear,” or “F@#% you, Hrothgar. Go suck eggs.” Roger ignored all of them as he disconnected without even bothering to respawn and leave the party.

He rolled away from his desk, and grabbed his phone. He still wanted to play, but other people were such a liability. Sometimes getting the most epic gaming experiences available still wasn’t worth the irritation. No messages on his phone, nobody to see. He glanced down at the stack of textbooks and homework sitting next to his computer.

Eh, don’t want to do that either, he thought. He had pretty good grades in high school, but things were slipping in university. It was hard to be motivated without good results.

Taking his phone, Roger left his parents’ basement, and went outside. Normally he wouldn’t go out at a time like this, but the new ARRPG game he’d picked up required it. It utilized low energy radio technology to create ad-hoc local area networks to facilitate player versus player. In other words, you had to actually search out other players in the real world in order to make battle between game avatars. A few minutes later he was wandering around the suburban neighborhood, looking for opponents. His player tracker indicator went off a few times, and he scoped out the other players.

Too easy. Roger had already beaten most of the people that lived near him, and they were all lower level than he was. He wanted a real challenge, something epic.

The game tracked his movements as he got in the car his parents let him drive, and he headed toward the center of town. Once he got within about half a mile of downtown, the screen lit up with markers showing where many players had congregated in order to skirmish. Basically, the game version of turf wars.

That will be good, he thought.

Roger pulled into a parking garage. It was pretty busy that evening, so he had to go around a few times before he found a spot. The phone flashed a bright warning and buzzed in response to him getting near the action. He got out of the car, and walked toward the stairs. He watched his phone, scoping out the most interesting prospects. Some of the other players–many, in fact–looked like they would be able to put up a real fight. His pace quickened as he excitedly headed toward the action.

One disorienting rush of air later, Roger found himself standing in a small room. It was irresponsibly bright, and the walls seemed to be shining with pure white light. Other than the perfectly flat lighting, however, the room was a complete mess. Behind a small desk sat an even smaller woman with mousy hair in a rumpled outfit that was obviously designed to match a dress code more than anything else. She was half heartedly clacking away on a keyboard while staring at an ancient beige CRT monitor with a far off confused look on her face. All around her were post-it notes and half full cups of various liquids. The only clean looking thing on the desk was a nameplate that read “Esther H. Levchenka, Assoc. Reclaimer.”

Tap, tap. She continued to punch away at the mechanical keys, her large brown eyes becoming even more puzzled. She leaned in toward the monitor. Tap, tap, tap.

Roger decided to say something first, “Hello? It’s Esther, right?”

Esther glanced from behind the monitor at him, seemingly surprised that he had spoken. “Yeah,” she responded before continuing to investigate whatever was on her monitor.

“How did I get here?” he persisted.

This time she rolled away from her computer and slumped down in her seat, pushing her legs out in front of her. “I’m trying to figure that out,” she said, glaring at him, “I think there’s been some kind of mistake.” She had a high girlish voice with just the slightest hint of an eastern european accent.

“What do you mean, ‘mistake’?”

“Hold that thought. I just called your reaper, and she should be here soon.”

She continued to just stare at him with an irritatedly curious look and the attitude of someone who had long ago given up on decorum. For his part, he tried his best to become very interested in anything in the room that wasn’t her.

Roger was staring intensely at the cartoon characters printed on the side of one of Esther’s many mugs when the door opened. At least, Roger assumed the door opened. The area beyond was basically the exact same color of perfectly flat whiteness as the office, making it difficult to differentiate spatial cues and perspective. Another girl entered the room. She was a bit shorter than Roger, with a build that was both fit and curvy.

“What’s going on?” she asked in a small voice, “I thought I had time off for now. Did I do something wrong?”

“Come over here and look at this, please,” Esther said without getting up. The girl walked over to the desk and Esther pointed at the monitor without bothering to sit up from her recumbent position.

“Ok, that’s a case file I closed up a little while ago,” the girl said.

“Right, can you read the name on the file?”

“Of course, it says Roger Harris.”

“Now look at this death report you put in the file, what name does it say here?”

“Roger Harris, Jr.”

Esther stared at the girl with unblinking eyes. The girl stared back at her.

“Do you see the problem?” Esther asked.

Roger saw the exact moment the girl had her realization. Her back stiffened and she snapped around to glance at him, then back at Esther, then to the monitor, and then back at him again. Her face was flush with embarrassment, and she drew her arms into herself as though she was trying to roll up like a burrito.

“Oh,” she concluded lamely.

“Yup, wrong guy,” Esther said.

“Yeah. Wrong guy.”

They were both staring at Roger now, and it was making him feel uneasy. “Ok, so I’m the wrong guy, but nobody’s answered my question. How did I get here?”

“Right. Sorry about that,” the girl said, “You’re here because you’re dead. I’m Hannah, by the way.”

“Excuse me?”

“You died about two weeks ago, by the looks of the death report.”

Roger’s mind didn’t really accept that. “If I’m dead, why can I talk and move around and do all kinds of things dead people generally don’t do?”

“Because,” Esther broke in, “Bodies die. Souls don’t. Generally they get moved on to another department, but we can’t do that for you.”

“We can’t?” Hannah chirped.

“No. They won’t be expecting him upstairs. His paperwork won’t come through for another,” Esther tapped a couple buttons on the keyboard, “Sixty years. They won’t have anything to work with.”

“Great,” Roger said, “Then send me back. All’s well that ends well, right?” His voice was developing the slight raw edge of panic.

“Can’t do that either.”

“Why not?”

“Well you’ve been dead, waiting in the processing queue, for two weeks already. There’s been a funeral with a lovely–well, some kind–of eulogy, and people have started to move on. Your body is filled with embalming fluid six feet underground in a casket,” Esther said, “If we could send you back now, you’d either sit trapped in a pine box for the next sixty years, or break out and be a horrific zombie that would torment people.”

“I wouldn’t mind being a zombie.”

“Yeah, well, our boss doesn’t like zombies. Our whole department would probably get audited. Lots of souls could lose their jobs.”

Hannah was trying her best to disappear behind the desk.

Roger’s mind was spinning. “Ok, so I’m dead. How did that happen?”

“Well,” Hannah said, peeking up from behind the desk, “You walked off a parking garage.”

“Come again?”

“You were really interested in that game, so I just kind of prompted you to not notice where you were walking, and you walked off the top level of a parking garage.”

“So you killed me?”

“I guess so,” Hannah replied, “I’m an angel of death, so, you know, I don’t really see it as killing people. It’s more like collecting taxes.”

“So you mistook me for this other Roger Harris, and killed me instead?”

“Basically,” she said, shrinking back down behind the desk, “It was my first day.”

“Is the other Roger Harris my dad?”

“Yeah,” Esther cut in, “But he got lucky. Because of our screw up, he’s got a little more time left. If he exercises a bit more like he’s been doing, then–the next time he comes up on the queue–his heart might be strong enough to survive.”

“Ok.”

Esther had been tapping lackadaisically on her keyboard throughout the whole conversation, but she suddenly took on a cunning look. “Aha, I think I’ve got a solution to our problems.”

“Really?” Hannah asked.

“Yeah, this guy gets to live, and we get to pretend this never happened and keep our jobs.”

“Oh? Tell me what it is! I’ll want to know the trick in case I screw up again!”

“That’s the spirit…” Esther said, giving her a sideways look before continuing, “Anyway, It looks like we can copy his record and modify the values so he’s still alive. Then we can do a force commit into a different instance. His body should be recreated from the diff log, and once he has a living body again his soul will rebind to it automatically.”

“Man, you hackers can do some cool crap,” Hannah said breathlessly.

“I’m not a hacker,” Esther said before adding, “anymore.”

“I’m going to be alive again?” Roger interjected.

“Yeah! Congrats,” Esther said, “But you won’t be back in your own world. You’re going to have to go to a different one. Any preferences?”

“What are the options?”

“It looks like here that you’re into fantasy stories and games, right? It turns out that in a multiverse with infinite worlds some of them turn out identical to the worlds that your fantasy writers make up. You want one of those?”

Roger wasn’t keeping up. “Why can’t I go back to my own world?”

“We already went over that. Horrible pain and suffering to the people closest to you? Awful zombie monster that costs everyone their jobs? Any of that ring a bell?” Esther asked, annoyed, “Besides, I have to make a copy of you to make you live again, and two records with the same key can’t exist in the same instance, duh.”

“Right,” Roger said, not really understanding, “In that case let’s do it.” If he couldn’t go back to his old life, what could be better than living in a fantasy world? He practically did already anyway, what with all the games, films, and books he consumed.

“Already done,” Esther said with a wicked grin. She tapped a few more keys.

Just as suddenly as when he had appeared in that white room, he now stood in a wooded thicket he had never seen before. The trees looked similar to ones he knew, but somehow different. The fir tree’s needles curled a little too much, and leaves weren’t exactly the same shade of green he was used to. Regardless, the air smelled basically the same, mostly of dirt and growing things, and the sky was the same color.

He had never been as aware of his own body as he was at that moment, and he realized that for the entire conversation with Esther and Hannah, he couldn’t remember feeling his body at all. He felt so heavy and weird. The wind blew through his pubic hair. Turned out that he was also naked.

He heard someone stomping through the woods, and turned to see Hannah. She was picking her way through the trees, carrying a bundle, and wearing a long tunic with hose and–frankly–nifty boots. She gave him a quick once over, turned bright red, and spun to face away from him.

“This is so uncomfortable.”

“Don’t you deal with bodies all the time?” Roger asked, “I figure that would be part of the whole ‘angel of death’ gig.”

“Yeah,” she responded, “Dead bodies. Live ones are weird and gross. Especially that thing.” She pointed in the general direction of his groin. “Just put these on,” she said, chucking the bundle over her shoulder. It hit a tree and landed directly behind her.

Roger walked over and picked it up, and Hannah cringed more and more deeply the closer he got. He half expected her to run away. Stooping down, he picked up the bundle and unwrapped it. Inside were some basic medieval style clothes. There was a white laced shirt, a green tunic to go over it, a belt, and a pair of simple turn shoes. There were also a couple things he didn’t recognize.

“What’s this diaper with strings on it?” he asked.

“Those are the braies. You use them to hold up your hose.”

These were never in any fantasy games. In those your character always got to wear cool pants that worked basically like modern jeans.

“Ok, I’ll put these on then.”

“Please do,” Hannah said before she scurried off about fifty feet and crouched down with her hands over her eyes.

Getting dressed was a little bit more complicated than he’d expected it to be. He started with the parts he understood, the shirt and tunic, but found that when it came time to put on his legwear, he couldn’t see what was going on. So he took everything off and started with the “braies” this time. He pulled them up to his waist and tightened the drawstring. He really did look like a man wearing a giant diaper.

Next came the hose. They felt like very thick socks that clung to his legs, and were surprisingly comfortable. They had holes in the tops that matched the strings hanging off the waist of his braies. He then put the shirt on, tucking it into his man diaper, and pulled the tunic on top of that. Lastly he put on the belt and shoes.

He twisted around, getting a look at himself. For the most part he felt pretty good. He liked that the shirt’s sleeves fit tightly to his forearms. It made him feel like he had large muscles. The tunic reached to just under his knees and had a nice weight. It would swish as he moved, but was too heavy to have any kind of twirling action. The man diaper was actually quite comfortable. The only thing he didn’t particularly like was the hose. He couldn’t help but think that he looked quite dandy in them.

“These aren’t so bad,” Roger said. Hannah peeked over her shoulder, and turned around when she saw that he was decently covered.

“Yeah, you do look kind of dashing. Your old clothes were lacking a certain kind of drama, weren’t they?”

Roger took note of how his clothes were basically the same as what Hannah was wearing. He also noted, with annoyance, that her boots were way cooler than his turnshoes.

“I thought medieval women always wore dresses?” he asked Hannah.

“This world is similar to a medieval fantasy world, not an actual medieval world. Gender inequality has never been a problem here,” Hannah explained, “We could both get dresses, if it would make you feel more comfortable.”

Roger shrugged that suggestion off.

“I suppose...” Roger looked around for a moment, “What do I do now?”

“Right, so, about that. Esther created your clothes somewhere you probably wouldn’t have found them, so she asked–well, more like commanded–me to come down here and give them to you. Then I suggested that while I was down here that maybe I could help you out a little bit so you don’t just die immediately again, and then she said that wasn’t really relevant to us keeping our jobs, but I didn’t agree that that was the most important thing, ya know? Anyway, she agreed to pull up a map, and then I said...”

Roger’s boredom must have been written plainly on his face, because Hannah cut herself off.

“Right, so,” she continued uncomfortably, “Nearby there should be a trail that will lead us to a manor where you can find food, lodging, and employment.”

“Alright, thanks. You’ll be going after I get there, I suppose?”

“Right. I’ll see you to the manor, and then let you be about your business, free to forget about all this unpleasantness.”

Roger was skeptical that he would “forget about all this unpleasantness” any time soon.

“Well, let’s be going then,” he said.

“Ok!” Hannah said, falling into step with him, and not objecting to the direction that he had picked at random, “Oh, and just FYI. Esther changed some things in your brain while she was rebuilding you so you can understand the language people speak around here. You’ll have a weird accent when you talk, though, and I don’t think you’ll be able to understand people from other areas.”

“That was considerate of her.”

“I dunno if it was. She got really excited with the idea of reconstructing a person, and just wanted to try hacking your brains.”

“Delightful.”

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