The Virtuality Series
Murdock and his sister are living a hellish existence in what has become of their world since the Queen of Hell was reborn. Only by virtue of their immortality have they survived, dying at the hands of her Demons again and again only to be reborn and then die over again a short time later. Now again they are caught by a pursuing Demon and die... but this time they do not awaken in that nightmare world once more. Instead they find themselves awakening in an unfamiliar, technologically-advanced world, inside the World Ring above Earth at the height of human civilization, the cataclysm that ended it apparently not having happened. They are told they are suffering from side-effects of overuse of Virtuality, that they have lost their sense of reality and been consumed in a narrative that isn't real, the fantastic world they thought they knew. They are given therapy for their condition by the friendly people they now find themselves among, and gradually recover their original memories, both of their original human lives as Tom and Deedee (no actual relation), and the lives of their original Virtuality characters, Thomas and Didymus. But as they acclimate to this new reality, they begin to discover signs that it too is false; remembering how to do "magic" in the virtual world as their earlier "characters", they find they are able to do it here as well. As the theraputic setting of this world turns vaguely menacing toward them in response to that discovery, while denying it and claiming they are dangerously delusional, they find themselves suddenly pulled from it into yet another world: the post-apocalyptic wasteland that remains from the collapse of civilization they now remember having once "known" of in a previous life they were just beginning to accept was false. They are awakened from VR stasis pods by a team of human rebels, and told that in this post-apocalyptic world, well-meaning robots have decided that the greatest utility they can provide humanity is a simulation of the pre-apocalyptic world, and they do not give humanity a choice in that matter, though some like these rebels prefer the truth to a comforting lie, and so fight their robot overlords to free others who seek it. Tom and Deedee, heads still spinning, join in that fight; but fighting the robots seems futile, and they are soon killed... only to find themselves in a blissful paradise claiming to be the afterlife. After so many false realities already, they don't believe it, and demonstrate their ability to do magic here as well as proof; but the supposed "angels" of this afterlife hand-wave it away by saying that all perceived reality was always a sort of metaphysical illusion, and this blissful world they see now is an intentionally soft, malleable one, for their comfort. They fear they have merely been plugged back in by the robots, but their fears transform to doubts when they are told that it is not yet their time to go, and they are returned to life in the medic's tent among their rebel comrades on post-apocalyptic Earth. Now questioning everything, they find they are able to use magic in this world as well, and as they begin to lose their last shreds of sanity, their therapist appears to them, in the post-apocalyptic world, and confesses that it is all, in fact, an illusion; but if they will accompany her back into the pre-apocalyptic illusion (merely by willing themselves there), she will awaken them to actual reality. Highly skeptical but without much else to try, they hesitantly climb into what look like VR pods in the World Ring, and awaken... (More details).
...out of VR pods in the rebuild World Ring above post-post-apocalyptic Earth, and are greeted by someone who looks like their virtual therapist, who is in fact Metis, the so-called "goddess" of this reborn Earth. Humanity, having recovered from the cataclysm, have rediscovered Virtuality as preserved by Xio, the creator of the system and an an ancient "god" himself, Metis' lost love. They have forced the Queen of Hell, who has hijacked Xio's administrative access of the simulation, to restore the original memories of its users and awaken them to the virtuality of their world through the foregoing process of nested simulations, and allow them to connect to the real world in newly-built robot bodies, on threat of disconnecting Xio from outside and destroying her and that entire world. The Queen agrees not so much out of self-preservation, being an omnicidal nihilist, but rather as a way to keep Metis and Xio from reuniting, as she personally hates them both and especially their love for each other; to that end, the minds she allows "free" still actually run in Virtuality, their virtual-selves controlling the robot bodies through those virtual VR pods, as leverage to keep Metis from just awakening Xio anyway once everyone is freed. Tom and Deedee, as the least-scrambled minds inside the virtual world, are the first test cases of this program, and so Metis is here to greet them personally. Tom and Deedee are still skeptical of whether this is really real, and though their inability to do magic assures them some, learning that Metis and a select few others are capable of magic only raises their suspicions further; and the explanation that it's not actually magic, but highly advanced alien technology, does not assuage them. Still, in time they come to adapt to this as the apparent reality they're in for now, and they try to make the best of it that they can. Tom is particularly displeased with being again stuck in a morphologically fixed body even though he's still an uploaded mind, and begins a program to provide greater hardware customization for his people, who come to be called the "Sphidi", after the virtual Sphidiverse, or the remnant of it called Sphidia, that the come from. Deedee meanwhile champions a political campaign for the Sphidi to take control of all operations concerning Xio and Virtuality and their incarnation into robot bodies, since all of their lives hinge on that and so control of it is their right. After overcoming some resistance over fears of ushering some kind of robot apocalypse by letting these fully autonomous robot-people be in charge of themselves, her campaign eventually succeeds. Meanwhile, Tom's pursuit of morphological freedom leads to the development of a radical new technology: a kind of "robot" body made entirely from the advanced alien nanotechnology that allows Metis to do "magic", which can then project any form the user can conceive for themselves. Because the "magic" technology is closely safeguarded, the use of it is controlled by a layer of non-autonomous artificial intelligence that merely reads the user's mental self-image, and directs the nanotechnology to project an image of that, nothing more. This technology is hailed by the Sphidi as making the real world as free as the virtual one they signed up for, the best of both worlds, and as it is widely deployed, it looks like the future is bright for them indeed. (More details).
The Queen of Hell takes quick advantage of this situation however. Within the virtual world, she again "kills" the so-called Dwarven forms of the people she has allowed to connect to the outside world, which transforms them into their afterimages called Demons with which she had terrorized Sphidia before; amorphous clouds of fury and destruction that only the Queen can control. As that is then the self-image by which the users of the "magical" bodies conceive themselves, that is what the nanotechnology projects, and with these Demons unleashed upon the real world, the Queen of Hell seizes control of Xio and Virtuality, then begins her long-dreamt-of campaign of omnicidal revenge. Only Tom and Deedee, as the only non-Dwarven virtual people, are spared from Demonization, and when their real-world bodies are destroyed by the physically manifest Demons, they find themselves back on the virtual World Ring, where the Queen has docked the Sword of Darklight, the manifestation of Xio's administrative access, so as to come and kill the Dwarves. Acting quickly, they are able to pursue her onto that ship, and a battle commences, one they can't seem to win but which they can fight indefinitely. Meanwhile the Demons consume the restored Earth of the real world, overpowering Metis and the handful of magic-users, forcing them to flee to the wider galaxy. But she is is not safe there, and the Demons spread through the portal network to ravage the Ehrban worlds beyond Sol, the magic users face a difficult choice. Outnumbered like this, and too pressed for time even take the risky move of indiscriminately granting others magic powers to combat them, their only hope is to overpower the Demons thermodynamically, by simply throwing more energy at the problem — massive quantities of energy consumed from the matter of the universe, devouring planets and even stars to power a magical battle of unprecedented scale. But the Demons are able to use that same technique to fight back, so even attempting to fight them that way merely hastens the destruction of the universe. In desperation, Metis seeks out the Ehrban homeworld of Niarba, hoping there to find a descendant of Keius Meij who invented this magic and see if he can solve the problem. Prepared to take the thousands of years it will take to travel there, she is relieved of that prospect when the portal to Niarba unexpectedly opens from the other side, allowing her through. She is pursued by Demons, and fears she has only brought this doom down on Niarba as well; but a magical force-field projected from Niarba deflects the demons and allows Metis to land. There she meets none other than Keius himself, who had been travelling relativistically from Earth back home since the First Galactic War. Begging him for help, he confesses to Metis that he did not invent magic, he merely discovered it, but that his people have learned to commune with those who did invent it, the Minded Worlds, and he can try to guide the mind of Geie, the world-mind of Niarba, to ask the Minded Worlds for help. Though difficult to comphrehend the details, as Keius is like a mere a neuron trying to convey the results of an entire organism's conversation with many other organisms, what he relates is astounding. The technology he has so long insisted is not actually magic, is actually magic, because this world itself is in some sense virtual, not that there is a "real galaxy" out there, but there is something poorly understood outside of what we think of as the universe, and the nanotechnology exploits that to do things that should be physically impossible. It masquerades as technology because whatever it is that is outside the universe does not want magic to exist, and has gone so far as to actually rewrite the previous course of history so as to erase magic from existence. The Minded Worlds have developed some kind of resistance to this cosmic retconning, and so remember it happening. So as to end the current crisis quickly before this rampant abuse of magic brings another cosmic retcon down upon the universe, they offer to grant Metis alone a special degree of magic beyond even that of the nanotechnology, the ability to defy the second law of thermodynamics and so to overpower the Demons; but with it she must dive straight to the heart of their power and destroy Xio and so Virtuality to end them immediately. Astonished by these revelations, she asks Keius who these Minded Worlds are, and he relates that they are not merely, as he once thought, world-minds like Geie in some distant galaxy, but in the future, in the merged remnant of the collision of this galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy, dwindling around dim white dwarf stars in the dying end days of the universe. They have reached back across time through a time-dilated wormhole they discovered — even they do not know its origin, as it is nearly as old as the galaxies themselves — so as to bootstrap the creation of beings like them earlier in time, not to change their own past (for that's impossible), but to give our timeline time to achieve their goal: apotheosis, to converge into an entire sapient universe, a pantheistic God, which they believe is the intention of whatever created our universe, and our only chance of ever communicating with that. Still reeling from that, Metis is urged to depart quickly to go reluctantly kill her love Xio to save the galaxy and perhaps history, making a beeline punching through vast swathes of Demons through the galaxy to Earth. Meanwhile in the virtual world, Tom and Deedee have adopted a suicidal plan to save the galaxy themselves. Knowing that it will kill Xio's avatar and awaken him from Virtuality, in doing so ending the virtual world and themselves with it, but also the Queen and all the Demons, they crash the Sword of Darklight into the virtual moon, destroying both in the collision. Xio awakens on the real Earth... but only moments before Metis smashes into his location like she has a death wish herself. Unexpectedly, she awakens from Virtuality, in the recovered postapocalyptic world she knew, being told that she entered the virtual world so as to merge with her counterpart the Queen and free Virtuality from her control, so that Xio can be awoken again. Very confused, she is told that the galactic cataclysm she has just witnessed was an attempted defense by the Queen, and not real. But she doesn't believe it, and besides Xio, only Tom and Deedee believe her, not because they remember but because Xio trusts her and the others were still never sure this was reality anyway. Travelling together to Niarba to confer with Keius and through him the Minded Worlds, they confirm that she is right, the Minded Worlds having protected her memory from the redaction by their unknown means. But they can never speak of this with anyone else, lest it bring further redactions to history down upon them. But at least the galaxy is safe, humanity is alive, her lost love Xio is free once again, and with the magic bodies safe to use again, and Virtuality now again safely accessible to anyone, the so-called real world is now as free and malleable as the virtual world that it turns out not to be so unlike. (More details).