Science fiction short story about soul stealing space snakes
"Jewels in an Angel's Wing" by Ian Watson.
This was a short story in an anthology,
One of these maybe? (The one I'm reading it in is none of those; it's The Random House Book of Science Fiction Stories, which is the American edition of Space Stories, edited by Mike Ashley.)
it involved a group of people trapped in a perpetual videogame/virtual reality. There were levels, and you had to beat each one. The first was like a water-world,
The story starts off in the waterworld:
Damnably, I'd just been chewed up by a shark. And I'd thought I was doing so well!
As soon as the shark bit through my legs I went into dream-mode. The sensation was sickening, like being eaten in a dream. I felt squeezed and reduced. Maybe that's how a prey often feels when a predator snaps its jaws; natural anesthesia takes over. Except in our case, our bodies go "astral" in dream-mode. With enough effort we can pull free and flee. That feels like wading out of deep, treacly mud. Then you need to find a powerpoint to eat to boost your energy back to a safe level.
No such luck this time. If you're already low on energy after an earlier escape, you've had it. You fade out. You reassemble somewhere else, usually somewhere you don't want to be, and you're starving for a powerpoint. Three such fade-outs in succession—don't ask me who does the counting—and you get zapped back to a lower level.
But the waterworld is actually the third level. The first level is radioactive ruins:
The first level of existence was radioactive ruins. Scattered throughout a wreck of a city were various safe enclaves—which never stayed safe for long. Radioactivity slowly seeped in, or else the mutants would mount an attack. You had to keep on the move, hunting for new havens that were clean, stocked with food and drink. And you had to collect powerpoints while avoiding the attentions of mutants and clouds of plutonium gas. Powerpoints on this level came in the form of anti-radiation pills, usually to be found in deathtrap buildings, all of them a good distance from the nearest sanctuary and in opposite directions. If you could eat enough pills without being too badly irradiated or mauled by mutants . . . well, I finally managed to, and found myself instantly reassembled on the second level. Ghoul Castle.
and the fifth was the simulation of a posh spaceship party.
Actually that's the fourth level:
And the fourth level was a starship. I knew right away what a starship was. This wasn't any old starship. It was an interstellar luxury palace, a ritz of a starship patronized by high society, a snobbish, intriguing, catty, star-hopping aristocracy of lords and ladies with whom etiquette was of the utmost importance. Life on board the Empire Topaz was an intricate dance of manners, and woe betide you if you stubbed a toe. Deadly as any shark bite, such a gaffe could wreck your status and destroy you. Here, a slap in the face or a snub was death. Dream-mode was the hot melting flush of embarrassment. Powerpoints weren't jewels or pearls this time; we had to collect favors from ladies. Asking one of those fine ladies in the ballroom of the Empire Topaz such a question as, "Where are we really? What are you really?" merited a stinging rebuke . . . zap.
The shocker near the end is where the characters realize they were astronauts on the moon
Fleetingly, foggily, I remembered the moon base: five sublunar levels sunk beneath the Mare Orientalis. I remembered our pastimes, all those interactive computer games we used to play to while away a tour of duty.
who had their souls/consciousnesses stolen by passing aliens to use as jewels.
Yes, but the aliens are described as fish-like rather than snake-like:
I remembered the approach of the aliens: two great spacefaring beings like grotesque, beautiful, ornamental fish a kilometer long, two kilometers high, half a kilometer wide, wrapped round with convoluted sparkling sails and veils, shimmering with powers and forces we couldn't fathom. All contact with Earth from our transmitter on Nearside was disrupted, lost.
A glimpse of my colleagues swaying, falling, shriveling as if emptied. I remember the terrible, sudden suction of myself . . . away. Of my mind, my soul, my person.
I think I know what we are now, and where we are. We've been collected by one of those aliens. Not copies of us, not analogues, but our very selves, our psyches.
We haven't been taken as scientific samples, not specimens, nothing like that. How the tendril seemed to preen itself, as it touched me. How it seemed to admire itself. We have been taken as decorations—as psychic jewelry. Jewels on an angel's wings. Just as light shifts within a gem, so our adventures scintillate. Ultimately, in a loop.
The game was just to keep them all entertained.
When the aliens brushed by the moon and removed us, they wondered what would amuse us, what settings would display us to best effect; and they found in our minds what games we played obsessively. So now we live those games.