If the colour formatting is an issue, you can read a plain version of this story here.
Shilelk, Tregrihi, 11th Zendor 998.
Erent’s invite takes me to the penultimate floor of a skyscraper that stems from a block in the city that isn’t quite central or centred.
I eventually reach his apartment, caught between stairs and stars. I meet him in his living room, overgrown with half-finished devices and scattered discs. The seed of a new invention is smashed against the floor just so I can take a seat. He pops on a cheesy song to keep the mood light and hands me a headset flowering with cables. It’s supposedly a finished prototype.
“You wanna give it a try? I can promise you more immersion than ever before. Just, only thing – sound’s not great. There’s a bit of audio, but you can still hear reality. The visuals, though? Should be incredible. ‘Course, I’m going to need you to test to make sure.”
I don’t know how he’s made this. Basic VR headsets have been around for years, but they’re not made by tinkerers in decomposing apartments. How could Erent even have software for it? His company, Altinea, was dead and burnt before it even got off the ground.
“I’ll warn you – it might change your life.”
Sure it will. Still, I won’t know until I try. I pick up the twin controllers and carefully clasp the wired goggles around my face, closing out the rain pouring down on the towers of the moonlit city.
A new world welcomes me. Jagged, gradient-coloured plants burst into my eyes. I take a cautious step forward across a cracked stone walkway over an impossibly blue ocean.
“How are you getting on? Pretty great, right?”
I stride onwards, looking back at a pale boundary wall. The horizon stretches infinitely ahead of me, as does the impossible plant life.
“I’m gonna make some coffee. I’ll let you explore.”
No time to stop. I have to see everything. An archway of pink and green trees enclose my head. I notice that the artstyle is itself a gradient – it began with total solid blankness with the back wall, and more and more detail is being added as I go along. Particles of sand drift across rock formations with intricate flecks and lines of damage, a thousand-year history spreading out of one imaginary object.
Hissing. “I apologise for the kettle sound. If that proto’s all working fine, my next job’s gonna be to find some headphones that’ll enclose your ears and properly block out all the noise.”
The archway of curved foliage leads me to a weathered cliff face. A large entryway has been carved out of the stone and tossed onto a field to the left of me. Between that and the ceaseless sea on the right, it’s a clever way of restricting my options. The cliff must lead into a naturally-formed cave given the size of the rock remnants on the left.
“If you’re where I think you are, there’s a hidden treasure chest if you try the notch by the barrel.”
I tread gingerly as I enter the cave, concerned he might have trapped it. I don’t know how the mechanics of this world work beyond looking and moving around. An eerie emptiness resonates from it. From the sounds of the storm, I expect the ceiling to be dripping, but it’s a permanent sunny noon. The bare room leads onto a curving corridor that will take me deeper within the cliff.
I breathe, and explore further.
Light ceases as the tunnel continues. The blue-grey of the crumbling rock walls fade into nothing at all.
I keep walking, but there isn’t a world to walk through.
“Hold up, let me just get the door. You’ll be alright there for now, Ben.”
Light burns through, and now I don’t see because I’ve been blinded. I shut my eyes, and just for a moment I experience non-existence. The song isn’t feeling so light anymore.
“Hey! It’s us, we’re just the folks who live downstairs. I was just going to ask you something-”
“Do you have an issue with something?”
“We were picking up some odd data transmissions and were just wondering if you knew what was going on. If you’re connecting to an independent network, then we can tell.”
“There isn’t anything going on here. Have a good evening.”
“They’ve given the go-ahead. Take him out.”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
I hear the first sound of this world, a hissing that rushes across to match the particles of text that fly past me, like data lost in the wind. Every part of this area illuminates, brightness searing across the whole stage of your vision.
Slowly, I can start to tell apart lines of grey and black imprinted on the walls.
“Do we know what we’ve got left here?”
“We couldn’t tell where the signal was going. A place far out of town. He could’ve been doing anything.”
It’s a window. I’m looking through into a room filled with unoccupied seats and control panels, all emitting the same glow. I can feel the light invading my veins, burning into and out of my soul.
I need to test the limits. I crash into the window as hard as I can and break it, chunks of glass absorbed into the air. I drop into the control room and notice immediately that there’s someone else here. Something other than myself that isn’t pure blankness. I feel the floor against my chest, and there is nothing I can do.
“Why do you keep coming here? What are you doing?”
“Check for watchers, cameras, eyes. He might have had fallbacks in place. There could be a whole network.”
This place is fresh in my memory. I am a new entry here. I start to realise-
“Where are you from?”
This dream belongs
“Hold up. There’s someone in the side room.”
to somebody else.
The other towers over me, trousers pulled perfectly tight to his waist. His boots are clear of dirt and gum as they tread towards me, inspecting me like a dial.
“Who are you?”
“Nothing of value to them. We’re clear.”
I don’t know if this world will let me speak, but I can only try.
“My name is Benjamin Calsant. I’m just exploring, I-”
“Burn it all, let’s be safe.”
“Sloppy, but I don’t have a better plan.”
He isn’t pleased. His actions are too genuine to be anything but real. Erent has lead me into something bigger.
Nothing but flickering.
He tries to tear apart his plush, white world, but nothing moves except me. I stagger to my feet and try to climb back out.
“I know what happens next. I remember every time. That means it was real. I’m not sleeping.”
I get caught on the jagged, sparkling glass. My life tears out of me. He gives up and fights with the only power he can’t be stopped from wielding – his own strength. I fade into the shattered fragments and glowing light.
“Let’s get out of here. It’s falling.”
An old world welcomes me. Jagged, gradient-coloured plants burst into my eyes. I take a determined step forward across a cracked stone walkway over an impossibly blue ocean.
I make my way back through the archway and to the cliff that leers over me. These limits haven’t been tested enough. I grasp the smooth rock face and swing myself up. Putting one foot above another, I can climb the wall.
A crack and a crash.
The roof of the cliff is an open plain. Grass trembles in a breeze I can’t feel, their tips a perfect green. This is the world I wanted, with the sun blazing down and the sky free of clouds.
There’s a figure on the floor in the distance. Another existence that I approach.
The shut and the end.
She’s lying in a patch covered in identical, smiling flowers. Calmly afraid of every step I take. Hiding behind the air.
“What’s going on in there? We’re upstairs and we heard-”
The swing and the silence.
“I’m supposed to be alone.”
“This is awful. Oh-”
“We should call someone. Who do we call?”
“It’s okay. I’m just- everything’s alright.”
“Look around you. How can it be?”
“Everything is never alright.”
“Who are you?”
“We’re from the penthouse upstairs. That’s what we said.”
“Leave me. Get out of here.”
“I’m not here. Maybe I’m hiding too.”
“This isn’t the place to hide.”
“Leave him. We should go. It isn’t safe.”
“And that’s why we should help him.”
“What do you see?”
“An infinite field atop a cliff. I should show you the forest. It’s beautiful.”
“He’s delirious. Delusional. All this burning must be melting his mind.”
“You’ll have to tell me. I can’t see it. It doesn’t work properly. Not anymore.”
She stands up. I take her hand, but she doesn’t move.
“It’s this way.”
“I’m calling someone. They might still be able to save him.”
“Honey, they’re not going to be able to save us if we don’t go now.”
“I’m happy here. I don’t need to be told where to go.”
“You can’t stay here forever.”
“See? He’s not delirious. Listen to him.”
I can go on my own. It’s not far. I’ll go back and tell her about it.
“Excuse me, sir, ma’am, we’re evacuating the building. We’re gonna have to get you out of here.”
“There’s someone in there. He’s not moving, just muttering to himself. You have to help him.”
“Sure thing, ma’am, but we need you out first.”
I can see the grass I stepped on before, and follow it back. Without it, I’d be lost, without any landmarks to remind me of where I am.
“Honey, he’s going to be okay. Stop worrying.”
“Yes, yes. Alright. I want to make sure everybody’s safe.”
“Nobody is ever safe. Not here, not anywhere. We just trust that it’s going to be okay.”
“Right now I’m not trusting that it’s going to be okay.”
The trodden path leads me back to the cliff. I look down upon the elaborate gardens and the forest of shadows and the dark blue ocean.
I sit on the edge and watch the sun that doesn’t set.
“Sir, could you please move? We need you to get out of here.”
“I’m not ready. I have to tell her about it.”
I feel her approaching, but she might not be able to come all the way over.
“If you’d rather stay, then I think I should warn you that the building is on fire. Make clear your intention or we’re going to remove you from the apartment.”
I have to run back and meet her before I run out of time. I embrace and reassure her.
“It’s going to be okay-”
“To answer your question… Evelin.”
“Ben. We can stay here.”
“I’m going to be leaving now, sir. I hope you’re satisfied. Have a good night.”
It’s the same as the song. I never thought that it would end.
Header artwork by Tay Savidis.