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Plug In + Die: A Pixelated Sunrise

Losing Grip on Reality

MindSoft is deemed responsible for crippling family life and stunting the growth of interpersonal skills.

A NEW DIGITAL CRAZE is sweeping the nation: immersive VR. Players have reported spending hours and hours of their free time ‘plugged in’ to these virtual worlds where they can ‘be whoever they want to be’, as VR market leader MindSoft describes it. But is it all fun and games, or is there something more sinister going on behind the scenes? We’ve heard from the families of ‘VR-addicts’ – a term coined by Dr. Marin, the leading authority on mental health in the technological age at the World Health Organisation – and the situation for many is dire. Parents say that they are ‘losing control’ of their children, as family time ‘slips away’. Romantic partners, in particular, are facing the brunt of what could be called a ‘digital epidemic’. We spoke to Carol Manning, the struggling wife of a VR-addict, and…

Rolling his eyes, David put his tablet down on the stained dining-room table and looked across at his ever-attentive wife, Emma. Her eyes were glued to her smartphone, which she seemed to be half-concealing under the table, although he wasn’t really sure why. He knew that she’d be scrolling through social media and that her breakfast would get cold, and then she’d complain about how it was cold, and he couldn’t mention the phone without getting an earful about his tablet, so… Well, it was a bit of an impossible situation. The point was, there was no need to hide anything, and it was especially ridiculous to only half-hide something.

He might’ve been putting a little too much thought into the matter. Sighing, he looked down at his toast, but the blackness lurking on it made him avert his eyes so that he was instead observing their little kitchen. It was small – cosy, the estate agent had said – but it had everything they needed, and everything they didn’t. For David, the line between those two categories had begun to blur recently. What was the point in having a ‘smart fridge’ and a ‘high-tech toaster’ when he struggled to even get out of bed and face the real world every morning?

“I’m done,” he said, mainly to himself. Emma glanced over at the speed of light, observing his plate with beady eyes. She terrified him sometimes – it was no wonder that she worked with the police. If not them, his money would be on some sort of criminal activity, so it was just as well that she’d snagged a job as a ‘front counter staff member’ at their local station.

“No, you’re not,” she corrected him, shaking her head before returning her eyes to her phone. He caught a glimpse of a scantily-clad influencer as the device bobbed above the table for a moment and wondered, a little glumly, how much money she made for just taking a picture; it was a weird, weird world that they lived in. Emma yanked him away from that train of thought with a seemingly deliberate sigh. “You haven’t touched your toast. I made it specially.”

“Yeah…” Trailing off, he took another look at it. Black. Dry. Crumbling. Even though he didn’t want to be anywhere near it, let alone have it in his mouth, he hesitantly picked up one slice of his burnt breakfast. If only to keep the peace, he told himself. It’s just toast – how bad can it be?

The answer to that question remained in his throat for the rest of the day. He plodded through work, escaping to the water cooler regularly, but nothing could get that taste, and those crumbs, out of his system.

On the long drive home after another tedious day of fixing everyone else’s messed-up code for the latest ‘smart kettle’, one thought consoled him: VR. He knew he needed a break. After various failed hobbies and fading friendships, he was ready to face the new digital frontier. At least he could get some peace and quiet – one of the various highlights of the VR experience was the ability to mute other players for ‘personal enjoyment and relaxation purposes.

Pulling up to the side of the road by his house, David found himself hurrying to get out of his car. Absurdly, he almost forgot how to unlock his front door. It was a bit silly, he could admit, to be this excited over a game when he was approaching his mid-twenties. But it wasn’t just a game. Well, that was what all the adverts said, anyway. It was an ‘experience’.

That toast could be described as an ‘experience’, to be fair, but he hoped that this VR thing wouldn’t leave such a bad taste in his mouth. Finally remembering the rather simple procedure needed to unlock the door of their small, terraced home, he let himself in and firmly shut it behind him. Emma would still be at work for a few hours, and he had nothing else to do, so why not treat himself to a bit of VR time?

Opening the door to the bedroom, he spotted the box immediately. Sat on his bedside table, it was in a cube shape, intentionally designed to look ‘futuristic’ and ‘space age’. The cardboard was white and glossy, if it even was cardboard, and he could’ve sworn that the box hissed after he cut the tape and pulled its two halves apart, revealing the kit on the inside.

It looked remarkably like a headband. David knew it wasn’t one (or he hoped it wasn’t for what it cost); its appearance indicated that the MindSoft Immersion Kit 23X was designed to go over the eyes and ears for that full experience that everyone kept going on about. The instructions, he noted, warned heavily against putting it over the nose or mouth (or both), in case of suffocation. He wondered who had the bright idea to cover their nose and mouth with the headband-like device, probably leaving their eyes and ears untouched by the kit anyway. After a long court case, the idiot probably got a lot of money.

“Layabouts,” David grumbled.

Rolling his eyes, he lay on his bed in a comfortable position, as the instructions recommended, and passed the kit between his hands. Its weight surprised him. While the outside looked like it was elastic or some similar material, the inside had to be a kind of plastic or maybe even metal. There were indications for where your eyes and ears went and lots of little LEDs and other electronic bits and bobs. VR wasn’t David’s speciality by any means – they hadn’t yet tried to create a VR microwave or dishwasher – but it looked alright.

He’d only know if it was worth what he paid for it when he actually put it on, turned it on, and entered the virtual world, or ‘environment’. But for some reason, he paused for a few moments before doing any of this. It stayed in his hands, and he continued to peer at it as if he knew what any of the tech did, or even what each individual piece was called. His thumb travelled over tiny rectangles made out of what could have been dark glass, then moved around the plastic-looking eyepiece circles.

There was a microscopic port for the Mega-Micro Memory Card (Triple M-C, for people who were too cool or tired to use actual words) which he could switch out for different environments. The card was barely half the size of his little fingernail, maybe smaller, but he managed to get it slotted into the kit without losing it down the side of the bed, which he counted as something of a miracle.

Then, the ‘on’ switch. His fingers trembled, but he wasn’t sure whether that was nervousness or anticipation. The switch turned out to be more of a touchpad than anything, tacked onto the side of one of the ear sections of the kit. The smooth white plastic lit up red, then green. Something inside the kit started making noise, and David quickly realised that he should’ve put it on before activating the thing for the first time.

Murmuring a curse under his breath and wondering how else he could screw up this day, he raised the kit up with both hands before pulling it down over his eyes and ears. A robotic female voice deafened him.

“You cannot choose profanity or other inappropriate language for your username. Please try again. Speak clearly and loudly in 3, 2, 1…”

“David?” He said questioningly, feeling a bit awkward. He couldn’t see anything, and some random voice assistant was telling him off. Not a great start.

“The username ‘David’ has already been taken.” David stifled a groan. Although he was tempted to test the kit’s ‘profanity or other inappropriate language’ filters, he almost immediately dismissed the idea. He wanted to relax, not get banned from the VR servers before he even got into an environment. “Please try again. Speak clearly and loudly in 3, 2, 1…”

“David123.” Nothing fancy – just something that would work. He couldn’t imagine himself making many friends who would care about his username with this VR thing, anyway. It would just be stupid kids and teenagers who he’d have to ‘mute’.

“The username ‘David123’ has already been taken.”

After many, many different usernames, David settled with ‘RogueElephant256’. It wasn’t his choice – the kit took pity on him after five failed usernames and came up with some randomised free options.

Never mind that, he thought. Whether he had a slightly embarrassing nickname or not, he was here to relax—

Until the login screen finally appeared and nearly blinded him. Whose idea was a brilliant white background for the first image in a VR experience? Groaning, he was tempted to remove the kit and completely give up, but then he remembered how much he paid for the thing and decided to persevere.

He’d give it ten minutes, he decided, as he moved through the login screen to the register screen and started giving MindSoft all the precious personal information that they definitely needed and weren’t selling to third parties. A few unread terms and conditions later, he was sent into another menu that looked a lot more promising, although it still used that awful white colour as a background.

There were several floating squares in front of him, but all of them except the one in the middle were grey. More stuff they wanted him to pay for, he assumed. He lifted an arm to try and flick through them, but nothing happened. Annoyed, he flicked again. He knew he probably looked ridiculous in real life, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that no one was home and tried again.

The login menu had been entirely voice-operated, but the robot woman hadn’t spoken to him since he registered his account. The non-grey square had an image of a meadow within it, with a stereotypical red and white chequered picnic blanket and wicker basket sat under a tree. No words. No helpful hints as to how he could actually get into the environment. Nothing.

After another minute of arm flailing, the voice deafened him again.

“No motion detected. Say ‘power down’ to turn off your Immersion Kit. Say ‘troubleshoot’ to troubleshoot potential issues. Say—”

“Troubleshoot!” David yelled, thoroughly done with this VR nonsense. He would’ve just pulled it straight off his head, but he’d struggled with it for far too long to just quit now.

“Troubleshooting process initiated.” He heard another hissing sound, but it might’ve been a whir. His ears weren’t used to such oddly close sounds – it was different to earphones or headphones in that the sound seemed to come from his brain, like the inner voice he heard when reading. “Scanning hardware. Immersion Kit – present. Motion sensors – absent. Please connect motion sensors. Read the manual for further instructions.”

Feeling a bit stupid, David took off the kit, rubbed his eyes, and attached the ‘motion sensors’, which were hidden in another compartment of the box. They were smaller versions of the headband which went around each of his wrists and ankles. Extremely thankful that Emma (or some random burglar) wasn’t home to see his stupid flailing around, he settled back into the VR kit.

When he flicked his hand, the squares zoomed around in a carousel style and made him feel a little sick. A few motions later, the robot voice returned:

“Environment selected: July 2030 Edition – National Picnic Month. Establishing connection… Constructing environment… Entering environment…”

With a startled cry, David felt himself jolt up as the motion sensors seemed to zap him. It wasn’t quite a physical sensation, though – was it something to do with his nervous system? Before he could question it, floating text appeared in front of him: Welcome To The MindSoft July 2030 National Picnic Month Environment.

He wasn’t on his bed anymore. Blinking, he looked around at a scene reminiscent of the image in the menu square. There was grass beneath him and an endless blue sky above him, too perfect to be true. A light breeze drifted through the air. The realism made him shiver. Glancing around, he realised that he didn’t feel like he was looking through a headset, but instead like he was actually standing in a random meadow in the middle of nowhere.

All of a sudden, he felt overwhelmingly alone.

“Hey! You don’t look much like an elephant.”

Raising his eyebrows at the random statement that just entered his brain, David spun around and saw a woman. He would’ve gone as far as saying she was a human woman, but human women didn’t usually have huge, white-feathered wings, like those of an angel, on their backs. He’d also met very few women with bright red eyes and startlingly neon green hair, shorn into what Emma would call a pixie cut.

It made David wonder what he looked like, so he glanced down and, thankfully, saw a fairly normal-looking body. Not his body – unless he’d lost twenty pounds on his way into the VR environment – but also not the body of a punk angel, or whatever the woman was going for.

“Uh… yeah…” There was a floating username above her head. The hot pink text easily contrasted against the paradise-like blue sky behind her: NeverBoring1. “Can’t say the same for your username.”

“You trying to call me fat or something?” She raised her eyebrows and put a hand on one hip. David’s insides shrivelled up.

“No! I just meant your username suits you. The look,” he clarified. Thankfully, she broke into laughter, and he allowed himself a chuckle as well. Although the woman wasn’t stick-thin, she didn’t deserve an elephant comparison – not that many people did. “I didn’t see where you could customise your… well, yourself, I guess.”

“I can tell,” she said, looking him up and down. “You’ve still got Default Bob on.”

“Default Bob?”

“Standard avatar for guys. Newbie?”

“Apparently, you can tell.” He countered. She laughed again, before gesturing to the meadow.

“Well, welcome to fake world number six hundred million and eighty-two.” Before he could comment, she broke into laughter again. Her – or her avatar’s – cheeks gained two deep dimples when she laughed, which promptly disappeared as soon as she stopped. “I’m kidding – I think. But you picked a weird environment for your first time. Picnics, really?”

“You’re here too,” he protested, but his tone was light-hearted. She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out, leading David to realise that while he hadn’t met one of those annoying teenagers yet, he had met someone who acted like them. “Besides, it looks like we missed the picnics.”

“Ugh. Newbies.”

NeverBoring1 began swiping in the air, but David couldn’t see what she was doing, if she was doing anything at all. She was wafting a bit of that weird breeze over to him, but the concentration in her eyes led him to believe that she was at least trying to do something else too. Patiently, he looked around at the environment, found out that it was still an endless meadow with a perfect summer’s sky, then looked back at the odd woman.

She’d procured an entire picnic set, not unlike the one in the menu square, from nowhere, then casually lounged on the blanket. He stood there silently for a moment as cogs turned in his brain before he remembered the obvious: they were in a video game. Nothing was real. This entire scene was just lines and lines of code, no matter how realistic it might’ve been. He didn’t know how much players were allowed to manipulate the environments, or how much they manipulated them anyway regardless of the rules, but it made sense that items could pop in and out of existence. Physics didn’t matter in a digitally constructed sandbox.

“You gonna sit down or are you just gonna keep gawping at me?” NeverBoring1 asked playfully. David obliged her and sat down cross-legged on the carbon-copy red-chequered picnic blanket, trying to discreetly sneak a peek into the wicker basket. NeverBoring1 sighed, reminding him of Emma. “Are you still not getting it? Have you not watched a VR playthrough like, ever?”

“No,” he shrugged. “Figured I’d experience it myself.”

“And I bet you figured you’d lump yourself with some poor idiot like me to teach you everything,” she laughed, lightly punching him in the arm. “Okay, Bob—”

“My name isn’t Bob,” David reminded her, although he then realised that neither of them had exchanged their actual names. Was there any need for it? Well, NeverBoring1 was a bit of a mouthful. He’d have to ask, at some point.

“You look more like Bob than an elephant,” she said, shrugging. “And I can’t sit here and call you ‘rogue’ with a straight face, so it’s Bob.” He threw his hands up in the air and she seemed satisfied, continuing. “Bob, there is one basic rule to VR. I don’t know if it’s basic and I don’t know if it’s a rule, but it’s my basic rule. Got it?”

“Nope.” Very few of the words leaving NeverBoring1’s mouth were making any sense to David.

“Great. Well, you see that sun?” David shielded his eyes and glanced at it, noting that it was indeed a sun-like object hanging in the sky. “It’s not the real sun. The grass ain’t the real grass and the sky ain’t the real sky. So I can do this,” she flicked her hand at the sun, allowing David to notice the terrifyingly sharp nails she had for the first time. They were terrifying, but extremely unsurprising considering her general appearance.

He could only see them for a moment, though. One second later, the environment became dark. Then, the sky around the distant horizon glowed with soft pink and red hues. It took David a few moments to register what he was seeing.

“There you go. Fake sunset and everything. You can do whatever you want. Make the grass pink. Make yourself a bodybuilder, or an elephant.” They both chuckled. “Just stop dropping your jaw on the ground every time I do something, alright?”

“Alright,” he laughed.

In that moment, he felt genuinely at ease, unstressed, and overwhelmingly relaxed.

***

“3 AM, David. 3 AM.”

“I know, Emma.”

“No, I don’t think you do. I come in from work. I’m tired. Exhausted. Do you know how many people I’ve had to deal with today?”

“No.”

“More than you have, with your cushy little office job. I’ve had raving lunatics telling me their wife’s run off with Father Christmas. Stupid kids with their stupid parents, ranting about how their little angels could’ve never graffitied a wall while the kids are sat there with blue paint all over their hands. Blue paint!”

“Sounds tough.”

“Sounds tough. Yeah, it does, David. Then I get home, I’m tired as all hell, and what do I see?”

“I don’t know. Me?”

“Yes, David. I see you. Lying on our bed, with your stupid little game wrapped around your head. And I think oh, I’ll be a loving wife and wait until he’s finished. He’ll want to listen to how my day’s been and help me relax. But no—”

“Emma—”

“3 AM, David! It is 3.21 AM, and I am going to sleep. This better not happen again.”

“It won’t. I promise.”

fin

– “Plug In + Die: A Pixelated Sunrise” is the first in a 6-part series of short stories featured on our website (www.darkhourdogpublishing.com) to email list subscribers. It is completely free to subscribe and once you’ve entered your email address, we’ll send you a password to unlock the rest of our free content – simple.

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Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Personal Narrative, Sci Fi

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