The Reality Engine
Carl hauled the bulky machine
through the front door around dinner time.
looking at her slender boyfriend struggling, but not moving to help.
“This new VR machine
I bought at
a car boot, it’s called a Reality Engine,” Carl wheezed as he twisted the box
through the front door. He stopped for a second to wipe the thin strands of
black hair away from his eyes. “I can’t believe they were selling it for only
three hundred quid. Absolute steal.”
quid?” Sarah frowned. “Didn’t you just get that Oculus Rift last
Carl laughed. “The
has nothing on this if what the bloke said about it is true.”
Sarah shook her head in
disbelief. “Yeah, and why would the bloke at the car boot sale lie?”
paused, looking at
her with a crease above his brow. As if the concept of someone lying to sell
something was completely unfathomable to him.
“I hope you can return
“It won’t be,”
he snapped and
hauled the box through the kitchen into the hall. She could see by his uncomfortable
gaze up the stairs that he did not look forward to lifting it up there into his
Later that day, Sarah walked
to Carl’s game room, where he had been ever since he managed to get the box
upstairs. She had to help him lift it from the bottom, so that it didn’t slip
and fall off. She wished it had slipped and smashed on the floor. She might get
some quality time back with her boyfriend every once in a while if it did. Carl
had been bad enough when he got the Oculus Rift, having it hooked over his face
all day while he played Gorn or Swords and Sorcery. He’d always take it off,
sweating profusely after hours of killing endless enemies.
Some days she even noticed
abs coming through because of the constant burning of fat, and the lack of
calories he was getting because he was on the damn thing all day.
The new VR machine was set
his room. Bulky, it took up most of the central area of the room. She had to
walk around the small spaces to the sides just to get around. His desk where
the Xbox, PC, and PlayStation sat was shoved into the corner.
The machine looked like
That kind of shape. It opened
for the user to lie inside, where it closed on top of them. Sarah frowned, she
couldn’t stop thinking about her boyfriend being buried in it, never to return.
It had only just dawned
that he might be in there now.
Sarah popped it open like
hood of a car. Carl lay inside, not responding to it opening, his eyes covered
by some thick goggle-like apparatus wired into the machine. More plastic
devices clipped the ends of his fingers, toes, and other wires stuck to various
parts of his body.
Angry, she yanked the goggles
off his eyes. “Carl!”
His eyes shot open, bloodshot,
frightened, and he gasped a big gulp of air like he had just been resurrected.
“Oh my God!”
She yelled. “Are
“Fucking hell, Sarah!”
barked. “Don’t do that!”
like that.” He sat up and wiped his sweaty brow, rubbing his eyes. “Nearly had
a heart attack. I need to exit the game myself, properly. You can’t just yank
the things off. It’s like it pulls me out of reality into an empty void or
something.” He shivered, contemplating what had happened.
“Pulled you out of
what?” Sarah snarled. “I put you back into reality.”
“Yeah, I just meant
like you pulled my brain out of my skin or something. I don’t know; it felt
really weird.” Carl got up and stretched, okay now. “You should have a go, it’s
fucking crazy. Like it really is like real life in there. You wouldn’t be able
to tell the difference!”
Sarah’s brow curled.
think I want to experience that, to be honest. I like the real world.”
he scoffed. “The real
world is shit and boring. In here I can be what I want when I want.”
“So, you won’t
mind if I pick up
a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto?” He grinned.
Sarah grimaced and slapped
on the arm. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I thought it wasn’t
cheating if it’s not real.” He laughed, impressed with himself.
“It’ll be real
when I cut your
balls off. Why would you want virtual prostitutes when you have a real woman
“Because their tits
Sarah slapped him again,
now. “My tits are banging.”
He laughed. “I know,
I know. I’m
“Well, I’m making
spag bol in
twenty minutes if you want to grace me with your presence at the table,” Sarah
“Sweet. I want to
hop back in
this for fifteen minutes and I’ll be right down.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, then
asked: “If I can’t wake you up from it, how do you know when to get out?” She
didn’t want to have to wake him up again. When she yanked him off his startled
reaction seemed a tad concerning. Like he was genuinely uncomfortable.
“You can set timers
interface. I’ll just set one for fifteen minutes before I start a new game.
Think I might hop into Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Nothing like a
good classic. It has like every game already installed on it. Best bargain I
ever scored.” He smiled, and lay back down into the machine, getting ready to
close it on himself.
Closing the coffin, she thought
eerily and left.
Fifteen minutes later, the
spaghetti bolognese was done. The rich red sauce with mince steamed over the
tangle of hot spaghetti under it. Two bowls were set on the table, and an
apple-cinnamon scented candle lit in between. Sarah waited for Carl.
“I swear to God if
come down…” She muttered.
His footsteps tapped from
hall. Carl walked into the kitchen with a heavy limp.
“What happened, are
Carl rubbed his
head. His eyes bloodshot, his limp heavy, “It’ll wear off. I played Call of
Duty on veteran, but I enabled the Reality Engine’s hardcore mode, which
apparently simulated pain in real-time.”
jaw hung open.
“I know right,”
he laughed. How
the hell could he be laughing? “Fucking crazy, isn’t it? I didn’t believe it
would be anything at first. But then I was running through this Brazilian
favela, blasting enemies left and right. Another crazy thing is that even though
the games are old, it enhances the graphics to make it look like real life—seriously,
you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Anyway, I was running through
these rusty shacks and whatnot, bullets whizzing all around me.” He rubbed his
ear. “I shot these two guys who tried to jump out at me, sprayed their brains
all over a wall, and didn’t realize the fucking grenade that flew into the
room. Well, I realized at the last second, tried to run, and it blew my leg
mixing the spaghetti and bolognese sauce up in the bowl.
“I passed out and
blood loss within a few minutes, my squad couldn’t revive me. But when I got
out of the machine my leg was throbbing. Still is.” He sat down and began
digging into his food, nodding as he tasted it. He always liked Sarah’s
cooking. “Time really flies in that thing. I swear to God I was in Brazil for
hours. Not fifteen minutes. It can’t have been fifteen minutes.”
“Fifteen to twenty
Trust me, Carl. I made sure.” She smiled at him. He didn’t return it, instead,
he just scarfed down the food like a malnourished animal. “Are you sure it’s
healthy to be in that thing? I mean, making it inflict pain on you doesn’t
He nodded. “I just
tried it, no
way I’m turning the hardcore mode on again.”
After dinner, Carl went
and hooked himself into the Reality Engine. He was in there the rest of the day
Sarah woke in the middle
night to the door opening, and the sheets rumbling. Moonlight spilled into the
dark room, and Carl crawled into the bed, naked. Annoyed, she propped herself
up on her elbow. “What time do you call this?”
“I don’t know,
three in the
morning… I think? I was gone for a good month in there.” He tried to snuggle up
to her, rubbing his hand up her body and on her breast. Sarah shoved it away.
“Come on babe, don’t play me around like that. You look so hot.”
“Play you around?”
“You woke me up in the middle of the night because you couldn’t get off your
stupid game and now you want a shag? I’m at work in the morning you tit.”
around, yanking the sheet with him.
She tugged the sheet back
A few days later, Sarah
from work, the house was silent. No games or music blaring from Carl’s room.
If he’s in that
thing again I’m going to flip. He was
spending stupid amounts of time in that Reality Engine. Sarah normally
tolerated her boyfriend’s laziness to an extent, but this was getting
ridiculous. It was one thing to be jobless and playing games all day, but at
least he was still there. Now he felt completely absent from reality.
Like a useless mouth to feed. And even then, he barely did that!
Sarah wondered why she still
tolerated Carl sometimes. Old memories, maybe? Nostalgia. He used to play the
drums in a band called Ace Raptor, which she found really attractive.
She loved going to his gigs at small pubs around town, and when they moved onto
slightly bigger venues that paid them for their work, she was so tremendously
happy for him.
Then, out of the blue, he
stopped playing. Favoring sitting on his Xbox or computer all day instead.
Maybe he just got comfortable in a relationship, which turned to laziness. A
nice meal out once in a while would be nice, or some time to chill before bed
when she had work the next day. But she rarely had any of those luxuries
anymore. Yet she still clung on… But she was coming to her wit’s end.
Sarah stormed up to his
Unsurprisingly, the Reality Engine was shut, no doubt frying his brain like a
sunbed fries the skin. She dug her fingers in between the top and bottom half
of the coffin-like machine, getting ready to pop the lid. Then she hesitated,
fearing bringing on another reaction like she had seen the first day. And back
then he was only in it for an hour at least.
No. He sits in there
using my money, eating my
food that I cook. He can bloody well acknowledge me once in a while.
She forced the lid open to see Carl lying inside. His skin pale, hooked up to
an endless tangle of wires. The sight disgusted her. Disgusted her so much that
it made her furious.
“Time to wake up.”
the goggles and wires off him.
His red eyes shot open,
screamed. So loud and terrible. A wail so piercing she thought if he didn’t
shut up soon the neighbors might ring the police.
Startled, her anger now
with fear, she gasped. “Oh my God, Carl! Are you okay?”
His nails dug into the fabric
which he rested, clutching it like a bird of prey. He panted heavily. “What the
fuck did I tell you about unhooking me like that!”
“I just wanted to
see you; you
are my boyfriend after all!” She yelled back.
“No! No! No! NO!” He roared,
his arms scouring his body, as if he were
checking himself for items. “All my progress, all my work for nothing! What the
fuck have you done!” There were almost tears in his sad eyes. Sarah looked at
him as if he were a stranger.
She spat. “Carl, you
spend all day in that thing!”
Sarah!” Carl ripped the wires off himself, he squinted when he
faced the sunlight beaming into the room, retreating from it like a vampire.
“It didn’t save, IT DIDN'T SAVE.” He threw a hand over his eyes. “Shut
those bloody curtains, will you?”
Concerned, Sarah rushed
the windowsill and closed the curtains. Carl relaxed and sat on the edge of the
Reality Engine. Sarah sat by him and held his hand. He retreated from her touch
at first, then adjusted.
“What is that thing
you, Carl?” She asked, rubbing his frail hand. He was getting skinnier. When
did he last eat?
“It’s done nothing,
it’s what I
was doing in the Reality Engine, Sarah. All my progress!” Carl was
on the verge of tears. Deep purple half-moons sat under his tired eyes. Like he
had lost a century of sleep.
Sarah didn’t really
know how to
react. It was a stupid game for crying out loud. Awkwardly, she slung her arm
over his shoulder and squeezed him, thinking it better to let him vent. He was
clearly upset. “What progress?”
“I was playing Nebulous
I played for a lifetime, more or less. That’s what it felt like. I don’t even
know how the thing runs these games. Like, there is a whole galaxy in there,
Sarah. You have no idea, the places I’ve seen. The things I’ve seen.
Billions of solar systems, Sarah, tens of billions of Solar Systems. And so
many more billions of planets. Can you imagine that? And yes, you can visit every
single one. Some are barren, just endless plains of rock. Some are
uninhabitable, you die as soon as you go to the surface. Some are rich with
life. I’ve seen primitive civilizations of aliens that talk with clicks, and
I’ve seen great cities that encompass planets. And you can explore every.
Single. Inch. All of it. You could spend a lifetime on one planet alone.
“Let me finish,”
“Our empire spanned the length of the galaxy, millions of lightyears, but it
was rife with rebellion, discontent, corrupt politicians, and ambitious
generals. And then a powerful race of aliens from another galaxy invaded our
galaxy, and the empire was on its last legs, our valuable mineral lines from
the Bokai sector cut off and destroyed, the economy of the galactic center
the hell are
you talking about?” Sarah spat, astonished. This didn’t sound anything like
Carl. What was all of that about economies and rebels and politics? This was
the person whose only political opinion was that “They’re all wankers, man!”
as he once put it.
My mission… My life.” Carl panted heavily, his frail hands working their
way up his face, feeling the clammy flesh. He squinted, confused. “I’m… I’m young.”
hand. “Carl, you’re talking crazy…”
His hands dropped. “It’s just that, in the game, I was in my sixties. A veteran
of a hundred battles. I had a scar from a plasma beam across my face right
here.” He traced his finger across the top of his forehead, just past the eye,
and down to the lip. “It feels weird now that it’s not there… Bloody hell, I
need a drink.”
you want a
cup of tea?” Sarah said, relieved that he’d said something normal. It was hard
to be angry at him after the worry set in. The fear. There were serious
questions about Carl’s mental health popping up at the back of her mind, but
she wanted to cling to the hope he was still healthy. She didn’t know how she
would cope if he damaged his brain with that machine. So yes, damn right she
would get him that cup of tea. As many as he liked.
hugging himself as he shivered. Sarah would get him a blanket, and a towel to
wash off the sweat beading on his forehead.
Carl’s cold hand latched around her wrist. “You must never wake me like that
His grip tightened. Sarah paused, her eyes starting to bulge. For a moment she
thought he was going to hit her. “It’s… bad for me. Just please… don’t.” His
stone-cold expression dropped into one of sorrow, and he released her wrist.
guilty despite how she justified waking him before, he was clearly hurt that he
was thrust out of the machine. And Sarah blamed herself. She never meant to
hurt him. “I’ll make you that cup of tea. Sorry.”
plug me out… no
matter how long I’m in there. I don’t know if I can handle it again.”
Don’t go back
in… She wanted to protest, but he looked so distraught, and
his words were so serious that she felt a little scared about trying to stop
him. She rubbed the red mark on her wrist. It was a wonder she didn’t burst
into tears at the sight of him. A skinny shell of a man.
Sarah went downstairs and
fetched that cup of tea. A shot of Jack Daniel’s whiskey for herself.
Carl was in the Reality
for three days straight before Sarah plugged him out again. She had wanted to
do it at the end of the first day, but the memory of his threatening grip and
cold expression stopped her. She became concerned about his lack of food or
water by the second day. He couldn’t be getting nourished in there. At first
assumed the Reality Engine would wake him if he got too thirsty, but the more
she dwelled on it and how it was affecting him, the more she doubted that.
That thing would let someone
Sarah was itching to pry
by the end of the second day, but since he had been in there for two days, she
feared his reaction at being plugged out after having been in for so long. And
the more she waited, the more she hesitated, imagining his reaction being worse
after long periods of time. Sarah told herself as she went to bed on that
second night that if he wasn’t awake by the next morning, she would do it. A
human couldn’t go much longer than three days without water, and if Sarah left
Carl in there, he would die. She’d rather have a pissed-off boyfriend than a
When Sarah opened the cold,
coffin-like machine, her heart leaped into her throat and she nearly fainted.
Her boyfriend was a shriveled skeleton of a man, his skin white as a ghost.
Only a few wisps of thin black hair remained on his head, the rest fallen in
the space around his head like a nest. His medium-sized shirt from Primark now
looked too big for him, draped across his chest like a blanket of saggy skin.
His joggers were the same. Had he gotten up out of the machine, they’d fall
right off his legs. The worst was all the wrinkles. Thousands of thin lines
stretched across that old, tired face. Flakes of dead skin cracked off from his
thin, dry lips, it was like all the moisture had been sucked out of him through
screeched and ripped
the goggles from his face, only to see two eye sockets full of bloody gunk,
reeking of a queer fishy smell.
Carl screamed, he looked
corpse waking from the dead, his boney limbs reaching out for the sky. The
wires stuck to his arms had buried themselves into the dry skin, latching on
like electronic leeches.
“WHAT HAVE YOU
voice was hoarse, and the words were slurred, for all of Carl’s teeth had
fallen out. The empty sockets leaked rivers of black blood that gushed down the
sides of his mouth. “ONE MILLION YEARS IT’S BEEN!” He roared in a
guttural tone, spitting blood and teeth out. “The Grand Mage… he gave me…
immortality. But the magic—” he coughed
up a wad of blood. “Dark, dark magic…” He leaned to the side as his voice
faded, bloody gunk fell out of his black eye sockets like putrid red tears.
Sarah collapsed to the floor
cried, wailing for her lost lover.
M.T Johnson is a writer and
marketeer. He picked up writing as a hobby last year and since then has had
work published in Short-Story.Me, East of The Web Magazine, an anthology called
Call of the Wyld, a yet-to-be-named anthology by Stark Raven Press, and he has
several upcoming short stories as well as larger works with a small indie
publisher called Dark Hour Dog Publishing. He lives in England.