Black Petals Issue #98 Winter, 2022

M.T. Johnson: The Reality Engine

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The Reality Engine-Fiction by M.T. Johnson
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Bloody Fingers-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
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The Avenue of Pines (Re-visited)-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Lover's Meadow-Poem by Brielle Amick
Scarecrow in Female-Poem by Meg Smith
Regards to Buzzards-Poem by Meg Smith
Failed Conjuring-Poem by Meg Smith
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Lords of Extinction-Poem by Meg Smith

98_bp_realityengine_hstanton.jpg
Art by Henry Stanton 2022

The Reality Engine

 

By M.T. Johnson

 

 

 

Carl hauled the bulky machine through the front door around dinner time.

“What’s that?” Sarah asked, 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.”

“Three-hundred quid?” Sarah frowned. “Didn’t you just get that Oculus Rift last month?”

Carl laughed. “The Oculus Rift 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?”

“Lie?” Carl 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 if it’s shit.”

“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 games room.

Later that day, Sarah walked up 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 his 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 up in 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 a smooth white sunbed. 

Or coffin. 

That kind of shape. It opened up 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 on her that he might be in there now.

Sarah popped it open like the 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.

“Carl?”

No response.

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 you okay?”

“Fucking hell, Sarah!” He barked. “Don’t do that!”

“What?”

“Don’t just unplug me 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 reality, what?” Sarah snarled. “I put you back into reality.”

“Yeah, I just meant it feels 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. “I don’t think I want to experience that, to be honest. I like the real world.”

“I don’t,” he scoffed. “The real world is shit and boring. In here I can be what I want when I want.”

“But you’re not, though.”

“So, you won’t mind if I pick up a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto?” He grinned.

Sarah grimaced and slapped him on the arm. “Don’t be stupid.”

“I thought it wasn’t real? Not 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 here anyway?”

“Because their tits are bigger,” he quipped.

Sarah slapped him again, harder now. “My tits are banging.” 

He laughed. “I know, I know. I’m just kidding.”

“Well, I’m making spag bol in twenty minutes if you want to grace me with your presence at the table,” Sarah said.

“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 in the 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 he doesn’t come down…” She muttered.

His footsteps tapped from the hall. Carl walked into the kitchen with a heavy limp.

“What happened, are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine…” 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.”

“What?” Sarah’s 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 lifeseriously, 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 off!”

“That’s horrible,” Sarah said, mixing the spaghetti and bolognese sauce up in the bowl.

“I passed out and died from 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 minutes. 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 sound good.”

He nodded. “I just tried it, no way I’m turning the hardcore mode on again.”

After dinner, Carl went back up and hooked himself into the Reality Engine. He was in there the rest of the day and night.

Sarah woke in the middle of the 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?” She snorted. “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.”

“Fuckin’ tease.” He turned around, yanking the sheet with him.

She tugged the sheet back over her. “Wanker.”

#

A few days later, Sarah got back from work, the house was silent. No games or music blaring from Carl’s room.

If he’s in that stupid game 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 just 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 room. 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 all day, 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.” Sarah ripped the goggles and wires off him.

His red eyes shot open, and he 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 replaced with fear, she gasped. “Oh my God, Carl! Are you okay?”

His nails dug into the fabric on 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.

“Progress?” She spat. “Carl, you spend all day in that thing!”

“Fifty years, 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 over to 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 doing to 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 Era. 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.

“That doesn’t sound like progress…”

“Let me finish,” he snapped. “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 collapsed—”

“What 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 progress! 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.

Sarah held his hand. “Carl, you’re talking crazy…”

“Oh, sorry…” 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.”

“Do 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.

Carl nodded, hugging himself as he shivered. Sarah would get him a blanket, and a towel to wash off the sweat beading on his forehead.

As she got up, Carl’s cold hand latched around her wrist. “You must never wake me like that again. Ever.

“But Carl—”

Never.” 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.

Now she felt 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.” 

“Just don’t 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 Engine 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 die in there.

Sarah was itching to pry it open 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 dead one.

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 a straw. 

“Carl!” She 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 like a 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 DONE?” His 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 and 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. 

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