Ellie sits still, engulfed in blackness. She breathes in slowly through her nose and exhales heavily through her lips, until she becomes rather weightless. She’s ready. She gives the signal, trusting that Marshall will receive it. He must, because within seconds, the blackness snaps to life.
Luscious greens. Glittering golds. A viscous red sunset melting slowly before her eyes. Ellie wants to ask where she is and how it’s possible, but she can’t speak. Her chest is too heavy. Her mouth, too dry. It’s impossible, and yet here it is. Her incredulity overwhelms her until it claws at the back of her throat making her think she might cry. She doesn’t though. Ellie never cries. Instead, she struggles to make sense of what she is perceiving.
Colours that, for decades now, have only existed on pallets and canvases.
Chirps and caws of creatures she has only read about in books.
A sweeping breeze that is somehow both cool and warm, and full of movement dancing upon her skin.
Musk and pine rushing through her nose and nestling into her brain, creating new memories and seeking out old ones.
Salt on her lips, not from tears, but from the air itself which has somehow infused with a sea.
Life. Three-dimensional life. Real life. Only, it can’t be real.
Something heavy and sad lodges in Ellie’s throat.
It’s not real.
“Stop it,” she manages, her voice a croak. “Stop it, now. Please.”
Just like that, the blackness overtakes her once more. In the blink of an eye, she snaps back to the way things really are; effortlessly, like an elastic band. She had been given a glimpse of a different life. A better one. But it could be so easily taken away. She could be so easily wrenched from it. That meant it wasn’t real.
“It’s called virtual reality,” Marshall explains. His excitement is palpable, but so is his trepidation as he removes Ellie’s headset, waiting for her response.
Ellie simply shakes her head. Slowly at first, as if still slogging out of a dreamworld. Then, sharper and with more certainty.
“No,” she says. “There was nothing virtual about that. Virtual implies that something is fundamentally true. That was a lie. A falsity.”
Ellie unstraps herself from the special contraption Marshall had locked her into. She takes a deep breath and gazes around her at the bland and sterile environment they work in. It’s no different from the bland and sterile environment they live in. Rainbows and birds and trees and fresh air and salty sea water — those things may have been true once. But they haven’t been for a long time.
She looks up at Marshall, her most promising employee. “‘Virtual Reality’ won’t work. Call it, Artificial Reality.”
Marshall nods sullenly, and jots it down in his notebook.
© Shyla Fairfax-Owen