Make Believe

That’s a service station roof crashing down the road and shearing. Huge plastic shards snap and spin free. One of those could chop a person in half. I’m blinded by spray whipped from raging floodwaters; drains can’t cope and some cars are already floating.
From above, a corner of the concrete balcony plummets, railing tangled, concrete scattering and consumed by the torrent. If the next bit falls, it falls on me.
I’m hanging onto a steel pipe or something and, if I’m lucky, can get to the wrecked railing. The rain rips at my skin, stabbing, trying to tear my face off.
Through roiling chaos I can’t tell if the flashes are power lines or lightning.
Yes, I’ve got to the railing. Now I’m really exposed and my fingers barely able to grip freezing metal which bends as the wind and rain batter me full force.
There’s the child, half submerged, limbs flailing. She’s mostly obscured by scything spray and flung towards a tree stump. The poor girl is covered in mud or blood, I think, and going to die – I’m certain.
If … if I can get to the stump in time … maybe I…
The child screams as she hits, makes eye-contact, and reaches out to me. I leave the railing and lunge for her.
The rain and wind stop; warmth wraps me. Darkness … stillness, there’s the faintest whiff of electricity mixed with coffee.
“OK, time for a break – and I need to talk to you. Relax now. Let the suit come apart. Keep your eyes open and try not to fall over or touch anything.” Max’s voice barely conceals his exasperation with me. I know this is hard for … OK, I’m being hard on him but … in a positive sort of way. I mean life is tough. If he’s happy to trap himself in mental manacles and chains he must learn that not all of us are. What feels like a suit of armour lifts away in sections and I’m left in my swimsuit … sweaty swimsuit. Why did I sweat so much when feeling cold? Oh yes: terror.
I’m back in the workshop. All the men look busy and not at me. Max is about to explode and they don’t want to be involved. The trouble is Max’s explosions are embarrassingly unimpressive – a bit like me in a supermarket without toilet rolls.
There are no lightning bolts, screaming wind and I’m not being stabbed by bits of VR suit fooling me into thinking I’m being rained on in Hell.
I’m still crouching a bit, like it could all start again and blow instruments like whirling meteors from all the workbenches.
Max taps me on a shoulder. “Chill, sit down. I’ve made coffee.”
“That…” I blurt out, “was very real. You have the immersion perfectly tuned.”
He turns away, grunting, “But not you, huh? Come, we need to talk to you about the wording of your contract.”
I lift old motherboards or something from a stool and fight off twisted duct tape which wants to stay on and trap me when I sit. It breaks up into rebellious bits because that’s duct tape for you.
Max is already seated. “We have a problem…”
“No, you have a problem. I am a problem-free zone.”
“You died again. You’re not playing the game.”
“Oh, but I am.”
“Can you, just once, follow instructions? You have to leave the child so you can save more people later on. That’s how this game works.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. I admire him for his control. He’s so close to ranting and raving again or is this the eye of the storm? He sighs and looks away. “Please, just play the game. To win you must learn from your mistakes.”
“Then the game may make me forget who I am.” I put my hand on his. “Max, I need you to understand me when I say I am playing the game. You’ve heard me but it hasn’t sunk in.”
“I spent a lot of money making that helmet work with you. It would cost the same again to adapt it for someone else. I can’t afford it. Please just play the game through.”
“It’s not me that has to change, Max, it’s the game.” He starts to speak again and I try to wave him quiet. Instead he slaps the desk so hard scraps of cable and dielectric jump. A tiny spring dances and rolls to the floor. “I am paying you to play the game!”
“You spent a lot of money: that’s a guilt prompt. You’re paying me: that’s a blackmail prompt. Neither are going to work and I don’t think using them is wise or truly you. I think you’re playing this game of life by someone else’s rules. I play the game as me and do what I would do. Giving me a character who should act in another way isn’t going to work because I’m not that character. On top of that you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking, because you’re paying someone, you can make them do things they dislike or know to be wrong. It’s a common trap and pervades our society. It’s an abuse and should be illegal. One day, if we ever become fully civilised, it will be.”
“This is only a fucking game and we need to test the helmet all the way through to when you disarm the weather disruptor. That’s when you save millions of lives.”
“The problem pivots around immersion. As your helmet interferes with my brain I am totally there: this world ceases to exist and the game becomes my reality. I’m stunned at what you’ve developed: it’s genius level. It’s too real though, Max, too real. I can only act as me and this me will always attempt to save that child even if it means I die. The last thing that child sees is someone who would die for them. It’s a message, a lesson, something for them to mull over in their next life or whatever. These opportunities should never be wasted.”
“For God’s sake it’s a game and you died again! You and the child died. The child will always die. It’s part of the story. Nothing…” He slaps his thighs and stands up.
“Max, sit down. There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Just get back in the VR.”
“Something critical, Max: Sit.” He sits and glares, teeth clamped together so hard ugly muscles turn to rigid lumps. I go on, “I don’t think you really want to force me to do something I don’t want to do: I’m not sure who or what is urging you to. However, if you can answer some questions satisfactorily I’ll try to play as you desire.”
“Get on with it.”
“In my dreams I can experience awe or fear or delight because the dream feels real. Dreams sometimes seem real to me and the proof is I can be terrified or happy. I cannot be terrified of something that’s clearly fake. Your helmet makes things real because it negates disbelief so the emotions are real. This world we call reality feels real because the emotions are real. The questions are; why do you think this reality is more real than any other? – you are in it and it feels real. How do you know this isn’t a simulation, a game? No one can tell, so why would you choose to do something you think is wrong – wrong for you – if you think it’s real? Change the game, Max: I can only be me. It’s all I’ve got and I won’t be someone who intentionally does things I think aren’t right. You think I lost: I think I won – my way.”

©Gary Bonn, 2021