The Reality Machine // Karl El-Koura

Michael Dudlas limped out of his car, which had rescued him from the alley and brought him to the roof of his house. Moving quickly despite the pain, he took the elevator to his basement and unlocked the large room where he kept his reality machine–or, to be more accurate, the virtual mirror copy of the reality machine. He undressed, ignoring the protests from his bruised and aching body, then sunk into the sleek, bath-like pod until every part of him, including his face, was covered by the warm blue liquid. Immediately he felt the pod’s large tendrils envelope his body and head, holding them immobile while the small tendrils slunk through his nostrils and into his brain to do their delicate work (or to undo it).

He closed his eyes because of the discomfort, waited to feel the shift and for the large tendrils to release him. When he did feel the shift–something like a sharp, instant head-splitting shock which was the result of the tendrils either implanting or removing the neural sensory infusers from his neocortex–he sat up and coughed. Usually he allowed the small tendrils to withdraw gently on their own, but this time he grabbed them and tugged, and they fell into the bath in a stream of snot and blood.

One of his eyes was still swollen shut. After the first year with it, he’d begun to deactivate more and more safety controls on the reality machine so that everything in the virtual world felt more and more authentic, and the consequences (thanks to the efforts of the large tendrils) carried over into the real world. Except that when things got too crazy, he could always step out of the virtual world, take a break and heal, and decide if he wanted to reset the world or dive back into the heap of trouble he’d created for himself.

Like now. But he didn’t want to reset the machine, he wanted to destroy it. And not because things had gotten really, really bad–no, the problem was that his grip on reality was starting to slip; more than once lately, he’d found himself confusing the real and virtual worlds.

He needed to destroy the machine. Even if it had cost him all of his substantial life’s savings.

Because whereas others who could afford it (not many) commissioned exotic virtual worlds where they traveled the stars as captains of starships or fought other gladiators in Roman arenas, his virtual world was more pragmatic and more complex (and had cost a lot more). His world was modeled precisely on the real one, and in it he could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. For as long as he wanted.

And that was the problem. He’d lost days to the thing, days giving free rein to the full force of his temper, which in the real world he was always restraining. Days doing awful things; days gobbled up by this playground for his anger and frustration. Days. The pod didn’t care–the tendrils supplied the nutrients he needed (cleverly keyed to when and how much he ate in the virtual world), and the bath cleared away his urine and feces.

Presently he emerged from the pod and, shivering and dripping blue drops across the marble floor (which instantly sucked them up and disposed of them), he went to the back part of the basement, to the storage where he almost never ventured. From there he retrieved his dad’s old sledgehammer.

Michael had promised himself that he’d stay away from the machine, to allow his mind time to rebalance itself. But he couldn’t stay away. In fact, just like he’d figured out how to disable more and more safety protocols, lately he’d been spending longer and longer in the virtual world, like an addict increasing his dosage to try and catch the same thrill.

He returned to the large room where he’d had the pod installed, the sledgehammer held tightly in both hands. Even now the machine called to him with its warm bath and tendrils.

That pod-and-tendrils was custom built for his body and his brain, and had little to no resale value (especially after the illegal modifications he’d made). So his choice was destroy it once and for all (he could never afford another one) or be under its power for the rest of his life.

The grip on the sledgehammer was starting to hurt his hands.

What are you waiting for? he asked himself. What are you fu–

With a loud grunt, he raised the sledgehammer and slammed it down on the pod, again and again, cracking it in two and in three and in four, unleashing his temper on this machine that had stoked the fire of that anger so many times, spilling its blue fluid and tendrils like the blood and guts of a large animal.

Only then, with one eye growing wide and wild and one eye still swollen shut, did it occur to him to wonder which machine he’d broken.

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