remain in the real world. Sixteen-year-old Ari has watched the
financial and emotional cost of virtual reality addiction for years
as her father continues barely existing in a VR coma. Unfortunately,
her only option to help her family escape poverty is if she studies
the one subject she hates and fears: virtual reality programming.
question everything. Now she must hide her ability or risk becoming a
priceless commodity that governments and corporations will fight,
steal or even kill to possess. As officials tighten the shackles
surrounding Ari, she rebels against her imposed future and searches
for a way to save those she loves. Yet, running proves impossible,
when the government is always one click away.
T his isn’t real.
Ari stood on a nearby hill above the familiar carnival with her brother, Marco. Rides spun endlessly in the distance, and neon lights flashed, illuminating the dark night. It stole her back to a time when the world was a different place, a place full of laughter. An uneasy sensation crawled along Ari’s skin as she thought of her body tucked back in reality with wires streaming from the port in her neck.
“Remember how you puked on the Spinning Hammers?” A wide smile lit up Marco’s face. Marco and Ari both took after their mother with their tanned skin, dark wavy hair, and chocolate eyes. Except for the smile—Marco wore their father’s smile.
She couldn’t figure out how her brother always appeared so put together, in and out of the virtual realm. Ari wore a flannel shirt and beat up jeans, and not on purpose. The VR program let people change their clothes, but Ari never stuck around long enough to bother with fashion.
She turned back to the carnival, the rides antiquated and shedding their paint even in this computerized replica. The carnival had come around every spring when they were little. People lined up all day and night for rides, an event so popular someone made it into a VR.
“Please, Marco, I feel like I’m about to lose it.” She dug her nails deep into her palms and welcomed the pain as it grounded her in reality.
“What? You don’t like it?” Marco acted surprised. “I had to ask them to dig into their storage to find this virtual for you. Come on.”
Marco grabbed Ari’s hand and pulled her down the hill towards the rides. The cool night air brushed against her face as they raced down the grassy path, and she fought to keep her fear from bubbling over. She had never lasted more than two minutes in one of these programs, but today she needed to. Her future depended on it. Assignments for their continued education were coming soon, and if she couldn’t pass the VR simulation, she might as well sign up for a life of kitchen duty.
Her breath came in rapid pants as they reached the entrance. A disfigured clown face with exaggerated eyes and teeth welcomed them, his mechanical voice scratchy. Her throat tightened as she tried to breathe. She panicked at the idea of being stuck here forever, trapped in this virtual world, spiraling into a VR coma like her father. The government limited the hours kids could be inside a VR, but people, young and old, still slipped, which left their family paying the bill in hopes they would return.
The clown image frizzed momentarily into a dark void with specks of light replacing the creepy face. “Marco, what’s going on?” She pointed at the distorted image. There had to be some sort of glitch.
Marco glanced at the clown. “What are you talking about, Ariana?” He tugged on her arm. “Snap out of it. I told Mom we would have fun.” He yanked her toward the Tilt-a-Whirl.
An elderly man worked the empty ride, or so her brain told her. He wore a plain blue uniform and a smile that was a touch bigger than necessary. Holding the gate open, he welcomed them inside.
The virtual showed its age as the computerized character blinked constantly and tilted his head every three seconds like clockwork, but they couldn’t afford anything more sophisticated. Ari wasn’t sure if it was the uncomfortable memory of wires hooked into her unconscious body or this man’s creepy behavior that made her want to run away.
She froze with fear at the gate. “I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can.” Marco’s dark eyes locked onto her with a firmness that didn’t suit him. “You don’t have a choice. Get used to VRs or get used to cleaning toilets while Mom tries to marry you off. Is that what you want?”
Normally she would have smacked her older brother for talking like that, but the truth hit its mark. Biting her lip, she stepped toward the small compartment built for two. Marco climbed in and slid across the faded blue vinyl bench. She squeezed in beside him and fastened the thick black strap.
“I thought you loved being here. I always did.”
Every spring, her father would empty the jar of coins on top of the fridge and treat Ari and Marco to a fun day at the carnival. They would fill up on fried bread and cheese curls, watching the night descend into a blur of neon lights. But, unlike her brother, this reminded Ari of what they didn’t have anymore: a father and a jar full of savings. In a VR coma, their dad was more dead than alive, and the chipped jar now sat empty on top of a rundown fridge.
Chest tightening, she pushed back the memories. “I’m sorry. I can’t, Marco. I gotta go.” She clawed at the thick black safety belt as the ride surged forward.
“Are you really going to waste Mom’s money? You know this is your last chance before your tests.” If he saw the fear in her eyes, he ignored it. “Whatever. Go. I’m staying and getting my money’s worth.” She bit her lip and faced forward, holding back her rising hysteria. The cart picked up speed and pushed her against Marco, who screamed in delight, arms raised high in the air. She wanted this so badly, wanted to let go of reality, to let go of the gnawing sensation in the back of her neck. As the cart continued to spin, Ari closed her eyes, hoping to endure. By the time her cart approached the aged man a second time, she was gone.
Her eyes opened to a water-stained ceiling. The stench of old cigarettes and filthy bodies welcomed her back to reality. She strained to turn her head. Her neck pinched from the cords in her port. Disgust tasted sour as she clawed the base of her neck, pulling at the thick cable.
“Hey, girlie. You’re going to tear your port, and I don’t have the stuff to fix it.” A man’s thick hands turned the cable until a click sounded, and then he gently pulled the wires out. She wanted to scratch at the insertion site, to tear away the mechanical feeling that lingered inside of her. Instead she undid her ponytail and covered the port site with hair, smoothing it down.
Her brother lay next to her in a reclined chair, a smile pasted on his handsome face. His wavy, thick hair, often kept short, curled around his temple. He always appeared more innocent while unconscious.
Glad to see he’s enjoying himself. She pushed back the bitterness boiling inside. He had been trying to help.
The large man, covered in old tattoos and smelling of yesterday’s beer, winked at her. Revulsion rolled around in her gut. Before he could speak, she rushed out of the room. She detested this shop as much as the virtuals themselves. The VR center stood only a few blocks from her house, a permanent fixture in her rundown neighborhood.
Ari hurried through the metal doors, squinting as she welcomed the sun. The real sun.
“Missy, want to catch a trip with a real guy?”
A withered man sat outside, his dirty clothes hanging off his body. “Trust me. I look a hell of a lot better on the inside.”
She snapped her head back to the road in front of her, ignoring him.
“Don’t be like that,” the man said.
Someone reached for her, grabbing at her arm, but she swatted it away, quickening her step. Please just leave me alone.
The jeers of the strung-out VR addicts followed her for the rest of the block.
She tried not to imagine how her father had used to be there, hanging out with the bums to catch a free VR. She tried, but it didn’t work.
Psychology. She finds it helps to corral those voices in her mind and
put them to paper. Her debut novel, A DEMON RISING, came out in
August 2017 with Black Opal Books and book two in the series, UNHOLY
SUNDERING, is due out 2018. An avid reader and writer, she has a soft
spot for fantasy with a touch of romance. Despite her love for food
and traveling, she always finds her way back to Phoenix, Arizona with
her husband, children, and pet dog.
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