Darkness Prevails
As I type this, I can feel it burning into my scalp. I want so bad to pull the headset off, but I know exactly what will happen, and I don’t think I can survive that again.

When I first caught wind of the Oculus Rift back when it was still just a Kickstarter Campaign, my mind was blown. I’d dreamed as a kid of being able to step into my favorite video games.

I daydreamed about swinging the Master Sword with my own hands as Link. I visualized myself as a bored god, making sure my sims needs were met or making their lives miserable. The idea of being inside the world of a game sounded so impossible. Yet under 2 decades later, we were on the cusp of actual, tangible VR.

Some people doubted it – Called it fake VR. Compared it to the failure of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy headset. Some folks wouldn’t even be happy until we got Sword Art Online levels of Virtual Reality. But I was satisfied simply with sight, sound, and the ability to move my arms and interact with a world more joyful than my own.

Years later, VR has come a long way. We have developers working on pixel perfect limb movement, leg trackers, 360 degree treadmills. People are doing everything they can to make the VR experience even more real.

But they have no idea that it’s all pointless. Once you go too far down the rabbit hole, you get stuck in hell.

It all started when I attended a small VR expo in Chicago. With the promise of new, yet to be released prototype headsets available to demo, I was guaranteed to attend. I was a VR nut now, so there was no missing something like this.

The expo was thrilling. There was a new headset from a lesser known Chinese Phone company that had an insanely high resolution. The demo game looked nearly real, but you’d need a $3000 dollar gaming PC to run it at speeds that wouldn’t make you nauseous. Even the desktop they had hooked up to the headset was struggling to meet 60 frames per second.

Then, my personal favorite, was the headset that focused on field of view. They’d managed to stretch the field of view to 180 degrees, which exceeds humans’ horizontal field of view and meets our vertical field of view. The more you know. When I tried this one, I could see how people could nearly forget they were even wearing a headset. It felt like putting on a different pair of eyes. Sadly, the resolution suffered and the screen door effect was so bad, you never felt immersed.

I spent several hours making multiple rounds at the event, trying a multitude of spectacular devices.

As the event was coming to a close, with 20 minutes left until the building closed its doors, I spotted a modest booth that I hadn’t seen previously. Strange, I thought. By then, I’d made at least a dozen laps around the entire place, yet I’d not seen this booth before.

It consisted of a single black curtain with a plain black banner boasting white, times new roman lettering that read “Conscious VR”.

I smirked. These VR titles were only getting more predictable.

There was a man sitting there behind a cheap folding table. In front of him was the boxiest looking headset I’d ever seen. It’s goggles ended in jagged edges. The strap was loose and seemed to be made of a cheap material. It was beyond generic, reverting past basic.

The man himself reflected the dismal headset – Adorned with a plain white tee, a tired expression and eyes that had glazed over hours ago. He looked bored.

I walked over. 20 minutes was plenty of time to experience one more prototype.

“Conscious VR?” I said with a curious inflection.

“Mhmm.” The man didn’t even open his mouth.

“So, uh, what’s the gimmick?” I pointed to the hefty headset. “It’s pretty big. So what, does it have a crazy field of view? Super 8k resolution? Or is it an all in one or something?”

I knelt down and got a closer look. I didn’t want to handle the thing until I got some sort of reaction from the man.

“None of that.” He muttered.

“Well, then, what is it?” I insisted.

He paused for a moment, staring at me, then to the headset. Without looking back at me, he simply said. “Wakes you up.”

I sneered. “What is that supposed to mean? Like, a cup of coffee?” I could certainly believe that a VR game or device could be designed to get your blood pumping, so I wasn’t too skeptical.

“Well, how tired are you?” he asked, emotion still vacant in his words.

I was getting impatient. Reaching my hands out to the headset, I looked toward the man. He nodded, granting me silent (though unenthusiastic) permission.

The thing was heavier than it looked. It must’ve weighed 12 pounds at least. Immediately, I rolled my eyes. Whoever developed this wasted their time – Something this heavy would never be consumer or commercially friendly.

I grasped the strap and stretched it over the back of my head. Then, I laid the goggles on my forehead, struggling to find a means to adjust the tightness of it around my head before I blinded myself with it. But I couldn’t find anything. No way to tighten the straps, no knob to adjust the forward position of the goggles, nothing.

“You’ll need to hold it.” I heard the man say seemingly seconds away from a deep yawn.

Seriously? A headset you have to hold? There goes any hope of innovative or even enjoyable gameplay you could get out of it.

With a sigh, I did as he instructed me. I held it at a position as comfortable as the awkward device would allow.

The screen was black.

“Is it on?” I asked.

There was no reply. This guy was starting to piss me off.

“I-is there a button I need to press?”

Still silence.

Forget it. I wasn’t going to stand there and be made a fool of by someone who should’ve been there to sell me on their idea.

I yanked off the headset.

I immediately fell backward onto the ground breathless.

Everything was black. In every direction, up, down, left, right, it was all blackness. A perfect dark that did not sway or falter. A black this flawless was unnatural. Unnerving.

I began to panic. I could feel my breathing speeding up and becoming more shallow. It was a struggle to pick myself back up and remain on two legs as I could not see anything to balance myself with. No frame of reference.

And when I was standing again, I attempted to look at my hands.

There was nothing.

I screamed.

But the blackness seemed to swallow the sound, if there ever was a sound. I couldn’t be sure.

Was I blind? Was I deaf? Was I dead?

I kept reaching up to pull off the headset, which I could’ve sworn I already did, but I felt nothing but my hair and skin. At least I was still there.

Then, the electricity came – A deep, sharp stinging pain that ran through me from top to bottom like a bolt of lightning. This was pain so intense, that all other thought left my mind. And though I could not see it, I felt the dribble of saliva flooding out of my mouth like some tazed criminal suspect.

***

When I “woke up”, my entire body was asleep - A thousand needles per square inch of my flesh. My vision had returned. The headset was gone. And I lay there in the floor of the event building alone.

I sat up awkwardly, the needles slowly fading. My head was a mess of agony and confusion.

The building was empty now. Had everyone left me there while packing up and leaving? Why would they do that? Had I passed out and no one cared?

I picked myself up and carried myself to the glass front doors. For some reason, they weren’t locked and I was able to leave without a problem.

Groggily, I made my way back to my hotel room. I had a plane to catch in the morning, and I had no way of knowing what time it was because the numbers on my phone were too blurry to read. How I made it back to my hotel bed alive or at all was a surprise.

I lay there, eyes closed enjoying the comfort of thread counts higher than I had at home. I felt fine then, save for the remnants of a headache. I looked toward the digital clock on the nightstand.

2:17 AM

The journey back to the hotel certainly didn’t take more than half an hour. So, I must’ve been unconscious for a while. Even so, I was extremely tired. I found it difficult to keep my eyelids open, and raising my arms was a skirmish against my own body.

So, with some effort, I adjusted my pillow and shut my eyes.

But sleep did not come. Something was keeping me up.

At first, I thought it was the headache, but it soon became clear to me that the headache wasn’t actually a headache. There was an ache above my ears wrapping around the entirety of my scalp like a circle. I could feel something there – Something that hurt the longer it remained on me.

For a moment, I assumed the heavy headset had left a sore spot around my entire head. Naturally, I reached up to feel the source of my discomfort.

My eyes flew open and taut. They began to water, quickly swelling to a point where tears flowed down my face.

What my fingers came into contact with was not a sore on my flesh, but a cloth webbing.

It was the same kind of material that headset had been made of.

I shot up and began to scour my own face with my hands, feeling immediately a bulky apparatus in front of my eyes – In front of my own vision and somehow I didn’t see it.

Choking on my saliva, I yanked at the strap and clasped at the thing in front of my eyes, raising it above my head.

In a sudden transition, the world around me changed. The hotel room disappeared as the apparatus came off. Around me instead was my own bedroom, my wife sleeping soundly at my side, though I remembered her having blonde hair – Not auburn. The morning sun burned my retinas through the glass pane, but I remembered that window being on the opposite side of the room.

Shivering, I looked down at my hands. Lying within their grasp sat a jet black device. It wasn’t the same device as the Conscious VR headset that I had expected. This was more sleek, quite a bit lighter, and with a more professional design sense applied to it.

My eyes strained to open wider ready to come apart at the seams.

“Mmm honey, did you really wear that to bed?”

I turned sharply. My wife stretched herself awake and had greeted me with a reference to this device that I thought I’d never seen before.

“W-what? No, I-I-“ Speaking was difficult. My throat was dry and trembled even more than my exterior.

“You always wake up acting weird when you go to bed with that. I told you to stop. It can’t be good for your mind.” She climbed out of bed with a yawn and made her way to the bathroom, yet I recalled the bathroom entrance being in the hallway.

I took the opportunity to reexamine the headset.

It looked typical. A strap, some adjustment knobs, some sort of softer than foam material applied to the inside of the goggles. If anything, it just seemed like a consumer perfected version of a VR headset.

But then I turned it about to see the lenses.

There weren’t any lenses. Rather, there in the middle of the top of the goggles sat a metal connector, a dongle of some kind, similar in shape to a USB Type C.

My mouth was agape. I reached out, touching the connector. There was some sort of brownish red residue on the side.

Is that blood?

Instinctively, my hand flew up to my forehead where the goggles would have met my face.

A chill ran down my spine.

My fingers met a small hole that perfectly matched the shape of the dongle.

I must’ve sat there, thoughtless and silent for a while. Because the next thing I knew, my wife stood nervously at the bathroom door in a robe.

“Henry? Henry is it happening again?!”

Eyes watering, my gaze slowly met hers. I failed to blink and I swear for a brief moment I forgot how to breathe.

In a sort of shell shock, I watched my wife pick up her phone and dial an ambulance.

I was taken to the hospital. An exasperated doctor looked over my eyes and forehead thoroughly with a miniscule flashlight.

“Henry, you were in here just last week. I told you to take a break from that headset.”

My mouth didn’t budge. I had nothing to say.

“Yes, okay, you see, your excessive use is causing a blood leak. While not usually fatal, it can cause disorientation and even seizures.”

I stared down at my hands. For some reason, all I could do was listen and count my fingers.

1, 2, 3, 4 –

“I want you to stay here tonight while we monitor your brain activity.”

5, 6, 7 –

“Are you listening, Henry? We will keep an eye on you. But when you leave in the next couple of days, promise me you take a break from that thing. And by god don’t go to bed with it.”

8, 9, 10

The doctor spoke to my wife just outside the room. A nurse came in to apply some monitors to my heat and temples. She let me know that, if I felt a seizure coming on or if I just didn’t feel right, I simply needed to press this red button next to the bed.

My wife came in. Kissed me. Cried a bit. Told me to get better. Then, she left.

***

That night, the hospital was quiet. But I lay awake, trying to figure this out.

Was this reality? Had I come back to the real world from some sort of hyper-realistic escapism?

If this was the real world, why didn’t I remember it?

Sure, for the most part my wife was the same. Our house was the same. The decorations were the same.

The only big difference was the headset.

I never remembered a headset like this existing. I didn’t recall having surgery to implant an insertion point in my skull. This… This world was like the one I remembered, but only slightly different.

My mind raced. I was beginning to wear myself down. Maybe I was overreacting to this. After all, if everything was essentially the same besides the technology of some weird headset, maybe I was worrying about nothing.

I’d just go home, live my life as usual, and stop worrying my wife by using that damned headset so much.

“Ach!” I winced. My temples throbbed. Were they sending some sort of current through these monitors?

I reached up to feel them, and my heart seemed to stop.

Webbing.

A strap.

Another headset.

Tremors flooded me as I lowered my hands. This time, I was too terrified to immediately rip off the apparatus. I was not prepared for another transition – Another revelation showing me that not even this was real. I was still in yet another virtual world.

I swallowed hard, but nothing went down. My throat was drier than ever.

I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had to. If I didn’t reach up and pull off this headset, I would only live on not knowing, living a lie.

Steadily, one inch at a time, my hands moved in unison up to the straps that I was now fully aware of.

These were thinner, yet somehow sturdier than the last. It came off more easily. I kept my eyes shut tight and only opened them slowly once the headset was off entirely.

***

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the room I was in. Once I came to, I could make out a large auditorium full of hundreds of people. Laughter, excitement, just plain positivity.

If I had to guess, it was an expo but a much larger one than the one I attended with the Conscious VR booth.

I quickly located a large banner toward the back of the hall.

Welcome! Step Into Another World 2019!

“Watcha think?!” An ecstatic voice nearly shouted in front of me.

“Huh?” I managed to say. I looked ahead of me. I was holding the headset, which consisted of a thin white strap and a small rectangular box – A far cry from the goggle-shape I was used to.

“The Cubic is great, huh?! It’s the smallest Extraneous World device on the market!” The guy was short but built. He obviously took care of himself and was very excited about his product. “Well, it’s not on the market yet, but obviously we’re gonna make some waves, right?”

Extraneous World? Is that what they called VR here?

Once again, my breathing became troublesome and stressed. This world already seemed far more different compared to the last “shift”. People wore hairstyles that seemed out of place to me. Several other people walked around with IVs coming from stylized backups and implemented into their wrists like this world’s version of vaping. A woman walked in with a species of animal I didn’t recognize.

Without a word, I handed the device back to him and walked away.

I exited the event, searched for my wallet, and thankfully found a keycard with information to my hotel room.

When I made it back to my room, I sat down at a rolling chair in front of a tiny wooden desk where a laptop lay.

I opened it.

I quickly scanned over the icons.

Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, a Classic Runescape Launcher.

It was exactly the same as my original laptop. The brands were the same, the icon positions were the same, even the Classic Runescape played identically to what I remembered.

My head collapsed into my hands as I sobbed. I wanted to scream, yet I sat convulsing in tears. Because it didn’t matter that the differences still weren’t major. Because it didn’t matter that I could probably pick up the phone and still hear from my very same loving wife.

I cried because I had absolutely no idea what “original” actually meant anymore.

I cried because, as my face sat in the palm of my hands in a puddle of my own tears, I could feel yet another set of webbing around my head. Another strap. Another headset. Another fake world.

***

I haven’t “shifted” worlds again. I’m still in the last one, noticing more and more differences than I had before.

That new Nintendo console I’d purchased a month ago? It hasn’t released yet here.

The Pomeranian puppy I bought my kid for their birthday? It’s a German Shepard now.

But worst of all… I noticed the first major difference within one of these “shifts” when I flew back home.

My daughter – Our 5 year-old little girl who had begged for a puppy and a bunk bed so that her friends would have a place to sleep during sleep overs – She wasn’t our daughter anymore.

She was now a 14 year-old HE.

I still feel the same love and adoration as I should. But the affects this has had on my psyche only grow, even as I continue to ignore the ache of the strap around my head.

It burns. It throbs. It stings every second of every day.

I can feel the pain of it, I can feel it indenting itself into my flesh on the other side. Every sore sensation screams at me to pull the headset off.

But I’m too afraid.

Because I know things will get different – My definition of “real” will only drift further away.

I don’t think I can handle it again, even though I know beyond this headset, there will be another.

And another.

And yet another.

And I’m afraid that, with each removed headset, I place myself closer to a more hellish reality.

A reality closer to the truth.

A reality where my daugh- I mean, my son doesn’t actually exist.

A reality where I’m alone, bed ridden, diseased, paralyzed…

Or worse.

Maybe a fake world isn’t the worst one to live in. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.
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AmmeJeanRomeo
Damn this is an amazing story. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if this reality we live in is actually real. Or as in the story, are we the characters in a virtual world, created by some other being. 
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