science fiction & fantasy
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Entertain, Embrace, Eat
Two hazy orange moons hang fat in the sky as Ryan spins in a wide circle and lets out a laugh. “This is a good one.”
Dax looks pleased. As he takes her hand, the rocky ground beneath their feet rumbles. Dax’s smile turns wicked.
“What’s that?” Ryan says.
He doesn’t answer, just grips her tighter and looks to the horizon. “Must be a cryogeyser.”
“This better not be like the flesh-eating worms on Europa.”
Dark shapes emerge from the surrounding outcropping, massive fuzzy bodies with eight slender arms bent high above their bodies.
Ryan shoves his arm, “No way, I’m out!”
She exits the simulation and returns to the input room, a stark white box like the Construct from The Matrix, her favorite classic movie.
After a moment, Dax appears. “Why’d you bail? They didn’t look so tough.”
“Giant spiders? You know I don’t like scary stuff.”
He pulls her close, and she wishes she could feel his arms in real life. Learn the scent of his skin.
“Well, it’s your turn to pick, so do your worst.”
“I make the best scenes.” She types in her three keywords and lets the AI generate their next world. “Ready?”
They step into the bustling nightlife of Paris, cobblestone streets slick with light summer rain. Ryan can almost smell the jasmine as they pass manicured hedges lining packed cafes.
“Didn’t we do Paris last weekend?”
“Shut up. I love it.”
They walk along an ornate stone bridge and the Eiffel Tower comes into view. “Someday, I’ll take you to Paris,” Dax says. “For real.”
She wants to believe that. Wants to believe that someday there won’t be an ocean between them. That they’ll meet in real life. But she likes him. Likes these strolls through never ending fantasies. For now, virtual date night is enough.
“Damn, Ryan. I didn’t think you liked scary.”
“Then what’s that?”
Ryan follows Dax’s gaze through the crowd of simulated Parisians until she sees it.
A dark smear detaches itself from a copse of trees in the distance. Pinprick white eyes. A body made of shadows ending in thin, jointed limbs. A mouth open in a silent scream, bursting with yellow, needle-thin teeth.
It fades in and out like a glitch.
It lumbers toward them, stepping skinny legs over the pedestrians in its way. Pinprick eyes trained on Ryan.
“Let’s bail.” She cancels the scene and they both reappear in the input room.
“That thing was freaky. What’d you put in?”
Ryan shivers. “That thing gave me the creeps. Maybe we should call it a night?”
She doesn’t want to–has waited all week for this–but she really didn’t like the way that thing looked at her. And its mouth…
Dax claps his hands. “You know what, I got just the thing.”
Ryan waits as he inputs his keywords and then they’re standing amongst gleaming white aspen trees. Fat flakes flutter down from the starlit sky overhead, and Ryan can see her breath in wispy, white clouds.
She sighs and tries to catch a dancing fleck of snow.
“FOREST;MOONLIGHT;SNOWFALL is my all time favorite.”
“I know. It was our first date,” Dax says. He pushes her against a tree and kisses her lightly on the neck. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine how his lips would really feel. When she opens them again, she sees it.
Its black body is hidden by the dim light but still there, standing between the aspen trees, pinprick eyes staring straight at her. It opens its huge mouth wider than before, and Ryan can see the bloody gash of its throat.
“What the fuck, Dax?”
He spins around. “Ryan, I didn’t…”
The thing crashes toward them through the forest, its jaw opening wider.
“CANCEL IT!” she screams.
The thing is two trees away when the entire scene dissolves and they’re back in the input lobby.
“How did it follow us?” His voice cuts in and out, like he’s losing his connection.
“I don’t know,” she whispers, unwilling to remove her avatar’s hands from her eyes. “I think there’s something wrong with the server. Let’s try again next weekend?”
Dax doesn’t answer.
She looks, and standing behind him is the hideous shadow, its jaw hanging in the air just above his head. Ryan screams as the monster bites down through Dax’s torso, swallowing the upper half of his body.
“FUCK!” Ryan yells and throws off her VR mask, disturbing the orange cat laid out across her keyboard. “Sorry, Pumpkin.”
She steps away from the black monitor and paces the room, taking her cell phone out of her back pocket.
What was up with that? Virus? she texts Dax.
She calls him, something she never does.
She goes to the kitchen and washes her dirty oatmeal bowl.
Three more calls go unanswered. She paces her bedroom.
Maybe he’s back online? She picks up the VR mask but hesitates. No, fuck that. She turns off her computer. Unplugs it from the wall.
Pumpkin doesn’t seem to appreciate her erratic behavior. He jumps off the desk onto her bed.
“Ok, you’re right, it’s late.”
The adjoining bathroom floor is chilly on her bare feet. She pees quickly then runs cold water into the sink, cupping her hands and splashing her face.
She checks her phone, but no message from Dax.
She’ll call him tomorrow. He probably got disconnected and then decided to crash. It was almost morning his time.
She flips the light off and steps back into her bedroom.
Standing in the center of the room is the tall, hideous creature, its head tilted to duck below her ceiling. Its jaw hangs down almost to the void between its legs, and its pinprick eyes stare right at her.
September 22nd, 2023
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