Sir Robert wipes his bloody blade on his enemy’s doublet. The vicious Count Feyt lies on the chequered floor, a pool of brilliant red spreading beneath him. Andrea tries to move but the rope bites into her soft skin. The gentle breeze wafts the odour of death to her nostrils.
Sir Robert turns to her, his dark eyes glowing. “My love, are you hurt?”
Her heart beats hard enough to break her stays. The count’s odious advances are forgotten now. All she can see are Robert’s soft lips as he rushes to untie her…
A red dot blinks above Robert’s head.
“Damn,” Andrea muttered. She saved the unfinished Immersion453 and removed her VR helmet.
Lilla stood in the doorway. “I hate to interrupt you, but it’s urgent.”
Andrea disentangled herself from the creator’s chair sensors, alarmed by the fact that her boss had personally come to fetch her. She rushed after Lilla through the corridors of the 4Reel’s headquarters.
“Wait, what happened?”
Lilla opened the door to the conference room, ushering her inside. Andrea’s eyes ran over the faces. The standard immersion team. That meant…
Elias, thrice-damned Elias, who stood in the corner, chatting. Andrea felt a rush of longing, immediately followed by scorching shame.
“Now that we’re all here,” Lilla said, “look at this.”
A huge screen behind her flashed to life. Current news, gossip, a murmur of reporters’ voices.
“Shit!” somebody said.
Andrea tore her eyes away from Elias and looked up. A familiar image on the screen: a girl with black hair and spider-leg lashes, smiling. A celebrity. A friend.
“Becky Yang is dead,” Lilla said. “She was found in her apartment an hour ago by her PA.” Lilla paused, narrowing her dark eyes. “She had a VR helmet on, with Immersion265.1 still playing.”
A collective gasp filled the room. Immersion265 was a standard Austenian romance, one of many historical immersions 4Reel produced. Pride, Prejudice and Petting, the team called it. 265.1, however, was a custom immersion. A work of art made especially for Becky Yang.
“Tabloids are having a field day,” Lilla continued. “The spokesperson of Parents Against VR has already issued a statement. Addiction, mental problems, you know the rant.”
“It’s not our fault their kids are idiots,” a junior programmer muttered.
“They’re looking for a scapegoat.” Lilla cut her off. “Becky was our ambassador. And she died while playing an immersion we designed especially for her.”
Her words left the team in stony silence.
Frozen cogwheels in Andrea’s brain turned with effort. “Surely, it’s just a coincidence she had her helmet on,” she said. “She can’t have died because of immersion, that’s impossible.”
“Are you willing to bet our future on it?” Lilla snapped. “Everybody’s waiting for the coroner’s report.” She waved towards the screen. “They speculate that Becky was somehow stuck in the immersion and couldn’t get out.”
Andrea felt sick. She’d worked for five years as a creator, spending more time in VR than anywhere else. Her task was to take all the elements produced by artists, designers, and programmers and turn them into real experiences by running them through her senses. She was the catalyst that made the immersions feel real to the players. And yet, the thought of being unable to leave it wrapped around her neck like a noose, choking her. “If she got stuck, it’s not because of the programming.” Elias’s voice snapped Andrea out of her reverie. “Security protocols are in place.”
“But if there was a glitch—” Lilla started.
“There was no glitch, I checked it personally.” Elias turned his dark eyes towards Andrea. His mouth was twisted into a worried half-smile. “Perhaps you should ask the creator if she overlooked an immersion vortex.”
“There’s no such thing and you know it!” Andrea snapped. “Immersion vortex is a lie to make us look bad. It’s virtual reality, for fuck’s sake, not dungeon dimensions. You can’t get sucked in!”
“Andrea, that’s enough,” Lilla said. “We’ll wait for the autopsy results. And the cybercrime unit is checking the helmet, perhaps the hardware malfunctioned and trapped her in the game somehow, though that should be impossible with our security protocols.” Lilla turned the screen behind her off. “In the meantime, I’ll prepare a statement and you’ll go back to work. Don’t talk to anyone about this, and I mean anyone.” She waited for the team’s silent, worried nods. “That’s it, you’re free. Andrea, stay for a moment, please.”
The team shuffled out. As Elias walked past her, Andrea touched his arm, against her better judgment. “You didn’t have to say that,” she whispered, feeling betrayed by his attempt to shift the blame.
“We have to explore all possibilities.”
She bit back her answer. “Can we talk?”
He nodded towards Lilla. “There’s no time, this is urgent. And anyways…” He looked at her and she sought in vain for a trace of kindness in his eyes. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Then he left.
When the conference room emptied, Andrea said, “I’m sorry I overreacted.”
“Take a few days off,” Lilla suggested. “Until the shitstorm dies down.”
“What? No, Lilla, don’t single me out, you know how it will look. What Elias said about the vortex… you know it’s gibberish, right?”
“I do. But a celebrity just died in our immersion. Your name is at the top of the credits and you’re distracted and upset. You’ll do more damage if you stay.”
“Go home, read a book, get some sleep.”
It was easier said than done.
Andrea entered her apartment, slid out of her clothes and walked into the shower. Hot water washed away the dregs of the day. The soft touch of the towel reminded her of another caress.
Andrea almost called him then.
She could pretend they had to talk about the Immersion265.1, pull rank and demand that he discuss programming solutions with her. She could force him to answer the phone.
What she couldn’t do, however, was force him to talk about their relationship. The charred remains of her heart he left behind when he betrayed her. The dizzying sensation of being dropped from a great height when she realized his crazy ex was neither crazy nor indeed ex.
He was bad for her. Still, every cell in her body yearned for him, and the more she tried to vilify him, the worse she felt.
Night had fallen. Andrea walked to the window and pressed her cheek against its cold surface. Below her, the city sprawled into the distance, its lights blinking like a galaxy, each bright dot a whole world.
She thought about Becky Yang, trapped in her helmet, lying dead in her apartment. Poor, silly Becky, who was forced by her publicist to date Hollywood heart-throbs, all the while dreaming about Regency gentlemen. Sweet, lonely Becky, who built a gossamer bridge of friendship while she confessed her secrets to Andrea.
Lilla had ordered Andrea to wait and to think about something else. But Immersion265.1 was her creation and if there was something wrong with it, it was her job to discover it.
Andrea didn’t have a creator’s chair at home, but she did have her state-of-the-art VR helmet and access codes to every immersion she’d ever made.
Andrea opens her eyes and sees her face in the mirror. The built-in filter makes her prettier. Her brown eyes are bigger, her skin is radiant, her lips are plumper. The hair she usually wears in a short, messy bob is long now, pinned up and arranged into glossy ringlets around her face.
“Make my tits look spectacular,” Becky said when Andrea created the immersion.
She breathes in and her breasts swell above her tight corset. Her cream silk gown fits like a glove.
For a moment, she allows herself to be enchanted by the pretty, exquisitely groomed girl staring back from the mirror.
“Becky died in here,” she reminds herself, and the enchantment fades.
Andrea checks the security sensor built into her emerald necklace. As her fingers brush it, the immersion freezes. There are no glitches.
She takes a look around the heroine’s bedroom: striped, blue wallpaper, smooth and cold under her fingers, polished hardwood floor, a four-poster bed, fragrant peonies in a vase. No signs of malfunction, everything feels solid.
A knock on the door. “Miss Andrea, it’s time to go.”
It’s the evening of the ball, and as she descends the grand staircase, the murmur of voices in the ballroom swells with each step. The supporting cast is performing flawlessly, chatting, drinking, dancing.
It’s time for the hero to appear.
“Do you want someone in particular?” she asked Becky.
“Can you make him… adjust to what I want at the moment?”
Andrea waits for the cue and, like a clockwork, it comes: violins start playing a dreamy tune and a group of redcoats walks in. The tallest one – slim, strong, dark-haired – steps into the light.
But no, Andrea reminds herself, it’s just the program reading her wishes. She is abashed, but she swallows the feeling and smiles at him.
“What shall we call him?”
“Captain Hartwood sounds so romantic, don’t you think?”
“Captain Hartwood, I presume,” Andrea says.
“You know my name?” He flashes a grin at once confused and delighted.
“Your reputation precedes you.” She winks and he blushes slightly and clears his throat.
The rest of the evening is up to her, but the handsome captain is programmed to follow, smile, and flirt. The scenario may vary, depending on the heroine’s choices. Andrea doesn’t know what Becky chose, but dancing seems like a good idea, followed by a walk on the terrace. They step outside and the night air cools her damp skin.
“How polite exactly?” she asked Becky. “No touching? No kissing?”
“What? What’s the point if he doesn’t kiss me?”
“I’ve admired you from afar for a long time,” Captain Hartwood says.
This close, Andrea sees the tiny differences. The captain is younger than Elias, his cheekbones sharper, his nose perfectly straight, the small scar on his upper lip gone. He’s improved, just like her. And she cannot resist him: she lifts her face to him, and their lips meet in a gentle kiss.
Something moves inside her frozen chest, a dead part of her fills with blood and comes alive again.
“Let’s go somewhere private,” he whispers, “or we’ll cause a scandal.”
“Sex?” she asked Becky.
“Oh, yes, please. But… make sure I’m up for it.”
That part is fiendishly tricky in all romantic immersions. There’s a fine line between an assertive hero and a creep.
The captain leads Andrea back into the house. They sneak through the dark corridors, giggling and kissing along the way. She knows every nook and cranny in the Sandford Abbey, but when he stops before a small door, she cannot remember what’s behind it. She follows him through it, though, and finds herself in a dark bedroom. A cold fireplace with a mirror above it, a winged armchair, a canopied bed with its curtains drawn.
“Andrea,” he whispers and kisses her. This time, there is nothing chaste about his kiss.
She presses her body against his. His hands lift her dress and petticoats, find the bare skin of her thigh. She unbuttons his breeches, pushes him into the chair and sits astride him. The pent-up desire pours out of her like lava.
“I thought you’d be a virgin here,” he says.
She freezes. That’s something Captain Hartwood would never say. “What are you talking about?” she asks, trying to manoeuvre out of his grasp, in vain. His hands hold her like clasps.
He winks at her. “I missed fucking you, Andy.” She realizes how stupid she’s been. It’s not Captain Hartwood. It’s Elias; he’s here in the immersion with her.
“Let me go,” she says, trembling.
“Why?” His fingers dig into the small of her back. “I thought you wanted this. You’ve been following me around for weeks like a stray dog.”
“No.” She pushes away from him, loses her balance, and lands on the floor.
Andrea rushes to the door. It’s locked. She touches the emerald on her necklace: the security escape sensor. “Out!” she commands. Nothing happens.
“It won’t work in here.”
She turns back to him. “What have you done?” Anger spreads through her veins, not so much because he trapped her here but because he dared to spoil the world she created.
“I’ve made a little hideaway for myself inside your immersion.”
“But… why?” Elias never struck her as a man who would spend his time inside romantic immersions. “It was custom-made for Becky.”
“Yes.” He buttons up his breeches. “Remember how she used to come to 4Reel almost every day, with her little demands?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“Well… while you were trying to fulfill her wishes, I fucked her in the toilet. I thought it would be fun to do it here as well.”
A chill creeps down Andrea’s spine as she approaches the bed slowly and pulls the curtain away. There is just enough moonlight to reveal Becky Yang’s avatar on the crumpled sheets, her ballgown torn, her black hair disheveled. Andrea’s knees give out and she crashes beside the bed.
“It was an accident,” he says in a flat voice.
And perhaps it was. Elias liked rough sex and Becky let on she was into choking. Andrea can almost believe there was some terrible mistake.
“How are you going to explain it?” she asks.
“I’m not.” He takes a step towards her, and another realisation hits her: she’s not going to get out of this room alive. Elias wasn’t in the immersion to fool around with her, he came to erase his crime. She interrupted him.
“I’m sorry, Andy.”His gaze is cold and calculating, erasing the last hope that there is still some affection for her left in his heart.
She dashes across the room. Not towards the door, where he jumps to catch her, but to the armchair. She climbs over it, onto the mantelshelf and dives into the mirror.
The immersion vortex is real; every creator knows it. But it’s not some unfortunate loop where the overwhelmed immersion player gets stuck forever. It’s a depository. Processing senses and emotions sometimes burden the creator with more than she can take: she has to put it away somewhere, hide it inside the game, like a burning ball of energy that keeps the immersion going.
Every creator has their own secret place. Andrea has mirrors.
She dives into the familiar darkness. Everything she’s ever felt is here: every sensory perception, every emotion. She unloads the fear and anger she feels, releases them into the vortex.
Elias barges in after her, she feels his presence like a sharp knife cutting the fine fabric of her dreams. He blazes a trail of anger and insatiable desire poisoned with insecurity. He’s in pain.
He chases her, but there is nothing to chase. How do you attack emotions? He’s never been a creator, he doesn’t control his emotions, they control him.
Andrea could meet his anger with her anger, his fury with hers, but it would just feed him. Instead, she calls up something else.
I love you, she signals to him. I see you, I know what you are, and I still love you.
She releases her desire, her longing, her heart-wrenching adoration. Every spark of warmth, every flutter of laughter he induced, the indestructible blaze of hope burning in her heart. Her love washes over him like a giant wave, quenching his rage, easing his pain for one precious moment.
She flicks through the mirrors of Sandford Abbey and jumps out of the grand Venetian one in the ballroom. Ignoring the gasps and screams, she grabs a Chinese vase standing under it, and smashes the mirror.
“The mirrors are cursed! We must break them all. Don’t touch them, just smash them.” The guests stare at her, but she’s the heroine and they’re programmed to obey her. “Go!” she screams and they run.
Every break hits her hard, as the emotions fizz and evaporate. The world around her loses colour and texture, fraying on the edges. Without the secret power of the vortex, the immersion is falling apart. But there’s one more thing to do.
She rushes to the door of the secret room. There’s a noise behind it: what is left of Elias is breaking through the mirror. It’s impossible to control the immersion setting without the creator’s chair, but this is her world. She dreamed it into being and he sneaked in and left an ugly scar. So, she touches the wall and closes her eyes. Smooth, she thinks. Unbroken. Perfect, like I made you. She runs her fingers along its surface, feels the wooden paneling. There’s no door. There has never been a door.
Andrea opened her eyes, cold and disoriented, reached up and removed the VR helmet. Early morning sunlight poured in through the windows. Her phone buzzed.
Lilla’s face appeared on the screen; tears ran down her cheeks, leaving black traces of mascara.
“Lilla! What happened?”
“Elias,” she said. “We found him this morning, in your creator’s chair.”
He overestimated himself. Andrea raised her eyebrows.
“Andrea,” Lilla stammered, “he’s dead.”
She feigned shock. “Do you think he tried to fix the Immersion265.1 all by himself?”
“Yeah, that’s our guess. He stayed late last night, working on it, but we don’t know why he decided to plug himself into your chair.” She crumpled a sodden tissue. “He must have screwed it up because the whole immersion is gone. Wiped out. It’s supposed to be impossible.”
“It is,” Andrea said.
“I don’t understand.” Lilla shook her head.
“I’m coming, ok? I’ll look into it.”
The screen went black. Andrea sipped her coffee, watching the early morning rush far below her. She searched her heart for the response to the news. A mild regret, nothing more.
Her love lay buried with Elias, in the ruins of Immersion265.1, where it belonged. She cut it away to save herself, and the immersion vortex took it like it had taken every emotion she offered it and liberated her.
She dressed for work and grabbed her bag. For the first time in weeks, she felt light and filled with energy, eager to get back to creating. There were worlds to build, and no one could do it better than Andrea.