“Hitting rock bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” – Michelle Parsons
That was the reason I found myself in front of a small, mundane office building in the outskirts of Berlin.
It should be the greatest mistake of my life, even more so than all the shit I’d pulled before.
To make a lengthy story short, I had massed a serious debt. Let’s just say I thought I was far smarter than I was and made a few questionable investments.
I tried to find a way out, I did, but there weren’t many options available for a university dropout like me. Before long I scurried the less reputable parts of the internet for ways of making a few quick bucks. Nestled between shady offers and medical trials, I found one that picked my interest.
“Company Searching for Beta Testers of New Virtual Reality Technology”
I’d skimmed the article, but the moment I read that they’d pay me 100.000 Euros I laughed and told myself it was nothing but a hoax or a scam.
After a few phone calls, half a dozen exchanged emails, and a bit of research, I learned that the company, and their offer, were genuine. Why they offered to pay that much I didn’t know, but damn could I use it.
To be honest, I’d expected to find high-tech building, the type that consisted of nothing but glass and steel. The reality, as so often before, proved to be different.
The moment I entered, the young woman behind the reception desk greeted me.
“Welcome, may I help you? Are you here for the beta test?”
“Yeah, I mean, yes I am.”
I handed her the invitation letter they had sent me and after giving it a short look, she nodded.
“Great, we still have a bit of time, so please have a seat in the waiting area over there.”
She pointed at a compact room to my left. There was nothing inside the room apart from a few lonely chairs. Everything here gave me the impression of being quickly put together. The walls were bleak and empty, almost sterile. Was this really the office of some high-tech company?
I took out my phone and went to ImagiCom’s website again, to see if I’d somehow messed things up when I heard a door opening. A well-groomed man in an expensive-looking suit walked up to me.
“Mr. Purlow, welcome to ImagiCom! It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said and shook my hand.
“My name is Gabriel Brandt, I’m responsible for the beta test. We’re stunned to have you with us,” he said with a smile that was so typical to business people. He’d probably perfected it over many years.
“Likewise. Now, just a question, how come you’re paying that much money for a test like this?”
His smile didn’t waver for even a second, but I could see a slight squinting of the eyes.
“Let’s discuss the details in my office. We’ve got quite a few things to talk about, anyway.”
I thought about pressing the issue, but I might as well listen to the rest of his proposal.
“Sure, lead on.”
He led me through a short hallway as bleak as the rest of the building. It seemed we were the only people there apart from the reception lady. Before I could look around more though, Brandt opened a door and led me into his office.
The room looked different from the rest of the building. It was almost completely white and seemed far more modern, almost futuristic in design. A sleek white table filled the center of the room and one wall was nothing but a giant wall display.
Brandt motioned for me to sit down on a chair. Once he’d taken a seat opposite me, he pressed a button somewhere below the table and a video started to play on the display.
It started with the catch line ‘ImagiCom presents, the most immersive virtual reality experience ever.’
The video showed a quick succession of various photorealistic environments from a person’s point of view. Then the system itself was showcased. It differed from anything I’d seen before. There was no bulky headset, no gloves, nothing like that. Instead, it showed a pair of connectors placed on a person’s head, a sort of membrane one wore over the face, and a small black box responsible for connecting to ImagiCom’s cloud.
“So, what do you think?” Brandt asked once the video was over.
“Is this real? That looks like it’s from a science-fiction movie.”
Brandt smiled, but for the first time, his emotions seemed to be genuine. There was an edge to his expression, however, something sharp.
“Well, Mr. Purlow, reality isn’t so different from science-fiction anymore.”
“So if this is a beta test, I’ll get to use one of those things, right?”
Somehow I wasn’t convinced. This seemed way too advanced. To be honest, I expected the video was nothing but a marketing ploy to get more investors. The actual system was probably way different.
“Indeed, you’ll be the very first person to test our new system.”
“Outside of your company, I assume?”
“Naturally,” he answered, and once more he showed me his trained smile.
“Now, let me ask you again, why are you paying such an exorbitant amount of money?”
Brandt pressed another button and a small touch-display activated on the table in front of me.
“Well, to be honest, I’m only responsible for scheduling the beta test. You can find all the other details in the contract forms in front of you. Please take your time to read through them and sign them. Should you have questions, feel free to ask me.”
I started to read the first form. It was a simple non-disclosure agreement. The second one handled the eventuality of damaging the system itself, while the third one was on the company’s terms and conditions. The fourth was another non-disclosure agreement, this time about the virtual environments. It was the fifth form that discussed the payment. It was a new revolutionary system. The compensation was so high because they required absolute secrecy about the system itself and the virtual environments showcased. Here and there details about the payment popped up, but there were dozens of these forms. I read the first few carefully, but before long I started to skim. Then I only took a few looks and eventually signed them without so much as reading the title. It still took me more than an hour to work through all of them.
“Well, that’s that, all done,” I said after I signed the last one.
“Perfect,” Brandt said, and the display in front of me vanished again. A moment later a similar one appeared in front of him.
“Let me just cross-check everything. It should only take a few minutes.”
After a little while, he pressed another button. “Cynthia, something to drink please, how about coffee?” he said out loud.
A few minutes later the reception lady entered the room and brought each of us a hot steaming cup of coffee.
She’d barely put it down when I took the first sip.
God, I was tired. They’d scheduled the test to start at eight in the morning. Not such an unusual time, you might say. The problem was I had to make it to Berlin first. The company offered to book me a train ticket and pay for it, but it also meant I had to get up at three in the morning if I wanted to make it in time.
I finished the whole cup in a matter of minutes, but it didn’t seem to help one bit. I sat there drowsily while Brandt took his time going through the documents.
“Well, Mr. Purlow,” he said and brought me back from my half-asleep state. “It seems everything’s in order. We’re happy to start with the examinations right away.”
“It’s all standard procedure. As explained in form 32, section D you’re required to pass a few additional evaluations. Please follow me.”
Before I could so much as frown, he pressed another button and the wall behind him slid open, revealing another hallway. I hadn’t even noticed the sliding-door until now.
This part of the building was much more modern. The walls were pristine and stainless, the complete opposite of what I’d seen so far. It felt like we weren’t even in the same building anymore. For the first time, I saw other people apart from Brandt and Cynthia, the reception lady. There was a group ahead chatting next to a futuristic vending machine and others hurried up and down the long hallway.
I was about to ask Brandt about the company, but we’d already made it to the examination room.
“Hello there, I’m Doctor Kitagawa,” a man in a lab coat introduced himself. He followed it up with a lengthy list and honors and explained he was an expert in neuroscience. Brandt gave him a brief nod before he hurried from the room.
The evaluations lasted almost the entire day.
They started with a detailed assessment of my general health and fitness. It was to make sure I didn’t suffer from any serious health conditions like respiratory or cardiovascular problems.
After that came several brain scans. Kitagawa explained that certain brain conditions could influence our perception of reality. A certain percentage of the population wouldn’t be able to discern between the real and a simulated reality. For those people, the possibility of actual injury existed, even in a simulation. The most common one was hurting or overstraining your muscles. The second, rarer one was nerve damage because of the brain believing that a simulated injury was a genuine one. To avoid any of those, they had to make sure I didn’t suffer from any of those brain conditions.
I don’t even know what sort of brain scans they did. Kitagawa threw around so many terms, half of which I hadn’t even heard before. CT, MRI, MRA, MRS, you name it. Once those were done it was time for the last part, the psychological evaluation.
The questions were all standard. Did I suffer from depression? Had I been diagnosed with any mental illnesses? Did I have any mental condition they might want to know about?
The only ‘condition’ I could tell them about was the ADHD I suffered from and sometimes used medication for. They didn’t linger on the topic for too long and assured me it would be no problem.
What they seemed to linger on though was phobias, general fears, and anxiety. After they’d asked me more than a dozen questions on the topic, I spoke up.
Kitagawa assured me it was all standard procedure and important for the design of the simulation and a smooth run of the beta test itself.
So I explained that I suffered from slight bouts of anxiety because of my situation. As for phobias, I told them I suffered from arachnophobia but I also added, embarrassed, that I wasn’t fond of dark, confined places either.
Once the psychological evaluation was over, it was already early evening. I realized I’d been here for more than half a day already and the test hadn’t even started yet. Still, I was exhausted and apart from a quick lunch after the first half of the examination, I also hadn’t eaten a damned thing.
Thankfully, the company had prepared for all that.
I’d expected them to have booked me a hotel or some other accommodation. Instead, they lead to what they referred to as my ‘private quarters’ for the duration of the beta test.
The room was as modern as the rest of the complex. Half of it was made up of a bed that looked more comfortable than anything I’d ever slept in. There was also another one of the giant wall displays opposite the bed. Before I could even ask, they informed me that dinner would be served in a few minutes.
It was a juicy, tender piece of beef with a side of vegetables. After eating nothing but fast food and microwaved meals, it felt like heaven to me.
Once I was done with the meal, I threw myself on the bed, activated the wall display, and switched through the available media. Most of it was long videos about nature with low, relaxing background music. For a while, I watched colorful fish and stunning coral reefs before I felt myself dozing off.
When I woke up again, I couldn’t feel the soft bedding anymore. Instead, I lay on a cold, damp floor. It took me a few moments to realize that I was somewhere different.
I jerked up, confused, and when I looked around, I noticed that I was in an empty, dark room. The surrounding walls were damp, dirty, and covered in moss.
A quick check revealed that I was still wearing my clothes and my phone was still with me. The screen showed that it was already long past midnight and that I didn’t have a signal.
Once the shock was over, I used the phone’s flashlight to illuminate the area I was in. Old, brown stains covered the floor and a pair of rusty chains dangled from a wall behind me. A few meters ahead of me was an opening that led into a tunnel. There was no other light source apart from my phone.
Shit, what the hell was going on? How did I get here? Had I been kidnapped and put into some sort of torture dungeon? Had it all been a farce to lure me here? But why go through the effort to… No, wait, think, Andre, that’s not it. This room, the tunnel ahead, I realized as fear washed over me. It was a dark, confined space, wasn’t it?
I remembered the evaluation, the questions about fears and phobias. As I realized I grinned. They must’ve waited till I fell asleep and started the test. How I hadn’t woken up through that ordeal though was a mystery to me. Still, where I was right now had to be a simulation, and I was sure they wanted to see how I’d react to the situation I found myself in.
“Well, you got me,” I said to no one in particular.
“So, what now? You want me to explore or something?”
I crossed the room and put my hands against the walls. They felt cold, solid, and musty. If I hadn’t known I was in a simulation, I wouldn’t have believed it. As a fresh surge of anxiety washed over me, I took a deep breath before I entered the tunnel.
Now here’s the thing, you might know things aren’t real and that you’re in a simulation, but it doesn’t help a single bit. However much I tried to convince myself, things felt and looked way too damn real.
With each step, the sound of my footsteps reverberated through the gloomy tunnel ahead and I couldn’t help but cringe. The only other sound was the slow dripping of water from the ceiling.
It didn’t stay like that for long though.
After only a minute I heard other, weirder sounds. The distant rattling of chains and the sound of shuffling feet made me shiver.
“There’s nothing here that can hurt you. None of it is real.”
I repeated those two lines over and over again like a mantra.
I considered going back, to retreat to the room I’d come from, but then what? Wait till they turned the damned thing off? And how long would that take? Slowly, another thought crawled into my mind and scratched at my sanity. It was the stupid, impossible thought of what if this was no simulation after all?
“Calm down, Andre, calm down,” I told myself and pushed the thought back into the back of my mind.
Still, this simulation was too damned real. They’d explained before that they were simulating all sorts of sensual inputs and transferring them into the brain. That’s why it all felt so real. Once more I reached out a shaking hand to touch the wall next to me. Cold, damp, and solid. If this wasn’t real, shouldn’t I be able to-
Suddenly, a hand jerked from a hole in the wall I hadn’t seen before.
“Shit!” I called out and cringed back. My heart skipped a beat as I stared at the outstretched hand.
“Who’s there?” I called out in a quiet voice, but all I heard was the rattling of chains from behind the wall. Whoever was behind there was panting, moaning, and after a few moments, the hand retreated.
I stood there, frozen, afraid, and as I illuminated the tunnel ahead I saw dozens of similar holes. Then, further ahead, I could make out a sturdy, wooden door. As I stood there, more chains rattled. I heard the erratic shuffling of feet and bodies. More hands reached out, clawing at the walls, and wordless screams seemed to be directed at me.
“Fucking hell,” I cursed as a hurried on and pushed me past all of them, repeating my mantra like before. Get away from here, I told myself, get away and reach the end, wherever that was.
Right at that point, a distant, lonely light started flickering at the end of the tunnel.
My steps got faster, passing hole after hole, but then I heard something. A growling ahead of me, then someone screamed. There was a loud bump, the creaking of wood, and then the sturdy door I’d seen before was pushed outwards. For a moment dust and wood splinters filled the air, but then I saw it. A giant, bulging figure pushed itself from the doorway and into the tunnel.
When I cursed up in surprise and shock and the figure turned towards me. I cringed back a single step, then another before I turned and ran back down towards the room I’d awoken in.
Behind me, another scream cut through the air before I heard heavy footfalls from behind me.
I ran with all the strength I could muster, but I didn’t make it far. A giant paw of a hand came to rest on my shoulder. I was ripped backward, saw a terrifying grinning face, and then all light vanished.
I screamed and struggled against something on top of me. When I opened my eyes, I was back in the same bed I’d fallen asleep in. What I’d struggled against were the bedsheets.
My heart was beating hard against my chest. As I lay there my eyes darted around the room, afraid to find the giant figure lurking somewhere inside of my room.
“You can calm down now, Mr. Purlow, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It was all part of our simulation,” a friendly, female voice said.
“What the hell was that?” I screamed. “Are you crazy? What if I’d gotten a heart attack? That thing was-“
“I can assure you that your heart is fine. As you might recall, during the examinations, we informed you that the simulation won’t put you in harm’s way. The chances of you suffering a heart attack from the previous simulations were evaluated and deemed to be zero.”
“Fucking hell,” I cursed, “I didn’t sign up for this surprise stuff!”
“You indeed did, Mr. Purlow. In section 2D of form 54, you gave full consent to be subjected to simulated inputs of any sort without proper-“
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I said with a sigh.
“Have a good night, Mr. Purlow,” the friendly voice said before she disconnected with an audible click.
“A good night, yeah right.”
Shit, what was that about a form 54? Then I remembered how I’d not given any of the later forms so much as a glance. Shit, how could I’ve been so stupid? How many of the freaking things had I signed?”
“Hey, I’ve got a question, can you hear me?”
“Shit, guess they won’t talk to me anymore,” I cursed once more.
If things got out of hand though, I should be able to tell them I was out, right? There are rules to these things, aren’t there?
Annoyed and slightly worried, I turned back to the wall display and turned it on. The fish and the ocean depths were gone. Instead, the display showed a beautiful beach and a similarly beautiful woman walking through the sand. Well, better than nothing, I thought and leaned back to listen to the quiet, relaxing background music.
As the video continued the woman approached the camera, getting closer with each step. The moment I could make out her face, I noticed that she was crying.
“Help me,” she spoke up.
All right, what the hell? While I searched for the display’s small remote she repeated it over and over.
“Help me, Andre,” she suddenly said, emphasizing the name, my name.
When I looked up again and found her eyes resting on me I felt goosebumps all over my arm.
“You have to,” she said once more, her face growing harder.
“What the hell?” I pressed out, confused.
“You dare not to help me?” she screamed at me.
I’d finally found the remote to turn the damned thing off, but whatever I pressed, there was no reaction.
Instead, her face grew angrier and angrier, becoming a distorted version of her former, beautiful self. And then, to my horror, she got even closer. By that point, her face filled out the entire display. A moment later she pushed her giant head forward, not against the display but out of it, right not my direction.
I screamed, jumped off the bed, and hurried for the door, but it didn’t open. When I turned around, I saw in disbelief that her giant head was inside of my room. It dangled from a long, stretched out neck that vanished somewhere in the depths of the wall.
“YOU DARE TO IGNORE ME?” the creature screamed again and my ears rang because of her bellowing scream. I pushed my hands over my ears, then threw myself against the door. Once, twice and then when I did it a third time the door sprang open, and I pushed myself outside.
“What the fuck was that shit?!”
The answer popped into my head right away. I was still in the simulation, I had to be. There was no doubt about it. The moment I’d woken up there had been no connectors, no facial mask, nothing at all. They must’ve ended one simulation and plunged me straight into the next one, a simulated version of my private quarters. They’d tricked me, complete with the call of an assistant to tell me the simulation was over. No, wait, that wasn’t correct. She’d never said a word about it being over, had she?
As I stood there, in the hallway, the same woman spoke up again.
“Mr. Purlow, if you’d please continue down the hallway to room number 34. Please take a seat there so we can continue with the test.”
I looked up, but there was no sign of where the voice was coming from. For a moment I looked around before I started on my way down the hallway. Everything looked the same as when I’d arrived here. The walls, the doors, only the people were gone.
But I was still in the simulation, I told myself. When I made it to room number 34, I saw that it was the examination room I’d been in before.
I looked around for a moment, but I was alone. Eventually, I popped down in one chair. Right away I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jerked around to find Doctor Kitagawa standing next to me.
“Mr. Purlow, are you all right?”
I looked at him in confusion.
“Wait, why are you,” I broke up and shook my head.
The man stared at me for a moment before he frowned.
“We were finishing your MRI when you passed out.”
“Yeah, sure I did. Hilarious. This is nothing but a simulation.”
His frown deepened and a worried expression replaced it.
“You haven’t entered the simulation yet, Mr. Purlow. Your tests are all scheduled for tomorrow and the day after. Today we’re evaluating your mental and physical capabilities.”
I laughed a bit. “Well, whatever you say. So what sort of test is this going to be?”
“Mr. Purlow,” he started again, his voice serious. “Do you often suffer from episodes such as this one?”
“What episodes? Oh, you mean ‘this’. No, never before I entered the simulation.”
His face still showed a worried expression.
“What I’m talking about are episodes of prolonged memory loss, distorted memories, vivid daydreams, or hallucinations.”
I didn’t react, instead, my eyes scanned the room.
“Can you come here for a moment?”
I got up and stepped over to one of the monitor.
“What you see here is a small swelling in your visual cortex. It’s not necessary anything malicious or dangerous, but, as I said, it might lead to various problems related to your memory. I’m asking since what you’re talking about might be an indicator for-“
“All right, is this a sick joke?” I called towards the ceiling of the room. “Did you put this into the simulation because of my stupid ADHD?”
“Mr. Purlow, please calm down, you’re disturbing the rest of the personal. Now, please tell me what you remember about your trip here to Munich.”