Susan O’Neal graduated with a First in Creative Writing from the UK Open University. She lives in South London and last year she published her first volume of intriguing short stories (more to ... [+]

I reached for the control strip and tapped the edit icon. Immediately, the scene changed to a woodland, dark fir trees casting long shadows beneath a heavy winter sky. For background effect, I added the sound of a river, imagining the ribbon of icy liquid tumbling down waterfalls as it rushed to the sea. I spread my fingers on the screen to enlarge the old-fashioned cottage slightly and set it in the foreground. The next edit created smoke, rising slowly into the still air from a jumble of chimneys. Another tap on the insert key and I brought up a basic quadruped shape, colouring it brown and lengthening the legs. I moved it to the side of the house and left it there, until I decided how to use it. Satisfied with the first level of the project, I stood up and rolled my shoulders to ease the stiffness in my back. Yawning, I rubbed at my beard. Time for a coffee. I moved into the kitchen.

I like working from home. At fifty, I can't be bothered with commuting to an office, to perch on a stool all day. And anyway, I have Ella to think about.

Passing the stairs, I called up. "You coming down? It's nearly tea time." I heard movement and a door opening. Satisfied she was on her way, I took my mug back to the desk. The haptics trip had reset itself again. You'd think a VR Dev workstation costing almost a year's salary would be a bit more stable. I glanced at the screen. What the hell – the shape had moved. It looked a bit like a dog now, I thought, reaching for the eraser tool. I took a sip of coffee and prepared to continue. 

"Can I help?" Ella was beside me, looking up at the screen.
"Why not? What would you like to do?"
"Have you made any animals yet?" She knew how I worked, scene first, then animation. I showed her my creature.
"It's just an outline, it was going to be a pony, but it could be a puppy..."
"Can I make something?"
"OK. Climb up here." I patted the stool beside me. "What do you want to make?"
Her fingers flicked quickly over the icons, selecting shape and colour. Her beast was lilac and pink, had a spiky nose, huge eyes, four stubby legs and a long fat tail.
"What's that?" I laughed.
Her bottom lip jutted out in a pout. "It's a unicorn."
"Looks like a rhino on steroids. Here, let me – "
"No." The little girl pushed my hand away. "I like her like that. She's called Livy." She began controlling Livy, had her run a few steps in front of the cottage. I added a large red ball to the screen and rolled it slowly across the grass. 
"Your go."
The animal pushed the ball with her nose and then looked up, head on one side.
"Good control," I praised Ella. She might only be six, but her grasp of the conventions was sound.
"Can I?"
"Go on then." Flicking the VR-Ngage sensor I slipped the child into the scene. Not strictly legal, but it was a test environment, there was no danger. With Ella out of the room, I settled down to concentrate. I sipped my coffee, adding more plants, a low white painted fence and a side gate. I was half watching Ella play, half sketching in the cottage chimneys against the roofline, when a slight movement beneath the trees made me look more closely. I realised I hadn't erased the other animal. It was moving slowly, almost stealthily, out of the shadows, across the meadow, towards Ella. 
It crept along, belly to the ground. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was watching it evolve into a wolf, and a huge one at that, the coarse thick pelt rippling along its flanks with the constant slow creeping movement. I reached for the microphone and spoke quietly, so as not to frighten Ella.
"Come out of the game now Ella, time for tea." She didn't hear me, threw the ball again and stood watching Livy lollop after it. Her back was to the threat.
"Ella," I said again, sharply this time. To hell with not frightening her, she needed to get out of there. Her lack of reaction made me check the microphone control – it was greyed out. Typical – the worst possible time for the system to malfunction. For a split second, I longed for the days when VR meant wearing a headset. If there was a problem, all you had to do was take it off. With Total Perceptual Immersion it wasn't so easy.

I froze. I could see the shadows lengthening much too quickly as the afternoon wore on, out of sync with real time. And I must have made a mistake with the smoke. It was whipping away from the chimneys. A squally wind was howling around the house, banging the side gate against its latch. The trees were thrashing black branches against each other in the deepening dark. Back and forth, as if shaken by a giant invisible hand.
I jabbed at the icons on the control strip – nothing changed. What had happened to the Fail-Safe control system? My options were diminishing with every moment. I did the only thing I could. I flicked the VR-Ngage sensor and went in.
I gasped at the cold. Standing shivering in the chill air, still holding my mug, I had no game plan except to warn Ella. The wolf had seen me, and it stopped, flattened to the ground, waiting to see if I was a threat. 
"Ella, get out of it, quick," I shouted over the wind, frantically beckoning and covering myself in coffee as a result. At the sound of my voice, she turned and caught sight of the wolf. It rose out of its crouch and started loping towards her, all stealth abandoned. Its mean yellow eyes glinted in the low light and a long black tongue lolled out over murderous teeth. Who'd designed this damn thing? This was not the standard Country Experience plugin. 

I threw my mug at the wolf. It missed. The wolf watched it drop and roll. It kept coming.
"Ella. Now!" My heart was racing, and I had begun to shake uncontrollably. I watched Ella as her eyes moved jerkily from the wolf to me and back again. She took a hesitant step towards me.
"Go," I yelled. She went. Thank heaven. All that obedience conditioning paid off when it really mattered. The wolf spotted Livy then, immobile since Ella had stopped playing. I used a couple of standard hand control gestures, but Livy didn't respond. I realised, too late, the wolf had caught the movement. Those yellow eyes locked on to mine. Its breath left puffs of vapour in the freezing air as it started to move. I touched the stop pad on my wrist, expecting to find myself back at my desk. Nothing happened. I tried again. With my pulse hammering, my synapses must have been overloading the Bodycomm system. The wolf was picking up speed, coming straight for me. There was no cover. No handy lump of wood. Nothing to defend myself with. I knew better than to run. I dropped into a squat, covered my head as best I could and waited for the impact.

I felt a series of juddering thuds, driving from the earth up into my legs. Livy was roaring towards me, enormous now. She was two tons of pounding pink and purple muscle, with fangs like steel scimitars and great leathery wings thrashing the air out of the way. The wolf fled, yelping, its ruff flattened against its body. Livy thundered past me, in hot pursuit. I uncurled myself and stood, my breath snatching out of my chest in sharp gasps.
"I'll reboot," said Ella's voice. There was a pause. "Can you get out now?"
My pulse took a moment or two but finally slowed sufficiently for the stop pad to work when I pressed it with shaking fingers. 

I staggered as I found my feet again, back in my room. That was entirely too close. Way too much reality for a Level Four Experience.
"Did you like what I did with Livy? Did you? Wasn't I quick? Wasn't that cool?" With the naiveté of any six year old, of course she wanted praise for her efforts. Once I got my breath back, I told her again and again how clever she was. She crowed with pleasure, jumping jerkily up and down, nearly catching me under the chin with her head, when I bent to hug her. A quick look at the master controls showed me that she had low energy. It was affecting her coordination and she was ready for her tea, so I powered her down, while I started my hunt for the bug in the software that had nearly killed me.

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