The electric screen reflects in her eyes and douses her face in a bright blue light. Her skin isn’t quite as smooth as it once was. Even her thick chestnut locks are starting to turn thin and grey, changing rapidly, if there was anyone there to witness the transformation.
The connectors are clamped firmly to the skin at her temples. There’s a more delicate chain of electrodes across her forehead. Every so often she twitches, her fingers convulsing involuntarily.
But she doesn’t feel the effects of the machine as it feeds like a fattening leech. It doesn’t matter to her. As long as she has the screen to absorb her attention.
She sees a beautiful little girl with long brown hair playing in a garden. It’s her little girl. Her daughter. She’s wearing the blue dress she had sewn for her and the ribbon she had tied lovingly in her hair. The little girl sings as she picks dandelions from the lawn, her voice high and sweet.
The screen runs backwards to a time when the little girl was a tiny newborn, her face red and scrunched as she took her first breath. She can feel the delicate little bundle in her arms. So small and helpless. She forgets the agony of childbirth the moment that precious bundle is placed into her arms.
Her world goes back further still to a day when she glittered in a white dress. Her veil, embroidered with a galaxy of stars, flows behind her. They clasp hands in a field of starlit sunflowers, repeating their vows with soft, trembling voices.
The footage runs faster, moving back relentlessly to another time and place. To adventures in foreign lands. To first kisses. First time getting drunk. First dances. First day at school.
She reaches the end of the video. There’s a loud click. The screen glares at her, electric blue and tauntingly blank.
So that’s how it could have been, she thinks. How her life and her dreams could have come together if it hadn’t been for the great darkness.
She pulls the electrodes from her temples and forehead. Her skin is now creased and as thin as crepe paper. Her hair is completely white. She rises from her seat. Her body feels much older now, yet she can’t quite recall if it ever felt young.
All she knows is that she has traded everything she has left to this machine, which meant it wouldn’t show her anything more.
But the trade feels fair, even though she can’t remember how it came to be. That’s the case for most who come here. It’s the only way to live your dreams ever since the great darkness had descended on the world and decimated life as they knew it.
You could live them virtually.
In exchange for your life.
She shuffles out of the room, her back now hunched and her joints swollen with arthritis.
‘Thank you, come back soon!’ Calls the man at reception. It’s just a courtesy. A reflex of sorts. He knows this little old lady has given the last of what she had left to give.
Well, better to live a beautiful lie than a hopeless existence, he thinks. That is their company slogan, after all.