This story is by A.C. Wolfe and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Green code spirals across the screen. To the untrained eye, it could be a virus, or a bomb. To me, it’s a universe. I’ve spent months on this world. Wrote the code, designed the graphics, all of it. And here it is. Dynasty. My very own revolutionary Virtual Reality. Just think. Me, 15-year-old Kraya Ling, the mastermind behind the upcoming VR revolution.
As a mixed race Asian, I wanted to include all of the aspects of the gorgeous ancient Chinese buildings with all of the futuristic features of the neon-lit New York City. Seeing the buildings in front of me in 3D glory is a thrilling feeling.
There’s a brief login, just a user and a password, nothing too fancy. I could have made Dynasty into one of those games that takes your email and sends you a message every three minutes, but it’s not necessary. All the features you need; all in one. In bold stone letters, DYNASTY drops from the sky and falls at my feet.
WELCOME, VR.Empress_1! scrolls across the screen in classic video game font. Perfect. So far, so good. Six months of coding and preparation have brought me to this moment. PRESS START TO PLAY.
As the chunky background of the start scene explodes into laser sharp focus, a feeling of pride zooms into my heart. Of course, in the code I made myself a God Login encrypted in the code, where I can have all the features of the game without playing to unlock them. As the creator I should get that, right? I can fly above my world, or zoom along the streets, or swim through endless seas. With the snap of a finger I can make a ship out of this air, or summon a dragon to do my bidding.
The dragons are my personal favorite aspect of the game. There are five kinds, all for a different element: Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Rainbow. I won’t bore you with an explanation of what they look like. There’s enough dragon lore out there for you to form a suitable depiction for yourself. But they are big, and beautiful.
If I had a real VR suit, full body, riding a dragon would be the best experience of my life. Even with my homemade equipment, it is in the top ten. Soaring through HD sunsets, diving into deep blue oceans, and rolling in the grass or lumbering through caves. I can be anything. Go anywhere.
Limitless. Freedom smells like sweet smoke from a fire. It tastes like blades of fresh grass. It feels like puffy white clouds. It sounds like the roaring of a waterfall, and it looks like a double rainbow in the middle of a rainstorm.
I lose count of the hours I spend inside the screen. This tech will make me rich. I will be able to do anything. Be anything. And everyone across the world will have a taste of being whoever— or whatever— they want to be. And the ruler of this benevolent world? Me.
I take off my headphones and headset for a moment and the world is reduced to ordinary. It feels like I’m colorblind, no longer able to be vibrant or see vibrant. The real world is an unwelcome necessity. But I can’t miss meals. That would trigger my parents, and I would lose everything. So here we go. Facing reality, the biggest challenge yet. The one I can’t whisk away with a few lines of code.
The dinner table is silent, and I shovel forkfuls of quinoa salad into my mouth, trying to finish as fast as possible.
As I try to get up and leave, Mom grabs my arm.
“Kraya, we’re worried about you.”
Oh, great. Here it comes.
“What now, Mom? Are you pissed because I have achieved my goals?”
“Language,” Dad says. “And we’re not mad. Just… worried. You haven’t even talked to Hailey all summer. Or Daniel. Or any of your friends from school.”
“So? I don’t need them. I have Dynasty. I can ride dragons, Mom, Dad. I can do anything. Be anything. Why do I need to leave the house to have fun? Now I can do it all from my bedroom. I just need to save up Christmas and birthday money so I can buy a real VR set. Then I can really test the game. I’m finally free, Mom. Limitless. Why do you want to take that from me?”
“Kraya,” says Dad. “I know how important Dynasty is to you. But you’re addicted. It’s just not healthy.”
“You know what’s not healthy? You guys trying to take away the best thing in my life!” I explode, months of suppression taking its toll on me. “This is my chance. My chance to be who I want to be. And you want to destroy it. You want to burn my dynasty to the ground.”
“You’re 15, Kraya! You don’t need a dynasty! You need a life! You need friends!” My Mom explodes right back at me, two nukes about to erupt on top of each other.
“I have a life! Computers are my friends! Humans are limited beings! Our only escape is to create a technology that outlasts them. We have constrictions. I’m trying to remove them!”
“Kraya Ruelle, I don’t know what has happened to you. You’ve always been ambitious, but this… this is obsession.”
“Of course I’m obsessed! I should be. This is freedom! This is happiness!”
“This is fake joy. Your obsession will bring nothing but pain,” Dad says, his eyes distant and thoughtful. “True pleasure comes from real life. Your augmented world will only torment you.”
“You’ve been reading too many fortune cookies.”
“Enough!” Mom says, her voice low but threatening. “Any more of this nonsense and I’ll wipe your computer.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“If you keep acting like this, I will. Your screen is killing you, Kraya.”
“It’s keeping me alive.”
“I’ve told you many times that you impose your limits on yourself. The screen that you think is liberating you is trapping you.” Mom stands up, her hazel eyes cold and stony, like the letters of Dynasty’s open screen. “And there’s only one way to unlock that prison.”
“Mom, no!” I scream, but it’s no use. Mom is in hurricane mode. She will stop at nothing to destroy my entire world. By the time I get upstairs, there is a blue loading bar on my screen. Bit by bit, pixel by pixel, my whole life is sliding away.
They say the 3rd stage of grief is bargaining, but for me, it’s first. There’s still hope. I can still try.
“Mom, please..” I moan like I’m in a trance. “You don’t have to do this. You can’t… I’ve worked so hard… please don’t take everything from me.”
“If everything can be taken that easily, you need to widen your interests. I learned that from my father.” That stops me cold. Dad never talks about his father. His life in China is something he has banished from his memory. As near as I can tell, his dad was an abusive tyrant. Is that who I want to be? A tyrant? Do I really want to rule the world? Do I need to?
Finally, something like understanding dawns in my skull. All of this time I fought to be limitless, but that in itself is a limitation. The limitation of all humans is the lust to be limitless.
“Okay Mom,” I say. “I understand. Really, I do. Please don’t delete my progress. I promise, I’ll do better this time.” My dad nods like he believes me, and I feel a flutter in my chest. Maybe I can have the best of both worlds. In that, I can truly be limitless.
“Remember what I said about limits,” Mom says warmly, looking at Dad with a small smile. To my utmost relief, she clicks cancel. My two worlds have come together, and it is perfect. This is what being limitless means. Really means.
Mom is right. Limits don’t trap us. They keep us safe.
A little bit like parents.