Virtual Reality

Sarah had known it wouldn't be easy or pretty. Putting your foot down as harshly as she had had to never was. She had fully prepared herself for the temper-tantrum that had come her way – had even prepared herself for the fact she might lose her friend over it. Sometimes a principle could be worth that.

But this – this she hadn't expected, and couldn't seem to absorb. She looked at the computer screen again as if the words there might somehow have changed.

They hadn't. Angry hurt words which spat out a fact that couldn't be believed. That it was fine for Sarah to act as if she knew everything about everything, but no matter what she said she couldn't ever know anything about humans because she wasn't even one herself.

She had thought for a moment that she'd read it wrong – had replied with a confused question mark. Mary was angry – must have mistyped, must have meant something other than what she just said.

But her friend had gone on, spewing out the anger now she had begun, "You KNOW what I mean. You're just a bot, for all you think you know everything. Well, I hope you have fun talking to yourself!" And with that the computer had beeped, and a message had flashed up a signal Mary had logged offline, leaving Sarah staring at her screen in confusion.

Staring – with her eyes? She brought her fingers up to touch them gently, running fingers across them gently. Her eyes, her fingers, her body. This was ridiculous – of course she was real. She had a real body, downstairs her real family who were probably fighting again, and outside there was a real world she could go out into any time she wanted.

Doubt was starting to steal across her mind though. Didn't chatbots now believe they were real too? She seemed to remember reading something about it, somewhere, at some time. It was the only way they could make them believe they were human – by building in a history for them and a routine that they believed they were following every day. Would she know if she wasn't real?

For once the noise of her father bellowing at her mother downstairs made her smile in relief, rather than wince. Silly. Of course she would.

Still as she went to see what had gone wrong this time, the thoughts nagged at her.

If I'm real – why is it I follow the same routine every day? Get up, go to school, come home ,go online, eat sleep… why do I never do anything?

Because I choose not to. She answered herself silently. A look at the way her parents were scowling at each other told her that she didn't want to know what had gone wrong, and she headed outside instead – out into real sunshine she told herself.

Then why don't you know anyone? The thoughts persisted, You've plenty of memories of when you used to know a lot of people, but who do you really talk to at school now? Who do you talk to often who isn't online?

There had to be someone, but as she searched her mind to answer she found no-one. Somewhere alone the line the friends she used to know had drifted away from her, and never been replaced. And family? The less said about them the better – especially recently.

But that doesn't mean they don't exist. She protested silently, They're there if I wanted to talk to them

But everyone knew the stories – how dependent bots became on online company because there was really no-one else to talk to. How they clung, and begged for attention because there was nowhere else for them to get it.

Had she become that bad that Mary would think she was a bot? She hadn't thought so… guiltily though, she remembered spurts of jealousy knowing friends had their hands full talking to someone else, and the exasperation when she wanted to tell them something but they weren't online. She'd needed them there sometimes, when things were very bad – or sometimes when they were very good – and there was no-one else to tell.

There would be someone to tell soon though. She'd kept telling herself that. Sure, this was a bit of a rough period but she'd find someone she got along with soon enough. When she left school and went to college – there'd be lots of opportunities to make new friends there. Or when she finally managed to get a Saturday job. Or when…

Plenty of opportunities to make friends. She'd kept telling herself that over the last few months. Every time Friday night ticked around and there was no-where to go, and no-one to go with. Now though, another possibility loomed, loud and frightening.

What if you never do?

What if you can't because the3re's no-one really there to make friends with? What if they're not real, Sarah?

Mary had thrown up a new and frightening possibility, and even as she tried to squeeze it out of her mind, what it would mean kept flashing up in her mind. She'd never climb Everest, never be an astronaut, never be a world leader – not that she'd ever wanted to do those things before but it was the principle of being able to do them that was important. She'd never have a real boyfriend rather than an online one, never get married, never have kids – never have sex for that matter. And her family, the friends she had known, her memories – none of it would be real.

"It's not TRUE!" She shouted it to the sky this time, rolling over onto her stomach to stare into the grass angrily. Incredibly detailed grass now that she looked at it closely – each piece a different length, tiny bugs scuttling along the blades.

Why would anyone put so much effort into helping her imagine something? Surely an imaginary world would be more… 2D. They wouldn't put so much detail into grass she might never even look at.

But then, why would Mary have said it if it wasn't true?

What if life as it was now was as good as it was ever going to get? What if it could never get any better, because she wasn't really alive? If her future was just one of imagining she had a job and clinging ever more desperately to the people online because there was no-one else to talk to?

Remove the prospect that life would get better, and the world was suddenly a bleak and frightening place.

Her parents were still arguing, and barely seemed to notice her as she slipped back inside and past them to go upstairs. There was an email waiting for her from Mary. She stared at it for a long moment, went to open it, and then on second thoughts deleted it. The idea of what it might hold made her stomach turn. What if she wasn't real? What if Mary had proof?

She tried to put it out of her mind, but that night she found herself wincing every time she caught herself pestering someone for their attention.

Is this all I'll ever have?

Next day at school she found herself searching for a friendly face, struggling for the first time in weeks to fit herself in amongst people who didn't really seem to know her anymore – and failing.

All I'll have for the rest of my life?

It hit the national news a week later when Mary Chornley was found dead in her room from an overdose. An email was found on her computer, sent to her online friends, explaining that she had to go but as she was only a bot it wasn't really suicide anyway. She understood that they might have believed her human, and thus might miss her, but really it was better this way.

She left no goodbye letter for her real life family and friends. They wouldn't miss her Couldn't miss her.

After all, they didn't really exist.