(Legal: Thanks to David Willicome for the artwork above.)

Heinrich groaned and slapped at the ‘snooze’ button on his alarm clock. The voices stopped.

Head felt like a toilet; he’d gamed too long and hard last night, and his body was showing all the signs of it: Over-Shock.

No more than 2 days at a time, they’d said, otherwise you’re training the body to disengage from the brain. Didn’t sound so bad, in theory. Last night’s nosebleed, however, had been a wake-up call.

Flicking on his holowall—a 3D simulated projection of peace and tranquillity that neatly hid the dim walls of his lifecube—he trudged over to the fridge and opened it and quickly downed a carton of OJ. The bitterness singed his tongue, the artificial flavours mixing and sending a rush of endorphins screaming through his sluggish cortex.

Birds sang in the background, and on the wall, their silhouettes fluttered against sedge and reeds.

‘Warning: Risk of Over-Shock’—that’s what had been written on the VR unit’s packaging. It was a mantra he’d repeated to himself every day since its purchase, two weeks after the accident.

Heinrich walked back over to the bed and sat down. He’d avoided looking in the bathroom mirror as he’d bisected the doorway. He knew what would be revealed in its surface—haggard face, skeletal features, an organism decaying from the inside out.

He looked down at his hands, at the scars. The marks were like gentle calligraphy imprinted across the surface of his skin. There’d been too much damage, they’d said, and too much of him missing to fully heal.

She was gone.

He shoved on the VR headset and loaded up LifeSim III™ (‘Even Better than the Real Thing’). As the high-definition world—a world that had begun to feel progressively more real than the other—sprang into being around him, he surveyed his surroundings.

He sat on his black steed Gorlath, sword at the ready. Behind him loomed The Horde—a mass of dark warriors, sorcerers and sloping giants that would attack the aggressor on his command.

He looked down at his smooth, rough hands—whole and clean.

Raising his sword, and with a rictus grin, Heinrich shouted his fury to the ruby skies beyond and advanced.

*    *    *

Back in his lifecube, the birds were silent. On the floor, blood was pooling.

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