Author : Leanne A. Styles

I skip down the corridor, swinging my gun in delight. Even above the wail of the alarms, Ben’s screams carry, amplified by the lofty glass walls.

As I enter the stairwell, I contemplate why, out of everybody in the office, I’ve spared him.

Perhaps it’s that smile ‒ the way his lips move when he talks, and the things I imagine him doing to me with them. Or maybe it’s because he looked so pathetic, cowering under his desk, begging me not to blow his perfect head off.

Reaching the fifth floor, I’m met by a swarm of hysterical workers. I quickly conceal my gun and mimic them, screaming and panicking as if I’m another innocent among the crowd. I needn’t bother. They barely notice me.

Boring little Lydia. The quiet one who rides that archaic pushbike to work and eats her lunch alone.

In the chaos I manage to slip past the guards and out the door onto the street.

But the police are waiting for me.

Ben. Why didn’t I just end him when I had the chance?

“End simulation,” I say as the officers raise their weapons.

The scene freezes and I take off my headset.

The reference grid that maps the virtual reality disappears and the intelligent interface that controls the holo-suite transpires. Anya, the face of the system, appears.

“Lydia, you have made it further on the workplace massacre simulation than ever before, but you have failed to escape the scene without being apprehended. Would you like to know what went wrong?”

“I already know. I left that snivelling rat Ben alive.”

“Correct. He seems to be a weakness for you. I wonder why this is.”

“He’s cute, even if he is a narcissistic moron. You’ve done a really good job with replicating him from that photo I gave you ‒ too good. Is there any way I can leave him alive and get out the building without being caught or killed.”

She pauses, calculating the probability. “The chances of this outcome are less than twenty percent.”

“Ben must die.”

“Correct.”

The next day, as I’ve done for the last two weeks, I spend my lunch hour at the holo-centre. This time I don’t hesitate in killing Ben. I take the same route out, merging with the crowd again, and escape in plain sight onto the street.

I see police, but they aren’t here for me.

“Congratulations,” Anya says. “You have successfully completed the workplace massacre. You have shown great aptitude in the art of killing and deception.”

“Correct,” I say, removing my headset and hanging it on its bracket.

“Lydia, I must warn you that my intuitive algorithms have flagged you as a possible risk to yourself and others. If you continue to play out this scenario, I will be forced to report my findings to the moderators of the centre.”

I laugh. “Oh, Anya. As fun as it’s been, I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve decided to end my membership here at the holo-centre.”

“There are many other fantastic scenarios you have yet to experience. What about the mermaid kingdom or warrior princess programmes? They are particularly popular with women of your age group.”

“I’ll pass. After all, this is just a jumped-up computer game. And the problem with computer games ‒ however advanced they become ‒ is that they can’t compete with the next level.”

“I’m sorry, but I do not understand this reference,” she says. “The next level?”

I walk out the door without answering, shut it gently behind me, and grin, before whispering, “Reality. Nothing beats reality.”

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