3316 words (13 minute read)


Something felt wrong.

Darius Cray bent over the 16x9 HD monitor. The screen showed the interior of a moldering, junk-filled room decorated in the Victorian style. Dark green fungus had infested the walls, cracking the intricate, carved wood wall mouldings and making the once-shiny wallpaper curl. The mirror above the fireplace was rimed with verdigris, and shattered at a point of impact. The hearth itself contained long-charred lumps of meat, with blackened bones protruding from the ends. It was impossible to tell if they had once been animal or human. Cobwebbed antique furniture – a dusty chaise lounge, a disemboweled love seat with stuffing the color of bile, and creepiest of all, an old-fashioned baby carriage with rusty metal wheels – lay carelessly strewn around the room. Everything down the smallest detail appeared to be exactingly real.

And yet, the room felt off. Darius placed two thick, brown fingers on the monitor and spread them outward. The baby carriage increased in size, until it took up most of the display. Darius moved even closer, until his sunglass-covered eyes were mere inches from the monitor’s surface. Darius’s sunglasses were something of a legend around Phobos. The eyewear itself was nothing extraordinary. It was made of inexpensive, wraparound black plastic, with yellow prescription lenses. No, what made Darius’s sunglasses so infamous was that, for the last ten years, no one who worked at the video game company had seen their CEO take them off. There was even a standing reward of $1000 for anyone who could provide present-day, photographic evidence of Darius without his eyewear. That the reward had been amassed through yearly, one-dollar donations from most of the company’s 200 employees only increased the desire to see Darius without his sunglasses.

Of course, asking Darius to remove them was out of the question. For one thing, it would ruin the game, but for another, Phobos Interactive’s CEO cut a rather intimidating figure. He was a large man -- six-feet four inches tall, and as broad as a silverback gorilla across the chest and shoulders. He weighed just under 300 pounds, but he was not what anyone would call a fat man. He was simply huge, with hands the size of dinner plates, thick, tree trunk-sized arms and legs, and a buttocks that overflowed any chair he sat in. Darius kept his dense black hair cut close to the scalp, trimming it himself every Sunday morning. He wore only two kinds of outfits – plain black tees and black board shorts to work, and black sport coats and dress pants to formal occasions. His voice was deep and rumbling, making everything he said seem like a commandment issued from God himself.

Darius rumbled now – a low-pitched, guttural string of drawn-out consonants. It might have been “Hmmmm …” or “Errrmmmm …” but everyone in the control room knew what it meant. Their boss was not happy.

“Look at this,” he said, straightening up to his full height. He pinched his massive fingers together over the monitor, then moved his hand in a throwing motion toward the large, 20 foot-wide digital display that took up most of the control room’s east wall. As he opened his fingers, the image of the magnified baby carriage appeared on the big screen. Darius turned to the group of 20 technicians, team leaders, and programmers grouped behind him. It was not difficult for him to look down on them.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” he said. The group looked nervously at each other. The control room was fairly large, built to contain up to 50 technicians and their workstations comfortably, but these 20 had pressed themselves into a tight knot. Strength in numbers. They knew questions like this from Darius were never good, but they also knew that if no one took the bait, it would be worse for all of them in the long run.

Roy Kim raised his hand. He was balding and thin, the 47 year-old lead programmer for the Layout team. He’d been with Phobos for eight years, poached from Naughty Dog by Darius himself. Everyone knew him to be a smart, honest, and cool-headed guy. If anyone was safe to answer this question, it was him.

“Well,” Roy began, then cleared the phlegm from his throat. “The, uh, rastering on the wheels looks a little janky. We could bump up the scan rate to smooth it out, go progressive instead of interlaced. It’ll double our processing needs, but --”

“Mmm-hmm,” Darius nodded. “We’re definitely gonna do that, make a note Jasmine.” A petite Filippina woman in her 20s bobbed her head, already typing into a tablet computer. “But that ain’t what bothers me. Anyone else?”

A confident, hip blond woman in her late 30s stepped forward. Elizabeth ‘Bits’ Kruger had been recently promoted to VP of Marketing, but she’d started at Phobos as a programmer, and could still spot an error in a thousand lines of code faster than anyone. Her body was lithe and muscled, the end result of eight marathons run in the last three years. She adjusted her platinum cat’s eye glasses.

“The shadows are wrong,” she stated. “The light source is supposed to be overhead, but the carriage is casting a shadow on the wall.”

“That’s just a leftover bug from the flashlight patch,” one of the lighting guys, Evan, said defensively. “We can render it out with a new compile.”

“Which should have been done before today’s test,” Darius said coldly. Evan gulped, nodded quickly, and hid as much of his lanky frame as he could at the back of the group. “But I assumed that was a quick fix. No. What’s the real problem here, people? Hmmm? Anyone?”

He let his imperious gaze linger on each of the 20 people before him. Collectively, they represented some of the best minds in the video gaming industry. They held multiple degrees from every Ivy League university. Had won every major award the industry gave out. Their combined annual salaries equaled the GDP of a small African nation. And right now, Darius wanted to kill every single one of them.

“It’s dead!” he suddenly barked, making several members of the group jump. “Inert, lifeless, more flaccid than all y’all’s collective dick.” He thrust two fingers at the big screen, then spread them apart. The image zoomed out to show the entire eerie room. “The curtains on the window don’t flutter when the door is opened. The shiny, fresh blood stain on the ceiling doesn’t drip blood. Even the god-damned dust motes hang there like a stop sign. Y’all know what this looks like?”

He spared them a yellow-tinted, withering glance, but didn’t bother to wait for a response. They knew that responding to Darius’s rhetorical questions never ended well. “It looks like a video game,” he said, putting all possible disdain into the last two words. “Worse, a cheap one. Do we make video games here?”

This, they knew the answer to. From their first interview and every day since, the mantra had been drummed into their heads: Phobos doesn’t make video games. Phobos creates worlds. As one, the group shook their heads.

“No, we do not. We. Create. Worlds. Living, breathing, immersive environments. Places indistinguishable from, and yes, even better than, reality. And this … corpse – this is supposed to be our most interactive offering yet. How can we expect people to experience their deepest, darkest fears if the whole thing feels fake? How can we get an emotional response from something that has no emotion??”

There was a beat of silence, then a hand raised out of the group. Instinctively, everyone backed away from the person it belonged to. Tobias Navarro hadn’t been particularly popular at Phobos since his intake a year and a half ago. His underfed frame, greasy hair, and receding jaw gave him the appearance of a starving, two-legged weasel. Long, pale fingers were in constant movement, scratching at the numerous balding patches on his scalp. Though he’d been hired to work as an installation engineer on the 4D effects team, Tobias had quickly been promoted to head the whole department. Many thought he had somehow arranged to have his three former superiors removed, but like seeing Darius without his sunglasses, no one had been able to prove it.

The CEO seemed to sense the change in the room and turned from the big screen. He didn’t call on Tobias, but merely folded his thick arms and nodded for the scrawny man to continue.

“First off, I agree, completely,” Tobias said in a simpering, nasal tone. Bits rolled her eyes at the blatant ass-kissing. “All the visuals need work.” More eye-rolling, some huffs of disbelief. It was just like Tobias to throw them all under the bus. “However – if I may, sir – my department’s effects have been shown time and again to greatly improve the participant’s response to the environments. Even in the wireframe stage, we got favorable reactions because of 4D’s efforts.”

“That’s ‘cause all you had to do was position a few fans and water hoses,” retorted Bits, to several mutters of agreement.

Tobias sniffed twice. It was his disconcerting way of laughing. “I realize you’re only a marketer, Elizabeth, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

“I’ve been here six years,” she reminded him. “Programmer on three projects, then team leader on two more. I can code 3000 lines of ‘complicated’ before breakfast. You’ve been here, what? A few months?”

Tobias sniffed again, spreading his spider-like hands. “Apparently, that’s long enough to see what works and what needs … compiling.”

“Mmmmm,” rumbled Darius. He hated in-fighting almost as much as he hated the phrase ‘video games’. He nodded again to Tobias. “Bits is right. You bring up a problem in this room, you better be damn sure you have a solution.”

“Run the test,” said Tobias. “Send in the bug checkers, turn on the 4D, and I guarantee you, sir – you’ll see just how real your facility can be.”

Whitley, the bald, beer-gutted 53 year-old technical director, spoke up. “We agreed 4D wasn’t ready to run yet. There are still several safety concerns we have to address, most notably with the sprinkler system –“

Darius held up a hand, silencing Whitley and locking eyes with Tobias. For once, the scrawny man managed to still his constant scratching. He held his CEO’s gaze until Darius nodded. “Run it. But if anything performs one pixel beneath what I’m looking for,” he leveled a wide finger at Tobias’s prominent Adam’s apple, “It’s gonna be your ass.”

The bony department head gulped, but managed a sideways smile. “You won’t be disappointed.”

Darius jerked his head, and the group went into action. Several sat at workstations, pressing their thumbs to biometric scanners to unlock the computers, while others moved to the back as observers. Whitley spoke into his headset. “Places, everyone. We are a go for Mansion Level Test 012. Bug Checkers ready?”

On one the displays, three young people stood in a featureless metal room roughly the size of a two-car garage. They were all in their 20s, entry-level Phobos coders who had jumped at a chance to volunteer for this test and impress Darius. They wore black bodysuits, webbed with biometric sensors, which wirelessly transmitted their respiration, heart rate, adrenaline and cortisol levels directly to the control room. On their heads were state-of-the-art, virtual reality helmets, the patents for which were solely created and owned by Darius Cray. Tiny cameras inside provided close-ups of their eyes to measure pupil dilation. The young coders each gave a thumbs-up toward the surveillance camera. Their pulse rates were elevated, but that was clearly due to nervousness.

“Okay, helmets on,” said Whitley. Onscreen, the bug checkers lowered their VR goggles until they were sealed over their eyes. The technical director looked to the control room’s other workstations. “Everyone else set?” When no one raised an issue, he turned to Darius. “Then we are ready to run.”

“Bang,” said the CEO.

Whitley tapped a green button labeled ‘Begin Simulation’ on his master control touch screen. A timer set for 90 minutes began to count down. Motion trackers lit up. Fans kicked on. Electronic locks thudded open inside the holding room.

“You’re on, kids,” said Whitley.

One of the bug testers, Griffin Poe, was more intrepid than the others. He stepped forward, pushing open the holding room door. It swung wide to reveal what, on the surveillance monitor, looked to be another grey, mostly featureless room. The only architecture was a lumpy floor covered in grey rubber.

But the three bug testers gasped. Feeds from their VR helmets showed a three-dimensional, photo-real graveyard at night. A fog-obscured crescent moon hung over crumbling gravestones and cobwebby crypts. In the distance loomed a moldering Victorian mansion. An eerie, autumnal wind rustling the dead branches of a tree, piped into their ears via state-of-the-art surround sound. Swamp crickets sawed their leg-fiddles. Somewhere, a hulking creature growled.

The young coders stepped forward. The contours of the room’s floor were perfectly matched and motion-tracked to the display inside their helmets. The fog rolled back, and a bright beam of moonlight illuminated three gravestones on a hill. Fresh mounds of dirt were piled in front of each. As one, the bug testers walked up the rise. A dark shape, rat-like in appearance, darted through the digital grass at their feet, making the young Indian tester, Samir, jump.

“Nice cortisol spike,” said Whitley, watching at Samir’s biometric levels. “He wasn’t lying in his profile interview, poor kid hates rats.”

“Good,” said Darius. “It’ll give us more realistic results.”

Onscreen, the testers had reached the fresh graves. Carved into each headstone, with an expiration date of that very day, was each one of their names. The young people chuckled, slightly creeped out but also appreciative of the detail.

Lightning lit up storm clouds in the background, followed a moment later by a roll of thunder in the testers’ VR helmets. “Cue the rain,” said Whitley.

At his workstation, Tobias raised a touch screen fader bar. Ceiling sprinklers began to spray water, coinciding with the appearance of raindrops in the digital environment.

“And … action zombies!” said Whitley.

Green, bony hands burst from the mounds of fresh dirt. Each of the bug testers gasped. Griffin slipped slightly on the wet rubber floor. As they watched, skeletal corpses began to pull themselves free of the muddy ground. Flesh fell off their rotten bodies in chunks. Teeth clicked in their partially-exposed skulls. Each zombie’s face had been scanned and rendered to look like one of the three bug testers.

The zombies staggered forward, their moaning breath cold on the testers’ hands. Giggling nervously, the young coders staggered backward down the hill. Griffin glanced behind him to make sure of his footing –

And saw a six foot-tall, hobo clown two feet behind him. The thing wore blood-splattered blue overalls, and his green fright wig and bristly black beard were made more prominent by his bone-white skin. His irises glowed a putrid yellow.

“Cue Stephanie,” said Whitley, pointing to a trim, female performer in a motion-capture booth. She wore a skin-tight body suit with white, circular sensors attached at every joint, and her face was marked with over 80 sensor dots. Every movement or facial expression she made was repeated exactly by the clown.

“Don’t leave so soon, Griffin,” said Stephanie in a terrifying, sing-song-y clown voice. “This party’s just getting started.” She hissed, and the clown exposed a mouthful of triangular, razor-sharp teeth.

Griffin panicked. His cortisol and adrenaline levels spiked. His feet pinwheeled backward, slipping again on the rain-slicked rubber floor. He tore through the graveyard, the digital environment hanging slightly as the VR helmet bounced on his head. A spectral blue woman in undulating rags leapt at him from behind one gravestone, then a coiled viper spit poison at him from a rotten tree branch. At the same time, a nozzle blew gel on the young man’s extended hand.

Griffin yelped in animal fear. His fingers scrabbled at the helmet, struggling to pull it off –

Then his sneakers slipped for the third time on the slick floor. The young man fell sideways, his exposed temple striking a sharp-angled, grey outcropping with a wet crack. His body landed in a limp heap. A thin line of blood trickled from the coder’s ear.

In the control room, Griffin’s biometric levels flat-lined. Several technicians went into frenzied action, killing the graveyard rendering and 4D environmental effects. Whitley called for a medic to enter the testing room, while Bits was already speed-dialing the paramedics.

A sound cut through the concerned voices. Clapping. Slow, but steady. Within moments, all the talk in the control room died as everyone turned to look at the sole source of the applause.

Once Darius Cray had commanded everyone’s attention, he let his hands fall. “Yes,” he said in his sonorous, God-like voice. “That is what I’m talking about. That right there? That’s real.” He pointed to the big screen, on which two medics were trying to re-start Griffin Poe’s heart.

“But … Darius,” said Whitley cautiously. He wasn’t sure if this was another test, or his boss truly didn’t realize what had happened. “The boy’s hurt. He could die.”

“Exactly!” said the CEO, his yellow-tinted eyes alight with wild fervor. “That is what we want. Danger, death, mind-breaking terror! That is why I built this place!”

The group looked at each other uncomfortably. The head of Phobos was known to be eccentric, even coldly unsympathetic at times, but none of them had seen him display such a blatant disregard for human life. Bits stepped forward. “Darius, I don’t think you understand what this means. Legal’s gonna have to take over now. There’ll be insurance claims, a possible police investigation … we’ll have to shut down the facility until this is cleared up.”

“Shut it down?” Darius rounded on her, his eyes wild. On the big screen behind him, one of the medics gave Griffin mouth-to-mouth. “And waste the ten years we’ve spent working toward this? It’s the closest we’ve been to the ultimate goal. The first time we’ve achieved real, life-changing stakes. That up there is our first success. We can’t stop now!”

Nineteen of Darius’s employees wore expressions ranging from surprise to discomfort to flat-out disgust. Only one was positive. Tobias Navarro nodded, his face glowing with triumphant ambition, as he furiously scratched at a balding patch on his scalp.

But Darius didn’t see any of these. He had turned back to the big screen, using his hands to enlarge the image until it only showed Griffin’s slack, lifeless face, twenty feet across. The trickle of blood from the young man’s ear glistened brightly in the dim control room. The CEO rubbed his massive palms together.

“Ain’t no going back now,” he rumbled to himself. “We’ve broken the barrier. It’s time for the world to see my Fear Factory.”