He woke up, the message flashing “End of Reel.” over and over, a hell of a way to start your day. He reached over, slapping at the deck on the bedside table before blindly finding the off button. As the Stimdeck wound down he removed the inputs tossing them on top of the small black deck and placed his bare feet on the cold floor. With his head in his hands he sighed trying to pull together the motivation to stand, to push himself out of bed and face the world. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the fuzzy glow of the deck’s status lights and in it the image of a glowing lotus. He fumbled through the tapes, picking out the one with the holographic blossom on it, he held it in his hands, studying the petals. He had this one specially made, just for him. Just for today.
He’d always been able to take a punch, that’s part of what lead him into the ring, why he’d been one of the biggest names in boxing. There were only two times he’d ever been knocked on his ass, neither of them happened in the ring. The first time was on a blind date, Frank his manager set him up with his niece Molly. Molly, was a creature of infinite grace and the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. She had hair that reminded him of the way light looked if you caught it just right in a bead of honey, her smile was the thing that made him forget that he had three broken ribs and a busted nose. On top of the most stunning woman that he’d ever seen, Molly was brilliant. He never knew what a woman as smart as Molly had ever seen in a meat-head like him, maybe it was the security she felt when she leaned against him, maybe those deep blue eyes of her saw something in him that everyone else missed. He didn’t ask too many questions or think too hard about it, all he knew was that somehow he made her happy and that became all he wanted in the world. The second time was when he woke up beside her in bed to find her cold and lifeless.
It’s been five years, five years since she died. StimCorp covered the funeral, paid him a reasonable sum, if any sum could be called reasonable, and put safety checks in place so another accident didn’t happen. He’d always hated that, referring to it as “the accident”, it wasn’t an it was her, it was Molly. But none of that, the money the safety checks, referring to it as an accident, none of that changed that she was gone. Molly was gone and along with her the bright blue eyes, the golden hair and the reason to get out of bed, the reason to fight for anything.
Molly worked for StimCorp for fifteen years, doing research and development for them. It had paid well and allowed them to play with the newest toys and tech, including the first Stimdeck. She was so excited when she brought their first deck home. The thing was the size of a full keyboard, maybe a bit bigger. She’d made him sit on the couch in their living room while she went on and on about the possibilities of being able to experience someone else’s memories first hand. Not just what they saw and heard, but what they smelled, tasted and felt. He remembered the way the sun had illuminated her honey colored hair, the way her hands moved as rapidly as she talked. He remembered having to tell her to slow down as she talked so he could keep up. Molly hadn’t been able to tell him anything about the Stimdeck project for months, and now that she could it was a torrent of information and ideas pouring out of her. She showed him how the deck worked, where the inputs connected to it and how they fit on his temples, being patient with him as his thick fingers worked the inputs clumsily trying to get them in the right spots. Her soft hands gliding over his fingers guiding the inputs to the deck and then to his temples.
StimCorp hadn’t been able to send any tapes for the deck home with her, but they did provide blanks and everything needed for them to record their own. They started out with small events to test the deck, dinner together one evening, a walk through the city at dusk and an afternoon in Molly’s garden. He sighed heavily remembering Molly’s garden. The smell of her roses, the way the wind from the ocean blew her hair back, even the way she shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun. That tape had always been his favorite, and Molly’s garden seemed a lifetime ago. A dream that the gray rain soaked city outside his high rise window could never imagine, a warmth the city seemed incapable of.
After a week of recording their own tapes and sharing them with each other, Molly brought home their first officially produced tape. It was a night out seen through the eyes of one of StimCorp’s young executives. Dinner at one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, dancing at one of the most exclusive clubs, and barreling down a seaside highway in a car not slated to be released to the public for another two years. This became the standard marketing tactic to show off the deck’s capabilities, “Live the life you want, not the one you have” became StimCorps motto. That night Molly fell asleep with the deck on, the seaside highway racing past her as she drifted off. The doctors said that when she woke up to the static at the end of the reel and it had wiped her mind. Something about the brain’s transition from delta to theta waves, he never was too interested in the details, all he knew was that Molly was gone. The half crooked smile, the gleam in her eyes when she laughed, the blush in her cheeks when she got excited, all of it gone. Just gone, no explanation, no preparation just an empty side of the bed where she should be, a hollow deserted kitchen and a garden turned barren.
When she first passed he’d see her around the house, she’d just turn the corner, he had just missed her but when he caught up there’d be no one there. He kept seeing her car in the driveway expecting her to walk in the front door any second only to remember the funeral. The day had been sunnier than it had any right to be, there was a small graveside service, and he’d even thrown the first handful of dirt on her casket. After the third time he found himself waiting by the door he sold the car. That made it easier to deal with he told himself, at least he didn’t expect her to open the front door anymore.
He spent the first year after everything happened slipping away, there never seemed a point to it anymore. He wasted away to a third of himself, a diet of frozen soy meals and vodka didn’t do much for keeping him filled out. His name still held weight in the ring though, enough to draw a crowd even if some of the crowds were in back alleys and weren’t sanctioned. He’d show up and get beaten. Broken nose, bruised ribs, the physical pain was a nice distraction but after a while even that wasn’t enough for him to feel anything. After a while he was back to being as hollow as an empty booze bottle. He wanted to feel something, anything even broken again.
After his last fight he woke up, drunk and nearly drowning in a city gutter as the city spat its cold impersonal rain down on him, another empty man who couldn’t hack it anymore. Desperate to feel anything he stumbled into the storage shed where he kept all of the things from his other life, his happy life. He came across Molly’s deck, not sure why he hadn’t thrown the damned thing away, he fit it on, and for a moment her smile flashed in front of his eyes, he could feel her fingers as they helped him guide the inputs into place. After that first flash of Molly’s smile he slipped into the world that the Stimdeck could offer him, he began to fill the hole in himself with journeys he never actually took, sights he’d never actually seen.
After a while, the joy in the decks wouldn’t last, he’d be left with pain, a pain of memories he never got to have with Molly. The things they never did together or said to each other, but at least the pain was something. The pain wasn’t hollow or empty or lonely. His tastes in tapes quickly spiraled downward as he tried to feel anything. He began looking for tapes on more taboo subjects, a junkie’s high, robberies, gang violence. But none of it seemed to fill the hole in him. He spent most of his money from the settlement and the sale of their house on his tapes trying to find something that would fill his void, something to spark him back to his old self. His apartment was covered in them now, but still nothing among them kept his interest, nothing kept his mind off of Molly, he always returned to dinner with her when he laid down to sleep. But today nothing motivated him as he sat by the side of his bed, barely away of his feet on the cold apartment floor. No junkie’s overdose, no gang shooting, no decadent sex scene, nothing held any appeal as he listened to the rain pour down and wash over the gray scale city. A life without Molly wasn’t something he ever wanted.
After a match one night he caught up with Frank, he asked him about some people who could work on a tape for him. After Molly’s passing StimCorp placed security measures on all of their tapes before they went out now to prevent another accident. Instead of static you got a message stating “End of Reel.” until you shut the deck down. This allowed the user’s brain to transition normally between the different states of sleep without incident. All of the tapes were now safe, the original tapes were recalled and the new safety measures added. That was unless you knew some people willing to fix them for you. Suicide by tape wasn’t uncommon but wasn’t reported on heavily either, it was one of those facts that usually only the desperate knew, and knew how to do. Frank nodded to him, said he knew a guy. Frank said he was sorry to see him go but knew that he just wasn’t the same without Molly and he’d given him the guy’s number.
He picked up the tape with the shimmering lotus on it once again, holding it in his hands feeling its weight, tracing his fingers over the surface, and studying the lotus’ petals. He slid the tape into the deck and lay back on the bed placing the inputs on he reached over and flipped the switch labelled “Play” and breathed the first easy breath he’d drawn in five years. existence around him grayed for a moment as the deck spun up, and then the world exploded into a sunny summer afternoon. The smell of roses and sea breeze washed over him. There she was again smiling at him. She was as beautiful as ever, her honey colored hair blowing in the wind, her smile as vivid as he remembered. The eyes that he fell in love with and woke up to on the best days of his life, once again looking back at him, tasting the salt in the air his heart began to fill, the void within himself shrinking. As Molly reached out to take his hand the world slipped into a state of static and he drifted off to sleep.