On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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I’m walking along the beach again, on my favourite stretch of coastline. There are various boats out there near the horizon, and I know every one of them, but I don’t even bother to glance in their direction. I was here yesterday, after all, and the day before that.

I breathe in the warm but fresh and invigorating air, and I sigh. I haven’t been outside in months. Not outside-outside, I mean.

I got the box about a year ago, neither one of the first nor one of the last to do so. I assume that everyone has it now. Market forces being what they are, the price dropped precipitously once it was widely available. I’m not even sure of the state of the world out there, but the power supply seems to be on, and I haven’t gone hungry either, so I think it must all be OK.

The box is a cube, three metres on a side. It’s all you need for infinity. There’s a door, and once you walk in it closes behind you. Otherwise it’s bare on the inside, until it activates. Then it’s everything, and everywhere, and everyone.

The marketing materials were oddly restrained, probably deliberately so. They knew they were changing the course of history. They called the box an environment simulator. It’s really a pocket universe, and one where you’re the sole true god.

I confess to having no idea how it works, and I also confess to not caring as long as it continues to work. I did try to read an article about it once, out in the real world, but it was one of those goddamned magazine-newspaper type of pieces, where they insist on two thousand words of irrelevant scene-setting nonsense before giving you what you paid for. The kind that starts with “It was a beautiful, cloudless morning when Sarah Somebody first came up with the idea”. No-one gives a shit, Sarah. I didn’t click the link to read your life story.

But I digress. I’m almost at the far end of the beach now, and I can see Fifteen up ahead. She’s pleased to see me, as she always is. I’ll just tell the computer to delete her for now. That’s better.

I stopped naming the fantasy women after the sixth one, but that’s only because the seventh was actually Seven, like from Star Trek. After her, coming up with names seemed not just unnecessary, but downright pitiful, so the next one was just Eight.

The box prompts me occasionally to try something new. It asks if I want to sample some realities from outside of my set of core interests, or even some of the most popular ones amongst people in my demographics. Sometimes I consider it. But I always end up coming back to my handful of usual scenarios. Pretty often now, I just skip forward to the good parts. I live a thousand little vignette-lives, surrounded by others but actually alone, never bothering with the beginning or even the middle of the story.

I’ve been a superhero, of course. The box can do all of that stuff. Scans your cortex, uses projected force fields, and so on. You can fly, have super strength, be invisible; anything. I’ve been a political leader, which was absurdly boring. I’ve been a celebrity. I’ve been a celebrity superhero, not that there’s any other kind. I’ve also been a villain. I’ve been a murderer. I’ve been an Old Testament deity of fire and punishment. I’ve been every kind of monster, figurative and literal.

Sometimes, I just create a beautiful little house on an imaginary lake, and I sit and watch the sunlight on the water. I usually have my dog beside me, even though he died years ago out in the real world. In here, he’s the most real thing to me.

I’ve started to hate people’s faces. The holograms are perfectly lifelike, in every single way. I’ve slept with every actress and supermodel and former classmate and coworker. That’s what everyone does when they get the box, I bet. Surely. We’re all human. But even their perfectly lifelike faces have taken on a strangeness, because I know that I can do absolutely anything in here without consequences.

It turns out that consequences are what make us human. Without them, we revert to being animals. I reverted quite a while ago.

I think it would be the same if I ever set eyes upon another actual, real human. I think the box has changed my perception of others entirely, whether holographic or real. I think it might have even made me doubt that anyone is meaningfully real at all, except me. But the holograms at least have the distinction that they’re under my control, and they’ll do what I want, and they’ll always come back.

I have the whole universe as a plaything. Infinite people, imaginary or otherwise. Any place, any time, any scenario. I’m the absolute master of my destiny, and the ruler of the world. I can have literally anything I want.

And I am so, so bored of it.

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