The System Room lay in one of the basement layers of the V-Corp building, deep in the heart of the city’s business district. Unlike everywhere else he’d seen, this building was well guarded with an array of automatic weapons systems and trip wires, plus a squad of oversized robot guards. But Lucy had the right ID biometrics, and they passed unhindered.

They entered a large, empty room with banks of machinery lining the walls. She sat cross-legged on the floor and snapped her fingers. Suddenly, they were in the Oval Office. Lucy, still cross-legged on the floor, gestured for Jason to take his place opposite her. Between them lay a dull silver briefcase. “Before you ask, we’re here because this is where all the big decisions are taken.”

“I was more interested in how we got here.”

“This whole building’s covered by a V field, attuned to my neural profile. It means we can access a virtual world here without using a tank or a band. If you ask me, that’s pretty dangerous technology ― I’m just pleased we never had the chance to roll it out.”

“What’s that?” said Jason, pointing at the briefcase.

“The choice. Shall we?” Lucy put her hand on the briefcase’s palm reader. The case sprang open, revealing ancient electronics and a bright red button. “Recognize this?”

“The nuclear trigger.”

“It’s not really a big red button, of course. But I’ve always wanted to press the big red button.”

“What happens if you do?”

“The V-worlds are entirely run by AI super brains somewhere in a mountain in Wyoming. At least, that’s where we put them. I guess they could be anywhere by now thanks to the beauty of the cloud. Somewhere out of reach, anyhow.”


“So, there’s no off switch. No way to turn the worlds off. Except…”

“The red button is your back door, right?”

Lucy nodded. “One of the reasons I got canned is because I kept putting these fail-safes in the programs. I thought by now the AI would have rooted them out and eliminated them, but I guess it likes to live a little dangerously. All I have to do is press this red button and every V-world on the planet switches off, simultaneously. Including that Refuge you think you came from.”

He let the thought sink in and found he wasn’t surprised. “So why haven’t you done it?”

Lucy unfolded her legs, strolled over to a cupboard behind the presidential desk, and brought out a bottle and two glasses. “Scotch. The finest.” She poured and sipped appreciatively. “Did you see how miserable Drax was before he went back in the tank? And the anticipation on Hender and Butterfly’s faces? I’m not sure I want their unhappiness on my consciousness, or that of the millions of other people sitting in those tanks living out their fantasies.”

He tasted the whisky. He suspected it was as good as anything in the real Oval Office. “But in a couple of generations there’ll be no humans left in the V worlds, just AI. And hardly anyone left out here. The big red button’s the only way out.”

“You see my dilemma.”

“So, you want me to make your decision for you.”

“We could go into the tanks, live out our lives there. Most people don’t even know they’re in VR by now. It’s easy to forget reality when it doesn’t seem real.”

He smiled. “Or to think something is real just because you want it to be. I know why you haven’t pressed the red button now. You can’t.”

“And why might that be?”

“Because you’re not real. None of this is. Not the Oval Office, not the warehouse. Only me.”

She snorted. “Don’t kid yourself. You haven’t got the imagination to invent me.”

“Really? This is my red button, isn’t it? My way out.”

He pressed the button.


Mark Bilsborough is an English based writer whose science fiction stories tend to stray into fantasy if he’s not careful. He’s been published recently in Phantaxis, Crimson Streets, On the Premises, the Colored Lens and in other places. He teaches Creative Writing at a college just outside London and is currently working on a novel. You can find more of his work at



Featured image: CC0 Creative Commons by The Digital Artist via Pixabay

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