Nightmare Mode

📅 Published on January 11, 2022

“Nightmare Mode”

Written by Charlotte O'Farrell
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 7.25/10. From 4 votes.
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When the wave of virus pandemics in the 2020s and 2030s made travel abroad impossible, I really missed it.

It felt like a First World problem, complaining about a lack of holidays. I mean, it’s not like I’d died, got any lingering illnesses, or lost anyone in my immediate family in the various plagues of those years. It seemed pretty ungrateful to even complain about it out loud. Some of my best friends lost their parents from those new diseases – and some lost limbs from them. So really, I shouldn’t have been complaining.

But travel was a big part of my young adulthood. I’d spent an amazing summer backpacking in Australia before university, a memory made even more golden by the fact that I know now I’ll never physically leave the shores of rainy old England again. Not until medical science has advanced enough to push these pandemics away, in any case – and who knows if that day will ever come? They’ve been promising that since back in the early 2020s and twenty years on, we’re facing more lockdowns than ever.

Humans are a resourceful lot though, aren’t we? By the third major pandemic, we’d already spent enough on improving virtual reality technology to make VR holidays a real possibility. By 2030, the middle of the waves of diseases, there was a VR-Vacay studio on just about every street!

The virtual beach holiday was the first I ever booked. I saved up for it for months. Every time I got back from my warehouse job, exhausted from the 12-hour shifts, I’d work out how much closer that shift had got me to paying off the holiday. Each shitty little paycheck got me just that little bit nearer to the feeling of the sun on my face and sand between my toes. The virtual equivalents, anyway.

And finally, the day of my virtual vacation came.

I took a bus into the city center. It was rainy and cold. Buzzing with an excitement I hadn’t felt in many years, I studied the faces of the people closest to me. Behind their masks, their faces looked tired, defeated. Everyone’s eyes looked like that nowadays.

But not mine, oh no! I was almost bouncing up and down in my seat. The people closest to me studiously ignored me. Someone this happy early on a winter Tuesday morning had to be crazy or on drugs, right? I probably would have thought the same in their shoes.

The VR-Vacay studio I’d booked with was a little off the beaten track. The big flashy ones in the center offered all the works, sure: virtual round the world cruises and that kind of thing. But I couldn’t afford all that, and anyway, a nice little return to the time when we could go to sunny beaches was enough of a break for me.

I walked for twenty minutes, head bowed against the rain, and eventually I made it to the dark backstreet where my holiday awaited.

From the outside, the studio didn’t look like much. Just a small black door with the company logo – a grinning sunshine – painted above it.

As my booking form told me to do, I rapped on the door six times, paused for six seconds, then knocked six more times in quick succession. There was a pause, then the sound of several locks being undone from the other side of the door.

It opened very slightly. I saw a shadowy figure regarding me from the other side.


I said my name, feeling slightly bemused.

The figure watched me for a moment longer, undid the final lock, and ushered me inside. I wondered briefly if this was their usual standard of customer service!

I got a look at the woman who’d asked for my name. She was short, older than I’d expected, wearing a black dress over her tiny frame. Her dark eyes never stopped watching me. I didn’t even see her blink.

“You’re the last of the three holiday-goers to arrive,” she told me. I nodded, unsure how she expected me to respond.

There was a beat of awkward silence, then the old woman began to shuffle down the sterile white corridor ahead of us, gesturing hurriedly for me to follow her.

“I’m – looking forward to a bit of a break from that weather!” I said, trying to break the awkward atmosphere. The lady grunted in response.

Thankfully, the journey to the vacation room was short. It was a small grey room with three comfortable-looking reclining chairs in the middle. There weren’t even any windows. I spotted a damp stain in the corner.

Not exactly the sort of place to put their clients in a vacation mood.

My two co-vacationers were already here, settling into their chairs. They looked like father and son. The younger one was smartly dressed, with bleached blond hair, and looked about 30. The older one had a receding grey hairline and was overweight, dressed in slacks and a checked shirt.

The younger man half-smiled and nodded as I walked in.

“Damn chair,” muttered the older one, who hadn’t acknowledged me yet. He was shuffling uncomfortably from one side to the other, struggling to get comfortable.

“Now you’re all here,” said the woman who’d led me there, glaring at me sideways in a way that made me wonder if I’d somehow ended up here late rather than twenty minutes early, “we can begin.”

She nodded to the empty chair on the left. I walked over to it and sat down. The leathery feel of it was beautiful and it was well-padded. I sunk into that thing. It was like feeling all the tension of the previous few weeks melt away within two seconds. Damn it, this was the holiday I’d spent so long saving up for, longing for.

“Good, eh?” the younger guy next to me said. I turned to him and smiled back.

“It should be, for the price,” I replied. His smile faltered. That probably wasn’t the best time to bring up money.

Wanting to move past the awkwardness quickly, I introduced myself.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m River. This is my Dad, Toby.”

He sure didn’t look like a River. He must’ve caught the look of surprise on my face because he laughed.

“Ah, the name. You’re not the first to look surprised. My Mum… she was sort of a hippie.”

Toby grunted in response. He still hadn’t acknowledged my presence directly.

The woman who worked for the VR place went to the only other piece of furniture in the bare room, the closet. She pulled out three shiny, top of the range headsets. The building might be a bit of a shithole, I thought, but now I see where our cash has been going!

The headset fit perfectly. The memory foam inside sculpted easily to the shape of my head. It was like getting a head massage. The woman snapped the straps into place.

The screen was blue and empty.

“Have a good holiday,” the woman said, and it was the first time I’d heard her laugh. Something about the sound sent a shiver up my spine. But oh well – holiday time, at last!

There were a few silent moments, then the virtual vacation began.

I was instantly drawn into the world, like being sucked through a cinema screen. I was on a pristine beach, looking out at a glorious blue ocean that lapped rhythmically at the sand. The simulation took over my senses. Right away I could feel the warm sand between my toes, the beating sun on my Vitamin D-starved skin, a soft and gentle breeze against my ears.

“Holy shit!”

River’s exclamation pulled me out of my stunned reverie. I turned to my side. River and Toby had appeared in avatar form, wearing gaudy Hawaiian shirts. I looked down at my own attire. Suddenly I was wearing shorts and a yellow tank top. Nice!

“Hey – check out the barbecue!”

I followed River’s gaze. There was a huge brick barbecue there with an array of meats on it. I knew it wasn’t real food – they’d be attaching drips to our arms in the real world to deal with our nutrition for the next few days – but looking at it, and smelling it, made my stomach rumble appreciatively.

The barbecue was being run by a non-player character in a chef’s hat. He was grinning.

“Hello,” I said to him, more out of habit than anything.

He turned to me, uncanny valley plastic grin still stuck on his lips.

“Well howdy, partner!” he exclaimed. “Are you hungry?”

River was already reaching past the chef character to fill up on burgers. The side of the barbecue was stuffed with sauces and salad.

“Finally, a proper meal,” Toby grunted. “My son’s cooking is absolutely -”

“Well howdy, partner!” the chef repeated, cutting him off. “Are you hungry?”

I ordered a burger with all the toppings. Taking my first bite, my mouth was flooded with glorious tastes and textures. Better than any burger in the real world, I swear! These taste receptors really were something else.

The three of us sat down on the beach. That moment, with the sand beneath me and the sun beating down, the temperature just right and delicious burger in my mouth – ah, it was perfection. In that second, every double shift and saved penny seemed absolutely worth the sacrifice. And to think I had a week of this bliss ahead of me!

“Have you ever tasted something like this?!” River exclaimed, tucking into his third hot dog. Damn it, even Toby looked happy as he ate his double cheeseburger.

I took a look at our surroundings. Out to sea, the azure waves stretched out as far as I could see, topped off by a cloudless sky. Behind us, there were three luxurious beach huts, one for each of us, made of wood and standing on stilts. Behind them, there was a thick forest, and stunning mountains in the distance.

If I’d looked super closely, I might have noticed the irregularities in the ways the waves fell. The slight pixelation of the sunlight, the illustrated nature of the mountains. But I wasn’t interested in tearing apart this wonderful simulation. I wanted to savor every moment. My shitty job, my debts, my lackluster relationships? They all seemed a world away.

We sat happily on the beach for what seemed like a couple of hours, talking about nothing in particular. A couple of times I caught myself making eye contact with River. We’d both look away quickly, like a couple of coy teenagers. I didn’t know if it was the high of the vacation, but I hadn’t felt this flirty in years. This virtual break was suddenly interesting in all kinds of new ways.

The sunset brought us out of this reverie. There were two reasons. Firstly, the second the sunset started, it was stunning. I’d never seen a sky go so blood red and beautiful. Secondly, it seemed strange, because these virtual holidays weren’t supposed to have night times. Sure, once in your beach hut, you could flick the outside view to day, night, sunrise, or sunset, depending on your mood. But the beach itself was supposed to stay perpetually sunny, forever the most beautiful part of the day.

“Damn simulation’s fucked up,” Toby said with a slight sneer, nodding towards the reddening sky. I got the feeling something going wrong had put him back into his comfort zone of complaining.

“I’ll go,” said River with the weary resignation of someone offering to go to the bar for the next round. “EXIT SIMULATION.”

That was our escape phrase. Every simulation had to have one, legally. I waited for River’s avatar to shimmer away and disappear so he could ask the organizers what was up with the sunset. But – he just… stayed. Nothing changed.

He cleared his throat.

“EXIT SIMULATION!” he repeated.

Still nothing.

I’d slouched into the sand, but this had me jolted back to life. I sat bolt upright.

“EXIT SIMULATION!” I shouted. Nothing happened. The world around me stayed as simulated as before.

The three of us shouted the escape phrase with increasing urgency. We tried shouting it, whispering it, everything. Damn it, we were so desperate we even tried it in different languages! I tried it in Spanish, River tried a sort of broken French version. We remained rooted in the virtual holiday.

I ran across the sand to the chef character.

“Well howdy, partner! Are you hungry?”

“We want to exit the simulation,” I told him, slowly. He blinked.

“Well howdy, partner! Are you hungry?”

“Damn it! Can anyone hear us?!” I shouted, hoping someone from outside the simulation was monitoring it somehow. Admins were supposed to periodically check in; hopefully they’d noticed something was amiss?

Meanwhile, the sunset was progressing at an unnaturally fast pace. The red sun was already dipping halfway below the horizon, turning the sky crimson. It was certainly a beautiful sight, but something about it struck dread into my heart. The simulation was either corrupted or being manipulated somehow.

I sprinted over the still-warm sand to our beach huts. They each had one of our names written in flowery calligraphy over the door. Mine was on the left-hand side.

Thinking that at least I’d be able to set the windows to night or day from there, I stepped up the three wooden steps to the front door and opened it.

The inside was glorious. There were oak panels and surfaces everywhere, all beautifully carved and polished. There was a lush four poster bed in one corner, and reproductions of old masters paintings all over the walls. But when I looked out of the numerous windows, it was still showing mid-sunset.

I checked on the walls for the dial. It was a solid silver thing that looked quite out of place amongst all the wooden paneling. It had four settings: SUNRISE, DAY, TWILIGHT, and NIGHT. But despite the strange sunset outside, it was still set to DAY.

I reached out to change it and see if I could jolt the whole simulation into working. Just before my fingers touched it, it moved of its own accord, to the NIGHT setting. Alarmed, I looked out of the window again. The sun had dipped below the horizon and it was pitch black straight away.

The next thing I knew, I heard River and Toby screaming.

I dashed back out to the beach, nearly tripping over the wooden steps in the sudden darkness. The beach was bathed in picture-perfect moonlight, but the blackness of the night was deep and ominous.

I saw the silhouettes of River and Toby in the gloom. I ran towards them. They were shouting and screaming and gesturing to the trees behind our beach huts. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I turned around to see what had frightened them so much.

At first it looked like the woods were moving, swaying back and forth. But as my eyes adjusted to the deep darkness, I saw that there were creatures in the trees. They were tall, spindly, looking vaguely humanoid but in weird proportions. Their fingers – claws – were too long, scratching the sand as they trailed behind them. There were three of these bizarre beasts.

The three of us backed up. But there was nothing but simulated sand behind us. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The tide was lapping at our feet already. If we tried to go out to sea, we’d just get blown back into the shore, as if by a riptide.

I rushed over to the character by the barbecue.

“Well howdy, partner!”

“Shut the fuck up!” I screamed, cutting off his scripted response. His smile didn’t falter. “We need help! Right now!”

Still smiling, the guy cocked his head to one side. Still in his cheery voice, he responded: “Nightmare Mode is activated. Two of you are going to die.”


“Well, howdy partner! Are you hungry?”

The figures were halfway across the beach now. They moved clumsily but steadily. There was no doubt they were heading right for us. The closer they got, the more I could make out their features: huge slobbering mouths full of teeth, and glaring green eyes on their alien faces. Damn it, they looked hungry.

We ran along the seafront but the creatures were surprisingly quick. River and I kept pace but Toby was far too slow. The shadowy animals gained on him.

“Dad!” River screamed, stopping to help – but it was too late. The creatures were on top of him like a pack of hungry wolves.

The first one grasped him by the neck and threw him into the air. His spine made a sickening crack. As his broken body fell to the sand, the feeding frenzy began. All three of them dove into his ripped open carcass, hungrily devouring his organs from the inside out. I could hear him groaning. I hoped that was just the sound of air escaping his body; the idea that he was still alive through this torture was too much to bear.

I glanced over at River. He was transfixed, his face a picture of horror. But we’d reached the end of the beach simulation. If we didn’t take advantage of their distraction, we’d be cornered once they’d finished eating Toby.

I grabbed River’s arm and pulled him towards me. We dashed past the animals. As we moved away from them, both of us were splattered with the old man’s guts. River howled.

We carried on running, past the huts, and stopped level with the grilling guy. River ran up to him, trying one more time to get us out of this nightmare.

“EXIT SIMULATION!” he screamed, grabbing him by the shoulders.

The guy turned to him. I was completely expecting yet another rendition of his catchphrase, but this time was different. He reached out, still grinning, and took River in a vice-like bear hug.

As the creatures lumbered back towards us, the chef turned to them and said it to them, slightly differently this time: “Howdy, friends! Care to try my freshly caught food?!”

Frozen in shock, my eyes met River’s. The grip he was in was so tight, he couldn’t speak. The air was being squeezed out of him. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the pleading look in his eyes as they bulged out of his skull.

But the chef’s earlier comments stuck in my mind: Nightmare Mode was enabled, and two of us would die. Maybe it would be better just to let events take their course? Maybe it was the only way to be saved?

Jolting myself out of these selfish thoughts, I ran towards them and tried to pry River out of the chef character’s embrace. As soon as I touched his arms, a jolt of electricity ran through me. Stunned, I was thrown six feet into the air and landed on my back in the sand. We may have been in a simulation, but that pain was damn real.

River’s pain looked real. Once the creatures had finished eating his dad, they descended on him. I heard his bones crunch and his flesh rip. His screams didn’t even sound like a human.

I didn’t have the strength to run anymore. I closed my eyes and whispered the useless mantra like a prayer: “Exit simulation, exit simulation, exit simulation…”

A few seconds passed. Then more. My eyes were tightly closed, awaiting my fate. After half a minute, I realized I couldn’t hear the beach sounds anymore.

I slowly opened my eyes. I was back in the simulation room. The woman who had shown me in was sitting in front of me, an altogether joyless smile on her lips. I looked to my side. Both Toby and River were lying dead, their insides ripped to shreds, just as they had been in the simulation.

“What the fuck?!” I spluttered through sobs.

“Take a moment to calm down,” the woman advised. “All will become clear.”

She gave me a few seconds. When I showed no signs of calming down, she rushed forwards and injected me in the leg with something.

“Nothing to worry about,” she reassured me, too late. “Just a little something to help.”

It took seconds to take effect. My vision blurred slightly and my limbs felt heavy. But, true to her word, soon my fury and anxiety wore off somewhat.

“First of all,” she explained when I was suitably subdued, “you’ve been the star of one of the dark web’s most popular shows.”

She nodded towards a webcam mounted in the corner. It hadn’t been there when we’d gone into the simulation. She gave it a coy little wave.

“Your experience has been shown all over the world. And you were the lucky winner.”

“Fuck you,” I slurred. My lips didn’t seem to be cooperating but I think she got my gist. She laughed.

“Oh, you won’t be saying that when you see the prize money,” she replied. “A full refund of course. Plus the money our dear departed friends paid for their trips. However… the best part of the prize is yet to be revealed.”

I swallowed. It took all of my strength to power through the drug-induced brain fog they had me in.

“You’re – crazy. You won’t get away with this.”

“Oh, we’ve been getting away with this, as you put it, for some time. There are some very powerful people watching this who are big fans. They’ve already destroyed any evidence linking you or your two comrades here to our business. Tomorrow, this building will be completely vacant, with no sign there was ever a business here. We’ll be setting up in a whole new location.”

“You’re sick.”

“So is everyone, my dear. Now let me tell you what you’ve won by surviving your ordeal.”

“I don’t want anything you have to give.”

She held up her hand to silence me.

“You weren’t chosen by accident, any of you. You have things in common: a need for cash and a fresh start, and skills that we need. Despite not being able to get a job in your field for some years, your online work shows you’re a talented graphic designer. We want you to join us, help us to make our experiences as realistic and entertaining as possible. We’re offering you a chance to work on cutting-edge technology. The pay, of course, is top rate.”

I’m not sure if it was shock or the drugs she’d pumped me with really kicking in, but I promptly passed out.

* * * * * *

I know you’re probably judging me. Hell, I’d judge me. But just hear me out.

She wasn’t joking when she said the pay was top rate. I mean, with my wage on top of my winnings, I really do live it up now. No more living paycheck to paycheck. No more saving up for a virtual holiday and hating the rest of my life.

Of course, I took a bit of convincing. But once I’d seen the work the company do and the demand for it online, I started to see things from their perspective.

You’ll say I’m a murderer. But hey, this shit would be going on without my involvement. What’s one little designer supposed to do in this economy? I didn’t create Nightmare Mode.

That’s the online show, by the way. You can find us on the dark web, if you know where to look. I promise you, there’s no more thrilling show out there. And you’d be in good company. There are literally millions of subscribers. And we have every type of person watching: doctors, teachers, politicians, celebrities. You’d be surprised how far-reaching we are. You’re probably not even the first one in your family to become a fan!

Most of the stuff I do is genuine VR vacation design. It’s only about half of my day dedicated to Nightmare Mode. So you see, I’m not as guilty as you might have thought.

Want to avoid ending up in Nightmare Mode? Well, it worked out okay for me. But if you really want to avoid us, don’t look for virtual vacations that are just a little bit too good to be true.

In fact, maybe just wait until the pandemics are all over and you can go on a real holiday again. It’s got to happen sooner or later, right?

Rating: 7.25/10. From 4 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Charlotte O'Farrell
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Charlotte O'Farrell

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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