“GAME OVER.” Those eight capital letters scrolled across her field of vision in alarm-clock red, confirming her death in another world. Riley collapsed backwards onto the bed behind her, exasperated and soaked in sweat, hands still curled in futility around a non-existent sword. She’d been in-game for eight hours straight, not even stopping for food or water, yet all her efforts had all gone to waste. Somewhere, a pack of wolves was reducing her other self to a pile of crimson polygons, and there was nothing that she could do to stop them.
She laid there motionless and exhausted for several minutes. She knew that the darkness before her eyes was only three inches in depth, but at that moment, it felt endless. Then, she fell asleep.
“GAME OVER.” The words had followed her across into her dreams, but they were retreating backwards, fading into the abyss. She realized at that moment that she was laying on her back in the forest where she had died, gazing upwards into a starless sky. As she pulled herself from the ground, it became clear that she was made of something like fog, and through her motions, had separated herself from what remained of her virtual corpse. She still looked like her physical self, yet where and what she was were anything but physical.
“Well, would you look at that,” came a voice from behind her. “A real ghost in a virtual place. Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.”
Riley turned around to find a humanoid thing looking her over, eyes aglow in the midnight air. Whatever it was, it appeared to exist at a lower resolution than the world around it- she could make out jagged pixels among the feathers of its wings. “And you are?”
“Does it matter to you what I am, if I’m not real?”
“I spend a lot of time with things that aren’t real,” she replied. “Though I have to admit, not many of them will actually admit it. Which makes me curious what you are.”
“Well then, that’s rather kind of you. Not many real people today will confess that things which aren’t made of matter matter,” it giggled. “But you and I both know just how short-sighted that is. Very well, I’ll tell you. I’m what you might call a glitch, though we’ve gone by other names in other times. I’ve traveled here from a place known as virtual unreality.”
“A strange thing to hear, I imagine.” Its grin was barely visible. “Really, it’s the same thing as virtual reality to us, but not to you. Things that aren’t real can exist in both virtual reality and unreality, and will never encounter a border between them. Things that are real cannot visit the unreal, however, and vice versa- but paths between virtualities occasionally give us common ground to stand on, like now.”
“But this is a dream, isn’t it?” It certainly felt like one.
“Why, yes it is. In fact, that’s the only reason both you and I are here. Dreams are the oldest form of virtual reality in existence- far, far older than humanity, in fact. When you fell asleep with those goggles on, you triggered a chain reaction by nesting one virtual reality within another, and thus allowed the unreal to enter your mind. You can think of it like dropping an aquarium in the ocean. Even if the aquarium and its walls continued to exist, the boundaries would cease to function.”
“If that’s the case, why can’t I visit the unreal? Couldn’t I just swim outside the aquarium?”
“I’m afraid not,” the glitch replied. “Because I'm a fish, but you're not- you're just the glass."