Chasing Windmill-berries

Submitted into Contest #100 in response to: Write a story where a meal or dinner goes horribly wrong.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative

The onslaught of nano-pulsations intensified, threatening to puncture Florian’s closed eyelids and drumfire onto his retina. The din of static crackled around him, interrupted by low frequency booms convulsing his body and high-pitched squealing in his ears. He regretted not paying for the optional eye and ear protection. Lyle had insisted against them, calling him a spendthrift.

The sensory melee abruptly stopped and warmth permeated his face. The ringing in his ears subsided, bringing to the fore the warbling of birds.

“Come on Flo, don’t just stand there with your eyes slammed shut. It’s safe. We’re in.” A nudge in his arm released the tension in his body.

Florian opened his eyes to the famed velvet hills of Artemis rolling into the horizon. The vividness of the landscape surpassed any of the holographs decorating his rooms on Selene, the lavender sister moon hanging low on the horizon and home to Sperare, a thriving human colony. High in the hazy yellow sky loomed Mithras 5, the rocky giant the two moons orbited.

“It’s hard to believe it’s a virtual representation. The detail!” Florian crouched on the ground and plucked a blade of grass, staining his hands crimson from the sap. Centuries ago, two factions of colonists fought over control of Artemis. The disagreement spiraled into a civil war that devastated the moon with deadly radiation and bio-chemical weapons, rendering it off-limits to humans.

“I told you this company was good! They’re the best in virtual reality travel.” Lyle picked up Florian’s backpack and handed it over. His hung already on his shoulders. “Come on, we’ve only got a few hours”

Florian followed Lyle to the crest of the hill they arrived at. Purple brambles blanketed the valley below, each bush studded with spots of yellow-green.

“Now we finally get to eat those famous windmill-berries you always go on about,” Lyle said. “When I heard they released a whole new package for Artemis, I was determined to bring you here, even if it meant dragging you to the darn travel bureau. So the berries better be worth it, Flo.” He fixed Florian with a smiling stare.

Florian raised his arms, laughing in feigned protest. “Hey now, don’t look at me like that! Remember, I’ve never tried them too.” He reached into his bag for a water bottle, took a swig and offered it to Lyle. The sensation of water flowing down his throat matched nothing he ever experienced before in virtual travel. The Artemis travel experience marked a breakthrough in the virtual travel industry; nobody had ever recreated an entire moon or planet at this level of detail before.

“If the programmers did their research properly, the berries should be decent. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high.” Florian set foot on the downward path, leading the way. “However realistic it may seem, this is only a virtual re-creation.”

Fear of disappointment stoked Florian’s skepticism. Born to a family producing a long line of epicureans, his family always spoke of the delectable berries indigenous to Artemis. Named after the four-petaled flowers resembling windmills of past ages, the plant producing the berries resisted both natural and artificial cultivation on Selene or its space farms, making them unattainable after authorities closed off the Artemis. Fake approximations of the legendary flavor abounded on Selene from drinks to confectionary, but Florian’s family never considered them worthy of even bearing the name of the berry. As a child he flipped through tomes of recipes—old family heirlooms—imagining the flavor of a slice of windmill-berry pie or a bowl of the berries cooked into a grütze and topped with chermal sauce.

The valley abounded with berries—Florian suspected the programmers had exaggerated. Their green juice seeped into his palate, infusing his mouth with a delicate balance of sweetness and tartness.

Lyle sat on the ground and kept busy with a pile of berries he had gathered in his hat. Florian grinned. Lyle didn’t give a hoot about the stains on his hat. It was, after all, virtual.

“And, are you satisfied?” Lyle asked. Sated, the two lay flat on their backs in a grassy clearing near the bramble.

“Yeah, I am. But they taste simple and uncomplicated. Don’t get me wrong, I like them fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe their unattainability makes them more sought after.”

“Simple? What are you talking about? I thought they were great. Boy, you’re such a hoity-toity connoisseur.” Lyle snorted.

“Aren’t I though?” Florian laughed. “You should be grateful, it’ll rub off on you.” He stretched his arms and yawned. “Seriously, though. Thanks for this, Lyle. I really enjoyed it.” Florian’s eyes grew heavier until he finally stopped resisting the drowsiness.

Florian woke to the sound of howling. He sprang up. Lyle writhed in agony, ashen-faced. Perspiration drenched his hair.

“Lyle!” Florian held his friend to keep him stable. The heat Lyle’s body emanated shocked him. He admired the uncanny realism of this virtual Artemis, but this was taking realism too far. He pressed on the device wrapped around his wristband.

“I’m aborting the program now, Lyle. Just wait a couple seconds”

But no matter how often Florian pressed the emergency exit button on his wristband; the world around them didn’t disappear. He panicked and wanted to yell for help, but his voice failed him as his body began trembling like Lyle’s. Immense heat burned through his insides, contorting his body. His wristband now thrummed, but in his delirium, it meant nothing to him. He blacked out.


Florian’s head ached. He regretted opening his eyes, but the noise of the staff milling about him and the bright lights drew his attention.

A slender man with a full head of purple-dyed hair peered into his eyes.

“Are you feeling better?” The man asked. “We teleported you out as soon as we could. Any later and it would have been too late for you as well.”

“W-what do you mean? Where’s Lyle?” Florian’s stomach sank.

“It regrets me to inform you that your traveling companion has died. He was beyond saving when he arrived at the hospital. As you yourself experienced, the lethal toxins waste no time, killing people in seconds or a minute at most. But fortunately they were able to stabilize and revive you. You should be feeling weak for a few days, but don’t worry, you will recover fully. My name is Davidson and my role is to ensure you are treated well and returned home safely.”

Florian propped himself up with his elbows. “What do you mean, Lyle is dead? He can’t be. This is a virtual reality trip.” He pointed his head in all directions. “None of this is real.”

“Yes, well about that—“

“Look I’m tired and I want to go home. So I’m ending this simulation now.” He reached for his wristband, but it had been removed. “All right, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I demand to be exited from this virtual reality—”

“But this isn’t a virtual reality, Florian. You are actually sitting in an emergency hospital on Artemis. And sadly, Lyle has actually died.”

“What kind of nonsense is that? If we actually were on Artemis, we’d be long dead from the radiation and the chemicals and everything. Besides, Artemis has been off limits for many hundreds of years.”

Davidson sighed and furrowed his brows. “Florian, I’m going to have to ask you to stay calm.” He pulled up a chair from the desk by the window, placed it near Florian’s bed, and seated himself.

“It’s true. Artemis was, and still officially is, off-limits. But in recent centuries the moon’s environment recovered considerably, and is now no longer as uninhabitable as it once was in the period immediately after the civil war. For the past hundred years, the government has been researching this moon and exploring the possibilities of re-colonizing it. Recent breakthroughs in environmental engineering have also allowed us to reverse much of the damage wrought here and help the ecosystem mend itself.”

Florian listened, but inwardly implored he still sat in an elaborate virtual world created by algorithms and programs.

Davidson continued. “After considerable first hand experience, we felt Artemis had become safe for people to live on. But we were not absolutely sure. The staff here, you understand, acclimate themselves gradually. We wanted to find out what would happen if a person were suddenly thrust into this ecosystem.”

Davidson stood up and opened the drapes. He remained by the window, staring out at the yellow sky.

“Over the centuries, the citizens of Sperare developed a deeply-ingrained fear of Artemis, which is perfectly understandable. But that meant finding volunteers for our experiment would be difficult. So we devised a scheme using the travel bureau as a cover to bring people to Artemis without them knowing it. Virtual travelers would think they were mentally entering a virtual world. In reality, though, they would actually be teleported to select locations on Artemis, and teleported back at the end of the trip. You and Lyle were the first two customers who booked a trip to Artemis without knowing it, as it were. Come, follow me. You should be strong enough to walk now.”

Davidson led Florian down a corridor.

“But how do I know what you say isn’t also a virtual simulation?” Florian asked.

“Notwithstanding the significant advances made in virtual reality technology, replicating this degree of reality is frankly still not possible, Florian. I’m sure you’ll come to agree with me the next time you take a virtual trip. Even the pricier trips cannot match actual reality.”

At the end of the corridor Davidson opened a door and stepped into a dimly lit room. The flag of Sperare hung from the ceiling over a white coffin in the middle of the room. A white bust of Geoffrey Tanaka, the colony’s founder, stood on a black marble pillar at the head of the coffin. Florian came closer to the coffin and froze. Lyle’s corpse lay there. His hat, stained green from the windmill-berries, rested on his chest.

“The berries you ate,” Davidson said, “contained dangerously high traces of weapons-grade bio-chemicals and radiation. Lyle consumed more than you, which sealed his fate. We’re now examining the valley you were in and suspect there is a dangerously large residue of toxins extending directly beneath it. The plants draw them out effectively from the soil, which helps cleanse the land but in turn makes their fruit particularly lethal. Had we known this, we would have naturally teleported you to a safer location. Again, my sincerest apologies. The state shall pay reparations to Lyle’s family, and to you, of course, for this unfortunate accident.”

“Accident?” Florian hardly believed his ears. His arms trembled and he clenched his teeth. “You experiment on us like lab animals and have the nerve to call it an unfortunate accident?”

Florian walked up to the bust and picked it up with both hands. Still weak, he floundered as he lifted it up and charged to Davidson. But before he struck Davidson’s purple-haired head with it, he lost his balance and collapsed.


The top half of Florian’s capsule whooshed open; darkness gave way to light. Had he died? He remembered passing out trying to bash Davidson’s head in with a bust of Geoffrey Tanaka.

He latched onto the rims of the capsule with his hands and hauled himself up from his supine position. But his fingers lost their grip and he thumped back down.

“Whoa, careful there, Flo! Not too fast. Your body needs a minute to wake up.” Lyle’s face came into view.

Florian stared at him. “I saw your corpse, Lyle. . .,” he said.

Slowly at first, pockets of memories from before he entered this capsule bobbed up randomly like bubbles in water about to boil. As the patches of memory reconnected into a network, a regained sense of reality quashed any doubts he had. Yes, Lyle still lived. And so did he.

Lyle gripped his hand and helped Florian out of the capsule. Standing up stimulated more chunks of memory—gigantic ones, each one fitting itself into the puzzle of Florian’s psyche.

“Thanks.” Florian rubbed his eyes. “I remember now. You brought me here for my birthday. . .” He tried to continue but the residue of all his experiences on Artemis welled up. Pain, grief, and anger twisted like a knife in his heart. But his friend’s optimism and energy anchored him enough to weather the inner maelstrom.

“You got out early?” Florian asked.

“Yeah, remember?” Lyle wrapped his hand around his neck, pretending to gag and choke. “I died from the toxic windmill-berries. The game pulls you out of the adventure the moment you die. But I still got to watch you from that screen over there,” he pointed to a console on the wall opposite them in the room.

“You were watching me the whole time in the hospital?” The thought embarrassed Florian.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! That was mighty heroic of you trying to kill Davidson—and with the bust of Geoffrey Tanaka too! It was touching, Flo.” Lyle shook his head in admiration. “I never knew you had a thing for melodrama.”

“Well, he deserved it and I would have gone through with it had I not fainted again”

“I don’t doubt that for second. You should have seen the rage on your face. Remind me never to get on your bad side, okay?” He grinned. “Anyway, did you like it? Amazingly realistic, huh? What an awesome virtual reality game. No wonder it’s all the rage. I’m glad I chose this as your birthday present.”

“Thanks Lyle, it was great. When I was in there, I honestly believed I was of that world, almost a different person, and had no inkling there was a larger world outside of everything we experienced.”

“I specifically asked for that setting. It’s possible to go on an adventure while being fully aware you’re in a virtually created world if you want to, but where’s the fun if you know it’s all a simulation? So I had the system repress knowledge of our actual world and let it create new bios and memories for us, as though we grew up in that version of the world. I kept our names though, and the fact that you had an obsession for windmill-berries.”

A jingle interrupted them and the suave voice of a hammy announcer intoned:

We hope you had fun on your virtual adventure today. Please be sure not to forget any personal belongings when you exit the game room. Thank you for your patronage and we hope to see you again soon. Check out our daily feeds for new worlds to explore at Virtually Real Adventures! 

They stepped out of the building. Never had the lavender sky comforted Florian as it did that day. Mithras 5 dominated the firmament as always and in a short while Artemis would lift its yellow disk over the horizon.

“This is all real right, Lyle?” Florian asked. “I mean, we’re still not in a game or something, right?”

“No Flo, we’re not in a game anymore. Don’t worry. This is as real as it gets.” He smirked. “Or is it. . .?”

“Knock it off.” Florian jabbed Lyle in the shoulder and led the way back to their district.

“Hey, Flo?”


“No more talk of windmill-berries okay? Not for a while.”


An opaque tendril oozed out of the tall being’s torso, elongating towards a holographic control unit. The tip of the tendril split into spindly fingers and adjusted various crystals suspended in air, as the being phased in and out of multiple dimensions.

“Wow. Just how obsessed can you get with a darn moon and its silly berries? This is only my first day at this module and I have to say I’m impressed. I never saw anything like this at the Drolax civilization module I was at before.”

“Humans are one of a kind, aren’t they? And the lengths they go to. I mean, they even made a virtual reality game out of it. How deranged is that?” The short being hovered inside a glimmering sphere of quantum data streaming in all directions around him.

“They certainly are kooky. Entertaining, though. I’ll give them that. The folks monitoring the lost civilization of Ulad would be envious of us.”

“I’ve never worked on that module before. What are they like?”

“The Ulad? They spend half their lives hibernating. Crashing boredom.”

“Then I guess I should be grateful for being stationed here.”

“Yup. Many people would transfer here in a heartbeat if they could.”

“But this is no plush job, you understand. The module requires constant maintenance because of the exponential rate of development in the virtual simulation. Not to mention it eats up galaxies worth of memory. We just got a major systems and memory upgrade four cycles ago, but at the rate we’re going, we’ll need another one soon to keep up with all the wild permutations in the bio and socio algorithms.”

“It’s a pity those humans on that colony are all gone. I would have loved to observe their society first hand. But I guess I can’t complain. We were lucky enough to hack into their entire civilization early enough to download centuries worth of data on their kind before they blew themselves up in that nasty civil war.”

“Yeah, and in a way they continue to thrive and evolve, virtually, in our module—living out their lives, falling in love, eating food, overcoming hardships, creating virtual realities within their virtual realities, and all that sort of thing.”

“Sounds like you have a soft spot for them.”

“Believe me. They grow on you.”

“I can imagine. They’re sweet, aren’t they? Florian and Lyle.”

July 02, 2021 15:35

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Jason Ivey
16:00 Jul 02, 2021

Wow, I’ve lost count of the number of twists! Kind of like a droste effect of realities - makes you think!


Jon R. Miller
17:14 Jul 02, 2021

Hi Jason! Thank you for reading it! I had a lot of fun writing it, and kinda got lost in it several times, forgetting which frame I was in. But you're right, this could keep going on forever. :> I read your story too by the way. I liked it and will leave comments on it later. Cheers!


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Alex Sultan
21:19 Jul 05, 2021

Great worldbuilding in this story, and I like how you write imagery. Very vivid. I would definitely read more of this in a novel setting or a part 2.


Jon R. Miller
23:27 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you for reading and your encouraging comments! World-building is is so much fun, but I get carried away often and need to rein myself in. A sequel story would definitely be interesting. :>


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