Augmented reality has transformed the world from drab to gorgeously stunning. But when you can’t trust what you see, can you believe anything or anyone?
Channel is Unreal. After the devastating Campi eruption, people flocked to new Communities offering retinal implants to modify their world into something beautiful again. Living in Paradise 3 Community, Channel’s only goal is to become a World Builder and improve the augmented reality code for everyone living there. Her opportunities seem endless until new implant technology is announced – this time with the ability to augment all the senses. With dashed dreams and her skills rendered virtually useless, Channel is left with none of her prior options…but has one salacious opportunity.
Mila is Real. Living with her parents who fought to remain independent from the Communities, her world is the antithesis of privileged. With a dwindling peer group, a lack of resources, and seemingly no hope for her future, she jumps at the chance to travel with her brother Alek in search of other free Real societies. Though they have outdated information and virtually zero knowledge of what could lie ahead, Alek and Mila leave the only home they’ve ever known under cover of night.
When Mila and Channel’s paths collide, they become torn between the worlds they thought they knew and a brazen reality they could never have imagined. Will they risk it all to understand what it truly means to be Real?
Unreal is the first book in the riveting Unreal series. If you like mind-bending storylines, strong female characters, and clean romance, you’ll adore Cindy Gunderson’s page-turning psychological saga.
March 8, 2161 – March 27, 2161
My name is Channel, and I’m Unreal. Before you feel pity or whatever else you Real people feel, let me assure you: I’m beyond thrilled to be living in Paradise 3 Community. I’ve read the history, and I’ve heard the stories. I don’t ever want to see the world as it was. Or still is, I guess. I highly doubt it’s changed that much in the last hundred years. What is it they say? It takes over a thousand years for a landscape like ours to truly regenerate? And we weren’t even on the same continent as Campi when it erupted. Sorry Europe.
Yeah. I’m good here. With one minimally invasive upgrade—retinal implants—my visual reality is permeated with color and beauty you can’t even imagine. And what is reality, anyway? If my brain is interpreting electrical impulses to create the world I see, isn’t that precisely the same as what’s happening in your brain?
But—being Unreal—I’m choosing my input. I’m opting for the diverse and picturesque while you’re stuck with whatever mundane, monochromatic drudgery this scarred rock has to offer at any given moment. So what if my input is coming from within my visual-neural pathways, and yours is coming from the reflected light around you? Our brains can’t tell the difference, so why would I settle for less? As far as I can tell, non-augmented reality isn’t a reality worth living.
Mom’s voice interrupts my writing. “Channel!” she calls from the kitchen.
“In here!” I shout back.
“Can you be in here with me, please? So I don’t have to yell?”
“In a second!”
I quickly swipe away my dashboard, though my personal preferences are still uploading for the morning. Should’ve started that process yesterday when I was on break. Standing, I smooth my cyan blanket over the bed and fluff my pillow. My pictures dance in their frames on the wall, and I smile at my bright, tidy room. Turning, I wave my hand lightly across the open space of my doorway to disable the privacy screen, then walk into the hall.
“Nice hair,” Mom says, raising an eyebrow as I walk into the kitchen.
“It felt like a purple kind of day.”
She tilts her head, interested, though I doubt she has any clue what I mean. Her hair has been the same every day since I can remember: light brown with golden highlights that shimmer in the sunlight. Pretty. And boring. Sometimes I wonder if I’d recognize her without augmentation from the Edge—the software built with algorithms that determine what I see and what I don’t. How much is she choosing to change?
“Did you finish your capsule?” Mom asks.
I shake my head. “Almost. Still working on my letter to the Reals.”
“Ah.” She nods knowingly. “Have I ever shown you mine?”
I look at her, incredulous. “You wrote a capsule letter?”
Mom laughs, the joyful sound filling our utilitarian space to the brim. “Capsules haven’t changed since my day, Channel. How old do you think I am?” She swipes her hand, and the projection hanging in the air over the countertop disappears. “Ready for another week?”
I nod, walking behind her and opening up the cupboard. Our kitchen is small and efficient. Everything has a place, and since it’s just the two of us, we don’t have many things to find places for. There’s no need for them. At any time, we can change the decorations, color scheme, style—anything we want. ‘Things’ are so 2030.
“Any other ideas for your World Build project?”
Taking a packet from the breakfast shelf, I turn, allowing the door to close softly on its own. I shake my head, avoiding her eyes as I take a seat on the stool across from her.
Mom raises an eyebrow.
“Don’t judge, okay? I’m not—” I sigh, unable to communicate a fully-formed thought as I rip open the packaging.
“I’m not judging. I’m just…surprised, I guess. Third-quarter, it seemed like you had a plethora of ideas to choose from.”
“They weren’t good ones,” I mutter under my breath, then pull out the pressed breakfast bar and take a bite.
“You think that’s true?” Mom puts a hand on my shoulder.
“I know, Mom, you don’t have to keep bringing it up. That win was pure luck—I practically stumbled onto that upgrade.”
“I don’t think it was luck.”
“Well, it was. And all of my ideas last quarter have been integrated into the Edge already.”
Mom is silent for a moment while I eat. Finally, she stands, pulls a glass from beside the water dispenser, and fills it. “We’re at that point, I think,” she says softly, lifting the glass to her lips.
“Where we’re waiting for a breakthrough. Haven’t you noticed the pattern? Technology ebbs and flows. One massive innovation hits unexpectedly, and then we ride the wave for a while. The sea’s been calm for too long.”
I swallow, then throw the packaging in the compost. “Well, I highly doubt that idea is coming from me.”
Mom laughs. “Why not you? You’re one of the most critical thinkers I know—”
“You need to get out more,” I say, walking to her and kissing her cheek. “Love you.”
“Love you, too. Have a great day, and say hi to—”
“Will do, Mom!” I rush down the hall and pull a jacket from the hooks next to the door.
“Aren’t you going to take your mask?”
“Don’t need it! I’m going straight to the Grid and home after!” I call, then walk into the bright morning sunlight.
“Lex, load Capsule Letter, sinistral,” I instruct and watch as the words I created in my room earlier populate my left field of vision. The words hover in the air, and I turn my head to make it look as if they’re written on the bricks in front of me. The glow is intense today, and it warms my skin as I stride down the walkway. “Initiate voice transcription,” I say, then begin narrating when a small green light blinks at the top of the text.
“This is what you Reals don’t get,” I say, continuing where I left off. “The feeling of the sun on my skin? Real. Touch? Taste? Smell? Sound? Real. It’s all real. I get to experience complete ‘reality’ in all my senses with the added benefit of visualizing something more stimulating.”
My breathing quickens as I walk with more intensity. This always happens when I try to narrate while I walk—especially when I don’t have extra oxygen. Not that Mom was right about the mask. It’s challenging to narrate with it on, and my capsule presentation is directly after World Build—I’m not even close to being finished.
“Right now,” I continue, “I’m looking at buildings that wouldn’t exist anywhere on this planet if World Builders hadn’t preserved them in this reality—my reality. A mix of ancient Gothic and Renaissance architecture, mixed with New World elements and improvements. I get to walk to work across stones that existed thousands of years ago. And the best part? Next year it’ll be something different. Some other piece of forgotten history or previously unknown beauty.” I take a deep breath. “And next year…I might be the one building it.”
Something catches my eye, and I stop in my tracks. Rushing to the window of my favorite shop, I nearly shriek with delight. I’d posted requests on the network for weeks—practically begging that the next painting rotation be Carol Marine. But of course, you never expect your opinion to be the one that wins out. And yet, here they are. Floor to ceiling. Paintings of people doing whatever people did before the Communities. When everything was still vibrant and colorful, and…not dead.
Seeing my request in real life sends a shiver down my spine. I close my eyes, and the images disappear. Sometimes I think it would be exhilarating to keep my eyes closed and still see the world around me—especially convenient when my corneas get dry and irritated by low air quality. But more often, I’m glad the Edge is triggered off when my eyelids shut—because then I can do this.
I snap my eyes open again, and the juxtaposition of the nothingness against the colorful paintings makes them even more stunning and delightful. More than anything, I want to be the one building this. I want to be the one to decide which requests are granted and what direction we go in our community design. I want to have creative flexibility to make things more beautiful and seamless for our entire Community. But that’s not going to happen unless I find some way to distinguish myself. Some way—
“You’re going to be late,” a voice says behind me, and I spin around.
I relax, grinning. “If I’m late, then so are you,” I say, walking forward. Aave’s brown hair is tousled and, if I didn’t know it was purposeful, I’d think he’d just rolled out of bed. He turns. I begin to follow, then stop, blinking.
“Close capsule letter,” I say hastily and hurry to match his stride.
Aave laughs. “I hope my incredibly witty comment made it into your dictation.”
I roll my eyes. “Because I definitely wouldn’t just delete it.” His voice wouldn’t activate my system anyway. Our retinal displays only have the capacity to augment the visual world around us, but the bracelets on our wrists allow us to connect to the Edge through voice command. Mine is set to private, and Aave knows it.
Aave shrugs. “How was your Rest Day?”
“Not at all restful. You?”
“I slept.” He swings his hands almost giddily and flashes a smug smile.
“Of course you did,” I grumble. “How is it that your parents somehow understand the need for adolescent sleep, whereas my mom thinks articulated shoulder bridges at first light are the answer to my ‘ornery disposition’?”
“Wait, she thinks your attitude is changeable?” Aave laughs. “Has she even met you?”
“Ha. Ha,” I reach out to smack him, but he dodges. We approach the open-air gates of the Grid and lift our braceletted wrists for the scanners.
“Did you bring something to experiment with today?” Aave asks, smirking because he already knows the answer.
“Did you?” I ask, toning down the annoyance in my voice, but only slightly. It bugs me that I can’t come up with an idea, and he knows it.
Something’s shifted in my world the past few months, and as much as I’d like to blame it on the Community—Mom, Aave, everyone else I come in contact with—I know it’s not everyone else.
As we walk into the protected glass dome, I take a deep breath. My lungs fill with fresh, clean air, and the tightness in my chest dissipates slightly. The familiar pressure will be gone entirely after I flush my lungs a few more times.
Sometimes I like to imagine I’m one of those kids in the Real world—wearing a backpack, stepping off a bus at their school building, and walking into a classroom where a single teacher stands in front of the group to impart their wisdom. It was an inefficient learning model, to be sure, but the idea of sitting together in a room just listening and talking about interesting subjects with my friends sounds idyllic sometimes.
I can’t complain, though. Our project and subject rotations maximize the benefits of social learning while minimizing distractions and wasted time. And the Grid is much cooler than a boxy schoolhouse. The massive brick archways create a line to the left of us, signifying individual ports. Sunlight streams through the vast dome above us creating small strips of rainbow light on the walls.
I follow Aave through an archway to our station and step onto my port. Glyn’s already linked up, and the timestamp seems to be judging me with its glowing digits. Whoops. I guess we’re a few minutes late after all. I’ll have to catch her on the inside.
I place my hands in the drivers. The sensor recognizes my slightly elevated heart rate but doesn’t complain. Stepping forward, I rest my head on the padded metal bar, close my eyes, and in seconds, I’m standing next to Aave and Glyn, their now fully digital selves reflecting off the smooth, black walls surrounding us.
“This is what we’re doing now?” I say, unimpressed with the monochromatic color scheme of the simulation.
“Hey, you two weren’t here yet. I’m not the creative one, remember?” Glyn answers defensively. With slicked dark hair and three facial piercings, her form is reminiscent of a goth musician. Skintight onyx pants and platform boots complete her ensemble—anything but subtle.
“I can get on board with minimalist,” Aave says, scanning the room. “Save all the good stuff for the coding.”
“Speaking of which, I have something I want to try today,” Glyn says excitedly. “It’s not sexy, but it hits an Edge glitch point.”
“Which one?” I scoff.
Glyn gives an annoyed look, obviously wishing I was more excited about her announcement. “Lag Compensation,” she says.
“A worthy adversary,” Aave says dramatically.
I’m immediately skeptical. “Do you even notice lag anymore?” I ask. “I know it’s a thing, but—”
“It’s totally a thing,” Glyn cuts in. “It drives me crazy. Every single time I’m playing that stupid game with my brother, it looks like he hasn’t even hit the target. But then, all of a sudden, his points show up!”
Her passion surprises me, and I hold up my hands in defense. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Lag is still a major problem.”
Glyn folds her arms across her chest. “It seriously doesn’t bother you?”
Aave laughs, putting an arm of solidarity around Glyn’s shoulders.
“You know I can’t feel that,” she says, glancing at him sideways.
“It’s the thought that counts?” Aave grins.
“Are you going to keep hanging on me, or can we start working on the algorithm?” she says.
“I can’t work in this environment,” I tease.
Glyn rolls her eyes. “I’m convinced this could move us up the ranks for the World Build. It’s a problem that nobody has tackled—”
“Because other groups haven’t been successful,” I cut in.
“Right, but they weren’t using the correct model,” Glyn says excitedly.
“Wait,” Aave says, pacing across the floor, his body reflected on the smooth surface beneath him. “My understanding of lag is that it’s a problem with the server. If we want a lower ping time, doesn’t that have to start with them?” he asks, pointing skyward.
“Yes, the amount of time it takes for our user input to travel to the Edge and bounce back to create the visual world around us is definitely on the World Builders,” Glyn agrees. “But—as far as I know—a server update hasn’t been deemed ‘necessary,’ so that means it’s on us to provide a solution for now. If we can write an algorithm that would predict future actions—”
“But we can’t predict the future, Glyn,” I say. “At least not perfectly. Remember Carrow’s group last year? They attempted it and ended up with mediocre results at best.”
“That’s because Carrow’s an idiot,” Glyn says, grinning. “There has to be a way to solve it. Something more than just prediction has to be an option. If we could mix two different models—“
“I don’t know,” Aave sighs. “Not that I don’t love the idea—I do, Glyn. It would be seamless if we could all experience the same thing simultaneously in every circumstance—especially gaming. But I don’t know if this is big enough to win the World Build. Every winner in the past has done something to solve a quality of life problem—a real one, not a convenient one,” he says, holding up a hand before Glyn can argue. “I’m talking about something major—that impacts food production or body maintenance. What is this useful for?”
Glyn, in obvious frustration, stares at the blank wall in front of her.
“Hey,” Aave says gently, “I’m not shutting it down. Just because Channel and I don’t see the big picture doesn’t mean it isn’t a great idea.” He looks at me meaningfully.
“Aave’s right,” I say, attempting to come up with something comforting but failing miserably.
Aave gives me the ‘is that the best you could do?’ expression, and I shrug apologetically.
“It should only take a couple of days, and…maybe it will lead us to something bigger,” Glyn says.
“We’re a team,” Aave says resolutely. “Channel and I just need to trust you.”
Aave’s words trigger a memory so strong, it tugs me out of the present moment.
“Channel, it’s a storm. It’s going to be okay,” Dad says, sitting on my bed and allowing me to snuggle up under his arm.
“Why is it so loud and scary?” my seven-year-old self asks.
“Because warm and cold air are swirling around up there in the heavens.”
“That’s why it makes those sounds?”
“You have to trust me, Channel. Even when things seem scary, you have to remember that I’ll always be here to take care of you and your mother. I’ll be here to protect you.”
The last time someone told me to trust them? I jumped in wholeheartedly. And it broke me.
“Pull up the game info,” Aave says. “Let’s see what we’re working with.”
I watch half-heartedly as the code appears, and Glyn begins pulling sections out for further inspection. If we can pull this off—which is highly unlikely, even if Carrow is an idiot—every P3 gamer would be praising our names. But winning the World Build without a life-altering code? Not exactly likely.
“Hey,” Aave’s voice sounds in my ear.
I look over, but his avatar is still standing next to Glyn, his eyes trained on the task at hand. It’s a private message. In the simulator—because of our connection to the sensors—we can see and hear each other with simple commands. One of the many reasons why working here is more efficient than trying to collaborate over the Edge at home.
“You coming?” he asks.
I press both thumbs down to reply, then speak. “Yes, sorry, just thinking.”
“I think this will be a good thing. And you don’t have anything to prove, Channel,” Aave says gently. “You’ve already—”
“I haven’t ‘already’ anything. Please stop trying to make me feel better.”
“You’re just putting too much pressure on yourself, and I—”
“I’m good,” I say, cutting him off. I know he’s trying to help, but he doesn’t get it. Working as a group is hard enough for me these days. I don’t want to rely on anyone else, and—more importantly—I don’t want them to rely on me. Turning off my private communication, I push my avatar forward to join them.
At lunch, I sit on a bench behind the meal dispensary and carefully unwrap my food packet. A light breeze brushes my cheek, and flowers in full bloom sway around the path in front of me, arching their delicate petals to the sky overhead.
Looking down, I choose the orb in the middle of my packet first and bite into the crisp outer layer. Though we eat the same thing for lunch most days, it always looks different. I wonder how much of our gustatory experience is visual, which then makes me wonder what this food actually looks like without augmentation.
<I wish we could have an implant for our tongues>
The message appears in my field of view, startling me. I look over and see Aave sauntering my direction.
“I thought I turned that off,” I say.
“Guess not,” he smiles.
“That was a super weird message.”
Aave laughs out loud. “No, it wasn’t! It’s completely relevant. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could taste anything we wanted instead of this same mush every day?”
“It’s crispy today. What are you talking about?” I say blandly, biting into orb number two.
“But it could be way better, right?” he says jovially, taking a seat next to me. “We could make it taste like anything—invent flavors nobody in the Communities—in the world—has ever experienced.”
I swallow before I respond. “First of all, I don’t think that technology will ever exist. Second, those flavors would probably be gross. Third,” I pause, swallowing, “just because we can make new flavors doesn’t mean our body will magically evolve to like them.”
Aave looks at me quizzically. “What is it with you? You used to be the one imagining crazy possibilities, and now you shoot them all down.”
His comment—though I know it wasn’t meant to—cuts. I stare at the stones beneath my feet. He’s right. It’s like the happy-go-lucky Channel died the second she realized what was at stake this year. And I’m having trouble getting her back.
“Hey, Channel, I didn’t mean—”
“No, you’re right. I’m negative and—and completely unhelpful in our World Build project. Everything feels impossible because—”
“Because you’re stuck on this one thing and can’t see other possibilities?”
“There aren’t other possibilities, Aave! Worldbuilding is all I want to do! If I can’t do that, then what’s the point? I can’t end up stuck in food preparation or sanitation for the rest of my life!”
“You’re not going to be stuck in—”
“How do you know? Someone has to do it, and if I’m not exceeding expectations in the coding department, then why not me?”
Aave stares at me in frustration, pursing his lips.
“I’m sorry,” I say, forcing myself to relax. “I know I’m emotional these days, but I really can’t see another suitable option. Theoretically, I know my life won’t be over if I don’t get this placement, but…”
Aave leans back on the bench and takes a deep breath. His hair lightly rustles in the breeze, and my eyes linger on the angles of his jaw.
“No, I get it,” he says. “I’ve felt like that. I still do sometimes.”
I’m intrigued. “You? Mr. Positive?”
Aave nods, peering up at the blue, cloudless sky. “Of course. You think I’m thrilled to be leaving a predictable post-pubescent life to jump into a new one I know nothing about?” He looks purposely pathetic, and I laugh. “But we can’t control everything, Channel, and I don’t think we’re supposed to.”
“Here we go,” I sigh good-naturedly. “Go ahead, therapist Aave. Give me the lecture.”
He feigns offense and pulls me close, throwing his arm around my shoulders. “What! It’s true! Those feelings are entirely fear-based. I feel frozen when I worry about becoming an adult, but if I let go….”
“Easier said than done,” I say, resting my head on his shoulder.
“Hey,” he says gently. “I’m not criticizing. I get it. Having more responsibility sounds both exciting and the worst.”
I laugh, nodding in agreement. “I mean, how could they trust people like us to be in charge of keeping this Community running?”
He shifts his head back so he can look at me. His blue eyes narrow. “Is that why you want to World Build?” He speaks gently as if he doesn’t want to break this new, fragile thought or scare me away by voicing it.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to World Build so you won’t have any major responsibility?”
My heart pounds. “World Building is a major responsibility.”
“Not really. It’s a creative pass where you have free reign to explore and discover. Anything that’s not open-ended is basically network maintenance—which you have the skills to tackle—with predictable steps and results.”
As he speaks, I bundle up the rest of my food, clench my jaw and try to hold back unexpected tears. Without even having to think about it, I know he’s right. I’m gutted and a complete coward. And I can’t decide whether I’m more upset about the fact that he called me on it or the fact that I wasn’t able to see it in myself first. I stand and turn back to the Grid quickly, angling my face away from him.
“No, I’m good. I’m going back in to look at that equation before Glyn’s lunch break is over. See you in there,” I say, giving a small wave behind my back as I jog quickly away from him, throwing the remnants of my lunch in the bin.
Cindy is first and foremost mother to her four beautiful children and wife to her charming and handsome husband, Scott. She is a musician, homeschooler, gardener, athlete, actor, lover of Canadian chocolate, and most recently, a writer.
Since 2019, Cindy has published eight full-length novels in four different genres, including the best-selling Tier Trilogy. Telling stories is her passion–whether through written word or on stage–and each of her books focuses on depth of character and strong relationships, regardless of subject matter. Her first book Tier 1 was a Red Ribbon winner through the Wishing Shelf Awards in the UK.
Cindy grew up in Airdrie, AB, Canada, but has lived most of her adult life between California and Colorado. She currently resides in the Denver metro area. Cindy graduated from Brigham Young University in 2005 with a B.S. in Psychology, minoring in Business. She serves actively within her church and community and is always up for a new adventure.