An Original Science Fiction story by
Steven H. Newton
(c) 2008; all rights reserved
Dead Annie had just been Annie back when she got very hungry and down bad for a fix of viper one day, and Little Georgie showed her the ad. It was a good piece of webPaper—even had sound. The man with the tinny voice and the big smile said, “Need cash? Need it now? Make up to $250 an hour as a product tester. No experience necessary, no references needed. Just walk in. Sheridan Design Associates needs you! Bring in this ad in the next twenty-four hours and enjoy our free buffet!”
The address was four blocks up from the park, in what Annie knew was a row of mostly boarded-up businesses.
“I gave blood before,” she said. “Never heard of this. They really pay like that? Food, too?”
Georgie had wall-eyes; she was never sure which one was looking at her.
“Yeah, you eat and they pay, but you mostly get a hunnert, less you got stomach for the specials. Hook you up to test the new virtchies. Gets me dizzy, makes me puke sometimes, but that’s how I pay the snake.”
Annie needed to pay her snake, knew she couldn’t get another hit on credit, felt her stomach rumbling and the weakness in her legs.
“Need cash? Need it now?” said the little man.
She’d have to cross Sherman Avenue, and that was prime territory for some of the paintball gangs. So before she wheeled her cart away from the park, Annie tore a hole in the bottom of a garbage bag, improvising a black poncho. It was a good move, because they only tagged her twice, and except for a hit on her shoulder that splashed green up into her hair, she got away pretty much unscathed.
Sheridan Design Associates had a state-of-the-art holo façade on the storefront, with a movie marquee flashing, “Earn big bucks now!” There was real security, and a place for Annie to park her cart; they gave her a claim check. She noticed two other shopping carts that she recognized as belonging to Jennie Bowlegs and Toothless Will.
She smelled the food as they ushered her in the door. A tall, wide-shouldered man wore the same smile as the shill on the webPaper, and welcomed her like his lost sister with the inheritance. Eat first and talk business later, he insisted, gesturing to a bar filled with hamburgers, tacos, burritos, and fries. None of the stew and healthy vegetable shit they served at the mission.
Afterward, he took her into his office, and let her sit down in a comfortable chair.
“You’ve never been with us before, Annie,” said the man whose name was Robert. “So we need to go over the formalities. After tonight we’ll have a chip for you, so we don’t have to do it again. What’s your full name?”
“Annie Schuster. What do I do here, anyway?”
“In a minute, Annie. You’re how old?”
“I’m, uh, twenty-eight. This is February, isn’t it?”
“Actually, it’s March, but that’s close enough.” He made some apparently random hand-swipes above his desk, then said, “Okay, Annie, what we do here is sub-contract the beta-testing for the big virtual producers.”
“Lil’ Georgie told me you do virtchies.”
She was shivering a little, despite the warmth of the office. No viper and in another five or six hours she’d be convulsing.
“Yes, George has done some work for us. Basically, we hook you up with a full-body rig so that the programmers can be certain that they’ve mapped physical responses correctly. Say, for instance, that somebody has a mountain climbing product. When you lean into the rocks, we need to know if you feel it on the right part of your body. Things like that.”
“I get two-and-a-half for that?”
“No, that’s one hundred an hour for standard work. But you can put in five hours a week, so that’s pretty good pay.”
“The ad said two-fifty.”
Robert smiled. “For two-fifty you have to do one of the specials. A bit harder, and we have to get some extra releases and a brief physical. Most people don’t bother.”
Annie thought about her snake, her backlog, and the dent she could make in it, even with a hit for the night.
“What are specials?”
“I’m sure you know that some gamers have more extreme tastes than others. There are slashers, where they fight with swords and knives. There are rippers, which are combat-sims with fragmentation bombs and things like that. Some of our clients’ customers are even into virtuals that allow them to commit suicide or be tortured. Not really sure why anyone finds that entertaining, but ‘the customer is always right.’” They both nodded knowingly about pervs like that.
“So if you want to make the big money, you’d have to be prepared for some physical discomfort, but it won’t last beyond the session. And I have to tell you—government regulations, you know—that it could be disorienting and might provoke bad dreams or mild insomnia. In the worst cases there have been a few people who’ve had heart attacks, but that’s about a one-in-a-million shot.”
Bad dreams did not stack up against tonight without viper.
Heart attacks sounded like those long legal announcements at the end of drug commercials: “Yes, we can cure your cancer but every so often something goes wrong.” Every so often viper had bad nano, too.
“I’ll do the specials. Least I’ll try it, tonight.”
Robert touched the desk to add the proper releases to the printer queue. Annie thumbed them and gave a voice ID, mumbling the release sentences that he read to her.
The physical involved walking through one of those big machines like they had down at the clinic, which took vitals, checked for cancer or tuberculosis, and verified you didn’t have any corrupt transmittable code running. They could pick up viper if you’d hit in the last day, but it degraded too fast after that. The doctor, who obviously knew she was hitting, made sure she understood that she couldn’t ever work within twelve hours of her last bite.
That was okay with Annie. She wasn’t an addict; she usually kept it to two or three days between visits to the snake.
They took her into a booth, laid her out on a couch, and fitted a helmet over her head. Annie had done a few virtuals before, back in her Other Life, so she didn’t have problems with claustrophobia. The nurse, a Latina with sad eyes and coarse, frizzy hair, strapped plastic bands around her neck, both wrists, and both ankles. Annie felt the tickle as the nanos ran up her extremities, across her chest, and back, establishing points of contact. There was a brief tingling as a selected few penetrated her skin to lodge themselves in major muscle groups.
A man’s deep bass voice spoke to her, with the micro-speakers so well balanced that it wasn’t like she was hearing him, it was more like he was broadcasting thoughts directly into her brain. At the same time she realized that she was standing in the door of an airplane….
The wind clawed at her, and the weight of the parachute harness dug into her shoulders and chest. A particularly uncomfortable strap cut into her ribs below her left breast. Her bare fingers felt frozen against the metal strut.
The ground, partially obscured by clouds and greasy black smoke, rushed past several thousand feet below….
“This is the beta-test for sensory accuracy for Bloodbath V: Terminal Mission, the latest combat-sim from FragBomb Unlimited. You are on notice that all materials within this virtual are proprietary and subject to applicable copyright laws.”
Her parachute malfunctioned. The back-up deployed only 400 feet above the ground, and she smashed screaming into the dirt, feeling nearly every bone in her body shatter.
The nurse checked Annie’s blood pressure, put a bite-grip between her teeth, and signaled the operator to continue.
She was whole again, but so tired that she could barely stagger forward carrying her assault rifle and the heavy combat pack. Annie could feel raw patches on her left thigh, still seeping blood. When she looked down, she realized that her trousers had been ripped apart.
She also saw the trip wire six feet in front of her. Some survival instinct told her to avoid it, and Annie tried to stop. Her feet kept moving forward, unresponsive to her mental commands.
Her lead boot struck the wire. Annie heard a pop and a hiss, which were then followed by an impossible bright flash as the phosphorus bomb ignited. The larger fragments tore off her foot and most of her leg below the knee. She collapsed forward, howling in pain as not only her uniform but also her flesh caught fire….
“Your heart rate is accelerated, Annie, and there is some indication of micro-seizures in your frontal cortext. Would you prefer to terminate this session, now? We can still pay you $100 for what you’ve accomplished so far.”
“Na-ah,” she snarled. She’d been a week without viper once; this didn’t compare. “Keep going.”
“Gas! Gas! Gas!” screamed her platoon sergeant as the small glass canisters began to rain down on them. They shattered with audible pops, tendrils of green vapor emerging—at first slowly, then whipping into the wind.
Annie dropped her assault rifle, used both hands to struggle against the strap holding her protective mask in its case on her hip. The snap wouldn’t give.
The smell of roses and chocolate….
Her stomach clutched, drawing her forward into a clench as explosive vomit spewed out of her mouth and nose. Muscles in her neck, her abdomen, and her thighs spasmed, contracted, released.
Annie tumbled toward the ground, her bloated tongue cutting off her air supply as blood started to run from her ears and eye sockets….
Her vitals red-lined at fifty-two minutes, so Annie did not get to experience the POW interrogation scenario. Robert handed her a thumb-chip loaded with $216.67, explaining that it wouldn’t be cost-effective for them to take the time to hook her back up for just another eight minutes, so he’d had to pro-rate her pay.
“But you did an excellent job for us tonight, Annie. I really hope we’ll see you again. Did I mention that as along as you come in at least three times a week to do a special you can eat here for free once a day whether you’re working or not?”
Her tongue wasn’t working right, but Annie tried to tell him she’d be back.
She forgot to cover up on Sherman Avenue and the paintballers got her four or five times, but she found her snake and it didn’t really matter. Viper gave her what she needed.
Two days later Annie helped de-bug Campus Rape II: Torn and Bleeding.
Robert paid her a bonus.