Thursday, June 29, 2017

6/29/17

Safe Word
By David Castlewitz


Say the word, Landis thought. Had he done enough to save Bart Frammers? Enough to pluck him from the wondersphere? Where or when did the player lose himself? As a member of Rescue Seven, an elite squad of six wondersphere lifesavers, Landis preferred precision, not guess work. When a customer got stuck in the induced world of the 'sphere, when the "wonder" part of the adventure game became more nightmare than fairytale, people like Landis rescued them. He went in while the rest of the team controlled both entry and exit from the safety of a room full of blinking lights, panels of virtual knobs, and rows of on-screen buttons.
Nothing guaranteed Landis a secure exit. Not even his safe word. Because he might not get a chance to say it. Just as Bart Frammers may have already lost his chance to utter the word. People died in the wondersphere. Strapped in a chair, with fluids and induction chemicals pumped into their bloodstream, travelers enjoyed marvels they'd never see or experience in the disinfected and white-on-white clean of the real world, but they faced dangers and challenges that, though virtual, had the capacity to kill. Those dangers were the very reason the wondersphere proved so popular. The 'sphere inspired people to test themselves.
Landis was paid well for every lost game player he brought back. He got nothing for those that died. Dead players didn't make for repeat business. Some, like this Bart Frammers, didn't want to come back. Some used the wondersphere to commit suicide.
Cued by the control team, Landis found Frammers within minutes after diving. The player lay on a cot fashioned from leather stretched across a bamboo frame. Blood dripped from the man's open wounds. His black tongue, and the red marks around his fat neck, suggested he'd been strangled. But he wasn't yet dead. His chest rose and fell. Landis could still save him.
Urine and feces pooled beneath the cot. Worms and multi-legged creatures swarmed in and out of the stinking refuse dripping from Frammer's underwear, the only garment he wore. Someone – a virtual avatar or another player -- had stripped him of shoes and socks and outer garments, Landis surmised.
Several long rows of cots like Frammers' lined the length of the large tent, each narrow bed separated from its neighbors by a withered sheet hanging on a pink plastic clothesline. When Landis arrived, no one took notice of him. No surgeon stopped him. No nurse questioned him. People rushed about, adding to the chaos, with the screams of amputation and the cries of the near-dying, the moans of the wounded making for a deafening collage of noise, all of which Landis turned off with a flick of a mental switch, choosing to control his hearing so he could concentrate on the mission.
Outside the tent, gunfire erupted. No big "booms." No whine of incoming artillery. No "whoosh" of rockets or "p-clump" of mortar shells. Just bullets spewing from a rifle or exploding from the mouth of a pistol. Landis hadn't checked which war or which era Frammers visited. He thought it didn't matter. Testing one's mettle during a Napoleonic conflict or a Korean War tableau or a guerrilla incursion in modern times was as likely to kill as it was to reward.
Most adventurers chose to observe battles, not take part in them. According to the gaming log, Frammers had joined a general's staff. A stray shell, combined with the wild and unexpected attack of an enemy sympathizer in the ranks of the general's guards, led to Frammers wounds.
Frammers could be gone in another moment. Landis stood over him, gazing into wide-set blue eyes, a shank of yellow hair in the middle of an otherwise bald head, and tiny blonde whiskers across a less-than-rugged face. His hairless chest and distended belly, the absence of muscle buildup anywhere on his body, marked the dying man as another tribute to the sit-on-their-ass types that Landis abhorred.
Frammers stirred.
"Say your word," Landis urged, leaning close to the dying player's dirt-encrusted ear. "You have to say it, not just think it. Say it loud enough and you'll be out of here."
Frammers smiled and rolled his head to one side, his eyelids fluttering. "You're an angel."
"Say the word."
Thunder rolled in. Correction, Landis thought. Heavy guns. Big guns punished the rear lines.
"Peppers are good," Frammers said.
"Cup o' Joe," Landis said. Why their safe words were actually three words always annoyed him because it didn't make sense. There should be just the one word. But, in any case, he prepared to flee this awful place.
Darkness engulfed him. As usual, he wondered if he'd been too late, if the sudden dark was a prelude to death. He wondered, too, if he'd get paid for the effort it took to help Bart Frammers. Did he save him?
Until the darkness lifted, he'd have no answers.


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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: SF, fantasy, and magical realism. He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.


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