Thursday, February 15, 2018

2/15/18

Red Wonder
By David Castlewitz


Astride the saddle, feet dangling and both hands gripping the ring embedded halfway in the plastic neck, Sam Lepper felt like a kid again, instead of a 32-year-old cog in Spaceways Transport and Salvage Industries. Mentally, he ran wild in the arcade at the mall while mom shopped the bargain basement. He enjoyed his fantasy and let the automatic monitoring buoy scan for intruders.
As Station Master at Gray Point, a sub-station in an array of such auxiliaries across the asteroid's landscape, Sam commanded a lonely console of glowing lights, switches he never touched and monitors that showed him a scene that never changed. Constant knobby rocks and unvarying distant mountains, none snow-capped. An expanse of brittle ground and dark sand pits. Same empty space. Same horizon. With a single star in the black sky. A star that never blinked, never changed intensity, and just glowed to the point of burning into his retina.
Which it would if he let it, if he didn't blink now and again. If he didn't find past times, such as Red Wonder, a VR game that plopped him into the action, with caves to explore, traps to avoid, puzzles to solve, and monsters of various size, shape and killing capacity to slaughter.
So far, he'd successfully traveled across a lava pit, climbed a mountain face while skeleton birds pecked at his back and he fought them off with a killing spray. Until he dropped the bottle and the contents exploded a mile below him. As needed, he collected color-coded badges and used them to open locked doors. He answered riddles based on the game's back story and survived three forced trips to the Arena of Madness.
But, sadly, he admitted, not without multiple rebirths each time his character died. The spawns wasted precious points; they required he invest more money in the game than he'd ever invested as a kid fighting nasty bugs in the mall. Of course, these days, he could afford it. There wasn't much else to do on this rock of an asteroid. There was his twelve standard hours on and twelve-off job, barracks life during the two week furlough he enjoyed every six Terran months, and one free hour of extended reality treasure hunting once during those two weeks.
As he rode across the game world's dangerous plains, fire lance at hand, heavy duty rail gun bouncing in its holster and – virtually – hurting his leg, an alarm sounded. The game shut down. The view in his visor went black one moment, stark white the next.
Sam tore off his VR helmet and looked at the monitors. From past experience he knew that buoys sometimes gave false readings. A rock jarred loose by a very distant excavator could have rolled in the airless void without stopping. Not probable, but not impossible. Less likely, he knew, a miner exploring the underground tunnels could have popped up to the surface, his or her "friendly" button not set.
Which meant trouble for Sam if he didn't react.
He'd lose more than points in a game if he didn't follow standard operating procedure – the holy SOPs. At least he didn't have to suit-up. Minor alarms didn't warrant the extra expense on the company's part. Major ones wouldn't be resolved with a mere man or woman venturing into the void.
Sam watched the monitors. A level ten intruder filled the center screen and lapped at the edges. It bristled with rods and dish-like antennae. It glowed blue around its middle. Neither cigar-shaped nor saucer-like, the intruder pulsed. Which Sam found odd. Why pulse? And not actually change size?
He knew he asked too many questions. He had to act. React. Report this intruder to Base Station Gray.
He checked the toggle switches on the console. Yes, he was remote Gray. So Base Gray should get the report. Yes. All the toggles lined up as required. Yes. Okay.
His hands shook. He looked again at the monitor, with hope in his heart that the intruder would be gone.
It lingered, pulsing. And then a red light glowed and rushed towards him on-screen. Red and nasty and terrible.
Spawn now, he thought, as though in a game of Red Wonder. Odd, he thought, the similarities here. Red glowing light that would annihilate Sub-Station Gray. Red for the color of the Wonder he sought in his time-killing game.
His chair shook. As did the console. As did the floor and the walls.
Sam shut his eyes. Cautiously, he opened them. The level ten intruder was gone.
"At least you notified your base station," someone said.
"Late or on time?" Sam asked, relieved that he'd passed the test. A test. It had only been a test. He'd had them before. He would have them again.
"On time. So there's a bonus for you."
Sam smiled. He knew how he'd spend that bonus. He deserved extra hours playing Red Wonder, which let him pass the time while waiting for the next test.


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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy. He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) 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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