“Get ’em off me! Call ’em off!” the man shrieked. “Mister, get ’em off! Do it another way, please!”
The lime green boas had wrapped around the man’s arms and torso, and now one snaked its way up his leg like the stripes on a candy cane. Charles sat on the sofa and grinned as he watched.
“Can’t do that,” he said.
He rubbed his feet against the thick grass and stretched back. The man’s face was turning a mottled reddish-purple. His eyes were bulging. Charles snickered at the thought of them popping like grapes. The man croaked something intelligible, spittle flying from his mouth. Charles took a handful of potato chips from the bowl at his side and smashed them into his mouth. Sour cream and onion. His favorite flavor.
The man was dead now. Charles swiped the screen on the bulky controller strapped to his wrist. The snakes slithered off into the tall grass around the clearing. The man’s cracked and bruised body sunk slowly down into the earth. The hidden platform whirred softly as it descended, and then the trapdoor closed and he was gone. Charles took a sip of his root beer, adjusted his gym shorts, scratched his back. The sun was high overhead, but then again, it always was. The air was warm, but not humid. Charles was comfortable in his shorts and t-shirt. He stretched out on his side. The amber grass waved gently side to side all around the clearing, back and forth like so many outstretched, pleading hands. He plugged in his iPod and relaxed for a minute. A few texts from Rob popped up on his phone display. He glanced at them and ignored them. Rob had a one track mind. Girls girls girls girls. Sex sims for days. Charles considered himself to be of more rounded taste. A Renaissance man. A Da Vinci.
He tapped a couple buttons on his watch. A few moments later, a stocky man in camouflage fatigues parted the grass and walked into the clearing.
“Yeah?” he asked, his hands beating a rapid rhythm against his thigh.
“They’ve gotten through the outer defenses, sir. We’re holding them along the cliffs, but the river defenses have broken. We don’t have enough men to reinforce…”
“Get to the point.”
The heavy-browed man blinked. “We have a quarter of an hour, no more.”
Charles twitched with excitement. This wasn’t his first time, by a long shot, but he never could manage the nonchalant detachment some of his friends now wore. The detachment of a junkie whose built up too much of a tolerance. It still real for him.
The man opened up his canvas jacket and tossed Charles a rifle. “Training simulation?” he queried.
Charles shook his head. “Done it.”
The man nodded. “Follow me, sir.”
The man trudged off into the waving grass. Charles saw a ring glinting on his finger in the sunlight. Was this man married? He knew there was no ban against staff being married, but he’d never encountered anyone who was married before. Perhaps there had been others, but either they had taken their rings off or he’d failed to notice. Charles felt something strange, a twinge of guilt. It was quickly replaced by anger. It should be policy that married staff couldn’t flaunt their status. It was unfair to players. They had no right to make him feel guilty. Simmy scum. He glared at the back of the man walking in front of him.
Servitude certainly paid well, so he supposed it made sense to work a sim even if you were married. You’d have someone you cared about around to use the money when you were gone, especially if you were working a battle sim like this guy. The scum who usually populated the deadly sims were criminals, rapists, murderers, pedophiles. Enemies of the state. Men and women without hope, whose existence was a joke. Charles felt no pity for them. Even this man, who might have a family, was here of his own accord. The man had already accepted the consequences.
Charles gripped his rifle, his sweaty hands slick against the wooden stock. “How much further, trooper?” he asked.
“Not far now, sir,” the man said.
He didn’t even look back. They’d been walking for what felt like ages. Why was it taking so damn long? What was the point of a battle sim if you spent half the time traipsing around in the savannah like fucking Livingstone. Derek and Rob had done this sim before, he was pretty sure, and the way they described it the ambush had been almost immediate. The trooper going down in a hail of gunfire, the remnants of the river post rushing to guard their leader, falling around him like felled trees as he single-handedly decimated the swarms of attackers. So fuckin epic. He hoped they’d gotten around to sound tracking this one. Sound tracking was a new update, but it made things so much more exciting.
He withdrew from his reverie. The trooper had disappeared.
“Hey!” he called. “Hey! Wait up!”
He jogged forward into the waving grass. There was no sign of the man he’d been following. He turned around. He couldn’t even see their trail. What the hell. This was irritating.
“You’ll be exterminated for this!” he yelled, hoping the imbecile was somewhere nearby.
He pulled up the device strapped to his wrist. It’s display blinked red. Coding Malfunction. He tapped the screen, swiped left and right. Coding Malfunction. The stupid words wouldn’t go away. He turned it off, hoping it would reboot and work properly. The display went dark. He pressed the power key. Nothing. No light. It wouldn’t turn back on. Fuck fuck fuck.
“Fucking shit!” he squealed.
He threw the rifle to the ground, paced back and forth amongst the tall grass. How far had they travelled? A mile? Two? He swung around in a circle, but he had completely lost his bearings. Where the hell had that guy gone? He felt in his pockets for his phone. Nothing. He’d left it back on the couch in the clearing.
“I don’t suppose you’ve been in this situation before.”
The voice came from behind him. Charles whirled around. The man was standing there, grinning.
“You bastard,” he spat. “I’ll have you reported for this. You’ll be assigned to the torture sims in an instant!”
The short man shook his head. “I’m afraid that won’t be the case.”
“What are you talking about?”
The man held up a folded piece of paper. “Did you read the Terms and Conditions? The contract?”
Charles glared at him.
The man smiled. “Of course you didn’t. You just clicked, Accept, right?” the man laughed. “We get one of you.”
He pointed a stubby finger to a point on the unfurled paper. “Right here, Article VII, Section 17, Column 3. Annually, five participants will be democratically selected for role reversal, as is cohesive with the rights of simulation volunteers and non-felon criminal offenders.”
“Role reversal?” Charles said. “What the hell is role reversal?”
As he said this, others approached through the grass. He could see them peering at him from behind the golden strands waving in the breeze. Men, women, old and young, skinny and fat, short and tall, black and white. The man in front of him held up a controller, identical to the one strapped to his own wrist.
“Welcome to your sim, Charles.”