EASY MONEY • by Steve Newton

Dead Annie had just been Annie back when the man on the webPaper said, “Need cash? Make up to $25 an hour, no experience necessary. Sheridan Design needs you!  Bring this ad and enjoy our free buffet!”

Annie knew the snake wouldn’t give her another bite of Viper on credit, felt her stomach rumbling.

She’d have to cross Sherman Avenue — paintball territory. She tore a hole in a garbage bag, improvising a poncho. Except for a hit that splashed green into her hair, she got away unscathed.

Sheridan Design had real security; they gave her a claim check for her cart. A man named Robert welcomed her like his lost sister with the inheritance.  Eat first and talk business later, he insisted, gesturing to a bar filled with hamburgers, burritos, and fries.  None of the stew and vegetable shit they served at the mission.

Afterward, he took her into his office, sat her down in a comfortable chair.

“You’ve never been with us before, Annie,” Robert said.  “We need to go over the formalities.  After tonight, we won’t have to do it all 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?”

“March, but that’s close enough.  What we do here is beta-testing for big virtual producers.”

She shivered despite the warmth of the office.  No Viper and in another five or six hours she’d be convulsing.

“Basically, we hook you up so that the programmers can be certain that they’ve mapped physical responses correctly.  Maybe somebody has a mountain climbing product.  When you lean into the rocks, they need to know if you feel it on the right part of your body.  Things like that.”

“I get twenty-five an hour for that?”

“No, that’s ten an hour for standard work.”

“The ad said twenty-five.”

Robert smiled.  “For twenty-five you have to do a special.”

Annie thought about the snake and the dent she could make in her backlog, even with a hit for the night.

“What are specials?”

“Some gamers have extreme tastes.  There are slashers, where they fight with swords, and rippers, which are combat-sims with fragmentation bombs, things like that.  Some of our clients even produce virtuals that allow players to commit suicide or be tortured.  Not sure exactly why anyone finds that entertaining.”  They both nodded knowingly about pervs like that.

“You’d have to be prepared for some physical discomfort, although it won’t last beyond the session. I have to tell you — government regulations — that it might provoke bad dreams or mild insomnia.  In the worst cases there have been a few heart attacks, but that’s a one-in-a-million shot.”

Bad dreams did not stack up against tonight without Viper.

“I’ll do the specials.  Least I’ll try it.”

The physical involved walking through a big machine that took her vitals and verified she didn’t have any transmittable code running.  They could only pick up Viper if you’d bit that day.  The nurse 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 days between visits to the snake.

They laid Annie out on a couch, fitted a helmet over her head. The nurse strapped plastic bands around her neck, wrists, and ankles.  Nanos ran across her chest, establishing points of contact, then penetrated her skin and lodged in major muscle groups.

She was standing in the door of an airplane….

The wind clawed at her, and the parachute harness dug into her shoulders and chest.  A particularly uncomfortable strap cut into her ribs below her left breast.  Her fingers felt frozen against the metal strut.

“This is the beta-test for Bloodbath V:  Terminal Mission, from FragBomb Unlimited.  All materials within this virtual are proprietary and subject to copyright laws.”

The parachute malfunctioned.  She smashed screaming into the dirt, feeling every bone in her body shatter.

The nurse put a bite-grip between her teeth.

Annie saw the trip wire six feet in front of her.  Some survival instinct told her to avoid it, but her feet kept moving forward.

Her boot struck the wire.  Annie heard a pop, followed by a flash as the phosphorus ignited.  The larger fragments tore off her foot and most of her leg below the knee.  She collapsed forward, howling in pain…. 

“Your heart rate is accelerated, Annie, and there is some indication of micro-seizures in your frontal cortex.  Would you prefer to terminate this session?  We will pay you $10 for what you’ve accomplished so far.”

“Na-ah.”  She’d been a week without Viper once; this didn’t compare.

“Gas! Gas!  Gas!”

Annie dropped her rifle, used both hands to struggle against the strap holding her mask in its case on her hip.  The snap wouldn’t give.

Explosive vomit spewed out of her mouth and nose.  She tumbled forward, 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.  When the nurse unhooked her, uncontrollable shaking wracked her body for several minutes.  A black spot obscured half the field of vision in her right eye, and she’d wet herself.

The nurse noted catheter required on a med-tablet.

Robert handed Annie a chip for $21.67.  It wouldn’t be cost-effective to hook her back up for just eight minutes.

“You did an excellent job tonight, Annie.  I hope we’ll see you again.”

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 paint-ballers got her four or five times, but she found the snake and it didn’t really matter.

Two days later Annie helped de-bug Campus Cheerleaders II:  Torn and Bleeding.

Robert paid her a bonus.

Steve Newton teaches history, raises teenagers, and is owned by two cats.

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