With the dawning of consciousness came confusion. My mind struggled with the idea that I was lucky to be alive, and the knowledge that of course I should be alive.

“This is not what I signed up for,” I heard myself croak.

The memory of pain pulsated through my body. Full body, all consuming pain that short circuited my brain. The memory of pain did not sync with the last thing I remember. I thought I was being cautious, quiet, stealthy. Slinking my way through the labyrinth of corridors and doorways. Still, the creature must have heard me coming, and sprang its trap. I rounded a corner and before I could utter a sound, its mandibles flashed towards me, bookending my neck. I expected the next thing to be darkness. Instead, searing pain seethed through my body. My throat burst with the ghastliest scream I’ve ever heard.

Then darkness.

“No, what did you sign up for,” I heard, her voice seeped in mirth.

I recognized the voice and twisted my head around towards the sound. There she was, my mission commander. Long raven hair pulled back into a severe bun, cinnamon eyes dancing with merriment at my condition. Thin sharp lips twisted up just ever so slightly at the corners. If not for the tough cold exterior, Auryn would be a stunningly beautiful woman. I believe she deliberately masked her beauty to keep apes like me inline.

“I feel like I am going to throw up,” I say in instead of answering her question.

“No wonder, you died in there.”

“I wish I died in there. Why does it have to be so painful?”

That smirk returned. I was certain she was never “buzzed.” Buzzed is what MaVRICs started calling what I experience not that long ago. Our haptic suits shorting out our nervous system, creating a pain like none of us have ever experience before. So intense most of us black out. Auryn could not smile at me like that had she ever experienced being buzzed.

“First off, you did sign up for this,” she said, waving her tablet about the infirmary. “Second, if dying didn’t hurt, you knuckleheads would be more careless than you already are.”

“I wasn’t being careless; the damn thing knew I was coming.”

“Careless! We give you all the tools you need to hunt these things down, extract the decrypt codes, and destroy them.”

“They’re getting smarter.”

“So are you! So are we! Damn it Jack, this is the big time. Our client needs their data back!”

“I’ll get it.”

Her features softened before she said, “Not laying here you won’t.”

“I wouldn’t be laying here if getting buzzed wasn’t so damn painful.”

“There has to be some consequences for carelessness. It’s not like they can kill you.”

“Something less intense would be just as affective.”

“Not according to our research,” she said fully back to her business only ice princess persona. “I am sending you back in there in a half an hour. Get something to eat, hydrate, and review your training, we need this done today.

* * * * *

“Remember your training,” I mumble as the VR rig dumps me back into the labyrinth of digital corridors that is Hercucorp’s data center storage complex. Once again, I am converted to lines of code. Code combined with my own training and those human traits deemed suitable for this work providing all the tools I need to hunt down and capture malicious code.

When I saw the ad recruiting MaVRIC agents pop up in one of my social media feeds, I though why not, even if it is a dumb acronym, Malware and Virus Restrain Interdiction Corps. Unlike the military, the threat of death by terrorist was not in the description. They provided all the training, the gear, and a solid paycheck and benefits.

But man, after getting buzzed for the third time in eighteen months, death didn’t seem all that bad.

“Stay alert,” I hear Auryn echo in my hostile environment suit.

There was another thing that didn’t make sense. Why was the coded version of me wearing a suit that provided oxygen and protected me from the harsh environment that was data center equipment. The training videos said it was to add to the reality. Make us aware of the dangers.

Mentally, I shrug at this.

My HUD blinks a red dot two corridors away. My target. I hope its not a false signal again. I am certain the little bugger hacked my VR feed and that is how he decapitated me the last time. I creep along the corridor, keeping my back to the banks of data that line the walls. Their sad faces peering out at me through red haloed padlocks. The encryption that holds them hostage. I almost feel sorry for them but shake the feeling off knowing its another one of Auryn’s psychological tricks.

“I am getting close, make sure my feed is secure,” I whisper to Auryn.

“Just get the fucking thing! Your feed is fine.”

“Potty mouth.”

As I near the intersection that separates me from the bug, I pull my laser sword from my belt. I pause at the corner, fear grips me. Not the fear of death, but of the pain that will sear my soul if this bug gets me again. I peer one eye past the edge, and it lunges at me, mandibles snapping viciously at my head.

I activate the laser sword, bringing it up and slice one of the mandibles off about midsection. The creature screams, rears back and hesitates. As if deciding to attack once again or run away. From a holster on my left hip, I draw my paralysis pistol, aim from the hip, and fire.

Violet bolts of static electricity swarm about the creature, it screams, and stiffens. It is mine to do with as I chose. I holster the laser sword and pull out an extraction cable, plugging it into the creature’s chest.

“Do your thing,” I say to Auryn, my breathing heavy.

“Scanning its code now.”

The creature struggles as it lets out a series of ear-piercing screams.

“Got it…hold on…okay, kill the damn thing!” Auryn hisses in my helmet.

This time I holster the paralysis pistol and once again draw the laser sword, activating it as it clears the holster. In my periphery I see padlocks that imprisoned the data fall away. With a flourish, I step forward raising the sword high over my head. With all the strength I can muster I bring the sword down on the creatures mutilated head, cleaving its skull, then its hideous body.

The two sides fall away slowly before expanding into a cloud of ones and zeros that soon vanish as scavenger programs soak them up.

“Can I get out of here now,” I ask as I holster the sword one more time.

“Decoding you as we speak, see you soon.”

As my real eyes open to Auryn’s smiling face I say, “That is what I signed up for.”

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