He couldn’t turn back. The door had slammed shut and the room was filling with water. There was only one thing left to do: Run.
Jorge hated running. He weighed over three-hundred pounds and had a heart problem. Sweat poured down his neck as his feet pounded the stone floor. Sharp bursts of pain flashed across his chest like lightning bolts, but he refused to slow down. There was already a gap between him and the others, and if he had learned anything from horror movies, you did not want to be the lone straggler.
Jorge Santos wasn’t going to be the first one eaten by the beast.
In through your nose, out through your mouth. That’s how the Loser Camp trainer had told him to breath while he was running. Of course, that trainer also told him to stop when he felt the lightning pain.
But stopping wasn’t an option now. Stopping meant death. Jorge supposed a heart attack could mean death too, but that wasn’t as certain as getting eaten by the beast. People survived heart attacks all the time. They did not survive being chewed by car-sized teeth or being dissolved by acidic saliva.
Water licked his ankles. Behind him, he heard heavy breathing, snarling, slurping tentacles and gnashing teeth.
“El Diablo!” he bellowed and ran as fast as his sweat-drenched, adrenaline-charged body would allow.
His rolls flapped, slapping one another with a sound as sick as the tentacles thrashing behind him. The muscles in his chest exploded with agony, like a burning truck just slammed into his heart.
The others were far ahead now, and as they rounded one of the cave’s many turns, Jorge lost sight of them altogether.
He didn’t know how long he kept running for, but eventually, the pain became too much. Even though his mind was determined to keep fleeing, his body couldn’t handle the stress. He toppled like an oversized Christmas tree felled by a naughty kitten.
Water roiled around him as he crawled forward through the tempest of pain, grasping for every inch, every second of survival that he could cling to. He was coughing, screaming and shouting every prayer he knew as his heart failed him.
Slimy tentacles wrapped across his ankles. He used the last drops of his strength to struggle against the beast, but it was no use. Dozens of oily tentacles were twining around his limbs, making it impossible to move.
His final conscious act was to look the beast in the eye, to know the face of his killer. It was hard to find since the monster was just one big blob of fleshy tentacles. As the last of the tentacles closed around his neck, he located the monster’s center, where his own face was staring back at him, grinning, with pieces of French fries and hamburger stuck to his teeth.
“The audience is going to gobble this up!” Mariana shouted. Her eyes were fixed on the screen. Losers dreamed monsters often, but none as disgusting as Jorge’s sweaty squid.
Mariana pulled out her phone, watched the ratings climb and smiled. The more people addicted to her show, the more she could charge for ads. The more ads she sold, the more clothing she could buy and sell. Helping people lose weight was a double bonus. It helped them be healthy and helped her make money. The excitement bubbled inside her until it gushed from her mouth as devious giggles.
“Mariana!” Dr. Jennings’s voice was hoarse and breathy, like she had been running as much as Jorge.
Mariana started looking up, but her phone dinged, alerting her to send the show to commercial. Tweeter and Profilebook were wild with speculation about what would happen to Jorge. Would he finally learn his lesson and stop stealing snacks? Would he die in real life like he had in the sim? Or would he fall back to his old, cheating ways as soon as he got back in the game? #largestloser and #bestshowever were trending.
“Dammit. Mariana, get the crash cart!”
Mariana tore her eyes away from her phone. Dr. Jennings’s white coat was camouflage in the lab, rendering her a blur of blonde hair and pale skin as she pounded on Jorge’s chest with both hands. The green lines on the heart monitor were flat.
Mariana dropped her phone and dashed to the crash cart, which was resting beside a sleeping patient’s bed. She practically rode the damned thing, zooming over to Dr. Jennings. Once the crash cart was within reach, Dr. Jennings paused her CPR, wrenched the electrodes off Jorge’s skull and yanked out the IV of hallucinogens, ending the simulation and its recording. She put the defibrillator pads on his chest his and charged them.
“This was fascinating,” whispered Dr. Jennings. The defibrillator made Jorge’s chest pulse with electricity. His heart didn’t beat, so she recharged and shocked him again. “I can’t wait to see how he processes it.”
Mariana watched helplessly as her plans for the show threatened to die with Jorge. They’d never lost a patient before, but Farewell Fat had been cancelled after its staff accidentally killed a five-hundred pound woman by dulling her pain sensors while she ran on a treadmill. In fact, the whole method had been outlawed entirely. If Jorge died, both her show and Dr. Jennings’s research were doomed. She sent the show to commercial.
Angela’s heart nearly stopped as she watched Jorge succumb to the beast. She couldn’t even blink while watching him wriggle against the tentacles, grow pale at the sight of his own face and lose consciousness.
“It’s just a simulation,” she whispered over and over again. “It’s not real. My brother is fine.”
Angela wanted nothing more than to participate on the show, but the audition doctors had told her she was too far gone, and the stress of the show would likely kill her. In a moment, well, more like a week of despair, she had convinced Jorge to audition himself. He was a few years younger, just as fat, but slightly healthier. She had believed that even if she couldn’t save herself she could still save him.
The simulation dissolved to static. A nearly blinding white light appeared on the screen. The camera slowly adjusted its aperture and focus, revealing a scene that made Angela want to puke. Her brother was having a heart attack, while Dr. Jennings performed CPR.
Commercials took over. Angela threw her popcorn at the TV shouting, “I need to know if my brother lives!”
She stayed in her seat despite the pressure in her bladder and churning maelstrom of guilt threatening to eject her popcorn. What if the show came back before she did? What if she missed her brother’s last seconds? What if he died because of her?
She shook, snarling at the ads:
Don’t miss the Delicious Grand Finale of Dancing Near the Stars, the first show ever filmed on Uranus.
New cat/bird hybrids rescued from a secret government lab. Adopt one today. Proceeds used to fight scientific corruption.
Freddy Fries All You Can Eat Buffet Extravaganza – convenient, cheap and delicious – open 24 hours a day, seven days a week!
Finally, the enchanting host appeared, flexing statuesque muscles and flashing pearly whites. For once, Angela wished he’d just quit showing off and get back to the show. “Our favorite loser, Jorge Santos, just experienced the most horrifying sim ever recorded. His heart stopped, but thankfully, our skilled doctor was standing by.”
“He’s alive,” Angela breathed as she grabbed another tub of popcorn.
“Dios Mio!” The room shook as Jorge revived. Everything was white: the walls, the floor, the furniture and the doctor. He was alive in the infirmary, and the beast was nowhere in sight.
“What was that?” asked Jorge as a blonde woman, skin almost as white as her lab coat, came into view. It was Dr. Jennings, the scientist whose research drove the program, known to most of the patients as Dr. Ice Bitch – a monster nearly as terrifying as the beast he had just been running from.
Dr. Jennings showed her flawless teeth. “That is what happens when you cheat on your diet.”
“I don’t understand.” Jorge’s palms were sweating. His heart leapt like it was trying to run away from her even though the rest of his body was dead weight on the bed.
“Didn’t you ever watch the show before coming on it?”
Jorge shook his head. Dr. Jennings’s grin widened, revealing molars that looked like they could crush diamonds.
“We hacked your brain.” She shone a flashlight in Jorge’s eyes. “The only person anyone listens to is himself. We hooked you up to the dream machine to bring your subconscious to the surface. What you saw was a monster of your own creation.”
Jorge searched for feeling in Dr. Jennings’s arctic face, but he found none.
“What did you learn from the dream?” She leaned closer, sniffing him like a dog.
He took a few deep breaths. Sweat dripped down his forehead. “The dream showed me that I am my own worst enemy. My love for food is killing me.”
“Very good.” She patted him on the cheek then turned her icy eyes to his chart.
Jorge closed his eyes, trying to forget that woman existed. He silently prayed he would survive the next few months and cursed his sister for convincing him that this was the best way to lose weight and get healthy. What was the point of living if you couldn’t enjoy life and all the flavors it had to offer?
Angela’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched her brother admit his flaws to Dr. Jennings.
“I’m so proud of you, Jorge,” she said through mouthfuls of popcorn. Angela wished he could hear her but was thankful he couldn’t see her. Yes, he had almost died, but he genuinely seemed to have learned his lesson. “You must be so glad I pushed you into signing the contract.”
As Dr. Jennings turned away, the camera zoomed in on Jorge’s face as he closed his eyes and pursed his lips. The poor thing was still sweating, probably after effects of the sim sequence he had just endured, but the skin on his forehead and around his eyes was smooth, and his mouth was slightly open.
Once Jorge was stabilized, Mariana jerked her head towards the office door, signaling to Dr. Jennings they needed to talk. Without the cameras. The doctor took the hint, put down her water and followed Mariana into the room.
“What the hell happened out there?” Mariana slammed the door closed and gave Dr. Jennings the nastiest glare she could muster.
“It was fascinating. His…”
“Fascinating?” Mariana rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. “It better be earth-shattering. If we lose a patient, we’re toast.”
“He’s alive now, isn’t he?” Dr. Jennings stared at Mariana until she gave an acknowledging nod. “Now, do you think you can listen without interrupting?” Mariana nodded again. “Good. Jorge’s body reacted to the simulation in a way no one else’s had. He truly believed his monster was in that tunnel whereas the others realized on some subconscious level that it was a dream. If I can find out what made that happen and recreate the chemicals his brain emitted, I can trigger the same kind of response in other patients. It will make the simulations twice as effective. Not only will the lessons sink in, but they’ll burn more calories while they are out.”
“Can you keep them alive?” Marian twined her hands together as dollar signs and compassion grappled in her mind.
“Of course.” Dr. Jennings grinned. “I never lose a patient.”
Angela broke out into a fit of hysterical giggles as Mariana and Dr. Jennings’s “secret” conversation ended and the camera dissolved to a scene where a dozen other Losers were sweating their fat off in an obstacle course designed for people half their size. One woman got stuck in a tunnel she was supposed to squeeze through. The Loser behind her waited about ten seconds to see if she could wriggle through on her own. She couldn’t, so he gave her a powerful kick in the rump that made Angela cringe. “Jorge would never kick someone like that.”
The woman grunted, trying harder to push herself out. She gained a few inches then got stuck again. The man snorted like a bull, took a running start and slammed his body into hers. She flopped out the other side and didn’t get up until a team of staff members helped her to her feet and escorted her to the sim chamber.
The man had been losing weight faster than anyone else, and fit through without a problem. Soon, he passed all the other Losers on the obstacle course. He was winning, but at the expense of the other Losers. Angela wanted Jorge to win, but she didn’t want him to become a jerk like this Loser.
Wanting a diversion, Angela picked up her phone and face-screened her old friend Kathy.
“Angie! I’m shocked you didn’t wait until the commercials to call!” The side of Kathy’s gaunt face appeared on the screen. She reached up and scratched a raised red line – the not quite healed incision from the surgery she had last month to cut away her extra skin.
“I needed a distraction,” admitted Angela. “Did you ever go through one of those sims when you were on the show?”
Kathy’s head slowly turned, revealing more partially healed incisions that pulled her skin taut over sharp bones, lips that seemed too big for her face, and eyes sunk like abandoned quarries. “Just once, but it was enough. I never cheated again after that, and never will. I’m only eating Loser food for the rest of my life.”
“Did it hurt? Like, when you woke up, did your body hurt?”
Kathy tilted her head and walked away from the phone so Angela could see her whole body. Before completing Loser Camp, Kathy had also weighed three-hundred pounds. Now, Angela would be shocked to hear the woman weighed a third of that. She was like a skeleton covered with sagging skin, fake tits and sequenced leather.
“Did it hurt?” said Kathy, mocking Angela’s question. “The whole process hurt like hell. I can hardly remember if the sim hurt more than the running, weightlifting or dieting. But It doesn’t matter if it hurt. It saved my life. It made me beautiful. I can go out and walk around without having to rest every five minutes. Guys will date me. I can buy clothes wherever I want. Yes, it hurt, but it was worth every pound of sweat and tears.”
“Right,” muttered Angela, doubting the program for the first time. Kathy didn’t look pretty or happy. Her smile used to be easy, like sand sliding through fingers; now it was a carving stone. Her laugh used to bubble from the depths of her belly like water from a spring. Angela couldn’t remember the last time she heard Kathy laugh.
“I’m going to get back to my show.” Kathy hung up the phone, just as a set of commercials replaced the sweating bodies on the obstacle course.
LaLiLuv Leggings – tight, sexy and comfy like pajamas – on sale for 50% off at FashionMart (sale not valid at off-world locations).
Loser Shakes – frothy protein available in any flavor you can dream. Buy one get one free at any Lucky Loser Boutique Fitness Outlet.
Marty Took supports letting violent criminals and terrorists hide in our country. Is he really the kind of man you want leading your state? Ronny Pile supported the Great American Wall, and the American Ocean Net. He is working hard to get funding for the Super Solar System Shield Generator. He won’t let any big-headed aliens or smelly refugees steal your jobs! He will protect your assets on-world and off.
Angela snorted, thinking Ronny Pile was more of a criminal than the starving refugee and curious aliens he worked to keep out of the developed worlds. Not wanting to hear another ad, political or not, Angela began the process of standing up so she could finally make it to the bathroom. She had just gotten to her feet when the handsome host’s smile flashed across the scene saying, “While our other Losers are working hard on the obstacle course, Jorge is still recovering from his shocking sim. Let’s find out how he is doing with a peek from our hidden camera.”
The screen faded to an image of Jorge lying in bed, poking at a piece of chocolate cake with a plastic fork. Angel’s knees got weak. She fell back onto the couch like a weight on a broken fitness machine. Jorge loved chocolate cake, but he was looking at this piece like it was the devil.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Tears slipped down her face. “I wanted to save you, not break you.”
Jorge scooped a little frosting onto his fork, raised it to his nose and sniffed. It didn’t smell like chocolate. It reeked like the no-fat protein shakes Dr. Jennings prescribed the Losers to drink for breakfast every morning.
“It’s not real,” he said to the light panel above his bed, where the camera he wasn’t supposed to know about was hiding. “It looks like chocolate cake, but it isn’t. It’s colored protein. There are no rewards on this show, just loss.”
He hoped the feed was live so the viewers would hear his words as he meant them. Maybe if they realized this show was doing more harm than good, they’d stop watching. Mariana would quit if it wasn’t profitable, and even though Jennings cared more about science than money, she couldn’t experiment on her human lab rats without proper funding.
When he saw them both rushing towards him with stern expressions plastered across their artificially enhanced faces, he knew his words had gone live.
“You are right – there is loss on this show,” said Mariana. She approached the cake. “You’ve lost fifty pounds since you started, and judging by the way you are looking at that real chocolate cake, we know that you have gained something – self control. It smells bad to you because you know it is bad for you. So cheer up, and learn to appreciate the gifts you were given.”
“I don’t believe you.” He held his chin high, but looked into the camera, not Mariana’s eyes.
“You will.” Mariana grinned.
Jorge wanted to argue, but exhaustion weighed him down. All Mariana cared about was her ratings. She wouldn’t let him win this argument, not with that red camera bulb blinking behind the light panel.
And Dr. Jennings? The way she looked at Jorge with her head slightly tilted, eyes squinted and canines showing told Jorge she knew the truth, and she was fascinated by it. To her, Jorge was just a fat rat proving its intelligence by solving every puzzle she gave him, and she wouldn’t stop until she had squeezed every last drop of data from him. Jennings needed Mariana to fund her research, so the doctor was going to just sit back, watch the show and do her experiments.
He poked at his chocolate cake that Mariana was lying about, refusing to look up at either her or Jennings. If it wasn’t for the damned contract, he would have walked out of the infirmary, but thanks to the stupid contract, that would mean fines he’d never be able to pay, and maybe even prison. He couldn’t turn back.
BIO: Sara Codair lives in a world of words: she writes fiction whenever she has a free moment, teaches writing at a community college and is known to binge read fantasy novels. When she manages to pry herself away from the words, she can often be found hiking, swimming, gardening or telling people to save the bees. Her words can be found in publications like Helios Quarterly, Secrets of the Goat People, and Dark Magic: Witches, Hackers and Robots. Find her online at https://saracodair.com/.