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It was not a question of whether she wanted to be here; it was that she needed to be. It was a question she had asked herself a million times before, and she’d wound up with the same answer each time. This was what she had to do to survive.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Prashanti Chunduri is one of the winners for the October 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Himanjali Sankar commented, “Inventive and unusual, this story, set in the near future, is exciting, suspenseful and a comment on the way our lives are moving towards extreme dependence on technology and corporates. The welding of relationships/love with elements of science fiction is done in a way that will be enjoyed by everyone who enjoys a well-written, imaginative and moving short story.”
Adi had experienced the apocalypse two times already. It didn’t make it any easier, but they did say that the third time’s the charm.
As she entered the second floor of the dilapidated hospital, she caught sight of a clock in her peripheral vision. It read 12:52, which meant that she had just a little over seven minutes left. At the reminder, her heart immediately began pounding, almost deafening in the silence.
In for four, hold for two, out for six. The breathing technique helped slightly, and she made her way forward. Immediately, the cloying scent made her eyes burn, the odour so thick and tangible that it was like a chokehold. It was a mix of the worst public toilets in the world and rotting food left untouched for a year. Now add to that the filthiest socks you could find and boil it all together-she was sure that this was what it would stink of.
She bent almost in half, putting her head between her legs, self-soothing, but couldn’t afford more than a few seconds to get her breathing under control. Time was running out.
Five minutes left.
A glance at the clock confirmed that she had already spent far too much time on this level than necessary. She had to get to the third floor. NOW.
There! In the darkness, she suddenly caught sight of a small sign with a red arrow painted on it, with the number 3 beckoning her toward the next flight of stairs.
“Thank God,” she wheezed, grabbing the flashlight again and hurrying toward, careful to avoid the small grenades she knew were lying around. One wrong step, and she’d be wiped out. She hoped that the third level would be a little bearable, at least in terms of smell.
No such luck. She should’ve known better.
Paper cups, cigarette butts, vomit. There were even a couple of broken flower pots, the mud spilling out, oddly angled flowers with broken stems. And then because it was all so depressing, the overturned plastic chairs and food half-eaten on Styrofoam plates, she knew in that moment that she would have to make up her mind about it all. Did she really want to be here?
She snorted. Of course she didn’t. Who in their right mind would? But that was the point, wasn’t it? It was not a question of whether she wanted to be here; it was that she needed to be. It was a question she had asked herself a million times before, and she’d wound up with the same answer each time. This was what she had to do to survive. Wants and needs were completely different. Besides, she wasn’t doing this for just herself and that thought kept her going. She had to do this, even if hell’s fiery coals were burning their way through her windpipe.
The muted sound of the clock broke her reverie, and she cautiously approached the table, sidestepping the shards of porcelain flower pots, the grenade shells, the upturned chairs. Taking a closer look at the food revealed half-eaten pizzas that looked more like wet cardboard, a sour-smelling pot of what appeared like radioactive slime-soup and bowls of rice wherein the grains suspiciously looked like they were moving. She immediately stepped away from the rice, unwilling to explore further. A quick search told her that there was nothing of value there.
She took a deep breath, focusing with all her might, begging for her nose to take charge.
Underneath the damp stink of it all, vanilla and lemon – the fragrance that was synonymous with her best friend for as long as they had known each other. The smell that said home like no other.
She blocked out the overpowering fumes of depression and darkness as she followed her nose, imagining the vanilla-citrus forming a path of sunshine in this insipid grave – leading her right to – there!
Neil was flopped against what looked like a moth-eaten armchair, his long hair in his face. The sight brought her such relief that her knees almost gave out.
His wristband gave a loud beep as she pressed down on the dial, even as her own began counting down the last ten seconds.
A flash of light, the loud sound of obnoxiously cheerful victory music.
And then it was all over.
S5 was a VR company, one of the world’ foremost leading organizations in sensory visual reality games. They specialized in creating games, scenes, locations, highlighting the experience of the five senses. As the earth lost more and more of its green cover and travelling became more expensive and dangerous, VR was the way to go. Virtual reality meant that people paid for amazing experiences that they otherwise would never be able to see, smell, hear, feel, taste. And while beaches, BBQ parties, carnivals, music concerts and forest retreats were popular, so were haunted houses, escape rooms, mysterious islands and the current rage – different versions of the apocalypse.
S5’s marketing strategy – Don’t die before you really have to – was morbid but staggeringly successful. Encouraged by the immense interest and the vast sums of money people were willing to shell out on sensory experiences through virtual reality, the company had recently come up with the idea of sensory competitions wherein people could compete in various VR scenario games to win. The prize was money. The cost was – well, one’s body.
It was not news that that humans were designed to reflect the environment they are born and grow up in, and with the planet as a whole collapsing in on itself, the human race had discovered that their internal systems were increasingly ill-equipped to sustain them for more than a couple of decades, even with the most advanced medicines. So the search had begun to discover new ways of treating the phenomenon.
And one of them was organ harvesting.
Where there is demand, there is supply, and human organ markets were mushrooming across the world in the face of more and more people who needed healthy organs to survive – and were willing to pay for them. The heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas, liver, lungs, intestines, corneas, blood – you name it, there was a market for it.
And S5, while being a leader in the virtual tech world, also had a near-monopoly on the organ harvesting market.
They had cleverly merged their dominance in the VR arena with the rising market demand for organ harvesting and transplantation nearly a decade ago, and now, S5 was where the rich – and those who could afford it – would go when they needed a fresh organ to replace their rapidly deteriorating ones. To make the process legally unreproveable, they’d made it so that only volunteers could play in VR scenarios to earn money in return for a healthy organ. Ethics and morality had taken a backseat, hidden in the shadows in the face of overwhelming approval from those who apparently mattered (read ‘rich and powerful’) and too many who were impoverished enough to take a risk.
Adi had been diagnosed with hyperosmia when she was a child. It meant that her nose had an overwhelming sensitivity to smells. She knew that the couple two floors above them made shrimp curry every Saturday. She knew if the garbage truck missed picking up the trash from their basement on Sundays. Any odours stronger than a sour tomato made her want to retch. It was like having a hundred neon sign boards in her nose wherever she went.
So when S5 had announced their latest season of VR games with a prize money that would set them for life, they’d discussed it for just an hour before signing up. Living under a constantly leaking ceiling with hardly any food to fill their bellies and doing manual labour with peanuts as incomes with almost no savings had worn them both down quickly.
The game design was simple. S5 invited participants in pairs. One of each pair would act as ‘tribute’ and would be hidden away in the virtual world for the ‘seeker’ to find; the scenarios were usually apocalyptic in nature to appeal to viewers – abandoned hospitals, rotting graveyards, cities overgrown with wilderness. Their bodies would be physically restrained in the same place, hooked up to the VR machines, while their avatars played the game. If the ‘seeker’ could not find their partner, they’d go home disappointed and their pockets (and bodies) lighter. If they won, they’d win big.
Luckily, they were young and healthy and paid with a part of Neil’s healthy liver and thigh tissue for the two games they had participated in so far. They’d found out by accident that she was able to sniff out his perfume in the game too, which defied explanation, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? They’d come home with more money in their bank account than they’d earned during the entire three years they’d been married. That had been a week ago.
This, their third game, had a bigger stake. Neil had parted with a piece of his pancreas and now, as they lay on their chairs, still woozy from the VR headsets, they sighed in unison. They’d just won enough to possibly move to a better place. That thought put weary smiles on their faces as they quickly showered, eager to go back home and sleep.
“Wait,” Neil grabbed her hand suddenly as they were about to leave the lobby, his eyes fixed on the huge LED display board near S5’s entrance.
UNLOCK ZOMBOCALYPSE, WIN $99,999,999! TRIBUTES ACCEPTED!
Below the sign was a clock counting down. It was currently at 12:40:33.
“Let’s do it,” said Neil resolutely.
Adi swivelled to look at him, aghast. “So soon? You’re exhausted, Neil!”
“How many times will we do this?” he asked, a new fire in his eyes. “Let’s win this and never come back. I can do this. Can you?”
He was right. They were both tired of bartering Neil’s organs away. If they could win this one game and go home with the prize money, they’d be set for life.
And so, two hours later with one kidney less and strict warnings from the doctor that Neil couldn’t afford to donate any more organs for a long while, they were both hooked onto the VR machines again, hopefully for the last time.
“Ready?” Adi squeezed Neil’s knuckles. His pale face tightened with determination. He nodded.
“I trust us.”
As the countdown to their login began, they both took deep breaths.
The timer was down to five seconds when Neil froze, clutching Adi’s fingers so tightly that she was afraid he’d break them. “Wait -” the horror on his face was all she could catch a glimpse of before darkness overtook her senses.
She opened her eyes in a room that smelled just as bad as the one earlier. Immediately, the scent of rotting flesh was discernible. She should have expected it – it was a zombie game after all.
So she went through her usual routine of calming down with shallow breaths before she tried to sniff out Neil’s scent. Nothing.
She had just over an hour left.
But after nearly losing a limb to a horde of zombies, roaming the building she was locked in for what felt like ages and becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of scents besides the garbage and decomposing bodies, it slowly dawned on her with all the blunt force of a sledgehammer.
It was what Neil had realized too late.
They’d showered, so he’d never gotten the chance to reapply the deodorant.
On the heels of that realization came a more terrible, horrifying one – S5 had been lying – it was the only explanation for how she’d been able to find him so quickly through scent.
And now, if she couldn’t find him, he’d really be stuck here forever.
Image source: Andre Moura on pexels
Prashanti Chunduri (she/her) is a self-proclaimed aesthete, word-painter and armchair globetrotter. Besides reading and writing (speculative) fiction and poetry by day and contemplating the inexplicability of human order by night, she spends read more...
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