Your Phantom Pain

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The large commercial facility where your body is held is peaceful. From the security monitors, it looks like any other night. But a careful observer would notice the dark shapes wearing thermal camouflage moving towards the fence-line. Unfortunately, the guards are distracted by the monotony and their card game. The wire is cut.

You wake up one morning and notice a strange ringing in your ears. You ask your spouse if she can hear it also, but she can’t. She suggests you see your doctor.

The doctor says that people commonly develop ringing in the ears — called tinnitus — in their middle years. Yours is a bit unusual in that it isn’t constant, but comes and goes. It’s nothing to worry about and there isn’t any treatment. The doctor prescribes you a routine hearing test and sends you home.

The sacred humanists kill the infidel guards with silenced automatic weapons and penetrate the holding facility. They break through several layers of security to the main virtualization hall, where thousands of people are kept in suspended animation while they live their simulated lives.

They are momentarily stunned at the sight of what looks like a warehouse full of coffins, stretching as far as the eye can see. They have truly entered one of the lower reaches of hell. They set to work freeing the souls from their demonic entrapment, placing plastic explosive charges every twenty meters.

Someone has finally responded to the general alarm. Guards start shooting at the terrorists from a catwalk and a general firefight breaks out among the simulation capsules.

Over the next several months, the tinnitus worsens and you begin to develop anxiety. Strange ideas run through your head. You become very conscious of the difference between having thoughts and intentional thinking.

Your thoughts are of fear, anger and death, and you don’t know why. At times you hear voices, but you’re too scared to tell anyone. You worry you might be losing your mind. You find your sleep haunted by disturbing dreams of shouting and violence.

More guards arrive. They pin down the sacred humanists and begin to push them back. The floor is slick with the blood of martyrs and the group is down to a third of its original number. Their leader, a long-bearded orthodox druid named Saul, can see their cause is lost. He trips the remote actuator just as 7.62 rounds pierce his torso, and a cleansing fire envelops him.

Your sense of smell begins to misbehave and everything tastes vaguely dulled, like when you used to smoke in college. You develop pain in your feet. It starts with pin-pricks of annoyance that your physician blames on your shoes. $500 worth of orthotics and three weeks later, the pain intensifies and spreads to your ankles. He wonders if you have Lyme Disease, diabetes or arthritis.

The holding facility is burning. The guards curse the terrorist sons-of-bitches. They placed charges which ruptured the large holding tank on the roof, flooding the lower level of the facility and rendering the sprinkler system ineffective. While thousands of clients drown below, the gurards fight a desperate containment action with fire extinguishers.

The fire department is still fifteen minutes away.

The pain moves up your legs to your shins, knees and thighs. You have to take increasingly powerful opiates just to get through the day. You are the subject of several academic research papers and PhD thesis because of your mysterious phantom pain. Every time you go to the University Hospital, a crowd of people with letters after their name surround you and theorize whether it’s a nerve issue, viral, fungal, psychological or bacterial.

You have to quit your job and go on disability. Copious amounts of fentanyl and medical grade cannabis oil are all that allows you to get through the day without screaming your soul out your lungs.

The facility staff is desperately performing emergency extractions of the clients closest to the expanding fire. Usually these emergency protocols take hours and require significant psychological counseling. They are pulling people from their cylinders and pushing them towards safety.

The people they wrench from their virtual lives come out bewildered, screaming in psychopathic terror, or fall into catatonia. They are alive, but some will never live again. The insurance and therapy costs will be astronomical.

The staff saves dozens as the guards try to hold back the advancing fire.

The fire department finally arrives and rushes in with hoses.

You can’t take it anymore. Your legs are overcome with excruciating pain constantly. Even with dangerous levels of fentanyl, every receptor in your brain screams pain. Your only slumber is induced by high quantities of horse tranquilizers, and still, you dream of pain. The doctors claim this is impossible, but you insist it’s true. Opiates, antibiotics, benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants — nothing works.

Every day is just hurt, burning and searing pain.

You demand to be sent home. You could see what was coming and you’ve stashed drugs. The last thing you see is your wife’s tearful face as she hands you the syringe, pats your head gently, kisses your lips sweetly and says goodbye.

You tell her you love her and plunge it in your vein. Within minutes your heart stops. You die.

You awaken in the holding facility and sit up in a panic. You look around and see mayhem — staff and guards are pulling people out of capsules as firefighters douse the burning clients with foam. You notice an unbearable heat and shield your face as you look down.

The lower half of your body is on fire. And in that moment, you understand the last several years of pain were not imagination. They were the true reality.

A guard yells and points at you. The firefighters turn their mighty hose in your direction.

A wave of foam hits you and knocks you back on your gurney. More foam covers your body and face, extinguishing the fire in a steaming hiss. But the foam fills your nose and mouth. You choke and begin to drown in fire-retardant slush.

Your heart can’t take the irony and calls it quits.

You die for the second time, one minute after the first.

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