Ariel laid limp in the lifeguard’s arms as he emerged from the waves and laid her down on the sand. She wasn’t moving.
“This is Chuck, reporting in,” the lifeguard said. “I’ve rescued the subject. Checking vital signs.”
Carmen looked on, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. Chuck leaned over Ariel to listen for signs of breathing, and her eyes opened. She kissed him on the cheek.
“Thanks, Chuck,” she said. “A pleasure, as always.”
“Subject is stable and healthy,” Chuck said, standing. “I’m returning to my post.” Chuck turned and jogged back to the lifeguard stand.
“You’re lucky this isn’t a real beach,” Carmen said as she helped Ariel to her feet. “Otherwise you would have been kicked out a long time ago for distracting the lifeguards.”
“Come on, it’s not like I’m keeping them from saving lives,” Ariel said dismissively. “Nobody’s going to drown here.”
“They’ll drown, just not for real,” Carmen scolded her. “It’s never happened to me, but from what I’ve heard drowning sucks. And I’d be pretty upset if I needed a lifeguard and couldn’t get one because some bimbo was faking it.”
Datum Isle wasn’t like most of the zones in Parascape. While most of the vacation simulations omitted many of the unpleasant aspects of reality, the coders behind Datum Isle took pride in its verisimilitude. Here players could get sunburned. They could get chafed by sand. They could drown. They could get pooped on by seagulls.
Ariel hated seagulls. She didn’t even consider them to be proper birds. They were more like rats with wings.
There were even shark attacks, but just like the in real world they were a rare occurrence. Rather, they were as rare as they would be in the real world if the real world still had sharks in its oceans, and people could still swim in those oceans. But Earth’s seas were long dead by the time Ariel was born.
Humanity had learned from its mistakes and vowed not to repeat them; Ariel had seen vids from the colonies where fish swarmed free. But for those stuck on the homeworld, the V-Net was the only place they could enjoy a day at the beach without losing skin.
Ariel was a coder. She made her living creating avatar mods and custom clothing; the bright yellow bikini she was wearing was her own work, as was the deep purple hair that flowed down past her shoulders. She was quite skilled at her craft, but there was no demand for such work on the colonies. Until that changed, she’d have to settle for a digital facsimile of a beach.
And she did enjoy her time on Datum Isle, even when she had to endure Carmen’s chiding. It was all in good fun. Ariel had worked out the proper combination of bobbing and thrashing to trigger the virtual lifeguards’ rescue algorithm. Like every other aspect of the island, the lifeguards were rendered with a loving attention to detail. Being carried ashore in those muscular arms was such a delight that Ariel often couldn’t resist doing it again. And again. And again.
Carmen recognized that faint smile on Ariel’s lips. “Oh no, please don’t!”
“Last time, I swear!” Ariel called back over her shoulder as she ran into the waves.
Carmen let out an exasperated sigh and laid back onto her towel. Regardless of Ariel’s antics, she was going to enjoy an afternoon relaxing in the sun.
Chuck gently set Ariel down on the sand. “This is Chuck, reporting in. I’ve rescued the subject. Checking vital signs.”
Ariel planted a kiss on his lips this time. “Thanks again, honey.”
“Subject is not breathing,” he said. “Attempting to resuscitate.”
“Wait, what? I’m breathing just fi -- mmmrrrph!”
Chuck pinched her nose and blew a massive gust of air into her. Ariel’s chest rose as her lungs filled, then overfilled. The air spread throughout her body. Her belly bulged, her limbs plumped up up. Finally Chuck broke off his liplock. Ariel had taken on the appearance of an over-inflated rubber doll, and was only slightly more capable of movement.
“What hell are you doing?” Ariel screamed. She tried to stand, but her arms and legs were too swollen to bend. She only managed to thrash about stiffly on her back.
Chuck inhaled and blew into her again.
This breath was even larger than the first. Her body ballooned, her torso growing round while her arms and legs swelled up like overstuffed sausages.
“Stop it!” she pleaded.
Over Ariel’s frantic and terrified protests, Chuck blew into her again and again. Each breath was larger than the last. Ariel was inflating at an alarming rate. Her breasts flattened against her broadening form, her arms and legs pumped up into increasingly indistinct bulges on her vast surface.
Miraculously, her bikini held up under the brutal pneumatic assault. Ariel advertised her wares as “one size fits all”, but she’d never expected any of them to be subjected to such a stress test.
Steadily, relentlessly, Chuck continued his efforts to resuscitate her.
Bigger and bigger she grew. The air filled every part of her. Her hands and and feet swelled up, puffing up and stretching across her rapidly distending form until each was a barely discernible bulge with five tiny bumps.
Not even her face was spared from distended indignity. Her cheeks ballooned to a comical size; she could feel Chuck’s face press against them each time he dove in for another breath. Her lips plumped up to the point where they were bulging up against her nose.
Ariel’s predicament was attracting attention, but it was not of the helpful sort. They were curious about the massive globe that had suddenly appeared, but none of them realized that it was a woman in distress. To them it looked like a lifeguard was blowing up the world’s largest beach ball.
Ariel’s expansion slowed, but her fear only magnified. Chuck was still laying siege to her lips with ever larger breaths, but the additional air was now increasing the pressure inside her as well as her volume. With each puff, her skin was stretched tighter and tighter. As the pressure mounted, Ariel’s body started to audibly protest the continuing expansion. It started as a soft rumble, growing louder and more menacing with surge.
Ariel could feel it coming. There was no way should take in another breath, but she knew one was coming. Chuck pressed his lips against hers one last time and blew. Her enormously overfilled body groaned ominously.
Please stop, I’m gonna explode!
Suddenly, mid-breath, Chuck stopped.
“Thank God,” Ariel tried to say, but her lips were so swollen and tightly pressed together that the only sound that escaped was a faint moan.
Ariel had no idea how big she’d gotten. A large portion of her vision was obscured by her own plumped up cheeks and the vast arc of her globular body. Judging by the size of the shadow she cast, she was massive. Several of her fellow beach-goers were warily approaching to get a better look.
Chuck’s face went blank for a moment. “Safety override,” he said.
Ariel screamed, overwhelmed by both terror and frustration. Now the lifeguard figures out she’s in danger?
Chuck reached out to her. “Ma’am, I have orders to clear this section of the beach. Please come with me.”
Ariel screamed again. I can’t even wiggle my toes, you idiot! How am I supposed to walk?
“What on earth is that thing?” Carmen heard someone marvel. She sat upright to see what was attracting so many exclamations of astonishment and curiosity.
“What the hell?”
The lifeguards were herding people away from what appeared to be a house-sized beach ball. And judging by the rather concerning noises coming from it, it had been inflated well beyond its rated capacity. Its coloring was unusual, its smooth ivory surface adorned by giant yellow triangles.
“Oh my God,” she breathed. She’d seen that bright yellow earlier, on a much smaller scale. “No -- how?” She ran toward the ball, but a lifeguard blocked her progress as she drew near.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, you have to evacuate the area.”
But Carmen was already close enough to confirm her impossible suspicion. Embedded in a dimple on the lower arc of the sphere’s surface was the swollen, purple-haired head of her friend. She could hear a soft, rubbery creaking coming from Ariel’s body. Even at this distance, the strained look on her face told the tale of how much pressure she was holding in.
“I have to help her!” Carmen shouted, trying to force her way past.
Ariel’s eyes snapped open at the sound of Carmen’s voice. She was just barely able to shake her head.
“Nnnnn! Nnnnn!” was the only sound she could squeeze between her puffed-up lips.
“You can’t stay here. This part of the beach is no longer safe.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Mmmmf-nn!” Ariel was trying to warn her away. Her massive form groaned each time even the lightest of breezes shifted her. Sweat beaded on her brow as she contemplated what might happen if she rolled over a sharp rock or broken seashell. The pressure was immense; she felt as though the slightest prick would set her off.
“Your friend will be fine, ma’am. The technical support team is working on the issue and they expect to have it resolved within sixty seconds. Until then, we can’t risk having any players near an explosive hazard.”
Any relief Carmen might have felt from hearing of Ariel’s impending rescue was washed away by the phrase “explosive hazard”.
“Don’t worry, Ariel!” Carmen tried to sound confident while the lifeguard continued in his attempts to usher her away. “Just hang in there another minute and tech support will fix this!”
Alright Ariel, just keep it together, Ariel said to herself. This will all be over soon.
Unfortunately, she was right.
Ariel caught sight of a shadow gliding across the sand toward her. She looked skyward to find its owner, and her barely contained panic broke free of all restraints.
The seagull’s programming was quite simple. From its perspective, Ariel was just a large object that would make a good vantage point. Carmen saw it coming in for a landing.
“No!” she shouted, jumping up and down and frantically waving her arms. “Get away! Get away!” But she was too far away to attract the gull’s attention, and she dared not throw a rock at it for fear of hitting Ariel.
Ariel let out a muffled yelp when she felt the bird gently touch down on her drum-taut belly. Though she endured the initial contact intact, she knew it was over when the seagull rested it’s full weight upon her.
It only weighed a few pounds, but it was enough. Her belly squealed.
“Oh crap.” Carmen dove to the sand.
Ariel clenched her eyes shut.
Goddammit I hate seagulls.
When she came apart, Ariel didn’t burst so much as detonate. The impact shook the ground beneath Carmen as a blast of hot air and sand roared over her.
“Ariel!” she shrieked. She could barely hear herself over the ringing in her ears. When the dust cleared, all that remained of her friend were a few tiny shreds of yellow fabric scattered within and about the crater that her explosion had carved into the beach.
The actual cause of the lifeguard malfunction was extremely complicated. The explanation involved phrases like “race hazard” and “concurrency violation.” Put more simply, Ariel’s repeated spoofing of the distress detection had system corrupted her avatar state data in a way that caused the lifeguard to miscalculate her lung capacity. And since her body volume increased with each breath, so did the size of the error. A normal avatar would have failed over to any of a number of safe recovery states, but Parascape’s avatars were apparently something very much other than normal.
Legal liability for virtual trauma was practically non-existent. But in the virtual world, reputation was everything. If the overseers couldn’t reach a satisfactory resolution with Ariel then Parascape’s reputation, and therefore its profits, would suffer.
“Ms. Rowan, I once again want to offer my sincerest apologies for what you endured,” Overseer Bremner said. “I assure you that the problematic functionality has been removed and there will be no repeat of your unfortunate incident.”
“Unfortunate? Unfortunate? I exploded. I’d say that’s a bit more than unfortunate,” Ariel responded.
She received lifetime passes for her and a guest to Datum Isle and several other Parascape properties. And while Bremner was evasive regarding why Parascape’s stock avatar was inflatable in the first place, she was able to persuade him to provide a copy of the offending code along with some information about the programmer who had written it.
“He was a contractor for Parascape, Inc. who prefered to remain anonymous. We don’t know who he is.”
“How did you pay him?” Ariel asked.
“We didn’t. He took his compensation in code, access, and processing resources. He’s a ghost. All I have is one of his aliases,” Bremner said. “In the shadow net, people who know him call him Cody.”
“Well then,” Ariel said, “Perhaps this Cody and I should have a chat.”