When Sarah joins a fear-response VR TV show, she must overcome her past failures to keep the contestants--and herself--alive. #PitProm #A #T
Most people run from their fears, but Sarah MacGowan is willing to fly across the country to face hers. Despite being an accomplished medical student, she is struggling to close the emotional wounds inflicted by her failures during a demoralizing experience abroad that earned her the moniker Dr. Death. Desperate to move on, Sarah agrees to participate in Fear Factory, a new virtual reality television show that pits contestants against their worst fears, where she hopes to win back her confidence in addition to the coveted prize money.
When Sarah’s prescription medicine numbs the arena’s response to her fears, she is relegated to the role of spectator where she watches her fellow contestants suffer unimaginable horrors inside the virtual world. Sarah believes that the opportunity to restore her confidence is lost, until one of the competitors is critically injured inside the arena and she is the only one around who is able to administer the required medical treatment.
Sarah blames herself when the contestant succumbs to her injuries. As the virtual simulation nears completion, she believes that the nightmare will finally be over. But the arena is just getting warmed up and its true purpose is about to be revealed. The game show is a cover for a clandestine operation to develop a fear-response simulation for the government. What’s worse, it requires a human host to control the artificial intelligence from inside the arena. Now Sarah must overcome her fears and act before the blood of another contestant is on her hands.
FEAR FACTORY is a standalone Adult Sci-Fi/Thriller with series potential. It’s complete at 99,000 words and was shortlisted for the 2017 Cygnus Award. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
First Ten Pages:
“Most people run from their fears, but we’re gonna fly you across the country to face yours. Congratulations Sarah, you’re going to be a contestant on Fear Factory, where virtual meets reality.”
The phone slipped from my hand and bounced on the threadbare carpet. Dr. Anders’ muffled voice beckoned to me from the floor. “Are you still there?”
I slid off the bed and fumbled to align the receiver with my ear. “Sorry. Yes, I’m still here. Thank you so much, Dr. Anders. I don’t know what to say.”
“Thanks is plenty. I’m relieved that you’ll be joining us for the inaugural taping. I was beginning to worry you might decline.”
For a moment, doubt tried to gain a foothold in my mind. Everything was moving so fast. It was like spontaneity had sucked down a Red Bull. I didn’t have time to consider the enormity of the invitation. The television show, the prize money, an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas. As if that wasn’t enough, a check for $10,000 was waiting for me when I arrived at the studio. All I had to do was show up.
“Is there any reason I should decline?”
“No. And you have no idea how glad I am that you didn’t. From what you just told me, you’ve been through a lot recently.”
I nodded before realizing that he could not see me. Silently, I beat myself up for droning on about my experiences at Projects Abroad. I couldn’t help it. It still dominated my every waking thought.
“Yes. That’s true. But I am ready to move on.”
I’ll never truly be ready to move on, but I needed to move somewhere. If that somewhere was Las Vegas, then that’s where I needed to go.
“Good. I hope you’re right. We need you at your very best.”
My best was the one thing I couldn’t give. Not after all I had been through. Medical School had prepared me for everything. Almost everything. Ghana was a different story. “I always give my best. But sometimes my best isn’t enough.”
“Yes, of course. I don’t suppose any schooling could have prepared you for the horrors of the real world. And I do sympathize with your plight. It must have been hard to lose so many children. You are a very brave woman.”
“The children, they were the brave ones.” There was little more I could say. The young faces were branded in my mind. Fearless children who deserved a chance. A chance I couldn’t provide in a land where one in ten die before reaching five years of age.
After Ghana, I no longer trusted my instincts. Finishing near the top of my class meant nothing if I couldn’t convert knowledge into results. Doctors don’t save lives with pens and paper.
Ghana was supposed to provide the experience I needed to be a successful pediatrician. Instead, all I learned was failure. It didn’t matter that most of my patients were beyond saving. They were children. Children who deserved a chance. For the first time in my life, I doubted myself. I desperately needed a win before beginning my residency.
“What is your worst fear, Sarah?”
With more time to prepare, I would have anticipated this very question. Fear Factory was advertised to be a television show predicated on fear response. Like other game shows, I presumed that strategy was the key to winning. Unfortunately, this was a new show with no history to draw upon. A show rooted in the virtual world where anything was possible. The only limiting factor was imagination.
The silence quickly turned awkward. “Spiders.” It was the first thing that came to mind. A lie. I hated spiders, that part was true. But I certainly wasn’t afraid of them. After all, they formed interesting shapes when I stepped on them, like ink blots or snowflakes. No two were alike.
Dr. Anders didn’t hesitate to call my bluff. “I can’t imagine being in Ghana for five months would have been a pleasant experience if you were afraid of spiders.” He paused long enough for his words to gnaw at my fragile confidence.
“That’s okay, Sarah. You don’t have to tell me your greatest fear. Our technology will ensure that it will be revealed with or without your consent. There are other fears buried deep in your subconscious, waiting to be exhumed. We’ll uncover those as well. Then we’ll see just how afraid of spiders you really are.”
I gasped at the thought. The arrogance in his voice was unmistakable. But he unwittingly offered a clue about the virtual arena.
“How does the arena determine our worst fears?”
I immediately wanted to retract the question. I honestly didn’t want to know. More aptly, I didn’t want to know what I would have to face. The real world was bad enough, but at least it had limits.
His hearty laugh stabbed at my ear. “I’m sorry, Doctor MacGowan, but that information is proprietary. Besides, I honestly don’t know how it works. All I can tell you is that the technology will pinpoint your worst fears and bring you face-to-face with them.” Again, the timing of his pause was impeccable. “Are you confident that you’re up for the challenge?”
I answered before considering the ramifications of my decision. So many months had passed since I completed the extensive online application and psychological profile. It made the application to Columbia Medical School look like a permission slip for a third grade trip to the museum. A significant undertaking for a wafer-thin chance to be on television, but I filled it out anyway.
Now my flight was set to depart JFK in less than ten hours. The timing was perfectly awful and awfully perfect. I had nothing better to do. The daily consumption of Netflix and Shiraz was taking its toll on my mind and body. I needed this.
I would have been happy to pass the time with Brad. But he had found other things to do while I was halfway around the world. Actually, he had just one thing to do and I didn’t even know her name. Some flexible brunette he picked up at the gym. Our gym. He didn’t even like yoga. Now his Facebook account was loaded with pictures of them. It was like I no longer existed. I wish I could say the same about him.
Dr. Anders excused himself and hung up the phone. I tapped the receiver against my forehead, frustrated that I didn’t ask more questions. It didn’t matter. As the host of the show, he wasn’t about to divulge anything of significance. He would have deflected my questions or outright declined to answer.
Soon, I would find myself face to face with my greatest fear. Failure. It was the only fear I openly acknowledged. I knew I wouldn’t face it directly. Failure is indirect, always pointed away from your goal. It isn’t real. No more real than virtual reality itself. Yet, I knew I would have to overcome it. Or fail trying.
Christine strutted onto the plane bound for Vegas and sighed. This was her last chance to turn things around and she wasn’t about to let anyone stand in her way. She already had the inside edge, the competition was hers to lose. Her protracted path to the competition was unlike that of the other contestants. Or so she had been told.
She offered a half-hearted wave to the cheerful flight crew. One of the flight attendants flashed a blinding smile.
“We hope you enjoy your flight!”
You should aim higher than hoping I enjoy the flight.
She snapped her ponytail over her shoulder and strode down the aisle. A rotund, balding man occupied the seat adjacent to hers. His tired pinstripe suit spilled over the armrest. Sweat beaded on his forehead, which he wiped away with a crusty handkerchief.
The disheveled businessman retrieved his portfolio from her seat. “Sorry.” He returned to his iPhone where he struggled to type with his sausage fingers.
Christine slid her purse under the seat before turning to sit down. She gripped the bottom of her dress to keep it from riding up her slender hips before easing into the seat. The businessman made no effort to avert his wandering eyes.
The phone slipped from his sweaty hands and disappeared between the seats. He labored to unclip the seat buckle that was buried in his midsection. The cheap suit crunched beneath him with each movement.
Christine held her hand up. “Oh please, allow me.” She delicately reached between the seat, her head inches from his groin. She pinched the phone between her fingers like a dirty napkin and dropped it in his lap. “Here ya go.”
A gasp escaped her voluminous lips as the plane jerked away from the terminal. She despised flying. More so, she hated giving up control. People make mistakes. Pilots are people. Leaving her fate in the hands of another was utterly terrifying.
A tone chimed throughout the cabin. The flight attendant stepped into the aisle and held up a mock seat belt before eagerly demonstrating how to insert the shiny metal clasp into the buckle.
People who don’t know how to do that shouldn’t be allowed in public unsupervised.
While the flight attendant continued miming the recorded safety instructions, Christine turned her attention to the airline catalogue. A firm finger poked at her shoulder. “You’re going to want to listen to this part, Christine.”
Christine forcibly grabbed the flight attendant by the arm. “Hey. How did you know my name?”
Without retracting her smile, the young woman plucked the trifold card from the seat pocket and handed it to her. “I noticed you weren’t paying attention. I strongly advise that you review these instructions.” She handed Christine the card. “You never know when you might need them.”
The flight attendant’s hips swayed as she walked to the front of the plane and disappeared around a partition. Christine glanced at the safety instruction card. Every cartoon image featured a dark-haired, slender woman in a black dress. Even the watch on the woman’s hand bore a striking resemblance to her silver Bulgari.
She crammed the card in the pocket as the plane rounded a bend and raced up the runway. Christine let out a deep breath and gripped the armrests. The front of the plane lifted effortlessly from the tarmac. Her stomach dropped, gravitational forces pulling her back towards the ground.
The plane banked to the left and continued its rapid ascent into the pillowy clouds. A shallow breath escaped her lips. The first since the plane left the ground. Four and a half hours to go.
Fumbling through her bag, she dug out a paperback novel and stared at the cover. Disturbing imagery. A pudgy little toddler with golden locks of hair falling gently across her brow. Both of her eyes were covered with strips of black electrical tape forming a letter “X”. The picture gave her the creeps.
The plane shook abruptly. Panicked, she flung the book over her head and braced herself. She reached diagonally behind her to the man who caught the book with his face. “Sorry.”
Christine ironed out the pages that had creased during its brief, maiden flight across the cabin. The plane shook again and she dug her fingers into her neighbor’s arm by mistake. The businessman patted the back of her hand with a sweaty palm.
“Don’t worry sweetie. This is nothing. I’ve flown more than 50,000 miles without any issues.”
Christine kept her eyes fixed on the seat in front of her and gripped the armrest even tighter. “You must have been relieved when you finally landed.” A wry smile curled her lips.
Before he could clarify his previous statement, the plane dropped like a rock, promptly wiping the smirk clean off her face. It must have been a hundred feet. Or ten. It didn’t matter. Every muscle in her body tensed.
Christine glanced up the aisle towards the front of the plane. The flight attendant smirked at her from behind the drink cart. Before she looked away, Christine emphatically mouthed words that weren’t appropriate for the minors onboard.
Several minutes ticked by before the clouds gave way to bright, blue skies. Ready for a distraction, Christine snagged the book and flipped past the title page and heartfelt tribute from the author.
Before reaching the opening chapter, a caption piqued her attention. She flipped back to the front and turned the pages one at a time. And there it was. Two lines that leapt off the page and seized her by the throat. She snapped the book closed, using her finger as a bookmark.
Around her, the passengers were either asleep or quietly passing the time. The businessman sat with his laptop open fussing with the font on a spreadsheet. All was calm. Everything was normal.
Christine slowly cracked open the book. The pages flapped in her trembling hands. It was still there. She didn’t know how or why, but there it was. The air locked in her throat. Two sentences stood alone on an otherwise blank page:
The plane is going to crash
You are going to die
Beyond the foreboding words, the remainder of the book was empty. Every single page was blank. A terrifying thought crept into her mind as she tossed the book onto the floor.
Are those words somehow meant for me?
If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. Everyone knew that she despised flying. Normally, there would be a small collection of empty Jack Daniel’s bottles stuffed in the seatback pocket by this point in the flight. To think that someone she knew, someone she trusted would have the audacity to exploit her fear was unforgivable.
Christine looked out the window. The blue sky was gone as blackness now swallowed the plane. She glanced at her watch. It was the middle of the day. Without warning, the plane shook violently and started into a shallow dive. Christine planted both of her feet flat on the floor and stared at the rough spun fabric on the seat in front of her. The flight attendant leaned into the drink cart to keep it from rolling towards the front of the plane.
Above her head, the fasten seatbelt light blinked in rhythm with the warning tone. Beep. Beep. Beep. Christine rocked back and forth, covering her ears and closing her eyes.
No, no, no. This isn’t happening.
The plane dipped further. The seatbelt cut into her waist as she lurched forward. Unable to hold back the drink cart any longer, the flight attendant dove across the laps of unsuspecting passengers. The cart raced to the front of the plane and smashed into the cockpit door. Glasses shattered. Panicked screams filled the cabin. Christine’s scream was drowned out by the commotion.
Christine’s short breaths became less and less productive. Her lungs burned from the lack of oxygen. It wouldn’t be long before she passed out. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing under the circumstances.
The plane continued its rapid descent. Luggage rained from the overhead compartments. Coats, garments, briefcases. A roller suitcase struck the woman across the aisle. Blood spilled from her fractured nose.
The lights flickered. Christine clutched the lap belt, unsure whether to unbuckle it or yank the strap tighter. Gravitational forces forced her back against the seat. The pressure in her ears built to an intolerable level. Piercing alarms shrieked throughout the cabin and drowned the pilot’s instructions.
The lights cut out. Only the faint glow from the panel above her head stood out in the darkness. A symbol appeared in place of the non-smoking sign. It was strange, unrecognizable. Two counterpoised letter F’s in a circle. Only one word beginning with an “F” came to mind and it accurately described the current situation.
The emergency lights slowly illuminated along the floor. Masks dangled overhead and swung wildly. Christine quickly placed it over her mouth and tugged the straps on either side until the plastic dug into her cheeks. The slow flow of oxygen offered little relief as the plane continued its steep descent.
Lightning erupted around the plane. Each flash was followed by an instantaneous clap of thunder. The plane bounced around like a wet sock in a dryer. Violent motions. Side to side. Up and down. Twisting and turning. The pilot instructed passengers to assume crash position. Robotically, the passengers around her calmly placed their heads between their legs. Tears formed in Christine’s eyes. The end was near.
Rummaging through her purse, she retrieved her phone and pressed the power button. The home screen logo hung there. She tapped her finger impatiently on the phone screen, her hands jerking with each erratic movement of the plane.
She pressed the phone icon and called home. No answer. The machine picked up. It was her mother’s corny greeting, sung to the tune of an old country western song.
Jesus, Mom, no wonder you’re still single.
Christine shook the phone as if that would somehow bypass the recording.
“Mom? Mom? My plane is crashing.” Christine sobbed uncontrollably. “Mom. I love you! I love you! I’m sorry. I love you!” Not bothering to hang up, she tossed the phone onto the floor.
A deluge of emotions washed over her. Images flooded into her mind. Scattered memories, out of sequence. Images of a life about to be cut short. Fantasies of life events that hadn’t happened yet. All of it scrolled past her tear-filled eyes like an old film.
Flashes of lightning illuminated the ground. It was near. Her ears bled from the rapid change in altitude. Unable to process the situation, she laid her head in her lap and accepted her fate. A faint blue glow emanated from her watch, but she was too distracted to look, too distraught to care. A reassuring calm washed over her as the plane plummeted towards the ground. Then she felt the impact.
Welcome to the final round of pitches!
Agents and Publishers,