Heikki Hietala is the author of the wonderful novel Tulagi Hotel. He is also the consummate master of what I’d call the slow chill short story – beautifully crafted, seemingly gentle pieces, only something is wrong, something you can’t quite put your finger on.
The arcade was almost devoid of players as the amusement park prepared to close for the night. Young men skidded out of the rally road or F1 track for the last time, and did the last backflips on virtual snowboards. One by one they left the arcade grinning with glee or pounding their fists in the air, telling their pals they’d be sure to clear that final curve next time with even more speed and daring and skill.
One of them stood up from the flight simulator where he’d spent ninety seconds raising hell with missiles and bombs on an insurgency in a nameless desert country. He dug deep into the pockets of his jeans but could not find any more coins. He gave a swift kick to the simulator, convinced that he should not have fallen prey to that SAM that exploded his fighter. Muttering to himself, he scanned the pinballs and simulators and claw machines once more and was about to make his way into the darkened park. Passing a corner he saw a flashing light under a stairway, in a place no machine had been set up before. He knew that because he spent many of his waking hours there, wasting all his money.
The teen looked at the machine from his vantage point. It was almost like a Coke can blown up to human size, and the front of the machine had been carved out to create a small enclave for the player. He looked back to the arcade caretaker’s booth and yelled, “Hey! You! When did this game arrive?”
The caretaker didn’t look up from his greasy Playboy, but merely shrugged and shouted back, “How would I know, I just work here. It was installed when I got here at three.” He glanced at the clock on the wall, then returned to the photoshopped bimbos and left the teen standing alone.
He slithered to the new machine, looking at it with the eyes of a lynx on a grouse. The design of it struck him a bit odd. Seven feet high, all steel, no wood, just a big square display tilted at an angle. Two pieces of metal shaped like the soles of feet marked the spot where the player stood, he resolved. Where he expected to find a joystick or buttons to play the machine there were two round, illuminated slabs of plastic. He looked at the label. Galaxy Defender, it read in bold sci-fi letters, and he thought it tacky and cheap in the extreme – must be a good game. No manufacturer was shown, and that raised his eyebrows a little, having been brought up with Atari, Midway and SNK.
But he had no money. The setting on the screen was most lucrative. The weapons shown on either side of the excellent quality display seemed potent and the view into the world, a dusky terrain of rock, trees and meandering waterways had him drooling to fly in it. Freaky ogres and brutish demons of inconceivable nastiness seemed to inhabit the world of the game. The insistent, blinking text on the top of the screen nagged:
The teen felt so frustrated. If he only had seen this machine before taking that last attack on the flight simulator… He dug deep one last time and to his utter amazement found one last quarter. With a whoop of delight he inserted it and looked for instructions. “1P” blinked now on the screen and the left slab of plastic pulsated with a red light. As he placed his hand on it, the second plate lit up too, and the game started as he put his right hand on it. “How do I play this?” he said, but the action was starting already, and he figured he’d pick it up as he went. His sensation was one of total immersion in the game world, much better than in any of the hundreds of games he had played. It was as if his whole body morphed into that muscular frame on the screen, the dark green creature that ran and jumped and climbed in the jungle of the game, and his guns were so easy to aim with the plastic slabs that it felt almost controlled by mere thought.
And what a game it was! He had never played anything like it. The user interface seemed so intuitive that within moments of the game’s start, he was able to use the guns on the screen. He learned to run by moving his knees back and forth, and to aim the guns by directing his gaze on the target. Soon the ninety seconds were up, but the top of the screen read, “BONUS TIME”, and he continued to attack the wave after wave of detestable aliens that flooded his screen. He was happy to get to bonus time – he would master this game like he did all the others.
But then the display went black and the slabs stopped pulsating. “What the fuck?” he shouted.
The caretaker pointed to the clock on the wall. “Five past ten. We’re closed.” He kept flipping switches on a panel and the machines went silent and dark one by one.
“But I just started a game! It took my money! I want my game!”
The man looked disinterested. “Too bad. Learn the clock. Now, get outta here – we’re closed.” He finished the machine switch bank, then started to turn off the lights, and section by section the arcade became shadowy.
The teen pushed the coin return but nothing happened. He kicked the machine.
“Hey! No need to show that spotty face here for a week.” The caretaker was a real gent.
Seething with anger, the teen started to walk towards the open wall of the arcade where the caretaker was already pulling in the sliding security gates. He paused while the teen passed him, then closed the last remaining part with a clang. Without so much as a nod to the teen standing on the walkway, he disappeared straight away into the darkness of the amusement park, its bright lights now extinguished and hanging in their masts like so many ripe fruits.
The teen stood there for a moment longer, still mad with his wasted coin and lost game. He shook the security gate, which rattled; then he walked round to the other part of the moving wall and kicked it. As he did so, the lower latch moved in and he saw it was not locked properly – a coin was stuck in the railings and prevented its closure. He took the coin in his hand and looked out left and right, then pulled the metal to the side. A bigger man would not have found the opening adequate, but with the agility of a stoat he wringed himself inside.
The switches for the machines were on the control box behind the manager’s desk. He thought it best to turn on only the machine he wanted to play, and fumbling around for a while he found it. The machine booted, its neon lights blinked a couple of times and then they stayed lit. One final look around, and then the teen sprinted to the machine. He put the coin between his thumb and forefinger.
The quarter was shiny and new, as if straight from the Mint. The hit it must have taken from the steel gate didn’t appear to have dented it at all. The teen smiled as he inserted the coin, and the machine responded with a flash of all its lights. Placing his feet on the footprints and his hands on the plastic slabs, the teen was ready to play.
He was surprised to be back in the spot he’d been when the machine was shut off. “Must have some player status system, or maybe it just took the last situation in memory when it went,” he thought. But there was no time to think. Ogres poured down a hillside and he mowed them down with the pulse lasers attached to his second pair of forearms. Slinking sideways he took refuge behind a large rock to reload, and then discovered he could get an even more menacing weapon by glancing at the arsenal icons on the lower left of the screen.
The new weapons were attached to his long and muscular tail. For a moment he wondered how to use it, but the machine appeared to give him instructions without words, and he slashed his new appendage across a whole host of incoming miscreants. They fell under his fire, screaming and shedding body parts.
The teen felt exhilaration in his new body. The control of his game passed from his cognate brain to the brain stem. Movement of the feet on the pads became automatic, and he no longer thought of aiming and firing, it merely happened. He was too busy to see the top of the screen state “EXTENDED TIME”, there simply were too many aliens to slaughter to rejoice in such trivialities. Ninety seconds became a hundred and eighty, and then time lost all meaning for him.
He was also too busy to see the screen say, “INITIATE TRANSFER”. Within a matter of seconds his body first became monochrome, then translucent. He became aware of something odd when he saw through his own hand on the control slab, but by then it was too late. The display flashed once with a burst of white light, and the teen was there no more. With a metallic arpeggio sound and two blinks of the screen, the machine went dead black. After a moment, the gleaming coin appeared on the reject tray.
There’d be other recruits tomorrow.