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by Peter Bergman, Jr.
I'm still in my work clothes. I know I should go home and change, clean up, but I have to stop by and play the games first. I've waited all day for this. I don't remember what happened at work today; the only thing on my mind is the fact that I am finally here, and I can finally start enjoying myself. Work is nothing, anyway. Just a means to provide me with the ability to afford the games. With everything becoming automated, there are very few good jobs. I suppose, I should consider myself lucky I even have a job, even if it is cleaning other peoples' offices. There are lots of people without even that. The government provides food and shelter for them, but nothing else. They don't even get to play the games.
I stand for a moment on the sidewalk, looking at the darkened windows. All around me, automated vehicles take people to their destinations. Other people stand on the moving sidewalks, which take them to nearby shops and homes. Gleaming high-rises block out most of the sky. The unseen sun reflects off the buildings, making the city seem perpetually bright.
Pushing the door, I step from the bright city into the dimly lit room. I take a moment to glance around the room, allowing my eyes a chance to adjust. Shadows cover everything except the rear counter. The only lights in the room are the lights from the machines, and the desk lamp on the rear counter. The only visible person in the room is the owner, a fat, balding man reading a newspaper beneath the desk lamp. The inside of the room smells like dust and sweat.
As I step to the rear counter, I pull a credit from my worn coveralls. The coveralls are dirty, torn, and in need of replacement. My stomach growls from hunger. At the moment, neither food nor new coveralls are important to me. Only the game I will soon be playing is important to me. Soon, the old man will be forgotten.
The owner looks up from his newspaper and takes the money I hand him. He turns to his register and retrieves two round tokens. Handing them to me, he sighs as if disturbed by the interruption I caused in his newspaper reading. His sigh angers me. I would like to tell him he's taking the last of my money. I will go hungry until I get paid again. But he wouldn't care. He'd just laugh and tell me not to play the games then. He knows I like to play the games.
So I say nothing. Instead I take the tokens and turn away, stepping into the shadows to find an unoccupied game. If I were to say something, I could be banished from the games, cast out into the real world and not allowed to come back. A shiver runs through me as I think about that. What would I do? I remember the boy a couple of weeks ago who was expelled from the games. He tried to return several times, but was thrown out each time. I heard he killed himself.
I suppose if I wasn't able to play the games, I could watch movies. But after playing the games, movies are so boring. Why would I want to watch someone doing something exciting when I could be doing it myself?
A thought runs briefly through my mind. Several years ago, I worked with an old man, who criticized the games I played. He claimed they were addictive, and compared them to narcotics and alcohol that were available when he was young. I would laugh at him, and tell him he was crazy, that I could quit anytime I wanted to. I just don't want to quit. I can't imagine not being able to play the games.
Glancing about, I look for a machine that isn't in use. Nearby, I notice a kid sitting in a chair with a headset on. His face is pulled taut and it is shiny with sweat. I read the name of the game he is playing, barely picking out the words 'Hell Hole' in the dark. The kid is now shaking. I grin to myself. The kid must be caught in a fire-pit or fighting a band of gargoyles. I've played that game before. It was one of my favorites.
I pass many other games, with kids playing them. The names are barely readable in the gloom. 'Dragon Rider', 'Demon Destroyer', 'Time Patrol', and 'Cyborgs and Mutants' are a few of those I've played before. Many of the games are about war. There are no longer any wars. Now that there is only one nation, there is no one to war against.
I see a new game, named 'StarSlayer.' A kid that I recognize as a frequent gamer, such as myself, is on it at the moment. I think his name is Jimmy. I decide to wait. I watch Jimmy's facial expressions. He looks calm. Slowly, he smiles. Suddenly, his face turns pale and his jaw falls open. The 'occupied' light goes out and he opens his eyes. His expression is a blank, shocked look. He removes his headset and slowly steps out of the chair.
"How is it?" I ask. "Any good?"
Jimmy smiles and answers. "The best." His hair is greasy and unkempt. His teeth are yellow and rotting. Kind of like mine. I know I should make an appointment and have my teeth taken care of, but I don't have the time. Or the money. I need my money to play the games.
"What happened? You were smiling like you had won," I ask, grinning at him.
"You'll find out. It's tricky, but good," he turns and walks away, leaving me alone with the game.
I slip one of the tokens into the slot and sit down. Picking up the headset, I adjust it to my size, and slip it on. Closing my eyes, I lower my arms into the armrests, pressing the small start button beneath the right armrest. Electrical impulses begin to stimulate nerves in my brain, activating the game.
* * *
Slowly a scene materializes before me. The dark room I'm sitting in disappears, and I find myself surrounded by hills. The sky is black with smoke, and the ground is gray and lifeless. The air stings my nostrils and burns my eyes. I can feel a laser rifle in my hands, and a uniform, complete with knee-high boots, covering my body. A belt, with ammunition and other supplies, weighs heavily around my waist.
Suddenly, A voice booms into my head. "Your planet is under attack by a StarSlayer from another galaxy." I look up and see a hovering dot, and know that is the StarSlayer. "You were on a field assignment when the aliens landed and began the invasion. Your duty is to return to your port, get your ship, and destroy the aliens' craft. The port is beyond the hill to your left. Good luck."
I run up the hill and throw myself onto my stomach, and look down at the port. There is a jet-like space ship on the launching area. I know it to be mine, by some subliminal implantation of the game. My ship is surrounded by alien ships. I roll down the hill with my rifle held close to me. As I near the building, I can see the aliens. They look almost human, with two arms, two legs, and a head. But they are thinner, and their limbs seem almost snake-like, as if their bones were flexible. Their dark eyes are large and oval-shaped. Their slit mouths are small and lipless beneath two long nasal holes, which have replaced their noses. Their skin is dark and leathery.
An alien guard sees me and raises its weapon, but I get off the first shot. He crumples to the ground, holding his smoking chest. Jumping to my feet, I dash between the outer buildings. I stop and look before going to the next set of buildings. There are two guards waiting for me. I jump toward them, firing my weapon, and shoot one of them down. The other one fires his weapon at me. I barely manage to dodge and shoot him before he gets another shot off.
I run past the next set of buildings, and into the area where the ships are resting. As I dodge between the ships, dozens of alien guards appear and shoot at me. I run as fast as I can, firing wildly at my pursuers. Spotting my ship, I race toward it. I shoot dozens of the aliens down as I run up the ramp and into my ship. Closing the hatchway, I run for the cockpit, as I hear shots ringing off the exterior of my ship. Reaching the cockpit, I immediately sit down and activate its weaponry and engines. Swinging the laser cannon that is perched on top of my craft, I aim and fire into the alien masses. I fire several times, and, as soon as the engines are warmed up, I press the thrust button.
I am jerked back into my seat as my craft goes from a complete stop to hundreds of kilometers an hour in a matter of seconds. My craft speeds through the atmosphere, towards the aliens' StarSlayer. The StarSlayer seems to swell as I near it, until it fills my entire viewing screen. I aim at a riveted section of the shielding and fire three times. The damage is barely noticeable. Suddenly, the gigantic vessel opens fire on me. I must dodge laser beams thicker than my small craft. I fly around one of the ship's wings, and see two alien fighter ships, both slightly bigger than the size of my ship, approaching me. I fire twice, damaging one, and turn to retreat.
The pursuing ships fire repeatedly at my evading craft. Suddenly, I spot an asteroid belt. I fly straight toward it, thinking that my ship is smaller and I will be able to maneuver better than they will. After the first mile or so into the belt, one of their ships is crushed by a space rock.
I manage to circle around and come up behind the remaining craft. Suddenly, an asteroid shifts and threatens to crush my ship between it and another asteroid. I shove my ship into reverse and hit the thrusters. A smaller asteroid appears and floats toward me, boxing me in. I swing the laser cannon around and center on the rock. One blast turns it into dust. I fly through the debris. Suddenly, a red light starts blinking on my control board. My Number 3 engine is clogged and unusable. I cut my speed to normal, then shift into forward, continuing after my enemy.
I fly between two asteroids and emerge behind the alien's craft. Swinging the cannon around again, I open fire. The other ship is damaged on the first shot, and sent spinning into an asteroid on the second blast. I begin to steer a path out of the asteroid belt.
I emerge from the asteroid belt nose to nose with yet another alien fighter craft. Firing the cannon, I steer to the side, exposing my ship's bottom. I take a damaging hit and another red light goes on. My thrusters are ruined, leaving me with three good, normal-speed engines. I make a loop around and come upon the fighter's right side. With two blasts, I blow his ship to splinters.
Dust and tiny metal particles from his ship cover my wind-shield, temporarily blinding me. I turn to my radar and see the huge StarSlayer off to my right and rear. The dust begins to clear, and I see a sweeping laser beam moving toward me. I reverse and hit my thrusters. They don't work! The shift beam slices toward me and I'm caught in an overwhelming explosion that destroys my ship.
* * *
The explosion forces me back into reality. I open my eyes, glancing around at the dark room surrounding me. I realize that my coveralls are clinging to my sweating body. I sit for a minute, catching my breath. Removing the headset, I begin to step down, and notice another kid waiting to try the new game. I've seen this kid before, but I can't remember his name. I decide to wait for another try myself.
"Good game?" he asks.
"The best," I reply, grinning. I remember Jimmy telling me the same thing, only moments before.
"They have another new game, that I hear is even better," the kid says. "It arrived a little while ago. There's already a line to get on and play it."
"Oh, yeah?" I ask. "I'll have to check it out."
"Go ahead," he says. "It's over there." He gestures briefly and hurries to start the StarSlayer game.
I look about the dimly lit room, trying to find a game. I see a line near a large box, which must be the new game. Over by the old games, I see a small crowd. "What's going on over there?" I point. But the kid doesn't answer me. He's already started playing the game.
I step over by the crowd, and ask someone what's going on.
"Oh, a kid playing 'Hell Hole' is being taken to the hospital," one of the other gamers replies. "He went into convulsions or something. Third one this week that went when his character died."
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I look closer at the drooling kid being strapped to the gurney. It's the same kid that was playing "Hell Hole" when I walked through the room earlier. I glance at the gamer that had just talked to me, and I gasp. He's looking at me with his dark, oval eyes. The leathery, skin of his forehead wrinkles and his slit mouth curves down as he frowns. It's one of the aliens from the StarSlayer, staring right back at me.
"Are you all right?" the creature asks me.
I blink and see the gamer standing before me again, no longer an alien. I just shrug in response to his question, trying to control my trembling. My knees feel weak as I step away from the crowd surrounding 'Hell Hole' and head toward the new game. I think I need to eat something soon. As I approach the box with the new game, I see Jimmy in the game's seat, the headset over his eyes. His body is bucking and twisting as he plays.
I stand in the line, awaiting my turn.
Story copyright 2001 by Peter Bergman, Jr. email@example.com
Illustration copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago firstname.lastname@example.org
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