Falling Down

You want to talk about where we’re headed? we’re headed towards a culture of death. A culture that celebrates the things that have destroyed us.”

The TV buzzed.

“That was the speech, given at a rally in Washington, DC, fifty years ago today. It was this speech that spearheaded the Return to Life movement, effectively ending the reign of the death machines and changing society as we know it. Today we commemorate this event after years of peace; years where we no longer live in the grip of those machines that brought so much fear and doubt into our lives. Today we celebrate that freedom, and recognize the lawmakers and activists who made it happen.”

“Ech! Dumb cunt. Turn it off!”

Three men were huddled at the end of the bar. Behind them, the television on the wall had been muted; flags and faces danced across the screen.

“I remember dem days. Stories people would tell. Guvmint says they was all destroyed, that they got ‘em all, but I reckon they kept a few around for their own purposes. Stashed ‘em somewhere secret.”

“Yer paranoid, Barry.”

“Aw feck ya! Go on and try’n convince yerself there ain’t some what would never let go of that power. The things those machines could tell? Tell me there ain’t those would kill to keep it a secret.”

His companions stared silently into their nearly empty glasses.

“They’s out there, I tell ya. Sometimes you hear of folks go missing. Just up and disappeared. You ask me, it’s folks what took a wrong turn and happened upon one of them machines.” The others muttered and grumbled and raised their glasses to their lips.

Several feet from them, a young man was hunched over an old arcade game, utterly absorbed. His fingers mashed the controls; his eyes took in every pixelated movement. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His name was James, and in that moment, he was happy.

—————————-

The pub was close to his house, and it was one of the only places in the area that carried good arcade games. He enjoyed first person shooters and puzzle games well enough, but this place had Metal Slug 3; it held a special place in his heart. Walking home after hours was bittersweet; he carried the satisfaction that comes from blowing things up through the empty streets, but in the late hours of the night he felt the next day encroaching on him, when he’d return to the slow death of his day job.  He didn’t notice the scenery any longer. Routine had dulled his taste for such things. He would walk, and then be home, then taking off clothes, then unconscious. Sometimes it felt like the world wanted it that way.

He broke off from the path toward his house, and his phone signaled a new text. YOU ALMOST HERE? He wrote back: ON MY WAY.

—————————-

Jen was smiling as she opened the door. He smiled back.

“Come on in, fucker.” She tossed him a beer.

He liked Jen. Back at school they’d bonded over their love of nerdery; she had her fantasy novels and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Trek, he had his video games and samurai films. Part of what had given their friendship such longevity was that while they indulged one another’s tastes, they did not necessarily share them. Jen, however, was an excellent host: she had gone to the effort of procuring a Super Nintendo and a basic cache of games (James had, of course, helped with the selecting). Zombies Ate My Neighbors, A Link to the Past, FF3; all were accounted for. Tonight’s selection was Tetris.

He lay ensconced in a papasan chair while Jen sprawled out on her bed, a book plopped open in front of her. She glanced over at the screen once in awhile; his eyes were locked onto it. His tongue protruded just beyond his teeth and his hands moved, Matrix-style, over the controller, his body tense with eustress.

Jen leaned over.

“I don’t get this game.”

He didn’t look at her. “What don’t you get about it?”

“You’re fitting blocks together. That’s all you ever do. That’s the whole game.”

“Your point?”

“How do you win? What’s the point of the game?”

“It’s not about winning. It’s about doing your best.”

She sign-vomited at him. He grinned, knowing he deserved it.

“The fun thing about games is that they aren’t easy. That they can’t just be beaten. You have to die over and over to get anywhere; that’s what makes it fun. It actually takes some skill to get good at this.”

“I’ve touched a nerve.”

“Look. The blocks are incidental; it’s about the basic principles of gameplay. A game like Tetris, you cannot beat it, no matter how good you get. But you play anyway. You die over and over and keep coming back to try to do better.”

“Ah, if life were only like that!”

That one stung. He made a point of not letting her see that it had. A long piece crunched into his Tetris pile and the game ended in 8-bit cacophony. He let the controller drop.

“I’m serious. At least in a game you know what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. Not like in life. Not like every day doing the same things over and over and going nowhere.”

James. I didn’t mean anything with that. I just wanted to engage you about something.”

A moment bordering on uncomfortable spread between them.

“Look. I just – I worry, is all.”

“What do you worry about?”

She bit her lower lip; she knew him when he was like this. It took a steady hand.

“I worry that you might be losing touch with the real world. And before you say anything, yes, I know every day is a struggle, but look, there’s a lot out there that’s good and interesting and worth being open to as well. That’s all.”

Brevity was her weapon, and it worked. He sighed.

“I’m sorry. Lately things just – I do feel disconnected. I know it sounds dumb but I get more excited about the prospect of blowing up zombies and battling big stupid robot monsters than doing anything real. There’s just – real life doesn’t compel you like that. You don’t get that with the things you have to do. You just do them. At least in here, it’s simple.”

He took a sip of beer and stared at the blinking title screen in front of him.

She sensed his tension and his anxiety, and soon was upon him with hugs. He felt her arms around him and she felt him shake slightly in her embrace, and for a while neither of them said anything.

—————————-

In the morning there was a text from Jen. HOPE YOU MADE IT HOME OKAY.

He groaned and rolled out of bed. The sky through the window was bright and clear, and the trees glittered.  As he threw on clothes, flashes from the night before ran through his mind. The closeness he’d felt had been replaced by the ache of the perceived criticism, and it refused to go away. He frowned. He walked to the bus stop as if under a rain cloud, like a character in a cartoon.

As much as it frustrated him, work usually offered at least a modicum of distraction from his troubles. Having mindless tasks to focus on had its own merits; routine gave his body something to do when he didn’t have the energy to think. He wasn’t sure if it was the beer, or the cheerful weather, or his own obstinacy that was making it harder to shake.

There’s a lot worth being open to as well. Her words echoed in his head, and he hated her then. What did she know?

The day passed, his mood morphing into an unfocused sourness. The clock struck five, and he disappeared into the streets.

He needed a drink. He needed several drinks.

—————————-

It was full on night by the time he roused himself enough take any notice. The television was showing a baseball game and for a moment he was entranced by the colors of the players’ uniforms and the dramatic banter of the announcers.

“You want another one, kid?”

He shook his head and held out some crumpled bills. The bartender looked at him askance and took the money, dropping the tip in an empty beer pitcher. The television chimed on behind him. Then, like any drunken fool, he opened his phone. A new message from Jen. It read: SIT REP. He smiled despite himself, and felt the bitterness he’d been nursing melt away like a toothache you don’t have anymore but have forgotten to notice. He hopped off the barstool, and wrote back as he walked.

OUT HAVING ADVENTURES, he replied. She replied with an approving emoticon. He put his phone away, buffered against the cold as he headed to the bus stop.

It wasn’t until he was a few stops in that he realized that he was on the wrong bus.

—————————-

When he got off, he had the brief sensation of being lost. It was a rare feeling. No one could get lost in the age of smartphones; they could only temporarily not know where they were. He pulled up the locator and regained his bearings; then, and only then, did he start to look around him.

Middle of fucking nowhere, he thought.

Around him were fields, cast in darkness. The low horizon was broken only by an ungainly looking warehouse of sorts a few hundred feet from where he stood. It was neither foreboding nor inviting; it simply looked odd to him, like a piece of furniture stuck where it was because there was nowhere else to put it. He looked at it for a moment, transfixed.

There were no lights coming from it; no windows that he could see.  Abandoned?

Then a gust of wind brought him back to earth, and he crossed the road to catch the return bus. When he got home he fell into a heavy and restless sleep, and the building slipped from his mind.

—————————-

The next day he felt like crap.

He had a strict policy about Saturdays, which was not to leave the house until after noon and not until he’d reached a respectable body count of enemy goons.  He shuffled to his couch in a turquoise Trek bathrobe and sat down. The couch was good because it was not his bed, and his roommate’s presence kept him from passing out in the living room. From the kitchen, the coffee burbled.

“Morning,” the roommate said.

James made grunty sounds.

“You want some food with that, sunshine? There are potatoes.”

James and his roommate didn’t always get on, but the fact that he was perpetually making food – proper, delicious stuff – and enjoyed sharing it redeemed any minor quibbles James may have had.

“Oh god yes. Give me all the potatoes.”

Soon he was settling into a comforting game of Super Mario Kart. The smell of the French Press coffee – his roommate was adamant that life was too short for crappy coffee made in a Cuisinart – wrenched him out of hangover hell like an olfactory angel. And everyone knew there was no better remedy after a night of drinking than potatoes. Noon came and went, and he was alone again. He laid on the couch, his insides all abustle with their newfound tasks of digestion. His mind blanked in the best of ways.

And then, like an uninvited guest, the building from the night before popped into his head. His memories of the evening were muddled and fuzzy; he didn’t remember leaving the bar, and he couldn’t remember where he had gotten off the bus or where the building stood.

Then his eyes fell on his phone, and he grinned. God bless technology.

Half an hour later he was showered and clean. He felt strangely excited about seeking the building out; it was long since he’d felt this way about anything in the outside world. The good weather was infectious, and he found himself calling Jen.  He never called anyone. After a few rings she picked up.

“You’re calling me now?”

He laughed. “Hello to you too.” She said nothing, but he sensed her smiling.

“Listen. I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I was a dick the other night. I thought about what you said, and I wanted to tell you that I am right now out to engage with the world.

“Ha ha. It was a poor choice of words.”

“But you were right. I have felt cut off, and a bit of exploring might do me good.”

More silence, more smiling.

“Just wanted to tell you that.” The longest pause of the bunch.

And then: “Thanks. Knew there was a reason I liked you.”

—————————-

He arrived in the gloaming. There was the warehouse; seeing it sharp and sober gave him pause. It looked more sinister now. He was approaching from the bus stop as he had done the night before when something caught his eye: there were men walking towards the building.

He kept still until they had gone inside. His suspicions intensified; so did his need to find out what was in there. He crept closer in the moonlight. When he got near enough, he saw signs saying Keep out. He rolled his eyes. Hadn’t anyone in the sign business ever learned that the quickest way to make something desirable was to forbid it?

He squatted outside the looming structure and waited, listening. Minutes felt like several minutes. Eventually he heard steps, the rustle of metal. His breathing stopped.

The door opened and two men came out. In the dark he could make out only that they were warmly dressed, boots and windbreakers matching the sky. And then he heard what he’d been waiting for.

One of them was punching a code into a keypad. The sounds rang clear. He was ready for it.

A few minutes later the men had gone; when the silence was thick and still again, he stood up and went to the door. He held up his phone and played back the sounds – a numerical display came up.

He went to the door and punched them in. Something clicked, inside.

Just like WarGames, bitches.

He went in.

—————————-

It was vast, and dark, and felt far bigger than it had looked from the outside. In the dark his eyes perceived shapes above and around him, but they were impossible to identify. There was the hum of a generator some distance away, a weak noise.

And then his ears picked up on a sound he knew. It was the sound of a screen, hissing and crackling against the silence.

He spotted the source quickly; a weird, black boxy thing. It looked like the offspring of a lectern and an old ENIAC. There was a screen at head level, and a piece of paper taped to it that read OUT OF ORDER.

He scanned it. At waist level he could make out a small slot. His first thought was, Quarters?

He hesitated, but only for a moment. He knelt down and put his hands on the machine.

Motion detection sensors he did not know were there went off. Locks closed silently around him. He put his fingers in the slot, feeling around.

And something bit him then, and he fell backwards into empty space.

—————————-

When he came to, it wasn’t dark anymore. He sat up, blinking, and gaped at his surroundings. The place was huge. Along the edges of the walls ran metal walkways, connected by stairs leading up and down, to platforms and lifts. Large humming generators nested together at the far end of the building, like giant steel eggs.

The thrill of sight faded quickly when he realized that every red light in the place was blinking. Instinct told him the doors would be locked; the terror he felt upon finding he was correct was mingled with a sort of pride. Some kind of automatic defense system. He looked everywhere for an out; his eyes soon spotted what looked like a hatchway in the ceiling. But there was something else up there, suddenly put into sharp relief by the fluorescent lights.

Between him and the hatchway lay a great latticework of metal piping. Black arms jutted from the walls like cylindrical intestines, crisscrossing every which way. It spanned the entire ceiling. It looked, more than anything else, like the jumbled guts of a great Byzantine monster.

He ran toward it.

Up the perforated metal stairs, down the length of walls. He ran blindly, the initial fear having shifted into something else: exhilaration. He was running on pure survival instinct. The arms of the metal beast above him clanked and swooned, giving off blasts of steam.  Endorphins burned as he traversed the lengths of the massive room, rounding a corner towards the piping that would lead him out.

He stood, panting, the ceiling a mere twenty feet above his head. Shouldn’t there be men with guns here by now? He stared into the spidery mesh of steel and rust, and, perhaps foolishly, looked down. The strange black stinging box looked like a tiny file cabinet to him now. He had almost forgotten about it.

He looked back at the pipes, a nightmarish playstructure. He breathed.

For a moment, he thought about Metal Slug 3.

And then he leapt.

—————————-

He did not feel pain. He had heard the zzt as his skin made contact with the metal, felt how the metal seized with electricity. If he had held on, he did not know. Had he hurt his head on the pipes? He couldn’t remember. Time slowed. He was falling through the air, like it was something new.

He thought about Jen. She would want to know about this. He should text her when he had a second. She would want to know.

Those were his thoughts when he landed.

He did not move. He looked peaceful, as if it he had gone in a way that suited him. A few feet from where he lay stood the machine. It was silent and still, as if keeping watch over him. And in the slot above his body a piece of paper sat quietly, undisturbed and unseen.

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2 Comments to “Falling Down”

  1. Glad to learn of the context for this story, as I otherwise did not understand the “machine of death”. That said, I love the mood of this story and the links between the games and “reality”.

  2. Thanks! It needed an explanation; most people have never heard of the MoD anthologies.

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