"For Every Action..."
Zuri sat with her ankles crossed and hiding her scuffed Nike sneakers under the church pew as mourners passed her father’s open casket. She nodded with a tight, somber smile as they shuffled over to her one-by-one offering condolences. Ever the brave twelve-year old girl, Zuri never shed a single tear throughout the service; even as elderly strangers squeezed her thin arms and told her how great of a man her father was. That great man was once a promising computer science professor at Purdue University. But lying dead in a polished casket now he was nothing more than collateral damage during a late-night shooting gone wrong. Dr. Francis Fairchild Lawson had been startled by a man hiding in some bushes on campus when a police officer rounded a corner and fired two shots. The first hit the man in the shoulder, spinning him around. The second went straight through Dr. Lawson’s heart and stopped it immediately.
But her father’s death wasn’t the only thing troubling Zuri that chilly November morning. Two days after he was killed, a boy from her sixth-grade class had disappeared. The news reported it as an abduction. Devon Michael King had gone missing from the same neighborhood arcade that she herself often frequented. And Devon wasn’t the only boy who had vanished under strange circumstances in the fall of 1981. Zuri learned about others while chatting with her network of Zork friends through her father’s ARPANET computer account. In the ten days leading up to Devon’s disappearance, three boys in Chicago had also been kidnapped. And two others vanished from Ohio. In fact, all five were last seen making high scores at their local arcades. Just like Devon.
And after the first boy’s body turned up in Chicago’s complex river system Zuri and her friends kept each other updated with new information by way of electronic mail messages, backdoor MicroNET links and computerized bulletin board systems through Telenet. The group even became dedicated sleuths who dumped leads and transcripts of local newspapers for each other in overnight message groups. So as she sat quietly in that stuffy old church with the stiff sun pushing through the high arched stained-glass windows, all Zuri could think of was putting the nightmare of her father’s killing behind her and saving those young boys.
***WELCOME TO THE GREAT LAKES COMPUTERIZED BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEM***
-------->SEE ALL MESSAGES TYPE CTL-R
- FROM: sysop
- SUBJECT: EVIL OTTO
- DATE: 11-3-81. 01:33:54 AM.
OKAY GANG. HERE’S WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR. TWO BOYS WERE TAKEN FROM CHICAGO ARCADES AND ONE FROM COLUMBUS OHIO. THE FIRST BOY ABDUCTED WAS RYAN ARNOLD. HE WAS A CHICAGO BERZERK CHAMPION. HE WENT MISSING FROM THE FRIAR TUCK GAME ROOM ON 10-28-81. AND HIS DEAD BODY WAS FOUND IN THE LITTLE CALUMET RIVER FOUR DAYS LATER. THE SECOND BOY KIDNAPPED WAS TEDDY WILSON. HE WENT MISSING ON 10-30-81. HE WAS ON LOCAL TV FOR MAKING IT TO THE PAC-MAN KILL SCREEN AT HIS ARCADE. THE THIRD BOY RONNIE MILLER WENT MISSING IN OHIO ON 11-2-81. HE HELD THE DEFENDER RECORD FOR THE HIGHEST SCORE IN COLUMBUS. LET’S MAKE SURE WE KEEP EACH OTHER UPDATED ON ANY NEW DEVELOPMENTS. AND AS ALWAYS STAY SAFE. =END=
- FROM: RAUL HERNANDEZ
- SUBJECT: EVIL OTTO
- DATE: 11-4-81. 9:47:02 PM.
TOMMY WATSON IS NOW THE THIRD BOY TAKEN FROM THE CHICAGO AREA. HIS NICKNAME AT LAZER RAYS ARCADE WAS THE KING OF KONG. HIS FRIENDS TOLD ME THEY BELIEVE THE PERP IS A REPAIRMAN IN A BLUE VAN. THEY SAID HE HANGS AROUND EVEN AFTER HIS JOBS ARE COMPLETED. HE IS IN HIS FORTIES AND HE OFTEN OFFERS KIDS ALCOHOL FROM THE BACK OF HIS VAN. THEY ALSO SAID HE HAS A SLIGHT LIMP. AND THIS MAY BE A LONG SHOT BUT. . . WE MIGHT WANT TO STAKEOUT THE ARCADES IN COLUMBUS? SEE IF ITS THE SAME GUY. HE COULD BE ON A ROUTE. THAT WOULD MAKE HIM HARDER TO CATCH. JUST AN IDEA. =END=
- FROM: KANDACE CARMICHAEL
- SUBJECT: EVIL OTTO
- DATE: 11-5-81. 11:18:21 PM.
SO I JUST CAME BACK FROM MY STAKEOUT AT NEON NIGHTS ARCADE HERE IN CBUS. THE REPAIRMAN WITH THE SLIGHT LIMP WAS DEFINITELY THERE. I TALKED TO THE OWNER AND SHE GAVE ME HIS CARD. HIS NAME IS ROBERT CHARLES. ADDRESS ON THE CARD SHOWS HIM BASED OUT OF INDIANAPOLIS. THAT PUTS DAYTON AND LAFAYETTE IND. ALSO ON HIS ROUTE. SO WHAT IF WE PLACED DECOYS IN THE ARCADES? CATCH HIM RED HANDED. =END=
- FROM: sysop
- SUBJECT: EVIL OTTO
- DATE: 11-6-81. 10:24:38 PM.
YOU WERE RIGHT KANDI! JUST FOUND OUT A BOY FROM DAYTON IS NOW MISSING. NICKY BREWER. THIRTEEN. LAST SEEN AT ASTRAL ARCADE. HE JUST WON AN ATARI VCS IN A GALAGA CONTEST THERE TWO WEEKS AGO. MIGHT BE TIME TO IMPLEMENT YOUR DECOY IDEA BECAUSE I BELIEVE WE HAVE OUR SUSPECT! I JUST WISH THE POLICE COULD COMMUNICATE AS EFFECTIVELY AS WE CAN. =END=
- FROM: ZURI LAWSON
- SUBJECT: EVIL OTTO
- DATE: 11-8-81. 12:03:17 AM.
THE 11 OCLOCK NEWS JUST ANNOUNCED THAT A CLASSMATE OF MINE WAS ABDUCTED. THEY SAID HE NEVER CAME HOME AFTER HE LEFT BLIPS ARCADE DOWNTOWN. I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS JUST HAPPENED IN MY OWN NEIGHBORHOOD. I DON’T KNOW ANYBODY WHO IS BETTER THAN DEVON AT TEMPEST. AND I AM NOT GOING TO LET HIM DIE TOO. I HAVE A PLAN TO CATCH THE KILLER. I KNOW THE BUS ROUTES FOR ALL THE ARCADES IN TOWN. AND MY DAD LEFT ME A BUNCH OF MONEY SO I DON’T CARE HOW LONG IT TAKES. ME AND MY BEST FRIEND CAMERON ARE STARTING RIGHT AFTER HIS FUNERAL. =END=
-------->RETURN TO BULLETIN BOARD TYPE CTRL-B
Cameron’s head was pounding and he couldn’t get the ringing sound out of his ears. He had no recollection of ever leaving the arcade. The last thing he could remember was a kid playing a new game he’d never seen before. And it looked super intense. The boy was using his joystick and buttons to twist and unlock a bunch of futuristic vector shapes like a kaleidoscope. Then without any prompt the kid started to have a seizure right there in the middle of playing the game. He dropped to the floor like he was being electrocuted and a sort of liquid started coming out of his mouth. Everyone rushed over to help him. Even Zuri. That’s when Cam felt the strike on the back of his head and everything went dark.
It was very late at night by the time the van finally stopped. The doors pulled open and a dark-haired man grabbed Cameron by the rope that his hands were tied together with. He removed the rag from Cameron’s mouth and Cam immediately started firing off a series of questions. Questions like what was it that he wanted and where was he taking him but the man never replied. He just limped along through the darkness of some strange, deep woods with a flashlight while he dragged Cameron along with him. Even Cam’s screams for help didn’t seem to bother him, as if he knew nobody could hear them.
Eventually they reached a damp, concrete building covered in large patches of moss. They walked over thick, staggering rows of tree limbs and piles of wet leaves to the building’s entrance. Cam didn’t want to go any further but the man pulled him closer by the rope around his wrists. He tapped the metal door with the butt of his flashlight and a younger, wiry-looking man with large, brown plastic glasses opened it immediately.
“What took you so long?” the man with the brown glasses griped. Cam could sense his frustration immediately. “I told you I can’t wait this long between sessions. Can you even fathom how much energy is wasted when I have down time? It’s prodigious.”
“Here’s a lesson for you, professor,” Robert Charles replied in a mocking fashion as he pushed Cameron through the open entrance. “Stop frying their brains and they’ll last longer."
He tried to peek into the building with his flashlight but the man with the brown glasses pushed it towards the ground with his right hand. Robert Charles scoffed.
“Where’s the Pac-Man junkie?” he asked. “You know, I really thought he was gonna last a lot longer than he did.”
The man with the brown glasses tied Cameron’s wrists to a hook just inside the entrance before struggling to pull out a thick, black tarp with something heavy wrapped inside.
“I read in the newspaper that the first boy was mutilated. Maybe be a little more humane with this one.”
“I don’t ask about your sick little experiments here. So maybe you don’t worry about what I do with the kids after you’re finished with them.”
The man with the brown glasses looked repulsed. Robert Charles grinned and dragged the heavy tarp away with both hands through the mud and leaves. He even whistled.
Zuri couldn’t bring herself to report Cam’s abduction to the police. All she could think of was how they killed her father. Instead, she paid the ten-dollar fare and boarded the 6:25 train down to Indianapolis. Two hours later and as soon as she alighted, Zuri phreaked a Union Station payphone and jacked in her Osborne 1 portable computer. Several bulletin board messages were waiting for her. Among them was one detailing Robert Charles’ home address and the bus route she needed to take to get there.
She arrived at his quiet suburban home at around nine o’clock at night. All of the lights were off and no car was in the driveway. No blue van either. She tested a few windows before discovering that the kitchen’s had been left unlocked. Zuri pushed her computer through it and then slid herself into the killer’s home.
She fearlessly turned on some lights. Zuri had every intention of alerting Robert Charles to her occupancy. What was he going to do about her being there, call the cops? Making her way through the house room by room, Zuri flipped on every switch and inspected every inch. She went through his mail. She studied the pictures in his picture frames. They were mostly of him or of his grandmother or of him with his grandmother. His refrigerator was disgusting and packed with beer cans and pizza boxes. And his bathroom was worse.
Zuri made her way up the carpeted staircase to the bedroom. It was more than unwelcoming. Robert Charles definitely never expected to have guests and there were piles of pornographic magazines scattered everywhere. She started going through his dresser drawers. Nothing useful. So she checked under his bed.
“A shoebox,” she whispered shamefully. “How unoriginal.”
Zuri pulled it out and flipped the lid off. She gasped, putting her left hand over her open mouth. There were Polaroids. Stacks of them. All of little boys. And they were dated, too. The oldest one was from July of that year. What Zuri was looking at no girl her age should ever have to see. But she was not afraid. She placed the worst of them in her back pocket and slid the box back into its original resting place. There were nine boys in total in those photos, meaning some of them were unaccounted for. And judging from the Polaroids, it looked like they were buried in Robert Charles’ crawlspace under his house.
That’s when Zuri made the decision to kill the bastard. She went through the entire home to understand it; to know its exits and what parts not to get trapped in. The upstairs. The downstairs. She took a butcher knife from the kitchen and a baseball bat from the den. Then she checked the attic and even the backyard tool shed before she flipped off every light in the house and hid with her portable computer in Robert Charles’ musty bedroom closet.
It had to have been at least four hours before Zuri finally heard some activity. And her vigilance never waned as she sat legs crossed on the carpeted floor of that tiny closet. First she heard the backdoor twist open, then she made out the sound of keys dropping into a wooden bowl. She wasn’t sure of what exactly came after that but it was a thumping noise. Up each step, one after the other. Thump. Thump. Thump. There had been a momentary pause about halfway through where Zuri heard some shuffling and heavy breathing. But then it was back. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Not long after, the hallway light switched on. Then the bedroom light flipped up, too. And the child killer revealed himself through a crack in the closet door. He dragged a black tarp with him into the room before he collapsed on the bed to catch his breath. He was a disgusting man. His hair was dirty and greasy. He was short and thin and his face was flaky and pink. He eventually pushed off of his thighs and stood back up to unwrap the tarp. Zuri almost gave herself away with another gasp after seeing the rigid body of a young boy inside.
Robert Charles never had a chance. She came rushing out from the closet and swung that bat into his head like she was Andre Dawson. He didn’t even have time to make sense of what was going on before the blood started coming out of eyes. Then she started hacking into him. He blocked with his forearms but mostly out of instinct and it was entirely futile. He was dead in a matter of minutes and Zuri didn’t even break a sweat.
She dropped the bloody butcher knife onto the floor next to his lifeless body and started to think of what to do next. That was when the hallway light switched off. Zuri spun sharply to face the doorway. Her heart began racing as she watched an arm reach around the corner and flip off the bedroom light.
“Where am I?” Zuri asked the man with the brown glasses as she looked around the room. Her wrists had been tied together by the large brute standing over her. He was the one who had come home with Robert Charles. And he was the one who drove her about fifteen miles outside of Indianapolis to these shrouded woods.
“Please, Hunter,” the man with the brown glasses said to the hulking brute. “Will you kindly remove the ropes?”
Hunter, as he was called, released Zuri’s wrists and she pulled away from his fat hands as quickly as she could. The thin man with the brown glasses got a good laugh at their tense interaction.
“Young lady,” he answered her with a chuckle. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re in an arcade.”
At first glance it could seem as though she was. Only there were just six cabinets. Three against a wall to her right. And three against the wall to her left. That was it. And on top of that, Zuri was pretty sure that all six units were the exact same game. A game she had never seen before. Each cabinet shared an identical design with the other five. Decorated with a three-dimensional diamond pulling a spaceship down into a vortex, the title read “Tachyon.”
The room itself was illuminated with fluorescent lights as bright as a clinic and Zuri could tell that all of the machines were interconnected. Thick ribbons snaked along the floor from each cabinet and into a small room in back with a door to the left and a large rectangular mirror to the right. The door was standing open and Zuri saw that it housed columns of massive DEC PDP-11 minicomputers. Rows of them from floor to ceiling. That small room was a literal powerhouse. And for the very first time Zuri finally felt afraid.
“What am I doing here?” she asked with a tremble in her voice.
“Oh, now I have your attention,” the man with the brown glasses jibed. “Well, instead of me providing you with the answer you seek perhaps you’ll appreciate it more if you hear it from your friends.”
The man with the brown glasses blew a quick two-toned whistle and one-by-one, with loose shackles on their wrists and ankles, the missing boys were escorted out by two men with rifles.
“Cameron!” Zuri shouted to her best friend. “You’re okay!”
He returned her excitement with a stoic, frail smile.
Devon had also emerged. As did the rest of the missing boys. Ronnie, Tommy and Nicky all shuffled to the three machines against the left wall. Cam and Devon took positions one and three against the right side. The man with the brown glasses grinned and motioned for Zuri to operate the cabinet in the middle. He tipped his head politely then he and Hunter marched off into the back room with the large brute closing the door behind them. The men with the rifles kept watch outside.
It didn’t take long for Zuri to understand the gameplay. It was rudimentary. Her avatar was a basic triangular-shaped rocket ship and her objective was to shoot a series of sprites that randomly materialized from the edges of the screen. In the center was a small, pulsating circle that pulled both Zuri’s ship and the falling objects towards it. If something crossed the circle’s plane then the circle would grow. Zuri was charged with shooting down the sprites before they crossed while simultaneously avoiding the circle herself because if she crossed it, her ship would immediately explode and she lost a life.
“I have an idea,” she whispered to Cameron who had been playing intently. “I saw that all of these cabinets are connected to those computers in that back room. If that’s the case, I’m pretty sure I can hack into the mainframe’s Unibus system and connect with our bulletin board on the outside.”
“What?” Cam shot back, never taking his eyes off of his screen. The metal from his handcuffs clinked and clanked while he feverishly beat away at his cabinet. But he still continued to talk to her while he banged his joystick and pounded his firing button. “Don’t do it, Zuri. The man with the glasses said he just needs us to beat the game. If we do it he’ll let us go. So just worry about beating the game and we can all get out of here.”
“Oh,” Zuri replied with a slight. “That’s why he abducted eight kids and killed two of them? I think I’ll take my chances with the hack.”
Cameron ignored her. He was too focused on the game. But in a matter of seconds Zuri removed the red “Insert Coin” button from the base of the cabinet, twisted a series of wires, tapped a configuration of buttons and jerked her joystick a few times in a rhythmic pattern. And just like that, she was hacked into the mainframe’s network and connected to her group’s bulletin board.
***WELCOME TO ERROR 3EMM386 STOP: Ω~RXƩ@Ʃ~S2OT EMOCLEW***A:\>#
“What’s happening?” Zuri whispered, taking a step back to process it all.
Her cabinet thumped and her screen switched through myriads of various color configurations she had never seen before in her life. The entire cabinet pulsated with a white glow from within. Then it expanded, warping its frame in the process. And with the blink of an eye it collapsed into itself with a sound that she could only describe as all of the water from a full bathtub being sucked through the drain in one single instant. The implosion caused the glass mirror to burst out into the main room and reveal everything on the other side. A perfectly shaped 256 carat diamond was floating freely inside of a small, glass vacuum tube in front of the columns of computers. At the tube’s base thousands of wires that had been fused into the glass were being fed into the system’s massive mainframe.
“The game can’t be beat,” Devon whispered, completely oblivious to the chaos Zuri had just unleashed. Instead, he only repeated himself. “It can’t be beat. It’s a kill screen.”
“What are you talking about?” Cam replied.
“Come here. Look. You can’t beat it. It’s a kill screen.”
At this point, the man with the brown glasses strolled out into the main room. Hunter followed, attempting to advance toward Zuri but the man halted him by blocking him with his left arm.
“He’s right,” Cameron exclaimed. “Zuri. Come look at this. We can’t beat the game.”
Devon had advanced to a level where successful gameplay was rendered completely impossible. Right from the start, countless sprites fell at an unfathomable rate into the expanding circle which grew so large it eventually engulfed the entire screen and guaranteed the demise of his spacecraft.
Zuri made eye contact with the man with the brown glasses. He only stared back. And then she suddenly realized.
“It isn’t a game.”
“What are you talking about?” Cam asked her.
“How many lives do you have left?” she asked Devon, rushing over to his cabinet.
“Show me what happens.”
Devon obliged. The circle in the center of the screen pulsated three times to alert the player of the start of a new life. And then endless sprites appeared from everywhere, falling at such a rapid rate that it was inconceivable for him to shoot them all before the circle consumed everything.
“Two lives,” Cameron somberly quipped.
“What happens there?” Zuri asked.
“What happens where?” Devon asked back.
“During the pulsations. Can you move your ship at the beginning?”
“Yeah. I think so. Why?”
“Because it’s not a game,” Zuri explained, looking back at the man with the brown glasses. He gave her a sly smirk. “It’s a worm hole.”
“One life,” Cam stated with a sense of urgency.
“Look out,” Zuri commanded as she pushed Devon aside and seized control of his arcade cabinet.
The circle again pulsated and Zuri turned on her thrusters, crossing its plane just before the beginning of Devon’s final life. When the game resumed, Zuri was now playing from the perspective of inside the circle. And the falling sprites were motionless. She blasted them down with ease and the circle decreased in size with each successful shot. When she struck the final sprite there was another real-world explosion, only this time it originated from inside the screen itself. And when it happened Zuri became instantaneously engulfed in a sort of plasmatic embryo.
From the perspective of everyone in the room she had stopped moving entirely, frozen in time and giving off a faint red tint. But for Zuri, she sloshed around inside like a yolk with no footing. And as her body slid along the rim of this egg she witnessed different moments of past time all around her connected together in a merged panoramic view. She watched the arcade cabinets being delivered and connected. She saw men with clipboards studying the diamond. Still slithering, she witnessed the man with the brown glasses punching away alone on a clunky keyboard. And then the plasma burst, dropping her to the floor of the empty concrete building. The man with the brown glasses shot up and immediately darted towards her. Zuri grabbed a screwdriver from off the ground and drove it into the side of his skull.
When she called home long-distance from a nearby payphone somehow her father answered.
Zuri froze at the sound of his voice.
“Dad?” she finally choked out. “What’s today’s date?”
“Zuri?” he replied. “Where are you? Your mother’s worried sick. And what happened to your bed? It’s crushed.”
“Dad. I need you to tell me what today’s date is.”
“Dad! Please. Just tell me.”
“It’s Sunday. June twenty-first. Where are you?”
Zuri pulled the photos from her back pocket.
“I’m in Indianapolis. I need you to get here as fast as you can. And send the FBI.”
About the author
Joe Deez is a globally published writer, professional comedian and obsessed retro gamer. He founded the non-profit organization Humor Association and spends his free time operating his pop culture cricket website 365notout.com.