She walked up to the front door of Adelardo's Pizza just as the men were unloading the new addition. It had been years since she'd seen an authentic arcade cabinet, let alone a vintage one like this – original panels judging by the decades of scuffs and whacks by impatient brats. They moved the machine into a corner between the big window facing the street and a row of booths and returned it to life with a snap of sparks.
“Afternoon, Deborah,” said Mr. Adelardo from the tiny porch. The old man was sharp enough to recognize his regulars and never let them go without a few friendly words.
“Afternoon.” Deborah studied the machine through the window. “Adding to the décor, I see.”
The old man laughed. “Time was, every pizzeria had at least one game machine, or even a couple. Great draw for the kids, you know. It was a shame that they went out of style before I ever got one of my own!”
“Hey, I'm sure glad they're back. Probably leave a fair amount of change right...” Deborah fell silent as her eyes drifted from the attract screen to the cabinet's facade. “Holy shit, you got 'Conquerors of Nekron'? That one's legendary”
“It's a classic, all right! Just the one I wanted when I was starting out. They used to do tournaments on that one, you know. Lines out of the door on game days.”
Deborah leaned in through the door. “You won't believe this, but I've been practicing on this very game. I mean, not a real cabinet like this, but I downloaded a really good emulation. It's like a rite of passage to play this thing – one of the hardest arcade games ever made. I can't believe you got it!”
“Neither can I! Awfully cheap lease for a famous one like that.” Mr. Adelardo turned on the “open” sign and stepped inside. “Hey, why don't you inaugurate the machine? Lock in that first high score. The boys will ring up your usual order.”
Deborah had never actually seen a “Conquerors of Nekron” machine in the flesh. It was the one significant release of a marginal company that was bought up by another company and subsequently passed around as each owner fell into ruin and sold off its assets. No one knew who owned the rights so no one could turn a profit off it anymore, save the retailers who owned the ever dwindling number of original cabinets. And here was one of those rare beasts, nestled in the corner of the local pizza place. Deborah dug through her bag for a loose quarter as she approached the machine.
“So another poser steps up to challenge the Conqueror?”
“Excuse me?” Deborah hadn't seen anyone else in the restaurant, but sure enough there was a man slouching in the booth next to the cabinet. He was somewhat familiar – a man at once awkward and cocky, face partially hidden behind shaggy hair and deliberately cultivated stubble. “When did you get here?”
“Just now.” The man didn't straighten up or even look at Deborah when he spoke. “So, you gonna commence to losing or are you just planning on playing with that quarter?”
“All right, so you're an asshole.” Deborah stepped back and extended an open hand to the control. “Maybe you'd like to go first?”
“I'd just embarrass you,” said the man. “Go on, hurry up and die. Hey, make it to wave three and I'll buy you a soda.”
Deborah laughed scornfully, resisting the urge to clock the bastard. “All right, now you've got to play this thing, just so I can wash your mouth out with humility after I lap you.”
The man shook his head. “That's one of the hardest games ever made. It's not like this modern crap that all but plays itself for you.”
“I'll have you know, you prick, that I've been playing this game steady for almost three years now. I own the online leaderboards. You think you can take me?”
The man only smiled. “You know, this isn't just any machine. It's a piece of history. Run your hand along the right-hand panel near the bottom. Go on.”
Without taking her eyes off of her taunter, Deborah did as he asked. Sure enough, there were scratches near the bottom, deeper than the scuffs on the other panels. She leaned down to examine the marks, which read “J. McMaster – 11/29/88, 1156850.”
“Does that date mean anything to you, O expert in the game? In thirty years, only one person ever hit the kill screen, the unofficial end of Conquerors of Nekron. It was on that very date.” The man straightened up and leaned over the back of the seat. “Care to guess how I knew that was there?”
Deborah stared back at the stranger, in disbelief at first, but after a few seconds she finally made the connection to that old picture she saw on all the hall of fame sites. “You're Jimmy McMaster?”
“So you can see why it would be unfair for me to take you on,” said Jimmy with a shrug. “It would be too humiliating.”
“Yeah, well...maybe it's time someone else finished this bastard.” Deborah set her quarter on the edge of the screen and wrapped a hand around the stubby joystick.
“Is that a challenge?” said Jimmy. “Want to make it interesting?”
“Yeah. I'll take any bet you like.”
“Would you bet your life?”
Deborah froze. “What?”
“That thing is cursed. You didn't know that? Twenty people have died playing that very machine. Each and every one was a serious gamer who was going for the kill screen, going for that high score, trying to beat the king. Their hearts just couldn't take the shock of coming up short. So I ask you again...” Jimmy stroked his stubble and smiled. “Would you bet your life?”
Deborah stared back at Jimmy McMaster, cycling through all the stories she'd read about the crazy bullying prick who had done the impossible when he played Conquerors of Nekron through to its infamous conclusion. Occasionally she'd glance back at the quarter, resting up against the screen, almost waiting to be dropped into the slot. Finally she snatched the coin and waved it at Jimmy. “Two things I don't believe in, you asshole: Curses and your self-aggrandizing legend.”
“Then you'll go for it?”
Deborah dropped the coin into the slot. “Game on, you bastard.”
“Kill screen's on wave 255,” said Jimmy. “Hope you've got the stamina.”
“Oh, I've got the stamina,” said Deborah, affixing her hands to the controls.
“Well, this will be novel.” Jimmy rested his head on his arms. “A woman going for the gold. They might as well have brought in a dog, it probably would make it about as far.”
“Figures you'd be a sexist on top of everything else. Wonder what your wife would think if she heard that. I guess she's the type who wouldn't be shocked even if-” Deborah's almost broke her neck twisting her head to look at Jimmy. “...she found you lying lifeless in the middle of your living room.”
“Don't take your eyes off the screen,” said Jimmy. “Lesson one.”
Deborah turned back to the game but her focus was visibly broken. “You're dead. You had...what, some kind of aneurysm or something a year ago. Goddamn it, how did I forget about that?”
“Don't beat yourself up, most people forget about that. My family wanted to keep it mum, but you know how these things are.” Jimmy flashed a wide grin. "I suppose you want to know what happened? Maybe you think someone lied to cover up an overdose or a weird sex thing?"
“None of my business,” said Deborah, trying to force herself to focus on the swarms of enemies rushing toward her avatar. “If something...unusual happened, then I'm sure it was deeply personal and you wouldn't want to talk about it to a stranger.”
“Ah, you're one of those super-sensitive types who's all keyed in to the suffering of the oppressed,” said Jimmy. “Perhaps later I can rest my weary head on your shoulder and cry out all of my pain?”
“I guess dying hasn't made you less of an asshole,” said Deborah, giving the joystick a defiant flick. “That's five waves down.”
“You want a trophy for that?” said Jimmy. “Any eight year-old can hit wave six.”
“Of course,” muttered Deborah. “I can consistently hit wave seventy at home.”
“Wave seventy! On some dumbed-down emulated version! That's so impressive. I'm impressed! That's a whole quarter of the way to your goal. Hey, if you die on wave seventy, maybe you'll only have a quarter of a fatal coronary.”
Deborah leaned close in to the screen, letting the edges of the cabinet hide the sight of Jimmy. “I still don't believe in any of that crap.”
“Yeah, you probably don't believe in ghosts, either.” She couldn't see him, but Jimmy wasn't about to shut his mouth. “You know, you'd be surprised at the variety of people who've challenged ol' Jimmy for the legend.”
“Some of them are obvious – you know, people you expect. There was this one guy, some kind of internet personality I guess...damned if I can remember a name, there are thousands of them and they're all useless. This one decided to broadcast his dismal performance to all of his fans. A whole legion of middle schoolers got to watch as he crapped out on wave 32 and then died on the spot. That's technology for you – I'd never have thought of airing a death live on the air, but now any idiot can do it.”
“And then you get the unlikely ones. Now, this guy was in his fifties, never really played video games, but he was a natural. He made it all the way to wave 177. That's a world-class performance right there – would have been an easy win at any tournament, provided I wasn't there. But hey, it ain't horseshoes or hand grenades, is it?”
“And every single one of them, the real competitors anyway, was a man. A little girl like you will never crack the top tier. You know why? Because you ladies can't hold your water in. You know how long it took me to reach the kill screen? Seven hours and fourteen minutes. So tell me, did you take a piss before you started.”
Deborah could feel a twinge in her abdomen, a slight bit of pressure that only grew as Jimmy continued his spiel. “That's a cheap trick.”
“That's part of the game, sister!” Jimmy appeared at the periphery of Deborah's vision, leaning against the edge of the booth. “Mind games are something I dealt with at every tournament I ever crushed. I played 'em, I endured 'em. That's all part of the skill set when you're in the big time. It's not quite the same as some friendly tourney at a bar's game night, or some online competition, is it?”
Deborah shrugged off the comment and redoubled her focus. She was off to an excellent start – on her best game ever she hadn't nailed the early waves with such precision. Wave twenty came and went, and then wave thirty. Her order was up, but the allure of pizza was far overwhelmed by whatever madness or magic was going on in the restaurant. The ghost talked through it all. Jimmy's chatter concealed the bleeps of the machine until it was all Deborah could hear.
“You know, everyone assumes that the bad guys all move randomly or have the same pattern, but it just isn't so,” he said. “Pay attention, they have patterns. For example, the red and yellow ones snake around when they get close to you but move straight otherwise, and the green and purple ones move straight unless you're shooting. Wait, no – other way around. Or am I thinking of a different game?”
“Funny guy,” grumbled Deborah.
Mr. Adelardo appeared from behind the counter with Deborah's order. “Hey Deb, aren't you eating?”
“Keep it warm, I'm onto something,” said Deborah. “Forty.”
The lunch crowd was rolling in by that point, and a busy day it was, with people standing around wherever there was free space to await their orders. A few would pause and watch Deborah play, though it was hardly a crowd and hunger was more of a motivation for any of them than a video game. Despite all the people, Deborah played as though she was alone, verbally sparring with Jimmy only in the rare idle moment.
“I don't like to play favorites, but gun to my head...” Jimmy let out an exaggerated laugh. “...have to pick one, my favorite was easily this professor who was some sort of authority on one of those randomized crap indie things. As in, he gave lectures on it. That one was cocky. 'My game is the most complex in the world, I've beaten it two dozen times. You think I can't finish your little child's game?' And then he went down on wave 51, which honestly was a lot farther than I thought he'd make it.”
“I just wonder what happened to make you into such an arrogant dick,” said Deborah.
“Everyone asks me that,” said Jimmy. “You know what makes me this confident? Being the best.”
“At a video game,” said Deborah. “Who cares?”
“Other than you apparently?” Jimmy sighed. “But you're right. Video games don't matter. Neither does poker, or cup stacking, or beer pong. They're idle distractions. But I happen to be the best in the whole world. Can you say that? Do you know what it's like to be number one out of billions? Do you know how that feels? Come back after you've hit the top and talk to me about 'arrogance' then.”
“Kiss my ass.” Deborah flicked the control stick. “SIXTY.”
The lunch rush had passed. The odd traveler would wander in, or the occasional party animal only recently roused from a rough sleep, but most of them didn't stick around for too long. There was, however, a small group clustered around the arcade cabinet, watching Deborah roar through the levels. Her progress was coming quick and steady – wave seventy, eighty, ninety. People were trickling in, not to eat but to watch a local's attempt to snare a new record. There were no familiar faces, yet every few minutes some stranger was offering to bring water or soda or make a coffee run.
“Well, this is getting interesting,” said Jimmy, now wedged impossibly in the tiny space next to the cabinet. “See, this is a proper high-pressure environment. You doing okay, Deb? We're coming up on the three-hour mark here. Honestly, it's amazing how something like playing an arcade game can wear on you. There's the obvious stuff – wrist strain, eye strain, leg cramps, sure. But then you've got nausea – that's pretty common. Headaches, everyone gets those. And there was this little fourteen year-old wunderkind, made it to wave...102, I believe, who talked about 'ghost fingers.' It's this sensation like someone's touching you, all the time.”
Deborah didn't respond, except to shout out “ONE HUNDRED!”
The knot of people around Deborah grew thicker throughout the afternoon. As she rounded the halfway point, word went out that someone was making a serious run for the gold. People had been recording her for hours, but it was around wave 120 that someone suggested sending for a professional rig. The technician turned up just after wave 130 to set up the equipment. Deborah had already acquired some degree of fame by that point – perhaps fifty people had ever made it that far into the game, and already her name and achievements were trending far and wide. The cameras were there not just to capture the moment but to ensure that there was no trickery, to guarantee that the achievement was sheer skill.
Deborah didn't notice any of that, fixated as she was on her task. What she did notice was the pain. Jimmy wasn't lying about one thing – the marathon session was taking a physical toll. The pain started around wave 135, a dancing pain that would rush from one wrist to the other and back, disappear for a while, then return. The hunger and ensuing wooziness hit right after wave 140. Someone fetched her a slice, but by the time they brought it the hunger had turned into a queasy feeling and she couldn't eat it even with someone feeding her slices. She started to sweat at wave 150, an icy sweat that contrasted with the fiery itch in each eye.
“You're not looking so well,” said Jimmy. “Maybe you'd like to take a break?”
Deborah was done dealing with the pesky ghost, partly because she didn't want to look crazy in front of the crowd but also because there was simply no dealing with him. “ONE-SIXTY.”
“That's all right, it's fine if you ignore me,” said Jimmy. “I know I've been mean, so I'm going to let you in on a tactical secret. The design – well, the randomization – it really starts to break down this late because no one's really meant to play it for this long. On wave 166, you will definitely die when you spawn in, so keep a life in reserve. A lot of people don't do that when they're this deep in the game. You do stupid things when you get that sure of yourself. Or you get sick of it all and start taking risks to run up your score. But you wouldn't do that, would you Deb?”
The early dinner crowd arrived at Adelardo's Pizza to find an unexpected mob scene. Deborah had cleared wave 180 and was well on her way to 190, a goalpost that fewer than a dozen people had ever definitely crossed. The camera had been joined by several others, streaming the one-woman marathon to eager viewers around the world. Deborah was officially a big deal but she didn't know it, nor could she do anything with the knowledge if she did know it. There was only the game and her own ever-increasing pain and nothing else.
“I'd like to tell you something about the one who made it that farthest,” said Jimmy. “He was autistic, and agoraphobic. The night he tackled the machine was his first significant trip outside in years. Guy had probably played video games for ten thousand hours during his years inside, at least. It was like he spoke the game's language. But even he ran out of steam on wave 247. I don't think you're going to make it, Deb, but believe it or not, I'm actually rooting for you. I'm actually on your side.”
That was the last time Jimmy spoke for a while, though Deborah wouldn't have noticed even if he was cursing at her. As she cleared wave 200, everything started to fade. She still had shooting pains in her wrists but she barely noticed it anymore. She barely noticed the crowd or the noise except as an odd rush in the background. The screen was just a whirl of color that she could control in some sense. She no longer called out waves – she couldn't even recognize them anymore. Everything was a fog and she was charging through it at top speed.
And then it all changed. She'd dispensed with wave after wave, scarcely acknowledging the end of each one, but there was something off about this one. The enemies came forth as they always had but they simply petered out of existence. Then everything else flickered away, the character and the stage and everything in Deborah's field of vision until there was only one thing left, a row of little white numbers and letters along the top of the screen: “Stage 255.”
“It's the kill screen.” Deborah cracked a small chuckle. “It's the end! It's the last point! I'm out! I'm out!”
The crowd became like that missing final wave, swarming over Deborah, howling in celebration. There were tears running down her eyes and she didn't care at all. She didn't care about any of it – the victory or the achievement or the people telling her how amazing she was. She only had two concerns. First, that she was alive, that the machine hadn't claimed her as it had all those others.
The second thing was reclining in the booth next to the cabinet. Deborah stormed over to Jimmy, who had an oddly placid expression on his spectral face. “Look who's on top now, you son of a bitch!” she screamed, ignoring the odd stares of the crowd. “Look who won!”
“I see. Congratulations, and good luck, wherever you end up.” With that, Jimmy vanished, gone from Deborah's sight and gone from reality.
“Yeah...good luck.” Deborah dug in her bag for a small pocket knife, flicking out the blade. “All right, everyone clear. I gotta do this.” She knelt by the machine and hastily scratched a message into the panel, no small feat with her nearly frozen hands. The marks, just about the ones Jimmy had left, were rough but recognizable for anyone who knew where they were: “D. Haverman – 4/22/17, 1157520”
* * * * *
“There's the one I told you about, right over there.”
They walked up to the cabinet, the attract screen throwing an odd flickering light on the dim corner of the bar. It was a real antique judging by the state of it, but it was running just fine.
“Wow, it really is Conquerors of Nekron.” The man ran his hands over the surface of the machine as though he thought it might vanish at any second. “Damn, these things are real rare.”
“Especially since what's-her-name broke the record a couple years back,” said the bartender. “There's a demand for these now, but no one knows who owns the damn thing.”
“How'd you get so lucky?”
“Good timing. Someone just returned it. Hey, whatever happened to that girl, anyway?”
“Car accident, I think? She was a big deal for a while, until she croaked.”
“That'll do it.” The bartender returned to his work. “All right, flag me down if you need quarters or a drink or anything.”
The man reached into his pocket, pulling out a stray quarter from the dinner change. “All right, time to make a new legend.”
“Well, someone's sure of himself.”
The man looked around for the source of the voice. There was a woman, someone he felt he should recognize, leaning against the wall opposite the machine. “You got a problem?”
“Problem? Not at all.” The woman crossed the room and leaned against the cabinet. “Hey, I don't have a problem if some bandwagon jumping loser wants to try and parley his eleven-wave run into legendary status.”
“Hey, you know who you're talking to?” said the man. “I'm a professional. You know how many tournaments I've won? Serious big money tournaments?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Modern games. Toys for manchildren.”
“Get over yourself,” said the man, rhythmically flipping the quarter. “I could get the kill screen if I really wanted to.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. In fact, I got some time. Let's do it now.”
The woman leaned in close. “Want to make it interesting?”
Originally published in Electric Spec.