by Matthew Quinn Martin
"Found a gyno table once," Ludwig said, peeling cellophane off a pack of Newport Lights, letting it flitter to the pickup's sticky floor.
Jarrod stared through the mud-splattered windshield, trying to keep eyes off Ludwig's cigarettes by focusing on the bombed-out Flushing strip-mall they'd be spending the next two weeks stripping to bare brick. "A what?" he asked.
"You heard me." Ludwig tapped his cigarette's filter against the side of the box. tap-tappity-tap-tap. "Gyno table. Stirrups and everything." tappitty-tap. "Pretty used too."
"There an echo in here, Amsterdamit? Yeah used." tappity. "Used. Beat up, kinda'. Pea soup green and the vinyl'd gone all crackly like, so they'd patched it up with duck tape." tap-tap. "'Magine that, some chick goes to the kitty doctor and the cootchie table's covered in duck tape." Ludwig laughed, scratching the scruff that crept down his neck to join a thatch of rusty chest hair peeping from his v-neck tee. "Shit-atke mushrooms." He said, brushing donut crumbs from his handlebar mustache.
Jarrod still couldn't decide if his boss's 'stache was ironic, or just sad. And he wondered how many times Ludwig'd laid that gyno table story on 'the new guy' before it reached its current state, polished as burnished mahogany. "What kind of doctor's was it?" he asked.
"Beats me. Might not have even been a doctor's now that I think about it. Just in some basement." Ludwig clicked on a Cricket lighter and jabbed his Newport into the oversize flame. Half the stick went to ash in a single drag.
"What'd you do with it? The table."
"Took it home."
"You did not."
"You bet your aspirin I did. Got a couple a hunderd beans on eBay for it." Ludwig exhaled. A cloud of mentholated smoke billowed across the windshield. He shook the pack at Jarrod.
"I don't smoke," he said with a dismissive wave.
Ludwig grinned. "You will."
Jarrod hadn't taken so much as a puff in over a year, not even when he could still afford them. It wasn't dying that scared him -- the big old skeleton man with his cowl and sickle was bound to show up someday. It was the thought of fading out with a head poking from an iron lung, or breathing his last through a cauterized throat hole, that finally made him throw that last half-smoked pack into the hopper. But if a job inhaling all manner of Lord-knows-what, even through a polyester face mask, was what life had in store, then maybe a smoke now and then wouldn't hurt any.
Jarrod shook his head, and the desire with it. For now.
"OK, Bucko," Ludwig said, hopping from the truck. "Sooner we get in there, sooner we get cancer."
Ludwig pulled a pair of bolt cutters from the truck bed, then slogged toward the plywood-barricaded facade. Jarrod followed, kicking wet gray snow from his still-stiff work boots.
The boss clipped through the rusty padlock and kicked it to the side. Rust peeled away in long strips as they wrenched open the door.
Jarrod peered in as Ludwig twisted on his mag-lite and shined it through. A shattered disco-ball lay next to a smattering of broken furniture and fixtures. The floor had rotted away in spots and wiring spilled like entrails from the ceiling among soggy wilting tiles. A mural covered the back wall where half-naked nymphs frolicked with anatomically implausible sea creatures. Some halfhearted graffiti marred it, hardly worth desecrating it seemed.
Ludwig coughed. "She's a beaut', eh?"
"How'd we land this gig anyway?" Jarrod asked.
"My motto is this. You want a job done well, you gotta pay. You want it done cheap, call Ben Ludwig," he said, hooking a thumb toward his chest as he strode through the door.
Jarrod's new boss ran an under-the-table removal service for property owners who didn't want the expense or paperwork of a legitimate hazmat team. That's where his gray market, let's-just-look-the-other-way-for-a-moment-and-not-say-nothin'-to-nobody, tactics came in. He wouldn't report what he found, and for his 'trouble' got to keep what he wanted -- the scraps he passed on, were Jarrods's.
Ludwig crept across the patchy floor to a sagging formica counter and jabbed his light into a gaping hole in the plaster. "Bums sure did a number on this place. Copper's all gone. Mother lovin' shitzu terriers. Careful, lot uh rusty nails stickin' up 'round here. Broke glass too."
Jerrod padded towards the mural. "What was this place? A disco?"
"Roller rink," Ludwig said, tossing a the remainder of a skate across the counter, the laces long gone, its rotting leather boot clinging to a rusting truck like leprous flesh.
"There's that echo again. How old are you kid?"
"Yeah, reckon you missed 'em. Used to be everywhere. Shuttered this one something like eighteen-twenty years back." Ludwig pulled a fresh Newport from his pack. "Alright, 'nuff jawin', let's rip up the rest uh that sprung floorin' 'fore they show up with the dumpster."
Jarrod picked up his pry bar.
"Look at that," Ludwig said, tilting his mag-lite beam up above a ruined DJ booth. A set of jig-sawed letters had once read God Bless America, but the B was gone.
"Godless America," Ludwig read out loud. "Well if that ain't the truth now. Sure you don't want a smoke?" he asked. "Way you keep lookin' at the pack, startin' to think you wanna' ask it out for a drink."
Three days later -- three mind-numbing days of wet raw hands, rusty splinters, and gritty acrylic carpet fibers shoved under nails -- Jarrod found something.
Behind two banks of beat-up shoe lockers stood a door chained and double padlocked. In the powder blue paint above it he could just barely make out letters spelling, ARCADE.
"Ludwig?" Jarrod called out. "Where are those bolt cutters?"
The inside air was cold, stale, and dead. As they entered, twin flashlight beams rebounded off a series of curved glass screens. Ludwig approached one and ran his hand across a chipped particle board cabinet. A fold of dust bunched up, exposing the word Galaga.
"Man, I used to live for these things when I was a kid," Ludwig said caressing the long-dormant trackball of a vintage arcade console. "Look at 'em now. Just junk." He flicked the joystick of one marked Dragon's Lair. "Graphics on this stucker were killer.
"That one," he said pointing to the Zaxxon console. "I was the Amsterdam king uh that one. Show up with two pockets uh quarters, like Billy the Kid or some shit-take mushrooms, and just watch that silver disappear through them slots faster than coke up a pole dancer's nose."
Ludwig lit a smoke, looking at his warped reflection in the glass. "Yessir," he said, slapping the cabinet. "Guess you can say these things made me the man I am today." He pulled a quarter from his pocket. Flipping it high in the air, he said, "Let's fire 'em up. See if these monster-truckers still work."
Jarrod reached behind the nearest cabinet for the power cable. Some graffiti caught his eye; almost lost in the dim light, faded black paint against a gray wall, near illegible in spots. Rusty splotches radiated from holes in the cinderblock like -- --
Jarrod's chest iced over. Get a grip, he thought. Probably just mold. "Ludwig? What, what are those?"
"Well, Jarrod, those--" his tone slipped. "Those...ahem...those look like bullet holes. 38s I think," he said, poking a pinky in one. "Jeeze Louise. Sure you don't want a cigarette?"
Jarrod shook his head, mumbling the graffiti half out loud.
Die Demon Die. The End Is Nigh,
The Puppet Screamed. Its Maker Lied
A Curse To See Your Hollowed Eyes
Is Lifted Now. Die Demon Die.
"What does it mean?" he asked.
"It means don't do drugs," Ludwig said, cigarette bobbing, ash spilling down his shirt. "'Sright, now I remember. Some kid went mental and shot up the place. Killed eight people, then stuck the gun in his mouth. Boom. All hopped up on PCP I heard. Didn't realize that was here." Ludwig ground his smoldering butt out on the floor. "Well, ancient history."
"So, what do we do with them? The games," Jarrod scraped up the nerve to ask.
"We?" Ludwig raised an eyebrow, and with it Jarrod's hope sank. Seemed he wasn't taking anything home except some rusty roller-skates or a busted disco-ball. "Well, you did find 'em," Lugwig said, scratching his chin. "'Spose it's only fair if you get one. How about..." Lugwig scanned his options. "This?"
Jarrod nodded, looking at the title neatly framed by his boss's hand, chunky Future Shock letters spelling out a single word.
Jarrod sat buttnumb on his lumpy futon, stirring the Styrofoam bowl of lukewarm ramen nestled in his crotch.
"Wish you were one of the table-looking games," he said to the big black cabinet hogging almost half of his basement studio. "Then I'd have a place to eat at least." Less than a day, and the Polybius'd already worn out its welcome. A week tops, Jarrod told himself. Just get it up on eBay and it'll be gone in a week.
Jarrod slurped his salty noodles, gazing at the moldy, water-damaged walls of his Bed-Sty apartment. How did this happen? he wondered. This was not the life he'd left Burlington for -- BFA in graphic design and slick suede portfolio tucked under his skinny arm -- seven years ago.
Seven years? Had it really been seven years? Nothing to show for it but a string of go-nowhere internships, odd jobs, and psycho girlfriends. Nothing but a pile of credit card debt and ninety-three more student loan payments. And all of it leading to the gig with Ludwig, the sort of job he could have gotten in Vermont -- if he'd dropped out of high-school in Vermont -- and barely scraping enough to cover the mammoth rent on his pygmy apartment; paying twice as much as his parent's mortgage to live in something smaller, and colder, than his father's tool shed.
There had to be some escape. But where? A prodigal about-face was out, no way to face the shamefully supportive, I-told-you-so glare of his parents, let alone deal with the friends who'd stayed behind. All of them more than ready to clap him sympathetically on the back, or shove a Miller draft in his hand, Jarrod's failure proof positive they'd been right all along to be cowards.
Maybe the Polybius would prove his salvation. Looking at the game, he could already imagine some hipster collector shoving crisp bills straight from the trust fund into his grateful palm, then carting the cabinet off to his Billberg loft. A few grand would cover a bus ticket to Oregon, Arizona, maybe even Alaska -- everyone's favorite plan F -- and leave some extra, just till he picked up some new shit job wherever his feet touched ground.
He'd be comfy enough, a case of no-name beer in the half-fridge, a closet full of flannels in the doublewide. There were worse ways to ride it out till the sickle-man showed his bleached-bone face. Why not? Jarrod's dreams were already dead. The rest was just settling accounts.
He smiled at the cabinet. "Thanks, bud," he said.
Jarrod stood up. He'd take the game for a spin before hocking it. He grabbed a butter knife from the kitchen, jammed behind the slot's baseplate, and pop. A river of quarters spilled onto the warped floor. Not enough to cover a Greyhound to Anchorage, but plenty for a six pack and pizza.
He picked up one of the coins, wondering if the last kid to hold it had met his personal game over that day -- blood and brains splattered across the arcade's cinderblock walls -- or if this piece of silver had jingled in the gunman's pocket.
Jarrod walked the quarter across his knuckles. The pizza -- and the ghosts -- could wait.
He got down on all fours to reach for the stiff power cord. Ancient plastic sheathing crumbled away in his hands as jammed the plug into the socket, and -- --
-- zzzztttzzz --
-- -- got hit with 120 volts. "Shit!-take mushrooms!" he yelled, sliding into a half-parody of Ludwig's curse-avoiding patios. Hand still numb, head swimming in an electric haze, Jarrod gingerly plugged back in.
The CRT screen flickered to life with a vaccuum-tube whine. A copyright credit wiggled onto the screen, Senneschloshen 1981.
The words collapsed to a white dot, then bloomed, lashing out crude vector lines of red and green which linked to form a cylinder. A flick of the track wheel sent it spinning. A gun, or spaceship, or something popped up at the base. Simple, two-legged spider/crab creatures scaled the inside of the cylinder, growing and gaining speed as they did. Numbers and symbols flashed at corners of the screen, too fast to read.
Jarrod hit the fire button; light bursts flew forward. A spider/crab burst into disconnected lines with a crunchy eight-bit bleep. He fired again. With every bullseye, a glowing ring rippled the cylinder, bathing Jarrod's face in a cold blue light.
A comforting, familiar light.
Jarrod sat up in bed -- not in his crappy Brooklyn studio, which had no bed to speak of -- but on the thin twin mattress of his childhood, in the room he'd shared with his older brother Simon.
He shivered, shrugging deeper into a scratchy Star Wars blanket, one he couldn't remember ever owning. Bitter cold leaked through the front zipper and plasticy feet of his fuzzy periwinkle pajamas. They were small. He was small. He flexed his hand, the hand of a five year old. A stillness gripped the room, the impossible room; sold and bulldozed with the house back in 1993, but here nonetheless.
Gooseflesh prickled Jarrod's skin as parcels of roof and wall peeled up, flapping in the howling gale before flaking off and flying to oblivion. Everything fractured and fell, carried away like autumn leaves on that dusky wind. But Jarrod did not fall; he stood in a field of sunflowers, feeling the first rays of a distant dawn caress his skin with welcoming warmth.
Taller now, he gazed into the flowers' big, petal-wreathed faces, feeling somehow that they were his brother's and sisters, his parents, his children. His to protect. Jarrod's bare feet sank into oozy mud. The one-piece pajamas were gone, replaced by boxers, but the blanket remained, draped over his shoulders. He tied the corners around his neck and the star flecked blanket became a cape.
As the sun broke free of the horizon, the sunflowers' turned to face it in unison. Jarrod joined them. A broad leaf reached out to grasp his hand, wrapping around his skin, cool and sharp. Together he and they greeted the dawn.
Jarrod felt a tug on his hand. The flower had become a girl, a little blonde girl, no more than five, her hair pale and shiny as corn silk, her blue dress dotted with sunflowers. She sniffled, wiping back the tears streaming from her wide set eyes.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"The demons are coming," she said rubbing the tears with a tiny balled fist.
In a blink, they stood high on cliff, the field gone. Wind swept the girl's flaxen hair back like the tail of a comet. Far below the cliff stood a city shimmering in the early light, a glistening ribbon of sliver-blue sea rimming its shore. The relentless gale tugged Jarrod's cape nearly horizontal, as the girl tugged at his hand, pointing to the sky.
Shapes appeared, vague at first, tiny sliver dots slowing carving straight white lines like chalk as they crept across the sky. Missiles, he thought.
"Demons," she said.
As the whites lines touched Earth, one by one, mushroom clouds sprouted. Distant booms from those far off flowers of death shook Jarrod's chest, as the city turned to ash -- its spires gone, the landscape flattened. Trees stripped to upright splinters. The ground nothing but cracked black glass.
Jarrod's cape caught fire; swept away by the searing atomic wind. A million needles tore through his flesh. This is a dream, he thought. A dream.
But the pain told him no. Pain like the sun falling on him. A thousand suns. His flesh blistered a sizzling grizzled black, peeling up in large strips.
The girl screamed, her silky blonde hair nothing but fire, flesh dripping from charred skull. She turned to face him, her empty eye sockets accusing. "You can stop this," she said before collapsing to cinders.
He raised his hand, black bone and raw sinew. In it a gun. He -- --
He jolted awake, sprawled out on his futon -- his neck shot through with pain, his clothes glued to his skin by sweat. Harsh splinters of daylight edged through his drawn drapes, shanking his eyes, spiking his mind. Dawn already? he thought. Must have -- --
Jarrod lurched for the door, easing off a rubbery, still half-sleeping leg more needles than pins. He peered through the peephole to find his friend Geoff, fisheyed by the glass, but awfully put together for this early. Jarrod twisted the cool brass knob, inching the door open. Daylight slapped him like a rogue wave. He took a quick breath to stave off a nausea wriggling up his throat. "What...you doing here?" he managed with a small belch, barely able to peel his swollen tongue from his hard palate.
"'Dja talking about? You're the one who said meet up for pints. Scope out the new crop of hipster chicks."
"...time is it?"
"Dude, it's like five o'clock. In the PM. You on the crank or something? Tried calling." Geoff said, pushing past. "Dude, you reek."
"Sorry bud," he said waving the air. "You reek."
Jarrod dug gunky grit from his eyes then clicked open his cell phone. 4:50, right there on the screen along with a listing of four missed calls, three from Geoff and one from Ludwig.
"Woah! Geoff said, eying the Polybius. "'Dja get this? That shitty job with the porno-stache guy? Does it work?"
"No. No it doesn't."
Yes, was what he thought he'd said, but what came out was No -- as if someone else was in control of his vocal cords.
Geoff walked into the doorless bathroom. Jarrod heared the shower tap twisted open and the water following.
"Dude, you better hop in that," Geoff said emerging. "No way we're pulling trim with you smelling like my Uncle Alastaire's colostomy bag."
Jarrod wilted onto the futon, bilious again, the light clobbering his eyes, a thin ringing tolling in his ears.
"You cool?" Geoff asked.
"I had this nightmare. It was awful. This...this nuclear war or something. Burning skeletons and...screaming. A lot of screaming, and there was this girl -- "
"Was she hot?"
"A little girl."
"So? Was she hot?"
"Fine, whatever." Jarrod stood, the queasiness lifting a touch.
"Sure you didn't just fall asleep watching Terminator 2?"
"Yeah, on my imaginary TV. Think you can entertain yourself while I'm in the shower?" he asked, staggering to the bathroom.
"Sure, I'll just masturbate thinking about you naked."
Jarrod ignored him, stripping off his sweat drenched clothes and stepping into the blissfully hot shower. Ten minutes later, Jarrod felt like a new man. Or at least a clean man.
He emerged from the bathroom -- towel wrapped around his waist, shaking water from his ear -- to see that Geoff had turned the Polybius on, quarter kissing the slot. "Hey," he called.
Geoff looked over. "Thought you said it didn't work."
"It...doesn't." Jarrod scanned his brain for an excuse to cover the lie he cound't understand why he'd told. "Must've been a short. I'm keeping that quarter though."
"You can keep my nuts...in your mouth." Geoff plinked in his coin and -- --
-- bleep --
-- -- the screen blinked out. "Man!"
"Told you," Jarrod said. "Putting the stupid thing up on eBay. Feeling better by the way. That dream though it just seemed, I don't know...really fake."
"As opposed to all the authentic nuclear holocausts you've attended."
"But real too," Jarrod continued. "Insistent. And that girl, she said I could stop it. I had a gun."
"Gun? That'd be helpful," Geoff said. "Might as well throw rocks. Real bright subconscious you've got there."
Jarrod poured himself some metallic tasting tap water, drained it in one gulp and refilled. "But what do you think it means?"
"Don't read too much into nightmares bro, nothing there but bad wiring. And in case you haven't noticed, Cold War's been over like twenty years. So survey says mmmaaammpp on the nuclear armageddon. Thank you drive through."
Jarrod took another swallow. "I know but -- "
"Jarrod Hanlon, battle scarred soldier from a war that never happened."
"I know but -- "
"A war in...the Twilight Zone."
"Fine," Jarrod said, pouring another glass.
"Ease up on the H2O, bro. Save some room in that bladder for beer."
"Right." Jarrod took one last sip and set the rest down. "Let's get out of here."
-- bleep --
The game flickered to life. Just the credit screen, that Senneschloshen. Jarrod felt a twitch shudder through him, gripping him with a strong urge to play, to shuffle Geoff off and lose himself in the Polybius's helix of vector lines.
"Better unplug that dinosaur," Geoff said. "Don't want a short burning down your lovely abode."
"Wait." Jarrod stepped forward, but Geoff had already yanked the cord. Before the screen collapsed into the familiar flickering white dot, Jarrod saw something--or thought he saw something--written in the Polybius's chunky future-shock script.
Die Demon Die.
He shook his head. He'd had enough for one day, enough of dead kids and outdated apocalypse dreams. "Come on asshole," he said swiping his keys off the counter. "Let's get a hotdog. You owe me."
Nothing they did that night could take Jarrod's mind off the game: not the deep-fried bacon-wrapped spicy rednecks at Crif Dogs, not the cans of PBR they washed them down with, not the pints or shots that followed in the hidden speakeasy on the other side of Crif Dog's vintage Get Smart phone booth, not the two hotties they found there wearing outfits too small, and too thin, for the season and droning on and on about a secret automat. Nothing -- no amount of alcohol, fried food, or chances to get laid -- could quell his craving for the Polybius, his desire to be lost once more in its web of red and green vector lines. To be where he knew, deep down, he belonged.
Jarrod excused himself, headed to the bathroom, and never turned back. He hopped a train and was rapt in the game's comforting embrace within the hour.
How he ended up with a blanket tied around his neck, clad in nothing else but sneakers and boxer shorts, and handcuffed to the leg of an old steel desk at the 7th Precinct, however -- was something he was still trying to figure out. And the wiry, caffeine-hopped detective screaming wasn't helping.
"You want me to toss your ass down in the tombs?" he yelled. "Give you some time to think about what the hell you were doing up there? That what you want? Give you a night to get friendly with some of the hard-asses we pull in? That what you want!"
"Not especially." Jarrod's voice cracked as he answered, as if a thoroughly desiccated frog had hopped into his throat. "Could I have some water please?"
"Water? You want water?" The detective turned before Jarrod could even nod, and filled a paper cone from the cooler. He thrust the water half an inch away from Jarrod's face. "You want a drink?" He crushed the cone in his hand. "Then give me some answers."
"I wish I could. I really do." Jarrod wanted answers as much as they did, but everything from the subway on blurred into a hallucinatory haze.
At some point the dream had come again; that much was clear. The sunflowers summoned him. In deepest night, a group of their ancients faced him in a ring. The girl appeared among their elders. She tugged Jarrod's hand, and when he bent to her, she whispered in his ear that the hour was at hand. The city needed to be defended.
On cue, the demons -- the missiles -- streaked overhead, their gleaming hulls scarring the night sky. Jarrod ran, knowing that he'd never catch them. But the girl kept pace, and she told him that he needn't run. He could fly.
Instantly, an icy wind washed over his face and his bare chest, tugging at the blanket/cape around his neck, and a twinkling Manhattan skyscape spread out beneath him.
Four demons roared past. Shiny cylindrical horsemen of the apocalypse, the stench of their burning vapor trails scorching his lungs as the SS-18's carried their collective hundred megaton payload towards his own New York.
He could stop them. The elders had given him the power. Their power. Jarrod faced the city below, pitched forward and -- --
A searing light scorched his eyes. And a voice cried -- --
"Freeze! Don't move a muscle asshole!"
Jarrod looked down. Under one foot, the limestone and granite blocks of the Brooklyn Bridge's West tower. Under the other, thin air -- 354 vertical feet of it, straight down to the churning East River below.
"I said freeze!" The policeman's tactical flashlight stayed trained on Jarrod's face. So did the five other's behind him. So did their guns. "Down! Now! Hands behind your head!"
Jarrod obeyed; terrified of slipping off the tower's edge. Even more terrified as the police inched him down the steep curve of the bridge's main support cable, clipped to a safety wire, pistols pointed at his head.
As they bundled him into the back of a police van, he caught one last glimpse of the bridge he was a hair's breadth from leaping off of. Its crisscross cables comforted him. So like the twisting helix of the Polybius.
"You think this is some kind of game!" The detective pounded on his desk, deep in the bowels of Manhattan's 7th precinct. "What is it with you hipsters? You got any idea how much these little stunts cost taxpayers? No, you don't. Because you're probably not paying any fricken taxes. Living off mommy and daddy's trust fund. You make me sick," he screamed, practically foaming at the mouth. And with the criminally low wages at the NYPD, Jarrod could hardly blame him.
"Sir, please," Jarrod began. "I wasn't pulling any stunt. Honest. I was asleep, I think. Sleepwalking maybe."
"Sleepwalking? To the top of the Brooklyn Bridge?"
"I know. I know. Honest, I don't have a trust fund. I don't have anything. I live in a closet and I work in hazmat removal out in Queens. I don't know, maybe I breathed in something. Something bad. Chemicals maybe." What else can I tell them? Jarrod thought. That a haunted video game made me do it?
The detective rubbed his shadowed chin. "Hazmat removal? Like asbestos and stuff?"
"Among other things."
"That sounds pretty rough," he said, softening a touch.
"It's a living. Could I please have some water now."
The detective filled another paper cone and handed it to Jarrod, who drank greedily, the scant ounces of water barely slaking the sides of his sandpaper throat.
The detective clicked open Jarrod's cuffs, then wrote something on a slip of paper. "Jail's overcrowded. Here's your arraignment date. Don't make us come looking for you. And, might want to think about taking some time off."
"Thank you, detective. I will. Thank you."
"No job's worth your life, son," he said with a pensive neck scratch that make Jarrod wonder if it was Jarrod's job he meant, or his own. "Now, go on. Call for someone to pick you up before I change my mind."
"Yeah, go on."
Jarrod looked down at the blanket and boxers that were his only clothing. "Sorry, but I think I may have left my cell phone in my other underpants."
The detective let loose a grimacing sigh. "Think the pay phone at the end of the hall still works. Here." He dropped a quarter on the desk.
When Jarrod picked it up, the last thing he wanted to do was use it to call for help. He wanted to stick it in the Polybius.
"Sure you don't want a smoke?" Ludwig asked as he lit one for himself. "Bet you had a hell of a night."
Jarrod was tempted. Sorely tempted, but, "No. I'm cool," he answered cracking the pickup's the passenger side window. "Thanks, by the way, for coming out this late."
"Wouldn't be the first time I picked up one uh my guys from the pokey. Know why they call it the pokey, right? Right?" Ludwig said with a jocular jab to Jarrod's arm. "Just joshin'. Gotta ask though, Jare? You on drugs?"
Jarrod shook his head.
"'Scool if ya are. Lord knows I'm no angel."
"I'm not on drugs, Ludwig. Not even grass."
Ludwig nodded. "Fair enough. Had to ask. Can't blame a guy." He turned off Atlantic Avenue, heading deeper into Brooklyn. "Hey, you still got that game I gave ya? That -- what was it called -- Polybius?"
"No," Jarrod said, not wanting to get into it.
"Huh. Sold that awful quick. Too bad. Figured if you still had it, I'd take it off your hands. Give ya a few hunnert beans. Hell, make it an even grand."
"Well, I don't have it any more." It's worth more than that, Jarrod thought. It's priceless, really. He scratched at the oversize jersey, Ludwig'd loaned him. "Thanks for the outfit too."
"No problem. Hey, you got the number uh the guy who bought it? The Polybius."
"Well, turns out he don't want it no more. Gimme a buzz, first thing. Cool?"
"Yeah, sure thing, whatever. Look, Ludwig, can you drop me off up here." Jarrod pointed to a well-lit street corner. Got to hit the Duane Reade. Aspirin. I can walk the rest of the way from there."
"You sure? I can wait."
Ludwig pulled over, and even though it was "cool," Jarrod spotted his truck idling by the curb as he walked into the pharmacy, could see Ludwig light up another smoke and toss the crumpled pack out the window.
Jarrod was out in minutes, the proud owner of a jumbo bottle of aspirin, a can of Dr. Pepper, and a shiny new disposable digital camera. He cracked open the soda and drank deep, washing down a fistful of asprin as he plodded back toward his apartment.
The plan was to snap a few pictures of the Polybius while it was safely unplugged, and then hightail it out of there before the hunger to play took over. Even blocks away, Jarrod could feel the Polybius's lure drawing him in, setting the hooks in his mind and soul.
He wasn't sure what mojo the game possessed, some late 20th century hoodoo voodoo, or if the more logical pretext of a noxious mix of sleep-deprivation and strange chemical vapors had left him stranded on the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. He didn't care either way. He wasn't putting himself back in the same position.
Jarrod spotted a payphone on the corner. He knew he should call Geoff. He reached into his pocket, a few quarters jingled -- all that was left of the twenty Ludwig advanced him in the truck. It took every ounce of will power for him to put them in that machine, instead of another.
"Dude, you're like totally all over the NY1," he said answering. "I think you can get a book deal out of this. Brilliant! F'n brilliant! What made you -- "
"Look Geoff, can I crash at your place tonight? Don't really feel safe here."
"What, like TV crews buggin' you and whatnot."
"Something like that." Jarrod thought he caught another glimpse of Ludwig's truck behind him, but when he turned, whatever it was was already scooting down a side street. "So, what do you say? 'Scool?"
"Sho-nuff bro. But, next time you go all Evel Kienevel, you better let me in on it."
"You got it." Jarrod hung up. Then braced himself as he pulled his spare key from under the hollow flagstone, and entered his apartment.
Three minutes later he stood panting, drenched in sweat, his back against the outside of his apartment door. He'd been able to snap one photo before the nausea gripped him, before his howling dopamine receptors told his reptile brain in primeval tones that he'd better come over and play if he knew what was good for him.
Jarrod knew what was good for him, with every screaming nerve-ending, he knew that he had to leave. Leave or it would be over. Game over.
He rubbed the back of his neck, and heading south towards Geoff's apartment, unable to shake the sense that someone, or something was watching.
Dusk settled over Brooklyn as Jarrod walked the six blocks from Geoff's apartment to the library, camera clutched in hand. He had wanted to go when he'd first awoken -- at 1 p.m., after a fitful sleep -- but Geoff insisted on hanging out until he left for his catering gig. He could have used Geoff's laptop to post the Polybius on eBay, but something deep inside told him not to. Was still telling him not to as walked past Grand Army Plaza, and up the steps to the vaguely book-shaped Central Library Building. Was telling him to just go back home and play some more. What would be the harm?
But time and distance had granted him some measure of immunity to the game's enchantments, and he wasn't going anywhere near it. He'd stay safely settled on Geoff's couch until the Polybius was sold and carted off. Until it was someone else's problem.
In the library's computer lab, Jarrod plugged the camera into the USB port and uploaded the photos, then typed a bare bones description of the game, put Polybuis as the header, set a starting price, and posted it. Simple as that. He'd be free of the game before he knew it and the whole thing would be nothing but a freaky chapter in the run-of-the-mill nightmare that was his life. In a few weeks he'd be plunking down a deposit on an Anchorage Airstream.
Or so he thought.
Before he could get out of his chair, the screen in front of him went blank, then started to scroll through bank after bank of code. Numbers and symbols spilled down the frame, too fast to comprehend, to even read.
"What the?" The middle-aged patron next to Jarrod pounded on his keyboard. "Come on. Come on. What am I paying taxes for? Stupid POS!"
Jarrod looked over. The man's screen was awash in the same wave of code. So was the terminal on the other side. So were they all.
Something had taken over.
Jarrod shot up. He scanned the room for help. That's when he spotted the smoke rising from the back of his monitor. "Um, excuse me? I -- "
The lights went down. All off them, shutting off in clanking blocks like tumbling dominos, plunging the library into gloom. Only one source of illumination remained, the smoking screen before him. A single bright green word filled the frame, Senneschloshen. The image broke apart before his eyes, the spinning shards reassembling into the spiraling vectors lines of the Polybius.
The game had come for him. He didn't need to go home. It was there, waiting on the screen -- waiting as the frantic crowd screamed for help, and the computer burst into flames.
It was the water that saved him. Snapped him out of the Polybius-induced trance and doused the flames. God knows how long he would have stayed there staring at something that couldn't possibly exist, as the building burned around him.
Jarrod walked, waterlogged and shivering, back to his apartment, his clothes chafed like a constricting cotton cocoon but at least they were dry, unlike his sneakers, still squishing and squashing with every weary step. And as he walked, something became clear. The Polybius didn't just need to become someone else's problem. It needed to be destroyed.
He took his time returning, letting his rage cool and his resolve calcify. He desperately wanted a shower, but not before he put a sizable brick or something similar through that curved CRT. After it was dead, he'd take a shower. And after that, he'd stuff a change of clothes and some clean skivvies into his worn knapsack and skip town before that thing found some other way to get him. Maybe he didn't have enough for a bus ticket, but he still had his thumb, and he'd ride that to someplace in America where computers still sounded like they came from the future.
Jarrod scanned the pavement in front of his building for a brick, a broken chunk of pavement, anything -- his mind wandered to the inevitable why. Why did the game want him dead? Did it just wake up one morning hating its human oppressors? Was it jealous of Pac Man's success? Did it go beyond the machine itself? Was it the ghosts of the kids? Their poltergeists come to make him one of their own? Or did the vengeful spirit of the gunman haunt the console? His shade trapped forever in its printed circuits?
Whatever it was, it was going to end.
It was going to end tonight.
Butted up against the high granite curb he found a bent tire-iron. He hefted it. The weight felt good in his hand.
As he crept down his building's concrete steps, past the fetid odor of trash bins well overdue for pick up, he could feel the Polybius begin to pull him back into its spell. Jarrod tightened his grip on the tire iron. No force, real or imagined, would compel him to play the game again.
That abomination had tried to kill him twice already. It had stranded him over three hundred feet above the East River, with one foot in the sky and the other about to follow. It had tracked him to the library and set it on fire. Who knew what it would try next?
It had to go
He gripped the door knob and lifted his key, about to unbolt the door, but the knob twisted easily and opened without even the whisper of a click. He shook his head. Must have forgotten to lock it, he thought.
His legs wobbled like aspic, and he braced his nerve for the task before him. As he pushed through the door he thought, maybe the Polybius wasn't trying to murder him after all. Maybe the dimly remembered dreams were what they seemed. A warning. A prophecy. An enigma that needed solving. All he'd need to do was plug into the game once more and all would be revealed. He reached in his pocket with his free hand, and fingered the couple of quarters that jingled there. It wouldn't be that dangerous. He could keep the tire-iron right beside him if things got out of hand.
He took a deep breath and pushed all the way in, iron raised and ready to swing at the machine with his eyes closed if that's what it took to break the spell. He charged forward.
Into an empty apartment.
The machine was gone.
Jarrod looked around frantically, thinking perhaps he'd entered the wrong unit. But it was his alright. Crappy futon, half eaten bowl of ramen, worn out socks on top of the overflowing laundry bag, it was all there.
All except the Polybius.
He checked the bathroom, as if the game might be hiding in the shower. It wasn't. He even checked under the bed. He turned to examine the open door and could see now by the fresh splintered section by the strike plate that he hadn't left it unlocked after all. It had been had been forced.
The loss hit him like an ice-pick to the chest, sucking all the air from his lungs in its bloody wake. Had he really ever thought of destroying it? Could he have? Deep in his mind he knew the answer was somewhere beyond a simple no or yes, either action would be akin to an auto-emergency tracheotomy.
Jarrod sat hard on his futon, tears creeping up to the rims of his eyelids. Tears for his loss and tears for the wreck of his life. He clamped his eyes shut, hard, willing away the shame.
He took a deep breath and opened them. That's when he saw something that did not belong in his apartment. A carelessly dropped bit of litter that spoke volumes. There, in the corner, a scrap of cellophane. One that, quite recently, had been wrapped around a pack of Newport Lights.
Jarrod pounded on Ludwig's door.
He pounded again, harder, pounded till the heel of his fist ringed with agony.
He peeped through the bars of Ludwig's ground floor windows. Sure enough, the Polybius stood there in smack in the middle of his living room. He yelled, "Ludwig, you better answer this door! You can't just steal stuff from people." Even if it technically doesn't belong to them, he added in his head. Jarrod went back to the door, rattling the knob. "Ludwig! Ludwig! You better--" and the door opened. It hadn't been locked.
The house was quiet and the air smelled strongly of ozone. "Ludwig!" he yelled into the open door. He must have gotten an offer for the game, Jarrod thought. Some serious collector offered him big bank. "Ludwig!" he yelled again, crossing the threshold, smacking his palm with the tire-iron.
Passing through the inner door he spotted it. The tire-iron slipped from his grasp to clatter on dingy carpet as Jarrod saw Ludwig, or what was left of him, sprawled at the foot of the Polybius console, his hand still gripping the mangled power cord.
Jarrod wrapped his jacket around Ludwig's arm and pulled the plug from the wall, letting it dangle there in Ludwig's charred and lifeless hand. He felt for a pulse, just to be sure.
Dead as dirt. Deader.
Jarrod had spent enough time around loose wiring to know that 120 volts wasn't usually enough to kill. But with Ludwig's two pack a day habit, stopping his already weakened heart wasn't a stretch. Had he known Ludwig was dead while he was still outside pounding on the door, while the white-hot grip of resentment was still held sway, he might have said the sleazy thief deserved it. But looking at the hunk of meat that had been his boss, his normally decent boss, he realized that no one deserved that. No one, or we all did.
The other games lined the back wall, and the room was rimmed with shelf after shelf full of mementos of Ludwig's childhood and teenage years. Jarrod tried to imagine a 13 year old version of his ex-boss, but couldn't quite pull it off. The mustache kept getting in the way. But here was the proof. Footballs, basketballs, a worn hockey stick, matchbox cars, Star Wars action figures, a couple of water pistols, an eight track tape player, and stuff Jarrod couldn't even begin to guess at. For a guy who made his living disposing of junk, Ludwig had had a hard time letting go of it himself.
Jarrod spotted a half-smoked pack of Newports on the table next to a brown corduroy bark-o-lounger. If there was ever an excuse for a smoke, this was it. The cricket lighter sat right on top of the pack.
This was where champions were made. No cigarettes and no...
...and no Polybius either.
Jarrod tensed every muscle he knew how to, locked them in place. He pulled Ludwig's cell from his belt and flipped it open.
"Operator I'd like to report a..."
But the line went dead.
And the Polybius clicked on.
Plug still in Ludwig's hand, three feet from the wall, the Polybius clicked on.
The sunflowers were dying, their ancient stalks brittle and bent; the young sprouts at their bases nothing but withered, yellow threads. Before the elders, on a small oblong mound, lay the girl, not sleeping, not breathing. The ancients bowed low in mourning, tears dripped from their petals to the browned earth.
Beneath the girl, the mound began to quiver, subtly at first, but then with a quaking fury. Mammoth black bugs streamed from all sides of the mound to crawl over the girl. They came as a trickle first, then a flood, and soon there was nothing but a girl-shaped lump of wriggling blackness -- as they tore at her flesh. Her eyes first.
Fury welled in Jarrod's chest. She had died battling the demons, and this swift, cruel decomposition would be her only reward unless he could stop them.
Missiles streaked overhead. So close to the ground they tore half the sunflowers to oblivion in their rocket-fueled wake. He stepped forward to run, to fly, to stop them, but before he could he felt the broad strong grip of a leaf on his hand. He turned to face the largest most elder of the sunflowers. The others all immolated one by one. But this elder stood strong, for now, and in its omniscient face Jarrod all was revealed.
The missiles were not demons, as he had thought, but simply their weapons, their arrows, their swords. The true demons walked in human form, walked among us. Their generals stalked the halls of power, as their foot soldiers fought like cowards, unwilling to face their righteous enemies, hurling their death machines from afar while they stood at machines, control sticks in hand, staring at CTR screens stuck in upright consoles. Screens and machines Jarrod had seen before, had had in his possession.
The demons walked among us.
And they had to die.
It was all so clear. So clear it burned like acid on brass, etching the truth forever in his mind. The world existed on many levels. Most could only experience the surface, but not Jarrod, not anymore. To him it was laid bare. He could shift from one layer of reality to the next as simple as flipping the pages of a book. An apocalypse book painted on plates of transparent plastic -- each one revealing some new horror -- and he was chosen the angel of vengeance.
The one to break the final seal.
He knew where the demons were. Knew from Ludwig, from old photos, and from scantly remembered afternoon movies. Times Square 42nd street, the Deuce as it was called, was once ground zero for video arcades. Amid neon-clad sin palaces, promising carnal decadence 24/7, stood row after row of darkened alcoves, lit only by the glowing screens within. What better place for the demons to stalk among us?
The Deuce had changed its image, shed its moniker, but Jarrod saw deeper. The peepshows and jack-shacks may have moved West, and the arcades simply a dusky memory. All but one. One last multilevel temple to the almighty quarter, stood proud in Times Square, in the center of Manhattan. Caddy corner from military island, cradled among the giant screens that showered their images on millions of Americans daily, was one last arcade. One last place for the demons to hide, to plot their dominion.
He felt his outfit, blanket and boxers, drawing stares as he emerged from the subway. He didn't care. It gave him power, gave him purpose. He'd already passed a man with a cat on his head and a WWE sized Billy Ray Cyrus look-alike banging on a guitar on his way over. Maybe the getup looked like a joke, but the gun tucked into the back of his waistband, that felt real.
He had written three words across his bare chest, so his enemies could see him coming. Scrawled it there in something red. Paint? Blood? He couldn't remember? He could only remember the words -- Die Demon Die. He would not hide as they did. He would face them head on.
He stepped from the street and on to the escalator that would take him to the heart of the arcade. The faces around him, every third one flickered. Scales rippled beneath their illusion of human flesh, their mamo-reptilian gaze boring through his defenses.
Jarrod cleared his mind; they hadn't caught on yet. The escalator finished its ascent, depositing Jarrod on a broad esplanade, rimmed by row after row of arcade game consoles.
He took a center position, and narrowed his gaze at his quarry. He had not expected them to look so human, not here in their nest. More demon chicanery? Maybe not all of them were demons. Some, perhaps, had just wandered into the wrong place at a very wrong time. No matter, there were bound to be some civilian casualties. This rain would fall of the just and the unjust alike, Jarrod thought, as he pulled out his gun. He would not weep for them. They would die heroes.
"Demons!" Jarrod bellowed over the hubbub and din. "Demons! Your reign is at an end!" He could spot a couple of blue-clad, rent-a-cops in his periphery. Not demons, their countenance did not flicker under his probing gaze.
Human slaves, he thought, or traitors. They edged closer, fumbling for nightsticks and mace. He thought the demons would better arm their familiars. Perhaps they had grown complacent. "Stand back." Jarrod screamed at them. "My war is not with you."
And he aimed at those it was.
Then pulled the trigger.
Those that could, screamed.
Jarrod heard none of it, the rush of blood filling his head the only sound. A disk of red radiated from the middle of the shirt of the first to fall. She screamed, smearing it across her right breast in five ruby trails. Midway her scream shifted, almost seemed like laughter.
Jarrod trained his gun on those next to the she-demon and sprayed. A hit to the chest. A slash across midsection. One right between the eyes. And each time, the same strange reaction, a scream, then something akin to laughter or disdain. Then they were all laughing, laughing and pointing, at him and at each other.
He knew then that he was doomed. What a fool he'd been to think he could have defeated them so easily. These creatures would not -- could not -- die at the hands of a mere human.
They would kill him now. He knew this. But he would not go down easy. With a screaming lunge, he tilted for the demon closest to him, the one laughing the hardest.
And hit the cement floor with a painful thwack, feeling a hard press of hickory as the guard's nightstick crushed the knot at the base of his skull.
"Alright! Game over pal! Where are the cameras?"
Cameras? Jarrod, didn't know what to make of that. Not until he looked at his hand, and the gun in it. The black paint flaking off in big chips, revealing the translucent red plastic of a toy water pistol beneath. One he discovered later, had been filled with nothing but red dye.
They let him keep his blanket, perhaps because of the cold, perhaps because they didn't know what to make of it, or him. Jarrod didn't either. As they pushed through the throng of gawping onlookers, he thought of flipping the blanket over his head, the way criminals often do on TV, but couldn't see the point. What pride did he have left to salvage?
They bundled him into the back of a police cruiser, and Jarrod wished he could sink further into the its cool vinyl seat -- knowing it was the most comfortable surface his backside was likely to encounter for some time -- but the cold cuffs that dug into his wrist bones kept him pitched forward.
The arresting officer pulled the radio mike from the dash and clicked, "Perp in custody. Coming in, over." He twisted the ignition key. "You that same kid they pulled of the bridge?"
"I said, you that same kid -- "
"I know. Just saying I was sorry."
"Ahh...man's got jokes. So what gives?" he asked, pulling out. "Some kinda protest? Art stunt? Trying to get on YouTube, something like that?"
"Something like that."
"And what's the deal with the blanket?"
"It was a bit nippy out earlier. Look, don't I have the right to remain silent or something?"
The cop grumblingly clammed up.
Jarrod watched the flashing lights of police cars blend with the strobing of Times Square and those of the reporters and photogs that swarmed around the cruiser and crime-scene. As with the bridge, it all was slipping from his mind like any other dream would. The terror, the clarity, the commands that had brought him to this end seemed nothing more than fantasy, a trick of the lights.
The reporters jumped back as the car began to roll forward, and Jarrod wondered what his reception would be like down at the station. After the riot act read to him last time, he figured there'd be a rock hard jail cell slab waiting for him in the tombs. He just hoped he wouldn't have to share it with a rock hard con who felt frisky. After that? Riker's? Someplace worse? Who knew? He wasn't certain they'd be able to pin Ludwig's death on him, but he was damn sure they'd try.
Maybe it'd be for the best if they did. If they locked him up for a bit, for his own good and everyone else's. What if he'd taken that swan dive off the bridge? If he'd gotten hold of a real gun, real bullets? What was he going do next and not remember? An eight by ten cell, three hots and a cot, it was starting to seem okay. Prison couldn't be all that bad. Except for the anal rape part, of course. That was bound to be pretty bad.
Unit 242? Over, squelched the radio.
"This is 242, copy. Over."
242, you are ordered to stand down. Please pull over. Over.
"Over over," Jarrod chuckled from the back seat. It was all a little too much.
"What happened to remaining silent?" the officer said as he eased to the curb. "Copy. Standing down. Over," he clicked, then hung the mike back up on its hook.
Through the back window, Jarrod watched as the cruiser's blue and red flashers bounced off a long black town car behind them. He shook his head, not sure if this would prove a frying pan to fire transition.
A tall blond mountain in black Armani and black shades walked up to the driver's side door and flashed the officer an ID, then handed over a fold of papers. "Agent Day. Homeland Security. We'll be taking over from here."
"Fine by me," the officer said.
Agent Day mumbled something into his suit sleeve and an equally large, suited mountain -- this one with a flat top haircut -- approached the cruiser. They thanked the officer, then frog-marched Jarrod to the town car without a word. He had no clue what Homeland Security wanted with him, but from what he'd heard they really didn't have to have a clue either in order to toss him into a lightless cage for good. Probably after some waterboarding or a nice full cavity search.
On approach, Jarrod could see that the big black car was stretched, almost a limo. At least he'd be going to Gitmo in style. The blond mountain opened the door, while flattop clamped a massive hand on his head and pushed it down toward the gaping blackness.
A voice came from the dark recesses of the car. "Agent Day, you can uncuff Mr. Hanlon. I can't see him giving us any trouble."
Jarrod's hands were freed with a welcome click, and he climbed into a seat facing the back of the car. He rubbed his wrists, eyes adjusting to the darkness. "You know my name?" he asked of the lone silhouette facing him.
"We know a lot of things," the shadow said, as the car steadily picked up speed. "Here," he tossed something over.
Jarrod caught it, a cardboard container, cool to the touch.
"Coconut water," the man said. "Isotonic and all natural. Imagine you're pretty thirsty."
Jarrod was. "Thanks," he said before consuming half of it in one gulp. "Didn't think you Homeland Security guys'd be so accommodating."
"Homeland Security? Please. Did I ask you to take off your shoes?"
"But -- "
"Here." The man tossed over another coconut water. A flickering gray light flooded the limo's cabin as they entered the Lincoln tunnel. "Unfortunate side effects, dehydration and increased body temperature. But don't drink too much, be a while before we get a bathroom break."
"Side effects?" Jarrod asked. "Side effects of what?"
"We'll get to that. I'm sorry," the man stuck out a hand for Jarrod to shake, "Agent Ross. The Division."
"The Division?" Jarrod asked. "The Division of what?"
Agent Ross smiled. "What have you got?"
He went on to give a brief history of The Division, how it had started off as part of the US government -- a branch of the secret service during the Grant administration -- but like most big organizations, had gone multinational some years ago. The Division, it seemed, had its fingers in a lot of pies, was wellspring of a lot of theories about black helicopters, alien crash landings, fake moon landings, grassy knolls, new world orders, clandestine cabals and so on.
"Any of it true?" Jarrod asked.
"Above my pay grade," Agent Ross shrugged. "I'm just here batting clean up."
"Yeah, on the Polybius project."
Jarrod set down his coconut water. "Got anything stronger?"
"Sorry. Agent Ross grinned sheepishly. "Division accounting wouldn't spring for a mini-bar. Almost there anyway."
"Home," he said as the car pulled down a Jersey turnpike off ramp. Factory after abandoned factory rolled past. "Funny that they call it the Garden State. Garbage state's more like it. Where you from Jarrod?"
"Massachusetts," said Ross. "Go Sox. Who'd thought, huh?"
Jarrod had a feeling that Ross had known all along that he was from New England, and that Ross was "from" wherever was convenient. But he played along. "Yeah, go Sox."
The car turned off the main strip onto a darkened service road, coming to a gravel crunching stop some moments later. "Walk with me Jarrod," Agent Ross said getting out.
Jarrod obeyed. He could feel the towering presence of Agent Day and the other enforcer hard on his back as they headed towards a construction site.
"You know Jarrod," Agent Ross said. "It's not an exact science. Some minds are susceptible. Some aren't. Just the way it goes." He kicked a stray clump of freshly overturned earth. "The Division first started experimenting with subliminals, seriously experimenting, in the seventies. For Project Hack, we slipped a few frames into some of prints of Taxi Driver. Mainly just to see if we could do it totally remote. You see, before that we had to bring the subjects in, use drugs and sleep deprivation. Hack turned out reasonably well, all things considered. Got stuck with Reagan longer than optimal. Honestly, we were just toying around at that point.
"Took us a while to suss out the problem. Thing is, with movies and TV you can't be certain the right people are watching the right couple of frames. Even if the other vectors are in place, they look down at their popcorn for a second and the whole thing's blown. In order for assassins to be effective -- "
"Come on Jarrod, we've all seen the X-Files. Anyway, in order for the...remote sleeper operatives to be effective we needed something that would have their eyes literally glued to the screen. Glued like their life depended on it. That's where the games came in."
As they approached the center of the site, the cacophony of construction grew loud. Firefly rain fell in sheets from welders on the tall steel frame's upper tiers. Agent Ross continued, "The first Polybius units were deployed in Portland Oregon for the early phases of testing and intelligence gathering. For those units, the operating software was truncated, some of the more advanced functions omitted. Only one fully functional model, a prototype, was produced."
"Mine." Agent Ross nodded. Jarrod's mouth grew dry. He scanned the construction yard perimeter. It was hemmed by twelve foot razorwire-topped cyclone fence. Even if he could outrun the two linebackers-in-black that hung a few paces back, he wasn't going to get far.
Agent Ross cleared his throat. "Thing is, it never made it past the evaluation stage. Results were too erratic, too unpredictable, too unstable. The entire project was pulled off-line and mothballed in '83. All the Polybius units then in circulation were decommissioned and destroyed. All except the prototype, which was kept for evaluation."
"Evaluation in a Queens roller rink?"
"Ahem, yes. Seems to have gotten loose due to a clerical error, or maybe even a practical joke. Don't think we'll ever know for sure. Dr. Gibbons, the man who headed up the project -- my old boss -- died sixteen years ago. Lung cancer. Two packs a day. That shooting in the arcade, it slipped right past us. Different world back then."
"You don't say."
"Well, some things change. Others stay the same." Agent Ross scratched his chin. "You see Jarrod, that's our job. The Division makes sure what needs to stay the same does, and alters what needs adjustment. We do this, primarily, with fear. Fear's what we traffic in. But we're not perfect. It's like trying to control the weather."
"Can you do that too?"
"To a limited extent, yes, since you ask. Big stuff anyway, hurricanes and whatnot. But we're getting off track. The Polybius project was put on-line in 1981. I must have been about your age, maybe a bit younger, with The Division almost two years, working R&D.
"Let me put '81 in perspective for you, Jarrod. America's still reeling from the death of its sainted John Lennon, then you get attempts on Reagan and John Paul II. No one's safe, not your president, not your pop idols, not your pope. Toss in," Agent Ross started flicking out fingers. "The El Motoze Massacre, the annexation of the Golan Heights as well as the assassination of Anwar Sedat, MTV starts broadcasting, AIDS hits America, Maggie Thatcher shows what a hard-ass she is by starving a member of her own Parliament to death, Cats premieres, and the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. Tell me what you think Jarrod, which one of those didn't The Division have a hand it."
"Oh, hell," Agent Ross chuckled. "It was Cats."
They walked past a bank of heavy-duty earth-movers, one of them methodically scraping a deep hole next to the building's bare steel skeleton. Jarrod could hear the growing rotary clank of an industrial cement mixer. "What is this place?" he asked.
"You know, I'm not quite sure. Figure it's going to be some kind of warehousing complex. Division subsidiaries got the construction contract, no-bid of course. Used to be a ballpark I think. You know, Jarrod, the whole cold war, it was never about beating the Russians. It was about keeping the status quo, and the status quo is fear. And back then, what was scarier than a nuclear war? All that destruction, all those burning skeletons, all those...sunflowers gone."
Jarrod stopped walking as a wave of nausea hit.
"That was mine by the way," Agent Ross said. "That touch, the sunflowers, the girl. Not bad for a twenty-six year old kid just out of Langley. 'Course that nuke stuff doesn't exactly fly these days. Not like it used to." He shrugged, "Russia, who knew they were gonna fold like that? Things were looking grim for a while. Almost had to take a job down at Disney World, they like Division guys. But we seem to have bounced back, don't you think, with the program?"
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean, Jarrod, is, ask yourself this question...are you more afraid now then you were eight years ago?"
"Honestly, Agent Ross, I've never been so scared in my life."
"You're a funny boy Jarrod, funny boy." Ross laughed as they edged closer to the hole. "The Polybius was a very blunt instrument, but it laid the ground work. We can get a lot more surgical now. With the data-mining and all that, we can find the optimal subject in just about any situation and jack right in. The new games, they're all tailored, subject specific, target specific. No more need to drug them in little rooms, or hope they watch the right movie, or lure them to the arcades. It's all right in your home. Why do you think the internet's still free? God bless Al Gore." Ross sighed. "Sorry to see the prototype go, gonna miss the old girl. But we've got to tie up those loose ends now don't we?"
"What do you mean?"
"I think you know what I mean."
They stepped to the rim of the hole. Jarrod saw the cement mixer, still revolving, across the gulf. He felt Agent Day's massive hand clamp down on his shoulder as something cold and round dug into his side.
"Any last requests?" Agent Ross asked.
Jarrod looked down at the hole. There at the bottom, amid a grid of steel reinforcing rods, lay the mangled remains of the Polybius console, soon to be his companion for eternity. He took a deep breath. "Got a cigarette?" he asked.
"Sorry. Don't smoke," Ross said as he slipped on a pair of rubber gloves. "Hazardous to your health."
© 2009 Matthew Quinn Martin
Bio: Matthew Quinn Martin is an MFA candidate in Popular Fiction writing at the Stonecoast Program, University of Southern Maine. He is also the writer of the crime drama Slingshot, a feature film starring Julianna Margulies, David Arquette and Thora Birch (Weinstein Co.) His prose fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, in Transition Magazine, Thuglit, Crossing Chaos' Anthology: Quantum Genre on the Planet of Arts (co-written with Libby Cudmore), MFA/MFYou Lit Journal, The Oddville Press, Twist of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive and Eastern Standard Crime and others.
E-mail: Matthew Quinn Martin
Website: Matthew Quinn Martin
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