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Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
The phone felt heavy in Mark’s hand. Laden with possibility. Packed with enough distractions to get him through the weekend at his in-laws’ lake house up in Fleming. It would provide his escape from their incessant growling at each other, and their insistence that everything’s just wonderful, despite the swarm of invisible daggers flying through the air at all times. He loved being with Kate, of course – they were literally still in their honeymoon phase – but her folks? They would require a shield.
So he loaded up a couple of audiobooks. Check. Confirmed that the cabin had wi-fi (unfortunately requiring a ten-minute conversation with his father-in-law Chuck). Check. And made sure he had his favorite games. Chec– wait. Hold on.
His go-to, Candy Demolition, was getting a little tired lately, even with his clear, self-validating dominance on the charts, and the financial incentive of winning a trip around the world. Although everyone knew it was a bullshit promotion anyway, the “trip” being a ten-day tour of some of the cheapest/shadiest destinations MaxGames could find. Reykjavik, Iceland. Sarajevo. Were people even allowed to travel to Sarajevo?
How about Texas Hold-em? Hmm. Solid for some entertaining trash talk with the other players, but even as he recalled his monumental takedown of PokerAce897, that loudmouth idiot, he frowned. It was a maybe. Just a maybe. What about Pokemon Go? His frown deepened. The high-school kids were already making fun of people who still played it, even though they were playing it nonstop themselves a couple of weeks ago. Kids.
No. He needed something new.
“Hey Trev. What are you playing lately?”
He looked toward the cubicle wall, waiting for Trevor Sandberg’s head to pop up, like a groundhog, announcing his Official List of Five New Things That Don’t Suck. It was annoying, but right now he was looking forward to it. Waiting. Waiting. No head popping. Very un-Trev-like.
Mark pushed back, sending his chair careening out of the cubicle. If he leaned back, he could see Trevor at his workstation without even having to get up. And yes, Trevor was right there, as always, buried in papers, three monitors beckoning him to divine the secrets of financial markets, or at least find The Next Big Stock to sell to their customers. But Trevor’s attention wasn’t on the monitors – his face was buried in his phone.
“Trev. Trev. TREV.”
Trevor whipped his head around, as if he’d been caught stealing. And yes, they weren’t supposed to be on their cell phones during work hours, but who the hell even paid attention to that rule? Did anyone even use their office phones anymore? Trevor nodded, and went back to his device, focused. “Hey Mark.”
“Did you hear what I said? I need a new game for the weekend. Trapped with Kate’s parents. What’s on the Five New Things That Don’t Suck List?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. Wait a second…” he tapped, tapped, tapped at something Mark couldn’t see, then finally, “Okay. Leveled. What’s up? Oh, yeah, the List. Just one thing on the List right now…” He reached out and handed his phone to Mark. “…this. But don’t touch anything. You’ll fuck it up.”
Mark looked down at the screen and laughed. An animated unicorn, holding a comically huge machine gun, saluted him.
“Unicorn Battalion, huh? Trev. What grade are you in?”
The phone shot back into Trevor’s hands. “Hey. You wanted to know. And aren’t you still playing Pokemon Go?” he asked, unironically.
“Sorry, Trev. It just looks, I don’t know, kind of… silly.”
Trevor shook his head, resumed his game. “You have no idea.”
Mark also had no idea that would be the last conversation he’d ever have with Trevor Sandberg.
Beguiling. Mark loved the rare occasions he got to use that word. When he found something that brought him back, back to the excitement of just being a kid, something that seduced him into losing himself to that younger, vaguely-remembered Mark. He hadn’t run across a game in a while that deserved the label “beguiling.” Until after lunch today, that is, when he downloaded Unicorn Battalion. God, looking at the title splash screen made him cringe, with its hyper-military unicorn squad leader, robed in crossed shoulder belts filled with grenades, toting a who-knows-how-many-caliber gun in his (or was it a her?) front legs. Ridiculous. Laughable.
But once he got through Level One, he’d stopped laughing. He was a kid again. It had grabbed him. It was beguiling.
The gameplay was simple: as Unicorn Squad Leader, Mark would lead his battalion (more unicorns, of course) across a never-ending generic landscape, overcoming obstacles, picking up health pellets and rewards, and fighting the baddies – winged reptiles known as Zekes. As corny as the military unicorns were, these Zekes were just downright fucking scary. It wasn’t how they looked, everything in this game had a comic book kind of feel. It was how they acted. Like they were live, stalking him.
And there was something else.
He felt aware that the game knew exactly what his limit was at any moment, and pushed him right to it. But not over. Just on that edge. At every moment. The result was an almost constant rush of achievement, of just barely winning, and then moving on, and just barely winning again. And again. And right before he’d say “enough, I’m done,” as if the game knew the moment was coming, he’d receive a medal, and his troops would be fed, and they’d have a little unicorn party complete with fireworks. For the first time, Mark felt like he wasn’t playing the game. The game was playing him.
And it was perfect.
Wait. What time is it? Mark spun around to the wall clock – 5:30pm.
Holy shit. He hadn’t logged a single keystroke of work since lunch. Nothing to show for the last four and a half hours. Zero. Damn. That was trouble. Suzanne would be pissed. She was the ultimate control freak – a nice enough boss, but work was her god. And her god dealt in hours, minutes, and seconds. Because it was Friday, and he was already late to get Kate for the trip upstate, she’d probably be nice enough to let him go – but then make his life hell all weekend. Her god would demand Mark’s lost hours, minutes, and seconds back – ASAP, to use Suzanne’s favorite acronym. So now he’d have to play nice with Kate’s parents and work off four and a half hours. Damn, damn, damn.
Resigned, he gathered his stuff and plodded down toward the corner office. Every step brought him closer to pain. Last time this happened his ears rang for an hour. Maybe he should just bolt? No. That would make it even worse.
He knocked on the open door. Suzanne sat, back facing him, at her computer. She didn’t turn around.
“Um, Hi Suzanne. Listen, I know–“
Her finger shot up into the air. Mark knew the signal and shut the hell up immediately. But still she didn’t turn around. Uh-oh. This was going to be a doozy. He closed his eyes and braced himself.
“One second, Mark.” A long pause. Too long. “Um, all right. Listen, you have yourself a nice weekend with your in-laws, and I’ll see you Monday morning.”
Mark opened his eyes. Huh? He peered over the long-backed office chair. Yes, it was her hair. And it was her voice. It was definitely her. He hadn’t stumbled into the wrong office.
“But… thank you…?”
“Oh, and please shut the door on your way out.”
The door clinked shut, leaving Mark standing in the hallway puzzled. Suzanne didn’t rip him a new one? That was strange.
What was even stranger, what Mark couldn’t see, was that the woman who had never played a single video game in her entire life, not once, was desperately trying to reach Level Three of Unicorn Battalion.
“Uh, yeah. Got stuck at work. Busy.”
It was a lie. He had promised he’d never lie to Kate after they got married in the summer. But that promise lasted less than a week, before their honeymoon was even over, when she caught him taking a gander at some random thong on the beach in Aruba. Kate called him on it, of course, she wasn’t blind, but he said he was watching a couple of kids playing soccer. It was just a little white lie, and she didn’t seem to mind, nudging him with her elbow and smiling that off-kilter smile of hers. God, he loved that smile.
Launching their bags into the back of the Honda, he stopped. “Wait. No. That’s not true. I got a little side-tracked. Trevor showed me something and I got side-tracked. I’m sorry.”
She closed the trunk and laughed. “Let me guess. He tried to rope you into another one of his brilliant app ideas. One that can tell you if the nearest gas station has a clean bathroom or something.”
“Hmmm. That’s actually a great idea. He’d love that one. But no, it was a game.” Mark plopped into the driver’s seat and they shut their doors at the same moment. “Anyway, speaking of gas stations, we should probably fill up before we–“
“A game? I can only imagine how long you two dicked around with that. And I’m sure Suzanne was thrilled. Wait– don’t you dare tell me she’s making you work tonight.”
Mark grinned. “Nope.”
“Nope. And that’s Labor Day, by the way. I think it’s illegal to work on Labor Day. Although if the cops aren’t working, I’m not sure there’d be anybody around to arrest you.” He put the car in gear, and started them on their five-hour drive.
Kate raised her eyebrows. “No punishment work? Wow. Your whip-cracking boss lady’s getting mellow in her old age. What is she, like thirty-five? Practically retired, I guess. Well, good for us. This weekend’s going to be nice.” She reached over, planted a kiss on his lips, and reached for his phone. “Now let me see what kept your blushing bride waiting at the front door feeling abandoned.”
As her hand grasped Mark’s phone, a strange urge gripped him.
He wouldn’t let it go.
For a way-too-long moment, the two of them played tug-o-war with the device. What the hell was that about? It was just a phone. Just a game. Come on, Mark. Let it go already.
“Give me that, silly!” She squealed playfully, as she wrenched the phone away from him.
Mark felt a flash of anger. No, it couldn’t be. He had never been angry with Kate. Especially not for something so trivial. It must have been the stress of their impending visit with Chuck and Helen. Three days alone with them in a cabin on a lake. Ugh.
Kate snickered. “Unicorns, huh? Pretty intellectual, high-concept stuff. But at least she’s blue. My favorite color.”
“No. HE’s orange. My favorite color. What are you looking at? Did you mess something up?”
As he pulled to a stop in front of the last empty gas pump, she turned the phone facing him. “No. It’s just your pretty blue unicorn. With a flame thrower or something.”
“You call that blue?”
She began to turn the phone back to have another look, and they both saw it happen: the Unicorn Squad Leader morphed from clearly orange and male when facing him, to clearly blue and female when facing her.
“Do that again.”
She pivoted the phone between facing him and facing her, multiple times, and each time the image morphed. “Woah.”
“Weird. Must be some new A.I. Maybe it works with your–”
A horn interrupted his insight. The line at the pumps was growing, everyone getting out of town for Labor Day weekend, and he could hear the guy in the Escalade behind them through two sets of car windows. “Hey! You gonna sit in your car, or pump some gas?”
Mark popped out of the car, waved a little apology, and got pumping. Don’t want to piss off the burly guy in the Escalade. While he waited, leaning against the car, the slightly grimy little television above the pump droned on about some useless trivia, a pseudo-news item about Kanye West, and then this: “Now the New York Minute! The country – no, the world – has gone crazy for Unicorn Battalion!” The monitor flashed the now-familiar images of unicorns locked in battle, this time overlaid with a simple graph showing a dollar sign and a big, red up arrow. “Released just last week, the mobile game from ArcSoft, an unknown startup in San Francisco, has already surpassed Candy Demolition as the number one game download in history. Battle evil flying reptiles and lead your team of insanely well-armed unicorns to victory? Sounds uni-corny if you ask us, but people are saying it’s already on its way to becoming a classic like Pac Man, Super Mario, and World of Warcraft. What level are you at?”
When the pump finally clicked, Mark nodded to Burly Guy, who promptly gave him the finger. New Yorkers. Mark plopped back into his seat and quickly pulled away onto Astoria Boulevard. “Hey Kate. On the TV right now. The gas station TV back there. Trev was totally right. There’s only one thing on the List right now. This game.” He glanced over. “Kate. Kate. KATE?”
“Wha? Uh, yeah.” Tap, tap, tap. “Yeah, that’s nice. Hey, I’m almost at Level Two already, so you’re okay with just listening to the radio, right?”
He wasn’t. He’d rather be playing it himself, and having her drive, if he was being completely honest. But she seemed happy. And she was interested in something geeky for once, so he’d let it slide. And how long could she possibly be excited about it? He gave her ten minutes tops. “Sure, you play. I’ll drive in silence. Poor Mark. Poor, poor Mark.”
Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.
She was still tapping five hours later as they pulled up to the cabin on the lake.
Wow. That was weird.
Kate looked up at the smiling faces of her mom and dad walking toward the car. But just a minute ago she and Mark had hit the road. “Um… honey?”
Mark got out and stretched his aching legs. “Yes, babe. You just played Unicorn Battalion for five hours.” He turned to Chuck and Helen. With his best fake cheer he exclaimed, “Mr. And Mrs. Bryant! So good to see you!”
Helen pulled him into a bear hug. “Listen here, Mark. It’s Mom and Dad now.” She wouldn’t let go. She got stronger every time Mark met her.
Prying himself free, Mark went to the trunk for the bags. “Okay, um, Mom.”
“Chuck! You help him! He’s your new son, for crying out loud!”
Chuck scoffed. “It’s two little bags, Helen. They know how to pack for a weekend. I think he can handle them. It’s not like your three steamer trunks upstairs.” He winked at Mark. But he grabbed both bags out of Mark’s hands anyway, and bowed to Helen. “Will that be all, ma’am?”
Helen pinched his earlobe and propelled him toward the front door. “For now, bellhop. But I may need your assistance in my chambers later.”
Oh my god, Mark thought. They’re flirting. Chuck and Helen. He didn’t think he’d ever seen them even say something nice to each other, much less toss around sexual innuendo. He didn’t know whether to smile or throw up.
Helen turned back to the Honda. “And why is my pumpkin still in the car? Kate!”
Buckling from five hours of non-use, Kate’s legs somehow still managed to carry her into her mother’s arms. “Hi mom.”
“Are you sick, dear?”
“No, just, uh, slept in the car. A little groggy.” That was a lie. To her own mother. Sure, she’d been lying to her since she could form a sentence, but they’d been getting along better than ever with the wedding and everything, and she was trying to be good. She felt a pang of guilt. Stupid game. I’m never playing that game again. Maybe once. But that’s it. Her legs screamed as she tried to shake loose the pins and needles.
“Well. I’ve got just the thing to wake you up, pumpkin. A lively game of–“
“A-HEM, honey,” Chuck interrupted, “I thought that was our little secret.”
Mark and Kate locked eyes. Nah. It couldn’t be.
Helen laughed. “Nonsense. We’re all family. As soon as you two get your bags unpacked, we’ll start up a four-player game of Unicorn Battalion.”
Three days of peace. Mark couldn’t believe it. It was actually kind of magical. Chuck and Helen barely argued, their common interest in Unicorn Battalion making everything else seem – like it was – petty. They were just two couples, curled into each other on separate couches in the den, laughing, slaying Zekes, eating a little, and staying up all night.
The power had gone out on Saturday afternoon, but it didn’t matter much. Chuck was practically a doomsday prepper, so they had enough of generator power for five years, food to feed a small country, and entertainment options galore. Although now that the weekend was over, Mark couldn’t remember watching any TV, or playing a single board game, or finishing a puzzle, or even talking that much, to be honest. But they all had smiles on their faces, so he was certain they had a good time.
Kate gave Helen a peck on the cheek as she opened the driver’s side door to the Honda. It was only fair to let Mark play on the way home. “Bye, mom. We’ll see you in October for the apple-picking thing.”
Helen wrinkled up her nose. “Oooh, about that. I think Chuck and I… well, we’re just going to stay up here for a while.” She beamed at Chuck. He smoothed a stray hair behind her ear and whispered, “Probably through the winter.”
Kate was almost hurt. But to see her parents happy – dare she say in love? – was worth a million bushels of unpicked apples. “Well, then, we’ll come up and do Thanksgiving here. Maybe?”
Helen trapped her in another bear hug. “Oh, absolutely. Yes. Definitely. We have so much to give thanks for. We’re almost at Level Six!” She laughed. “Now you take care on the drive home. Traffic, you know. Probably a nightmare already. It’s late. You better get going.” And she shooed Mark and Kate to the car.
As the car pulled past the gate, Kate glanced in her rear view mirror to find them, giddy, running back into the cabin, like a couple of kids who’s parents had just left them home alone to party. Kate caught her mom patting her dad on the ass and thought: who are the parents and who are the children?
She smiled, already looking forward to seeing them again for Thanksgiving.
There was no way she could know that the last Thanksgiving had already been celebrated.
“Honey, we need gas. Honey. HONEY.”
Mark bolted upright and looked around. They were parked at a rest area on 287. Though they all looked the same, he somehow recalled this rest area being the one near the Tappan Zee Bridge. Which would mean he’d been trying to get to Level Seven for at least three hours. Just a little more and I’m there.
He absently got out, circled the car, and slid his credit card into the pump.
Oh, the thingy’s not working on this pump.
Stretching out his legs, he figured a walk to pay cash to the clerk inside was good for him, and wiser than asking Kate to move the car to another pump. He hadn’t said two words to her the whole drive so far, and even as a relative newlywed, he knew when he might be approaching the doghouse, and was learning how to avoid it. So he strolled into the QuickE-Mart, up to the counter, and waited for the guy.
Dude, you’re taking a pretty long whiz, he thought. Then he shook the clouds from his brain, looked around, and realized something was missing.
Sound. And light.
No coffee machine dripping. No refrigerator humming. No little buzz from the neon light by the cigarettes. And it was dark in here. And there was no guy. He called out.
“Hey! Dude! You’ve got a customer!”
He walked outside and looked around.
Not only was there no guy. There wasn’t a single car anywhere in view. Normally on 287 on the last day of a holiday weekend this place would be a madhouse, the highway a constant stream of six lanes of cars and trucks, all trying like hell to get home.
No power. No cars. No guy. Weird.
He went back into the building, around the back of the counter, hoping for a big red button he could push that turned on the pumps or made the gas guy appear. It wasn’t there. He did find a 10-gallon gas can, maybe half-filled, so he slapped a twenty dollar bill on the counter, took it, and went back to the car.
He knocked on the window. Kate looked up from her game – she was still on Level Five and trying to catch up to him – and rolled down the window. “What?”
“Kate. They still haven’t fixed the power up here. It’s been three days. And there’s nobody on the road. Isn’t that kind of strange? More than kind of?”
She pointed to his hand. “What’s that?”
“Pumps don’t work. There’s probably five or six gallons in here. It’ll get us home no problem. Then we can fill up there.”
So they finished up at the empty rest area, and got back out on the empty road, six gallons of gas sloshing around in the otherwise empty tank. Mark wanted to get back to Unicorn Battalion, desperately, but he was also vaguely curious about what was going on. He turned on the radio, switched it to AM and scanned for some news. Nothing. Just static. But then this:
“…Reserves… please repor…federal action…unicorn…spread…been a recording…”
“Wait. Did that woman just say ‘unicorn?’”
Kate giggled. “Yeah. It’s kind of funny actually. It sounds like one of those emergency recordings, but they slipped the word ‘unicorn’ right in the middle.”
Mark felt uneasy for a second. He turned off the radio. “Yeah. Funny.” He opened Unicorn Battalion, and felt much better immediately.
They drove in silence for the next hour. There were only twelve cars on the road the rest of the way – Kate counted them out loud – so their Honda made record time.
Pulling up to their house on Atlantic Avenue, Mark grinned. Ahh, home. In a few minutes, I’ll be in my favorite chair, getting to Level Seven. He opened the hatch to get the bags, and Kate made a run for the first-floor bathroom.
“Hey. What level are you at?”
It was Josh. His neighbor. Sitting right there in his driveway, in his little SUV, maybe a foot from Mark. “Oh. Hi, Josh.”
“What level are you at?”
“Um, you mean with…”
“Unicorn Battalion. Come on. What level are you at?” He showed Mark his phone, tethered to a charging cable in the dashboard. Mark smelled exhaust and realized Josh’s little SUV was idling.
Mark shifted on his feet. “Six. Level Six. Almost Seven. Josh, you know you’re sitting in your car, and your house is right there, right?”
Josh just laughed. “No power. Wait ’til you get to Level Seven. Wait.”
And in the next moment, the moment before he ran back to his car to finish the Level, Mark had the last full, coherent thought he’d ever have. Looking up and down the block, at his normal neighbors, sitting in their cars in little groups, huddled around their phones, he knew.
No one had gone to work since Friday. Not because it was Labor Day weekend.
Even the police didn’t show up to work. The cabbies. The news reporters. The firemen. The rest area gas guys.
Whoever was in charge of monitoring the electrical grid didn’t show up for work.
Nuclear plant technicians didn’t show up for work.
No one was there to top off the fuel tanks for all the generators, for all the backups, for all the power.
Everyone was playing the game instead. He looked around and around. The game.
The game had taken hold of everyone it touched. Taken over.
And then that last thought slipped into some memory somewhere, never to be recalled again.
Because now it was just about the game. Only the game.
He didn’t need Internet to play. He just needed power.
The car still had gas. He could probably charge for a day or so.
He had to get to Level Seven. Now.
©2016 Rob Dircks. All rights reserved.