Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Lucid Maddyn had a passing thought about wordless hours. How many wordless hours had he racked up sitting in that desk chair? Sometimes it was the whole morning, as he avoided eye contact with any of the hundreds of people passing through the arcade in its early hours. It was a skill unto itself, as many of them were children, their eyes drawn by Maddyn’s impressive height.
The real problem were the ones just old enough to recognize that he wore a uniform and a name tag. They knew he was an employee, so they tried to snag him over any little thing: vomit in the carpet, a machine eating tokens, a missing sibling. Blah, blah, blah… They usually couldn’t hold onto him. The floor wasn’t his job; that was Danny’s hassle.
Ding! The coffee was ready. That’s what he was thankful for: avoiding words at least until five sips into a cup. He stood up and went to fetch his French roast, walking by the crown jewels of the Record-Smasher arcade’s stock: cabinet after cabinet of rare and classic arcade games, some from the original surge in the seventies and eighties, but most from the 2030’s. That was the period called the radical renaissance by most gaming historians. It saw the return of experimentation, of bulky machines and simple sound cards.
On his way to the coffee he crossed the tiger-striped cabinet for Beast Hunting Bastards, the face-scanning fishbowl-screened cabinet of To Blink like a Fish, and one with army camo on tread wheels called Finders Killers. The one after that was black and steaming, but it was just his coffee machine, set into the old shell of a discarded burnt out game. Sometimes Maddyn swore he could taste a little extra static electricity in the coffee from that old shell. Perhaps that was what gave him the strength and commitment to get his name, Maddyn13, on the high scores for most of the cabinets stored in the back. That, or the wordless hours.
Maddyn paced around his office, sipping the steam off the top of the coffee. He was safe from any words until eleven, when he had his dreaded weekly conference call. He didn’t even get many words of his own whenever he was trapped in one; it was mostly the arcade’s owner blathering to his managers for twenty-five straight minutes.
He stopped in front of his one long window, looking out over the arcade floor. It was a swamp of tourists, enthusiasts, children, and ‘media personalities’ streaming and recording things from their phones. The glass was tinted and his office was soundproof, but when he looked at them for more than a minute he swore he could hear the chaos, hear every frustrated foot banging into a machine that didn’t deserve it.
He watched Danny wade into them and try to keep them from ruining the working machines. He stood no chance. There was a reason they only had the multiples down on the floor. All those tokens were their main source of income, but their purpose was preservation. Behind Maddyn’s office, behind his watchful eye, whenever it wasn’t napping, stood the most complete collection of radical renaissance games in the world. All he had to do was make sure he was the only one going in and out.
Scalding. It took him a full three seconds to pull the cup away from his mouth. His lip was red and raw. He licked at it, ignoring the sting, because he couldn’t tear his eyes from the revolving front doors. Two people came through and waded into the crowd, but they clearly weren’t there for fun. There was a man pushing a cabinet-sized box on a dolly. He was accompanied by some middle-aged woman, probably within a year or two of Maddyn, wearing a salmon blazer and an extremely large political pin with a winking face on it. The face was so large that Maddyn could identify it from an entire floor away: Mayor Jethro.
He set his coffee down and returned to the desk. He pulled up a few windows on his computer to look busy. If they weren’t here to play, they were here to bother him. He knew the possibilities by now: someone trying to pawn off a mass-produced machine, someone wanting an interview, or someone wanting to connect with his boss. No matter what the answer, it was bad news for his wordless hour count.
There was a pretty standard amount of time it took to cross the floor, get into the elevator, and show up outside his door. Maddyn counted down, tapping the burnt spot on his lip. Five, four, three… A knock on the door. Damn; he was a second off. Maddyn took a deep breath, combed through his hair with one long-fingered hand, and went to answer it.
When the door swung open the delivery man wasted no time in wheeling the box in and pulling it off the dolly. Maddyn didn’t even have time to protest. In marched the woman, flicking at things on her tablet computer. She didn’t even bother looking at him first; her giant pin’s eyes, which followed Maddyn, paid far more attention.
“Good morning,” the woman said. She waved the delivery man away, and he took his dolly with him, back down onto the floor. “I assume you’re the owner of this gaming establishment? I have a formal request from…”
“I’m not the owner,” Maddyn interrupted. Her finger stopped tapping. She looked up, right at Maddyn’s collarbone, where she expected an average person’s head to be. She seemed almost annoyed that she had to crane up further to look him in the eye.
“Oh, you’re a tall person,” she said matter-of-factly. “I thought… You look too tall to play any of these machines. Do you put them on pallets or something?”
“No. Can I help you?”
“Oh right. Uhm… can you? I think I need to speak with the owner. I need an expert to examine the game I’ve brought.” Maddyn analyzed her expression. She didn’t seem shifty. Her clothes were very neat, free of lint despite all the static in the air. She had solid blue eyes and straight blonde hair that sat perfectly flat, giving her head an unnaturally round appearance. He could’ve gathered a little more information if his eyes weren’t constantly distracted by the face on her pin. She saw this, clicking on the pin to turn it a solid color and bring him back to the conversation.
“We don’t do appraisals,” Maddyn said. Still, he wandered over to the box, pulled a box cutter from his pocket, and started opening it. His boss would can him if he ever found out Maddyn turned away something truly rare. “We’ve got separate experts for that. I can give you their number. If they like what they see they call us, and then we make an offer. This whole walk-in of yours is kind of rude.” He carefully opened one side of the box, like a door.
“Well in that case I apologize,” the woman said earnestly, “but this is something of an emergency. Whoever dropped that thing off in my office was the real rude one. I work for Mayor Jethro by the way, so that office was our city’s capitol building. This just appeared there overnight.” Maddyn took a step back.
“Appeared? I’m no politician, but when stuff appears in front of guys like Jethro, it’s usually a bomb or a pile of shit disguised as a bomb, right?”
“Correct, and we obviously thought as much given the current scandal.” Maddyn thought back to the news he’d passively absorbed over the past few mornings. He didn’t have the whole story, because his glazed eyes only ever caught the newsfeed before his coffee. Jethro was a lifelong politician: the kind of man only allowed to have two hobbies. One was golf, and the other was something nasty that would eventually get him expelled from office. Gaming was neither of those things, freeing him up to crusade against it.
Jethro was spearheading a campaign to make virtual reality games illegal. A few too many citizens were throwing their lives away on the immersive experiences. Three states had already outlawed them. Maddyn didn’t like politicians at the best of times, but he did owe Jethro. With people terrified over losing their virtual porn and ego-stroking sessions with beautiful collections of light, they were flocking back to older preserved games. Record-Smasher was busier than ever thanks to him.
“We had the bomb squad do a sweep, and they said there definitely wasn’t a bomb inside,” she continued. “We tried turning it on, but it wouldn’t respond. We couldn’t find a plug on it either. We thought perhaps it was more of a publicity trap. If someone could get photos of Jethro’s people destroying an antique cabinet, that might convince people he was some kind of anti-gaming nut. So the mayor tasked me with figuring out what it is, who sent it, and what to do with the damn thing.”
“And now I’m supposed to figure out what to do with the damn thing,” Maddyn groaned.
“If you wouldn’t mind. I have all morning, so maybe I can help you. My name’s Marla.” She extended her hand. Maddyn took it and shook, but also noticed there wasn’t a chip in her nail polish. Those weren’t working hands.
“Lucid,” he offered.
“Your name is Lucid?”
“Lucid Maddyn. My parents were a little…” He twirled his finger around his ear and whistled. “When I was old enough they told me they named me Lucid because they wanted me to think clearly, to not get distracted by the flashing lights of the meaningless parts of the world.”
“Did it work? Is that how you think?”
“I thought clearly enough to realize that Lucid was a stupid name. You can call me Maddyn.” He went back to cutting and peeling the cardboard away. It was a normal enough cabinet, but it had clearly been modified. There was a battery pack on the front, near the six aluminum coin slots.
“Alright Maddyn, as long as you call me Marla. I’m really in the same boat as you. Last name’s Chickenhawk.” Maddyn sputtered, the sudden laughter stinging his burnt lip. He reigned it in quickly. “I thought you’d be more sympathetic,” she said with a smirk. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to run for office with Chickenhawk on all the signs. I would take Lucid in a heartbeat.”
“Huh,” was all he had to say at first. He’d already forgotten her name in the face of the mystery before him. He dropped the cardboard; it flopped to the floor. “I don’t know this game.” Its title was at the top in green lettering: The Ultimate and the Dedicated. “That’s cryptic as all hell.”
“So, you can’t identify it?” Marla asked. “Do I have to drag this thing to some other museum?”
“Maybe not. Let’s turn it on. See what kind of game we’re dealing with here.”
“There’s no switch and no plug. It doesn’t work.”
“You never went to arcades much, did you?” Maddyn pointed to a coin slot. “It needs tokens.” He grabbed a key ring from his belt. “Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
“The token vault. If there’s a token that fits that, I’ve got it in the back.” He waved for her to follow, and they moved to the back door. He unlocked it with three separate keys, including a digital one. Marla suppressed a gasp at the sight of the back room. It could hardly be called a room, given its incredible size and high ceiling.
The only lights came from the shelves themselves: row after row of vertical plastic sheets filled with little pockets. Each pocket held exactly one arcade token. Maddyn recited the statistics to see if he could keep her jaw dropped the entire time they walked through the token storage. More than four hundred thousand unique coins. Metal, wood, plastic, glass, resin… All the colors of the rainbow and the original eight bit machines. Round, triangular, square. Some lit up. Some were scratch and sniff. All of them were outdated. The most accurate catalog of every token in there was firmly planted in Maddyn’s memory.
“How are we ever going to find it in here?” Marla asked. She poked one of the plastic sheets and was surprised when the whole thing swayed. She hopped back.
“I can make a few educated guesses,” Maddyn boasted. “Computer.” The lines between the token pockets lit up in various colors. “This is an advanced sorting system normally used for regular collectible coins or stamps. It brings me whatever I ask for. Computer, let me see all tokens from 2026 to 2030.” The lines shuddered to life, moving left and right, up and down, even as Marla failed to track the seams between pockets. “Good, good. Judging by the cabinet’s construction, I definitely think our answer is in here somewhere.”
“How did you learn about all these things? Can you major in antique games?” she asked.
“I learned it in my wordless hours.”
“Never mind. Computer, leave out all the Japanese companies. Show me metal tokens, round in shape, discontinued after less than a year. I have a feeling our game designer wanted the cabinet to feel like a victim, something that never lived its life. Computer, among these give me the five least distributed, oh and the skeletoken as well.”
The machine processed the request, shuffling tokens by the thousands across the plastic; they occasionally tinkled against each other like shower rings falling down the curtain. When he had his six tokens he pulled on a pair of gloves and carefully extracted them from their pockets. After that, it was a short walk back to the calm lights and enclosed space of the office.
“Let’s see what The Ultimate and the Dedicated has to offer,” he whispered as he popped the first token into the slot. It didn’t take. The second. No good. The third. Failure. On the fourth try… tlink-unk! The cabinet swallowed the coin and its screen came to life. Maddyn rose to his full height. He’d bested a thousand games, but this one forced him to take a step back. Marla joined him, bumping into the desk and nearly knocking over his cold coffee.
They weren’t frightened by sprites or loud music. The screen didn’t light up; it opened from the bottom like a garage door. Fog poured out. There was no reason for any game cabinet to have a fog machine; whatever terrorist-auteur was behind this thing had just slipped it in for effect.
Out came a mechanical tray loaded with tiny machines. These were where the cabinet’s life had been instilled. There were five of them: tiny robotic warriors that unfolded as their eyes lit up and they chirped or screeched. Off jumped a squat metal man in a green tunic, wielding shield and sword. A tiny spaceship took to the air, circling the office and spraying smoke from its engine. Something between a snake and a centipede trundled to the floor, its hundred feet stamping. A bat fluttered out as if from its cave, its eyes red and flashing. Last to emerge was a mechanical frog, strong enough to leap up to Maddyn’s throat.
“Oh my god, what are these things?” Marla shouted, swatting at the bat when it came too close to her head. She grabbed Maddyn’s office chair and used it to push the little green warrior away. His sword struck the chair’s wheeled leg and stuck deep in its material. “Are they actually trying to kill us?”
“Uhh… I don’t know,” Maddyn declared. The centisnake wound itself in figure eights around his legs, forcing him to hopscotch in and out of its reach. Its jaws, a mechanical mishmash of mandible and mouth, clapped shut with a sound like two can openers arm-wrestling. “I think I know what they are though.” The spaceship rammed into his cheek, demonstrating the sharpness of its nose. It sank in like a dart thrown by an Olympian. “Ahh! Son of a sixteen bit bitch!’ He ripped it out of his cheek, letting the blood flow, but had to toss it away when its engine scalded his hand.
“Well, what are they dammit?” Marla was picking up the chair and smashing it back down, trying to crush the little green man, but it blocked her blows with its shield. The bat swooped in again, biting the pin off her lapel. Mayor Jethro’s stunned face gasped as the pin wobbled on the carpet. The centisnake slithered over and bit into it.
“They’re definitely after the mayor,” Maddyn insisted. “These are what came before all that VR stuff. Little robots that were supposed to act out the video game. They were a fad, lasted like two years. Woah!” He dipped under another sweep from the spaceship. “They’re not supposed to be tipped with actual blades! I guess somebody wanted to prove video games were better than the mayor and his little campaign.”
“He’s not even here!” Marla hissed at the adventurous little robots. “Go away! Game over! Shut down!”
“I don’t think that’s going to work. Good thing I’ve got this.” He dug the skeletoken out of his pocket: a large titanium coin with a neon skull emblazoned on it. Marla asked what it was. “It’s a universal token, like a skeleton key. If I can get it in the slot, it’ll open the programming console and shut down anything that’s running. Hopefully that means these blasted gadgets!”
Maddyn lunged for the cabinet, but the robots were smart enough to interfere. The centisnake wrapped around his legs, pulled them together, and forced him to hop. The warrior jumped in front of the cabinet and swung its sword. Marla tried to move in, but the frog tackled her and used suction cups to crawl all over her forearms.
Briiiiiiiiing! Briiiiiiiiing! Briiiiiiiiiiiing! Maddyn swore under his breath and hopped over to the desk. He picked up an ear piece with his free hand and started settling it over his left ear.
“What are you doing?” Marla demanded.
“It’s my weekly conference call,” he barked. “I have to listen to these blowhards and they have to think nothing is wrong. Be super quiet!” Marla was about to shout again, something about them being under attack, but Maddyn shushed her. The earpiece lit up. “Yes, Mr. Lovitz. Yes, I’m here. I hope you’re having a lovely day as well. The arcade is packed today.”
Maddyn tried to hop toward the cabinet while he spoke. He was three quarters of the way there, halfway through a fake laugh at a golf joke, when the frog leapt off Marla and to him. The tall man was toppled. The green warrior took this chance to charge in, tiny feet pumping on their circular mechanism. Its sword drew closer and closer to his throat.
“I can get those invoices to you sometime this afternoon,” Maddyn said as quickly as he could. The blade swung in. He grabbed both sides of it and forced himself to his knees. The spaceship swooped down, flying right between his knees and arms. “That sound? Oh, I think there’s a plane passing by. I’m still listening sir.”
He didn’t have time to look at Marla, but the chickenhawk was busy trying to get to the door, to escape the madness of the cabinet. The bat blocked her way and screeched once more. Too loud. Another sound like that and he could get reprimanded. It could earn him a visit from Mr. Lovitz. That meant the know-nothing’s hands all over the cabinets, all over the tokens he had individually polished even though nobody ordered it. This was Maddyn’s temple, Maddyn’s vault, and it didn’t matter if the god of the business deigned to descend and fire him. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Maddyn13 had the high scores on every antique in the building. He was part of history. He was the only man to ever beat the shipped-in score of Hard Hat Dolphin, and that was the hardest platformer in existence. What were these little trinkets compared to that? Determination pumping in his lanky limbs, Maddyn forced himself back to his feet with a grunt. The centisnake still bound his feet, but he had a plan. The frog jumped up, got in his face, and he grabbed it. That meant two were preoccupied, but the biggest threat was the swinging sword approaching his ankles.
As quickly as he could, he forced the frog’s mouth open, ignoring its panicked electric ribbit. All the little weapons had themes. He remembered the old frog games, where you had to guide a foolhardy amphibian across the street. Frogs were dodgers; it was practically the physics of video games. He shoved the remaining token in its mouth and threw it to the desk.
“No I haven’t been there Mr. Lovitz,” he nearly growled, “are the baked clams really that good?” Even through her terror, he saw the sympathy on Marla’s face. She knew what it was like to have a moron for a boss, a person who would’ve surrendered to the tiny game creatures as soon as the first drop of blood was spilled.
The frog jumped towards him, the token rattling in its mouth. The others turned their heads or changed course. The token was all Maddyn had left to stop them. They just needed to get it away from him permanently. The ship zoomed toward the desk, and the bat abandoned Marla’s head to follow. The centisnake released his feet, and the little warrior gave chase as well.
The frog’s sensors had lost track of the token, so it didn’t comprehend why its fellows swarmed it. All it knew to do was dodge, as programmed. It hopped off the desk, leading the others in a chase around the office. Maddyn was free! His leg and face were bleeding, he had bruises across thirty percent of his body, but there was nothing between him and the coin slot. Marla hurried over and helped him towards it.
The frog’s mouth had the last token he would’ve tried on the slots, but the skeletoken was still in his hand. He clicked the tiny button on its side to activate it. Its eyes flashed and it cackled like a cheesy Halloween decoration. Down it went, tumbling into the slot, bouncing around inside the strange cabinet.
“Oh, we’re done already?” he said into the earpiece. “Time flies in these calls. Yes, I’ll be here next week. Like clockwork, you know me Mr. Lovitz. Alright. Yes, I will try those baked clams. Alright. Bye bye now. Yes, goodbye.” Maddyn dropped to his bottom, putting his back against the coin slots. He sighed, rubbing the puncture wound in his cheek. There were no other sounds. No crowd of know-nothings swarming his machines. No murderous game characters gnawing at his ankles.
He looked to the little monsters. They were still active, but they no longer had a directive. The frog hopped idly, eventually coughing up a token. The warrior had no reason to raise his sword; he dragged it across the carpet as he walked in circles.
“What now?” Marla asked.
“Now, you leave this to me.”
Maddyn waded through all the shorter people on the arcade floor, patting the head of any child in his way to get them moving. He made it to the elevator. To the office. He put his coffee in the roasting cabinet, but there was another pick-me-up he could use. He went to the backdoor and pulled the skeletoken from his pocket. He slipped it into the The Ultimate and the Dedicated. The warrior came out from under the desk, brandishing its sword. The ship took off from the top of a paper tray, scorching an invoice.
Out came the bat, the centisnake, and the frog.
They were the only assistants he would ever need. Maddyn raised his fists for a little sparring. What a relief it was to have some fresh fun for his wordless hours.