Our Writer in Residence, Emilie Collyer, also wrote a response to the experience of playing games at the Fresh Air festivalin Feb, 2013. We’re proud to present Emilie’s brand new work – Plays Well With Others.
by Emilie Collyer
The problem wasn’t so much in the game. The problem was in the aftermath of the game.
‘Who the fuck is going to clean this place up?’
He was blonde, lean and dressed as a security guard. None of us could tell at that moment who was Halo and who was Human. It was hard enough any time, but straight after a long game judgement was particularly impaired. But he was holding a gun so we gave him the benefit of the fucking doubt.
‘It’s Chinese fucking New Year here tomorrow. You understand that? It’s the Year of the fucking Snake. This place has got to be spotless!’
I tried doing a head count but there was a bunch of us and my eyes kept jumping. It was late, already dark and we were all exhausted.
I’d only picked up one new name. She called herself Fifi or was it Didi? Anyway, she’d changed outfits straight after the game so I could only assume she had something to hide.
‘Nice dress,’ I said as we filed out of the holding room, each assigned to a different area for clean up. It wasn’t just a line. She looked pretty, a dress the colour of sunshine, dark hair, fresh face.
‘I don’t have time for this shit,’ she muttered. ‘I signed up for the game. I played. That’s it. Isn’t clean up on someone else’s goddamn roster?’
I shrugged, pulled out a cigarette, offered it to her. She tossed her head, no. I lit up, dragged deep.
‘You want to work together? It’ll be faster.’
‘Didi is it?’ I extended my hand.
‘That’s my character name,’ she said.
‘Right, and your real name?’
‘You don’t need to know.’
Bitch left my hand flapping out there like a sock in the wind.
‘It’s those fucking giant birds,’ she waved her own hands around, taking in the open paved area we were crossing, which was covered with smears of white shit and the occasional squashed and mangled bee.
‘What were you playing?’ I asked, trying to keep thing nice, teach this newbie a thing or two about game etiquette.
‘Basic hunt and kill. But clean, you know, down by the river.’
‘And that guy I saw you with?’ it was a risk. She’d already made it clear she wasn’t interested in giving out personal details. But I was curious. Two newbies on the one day was unusual. I wanted to sniff things out.
‘Oh him,’ she rolled her eyes and this pretty pink flush spread across her cheeks.
Already mixing play and reality. She didn’t stand a chance.
‘You want to be careful,’ I took three quick sucks on my cigarette, getting as much as I could out of the cancer stick. ‘Pretty thing like you. Guys’ll take advantage. Don’t get wrapped up in the game. The game’s just a game.’
She pulled her face in, lips pursed, a shitty kind of adolescent look on her face, like I’d caught her out after curfew.
‘It’s all right,’ I lightened my tone, ‘do whatever you want. No skin off my nose. Just, you know, be careful.’
We stopped talking then and started scrubbing. Some of the bees spurted out pollen-y goop as they died and it was sticky as all fuck. We had an area of a couple square feet to cover. It was hot, hard work and even though night had fallen now, sweat started pouring off me. To her credit, little Miss Sunshine worked like a demon and didn’t complain. Fuck that yellow dress looked nice, dancing around in the moonlight as she attacked the ground with a wet bristle mop.
I smelled the guy before I saw him.
One of those mother fuckers who smell like a fucking mint leaf no matter how many hours work they’ve done. I looked up. He was standing, across the other side of the paved area, on a little rise, under a fucking tree. Staring at us. Staring at her. White shirt, black tie, skinny jeans, designer stubble.
A handful of tourists were still meandering around, enjoying the hot summer night, maybe sipping on cold drinks or stumbling drunk or flirting with each other. Not for the first time I wondered what it would be like to be free like that, with so much disposable time and income.
It was a dream. A fucking dream. I was lucky to have this job. Gaming was sought after, highly competitive. The risk of death kept things interesting, part of why they employed a combination of Halos and Humans. The whole thing could have been run by Halos but where would the excitement factor be for Players? It was no great fucking feat to kill a hologram with a blast gun. They just dissolved and re-formed, but to knock off a real Human, legally, feel that rush of mortality, smell the blood, all that – well it was why the Playground could charge so much.
I kept moving, following after Miss Sunshine’s frenzied scrubbing with a bucket rinse. The connection between her and the mint fresh guy was palpable. Waves of desire bouncing all over the place. Sweet. I supposed. I tossed around the possibilities in my head. Could be they were young kids, in love, doing this for a lark. But they looked well off, like they’d come from money. Surely they’d pay to play – which guaranteed personal safety while simulating the adrenaline rush of reality. Who the fuck in their right mind would take this kind of job unless they had no choice?
More likely they were Halos, installed by the Playground to spice things up a bit, add a new level of narrative. I sighed, heaved my sorry arse up the slope to our last clean up spot. I’d seen them come and go, various experiments with how Human to make the Halos, did the Players like it better if we all looked the same or if the Halos looked like frigging two headed aliens? Blah, blah, blah, on it went. The endless pursuit of novelty: how to keep the public amused and engaged and forking over shitloads of money.
If they were just Halos it made Miss Sunshine and her friend a lot less interesting.
‘Are we done here?’
She was all smiles all of a sudden, standing up and stretching her pale, elegant arms towards the night sky.
The area was spotless. She certainly was efficient.
‘Yup,’ I nodded, fishing in my pocket for another cigarette.
‘You know those things will kill you,’ she said, a note of genuine compassion in her voice.
‘Not fucking fast enough,’ I said.
She laughed. It was a superb sound, like water falling into a fucking rock pool. That fresh mint guy was a lucky fuck, even if they were just Halos.
‘I just …’ her eyes flicked over to where he was still standing, watching and he abruptly turned, walked away, down towards the river. A tear spilled out of her deep blue eye and rolled down her cheek. One fucking perfect tear. They programmed these fuckers well. Even though I knew it was fake I couldn’t help the little surge of emotion. My mind clouded. Maybe they were just a couple of crazy kids, making a last ditch attempt to have some kind of independence, life outside mummy and daddy’s tight control. Maybe they’d been kicked out of home. Maybe it was some kind of wrong side of the tracks fucking love story. Who was I to judge?
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I’ll put the equipment away and stall for time. How long you need? Twenty minutes?’
We were supposed to sign off and once that was done this whole area was completely out of bounds. Shot on sight if you hung around as it could lead to confusing the public. Fraternising was strictly fucking forbidden.
‘Oh,’ she made a sighing, sort of crying sound and grabbed my hand. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered and planted this sweet, rough kiss on my smelly old cheek and off she ran.
I bent down to collect the wire brush, detergent and bucket. The muscles in my lower back and shoulders were seizing up. I really was getting too old for this shit, running around, playing games. But fuck me if I was going to quit and look for another shit kicking job. They’d be taking me out of here in a body bag.
The crowd was really thin now. I liked the desolate vibe that came over this place at night. It seemed right. Truthful. Took my time and carried the equipment up to that cute fucking grassy hill and the little tree that Mr Minty had been standing under. Could still smell that goddamn fresh mint smell. I inhaled deeply. Mistake. The breath caught in my chest and turned into a wet, racking cough.
Down the hill, the river wound away. I could still see a flash of her lemony dress. They’d be going under the bridge for sure. Maybe buy themselves 10 minutes of privacy. So fucking sweet.
The dress disappeared and with it I felt this almighty chasm open up inside me. Like someone had punched a hole right through my fucking heart. I gasped. This wasn’t smoker’s cough or being short of breath. This was some other fucking thing I’d not felt in a long time. Some kind of deep, aching sorrow.
I stumbled down the hill, kicking the bucket over as I went, didn’t even stop to set it right. I had to know they were okay. Nothing else was worth a pile of shit in this fucked up thing I called a life but this, making sure Miss Sunshine and Mr Minty Fresh had their moment together, it was suddenly the most important fucking thing in the world.
Panting, heaving, I took the stairs that led steeply down to the river bank. A slow barge slid by, filled with the rich and the beautiful, no doubt highly amused at the sight of this old fucker barrelling down the stairs and then running, limping along the pathway, some kind of strange fucking howling sound coming up from my gut.
The flash of yellow dress. The smell of mint. Yes! They were under the bridge. I slowed down, released one last sob and this crazy fucking smile spread over my face, a warm glow buzzing through my chest. Happiness. A rare and fucking valuable thing.
Then I saw them.
All of us who had just been lined up for the debrief and bawled out by the cock in the security uniform. Some were propped up against the wall. Some were slumped on the ground. It was a fucking massacre. The truth hit me like a bullet in my heart.
Sunshine and Mint Man were Halos, sent in to create a little diversion, draw us all down to the river and terminate us. Time for a new batch of Humans. We’d all known this was a possibility, had heard the rumours that sometimes the Playground did a major cull and brought in fresh blood.
In my heart of fucking hearts I never thought it was true. Always thought I’d meet my end honestly, in a real fucking game, with a Player who gave a shit about winning or losing. Not this cold, brutal termination.
I stopped dead. There was still time. I could pelt back up the hill, dodge security, make my way back out into the city, find some other fucking means of survival. It wasn’t going to end this way.
Miss Sunshine must have heard my fucking breathing ‘cause she looked up from the crowd of corpses, blast gun in her hand.
‘No,’ she said, those pretty eyes wide with surprise. ‘I thought you were going back to HQ. You weren’t supposed to come down here. I thought … I tried …’
Nice try. As if any of us were going to escape. What, take out the whole bunch of Humans except for one and let it live to tell the fucking tale? I don’t think so.
There was no point running now and I sure as fuck didn’t want to be shot in the back. If they wanted to do it, they could kill me with a semblance of honour.
‘This is great!’
It was the first time I’d heard Mr Mint speak. He was excited, jumping around like a little kid, waving his own blast gun. She stood still, kind of shaking now, the pale green of shock spreading across her face.
‘They promised the real thing and this has been fucking awesome!’
Mr Mint thrust his fists up into the air. She looked at him, wounded, confused.
So this was the truth. It didn’t feel as ugly. I did feel like a fucking idiot for not having spotted it sooner, but hey, it had been a long, hot day and I was no spring fucking chicken.
They weren’t Halos and they weren’t Human Gamers. They were rich Players. The worst kind. Ones who would pay any price for an experience that no-one else had ever had. They wanted to feel what it was like to betray and kill on a grander scale. Horses for courses. They must have led very fucking sheltered lives. I clicked back in my mind to the fake security guard spinning us that line about the Year of the Snake. Now it fell into place why he’d bother with such a minor detail. Must have been part of the fucking game, to put us in the right mood. Snakes are known as charming, cold and calculating.
I eyeballed Miss Sunshine, her wavering resolve, the reality of killing rippling through her body like a sickness.
‘Been a little bit more than you bargained for sweetheart?’
I steadied my voice and reached into my pocket. I was just going for a cigarette but she wasn’t to know that. They would have been informed that all Gamers were potentially dangerous, that some of us were armed and we were instructed to shoot and kill.
Her eyes narrowed and all the confusion cleared from her face.
‘Don’t. Call. Me. Sweetheart.’
She raised the blast gun and squeezed the trigger. The last thing I remember was feeling pretty fucking happy with myself. Once I’d realised I was still part of a Game, I’d played well right up until the end, giving her the ultimate experience, sacrificing my life for the good of the Game. Much better for her to blast the shit out of a condescending git than squeeze the life out of some tragic old geezer she’d started to feel sorry for. I was fucking good at my job. We all were. The Playground would be lucky if they found another crew of Humans as hard working and dedicated to the craft as we’d been.
As the bullet shattered my rib cage and exploded through my chest I saw Miss Sunshine’s face, flushed now with victory and the excitement that comes with taking out an arsehole, and feeling, even if just for a few moments and for however many thousands of dollars they’d paid, like she was somehow in control.
Yep, that shit was worth a fucking fortune, in this life or any.