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And in the Arcade, Ego

By Kate Heartfield. Pulp Literature Issue No. 33, Winter 2022.

Luz torches the Fugax right after we roll out of it, before I even hit the floor of the landing bay. She lights it up like an offering with one of her chemical grenades, holding on to a bay-grip with one hand, and kicks the speedcraft, all sparking and spinning, out into space.

I cringe when it explodes. The smoothest ride around, so pretty and sleek. Worth more denari than I’ll make in my lifetime. But Luz just pumps one fist as the Fugax silently pops, and all that’s left is this sparkling, expanding blue sphere.

Must be weird to be rich.

Not that it was ours to begin with, but just once I’d like to keep one of the things we steal long enough to sell it.

She can’t see me rolling my eyes inside my helmet but I do it anyway as I start climbing the grips up to the airlock.

Luz is still laughing when we scramble up into the station and take our helmets off.

“I’m your tight friend,” she says. “It’s my job to make you do things you don’t want to do. When else do you get to have this kind of sin?”

Pretty well never is the answer to that. Life is going to be grim for a while, that’s what I’m thinking at this point. Everything I make from my cleaning job goes to pay my dad’s indulgence debt and my brother’s prison keep, neither of which are shrinking.

If I can’t make rent this month, I’ll have to beg mercy. Ask the Consilium to put me to work, doing something I don’t want to think about. Doing its dirty work on the prison stations, or helping them put people there. It’s that or starve to death — or martyrdom as the posters call it. Make myself useful in Heaven since I can’t be useful here.

It’s different for Luz. She could get denari from her father if she wanted it. But she’s always trying to prove that she doesn’t want it. Always trying to show that nobody owns her. Like I say, must be weird to be rich.

Luz said she knew a way to get denari and poke the Consilium in the eye. She was right about one thing: that deacon’s Fugax was no trouble at all to nab. I thought we were on our way out here to sell it. But she has something else in mind.

The Arcade. I should have known. The only place where we can make really serious denari in a hurry.

You have to go pretty far from the core of the system to find any sin these days. The only Arcade left is in a beaten-up old station right at the fringe of Consilium space, with nothing but void beyond it for as far as you can get.

And now we’re here, with no way off since Luz burned the ship. To be fair, it probably had a tracer in it. But also Luz just really likes to blow things up.

The airlock is cramped and smells like my brother’s old locker back home. We’re the only ones here. Just us and the praesidbots, and they sniff for weapons but don’t ask questions. Luz doesn’t have any more explosives on her, I guess, or the ones she has don’t set off the bots.

“I wish I could see the looks on those deacons’ faces when they realize what we did,” she says.

“Sure, but they’re going to figure out eventually that we ended up here. There’s no other station in this direction.”

“Eventually, Tamara,” she says, patting my shoulder. “Eventually. That’s pretty well three games of pinball. Well, three for me. Five for you, brainy.”

Heaven help me if she ever figures out I have a Shakespearean scale for her moods. At her best, Luz is Prince Hal, and I’m OK with being Falstaff. At this moment, though, she’s gone full Mercutio, which is too bad for me. Being Benvolio is no fun at all.

We’re friends, see. We’re that kind of friends.

We float in micrograv, getting ourselves ready. Before we go out into the corridor, Luz pulls a hot-pink fabric mask out of a pocket of her suit.

“Did you bring yours?” she asks, her voice muffled as she stretches it over her head, covering her face.

I shake my head.

“I didn’t know pinball was in the plan.”

We haven’t played in months, not since the deacons shut down the Overground. There used to be a whole network of Arcades, back in the slightly better days.

“Plan? No plan,” she says, all innocent. “I’m the ball, friend. I goes where I bounce. I just like to be prepared. I’ve got a condom here” — she pats another pocket — “my last hit of Everlasting here” — another pocket — “and a tampon here.”

It’s a cute metaphor but there is no ball in pinball. The pins went out after the French Revolution. And the balls went out after the Alignment, but if the Consilium can paint new meanings on shabby old words, then the rest of humanity can too.

“And how much denari do you have?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “640, 650 maybe?

“Not enough to get us a ride off the station. Enough to send a message to your father, though, to ask him to get us home.”

“No way in hell, Tamara. Here.”

She pulls out another mask from another pocket, this one plain yellow with splashes of all the colours of the rainbow. My mask.

“Respice finem,” Luz says with a grin, making the sign of the pilgrim on her forehead.

I take it. I put it on.

“Well, what’s our plan B,” I ask, “if the games don’t go our way?”

“They will,” she says. “If worse comes to worst, we can beg. Who’s going to say no to a couple of lost teenaged girls?”

It’s unsettling, I have to say, arguing with a grinning hot-pink skull.

“We’re not teenagers anymore, Luz.”

“We can pass.”

With her 640 and my 515, we’ve got enough for a few launches each, maybe, if we can find someone to take a low bet at first. But this is the Arcade, where everybody’s anonymous and nobody can afford to waste their time. It’s high stakes just coming here; the deacons raid this place like orrery and the odds of getting assessed for an indulgence are high. Luz’s father has been trying to shut the Arcade down, but it’s still here. The indulgences must net a lot of denari.

Once I told Luz that her father was one of the good ones in the Consilium. “There are no good ones,” she said.

We pass under the big copper sign floating midair in the hallway and suspended by wires that could clothesline you if you’re not careful. Et in Arcadia Ego, it says. It means, basically, ’I am Everywhere’. By law, it has to be posted in every station, the Consilium’s little reminder.

We grab the bars on the walls and pull our way down the hallway, kicking off sideways to float around an unmasked couple who look like virgins and a frat in a spiked teal skinsuit. That frat could be a criminal, could be a deacon sub rosa, or could just be a virgin trying to look tough.

I elbow Luz to tell her watch out for that sacker. But we don’t see him again.

We arrive at the first group of spheres finally and we put our space helmets and boots in the locker. We have to rent stinky, sweat-stained armour from the bucket, thigh-pads that don’t quite fit either of us for different reasons, and thin shoulder pads. We half-joke that we hope we don’t take any hard bounces.

Officially there is no gambling at the Arcade, just the fees. We pay the praesidbots to play: 25 denari per game, each. Plus 10 each for the locker rental, and 50 each for the armour, such as it is. Luz has to stick out her tongue to pay and pretty well lick the pay-machine because she keeps her claves in her piercing instead of in her wrist like the rest of humanity.

The Consilium issues us all claves that they can trace, but everybody uses the cloned ones that aren’t part of the system. They fool the bots well enough.

“Names?” the bot asks.

“Memento Mori,” says Luz.

“Pinxit,” I say.

Our high scores come up in lights on the ticker racing around the top of the viewing platform wall. MEMENTO MORI 198,880 PINXIT 130,660

There’s already a frat outside the launchers of one of the spheres, looking for a bet. He’s sitting in the air cross-legged. Arrogant sacker had better watch himself or he’ll get stuck out of arm’s reach of the wall and have to ask someone to give him a push. Big arms and a black mask with smoke tendrils painted on it.

“I’m waiting for someone,” he says.

“Then give us the sphere,” Luz says. “Or play me while you wait.”

He sighs. Luz is so tiny that in her mask, she really could pass for a teenager.

“There’s some girls playing in Sphere 7 and they’d probably let you join.”

I can feel the words hey, sacker coming up my windpipe, and they’re out of my mouth before I even think them. Curse words are like vomit sometimes, you know? No way to stop them even though you know it is not going to be pretty.

“Hey, sacker,” I say. “This friend is Memento Mori. Check the board.”

He glances up at her score, looks down at her, shrugs.

“Easy to rack up points when you’re not playing contact.”

“I play contact.” She’s still smiling, by the sound of her voice, or maybe it’s just her skull mask playing tricks. “I’ll play you for 300.”

It’s low — the standard is 500. If it were me, I would start even lower, maybe 200, but I’m not Luz. If she loses this, she might not get another chance. Then we’d be even poorer than we started.

The frat sighs like he’s just so reluctant, reaches out one arm toward the wall and just barely brushes it with his fingertips. Ha, take your time, sacker, we’re not going to help you. He has to wiggle a bit to get purchase and then he pulls himself into the right-hand launcher, throws himself onto the bike.

The spheres are huge and completely transparent. Six plastic bubbles in a circle, each opening onto the viewing platform that encircles them. I can see Luz mount her bike in the left-hand launcher. The bikes in this sphere are small, nimble, one round bumper on the back and one in the front. She pulls herself over to the launch tube on the right, and the frat — he never told us, but he must be BLACKBEARD 145,880 — settles into the other, rubbing the bike grips to gear himself up. Heaven, I curse under my breath. I’ve played his kind before.

They both launch fast. Luz hits three bumpers, bang bang bang, racks up 15,000 points before Blackbeard goes into a wormhole and comes out right at Luz’s right flank and bumps her down toward the pit.

This Blackbeard is three times her size and he’s playing mean. Not interested in racking up points, he’s just trying to send Luz into the big black circle at the bottom of the sphere so it’ll be game over and he can take her 300 denari and play someone he thinks is worthy of him.

Luz twists her body and just manages to ricochet off a flipper. Meanwhile the impact with Luz has sent Blackbeard spiralling off toward a tube that slopes a little bit downward. If there were gravity, he’d hit the target at the end, but microgravity is like that, too bad. He goes in but doesn’t quite reach the target at the end and has to pull himself out.

Luz is nearly stranded now, all her momentum gone. An object at rest is as good as dead in this game. She’s floating in the middle of the sphere. If she can get to a bumper before the frat gets to her, she can start to get some speed up again.

These are smart bumpers, top of the line. They react when an object hits them, and they push it out with greater force than it came in with.

If it were me, I would be avoiding contact with Blackbeard. Not Luz. She hits three bumpers — ring ring ring, flash flash flash — and gets up enough speed, twisting into the last one so it sends her like a bullet at Blackbeard. He slams into the side of the sphere wall so the whole thing shakes.

Ha.

I meet Liz at the exit. A small patch of red blood is seeping through her mask, under her right ear. Helmets aren’t allowed anymore, see, because some sacker used one to headbutt another player a while back.

“Easiest 300 I ever made,” she whispers, and we fist-bump. I lift the mask and look: it’s a small scrape just under the ear, nothing to worry about, but I give that sacker Blackbeard a look anyway. He’s wiping off over by the sphere entrance.

“Double or nothing,” says Blackbeard, pulling himself over toward us by the wall grips. “Six hundred.”

Heaven, those beady eyes would burn holes through his mask if they weren’t already there. This frat is looking at Luz like he wants to kill her. And he probably will, if I let her get back into the sphere with him. I’m her tight friend. It’s my job to protect her, especially from herself.

Luz is already pulling herself toward her bike, pushing herself from one wall to the other as she goes. She has a way of moving like her whole body’s grinning. It’s a bad sign when she does that.

I shake my head. “Switch partners. Keep it interesting.”

He looks at her, looks at me, looks up at my score.

“Eight hundred,” I say. “You play me, it’s 800. You play her, it’s 600. Oh, you’re a big frat, big balls, eh? What’s your choice, sacker?”

He shrugs and gestures, a come-here thing with his fingers.

I pull over to Luz, who’s lying on her back now in midair, arms crossed, watching me like she’s amused.

“Never thought I’d see the day you bet 800,” she says. “You really want to do this?”

“I despise this one,” I grumble. It’s true enough.

If I can beat him, we’ll have enough denari to get off this station without having to play any more games. Maybe even a bit left over, more than I had when this day began. The deacons don’t know who we are; they only know where we went, or they will soon. If we can get off the station and lie low tonight, we’ll be safe.

I kick the bike into the launch tube, my thighs gripping it tight. This is going to be iconic.

Some games, I can feel the endgame stalking me. Once you lose that millisecond of control, each bounce is just good luck or bad luck, and good luck always turns into bad luck sooner or later. That’s how it is. Those games, you just have to get it done and try again.

But not this game. Right off the launch I can feel that I’ve got the advantage this time. That millisecond is on my side; I’m the one stalking the endgame, not the other way around.

I bang the bumpers so hard my ears are ringing, or maybe that’s just all the bells going off. Yeah, witness this, Blackbeard, I’m thinking. See what happens when you make Memento Mori’s friend Pinxit angry. Tell your friends. I may not have her scores, but I’m bigger than her and I’m smarter than you.

Smack — my face is wet and I breathe in nothing but surface tension. Panic. It’s a glob of sweat off Blackbeard. Water in micrograv is bad stuff, like a mask of jelly. I hold my breath until I spin into a tube and then stick out my legs to brace myself and stop long enough to wipe it off. I am so tempted to hit the Tilt button on my bike but I’m up, 34,000 to 27,800, and I don’t want to give the sacker the satisfaction.

I pull myself out of the tube and Blackbeard slams into me, taking my breath but giving me momentum. Bumper, target, bonus wheel — I’ve got it back. Sacker’s sweat didn’t take me off my game. If Isaac Newton could see me now.

I twirl through a fast tube and I can see him moving toward the tube exit. If I hit him just right, I’ll spin him down into the pit, and his 800 will be mine, and we’ll be out of here.

Then I just have to breathe in and kick off when I hit the tube exit, to turn my angle just by a hair and speed myself up. I’m coming in fast and I hit him with my front bumper, head on, and down he goes. The sad-trombone sound means I’ve won.

The impact with Blackbeard sends me spinning up toward the wheels at the top of the sphere. I circle around there for a while, picking up speed off some of the bumpers. I can’t remember ever going this fast. As I pass the 50,000 stopper, I lean out far over my bike, gripping the thing with one leg and I smack the stopper.

That’s it — new high score for me. 156,000 now, and climbing. My body aches and adrenaline swirls in my brain like the rainbow lights flashing around the sphere. I glance over the entrance and see Luz, watching me, with a half-dozen people behind her. Everybody likes a new high score. Everybody likes to see someone beat the endgame.

I’m not just one millisecond ahead of the endgame now. I’m way out in front. I’ve only had this feeling a few times in my life, like I’m floating through time and I’m in control. Forget Blackbeard. This is my game and it always was.

This sphere’s jackpot is 100,000 denari at 500,000 points. I almost hate to think the thought, but oh heaven, how that denari would save me. I’d pay off dad’s indulgence debt, all of it, which he could never do in his own lifetime and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do in mine either. I could keep my brother alive in prison. I could pay my own rent and never have to go to the Consilium and wheedle and take a job that hurts people. I could just live my life and breathe. Hard to even imagine what that’s like. Must be weird. Seems impossible almost.

The thing about pinball is, once you get up past the likely, the impossible doesn’t seem so far.

The sphere shakes and I glance over at the entrance. Heaven. A deacon is there, floating like a spectre, holding his prod up.

He’s after us because of the stolen Fugax. And he’s not even going to wait until the game’s up to bring me in.

What does he think he’s doing, flying around here with that thing lit up? Deacons are not even supposed to use their prods unless they have to, but I’ve heard enough stories to know they’re all too eager for an excuse. They’d fry us all if they could.

I bang into a corner wicket and slow down, slow way down. When I hit the next bumper, I push against it with my body, getting as much equal and opposite force from it as I can.

Holy of holies, I’m at 496,500.

The emergency door opens. That sacker! The deacon can’t power down the sphere, though. These praesidbots are out of the system.

In he floats, with one of his hands holding Luz by the wrist and the other holding his prod. I spit, discreetly, hoping it’ll fly the right direction. Two thousand more points is all I need. A few good bumpers, maybe a turn around the wheels.

“By order of the Consilium, you must stop,” the deacon whines. It echoes weirdly.

“Laws of physics, friend,” I shout. I don’t realize how breathless I am until I try to talk. “Object in motion. Stays in motion.”

“Tell that sor to come down,” he says, shaking Luz. I’m the sor he means.

“You go for the jackpot, you beautiful creature,” Luz shouts. She’s still wearing her mask, so it’s a little muffled. “Never mind this sacker.”

At that, the fool deacon pushes off the flipper and comes up toward me. I realize he’s trying to engineer a situation, see, where I’ll end up on the wrong end of the prod, or Luz will. Or both of us.

And then, just like that, I’m off my game. I lose the lead. The endgame wants me now. It scents my blood. I wipe my face with my arm and look for quick options. If I can get to the 1,000 plunger, that’ll do. I’ll have to kick my way right past the deacon and Luz, though. Or I can bounce — no, no time. I make my choice and kick.

Too hard.

The deacon sees me coming fast toward him and puts his prod out like he’s defending himself. He can’t see my face but I can see his, that odious little grin. The penance for hurting or killing a deacon is death, I know that, but I don’t have a choice now. I’m in motion.

Luz pushes him away from me and he goes spinning away from her. So it’s Luz I run into, hard, and I grab her hand and we spin around each other, like we’re dancing. At some point I slip off the bike and it spins over to a bumper, and I swear to everything you believe in that the bike hits and my score goes to 500,005.

So much noise. So much colour.

The deacon is flailing with his prod in one hand and then he just lets go of it, the sacker. I don’t know why but he does. I can see it coming straight for us, slow but lit up, and I try to think. No matter how smart you are, there’s always going to be a moment when you’re not smart enough. If Luz and I just let go we’ll float away from each other, but I have no idea whether it’ll be fast enough to get us out of the way of that thing. She looks at me and I can tell she’s thinking the same.

She’ll do anything to get me out of here intact. She’s like that. She’s always putting herself on the line, like she’s taunting death.

We can see the lit-up prod coming for us, our punishment. Probably just a bad burn if it glances off one of us, but maybe worse if it gets enough momentum behind it. Maybe Luz’s father has enough denari for the good drugs but even so, they only work sometimes. I can see in the deacon’s face that he’s thinking death for us would be a providential bounce. Our lives are worth less than nothing.

All the while the jackpot lights are still going off all around and there’s a song playing, some horrible tinny thing I’ve never heard before.

I’m not going to die with the jackpot tune in my head.

I twist my body and push away from Luz, swim desperately in the air even though I know it does no good. One more twist and I grab the prod by the middle, where it’s not lit up.

For a second I admit I consider just jamming the end into the deacon, but even I can’t outrun a sin sheet with something like that on it. But the thing does come in handy. I use it to bounce off a 50 bumper to my side, change my direction.

The deacon doesn’t even see me coming. He’s watching Luz. She’s hard not to watch, I have to say, her pink skull grinning, her body flailing and rolling.

Bang I go, right into his side, with all my body. It knocks the air out of me. The angle is not exactly what I was going for but it turns out to be perfect. He rolls right into the wormhole, right into the trap where he’ll be held for thirty seconds.

Life beats death, sacker, I yell, or maybe I just think it, there inside all that noise and brightness. Life beats death, today, because I say so. Even in the Arcade.

Luz and I bounce our way down into the pit. Probably I could have got a higher score if it weren’t for the deacon but I’ll take my jackpot and run. My new high score is up on the board now, flashing: PINXIT 501,180.

There will be more deacons coming, and I don’t even want to think about the indulgences they’d assess against us now. But they’d have to catch us. They keep playing the game, but they haven’t won yet.

Luz and I present our claves, our cloned claves that the Consilium can’t trace. We get our denari, then pull ourselves as fast as we can toward the rental bay, and we each jam our claves against the bot (me my wrist, Luz her tongue) to rent one of the old clunkers, nothing like the Fugax but fast enough for our purposes until we can get to the next station. This speedcraft won’t be on their list, not yet, not until that deacon reports in. We laugh, because we’re still wearing our masks and the rental pads, because we are still alive, because we have a thirty-second lead.

Kate Heartfield is the author of The Embroidered Book, a historical fantasy novel to be released in February 2022. Her debut novel won Canada’s Aurora Award, and her novellas, stories, and games have been shortlisted for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, Sunburst, and Aurora awards. A former journalist, Kate lives near Ottawa, Canada.

Pulp Literature issue 33 cover - Space Cat ginger tabbie amongst stars with fishglobe helmet.
Issue 33 cover: Space Cat!

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