Tales From Earth:people games

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This is part of the compilation created for the book Tales From The Third Planet, created by the Cubehunters on Earth, and printed by Lulu. Anyone can buy it here, with proceeds to go to unfiction! :)

In Perplex City, so we hear, games are a central part of life. On Earth too games can be important, but for some people both games and fantasy can go too far and spill over into real life ...

I play games. More precisely, I play games with people. I turn them into my playing pieces. Everywhere I go I play games with those around me, in my head. Is it madness? Is it because I’m afraid of them? Playing games with people makes them harmless. Have you ever been afraid of a pawn on a chessboard; of an ace in a pack of cards? I doubt it. People, people are something to be afraid of. People can be dangerous, people can hurt you, people can come out of the darkness of the city and rob you, mock you, scorn you. Playing pieces never do that. Playing pieces aren’t real.

You probably don’t understand what I am saying. Either that or you have already stopped reading this and you are shaking your head at the crazy man; heck I’d probably have done that by now. On the off-chance that your are still reading this though (and hey, you must be, or you don’t know I said that), let me back up and start again, at a more plausible sort of place.

I’m a guy, I live in a city, in the west, on planet Earth. I don’t think it matters what my name is, or what city I live in, any city would do. If you like imagine its your city, or, if you don’t live in the same part of the world (or the same world) as I do, then imagine it like this. My city, it’s a big place, a busy place, full of anonymous people rushing too and fro, each about their own business. Most people you see on the streets you will never see again, no matter how many times you walk down the same busy road. You don’t know them, and they most certainly don’t know you. When you come right down to it you have to take it on faith that they really are people like you at all, with the same desires and needs and fears. Someone could come down in the night and replace them all with robot doubles, capable of walking and talking, beeping their car horns, cutting you up in traffic, and pushing in front of you at shop doors, and you would be none the wiser. For all you know they were all replaced a long time ago.

In this city even your neighbours are strangers. They live in the same building as you, nod hello as they pass you on the stairs, leave your mail on the windowsill when it gets delivered to them by mistake, and know nothing more. They don’t notice when your friends come round (except to bang on the walls and shout ‘keep the noise down’), or when your father dies, or when you wake up the morning in tears, or when today seems like the best day in the world. And you know what, you don’t notice any of that stuff when it happens to them either. Worse, if you did, you wouldn’t really care. Even if they were to stop you, one day, on the stairs, and say “My Father died today” you would be hard pressed to muster more than a “Oh I’m sorry to hear that” because they aren’t your friends, they are just the people you live amongst.

So that’s the city. Crowded, isolated, packed, lonely … anonymous. And that anonymity gives rise to one thing more than any other, fear. Anyone who lives in a city like mine lives in fear all the time, I know I do. I am afraid of the people who spill out of the pubs and clubs as the night grows late, crowding and shouting, spoiling for a fight. I am afraid of the men rushing by recklessly in their cars. I am afraid of my boss, and his boss, and his bosses boss, any of whom might leave me without a job at a moment’s notice; because really they don’t care about me at all.

I am afraid of the gangs of kids who crowd at the street corners, drunk on medicinal wine and high on spray cans, laughing as they kick the sides of bins drop their bottles on the ground. I am afraid of the people who lurk on the edges of my eyesight when I walk through the streets late at night, waiting for them to come up behind me and demand my wallet, or hold a knife to my back, just another nameless victim in the dark.

In short I am afraid of anyone and everyone. I’m frightened of what everyone could do to me, at any moment. I keep my head down, my collar up, the hood of my coat over my head, so that no one can see me. So that no one can see my fear, and out of the corner of my eye I watch them, and hate them, and wish I could do something about the fear.

It’s the modern condition, so I’m told, that fear. When you don’t know anyone, and no one knows you, what remains to make them see you as human at all? I live in a world which is obsessed with rights, human rights, consumer rights, laws and regulations, simply because we all know that without regulations and enforcements no one is really going to treat us like humans at all. Maybe once, when we lived in little tribes and villages, when everyone around us was kith and kin, grandparents and cousins and nieces, we may not have needed laws to make us respect our neighbours, but now we most certainly do. I’m just another person in a faceless crowd, in just another city, in just another country. There are so many of us now that none of us are real any more. Are you famous? Are you rich? No? Then you are just like me. Your only value is in your own head.

So what has this diatribe to do with anything, you may well ask. Didn’t the start of this crazy little rant have something to do with games, way back there at the top of the first page. Yes it did. I started off by telling you that I’m crazy, that I play games with other people in my head. What do I mean by that?

Take the simplest example. Have you ever played that game where you sit in a public place and look at the people around you, trying to guess what sort of job they do? It’s a great game to play with your friends, you can giggle behind your hand, point where only your friend can see, and say ‘that one is a doctor’ and ‘that one has probably been to prison, can’t you see’. Or you can do it the easy way and just laugh at the fashions you hate, thinking, that one is fat, that one is skinny, that one has a silly haircut. I don’t like them. You can do that in your head as well, on your own. Can you imagine that? Its easy enough.

So, make it a little more complicated. Imagine yourself on a city street, walking. A little way ahead of you there is a man, or a group of men. Look at them. Imagine that a line of light extends from each one of them, a glowing line, connecting each one to his neighbour. Multiple lines perhaps, connecting each to many. Place them in a grid, an array of triangles, a packed expanse of hexagons, or polygons, joined by a web of light, knitted together in a spider web, entrapped and moved in sequence.

Look at their feet. Imagine that each stands at the centre of an area of control, defined by the interconnections between them, colour them, pattern them, grab space and own it with the people as pieces. In this game the people are hardly important, it is the shape and space that matters. The more people capturing an area the more secure it is; the more intricate the pattern, the better the strategy. If you like you can replace the people too, in your mind’s eye, turn them into chessmen, go stones, abstract tiles, it doesn’t matter.

Seem reasonable still?

Well here’s another one for you, if you like things simple. Count them. Count each person who walks past you. Count each man, or each woman. Count each child, or each male child, or each brunette, or redhead, or big breasted woman. Count the ones you like, or the ones you hate, or the ones with a certain kind of clothing. Give each one a score out of ten, or twenty and add them up. Memorise the nicest ones for later. After all people are just pictures aren’t they, to be collected.

Not enough for you yet?

Well back to the street again. Imagine yourself armed and armoured, with a rocking beat echoing your every step. The cars in the street are platforms to leap upon, the walls runways, the people foes to defeat. Cut and slash at them, a spin, a turn, a whistle of the blade and their heads will bounce away into the rain and the dark; their bodies will fly away from you. Jumping and running in your mind’s eye, dodging the blows that come at you. Grab the next man by the arm, duck under his grasp, then pivot, coming up behind him, a quick blow to the back will see him down, turned to dust, exploded in light.

Or maybe you prefer another weapon. Your mind can supply anything you want. A machine gun, a sniper’s rifle, a light sabre, a laser gun, a bomb or a speeding car. You can play the classics, 10 points for a man, 20 for a child, double for a little old lady. ‘Drat’ you say to yourself, ‘could have run that one down’.

Am I worrying you yet? I think you should be worried. Think about it this way. If people mean nothing to you, what’s to stop you hurting them. I am the only special thing in a world crowded with drones, with shadows, with puzzle pieces, with my playthings. The rules and conventions of society are not the rules of my game, of my games. Out in the darkness, in the alleys, in the byways, I can conquer my fear at last. They can’t hurt me if I hurt them first, and the best thing of all is that their pain doesn’t matter. I’ve already reduced them to playing pieces, things to amuse me, things to please me. I can’t feel their pain, I can’t feel their fear, I’m too busy taking revenge on them for all the fear I’ve felt, over the years. Another anonymous stranger bites the dust. Ten points.

Scared now?

You know what should really scare you? The fact that I’m sane. If I weren’t sane I couldn’t be writing this for you, and I couldn’t keep the games in my head. I’m not the sociopath. There are people out there who aren’t like me, and hopefully not like you either. They can’t see what’s wrong with the picture I just painted you. To them the rules of society are as arbitrary as the rules of any game could be. They don’t mean anything, they are just there to be used, to be played, to be exploited.

They are still afraid, even if they can’t face that fear. Their fears may not be as rational as mine, if mine are rational in the first place, but they drive everything that they do. Its not physical pain that makes them the way they are, but the emotional fear of how a confusing world could hurt them. The fact that someone could make them look stupid, that someone could embarrass them, that someone could make them feel less than the gods they are sure that they are. They don’t fear the faceless mass of people threatening to swallow them up, because they are the ones playing the game. They are the ones moving through the world unseen, pushing people the way they want them to go, pushing them around on the board inside their head until everything is just the way they want it to be. Then they can pull a single person, a single piece, out of the game and do whatever they wish.

So we are all afraid. We all look askance at the people who pass us in the street, wondering what they might do to us, and we all retreat inside our heads to take away the fear. But next time you amuse yourself playing games in your head, like I do, like we all do, remember … someone may be out to play a game with you. For real.