by Chesney Parker
Did you get a copy of ALIEN QUEST? I did.
I had been hunched over my personal computer for nearly two hours when the doorbell shattered my concentration. The interruption was not welcome, because I’d been wallowing in the depths of a very complex financial program; one I was certain would solve all the problems of my over used credit cards. I stood up and stretched, trying to ease the pain in my shoulder muscles. I then walked to the door, vaguely wondering how someone had been able to get through the downstairs security entrance.
When I opened the door, I was confronted by a small fat man in fancy dress. He was wearing a bright red plastic jump suit with a tightly fitting hood and antenna that stood up behind his ears. The words “ALIEN QUEST” were emblazoned across his chest in brilliant yellow. He looked up at me and smiled. “Do you own a computer?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I’m not interested in buying anything tonight.”
In true salesman style he ignored my protest and reached into his briefcase to bring out two diskettes. “Which size of disk do you use?” His accent was rather odd; he pronounced ‘disk’ as ‘dersk’.
“The small one, but I don’t need any more at the moment.” I noticed his eyes were set very far apart and his eyebrows seemed to be painted on. I also noticed the trace of a slightly peculiar odour in the air.
“Please accept this free sermple of a new game that everyone will soon be playing,” he said, handing me the diskette. Then he leaned closer and said, in a theatrically sinister voice, “The aliens will be landing in just a few days.” He smiled again and turned to walk down the stairs.
I realised he’d probably be back next week to sell me an overpriced subscription to something or other. “Thanks,” I said, “but aren’t there any instructions?”
“They are on the dersk,” he said, as his large round head disappeared from view under the next landing.
I walked back inside the apartment and noticed some of the peculiar odour had followed me in, so I opened the balcony doors to freshen the air. The late summer breeze was warm and heavy with the threat of rain. Sydney Harbour looked as magnificent as ever, twinkling with a thousand rippling lights from the office buildings that stood proudly between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. When I rented the apartment six month’s ago, I figured I was probably paying about $500 a month extra for that view, but it had definitely been worth it, even if it was straining my rather meagre finances.
I looked down at the disk the man had given me. It was the same brand I always used; they were the cheapest available. And I saw that my little salesman was having the same trouble I always had with them; the label was coming off. But the instructions were quite clear:
‘ALIEN QUEST Restart system from this Disk.’
I walked back into the study and tossed the ‘dersk’ on the desk, returning to the intricacies of my financial spreadsheet. All my friends were using them now and I didn’t like to be the odd man out, so I was determined to finish tailoring it to my needs. But a few minutes later my curiosity got the better of me, so I ended the spreadsheet program so I could try out the new game.
It took ages to load, but what finally came up on the screen was absolutely amazing. I had never seen such graphics before and there were colours I could not believe my machine was capable of producing. As I watched the screen, I saw a bright red flying saucer whiz into view, glittering and spinning and glowing as it zapped an enemy city, blasting the defending troops into fine white dust. All the while the flashing message on the screen invited me to “Press any key to start”. But as tempting as that invitation was, I didn’t succumb. I had seen several other games just like it and I wanted to finish my work before going to bed, so I killed the game and restarted the spreadsheet program.
An hour later, my financial masterpiece was finally complete and I couldn’t wait to key in all the data to see exactly where my finances stood. But when I tried to store the file, my system beeped at me and displayed a curt message:
Damn it! This had been happening far too often lately. It was obviously time to do a good clean up of all my diskettes. I selected another one to save my precious work on, then spent the next thirty minutes checking diskette directories and erasing unwanted files. I even found a whole diskette that was redundant (there were two other copies of its files on other diskettes) so I put it back in the machine and entered the command which would erase all its files:
“ERASE *.*” I entered.
“Are you sure? (y/n)” enquired my careful computer.
“y” I replied.
Having gone through the familiar ritual, the machine obediently began to erase all the files. But suddenly, to my horror, I realised I had picked up the wrong diskette and was in the process of erasing the ALIEN QUEST game. Oh no! How stupid! Its label had fallen right off by now, so I hadn’t recognised it. I quickly pulled the disk out of the machine, but it was too late; the erasure was complete. I was furious with myself and tried in vain to display the directory, but my computer kept confirming:
“No File Found.”
I was mortified. How could I be so stupid? I finally packed up and went to bed, still kicking myself for the careless error.
The next day at the office, I mentioned my stupidity to Jack Barnes, the PC guru on our floor. He’s a tall skinny guy with one of those high tech beards. You know, the ones with no moustache. He said, “Hey, no problem. You haven’t actually wiped the files themselves; only the directory listing. I’ve got a recovery program here that’ll restore the directory and ‘unerase’ the files.” He immediately produced a diskette from his draw and handed it to me. I was elated and couldn’t wait to try it out.
That evening, when I arrived home, I headed straight for the computer and immediately loaded up the recovery program. I quickly discovered, however, it was not as simple as Jack had said. He had overestimated my knowledge of programming and it took me nearly two hours to work through the tortuous menus and cryptic options. By that time I was beginning to feel decidedly seedy; I hadn’t eaten or even showered yet.
I was about to give it away when suddenly I found myself right in the heart of the game program itself looking at all the messages and instructions. I browsed through the confusion of words and symbols for some time, then something struck me as rather odd. Apart from the “Press any key to start” instruction, all the other messages were rigged to appear on the screen for very short periods of time. In fact, I doubted whether any of them could actually be read, or even noticed, during the game. Some of them read:
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, GO TO THE CITY.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, BLOCK THE ROADS.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, START A RIOT.
COPY THIS PROGRAM, SEND IT TO A FRIEND.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, ATTACK THE POLICE.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, ATTACK THE ARMY.
COPY THIS PROGRAM, SEND IT TO A FRIEND.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, DEFEND THE ALIENS.
WHEN THE SPACESHIPS LAND, THE ALIENS MUST RULE.
COPY THIS PROGRAM, SEND IT TO A FRIEND.
PLAY THE GAME AGAIN.
It was all very weird. What were these people trying to do? Promotional gimmicks were one thing, but this seemed a little too bizarre. In any case, I was still unable to recover, or ‘unerase’ the game itself, so I finally gave up and went to bed.
The next day, I found Jack sitting at his desk with a pile of diskettes and envelopes in front of him. He looked up as I approached; the intensity in his eyes seeming a little greater than usual. “Hey, Pete,” he said. “I got one of those games last night. A little guy in a red suit came by and gave it to me. It’s fantastic! I’ve never seen anything like it. Here, have a copy.” He tossed a diskette at me, then continued addressing envelopes, inserting a diskette into each one as he went.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Man, this game is hot. I want all my friends to have one. It’s unbelievable! And it’s not even copy protected.”
I looked at him as he frantically wrote out another name and address. Then I thought back to what I had seen on my computer screen the night before. “Did you notice any strange messages about spaceships landing?”
He stopped writing and looked quickly around the room, dark concern briefly crossing his face. Then he smiled again and said, “No, there are no messages; it’s all done with pictures and symbols. It’s real simple. You should try it. Here, have a copy.” He tossed another diskette at me and returned to his envelope stuffing, not noticing he had now given me two copies of the game. I was about to tell him what I had discovered in the game’s program the night before, when the phone rang and he started what was obviously going to be a long conversation, so I left him to it and went back to my office. On the way, I noticed several other staff members with piles of diskettes and envelopes in front of them, all frantically writing and stuffing. It was an epidemic.
I didn’t get a chance to see Jack again that day, but I now had two new copies of ALIEN QUEST in my pocket. And when I got home, I found I had received four more copies in the mail. I didn’t dare play any of them, though; the messages were obviously subliminal and I didn’t like the effect they were having on others around me. I began to have a vague sense of uneasiness about the whole thing.
The next morning I again went to see Jack with the firm intention of using his own recovery programme to show him the hidden messages in the game. When I arrived at his office, he had an even larger pile of diskettes and envelopes in front of him. He looked haggard and there was a dark shadow of stubble on his upper lip. He didn’t even notice me walk in, so intent was he on spreading the word. I stood there listening to the crackle of envelopes and watching the furious pace of his pen. After a few moments I quietly said, “What will you do when the spaceships land?”
The effect was immediate and startling. He jumped up and thumped the table with his fist, “I’ll start a riot! Block the roads! Attack the police! The aliens must be protected!”
The department manager was walking past the office just as Jack began this tirade and immediately stepped inside to join in with, “Go to the city! Block the roads! Attack the military! The aliens must rule!”
I tried to say something, but could not get a word in. They were setting each other off like a chain reaction. I backed out of the room and returned to my office, beginning to realise why subliminal advertising had been banned in the sixties. During the day I tried several times to explain to Jack that the game had hidden messages in it that were influencing him, but he refused to listen; becoming almost violent on one occasion.
By now, almost everyone in the office was busily making copies of the game and sending them off to people all over the country. I was beginning to feel like the odd man out again.
When I got home that night, I saw that nearly all the mail boxes in the apartment foyer were stuffed with envelopes containing diskettes. I emptied my box and walked upstairs with 35 more copies of ALIEN QUEST, including another three from Jack Barnes.
What was happening? Was it an advertising campaign gone horribly wrong? It just didn’t make sense.
It was just after six o’clock, so I turned on the TV news and opened a bottle of my best red wine.
The news reader was saying, “Never before has a fad taken off so rapidly. It has been billed as one of the most successful advertising gimmicks of the decade. It seems everyone in Sydney is playing it now.” The TV screen then lit up with the same fabulous graphics I had seen on my PC three nights earlier. I frantically dived at the set and switched it off, trying not to look directly at the screen. Then I walked shakily out onto the balcony and took two large gulps of the full bodied wine. Beads of perspiration were forming on my forehead, the shirt was sticking to my back and the muscles in my neck and shoulders were so tense I could hardly turn my head.
The harbour ferries moved gently along the busy waterways and I began to relax as I took in the peaceful vista. Then, high up in the sky, I saw hundreds of bright red dots flying in formation. They were coming in from the east, descending upon the city in a graceful silent arc, all glittering and spinning and glowing. Then a bright light shot out from the leading one and the giant span of the Harbour Bridge began to sag in the middle. I watched aghast as it slowly tipped to one side, maintaining an impossible angle for almost thirty seconds, until finally it toppled over completely, spilling hundreds of tiny cars into the deep grey shark infested waters below.
Down in the courtyard I heard people begin to shout and within five minutes there was pandemonium. Cars were slewed sideways across all the roads and a police car up the street was being attacked by about 50 screaming residents. They smashed in all the windows and then began beating on the roof of the squad car while the terrified cops, still trapped inside, tried to get out before they were crushed to death. Over on the expressway, a large mob was moving towards the city. I could hear them chanting with almost hypnotic rhythm, “The aliens must rule! The aliens must rule!”
I’ve been crouching on the floor in the corner of my study with the curtains drawn for nearly an hour now and I’m almost through my second bottle of red. I can still hear the screams of chaos outside, but they don’t seem to bother me any more. In fact, I might even start up one of the games that arrived in the mail today. I hate being the odd man out.