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Death Is Cheap

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"Rad, a new game!"

Fix-It Felix Jr., pacing the walkway in front of Niceland Apartments, stopped and looked up through the screen at the face of the kid who had stopped in front of the Fix-It Felix Jr. console to watch the idle animation. "I think this is it," he said to himself. Then the kid reached into a pocket.

"This is it!" called Felix aloud. "Our first player, people! Everybody remembers the program? Are we ready?"

"Ready, Felix!" called the Nicelanders from their windows.

"Ready, Ralph?"

Wreck-It Ralph gave a gigantic thumbs-up.

The quarter hit home, the Quarter Alert sign went on, and the feed from the game world to the player went live.

"I'm gonna wreck it!" Ralph proclaimed. He smashed the windows of the first three floors and proceeded to the fifth floor, where he prepared to dislodge more bricks.

"Fix it, Felix!" cried the Nicelanders.

And that was Felix's cue. He held up his golden hammer. "I can fix it!" he said, and hopped to the lower left windowsill to await the player's input. The player pushed at the joystick, and the game was on. Fix. Right. Hop. Fix.

He hadn't fixed six windows before the first brick dropped on his head. The impact jarred his vision and knocked him off the windowsill, and then he was falling three stories. His stomach turned as he flipped over in the air. The bushes below rushed up to meet him, and he flinched--and then he was standing again on the same windowsill he had just fallen from. Of course. He had lost his first life, that was all. He could feel his body blinking in and out; a moment of invincibility to recover from the hit. Good thing, because his knees felt like jelly. Keep it together, Fix-It, he told himself. Just follow the controls. Left. Fix. Hop. Right. Fix.

The player made it to the next level, and then Felix was promptly hit by another brick--which meant a harrowing glimpse of a seven-story fall before he blinked back onto the windowsill. And then on the next level, the player tried to avoid a brick by maneuvering Felix into an open shutter. Felix was trapped, and the brick hit home.

And this time it was different. Instead of falling, Felix went stiff, jerked in the air, and then collapsed supine on the windowsill. He could feel his heart stop, and he was impossibly cold, and he was suddenly holding--was it a lily? Hadn't there been lilies at his father's funeral? And then he couldn't remember, because memory stopped. Thought stopped. This wasn't a blink like the trip from the fall back to the windowsill--it was a gap, a distinct and overwhelming sensation of nothingness.

GAME OVER flashed across the screen and the live feed to the console ended. Felix was standing on the lawn again, perspiring heavily. "Jiminy-jaminy," he breathed. "I was dead."

"This game bites," said the kid outside. Felix should have felt indignant at that, but the indignation wasn't enough to cut through the relief when the kid walked away instead of inserting another quarter. He slumped on the building steps with his head in his hands.

Ralph climbed down the building, ready to start from the ground again in the next round. "Oh, man, that was fun!" he exclaimed. "That was some pretty good wrecking, if I do say so myself." He turned to Felix. "What do you think, did I do okay?" Then: "Hey, are you okay? I can cool it a little with the bricks if you need me to."

Felix immediately sat upright. "You're doing swell," he said. "Keep it up. Just like that."

The rest of the day went more or less the same. Felix lost all three lives in every game. The only variant was that he was occasionally knocked down by ducks instead of bricks. Every time he fell it was the same rush, and every time he died it was the same cold nothingness.

Finally he rematerialized on the lawn again to find it dark outside. The arcade was closed. "Good job, everyone!" he called to the Nicelanders. As the hero of the game, it seemed like his job to promote the general morale. "Good first day."

Mary came out of the building. "Felix, would you like some more pie? We've got extras from today."

"Oh--thanks, Mary, but I've got a previous engagement. Pac-Man sent me an invitation to a little get-together with some of the other good guys. Sort of a meet-and-greet type of thing, I think. Say, why don't you ask Ralph instead? I bet he'd like some pie."

"Ralph?" Mary looked shocked. "But he spent all day destroying my home."

"Aw, Mary, I'm sure Ralph's not a bad person. Wrecking things is just his job, you know."

"Hmm." Mary didn't look convinced.

"Oh, I should go. Don't want to keep Pac-Man waiting." And Felix headed for the train station. The conversation about Ralph could wait. He could always argue it with the Nicelanders later if it really started to become an issue.


According to the invitation, the party was in a game called Q*Bert. After some confusion in Game Central Station, Felix finally arrived in Q*Bert, and found himself on steep uphill terrain made up of cubes with different colors on their faces. He hopped up the cubes away from the train station, wondering where precisely he was supposed to be. He followed the sound of voices and came upon a flat area with cubes of varying sizes stacked around. Six characters sat on cubes and were engaged in conversation--two tall men and two shorter men, a small orange creature, and a yellow circle about a head shorter than Felix.

Felix cleared his throat. The yellow circle turned to greet him, revealing a dark eye and a wedge of a mouth. "Well, look who's here! Felix, right?"

"Hi there. You must be Pac-Man." Felix checked the impulse to shake hands. He wondered how Pac-Man was holding that Manhattan, but it seemed impolite to ask.

"In the pixels. You find the place okay?"

"Yes," Felix lied.

"Great. Let me introduce you to everybody. Hey, guys, our guest's here!"

The conversation died down and the other heroes turned to face Pac-Man.

"Everybody," said Pac-Man, "this is Fix-It Felix Jr. from Fix-It Felix Jr. Felix, meet the Humanoid from Berzerk, the Defender from Defender, the Gnome from Centipede, Mario from Donkey Kong, and our host, Q*Bert."

"%$@#," said Q*Bert.

"I'm sorry?" Felix asked. "I'm afraid I didn't quite catch that."

"He says-a hello," said Mario in his Italian accent. "He only speaks Q*Bertese. Don't worry, is not a hard language to learn."

Felix gave Q*Bert a friendly wave in response and made a mental note to study Q*Bertese.

"Have a root beer, lad," said the Gnome, and handed Felix a can from a cube-qua-cooler.

"Thanks," said Felix, opening it. "So, what were you guys talking about before I came in? Don't let me interrupt."

"Well," said Pac-Man, "the Defender here was just telling us how his day went."

"New high score," said the Defender. He was an intimidating figure, about twice Felix's height and dressed from head to toe in some sort of boxy bright red-and-yellow spacesuit. "I've never killed so many aliens and mutants."

"Nice job," said the Humanoid, a tall thin green fellow with a slightly robotic tinge to his voice. "There is nothing like fighting aliens."

"Och, I'd like to see you two fight spiders sometime," put in the Gnome.

"Or ghosts," said Pac-Man good-humoredly. He turned to the newcomer. "What about you, Felix? What do you fight?"

"What do I--Oh, you mean my bad guy? His name's Ralph, Wreck-It Ralph. He wrecks things, and I--well, you can probably guess. The thing is, we had a bit of a... property dispute."

Felix could almost see the skepticism through the Defender's opaque visor as he turned his helmeted head to face Felix. "Property dispute? That's your backstory?"

"Yes," said Felix, unsure how else to reply. "What's yours?"

"Aliens took over my planet," said the Defender grimly. "My mission is to take it back, whatever the cost."

"Hey, you know, that's actually a lot like my backstory! Except... well... um... Hi there," said Felix broadly, turning and extending a hand to a character who had just approached from the train station. "Fix-It Felix Jr., from the game Fix-It Felix Jr., and you are...?"

Glove met glove as the newcomer shook his hand. Judging by that, the snazzy white-and-red jumpsuit, and the matching helmet, he must be from a racing game. He was about Felix's height, and his smile radiated confidence. "Name's Turbo, and the name of the game is Turbo Time."

"Turbo Time!" Felix repeated. "Why, I believe we're neighbors!"

Turbo looked Felix up and down. "So you're the new guy in the next game over," he said. "Brand new release, too, by the look of those graphics. What are you, eight colors?"

"That's right! Thanks for noticing." He searched for something to say in return. "I like your helmet. Are you a race car driver?"

"I'm an accountant." Felix started to apologize for the mistake, and Turbo burst out laughing. "I'm just joshing you! Honestly, new guy, I can't believe I really had you there! No, I'm a racer. Best in the business. Hey, don't just stand there, pull up a cube!"

He dragged over two cubes; the others scooted their own to make room for them in the circle. Turbo sat down on one of the cubes and Felix took the other. "That's better," said Turbo. "Now relax and join the party!"

Felix tried to obey, but based on how the evening had begun, he wasn't sure that he had anything in common with these guys besides the role of hero. He sipped at his root beer and tried to keep up with the conversation. On his right, the Humanoid and the Gnome were engaged in a detailed discussion of laser weaponry; while on his left, Turbo had gotten into an argument with the Defender about engine mechanics. He couldn't even tell what Mario and Pac-Man were talking with Q*Bert about.

His mind kept drifting away from this room and back to that day's gameplay: brick after brick, duck after duck, and lily after lily. He shuddered at the recollection of the giddiness of falling and the coldness of death.

"Felix. Felix?" The others had gone quiet, and Pac-Man was looking at him oddly.

"Huh? Oh, sorry! Lost in thought."

"I said, is something wrong? You've barely said a word."

"Did you have a tough time of it your first day?" asked the Gnome solicitously.

"I... I got killed," Felix admitted.

The other heroes looked at him politely, appreciatively, but did not seem impressed.

"Forty-three times," he continued.

Now nods from around the circle, a couple of low whistles and a mamma mia.

"Hey, that's only natural," said Turbo. "New game, colorful graphics like yours, the kids'll be all over you. Only problem is, nobody has you figured out yet."

"It was awful. I'd never died before."

"It's a tough world out there, lad," said the Gnome. "It's kill or be killed."

"Oh, no, no, it's not like that," said Felix hastily. "Not in my game, anyway. Gee, I've never killed anybody."

The other heroes gaped. Even Pac-Man and Q*Bert looked surprised. Felix wouldn't have pegged them for violent games.

"Then how do you handle your enemies?" asked the Defender.

"Ralph? Mostly I just try to dodge his bricks. Not very well today, though, I'm afraid."

"You do not have a laser?" pressed the Humanoid.

"Or a hammer?" added Mario.

"As a matter of fact, I do have a hammer!" Felix held it up so it could catch the light. "Pretty nice, huh? I got it from my dad, and--"

"It don't-a look very good for smashing stuff," said Mario.

Felix returned the hammer to his belt. "Well, it isn't really a weapon..."

"Too bad," said the Humanoid.

"No, it's okay. I don't really want to kill anybody. It's bad enough dying myself. I don't know how you fellas have stood it for so long." He sighed. "Does it get any easier?"

"What, dying?" asked Pac-Man. "Of course! All of us are naturals at it by now."

Mario said something to Q*Bert, and Q*Bert laughed--at least, Felix was pretty sure he did. Q*Bert hopped off his seat and walked to the dropoff at the edge of the playing field. He looked back at the group, winked, and jumped off.

"Look out!" Felix exclaimed, and stood up to rush after him.

But Q*Bert regenerated--of course he did, this was his game--flashing back into existence right above his seat of a moment ago. He dropped to his feet and gave a little bow. The other heroes politely applauded the stunt.

"You see?" said Mario. "Easy as pie."

"Hey, hey," called Turbo, "go easy on the new guy. You scared him! Look at him, he's white as a sheet."

Laughter from the other heroes, and Felix felt the color return to his face at double heat. He sat down again and stared at his boots.

"All right, all right," said Pac-Man, chuckling himself. "We were all new once. Listen, Felix, dying is no big deal. You'll get used to it. It's tough when you're first starting out. There might be death in your backstory, but it's different when you start getting played. In games--in your own game, anyway--death is cheap."

"Yeah," said Felix. "Yeah, I know. Thanks, Pac-Man. Well..." He stood up and stepped outside the edge of the circle. "Gee, fellas, it's been nice, but I think I'd better get back to my own game." He didn't even have to fake a yawn. "Gotta rest up for tomorrow. Mario, Humanoid, Gnome, Turbo, Defender, nice to meet you. Thanks for inviting me, Pac-Man. And would you tell Q*Bert I said thanks for having us?" He tipped his hat at them and turned to hop downhill to the train station, his smile fading as soon as he had averted his face.


Now, Felix wondered, which way had he come from? Game Central Station looked the same no matter which way you turned--massive spacious white hallways and identical train tracks leading to games with unfamiliar names. He glanced up at the boards next to Q*Bert's station. Had he already walked past Asteroids? It didn't help that he'd also gotten turned around on his way here... He glanced around in every direction and decided that a particular staircase looked familiar. Sure, that way seemed right. He set off towards Asteroids.

"Hey, new guy, wait up!"

Felix spun around again to find Turbo disembarking from another newly arrived Q*Bert train. He stopped to let him catch up. "Well, hello again."

"Glad I caught up with you, new guy. I wanted to talk to you some more."

Felix had hoped to be done with talking for the evening, but he smiled. "Sure! What is it?"

"Well, first of all," said Turbo, "Fix-It Felix Jr. is that way." He pointed in the opposite direction to the one Felix had decided on.

"Oh! Oh--gosh--"

"Hey, don't worry about it. Game Central Station is huge, it's easy to get lost your first day. Of course, I never did," Turbo added. "I've got a killer sense of direction. Come on, we're neighbors, remember? I'll walk you home." He set off, and Felix fell into step beside him.

"Thanks," said Felix. "This is awfully helpful of you. But I hope you didn't leave the party early because of me."

"Nah, that crowd's a drag anyway. I'd rather get to know you a little better."


"Yeah. Don't let those tough guys get you down," Turbo went on. "Games are about more than just killing stuff. I bet once you get your feet, you could be the most popular game in this arcade. Well"--he winked--"second most popular."

Felix smiled and walked on in silence.

"By the way," said Turbo, "I understand where you're coming from. With the death thing, I mean."

Felix glanced over at him. "But you can't die in a racing game. I mean--jiminy--can you?"

"Nah. But I don't think dying is what's really eating you."

"I died forty-three times today--what else would be 'eating' me?"

Turbo leaned close and half-whispered the word. "Losing."

Felix stopped walking, and Turbo followed suit. "Am I on to something?" Turbo asked.

"No, that's not it," said Felix, and started walking again.

"Hey, I'm the one who knows where we're going, remember?" said Turbo, catching up. "And I think I am on to something. I can tell because I see myself in you. You hate to lose, don't you?"

Felix hesitated. "I like to win," he said.

"I thought so," said Turbo, grinning. "And when you die, you can't win. Did you win at all today?"


"So what happens in your game when you win?"

"I get a medal," said Felix. "At least I think that's what happens, I haven't actually won yet."

"Well, let me tell you something, new guy. I bet once you get a couple of those medals under your belt, you won't mind dying so much."

"I don't know about that."

"Eh, maybe I'm wrong." Turbo waved a gloved hand in the air to dismiss the topic. "Anyway, Pac-Man's probably right, you'll get used to dying. I just wonder if you'll ever get used to losing."

"Well," said Felix impulsively, "maybe I won't have to."

"Now that's the spirit!" Turbo punched him affectionately on the shoulder. "I didn't think you had it in you. Hey, here we are." He gestured broadly at the tunnel that Felix suddenly recognized, although he wasn't sure how they had gotten back to it. "Fix-It Felix Jr.."

"And there's Turbo Time," said Felix. He put out his hand for Turbo to shake. "Thanks for your help, Turbo. It was nice to meet you."

Turbo took the offered hand in both of his and shook it enthusiastically. "Same to you, new guy. Come see me in Turbo Time, any time."

"I will."

"And new guy?"

Felix turned just as the Fix-It Felix Jr. train was beginning to pull out of the station.

Turbo called after him. "Let me know when you get that medal!"