Punishment

by Len Maxwell

Tags: Mystery,

Desc: Mystery Story: Somehow a new game appears on Prescott's computer. How did it get there? What are the rules? He doesn't know, but starts learning.

Even years later Prescott could never explain how the game got onto his computer -- or why. One afternoon he was sitting at the computer streaming a game show from a local TV station when they broke in to show a live police pursuit. He watched a small white sedan weave in and out of traffic and, more than once, sideswipe other cars, and narrowly miss hitting pedestrians.

"We have just received a video feed from the surveillance camera in a local convenience store." There was a meaningful pause and the commentator went on, "The following contains very graphic violence and parents may want to protect their children from seeing it." That, of course, guaranteed that every viewer would move closer to the TV and turn up the volume. Then a grainy black-and-white video came on showing a man holding a gun on a store clerk. Suddenly there was a blast from the front of the gun and the clerk fell to the floor with blood flowing from a wound in his chest. The killer stared a few seconds and then ran from the store. Through the front windows Prescott could see him run to a small white sedan, pull open the door, yank the driver out, jump behind the wheel, and speed away. The scene faded and the station went back to the pursuit.

As he sat watching the pursuit, Prescott was toying with his mouse, randomly moving the cursor around the screen. It took several minutes for him to notice that, each time the cursor neared the small white sedan, it changed from the normal arrow to a hand, indicating he had options available. He moved the cursor to the pursuing police car and the cursor went back to an arrow. Back to the sedan and he had a hand. With a shrug he clicked: Whoa! A dialog box popped up that said, "Are you sure you want to delete that player?"

He sat back and stared at the screen for a few seconds noticing that the action was continuing in the background with the white sedan weaving in and out of traffic, taking corners on two wheels, and the police were right behind him. Pescott stared for a moment, then clicked on the "Yes."

Another dialog box popped up saying, "This player will be permanently deleted. Are you REALLY sure?" Prescott sat back and stared again, then slowly clicked on the "Yes." Another dialog box popped up, "This is an unlicensed version of the game. The undelete function has been disabled. In order to use the undelete function, please register your game and obtain an unlock code. Proceed?"

Game? Prescott thought. What game, I'm just watching television. He clicked on the "Yes" and, on the screen, the white sedan disappeared! Immediately afterward another dialog box popped up for just four seconds. He read, "Thank you for playing Punishment," before the box disappeared.

Watching the screen he saw police cars screeching to a halt with officers jumping out and walking all around the area. The news helicopter pilot was saying, "Frank, did you see that?"

The studio commentator said, "Uh, I'm not sure. What did you see?"

"That car the police were chasing just disappeared. Like disappeared into thin air."

"Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that. That's what I thought I saw too."

Prescott jumped up, ran into the living room, and turned on the TV. He waited the three or four very long seconds it took to come on and then changed it to channel five, watching exactly what he had just seen on the computer screen. He walked slowly back into his room as the phone rang. Sitting down at the computer he listened as the answering machine answered and then he heard, "Prez? Hey, Prez, if you're there, pick up. Dude, you gotta see this."

He picked up the phone and said, "See what?"

"Dude, there was a police pursuit on TV and the dude just disappeared. Like into thin air. One moment he was running from the fuzz and the next instant, he was gone."

Prescott sat there and slowly said, "Uh, yeah, I was watching. I'm not quite sure what I did."

"Dude, you didn't do anything, that dude on the TV just got away from the cops by just disappearing."

"Uh, Geoff, maybe you better come over here. There's something on the computer you have got to see." Without waiting for an answer Prescott hung up the phone as he watched a replay of what had happened earlier. He was shocked as, in the middle of the replay, the various dialog boxes appeared on his screen. Again, the car disappeared and everyone was frantically trying to figure out what had happened. It took Geoff only ten minutes to get there and, as always, he walked in without knocking. Prescott had watched the replay three times and, each time, the dialog boxes had appeared in the middle of it.

"What's that?" Geoff asked from behind him.

"Oh, that's what I was talking about."

"That's weird," Geoff said, "I didn't see those boxes on the TV screen."

Prescott jumped up and ran into the living room just in time to see another replay on channel five. There were no boxes! He went back to the computer and watched another replay and the boxes popped up. He ignored Geoff as he watched another replay and, this time, when the first dialog box appeared he quickly moved the cursor to the "No" and clicked. A new box appeared saying, "We're sorry. That would change history. Unlicensed copies of the game are not permitted to do that. Please register your game and obtain an unlock code. Thank you for playing Punishment."

"Dude, what is that?"

Prescott shook his head and mumbled, "I don't know." For the first time he noticed he had a menu bar at the top of the window and clicked on "File." All the choices were shadowed indicating they weren't available. He moved across to Edit, View, Tools, and finally to Help. There, he saw "Punishment on the Web," and "About Punishment." Making a decision, Prescott clicked on "Punishment on the Web." Because he was already on-line a new window opened almost immediately with the message, "ERROR 666. You are not authorized to access this web site. The system will now remove the game from your computer."

Prescott immediately moved his cursor to the upper right and clicked on the "Close," hoping he had been in time.

He sat back and Geoff asked, "Dude, what's going on?"

As briefly as possible Prescott explained, "I was watching the pursuit and I clicked on the car. All those boxes popped up and when I said yes the car disappeared."

"Are you trying to tell me that you deleted something on your screen and it actually disappeared in real life?"

"It sure looks that way."

"Where'd he go?"

"I have no idea."

Geoff immediately said, "Check your recycle bin."

Prescott minimized the video screen and opened his recycle bin. There, among other files, was an icon of a white sedan. "Dude, you got the bad guy on your computer."

Prescott sat staring at it until Geoff nudged his shoulder and said, "Restore the file."

Prescott turned and said, "Didn't you see that message that said the undelete was disabled?"

"Yes, but this isn't the game, it's the computer. It may be able to do something the game can't."

"Oh, man, this is silly. We're talking as if I really did make that car disappear."

"Do it, dude, restore the file." As Prescott highlighted the icon and then right-clicked Geoff said, "Hold on, let me get out into the living room so I can see what happens." There was a pause of a couple seconds and, from the living room, Geoff called, "Okay, do it."

Taking a deep breath, Prescott highlighted restore and then clicked. Almost immediately he heard, "Dude! You did it. He's back."

Prescott ran into the living room in time to hear the helicopter pilot saying, " ... from nowhere. Suddenly the chase is back on." Talking to the studio commentator, he said, "Frank, I've never seen anything like this. One second the killer was roaring down the street, then he was gone. Just like that. Officers have been combing the area for the past half-hour and haven't seen him. Now he -- I -- I don't know, he just appeared out of thin air and is roaring down the street again."

Geoff turned with a look of awe on his face and slowly said, "Dude, this is weird."

"Man, weird isn't what I'd call it. Come on." With a resolve, Prescott went back into his room and sat down at the computer. With a click he brought up the video screen and watched the pursuit continue. As Geoff walked back in Prescott moved his cursor back to the car, seeing it change to a hand. Without thinking he clicked on the car. Again the same series of dialog boxes popped up and he clicked "Yes" each time.

"What are you doing, dude?"

"Earlier I watched this man kill someone. He needs to be deleted." With a final click the car disappeared from the screen."

" ... okay, that does it," the helicopter pilot was saying, "the car just disappeared again. I have to land this thing. I don't think I can fly any more."

The studio commentator called back to him, "No, you have to stay there. He might reappear."

"That's your problem. I'm going to go back to the airport, land this thing, and go get drunk." There was a click and the commentator started reviewing what had happened so far that day.

Prescott opened his recycle bin, went to the file menu, highlighted "Empty Recycle Bin," and clicked. As soon as the confirm box appeared, he clicked "Yes" and watched as the white car disappeared along with his other files.

He closed his recycle bin and brought up the video feed. He moved his cursor around the screen watching the arrow. Not once did it turn into a hand. He turned to Geoff and said, "I guess that's it."

"That's it? What are you talking about, dude, you're the man. You can delete anyone you want. How about that Frankie dude at school? The dude that's always bugging us, you could delete him."

Somehow Prescott knew he had to be careful and just said, "Look, Geoff, if this is really true, by deleting someone I basically killed him."

"Oh, wow, dude, that's messed up."

"Look, Geoff, why don't you go home and let me play with this thing for a while. I'll let you know what I find out."

"No way, dude, I want to watch." Prescott was forming his reply when Geoff continued, "Hold up, I have to use the bathroom."

As he walked out Prescott got an idea and opened his Web cam program. He aimed the camera toward the bathroom door and pressed Play. He watched the door open on the screen and called over his shoulder, "Stay there a second." Then he moved his cursor over to the image of Geoff standing in the doorway. The cursor remained as an arrow and he clicked on Geoff's image, but nothing happened. He tried to right-click and was rewarded by a dialog box saying, "That individual has not done anything wrong. To punish him/her without visual evidence of a crime you must first play Justice."

As he clicked on "OK" he heard Geoff right behind him saying, "Hey, dude, what are you trying to do? Were you going to delete me?"

Prescott looked up at him and said, "No, I was just trying to see what I could do with a live feed."

Geoff slapped him on the head and said, "Okay, now you know, don't do that again." He paused and then said, "Okay, it said you need visual evidence of a crime, remember last week when we saw Brad cheating on that math exam?"

Prescott thought a moment and then said, "Yeah, but we don't have any video feed for him."

Geoff looked around the room and said, "Where's your school yearbook?"

Prescott pointed across the room and said, "On that shelf somewhere."

Geoff went over, tossed aside some clothes, and pulled out the yearbook from the previous year. He flipped through the pages and finally stopped to study one. "Got it," he said as he tore the page out.

"Hey!" Prescott nearly screamed, "What are you doing?"

"Here," Geoff said as he handed the page to Prescott, "Scan this in, let's see if that'll work." As Prescott complied, Geoff went on, "We both saw Brad cheating. That's visual evidence. Now we just have to see if a photo will work as well as a video feed."

Prescott opened Publisher, inserted the picture file on the blank page, and then moved his cursor around the page. There were twenty-six pictures on the page and on several of them the cursor changed from an arrow to a hand. One of them was Brad's picture so he clicked on it. A new box appeared, "Deletion is not a valid punishment for cheating. Please read your user guide to determine proper levels of punishment."

He clicked on "OK," then right-clicked and a menu dropped down. "Look, dude, we can get him expelled, suspended, or detained." He paused and then asked, "But what's that last one?"

The menu had four choices, Expulsion, Suspension, Detention, and Beating. Prescott shook his head, "I don't know. We don't have corporal punishment at school."

"Try it," Geoff egged him on.

"I don't know if I should. I don't know what might happen."

"Ah, come on, dude, the guy cheated, he deserves something."

Prescott moved the cursor up to the top row. "How about this guy?"

"Hey, dude, that's me."

As the cursor moved over Geoff's picture it stayed as an arrow and Prescott chuckled, "Well, looks like you haven't done anything wrong, so I can't do anything to you." He moved the cursor back down to Brad's picture, right-clicked, and then said, "Okay, I guess you're right. He deserves something." He moved the cursor down to "Beating" and clicked.

When nothing happened Geoff said, "Aw, I was hoping to see something."


That evening at dinner both his parents talked about what had happened during the police chase and then his father turned to him and asked, "Don't you have a Brad Jessup in your class?"

Prescott didn't even think about it as he answered, "Yes, Brad's in my math class."

"Oh, well I don't think he'll be at school for the next few days."

"Why not?"

"On the way home your mother and I were listening to the news and Brad evidently had a disagreement with three or four gang members. He was beat up pretty bad. As we were pulling into the driveway the newscaster was saying he had been taken to the hospital with severe injuries."

After dinner Prescott went back into his bedroom, sat down at the computer, and was shocked to see the yearbook page with a big red X in place of Brad's picture. Running the cursor around he noted that the cursor changed to a hand when it passed over Geoff's picture.

He sat back and thought about that, trying to figure out what was different from earlier that day. He turned and pulled his yearbook off his bed, found the page with his own picture, tore it out, and scanned it in.

He inserted the picture into Publisher and tentatively ran the cursor over his own picture. It turned to a hand! "Oh, man," he whispered, "Brad didn't deserve what I did to him so Geoff and I are due some kind of punishment." I wonder if I can undo it somehow? he thought. He went to Edit, hit "Undo," and the annual picture disappeared. When he went back to the Edit menu, there was no Undo available. He brought back in the yearbook page with Brad's picture on it and found that clicking on undo just deleted the page. He brought the picture back in and pressed CTRL+Z.

Suddenly Brad's picture reappeared. He moved the cursor up to Geoff's picture and the cursor stayed an arrow. He inserted his own page and, passing over his own picture, the cursor stayed an arrow. He went back to Brad's picture, right-clicked, and then clicked on Detention. With that he went to bed. Because he didn't know where the game had come from or how to open it, he left it up on his computer.


The next day at school he was surprised and not surprised to see Brad sitting in math class. He obviously had not been beat up and Prescott wondered if Brad had any memory of a beating. As the bell rang the teacher called Brad to her desk and Prescott just had to find out. He waited in the hallway until Brad walked out. "What'd the teacher want?" he asked as the two boys started walking to their lockers.

"Ah, I cheated on the math test last week. I have to stay after school today."

Prescott walked off and was in somewhat of a daze the rest of the day. As soon as he got home he brought up the yearbook picture with Geoff and right-clicked on his picture. The dialog box said, "No options are available for this individual." He clicked on OK and then left-clicked on the picture, and pressed CTRL+C. He opened his video feed, turned on his Web cam, and aimed it at the center of the room. Taking a deep breath he clicked on the image of the center of his room and pressed CTRL+V.

There was no poof or puff of smoke, but Geoff was instantly standing in his bedroom. "Whoa, dude, what'd you do? What am I doing here?"

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Story tagged with:
Mystery /