ZORK Owner’s Manual

The latest terribleminds flashfiction challenge was a throwback to those old-school ‘interactive fiction’ video games. You know the ones: ‘PICK UP KEY’ … the key is too far away. ‘WALK TOWARDS KEY’… you fall into a hole.

Anyhow, the challenge was to grab a randomised inventory list and turn them into a story. The items in my inventory were:  a gold coin, a platinum bar, a key, a tool chest, Emergency Oxygen Gear, a shim, a ZORK owner’s manual.

The result is a somewhat meta story that doesn’t really stray too far from the source material and will probably only make sense if you’re familiar with the grand-daddy of interactive fiction games: Zork. Apologies to infocomm.

ZORK Owner’s Manual

“What the fuck is a zork?” Sanjay Chopra crossed his arms and leaned back on the metal chair. It creaked under his weight, and a shower of rust fell from it. At some point he would have to get a new chair. And a new desk. His was made from a couple of filing cabinets with a sheet of metal — pockmarked with rust — balanced on top. A metal shim had been wedged under one leg to keep it from listing.

“Insufficient data,” the robot said. The most expensive piece of equipment he owned, this robot, and the most frustrating. It could dig like a motherfucker though, and so far had not broken any of the 20th century debris that it had helped bring to the surface.

Sanjay looked again at the ragged remains of a cover from what had once been a hardback book. The title, spelled out in that long dead language ‘English’, read simply: ZORK Owner’s Manual.

“It could have been a car. They were big on cars back then.”

“I have a record of every known car model ever produced,” the robot said. “It was not a car.”

“So you know everything, but you don’t know what a zork is. Maybe you translated it wrong.”

“It’s a four letter word,” the robot flashed its lights angrily. “You are the archeologist, I am merely a repository for every piece of information we’ve already discovered about life before the Stupendous War. They owned cars by the millions. Cars have not been difficult to learn about. As you well know, Chopra-saab.”

“You are a passive-aggressive little bundle of wires and circuits,” Sanjay heaved himself up from the desk and reached for his protective suit and oxygen mask. More expensive equipment, but without them he would die. Strapped to his belt was a sharp knife. He’d not needed to use it yet, but there were too many stories of mutated monsters out there — ants the size of people, dogs that ran on two legs — for him to ever leave his tent without it. “Let’s head out to the site and see if we can find anything that might shed some light on this little mystery.”

He had constructed his camp near the site, not enjoying long walks. The second he stepped outside the tent — a reinforced steel structure with massive air filters and radiation shielding — the winds started buffeting at him. Screeching, directionless, they pulled him one way and then another. He could see only a few feet in front of him, thanks to the swirling dust and the heavy smoke layer that turned the sky a dingy orange-black. Frost glittered and sparkled underfoot as he walked towards the dig.

The robot followed behind him, its densely packed squat body unaffected by the winds.

They had first dug into the frozen soil a week ago, after the robot had reported traces of metal below. Since then they had cleared the remains of what had once been houses. Only bits of wall remained, tracing out the shape of rooms. A bit of broken off pipe and a smashed cistern had told Sanjay where the bathroom had been. Some melted, misshapen lumps of plastic might have once been kitchen appliances. The metal the robot had detected had been radiators, also melted and twisted. Sanjay had carefully hauled the metal out of the dig and packed it away in the tent. The Collective paid for scrap metal, it was the material from which their civilisation had been built.

There were few possessions left, most of the houses had been raided by the surviving populations: anything that could burn had been burned, anything that could be eaten had been eaten.

Scattered around the perimeter of the house, Sanjay had discovered three empty tin cans. A quick analysis from the robot, and it had told him they had contained: a soft fruit known as peaches, flavoured pre-cooked beans in a sweet tomato sauce, and a kind of pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

He had eaten his reconstituted cockroach and algae meal pack that night speculating all the time what those ancient foods might have tasted like.

Now, however, he was on a mission. He was determined to find out what a zork was. The Collective would pay good money for new information. If a zork turned out to be important, he might even make enough money to refit his entire office. He allowed himself to dream of it: a desk with a special place for his pens.

“Robot,” Sanjay said as he surveyed the site. “I’ve got a good feeling about this ‘zork’ thing. We don’t leave until we know what it was.”

“You’re the boss,” the robot said.

Two hours of digging and dusting, and Sanjay leaned back on his heels and noticed the tiny, thread-like shape on the horizon. He stared at it, a sick feeling in his belly. Already it swelled in size as it came closer; a twister.

“Fuck.” Sanjay grabbed his tool chest and yelled at the robot to follow him. He raced towards the camp and started to dismantle the tent and throw it onto his conveyor. A quick look back over his shoulder, however, and he abandoned everything except the robot, hustling it aboard the vehicle. The twister had already reached three times the size, the winds picking up around him.

“Come on, come on.” Sanjay jammed the ignition key in and set the conveyor to its top speed. They rumbled away from the site on fat treads. Sanjay clutched the steering wheel tightly to stop his hands from shaking. The wind tore at them, trying to tip them, but the conveyor had been built like a tank; all thick metal and sloping surfaces.

Even a conveyor couldn’t stand up to a twister though. Glancing behind him, Sanjay could see the forks of lightening flickering within the great spiralling body of the twister. The earth screamed beneath it, yawing and shifting, torn upwards and flung aside as the twister fed.

Bits of his tent were flung past him, rolling along the ground. The conveyors Emergency Oxygen Kit ripped clear of its straps and went flying backwards, into the gaping maw of wind behind him.

“Shit, shit shit shit shit shit shitshitshit” Sanjay yammered as he leaned on the accelerator. The soil shifted and rumbled beneath them, the conveyor almost tipping over.

“Move at a forty-five degree angle,” the robot buzzed. “To the west. The twister’s course should take it beside us on the east. With luck we may survive.”

Sanjay jerked the steering wheel to the left and the conveyor’s treads screeched to obey. The wind sucked at them greedily. Sanjay gritted his teeth and willed the conveyor to stay attached to the ground. Something slammed into the dashboard next to his gloved hand. Glancing down, Sanjay saw a gold coin half buried in the metal. The conveyor moaned as its treads started to lift off the ground.

“I will not die here!” Sanjay shouted. The conveyor bumped back to the ground. Sanjay glanced to his side, saw that the twister had drawn level with them but was angling off in the other direction. He was so focused on tracking it, that he never even saw the building emerging from the soil until the conveyor slammed into it. Sanjay catapulted over the handlebars and slammed against a brick wall. He slid down it, thankful for the protective helmet and suit he wore and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall. There, he waited for the storm to die down.

An hour later, the sky was a flat, hazy orange and the dust had dropped. The land had been reconfigured by the twister, Sanjay had no idea which direction he’d travelled from. The tread marks of the conveyor had all been blown smooth, and the conveyor itself smashed beyond the limits of his portable tool kit. His tent, survival gear and salvage was gone: buried somewhere in the wasteland around him.

“We are a seventeen day walk from the nearest Collective outpost,” the robot announced. It shook itself, dust showering from its sides. “My battery will not last that long.”

“I won’t last that long.” Sanjay sucked on the nozzle at the side of his helmet that led to his water canister. He looked over the conveyor, pulling the gold coin free from the dashboard and examining it. At one point there had been a portrait of a person in profile, but it had worn away so that Sanjay could not tell who it was meant to be. He stuffed the coin into a pocket and turned to the building.

It was one of those rare buildings that had survived the war relatively unscathed. Only the top story was visible, the rest buried in sand. A blown out window stood at elbow height. At one point it had been painted white, flecks of paint peeled away from the brick.

“Might as well take shelter in here for the night,” Sanjay said. “Work out what to do in the morning.”

He stepped into the building through the window, the robot following him. Sanjay flicked on his helmet torch. It flickered over white walls and came to rest on a sword and a lantern, both gleaming as if new. Sanjay blinked at them, stunned by such an anachronistic detail.

He tracked the light across the floor and up onto the wall. Plastic letters had been stuck to the peeling paintwork. Sanjay blinked as he read them. “Zork? Does that say Zork?”

“Affirmative,” the robot said.

“What the fuck is this place?” Sanjay moved towards the door and stepped out into a hallway. A couple of bags had been dropped halfway along, and Sanjay kicked one of them open. A pile of plastic blocks fell out, each one stamped with the words ‘platinum bar’.

“This is some weird shit.”

The robot, a few steps behind him, did not reply.

Sanjay opened the other sack and discovered a lunchbox, the food long since rotted away, and a withered root of some kind.

The hallway led to a flight of metal stairs. Sanjay descended them, drawn to the lower levels of the building as if by instinct. He’d always been a digger, had always believed the greatest treasures were the ones you had to extract from the soil.

Cockroaches scuttled over the walls, away from the light of his torch. Sanjay kept descending the stairs until they expelled him into a stone basement. There were no windows down here, and the floor had only a thin layer of dust.

Sanjay shone his light around. No furniture, but in the very centre of the room there was a round trapdoor.

“It might be another group of survivors.” Sanjay rushed towards it, examined the seal. Groups turned up every now and then. Often just a small interbred family, with hollow bones and white skin and no idea of how many generations had passed. Sometimes, however, they found another group, with equipment, skills and a different culture. Sanjay couldn’t even imagine how much he’d get paid if he found a group like that.

“There is writing on the wall,” the robot said. “It reads: the wise traveller bewares the Grue.”

“Zork? Grue? I’m starting to think we’re about to discover something pretty major.” Sanjay hooked his fingers under he trapdoor and prised it open. His helmet torch penetrated only a few feet into the inky darkness below, enough to see the rusty ladder that led downwards.

Sanjay looked up at the robot. “Coming?”

“I don’t like this.” The robot whirred. “I hope you’re right and there is another group of survivors down there.”

“What other explanation could there be?” Sanjay grinned at the robot.

The two of them descended into the darkness.

Other stories inspired by randomised inventories

Great Acting by antipelican. A funny story about a drunk actor on a path to learning some life lessons (maybe).

Never Swindle a Swindler by D.J. Davis. Swashbuckling thievery pretty much always amuses me. There’s a great sense of a bigger world as well.

 

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