In those days gods walked among us courtesy of Konami Corporation.
There were two of them arguing right in this spot—
Right over there, in that blasted pit that not even the repavers can heal.
It happened like this.
There’s a cat curled up on old Mrs. McGinty’s porch.
There’re crows croaking raucously on a nearby power line.
Ellen walks up from the south. She doesn’t look around. She finds a square of sidewalk and she sets up her Konami Thunder Dance pad.
The crows go silent as death.
Ellen plugs her pad into a PlayStation 6 and an uninterruptible power supply. Ellen kicks off her shoes. She steps onto the pad.
The cat uncurls. It stretches. It lopes away.
Now old Kalov comes clicking down the road from the north. He’s got his game under one arm. He’s using the other hand to hold his cane.
He sets up his dance pad.
He plugs it in, just like Ellen’s.
He steps on. And smugly, because it’s allowed in the University’s Konami Thunder Dance Club rules, he rests his cane tip beside his feet on the dance pad.
“Kalov,” says Ellen. “Don’t be stupid! You can’t beat me.”
Kalov doesn’t crack a smile.
“Elly,” he says. “It’s the decision of the Konami Thunder Dance Club that we’re going to upgrade to the new version. It’s a good version. It’s easy on these creaky old bones of mine.”
“But it doesn’t have dynamite,” Ellen protests.
“You’re a good dancer,” Kalov says. “Don’t ruin your life.”
The air is as clear and still as glass. The sun isn’t moving.
That’s the way it is with Konami Thunder Dance. They could stand there all day, if you’ll pardon some linguistic ambiguity, and the sun wouldn’t move one inch.
But Ellen’s not happy. She doesn’t let it sit like that. She moves her foot to the side, just sweeps it across what Konami calls the “keyboard of the feet,” and she’s hit the Symbol for storms.
There’s lightning in the sky.
And Ellen says, “Konami doesn’t care about us any more. The original team’s gone on to work for Round Square. All Konami’s doing with this version is squeezing a few more Euros from the newbs.”
“You’re too inflexible,” Kalov complains.
“I won’t accept,” Ellen says, “a version without dynamite.”
And, just like God had allegedly done in that sacred vision that inspired Hiro Matsuda to make Konami Thunder Dance, Ellen hits the button with her toe that begins the game.
“There’s no turning back now!” warns the voice of the machine.
And for Ellen and Kalov alike the patterns of the Thunder Dance begin to flow.
Here is how it is. There are one hundred and sixty eight distinct ‘keys’ on the Konami Thunder Dance pad, divided into eight regions. Eight-key sequences, properly timed, combine to form a Symbol. Most of these sequences have four to seven redundant versions, leaving approximately 1.25 x 10^17 combinations. Each Symbol generates a unique effect; thus, most of the possibilities of the game remain undiscovered even by the greatest of masters.
As Kalov is dancing to Tourniquet, it is natural that his first Symbol is Blood.
As Ellen is dancing to Jungle Song, it is equally natural that her first Symbol is the Elephant.
In the books of the sacred thunder dance, this is called the day that Dumbo fell. The birds are shrieking; they are rising from the power line, scattered even in the face of the dance; an elephant tumbles past, choking on the crimson angst of existence.
And Kalov throws kami and Ellen throws the Wilderness, and thus it is that our city loses the blessing of Heaven.
And in that darkness without the hope of greater powers there comes a rising beat. And Ellen is dancing now, not just for the Symbols but for the rhythm of it, dancing in the rising darkness of Kalov’s Symbol Lost, and her dance is Strength.
And the music of Evanescence rises in the darkness:
My God, my tourniquet.
Return to me salvation.
And the counterpoint of Toybox:
Hey, monkey! Get funky!
And then, pivoting one hand down to support her on the center of the pad, and without interrupting the Symbols of her dance, Ellen uses her free foot to throw Dynamite.
There is a flare of light. The air ignites. Old Kalov struggles against a rising wind and a missed half-note to stay in the game; and all up and down the street windows are shattering, roofs are caving in, chicken dinners are rising from their graves to run around clucking—
For the chicken, alone of all the creatures of this Earth, is blessed with independence from its brain—
And the old lady comes walking, clicking, ticking footsteps up the path.
There’s something fascinating about the way she walks. It’s like the dawning of the sun. The wind of the dynamite doesn’t even touch her. She’s old and her hair is blue and she’s smiling ever so thinly as she walks up.
And the dance goes still.
Both Ellen and Kalov just stare at her. The Symbols they’re supposed to dance drift past right to the terrible ending of those songs.
And the old lady says, “It’s not worth giving your life for dynamite, child, and it sure isn’t worth taking someone else’s.”
Ellen’s chin is high. Her eyes are fierce.
She says, “I want to dance the real thunder dance. The one that matters.”
“You kin’t,” the old lady says.
“We live in a degenerate time,” pleads Ellen. “Hobbit-Spock-spider. A Thunder Dance without dynamite. A sixth teletubby. We can’t just let all the old true things go away.”
“I hear,” says the old lady, “that they’ve added Symbol support to the new version so that newbies can get by with just four of the steps.”
“It is good for the community of Thunder Dancers,” Kalov says.
“Some people up in San Antonio,” the old lady says, “they wired it up through a hacked Furby and abused the Hell out of the four-step system so they could pull off twelve-step Symbols. Things you can’t imagine, like itserbani and oieie.”
Her enunciation is very precise.
“I thought that was clever,” she admits.
“I’m not saying the new version is bad,” Ellen says, although she has been. “I’m just . . . I practiced so much learning to throw Dynamite. And now Konami’s saying that it wasn’t ever intended.”
“Did you know why I stopped Thunder Dancing?” the old lady asks.
Ellen shakes her head.
“Margerie,” says Kalov. His voice is sad.
“I stopped Thunder Dancing,” the old lady says, “when Konami released the patch that made it so that Thunder Dancers didn’t all die by live burial any more.”
Ellen frowns at her.
“The original version,” the old lady says. “It had a bug. Or a feature— who can say?”
“That you’d get buried alive?”
“If you were good enough,” the old lady says.
Ellen’s eyes are round.
“That’s extreme,” she says.
“It was the genuine thing,” the old lady says. “It was the Konami Thunder Dance as sent to us by God. If you were too good then one day the Earth would open up and swallow you. Or you’d get trapped in a mine cave-in. Or something else like that would happen to bury you under the ground. That’s how the Kid died. And Lois Lethal. And Ren the Bing. But not me.”
“Ma’am,” says Ellen. “I’m sure you’d have been buried alive if they hadn’t released that patch.”
“I stopped playing,” the old lady says. “That day. I kept my old pad but I never plugged it in. I would practice without electronic aid. Eventually I learned a few things— just the simplest moves, things like Banana or Grace— without the PlayStation. And when I finally danced a proper Banana and the world went still and a Banana manifest, I cried like the rankest of newbs on their third day of struggling with the dance. But you know as well as I do how many thousands of Symbols I must learn to manifest before I am even vaguely competitive again.”
Ellen is staring at her.
“You can create bananas without a PlayStation?” she chokes.
And Margerie laughs. She can’t help it. It is an articulate laugh, careful and slow, but still it is unwilling, and it bends her over a little with it.
When her chuckles die down, she says, “You see why I am a legend among people who very much like bananas.”
“Margerie,” says Kalov. “Why are you here?”
“The campus police asked me,” she says. “They said, ‘two Thunder Dancers are going to duel. In earnest. Non-regulation.’
“‘Non-regulation?’ I asked. ‘Whatever for?’
“‘Some Thunder Dance Club matter,’ they said. ‘Something about dynamite. . . . we don’t care,’ they said. ‘But we can’t stop them. Bullets don’t work against people carrying PlayStation 6s.’
“So I came down here,” says the old lady, “to tell you to stop this foolishness; and if you don’t, I’ll dance against you.”
“I have no stake in this,” says Kalov. “If we do not duel, it is as if I have won. So I will leave you two to it.”
“I—” Ellen says.
Ellen looks down.
“I don’t want to fight you,” she says. “I— God, I’d do whatever you say, except—”
And the old lady’s mouth crooks up at the corner. “Except?”
“I want to fight you,” Ellen says.
“I’m an old lady,” says Margerie. “I only know a few Symbols. You sure I’m the person you want to beat?”
“It’s the way you walk,” says Ellen. She’s got this transported air of awe about her. “It’s just— there’s only so many times in one’s life that one’s blessed to see perfection. Please. Please.”
And Margerie snorts.
“Kid,” she says, “I said I’d fight you if you didn’t back down, so you don’t have to beg.”
Margerie looks to Kalov.
“Move,” she says.
“Don’t need your machine,” the old lady says, “but I need your music and I need your spot.”
So Kalov hobbles back and he braces himself against the huddled elephant and he watches.
And the old lady steps up.
And this time it is Ellen dancing to Yatta and the old lady to Stillness in Silence. The former is one of the hardest of songs in the Konami Thunder Dance and the latter is one of the easiest. Nevertheless, the Symbols that flow from Ellen are impeccable while Margerie’s—danced on the sidewalk— are fumbling, failing, and incomplete.
And there is impatience stirring in Ellen because she cannot wait for Margerie to fail out of the dance; she must defeat her.
And there is patience in her because she knows that she is in no danger until and unless the old lady does Ellen the honor of conceding the failure of her technique and steps onto Kalov’s pad.
And so her Symbols are not offensive but rather a rising pyre of power that gathers around her, such that the clouds in Heaven are marked with burning mandalas of the spinning magic of her dance.
And she uses her impatience as an engine to drive the patterns of her feet.
And then she sees that the old lady is near the last gasps of her dance, and so Ellen yields to the drive in her. Her hand comes down. Without ceasing to dance the Leaf, she dances also Dynamite.
On the very last movement of those steps she slips.
It is a banana peel: nothing much: but it burns through her like a shock and her world explodes in whiteness and whirling green. As she tumbles through two buildings and a third she sees the old lady stepping away with grace and she realizes that Margerie has won.
My God, she thinks, because this is more amazing to her than even Navvy Jim.
A leaf brushes past her cheek.
May you be buried alive, Ellen thinks, with the greatest possible kindness, and then her head hits concrete and the world goes dark.