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The Petlyakov-15 Amusement Engine

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The Petlyakov-15 Amusement Engine caught Devin's eye at a yard sale. The box was a bleak-looking steel cube in olive drab, apparently built to withstand small-arms fire, yet it had controller ports and a cartridge slot. He called the saleslady over from her busy work of rearranging battered stuffed animals. "Is this some kind of custom case on a Nintendo?"

She shrugged. "It was my cousin's, but then he moved out all of the sudden. Wasted all his time playing video games."

The box wasn't labeled beyond "PE-15" and some unreadable Cyrillic text. Pretty impressive design for a custom case. The ports actually looked like they'd take several kinds of controllers and anything from a NES cartridge to a Genesis one, maybe even a Turbographix-16 card.

She saw him fussing over the thing and said, "I haven't got any of the games for it, but half the time he just played the thing without any. Has some built in, I guess."

Even better! "How much do you want for it?"

Once he'd dusted the thing off and plugged in the wires it came with, Devin bothered to look the thing up online. A quick Google search showed nothing for the PE-15 except a vague reference to "Eastern Bloc video games and other garbage knockoffs". He couldn't complain about the fact that it actually turned on with standard Canadian household current, though. That was more than he could say for a Chinese fake-Nintendo model he'd once found. The machine turned on and played a sort of dirge even without any game cartridge plugged in. Just a bunch of Cyrillic text for a menu though, in black on red. Not very user-friendly, but what else could he expect? He moved the little hammer cursor to a random game and hit Start on an imitation SNES gamepad from a modern company.

It seemed incomplete. There was a red spaceship flying around and shooting things, but most of the sprites were just empty squares like placeholders for someone less lazy to fill in later. Disappointed, Devin reset to the title screen and tried something else. The second game was even worse: a little square moving around in a maze that had no exit. Ugh. And all of the other menu options just buzzed at him. He sighed, but there was still hope for the thing as a console emulator.

The next day he dug up a copy of "The Legend of Zelda" and blew dust out of it. The PE-15 came on and showed him... "The Legend of Svetlana"? He blinked at the little English text beneath the bigger Cyrillic logo. The only save file was called IVAN too, and the boomerang was replaced with a throwing hammer. For old times' sake he played through the last dungeon -- IVAN had gotten partway through it and found the red ring -- and rescued the princess. Instead of the usual ending text, the system glitched and dumped him back to the built-in games menu. And this time, some of the black-text games had turned grey.

Curious now, Devin fired up the first built-in game. The graphics had been filled in with bits stolen from "Zelda". Er, "Svetlana". The one with the tiny maze had expanded too, to look something like a Zelda dungeon area with missing parts.

Devin had work to attend to, but over the next few days the mystery nagged at him. "Anybody ever hear of this thing?" Nobody on his usual Internet chatroom had heard of the machine. That was saying something, considering the high geek level there. "There's nothing obvious on the game history sites either," he said.

One friend said, "It unlocked features when you beat a game? You should get a couple of short or easy ones to try. Contra, Gradius, Kirby's Dream Land if you can use a Game Boy cartridge or get the Kirby Super Star edition..."

"You're a nerd."

"Guilty."

So Devin became a more avid gamer. He shopped at a used game store and grabbed various classics from the 8- and 16-bit era, to see what the PE-15 would do to them. "Super Mario Bros."? Bowser had a top hat and Mario kept rescuing soldiers, who (according to Internet translation) said in Russian, "Thank you Mario! But our factories are still in enemy hands!" The title on "Rush'n Attack" didn't translate. "Contra" was when things started getting weird.

The usual cheat code worked. (Ask any 1980s gamer.) But the simplistic, vaguely Cold War-themed action game didn't normally have a character selection screen. Instead of playing as a generic Rambo-like guy, Devin had a choice of dozens of sprites, including some from every game he'd played on the machine and variants on each. Devin grinned and picked a tiny helicopter to take into this infantry-focused game.

As usual there was no real story, but the ending screen had text. Devin had set up a video camera to record his adventures, so the gameplay went up on YouTube alongside his unlikely collection of military hardware videos and pony cartoons. The ending text was something about "train for final level".

The next day, someone commented on the video: one "XHuman", who just said, "STOP PLAYING."

Devin shivered. There was weird, which he appreciated, but then there was creepy. He looked up XHuman's profile and found some kind of starfield animation as the only recent upload. Years before that he'd favorited some of the game things as Devin, like four minutes' footage of all the switch-flipping necessary to get a Black Hawk helicopter in the air. They'd put up one PE-15 video too, labeled "Penultimate". It showed a game Devin hadn't seen, in the style of the built-in ones but much more complex. Inventory screens and tactical maps flashed past as the player expertly directed a thinly veiled nuclear and army assault on "North Mearcia", dressed up with Super Fireball Dragons and Cossacks.

XHuman's character was an amazingly detailed and well-animated blue dragon that flitted around the map on some kind of orbital path. He got as far as capturing the White Palace before getting a Soviet fanfare and a block of text mouthed by a portrait of the dragon. It was in English, sort of. "Congraturation!! You have completed a great game and prooved the justice of our culture." This was word-for-word ripped from the NES "Ghostbusters" game. Then: "Now begins real-type mode!"

Devin laughed. There wasn't a better way to get him to keep playing the console than to dangle such a strange thing in front of him. Before long he'd started posting live video of his too-long gaming sessions, so his friends could watch the Slavicized, garbled gameplay he got from plugging in standard games. "Tetris" just gave him a warning screen saying something about "Attention Sapping Project". (It'd been rumored that the game was a Russian conspiracy to destroy Americans' productivity.) There was an airline management sim where Aeroflot planes were superior, a very short "Kid Icarus" version (can't do much with it if angels and Greek folklore are verboten superstition), and an unusually serious remix of "River City Ransom" emphasizing the rampant crime and gang violence of Western cities. That one was easier than it'd normally be with one player, since Devin got to build his own character. The bits of data from other games combined to let him design a horse with angel wings, with a powerful kick attack. So the next few hours of gameplay consisted of Devin playing as a pegasus beating the hell out of cartoon gang members and shopping at malls with the money he stomped out of them. Truly, River City was facing serious trouble.

XHuman didn't comment again, but Devin was getting a following for his videos of the altered games. The built-in games had evolved into something beginning to resemble the wargame from the "Penultimate" video, split up into various sub-games like a "Missile Command" knock-off. Devin especially liked the flight sim, which was obviously cobbled together from "Top Gun" and other games but remade into something more complex and interesting. Especially after he found copies of "Legendary Wings" and "PilotWings" and "StarFox". The flying abilities of all his characters got that much more detailed, once he'd played those games on the console. From that point on the PE-15 even sported crude 3D graphics. His friends' theory was that the console had somehow analyzed the function of the Super FX chip and other hardware built into the cartridges; he already knew this piece of hardware had a crazy level of customization and adaptation. The changes to "DuckTales" alone to make it into "Greedy Capitalist Duck Story" were a work of art.

"Is it connecting to the Internet?" one of his friends asked him. "Maybe it's hooked up to one of those Soviet 'numbers stations'. It'd help explain the new content... well, kind of."

"I have no idea."

"Try opening it up, then! Look for a radio antenna."

Devin looked skeptically at the console. "I don't know... Maybe it's rigged to blow up or something if it's opened."

"X-ray it? You can get a view of what's on the circuitboards."

Devin typed, "Sure. Can I borrow your X-ray circuit analyzer?"

"Uh."

The best way available to figure out how this thing worked was just to keep playing! Devin put a lot of hours into it over the next month. The games built into the thing kept getting better as he tried them and plugged in other games for it to read, or whatever it was doing. He'd settled on a standard character too: a neat white pegasus loosely resembling one of the robots from "Megaman X". It was fun to see how the graphics style on him changed depending on the game, from a tiny squareish thing to a big detailed sprite. Well, "her" technically; he'd picked the mare variant. The games had started making him choose one and offering stat bonuses for that or the stallion. He really needed the mare's agility boost for those stupid one-hit-kill games. That and the graphics were... a little better-looking.

The dialog on the handful of role-playing games he tried was different too. The translation was as bad as you'd expect from Japanese text filtered through some kind of Russian software to convert it to English, but it was still impressive how even the most inane fantasy villagers ended up reacting to the changed character. "Hello DEBRA! Welcome to SAPPHIRE TOWN!"

Devin blinked. He'd never actually entered Deb -- er, DEBRA as a character name, just his usual one. Apparently the PE-15 even adjusted for that. He kept playing for a while before running into a suddenly, massively more complex battle system than the game was supposed to have. No longer did he have to just select "Attack" over and over. Instead there was a whole set of options involving feints, airborne assault, stealth, and tactical Pokemon strikes. Devin grinned as he battled through the usual cookie-cutter enemies with newfound enthusiasm.

That evening, even later than he usually liked to stay up, he found that one more game had been unlocked on the main menu. It was the next to last entry on the list, titled only "????". The fact that it had changed color made him shiver. Maybe it was the fancy wargame video he'd seen before. Then there was the way everything on the console had been leading up to this new challenge, and the differences between this version and XHuman's. He looked at the console and said, "What is this thing, anyway? A recruitment device? An AI?" It answered only with the steady glow of its red power light.

Devin backed away from it and shut it down for the night, deciding not to mess with it until tomorrow. Unnoticed, the red light winked on again while he slept.

He kept putting off his encounter with the game. A meal, some errands. The PE-15 was still waiting for him. Finally he picked up the controller and saw what the penultimate game had in store.

It was different than anything he'd seen before. The music was original, as close to a majestic flying theme as one can get with 16-bit sound hardware. The game began with no introduction, no instructions, just his chosen character soaring over a fantasy world on her white-feathered wings. Devin found the controls responsive and intuitive. After all, the Petlyakov-15 Amusement Engine had been adapting to him. The flight was peaceful and relaxing, until the fireballs started flying.

Devin banked and dived past them. He called up a little scanning mini-game he'd played earlier and made contact with the ground control wizards, who identified anti-pegasus weaponry installations all along the east coast of "treacherous United Empire". Devin grinned and circled around through Canada... er, "Moose Kingdom". He still had to do mortal battle in midair with the menacing sky moose squadrons, but this game's designer didn't give Moose Kingdom enough credit for military preparedness. Now, what exactly was he supposed to be doing?

He beat his wings against the arctic air, shivering in sympathy with his character struggling to fly through the boreal wind. Intuitively he activated the various mini-games he'd mastered to hack into local radar, check his magic loadout, and search for targets. Hmm... There was a sorcerer with a hidden fortress under a mountain in the middle of the evil empire, and apparently he was supposed to take over. Simple but for the horde of storm giants with shoulder-fired lightning blasters. That and the fact that his target had a mountain over it.

Half an hour of flying and battling later, Devin's hands were cramped on the controller. He'd hardly looked away from the screen and his eyes ached. Time to pause this thing and... there was no pause feature to this one. Gah! He snorted in annoyance and flicked his hair out of his eyes, making a note to get a haircut. The Russians were more dedicated to their gaming than he'd have liked. He could sit through the rest of this mission and finish the job to see the ending.

No, actually. Devin thought again about everything he'd done with this console. It had adapted to him, merging data from different games and possibly even hardware designs. It had been watching, judging, nudging him into designing a detailed custom character with abilities he'd also helped customize. It had kept asking him, "Do you want to buy upgraded speed, or attack power?" and the like, and shifting later games as though it remembered his choices. He flicked his camera view over to one side and admired how he'd been persuaded to define the character's appearance too, giving her a sort of Greek look with a white backless toga and a backpack stuffed with missiles... er, scrolls. In space-themed games he'd gotten to play as her too, just with a shorter skirt and a space bubble helmet and raygun. The thing that struck him now, though, was that unlike previous games, there was no explicit goal. No timer or urgency. So, who cared that there was no pause feature?

Devin veered away from the enemy empire and let himself soar over peaceful oceans. His trackers showed him intercontinental ballistic fireball krakens lurking in the depths, but they didn't go after so small a target as one pegasus. He found a glide path around the arctic circle, reconsidered his plan to hover for so long, and landed on an icy island. He let go of the controller at last, so he could take a break. His back muscles ached from so much flying.

Devin stood and grabbed a carrot from the fridge to chew on. His bare feet clicked on the kitchen tile. He kept glancing back at the game, but nothing was attacking just yet. He called up the game's maps... well, really just thought about them without grabbing the controller again. With no overt winning condition, it might be fun to see just how far he could push the PE-15's rules. He grabbed a glass of water and drank it thoughtfully, managing to bang it against his face due to not paying attention. The game let him land instead of treating him like a fighter plane. Would it let him do stuff on the ground?

He sat again, brushed his tail out of the way, and picked up the controller. The extra-wide buttons made it easier for his fingers to not mash them all at once. Were there this many buttons before, though? He was glad for the 3D camera dials and motion sensors despite not having noticed them earlier. He lifted off with a few wingbeats and explored the Moose Kingdom to see how much detail had gone into it. Now that he was flying this low, the game was struggling to keep up. The framerate fell and endless forests popped up in lieu of accurate map detail. Well, to be fair, endless forests were a pretty good approximation of the region he was flying over, somewhere equivalent to Alberta.

He circled lazily in the sky, occasionally swatting a killer cloud when it drifted too close. He stood up from in front of the console and looked to the window. Cloudy day out there in reality, but decently warm considering the latitude and season. Which was like saying "a relatively comfortable volcano", but hey, his coat was thick enough to handle it. He could put on a jacket too. The thought made him laugh and glance back at his wings. Okay, maybe a regular coat wasn't such a good idea, but maybe he could wear a vest backwards or something. Better yet, a scarf; it'd look cute over his toga. He checked his inventory, found a scarf, and equipped it before realizing what he was doing.

Something circled in the sky over his home. Not a bird, plane or superman, but what looked like a silvery humanoid machine. Devin raced back to the game console, turned his pegasus' eyes downward, and saw a fantasy version of some very familiar-looking terrain. He grinned and activated his sonic boom move.

His window rattled a few seconds later. Devin glanced back and forth between window and game screen. If the purpose of the PE-15 was to train up Cold War recruits in some way, he was doing a pretty bad job of it so far. But then again, it had adapted to him and his own chosen goals and games. XHuman's last video had showed a field of stars. Could it be that it wasn't just some screen saver or NASA footage? XHuman's "Penultimate" game experience had kept him on something resembling an orbital flight path, like a satellite. Devin wasn't so limited; the game let him wander far away from whatever it was trying to do with him. In his case it was sort of pushing him to nuke NORAD... but considering its willingness to let him be what he wanted and do what he wanted, it wasn't pushing very hard. How could he win a video game with that much flexibility? Devin tingled with possibility, a sensation of being not quite complete or ready. The next move was up to him.

It was a nice day outside. "I need a break from games." Unseen by anyone except the PE-15, Devin ran hoof-like fingers through her mane and stretched her wings luxuriously. "The only winning move..." She wrapped a scarf around her neck and tucked one end into her low-cut toga for extra warmth before stepping outside. Her hooves sank a bit into the snow and cold air tickled her white coat and feathers.

Debra stepped into the air with a graceful beat of her wings, and flew off to find her own fun. "The only winning move, is to go outside and play."

The Petlyakov-15 Amusement Engine sat there in Debra's home, humming quietly to itself. There was some very interesting psychological information to report. Far away, ham radio enthusiasts reported a cryptic broadcast on a Russian-language radio signal, but completely missed the data stream hidden behind the eerie list of numbers. Another computer, far more powerful, was already at work on calculating how the new pegasus might be useful to the cause...