“Return Match” was originally published in Galaxy in February 1967. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 183–196.
A Los Angeles police unit—commanded by Joseph Tinbane—identify an illegal outspacer casino. By placing their ship above the casino, a raid was very difficult. In the event of a raid, the outspacers would simply take off, using their jets to destroy the casino and all the humans within. They send in three robots and announce that the raid. The alien ship leave, destroying the casino as expected. Everything organic was destroyed, but one of the robots sent in saved a pinball machine.
Back at the police lab, Tinbane asks the technicians about the progress on the pinball machine. They urge him to play the game in order to see how different it is from other pinball machines. The goal of the game is to target an Ionian village (replicas of those on the home world of the outspacers). The machine defends itself, building up protections based on previous games played. The result of this is increasing difficulty for the player and lower scores. Over time, eventually the possible player score will be zero. The technician shows that overtime the machine is also building a slingshot that will fire one of the steel balls at the player once that process is complete. From Tinbane’s perspective the main thing is that the machine is illegal and threatens human life, becoming a potentially lethal weapon. But he is bothered that the machine seems to only kill one human player at random. The technician responds that once the machine was set up to kill, it would continue to kill. Since gamblers would be drawn to the game due to their addictive compulsion, it would kill more than just the first unlucky player. They gamble knowing the outspacers sometimes destroy their own casinos. Some ever play Russian roulette. Over the warnings of the technician, Tinbane continues playing with plans to stop when the sling-shot/catapult is complete.
After ten games, the catapult is completed. The technician orders Tinbane to stop, but he continues playing. In later games, the catapult gets closer to snaring the ball in order to fire it back at the player. He promises that as soon as the machine’s “tropism” is known, the technicians can disassemble it. Finally, the pinball machine succeeds in firing back the steel ball, narrowly missing Tinbane. He flees the room when he sees that the machine is releasing balls itself now.
In another room, Tinbane is discussing the situation with the lab chief Ted Donovan. Donovan explains that the machine was designed not for the gamblers, but to infiltrate and kill the police who raided their casinos. Somehow they were able to control the robots and direct them to save the machine from destruction. However, it would only likely work on someone who had a tendency toward gambling and risk-taking. Tinbane goes home where he will be safe.
Tinbane receives a call from Donovan who mentions that they found Tinbane’s brain configuration in the machine as well as a transmitter. They do not know what it is transmitting toward, but since the machine is clearly a revenge weapon Tinbane should stay in his house. He also recommends a brain-shield. Late, a bug-like entity attacks his house. Tinbane kills it and dissects it, but is unable to find anything of danger in it. Tinbane gets another call from the office warning him of an outspacer aircar that dropped something near his house. He learns he is under attack from massive steel balls, and as in the pinball machine the will have five attempts to strike him. His only hope is to build a catapult that can fire back the massive balls at his enemies.
The ending of “Return Match” is a bit clumsy, with Tinbane finding himself in a life-sized version of a pinball machine, as the target of a relentless assault, but there is still plenty to think about in this story. Much of it we have seen before. We have yet another example of dangerous automation (“Autofac,” “The Great C”). We have previously seen consumer goods being used as a weapon of war, or a way to fight with other means (“The Little Movement,” “War Game”). There are also numerous examples of conflicts between Terra and other worlds using non-conventional strategies (“The Crystal Crypt”). I do not want to say more about these themes. There are still a few new things going on in the story that are worthy of mentioning.
The alien threat has been transformed a bit. In this way, it is a bit more like “A Game of Unchance.” What seems to really interest the aliens is not the conquest of Earth, but just the chance to make some money. In this case they do it through a series of illegal gambling dens. The human characteristic they are most interested in hacking into is their desire for excitement and their compulsive character. In both stories, a game is the means to exploit human weaknesses. In “Return Match,” Tinbane is compulsive both about the game and about solving the mystery. Since the operation of closing down the casino was a success, there is no compelling reason to unlock the mysteries of the pinball machine, yet he is drawn in on a quest to discover its “tropism.” It is something interesting and out of the ordinary, much like the carnival in “A Game of Unchance.”
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