The busy seaside arcade wasn't exactly the most obvious place Max could have picked to go. It made some sense, given the weather wasn't looking so great. The salty tang in the air was starting to irritate the rat's nose, and that was much less pronounced indoors. With its flashy lights and strange sounds, it was not so unlike the laboratory he called home, and the overgrown white lab rat felt it quite easy to lose himself in the bustle of his surroundings.
It was teeming with people; kids having fun, adults believing they could make some quick cash. The lighting was quite dim, so as to put more attention on the flashing machines that littered the various rooms. A tall weasel with a stripy shirt and a warm voice read out numbers for bingo, trying to tie every other call into some innuendo meant for one of the patrons. The object of his desire, a punk-like black sheep, seemed entirely unimpressed with this. A stripy housecat with a faded suit poured money from a bucket into a video poker machine, while a cheerful rottweiler in dungarees did his own little dance as his particular game on a nearby fruit machine struck gold, coins spilling out like water.
Max didn't get much time off from his busy role in the lab, but it did happen now and then. In this case it was due to some "unscheduled downtime", which he knew to be code for some sort of big and inconvenient explosion. No problem though, the odd green splotches on his soft pink paws came off with plenty of soap, and he felt sure those missing patches of fur would grow back in time. To cap it off, a dozen identical little copies of his favourite scientist Nilla had given him a good Max-imising with a handy growth ray and sent him out into the big wide world for the day, with a few coins to keep him busy.
Max looked side to side as he wandered through, his giant pink tail swaying and narrowly avoiding passers-by. This probably wasn't where he'd be spending his coins, but the rat had to be careful that he didn't get drawn in by all the shiny things. He did come close a few times, even getting so far as to putting a coin into a slot machine labelling itself Dr Hypno's Wheel of Attraction, his red and yellow eyes swirling helplessly. He only had quarters though, which the machine spat back at him, bouncing off his nose and disrupting the hypnotic spell. No, this machine would only take the most expensive $2 house tokens. Max stuck out his tongue, and shuffled onwards.
Away from the more serious games, the rat found himself surrounded by gigantic tanks full of gifts. Ah, he had made it to the claw crane machines. These were worth a look, and so he did, peeking in each one. He saw novelty gifts, from the traditional watches and ornaments and promotional stuffed toys to the more modern iThings and eWotsits. Large chunky devices which a player could in theory snag by using these slightly flimsy mechanisms.
Max idly wondered what Nilla would be able to do with such a machine. Maybe this one wouldn't develop sentience quite as quickly as the others? Only time would tell.
That line of thought was interrupted as he came face to face with a familiar orange plush toy. An orange squirrel-like tail, brown nubbed horns and bobbly mane, tiny white wings, big paws and long ears, and blue buttons for eyes with a zipper down his chest. A funny creature with a cute fanged smile, Max knew him to be a wolpertinger because they'd met before. This was one of Nilla's creations, a bouncy little animated toy who went by the name of Jellybean. But what was he doing here? Max leaned up close, paws against the glass, nose squished as he leaned in.
"Woah, hey Jelly... you awake? What're you doing in there?"
No, he didn't react at all, he was quite inert. That wasn't great, it must have meant he'd been stuck in there for quite a while! Max had wondered why he hadn't seen the critter around lately. Quite how the plushie had gotten into this mess, who knew; he'd have to ask later. Still, Max was here now, pulling away from the window, scratching an ear and looking at his coins. Alright, he'd try and catch himself a Jellybean. How hard could it possibly be?
Brightly lit, the machine's name was "Yoink!" On a little coloured screen at the back of the toy cabinet, an animated blue bunny advertised the game along to a repetitive little jingle. It was full of a number of different soft toys that didn't seem to have any soft of brand to them. He saw a few shapes more clearly than others; a plump red squirrel, a naughty hyena, a fuzzy white and green dragon, a little toy ram. Jellybean was on top, which seemed only natural, and definitely inspired Max to think he might be in with a chance. A large, friendly slot accepted his coin greedily, killing the little attractive jingle and giving him two plays. Indeed, this was pretty simple; one button moved the claw back, another moved it right. Line both up with the wolpertinger, push the big red button.
He gave it a go. The crane whirred into life, shuffling along the rail and then sideways. It looked pretty good, all nice and lined up as the rat let go - his mismatched eyes bright, urging the claw to do its job. He missed by a few inches, adding another quarter and giving it another go. This one grazed Jellybean's zipper, but had nothing to grab onto, and so it was another failed try. Max squeaked, frowning at the device for letting him get so close! But he seemed to be on a winner here.
A few more coins and a good deal of cajoling later, Max was feeling tired but happy. Little by little he'd edged the wolpertinger closer to the exit, often scooping the little toy up between those claw grips, but never quite able to hold it long enough for the automatic servos to drop it over the slot. Not uncommon, but he'd surely be able to win like this. Might cost him a few coins, but it was for a good cause, right?
The machine reached zero plays and the time-out music started to play, along with the Counter of Encouragement. Play again? Ten, nine, eight... and Max ruffled through his little coin pouch for more. However, it was empty; a large moth flew out, and the rat squeaked in surprised. Eek, that was quick! His ears twitched, and the realisation hit that he'd been suckered into a game after all. Oh well, at least he knew where Jellybean was, he could let Nilla know and certainly there'd be some grand plan. Or maybe more quarters, who knew?
The lab rat let the meter reach zero, and looked on at his plush friend for a little longer. The machine rumbled softly, but it didn't begin its usual catch-music right away. Instead, something quite unusual happened, and Max looked up as a hatch slid open right in the roof of the plushie cabinet. A long coiled tube started to flow out of the gap with a mischievous whirrr, setting off all of Max's finely honed laboratory senses that something was Not Quite Right. Before he could get very far, the end of the tube opened out into an oversized claw, which lowered down on him suddenly. It was at least as big as he was, the metallic arms gripping around his tail and paw, clutching and squeezing at him.
Max squealed in surprise as the claw jostled about, a sharp shock of electricity and warmth and something else tingled up his leg and his tail. Both felt quite numb, and the world started to lean and lurch from side to side as the rat was reeled slowly upwards. Little sparks ran up his spine, and his perspective suddenly dwindled away; the world grew so much bigger. Max felt the odd shifting feeling that came with returning to a much more reasonable size for a lab rat, shrinking in the grasp of that strange claw.
"Eeek, h-help! Nilla, this isn't funny, y-you can stop now..."
His toes felt pulled together, then; looking down he saw a paw-shaped mitten where his foot used to be. His other followed suit, squeezing and plumping out to just the right shape. Soft, felted artificial fur was winding its way up his shrinking rodent body. Everything felt so light and so soft, his weight disappearing much quicker than usual. Hands swelled and ached with warmth, before they felt stiff and yet softer, his whiskers taut and shiny, his ears soft and fleecy. The sensation worked its way deeper and deeper, yet for its suddenness Max felt quite relaxed and pleasant. Focusing was much more difficult, and his ratty muzzle turned up and held fast as a nicely stitched smile.
Seams ran up from the tip of his tail and right up his back to his head. Each eye hardened and became a little glassy disc, although for some reason Max could still use them to see. Upside down, the blood rushed to his head, before that sensation ceased all at once; floofy stuffing filled his head and his mind. The rat couldn't move any more, which wasn't too surprising as his thoughts caught up with his predicament; with the exception of critters like Jellybean, plush toys rarely had such a luxury of moving. Full of stuffing and beads, Max made helpless rustly noises as the claw machine wound him in. He bumped painlessly against the sides of the toy cabinet, before being dropped and landing face first, smooshing against the wolpertinger and others. With a beep of contentment, the hatch at the top slid closed. Yoink!
It was some time later, when the sun was much lower in the sky and much of the crowd had dispersed after a busy day. This left a few evening tourists and regulars, either too polite or too disinterested to comment when Nilla came through. It had taken her a good few hours of notes and experimentation, but she'd managed to pull her little selves together again without too much trouble. Right now she was quite a busy-looking surmelle, a large pouched bipedal critter with elements of rat and weasel, a little stubbly tail and eyes of different colours, blue and green. Orange hair was dyed with waves of blue, making herself more appropriate for some time out at the seaside!
The strangest element wasn't her appearance but her attire - a large backpack with a little radar dish poking out of the top and spinning around about once every few seconds. This was the project codenamed Bloodhound, her surefire technology for finding pretty much anything, located pretty much anywhere. This particular contraption had utterly ruined all future hide-and-seek games, but today it was going to prove really useful for finding her missing Max.
And her rat was close by, said the little screen in her paws. Turn left at the next exit. No, the other left. Perform a safe and legal U-turn. You're not even going the right way. Perhaps it would be better if I drove.
Nilla scampered along through the arcade, dividing her focus between the little screen and not crashing into arcade customers. Statistically, this went quite well, and a few apologies later she found herself in that corner of the building populated by UFO catcher games. 'You have arrived at your destination', said the screen, before she stowed it away in her pouch. It said that, and yet there didn't seem to be anyone here other than her. No Max scent, no squeaking, no anything. Very odd, and she wondered if maybe there had been an error?
The bright machines grabbed her attention away, looking from one to the next as she let thoughts wander. Perhaps Max was here, but then was abducted by aliens? Or maybe he'd stumbled into some nether dimension. Or, perhaps it was some side effect of the lab issue from yesterday, and she should maybe start searching along the floor for dozens of very small Max critters? No, surely the Bloodhound would have gotten extremely confused, and offered some sort of polite error message or minor explosion to express displeasure.
Such imagination stopped once Nilla's gaze found Max's shiny glass eyes. Leaning in to get a closer look, the surmelle peered through the clear plastic sides of the toy cabinet. Sure enough, there was a plump plush lab rat looking entirely like her Max, tumbled atop a similarly sized orange plush toy who must have been her Jellybean. One mystery solved, but several more raised.
"Eh, seriously? Max? Beany? What have I told you about playing with strange machines? ... oh, I guess maybe I might just possibly have suggested they were perfectly natural and not at all bad. Hmm. That could be my fault..."
Nilla laughed uncertainly as she began examining the claw machine, looking for some explanation or something she could tinker with to work out what had caused this strange situation. Luckily, it didn't seem to object as she pressed buttons, tested and nudged at moulded plastic, all the while nodding and making mental notes. Every so often the blue bunny cheerfully reminded her that two plays were 25 cents.
The constant reminders gave her an idea, though. Nilla focused in on the coin slot, giving it a little poke with her claws. The surmelle looked in deep with a magnifying glass, before shining a light to try and get a view inside. Satisfied, she rummaged around in her pouch and brought out the ultimate weapon for just such a situation; a quarter with a hole in the middle, and some string tied around it.
"Look Max, another victory for science! With this I can play as often as I want, and it's only a matter of time before I can free you both."
It sounded simple when she said it out loud. Grinning, pleased with herself, Nilla lowered in the quarter, keeping an eye on the machine for any signs of it giving her the free credit. The little coin fell more and more, not being let off its leash. All seemed fine, until some mechanism within began to whirr, tugging on the quarter. She didn't let go so easily, even though it dragged and pulled so firmly. Firm surmelle paws hung tight, being pulled in quite close to the slot. The screen at the back flashed up with "TILT", an old message from the days of pinball machines. A chill went up her spine as the realisation came to her that now the machine /knew/ she was up to no good.
Nilla's own sense of Not Quite Right was quite well developed, and it began to throw up all sorts of warning bells. Like Max, she didn't really have enough time to make use of it. Powerful force pulled at her paws, until her whole body trembled. Suddenly, she began to shrink, giving a little confused shout as this machine squashed her right down as though she was stretchy taffy. Smaller, lighter paws gripped tightly on the string before they too were pulled into the machine. All at once it was a sudden rush of sensation, not so much unpleasant as unexpected, with her whole body feeling much less solid. Through this mixed combination of shrinking, melting, and pulling, Nilla found herself squeezed all the way down into that little slot, arms and head first, followed by her slinky body, pulled all the way down to her chubby feet. One went, and then the other, and then everything went dark.
"Got myself a quarter~"
Somewhat off key, Spider the squirrel was quite merry after a good evening, not shy of a little sing-song while out and about. It didn't take that long for him to go around checking every single refund slot in the arcade, and usually it meant he rustled up enough for some good coffee, which was its own reward. It was especially good today since nobody else seemed to be around right now; quite strange, as there was still quite a few hours until closing time and this place tended to be busy right to the end. Nimble paws moved from machine to machine, his tail flicking as he hurried along.
Past video poker, past the old mechanical slots, and on through the air hockey machines, the brown squirrel made it to the coin pushers and the claw games. These took slightly longer, and he moved around them more carefully, so his eyes lingered on each one. Which is about when he saw Nilla.
Well, no, it wasn't Nilla, it was just an image of her. Wasn't it? The surmelle looked slightly lost as an animated character on some claw game, pacing from side to side within the confines of the display. Weirder still, she appeared to see Spider, bouncing up and down quite excitedly as words printed themselves below her, clear and crisp.
"Spider? Is that you? We seem to be having an issue. Two plays for 25 cents, could you help out?"
Underneath the big shiny banner that read "Yoink!", the claw game seemed to be way, way too full of toys, a big pile of them almost reached to the top of the cabinet. Among the toys, a weasel in a stripy shirt, a rocker sheep chick, cats and dogs, and several plushies of different species who were wearing the red and gold staff uniform of this particular arcade. Max and Jellybean were familiar faces all squashed up against the front glass.
"We're not having much luck so far," explained the words below the figure on screen.
Not much luck? That seemed like an understatement. The squirrel looked from Nilla, to the pile of toys, to the quarter in his hand, and then back to Nilla. A wide stare with narrowed irises suddenly became a narrow squint, one eye twitching as his brain presented him with the obvious, ridiculous conclusion of what his eyes were telling him. He did look back at his quarter, considering what to do, just for a moment...
Spider shook his head, and began to head off. Hell no, whatever was going on here, it definitely wasn't for him...
Woo, finally sat in front of a blank page and bashed at keys until writing came out. Not displeased. Hope you like it!
Little gift story for Spider as a nice thank-you, for many illustrations of Nall and more of my characters, and for a nice gift he did for me: https://www.weasyl.com/submission/703253/.
(Crossposted to FurAffinity: http://www.furaffinity.net/view/14815976/ )