Drabblecast 292 – Hollow as the World



Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
Warning:  Some strong language

Cover for Drabblecast episode 292, Hollow as the World, by Oskar KunikOne of the reasons Joshua loved Lydia as much as he did was all the secret rituals they’d devised. Their shared jokes were treasured secrets, never to be shared with the other kids at high school; some days, the way Lydia could send Joshua into high titters with a raise of her pierced eyebrow was the only thing that kept Joshua from slitting his wrists…

 

 

 

 

Hollow As The World
by Ferrett Steinmetz

 

One of the reasons Joshua loved Lydia as much as he did was all the secret rituals they’d devised.  Some days, the way Lydia sent Joshua into high titters with a raise of her pierced eyebrow was the only thing that kept Joshua from slitting his wrists.

And of the many traditions that bound them as friends, the most sacred was the second videogame bet.

You couldn’t have the second videogame bet without Lydia winning the first bet, of course.  That bet was, “Would Lydia beat this latest game before Joshua did?”  And she invariably beat it before Joshua, before everybody; Lydia mowed through the toughest levels without dying.  Sometimes, she completed the game on release day, then sold it back to Gamestop for nearly full credit.

Joshua’s online buddies private messaged him, angling for the secret to Lydia’s talent.  He never told them, though of course he did know.  He’d asked her, once, after she’d finished Portal 3 a full three hours before anyone else.  She’d squinted at him over candy-red glasses, deciding whether she could trust him.  Then she’d shrugged.

“I think like a designer,” she said.  “Every time I’m not sure what to do, I think: ‘If I’d designed this level, where would I want me to look next?’  It’s made the games… predictable.  Most days, I only beat them to see the end credits.”

“Really?  You watch the end credits?”  It was a slowball pitch.  She grinned, glad at the opportunity to razz him.

“I’d think end credits would bring you nothing but relief, Joshua.  They prove games are designed by people.  You do remember that, right?”

His groan was old, well-used.  “Now, Lydia, it’s been years since I’ve been afraid — ”

“ — but you were afraid, weren’t you?”  She leaned in, hazel eyes sparkling.  Joshua fantasized, for the ten billionth time, about calling in his marker and kissing her.

“Yes, I was afraid,” he recited.  “I thought the characters inside the videogame had lives when the machine was turned off, the television a window to another dimension, and I was afraid to play because they knew I was there.  I was six when that happened, Lydia.”

“I was six, too,” she replied loftily.  “Yet bizarrely, I never worried about that.  Nor did I build a whole videogame-playing technique around proving myself wrong.”

“You just wait for the second bet.”

“That day,” she proclaimed, hiding her smile behind a sip of Red Bull, “Will never come.”

But five weeks later, Lydia strode into his living room with a puffed-up sneer, all to make her inevitable demise more satisfying.  And oh, how he loved her for it.

Though he noted the dark circles under her eyes.  She’d been pulling all-nighters playing… something.  When had she ever hidden something from him?

“You claim you have cheated your way into another slimy victory,” she informed him – though some part of her dramatic recitation felt strained, the enthusiasm one tried to summon up for a sweater as a birthday present.  “I claim falsified evidence. I say thee nay, sir.”

“What will you give me once I vanquish you?”

“…A kiss.”

She owed him a hundred kisses, and that unfulfilled romantic tension still thrummed through him… But her hesitation before offering the ritual kiss this time made Joshua feel childish, shamed.  His basement had always been their refuge, a place to cuddle like kittens and not think too much about dating – yet that pause passed so much judgment onto this safe space….

She couldn’t outgrow him.  She was all he had.

“Then prepare to be smooched.”  He fired up the game, itching to return to a world he could control.

“That’s the toughest level,” Lydia remarked conversationally.  “Involves non-linear thinking, lightning reflexes, and complex portal placement.  I hold the local record by a good fifteen seconds, of course.”

“You do,” Joshua admitted.  “But you didn’t do this.”

Joshua hit the keys, moving his avatar, and as always his insecurities washed away.  Some people immersed themselves in the game, merging their identity with a collection of polygons — crying out, “I got killed!” when it was their representation that had been cut down.

Yet Joshua disdained these useless shells.  Videogame protagonists were all motionless graphics until he imbued them with purpose.  If there were worlds inside videogames, they were filled with drooling catatonics aching for possession.

No, Joshua loved games not because he could lose himself in them, but because he could destroy them.

Joshua turned his avatar away from the goal to head towards an innocuous corner back towards the entrance.  He had it place two portals end-to-end in the corner, leaning against each other like lovers, then aimed his avatar at their intersection.

The simulated physics of the game collapsed in an unexpected calculation, spitting Joshua out at another set of coordinates.  Joshua grinned as his avatar dropped down on the other side of a cluster of fiendish puzzles.

“A glitch!” Lydia leapt from the couch in mock-outrage underlaid with a still-beating genuine enthusiasm.  Joshua drank up her thrills.  “You exploit weaknesses in the game’s code, sir!  Have you no shame?  Cheater!”

“The best cheater,” he corrected her, spinning his avatar into a tricky edge-walk glitch to skirt around an impassable firepit.  It’s true, he had been afraid the world inside Lydia’s Nintendo 64 was a real world that he was somehow interrupting, a land of monsters who despised him.  Why else would they all lunge towards him, fangs bared?

Then he’d discovered his first bug.  No matter how immersive the experience was, jump off the walls from the wrong angle and this gorgeous castle would collapse into a spiky pile of vertices and textures.  And when Joshua glitched through the end goal in record time, saw Lydia’s glee, he felt invincible.

“I stand vanquished,” Lydia whispered.  She stepped in close, so close her breath kissed his.  There was something imposingly dangerous about her – a cat that wanted to be petted, but might bite.  “Care to collect your winnings?”

Her words made gravity disappear.  He hadn’t kissed many girls — and those who he’d kissed had denied it, making noises of disgust to their friends.  Yet was sure his first kiss with Lydia would be worth a lifetime.

But he’d never made the first move.  He’d pawed at girls’ breasts before, and been shamefully dismissed; he wanted her to make him feel needed.

Except now her body heat shimmered next to his, her fingertips pushing up under his shirt… and her shameless desire terrified him.  What if he did it wrong?  What if he disappointed her?

What if sex broke their friendship?

“I have a hundred kisses in the bank.”  He tried to sound cool as a movie star.  “Why start now?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

He stammered, unsure how to respond.

Lydia sighed and turned away, rummaging through a bowl of Cheetos.  She crunched the orange curls between her fingertips, grimacing at the way they shattered under pressure.

His chest hurt.  He knew he’d disappointed her; but what should he have done?  Just… had sex with her?  How could a guy know the rules?

Should he try to kiss her now?  With her mouth full of Cheetos?  Or should he tell her how pissed off he was that she’d expected something different, in this basement, where cuddling and teasing had been fine before?

No.  He might lose her.

“…So what have you been playing?” he asked. “Judging from the way you’re eyeing that bowl of Cheetos, you’ve forgotten to eat again.”

She flinched.  “…Stonehewn.”

“That’s not even a game.”  Lydia was playing things she’d despised before, keeping secrets.  “Digging in mountains?  Making pretend fortresses without a single enemy to fight?”

Lydia flashed him a cell phone picture.  “See that?  That is an exact replica of the Taj Mahal.  It took Ameinias six months from scratch to build it — mining ore from the mountains, chaining up to making adzes, sculpting every tile in the lotus designs on the balcony….”

“And when he laid that last tile, did the game give him an achievement?”

“Only Ameinias can tell you whether the effort suffices.”

Joshua slumped back on the couch.  “I have a game where people tell me when I’ve done well enough.  It’s called Nathan Hale High. And it sucks.”

“Oh, honey.”  She shook her head, as if Joshua could not keep up with her; fear adrenaline-shocked its way through his body.  She’d been the only friend he’d never had to pretend with.  And now…

She sensed his panic, squeezed his shoulder.  “Look, it’s not like Stonehewn is deep or anything.  It’s mostly just wandering around.  But… there’s something beautiful in its starkness.”

“And then you dig trenches.”

“No, it’s…”  She paused, struggling to condense complex sentiments into words – and for a moment Joshua thought, this is what Lydia would look like, if she fell in love with another man.  “It’s like living a dream.  You can run for hours, and the game creates new worlds around you.  And those worlds, they’re beautiful, all grassy fields and thick jungles and deep blue oceans, but… that loneliness challenges you.  You can dismantle a mountain into rubble, reshape the stone into cities, and yet… what does it mean?  Nobody else exists.  You don’t have to please anyone else.  You can’t.  So you… you keep running deeper…”

She crumpled the Cheetos.  “Oh, I can’t explain it.”

He slid his arm around her.  “It’s okay.  I get it.”

He didn’t.  She sounded weird, off-kilter.  But he would agree with whatever she said to erase this weird fracture growing between them.  She curling up against him.

“You’re the best,” she sighed happily.  “You get me.”

The warmth of her body made the lie okay.

He put on another My Little Pony marathon, a show meant for kids that they both secretly adored.  Yet Lydia shifted in his arms, distracted.  Joshua felt like an old and beloved obligation; she stayed only to comfort him.

But before she scuttled out of the house, Lydia did something she’d never done before: after the hug goodbye, she kissed him on the cheek.  She pulled her lips away from his skin slowly, reluctantly.

“There is a way to beat Stonehewn,” she whispered.  “And I’m going to beat him.”

And she was gone.

A week later, she was dead.

 

#

 

Lydia’s funeral had turned Nathan Hale High into a chaotic investigation; kids grasped Joshua’s hand, tugging him aside for interrogations.  I know she must have been messed up, they whispered.  But… how bad was it?  She looked so goth, we assumed it was just a look….

In a way, these conversations were compliments: everyone agreed no one had truly known Lydia but Joshua.  And yet they all assumed her misery, his misery, was dysfunction. He wanted to scream that if they’d just let Lydia be Lydia, maybe she wouldn’t have…

Wouldn’t have…

Lydia had run into the woods, sprinting in a straight line until her heart had blown like a burst tire.  There had been no defensive marks on Lydia’s arms, her only wounds tiny whip marks on her cheeks, where she’d run face-first through tree branches.  They’d only found her body, miles from home, thanks to her phone’s “Find Me” feature — but her cell was fully charged.  If there had been an emergency, she’d have called 911.

Nobody else exists, she’d told him.  You don’t have to please anyone else.  How could he not have seen that sad desire as a cry for help?  Crap, he’d been so worried about losing her that it never occurred to him he could lose her.

…would she still be alive if he had kissed her?  Maybe.  He was the last person she’d talked to, via a note on her laptop: “Joshua: a dangerous mirror.  This reveals Truth.”

Insane.

Her father, still a little drunk, had given him the laptop, tasked Joshua with the regrettable job of hunting reasons for her suicide.  Her disk was full of nothing but adoring essays about Stonehewn’s voiceless hero, Ameinias – frightening, repetitive rambles of how brave this man was to run in silence, how Lydia wasn’t worthy of his world.

She’d deleted everything else, except the game itself.

Joshua was furious.  All that was left of Lydia was this save file?  He booted it up to crash it.  He’d glitch into areas the designers never intended, then trigger a bug to collapse Stonehewn’s blocky trees into bluescreen.

The game presented his avatar: Ameinias, a sleek-skinned, muscular hero, a Greek Adonis who you could easily believe would single-handedly build a city.  This was the man who’d broken Lydia’s heart?  This empty-hearted cluster of pixels?

He’d shatter him to code.

Joshua pressed “Enter” to start, then F1 for help.  Nothing.  The usual tutorials were absent, which came as no surprise; Stonehewn was infamously obscure.  He pulled up an online tutorial, learned that pressing “S” actually began the game. Joshua cracked his knuckles as the loading screen cycled.

The game began with Ameinias standing upon Joshua’s doorstep.

Is he threatening me? Joshua shoved himself away from the keyboard, that old fear he’d opened a window to another world raking claws across his heart.

Yet Ameinias – his avatar – stood in front of his house.  In the game.  Joshua shifted the mouse; there was Old Man Hanson’s house, there was the 7-11.  The starting environment was in fact a digital rendition of his block, reduced to the stiff angles and bold colors of a shareware computer game.

Joshua bit his palm to stifle a scream… then checked a FAQ, certain there had to be a trick behind this.  There was: Stonehewn used IP address tracking to triangulate where you lived, then rendered a Google Maps satellite view of your neighborhood.

His terror ebbed, confidence rising.  Automatic renderings invariably created weird edge cases to prey on.

Joshua stared at his home’s digital recreation, looking for mesh weaknesses, broken textures to exploit.  There were none.  If anything, his house looked somehow purer.  Joshua’s real-life lawn was festooned with spiky weeds, but the grass on the artificial lawn was smooth and summer-green.  Dad had bitched about replacing the shingles on their roof, but this digital roof was perfectly black.  His whole neighborhood looked renewed, the cracked sidewalks smoothed to eye-pleasing straight lines – a bold reinterpretation that transformed a run-down suburb into art deco beauty.

Yet this recreation was cold, vacant.  There were no cars, no old men taking their dogs for a walk; only Ameinias, fingers clenching and unclenching in cyclical animation, hungry to reshape the world.

“This game is CREEPTASTIC,” Joshua texted, nearly hitting send before he remembered Lydia was dead.  She would have hated him bagging on her game anyway.  He dropped the phone, paralyzed with sadness…

… Ameinias ripped open the door to his house.

Joshua let loose a hoarse, death rattle-like sound. Without any input from him, Ameinias was carefully placing the door in the center of their lawn, was turning towards Joshua’s house, was striding into Joshua’s living room.  Joshua hugged the screen, terrified Ameinias would tromp up the stairs to yank Lydia’s laptop out of his hand, take the last of Lydia away with him…

Joshua mashed his hands onto the keyboard.

Ameinias cruised to a stop, disinterestedly analyzing the inside of the house.  Joshua sighed in relief; not only did Ameinias submit to his commands, but the inside of Joshua’s game-house was empty scaffolding.

He hissed air through his teeth.  He was gonna crack the shit out of this game.

Joshua lifted his fingers from the keyboard, wary lest Ameinias come to life again, then checked the FAQ.  Sure enough, this disturbing volition was another of Stonehewn’s quirks. After a period of noninteraction, Ameinias would harvest materials; given enough time, Ameinias would build structures of such beauty that many players preferred Ameinias’ work to their own.  Lydia’s hard drive was stuffed with screenshots of Ameinias’ castles.

Joshua’s breath was too short, his fingers tense.

He remembered Lydia.  And began to play.

 

#

 

The world was empty but for that one bare city block, Joshua discovered.  Move beyond, and there was nothing but wilderness.

Joshua pressed the forward key. Ameinias charged ahead, his feral smile ready to chew up any challenge, as the game formed new terrain to meet them.

Buried somewhere in these world-creation routines was a fatal bug that would let him shatter this starry sky into meaningless pixels.

Joshua played, wreathed in reminiscence and guilt.  He could see why Lydia had loved this game; there was no designer to anticipate.  The random landscapes gave Stonehewn a slot-machine quality, turning every hillside into potential reward.

Cresting most hillocks led to ordinary places; waving fields of wheat, rivers cutting through flat expanses of red clay, the cloud-choked slopes of mountains.  All rendered in cubist perfection, smooth as glass, without a single glitched vertice for Joshua to exploit.

Yet just as Joshua grew bored, the game would generate something uniquely breathtaking: sulphur smoke jetting from volcanic gashes in the earth, glimmering fields of latticed salt crystals, canyons where the wind had etched spider-thin bases under teetering red-rock spires.  Ameinias would occasionally stumble across ruins, as if to suggest that once someone had tried to live here and abandoned it.

The world seemed abandoned.  There were meadows of grain without crows, fruited jungles without baboons, seaweed-choked oceans without fish.

How were the meadows pollinated, Joshua wondered?  What birds scattered the seeds?  This world was fecund with plant life.  It was as though some unkind God had vacuumed out anything with a voice just before Ameinias arrived.

Was this land paradise, or a prison?

Joshua understood why Lydia wrote fanfiction.  She’d been trying to knit Ameinias’ mysteries into a coherent whole…

A world he’d vowed to destroy.  Suddenly, crushing Lydia’s game felt petty, like squashing the bee that had died stinging you.

Joshua discovered he was petty.  Lydia had loved this world so much she’d spent her final hours here instead of with him.  He should go outside, play in the sun, find some friends; instead, he labored at the keyboard, hoping to crush her final memory.  As proof he still could affect her.

Given the powers of a God, Joshua had become a revenge killer.

No wonder Lydia hadn’t loved him.

Exploiting Ameinias’ world felt like frying ants with a magnifying glass, the most pathetic of murders.  Impotent in this world, he’d escaped to another to strangle it.  Still, he combined every element he could find to induce malfunctions: he fused geodes and popcorn, onyx and aloe vera, wheat and mercury.

Lydia forgive him, there were no bugs.

He tiptoed across every vertice on the largest mountain he could find, searching every angle on every rock for gaps in the world to fall through.

There were no bugs.

He pressed random keys, entering every command he could devise, hunting for the unexpected input.

There were no bugs.

He ordered Ameinias to dig straight down, seeking the boundaries of the earth.  Ameinias fell into caverns lit by smoldering magma, found glimmering blue troves of radioactive diamonds.

There were no bugs.

Joshua despaired.  Ameinias did not.  If Joshua lifted his hands from the keyboard, Ameinias would bend to dig in the soil, pulling up roots, building a new home wherever he rested.

Joshua sat stupefied, wrung dry from grief.  As if to show him what work truly was, Ameinias toiled on the veldt for twelve hours straight.  By the end of the day, he had fashioned a grand mud hut out of nothing but water and straw.

Spitefully, Joshua punched the forward key, making Ameinias leave it all behind.  The hut vanished from view, swallowed by the immensity of the world; it was as if Ameinias had done nothing.

Ameinias’ grin, if anything, intensified.

How could Lydia have seen Stonehewn as a place for creation?  Stonehewn was death: implacable, impervious, inescapable.  Everything to build, nothing to gain.  But that was his world, now.  Lydia was gone, and without her there was nothing good left anywhere; by wandering through these intricately constructed vacancies, Joshua did penance for overlooking her pain.

Because he’d failed her, hadn’t he?  She’d wanted that kiss.  Ached for it.  Yet he’d play-acted aloofness.  He’d institutionalized cowardice into rituals, calcified heartfelt sentiment into corny jokes.  Every real feeling he ever wanted to share with her –sex terrifies me, you terrify me, but if I never try I’ll never fail – he’d jailed deep in his heart.

No wonder Lydia had grown bored of him.  His plastic nature.  His ludicrous insistence he was the honest one.

Ameinias was real, he knew that now.  Real emotionally: Ameinias worked only for pleasure, never faked enjoyment to get friends.  The barrenness had stripped him honest.

The more he played, the more Ameinias’ smile seemed to be the only genuine emotion Joshua had ever witnessed.

No wonder Lydia had loved it here.

It was a childish thought, imagining the inner lives of videogames… But Ameinias lived in a world that could not encompass the possibility of friendship.  Ameinias was the last man in a funeral of a world, yet his grief was still passion; when Ameinias’ despair passed, he left a church standing in its wake.

Joshua’s grief made illusionary men move.  Stirred empty pixels.  Fogs of hollowness.

He hated himself for playing Stonehewn.  He knew he should abandon the game and do something, anything, productive.  But he could not rid himself of the sensation that if he just kept pressing the forward key, propelling Ameinias onwards, he would – must – sneak up on whatever malicious force whisked the living away before before Ameinias arrived.

Ameinias was being punished.

Lydia’s testimonies to Ameinias deepened as Joshua reread them; he could read her anguish by inverting her desires.  Lydia had burned for Joshua to collect his kiss, felt slutty and horrible for wanting Joshua and stiff and prissy for not making the first move and weak and plastic for pretending the attraction changed nothing.

Ameinias built what he wanted, ran where he wanted; neither Joshua nor Lydia doubted that Ameinias fucked like he wanted.

Why had Lydia adored Ameinias?  Why wouldn’t she?  If Joshua’d had the strength to summon one truthful moment, she might be with him right now.

It seemed flagrantly cruel to trap a creature as honest as Ameinias inside an illusion.

But was Ameinias’ world fake… Or perfectly designed?  Joshua had thrown every exploit he had at Ameinias’ land, and its integrity had never wavered.  Every action in Ameinias’ world was perfection: when Ameinias smashed a pane of glass, it split into four perfect smaller squares.  When Ameinias cut wood for a home, the new piece fit into place with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle.

No.  Joshua’s world was bug-riddled.  Sewers clogged with sodden condoms.  Real-world glitches in crumbling pavement.  He pressed forward on the keys, sending Ameinias running – Joshua’s portal to this joyless, stark, and perfect land.

Ameinias’ world was better.  Joshua’s remaining enjoyment came from controlling this perfect being with his fingertips.  Joshua tapped the keys, and Ameinias ran forward.  Joshua lifted his fingers, and Ameinias rested briefly.  Press, run.  Release, rest.  A tight coupling, connecting him to Ameinias more intimately than he’d ever been connected to Lydia…

I’m going to beat him, Lydia had told him.  But Joshua had misheard.

I’m going to be him, is what she’d said.  Now, pressing and running, releasing and resting, Joshua understood.  He was no longer playing a game; he was submerging his personality into Ameinias, longing to be an honest man.

He concentrated on his fingers, the keys, relishing this tenuous connection sending commands to a being greater than him.  Press, run; release, rest….

Press, run, and Ameinias vaulted over a hillock to encounter a sprawling maze of a city, cobblestoned streets and glass cathedrals and gleaming bronze statues.

Joshua stabbed the keys forward, but Ameinias’ full-out run slowed to a confident half-jog.  He swung his arms as he walked, puffing for the first time, the erratic gait of a marathoner crossing the finish line.

Ameinias circled the city walls, claiming them.  Of course he owned it.  This hand-built metropolis was what a restless architect like Ameinias would create, a pile of disparate architectures joined together by a rough-hewn mentality.  So limitless that Ameinias himself had forgotten what he had made, could startle himself with his own beauty.

Ameinias did not enter.  Instead, he turned to face Joshua, staring straight into Joshua’s eyes.

Joshua leaned back, stunned – and his fingers left the keys just as Ameinias halted, arms crossed.  Ameinias looked down at the keyboard with a sad, knowing grin… then took a single step forward.

Joshua’s finger dropped onto the key.

Joshua stared, goggle-eyed, at Ameinias, who held up one finger to demonstrate before running experimentally in a tiny circle.  Joshua’s hands fell to the keys, the connection inverted; Ameinias moved, and Joshua’s fingers jerked in response.

But wasn’t that the way it had always been?  Up until now, Ameinias’ and Joshua’s will had been one, melded, the flow of control perfectly equal; only once Ameinias was done playing the game did Joshua understand he’d never controlled a man like Ameinias, could never have.  Joshua was passive and inert, housed in a world that rotted.

Ameinias had sent Joshua out to kiss strange girls and cuddle Lydia and creep around the high school lockers, bringing Joshua back to the keyboard when he wished to go for a run around his lands, but really…

…Joshua had never existed.  All the interesting things in his life had come at someone else’s behest.  His whole life had been a game, and not even a particularly well-designed one.  Another scared teenager.  Selfish.  Passive.  Predictable.

Seen through Ameinias’ eyes, Joshua saw the truth of his sad existence: a poorly-designed game that deserved to be ended.

Ameinias gestured wearily.  Joshua rose from his chair with the solemnity of a funeral.  Complicity, or control?  Joshua did not know.  Regardless, bolted downstairs, running, running madly into the woods, madly after Lydia, madly after oblivion…

The game complete, Ameinias turned away to amble into his private maze, wandering among glories beyond all comprehension.  And was, quickly, lost from view.

 

 

Play
A Drabblecast original. Clarion West Director's Commentary
Episode Art:  Oskar Kunik

Twabble:  “I never knew my mom. But I love stepmum. She gives the best of herself. I'm lucky to have such a good intestine to call home. ”  by  MonsieurMoustache


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