"We went right last time, didn't we?" I ask.
"We went right," Luc says. He's under my bed, somewhere back there, far back there. "We went right those last two times."
He sounds sad. No, rather, ecstatic in tragedy. The roads he’s traveling all have sad endings, but they're so beautiful, but they all end in tears, but they're so healthy, but they all get eaten, because we both have brain cancer, can't you feel it? Yes, I can, not sure who said what, or who agreed, but nonetheless, I'll beg to differ, cause maybe in quantum causality I can believe-make that despite all the synthetics and solvents, my brain tissue is still functioning as nature intended. Hopefully nature doesn't intend my cells to turn on each other.
"But that last turn, the one that looked like that part of Knee Deep in the Dead, E1M6, with the nukage pit and that maze of tan-textured walls with open-air causeways every now and then-"
"That one seemed better, like a little less synthetic, like even though it was made of pixels the air smelled fresh, like I actually smelled the air."
I insist on this. His belief radiates like the warmth of a hearth-fire, we can't lie to each other here. I've tried. I’ve managed to twist the truth a little and nudge it my way, but never outright lied. When I try, my lies take on lives of their own, come back as prodigal bastards.
"Yeah, I smelled something too," Luc says. "But it tasted wrong to me."
"It tasted wrong? Well what doesn't? I haven't tasted right since a lot of things. Nothing else has either. Except Raz, she tasted right, perfect, better than anything. Still does. Still haven't gotten that taste out of my mouth. Still can't find it anywhere."
Luc isn't listening anymore. He took another turn but I'll meet him again, on another nukage causeway, in a few minutes probably. I'm back in the autumn yard twilight where those black rainbow fabrics were, hanging from the clotheslines attached to my childhood friend David's parents' house. They still hang there. Still with their cryptic lettering, daring me to find out what they mean. I won't, not yet, although I can feel how it's part of a puzzle that will snap everything into perfect meaning, and I can taste the geometry of it, it's making me salivate, it's like vegan gravy with MSG.
But nevermind. Some of my childhood friends want to play in the basement and I don't want to miss out. I'd rather play than solve mysteries. But I'll feel guilty for not applying the intellectual potential I'm saddled with like a malfunctioning ethanol-powered jetpack to the surely society-bettering project of cracking the code of the black rainbow fabrics. And I do feel guilty. But I should forget the guilt at some point, it soaks through my clothes and into the skin, then enters the bloodstream to diffuse and contribute in microscopic amounts to the cancer that’s invading my body.
I'm the last one in, I'm a rotten egg. When I open the basement door, hoping my childhood friends aren't about to spring some mean prank on me, I find I'm in a dark corridor with gray blotches on the walls, like massive pixels. I've run into the wall and it's dark. I hit the S button which I've mapped to make me walk backwards. Some light appears at the right edge of my vision, it's the open-air causeway room. I hit the W button which I've mapped to make me walk forwards, tapping the D and A occasionally which I've mapped to make me strafe, useful for avoiding nukage that deducts ten health-points per second if I'm not wearing body armor, which I'm not. Haven't replenished body armor in hours.
And Luc is here, again, with his pirate hat on. He's got body armor. Blue body armor. But he's still afraid of death. Even more absurdly, he's looking to me to assuage his fears.
"Don't you know the invincibility cheat code?" I ask, hoping he does so I can remember. "I-D-D- something..."
"I dunno. I don't think there is one, it's a frackin' myth."
"I think there is. I know there was, but I'm not sure it works anymore. Anyway, you don't need a cheat code."
"Yes I do," Luc moans. "Cause there aren't many turns left. You know as well as I do, we've taken too many wrong turns. We've enabled each other. People can't live this way and expect everything to be alright. Whatever knowledge there was that might have saved us, we strafed on past it looking for power-ups and ammo clips. We shot up the monsters, sure. But we missed the specters from the real world."
"That's what those things were?" Fuck, I hope he's wrong.
"Yeah, I think so, I've figured it out," Luc says. "That's why we could barely see them. Because we're still playing this game. And they were gnawing at us but we didn't notice, not consciously. Our health points are down to almost nothing, in some other world. The real one."
"The real one? You're telling me you really believe in reality? Look around you man. You're in the nukage pit. By the way you're stepping in nukage, get out-"
Luc grimaces in pain and strafes back to the tan-textured floor.
"Ow! That hurt!" He yells.
"That stuff'll kill you, you better watch yourself. See, this is reality. Good thing you're wearing the blue body armor, you only took 5 health points for that slip-up. Anyway, I know there's a cheat code, I just can't remember what it was. But that doesn't even matter anyway. There is no death, not in this world. Maybe in some world, that mythical 'real world' you keep going on about. But who cares, we're in this world, and we have many lives ahead of us. Let those suckers in the real world die."
"Fuck, I want to believe you man," Luc says, "But your words are kind of drooping, looping over themselves, straining to retain structure."
I see that he's right. I can see their tracers in the air. The font is uber-gothic like a black metal band, barely readable - and it's melting into the air. But the air smells fresh and good, like autumn twilight, so who cares if my words melt into the air? But I care, they're my words.
"What about the 'suckers' in the real world... Don't you care about them? What happens when they die? Are they just dead? Gone forever?"
"Why am I obliged to believe in them?" I ask Luc. I'm trying not to let my words twirl into the air again, that's too much transparency, I'll try to confine this communique to sound.
"Because we've been there man, it's a real place. You don't think we'll get there again? What happens when this game's over?"
"We're back to that, are we? It always comes back to that, like we always come back to this nukage causeway. Well, but there was a time before this nukage causeway, I think, don't you? This wasn't always here. There was a time when it didn't exist."
"I can feel the integrity of that statement,” Luc says. “I would have to agree. But you would also agree that the nukage causeway will one day not exist, wouldn't you? Sure, our puny bodies are mortal. But information is mortal, too. One day, you know, it'll all fall apart. The lights will go out. The hard drives will rust. Are you going to survive as etchings on a microscopic surface? Are you going to think and feel? I don't think so."
Fucking Luc, his words have so much weight it's criminal. He shouldn't be allowed to talk like that here, it's not sporting. Maybe it's his body armor, it slows him down, makes him heavy. He's always being heavy and harsh, fucker. But I'm not done yet.
"This nukage causeway. Could you have conceived of this? Maybe after a few malted precursors, but from scratch? Who or what could do it from scratch? Maybe you're right, maybe the hard drives will rust, maybe those people will stop playing the information game in every world and just give it up, and let it all go. Maybe. I don't know. Say it all disappears. What are we left with? Nothing. How did we get here in the first place? From nothing."
Luc chuckles, but he's not buying my theory. It won't penetrate his goddamn blue body armor. Why's he hanging out on this easy level with such bad-ass armor? He should be fighting cyberdemons on E2M8. But I guess he enjoys my company, and he's not really of the warrior caste anyway. He's more of a scholar. He likes to study the textures of the walls, especially from this classic episode, Knee Deep in the Dead, with its pastel Phobos moon-base period palette.
Luc finds meaning in the variations of texture, I think, meaning that penetrates the groundwater. Like I sense meaning in the black rainbow fabric hanging on the clothesline from my childhood friend David's parents’ house. The meaning I sense but can't find. That itch I can't scratch. But sometimes I like the itch. But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I just want it to stop cause I can't take it anymore! It's a festering sore and it's eating me. It has no respect for ego, it's a sociopathic sore and it's going to devour me eventually, and I'm left to contemplate this as it’s happening, over decades. But maybe I can at least speed up the process, go out in a blaze of glory, put on the gray body armor, find a shotgun and some shells and make a game of it.
But something else is playing its own game with me, a game of cat and mouse. I can't even see it as a cat, it's too big, and it's not cute or cuddly. Its eyes are cold and endless, me looking inside myself, and its tiny claws are inside my cells, virii, scrambling my genetic code. I'm sterile, I think, but I haven't checked. I haven't got the STD test, the CAT scan, the sperm counted. I won't stand up and be counted. I'll shrink and have another drink and another smoke, and shoot up some monsters, and hope I don't have a virus, and assume I have some good sperm that I'll never use. I'll create a life on my computer, that's good enough. It will live on, and I can't imagine it dying. But I guess it must, one day. But I'll be back in the nukage causeway again, even though it's a silly tan texture-mapped render of polygons at 320x200 resolution, and it feels so transient and stupid and we're getting a bit bored with this scene... still there's this echo in the autumn fresh air, something timeless about this space, like we've been here before we were here before we were...
"Woah dude," Luc says. "That was heavy."
"Was it? But I'm not even wearing body armor."
"Maybe you got the soulsphere. Have you checked your health-points lately?"
"There's no soul-sphere on this level." But I check my health-points and they're up to 176. Holy shit! "But there's no soul-sphere here, I'm sure of it!"
“Well how else could your health be that high?”
“Cause I’m high?”
“Don’t be daft man. I’m pretty straight by now and I see it too. I can read you like a book. You got the soulsphere. Or a lot of little blue health potions, but I doubt that.”
“Well I don’t remember finding a soulsphere, maybe it happened back in the exit room.”
“Ahahah, I remember that. You were gooned man. Sometimes I think you play this game better when you’re gooned.”
“Well, I feel like I do, anyway. But you know, having 176 percent health feels a little unnatural. Maybe the game allows it but I still feel like I’m cheating.”
“Stop guilt-tripping yourself,” Luc says. “You’re not actually using a cheat code.”
“Yeah, but... Just cause I can do something doesn’t mean I should. So the game allows it, so what? If I did grab that soulsphere I obviously wasn’t in my right mind. And the game’s not quite as fun with 176% health. And what about those monsters. Might they have souls? Is it fair to just mow them down without fear of retribution?”
“They’d do the same to you,” Luc says. Spoken like a true space marine. Blue body-armor bastard. “Besides, according to your philosophy, they’ll just respawn in some other level somewhere.”
“Yeah, for as long as the hard drives last. I dunno, the way things have been going... news leaks out, about the world with wars and politics. It seeps through these networks.”
“Oh, so you believe in the real world now?”
“I guess I’m not as gooned as I was, it’s starting to seem more real. I can’t smell that autumn air anymore. But I still feel the Phobos vibe, so that’s good. I almost like that better sometimes. But all the chaos, all the manias, people medicating themselves just to get out of bed in the morning, and go to work, and get to sleep at the end of the day... I know we got out of that cycle when we got on this level, and that’s good, and fuck, we’re on a run, let’s keep it going... but yeah, how long can it last? I know, I’ve said that before, and it’s still lasting. But still – how long?”
“So, we’re on the same page then. Fuck. I was hoping you could give me hope.”
“Well I still got my backup philosophy,” I say. “There’s a level underlying the computer resurrection theory, another turtle below, if you will. The nothing from something theory.”
“Oh, I remember you said that. Yeah, well... I dunno, it’s plausible I guess. But what do I know, I’ve got on all this blue body armor. I can take on this fake world, but the real world? It still feels immovable.”
“You don’t move the world, you strafe around it,” I tell Luc. “How did we get here in the first place?”
“I think we teleported, I’m not sure. I still can’t believe you found the secret exit on E1M3. I didn’t know there was one.”
“Neither did I. But I thought there might be one. And there was.”
“I think we took a wrong turn,” I say. We’re on the grit-textured ground of E1M5, outside the Phobos Labs. There's grumbling ambiance, monsters running around inside the nukage chamber. I like the music too. Synth strings, doomy percussion.
“Wrong turn? You still believe in those?” Luc says. “There are no wrong turns, only left turns, right turns, up turns, and down turns. Don’t impose your morality on them.”
“You’re just saying that cause you’re down to 56 health-points.”
“I’ve been lower.”
We listen to demons growl and elevators rise and fall. The music track loops.
“I miss Rhianon,” Luc says.
“That bitch? Forget her. She made you miserable. She has no bearing on this world.”
“Sometimes I think about wandering back to the world she’s in." Luc says. "Maybe that’s why I’m losing so many health points. Subconsciously, I don’t want to live in this world much longer. I’m giving up the game.”
“Well, shit, I can understand. I miss Raz a lot too, even though she was a black hole. I think about the good times, ache for what we had, imagine what we could have again. Sometimes I get tired of fighting monsters. I did dream of Raz during the last intermission screen. I guess it was good. And bad."
“Any details you want to share?”
“Well, I was back at the nukage causeway in E1M6. Except, instead of taking a right turn, like I usually do, I went left. I was reluctant to do it. My left brain told me not to, but my right brain screamed go for it! My left brain reminded me of how I supported her financially, devoted years to her, wrote her reconciliatory emails, tried again and again to re-open dialog, at least re-kindle friendship - and how she answered me with silence and contempt. My left brain holds a lot of memory. Every insult. How she mocked me for being childish, and not being able to handle her leaving me for another guy, like as if it’s just life, you little twerp, shit happens, get over it.”
“Yeah. Well my left brain, he’s a fucking hard-case these days. I gotta keep him on a leash. Anyway, my right brain, she’s more mellow. She had her own agenda, and was strong that day. She reminded me of the cards and love letters Raz made for me, her little crafts, her books of poems with lace binding and clever names, her pet names for me, her little pekinese dog Peekers and her cat Mini-me, her sweet, stormy relationship with her adopted family. She reminded me of what Raz looked like, and I’d forgotten how beautiful she was, and still is, surely. I knew my left brain was living in the present and my right brain was living in the past. I knew if I turned left, like my right brain wanted, I would get even more lost in the game, and never return to anything resembling reality. And I guess that’s what I wanted. I said fuck it, I’ll turn left. And so I did.”
“So what happened?”
So I played pool at the Royal. Me and Raz teamed up against Tony. It was the last time she’d come to visit me in Nelson. She’d just flown in to Spokane the other day, still jet-legged on central time. I had a bit of money in the bank and was spending like crazy, buying everyone rounds. We drank and drank. Then we went to Finley’s and drank and drank some more. We got so drunk that the booze got boring. Raz said what I was thinking: “Lets get some E. Or some coke.”
“Fuck yeah, E would be nice,” I said. That’s when Tony bugged out. I didn’t realize at the time how insidious coke addiction is, and how he panicked and left to stop himself from getting back in that game. I’d been having great fun catching up with Raz after months apart, feeling the love-buzz up close. It's the best drug in the world and goes nice with booze. But once the seed had been planted in my head, of doing uppers... that’s all I could think about. And the few people we dared ask had none. “Wine? What do I need that for?” So I became depressed and irritable. Raz started to annoy me and I annoyed her. Good drugs were the only thing that could save this night.
The bars closed. We couldn’t even stay drunk. Could I find anyone with booze? Well... No. Maybe... No. So we drove back to my place, saying nothing. But I had a plan. A long-shot... My downstairs neighbors. Their lights were on and there was dub-step music. Looked pretty hoppin’. I knocked on the door, feeling like a jackass, desperate to keep the party going.
Someone I didn’t know poked his head out. He didn’t want us to come in. I was sure he was doing blow with those slutty-looking sluts. It looked like the set of an internet porn video.
“Ask if they have any coke,” Raz told me.
No. I almost did, but I didn’t. As we walked up the stairs to my place, I was thinking I could have bought at least half a gram with what money I had left from the bar-crawl. Then I remembered I had cough syrup in my bottom drawer.
Raz scoffed at my syrup, as I knew she would. But we were both drunk enough to drink it. We each drank half the bottle of Robitussin. Raz hurled ten minutes later. I was amazed she lasted that long. I held it down, but felt nauseas for what seemed like forever. And tense. I really really really didn’t want to puke. I didn’t want to party either. And I didn’t want to fuck, which sent Raz into a spiral of self-loathing depression.
To cheer us up, I put on some Aqua Teen Hunger Force videos. It half-worked. She laughed. It reminded us of the time we lived together in Nelson, in the winter, in my parents’ house – a totally pathetic, untenable situation, but we didn’t care, we had each other, and our grandiose art projects, and a big bag of weed, and cartoons. We smoked some pot for old times’ sake. This ended our craving for uppers, while putting me on the verge of madness. Then the dextromethorphan kicked in.
I felt like a helium balloon. My body went numb. I lifted off and floated above the room. The weed synergized fiendishly with the DXM. I robo-walked around my dollhouse-room in spring-loaded leaps, launching myself off the bed, falling back onto it. I was an angel... in a Christian Rock Music Video directed by Satan. Raz laughed at me while she wrote a letter to her mother on my comp. I lay in my bed, looking at hallucinations patterned after a drawing I’d been working on that morning.
But Raz was here. She’d come here to see me. She’d paid a quarter of the airline ticket - and brought me presents, a Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet CD, that Red Vines licorice I love, and a Philip K. Dick novel. And a card saying “I love you” that I would throw away years later, out of necessity – you know how it is. And she would only be here for a week. And here I was, lying on my bed, looking at my own artwork in hallucinogenic form. Eyes shut, hallucinations writhing, I said to her:
“I’m sorry Raz. I’m sorry I didn’t hardly ever sleep in your bed. I’m greedy about sleep, I need ideal conditions. Good God, it’s not like I didn’t adore lying down with you and cuddling up and stroking your hair, and feeling your warmth, and listening to your breath, and your night-time whimsies, and your childhood memories. But I need my sleep, you know me.”
“And fuck, I’m sorry for a lot of things. I can understand you chucking me. I love your boundless nymphomanic energy. Sometimes it exhausts me, but I love it, especially when I’ve been away from it for a while. I remember how much fun we used to have, what things we got up to. Our tent at Shambhala the first time we went. It’s been, how many years now? Feels like a lifetime. Certainly not too early for nostalgia.”
“And I’m sorry I couldn’t match your libido. It’s not that you’re not hot - you’re stunning, someone I never imagined I would get to be with... And me, I dunno, maybe I am a sexual infant, like you said. I’m stunted, I’m a midget, that’s my little niche. You taught me a few things though. I've still got your taste on my tongue. And I know it made you feel sick and purvey when I became irritated at your healthy sexual energy. And we tried so many times to find some kind of compromise – but nothing really worked for long. And maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I remember when I was in the spare room, trying to get some sleep one night, and you threw my porn CDR at me. Well, we have our vices – you have your booze."
Raz lay down beside me, more stoned than drunk, now. She was an angel, as they say. She looked at me and I looked into her eyes. Sometimes I can do that – but only with her. On special occasions. It blows my mind, to look into the soul of a woman, the one who will allow it, and have her look back at me, and recognize my existence, and make me feel real, and make me feel like a man. She was timeless Raz, she knew my past and future. She knows I’m recalling this moment now from a place of pixels and bitterness, years later, Episode One, Knee Deep in the Dead, Mission Five, the Phobos Labs.
“You still play that exploding body game, you silly?” she says to me, cracking that wide smile of hers. Nicotine stains wink at me.
“Yeah, sometimes,” I say. “A lot, lately. You still renting ten videos a night, and watching three of them, and losing two of them, and returning the rest late?”
Raz laughs in spite of herself and looks away. “Stop making me laugh. No, I get most of my movies on netflicks now, or watch online.”
“That’s cool,” I say. “Do you still drink?”
“Sometimes,” she says. “Do you still drink cough syrup?”
“No, I do a lot of ketamine now. Today I’m quitting though.”
“I miss you Raz. You don’t even know how much. I wish I could make you understand.”
“Yeah, but it’s all fucked up now. Like your song ‘I haven’t felt right since a lot of things’.”
“That’s your song too,” I tell her. “The title comes from something you said to me on the phone, when you were talking to me from Kansas. About how nothing feels right, and things decay, and our minds are poisoned by this bender we’re on, as a civilization, and microcosmically, as individuals. And how you were abused and raped and all that. And how I can’t seem to feel real happiness anymore, or remember what it was. I thought you nailed it with that simple line. So I used it for the chorus of the song.”
“You’re still waiting for the miracle?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say. “That’s the one song I wrote that stays relevant.”
“Come here,” Raz says. “I’ll be your miracle.”
“You were once,” I say, wrapping my arms around hers. “You could be again. I’d believe it.”
I kiss her and she kisses back. It feels right. Perfect. It couldn’t be better. It’s not fucked up. It’s so real.
But it’s not.
I try to hang on to memories – sometimes manufacture them. But I always come back. To the nukage causeway of E1M6.
“Fuck man, that must have been an intense, dream” Luc says with an empathetic glower.
“Yeah, it was,” I say. “Now I’m all fucked up and thinking about her again. I should have listened to my left brain.”
“You should go give Tabby a call, like you said you were gonna. What are you waiting for? She’s on the market, man!”
“Fuck... I know. Well I don’t know. Maybe she isn’t. Or maybe she’s looking for someone else. Who the fuck am I?”
“And who the fuck is she? Who the fuck was Raz? You need a new miracle. But sometimes you got to meet the goddess halfway.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right, you fucker,” I say. “There’s wisdom under that body armor. But it’s so easy to dispense wisdom. Much harder to follow it.”
“You’re right, man,” Luc says. “Anyway, I’m gonna jet. I gotta be a dad, pick Fidel up from pre-school and then get bitched out by Rhi for forgetting to do something I was supposed to do, whatever that'll turn out to be this time. I’ll meet you at the Deimos Labs, we’ll have a drink or something.”
“Sounds good,” I say, hoping for K. I’m not quitting today. Luc disappears.