Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eyes in the Dark






Billy Jo woke to see a pair of cold, white eyes with plain, black irises staring at him from across his hotel room.
He screamed inside. He wanted to scream with his mouth, but his vocal chords were petrified. He tried to force them. He tensed his throat. He squeezed his diaphragm like he was trying to push the scream out. A weak moan escaped his lips, but no more than that. He wondered if he were dreaming. This was one of a dozen thoughts knocking about his panicked brain like the plastic balls in the machine they use to draw random numbers for the lottery.
Am I going to die?
What is that?
Why is it staring at me?
Oh god, why do I have to die?
I don’t want to die!
I don’t want to die!
“Hello, Billy Jo,” a voice said, fuzzy like the audio output from a blown-out speaker. “Sorry, did I wake you?”
Billy Jo couldn’t speak. His throat felt like it was full of cement.
“Today’s your lucky day.”
His hotel room was pitch black, so it was hard to tell who the eyes belonged to. There was a great, bulging shape crouched at the foot of his bed. The eyes seemed close to the middle of the shape, as though the head sunk much lower than where its (perhaps they were) shoulders sat. It was tall. Taller than most human beings would have been.
When it moved, its speed seemed impossible, because in half an instant the eyes went from the foot of his bed to eight inches from his right cheek.
This time, he screamed.
He jumped from his bed and crawled as fast as he could for the corner of the room. It was on his bed. It had been sitting next to him on his bed!
“My apologies. I thought it would be best for you to get that out of your system so we can actually have a conversation.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m also called Billy Jo. Isn’t that a funny coincidence? Nice to meet you.”
“What?” Billy Jo said. “…do you want?”
“I want to offer you something you very much want.” It was still sitting on his bed, but the eyes were bobbing up and down slightly. He still couldn’t make out what shape it was, but from the way the bed springs creaked as it moved, he could tell it was heavy. “Also, I was just joking. My name isn’t really Billy Jo. Sorry. I thought I’d try to lighten the mood.” The eyes shifted gently to the left. “Do you want the light on or off? Actually, you probably want them off, right? I don’t think you want to see me in the light. I’ve got, what do you call it…uh…’a face for radio,’ I think the saying goes.”
Billy Jo’s heart was beating so hard his whole rib cage was vibrating. He was so scared that he’d barely noticed his back was jammed up against his phone charger sticking out of the wall outlet. “Are you going to hurt me?”
The eyes bobbed again, shifting slightly. “No. I mean, I could. I don’t want to, though. Technically you could harm anyone, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’d do it.” Bob, bob, bob. Both eyes blinked, one at a time. “That’s what you always tell yourself, isn’t it? You’d never be able to actually go through with it? You’ve wanted people dead before, haven’t you?” Bob, bob. “Everyone has at some point.”
“W-what…how do you…wait, how did you get in here?”
The eyes blinked slowly, then narrowed in a peculiar way, as though their lids were tightened by a wide grin. “I can go wherever I want.”
“L-look, I want you to leave,” Billy Jo said. “I want you to go. Please leave. I don’t know who you are, but you’re freaking me the fuck out. If you’re not going to hurt me, then please, please go.”
Bob. “As I said, I can go anywhere I want. Right now, I really, really want to stay here. To talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Billy Jo said. “You’re fucking scary, and I don’t know you, and I just want you to leave. Whatever you are. I don’t even care what your name is. Just go.”
“Well, that’s rude,” the eyes said. “My name is Nüluk, and I am here to kill for you.”
“I – what?” Billy Jo cried out.
“Shhhhh,” the thing called Nüluk hissed. “You’ve already screamed at least two of your neighbors out of sleep. Do you want to wake up the entire hotel?” The eyes drooped to their original level again. “No, I can’t see through walls. I can hear them, though. They’re concerned. Talking to each other. Also, no I can’t read your thoughts.”
Billy Jo slowly stood up. Not because he began to feel braver, but the phone charger really fucking hurt.
“Therrrre we go. Now we can talk. Man to…man.” Nüluk’s eyes bobbed.
“…how did you know I wanted to kill –”
“…the President?” Nüluk said.
Billy Jo tried to form words, but all that came out were sharp stammers.
“Again, can’t read your mind, just inferring. Based on how the man has served his station so far, who doesn’t want him to die? Understand, though I am an instrument of death, I’m not a servant of evil. That…is, not something that exists. There are no ‘evil’ gods. Just as there are no truly ‘evil’ humans…intelligent beings are more complicated than that. For example, you may say that I’m evil because I exist primarily to end lives at the whim of a mortal who is chosen. Chosen at random, before you ask. Again, not a mind-reader, just inferring. Anyway, some would say I’m evil for this reason, because in your culture, murder is considered one of the worst crimes one can commit. Yet, a little over two hundred years ago, your country’s government paid citizens to murder wanted criminals in exchange for money. Over one hundred years ago, one of your Presidents killed a man in a duel and was allowed to continue serving as a leader. And that’s to say nothing about all the wars you people love to start.” Blink, blink. Bob, bob. “You people are so hard on murderers, yet you sure love coming up with ways to legitimize murder.”
“You have to,” Billy Jo said. “Killing people is wrong. There’s always another way to deal with someone who hurts people. If society didn’t think so, people would do it all the time”
Blink, blink. “You people do murder each other. All the time.” Bob, bob. “Although one could say that any killing is bad, which is worse – killing someone simply because someone offered to pay you money for it, or because they can’t be stopped from hurting others?”
“That’s why we imprison them. We leave them their lives, but we separate them from the rest of society.”
“Have you been to prison, Mr. Washburn?” Nüluk said. “Some would say death is more merciful. The suffering one endures in a maximum-security prison is terrible. Even if someone has caused a great deal of pain to others, is it not also cruel to subject them to a lifetime without freedom or dignity?”
“God said, ‘thou shalt not murder,” Billy Jo said. “I’m no theologian, but I’m pretty sure most religions say killing is wrong.”
“Many of your so-called gods allegedly sent avatars to do just this throughout history. So say many of your species’ myths.”
Billy Jo blinked. “Hang on. Hang on a minute…are you a servant of God?”
“I – ” the eyes bobbed, then blinked. Bobbed, then blinked. “…yes, Billy Jo Washburn. I am a servant of God.”
“You’re saying the Lord God wants me to kill someone? Is that why you came to me?” Billy Jo said.
Bob, bob, bob. “No, Billy Jo. The one who sent – I mean, God wants you to kill simply because he wants you to feel powerful.”
“…He wants me to feel powerful by murdering a man? Hang on, hang on now,” Billy Jo said. “You’re telling me the Lord God in Heaven wants me to – ”
Oh, shit.
“…you’re not a servant of God,” he said. “You’re the Devil! You’re Satan!”
“No, Billy Jo. I’m not Satan. I’m not even an angel.”
“You’re lying,” Billy Jo said. “I’m a good man. You won’t corrupt me.”
“Billy Jo, I’m not a servant of Satan. I’m not trying to deceive you. If anything, I’m your servant now. I exist only to bring relief to your darkest desires. If anything, I’m here to help you purge the darkness from your heart so you can go on being a do-gooder, or whatever it is you choose to do.”
“If you’re my servant,” Billy Jo said, “I order you to go away. Leave me alone and never come back.”
The eyes twisted now, one on top of the other, like the thing turned its head sideways.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. If you send me away, I’ll have to kill you.”
The ceiling fan spun gently, brushing a cold breeze against Billy Jo’s bare skin.
“You have a choice, human.” The eyes, it seemed, were getting closer…so slowly that he couldn’t tell how fast, or if it was really happening until it was less than seven feet away. “Fulfill my purpose. Direct my hunger. Choose wisely. Or, I’ll cleave your body in two and feast on your insides. Not because I want to. I’ll do it because I have to.”
Bob, bob, bob, bob. It was so close he could smell its breath. It smelled like a sewer full of corpses. “It’s still up to you, of course. But you must choose now.”
Billy Jo swallowed. “Why are you doing this?”
“You don’t get to know that part until after the deed is done. If you still want to know.”
“…can I choose when it happens?” Billy Jo said. “Can I choose how it happens?”
“You can’t choose how it happens. You can choose when, as long as it’s within a fortnight from when you accept.”
Billy Jo was up against the wall. The room was silent for a long time, mostly because he was so scared he had to work up the nerve to speak.
“…okay.” He nodded. “Okay.”
Bob, bob, bob. “Splendid!”
Billy Jo gasped as a cold, slimy thing, like a huge worm, wriggled around his left hand and wrist. He pulled away at first, but it was incredibly strong. It shook his hand, firm, yet surprisingly gentle.
“What a robust handshake you have, Mr. Washburn!” Nüluk said. Its breath wafted over him like hot fumes from a pile of trash. He could almost feel it sink into his clothing. “So…it looks like we have much to talk about.”

***

The cell was cold stone. It had been two weeks since the President had been killed.
The bed was little thicker than a life preserver, one that had been laid in by dozens of men much heavier, and less sanitary than he. The mattress stank heavily of human filth and chemicals. It was so soiled, it seemed they had tried and failed numerous times to wash the smell out.
Each morning, he was surprised to see the 6 A.M. sun peeking through the window in his cell. Each night, he lay down on his foot fungus-smelling mattress expecting to be woken by those two bobbing eyes blinking at him from the darkness…then a cold, sharp pain as his body was torn asunder.
One night, he awoke around 3 A.M. His bunkmate was snoring with particular vigor tonight. He had never slept well, but he had long suspected he suffered from some sort of insomnia. He rarely had much trouble falling asleep, usually within 20 minutes or so he was dormant until morning. He had learned to know better from years of trying in vain to fall asleep. He knew the signs now; the vivid consciousness like he’d just finished his second cup of coffee. The crispness of perception, as in those days when he woke from having just the perfect amount of sleep. No, his mind was ready to move now, but the world would not wake with him for at least another few hours. He wasn’t that old – only 36 years had he been on the Earth. Yet experience had taught him not to waste effort fighting his own body. He had learned to stay optimistic. The benefit of being up so late (or early) was that he had absolute peace and quiet with which to reflect. He sometimes liked to look at the ceiling. He found that when you stared at a blank, black ceiling, your brain makes sense of the random nothingness by creating shapes and muted colors which, while they don’t always make sense, are deeply thought-provoking. Some people counted sheep, or tensed their bodies and relaxed them, or got in the Sun’s Dog pose, or whatever the hell Yoga pose you were supposed to do to make you relax.
Tonight, the ceiling show displayed characters that looked like the Royals in a deck of cards…Jack, Queen, King…their faces floated eight feet above his head like they were synchronized. He saw, emerging behind them, the lake where his family spent their summers. He could almost feel the Sun on his skin, the beer on his tongue and the beer breath in the back of his throat. The Royals were floating over the lake, like dragonflies, hovering in a gentle circular pattern for a few moments in one spot, then jetting over to another. He could almost smell the moss from the lake, the earthy aroma of the trees and weeds off past the distant shore.
Then the royals gathered together in two stacks, spinning and spinning together until they looked like white blurs. The lake disappeared. The white blurs began to look like eyes, hovering over his head.
Bob, bob, bob.
“We had a deal, Billy Jo Washburn.”
Billy Jo swallowed. His body tensed, waiting for the cold swipe of a claw, or something feral and terrifying. He watched the eyes bob above him. Something cold and sticky dripped on his face, but he did not wipe it off. He never broke eye contact with the two bobbing eyes. Nüluk did not speak, it seemed to be waiting for him to do so, yet the words caught in his throat. Finally, he found the strength to speak.
“I knew you’d come see me again.”
Bob, bob, bob. “Of course I did. You cheated me out of a meal. I’m a little upset by that, to be honest.”
“Then take your wrath out on me,” Billy Jo said, “and not on another innocent.”
The eyes raised higher above his head. Then, the creature called Nüluk did something he did not expect. It expelled a heavy sigh. The smell of its breath was overpowering, like a sea of maggot-infested cow carcasses.
With a series of minute squelches, the lumbering form moved to the corner of his cell, still obscured by darkness. There, it stared at him.
“What are you waiting for?” Billy Jo said, sitting up. Never before had he ever once expected that there would come a day in his life where he was disappointed at not being killed. Yet, here he was. “My family’s disowned me. All the news channels on TV are doing these stories on me, calling me a psychopath, a cold psychopath. None of them realized I saved him. None of them will ever know I saved a man from something like you.”
Bob, bob. “Don’t say he was innocent. Don’t say he’d never hurt anyone. Did you know he had several people killed last year in secret? Nobody knew about it because he paid someone to kill the person who killed the person who knew a secret that could have cost him the election. Of course, it ended up leaking anyway, so he had the person he’d hired to kill the trigger man killed by a different trigger man, another to kill him, and so on. It went about six hired gunmen deep before he was satisfied. Here’s something else: did you know he was working on getting one of the amendments repealed? I know because I can see across dimensions, you see. Because I come from somewhere higher than the plane that houses all of your possible realities.” There was an odd squelching noise from Nüluk’s direction. “I won’t say what guaranteed rights he was set to strip from your legal system, but the deals he made with your Congress and Senate would have made it pass before your media organizations could broadcast a single message about it. I can also guarantee, it would have meant the deaths of a lot of innocent people.”
Billy Jo laughed. It felt good. For the first time in his life, he felt like there were no consequences to anything he did. He felt invincible. “You can lie to me all you want, my conscience is clear,” Billy Jo said. “I only have your word that’s how it is. Far as I know, you’re just lying to me. Far as I know, that’s all you’ve ever done.”
“Why would I need to do that?” Nüluk said. “Look at you. Look where you are. I can do anything I want to you, and nobody could stop me. You’re no use to me anymore. You’re no use to anyone. I can’t use you and your opinion means nothing to me.”
“So what happens now?” Billy Jo said. “Aren’t you going to kill me? Don’t you have to kill me?”
The eyeballs flipped again so that one was on top of the other. As though Nüluk’s head had turned sideways. “Well, in all honesty, I did lie about that. Just a little.”
“W- are you kidding me?” Billy Jo said. “This whole thing happened because you said someone needed to die – either me or someone of my choosing!”
“That part was…sort of true. I would have killed you when we first met, had you refused my offer.”
Billy Jo slumped on his bed. “Then…you’re no servant of God. Are you even a servant of the Devil?”
The eyes flipped to their original, horizontal orientation again, though they sat now at a slight droop. “I’m afraid not.”
Billy Jo stared at his white, prison-issued sneakers. There was a faded yellow stain by the pinkie toe of his left foot from a fight that had broken out between him and an inmate. The man flipped his lunch tray over, spilling food on his prison uniform. When that didn’t spur Billy Jo to violence, he’d pounced on him, beating him senseless once his back hit the ground. The guards watched for five whole minutes before they broke it up. Their official reports read that he had been the instigator, rather than the victim. Nobody spoke up on his behalf.
“There is always a choice, Billy Jo,” Nüluk said. “Either way, someone was going to die. I wanted to give you the chance to do something your society may not have approved of, something that would have changed the world, instead of just devouring your guts in your sleep. You chose to go back on your word, shooting him in the heart while making a speech in a rural town. Choices have consequences. You could have chosen one that would have ended the same way as what you actually chose, except that there would have been no negative consequences on your part.”
“Yes, there would have been,” Billy Jo said. “My conscience. I would’ve spent the rest of my life haunted by the notion that I’d let some monster from space or, wherever you come from…I gave the order to have a man die a horrible, painful death. Instead, I spared him that by shooting him through the heart. It would have been quick, nearly painless. What I did was a mercy killing.”
“He and you, your places switched,” Nüluk said, “he would never have done what you just did. Didn’t you hear what I said? He did order someone to die. He ordered lots of people to die. He didn’t lose a night’s worth of sleep over it. I know – I watched him sleep as peaceful as a babe. The next day, he was smiling in front of a TV camera as he lied to the people who gave him his power.” Bob. Bob bob. Bob bob bob.
“Still,” Billy Jo said. “Better a quick death.”
“Better a quick death if it means you, a compassionate soul, spends the rest of his life in here? I don’t know how you think this works, but – “
“Shut up!” Billy Jo said. “I have nothing to say to you. Only God can judge me now.”
Nüluk paused, almost as though it was genuinely surprised at Billy Jo’s blatant defiance. “Mortal, let me explain something to you. Even I don’t know if there’s a God, and I can see all realities, past, present, and future. I will say this to you, though. From the look of it, if there is a God, it’s less forgiving to this version of you than the others. You lied, you killed a man, and you will spend the rest of your life in jail, disgraced. Your memory will be disgraced. Your family will be disgraced. Your actions have made their lives harder forevermore, and the same curse will follow their offspring and their offspring. You have helped no-one and nothing, except your precious ego. Your nieces and nephews, your cousins and aunts and uncles, your parents and your sister, they all will lose friends, jobs, even sanity because of you. Your mother will go to her deathbed weeping, because of you.
“If you’d let me do it, there was no chance it would have ever been traced back to you. All those people affected by your actions would not have been so. Your precious ego tells you that what you did makes you a good person. What good is that if it’s the only thing you got out of this, and that you’re the only one who will ever, ever think so?”
“Enough with the lies,” Billy Jo said. “Either kill me or leave me in peace.”
The eyes stopped bobbing. Now, they seemed to be trembling. “Since I entered this cell, I haven’t said a single thing to you that wasn’t true. You’re a stubborn person, so it doesn’t matter what I say. I fed on another mortal, a father of three; because you killed the marked one before I could get to him. I was starving, I didn’t take pleasure in it. Not that I need to explain anything to a self-centered fool like you. I want you to know what you’ve done. I answer to no-one; I am eternal. You are not.
“You will never see me again. I hope someday you realize your actions were not worth what you bought with them.”
Billy Jo blinked, and the figure called Nüluk was gone. His bunkmate stirred.
“Are you fucking talking to yourself again?”
Billy Jo would remember that day up to the last moment of his life.
As time passed, he came to know his cell exceptionally well; there were fifty-four large rocks embedded in the cement holding the brickwork together. He knew the cell was constructed in 1963 and had housed twenty-two inmates before him, all convicted killers.
Slowly, his connection to the outside world faded. His family stopped returning his calls, his letters. They stopped visiting him and sending him packages in the mail. He developed a reputation among the other inmates. Apparently, the late President had been popular with a number of them.
Billy Jo felt himself change over the years. He stopped trying to make friends. He stopped talking as much. He felt angry all the time. He was moved to solitary confinement. There, he found a small measure of peace. There, he could think clearly.
Every day he thought about Nüluk. Every day, he thought about the man he’d killed. Every day, he questioned his decision. He never found an answer, for all his ruminations, that brought him lasting peace. Why didn’t Nüluk kill him in his prison cell? Would he return one day? Was Nüluk right about everything? Was he lying about everything?
His last moments were filled with thoughts like these. A small audience watched from behind a shatter-proof glass window as he lay strapped to a table facing them. The needle in his arm ached, but otherwise, he felt nothing.
There was a surgical light fixture above his head, slightly behind him. It shone on the scene like the lighting fixture on a film set, bathing his soon-to-be corpse in blinding light. Billy Jo looked into the crowd. All their eyes were on him, watching his every move with morbid fascination. The end of his life was a spectacle for them, and that was all. His whole life was simply to bring him here, to be watched by a handful of anonymous human beings as his life ended.
The cold rush of poison slipped into his bloodstream and all went dark. He knew as soon as it started, this was it…this was the end.
The End is calmer and colder than I expected.
The edges of his sight began closing in on the central focal point of his vision. Everything became blurrier…except for the eyes of his audience. The light reflected on their eyeballs with stark brilliance. Soon, there was nothing but the dark, and the eyes, bobbing in the darkness.

Then, there was nothing.


********************

Author's Note: So, if you didn't already know before reading this kinda sorta dark thing I wrote, my thing is horror and dark fantasy. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and if you really liked it, go ahead and mash on that
ol' "Share" button to spread it around. Otherwise, thanks for reading!

Also, I'm going to start posting more regularly. Some of the stuff I write will be
more editorial type of stuff, some of it will be reviews, some of it may be more prose, some of it might be completely different, like audio or video media. I know, WHAT? Turns out I know how to do lots of stuff that I'm going to actually try harder to do more frequently! So. Check that out. 

I'm going to try to publish a shorter post every Tuesday, and a longer one every Thursday. Keep an eye on my Twitter account @MattRaebel, and check out my Instagram @mattsraebels too. Why not? My Snapchat username, if you're one of those people, is 
idontknowhowtosnapchat.
Just kidding. I'm totally one of those people. That's why I have an account with Snapchat.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

26 Lessons

Hey y'all, it's been awhile since I regularly updated this thing. 2016 was a tough year, and I had a lot to deal with. Which didn't leave me with a ton of willpower left over to do creative things. 

I hate to be heavy, but 2016 literally almost killed me. I've learned a lot of lessons, though...lessons I think everyone can benefit from. These are all things that have helped me in the past. They're all tried-and-true nuggets of wisdom I've come to value over the years, and I'd like to share them with whomever wants to listen. I picked 26 things because I'm about 3 weeks shy of 27, so I can say at this point I've pretty conclusively lived 26-ish years of life. With that has come a lot of hard lessons, hard times, and loss, but also a lot of joy, wisdom, and hope. I would like to suggest then that you consider each and every one of the following, because I guarantee it, if you take even one of these to heart, your life will improve. Some of these have saved me more times than I care to mention, and I hope by sharing they can do the same for someone else.

So, without further ado...



26 things I learned as a 26 year old



1. Love yourself, be compassionate to yourself.
2. Appreciating the “Little Things” is everything.
3. Have compassion for others, but remember that you don’t owe them anything. Just because you see the human in them doesn’t mean they’re entitled to favors from you.
4. Own your mistakes.
5. Focus on the moment, only try to control what you can actually control.
6. Trust and respect your own judgment. Sometimes people disagree with what you see because you both of you have unique perspectives that don't line up; that's why empathy is so important. It shows you truths you wouldn't necessarily have discovered on your own.
7. Always consider the other perspective, even if it seems ludicrously wrong. Work through it logically and see if there are any nuggets of truth hidden in it.
8.  Never be afraid to try something new.
9. Always try to build bridges.
10. Don’t be afraid to protect yourself.
11. Don’t talk so much.
12. Always finish a rant early, and end with a “Now What?”
13. Enjoy life. Only things that are alive get to enjoy anything, and they don't have that opportunity forever.
14. Don’t worry – if you die before you fulfill your goals, you won’t be sad about it, you’ll be dead. Until then, there’s always tomorrow. Relax.
15. Learn to cook. It’ll save you money and make you feel sophisticated and shit.
16. The easiest way to quit a bad habit is to wean yourself off of it. It works, but it takes time and discipline.
17. Reward yourself for doing things that are hard.
18. Moderate how you reward yourself. Always.
19. Learning from and surviving failure is the only way to get stronger; people who always win don’t get that opportunity.
20. You’re always stronger than you think you are.
21. It’s not all about you. It’s about everyone.
22. A good night’s sleep can solve a lot of problems that seem unsolvable.
23. Just…just buy the nice toilet paper. Don’t buy cheap toilet paper. Just don’t.
24.  Go for Portuguese wine. Currently (2017), it’s the country creating the best cost-to-quality products. You can get good wine from Portugal at a ridiculously low price.
25.  It doesn’t matter if you’re right. Nobody will want to agree with you if they think you’re an asshole. That’s why compassion is the ultimate tool for change.
26.  Never stop learning.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why the story of "Far Cry 4" is criminally underrated

"Far Cry 4" pulled off an outstanding story campaign...which nobody ever talks about.

I'm going to go ahead and put "spoiler" tags right away, but this time I'm only doing it once. Understand, this article is intended for either a) people who have already beaten the game and thus know the ending or b) people who don't give a monkey's left nut about spoilers for this particular game. This article- yes, this entire article- it's going to be filled with spoilers.









Let's start with the first ten minutes of the game. The first four and a half of those ten minutes were, essentially, the game's E3 trailer.

You start in the back of a shitty van with a bunch of people - characters who, for the most part, are never named. The camera is your character's POV. To your right, you've got a makak and its abusive owner, Chow Yun Fat in 7-11 aviators to your left, and an older man with beads in his beard across from you. Things go wrong at a security checkpoint and the soldiers guarding it kill almost everyone.

Then their boss arrives; the primary antagonist of the game, Pagan Min.

He looks like what would happen if Hideki Kamiya tried to design a Bond villain. At this point in the game, you have no way of knowing that he's actually a better "Bond villain" than many Bond villains. Here's what I mean by that: James Bond, much like Batman, is remembered in part for his antagonists; arguably, Pagan Min is one of, if not the most memorable aspect of "Far Cry 4." He has a personal interest in the protagonist, who is confused by this, as the protagonist has never met the man before. Also his own goals, like James Bond, revolve around duty rather than personal interests, unlike Min.

These personal interests revolve around the protagonist, Ajay Ghale. When the player learns exactly why Min is interested in him, it sheds light on many important aspects of not just the plot, but the main character's past as well. Alec Traveleyan, Dr. No, Goldfinger...Pagan Min.

When Min arrives, he's very upset at what has transpired with the bus...apparently he explicitly told them to stop the bus, not shoot the bus. He expresses his frustration by repeatedly stabbing the ranking officer in the neck with a pen.

When Min sees you lying on the ground alive, his temperament changes from explosive anger to immense relief. He picks you up and dusts you off himself, rather than order one of his men standing nearby to do so. Then he looks at you and says, "I'd recognize those eyes anywhere." He laughs and gives you a warm hug, the officer's blood on his face no doubt staining your character's shitty windbreaker.

Turns out the bad guy was expecting you. He knew you (the protagonist, Ajay Ghale) were entering the country incognito and wanted to abscond with you to his royal palace, where he could give you better hospitality than the "terrorists" who had attempted to smuggle you into the country, the Golden Path.






Pagan's men put a bag over your head. When they take it off again, you're seated at a table, upon which is an absolute feast. It's here that we find out why Ajay has supposedly come to the land of Kyrat...his mother has passed on, she was cremated, and she wanted her ashes brought "back to Lakshmana."

Also seated at the table is Bead Beard, the guy from the bus. His real name is Darpa, an old friend of your father. He's caught texting at the table by Pagan and is sent to the torture room for a time out. While he and his Lieutenant are dealing with Darpan, Min tells you to wait right where you are. Of course, the first-time player will likely disobey these instructions and go wandering through the palace. Eventually you bump into a dashing dude named Sabal, who claims to be with the Golden Path. He also says that he knew your father, and that he's here to get you safe. You escape with him and the Path, learning stealth and weapon skills along the way.

This is where the real value of the story of "Far Cry 4" begins. It sets up our expectations beautifully: we're in this foreign land called Kyrat on a personal mission to return our mother's ashes to "Lakshmana." I played through the whole game assuming Lakshmana was a place, right up until I found out that Lakshmana was a person. I assumed that Pagan's warm, almost paternal attitude towards Ajay was just part of his unique brand of villainy - he's nice because he doesn't dominate by force, but seduction. I thought he was going to try to tempt Ajay to the path of villainy, and once rejected the facade would drop...revealing the eccentric and witty Pagan Min to be little more than an unhinged psychotic with an army of thugs, who would then die at the barrel of Ajay's gun.

I also assumed that Ajay was a decent person, if slightly flat as a character. I assumed the Golden Path would be white knights, crusaders with a holy cause, freedom fighters with a moral compass, perhaps so goody-goody that their self-righteousness would become cloying before the game was over.

None of my expectations came true.

Let's start with the Golden Path. You meet Sabal first when he saves you from the retired K-Pop singer turned supervillain. You think, "oh, this guy's cool. He's got a ponytail and everything, keeps calling me 'brother' with his pleasant British accent. Totally trustworthy." Next you meet Amita, the other leader of the Golden Path. She's all, "who's this asshole?" when you get to the Golden Path's base of operations. There's a girl, Bhadra, who's the Kyrati equivalent to a Bodhisattva in the Hindu tradition. Basically, she's the living incarnation of the country, or so Kyrat's unique religious traditions indicate.

The Golden Path shamelessly uses Ajay as a military and political asset. Sabal and Amita are vying for majority control of the Golden Path, but before Ajay arrived they were deadlocked. Whoever Ajay backs gets the edge, since Ajay's father founded the organization. They both know this, and so they fight for Ajay's support. Sabal's the traditionalist whose tactics tend to revolve around minimizing casualties in the short term, while Amita is unconcerned with collateral damage so long as the net gain of the Golden Path is positive.

I sided with Amita for awhile because Sabal's tactics were often naive and Amita's were highly pragmatic.

I assumed that one of them was the "good" choice (Sabal) and the other "evil" (Amita), and the ending I got would depend on who I backed (another assumption that didn't turn out to be true).

Late in the game, after one of the two has triumphed over the other and it's too late to change whom you support, you learn the dark side of your chosen proponent. Sabal was telling the truth about his desire to preserve tradition, but many of those traditions involve the brutal objectification of women. In particular, if he became King of Kyrat, he openly stated that, as "tradition" dictated, he would marry Bhadra.



SABAL: ...and that's my plan!

AMITA: Wait, what was that last bit?

SABAL: What, about me marrying Bhadra?

AMITA: Yes, that part. Are you...I mean, you're not going to really...she's like fourteen, dude.

SABAL: So?

AJAY: .......

SABAL: What?

AMITA: You're serious?

SABAL: What's the big deal?

AJAY: .......

AMITA: You basically just said you want to fuck a fourteen-year-old.

SABAL: Yeah, that's how our culture has worked for thousands of years! What's the problem?

AMITA: Aren't you like, thirty?



Yeah, Sabal is not at all what he initially appeared to be. Amita, on the other hand, is exactly what she appeared to be. She wants to turn Kyrat into an enormous poppy farm because it has no natural resources and drugs are a highly profitable trade. She wants to conscript children to bolster the fighting power of the GP, because who could bring themselves to kill a child soldier? (A lot of people, turns out). Also she rounds up villages who don't support her, has them shot, then buries them in mass graves. Then again, Sabal does that, too.





Sabal's a misogynistic ephebophile, Amita's a wannabe child-murdering drug warlord. So neither candidate is exactly a winner...going back I'd still support Amita, but only because the game forces you to choose one of the two. There is also the option, after the game is over, of meeting with the individual you backed, having a brief chat with them via cutscene, and killing them, with no consequence. So I guess there's that.

Even looking past those two paragons of virtue, compare the treatment of Ajay by the Golden Path to that of King Min...Min doesn't try to force Ajay to turn against the Golden Path, or support his regime as King. He never even suggests it. He seems almost ambivalent about Ajay's role in the war; even when you blow things up and kill half his army, he reacts at most with slight annoyance, but never really threatens Ajay. He only wants to sit and chat about you and your family, as he periodically reminds you via radio throughout the game. 

The Golden Path pressures Ajay into killing for them. They use his deceased parents as leverage against him, saying things like, "it's what your father/mother would have wanted." They publicly praise Ajay Ghale, the hero of the revolution, depending on whose orders you followed. When Ajay shows even the slightest bit of reluctance, they either criticize him for being a coward, or express shock that he would "throw them under the bus" by not taking on highly dangerous solo missions for them.

The Golden Path appears to be the "good" faction in the beginning of the game, but the more you learn about them, the more it seems like they would be no better at running Kyrat than Pagan Min. Don't get me wrong, Min is not by any means a "good" guy- he's a complicated, damaged person, and Ajay is the only person left in the world he has any reason to give a damn about.

Speaking of Ajay, what do we even really know about him, by the end of the game? "Far Cry 4" goes out of its way to let the details about his past in America lie in obscurity. We know about his parents, his connection to the Golden Path and how Pagan apparently..."knew" his mother. We know Ajay was born in Kyrat, raised in the USA. We know he's very good at killing, apparently able to pick up new weapons and wield them with skill- without, it seems apparent, any experience whatsoever. Unlike the protagonist of "Far Cry 3", Jason Brody, Ajay doesn't seem to really mind killing people from the start.

Now, one could argue that this is simply because of lazy writing, but I'm not totally sold on that. Everything else in the game seems to have been written so deliberately - expectations set up like bowling pins and then knocked down with the final revelation Min gives at the game's conclusion...though to be certain, a few are also knocked down before then. 

Here's something else to consider: Ajay came to Kyrat from America, where his mother had just passed away. At the game's conclusion, it is implied that he decides to stay in Kyrat indefinitely. He dropped everything - his home, his friends, whatever career or hobbies he may or may not have had in the USA. It's as if staying in the war-torn third-world state of Kyrat beat whatever he had waiting for him in America...if anything. Perhaps because he's on the run.

My point is this: Ajay never shows disgust or hesitation when taking a human life, especially the lives of Min's soldiers, who can often be heard talking about how scared they are, how much they hate being in the army, and how much they miss their families. One time, I heard a patrolman passing me by as I hid in the brush say, "I wonder what would happen if I just...didn't come home tonight." The soldiers in "Far Cry 4" are way, way more sympathetic than the meth-addicted, VD-riddled, rapist pirates and mercenaries in "Far Cry 3." Yet, Ajay enjoys killing them more than Jason Brody enjoyed killing pirates...and by the end of the game he really, really liked killing pirates.

Maybe the reason Ajay rarely complains is that he likes killing. Maybe he was like that before he even left America. Jason Brody had to ease into being a killer, and even then he never truly lost his revulsion for murder, he just got really desensitized to it. Ajay does it mechanically, never once expressing disgust, joy, nor remorse. 

Now, admittedly that's just a theory, but it is supported by a few subtle details, particularly when you are finally reunited with Pagan Min. 

He makes offhand comments about how many victories Ajay has scored for the Golden Path throughout the game, hinting with less and less subtlety at the peculiarity of his penchant for murder. In the end, you have a choice: kill Min, or let him keep talking. 

Before Ajay gets his first of three opportunities to kill Min, the King of Kyrat straight up calls Ajay on being a sociopathic killing machine. He tells you that he sent his staff of servants home when Ajay and the Golden Path showed up, but that it's possible that they were shot by Ajay or the Path during the Chaos.

The jury is still in as far as how much truth there is to this, as very little about Ajay's personality or true intentions are ever explicitly stated, besides his quest to bring his mother's ashes to Lakshmana.

Last but not least, we learn that, not only is the Golden Path actually woefully deserving of its "terrorist" label, not only are Sabal and Amita complete monsters, not only is Ajay potentially a sociopath...but Min, cheerful, flamboyant Pagan Min- he's Ajay's uncle. More than that, he had a baby girl with Ajay's mother Ishwari. Her name was Lakshmana.

She was killed in infancy by Ajay's father.

Turns out Mohan Ghale, founder of the Golden Path, had a bit of a temper. He sent Ishwari to seduce and spy on Min, but she ended up leaving Mohan for her intended target. When Mohan found out, he personally tried to kill all three of them. He only succeeded in killing the baby.

Remember how I said Pagan Min often seemed ambivalent about the territory he was losing to the GP, thanks to Ajay? It's because Ishwari, Ajay's mother, the only woman he ever really loved (allegedly), is dead. So is his only child. Ajay is the closest thing Min has to a family. All he wants, he says, is to pass on his kingdom to that family. To Ajay.

It's possible to beat the game in 15 minutes. During the intro, while Min and his Lieutenant are torturing Darpan, you can choose to investigate. Eventually this leads to you absconding from the stronghold with the Golden Path. Alternatively, you can do as Min asked: "sit here, enjoy the crab rangoon," and wait for him to return.

This is a classic setup to the beginning of a playable set piece in a video game. You would assume that the game's programmers wouldn't expect players to listen to the "bad guy", to wait around more than fifteen minutes in the first playable environment in the game. Not when there're potential guns to shoot, jeeps to crash, etc.

Yet, "Far Cry 4" isn't like most games. 

Pagan Min keeps his word, if you stay. He comes back and takes you to Lakshmana, reveals the twist about Mohan, Ishwari, Lakshmana and himself straight away. He lets you put Ishwari's ashes next to that of her daughter, and passes the torch, so to speak. Then he says, "maybe now, we can finally shoot some goddamn guns!" So instead of Min stepping down or getting killed, he steps down and then enjoys an afternoon with Ajay at the Royal firing range.

If you were like, "fuck Min and his crab rangoon" (as most did during their first playthrough), then later choose not to kill him, he still takes you to a small shrine out back, and tells you that Lakshmana's remains are inside...either way, he still takes you to the shrine. Unless you murder the defenseless tyrant at his dinner table before he can share the secrets of Ajay's past, secrets which the Golden Path either never knew or would never have shared with Ajay willingly.

Min admits something as you walk outside to the resting place of Lakshmana; he says he knows he's a bad guy, a despot. He also admits that he's not totally sane. "The last time I went in there, I went in a sane man. I came out..." he says, smiling sadly, "...like this." 

"Far Cry 4" is written to be open-ended. It's a great literary compliment to the gameplay, which is also open-ended. The whole thing is executed exceptionally well. Characters are introduced, as are settings, plot points, and so on...all seem pretty boilerplate as far as video game stories go, at least initially. Then there's revelation after revelation, putting everything you thought you knew into better perspective- and still, the plot doesn't take a side or judge you for your decisions, unlike many open-ended games.



Because human behavior is black and white, and moral ambiguity is a myth.


"Far Cry 4" is beautifully optimized as an interactive story- you, the player, make up your own mind about who lives, who dies; there is no "right" choice, because all the characters are shitty people and Kyrat is screwed from the get-go. Your freedom is considerable, but still within reasonable constraints. You are limited by your inability to abstain. You must make a decision, even if the only options are terrible and will inadvertently put blood on your hands.

Video game developers don't always bother to craft compelling storylines for games. Partially, this is due to the reality of how games are developed; typically, they create a central mechanic (in this case, stealth combat), and build out from there. Stories are usually an afterthought.

Ubisoft deserves to be lauded for creating such a compelling story and characters in both "Far Cry 3" and "Far Cry 4"...but especially the latter. I've read books less well-written than this game.

I hate applying numerical scores to games, because in my mind, different people like different video games for different reasons...using numerical scores assigns objectivity to the worthiness of a game that I believe should not exist. So I'm not going to give "Far Cry 4" a rating, especially since I haven't experienced the full game. I haven't "100 Percent-ed" it. I haven't spent a second on the online or co-op portions of the game. 

For the story alone, though, I will say this: it's easily one of the best games released in 2014, and you can quote me on that.

"Far Cry: Primal", the installment that followed, didn't quite measure up to the quality of "FC4" in terms of storytelling, but perhaps "Far Cry 5", set to release in 2018, will make up for it.

Dancing with the Stars: A "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" Review


There are plenty of movies out there that are fun to watch, but don’t necessarily give the audience much more than a fun way to kill 90 minutes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that manages to be “just” fun, and there’s always room for more – just like there’s always room for more movies that aren’t necessarily in one’s comfort zone, but nonetheless manage to deliver a compelling and impactful message.

Then, every once in awhile, a movie comes along that manages to do both.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a success, not just in box office sales. It’s a fantastic film full of heart and style and wholesale ass-kickery. It’s relentlessly entertaining – when the plot slows down, the ride is smoothed out with some genuinely charming humor. When the funny parts have gone on for a time and the movie remembers it’s an action movie too, the audience is treated to another epic action sequence – all of which are set against classic music from the 70’s and 80’s...the music of Star Lord.

John Woo once described his technique for choreographing fight scenes as similar to how one would direct a dance sequence:



"When I shoot action sequences I think of great dancers, Gene Kelly, Astaire…in action I feel like I'm creating a ballet, a dance…In all the camera sequences I use music to help the scene, I use music to get inspiration for a scene. An explosion is like a happy drum beating. I like to see everything on the move. If an actor isn't moving, my camera moves. Music creates fantasy."

-From “John Woo: Ballet With Bullets”
New York Times, Feb. 22, 1996


Director James Gunn seems to have taken a page out of Mr. Woo’s book for “Guardians Vol. 2”. Many of the coolest scenes in the movie are epic fights set while classic pop and rock tracks from Star Lord’s “Awesome Mix (Vol. 2)” play in the background. They synch with music video-esque perfection.

Yet, Gunn didn’t make this choice as a purely aesthetic stylistic choice, or merely as a reflection of Star Lord’s personality or his love of music.

The idea of “two types of people”, that is, “Dancers” and those who do not “Dance”, is mentioned a couple of times during the movie. Those who “Dance” can be considered those who find joy in the little things, don’t take themselves too seriously, and perhaps most important, love others selflessly. There’s a scene in which Yondu, the outlaw and surrogate father figure of Peter Quill (Star Lord), cheerfully dispatches a ton of bad guys to the cheerfully upbeat, “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. This scene follows one in which he reveals that despite his menacing façade, he truly cares about Quill, and has stuck his neck out for the young man at his own expense in the past.

Those who don’t “Dance” are those who, instead of enjoying the little things, tend to be obsessive, ego-driven, even cruel. They are characters who do not truly love other people. They cannot let go of their pretentions, cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable around others…not totally unlike one who is too self-conscious to dance in public.

Certain characters who take themselves too seriously, in addition to being prone to pretention, cruelty or absurd levels of egotism often end up being at odds with the Guardians throughout the film. Conversely, some who do not “Dance” are characters who are not necessarily malicious to the Guardians, towards the “Family.” They simply find it difficult to open themselves to others, like Rocket. In this way, the movie uses the cheerful and decorous motif of music and dancing to expand on the theme of family that permeates the plot.

Yondu, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Draxx and Groot may not be Peter’s blood-related “family”, but they are truly his family. I’ll leave it this way: it’s true having Kurt Russell as your dad is pretty f***ing cool…but let’s just say it can get even better than that.

Like the first movie, the film’s use of humor is prevalent and just as strong as the first time around. Early on though, a lot of it seems forced. While it never approaches the cringe-inducing level of Margot Robbie’s “stench of death” line from the first act of “Suicide Squad”, it occasionally gets obnoxious when the movie makes an obvious attempt at its trademark goofy humor, then spends a long second or so waiting for you to laugh, even if the joke wasn’t as funny as the movie thinks it was. That said, there are plenty of genuine laughs to be had here – it’s just that the action montages are where this movie really shines.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” also includes a wealth of Easter Eggs - there are a total of 5 scenes following the film’s finale. Some play during the credits, while others play post-credits in traditional MCU fashion. All of them are ambiguous, unless you’re up on your Marvel Lore…in which case, they range from exciting teases for upcoming character appearances to full-on conspiracy theory-level reveals, including one that seems to be James Gunn’s personal wink/nudge to a prevalent fan theory. Again, I won’t say which.

The world has enough Thors, enough Iron Men, enough Captain Americas, Black Widows, Spider Men and Hulks. That’s not to say all of the above aren’t awesome, but hey, it’s a big galaxy. There’s more than enough room for all those stoic, serious superheroes with tragic backstories as well as equally-awesome characters like the Guardians…people who aren’t necessarily heroes, but are just here to collect some bounties, dance, and be there for the ones they love.

Seriously, go see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. Right now.

You already have? Go see it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Learning Nerdspeak: "Jump Scares"



Try this: hide in a cupboard or a closet with a bunch of sliced ham covering your face. Lie there, in that dark space, and wait for someone to approach. When they do, launch yourself from you hiding place and scream at the top of your lungs, shaking them violently by the shoulders.

You have just created a “Jump Scare” experience. It’s a lot more fun when it happens in a video game.

“Jump Scares” are moments in a video game in which the game’s designers try very hard to scare the player by combining sudden, loud noises accompanied by jarring images, usually with no warning or indication that they’re about to happen.

“Jump Scares” are considered “cheap” because they don’t take a ton of finesse to execute. While the “Jump” in itself may be inelegant, “Jump Scares” are, I feel, a misunderstood and often mishandled tactic in game design.

When used well, a “Jump Scare” can be an effective tool for adding to a game’s experience in a larger sense. It helps build tension within the game’s atmosphere.

Anticipating a “Jump Scare” is to the “Jump” itself as anticipating a shark attack in “Jaws” is to seeing the actual shark. The worst part isn’t seeing the monster – it’s knowing that it’s there, and you can’t see it, and there is nothing you can do about it.

The best example I can think of for this concept was utilized brilliantly by the creators of legendary Silent Hills trailer/game, P.T. For those of you uninitiated in the phenomenon that was P.T., it was a short puzzle-based horror game that came out on the PSN some years back. It is considered by many to be one of the scariest horror games ever made. More importantly, it was minimalist horror done right.

P.T. wasn’t scary because the game’s antagonist, a horrifying one-eyed ghost lady, spent the whole game all up in your face. It was scary because, most of the time, she wasn’t there…but you constantly expected her to jump out. That’s why there was the unavoidable player death so early in the game. Jump Scares aren’t a substitute for genuinely scary moments or good writing, but they can be a valuable asset when building tension in a game’s atmosphere.

The art of horror involves bringing the fantastical, the illusory, into the real world. Technically, the characters of a horror book, movie, game etc. are the ones being harmed or killed by the antagonistic entity…but, they aren’t real. Their pain isn’t real. What’s real is the fear that the audience feels. By a sort of transitive effect, the person or people telling the story create genuine fear out of something that doesn’t exist, and is therefore basically harmless.

Video games can create an immersive experience unlike that which movies and books are capable. They can create the experience of being displaced in an entirely different world, a different universe. This depends on one’s ability to create a place that feels real.

While a derelict space station infested with carnivorous alien parasites may not be, in essence, a real thing, the spikes in one’s heartrate that result from a well-paced “Jump Scare” are real. Wishing to avoid them (or, one shudders to think, seek them out) is also real. The more real things that are brought about due to the fake space station and its cacophony of theoretical, digital horrors, the more the fake derelict space station starts to feel like a real place.




The Summit



“At the summit at last,” said Campbell, frost collecting at his beard. A gloved hand the size of a bear’s claw wiped some of it loose.
            Austin rolled his shoulder. The bag hung heavy on his back. He’d carried over thirty pounds of crap up one of the world’s highest mountains, in the hope that he would get the answers he’d spent fifteen years searching for. His back ached, he was freezing, but still, he remained focused.
           
“Mom, please,” Austin said. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “I need to talk to you.”

            He’d spent over a decade of his life just getting the credentials necessary to bring him here. He had a PhD from Cambridge in Archeology, a Master’s in Anthropology, entire volumes of peer-reviewed research, awards for scientific achievement. He’d also had spent thousands of dollars in student loans, dozens of hours just applying to scholarships and financial assistance programs.
Then there were the years spent chasing down leads, weathering nonstop doubt from dead-ends, critics in his field, those close to him. There were the relationships that failed, the weeks in bed from tropical diseases, the close-calls with pirates and militants in countries with unstable political climates, in which lay ruins both ancient and untouched for hundreds, if not thousands of years…yet it had all been a cheap price, given where it had eventually brought him. Not just physically – he was on the cusp of attaining what he had, for a long time, never thought his life would have: meaning.
            Soon, he would inherit a destiny greater than that which any normal person could attain themselves. He needed only reach the place to which he had been beckoned in order to receive it.
            “This looks like a good place to set up camp,” Campbell said, his Highland Scotch-English brogue dulled by the roar of the wind. He and the other team were bringing up the rear.
            “I want to keep going,” Austin said, loud enough the entire party could hear him. “We’re almost there.”
            Audible groans resounded from at least two of the team. They were locals from a village near the base of the mountain. To them, this job was the American equivalent to working at a department store, or a Starbuck’s – it was a job that everyone in their community, at some point, could and would do.
Austin didn’t blame them for protesting. He’d been pushing them hard since the journey began. They were likely exhausted, cold, and frustrated. They couldn’t understand what they were on the cusp of reaching. Not even if he’d explained to them, showed them all the reports, essays and translated works. If he had sat them down for a week-long class and paid them to do it, he couldn’t make them understand. Nobody could possibly understand. Besides, if he tried to explain, they’d think he was insane.
            “If you don’t want to follow me,” Austin said, “you can set up camp here. We’re close. Very close. In fact I think I’d actually prefer to go it alone from here.”
            Austin wasn’t looking at them. He was facing yet further up the mountain, looking straight at something he couldn’t see, but knew it was there. He didn’t realize he was in a trance until Campbell’s bear-like grasp shook him out of it.
            “Doctor,” he said, turning Austin’s body towards him, “take a knee. I mean it. If you don’t settle in for the night I’m gonna tie you up and make you.”
            “You will do nothing of the sort,” Austin said. “I made it clear from the inception of this expedition – I have my reasons, but I don’t expect anyone here to go further than a reasonable person could expect. That’s why I paid you all in advance.”
            Austin looked behind Campbell’s hulking, red-bearded form – some of the locals in his team had tent stakes in their hands, others alpenstocks, ready to follow him.      
Austin shook his head. “Trust me, I won’t be going far. We’re close. I’ve got my flare gun and emergency gear if things go bad. I can’t stop now, not when I’m so close to the tomb. So, as your employer, I’m going to have to insist that you be the one to take a knee and keep some food heated up for me. I’ll be back within an hour or so.”
            “I really don’t like this.” Campbell’s piercing blue eyes were looking into his. Austin could tell exactly what he was thinking; the altitude was affecting his mental state, he was getting delirious. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, Doctor – “
            “Phil, not now.”
            “Auss – ”
            “Not a word.”
            “Or what? You really gonna fire me?” Campbell said.
            Austin sighed. Campbell had called his bluff. Of course he wouldn’t fire him. He’d been a dependable companion, an invaluable asset, and a friend throughout his post-graduate journey, all the way to this moment.
            “Please,” Austin said, “trust me. I need this. I need it.”
            Campbell looked uneasy for a moment, as if unsure what to say. “How am I gonna look if my client turns up dead?” Campbell was not a man of words. Austin knew he cared for him personally, not just as a professional cares for a client; they were friends. Campbell had never known how to express it. Not that Austin was much better…yet, there was an unspoken understanding between them.
            Nothing would stop him, especially not now. Not even his friend.
            “This time will be different. You have my word. Go and help with camp. I’m not going to ask you again.”

She’s drunk again, Austin realized. This is pointless.

            Campbell stomped off, grumbling and cursing. Austin felt nothing. Soon, Campbell would understand. And even if he didn’t, Austin would be able to make him understand.
            It seemed for a while he may have been mistaken after all; there was no path, nor any signs of one…although, if there had been it was likely snowed over.
            He forced his body forward. The worst part wasn’t the walking, it was the lack of visibility; each step was like a battle, and all that he gained from victory was another step towards a blank, white void. He didn’t realize that the wind’s incessant fury was pushing him closer left than he’d intended until a loose cluster of snow broke free at his step. He managed to regain stability before stumbling. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that he was close enough to camp he could still see the tents. He wondered if his cries had reached the team. He wondered if they could have heard him.
He felt a bit like he was floating. He stopped for a moment – another step and he might have fainted. He thanked whatever god or gods were listening that he’d caught it in time. It was hard to tell, but the ground he stood on was slightly tilted. Had he passed out, he might have rolled clear off the mountain. He leaned on his alpenstocks for a moment. When you were winded, it was tempting to hyperventilate, though every breath filled his lungs with frozen air that stung like it was full of needles. The thin air at this height would only make his state worse if he breathed quickly. He aimed for deep, controlled breaths instead to keep a handle on his heart rate. When he felt strong enough, he took another step. Then another.
            Finally, he found hope. He was on the right track after all.
            Propped against the wall of a cave in the distance, he saw the mummified remains of a human being, clad in thermal clothing.
            Red-faced and winded, Austin clambered towards it. There was nothing else but white-gray sky all around him, and plain snow besides. The air was crisp and thin and smelled like only a land of eternal winter can. His lungs struggled, but he persisted.
            Due to the extreme cold, decomposition had been slight, but doubtless this person had been searching for the same thing that now brought Austin to this very spot.
            He paused for a moment to wonder why the man had gotten so far, only to die on the doorstep of success. Was it hypothermia? Exposure? Starvation? Did he simply lose the will to keep going? Perhaps he had been guarding the entrance for someone, and that someone never came back?
            Into the cave Austin went. He switched his head lamp on. The stream of light it gave him reflected off of thousands of tiny snowflakes. The tunnel seemed to go on forever, rippled like the esophagus of a huge creature…
            He came to the resting place of the Thing, the same one that had spoken to him years and years ago, the thing that had extended to him hope when nothing else could.
            In the depths of the cavern, he saw it: a tiny statue of his savior, resting in the middle of a great chamber. Austin had seen this room before, in cave drawings, ancient scrolls…none of them did it justice.
            The chamber was, as far as he could tell, shaped naturally…yet part of it showed clear signs of artificial work. He couldn’t tell which parts were natural formations, and which had been shaped for some deliberate reason…aesthetics, perhaps, though no architecture on Earth looked so unsettling. It appeared as though pillars and supports had been carved directly into the natural curves and divots of the cave wall…yet when his eyes followed them, they seemed to twist in unnatural ways. The structure seemed to defy the very laws of physics. Chunks of rock and stalactites hung and swayed in ways that could not have remained structurally sound, given all the years’ worth of erosion that should have taken place, given clear signs of aging evident everywhere…yet there were no collapsed pieces, no piles of rubble suggesting a once-impressive fixture crumbled by the inevitable decay of time. It was impossible, all of it. Austin took a deep breath; he was beginning to feel light-headed again. Still, that would not be an issue in moments, if all went as he hoped it would.

“Being alive has been terrible so far,” he said, straining against sobs that tightened his whole body. “Just make all this pay off somehow and I’ll do whatever you want.”

            Approaching the statue, he removed a gloved hand. At this altitude, at these temperatures, normally he would fear frostbite, but the closer he came to the statue, the warmer he felt.
            It was a grotesque thing, yet there was some inexplicable appeal to it…the feeling was difficult to describe. The being it resembled could not have been human, could not have been anything living. It conformed to no laws of symmetry or organic function compelling the evolution of anything on Earth; some features resembled quite narrow feathers, yet could just as easily have been scales. One appendage seemed to be a head, judging by its position on the body and evidence of eyes, yet openings that could be considered, reasonably, eyes or ears – other orifices, were located in quite strange parts of the body.
            Austin remembered the text. From his belt, he drew a knife. He pressed the sharp side against the palm of his bare hand, and held it above the statue. With a swift motion, he slashed open his palm. The knife was cold, and instantly, his hand became colder as well. Warm life spilled from his hand and splattered across the statue’s surface. By the sharpness of its lines, the lack of residue or even frost on its surface, it looked as though it had been fresh-carved.

“…find me.”

            As though from thousands of tons of dynamite, the top of the mountain exploded. Austin was knocked flat on his back, his vision overcome by snow and stone thrown up all around him. Yet he remained where he stood. The chill of the wind returned as the cavern crumbled away, giving way to open air and a full appreciation of his quarry.
            Before him stood something monstrous, a Thing without a name. Impossible in its sheer scale, his nose became invaded immediately by its breath; it smelled like the long-dead bones of a thousand dead. Its slow, deep breaths were like the roar of a hurricane. Yet it was there – it existed. It was so impossibly huge, so unknowably strange, it made his head throb with pain to look at.
            Austin’s head was at once full of whispers. Voices he had never heard before rang in his ears as though they were memories, yet his recognition of their origin was immediate. It spoke to him.
            You have come.
            He felt warm liquid become cold, dripping from his ear. He wiped it away. “I have fulfilled my promise, Great One,” Austin called out, his throat already hoarse with the cloying dryness of the air. “I dedicated my life to this moment. I reached the summit, achieved what no man in the memory of civilization has achieved. I…have found you! Your rest can cease, I’ve woken you!”
            It was difficult to read…the body language of an ancient god is difficult to discern. He couldn’t tell if it heard him.
            The whispers were silent as it shifted and writhed in its awesome form.
            “You promised,” Austin said, “as you no doubt remember, you would give my life meaning. You promised you would give purpose to my suffering if only I would find you. You promised my life would mean something, that all my suffering would be a small price for the glory I would achieve. Those words were yours – I never forgot any of them. My entire life has been guided by that pact.
“So here I am, Great One…I humbly ask for that which was promised.”
            It slithered, it writhed.
            It has already been given.
            “It…how?”
            My glory has been witnessed by mortal eyes…no greater thing can a mortal aspire to than this.
            Austin felt cold to his very core, but somehow, his veins felt colder still when the words slithered through his brain. “I…Great One, I don’t understand…”
            It is not something anyone living can.
            It is incredible, Austin realized in his last moments, how quickly something so large can move so fast…whatever it was, it was only when it was a mere hundred yards or so away, when he was able to appreciate its size – like an aircraft carrier – that it was moving practically at the speed of sound. He realized the latter point when the crack of the air splitting, of the Dark Thing’s body shattering the Sound Barrier, reached his ears. It was the last thing he ever heard.

            Alone at the highest point of the mountain, a small statue sat in a cave. The statue was of nothing in particular, at least, nothing conceived of the human mind, exactly. There was no evidence that man had ever set foot in it, despite the beautiful, intricate carvings on the walls…no evidence but the small red-brown droplets staining its porous surface. The droplets disappeared as though sucked in by the thirsty stone of the statue. The air of the chamber was thin, and dry.