Speedrunning a video game is something you can only do if you really know your shit. You have to not only be familiar with the basics of the game, you have to know when to fight, when to dodge, and which mobs you can ignore altogether.
Hardcore boss that requires twenty minutes of button-bashing and perfect timing on your backward roll and flip to beat? Jump over this wall, shimmy across a ledge not even the game designers knew was there, and save yourself the frustration of having to press the same button-combination fifteen times in a row.
You might think, what’s the point of rushing through a lavishly-designed level without engaging with all the content available? The answer is very simple—because someone decided you should do things in a certain order, and fuck them.
I slid into the water feet first and gave no thought to clawing my way back to the surface. I crossed my arm, pointed my toes down and took a deep breath as the green-grey sheet swallowed me, and let momentum do all the work.
When my descent into the depths slowed, I cleared my mind and reached out to contact Wyndam. No time for gentle probing or polite requests. My thoughts were clear and precise.
Wyndam? Wyndam Song-Master? I come bearing the great songs of my people to share with you. Gifts of music never heard outside my realm.
In my mind I began singing.
Having been here before, and suspecting I’d be here again, I had actually put some thought into what I would sing this time around. What I’d decided on were the musical stylings of Francis Albert Sinatra.
You might not peg me for a Frankie fan, but thanks to YouTube and an addiction to illegally downloading music (he’s dead, I’m not depriving him of one penny from him), I am more familiar with The Chairman of the Board than people three times my age.
Not the young, stick-like crooner with the pure crystal pipes, I love the old man in a toupe who more often than not had an uncooperative nightclub manager in the trunk of his Cadillac, and sang like a New Jersey longshoreman. Start spreading da nooz...
My own personal favourite of his was ‘Strangers in the Night’ which I belted out, if that’s possible during a mental rendition. I got to the doobie doobie doo part and felt the contact in my mind from an eager new fan.
Wyndam was only too happy to agree to my terms, which was no surprise. This was the easy part I’d solved on my first attempt. I kicked for the surface before I ran out of air. It was only when I broke the surface that I realised how close to passing out I was. My head spun and nausea overwhelmed me as I inhaled oxygen and exhaled puke.
The others were splashing about, calling out my name like perhaps I’d mistakenly taken a left at Albuquerque. I was too busy gasping for breath to answer, but my sudden barking like a vomiting seal achieved the same results. They swam towards me, all firing questions at the same time.
“Calm down,” I managed to shout over the top of them. “We’re about to have company, don’t freak out. He’s friendly.”
They clammed up, confused and paddling away from the barf-slick floating towards them. All as expected. What I hadn’t expected was Wyndam’s entourage.
The familiar carapace appeared under us and lifted us out of the water. I started to explain what was happening and what would be required of us in return, but was interrupted when more bodies surfaced around us.
You brought friends… I thought, hoping that’s what they were.
They heard your song and came. How could they not? he replied.
I had attracted rather more attention than intended. My new fan club came in all shapes and sizes. Some were ever larger than Wyndam. Tentacles rose and fell, water spouted and there were wailing calls back and forth.
Whatever Wyndam has offered you, I will double it, said a new voice.
All the kelp you can eat, offered another.
A barrage of counter offers assaulted my mind, along with a sense of rising tension. The last thing I needed was for them to start fighting among themselves. Not only would it waste a lot of time, it would probably also get us all killed, and returning to Yuqi for another game of ‘Operation’ was not high on my to-do list.
“Where’s all those voices cummin’ from?” said Flossie looking around.
I indicated for my party to wait with a raised hand They nervously looked at the churning waters around us but kept their panic in check, for the time being.
Wyndam, can you choose the five fastest of your friends? That’s all we can manage right now.
Wyndam managed to broker a deal between the sea monsters, resulting in the majority sinking back to the watery deep in, thankfully, non-violent disappointment.
“We’re going to have to split up,” I said.
The five of them, bedraggled and clinging to each other for warmth, stared at me. Nobody moved.
“Look, I’ll explain what’s going on when we get to dry land. Which will happen a lot quicker if you do what I tell you.”
“You haven’t actually told us anything yet,” said Jenny, shivering.
She was right. Knowing everything made it hard to remember what other people needed to know and when. Giving them a full rundown in one go would overwhelm them. Too little would be even worse.
I quickly explained how the psychic connection worked and the deal I’d made with Wyndam and apparently with his coterie. We teach them songs, they give us a ride. This, at least, was easy for everyone to grasp.
“I wasn’t expecting so many of them, though. We don’t want to cause any problems so if we each take one and sing a few songs they should be happy.”
The idea of splitting us up caused some nervousness, but not as much as having to sing in public.
“I, ah, don’t really have a singing voice, so to say,” mumbled Dudley.
I turned to him, his red face slightly more red than usual. The last time I’d seen him, his head had been ripped off his shoulders and his blood had splattered roof and walls.
“What is it?” said Jenny. She was staring at me, x-ray vision on max.
“Nothing. Just remembering something.” There’d be time enough later to explain. Right now my speedrun record was floundering at the first hurdle.
“Don’t worry about singing well. Nursery rhymes, ‘Daisy Daisy’, ‘Frere Jacques’… anything with a simple melody, the simpler the better.” I turned to Flossie. “Absolutely no Celine Dion. Ever.”
Flossie looked startled. “How did you…?”
“Just trust me. This is going to be easy, no danger, nothing to worry about.”
I spoke with great confidence, completely believing what I was saying, like all the best liars. It worked. They swam out towards each of the other leviathans in the water and clambered onto their backs.
Okay, I said to Wyndam. Let’s go. I broke out my rendition of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, Sinatra style.
Fly me to that moon, let me play among those stars...
The trip was far from smooth—the spray produced by the thrashing tentacles made for a constant deluge from all sides—but no one got washed overboard and land soon appeared on the horizon.
The thing with a time loop is that things won’t necessarily stay constant. My advantage was in knowing what would happen before it happened, and if I changed too many things, I would end up in a whole new series of events. The information I had accumulated so far about who was pulling which strings was still useful and gave me a better idea of how to proceed, but being able to be in the right place at the right time, like David had been to catch an assassin on the end of his sword, was not an easy thing to pull off. Probably why he had to fake it.
Whether it was one air molecule shifted by a butterfly’s wing that led to a chain reaction, or if a more drastic change was required to shove reality out of its inertia, I wasn’t sure.
Under other circumstances, trial and error would reveal all. Time would tell. But having Yuqi as gatekeeper made me reluctant to go through the looping process any more than I had to. I didn’t know how many trips back she took before she was finally captured and contained, but I would guess it was more than a few.
Those movies where someone gets caught in a loop and uses that time to become a virtuoso pianist or familiar with every person’s daily routine make it look like fun with fast-cut montages and bubbly music. But what they’re condensing is thousands of loops. Decades, even centuries. Bill Murray didn’t become a well-adjusted and happy person at the end of Groundhog Day, he went insane. They should have ended the movie showing him in a mental ward with a dribbling grin on his face and an Indian throwing a chiffarobe out of a window in the background (I may be confusing my Great American Novels).
Yuqi was crazy, and if I used time as my personal correction fluid, I’d end up the same way. I had to believe the masters were already aware of my presence and no doubt they had a cot next to Yuqi for me.
We reached shore without incident. When we reached the beach and waved goodbye to the swinging sea monsters, everyone nattered excitedly over their song choices. I lay down on the sand and felt exhausted. There was so much to do and so many ways to do it. Speedrunning wasn’t just about going hell for leather, it was about being efficient. Taking time to get your ducks in a row when you had the chance so you could knock them down with ease when you needed to.
I felt a warm weight on my stomach and opened my eyes to find Jenny sitting on me.
“Are you going to tell us what’s going on now?” There was no demand in her voice, no insistence. She would accept whatever I said.
I sat up and put my arms around her and buried my face in her chest. As sexual as that might sound, it wasn’t at all. Contact with her skin was comforting. It was safety. It was fake safety, but it still felt the same as the real thing. I assume.
The others had stopped arguing over which were the best tunes to teach a kraken—now available on my new album, Songs for Swinging Blubbers—and sat down around us.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s start with time travel…”
I told them about my ability to loop back in time to the moment we arrived. I went over what had happened each time and who the main players were. The lack of death, the cruelty of the masters, the origin of the Jester. It was more detailed than a ‘Previously on…’ recap, but not as thorough as an ‘I just watched this show I love and now I’m going to gush about it for twenty minutes’ video on YouTube.
There were, of course, constant interruptions.
“What do you mean? I can’t read minds.”
“Not yet,” I said to Claire, “but you will. I’ll show you how.”
She shared a wide-eyed looked with Maurice who didn’t seem upset this time.
“You okay?” I asked him, preferring to deal with any issues now rather than later.
“Yeah.” He sounded absolutely delighted. “She’s like Professor X, but with beautiful hair.”
Things were already changing. Hopefully that wouldn’t have a domino effect.
Claire’s face went all goofy and gormless as they stared into each other’s eyes. It didn’t matter how many butterflies flapped their wings, these two would be massive dorks in every timeline.
When I got to the part where everyone died the mood turned more sombre. For about three seconds.
“Yo’ died saving me,” said Flossie.
Dudley blushed. “Ah, you know, it’s what anyone would have done.”
Flossie sighed and rested her head on his chest. Dudley sat there, beaming. I felt like putting up a sign:
Welcome to Dweeb Beach.
Beware of Unexploded Buffoons.
Was this what I looked like, too? I shoved the girl sitting on my stomach off me.
“You don’t understand. This isn’t romantic. It’s a cautionary tale. We fucked up and next time we might not be so lucky.”
“But we can’t die,” said Flossie. “Yo’ said so.”
“You’re not listening. The weretic pulled off Dudley’s head with the spine still attached—” okay, that didn’t happen, but I was trying to paint a picture “—and ate it. He ate his head. You can’t regrow limbs.”
“A head isn’t a limb,” said Maurice.
“You can’t regrow heads either. What is wrong with you people? Stop being so relaxed. Horrible things are going to happen to you.”
“But you can go back and fix things,” said Claire, which was technically true.
“No. I can’t.” I could, but admitting it would only encourage their poor attitude. “If Yuqi gets hold of me again, or if the masters find me and put a stop to my jumping around, you’ll all be dead for good. We have to get things right this time. No do-overs.”
“Yeah, but you’d find a way to get us back, right?” said Maurice, pushing his glasses up his nose. How the fuck had he held onto them when falling into the ocean?
“You don’t want to rely on me,” I said with great passion. “If I’m your best hope, you’re all fucked.” I felt I’d made a compelling argument. It fell on deaf ears.
“We can only do our best,” said Claire. “And we will. I just need ten minutes to… prepare myself.” She stood up and held out her hand.
Maurice looked at it for a second, and then jumped up and grabbed it. They walked off towards a dune.
“Oh, ah. Us too.” Flossie practically dragged Dudley off in the opposite direction.
“This is no time to go off for a shag!” I yelled after them. I fell onto my back. What kind of speedrun was this?
“It kind of is,” said Jenny, climbing back onto me. “We might all be killed and have our heads eaten.”
“None of you are taking this seriously,” I complained, the one proper raider surrounded by five Leeroy Jenkins.
“So, this Yuqi,” said Jenny, her voice all slippery, “she’s a girl, is she? And she’s waiting for you to wake her up like Sleeping Beauty? With a kiss?”
“Something like that,” I said. “Why? Is that a problem?”
“No, no. And she thinks you’re her man, now?”
“Not her man. More like her agent. Her operative.”
“But she thinks she owns you.”
It was warm on the beach. The breeze off the sea was moist and humid. But there was a chill in the air.
“Nobody owns me, Jenny,” I said.
She wasn’t listening to me. She sat there, straddling me like a horse, eyes staring into the middle distance. “I’d like to meet this girl. I’d like to meet her very much.”
She looked down at me like she’d just remembered I was there, and she smiled.
I shivered. Definitely a chill in the air.