The mountain loomed over the desert like the gnomon of a sundial, solitary and steep. Gray Matter Rock jutted upward from a graveyard of crushed stones, like the arm of the unquiet dead. The Sea of Sands lay in every direction, an endless desert reaching out to meet the thousand mile shadow of the mountain.
Gray Matter Rock’s sky-facing inhabitants, the UpTop people, scampered about its face in a routine as old as the Rock itself. They brought up ores from the Twilight Kingdoms inside the mountain. They shopped at their cozy shops, exchanging goods and swapping stories, living quiet comfortable lives. The UpTop kingdom was the sort of secluded place that had no memory of a beginning and which could not conceive of an ending.
For the first time, change had come to the mountain.
Horns whose first notes were filled with spider-webs and dust and rubbish and which had been all but forgotten before being blown.
Troops which could parade and flourish and perform, but had never once fought.
The Great Lenses of UpTop pivoted toward a single point on the horizon. Generals shoved and shouted each other out of the way trying to make sense of the image.
A short man approached on a mule from across the Sea of Sand, a silver pick-axe slung over his shoulder. He wore a battered metal hat with a shining magnesium light fixed to his brow.
The people of UpTop whispered.
The people of UpTop trembled.
The Rock was obdurate.
The Rock had never fallen.
From deep, deep below came a rumbling upon the mountain.
Martie darted across the neatly-cut grasses of his lawn with wide steps on the brink of a run. His bare feet left no tracks. Only his frantic gasps left any sign of someone having passed. A trail of mist stretched behind him as though from an invisible cigarette.
A maddening thought looped through Martie’s head: If a man could be swallowed up by the Earth and not a soul would notice, then perhaps that man deserved to be swallowed.
It had come to that, finally.
There might be a way out. One way. But there wasn’t much time. The guard could be back any moment and there was still fifty yards of open space to clear.
And the Need.
The Need drove him forward.
The Need above all.
It surprised Martie, when he was sober enough to have a sense of perspective, that he had ever managed to get a house big enough that walking across the yard was a significant chore. Most junkies never had mansions, but then most junkies weren’t millionaires.
Through the headache of impending withdrawal, Martie struggled to remind himself that none of it was his anymore.
Six months ago all of his assets had been seized and he’d been kicked out on the street for breach of contract. He’d violated a clause on a fifteen-year-old piece of paper that he’d never even bothered to read and would have been too high to understand if he had.
The bank had hired a security guard to keep the house safe until they were allowed to sell it. Once that happened, Martie’s entire empire would be well and truly erased. He might as well have never been born.
He had to remember the guard!
There wasn’t much time.
The house was a distant point of light now, hidden behind trees.
The shed lay ahead.
A door slammed, far away, open and shut.
And the Need.
With a leap, Martie reached the shed and entered. The door latched shut behind him with a click, cutting off his view of a moonless night sky. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a trembling hand.
“You’ve got this,” he said.
A rake smiled at him with steel-sharp teeth. A feminine spade laughed at Martie with its friend, a busty cocktease of a garden hoe. With a single sweep of his arm, Martie knocked all of them to the ground.
“It doesn’t matter what you think!”
Would the guard have heard him say that?
For no particular reason, he laughed before bursting into tears.
“Gotta do it. Got to. Game over. No other way.”
Stepping over the corpses of various lawn tools, Martie reached out and grabbed a length of rope. Thank God the bank hadn’t cleared this stuff out, or who knew where he’d have stolen a rope. Fibers bit his hands, but he hardly felt it. He hardly felt anything these days unless he could inject it into his arm.
Clumsy fingers tied a loop.
Then another. And another. And one last one.
“I’ll show ‘em.”
Martie stomped on the spade-head shovel when its dead face wanted to know just who exactly he thought he was talking to. A stern and steady work stool screeched in protest when he pulled it into position.
By some miracle, Martie managed to stand on the stool and touch the shed ceiling. His whole body shook, and it felt like he’d fall and break his neck any minute. At last, his fingers found the remote he’d hidden in the rafters.
His hands shook with the Need.
He was going to do it this time. Not like the million billion fantasies he’d had of doing it. Not like the hundreds of times he’d come into this shed and turned back around. This time he was really, truly, finally, actually going to do it.
Martie closed his eyes and pressed a button on the remote. A small compartment in the ceiling opened up. A winch slid into view just above his hands.
Before he had time to think himself out of it, before he had time to contemplate the stupid danger, or ponder all the easier paths, Martie threaded the rope through the winch-hole.
He got off the stool and dragged a large metal basket into the center of the shed. He secured the rope to the four corners of the basket.
The assembly looked not unlike a swing. Maybe something you’d build for a kid. Or maybe a noose that had hung a basket by mistake. Martie climbed into the contraption and curled up like a baby.
He had only done this once before. Just to test it and make sure the winch was operational. But that had just been a test. For the first time in a long time, Martie felt an actual feeling. A feeling of being real.
It was terrifying.
Martie pressed another button.
Hydraulic coils, hidden in the floor of the shed, began to hum. A muted screech sounded and then the floor began to open.
Martie made sure to stare at the ceiling, because the way the floor opened looked too much like a mouth preparing to swallow him alive.
Then the basket descended into the Pit hidden under the shed.
Observing the ever-lengthening walls of the Pit, Martie had the sensation of sliding down a throat. He became suddenly aware of the cold and shivered. The Pit would be warm though. Hell was always warm and Martie himself had designed this hell.
Fingers touched the basket, tugged at the rope, brushed the metal cord that ran up to the motors in the ceiling. Fingers that trembled in awe of their own genius. Whoever had dug this Pit couldn’t have been Martie. Or at least not the part of Martie that had been in control for the last fifteen years.
Perhaps this Pit had been built by another part of him. The part of him that had been trying to dig up to the surface through the haze of his drug abuse, the reckless indulgence of his guilt, and sheer annoyance with his self-hating brand of narcissism. Perhaps this Pit had been made by the part of him that knew the most fucked up thing that had ever happened to him was that he had learned to feel truly sorry for himself.
The basket spun as it descended.
“Look at me, Barbara! Look at me! I bet you’d never have guessed I could do this after the nightclub!”
He’d made it all so easy. So easy for himself. Because he’d always known he’d be too stupid high to do anything complicated when this moment came. All he’d had to do was push the button.
The basket slowed. Twenty feet. Twenty-five feet. Thirty feet. Forty Feet. The basket stopped with a lurch.
Martie had precisely two minutes to back out. Turning back would have been a more tempting idea if he’d had somewhere to go. And… he had to do something down here that would take longer than two minutes.
The Need had to be satisfied.
That’s what the Need was there for.
The homeless shelter had kicked him out. He’d spent the last two weeks sleeping in a dried up drain culvert until it had finally rained. Before that he’d lived in a van with other users. And besides, this Pit, this trap he’d built for himself was baited.
There was heroin under the bed and everything he needed to cook. He’d set it aside from better days, when he’d been making so much money that he couldn’t fuck up fast enough to go broke.
There was food down here too. Martie hadn’t eaten in days. His stomach growled.
He ran to the heroin first.
It had been almost ten hours since his last fix. Inhumanly long. The Need begged for satisfaction. The Silly Martie of Forever Ago had put the heroin inside of some kind of a time-release box that was tied to the floor. The Wise Martie of Now pressed a button. A clock with a timer of 5:00 flashed red. Then it said, 4:59 and 4:58 and 4:57.
So many stupid clocks. He felt faint and weak. Overwhelmed by numbers. Too many numbers.
A Big Clock at the top of the pit said, 1:45 and 1:44 and 1:43.
The red of the clock displays was the color of blood splattered across the lens of a flashlight.
While he waited, Martie crawled over to the bed and tore open a bag of beef jerky and gulped down a bottled water. His thirst seemed of paramount importance. Almost absentmindedly, he unhooked the rope from the winch so that the winch cord hung free like a dangling uvula.
The Big Clock said, 0:33.
That didn’t matter because the little clock said, 3:45
Martie saw a shelf full of books he’d forgotten about. He used to read, once. He hadn’t done so in years. Once Martie might have considered someone saying such a thing about reading to be like announcing their eye color had naturally changed but it didn’t feel that way anymore.
There was a computer down here too. It seemed almost ancient, an artifact of another civilization. And then there was a hot plate and shelf upon shelf of food… and a toilet. Like an adult version of the forts he’d built as a child.
The Big Clock said, 0:00.
The winch cord ascended.
Martie didn’t notice. The little clock still said, 3:12.
He couldn’t have made this place.
Not a washed-up junkie game-maker.
Martie hadn’t made this place.
It was the other part of him that had built this. The part of him that had dug up as he dug down. The part of him that had struggled to get to the surface as he buried himself. He could feel it there in the back of his head. A tingling, almost. He imagined a little miner with a magnesium flare hat and a silver pick-axe, chipping away at the dark in his brain.
The floor, now the ceiling, closed above Martie. Two lights came on. A clock on the wall lit up. It said:
Then it said:
The Little Miner in his head smiled now. The Little Miner sensed daylight. The daylight was far-off but the Little Miner had been trapped in the darkness for years. And his silver pick was digging into the night, breaking it apart bit by bit.
The breaking of the dark hurt, because Martie was that darkness. His whole soul was hollow spaces and false faces and shadows.
More immediate concerns drew his attention.
The little clock said, 0:00 and popped open.
Martie took the heroin out from under the bed. Martie cooked the heroin. Martie filled the needle. Martie shot up.
Nobody was going to report Martie missing.
You have to have someone to miss you before you can go missing.
“No fucking way, dude. You made this shit?”
Before Martie could reply through the cloud of Pot smoke that Snake had blown in his face, the other boy’s spine arched as he suddenly jabbed at the keyboard.
“Fuck, these guys are all over me! Martie, what do I do?” Snake leaned back in the chair, his face half-turned away from the screen, as “the Fuzzies” began sticking to his avatar.
Martie smiled when he saw that Snake’s eyes were wild with panic. Snake’s whole acne-ridden face contorted in anguish. The joint was left on the computer table, forgotten.
“Drink the Fire Potion.”
Snake gave him a blank look.
“Press Ctrl + F,” Martie sighed.
“Oh yeah, thanks dude.”
Martie watched the computer screen as Snake’s character blazed orange, yellow and red. The dandelion bodies of “The Fuzzies” erupted into flames. They died screaming. Martie was absurdly proud of the screaming. He’d made the scream himself. It was actually a sound his cat made run through a couple of audio filters and it was eerie as hell.
He grabbed the joint off the computer table, while Snake was distracted.
Snake’s breath stank like weed and his teeth, even at seventeen, were already going gray. Martie took a cruelly deliberate drink from Snake’s beer and made sure to smack his lips while Snake thrashed impatiently. Then he took a hit from the joint. Snake’s health points were vanishing by the second. Finally, Snake struck Martie’s arm.
“Tell me what to do, asshole!”
“You’ve got to jump into some water before you burn alive.”
“Oh! That’s why that shit is all over the place?”
“Yeah, but you better hurry.”
Snake dived into a blue river, which had the added benefit to moving him past several dangerous obstacles and further toward the end of the level. His avatar emerged with a few black pixels but not much worse for wear. Water healed fire damage if you got to it quick enough. Already the Fuzzies were back on pursuit and there were some swinging blades farther ahead
Snake’s eyes remained glued to the screen.
“Who taught you how to make this stuff, bro? I ain’t never known someone who could make a fucking video game before.”
The real answer to the question was that loneliness had taught Martie. Loneliness and isolation and having a big hollow pit inside of himself that could never be filled. All those things had taught him as much as being left alone with a computer from an early age.
“Just learned it on the internet. And Mr. Lewis lets me use the computer lab at school sometimes-”
“The fuck did these swords come from!”
“It’s not as hard as you think it is, you’ve just got to put in the time to-”
Snake threw up his hands in disgust.
“How do I get by the swords, Martie?”
Martie took another drag.
He leaned back, feeling full and happy and confident, watching Snake grow desperate for the next clue. He’d always been able to hook people. That, as well as the making, was the true gift.
The secret, he’d once confided to Snake, was that you had to suck people in. It wasn’t just a game. It was seduction. It was his twisted way of loving the world.
He couldn’t seduce women. He couldn’t seduce friends. But he could seduce total strangers with games. People always liked the things Martie made more than they liked Martie.
“The swords will kill the Fuzzies too. You’ve just gotta time it right.”
“I could sell this, bro. Like, if you burned it on CD’s and shit.”
Martie paused. He’d never even thought of doing something like that before.
“Sure, why not?”