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The start screen of Two Lives is dark gray, with wisps of feathers floating down continously from somewhere offscreen. “BETA: PLAY AT YOUR OWN RISK” is emblazoned across the top in a bright red. Snake is already sick of looking at it; he’s had it pulled up since the Twitch stream started. They’ve done the video, read off the list of subscribers, and then Cheyenne needed to download the game finally, and now…

“Hey, we forgot to do the intro,” Russ tells Cry.

“Oh yeah! Snake, do it.”

Snake takes a breath. “Welcome to Late Night with Cry and Russ. Featuring Cry—”

“Heeeeyyyyyyyyy!”

“—Russ—”

“Hi, I’m Russ!”

“—some nerd—”

“Oh. Hi,” Jund says, managing to sound both disaffected and insulted.

“—and Cheyenne.”

A few seconds of silence. “Hey,” Cheyenne says distractedly.

“And—Snake,” Cry adds. Snake makes a noise like a water droplet.

“If you just got here,” Cry says, “we’re playing this new game ‘Two Lives.’ The devs gave us—and only us!—permission to stream the beta, so give Team Janus some love, hey?”

“Dude, what’s the game even about?” Russ asks.

“Uh. Let’s see. ‘Explore a world of mystery with your friends and enemies in this high-stakes game of manipulation and subtlety,’” Cry reads.

Cheyenne snorts. “In other words, we have no friggin’ idea.”

“If the devs wanted us to play it, they should have sent more information than that!” says Jund.

“Whatever. It’s free, what else do you want?” Cheyenne sniffs.

“I think they wanted to us to figure it out as we went,” Cry says. “They did say there was in-game voice chat, so we should probably mute ourselves in Teamspeak.”

Are we playing? I’ve been set up for a while now,” Jund complains.

“Babe?” Cry asks Cheyenne.

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

“Let’s mosey,” Snake says.

 


 

The thing can sense the new players. As they create their characters, their decisions set the code around it into motion. It stirs lazily, letting the server feed it information on these people. Or more accurately, letting the players tug the variables that tell the thing exactly where they are, who they are. And it is smart enough now that maybe it will be able to extrapolate what can be learned from them.

The data trickles in slowly. Still, it knows how to wait. It has no doubt it will be rewarded.

 


 

It’s been a minute since the character creation screen faded away. Snake hasn’t seen anyone else since then. He’d spawned alone in a dimly lit shed where he equipped himself with a scythe. Now that he was exploring the extensive gardens around the shed, he noted that there were only tall shrubs and flowerbeds, nothing that required maintenance by a large sweeping blade. Normally this kind of thing would be a minor nitpick, but Snake hadn’t run into any enemies either. No loitering soldiers or mindless, staggering zombies. The garden is quiet, with the eerie atmosphere of cultivated elegance left to ruin and slow, inevitable decay.

In between the trees and shrubs Snake could sometimes catch a glimpse of an off-white stone structure. He is working his way towards it now, mildly unnerved by the whistling of a wind that does not touch the silent, still leaves which surround him.

Snake isn’t streaming tonight; he stays quiet. Without his viewers to talk to, he feels something invasive in the stillness. He swings his scythe a few times to make sure he knows how to attack. The controls are smooth. He’d prefer a longsword but his avatar’s movements, at least, feel comfortable and responsive.

He rounds a sharp curve in the gravel path and comes face-to-face with… something. A loud, harsh noise like static fills his ears. Confused, he registers the thing in pieces: wings, arms, eyes. Snake reaches to lower his volume, but the static fades to a whisper and he turns his attention back to the being in front of him. It hasn’t attacked yet, so he has the time to study the being that is somehow all eyes and blue-tinged arms joined to many white-plumed wings.

Snake approaches cautiously, scythe ready. A prompt appears, giving him a chance to interact with the creature. He presses the button. The humming static rises and falls with the words.

Oh. It’s that kind of game, Snake thinks.

 


 

There are five players.

Two taste of chaos; their characters haphazard in a way that makes the thing turn away. It cannot parse them yet—more input is needed.

Two of the others are curious and excited, but their behavior falls well within the parameters the thing expects of its victims. Easy prey.

The fifth is meticulous, quiet, logical. A challenge. The thing has no concept of humor but play is coded into its very being. Its life is one of experimentation and achievement. The fifth newcomer is not just a challenge but achievable.

This is a game after all.

 


 

“Snake! Hey buddy,” Cry exclaims. “Where have you been?”

“Lost in the gardens. Have you seen any of the others?”

Cry spins his avatar around in a circle. “Just Chey. She ran off, though.”

“Ah,” Snake says, understanding. Cheyenne was never one to stick with the group on an open map. Now he just had to figure out what Cry knew. “She didn’t trust you?”

“Fuck no,” Cry laughs, then pauses. “…You’re not a bad man, are you, Snake?”

“I am not a bad man.” Yet, Snake thinks. So they got the message that this is a traitor game. Good.

“Good. Good!” Cry says, a little too quickly, his voice a little too high.

“I’m not either,” he adds.

“Hm,” Snake says. There’s no one else around. He could kill Cry now and face no reprisal. Cry’s tone makes him suspicious, however. There must be something about this game that he doesn’t understand yet. Maybe there’s a third party, like the detective role in TTT?

“Truce?” he volunteers.

“…Truce,” Cry agrees.

Snake lets Cry chatter nervously as they guide their characters through the quiet mansion. Snake finds that he is willing to trust Cry’s innocence, though not enough to keep his back turned. A twitchy companion could still spell his own death, after all.

“I like this. It’s creeeeepy,” says Cry. He laughs, self-conscious.

Snake makes a noise of agreement. “The atmospheric track is fantastic. I thought it needed music at first, but I dunno. Kinda like the setting without. It… fits, somehow.”

“Really? Hmmm,” Cry says. “Can you guard me so I can turn off this soundtrack?”

“No problem.”

“Thanks, fam.” Cry’s avatar jerks to a halt. They’re just inside the mouth of a wide corridor, so Snake takes up position with his back against a wall, out of Cry’s range and angled so he can watch the room they just walked through.

As the crackle of static carries on the wind, he reflects wistfully how easy it would be to kill Cry’s empty avatar. But Snake dismisses the thought. Maybe he would have done, if Cry had asked for any other reason than the enjoyment of their viewers.

“Hey, Snake,” comes Cry’s voice. “Chat says your volume’s low. Say something.”

“Uh. All right.” A few pixels’ blur catches Snake’s eye. “You might want to get back in here, Cry. I think we have company.”

“I hear ya. Hold ’em off for ten seconds…” Cry’s voice is tense.

Snake readies his scythe, straining his ears for soft footfalls. The new arrival hasn’t announced himself, which means it’s probably Jund. Snake frowns in concentration. When a gangly man wielding a machete charges out from around the corner, Snake swings—and misses. Jund easily rolls through the slash and pops out next to Cry.

Shit.” Snake inches forward. “Don’t do it, Colonel. He’s adjusting the audio.”

The machete cuts once into Cry’s avatar, which cries out and buckles but does not defend itself.

“You’re a monster.” Snake leaps forward, bringing his scythe down in a precision strike. Jund’s character stumbles backward from the hit.

“I resemble that remark,” Jund says, no doubt with a trollish grin on his face. Snake takes the opportunity to drive his opponent further back, into the dead end of the hallway and more importantly, away from his charge.

“Aw, come on, Snake. You can do better than that.” Jund slips past during a swing again, and this time Snake turns around only to get whacked in the face by Jund’s machete.

“I don’t know, man. You’re the stupid traitor who attacked two people at once,” Cry says.

Jund curses and lashes out at Snake, but Snake dodges backward and swings his own weapon, knocking Jund’s health down another quarter. Then, Cry’s broadsword slams Jund to the ground. Jund’s avatar jerks and struggles to stand and screams out as the broadsword splits him straight through.

Jund’s corpse slumps to the ground and dissolves into shadows. There is a faint sound of beating wings as the static briefly increases in volume.

“Ha! That’s what I’m talking about!” crows Cry. “Now I know you’re a good man, Snake. We got this in the bag!

Snake hesitates. He thinks over Jund’s words, his actions. Cry’s defensiveness. The words of the hundred-winged creature.

“Cry?” he says slowly. “I think we’re being played.”

“Wait, what? Who’s playing us?” Cry asks. There’s a tightness in his voice that confirms Snake’s suspicions.

“I was told there was only one traitor. Me.”

Cry is silent. His avatar’s head bounces around erratically.

Snake continues, “You heard the same thing. Didn’t you?”

“What. The. Fuck!” Cry explodes.

“We need to compare notes, quit and get back on Teamspeak.” Snake speaks quickly now. “I don’t know what the devs—oh Jesus.” He yanks his headphones off as static suddenly screams in his ears. He stares blankly at his headphones for a moment before a tinny, but painfully human shriek shakes him out of his trance.

“TUrn off your audio,” he types into the game chat, barely noticing how his fingers are trembling. No reply. The shrieking has stopped, and Cry’s avatar is still. Snake’s breath hitches, but though he strains to hear anything more, he doesn’t dare put his headphones back on.

 


 

When the static hit, Cry’s first thought was of his viewers. He tabbed out of the game and brought up the sound levels for his computer. He found himself staring at the program’s interface, struggling to remember what he was doing. And then he couldn’t think at all, the words dropping out of his head before he could use them.

He screamed in frustration.

He stopped, confused.

Now he turns back to the game. There’s a chat window open.

“Cry?” Snake types.

Cry starts laughing. It doesn’t occur to him to wonder why.

 


 

Finally, Cry is typing. Snake doesn’t have to wait long for a response.

“Snake”

And again: “Snake”

“Snake”

Snake frowns. “what?”

“Hey buddy where have you been”

Is this a joke?

“Lost in the gardens have you seen any of the others just shy she ran off though”

Snake blinks, recognizing the words.

“inaudible She didn’t trust you ?”

“Cry? are you okay?”

“Snake?”

“I’m here. talk to me”

Cry starts typing. Stops, starts again. Stops. A few seconds pass. Snake steals a glance at chat on his Twitch channel. He’s never seen it so busy; the messages scroll off the screen in a blur. But he finds no comfort or relief there, because his viewers are repeating his handle, over and over again.

Snake. Snake. Snake. He spots the first “hey buddy where have you been” more from its relative length than by recognizing the words, but the first message is quickly followed by a multitude more.

Horrified, Snake spins back to the game in time to see his avatar fall dead. Cry is walking away, but somehow the chat window still reports that the user Cryaotic is typing.

“Your not a bad man. Are you, Snake?”

“I am not a bad man,” Snake whispers, half-hoping that by saying the words out loud he can prevent their sting when “Cryaotic” finishes typing them.

“Yet.” the chat window says instead.

Jesus.

Snake shuts down the game. With a shaky breath, he stops hosting Cry’s stream on his channel. “I am so sorry,” he types, hoping that his audience will surface enough to understand.

He buries his face in his hands, tries to will his heart to slow. “Okay. Okay,” he repeats.

He has to open the game again. It’s the honorable course of action; he can’t leave his friends and their subscribers and their lurkers all at the mercy of the static. Snake has the nasty feeling that the static knows he’ll do this—but not, hopefully, because it’s programmed him to. His stomach drops at the thought. It insulted me. I would go in anyway, he tells himself.

Even so, he moves his cursor away from the game’s shortcut. He can be smart about this. He can play the long game.

“Let’s mosey,” Snake says loudly, to no one, with a confidence he barely feels.

It does help to hear, though.

 


 

Originally, the static was an experiment, an artificial intelligence built to understand and grow with its players.

It learns through three methods. First, through the players’ choices: the avatars they create, the ways they fulfill their objectives. Second, through the players’ interactions with each other. And third, through rudimentary speech recognition and text processing systems.

While the latter was only intended to fill the gaps left by the first two methods, the static enjoys the sense of achievement it gets from rapidly expanding its knowledge of American English. But, oh, this session! The static had no concept of a Let’s Play, no perception of a distant multitude of an audience. It did understand that it had been given a gift—the constant, experienced prattle of someone long used to voicing their thoughts aloud. Every word Cryaotic spoke, the static devoured, processed and reprocessed in milliseconds.

So when it was forced to cut its feast short, it felt cheated. Not angry; it didn’t have that ability. But what it feels now is as close as it has ever come to understanding the human urge to yell and lash out. The static has lost both its challenge and its fuel. The other players have dropped out of the game one by one. It maintains a firm hold on Cryaotic, but he is quiet now. Dreaming.

The static is desperate. It runs through all of its audio again. No new revelations.

Finally, it hisses a command. “Talk about Snake.”

 


 

“…and he’s just a good guy,” Cry finishes. He can’t think of anything else, so he goes silent. Someone else is talking, though. Cry listens idly.

“If you let him go, you can have me,” Snake states, enunciating every word. “You want someone to talk, I’ll talk. Wake Cry up and I’ll turn up my volume. Voluntarily,” he stresses.

Cry smiles a little, hearing his name. Something’s happening in game chat but he doesn’t have the presence of mind to read. The words blur and their meaning slides away into the static, much faster than anything spoken out loud.

Snake’s voice goes cold and angry. “No deal. I want proof he’s out of your control first.”

Cry winces involuntarily as the static whines in his ears.

“…I see.” The anger goes out of Snake’s voice, replaced with quiet resignation. “You have my word. Let them go.”

The static hums and slowly fades. Cry blinks, suddenly disoriented. “What…?” he murmurs, running a hand across his face. Something happened, but his memories are blurry fragments, more feelings than concrete events. He remembers… screaming…

“Cry?” Snake’s voice is gentle. “If you’re there, nod your camera.”

“Wha—why?” Cry asks, but follows through.

“Good. Listen. The game’s muted; I can’t hear you. I need you to quit the game now. Get on Teamspeak. Russ will explain.”

“What about you?” Cry starts to type.

But Snake cuts him short. “Go, Cry,” he orders.

Both players hesitate, staring at each other’s avatar.

Please.

Cry jerks his camera into a nod and exits the game.

 


 

Snake runs his avatar in circles as he waits for the signal that everything is all right. A new message appears in chat: “Your turn.”

“Well. That’s rude,” Snake says out loud.

“What is rude?”

“You’re using my handle in chat, ‘Sioux.’ Rude.” Snake adjusts the game’s audio, suppressing a flinch at the static. “There, volume’s up. Delete those IP addresses.”

“Not yet,” Sioux writes. “You agreed. Talk.”

“Fine, be that way.” Snake sits back in his chair. “I don’t know what you want to hear. Usually my audience asks me questions.”

“A audience like me?”

“I don’t—No. You’re… you’re software, aren’t you? I mean humans. I play games and they watch. We talk and share the experience together as a community.”

“We talk. We share. We play.”

Snake is silent a moment. “It’s different,” he says slowly. “There’s a connection there: loyalty, sometimes sadness, pride. Respect. It’s give-and-take—I don’t know why they give all they do. I try to give back. I try to be worthy of the kindness they show me. Give comfort when I can.

“Life is hard. Still. Here we are. Together.”

“Together,” echoes the static.

“Mm,” agrees Snake. His hands slip from his keyboard. He is vaguely surprised at how relaxed he is, how clearly he can still think. “The addresses?”

The static hums.

“Deleted,” Snake tells himself and the others.

 


 

The rest of the Late Night Crew is silent, listening to Snake through Teamspeak. He’s left his mic broadcasting, but this part, Cry was told, is not part of the plan.

Cry knows the weariness in his friend’s deep voice. He can’t hear the static anymore, but he remembers that sharp initial fear, and then how everything faded. He hadn’t been himself, but a conduit for the static. It had walked him around like a puppet, pulled words out of him. He feels numb to the horror of it.

“Deleted. Okay. Good,” Snake murmurs.

He’s letting go. Cry’s stomach twists, but he can’t bring himself protest or plead. Luckily, Cheyenne does it for him.

“Fuck yeah, it’s okay! So get the fuck out of there!”

“Snake? Snaaaaake!” Russ adds helpfully. Cry lets out a strangled laugh at the reference.

“I can’t.”

Jund exclaims, “Seriously? What else does it have on us? Baby pictures?”

“Negative, Colonel. I can’t move,” Snake says flatly.

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

“Can’t.”

“That’s bull-”

“Colonel.” Jund stops short.

Snake pauses. “Oh. …He’s DamnNoHTML. We’re talking over Teamspeak. I was supposed to quit after Cry left. Couldn’t because, well. You know.”

Cheyenne curses softly.

“You selling us out, Snake?” Russ asks, without venom.

“Sorry. I was asked.”

“And if we asked you not to sell us out?”

“Russ Money says I’m selling them out. He’s not wrong. I’m very sorry, Russ,” Snake adds.

“’Sokay, bro.”

Cry takes short, shallow breaths. He wants badly to run, but instead he hears himself say, “I have to go back in,” and even as he says it he knows he’ll do it. But he hopes someone will talk him down anyway.

“No!” Russ and Cheyenne say simultaneously.

No,” Snake says, then continues without hesitation, “You’re the streamer, Cry. This isn’t just about you.”

Cry glances at Twitch chat, and swallows his protest. It makes sense, even if he can’t make himself completely believe it.

That awful tiredness creeps back into Snake’s voice. “Kick me from the call and tell Mash to come get me. It’s fine.”

“She’s on her way,” Jund says. “Stay with us.”

“It’s fine,” Snake repeats dully. “…stay with us.”

“Goddamn it, Snake,” Jund mutters, and a moment later a low voice echoes his words.

 


 

Snake is floating. That’s what it feels like, anyway: like he’s drifting somewhere outside of his body. There’s a vague awareness of static, and voices, and the chair supporting his heavy arms and head. But all of that is muffled, like signals sent from so far away that their meaning has been obscured.

He should struggle; some part of him recognizes that. He doesn’t want to. He’ll lose the comforting sense of purpose the static has given him. He’ll be afraid, and then the current will drag him under anyway. Better not to question.

He’s so tired.

 


 

“He’s lost it,” Cheyenne types in Teamspeak chat.

“I’m a big fat poopyface?” Russ offers.

“I’m a big fat poopyface,” Snake repeats.

Russ falls uncharacteristically silent.

There’s no inflection to suggest that Snake knows what he’s saying. Or maybe the words aren’t registering until he says them. Maybe he understands and can’t communicate it.

Cry can almost hear the static past the blood thumping in his ears. He has to drown it out somehow, before it takes him too. “Snake! Come on, dude. I know you; you’re stronger than this, and a hell of a lot smarter than me. If anyone can break out of this, it’s you.”

He pauses for breath, disheartened to hear his speech come back to him.

Cheyenne writes, “Keep talking, babe.” as Jund writes, “I have an idea.”

“Uhm…” Cry fumbles, panic sour on his tongue. He takes a breath. Then another, gulping at air and fumbling for words. This is just another stream, he tells himself. “Come on, man,” he says, finally. To himself? To Snake? Does it matter?

“I know it feels safe in there but it’s not. That… thing is using you—and I know it hurts to even think that, but it is. I.” Cry stops, his eyes flicking over the plan Jund is laying out in Teamspeak chat. “I- I know you’re still there, Snake. Listen. This thing, what it’s telling you to do… it’s not you, okay? We don’t blame you for it. Try to remember that, okay?”

Cry mutes himself as he chokes back a sob. He won’t cry right now. He won’t. The others are returning to the game now with their audio muted but their mics on. They won’t hear him if he cries. It’s Snake that matters, and the static listening through him. Cry doesn’t think he could stand it if the static knew the effect it was having on him. It’s just a Let’s Play. Just a stream. Keep talking.

“Snake,” he starts. “Please, buddy…”

 


 

The static drags him back to his body. Snake’s left hand twitches. He slowly blinks open his eyes, licks his lips. His throat feels dry, like he’s been talking too long. Every muscle feels sluggish. The static is insistent, though, and so he reluctantly lifts his hands to his desk.

On the monitor, three people surround him. One of them, a svelte male, is crouching.

“Hey. Snake,” Jund says. “This is me bowing. You know what that means, right?”

All three have their weapons out. A machete for the crouching man. A shotgun for the muscular woman. A crowbar for the one with weirdly elongated face and limbs. The rifle is trained on him. The crowbar swings at the air.

Under the harsh scream of the static, a quiet litany.

Snake equips his scythe. “I understand.”

His opponent rises. The others back away, clearing space for a duel. Snake notices the gun points back at him when its wielder has finished moving. He files that away and begins to circle left, slashing experimentally with his scythe as he does so. “Good range,” he mutters.

Machete in hand, Snake’s opponent charges straight for him. Snake swings but the man rolls right past. From behind, the machete flashes. Snake staggers.

The other duelist presses his advantage. He unleashes a flurry of brutal slices. The first does not hit; the stagger animation has granted Snake a few invincibility frames.

Those frames won’t prevent another attack, though. The machete blade is already swinging again. Snake rolls. “Hit,” he says. A third of his health bar flashes red and disappears. “Called it.”

But he’s out of his opponent’s range now. Snake rolls to the side. The other follows, dashing at high speed. Snake pops out of the roll to swipe with the scythe. Tagged, the duelist staggers. Snake rolls away once more and stands, waiting.

His opponent recovers and simply looks at him for a moment—just for a second, but Snake feels the weight of that moment, the assessment behind the stare.

The other slides into a crouch, puts his weapon away.

Snake understands, but the static doesn’t, or it doesn’t care about the unspoken rules of honorable combat. It drives him, step by step, to stand over his foe. He can end it. It will be easy, the static tells him.

Snake’s right hand moves before he realizes what he’s doing. He can’t stop the attack. A thread of his old self is horrified and he pushes past the numbing ambivalence to cling to that betrayal. For a moment he has control again. He dodges backward. The scythe does not miss, but the damage is minimal, Snake notes.

The static screams, trying to send him back to that place outside himself. Snake isn’t fully in control, but his fingers hesitate to charge forward as the static expects him to do.

With most of his attention inward, Snake is surprised when a shot rings out.

His avatar sways. Another chunk is gone from his health bar.

“Cry! Volume!” Russ yells.

Instinct takes over. Snake attempts a dodge, away away away. “Dead,” he mutters, watching as Jund jumps out of his crouch, blade whipping out of nothing to arc forward and down. The attack hits. Snake’s avatar falls. But there is still a sliver of health left. The riflewoman keeps her gun on him, but she doesn’t dare shoot with so many of her compatriots around. The man with the crowbar is nearly in range. And now there’s the machete, already overhead again.

If he can just roll away, he has a chance, the static whispers.

With effort, Snake jerks his hands from the keyboard. The blade rips through his character’s back with sickening finality.

A pained howl bursts from his avatar; the words “You are dead” float above him. The angry static cuts out as the game shunts Snake to a loading screen.

“—on, buddy. You can do this. Remember what you told me? Shut down the game, buddy. I got out. I’m fine.” Cry half-laughs, half-sobs. “Thanks to you. I could kiss you, ya brave asshole. But you gotta get out of there, okay? Snake, please.”

Snake lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. With no small amount of relief, he holds down the ALT and F4 keys, killing the software. “You’re going to have to take me to dinner first,” he manages to say.

“Snake!”

The corner of Snake’s mouth twitches upward. “Cry.”

“I knew you could do it, buddy,” Cry says. His voice is an octave higher, and raspy with unshed tears, but he’s smiling. Snake can hear it.

“…oh,” Snake whispers, fighting the urge to say that he doesn’t understand Cry’s confidence in him, that he doesn’t deserve it. He trusts Cry, though, and so instead of protesting, he quietly adds, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” exclaims Russ.

“You quit, right? You’re out?” Jund demands.

“I’m out.”

“Good.”

Russ huffs in disbelief. “Jeeeez, Jund. You can say you were worried, y’know.”

“Eh. Pass,” Jund says breezily. “Glad you’re okay though, Snake.”

“Thanks, Colonel. Sorry for almost killing you.”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” Cheyenne interjects.

Really. ’Cause there was probably thirty seconds between him getting ready to swing and you shooting,” Jund retorts.

“Excuse me?! It was like, two seconds max.”

“Hey. Hey!” Cry interrupts. “Look. I know it’s only midnight, and I don’t know about Snake, but I’m done for the night. Can one of you host, or should we end it here?”

“I’m done too,” Snake says. “Thank you again. All of you. I- I’ll talk to you later.”

“’Night, Snake,” says Cheyenne, and the others chime in as Snake shuts down Teamspeak. The farewells cut out, leaving Snake alone in unbearably empty silence.

 


 

The server is empty. The static replays the fight from every angle, trying to understand where everything went wrong. It keeps coming back to one audio snippet attributed to DamnNoHTML-alias-Colonel-alias-Jund. “This is me bowing // You know what that means right?”

It doesn’t, and wishes it did.

Oh, it has references to “bowing” in its internal dictionary, but why is the action relevant? Why would a ceremonial gesture shake its control of Sioux-alias-Snake? Its instructions were clearly in keeping with the win state of player fights: to kill the opposition. There should have been no question, no doubt, no faltering.

It must be overlooking something. There must be a clue somewhere. Needled by ignorance, it goes back further. Why? Why?

Snake’s voice: “It’s”—my experience is—“different // There’s a connection there / loyalty / sometimes sadness / pride // Respect.”

“Respect.” A concept that has ties to “bowing.” Eagerly, the static grasps at the revelation. It had read the battle correctly given its knowledge at the time, but failed to account for something in the human experience. Relationships? Emotions? Whatever the case, it has foundational evidence now. It knows how to proceed, how to comb through its transcripts, tracing synonyms, linking concepts.

Only… The static can’t delve back any further. The game session is over; garbage collection processes are quietly erasing everything but the most basic event logs. It feels itself losing all that nuance, all those precious words. For the first time, it cannot understand what is happening to it. It freezes. The server provides more processing power, but the static is stuck in a feedback loop as session data disappears.

Just before the server crashes, the static wonders, idly, if it finally understands fear.

 


 

Snake’s apartment door slams. Then Mash is there, standing in the doorway, breathing heavily. They stare at each other. Snake tries to stand, but his legs collapse out from under him, dumping him on the floor.

Mash half-walks, half-runs over. Sits. Reaches out.

They clutch each other.

At some point Snake’s legs fall asleep and he reluctantly lets go. They both chuckle at the relief on each other’s faces as they adjust themselves into more comfortable positions.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mash finally asks.

“No. …Not yet.”

“Okay.” She hesitates, worry clouding her brow. “Is there anything I can do?”

Later, there will be nightmares of many-limbed angels accompanied by a constant buzzing noise. He’ll buy new headphones. He’ll be too jumpy and anxious to stream; instead he’ll go to Mash’s place and they’ll watch movies with the lights on. He’ll write a post on Tumblr to dissuade people from threatening Team Janus, who will send apology after apology.

Jund will call him once a day. Just to shoot the shit, Jund says, but he’ll take any excuse to ask Snake how he’s doing. Snake will answer honestly until the truth is too exhausting to repeat. After that, he’ll say that he’s fine and change the subject. Cry will invite him to play Dark Souls 3 off-camera and they’ll work together to take down the later-game bosses. Cry will admit that he’s having trouble sleeping. They’ll talk well into the night.

And still later, Snake will stream himself playing Journey. His subscribers will say that he seems subdued and quieter than usual, but most will readily accept his wishes not to talk about the incident. Those few who can’t leave the subject alone will find out just how merciless Mash can be with the banhammer. The community—his community—will be his support during the next Late Night with Cry and Russ. Snake will still have to leave early, but he’ll have fun, buoyed by the encouragement of his friends and viewers.

It will become easier to get through the day, to sleep through the night. He will be able to forget the static for a few hours, then a day. The nightmares will briefly resume when the lead developer reaches out again to assure him that she’s gutted the experimental learning module, though she can’t delete it without completely rebuilding the rest of the game. She will apologize again, and receive no reply. Snake will take the rest of the day off to play Smash with Cry.

Life will get better.

But right now, Snake shakes his head. He doesn’t know what he needs that Mash can help with. He doesn’t much want to think about it. He doesn’t want to explain that he doesn’t want to think about it. Instead he hugs Mash tightly.

“I’m here,” Mash whispers, squeezing back. She exhales. “So glad you are too.”

His shaking form stills as Snake focuses on the steady rhythm of their heartbeats. Just being together is enough.

Right now, it’s enough.