Water poured down the rocks in rivulets, splashing onto her face and running down the back of her neck. The wall had become a waterfall, slick and perilous. It was a struggle just to maintain her grip on the wet stone. Until the deluge passed, she was stuck.
There came a deep rumbling sound, like thunder, but it kept rolling and rolling.
And then she saw it. A great churning maelstrom swept down the cliff face towards her, bringing mud and boulders and death.
Frantically, she sought the shelter of a nearby crevice, just across from the slab to which she clung. Abandoning all thoughts of caution, she leapt.
She almost made it.
The wave hit like a battering ram, sending her tumbling; tumbling into the abyss.
Caught in the whirling, pounding vortex, eyes squeezed shut, she could no longer tell which way was up and which was down. She only knew that down was her destination. Down was shattered bones and twisted limbs; brains splashed across jagged rocks. Down was slow suffocation beneath a crushing mass of mud, rocks and debris.
Down was…any moment now…
It occurred to her that this would be a suitable time to be afraid. She was not. She was at peace. If this was the end, so be it.
But she kept falling, and the end didn’t come.
When she finally opened her eyes, her world had become calm and quiet. It was a dark place. A deep place, surrounded by murky water. Far below, there was a glimmer of light; a beacon shining in the dark.
Behind her flailed a tangle of fleshy vines, gently tugging her down towards the light. They pulled at her elbows and knees and spine, like puppet strings. She couldn’t tell where her flesh ended and the vines began.
Further below, the tentacle-vines coiled together, forming a thick rope. There were other ropes twisting about in the water. Attached to them were the silhouettes of her fellow passengers. Some like herself; others quite different. All hung limply, peaceful in repose.
As she sank into the warm depths, the light below grew nearer. And behind the light, the shadowy form of a vast winged creature, prowling the deep.
One of the other figures drifted close—almost close enough to touch. She caught a glimpse of a face; eyes closed. Asleep or dead, she couldn’t tell.
It was her own face.
Saskia Wendle jerked awake in a tangle of sodden sheets. There was a pressure around her skull, and her throat burned, reminding her that all was not well in Wendleville.
Groaning, she looked at her phone. 6:43 a.m. Much earlier than she normally got up, but she knew she wouldn’t be getting any more sleep this morning. Might as well make the most of it.
Pulling out her sketchpad and pencil from the bedside cabinet, she drew a sketch of the winged leviathan, the tentacle-vines and the people attached to them. As always, her dream had been hazy on the details, but she filled them in as best she could.
Saskia had been having variations of the same dream ever since the accident. In a strange parallel to the creative process, the dream had acquired a life of its own, twisting and evolving piece by piece, until it bore little resemblance to the events that inspired it. Her subconscious had clearly been hard at work.
In reality, there had been no landslide; no sinking into the ocean. And certainly no tentacles or winged creature or sleeping doppelgängers. There had been a fall, but she had no recollection of what it had felt like to tumble off a cliff. All she remembered was the hospital bed, and the slow, tedious, agonising recovery.
Done with the sketch, she shuffled blearily to the bathroom, wincing as a tendril of pain wriggled through her brain. Mornings were the worst.
Still not getting any prettier, she thought, eyeing her scars in the mirror. She ran her finger down the ragged strip of scaly tissue on her neck. It skirted the line between itchy and painful. Must have been scratching it in her sleep.
Saskia went through her morning routine on autopilot, only coming to her senses when she emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, and heard her mother speaking.
“What?” croaked Saskia, her sleep-deprived brain belatedly remembering how to English.
“I said I saw your light on. You were up early.” Alice Wendle’s face crinkled with concern. “Are you okay?”
“Had another dream I needed to get onto paper,” said Saskia. “Ugh, I feel like crap, actually.”
“Language, Sass.” Her mother spoke reflexively, as if Saskia was still a child, and not a 23-year-old who was free to use any frocking words she wanted to, dogramit! Alice touched her hand to Saskia’s forehead. “Are you going to call in sick?”
“No, it’s just a bit of a flare-up,” said Saskia. “I’ve had worse. And I can’t take any more time off. Too much to do. Big demo coming up at the end of the month.”
“I wish you wouldn’t push yourself so hard,” said her mum. “It’s only been a couple of years since…well, you know. They may be your friends, but they don’t pay overtime. You shouldn’t be working such long hours.”
“Hey, this job is the one bright spot in my life right now,” insisted Saskia. “Don’t knock it. Long hours and low pay are the trade-off for doing what we love, instead of…I don’t know…working for a bank or something.”
“Believe it or not, I actually enjoy my work too,” said Alice, who was a bank manager.
“That’s because you’re boring.”
Her mum laughed. “Well maybe I am at that. But need I remind whose ‘boring’ career paid for the university education you dropped out of. Who covered your medical bills and cared for you. And who’s giving you free board, so you can afford to earn a pittance doing what you love.”
Saskia sighed. Her mother was playing the guilt card. That card was so overpowered. “I don’t actually think you’re boring, Mum. That was just me being, well, me. Anyhow, uh, gotta go!” She headed for the front door.
“Sass, I think you’re forgetting something…”
Saskia looked down at her skinny, towel-wrapped figure. “Right. Gotta get dressed and then go!”
It was a twenty-minute bicycle ride to work. Saskia’s neurologist still hadn’t given her the all-clear to drive. Apparently her seizures would be a risk to public safety if she were allowed behind a wheel. But if she blacked out on a bike, she’d probably only endanger herself. It gave her no small sense of pride that she was now able to ride such distances. A year and a half ago, she’d struggled to take a few small steps to the bathroom.
Today though, it took considerable effort just to ride in a straight line. Perhaps she should have just taken the day off.
Saskia was the first to arrive at the studio this morning. She used the term ‘studio’ loosely. It was actually a renovated basement beneath the Bare Assentials gentleman’s club. Not the best place to be seen entering and leaving each day, but the rent was cheap.
And for Threadless Studios, being cheap was all-important. As a self-funded independent game development studio that had yet to release their first title, they couldn’t waste money on a comfortable office in a good location.
The company consisted of three friends from university: Raji Kumar, Dave Winfield and Fergus Buchanan. And Saskia herself, who came to the party late, after she’d recovered enough to be able to work. Her condition had forced her to ‘take a break’ from her final year. Afterwards, she could have gone back to finish her fine arts degree, but their offer had been too tempting to refuse. A real job and real experience in exactly the field she wanted to work in, even if the pay was lousy, had seemed far more appealing than a piece of paper with her name on it. As an added bonus, she got to tell her mum she was dropping out of university to work in a strip club.
The company’s first title was Threads of Nautilum, an action role-playing game set in a fantasy kingdom. The guys had been working on it for a year and a half, beginning before they even completed their degrees. Saskia had been with them for a year. Raji estimated they were still at least six months out from completion, so she fully expected to be working on it for at least the next two years, if the company didn’t go belly-up before then. Game development almost never went according to schedule, even for veteran teams. Which Threadless Studios most certainly were not.
The three guys were all programmers, although they juggled various roles at Threadless. Raji, who had made a fair bit of cash from an app he developed while at university, supplied the startup capital, and paid the rest of them their salaries. He was their AI programmer, creative lead and frontman for the company. In the traditional corporate world, he’d be called a CEO, but everyone laughed at him whenever he brought it up. Dave was the level designer, tools programmer, lead tester and curmudgeon. If someone came up with an amazing idea, he’d be the one to shoot it down with an unerring bolt of reality. Fergus was the writer, sound designer, and also a quarter-decent amateur composer. He’d created a placeholder soundtrack for the game. If they could afford to hire a professional composer closer to release, they would. Otherwise, his efforts would have to do.
Saskia was no programmer. To Saskia, C++ was an unusual bra size, and a terminal belonged in an airport, or formed part of a sentence she never wanted to hear from a doctor. She was the studio’s artist, animator, and user interface designer. She created the concept art for characters and locations, constructed three-dimensional models, and made them move about realistically and interact with the game’s physics engine. The layout and visual flavour of the various menus, status bars, journals and other screen overlays were also her handiwork. Occasionally one of the guys would ask her to fetch him a coffee, whereupon she would tell him to bog off and make it himself.
Speaking of coffee, the first thing Saskia did upon reaching the office this morning was serve herself a drink from their top-of-the-line coffee machine—the one thing not even this tiny indie studio would skimp on.
Today’s task was simple. She needed to touch up the low-detail versions of the game’s character models that would be featured in the upcoming demo. She’d already completed the most detailed models with the maximum number of polygons and high-resolution textures, but the task didn’t end there. The game needed to support a range of detail levels, in order to look good on high-end gaming PCs, while still being able to run smoothly on low-end laptops and game consoles. Also, the game swapped out the models at various distances, so it didn’t waste resources rendering high-detail models that were too far away for the player to notice the difference.
The models in question were characters of various archetypal fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and hobbits (or rather, halflings—they didn’t want to get sued by Tolkien's estate) with a few slightly more original races such as the bat-like chiron thrown in for flavour. Saskia wasn’t exactly in love with this rather generic cast of characters, but she tried to put her own spin on each one. Her elves were scruffy, with unkempt hair and bad teeth, and were often covered in dirt. They lived in trees and didn’t have time for personal grooming. Her dwarves had carefully manicured beards and pranced around in fine silks, bought with all that gold they dug out of the mountain.
Polishing the low-polygon models was a relatively mindless task, requiring little creativity or problem-solving. Just a good knowledge of the tools. This was probably for the best. It felt like a worm was nesting inside her skull. And her thoughts kept wandering back to her dream.
She pulled out the sketch she’d made earlier that morning, and a few others she’d drawn previously. Mulling them over while she worked, an idea took hold. Perhaps she could find a way to use it…
Dave was the first of the guys to arrive, at the early hour of 10:03 a.m. Her friends, and indeed, Saskia herself, were typically not ‘morning people.’ They showed up when they showed up, and they stayed late. Really late. Sometimes they never left, and she arrived the next morning to find them drooling over their keyboards.
Later that morning, Raji stopped by her desk, eyeing her sketches. “I haven’t seen this before. New concept?”
“Oh that? It’s from this dream I keep having. Thought we could try and use it as a monster in the game. You see those tentacle-vine things? They come out of the water and latch onto its victims, controlling them like puppets.”
Raji looked at her for a long moment. “You have fucked up dreams, you know that?”
Saskia nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty weird.”
“I like the idea though,” said Raji. “I was thinking about a scene where the players would have to fight their companions. This could be an interesting spin on that. There’d be quite a bit of physics and AI work getting those tentacles behaving properly. What do you think, Dave?”
“I think we should get the demo ready, and stop adding new features at the last minute,” said Dave, without looking up from his workstation.
“Yeah, fuck you too, Dave,” said Raji.
“Any time,” said Dave.
“He does have a point though,” said Raji. “Perhaps we should revisit this next month, once we’re out of crunch mode.” He went back to his desk.
Saskia raised her eyebrows. “There’s a mode other than crunch mode? How do I unlock it?”
“By dying,” said Dave.
“Nope, doesn’t work,” said Saskia. “Already tried.”
The room filled with an awkward silence. Saskia was the queen of awkward silences. She turned back to her work.
Later, Saskia, Raji and Fergus, who had finally deigned to show up, headed to a nearby cafe for lunch. Dave, who was absorbed in debugging a particularly tricky piece of code, ate at his desk.
“So I need to record a bunch of combat sounds—grunts, shouts, death screams, etcetera,” Fergus was saying around a mouthful of pad Thai. “Right now we’re mostly using stock sounds for these, but we can’t keep using them in the demo, because we kinda-sorta…pirated them. I think I’ve got most of the male voices sorted. Bunch of friends volunteered, including Raji. But I’m short on female volunteers, because, sadly, my wider circle of friends is basically a giant sausage fest…”
“No,” said Saskia.
“What?” said Fergus. “I haven’t even asked yet.”
“I know what you’re gonna ask, and I refuse. Voice actress is not in my job description.”
“You don’t have a job description,” said Raji.
“I’m adding it to my professional profile then: Saskia Wendle, artist, game designer and not voice actress.”
“C’mon on, it’ll be fun!” pleaded Fergus. “And you wouldn’t need to do all the female voices. I’ve scoured my extensive list of…” He counted on his fingers. “…two lady friends and I’ve found someone who would be perfect for the elves, humans, halflings, shalui and perhaps chiron if we stretch her. That just leaves the orcs, trolls and dwarves.”
“What, so you think I sound like an orc?” Saskia scowled at him.
“Uh, kinda, yep,” said Fergus.
“A really hot orc,” added Raji, helpfully.
Okay, so it was true that right now she sounded like she’d smoked two packs a day since birth. But really, couldn’t they even try to pretend otherwise?
Saskia sighed. “I suppose orcs dig scars…”
“As do we,” said Raji. “So you’ll do it?”
“All right. But if I totally suck at this, I reserve the right to purge the incriminating files. You do not get to play them at the Christmas party.”
“Excellent!” Fergus mimed a Bill & Ted’s guitar string chord. He had a thing for old movies.
“So when do you need to do this recording?” asked Saskia.
“Uh, last week would be good.”
Saskia raised her eyebrows. “Well that could be a problem. Me and my time machine are all booked out for last week.”
“This afternoon then? If you’re not too busy?”
“I hope you’re joking. When are we ever not too busy? Fine, let’s just get it over with.”
“You rock, Sass!”
As they went to pay the cashier, she felt a sudden wave of dizziness descend upon her. A tremor rippled out from the centre of her back, and spread to her arms and legs.
“Uh, guys,” she said, fighting to speak as her traitorous body began to slip from her control. “It’s h-happening again.”
Raji looked at her quizzically, then his eyes grew wide as she began to sag towards the ground. “Oh shit!” He rushed forward to catch her. “I’ve got you.”
“It’ll be alright. You just…do your thing. Help me with her, Ferg.”
She felt arms around her back. The world shattered into myriads of fractal images. And all she could hear was the ringing in her ears.
Slowly, the world reformed around her. Saskia lay on the dusty pavement, blinking up at Raji’s face. He looked how she felt. Pale and shaken.
“…to see here,” Fergus was telling a cluster of gawkers. “Hey, dickhead! Put the fecking camera away!”
Gingerly, Saskia sat up. She looked down at her rumpled pants, and breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t peed herself this time.
“How long was I out?” she asked groggily.
“A couple of minutes,” said Raji. “I’m sorry, we’ve gathered a bit of an audience.”
She glanced up at the people who had ignored Fergus’s obvious attempts to shoo them away. Their faces ran the gamut of expressions she’d come to expect in this situation. Some looked shocked or concerned; some merely curious or amused. “Show’s over, folks,” she said wearily. Only then did the onlookers begin to disperse.
She rose shakily to her feet, and turned to Raji and Fergus. “Let’s get out of here.”
Arriving back at the studio, Saskia fled to the bathroom, where she just sat and shook for a while. This wasn’t her first seizure in public, but they were always scary and horrible in their own way. At least this time Raji and Fergus were with her, so she didn’t have to worry about people trying to mug her, or worse, while she was incapacitated.
It had been a mistake to come into work today. Her body had clearly been telling her enough was enough. The months of crunch had pushed her to the limits of her endurance.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. Before the accident, she’d laughed at the notion of limits. As long as she’d gotten at least a few hours sleep, she’d wake up the next morning feeling good as new. She’d always had some activity planned. Something to occupy her mind and body, whether it be her art classes, or all the personal projects she started and never seemed able to complete, or late-night gaming sessions with Raji and Dave, or hiking or rock climbing adventures with her more outdoorsy friends. They’d head out late on Friday evening, drive for hours, and then spend the whole weekend in the mountains, returning in the early hours of Monday morning, completely exhausted. She lived for those weekends when she could get away from the stress of city life, and drink in some beautiful vistas in remote locations.
It was one of those adventures in the mountains that had derailed her life, and very nearly ended it. It was probably just as well that she could recall neither the hours leading up to the accident, nor the actual tumble over the cliff. Her physical injuries had been bad enough. No need to add PTSD to the list.
The scars from that day would be with her for the rest of her life; a constant reminder of her own mortality. She couldn’t go through airports without setting off metal detectors. And she tired so easily these days.
And then there were the seizures. It was almost like she had a lightning rod hanging over her head, poised to deliver an electrical storm to her brain. The storm could come at any moment, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“If you want to take the rest of the day off, I don’t mind,” said Fergus when she finally emerged from the bathroom. “We can do the recording session another day. It’s okay.”
“Lets just do it,” said Saskia. “I need something to take my mind off…me.”
“Well alright then! By the time I’m done with you, you’ll have forgotten your own name.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, which earned him a scowl from her.
She spent most of the afternoon making embarrassing sounds into a microphone for Fergus. Judging from his barely-suppressed giggles, he found it much more entertaining than she did. She channelled all of her pain and frustration into her troll and orc voices, and felt a bit better afterwards. For the dwarf, she just used a slightly imperious version of her natural voice, avoiding the usual gruff Scottish trope. Besides, she couldn’t do a Scottish accent to save her life.
“Hey, you were awesome,” said Fergus once she was done making a fool of herself. “These will definitely go in the demo, and I might even use them in the final game.”
“Please don’t,” said Saskia. “Now I’ll be cringing every time I see a troll.”
By the time she finished up for the day, the worm in her brain had started to breed little agonlings. Fergus offered to give her a ride home, which she gratefully accepted. Trying to ride a bicycle so soon after one of her seizures would really be tempting fate. They took a lot out of her. And today there hadn’t been much in her to begin with.
Stepping in the front door, she was met with the familiar sight of her mother dashing about in an expensive dress, clearly getting ready for a night out.
“Another hot date?” asked Saskia, eyebrows raised. “Sean, is it?”
Sean was the latest in a rapidly growing line of potential stepfathers. Maybe one day one of them would graduate from potential to the real thing. Saskia had never had an actual stepdad before. Or a real dad, for that matter. The man whose genes she’d inherited had abandoned them before she was born. She’d never met him, and didn’t particularly want to. The only evidence of his existence she had were the stories her mum told her, and some old photos of a towering, bearded young man who looked like he’d stepped out of a Viking saga. As far as Saskia was concerned, that man was no father to her. If he were, he’d have showed some interest in his daughter.
Alice hadn’t started seeing men again until Saskia was in university, but now she was making up for lost time. So far, none of the relationships lasted very long, but she was still getting more action than Saskia herself ever did, even before the accident.
“Yeah,” said Alice. “You’d like him. I left some dinner for you in the fridge. How was your day?”
Saskia hesitated. “Um…maybe we should talk about it later.”
Her mother looked at her sharply. “Well now you have to tell me. I don’t want to spend the whole evening worrying.”
Saskia sighed. “Okay, well, I’m fine, but I had another attack today.”
“Oh Sass…” Alice threw her arms around Saskia. “It’s been a couple of months. I’d hoped…”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
A car pulled up into the driveway. “That’s me,” said Alice, releasing her daughter. “Are you sure you’re okay? I can postpone tonight’s…”
“Go!” said Saskia. “Have fun. And gimme all the details later!”
Alice frowned. “You know, mothers are supposed to live vicariously through their daughters, not the other way around.”
“Get out of here!” cried Saskia.
As she ate the meal her mum had left for her, the crawling agony in her head began to flow down her spine and into her arms and legs. Early night tonight. If she still felt this rotten tomorrow morning, she’d have to take the day off, workload be damned.
Just outside her bedroom, she realised she wasn’t going to make it. The floor rushed up to meet her.
At some point she became aware of a frantic voice calling out her name. It sounded like her mother. She tried to open her eyes, only to realise they were already open. “Mum, are you there? I can’t see you.” That’s what she tried to say, but it came out as barely a whisper, even to her own ears.
“I’m here, Sass,” said Alice, her voice choked. “Hang in there. The ambulance is on its way.”
Something shifted within her. A sensation that seemed strangely familiar, yet she couldn’t recall why. Like she was too large to be contained in her own body.
“Oh my God, what’s happening…?” Her mum’s voice rose into a shriek.
Saskia felt herself being wrenched in a direction that had no name.