Table of Contents Chapter 1 <-- You are here. Chapter 2 Chapter 3
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I’m a nervous person. I took up smoking to stop biting my nails. It didn’t work, and now I have two bad habits. Usually I don’t even have a reason for the biting, I just get anxious and chewing off bits of myself calms me down. It’s vaguely cannibalistic. My wife hates it. She used to check my hands before bed and then refuse to have sex with me if I didn’t pass the inspection. I can live without sex, but not without biting my nails or smoking. She thinks I cheated on her. She also thinks I’m a coward, but in her defence she has no idea that I saved her life. Right now she’s asleep because it’s three in the morning, and I’m out on the balcony having a cigarette and trying to figure out the best way to confess to a crime. The thing that keeps distracting me is the moon. It’s as yellow as my dentist says my teeth are going to be if I don’t stop with the cigarettes. Frankly I think drinking coffee is worse for discolourations than smoking, but whatever. My thesis sponsor says I pepper my casual writing with slang to balance the rigidity of my academic prose. She calls it my “learned” prose. I call it my thecal style.
Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I was describing the yellowness of the moon. Tom Waits has a good line about it being the colour of a coffee stain, and that’s about right. The night’s bright as far as nights go but that moon keeps staring at me like a jaundiced eyeball. I should have had a drink before coming out here. I’d go in and get one but I’m afraid I’ll wake my wife, and she’ll blink and her hair will look like a leafless winter tree surrounding a Grumpy Cat face. That’s a proper noun, Grumpy Cat. It has its own Wikipedia page, like Napoleon and Georg Hegel. The article starts: “Tardar Sauce (April 4, 2012 – May 14, 2019), nicknamed Grumpy Cat, was an American Internet celebrity cat. She was known for her permanently 'grumpy' facial appearance, which was caused by an underbite and feline dwarfism.” Keep that in mind when you read my confession because it’s a crazy fucking world we live in.
My thesis sponsor says I never make sufficiently elegant segues. She says my paragraphs are too long and that my conclusions come at the reader out of nowhere like argumental hyenas. I’m surrounded by difficult women. I’m reconsidering my confession, but that moon keeps reflecting its piss coloured light at me and I’m sick of just writing my thesis, sentence by footnoted sentence. Theses. It even sounds vile. If any of my neighbours are watching they probably think I’m ridiculous sitting out here in my boxers and bathrobe, smoking cigarette after cigarette and typing on a laptop, but in my defence it’s the twenty-first century and this is how twenty-first century murderers let it all out. I used to think it ridiculous that anyone could say the moon is made of cheese, but now I kind of get it. I’m hungry and I have a heavy heart. Two days ago I overpowered a level twenty-six dwarf, stabbed it in the neck, beat it with a shovel and sliced open its throat before transferring what remained of its body to a 3.5” diskette that Wayne and I secretly uploaded to a computer in the library.
Wayne’s my best friend and accomplice. He owns a little computer repair shop in town that I spend time in whenever my wife gets her Grumpy Cat face, and that’s where I’ll start my confession.
It was a Monday afternoon and some guy came in with an old IBM Thinkpad that he’d bought off Ebay and that he wanted Wayne to fix. “What’s the problem?” Wayne asked.
“BIOS doesn’t work,” the guy said.
Wayne booted the laptop and the BIOS was password protected. “What’s the password?”
“How should I know? That’s why I came here,” the guy said.
“What am I supposed to do?” Wayne asked.
“Hack that shit.”
Wayne traded him a newer, shittier used Dell for it and the guy signed a contract and walked out happy.
I asked Wayne what he was going to do with the Thinkpad.
“Sell it,” he said. “To someone who doesn’t know what a BIOS is, for more than I paid for that Dell.”
Wayne could do that, make money while making two people happy. I didn’t have that kind of business sense. My wife said it was because nobody took me seriously the way they took Wayne seriously. I asked her why. She said it was because Wayne had dark, curly hair whereas I had blonde hair that was so thick and straight it made me look boyish and perpetually out of date. “Would you want to be with a guy like Wayne instead of a guy like me?” I asked. “If I could be with a guy like Wayne I never would have married you,” she said.
“Hey, Wayne,” I called out. He was sorting invoices and I was sitting behind a table in the far corner of the store, working on my thesis. He turned around holding a bunch of papers. “Have you ever slept with Annie?”
“But would you?”
“I might,” he said. “Are you offering?”
I said I wasn’t. He went back to sorting invoices.
My laptop screen flickered.
Wayne started humming the main theme from Super Mario Bros.
My laptop died.
“Hey, Wayne,” I said. “How much do you want for that Thinkpad?”
He read an invoice. “One hundred sixty.”
“I know what a BIOS is,” I said.
“Is yours dead?”
He took the Thinkpad off the counter, walked over to the table I was sitting behind and set the Thinkpad down. “On the house, buddy.”
I picked up my dead laptop. “At least take mine for parts.”
“It’s cool. I did sleep with Annie once. It was before you got married but it’s still probably worth a Thinkpad,” he said.
Wayne’s a pretty good guy and I didn’t care about the BIOS. I just wanted something with metal hinges that I could write on. I didn’t even need a hard drive because I ran Puppy Linux off a USB stick and saved all my files to Dropbox. My thesis sponsor didn’t think that was possible. When I plugged my USB stick into her desktop’s USB port and booted entirely into her RAM, she said, “Why did you make my Windows lose its pleasant appearance?”
I never should have booted that Thinkpad.
It had a USB port but the boot order was apparently hard drive first, so I booted into Windows XP and explored the file structure for a while because it was a form of procrastination that didn’t weigh on my conscience. There wasn’t much installed.
“You should wipe the drive before you do anything,” Wayne said.
I went down the list of directories in Windows Explorer. It looked pretty much like a fresh install. Other than the operating system, the laptop also had an old version of Office and an anti-virus suite installed. I changed the views options in Explorer to what I liked: detailed view and show hidden files checked on. “By the way, what are the specs on that thing?” Wayne asked.
“Hang on,” I said. Something had caught my eye. There was a hidden directory in root filled with text documents numbered from one to sixty-four. I opened the first. It held a single character. e. I opened the next. 8. I opened a few more at random and the contents of those were single characters, too. “Wayne,” I said.
“There’s a hidden folder in C: and it has sixty-four text files with a number or letter in each.”
Wayne put down his invoices. “Exactly sixty-four?”
“Yeah,” I said. I noticed something else. “And it’s strange, because the creation dates of the files are all exactly two months apart.”
“That’s like a span of ten years.”
Nothing else on the hard drive caught my eye.
“It could be the BIOS password,” Wayne said. “Those get up to sixty-four characters long.” He scratched his chin. “But before you check that, do a search for jpegs. Sometimes people leave naked pics of their wives and girlfriends sitting around.”
“There’s plenty of those online.”
“But those are public, buddy. These would be private, known by only a few people and us.”
There weren’t any photos.
I took out my phone, opened a fresh document and typed in the characters from the numbered files on the Thinkpad hard drive. Then I rebooted and pressed the key to get into the BIOS. A password prompt came up. I entered the sixty-four characters staring at me from my phone screen and hit Enter. Bingo. Wayne was waiting for a response. “We’re in,” I said.
Except we weren’t in.
The screen had become a black command prompt. “Wait, I think the BIOS is broken,” I said.
Wayne came over to take a look.
He hit a button.
Welcome, adventurer. What is your name?
Wayne hit another key.
Error. Name cannot be blank. Welcome, adventurer. What is your name?
“It looks like some kind of role-playing game,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Reboot again,” Wayne said.
I did. The text disappeared, the hard drive whirred, and when the Thinkpad returned to life it booted straight to the same command prompt and the same line of text without even asking for the password.
“Does it boot off a USB?” Wayne asked.
“It didn’t before,” I said. But I tried it anyway. No luck. The screen turned off, turned on and then we were back at:
Welcome, adventurer. What is your name?
We tried booting off a CD.
Welcome, adventurer. What is your name?
“Well, that’s a useless piece of junk,” Wayne said.
So much for writing my thesis.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” I asked.
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. But keeping in mind I’m not a technician, just a guy who sells used computers and sometimes installs Skype and Acrobat Reader for people who type with one finger, I’d say the thing’s been set to boot off a device with some sort of game on it.”
“You mean we set it to that,” I said. “Because it booted from the hard drive before.”
“By typing in the password?”
“Then either we changed the boot order without knowing it or this is the BIOS,” Wayne said. “Type something in. See what happens.”
I dangled my fingers over the keyboard, trying to think of a good name for an adventurer.
Wayne cleared his throat.
I typed in John, and quickly followed with Grousewater.
John Grousewater, an envoy from his excellency, Prince Verbamor of the Principality of Xynk, has arrived at the door of your remote stone hut. The envoy tells you that the Prince requests an immediate audience with you. Do you accept? yes
The screen flashed white, then beeped a midi theme and displayed a white-on-black title screen baring the words “Xynk: An Interactive Quest”. Below were the names of its two developers, Tim Birch and Olaf Brandywine. I hit a key. A pixelated horse began to inch its way across a pixelated mountainous landscape.
The Principality of Xynk is on the other side of the world. Your journey was long and treacherous.
“How old is this?” Wayne asked.
The screen flashed and a bolt of lightning appeared above the mountains.
But finally you made it.
“No idea,” I said.
The landscape disappeared, replaced by the command prompt.
After paying for two nights of lodgings at THE YAWNING MASK, you pat your trusty horse, NIGEL, and make your way on foot to the massive structure that looms over the entirety of the city-state of Xynk, the famous CASTLE MOTHMOUTH. [OB: almost done intro description, will add soon] “I have summoned you, John Grousewater, because your exploits are known throughout the land. As you see, Xynk is in grave danger and needs your help. The enemy is already within. Only a reversal of the spell using the very same AMULET OF VERMILLION will thwart the evil plans of the HOODED RAT BROTHERHOOD and save us. Only you possess the ability to locate the amulet somewhere in Xynk and prepare the ingredients necessary to cast the reversal. John Grousewater, the reward for success will be great. Do you accept the mission?”
I read through the text twice before realizing that Wayne was looking at me. “Well, do you accept?”
yes Xynk: An Interactive Quest is a text adventure game. It is recommended that before you begin, you read the HELP FILE. To do so now or at any time, type: READ HELP.
I typed READ HELP.
This is placeholder text [TB: We need a help file asap]
Wayne pulled up a chair and sat down beside me. “That wasn’t very helpful. You ever played one of these before?”
“I think I know the basics,” I said.
ROOM IN THE YAWNING MASK You are in your room in the Yawning Mask. It’s bare and empty, which suits an adventurer like you just fine. In the room, you see a TABLE and a WINDOW. The only DOOR leads WEST into the HALL.
“So do your stuff, hot shot. Let’s see what this baby’s all about.”
examine table It’s a wooden table. It’s empty. examine window You walk to the window and look out. A cheap view for a cheap room. You see the ALLEY behind The Yawning Mask. Directly below the window, NIGEL and several other horses are eating feed from a trough.
Bells dinged as a woman walked into the store. Wayne turned his chair to face her. It made an awful scraping sound. “May I help you?”
“My computer’s broken,” she said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I can’t Skype.”
“Is Skype installed?” Wayne asked.
“I don’t really know how to check that,” she said. “It worked yesterday.” Wayne patted me on the shoulder and got up to work his magic at the front counter.
I vaguely heard them talking as I refocused on Xynk.
talk to Nigel Nigel stops drinking for a moment and looks up. He’s the best horse you’ve ever had, and you hope he thinks the same about you. talk to Nigel about Xynk Nigel neighs.
I’d played Zork once or twice online, so I had a grip on how these games worked. Usually, half the trouble was getting the game to understand what you wanted to do. Half the tedium was reading the same messages over and over again. To remind myself, I typed:
examine room ROOM IN THE YAWNING MASK You are in your room in the Yawning Mask. It’s bare and empty, which suits an adventurer like you just fine. In the room, you see a TABLE and a WINDOW. Someone has slid a NOTE under the door. The only DOOR leads WEST into the HALL.
A note? I scrolled up to see if that had been in the first description of the room. It hadn’t.
examine note There is no such object. “Go to EAST STORE ROOM in CASTLE MOTHMOUTH”
That was odd. I tried examining the note again and got the same result, an error message followed by a line of output. So I tried examining a few made-up objects that the game had never mentioned, like a “lantern”.
There is no such object “Go to EAST STORE ROOM in CASTLE MOTHMOUTH”
examine ipod There is no such object “Go to EAST STORE ROOM in CASTLE MOTHMOUTH” move W YAWNING MASK HALL You are standing in the hall. Your ROOM is to the EAST. A staircase leads DOWN.
I went down, and navigated my way out of The Yawning Mask after noting on my phone that the Innkeeper seemed like he could be a font of information about Xynk. I’d talk to him later. Now, I made my way through the city toward Castle Mothmouth. I stopped hearing Wayne discuss how to add and remove software in Windows 7 and started hearing the din of Xynk amidst the clicking of the Thinkpad keys. I passed The Pierced Snout Tavern and The Local Alchemist, peeked into The Library, and noted the names of all the various neighbourhoods that the command prompt threw at me. Although some of the descriptions in the game were unfinished, most were sparsely vivid and the world itself was detailed and huge. Xynk was a living and breathing place, at least as real as a text-based San Andreas.
At some point, Wayne scraped his chair and sat beside me again. “How’s the adventure going, Grousewater?” he asked.
“I’m following what the note said and going to Castle Mothmouth.”
“Or you could work on your thesis.”
I smirked. “Thanks, Annie.”
Then I remembered that Wayne had slept with her before I ever had, and the thought made me jealous.
“Seriously, buddy. I’m all about wasting time playing video games, but the ones I play usually have graphics and guns, and don’t you have a meeting with your whatever-her-name is at the university in like two days?”
I did. I sighed.
save Command unknown. Type HELP FILE for help. save game Command unknown. Type HELP FILE for help.
Wayne picked up my phone and read the notes I’d made. “What’s the matter? Did you get shivved by a homeless dude in”—He squinted.—”Vagrant’s Quarter?”
“I don’t know how to save,” I said.
Wayne grabbed the Thinkpad’s power cord and yanked it out of the socket. The Thinkpad shut off. “The bad thing about buying used laptops,” Wayne said, “is that usually their batteries don’t work.”
I was about to reply in a witty fashion when my phone rang—
Wayne tossed it to me.
It was Annie. I accepted the connection. “Hello, honey bun,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Where the hell are you?”
“I’m…” Wayne pointed with his chin at a clock on the wall. “Shit,” I said into the phone. I’d been at Wayne’s for over three hours. How long had I been playing Xynk? It didn’t seem anywhere near that long. My wife launched into an accusatory reminder that I was supposed to pick up a bag of potatoes on the way home and that I was supposed to be home by five, and that it was now almost six, and that the turkey was going to be too dry, and I moved the phone away from my ear and shrugged my shoulders at Wayne despite knowing that my wife was right. “Wherever you are, just get the potatoes and get home now,” she said, and ended the call. It had long ago stopped being a blow to my ego that my wife never suspected me of having an affair.
“I’ve gotta run,” I said to Wayne. I put my phone in my pocket, closed and picked up the Thinkpad, and rolled up and picked up its power cord.
Wayne crossed his arms.
“You should leave that piece of junk here,” he said.
I waved and was out the door.
I bought the potatoes at the nearest grocery store, paying nearly double what I should have because the store catered to the upper middle-class with ceramic tiles and good lighting unlike the immigrant-focused Food Basics I usually shopped at.
I called my wife to tell her the potatoes were on their way, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she was having an affair.
I also kept thinking about the note by the door in John Grousewater’s room in The Yawning Mask. What could possibly be in Castle Mothmouth’s east storage room, and who’d delivered the glitchy message? I’d have to try to talk to the Innkeeper about it. Maybe he saw someone come in.
I pulled into my driveway, put the laptop under my arm, grabbed the bag of potatoes with my hand and went in through the garage. Annie was waiting in the kitchen, playing a match-three fruit game on her tablet. “Nice of you to finally make it,” she said.
I apologized, saying I’d lost track of time working on my thesis.
“At least I don’t have to worry about you having an affair,” she said as she was getting the turkey out of the oven.
It was dry.
After dinner we drank coffee together. I watched her swipe her finger to match bananas, kiwi and watermelons. What if the note is a trap? I thought. It could be from the Hooded Rat Brotherhood. Then again, was the Hooded Rat Brotherhood actually evil? They had a name that sounded evil, but Prince Verbamor seemed shady too. I understood his need to bring in an outsider to solve the quest because the Hooded Rat Brotherhood had infiltrated Xynk’s own police force and Verbamor didn’t know who to trust, but I also remembered an old British horror movie about an outsider who comes to an island to investigate a crime and ends up burned alive in a giant wicker man as part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.
When Annie stopped talking between levels of her mobile game, I got the bright idea to search for Xynk online.
Google search brought up 273,000 matches but none about the Xynk I was looking for. Google Books didn’t yield any fruit either. Although that wasn’t entirely surprising—after all, the game was old and clearly unfinished—there was something inexplicably creepy about anything that existed in the real world without leaving a trace of its existence on the internet. I decided to try Googling the names of the two developers instead.
They did exist. Keep reading!