Sam Thompson

Posted on March 19, 2018

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Pilgrim: Hinterlands

That January, Alex bought a gaming console. He didn’t know why. He’d taken no interest in video games since he was a teenager, and now was not the time for a new hobby: Peter’s father had had a stroke on Christmas Eve, so that the past weeks had been consumed by grim phone calls, fatigued motorway driving and long waits in hospital corridors. The damage was serious, and Peter was still going home whenever he could, but they’d agreed that Alex couldn’t keep going with him. Work had to get done.

In Alex’s day, fifteen years ago, 64-bit had been the state of the art. The new console was smaller and simpler than those he remembered, but the controller was exactly the futuristic instrument his younger self would have imagined: a bulbous form, bristling with buttons and pads, that looked awkward but turned out to fit intimately in the hands.

He made a mug of tea and powered up the console. A silver graphic unfolded into the online store. He had a game in mind. A couple of weeks ago he had half-intentionally rolled over a sidebar on some website, and the ad had expanded to show a lone male figure in a windblown ankle-length coat, seen from behind, the set of the shoulders more exhausted than heroic, standing on a ridge and gazing down into desert and sky while a strange aircraft, a cross between a zeppelin and a paddle-steamer, curved overhead towards a city on the horizon. Alex had idly looked up a review aggregator for the game and read that it was acclaimed for its huge yet intricate open-world environment and its system of emergent mission-design.

Peter wouldn’t be back until tomorrow evening, so Alex bought the game and watched the download bar begin to fill. He had given up gaming at eighteen because it was so obviously damaging his attempts to have a life: it was odd, now, to find that he could step at will back into this world that had been waiting for him. He swallowed a mouthful of tea. Then he placed the mug on the floor and rested his head on the back of the sofa.

When he woke it was dark outside and the room was ghastly in the glow of screensaver graphics tumbling into themselves on the screen. He had been dreaming. Lately he’d been having complicated dreams which seemed to carry over from one night into the next, but he could never remember the specifics, only the sense that part of himself was living night after night through a weird, unending saga. The dreams left him with impressions of an endless journey, a flight from encroaching danger. He got up and closed the curtains. It was not yet midnight, but he felt rested, so he woke the console and started up Pilgrim.

The following evening, sixteen hours later, he heard Peter’s key in the door and hurried to save his game. He shut down the console and stowed it together with the controller in the drawer of the coffee table, then switched the TV to standby before stepping into the hall.

Peter was hanging up his coat. He looked at Alex.

“You’re exhausted,” he said. “Are you working too hard?”

“I didn’t really get to bed last night,” Alex said.

“Idiot. Is it that bad?”

“Just trying to keep on top of things.”

“You’ll make yourself ill.”

Alex nodded, penitent, while gameplay images flashed across the front of his brain. Tybalt running and diving for cover in a shanty-town in the Edgewastes; shooting it out with a rustler gang, making every headshot count; taking on a ten-foot mutant barkeep armed with machete and knuckleduster; leaping from the roof of a moving train to catch the rope trailing from an ironclad dirigible rising out of the Tar ravine; gambling for salvation runes in the backstreets of Scorched River; staggering through a burning whorehouse in search of the antidote to the venom of the white sidewinder; hiding in the lee of a prehistoric totem, letting a fly crawl across his lips, while inches away the hunters of the Bone Crow sought his trail; crashing through a window to rescue Alanna Daniels from a cannibal cult; facing down a lynch mob with a single bullet left in the chamber of his six-gun; dying over and over to be reborn at the most recent save point. Pilgrim was a single-player third-person 3D action-adventure-exploration-stealth-RPG of a type that, Alex gathered, was common nowadays, though to his younger self it would have seemed the unthinkable apotheosis of the hopes of every gamer. The player took the role of the cursed gunslinger Jem Tybalt, doomed to wander the earth without rest, who hid his melancholy beneath a taciturn exterior and whose duster coat rippled in the hot winds of the enormous, lawless continent known as the Hinterlands.

They microwaved leftovers while Peter brought him up to date on progress at home. There was none. It was five weeks now and his father still could not walk or form words, although he could sit up in bed and did seem to know familiar faces. His mother wasn’t sleeping. The doctors were being unclear about the prognosis and Peter was doing his best to keep her from falling out with them. Alex nodded in comprehension, shook his head in sympathy.

When Peter went for a shower, he took the console out of the drawer and found a better place in one of the old file boxes in the office corner. Just before exiting the game he had heard a rumour of an ancient codex that might have the power to free Tybalt from his curse, but to learn the location of the book he must help Sally Dollar, the no-nonsense redheaded sheriff of Jawbone, defend her town from the troupe of bull-worshipping fanatics that rode in each spring to kidnap twenty-four youths and maidens for purposes too horrifying to dwell on. Of course Tybalt had agreed to the deal. That was how the game worked: he was forever fleeing, forever searching for some means of escape from the supernatural horror that pursued him (known only as the Abomination, it had the appearance of a tall thin man in a long black coat, though nothing human could follow so implacably); but his search was continually interrupted by other quests, which themselves opened into yet more challenges, so that the further Tybalt travelled the longer his journey became. There was no doubt that finding the codex would be a gruelling and perilous task, nor that, once found, it would turn out to be only a single step on a far longer road to redemption. The progress meter on the menu screen stood at two per cent.

*

In the morning Alex lay and listened to Peter moving around the flat, flushing the toilet, calling goodbye. After the front door closed he stayed in bed, taking his time. He’d been playing too much Pilgrim. Last night his dreams had swung and plunged around him like the game’s environments, crammed with threats to escape and tasks to accomplish. As usual, most of the details eluded him now that he was awake, but there had been another person in the dream. She was a slender girl with brown freckles and hazelnut eyes, who had told him that their bodies and souls were in mortal danger from the thing that was pursuing them. He couldn’t swear that she hadn’t been there all along, that he hadn’t been dreaming of her for months. They must never stop running, she had told him, slipping her small hand into his. He could still feel its warmth and smoothness.

He made coffee and settled himself in the office corner. Reports for three clients were due by the end of the week, but there was still time to get everything done. He’d restrict himself to an hour of Pilgrim, he decided, at the end of the afternoon, just before Peter got home, and that prospect would help him to work efficiently. But then again, he thought, scanning his emails, wanting to play would interfere with his focus: maybe he should get his session with the game in right away and free himself up for the rest of the day. He started up the console just before 10am. At 6.30pm, with an effort of will, he shut it down. When Peter walked in twenty minutes later Alex was chopping vegetables for a stir-fry.

That evening he put in a good ninety minutes on the first of the reports. He could meet his deadlines if he worked solidly for the next two days. Peter was in the kitchen, talking to his mother on the phone. The trouble with Pilgrim, Alex reflected, was that it was so perfectly engineered to appeal to some basic, survivalist layer of the brain. You met one problem at a time, and it was always life-or-death. Tybalt lived without hesitation, staking life and limb at every turn, and when he failed and died the game took you back to try again. You never ran out of lives, because the story had to continue. It made for a state of absorption in which hours passed unnoticed: a flow you just didn’t get in the real world.

The next day Tybalt’s journey brought him to the mountain homestead of Serena Molloy, a hardscrabble frontierswoman who was also a powerful witch. She promised that she could protect Tybalt from the curse that afflicted him, and against his instincts he found himself drawn into a new kind of life, no longer on the run but playing the faithful partner as weeks and months passed, working Serena’s land, protecting her house and sharing her bed, and perhaps (so Tybalt’s tired, easy stance suggested as he leaned on the fence-post he had been fixing in a cut-scene) finding a kind of peace that he had never expected. It couldn’t last, of course, and it ended when bandits struck the homestead. Tybalt saw them off easily enough, but not before they had wrecked the carefully-tended circle of candles, runes and bones that Serena had constructed around the codex to activate its warding mojo. At once a familiar, sickening noise filled the homestead—a noise like the scrape of claws and the clink of spurs, the desert wind howling with a basso choral throb beneath, the sound of an approaching nightmare—and then the Abomination was there, closer than ever, its not-quite-human hands tearing down the planks of the door. Serena sacrificed her life to cast one final spell and hold off the demon long enough for Tybalt to get away. With her last words she told him to get to the city of Sweet Air and find someone named Evie Dylan, the only person who could help. Back on the road, alone again, Tybalt’s face showed no flicker of emotion.

Alex had been planning to use the evening to make up the day’s work, but as he was getting started Peter came home distraught. His mother had phoned. His father had started talking again, but in vile language, abusing those around him in hateful terms that he would never have dreamt of using before. She was in a terrible state about it.

Peter sat at the table and put his head in his hands.

“I need to go back,” he said, “but I just can’t. I’ve missed so much work already.”

Alex touched his shoulders.

“They’ll cope,” he said, “and if they don’t, so what?”

Peter looked up. He had grey pouches under his eyes.

“This is more important,” Alex said.

They decided Peter should set off right away. He ate something while Alex packed him clean clothes.

“I wish I could help,” Alex said, handing him the bag and the car keys.

“You do more than you know.”

*

Alex sent emails to the three clients, offering sincere apologies that due to a medical emergency the reports would be delayed. Tybalt was bushwhacked by slavers in a mountain pass and escaped with nothing but the clothes he stood up in, then had to track the gang to a remote ore-mining town to retrieve his weapons and equipment before resuming his journey towards Sweet Air. Soon after 3am, Alex got to bed and dreamed that Evie Dylan was the girl with the hazelnut eyes. She knew how to escape the thing that was pursuing them, and soon, she promised, she would tell him. The dream’s atmosphere was reassuring and appalling at the same time. He was walking with Evie through an enormous open-air cafe in the ruins of a temple, but then they were in a squalid attic room high above a city, Evie cross-legged and naked, showing him where to touch her, and when he woke he could remember every detail.

He showered, dressed, drank coffee and started work. He had no desire to play Pilgrim today. He got an angry email from one of the clients and wrote a reply that was conciliatory but also, he felt, dignified in its insistence that some circumstances are beyond our control. He worked through to evening, only pausing to check in with Peter. Peter’s father now believed that care staff and family members were his enemies. Alex got most of a report done. The only thing that nagged at him was the impression, which he could not shake, that as well as last night’s dream he could now remember the dreams of the past several months, and that they had all been a single story in which he and the girl called Evie Dylan had been travelling together from the beginning, on the run through an endless landscape from the terrible entity that would never let them go free. On an impulse he looked up a Pilgrim wiki, but he couldn’t find any reference to the Evie Dylan character and he didn’t feel inclined to search further.

That evening the late nights caught up with him and he fell asleep over a whiskey at the kitchen table. In his dream he was hand in hand with Evie, following her through alleys, plazas and arcades in the deserted city. Tears ran down his cheeks for the joy of this life in which they must never rest but must make their world of one another, must take their pleasure in one another and in the world even as they fled the damnation that followed at their heels. Evie, bare-armed in a beaded suede waistcoat, was explaining that the only way they could escape was to put an end to themselves. If they did it right, they would be reborn into new lives and the devil would never be able to find them. She began to lead him down a long underground corridor, glancing lasciviously over her shoulder, and he understood that she was going to show him the secret, but then his phone was buzzing and he woke to Peter saying he was sorry for ringing so late but that it was a nightmare, his father had said unforgivable things to his mother and slapped her in the face, and they were all just in pieces.

The lights were blazing, so Alex crossed the room and turned them off, revealing the kitchen as a formation of dark shapes. His senses were sharp. He could smell the stale remains of the drink in the glass on the table. Glowing numerals told him that it was after two in the morning. Peter’s voice grew tiny and indecipherable as Alex took the phone from his ear. He looked at the name on the screen, then hung up the call. He needed a moment’s stillness, a moment for his mind to clear, because now he understood. Tybalt walking the Hinterlands. Peter suffering trials for which his life had not prepared him. Evie promising that if we leave this world in the right way then in the next one we’ll be free. Alex held these pieces in his mind, letting them move into alignment, and as they joined he heard the front door open.

It was coming along the hall, its claws scraping the walls, its moan hollow and wordless beneath the clink of spurs. Alex smelled sawdust and hot iron. The air dried so suddenly that his lips tingled. He reached out to steady himself on the table, but his hand slipped and he fell. The phone was buzzing. He dragged himself across the floor, away from the approaching presence. Although he was terrified he was filled also with a vast relief, because now he knew that he’d been right all along. He wished he could speak to Peter. He’d confess, tell him everything, and explain that it was all going to be okay. Listen, he’d say. The further we travel, the longer our journey becomes. We live on the run from a curse but it’s the curse that makes us free. We never run out of lives because the story has to continue. We do more than we know.

****

Sam Thompson is the author of Communion Town (Fourth Estate, 2012) and Jott (forthcoming from John Murray in 2018). He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.   His website is samthompsonwriter.com.

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