Troika!

Luke has been reading The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) to daughters Delia and Willow at bedtime. Delia rolled double six for their character’s SKILL and has been merrily steamrollering her way through every encounter while keeping a detailed map of their progress through the interior of the mountain (see diagram); Willow mostly shouts and hides under the covers, insisting that Delia stab the monsters in the face.

My first single-player gamebook was Starship Traveller (1983). I’d not long since learned to read in complete sentences and short paragraphs – a fact I’d successfully hidden from various of the disinterested parties around me – and was utterly entranced by the book’s difficulty, circuitousness, and metatextual back-and-forth. I read the first dozen or so books in the Fighting Fantasy series, very often while standing surreptitiously in a bookshop. City of Thieves (1983) and Deathtrap Dungeon (1984) were my favourites.

Marvellous, then, to discover that the Melsonian Arts Council has published Troika! by Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan, a small-press RPG based in part on the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and the subsequent roleplaying game Advanced Fighting Fantasy (1989); that there are significant differences between Troika! and its source material in no way impairs its heady melange of nostalgia and snot-jokes.

I turned up at Luke’s house with the rulebook, its character sheet, a copy of the Pergamino Barocco – the spellbook was to serve as the McGuffin in our improvised storyline – a map of ruined temples from the inestimable Dyson Logos, and a copy of Chromatic Soup 01 (2017) by Evlyn Moreau and friends. This last item proved a wonderfully atmospheric resource for random encounters and I will use it again at the first opportunity.

Troika! uses d66 to choose a character’s starting background – which is to say, you roll two six-sided dice and read the results sequentially rather than adding them up; so, if you roll a 1 and a 4, your result is 14, not 5.

Given that our story concerned the theft of the region’s most powerful grimoire from a local monastery, Luke and I decided we’d keep re-rolling until we got a character that began the game with spells. Here’s what our third roll generated:

12 Befouler of Ponds

You’re a wise woman, a high priest, a pond-pisser, a typical but committed adherent of P!P!Ssshrp. The bloated toad god has no church other than the periphery of ponds, where the foulness catches in the reeds, and no congregation other than the gnats and the dragonflies. You minister to them all the same.

Possessions
-Sackcloth robes, caked in stinking mud and undergrowth. +1 to Sneak rolls in marshy terrain while wearing it, -1 everywhere else ‘cos it stinks
-Large wooden ladle (Damage as mace)

Skills
3 Spell – Drown
3 Swim
2 Spell – Tongue Twister
2 Spell – Undo
1 Spell – Web
1 Sneak
1 Second Sight

Special
You may drink stagnant water without harm.

A player can infer quite a bit from a piece of background text like this – the phrase “pond-pisser” did a great deal to inform Luke’s portrayal of ‘The Crocadillon’, a local creature lifted from the stories he shares with Delia and Willow about their neighbourhood. We had intended to play Troika! while out on a hike but the weather drew in and we were content instead to stay indoors, eat turkey sandwiches and draw inspiration for our adventure from the topography of Box Hill and the meteorological conditions.

The Crocadillon had been accused of stealing the Pergamino Barocco when an unexpected fog – the Chromatic Soup – had descended upon the local community; tracks leading into the soup and up the side of the mountain had been found close to the lakeside shack at which the Crocadillon made its home. Encounters with a Basilisk – some spawny Luck rolls and a well-timed Web spell saw the Crocadillon survive the threat of paralysis – some Swamp Hunters and a swarm of overheated Boilerfish led to final encounters with a Skeleton Priest (an adapted version of the “Living Dead” from p46 of the Troika! rulebook) and a difficult-to-see Chromatic Dragon (a somewhat diminished version of the “Dragon” from Troika!.)

The great thing was that Luke managed to use everything on his character sheet and usually in inventive and entertaining ways. We found that sudden transformational acts – sneaking, the casting of spells, a psychedelic trance involving sacred mushrooms – worked better for us than rolling dice round-by-round to determine winners and losers of fights or other adversarial face-offs.

Here are the three things we liked most about the game:

  1. Backgrounds. These are written with the wry, childlike wonder of early Games Workshop publications, or scenarios from the halcyon days of White Dwarf magazine. I like them.
  2. Spells. Clear, transformative, based on the STAMINA stat in such a way as to provide a player-character with meaningful choices about cost and effect.
  3. Initiative. You draw blind from a bag of differently-coloured dice to determine who goes first when. This requires a bit of stage management.

A fairly old-school approach is required to keep the game flowing – which is to say, a Gamemaster needs to linguistically prime the dice rolls (it’s all in the timing of the dramatic beats) and provide constant threat and mise en scène in order to give a character plenty to do. I like that the Fighting Fantasy connotation provides a strong thematic impetus around which to improvise and reminisce.

The “obscure and incandescent” register of Daniel Sell’s prose, the hallucinatory Russ Nicholson aesthetic of Jeremy Duncan’s art and the snot jokes combined to echo some small-yet-significant part of the Sense of Wonder Luke and I felt when we first started gaming together in the 1980s. Fighting Fantasy has a lot to answer for and Troika! is its emissary.

 

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Players draw differently-coloured dice from a bag unseen to decide order of initiative. I caught Luke ruminatively rubbing the edges of the dice inside in order to locate his own. Bounder.

 

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Roll off!

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Resistor

I’ve heard people bemoaning the lack of a comprehensive science fiction roleplaying game and I see what they’re getting at – the epistemologies of roleplaying tend to underestimate the relationship between the capacity of the SF Megatext and the specificity of particular subgenres of science fiction.

Games that try to take on the whole shebang – old stalwart Traveller, say, or Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press – benefit from a certain fixity of theme and narrative shape (Technology noir in the case of Traveller, the Television mystery procedural for Ashen Stars); games that, conversely, concentrate on particular modes or motifs of Genre SF, such as Psi*Run (strong on the emergent properties of a shared story arc) or Starfall (strong on the scientific and historical accuracy that underpins its 1950s alien-invasion theme) rely on “zoning in” on what they’re trying to do, very often over a single session or mini-season of play.

A great many science fiction games, however, fall somewhere in-between these two approaches, usually by (a) offering those playing the chance to “hang out” among familiar science fiction Clichés, or (b) adapting particular “sci-fi” properties, or (c) combining both; games like this find it all too easy to confuse their thematic delivery mechanism (Space Opera, Planetary Romance and so forth) with its emotional payload (a Sense of Wonder or Transcendence or some other group affect).

Ashen Stars Front Cover

Even popular and deeply-examined themes such as Cyberpunk suffer from this misalignment of tone and ingredients, in part because (a) science fiction tends to inherit its narrative shapes from other genres and (b) cyberpunk takes a Postmodern approach to genre, mixing and matching the ways in which its tropes – Cybernetics, AI, and so on – interact with its story arcs, primarily as a means of interrogating the process by which our world is sold back to us in a diminished form by the corporations that define the terms of everyday lives. Here are two of the narrative modes most associated with cyberpunk:

  • Noir: nothing is clear and everyone’s motives are murky.
  • Hard-Boiled: the plot is constantly interrogated out loud by the characters.

These flavours are often combined to memorable effect – The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Rashomon (1950) are just two outstanding examples from the world of Cinema – but it’s all too easy to go wrong by trying to answer the questions posed by one approach with the narrative responses of the other. A Roleplaying Game with Gamemaster and players might waste a good deal of its time by allowing its player-characters to pontificate about “what is really going on” (a hard-boiled question) when what they really need to do is engage with the Psychology of the story’s characters (a noir response), whereas a story game might deliver a precisely-engineered structure whose mechanics elicit little or no emotional response from those playing due to its focus on delivery mechanisms over emotional payload. Narrative is transmuted into story when feelings are involved and feelings are better suggested or improvised than dictated or quantified.

By adding a hard-boiled voice-over to an essentially noir narrative, the first theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982) obscured the much more interesting question of whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant – and, therefore, of whether or not any perceived difference between replicant and human is simply a matter of who is interrogating whom. The who am I? character arc of Deckard is a vital dramatic corollary of the what is real? what is human? theme that underpins so much of the work of Philip K Dick.

Dick understood that any shift in Identity for his protagonists needed to apply at the societal level in order to function fully as science fiction: a character’s domestic dilemma was usually the solution for a world-sized threat in his stories and this – be it alien invasion, an all-powerful demiurge or an uprising of enslaved replicants – usually became the key to the personal dilemma of his main protagonist. One of the major disappointments of Blade Runner 2049 (a film I otherwise liked a lot) was its failure to (a) bring this implication of social change to the foreground and (b) examine the role of gender in the Slavery of the replicants. Deckard “retires” sex-slaves… until he learns to sleep with one. Blade Runner 2049’s focus on the subjugation of people due to their body-type implies that gender might easily be an important signifier of social change but the film’s screenplay allows none of the correspondents of Dick’s “dark-haired girl” archetype – K’s hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), corporate enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and virgin Messiah Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) – to change themselves, their material circumstances, or indeed one another; the society-sized insurgency of replicants-in-the-bodies-of-commodified-women is almost entirely consigned to the background as a consequence.

New-Wave science fiction roleplaying game Dream Askew (a game in which plurality of gender and representation + white space = a brighter future with better Sex lives for all) is the outstanding exemplar of an approach that posits the free expression of gender identity as a possible solution for the false consciousness of a patriarchal society. There is every reason to apply the same principle to other subgenres of science fiction.

“Many cyberpunks defy binaries too,” says the introduction to volume one of the cyberpunk zine Resistor by Leslie Anderson, Banana Chan, Elissa Leach and Kira Magrann, “taking on complex identities that aren’t easily checked off in those info forms like M/F or Black/White or Straight/Gay or American/Other. Cyberpunks are also liminal, existing partially out of body somewhere in digital spaces, expressing those parts of their identities through words, sounds and images only interacted with on a screen.” Our everyday world is rendered as an incessant scenario owned by multinational corporations: games, flash-fiction and live action roleplay provide the means by which we might re-represent ourselves in order to be ourselves.

Kira Magrann’s solo-game Emoji Sigil Rose offers a player the chance a create a sigil for sympathetic magic by drawing a single, uninterrupted line between five-to-nine relevant symbols from the emoji on her phone; Leslie Anderson’s story Student – “Hey girly, need a job! Soft beds! Less hours than your factory gig!” – communicates the supply-driven onslaught of a dominant ideology that wants to reduce everyone to a product; Banana Chan’s live-action conspiracy roleplay Zero is played in an internet chatroom and is about an untellable text with a terrible secret: “It’s actually code for what is happening in the world now.” Diagrams by Elissa Leach of ID badges and other corporate paraphernalia connote the imposition of privately-owned space over public life: there are photographs of photographic equipment, games laid out as business presentations, drawings of outmoded pieces of technology ready to be re-appropriated from the overwhelming control and falsity of corporate life.

Resistor B
Photo: Kira Magrann

In Resistor (as in the best cyberpunk) the question of what is real? is everywhere enclosed by the simulated version of the world sold to us by corporations; what is human? are those acts of reterritorialization that allow a protagonist to represent herself, however briefly, as an avatar of self not yet owned by a corporation. “Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulation,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981; trans Sheila Faria Glaser 1994). Baudrillard goes on to outline a three-stage historical process by which any idea of distinguishing between reality and representation has become impossible:

  1. The image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real (e.g. painting).
  2. It is possible to distinguish image and representation despite the mass production of imagery (e.g. photography).
  3. There is no difference between the reality of something and the representation of it (e.g. social media).

This third stage of the precession of simulacra – what Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists term “hyperreality” – was allegorised in The Matrix (1999), and forms much of the dramatic action in many forms of cyberpunk, which is to say one in which real human experience is intermittent, transformative and meaningful. Liquidity of representation and identity is used to counter-balance an all-encompassing corporate simulation of human experience; it’s this metier that makes Resistor (in my opinion) thematically superior to many of the cyberpunk RPGs out there, the greater part of which tend toward a resolutely hard-boiled, masculine aesthetic in which players end up as unthinking reflections of the dominant ideology, festooned in guns, kit and cyberware. I’ve played these sorts of games quite a bit over the years – and hey, I like them a lot – but they form a fairly small part of the overall attitude and sensibility of cyberpunk.

The McGuffin in a fully science-fictional form of cyberpunk is very often a matter of unravelling the representation of something in order to comprehend its transformation into something unexpected; in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 this is a Memory appropriated from a real person in order to be simulated which then again becomes real (and therefore meaningful); in Akira (1988), the transformation is between human and artificial life; Resistor’s untellable texts, cyberwitches and online avatars describe similar processes of self-alteration, mediated not only by cyberpunk’s dominant mode of action (transgressive violence = revolutionary transformation) but also by its creative agenda (revolutionary transformation = personal freedom).

Feminism functions so well as an operating system for cyberpunk because it is (a) an idea designed to produce a Conceptual Breakthrough throughout society, and (b) was there at the inception of science fiction, when Mary Shelley first dramatized the idea of a human constructed by human agency in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). By refusing to separate issues of gender and class, by setting its games amid the hyperreality of image-centric networks and by using feminism to inform the identity of its protagonists, Resistor succeeds in addressing both the specificity of cyberpunk and the capacity of science fiction to describe societal change, and in doing so describes a widespread impulse to resist being owned by people who have no interest in any living thing but themselves.

Dick-DarkHaired

Pandæmonium

 

Bastion Ein Sof Front Cover


Certain games from the Old School Renaissance connote a class sensibility by moving beyond the sometimes-cosy constraints of modern fantasy and into what critic John Clute calls the “armamentarium” of fantastika – an imaginative space that interrogates the impact of human-occupied processes such as ruins, industrialisation and imperialism.

This sort of roleplaying game very often puts its players in the position of being the looters of treasures, the bearers of new technologies or the foot-soldiers of a colonial power. Fond as I am of those “story games” that seek to correct the European attitudes that have played such a large part in devastating the planet – often by taking the part of protagonists who have been brutalised, or by playing people of different ethnicities or genders, or by de-centralising the authority in the game – I think it is sometimes instructive, as well as fun, to play as one of the aggressors. It is easy to forget that they are as poor and desperate as the rest of us.

Portal Rats (2017) by Tore Nielsen and Neal Stidham – “rats are riff-raff… hardscrabble ne’er-do-well[s] from a tough background found anywhere there is a portal that allows escape from hardship, oppression, a dead-end life…” – is based on The Black Hack by David Black and describes via random tables comprised of pithy and easy-to-combine prompts the kind of high-octane space fantasy found in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) or the Planescape campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977; rev 1989).

Into the Odd (2015) by Chris McDowall rewrites the industrial hubris of the Western world as a game of survival horror: the precision and brevity of the writing makes it all the more suggestive of a fallen world hollowed-out by human appetites. Bastion Ein Sof (2017) by Joe Banner – “you are a hunter, deemed fit (or expendable) enough to serve the greater cause” – functions as a kind of operating system for Into the Odd by extending the implication of the game’s demiurgical theme into a literal evocation of the terrestrial desolation described in the Book of Enoch, a form of mythology utilised in works of fantastika by authors such as John Milton (1608-1674) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013). Giants and Angels rule a post-apocalyptic earth in which humans must do the bidding of global developments they barely understand.

The aesthetic of Into the Odd brings to mind Pandæmonium (1985; rev 2012), a compendium of first-hand accounts of the machine age between the years 1660 and 1886 that conveys both the heroic promise and the dehumanizing waste of industrialisation. Games like this describe the world we live in rather than the world we want and are all the more effective for using the codes of escapism to do so.

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Into the Odd double spread

It’s easy to criticise the war-party style of play for its simulated violence: I’ve done this myself on a few occasions. I don’t think the behaviour this style of game describes is a lie, however; rather, a difficult truth that we must face in order to overcome. These are the people too poor to hide away at home while someone less fortunate does the fighting for them.

And… what would you do in their shoes? I speak as a wannabe pacifist who has punched Nazis and committed acts of violence to protect those he loves. “When is it necessary to kill?” asks a victim-aggressor in José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, 1997), before answering her own question: “When what is alive is already dead.” “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,” wrote Herman Melville (1819-1891), “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

Pergamino Barocco


 

The Pergamino Barocco of Roger S G Sorolla (a hastily-stapled edizione economiche of the grimoire’s ornate text was distributed by Lost Pages at Dragonmeet) communicates the defining motif of the Baroque: the Fold, on and on, unfolding & refolding, each Orientalist swirl or explosion of meteorological Physick a selection and accretion, an Old-school preference for the eddy of potential over the possibility of white space; open-ended, Generick, inexhaustive, a Fold repeating by meaning and design, a bird into whose plumage is tucked the Grimorio Minuscolo of Paolo Greco:-

 

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“I deliberately forgot to mention the sinister book’s existence, instead treating the Pergamino as a vehicle to ship the nefarious spellbook as contraband.”

 

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Sorolla’s spell “Cheirosciamancy” (pp2-3) is something of a masterpiece.
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The spell’s design bears some resemblance to that of  the “Inquirer” card from the tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare.

 

Moon

Social Contract

I was finally able to give Judith Clute her contributor’s copy of Itras By: The Menagerie last night: she was impressed by the design and the variety of the book.

The girl from Judith’s painting “Social Contract” (2017, main image) kind of breaks my heart. I want to leap into the picture and save her.

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#Feminism

#Feminism, an anthology of 34 nano-games first published by Fea Livia last year, is available in a second edition from Pelgrane Press. I recommend that you buy it. The graphic design (by Shuo Meng) is the best of any RPG book I know.

Editors Misha Bushyager, Lizzie Stark and Anna Westerling have organised the games into nine sections – Romance, Women and the Media, Body, The Digital Age, On the Move, Playing Well With Others, At Work, Difficult Decisions and Violent Encounters – and refined the description of each game into its own marginalia, thereby communicating at a glance how many players each game requires, how long it takes to play, its emotional intensity on a scale of one to five, what, if any, supplies are needed to play the game, and a number of keywords that indicate the game’s theme. There is no way to open the book without immediately apprehending what it is for or which game might suit your particular purpose. It’s form factor – analogous to a glossy consumer magazine – is inviting, suits being laid flat on a table and subtly indicates its target market and creative agenda.

I tend to prefer those games that either, (a) overcome or undermine misconceptions about feminism by including some of the opinions of those that oppose it (a classical argument), or (b) include a range of inter-subjective opinions about feminism (a postmodern argument), over those that (c) communicate a single point of view with a single idea – but those are my own political sensibilities and I do understand that violence of expression creates its own affect. When I first started reading the work of Angela Carter and Suzy McKee Charnas back in the 90s, it was the violence that drew me in: I needed the dramaturgy of the forced sex change of The Passion of New Eve (1977) and the hybridogenesis of Motherlines (1978) to help me understand the nature and extent of my own false consciousness about patriarchy.

I’ve seen guys of my own age and ethnicity (I’m white and in my mid-40s) say that nano-games, or game-poems, or short games, or whatever you want to call them, aren’t really games in and of themselves, but just an adjunct or a bit of showing off on the part of people who may or may not be able to design a “proper” roleplaying game with mechanics and dice and a fully-realised imagined space. I do not agree with this assessment. Being involved in the 200 Word RPG Challenge taught me that small games reveal a lot about the connections between people and their craving for emotional intimacy. Their brevity is part of their agency, like poems or laughter or farting. I might easily sneak these games into the conversation on a long train journey or into the gaps between longer games at a roleplaying convention: as design strategy, #Feminism is pretty much perfect.

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Cartomancy of the Surreal

“A big part of what makes this ambitious game work is the deck of cards that drive play,” says Jason Morningstar in Itras By without Itras By, a set of guidelines on how to use the cards from Itras By as a general resource in any roleplaying game. “The chance cards are completely portable to any other game and any other system… Best of all, the deck can be carefully tuned to deliver just the right amount of surprise and strangeness.”

We used twelve of the chance cards to inject surreal elements into our game of Dreamhounds of Paris for Trail of Cthulhu and occasionally drew a resolution card to decide the outcome of actions in the Dreamlands. Whereas we found it was possible to draw too many cards in any given session – chaos requires order for its impact – we almost never drew a card that felt inappropriate to the story we were telling and on several occasions drew a card that transformed the game in ways we might never have expected.

“Cards assist randomisation, dissolve order, remove interference, enhance focus,” says Ralph Lovegrove in Nørwegian Surreal, the second issue of fanzine Machineries of Joy, before going on to stress what I believe may be the most important factor to their use in a roleplaying game: “To invite players into the ritual cards must be ambiguous as well as inspirational.”

People love license to use their imaginations but are sometimes nervous about doing so in an atmosphere which insists on a priori knowledge of what a roleplaying game could or should be – an attitude which, I’m afraid, some dedicated hobbyists are all too willing to visit on those who are new to roleplay. Itras By’s strongest attribute is the way in which it communicates a shared imagined space while granting complete creative freedom to those playing; the cards combine surreal effects – moments of sudden disjunction designed to create unconscious emotional connections between those playing by means of improvisational prompts – with an underlying logic of sense: gameplay is directed by the creative substructure of surrealism rather than by an explicit superstructure of instructions and in my opinion is all the stronger for it.

The expanded deck of cards published to go with the Menagerie supplement to Itras By includes cards used as elements of the setting – those that accompany Aleksandra Sontowska’s game for exploring the Black Bay district of Itras By (Neighborhood, pp193-197) are wonderfully evocative – or as dedicated elements of a scenario, as in The Scientific Order of Itra-Troll, or even as an edit facility, as in the Nø-Card that supports the essay Saying No by Ole Peder Giæver. It’s also very easy to make your own cards to suit your own purposes. Cards are effective and adaptive.

 

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Cat’s Paw

06/10/2117


sudden / chemical / shipment / tenth / puppet / devil

It’s alive. More alarmingly, it’s alive in me.

Maybe it’s adaptive or maybe it’s different but the ratio of atoms just isn’t the same. The resistance I had back on Earth doesn’t seem to function here and none of the experiments I’ve run are clear about why. It’s not thinking exactly – it’s difficult not to be emotional about these results – but it does seem to change according to stimulus.

I’ve sent a sample back to Earth, warning them not to examine the substance outside of the orbital laboratory. I’m not sure that matters anymore.

I stopped thinking I was the centre of the world when H died, but even after that, even out here, I was still thinking locally. There’s nothing scientific about seeing things entirely from our own perspective.

I’ll always think of H in that leather get-up from his 40th, with the trident and the red cape. He was so gleeful about it. And yeah, we had that awful row. I like to be in control. He was right though: if you appreciate someone else’s difference, you get to participate in it and that kind of participation can be uplifting.

We were part of Earth, H and I. Earth is part of all the planets in the galaxy. The galaxy is part of an entire system of the universe. To disintegrate is to become part of it.

This is Abstract Machine, coming home.

 

H2 Graph

[delight]

 

I was playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip. I enjoyed playing and you might too.

Epstein-Barr

04/10/2117


bogeyman / best / category / glandular / beefcake / esoteric

Being this close to the thing that killed H… well, I don’t know what it makes me feel, really. They mistook it for the Epstein-Barr virus to begin with. He’d just lie there in his hospital bed reading Tom of Finland and cracking jokes.

The dust doesn’t fit any of the known taxonomies. We knew that, of course, but now that I’m closer I’m none the wiser and nor are any of the instruments. It’s some kind of interstellar gas that contains unusual data-sets.

It’s silly to think I have a sore throat in an environment this closely-controlled.

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[fear]

 

I’m playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip.