9: Trailhead

9: Trailhead WOE.BEGONE


The episode of WOE.BEGONE was recorded on location. Apologies for the occasional drops in audio quality. You know what they say: never work with animals.

[Warning: This episode contains a depiction of kidnapping. Listener discretion is advised.]


[If you like WOE.BEGONE, you can now support the show on PATRE.GONE. Go to patreon.com/woe_begone for early episodes, instrumentals, art, music, writing, and more. Thanks to Risky Coffee, Plumule, Your Name, and Cooper Dukes for supporting the show.]

[Warning: this episode contains a depiction of kidnapping. Listener discretion is advised.]

[Muffled shout followed by a banging sound.]

Don’t you fucking kick me. I’m starting the episode. Don’t you want to hear what happens? I mean, I guess you already know a lot of it. But it’ll be fun, right? 

Honestly, I’m a little surprised at how good at this whole brutality thing I am. Before WOE.BEGONE, I didn’t consider myself a violent person. Not a good person, but not a violent person either. I’m usually pretty conflict-avoidant. I had never been in a real fight. Maybe some teenage fights with my friends when hormones were running high. I don’t even yell at people who cut me in line at the grocery store. A darker side of my personality has really gotten an opportunity to shine through recently, though. I’m kind of like Frances McDormand’s character in Burn After Reading. A world of violence and intrigue fell right into my lap and I immediately slotted into it like I was born for it and also I’m a huge fucking idiot who got played by the people who were already entrenched in that conspiracy because I didn’t actually know what I was doing.  

But now I’ve got a guy bound and gagged here with me and I’m doing a podcast while he sits there and has no choice but to watch me, as you have no doubt heard in the background of this recording. Hey man, I bought this nice mic so the podcast would sound good and you’re messing it up! This brutality, again, was beyond my expected capabilities. I’ll get to why he’s tied up and not dead in a second, but I promise you that it has nothing to do with my heart growing three sizes this day. I need him alive for now. Dead men tell no tales, but as a result they also don’t let you in on what is really going on here. Information is an incredibly valuable commodity in this game. At least as valuable as a life. Lives are pretty darn cheap, actually. 

I’m sure I can sleep better than the gamerunners, though. Maybe there’s a point to all of this, but I can’t figure out how they profit from any of the first four challenges. It doesn’t shift power into their hands or get rid of their rivals or any of that. It’s just sadism. I may have killed a guy… and a pig… and myself on accident… and helped with killing another guy– but I never tormented anyone by bringing the dead back to life and using an almost literal Sword of Damocles to manipulate people into spilling more blood. If I’m barbaric, then I don’t have the vocabulary for the people who designed this game and recruited everyone into playing. All of this technology that goes beyond everyone’s understanding and it’s being used to play a dinky little murder game. Maybe once you have all the power in the world you get bored and it takes stuff like this just to get your heart beating again. 

Maybe you can help explain? If you finally feel like talking, I mean. [More muffled banging and shouting.] This is WOE.BEGONE. 

[Intro music plays.]

The story of WOE.BEGONE is being told in order. If this is your first time listening, you really need to go back to the first episode and start there. This is one of those big reveal episodes, so you’ll just be confused if you don’t. 

Last episode, I hinted ever so subtly that I was going to head to Vancouver and find Matt and kill him to complete challenge 4 of WOE.BEGONE. Though it sometimes felt like Matt’s life had been fully restored, I labor under no such misunderstanding. In most possible outcomes, Matt was a goner. The only way that I could ostensibly save him for real was to win the game. And the only way to win the game was to kill Matt. And I don’t talk about this much, but the idea that the “prize” is getting control of the WOE.BEGONE technology is just speculation based on the things that the gamerunners have said. The “prize” could be a big “fuck you” at the end of it. That’s another reason that CANNONBALL’s idea to build the tech for ourselves is so alluring. [More banging and muffled shouting.] That’s the only way to be sure that Matt is still alive. I could undo some of this extreme trauma while I’m at it, too. But building a parallel technology to rival the gamerunners isn’t even playing WOE.BEGONE at that point, it’s just WOE.BEGONE inspired. WOE.BEGONE adjacent. 

Saying that I was going to fly to Vancouver was actually a sort of silly mistake on my part. I imagine quite a few listeners heard that I was going to fly to Vancouver and wondered if that was even possible. Doesn’t Mike Walters live in America? That [REDACTED] jumbled censor thing sure does sound like Saint Louis– no matter what I did to the voice snippet, damn it! I reversed it and pitched it down and it still sounded like St. Louis. So then I switched the order of the reversed syllables and it still sounded like St. Louis, at which point I just said fuck it, some people will figure it out and it will add a little bit to the mystery-solving aspect of the podcast. But yeah, there is no way for me to legally travel to Vancouver right now. If I had played the game smarter, I wouldn’t have given Matt’s real city in the first episode just in case something like this happened. A more naive time, to be sure. Maybe I’ll fix that once I get my hands on the tech. 

Playing along with the fourth challenge was but a clever ruse, you see! It was just one arm of my plan to manipulate the game and get closer to the truth. I was sure that CANNONBALL used the podcast to figure out what I was thinking and doing, so I started using it as a way to lie directly to his face. I know that CANNONBALL takes me for a chump who will just spill every little bit of his guts out for podcast listens, so it was pretty easy to plant lies among the truths in the story (remember that “limited hangout” thing we talked about last episode?). I mean, this is a guy who seemed to honestly believe that my name was Mike Walters. Hmm, I never labored under the delusion that his name was actually CANNONBALL in all caps. I wonder which of us had the better call-sign. Turns out that being great at a few things doesn’t make you smart and it sure as hell doesn’t make you secure. I don’t even think that CANNONBALL made any of the WOE.BEGONE technology. I think one of the other guys just probably taught him how to work the machine and let him do the grunt work. Oh, by the way, CANNONBALL is a gamerunner, if you didn’t pick up on that. 

I figured out– or at least suspected– that CANNONBALL was involved in the operations of WOE.BEGONE sooner than I let on in the podcast. It’s important not to just dismiss something out of place by just say “oh, I’m sure it’s nothing.” It could actually be something out of place. CANNONBALL got emails from the gamerunners that I never got and I justified that by believing that emails only got sent out under certain conditions that I haven’t ever met. How convenient for him. Dropping little hints in our conversations was another thing barely suspicious enough to get my attention. I now know that he was dropping trailheads– giving me clues that encouraged me to dig into whatever aspect of the game he wanted me to latch onto at each junction. He would say “check out Charles Thibbideau” or “Check out Aliza Schultz” and I would unveil another little piece of the puzzle to progress in my knowledge of the game. It also didn’t make total sense that he allegedly took a 6 year break from the game and at no point dropped low enough in the rankings to be kicked out. If that is how the game works, then there’s no way that someone wouldn’t have passed him up. All of these things are easy to shrug off, but the culmination of them suggests that something other than what CANNONBALL was telling me was happening was happening. 

The Aliza Schultz stuff was just a little too sloppy, which is when I decided to try and get to the bottom of the CANNONBALL mystery, once and for all. I’m not an idiot. Well, I am an idiot, but I know what a metaphor is. I knew that the Aliza Shultz stories were the gamerunner metaphorically taunting me, even though I pretended to think they were gibberish on the podcast. The story about Proxima B and the poisonous flower are about the philosophy of time travel and the nature of something beautiful but fatal. It’s a sort of Kantian sublime thing. The story of the ghost plays up her apparent dementia, but the metaphorical implication knowing what I know now is that she and CANNONBALL are one and the same. The lighthouse story is about how only the gamerunners know how to use the technology. I think it was a warning. You can’t kill me because if you do, then no one will know how to maintain WOE.BEGONE and you won’t get access to it either. I think the sailing story is about how powerless we are against the unrelenting forward momentum of time? Or maybe it is mocking me for being so close to the source but unable to achieve it, like someone rowing through an endless ocean that is shallow enough to stand up in. The gamerunners set them all up for their own edification and as a way to make me disoriented. 

Once I started having suspicions, I started stalking CANNONBALL. I started doing this weeks ago, actually. OpSec tip #1, kids: don’t pick a rendezvous location that is close to your house. At least pick somewhere across the city. And don’t pick the damn coffeeshop where you’re a regular and the barista knows your name and will just blab to anyone that comes in with a photo of you. Christopher Evans? Awful name. There’s already someone named Chris Evans, CANNONBALL. And CANNONBALL goes by Topher, too, I guess so that people don’t make jokes about how he has the same name as Captain America. Asinine. Topher Evans. It doesn’t roll of the tongue whatsoever. Mike Walters, that’s a name. 

Topher here lives alone in an apartment that would be quite nice if it was decorated and furnished properly. I’m sure money isn’t a problem for him since he can go back in time and buy a winning lottery ticket if he wants to. This computer’s definitely better than mine. Ooh, Red Dead Redemption 2, nice. Fortuitously, saying that I was going somewhere impossible to travel to like Vancouver meant that CANNONBALL couldn’t chase me there, since he couldn’t travel there either. Though, if I had named a city it was possible to travel to, I could have just ransacked his house while he was going after me. This whole situation is better, though. 

You should be proud, CANNONBALL. I learned a lot from your game. Doing challenge 3 twice gave me a lot of practice with stalking someone until I can figure out their routine, inconspicuously get into their doorway and get the job done. It’s a lot harder to maim than kill, though. There was quite a struggle. I don’t think we made too much noise. The neighbors probably don’t know that something is up. No blood on the nice carpet. You’re welcome. I did have to gag him, though. He would be yelling his head off if I didn’t. 

That isn’t to say that I haven’t been giving him the hard questions, though. Using the threat of violence to keep him from screaming when I ungag him makes me feel icky, but I feel like we are knee deep in icky shit at this point. It hasn’t been useful as far as getting any juicy WOE.BEGONE secrets out of his mouth, but I’m not done trying yet. I’m sure that the higher-ups instructed him under penalty of severe retribution not to speak a word in the case of shit hitting the fan. There’s no point in torturing him, of course, unless I wanted him to tell me what I want to hear instead of the truth. And, while I do like hearing things that I want to hear, that doesn’t get me any closer to where I’m going. I would like to know how many people are playing the game, how many people are running the game, and where the technology is being kept at, but I guess I’m going to have to find that stuff without any help from Topher. Topher’s house, on the other hand, definitely has some materials that are willing to speak with me.

I went to the Aliza Shultz’s blog from his computer and, sure enough, he was already logged in as administrator. Tsk tsk, CANNONBALL. That’s how they caught Dread Pirate Roberts, you know. The guy who ran Silk Road, not the character from Princess Bride. He was out in public and logged into the backend of the site and the FBI snatched him up then and there. Always log out of anything that you don’t want people to know is connected to you. Also, password protect your computer. You never know when someone might bash you over the head with a metal rod in your doorway and tie you up to try and figure out what’s going on with the time travel stuff. And encrypt your important drives, damn it! They actually sell pre-encrypted USB sticks for sensitive information like this. 

Oh, right. Maybe I should talk about what the point is of me kidnapping Captain America in his own home. Killing Matt was never legitimately an option. I just couldn’t imagine me actually having the stones (or the bloodlust) to go through with it. Losing him was hard enough the first time. And if I didn’t do it, he was fucked as well because this asshole beside me wouldn’t just let me get by with not killing Matt– he’d go back and let Matt die the night that he first died. Now I know how Aliza Schultz felt when she couldn’t complete the third challenge. Aww, how heartbroken she must have been. The gamerunners sent out the fourth challenge right when I was almost positive that CANNONBALL was a gamerunner and so he basically made my choice for me. Now my sense of direction is strong and I’m ready for answers. 

After confirming that CANNONBALL was BOBCAT, the next thing I did was copy a full image of his computer onto a harddrive that I brought with me. I also uploaded it to two cloud storage services. From one of those services, I downloaded the whole image to my phone’s expandable memory. I had also set up a dead man’s switch script that would email out the credentials for both of these cloud storage services to a handful of close friends after 1 week unless I entered a password on my computer to stop it. It was a bit of a shotgun approach, but I didn’t want to miss something on his computer just because I didn’t know what I was looking for. If everything went according to plan, I would have as much time as I needed to go over every bit of data on that computer with a fine-tooth comb. I made sure that CANNONBALL watched me do this and understood what was happening, so that if he was going to try and funny business he would know that he needed to be clever about how he did it, lest the contents of his computer spill out onto the whole internet. 

I wasn’t expecting a big glowing box with the words “TIME TRAVEL MACHINE: FOR WOE.BEGONE GAMERUNNERS ONLY” on it, so I wasn’t especially disappointed when I didn’t find one. I did tear the place apart looking for anything that might ostensibly be a time travel machine though. Or a magic time travel trinket, I don’t know. I thought that it was a scientific machine based on computer engineering, but that’s because CANNONBOBCAT over here told me so. It could be magic. It certainly seems like magic. If I had to speculate wildly, I’d wager that there is one WOE.BEGONE supercomputer somewhere, probably not here, that all of the gamerunners use to manipulate spacetime. It might be at a university or part of a particle collider or some other science shit that I don’t actually understand. It could be in a witch’s lair: spooooky! But if it’s in Topher’s house, then it is either passably disguised as a refrigerator with some shitty beer in it or it’s microscopic and hidden in between the floorboards. The more I learn, the more I think that he isn’t the brains of the operation, so if it is in someone’s house, it probably isn’t in his. 

How do I know that he isn’t the only gamerunner? Because he doesn’t log out of gmail when he’s done with it, either. C’mon, dude. At least force me to guess your password or force 2 factor authentication and get the code off the phone that I took off you while I was tying you up. When it started, I thought that the story of WOE.BEGONE would be about the consequences of seeking power, but now I think that the moral is to take your information security seriously, especially if you have something that is worth protecting. Shutting up didn’t do CANNONBALL any good if all of his data does the talking for him. Maybe the reason the sign-up page for WOE.BEGONE requiring you to use a burner VOIP and VPN is because they are trying to hire a replacement for CANNONBALL that has been infosec practices. 

Whoops, as it turns out that was just his personal email. No spicy time travel goodness on there. Just some private stuff that isn’t any of my business. It looks like there’s another linked account that is just random numbers and letters. Ah, yep, here it is. Oh, yep, player info spreadsheets– that will be extremely handy, documentation, a connected google drive, some guy named Ryan that seems to have opinions about various WOE.BEGONE goings-on. From the looks of this Ryan is a gamerunner and he’s calling the shots, or at least delivering them to Captain America. Good news for me. Reading through this should give me enough info to impersonate Topher and establish a fake rendezvous, but I need to be careful. I need to do it before I upload this episode, obviously. He knows who I am and when he sees me instead of Topher he’s probably going to freak. Oh, it looks like they meet here every now and then, so it wouldn’t be out of place for him to come here, which would give me the proverbial high ground for a surprise attack.

[Deep breath, sigh.] Aaaalright, this has been a lot of fun but I shouldn’t get cocky. It has been exciting. I have been a braggart in this episode, but this is incredibly far from over. Now would be a horrible time to lose my alertness. I’m not worried about Chris here. Well, I am. I’m worried about future Chris, come back via his own retrocausal pocket to rain hell down on me for doing all this. Actually, wouldn’t he have already done that? Topher, am I going to kill you? That’s the only reason that I can think of that you wouldn’t immediately come and get me the second I let you go. I guess it’s possible that I strip your access to the tech somehow and you physically can’t get your revenge. Maybe Ryan burns you after he learns you have been compromised. And I suppose there is also a chance that for some reason you aren’t interested in stopping this from happening. I’ll have to brainstorm on that because if that’s the answer then there is some multi-dimensional chess being done here that is not fully on my radar. You couldn’t have seen this coming. Not because I pulled off the perfect crime, but because surely you would have dispatched with me at a distance before I could whack you with an iron bar. 

It looks like the bulk of communication between Topher and Ryan are titled something like “CHANGELOG” and then a date. These emails contain a list of players and a description of what retrocausal action needs to be taken for those players’ sake in the game. So Topher might not even know where the WOE.BEGONE machine is. He just sends his boss a list of what needs to be changed and he does it for him. It looks like there is also an email thread just for tracking WOE.BEGONE’s digital footprint. Which, of course, means that they were talking about my podcast. 

Let’s see… I bought the Aliza Schultz stuff and was satisfactorily distracted from W.BG operations. Episode 7’s name is too long. Hey, screw you, why are you giving notes on my show? Ah, “MW is making travel arrangements for Vancouver this week to revoke his prize. Prepare the challenge package in case of a completed challenge.” You guys thought that I was actually going to do it. I wonder what a “challenge package” is. 

I think this discussion is where I’ll weasel my way in. Okay, let me channel this tacky, overly-formal way of reporting to the bossman from the other emails. Subject: “MW Conspicuous Travel Plans” And then…


Second-guessing the challenge operation of MW vis-a-vis Vancouver. Travel restrictions severely impede Americans attempting to enter Canada. Would it be prudent to allow MW another pathway to completing the challenge? Would like to meet in person to discuss, here, if possible. -C”

This was mostly copy-pasted bits from other emails to make sure that everything that I said would be something that CANNONBALL would say. I think that tipping Ryan off would likely result in my instant death. More instant than instant– so instant that it actually happened weeks ago. I think I did a good impersonation. It took about 45 minutes to get a response. It was concise: “Your place, 7:00 tonight. Maintain silence. -R” Well, Topher, I see where you get it from. BOBCAT? More like COPYCAT. 

This gives me about 2 hours to prepare. Thank god he didn’t say let’s meet next Monday or something. The longer this goes on, the more I have to consider the possibility of feeding and caring for a hostage whom I am gagging because he will yell loud enough to get the cops called if I don’t. I also don’t want to have to deal with the whole bathroom thing. Adrenaline has been running high these past few hours, so I think we’re both stopped up on that front, but once the adrenaline wears off the body will relax and… you know. No need to be gross about it. Poopies. It’s like babysitting an infant that weighs more than you do and has access to time travel technology. 

Now there is nothing left to do but wait. This feels worse than either time I was waiting for the cops to show up during the third challenge. Two hours was just long enough to steep in my silence and wonder whether or not I had just made a fatally large mistake out of desperation. No. I don’t think that it is prudent to doubt CANNONBALL’s description of the game rules. I think the whole point of him telling them to me the rules was to outline the game’s structure to me, not to deceive me. The rules as they were explained to me created a paradox in which it was impossible for me to make it out of the game alive. If Anne didn’t kill me to stay in the game, I would eventually kill myself by winning the game. I wonder if Anne is sitting outside my apartment right now with a gun, waiting for me to come out, everything that I’ve done today and the true nature of the game unbeknownst to her. 

This would end badly for me no matter what I did– if not now, then not far into the future. That’s a bad way to run a game. Best case scenario, the player put in the no-win scenario gets up and walks away. Worst case scenario, they flip the board over on their way out. The rules of the game are not the laws of the universe, so you need the players’ consent to get them to obey to them. A smarter person would have withdrawn their consent from WOE.BEGONE a long time ago. But then a smarter person wouldn’t be 2 hours away from getting access to the power of spacetime manipulation. 

Maybe I shouldn’t assault Ryan when he gets here. I have a lot of blackmail material. Maybe it is best if I just get him to spill the beans by using everything that I’ve acquired here. Unlike CANNONBALL, I need him to talk. Do I just wing it based on his vibe when he gets here? That seems ill-advised. I’ll just lay it out nice and clearly: I don’t want to hurt you, but nobody is leaving Topher Evans’s apartment until I get some serious answers with evidence to back them up, access to the technology that makes WOE.BEGONE function, and foolproof evidence that I will be able to walk around alive without interference from anyone involved in running the game. Is that really so much to ask?

This has been WOE.BEGONE. Next time: things are about to get interesting or Mike Walters is about to become a corpse. I don’t really see a third option. Thanks for playing. 

[End theme plays.]