Another revelation fueled by the magical powers of biscuits and gravy. I wonder what it is about that plate…
[Hey, guys. Patreon. You know what it is. Patreon.com/woe_begone. At $100, the patreon is getting a spinoff podcast called The Diary of Aliza Schultz, in the style of the intermission episode we just had. We are so close. Here’s the names of 10 patrons starting in reverse alphabetical order: Weiing, Tracy, Toasty Warm Hamster, Sophie, Si !!, Seanabilitiy, SR Jenkins, Risky Coffee, Plumule, and Paul S. ZYXWVUTSRQPONMLKJIHGFEDCBA. Enjoy.]
[This episode contains a discussion about death. Listener discretion is advised. WOE.BEGONE is told in order. There’s references to season 1 in this episode, so go back and listen to it if you haven’t yet.]
I’m always two steps ahead. That’s my secret. People come to me all the time and ask, “Mike Walters, you’re always ready for whatever’s coming at you. What’s your secret? PS you’re so handsome, I don’t know how you do it.” They say it just like that. They’re right. I’m always two steps ahead. That’s my secret. And by having perfect eyebrows. I don’t pluck them or anything, I was just born with them.
I’m only kidding about some of that. I really am always two steps ahead. I’m serious about that. But “being two steps ahead” is a metaphor commonly regarded as being about chess. If you read interviews from Magnus Carlsen, arguably the best chess player in the history of the world, you will find that he claims that he is anywhere from 8 to 15 steps ahead at any given point in a chess match. That doesn’t mean simply knowing a linear set of 15 moves that will definitely play out, but rather knowing a set of alternate realities in which many different things could happen, then mapping every single one of them out across 15 moves. It requires someone who is smart enough to have the capacity to do that, dedicated enough to spend hours every day learning chess, and experienced enough that it isn’t all just theoretical to them. Magnus Carlsen is smarter than everyone and he works harder than everyone. That’s his secret. I resent people that are smart and work hard. That’s cheating.
WOE.BEGONE is a relatively new game compared to chess. It is also a relatively new game compared to Don’t Wake Daddy, a Hasbro board game from my childhood whose jingle remains forever implanted in my head. That is to say that it is incredibly new. It is the wild west out here. I mean that in the sense that not everything in the game has been tried or discovered, but also this whole season has taken place in the western United States. I’m basically a cowboy. Yee haw!
At least chess and Don’t Wake Daddy both have rules that you are told before you start the game. The horse moves in an L shape. The bishops move diagonally. If you push the alarm clock too many times you have to go back to the start? I think that’s how Don’t Wake Daddy works. My piano teacher’s kid had it when I was growing up and that’s the only time I ever played it. I don’t think having to successfully play Rainbow Connection from The Muppets on the piano in order to start the game was in the base set of rules, though I can’t be certain.
Does WOE.BEGONE have rules? You do what they tell you to do. Does that count as having rules or are those considered orders? The first few challenges seem to be the same or similar for everyone, though curated for each person to ensure their continued involvement. That feels like a ruleset. There is a condition under which you fail. There doesn’t seem to be a condition under which you unequivocally win, though. Following the rules gets you deeper into the game and theoretically closer to the end of the game, but the end of the game hasn’t been described. It’s like if you were playing Candyland and the board stretched on forever in one direction and the instructions assured you that if you spun the dial enough times and progressed far enough, eventually you would be able to see the end. Sorry to add another game to this bag of metaphors.
There are games where the rules are arbitrary, are made up on the spot by players, or changed mid-game by the person running the game or even as a stipulation within the game itself, like a card that changes the end conditions. What a “game” is can be nebulous and at some point it stops making sense to try and nail down the edge cases as being one way or the other.
My concern with this definition shell game of what constitutes a “game” and how it intersects with WOE.BEGONE is that I am expected to “keep playing.” No matter what happens, no matter who shows up at my door and tells me what the rules supposedly are, I am to keep playing, under threat of severe penalty. I get that games can be serious, they can be life or death, they can be unfair. Russian Roulette is a game. But at what point do I decide that I’m not playing a game anymore and change my tactics to better reflect my reality?
The stronger player is always lucky. This is WOE.BEGONE.
[Intro theme plays.]
The best laid plans of mice and men are often interrupted by someone showing up at the 1st gate to Oldbrush Valley and asking to see Mike Walters. That John Steinbeck sure was ahead of his time when he penned that aphorism. After spending a wonderful evening with Marissa and then a whole weekend trying to get my sleep schedule back to normal after pulling that all-nighter, my plan was to investigate the strange things on her patrol route that she was distracted from protecting while she was shooting me. These locations were on the other side of some formidable gates, so I was going to need to come up with a scheme if I was going to get past them. Getting through the entrance of the second main gate was a wash as far as I could tell. Even if I could get in, I was pretty sure that there were guards on the other side that wouldn’t let me go any further than that. The strange set of stones was not guarded from inside the gate, though. If I could just find a way to get around that gate without making it obvious that it had been breached, I thought that I stood a good change of figuring out what was going on. It seemed like a prime location for someone to break into that wouldn’t take too long or make too much noise. Distracting Marissa would’ve been enough, which made it feel like a good lead to figure out what was going on. That is, of course, if those boulders aren’t secretly giant robots who will spring into action and obliterate me if I make it to the other side of the gate.
Little did I know that it was myself that would end up being distracted this time. Before I could make any moves to enact my nefarious plan, I got a call from Charlie at the gate. I’m sure that she lives a rich inner life and probably has friends and a personality, but I only ever hear from her when somebody has shown up at Oldbrush Valley to bother me or inform me that I have died. I dread hearing her voice. I do not want visitors.
“Hey, Mikey, there’s a guy at the gate that said he knows you. Says his name is Ryan. Should I let him in?” She asked.
First, I hate that the nickname “Mikey” is catching on. I hate it. It makes me feel like a child. “Michael” is bad, too, but at least it has a more adult air to it. “Mike” is the perfect fit for my personality. A short tab of a name with a little bit of edge at the end. Mike. It also means that Marissa has been talking to other people about me, which I don’t appreciate. I’m trying to be secretive out here and she’s blabbing my business to people that she knows. I just want to be a recluse that nobody ever sees or interacts with, dammit. No one needs to start putting together the Mike Walters puzzle pieces.
Secondly, I only know one Ryan. Okay, well I know two Ryans, but one of them (codename Shadow) already has clearance to enter the gate, so I know that it’s not him. I am not a fan of this Ryan. Ryan is the source of all of my pain. He is the gamerunner. He is the god whose thumb I squirm under. He is the guy that I ghosted on a dating app and now is part of my life against my will. Ultimately, I want to usurp Ryan as King of WOE.BEGONE and render him powerless. Or just kill him? I don’t know. That seems like an inevitable outcome from this whole process but I’ve never said it out loud before.
“Don’t let him in, Charlie. I’ll come to you,” I groaned and made my way to the front gate.
Right away, I could tell that Ryan looked different. He was so confident the first time that I met him, even though I had just taken his right hand man hostage and was violently demanding answers. He didn’t look scared or mad or anything like that, but he didn’t look like a force to be reckoned with, either. Still, he smiled when he saw me approach the gate.
“Nice digs, Mike. Mind if I see them up close?” He asked.
“Not today. I’m not in the mood for a tour. Let’s chat. There’s a diner just down the road that has a killer biscuits and gravy platter,” I said while making my way to the outside of the gate. I gave Charlie a friendly wave and then I was off to my second WOE.BEGONE and gravy combo meal.
I had eaten at this diner a few times and this point and the staff were friendly. I felt like I was on home turf. We jumped right into conversation.
“Why are you here, Ryan?” I asked.
“Chris is dead,” Ryan said casually, through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
“What? How? And you didn’t bring him back?”
“Mm. Don’t know. And why would I bring him back,” he said and scrolled through his phone until he found a picture. “See, there’s his body.”
This was an accurate description of what he was showing me. “Holy shit, put that away. I believe you. Jesus. What happened?” I asked.
“No idea. After I lost control of the game, he ended up dead. Doesn’t bother me any, but I couldn’t bring him back if I tried,” Ryan said.
“You’re not in control of the game anymore?”
“That’s why I’m here, actually. They wrestled the game away from me a little after we first met in person. I think Flinch did it. I got something off the ground and then he took it for himself,” he said. “I haven’t been part of whatever it is you are doing out here. I only have a partial idea of what is going on at all.”
I had no reason to trust Ryan, but I could believe this. After the first four challenges, the orders from the gamerunners became less focused on violence for its own sake and more targeted at infiltrating and discovering what was going on in Oldbrush Valley. If the game changed hands, that would explain the sudden shift.
“But why would you come to me if you lost the technology?” I asked.
“Because I want it back. I know that you have it. I know you have access,” he said. “I want to be cut back in.”
I stared at him, bewildered. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said.
He looked me in the eye, evaluating my reaction for a moment. “You really don’t know what I’m talking about? But, that shit with Matt. The trick you pulled,” he said.
“When you convinced him to let you complete the fourth challenge. Have you actually not done that yet? When will you do it, then?” he asked.
“I didn’t convince him. Something happened,” I said.
“I see. I have mistimed this conversation, but the cat is out of the bag now,” Ryan said.
“You’re saying that night, it was me?” I asked.
“Seeing someone pop in from the future makes for an extremely compelling argument. I should know, I’ve done it a few times,” Ryan said.
“That was me…” I said. “I showed up to convince Matt to let me kill him. Showing up was proof that I had the technology and that I could use it to bring him back later,” I said. I have had so many revelation while eating biscuits and gravy at this point, it’s unbelievable.
“Bingo,” Ryan said.
“That makes more sense than you helping me out, which is what I thought happened,” I said.
“Yeah, I’d never do that,” he said.
“But that means that I win the game,” I said.
“Which is why I’m here,” he said.
“But I haven’t won yet. I’m not even doing well. I am injured and weak from doing poorly, actually,” I said.
“I noticed,” he said. “No offense, but you look like shit.”
“I had a rumble with a bear and not in the fun metaphorical way,” I said. “A bear that disappeared after it was done with me, by the way. And you’re saying that wasn’t you that did that?”
“Could’ve been you,” he said. “I don’t know anything about this place. The game was ripped away from me before whoever it was shipped you out here. It wasn’t my idea. Have you found anything interesting here yet?”
“This place is as bizarre as it gets and they protect whatever is inside more fiercely than Area 51,” I said. “That’s all I’m telling you. Why should I tell you anything? You don’t have power over me anymore. You don’t have anything to offer me.” It felt good to say that Ryan had no power over me. For so long, I had lived in his shadow, acting on what I thought was his whim, hoping one day that I could wriggle out from underneath him. Now he was just a guy.
“How do you think that you eventually get access to WOE.BEGONE?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know. You want me to think that it’s you,” I replied.
“I don’t know, either. It might have nothing to do with me. But do you think that you do it on your own? Do you think that you do it by continuing to do what you have already been doing out here?” he asked.
“You made me saw my left arm off,” I said, indignantly.
“And I don’t regret it,” he said. “I’m not auditioning to be your friend, Mike. I think we would mutually benefit from working together. If things were working out for either of us working solo, I would not have shown up and you probably wouldn’t have answered. I have knowledge into what the underpinnings of the game are. I wrote the damn thing. I have an idea of what they know and what they don’t know. It’s not perfect knowledge. I was writing code that someone else executed for me. But that’s so much more than you have right now. At least when your body was being ripped apart in my game, I told you ahead of time what was going to happen.”
“That does not bring me any solace and I still don’t understand what you can do for me,” I said.
“You’re fact finding out here, aren’t you? If order for you to find facts for them, you have to get your hands on them first. That’s a huge vulnerability for them. Have you found any stuff that you don’t know what it means yet?” he asked.
“Things out here are on a need to know basis. I don’t think that you need to know,” I said.
“If its something I can crack, we can generate some momentum here,” Ryan said. “I can make progress if you can give me the information. You can make progress if I can solve whatever encryption they are using. Honestly, I don’t think that you have any reason not to trust me, or at least you don’t have any reason to fear me. At some point you are going to win the game or take over the technology, whatever that looks like at the point that you do it. That does not appear to be preventable at this juncture. I certainly don’t have the tools to prevent what you end up doing. Whatever happens between the two of us will ultimately lead to you having this power. You make it out the other side of this thing alive.”
“That’s a good point. Look, I don’t see why I have to make a decision now. I’ll reopen communications with you and give it some more thought. If I decide to work with you, I will send you some test information and see if you can decrypt it. If you fail, I’ll assume that you ran off with the info and aren’t going to be of any use. If you decrypt it and it’s something I can use, then we can talk about cooperation. I’m not in a hurry right now. If I start to get rushed, I reserve the right to change the rules of engagement at any time.”
“Sounds fair,” Ryan said.
“Aside from that, why do you think they killed Chris?” I asked.
“He was inserting himself into a lot of games. They probably just didn’t want him meddling with them after they kicked me from running it. Hell, it could’ve been someone playing the game who killed him to protect himself. It wouldn’t be the first time. I just wasn’t at the wheel to turn around and fix it this time,” he said.
“Okay. Last question: who are “they”?” I asked.
“Someone with better operation security than me, that’s for sure,” Ryan said. “I’m secretive. I barely ever operate on the right side of the law. But even I get lazy. Even I have blind spots in my vision that keep me from operating 100% anonymously and safely. I have to take calculated risks to get what I want. Sending code to Flinch was a calculated risk, but there wasn’t any way around it. It was the only way to get access. That’s how it all got taken away from me. Whoever is further up the chain than I am has the power to afford to be able to not take those risks or is smarter and more capable than me and can eliminate these risks through pure skill.”
“When you put it that way, we sound completely screwed,” I said.
“The only way that I know that you’re not is that I was running the game when you came from the future and convinced Matt to let you complete the challenge,” he said. “I still might be. I’m just trying to mitigate my losses at this point.”
“Well, then it seems we are meeting each other where we are,” I said, standing up from the table. “I will contact you to let you know where I end up landing on this whole thing. I think you’ve said all that you needed to say.”
“I’m sure you’ll make the right decision,” he said, also standing up. “One piece of advice for a fellow traveler: keep some hot sauce or smelling salts or something in your pocket. Anything that gives a big blast of sensory information. It’s much easier to get your plans done if you have a clear head. The travel can put you in a daze.”
“That’s smart, I’ll remember that,” I said. We parted ways.
I made my way back to the front gate of Oldbrush Valley Energy and Resources alone, ruminating on the conversation. The wind had picked up while we were inside the diner. It was strong enough that my beard was pushed sideways. At the gate, Charlie was desperately trying to keep her shoulder length red hair out of her face. We commiserated.
“Don’t you love working outside?” I asked her.
“99% of the time. Have you had to walk a patrol in the snow yet?” She asked.
“Not yet. Looks like I got here at the right time of year to barely avoid it,” I said.
“Hey. So I know that it isn’t my place at all to ask about this. Actually, they told me specifically not to pry like this. Whatever is going on with the employees is none of my business unless it appears to cause a threat to the security of O.V.E.R. But, is everything okay? This is the second person that has shown up that you looked like you weren’t happy to see. Both times, you didn’t let them in. You don’t have to tell me what’s going on. A lot of people out here are getting away from something. If you’re trying to get away and someone isn’t letting you, just tell me and I won’t let them in. You don’t have to come down here and sort it out. I can take care of it for you,” she said. The wholesomeness of this conversation was diminished by her hair whipping all around in the wind.
“I appreciate that, Charlie, but I can handle it. It’s nice to have someone like you guarding the front gate. I’ll be sure to let you know if there ever comes a time that I need backup.”
“That’s what I’m here for, Mike. You take care now,” she said and buzzed me into Oldbrush Valley.
Back at my cabin, I had plenty of things to think about. First, I took some time to feel sad about Chris Evans, the fake WOE.BEGONE gamerunner with the most unfortunate name. What he ended up being was an internet artist who got in over his head while working on something more real than he bargained for when he signed up. He was both duplicitous and pathetic, but I don’t think I can fault him for that without throwing stones in a glass house. He was at the whims of WOE.BEGONE as much as I was. This put him at the whims of my own violence when I thought that violence was a path to victory in the game. It was useful violence that I don’t regret, but it is depressing to think of the type of life that he must have led throughout this whole ordeal.
Before his involvement with my game fell apart, he had tried to convince me that he was going to try to kill Anne and I relayed that message to her. I’m not suggesting that Anne killed him in order to keep herself safe. But if he pulled that stunt with Anne and myself, there’s no telling how many other people he also tried that trick on. It might be part of everyone’s WOE.BEGONE journey, a decision that everyone is expected to make by that point in the game. If it is, there’s no wonder that someone killed him. The game is almost begging the player to do so. Ryan said that Chris had been brought back from the dead multiple times. I wonder how many times that means. And then when the new gamerunners didn’t see the same utility in him that Ryan did, he just didn’t come back that time. Problem solved.
That loop of time is closed, at least for now. What is left is a past that some can return to and others can remember, the aesthetics surround a game and technology that ethically should never have existed but is now cursed to exist forever, and some art mostly in the form of fictional ramblings by a fictional philosopher named Aliza Schultz.
As for the rest of our conversation, I think that Ryan was telling the truth. I’ve been taken for a ride for thinking that people are telling the truth before, but I don’t have much of a choice if I can’t develop a method to better determine which of these people are lying to me. He was definitely right about one thing: someone appeared at Matt’s house and convinced him that I was doing the right thing by completing the fourth challenge. Who else would do that but me? I like this theory. It makes sense and would be incredible news for me if true. I am going to win the game. I am the King of WOE.BEGONE. I’m 15 steps ahead, ahead of myself, even. This pain is all going to mean something, someday. When that will be and what will lie in-between still horrifies me. I wonder what else I am doing in the future that I have already witnessed. If I disappeared the bear, I did a lousy job of it, to be honest. Do better, Mike.
One piece of information leaped out to me when Ryan said that he could help decipher information that I am relaying to the gamerunners. It’s the only encrypted piece of information that I’ve gotten while out here: the packet of alphanumeric codes that I stole from the dropbox the night that Marissa shot me. I couldn’t even figure out if they were solvable if you didn’t have the information that the code was based on. It was useless to me and allegedly useful to the gamerunners, so I had to further their agenda without furthering my own. If Ryan could crack this for me and tell me what it says, then I could better hold my own out here.
I can’t assess the risk. Maybe I send it to Ryan and it tells him everything he needs to know in order to get the game back under his rule. I’m not even sure what that would mean for me. I don’t think that he would just arbitrarily lash out at me after that. Same game, different gamerunner. The worst case scenario appears to be that I would just be left in the dark again. I’ve already been left in the dark about what this document contains. In all likelihood it will contain a puzzle piece at best and Ryan will need me to keep investigating inside of O.V.E.R. and inside of WOE.BEGONE. The best case scenario is that it contains a clue to one of the central mysteries to this whole thing: who’s running the game, why the bear disappeared, who brought me back the second time, what’s going on on Marissa’s route, what’s in the red flag cabins, what does the button do, and what’s up with Hunter Hartley being at least two people. I wasn’t expecting to be able to rattle off everything like that just now, but we’ve crossed a bunch of stuff off the list recently.
So, I guess I’m going to do it. Otherwise, I’m just doing what the game orders me to do and I don’t even have any insights into who might be giving those orders anymore. The thing about chess is that it doesn’t matter if you can see 15 moves ahead if you aren’t going to take any offensive action. Your pieces will get eaten up, one by one, until finally your king is exposed. I might only see two moves ahead, but I can try my best to ensure that those moves are clever and aggressive. And what’s the worst that can happen? They kill me? Nice try, buddy, this isn’t my first rodeo. The stronger player is always lucky and I’ve gotten lucky twice at this point. What does that say about me? That I have delusions of grandeur? Yeah right.
This has been WOE.BEGONE. Next time: we’re getting into it. Ryan, the game, the mystery, everything. Let’s crack this thing open. Thanks for playing.
[End theme plays.]