Through the Bottom of the World:
A Choose-your-own Speed Run
Even if you are familiar with speed runs, the subtitle of this piece of interactive fiction will likely confuse you some. For those of you who aren’t familiar, a speed run is an attempt to complete the story campaign of a video game, or some subset of goals within a video game, in the shortest amount of time possible for a human player who is not using any machine or program to interfere with the game’s function.
It is about analyzing the game, cataloguing the flaws in its programming, and expertly exploiting them in a way that destroys the intended experience. Often the reward is simply notoriety; you become the person best at stripping a story of its impact until its plotline is steamrolled into two simple markers: the starting line and the finish line. Substance must be ignored in favor of utility. Everything the game presents is a distraction, a shining bauble for you to paw at like an infant, anything to keep you from parsing the illusion and seeing those lines.
If this disturbs you, if you find something fundamentally wrong with stripping a painting to see the white canvas underneath, this experience could be very uncomfortable. For others though, it will contain the thrills of discovery and competition. These are the people who see not the subtleties of passion, just the singular goals of humanity: solve the puzzle and win the race.
In this fiction, the philosophy of the speed run will be your guiding principle. You will enter the lands of Shook and Cain: a place of magic, fantastic creatures, and adventure around each corner. At certain points in the story you will be asked to make decisions the way a player of a video game often would. These will be moments of impasse for the protagonist, the times when her mind’s edge cannot adequately cleave a decision.
Though she is her own person, solid in spirit and body, she struggles with indecision as many of us do. These struggles are the chink in her armor, through which you will enter like a mosquito-fairy, like a hypnotizing tick, and nudge her in one direction or the other. These decisions will alter her path through Shook and Cain greatly. Whether you choose to follow one line or examine the entire web of the story, there will be one constant: your time.
The protagonist will be in the midst of a speed run of sorts, but she is not playing a game. The story she can strip away is no painting, it is her life. Throughout the fiction a timer will be kept to see how fast or slow her life is passing. It can be sped, but experience will inevitably be lost along the way. This is not something she has faced before, which is why she’ll need that small voice in her head advising her. You may not be a god in your world, but here you at least have more perspective than the person you’re trying to help. At the completion of her story you will receive a time. This time might give you satisfaction and it might not. Perhaps you want to be faster. Perhaps you want to be the fastest. Perhaps you’ll feel like you missed the forest.
Welcome to the choose-your-own-speed run, where life passing you by is your greatest aspiration. Or not.
Current time: seventeen years, three months, twenty-two days, six hours, sixteen minutes, five seconds, and one tenth of a second.
There is something carved in the stone cliffs next to one of Lampworm Bay’s narrow entrances, a riddle: There are no children, yet our city grows. It wasn’t much of a riddle if you had a nose, for the smell of the bay gave it away. Even the salt of the sea could not hide the decay. Lampworm Bay was a city of the dead. Nay, city was not appropriate. The dead moved through the bay, in transit, so it was more like a temporary refuge for them before oblivion.
The cliff, tall, gray, uncracked, had a dozen perfect holes near the sand, the right size for the machinery rolling through them. Out of each hole came a conveyor belt, turned by a facility deep in the stone that most had never seen and hoped to never see. The belts turned out a steady stream of coffins made from already-moldering wood. Every few seconds a new body was dumped into the bay to be carried out to sea.
The bodies were those of servants. Their masters were Shook: the kinder masters. Those who served Cain could only be called slaves. Past the cliffs stood the palatial city, where all those who mattered had at least three servants. A disease had passed through recently, close to the ground, infecting all those who had to kneel. Lampworm Bay was working all hours to process the bodies and get them out of sight. It was thought also that the salty air would help purge them of the infection’s lingering life in their flesh.
Some riddle, Bombi thought as she passed by the carved words. All cities are graveyards; they just don’t look it yet. She squeezed through the stone crevice to get to the beach, with its belts and its bodies. The tight space nearly pulled one of her silver chains from her simple dress. They weren’t exactly her chains; they belonged to the Shook family who owned her family’s contract. Ahh, the contract: the thin curtain between us and slavery.
The chains across her dress, tipped in silver charms shaped like swans, fruit opossums, and lynxes, were just the decorations her employers had put on her so she matched the chandeliers. They had pierced and adorned her face as well: a silver pearl in the depression of her lip, diamond shapes above her eyebrows, and more chains going from her ears to the base of her jaw.
Bombi’s skin was very dark, making the silver glisten all the more. She had a round face and high cheeks, the kind of cheeks raindrops bounce off of rather than flow down. Her hair was cut near to nothing, so she could be dressed in wigs that matched the seasons or the theme of her employers’ parties. She was seventeen years of age, having served since eleven. Her parents had served since they were eleven as well, and their parents, and theirs…
There was one piece of silver on her that did belong to her, and she had to make sure the man who gifted it to her was properly thanked. She checked her clothes to make sure none of the jewels were lost; they were not. She made her way between the conveyor belts. A coffin rushed by. Another on the opposite side. Where was he? He could have been any of them. Bombi took a moment to think, then walked alongside one of the wooden boxes as it rolled, searching for a seal. She found one burned into the top. All she had to do was find the one her employer used for their property and contracts: a woman with her arms knitted through a quilted map of the lands of Shook and Cain.
Her parents loved her, but that love was tempered by smallness. They wanted her to be satisfied with the box they lived in, the rusted forks they ate with, and the fellow servant they would eventually pick out for her as husband and father of her laboring children. Bombi struggled against this smallness, but there was little she could do. She had tried to outgrow the box, but its material was too strong. Her limbs could only bend and deform against it as her wisdom expanded. Her head could only bow to protect itself from flattening against the top.
The struggle had made her listless and filled her with sadness. The blue swelling of the sadness eventually hit the sides of the box as well, and deflated to gray defeat. Her expectations and hope shrank, which made her a much better servant as of late.
There was one who tried to help her, who kept trying to poke air holes in the box: her uncle Timorrow. It was always easier for him; he got to work in the stables. The horses didn’t see the difference between him and their owners. He always helped her sneak away so she could ride the horses. When she was done he would take her by the shoulder, sweep her into the barn, and show her his secret cache underneath the hay: silverware, centerpieces, stationary, and decorative glass.
All of them were stolen from the Shook. He advised her to steal whatever she could and sell it whenever she had the chance. He told her stories of servants who had bought their way out of contracts and into their own artisan businesses that way. He said he was halfway there himself, but that was a day ago, just before an inexperienced rider accidentally ran him over with her horse. The animal’s hooves crushed part of his skull and he didn’t last long enough for her to dismount.
Bombi took out the one piece of silver that was hers: a quicksilver pen Timorrow had stolen as a gift for her. Its shape was simple and elegant, like a quill from a porcupine. She pressed its tip against the side of a coffin rolling by. She moved the pen up and down, drawing a silver wave across the wood. She didn’t know if it was clever design or mild magic that made the ink that color, and she didn’t really care. The real magic was in Timorrow.
She moved to a further belt when she couldn’t find the right seal. Something wasn’t quite right there; the hole was jammed by a pile of coffins. Some had broken open and had ashen limbs hanging out. She heard a machine grinding against the mass on the other side. Whatever had disturbed the organized flow of bodies had no respect for the dead.
She heard a splash, and turned toward a dock. There was a man awkwardly crouched out over the water. He held a corpse by the armpits and dangled its exposed feet over the side, splashing its toes in the dark clouded water. There was an open coffin next to him, its seal plainly visible.
“Hey!” Bombi shouted as soon as she recognized the symbol. “Stop that!” She ran out onto the dock, scaring away the scruffy gulls but eliciting nothing more than an irritated glance from the man. She saw that the corpse he’d taken was Timorrow, her dear uncle.
“Don’t get in my way!” he barked as she came close. “I only need a few more seconds!” Bombi didn’t care what he was doing. People treated her uncle like property, but he had never been that before and she wouldn’t let him be that now. She grabbed his shriveled shoulders and wrenched him away from the man, dropping him back into his coffin. His feet still hung out the side, but at least he was in a more respectable position. The man tried to grab the body back, but Bombi slapped him away. He tried again and ended up ripping one of the silver charms from her dress. It tumbled across the dock and dropped into the water with a plosh.
“You imbecile!” You grave-robbing Cain cudgel! That wasn’t mine to lose! Do you have any idea the punishments for losing jewelry? I’ll be scrubbing on my knees for…”
“I don’t care,” the man hissed back loudly. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on the dock’s edge. He tried to stare through the water. “Come on,” he muttered to the murk, “I don’t have time for this.”
“I’m sorry Uncle,” Bombi said sweetly. While the man was distracted by the water she held up the pen in front of her uncle’s eyelids. “I never properly thanked you for this.” She shed a tear. “I thanked you for the pen, but not for the strength it gave me. Next time I sign my name it will be willingly, in brightest silver, because you stole a future for me.” She gently put his legs back inside and replaced the lid. Once his face was hidden, her other emotions rushed in. Panic over punishment. Anger over the fool next to her. There was only one she could do something about now. Bombi stood tall and kicked the crouched man in the bottom. He nearly tumbled into the water, but managed to roll backward and get to his feet.
“I told you I don’t have time for you!” he screamed. Bombi took her first good look at him: taller than her, more muscular than her, pale clammy skin, blond wavy hair pushed back like he never stopped running, and eyes green like sinking lily pads. He was perhaps twenty years older than her.
“What gives you the right to defile a man’s body?” she shouted back.
“What do you care? He’ll be back next run anyway. I needed bait.”
“Run? What are you… bait for what?” A huge bubble burst over the side, revealing a patch of nasty gray-green skin. It swelled and slithered until the front end, at least it vaguely resembled a front end, of a hideous creature emerged. Its eyes were tiny black dots at the edge of its purple-frilled gills. Its mouth was a giant disk of moist tissue filled with ten rings of curved teeth, each bigger than any of Bombi’s silver charms. The monstrous lampworm rose eight feet out of the water and twisted so one of its eyes could focus on the girl.
Hiiiiiiich! Its shriek stuck in her ears like the buzz of a wasp drowning in wax. Its rings of teeth descended towards her, a thick rope of drooled slime reaching her first. She thought that by the time she wiped it away she would surely be dead, but it never reached her. She rubbed her eyes clean and squinted, her vision filled by a strange sight indeed; the man wrestled with the bottom-feeding creature on the dock.
Twice it tied itself in a knot around his body, but he slipped out. It had to be the slime, but Bombi thought she saw the man’s body briefly double as he broke free of its grasp, like an illusion cast by excessive blinking. He reached for the sheath on his side and pulled a sword like none Bombi had ever seen, its blade crisscrossed with lines as if its shape was cut from a pile of older weapons. He pointed the blade down and drove it through the side of the lampworm’s head. Heeeeeeeeeeeeech!
Its tail writhed as the last bit of life wriggled loose. It swept out of the water and slapped Timorrow’s coffin, sending it and her uncle tumbling over the other side and into the sea. They sank. Bombi’s mind filled with fire again. She stormed closer to the man and his prey, only faltering when he drew the blade, now covered in pale blue blood, from the lampworm’s flesh.
“I was going to give him a proper burial!” she barked.
“There’s nothing proper about being buried,” he remarked as he arranged the long bloated corpse of the creature in a straight line. Once it was in place he drove his sword into the skin just below its toothy disk and sliced all along its belly. Putrescent steam, partially-digested fish, and fingers and toes from some of the dumped corpses spilled out onto the dock. Bombi had to leap back so the fluid wouldn’t stain her shoes. Not that it mattered, since the lost charm and the slime on her dress meant she would be punished anyway.
The man thrust his hand into the beast’s sliced gullet and dug around inside. He tossed a femur and a dogfish off to the side before he found what he wanted. Out came a small glass sphere, colored by just enough cream to make Bombi think it might be a pearl or an egg rather than blown glass. He wiped the slime away and blew on it a few times before placing it in a small pouch on his belt.
“What is your name?” Bombi asked, her voice taut as the leash on a muzzled mountain dog. “I must know so I can properly curse it.” He ignored her. She reared back for another kick, but he was on his feet in an instant, his body doubling and tripling with his speed. He grabbed her foot in the air and spun her around.
“My name runs as free as I do. You cannot catch it.” He started to walk back down the dock. With her uncle buried among the worms and her clothes in disarray, Bombi felt she had nothing else to lose. She chased after him wielding her uncle’s pen as a sword. His shoulders were an inch away when his body doubled out to the side and then curved behind her. He never even turned back to look.
Her wrist was in his hand when he spun her around again. Pain shot through her arm and she dropped to her knees. It wasn’t just a defense move; it was an expression of his nature. All at once she knew there was something twisted about him, parts of him turned so far around they went beyond introspection. His heart was probably too tight to beat and his guts too tight to eat. He was a strained spring, but when that spring snapped it would be fine while the entire clock around it would be destroyed. He was sabotage.
“You said something about punishment,” he mused, seeming more interested now that he was completely in control. “Who is going to punish you?”
“My employers,” she whined. His grip on her twisted wrist had not loosened.
“You wear your employer’s jewelry… you’re a slave.”
“Not technically. There’s a contract.”
“Oh so you’re worse than a slave.”
“What does that mean?” Was his grip getting tighter?
“The contract makes you think there’s nothing to rebel against. It’s all in the rules. It’s all approved, so there’s nothing you can do. You end up docile and never mind that it’s just a piece of paper.”
“There are people holding up the paper,” she protested. It was definitely getting tighter; she thought her wrist would crack any moment now. If she couldn’t scrub they might make her work in less pleasant ways. She could be moved into the comfort house. I would be dead by my own hand before I landed on the first bed, this pen in my neck filling my veins with silver.
“They’re not always around,” he said. “You have to strike when it’s just the paper, when it’s just their gross implications. Then it’s as easy and morbidly fascinating as squishing a fat beetle.” He released her wrist. Bombi held it in her other hand and blew on it. She wasn’t sure why, but it felt true. He had burned her, talking about her like window dressing. His words blistered the thin identity she clung to.
“It feels as if they are always around,” she told her injured wrist.
“That’s clearly the point,” he interrupted. She couldn’t have a moment alone with her hurt. There was no time. He looked at the sky and read the clouds before looking at Bombi and reading her. “I can get you out of that contract. I can get you out of all of them, even the ones you don’t know exist. Provided you’ll help me of course.” Bombi rose to her feet and took a step back.
“What are you saying?” This man had disrespected her uncle’s body, but their employers had disrespected him in life. One was far worse than the other. He’d been treated like a corpse on strings his whole life, just like Bombi. If there were things holding her to the palace streets and markets, they were just strings. If she cut them it would be by death. How would this man do the deed?
“I am a thing you’ve never heard,” he said, his voice suddenly thin and cool like the wind. “I am about what you know nothing of. Your world can be seen straight through with my eyes. The lands of Shook and Cain are but two clouds passing through each other. I am a speed runner.”
“What, pray tell, is a speed runner?” she asked.
“A speed runner knows the truth. They know the world is just a clockwork toy. Every movement planned and tracked and marked by ticks and tocks. You will be born here. You will live miserably this way. You will die there. A runner knows the weaknesses of the clock. They can circumvent its intended paths, skip life’s greatest pains and drudgeries, and make it to the end impossibly fast.”
“The end of what? Life?” she squawked. Her wrist hadn’t recovered enough for her to throw up both hands. “Why would you want to approach death even faster? By the way, I don’t believe that you can. You’re clearly just a… a… athletic beggar.”
“True death is harder to achieve than you think,” he countered. “Once you’ve broken free of your track you will be able to remember the cycle. After death comes birth. The same track over and over again. But if you’re fast enough… the clock cannot contain you.”
“What… what happens then?” Bombi asked, suddenly reduced to a child hearing a bedtime story. Her mind connected the stranger to her uncle. They both told her to break the rules, to hide everything she could from her masters.
“It hasn’t happened yet. Nobody has finished their life fast enough to break through. I’m going to be the first. I’m going to have the world record for the fastest life… and for being the first to transcend. My personal best at the moment is thirty-six years, three months, eleven days, seven hours, forty-five minutes, fifty-eight seconds, and three tenths of a second.”
“How old are you?”
“An irrelevant question if you’re paying attention,” he said. He dug around his belt and pulled out the object he’d extracted from the lampworm. “Time is always short for me. I’m telling you I can take you away from here and show you the bottom of the world. If you’re worried about your life, trust me when I say you don’t have one. What is your name?”
“Oh,” he said with a snort. “You definitely don’t have one. I’ve seen the future of Shook and Cain more than a dozen times and you’re never mentioned in the annals. If you want to be something new, if you want to be among the speed runners, grab hold of this.” He held out the round gem.
My parents. My bed. My friends. This pen. I have so little. Even the people in my life can be pulled away on a whim. Without Uncle there is no one to give me hope. I cannot hold my head above the water without his smile shining over like the sun. Look at me, fearing the wrath caused by lost glitter. I need a new light. Bombi’s hand shot out before she lost her nerve and wrapped around the top of the orb. The man smiled.
“My name is Chagrinn by the way,” he said with a devious smile. He squeezed. The orb broke like an egg, thick white-yellow fluid bursting from between their fingers. Bombi tried to pull away, but it wrapped around her hand and tightened. Then it produced a brilliant yellow light. Her feet were gone from the dock, but they didn’t dangle in the air. They felt stable even though they touched nothing. Her feet, and the rest of her, were gone from Shook and Cain, dragged deep beneath it and then deep beneath that.
When the light faded she finally succeeded in extricating her hand from his. Her fingers were dry. There were no flakes of the orb or droplets of its contents. She looked around; it was a cave of sorts. The ceiling was low. Rusty chains supported lit lamps. A bird with eyes so hollow it looked dead was nestled in a nest on the edge of one of the lamps. It cooed at the sight of her, the first coo that ever sounded like a threat to Bombi.
“Where are we?” she asked breathlessly. Chagrinn walked past her and waved his hand, indicating she should follow. There was a set of stone stairs in front of them, and only when halfway down did he deign to answer.
“That orb was a bottom feeder egg: a very useful item to a speed runner. When creatures of the deep sift through the mud for food they often digest tiny pieces of the Source that have leaked through the sediment. This Source is then passed to their eggs and, when broken prematurely, transports the breaker to the part of the Source it was spawned from. We are now more than a world below Lampworm Bay.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. It struck her that half of what she said from now on might be that sentence. As a servant she’d never been out of her city. On the map of the world she’d never even been past the h in Shook. “What is the Source? The source of what?”
“The Source of everything,” he said. The stairs ended in a new chamber. It was just as tight as the last, but there were people all around descending from other sets of stairs and rushing about. She’d never seen people like that. Many of them looked like Chagrinn, but only in the sense that they seemed to be in a hurry. Their clothing varied wildly, from the orange and green robes of the treehouse people to the bald heads of the waterfall sitters. For every one that looked like him there was another who seemed more like Bombi: lost, confused, and young.
They mostly gathered around an object in the center of the chamber. Chagrinn put one hand on her back and urged her forward, pushing her through others. He muttered something about every second being the crucial one. They came to the edge of the object. It was shaped roughly like a birdbath and its lip and sides looked like bark grown from iron ore. It was filled with a reflective black liquid that drained endlessly. The small whirlpool of darkness grabbed her attention and sucked it down until she felt nothing but chilled awe.
“This is part of the Source as well,” Chagrinn said of it. “It is the Gone Basin. Source mixed with tar. Whatever goes into it will be gone forever; it will not return when the tracks reset. If you were to fall in you would experience the truest of deaths.”
“Why have you brought me here?” Bombi asked, fear creeping into her voice. She noticed most of the others around the basin’s edge were young. They were taking things off their person and dropping them in. The liquid accepted them silently without any splash. A girl in a wedding gown took the ring off her finger and tossed it in without a second thought.
“This is how all speed runners start,” Chagrinn whispered in her ear. His hand was still on her back, nearly, but not quite, threatening to push her in. “Lots of runners have been taking on apprentices lately. It’s a new strat. I wasn’t partial to it, but since you interrupted me while I was trying a new route anyway I figured we should run with it. You will be my apprentice and you will help me move faster than ever.”
“What do I have to do?” A boy dipped a braid of his hair into the basin. It was taken as if cut, the tiny green ribbon holding it together drowning in an instant.
“You have to give the basin everything of your old life except the most basic clothes from your back. Jewelry. Keepsakes. Documents. The basin will eat your identity and let you leave here without hooks keeping you to Shook and Cain.” Another girl had what looked like a contract in her hand, its font the same as Bombi’s. She fed it into the Gone Basin page by page, seeming to enjoy the process.
“Your name is Chagrinn,” Bombi said in a whisper she knew he could hear. “You still have an identity.”
“I have a name,” he said, “nothing more. Each time I am born I am less of a man of Shook and Cain. If you wish to do this, if you wish to be free, you must lose these solid separate scars of your false life. They can be used to track you. If you can be tracked, it can lead them to the rest of us.”
“Who is ‘them’?” Now her voice was so quiet she thought only the basin could hear it, but he answered.
“Those who think predetermination is the nature of life. Those who think the tracks are in our best interest. Now or never Bombi.”
“Should I refuse?”
“Then I will leave you here. Eventually someone will take pity on you and return you to your masters. I’ll be off breaking the world.”
She was conscious of being the only one who hadn’t dropped anything in yet. I have felt like death all my life, but I look into this thing and it scares me. What does that say? I haven’t even known death yet. It has been hiding around corners this entire time. It stabbed at Uncle from the dark and fled. The way of the speed runner, to understand and leash death as they have, must be the way of the shadow. No one can strike at me because I am out of striking distance.
Bombi took the pearl from her lip and dropped it in. There was no pain. She felt the hole with the tip of her tongue. Next she took the diamonds from her eyebrows and killed their sparkle in the deep black of the Gone Basin. Next went the shimmering chains from her ears and jaw. She rolled her head around on her neck, letting air into all the pockets it had been barred from. Even in the dank cave it felt like a fresh breeze stirring through the holes in her flesh.
She had not only been decorated, but pierced. They had punched holes in her and never allowed them to close. Bombi touched a few of them and twitched each time, like she was touching a brand new eye that could see what had been hidden from her. Next to go was every last chain and charm on her until her clothes were stripped to pure modesty.
“Is that it? Are we ready?” she asked Chagrinn. He shook his head and pointed to the other apprentices. They all stuck their hands out over the basin and waited for her to join. When she did they lowered their fingertips into the funneling flow of the black material. Bombi hesitated.
“The tips of your fingers, the swirls, can be used to track you if you are captured. They must go as well,” Chagrinn hissed in her ear. She eyed the others. They didn’t seem to be in pain. Whatever lay ahead, she knew she didn’t want to be tracked by any of the living souls in her life. Bombi pressed her fingertips into the tar. It didn’t feel like tar… or water… or any sort of liquid at all. It had no sensation whatsoever, an absurd confusing feeling considering its thick dark luster.
She pulled her digits from the basin and examined them. The skin was perfectly smooth, like eggshell. She rubbed them together and found it pleasant, like a silk scarf sliding out of her grip by the slightest pull of gravity.
“Was that everything?” Chagrinn asked. “Everything of your old life must go. Think again. Make sure you’ve tossed it all. Once you have you can find me back there and we’ll be on our way.” He pointed to the far end of the chamber, where some stone shelves were loaded with supplies. He moved to them and started packing things away in a bag. Bombi took two steps towards him.
Something bounced against her hip and she froze. The quicksilver pen. Uncle’s gift. The hope he tried to give me. She couldn’t pick up her feet. Indecision had struck like a hatchet between her shoulders. It was the strongest thing she’d ever felt in her life, thanks to the crushing weight of servitude. It was greater than any of her happiness, weightier than any of her sorrow.
Chagrinn said everything relied upon her ability to cast off her old life, but should she disregard the only true goodwill ever shown? Could she really send Timorrow’s pen into true nothingness? Would his ghost, or perhaps his work on the next track, feel the sting of it in his heart? Could it kill him all over again?
If she kept it she was already defying the way of the speed run. Or am I? Perhaps I’m just running my own way. If Chagrinn can make such bold decisions so can I. Yet she couldn’t. She remained frozen. Chagrinn would look back at her at any moment. Everyone moved. She was the only still body in the cavern aside from the stalactites. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.