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S.EXE: Gateway Shuffle

Stars glint off the side of the hull as the wartorn ship slowly turns in space. She sits in her underwear, staring out at the far-off smear of white on the blue-marbled orb and the drifting neon love hotels by the casino station. She is hung, suspended, her stomach grumbling, her muscles barely remembering what seiza is like, or what fish and chips taste like. Dirty laundry and wax strips drift by her face. Once she was stationed on space station Britannia, working regularly for the Rock Paper Shotgun outfit, but now she drifts in space, for hire only by those who can find her. She remembers the ones she left behind to the tune of Orbital's Halcyon On And On.

The monitor bleeps, waking her from her hyperspace-lag. INCOMING COMMISSION it flashes. INCOMING COMMISSION. INCOMING COMMISSION. $100 WULONGS FOR THE HEAD OF A GAMES DEVELOPER. She scrambles for the button, her tummy growling, accidentally opening a tab on a game instead: Gateway Shuffle. 3,2,1 let's jam.

Drifting now in the Singapore quadrant, she had been worried about this detached state for a while: The feeling that if she was not in proximity to her crew that they would forget about her. Perhaps they would even move on. Would they read the bulletin board on some distant planet, or see her on the bounty hunter news, and not care, switch off? The commissions come thick and fast, and yet sometimes she longed for a touch, a nod, maybe a smile from the ship's mechanic, or a hug from the pilot, the pilot she'd left for a bounty that had never materialised. Did anyone care that she'd embarked on a mission of her own? It seemed important to try at the time, but on the far side of the galaxy she remembered how much she had sacrificed: a whole crew, their laughter, their stories of the Future, the way Brendan's face looked after she made a bad pun which sometimes she remembered when she squinted.

Worse still was the thought of her voice disappearing. The time it takes to transmit messages back home mean that everyone she knows is asleep when they appear in the chat window. Is the lack of reply just an indication that they are not awake when the cursor shows up on their screens? Or is it that she is no longer relevant?

Is she still there?

A pause to grab a water pouch floating past, and switch on the loud squeaky broken noise of the air purification systems.

This is real mystic and all, but uh, do you have anything to eat here?

To turn to Gateway Shuffle, she began to click on the crew's names on the pad. The crew, like her own, were all off-ship.

Money troubles. The ship in the game is being repossessed in the morning, a fate worse than her own, but she had been there at one point. Her last ship, the Brighton, had been a shared affair, but she'd left abruptly, meaning the co-pilot had sold it whilst she was away.

God, she missed her bunk there. A real bunk, not the hard back of the captain's chair in this tiny vessel. Her back had begun to complain over the year she had been away, twitching and pinching when it felt like it.

The captain in the game, Brand, needs to pay off the docking fees on his ship the Alacrity, pay off Hobson, the mechanic's debts (or persuade him to lower them), and get off the ship. The next day the ship will be taken by the bank.

She opens a bottle of whiskey from inside the rental ship's minibar. It beeps and flashes at her that it will cost 50 Wulongs at docking. She pops open the top anyway and drinks deeply. She remembers those times where people mocked her loneliness and wished her ill.

The red-eyed Coyote will appear in the Zona Norte at the far end of town. That is what I see.

Captain Brand too has whiskey at his disposal to order via electronic pad. But it's too early for that. She clicks on SeeYa, the ship's instant messaging service to see if she can speak to Brand's lost crew.

Brand can only think about five things at a time, and can only talk about the cycling subjects with his crew. Each conversation with a crew member reveals a certain new topic, and this new topic can in turn be discussed with another crew member to advance your knowledge of the crew and their needs. It's a mechanic of reflection: Brand may talk about a subject, but the crew member, wherever they may be, have the ability to enlighten him, change his moods and thoughts, brighten or worsen his night.

I can’t be stuck in one place for long—it’ll kill me. My whole family’s like that.

Brand thinks about guilt, despair and death a lot. He thinks about how he has abandoned or failed his crew. But talking about these issues over IM makes Brand stop thinking so much about them: in fact, failing to talk about your depression ends the game by having Brand fall asleep and wake having accomplished nothing, winning none of his crew back.

She smiles and puts fingers through her unwashed purple-dyed hair. This is a nice message, she thinks. To have it be essential to talk about one's problems with far-off friends. Perhaps this is a game about a coping mechanism. How to survive heartbreak. How to salvage your rejected heart. How to problem solve your existence.

Of course Brand can gamble to pass the time. The pad in the game has two such things available: MoonSlot and The Gateway.

The wilds are calling me! You can’t keep me locked up!
Moonslot is just a slot machine, a drain on your credits. The Gateway is a sort of poker game based on the symbols of the Fates, the Medic Qing tells you.

Brand merely loses money on it. After a while, you think Brand needs another drink.

You know what they say cowboy, easy come easy go.

Brand orders whiskey - it's expensive and man, Brand needs the Wulongs. But fuck it. You messaged Her and she told you to fuck off. Your Pilot - she's not talking to you either. You are a fuck-up. A terrible person. What sort of captain can't even run a ship? The whiskey has limited his ability to communicate with his crew now. One topic only each time, on the menu screen, instead of five. He is drunk.

She thinks about how she ultimately ran away from her problems, and keeps running with each bounty on each planet.

Perhaps the way to win this game, to complete the tasks, she thinks, is to gamble so much that Brand becomes rich and can pay all his debts? To become really good at Gateway? The remaining crew members that talk to Brand advise him on the meaning of the Fate symbols - what's high and low - but even then, Brand loses. It's cryptic. It's futile. Brand gambles his money away.

She restarts the game. The calm noise of drifting in space mixes with the game's calm noise of drifting in space.

This time she knows what she is focusing on: the longing of human contact. The need to be heard by friends and lovers.

When angels are forced out of heaven, they become devils.

Brand talks to Vincent and Hobson until one of them mentions her name: Kumiko. The one known in SeeYa as 'Her' (Did Brand rename her avatar once, when he was upset? To stop hurting?). Her, the other one who won't talk to Brand. She's it. She was the relationship that Brand used to have. Brand tries to IM her, but she snaps back at him: wields a hurtful kind of truth. That Brand has not spoken to her in months, and he only does so now because he is drunk.

Well, she raises a glass, checkmate. She sips and thinks about the one she left, uncertainly, thinking that she had other more important, more selfish things to do. Adventures, she'd thought, were more important. Careers, she'd thought, were more important. A captain and master of her own Fates. A romantic figure on the horizon. A fucking leaf on the wind.

I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.

It is a hard thought process, she contemplates, but perhaps the selfishness of a career, a place where you Make Your Own like the men in the universe - perhaps this isn't the root of all virtue. Even if men are admired when they become captains of the ship, is it really what is good for them? Do they feel Achievement when they get there? Brand has failed at getting his crew to stay with him, and the only subjects she can have him think about and talk about now are Guilt, Despair, Loneliness, Death. Does it feel good to be a captain now, Brand? Does it feel good to be alone in space without Kumiko's hand in yours? Does it feel good, Brand, to have a Higher Purpose now?

What if all your crew members were attacked in their sleep, Brand? What if their livelihoods were threatened? What if their workplaces suddenly became hostile...? And there you are, drifting in space, a wretch. For your Adventure. Tomorrow your ship could be taken away.

 If you don’t work, you don’t eat. You’re a hunting dog…hunt up some food. We girls are different. We have to be pampered because we’re delicate and refined.

Brand clicks on messages to send to Kumiko, hollowly.

AUTO-RESPONSE: Goodbye, Brand.
AUTO-RESPONSE: Goodbye, Brand.
AUTO-RESPONSE: Goodbye, Brand.

Brand was in love with you, she thinks. Brand was in love with you.

She was in love with you.

There is a way to solve the Gateway Shuffle puzzle. It involves talking to people a lot and distracting yourself from your feelings.

Your own feelings of longing, of distance, your own need to be close to someone - well, they mix into the sound of your ship gently drifting in space.

Perhaps she'll go back one day.

See you, Space Cowboys.

This game was made by Jack Shirai for the Space Cowboy jam. You can play Gateway Shuffle free here, or if you liked that, you can give him a dollar for the Terminal Future EP. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop was supposed to be born in Singapore, where I am now.

The previous S.EXE columns are here. I continue on my journeys across the world.

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