Alastair wrote a brilliant short story once, by accident.
He dined out on that for a bit. Every now and then he would bring it up when he was trying to settle an argument with Francis, who was too earnest, too good, too completely oblivious to notice that Alastair was just trying to wind him up. I would sit in the middle and laugh at the both of them. I would be playing my computer game, trying to work something out. Alastair was fond of telling Francis that I was a genius, and Francis was fond of shooting Alastair down by asking him what I was actually doing with my so-called genius.
Alastair had started doing all his drinking online. It was cheap and quick, and because he didn’t have to leave the house he did a lot of it. Every night he would turn the speakers on his computer up loud and the living room was filled with the sound of fake supping and banter as Alastair downed megabytes through a USB straw. The sound would wash over me as I played my game, trying to work things out. Francis would be out on one of his missions, doing good. He’d hear about some incoming rain storm and head out to stand on a street corner with a bucket of umbrellas to hand out to passersby, something daft like that. Alastair and I didn’t ever do good. We knew that the world was too big to put right.
That had been the basis of Alastair’s short story, his one piece of acclaimed brilliance.
Francis accused him of stealing the idea from me, which seemed plausible and was kind of the truth. I listened to them rowing about it until Alastair stomped off, complaining that digital hangovers were worse than old fashioned ones, at which point Francis followed him, berating him for being so stupid in getting caught up in all that. I carried on with my game. I had been playing this game for a long time, and in fact I had been developing it as I went, so that now my avatar was navigating a map of my own consciousness and the puzzles he was solving were problems of my own devising.
Francis stomped back downstairs and started screaming at me, telling me that I knew nothing about the world. He ripped the plug socket from the wall but one of the things I had worked out was how to keep my console running without power, so I just carried on without acknowledging him. I could tell he was crying, and when Alastair reappeared he too was crying, but the world was too big to put right, so I didn’t join in.
As I carried on with my game, it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps Alastair was not aware of the fact that I had given him the idea for his short story. I was sure that he had not worked out that the praise for his story had been a fabrication, but I suspected that he had started to realise that online drinking was a scam.
Francis’ phone rang and he hurried off to answer it in private whilst Alastair took short, angry breaths of cyberwhiskey, and I carried on working things out, trying to put everything in place for the grand finale of my game. When Francis reappeared he said that there was a riot going down and he and some others were going to form a human chain around the city museum. He asked if Alastair and I would join us, pleaded with us now, asked us when we were going to wake up, stand up for something, try to make a difference.
This was an important part of my game, I had set the final events in motion and now I just had to make sure that everything would go down the way I had planned it would.
I looked away from the screen for the first time in days, maybe weeks. Francis was red-eyed and sore, Alastair’s USB straw had flopped out of his mouth and virtual beer had slopped across his shirt. He was a mess of tiredness, rage and consecutive hangovers, of not washing, not thinking and barely acting human. I looked from him to Francis, then back to Alastair again and decided that they both looked slightly unrealistic. That could be fixed.
I turned back to my game and told Alastair he should go with Francis and see the riot, suggested he might get another short story out of it. As I heard the two of them leave, and the front door smack closed behind them, I shifted things round on screen, setting in motion the end of my game and then left events to their own devices, and what would go down, would go down.