Stargirl

By Chris Durston All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 11: Cheese

Marty’s house was a marginally more lavish affair than the Veggie Ziggy TM flat-cum-HQ: being in a band that had garnered mild local notoriety might not have been the best earner, but Mr and Mrs Rook – legally Parker, but Marty had insisted his entire family be referred to by his chosen surname, lest suspension of disbelief be punctured – had made a decent living over the years as a masterful plastic surgeon (moonlighting as an amateur rocket scientist) and her occasionally entrepreneurial househusband. Marty lived in their attic, which had become a sort of rotating home to all four members of The Inciting Incident.

’This is where you live?!’ Ziggy demanded with amazement as her head poked through the trapdoor.

‘Fuck yeah,’ said Marty. He extended a hand to assist Dominika, emerging up the ladder behind Ziggy, but one glare and he withdrew it sheepishly. Dominika catapulted herself up the ladder, leaping into the attic with all the elegance of some unholy leopard-frog hybrid.

Derrida hauled himself up next and immediately moved towards one of the corners, where an enormous computer tower stood on a desk next to three widescreen monitors.

‘Ooooh, ooh ooh,’ stuttered Marty, bounding in front of Derrida and reaching to unplug a cable from behind the monitors. ’Ya don’t want these old things. I got something new to show you.’

‘Fancy,’ said Veggie, whose head was just popping through the trapdoor.

Derrida watched with interest as Marty carried the cable to a rectangular panel set into the wall. He pressed it firmly, and it slid open to reveal a slim projector, into which he plugged the end of the cable.

‘You got a projector?!’ Derrida practically yelled. TM would have been concerned about the volume disturbing Marty’s parents, but serving as a band practice space meant that Marty’s room was surrounded by layers of the best soundproofing money could buy. ‘Please say I can come live with you.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Marty, fiddling with a few settings, ’we’ll have sleepovers and all kinds of shit.’

A loud squeal of feedback turned all their heads suddenly: Ziggy stood under the attic’s sloping roof, surrounded by towering speakers and amplifiers. She gave them all an ecstatic grin, eagerly plugging a thick cable into an electric guitar.

‘Wurp,’ said Marty. ‘Be careful with that, okay?’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Ziggy, making devil horns with one hand and spinning the tuning pegs with the other.

‘Do you actually know how to play guitar?’ Veggie asked, looking on. ‘Cos you definitely just tuned it to... like… nothing sharp minor.’

‘Best key,’ Ziggy declared. ‘And yeah, I know how to play. Probably. I mean, why not?’ She lifted the neck of the guitar, raised her strumming hand heavenward and brought it down on the strings like the hammer of Thor, producing a huge, invasive block of sound that sounded as if someone had taken the first two bars of every Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov piece ever written and combined all the notes together into one lump of accidentals.

‘Ow,’ said TM, when the noise faded.

’That was so fucking radical,’ Ziggy said, breathing heavily and running her hands through her hair. It seemed to have grown longer and more punky somehow, as if the dark purple tint were undergoing some sort of noise-based chemical reaction that was making it significantly more neon. ‘I’m gonna be a rock star too, I reckon.’

‘I think you killed my goldfish,’ Marty lamented, rubbing his ears.

‘You have a goldfish?’ Ziggy asked happily, returning the guitar to its stand. Veggie wandered over and unplugged it, just in case. ‘What’s he called?’

‘He lost a bet when he got it, so we made him call it Bobfred Livingstone,’ TM told her.

‘Pfff,’ said Ziggy. ’More like won the bet. Do all you guys give your pets weird names?’

‘Hey,’ said Veggie indignantly.

Dominika raised a finger.

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Derrida, ‘she’s got a snake called Slithers.’

Ziggy digested that for a moment. ‘I prefer the weird names.’

Dominika looked distinctly put out. Derrida punched her in the arm, in what was meant to be a friendly gesture of reassurance; Dominika put him in an armbar.

‘Anyway, video games?’ Marty suggested as Derrida tapped out, wailing.

‘Thought you’d never ask,’ Veggie said, settling himself down on a bright blue beanbag. Ziggy plopped a cushion emblazoned with the words ‘FUCK THE SYSTEM’ on the floor next to him, and sat with her knees tucked under her chin.

‘Hold on a mo,’ Marty muttered, booting up his computer. The entire wall opposite the projector lit up with the image of his desktop; surround sound speakers buzzed to life in the floors and walls all around them.

‘Ooooooh,’ said Ziggy appreciatively.

Marty clicked an icon, and a box headed with the legend ‘Update Wizard’ filled the screen.

‘You have a wizard in your computer?!’ Ziggy exclaimed, hands on the top of her head.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Veggie told her. ‘It’s a wizard that everyone fears.’

‘Be careful,’ Ziggy implored Marty, who waved a hand at her.

‘I’ll be okay,’ he reassured her. ‘Just updating, one sec…’

A blue bar crept along until the box was filled; it disappeared, replaced with a full screen of high-definition blackness and a large, flaming logo in the centre.

‘What game is this?’ Ziggy asked; Veggie pointed at the screen, which read ’Blackest Spirit’ in two-foot-high letters. ‘Ah,’ said Ziggy.

‘Right,’ Derrida said loudly, rubbing his arm and picking up a wireless controller. He made to descend into the armchair behind him, but Dominika settled in first, folding her legs up underneath herself with a Cheshire Cat smile. Derrida plonked himself on the arm of the chair. ‘What sort of run am I going for?’

‘No shield, no dodge, no weapon,’ Veggie suggested half-seriously.

‘Did that last month,’ Derrida said.

’You did not.’

‘Check the stream, biatch.’

‘I absolutely will be doing that.’

‘Cheeeeeeeese,’ TM piped up, perching on the edge of the desk.

‘Cheese?’ Marty said thoughtfully, spinning around in lazy circles on his boyband-style lead singer stool. ‘Oh, shit, yeah. I’ll stick the nachos on.’

‘Cheese every boss,’ TM elaborated.

‘Aha,’ chirped Derrida with an excited bounce on the arm of the chair; Dominika, jostled about by the movement, gave him a hard poke in his recently wrenched elbow. Ziggy looked at TM in confusion.

‘It’s a pretty fun challenge,’ Veggie explained, sticking his head in between the two of them. ‘This game has, like, a ton of really cool bosses, and they’re all super hard and crazy awesome, but there are ways of making pretty much all of them super low-effort. It’s not only hilarious, but also makes you feel like the most badass being on the entire planet. It’s cheesy. Cheese.’

Ziggy nodded, her expression giving away that she had very little clue what he was on about.

‘Just watch,’ TM told her. ’It’s awesome.’

Derrida raised the controller theatrically and hit the start button. A character creation menu zoomed onto the screen; Derrida rattled through the options, naming their character ‘Springly Mike’ and making her a green-haired thief. An opening cutscene started up, which Ziggy stared at in awe, but Derrida skipped it.

‘Awwww,’ Ziggy pined.

‘It’s actually got a really deep story, and stuff,’ TM said.

‘Lore bunny,’ Derrida said accusingly. ‘We’re just here for the challenge run, bro, forget that not.’

‘Don’t deride me, Derrida.’

‘Ha.’

The game started in earnest; Springly Mike awoke to find herself locked in a prison cell. Luckily, some bloke on the roof dropped the key down to her. She let herself out, travelling in erratic bursts of sprints and rolls through the halls, occasionally beating weird pinkish-grey husk zombies to death with her bare hands.

‘I don’t get it so far,’ said Ziggy. At that moment, an enormous fat demon leapt down from the roof (it really did seem to come from the roof, what with the projection of the game occupying an entire wall from floor to ceiling) and she threw herself backwards with a startled yelp.

Derrida glanced over at her for the briefest of moments, and when he looked back Springly Mike was a pile of blood and guts smeared on Fat Demon’s ten-foot-long club.

‘Shite,’ mumbled Derrida, as the words ‘YOU WERE OBLITERATED’ emblazoned the wall in brightly projected letters. ‘Should probably have put some points into vitality.’

‘Naawwww,’ Marty chided him, sliding open another wall panel to reveal a fancy-looking microwave and a cupboard which seemed to exclusively contain boxes of nachos. ‘You’re meant to be cheesing them, not letting them actually hit you.’

‘Point taken,’ Derrida conceded. ‘I done fucked up.’

‘That you did,’ said Marty, slamming the microwave door shut on a plate piled high with nacho chips, cheese and salsa. The microwave hummed obligingly.

Derrida restarted his run, getting back to the boss room in record time.

‘Okay,’ he said, concentrating hard. ‘This guy has a pathing glitch, so he’ll follow you to the last place where you rolled if you can get the collision detection to think you’ve rolled into a surface without actually getting interrupted.’

‘How does he know this?’ Ziggy whispered to Veggie, enthralled.

Veggie snorted. ‘He’s a fucking nerd, is how.’

‘That’s so cool,’ Ziggy breathed.

Soooo,’ Derrida continued, ignoring them, ‘if I mosey on over to this pillar and roll just alongside –’ he did so, and Fat Demon followed him dutifully with thundering footsteps, ‘– then make this jump over these pots and roll on landing, he’ll try to follow, aaaaaand with any luck…’

Fat Demon lumbered over to the pillar, swinging his club aimlessly. Springly Mike hopped over an assortment of ceramic jars, bouncing away from the boss; he tried to change direction too quickly and found himself stuck in the pillar, his animations glitching out and resetting every few frames as he continually flipped left to right.

‘And he’s stuck,’ Derrida finished. ‘Cheese complete.’

The microwave pinged; Marty withdrew a steaming plate of nachos. ‘Cheese complete,’ he echoed, taking the stringiest, melted-est cheesiest, most salsa-est chip he could find and tossing it straight into his mouth. Dominika reached her hands out for the plate and snatched it, resting it on her lap with a satisfied sigh.

Derrida quickly finished off Fat Demon with a few lazy punches to its enormous, jiggling buttocks – ‘I don’t know why they bothered to animate that,’ he said apologetically – and exited the tutorial area through a pair of heavy doors into a bright meadow.

‘I think I’m starting to get this whole video game thing,’ Ziggy said. Marty took the plate from Dominika’s lap, deftly avoiding her grabbing fingers, and passed it around, casting a giant shadow on the wall as he passed through the projector beam.

By the time the nachos were gone, Derrida was three more bosses down. A giant bull with an enormous cleaver had thrown itself off a bridge; a lava-spewing spider with the torso of a woman had somehow managed to stab itself to death; a knight bearing bulky armour and an enormous shield had simply lain down and allowed himself to be repeatedly stabbed in the face. Derrida’s cheese was a force to be reckoned with, indeed.

‘How are you actually doing this?’ Ziggy asked as Springly Mike went rolling through a horde of skeletons to collect her prize: an enormous two-handed sword almost as tall as her.

‘Not enough strength to use this one-handed,’ Derrida said absently. ‘No matter: two handed and we’re cooking!’

Marty slotted the last of the nachos into his mouth with a satisfying crunch.

‘Video games are super cool, and I’ll tell you for why,’ Veggie began, but Derrida snapped out of it.

‘I’ll explain,’ he said, pausing the game with a supreme poke of a button. ’The thing about video games is that there are several layers of understanding to them: first, there’s the apparent layer, the one you can see and believe yourself to be interacting with. Kind of like what Kant called the phenomenal.’ A collective groan arose from the ensemble – except Ziggy, who listened with rapt attention. ‘Then there are the underlying mechanics of how it actually works. The physics engine and all that. Understanding what’s happening under the surface, what actually causes and affects the stuff you’re experiencing on that first level, that’s how you learn to be better than the game wants you to be.’ He paused for effect. ‘When you stop being your character, and start remembering that you’re a smart person who’s aware that they’re playing a video game, that’s when you can do things that are impossible.’

Dominika yawned.

‘He’s actually not as dumb as we’d all like to think,’ TM admitted to Ziggy as Derrida turned back to the screen, only to discover that Springly Mike had been beset upon by an angry mob of diseased-looking cannibals. ’Although he does forget that you can’t actually pause Blackest Spirit.’

Derrida gave him the finger.

‘He does know his shit, though, mostly. Any stuff he does decide to get really into and invest some time into learning, he knows like the ins and outs of a duck’s arse.’

Ziggy looked at him, as if expecting an explanation.

‘It’s a saying,’ TM said. Marty chuckled, giving an exaggerated shake of his head for Ziggy’s benefit. ‘It’s a fucking saying!’

Springly Mike continued on with her adventure through the deadly world of Blackest Spirit, felling titans and sorcerers and giant magical butterflies with hilarious ease. ‘Now then,’ Derrida mumbled, guiding Springly Mike through a dark valley. ‘We just equip a stat-raising sorcery in the right hand, set out primary weapon to the secondary equip slot, queue the animation then roll and swap equipment mid-action and tada, tumblebuffed,’ he explained, helpfully. Springly Mike swung her ludicrous sword into the hand of an enormous volcanic demon, which did somewhere in the region of sixty-five billion damage and caused it to fall off a cliff.

‘I have decided that I am really into video games,’ Ziggy announced; TM patted her on the back in encouragement.

‘Welcome to the pack,’ he said; she beamed with elation.

‘Done for now,’ Derrida said grudgingly as a nine-headed serpent burst out of a geyser and devoured Springly Mike. ‘We’ll come back to it.’

Super Fighter XI time!’ Marty yelled in jubilation, booting up the game and tossing a pair of colourful wireless controllers to TM and Dominika. ‘Me and Derrida take you two, deal?’

TM caught the controller and flipped it around in his hands a few times in an effort to display his incredible dexterity, only dropping it once. ‘You sure you want Dominika on the opposite team to you?’ he asked Marty, whose eyes widened theatrically as if a great truth were suddenly dawning upon him.

‘Shit, yeah,’ Marty said, plucking Derrida’s controller from his hands and lobbing it to Dominika. ‘You two swap!’

‘Winner takes me and Ziggy,’ Veggie announced with supreme confidence, moving over to the musical corner of the room and picking up a sleek acoustic guitar.

‘You can play?’ Ziggy asked eagerly, bounding after him like Keelut after O’Ryan.

‘A teensy bit,’ said Veggie.

‘Pfft,’ said TM, hopping off the desk and sitting himself on the floor next to Derrida, who remained balanced on the arm of Dominika’s cushy chair. ‘You take him, I’ll take her,’ he said to his teammate, nodding towards their opponents; Dominika gave an evil grin, offset with a cheerful wave.

Veggie tuned the guitar with slow care, listening closely to the shifting pitches. Ziggy watched attentively, leaning in so that her nose could almost have plucked the strings.

TM flicked through the character selection screen, settling on a fighter posing with one knee raised and poised to kick out. Derrida selected a flappy-trousered woman wielding twin assemblages which Derrida insisted were called kendama, though TM would forever refer to them as ‘ball-in-cup-batons’.

Dominika chose a venomous-looking ninja, and Marty picked a mic-dropping opera singer-cum-boxing-heavyweight. ‘You got this guy as a joke character if you pre-ordered the special edition,’ he explained. ‘He rules.’

‘FIGHT,’ announced the surround sound system, sending reverberating echoes throughout the entire room. Veggie plucked a low note, matching the pitch and setting off a kaleidoscope of overtones. Ziggy gasped with astonishment.

TM’s fighter flipped onto the screen, dancing about on his toes, feet flashing around; Dominika’s ninja slid into battle like a snake with improbably wide sleeves.

‘Light kick, strong kick, grab, launch, jump and double kick,’ TM muttered, sending his character dancing towards Dominika’s; a quick kick followed by a hard knee sent the ninja flying before being hauled bodily into the air. TM snapped off the last few button presses, and his warrior leapt upwards and executed a wildly impractical-looking backflip kick.

Dominika blew air through gritted teeth and tagged out. Marty’s tuxedo-clad character waddled into view, bellowing what sounded like The Marriage of Figaro.

‘Get it,’ TM said, high-fiving Derrida; TM’s fighter went tumbling out of the field, replaced by Derrida’s girl, who entered spinning the string-bound balls around the wooden cups of her kendama.

Marty triggered a special attack straight away, knocking her down in a barrage of soundwaves with a high vibrato note; she fell in a heap of flapping trouser leg material and string, throwing her arms up in exasperation. Derrida rattled off a hasty combination of button presses and his champion kipped up, flicking her kendama in wide circles and spinning web-like patterns of string until the balls rested safely atop their cups.

‘You’re so happy with yourself right now, aren’t you?’ Marty said, and sent his fighter in a belly-first leap at Derrida’s. She dropped, and the announcer declared ‘K! O!’ as the opera-singing boxer pirouetted and sang a climactic note of victory.

‘Two out of three,’ Derrida said quickly.

‘It was two out of three anyway, you prole,’ Marty pointed out.

Derrida looked downcast.

The match restarted; Dominika’s black-clad ninja slinked under Derrida’s attacks and struck a vicious launching kick, knocking her into the air. Before she hit the ground, Dominika had tagged out and Marty was belly-flopping on top of Derrida.

‘Get him!’ Derrida squealed, thumbs dancing around his controller. His fighter cartwheeled out of Marty’s path of destruction; TM leapt in with a running knee.

‘Busaiku!’ TM yelled, axe-kicking the protruding belly of Marty’s prone warrior.

‘Bollocks,’ Marty sighed as his character expired with a noise like a deflating balloon doing its best to blow a trombone.

‘ROUND! THREE!’ bellowed the announcer, voice echoing through the walls all around them. Veggie plucked off a chromatic scale with a flourish.

Marty opened the bout for Team Marty and Dominika – or, as they demanded to be referred to when teaming in that particular combination, Team Musical and Vaguely European – but immediately tagged out to his partner. She raised the controller and held it behind her head, sticking her tongue out like the lead guitarist of some rock band that instantly loses all the money made from each performance by smashing up all of their instruments. Her fingers whizzed around the buttons; her ninja kicked TM’s martial artist in the face and decapitated him.

‘Well, fuck,’ said TM.

‘KILLED WITH GLORIOUS RAGE,’ the speakers all around Marty’s room declared.

‘That ninja bloke’s way overpowered,’ Derrida said, throwing his controller down. ‘And also pretty stereotypical to the point of being problematic, if you believe the reviews.’

‘Didn’t you write a review of this one?’ Marty asked, collecting up all the controllers. Derrida shrugged. ‘Anyway, winner takes you two, I think you said?’ He looked over at Veggie and Ziggy.

But Ziggy was asleep at Veggie’s feet, as he played a gentle classical piece over her head.

Marty glanced at TM, who shrugged. ‘Sleepover?’ he suggested.

‘Fuck yeah,’ said Derrida instantly.

‘I was more talking to this lot,’ said Marty, ‘but I guess you can stay too. It is… like, half four in the morning or something, after all.’

‘It is?’ TM mumbled, whipping out his phone to check. ‘Well, shit.’

Marty stood and stretched, shut down his computer, then opened yet another concealed panel in the wall to reveal a large wardrobe. He withdrew a stack of blankets and pillows, dropping them haphazardly on the floor. ‘Sleep as you will,’ he instructed; TM got up and strolled over to the pile of soft furnishings, then faceplanted right into it.

‘I’ll be good right here,’ TM said through a mouthful of alpaca wool blanket.

Veggie returned the guitar to its rightful place and opened a door next to the microwave, revealing a smaller room off to the side containing a plush double bed. ‘I call shotgun,’ he said, hopping inside and reclining smugly.

‘You can’t call shotgun on my bed,’ Marty opined.

‘Just did.’

Marty shook his head and stuck his tongue out, lifting TM’s head up so he could slide a blanket out from underneath. He carried it over to Ziggy and draped it over her, propping her head up so she wouldn’t wake up with a sore neck.

‘You better not try to tuck me in,’ TM said sleepily.

‘I’m being a gentleman over here!’

Derrida slumped down and rested his head on the beanbag that had recently been occupied by Veggie’s buttocks. Dominika folded herself into her armchair, bestowing each person in turn with a small smile of goodnight, and pressed her forehead against her knees. Marty leapt into bed next to Veggie, who rolled over onto his face and started snoring.

TM closed his eyes.

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