Matthew Lee teaches English in Zaragoza, Spain, and sometimes feels like he spends more time correcting writing than producing it. One of his goals is to tip that balance. Occasionally he thinks about his native England.
The Ultralisk Understands
Then what? Surely not. The island was uninhabited. "Another - person?"
But this "no" was different. As though he was intoning a "yes". I was very aware that he was avoiding eye contact. Outside, the rain got heavier. The window pane rattled.
"Don't want to tell me where the reply comes from, do you, Mack?"
Mack said nothing. Looked out into the fog. Not looking at me.
When the Fog Horn finally sounded, this fragment of conversation was still going around my head. Mack and I been drinking since early this morning, when we were both very probably also still drunk from the night before, but when the Fog Horn finally sounded I was already half—sober because of the memory of this particular exchange. Rain carried on pelting the window, the loud music kept on playing, and it seemed as if I alone had been affected by that extraordinary sound.
The Fog Horn. A drawn-out, lingering, broken sound.
And when the reply did come, as the Monosyllabic Mack had given me the half-impression it would (which was about as much as anyone would ever get out of the stoic old sod), I could but stand and stare out at the grey and try to picture what thing could make a sound so empty.
I feel now that at that point, some part of me actually already knew where the reply was coming from. This notion just popped into my mind no reasoning involved, as would the words "copious amounts of alcohol" when writing a list of things Mack and I would pack for a weekend in a lighthouse on this remote Scottish island. My head hurt.
Standing there, looking out at the lashing rain, Mack lying on the sleeping bag next to his breakfast, my mind in its search for answers went back to the previous night.
We started off with with a bottle of Faustino and a few sloppy games of Starcraft 2, broke off for a smoke and ended up in a stupid argument which started about my recent renouncing of Catholicism and ended up about the lack of phone signal on the island. Mack likes to make a big show of saying "three's a crowd" and turn his phone off when we're together. Apparently it's a big deal for him. Fine. I get that he doesn't like me messaging other people while I'm with him, but I don't get at all why I can't have my phone on in case people want to contact me. Micro-cheating, he calls it. Angry, I called him a misanthrope. We opened the Laphroaig and decided to play best of fifteen to settle the argument. When I messaged him from my room at about 4.30am to call his Zerglings pitiful and there was no reply, I went to find him asleep with his head on the keyboard.
His screen showed a large horned Ultralisk standing in the middle of a lake of grey ooze, entirely cut off from its kind, awaiting instructions from an overseer that it had unknowingly been disconnected from while the world around it warred on. I remember standing there, feeling the most peculiar kind of empathy towards the monster, this clutch of pixels, no more substantial than the fog that now swirled outside, no more real than the sound of the Fog Horn, like I understood it in a way that I would never understand Mack.
The Fog Horn came again. Moments passed. Feeling like an actor, I performed a prelude to action by knocking back the rest of the Special Brew I was holding, crushed the can, did a sort of drunken pirouette, threw it overhead across the room where it clattered onto the pile of cans in the corner near the sink. Great. Then stood there uncertain. Moved. Doubted. Stopped. Shuffled over to the stairs. Hardly knew what I was doing. Opened the door. Went upstairs. Needed the handrail. Went to the panel near the window. Opened it. Cold. Two rows of buttons. A red one and a green one to one side. Lifted hand. Pressed the red button. Turned off the Fog Horn. Waited a while. Nothing happened. My breath made clouds out on the stairwell. I relaxed a little. Nothing happened.
And then something did happen. Something extremely big and extremely heavy hit the building and made a huge noise and made everything shake and I cowered down in the corner of the stairwell. Embarrassed as I feel, I will admit that I stayed there in that position without moving until the raging and braying and banging eventually stopped. As I sat there, huddled and screaming, I thought of the Ultralisk. Stupid as it might sound, it was hard to maintain focus on anything else. As though my brain was not going to permit me to think about anything more complex or demanding than that daft wee monster sprite. It felt like days. Banged and clashed and roared. When I next moved, my muscles felt entirely unaccustomed to movement, felt brittle. I had soiled myself.
Never been so glad to get on a boat. As we drove away from Skerryvore on the rescue boat, I got the impression that the tall, scabby-faced boat captain lived alone. Made up for things by talking to anyone he could find willing to listen. Tried hard to make conversation. Kept talking. Had all these theories about the hidden powers of the seas.
I was done with talking. Mack and I staring out either side of the boat. My phone started to ring yet again but I hadn't even taken it out of my pocket that morning, even to let my friends and family know I was safe. We looked out at the slick grey expanse stretched out around us, neither looking towards where we were going nor where we had come from, while the rubble-strewn island grew smaller in the hazy distance.