One Good Run: A Returnal story

Selene came up slowly, rising from a temporary abyss, her prison broken from time. Groggily, she rolled over, one hand coming down not onto soft cotton but wet, cold mulch. She became aware of the slithering vines cushioning her legs, the tap-tap-tap of the sickly warm rain, the sweat of a feverish deity. At once, and not for the first time, her memories arrived painfully and too fast. Tense now, Selene fearfully shot up, reaching for the heavy comfort of her Electropylon Dr- No, nothing there. She stared at her holster; no alien weapon in sight, rather her weak but reliable ASTRA sidearm. Selene looked around briefly, the rain fingertapping her visor. She was back, back in the Echoing Ruins, at least according to the xenobiological ciphers her suit was running. The jungly clearing looked familiar but also odd, certain ridges and trees seemed to have been shuffled around. The strange rock that provided her with resources had moved too. The exit door, which was utterly out of place amongst the alien fauna, was straight ahead. Its steel-like orifice inviting her, its blue orb ready to evaporate, swirl and collapse into a passage to the next room. Selene shivered, picturing the monstrosities that awaited her. Would they be the same as before? The machine gun drones, the shielded turrets, the luminous, flying jellyfish that tracked her laser-like with every step? She pulled her gaze away from the door and instead sought her felled ship, Helios.

Helios!

An echo in her mind slammed the brakes on her reverie. Selene felt ill, rancid bile building in her stomach. A wave of grief and fear dropped her to one knee. The unexpected emotional tide threatened to engulf her but she managed to hold on, taking several deep breaths of her stale, suit air. Recycled endlessly. She unconsciously rubbed her visor, wishing she could wipe her face. Shaking herself, she took a few steps. Movement helped. Helped what? She wondered. Something was stuck in the back of her head, an encrypted memory, something that drove her but she couldn’t quite elucidate the details. It was painful, like touching a splinter.

There was nothing for her here. She needed to move on, to the next room, and the next one after that. She was almost at the end of this nightmare, she had to be. The Abyssal Scar called to her, that deepwater expanse. How many times had she died to the hands of its parasitic minions? The strange spheres that emanated death beams, the gargantuan cephalopods spitting kamikaze siblings, all trying to kill her, to halt her journey. She had discovered so much of this hostile planet, Atropos, in what felt like years, even though she explored it a few hours at a time, one death at a time. Each room a random terrifying encounter, or a historical tableau rich with uncharted knowledge, or perhaps a suit upgrade, resources and modifications to that run’s build. She briefly contemplated how strange it was that the alien tech seemed to interface without issue to her ASTRA suit…

Moving towards the exit, finally, Selene took in her current biome. By her count, it was the fourth of the six she had discovered. And yet, in reality, if this could be called that, it was merely a facsimile, a remix of the first. The ruins, the wastes, the citadel, the ruins, the wastes, the scar. Ruins wastes citadel ruins wastes scar. A tattoo of the six words ran a beat deep in her bones, each one different, each one a tense, stressful fever dream. Here she was, in the Echoing Ruins, a far brighter, and yet harder version of the first set of ruins. All her foes had either upgraded or changed sufficiently to make any muscle memory gained in the first biome useless. She fingered her pistol nervously, running her digits over the grooves and machined lines. Before any more doubts or fears could enter her mind, Selene ran towards the rapidly opening door as it clunked and whooshed open. HELIOS ABANDONED, her suit HUD spat.

All I need is one good run.

First room. Multi-height platforms. Grapple hooks (a gift after she slew the winged deity in the baking Mars-like environment of biome two) – these would pose useful, allowing super fast traversal across the room, perfect for dodging an annoyingly large and persistent enemy. Before she could fully survey her arena, which while she denoted them “rooms” were actually vast and endless slices of the environment; for miles she could see the planet’s foliage, here was merely a clearing, or a cave, or perhaps a raised ridge, and yet while being flooded with this vista, the room felt self-contained, the machine drones gurgled and coughed into view. Twin cannons began firing determinedly at her. A fixed turret to her right woke up and began tracking her with a laser sight. The physics-defying flying jellyfish swam through the dappled sunlight, dancing and swirling, preparing an orange death beam, or perhaps a growing red energy ring. Selene noticed dots of green health resources (Silphium, it was called in the xeno-archives), pink and purple ether (that seemed to stick with her post-death), parasites and malignancies that were double-edged swords; for while they granted her a suit buff, they would always come at a heavy cost.

Selene processed this visual cacophony in approximately three seconds. Then she let loose.

Chaos reigned for the next sixty seconds. Selene’s conscious decision-making shutdown and she became a creature of reaction. Leaping, dodging, jet-packing across the room. Hip-firing with her mediocre pistol, alt-firing a vertical barrage, she became a demon of terror, and yet nothing seemed to quell the unstoppable relentless flood of Atropian minions. They were cold, calculating, without anger, and they were infinite. A few tense moments while she missed a clean reload, darting off through cover, slashing a spawning jellyfish with her laser sword. It existed as merely a hilt, but when activated a spear of fire lashed out, becoming a hellish whip, a deceptively long blade of hot pain, vaporising her enemies in, usually, one hit.

And all at once, it was quiet. Selene breathed out, beginning the salvaging of obolites (a currency that was accepted in randomly spawning fabrication machines), health orbs and parasitic buffs. With the room clear, its secrets and its guardians revealed and decimated, Selene sought the main exit door, slotted into a mountainous plateau. She noted a side-door, but ignored it for now, her mission almost complete, she no longer needed to scrounge each and every square inch of the biome. She entered the next room, unhesitating.

Perhaps ten or twelve rooms later, Selene came to the red door of this biome, her suit weary and weak, but a parasite in tow, autorepairing when she was close to death. She had discarded her service pistol in exchange for a Hollowseeker – a fully automatic rifle, with several useful traits; one being the ability to create a mid-air turret portal that autotargeted enemies she didn’t notice. Her holographic wrist map showed two branching paths leading away from it, through which she had, in a previous life, discovered keys to open the red door. Beyond the large staircase and up towards the towering trees sat this biome’s major obstacle; he called himself Hyperion. She could already hear the lulling, melancholy organ that he played. But his death had also been stolen, her reward a path to the Fractured Wastes of biome five; a frozen hellscape, remixed from the baking desert heat of biome two. She dreaded that biome; its calm silence a lie. The snow blanketing the many Severed enemies and surprise drone attacks, as well as the huge, tendriled-Lovecraftian-lions. It would be wise to avoid that region, and skip straight to the Scar. Then again, perhaps an improved weapon, or the chance of extra health would increase her chances in the endless deep. Just a quick trip then…

*

Minutes later, shivering not from the cold of the wastes, Selene collapsed through a room door, next to the huge whirlpool in the floor; the portal to the Abyssal Scar, the final biome. She had only managed a few rooms of death lasers and dangerously mobile and lethal sentients before she had run back to this hub room in the wastes. Breathing hard, Selene lied down next to the fabrication station. Waving a hand, she exchanged some of her currency for a strange Astronaut figurine. This one seemed not to want to let her go. Struggling to keep her eyes open, she put her newly minted Electropylon Driver down, resting her arm. It was her favourite weapon on this forsaken, fallen planet. It had a slow fire rate, and its reload was equally lethargic, but the electric spines it shot out would bury themselves into her nemeses, damaging them over time, whereby she could hunt for cover, or just stay mobile, dodging the bullet hell chaos, without worrying about aiming and firing at a point all the time. Fire and forget, she liked to call it.

A few more minutes, she said to herself. Her eyelids shut of their own volition and her consciousness drifted. And drifted…

*

The 20th Century house beckoned her as she walked in the front door. The radio was on, pictures of her late mother on the telephone stand. The TV buzzed and crackled, tuned to white noise. She saw Octo, her son’s stuffed toy on the comfy chair. The kitchen was empty, save for the fully-garbed NASA Astronaut eating a bowl of children’s cereal. Dread and icy fear rippled down her back. Selene tried to turn and run but her movement was treacle, the dream, which this must be, had paralysed her muscles, all her twitch reflexes dulled. She could only slowly turn around but not before the Astronaut swivelled and stared at her, his eyes invisible behind the reflective visor. She screamed internally, forcing her tree trunk legs to move. She managed to leave the kitchen, and found the strength to climb the stairs. At the top she breathed deeply, big rattly breaths of fear. A telescope on the landing was fixated on a seemingly random patch of stars; as she leaned down to look more closely through the lens, a cold blue light flickered for a second, washing her bedroom in its wake. Her laptop? Surely it was off. She took painfully slow steps into the room, and indeed, her computer was on, an email open. “… we regret to inform you that the competition for the ASTRA program was extremely high and on this occasion you were not selected-“, Selene tore her eyes away, confused by the information. Before she could examine her memories, thick, black, glutinous tentacles burst out of the laptop screen, threatening to ensnare her. They squelched with a horrific wetness, their sentience noticeable and malevolent. Selene fell backwards, stumbling on a chair. She half-crawled, half-pulled herself back to the landing, down the stairs and through the hall, towards the inky blackness of the basement. A throbbing pulse echoed in her ears, an auditory resistance to her physical presence in this space. Was this a memory that she wasn’t supposed to see? Or perhaps one she had blocked? Sick with fear, but overwhelmed with curiosity, Selene stepped down towards the basement door. It shrank and shrank, getting further and further away the closer she got. She started to jog down the steps, and now a full precarious pelt down, reaching out with her hand until SLAM! The basement door had materialised an inch from her face. Her breathing was haggard now, her eyes filled with sweat and tears, her limbs vibrating. Selene pushed open the basement door.

Everything seemed to settle. Only the tick of a clock could be heard. Selene’s heart slowed and the fear left her, as she immediately recognised the object of power in this room. A wheelchair. Her mother’s wheelchair. How she hated that overlord. She felt the rage rise inside her, childhood longing unsatisfied, never reconciled. What she wanted to say to her now, were she still alive. Selene shook her head sadly, and her mind leapt to her own child. Love burst and ballooned for him, albeit tinged with bitterness. She treated him badly, she knew. Love held inside and not shown wasn’t love. A splinter began to form, a splinter in the mind. It grew and grew until Selene began to pick at it. Something was wrong. This was wrong. Helios, Helios was upstairs asleep. Yes he must be, because, because-. A flicker, a blinding memory of a car crash, her mother and herself barely surviving. A news report. But wait, there was a second car crash, wasn’t there? Selene and Helios, Selene and Helios-

Like a wave crashing on the shoreline, consciousness filtered into Selene’s POV. She couldn’t recall opening her eyes but they were. Staring at the abyss, at the watery drop into darkness. She buried the mind splinter and checked her weapon, her suit. Then she was all business. Into the drop, hundreds of hundreds of metres down, pressure building. Sound and gravity deadened, her world became distorted and unreal. She was in the Abyssal Scar. The end of her journey was nigh.

*

Ruins Wastes Citadel Ruins Wastes Scar.

The Abyssal Scar was indeed that, a scar deep inside the ocean. Unending monstrosities spawning and killing Selene over and over again. The dark and the wet made everything harder, slower. The lights from her weapon, from the bioluminescence were all that she used to find the path. The final path to Ophion, the last obstacle to her memories, to the end of this torturous timeloop; at least that’s what she told herself.

Room. Room. Room. Room. A weapon here, an upgrade here, a malignancy there. Stupid! Almost killed by a rogue sentient, all tentacles and projectiles for days. Unfairly fast, but she could outrun him. Forget him, forget them, she’d been here before. She had walked all these rooms, in every iteration, in every permutation. Now she needed the red door. Just show me the red do-

There.

Down, further and further, endlessly down. A rush of sound, her ears popping, her heart hammering as she gazed once more upon the skullface of Ophion. He screeched for the second time, a time she felt was neither hours or years ago. Selene focused solely on the red pores on his malformed body, pouring all her ammunition into him. The chaos of un-dodgeable purples beams, green laser orbs, tracking missiles, huge leviathan arms sweeping across the arena, all fell into her peripheral vision. All was noise and all was noticed. Muscle memory kicked in as she got him down one phase, then the next and then she saw him waning, clutching to life. Only to be reborn. One more melee strike, one more dodge, one more fizzing Electropylon embedded in Ophion’s heart-

The roar shook the world. Ophion collapsed into particulate dust, and the bottom of the seabed lay empty, its power over Selene diminished. Her heart had not slowed down, not one BPM less. She bent over, her hands on her knees, and was almost sick in her helmet, not daring to test the suit’s recycling capabilities this deep underwater. She took slow, rattling breaths, recalling the last few minutes, the last few seconds of Ophion’s death to her hands. She was done, she was almost out. Rising, Selene gave the thing that was Ophion a wide berth, following the path she had taken before to the great beast that enveloped her in this timeloop, that wouldn’t let her go. This time she would know who she was and she would fight to break out of the loop. She would not return.

I will not return.

The sedan was there, tucked into the corals. Its headlights flickering, the keys appearing in her hand, her weapon missing. Without understanding why she did what she did, Selene got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. The splinter moved. She cried out in pain, in grief. The bridge, the car crash, her son-

Helios!

They fell. Into the river, and into the inky blackness of death. And in that moment of trauma, of physical hurt, Selene came to see the great Atropian dreamer. His deep red eyes shining too bright in that river, his bulk impossible in Earth’s gravity, tentacles stretching for miles, a gaping mouth filled with the fires of hell. Selene tried to scream but only bubbles came out. Her breath short, she looked back to her son, still trapped in the car, flicked her eyes up to the surface, her respite. Her chance to live, but at what cost? She rose, but the trauma held her, the Atropian held her mind in its grip.

You cannot overcome this pain, Selene.

She felt the shadows creeping into her vision, she could already feel the wet mulch of the Ruins in her palm, the destroyed ship Helios next to her, abandoned, another run inviting her…

I WILL NOT RETURN.

She rose. The Atropian’s grip faded, her own pain amplified, and the stars in the sky cried for her as she swallowed the grief of what she had left behind. She had severed herself. She had broken free, had given up and also persevered. The decision had been made. Death beckoned, and not a temporary one. She embraced it, with open arms.


Header image credit: Housemarque / Ilmari Kumpunen