I badgered Jay into writing this series. I felt that if anything needed his particular treatment, his uniquely Dobryvian acid humor, it was RimWorld. He’s outdone himself. But then, he always does.
“I did something different with Part Four,” Jay said. “Sort of a tonal shift. The pure humor angle wasn’t working.” What he has done instead is circle back to the point he made in Part One: that the player creates unique internal stories within each game, and that’s what makes RimWorld so memorable. This, the final chapter of Death in Fire, is one of those internal stories.
Anyway, consider yourself warned: the series title is not necessarily ironic in meaning, and if that comes as a surprise then you haven’t been paying attention.
Here we go.
Death in Fire: A RimWorld
Tragedy Saga, Part Four
“Ash and Ember”
Previously on Death in Fire…
Eventually, the fires die in the rain, and smoke hovers in an ashen haze over the ruins of Black Mesa.
The GCP was victorious. They took Tetsuya and Doyle as living trophies, leaving Emmie alone with Ko’s corpse. Well, not quite alone. One bleeding, semiconscious tribal warrior remains on the muddy battlefield, and in that fallen warrior Emmie sees a potential ally. In the ruins, Emmie sees the food she saved from the flames and the scrap metal she can use to rebuild. She sees tomorrow.
Emmie may be incapable of violence, but she will fight.
Fleeting Hours of Day 16
The tribal warrior named Tona bleeds into the earth, and part of Emmie is glad for it.
But after a decade of slavery and being subject to a litany of depraved desires, she also knows what people can do. What they will do, until you stop them, or, failing that, run away. She chose running, barely escaping with her life. And she would do it again, even knowing what she knows now, even after the GCP killed and kidnapped their way through Black Mesa.
But she can’t run, not any more. She’s through running, and if she wanted to, run where? Just flee into the dunes? The food is here. The shelter is here. And she’s tired, so damn tired. But she mustn’t sleep yet, even if her blistered hands reek of smoke and blood, even if she’s hungry and wet from the rain, even if she just wants to close her eyes and wake up to see Ko in his garden and Tetsuya with his cat and Doyle with her–
Night has fallen, but Emmie won’t — can’t — sleep until she takes care of two things. The first is tending to the living. Choosing the path of least resistance because they don’t teach construction skills to genetically-engineered sex slaves, Emmie quickly repairs the walls in what will have to serve as a prison infirmary. She drags Tona’s soaked, feverish body through the soggy sand and into bed, then starts binding her wounds.
With the medicine, Emmie makes slow, steady progress bandaging Tona’s four stab wounds and two gunshots. Emmie’s mind wanders as she spoons potato soup into her prisoner/patient’s mouth. Tona is barely awake enough to swallow.
Did Ko shoot you, or was it Doyle? You deserved it, you bitch, but having a prisoner and a savage as company is better than being alone right now.
Tona passes out, but the bleeding has stopped for now. Time for the second thing.
Emmie leaves Tona’s cell to find her second task literally staring her in the face, with an arrow buried between his eyes. I’m sorry, Ko. Sorry I couldn’t fight at your side, maybe I should’ve been the one to die because I’m useless and weak and can’t even hold a gun and —
She’s seen death before, having lost count of the GCP dead they’d buried. Emmie gathers whatever wood she can find and carries it to the birch farm. She finishes Ko’s sarcophagus quickly and silently, the birch saplings offering little protection from the rain. She places his body into it as gently as she can, stands silently for a few moments, then walks back to the complex.
Emmie beelines for her bedroom, but not before she wonders about Dulce’s whereabouts. Maybe the cat is out in the rain, looking for Tetsuya?
Passing by Tona’s cell, she cracks the door and sees Dulce sleeping at the foot of the prisoner’s bed. The bed that had been Tetsuya’s only a day ago.
Emmie knows enough medicine to know Dulce probably shouldn’t be sleeping in the infirmary, but she just closes the door and climbs into her own bed. Sleep swallows her almost instantly, and it rains throughout the night.
Morning breaks, but the rain does not, and Emmie wakes with a ravenous hunger. She eats, then checks on Tona, who’s still sleeping. Tona feels hot to the touch, and one of her leg wounds is starting to show the angry red edges of infection.
It’s this damn room. Possibly even the cat, but mostly the room and the sand.
Very well, then, first priority this day is cleaning and repairing the sterile medbay.
Emmie finishes the walls and scrubs out the soot and ash. She returns to Tona to find her fever spiking, and ponders the potential risk involved in physically transferring a psychotic native with only a depressed feline for backup.
Tona is weak with fever, but Emmie ties off her hands anyway before escorting her to the refurbished medbay. With the sterile environment, things should look up for Tona, and Emmie might have time to harvest the six fields of fully grown crops in between attempts to recruit her. Emmie knows little of gardening and cannot hunt, so those crops are likely her last chance to fill the pantry for the foreseeable future. Winter, as they say, is coming.
The transfer proceeds without incident. As the sun sets, Emmie feeds Tona, spooning soup into her mouth. She listens to the rain, then something gives and she has to stifle a sob. Tona, chilly and feverish, watches silently as Emmie walks out of the room.
(The game alerts me to a “mental breakdown warning,” meaning Emmie’s mood has deteriorated to the point where she might totally lose her shit. The severity of a mental break can range anywhere from “eating binge” to “psychotic frenzy,” with many other effects. They can be funny — RimWorld is generally a funny game — but they can also be the cause of your pawn trying to punch a thrumbo to death, with predictable results.)
24 straight hours of work and fitful sleep have taken their toll on her mood, so Emmie returns to the birch farm. Ko was terrible at horseshoes (she won every game, even the one she tried to lose), but that never stopped him from challenging her whenever she grew tired of cooking and he needed a break from gardening. The wooden stake is gone now, burned away when the GCP ignited the birch farm. The horseshoes, being metal, are probably lost in the soot somewhere.
Blinking back tears, Emmie fashions two new horseshoe posts, places them near Ko’s sarcophagus, and indulges in a few lonely rounds.
Tona’s infection is now extreme. Either Tona will die, or she will develop immunity. Emmie feels only slightly guilty for her next thought, the one that says Tona is a burden and a distraction. She is both. Tona eats and requires constant care, time that could perhaps be better spent reconstructing Black Mesa or harvesting crops.
Emmie heads to bed. Under the covers, she listens to the rain.
I was bred to tend to the needs of others, is that all that I’m doing with this tribal warrior with the cold stare? Still just obeying the masters’ programming, even now?
The morning is clear, and Tona is awake and up and about in her cell, possibly wondering how and why she’s not moldering in the ground next to her dead friends.
After breakfast, Emmie heads to Tona’s cell to take a stab at recruitment.
Converting a captive is not an easy process in RimWorld. It depends on your pawn’s Social skill, rolled against the prisoner’s resistance to being enlisted. Emmie’s Social is a ten. That’s very good, and was probably coded into her DNA by some genetic engineer. But it really comes down to how intransigent the prisoner is. In some cases it’s just not worth the time and effort no matter how silver-tongued you are.
The conversation is not even a minute old when Emmie starts to doubt her ability to “convince” Tona, who seems cold and distant. If she can’t appeal to her humanity, that leaves logic, which means convincing Tona she’s better off at Black Mesa than with her tribe. Even if she was a lawyer instead of a former slave, she suspects she’d have a hard time selling “Hey… want to betray your tribe and possibly even kill a few of them when they come back?”.
It takes Emmie only a few minutes to realize the foolishness of wasting any more time with Tona (with less than a 1% chance of successfully converting her). Over time, her chances might improve, but meanwhile, Tona eats three meals a day. Not to mention she’s a psychotic tribal warrior in a wooden cell wardened by a non-violent ex-sex slave.
Emmie thinks, then Emmie decides.
She gives Tona her freedom, leaving her in restraints for her journey back to the GCP. Emmie wonders if she’ll see her again, but if it comes to that, she knows better than to expect mercy.
(In terms of game mechanics, sending Tona back to her tribe alive curries a little favor with the GCP, who now rates -54 instead of -69. Only four more catch-and-releases and the GCP will rate as “neutral.” Joy.)
Alone again. Tired of living in darkness, Emmie spends the rest of day building a new wind turbine, bringing light once again to Black Mesa. She turns in for the night.
…But soon wakes to the thunder of a dry electro-storm. One bolt strikes mere yards away from the complex, leaving Emmie’s ears ringing. She darts outside, still in her sleepwear…FIRE!
Without rain, the fire will obliterate several months of potential rations within minutes.
(Now, with the fire raging, Randy Random kicks it up a notch, sending a “mad animal” alert. This is not a rare occurrence in RimWorld, but oddly enough, it is Black Mesa’s first. Mad animals attack any human they see and prowl the colony until killed or a few days pass. This animal happens to be — and I wish I was making this up — a squirrel. A rabid, (wo)man-eating squirrel. However, the squirrel doesn’t head straight for Emmie, at least not immediately, and she only needs a few more seconds to put out the fires threatening her only source of food…)
Suddenly, a shriek pierces the air and a mass of fur and claws and teeth launches itself at her face. Emmie panics and swats it away, but the little ball of hate hits the ground and leaps at her again.
Emmie does the only thing she can: she runs.
She sprints for the complex, but this rodent’s rage is matched by its agility. It jumps onto her head, biting and clawing its way down to her chest and arms. Screaming, half-blind from blood in her eyes, Emmie finally makes it to the pantry door.
She grabs the little bastard by the tail, whips it into the corner, and lunges into the pantry, slamming the door behind her.
The squirrel flings itself at the door, and Emmie silently thanks the departed Doyle for having chosen marble over wood when building it. After half a minute, the frenzied scratching gives way to silence.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit… mother-effing son of a… I escaped from slavers and tribal warriors and now this… what even… was that a squirrel?
Frustrated, Emmie cups her forehead in her hands, but they come away bloody. She’s hurt. Not bad, but bleeding from her ear and from numerous wounds on her legs and arms.
Emmie eyes the medicine along the wall. Her bites and scratches need treatment and who knows what filthy filth lives in that squirrel’s mouth. She searches through the ample medical supplies for antibiotics, but finds nothing.
Dammit, Ko. Next time you unexpectedly crash land on a planet, can you pack some antibiotics? Cursing, the best she can do is a little bottle of antiseptic. Its sting reassures her, at least.
(Colonists can only receive medical treatment in a designated medical bed, and even then, they can’t treat themselves. Emmie’s squirrel wounds are superficial and should heal on their own so long as she manages to avoid infection. With no doctor in the house, the only option is rest.)
Emmie sits on the floor. Though terrified, she hadn’t totally panicked, choosing the pantry over her bedroom for her fortress. Sooner or later the squirrel will go away, and if she’s going to be trapped for a day or three, might as well be trapped with food.
Food… the crops! She had put out about half the fire, but the squirrel attack erased that progress. Emmie remembers Ko saying something about leaving buffers between each type of crop, and she utters a second “thank you” to the departed.
As Emmie lies on the cement floor, using a sack of potatoes as a pillow, she thinks of Dulce. He has a history with squirrels, maybe he’ll take care of this. More likely, he’s licking himself and fighting the urge to take his ninth nap of the day, she thinks, and Emmie chuckles at the thought as she drifts into sleep…
Cement floors hardly make for ideal beds. Emmie wakes to a backache and the sound of rain on the roof, but the bleeding has stopped and she has countless options for food. During a breakfast of strawberries and oats, she decides she’s through with waiting.
I’m not sleeping on that damn floor again if I can help it. Emmie unlatches the door, cracks it open, and listens.
Nothing? It’s a god forsaken squirrel, what kind of sound are you expecting? Get it together, Emmie. Go out there and just be ready to GTFO.
Emmie takes a step. Then another. The only sound is the wind and rain outside, so she takes a chance and heads to the birch farm. The rain is light, and the squirrel is nowhere to be found.
Exhaustion hits, and Emmie drags herself off to bed. In the night, nightmares come, and she suddenly wakes, wondering how and why she’s so goddamn cold in the middle of summer. The room’s chill has even seeped through her blankets, and she curls up into a shivering ball.
Blinking away the sleep, she realizes it’s not the room.
A half-sigh, half-chuckle escapes Emmie’s lips before she rolls over.
Of course. OF COURSE… Sigh… Just sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.
Except she doesn’t feel better in the morning. She struggles to sit up, and when she puts her hand to her forehead, her brain feels like it’s set to broil. Emmie drags herself to the cooler, gobbles down some white rice, then shuffles back to her bedroom and face-plants into the bed.
Frigid with fever, Emmie burrows into her blankets to little effect. The antiseptic did little. Whatever that squirrel had, it was already in her system when she applied it to her wounds. It’s still out there. Maybe it’ll find the GCP. Tell them Black Mesa sends their regards, Mr. Squirrel, haha. If I don’t get out of this, someone will eat well, at least. Crops and a pantry full of food…
Emmie drifts in and out of sleep. Hours pass. It’s midsummer, 98 degrees outside, but she shivers under three blankets.
Night cloaks Black Mesa, and Emmie can barely lift her arms. Any attempt to get out of bed results in exhaustion.
She dreams. She dreams not of indulgent masters and savage whims, but of friends. All of them in the garden together, Ko smiling a little as they harvest its first bounty of potatoes and rice. Doyle jokes about working twice as fast with one arm as Tetsuya does with two, and Tetsuya lobs a potato at Doyle’s head, who laughs as she ducks.
The image fades. They’re all with her now, sitting at their rugged, somewhat jagged dinner table, waiting for Emmie’s first meal cooked with garden-fresh vegetables. Jokes… laughter…
“Emmie, please, you don’t have to serve the food. We can get it,” Doyle says, getting up.
“Really, I’m happy to do it,” Emmie whispers to her pillow, her eyes barely open.
“Holy… If I knew the food would be this good, I would’ve marooned myself with her years ago,” Ko says.
Emmie laughs. A compliment. She’s still not quite used to them, but they’re far better than her former masters’ leering and grunted dismissals. She hears her own voice: “This is a special occasion. Next time, you can serve yourselves, but I don’t hate anyone here enough to make them eat your cooking, Ko.”
Laughter. Everyone remembers the days of “Kooking with Ko.”
Still chuckling, Doyle says, “Seriously, though… thank you.”
Tetsuya chimes in, his mouth full. “Yeah, even Dulce likes it, and he’s a finicky brat with the food.”
Emmie sits at the table and they eat. After a long day of work and more work, it’s more about the food than the conversation. Dulce, purring loudly, jumps on the table, but Doyle shoos him off.
“Aww, poor kitty, here ya go.” Tetsuya tosses a chunk of stewed potato under the table.
“We’ll let Tetsuya clean up… and Emmie… ” says Ko, waiting for her full attention. “Thank you. Not just for this. For everything. Even though you suck at horseshoes.”
In her bed, eyes closed, a hint of a smile plays across Emmie’s lips, then she moves no more.
This is not the story I wanted to tell.
Once this became “Emmie’s story,” I wanted more than anything for it to be one of improbable redemption. With a little luck, Black Mesa would rise from the ashes. New colonists would trickle in, and Emmie, the former sex slave turned tough-as-nails survivor, would lead them into new adventures.
But Randy Random had other plans, of course. Fire played a large role, but the final act would be better called Death by Furry, or perhaps even Death in Sepsis. It makes for an ignominious end, and it’s a bitter pill. Not only did I kill poor Emmie, but I cheated myself and my reader (Hi, Mom!) out of what could’ve been.
Another chess adage: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” I’m sure I made many mistakes because I’m a little too fluent in noob, but two stick out immediately. The first was complacency. I failed to treat Randy RANDOM as the unpredictable asshole that he is. Turret technology should’ve been the number one research priority.
The second was threat assessment. I sent Emmie to fight the crop-fire, hoping she’d have time to deal with it before the squirrel found her. If I had remembered that colonists cannot be their own doctor, Emmie would’ve hidden in the pantry until the squirrel wandered off. Even if every crop burned, she had enough stored food to last her weeks, so the risk of starvation was relatively mild when compared to bloodthirsty squirrels with big, sharp, nasty, pointy teeth.
But I won’t keep beating myself up about it. I’ll return to RimWorld, start a new colony, and take my vengeance against Randy Random and his band of rambunctious rabble. The story of Black Mesa is over, but my journey into Tynan’s fun, cruel, and captivating game will go on.
Thank you for reading! I apologize for the downer conclusion. I tried the to maintain the humorous approach, but it felt like it was harming Emmie’s story more than helping it. After all, the stories are the point, and what makes RimWorld’s stories memorable is their capacity to bounce between darkness and hilarity. And, to be fair, I did promise it would end badly.
If you play RimWorld, may this story serve as a cautionary tale, or perhaps as consolation when you realize you’re nowhere near as bad as I am at playing it.
And if you don’t play the game, then take solace in knowing that where there’s life, there’s hope. Always.
Tell Jay there’s no shame in death by squirrel — JasonDobry@Tap-Repeatedly.com.