Mighty Pet

Author : Jules Jensen

The gray fur was dry and dull. The small hollow horns on his head were curly and crooked. She stroked a finger over the horns. He closed his eyes, like he enjoyed the touch. The claws on his four paws were long. They needed to be trimmed at least once a week, according to her mother. But she couldn’t stand the thought of cutting his precious weapons that saved his life so many times in the arena.

He was contentedly curled in her lap, now closing his blue eyes and rubbing a paw over his flat, monkey-like face. She let him sleep, while she focused her attention elsewhere, looking out of her window. Her dad’s car just pulled up, and he was opening the back hatch. He was unloading the new battler.

She thought that they were done with the neighbourhood brawls when Mighty retired. She wondered what would happen now. It was illegal to have two battlers in one household.

As if sensing her thoughts, or maybe he smelled the newcomer, the creature on her lap jolted upright.

“Don’t worry, Mighty, I wont let them get rid of you.” She said, giving the creature a hug. He was tense and quivering.

“Stay here.” She got up and left the room.

Down the stairs, she stopped by the front door just as her dad came in. He gingerly held a cage that contained something roughly the same size as Mighty. The creature inside was an ugly thing, leathery black skin and six legs, white eyes and huge ears.

“What’s going to happen to Mighty?” She asked, but her dad ignored her.

“This is Shrill. I bet we can totally take out the Johansen’s bird now.” He explained to his wife, who smiled and clapped her hands together happily.

“Mighty could take out that bird.” She muttered in annoyance, too quiet for her father to hear, but her mother looked at her.

“Mighty is too old.” Her mother replied, and her father put the cage down on the floor and went to the kitchen, clutching a wad of paperwork.

“What’s going to happen to him now?” She asked, and her mother quickly looked away. She followed her husband into the kitchen, but spoke over her shoulder.

“You know the rules, honey.”

“But he’s a pet now. He hasn’t fought in ten years.” She followed her parents, feeling the teenage fury start to build up in her heart.

“Which is why we need a new fighter. The extra money will be quite handy.”

Her father was already reading over the papers. Her mother smiled, all happy and gooey at the thought of having a battler again, and being a part of the community after years of absence. Then she frowned and looked down at the floor.

Mighty came trotting in, claws clacking on the floor as he leisurely went to his food and water dishes by the fridge. He left behind paw-prints of black-brown gunk.

“What’s that he’s tracking in? Did he go in the garden again?” Her father asked, finally looking away from Shrill’s papers. She ignored him and curiously followed prints back out to the entryway, where her father had left Shrill’s cage.

The cage was open, and Shrill was dead, throat torn open and oozing blood. Her mother gasped and put a hand to her mouth while her father just stared, dumbfounded.

“I guess we really can’t have two fighters in the same household.” She tried not to smile as she said it, and then she calmly went into the kitchen to clean the blood from Mighty‘s experienced claws.

Father

Author : Matthieu C. R. Cartron

“And why is it that you wish to explore deep space?” said Allen, the director of the space program.

It felt like an obvious question to Gyron. Why did anyone wish to explore the unknown? For the same reason no doubt.

“Exploration is the path forward for our kind,” Gyron said. “We cannot be afraid of what lies in deep space, for it is what we find in the darkness that may propel us forward. If I do not try then how can I expect anyone else to?”

Allen looked up from the table and stared into Gyron’s eyes.

“You are an ambitious man Gyron, are you not?”

“I like to think that my own personal interests are shared by the nation,” Gyron said.

“You have a wife and a young son Gyron. I will admit that you are the most qualified candidate to lead the mission, but you cannot expect to return home before the boy has completed school. And your wife, well, she will be far older than you when you return.”

“I understand this sir, bu-”

“I cannot help but notice, Gyron, that your own personal interests, your family and the mission, are in fact quite contradictory,” Allen said, leaning forward in his chair.

“I need this, sir,” Gyron insisted. “Once you’ve started on a path, you must travel to the end of it. I am determined to see all of my training, all of my hard work, materialize into something. And that will not happen. Not unless I go.”

Gyron pointed to the sky.

“I’ve dreamt of this my whole life sir. My name belongs in the history books; people must know what I can and will achieve. Please.”

*

Six months later, Gyron was gone. Aboard the V-76 model spacecraft, dubbed Father on behalf of a public vote, the crew of eleven men and thirteen women explored deep space. What they found was exciting, but they were unable to share it; sometime during the trip, the Father had lost radio contact with mission control—an expected cost of deep space exploration.

While it had only been two years for the crew, fifteen years passed quietly away on their home planet. When the crew of the Father returned home, they found the planet deserted, bereft of any human activity.

The people had left, and instead of returning to crowds of grateful citizens singing the praises of the Father, the crew was welcomed home by silence.

Gyron returned immediately to the house he had once lived in with his little family, hoping to find a clue that might guide him to them. But the house was empty, save for a small, toy spaceship that lay covered in dust on the floor of his son’s room. Oliver’s room.

Gyron plucked up the spaceship into his large hands and turned it over several times, feeling the jagged plastic scrape at his flesh. He began to quiver, and then finally sank to his knees.

On another day, Gyron might have grieved for his lack of fame or recognition, but today, it was his own introspection that drew him to the floor. He remembered that little spaceship. It was the same one Oliver had been holding as he had said his final farewell. The sobbing Gyron recalled his son’s soft eyes, and the words that had come out of his mouth.

“Father,” Oliver had said while hoisting the spaceship above his head.

“Why must you fly away when the spaceship is already here?”

Reality

Author : Jules Jensen

I stopped and sighed, and then crossed my arms. This wasn’t a normal game animation, but there was no one out this far, so I didn’t have to pretend. A field of short grass met up with a lake. It was peaceful.

And it was hot. I hated the heat, but so did other players. The game helmet would stimulate their brains and tell them this area was hot, and most people didn’t want to be uncomfortable.

Maybe if I stuck around I’d die from heat. I thought I remembered something about extreme weather exposure. But that might just be their way to tell people not to stand in the fire.

I sat on the bank of the river and watched my shadow on the surface. I smirked. That was my name: Shadow-Over-Water. What was I thinking when I made that name? I don’t remember. I do remember being a twenty-something man that was dissatisfied with the doldrums of daily life, so when the game came out I jumped right in.

And it was great. Until I died. I don’t know how, but I felt it. I was still wearing the game helmet when it happened, which somehow made me stay alive in the game. My body is somewhere out there in the real world, being eaten by worms.

Ever since then, I never died in-game. That made me worth a lot of points.

The sky let out a loud ding.

The patch was complete. Players would now have their points value floating above their heads.

I was terrified that dying in-game would mean my mind would be just as dead as my worm-eaten body. As much as I came to hate my existence in a world with no sleep, food, or reality, it was all I had.

A sensation on the back of my neck alerted me that someone was nearby.

Having no defensive bonuses and not being battle-ready meant that I died in a single hit. I didn’t even get to see the other player.

Pain raced through my body. Blinding white light surrounded me.

And then I was flat on my back. The air was suddenly cooler. I stared up at large blue-barked trees.

“New re-spawn location looks good, right?” A voice beside me made me startle. There was a girl right there, a warrior.

Her eyes focused mechanically on the air above my head, where my information would theoretically be displayed. I couldn’t see that kind of stuff, so I had no idea what it showed her. “At least you went and got it over with.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Your kill value resets every time you die. So if you don’t want to fight people, just don’t kill anyone, because a zero is worth nothing. That’s what I did.”

I wasn’t sure if I was happy that I wasn’t dead, or if I was disappointed that I was alive again. It occurred to me that I’d be doomed to wander the game forever.

But that also meant that since I didn’t need to fear death, I could actually do things. There were fun quests out there, apparently. I might even make friends.

The warrior got up. I scrambled to my feet.

“Can you help me get better gear?” I asked and forced myself to stand in the default pose, pretending that there was nothing special about me.

She didn’t reply for a moment. Then her character smiled again.

“Sure.”

I knew suddenly that I didn’t have to be alone anymore, and that made it feel like this life was worth living.

The Cow

Author : Charles Paul Wallace

Ashura contorted her body, thrust her arm through the jagged rip in the ship’s inner hull and aimed the flash-driver at the stuck bolt.

Which, as ever, refused to turn.

She slumped back down to the shrapnel-strewn floor and considered her possibilities.

One: give up; wait for the remaining air to seep into space; die.

Two: Leave the escape pod compartment without, somehow, suffocating in the vacuum of the rest of the ship, and locate any surviving tools that might help solve her predicament.

Three: keep trying.

One was not an option. The Pan-African Space Agency was on shaky enough footing already without adding cowardice to the catalogue of errors. If corners hadn’t been cut on the ship’s construction, if Commander Musonda hadn’t panicked when the alarm flashed into life…She was determined the last remaining survivor of the mission would show no weakness.

Option two seemed an impossibility. The asteroid-net had scythed through the outer hull, obliterating the rest of the crew in one fell swoop. Musonda’s death had followed swiftly once he made the mistake of severing the command capsule from the power module. The resultant blast of nuclear material had billowed through the vessel’s interior in seconds. Ashura had heard it all from where she had taken shelter by the escape pods. She had only survived the blowback by pure luck. Now, her one chance of survival lay with…

Option three: keep on trying and hope for the best.

Small hope though it was.

She stretched her arm through the tear in the bulkhead once more. Centimetres away, the bolt sat beside the pod’s release mechanism, unconcerned and indifferent to her attempts to turn it. She switched on the screwdriver for the briefest second. How absurd, that her survival should rest on the waning charge of this tool. How narrow the divide between success and failure. She grimaced; the same could be said for the entire mission.

The bolt, naturally, didn’t move.

She withdrew her arm and tried to think. The dwindling oxygen supply was making such an exercise near-impossible; she tried pinching herself, slapping herself, anything to clear her thoughts. The fuzz inside her head ballooned, a clouding, impenetrable miasma…

A memory came to her: her mother, on her hands and knees in their barn. The farm where Ashura had spent her childhood seemed to manifest itself around her, out here in the void. Her mother, arm extended inside the only cow they could afford, was desperately trying to pull its calf out before the beast expired from the effort. Sweat drenched her forehead. Ashura could do nothing other than shout words of encouragement.

“Mother!” she screamed. “Pull! Pull!”

Her mother gave one last almighty wrench. With a sound of slurping mud the calf tumbled out onto the straw. The cow gave out a low that shook the air, turned its giant head and began to lick its child clean.

Suddenly Ashura was back on the ship. A sharp pain in her arm, and the stench of the farm became the stench of stale air. She found she had thrust her hand back through the hole without even realising it. The driver glowed. With a final, infinite effort she waved it above the bolt and jammed it forward.

It slipped from her grasp and tumbled to the floor with a clank.

Weeping, she lay her head on the cold metal of the hull.

And it was seconds before she heard the hiss of the turning bolt; and then the womb-like interior of the escape pod lay before her, ripe with the promise of rebirth in the stars.

The Waiting Mist

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The rolling glens of Morglanwe sweep gracefully down, their bases hidden by the long grasses that gird them. From this side of the gently waving grass sweeps a scattering of low dunes that back the beach on which we stand. In the sunset, I can see the piled bodies that deface a scene so glorious in natural splendour it would otherwise be worthy of a classic painting.
My guide, Glimhre, is unmoved by my mutterings of offence.
“Wait, Envoy. Wait.”
Is all he says. It is his answer to my every question. Where are the burial details, the mourners, the funerary rites?
The only reply?
“Wait.”
High above, the clouds turn metallic purple in the last rays of the sun. I have never seen a shade so rich. The deep blue of the local equivalent of gulls perfectly complements the colour their wheeling flight sets them against. How can such beauty be allowed with the aftermath of bloody conflict strewn about below? It’s an offense to everything proper. Such ugliness should, if not erased, at least be solemnly removed piecemeal by grieving relatives and furtive scavengers. For it to lie ignored is a terrible thing to me.
A mist rises, mercifully shrouding the dead. I look about to see what beauty is brought by the ephemeral, faintly luminescent roils. There is no mist behind us. There is no mist amidst the dunes or in the vales of the glens. I look back. The mist is moving against the breeze. Moving. Like an animal!
I turn to Glimhre.
“What is that?”
He smiles a little smile: “That which was awaited.”
“I don’t understand.”
Glimhre rests a scaled hand on my shoulder: “You were insulted by our barbarous lack of care for our fallen. You were offended by our lack of funereal ritual. What you see is all of that. Look to the dunes.”
There are lights on the dunes. Each held by one or more beings gathered there. I hadn’t seen their arrival, so taken was I with the more-than-mist. The little groups – families? – stand together in silence. Everything about us has fallen quiet.
Answers. I must have answers. I point at the luminescent impossibility: “What is that?”
“It is a Sha’haan.”
“I repeat. What it that?”
“It is a hunger.”
“Again. What is that?”
“It is that which cleans the land of death. Where it touches, all organic death is lifted from the ground. Every iota is taken into its insatiable hunger.”
With incredulous eyes, I watch as the piles on the shore get smaller.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
The inexorable diminishing process is hypnotic.
It is a while before Glimhre replies: “We could walk through it unharmed, except that our skin would be utterly cleansed and our clothes in tatters as every bit of deceased matter was consumed.”
A thought breaks my reverent watching.
“What if it started killing?”
“Thankfully, it has not learned that. I do not know if it could. But, thank you for a thought that will keep me awake at nights for a while to come.”
I turn my eyes down in shame.
As the Sha’haan finishes its grisly task and fades away, Glimhre slaps my back.
“You are imaginative and honest, Envoy. Never lose those traits, even when you become our Ambassador.”
Many serrated teeth flash in the dim light as he grins: “No, I have no idea where Sha’haan go when they disappear, and – based on recent example – I will be grateful if you do not share your thoughts on that topic.”

Remember

Author : Liam Hogan

“What do you remember?”
It was what they asked. Teacher, Scientist, Mother. The same testing question, always.
Heads bowed, we stared at our desks. We didn’t understand why, but we knew the question was dangerous.
“I… I remember…” a voice crept out from my left and I screwed my eyes shut.
“Yes, Tommy?” the Teacher coaxed.
The classroom held its breath.
“I remember… there were more of us.”
There was a long silence. “No, Tommy. You are mistaken. That is enough school for today. Your Mothers are waiting.”
We filed out into the corridor, ashamed, silent, eyes fixed on the heels of the boy in front.
There were only eleven Mothers.
Tommy’s wasn’t there.

He was right though; Tommy. There had been more. The empty desks hadn’t always been empty, even if I couldn’t remember the older boys who had sat there.
There would be another empty desk, tomorrow. I promised myself I would remember his name.
And his lesson.
Tommy had remembered something you weren’t supposed to notice. And that had been enough.
Back home, Mother sat me down, lowered herself to my level.
“What do you remember, Alex?” she asked.
Worms writhed in my stomach. In the classroom, you could hide behind the other boys, wait for one of them to fill the void with a safe, recent, memory.
“What do you remember?” Mother insisted.
But when you were asked direct, there was no escape. You had to find an answer. One that kept Mother happy.
Only, I remembered so much more than I should. I remembered before.
I remembered a sister; a smiling, sleeping, crying baby sister.
I remembered a moon, as well as a sun.
I remembered trees, and grass, and birds.
And I remembered my mother. My real mother.
Delicate purple fronds emerged from the tip of Mother’s arm, wiping away the tears as I sobbed. Fleshy pads tilted my chin until I met her glittering eyes. And a hushed voice whispered in my ear:
“What do you remember?”