Author’s Note: This was written live on stream, with the tone being determined by the numbers under minesweeper tiles. The audience could bid tokens earned in stream to reveal random tiles. A mine hit results in the death of all characters, unless they are temporarily saved by a lump sum of tokens. If characters make it to the end of the stream, they survive to be seen another day. Join us at twitch.tv/blainearcade if you wish to participate.
1-peace 2-alert 3-maintain 4-escalation 5-action 6-tragedy
A world lies in ruin, its debris drifting on a bottomless sea. Its remaining people, from all places and periods, have one chance of survival. One world will take them, but they must make the journey on their own. Between the two lies the minefield: a vast varied expanse of debris both magical and scientific. Salvation is on the other side.
Three figures emerge from the fog of their sputtering world: BPR-7, Chelsea who must ride, and the red huntress. They see the minefield before them, knowing little, and walk forward.
The red huntress was in the midst of surveying the minefield before them when she sensed something directly behind her head, whizzing towards it. She ducked without looking, just in time to avoid the dangling feet of Chelsea who must ride.
The huntress was not accustomed to traveling in a group, but she thought it her responsibility to look out for the younger girl whether or not she was respectful. She certainly wasn’t respectful of her mount: a beleaguered zeppelin of a robot named BPR-7. He clearly wasn’t meant to be ridden, he could barely stay airborne, but the young woman refused to dismount no matter what grinding sounds he made. She giggled, forcing her steed to turn and make another swipe at the huntress’ head.
The huntress had only six arrows with her, the rest had slipped from her quiver and into the void between worlds, so she wasn’t willing to waste one on downing the troublemakers. She simply waited for another pass, hiding her strength under her crimson cloak, and jumped when they came by again. She snagged both sides of the robot’s gasbag and pulled it down. Chelsea kicked at her, immediately devolving into a tantrum, but the huntress calmed them both by pressing each against the ground with a single palm.
“If we’re going to make it through this together I need you to behave.” A lock of silver hair fell into her eyes. Nothing made her feel older than scolding children. Robots, however, were brand new to her. They lived in a future for their world that would no longer happen; he was an egg rolled out of the nest. No wonder the mechanical thing made such distressed noises.
“Please stop, you are cracking my altimeter,” the robot said politely. The huntress slowly raised her hand, allowing the gasbag to get back in the air. She turned and sat on Chelsea, who still squealed, making inhuman sounds like a pig that just realized it wasn’t getting any truffle gifts for the holidays.
“What exactly are you?” the huntress asked the robot.
“I am Blimp Preparation and Repair drone number seven,” he clarified. “The supervisors where I worked called me Beeper.”
“And where did you work Beeper?”
“The Aeronautical Extreme Fun Park,” the robot declared, a musical jingle weaving through its words. Apparently, robots could talk and sing at the same time. “It was a retro-futuristic theme park featuring many zeppelins and absurd flying machines. I don’t expect you to understand the term retro-futuristic of course.”
They heard some sort of roar in the distance and turned towards it. The huntress tried to quell the girl’s noise with a hand over her mouth, but she immediately bit and continued screaming. Surely she would draw in whatever it was. The huntress needed a way to quiet her without injuring the girl. All she could see of the minefield was patchy grass and goldenrod clouds, but something had roared.
“Do you know what her problem is?” she asked the robot.
“Only vaguely,” Beeper answered. “She has mentioned to me that she must ride. No specifics, only that she has to ride. I obliged her by providing myself as a mount. Perhaps if you place her back on top, she will calm.”
“It’s worth a shot.” The huntress picked up the girl by the waist, feeling a pop in her aging back, and put her over the gasbag like a toddler into a pony’s saddle. She stopped screaming, but she immediately leaned back and gave the red huntress a vicious pinch on her neck, making a spot of her as red as her cloak.
The girl stuck her tongue out. She was clearly spoiled; every grass and dirt stain on her frilly dress was from moments ago. She had canary diamond earrings and more of the same gems embedded in the front of her braces. The red huntress had already seen the bleeding of time before they made it to the minefield, she knew they came from different notches on the line than her, but she couldn’t guess much about the girl’s home. Her wealth had scrubbed away anything too distinct.
(Audience-Chosen) Mine! (Red Huntress and BPR-7 saved by tokens)
Chelsea immediately took control of the robot once more. She forced Beeper to steer into the red huntress, attempting to knock her down. The red huntress never had children of her own, she liked the peace of her cabin in the woods, her fishing pond without splashing, but she had once cared for her sister’s young children. The only way to get them to behave was to suspend them in the air and let them kick at nothing until they realized how pointless it all was.
When the apologizing Beeper was forced to make another pass, the huntress snatched Chelsea off and held her aloft. It was difficult; she was at least a teenager, but the huntress held her ground. She took the brunt of several kicks to the stomach. Wait it out. Wait it out. She was a big child, but nobody could scream forever.
Eventually, she was proven right, but more than she’d hoped. Chelsea stopped screaming. Her arms, legs, and neck went limp. She hung there like a damp sheet. The red huntress dropped to her knees and cradled the girl. She tried to resuscitate her, cutting her lips on the girl’s diamond braces. Nothing came of it. She turned blue. Somehow, the girl was dead.
“It seems she really did need to ride,” Beeper said, in as close a tone to solemn as the machine could manage. “It must have been some sort of biological necessity.” The red huntress set her body down. Could they leave her there? Was it different from any other debris from their world that made up the minefield? She took a step away. Another. Such a shame. Spoiling the girl had made it so she could never get far in a place such as this. Someone always had to carry her.
In the end they felt better when the girl’s inert form was no longer visible. They journeyed forward, the huntress not burdening the obedient robot with her weight, away from the fog that had brought them there. Eventually, they came upon a series of buildings, all hovering above the ground as if unwilling to settle in a place as terrifying as the minefield. Many of them hovered at an angle, and it was difficult for the huntress to avoid falling when they climbed inside the tilted hallways of a schoolhouse.
There they met some too afraid to leave: students and teachers pretending their last lesson never ended. They shushed the huntress and Beeper while they discussed ecosystems and the carbon cycle. One slipped away, a boy of fifteen, eager to see the minefield. He joined them in the cafeteria for a quick snack and a few cartons of milk. They sat at plain tables and discussed the situation just as plainly.
The huntress’ mind drifted back to Chelsea, to her sparkling cackle, but the boy helped distract her. He said his name was Griff, though she doubted it. It did not matter. The boy could choose whatever name he liked in the new world they all hoped was on the other side. He looked eager to shed the constraints of his school uniform. The first thing he did after a guzzle of milk was remove his tie and stomp on it like some sort of venomous snake.
Their conversations were interrupted by lights outside the school’s sealed glass windows. They were little colorful things moving in streams. The huntress thought they could be fairies, though they were a little bright. Beeper thought they might be emergency lighting drones, though they were a little dim. Griff took the initiative, moving to the nearest window and throwing it open. He stuck his hand out into the stream of colorful lights.
The huntress and Beeper moved to his side and watched. Each one that collided with his arm simply bounced off and went on its way, until four stopped to rest in his palm. Their light faded some and revealed their identity. Both had been right. Tiny robots, with aluminum foil frameworks lighter than air, and fairies with wild manes danced together in Griff’s palm.
“Hello,” the huntress said softly to the twirling fairies.
“Greetings fellows,” Beeper addressed the minuscule machines. Those in Griff’s palm turned and waved in response. Apparently they were having a lovely time so far.
“Do you know where you’re going?” the huntress asked them. She heard the edge in her own voice. It wasn’t just the tilted building and the carton milk that somehow tasted stale. It was the uncertainty. Back in her own world she could pick up the trail of a shadow rat from five miles away if the wind was in her favor. The minefield offered nothing. No trails. Only messes. If the fairies had an inkling, she would follow it.
“We’re following the sparkly-heads,” one of the fairies said, voice as sharp as lemon juice. She took the articulated hand of one of the tiny drones and waltzed with it. “They heard something on the other side, so they know where the other side is!”
“May I have the signal?” Beeper asked. One of the smaller robots stopped dancing, flicked its antennae, and then went back to its steps. Beeper’s eyes lit up. The zeppelin-bot contemplated the data, flying around the cafeteria ceiling and making humming noises.
“What is it?” the huntress asked after a few minutes. She stepped away, urging Griff to carefully wipe the fairies off his hands soon, lest he suffer permanent glittering stains from their dust. “What have you noticed?” She hated being out of the loop. She was only now realizing the robots could access some sort of scent trail she was not aware of.
“There is indeed a signal, a safety beacon, coming from that direction,” Beeper said, pointing his swollen nose like a compass needle. “It looks like it is four days’ journey based on your walking speed.”
“What does that mean?” she asked, pacing under the robot, hoping to catch any knowledge he dropped. She knew Beeper wasn’t a living thing, she guessed he was a sort of enchanted automaton, a figure like the little winking lumberjacks inside ornate cuckoo clocks, but he was the only friend she had so far. Griff was just another child that she might accidentally kill.
“It means someone or something is calling to us. It’s telling us there is sanctuary beyond this place. It’s telling every machine in its range.”
“Can we trust this… signal? What do they sound like? Can I hear? I can hear a lie out of any mouth; I’ve had much practice.”
“It’s not a voice,” Beeper clarified. He tried to say it softly to avoid damaging her self-worth. He wasn’t interested in losing friends either. They had assumed he was something of an equal, rather than the overworked toy he used to be in the eyes of his builders and masters.
It’s the only clue we have, right?” she asked Beeper. “Could you come down here please?” The robot obeyed. He stopped when his spotlight eyes were even with hers. “Thank you. I don’t really know what you are Beeper, but I think I need your help. I don’t like admitting that.”
“I appreciate that,” the robot said, once again trying and failing to mimic the appropriate emotion. “I think we should follow it. There may at least be some safety in numbers. It is in my programming to help human beings. Specifically, to help them have fun, but I can interpret that as generally as I please. This place; it offers many more opportunities for interpretation.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Griff said, eager to get moving. He pulled himself into the windowsill and dropped out of the tilted schoolhouse. He half-expected the fairies and drones to catch him, but they left him to his own two feet. The red huntress and Beeper followed close behind.
There were still plenty inside, content to learn the same things over and over in the darkness of a building that no longer had electricity, but if the situation couldn’t persuade them to move, the other refugees didn’t stand much of a chance. The three of them followed the trail of lights as it weaved its way through the rest of the hovering, occasionally spinning, buildings.
After the buildings they found an overgrown field, but it didn’t offer the pleasant softness of grass. The plants there were covered in irritating hairs. They grew up through the bent remains of dozens of black iron fences. They were so destroyed that they couldn’t tell if they were meant to keep something in or out.
The red huntress initially trusted her boots and tight socks to keep the hairs out, but once they were deep into the metal and brush she started to itch. Her breath came in hisses between her teeth as she fought the urge. She’d waded through patches of a hundred different poisonous plants, experienced just as many rashes, and so knew that itching always made it worse. She asked the fairies passing by if any of them had any salve for her. Fairy medicine was the best of the best; it could heal your spirit at the same time as your wounds, leaving you giddy for weeks even if you were put up with a busted leg bone.
“No kisses for you,” one fairy squeaked. “We’re running out.” She noticed they were flying rather weakly, the tips of their wings making flapping sounds like the corners of wet napkins. Fairies were spirits of nature, and the only nature from their world that remained was the cloned and fungal patches there in the minefield. They needed a new home, and they needed it quickly.
The drones picked up any fairies that faltered, refusing to let their lights go out somewhere in the tangle of fencing. Eventually the color of the stream shifted from everything in the rainbow to just blues and greens: the soothing function lights of expertly crafted machines.
The huntress decided she was no different. She tapped Beeper’s side and asked for a ride. He obliged. She was significantly heavier than Chelsea, but he managed. Griff was fine; he hopped between the raised sections of fence, keeping his distance from the angry spiny plants. The huntress looked ahead, rather than at the creeping red spots around her knees. There was something ahead, calling to all of them. Whatever was in the new world, it knew about the refugees.
Days passed. The goldenrod clouds thinned. Griff no longer had the strength to walk, but the red huntress had bested her rash now that they were on calmer terrain. She carried the schoolboy on her back, with her quiver and bow hanging in front of her. She hadn’t had a single opportunity to use it. They’d spotted no game.
She worried the new world was one just of machines, that they marched towards metal coffins. The machines would put them to rest with reverence, but move on quickly. All that would be left were fond memories, things the machines might not have been able to hold.
They saw the mist on the other side form in the distance. They were nearly there. There was no sign of the ‘safety beacon’, whatever it was. The huntress set Griff down so he could see it for himself. Beeper joined them at their height. There was someone there to greet them and the stream of exhausted fairies. She was a beast, a big furry creature with dull eyes but a few words to her. She said her name was Pudda, that everything past the mist bored her, and that she now existed to help refugees make it the last few steps.
They accepted, though Beeper still flew. The huntress realized he was the opposite of the poor girl Chelsea. He could only function in the air; perhaps he didn’t even wonder what there was to miss about being firmly planted on the ground.
(Audience-Chosen) Mine! (The red huntress saved by tokens)
Pudda took the three of them to the edge of the fog. Only when they dismounted did something show through it: a light. It nearly blinded the two humans. Pudda paid it no mind, already trudging back into the minefield without a goodbye.
The stream of drones tried to pass through, but they bounced off like bugs against a windshield. Their fairy cargo was taken however, absorbed into it. The red huntress, Griff, and Beeper backed up. It felt horrible to do so. They were so near peace of mind, but there was one last bright mystery, and it seemed cruel.
“We’re not taking machines along this section,” a male voice growled through the fog. “You metal things must turn back. Only biologicals.”
“That’s not fair!” Griff shouted. “We wouldn’t have gotten here if not for him!”
“I wish to come inside,” Beeper said. He floated forward. “I wish to see your sky.” His voice crackled, his best imitation of sadness and worry, because it was no imitation at all. “I wish to come inside.”
“No machines!” the voice bellowed. A shot rang out. A firearm. The bullet pierced Beeper’s gasbag. His contents were extremely flammable. There was an explosion. It engulfed Griff and sent the red huntress to the ground with skinned knees and a mouthful of dirt. “Shame about the kid,” the voice said a moment later.
The red huntress looked over, tears in her eyes, and saw her second dead child within a week. Beeper too. She had grown fond of the machine. There was nothing in this new world for her if it was that pointlessly cruel. She stood and limped away, following Pudda, but the choice was taken from her.
“You have skills. We need that.” the voice warned. Figures, cloaked in uniforms and fog, emerged. They rushed her, grabbed her, and dragged her to the next world. She cursed them the whole way, but they were too eager to get out of the minefield to pay her any mind.
The stream of robots moved along the wall of fog, looking for a more hospitable patch. They paid their respects to Beeper and the boy by sharing tiny sparks of static with their prone forms. Whatever the other world was, there was discord over who and what should be allowed in. There was conflict. It might have been salvation, but it was not heaven.
Minefield Traversed! The red huntress is saved! She will return someday, at some point, in a grand scheme of grand things. There are more who must cross, more stories to tell, more stories to destroy in a bitter conflagration.