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-escalation 4-action 5-tragedy 6-world-changing
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: Rowlen the interspecies Olympian, Duid, squid and rival of Rowlen, and the Dying Light. They see the minefield before them, knowing little, and walk forward.
The two contestants burst out of the fog at exactly the same time, only slowing to catch their breath when they realized they hadn’t crossed a finish line, but a barrier into a new world. Rowlen put her hands on her thighs, huffing and puffing.
Duid did not have traditional lungs or limbs, but all three of his hearts pumped rapidly, and his tentacles were all aflutter. As soon as they had enough oxygen to talk, they bickered. Rowlen insisted she had won, she was the ultimate athlete at the interspecies olympics. Duid shook his mantle in opposition. One of his suction cups was clearly the first thing through the fog. He would not be taking a silver back to his mate and their clutch.
Neither of them paid attention to the bright white light that emerged after them, human in shape, but with a growing dark hole in its chest.
“I want you to admit that I defeated you!” Duid burbled out of his beak. His skin flashed in waves of angry red and determined orange.
“Another go then,” Rowlen insisted. “This one without all the distractions.” She put her hand over her eyes as a visor and scanned the distant parts of the minefield. She spotted something tall, but couldn’t tell if it was tree, building, or rock formation. “There! We race to there!”
“Go!” Duid’s voice bubbled. His tentacles slapped against the mud as their second race began. Rowlen wasted no time either. They still had not noticed the Dying Light, who chose not to speak. It simply shined across the minefield, traveling at light speed, and beat them to their destination. It couldn’t wait long though; its dark center grew.
The interspecies Olympics had become far more competitive as of late, as the genetic engineering for the contestants improved. Duid was the size of a man, taller than his opponent, and he could run at a top speed of twenty-five miles an hour.
Rowlen matched him, a little engineering of her own in her powerful legs. There were seams on the sides of her thighs that vented steam every few strides. Both of them had a price to pay for their abilities. A purpose had been planted in them as well, down in their DNA. They had to try their absolute hardest to be the dominant species, the dominant athlete. They could no sooner stop their race than fly.
It didn’t matter that they had to plow through countless other refugees of their world, even knocking them down when necessary. Many asked them to stop, to help, but it was not in them. They were the toys of nations, of certain sets of coding and non-coding.
At their finish line, the Dying Light examined the object Rowlen had chosen. The Light already understood the nature of this small world; it was little more than a racetrack after all, but the rewards weer not medals or crowing rights.
The object before it was a simple aberration of size, something that could happen when worlds were cleaved as theirs had been. It was a roll of holiday wrapping paper, expanded to the size of a skyscraper. It bore images of blinking electric lights wrapped around various snowmen and snowbeasts.
The Dying Light zipped up to the top of the tube and stared down into its darkness. There was something else at its center, trapped there. It would’ve liked to shine and see it, but it had to conserve its energy. It wanted to see the other side of the minefield very much, but it needed to be with Rowlen and Duid to go through.
“Hello?” it asked the dark lump at the bottom of the tube. It didn’t move or respond. Something radiated off it, an energy the Dying Light couldn’t quite classify. Perhaps something from the world on the other side.
The Dying Light turned and examined the distance left in the petty race between woman and squid. Its estimate put them at about four minutes away. There was nothing to do until they arrived except sit down on the edge of the wrapping paper and look through an album of bright memories.
The memories didn’t cost any energy, as they were simply rearrangements of its current light. Images appeared in its hands, and it slowly juggled them, remembering its life in the now-cracked world. It had been the central light source for half a dozen civilizations, providing power and wisdom to men and women in togas, armor, space suits…
Phwuff! Phwuff! The Dying Light bent its neck and looked down. Rowlen and Duid had collided with the paper rather than merely tag it, and bounced off. Once again they were completely out of breath, red in face and chromatophore, and totally unaware of everything else. They weren’t the slightest bit vexed by the giant roll of wrapping paper.
“You,” Duid said, pointing a tentacle at the Dying Light. He thought their bright form was just a side effect of the oxygen deprivation. “Did you see who won?”
“Who are you?” Rowlen asked instead. The darkness at the Light’s center disturbed her, made her feel like she had something similar, a sharp speck of coal, in her heart, tearing tissue whenever it pumped.
“I am dying,” the Light said. “And you are distracted. At the crossroads of these traits, my only hope of survival is caught in their vice.”
“That sound like some of that human poetry nonsense,” Duid said as he found his way back to standing. He balanced by putting a few suction cups on the wall of paper, then found them difficult to remove. He yanked until he ripped a piece off and fell back down.
“Just because you lousy squids think all art should be fractals,” Rowlen insulted. She finally removed the band from her hair, letting it fall over her shoulders and anchor on her sweaty skin. “I’m sorry that you are dying.”
“If you are sorry then you will help me, as I have no doubt helped your ancestors,” the Light said. The athletes were finally both up; they circled the wrapping paper tube and stared at its top. Rowlen knocked on it a few times. “My time is short.”
“A matter of less than two days. I must arrive at the other side in the company of both of you. You may not recognize me in this form, but I am your torch. I have been part of the Olympic flame, the flame never extinguished, for two hundred years.”
“Why both of us?” Duid asked. The squid started to climb the paper without waiting for an answer. Rowlen was not to be outdone, so she found the edge of the roll and climbed that, crinkling it as she went. The Dying Light hovered beside them.
“You two have forgotten, but the spirit of the Olympics was originally one of comradery. You’re supposed to respect each other’s ability. As a man-made light, I am always in need of an escort, and as an Olympic flame, I can only be ushered into a separate world by competitors working as one.” They reached the top and looked down the middle. The dark lump was still there.
“You probably want us to hurry then,” Rowlen mused. She couldn’t take her eyes off the dark lump. Strange. Up until now she couldn’t take her eyes off the finish line. She knew there was a different one, a more important one, across the minefield. The Dying Light had confirmed it. “Do you know what that is down there?”
“I do not,” the Light answered. “If it is of consequence, the consequences are negative. We should leave now.”
“I disagree,” Duid argued. “This has been presented to us inside wrapping paper. It could be a gift. You two haven’t considered all the possibilities.” Duid’s giant reflective eyes couldn’t narrow, but his tone was clear. He didn’t trust the Light because it came in the same two-armed shape as all the humans who had looked down on his people and polluted many of them to death.
The Dying Light would’ve argued back, but it sensed there was little it could do about the stubbornness from either of them. It was buried in their very code, and code guided more strongly than light. Even when the last rays of the sun smashed into their final destinations, instincts would still scream in the dark of their minds.
Duid began his descent down the center of the wrapping paper tube. Rowlen thought about racing him to the bottom, perhaps just jumping and hoping the lump was soft, but she managed to still her quivering legs. The object looked like it could be an end, but not a finish line. There was no gold medal for probing whatever it was.
When Duid reached the bottom he put four tentacles on the ground first, for the object only took up about half of the center. It was a black disc with an impressive height nearly up to Duid’s mantle. It reminded him of that icy sport of humans: hockey. It could’ve been a giant puck, just another ordinary thing made gargantuan by whatever phenomenon had struck the paper.
“What is it?” Rowlen called down, hands funneled around her mouth. “Tell me before I spit on you.” She made a gargling sound as a threat.
“It looks like a hockey puck, but much larger.”
“Touch it!” Duid’s tentacle rested on the puck’s top. It was cool to the touch.
Duid’s pupil widened, even though it was supposed to be fixed. It wasn’t painful; no, it was calming. He saw numbers all about him in the air, placid as the stones before the first life formed. The numbers never touched each other, never combined: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. They didn’t build upon each other, and Duid got the sense that if they touched this temporary thin world around them would collapse like a high heel through a piece of tissue paper.
“Are you touching it?” Rowlen yelled.
“Yes. I can see numbers. One through six. They seem… random, but also important.”
“How can that be important?” Rowlen asked.
“I don’t know,” Duid admitted, “but I’m taking this thing with us.” The Dying Light sighed. It would obviously be a hindrance, but arguing with the squid would only slow him further. He attached half his tentacles to the puck’s surface and heaved it towards the side of the tube. It was heavy, and would require all his effort to remove.
In addition to that effort, it took nearly an hour of the Dying Light’s precious time. When he finally tossed it over the side, all the way to the ground where it bounced twice, the darkness had spread to all four the Light’s limbs. It could no longer travel at light speed. It would be lucky to even keep up with the Olympians.
(Audience-Chosen) Mine! (Duid and the Dying Light saved)
“I would like to move along,” The Light said timidly, trying to coax them off the top of the roll.
“Yeah, I’m feeling light-headed my…” Rowlen’s eyes fluttered as her words died. Her ankles went limp and she fell off the side of the roll. The Dying Light jumped after her, but without its extra speed it could do nothing. The height was too great. She collided with the ground with a horrible sound and died instantly.
“What… happened?” Duid asked when he reached the bottom safely and found the Light perched over her corpse. Something inside him dropped, as if his ink sack had burst. He hated the woman for denying him the gold… so why…
“Over-exerted,” The Light said, reaching down and closing her eyelids. No more light for Rowlen. “You two… You were made for small arenas, short games. You don’t even know how tired you are. That’s how they programmed you. Your muscles might give out any second as well. Not that it matters… without you and a competitor I can’t reach the new world.” The Dying Light’s fingertips went black.
“Competition or no, there’s still a finish line,” Duid burbled. He grabbed the sides of the giant puck and dragged it. “I’m not dead until the last tentacle twitches.” With that, they slowly moved away from the paper roll and the terminally-exhausted Olympian.
All was not lost, as they soon found another companion in the wastes, not only willing to help carry the puck, but even fiercer in spirit than Duid. This companion was met at the edge of a great idling herd of riding beasts. They thought it mindless, but it spoke to them, offered advice. It resembled a bright green komodo dragon, but with knit clothing across most of its body, as if it had just flopped out of a pile of grandmother-gift socks. It said, with its forked tongue, that its name was Wollid.
The puck was difficult to balance on Wollid’s back, but Duid was a master at balancing. Each and every tentacle was an excellent tool for redistributing his weight. He wound up on top of it, on top of the beast, tentacles splayed like the points of a compass. He whirled the highest limbs around and rocked rhythmically.
The Dying Light was curled up, like a wire in an incandescent bulb ready to pop, underneath his splayed tentacles. It cried golden tears, fearing its imminent death. Yes, the wall of fog was close, they could see it now, but it did not have two Olympians as its escorts.
Their progress was slow as they moved through the herd of idiosyncratic animals, ignoring the occasional pile of bones on the ground. The sound of skulls being crushed by massive hooves could not be avoided however, and it was frequent, like the plop of a turtle into a drying lake on a blistering summer day.
Eventually they came face to face with another intelligent riding animal, this one even larger, and much furrier. She called herself Pudda, and she said she had information for them. Her little eyes didn’t look very smart, but the sight of the puck definitely put a sparkle in them.
“You have a pip!” the furry beast exclaimed. She was so happy that she couldn’t contain her drool.
“What? This?” Duid asked, pointing one tentacle down at the puck. “It’s called a pip?” Pudda’s head, and the rest of her body, bounced up and down. Duid spared a glance for the Dying Light, who now looked like a cluster of vanilla pods with only a seam of light shining out of one crack. Time was short.
“Pips are the most valuable thing in the world. In that world,” she turned and pointed at the fog with the tip of her tongue. “You can be rich and powerful if you have a pip.”
“Right now I just want to cross, and I want this poor dying light to be alive when I do,” Duid told the beast of burden. Wollid craned his neck and sniffed at the Light. He grumbled sadly. They were in agreement on that point.
Pudda escorted them to the edge of the wall, using her massive head to push the other animals aside. There was the way through: the same fog they’d burst out of when they first reached the minefield. Duid and Wollid wouldn’t go quite yet.
They had to fight first, specifically wrestle. It was Duid who gave Wollid his oath, swore him in to the circle of interspecies Olympians. Once it was official they became rivals, tussling right there outside the fog, doing their best to pin each other in the clouds of dirt they raised.
By the end of it Duid was thoroughly pinned, his moist skin covered in a layer of light brown. His tentacles ached badly under the weight of Wollid’s claws, but their end was achieved. The squid kept telling himself he hadn’t lost, the match didn’t matter, yet the feelings of defeat burned inside him like fever.
The Dying Light helped him up. It was still mostly darkened, but it had regained much of its mobility. It had its two Olympians now; it could cross safely. They wasted no time, passing through the fog with each of them touching the tentacle or flank of one of the others.
The three of them and the pip passed through the barrier and saw the endless cages before them, mostly filled now. They didn’t have much chance to react, as Pudda barreled through the fog as well, knocking the pip off Wollid’s back. It wobbled to a standstill upon the ground.
“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Pudda said, licking the pip and savoring the taste. “I don’t know who’s fun it is though.”
Minefield traversed! Duid, Wollid, and the Dying Light are saved! They will return someday, at some point, in a grand scheme of grand things. Twenty have now crossed the minefield. It is time for the slings, arrows, and rolls of the ultimate games.