Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Straight Razors Boxing Gloves Novelty Finger Traps
There was one spot designated as the place for fights. They didn’t used to need such a thing. Fights were for the other creatures of the forest: those with tusks and claws. They were a species of hands. That was how Een always thought of himself anyway. Sometimes he would watch the humans stare at their reflections in the surface of the lake. They always looked at their eyes, as if their own heads held secrets they weren’t aware of.
Een used his palms for reflection. Every line was who he was. Every scratch was a tree he’d swung through. Every chip in a nail was a nervous bite. He added a few more chips that morning, as he approached the place for fights. None of the other gibbons followed him. For most apes it would be an excellent spectator activity, the perfect place to throw their rotten fruit and make their angry sounds, but that wasn’t the gibbon way. Fighting was shameful. It was bareness, fur and flesh stripped away to show the insecure fire that pulsed in every heart.
He arrived at the two branches hanging over the lake. It was where that meddling human made camp, and where he left all the strange things that vexed the subject of his research so. Een waded through them carefully: mugs, magazines drowning in the mud, a pair of boxing gloves, a straight razor, and dozen other shiny inedible human things.
The customs for their fights were new, so naturally they revolved around everything left behind by the man with the red glasses. Een arrived first, so he got to choose the weapon. He looked for the most harmless thing possible, picking through spoons and chess pieces. He came away with a long paper tube made of interlocking diamonds. He knew from earlier experimentation that it was a trick. If you put your finger inside and struggled to get it out, you would be trapped forever. If you relaxed, the paper would let you go. That would do. He only wanted Ibbs to relax after all, so maybe the paper could convince her to.
Een climbed the tree and scurried across the branch until he hung over the water. The wood bent with his weight. He looked down at his reflection: round yellow eyes, soft uncertain black lips, and the little scar on his nose where that nasty spider bit him. His fur was a creamy yellow. For a second he thought he saw his shadow in the water as well, but it was just the approaching black fur of his opponent Ibbs.
She wrapped one hand around the tip of the second branch and hung across from him. Her eyes were just as small and round, but there was hurt in them now: a gift from the man in red glasses. She held out her hands, ready to fight. Een extended one finger, with the paper trap on its end. Ibbs did not look pleased with his choice of weapon, but she shoved her finger in the other end anyway.
So began their tug of war. Back and forth they pulled, tightening the trap, trying to force the other to fall from their branch into the water. The loser would have to give in, admit defeat in their argument, and go dry off somewhere. Een tried to speak to her, his vocal sac quivering with an apologetic tone, but she heard none of it. She bared her teeth in response and pulled harder. One of Een’s fingers slipped.
Een Wins Ibbs Wins Branches Break
Een tried to pull back, but he didn’t have the same fire over their disagreement. He just wanted her to stay. They could figure it out together. If she would just listen, just climb down a little and join him in the nook of a tree. They could peel fruit together, like they used to, and use the strips to make their faces look funnier: red angry eyebrows or silly purple mustaches. Then he could tell her he still loved her.
Ibbs yipped and yanked as hard as she could. Een’s grip faltered and he fell. For a moment his long toes touched the water, for the finger trap hadn’t released them. Ibbs tried to shake him loose, but ended up falling as well. They splashed about, unable to swim properly with one hand bound. Een did his best to work with her, letting her arms set the pace. He’d lost the fight. It was better perhaps to just drown, to sleep in sadness before the anger got to his soul too. Yet, the trap held, and he wouldn’t doom his former mate.
She dragged him to shore, through the mud, and into the human items. He only rose back to his feet so he wouldn’t get caught on the knives and pokers partly buried there. Ibbs took a step towards him. His shoulders slumped. He just wanted an embrace, but she only came close enough to make the finger trap relax. A moment later she was free of it, walking away with her arms raised to keep balance. They were both covered in mud, but having to walk was already their lowest state. The trees were their homes, the branches their backyards.
“Don’t go,” Een pleaded. He held out his hand once more, the finger trap hanging limply, dripping mud. She turned her head.
“I have to,” Ibbs growled back. “He needs to die for what he forced us into. I won’t live like this. If you will then you’re not a gibbon. You’re just fur, hunger, and pathetic eyes. Come with me. We’ll take our peace back.”
“We can’t take it back!” Een argued. “We’re different. We just have to…” His voice trailed off and his vocal sac shrank to nothing. He didn’t know. None of their family had a solution for all the turmoil the man in red glasses had instilled. “We just have to try and make it like it was.”
“You try Een. Come find me when you succeed.” Ibbs turned and climbed the nearest tree, disappearing into the branches. Even the leaves she shook loose fell with an odd anger to them, like daggers slicing through the tranquility. Een’s legs gave out; he dropped into the mud. Delicately, he ran a finger around the edge of the paper trap.
Maybe he could get her back. She followed the trail of the red-eyed man. Wherever he lived, surely there was more of the litter he brought with him. A finger trap for all digits, that could keep her close, at least long enough for her to remember what love felt like. He had to follow. Een picked himself up and ascended the tree she had, looking for missing leaves. He set out in her direction, keeping the trap on his hand. As he went he passed over the other gibbons curled up in the trees. He apologized to them, one by one, and only some nodded in acceptance. Since he was leaving, he was taking a member of their family too.
A Public Square Research Outpost Outdoor Stage
Een followed her trail for hours, sometimes going by nothing but the faint smell of her in the air. It started to drizzle, but only a few drops made it through the canopy. He followed each one he saw, all the way down, until it splashed against the leaves. He hoped that wasn’t their path now, just slipping and falling on surfaces they could no longer grip, sinking into a depression that ended in splattering across the rocks.
These were the feelings the red-eyed man had brought with him. Rogue humans sometimes came to their forest. They stole images with flashes of light, made horrible discordant noises, dropped some paper or plastic like waste they were proud of, and moved on. They were just a nuisance. The red-eyed man was different. He came for the gibbons.
First he just watched and made notes. Then he started offering gifts. Fruit. Chocolates. Rattling toys for the young. When any got too close he gently took their shoulders, whispered things to them, and moved his red lenses back and forth. The gibbons didn’t have a word for it, but they understood the effect. Hypnosis. He gave them food and toys, but they always came back with something else: a message that burrowed into their minds and incubated.
He was experimenting, trying to instill something resembling humanity into their minds. To what end, none could guess. All Een knew was that when their intelligence grew, their happiness shrank. They started to see things beyond the canopy, even though their eyes didn’t notice. They stopped thinking of dead things as gone, and started thinking of them as dead. For the first time ever, the gibbons got angry at the sky and tried to shout it down. Tried to force it to the place for fights, so they could address their grievances.
When the red-eyed man left he left that pile of things, just to see what they would do with it. He knew they might kill each other, for he left blades. He knew they might poison each other, for he left jugs of detergent and scouring chemicals.
He had forced their divide, as he had sown discord in all of them. Ibbs came back to their most comfortable tree one dusk, holding a toy from him. It was small and red, with little metal sticks that could come out of the sides in different shapes. A file. A corkscrew. A letter opener. She wanted to play with it, but Een wasn’t in the mood. He’d been forced by his new mind to think about rain all day, even though he hadn’t seen a drop of it.
He pushed the tool away, but he did it gently. Only in sadness. Ibbs pushed it back, her teeth flashing the tiniest amount. He should play. It would take his mind off the rain. Een refused again. She pushed harder, and the letter opener disappeared into the fur on his chest. It came back out, but so did a few drops of red. He didn’t feel the pain at first, because he couldn’t believe it. Neither could she. She dropped it and ran. Assumed their pair bond, the unity that was supposed to be their life, was void. He didn’t care about the blood, but she couldn’t forget it. Rage lived in her now, and she assumed there was no room for anything else, at least until the man with the red glasses was dead.
Een stopped mid-swing and mid-memory. There were no more trees in front of him. Instead, there was a clearing and a crowd of humans. They sat before a stage watching some kind of show. Een searched for Ibbs, for her angry confused eyes, but she could’ve been anywhere. His attention was drawn to the show, and the poor figures on stage.
A Baboon The Red-Eyed Man Birds of Prey
Een knew birds, but he’d never seen creatures exactly like these. Their beaks and eyes were sharp, the latter so sharp that Een wondered if they’d been forced into the same burdens. It would be worse for them. Their talons were so polished and wicked. They couldn’t drop their blades after making mistakes.
There was a human on stage, guiding them. Wherever her hand went, the birds followed. They flew in spirals, the crowd oohing and ahhing with each swoop. They knew the names. Eagle. Vulture. Owl. Trained predators robbed of their sky for cheap entertainment. Such a thing reeked of the red-eyed man, but he was nowhere to be seen. Een had to keep going. He lost Ibbs’ scent, mixed as it was with popcorn, cotton candy, and the grease of sausages.
Slowly he descended the tree at the edge of the clearing. He stayed on all fours. The grass was one thing, but soon he came to the backs of all the sitting humans. They lounged about on blankets and quilts, drinking from sweating glass bottles and talking into small shining pieces of glass. Een thought the pile of evil trash the red-eyed man had left behind was bad enough, but this was worse. These humans treated their things as parts of their bodies, as inseparable. Every time they set something down they took a second glance, because they couldn’t bear the thought that it might disappear.
The gibbon squeezed between two of them, refusing to look any of them in the eye. If they couldn’t see his pain, he couldn’t see theirs. He bumped int a child; the little boy immediately cried out. Een ran. He hit another back, forced to climb it and tumble over the person’s long hair. He grabbed it for balance and they screamed.
The humans weren’t the only things to notice. The vulture became distracted from its tricks and the small rotting reward each one earned. There was an animal in the crowd. It was hurting. The vulture could sense it, smell it even. The scavenger swooped lower than allowed, skimmed by a few heads, and tried to grab Een’s arm. The ape panicked and hollered, a pathetic sound like a balloon protesting the approach of a pin.
Some of the humans grabbed at him too, especially when his feet landed in their sandwiches or smoothies. The panic brought back his animal instincts, so there was nothing in his mind but a direction. The bottom of the stage had a curtain. Something to hide under. He ran for it. The vulture swooped in again, but Een dodged to the left. He saw its claws go by his head, but not before seeing its eyes.
They shared a moment. One victim to another. Their eyes had the same hurt, the same burden, though the vulture had handled its increased intelligence far better. There was one ounce of mercy in the creature, and it used it up on Een. The gibbon had known the stare of the red-eyed man, and had thus suffered enough. The bird broke away, returning to the stage proper just as Een reached the curtain. He slid under it as far as he could, coating himself in the mud from the earlier shower. Panic threatened to freeze his heart for several minutes. All he could do was lie on his back, stare through the slats in the stage, and hope his breath would stop burning.
The vulture ambled across the boards above, occasionally sticking its eye between the slats and staring at the lesser ape. Could it talk as well?
“Thank you for not eating me,” Een sputtered.
Directions Prophecy Weep
“I see deaths,” the bird answered, the tip of its beak pressed between the wood. “I see them before they happen. I see one around you. Would you like to know more?” The bird disappeared for a moment, off to perform another trick for a scrap of fur-covered meat. Een thought about what it said. It could see the future? A side effect of the hypnosis, like Ibbs’ rage perhaps. Was the future something you wanted to know? The bird’s eye came back to the slit.
“I don’t know,” Een answered. “I want my mate back. I don’t want to bring death to her. If I follow her, will I?”
“Who can say?” the vulture puzzled out loud. “Not me. That’s not my angle. I can tell you there’s death about you, but also death about backstage, where the cages are kept. Go there if you want to find it. I don’t know if your mate is there at all. I hope you find her. I hope you don’t wind up in my bucket, tossed to me in pieces during the show.” Its beak disappeared and it flapped away.
“Th-thank you,” Een managed. He smelled the air. There was none of her scent. It was all salt and something acrid drifting over from a road. He would lose her forever if he didn’t follow the bird’s words. Death was the only thing he could track. It was that, or return, hollow of love, to his miserable family and their pile of colorful trash.
Een pulled himself out of the mud and moved towards the back of the stage. It was darker back there, with small rooms created by giant hanging curtains. Een found the side, grabbed it, and pulled himself up. There were no humans about, but he saw the cages. Many of them held birds deep in sleep, but Een could tell it was not natural. It was desperate sleep. The poor creatures had sought refuge from their tortured minds in the safe haven of dreams, but they could not force the sleep to last eternal.
The gibbon did his best not to disturb them. He heard the rustling of papers behind one of the curtains, and moved slowly towards it. Once he was past the owls he heard breathing. Ragged, but round. A breath trapped in a vocal sac. The audible fear of a trembling gibbon. Een snuck under the curtain and nearly fell over. There they were. The being he wanted to see forever and the one he never wanted to see again.
The man in the red glasses was sitting in a chair pulled away from a desk. His note-taking had been interrupted; there was a black streak across the pages, when he had been forced to turn around and drop his pen. He wore an equally red vest, pants stained with bird waste, and shoes untied. His smile was wicked, and it grew at the sight of Een, even with a letter opener, stained by gibbon blood, pressed against his throat.
Ibbs stood on his lap, threatening his life. There were tears in her eyes and the vinegar of hate in her mouth. Her teeth chattered together as her vocal sac fluttered. Een had never seen worse pain. Sadness as anger and vice versa. An emotion a gibbon was never meant to hold, like a hummingbird trying to build a nest out of hot ash.
“Two of you found me, huh?” the red-eyed man said with a snort. “I didn’t think you’d take to the brains that well. You did it all wrong though. You were supposed to fight each other, not me. I got these birds fighting in two weeks flat. What’s wrong with you?” He snickered. The gibbons stared at him. They had speech thanks to his meddling, but it didn’t match his. They couldn’t ask directly, but he saw the question in their eyes. Ibbs framed it in fury, and Een in anguish.
“You’re wondering why? Okay, here’s your unsatisfying answer. Experimentation. People love these shows where animals do tricks. I’ve made three or four pretty pennies. The real money comes from the fights though. People pay a lot more in darkness, when they can’t see all the bills spilling out of their wallet. I do it in the shadows. Stick these birds in a too-tiny cage and have them gore each other.”
The eyes of the gibbons asked why once more. Ibbs grabbed his earlobe and yanked, but it only distracted the man for a moment.
“You fight better when you’re smart. You figure out new moves, things I never would have thought of. So I’ve been trying things out. Using the old family business of hypnosis, since it’s not good for shows on its own anymore. I put brains in you hoping those long arms of yours would make for great fights. I can see you’re too unstable. Too weak. Now get out of here.”
Ibbs howled and pressed the opener harder into his neck. A drop of red fell, but she didn’t hesitate this time. Een climbed the man’s lap and tried to stay her hand. The vulture had seen death. Could he prevent it? Should he?
“Let me do it,” his mate barked.
“I won’t stop you,” he said, but he looked down. Her eyes followed his. He had joined their fingers once more in the paper trap. “If you do it, we both do it. All of this… it’s such a burden… but we hold it together. If you’re a killer, them I’m a killer.” The red-eyed man watched with intense fascination. He thought they were just being little drama queens. At least he hadn’t brought the cages to their home. They should consider themselves lucky.
Ibbs howled once more. She stabbed with the letter opener. It broke his red sunglasses in half. They clattered to the floor. The gibbons scurried away, under a curtain and out of sight. The red-eyed man laughed. They didn’t have the guts. The vulture probably even egged them on, lied about a prophecy or something.
Een and Ibbs returned to the trees, hands held but not trapped. Their bond was older than the pain, and they could forgive any drops of red that came between them. They were just the light drizzle, the sadness that could only occasionally break the canopy.