Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Davender Guy didn’t understand how there was so much ordinary dust in such an inhospitable environment. His gloved fingers were bulky and clumsy, so it was no easy task to pick the specks of it out of his M-wand. First he had to find cover under one of the sparse copses of alpine trees, that way the membrane of the wand didn’t catch any snow.
He sniffled aggressively, trying to keep his snot in his nose. This was not a place to elt your bodily fluids wander or leak unattended. There were things all about, microscopic and powerful, that would love to take a dip in them and never leave.
It was obvious that if he succeeded, if he made it out alive with his prize stuck in the wand like a single sparkle of glitter, he would leave out the part of the story where he had to squat in a snowbank and pick dust bunnies out of the tool he’d worked more than a year to invent.
The M-wand was a perfect capture and isolation system for anything airborne; it resembled a giant bubble wand with a steel handle and a textured ceramic grip. The color of the membrane was naturally dull gray, but Davender, D. Guy as all his fellow graduate students had called him, thought he would spice it up with a little food dye. He had second thoughts about it now as the bright safety orange stained the tips of his gloves and made him the most visible thing for miles. If there were any predators left in this tundra, they might be drawn to his color like bees to a flower.
He held it close to his face and examined it. Clean. Ready to sweep through the snowfall once more. The membrane was a programmable material, but it could only hold one target at a time. While it caught everything from eyelashes and pollen to spider silk and ash, it would only form encapsulating bubbles around the one item he wanted. In this case, it was a snowflake.
D. Guy had no idea which one, and there were trillions upon trillions before him. In the extreme climate of the modern age, this winter of 2236 was particularly miserable, blizzards could rage for months and blend various habitats under sheets of white, ignoring all borders and cultural disputes. The young man didn’t even know which country he was technically in at that point, and the government agents at the edge of the affected zone weren’t likely to tell him when he left.
The tundra wasn’t getting any warmer, so he got back to his feet, flinching when his head hit a branch that spilled snow over his coat, and waded back into the powder. It was more than a foot deep and he was regretting choosing heavy boots over snowshoes. Everything had seemed like it would be fun when he was planning the excursion: go to an exotic land, wave his toy about in the air, and maybe find one of the most dangerous and valuable specks to ever form on the planet Earth.
He waved the wand; it caught every snowflake in its path. There was no point in checking it with each stroke. Even given his confidence in his calculations, the chance of finding one in any random swing was still frustratingly low. This was the right area though. He was confident of that. All the wind data he’d studied suggested that the bulk of the material would be blown over the nearby ridge and become trapped in the tundra.
A strange sight stopped him half an hour later. His nose was bitten red by the wind and his legs felt like stale baguettes. His neck was stiff, so he didn’t want to angle it to see through his own puffing breath. There was somebody else horning in on his path of blizzard. The figure clearly had a lot more energy than he did, for they skipped about in the snow as if it was only a couple inches deep. They swung their arms back and forth like some overly enthusiastic flower girl tossing petals into both aisles.
“Hey!” D. Guy shouted to her when she got close but ignored him. The figure was obviously female now. She had long red hair spilling over her hood like a cinnamon waterfall. He might’ve just let her skip on by, everyone else was as entitled to an effort here as he was, but something about her technique disturbed him. She didn’t have something like the M-wand or even ordinary search tools like a handheld microscope or chemical sniffer.
This young lady was catching snowflakes with her tongue! He assumed she couldn’t possibly be aware of the dangers that posed. If the pink interior of her mouth found what he searched for she would be forever changed, likely killed by the coldcreep particles. When she heard him she stopped and dropped her arms. She was smiling.
“What are you doing?” Davender asked. “Don’t you know what’s in the air around here. I know the prize money is tempting, but you can’t claim it if your brain gets taken over by that stuff.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said, sticking her tongue out once again and catching a few flakes. She slurped them down to tease him. He was too stunned to respond for a moment, but then he dug out his laminated map, covered in the felt pen arrows and circles he’d drawn all over it, and tried to show it to her.
“See, look here. I just got my doctorate in this stuff, okay? I work at the cross of weather pattern analysis and probabilities. Our percentage chance to find one of those special snowflakes within these five square miles is 3.412. That’s higher than it sounds.”
“I’m even more likely to find one,” she insisted. “I’ve been catching snow on my tongue since I was like 3.412 years old. They should probably give me a doctorate for it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I”m off to make some new friends.” With that she stuck her tongue out again and scampered off, leaving him alone in the cold.
“They won’t be your friends,” he grumbled after her. Such a notion was absurd. Coldcreep was one of the oldest organisms on the planet, spawned in an age of bubbling pots of chemical stew. What mind the algal amalgamate had could not be turned toward such human concerns as ‘friendship’. Its only drive, backed up by an admittedly frightening intelligence, was to spread through organic tissues and use them as the infrastructure for their little cities.
That was the one true advantage of the world’s wilder climate in the twenty-second century. When Coldcreep bubbled out of the ice after hundreds of millions of years in isolation, it still couldn’t get very far. The inhospitable and frigid temperatures of the region limited its metabolic capacity. There were no insects to spread it and very few bacterial colonies that weren’t mostly dormant. The trees too had a natural resistance, but the animals were a different story.
Davender remembered grainy footage he’d seen from an early experiment with an isolated sample of coldcreep. They had intentionally mixed a tiny green droplet of the lifeform into a lab rat’s food pellets. The results were swift after consumption. The animal never had spasms or fits. It just sat there, whiskers twitching, as all its fur fell out and its skin turned the brown of the mud after a catastrophic flood.
Algal stalks emerged from its back, but these weren’t simple means of releasing pollen. They were like skyscrapers holding stacks of things akin to neural cells. Coldcreep could think. It could learn. It could discuss things within itself, even have disagreements within a single colony. Communication had even proven possible, but nothing could dissuade them. It was their biological imperative to spread, to build cities in every animal they crossed, so that they could have fun arguing with each other for the rest of their natural lives.
The animal never kept its original will. Coldcreep thought it owned the planet because it came first. Every human was just a different sort of mouse. They were fair game. D. Guy did not intend to be game. He intended to claim one speck of coldcreep and deliver it to the agents at the border.
The whole world was terrified of the stuff, hence the unrivaled security all around the region. One errant speck could start a chain reaction and the whole human populace could become nothing but scaffolding for coldcreep. The countries surrounding the affected area like to claim success in battling it, but they didn’t want to risk anything.
So they let private individuals go in on their own, after signing wavers of course, and try to hunt the coldcreep. Every piece you could bring out was worth a bounty of one 100,000 modern slates. That could buy D. Guy the next phase of his education. He could study at the digitized university of modifying physics. They only took three students a semester, and even then only those who proved themselves could have their minds digitized.
Coldcreep liked to hide at the center of snowflakes once it had gotten itself into the atmosphere. That was why he developed the M-wand, why he was there now, and why he was swinging it through the air like a badminton racket.
“Come on!” he barked at the cold after several more hours of fruitless effort. “I know you’re out here. The wind patterns were dead on…” He took a step forward, his breath once again obscuring his vision. He missed the root under his foot and tumbled forward down an embankment. A bowl’s worth of snow wound up in his mouth and he spat it out as quickly as he could, rubbing his tongue with his gloves. They tasted like price tags. Everything on him probably did. It was all new. He wasn’t exactly an outdoors person.
None of this came naturally to him, but prize money like that never came naturally to anybody. It would be worth it to leave this world behind and to dive into probabilities like an ocean, but where you knew where every single drop was at every half a moment.
There was a small object half-buried in the snow in front of him. He thought it a twig at first, but it was too smooth and there were words across its side:the hunt. He snatched it out of the snow: a flash drive! Who would leave such a thing out there? D. Guy’s electric assistant was just outdated enough that it had a port for the old form of data storage. He dug the screen out of his pocket and plugged it in. It only took a moment to find an audio recording:
To anyone who finds this: my name is Austin Telmot. I am a hunter. I’ve caught swordfish using the ends of other swordfish as spears. I’ve wrestled with bears and gotten them to back down. I’ve pulled shark teeth out of shark mouths.
But there is one quarry left. It might be the toughest of all. I can’t even touch it without giving up my body and life. I’m here to find an animal infected with coldcreep. I’m going to kill it and drag it back with me. I do this for the challenge. Such a thing cannot be mounted on my wall, but my story can be mounted on the wall of history.
I’m on the trail of one now. I’ve never seen anything so foul or so vicious. There is a significant chance that it will claim my life, so I’m leaving this trail behind just in case. You can view it as a warning, or, if you’re brave enough, assistance. There’s treasure at the end of my breadcrumbs, one way or another.
Davender’s head whirled around. He didn’t see any animal tracks or human tracks, but then again tons of snow had fallen. He took off a glove and pinched the end of the flash drive. Hot. It had an internal heater so it would never get buried by the snow. This Austin character seemed to have thought of everything. There was something else on the side of the flash drive as well: a flashing arrow. No matter which way he turned it, it flashed in the same direction. That was the trail.
He might find part of a carcass or a living creature at the end. One pat on its flesh, were it infected, with the wand would give him plenty capital for his return. What had he found? A bear? An elk? A wolf or fox? Whatever it was it was helmed by coldcreep, turned into a city with a million eyes. They would move its body intelligently, strike at D. Guy given the chance. He wasn’t quite sure it was worth the risk, but finding the next clue was. There had to be at least one more piece in Austin’s trail.
While he walked, M-wand tucked under his arm, D. Guy couldn’t stop thinking about the girl with the cinnamon hair. She wasn’t afraid of anything out there. She welcomed the cruelty of nature. D. Guy feared it. He hated himself for it a little bit. An animal afraid of the natural world was afraid of its own parents, its food, and the sky it slept under. He tried to control it all with statistics, and it worked much of the time, but that was back in the world of concrete… of social media, imported produce sprayed with pesticides, and stoplights telling you when to walk and when to avoid dying.
His determination grew as he trudged through the driving snow. If she could enjoy the danger, then he could at least handle it. Cinnamon wasn’t stronger than he was, even she was more comfortable with the world around her. He stumbled across the next flash drive and popped it in:
I’m close now. I’ve seen the beast. Coldcreep covers it like a skin of nightmares. It opens its mouth and I hear the shouts of the civilization within, beckoning me closer with a hypnotic hymn. It wants to claim me, add my body to its collection. My nerves falter at the sight of it, but I press on. Its face and claws may haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life, but it will not have my resolve.
Davender swallowed his fear and followed the new arrow. It turned him downhill, to a place where you could easily slip on the buried rocks and twist your leg. Perhaps that was what happened to Austin. It lured him in, waited for him to injure himself, and then pounced.
“That’s not me,” D. Guy said aloud. “Every person is different: their own pile of odds and ends. My odds are good. I made sure of it.” He used the M-wand as a walking stick to find the stones in front of him. He walked for another hour before finding the last piece of the trail.
It is a demon. No. It is a million demons shoved in a single skin. It’s too late for us now. It has us cornered. It planned this. Goodbye world, it was incredible fun tearing pieces off you. It’s time to learn what it’s like to be torn.
Auurrrroooww! The sound overlapped the final word of Austin Telmot. D. Guy dropped the device and raised his M-wand like a weapon, its orange membrane now covered in small debris that drifted around on it. There was the creature, right before him, probably waiting for someone to stumble along the hunter’s trail.
The monster was a brown lump, its surface rippling with tiny green and yellow lights. Coldcreep towers emerged from it shoulders and head and rose like the jagged bark edge of a lightning-felled tree. The eyes of its animal host were hollowed out and replaced with bulging sacks of green fluid that hung all the way down to its chin. Tiny things swam around inside those transparent bags. Its mouth hung open in its hideous creaking squawk, tendrils of the algal stuff shivering on every inch of its throat tissue.
Auuurrroooooooaaaww! It screeched again. A penguin. The host was a penguin. It waddled toward D. Guy, beak and wings flapping aggressively, but he could easily back up faster than it could approach.
“Really?” D. Guy said with a snort. “A penguin?” The animal got louder, as if protesting his lack of fear. Perhaps it was. The thing was full of tiny minds with goals of their own. It waddled forward furiously, and D. Guy took a step. It kept coming, beak ready to rend his flesh. He dropped the M-wand’s membrane over its head. It stretched down to its neck and held it in place.
When he was certain the wand had picked up enough infected skin cells, he pulled it away and let the penguin fall over. Davender couldn’t help but laugh, but it was less at the struggles of the animal as it tried to right itself and more at the expense of himself and the hunter.
Coldcreep wasn’t so different from humans after all. It built its cities wherever it could, no matter the problems or implications. It took itself so seriously. That was Austin’s mistake. He’d bought into coldcreep’s power completely. The penguin might have actually got him because he was too scared to admit that sometimes, just as often as it was deadly, nature was ridiculous.
Davender knew that now. He left the roaring penguin behind, to set up its trap once more. It could have whoever was afraid of it. He was leaving, and with enough of a souvenir to build a new life ten times over.
Wherever that life was, it wouldn’t be at the university. He saw now how similar that place was to the coldcreep penguin. It was just a bunch of shouting heads, lost in their own arguments, swimming in counterpoints and equations, ignoring an entire world around them. D. Guy looked up and saw the blankets of snow as they fell, some perhaps holding nuggets of coldcreep. He saw them not as individual pieces on easily-determined trajectories. He didn’t see melting points or crystallization patterns. He saw snow and felt the urge to catch some on his tongue.
He held back. There were some other things he wanted to do now before he let something like coldcreep give him an interesting death. He made his way back to the fences at the border, ready to check out, claim his prize, and go sit next to a wood fire for a while. Before he got to the security checkpoint he heard someone crunching through the snow.
There was Cinnamon, still playing around in it, making snow angels. He cleared his throat; she stopped and sat up. They shared a smile, but then she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue. It was brown. Stalks unfurled like ferns and glowed. She’d found some, yet it didn’t seem to be moving past her tongue. Perhaps she just wasn’t afraid enough; her will was stronger than that of coldcreep. She wasn’t their home; she was their environment. They suffered in the dark wet cavern of a mischievous Cinnamon.
D. Guy couldn’t keep smiling at the sight of her, but he could wave goodbye. There were so many little worlds within his current one. He just needed to find one where he was comfortable, and preferably where he wasn’t chased by shrieking penguins.