Toward the Sploff Zone
by Brenna Harvey
“Kids, you’re switching bodies today!” said Coach Sningarax.
Our whole gym class groaned.
“Why?” I asked.
“To build character! Now, what’s the number one rule of neuroswapping?”
“Respect,” we droned in unison.
Rungak, who clung to the wall next to me, rolled all thirteen of his red eyes. Rungak was Leptarath, a twelve-legged carnivorous arachnid, and the hottest kid in our grade. His shiny exoskeleton made my spukulunk wobble.
“This is Katie’s fault,” Rungak muttered while Coach started zapping kids with a handheld neuroswapper.
“Totally,” I said. “Humans are the worst.”
We were being punished because Katie sprained her ankle during a game of Gomblorb. Sure, maybe I shouldn’t have pushed her off her stalactite, but it wasn’t my fault Humans were the galaxy’s wimpiest species. They couldn’t secrete adhesive mucous, echolocate, or even shoot webbing. When Katie did manage to catch the antigravity blorb-sphere, her dense body weighed it down, and she never got to the sploff zone before it exploded.
Katie glanced up at us from the floor. Her gross white eyeballs started to shed saline water.
“Check it out!” I said. “Her face unintentionally reveals distress.”
Rungak laughed. “Humans are weak physically and emotionally.”
“Cut the chitter-chatter up there,” said Coach, and aimed the neuroswapper at me.
My vision flickered. Colors were suddenly different. I wriggled my fingers and didn’t feel any viscous mucous secreting from my clinger glands. Instead of breathing through my skin, I sucked air through a few tiny face holes.
I was in Katie’s horrible, Human body.
The game was a disaster–kids inflated, tangled their antennae, vanished and reappeared as their camouflage went haywire. I discovered that my hands produced slippery moisture, making it almost impossible to cling to my stalactite. Human biology was ridiculous!
There was a wet smack as the kid who stole my beautiful, mucilaginous body landed beside me.
Somehow, I knew it was Katie. I expected a shove, but she just offered me the blorb.
“Ready to sploff?” she asked.
I reached, grasped it, and immediately sank toward the floor, shrieking like a baby mammal.
Katie used my strong back legs to kick me toward the sploff zone, and my shriek became a delighted whoop. I couldn’t float, but I could bounce off the floor stalagmites. The beat of my one heart kept my muscles flooded with oxygen. My weight and density gave me powerful momentum. I felt incredible.
The blorb beeped a warning and exploded. I flew across the field and smacked against a padded stalagmite. For the first time in my life, I needed to catch my breath.
Katie landed above me, offering a sticky hand to help me up.
I had bumped and tripped and laughed at Katie so many times. I had never, ever passed her the blorb, never given her the chance to feel what I just felt.
“Nice moves!” she said. “You made it halfway to the sploff zone.”
“Thanks.” Saline water started to saturate my eyeballs. “I’ll do better next time.”
A Greevbinian Parent Abroad
by P. G. Streeter
For today’s post, I’d like to touch upon a sticky but unavoidable question of Greevbinian parenting. Namely, how can I separate the fears and anxieties I have for my offspring from the larger worries that accompany the Greevbinian Universal Mission?
I know this sounds far more philosophical than my usual pragmatic fare. So, if it helps, I’ll put it in simpler terms: how do we balance our two lives–work, and parenthood? Many of you have written to inquire as much. This is, quite simply, a topic that can’t be avoided, especially for someone in my position.
As you might have guessed, I am, like many of you, a Custodian. I was flung to a far-off, broken world to be its caretaker, its light-bearer in its darkest days, its guide on the path to a better future.
This is, of course, not a task to be taken lightly. But, it is also not the Greevbinian way to be heavy-handed in our approach. Where some would send a large, threatening contingent to interfere in a lost world’s recovery, our ways are more subtle, starting with a single Greev and building slowly. It is, necessarily, a multi-generational undertaking: the First Custodian to any world is also responsible for a cryosac full of young.
So: me. Nine cycles ago, I awoke from hibernation to see an alien sun rising over the desolate landscape of an alien world. The pod I emerged from contained nothing more than myself, the cryosac, a Tangle node, a few odds and ends needed to tend to my offspring, and the smallest protein synthesizer available. Thus, my work on Sol 3 began.
Earth, as it’s locally known, is certainly a planet in need of our Mission–its last two centuries have seen climate disaster and warfare reduce its sentient species to a mere two percent of its peak population. Still, I have already made headway with Habitable Zone Reclamation and have established Level-1 Contact with five discrete Earth communities.
Mind you, none of this is meant as a boast; I am merely presenting you with the full picture. Plus, it really is only a start. A good start, yes. And I am proud of my work, proud of this progress.
However, as most of you will surmise, my greatest sources of pride are my offspring–the first and second of which I’ve already thawed and hatched. If you’re one of my regular readers, you’ve read countless times of the many adventures I’ve had in raising Middow (8.5 cycles) and Wee (0.3). Hopefully I’ve given some good advice along the way.
But, dear reader, it’s confession time. I’ll let you in on a simple fact that, I fear, I’ve failed to convey properly before now. In my efforts to prove my authority and expertise, or perhaps just to protect a sense of fragile pride, I’ve underplayed just how much I’ve struggled.
Reader, I have struggled.
It’s in this confessional spirit that I share the following story. Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar.
The scene: Our dwelling on Earth, a large domicile reclaimed from the wreckage of a city long-since abandoned by humans, Earth’s solitary sapient creatures. The building’s exterior is mostly flat planes arranged at right angles. But, if you, too, are Custodian on some other lost world, go ahead and picture the ruins you are accustomed to. They’re probably not too different.
Inside, I’ve approximated the familiar, nest-like sensibilities of Greevbin: packed mud in concentric spirals, precisely arrayed according to the Greev ratio. It’s but a pale reflection of our homeworld: there is nothing comparable to Greevbin’s luminescent mud to be found here, nor do the local materials allow for architecture that moves or breathes. Still, my modifications give me just enough of a glimpse of that world to make it feel like home.
Can you picture it? Good. Then let’s cut to last night. Imagine it with me now:
As night approaches, I grasp Wee in my lower arms and rock him back and forth. The gesture is meant to soothe me as much as him, because I know what’s coming, and I don’t feel like facing it.
See, Wee has been astral-casting the last three nights, and I just know I’m in for another rough one.
Oh, it’s not all that surprising. I know from my experience with Middow that it’s bound to happen sooner or later. But it’s exhausting, and I know my faculties are not at their most optimal. Wee and I have developed a familiar dance over the past two nights, and I fear tonight will be the night I falter.
The steps go like this.
One: Rock Wee in my lower arms while using my uppers to fritter about at some task or another as I wait out the inevitable.
Two: Gasp with pain and nearly drop the little Greevling as he digs his tiny foreclaws into the barklike integument of my thorax.
Three: Get ready for a fight.
And, sure enough, it’s at this step that I make a blunder. A bright shape bursts into being around Wee. I utterly fail to project a form substantial enough to counter the one Wee has thrown up: my own cast flickers into being then quickly flickers right back out. So I grunt, pinch my mandibles tightly in concentration, and give it another shot.
Does it sound familiar? It was a moment of utter parental shame, made all the worse by the pride I’d built up over my successes of the first few nights. Just the night before, in fact, I’d responded with perfection. I had been poised to cast well before Wee shot out his involuntary surge of energy into the etherspace around us, and I wrestled his castform into submission before it even took clear shape.
Last night, though, I was not so lucky. My false start gave Wee time to pull the astral particles together much more coherently. Back on Greevbin, a Greev his size might have cast a Northern Stringbeast or some other filter-feeding monstrosity. Here, on this strange soil, Wee cast the closest Earth analog he could find a psychic impression of. I believe Earthers call it a python.
It is important, at this juncture, to remind you that just because a thing is made of thought and light does not mean that it cannot squeeze the air out of you. Wee’s castform coiled its long tail around both of my abdomina, and it took both of my lower arms to pry the beast far enough off of me to draw in a breath. As one of my strong upper arms struggled to grasp the glowing snake by the throat, the other reached down and pulled Wee snuggly to my body, holding the blessed little grub in a tight hug while he tried to kill me.
I was, thus-far, short-limbed, wrestling with only my physical appendages. Luckily, I’d now bought myself enough time for a cast of my own: a full-bodied Greevbinian Cacklethroat. It spread its glowing wings and began prising the coiling serpent from its stranglehold while I staggered and hobbled around on both podal claws as the bloody thing kept squeezing. It took flap after flap to shake it loose, and all the while my one free arm hugged Wee close, and I never stopped humming the old Greev lullaby.
Eventually, the chaotic heaving of breath and tones and wingbeats found rhythm and harmony. The astral python relaxed, then dissipated. I dropped my own cast, and rocked and cooed at Wee, acting on pure parental instinct, too much in shock to do anything voluntarily. Once his breaths had steadied into those of deep sleep, I cast a small sleeping net and gently set him in it, then plodded, sulking, up the spiral path to my home’s upper chambers.
One does not subdue one’s youngest Greev in a near-deathmatch without feeling compelled to check on one’s eldest afterward. After practically crawling into the upper corridor, I slowly stood upright and braced my right hands on the daubed wall and my lower left on my hip. My free hand slowly peeled back the membrane of Middow’s chamber door.
Just as I expected: no change.
The room was a tangled mess of astral webs. It was filthy, and pungent, and at its center was a thick cocoon of light. Through its translucence, Middow stared outward, blinking, but not deigning to speak.
You’ll remember that I wrote, just a quarter-cycle ago, of my beautiful eldest Greevling’s transition to the hibernation phase. I employed every euphemism, every platitude, every memorized line from the old holos on parenting we all watched before receiving our fertilization license. I pulled every trick of rhetoric, every turn of phrase I could muster to turn these hollow words into something that sang, all in hopes of reassuring you, my readers, of giving you strength and hope. It is the Greevbinian way! I proclaimed. Part of a wonderful metamorphosis!
Reader, I lied. Yes, deep down I know Middow will emerge, in time, in full maturity. A big Greev, powerful and wise. But to see her like this? My first-hatched, whom I whelped and raised from the tiniest grub, now tangled and filthy, her eight eyes dull, lacking all the luster and vitality she’d come to possess? It makes me feel like a failure, utterly defeated, every time.
Some battles cannot be fought by projecting a Greevbinian Cacklethroat. Yes, such is adolescence. But oh, how I miss her.
Head hung, I resealed Middow’s door and trudged down the hollow corridor.
Back in my own chamber, my perch at the top of this sad facsimile of a real Greev nest, I collapsed so fast that I almost forgot to form a sleeping net beneath me. I got the cast out just in time, then took a moment to nestle into the warm, buzzing astral mesh. I suspect I looked nearly as disheveled and lifeless as Middow.
Behold, reader. See your fearless author, your supposed paradigm of Greevbinian parenting. See me here, limbs askew, eyes bleary, drool doubtless dripping from slack mandibles. Is this the Greev whose words you cling to for comfort, whose advice is so sought-after across the Galactic Tangle? One who has not even seen their oldest emerge from her chrysalis and embrace adulthood, accept her Mission?
Lying there, I was not even sure I had the strength to continue the Mission myself. I considered entering deep hibernation–come what may to the humans and their world. Worse, come what may to my offspring. I wanted to give up.
There–you have it now. You see me fully exposed, in my moment of greatest weakness. I will not blame you if you cut the feed and disavow my name, and perhaps it would be right to do so. Even so, I ask this small thing: do not give up on me. Read on.
A few minutes of silence and comfort can change a Greev materially, like a miniature hibernatory phase and subsequent metamorphosis. So it was for me late last night.
For a while, I let my mind be utterly empty, silence wrapping around me like a blanket. After some time, thoughts inevitably began to form, but I let them drift as they will over the various projects that I knew I must begin tackling while the stars still shone over the quiet Earth.
I had decided, of late, to begin pursuing a contingent strategy, in case humankind proved themselves incapable of adapting. My mind began flitting through memorized profiles of sub-sapient Earth species, candidates for accelerated evolution: canids, felines, cetaceans, corvids. The snub-nosed little mammals of the Sus variety showed strong promise. How many cycles in an acceleration chamber would it take to bring these creatures to a suitable level of sapience? I began to crunch the numbers–and, as it happened, to take comfort in the familiarity and pragmatism of such a mental task.
So, it was in contemplating the viability of sentient pigs that I began to become myself again.
Soon, I was ready to cast out of the house and begin the night’s work. Rested, it only takes a Greev of my experience a modicum of energy to send out a self-form in surveillance mode, so I set the monitors to alert me if Wee awoke, pulled the ambient flecks of light from the air, and cast a perfect, glowing astral version of myself. Glow-Me shot outside with a pop, passing effortlessly through the hermetically sealed walls of my home and into the remains of the humans’ world.
Fly with me, will you, reader?
Glide with Glow-Me over silent human streets. See the simple architecture and notice its elegance. Yes, it’s all right-angles and dead minerals, but what feats the humans achieved with so little! See how tall their towers stood? Even in ruins, there is majesty here.
While Glow-Me glides silently over abandoned cities, I think: Perhaps the sub-sapients can wait.
Yes: I will keep that contingency plan tucked somewhere in the back of my mind, but I think now that it is not enough to build some civilization here. I can still help preserve the one I see before me. The humans are greatly reduced, but they are not gone.
And, I think: It is natural and good that my offspring struggle.
Again, yes. We Greevs must learn, after all, how to cast where we cannot bodily go. Wee and Middow must experience growing pains if they are ever to cast with a big Greev’s precision and grace. The nightly battles with Wee will make him stronger. Middow’s isolation and hibernation really will allow for transformation. After all, didn’t I, this very night, experience the same thing in microcosm?
Back out there, Glow-Me senses a patch of breathable air–unlittered by toxins and deadly radiation–in the outskirts of a now-quiet human city. Even through all that miasma, I can taste it. Glow-Me propels toward it.
The humans must learn to do this too. They must learn what we know, to see the astra among them, to draw them, make them into human shapes. While their survivors shelter in the last clean pockets of the world, they are in a prison of their own making. But if they learn to astral-cast, they might survive.
I think about the obstacles that remain. They cling so fervently to their determination to rebuild through technology. They repeatedly try to resurrect the communication apparati of the past. It’s been immensely frustrating, convincing them there is a different path. Sure, in time, I can and will teach them to build quantum systems, like the very Tangle I’m using to send these words to you now. But first, they must overcome their reliance on the machines. They must undergo metamorphosis.
The potential to cast resides, after all, in all thinking animals, and the humans will be no different. I think of Wee, barely a grub, yet able to construct as clear a cast-form as I ever saw on Greevbin. It will take work, but these human creatures are not worth giving up on.
That is why we’ve come here, after all. True, they are not quite ready. Not yet. They will need my offspring’s generation, and the offspring of my offspring, to teach them. They will need the likes of Wee and Middow. Just as Wee and Middow need me.
And a bit of struggle, and time.
Reader, I began this long, meandering post with the question of balance. Fittingly, after my night’s work in astral form, I awoke to find Wee taking his first tottering steps on hind legs. I compose these words through tears of pride, for it is a beautiful thing I witness.
No, the steps he takes before stumbling back onto all-six are not beautiful in a traditional sense. They are not graceful. Each teetering pace forward is precarious, and he has toppled over repeatedly. But I’ve helped him back up several times, and each time he steadfastly recommences the process of finding balance.
Balance, I’m reminded, is a dynamic thing. I think of the classical Greev composers, who first imbued music with core Greevbinian principles. Listen to their music. Its beat is not steady, its rhythms chaotic, its notes so often discordant, but yet–
A recording plays now in the background as I tap these words into my Tangle node. I sync my breathing to this music, and I find abiding tranquility among the frenetic notes.
Can you hear it, too? Here are two strains of melody, one bowed on lower limbs, the other hummed in the upper abdomen. The two melodies seem to be at odds, but only when you first begin to listen.
The song’s composer has expressed a deep, resonant truth of life through the piece’s structure. Each measure is chaotic, but in the hypermeter, the superstructure of the composition, there is a steady, pulsing rhythm. The piece’s balance comes not from keeping its two strains separate, but from weaving them expertly together.
So it is with Wee and Middow. My offspring will inherit this world; they need the Mission to succeed. This world, in turn, needs them.
And so I say, Hold on.
Do not give up.
About the Authors
P.G. Streeter lives with his wife and two sons in Maryland, where he teaches high school English and philosophy. His previous publications include work in Daily Science Fiction, Pulp Literature, and StarShipSofa. He’s thrilled to add the inimitable Cast of Wonders to that list!
Brenna Harvey is a writer and comedian from Hartford, Connecticut. She is a graduate of the 2019 Odyssey Fiction Writing Workshop, and her short fiction has been featured in OMGQueer, Night Frights, and Queer Sci Fi’s annual flash fiction anthology. She wrote this story because in her early thirties she discovered that sports played with kind, supportive friends are actually very fun, and she wanted to spread the word to the world’s gym teachers. Follow her on Twitter at @UnkissedBot.
About the Narrators
Andrew K. Hoe practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and is now a college professor. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Highlights for Children, and elsewhere. Follow him online or on Twitter.
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.