by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, October 2022
Cosmic the Pangolin raced over the hills and vales of Mossy Valley Zone, her clawed feet skipping across the emerald ground so fast her talons left burning skid marks in the grass behind her. She saw a loop-de-loop looming ahead where the ground swerved into the sky and in preparation she curled her head forward, tucking her chin; then she dropped into a complete roll, her entire nebula-purple body tightening into an armored ball.
She raced forward at an unbelievable speed, leaving the grass burnt behind her. She raced the clock. She raced against time. She raced herself on previous attempts at this zone. But most importantly, she raced against Professor Robotron and her diabolical mechanical chickens.
Cosmic knew, deep in her heart, that she needed to make it to the end of Mossy Valley before Professor Robotron did, and yet, no matter how fast she ran, no matter how good her time was, when the little purple pangolin arrived at the wavy blue waterfall marking the end of the zone, her archnemesis was already there. Waiting for her. Hovering in her gleaming metal mecha body, surrounded by enhanced chickens. Ready to fight.
Devastated to be beaten once again, Cosmic screeched to a halt just in time to see Professor Robotron’s mecha belch fire at the rickety wooden bridge across the river at the base of the waterfall. The ancient wood caught fire easily, and orange flames licked the air, leaving only ash behind and no way to cross the river without delving into the deadly dangerous Azuretopia where there was nothing to breathe but the occasional bubble.
Cosmic stamped her taloned foot and shook her taloned fist. Professor Robotron laughed mercilessly, her face visible from inside the shielded robot-head of her giant mecha. Cosmic peered through the glaring reflections obscuring Professor Robotron’s face, trying to make out the details of who exactly kept tormenting her — Cosmic knew so little about Professor Robotron.
Professor Robotron built robotic mechas; enslaved chickens to do her evil bidding; and was trying to steal all the Power Sapphires that kept this planet peaceful and serene. Cosmic didn’t know why; she didn’t know what purpose the Power Sapphires could possibly serve after being wrenched from their natural homes in the earth. But she had seen the devastation caused by removing them — powerful tornadoes, floods, droughts, and firestorms.
Cosmic had to stop Professor Robotron, even if she didn’t know why.
So once again, like so many times before, Cosmic rolled herself into a ball of dusky purple armor plating and hurled herself through the air directly at the professor’s dangerous mecha. She bounced her body off of the hard metal, causing the mecha to shake and shudder with the damage done to it. After five hits, Cosmic’s friend Miley the fennec fox came flying down from the sky, her giant triangular ears flapping like wings.
Miley always came to help with the end of the fight.
The purple pangolin and orange fennec continued hurling themselves at the mecha in concert, both rolled into tight balls, blurring with their speed. They broke off one of the mecha’s limbs after another. But before the final hit, everything went white.
The load screen.
This happened sometimes.
The load screen happened when Cosmic won. It happened when Cosmic lost. And sometimes, like now, it just happened. Sometimes even in the middle of a zone, all of a sudden, everything would go blank, bright, and white. It was an in-between space, a place of peace and contentment and waiting. All Cosmic could do was wait for Mossy Valley Zone to begin again. She didn’t have to fight. She didn’t have to (or get to) run.
Then the world sprang back into existence around Cosmic, but it was different and wrong this time. Everything looked both too sharp and too muddied; there was a depth that Cosmic didn’t understand. She looked down at her own paw, and she didn’t have the words to explain, but it was wide in a way that hadn’t existed before. She was stretched into more dimensions than she’d even known existed.
Blinking frantically and turning her narrow head, Cosmic tried to make sense of the scene in front of her. It was a room, but she’d never seen a room before — only the endless zooming curves and platforms of Mossy Valley Zone, Azuretopia Zone, Emerald Pines Zone, and all the other levels the world was divided into. But this zone was one she didn’t know. Perhaps it was a weird sort of bonus level?
Finally, Cosmic’s eyes focused on the giant picture window filling one wall of the room; beyond it, she saw trees. She thought they were trees. They seemed like trees to her somehow, even though she knew trees were made up of a series of overlapping triangles. And these… they weren’t made up from distinct, simple shapes at all. The greens and browns flowed together in confusing smoothness and complexity. And yet, she was sure they must be pine trees. They couldn’t be anything else.
“Did… I skip Azuretopia?” Cosmic asked. “How can I be in Emerald Pine Zone without beating Azuretopia first?” Her own voice sounded strange to her. She was only used to saying a few words here and there, always the same…
Cosmic always exclaimed, “Victory!” after beating Professor Robotron at the end of Azuretopia; she said, “Come on, Miley!” when they stole Professor Robotron’s helicopter between Emerald Pine Zone and Twilight Circus Zone; and when she arrived at Icicle Frost Zone, she always said, “Brr! It’s cold here!” There were a few others. Not many.
But she’d never said, “Did I skip Azuretopia?” before. These words were new, and the sensation of saying them both scared Cosmic and made her feel alive in a totally new way.
Looking around, Cosmic’s gaze fell on a familiar shape: an oval face, hidden behind round glasses, and framed by long, red hair. She looked different without a mecha’s head shielding her, but it was clearly Professor Robotron. Comic’s greatest tormentor.
“Hi,” Professor Robotron said, waving shyly.
Without waiting another second, Cosmic leapt into action. Literally. She leapt toward the window, rolling herself into an armored ball as she flew. She hit the window pane and glass shattered around her as she sailed through it. She hit the ground outside rolling. The dirt ground was bumpy and uneven, nothing like what Cosmic was used to. The friction slowed her roll much faster than she expected, and the pangolin had to resort to unrolling herself and running with her little legs pumping as fast as they could.
Cosmic ran and ran. She ran over pine-needle covered loam, zipping and weaving between the trees. She ran over squishy, grassy ground, wet from a recent rain. She ran through a muddy yard filled with chickens wearing little mechanical arms hooked over their wings. She ran circles around a classic old red barn and classy old farmhouse, painted white with two stories and a wraparound porch. She ran until — and this had never happened to the zippy little pangolin before — she started to feel tired.
Cosmic finished her current loop around the barn and farmhouse, ending up again in the chicken yard. She sat down in the mud, next to one of the chickens and asked, “Do you want me to free you from your mechanical bindings?”
Cosmic had never asked a chicken whether it wanted help before. Usually, she just rolled herself into a ball and slammed into them, knocking their dangerous mechanical upgrades — usually lasers or spinning saw blades, not cute little arms like these — right off of their fluffy feathered bodies, freeing the chickens to fly away.
Cosmic wasn’t entirely sure what had stopped her this time — perhaps the cuteness of the little arms? Or maybe it was simply that her feet hurt from running too fast, and she feared that slamming her body into things might hurt her too. There’d never been pain in her life before, and she didn’t think she liked it.
She did like how cute the chickens looked with their little arms though. She also liked the way they wandered around, pecking at the muddy ground, pulling up worms and eating them. The chickens that Cosmic had seen before didn’t usually do that. They just bobbed their heads a little and flipped back and forth, maybe hopping occasionally. These chickens’ movements seemed much more random. Far less predictable. And Cosmic found it mesmerizing.
Cosmic watched the chickens bob about the muddy yard, and she thought about how she’d memorized the movements of every chicken she’d ever seen before. They were always the same. The same color chicken in the same place doing the same things, time after time, as she zoomed through the levels of the world. Of her life.
Sure, there were three different colors of chicken that she’d seen before — black, white, and brown. (And the chickens in Azuretopia, of course, were all blue and breathed water. Obviously.) But these chickens didn’t even fall into those easy categories. Their feathers were speckled, both white and brown. Or the shade of black on one chicken had a slightly different sheen than on another. Cosmic could hardly believe the details and complexity of what she was looking at. Black and white had been replaced with infinitely many shades of gray.
Perhaps that’s why Cosmic missed it when her arch-nemesis, the enemy she’d been born to fight, the foe who would destroy her world… crept up beside her and squatted down, carefully avoiding sitting in the mud that squished against the purple coil of the pangolin’s armored tail.
“You think I’m here to fight you, don’t you?” Professor Robotron said.
Cosmic looked at the little girl — because without her mecha around her, that’s all Professor Robotron was, a little red-haired girl squatting in the mud — and nodded bleakly. Cosmic didn’t want to fight a little girl. In fact, Cosmic was finding that maybe she didn’t want to fight anyone. The simplicity of the world she’d known had drained away and been replaced by immense complexity, and Cosmic no longer knew how she fit into it.
“It’s because I based Professor Robotron on myself, isn’t it?” the little girl asked.
Cosmic didn’t know what that meant, but she knew what it implied: “You’re not Professor Robotron?” Cosmic asked, feeling a glimmer of hope that lit up part of this gray-scale world.
“No,” the girl agreed. “Well, not really.”
“Then who are you?”
“I’m the one who wrote your video game.” The little girl picked up a nearby stick and started poking it fitfully in the mud, drawing random swirls and squiggles. “See, my parents wouldn’t buy me a real video game system or even any games for my computer. They said, if I wanted a video game, I could write one myself. So, based on the stuff I heard other kids talking about at school… I wrote you.”
Cosmic and the little girl looked at each other — a lonely, bored human child and the character she’d created to keep her company.
“My name is Holly,” the girl said.
“Cosmic,” Cosmic replied.
Holly laughed, presumably because she already knew Cosmic’s name. She’d chosen it.
“What’s a video game?” Cosmic asked.
“It’s like a smaller, better version of the real world,” Holly said. “But I live out here in the real world, and I thought… maybe…” She trailed off, frowning, looking very serious. “I figured out how to load your character design along with a modified version of a base AI personality into a holo-generator–” She reached out gently and grabbed Cosmic’s wrist, turning it to show the golden bangle nestled between the pangolin’s purple scales. Usually, Cosmic would gather golden bands like that to build up her score and protect her life. Right now, apparently, the golden band on her wrist was emitting the photons that made up Cosmic’s body. “–and I thought, maybe, I could bring you out of the video game and into the real world, and you could… if you wanted… play with me.”
Holly’s voice got really small, and her eyes kept darting between the squiggles she’d been drawing in the mud and Cosmic’s own comically large cartoon eyes.
At first, Cosmic wasn’t sure what to say. She was still new to saying words that hadn’t been scripted for her — written by Holly, apparently, and then repeated every time Cosmic encountered the same situation.
Usually, Cosmic encountered the same situations over and over again. It was kind of scary to be in a situation that was entirely new.
Or maybe it was exciting. Like unlocking a bonus level she’d never seen before.
“What if…” Cosmic began, uncertainly. “What if I wanted to go back? Into… the game?”
Holly looked sad, but she said, “I can put you back…”
Cosmic felt a complicated mix of relief and claustrophobia at the idea of going back. Going home. Except, was the game her home? It was an endless track of levels, looping and looping, constantly running, always fighting…
It was what she was used to.
But maybe… maybe there was something better.
Still, it was scary being out here in a place where nothing was scripted and everything was more complicated, deeper, and higher in dimensionality than she was used to.
Usually, when things were the bleakest and Cosmic was at her low point, that’s when Miley would come flying in, flapping her giant ears with a big grin on her pointy muzzle, ready to chip in and fight. Ready to help. Miley always had Cosmic’s back when she needed her most.
“Could we… I mean, could you bring Miley out here too?” Cosmic asked shyly. Maybe it wouldn’t be so scary out here if Miley was with her. Maybe then she could feel safe enough to enjoy exploring this world and getting to know the little girl who had written her.
Holly’s face broke into a wide grin, bright enough to melt the mountains of snow in Icicle Frost Zone. “That’s a great idea!” she said. “Miley’s gonna love the tree house I built last summer. Come on, let’s go bring her out right now.”
Holly stood up and held out her hand toward the cartoony purple pangolin. Cosmic reached out and took it.