by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original
Holly’s bedroom looked like a scene out of Roger Rabbit or one of those other movies that mix animation and traditional film styles to make it look like cartoon characters and normal human beings live in the same world. Holly knew there were a bunch more recent movies like that, but her parents mostly only let her watch movies that had come out years before she was even born. They weren’t subscribed to any streaming services, so everything they watched came from a huge wall of bookshelves filled with actual DVDs.
They also made her program her own video games if she wanted to play them. They were such luddites.
At least, Holly’s parents were super proud of the video games she’d written and showed them. What they didn’t know was that she’d also designed holo-emitters embedded in golden bangles that let her summon AI-supplemented versions of her video game characters out into the real world.
That’s how she was playing board games with a purple pangolin and a neon orange fennec fox on the floor of her bedroom. The pangolin was Cosmic; the fox Miley; and they were the main characters in her favorite of the video games she’d written. Also, now, her best friends.
“Take that!” Cosmic declared, slamming her thimble-shaped piece down on the blue square labeled ‘Boardwalk’ on the Monopoly board. “I’m buying it. Now I have both Boardwalk and Park Place, and I’ll soon own the whole world of Monopoly!”
The purple pangolin grinned, an expression almost wider than her narrow face, and her nebula-purple scales shone with a sudden flash. Cartoon characters can express happiness in a way that normal human beings just can’t. The sight made Holly grin too.
“I could never get my parents to play all the way through this game with me,” Holly said. “And whenever they let me have friends over, like Jasmine — you know, she’s the one who swaps homemade video games with me online? Anyway, whenever she comes over, she never gets to stay long enough for a whole game of Monopoly.”
“It is a long game,” Miley observed. Her giant fennec fox ears — extra giant so that she could flap them like wings and fly — splayed unhappily to the sides. She did not love playing Monopoly the way that Cosmic and Holly seemed to.
Cosmic liked making her tiny metal thimble spin around and around the game board, gathering $200 every time she passed go, because it felt kind of like spinning in circles through one level after another of the game she’d originally been made for, always collecting golden bands for points — except without her legs getting tired.
Miley had never spun in circles through the various levels of the game they’d been designed for. She usually only showed up at the end of a level, during the final boss battle to assist Cosmic, who was actually the main character. Miley liked assisting Cosmic… but right now, she wished she could convince the pangolin to play a game that interested her more. Or maybe… do something other than play a game.
Miley kept gazing out the window of Holly’s bedroom, staring at the clouds up in the blue sky. It was a beautiful day out, and Miley wanted to explore.
Holly’s family lived on a farm, complete with a big red barn, a muddy yard filled with chickens, and even a small forest of Douglas fir trees. Cosmic and Miley had explored the area thoroughly together shortly after Holly had pulled them out of their video game, but then the pangolin had lost interest.
Miley wanted to explore farther. She wanted to fly. Her favorite level of their shared video game had always been the one where she carried Cosmic through the sky, dodging clouds and evil chickens. There’d been more for her to do there than in most of the zones. But every time Miley suggested the idea of trying the same thing here — flying off into the sky together, under the power of her flapping ears, while Cosmic dangled beneath her holding tight to her paws — the purple pangolin shuddered and pointed out that Fluffy Cloud Zone was her least favorite in the whole game.
Miley could understand that. But it still made her sad.
“You’re sure you don’t want to go play outside?” Miley asked for maybe the thousandth time that afternoon.
“Are you kidding?” Holly asked. “I have to get my money back from Cosmic!”
Cosmic didn’t even answer, just smugly adjusted the row of green plastic houses she’d already bought for Boardwalk and Park Place with her purple-plated talons.
The next time Miley’s little silver dog token got toward the end of the board with Boardwalk and Park Place, she made a point of spending all her paper cash foolishly on expensive red plastic hotels that no one else was anywhere near. So when she, unluckily, landed on Boardwalk, all her cash went straight to Cosmic. Leaving her bankrupt.
Miley was out of the game. “Oh no,” she said, trying to sound disappointed, but the way her giant ears stood up tall belied her feigned emotion. “I guess I’ll just go hang out outside while you two finish up the game.”
“Okay, Miley,” Holly said. “Have fun!”
Cosmic was too busy counting her money to respond.
Miley knew from experience that Monopoly games could last for hours. She truly didn’t understand why Cosmic and Holly enjoyed them. They both got so worked up, stealing money back and forth from each other, always on the edge of losing, but not just normal losing like with the other games they’d played — absolutely devastating ruin, completely crushing everyone except the lone winner. Not Miley’s idea of fun.
Miley had been designed for collaborative gameplay — since Cosmic was the main character of their game, and Miley only showed up to help her, the idea of competing for herself alone was profoundly foreign.
So was the idea of going outside to explore on her own.
Miley hadn’t really ever done anything alone…
But she’d been around the grounds of Holly’s house before, always carefully sneaking around so Holly’s parents wouldn’t see. And she’d flown through the skies of Fluffy Cloud Zone before. How different could flying through the skies here be?
Miley snuck out the back door of the house, out to the chicken yard, and then found herself standing in the mud among the chickens, staring up at the sky, giant ears flattened in distress.
Miley kept second-guessing herself, wondering if she should go back inside and just watch Cosmic and Holly finish their board game. There were paperback books strewn all over Holly’s room, and she could just read one of them while waiting. Some of them were pretty good. She really liked the Animorphs books that were about the boy who’d turned into a bird and spent most of his time flying on thermals. Miley could relate to that.
Except, that boy spent most of his time alone, and Miley had never been alone. Literally never. This, standing in the chicken yard, was the closest she’d come. Inside the video game, she would pop into existence at the beginning of boss fights, and Cosmic was already there waiting for her. Out here… she didn’t disappear when Cosmic didn’t need her assistance anymore. She wasn’t sure what to do with herself when she was the one in charge. When no one else needed her.
But she liked flying.
So, Miley lifted her ears, flattened them, lifted them, and flattened them again. Her giant ears flapped like little wings, attached to the top of her head, and she felt her paws lift off the muddy ground. A freeing sensation. She was going to explore the sky.
As Miley rose upward, the chickens in the chicken yard grew smaller beneath her. A few of them looked up at her, squawked in surprise, and then went around their business, bobbing their heads, looking for worms and grains among the muddy grasses.
Miley continued to rise, above the tree tops, up through the sky. She wasn’t too worried about anyone seeing her. Holly had explained that her family lived “way out in the middle of nowhere,” sounding very frustrated by that fact. Miley didn’t think it seemed so bad — she could see forests and grassy fields stretching off in every direction, out toward jagged blue lines of mountains in the distance.
Cosmic had explained to Miley how surprised she’d been by all the trees and shrubs around the farm house — how very different they were than the two-dimensional, simple versions of those same things inside the game. So, Miley was prepared for the idea that clouds here might be very different than she was used to. Personally, she hadn’t been so surprised by the trees or shrubs — she hadn’t spent nearly as much time around those things as Cosmic had back in the game. Cosmic had had time to explore; Miley was always busy helping to fight Professor Robotron, their arch-nemesis. Except during Fluffy Cloud Zone…
In Fluffy Cloud Zone, she flew Cosmic from one cloud to the next — some of them were solid, immovable obstacles that Cosmic could jump onto; others were secretly intangible, and if Cosmic tried to jump onto them, she’d fall right through. Miley could fly through those ones, and sometimes, they had floating treasures hidden inside. Or sometimes, she’d fly into a cloud, and it would explode, revealing an evil chicken wearing mechanical arms and laser eyes.
Miley hoped there wouldn’t be any evil chickens in the sky here. She didn’t think there would be. Holly had told her that she’d made those chickens up as a way to make the game more fun. Something about raising stakes or adding more ninjas. It hadn’t made sense to Miley. She didn’t find it fun when the chickens killed her best friend with their laser eyes, and her entire universe reset, meaning she’d failed in her life’s one goal.
Out here in the real world, her life didn’t have one central goal. She kind of wondered whether her life out here had a goal at all… It was strange being allowed to do whatever she wanted to do.
When Miley’s flapping ears brought her high enough into the sky, she aimed toward the closest cloud — a big white puffy cumulonimbus cloud that looked like a soft huggable castle or maybe like a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream. She wondered if she’d be able to land on it. Or what it might have hidden inside.
Miley swooped toward the cloud, but the closer it got, the less real it seemed. Cold wisps of fog surrounded her, making her shiver under her thin fur. Fennec foxes are desert animals and not naturally adapted to life in the sky, regardless of her extra large wing-like ears. Everything around Miley turned hazy and white; cold droplets clung to her fur. This wasn’t what she had expected at all, even with expecting to be surprised.
Onward through the cloud Miley flew, searching for anything hidden, anything interesting. The cold hazy whiteness obscured her view of the landscape below, and also her view of the other clouds in the sky. There was nothing exciting about being inside the cloud at all. So, she tilted her ears and swooped away, down, down, down, until she burst out of the cloud, back into the clear blue sky beneath.
Tilting her ears again, Miley’s momentum carried her back upward into the cloud. She swooped up and down, skimming along the bottom of the cloud for a while, feeling the exhilaration of moving at such a high speed. She loved that feeling, but she missed the excitement of collecting gold bands for points and power sapphires for boosts. She didn’t miss the laser-eyed chickens.
After a while, Miley tired of the clouds and swooped her way back toward Holly’s farm house. She surprised the chickens when she landed, and that was fun — watching them flap and startle and caw at her intrusion.
Flying through the sky had been a powerful, exhilarating feeling… but also lonely.
When Miley made it back into Holly’s bedroom, her friends were just putting the Monopoly board away in its cardboard box.
“Cosmic won. Again,” Holly said. “Would you like to pick the next game we play, Miley?”
“Sort of,” Miley said. While she’d been up in the clouds, swooping through their emptiness, she’d had a vision for what the world could be — more exciting and fun than the real world, but less dangerous and scary than the world Holly had made for Cosmic. “I have this idea… but I don’t know how to make it happen.”
Miley sat down on the carpeted floor next to Cosmic. Her ears splayed with the frustration of not knowing how to explain her vision.
“What’s the idea?” Cosmic asked, curious.
So, Miley told Cosmic and Holly about her experiences flying through a real cloud in the real world, and how she wished it could be a little more like the video game world she’d come from… but not entirely.
“It sounds like you want me to write a new video game for you,” Holly said. “Like… maybe a racing game.”
“What’s a racing game?” Miley asked.
“Yeah, that sounds fun, whatever it is,” Cosmic said.
So far, Cosmic had liked every game Holly had showed them. Board games, card games, and even a really hard video game about an orca whale trying to save her family that Holly’s friend Jasmine had written. Miley was glad Holly didn’t write video games that hard. Her and Cosmic’s existence before being pulled into the real world would have been absolutely miserable if she did.
“A racing game is where a bunch of people can play together, and they each try to race through a zone the fastest,” Holly said, sitting down at her computer and loading up a screen that looked more like homework than a game to Miley.
If pangolins had pointy ears like fennec foxes, Cosmic’s ears would have perked up at Holly’s description of a racing game. “That sounds amazing,” the purple pangolin said, getting up and leaning over the little girl’s shoulder to look at her inscrutable computer screen.
“Yeah, I’m told they’re really fun,” Holly said ruefully while typing away. “I’ve never actually played one, because, you know.”
Holly had already explained, repeatedly, to Cosmic and Miley that her parents only let her play video games she wrote for herself… with the rare exception made for ones written by her friend Jasmine. This was clearly one of the great hardships of Holly’s life, but Miley wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing — if it weren’t for her parents’ overly strict rule, Miley and Cosmic probably wouldn’t exist.
For all that Miley didn’t want to play Monopoly ever again, she really did like existing.
For the next few hours, Holly happily coded away on her computer, teaching her cartoony friends about how to write video games like the one they’d come from. The inscrutable lines of text on her computer screen summoned shapes and then groups of shapes, and somehow, piece by piece, it all began to turn into a whole little world, full of wide open sky, clouds filled with treasure and boosts, and a whole range of rocket ships, airplanes, and hot air balloons for the racers to choose from.
For the first time, Miley wasn’t just assisting Cosmic or being a friend to Holly. Her own vision was being realized on that glowing computer screen, and her friends were assisting her, helping her to realize it. She would get to fly, but she would also get to share it.
“This is gonna be the best game ever,” Miley said.
“Nah,” Holly said. “Your first game is never really your best. You’ll have to see my first attempt at a game some time — it was terrible. So many glitches. But after we’ve written this one, we’ll figure out what we should have done different, and we’ll write another one. A better one.”
“And then another better one after that?” Cosmic asked.
“Yeah,” Holly agreed.
Miley’s ears stood so tall, she felt like their tips would brush the ceiling. Maybe reality really was better than a video game — because in reality, she and her friends could write one video game after another, and just keep making them better.
Once they finished writing this game, Miley would have to come up with some more visions for Holly to help her realize. But first, she intended to beat Cosmic and Holly really thoroughly at this one. She didn’t figure it would be too hard. She had way more experience than either of them at flying.