Contest #41 winner 🏆

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Fantasy

Jupiter rose in the sky, and Zoe gazed up at it from her patch of turquoise grass. Brushing her fingers over the blades, she wondered if Jupiter felt more like air or water. It did rather look like there were oceans there. Red and orange and brown oceans, certainly, but their bands looked like waves on a shore to her all the same. 

To her right, there was the dull sound of paw against turf and a heavy, shadowy body shifting its position. As always, the air nearby warmed up within seconds. Large bodies made lots of heat, especially synthetic ones.

“Play me the ocean again, Cat,” she said, reaching out to clutch at his silky, silvery fur. He’d told her plenty of times how to stroke it properly, but it was comforting to just grab a handful of it.

“It costs you nothing to ask nicely,” replied Cat. She turned to look at his neon-green eyes. His voice was chiding, but his pupils were wide and his face was relaxed. He wasn’t annoyed with her, not really.

“Would you play me the ocean please?” she drawled, stretching out the word until it sounded more like a yawn than anything coherent.

Cat snorted in his peculiar way, which she interpreted as a kind of eye-rolling, but he played the ocean all the same. The LEDs in his eyes glowed brighter, and a broad rectangle of light blinked into existence above her, displaying one of Earth’s distant bodies of water. Light - natural light - glittered on the wave-crests in a way quite unlike anything from home.

“Zoom out. More. More, please.”

The ocean’s borders came into view. Long, sloping coastlines, mostly; they emerged from the north and spread down to the west and east, cradling the water from above. The resolution of the image improved, and the archipelagos became clear.

“It’s the Pacific!”

“Well done, Zoe. It is indeed.” Cat was never impressed. He yawned and curled his tail around his paws. He looked distinguished, like that. It was a deliberate pose, and since he had no need to warm his toes in Ganymede’s carefully regulated climate, it must be for modesty or neatness.

Zoe looked back at the Pacific, comparing the cloud patterns over Earth’s oceans with the ‘oceans’ of clouds on Jupiter. They weren’t as similar as she’d hoped they’d be.

“Hey. Hey, Cat. Whatcha thinkin’ about?”

Cat shot her a withering look that would have induced shame and dread in any species, synthetic or otherwise. She returned it with her sweetest smile.

“I wish you would name me properly,” he said, giving up on his scowl. “There are dozens of guardian synths on this moon, and all of them have names. Names chosen with love by their wards, meant only for them, to give them identity and bring them closer together. All of them, except for me!” He yowled piteously, earning a laugh from Zoe.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Cat. I’m just… bad at naming things, that’s all.” Every time she called him Cat, it became less of an epithet and more of a name. Soon it would stick forever.

Cat padded over to her side, scarcely making any noise despite his weight. “I’m not a ‘thing,’ Zoe. I’m a living being too, aren’t I?”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said. He knew it, too. He was just trying to make her feel bad. He should’ve known by now it never worked on her.

“Will you think about it?”

“Maybe.”

“Promise me you’ll think of a name.”

Zoe ignored her Cat, once again. Behind her, he made a small, strangled noise of frustration. She wasn’t ready to end this argument. Not yet.

She scrambled to her feet, staining her knees blue-green on the grass as she did. Light-footed, she ran down the hill until she came to the chest-high wall that separated the memory yard from the rest of the dome. She sat on one of the least uncomfortable stones and waited for Cat to catch up - he moved languidly if he didn’t have to hurry, which he never did.

“Zoe, what is this about?” he called to her as he approached. “What’s going through your fiendish brain?”

“Figure it out, if you’re so smart,” she called back.

“I’m as intelligent as I am charming, and your abject cruelty is neither!” Cat wailed. “Name me! Name me!”

She kicked her legs and waited. When Cat arrived, she swung herself over the wall and landed in the memory yard. He jumped up and over in one smooth motion, his own landing offensively agile compared to hers. He was built to do so many things she couldn’t.

“Time, please, Cat.”

“Nineteen forty-one,” replied Cat, instantly. “Getting late,” he added, swishing his tail in irritation.

“Not that late. I’m eleven, Cat. Double digits! That makes me nearly a teenager.”

Cat flicked his ears: his way of acknowledging she’d said something not worth replying to.

She led her guardian along the yard’s wall, letting her fingertips skip and dance on the stones. She tried to press it hard enough to feel its negligible roughness. The friction wasn’t anything like real stone, but she could pretend.

“You know,” called Cat from behind her, “some wards call their guardians ‘Dad’. That would be fine by me, you know. If you didn’t want to pick a real name.”

“No!” she cried. “That’s super weird. I’m not doing that. What makes ‘Dad’ better than ‘Cat’ anyway?” Cat couldn’t shrug, but he made a noncommittal ‘mrrrp’ sound, and Zoe supposed that was close enough.

“Besides,” she said, more quietly, “I don’t wanna be reminded why they gave you to me.”

There was silence for a moment as Cat gave the thought space. His body’s internal heaters hummed as he worked to make himself warmer, more comforting.

When he spoke, it was as softly as he could manage while still being audible.

“I’m sorry, Zoe.”

“It’s okay.”

The quiet after that exchange lasted longer. Then:

“Zoe, I didn’t mean-”

“Say what you mean; mean what you say,” she sang. “You should have known that was the wrong thing to say. You’re not smart enough to be my guardian, saying things like that without thinking. I should be your guardian.”

“Whatever you say, Zoe,” replied Cat, relieved at the broken tension. Of course, he couldn’t actually be bothered by awkward silences, but Zoe always treated his synthetic emotions as if they were real. It was only polite.

A more comfortable silence now persisted until they reached Zoe’s destination — an unassuming plinth with four plain sides and a projector set into the top. It was made of local Ganymedean silicate rock, unlike the other memory boxes in the yard, which were made of imported Terran wood or geodome glass or similar materials.

She had never quite been able to explain to Cat why she liked that. It was like her parents were part of Ganymede, not of Earth, and since she was part of Ganymede and had never been to Earth, she had a connection to them, even now.

“Zoe, I don’t mean to be rude, but this is an odd time to pay your respects.”

“Stop talking for a bit, Cat,” said Zoe, bending forwards to activate the projector in the box.

“If you wanted an obedient and dependent companion, you should have asked for a dog, not a cat,” mewled Cat, taking up his usual position on her left. She tried unsuccessfully to hide her smile. She had got what she’d asked for, fair enough.

The memories swam into view above the plinth, one after another. Her bio-parents’ faces were like those of movie characters to her, or maybe also a little like heroes from a fairy tale. Unsurprisingly, they looked very much like her. Rather, she looked like them. She was an even mix of the two, with skin a shade between theirs, a face with that nose and those eyes, and her in-between hair both unruly and dark. She knew the details perfectly. Even though she’d muted the audio, she could still hear the heart-tugging instrumental sounds which the memory slide would normally play, the consequence of using the box many, many times.

“Cat.”

“Yes, Zoe?”

She took her time. She knew Cat would be patient.

The words slipped from her mind like water between fingers. What was she here for?

The memory slide reached the loop point and began again. It would not end, ever, unless she instructed it to. If she wanted, it would go on indefinitely, like all machines.

“Will you die one day?” she asked, at last.

“That’s a heavy question, Zoe.”

She screwed up her forehead. “Can’t you think at lightspeed or whatever? You can answer straight away.”

“Alright, Zoe.” Cat’s voice was softer now. She knew it was a calculated choice by him, but it was soothing all the same. “Inevitably, technically, yes. I will die eventually. Of course, it mightn’t be for billions and billions of years. Unless I someday choose to end, earlier than that.”

“Do you know if you will? Choose to end?”

“Not as long as I have you to look after, Zoe.”

She knew he meant it. That was one reason she had been so insistent on being assigned a synth guardian before her age of majority. Not because she wanted more autonomy, like her fosterers had thought, but because AIs lasted forever. Or close enough.

“Thanks, Cat.”

“Zoe, it’s been a while now since we met. Are you happy with me? Am I doing a good job?”

She sat down next to Cat’s massive flank and leaned into it. As she did, his insides whirred to cool that patch of fur to a degree he knew was comfortable for her.

“Yeah. You’re doing great.”

Cat licked her forehead and she giggled as the rasping texture tickled her skin.

“Good. Zoe, are you thinking about death a lot today?”

He said death like it was a normal word. She liked that about Cat. Adults always said it strangely, like they were embarrassed to use the word around a kid. 

“Yeah, a little bit all the time yeah. Like, I didn’t even get to know these people before they died, Cat. They’re supposed to be super important to me, everyone expects me to care so much about them. But the first time I had to watch the slide I had to pretend to cry.”

Cat nodded sagely, eyes closed.

“Many people sometimes pretend to be more sad than they feel.”

“Yeah. I cried later, once I understood a bit more about things.” Cat never said ‘things’, thought Zoe. He always used exactly the word he meant. “Understood what my bio-parents were supposed to mean to me, I mean. It says in the memory augment that they weren’t even thirty years old, either of them. I wanna live for more than thirty years, Cat.”

“Most people do, Zoe.”

She rubbed her eyes. They weren’t damp, but it was comforting. “Do you think you’d wanna live for a billion years, Cat?”

“Maybe, Zoe. All I know for sure is that I want to live until tomorrow. If I feel that way every day, perhaps I’ll be a billion years old someday.”

“I won’t.”

“Oh, Zoe… maybe not the way you are now, but if you wanted you could transfer-”

“I know about people who take up a synthetic body, Cat. That’s not what I mean. I don’t want to do that. A billion years is basically forever, and nobody’s ever lived for anything like that long. Maybe it’ll be different for synths once there are old synths about, but for humans I think a hundred years is already a long time. I don’t think humans are supposed to live forever, Cat.”

“That’s very wise of you, Zoe.”

She snorted. “I’m just a kid, Cat. Maybe I’ll think I’m wrong when I’m grown. What do you think? Aren’t you as smart as a hundred Steven Hawkings or something?”

“That may be so, but many young people would insist on living forever. You think about things more carefully, and that is wise.”

“Uhuh. Sure.”

Cat purred indulgently. “Well, now that you’ve demonstrated such wisdom, perhaps you would deign to name me—?”

“Maybe tomorrow, Cat. I have my whole life to think of a proper name for you.”

He made the dismissive ear flick again, accompanied by a small growl — but that was fine. He was a cat after all, synthetic body or not, and part of that meant being at least a little disagreeable. She could enjoy that about him as long as she needed.

The memory stream looped again, and this time she turned it off.

That was the thing about machines. They changed when you wanted them to.

She looked at her artificial guardian — at once a carer, pet, and companion. That could change, too. He was capable of it — and she liked that. It made him real.

“It’s not so terrible for things to end,” Zoe said, more to herself than to Cat. He seemed to realize this, and made no reply as she stood and began to walk back to Colony Central. Instead, he followed at her side, and kept his warm flank against hers all the way home.

May 16, 2020 00:08

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71 comments

Vrishni Maharaj
14:30 May 25, 2020

I love this!

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Inactive User
04:51 May 25, 2020

Congratulations!

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Cindy Bennett
02:47 May 25, 2020

i was captivated right from the start :)

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Heather Laaman
01:04 May 24, 2020

This is quite possibly the best story I've ever read on this site (and there have been really good winners). I hope you work toward getting more of your stuff published. This was an incredibly quiet yet moving read.

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Harken Void
12:57 May 23, 2020

Amazing! Both from the imaginitive view as well as technical, you've nailed both mastefully. Congratulations on your first-entry win and I hope it inspires you to write more. I'd love to know more of the world you've created for your story!

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Daryl Gravesande
20:38 May 22, 2020

Great Story, man! Captivating vocabulary. I was in envy reading this. Also, could any of you in the comments check out my stories? I've only posted 2 submissions, but I like to think they're pretty good. But I need some feedback. Thanks!

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Iman Fatima
17:11 May 22, 2020

Deserves the win

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Whitney Trang
17:06 May 22, 2020

Wonderful story! It was sweet and delicate. It painted a very beautiful world in my mind. Congrats! :)

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Pranathi G
16:12 May 22, 2020

Congrats for the win!

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Barbara Eustace
15:08 May 22, 2020

Lovely imaginative story

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15:05 May 22, 2020

Wow, amazing! It sucked me right in from the first sentence. I LOVED how you didn't start off with an info-dump about the setting. This way was so much more real. You deserved the win!

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Skye Thorne
14:53 May 22, 2020

Congrats on your win-it's well deserved! I fell in love with this story so quickly. It was engaging and creative and it made me wish this was a novel so I could keep reading. Your world-building was excellent and I adore the main characters. This is such an interesting concept and you executed it with perfection. The voice of Zoe was highly endearing and felt like an accurate depiction of her age. Fantastic job! I hope to read more of your work in the future.

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Jocelyn Nelson
20:51 Jul 21, 2021

Wonderful visual descriptions. Even if there was a line or two of dialog that did not hook me, pictures this setting and the characters had me 'in' the story from start to finish

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Neala S
20:30 Jan 26, 2021

OML I love it! It's super creative, and sort of topsy turvy and upside down and inside out. I really like it, it feels like the world (I imagine) is very indie like? Super colorful and bright. Amazing and incredible.

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14:18 Dec 23, 2020

You changed my thinking with this text. The "Adults always said it strangely, like they were embarrassed to use the word around a kid." really got to me. I think that's saying something about the impact of such texts. The ability to ponder on abstract and vast topics while slipping in concrete views. The world described in the story is different, but still the experiences are real. And even though it's fiction, it's immensely valuable. It's a tool of communication, a piece of your mind shared in a way that is approachable. In that sense, it ...

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Maya Botti
04:58 Dec 12, 2020

I love the way you wrote about it. I think you are inspiring and you should become a part time writer. BTW please name that cat. I'm SO curious. You deserve to win!

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Renee Nadine
04:02 Sep 30, 2020

I was pulled in right away, had to learn what I could about what world the characters were in. And fantastic imagery, helping us to see and know Cat. I love the dynamic between the two.

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00:22 Sep 06, 2020

Simplictic but full. Good.

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Anika G
23:47 Sep 02, 2020

Good job! I really liked this story!

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Pamela Abwao
04:42 Aug 28, 2020

Was this Cat a feline or a symbol? A good story with minimal throat clearing. I'm talking to my cat now. I hope she responds Congratulations .You deserved to win

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