This story is by Faythe Reeves and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Starting to feel the walls closing in around him, Fiore Vitali decided he needed a bit of fresh air. A change of scenery did wonders for his frazzled mind, and nothing felt better than the warm rays of the sun on his face after a long day like today.
Of course, none of those things were really available at the moment, so he’d have to make do. He frowned at how pale his skin had gotten. Usually his olive skin tanned so nicely this time of year and the lack of sun was starting to show.
Sitting under the heat lamp, eyes closed, idle chatter and footsteps clattering against cobblestone streets playing from a white noise playlist he had compiled, Fiore could almost pretend that he was really enjoying a peaceful day outside like none of his plans had gone completely haywire. Like there wasn’t a government mandated force-field preventing anything remotely lifelike from entering or exiting the premises. Like there wasn’t an obnoxious distress signal echoing in the background. Like he wasn’t trapped in Earth’s famous Interplanetary QuarenTower, the “best protection from interplanetary illnesses on this side of the galaxy” if you bought the propaganda Earth sent out all across the galaxy.
Fiore sighed, pressing his forehead against the force-field and idly running his fingers along the smooth steel banister of the balcony he had memorized months ago. He could see his reflection warped in the force-field, feeling just as dull inside as his hazel gaze reflected back at him was. Stars above, he couldn’t even remember the last time he had bothered to comb his hair, the wild dark curls giving him more trouble than it was worth. It’s not like there was anyone to look decent for.
Things could always be worse, though, and Fiore comforted himself with the reassurance that at least he was twenty stories above the mess Earth had managed to get itself into. At least he wasn’t a mindless, aimless, heartless monster like the hundreds of Cordys ambling across the bloodstained, corpse covered streets below him.
The news liked to call them everything from murdering zombies to infected victims, depending on which channel you happened to subscribe to. Fiore preferred “Cordyceps” or Cordy for short. Much like the ant possessing fungus the name originated from, Cordyceps seemed much less terrifying than the name implied. They usually wandered the streets without a care in the world, as the disease only kept up with its hosts long enough to feed and breed. Of course, believing their vacant expressions to be a sign of an inherently peaceful nature was naive at best and deadly at worst.
Fiore’s hand instinctively went to his throat as he watched a Cordy rip its claw-like fingers into a teen with a purple mohawk who had been taunting them. He winced at the horrified screams echoing across the empty street. He wilted at the silence that followed, at the empty expression of the gore covered teen– no, Cordy– that joined their mindless horde.
Well, that’s enough of that, Fiore decided, ordering the AI to change the scenery to a preprogrammed image of the jungles of Amethysta, his home world. The purple-leaved trees seemingly towering over him never failed to ease the bouts of homesickness that had begun to hit him more and more often as the days blurred together.
Fiore slid his hand against one of the balcony’s massive columns and a touch screen appeared. He pressed several buttons and confirmed his choices, making the screen disappear as quickly as it had arrived.
The steel balcony shifted into a wooden banister that matched the dark wood of the towering trees before him. A small bench made of the same wood and covered with brightly colored fabrics jutted out of the banister, taking out Fiore’s legs out from under him in the process.
He landed on the thick fabrics with a surprised yelp but couldn’t find the energy to get too angry as a wave of tranquility washed over him. Home, he thought, almost able to smell the sweet scent that was so distinctly Amethysta it hurt.
A small squeak echoed from behind him, startling Fiore from his downward spiral into homesickness. A white garlic bulb-shaped creature with a proud purple flower on its head scuttled towards Fiore, a wide grin on its face.
“Hey, Saff!” Fiore greeted, pausing to let the creature scramble up his arm and rest on his shoulder. It squeaked again, pulling at Fiore’s collar urgently.
Locally known as “dirt rats” amongst Amethystans, Buds like Saff were generally considered to be pests, good for little other than tilling the rich soil as they buried themselves into the ground when searching for food.
Much like rats, they were known for sneaking aboard ships, something Saff had done when Fiore left Amethysta two years ago at 13 in a coming of age ritual his family had done for generations. In order to “connect with his roots” as his parents put it, Fiore had been sent alone on a journey to live with Earth-born relatives he had never met. If they had known the state Earth was in by the time he arrived, his parents probably wouldn’t have let him out of their sight, much less out of the colony.
“What do you want, bud?” Fiore asked when Saff tugged his collar again, grateful for the distraction from worrying about his Earthen relatives for the thousandth time. Just because they’d never met didn’t mean he didn’t care about them.
When Saff blinked two beady black eyes and licked Fiore’s cheek affectionately with no indication of understanding anything he just said, Fiore sighed, rubbed the creature’s cheek –or was it its side?– and stood up.
Saff pulled at Fiore’s collar once more, guiding Fiore’s attention toward a barren steel desk with a single computer monitor. “What? You want me to check the computer or something? There’s nothing to eat over there, you know,” Fiore teased, sitting down at the desk anyway. It’s not like he really had anything else better to do.
As he shook the mouse, the screen burst to life. A single message flashed in front of the news article listing the people who had been lost to the Cordy hordes Fiore had been stalking non-stop and praying that his Earth-born family wasn’t amongst the fallen.
“Did you know about this?” Fiore asked, raising his eyebrows at the Bud sitting innocently on his shoulder. “I swear, sometimes I wonder if you’re just playing dumb. Well, here’s to hoping.”
Fiore crossed his fingers and wished he had a real piece of wood to knock on as the Circle of Pain indicated the message was opening. Perhaps today was the day his distress call would finally be answered!
A woman’s face appeared, a bright smile glowing like a spotlight against her dark skin. “Now more than ever,” she began. “We here at Big Buys understand that we need each other, that we need to stay strong in these dark times.”
Fiore rolled his eyes and slumped forward, holding his head in his hands. Just another big corporation trying to profit off of an ongoing crisis.
“At least we have each other, don’t we, Saff?” Fiore asked with a bittersweet smile.
Saff squeaked and leapt from his shoulder. The small creature slid across the slick surface of the desk, a wide grin on its face. Fiore chuckled as Saff struggled to stand and lifted the young Bud onto its wriggling, stubby legs.
“And remember, for every purchase over $30, Big Buys guarantees-”
“Hello?” A small voice interrupted after a moment of static. “I mean, uh, let me start that over.”
The screen turned black for a moment, then two. Fiore stared at the blank screen, his heart thundering in his chest. When the static returned, he released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.
“Never fear, lost citizen of Earth! For I have come to save you.”