Toy Soldiers

by K. A. Dean

As the last member of species #38A97QP died – primary nerve cluster severed from its body, radial mass of tentacles quivering briefly before falling still – Quentin sighed. Sitting back from the viewscope he chuckled; a dry, humourless sound, barely more than a breath. He leant forward to mark the outcome in his notebook. Scribbling in illegible scrawl, marks made with soft graphite on yellow paper, an eccentricity, he considered future parings for species #71W33RF; the victors.

“Who won this time?” Sophie called from the open door, crossing the floor of Quentin’s office she weaved around piles of paperwork and discarded jars.

“The little spikey guys, again. That’s four in a row now. Tough little bipeds, I didn’t expect them to make it past the first.”

“Never can tell, can you?” Sophie stood behind Quentin, leaning over his shoulder – her body pressed against his and he leaned back into her; a faint, tired smile – she peered in to the viewscope.

“They did a pretty impressive job of it too I’d say. Looks like you’ve got some adaptation going on, might want to kick them up to the next level.”

“Had exactly the same idea.” Quentin dropped his pencil and shut his notebook, tossing it onto the desk before flipping off switches; he looked up and round, his eyes met Sophie’s.

He stood up, lifting himself out of his chair before leaning over to collected the jar closest to him – no larger than his clenched fist, the hemisphere appeared empty, filled with only dust and smoke – unscrewing it from the second jar on the desk. He sealed both jars with their metal caps, carried only the first over to cabinet on the wall.

“Now, how about I take you out for a coffee? I’m done here for the day. Only so many mass extinction events a man can view in one twenty-four hour period. I’ve got plenty of notes to go over before the next batch anyway.” Quentin opened the heavy door of the cabinet, the room filled with heat and light.

The cabinet was lined with shelves, densely packed with identical glass jars labelled in Quentin’s inimitable scrawl; each, like the one in Quentin’s hand, empty except for a layer of settled dust and wisps of smoke. Quentin placed the jar in his hand in one of the few spaces available.

“None of the samples I’m working with will be ready until tomorrow anyway. They’ll need a good fifty generations to stabilise again and even at full rate in the incubators that’ll take at least twelve hours.” Closing the door – the catch locked with an audible, metallic click – Quentin turned back to face Sophie, grinning.

“I might even splash out and buy you something to eat. Apologise for locking myself away down here recently.”

“Sounds good to me, and not like I don’t deserve it, putting up with you. I never liked these match ups, morbid and cruel if you ask me.”

Sophie yawned. Shaking her head as though to dislodge tiredness – her thick mass of black tangles writhing like a gorgon’s, streaks of pink and white catching in the dull fluorescent light – she stretched; her neck clicked as she bent it first to one side, then the other.

Quentin mirrored her, raising his hand to cover his mouth as he yawned. “You’ve got me at it now, stop it. Now, let’s get a move on before I change my mind and decide my time would be better spent setting up a few Precambrian primaries.”

#

“I still say it’s barbaric and unnecessarily cruel, a throwback to darker days. We make out like we’ve moved beyond such brutish behaviours but you only have to look at how we spend our leisure time to see that we’re as stagnant as ever.” Sophie smiled at the thrill of the argument; she sipped her coffee.

Quentin sat relaxed in the seat opposite Sophie – their table next to a large window, the street outside was quiet and dark, the flickering of the coffee shop’s neon sign throwing a buzzing light over the scene outside – he laughed. He ran a hand through his thin mop of greying hair, scratching at the back of his head; he broke his gaze from Sophie’s pale blues to look to the vista outside.

“You miss the point. Look out there, now, see what we’ve built.” Quentin gestured beyond the window – buildings lined in precise order, geometric grids, towers of matte steel and glass dull, columns reaching up toward the black, star freckled sky – tapping on the glass.

“We’ve been almost two centuries without war, without any large scale conflict or dispute. Even isolated incidents of violence are a rarity now. You’d be lucky, in a manner of speaking, to encounter violence during your lifetime.”

“That proves nothing. Of course we seem peaceful and friendly. We’re a homogonous culture of satisfied children, have everything we want, energy and material in surplus, a system of government and control that’s both just and merciful, nothing to rebel against or fight over. All perfectly well adjusted, apparently.”

Sophie paused for breath; Quentin opened his mouth to speak. Sophie held her hand up to silence him as she sipped at her coffee, placing her cup back down on the table.

“That’s not the point though. We may have removed ourselves from the physical act of violence, but it’s still in our nature. You only have to look at how we – and obviously when I say we I mean you and everyone else – spend our leisure to see that it’s still in us. We refuse to move on.” Sophie sounded almost sad as she spoke, her cheeks flushed in the moist heat of the coffee house.

A waft of spice escaped the kitchen, the clatter of servos pulling the morning’s pastries and cakes from ovens. Mechanical hands moved quickly to place still warm baked foods onto cooling racks. Outside the dark was shifting slowly, almost imperceptibly, into burnt tints of purple. Quentin sighed, drinking deep from his cup – his eyes heavy lidded and tired, puffy and reddened from a lack of sleep – before scratching at his chin; his fingers rasped over coarse stubble.

“I’m not saying you’re wrong. However, I’d argue that it’s inevitable. Look at the fleximen.” At mention of his obsession Sophie sighed, rolling her eyes.

“No, there’s a point to this… you start out with a soup of potential and eventually one species comes to dominate. In order to become that dominant species though they need to fight to get there and, once they’re on top, those instincts linger. We’d not be here if we weren’t a little blood thirsty and vicious.” Quentin laughed, raising his eyebrows.

“Surely though, by now, we should at least be trying to move past all that, instead of indulging it?”

“We have. Look at us, peaceful and pleasant and industrious. Again, look at the fleximen parallels. Once they’re on top, after a bit of bickering amongst themselves, they calm down and become virtual micro-utopias.”

“Yeah, all lovely until we introduce another dominant. We’ve seen what happens, what almost happened to us back in the dark ages. We should be trying to rid ourselves of those instincts, not wallowing in them.”

Quentin beamed, annoyingly amused at Sophie’s earnestness. “They’re toys Sophie. Advanced and sophisticated toys I’ll grant you, but only toys. They’re a leisure outlet. People can, and do, any number of things with them. You’ve seen the builder contests; people raise species up to phenomenal peaks of sophistication: technological, spiritual, philosophical. Others, like me, play with evolutionary potentials. Stick them under prime light and heat conditions and you can pass through tens of generations in minutes. Stick a few environmental hurdles in there and you see all kinds of biology spring up.”

Quentin sighed, looking from Sophie to the table, his fingers playing with the handle of his cup. “Granted there is some prurient interest in warfare, but people are curious. They hear about it on the history hubs but they’ve never seen it. Pitting fleximen against each other is the closest we’ll ever get. Plus, seeing two peaceful societies collapse into cycles of mutual destruction is more than enough to persuade anyone that war is pointless.”

“I still say it’s cruel though.” Sophie huffed her point.

“They’re femto-computer controlled nano scale bundles of e-matter. There’s very little genuine biology in there at all, just enough to give evolutionary potential. Cruel is a little harsh if you ask me.” Quentin looked up, smirking at his perceived victory; he finished the last of his coffee before gesturing to Sophie’s cup.

“You all finished?”

Leaning forward to look into her cup – the porcelain empty, only a thin film of liquid and a crusting of black grains left – Sophie nodded. “I guess so. Fancy walking back via the park? We could watch the sunrise before you get back to playing with your little toys.”

#

The sun rose reluctantly, painting the sky with watercolour tones of purple, blue, gold and pink. Quentin sat next to Sophie on a faded wooden bench in the middle on the park – in front of them the duck pond reflected shards of early morning light, ripples warping the dawn – his arm draped around her shoulders. Sophie, her head resting on his shoulder, watched with half closed eyes.

“I suppose now would be bad time to tell you I’m entering the knockout at the coliseum?” Quentin whispered, wincing.

He seemed to shrink as Sophie sat suddenly upright, turning to glare at him. Quentin forced an apologetic smile and waited for Sophie’s reaction. Still facing forward, watching Sophie out of the corner of his eye, Quentin could see Sophie’s annoyance; her face suddenly hard, jaw muscles tense.

“Why? And how much time is it going to take to prepare for? This hobby was meant to be something to do when bored, but it’s taking up more and more of your time.”

Quentin turned to face Sophie, edging closer to her. He reached around behind her to place his hand on her far shoulder, pulling her back into a resting position against him. She struggled for a moment before falling back, stiff and reluctant.

“I’ve never entered before. I thought it might be fun, see how strong my best specimen is and see what others have been doing. I promise I won’t let myself get carried away with the preparations and, once I’m done, I’ll take a few weeks off. We can go away somewhere and put the collection in hibernation for a while.”

Sophie pressed back into Quentin, wriggling to make herself comfortable, deliberately crushing his arm under a pointed elbow. “I suppose it’s too late to say no and that you’ve already registered?”

“Afraid so sweetness.” Quentin laughed lightly, squeezing Sophie with gentle tenderness; Sophie exhaled loudly, rolling her eyes.

“Fine. But you have to promise me I’ll get at least a month of you to myself before you go back to it after the tournament.” Quentin knew from her tone that he had little choice and that negotiation would be pointless.

“I promise.” Quentin kissed Sophie on the cheek.

#

Quentin, hunched over his desk, scribbled furiously as the exchange played out on the viewscope. The free standing lights turned up and the room warm, the action played at a comically fast pace – violent clashes, bursts of conflict erupting and extinguishing in seconds, days of protracted warfare flickering across the screen as the civilizations destroyed each other – the victors exhausted but strengthened by the conflict, changed by their trials.

Picking up and sealing the survivors’ jar Quentin crossed to the incubator and stowed it for recovery, marking in his notes their next challenge, allowing a reasonable twenty generations for recovery. Skimming through his schedule he ran the tip of his index finger down rows of numbers until he found his place. Reading across he smiled to himself; species #71W33RF, fast becoming his favourite.

Selecting the two species he had scheduled, handling the spikes with something close to affection – species #71W33RF still retaining, after multiple evolutionary shifts and steps, their characteristic spines, the back of their heads and torsos covered with long, stiff hairs, remnants from earlier ancestral armour – he moved back to the desk. The jar containing #71W33RF was worn and well handled. Quentin placed it under the viewscope.

Still running fast, residual energy from the incubator fading slowly, they buzzed as blurs in complex cities and across the plains of their enclosed world. As they began to slow, blurs resolving into distinct forms, tiny men; Quentin studied them. Morphed, subtly different, he added to his notes on the species. Changed again, an adaptation to the most recent challenge shifting their physiology, they were something new.

“You still at it?”

Quentin turned from the screen, startled. Sophie stood in the doorway, leaning on the frame, silhouetted by the bright light in hall. She looked tired, hair dishevelled and body slumped.

“I was hoping you’d have come to bed by now. You going to be much longer and can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

Quentin stood and crossed the bare floor to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. She snuggled up against him and wrapped her arms around his neck, her face pressed against his chest.

“I won’t be long now, just another three to run before sleep. I’m on a tight schedule. The tournament is just over a week away and I’ve still not picked my entry.”

“Mmm…?” Half asleep, pressing herself against him, Sophie mumbled.

“The spikes are looking promising though, still going strong and they’re showing some interesting adaptations to their last two pairings.”

Sophie pulled back, blinking away sleep as she struggled to focus on Quentin’s face. “The spikes still going? That’s got to be what? At least twenty combinations survived?”

“Thirty four actually and still going strong.” Quentin smiled at her apparent interest; curiosity piqued.

“Thirty four? That’s a new record right? I thought if you over stressed them they became worn out? Thinned was the phrase you used I think.” Sophie, her lips pressed into a thin line, stared at Quentin blankly.

“Yes, I did say that. It’s normally true too, I’ve never seen anything like it but they’re still as tough as ever; tougher even. I think with them I might stand a real chance. I’m putting them through another round now. If they survive this one I’m hoping they’ll pick up a few new tricks.”

Sophie stiffened and inhaled deeply, exhaling in a sigh as she forced a tired smile. “Well, just don’t spend too long playing with them. The bed’s mighty lonely with just me in it.”

“You got it. Now why don’t you go to bed and I’ll be up within the hour. I’m almost done here and I know you hate watching the gory stuff.” Quentin kissed Sophie on her forehead and released her.

“And you enjoy it too much.” Sophie grinned.

Sophie stood on tip-toe to return the kiss. She turned and headed back toward their bedroom; Quentin watched her go before walking back to the bench. Sitting, his attention caught on the viewscope; species #71W33RF in clear focus and moving almost leisurely across the screen. Peaceful – a quiet, almost regal civilisation, paradise in a bottle – a new generation, unfamiliar with warfare, awaited testing. Quentin had little doubt they’d prove themselves capable.

#

“Excuse me…”

Quentin clutched the reinforced and padded case to his chest like a child. White, nervous fingers gripped the handle. The crowd jostled him, the atmosphere dense, humid and loud; he sweated. The suitcase was heavy and awkward.

“Can I squeeze through, please? I’m meant to be signing up and I need to get through to the desks.” He muttered to the crowd – bodies parted reluctantly, after hard, curious stares – he pushed forward toward the coliseum.

“Calm down Quentin, you’ve got plenty of time to sign up. Would you like me to help carry the box? You look exhausted.” Sophie moved up alongside Quentin, making as though to take one handle of the crate.

“No. Really, I’m fine.” Quentin pulled away, colliding with a young woman as she squeezed past.

“Sorry.” Quentin smiled as he apologised, the young woman – pretty, light blonde hair and fair skin – glaring at him as she pushed through the crowd; mumbled insults under her breath.

Sophie, snubbed, snorted a sharp exhale of breath. “You’ve got serious issues over those things. It’s not like I’m going to drop them.”

“I know, I just… I’m just a little on edge. Nerves before the competition. Plus if I drop them I have only me to be angry at.” Quentin attempted an apologetic smile as the crowd parted reluctantly, bodies bumping past him.

“Yeah, whatever. Can we just hurry up and get a move on? This crowd is giving me a head ache.”

Sophie pushed past and ahead of Quentin, wading through the crowd, barging her way through the throng of bodies. Unencumbered she moved quickly, looking behind her only once to see Quentin trailing, shaking her head before continuing. Quentin did his best to keep up – apologising his way through overheated competitors and fans who’d come to watch, sweaty faces and bodies pushing back and past him – he moved with nervous difficulty.

Quentin arrived at the registration area white faced and shaking, almost knocked from his feet several times by a short tempered crowd. Climbing the steps to the clerk’s desk, he stopped, free from the mass; exhausted. He gasped for breath, gulping air, as Sophie, smiling now she was free from the crowd, ignored him.

“Can I help you sir?” The clerk, a middle aged man, red faced and portly – bald head reflecting the sun in distracting flashes as he moved – smiled politely at Quentin.

Quentin looked up, wheezing as he as he placed the crate he carried carefully on the floor. “Yes, I’m here to sign in. I’m registered, one of the competitors.”

“Name sir?” Picking up his pen, the clerk watched Quentin as he struggled with the weight and size of his package; studied patience.

“Oh, Quentin Arillo, competitor number…” Quentin pulled out his wallet and the small card he’d received after registering. “Zero seven nine two three.”

The clerk ran his pen over sheets of names until he found Quentin’s details. He filled in the time before reaching over to pick up a lanyard from a drawer to his left. A small rectangle of white plastic – Quentin’s registration photograph above a square of black and white pixels in a square grid, the barcode of his details and clearance – dangled from a black ribbon.

“You’ll need to keep that with you at all times. Take your entry to bay twelve and there should be a steward there to guide you to your staging area. You can set up for tomorrow there. Good luck.” The clerk nodded formally before turning his attention back to his paperwork, filling in the details of Quentin’s registration.

“Thank you.”

Quentin smiled as he took the lanyard, slipping it over his neck. He bent to pick up the case again, looking over to Sophie. Quentin stood awkwardly under the weight, grunting quiet complaint.

“Could you lead?”

Sophie rolled her eyes and sighed. “Fine, but you need to stop being so uptight over all of this or I’m going to spend the next few days in our hotel rooms and you can do this all on your own.”

“I’m sorry. I’m stressed. How about I get these guys settled in the provided incubators and I take you out for dinner?”

Sophie’s frown wavered. “I’ll see, for now though you’re still in the dog house.” Sophie turned and heading off quickly in the direction the clerk had indicated.

Turning her head round without stopping Sophie called back, clearly laughing. “Try to keep up back there.”

#

“You need to stop worrying about it, stop stressing so much. This is meant to be fun, a learning experience.” Sophie sipped at her wine – deep burnt wood tones, the colour of blood – sat across from Quentin.

“Relax. Yes winning is nice, but this is your first entry, rather than focusing on that, try to savour the spectacle.”

Quentin sat watching Sophie with a tired smile. “You’re right, of course. I’m sorry. I’ve been so obsessed with it all and focused, I got carried away. I just feel as though I’m in with a really good chance.”

“This going to be another soliloquy on the wondrous spikes again?” Sophie sighed, placing her glass on the table, picking up her fork to stab at the salad on her plate.

“No.” Quentin laughed. “But even you admit that they seem to be something special?”

“Yes. A truly glorious specimen. Watching them flip from peaceful builders into blood thirsty killers, tearing other peaceful civilisations apart before they can even react, remarkable. Fills my heart with joy seeing slaughter after slaughter, really brings the meaning of life into focus.”

“Okay, so they’re good at what they do. But for the sake of the tournament that’s a good thing right?”

“I suppose. I’d just like to see something else. It all seems so pointless. Are we really trapped by violence? Just once I’d like to see two species meet in peace, some sign that life’s ultimate purpose isn’t war and extinction and death.”

Quentin laughed once; seeing the hard resentment in Sophie’s eyes at his lapse he stopped himself. Sophie turned her attention from him to her plate.

“The fleximen are simple parodies of life. They’re designed to entertain; you can’t use their behaviour to damn us.” Quentin reached out and grasped Sophie’s hand, stroking her palm with his fingers.

“Yeah, but we designed them, for our entertainment. They are we what we made them, and look at how fascinating we find them.”

“You need to stop taking them so seriously.” Quentin released Sophie’s hand and raised his to her chin, lifting her face so that her eye’s met his.

“I’ll stop talking about them. If I can forget about them for one night with the first day tomorrow I’m sure you can. How about we plan where we’re going to go after I’m knocked out?” Quentin beamed at her.

“Fine, I’ll stop if you do.” Sophie returned the smile, the expression failing to reach her eyes. “Now, I was thinking of somewhere hot by the sea.”

#

Quentin arose early, excitement and nerves erasing all traces of sleep. Impatient, he woke Sophie, dressed and left without even stopping for breakfast, eager to head to the coliseum and check on his entry. The streets were quiet and empty – avenues glistened in morning light, clean streets barren and abandoned, eerily quiet given the crowds of the previous day; haunted – Sophie and Quentin moved quickly.

The silence was molten lead; a deadened haze. The hairs on the back of Quentin’s neck prickled. Expecting a crowd eager for the first day of the tournament the solitude stripped the heat from early summer sun. As they approached the coliseum the streets began to hum, a quiet whisper from the direction in which they were headed.

A dense pheromone cloud began to creep, adrenaline, and the pair found their pulses quickening. A cold sweat as they moved faster, urgency increasing. The hum resolved into voices. Quentin, fearing the worst, began to sprint.

“Wait.” Sophie called to him and Quentin slowed momentarily.

“The coliseum Sophie! There must be thousands of species there, held overnight.” Without saying more Quentin began running again; Sophie kept pace as best she could manage.

She arrived breathless, just behind Quentin. Around the major information terminals crowds were massed. Excitable conversations, bodies pushing with frantic eagerness to view the screen, the air crackled with undercurrent. Quentin pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered. Voices were jumbled and loud, talking over each other, a confused homogony; noise.

The coliseum looked closed; the doors still locked and sealed – clerk stations abandoned, the open plaza in front of the building empty, the crowds focussed around terminals – it appeared as it had been the night before. The crowds buzzed in clusters, Sophie moved toward Quentin as he pushed forward to the relay screen. He paused, face intent as he scanned, brow knitting to form deep furrows before his eyes grew wide. He mouthed silent horror, suddenly pale. Seeing him fall back, staggering as though stunned, Sophie rushed to him.

“Quentin, what is it? What’s happened to them?”

Quentin turned at the sound of Sophie’s voice, clutching suddenly at her shoulders with shaking hands. “It’s… it’s not the fleximen. The fleximen are fine, safe. I thought for a moment… no one cares about them anymore.”

“What is it then? What’s happened?” Sophie’s voice wavered, the haunted look on Quentin’s face causing her to shiver, suddenly frozen.

“We’ve received contact. We’re not alone anymore.”

Sophie felt terror grip her. For so long they had dreamed of other worlds and yet found none. Sophie felt herself stumble, legs suddenly weak.

“I might be wrong. I… this might be a new beginning for us.” Tears stung her eyes; Sophie looked to Quentin, knowing that she didn’t believe herself.

Quentin, mouthing silently, shook his head; he squeezed her shoulders with suddenly clammy palms. Without speaking he drew her into him, squeezing her.

She was right, and it was too late to change.

The End