art by Melissa Mead
by Brian Trent
Brian Trent is a 2013 winner in the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Competition for his story "War Hero," and has since sold fiction to Apex, COSMOS, Electric Velocipede and Galaxy's Edge. He writes in a wide variety of subgenres from military sci-fi to alternate history, and his nonfiction work has been published in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Humanist magazine. Trent resides in Connecticut where, in addition to writing science-fiction novels, he works in film. His website is briantrent.com.
Sparg had difficulty making pancakes, but he was trying.
In the empty apartment, he clutched the silver bowl with one tentacle to hold it steady. With another, he attempted the far trickier business of whipping the batter as he'd seen his owners do many, many times. The bowl was bigger than he was. The counter was sticky with flour, egg, and ink.
From his cage, he had watched them conduct this peculiar ritual enough times to understand it was how they prepared their food. More elaborate than the brown fish-pellets they gave him. When his food dish was empty, they usually noticed as they shuffled in from the bedroom each morning. If they didn't, Sparg would gently thump his tentacles against the bars until they came over to see what was the bother. Then strange sounds would issue from their red mouths:
"Sparg's food dish is empty. Can you get the bag?"
And Sparg would thump his tentacles merrily, knowing that food was coming and that his owners would likely pet him when they refilled his dish, and he liked that. Sometimes he gently wrapped his tentacles around their hands as they did; he would squeeze his eyes shut and enjoy their warmth and smell and reassuring touch.
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The pancake batter reeked. Atop the kitchen counter, Sparg gave the mixture another few stirs. Then he flung the whisk into the kitchen sink, taking small delight in watching the tool float through the air and clatter into the shiny basin.
His owners never had trouble moving the pancake batter from the counter to the stove. That was because they were tall, magnificent beings, striding from room to room on graceful legs. Sparg gripped the bowl with three tentacles and held it aloft as he crawled down the counter, leaving little sucker prints in the dust.
He was not allowed on the kitchen counter or stove. This was a rule he understood. His owners flew into frightful antics when they saw him there. In the beginning, they reacted mildly enough: lifting him off the counter and returning him to the floor, petting him and issuing stern words. One day, the deep-voiced owner was drinking coffee at the counter when Sparg crawled up to sit near him. Deepvoice yelled and slapped him off, sending him into a low-gravity spin across the room. Sparg had been shocked by the assault, but then he heard Deepvoice laughing and he realized this must be some sort of game.
He had returned to the counter at once, to take part in the amusement. When Deepvoice slapped him off a second time, the blow was more painful.
"What are you doing?" asked the high-voiced owner.
"Stupid thing. This is why we should have gotten a dog."
"Dogs and cats don't adjust to the gravity here. Don't hit it again!"
"It keeps coming back here! I thought they were supposed to be smart!"
"It doesn't understand."
Highvoice intercepted Sparg as he was limping towards the counter a third time, and she put him in Littlevoice's bedroom. The pain set in when he was alone. Sparg didn't like being alone. He resolved to never go to the counter again.
He reached the floor successfully, the pancake batter wobbling in his desperate grip. The floor glistened from past spills. Sparg scuttled to the stove and began the challenging ascent. The batter sloshed around in the silver bowl as he pulled himself up, one careful inch at a time. At last, he flopped onto the stovetop, fumbling amid pots and pans, dials and spatulas. Then he paused, trying to remember the rest of the morning ritual.
Owners awoke and refilled his food dish. Owners went to the kitchen and made breakfast--usually pancakes. Owners...
Sparg drew open a cabinet. It was time to make Littlevoice's school lunch.
Each morning, the smallest member of the human trio would receive a brown paper bag filled with fruit, crackers, a juice box, and a sandwich. Sparg tapped the stovetop anxiously, considering the problem's magnitude.
Crackers were plentiful, and there were still several juice boxes in the fridge. He had no trouble constructing a sandwich, and rather enjoyed prying the peanut butter can open and spreading its creamy contents onto two slices of bread. The problem was the fruit. It didn't look like fruit anymore. Sparg didn't know what had happened. The bananas and apples and pears had changed into a putrid brown jelly, fuzzy and gray with moss.
More carefully than he had handled the eggs, Sparg eased a sagging, lopsided pear from the bowl and--hardly daring to breathe--he gingerly set it into the bottom of the paper bag. Then, breathing again, he scuttled down the stove and deposited the bag by the apartment door. He hesitated there, thumping all his suckered limbs, trying to think.
"Come on everyone! Breakfast!"
Breakfast! Sparg hopped up and down, recalling the clink and clatter of plates. He moved steadily along the floor, grabbed a smooth table leg, and ascended onto the kitchen table. The plates, glasses, and silverware were exactly as he had set them weeks ago. Still, Sparg squinted carefully at each place setting. Satisfied, he threw himself to the floor, drifting in the low gravity and remembering old amusements.
He went to the wallscreen. This too was part of the ritual. Deepvoice was typically the first one to awaken each morning, and after coffee he--
Filter, water, coffee, pot, mug! Sparg worked feverishly, swelling with pride that he had figured out the strange contraption. It had never been visible from his cage, and all he knew of its presence was the unpleasant hissing, popping, and trickling noises it exuded. Once the coffee was bubbling with those familiar sounds, Sparg leapt back into the low gravity and pressed the wallscreen to life.
"--second squadrons attempted to break the blockade. The North American continent has... firing of the defense satellite... in retaliation to the... will seek peaceful resolution if--"
The screen warbled and froze.
Sparg felt small as he sat on the rug before the wall of pixelating images. He didn't understand the bright wheeling colors and disembodied heads. But he cast a hopeful glance towards the front door.
Then he saw the football. His color flushed to a dark cobalt.
Sparg didn't like the football.
He used to fight with it, wrapping his tentacles over its toughened skin and trying to crush it. When that failed, he industriously worked to pry it apart at the laces. He wasn't sure how the animosity had begun. It might have been that it reminded him of himself in a curious way: both the same size and a similar color. Or perhaps it was the way Deepvoice would cradle and hold it as he watched the wallscreen. When Sparg was alone, he would often stare at the football through his cage bars and seethe.
He stalked the football now. It was nestled against the couch, unaware of him. Sparg flattened his body into a pancake of his own, approaching in an oblique line of predatory flanking....
Something was wrong.
The air smelled of smoke.
In truth, something had been wrong for a long time. Sparg had known it the moment his three owners rushed into the kitchen one morning, bags in their arms.
"The last of the shuttles takes off in two hours! Now hurry!"
"Daddy! Why are we leaving?"
"I told you! Everyone's leaving! We have to get to the shuttleport while it still has transports!" Deepvoice sounded worried. That never happened, and it made Sparg worry, too.
Something was very wrong.
"But my toys!"
"Leave the goddamn toys. We're only allowed two carry-ons. I'll buy you more toys on Earth."
"What about Sparg?"
A pause. Sparg understood the sound of his name. He thumped the cage bars anxiously.
Deepvoice approached the cage. He peered at Sparg for perhaps half a minute. Then he unlatched the lock.
"He'll have to fend for himself. Let's go."
"We can't leave him!"
"No pets! We have to leave now."
"But he'll die without us!"
"Goddamn it, it's just a stupid animal!" A hesitation. "Leave the bag of food open."
"Will we be coming back, Daddy?"
Another pause, longer and graver than the last. "Yes. It's only a war, and all wars end. We'll be back and then you can be with Sparg again."
And then they were rushing towards the apartment door. Sparg scampered after their heels, but they quickly passed through the doorway into the mysterious corridor beyond, and then the door slammed in his face.
And hadn't opened since.
Something was wrong. Sparg smelled the pancakes burning.
Smoke gushed from the stovetop and slithered over the ceiling with black fingers. Sparg's panic exploded, and he left a trail of ink as he pushed off for the stove. He was halfway into his climb when the alarm went off.
This had happened once before. Highvoice had been cooking and had received a phone call. She was in the other room while the food burned, and then the alarm lights flashed and water poured out of the ceiling.
Sparg had liked the water. Liked the feel of it on his skin. While Highvoice shrieked and waved her arms to dispel the smoke, Sparg had splashed merrily around the kitchen floor.
But now, the water brought no joy. Sparg reached the stovetop, wrenched the pan from the red burner, and wielded the spatula to flip the reeking, charred mess. The sprinklers drenched the kitchen. The lights flashed for a while, and then went dead.
They probably wouldn't like the breakfast.
Sparg sat atop the kitchen table with the blackened pancakes in each plate. He barely moved. The smoke had given the apartment a greasy patina and now he waited, glancing dubiously at his only other companion: the football, strapped into the old highchair, with a plate of burnt pancake and a cup of juice.
Then he heard the voices in the corridor.
Sparg shivered in anticipation too great to be constrained. He gave the table one last, hasty inspection. Then he leapt off, spinning, all tentacles extended in joy. He hit the wet floor and slid, scrabbling madly towards the door, and waited.
From the corridor came the muted voice:
--"reason to be concerned. A fire has been reported on your floor but has been contained. Please do not panic. Fire safety personnel have been notified and are en route. There is no reason to be concerned. A fire has been reported on your floor but has been contained. Please do not panic. Fire safety personnel have been notified and are en route...."
And then the door opened in his imagination.
His owners rushed in. Deepvoice and Highvoice and Littlevoice reached down to pet him....
But the fantasy faded. The door remained an immovable, vertical slab.
When evening fell, he kept vigil as long as he could. At last he curled up against the door. When he awoke, he crept through the house to see if they had returned while he slept, and when he saw the empty rooms he stared for many minutes, trying to understand what he had done wrong.
Slowly, feeling his loneliness harden into renewed determination, he returned to the counter and began again.
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 6th, 2013
"Sparg" was written in three days, but the seeds of its inspiration began a year earlier when, quite to my surprise, I agreed to my girlfriend's request that we get a pet. Unlike little Sparg, our choice was a rabbit. Much of my fiction deals with the human condition, human society, and human perspectives... but suddenly I found myself considering what things must be like for my home's newest, nonhuman, resident. I'd watch my rabbit investigate her alien surroundings. I'd notice how she'd tilt her head in curiosity as I shuffled into the kitchen each morning to make my coffee. This got me thinking of how indifferent, negligent, and even cruel human masters can be to their animal cohabitants--the Deepvoice character displays all three attributes. When "Sparg" finally occurred to me, I couldn't write it down fast enough. Hope you enjoyed it.
- Brian Trent
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