At home, the house lists, a shrine to Before.
I walk in on Dad staring blanks at Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom; Jacob long-gone, off seeking more Lego men to add to the family of hybrids and mutants standing sentry on the fireplace.
Fairy Batman with lobster.
Boba Fett with Robin Hood hat.
Spaceman with cheerleader skirt and Afro.
C3PO with Yoda head.
Yoda with C3PO body.
Details are important, such as two years ago when the cat was losing her hair and I asked Mum is the cat dying of cancer and Mum said no it’s just getting warmer and then the cat died of cancer.
We eat in silence.
In another universe, we are Five, like the Original Avengers.
The original Avengers were Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man/Giant-Man, The Wasp, The Hulk.
Captain America came later, just like in World War Two, which is our topic in History this term.
Anyway, in another universe we are Five and Logan teases Mum about her cooking (one Christmas, Mum makes mince pies with beef mince) and Dad talks sagely at the dinner table about weather fronts, studies charts he has sent to him from the MET Office.
Take a coat, it will be raining by eight.
And he is right.
I hang on his every word as he laments the lazy stroke-play of England’s middle-order, quotes Orwell at the news and turns everything I say into a song lyric while Mum cajoles us to eat and washes up with little Jacob swinging from her hip.
But we are no longer Five.
We are Four and without Logan, we spin around a vacuum.
He was the middle dot on the dice, the centre of the quincunx, the bridge between us all.
He antialiased us, smoothed out our jagged edges.
Now, we lurch like 8-bit characters.
We are alien, our collision detection awry.
We are corrupt code.
And so we eat the chicken goujons in silence.
Afterwards, we disperse to our orbits.
Jacob builds a Lego car out of old bits of Millennium Falcon.
Dad empties the shed then fills it again.
Mum empties the fridge then fills it again.
I lie on my bed in the dark, hands behind my head.
The clock ticks. Its luminous hands tell me that in our corner of the world, it’s 7.28pm.
The boiler stirs briefly, whirring for a few seconds before clicking off into silence. A car moves past outside, about 30mph, its driver-side wheels dropping into the small pothole that has appeared in the last week.
Then a lorry, faster, which makes the house shudder.
I hope the house is more resilient than me. I hope the men who built it were diligent. Everyone has off days. What if they weren’t feeling great the day they set the foundations for 61 Nicholson Road? It was built in the 30s, during the Great Depression, Europe plunging towards apocalypse. What if they were worried about Hitler marching into the Rhineland? A direct contravention of the Versailles Treaty. Something like that would distract me from my homework, definitely.
Light razors through a crack in the curtains from the streetlight outside and exposes a crack in the ceiling. I haven’t been diligent in measuring it so don’t know if it is getting larger.
It must be.
Cracks don’t get smaller.
I check my bedside clock.
I flick the lamp on, stare at the ceiling some more.
My bedroom ceiling has 142 stars stencilled on it.
Inert gases don’t react with other substances.
Stazis Pursue. Haha.
In East Germany in 1975 there lived a woman who’s father was born in 1799. This is my favourite fact. Don’t @ me saying it’s impossible. Someone told me it, but I forgot her name and now I can’t find out who she was. It is a fact though because I choose it to be a fact. Lying here, on my back, I choose it to be a fact. It’s the only thing I know with any certainty. That woman, who was still alive when Dad was a little boy, could have asked her Dad about the Industrial Revolution or the German equivalent of the Corn Laws or Napoleon. He was in his sixties when she was born and she lived to be about 110.
The maths adds up.
My bedroom ceiling has 142 stars and 17 moons.
What am I supposed to do now? Without him. Count stars and moons?
I sit up and load up Spelunky.
Spelunky is a 2D platformer and you play an explorer who goes deeper and deeper underground, battling monsters, avoiding traps and finding treasure. It is a roguelike, which means there is no save function, so when you die you lose everything and have to start right back at the beginning of a randomly-generated world. This feels like the only truth to me.
I play to lose myself in its repetition. After a while I die deliberately. Then I restart and die again. And again. And again. I get snakebitten, stung, stomped and beaten. I restart and die as fast as I can, each life more meaningless than the last, chasing the feeling, hoping for one skip of the heart, one missed beat, something, anything. If I die often enough and quick enough, maybe I’ll feel something.
There is a knock on the door and whoever it is doesn’t wait for an answer before coming in. Restart, die, restart, die, restart, die.
Something something bins.
Restart, die, restart, die, restart, die, restart, die.
Can you something something please?
Restart, die, restart, die, restart, die. But it’s not enough. Each death has a death screen, each death is summarised in a post-mortem score of failure, and the spell is broken.
It’s Mum. One more go.
Please, come and do the bins!
Why can’t Logan do it?
just like that,
the words are out and free to do their evil.
I gasp and feel sick and say sorry sorry sorry and as she gathers me in I feel the weight of all the hurt I’m yet to feel. Every paralysing moment of fear I am still to experience, every stomach turn, coalesces into a single awful leaden lump. Every future yawning moment of loneliness, every twang of physical pain, every trauma, it all twists and grips my spine so that I struggle to catch my breath and then Mum squeezes me even tighter and it almost comes out, the reaction everyone has been waiting for. But it doesn’t, because this isn’t grief. It’s guilt.
Mum leaves and I turn off the lamp.
In the dark I can’t imagine colours and it is a relief.
Downstairs, Mum is wiping the grief clean away; painting, sanding, mopping it all away while we stand around in the eye of the storm and watch it unfurl around us.
I need you to sort out his online stuff, she says to me. Delete his accounts, cancel subscriptions, all that business. Can you do that for me?
I nod and Mum says thank you bubble.
Mum calls me bubble, says I live in one, in a world of my own.
I log in.
It’s like I’m carving open his torso.
Logan is dead notdead.
He’s still here, still contributing, subscribing, collecting loyalty points, Facebook likes. His old tweets are still getting hearts. I check his mail. He’s won store credit in the Resogun monthly challenge. He’s got friend requests on PSN.
Logan is Billy Pilgrim, everywhere, all the time.
Logan named a No Man’s Sky planet after each of us.
Logan’s last will and testament left me:
143,375 Mario coins
A chest of diamond swords
A pet snow golom
A fully-upgraded Tentatek
1,143 Pokemon cards
A complete MarioKart garage
A PvZ HoverGoat 3000
I can’t touch any of it. Not yet.
Countless Facebook tributes. Memes. Crying emojis in lieu of real tears.
Someone has set up a Spotify playlist.
23 messages from his Overwatch team asking where he is. I message them to say Logan is dead and can’t play. They say sorry and defriend him. Maybe that’s his true death, when everyone has defriended him, unfollowed him, forgotten him. Maybe that’s the true death for all of us. When the last flicker of recognition fades in a long-lost corner of the internet.
He isn’t yet, but I can imagine a time when he will start to slip from my grasp, when his solidity will lose form and he will start to gloop through my fingers, through my memory.
The thought terrifies me more than anything else.
And yet, I don’t remember much from Mr Sapling’s Science class, but I do know this much.
Energy cannot be destroyed, only displaced.
We all come from the same big bang. We’re all made of the same source material. We are one, tiny parts of a giant whole. Logan’s energy is still in the universe.
Energy cannot be destroyed, only displaced.
I sit quietly for a while, trying to get a firm hold of the thought, something to ground me, but then I look out of my window and see the moon and its scars and remember it is moving four centimetres away from the earth every year and a mild panic sets in. Maybe Logan knew too much stuff like that and it was too much to bear.
Before all this.
Lots of days.
For weeks and months in fact, Logan and I spend hours upon hours upon hours building a Minecraft city out of wool. It is a monastic existence; we spend three weeks gathering sheep, collecting all the materials we need to dye them all the different colours. We build purple skyscrapers and teal mansions and rainbow minecart stations. Under our city, we build vast networks of connected tunnels, caverns, zombie farms, a replica of the salt mines in Poland Logan saw on a school trip four years ago.
Logan shouts at me when I am being a dick in Minecraft, like when he is building an underwater greenhouse and I am making a suit of gold armour and digging random tunnels. It is serious to him, that we don’t waste our resources.
I shout at Logan whenever he creates an RPG avatar. It never looks anything like him. It’s always short and ugly, with horns. He makes his avatar devious, sly and cunning and it makes me mad.
Why can’t you be a good guy?
He shakes his head.
Can’t happen, he says.
One day, someone called Snipezzz85 hacks into our private game and kills all our sheep.
We don’t play after that and now the city sits empty, a ghost town without ghosts, a monument to those months we had together. I load it up and walk around for a while but he’s not here and it’s meaningless without him. I spend all afternoon destroying the city, chopping it all down. I feel the catharsis with each block. I build countless chests to store the wool so it doesn’t get wasted. Finally, the city is gone, flattened, but it feels wrong so I start to rebuild it. I open up the chests and rebuild the city, just as it was.
Block by block. Block by block. Block by block.
If you don’t save in Minecraft, when you die you respawn in a random place in an infinite world. The chances of finding home are near impossible.
Logan didn’t save. That must be it. Logan didn’t save. He’s just lost.
Energy cannot be destroyed, only displaced.
His energy is out there somewhere, in an infinite world. Somethere.
Find Logan, save my world.
Side Quest Invoked.
I set my status to ‘Appear Offline’ and shout goodnight downstairs to Mum and Dad.
I set out north with a bed, 10 stacks of bread, a crafting table, pick-axe, sword and shovel. I sleep at night falls to avoid zombies and creepers.
The maps are key.
You have to keep track of the x&y’s.
Make sure you cover every inch.
When you walk off the edge of a map, you must make a new one of the unexplored territory, but it is easy to get lost. I sketch them out and stick them to my wall. I swing east through tundras, deserts and plains. I eat raw cow and pig. I find an old tunnel of Logan’s; torches always on the right, so he can find his way out.
I’m getting close.
He was here recently.
In a recess, a bed and a chest, but it’s empty. Keep moving.
I run out of wall space and put maps on the ceiling. I lie on my bed and stare, looking for patterns and anomalies to patterns, like Dad and his weather charts. There must be something here. I mine deeper, deeper. Hundreds of thousands of blocks.
There are certain obligations beyond my bedroom door, out there, but only if I accept them, so I mine deeper and further.
I reach a vast underground cavern, littered with creepers and zombies. There is lava everywhere. There is nothing here but death so I backtrack and block up the entrance to the cavern, close it in. I can do that here. There is a doorbell somewhere and voices downstairs. Mum calls up as I begin the ascent back to the surface. I need to see some daylight. I’ve been underground too long. I don’t answer Mum, I have to see the sun. There are more voices and the front door closes. Back on the surface, I head into a forest. An ocelot scampers away as I climb vines to get to the top of a tree. After some hacking through the leaves, I finally reach the top of the tree. The view is 8-bit astonishing. Mountains and ravines and deserts and forests. Minecraft made squares beautiful. I sit transfixed for some time as the sun passes overhead.
One day lasts 10 minutes in Minecraft.
It could be minutes, days, weeks, when Mum and Dad appear at the door, covered in concerned smiles. Dad steps into the room. He is fiddling with a Lego man.
Can you pause the game? he says and his voice is so broken I do it straight away and look at him and for a moment, looking away from the squares, the infinite angles and curves of the real world overwhelm me. The fidelity of Dad’s face, the lines under his eyes, the way his eyebrows go all tufty, makes me want to cry.
Your friends have been calling for you, says Dad.
They’re worried about you.
We all are.
I nod. Mum takes a step towards me.
He’ll always be here, she says, but this is just parent talk. He’s gone and it will never get easier. Dad sees my look. He pulls the head off the Lego man, studies his inane smile. He looks at the screen.
You’re looking for him, aren’t you?
I nod again.
You’ll find him, he says. Just don’t rush it. He puts his hand on my shoulder and walks out. Mum smiles at me but decides that isn’t enough so sits next to me and watches me play for some time. I can tell she desperately wants me to find something, but having her watch over me, not understanding what I’m doing, but willing me to succeed anyway, makes me feel silly and I put the controller down.
He’s not here, I say.
That’s because he’s everywhere, she says.
Everywhere. All the time.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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