The Beanstalk Princess
The Beanstalk Princess was surrounded by the Tiun monsters, blocking her escape from the palace gardens. Her head whipped from side to side before she dove for a small green plant pushing up through the dirt in front of the brick wall. She devoured it in one bite, energy ripping through her and she grew to giant size. She lifted her foot, ready to crush her enemies.
Sara paused the game and lifted her Wi-fi goggles from her eyes. She caught a glimpse of her older brother running upstairs. She jumped for joy inside her mind that she decided not to play the game on the family's sixty-inch flat screen. Chris might have seen her playing their favorite video game from when they were younger and that would have resulted in another awkward conversation.
Chris carried a thin plastic case, the kind used for high-capacity memory cards, with an image of the green and red colored earth on the front. The logo for the United Earth Army? He didn't enlist, did he?
Her mind played images she had seen on the news of the battles at the edge of the Solar System; laser blasts ripping apart ships, soldiers in their exo-suits floating aimlessly through the rubble, and how, even though she would never admit it, she had almost wet herself seeing an image of the insect-like Korlath for the first time.
But Chris had been in college for two years now! He was halfway to getting his degree; why would he just drop out and join the military? She would have asked him if they had said more than two words to each other in the last five years. Thankfully he made the announcement himself in the middle of dinner. "I did it. I enlisted in the military," he said between bites of meatloaf and potatoes.
Their mother exchanged glances with their father. "Um, will you be stationed on Earth?" Though the war was over, there was always the chance a Korlath terrorist could reach Earth. She heard they could make themselves look like anything.
"Probably not," Chris answered, "The recruiter went over, like, five times that I'd probably be sent to the Korlath Homeworld right away, after the five weeks of basic training on the moon base."
Their father laughed, reaching over to pat Chris on the shoulder, "An all-Terran boy like yourself? You'll be promoted in a year!"
Their mother nodded. "It's such a noble thing, volunteering yourself like this." She reached across the table to grab his hand. Her eyes sparkled. "I'm very proud of you."
Sara tried not to gape. They were acting like Chris said he was going to Paris for a week.
"Are you absolutely sure? I know you said you were thinking about it for a while, but…" Their mother grabbed hold of his hand. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, yeah I am." He shrugged, "I already signed up, so not like I've got a choice now, heh."
They had talked about it before? Well, that explained their parents' reaction, but, of course, no one ever thought about her.
Chris grabbed a roll from the breadbasket. "From the pictures we saw, the Korlath Homeworld looks really beautiful. Lots of rivers, oceans, it's a lot like Earth actually."
Her mother held her hands together in front of her chest, "And think of how you'll be helping them too. We'll show them a better way of life, help them become civilized."
Her father nodded. "It'll show them what happens when they mess with Earth."
Sara cleared her throat and tried to push away her racing heart at the thought of speaking to him. "Um, how long are you gonna be gone?"
Chris finished his beer. "The tour of duty is two years."
"Really?" she asked, "That long?" She had asked only because she hoped she could move into his larger bedroom, or at least borrow his hi-def headphones, but the thought of him leaving for the distant Korlath homeworld sent a cold chill through her.
That chill was there for only a moment before he said, "That's not including six months travel. The home world's a long way away. The guy at the recruitment office said that if it wasn't for the hyperdrive, it would have taken ten years to get there." He smiled, "One way, Beanie."
"Don't call me that!"
"Sara!" their mother snapped, "If you're going to yell at the dinner table, at least do it without food in your mouth."
She realized that chunks of her steak were strewn over the table. Her cheeks turned red and she wiped it away with her napkin.
"When are you shipping out?" their father asked.
"End of the week," he said.
"That fast?" their mother gasped.
Their father patted him on the back again. "They need strong men like yourself as fast as they can. Those bugs'll get what they've got coming to them." He snarled, "How dare they invade Earth! You boys'll show them…"
"Women too," her mother said with her eyes narrowed.
He cleared his throat. "Y-yeah, um, those men and women'll show them what happens when you mess with us! They lost and they need to pay the price."
"We'll need to have a dinner before you go," their mother said, wiping a tear from her eye, "Our last meal as a family."
Sara rolled her eyes. Such a drama queen!
"We'll dress up and take a family photo."
Sara clenched her teeth. When she had her ballet recital last month, her dad was the only father in a flannel shirt and her mom was the only mother who looked like she just got out of a business meeting.
"Sara?" their mother asked, "You look really flushed."
"Actually, I'm not feeling that well. Can I be excused?"
She left without waiting for an answer.
"You're so quiet," Sara's friend Meilin asked while she shoved chips into her mouth.
Ned motioned at the green block on her lunch tray. "I was going to text you last night to remind you today's leftover day."
Sara hoped whatever was on her tray was still food, or at least, edible. "I think it was the jello from last week."
"Or the meatloaf," Meilin grinned, "when the grade F meat runs low they fill it with grade F vegetables."
Sara pushed the tray away. "That's not what's bothering me."
"What's up?" Meilin questioned.
Sara hesitated and then frowned. "Chris enlisted last night."
"Oh," her friend said. She cocked her head, "Is this a..good thing?"
"He's going to the Korlath Homeworld after basic training."
Ned snorted. "Really? We won, why do we have to go there and destroy their lives? We'll force our way of life onto others, just destroy their culture because…" He sneered, "Because those war-mongers in the Earth Government wanna prove themselves. That's why we're going there!"
Sara imagined Chris and other soldiers pillaging a Korlath home, like barbarians from ancient times. Her stomach started to twist and not because of the maybe-meatloaf on her tray. "Chris doesn't even like those kinds of video games. How could he-?"
"That has nothing to do with it," he continued, "Think about it. The governments of Earth fought for thousands of years just to fill people's egos, to prove they're better than someone else. Since the Earth unified, we needed an enemy to fight. That's why we started bugging the Korlath."
"They attacked us," Meilin pointed out.
"Because we took resources from them." He snorted, "Rather than just use our own resources responsibly, we'll just take it from someone else." He turned to Sara, "The soldiers are going there just to way around their big guns and get a thrill from pushing someone around."
It felt like the world was closing in on her. She told her friends she needed some air and ran from the cafeteria. Her thoughts were like a computer executing a thousand tasks at once. She and Chris had grown so distant in the last couple of years but could he have changed that much?
He was on the couch when she got home. He had already quit his job. "Hey, Sara," he called.
She felt sweat tinkle through her hair and she knew her cheeks were red. What does he want? She swallowed and said in as calm a voice as she could manage. "Yeah?"
He stared at her and her cheeks burned even more. "I didn't realize how tall you've gotten. You'll be taller than me soon."
Her face twisted. He was twenty-two and about to go into the army, he had nothing better to do than tease his sixteen-year-old sister? In her mind, she heard herself saying, "First of all, how would you have noticed since every hour you're not in college you spend alone in your room or out with your friends. Second of all, that's an outright lie." Despite her recent growth spurt, she could only reach five feet if she wore heels.
But all she could do was flash an awkward smile and turn to leave.
"You wanna play a game?"
She turned back to see him holding up his Wi-Fi gloves. "I'm bored out of my mind."
So bored that he would even play with her. She should be annoyed but found herself tossing her backpack onto her father's lounge chair before grabbing her own equipment. She pulled the visor over her eyes and pulled on the Wi-Fi gloves. The screen over her eyes came to life and displayed a line of rectangular boxes containing the names of the games as well as a screenshot.
"What do you want to play?" Chris asked.
She shrugged. "Um, whatever you want."
He cycled through the list with a flick of his wrist: Kiddy Kong, Ultimate Carnage, Zombie Wonderland, Beanstalk Princess…
Their favorite game when they were young kids. She had been short for most of her life but only realized it when the other girls in her class started getting things for her from the top shelf. At age ten, she wanted to join her friends on the preteen volleyball team, but it became obvious to her very fast that she would need a stepladder to spike anyone. Basketball was out for the same reason. Chris found her crying in her room one day and offered to play a video game with her, one that reminded him of her. That game had been Beanstalk Princess, about a young girl who ate magical beans through the game to become taller. She was ready to throw the controller into his head until he told her that one day, she would get her growth spurt too.
The Beanstalk Princess box art hovered on the screen for a moment before Chris flicked it aside for an image of a cyborg ninja holding up a knife dripping with blood. "How about Extreme Combat? I saw that it was in the recently played section."
Sara wondered why she was blushing. "Yeah. You wanna do co-op?"
"Sure," he nodded.
Co-op mode involved their characters running through an apocalyptic world collecting essential materials while tearing through mutated animals. His character was a muscle-bound man with guns sticking out of the robotic parts on his body, while hers was a woman in armor with bladed weapons attached to every part of her body.
Sara swung her arms to make her character's sword slash through a giant dog with fangs while Chris mimicked a gun blast to detonate one of his character's bombs. She was surprised he knew how to play; he had always hated these kinds of games. Had it really been that long since they played together?
Chris pretended to pull an object from his back, which the game interpreted as his character taking a gun from a holster. Chris pulled the trigger and his character shot into a bug-like creature. Sara imagined Chris dressed in his uniform attacking a Korlath child.
"Sara?" Chris asked, "You okay?"
Questions flooded her mind. Why did he enlist? Who was right, her friends or her parents? All that came out of her mouth was, "No, I'm, um, gonna be upstairs."
She tapped her stylus against the desk, trying to read from the glowing text in the wall but her mind kept wandering to Chris.
"Alexis," she said, "Show me the pictures from Mom's photo album."
The text vanished and a series of folders appeared. Sara swiped through until double-tapping on one titled "Family." She swiped through the hundred or so pictures of family gatherings, special events, and just the four of them hanging out. Four of them; there was not one picture of herself and Chris since she was ten and he was sixteen.
There was a knock on her door and she doubled-tapped the wall, the images fading. "Yeah?"
It was her mother. "Can you give me a hand with dinner?"
Sara was going to give the excuse that she had homework to finish but her mother added, "It's Chris's farewell meal."
She opened the door, "But you know that if he ate my cooking, he'd be in the hospital getting his stomach pumped."
Her mother guided her down the steps, "That's a chance I'm willing to take."
Sara tried to follow the instructions, but her mind drifted back to her brother, mind flashing memories before her eyes.
When they had grown so distant? She tried to think of a time, an argument, something that could explain it, but only small things came to mind: him missing her ballet recital, her playing on her phone when her parents dragged her to his football game, him rushing out to spend time with his friends as soon as he handed over her birthday present. It was not one evil act she could pinpoint. They just grew into different people.
But how different? Why did he enlist? Her friends said the army was going to the Korlath Homeworld to pillage in some kind of superiority high, her parents said they were going to civilize some barbaric monsters. Who was right?
"Sara!" her mother cried.
The teenager had poured too much hot water into the instant mash potatoes. She dropped the wooden spoon into the thick soup, tears coming to her eyes. "Honey," her mother sighed, "it's okay." She grabbed the box, dumping white flakes into the mush. "We can just add more…"
Sara sniffled, "But I ruined his last meal."
Her mother embraced her. "He'll come home again…"
"What if he doesn't?" she found herself crying, "Why can't he just stay here?"
She pushed away from her mother and ran upstairs to her room. She slammed the door and jumped onto the couch beneath her window, grabbing her binoculars to stare into the night sky. The stars stared back like pinpricks in a black sheet.
There were more stars than she could ever possibly count. Where was the Korlath Homeworld? She turned back into her room. "Alexis, locate the Korlath Homeworld."
An image of the Solar System appeared on her ceiling with a red dot on the outer circumference and the flat voice replied through the speakers in the wall, "The Korlath Homeworld is located on the edge of the Kuiper Belt at…"
"Never mind, you damn machine," she sighed and turned back to look at the night sky with her binoculars. The stupid A.I. could not point to where it was in the real sky.
She adjusted her binoculars to the strongest setting. She was told the Homeworld was past Neptune but was warned that her ocular device might not be strong enough.
The sound of crunching pebbles brought her attention to their driveway, the flash of car lights blasted into her binoculars. She swore and them onto her bed. Once her vision returned, she made out the car belonging to Chris's girlfriend Rumi.
Her brother climbed out of the car and waved as it disappeared back down the driveway. Sara reached for her binoculars again and peered into the sky.
A knock came from behind her, followed by the sound of the door opening. "Can I come in?"
"Why ask? You're already in."
Chris chuckled as he joined her at the window. "Stargazing?"
Her fingers tightened and she swallowed. "I…" He was here; it was the time to talk, but the words would not come out of her mouth. "I…"
Chris smiled. "We can't see the Korlath Homeworld from here. It's too far."
She dropped the binoculars, tears pushing at the back of her eyes. "What's wrong?" her brother asked.
"Why are you going?" she blurted, letting the words finally pour from her mouth, "Why? Is it because of some noble mission? Is it because you want to just prove that you're better than someone else? Why? Why do you have to?"
He shrugged. "I'm going because I have to."
She stared. "That's it?"
He was quiet again. "I guess so, Beanie."
Her fingers curled. "Stop calling me that! I'm only five years younger than you."
He grinned and rubbed the top of her head. "Maybe I'm going because of that."
She blinked. "What?"
"I want to make sure that you're safe."
A different feeling washed over her, a cold that also mixed with warmth, like soup that was not quite hot yet. "Chris...y-you don't have to protect me. I haven't needed my big brother to watch out for me in a long time."
He laughed. "Well, I'm always gonna do that. Big brother instinct." He shook his head, "But, I guess I want to go because…well, I want to show the Korlath a better way, that they don't have to get into a war to get what they want." He shrugged, "Maybe they won't be friends, but I want to show them they don't have to be enemies either."
He was still the same Chris as he always was. She saw them as kids, playing video games, riding bikes, making breakfast for their mother and father. She latched onto her older brother. "I-I don't want you to go…"
Chris took a breath. "The Korlath call the sky the Forever Sea." He pulled her into a hug, "Because the stars are forever. Just remember, even though I'll be far away, we'll always be family." He cracked a smile, "Until the stars turn cold."
Sara squeezed tighter, tears falling freely from her eyes. She did not know how long she sobbed like a baby, but she pulled herself away and dried her eyes. Chris's eyes were moist too. "Well," he said, voice cracking, "We have some time before dinner. How about a round of Beanstalk Princess?"
Sara giggled. "I'll be down in a minute."
Chris nodded and shut the door. Sara opened her closet door. She might as well look nice for her brother's last meal.
For two years at least.