by special guest author Chris Hamann of the Roleplaying Exchange, check out his other stuff on Tumblr!

The drone went down at 8:09 pm on April 23rd. This sounds like a piece of needless minutiae, but the person we’re following is detail oriented, and she took note of this particular fact. She still thinks of herself as ‘Madeline’ even if that name is unknown to anyone else. Madeline found the timing curious because the drone stopped responding exactly at sunset. To the best of her knowledge, the drone landed in the center of a field in an area with very few casualties. If she remembered correctly, which she believed she always did, Valentino used that field as practice for dealing with casualties.

Madeline was not right in the head. She pushed people away and responded to any critique with aggression. She was there to do a job, what did it matter that she was rough around the edges? This made her superiors treat her as an acceptable loss, but she didn’t realize that. Instead, she had the ire of her coworkers to deal with. They hated her, but she was used to it. She would tell them what to do, and berate them until they did it. When they went with her plans, the work was so much easier. Why couldn’t they just fucking listen to her? Some day, Madeline will realize that this isn’t a healthy thought pattern.

Madeline did not fit in at corporate training. She was brittle and egotistical - smart enough to realize that she was smarter than everyone else, but not empathetic enough to mask that intelligence or use it as a means of ingratiating herself. She was the gear that ground down the less well-made cogs. If you couldn’t work to her standards, you deserved the punishment she dealt you. She thought of it as the crucible that created better tools.

There were logistical issues in reaching that field, of course — Madeline only had her dronkey, which was little more than a shotgun mounted on a robot — but she was resourceful. With the right planning, it was very easy to travel through the Loss as a solo traveler. There were raiders in the area, of course, but for some reason those raiders liked one of Madeline’s coworkers, so she spoofed his signal on Ubiq. The occasional friendly message from “420TimberwolfLyfe” was summarily ignored. Madeline wanted to figure out what happened to her drone then get back to work.

Sometimes she thought about when she left Seattle. She was in training then, and her superiors actually flew in a helicopter for some of them as a way out. The corporate campus was in shambles—geeks in short sleeved button downs bolted like someone came up with another competitor to Bitcoin or Netflix for pet supplies—they were more interested in spreading the Blight than the next big tech disruption. In private, Madeline thought this gave them more meaning than their previous lives.

It was after dark by the time she reached the field. By all rights, Madeline should have been scared, but Madeline was not right in the head. She was more worried about invisible threats—attacks on her tools, the things that made her useful—than her own life. This made her take risks when those tools were in danger. She found her drone, a surprisingly up to date model for someone living in the Loss. Her superiors had sent it to her, but she maintained to her coworkers that she stole it from an agricultural enclave.

Madeline didn’t understand why her superiors dropped her off in the Loss. Everyone else in the helicopter got to go to the Recession but her. “We need someone to act as an agent in this area, and we think you’re the best at it, Madeline. You’re the best operator we have when it comes to new technology, and you have that killer instinct that the other corporate types lack.” Madeline thought about that almost every day—couldn’t everyone else see the best course of action in an instant? Most problems were so easy to solve. There were the hard problems, but that had more to do with putting in effort—Madeline could tell the code in her drone caused it to malfunction, so she’d be spending the next few nights debugging it. That was a hard problem. She packed her supplies up, slung it back on the dronkey, and hoofed it back to Split Rock.

The defect caused the drone to land at sundown. Madeline was detail-oriented, and sometimes, the devil is found in the details, which is where she found the offer. A subroutine had been corrupted—rogue code placed into a weather app designed by government meteorologists.

“Your escapades have come to my attention, I have therefore looked into your situation. I believe it is your best interest to know that your parent company, Pear, has intentions of securing loose ends and removing you from service. The DHQS has need of personnel of your caliber and capability. I can offer you an alternative form of retirement than the bullet that your current employer has planned. I obviously must have viable proof of your willingness to forsake your current situation and join the right side of the efforts of mankind. “

She weighed her options. Everyone was out to kill her. No one liked her. Her relationships had eroded like the Rocky mountains. The one place where she had loyalty, the company that had specifically saved her life, had her in their sights as a target. Madeline always found it very easy to make decisions; the trick was figuring who would be the best pawns. Maybe the kid who hated her and the man who was afraid of her...

Martin Luther

And now for a character study of Martin Luther, from the 10K Lakes world, written by special guest author Lonnie

He stepped on the box.

It was a clear day, the sky a bluish white that stole what heat was in the air and replaced it with light that hurt the eyes if you raised them too high or looked too long at the snowdrifts beyond the camp. Everything man-made touched by it turned the brown of dried mud or the gray of an elephant, leached of color by the brightness.

He cleared his throat.

"A moment of your time, brothers and sisters, before you go." His voice was soft, but clear in the chill air, seemingly carried on the light. A student of music or voice would call it dynamics, but he didn't have that vocabulary, only the lessons of the listening to a thousand sermons, the rhythms, the pacing.

You don't need to be loud to be heard.

"I'd like to thank Sister Rose and her family for preparing that fine meal. Hopefully the supplies the church has brought can ease this winter, as this meal has eased our hunger."

Sometimes, he hated the looks he got as the archaic forms came from his lips. He's just a kid, talking like an old man, was the unspoken reproach of people twice his age who'd survived on hard measures and God's mercy, even if they didn't believe it.

But he was his father's son, raised for just this duty in just this way. In the cold light of his self-reflection in the quiet moments, he decided that talking like a teenager wouldn't make things better, either.

"However, I also came to give you the good news that the church is almost built. Our work is almost done, friends."

"So what?" This came from a man who shouldered through the small crowd to stand in front of the young man on the box. Even with the extra height, the man's eyes were level, such was his height. He was a huge frame, with the black veins bulging in his exposed face, running into the rough growth of beard.  He raised a hand where the dark merged with the dirt to point a mottled finger. "Another miniature Enclave, with yourself as boss, I take it. Won't be any better than here. Thanks for the food, but no thanks."

The boy shook his head. "No, I'm not here to be Caesar. I am only here to tend the flock. I - "

"Then why don't you go back to Covenant and run your precious church there?" The man interrupted.

"Because even in Covenant, there are walls."  The bitter tone behind the answer even surprised the young man, now that he actually verbalized it—but he realized it's truth the moment it left his lips.

The large man was brought up short by that. He looked mutely at the young man, or maybe the brown red wall behind him, tall and menacing.

"Have you ever wondered why the church hasn't tried to invite you all to Covenant? Why you're here, among those who haven't received judgement, instead of safe behind their walls?" He let the question sink in to a suddenly unmoving crowd. "It's because the men who run it fear what would happen if the church became too large. If people could come freely."

He lifted his hands. "Friends, you know who I am. Doubtless you've heard what I do. And what I've done. But know this," his voice rose. "I don't do it for myself. I have no home in the Recession to go to. Everywhere on Earth, there's a wall to keep out the faithful. They fear God's judgement. And so it falls to me to build a place—the ONE place—where the wall will keep us all safe, instead of keeping us all out."

"I don't come asking for Bounty. The work is almost done. Hopefully, in a short while—" After I've finished committing all the sins I can stand, his brain added unhelpfully, if silently— "we'll be able to open the gates, and all are welcome. That's all." He made a helpless gesture with his left hand and stepped down from the box.

"Even if we don't believe?" came a woman's voice from his right side. He'd turned, so he hadn't seen her. He turned back around, but didn't bother to meet her eyes. He was so tired.

"The Lord's reach is not shortened for sinners. It's not even shortened for them." He waved a hand at the wall where the hint of rifles behind slots in the wall loomed, fencemen watching. "They haven't been judged yet. That's God's work. But they will be."

He left in silence that felt like defeat. Always the same at every Enclave. The work of the Lord is hard, his father had told him over and over. Walking away from the small camp, he hoped it would be worth it.

He took out his Ubiqs and put them on. Time to go find Toss Up. His work was almost done.

Everyday Hustlin'

Taxey kisses Shardonae, tucks the sheet around her, and creeps out the door without waking the baby. He's getting good at that, finally. Outside the shack he slides the Bounty cards into the rent slot, and just like every month, thinks about how easy it would be to pop the lock off (but they'd know it was him, better wait on that shit 'til it's time to leave this enclave anyway). He climbs the cliff ladder up to the streets that ring the Split Rock lighthouse.

Then he puts the earbud in, hits play on the worklist. Same first track as always - M.O.P. feat. Busta Rhymes, Teflon, Remy Martin - Ante Up (Remix).

"Attention please, attention please...this shit here feels like a whole entire world collapsed...motherfuckaaaaaaa..."

Just 15 seconds, then switch it off to save battery. That's all he needs, the rest plays in his head. Soundtrack to the everyday hustle.

Today's hustle: debt collection. Yesterday a kid named Alex showed up here in Split Rock flashing around a shiny new AK -- and a stack of Bounty cards that looked way too thick for somebody who'd just made that kind of purchase. Sure enough, a quick check on Ubiq of the New Hamar gun market shitlist showed Alex as a credit customer in arrears. Nice little contract for anybody who could settle him up.

Second track. Gang Starr - Just to Get a Rep.

"Stick up kids is out to tax -- and this is how the story goes..."

One Bounty to the morning fenceman gets Taxey the Alex’s location: the Bassboat Brothel. Two Bounty to the desk girl gets him Alex's room number and a key. Third floor, too high to jump out the window, nice. Climb up the steps, check the clock. 7:30 am, perfect timing to do this Pulp Fiction-style.

Play track three. Notorious B.I.G. - Gimme the Loot.

"You ain't got to explain shit,
I been robbin' motherfuckers since the slave ships
With the same clip, and the same .45
Two point blank, a motherfucker sure to die..."

Take off the shirt, the tats help for this kind of job. Pull the Glock 18, turn the key, kick the door, find Alex sprawled naked in bed next to last night's lady friend.

"Wake up call for Alex! Rise and shine, motherfucker." Taxey jerks the sheet off the bed and dumps Alex on the floor. He turns to the girl. "Hey, Carallina, sorry you ain't gonna get to serve him breakfast this morning. Here's something for your troubles." Taxey flips her a Bounty and she bolts out the door.

Alex is not coming around very fast, understandable after what must have been a long night. His eyes sweep blearily between the pistol in Taxey's hand and the darkness underneath the bed. Taxey kicks him in the face, flips the bed over, and grabs up the AK.

"Alex, this ain't ya gun, son. My boy T-Crit up in Somaliland says you ain't paid the bill on this chopper. So they gonna have to repossess it."

Alex mumbles something through the blood in his mouth.

"And also you gotta pay some penalty fees."

Alex inches toward the door. Taxey puts the Glock away and levels the assault rifle on him.

"Now A-Lay, I don't wanna have to test this chopper out, make sure it's still in working condition. So you just sit right there and we'll talk this through. New Hamar wants five Bounty for the trouble you gave 'em, and then I'm gonna need five more to cover my expenses in hunting your punk ass down. So that's ten Bounty. Ante that up, and you can bounce up on out of here, all square."

Alex indicates that he does not have ten Bounty.

"But you had it yesterday, I saw you flashing the stack around down by the pier. You had twenty, easy. You gotta learn to keep that shit on the downlow, bruh. Now the Bassboat's a nice place, and Carallina's a nice girl, but they ain't ten Bounty worth of nice. Now are you gonna pay up, motherfucker, or am I gonna be putting another dot on my knuckles?"

Alex eventually manages to explain that last night at some yacht party he bought some pre-crash molly and bottle service, besides the bed with Carallina. There’s only five left over. Taxey fishes them out of the pocket of the crumpled up pants on the floor.

"Five, okay, that's enough for the Muslims, but we got a little problem with my end still. That's bad news for Mister Alex. I'ma have to tax ya son, old school style. Take off that fuckin' watch."

As Alex shakily removes a cheap-looking fake gold watch, Taxey drops the rifle on the upturned mattress and pulls the pistol back out. It's tricky to toss a room one-handed while keeping a gun on a guy, but Taxey has had some practice. And Alex's stuff isn't too hard to collect. Find his backpack, throw the watch and the five Bounty in it, a half-smoked blunt, an unused DHQS-issued condom, and the clothes on the floor -- everything, shirt, pants, underwear, socks, boots.

"No hat, man? Thought you had a hat. Stylish kid like you should have a hat. Oh wait, there it is on the door hanger. Stand up and toss me that hat, homie."

The ballcap goes on Taxey's head with a jaunty tilt. The backpack goes over one shoulder. Alex, awkwardly standing naked, seems to suddenly realize the implication of Taxey packing up all of his clothes.

"Oh shit is right, Alex my boy. Next time maybe trying living within your means when the Tax Man's in town. Ayo, talk nice to Carallina, maybe she'll let ya borrow one of her see-through dresses or something. Now if you'll kindly step aside...oh wait, don't wanna forget this thing."

Taxey slings the AK over his other shoulder and saunters out the door past the cowering Alex, snatches up his own shirt from the banister and walks back down the stairs.

Track four. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg - Nuthin' But a G Thang.

"One, two, three and to tha four
Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre is at tha door..."

Blow a kiss to Carallina and the desk girl, and stroll out into the morning sunshine.

Taxey messages T-Crit in New Hamar with a photo of the gun and a photo of Alex naked on the floor. He sits on a bench by the lighthouse, checks his new watch -- 8:00 am, good work for half an hour. Might have some time to kill. Put on Run the Jewels 2, the full album, and light up the blunt.

His Ubiq rings four minutes later. The Muslims must be early risers, too.

"Ayo T-Crit, I found ya boy Alex. And as you can see, your property has been repossessed."

"Good morning, Taxey. Please, once again, call me Abdullahi now. But thank you for fulfilling our contract. Did you also secure the Bounty that Alex owes us?"

"Sure did, bruh. Five B for you. It was close, though, that shit was all he had left. Motherfucker was livin' large. I always told ya, man, never sell guns or drugs on credit."

"Yes, I recall. And I also recall that you personally demonstrated to us why that is. Your payment for this contract covers the remainder of your debt to New Hamar."

"Plus what?"

"Plus nothing. A drone will come for the rifle and Bounty this afternoon. Meet it at the lighthouse. When it returns, we'll take your name off the repayment list. You're welcome."

"Come on, T-Crit, I told you that shit wasn't me."

"Right, you just found that Glock 18 you're always waving around. You should really learn to keep that stuff on the downlow."

"Fuck you, T-Crit."

"Assalamu alaykum, Mike. Hey, congratulations on the baby."

Click. Motherfucker.

It'll be good to be off the New Hamar shitlist before he ends up like Alex, but Taxey is still down four Bounty from this morning, and all of Alex's stuff put together isn't going to be worth more than two. And baby Shampane needs diapers and bottles.

Still no Freelance jobs on the Lifelines group either. It’s been like four weeks now, did the whole crew just fall off? Lazy-ass fucking Takers.

Fuck it, it's not even 9:00 am yet. He's got at least three hours before the drone arrives. That's time enough to put in work. And shit, all of Alex's money ended up somewhere in this town. Maybe his molly dealer is still slipping after that crazy yacht party. Might as well find out.

Finish the blunt and put on the next track. Wiz Khalifa, Big Bang & Big Bake  - Hustlin' Everyday.

"I’ve been hustling like everyday
Doin' time on my grind tryna make a pay.
Hey, I’m still postin’ on the same block,
The same hood, still duckin' from the same cops.
I try hard, but the life that I live, man, ain't all it's seemin',
Sometimes I pray to God I’m dreamin’,
But I ain’t. Try to get out, but I can’t. Damn."


First Things First

Templeton sank into the chair, holding his head between his hands. The neo-pig had removed the jacket to his security uniform, leaving slate gray pants, combat boots, and a white sleeveless undershirt to contrast with his pink flesh and black tattoos. The tall man continued to type at the terminal in the stark white room filled with lab equipment and server racks. The man brushed aside his black hair and turned around to face the Neo-pig.

“It’s done.”

“Yeah… That was hard.” Templeton tossed the VR specs onto the floor. “‘Enhanced’ interrogation my ass. I’m not the best with AGIs, and it was… angry.”

“Well, it understood we were going to delete it. But we had to know.”

“Still, Conrad…”

Templeton stared at Conrad as he removed the server blade and began methodically taking it apart. He was still in his black vacsuit, the seams still visible as the self-healing material continued to reform, as his hands swiftly worked the screwdriver to disassemble the blade as quickly and methodically as always.

“... does it get easier?”

Conrad walked over and put his hand on Templeton’s shoulder, touching the bare skin of his wide back. His fingers started to trace Templeton’s tattoos, tribal style concentric circles, stylized as spiderwebs.

“It never does. But you know what helps with the pressure?”

Conrad bent down and grabbed Templeton’s plasma rifle from where it rested on the floor. He lifted the massive rifle and set it as gently as he could in Templeton’s hands.


Conrad patted Templeton’s shoulder one last time and exited the lab. Templeton stared at the rifle. He then stood up, walked over to the workstation, and aimed.


Last Things Last

Four years earlier…

Templeton exited the showers into the locker room. Finished drying himself as best he could, he balled up the towel and threw it into the hamper. He turned towards his locker and found Doctor Marita Valencia waiting for him, smiling. Dr. Valencia was dressed in her white and red Argonaut jumpsuit and covered in her white lab coat; her brown curls tied into a ponytail. Templeton recoiled and started to dart his hands down towards his crotch to cover himself. He then paused, looked at his hands, and took a seat at the bench across from Dr. Valencia.

“What was that?” Dr. Valencia said, tilting her head and adjusting her augmented reality specs.

“I felt shame briefly. I went to cover myself, then thought more about why I felt shame. Before… before I was uplifted there was no shame.” Templeton looked at his hands, then looked at Dr. Valencia. “The thought was… so alien.”

“True. Shame is human concept. It’s been imprinted on you through our interactions.”

“Yeah. Clothing’s nice though. Speaking of which…”

“How’d the experiment go?”

Templeton shrugged. “‘Experiment.’ I wallowed in the spa’s mud bath for 20 minutes.”


Templeton rubbed his thigh. Lifting his hand showed that it was now a dull brown. “Still haven’t got all this damn mud off. I showered for 20 minutes.”

“But how did you feel?”

“I saw it’s value. I felt much cooler as soon as I dove in. Since I don’t really sweat, it made me feel much cooler. As a social construct, though… Maybe it’s because I was alone? I didn’t really feel anything. It was just an act.”

“An act?”

“Well, experiment. It wasn’t done to socialize, or to become one with nature, or because I wanted to. We did this to see if I could find any connection with my former life. I don’t have to wallow in mud anymore. I use jumpsuits that help me respire.” Templeton leaned back and started chuckling. “I also don’t have to be cleaning mud off my ass for the next three days.”

Dr. Valencia rose and smiled. “That is a benefit. Well, it was worth it to see if you felt anything. I appreciate your effort, Templeton.”

Templeton smiled. “So… can I get dressed? I’m not well read on the hab’s indecent exposure punishments.”

Dr. Valencia chuckled. “Of course. Just please get me the report by the end of the day?”


“Thank you, Templeton. I’ll see you in the cafeteria! I hear they have organic green tea the techs got off some Triad traders.” Dr. Valencia left the locker room.

Templeton smiled and started to get dressed. He hoped that this adventure would help map pig uplift thought. He was so lost in thought he didn’t immediately notice the alarm going off in the hallway. Or the screams.

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Sympathy for the Witch

JJ sat on his bed, trying to act inconspicuous - this whole situation made him nervous. He placed his copy of Segu on the side table and started to readjust his piercings for the fourth time. First his nose piercing, then his earlobes. Earl was sitting at his desk, writing in his huge leather journal, almost done filling out the second volume since JJ was forced into rooming with him after the snow storm devastated the campus.

When will this fucker leave? JJ thought. I just want to get this shit over with. Come to think of it, why am I doing this? I mean, I like Catrin, at least, I think I do, but this is just weird. I know she’s magic, but a pencil? She can really do shit with a pencil?

    After readjusting his navel piercing, three turns to get it how he liked, he started to reach further down to finish with his fidgeting when Earl shut his journal with a grand, theatrical thud.

“All done! Another fine piece for my canon. I’m going to go to Holy Grounds to grab a macchiato. Want anything?”
    “Hmm… hot chocolate, please.”

JJ stood up, reached into his black jeans, produced a canvas wallet, and handed over  some cash. Earl smirked, looking every bit the prototypical preppy white boy in his Lacoste polo and skinny jeans, his porkpie hat covering his slickly gelled hair.

“Cool. I’ll be back in a bit. Me and the boys are planning for the party at Charlene’s place next week. I hope Catrin’s gonna be there!”

JJ tried to not roll his eyes at Earl’s earnestness (Hope she’ll be OK. Wait, why do I care? She can take care of herself. I’m just doing her a favor.) “Dude, for like the fifth time, I don’t think she’s into you.”

“Ah, JJ, she’s playing hard to get! That’s Women 101! I’m sure when she hears me at the slam, she’ll realize how awesome I am!”

“If you think so.”
    “I know so! Later!”

Earl left the room and shut the door. JJ let out a deep sigh and rubbed his temples. Women 101… shithead needs some Steinem in his skull. He walked over to Earl’s desk. It was meticulously laid out with a variety of textbooks, notebooks, and writing utensils of every kind. Pens, pencils, mechanical pencils, even a quill and ink bottle with a plaque from the Mount Vernon Museum. Looking for a less obvious target, JJ saw a blue pencil, with numerous bite marks and a well worn eraser.


“... The fuck? You want me to do what?”

“Grab something of his, preferably something he uses a lot.” Catrin held up a wrist and jangled her bracelets. “If I can turn it into a charm, even better.”

“What does that accomplish?”

“It gives me options. I could hex Earl without having to stare him down.”

“So, what, make him freeze up like you did me?”
    “That was supposed to keep you from connecting if you swung again. I just… he’s not taking no, it’s gotten worse since we’ve all been stuck in the same building, and I’d like more options than ‘mace’ and ‘shank’.”

“Fair enough. Killing should be… low on the totem pole. He was saying he hoped you’d be at Charlene’s party Saturday.”

“One, Charlene, so no. Two, Earl, so definitely no. Want to go catch the matinee of Tomorrow Never Dies instead?”

“That’d be fun.”


JJ strode over to Catrin’s room and knocked on the door. “Coming!” came, muffled by the door, followed by a bit of crashing around. Catrin opened the door and smiled at JJ. “Hey there. Come on in,”Catrin said, opening the door wider.

    The dividing line between Catrin’s side and her roommate Maggie’s was practically a physical boundary with a pile of dirty clothes ending sharply at the half-line of the room.

    “Sorry about the clothes, Maggie’s laundry plan seems to consist of ‘as little as possible’.”

    “It could be worse. Earl trips balls if I place a single sock on his side of the room. God forbid I don’t make my bed.”

    “What is he, your mother? So, this refuge from the insufferable one or…?”

    “... He’s not here. ‘Sides. I try to not get angry at people. You know what happens when I get angry at people,” JJ said, clenching his fists.

    Catrin cocked an eyebrow, glancing at his hands. “Going to stab yourself with that pencil if you clench any harder. Hey,” she said, cupping his hand and brushing a thumb over his knuckles. “Safe place. Deep breaths. Maybe more expressing frustration and not burying it until it explodes? You ever tried meditation?”

    “Not really. Mom suggested it, but the few times I tried I couldn’t focus.”

    “Mantra or no mantra? It’s like any other skill, the more times you practice, the easier it gets. And the beginning is always frustrating as shit.”


    “Something you chant to yourself. Doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just a focusing tool. Hell, you could use ‘by the power of Grayskull’ if you wanted.”

    “I see. Well, it’s something I could try. So we cool?”

    “Didn’t think we were uncool there. I mean it about the safe place.” Catrin looked down at JJ’s hand. “Where did this thing come from anyway, doesn’t look like your style.”

    “That’s what I thought would be a good totem for Earl. Fucker’s obsessed with his poetry. Taking a fancier thing or one of his notebooks would be missed, right?”

    Catrin rocked up on her toes and kissed JJ on the check. “Thank you. Yes, this is perfect.” She turn to her desk and started rummaging through it.

    JJ caressed his cheek and blushed. It’d been too long since he’d had any type of pleasure like that. Too long. Wait, slow down there, cowboy. It was just a kiss. I don’t think… I mean, I don’t know...
    “Ah ha!” Catrin said, pulling out some thin wire. She looped a bit through one of her bracelets and then started twisting wire around the eraser end of the pencil. “Hand me those scissors on my desk? The heavier duty ones.”

    JJ walked over to grab the scissors. He paused to look over the desk. Catrin’s copy of Segu was sitting next to a pad of legal paper, half filled with notes. A couple moleskin notebooks and a dictionary leaned against her desktop tower, between it and a CRT monitor. Damn, it’s better than mine. Two whole gigs of harddrive? Who needs that much space? What she doing, hexing the internet? “That’s a mighty nice computer. What’s an English Lit major need something that beasty for?”

    “Hand-me-down from my older brother. So right now, still cleaning out his porn and playing Diablo. Idiot-brother does not know how to sanitize his hard drive.”

    “Shit, don’t remind me. I know it’s our thing, but finding my siblings’ and my parents’ stashes were awkward as all hell.”

    Catrin looked up with a slightly shell-shocked expression as the scissors snapped through the wire. “Nooooope, not thinking about that and my parents…. Nope.”Glancing at her watch, Catrin stood up with a start. “Shit, we have to book it to Dr. Smith’s class,” she said, grabbing her book-bag and swiping the Segu off the desk. “Got 10 minutes until she starts docking points.”

    JJ ran back to his bedroom to grab his book-bag and join Catrin. He looked back over at Earl’s desk guiltily before running back to the door to the stairwell.

    Walking out the dorm, Catrin looked over at JJ. “Any chance I can talk you into snagging something from Neko?”

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: JJ and Catrin's First Meeting

           Catrin opened her eyes, blinking at the weak sunlight that had pulled her out of slumber. Art department, 3rd floor, right. She rolled her head left, then right, trying to work out the crick in her neck from sleeping on a college building floor with nothing but a folded leather jacket for a pillow. Catrin pulled her left arm up over her head to glance at her watch (6:30, half and hour before the building officially opens, several hours before anyone shows up on a Saturday. Probably.) and then tucked her hand behind her head, between it and her jacket. Looking down, she contemplated the head of short, curly black hair resting on her stomach, right above the jeans. Somehow or other, the boy said head belonged to had managed to nuzzle her shirt up in his sleep, enough to be resting on skin. He was curled on his side, left arm snaked under her at the small of her back, right arm thrown across her hip. Catrin tried wiggling her right hand out from where it was trapped between her leg and the boy’s shoulder, but stopped when he whimpered a little and clung tighter. Again.

           All night in one position. That can’t be comfortable. Catrin sighed and contemplated the ceiling while massaging the back of her head. They could probably afford another fifteen minutes before she really needed to start poking him awake. Hm, probably less if he didn’t have a spare set of clothes around here. The boy was as naked as the folks on a nudist beach and his clothes definitely hadn’t survived… well, last night.

           A soft change in breathing drew her attention back down. Guess she wouldn’t have to start poking after all.

           “G’morning. JJ right?”

    “Good morning.” Ah, that’s what someone yawning against her stomach felt like. Interesting. “Catrin?”

“Yeah, I think we have Writing Composition together.”

    “Right, with Dr. Compton. So, how much do you remember from last night?”

    Catrin raised an eyebrow. “Me? I remember perfectly. You’re the one who passed out after transforming back.”


    “Have to admit, this is my first run-in with a shapeshifter. That common, passing out when you come back to human form?”

    “Well, I’m not a shapeshifter, I’m a Minotaur. And, well, sometimes I pass out, other times I am awake. Whatever you did probably didn’t help. What did you do, anyway? I couldn’t touch you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad, I didn’t want to hurt you…”

    “Yeah, sorry about the binding hex, got kinda rushed when you took that swing.”

    “It’s fine. So, you’re a magician?”

    “Witch, but eh. It’s not like there’s an official body of magical terminology… that I know of. Mind relaxing a bit? I’d kinda like my hand back.”

    “Oh, shit, sorry.” JJ tried to pull his left arm out from under Catrin’s back, but could not. “The hell? I can’t move. Well, my arm–”

    “Whoops. Almost certainly my fault. Sorry. Uh, just relax and don’t tense up.” Catrin tried wriggling her hand out and off the floor. Hand finally free, Catrin shook it out to regain circulation, then rested it on JJ’s head. “Give me a second, and I’ll undo that little hex. Be really freaking nice if I could get that thing to work reliably,” she muttered, fingers tangling in JJ’s hair.

Breathing out, Catrin let her eyes defocus on the world around her and started paying attention to the feel of her magic. A thin pool of magic lay over JJ’s head, with some snaking down his neck, like a waterfall, before branching out across his back to terminate inside each shoulder socket. Catrin shifted her fingers half an inch over to the left and cupped the back of JJ’s head with the palm of her hand. Just like centering; pull in with each breath. The magic felt warm and soft on return; half a minute later, Catrin had reclaimed all of it. “There, that should do it.”

“So, now what?”

    Catrin’s stomach rumbled. “Breakfast?”

    “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea…” JJ said, absentmindedly reached his arm down towards his thigh, hitting skin about where a pants pocket and wallet would be if he were clothed. Catrin smiled softly at his look of bemusement; most teenagers in her experience went with abject horror at unexpected nudity. “Oh. That might be important. Let me get changed.” JJ climbed to his feet and headed over to the workbench.

    “I take it you’ve got a bit of practice waking up somewhere buck naked,” Catrin said, taking the opportunity to sit up, reach up the back of her shirt, and refasten the clasps of her bra. She’d been lucky to manage unfastening it last night before falling asleep; damn thing was awful to sleep in.

    “Yeah,” JJ said, pulling a book bag out of the workbench and then jeans out of the book bag. “I don’t have magic Incredible Hulk pants. Most of the time I control when I transform, so I just wanted to come to a safe place to let off some steam.”

    “Makes sense. Sorry for intruding on that. Nice to know I’m not the only one with ‘unusual’ abilities around here, though.”

    “Yeah, it is. I only ever knew my siblings were ‘unusual’ since they’re also Minotaurs. No big deal. What were you doing in the art building anyway? I thought you were an English major?”


    “... Is a name. I’m not familiar with her.”

    “Senior, dual major in biology and illustration – wants to be a medical illustrator. Incredibly demure until you piss her off, at which point she has the foulest mouth I’ve ever heard on anybody. That Jessica.”

    JJ shrugged. “I do more physical art and don’t have any classes with seniors. Were you here to meet her or… ‘meet’ her?”

    “I’d say ‘a lady doesn’t kiss and tell’ but no way I want to qualify as a lady. Yeah, we had a very lovely evening fucking before I wandered by and ran into you. Right before you punched that wall and suddenly grew horns. Impressive by the way.”

    “Thanks. I was just gonna… let off some steam by myself, but then you showed up and, well, that’s out of the question. I just needed… needed to vent. After Charlene–”

    “She is the worst.”

    “Right! I mean, I was trying to be nice, I don’t know why she’d… she’d... “ JJ sighed again as he finished zipping up his jeans. “It’s lonely here, you know? I’m from Iowa, so to come here with no friends, no support, no… lovers, it’s hard. I was just trying to make a friend.”

    Catrin accepted JJ’s offered hand up, climbed to her feet, and then dug her fists into her lower back, stretching. “I’ve only seen her in one class but she’s such a fake snot. I’m from Cali, that is not what the Valley Girls sound like.”

    “Yeah, everything about her is so fake. Well, thanks Catrin. I appreciate what you did. Sorry if you got an eyeful.”

    Catrin snorted, a sharp burst of air out her nose, as she threw on her jacket. “I’m not. It was a very nice eyeful. Trust me, if I wasn’t so hungry, I’d be working on getting you back out of those pants. Come on, let’s go get that food.”

    JJ’s mouth opened to say something, shut, then he started to speak again as he followed Catrin out the door. “Holy Grounds?”

    “Yeah, the dining hall is shit.”

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: JJ - The Final Weekend












    JJ strode out the exit, a wicked grin on his face. He used his 6'4, 312 pound body to do a little turn in the dirt as he strutted to Farmer Carsten, who was resplendent in his denim overalls and straw hat while having a look of shock.

"Time?", said JJ, looking at Mr. Carsten.

"One... one minute and thirty-two seconds."

"Yes!" JJ shouted, pumping his fist as he leapt in the air. The rush of wind swept through his short black hair. Realizing his proud actions, JJ looked sheepishly at Mr. Carsten.

"How do you kids keep beating these times?!? Every damn year..."

"I don't know, Mr. Carsten. I guess we're just... lucky."

Mr. Carsten shook his head, and shoved a finger towards the prize display. Nothing but extra large stuffed animals and sports balls, nothing that caught JJ's eye... until he saw the bull plushie. Flashing a grin he pointed at it. Carsten threw him the toy.

"If I didn't know you were moving away for college I'd reckon I'd ban you. Five straight years you've won."

"Well, we'll see. Take care, Mr. Carsten."

"Take care, JJ."

JJ strode back to his family; his mom, dad, and four siblings, Kendra (14), Lucas (10), Marie(6), and baby Nicholas. JJ started to put the doll close to Nicholas even though he was too small to hold it. "Got this for you, little guy!"

"I'm sure he appreciates it, JJ.", said his mother.

"You coulda gotten more stuff out of Mr. Carsten, JJ! I wanted the football!", said Lucas.

"And I wanted the teddy bear! I don't want to be a dumb bull when I transform, I wanna-"

The three older siblings and both parents shushed Marie before she finished her sentence. Mrs. Areleous, sighed and Cole, the patriarch, knelt down. He dipped his wiry frame low enough to get to eye level with Marie but not so he got dirt all over his crisp khakis or his clean polo.

"Why don't we get some ice cream before we go? We need to say good bye to JJ, right?"

The two younger kids shouted in delight and ran ahead. Cole and Kendra ran off to catch them, leaving JJ, Nicholas, and Hattie. Hattie gave a chuckle, readjusting her grip on Nicholas with a mechanical precision as Nicholas squirmed in his blanket. Hattie's free arm pulled down her long, flowing dress, dotted with a daisy pattern. She smiled at JJ, her dark brown skin glistening in the sun as it sank in the sky. She ran her hand through her curly hair and looked ahead at the other Areleouses.

"Ah, to be young again. Lucas and Marie are such a handful. But so precious. All of my children are." she said as she ran her free hand through JJ's hair.

JJ blushed as he responded. "Yeah, yeah..."

"Have you thought about what you want to do? What your major will be?"

"Yeah. I think I'm gonna go into art. There's also so much art around us, so much you've shown me from your home, it just inspires me, and... and..."

"And what?"

"It keeps me calm. I still can't maintain control when I... you know..."

Hattie smiled and pulled her eldest son (of this brood) close with her free arm. In spite of JJ's size and weight he could feel the gentle power as she embraced him.

"It comes with time, JJ. Rest with comfort; all of your siblings had to learn. Your younger siblings will learn as well. In their time."

"Yeah... Isn't that right, Nicholas? Some day you'll grow up big and strong and when you go minotaur-"

Hattie lightly tugged on JJ's nostril piercing, just enough to playfully tug his face up.


"Not in public, dear. What did we just do with your sister?"

"Sorry, sorry. Mom?"


"Am I... am I ever going to have control? When I'm... different?"

"Of course, Jason, of course. It's know it's scary. I've seen your stepbrothers and stepsisters go through the same thing when they come of age. Because of your humanity it... conflicts with the other side. It just takes time. Be patient. Besides," Hattie readjusted her grip on Nicholas as she walked ahead, leaving JJ behind.

"You need to get laid more anyway. That might help. Find a nice girl in New York. Or two. Or six. Or a boy, whatever, you just need to lose your inhibitions already. Ra, some days I wonder if you are my child. You should've had a kid or three by now."

JJ's face instantly turned red; his mother tilted her head back and laughed as she walked. He darted his eyes to see if anyone heard; realizing he shouldn't care, JJ ran to catch up with his family. If living with a fertility goddess, her human consort/his dad, and four demigod siblings was this ridiculous, how hard was college going to be?

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Neko - Starting from the Bottom

I’m waking up…good, as planned. The Great Spell still works. Thanks again, Osiris. But you still owe me.

Wait...there’s something off. This isn’t the tomb I commissioned in Thebes. Those aren’t my shabtis and my scarabs. Hell, those aren’t even my canopic jars. This is just a bunch of random junk, stolen from a dozen other Pharaohs’ tombs -- where’s my stuff? Where am I?

My eyes are still clearing... There, I can focus them again. The walls and ceiling are some sort of plaster, painted with random inscriptions copied from who knows which pyramid. Nothing about this tomb is right. And there’s a big fresh crack in the ceiling, still dribbling broken plaster and letting the sunlight in.

Something’s gone very wrong.

The last time I woke up, Osiris had returned my ka after 400 years as per our arrangement. The secret priests got me back on the throne in short order, and I got to work. Unsurprisingly, the kingdom had badly rotted in my absence. I restored the temples and got tax collection back in order. I started a new canal and even built a navy, something which had apparently never occurred to any of my idiot heirs.

They hadn’t held onto my conquests in Syria, either. So that was a top priority. I made a little alliance with the Hebrews (that name sounded familiar -- hadn’t they been slaves or something? I guess they must have gotten free somehow in my absence), and marched north. That’s...when things get vague for me.

I’ll bet I died in battle. Shit, I must not have made it back to Egypt. The Babylonians probably captured my body. But why would they have put me here, in this crappy fake tomb? Thoth, I’m going to need some answers.

Oh, good. I hear voices outside the doorway. I should be able to wring some information out of whoever these guards happen to be. But what language is that -- something from the Arabian desert tribes? I don’t recognize it.

Let’s hope at least some of these stolen trinkets are authentic. I need to get some magic going. Here we are, this Ibis figurine looks legit. Thrice Wise Thoth, Lord of All Secrets, Grant Me Knowledge of This Tongue.

Much better. They’re talking about an airstrike, by someone called the Americans, and how their boss President Hussein will probably execute them if his museum got damaged.

I don’t really know what any of those things are, but I know how slaves sound when they’re afraid of their master, and I can gather that they’re currently in the process of losing a war.

And I can start putting pieces together. New languages. New nations and titles for kings. New weapons of warfare. That fresh crack in the ceiling -- I’ve been sealed in here. No way for my ka to return to my body when the time came. It’s been more than 400 years. Maybe a lot more.

When the guards come in to check on the damage, I’m ready. I don’t quite have the full strength of my majesty back yet, but I’ve got more than enough to dazzle a couple of downtrodden lackeys. Anwar and Malik drop to their knees, and I have them fill me in on the details. I’m in a place called Iraq, ruled by a man named Saddam Hussein (who calls himself President instead of King for unclear reasons). This tomb is in the basement of one of his palaces, a museum put together from artifacts he’s bought, stolen, or dug up. I was his prize centerpiece, found right here in this city -- Tikrit. Okay, I know that name. Now I know where I am.

As to when -- It’s been almost 2,600 years. It’s 1411 in their calendar, 1991 in the Americans’ version. And these Americans are the ones currently kicking the shit out of Saddam in this war. Anwar says they’ve got invisible flying weapons called stealth fighters, which can drop exploding stones called bombs anywhere they want. That’s what blew that crack in the ceiling.

Screw this Saddam guy, he sounds like a chump. Looks like America is the big-deal empire right now. Richest, strongest, most famous -- they boss the world around and do whatever they want to whoever they want. Malik says they have a city called New York where billionaires live in glass towers taller than the Great Pyramids.

Well then. Sounds like my kind of place. Anwar fetches me some of his old master’s best clothes, and Malik gathers up the still-functional artifacts from the tomb. I take a look in a full-length mirror on our way out the door. Nice job, Osiris, I’m back to looking eighteen. And I like this new style of suit, much sharper than robes. I miss my double crowns, though. All in due time. Right now, let’s focus on what’s essential: getting to the center of the action and starting to climb back on top.

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Catrin - Off to College

Catrin rolled over and fumbled for the alarm clock on her bedside stand – no need to wake her parents for this little chore. Especially not at 8am on a Saturday. One of the so very few times in the week she was sure she would have some privacy. She just needed to finish packing her personal things before starting the drive to the other side of the country. The last of the graduation parties had been thrown months ago, at the beginning of the summer, but still, there had been the chance she’d run into someone at her crummy retail job, or out on the beach over the summer.  With only a couple days until she left though, it was time.

Sitting up on the edge of her bed, feet flat on the floor, Catrin rubbed her face briskly for a moment to wake up just a little more. She then grabbed the scrunchy on the stand and pulled her hair back into its customary ponytail. Standing up, she briefly debated not getting dressed but settled on a loose pair of yoga pants and a sports bra – easier to lie to Mother that she’d gotten up early for one last morning meditation that way. If it came to it. Not that Mother would approve of meditating with all her bracelets on.

Looking down at the open dresser drawer, Catrin had to admit that Mother might have a bit of a point. Enough thin, single-band stainless steel charm bracelets to form a solid(ish) cuff of two inches up each of her wrists was a lot of bracelets. Slipping them on one-by-one was a pain in the ass too, but moving from just one to multiple charms per bracelet would make it harder to grab precisely the right one in an emergency. Which had been the entire point in the first place.

Having finished slipping all of her bracelets on, Catrin reached in the back of the drawer and pulled out a box. It wasn’t a very interesting box to look at it, just one of those cheap colored cardboard pieces jewelry stores packed your purchases in to walk out the door with. But inside were about half of the charms which had originally come with the bracelets. She was going to need to put a lot of them back on.

Sitting down in the middle of her floor, between the packed suitcases and sealed boxes, Catrin began systematically taking off all the bits-and-bob sympathetic tokens she’d collected from her classmates over the past four years of high school. Once those were all off and in a small heap at her feet, Catrin examined her other charms, the teeny-tiny test tube charms she’d spent so many hours scouring the city for. Be a shame to lose those, but she really didn’t need the scraps of bloody tissues in them anymore.

Trying to work the first of the little corks off a tube nearly sent it flying out of her hands and across the room. Tapping the end of the tube to get the tissue out didn’t work either. Catrin made a moue of frustration with her lips for a second, then her face cleared and she headed off to the bathroom for a pair of tweezers… and the tiny bottle brush that’d come with the box of test tube charms.

Half an hour later, the heap of old sympathetic tokens on the floor included all the test-tube contents and all the bit-and-bobs had been replaced with some of the original charms. The cutesiest of the originals stayed in the box – Catrin figured she might need them at some point, like if some of the tubes broke. Maybe she could drive over to that crafting store she’d found them in the first time and pick up another set today.

Catrin paused at a faint sound from her parents’ room next door. Were they getting up already? No, must have just been turning over in bed.

Looking at the heap of tokens on her floor, Catrin bit her lip. Some of them were probably old enough to have lost their emotional significance to her former classmates. But the others could still be magically useful for hexing their original owners. Wouldn’t be fair to the classmates for her to dispose of them only for some other witch to come along and use them. Seemed like a remote chance, but still. Worth the time to do things right, Catrin figured. A cleansing ritual should do it.

From the back of the bracelet drawer came her blade. She did rather hope that Odin would approve of the wisdom of using a butterfly knife as her magical tool. She wasn’t really worried that any of the Æsir would object to using a practical fighting knife for magic, though. After all, what good was a knife you couldn’t fight with?

Kneeling down, Catrin took a deep breath and centered herself. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. As soon as she’d cleansed the tokens of their sympathetic links and disposed of them in the trash, she’d have plenty of time to start hiding her sex toys in suitcases before her parents woke up.

Short Fiction Sunday - Day 2741

Welcome to Short Fiction Sunday, where we take a break from our usual blog post to bring you original short stories set in some of our favorite game worlds.  Our first installment was written by Laura and takes place in the Eclipse Phase universe.  Enjoy!

I was shoveling the fourth scoop of irradiated dirt on top of the bundle at the bottom of the shallow grave when Emil stood up and whined. Abandoning the shovel to the dirt pile, I leaned over to give Emil a scratch behind the ears while I pulled the backpack for my plasma cannon back on. Both of us were watching the ridgeline with all senses on high alert. I’ve never been sure if Emil had one of the smart animal enhancements or had just been well trained before he trotted into my life.

I may have been willing to drop the cannon for this little chore outside, but I wasn’t completely suicidal yet; I was still suited up in full combat armor with rail pistol easily to hand. I’d gotten the backpack strapped down, and the tear tracks down my face mostly wiped away before the metal-on-metal thrumming and the screaming reached us.

At my hand-signal Emil raced ahead as I brought up the rear. Some idiot was about to die by the half-broken TITAN war machine trapped on the other side of the ridge.

Emil was racing ahead, paws digging through the softly crunching dirt and was nearly halfway up before I even made it past the rows of stunted food crops laboriously coaxed out of this fucking planet. My breath was already hitching. Bad day to be short on both water and food rations. I gave a mental sigh for the stupidity of wasting one of my last two doses of MRDR on the fractal-bait I just knew I was going to find on the other side. But I pulled an injector and, shooting my wrist out of the armored arm cuff of my suit as much as possible, pressed it against the skin.

I felt a couple blood vessels in my eyes pop. Just in time for the aches and pains that were my constant background noise to recede.  The rest of the world fell a stutter-step behind as the combat drug sped up my nerves. The world always looks slower on MRDR.

Up the hill. Over the edge of the ridge. Past the stunted trees growing metal leaves. Start down the other side of the hill.  I miss my muse, Galahad. And TacNet. Battlefield awareness has never been my strongest suit.

Combat hasn’t altered the landscape this side since I last saw it. Usually I avoid this side. Half-dead war machine and all. Running, then sliding down the hill – the last of the trees and brush died off months back, it’s just loose dirt now. Stunted yellow grass at the bottom of the hill, a flat area I can charge across safely. All the dangers in this bit are on the mesh; I had turned off my inserts years ago. Burned out vehicles up ahead, reminders of the last stand that partially crippled the war machine, left it in a crater it still hasn’t climbed out of. Futile gesture. Found the convoy the folks who did that bit of military heroism must have been buying time for a mile or two up the road. Well, their decapitated skeletons anyway. Head hunters don’t leave skulls behind.

Half-broken TITAN war machine still in its crater, 250 yards ahead. House-sized center mass with its ever shifting color patterns. Seven tentacles sprouting out, constantly furling and unfurling, the edges fluttering off into ragged fractal fronds.

Too far to see individuals.

Shots ringing. At least they’re using the dead vehicles as cover, sounds like. Two assault rifles, probably the same blueprints, same printer they’re so similar. An SMG, the smaller ammo has more of a popping sound. With a whining clatter, three rail-pistols tossing off bursts. Massed fire? Why?

Snap a shot off at one of the telescoping fractal metal arm cocking back, ready to slam down on a burnt out vehicle, while I’m running up. Plasma leaves a burnt ozone stink. Spot Emil barreling sideways into something before the arm comes down. A pause from the weight slamming into ground. Then a human head pops up from where Emil landed, followed by armored arms and an assault rifle that starts walking shots up the machine arm. Other rifle, also a human morph, comes out of cover 20 yards east to join in the shooting, going for center mass at least. Pause for a better placed shot myself, center mass – must have gotten through some of the armor, couple of the tentacles curl further back.

SMG dashes out of cover, charging straight towards the crater. First rifle, the westward one, starts screaming at him to get back, ‘Azar’ is already dead. Emil’s not going to reach the SMG in time. I’m charging forward after him, wondering why the fuck I’m do–


There’s a neo-octopus morph behind the husk of a vehicle 15 yards to my northwest now. Space suited octopus as tall as me. Two railguns aimed and ready, third one having a clip slotted in with the fourth of eight arms. Fractal-hells, when did transhumanity start uplifting octopi? Explains the massed fire.

A screech of metal, the ground shaking again, and railguns firing forward push my attention back on task. SMG is almost to the crater, slowing down like he’s going to jump in and slide to the bottom. Emil is barking up a storm, distracting at least one of the tank’s many limbs. I’ve never seen the damn thing grow more limbs, for once when dealing with a TITAN toy, so hail to the poor dead bastards whose vehicles I’m using for cover.

A burst of speed, and I reach the edge of the war machine’s crater just as the SMG does. A kick to the back of his knee forces him down far enough that I can take another shot over his head. Might have singed a bit of hair; idiot isn’t wearing a helmet. I grab at the back of his neck, find the bar for clipping on a rescue line, and yank him up and off his feet, back towards the neo-octopus. Just as the edge of the crater crumbles under my feet.

I’m on my ass, sliding down, firing as often as the plasma cannon can cycle, when I spot what SMG must have been coming in for – fresh corpse. Must be Azar. I let the slide continue until I’m next to Azar, pulling out my knife as I go. Wish I had an axe for this.

Fire the cannon. Flip the corpse. No helmet. Fire. No neck protection either. Line up the knife at the base of the neck. Swift chop. Fire. Knife got stuck halfway through the vertebrae. Leverage knife back and forth until vertebrae crack. Fire. Saw through more muscle and skin. Fire. Grab head by the hair, throw it up and out of the crater. Fire. Push back up to my feet and start walking backwards up the hill. Fire. Never stop firing. A meter or so from the top, turn and scramble out as fast as possible.

Back out, Emil is racing in a straight line towards home, decapitated head dangling from his mouth. Good dog. The neo-octopus isn’t far behind him, fouling the shot SMG man is trying to line up on my dog. Idiot is kneeling, back to the crater, screaming at ‘Akemi’ to get out of the way. He’s so focused, there’s no resistance as I grab the gun out of his hands, booking it past him. Didn’t even have it clipped to his armor or anything. If he doesn’t figure out to start running away at this point, there’s no saving this idiot.

Both assault rifles disengage and fall in behind me as I hightail it away. Three sets of pounding feet, good. Falling behind, less good. But none of us stop running until we’re back past the flat grassy area, past the metal trees, over the ridge, past the open grave I’d been digging, past the garden I’ve coaxed out of the ground, and in front of bunker I call home. Akemi is standing outside the door, rasping noises coming from the suit’s intake valves, looking at Emil. Emil’s sitting right outside the bunker airlock, head still dangling by its hair from his mouth. He stands up, tail wagging furiously, trots over to me, and drops the head at my feet.

Akemi just stands and rasps, staring at me, as I work through the vertebrae. Two up from the cut, I find what I’m looking for – the grape-sized, diamond encased copy of whoever just died in that crater. A cortical stack. Almost certainly uncorrupted by the war machine. I toss the stack to Akemi.

The other three skid to a halt behind me, wheezing. I turn, backing away towards my front door, and look them over. Armor no dirtier than I’d expect from just that fight. No scrapes, dents, or gouges. One of the rifle users pulls their helmet off to suck in air faster. Bright eyed, no hollow circles under their eyes, cheeks full and round. None of this lot have missed a meal, perhaps ever.

Turning back to Akemi, I prepare to say my first words to another person in almost three years.

“Why the fuck would you come back to Earth?”