Closure

“Hold up a second guys,” Yew said softly, stopping by the side of the path.

“Damn it man,” Oak snapped, “I told you it was too early to be hiking on your ankle.”

Yew glared at Oak and silently pointed at the brush by the path. Sarge doubled back and took a closer look. “Pix, how far from the coordinates are we?”

Pixie slide her specs down from her forehead, over her eyes. “Mile, mile and a half east of here. East-ish.” She fiddled with the lens opacity, set it to clear, and left them on.

“There's a path that direction, or what's left of one.” Sarge shrugged. “Bet it was a dirt road before the Crash. Good catch, Yew.”

Oak took point, cutting off branches and brambles where they’d completely overgrown the path but otherwise the group moved silently. Pixie grabbed some of the wood Oak cut off for tinder later. The air was cooler under the trees, a slight relief against the oppressive humidity. They crossed a small creek  still bound by its banks, refilling their second water skins to boil at the campsite in the evening.

An hour later, the trees thinned out. Oak held up a hand and everyone slowly joined him. The peak of a house was visible just past a small hill through a gap in the tree line. Yew brought out his bow and nocked an arrow. Oak resettled his shield; Pixie and Sarge drew their guns, and everyone slowly advanced.

The house came into view over the crest of the hill. The front door gapped open. The remains of glass windows were visible on the second floor; the two windows on the first didn’t even have shards. Portions of the roof and peaked turret on the side showed sky behind the house. There was a soft shworsh of leaves behind them and stillness in front.

Oak and his shield took point, Sarge and his gun (plus spear across his back) behind his right shoulder. They entered the front door, Pixie and Yew bringing up the rear. The front room was empty, lengths of cloth on a series of hooks marking where the coat rack had hung. Leaves crunched under foot as the moved to the side room. A decaying couch faced a pile of dirt, brick dust, and leaves spilling out of a blocked fireplace. Nothing here either. A dull thunk carried from the next room to the back. Sarge kept his gun trained on the doorway; everyone slowly inched towards the open doorway. Another thunk sounded.

Looking over Oak’s shield, Sarge aimed at the decaying figure standing at the kitchen counter. Roughly five feet, three inches tall, their clothes had rotted away enough to show the mummifying skin over their ribs. Black veins crawled down the ribs and arms, covering the fingers completely. Another thunk as its wrist knocked the counter and rose again. A rusted knife stuck up out of their foot, pinning the foot to the floor when the knife had slipped out of the corpse’s hand.

Slowly, carefully, Sarge silently put the gun away and pulled out the spear. He and Oak advanced towards the counter and Casualty blankly staring at a rotted wooden cutting board. Oak’s foot caught the edge of the counter with a knock. Everyone froze.

The Casualty never looked over.

Sarge lined up the tip at the base of the skull and slid the spear through, clean out the jaw on the other side. Oak caught the Casualty on his shield; Sarge slid the spear out and Oak lowered the permanent corpse to the floor without a sound. Pixie walked over and got thirty seconds of the face from a couple angles recorded on her 'specs.

Another twenty minutes of careful searching confirmed there were no other Casualties in the house. In the upstairs office, they found the family birth certificates and social security cards. Everything else of value had already rotted away.

One night in the house on the second floor, three hour shifts at the doorway in case anything was smart enough to take the stairs, and they’d be on their way back home in the morning. No fire tonight. Trail rations for dinner, and maybe an hour with a fire in the morning to have clean water for the walk home.

Pixie hopped online as Sarge took first watch and the other two set up bedrolls. She sent the video proof to the Sisters of Silent Mercy; their payment sat in the enclave’s cryptoserver shortly thereafter.

Pixie kissed Sarge goodnight and slid into her bedroll. A simple job, but well done. She was looking forward to going home tomorrow.

Sisters of Quiet Mercy

Part of the Pixie & Sarge Red Markets stories


Yew collapsed into the seat across from Pixie and leaned his crutches against the bench. Pixie logged off the LifeLines forum and pulled her Ubiq ‘specs up and off.

“Hey man. Where's Oak?”

Yew waved vaguely at the line on the opposite wall, in front of the food bar. “Cutting in line to stand with Sarge. Told me he'd grab enough for both of us.”

“How's the ankle?”

“Mostly good; Oak and the doc are being worry-warts. It'll be fine in a couple days.”

Spike dropped into the seat Pixie’d been saving for Sarge; Pixie shied away from the sudden intrusion and Yew growled. “When you and Sarge gonna ditch these outside losers and–”

Yew whacked Spike on his crown with a crutch; Pixie involuntarily snorted.

“No wonder they don't want you watching their backs in the field,” Yew sneered at Spike. “Don't even notice a crutch coming at you from three feet away.”

Sarge slid two tray in front of Pixie from her left, then grabbed Spike by the back of his shirt and lifted him out of the seat. The entire cafeteria looked over at Spike’s yelp. Sarge simply dropped Spike in the aisle way behind their benches and sat down next to Pixie. Oak joined their quartet as Pixie slid a tray over to Sarge.

“You alright?” Sarge murmured to Pixie as Spike scuttled off and conversation around them resumed.

Pixie rocked a hand back and forth in a ‘so-so’ gesture. “He's getting pissier. And more aggressive.”

“We should talk to his boss after lunch,” Oak said.

“I did last week, before we headed out,” Pixie shot back. “He did nothing.”

“All of us, I meant. We're the only Takers in the enclave, we've got some political power,” Oak said.

Yew turned to Sarge. “He racist as well as sexist?”

“Yep,” Sarge mumbled around a bite of sandwich.

“Probably not to fond of foreigners either then.” Yew leaned into the traces of his Yorkshire accent. “Congrats Oak, you're playing spokesperson today.”

“Hurray… We actually going to talk about finding our next job today or not?”

“I've got two leads.” Pixie swallowed her bite of sandwich. “The council’s looking for escorts for the first batch of folks heading over to that prison we cleared out, although I think that one’ll keep. Rumor is they’re still pulling together some materiel and figuring out personnel.”

“And we’d probably end up playing Fencemen for a while,” Sarge added.

Everyone turned to look at him.

Sarge shrugged. “I’d add it to the contract. Keeping us on the new fence for a while frees up folks for carpentry duty. Or setting up the agriculture.”

“Sounds like a good job for the winter,” Yew said. “Escort them over at the end of fall, after all the harvests are in. Winter’ll be cold, but the casualties’ll be slower. Plus how else would everything be ready for crops in the spring.”

“I’ll try to sell the council on those points if they argue now or never. The second possibility is something Janice dug up–”

Oak looked up from his congealing pasta. “Janice the freaky proto-Black Math kid?”

“Yep, her. We’d owe her two bounty for throwing the lead our way, but it looks like our kind of job. A recession group, the Sisters of Quiet Mercy–”

“Does that sound like an assassin cult to anyone else,” Yew yelped. “Because that sounds like an assassins’ cult to me!”

“Reviews on LifeLines and their website–”

“Because we can trust that…”

“They at least match, Yew. Will you let me finish for Christ’s sake?”

Yew dropped his eyes and poked at his tray of food.

Another moment and Pixie continued “Their website claims they’re an order of nuns who’ve devoted themselves to laying to rest quote unfortunate souls end quote. The only jobs other Takers have mentioned doing for them are closure jobs for not great, but not terrible pay, with a side order of tragedy data trading. My best guess from digging around is that this is a form of ‘administering to the poor’ for them; they fundraise across the economic spectrum and do data brokerage to stay afloat.”

“What’s Janice say,” Sarge mumble around his food, then swallowed and continued “the job is?”

“Closure outside of Lyon. No further info.”

“That’s the opposite direction of the new place, so no doubling up, even if we wanted to,” Oak said.

“What was the population density like out there?” Yew asked.

Pixie pulled down her ‘specs and fiddle with the interface for a couple minutes. “About a thousand, thousand and a half inside Lyon per square mile, less than a hundred in the suburbs out.”

“Sounds worth risking,” Sarge said, catching Oak and Yew’s eye. Oak nodded; Yew looked rebellious, then shrugged and nodded.

“Alright, I’ll tell Janice,” Pixie said. “Sarge, talk to Jinks on the forums, their crew are the last folks to leave the Sisters a review. See if they won’t give you some tips. Oak, Johnson over in the council office should have some local maps of Lyon.”

“Borrow your ‘specs to take photos?”

“Sure. Yew, poke around, see if anyone else is looking to take this one.”

“You’re the boss.” Yew wiped his mouth, grabbed his crutches. “Everyone done?”

“Yep.” Sarge grabbed Pixie’s tray and stood up. “Time to track down Ezra.”

“Why don’t we go right over his head to…” Yew leaned forward on his crutches and followed Oak towards the cafeteria entrance. “What’s the pit crew boss’s name?”

“Low Key, but he’s not in charge of the gate Fencemen,” Sarge said. “It’s got to be Ezra.”

“Hurray, arguing with bureaucracy,” Oak whined. “Remind me why it’s gotta be me again?”

T00:01:02.053

Continuation of T00:00:03.308


Esme ducked; a metal rope whipped by over her head with a hiss of air and sickeningly liquid sound of metal flexing. She crouched behind a greenhouse bench.

T00:01:02.053

The rope retracted into the impossibly round ball hovering over the central bench in the greenhouse module Multiple benches had been torn out of the deck plating, their water systems spilling onto the grating, bare roots systems drooping in the half-gravity out of their frames.

Another metal rope (smooth to mathematically precise flatness, more nimble than a neo-octopus’s arm) punched out of the ball hovering over the central bench and slammed Burn onto the grating, punching through their exosuit and out the back to disappear between the grating. Esme was the last one still mobile. Burn’s life-signs on the tactical network flickered; the metal had torn through them just below the sternum and their suit was frantically trying to patch the hole.

T00:01:03.131

Esme fired her rail-pistol at the rope, hands trembling as she leaned across the bench. What didn't hit the arm slammed into the ball behind it. Esme heard Burn grunt over their tactical network as he hauled his plasma rifle up off the deck and blasted the arm near where her bullets were slamming into the metal. On the second burst of scorching liquid fire, the arm was cut through and dropped onto the deck plating. Esme followed Burn into switching targets to the hovering ball. Another arm was forming, pushing out of the ball, stretching against the metal surface like it would split open shortly. Esme’s pistol clicked on empty as Burn forcibly dropped off the network.

Plasma burst the ball open, the interior dripping onto the deck in pools.

T00:01:04.547

Esme’s hand were shaking badly; she almost dropped her last clip as she reloaded her pistol. Burn motioned weakly for Esme to come over to where he was still pinned by the metal arm. Esme kneeled behind his head, as far from the twitching metal as she could, and touched her suit faceplate to his.

“You ever collected stacks, Specs?”

“Five hours in simulspace, twice in meatspace.”

Burn took a deep breath and nodded. “You've got three minutes to grab as many as you can.” His pupils blew open as the adrenaline and second dose of combat drugs flooded his system. “Grab Digits, they're least likely to be compromised. Then five minutes to get the hell back to Wings.”

T00:00:07.438

“What are you doing Burn?”

“The nice thing–” Burn gulped. “The nice thing about using a plasma rifle, kid, is you always have a nuclear bomb if you need it.”

“Fucking hell–” Esme bit off. She made an abortive motion towards Digits’ corpse, then touched her faceplate to Burn’s again. “Burn, my name's Esme.”

Burn gave her a pained, lopsided grin. “Nice to meet you, Esme. Now move it kid.”

Esme launched herself towards Digits as fast as she could in .5g, pulling the melon baller out of her suit belt pockets.

T00:00:07.212

Digits’ corpse was leaning back against the bulkhead where they'd been thrown; Esme yanked it forward to expose the back of the neck, pressed the baller against the suit where spine turned into skull, and pressed the button. Fabric, plastic, and polymers went flying as the baller burrowed through the suit. Esme swallowed and turned slightly towards Burn when it started kicking out blood and bone.

The metal arm was slowly slumping, spreading out into Burn’s suit. Esme caught a glimpse of silver streaking through Burn’s body where the arm had originally punched through them.

T00:00:05.539

The melon baller jerked back in her hand, diamond-coated grape-sized cortical stack firmly caught in its clutches.

Esme surged to her feet and bolted for the greenhouse doorway as fast as she could in half gravity, tucking the baller back in a pocket. Microgravity and the increase in speed she’d get in her native gravity was two modules and a couple hundred meters away.

T00:00:05.021

Bester, her muse, laid the most efficient route from here to the airlock Wings was last at over the map in Esme’s visuals. Esme turned on her T-Ray emitter and pulled the map into the center of her vision as she ran, tweaking a few spots to take advantage of handholds and furniture not noted on the map. The emitter would paint her as a target to anything looking the same way, but it was worth it for the heads up on any real-time deviations from the map.

She banished the map to her peripheral vision at the transition point to microgravity and launched herself forward.

T00:00:04.137

Halfway point to the next spot she could kick off, Esme tucked, flipped over, and turned her magnetic boots on. Bester updated his estimate of how fast Esme could make this run. Now she’d have a full fifteen seconds to get in the airlock. Right before before hitting the wall, Esme cut the boots, touched down, and then kicked off hard. She wished she’d taken Mav up on his offer of a combat drug, any combat drug.

T00:00:01.524

Bester had kept his estimates worst case conservative again. Wings was 50 meters straight through the bulkheads, 78 meters of freefall to get to them. Thank Hawkins, they had their T-Ray up as well. Esme blinked her emitter on and off. ‘open airlock. detach. open airlock. detach.’ She couldn’t remember if Wings or their muse knew Morse Code. Bester sent a coded burst to the station to open its airlock.

T00:00:01.304

Careening into the airlock, Esme grabbed a hold bar just inside the lock. Breath rasping in the back of her throat, she paused as the interior hatch closed to line up with the airlock in Wings’ ship, slowly drifting away from the station. Lined up, Bester sent an emergency override to the station — the exterior hatch opened as Esme pushed off the interior, following the escaping air. She careened across the gap between space station and ship. An inelegant tumble into the ship’s airlock included clipping the hatch into the ship.

T00:00:00:551

‘go. go. go.’

Esme braced herself in a corner of the airlock, as far from the opening as she could, back against one wall, boots locked against the other. The airlock slowly closed as the ship turned from the station and began acceleration.

Wings came on over the speaker, sound strangely attenuated in the partial vacuum of a refilling airlock. “What am I running from?”

Esme stuck with Morse code; there was no way she was getting on anyone’s network before the Firewall specialists cleared her.

‘overloaded plasma gun.’

“Specs, blink twice if that’s fucking Morse code.”

She blinked the T-Ray twice.

T00:00:00:358

Swearing in a mix of Cantonese, Russian, and Cherokee came over the speaker; Wings must have loaded up the translator for Morse. The ship acceleration increased, hard; Esme gritted her teeth and pushed harder against the walls.

T00:00:00:000

Esme let out a slow breath and started deep breathing, trying to counteract the acceleration squashing her rib cage.

T -00:00:00:303

Thuds and reverberations pinged against the metal hull. It sounded like recordings of rain she’d listened to last week. Except, deeper. And hurled by exploding plasma bombs, not gravity.

T -00:00:00:458

The sounds against the hull let up and died away.

“Well alright then, we’re not dead.” Esme would have felt better if Wings hadn’t sounded so surprised. “Let’s get you into the—”

‘no. quarantine.’

“It’s three days to the rendezvous point.”

‘yes.’

Wings chuckled ruefully. “Alright, it’s your suit. Congratulations on saving the solar system and killing the monster.”

‘another day. another monster.’

Cleaning House

Visual Prompt from this photo; Part of the Pixie & Sarge Red Markets stories


“Damn good lighting in here,” Yew said, peering down the long hallway. “Did not expect that with a concrete ceiling.”

“Domed ceiling,” Pixie replied absently, from the center of the team huddle in the middle of the hallway. “Scatters the light.” She continued making her notations on the digital map the client had provided. “We’ll need to find the source, see if it's a security issue.”

“No possibility of it being artificial, I suppose,” Oak muttered, on point with Sarge aiming down the hall over his shoulder.

“That would indicate habitation, which is a different security issue.” Pixie pulled her Ubiq specs up off her eyes and into her hairline. “Original map says 50 cells a floor, two floors per wing–”

“We know.”

Revised map from the remodel before the Crash that the client did not provide me has the cells on the second floor doubled up, the central administrative tower has four floors, not three, and everything has more electronic security. Of the fail-safe variety.”

Sarge’ eyes flicked up to the second floor. “Fail-safe being lock-down.” No motion up there.

“Yep.”

“Good for enclave security, I suppose,” Oak said. “Bad for us.”

“Eh,” Pixie shrugged, “plus side, easier to clear it out wing by wing. Down side, getting to the next wing. Where we starting Sarge?”

“Second floor, clear the cells, work our way down. Yew, take point up the stairs.”

“Hurray,” Yew muttered, advancing to the foot of the stairs, “no casualties falling on our heads today.” 

*****

Yew was checking his retrieved arrows for new warps, bends, or weaknesses. “How many casualties was that, 20? 21?”

“24,” Oak said from the door as he stood watch. It was his turn for a breather to check his equipment as soon as Yew was done.

Sarge stared out a barred window on the first floor. “Complication.” His gun had been the first reloaded and checked for damage along with the new spear he had wielded with strength if not precision.

Pixie pushed herself to her feet with a soft whimper from the metal bed frame she'd sat on and joined Sarge at the window. Squinting, she looked past the bars. “I don't see–”

Sarge’s arm came over her shoulder, past her ear; Pixie followed the line of his finger to the overgrown grass at the junction of the next wing over and the administrative tower. “Oh. Coywolves.”

“How many?” Oak asked.

Sarge slipped an arm around Pixie and watched for a bit. “Three adults, four pups.”

“Oak, I’ve got it,” Yew said, taking up position at the door. “I vote we keep clearing the interior and worry about driving them off or re-domesticating the lot after we’re finished with the Cs.”

“Sure,” Sarge drawled. “Everyone keep an eye out for rotting things and fuzzy things trying to eat you.”

Zhen and the Art of Feral Decommissioning

Inspired by: Art by Xiaohui Hu 


Zhen peered down the street. The building she was peeking out from behind had been an office building once upon a time, but she thought the top four floors were occupied with families now. They must be in morphs adapted for the constant wind and cold up there. Or in synths. They could be synthetics.  Zhen shuddered a little. 

She wasn’t a bio-chauvinist. Really she wasn’t. But every time she even thought about trading in the shitty Ruster morph her mammas had gotten her before they disappeared for a synth without all the stomach cramps and allergies, well... she just got shaky and her brain... itched. She just couldn’t. It’s not like she’d keep growing in a synth. Mamma June had always said biogrowth only until 25. Which was... eleven more years. Zhen didn’t think she’d feel better about a synth by then.

A skittering movement from down the street brought her back to the here and now. She had to pay attention or she wouldn’t be able to buy breakfast or lunch today. No dinner either unless she talked Nico over in Janks-Yao (instead of Nico in Central) into letting her work on the machines in his place today. For a triad connect simulspace brothel owner, he was weirdly squeamish about letting her work around the shop. Maybe Awotwi over in the souk had some synth parts Zhen could clean up for a meal. Awotwi was nicer than Nico. But she had less for Zhen to do than he did. Bought more parts Zhen scrounged though. 

The skittering was halfway down the street now, somewhere in the shadows of the building the Olympus Infrastructure Authority had blown up last week. They’d said there’d been terrorists trying to sabotage the space elevator. They always said that. Rumor on the street was another corp grey robotics project gone weird. As usual, rumor was more accurate than official brownstock — a robot with seven struts (and one broken off at the tip) was running to the other side of the street. It had a central ball in the middle of the struts, antennae at the joints of the struts, and sharp, pointy bits on its two front legs, like fangs.

Zhen ran over. The robot reared back on four legs and waved its fanged legs at her. A hissing screech came from the ball. Zhen swung her pipe down on the ball as hard as she could. 

The screeching got louder and the fang legs stabbed towards her.

Zhen battered at the robot until it stopped moving.

“Good job kid.”

Zhen looked up in fear. She hadn’t heard any of the folks pointing guns at her (no, not her, the robot) approaching. There were three of them, a decent looking synth and two Rusters (no hand tremors!). No, wait, one of the Rusters was an Alpiner with the same red skin tone as Rusters. All of them had on regular clothing, not the green and yellow OIA uniforms, so at least they weren’t cops. Even if the Alpiner was trying to pass for less class than they were.

“We need you to back away form the ‘bot now,” the Alpiner said, motioning to the side with their pistol. It was a heavy, chunky looking thing.

“No,” whispered Zhen, dropping the pipe and scooping the robot to her chest. “Please, it’s mine. I killed it, its mine.”

“Kid, it’s dangerous—”

“I’m not going to keep it! I’m not stupid. But those O’Conner X34 antennae go for 15 credits each and the Rise ball is worth 50 credits at least and the carbon is—”

“Kid knows their machines,” the synth murmured to the Alpiner. 

The Alpiner looked her over, a quick up and down; Zhen’s chest tightened. The Ruster and and the synth stilled while the Alpiner’s eyes focused past Zhen, over her shoulder. They had to be talking to each other through the mesh; Zhen started backing up. There was an alley 10 meters south she might be able to duck into if she ran fast enough. Zhen froze as the Alpiner looked at her again.

“Tell you what kid, we’ll buy the robot off you. 250 credits for the whole thing right now and we’ll spot you lunch at the noodle place two blocks over.”

“Three Monkeys’? The uplift bar?”

“Yeah, that one. We hunt ferals, right? Three of us, we’re good with the hunting, not so much with the disassembling and the markets around here. We’ll buy your robot, spot you lunch, and leave you our address — you talk it over with your parents–"

Zhen couldn't keep her hand from spasming against the feral. She wanted Mamma June and Poppy back so bad.

The Alpiner definitely noticed her traitorous hand "–check the rumor mills about us, yeah? When you’re sure we ain’t dangerous to kids, you drop by, take apart ferals we catch, talk us through selling the parts on the black market, and you get a fourth, plus all the snacks you can coax our POS faber into printing for you. Okay?”

Zhen’s stomach growled; the Ruster smirked a little and held out a cred stick. Zhen snatched the stick and slowly handed the robot, dangling from her hand by a leg. 

“Three Monkeys’ now?” Zhen mumbled.

“Yeah, sure, kid.”

The Octopus Started It

 “It’s not my fault! The octopus started it.”

I stared at Farad, seated across the virtual table from me in the bare bones simulspace we were situated in, then pinched the bridge of my nose in mental stress. The department ‘space designers knew me pretty well — they'd done me the favor of program in the sensation of pressure on the bridge of my nose. Usually helps relieve the mental stress of talking to the fucking idiots I run into in this job.

“The octopus started it,” I repeated back as flatly as I could.

“Yeah!” Farad’s image in this space was closer to a bare blob than a rendered person. I knew from his pictures that he'd been sleeved in a nondescript Ruster morph which been suffering from a shit-ton of allergies and muscle tremors from missing payments to the Corp that’d originally sold him his body. Dark hair, probably North American phenotype, mixed with some southern African and Southeastern Asian, assuming the Corp had grown one based on his original genetics. Bland facial features and a mouth more accustomed to stress and anger than laughter. At least, before he'd gotten his ass asphyxiated and we'd had to dig out his cortical stack to question him.

The designers hadn't bothered programming enough facial features to render emotion, the cheap-ass department having decided our muses could handle the raw data fast enough for interrogations to continue. Nevermind that an off the shelf simulspace from the Argonaut collectives would have been both free and better. Or that it'd have been cheaper to buy from a micro-corp here on Mars than pay for in-house design. Hence the blob I was talking too. And personal quirks added as favors. At least vocal cues worked.

“So you screaming at her to go back to Ceres with the rest of her ‘hodack, fabber-chow criminal buddies’ and leave Mars to the quote ‘real people’ end quote, before taking a swing, with a knife I might add, at her doesn't count as starting it?”

“Hell nah, octo ain't people, ain't no more starting something than kicking a cat! So when she paying for my new body?”

I scrubbed at my face, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “First off Mr. Farad, if that were true, we still have animal cruelty laws and you'd be on the hook for that. Having started it. Secondly, if she isn't a person, she can't have money, so how the hell would she pay for anything? Third of all,” I said, voice rising to cut off his protests, “whatever your prejudices, she is a citizen of the Titanian Commonwealth, here for trade negotiations, and is considered a person by two different polities, the more relevant one to your situation being the Martian Planetary Consortium. You are under arrest for unprovoked assault on a corporate diplomat, have had nothing to say in your defense, we have three witnesses who meet even your definition of ‘person,’ as well as visual and auditory recordings from two different angles. Your trial will be in 56 hours and only because the courts are a little backed up at this time. My recommendation? Hire a lawyer if you can, take whatever deal they can finagle for you, and you might serve your community service on a decent server in time to start working towards a new body before your kid graduates from high school. You know, instead of being out of circulation on a cold server for five years.”

I logged off before he could start whining about the unfairness of it all. Yeah Mars is unfair, it's run by corps. The uplifts have nothing to do with that. Hell, they get screwed over by the Consortium worse than baseline-humans do, much less folks like Farad. Mars is hell on our poor, I'll grant that, but still, at least he hadn't been stuck as infolife after the Fall. And now he'd gone and thrown that away.

What Grows?

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight, and Nine here. A non-Pixie&Sarge one in the same universe here.


Image from BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

Image from BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

“So… These are the coordinates the client gave?” Sarge said, eying the round brick tower a couple hundred yards from them in the middle of a flat grass field. The side closest to them was slightly squared off, with a gap side wide enough for a barn door, although any such thing had rotted away by now, and about half as tall as the whole thing. The remains of wooden planks making a conical roof were visible. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Which means something absolutely deadly.” Oak planted his tower shield and leaned forward, staring at the tower.

“Yup,” Sarge said, eying the field around and behind the structure. “How big were those crews?”

Pixie's hands twitched as she pulled up the info on her 'specs. “A five-person team, and then two different scouting parties, two each.”

“None of whom our client mentioned,” Yew griped, continuing to scan the horizen behind them all. Just in case anyone decided to sneak up on them. “So probably nine casualties minimum.“

“To be fair…” Pixie trailed off, still manipulating the AR interface. “He’s like the third client to try to recover this place, and I don’t think he knows about the other two.”

“That is NOT better,” Sarge muttered as he brought his binoculars up. Fiddling with the settings, he zoomed in as far as he could. The brick work still looked solid. He didn’t see any signs of fire or other extreme weather events… The gaps in the roof didn’t have anything coming out of them. The opening looked clear of obstruction. The sunlight reached as far in as he expected and the illuminated as much as he expected.

Shit. There was a ring of dead earth five feet around the tower.

"Ground Blight infection,” Sarge said handing over the binoculars. Pixie peered through them as Sarge dug in his backpack for that thermal scope he’d traded three books from the Civil War Surgery project for. There was still a little juice left in the battery. He hoped.

“Think we’re far enough back?” Pixie murmured as Oak pulled his shield back out of the ground and sidled back a few steps.

“Not dead yet.” The thermal scope did turn on, thank God. Training it on the silo, Sarge frowned and started a slow sweep out.

"What's going on?" Oak asked as Sarge slowly lowered the scope.

"About 20 feet out from the dead stuff is a couple degrees warmer than the rest of the ground. The dead area is a fewer degrees warmer than that. And the silo is warmer still. With several hot spots."

They all stood in silence for a few moments. The wind kicked up and whistled across the plain, then died down again.

"Brick's a thermal insulator... But that wouldn't account for hot spots or the ground..." Pixie muttered. “Think those casualties should have come out from the wind noise by now?”

“Or the open top creates enough whistling to keep them all in,” Yew ventured.

Sarge started walking. “Let's move west a bit, get a better angle on the doorway.”

All four of them maintained their distance away from the silo as they worked west. It was slow, not from having to watch their feet on the flat ground or anything, but from trying to keep an eye out for the usual dangers on top of maintaining distance, all while expecting casualties to start shambling out of the silo.

The silo remained silent.

Across from the opening, Pixie took another look through the binoculars for a solid two minutes. “Well, there's something in there. Contemplating just throwing a rock and seeing what shambles out…”

Sarge double-checked the safety on his gun and touched the second clip in his belt. Still there. Oak looked over at Sarge, touched Yew on the elbow, then hefted up his shield and placed a hand on his machete. Yew checked the string on his bow, then pulled a metal shafted arrow and strung it.

“Fall back point is the trees,” Sarge said, gun out but still pointed at the ground.

Pixie looked at him mouth agape. “A mile away? And I wasn’t serious!”

“I am,” Sarge said with a shrug. “Something is really wrong over there. I'm not approaching and that’ll still get us some intel.”

“I… Alright.” Pixie scanned the ground, then picked up a rock half the size of her fist. At Sarge's nod she let fly; the rock bounced off the left side of the opening.

A couple heartbeats of nothing happening later, Pixie brought the binoculars up again and trained then on the opening.

A casualty lurched into the edge of the building, staggering back half a step. A slight turn of the Blight covered hips and it shambled out the door. The shoulders remained tilted towards the door frame. The gait was wrong too.

“It's moving… awfully slow,” Sarge whispered as he shifted his stance and lined up the shot. Watching the casualty, one foot would go out as far as possible, stop like it'd hit the end of a rope, land, shift weight forward, and repeat with the other. It was a much more lurching style of walking than Sarge had ever seen. Even from a casualty.

“Hold up,” Pixie murmured. Sarge glanced over; she had the binoculars trained on the ground behind the casualty. “Oh fuck. Um, shoot it now. Please.”

Sarge took the shot. Dark brown sludge, white bone, and deep black Blight sprayed out from its head to spackle the brick silo. The casualty dropped, bonelessly.

“So–”

Pixie waved him off and kept watching the completely-dead casualty.

It spun around on the ground until the feet were pointed at the silo. A pause. Then something pulled it into the darkness.

Pixie, Sarge, and Oak shared a horrified look, turned, grabbed Yew and started walking home.

Oak and Yew

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSeven, and Eight here. A non-Pixie&Sarge one in the same universe here.


Oculus tower, Italy. By *PicturWall iLOVEyourHOME* as posted to  BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

Oculus tower, Italy. By *PicturWall iLOVEyourHOME* as posted to BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

Pixie waited at the edge of The Pit for the new Takers she’d contracted over the LifeLines forums to scramble up the  entrance ladder. Sarge had joined the slingers on the clearance crew while the gate was opening. He’d said he wanted to avoid any ill-will from folks mad at damn Takers bringing more casualties down on the enclave. Pixie hated how that never was a consideration when a trade caravan unexpectedly showed up. But it was real. And Sarge’s cut of the bounty from all his shifts over the past month had paid for their rent on the old apartment. Which meant they had been able to hold the space for these new guys and set them up with rent for another month. It’d been a reasonably sweet lure.

The second of the new guys finished climbing up the ladder and Jones dropped the cover. Pixie watched the first one up the ladder watching the whole gate setup; they gave a slight nod when the pipe behind Pixie stopped ringing after Jones dropped the plate. Pixie heard The Pit shutter ratcheting down; the crew was taking it slow. Apparently some extra casualties in The Pit was worth not having them banging on the metal. Pixie took a quick look back; the crowd was thin enough that the Latent melee crew on the first floor shelves were in no danger. Cleanup would probably go another 20 minutes though before anyone belayed down to pull cards.

The two guys approaching across the catwalk were a study in contrasts. The one closer to her was Caucasian, weathered, tall, lanky, and honestly looked like an awkward red-haired stork — all whipcord muscle and knobby joints. Damn he was tall, probably had three or four inches on Sarge, who wasn’t exactly short. The quiver across the new guy's back was full up of a mixture of metallic and wooden arrows, and he carried a compound bow in his right hand. Interesting, a left-handed shooter. That one must be Yew.

The second one, had to be Oak, was more average on height (still put him half a foot up on Pixie…), stout, and otherwise kinda shapeless under a bunch of bulky clothes. Dude was either Latino or tanned damn easily, but was definitely spending most of his time outdoors. The edges of the shield strapped across his back were visible above his shoulders and down somewhere around mid-thigh, while the machete strapped to his waist looked reasonably clean. The lack of a sheath was worrying.

Honestly the two of them looked like refugees from the Society of Creative Anachronism, and not the kind that focused on the role-play or historical accuracy. Probably explained the five-years and counting of survival though.

Pixie extended her left hand to shake; her right arm still had another couple weeks in a sling before Doc or Sarge (or her) would be not-pissed about using it. Handshakes as a greeting were dying out of casual use, but the Taker community was hanging on to it. Right up until they ran into a Latent.

“Pixie,” she said, shaking the archer’s hand.

“Yew,” he replied in a surprisingly deep baritone, “and my friend here is Oak.”

Oak gave a lazy half wave. “How's the shoulder?”

“I'll be good in a couple weeks, but no reason we can't get y'all settled in here and planning a job in the meantime.”

“Indeed. I was under the impression there was a fourth in this venture?” Yew asked with a cocked eyebrow.

Pixie pointed across The Pit, to the far side. “Sarge is on gate duty just now. He’ll join us on this tour once The Pit is clear. Shall we?”

The two of them trailed after her as she steered them towards the most important landmark in enclave for a Taker to know — the doctor's clinic.

“How’s guard duty work, y'all get to keep the bounty off your kills?” Oak asked.

“No, most of that's part of the enclave coffers.” Pixie said, simultaneously gesturing at the doc’s clinic. When both of them nodded, she headed toward ls the stairs up. “Working a shift gets you community credit and a cut of the bounty that's only good for paying for enclave services. We–”

“Community credit? What sort of politics we walked into here?” That was Yew.

Pixie paused on the landing halfway up to the third floor. “The enclave had a page on LifeLines going over this… Thought y'all would have read that before showing up.”

“Sure,” Oak said with a bit of an annoyed look at Yew, “but hearing the locals’ take is always more in-depth.”

Pixie shrugged.”Alright, why don't I show y'all the apartment and then we grab some seats in the cafeteria. Might as well be comfortable if I'm talking politics.”

————

About 15 minutes later, Oak and Yew had left their weapons and backpacks in the little cell apartment that were now theirs. There'd been some good natured bickering over the merits of splitting the pallet bed in two versus continuously fighting over who's turn it was to be the big spoon until one of them got their own place. Now, all three of them settled in to benches around a table in the back corner of the cafeteria.

“So, community credit?” Yew pulled a chunk of wood and a small knife out of a belt pouch.

“The enclave's tried to centralize what’s more efficient to centralize and ‘legalized’ enforced civic involvement by gamifying it all.”

“Oh bugger,” Yew muttered.

“So, infrastructure like the gate—”

“The one we came up or that pit contraption thing?” Oak was watching her intently; Pixie had the feeling he was the thinker of the two.

“They're both considered parts of ‘the gate’. Besides that, infrastructure includes the whole building (so there's the rent part), water catchment up on the roof, the grow rooms, solar power, and the cafeteria. Pay in once a month and you've got three meals a day sorted out.”

“The cafeteria?” One of the permanent staff, Miya, had brought over a tray and slipped it under Yew's hands as he carved; she was glaring at him now.

Pixie gave Miya a ‘sorry’ look before addressing Yew again. “Cooking in large batches for lots of people is a lot more efficient.” Miya flounced off, and Oak gave Yew a light slap to the back of the head.

“Yeah, but how's the taste?” Yew asked, glaring himself at Oak, before starting to carve around the scrape he'd accidentally added. “And how's that work with folks like us gone so often?”

“Pretty good actually, and the staff issue out trail rations to us. Or anyone going on a trade caravan run. The doc's clinic is also enclave run, although that's only covered if you're injured on enclave business.”

“So gate duty…”

“Plus any time we’re hired directly by the council and accidents on the job for the water, power, and botany folks.”

“There's been a push recently to expand medical care to everyone,” Sarge said, sitting down beside Pixie, “along the general lines of a public health crises being expensive at best and enclave ending at worst. Plus the whole ‘healthy people are more productive’ argument.”

“Not much for moral arguments around here, I take it,” Oak said with an arched eyebrow.

“More like we're all such hippy liberals we agree we should,” Pixie said, turning sideways to angle her back towards Sarge, “we’re just arguing over priorities, what order to put them in, and having enough bounty to do it right. Proponents want to do it now. Opponents want to push to expand into the other tower on the campus first, in order to expand our agriculture to increase exports and immigration. Their justification du jour is then we'd have a better economic base and the money to do healthcare better.” Pixie gave a one-armed shrug she'd had too much practice with over the last month. “Same folks have been pushing to expand since day three.”

“Don't forget the school funding folks,” Sarge said, scooting closer to Pixie and starting to work at the knots in her right shoulder. “Or the ones who want to restart the buffalo drives to expand the grimecloth industry.”

“Do I even fucking want to know?” Yew asked.

“Not until the council managed to attract a dog trainer or canine team, no, probably not,” Sarge drawled.

“Okay… So what does any of that have to do with community credit?” Oak asked, gesturing vaguely towards the kitchen.

“It doesn't.”

“Other than possibly expanding what's covered under community credits,” Pixie interjected. “It's a gamified labor tax basically. Everyone has to earn so much community credit a week, which you get by working at an enclave basic service. Technically complex stuff, direct service stuff, dangerous shit, and horrifically boring crap earn more credits per hour.”

“Yes, there's a bounty to credit conversion rate, and yes, you can donate credits to another person.”

“Banking credits from week to week is a) capped and b) seriously stigmatized.”

“As Takers, we only need the proportion of the monthly credits we’re in the enclave for.”

“Unless on a council job. That just covers it.”

“True.”

“How's it work with kids?” Oak asked.

“Gradually increasing requirements as they get older, severe restrictions on accepting donations. There's also talk of reforming the system to better give folks a break when they're sick. If only to keep ’em from getting everyone else sick. But that's gotten tired up in the medical care for all debate.”

“Sounds like a lot of bureaucracy.”

Pixie shrugged under Sarge's hands. “The administration work is strictly average on the credits per hour scale, doesn't directly contribute, and got socially pegged as ‘for them lain or used up so much this is all that's left to contribute.’ I think we've got one full-time granny on the job, with two part-timers and whoever’s coming off the sick list. Council itself is only part-time too. Initially thought they'd make it uncredited, then someone pointed out that only rich folks could afford to do that, so again, it's average on the credits. Wrote that into the governing docs too. It's not perfect, but we're all bumping along.”

“Oh, factions,” Sarge said, moving to work on the muscles lower down. “We had a couple Triage assholes try to make inroads in here a couple months ago. Got run off ‘cause of how the gate works, but Black Math is getting more popular because of it. So, council jobs might start getting a little more… dangerous.”

“More than we were planning?”

“Maybe I should explain what a buffalo drive is…”

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFiveSix, and Seven here. A non-Pixie&Sarge one in the same universe here.


Pixie was working her Ubiq specs left handed when Sarge dropped heavily into the bench next to her. The cafeteria was mostly empty midday, which made it one of her favorite places to sit in some sunshine when in the enclave, between jobs over the fence. She usually mollified the annoyed staff by making sure to assist in resetting the room between meals and keep out of their way without complaint, but they had been indignant at her helping while her shoulder was still in a sling. Not that working her specs with one hand was really any easier than pushing in chairs and benches would be.

Pixie pushed the specs up off her eyes and turned to Sarge; they weren't powerful enough to do the data work inherent to tragedy tracking anyway. Not that they could afford a laptop or ‘pad.

“How was pit clearing?”

“Not so good,” Sarge said, rolling and massaging his shoulder. “Big enough crowd that the slingers needed to step in, but light on cards.” Sarge looked around. “Where’re the kids, shouldn't school be in session?”

“Gardening practicum today.”

“Ah. Spike tried to pin me down at the pit. Told him we weren't even thinking about it until you were in better shape.”

Pixie snorted. “We need to let Goma know one way or the other, too. Been talking to Janice, between classes. Kid is surprisingly good at turning up strangely useful leads on LifeLines.”

“She is not coming into the field!”

“Doesn't want to, wants 5 years of experience before she joins Black Math. You know, when she’s 18. Also a cut of bounty.”

Sarge leaned on the table and pinched his nose. “God I don't want to still be doing this in five years.”

Pixie squeezed his hand. “Me neither. Spike would make sense if we're sourcing jobs from Janice though. He's really good against casualties with that pig-sticker of his.”

“No. I'm willing to focus on the closure and extermination jobs Janice’ll send our way. But Spike just up and abandoned his post at the hint of a job with us. Don't trust him to have your back if something shiny catches his eye.”

“Fair enough.” She paused in thought a moment. “But there isn't anyone else in the enclave looking to start hopping the fence.”

“Surely someone is looking to immigrate,” Sarge said with a tilt towards her specs.

“Oh, well sure, I'm sure I can find somebody, but then we’ve got to get the council to let them in…”

“If they can take our old room, the council can’t object on space issues.”

“So… That's a vote for moving in with Goma and Janice, then. I'll let them know.”

“Yeah, let's hang on to the apartment until you vet the new additions though.”

“If we're going casualty extermination, I'd prefer bringing on two folks. And take over handling the clients… I'm just, you know, never been all that useful with the physical stuff.”

“Physical stuff is a dime a dozen; you patching people up in the field has saved all our asses more times than I can count.”

“Thanks.” Pixie leaned her head on his shoulder. “Sarge?”

“Yeah?”

“I think I'm pregnant.”

Sarge tensed up. “Oh, um…”

“It's alright if you wanna cuss, that's how I feel about it too.”

“Aw fuck.”

“Yes, that is how we got into this.”

Sarge flushed and (carefully) put an arm around her shoulders. “How far along you think you are?”

“Missed my second period last week. Been hoping I'm just late, but, yeah…”

“What do you want to do?”

“Too late for Plan B, even if any were still good. Misoprostol have gone off by now too. Clinic around here isn't equipped for a DandC either.”

“Can the doc handle a birth?”

“Probably not, but the new lady, NaiNai, she's a midwife. So, I wouldn't be flying completely blind…”

“We.”

Pixie squeezed his hand again. “I'm still going to hope for a miscarriage though.”

“Any possibility this is… not what we're afraid of?”

Pixie shrugged. “If I'm lots underweight, maybe I'm just missing periods. But we've been doing okay there for a while.”

“Yeah.” Sarge dropped his arm from her shoulder to ribs and gave her a hug. “We're… reasonably close to being able to sneak into the Recession.”

“Not within seven month we aren't, not without taking stupidly big risks. Before even talking about fucking Mr. JOLS.”

“Okay. Okay… Just have to… figure out a new retirement plan then.”

“Yeah. Let's cross that bridge in two or three months.”

Sarge nodded and buried his nose in her hair.

“Hey guys!”

Both of them looked up as Spike came through the doorway.

“Why the long faces?”

Aftermath

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, and Six here. One out of sequence but in the same universe here.


Abandoned Silos, Poland by Jacek Pilarski. Posted to tumblr by  beautyofabandonedplaces

Abandoned Silos, Poland by Jacek Pilarski. Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

Pixie cracked an eye open as Sarge came in the door. She’d finally managed to talk the doc out of drugs, but she was so tired that her head was just as fuzzy as if she hadn’t. If it didn’t hurt more to lay down with her arm in a sling instead of sit up against the wall, she’d have been down and out long before Sarge got back. She heard Spike and Sarge talking quietly in front of the fabric sheet masquerading as a curtain that divided the ‘bedroom’ from… everything else. Well, just Spike. Probably relaying the doctor’s instructions. Bloody shotgun dislocating her shoulder because of a slight problem in her stance. Pixie yawned. Okay, it’d probably been a big problem. And she should get Sarge to drill her better once her shoulder was alright. And pray she never had to shoot a crew mate-turned-Vector again. Poor Mort.

Pixie’s eyes had drifted closed again by the time Sarge ducked past the curtain. He shucked his shoes on the floor, pulled something out of his pockets, placed it on the tiny bedside table, and crawled onto the pallet bed. Nestled up to her hip, threw an arm over her, and let out a 'bad job is done’ sigh. Or maybe his 'life is shit’ sigh, they were pretty similar. Pixie moved her left hand to the back of Sarge’s head and started massaging his scalp.

“Doc said four weeks?” Sarge mumbled.

“Four to six. Last couple are going to be tight, rentwise…”

Sarge shifted; Pixie opened her eyes again to meet his sad gaze. “Mort was pilfering looted bounty.”

Pixie paused, then sighed. “Damn it. What’d you do?”

“Left a third of it in his backpack for Goma.”

“Good. How much extra we got to work with then?

"Six. Goma wants us to move into her second bedroom too.”

"That's... awkward."

"Tell me about it. Did you know Janice is going Black Math?”

“Ohhhhh boy. Are we supposed to be encouragement along that route or a warning?”

“I think we'd just be to preserve the Taker discount on the place. And keep it a multi-income household, at least on rent."

Pixie looked around their room — two battered, tiny  tables wedged into the tiny space left for them between the pallet bed and concrete walls. Bed shoved against the back wall, the drape of curtain hanging just at the foot of the bed. They had an interior apartment, so no windows; the electricity was working today, but nobody had bothered to turn on the overhead lights yet. Not until sunset. The other 'room' in their apartment barely had enough space for their two folding chairs to be open at the same time, in between their meager possessions that didn't come into the field. A soft thump from there announced another book falling off the stacks again. It was a damn good thing neither of them had to cook; the enclave had gone for communal kitchens, even if you did have to be paid up with the council for the month for entry. "It'd be more room for the same cost, sounds like."

"Living with the folks whose husband and Dad we just shot. The whole attempting to eat us notwithstanding."

"Hence the awkward," Pixie sighed, then bit her lip. "Sarge?"

"Hm?"

"It's my fault he's dead isn't it?"

Sarge opened his eyes in shock, say up and pulled Pixie in for a hug. "No, why would you think that?”

"Told him to go out on the bridge," Pixie mumbled around the lump in her throat.

"To follow through on his idea. He could have, should have checked the railing before leaning on it. Didn't really need to check the railing at all. Bad luck it broke then, bad luck he hit his head on the way down, bad luck there was a casualty right there. I mean, it was just stupid bad luck he landed on the damn thing."

Pixie nodded and sniffed. "Still feels like responsibility."

"Yeah, it always does." Sarge just held her and rocked a bit as she cried silently.

The Talk

Yeah, time to just admit to myself the Pixie and Sarge stories aren't flash fiction so much as a series of linked scenes. Parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five here. One out of sequence but in the same universe here.


The Abandoned Oculus Tower, Central Italy © by Brian; Posted to tumblr by  beautyofabandonedplaces

The Abandoned Oculus Tower, Central Italy © by Brian; Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

“Sarge?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to climb up to the gate.”

Sarge looked over at Pixie. The kid was pretty pale and sweat dotted her forehead. The improvised sling he’d rigged for her dislocated shoulder was looking a bit looser than when he’d retied it this morning.

“How’s your shoulder doing? Any swelling?”

“Don’t think so. Just… don’t think I can move it all that much. Certainly not enough to pull myself up a ladder.”

“I’ll take the bags, you go up first. Don’t take your arm out, just grab rungs with the right, pull with the left. I can steady you from below.”

“You just want an excuse to grab my ass,“ Pixie smirked, then winced and went paler.

“Since when have I needed an excuse?” Sarge said, halting and passing over Mort’s old water bottle. He kept watch while Pixie drained the last of the water. “Better?”

“Little.” Pixie breathed heavily for a couple moments. “Can… can we stop at the medic before letting Goma know about Mort? Pretty sure I’m not thinking too straight here.”

“Assuming she’s not at the gate when we get there, sure. I’ll go talk to her. I’ve got practice.”

“I should be there too.”

“You should do exactly what the doc tells you to. That shotgun butt whacked you bad. Next bend’s the turn off for home.”

Pixie shot him a tiredly mutinous look, but didn’t continue the argument. Once around the next bend in the formerly two lane road that was rapidly decaying into gravel, they paused and Sarge made his best imitation of a barn owl. Once he heard the return signal (Blue Jay cry this week), they turned off the path onto something no wider than a deer trail and continued down that. A moment later, the rhythmic banging of metal on rebar was audible through the trees.

At the ladder, Pixie pulled her backpack off her left shoulder and handed it over to Sarge. There were a couple Fencemen at the top of the ladder, on the catwalk heading back towards the concrete tower they all called home, just standing there watching. Sarge raised an eyebrow at both of them wielding spears; at least one of them should have brought a gun along, in case of raider trouble. As opposed to the usual casualties. Neither one of them were about to open up the gate until Pixie made it within arms reach, though. Certainly weren’t going to give her a hand before that.

All three backpacks balanced and tied down as best as they could be, Sarge positioned himself behind Pixie and gave her a boost up. It was slow going, probably taking twice as long as usual. Sarge was figuring how long he should volunteer for pit clearing duty, to balance the extra casualties this would attract, when the gate hatch opened. Pixie was only halfway up, but Spike was bracing his feet in the top rings and reaching down for Pixie. A little longer for her to get in reach and Spike grabbed her under the left shoulder, hauled up a bit, and grabbed the top of her jeans. Between Spike scooting back to pull up and Sarge boosting from below, they all got up in a minute.

Hauling himself up the last bit, Sarge nodded his thanks to Spike as Jones gave another Blue Jay call and reattached the gate-plate behind him. The rhythmic sound of metal on metal from over the other end of the catwalk ceased.

“Mort finally bit it, huh?”

“Yeah, Goma around…?”

“Horticulture’s been pulling over time, you’ll probably find her there. So, you all got on opening on your crew?”

“Jesus Christ Spike, I haven’t even told his wife yet and you’re angling for his job?”

Spike shrugged unconcerned. “Fence doesn’t actually need me, gonna do more for the community working here part-time and handing in a cut of the cards you bring in.”

“Get Pixie to the doc and I’ll consider it.”

Spike pulled Pixie back to her feet, looked like he was going to go for the arm over the shoulder carry, then changed his mind, and just picked her up. Given that Pixie didn’t immediately try to rip him a new hole in his larynx, Sarge knew she was damn near passing out. Sarge had untied the backpacks and rolled his shoulders before he noticed Jones watching him.

“What?”

“Kid’s got another couple of hours on guard duty,” Jones drawled.

“I know. It’s why I’m not going to hire him. Despite appreciating the assist up the ladder.”

Jones’s grin turned sardonic. “We’ll beat the glory hounding out of him eventually. Or he’ll get bit. One or the other. Your best bet to catch Goma really is in Horticulture. Everyone’s been working like crazy over there.”

“Whats going on?”

“Ain’t nothing but rumors at this point–”

“Shit.”

“But rumor is that one of the grow rooms went tits up with some kind of infection and they’re trying to expand and get a new crop in before we all starve.”

“Great. See you later. Thanks for the heads up, Jones.”

Jones called after Sarge’s retreating back, “So buy me a beer!” Sarge waved acquiescence and continued down the rickety metal walkway.

At the other end, Sarge paused and flattened against the railing to let Nemi by; she must have drawn the short straw to fill out Spike’s shift. The entrance to the tower, up here on the third floor, looked narrower than when they’d all left on the train job… reinforcements, the Fencemen had gotten those reinforcements they’d wanted installed.

Ducking in the doorway, Sarge looked right towards the stairs up, sighed, and went left, past the hole where the stairs down had been knocked out. Couple hundred yards around, Sarge stopped next to the head of pit clearance and leaned on the trails overlooking the emptied out bottom two floors of the tower.

“Low Key.”

“Sarge.”

Sarge watched the Latent crew on the platforms dangling down to about seven feet from the ground. The crowd of casualties looked thinner than he expected. All of the Latent crew were using spears and none of the non-infected crew up around the railings was letting loose with their slings.

“Figure I owe you a shift for the extra time on the ladder.”

“Nah,” Low Key said, pulling out the toothpick he’d been chewing on and flicking it down into the pit. “Thin crowd. Blighters need to earn their keep,” he continued nodding at the platform crews.

Sarge shrugged, half-heartedly waved, then headed back towards the stairs and past them to the clinic. He stuck his head in, noted Pixie on one of the beds, then turned on a heel and walked right back out. The doc was slowly pulling on Pixie’s bad shoulder while Spike helped hold her steady; he need to either not see that or to walk in and take over from Spike. But he’d avoided Goma long enough; either he went now, or she’d end up hearing about Mort from rumor. Damn, he really thought he’d popped Pixie’s shoulder back in right. Hopefully the two day walk back hadn’t permanently fucked anything up.

On the stair landing just below the top floor, Sarge paused to catch his breath and double check Mort’s pack had everything. Water bottle (empty), the rations he’d had left, Ubiq specs (disinfected to hell and back, blood cleaned off, and dings as polished out as he could in two days), rope, flashlight, and Mort’s cut of the payout, both job fee and loot found along the way. He’d left the first aid kit and binoculars in his and Pixie’s closet of an apartment — they’d been crew gear really.

A glint of light reflected off of laminate at the bottom of the pack sent Sarge digging through the pack, squatting in the stairwell.

Son of a bitch. Mort had been pocketing drivers’ licenses found along the way, instead of divvying everything up equally. Like they’d agreed.

Sarge looked up at the door to the top floor and Horticulture. Goma would need the money. Wasn’t no way to support herself and a kid on just grower money. Pixie needed the time out of the field, let that arm heal up or they’d both be dead. With a sigh, Sarge left a third of the cards Mort had hidden in his bag, pocketed the rest, and headed up the stairs.

On the top floor, Sarge knocked on the first door on the outer ring. Door was opened by a teenage girl in jeans and beat up tank top.

“Looking for Goma, she in here?”

“Three doors down,” the kid said, wiping at the smudge of dirt on her cheek bone. “Brac is running that room, she’s not going to let you in.”

“Thanks.”

Brac was indeed the one to answer the door, three down the hall. She took one look at Sarge and moved to slam the door shut again; Sarge stuck his foot in the door.

“Got to talk to Goma, Brac.”

“No unauthorized personnel allowed.”

“So send her out, I don’t want to do this in front of y’all.”

Brac was opening her mouth to say something when Sarge hefted Mort’s backpack up a little. Her scowl softened, she looked back into the room, then turned back to Sarge with a brisk, "Wait here.“ Sarge removed his foot from the door and leaned up against the other side of the hallway.

He was just about to go knock on the door again when it opened back up and Goma slipped out. Catching sight of Sarge, her face crumpled.

"Mort’s… Mort’s in the clinic, right?”

“Goma, I’m so sorry–”

Goma let out a wail as her knees buckled. Sarge caught her before she hit the ground and eased both of them down to the floor. He wrapped her up in a hug as Goma sobbed into his shoulder.

“You were supposed to protect him! It’s your job!”

Sarge closed his eyes and just let Gonna continue sobbing. These talks hasn't gotten any better after The Crash. Just less bureaucracy on how to go about it.

About fifteen minutes later, when Goma seemed cried out, Sarge had to lean in further to hear her asked, “What happened? Did… did he suffer?”

“Infrastructure failure. He went off a bridge, and landed on a casualty. I’m sure he was unconscious at that point.”

“He didn’t… eat anyone else, did he?”

“No, no, no one else got bit.”

Goma sniffed, wiped her nose, and asked “How many did he kill this trip? Janice will want to calculate his final kill to death ratio.”

Sarge tried not to let his eyebrows shoot up; he hadn’t realized Goma’s kid was a Black Mathematician. “Uh… Four. I’m sorry, I wasn’t counting real close.”

She nodded, wiped her nose again, and stood up. “That’ll be some comfort to Jani, I suppose.”

Sarge stiffly climbed to his feet as well and handed over the backpack. "It's got his gear and cut from this last one, should be enough to last you awhile. Sell his gear if you need."

"Guess Jani and I will be making a life out here... She'll be pleased." Goma sighed. "Time to take in a roommate or get a smaller apartment I suppose. Don't suppose you and Pixie would be interested?"

"I... I'll float it past Pixie and get back to you.”

Goma patted Sarge absentmindedly on the arm. "You're a good man. Thank you for telling me," she said and walked back into the grow room.

RedMarkets drabble the third — Sarge has the tactics

Well, this is turning into a series. Drabble the First here, Drabble the Second here.

Hat tip to  Sixpenceee  who posted to Tumblr and  BastLynn  who's Tumblr I saw it on.

Hat tip to Sixpenceee who posted to Tumblr and BastLynn who's Tumblr I saw it on.

“What do you think? Auction the location off or strip it ourselves?” Pixie said, gesturing behind her.

Sarge looked back at the mill, shading his eyes against the setting sun. Four or five levels, fenced in site, extracting the steel for recycling. He turned back and continued walking towards the already-dying-before-the-Crash town. There wouldn’t be much stock waiting to be turned into steel on-site, not with the mill already heading towards closing. They’d really need at least one eighteen wheeler, preferably more, to make this kind of score worthwhile.

“Auction.”

“Forge you think? They’re situated on an old foundry.”

“Bit far. Don’t think they’d want to risk their trucks getting out here. Not really worth it otherwise.” Sarge focused on a house at the end of the lane for a moment — thought he’d saw movement in the windows. Another second and the curtain flapped back across the window. There was a breeze, it probably wasn’t an ambush.

Pixie sighed. “That’s a lot of steel to just abandon to rust and ruin.”

“Get Mort in front of the council. Enclave expedition back here, haul the stock back home, sell it on to Forge. Fund that fence upgrade and new houses we need. Need the Fencemen crew for security anyway, scrapping everything is going to be loud.”

“Ah. Yeah. That could work. I’ll pitch it to Mort at dinner.”

Sarge nodded and focused on the creek two hundred yards ahead. He appreciated Pixie's focus on the strategy level stuff — the kid was going honestly the only reason the two of them had a shot at getting out of this hell someday.

Waterway ahead still looked low and clear. Sarge waved at Mort to hurry it up a bit. The man was a good negotiator, just could not seem to ever improve that cardio of his, no matter how many times they all went over the fence.

Another Red Markets Drabble

Well, I thought was done with the previous Red Markets drabble, but then I saw this photo by Marchand Meffre. Hat tip to ElayesIldogan who posted it Tumblr and Xen0phile who's Tumblr I saw it on.

Mort grabbed the guardrail and wheezed a moment. He hated stairs. Hated heights, hated these rickety, decaying messes of forgotten civilization...

“You need a moment?” Pixie whispered.

“Can’t.”

“Sure we can, nobody’s made a bloody screaming mess yet. Better to catch your breath now than when we have Casualties bearing down on us.”

Mort just shook his head and hauled himself forward up the stairs after Sarge. The big man and his comfortingly-large pistol were on the next landing, carefully scanning the path forward. Mort didn’t want to find out how Sarge would live up to his reputation for verbally taking the hide off of folks who pissed him off if Mort forced too much separation between Sarge and Pixie. The kid might not know it, or might just be keeping it professional in the field, but Mort could see the signs. Sarge was keeping his sanity together by watching out for the kid.

“Last time I go into the field...” Mort muttered, finally creeping up to Sarge’s position.

Pixie and Sarge snorted simultaneously. 

“That’s what you said the last job Mort. And the time before that. Office door is 150 yards down the hall here. Pixie, rear. Mort, warm up your Ubiq specs.”

A Red Market Drabble

The writing prompt (seen on tanif's tumblr):

Image from silent-musings on Tumblr

Image from silent-musings on Tumblr

Pixie looked up at the maze of decaying pipes, girders, and pulleys. The smaller pipes might be salvageable without any equipment — just pull and jerk them off. The team would need to seal the building first though; that’d be loud and the area was still populated enough it’d attract casualties. Probably not the best use of their time. 

Maybe they could auction off the site location and intel on the LifeLines. There had to be an enclave in the area with enough of an industrial base to recycle all this scrap. They’d have to get on that before everything finished rusting out though. Maybe they’d need escort and security services. No reason not to use the crew that’d already done the recon.

Pixie made a note to float the idea past Mort on the walk home. Right now they needed to raid the upstairs office. 

Day 2471

Reposting a short story I contributed to the Technical Difficulties podcast's blog. Come check out our actual plays of Red Markets, Call of Cthulhu, and Eclipse Phase – you can hear what I sound like on the internet.


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–

Neo-octopus

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?”

 

As always, comments, questions, suggestions, and critiques welcomed in the comments section.

So my Shadow Run Game Master gave us homework...

Basically he was giving out in-game rewards for writing backstory (one karma point per 150 words, for you Shadow Run players). And, since I'm a dork, I did it. So here's a short (short) story... eh, okay, it's really some flash fan fiction I wrote in about 40 minutes Sunday morning. And then I'm going to pick apart everything wrong with it, you know, for when I clean it up for a second draft.


Ms. Dressler?” Gabbi asked, shifting a bit on her feet in front of her teacher’s desk. It was still 10 minutes before class was supposed to start this morning.

Ms. Dressler looked up from her handheld with a small sigh. “Yes, Liesel?”

Gabbi bit her tongue, just a little. Her name was Gabbi. Stupid school rules about first names only, no nicknames. “Um. The project due today? I um, never heard from the rest of my teammates. I tried contacting them, I swear, in school and after, but no one would talk to me. Um. I made a text file of all the times I tried. But, um. I couldn’t talk to them. Or find out what they wanted me to do on the project. So, um. Here’s my copy of the project,” Gabbi said, shooting a project file over to Ms. Dressler’s inbox via her open Matrix connection. “I um. I didn’t want to take up the team’s slot in the classroom… thingie.” Gabbi dropped her eyes back down and shuffled her feet again. She wasn’t sure but that might have been the most she’d said to anyone in one go all week.

The handheld made a small clunk against the desk. “Liesel, please look at me.”

Gabbi looked back up.

“Are you telling me that you did the entire team project by yourself?”

“Yes? I’m sure the rest of the team did the work too...”

“Liesel, that project was designed to take a team of four students two months to complete.”

“Oh.” Gabbi looked back down again and shrugged. “Maybe it’s not very good then…?”

“I’ll take a look. But Liesel, the next time you’re having trouble with your team, come to me and I’ll talk to them.”

Gabbi cringed, hunching her shoulders, and muttered “Yes ma’am.”

“You find that an unsatisfactory solution?”

“Um… That usually gets me hit.” A lock of white hair fell forward into Gabbi’s eyes and she tucked it back behind her ear “And they complain to the teachers I don’t do any work. And I get hit again if I protest… I’d rather just do the work…”

Ms. Dressler pinched the bridge of her nose and didn’t say anything for a moment. “Well, are you ready to present today?”

“Yes ma’am,” Gabbi said, swallowing hard. Presentations in meat space were the worst.

Ms. Dressler’s computer pinged Gabbi’s with an invite into the classroom Matrix node. “We have some time before class starts. Show me what you’ve got.”

Oh, in the Matrix. She could do that. Gabbi flashed Ms. Dressler a grateful smile and slipped into the Matrix space.

As a first draft, that's got more description and less talking-heads dialogue than usual for me, so that's an improvement. It's still very talking-heads though, not going to lie – still need to keep working on that.  For instance, Ms. Dressler needs some description. Like at all. And I need to look up the correct terminology around the Matrix in Shadow Run – I was stuck in the Eclipse Phase setting so words were not coming. (In my defense, all the SR books are at the GM's house.) I've gotten across that my main character, Gabbi, is bullied, but not that part of the reason is her albinism. And for all the description I've given, she could be anywhere from a middle school student up through college. And anywhere in the world. I can probably skip trying to place the story in location, but really do need to put in an age for the poor kid. And more physical description. Also, there's nothing truly specific to the Shadow Run setting here, which I suppose could be a good thing or bad thing depending on your point of view. The term Matrix, while used in the setting, is used in plenty of other worlds too, so that at least could convey what's going on with the computer systems to folks not versed in the setting. Maybe want to get into the story that there are other intelligent species, like elves, orcs, and dwarves, in this world. Maybe.

For flash fiction, I'm reasonably happy how it's come out. Honestly happier that I could write a) something short and b) how long it took. Once I sat down to write that is. Pretty sure this one percolated in my brain for a week, in that space between when I lie down for sleep and when I actually fall asleep.