Going dry

Going dry…I’m about 2/3rds through the rough draft and also let go a little physically this summer. So to spur myself into motivation on both fronts I am going dry until I finish the draft. If you catch me drinking at an event that is not a wedding or funeral I will give you 5$.

The only question remains is will I write faster or lose weight longer…

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3/4 the way through Dud

The third installment of The Adventures of Dud.

Dud wandered around the corridors trying to figure out where he was, but with no objects in the sky to orient himself to he was utterly lost. He figured his best bet was to keep walking along the metallic hallways until he met another being that could explain to him how to get back to the higher levels of the floating space station called Sanctuary.

Dud, why aren’t you back yet?” Lillith, his owner, said through the implant that was attached to the base of Dud’s skull. His fingers touched over the robotic parasite, pleased with himself for not dropping to his knees in pain for the first time.

Trying to find my way back, Baroness,” Dud thought in response.

His strength didn’t hold out, as his body wavered to the side and he crashed against the wall. When he closed his eyes he could see a schematic layout of the entire station with a blinking line that he could only assume he was supposed to follow. The device that was embedded in his brain allowed Lillith to locate and communicate with Dud regardless of their proximity, but that was just the simple function. It also had the ability to temporarily store information in his in his short term memory, which he liked, but also had the ability to fry his brain on command from his owner, which he didn’t like.

Sanctuary reminded him of an acorn in shape with layers like an onion. He couldn’t begin to guess how many kilometers of corridor looped around the floating city. Following the line laid out in his memory he tried to make sense of the layout, but having never seen more than a gathering of a few hundred people he couldn’t imagine how thousands subsided in a place that couldn’t have resources. Despite all the pondering he wanted to do, if he didn’t hurry he was likely to have his brain seared into a puddle.

Breaking into a run he followed the line around the corridor that seemed straight to him, but according to the blueprint he was gradually making his way along the outer corridor. Eventually he came another one of the machines that his crewmate, Mechboy had called an elevator.

The doors to the elevator slid open upon Dud’s approach and he stood inside. But nothing happened. He looked around the small box and tried to figure out how to work the contraption. Mechboy had pushed a button, but when Dud looked at the wall of buttons there were hundreds of them. He reviewed the schematic, but it didn’t tell him what button he needed to push.

Taking a deep breath he thought to Lillith which button he needed to push.

You are more incompetent than an infant,” Lillith replied. “Push number 1111, then when you get to the individual banks, let your SLET do the work.

Dud did as he was instructed. Once he pushed the correct button the doors whooshed closed and he felt himself traveling so fast through the elevator system he felt weightless. As he neared his final destination he realized that the elevator car was made of a see through material, not the metal he had been surrounded by in the shafts. In quick blurs Dud could see open spaces with beings inhabiting them, but they passed so fast that he couldn’t make out any details.

The elevator practically spit him out as he reached his floor. He moved forward on unsure legs toward something he recognized. It was a small green plant, that was growing out of a half wall. When he made it to the planted wall he clung to the edge of it like he would float away if he didn’t stay grounded.

What he saw on the other side of the wall was far more strange that the feeling he was recovering from. During his life on Terra-One the concept of clean had been slightly less dirty than everything else. The few settlements were practically made of dirt. This open area before him was the cleanest thing he had ever seen. The white walls shone with an incredible polish. The area in front of him was filled with people sitting at round tables. There were paper things he had seen once in his life before that someone had called cards. He remembered them because when he traded them he had received enough supplies to last him a month. They had been even more valuable than the occasional weapon he traded off a hunter.

And here they were at every one of the tables.

Besides the cards there were circular things that people would toss into or take out of the center of the tables. Some of the people looked ecstatic and others on the verge of tears. He wanted to stay and learn more about this place, but the image in his mind told him he still had a ways to go before he was safe from immediate death.

He followed the directions in his mind and skirted around the area filled with tables. Most the people playing cards were Terran like him, but there were a fair number of Stiations and Zeibs, as well as a handful of lesser beings.

Three loud sounds blared through the entire area, that reminded Dud of the sound a Rhinophant made when it charged. It had a similar effect as everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and looked up at the ceiling. What was a formerly white surface crackled with energy and it opened a view of something that wasn’t there. The scene on the ceiling showed a naked Terran woman who had her arms and legs bound hanging over a tank of yellowish liquid. Her brown hair hung over her face, and she seemed focused on something in the liquid below. Though she was dangling she held her body rigid, locked by fear.

A man appeared in front of the tank. He was short, which surprised Dud as he hadn’t seen many male Terran shorter than him since he left Terra-One. This man was broad though, more broad that the average Terran, and even under his black and gold uniform looked like he was made from rock. The man’s black hair came together in a horn like spike at the point where his hair met his forehead. His chin was sharp, and his eyes were soft, the only part about the man that looked weak.

The man held up a hand indicating the woman. “I present this as a reminder to each of you that here at Sanctuary we pride ourselves in being honest and upright. We are a refuge for those who need it and a safe haven for those in need of protection. All crimes committed on Sanctuary are punished by death. This woman, who I regret to admit was under my employ, stole from a room she was cleaning. I hold my staff to the same penalties of punishment as I would for any pedestrian. She has been proven guilty and is sentenced to death.”

At his final word she dropped into the tank, fully submerged. That’s when Dud noticed something familiar, one of the animals he feared back on Terra-One. It was a school of fish, each fish being about the size of his thumb. He understood why the tank was a yellow color, since the fish had a dark blue and white coloring it made them easy to see. These fish had a hard front lobe that formed almost into a beak. They had no teeth, but fed by spearing their way through another animal and swallowing the soft insides as they burrowed clear through the other side. He had known them as Spearheads.

The school of Spearheads swirled around the woman as she screamed out her air underwater. Dud hoped for her sake she could drown before the Spearheads attacked. The entire area, which held well over one-hundred people, was held in a single collective breath hold. As if exhaling was a crime, and no one wanted to face the tank.

She wasn’t lucky enough to drown. The first fish to strike shot through her open mouth and out the back of her head. As the yellow tank turned red the fish could be seen as a blue spot on one side of her body before they disappeared and a moment later appeared in a poof of red on the other side of the woman.

“Thank you for your attention in this matter and remember our number one priority in Sanctuary is the safety of you and your property. We keep all areas of under constant surveillance, but if you see something suspicious please report it to the nearest Guard,” the man said.

The image blinked out and the white roof returned. Everyone released their breath and sound came back to the room in a rush of chatter and clatter.

Dud continued on his journey, hoping to make it to the individual banks of elevators before his memory failed him. The one issue with the SLET was that after the initial upload it was up to memory to keep it. He had asked their Synthetic to upload his brain with all the information he would need to assimilate into the universe away from the prison planet he was born on, but had been informed that he would lose all of it since he wouldn’t be able to commit any of it to long term memory fast enough.

When he reached the other side of the area, he could just make out the place he had entered as a small speck. The wall he approached was lined with tubes that held oval capsules. Standing in front of each tube was a Synthetic. Each robot was put together in a unique shape. They all had one thing in common and that was a set of four arms, like a Zeib but they were more Terran in build. They all looked to him like a person with their skin peeled off, if their muscles and bones had been made of metal. The Synth’s had unique head shapes, and eye colors, they were even made to look more male or female.

As the approached the nearest tube a female Synth with orange eyes and a metal Mohawk held up her bone-like hand for him to stop.

“Present SLET for verification of ownership,” the Synth ordered.

Dud turned around and felt a warm charge run along his spine as the Synth placed a finger against the SLET.

“Ownership verified. Property labeled Dud belongs to the Baroness. Step into the tube,” the Synth said.

Doing as he was told, Dud stepped through the opening in the tube and into the capsule. It closed around him in a similar fashion to the pod, but it wasn’t skin tight. When the capsule peeled back Dud was standing in front of what looked like an old fashioned wood door with iron knockers, but it parted open down the center and slid to the sides. Dud decided that he shouldn’t trust anything here on face value.

The room inside was expansive. There was a sunken area that was line with cushioned seating. Over to his right there was a long black bar that had a neat stack of different sized glasses running down the center of it. Through a clear wall that ran the length of the apartment Dud could see their talon like ship sealed in an airlock. At the far end of the room there was a device Dud hadn’t seen before. It was shaped like his favorite letter, U, and was laid on a set of legs with a stool in front of the wide end. There was another door along the far wall.

Lillith sat in the circular sunken area, with Hav’Nek standing behind her. Dud had seen plenty of Zeib in his day, but Hav’Nek was the largest. He wore nothing but his tribal cloth which exposed most of his bronze colored, heavily muscled body. The male stood a full decameter? taller than Dud. The only hair on his entire body was the grease black pony tail that sprouted from a fist sized area at the top of his head. With all four arms crossed over his massive chest, Hav’Nek was formidable even without his usual arsenal of weapons.

The size of Hav’Nek made the man sitting across from Lillith look even smaller. It was the same man from the execution still dressed in his black uniform lined in gold.

“Baroness you have my deepest apologies. I hate to use anything other than Synths, but with the prison planet sales it hard to turn down such a good price. Your apartment will never be tended by a living being again,” the man in black said.

“Mordawrf, don’t burden yourself with any guilt on such an unevolved creature. My dress has been returned, the culprit has been punished,” Lillith said.

Dud’s brain put the pieces together. The woman he had seen killed by the Spearheads had been in charge of caring for Lillith’s apartment and had stolen a dress. An article of clothing she paid for with her life. On one hand he respected the code of the Sanctuary, but on the other couldn’t help but feel that was too harsh of a punishment.

“What I don’t understand is what she thought was going to happen? She could slip away dressed like a wealthy person and escape my employ?” Mordawrf asked.

“My dear Mordawrf, these prison duds are dumber than a newborn baby. They don’t understand our ways.” Lillith nodded toward Dud who hadn’t moved from inside the doorway. “I too have been lured by the excellent prices on these damaged goods, so for my forgiveness I would appreciate you giving my dud a tour of Sanctuary and explain to him the rules of this place so he doesn’t make a similar mistake to your former employee.”

“Absolutely, Baroness. What do you call your property?”

“Just Dud. Also if you could get him properly dressed so he looks more respectable and less like property I would appreciate that as well. Just add it to my credit.”

“It will be on the house of course. After I failed in my duty to uphold the protection of a patron, it is the least I can do.”

Dud didn’t want new clothes, he wanted his old Terra-One clothes back, but he knew he couldn’t argue with Lillith.

“Your services have always been above and beyond. Now Dud, how did the business down below go?” Lillith asked.

Dud gave a curt nod. “I delivered Mechboy to the mechanic, who agreed to fix him for ten marine suits.”

“I told you to offer him thirteen.”

“I am sorry, Baroness, but I thought that I could make you some extra money if he was willing to do the work for less,” Dud said, hoping that he was safe from her rage by disobeying her for a positive reason. He could see the anger pass through the features on her face as the scrunched tight, before relaxing and ending with a fake laugh.

“Of course that is wonderful. For a simple-minded creature you do think for yourself a great deal.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said bowing his head again.

Mordawrf rose from the cushions and walked over to Dud. He clapped him on the back and turned him away from the apartment. “Let’s get you the tour.”

Dud walked alongside the broad man and listened to him talk as they made their way down a corridor that was filled with doors that resembled Lillith’s. Dud was informed that this entire row, which wrapped all the way around Sanctuary were permanent resident apartments. These apartments cost more than most planets, and of all the people who called Sanctuary home, Lillith was the only one to actually own her spot. Lillith’s father, who was known as the Baron, bought it for her for her sixteenth birthday. Her ship was her twenty-first birthday present. Those two purchases could have bought most of a solar system.

Mordawrf spoke well of the Baron, and explained that he was the leader of the main syndicate of crime in the Common Wealth system. He was the closest thing they had to a governing body before he died.

His syndicate always expected Lillith to be the one to take over the family business, but her younger brother had other plans. Mordawrf said he was one of the few people who knew she was happy about that fact. She wanted to have a different life and was happy to hand her position to him. The syndicate didn’t feel that way though and it schismed the unification. Her brother still controlled the majority of the former syndicate that used to exist under their father’s rule, but there were many out there trying take control or force it to Lillith. This turned out to be a major issue as her brother now was constantly hunting her because he felt he could solidify his command.

Mordawrf put a hand on Dud’s shoulder. “My boy, I will kill you if you mention any of this to her. I just figured you should know what you’ve been drafted into.”

Dud hardly was listening as they were standing in front of a screen that was showing a bunch of Terran’s running around in an area lined by a rectangle. Different numbers were scrolling across the screen, but Dud couldn’t make any sense of it. There was an object they were fighting over.

“Are we watching a fight?” Dud asked.

“Of sorts. It’s called sports. They are competing against each other for points. The team with the most wins.” Mordawrf replied.

Dud shrugged and followed Mordawrf along as he went through an explanation of how the Sanctuary worked, though Dud understood few of the things he was actually saying. The entire outer perimeter was a solar array, and at the core was a Furenium reactor. Though the science of Furenium reactors made no sense to Dud he did grasp that is was worth more money than a dead planet and it had a rejuvenate power cycle where it would start with low outputs grow to a critical level over years, but instead of exploding it would die, only to start over again.

There was so much that Dud didn’t understand about this world and he needed to learn fast if he was going to stay alive long enough to keep seeing the universe.

“On Terra-One there were sages you could trade with for information. Are there people like that here?” Dud asked, as they stepped into an elevator.

“There are a lot of people here selling information. It’s probably the most traded commodity in Sanctuary. But I think the knowledge you’re seeking is free,” Mordwarf said, pushing a button.

“Nothing is free,” Dud said. That was one of the first lessons the Cartographer ever taught him. Everything had a price.

“I suppose technically you need to purchase a device to view the information on.”

“I have nothing to barter with.”

Mordwarf clapped him on the shoulder. “Here in the civilized world we have things called credits. They are how we pay for things.”

The elevator doors opened and they stepped out into a room that made Dud wonder if he was back on Terra-One. They were on a raised metal platform at the top of a circular seating area. Where the seating ended was where Dud felt home. The center of the seating area looked like a desert on Terra-One to add to the reminiscence there was a rot wolf and a rhinophant calf in the center. The rhinophant was a squat, broad creature, with a thick armor like hide. It’s head had a skull cap, then the snout formed into a stout trunk that reached the ground. The mouth was under the trunk and had a short horn that pointed down. In the wild it would use this to dig for food that it would then pick up with its trunk, but in defense it could be used just as well to impale an attacker, but the skull cap was its main deterrent.

Dud looked at the masses of people surrounding the center area hollering as the two animals tore and thrashed at each other. Dud had never seen so many people in one place before.

There was a sickening crack as the skull cap of the rhinophant caught the side of the rot wolf sending it to the ground. Dud cringed as the rhinophant dropped its full weight, led by the horn onto the rot wolf. As the crowd howled or booed, Dud could only wonder how his three were doing without him.

“I don’t have much stomach for these creature combats, but I try to give the people what they want. This is the only arena I have and it’s small bones compared to the planetside ones. I can only host whelping weights, which is animals under eight hundred kilos,” Mordwarf said.

Dud didn’t respond, he was still trying to process the event unfolding before him. However a woman, standing in the top row turned around at the sound of Mordwarf’s voice.

She was tall and lean, like most everyone here, with long blonde hair, braided meticulously to stay in line with her spine. She wore a black uniform similar to Mordwarf’s with the only difference being a silver finishing.

“Boss, I didn’t expect you down here today. Did I miss a comm?” she said.

“Milla, you missed nothing. I wanted to see you in person. This young lad is Dud, I was hoping you could get him set up for Sanctuary living,” Mordwarf said.

Milla looked eye to eye with Dud, then back at Mordwarf. “Forgive me for asking, but why me over a synth?”

“The boy comes from Terra-One and I feel that a Terran touch would do best, and of all my officers I trust you most. Please keep in mind he is not just our guest but the guest of the Baroness.”

Milla’s face drained of all color.

“What all would you like me to do, sir?”

“Get him set up with a minimal lodging in a higher level, I believe we still have singles available there. Give him a tour of the places he will need to know, how to use our travel systems, oh, and please get him a wrister on my credit please.” Mordwarf clapped Dud on the shoulder. “I am leaving you in good hands. If you should have any need of me any Synth you see can immediately get in touch.”

Mordawrf went back to the elevator and returned to his day. Milla’s face regained some color, but her pale skin held a tinge of red.

“Follow me,” she said.

Dud did as she said and followed her back to the elevators. The pressurized tube that held the elevator moved them to the next location. The entire trip Milla never said a word. The car traveled lower and toward the center of the space station.

The area the elevator eventually opened up to was a gigantic open area that held most of the living quarters and shopping areas. The circular area of the first floor, where are the stores were located, was a kilometer round. The apartments and rooms were housed in the floors above, with each floor having a balcony that looked over the shopping area below. The open space of the community area was cone shaped with the living floors narrowing in the higher they were. The area was full of life as all different species of people went about their business. Outside of the Sanctuary many of these people were enemies, and with the exception of the business owners they were all freelancers, but in their safe haven they were all able to let their guard down without having to worry about getting shot in the back.

It reminded Dud of an ant hill, just without the biting. The thing that left Dud in awe was the amount of goods present in one location. There were items he recognized, things like clothes, and food, but there were so many different shops all dedicated to technology that Dud didn’t even have a guess at what it was.

Milla led him through the clusters of people until she stopped in a store that had walls lined with wristers which were clear sleeves that served as a computer device. It could handle locations, information, communications, and even had a flashlight. When the screen or projector wasn’t needed it could be rolled up into a bracelet.

Dud had one on his arm and kept hitting the command for the roll up and unroll. He could hardly feel he was wearing it. Milla grabbed his wrist as he was about to unroll it for eleventh time.

“You are such a Neanderthal. I give you access to any information in the universe and you are distracted by a convenience feature,” Milla said.

Dud cocked his head at her. “What’s a Neanderthal?”

She tapped a button on the wrister and it unrolled down his arm. She tapped a button and told him to ask again. This time the wrister picked up the question and the sleeve turned into an information filled screen loaded with information about the pre-evolved Terran.

Dud scrolled through the information when the Stiation shop owner walked to them and crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t say anything, but Dud could tell from her amber eyes that she didn’t want him to keep using the device.

“Surana, we’ll take this one. Please credit the cost against this month’s rent,” Milla said with a smile.

Surana gave a curt nod and left them without a word. In her wake a Terran man who had been browsing the inventory came up behind Dud.

Dud heard him approaching, but didn’t turn around until he saw the color drain from Milla’s cheeks. The man approaching was Lillith’s Brother.

“That’s a good model, but you think you could have got the simple boy a top of the line model since you’re buying on Daddy’s credit,” GEORGE said.

Milla looked to Dud like small game did to his pack of wolves when it was finally run down and cornered. GEORGE stood there grinning ear to ear like he was the only one in on a joke.

“Are you jealous her Dad’s credit is better than yours?” Dud asked. Milla’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist with vice like strength, and pulled him away from GEORGE.

“I don’t think you have any grounds to be insulting anyone’s father when you are a dud made from criminals,” GEORGE said, as Dud let himself be drug out of the store.

Milla hurried down a zigzag line cutting through the crowds, still pulling Dud behind. “Don’t antagonize that man.”

“I thought all crimes are punished by death here,” Dud responded.

“They are, but there is a much bigger universe than Sanctuary.”

Dud wasn’t sure since he hadn’t heard the tone in years, but he felt like she actually cared about how long he would live.

Her color came back as they rode an elevator to the top floor of apartments. The pinnacle floor had only four doors that all were concave. She uncovered a panel that had a glass screen under it and tapped in a long code. She then had Dud place one hand at a time on the glass while looking into a smaller circular piece of glass, which scanned his hands and retinas. Then she had him create a sixteen finger tap combination in case he ever needed to override the scanner. The door parted in the middle and slid away as they walked into the room.

The room was shaped like a wedge of cheese. At the narrow end he could touch both walls, but it fanned out into an area that was about four arm lengths wide. Dud was expecting something technology laden, but the room was just a space occupied by a cot.

“For members of the Baroness’s crew we float you guys the first month’s rent. After that a bill will be sent to your wrister.,” Milla said taking his arm and showing him how to access his personal page on the device. By registering his retina’s and hands Sanctuary opened an account for him to put credits in which read 0. In an area labeled contacts Milla placed her finger there for three seconds and he watched the device register her name into that section.

“If you need me for anything tap that and it will hail me,” Milla said.

“Is it a safe assumption I shouldn’t worry about next month’s rent,” Dud said.

“Not paying rent will result in the confiscation of your belongings and a ban from Sanctuary that will be punished by death if you should ever return,” Milla said.

“I don’t expect I’ll still be alive then,” Dud said.

Milla looked away. “You’re the first one to make it to Sanctuary in a long time. Have faith.”

Faith was a foreign concept to Dud. There were a variety of religions on Terra-One but he had always been the master of his own fate.

“Did you know any of my predecessors?”

“Only one. My father usually has Synth’s take care of tasks like this.”

“What were they like?”

“As far as dud’s go, he was pretty perfect. Strong for not having any augmentations. Smart without having to use stims. Beautiful for no enhancements.” Milla’s eyes glossed over like she was going to cry.

Dud wasn’t sure how to comfort her. There wasn’t much personal interaction in his life. The cartographer had raised him to be tough, and he never once saw the old man shed a tear.

“If you’re good here, I have work to get back to,” Milla said, heading for the door.

Dud snatched her wrist. He wanted to say something kind, but he wasn’t sure what you told someone who had lost someone close to them. The only two times he had lost people in his life he had been alone.

So instead he said, “What’s the game played with the pieces of paper with numbers on them?”

“Cards. More specifically poker. You’ll have look it up past that since we offer hundreds of games. Have a good day, Neanderthal,” Milla said pulling her arm free.

“Thanks for your help. I’m not used to needing it, but these last couple days I’ve been in pretty deep,” Dud said, sitting on the cot.

“Just take it little by little.” And with that she was gone.

Dud was alone. The tiny little cheese wedge of a room was the first room he had had since his mother died. Part of him missed the great expanse of sky that seemed to stretch on forever, but it was a fair trade for a universe that did go on forever.

He poked at his wrister like a senile bird hunting for worms. Any information he could ever want was at his fingertips and it felt intoxicating. At the same time having such a wide ability to seek out anything made it difficult to find somewhere to start. Feeling like he should look up something more important than a card game, but unable to think of what he wanted to know first, he settled for learning about poker.

Milla hadn’t been lying. There were hundreds of different games. He navigated his way through a few different games. He figured out at the core they were all the same, using the same deck of cards, just the variation of hand size differentiated them.

Terra Hold’em caught his attention and he dove in. The game had four rounds of betting. At first each player was dealt three cards, then the first round of betting would happen, and each player would discard one card from their hand. Then the dealer would flip over three community cards called the river, followed by a round of betting. After that the dealer would flip a fourth community card called the turn, which was then followed by a round of bets. The fifth and final card was named the river and was followed by the final round of betting. The best five card hand won the pot.

The reason he liked the concept of poker was that it was asserting yourself mentally over other people. The only issue he had was that he had no credits. Without money he couldn’t play.

A ding came from his wrister and he looked down at a blinking notification that said message. He tapped the message and Milla’s head was on the screen.

“I figured you would want to try out poker by now. I got you a small loan for one-hundred credits. You have thirty-six hours to pay it back or you get hit with one percent interest each day thereafter. Just click accept if you want it. Good luck,” she said.

“Thank you,” Dud said before he realized it was a recorded message. The loan appeared on his screen and he clicked to accept it. He asked his wrister the fastest way to a Terra Hold’em game and followed the directions through a set of the super tubes.

Within minutes he was on the poker floor and sitting at a table. It was a small stakes table, and he noticed most the people at his table were also wearing SLETS, but in the dozens of high stakes players there was only one player with a SLET.

When he took his seat he was instructed by the Synth dealer to place his finger on the pad in front of him and Dud’s seat was credited with one-hundred dollars.

As he began playing it was clear why there was only one Zeib and one Stiation at the table with eight Terran. The Zeib had such a limited range of emotions that he had few options to bluff, while gambling was against the main Stiation religion.

All ten of them had one thing in common. They were all poor. Most of them were dressed in drab clothing and were unkempt. All but one was property.

An hour later Dud had figured the game out pretty well and doubled his money. He would have sat there for hours if his SLET hadn’t chimed in.

“Dud I need you to go check on the progress of Mechboy. I’m looking to acquire a contract need to know if we will be at full staff, but he’s not responding,” Lillith said.

“Yes, Baroness.”

Dud put his finger on the scanner and his money was transferred to his account. He clicked on the loan he had taken out, and sent enough money to pay it off. He consulted the best way to get back to the machine shop from the wrister and made his way down.

The machine shop was dark and poorly lit, with each different type of mechanic staking his claim by building an area out of supply boxes and parts. Dud set his wrister to illuminate and used the low light to help navigate through the area that reminded him of animal graveyards on Terra-One with the scavengers pecking about.

Eventually Dud made it to the part-man part-machine’s sector. There was a loud racket of whirling machines as Dud moved into view. Mechboy was laid out of a metal work bench. He was naked with his spine flawed open. He looked like he was in a deep coma as the mechanic dug around with one tool that looked like a miniature buzz saw and another that was a pencil sized soldering iron.

Ronald noticed Dud standing there and halted his work.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“The baroness wants to know when Mechboy will be fully operational,” Dud replied, looking at a pile of parts that used to be the marine suits.

“He will be mechanically fine in a few hours.” The mechanics wiped sweat from running into his robotic eye. “Is that all?”

Dud stood there contemplating how pointless his errand felt now that he was understanding how to use a wrister. There were any number of ways that Lillith could have found out when Mechboy would be operational.

“You know why I’m here,” Dud said, having no idea other than there had to be something more.

“And I’ll tell you the same thing I told that bastard brother of hers. You can’t lay harm to me here, and I can’t be bought. So, if you don’t mind I will get back to work,” The mechanic said returning to his task in a shower of sparks.

Dud figured that had to have been the information she was looking for, and he’d deliver it to her. Plus he was curious what their next job would be.

As he made his way toward the elevators, he wondered if Mechboy played any poker. It would be nice to have a familiar at the table. His thoughts were cut short as someone grabbed him by the wrist and threw him into one of the mechanic bays. The large supply boxes were stacked taller than him and formed a three sides of a rectangle. The area was small and based on the half built hover bikes this mechanic specialized in small transport. However it wasn’t a mechanic that drug him in.

George blocked his path out with two henchmen. One was a female Zeib, who was barely covered in her tribal wraps which snaked around her body covering her top and bottom breast pairs and her hips. The other was a male Stiation, one that Dud wished he didn’t recognize, but the Stiation’s right hand was replaced by a synthetic one.

“Dear boy, I am glad we ran into you,” George said.

Dud steeled himself knowing they couldn’t harm him here.

“I have the distinct feeling you were looking for me,” Dud said.

“Right you are. How would you like your freedom?”

That was something he wanted desperately. He didn’t mind the life style with Lillith but he did hate the fact that she was continually keeping him in death’s way and could kill him with a thought.

“What’s the price?”

“All you have to do is kill my sister,” George said. “I’ve even got our mutual friend here to agree to call off his Dablakahn  against you if you kill her. However I have to thank you for taking his hand, my syndicate has never been stronger since I was able to bring in Imota and those that stayed loyal to him.”

The Stiation smiled at Dud bearing his small dagger like teeth. Dud had been off his planet for a few days and he already made an enemy.

“And If I decline your generous invitation?” Dud asked, more to buy himself some time to try to find an out, than to actually get an answer.

“I’ll send word around to my darling sister that you are planning to kill her, and you will be dead before you can even think about it,” George said tapping the back of his head.

“Well, then, shall we get to it? Wouldn’t want her to die before I can get there,” Dud said. He wasn’t sure what he would do, but he knew his best bet was to go along with the plan.

“Val’Tia will accompany you. I can’t expect someone so devolved to be able to take on my sister. You just need to open the door,” George said.

Val’Tia placed her right hands in a fist against the open palms of her left hands and bowed her head.

“Follow me then,” Dud said pushing past George and shooting a glare at Imota.

Val’Tia followed Dud into the elevator and he navigated his way back through the tubes of the space station. As they moved closer to Lillith’s penthouse Dud couldn’t figure out how to get himself out of the situation.

George was right though, if Lillith got word he was trying to harm her, his brain would be mush. There was no way he could tip her off without letting his Zeib escort know what he was up to, and Dud stood no chance of going hand to hand with her. He wasn’t sure how any of this wasn’t going to end up with him being dead since he’d be violating the laws of Sanctuary.

As his tube took him closer to Lillith, he did his best to keep his thoughts away from the words Lillith and kill in case his SLET would alert her to the threat. She had told him on his first day that she’d fry him for even thinking of it.

No matter what happened Dud realized he wasn’t coming out of this situation alive. Lillith might be his owner, but she had freed him from a prison life. If it hadn’t been for her, he’d of died on Terra-One. He at least saw another planet in his life.

He was running out of time. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m coming to kill you. I’m coming to kill you. I’m coming to kill you.

The elevator stopped. He expected to drop dead. But he didn’t. He approached Lillith’s door with Val’Tia beside him. Nearing the door, he heard a beep from his SLET and figured that was the end of him. Instead the door opened.

The two of them walked into the room. Dud felt sweat beading down his forehead and a tingle up his spine. The same tingle he had back on Terra-One when a predator was watching him but he couldn’t see it.

Val’Tia let out a scream as she fell face first to the floor. Lillith had her legs wrapped around the Zeib’s lower arms while she locked the upper set with her own arms. When she let go, Val’Tia was bound.

Her black eyes locked on him as a smile spread across her stoic face. “You’re lucky I don’t think you are dumb enough to come after me.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said.

She rose and came over to Dud. He froze. Waiting for her to strike. As the day had proven, he was wrong again. Her warm lips pressed against his cheek.

“My brother isn’t dumb enough to think this would work, he was testing you. Hail Mordwarf,” Lillith said.

Dud gave her a nod and carried out her request trying to forget the feel of her lips.

Gotta remember it’s a job not a hobby

Back in April I was visiting a good friend of mine. I was talking about my job and my life and all that stuff. He interrupted me and said I’ve never heard you say your dream in life was to be a professor, you were always out to be a writer and you are a writer. If you’re going to do it, do it.

Last night I was talking with my girlfriend(for those of you following along we’ve moved up from engf). I was saying how I planned to spend today writing. She said that makes sense since you’re a writer.

When paying the bills it’s easy to lost sight of it. While lounging in my casual sweat pants and writing shirt it’s very hard not to feel like it’s just a hobby.

So today I reminded myself it’s a job. I showered. I dressed. I fancied my hair. Even put on nice shoes. And clichely drove to the local coffee shop to have a marathon session with the page.

Remember, whether it is writing or not, whatever you do in this world, if you don’t take yourself seriously no one else will. Be what you are meant to be.

The Adventures of Dud: Episode 1

So, what you’re about to get into is the first of a set of linked short stories I was working on a few years back. It was fun, but lost steam when I started back into the Primal Age Chronicles. There are a few more of these laying around, so hopefully you all enjoy.

Should go without saying, but these are my works and any use of them without my permission will result in bad karma, some stern looks, and possibly some legal action. So, don’t go stealing bones from my graveyard. PS, no idea what level of edited I left this in, so forgive typos and all that yada yada.

Enjoy.

The metal pod surrounding Dud kept him securely in place as he plummeted toward the ground. He couldn’t even scratch the itch on his nose.

Until three days ago he had never been in space, or beheld what technology could do. He had been wandering on a prison planet staying alive by hunting with a simple weapon called a bow. The rest of the slave crew he joined was as impressed by the simple tool as he was by the craft that took him amongst the stars he had only ever watched from the ground.

Now he was hurtling at a speed he didn’t want to calculate toward a planet he had never heard of before today. Everything seemed new to him. It was like the awakening of a child though he was somewhere past his puberty years but before being a full blown adult. The experience would be positive if it wasn’t for the fact that he was a bought piece of property that’s lifespan was only a few hours until this mission was accomplished.

He was being dropped on a swampy planet that belonged to a species of sentient beings called Stiations, an amphibious humanoid. There had been plenty of Stiations on Terra-One, the prison planet he was born on, but few of them spoke the same language as Dud. During his years of wandering the planet he had interacted with enough Stiations for one lifetime.

It already felt like a lifetime since he left Terra-One. Terra-One was a planet that had been nearly wiped out of all useable resources. Dying planets like that were worthless to sustaining large amounts of life and were sold at low prices. Sometimes a religious cult would purchase them to try to escape the ruling government, but no one ever truly escaped the Central Powers.

Terra-One had once been two-thirds covered in water, but now there were five trenches that provided the only guaranteed water. These trenches spanned for thousands of miles but were mostly contained in the dried bed that had once been the largest ocean on the planet. Most of the inmates could be found in their own makeshift societies that condensed around these water sources. From orbit it was easy to track the population centers on the surface due to every inmate being ID tracker tagged.

Dud was raised for the first few years of his life by his mother on Terra-One. He didn’t know exactly how long because he wasn’t introduced to the concept of years until later in life. He also didn’t know if his father and mother had been a couple of inmates who fell in love with each other or if he was what was called a ‘forced child’. Besides not knowing any of that he didn’t even know his mother’s name or her sentence.

He did know the one memory that woke him up most nights was the day his mother died. His mother was trying to teach him how to write the alphabet. Even though Dud was up to par on speech she felt it was important he learned how to write in case he ever found a way off the planet. Dud was a stubborn child and refused to write a single letter. They lived in a hut so small his mother could hardly stand up but she had built him a spider tunnel that he could use if they were ever attacked.

There was such little technology left on Terra-One that they lived a primitive existence. The only people who had the remaining technology weren’t the type of people a single woman with a child wanted to come across. He could recount the day as clearly as if he had to relive it.

Dud had been sitting on the floor at a small table that had a bleached animal hide about a foot long that he was supposed to be writing on with a charcoal pencil, but was much more effectively pouting with his hands crossed over his chest. His mother had sat opposite him running a hand through her greasy blonde hair.

“Please, just one letter. Just one letter. Your favorite one. I don’t care which one,” his mother had pleaded.

Dud had just shook his head.

“Why can’t you just do this one thing to make me happy? Please, will you do this for-”

It had been the first time Dud had ever heard an engine, but it had been enough to stop his mother mid-word. She had sprung to her feet, rolled up his parchment and rushed to the makeshift mattress they both slept on. The bedding had a plastic liner to give them some insulation from the ground. Rolling the mattress back she had revealed an escape tunnel.

It hadn’t been the first time Dud saw this. His mother had made him practice escaping through it almost weekly. He’d wiggle his way through it like a worm until he came out the other side, then he would wait patiently until his mother came to claim him. Dud had known this wasn’t something he could pout through and went to the hole.

“Mommy loves you,” she had said as she handed him the parchment and kissed his cheek.

Dud had climbed into the hole and wiggled his way through the dark tunnel. To this day he hadn’t figured out why she gave him the parchment, and it haunted him he never told her he loved her too. In his child’s mind he hadn’t put together what was going to happen, that it would be the last time he ever saw his mother’s green eyes alive with the fire of life.

He had done like he was supposed to and crawled through the tunnel until he emerged in a thicket that he laid in for an entire day waiting for his mother to come. When she never did, he had climbed into his tunnel and wiggled back to their hut.

This was the first time he had seen a dead person.

His mother had been hardly recognizable. Her blood had been cold and soaking into the ground by the time he came back. He had shaken her remains hoping she would wake up, but even in his tiny brain he knew it was hopeless.

He had gone over to the table and unrolled the parchment. With his blood covered finger he made one letter. His favorite. U.

Two days later when he hadn’t moved from the table he decided to give up his vigil and go get some water. Being careful never to look at his mother he had retrieved the child sized bow and arrows she had made for him, slung their two water skins over his neck, and headed for the door. Before he left the hut he rolled up his parchment and stuck it in his little quiver.

It was a decent trek on small legs to get to the water. His mother had set them as far away as she could safely leave him behind to go get water. Water meant predators, not just of the humanoid kind.

Dud was tired, hungry, and thirsty though so he trekked on until he reached the water. The trenches were fascinating to him. Land ended then thousands of feet of water began. There was no gradual transition. One leap to the next.

When he hit the clearing around the water he inched forward making sure there was nothing to eat him lurking around. Sure he was safe Dud lowered his skins into the water.

“Mind sharing with an old man?”

Dud practically jumped into the water at the sound of the voice. An elderly man was standing behind him. This was a remarkable feat. Dud had never seen an old person before. This man had long white hair with a matching beard. He was wrapped in a coat and wore a backpack that didn’t look like it was made of any hide Dud had ever seen. The man leaned heavily on a walking stick. The lines on the man’s face were cut so deep into his face that Dud couldn’t understand how the man wasn’t in pain.

Judging the man was not a threat Dud held his water skin out to the man. When he offered the man his water he didn’t know that he would be acquiring a mentor. This man that he knew as George but the rest of Terra-One knew simply as the Cartographer, would provide him with protection and knowledge.

George was a legend on Terra-One. So revered by every faction he was untouchable. The man earned his legend by traveling thousands of miles from the trench to find areas that had once been civilization before Terra-One was dried up. George was a practitioner of map making which earned him his name.

In the ten years Dud traveled with George he learned how to make maps, handle wild animals, hunt, forage, haggle, trade, and survive with nothing but his brain. This is also when Dud learned the concept of years. George died in what he called his seventy-first year of life.

The one skill Dud had loved more than any other was being able to integrate himself with wild creatures. Terra-One had more than its fair share of man eating creatures. Few were more feared than the moss wolves. They looked eye to eye with a full grown man while standing on all fours, but had the rat like ability to lay their bodies totally flat. Due to their mangy coats they could lie on a forest floor and blend in completely. Even their green or brown eyes didn’t give them away.

After Dud lost his mentor, he needed to find protection he could trust. It took him a few months but over time he cultivated a following of three moss wolves. He had found them as pups and fed them from his kills. It didn’t take long for them to bond to him like a member of their pack.

At night when he slept they would form a triangle around him. He felt totally safe from any predator, be it man or creature. That feeling of safety was the same thing that got him in trouble two weeks ago. He lay like he usually did, curled around his pack, coat wrapped around him, his child sized bow attached to his wrist, and the three wolves quietly breathing around him.

What he didn’t know was that the owners of Terra-One had a fire sale on any noncriminal on the planet. People like Dud didn’t have trackers in them, or any form of registration that made them a real person outside of Terra-One. However their numbers and movements were tracked from orbit. Like any other form of property he was bought and paid for.

People living on Terra-One couldn’t make as much noise as his captures were and survive long. The first snag of a branch had Dud’s eyes open. It only took moments for his well-trained eyes to adjust to the dark. The people coming for him were unlike the primitive prison population of the planet. One was a Terran like him, but was encased in a large metal contraption that looked lethal. The second was a ten-feet-tall Zieb, a four armed humanoid that had a thick hide and basically made of muscle. In two of his hands he held high tech rifles that Dud had never seen before and in his other two he held long curved blades.

Dud knew his wolves were waiting for his whistle to attack or retreat, but he had no idea what these outsiders technology could do. As much as the wolves were expendable to his existence, they were still his pack and he felt responsible for them. His only option was to get more information.

Standing with his hands up Dud presented himself before the two people. With a simple whistle he could set his wolves to action. It took longer than Dud expected for them to see him, but eventually they both trained their weapons on him.

“We’ve got one,” the terran said.

Dud wasn’t sure who he was talking to but it definitely wasn’t the Zieb and there were no other people with him.

The terran turned to the Zied. “Pods are inbound.”

“Come with us, or I hurt you,” the Zeib said, flashing a horse tooth sized grin.

Dud knew they weren’t associated with any of the clans on the planet. With the tech they had on them they wouldn’t be trusted outside of any stronghold. They might be company men, but they would have no reason to come collect him. Occasionally someone would pay to hunt a prisoner, but if that was the case they would have already shot. They might be trying to take him off planet, and if that was the case he didn’t really care who they were. If he could get off planet he could have a chance at a different life. He trusted himself enough to be able to get out of the worst of situations, and wherever they wanted to take him couldn’t be worse than Terra-One. They were a chance he would accept.

“Okay,” Dud said.

A sour look replaced the Zeib’s toothy grin. There was a strange sound like air escaping a contained space before the three pods landed side by side. The pods looked to Dud like metallic coffins. They waved him toward the middle one. Dud stepped over his ring of wolves, which he could feel watching him, and walked up to the pod wondering what would await him when it opened next.

As his pod closed around him he let out a long whistle followed by two short ones. The three wolves sprung to their feet and took off through the trees. Catching one last look of his pack as they disappeared he wondered if he would ever see them again.

When the pod opened he had no idea the world he would be walking into. The Cartographer had educated him on everything he knew, but there were even more advancements that Dud could never have fathomed.

He was on what he was told was a small spaceship. Since it was the only spaceship he had ever seen he had no frame of reference. Despite Dud’s curiosity he didn’t even get to explore the ship. The moment he came out of his pod the four armed Zieb hauled him into a sterile room where he was strapped to a table.

Dud’s heart pounded in his ears, but he used a trick George had taught him to remain calm in the worst situations. Forcing his exterior to look calm it slowly permeated through him until he became calm both inside and out and relaxed against the restraints.

From where he lay he couldn’t see much of the room, but he heard a clacking sound like someone was walking with metal boots on the metal floor coming toward him. His heart tried to speed up again, but Dud wouldn’t let himself feel fear when he didn’t even know the situation.

Then a metallic head that reminded Dud of a bee peered over him. He released the leash on his heart and let it run as fast as it could. The bee-head was attached to a metal body that looked like a Terran with its skin removed. George had once explained these metal men to Dud as something called a robot, and Dud’s heart immediately slowed down.

For only a moment before a long needle extended from the pointer finger of the robot’s hand and slid into his elbow. There had been a few people on Terra-One that did experiments on other inmates. George dealt with everyone, regardless of if he liked them or not. Dud had seen an experiment once, and he wondered what type of person could do that to another being. Now he was the test subject.

Maybe he shouldn’t have come so willingly into a world he didn’t know.

The antenna on the robot clicked around a few different positions then all the hexagon eyes turned away from Dud.

The metallic voice sounded like a soft hide by a warm fire, and Dud couldn’t figure out how something so smooth could come from such a creature. “Pure dud. Absolutely no enhancements or mods. Biologically no different than the first Terran into space.”

From the foot end of the table a female voice spoke, but Dud couldn’t move his head to see the recipient. “Then he won’t be a waste. Insert his bug and then get him briefed with the Mech.”

For a moment he was glad to hear what sounded like a Terran voice, but lost any good feeling when his veins burned like fire was pumping through them. His muscles felt like acid was eating them away, then finally his mind went blank and he passed out.

When he came to he was in the same room but was no longer strapped to the table. He sat up slowly dangling his legs over the side of the table. His entire body ached like he had been trampled by a herd of rhinophants. He ran a hand through his hair to find the long hair he used to have had been cropped into a close buzzcut. Worst of all there was something metal sticking out of the base of his skull, like someone had installed a button on his head.

“You’ll get used to it, but it’s best not to play with it.”

Dud turned toward the voice and saw that man, correction teenager, who had been in the metal suit on the surface of Terra-One. However he wasn’t in his metal suit anymore. He was in a tight fitting outfit that covered him from neck to toe. The forearms and calves of the suit were black while the rest was a dull gray. The kid was blonde with eyes as bright as light reflecting off of water.

“What is it?” Dud asked.

“A SLET.”

“SLET?”

“Spatial Locator Executioner Transmitter.”

Dud rubbed his eyes trying to make sense of the words. He thought he was well educated, but in the little time he was off planet his mind had been entirely blown. Perhaps George never expected Dud to get off Terra-One like his mother had dreamed, and didn’t teach him more than he needed to survive on their home planet.

“Mind explaining?” Dud asked.

“Rag’nok, you are worthless aren’t you?” the boy responded.

Rag’nok was something Dud fully understood. It was a creature so magnificent it was regarded as a god by the Zieb. The name loosely translated meant world destroyer. They were a four legged creature with long snouts and powerful tails, similar to that of the alligators that lived in the waters on Terra-One. Their hides were so thick no weapon could pierce them. They had a lifespan so long that the best guess for how long they lived was in the millions of years, and they grew until the day they died. The largest known Rag’nok in the universe was twelve-hundred miles long and still growing. This was the exact creature that had landed on Terra-One five-hundred years ago and made it nearly uninhabitable. Due to their ability to move through space as easily as swim through water the Rag’nok had long ago left to seek out other worlds to feed upon. While hurtling through space the monster was able to generate energy from light to keep it in a stasis state until it reached its next destination. The Rag’nok was every person’s boogey man on Terra-One.

“Wouldn’t mind learning some more to not be as worthless,” Dud said.

The guy grabbed Dud’s hand like he was going to shake it, but then rolled his wrist to the side. The skin was red from a new tattoo. Inked into his flesh so anyone shaking his hand could read were three letters that gave him the name he became known by: DUD.

“You’re the ninth dud we’ve had in the past two months. Sorry to break it to you, but you’ve got a brief life expectancy. No point in making you too worthwhile.” The kid grabbed a zipper at his elbow and opened his suit all the way to the wrist. He peeled it open to show the word MECHBOY running vertically along a ragged scar that went the length of his forearm.

“Mechboy?” Dud asked.

“My birth name is Caleb, Mechboy is the name she gave me,” Mechboy said.

“Who gave you the name?”

“She is our owner and handler. That SLET in your head connects you directly to her. Think of it like a metal parasite that was woven its tendrils inside your brain. She can use it to communicate with us, monitor our locations, and if our thinking puts us against her orders it will alert her. That is the scary part, with nothing more than her making up her mind to execute us that SLET will terminate you. Anywhere. Anytime. I can’t tell you who she is, because I have been told not to. Like I said you aren’t expected to live past tomorrow, so she isn’t taking any risks.”

Tomorrow was the day they were going to execute their contract on the Stiation planet. The only thing Dud was told about the job was his own part. He would drop down to the planet with Mechboy. They would set themselves up to intercept a supply ship. All he knew was he was supposed to pull shoot the ship with a tracking device. No one would tell him anything more than that.

Right before they dropped Mechboy donned his engineered exoskeleton. Metal reinforcements ran down his spine and legs. The metal suited gave him an extra foot in height and each arm was equipped with a variety of different weapons he could access with the flick of a switch. Over his shoulders were two different heavy weapons that ran off of his brain’s commands. Most of Mechboys bones had been replaced with a titanium alloy that allowed him to exist harmoniously with the exosuit.

“Why would you do something like that?” Dud asked as they prepared for the drop.

Mechboy looked down at him with pity. “I didn’t want to be a dud. It was the cheapest route I could sell myself into.”

“Sell yourself?”

“You’re a slave. Property. She owns you. I am an indentured servant. Three years ago she paid for me to have the mech upgrades and in return I have to work until our contract is up.” Mechboy swallowed hard. “I fulfill my contract tomorrow.”

Dud stepped into his pod. “What stops her from killing you with the SLET?”

Mechboy stepped into his own pod without looking at Dud. “Nothing.”

Dud’s pod closed around him and he was jettisoned into the atmosphere. Falling to the Stiation planet he embraced that fact that he was supposed to die on this job. Made peace with that fact. However he would die happy as long as his feet hit this planet’s surface. His mother had always dreamed that he would one day make it off of Terra-One, and now he had.

Dud sang his alphabet as he fell from the sky.

His pod hit the ground hard, but inside he had no idea. The machine retracted from around him and then launched back into the sky.

“Now I know my ABC’s.”

Dud heard the wheezing and clanking of the Mechsuit as Caleb joined him. There was a case on the ground that had been spit out by the pod like an owl pellet. Dud opened the case and took out the long thin piece of metal that looked to him like a rifle, but he was told it was a highly advanced piece of tracking equipment.

“Follow me,” Mechboy said and took off at what looked like to him to be a jog, but required Dud to sprint to keep up.

The entire planet smelled like rot, and Dud’s feet sunk into the ground on more than one occasion. There were no large trees on the planet, but it was fully covered in large ferns and other ground cover. Since Stiations were amphibious creatures they tended to prefer swamp planets. Dud now understood why they were always clustered into these types of environments of Terra-One.

Mechboy stopped running and a mask flipped down over his face. Dud stared off toward the horizon where the swamp gave way to a larger body of water. He could just make out the large bubble like structures the Stiations used as buildings. It created an environment that allowed them to live above and below water.

“Flight patterns show the supply shit will come directly above us from the east which is-”

Dud faced east before Mechboy finished his instructions.

“You tag it, I blast it. The ship will splash down in the water, and we haul ass back to where we dropped in.”

Dud inspected the tracer gun in his hands. It was long but light and perfectly balanced. He had seen firearms a few times in his life, but he had never fired one. Though he got the basic concept: aim and pull the trigger. He looked through the fancy scope which told him the distance and air speed to his target.

“What will you do your freedom?” Dud asked.

“Dud I don’t want to talk to you. Your life expectancy is almost up, and if it comes down to you or me making it out of here I am picking me,” Mechboy said.

“I don’t see the big deal with this mission. It felt more dangerous to survive until tomorrow on Terra-One.”

“I’m not sure either. This has been the safest brief I’ve had. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things I don’t know. Ready up. The ship should be here.”

Dud heard a loud roaring sound as a ship penetrated the atmosphere. This thing was a large oval that reminded him of a sideways wish, but it was huge. Gigantic. Larger than most the villages on Terra-One.

He tucked the stock of the tracer to his shoulder and aimed through the scope. Like he had always been taught he led his target and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He pulled the trigger again. Still nothing.

Then he watched the entire front end of the colossal ship explode and drop toward the water. He pulled the trigger one more time, but still nothing happened, and then his target passed overhead.

Mechboy had a smoking barrel of one of his shoulder mounted rockets beside his head, while he kept watching the ship with his mask down.

“Dud, why isn’t it tagged?”

Pods launched from the ship in every which direction. Making it look like the giant fish was crying.

“I kept pulling the trigger, but nothing happened,” Dud said.

He had a sneaking suspicion he had been set up. The weapon had never been loaded in the first place.

“You put the site on the ship, and pulled the trigger?”

Dud looked at the mech in confusion. “If you don’t lead a target you’ll miss.”

Even behind the mask Dud could tell Mechboy’s face was fire red.

“Why would you aim away from the target? You put the site on the target and it locks on so the tracer hits every time.”

The ship crashed down into the water a mile away.

Dud ground his teeth and glared. “Maybe if you would have told me that instead of assuming I wasn’t worth talking to we would be on our way out of here.”

“Shut up. I can’t go back without the job being done or she’ll fry my brain. Go trace the ship before it sinks. I’ll keep you covered.”

Dud wasn’t sure what had him most angry; that he had screwed up or that it could have been avoided by communication. He took off in a sprint toward the crash site. It didn’t take a smart man to realize that the pods were dropping people to defend the site, and Mechboy would only keep Dud alive long enough to finish the job. He would be damned though if he died a failure.

Splashing through puddles he kept his ears open for any sign of the people from the pods. He came to a stop when he had a clear line of sight on the target, but when he put the site on the ship and pulled the trigger a message flashed in the scope that he was too far away. He let out a frustrated growl and kept plowing through the swamps, aware of the whirring of the mechsuit keeping pace with him.

Then the first Stiation appeared. A slender creature with green skin and black spots dressed in flowing tribal garb. This one held a rifle that was two large half ovals joined by two handles. The thing fired the weapon and a blue blast of energy vaporized a fern that Dud had just left.

There was a loud bang and the Stiation’s head popped like a zit.

“Keep going,” Mechboy yelled.

From all around Stiations were closing in on them. Mechboy spun as delicately as a ballerina as he swapped through a variety of weapons to do the most damage as fast as possible. Dud kept pushing until he crested the next hill. The ship had mostly submerged. He aimed at the little bit that was still above water. The crosshairs turned green and he pulled the trigger. There was a soft pft as a gel like slug flew out of the end of the gun and arced through the air until it smacked against the hull and spread like a drop of rain.

The tracer gun got so hot Dud had to drop it, and watched as it sizzled in a puddle until it consumed itself leaving no evidence of its existence. Dud turned to tell Mechboy to get moving, but he was already long gone with a group of Stiations heading after him.

Completely unarmed, Dud threw himself into a puddle. Forcing his outside to look calm, he slowly crawled his way forward staying covered in murk. If he just had his bow he wouldn’t feel so helpless. He wasn’t sure what his best course of action was as he continued along. Mechboy had left him for dead, so there wasn’t much of a chance he would be picked up even if he could return to the drop zone. Not to mention there were a ton of angry Stiations between him and there, and he didn’t have so much as a branch to defend himself with.

He needed a weapon no matter what, and he knew where there were plenty lying around. Pushing himself into a crouch he searched the area for any signs of movement. It seemed like everyone had gone after Mechboy, so Dud made a run for where the dead Stiations were scattered about. He picked up one rifle and slung it over his back, then retrieved a second and set off after the pack that was chasing Mechboy.

They were almost too easy to track. The Stiations left three toed prints everywhere they ran, and Mechboy left large divots everywhere he landed in his long gait.  He heard the firefight before he saw it. Mechboy was laid out, his legs no longer working, keeping himself up with one arm and firing with the other. A shield of energy was absorbing the blue blasts, but it didn’t seem like it would last for long. There were a dozen Stiations that seemed more concerned with surrounding Mechboy than killing him.

Dud thought really hard about abandoning the mission.

Get clear we will call you in a drop pod and cut our loses, a voice echoed in his brain as if he had heard it beside him. It was the same voice he had heard when strapped to the table. Dud wasn’t quite sure how the technology worked, but he hoped she could hear him in return.

I’ll get him out. Send two pods to his location.

Dud rushed behind the nearest Stiation and slammed the rifle into the back of his bulbous head.

He’s dead either way. Get out or I’ll fry you too.

Dud kicked the legs out from under the next Stiation and smashed the butt of his rifle into his head. Mechboy might have been willing to leave him for dead, but Dud was going to do this on his terms or not at all.

Call in two.

He tucked the stock to his shoulder and opened fire. The blue energy from his rifle slammed into another Stiation hurling it off its feet. A long sigh escaped him since he was glad to find out there were no complicated processes to operating their rifles.

He found his next target and fired while his feet made their way toward Mechboy.

I’ll fry both your brains.

Rolling out of the way a blue blast singed a puddle. Coming back up on his feet soaking wet he found his attacker and opened fire. He kept squeezing the trigger sending blast after blast until he hit his target. The energy these weapons used was so different than the arrows he was accustomed to that he had trouble adjusting his aim.

Then get it over with, Dud countered.

He found his next target, but nothing happened when he squeezed the trigger. He had no idea how to tell ammunition without a quiver, so he dropped the rifle and drew his next. Firing more shots than he wished he dropped the Stiation. Finally making it to Mechboy he nudged his side with his knee.

“Our pods should be here soon,” Dud said.

For the moment Dud didn’t see any more threats, even though he could hear them splashing through puddles somewhere in the ferns around them.

Mechboy pointed a gigantic barrel at Dud. “She said she’d cook my brain if I didn’t kill you. I’m sorry.”

Dud lowered his gun. “If you shoot me who is going to get you into the pod?”

A look of defeat passed over Mechboy as he lowered his arm. “It doesn’t matter. They broke my spine. Even if I live I don’t have a way to afford repairs.”

There was a loud croaking sound as four Stiations leapt fifteen feet into the air and landed all around Dud and Mechboy. They both opened fire as fast as they could. Two of the Stiations dropped before they could reach them.

Dud spun toward his nearest attacker and pulled the trigger when it was practically touching the Stiation’s chest. The moment he pulled the trigger a spear smashed the gun out of his grip. The spear wielding Stiation swept Dud’s feet out from under him, then leapt high in the air coming down at a trajectory to impale Mechboy.

Dud doubted the energy shield would protect the mech from a primitive weapon and hurled himself at the descending creature. He didn’t have enough momentum to knock the Stiation away, but the spear passed through Mechboy’s shoulder instead of his chest. The spear stayed behind as Dud and the amphibian slopped down into the swamp. Dud got himself on top and squeeze hard on the creature’s throat. The Stiation’s gills opened and he sucked in water from the puddle they were fighting in, then placed two fingers on Dud’s neck. His skin burned like someone was tearing it from his body. He released the neck and knocked the hand away.

“Get back,” Mechboy groaned.

Dud threw himself away from the Stiation, and a moment later Mechboy’s shoulder rocket blew him to sushi.

The pods landed and opened up waiting to receive their quarry. Dud rushed over to Mechboy and fought with all his strength to get him to his feet. Mechboy grabbed the outside of the pod with his hand to keep his own weight up when Dud started to give out under the massive weight of the exoskeleton.

The moment Mechboy was inside the pod filled in around him. Dud watched it lift off before he went for his own pod. He knew there were still more Stiations around but he didn’t want to take any more risks with his life.

He climbed into his pod, and listened to the gizmos and gadgets adjust to his body before they closed in on him. As the process started a Stiation hurled itself directly at him. The creature flew through the air knife first. Dud had limited mobility, but moved just enough for the knife to pass between his arm and side. For a brief second he stared into the large red eyes of an angry Stiation, before his pod snapped shut, slicing the creature’s hand off in the process. Through the outer shell of the pod, Dud could hear the dimmed screams of the dismembered Stiation. He felt the pod lift off and a new kind of fear took hold.

Whoever she was would be waiting for him to return. She hadn’t killed him remotely yet so he felt he might have a chance to escape death.

The ride back up in the pod felt a thousand times longer than the descent. After what felt like an eternity his pod opened releasing him and the knife wielding hand into the ship. Mechboy was sprawled on the floor.

Dud let out a long breath and a short laugh. He had survived the mission and already surpassed his life expectancy. Though it could end at any moment.

“For what it’s worth, thanks,” Mechboy said trying to right himself.

Dud just gave a nod.

Then she came into the corridor. She was a Terran, practically eye level with Dud, with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes were such a dark blue that looked black. A grimace covered her tan face. Her body was wrapped in a tight black fabric that had many overlapping pieces which revealed her streamlined muscles. A gun belt hung loosely around her hips, where a white pistol was housed. Even though she looked like she could tear Dud’s heart out through his chest, her youth surprised him.

“Now, now, now, what will I do with you?” she cooed.

“I’ve been told I am your property, so I guess whatever you wish,” Dud said.

“Poor Mechboy. I hope you enjoy your freedom. We’ll be dropping you at our next stop,” she replied.

“Lilith,” a scream followed the word as it left Mechboys mouth. Dud could only guess his SLET punished him for disobeying an order. “I’ll die without medical attention, and I’m worthless without a mechanic.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. You won’t die. Dud, drag him back to his room,” she said.

“I know I don’t have the best business sense here, but if the kid signed himself into your service to get turned into that thing, why wouldn’t you extend his contract and pay for his repairs,” Dud said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I told you to take him back to his room, I didn’t ask for your opinion,” she replied.

“Please, Barnoness. Repair me. One more year,” Mechboy pleaded.

“Three years.”

“That’s how long I signed on for the full augmentation.”

“I’ll gladly release you as a paralyzed mech if you would prefer,” she said.

“No, ma’am. We have a contract.” Mechboy said, hitting a set of controls on his apparatus that caused the suit to retract from his body.

The bee-headed robot came down the pathway, his footsteps pinging with each stride. He stopped over Mechboy and lifted him into his arms.

“I’ll draw up the standard contract and see to his medical needs,” the robot said and kept walking.

Dud was alone with Lilith. The air felt like it was chilling as she moved closer to him.

“No augmentations, no enhancements, nothing but balls. I hate to admit I am impressed with you, Dud. You might just be the best value I’ve ever received for my money, but you’ve already crossed me twice-”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t ever interrupt me. Twice is one more time than anyone else. As long as there isn’t a third you might just get a long time spot on my team. If I even suspect you are going to disobey me again, I will fry you where you stand. Hear me?”

“Heard.”

Lilith patted him on the chest and then walked down the corridor.

“Ma’am?” Dud asked.

“What is it, slave?” she replied.

“I have a lot of questions.”

“I’m not a tour guide, bugger off.” She kept walking and Dud watched her muscles move until he couldn’t make them out anymore.

He stood where he was to avoid angering Lilith. Where he was going, both on the ship and in life, he wasn’t sure. However he was alive, and off Terra-One, both were things that made him thankful. He still had far more questions than answers and he didn’t know what a tour guide was, but he would find one and figure everything out.