FICTION

DECEMBER 2020

2020-12_COVER.JPG

DECEMBER 2019

2019-12_COVER.JPG

Defective: A Hominum Futurus Chronicle

by Kevin Stadt

Grieger sat in his small apartment on Space Station Nexus and stared at the old service sidearm on his kitchen table. Why not just end it? What good was he to anyone?

 

A sudden bang on the ceiling interrupted his existential crisis. That Homo Heremus woman who'd moved in above him made nothing but noise and he’d had enough. Grieger stomped up the stairs and down her hall. His stomach revolted at the smell of desert-planet cooking—fermented bol root—as he neared her door. He pounded on it.

 

A slight woman in thick layers of sand-colored tunic answered, her face scaled and reptilian. She tilted her hairless head back to look up at him. “Oh, my. You’re a big one.” Though his short military-cut hair and beard had grayed, he still stood a full six foot six. He knew his muscled frame and his face’s hypermasculine features, with a heavy jaw and brow, let everyone know he was Homo Bellicus—and scared most people.  

 

“I live under you. There’s a lot of noise coming from up here. Can you keep it down?”

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Please, come in."

 

“What? No. I just came to—”

 

She waved his refusal away with a hand and opened the door wide. The smell of cooking hit him full force as the woman shuffled over to the stove. He stood there in the hallway, suddenly feeling ridiculous. He bent forward to put his head in without stepping across the threshold.

 

“I’m not coming in.”
            

She lifted the lid of a pot and stirred. “Young man, where I come from it’s rude to refuse an invitation into a neighbor’s home.”

 

His shoulders slumped and he glanced back down the hallway, toward the stairs. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment before releasing it slowly. Then Grieger stepped forward.

 

In contrast to the Spartan atmosphere in his own place, the neighbor’s apartment was warm, in more ways than one. Sweat broke out on his skin almost immediately, but the woman took a knit cap off the table and pulled it on.

 

But beyond the temperature, the apartment felt warm like a home. The living room was filled with simple and comfortable furniture, with toys on the floor and desert landscape paintings on the walls. The kitchen had food all over in various stages of preparation, and a vase of flowering cacti decorated the dining room table.

 

“My name is Lakshmi. Are you hungry?”

 

“No, thanks. I’m Grieger.”

 

Lakshmi gestured to a chair. “Please, sit.” She turned toward one of the doors and shouted. “Qor! We have a guest.”

 

A Sapien boy, perhaps ten, burst out of the door with excitement on his face. His complexion, hair, and eyes were dark and he lurched awkwardly. Apparently unafraid of Grieger, he walked right up and held out his hand to shake.

 

The boy’s speech came out slow and thick, and his voice sounded like that of a much younger child. “Hi! I’m Qor. Why are you so big?”

 

Grieger felt acutely aware that his life experience socializing with neighbors or children was nonexistent. He looked at the old woman as if for help, and a corner of her mouth turned up in the hint of a smile.

 

“I’m Homo Bellicus. I’m...I was a soldier.”

 

“Are all soldiers so big?”

 

“No. They make different kinds. For different jobs.”

 

“What was your job?”

 

“Infantry.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Foot soldiers.”

 

The boy regarded Grieger’s enormous black boots at length and nodded. “Did you fight against the Chaku?”

 

“No. I left the service before the war started.”

 

“Why aren’t you a soldier anymore?”

 

Grieger shifted in the chair. “It’s a long story. There’s a problem with my brain, so they kicked me out.”

 

A huge, white-toothed smile formed on Qor’s face. “I have Herz Syndrome.” Grieger didn’t know much about it, but thought the condition involved mental disability and something to do with chromosomal damage from cosmic radiation. “Are you my neighbor?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you have family?”

 

“No. Well…” Grieger considered the question. “Homo Bellicum are engineered. We’re raised from birth in units, and they’re like brothers and sisters.”

 

“Lakshmi is my family now because my parents went to heaven because of the Chaku and her family did, too, so we made a new family together.”

 

Grieger didn't know what to say to that.        

 

The woman broke in. “Mr. Grieger stopped by because there’s a lot of noise coming from his ceiling. Do you know what’s right above his ceiling?” Qor shook his head. “Our floor. Maybe your dancing got a little too enthusiastic tonight.”

 

The boy made a circle with his mouth and turned back to Grieger. “I’m sorry. I’ll stop it.”

 

Grieger's face warmed and he cursed himself. “She's just kidding. I didn’t hear anything. I just came to…say hello to my new neighbors.”

 

Qor brightened, and when Grieger glanced at the woman she smiled and gave him a conspiratorial nod. Just as the boy opened his mouth to speak again, a distant explosion echoed through Nexus, followed by a low rumble Grieger could feel through his boots. Then, as if the world had shifted to a new axis, gravity began to pull them toward the wall and time slowed to a heavy crawl.

 

Qor's eyes widened and he raised his hands in slow motion. "IIIIII diiiiidn't doooooo iiiiiit!"

 

When time snapped back to normal, Grieger jumped to his feet and sprinted to the window, peering out into the nighttime cityscape. He saw nothing unusual, just the lights of the city dotting the interior of the ring's curve. The floor and walls continued to shudder faintly in concert with faraway explosions for the better part of a minute.

 

Lakshmi held Qor, his face buried in her arms, the sound of soft sobbing filling the apartment. Grieger closed his eyes and accessed his mindscreen, mentally swiping through icons until he found the station newsfeed.

 

A female Sapien reporter's voice spoke over video of a Chaku dreadnaught firing missiles at Nexus. "…uncloaked suddenly and destroyed the central transport hub with a gravity weapon, while smaller attack fighters simultaneously targeted each ring's emergency escape capsules. Defense swarms are mobilizing, but symbiote intruders have already boarded the station. Citizens are advised to lock their doors and wait for further instructions."

 

Grieger opened his eyes. "It's the Chaku."

 

Qor cried louder and buried his face deeper in Lakshmi's robes.

 

Knowing the woman and child probably didn't have mentalink tek, he said, "They're telling everyone to lay low."

 

"Shouldn't we get to the—"

 

"Destroyed. A gravbomb took out the hub." He turned toward the window and squinted in thought for a moment. "I'm going to go—"

 

Qor pulled away from Lakshmi and grabbed Grieger's arm. "The monsters will kill you!"

 

Some emotion he couldn’t quite name knotted up in his gut. What was it about the boy that touched him? Was it the boy’s innocence? Or that he’d also been born different? “I'm just going downstairs to contact some friends. They have a special ship, a really fast one, and I want to see if they can pick us up."

 

"Special?"

 

"Have you ever heard of a Mimoc ship?"

 

Qor's expression shifted instantly from horror to rapt attention. "Like an octopus that can make itself look like other kinds of ships? Are those even real?"

 

"My friends Kace and Rohana live in one. It's called the Nistra."

 

Qor seemed thoroughly impressed by the information. Finally, he nodded once.

 

Grieger strode into the kitchen, Lakshmi following. He picked a kitchen knife up off the counter. "Mind if I borrow this?"

 

"Take all of them if you want."

 

As he approached the front door, he said, "Keep this locked and don't open it for anyone but me. I'll be right back." Before he opened it, he closed his eyes again and accessed his mindscreen and mentally clicked on the large, red combat protocol button in the bottom left corner.

 

Waves of warm adrenaline washed through his limbs. His sense augmentations activated. He toggled through several vision modes, finally settling on heat vision that allowed him to see through the walls. Electroreception and mechanoreception nodes implanted beneath the skin around his mouth, nose, and ears came online. He gave his brain a moment to adjust to being able to sense electrical fields generated by living organisms and minute air pressure changes that indicated movement. Reticles and infobubbles overlay his vision with tactical information. A ticker of news ran across the bottom of his mindscreen, while medical data and biocontrols appeared along the right side. He turned his attention to the biocontrols and adjusted his pain threshold so that injury would register visually on his mindscreen, but would cause minimal physical sensation.

 

Grieger stepped into the hallway and closed the door quietly behind him. He focused on the vibrations in the air for a moment. Screams and gunfire in the distance, but nothing yet breaking out in their quadrant of the ring. He sprinted down the hall, the stairs, and then his own hallway to his apartment. 

 

Locking the door behind him and dropping the knife on the counter, he jogged to the closet and flung open the door. Weapons and gear filled racks from floor to ceiling. He pulled out a bulky black case and set it on his kitchen table. Grieger closed his eyes and swiped through screens until he reached an icon that looked like a cartoon satellite dish. He clicked it and said, "Nistra."

 

Liquid ripples washed over the formerly smooth black surface of the device. Composed largely of programmable matter elements, it began reshaping itself into a thin, tree-like antenna reaching up nearly to the ceiling. A video feed of the bridge of the Nistra appeared on his mindscreen. Rohana hopped up and down, clapping her hands and giggling. She picked a small, fluffy brown dog up off the floor and snuggled it close. "Look, Mr. Bubbleberry! It's Grieger!" Ro's face lit with excitement, her green eyes and smile wide. She wore a tight, shiny black skinsuit and her red hair was cut shorter than he remembered. Ro’s silly schoolgirl affect and intense loyalty to friends and family aside, the woman was wanted by the Ministry for more crimes that Grieger could count—anarchy, terrorism, smuggling, illegal augmentations, and murder among them. Her husband, Kace, sat in a chair behind her. Grieger could hardly make out his shaved head, heavy black beard, and conspicuous arm augmentations through the cigar smoke. Only his glowing blue eyes shone clearly through.

 

Kace stood, downed a glass of what Grieger knew had to be Corvellian whiskey, and stepped out of the haze. "Good to see you, soldier."

 

"You too."

 

Rohana's expression shifted to concern. "Grieg, everything okay? We haven't heard from you in a while."

 

"I could use an emergency evac. The Chaku showed up, and I have a woman and child I need to get out."

 

Ro said, "Of course, G. We were just going to pick up some boring package anyway. It can wait."

 

Kace addressed his ship. "Nistra, mimic a Chaku nautilus scout and get us to Nexus as fast as you can."

 

The ship whined in the voice of a teenage girl. "So, you mean, like fly straight into a Chaku attack fleet with gravity bombs—"

 

"Just do it."

 

"I like where your head is at, but I think I should get a say in this, too. I'm the one who gets her ass kicked if—"

 

Kace ran a metal hand over his scalp and turned to Ro. "I hate it when you have her on personality setting Q, especially in front of our friends. It's embarrassing."

 

She slinked up to Kace, pressed herself against him, and stroked his beard. "But I like Q, Bun-Bun."

 

"Do not mindhack me. It fries my neural lace and gives me a two-day hangover." Grieger smiled, knowing Kace meant Ro's mindhack suite, a highly illegal aug that combined pheromones, aural hypnosis software, and nanotek.

 

Kace whispered, "How about we just use T for a little while, to help our friend?"

 

She threw her head back and rolled her eyes dramatically. "Whatever. Bore me to death with T."

 

Kace said, "Nistra, switch to personality T."

 

The ship replied with a sober, clipped male voice. "Yes, captain."

 

Ro sneered and muttered, "Captain."

 

Kace puffed his cigar. "Get us to Nexus at maximum speed."

 

"Yes, Sir."

 

Grieger let out a breath of relief. "Thanks, guys. What's the ETA?"

 

"We were on a run halfway to Arboros, so it'll take a while. Forty-five minutes. Can you hang on that long?"

 

"I think so. The bays have been destroyed, so just burn through the hull as close to my location as you can."

 

Ro squealed and hopped up and down. She beamed at Kace with the expression of a kid on Christmas morning. "We get to kill some gutslugs today, Guapo!"

 

Grieger scanned the reports on his mindscreen. Nexus security forces seemed to be doing their best, and a scattering of hominum vessels—Apparatum, Oceanus, Sapien—had trickled in to help, but the Chaku bore down with the force of two dreadnaughts, a cruiser, and a constellation of smaller fighters.

 

"Don't engage unless you have to. The Chaku are attacking with overwhelming numbers. This is purely a stealth rescue mission."

 

Ro made an exaggerated pouty face.

 

"Please, Ro. My neighbors…one is a boy with Herz Syndrome. I just want to get them out."

 

She squared her shoulders and nodded. "Okay. Hang tight, Stretch. We'll be right there."

 

Kace and Ro had a better chance of getting past the enemy than anyone. The thought of the boy being taken by the Chaku made Grieger want to punch a hole in the wall. The Chaku did two things with captured humans. They either implanted one of their kind, a small slug-like creature, to control the person for use as a soldier or spy, or ate them slowly over days while keeping the victim alive and conscious. Grieger knew the force invading Nexus at that very moment would be made up of squadrons of Chaku who’d implanted themselves in a terrifying variety of alien species from dozens of planets.

 

He crossed the small apartment and stood in front of his closet, considering what gear to bring. First, he picked two metallic gauntlets off a shelf and slid them on. Wearing them felt like home. He slung a fat, heavy rifle over his shoulder and grabbed the old service sidearm off the kitchen table. After throwing a few personal belongings into a backpack, he headed upstairs.   

 

When Grieger came in, Qor ran to him, wrapping his arms as far around Grieger as he could. For a moment Grieger stood there, his own arms held up in the air, briefly caught off guard and unsure what to do. Then he patted the boy's back.

 

Qor took Grieger's hand, turning it over in examination. "No way. Is this a pro-g?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I saw these in a war movie called Lost Earth about a battle on Earth Prime where the Bellicus general killed two hundred Chaku all by himself with just one gauntlet."

 

Grieger chuckled. "Really? I never saw it. Tell you what, when we get onto the Nistra, let's watch it together."

 

Qor nodded enthusiastically.

 

Lakshmi asked, "Did you see any of them?"

 

"No."

 

"Are your friends coming?"

 

"Yes. It'll be forty minutes. Pack light. We'll need to move fast."

 

"I already did. Qor, put some clothes in your school backpack. Not too much. Okay?"

 

He nodded and dashed into his bedroom. Grieger moved to the window and scanned the nightscape. Lakshmi took a place beside him. Though he felt anxious to get going, leaving for the rendezvous point early was pointless and dangerous, so he told himself to relax while he waited.

 

Lakshmi said, "Qor likes you. He doesn’t act like that with everyone."

 

"I like him, too.”

 

"Your friends. Who are they?"

 

"They're Homo Apparatus smugglers. Anti-Ministry anarchists."

 

"Criminals."

 

"Yes."

 

A few moments of silence passed. "Can they help us?"

 

"Yes. I worked with them for a couple years after my discharge. 

They’re good. And well-equipped."

 

She fell silent again, and when she spoke her voice was softer. "You told Qor that you were discharged because of something wrong with your brain. Do you mind if I ask what it is?"

 

He squinted into the distance. "It’s nothing you should worry about. I was born different. Defective. I hid it the best I could and they didn't catch it for a long time."

 

"Different how?"

 

"Multiple sub-optimal personality traits."

 

"Such as?"

 

Grieger let out a sigh and cocked his head. "I experience empathy."

 

"Ah. I take it that's not what they want in a soldier?"

 

"It's sub-optimal."

 

"But they invested so much in engineering and raising you. 

Augmenting you. Wouldn't they just try to fix it? Well, I don't think fix is the right word, but you know what I mean."

 

"It's not just the empathy. My personality matrix also tends toward questioning authority and other traits that are—"

 

"Sub-optimal."

 

"Yes. They might have altered me, but with that time and money they could spawn three better, newer versions. Wasn't worth it."

 

"Do you think you’re defective?"

 

"I am."

 

"If one of your brothers or sisters were standing here, would they be helping Qor and me?"

 

"If ordered to, they would fight to the death for you."

 

"If they weren't ordered to?"

 

"No."

 

"But you're helping us."

 

He folded his arms and shifted his weight.

 

She asked, "Do you think Qor is defective?"

 

Grieger answered immediately. "Of course not."

 

"Maybe different doesn't mean defective. I hope you come to understand that."

 

*

 

Grieger watched video feed of the attack on his mindscreen. From space, Nexus looked like a long, dark cylinder divided into a dozen sections, all spinning independently. Each ring had special gravity and environmental specifications for various hominum species engineered to live in the environments of colonies on different planets. The first ring had high gravity and low temperature for Homo Hibernus residents, the second boasted underwater cliff dwellings for Homo Oceanus, and so on. The fifth ring, where Grieger’s apartment was located, housed mostly Sapiens and the heavily augmented Homo Apparatum.

 

Chaku vessels surrounded Nexus, a medley of odd shapes. The smaller ships resembled nautilus shells, eels, and trilobites, while the dreadnaughts and cruiser looked like featureless, torpedo-shaped monoliths. Explosions lit up the black of space, with hominum forces clearly being crushed.

 

Grieger opened his eyes and surveyed the scene of the curving interior of the fifth ring from Lakshmi's window. The streets had broken out into full chaos. Lakshmi did a good job of distracting Qor, keeping him away from the window and the violence outside, but she couldn't keep him from hearing the screams and commotion which had now spilled into their quadrant.

 

The reticle in his vision continuously scanned and locked onto anything moving, infobubbles appearing to offer analysis. A Homo Sapien man ran between apartment buildings, shrieking with a millipede-like creature scuttling up his back. A Homo Apparatus woman with augmented arms thrashed a snake-like animal that groped frantically toward her with bizarre fanged mandibles. A Homo Simius teenager covered in skittering insectoids jumped out of a thirtieth-story window only to spread his fleshy wings and crash headlong into Grieger's building and fall to the pavement below. He spotted a dozen other alien species implanted with Chaku symbiotes, each more horrifying than the last.

 

Grieger held the rifle tightly, gripping the cold metal. Twice while watching the battle outside he found himself at the door, about to rush into the fray. But the boy. The woman. If he left now, he wouldn't be there to get them out. Trying to save everybody would just mean getting killed and saving nobody.

 

As he watched, at war with himself, Ro appeared on his mindscreen.

 

"Hey, big guy. We're ten minutes out. You ready?"

 

"Yes. Thanks for doing this."

 

"Here's where we'll burn through." On Grieger's mental desktop, the window with Ro's face shrunk to the background and a map popped up with the route highlighted in flashing red.

 

"Roger."

 

Ro giggled and held up Mr. Bubbleberry, waving the dog's paw at the screen. She spoke in a funny high voice. "Bye-bye!"

 

Moments later, standing at the front door with the woman and child behind him, he paused and took a deep breath. Like all Homo Bellicus, his heart rose at the prospect of battle, but unlike others of his kind, he experienced anxiety. Fear not for himself, but for Lakshmi and Qor. The suboptimal result of his defect.

 

He turned to them. Though the woman seemed amazingly unruffled, the boy's face was a mask of fear. "It's okay. Just stay behind me. It's not far, but we'll have to move quickly."

 

Both of them nodded, and a tear rolled down Qor's cheek. Grieger hugged the boy and said, "I'll protect you. I promise. Watch this." He held his huge arms up and willed the gauntlets to change shape. The programmable matter on his right arm re-formed itself, covering his hand and hardening into a razor-sharp axe. The one on his left hand transformed into a spiked mace. Grieger nudged the boy with an elbow. "Pretty cool, right?"

 

Qor wiped a tear on his sleeve, smiled a little despite himself, and nodded.

 

At that, Grieger said "open." When the door did, he rushed to the nearest symbiote, a millipede-analogue creature the size of a dog with three spiked tentacles on its tail end. It scuttled along the wall in his direction, and Grieger swung his left hand toward it. The mace smashed the Chaku and viscous brown matter shot out of it, splattering both ceiling and floor.

 

The next one appeared much like the first, but with fanged, arm-like mandibles. It raced along the floor, and Grieger brought the axe down on it. Four more came, and his gauntlets shifted through as many iterations—spear, sword, hammer, and claw—as he dispatched them.  Qor and Lakshmi peeked out the door.

 

He gestured at the dead aliens. "See? They're not so bad. Come on."

 

They jogged toward the stairwell, and before he got to the doorway Grieger saw the heat signature of a man-sized symbiote waiting on the landing. He paused and motioned for the boy and woman to stay back, then rushed through the door with gauntlets raised and a war cry in his throat. The creature was a black turret-like animal with a wide base, and it already aimed the dark opening at its head straight at him.

 

It fired a fist-sized bolus right into Grieger's face. His nose broke with a sharp crack and his head snapped back. He lost his footing on the stairs and crashed down them, hitting his temple hard on the sharp concrete edge of a step.  In a corner of his mindscreen, an image of his body appeared, the nose and head flashing red to indicate injury. Grieger shot up and closed the distance, swinging an axe in an arc, and cleaved the beast nearly in half.

 

At the moment the two halves slumped to the floor, Grieger's electromechanoreceptor sense aug registered movement behind him, a tickling around his nose and mouth. Something hit his leg and his injury body map flashed red on his left calf. He spun around and brought a gauntlet down in the form of a mace, but the stinging millipede symbiote had already driven a second jab into his skin.

 

Grieger's vision blurred and a wave of dizziness brought him to his knees. The ticker of medical information warned of a toxin spreading through his bloodstream.

 

The boy appeared at his side. "Are you okay?"

 

Lakshmi raced down the stairs and squatted next to Grieger. She examined his leg and nose and shook her head. "We should go back to the apartment."

 

Grieger took a deep breath. "No. This might be our only shot to get off the station. And my friends are risking their lives to help us. Let's go."

 

They encountered no more Chaku on the way down, which Grieger was thankful for, given how lightheaded and weak he felt. Once on the ground floor, they jogged in a crouch across the lobby toward the arched pod bay entrance. Grieger ushered them into the first pod, a black oblong spheroid with a hatch and a ring of seats inside. He closed his eyes and transmitted the rendezvous coordinates. The outer bay door opened and the pod lifted them into the night.

 

A screen showing the view below covered the floor of the pod, and each of them breathed heavily as they watched the violence unfolding on the ground. The pod ascended until it cleared the tops of the apartment buildings, then floated horizontally toward the meeting point far more slowly than Grieger would have liked. They flew over green park space with wooded areas around the perimeter and open space in the center. A flashing red reticle in Grieger's vision zoomed in on a cluster of three turret-like symbiotes at the far end of the park.

 

Before he could react, they fired.

 

He closed his eyes and ordered the pod to take evasive maneuvers, but it merely descended lazily. A football-sized object careened past the window, a trail of dark smoke behind it. An object crackling with glowing blue energy zoomed past the window on the other side. Qor shrieked and Lakshmi put her arms around him, muttering that everything would be all right.

 

Whump. The pod shuddered. A gooey wad of something smacked into the front of the vehicle, and immediately started corroding through the glass and metal. The mental link he had with the pod blinked out and the vehicle started a freefall from a hundred feet up.

 

Grieger kicked the hatch open. Without saying a word, he ripped open the emergency bailout kit next to the door and pulled two sticky, hand-sized blue gel patches off the rack. He slapped one on Qor's chest, the boy screaming all the while, and one on Lakshmi's back, then threw them unceremoniously out the door.

 

Grieger was just about to jump. He kept his eye on the woman and boy and as they neared the ground, the patches suddenly blew up into protective balls of foam each nearly as big as the pod, foam that softened Qor and Lakshmi's landing. This was the last thing he saw before the pod crashed.

 

The impact smashed his bulk to the floor and sent him sprawling out onto the grass. The breaking of bones rang out audibly even among the screams of wrenching metal. His mental desktop lit up with medical warnings all over his body. Even with his pain threshold set at maximum, the agony sang in his brain.

 

With a groan, he tried to sit up. His vision swam. Qor and Lakshmi kneeled over him, shouting words that sounded like they'd been spoken underwater. Above the woman and boy a cluster of winged, spidery creatures buzzed toward them.

 

He tried to reach for his sidearm but his hands wouldn't work right and everything felt dreamy and far away. He tried to tell them to look up, to run, to leave him, but his lips just moved soundlessly.

 

Grieger tried to say he was sorry.

 

Blackness crept up on the edges of his vision and it seemed his eyes were a window through which he watched a different and distant world.

 

So, so sorry. His eyelids slowly closed and a warm heaviness, not unpleasant, settled over him.

 

But before he dropped fully into the blackness, something ripped him back.

 

His lungs sucked in breath and his eyes jolted open to see a nanobot injection syringe sticking out of the middle of his chest and Ro over him, laughing.

 

"How great is this, G? I thought today was going to be boring before you called." Ro stood and pointed her finger like a gun and yelled "Bang!" A symbiote exploded in a gloopy mess.

 

Grieger turned his face to see a dozen drones hovering behind Ro. Each time she pointed her finger at a symbiote, a drone fired and vaporized it.

 

He felt himself lifted off the ground. Turning his head the other direction, he saw Kace wearing the black gloves and head ring of his telekinetek rig.

 

Ro winked at him. "We got you, big guy. Let mommy kill some gutslugs and we'll have Nistra fix you up real nice."

 

He closed his eyes and surrendered to oblivion.

 

*

 

"He's awake!"

 

Grieger squinted out of one eye to see Qor and Lakshmi next to his bed. His mouth was dry and the medbay seemed altogether too bright. Nistra's six-armed docbot incarnation fussed with his broken arm, immobilizing it in a bony, porous healing husk that also covered much of his torso.

 

Qor's face was all smile. "Grieger! I was so scared and I thought you were going to die and when we got onto the Nistra I cried for a really long time but Ro made me feel a lot better with some magic touch thing she can do and they have so much cool stuff on this ship! They have a fantatek chamber that lets you do anything in any world you can imagine and Kace can move things just with his mind and Ro lets me eat whatever I want but Lakshmi doesn't like that actually and we were going to watch Lost Earth but I said we should wait to watch it with you."

 

Lakshmi put her arm around Qor and took Grieger's hand in her cool, scaled fingers. "There are no words. Qor and I are deeply grateful you were there. With your sub-optimal defects."

 

Ro elbowed her way in front of them and put her beautiful face so close to Grieger that he could smell her, some mix of berries and alloy. "I absolutely LOVE these two! I'm keeping them, Beanstalk. And you're staying with us, too. Understand?"

 

His thoughts drifted back to the moments before he went upstairs to yell at his neighbors about their noise, before the attack. Why not just end it? What good was he to anyone?

 

Grieger nodded and saluted with his good arm as tears welled in his eyes and warmth spread through his chest. "Yes, Ma'am. I understand. I'm not going anywhere."

 

 

THE END

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Kevin Stadt is an English teacher with a master’s degree in teaching writing and a doctorate in American literature. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Enter the AftermathKzine, Lazarus Risen, Phantaxis, Stupefying Stories, and many more. He lives in South Korea with his wife and sons, who are inter-dimensional cyborg pirates wanted in a dozen star systems.

Fiction by Kevin Stadt:

"Defective: A Hominum Futurus Chronicle" December 2020, December 2019