Collaborative Short Story

October 22, 2015

I've been a part of writers' groups for a long time now, but none have ever been so dynamic as the Dragon's Rocketship. It even has a great name! Anyway, a couple of months ago seven of us got together and decided to collaborate on a short story. Thanks to Scatter Prime, Misha Burnett, Vicky Perry, Shannon Perrine, Erin Yoshikawa, and Mirren Hogen, we created the following. I hope you enjoy.

 

Conversations In The Hunger Garden

 

Cavendish and the Hellhound were playing sanctuary.  Neither of them were entirely sure of the rules, but the table was one of the few that seemed to work.  They were in this part of the Garden because the Shav had burned himself alive in the middle of their preferred orchard, and the effluvium of roasted flesh hung thick in the air among the ossified trees.

 

“Bastard,” Cavendish muttered, her fingers stroking the smooth transparent top of the game table, looking for a move.  “He knew damned well that was our favorite spot.”

 

She bent a bit awkwardly.  She had recently begun brewing up a new batch of hormones and they had caused her breasts to swell, straining against her suit jacket. She touched a spot that the table decided was a valid move and below the surface of the table the colored lights that represented her pieces shifted.  She seemed to be winning, at least if moving her pieces to the Hellhound's side of the table were the goal.

 

The Hellhound studied the top of the table impassively.  “One assumes,” he said, his mechanized voice an ugly monotone, “that Shav wanted to include us in his disassembly. A touching moment of reconciliation, perhaps. Grand gestures do seem to be required at such a moment.”

 

He touched the tabletop carefully, and his pieces rearranged themselves. The grace required by the mechanized armor that gave him his name was long habit.  He wore the ancient weapon ironically, having had himself grafted into a relic from a war fought so long ago that no one today knew who the sides were or what they had been fighting for. Even the name, Hellhound, was taken from the picture etched into the metal—the letters inscribed above and below the image were in an alphabet lost to time.

 

Cavendish leaned back in her chair, ignoring the game. “He could have just left me a note,” she said.  She was angry, and enjoying her anger. This batch of hormones was her best yet—she could feel them bubbling through her bloodstream, building her up to a truly diverting case of rage.

 

The Hellhound shrugged, his suit exaggerating the gesture comically. “That would hardly have had the same effect.” 

“I wish he'd let me kill him,” Cavendish said suddenly, her eyes shining.  “I could have borrowed one of your toys and blown him up.”

 

The Hellhound's steel mask was impassive, but behind it the muscles of his skinless face frowned. His collection of scavenged military hardware was a philosophical statement—their obsolescence meant to convey the ephemeral nature of the conflicts they represented.  He certainly wouldn't consent to any of them being used for their intended purpose.

 

“I want to kill someone,” Cavendish said softly, as if considering the idea.  Then, more emphatically.  “Yes.  I think I should kill someone. I think that would be great fun.”

 

“Perhaps you should moderate your blood chemistry,” the Hellhound suggested.

 

Cavendish frowned at him. “Why not?” she asked.  “We're all just waiting to die anyway.  We're all that there is—there can't be any more humans after we're gone.  Wouldn't it be the grandest gesture for me to re-invent murder as an art form?  Far more interesting than just killing myself.”

 

The Hellhound considered this.  Suicide, it was true, had become the global pastime for the few that were left.  Medical science had advanced to the point where death no longer came by accident or by time, only as an act of will.  Earth was a dead world, with perhaps a few tens of thousands of weary immortals.  They struggled to find ways to divert themselves, and when that failed, they made their own exit in as spectacular a manner as their imaginations allowed.

 

Was murder really all that different?  It was, at least, a novel concept.

 

Cavendish sensed his openness to the idea. “Please, let's do this.  We can use all those weapons you have gathering dust.  No one would be expecting it—I bet we can kill lots before they stop us.”

 

The Hellhound carefully moderated his voice to a softer tone—purely for effect, since there was no one who could possibly be listening. “You are going to need some target practice.”

 

"Speaking of targets." Cavendish muttered. She looked across the kind expanse of lawn.

 

Dime all but danced up to the table, her long, lithe implants driving her forward in dainty steps. No one knew her real name; even she claimed to have forgotten. That seemed plausible, it was impressive that she retained the ability to string words together, when she seemed to lack so many other basic cognitive skills.

 

She clapped her hands together. "Why didn't you tell me you were playing? I would have come to play."

 

Cavendish raised her eyebrows at Hellhound. He nodded, barely perceptible. If anyone was good practice then a person whose head held more air than a balloon would be it. Although, it wouldn't be very sporting.

 

The smile Cavendish turned on Dime would only be considered friendly by someone who had very little in the way of self-preservation instincts. Someone, in fact, just like Dime.

 

“Dime!” Cavendish exclaimed, and even to herself, her voice came out far too light and cheery, with little evidence of the rage bubbling up below the surface. She hated it, but there was a purpose, so she went on. “We’ve been waiting for you. There is a game to be played, a very special game, one we reserved just for you.”

 

“For me?” Dime asked, a caricature of friendly surprise and excitement spreading over her elongated features. Her overly long legs did a little dance which might have been, in other circumstances, charming.

 

“Yes, just for you.” Cavendish was unable to keep the sneer off her face anymore, but Dime, in her excitement, didn’t seem to notice. “Just a moment while I get the toys.” She held out a hand, palm upward, towards the Hellhound.

 

He had been content, so far, to sit back and idly observe, but at her gesture his mechanical voice replied, “Very well.” And a moment later he placed an oblong metallic object in her hand. It was made out of a shiny alloy that reflected the light nicely. There were several indentations on it that might be buttons, a spiky protuberance on the top and what appeared to be a small antennae coming from the side of what could optimistically be called the handle.

 

At the feel of the unfamiliar device in her hand, Cavendish turned to look at it, a frown playing across her face. “What am I supposed to do with that?” She demanded loudly of her armored companion.

 

Metal creaked and groaned as the Hellhound shrugged, but his response was simple enough. “Be creative. There is no life without challenge. This should keep things challenging.”

 

Cavendish glared at him a moment longer, then turned her growing malice back on Dime, whom it was finally beginning to dawn upon that things might not be all right. Dime began to wilt back, wobbling a bit, as Cavendish spat out from between gritted teeth, “RUN!”

 

She may have been one of the lowest lifeforms present, but even Dime knew she was in danger. On spindly transplants, she began a comical dash away from the gaming table and hormone-fueled assassin. Her head whipped around to see Cavendish running behind, but a faulty vertebrae shifted and froze. With her head facing backwards, Dime had the most perfect view of death sprinting her way.

 

"I'mma get you!" Cavendish screamed as she fumbled with her weapon of Hellhound's choice. She jammed her fingers into what could have been buttons and was rewarded with a satisfying, high-pitched whirr. The spikes sprang into action and spun, emitting pretty blue sparks that danced and jumped.

 

Dime saw this and knew doom was imminent. She saw her life (or what little she recalled) flash before her eyes in a sixty-four count Crayola-colored haze. It seemed too brief and too banal, as if Dime had barely done anything with the time allotted. Perhaps that was exactly as her existence had been?

 

The other woman leapt over a hole, her large chest smacking her chin as she landed and kept running. The device in her hand whirred merrily as she edged closer, a malicious smile plastered over her reddening face. "I'm coming for ya," she said in a lilting sing-song voice. The death-machine in her hand chirped as if to agree. Cavendish felt it vibrating in her hand at a perfect 100 Hz that sent shivers up her arm. With only three meters between them, she made to sprint but stopped and pointed to something ahead. "Hey! Look out!"

 

Dime stopped dead in her tracks. Even with Cavendish on her heels, the sight before her was more petrifying to her than anything the unbalanced woman had in store for her.

 

“What do you two think you’re doing?” Dime looked up to the looming figure before her. He was a giant of sorts, with a mechanical arm and foot made of high-entropy alloy. His right eye looked around at the scene before him, making a buzzing sound as the gears behind it shifted the red beam iris around its socket.

 

“I asked you worms a question?” He said again all while his human eye never left Dime’s bust.

 

“We were just having a bit of fun.” Cavendish explained as she slid the contraption in her hand to her back pocket. She could hear the Hellhound behind her as he sighed a bit of relief that one of his favorite toys hadn’t been noticed. He would surely use her for target practice had it been confiscated. Taking in the scene before him the giant laughed, or grunted, neither of the women could tell which.

 

“Should we be playing at a time like this?” He loomed over Cavendish, the noxious odor that was his breath made her head spin.

 

The Hellhound had slithered his way to the group and stood behind Cavendish, “It was more of a training exercise sir, nothing else,” he slapped Cavendish on the backside and she realized he had in fact relieved her of the device.

 

“Good… yes, good,” the giant said as he stroked his chin hairs with his flesh hand. “Keep these women in shape Hellhound. You never know when we might need them to do some heavy lifting,” he walked past Cavendish and took a brief look back at Dime, who hadn’t moved since she saw him standing there. While mumbling something under his breath the giant walked off. His alloy foot scuffled the concrete floor of the chasm as he went. Cavendish and the Hellhound watched him skulk away, when they looked back to find Dime she was nowhere in sight. 

 

“Where did she run off to?” Cavendish turned on Hellhound. Though his face remained expressionless his half step away from her warned Cavendish to back down. She closed her eyes to think through her roiling hormones. “We have to find her before she tells someone we tried to kill her.” She growled.

 

Hellhound cocked his head to the side. “What makes you think someone would believe that twit?” His silky, low voice surprised Cavendish. “Besides,” he continued, “it’s the thrill of the hunt. It will be better this way.”

 

He pulled out a scanner and calibrated it to their location in the garden. Cavendish glared at him. “What is that supposed to do? She’s mostly transplants! That isn’t going to sense her body heat!”

 

“No, but it senses electrical currents.” Hellhound replied. “Let’s hunt.” Cavendish felt giddy. She stared at the scanner greedily. She could tell the giant had returned to his post at the front gate of the garden. She saw the currents of Hellhound in the center of the scanner. To the south a slight blip was picked up in the wisteria garden.

 

“That has to be her!” Cavendish pointed at the screen. She waited for his reaction but Hellhound only slowly nodded. “Come on. You said yourself that it’s the thrill of the hunt. Let’s go get her!”

 

Hellhound paused a moment longer. “But I like the wisteria garden. It would be a shame to blow them up all because Dime ran in there to hide.” Cavendish slugged him in the arm before turning to run to the south. In spite of her hormonal rage and buxom bosom she still lithely plucked Hellhound’s instrument of death from his armor. She had enjoyed seeing those blue sparks and wanted to put them to good use on Dime.

 

He opened his eyes and sighed softly as the sound of metal scraping deep into hard earth disturbed his meditation. Or deep thought at least, it wasn’t truly meditation, not really. The pastime that had become a lifetime obsession was truthfully an ongoing experimentation into memory erasure. A test to the endurance of the human mind and its ability to retain information. Recall relationships. Bad dreams.  Lifting a mocha skinned arm languorously in front of his face, Theo stroked the first two fingers of his right hand over the flatter section of his left forearm and smiled. Seventeen years and fifteen days, the number display told him. Since he had thought of... Damn. 

 

He dropped noiselessly from the upper branches of the manipulated wisteria tree and stood stoutly on a lower tree limb. Lazily, nonchalant and at ease, he smiled at Dime, this reason for his awakening into the wider world.  Dime’s expression registered panic despite the sheer tranquility of their current surroundings. Purple, pink, blue, white and yellow, wisteria blossom splashed colours in every direction. New vines coaxed their way upwards and outwards, while older, more gnarled limbs twisted and stretched about each other to form a far wider expanse of arboreal domination. Invasive, yet beautiful, a metaphor that was perhaps lost on the interloper into this space, but not the malingerer. 

 

“Are you alright?” Theo’s voice was gentle, comforting, and it belied the frustration tapping away inside his head. He wasn’t in the mood for an airheaded conversation with a moron, but the sheer aura of fear surrounding Dime drew his attention and piqued his curiosity. There were few things to be afraid of anymore, precious few indeed.  

 

A split second decision and Dime blurted out the words that kept rolling around her otherwise empty head. She knew Theo, he was harmless, unmodified for the most part, a dreamer, a thinker and a perpetually young ancient. While all that made him a good listener, it also meant he was unlikely to be of much help, but he was here, and he was smarter than she was. Confession was at least better than lonely, fearful silence. 

 

“They tried to kill me!” She shrieked, voice shrill and louder than intended. “Cavendish tried to kill me!” 

 

Theo laughed, but the warm sound died in his throat as he continued to maintain eye contact with the flighty woman. Dime wasn’t capable of humour on this level. Yet, it simply didn’t ring true. Homicide?   He tilted his head to the left, unblemished skin, close caramel curls and dark brown eyes belying his true age. This was new, or at least the reemergence of something ancient and mostly forgotten. Murder most foul. He frowned, considered the matter for far longer than Dime considered reasonable. 

 

“A game,” Theo breathed, sounding ever so slightly excited. Cavendish wouldn’t be far behind, he suspected. “The ultimate game of hide and seek.” He smiled, held out his hands and let Dime place her trust in him. His voice was kind, conspiratorial, as he pulled her up into the higher realms of the wisteria canopy’s strong lattice support system. “C’mon, we won’t let them win so easily. Let’s you and I take this dance above the trees.”

 

Dime's spindly limbs worked well for tree climbing.  There wasn't much meat on her body, and the nano-carbon fibers that made up her arms and legs stretched and gripped and hauled her quickly out of sight.

 

Theo moved more slowly, but more surely.  He knew these trees, he had spent weeks staring at one branch, willing himself to grasp its essence in its totality.  He didn't think he'd ever managed to truly understand the plants—the gulf between the animal and the plant may actually be uncrossable, he often thought sadly—but he understood them well enough to use them as an improvised catwalk for escaping violent persons.  Violence-doers.  There was a word for that, he was sure, a way to describe someone who did murdering.  Perhaps he'd ask the archives later.

 

Down below them, Cavendish operated the electrical device again, and a lot of incidental things caught fire. 

 

This was getting to be too much.  This entire business was not at all serene.  It was, in fact, the very opposite of serenity.

 

“Cavendish!” he called down.  “Stop this.  You can't murder Dime, and you certainly can't murder her here!”

 

“Why not?” Cavendish called back, unleashing another pocket lightning storm.

 

Dime surprised all of them by shouting, “Because I'm the detective!”

 

Nobody said anything for a while.  Plants burned, releasing an entirely unpleasant odor.

 

Cavendish recovered first, probably because she was the one with the weapon.  “What?”

 

“If you do murders,” Dime explained, a little breathlessly, but rationally enough, “then somebody has to catch you, right?  I'm sure that's how it always worked.”

 

Cavendish started to reply, but the Hellhound cut her off. “She's got a point,” he said. 

 

“But I don't want to be caught,” Cavendish objected.

 

Theo considered the situation, “If you don't want to be caught, then you have to be smarter than the detective,” he said slowly, working it out in his head. “Dime's stupid.  She'd be perfect.”

 

“He's got you there,” the Hellhound agreed.

 

“But she knows I'm the killer,” Cavendish said.  “That ruins everything.”

 

“Oh,” Dime suggested brightly. “I'll just forget that.  I can forget the whole day, and then when I discover a body, it'll be a total mystery.”

 

Cavendish snorted. "I'm starting to think there's no sport in hunting something so stupid. It's like shooting politicians in the senate chambers, but much less satisfying. Maybe we should do that instead, create a little anarchy."

 

Hellhound's head moved in an approximation of a nod. "I prefer anarchy to the blatant destruction of innocent wisteria. However, I see an error in your logic."

 

"How so?"

 

"The politicians all blew themselves up. They filled the senate chamber with too much hot air and 'whoosh' up it went."

 

"Oh yes." Cavendish scratched her head. "What about Theo, that might be more sporting?"

 

Both of their eyes went up to where he perched.

 

"How about no," Theo replied.

 

"Spoilsport," Cavendish said. Maybe she should just kill them all. That would at least pass the time. She'd just finished that thought when the ground started to shift beneath her feet.

 

"Hellhound?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"When is the arachnid due back in the garden?"

 

"Approximately now."

 

Perfectly on cue, dirt and grass sprayed into the air between Cavendish and the Hellhound as the concealed trap door suddenly dropped down, revealing a wide ramp leading down into what was apparently an enormous underground complex. And up that ramp scuttled the Arachnid.

 

Everyone knew the Arachnid’s story. His real name was Wilhelm Strauss and he had once been one of the most prominent scientists and inventors remaining to the stagnating human race. And then there had been a quite catastrophic accident involving his prototype devolution ray. Now his body was that of “Parasteatoda tepidariorum, or, the common house spider.....if that spider was the size of a bulldozer. And, in a strange twist that was probably more curse than blessing, he kept his head, though the small, wrinkled, almost hairless head added an even more bizarre element to his appearance. The whole thing had driven him quite mad, though there were still the occasional flashes of genius. For that reason alone the Powers That Be still tolerated his presence.

 

Arachnid scuttled around to peer at each of them, one at a time, though he sneered at the Hellhound and deliberately turned on to the next as soon as possible. “Welcome to my parlor.” he said, with an unsettling grin that showed far too many teeth, all filed to sharp points. “Even though you were not invited, I shall make you welcome. I am many things, but a poor host is not one of them.”

 

“I was away, but very little happens here, in my figurative web, that I do not know.” He said, generally addressing the group. “And while I have no use for this little game you are playing, it has intrigued me. So, in that spirit, I shall make you an offer.”

 

He paused a long moment, making sure he had all of their attention before continuing, “I am in need of a volunteer to help with....shall we say, further experimentation. So, should one of you volunteer.....or be volunteered, as it may, then the rest of you may go.”

 

“Should you not be able to come to a decision, then I will have to assume that all of you have decided to stay to be my little playmates.” He gave out a high pitched laugh that was half snort and when that died off he said, “Oh, I almost forgot! To make it sporting, I will give you to the count of ten!”

 

“Ten!” He called out. The countdown had begun.

 

Cavendish stared at Arachnid with wide eyes. “Shit, do you think he’s serious?”

 

“Nine!”

 

“This is Strauss…” The Hellhound glanced at the man-spider, who had started to wriggle with obvious impatience and delight.

 

“Eight!”

 

“Yes, and?”

 

“Seven!” He was starting to salivate, and licked thin, dry lips.

 

The Hellhound looked back towards Cavendish. “You wanted to play a game of death, yes?”

 

“O-of course, but…” A trickle of sweat slid between her modified breasts, and Cavendish shivered. Although one might have guessed it was from fright.

 

“Five!”

 

Dime piped up from her hiding spot amidst the trees. “He skipped six!”

 

“Four!”

 

Cavendish shouted in her general direction, “Shut up! Who gets thrown to the Spider?!” She was close to throwing the Hellhound, by now.

 

“I say…” Hellhound reached into the dirt at his feet and picked up a small, shiny object. It was a coin, ironically, a dime piece from the once-great republic of the United States. “We flip for it.”

 

“Three!” Strauss the Spider began to edge closer and a sickly-sweet stench of ozone and purulent flesh wafted over the assembled.

 

“Heads, he gets Dime. Tails, we run until one of us comes up with a plan.”

“Two!”

 

“That’s your plan? Seriously?” Cavendish stared at the armored man in disbelief.

 

The Hellhound shrugged and lifted his left hand with the coin. “Got a better one?”

 

“One!”

 

Cavendish watched as the dime piece flipped over and over through the air. The hellhound caught it deftly and slapped it against the back of a gauntlet.

 

The Hellhound stared pointedly at the Spider coming closer and closer to Cavendish’s back. “Call it. Now.”

 

“Fine!” Cavendish yelled at the top of her lungs to be heard over the chittering-like noise that the Arachnid was producing. She thought he must have thought this was as exciting as mating was for a spider.

 

“Tails… Run for it!” Hellhound started them off. The entrance of the garden was farther away than they had remembered, and with each pounding the ground took from Hellhound as he tried his best for a run, the concrete aged by time, cracked a bit under the pressure.

 

“Wait for me!” Dime screeched as she ran past Theo in an effort to make sure she was not the Arachnid’s prize.

 

As she scuffed by him, she raised a hand to Theo’s chest pushing him backwards as she helped herself to some momentum. She ran as well as her spiked heels would allow as her bosom smacked into her chin, making her bite down on her tongue with each lift of them.

 

The Arachnid had waited till they began to scurry about. He enjoyed the confines of his new home, but rather missed the sport of hunting his prey. Becoming an Arachnid did nothing for that side of him, it only made him want it more. The mad scientist within him made him crave to be out on the dark streets combing the alleyways for the lost and decrepit souls that he could use for his experiments.

 

So as he watched Hellhound and Cavendish head for the entrance of his garden he decided to descend on them first. There was only one way in and one way out, so beginning with them would ensure he would be able to keep them all. He scurried back around the rubble of the garden keepers building and climbed it to get to the top of the wall that lined the alley to the garden from the gate. As he ran down the alley he shot a web to Cavendish’s feet to lock her into place. Hellhound grabbed Cavendish around her waist and pulled her feet free. Strauss let out a terrifying crowing sound and shot more web to cover the exit of the garden. He scurried past them along the wall and dropped down in front of the entrance. He brought his from legs up to expose his underside and the stinger that protruded. As Dime approached the group, she squawked, however she did not stop running. She skidded into the Arachnid’s underbelly and pushed him into his own web.

 

“That twit could have gotten me killed!” Theo said as he caught up to Cavendish and Hellhound. Dime had run so fast that the Arachnid was wrapped up in his own web, lying on his back. As he lay there kicking his feet in the air, Dime was running still.

 

“Get me up… I assure you I was only playing…you said you were bored!” The Arachnid pleaded with them as an old man would, whining after each syllable. The group took another long look at him and decided against it. As they turned the corner from the wisteria garden the giant appeared before them.

 

“What is the meaning of this?” His mechanical eye looked back and forth between the three of them. “WELLLLL?”  He tapped his foot.

 

Cavendish, Hellhound and Theo all raised a hand and pointed in Dime’s direction, who was now jumping up and down on one foot and trying to tap her head. She had obviously lost the feeling of being in immediate danger.

 

In one swift motion the giant brought his fist crashing down onto Dime, leaving only a short-circuited splat on the earth.

 

“Aw! That was-,” Cavendish stopped when she saw the mechanical eye peering at her.

 

“She was worthless, anyway,” Thanatos retorted. Cavendish knew better than to argue with the giant, particularly when he felt aggravated. She winced when his eyes moved to the smoldering garden behind them.

 

“Now what the hell are the rest of you twerps doing? You ruined the wisteria garden!” He shouted. He snorted. His face flushed. He clenched his fists.

 

Cavendish glanced at Hellhound holding out his weapon with the blue sparkles. She was surprised when he shook his head. He saw real fear in the hormonally raged woman’s eyes for the first time, as she understood that his weapons wouldn’t harm the angry giant. Cavendish snapped out of her gaze when Theo grasped her arm in a warning. The mechanical eye had refocused on them.

 

“You better run,” Thanatos growled.

 

“Quickly, follow me!” Theo cried and he raced out the front garden gate with Cavendish and Hellhound following close behind.

 

Thanatos would have been right behind them but he heard the madman spider call to him.

 

“Thanatos.” The thin voice rang out. “Thanatos, I can help you.” His words seemed to crawl across the Giant’s skin causing him to shiver. He straightened his large form before turning to the arachnid.

 

“I fail to see how you could help me, Wilhelm Strauss,” Thanatos grumbled.

 

Two words. Two words transferred from spider to giant and made everything better between them.

 

“Underground network,” said Strauss.

 

A slow, humourless grin crept across Thanatos’ usually stern features and a sound that could have been laughter coughed out into the world. “Yes.” He said. He moved one step closer to the web-bound Arachnid, perhaps merely to observe, perhaps to aid him in his exodus from the sticky contraption and he paused.

 

“Ta-Da!” Announced the Arachnid, his legs unfurling as he righted himself, the threads of entrapping silk finally consumed, his entire form now free. A darker cloud of a mood settled over his insane features and he rubbed his front legs together as his teeth scraped against each other in anticipation. Then he began to sing, warping the words with a terrible accent that assaulted the giant’s ears. “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road….”

 

A skittering of silent, hairy appendages and the Arachnid vanished back down yet another dust covered trapdoor, the sound of his song lilting behind him like burnt toast for the ears.

 

Standing still for a moment, Thanatos considered the game that was now in play. Behind him, the soft fall of artificial rain from the garden’s sprinkler system watered the smoking wisteria. Ahead of him, the wonderfully pleasant sounds of concerned citizens making what they considered to be a solid escape. He mentally counted to twenty, just to give them a fair head start and then began to lumber after the three runners. A gentle jog should suffice unless Hellhound decided to cheat.

 

Up ahead, Theo had stopped. Unenhanced as his body was, he found himself falling behind. He was caught in the middle ground between Hellhound and Cavendish to his front and the giant guardian of the garden at his rear. And, even with body manipulation put aside, Theo could no longer bear to sprint away from the trees he loved so dearly. They were hurt, they needed him.

 

So he stood, hands raised up in the air in a ubiquitous gesture of surrender and he waited. He could at least buy the other two some time, and besides, he hadn’t really done anything too nefarious. Not for a good long while now. The giant had no reason to exterminate him.

 

“I’ve got this! Keep running!” Theo yelled to the dirty sky.

 

Thanatos thundered towards him, weight shaking the ground. Theo twisted his left arm to look at the integral timer and, very pointedly, as the giant neared his position, he held two fingers to that skin-covered screen and waited for the confirmation beep. The giant stopped short of the lone, stationary human figure, leant slowly forward and looked into Theo’s currently vacant eyes. Thanatos tilted his head to the side and snapped his fingers in front of Theo’s face

 

Responsive, but unrecognizing.

 

“I’m sorry,” Theo said, voice filled with apology. “I seem to be lost. Could you please point me in the direction of the wisteria garden?”

 

Meanwhile, up ahead of Hellhound and Cavendish, the ground had begun to shake.

 

Each tread on the mobile fortress that was slowly approaching was taller than Cavendish would have been standing on the Hellhound's shoulders.  The armor was pitted by both time and the work of ancient weapons, leaving rusted craters that showed gleaming metal at their bottoms.  The Hellhound slowed and waited for it approach.  Beside him Cavendish did likewise.

 

“I do hope,” the Hellhound said gravely, “that this exercise has demonstrated to your satisfaction the futility of violence in interpersonal relationships.”

 

Cavendish sighed. “It's a lot more complicated than it is in the old stories,” she agreed. “I thought I could just kill somebody and be done with it, but now everybody's getting involved.”

 

The fortress rumbled to a stop and a hatch slowly opened.  This was one of the prizes of the Hellhound's collection—an Ogre Mark VII.  Arguably the largest land based military hardware ever constructed.

 

Cavendish had put away the electrical weapon and had gotten out one of her own inventions—a compact biochemical factory that she used to produce her mood-altering hormones.  “Maybe I need to lay off the anger for a while.  Murder's too complicated.  I could do sex.”

 

The Hellhound climbed the long ramp into the Ogre. 

 

Cavendish followed, thoughtful.  “Do you suppose that Theo would have sex with me?”

 

“I doubt it,” the Hellhound replied.  “He's embraced the whole lone contemplative thing. I think that renouncing sex is part of the anchorite package—it would ruin his image.  Maybe Dime?”

 

“Dime's squashed,” Cavendish objected.  “She won't be able to do anything for days.  Besides, I probably should start out with a male/female thing and not get too exotic right away.  You want to do some sex?”

 

The Hellhound frowned inside his armor, although he knew that it wouldn't show on his metal faceplate. “I'd have to modify the armor, and you know I prefer to keep my collection as the builders intended.”

 

“I'm pretty sure there are some kinds of sex we could do with you in that tin can,” Cavendish said slowly. “Let me read up on it, okay?”

 

“As you wish,” the Hellhound agreed absently.  He was working the controls to close the hatch.  Somewhere around here was a substation to engage the autopilot, he was sure.

 

"There's always self-service though," Hellhound added. "I'm sure you have a device or two for your erotic stimulation."

 

"The batteries are flat," Cavendish groaned. "I'll have to put them on to recharge. In the meantime…" She favored Hellhound with a predatory look.

 

"Your hands don't run on batteries," he said hastily.

 

"Classy."

 

"I try."

 

"You're very trying."

 

Hellhound wisely didn't respond.

 

"I—" Cavendish was interrupted by a hammering at the hatch. "Oh what now? Better not be Jehovah's witnesses."

 

Hellhound shot her a quick glance at that comment but decided it was wisest not to take the bait. Instead he turned back to his controls and a moment later they were viewing the live camera feed of the exterior of the hatch. And while the person outside was unlikely to be a Jehovah’s Witness, he was certainly worthy of comment. He was thin to the point of emaciation, and had he not had such a pronounced stoop, would probably be considered quite tall. His thinning black hair had been slicked down and plastered across the top of his head in a comb over that was only noteworthy by its obviousness. The coal black suit he wore would have done equal justice on a scarecrow or a mortician, and while it was once of obviously fine make, it was now becoming threadbare in spots and a tuft of padding was showing through a small tear in the left shoulder.

 

With one hand he continued to hammer mercilessly at the door, while in the other was balanced a silver tray. And upon that tray, perfectly balanced in the center, was a mauve envelope, held closed with a wax seal.

 

The Hellhound gave this fellow a quick glance and then strode over to begin opening the hatch. Cavendish hovered beside him, murmuring, “Perhaps he will have sex with me....”

 

The hatch opened to reveal the messenger, who gave a slight bow. Afterwards, he parted his mouth a short ways to reveal that he was no longer in possession of his tongue, and presented the silver tray to the unlikely pair.

The Hellhound plucked the envelope from the tray and began to study it, internal scanners checking it for anything from explosives to viral dust. They revealed what, on further examination turned out to be only a spray of lilac scent.

 

Meanwhile, Cavendish had tackled the messenger and currently had a hand fishing around in the fellow’s trousers quite savagely. The Hellhound ignored both of them and deftly opened the letter.

 

It said:

Greetings and Salutations,

            It is our honor to inform you that your recent actions have gained the attention of the Court. Based on this, we would like you to present yourself for dinner at the Grand Plateau in an hours time so that we might have a Conversation. Should there be any question of it, I would like to assure you that this is not a request.

                                                                                                - The Ambassador

The Hellhound perused this for a moment, then noticed that Cavendish was once again standing beside him, fuming a bit more than normal. “Interesting.” He handed the note over to her, asking, “Are you done with your sexing already? That seemed to be quite........rapid?” He glanced about but saw no sign of the man. Surely she had not buried his body in such a short time?

 

“What?” Cavendish asked, a tone of anger in her voice, but then without waiting for an answer, she said, “No. It turns out that a tongue is not the only thing he was missing.”

 

“Pity,” the iron (or perhaps steel?) man murmured. “We have been served a summons.” He passed the note to Cavendish and returned to the Ogre’s control console.

 

Cavendish read it quickly, her expression turning from irritated and horny to concerned and contrite. “I think we’re in trouble.”

 

“Your powers of observation are astounding, my friend. If only your plot for murder had been contemplated with as much care.” The Ogre began barreling away from the gardens towards the Plateau. It made noises that could have woken the dead as it trampled the last vestiges of a nuclear summer.

 

“If we’re headed for the Plateau, we’re taking the idiot with us.” Cavendish pointed to crater where Dime had been flattened.

 

“We would need to get past Thanatos,” Hellhound rumbled from the driver’s seat.

 

“And Theo. But we need a scapegoat to blame for the trouble and Dime’s perfect for the job.” The woman shoved the tank’s entry hatch open and maneuvered herself to the side.

 

“You’re a rotten human being, Cavendish.” But Hellhound, not seeing any way around their potential trial and demise, swung the behemoth tank around and headed back the way they had come. They rolled past the remnants of Dime, and Cavendish scraped the female-thing’s parts from the crushed earth and shoved her into the Ogre’s body before slamming the hatch shut somewhere around Thanatos’ nether region. She peeked through a crater in the Ogre’s armor with avid curiosity at what may have been the giant’s package, but her daydreams were cut short by a crackle and fizz.

 

“Th-thank you? I think?” Dime’s lips didn’t move, but her vocal-production unit remained mostly functional. The words floated eerily from the pile of scrap and plastic parts that now was the sum of her parts. The same parts of her body twitched spasmodically as neurons and neutrons attempted to fire with nowhere left to go. One soft, plasticine breast jiggled merrily along as her head twitched upon a broken neck. A silicate and mercury eye whirled towards the invitation that had landed on the floor and Dime’s crushed head gurgled in delight.  “Wh-whe-whe-whe- *zzziiiitttt* Where are we going? Are we going to a party?”

 

The buxom woman’s smile was sinister as she peered down at the pile of Dime, “Why, yes we are, sweet Dime. And you know what?”

 

Hellhound growled behind his armor. “Don’t say it…”

 

“You’re the guest of honor!”

 

“*zzzziittt* Oh boy! I love parties!” Dime’s eye whirled faster with pure, innocent joy.

 

“We’re headed there right now…” Cavendish leaned forward and started to shove body parts back into shape, but the Ogre jostled and she fell forward, her large rack padding the fall.

 

“Once we get past Thanatos.” Hellhound hit his toy’s throttle, only to hear a hissing and clacking from the roof above them. A long pincer swiped through one of the holes and nearly caught him in the face.

 

“And Strauss! He’s back!” Cavendish rolled to the back of the vehicle and began to search for a weapon. Whether it was meant for mass or minor destruction didn’t matter- she just needed to clear their way so they could make the dinner date on time.

 

“You’re going to blow a hole through the hull,” Hellhound bellowed over the whizzing and tweets that was now Dime, “Here use this.” He said sardonically as he handed Cavendish a spear of metal no longer than her forearm.

 

 Cavendish ducked to the side and then the next as the pincers searched through the opening above. “What am I supposed to do with this thing? The minute I stick my hand up there he’s gonna take it off my arm.”  She turned the gadget from side to side examining its hilt. A light materialized as she held it, and a trigger slid out from inside the cool metal. Cavendish placed her finger poetically on the trigger and began to squeeze.

 

“Your gonna take off my head woman. Point it at him… then pull the trigger.” He mumbled something else under his breath which Cavendish hadn’t quite caught.

 

She placed the tip of the spear in the small opening next to Strauss’ pincers and pulled the trigger. The metal in her hand started to pulsate and whirr. “This might do for the sexing thing.”

 

“Just wait, I have a feeling you’ll change your mind real quick.” Hellhound laughed to himself and steadied the Ogre as best he could as the arachnid continued to thrash above them.

 

“Well, I think it’s not wor-.” The metal spear grew in a flash, making it longer than both of her legs stuck end to end. As the tip touched the arachnid a blue spark flew into him, making his legs taut. With the current surging through his limbs Strauss fell to the ground below and the Ogre whizzed past him.

 

“That was awesome, can we do it again?” Cavendish gave a sly look in Dime’s direction.

 

“Best not, unless you want the Ogre to stop working as well.” Hellhound looked at her with a feverish eye. The metal of the spear retracted back inside itself and he quickly relieved Cavendish of it and returned it to its rightful place.

 

“Now… er…can…*zzziiiitttt* we...er...go party?” Dime managed between glitches as her wires crossed and sent sparks flying about.

 

“Yes Dime… now we go to the party.” Cavendish gave the broken female her best happy expression.

 

Thanatos retched from the smell of burnt arachnid. The burning wisterias had saddened him, but the burning remains of Strauss made him physically ill. He wiped his lips with his sleeve before smiling a satisfied smirk at the retreating Ogre Mark VII. Cavendish and the Hellhound would have enough to contend with at Court on the Plateau. He turned on his heel to question Theo. He knew the pretty boy had only played dumb a few minutes earlier when he asked for directions. Theo had been a part of the scheme in the wisteria garden and Thanatos intended to find out what Theo knew about Cavendish and the Hellhound’s actions that afternoon.

 

The Ogre scuttled across the crumbled concrete that used to be the leveling plane for the local nuclear plant, kicking up a vast cloud of choking, gray dust. Cavendish peered at the screen the Hellhound used to navigate their exterior location. “Hellhound, aren’t we approaching the old holding tanks?”

 

“Are we? I thought they were on the other side of the leveling plane.” The Hellhound sounded incredulous. He didn’t like other people telling him how to drive.

 

“Look…fer….*whizzzzzzzz* cyl…ern…ders,” Dime’s voice box croaked.

 

“He knows what holding tanks look like, Dime,” Cavendish huffed as she rolled her eyes.

 

Sploosh! Green water erupted from underneath the Ogre. “Found one!” The Hellhound announced as he quickly maneuvered his machine towards the steep incline.

 

Cavendish groaned. “Did you have to wait until nuclear waste water almost swallowed us whole to figure that out?”

 

“Come on, now. You’re the one who wanted some entertainment this morning via the detriment of others. It’s only fair that Karma should come find us now,” the Hellhound expounded as he steered the Ogre up to the top of the steep incline. He inhaled sharply as the Plateau came into view. He didn’t notice Cavendish flush with anger.

 

“Hell…hernd…*zeeerrrrt*…watch out,” Dime’s tinny voice box prattled. The Hellhound turned in his pilot’s chair. He knew a warning when he heard one; even when it was uttered by a flattened, half-wit droid of a woman.


It was true, the memory wipe was never total. Vestiges remained, personality, lingering images and life experience. The more recent that experience, the more likely it was to be removed, but those which had been lived through and remembered more than once, they lingered like familiar odours, seeking hiding places deep in untapped corners of the mind. There they lurked, waiting for their chance to re-emerge and seize some semblance of control.

“I DON’T KNOW!” Theo screamed out in defiance. He was dangling by his right leg, held high above the wavering ground by Thanatos’ fierce grip and he had a very close view of the giant’s face. Too close. He could smell the putrid breath, sense the discordant mix of superiority and frustration and he wanted down. Down and far away from here.

Thanatos shook his prisoner roughly, enjoying the wobbly sound of Theo’s cries for mercy. Then the giant guardian took a couple of steps towards the scorched and smoking corpse of Strauss and nudged a warm, charred leg with his alloy foot. There was no sign of life or motion, so Thanatos dramatically lowered the hand holding Theo until the protesting human was scant millimetres from the spider. The giant held him still and let the man breathe in the fumes, wafting him about in the air as if they were sampling some expensive aphrodisiac together.

“Be a shame to add you to the bonfire,” Thanatos said coldly. “Especially since they didn’t even try to save you.”

“I really don’t know….” Protested Theo quietly, trying to hold his breath as long as possible in between gulps of tainted air. “I can tell you what I had for breakfast last week, the scores for the Mouseball tournament or every single, gut-wrenchingly awful moment of my first marriage.” He waved his free hand in the giant’s face to indicate the buried technology. “But I appear to have erased almost all of the last day and a half. So, whatever Cavendish and Hellhound were up to, you’ll have to ask them.” Theo’s face was fighting between shades of pale grey and dark red now, and he sounded as if he was about to vomit.

“You’re here.” Thanatos reminded his victim. “They’re not.”

“Ow,” said Hellhound matter-of-factly. “Ow.” He injected a little derision into the one word repeated a second time and considered the wonderful vision that was a venomously irate Cavendish. She looked truly enraged which was interesting, because while he hadn’t even considered taking her up on those prior demands for sex, in this new light, he honestly felt a tiny bit aroused.

The sound that emanated from Cavendish herself was a strangled roar of utter disgust and pure irritation.

“Just give me something that does some damage!” She seethed through clenched teeth, her arms still ringing from smacking the mech armour with a control panel cover.

“No,” stated Hellhound. Then, just in case it wasn’t absolutely clear, he enunciated it more clearly. “N. O. No.” He indicated the dented panel with his free hand, the other still engaged in steering the Ogre. “And put that back.” He watched Cavendish glare meaningfully at him and considered the chemical cocktail sloshing in those veins. “Nicely.”

With a beatific smile on her face, Cavendish smashed the sheet of metal over Hellhound’s armoured head three more times before discarding it moodily to the floor with a flick of her wrist.

“You’re no fun,” she sighed, and then her eyes widened considerably.

As they both watched, the main view screen greyed out, presenting only a blue image with rolling text. Then gravity seemed to let them go, the Ogre’s stalwart and chunky weight negated by some exterior force.

 

Steampunk Machine by ethelcake, check out more of their work on Deviant Art.

 

 

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