Short Story: New Roommate

Neon glows fought for dominance from opposing sides of the alley. Indistinct shapes reflected off wet asphalt. Streaked along it were the bastardized images of a place akin to skid-row save the mass of bodies endlessly moving about. They appeared more like a single, roiling creature, amorphous and ever in-motion, but with only its constituent parts moving. Here and there, heads bobbed up or down, maneuvered sideways, or leaned at the brisk air blowing this way or that.

Amid it all was a girl. From the looks of it, no more than fourteen, but built as if younger. Thin-wristed, short, and obviously malnourished given the clothes she wore; meant to fit properly, but far too baggy. Had any whom inch-wormed past bothered to look, they’d have found little to linger on. At first glance, they’d see only her thin, angular face protruding from her hood, her eyes averted and downcast. If they managed past that first, sweeping glance, they might catch a small glimpse of frost-white hair or golden eyes. Anything more would be impossible. Any search for it in vain.

Every night she stood there watching, waiting. With no purpose beyond waiting, observing, she barely even bothered to move. Anyone watching long enough would’ve pegged her for a forgotten animatronic before a human being– and a crude one at that. Nonetheless, she remained a perfectly average human, or as much as anyone could be nowadays.

Street-life was never easy. For a young girl, it was a living nightmare. So much had happened to her, around her, she’d effectively shut off to the world at large. The alley-staring was just an excuse to be around people, feel as if maybe she weren’t so alone. She’d been abandoned there a decade ago, told to wait. She still did, but more from habit than foolish hope. Invariably, she’d end up back in her hovel at night’s end; alone, cold, and with nothing but the incessant drip of leaky pipes for company.

She did her usual few hours of staring, fought hunger-shakes with expert will– or perhaps her endless well of loneliness. She could ignore just about anything. A necessity garnered from living in a hovel just beneath A/C units and street-walkers’ rooms. If she’d learned anything on the streets, it was that every man thought himself an Adonis and every woman an Aphrodite. None were.

Whores were the real heroes of the new world. Anyone putting up with such depravity in or on them for a living was a winner in her book– especially considering the depravity she heard first-hand. While she’d considered being a whore herself, her age was more of a problem than simply being illegal. After all, prostitution was illegal, but that hadn’t stopped the Johns and Janes from lining up.

No, her problem was one of value. She was a rare commodity. Too rare. Pure and nubile meant infinitely greater chances of attracting the worst of the scum. It was one thing to be a teenage prostitute for quick plug and plays with mentally twisted Johns and Janes. It was another entirely to be a victim of human trafficking, sadistic ritual, or any of the other million ways things could go wrong. If there was any truth she’d found in her life, it was that anything that could go wrong, eventually did go wrong.

She’d settled for petty theft and occasional panhandling instead. It had worked out well so far, no bodily violation required.

She returned to her hovel to hear some John pumping his brains out down the way. Even at the distance it was obvious the whore was faking it. The John didn’t seem to mind, if he noticed her at all. From what she’d seen, most people ignored what they didn’t want to accept. She was no different. She suspected the John stooping to paying for sex felt the same.

She crawled into her hovel on her hands and knees, ground still wet from the afternoon’s rain. It never rained in the mornings anymore, pollution she’d heard. It only rained afternoons and nights, and more often with each year. It was cold rain, bitter to taste but enough to live off if caught in a cup or a bottle.

The hovel was formed of a few, intersecting buildings’ air conditioning units. Summer’s were noisy, but winters were almost perfect. Excess heat leaked from poor seals, and the awnings above the units made kept it dry in all but the worst of storms.

She curled into a ball on a makeshift-mattress of old newspaper, card-board, and tattered, stinking rags. Sleep never came easy, but did eventually come. She’d almost left reality completely when feet scuffed the asphalt. She sat with a start, almost banged her head on an A/C unit.

“S-sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you!” Her head snapped toward the sounds: A boy’s face, about her age, with blond hair and sapphire eyes shuddered at frightening her. Her eyes bulged, massive and round, the golden irises minute around terror-dilated pupils. He put out his hands in defense, “I’m not gonna’ hurt you, I promise!”

She shrank into her corner, “Why’re you here?”

He glanced up at the A/C units and the awning above them, “It’s dry here. I was hoping, you know… maybe, you wouldn’t mind… sharing the place for the night?”

She thought on it, pupils constricting slowly. She didn’t own the place, but she had claimed it the same way everyone on the street claimed things. Still, the company might be nice.

She was apprehensive, but agreed, “Okay. But don’t steal my stuff or try to touch me.”

“Deal.” He sank into the opposite corner of the hovel, “My name’s Colin, by the way.”

“Andi.”

“Like Andrea?” She nodded. “Pretty name.”

She shrugged, relaxed back onto her makeshift-bed, then watched him through the half-darkness. He was balled up, shivering. His teeth made the tell-tale, persistent clack of one colder than they wanted to admit. She saw now, too, that his clothes were dark, clinging to his malnourished frame. He’d controlled the cold before by moving, but couldn’t once stationary.

Andi sighed. “You’re wet, aren’t you?”

His teeth chattered louder. “Y-yeah. I got chased over b-bread. D-dove into a pond to get away.”

She rolled her eyes, “Come here.” He hesitated. “Don’t get any ideas. I don’t want any cops finding me here. If you die from the cold, that means I gotta’ deal with a body. I’d rather not.” She motioned him over again and he crawled over, laid in front her. She scooted back wrapped her arm over him and pulled him in to her. “No getting handsy, either.”

He soaked in the fresh warmth from her body, “Thank you.”

“You really wanna’ thank me, help me get food tomorrow. For now, sleep.”

He nodded and closed his eyes for sleep.

He certainly wasn’t what she’d been looking for in a change. But then, she wasn’t sure what she was looking for– or even if she was looking for one. All the same, Colin was new, different. Maybe even enough to keep from staring indifferently at the world all day. She wasn’t sure yet, but at the very least, she’d have help getting food. It was more than she’d had an hour before.

A shiver coursed through Colin in his sleep. She squeezed him tighter and he relaxed, stilled. Andi closed her eyes, prepared for a better tomorrow– or at least, dreams of it.

Bonus Short Story: Horizon of Pastels

Early 90’s metal blared from the speakers of his ’68 Camaro. Over the dash, the waxed polish of the blue coat and white racing stripes gleamed in the bright light of the desert around it. She had her head in his lap, sucking him off. Between the vibration of the 396 V8 and her vigorous strokes, he was in utter heaven. He drove with one hand on the wheel, the other between her legs as she splayed out across the leather seats. Her sundress flapped in the hundred-mile-an-hour breeze while her throat groaned against him.

His fingers were wet inside her as she thrust her hips back and up to get off. He suddenly understood how kings and emperors felt. They were Gods among mortals, a half-dozen women on their knees for them at any time. All he had though– or needed for that matter– was her and the car. The three had been running together for months, every night out doing one drug or another, and at some point ending up in a similar position before passing out.

That was of course, all in secret. Likewise the mornings had always come too early and the glaringly recognizable car had to park down the street to drop her off at home. She walked the block in the near-darkness, her sneakers scuffing gravel the whole way. He watched her every step to the house and into the door, even despite the difficulty. And always, before leaving for wherever he was headed, he waited long enough for her to sleep, revved the engine and sped past too fast to be seen.

She never knew anything of it, but he knew exactly what he was doing. So did her father. He couldn’t see the car, but he sensed it’s owner. Always though, when he went to check on his daughter, she was fast asleep in bed– still sore from their sex hours before. If only that fat, abusive prick had known, he’d have killed them both for it.

He was one of those types that always hid their abuses in community participation. He’d take the family out to church on Sundays, and the quiet, reserved family would silently participate in the sermons. Sometimes, they’d even stay after to mingle with the other members of the congregation. She and her mother never betrayed the secret, no matter how much they wanted to, but from fear rather than love.

When she was younger, Karen– or Kay, as he always called her– had made the mistake of saying something to him about the abuse. Jake showed up the next day with a squadron of cops and a loaded .45. They pulled everyone out of the house, took them into separate interrogation rooms, had female cops examine the women physically. There was nothing to suggest abuse. Kay’s “dad” ended up beating her half to death when it was all over, but when in the hospital, everyone insisted she’d been mugged the night before, walking home.

That was the last time Jake got the law involved. Ever since then, he’d taken matters into his own hands. The prick couldn’t blame anyone when he woke up some mornings with swastikas burned into his yard, or his tires slashed, or with broken windows in his car. He always called the police, and they always took his reports, and did absolutely nothing. Most of them had gone to school with him, took him at his word. It was the same reason he’d gotten away with the beatings and escaped the interrogations unscathed.

Everything changed recently though. How he’d pulled it off, Jake didn’t know, but he knew what he’d pulled off. Kay had been in to see a gynecologist for a cursory examine after turning eighteen. Somehow the bastard got hold of her medical records, or bribed a doctor, and found out her cherry’d been popped. He also found out she was on birth-control, as opposed to the anti-acne pills she’d said she was taking.

The beating she received then only stopped when Jake showed up. The house was wrecked. Glass was shattered all over the place. Kay and her mother were barefoot in the middle of it. Blood spotted the creme-white carpets where Kay had been tossed and shoved around. Jake had been lucky enough to get a call from one of Kay’s friends. The two had been on the phone when her father came in screaming, she heard the first thuds of heavy fists, and immediately hung up.

Everyone knew Jake was bound to do something, and that calling the cops only made things worse in the long run. What they didn’t know, and few did in fact, was Jake’s proficiency with his .45. He’d spent months at the range, learning pin-point accuracy shooting at every range. He’d also learned to control his adrenaline through street-fighting, and had a morbid fascination with human anatomy.

The only thing that kept him from driving the Camaro through the front room was the fact that he’d still need it afterward. Instead, he kicked the door in off its hinges. The .45 was up and aimed straight on the old man. The snake-faced monster was poised over Kay. She lie, sprawled on the floor in her sundress, hands and feet covered in blood.

Her father actually had the gall to bark orders at Jake. He didn’t sway. His voice was calm, firm. He kept his gun and eyes level on her father, “Kay get off the floor. Get in the car.”

“Move and I’ll break your neck!” He spat at her. Jake repeated himself calmly, feeling adrenaline flood him. Her father spat again, made a move, “Son of a–”

The .45 cracked. The aim was perfect. The bullet whizzed past his left ear, close enough for a friction burn. He recoiled with a yelp. Kay skittered toward Jake. She rocketed out the door and into the street, climbing into the car.

“I could’ve killed you,” Jake said simply, unmoving. “I will if you follow me.”

The old man gave a roar, and moved to lunge. The gun angled down. Two rounds blasted his kneecaps. He fell in screaming pain. Jake lowered the gun as the monster howled and screamed pain and obscenities. He gave a final look to Kay’s mother, who stood slack-jawed to one side of the room.

“I wasn’t kidding. If he follows me, I’ll kill him,” he said, turning for the door.

Over his screaming pain, her mother called, “Take care of her.”

He stepped for the door, hesitated just before it. His head cocked a little to the side as if to speak, but he had no words. He started forward again. A few moments later, sirens screamed nearby as the Camaro’s engine revved. It’s tires squealed and it tore away from the house.

Since then they’d been driving, only stopping long enough to refuel, sleep, or fuck. They finished together; she threw back his semen like a pill and he sucked his fingers dry. She sat up with a smile, leaned against the passenger door. The bruise on her cheek was just beginning to yellow, but the light played off her face with an angelic glow, accenting her blonde hair with bright highlights.

“How was it?”

She threw back her head with a laugh, giddy from her newfound freedom, “Magnificent.”

He laughed with her.

They didn’t know what the fallout back home was, or if there would be any. For all they knew, they were fugitives, but something in Kay’s mother had told Jake she wasn’t going to make a case of it. Who knows, maybe he’d liberated her too, or opened the door for her to do it herself. Personally, he didn’t give a damn. He had Kay, she had him, and they had the car with nothing but an open road and a horizon of pastels ahead. Most of all though, they had life.

That was more than enough for anyone.

Bonus Short Story: Indifferent Reactions

Marcus Emerson was one of the shy, introverted types that found few friends in school, even fewer through life. He was often bullied; both for his small, lanky size and his brainy smarts that regularly netted him high grades and the title of teacher’s pet. In truth, Marcus wasn’t a teacher’s pet. He wasn’t even much of a student. Most things of the academic nature came naturally to him, more instinct than nose-to-book study and grind. Nowhere was his natural prowess more obvious however, than the high-school chemistry lab.

There was something about the bonds of molecular structures that filled his lonely, longing heart with more excitement and intrigue than anything else he ever encountered. Perhaps it was their inability to truly break, but rather evolve, change over time to more. Chemistry was as much a metaphor for life to the teenage-recluse as it was its sole motivator. Where most kids his age worked for their first car, he made his first bout of cash to put toward a proper chemistry set. Then, with a constant income, he procured more and more chemicals and building blocks for his experiments.

It was not difficult to see how the boy might easily come to harm were he not careful, but he always was. He wore the proper safety suit of a lab-coat, rubber gloves, and goggles that did little to help his already-afflicted fashion sense. Day and night were spent in his parents garage at his father’s commandeered workbench. Across it were Marcus’ tools of trade and pass-time. Half-full Griffin beakers and Erlenmeyer Flasks were scattered where there weren’t racked test-tubes, droppers, burners or coiled tubing. Always to one side, was a sheet of paper of chicken-scratch formulas that gave all the more confusion to the Chemistry-genius’ ambitions and plans.

It was no surprise then, that Marcus became head of his chemistry-class in high-school. Finally he embraced the title of teacher’s pet and aided in demonstrative experiments. Before long, he took over the class, his teacher proud not to be capable of an edge-wise word. His appeal to classmates couldn’t stoop much lower by then. All it took were the needs of one, rather stubborn and more than occasionally disingenuous boy named Micheal for the seeds of tragedy to be planted.

Mike was a polar opposite to Marcus; a kind of ne’er do well that did nothing well anyhow. He was failing all of his classes, except the one with the teacher’s-aide he was dating. There was little doubt she’d changed his grades. It was said he had other, similar plans in the works for the rest of his classes. Marcus had heard all the rumors, knew something of the drug and sex-crazed kid that sought him out. Unfortunately, ever the social outcast, Marcus’ thirst for companionship was nonetheless unquenched when Mike approached him.

Marcus was at the edge of the high-school’s property, just past its football field, when Mike hailed him across the road. As was his way, Marcus approached with a feeble resistance and more than a gut-full of resignation. Mike needed help, he said with a little begging. He was going to fail chemistry, and with it, high-school altogether. It was enough to arouse Marcus’ sympathy. He’d never been hard of heart, least of all when his help was needed. If only he’d known what Mike’s real plans were, and where they’d eventually put him, he might have been more callous.

Instead, with a slow and insidious way, Mike used Marcus. First, to help write out his homework, the answers manipulated from the learned peer with blank stares and calculatedly-blunt self-flagellation. Then came the corrections and fully-written work by Marcus alone. Soon enough, Mike’s passing grade in Chemistry was as assured as his bad-boy-loving girlfriend’s Geometry class.

A single conversation between the two boys in the garage should have been enough for Marcus to spot Mike’s true intentions. Such was Marcus’ naivete that he couldn’t see the conversation for what it was. The two stood over a round of Hydrochloric Acid experiments that involved observing its effects on various materials– plastics, metals, rubber and the like. They wore respirators for safety’s sake, their voices muffled.
“Haven’t you ever thought about making stuff to sell on this thing?” Mike said innocuously.

Marcus was focused on his work, “I don’t make things here, Mike. At least nothing you could sell– what would there be to make and sell anyhow?”

“I dunno,” Mike lied sheepishly. He preempted the planting of a sinister seed with friendly laugh, “We could always make drugs. That’d be something to sell.”

Marcus snorted into his respirator, poured the contents of one test-tube into another. Perhaps if he were more socially versed, or slightly less-trusting, he’d have seen that playful banter for what it was; the feeling out from a juvenile reprobate ready to take his illicitness to the next level. Whom better to use for that next step than the easily-manipulated loner and chemistry-wunderkind that was Marcus Emerson? No-one would ever suspect someone like Marcus. He was a good kid, well-liked by adults.

It was the perfect plan, Mike knew, he bore all the risk as the bad-seed, could easily hide the worst of his wrong doings by deflecting with Marcus’ presence alone– the mentor to Michael’s apprentice. All he needed was Marcus’ compliance and ultra-powerful brains, and they’d be rolling in dough and dope.

In the scheme of things, it didn’t take long to convince Marcus to try it. Like all great snakes, he played on the boy’s curiosity and before long had his mouth watering for results.

“It’s not like we’re hurting anyone, Mark,” Mike said with his usual, pleading way. “We just gotta’ see if we can actually do it.”

“You swear this won’t get out?” Marcus asked, less concerned than he came across.

“Hand to God,” Mike said as he raised a hand.

“I mean it, Mike, if anyone finds out we–” he lowered his voice severely. “– made crack in my garage, the whole county’s going to come down on us.”

“I would never do that,” Mike assured him with a hefty lie.

To his credit, Mike didn’t tell anyone for the first week. It was purposeful; he needed to feel out the neighborhoods, find which ones were frequented by junkies. Then, with “samples” from Marcus’ trash-can, he made a thick of wad of cash he later taunted Marcus with. The promise of money lit in the boys eyes. After all, why wouldn’t it? He was only doing as he’d been taught– using his inherent skills for money– or at least that’s what Mike assured him.

No matter what way Marcus rationalized it, his state of mind decayed quickly. Before long, he was doing nothing more than slogging through classes to get home and whip up more batches of his new cash-cow. Mike did the running, left the boy alone to the cat-piss stench consuming the garage. His parents had long ago learned not to enter the den of chemical experiments, their senses one too many times assaulted by its innards.

Then, as with all tragic figures, Marcus fell to the vise he so casually created.

In the midst of a lonely bout of depression, spurred both my Mike’s obvious abuse and Marcus’ own, lack of sleep and nourishment, the boy vaporized a rock in a test-tube and inhaled its fumes. His world spun with euphoria until he fell over dizzy, vomited on the floor.

Over the next few weeks, he kept his pass-time hidden. Granted, the signs were there, especially to Mike whom noticed the dwindling supply to feed his dope-hungry clients. He was wild, entered the garage as usual, found Marcus hunched over a heated test-tube and huffing its fumes.

“What the–” he yanked the hot tube from Marcus, looked it over, burned his hand, then dropped it. The tube shattered on the floor. Mike’s eyes lit with rage. “God damn it, Mark. I fucking told you! I told you, don’t get high on your own supply. That’s how you fucking get caught. ‘Cause you fuck up.” He pulled Marcus up from the floor, his eyes still dazed, shoved him backward across the garage. “Didn’t I fucking tell you? You fucking loser! Screwing me over.” He spit venom as Marcus landed with a crash against the work bench, “You fuckin’ loser. You fuckin’ cheat!”

Mike fumed, released his anger the only way he knew. He left Marcus in a heap on the floor, bloody, bruised and broken, and stole the last of the drugs around for a sale. The boy wasn’t sure how long he lie their, half-dead, half-high, but it eventually prompted a search for him. He was immediately rushed to a hospital. His addiction was discovered, and preceded weeks spent getting clean and healing fully from the beating he’d continually blamed on a fall.

But Mike grew more paranoid, as addicted to cash and the rush of slinging rocks as others were to smoking them. Without Marcus at his side, he was forced into hiding, running from Junkies that needed their fix and pestered him relentlessly. Just as Mike was hitting his own bottom, Marcus was in recovery, finally able to walk again.

It was late in the evening when the two finally met again, outside an addiction recovery center Marcus had been court-ordered to attend. He didn’t mind. He’d found new friends. Real ones– however admittedly older than himself. They knew the perils of addiction and loneliness as he did. Mike on the other hand, knew only the paranoid terror that comes from having one’s deepest, darkest secrets known.

Mike was haggard; hair wild, face soot-blackened, and stinking of whiskey, “Marcus!”

The boy turned at the shout, saw the shambling figure, “Mike?”

He entered the light that shone through the doors of the recovery center, within arms reach of Marcus, demanded an answer, “You kept my name out, right!?”

“Of course, Mike, I’d never do that to you,” Marcus said earnestly.

Mike knew nothing of sincerity, trust, nor friendship. He didn’t believe him, “Bullshit.”

He launched himself at Marcus, shanked his gut with a shattered bottle. A large, middle-aged black man that had taken a liking to Marcus’ smarts– and saw enough of himself in the boy to sponsor him as a former addict– appeared at the door. Before he could react, Mike was disarmed, on the ground, pinned by the grieving giant. A crowd formed to phone the police and ambulance, apply pressure to Marcus’ wounds.

He died in his hospital bed, seventeen and lost too young with a corrupted innocence. Michael was taken to prison for murder without chance of parole, for life.

Many might seek a moral to the tale the two boys’ lives have formed. There are few, but not one seeks to place blame. It is neither boy’s fault to have been children, playing with adult toys and ideas, and too immature to know better. Morally, they cannot be blamed. Nor can Marcus’ parents, whom believed their son, like always, was teaching and bettering himself with the help of a new friend. Not even the oblivious school-teachers, administrators, or peers for their disregard of obvious signs, can be blamed. Though a case could be made against, Michael’s own, abusive and neglectful parents, such arguments are moot. Both boys were the sole masters of their lives, destined or not, to helm it toward tragedy.

Perhaps the only true entities at fault are those of the collective effects of loneliness, curiosity, and the lust for companionship. Even if that were true, they could hardly be blamed either. They are but mere fragments, indifferent reactions from a solution of human-consciousness and the human condition ne’er to be properly controlled.

Short Story: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

By day, they were no more than a group of nerds– social outcasts banded together from their mutual trait of having been exiled from the other cliques of the standard, American high-school. By night however, they were two psionics, a tank-built soldier, a sniper, and a combat medic whom specialized in healing their wounds. Their goal was not to gripe about the bully of the day, or become enveloped in social commentary on their less-enlightened peers. Instead, they came together for one reason; to game.

When they entered the basement where the walnut-wooded table with its soft, velvet top, resided, they were instantly transported to a universe both similar and so unlike their own. Each night their surroundings were different. At times they might be slogging through a scot-like bog, ascending great nordic-dwarfing mountains engulfed in blizzards, or even delving deep into a labyrinthine bunker of blood and danger.

To the casual observer their D20s were just curiously-shaped number cubes, but to them they were their Gods. Its rolls were the Gods’ words, commandments they were bound by honor to follow whether through great success or unimaginable misery. With each toss, they might find themselves in mortal peril that even the most clever of schemes could not correct. With one mistake, they might doomed, slain before they could react, or else they might defeat their enemy, scour its corpse for loot.

To them, the game was life, the automated die-tracker built-in to the table the oracle of all things good and evil. The randomized, procedurally-generated scenarios eternally crawled from the table’s speakers and the Game Master’s, synthesized, female voice to give narration to the landscapes that rose and fell before them in their Augmented Reality glasses. Each step, breath, and move was tracked in real-time before them as though they were there.

When the tank’s roll came up positive, combat began with him in the lead. His avatar so curiously resembled him sans the full-body armor it wore. Like it, he was enormous; a giant, fleshy redwood that lumbered through space-stations, across foreign planets, and along hidden trails to combat encounters. Like him, his primary weapon– a shotgun– was big, loud, and intimidating. In reality, the soldier was little more than a giant with more heart than flesh– but this wasn’t real-life, that was the point.

Invariably, behind him the Psionics would be scanning the horizon with their sub-machine guns. Whether it was a jungle, ice-field, or even open desert, they’d both be in single-file behind their leader. There was only the smallest hint of a ever-present field of super-opaque blue around them, an effect of their psionic barriers interacting with their armor’s shields. The shimmer told of powerful psychics ready to manipulate sub-atomic matter at a moment’s notice, unleash hell on any would-be attackers.

To that end, the combat medic would be second to last, always with her assault rifle shouldered to suppress any enemies and head for cover. When the others’ shields failed, or the tank-like solider drew too much aggro, she would lay down fire, rush to aid with medical tools, and keep death’s scythe at bay.

Meanwhile, the sniper at their rear-guard would never falter. Her long-rifle was steady, attached bi-pod waiting to be deployed or her light-bending cloak activated to make her invisible to the naked eye. Then could she duck down, bob, or weave through the enemy advance to gain the high-ground, out flank them. Even outside of combat she was ready to sneak ahead of the others, leave the rear-guard to the medic to take up over-watch on a ridge. There she could observe and mark enemy positions and patrol-routes on the over-head, A-R map accessed in real-life by a simple button press on the side of their A-R glasses.

When things finally kicked off, be it from crude, synthetic life-forms; their more-advanced, less obvious android counterparts, or any of the other multitudes of human or alien pirates, mercenaries, or rogue soldiers, they were prepared. The tank’s job, his duty, was to keep the others safe, lead them to victory. With a howling war-cry he’d boost their various stats to increase their resolve, initiative, and stamina, then sprint headlong into the furthest cover forward to take aim with his shotgun and blast their adversaries apart.

Behind him the Psionics would further buff the groups’ stats, spray SMG bursts at the enemies, or manifest elements in their hands to hurl at clustered or individual enemies. Beside them, the medic kept her aim true, ready to bolt and heal at a moment’s notice while her rifle barked with muzzle flashes, spit fire at already-doomed enemies. The few that crossed the sniper’s sights stood no chance, especially when her cloak was still engaged to increase her damage. Even at full health, a single-round from her rifle might strike them down, eliminate the threat altogether.

On the inside, they were more than “nerds,” more than any, singular moniker could apply to them, really. They were a well-oiled military machine, a five-man army with all the fire-power, cunning and honor of even the most fabled war combatants. To see them outside, one would never believe that they had mastered the virtual arts of infiltration, matter manipulation, weaponry or medicine. But such is the deceptive nature of the world. The five needed no approval from those outside the universe they inhabited outside their own. They needed only to rely on each other, both in and out of game, were all the stronger for it.

It is in the nature of the man, like the gamer, to band with those that best compliment their qualities and short-comings. In true gamer fashion, they settled disputes in-game and out with honor-bound duels– either of words or weapons. Even with the latter, no-one was so stupid as to cut the throat, go for the kill, lest they wish the game to end for everyone. Their almost civilized-brutality might have frightened those outside the circle, but the five were well-aware of that.

They were better for it, always respectful for fear of incurring wrath and having their honor-challenged by one whose skills were less advanced. Otherwise, like the game, attacking one meant bringing the full-force of the team against them. Outcast or not, the solider especially was not one to take such attacks lightly. Then again, there were few who would dare to face them at all. At that, they emanated an air of confidence, because– as the adage goes– appearances can be deceiving, and that most certainly applied to them.