Tales of Gaia:  An Odyssey

Introduction

Image

It's 2075 A.D., 49 A.E., five decades since Earth as we know it ceased to be. Gaia is now home to Post-Earth, the leftovers of what once was and what struggles to survive.

Resources of any kind are scarce; food, water, safe shelter, and even fuel are in shortage for a vast majority of those alive today. Those who live outside of the protection of the large cities scattered across the country run into the risk of gangs, wildlfe, and more.

Image

coming soon. - evening, 6/22/15

welcome! we're still working out a few more things in regards to the background of this RP. thank you for your patience!

Toggle Rules

#1 - If you're not sure, ask! Your GM's, Captain Calamity and Fear of a Female Planet, are not afraid to step up to the plate and help.

#2 - For the purpose of character creation, we've decided to use Bethesda Softworks' Fallout model as a basis upon which to very loosely base character creation. All characters must start off with nine (9) skills, three (3) in each skill indication: Novice, Intermediate, Expert. As the game progresses, characters can advance or add skills as the story moves along, at the GMs' discretion. For a list of basic skills from Fallout and the stats modified by those skills, visit this page. (Custom basic skills can be introduced at GMs' discretion.) As for character stats, each character will start off with forty-five (45) points to be distributed across seven categories (just like Fallout's), with no single value less than 1 or exceeding 10:
  • Strength (STR)
  • Agility (AGI)
  • Endurance (END)
  • Perception (PER)
  • Charisma (CHA)
  • Intelligence (INT)
  • Luck (LUCK)

#3 - Shortly, a CS (character sheet) template will be available for use.

#4 - Please select an avatar for your characters. For now we prefer that representation be real people and not illustrations.

#5 - Please be civil and respectful!

#6 - This story will be written in multi-paragraph, literate styles, narrated from the third-person perspective.

#7 - You may notice that not all of the histories and backgrounds are filled out for each character, place, or group in this story; we prefer that we update our information sections as we go along and learn about this universe and its people as the story unfolds. That being said, don't feel pressure to come up with things that perhaps the audience doesn't need to "know" yet.

#8 - Thanks for your patience as we still work to build the infrastructure of this story.

The Story So Far... Write a Post » as written by 2 authors

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

prologue i

Image

"Drive faster!"

"We're maxing out at 120 miles per hour! We're not going any faster than this!"

The jet of black smoke reedily roared after the splotched-primered capped truck careened out over the broken road. Its shocks groaned protestedly with each bounce up into the air and each break onto uneven pavement. The dark-bearded driver adjusted his sunglasses as he chewed on a smoldering cigarette, dirty gloves gripping the steering wheel matted in flaky leather. The passenger up front clutched a map purposefully in front of his face as he glowered toward the driver. "Well, we're too late, then."

And then, there it was, just as described—the site itself. They screeched in the highest frequencies to a halt, rifting hazardously over the sun-bleached concrete that had been unfixed in this region for a handful of years. The blue sky and the auburn desert spun around and around through the windows before finally coming to a rest. A few fires were still fanning up from the piles of rubble left over after what looked like a crude rocket attack on the remote mining site. The pile of ore was still stacked high nearby near a set of tents; whoever had attacked had not been able to carry everything with them at once.

The truck stopped in the middle of the encampment. The massive driver scurried from his seat as did the navigator, who then wound around to the back and opened the rear gate. A pair of worn brown boots pointed outward as a small, white-clad figure propelled herself forward by swinging on a horizontal bar. She slung a worn dark blue knapsack about a shoulder, and stood between the two taller men as they silently took a visual survey of the damage.

"Help!"

The three snapped their heads in the direction of the voice—two young men, one not moving at all, the other holding his right thigh panickedly while the rest of his leg languished beneath the wheel of a vehicle with a smoldering hood. In an instant the three were beside him, the smallest figure kneeling down next to man's shoulders as the other two darted to the pull the wheel back. The man's scream cracked out over the silent desert. "They came out of nowhere!" he shrieked, tears filling his eyes. He struggled to push himself up, but quickly thought better of it. "Where the hell have you guys been??"

"It's all right, we're here now." The pair of hands belonging to the voice from behind the mask grasped the knapsack to pull out a set of tubing. "We're here. I'm a doctor. And they're emergency responders." The woman's fatigued brown eyes blinked sympathetically as she used another hand to pull out a small vial. "I'm going to have to put you under." Before the man could protest, she quickly laid the thing against his shaking right forearm and clicked a button. A tiny needle snapped quickly beneath the top layer of his skin, flooding a low-strength tranquilizer into his bloodstream. His eyes began to flutter as the calming effect took place. "Your leg's in pretty bad shape," the voice continued at the same tone, while quickly scooting aside and drawing part of the tubing underneath the man's knee. "I don't want to cut it off. That's a death sentence for you. We need to get you back as soon as we can. Are there any more survivors?" The man's right hand wavered a little before finally permitting a finger to point just over to the second young man.

The truck's driver flew quickly back to the truck to bring it closer, allowing the other to pull two boards from the backseat. After a quick dose of morphine the first man was strapped on, and loaded into the back of the truck securely as the doctor went to check on the other young man's state. She looked up and nodded—immediately the second board was brought over and just as fast as he was whisked away, the board slid and locked into a bunk-like slat above the other man.

It was then that the pellets of metal began to fly. The man with the map in his pocket cried out as his shoulder jerked backwards and dragged his whole body with him, flattening him out on the ground. The sound of a revving engine flared up in the distance; they must have come back for the ore. The other man quickly wound an arm protectively around the small white-clad figure and lifted her into the back before slamming the doors behind her. The other caught his composure and hobbled determinedly back to the passenger side as the driver pulled out a pistol and began to fire back at the oncoming uncovered dune kart as he coolly backed to the driver's door, and shuttered himself in.

"But what about the others?!" The mask ripped from the woman's face and, brown eyes now burning in panic instead of the reassuring tone from just seconds prior on her flustered expression. She poked her head through the tiny window in between the hatch and the cab.

"Hold on!" the driver yelled as he whipped the vehicle into reverse, wheeled it about, and sped off into the opposite direction. The woman reeled backwards as they sped ahead. She was still outside of crash webbing, tossling against boxes of supplies that thunked heavily left and right, up and down, banging up against the metal interior or against the bolstered wooden frame safely housing the two unconscious men.

Onward they sped, working to stay the course in a straight line, wobbling aside just a hair here and there to avoid the deadliest bumps and breaks in the road as the kart sped behind them. The crude skeleton of a structure of dune buggy with a modified engine clunked into it had a series of added interconnected bars to serve what looked like no less than four additional hangers-on. All of whom carried a weapon in one hand.

The woman's voice flew into the cab once again as one of her arms shove through the window, offering up a fistful of a rag she'd pulled from a small metal cabinet bolted to the inner wall of the truck's back cabin. With his free hand the passenger plucked it from her hand shakily, applying it to the bleeding wound. The driver kept staring forward intently, ignoring the activity next to him as his eyes scanned the road to avoid any obstacle of any size.

The rear glass of the truck's hatch blew open unexpectedly, sending chunks of glass flying into the woman's hair. She jabbed her elbow up reflexively up to shield her eyes and lost her grip on the safety bar and hurtled heavily into the base of the heavy wooden bunk. Her breath rattled in her lungs as it was caught by the impact. She wheezed for air, her eyes widening as she felt her head spin a bit before air finally filled her chest again. Her head shook quickly as she regained her senses, then glared out the back window as her left hand reached for the safety bar again.

However, it all happened in one lucky instant. The imbalanced kart suddenly turned rear-up, sending the stragglers into the air, and rolled off and down into the sandy ravine. The young woman blinked incredulously and silently as she watched the wreckage become smaller and smaller. The truck blew onward, back toward the metal speck just visible in the distance.

The driver furrowed his eyebrows after a long pause. "We had no choice," he gruffed assertively from his spot. The woman didn't respond from the back. He sighed, then rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry, Doc."

"Don't call me 'Doc,'" her voice insisted emphatically less than a beat after he finished.

"Dr. Claret," he correct himself patiently, "we can transfer the patients back to Axiom considering the condition they're in. And with Eddie clipped, y'know," he wagged his head to his right to indicate his partner, "these are things Triage can't handle. Besides, your week's up in a few hours." He flecked his eyes up to the rearview mirror to study the cross, tired look drawn across the young woman's face. "You look like you need rest. What's that phrase you Beau Monde got, anyhow? The one about growing?"

"Plantabo ipse qua vis potest crescere," she responded with a sigh. "Plant yourself where you can grow."

"Right. Well, some of that. You can do some of that." Another pause. "What does that mean, anyhow?"

"'Plant yourself where you can grow.'"

"You just said that."

The small woman blinked a little and threaded both arms through the porthole and stretched them in front of her as she worked to continue to project her voice ahead in the noisy cabin. "It means that you should put yourself in a place where you can thrive."

Laughter bolted from the mouths of the two men up front. "So, what about out here?" Eddie asked a little cynically, gesturing his free hand at the dusty desert.

The doctor sighed heavily and tilted her head to look out through the windshield, spotting Axiom in the distance. Maybe ten more miles… She cleared her throat and pulled her arms back through the window before slinking into the back to check on the two patients flattened out beside her. "Nothing. Nothing grows out here."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley

0.00 INK

Image




His heart hurt.

For so many reasons across so many years. It was a pain he could no longer shake-- if he even knew where to start in the first place. Every time he blinked, glimpses of burning heaps of metal collapsing in on themselves dashed with the screams of terrified innocents-- scrambling for cover as molten rocks fell from the heavens. He had unknowingly helped build those makeshift trebuchets... not knowing their true purpose. His unintentional involvement was what haunted him most. The people he loved murdered by his own creations. The world he was taken from, taken from this world. Stupidly poetic. Like everything else these days.

His heart hurt. Somehow more than before.

### WHAM ###


Sam’s eyes shot open in a flash-- illuminating a figure with long, shaggy hair above him-- their arms above their head, hands interlocked, ready to plunge down once more. Their outline, silhouetted by the stark sun behind them came into shaky focus as Sam curled into a ball, coughing in the air as he regained his hazy consciousness. Firm hands rolled him over onto his side as he brought his own up to his solar plexus-- raw and pulsating with more than just his own heartbeat. It felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his sternum. The landscape around him reared its ugly head as his bloodshot eyes adjusted back to reality. How long he had been out was both a mystery and a death sentence-- considering his situation.

He no longer had the time to not be running.

"Back from the dead," a man cooed from beside him. His accent was thick and untraceable... a total mutt.

The cold air burned the inside of Sam's throat as he gasped it in with one big breath. He heard the rocks shuffle beside him as his savior righted himself, and to his dismay-- the all-too-familiar rattle of chains. There were always chains. It was almost the only thing holding the world together anymore. Sam uncoiled, sitting up with his head hung low. It was clear that it was going to take awhile for him to orient himself after-- whatever happened...

’What did happen?’ he wondered to himself.

”You don’t remember what happened, do you?” the man’s voice called out from above him. Had he thought out loud? It too sounded familiar, but also like nothing he’d ever heard before. He needed to get his head straight before he’d be of any use. The man continued, excitedly. Too chipper for someone in his situation. ”Disorientation, vertigo, sensitivity to light and sound… eyes--” he lunged for Sam’s face, separating his eyelids with his fingers. Sam flinched, swatting him away with one big gesture as he took a step back-- extending himself to the length of the chain, doubled over-- hands on his knees. ”Bloodshot,” the man assessed aloud, examining him closely. The saliva in his mouth was thick and dry as the dust he tread on. He gulped down what he could in a feeble attempt to wet his palate and looked up at his brother in chains. A sly grin erupted underneath a coarsely-greyed goatee. Wirey-brown hair fell past his ears in matted shambles, looking like he had taken as much hell as Sam felt. He wore a loose tunic with short sleeves, once a dark grey-- before the shitstorm. Now it hailed all kinds of browns and blacks. Sam wondered whose blood made up the red all over the side of his tunic. The man didn’t appear to be injured himself.

”Wh--” Sam’s words immediately caught in his throat. He hadn’t spoken in… had it been a week yet? Days didn’t exist anymore when you never slept.

”If you’re gonna ask for water, I don’t have any…” the stranger jabbed, folding his arms across his chest. The chains rattled again, tugging a bit at Sam’s. He tugged back, standing up as he stumbled forward a few steps.

Sam licked his lips for the fiftieth time. ”Wh-- Who are you?” he rasped. Even talking hurt. How had he gotten here? He remembered being on the chainline… faintly-- and then…? Horses. Yes. Lots of horses. And not the good kind. That was what happened…

Right?

”Sison,” the stranger recalled, tearing Sam away from his hazy thoughts, ”Sison Cairo. I w-was behind you on the chain…”

It came back to him slowly, but the man did seem familiar somewhat-- though he’d never seen his face. Whatever this fog was clouding his head, Sam wished it would pass soon. He didn’t feel like himself. Whoever that was supposed to be. A goddamned chaingang? From incarceration to enslavement. Purgatory to Hell. A remarkable improvement when looked at close enough… but really, just a different kind of nightmare. The plan was always to put as much distance between him and what was left of his homeland as quickly as possible… but like everything else in Sam’s life, something always intervened.

”You really don’t remember-- my God…” Sison blathered on, ”it really was magnificent. I knew there was something off about your--” He stopped, cutting himself short as he gestured at Sam’s arm. Sam glanced down at it, the chains ringing as they followed his hand up towards his face. A giant multi-plated gauntlet sat clasped around Sam’s wrist and forearm, covering at least half of it. The device’s ornate exterior was spotty and rusted-- the coloration unlike anything he’d ever seen before. That was before the dust had caked onto it and smothered its facade with the reddish-brown dusts of the northern mountains. ”I imagine you’re pretty confused,” Sison continued. ”That thing-- your hand? It saved both our lives...” He beamed, remembering the moment with jubilance. ”When we were beset upon by those Syndicate savages, one of them foolishly came at you with a charged cattle prod-- lacking the understanding of how exactly this device works…” The man shook his head, lost in thought. ”The result was… astounding,” he whispered, breathlessly. ”Enough force to sever our chain… and set us free.”

Sam looked at him, increduously-- then at his hand. What had he done?

Sison could barely contain his excitement, as words continued bubbling from his mouth. ”I-I know what I’m telling you sounds odd, but we can’t let anyone find you with this…” he said, nodding towards the gauntlet. Sison rubbed his own two hands together, scanning the ridgeline with his squinted eyes-- suspiciously. He stooped over Sam, who still stood hunched over-- spitting the tangy metallic taste out of his mouth. It radiated in him to his core. As uncomfortable a sensation as he’d ever felt. ”Can you walk?” he asked, sternly.

Sam looked up at him through damp locks of brown hair and nodded, only slightly.

And then the cavalry came.

It was like a sensory overload for him as the memories returned in an instant. The tone and cadence, how it echoed off of the craggy hillside pass-- reverberating into his core like a beating drum. Sison’s eyes intensified as they met Sam’s and they sprung into action like one mind-- darting towards the treeline. There was no real way of telling how close or how many they were… whoever they were. The chances of them being friendly were zero.

And the chances of Sam sticking around to find out were even less.

They breached the first trees quickly as they struggled across the broken rocks, trudging up the hill through the old landslide to safety. They kept the chain between them taut, using it as a sort of leverage to pull each other up the stony slope. The stampede of hooves rounded the bend not far down the stretch as the thundering sounds pitched out and grew deeper… shaking the ground beneath their feet. They dashed towards the thickest whitebark pine they could find and dove behind it, kicking up dirt in their wake as rock became soil. The herd of horsemen raged by below them in the ravine, dulling their senses as the cacophony filled the void.

Sam turned to look at Sison-- his eyes squinting against the calamity. He caught the last few words of whatever it was he had been saying to him, drowned out by its aural competitor. He cocked his head furrowing his brow, and then watched as Sison’s eyes bulged out of his head.

A thin corded loop suddenly wrangled him by his neck, closing fast against his windpipe-- squeezing what air he would have used to call for help right out of him. Sison scrambled forwards, charging the blind assailant, but Sam was already being dragged backwards-- clawing at his neck to try and release himself from the noose. He looked up as the ground scraped beneath him-- twisting and turning-- and saw a masked man with broad shoulders at the other end of a four foot pole. He pulled with all his might, trying to keep Sam off his feet as he strained to recover. Sison caught up quickly, merely footsteps behind-- pulling at the chain connecting them to try and slow them down. The rocks proved to be too unsteady to traverse easily though, and he continued to lose his footing despite his best efforts. Sam’s vision was already beginning to blur when he saw Sison suddenly blindsided-- tackled down the slope by another armored soldier. His arm would have dislocated if not for the chain snapping, the rusted link tearing in two from the sudden stress. The men tussled and rolled down the hill out of view as Sam’s cord suddenly loosened, his assailant toppling over from the sudden change in weight. He spilled backwards onto the rocks hard as Sam seized the opportunity to rip the noose from around his neck and launch himself at the man, slamming his gauntlet down into the midsection of the wooden snare pole to split in half. The raider kicked it away as he turned to scramble back onto his feet-- but Sam was on him again, this time from the top. His weight bore both of them back to the ground, tumbling out of the treeline, back down onto a rocky outcropping below. Sam’s head swam in circles, the disorientation in full form after the concussive day this had turned out to be. The raider brushed himself off quickly, trying to return to his feet and shake off the fall. He reared himself towards Sam just in time to receive a tackle worthy of an NFL linebacker right in the guy. Sam threw everything he had at him, squaring his shoulder just as the poor man decided to turn around. He smashed down onto him, flat against the ground-- Sam flinching as he heard a disgusting crunch. He could see the man’s eyes through the slits in his mask-- but they weren’t widened from the pain… whatever he had landed on crunched as well.

Or cracked… more like.

### CRRRRKCKKKKKKKK ###


The rock face fractured around the two men, suddenly finding themselves suspended in air for enough of a frozen heartbeat to realize what was happening. They fell as one-- rock and man, tumbling down in a growing cloud of dust and destruction onto the empty dirt road below. Sam tried to curl himself into a ball as his body thrashed at different points down the eroding cliff face. He could no longer see his attacker amongst all the chaos, nearly losing his senses as he was jarred to reality by his own collision with the ground. Destruction rained down around him as Sam shut his eyes tight, cradling his face in his arms against the debris. When it finally began to quiet, and Sam realized he was all in one piece-- he could barely believe his luck… still… in the face of almost certain death.

He was literally staring it in the face. His assailant’s purpled and ashened lips agape mere feet away from him-- a heavy chunk of rock pressing him into the ground from his abdomen down to his toes-- lifeless eyes gazing out towards nothingness.

That was the certain death he had feared. The one he had only now just narrowly escaped. A bright light suddenly cut through the dense cloud of debris in front of him, causing him to raise his hand in front of his face to avert his eyes. If he wasn’t so uncertain that he was actually alive, he likely wouldn’t have reacted so slowly.

The light he saw beaming from beyond wouldn’t turn out to be the end of things to come…

...but the beginning of something great.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

Image

Eddie's face was beginning to draw downward, seemingly more sallow by the minute as the truck lumbered down the crackled road, toward the gray lump on the horizon that grew incrementally larger by the second. The bullet wound had finally stopped gushing, but the loss of blood was beginning to take its toll. The color was nearly drained out from his normally ruddy, somewhat sunburned face. He leaned against the window as one hand lost control of his makeshift compress. "Ike. I need a nap."

Ike's icy eyes narrowed as he glanced reflexively at Eddie as he slumped toward the door and began to curl his head into his neck and relax against the stable surface. He returned his gaze to the road snappily as he reached out a long, muscular arm to tap at Eddie, carefully at first to avoid adding injury to the shoulder. "Hey, man, sit up!" he barked authoritatively. "You fall asleep, you might not wake back up. Think you can hold out a little longer?"

Eddie yelped but didn't struggle as he slumped back into a more comfortable position. "Jesus, dude, I just want to close my eyes."

Instantly, Ike's fingers flashed upwards to mash a button nestled into a control panel on the ceiling, a cord crudely dressed in miscolored strips of duct tape snaking toward the back hatch of the truck. A loud buzz was muffled by the closed window along with the sound of the wind whipping over the exterior of the vehicle. "Astrid, we're nosediving. Better get up here."

The response was immediate. "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," Astrid's voice rapidly chirped out repeatedly as she worked to contort her frame through the window separating the cab of the truck from the back bed. Within seconds she had skillfully looped her way through the porthole after pushing her foot off of the wooden frame and accelerating ahead. Immediately she twisted back around to shove an arm behind her and through the window to grasp a clean towel and a handful of gauze, then yanked a small white bottle from a pouch on her belt. After untwisting the plastic lid and shaking a couple of tablets into her palm, she stuck them into Eddie's mouth before she began to inspect his wound visually at first. She frowned deeply. "Pull over, please," she stated firmly toward Ike, still eyeing the burgundy pit barely visible through Eddie's blood-stained slate-gray jacket.

"You kidding?" Ike scoffed, also not daring to take his eyes off of his main priority: the road. "You don't tell me how to do my job, I won't tell you how to do yours."

"If you don't pull over, I might not be able to do my job at all," Astrid returned coolly, doing her best to not lose her composure. A little hint of strain growled into her tone as she unpocketed a set of surgical sheers.

"My job is to get you to a medical facility, which is right there in front of us," he responded with double the frustration as he jabbed a pointer finger at the windshield briefly. The city still loomed ahead like a prize.

"It'll still be there after we pull over and help him!" she insisted strainedly as she worked her fingers to force the scissors to chew through the tough fabric of Eddie's work jacket, quickly cutting a large section out and chucking the blood-soaked blades down by the man's feet when she was finished. She peeled the piece away and began to examine the wound more closely before reaching for the saline solution on her utility belt. "I might have to use forceps to take the bullet out and we can't afford to—"

"—ahh, SHIT!" Ike belted out very suddenly as he quickly and widely wound the steering wheel in his gloved hands.

Astrid looked up in just enough time to see a glimpse of a scuttle of horses visible through the left hemisphere of the windshield, accompanied by a series of banners with a flashy design she wasn't able to make out from such a distance. She dropped the bottle as she felt one side of the car suddenly become much heavier than the other thanks to the sharp angle the truck suddenly spun into very purposefully. She worked to maintain any semblance of cool she had left as she reached forward to grab a hold of Eddie's stronger shoulder to steady him. "Ike, what happened??"

"Tsunami Syndicate," he growled, his hostility clearly directed at them. "We're taking the long way home."

"But Eddie needs-"

"Doc, just trust me on this," he pleaded. The truck throttled frantically, careening along a rocky section of unpaved road, opening up into a downhill pathway. "Mining sites. Been behind the wheel a million times here. Old stomping grounds!" he professed proudly as he glanced into the rearview mirror to smugly gloat at the scene he'd so deftly extricated them from. The orangey minerals gleamed from the narrow walls of the ravine sandwiching them into an old section of a canyon that had apparently at some point perhaps been carved out by the Columbia River.

Astrid, on the other hand, bit her lip in concern as she continued to keep Eddie anchored to his seat, eyes wide open in terror as she watched ravine walls speed by dangerously. "Ike. I don't understand," she started carefully, working to drain the emotion from her voice and dry it out as much as possible, "I don't know why we're going through here."

"I don't expect you Beau Monde to understand," Ike rattled out, his thick dark eyebrows slanted downward over his eyes that were still fixated forward as he stomped the gas pedal abruptly, "but out here on the Wasteland there's a threat bigger than anything else… starving, exposure, none of them hit like the Syndicate. You see them coming? You go right back from where you came and hope they didn't see you."

It was then that a billowing rush of red and gray dust blasted through the narrow pathway, spraying the windshield with rocks and debris as the truck continued to power ahead. "Landslide, not to worry!" Ike hollered in an an attempt at reassurance.

"You've got to stop so I can help Eddie!"

He narrowly avoided scattered boulders and rocks hardly visible through the milky dust clouding the path. It was clear that he did indeed know the place well. Any other driver might have already crashed into the walls, but something else entirely guided Ike while behind the wheel. "Jesus, Doc, there's nothing you can do on the side of the road you can't do from here," Ike countered rancorously.

"Don't call me 'Doc'!" she jarred out very suddenly and angrily, the side of her nose twisting up into an vexed snarl that bled into her voice.

Ike compulsorily snapped his eyes from the road and opened his mouth to bellow back at Astrid, but before a single sound came out there was an unmistakable THUD! from the driver's side, and a long black blip barreled up noisily from the hood of the truck, miraculously bouncing across Ike and Astrid's vision and deflecting upwards and off of the passenger's side. A giant crack spidered out over the windshield like lightning as what seemed like a solid metal chunk SMASHED! upon it from the right side before there was silence.

The look of panic on Ike's face was more than uncharacteristic—it was flat-out unrecognizable to Astrid. She then felt herself cough, followed by a sharp bar of pain across her sternum and shoulders as her body slammed up against the gigantic back of the front bench seats of the truck's cab. She bolstered her arm's hold on Eddie, whose fast-acting meds had thankfully kicked in quickly. The other arm instinctively reached forward to protectively grasp a hold of the ball of Ike's right shoulder. Both of his hands didn't leave the steering wheel, practically white as he guided the truck to a stop as it screeched ahead through the thick dust. Finally, they came to a halt.

Ike finally felt himself breathe after a long moment, then irritably swatted Astrid's small hand away. Astrid frowned as she sezied her arm from around Eddie and jetted out from the backseat of the cab. Ike was hot on her heels. The path behind them was streaked in deep tire treads serving as a play-by-play of what had just befallen them. After more of the dust cleared over the seconds that followed, it became evident that that thing that had bounced off the hood wasn't a thing—it was a person, slumped dangerously against the rocky wall.

Astrid turned to Ike, who'd just caught up with her and was just as stunned as she was. Her jaw dropped as her eyes met his fearfully.

"Now you got what you wanted, Doc," he retorted quickly to fill in the gap of silence.

"Son of a bitch, Ike," she hissed back exasperatedly, then snapped off on her feet back to the truck. Her heart was pounding fast, spilling up into her throat and sending sprig after sprig of toxic-feeling but cathartic fear through her bloodstream. She yanked upon the car door and reached a hand up to pat Eddie's better shoulder. "Hey, Eddie, are you-"

"Right ash rain, Doctorh Klaritt," he drawled back loopily. Good. He was talking. At least he was talking. That was the silver lining—he'd pull through. He shakily wobbled his hands toward his seatbelt. "I'b sho sharry, I should be out helping you and Ike…"

"No, no, no, no, Eddie, stay right here," she assured him gently as she coaxed his uninjured shoulder back to relax him against his headrest, "just don't fall asleep. You can fall asleep when we take the slugs out, all right? We've got to haul someone out."

"You mean we hit shumwun?"

"We're not sure yet. It could have been anything. But if we did it was a mistake," she rattled aloud in the same lightly-singsong tone as before. She clamped her mouth shut once she realized that that response had been more for her own good than for the sake of filling Eddie in about what had happened. She nodded courteously as she checked the security of his seatbelt."I'll be back." She shut the door and made for the back of the truck to open the gate and peek in at the two rescues from the mine. The small screens flickering along a black panel inset into the side of the interior featured no danger, and they were still strapped in securely. She breathed a sigh of relief, then turned and dashed back toward Ike and the still stranger.

"Is he okay?" Astrid asked hushedly as her eyes focused on the figure. Her heart still pounded like a heavy drum thanks to the fast rush.

"He's not dead, if that's what you're asking," Ike growled back defensively. He sauntered to the body and motioned for Astrid to follow. "Not physically dead. But see those chains?" As he approached the still body, he nudged his boot along a couple of rusty, stressed iron links connected to a blistered wrist. "Joe Schmo, here, has the good fortune of being marked. We gotta leave him here. He is dead."

Astrid stuck her hands on her hips protestedly and shook her head. "That's not going to happen, Ike." She walked past him slowly, stepping deliberately and relaxing her stance as she meandered ahead. Her dark eyes trailed from the dilapidated boots adorning the man's feet, up the tattered clothing that featured a splash of blood, then fixating on what looked like an engraved column-style vase stuck awkwardly from his wrist nearly up to the elbow, almost like a cast for a broken arm. She'd never seen anything quite like it before. That explained the windshield. The man's face, expression neutrally positioned thanks to his unconsciousness, was caked in dust. It even gathered in chalky chunks in his hair. She kept down on the ground next to his shoulder and gently reached to touch him on the unadorned arm. "Hello?"

"Didn’t you hear me say we're leaving him here?"

"And don't you hear me say that's not happening?" she immediately volleyed back quietly as a hand pulled the wound-up cords of a field stethoscope. She gently set its round drum against the still man's neck, cradling it below the underside of his straight jaw. "We're responsible for him. We can't leave him out here."

"No way." Ike shook his head and held his hands up firmly. "I know you doctors and your oath. You lot are too damn obligated by some nonsensical thing."

Astrid was tired. Not just physically, but tired of arguing with Ike. This was too much. He'd been one of the drivers she'd worked with closely in her year of shifts in the Axiom Wasteland Area Triage. Ike's practicality and quick thinking shot him to the top of the list in terms of his talent for fast transportation that had saved countless lives, but also made him quick to point out errors. Typically the two did have a harmonious working relationship, even cordial at times—but Ike's demeanor and mannerism today seemed more intense than usual. She'd never seen him hit an object like that. Ever.

She took a deep breath and decided to try. "Ike. I know you're tired. It's been a day. But we can't leave him behind or we're going to get sanctioned. That means the both of us losing our licenses. Together. Along with Eddie. We can't do that."

"Look. I don't want any trouble from Axiom, but the Syndicate will do more than just take your damn medical license. They'll string you along on a chain like Dusty McGee, here," he indicated toward Astrid's newest patient.

Astrid blinked vacantly as she directed her gaze back up to the far taller man. She had no patience for this. She'd begged and begged the Medical Bureau to task her to Wasteland Triage instead of the Axiom Beau Monde Emergency Center, which was far more quiet by comparison. She had great love for her pediatric patients and expectant mothers, of course; upon Astrid's certification, neighbors and family friends were eager to beseech who'd once been the poor little girl who'd showed up in such bad condition for medical help, conducting a thriving small practice and even making house calls. Anyone who looked at Astrid would have seen the living embodiment of a person who'd overcome unfortunate, terrible challenges and instead pushed through to not only overcome them, but also to succeed. She was a triple-boarded medical doctor who'd spent lengths of time in all Seven Cities on the continent below the 49th parallel, the head of her own household after her aunt and uncle bequeathed their Axiom home to her after departing back to their own origins, with a willing staff of longtime family attendants who'd happily overstayed the terms of their freedom contracts after stepping off of an auction block in the outer ring of the city. She had neither the time nor the desire to invest her time or efforts in pointless people, or pointless things in general--but the work in Beau Monde began to feel more and more pointless as the trauma training incident played over and over again in her mind the more that time waned on. The recurring nightmares with the symbol hadn't stopped, either. It was becoming difficult to even be happy for her clients when she was far more comfortable to being happy alongside with them; the moment that registered in her mind, she knew she needed a change. It was only right, after what had happened after the training. The heartbreak didn't go away like she'd been told it would. She needed to ensure for herself that what had happened all that time ago would never happen to anyone like that ever again as long as she was staffing Triage.

Astrid tilted her eyes back to the man's face after a moment. Silence followed as she carefully probed the stethoscope's pad along the side of the man's throat. Finally, there it was. A heartbeat. Strong and regular. Good. She breathed a sigh of relief and absent-mindedly streaked a thick layer of dust off of his cheek with her thumb to reveal a normal complexion. He wasn't cold. You poor thing. This could have been so much worse, and I'm glad it wasn't, she reflected inwardly.

She knew what to say to Ike.

"I remember you telling me your great-grandfather was a thief who was taken in by Triage," she recollected matter-of-factly.

"No, no, no, my grandfather wasn't being chased by the damn Syndicate," he rushed back, jolting a finger in the air.

"What can I say, Ike?" Astrid shrugged as she pocketed her stethoscope, quickly checking the lengths of his arms, legs, and ribs for any broken bones. None. She nodded and stepped to crouch low beside the unconscious man, snaking an arm between him and the rock behind him and pushing him ahead to fit her hands into his armpits and begin to drag him to the truck. He was a lot bigger than she was, but that wasn't going to stop her. "We don't have time to waste, we've got four to bring into Checkpoint," she hoofed between breaths. Her heart was still pounding. "Your story means a lot to you, and it means a lot to me. You know why I'm out here."

For once, Ike didn't say anything. He sighed and crossed his arms as he watched Astrid struggle to bring the unconscious man from "point A" to "point B," then finally gave in. Within moments, the stranger was laid out on the backseat bench of the truck with his knees slightly drawn up, not detectable by a glance in case they came across the slaver party again. Astrid crouched in the trough between the benches, directly behind Eddie and beside the new patient.

Ike looked at Eddie far more calmly than before. "You all right, man?"

He nodded drowsily. "Geeshush, I'm fihhne, you guysh."

"All right, man." Ike glanced at Astrid through his rearview mirror, his expression considerably softer than before. He gave a nod. "You all right, Dr. Claret?"

She smiled. "Can you get us out of here fast?" Ike mirrored a smaller version of the smile as he hit the gas and the truck roared back to life and back into motion.

Astrid turned to shift her eyes back to the stranger and reached to carefully skim the excess dust from around the man's nose, mouth, and eyes, and raked a few fingers through his hair to shake out what hadn't already fallen out after he was transported to the truck. No use in him waking up to more dust. He was already probably in for something of a rude awakening, anyway, if Ike ended up being right. She swallowed a lump in her throat as she again thought of that awful day.

She then tuffed her sleeve over her knuckles and began to polish off the metal surface of whatever was clamped around his arm, admiring the strange designs. What was this, exactly? Some kind of torture device? Tracking?

Suddenly, it didn't matter. A mark on the skin of his bicep, just above his elbow. The mark. It was the mark. She'd never seen it in front of her face. Only after she closed her eyes and was swept off helplessly in the maelstrom of the same nightmare over so many years.

Her jaw dropped. She couldn't say anything. She could only stare at the mark, occasionally lamping her eyes up at the stranger's face. She had so many questions.

The path ahead far more clear now that the dust had settled. Back to Axiom.

The setting changes from Gaia to City of Axiom

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

Image

The black dot on the horizon grew larger by the second, slowly at first before heaping up and over Astrid like a phantom in pursuit before she turned around to investigate the source of the shadow that fell before her. The most terrifying part was that there was no sound at all. Complete silence, not even the sound of her lungs collapsing as the air rushed out her mouth as it opened into a shout of surprise.

But there wasn't any pain. Just a dark void as the figure swallowed up the ceiling after looming over like a fog that had rolled in fast. She stood still and worked to breathe deep.
She felt her chest thrum repetitively. Much too fast to feel comfortable. There was no reassuring cool breath drawn in—only the same temperature as the swelteringly hot air that engulfed everything in the dry desert.

She willed herself to stay still as she squeezed her eyes shut and focused on recalling the approximate oxygen content in each breath of air: upwards of 20%, on a clear day like this, even with the onset of the landslide that had kicked up so much dust. That was enough to sustain life, and to kick her back into consciousness.

She snapped her eyes open and noticed the mark again just above the inside of the stranger's elbow, below where the sleeve of his tunic had crept up.

She felt the dark apparition kick its boot up and shove it forward.

Her left eye socket was suddenly lit ablaze as she fully locked back into the moment. Her right hand was still clutching the headrest behind Eddie's sandy head of hair. "Hey, Eddie, you good?"

"Dr. Khlaritt, I mightsh ashk you the shame thingh," he prodded back. She laughed in response, then cringed aloud as she felt her skull slam her down in response as the headache reared up again.

Astrid was at least glad that Eddie's temporary fix treatment was in fact going so well. "All right," she piped up and over, then swiveled her attention back to the stranger. The headache still slammed away with her fast heartbeat possibly partly to blame. It was slightly alarming, but nothing called for a cause to panic. Yet, at least…

She studied his face again as she realized she'd drifted off so far in her mind. He wasn’t at all like most wastelanders she'd come into contact with; usually those in the most dire of conditions were close to starvation and exhibited all the signs of malnourishment, possibly heavy drug use due to conditions that included unemployment and boredom amongst other things. All wastelanders Triage brought to Axiom were offered the opportunity to find a place amongst the outermost valence society, or the opportunity to return from where they came from. It wasn't often that the option to stay in the city was not accepted. New residents would send word to their families via the Postal Service and the offer for housing for them would stand. Astrid, herself, knew that the prospects were glum in that sector of the city, but that it was a far better life than one out sick, injured, or otherwise defenseless on the unprotected frontier.

He was different. He lacked the same raisin-y, leathery look as most raider cultures or wilder people. The cast metal object encircling his right forearm and wrist certainly distinguished him from anyone else she'd seen before, even in medical school. His haircut was even different, and his facial features were far less harsh than most others. She wasn't precisely sure what it was that set him apart. Some strange feeling that told her, somewhere. For a moment she felt herself turn red as she wondered whether or not his more or less handsome features triggered that feeling. After all, her heart was indeed pounding so much. But she laughed to herself as she inwardly reminded herself that that was a silly notion. But he certainly wasn't too bad to look at, all the same.

Most importantly—the symbol. He would surely be able to answer her question, if it was permanently emblazoned on his arm like that…

But how was he doing? After collecting a quick swab from the inside of his cheek and popping the tissue into a small sterile container, she reached a palm out to flatten upon his chest to cursorily check his heartbeat again. For a moment there had been no rise and fall that she could detect visually. With her free hand she yanked her stethoscope out yet again to investigate. Quickly she unfastened the top two buttons of his tunic, keeping her eyes up on his eyelids to maintain a mindful watch of his eye movement. It was after she tacked the disc upon the flat of his chest she realized it must have been chilly; she reflexively flew it up to her cheek to warm it up for a couple of long seconds, then replaced it back on him. She shook her head when she couldn’t hear the beat at first, frowning as she patted around for it. Come on. I need you to pull through.

Luckily, pockets of wet air began to rattle around noisily in his lungs after she uprighted herself on her knees, legs propping up to steady her hip against the metal cuff-like object. The earpieces of the instrument sprung around her neck harmlessly as she peered down at the man's face. One hand still hovered near his chest and the other dug up a small injection pen and jabbed it into his other forearm. Hopefully his heart rate would pick right back up and stabilize; if he wasn't awake when brought in, he wouldn't be able to give consent to treatment. She'd have to promptly file a special order to hard-commit him to the Beau Monde hospital in the heart of Axiom, and in the nick of time considering all of the paperwork and questioning that lay ahead. There was also the chance of someone else diverting his care to another clinic, or claiming responsibility for him before waking up. All this, in order to have any chance of being able to ask him a question about that mark. There was no way she could ask about it in the vehicle. Ike certainly had shut her down when she'd try to draw an answer from him before, and Eddie had also sighed and fessed up to not knowing. She had to figure out the best way to get answers from the new patient without her co-workers knowing she was subjecting the patient to questioning concerning her own personal agenda.

The truck was thrown into sudden darkness as it was swallowed up inside of a building. A flood of lights illuminated outside the windows. The truck finally came to a halt inside the simple emergency medical entrance on the southeast side of the city's outer ring. As it did, Ike kicked his own door open to meet with the other attendants who scrambled about to assist in opening the truck's back, hoisting the two patients inside out and toting them into the wide open garage's hallway connecting to Triage's own entrance. Before Ike departed to visit with the Comp Officer, he wordlessly reached to snatch the swab sample from Astrid. Two others ran to Eddie's door to carefully pull him out and guide him onto a gurney.

Just as Astrid looked down, the stranger snapped his eyes open. The injection had kicked in. She threw her hands up as she noticed his muscles twitch just slightly enough, then swerved her shoulders backwards to avoid the metal object as his hands flew upward. She carefully but firmly braced an arm over his chest and leaned on the outside of the cuff to press him down, without really considering her safety. Instead, she reached a finger by her lips and offered at first a harsh "SHHH!" that seemed to shock him off guard enough to silence him. It softened off as he leaned back slowly. He still breathed heavily and erratically while his brilliant bright blue eyes seemed to vacantly scan ahead. Astrid wasn't even sure if he actually saw her, from the look of it…

"Sir? Can you hear me?" she piped up quietly, lowering her voice to not sound out too abrasively against the contained silence of the truck. "We hit you with our Triage truck. You were in the canyon pathway south of here and we didn't see you." She paused. "I'm a medical doctor, and—"

The door opened quickly off to Astrid's left. "Out we go!" Ike's voice boomed through the cabin as he hooked his arms beneath the stranger and yanked him backwards to help hurl him onto a wheeled stretcher and fasten a set of worn leather straps over his arms and legs to keep him anchored down. "Dr. Claret, the Comp Officer wants to see you."

Astrid could feel the aforementioned's eyes on her back. The Compliance Officer was in the Axiom Guard and answered strictly to Guard interests. Medical staff were in no way in charge of logistical operations, and a lot of the work the Comp Officer did in terms of Triage intake was just duplication of routine reporting. Just another tedious hoop to jump.

"Dr. Claret?" the woman's voice called out as she strode up. Astrid stepped out of the truck, following Ike and the stranger and two other nurse attendants as they jabbed a needle connected to a bag of restorative fluids into the top of his free forearm and strapped it down securely with a square of hypoallergenic medical tape. The Comp Officer followed closely, carrying a clipboard with an old-style pencil perched in her other hand. "Dr. Claret!" she repeated, a little more firmly this time in an attempt to get the rushing woman's attention. "I've just questioned your partners, Dwight Tenakee and Edward Fisching. Their stories check out about the miners and the crash. That precludes me from having to question you."

Astrid stopped in her tracks and turned to face the woman who wore the tan uniform of the Axiom Officers Corps. She took a deep breath. It gave her great relief that she didn't have to waste time giving a verbal report, even if it wouldn't have taken a long time. Ike obviously did his while helping secure the miners. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she acknowledged calmly as she reviewed what she'd said. "Mr. Fisching gave you a lucid report?"

"He checked out," the woman said disattachedly as the pencil's pink eraser wavered in the air. Her eyes weren't even on Astrid. "The only thing I need from you is to help report on your new patient while we decide what to do with him."

"Oh, I plan on filing to have him sent to my practice," Astrid responded with a light smile.

"Right, but you can only do that after he's cleared on our end."

Astrid nodded. "That's correct. Well… thanks."

Bullet dodged. Hurdle avoided. She could follow the stranger after all. She nodded and broke ahead easily to follow Ike and the gurney into the sterile metal hallway. The comp officer dashed ahead along with them to observe and take notes.

"Two things, Doctor. First off, You'll notice that the head surgeon isn't going to be on-site. You're the only doctor, or surgeon, who's present for this and you've apparently given him a clean bill of health."

"I did?"

"That's what Mr. Tenakee said."

Ike peered back over his should at Astrid and raised his eyebrows. "That puts him into the City's custody," he grumbled in explanation.

The doctor blinked back, fighting the urge to become a little angry. Ike was trying to pitch control of the patient's fate to her indirectly; the Comp Officer could well throw the poor man out if she so chose to for any reason as he wasn't at the specific site that Triage was sent to, unless Triage had cleared him. Which she had actually not done, but Ike knew it was better than risking him being cycled back out into the wasteland. She glanced down at the patient, whose eyes were still open, staring up calmly at the ceiling. He didn't seem conscious to the point of understanding his surroundings, as he seemed somewhat unresponsive to the various bumps on the pathway, or even the voices piping up around him.

The five-person team surrounding the stranger stretched out placidly on the wheeled bed clambered into a steam-powered lift. With a loud groan the metal gears at various intervals of the vertical runner turned into themselves and pulled a cable upwards. Within moments the iron doors were hauled open by attendants on the outside.

"It's the final days of the Axiom River Days Fights," the Comp Officer reminded Astrid.

Oh, shit. Of course. A few weeks away from Axiom and all sense of time on a calendar would begin to fall away, and it was easy to forget that she'd missed almost the entirety of the Axiom River Days celebrations. Astrid hid the contempt and surprise from her face as the group strode down another hallway, this one with a windowed left panel featuring the skyscrape of Axiom as they walked over a skybridge into the emergency facility above the middle ring of the city. The difference of the sections of the city was quite apparent; the outer ring was dusty and red and brown, the middle rings far more neutral and calmer with a few scattered smokestacks here and there, while the middle ring glowed blue and green and even white and yellow in some spots. The afternoon sun was beginning to hobble high into the sky almost like it was trying to make a decision about which way it actually wanted to go. As for River Days, the outermost ring was especially speckled with red, white, and blue flags, bearing the emblem of the city; another circular stadium was visible from the bridge. It was cut out on the northwest side of the city by the train station, a temporary but sturdy construct built annually for the highly anticipated River Days Fights. It drew far higher crowds than prior festivals' attempts at old-world pursuits like bull riding or either variety of football, by a long shot, and continued to do so. While other public sporting events did crop up, none were so supported or celebrated by the masses of Outer Axiom like the River Days Fights.

"So I understand," Astrid grumbled. She'd hoped to avoid having to perform medical response for what she felt was a horrible, terrible sport. She'd marveled so at the populace that loved the event so much; she'd heard horror stories about random city dwellers being plucked from the street and told to pick up a weapon and learn how to fight their way out of captivity, only to be met with a no more gruesome an early end to their life than they could have imagined.

"They're short on fighters," the Comp Officer answered, still not looking up from her clipboard as she punched the button to unlock the door to an examination room. There was a large glass pane that took up the entire window. Astrid stifled the urge to nod knowingly and roll her eyes sardonically at the observers she knew were on the other side. "They're looking for a few ringers to drop in and shake things up. The City and the Guard are on board."

Astrid paused and held her hands up. Even if she didn't have such an intense interest in him, what the Comp Officer was telling her was unconscionable: the stranger could get conscripted. "No, he's not in that kind of condition," she responded immediately. Ike parked the gurney in the middle of the room and kicked the brakes in, then backed off to lean against a wall and stay out of the way. The stranger had let his eyes rest shut again for a temporary reprieve. "He was hit by a truck. We were going fast."

"About 65 miles per hour," Ike chimed in.

"But you said he's got no broken bones, according to Mr. Tenakee," the Comp Officer brought up flatly, gesturing impersonally to the clipboard in her left hand.

"His eyes were open and he was breathing when we opened the car door."

"Then, what would you recommend?"

Astrid pursed her lip shut as she fanned over the possibilities in her mind briefly before speaking again. She couldn't let him go. Especially not if he might be destined for the fighting pits. "I recommend at least a week of rest. He shows signs of extreme fatigue and weariness," she started off, speaking directly to the Comp Officer instead of the Fights screeners she knew must have been back there. They did look for recruits who wanted to make their names in combat—of which there was a surprising number of voluntary self-admissions. Sometimes the City could claim others to join under the strangest of circumstances. "He needs a meal, a very basic one, and he needs a quiet place to himself to sleep and get a moment of peace."

"How do you know all that?"

"Trauma victims on the Wasteland are all missing at least one or some of the most basic needs a human being has. Food, water, shelter or even a safe place to sleep at night, socialization and belonging—just some of the things that make humans tick. He's not as malnourished as others that we've encountered on the Outside, but he's had recent traumas that have clearly put him in the position to have chains on his wrists." One of the attendants quickly responded by taking a set of shears and easily clipped the metal off from the stranger's free wrist, but backed off of the big metal device's arm, which didn't have a matching cuff with chains. "Thank you. That's extremely helpful." She waved her hands a little. "So, I suppose that's just a guess on my part."

The Comp Officer nodded. "Well, all right. You and Mr. Tenakee are free to go. We're going to do a physical and subject him to some questions."

"Wait, I could conduct the physical," Astrid startled as the Comp Officer made her way over to her to begin to shoo her toward the door. "Who's doing the physical?"

"The Fightmaster decided he would send his private doctor over to check out prospective last-minute additions," the other woman explained. Ike held the door open for Astrid and stepped away as she was walked backwards through it by the Guardswoman. "We'll be happy to take your recommendation into consideration."

SLAM.

Astrid frowned as she caught one final glimpse of the stranger as his very blue eyes opened again. She blinked a few times after she realized that her mouth was hanging halfway open.

"That guy's in demand, I guess," Ike offered up after he patted Astrid on the shoulder. "Looks like a tough customer. Maybe they know something we don't. Come on. I'm supposed to take you to the Beau Monde gate, now, before your permit expires and you'd need a new one."

That reminded her.

"Let's talk the long way down," she suggested as she shot away from the door and scurried down the hallway.

"It's faster if we take the elevators to the northwest side," Ike responded as he watched her go, jogging after her.

"I need to file a hard transfer to the Beau Monde hospital." She opened the heavy metal door into the echoey stairwell. "It's the only way I'm going to be able to get him safe at all."

"Dr. Claret… I don't know. I think perhaps you should allow him to make his choice."

"He won't have a choice in there. He would if he did actually have a chance to heal up."

"And miss the current games and have to wait a year? If that sorry son of a bitch is as tough as you say he is, then he'll want to go spill someone's blood now instead of later."

"I'm filing the transfer."

"… Fine."

They continued onward in stubborn silence and arrived within minutes to the admin station in the main lobby of the Triage intake center. Astrid breathlessly stuck her hands down on the counter in front of one of the clerks at a service window. "Hard-transfer for a Triage intake, please."

The older woman dressed in the Triage admin uniform nodded up with a rehearsed smile. "Patient name?"

"I didn't have a name," Astrid apologetically answered. "Brought in by… Tenakee, Claret, Fisching."

"There were three."

"This was the patient from the canyon who stepped in the way of our vehicle."

There was a long delay and a couple of clicks as the clerk clacked a couple of keys to locate the patient's records. "Excellent," the woman said finally, lifting her eyes up to both Ike and Astrid. "Dr. Claret, that's you?"

"That's me."

"Great. You're asking about… Samuel Huxley?"

"Pardon?"

"Samuel Huxley. The gentleman who was the unanticipated intake. The swab matched some records submitted a few decades ago."

"Samuel Huxley." Astrid repeated the name flatly. Having a name made him even more real. She felt a lump build in her throat as she suddenly realized that she might not like the answers he may provide to her questions… if she even had a chance to ask them.

"…but it looks like you're too late."

"Excuse me?" Astrid felt like her heart froze in place. Just as she learned his name, he was just that much more out of reach.

"Someone left here about two minutes ago. Someone from the City."

"You're kidding."

"They said they've got it handled. I wish I could help you, but you'll have to speak to the Comp Officer. I can't help you."

The shutter for the window flew down noisily as the clerk cut off the conversation.

Astrid turned around very slowly and sighed as she met Ike's smirk. His strong arms were crossed over his chest as he cracked an amused grin. "Nothing stops you, Doc."

"I asked you to stop calling me that."

"No. You told me to stop calling you that," Ike jabbed as he motioned for her to walk alongside him toward the special access corridor to the center of the city, where her home in Axiom Beau Monde was situated.

"Then… can you please stop calling me that?" she chided irritably.

Ike rolled his eyes. "You're really mean when you're mad," he laughed.

She rolled her eyes right back at him and smirked. There was no reason to allow him to see how frustrated she really was, especially when it had nothing to do with him. "Are you heading back to Middle Axiom after this?"

"Yes. Lynette and the boys are expecting me tomorrow, but frankly, I like surprising them sometimes," he replied with a happy grin. Ike might have been a self-assured and tough-as-nails Triage driver, but the audacious road jockey was also a loyal family man.

Part of Astrid's mind still fretted as she resigned herself to the idea of having to go back to Axiom Beau Monde empty-handed, but Ike's attempt at trying to infuse humor into a disappointing situation was kind. "Remember my offer… about if you guys need a new physician."

"Nah, couldn't afford those rates," Ike rebuffed with a side grin. "Lynnie wants me to stay above-board."

"I can practice for whoever I want and charge whatever rates I want outside of a hospital," Astrid reminded him. "That's all above-board. And I can help deliver the baby, too."

Ike slapped the panel of an elevator door after the traversed the corridor. "Mighty kind of you, Dr. Claret," he acknowledged warmly as he traipsed aside to permit Astrid to pass around him and enter the chamber. "So. What do we do about Eddie?"

Astrid chewed the inside of her cheek as she let his question sink in. Good question. "I guess we'll need to figure that one out soon."

Ike shrugged. "That shortage on decent drivers and navigators who can qualify for Triage duty?" he posited as he stepped back to grab the heavy bar to slide the door shut for Astrid, "pretty bad. Getting to dire levels. We'll need to fix it fast." He tapped his brow with two fingers in a friendly goodbye. "'Night, Dr. Claret."

"Good night, Ike."

The gears squealed after the timer pivoted into effect. The lift hoisted up noisily. Astrid perched in the corner as her thoughts drifted away from the soon-to-be five Tenakees and back to Samuel Huxley. She'd have to dig in to her terminal back at the house and learn more about him. She couldn't believe the open door that was the database, to which she was granted admittance on account of her status as a physician, and the information it revealed about those who were actually on civilization's radar. Maybe there was a way to learn more about his background… something to help shed light on the meaning of that symbol. There had to be something she could learn while she could hatch a plan of some kind.

After flashing her badge at the final checkpoint, Astrid was stepping along the cobblestone promenade leading out of the medical gate and into Beau Monde Axiom. The River Days celebrations spilled out onto the main city streets below the commuter-only walkway she cut across. The revelry was far more low-key than it was in the outer rings of Axiom, but it was still lively. She was remanded from Triage or Trauma service in the name of the City for seventy-two hours, but not from her own practice, in theory. The following day she would check in on the status of her practice's patients.

She stepped up to the ivy-covered black wrought-iron gates of her home, situated along the scenic riverfront of the urban aquaway, with the lake nearing the deep-running property along the backside of the house. Rushing along to the door was, as always, Gingham—at least, that's what he'd always insisted on being called. He'd been in the service of the Claret family for well over fifty years, for far longer than Astrid's aunt and uncle would have wished to admit. The elderly man looked as though he might break in half at any moment as his knobbly joints wobbled and creaked as he opened the door for whom he'd coined the term of endearment for. "Doc!"

"Good evening, Ging," she greeted with a weary smile. She was amazed that he could still recognize her. His ability to recall simple things or remember day-to-day tasks diminished day by day, but Astrid and the staff had made the collective decision that the longtime slave-turned-freeman deserved to live out his days feeling useful and being well cared for—just as they themselves would wish if they also had no family or close friends to speak of to care for them in their time of need. "How are you?"

"It's River Days!" he announced proudly. His precious remaining teeth gleamed conspicuously from his gummy smile. It was never difficult to feel at ease around the sweet old man, even when he was far sharper years ago. "Did you know that I once went pearl diving on the Columbia one River Days and I won first prize?" And then there were those moments that reminded everyone all too well of the dementia that had begun to tragically set in as he aged further.

"I bet that was amazing," Astrid responded with a bittersweet smile. She so hated seeing him like this. It made her want to throw her arms around him and cry. It certainly wouldn't be the right thing to do, by any means, but it was hard to not feel that way. She knew that it was better to just play along; he'd forget any erroneous exchange or misrecollection within mere moments. "Is everyone else at River Days?"

"They are. Well, except Mona. But she fell asleep."

Astrid smiled. "Well, no one was expecting me back until tomorrow. That's okay. I've got some reading to do, anyway, and an early day tomorrow."

Gingham held out his hands to offer to accept her coat. "Doc, you look tired. You looked so much better this morning."

Astrid grinned to hold back another pang of sadness. "Is that your way of telling me my crow's feet are starting to look like yours?" she jibed back with a sly raise of her eyebrows. Sometimes the only way out of feeling upset was to just laugh.

"You don't look a day over 82," he quipped without skipping a beat. "Jesus, I hope you're 82." Astrid doubled over in laughter as she tried to regain the composure to pull off her dust and blood-caked formerly-white tunic jacket. Gingham was good at taking coats and giving them to the correct person. Or, to at least put it in a place for another person to find. Gingham released a loud yawn and wrapped his arms around his shoulders to shiver up against cold-blasted air in the house before shuffling away toward the staff's wing of the home. "Good night, Miss Astrid."

Astrid watched Gingham disappear, and beelined straight through the darkened house for the library. The cedar bookshelves were still as aromatic as they were when she came to live in the house over two decades prior, housing volume after volume of almost everything from medical textbooks to literary classics to travel compendiums to historical accounts of the earth's transition decades prior. She stared out the window after she hit the activation button on the old terminal, collecting her thoughts before logging into the City's database. Finally, a command prompt popped open.

H-U-X-L-E-Y S-A-M-U-E-L. Astrid entered the name, hoping he'd indeed had the traditional spelling of "Samuel."

The good news was—he certainly did have the traditional spelling. The bad news was—there was hardly any information to go off of. She scanned for anything relevant at all.

BORN: APPROX 2038; NEW HAVEN, NORTHWEST, OLD WASHINGTON

Well. At least he was local.

CURRENT STATUS: CUSTODY OF CITY OF AXIOM

… so it ended up happening, after all.

Astrid frowned and settled back in her chair with a deep sigh. While it was good to be home, and she felt considerably more relaxed and far less tense than before, Samuel Huxley's predicament still weighed on her. And now it was downright awful. The mark aside, the idea of one of her patients—even if it was by complete accident that he did become one—heading into servitude in such a dreadful cause was abhorrent. She lifted a hand to rake through her hair nervously. She was glad that her heart was finally beating at a normal pace again; earlier the dizzy sensation felt a little overwhelming as she struggled to come up with a plan on the spot on how to get the answers she needed. Not to mention there was a new problem concerning Eddie. The skilled navigator rounded out the trio that included herself and Ike; for months they'd worked as a smooth and trusty unit in rushing over two hundred patients to safety. Replacing that dynamic wouldn't be easy.

… or would it?

Astrid sprang to her feet. The idea that flew into her head was crazy, but it had the potential to pan out. She lamped her eyes outside the window again, and smiled a little to herself. There was a way around this, she mused, as she stared out at the light gleaming from the direction of the stadium. She'd learn more tomorrow

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley

0.00 INK

Image



”Because I can’t figure out how to take it off, or I would have…” a woman’s voice snapped, her voice irate enough that you’d have thought she had answered that question a thousand times. She traced her fingers across the intricate metal plating, examining it closely. There didn’t seem to be an obvious opening or release as far as she could see… and she had most definitely checked.

Another voice sounded out from nearer to the doorway. A man’s. ”What is it?”

”Honestly?” she replied, ”It looks like a weapon. But I don’t see where it would hold any ammunition…” The woman unclasped the strap holding Sam’s wrist down and loosened it a bit to free the arm ever so slightly. She gently picked up the gauntlet and swayed it about. ”It’s incredibly light for how bulky it seems,” she reflected aloud.

The room’s white piercing lights beamed through Sam’s eyelids as they fluttered back open-- taking in his surroundings as voices suddenly became blurry faces and bodies. Like all the other times he had regained consciousness or come to… he found himself on his back, staring upwards... a situation, he reminded himself, he would need to stop repeating in the future. Sam felt the restraints against his midsection, feet and arms without even moving. Whoever had brought him here certainly didn’t want him to leave. But still-- it beat chains. At least these binds were silent.

Now as for these people…

”Well it seems like that would seal the deal then, wouldn’t it? He’s gotta go to the games,” the man’s voice chided.

Sam felt the weight of his gauntlet plop back down onto the stretcher with a dull metal clang as the woman turned to face the man. ”We can’t! He’s a perfect candidate for construction ordinances or even a technical field. Look at his hands--” she protested, ferociously.

”Added tech and implants… Lila. It’s in the fine print. We don’t have a choice in this.”

”No, HE doesn’t have a choice. We don’t even know if that thing works. These aren’t the hands of a killer, they’re the hands of a worker… someone who builds things. He’s a resource.”

”And with that thing left on his hand, he’s a time bomb and a liability,” the man gestured with all the finality in the world residing in his dull lecturing tones. He suddenly eased up, sighing as he straightened his uniform. ”Look, I hate to have to be this guy, but--”

”This is because I wouldn’t go on a date with you, isn’t it?” Lila replied, icily.

The officer’s stubbled face blushed suddenly, as he began backpedaling quickly. ”N-N-now, no-- that’s j-j-ust.... do you really think I’m that salty about the whole thing?” Lila shrugged. It sure seemed like a valid reason. ”I just can’t be seen favoring you like this… skimping on protocols. It wouldn’t help either of us.” There was a beat between the two of them, both familiar and awkward altogether. Sam watched the two closely as they interacted-- only able to read the situation off of the officer’s reactions and vocal tones as his examiner’s back was still turned. ”Just please-- clean him up and submit him for processing… and don’t make me come looking for him.” The man spun on his heel and helped himself out. The door-- the only one in or out of this godforsaken room-- was opened for him just as he neared it by one of the guards outside.

Image


Sam looked down the length of his body at Lila bracing her hands on her hips, letting out a deep sigh-- and then returned his gaze to the ceiling before she caught him staring. His neck wouldn’t move for some reason though. Had they strapped it down too? Seemed unecessary unless there had been an outbreak of headbutting patients in the past. She turned back around, grabbing the stretcher by its end and unlocking the wheels with a snap of her feet. Sam shifted along with it as she steered the cart under a dangling light attached to a large magnifying glass and his thoughts rattled about in his head again. The disorientation was already growing old. He closed his eyes against the pain and shot them open again-- trying to force them to focus. He had to get out of here...

”Oh--” Lila suddenly gasped in surprise as she saw Sam eyeing her. ”You’re awake...” Sam looked away from her, shifting beneath his straps as he settled in to what seemed to be another bout of incarceration. ”I-I’m sure you have plenty of questions,” she continued, ignoring his body language. ”My name is Lila, I’m one of the medical partitionists here in Axiom-- I help with in-processing of new and found persons from the wastes. ‘Screening & Cleaning’, as they say!” she chimed a bit too cheerily for Sam’s tastes. He could tell she was forcing her disposition-- her hands clearly shaking as she reached to fill a syringe. She could have possibly just been naturally nervous, attending to strangers dragged in from the outside-- putting her life on the line with each passing exam… but he had to admit-- she did a decent job at masking it, all things considered.He looked between her arms at the tray of instruments across from his bedside and saw her invert a bottle as she withdrew a dosage into the needle.

1mg… 2… 3… 4.... 5… Was that it? I suppose it was more than enough given his size and condition. He’d fought off worse. But he didn’t have time for that now. Things would need to move quicker than they would on their own. And Sam always fancied himself a pro when it came to escalating things. Lila held the syringe up in front of her face as she turned to face the light, tapping out the last few bubbles from the liquid inside. She sprayed a touch of the solution into the air to clear the tip and Sam breathed in, closing his eyes. Sodium thiopental. Probably the most expendable anaesthetic around these parts. And weaker than most…

For once, the odds seemed to be stacking in his favor. He may have smiled if his face didn’t hurt so much.

Lila took a couple steps towards the table, her eyes bearing a different expression than the one plastered across her beaming teeth. ”This is a mild anaesthetic for the pain,” she began, nodding at the syringe in her hand as she somehow managed to hold it steadily in front of him. Mild? Real cute. She either flunked out of med school or purposefully meant to put Sam under-- probably both… but ‘mild’ certainly had nothing to do with it. He flexed the fingers on his right hand, making sure they still worked. Times were, he would have had no doubt-- but his body was as broken as he was these days. ”You sure look like you had a rough time out there… She cocked her head, looking him up and down. Her eyes eventually drifted from his down to his neck. ”What’s the story there?” she asked, blinking slowly.

Sam swallowed, his throat like one long, dry gulch. ”Something someone gave me,” he mumbled, hoarsely.

”And that?” Her eyes gestured towards the gauntlet.

Sam sighed. ”Something I took.”

Like everybody else, she couldn’t help but sate her own curiosity. So much for blending in.

”I s-see…” she sputtered, trying to maintain herself,”and what would Samuel Huxley need to take?”

His heart suddenly stopped. He hadn’t heard that name in over a decade… he had been called everything and anything but Samuel Huxley. His face flushed with color as the sensation pulsated through his head and body. It was like years worth of memories and associations were pouring through a tiny hole back into his being. Who was that kid? Fifteen years away from everything he had ever known or love. Dragged around the wastelands like something stuck on their shoe. Fed only enough and never more than that, put to work like he himself was some sort of factory. It was no way to live… and certainly no way to--

”OW!”

Lila pulled the syringe out from his upper arm and dabbed at it with a small chemical-soaked patch of cloth, already done with her work.

Son of a bitch distracted me… he cursed silently to himself as his breaths quickened and his adrenaline began to rise. That wasn’t supposed to have happened, and like everything else that had gone to shit lately-- the clock had started ticking. Lila turned back to her tray, exposing her back to Sam-- the perfect opportunity. He clenched his fist, wrenching upwards on the loose strap that Lila had neglected to tighten after his initial examination. His teeth grit down as he pushed upwards with all his might in his limited state-- the metal bending against his strength. The leather snapped the pin in half as his hand suddenly burst free-- the metal pieces clanging to the floor loud enough that Lila’s ears perked, and she spun on her heel-- scattering the tray of instruments all over the place as she scrambled away. Sam’s other hand had already gone to his other bound wrist, fumbling with the latch as he threaded the leather strap through and marvelled at his two free hands. The legs came next-- one after the other. Lila’s hurried footsteps grew louder as Sam felt her presence return from outside the ring of light around him. His eyes squinted against the brightness as he swung his legs off from the stretcher and onto the ground along with the rest of him. He stood, his hands going up to whatever kind of choker was still attached to his neck. It wasn’t leather-- it was metal.

’If it had been a strap, it would have been attached to the table...’ he mused to himself as he bent down and scooped up a scalpel near his feet. But as he stood back up, all he saw was the black remote in Lila’s hand as she stepped back into the light, and nothing mattered anymore. She aimed it at him and jammed her thumb down onto the button, and for a brief second-- Sam’s breath caught in his throat in a sudden moment of anticipation…

...of nothing.

Lila’s eyes suddenly widened. Apparently she was just as surprised and confused as she was as to why nothing happened. She turned to chance a dash towards the front door as Sam grabbed ahold of the stretcher-- its chassis shaking in place with its wheels locked. He kicked at the contraption with his foot until he heard the familiar *POP*... Lila’s footsteps retreating even further towards the door.

*POP* That was the last one! Sam spun to his left and thrust the stretcher as hard as he could into Lila’s path as she collided with it in one complete and utter catastrophe, spilling over it onto her hands and knees as the cart tumbled over her. The control went sliding into the darkness out of her reach as she strained her arm for it… watching it disappear out of sight. Sam launched himself towards her, nearly falling over himself as the walls began to close in on him and the edges of his vision blurred. It had been only 5mg, right?

Samuel Huxley…?

He felt less like himself than ever.

Before he knew it, he was over her. Lila rolled onto her back and covered her face with her hands as she saw him approaching. Sam bent over grabbing her by the fabric around her shoulders and pulled her to her feet-- partially using her to steady himself. Her cheek had already begun to swell from the bruising, and Sam realized suddenly that he had already put the girl through more than he meant to… and possibly more than she was ready to handle. She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could as she braced herself against him, waiting for whatever was next. He waited until she opened her eyes again and stared at her with his piercing blue gaze. ”I want you to know… I wouldn’t have done this if I thought he would hurt you.”

The front door bashed inwards as several more armed officers and guards spilled inside, posting up around the door. The man from before pushed through them with a remote in his gloved hand. ”Do NOT shoot!” he declared, brandishing the device towards Sam as he pulled Lila in tighter, only letting the tiniest trace of himself peak out from behind her. It didn’t help that she had a naturally thin figure. He adjusted the scalpel in his hand carefully, holding it at an angle against her back as his arm hung loosely around her neck. She knew better to resist. It almost made him wonder if she’d been through something like this before. He tried to shake the thought from his mind, forcing himself to picture her as the person who can get her out of here rather than just a person.

”Very well, then… Lila? Would you mind?”

###CLICK###


Lila pushed away just in the knick of time as Sam felt the shock rip through him, all the way through his core into the fabric of his very being… and then out again. His legs buckled underneath him as the rest of his wriggling frame tumbled to the floor. He tore his hands from the electric collar as white heat brushed across his palms, his arm falling to the floor as he braced himself with one arm trying to force himself back up. But his muscles had liquified already as he rolled out onto the floor. He stirred, letting out a deep groan-- a valid summary of the exhausting week he had endured, only to find himself in a puddle on the floor. Lila had already retreated into the arms of the officer ahead, as the other men rushed in past them. They encircled Sam as he swung at them blindly, grasping at the stinging collar strapped to his throat. His vision turned blue, and then a deep purple-- pulsating with each heartbeat as the walls and guards closed in around him. The burn had all but subsided by the time he hit the floor again, except for his hand… that damned hand. What was this sensation? It wasn’t like the searing white burn from before… this felt-- cold...

”Sir…?” one of the guards queried, shakily.

”Just strap him back down and get him to the barracks… we’ve wasted enough time with this one,” the lead officer barked back.

The young guard had no intention of disobeying a direct order. Especially in front of the other soldiers. He took a hesitant step forward towards Sam’s hunched body, brandishing his baton in his hands with a nervous grip. He reached his other arm out towards his shoulder-- preparing to take whatever measures were necessary to end this right here and now…

But, unfortunately-- that wasn’t up to him.

The darkness had all but consumed Sam’s mind, as figures became shapes became hazy memories, hallucinations, and dreams. All these things blurred together, pairing with the exhaustion, the dehydration and the chemicals. The latter were in control now-- as the waves of Sam’s consciousness ebbed and flowed. He cradled the gauntlet in his hand, feeling its icy vibrations against his bare skin. Was it glowing? Or were these the final depths of his cognizance?

A shadow loomed over him, washing over his field of view as he looked upwards at the cause. The shape shifted-- its edges bending and blending into the background… infinite… borderless.

”Sammy…” a voice rattled, an icy echo in the darkness. It came from above him… or was it below?

”My boy…” The shape began to take form again-- the familiar curve and cadence of his father overwhelming him as the black void pulled him deeper. ”You can’t fix what isn’t broken.” His words sounded hollow, but not empty. Tears streamed down Sam’s face as he looked up at the vacant outline of a man who had been lost to him. Lost, but not forgotten. He reached up-- straining his fingers out towards the haloed visage of his father with all his might… the figure dissipated into a thin mist as the guard passed through him towards Sam. His joy turned to ash in his throat as a tortured scream erupted from his lips.

And hell erupted from his gauntlet...

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

Image

The sound of the birds and the water never got old.

It was a wonderful thing to wake up to in the room she hadn't stopped occupying since coming to live in Axiom so many years prior. During her thirteen years in medical training, she lived on and off there depending on when shifts were taking place in Axiom. She had never really left the small room on the ground floor closest to the creek running through the property on the back end of the grand house, with the burnt orange walls and the blue shutter windows. The ivy crawling over the stone walls on the outside swerved to avoid the opening of the window, letting the yellow beam of sunlight shine through directly onto the walls. Astrid opened her eyes slowly while she listened to the echoey sound of the birds and the moving water. It was a relief to hear anything that sounded like life; a few weeks on the frontier made some people very cynical, indeed.

She hated to admit that she did miss her pillows and blankets. Vintage Egyptian cotton wasn't easy to come by, but there was a reason why it was all the rage in the old world. On the wasteland, her Triage bunk was a metal platform with a piece of cheap plastic-wrapped foam serving as a mattress and a thin cotton blanket during the sweltering summer or a thicker comforter in the winter; all year long her room in Axiom Beau Monde was the perfect temperature. There was rarely ever discomfort associated with sleep. She supposed it was one way that she could possibly know what a decent night's rest was supposed to feel like when trying to relate to a patient.

She sighed as she stretched her arms above her head, eyeing the carved headboard behind her featuring an engraving of a bunny in a rather primitive style. It had likely been thrown together or given to Edward and Beatrice in the haste during which they sought to provide a home for who at the time had been their dying nine-year old niece; despite the fact that perhaps the rabbit was more cut out for a child, she'd always liked staring up at the somewhat friendly creation while waiting for her eyes to close. There was something calmly cheerful about it, and the familiarity was quite soothing. The matching foot of the bed lay several inches away from Astrid's sore bare feet. She wrinkled her nose at the sight of them and made a mental note to be sure to ask for a soak in the next few days.

Then the events of the previous day flashed through her barely-awake mind, replaying with a sudden and great impact as she recalled everything leading up to nearly falling asleep in her library. Samuel. I need to talk to Samuel.

The door knocked rapidly. "Astrid? I wondered if perhaps you might be awake."

Astrid sat up quickly and smoothed out the long length of her light green crepe-cotton nightgown. "Good morning, Mona," she called out toward the door as she flipped a fluffy white comforter off of herself and lifted her feet from her bed and scooped them diagonally down to the floor. She shoved her tired feet into a set of slippers and unhooked a robe from a peg off of the wall within reach. "Come on inside."

Mona opened the door narrowly and slid in, a little more agile than the lines on her face or her carefully coiffed gray updo would have let on. She offered a sweet smile to the younger woman as she opened her arms for a swift embrace after Astrid tied the robe's sash around her waist. "I'm so sorry I wasn't around last night when you arrived," she started with a remorseful tone. "I went to bed early last night in order to prepare to greet you today. I let the staff have one more night of fun after they prepared the house for your arrival." She winked. "It was fun to watch them scramble when I told them that their festivities could be thrown off by any laziness."

Astrid rolled her eyes and smiled. "I'm sure the place was just fine," she laughed as she hugged the old woman tightly. Her early childhood memories were long-wiped by that traumatic brain injury she'd arrived in Axiom with; Mona was part of some of the first memories she could recall, playing the part of a vigilant and dedicated nurse who only left her side to secure something to help with the poor child's pain. She and Gingham used to sneak an occasional cup of ice cream to her much to her aunt and uncle's very specific instructions not to do so while she was healing. Mona was cut out to be in charge of the Claret home—she was a good soul and very sweet when it came down to it, but if there was one thing she did not like, it was a chore left undone. Or a task left unfinished. Or a problem left unresolved. Or needs that weren't being met; Mona did have a terrific heart and indeed genuinely cared about those who were beneath her in the household hierarchy. Most heads of household staff lacked the level of understanding that Mona exhibited daily, and over and over again. Still… it didn't mean that Mona didn't get the occasional enjoyment from lighting a fire under the staff's feet every once in a while in good humor. Astrid smirked a little as she let Mona go. "You're not nearly as bad as you try to make yourself seem… and speaking of your terrible cruelty in disallowing anyone to have any fun at all," her eyes glittered to reflect her playful sarcasm, "do we have guests that staff would like to have stay in the house? It's just that as I've been gone, I just can't quite remember."

Mona shook her head. "No," she said simply, "the staff appreciated your generous offer of allowing their families to stay for River Days. But this year it seems like it was not needed. But just as last year the offer was helpful, perhaps next year might be. It might be a good idea to extend the offer then, as well."

"Thank you, Mona. I will." Mona was often giving unsolicited advice, but more often than not it was something worth listening to. She knew how to keep the staff happy. Astrid tilted her head and gestured her thumb toward the open window. "It's a beautiful day. Any idea what it's calling for?"

"Oh, it's beautiful now, but it's seven o'clock and already seventy degrees," Mona scoffed as she traipsed over to a small door, opening it to reveal a great closet. "You'll want to keep it light, if you're planning on going outdoors. What is on your agenda today, my dear?"

"Oh. I'm making some house calls here in Beau Monde."

Mona furrowed her eyebrows consternatedly at the young woman from her spot by the door. "You just returned from 20 days on the… the wasteland." Astrid could see the old woman visibly bite her tongue in adding further color onto her statement. She'd been very displeased, even flat-out heartbroken, when Astrid had opted to go work Triage, far preferring her to stay safe within the confines of Beau Monde Axiom at all times. "You need to rest. I don't think you should be working today."

Astrid shook her head and smiled, waving her hands in the air unconcernedly. "No, no, I'm not going to Triage," she insisted in a nonchalant tone. "I'm going to check on how things have been going with the families while I was gone."

Mona's expression perked up, but only slightly. "Well, that's still hard work," she cooed a little, "since… don't you have twelve families right now?"

"Yes, I do, if you're only counting pre-natal," Astrid said as she stood in front of the ornately-framed oval mirror affixed atop a handcrafted mirror-paneled vanity stand. She plucked a long stick from a cup on its surface and pulled her hair up, then drew it together with the item. "But there were some messages left for me when I got back. For some people, three weeks is too long a time to not see their doctor."

Mona had disappeared into the walk-in closet. "It would be more helpful if you weren't gone those three weeks to begin with," she called out as though she had not actually been batting this plea for her to stay in Axiom Beau Monde around in her head for the past several days. Each time she returned, there was a new, even more complex reason why Astrid's service with Triage ought to wind down. "Babies born while you're gone? It's a shame. You're so good with them."

"All my clients know and understand that from the very beginning," Astrid reassured her. "We've all talked about how important it is to do our part for those who need our help the most outside of Beau Monde." She felt her heart tug a little. She really did mean it. "They don't mind one of our midwives coming to help. They know I'll be back and ready to practice in just days. Everyone has been so patient."

"And your demand is sharp on the rise," Mona observed tacitly, as though Astrid hadn't even said anything. It would have sounded more impactful and hard-hitting had her voice not been muffled by the wall and partly-closed door. "Pretty soon people aren't going to think you're available as often as you should be, and you're going to have to make a choice."

Astrid was glad Mona was in the other room. She felt her face turn red. Of course she knew that that would be the case. As her name and demand was on the rise for being one of the best for pre-natal physicians and pediatricians in western Gaia, she knew that her clients would demand more of her time and even emotional investment, especially as the years went on. But during the first two years of practice, despite the massive success, she still didn't feel as though she was using her talents. While the wasteland work did not feature the gratitude and warmth that working in Beau Monde did, it did feature another kind of satisfaction at the end of the day… some other kind of fulfillment, as though she'd done work for those who really needed her help on a deeper level. Cultivating relationships in Beau Monde at all levels, even going so far as to delivering the last four of the Axiom Chief's grandchildren and for even more of the most elite of Beau Monde society's babies, was not difficult for her to do in the slightest. Her practice thrived and attracted the best midwives and nurses in the whole city, and she even was in the midst of contemplating bringing a partner on board. Maybe even from another city. All families were willing to pay handsomely enough for the service to justify that. But one thing was for sure—she'd never encountered the need to deliver a baby on the wasteland. There seemed to be so many more drastic and terrible things that took place for no reason on the frontier that needed her help.

Mona exited the closet, holding a white light cotton jumpsuit out for Astrid to inspect. "That's just my opinion," she qualified with a great sigh. "You've always chosen well and I know you'll do what's best for all of us. It's not like you're not paid well to go pull those helpless souls out of ditches or patch up their scratches."

"It's a lot more than that," the doctor carefully pushed back a little, with a smile plastering across her face calmly. "But thank you. You know I'll make sure all of you are cared for." She held her smile for a few more seconds, then took a breath as she nodded. "Thank you, Mona."

"We've got quiche with pancetta, spinach, and goat's cheese coming out of the oven shortly," the housekeeper brought up with a newly widened smile. "Everything from the garden. Pancetta from the hogs, cheese from the goats. Eggs from the henhouse."

The tantalizing waft coursing into the bedroom from one of the air vents connected loosely to the kitchen was enough to motivate Astrid to quickly change into the white cotton uniform, roll the sleeves up to just below her elbow on her forearm, and check her face quickly in the mirror. After a few minor adjustments and a final nod from Mona, the two exited the bedroom quickly and tread down a long straight hallway leading to a great atrium through a barely noticeable door except to those who'd lived in the home.

Image

That had always been one of Astrid's favorite features—the "secret" door that blended into the decor. The floors were a light yellow wood paneling with occasional patterning of white marble. Otherwise the rest of the room was rosy-toned, Old Baroque-style ornamentation adorning every spot where a wall intersected another wall, with wainscoting to match. A sweeping staircase loomed upwards, carved from the same warm-toned tree, and opened up into a greater floor—including the dining room.

"Good morning, Astrid!"

Image

A few voices chorused together as chairs and benches backed up noisily for those gathered to rise for who they considered to be the lady of the house. There were ten altogether; Mona and Gingham were by far the ones who'd been there the longest. There was one driver/pilot, Victor, along with two security guard, Kenneth and Lwelleyn; three house/gardening staff in Katie, Yvette, and Lonnie, and Francine, the cook, waved from their spots at the end of the long table. Astrid had made it a rule that unless custom absolutely mandated she couldn't, that she eat meals with the staff. Edward and Beatrice had done it often, sure, but even then, she far preferred it to eating alone.

Besides, she rather liked them all.

Astrid smiled. "Happy River Days," she answered gently as she stepped over to Gingham to give his hand a squeeze and a polite kiss on the cheek. He wasn't a very tall man to begin with, but his years-long progression into posture where he looked as though he were permanently leaning forward had brought his stature down significantly more than when she'd first met him. "I didn't anticipate leaving a day early. I didn't mean to cut off your fun."

"No, I don't think you cut off anyone's fun," Lwelleyn snickered from behind Victor, who wore a pair of completely black sunglasses to protect against the flood of light coming from the large bay windows of the second floor.

"I… yeah, sorry, I had a little too much fun last night," the outed driver minced irritably. It was clear that he was quite out of it.

"Take the day to rest," Astrid assured him quickly as she walked to the table. Kenneth pulled a seat back for the doctor to settle ahead of, then pushed it in to let her sit. The others instantly joined at the table as the quiche, bowls of fruit salad, a few loaves of bread, and carafes of coffee and orange juice suddenly made its way around the table community-style.

Astrid was happy that the conversation turned from those who obviously had hangovers to hearing about some of the festivities from the previous night. The sound of laughter and forks digging upon plates, the provision of second helpings (breakfast was meant to be enjoyed, as lunch was never a heavy or extravagant meal in the Claret home unless guests were concerned), the sound of chairs scuffling on the floor of the beautifully-decorated dining room—all were familiar, calm, and friendly chatty sounds setting the stage for a normal morning in the Claret home.

At twenty past nine the plates were cleared and Mona began to dole out chores to the appropriate staff. While she did, Astrid quietly stepped back down the hallway back to her bedroom to grab a small bag to sling carefully over her shoulder, then pulled the shutters to a close and latched the lock securely before striding back down the hallway to dash for the front door.

Image

Astrid was in a hurry—it was almost half past nine. No time to waste. Her boots padded along the tree-shaded cobblestone path quickly as she raced for the front gate. The sleepy wisps of the thick leaves overhead contrasted sharply with the rush of thoughts silently whirling around in Astrid's head as she moved forward.

"Wait!" Mona's voice rang out over the path. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?!"

Astrid whirled around to meet the housekeeper's eyes, a little astonishment in her eyes. Shoot. Had she caught on? "What—what do you mean? I'm off to the practice!"

"No, you're not."

Remain calm. "Of course I am."

"Not without this." Mona lifted Astrid's familiar, worn navy-blue leather knapsack and held it up in the air. "You never go very far without this." She lowered the bag and hustled down the couple of steps from the porch and onto the pathway ahead, gently placing the bag in a nearly-breathless Astrid's hands. "Thought I'd save you the second trip back in the house this time."

Astrid laughed while she let out a tense breath internally. "I'd tie my own shoes together if it weren't for you," she offered easily through a genuine laugh, powered in part by the feeling of relief as she turned on her heels and finally left for good.

Once out of the iron gate and out of sight of the old world European-style outer façade of the home as it faced the street, Astrid picked up speed. She had to get there by quarter until ten. While it would have been easier to hop onto the boat with Victor behind the wheel, she was secretly glad he was hungover; he couldn't know where she was going.

Image

The streets were quiet this early following a busy night of festivities during River Days. The gaslight-style flame lamps on the carefully-crafted stone streets were in the final stages of being manually put out by the occasional lampman, sleepily loping from post to post with long poles to snuff out any remaining light. In ten hours, the process of lighting the same devices would start all over again. She spent a few miles rushing past cafes preparing to open, grocery stands beginning to open their wares, and water taxis begin to churn along with their smokeless motors in the canal on her right. At one juncture she made a left-hand turn and the water disappeared as she progressed through a narrow alleyway, which then opened up into a grand plaza. In moments she was finished traversing it. The only sound for a long time had been the sound of the hard soles on the bottom of her boots, but by the time she reached the train tunnel check-in station at forty-three after ten, the sound had picked up to a considerable buzz of Beau Monde Axiom finally stretching its arms rather sleepily.

The attendant in the booth waved Astrid into the entryway and down into the transit tunnel without so much as a fuss. She took this route to work sometimes and it must not have been too difficult for someone to think that she was merely moving along on her own schedule. That wasn't difficult at all; Beau Monde had to have a pre-approved permit from the City to leave the walls, and she simply did not have one today. In fact, she should have not been trying to leave at all, but she'd cross that bridge when she'd get there. If the plan worked, then she'd have her bases covered with a simple little rule.

Within moments, the underground tram came to a stop just off of a platform. Astrid took a seat and hugged her back against her chest as she stared ahead at the back of the wooden bench in front of her after taking a seat quickly. She chewed the inside of her cheek as she contemplated the situation. River Days Fights always had a medical team on the ground, up close to the action, in case anything were to tragically go wrong or to otherwise help clear the pits of survivors. Typically emergency services personnel more along the lines of Ike and Eddie staffed these endeavors, but so did the occasional trauma physician, just like her. She smiled a little as she gently turned the badge on her uniform to feature a red card—the flagship color for trauma physicians.

The tram stopped quickly. She sprang to her feet and exited, rushing up the stairs and out into the echoey protected marble-floored hub of the Beau Monde tram station to the greater train stop just outside of the walls of the city. The contrast between the well-fortified station and the ramshackle outside was painfully obvious. Beau Monde could continue to take a sheltered bridge to their own tram stand, but to get to the River Days Fights, one had to head directly to the Stadium. As she walked out of the doors and down the stone steps and out onto the wood-planked boardwalk, she contemplated the mark on Samuel Huxley's arm once again. She had to have answers. Getting a Wastelander out from under the shadow of misery and into safety would be tantamount; it was sad enough knowing that he was in trouble with some kind of fringe megalomaniacs. She knew that roving groups of bandits or thieves would terrorize settlements—even raze them in rare cases—but to put chains on someone's wrists? She'd not encountered that until yesterday.

BIFF!

"Watch where you're going!" a coarse voice croaked as it sped away as Astrid felt the shoulder of a much larger man purposefully blunt against hers, knocking her flat out on her stomach on the boardwalk. At least the passersby simply chose to walk around her as she pulled herself up slowly, partly still surprised by the sudden knock. She feathered a couple wisps of wooden flakes from the flooring out of her palms, and cringed and sucked in a bit of air. A good splinter was lodged right in her palm, and there really wasn't enough space or time to take care of it in the walkway, even though she had equipment in the bag.

Astrid shrugged and winced a little as she moved ahead. She'd figure it out once she arrived, she decided, as she continued her trek toward the Stadium's medical entrance. She was waved in enthusiastically thanks to the red card over her right collarbone.

The pseudo-clinic was large, with low ceilings, painted bleach-white with a smell to match and bustled to the brim with lots of rushing personnel. The Fights had clearly started already, as there were a series of medical curtains separating beds; at the ends Astrid could see pairs of bare feet sticking out, limply positioned in a state of medicated rest. At the end of one or two beds were one foot instead of the customary two. It made Astrid's stomach turn.

"SHIFT'S UP IN FIVE!" came a disembodied voice yelling from one side of the room, slicing into the already-chaotic environment. Astrid followed it; clearly, it was where she wanted to be. "Eleven thirty, don't miss it! And if you're not signed up for a shift, do it now or LEAVE!"

It seemed natural to glance at the great whiteboard not far from the exit toward the combat staging. The 11:30 shift was indeed about to start soon. On the left-hand side of the board featured EMT/physicians' names, and on the right—those in the ring. Those names featured… DeLaurentiis. Jones. Rachby. Leonit. And more… and more… She scrolled down until she finally found Huxley, written in a different color marker, with the shine still fresh on it. His name was a very, very recent addition… and he would be in on the 1:30 shift.

Astrid took a breath and smiled before she was once again reminded of the wooden chip lodged into her palm. She figured it just might be a good idea to go get this taken care of now, and find a way to keep busy and help for the next two hours.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

Image

"What are you doing, handing me isopropyl alcohol??"

"I'm sorry, I--"

"What the fuck kind of operation is this, anyway??"

Even the burly man stretched out on the table balked at the woman in the bloody jumpsuit after he'd been screaming at the top of his lungs seconds before. A pair of brown eyes burned orange from beneath a pair of angry eyebrows. She didn't even care that she'd caused a scene behind the curtain; there appeared to be many a ruckus in the crowded, miserably hot, and sweltering subterranean concrete box of a clinic.

"Mistakes are for medical school!" Astrid blew out angrily. She snatched the glass bottle from the assistant's hands and held it up so that she could read it.

"I mean, I thought it was--"

"What, you don't know that injecting this can permanently damage your patient?!" Astrid zapped quickly. No one contested her. "If this man depends on fighting for a living, you're sending him home screwed and it'll be my fault. Not yours, even though you handed me the damn bottle, but it doesn't work that way, so get the hell out of here and go read your textbooks and come back when you're ready to nurse!"

Astrid whirled around hurriedly, completely oblivious to the assistant who stood with her jaw dropped. She held up four fingers with her right hand and pointed at a tall, bony older woman nearby instead. As if understanding preternaturally, she grabbed four sterile syringes off of a nearby platter and cocked her head at a bottle next to it. "Bupivacaine HCI?"

"You know it," the doctor burst back as she scrambled back to the side of the fighter with the mangled leg. The white splinters of bone stretching out from his thigh turned Astrid's stomach if she looked at it for too long. She plucked a marker from her pocket and began to gently dab a series of dots around the injury. The man let out a shriek that quickly turned into a growl. Astrid lifted the pen up immediately and turned her head to look directly into the man's panicked, scared eyes. "I know. It hurts. It's awful. I've had my bones broken like this before and what I needed was anesthesia, which you're getting right now," she rattled off quickly, but firmly. "We're going to administer a field block on you before surgery."

"I know how to do a field block!" the shunned nurse piped up squeakily as the taller one began to load the syringes with the amide.

"You know how to paralyze a man who uses his fists for a living," Astrid grumbled back without making eye contact. In typical situations she would have taken painstaking measures to slow down and maybe find a way to teach someone how to right a wrong. Mentorship was invaluable, of course… But when push came to shove, mistakes were absolutely not acceptable by the time someone ended up on an operating table. She lifted the pen after making her tenth mark, and offered a quick nod to the man on the table. She lowered her voice considerably. "You're about to get ten injections, but we're going to break it up into two's, all right?" He nodded, and she offered him a grimy hand. "You got this?" He returned the smile weakly before clapping his massive hand into hers. She gave it a squeeze before leaning back away from him and looking to the nurse holding the four syringes, and opened her mouth to say something.

"I'll get your medical license revoked!" the voice interrupted threateningly.

Astrid had no patience for anyone who made threats, especially ones she knew they couldn't follow up on. She spun around and pointed her finger at the nurse. "OUT!" she parched out sharply before stepping deliberatively toward a nearby sink. She yanked her dirty sleeves up her arms and pumped a flow of bubbly pink foam in her hands after jerking a lever to run water, then scrubbed and dug her fingernails into her forearms, wrists, and palms, making sure to get between her fingers even as she stared menacingly at the nurse. She felt sick to her stomach, but she knew that she could not afford to look weak in front of a patient. She had to have his confidence and trust. Having a nurse on staff who could be careless enough to make a second irreversible, or even deadly, mistake was a risk that no good doctor should be willing to take. By the time Astrid plucked up a clean towel to quickly pat her arms dry, the nurse had slunk away from the curtain.

"Shall we?" Astrid spoke up in a far calmer tone of voice, without skipping a beat. The other nurse was ready with two syringes for the far shorter doctor. She accepted them and balanced them in her small fingers before angling the sharp needly points together above one of the dots closest to her. The nurse mimicked the demonstration and positioned her needles similarly. The fighter snapped his eyes shut and swiveled his jaw to look away. I'm sorry.

He let out a loud scream as the two women worked to stick the plungers down as quickly as possible after Astrid nodded permission to dig the points into his muscle. The small doctor gasped as he must have reflexively lugged out a fist to swipe toward her head, and ducked in place just in time. "Restraints!"

On cue, about six larger handlers burled into the curtain's space and rushed to take the man by the shoulders and pin him down on the gurney. Astrid frowned deeply as one worked to push down the injured leg in an attempt to get the man to hold still. He let out another shout, but the leg did finally come to a shaky rest.

"Ready?" This nurse was a gem. Four more syringes ready.

The process was repeated not just once, but four more times, with an addition of a couple jabs of xylocaine to help numb the affected area as quickly as possible. Judging from the man's size, she knew that the extra introduction into his system wouldn't put him at serious risk.

"I'm sorry," she finally said aloud after the final injection was administered. Two of the handlers moved away immediately, while the others carefully broke their grip, relinquishing the poor man when they were confident that he was no longer a threat to the staff, or to himself. She took one of his hands and half-sat on the edge of the gurney next to him. "The stuff I just gave you is going to kick in fast. The block is going to last for a few hours, just enough for the surgery to wrap up. It should make it easier for the surgeon."

"You're not doing the surgery?"

Astrid paused, and shook her head. "No. You need an orthopedic surgeon who can fix your bones. I'm not qualified for that."

The man slumped back in his chair, a little more relaxed. "Well… thank you for not chopping my leg off like those other bastards."

Astrid managed a smile and opened her mouth to respond, but a bell trilled over the loudspeaker and immediately the aforementioned surgeon shuffled in, along with staff to relieve all who'd been working together for the preceding hours. A quick explanation covered the short and sweet transition, and Astrid was on her way out of the curtain to wade through the rest of the foot traffic and shuffled herself into a surprisingly unoccupied space carved out near the hallway leading to the pits. A sort of designated break room that was pointed out to her as an afterthought as she was led back through the clinic earlier. She reached to snag up a glass cup from a cupboard above a spigot labeled "Potable H2O" and let a flood of water wash over and into it, and gulped it down quickly before refilling it. She blinked vacantly at the floor, stunned by the heavy pace of the last hour and a half. Hopefully of all of this would bring her closer to asking the patient from yesterday about those origins inked so plainly upon his arm. She almost wished in that moment that she hadn't seen it; the injuries inside the clinic were gruesome, and who knew what awaited her at the pits.

"Come on. Finish your water and hurry up. We're on shift together again."

Astrid looked up tiredly at the tall, spindly nurse in the doorway, the same one who'd stepped up to help her administer the field block. Her pale skin made her look washed out against her frizzy raven-black hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail sticking out from the back of her head. She looked so at-home in the middle of the fracas, and away from it, too. "Right," the doctor answered quickly as she hauled herself to her feet.

The nurse held up a hand. "Wait for it."

After a few beats, a massive *THUD!* boomed out from the metal wall just feet away from them. The wall itself wavered threateningly, like a trickle of rain on a pond reverberating out in concentric circles into the rest of the water. Astrid yelped and jumped in uncharacteristic surprise, dropping her cup of water and spilling its contents on the floor. Thankfully, the glass didn't shatter.

The nurse was unfazed. "Out there's a spot where some of the big fighters love to throw some of the smaller fighters." She paused as she quicker her head and splayed a bony finger toward where the noise had emerged. "From the sound of it, that must have been about… oh… two-hundred fifty pounds?"

Astrid's face drained of color as she froze in place to contemplate those words. 'Smaller fighter'?

The nurse rolled her eyes. "I thought you might be new," she floated cheerlessly, beckoning Astrid to follow her. She glanced briefly at the nametag opposite hers. "Dr. Claret? Castellano. Stick with me and let's get settled in. This match is supposed to get weird, someone said..."

Astrid wrinkled her face curiously as she scampered to keep up with the other woman. "What do you mean by 'weird'?"

Castellano whirled back around just before the door that served as the exit to the hallway leading to the fenced-in observation zone for trauma doctors and nurses. She seemed eager to explain the circumstances to the younger doctor. "Supposedly one of them's new, a last-minute addition." She paused briefly. "At least, that's what they just told me when I picked up my assignment. This fight's special."

Astrid's ears burned. "What's so special about it?"

"This one's full of modified fighters. Not just normal ones. That new guy supposedly caused a big to-do at the hospital in Mid-Axiom last night."

Astrid gulped. Accident at the trauma center?

A high-pitched signal chirped out over a set of loudspeakers in the hallway, muffled by the door. The nurse nicked her head toward the sound and elbowed the door open. "Come on. Let's go. They're clearing the zone now, and it's our best chance to slip in while we relieve who's on duty."

"OUT OF THE WAY!"

Castellano shuffled in the opposite direction and knocked Astrid backwards off of her feet momentarily, allowing her a glimpse of what looked like a bruised mass of flesh whimpering as it wheeled by quickly on a gurney. Another quick wheel-by followed another.

Only three survivors?

As if on cue, the nurse again turned to face Astrid. "They take the others out the other entrance," she submitted airily, as though this was quite common, before ducking down the dark, noisy, echoey corridor filled with the sounds of distant shouts that up close must have been dire barking orders. In the background was the loud, predictably-musical thrum of the haphazardly-constructed generators that provided power to the temporary facility. As Castellano led Astrid down the hallway the sound turned into a heavy vibration of pounding feet and wood along with the shouts and cries of a very, very large crowd. Finally, they raised their hands at the sudden onset of the blindingly bright afternoon pouring into the dark hallway from an opening door about twenty feet from where they paced.

"Here to join in on the fun!" the nurse called out, cupping a bone-thin hand against an angular chin to amplify her voice as the doors opened wider.

"After you, ladies," a fatigued but chipper voice managed politely, in what sounded almost like an English accent. A trauma doctor—out of town, from the look of his boots, and certainly not belonging to the Axiom Triage team—wiped the back of a sleeve tiredly across his forehead. In an instant he felt the icky sensation trail across his forehead, up over his hairline and even onto his upper right temple. "Damn. Smeared blood on my face again, didn't I?"

Astrid had a sense of humor. She certainly engaged it when talking to her patients, from either of her roles as a doctor, and didn't mind engaging in a comment befit as gallows humor for quite some time. However, she lacked the experience to still yet find these things funny in this particular setting where she didn't quite know what would happen next.

"He comes here every year from out of town. One of the best you'll ever meet. Dr. Claret's a newbie around here," Castellano piped up dryly yet helpfully.

"Claret. Is that so?"

Astrid nodded, cracking the corner of her moth with a careful smile. "That's right."

"Any relation at all to Edward and Beatrice?"

She held the expression still on her face. Not everyone was always enamored with the decisions that Uncle Edward had made. "I'm their niece."

He smiled and extended his hand. "Heavens. My brother is Dr. Greatsdale. Lawrence Greatsdale."

Astrid's face broke out into a joyful smile, and for a moment she forgot about the reason she was even there. "Oh, wow!" she sputtered enthusiastically as she grasped his hand, "your brother saved my life! He's the reason I wanted to become a doctor, to begin with!"

"It's so good to finally meet you in person, even at such short moment's notice in passing," he professed genuinely. "Frederick Greatsdale. I'm Lawrence's twin, you know."

"Wanna schedule a coffee out in advance? We've got forty-five seconds to hustle, Doctors," Castellano's voice interrupted emphatically as she swapped places with a nurse from the prior shift.

"We'll see each other again soon again, hopefully," Astrid returned warmly once she returned her eyes back to Frederick.

He nodded and smiled politely. "At your service, Dr. Claret." He turned around purposefully and began to head down the hallway to sign out.

"Dr. Claret?!"

Astrid finally snapped to the sound of Castellano's voice and hustled through the door. The sounds of the crowd outdoors blasted its own welcome to her as she huddled back behind a multi-layered curtain of reinforced meshed wire inside of what looked like an old shipment container fused against the tunnel from which they'd traveled through. At appropriately-called intervals, armed Axiom guards would raise the heavy gate framing the wire, allowing doctors, nurses, and other responders to head out onto the field to collect disqualified fighters who'd managed to survive until the next designated time to clear the combat zone. Wheeled stretchers with freshly-laid sheets were all stacked along the back wall, as were several labeled cabinets of various field anesthetics and painkillers—no doubt meant to keep pain at bay during the bumpy transit through that tunnel to the chaotic curtained treatment stalls containing very, very battered fighters. The purpose of the open view was to allow medical staff on duty to observe injuries in order to understand how to treat them correctly.

As it turned out, Astrid was the only doctor on duty. She balked her eyes at the grimy, dirt-covered floor as her stomach flipped. Finally, she took a breath and let her eyes watch the worn grounds.

The sooner it was over, the better.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley

0.00 INK

Image



###SPLASH###


Sam was rudely rattled awake by the cold sensation of a couple gallons worth of water, drenching his face and body. He sprung up on the chipped wooden bench that had been his sanctuary for the night and wiped his face clean with his hands, blinking the water away as-- once again-- he succumbed to his senses. However many concussions he had endured in this trying week meant nothing apparently, much like the days themselves-- roaming under the hot Sun with no destination and no desire. The chaingang probably saved his life, as a matter of fact. At least they were steering him in a direction. Axiom would prove to be either the perfect hiding place or just another box.

“Wakey, wakey, ya punk!” a raspy voice sung out melodically from somewhere nearby. Cackling laughter paraded away as Sam heard the bucket clatter on the ground as it was dropped beside him. Other shapes and figures moved around behind-- his eyes clearing to make out the large stone courtyard and prison area they were being detained in. Pieces of straw and stone littered the cluttered dirt floor-- various coves carved into the rock siding designating living cells and quarters for the other fighters. They too milled about-- many exercising or attending to their equipment, biding their time until the impending event. A pair of equally sized, bronze-skinned twins sparred off to Sam’s right with wooden blades, thrusting and parrying back and forth like they had been doing so their whole lives. The hollow clattering echoed around the stone cavern amongst the other hubbub. Isolated beams shone through grated spots in the ceiling, illuminating the grounds with their only source of light as the Sun lingered high above. Sam took it all in, wondering now if he was even in Axiom anymore. This all seemed very different from where he had been before. Wasn’t he in a doctor’s office a second ago? His mind spun in circles, all the sudden voices around him colliding and weaving in and out of his senses.

”Who’s the rotten egg? He wasn’t here yesterday...” a different voice called out from his left. No, wait-- his right. Right?

”You didn’t hear about this?” another voice joined in, ”Mr. Fister here caused quite a ruckus during his eval. Shut down four hospital wings.”

”What? He make all the nurses faint or sumthin’? Look at dat bone structure. Yeesh.”

”Sheeeit. You wanna try and kiss him while he’s still half-out? Fuckin’ fruitcake.”

Sam could hear the two wrestling and ribbing each other as others laughed and jeered from all over. It reminded him of his early days with the Syndicate, when he was much much younger. He was the butt of all the jokes, everybody’s favorite plaything-- batted around like a ball… teased, tested, and tortured. It was all too familiar…

But it felt like home.

The murmur of the crowd died down suddenly as a larger figure pushed his way through the crowd, intrigued by the large commotion. Several guards lingered by the gates, also curious as to what had drawn so much attention, should they have to intervene. The broad-shouldered man crossed over to where Sam rested, and crouched down in front of him-- his face suddenly visible amongst all the other moving shapes. What he thought he saw, must have surely been a hallucination though-- for his eyes fell upon only half of a man. The other half… well--

”Welcome to the Mod Squad,” the man gestured, offering his own metal hand and smiling with what parts of his face weren’t covered by steel plating. A ruby red eye rested where his old one had been, moving in sequence with the other as it looked Sam up and down. He took him by the hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, where he suddenly realized just how tall the man really was. ”Looks like you showed up just in time for the festivities,” he continued, talking to Sam like he was the only one in the room. The others had already began to peel off, distracted by themselves. ”From what I’ve heard about your trip in, I thought you could probably use the extra sleep. There ain’t gonna be time for any orientation...”

Sam had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Orientation for what? Did they put him in some kind of school or something? Nothing had made any sense since arriving to the city. First he was being treated, then transferred. They knew his name… what else could they have found out about him? The Syndicate’s reach was unparalleled. It wouldn’t be long until they thought to check Axiom. And they likely already had some influence in the city. That was the way they thought.

”They call me Achilles,” he continued, leading Sam away from all the noise behind them. ”I won’t explain why, because it’s pretty obvious. Except for the part about the heel. They haven’t found my heel yet and they won’t.”

The guy had a pretty thick swagger as he went on. Men like him had already found their confidence because they could back it up. He seemed like the kind of person who was able to deliver-- and the abundance of respect was evident in the others, seeing how they reacted when he walked by them… the silent interactions and exchanges. Sam remembered having spent much of his time doing the same in his earlier years under the banner of the Syndicate. Figuring out which men had power by how they interacted with others. The men who enjoyed their power a little too much were the easiest to pick out. Entitled and empowered, but the easiest to bring down because of their reliance on those who did the work for them. Pyramids like that began at the bottom, much like everything else in this world. And even Sam…

Achilles led him into one of the side alcoves and motioned for him to sit down at the bench opposite him as he took his own seat. Looking at him straight on now, Sam was able to see his actual frame-- massive in stature and thick with muscle. Combined with the metal supplements, he truly looked like a force to be reckoned with. No wonder he ran this place. His eyes lingered outside at some of the other men as they ran through rigorous routines and exercises. The place was buzzing with activity… as if they were preparing for something. Crowd noise ebbed and flowed in the background, but he couldn’t make out which way. It seemed to be everywhere. The fights must been well underway-- the Sun at its highest point in the sky.

Achilles squinted against it. ”I’ve been in this place for over five years…” He began, slowly… his eyes unflinching. ”I’ve seen men come and go… some even on their own terms. I’ve seen men with thousands of people in the palm of their hands in one instant, killed in the next. I’ve seen courage, and bravery, and cowardice… I’ve seen betrayal… all the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition…” He finally turned his attention back to Sam, looking him straight on in all his seriousness-- faint glints from the Sun reflecting from his metal features. ”But I’ve never once seen them throw a man into the pit on game day!”

From the depths of his belly erupted a hearty laugh, bouncing off the cavernous walls around them. Sam raised an eyebrow at the paradox of a man in front of him-- a self-proclaimed hero with the most confusingly light-going disposition for someone who had supposedly seen ‘all of the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition’. The laughter continued as Achilles wiped his one watery eye clean, the tear duct apparently still fully functional.

”You must have given them quite the show yesterday! I’d have killed to see Sarge’s face, that fuckin’ prick.” He laughed again, slapping his leg in hysterics and clapping his hands. ”I already like you,” he exclaimed vigorously. Sam now noticed that his voice had the faintest hint of some Spanish accent, both fluid and sharp at the same time. ”If they thought it was this important to fast-track you here, then you may be of some use to us. As it seems, we have something in common...” he mentioned, gesturing at the gauntlet on Sam’s hand with his own metal fixture. Achilles wiggled his fingers, showing off his own equipment’s functionality with a wink. Sam looked down at his, seemingly unimpressive for what it was capable of-- covered in dust and silent. Or maybe just asleep? He flexed his fingers, recalling the sensation back in the examination room when his shock collar had caused some kind of reaction with the gauntlet. It had to have somehow built a charge from that. It was the only way it made sense. Sam brought his hand up to his neck, realizing the stupid collar was still attached. His fingers traced its edges, fumbling blindly for any kind of locking mechanism or something. But no luck. It was then that he saw that Achilles didn’t have one. He must have noticed Sam’s gaze drop too. ”I haven’t had one for years…” he breathed, reminiscing.

”Why...?” Sam asked, the first word he’d spoken that day coming out more raspily than he intended. He cleared his throat, tugging at the collar again as if it would give anymore than it had. Achilles reached to his hip and unclasped a leather flask, tossing it over to Sam who caught it, graciously. He leaned forward, running his hands together as he thought of where to start. There was simply too much to get him up to speed on. Sam took a long pull from the flask, the cool liquid running down his throat like gold. He wiped his mouth dry with the back of his hand, feeling the cold sensation travel all the way into the pit of his empty stomach as it stirred to life.

”This festival is more than just entertainment,” the Spaniard began, breaking Sam’s train of thought. ”This city-- it’s a machine. And we, the people-- are its gears. Part of being here is understanding that. To survive, we must all play our part...” He looked up to Sam for the next part was the most important. ”My part… is here. There is an auction, of sorts, after each game… should you be lucky enough to have an after.”

Sam narrowed his eyes as he processed Achilles’ choice of phrasing. ”Games?” It seemed like an odd way for a city to spend its time, sitting cozy at the end of the world.

Achilles ”Blood sports, mostly. The basest form of entertainment, and the cheapest too. We perform, and they pay. The survivors are patched up and shipped out to the highest bidders. You give them a show your first time out and you won’t have to worry about being here long. Some of these kids last days, others... months. Hope to whatever God you believe in that you aren’t here any longer than that.”

It all seemed so frivolous and needless in Sam’s eyes. But he had been away from cities for a long time now. Maybe things had changed, but he couldn’t see how an entire people could get behind something so barbaric. He took another sip of water… while he still could.

”I know it’s a lot to process, but there is one catch…” Achilles continued. He turned back out towards the courtyard. ”Tell me, what do you see?”

Sam followed his eyes, looking out at the fighters-- training as if for war. Many of them had similar injuries and modified features. One man moved gracefully on a motorized leg, squared off against a taller man with a see-through abdomen. They danced around one another launching flurries of attacks back and forth quite impressively. The bigger of the two thrust his leg out, catching his opponent as he tried to counter around him-- sending him face first into the dusty gravel of the training yard. The victor thrust his weapon into the air, laughing-- and then reached down to help his conquest back to his feet, helping dust him off. There was an obvious camaraderie here amongst the men, a hint to the potential longevity of his stay if the cards didn’t play out in his favor.

”They’re broken…” Sam realized. Just like he was. The epiphany escaped his lips as it came to him, both men staring out into the grounds at the others, everyone just trying to get by the only way they knew how. Wherever they all came from, they were the same now.

”We’re called the ‘Mod Squad’ for a reason,” Achilles jested. ”Most of these men are lucky enough already to still be alive. And many more have already seen worse things than they are about to see in the fighting pit. We’re more prepared than most going in. You look like you’ve seen some of the same.”

That was an understatement. There were clear dangers going into a situation like this, but Sam was no stranger to trying to stay alive. His instincts were real and they were seasoned. ”So I’m a slave to the games until someone buys me?”

Achilles nodded, shrugging his shoulders. ”If that’s how you choose to make sense of it…”

Sam licked his teeth, wondering what he had gotten himself into. Another situation he had to fight his way out of. He hoped to have put that kind of life behind him and headed for better pastures… but once again, he had put himself at another’s mercy. It was high time he broke this cycle.

”Now, for the bad news…”

Sam sighed, inwardly. Bad news? What the hell was the first part then?

Achilles straightened up, holding his metal hand out as if Sam hadn’t seen it yet. ”We don’t come cheap.” Sam looked at his gauntlet again. More of a curse than a blessing, lately. ”I wish you had the luxury of setting your own price, but they aren’t just bidding on us… they bidding on what we can do.” He pointed at his eye, as if to make a point. ”This shit’s got night vision...”

Sam managed to smile in the first time in forever. Embarrassingly enough, his cheeks felt a little tight.

”Point is… we come at a price. I know you’re new here, but the wealthy… the affluent? They exist in this place in a big way. And they’ll be out there today. Catch their eye and you’ll earn your ticket home. All you have to do is give them the show they want.”

He nodded his understanding and braced his hands together, burying his face between. He had been causing a lot of scenes lately, and just when he was prepared to finally keep his head down...

He was about to become the scene.

Image


# # #


Sam leaned near the front gate with some of the other fighters, killing time until they were summoned to the pit. There wasn’t much else to do unless you felt like walking around restlessly, as several of the others had decided to take up. His eyes though fell towards an older man with peppered hair and a patchy beard. A soiled, loose tunic hung around his bony frame, masking how skinny he truly was. His lips moved slightly as he mumbled a silent prayer with his hands clasped tightly together. He wondered if he would have prayed, had he any beliefs left in him. And as Sam looked around, he noticed that much of the rest of the grounds had grown silent too in anticipation. Achilles paced by the front gate like a caged tiger, gripping his hands into fists and relaxing them again like some kind of ritual. Sam wondered how he managed to survive all these games-- and whether his disfigurements were a product of them or just a prop. Raucous cheers poured out into the warm summer air as an audibly massive crowd reacted to something over the walls. The pulsing rhythm of a unified chant thrummed through the very ground they stood on, repeating and repeating.

Achilles stopped in his tracks, grinning as he stretched his arms out to the sky. ”It ends… and it begins.” Sam jumped as the others all sprung to their feet, readying themselves. He followed suit, standing too-- though he wasn’t sure why. Another fighter must have noticed the perplection evident on his face, because he nudged Sam with his arm and nodded towards the arena. ”If they’re chanting, it means death is coming. It’s the last kill.” The one speaking was practically a kid… barely even 18 by the looks of him. But he looked like he had seen all this before.

Footsteps paraded down the thin walkway outside the metal facade, and in one giant motion, everyone gravitated towards the front. Achilles pounded his chest loudly, with large motions-- howling out warcries. Those who were familiar with them fell in unison as the volume grew and grew, filling the whole yard. Bodies rushed by him, eagerly racing towards the gate as the guards arrived outside-- bemused by the group’s energy.

”Is the Squad readyyyy?!” the lead guard bellowed out above the commotion as he fished out a giant keyring. The jingling alone sent the squad into a frenzy as they clamored and pounded and shouted aloud. It almost matched the intensity of the overarching din of the crowd, ever-present and growing with each passing second. Something was happening.

The door switched open and Achilles stepped out first, posting up by the door to see his men out-- like a captain and his team. They filed through in ones and twos, headed down the path alongside the allotment of guards towards the arena. Sam fell in line, following suit like the others as dirt turned into stone and then into metal. The sunlight faded away behind them as the parade of fighters half-jogged onwards towards uncertain circumstances. The guards suddenly grew more heavily armored and armed as they drew nearer to the actual fighting grounds. A large arched double set of doors gave way into a staging area where the room widened. Sets of weaponry, armor, shields, and gadgets were laid out on various tables, waiting to be picked. It seemed as though they would at least be going out swinging.

His eyes wandered immediately towards a large round shield pieced together by chunks of scrap metal. He grabbed it by its handle and examined the weight of it in his hand as others around him scrambled to claim items around him. Satisfied with the feel of it, he hung it loosely by his side-- looking back to see what else may be of use. Much of it appeared to be too cumbersome or restricting, which he knew he would regret later. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the praying man from earlier-- standing along the edge of the wall with empty hands. He showed no signs of interest in the dash and grab taking place in front of him. Perhaps he expected to die either way or-- simply didn’t care.

Sam almost pitied the man. Time was, nothing mattered to him either. The days bled together into years. Wasting away into the wasteland like another piece of dust. The crowd grew louder now-- feeding off of itself, and Sam could feel it in his bones.

One more fight. That’s what he kept telling himself. You’re almost there. Just one more.

And then you can come home…

The setting changes from City of Axiom to Post-Apocalyptic

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret

0.00 INK

Image

Wails and raw shrieks echoed upon themselves in the cavernous subterranean hall leading back to the clinic. The roar of the crowd thrummed a dull, low vibration along the walls and under the feet of Axiom medics as they dragged hobbling or writhing figures back behind the fencing

The match was finally over.

Astrid found herself half-focused on taking vitals for the bludgeoned, broken fighters who had been unlucky in the ring. She half-hoped she'd already have been receiving Samuel Huxley on a wheeled stretcher, grasping the handles herself and rushing him down the lengthy corridor to the clinic and parking him behind a partition curtain to question him.

Instead…

It was a relief that he was still alive. The onslaught of injuries forced many of the orderlies to dash out defenseless on the field, with no called breaks, to clear out the injured and prevent them being used as sacrificial shields. There was so much happening all at once.

"Dr. Claret!" Castellano broke through, "I've got three people behind this one. Gonna need you to work much faster now!"

Astrid straightened up and powered through. Pull it together, Astrid. They're counting on you. "You got it," she zipped back, feeling a tendril of urgency explode into stress as she began to pick up the pace, logging vitals on the big board clipped to one side of the stretchers after checking pulses on bloody wrists, testing coherence, shining flashlights in eyeballs, checking ear canals for blood… one after the other, sending them down the tunnel with hands gripping the bars tightly.

Finally, the crowd cheered. "Three left!" Castellano barked. One after the other flooded to Astrid, and quickly she worked through the examination routines, hoping to learn about what condition Samuel was in, if he even—

"Back to the clinic!" Castellano broke in again, "last of the day. Don't wait around for switchover—these injuries are bad!"

Astrid ran to the locked fence barrier separating the pit from the field medical view pen. There was Samuel. He was covered in black soot from who knew where… a little blood on his clothes, but he was standing upright. Tall. If he was hurt, it certainly didn't show immediately.

"Dr. Claret, we need you to come now!" Castellano burst out again, "a double amputation is needed on this—"

"I SAID THE OTHER ARM WAS PROSTHETIC!"

"Pipe down, Stumpy, it's a fucking double amputation," Castellano shot back at a fighter she'd clearly had prior dealings with, "and are you performing this or not, Dr. Claret? It's time to GO!"

Astrid whipped her head over her shoulder. "I'm coming!" she assured the nurse, but when she went to look back at Samuel in the center of the field… he was gone. She blinked quickly as she forced herself to turn back around. "I'm on my way!"

She dashed out and caught up with the stretcher, running alongside it at a faster pace than Castellano or the other orderly, forcing them to run a little faster. "What's your name, Killer?" she asked him dryly but urgently.

"Goshen," he responded tightly, his teeth gritting until she swore she could hear them scrape together.

"Goshen." Astrid's eyes raced to take in his brutal injuries. "What hit your arms?"

"That son of a bitch with the fucking cuff sliced me!" Goshen retorted.

Astrid blinked. "What happened?" she asked as though offering him sympathy. "What's his deal?"

"They brought him in, new, after he tore up some shit in the city. Motherfucker has some arm!"

"Where did they take him?" Astrid asked as Castellano circled herself around.

"They always take the lucky fucks to the Green Room."

"'Green Room'?"

"The fuck does it matter?"

"Yeah, why DOES it matter, Dr. Claret?" Castellano piped up curiously.

Astrid shook her head. "My first fight, but clearly not yours, Goshen. Let's get you patched up."

"You sound like you're more concerned about—"

"You're in good hands, Stumpy." Astrid glanced to Castellano quickly, nodding a quick acknowledgment as she heard the unexpected compliment. "Now let's get your new arms online. Again."

View All »Arcs

Arcs are bundles of posts that you can organize on your own. They're useful for telling a story that might span long periods of time or space.

There are no arcs in this roleplay.

View All » Create New » Quests

There are no quests in this roleplay.

Events

Soon™.

Game Master Controls

Welcome home, Promethean. Here, you can manage your universe.

Arcs

Arcs are bundles of posts from any location, allowing you to easily capture sub-plots which might be spread out across multiple locations.

Quests

You can create Quests with various rewards, encouraging your players to engage with specific plot lines.

Add Setting » 3 Settings for your players to play in

Settings are the backdrop for the characters in your universe, giving meaning and context to their existence. By creating a number of well-written locations, you can organize your universe into areas and regions.

Navigation

While not required, locations can be organized onto a map. More information soon!

Post-Apocalyptic

Post-Apocalyptic by Fear of a Female Planet

The circumstances under which Earth collapsed and became Gaia are mysterious. Little is known, and what is known is not necessarily agreed upon.

Gaia

Gaia by Fear of a Female Planet

The world in the Post-Earth era is brutal and harsh. In this story "Gaia" is a reference to all land, usually Old America unless otherwise noted. || Post in "Gaia" when out beyond the territories of any major city, or to indicate the wasteland in general.

Collectibles

By creating Collectibles, you can reward your players with unique items that accentuate their character sheets.

Events

You can schedule events for your players to create notifications and schedule times for everyone to plan around.

The Forge

Use your INK to craft new artifacts in Tales of Gaia: An Odyssey. Once created, Items cannot be changed, but they can be bought and sold in the marketplace.

Notable Items

No items have been created yet!

The Market

Buy, sell, and even craft your own items in this universe.

Market Data

Market conditions are unknown. Use caution when trading.

Quick Buy (Items Most Recently Listed for Sale)

Open Stores

View All » Add Character » 3 Characters to follow in this universe

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
Character Portrait: Colonel Tomas Leon

Newest

Character Portrait: Colonel Tomas Leon
Colonel Tomas Leon

Commander, 1st Beau Monde Expeditionary Forces

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
Dr. Astrid Claret

Axiom's Silently Resentful Physician

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
Samuel Huxley

The Syndicate's Most Wanted

Trending

Character Portrait: Colonel Tomas Leon
Colonel Tomas Leon

Commander, 1st Beau Monde Expeditionary Forces

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
Dr. Astrid Claret

Axiom's Silently Resentful Physician

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
Samuel Huxley

The Syndicate's Most Wanted

Most Followed

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
Dr. Astrid Claret

Axiom's Silently Resentful Physician

Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
Samuel Huxley

The Syndicate's Most Wanted

Character Portrait: Colonel Tomas Leon
Colonel Tomas Leon

Commander, 1st Beau Monde Expeditionary Forces


View All » Places

Post-Apocalyptic

Post-Apocalyptic by Fear of a Female Planet

The circumstances under which Earth collapsed and became Gaia are mysterious. Little is known, and what is known is not necessarily agreed upon.

Gaia

Gaia by Fear of a Female Planet

The world in the Post-Earth era is brutal and harsh. In this story "Gaia" is a reference to all land, usually Old America unless otherwise noted. || Post in "Gaia" when out beyond the territories of any major city, or to indicate the wasteland in general.

Post-Apocalyptic

The circumstances under which Earth collapsed and became Gaia are mysterious. Little is known, and what is known is not necessarily agreed upon.

Gaia

The world in the Post-Earth era is brutal and harsh. In this story "Gaia" is a reference to all land, usually Old America unless otherwise noted. || Post in "Gaia" when out beyond the territories of any major city, or to indicate the wasteland in general.

Fullscreen Chat » Create Topic » Tales of Gaia: An Odyssey: Out of Character

Discussions

  • Topics
    Replies
    Views
    Last post

Most recent OOC posts in Tales of Gaia: An Odyssey

There have been no posts in the OOC topic for this roleplay!