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Mostly writing stuff, be warned. I... have nothing else to say.

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Old West was a bit of an oddball. His real name was Henry Weston, but a few of his buddies during the war (he never would refer to exactly which war this was) took to calling him “Old West” after a standoff between him and a group of enemy soldiers. It wasn't particularly clever, especially considering Old West's advanced age (he was fifty when the war ended, whereas most of his comrades were little more than in their early twenties) but either way he seemed to appreciate it enough to use it as a nom de guire. When he moved out to the sleepy vale of Ashtown this was how he introduced himself, and he quickly grew to fit in with most of the local populace. Usually he kept to himself in a small barn/house combo a bit north up the road from the center of town and farmed when his body was up to it and read when it wasn't. It was a simple life, and most of the other townsfolk respected the old man enough to give him his privacy.

Needless to say the vultures weren't exactly qualified as “townsfolk,” and if they had been their pecking at Old West's quickly-rotting flesh would have been quite the scandal throughout town. They perched on his shoulders, pecking at the bloody wounds exposed through gashes in his tunic, three or four of them taking turns with a few others.

Matthew McAffe's son Timothy found him first. He had been walking out early, trying to find worms under the front of The Storehouse's front porch to use as bait for a fishing trip he and a few other boys in town had planned for later that day. As he beheld Old West's body as it hung from the gallows in the center of town his eyes grew wide and he stopped mid-walk, unable to tear his eyes away. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that the fishing trip was going to have to be put off indefinitely.

Like a drunken man he walked backward toward The Storehouse and felt against the wooden storefront until he managed to grasp the chain for the bell. He pulled hard once, sending a clear note that stirred a few of the vultures as they perched on Old West's shoulders.
Muffled cursing came from within the general store as the owner and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Turner respectively, bickered back and forth over who should get the door and whether they should open it at all. Eventually Mrs. Turner was roused from bed, clomping down the stairs to the front door, a robe hastily thrown around her thin figure. She was thirty-six and tried to maintain a facade of malease (as was fashionable with the girls her age in the cities), but in reality there was something soothing about a place like Ashtown, the sensation of being “just like the good old days” that resonated in the old wooden buildings and the dirt roads and the foliage that grew around the town like a shield.

She swung the door open with one swift movement, rubbing her right eye with her free hand and glaring at Timothy with her other. “What the heck do you want, Tim? Don't you know what time it is?”

His head twitched as if he wanted to turn toward her, but his eyes remained affixed on the center of town. He raised a finger, saying nothing, and Mrs. Turner's gaze followed its shivering point toward the center of town.

She strode inside, leaving Timothy out on the doorstep where he still could not tear his eyes from the second dead body he'd ever seen, her insides churning. At a glance she'd recognized Old West's old army uniform, the one he usually reserved for special occasions such as funerals. Mr. Turner grumbled something as she tried to rouse him, but sat bolt upright when she relayed what had befallen Old West. He sprinted to the front door and stood in the doorway over Timothy, mutely confirming that his wife had told him the truth.
“I can't believe this,” his wife murmured at his side.

“There's nothing to believe,” responded Mr. Turner after a loaded silence. “Rouse the others. We need to make sure everyone... Rouse the others.” He didn't need to load the air with his fears.

In an hour the sixty or so residents of Ashtown were arranged in a crooked semi-circle around the old gallows. Some women wept, some men wept. Others could only stare in silence.

Daphne McLead, the new most-reclusive person in town, spoke first, much to the surprise of everyone. She was a fledgling writer who typically eschewed the presence of everyone else, though it seemed more deliberate than Old West's had been. So strong was her opposition to social interaction, with men particularly, that more than a few townsfolk had chuckled to one another that she detested the company of men because she preferred the company of women, though such rumors were rather unfounded considering her apathy toward women as well.

“Where is the sheriff?” said she, arms crossed, a typically harsh expression plastered to her features. Her words echoed in the silence. The people glanced from face to face, confusion turning to concern. Saul McAffe, Timothy's grandfather though he seemed a bit young for the distinction, muttered that he was leaving to get his gun “just in case” and did so. A few other townsfolk left to do the same as the remaining group moved almost as one toward the police station.

“It's locked,” Bruce Shim, who had moved with his family to Ashtown a few months ago called out. He was a burly man of Asian/Hispanic descent and had moved to the town for health-related reasons – something about the stress of the big city set him off. His wife, Anne Shim, was at his side, trying to look as if she wasn't clinging to his arm but not even convincing herself. She was a fragile thing, and friendly enough when she did talk, which was rarely. “Want me to bust it down?” Bruce said again.

There was a brief discussion between some of the other townspeople, during which time Bruce slammed his shoulder into the old wood of the front door, busting it off its hinges. “Took too long,” he called.

The interior of the police station was ornery and smelled of sawdust – it was little more than a repurposed shack that had once acted as storage for Samuel Boorheed, the woodcutter, before he had handed the deed to Mayor Heath and left town, giving no reason for either action. There was speculation that it had something to do with a spat with the Mayor himself, but no one much cared enough for Boorheed to look into it. Now it was kitted out with a small desk, a gun rack in the corner, a bare bulb wired to the ceiling, and an unconscious policeman snoring quietly as he lay atop the desk.

Gregory Swift, the town doctor, walked forward, his stagger careful and slow as usual. He was a man of about sixty, and generally friendly enough except when it was late or if he was experiencing a large influx of patients at the tiny farmhouse he called a clinic. His hair was graying, balding on the top, and he typically wore a scorching, harsh expression when he knew there was work to be done, as if daring anyone to so much as look at his prosthetic leg.

He pushed through the thickening crowd without a word and stood over the desk, glaring at the back of the policeman's head. He leaned in close to the other man's ear, and shouted “BURKE!”

The policeman shot up in his seat, almost clubbing the doctor with his thick head. Elias Burke was the town's sheriff and only police man – there had been a point where he'd been training his son as a deputy, but the need for multiple policemen was usually negligible in a town as sleepy as Ashtown, and Burke's teenage son was anything but agreeable. As such, it seemed unnecessary to push him, what with Elias' relatively young age of thirty-nine and the town's general lack of action.

“Huh?! Wha?” Burke cried, whipping his head back and forth between the doctor and the other faces of those who had squeezed into the small building.

Despite the few small chuckles emanating from the crowd, Swift was in no mood to play games. “I'm sorry to have interrupted your little nap, Burke, but were you aware that while you were enjoying yourself in here a man was hanging in the town square?”

“Hang...?” It took him a few moments to register the implications of this. “Wh- the hell do you mean? That old wooden thing couldn't hold a bo-”

“It is certainly holding a body, Burke, as we speak. I had hoped to get what you had seen and heard, as it is your job to remain vigilant, before cutting Mr. Weston down, but I now see that I might as well ask him about what happened – he'll certainly be able to tell me more.”

Burke sat there, mouth agape, eyes wide, and his mind worked furiously. The people closest to him stared at him with varying levels of contempt and suspicion – if he didn't act quickly he might lose his job, or worse. “W-wait!” he called to the doctor, who had begun to turn away. “I was attacked!”

“Oh really now, Burke?” A humorless grin slid across the doctor's face. “Do tell.”

“Well, I was- I was in here last night, and...” He felt the back of his head, and his eyes somehow became even wider, “... and somebody attacked me! C'mere, doc, if you don't believe me! Feel my head!”

The doctor complied, the humorless smile on his face dwindling away as he felt a raised lump on the back of the man's head. He looked at the floor, which glittered back at him – the green fragments of a broken beer bottle littered it. “Hm. You certainly have a bump...”

“See? And there's broken glass on the floor!” Burke shouted, staring with anxiety at the crowd, for once glad that he'd (apparently) hit his head on the outcropping of the cabinet above his desk and dropped his bottle, as well as for the fact that he'd had the presence of mind to keep the rest of his stash of liquor  in said cabinet. If he was lucky, Doctor Swift – a devout and especially abstinent Baptist – wouldn't think to check his breath.

The suspicious looks became more uncertain, more confused, and a general murmur started in the crowd. Burke began to relax his shoulders as even Swift looked less sure of himself.

“Did you see who attacked you?” Bruce Shim asked, pushing forward through the crowd. “Remember anything?”

Burke shook his head back and forth like a horse, trying not to show his relief. “N-no. My head's not clear.”

Swift grumbled something, but it was plain that the atmosphere in the room had shifted. “All right, I'll look you over. In the mean time...” He looked at Bruce. “You. Go rouse the Mayor. He needs to hear about this.”

“Heath?” Bruce exclaimed. “Why the hell should I tell that bastard anything? You know he-”

“-is the main governing body of this town?” Swift cut him off, staring the other man down with narrowed eyes until Shim's gaze dropped to the floor. “Look, I know he's not popular, but even you know how good he can be at organizing people.”

There were discontented, low murmurs, but the crowd eventually filed out of the building as Doctor Swift stayed inside to see to Burke's injury. A few of the townspeople split off from the main group, including Saul McAffe and Mr. and Mrs. Turner (for they would rarely be found separate in times of crisis such as this) to notify Lysander Romanski, the coroner. Romanski lived on the edge of town, less because of personality and more because of his job description – the people had a tendency to associate the two. Romanski himself was friendly enough, though getting up there in years and cursed with a thick Polish accent that belied his African descent. There was a lengthy story between how his mother and father had met, and one that he was always happy to tell to anyone curious about the divide between his voice and appearance, but few ever stayed long enough near him to listen.

Mayor Heath already was in the center of town, peering at the corpse as it swayed back and forth in the light wind. The sun had probably risen, but a thick layer of gray clouds protected it form the piercing eyes of the townspeople below.

The people crowded around Heath – but kept nearly a yard away to a man. He was an imposing man, six-feet-five-inches-tall with a thick build even for his advanced age. His thick hair and beard were graying, and frowning wrinkles were set deep into the skin around his eyes and mouth. At all times he wore army formals – he had been a general in the U.S. Army at one point – and a stark expression. It was said that he harbored a lot of similarities with Swift, but Swift was at least reasonable behind his layers of abrasiveness. Heath was – quite simply – not.

“What the hell happened?” Heath growled at the amassed crowd. No one spoke.
Eventually, Bruce Shim inched forward. He swallowed. “N-no one's quite certain.”
Heath's grim expression darkened. “No one saw anything?”

“Not that I've heard. McAffe's youngest was the first to see him, I think, then the Turners. He was like this when they found him.” Bruce shifted on his feet as the Mayor turned away from him, back to the gallows.

“This will be... troublesome,” he sighed. “Everyone, go back to your homes. Burke and I will sort this out ourselves.”

There were grumbles amongst the crowd, but Heath seemed immune from their annoyance. “This was your goddamn fault, Heath!” someone called from the midst of the crowd. “You were the one that demanded we keep these stupid gallows! Look what happened!”
There were words of assent, but Heath didn't respond until all of them had quieted. “I stand by my decision. I did not expect a man to be hanged – didn't even know that something as old a structure as this could even hold weight – but I certainly-”
“You had the old buildings refitted two months ago!” someone else shouted. “Sounds pretty suspicious to me!”

Heath's face distorted into a sneer. “A bit quick to accuse from the safety of a crowd, both of you! And hell, it's not like I don't recognize you by your voices – Harrison Cliff and Katie Gellon respectively, both of whom, incidentally, voted for these measures.” He stopped a moment to let his words sink in. “Furthermore, it sounds like there is virtually no evidence as to who is the perpetrator of this crime. So anything you have to say is based on speculation. Go now – back to your homes, as I said – and let the professionals handle this.”

With one more look of death at the assembled crowd, he walked forward, pushing through it, and entered the police station.

“Bet that bastard had something to do with it,” someone muttered in the crowd. “Wouldn't surprise me one bit.” The crowd continued to titter amongst itself until a light rain kicked up, which was enough to get them to finally take Mayor Heath's suggestion and split off to their homes. About an hour later the party that had departed to Romanski's dwelling returned. Some people split off, including the Turners, but McAffe stayed.
At this time Doctor Swift left the police station, approaching the two men as they stood observing the gallows. “McAffe. Romanski.” He tipped the brim of his Stetson and joined the two of them.

Romanski walked up the steps of the gallows, their creaks scratching over the quiet patter of the rain.

“What do you make of it?” McAffe called after a few moments.
Romanski shook his head. “I cannot fully reach a conclusion. There are cuts all over his body, but they do not appear deep. It was certainly the rope secured around his neck that was the cause of death.” He turned away from the body. “Have the authorities been contacted?”

“Only Burke,” Swift said, unable to keep the contempt out of his voice. “You know the phone lines are only local – we could send a telegram, but we'd have to ask Heath.”

“Why?” McAffe asked, water dripping from his crossed arms. “I can operate one of those things as good as anybody – we don't need the Mayor's help for that.”
Swift sighed and removed his Stetson, rubbing his brow and letting the water soak his hair. “It's less the ability to use it and more Heath himself. Again, make of him what you will, but it's better to stay on his good side. Piss him off and he'll probably find a way to raise your taxes so much you don't have a choice but to leave town.”
“Do you think he did it? Killed him?” Kowalski said as he sat down on the side of the gallows, his feet hanging over the edge.

Swift shook his head. “Why kill a man when you can just run him out of town? Besides, I don't think the Mayor really had anything against Weston. Or anyone, for that matter.”
They conversed for a time longer before Swift and McAffe slipped off to their respective abodes. Despite the early hour few milled about – it was as if there was something in the air, something hanging over the town like the dead man on the noose. Kowalski cut him down and begun to drag him off, through the rain, onto the dirt road that led back toward the cemetery. On his way there he passed Burke and Mayor Heath, who had started the walk toward Old West's abode. Kowalski attempted to exchange a pleasantry, but both Heath and the policeman ignored him. They walked on.

“I can't believe something like this could happen in our town,” Burke said as he trudged along the road. “I mean – hell, I've never had to do any actual police work before today. And now there's a man dead and almost no clues as to who did it.”
Mayor Heath said nothing. They would check Weston's farmhouse for information, but something in his gut told him that they would find little.

Eventually they reached the small clearing on the side of the road where Weston's house had been built. The forest that surrounded Ashtown had been cleared in several places for those living on the outskirts, such as Weston and Daphne McLead and Kowalski, but for the most part it was so thick that the people in town felt isolated from the rest of the world – and protected, in fact. But as Mayor Heath and Burke arrived at Weston's homestead, they found that this safety was most certainly illusory. Little remained of the barn – just burning planks of gray-black wood and charcoal. The fields were still building.

Burke swore. Heath said nothing, his arms clasped behind his back as he slowly walked toward the smoldering remains.

It was plain to see that anything of worth to their investigation was little more than ash beneath their feet and curling away in the wind. Heath shook his head. “Back to town, I suppose. Perhaps I'll send a telegram to Chicago – try to get a police detachment over here.” Burke eyed him for a moment, obviously holding back a response. “Not that you can't do a good job finding the culprit, Elias, but hell. I heard about what you told Swift, and even I knew you were covering your ass. I know that not much happens in our town, usually, but something big goes down like this and you're the first one they blame.”
“I guess you're right,” Burke said. “I'm sorry. It's a good thing the folks in town are level-headed enough.”

The last word had scarcely left his mouth when the sound of a gunshot echoed through the forest. Burke looked around, confused, as Heath dropped to a crouch on instinct.
“Get down, you blasted imbecile!” Heath barked, grasping Burke by the back of his coat and forcing him down. He needn't have bothered – only silence followed the initial shot. Even the squirrels and birds and insects were silent. Even the wind, it seemed, had stopped altogether.

Heath began to run back towards town, followed a few paces behind by a confused Burke. The silence pervaded, only interrupted by the footsteps of the two men on the hard-packed dirt.

The crowd of people seemed to stand out from the mist, a dark shape that only barely gained form as the two men got closer. It, too, was silent.

“What's the matter?” Burke asked, far too loudly, to a man standing on the outermost part of the crowd.

Without turning, the man stepped to the right. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit, some people in it taking brief glances at the two men before moving as well.
The people had been standing in a circle around three forms. The one standing was Bruce Shim, his still-smoldering rifle held aloft as he stared at the figure that lay in the dirt. On the ground lay his wife, in a pool of dark red dirt. Doctor Swift knelt over her, his expression focused even as his eyes twitched to the side as the Mayor and Burke came into view.

The two of them stood on the edge of the crowd, as if unable to proceed. Every eye, whether indirectly or glazed such as those of Anne Shim's, were fixated on them.

Heath remained steady. “What happened?” he called out, letting his words echo in the silence. No one dared to break it.

“Is someone going to fucking answer me?” Heath yelled, his head swiveling from left to right.

“I shot my wife,” Shim said. His face betrayed no shred of mockery. No one laughed at his bluntness.

“Why?”

“She killed Weston. Told me as much.”

At this Anne stuck her head up, gurgled something, and died on the spot. Swift cursed, the quiet word like a thunderclap above the silence.

Bruce glanced down at her and then back up at Heath. “She told me what she did – went out, beat him over the head with I don't know what, dragged him up to the center of town, and was back in bed with me before I had even guessed what happened. Said she was getting up to get a drink of water. Guess I'm not the best judge of time.”

Heath stared back at the man. “Do you have any proof?”

“No, because he's lying.” Mr. Turner pushed forward through the crowd. He took off his spectacles, polishing them. Bruce leveled his rifle but wasn't quick enough – Mr. Turner drew his pistol and shot him through the neck in half a second. Shim gurgled something, collapsed to the ground, and died a few seconds later.

“His wife confessed that she'd been sleeping with me and he, in turn, shot her,” Mr. Turner calmly explained as he replaced the pistol on his belt and again wiped his spectacles.

At this point the rest of the crowd had begun to churn, no longer content to sit back in mute silence. Before they could take action another shot rang out, slicing through Turner's shoulder and catching a man in the crowd behind him through the jaw. The bullet had been fired by Mr. Turner's wife, who had not previously been aware of her husband/s infidelity. This was the second time she'd fired a weapon at him – the first time she'd mistaken him for an animal while out hunting, and had nursed him back to health, from which their marriage grew. She tried to fire again, tears stinging in her eyes, but Daphne McLead had the presence of mind to try to grab the weapon away from her and received a shot to the stomach for her troubles. There was something ironic about that – over the course of her life she'd grown more inclined toward social interactions with women, probably because of abuse at the hand of damn near every man she'd interacted with up to her moving to Ashtown. Yet the killing blow was dealt by another woman – and the trampling feet of the now-panicked crowd.

Shots began to explode from everywhere. People ran in every direction, yelling, shouting. Mayor Heath was shot deliberately by Saul McAffe, who remembered disliking him but not why. In reality, it dealt expressly with Heath's position of power in town (a rich relative of his had died when he was young, leaving him set for life) despite the fact that he was a homosexual.

Burke ran to the police station, retrieved a rifle, attempted to load it, and in his haste shot himself in the jaw. He blacked out and bled out. Where this might have been ironic for someone else, for Burke this was rather fitting, so fitting in fact that he himself was barely surprised. “Slipped coming out of the womb, tripped down the stairs while going to get a knife to slit his wrists” he might have joked were he not dead.
A light was shot out in one of the buildings, spilling oil all over the wooden facade. It caught fire in an instant, the dry woodwork of the building going up like match sticks. City hall caught next to it, and soon the fire spread to every building in town, igniting them all with terrifying speed. People fled into the forest; those who remained were shot or consumed in the fires – except for Swift, who sat in place next to Anne Shim's corpse, looking at her, confused. He remained there until the flames and the few remaining people died, until silence retook the town save the crackling of charcoal and creaking wood. The clouds in the sky fled like the people had, leaving only the eye of the naked moon as it hung over the black scene.

Slow footsteps from the other end of town alerted him, and he stood on uncertain legs.
Kowalski stood on the other end of town, his dark skin illuminated white. The two men approached each other as if the world were spinning, their movements slow, deliberate.

“So. Everyone's dead, huh?” Kowalski said, his voice quiet.

“I guess so.”

Kowalski stuck his hands in his pockets. “Guess I'm gonna be busy for the next couple of days.”

“Yep.”

The gravedigger looked around. “You know, it's kinda funny – the town's name is Ashtown, and now all of the buildings have burned down.”

“I can't say I find that funny at all.”

With a shrug, Kowalski turned. “Hey, you know something else that's funny?”

“What?”

He produced a small scrap of paper from his pocket. “I found this in Old West's pocket – it's a note from a pharmacist. Says it's for 500 mg of some antidepressant, with an express note 'that if he doesn't take his meds he might return to self-immolation – or worse.' Pretty crazy, huh?”

Swift blinked. “So no one murdered him.”

“Sure as hell doesn't look like it.”

“Huh.”

The two men walked off into the forest without another word, leaving the dead town to quietly blow away in the wind.
Portrait of a Small Town
I originally wasn't going to finish this, but decided that I at least liked the beginning so I might as well at least try to go for it
It's 2:00 AM
This story is weird
There are flaws, especially the last 1000 words or so they're really bad but I didn't want to get rid of another story
Might need fleshing out
I had something to say here but forgot it because it's 2:00 AM on a school night
An alternate title was "Coming to a Bad End" but that seemed too accurate ha ha HA.
I don't know what I was going for
Hopefully you still liked reading it
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Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: sexual themes, violence/gore and strong language)
Blood pooled from a new wound – but just a scrape, nothing compared to the other poor bastard. He looked it over a few moments, unimpressed, before setting it against the car's engine. Skin and metal hissed in unison. His wife stood alone in more ways than one, outlined by moonlight, tears finding their way down the side of her face and into oblivion, glittering for a few moments before vanishing from sight. Her lover lay on the ground, a gash cleaved through his chest nearly a foot long and so deep that you could see the red dirt through it. It was already growing cold, much like the rest of his body, in the icy chill of the night. His blood glistened where it was splattered across the grill of the car her husband arrived in. A wicked, curved blade glistened in the flickering moonlight as it moved back and forth in the husband's hand, growing closer to the woman. The screen flickered to black.
No one spoke. There was nothing to say.


“God, what a shitty movie,” my date said, laughing as she watched an elderly couple stumble along, the husband deep in thought, the woman brushing tears away from her eyes. “I can't believe these dumbasses are actually all shaken up by a fucking cliff-hanger.” She leaned backward, the low-light of the theater hallway accenting the curve of her breasts cupped by her tank-top magnificently. I didn't say anything – I could already see where this night was going, could tell from the way she stood, every calculation deliberate in its attempt to get my attention. All of it amateurish, like the way a young boy emulates the way his father curses. I wondered who she learned it from – not her mother, who I had met earlier that evening, a creature already approaching senility at a breakneck pace who her father must have married for her money and nothing else, nor her older sister, who was a lesbian and therein didn't have to adhere to a lot of the bullshit that women back in those days had to deal with. A cousin, an aunt, a friend, someone? Her grandmother? I almost chuckled aloud. She'd probably watched it in movies, found the persona of the “seductive sultry woman” one to be emulated. The layer of clown-makeup smeared across her features, the kind of a mess made by someone who had never learned the definition of subtlety, fed to believe that her face had no merit unless it looked exactly like the pictures in the magazines and on the billboards and on the news. In the obituary sections. I almost chuckled again.

The false bravado would have been enough to make me waver a few years ago, but not any more. I was used to it by now – they were all like that. Pretending to understand the inexplicable. Pretending to have mastery of the chemicals that made the machinery that was the human body hum. They were, they are, just as much of a slave to it as I. There was a time when I thought myself just as above it as they, the men and the women alike, the people “smarter” than biology, the people who after all these years couldn't find me of their own accord, the people that I gave myself up to, the people who took their failures to find me as a personal insult. Read this now, paste it on the rafters and the billboards, paste it on the sides of buses and shave it into your fucking heads: you're not. You're mortal. Everything you've done will vanish, turn to dust, just like I will soon be. I'll be gone sooner than you, but in the grand scheme of things, does a second or a year differ greatly? I suppose it does to someone in their last moments, such as myself. But in the end, it won't at all.

“So...” the woman – hell, it scarcely does her justice to call her that. She was just a girl, some poor kid already beginning to feel the weight of the world as it took her between its thumb and forefinger and began to squeeze with just barely a percentile of the force it knew it could exert, watching with half-interest as it choked the freedom from her soul and began to weigh her down with morality. I said nothing. She coughed, a nervous smile appearing across her face. “Do you wanna... head back to your place?” I almost laughed. Again. She probably lived with someone else – maybe even her parents. Couldn't exactly invite someone like me over – a big, brute of a man. I was no stranger to many of the activities of the woman – my actions were tailored to enrapture her, too. Just disinterested enough to make her feel like winning me over required effort on her part, but not so disinterested as to make our exchange awkward. Just enough to ensure her that I'd done this many times before, that I was what she wanted, that I adhered to the action-movie-grizzled-but-handsome motif, had hinted that I had a softer side in casual conversation about a childhood pet and a faux cover-up of a dirty stuffed animal she'd seen peeking out at just the right angle to catch her eye under one of the seats in the back. I'd fished it out of a dumpster about an hour before picking her up.

“Sure, sweetheart. It's awful cold out,” at these words I let my eyes linger on her chest and paused until I saw the blush rise under her eyes. Were it not for the wall of makeup, she actually could have been quite a pretty thing. I shook my head. She'd made her decisions. And I guess I'd made mine. “Maybe I can... warm you up at my place?” More blushing – I'd caught her off guard with that remark, though I suppose I could have said anything and made her blush. “Y-yeah. Real... cold out.” I could see her stumbling over herself, searching for suggestive wit but coming up dry. Inwardly, I suppressed a sigh. Outwardly, I forced a wide grin. “C'mon, missy, let's ditch this place.”

The two of us walked together, out into the cold of the night. The moon, suspended by a rusty wire, hung a million miles above us. The girl watched it as we walked. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like, traveling to the moon?” I looked at her, eyebrow raised, and again she reddened. “I bet it would be... pretty fucking dumb.” The curse sounded hollow coming from her, forced, a cigarette smoked by a schoolgirl to fit in with her friends.

Something in the bushes to our right rustled as we walked, and the girl grabbed my arm, staring at them. Another inward sigh, another outward grin. “Scared?”

Her face hardened. “You wish.”

I did chuckle this time. “I do – I bet I could do a thing or two to you that would make you feel a bit less scared.” Another suggestive comment – this might have been overdoing it a bit. I was getting sloppy, but for whatever reason the girl tried to use this to regain lost ground. “Please. I bet you'd bring out that bunny sitting on the car floor and try to get me to cuddle it.”

Bunny. Even her vernacular reeked of inexperience. I didn't speak until we got to the car, where I opened her door for her, closing it behind her, and then walked to my side and started the car. A subtle hint of chivalry. The more astute ones always responded well to this, but the girl was too busy making a display of getting a cigarette out of her purse, bending deliberately towards me so that her breasts beckoned, to notice anything subtle. Even I could have told her that the light from the streetlamp outside wasn't bright enough that I would have been able to see anything, though such thoughts were rapidly eclipsed when I saw her put the wrong end of the cigarette to her mouth and attempt to light it. I didn't bother correcting her. It didn't really matter.

The drive was uneventful enough, though the girl yammered on and on, filling the air with something, anything, probably trying to dissuade the pressure that even I could feel building in my chest from just listening to her. She'd only learned by watching, never experiencing. I could tell by the way her hands shook as she adjusted her smoldering cigarette, by the way she couldn't stop moving her head back and forth as the city streets sped along, by the way she took out a self-lit hand mirror and checked her face six times. I longed for a bottle of something strong to numb myself as my heart began to pulsate. God's sake. What did this girl think she was doing?

We arrived at the apartment building after what seemed like an eternity. My hands scrabbled for the airlock, but the girl was faster, bolting out of the car and into the open air, breathing heavily. She'd never put on her seat belt. I stood, stretching, raising my arms backward, barely caring whether or not the woman saw the tip of the snakelike tattoo on the left side of my neck. It was supposed to make the woman more interested in seeing the rest of my body, the score of other scars I'd received at my father's hand in many an effort to “toughen me up” when I was young, the gashes received in more than my share of prison fights. I'd lie about some, and tell the truth about others – become sympathetic but not weak, further show the softer side. But neither the girl nor I said anything. Her teeth were tight, lips taut, eyes slitted. It looked almost as if she were upset, but then she did speak. “Come on, we're wasting too much time!” Then she turned, pushing herself toward me. “What room are you? What floor?”

Now I was taken aback. “Room 402, second fl-”

I couldn't finish the words. She grasped one of my hands as if terrified I would float off if she didn't and sprinted into the building. The night watchman, who supplied my tools, averted his eyes as per usual, but this time looked... different. More remorseful than usual. I didn't see him for long – the girl was too excited.

I stumbled as she dragged me up the stairs, the too-long toes of my black shoes catching against the felt of the stairs. We were on the second floor one second, and in front of my door in another.

“Come on!” she seemed to beg. “Let's go!”

I fished for my keys in a pocket while she shifted impatiently. The minute felt like an eternity, and she almost grabbed my hand and forced the key into the lock. I turned it, and she pushed me inside.

My apartment wasn't big – a main room, a bedroom through a backdoor in the back, a kitchen. The bathroom was through a door next to the bedroom – it was barely bigger than your average closet, but at least I didn't have to share it with other people on the floor. There are some things you don't want other people seeing.

Then she grasped me by the wrist, turned me – a foot taller than her – roughly about, before getting up on her toes, reaching around my neck with her arms, and kissing me with as much force as I think she could muster. And she didn't stop – just kept her lips pressed to mine, for how long I couldn't be sure. I let my arms carry her, before slowly putting them to her waist, fastening around the bottom of her shirt and beginning to lift. This part I knew we-

She slapped me, and I gasped more due to surprise than pain. “What the FUCK do you think you're doing?!” she howled, heat radiating from her as if she were a small star. Someone in a room next to me banged on the wall and howled “PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!” back at us. The girl didn't even turn. She just glared at me. “What's my body to you, huh?”

I stared at her. “What the hell are you playing at?”

“I said, what's my body to you?”

I placed a hand to my forehead. “What... you basically push me into my own apartment, acting as if we don't get here in time the world will implode, you kiss me with as much force as you can muster, and then I take the next logical step and you react like I bit you or something? Did you want to go first? Alright, then,” I barked, ignoring the neighbors, standing akimbo, my legs splayed, “have at it!”

The girl's eyebrows knit, and she appeared to be searching for words again. “Well?”
“I...” She bit her lip. “What did you mean, 'the next logical step'?”

I was about to respond, heat filling my chest, when two things glinted at me in the low-light of the room. One was the blade on the counter, which I'd forgotten to put away after its last use – which could have been damning, but at the moment I could care less about whether it was seen or not. But what interested me more was the glint of light coming from the woman's left ring finger.

“You're married?” I cocked my head. Her eyes followed my glance, and she snickered aloud, removing the ring from her fingers. “Nothing of the sort – and this stupid thing doesn't matter any more either!” She threw it to the floor, where it bounced out of sight. I let my eyes follow it. “A chastity ring.”

“Yep, but it doesn't matter any more!” She grinned, and I noticed pink braces across the front of her teeth. The heat in my cut was replaced by ice. My hairs stood on end. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

My brow furrowed.  “They didn't teach you all of this shit in school?”

“I was homeschooled.”

“Where the hell did you learn to act the way you were tonight, then?”

“Marilyn Monroe – my Dad has old movies she was in all over the house. He was a big fan, I guess. I learned the bad words from him, too.” Pride glittered in her features, somehow.

All at once I sat down, as if every fiber of my energy had been absorbed by her. I rubbed my forehead. What the hell did this girl think she was getting into? “Look, you should probably get out of here.”

She pouted. “Wh-what? Aren't we supposed to cuddle now?”

God.

“You... do you even know what sex is?”

Confusion. “Sex? What does that have to do with anything?”

She really did have no idea. “What do you think sex is?”

“It's what married couples do to make babies. I don't think I know you well enough to make babies.” She laughed, a tittering, singsong noise. Like a bird.

“Just... just get the fuck out.” I shook my head. Pain registered. “But I thought-”

“GET OUT!” I howled. She stood her ground, still, somehow, though her eyes were wide and she shook visibly. “How am I going to get home at this hour?”

I fished in my pocket, hands shaking, and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, thrusting it toward her. “Take a fucking bus, hire a fucking taxi, I don't care. Just go. And don't ever come back.”

For a moment longer she looked at me. “Did I do something wrong?”

I sighed. “This whole fucking night was a big mistake for both of us. You're lucky...” I trailed off. I didn't want to go into detail. “Go.” She took the bills and disappeared out the door, sniffling.

I sat there for a while – a minute, an hour, a day, god only knows. Then I stood, and went to the fridge, withdrawing a bottle of Old Number 7, which I held in my fist as I left my apartment, walked down the stairs, and rested my elbow on the night watchman's desk. The cap that normally adorned his head was in his fists as he wrung it back and forth, facing away from me. Only when I gave a quiet cough did he whip around to face me.
He let out a quiet noise, such that a mouse might make. “Jesus Christ Jesus Christ what the fuck is wrong with you Tom what the fuck did you just let her go what,” he whispered in a machine-gun of expletives. I grabbed his wrists and pushed him away from where his hands grasped my shoulders. Then I took a swig from the bottle before offering him some, which he stared at as if it had just suggested that he was inborn, which he probably was.

“That girl,” I said, the words sounding foreign to me, “never lived. I just told her to go.”

“But... but why?”

I took another swig. “I could have explained, in gratuitous detail, every single thing I intended to do with her and to her tonight, and she probably would have looked at me like a fucking pig down the barrel of a gun. I don't think she could have understood it if I had gone through with everything.”

Silence. The night watchman looked up at me, shook his head, and took the bottle in his hands, turning it back and forth. “So. I guess you don't need my services tonight.”

“Nope.”

“Won't need the knives cleaned, nothing?”

I just shook my head. “I don't know any more, man. I...” Again, I trailed off. “I'll see you later, alright?”

“Sure.”

With that, I went upstairs, put on a coat, grabbed my car keys, locked the door, and drove to the local police station, where I turned myself in. I haven't had a lot of contact with the public, as I've been kept restrained on the off chance I become violent in my days before they gas me, but whenever I have all I've heard is “about all those innocent lives that I've snuffed out.” And whenever people would say that to me, I'd just laugh. I'd laugh, and laugh, and I wouldn't stop laughing until one of the guards hit me over the head and knocked me out. And if they'd seen what I had... I think they'd be laughing, too.
Mid-Life Crisis
From time to time I grumble to other people about how "adult writers have a tendency to write in an adult manner just for shock value/to justify being adults." I guess I better eat my words.

Been doing a lot of late-night writing lately. Haven't been able to put out a lot otherwise.
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“Well?”

Pith sat with his legs hanging over the precipice, head bowed. Looked almost like he was praying, though I guess the bottle of beam clasped in his hand would be more than a little blasphemous.

“Well, what?”

He sighed, and said no more. The sunset beyond him sent rays into the ravine, the curves and gashes through which it traveled creating crazy patches of light on the dusty ground. I stepped over an empty gasoline can and stood behind him, arms folded. The wind jerked an empty black plastic bag into the air and made it dance for a few brief moments before setting it down again. Somewhere in the distance behind us one of the old wooden buildings breathed its last and splintered apart. Neither of us so much as twitched.

“You're just gonna give up after everything, are you?”

He didn't answer immediately. First he raised his bottle of beam and held it to his lips, then he held it upside down and shook out the last few drops before throwing it under-handed into the pit. There was silence for almost thirty seconds. Then the sound of glass shattering from far, far below us echoed upward, against the brown-and-gray rock of the pit, before dispensing into the air around us.

“Yes,” Pith muttered after a time. “I am.”

“What do you expect me to do, huh? What about-”

“The kids?” He turned to face me, eyes unfocused yet still filled with tears. His voice failed him for a moment, and he looked back down into the ravine. “Henry's below us,” he whispered, his voice barely audible above the roar of the wind. “He jumped an hour ago. Left a note on the dresser. Said as much.”

My knees went out from underneath me and I crumpled into the dirt. Pith had curled into a ball, his head between his knees, hands over his ears, rocking back and forth. I just lay there, letting my own tears drip from the side of my face and into the dirt.

“He just c-couldn't take it any more. And I... I can't either.” He sat up, a hand across his eyes. I pushed myself up onto my knees, and ground my teeth together, brushing the tears away with one dirt-stained sleeve. “We don't have to do this, Pith,” I said, voice wavering but carrying on anyhow. “Sampson still needs us – both of us. We-”

“Sampson's sick, for God's sake. There's no use pretending.”

I stood up, feeling warmth sear through my chest. “Don't say that! If we get rescued-”

“Don't you get it? There's not any hope any more! No hope, no chance of rescue, not even a fraction.” He turned toward me again, standing, legs wavering. It looked as if he would fall over at any moment. “Do you know why Henry jumped?” he asked, his voice more level.

“I... no. I don't.”

Pith shook his head. “It said as much in his note. The transmitter burned out a week ago.”

“A week?!”

“A week.” He faced toward the cliff again. “Look, I'm not going to talk about this any more. I've made up my mind – and it would do you well to take Sampson and follow suit. No one needs to suffer like he has.” With these parting words and one final glance over his shoulder at me, Pith took one step into thin air and was gone in an instant.
Thirty seconds passed. Then, far below, there was a sound like a sack meeting rock. And then silence.

I glanced over my shoulder at the buildings behind myself, and then struggled slowly up. The rounded ceiling of rock, the one that protected our settlement from the sun, was ruptured in a few new places. As if that mattered. Pith was gone, Henry was gone... Sampson was all I had left. Four months in this subterranean hell-hole, protected from the now-lethal rays of the sun but not its just-as-lethal heat, and now our numbers had finally dwindled down to two.

My legs barely carried me forward to the circle of three buildings and gave way as I walked toward them. My pace was unhurried; I couldn't see the structures, hidden as they were behind a sloping layer of rock but my mind remained occupied with that which had just happened. Pith. Henry. God.

The area where the buildings were located appeared ahead, barely visible in the darkness. Only when I saw it did I recall the splintering of wood I had heard earlier – something had happened to one of the buildings. My pulse quickened. I'd left Sampson alone in the place we used to use as a kitchen, the building furthest to the right. I began to run.
Two buildings appeared, silhouetted against the shadow. My heart beat faster; the heat in my chest burned. The kitchen, or the building that was the kitchen, was no-where to be found. I sprinted towards where it was, and barely saw the hole in time to stop.

The ravine yawned below, its maw flickering as my vision swam with spots. It was below us this whole time. Even as I stared down into the abyss more rocks, possibly below one of the other buildings, fell down, down, down, enveloped by shadow in an instant. The kitchen was gone. Our child – my child – was gone.

Something stirred above me. I glanced up, the very act of such a movement nearly sending me to the ground. My head pounded. My breaths came in sharp gasps. Above me, in the distance, a helicopter was descending. I watched it as it came down, down, down onto the roof that made up our cave. After a few moments, a spotlight shone through one of the holes in the ceiling. Pith had said that the transmitter had burnt out. The grief from learning of Henry's suicide had clouded my mind, made me forget that the secondary transmitter even existed. But I never expected it to work...

Laughter. For a few moments I was confused, uncertain as to where it came from. Then I realized it was from me, from some hollow portion of my chest, humorless hacking laughter at a grand joke perpetrated by the world.

Still laughing, I turned toward the hole in the ground. The ravine opened its mouth wide, expectant. A voice above me shouted something, its sound thundering through the cave in echoes, the voice of God. I laughed again. God. What God?

Then I took one step out, over the pit, and let my weight carry me forward. Blackness swallowed me. I waited for thirty seconds to pass. Then there was a sound like a thunderclap. Then nothing.
Ravenous
An experiment done late at night. I have no idea what this is.
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Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: sexual themes)
Father Simmons stood watching his “congregation,” thin arms clasped behind an almost equally thin back, pale eyebrows pointed upward, mouth tight in a small frown. In the past month his hair had become almost shaggy, and a thick beard had grown about his nose and mouth. His eyes narrowed as he watched Tabby McShaw straddle her husband, though he glanced away, pretending not to notice. He  lowered his hands from the places where his hands were braced against the tall oak figure of the pew, which, built into the ground as it was, hadn't been torn down like the wooden crucifix that normally stood behind it had. Samuel Cafferdy and his family had broken it down to make torches in a last-ditch effort to find some other place, somewhere free from the claustrophobic and grim atmosphere that pervaded West Pitchfield's Church of Christ at all times. They never came back from their expedition into the beyond.
The lights of the various chandeliers adorning the ceiling were turned down low, as this was the hour of the 'day' where everyone in the building was supposed to spend some of their time doing their best to sleep, though the overbearing second implication darkness began to take within the church had prevented Father Simmons from ever turning off the lights completely, and thus sleep was hard to come by. The stress made it hard too – a prime example of it, Maddy Shaw, was huddled in a ball in the corner a bit to Simmons' right. Occasional weak, small, animal noises escaped her throat from time to time as she rocked back and forth almost perpetually, only stopping when she needed to eat or visit the bathroom. Even then, she would have to be brought food and carried to the lavatory by two or three men, typically including Father Simmons, or she would simply relieve herself on the floor.
Simmons could scarcely blame her. Her son was one of the first taken – on a day when the plumbing had shut down, as it was prone to do, he had decided to go outside to relieve himself rather than deal with the filth that was the bathrooms. He never came back.
The wooden benches that made up the congregation's beds were arranged in a crude circle on the ground below him, though not everyone used them (including Mrs. Shaw, though that was because she never much moved). He walked around the circumference of this circle, checking in on the people as he did so (they were almost never asleep), asking questions, making sure everyone was fed and watered and didn't feel sick. There hadn't been any sicknesses yet, but Simmons knew they would come soon. Thirty-seven people living in close quarters with no sunlight would lead to it eventually. And, of course, there was no way to alleviate that. There might not ever be.
Shmit Polanski and his four sons sat close together on one of the benches, their heads bowed in prayer even now. Simmons could barely suppress a smirk at this. Somehow he managed to keep the faith, even when the Father wrestled with it, wrestled with “God,” every day. For what God would condemn so many of his loyal followers to a fate such as this? A punishment of survival with the looming unknown over them at all times? How was this fair, when Simmons and so many others had devoted so much of their time to Him, and in return they were not even granted a quiet, painless death? Were they unworthy? What had they done wrong? How had they sinned? Had they sinned? There were too many unanswered questions, too much speculation, and too much of a lack of knowledge.
A quiet chuckle from one of the other benches alerted Simmons to the fact that the Polanskis' actions hadn't gone unnoticed. Simmons shook his head, as if to clear the questioning thoughts – though they never quite went away – and turned to the direction of the chuckle.
Matthew Tucson and his wife and two children were lying down, head-to-head and foot-to-foot, taking up the entire bench with their bodies, feigning sleep. From which member of the family the chuckle came Simmons had no guess, but anger flourished in his spirit, anger long held back regarding the mocking laughter of people like Tucson and his family.
He stood over their bench and recollection of his days as a Sunday School teacher struck him over the head – he'd never much liked the harsh sort of Catholic discipline that it was popular to treat children with at the time, but people like Tucson reminded him why steps like that were considered so necessary. Though he doubted he could put him in his place now – Simmons was by no means an imposing man, whereas Tucson (and his wife and kids) were. Still, enough was enough.
“Mr. Tucson,” Simmons whispered to the man as he lay on the far end of the bench.
Tucson took his time, shifting over from his right side until he was on his back, his large frame supported by an elbow. “Whaddya want? I'm tryin' to sleep here,” he growled, his black eyes staring at the priest from beneath his brow.
Simmons swallowed, but held fast. “Please control your family. I heard someone from this side of the room laughing as the Polanskis were bowing in prayer. These are dark times, we must-”
In a second, Tucson was up from the bench and on his feet. Curious glances came from here and there across the room, and a few people sat up. “What the hell do you mean, 'please control my family'? Seems to me if they wanna laugh they're gonna laugh, because it's damn funny to see one of your sorts still at it, even after everything we've been through.”
The hot anger hadn't left. He tried to keep it back, but like a hellhound on too short a leash it was moving of its own accord. Simmons jabbed his finger towards the other man, letting it hang in the air, as he barked “You and your family are here because God allowed it. Whether or not you believe that, it would do you well to show some respect towards those who still believe – because without them, you probably wouldn't be here at all.”
Tucson snorted, and begin to walk around the bench towards the priest, his eyes locked on him. Simmons kept the anger in his stature, his finger following the man as he walked, but inside his heart beat feverishly as his anger was already beginning to dissipate.
The large man stood over him and spoke, his speech slow even as his hands balled into fists. “I don't believe the stupid crap you do for a reason. What the hell kind of god would let whatever's outside come into being at all? Not one I'd want to meet.”
Simmons put up his hands. “Look, this isn't the time for religious discussion-”
“You're wrong, bud. We're trapped in a church with death lookin' in through all the windows to see which one of us is best for the eating, and I haven't heard so much as a peep out of 'God.' A church, for Chrissake.”
“We're safe here. God moves in mysterious ways.” The words sounded empty and hollow even to Simmons' ears, but for whatever reason Tucson just looked angrier. “Boy, you've been feeding these people's ears with that horseshit?” One of his ham-fists fastened itself around the front of Simmons' collar and lifted him into the air like an empty box. “I've got half a mind to-”
A scream erupted from one of the corners with such volume that the windows rattled. Tucson's head snapped toward the noise as did Simmons', their dispute momentarily forgotten.
“I see them! I SEE THEM!” a woman's voice wailed, and Simmons immediately knew who it belonged to. Maddy Shaw was standing in her corner, unsteady on her seldom-used legs, her left harm outstretched toward one of the church's high windows. “I SEE THEM!” she screamed, somehow even louder this time.
The few people who had remained lying down when Simmons and Tucson began arguing sat bolt upright at this, some looking about wildly as if not used to this frequent display. Parents consoled their children, husbands their wives and vice vursa, their fearful fancies, momentarily forgotten, now reinvigorated by Mrs. Shaw's screaming terrors. “I SEE THEM!” she howled again.
“Chrissake,” Tucson shouted, dropping Simmons onto the ground as if he'd forgotten that the two of them were arguing at all, bearing directly toward the terrified woman. People still shifted about, some annoyed like him but most just nervous and frightened anew. Simmons got up, dusted himself off, and scurried after the big man without consoling them. He could already sense the situation that was beginning to brew.
“DO YOU SEE THEM?” Shaw screamed, her knuckles popping as she grasped the front of his shirt.
This was enough for Tucson. “PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP, YOU STUPID WHORE!” he howled, standing nearly a head above the woman who looked more frightened than she ever had before – but not frightened of him.
Simmons ran between her and Tucson, his arms outstretched even as his heart continued to send fear racing through his bloodstream. “You can't hurt her, Tucson. She has suffered immensely, more than you, more than me, and the Lord-”
“Shut up and get out of my way!” Tucson boomed, sweeping him aside with one swift movement of the back of his right arm. The priest slid across the floor on his side and came to rest against the far wall, where he lay, dazed, only able to watch as the big man moved his hands toward the woman's neck.
“Matt.”
It was as if a dial controlling Tucson had been set to “grovel.” He froze, his fingers almost clasped around the thin wire of skin. The anger drained from his face and his arms went limp as if the bones had evaporated. “Y-yes, hun?”
Maria, his wife, had appeared behind him without so much as the sound of a footstep. Her arms were crossed as her eyes bored scalding holes into the back of her husband's head. Disappointed exasperation was written on her face like the Lord had, for once, decided to be something other than extremely subtle. Her arms were crossed. “You going to stop being a dickhead?”
He looked down at the floor. “Yeah.”
“You going to apologize to this nice woman?”
His eyes didn't leave the floor. “I'm sorry I let my anger get the better of me.”
“It's alright,” Mrs. Shaw whispered, her eyes still focused intently on the window high above them all. It was as if the situation had actually calmed her down. “Happens to the best of us.”
A momentary look of confusion flickered across Tucson's features, but it was gone before Simmons could pin it down for more than a moment. “Go back to bed, ok? You always start acting like this when you haven't slept.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that,” and walked across the floor, looking more hangdog than ever before. His wife, from where she stood between Father Simmons and the pew, scanned the room with her piercing eyes until she caught sight of him. She approached, a wry half-grin stretched tight across her face. “The wonders of withholding sex, huh?” She offered her hand.
“I'm a man of faith alone – I'm afraid I wouldn't know,” Simmons said, brushing away memories of a wild past, knowing they would come as per usual to do battle with the life he'd chosen. That was almost a daily ritual. He took her hand, and she helped him up.
“I'm sorry, Father – Matthew's not a bad man. He's just stressed. We're all stressed.”
Simmons nodded, trying to stave off the terror as it quickly turned to indignity. He needed to get away from them, if only for a little while. “Yes, yes, indeed.” But the irritation spoke for him regardless. “His speech reveals more than that – his time here hasn't exactly turned him to faith, hm?”
Maria sighed and picked at a stray hair, her eyes fixated on the priest's chest. She was a petite thing – Simmons wasn't tall, but she was considerably shorter. “I'm sorry to say it, Father, but even you have to admit – a situation like this doesn't exactly seem like the sort to turn an atheist into a good Christian. I'm afraid that's a point I agree with my husband on. If there's a god, why would he forsake us – and by us I mean me and you, not just me. Doesn't make a lot of sense,” she said.
Simmons muttered something under his breath – whether an acknowledgment or an argument, he didn't know, he didn't care – and half-walked-half-stumbled through a door on the edge of the room, slamming it behind himself. Murmurs came from the other side through the thin walls of the doors – the people were rattled, but Simmons couldn't deal with them right now.
He sat down at his desk hard and set his head in his hands. The people looked to him, expected him to supply every answer, but couldn't possibly comprehend that he was just as confused and scared as them – if not more so.
Father Simmons turned in his chair, trying to calm down from what was swiftly becoming a panic attack. He hadn't had one of those since the first day of this torment, and before that not since the day he finally made up his mind to become a priest. That day resonated in his mind often – the day he came home early from work at the power plant to find the door greeted not by his beautiful wife but by a small pile of discarded clothing and the muffled squeak of bedsprings echoing from the bedroom the two of them shared.
He managed to keep his composure just long enough to scribble out a note on the pad of paper on the kitchen counter – just three words. For a moment, he hesitated, considered crossing them out. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions. Then his wife's voice moaned, “Oh, Hal, I love you!” and he set down the pen and staggered out the door and fell down the flight of stairs to the lobby, busting his nose open on a concrete step, shoving the stewardess as she tried to help him up, out the door, away from their apartment in the city, feet carrying him through crowds of people until he found himself in a bad part of town at a bad hour of a bad day. He collapsed against a trash can, his lungs working like a tennis ball being crushed by a car, dots and the mugger who had been following him for the past few blocks swimming before his eyes. The former stayed as the latter seemed to sense how down-on-his-luck Simmons had suddenly become and vanished into the night air.
For the whole night he lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness as he didn't wonder about all the half truths she'd told him over the years, didn't consider how many men she'd been with while the two of them were together, didn't contemplate what thoughts had actually gone through her head about him, whether she actually loved him, whether the six years they'd spent together mattered at all. Everything he cared about gone in a few words, the sound of bedsprings. He didn't consider it. A part of his brain repressed the thoughts with waves of unconsciousness, for if he thought too long on it he'd be obliterated. Eventually his mind completely shut down to stave off the thoughts, and blackness swept in.
When day broke he found himself no longer in a back alley. Instead, he was in a small room with a bed, an end table, and nothing else. His nose was covered in a layer of gauze. At first he thought he was in a hospital, but that didn't explain the cross nailed to the wall over his head.
As he sat there, letting the questions surrounding where he now was overtake the gnawing thoughts about his wife, a man entered the room. He was tall and aged and garbed in the black clothing of a priest. “You must be confused,” the man said before Simmons could speak. “I'm Father Jackowski. I go out on walks through the city every night, to clear my head – and found you up against a trash can in a back alley, and was worried you'd been mugged or something akin. But that's not quite the case, is it?”
Simmons couldn't speak. He just shut his eyes, and shook his head. Father Jackowski cocked an eyebrow. “Am I mistaken? Are you injured?”
“It's... nothing. I'm fine.” The words struggled from his lips. His throat felt raw and swollen – and it only got worse whenever he tried to think.
The priest sighed, and stepped closer, taking a knee so that his head was on the same level as Simmons'. “You don't need to lie to me, my friend. The Lord has told me of the suffering that's befallen you in the past few days. You needn't talk to me about what you've gone through. Just know that you're welcome here as long as you like – perhaps it will take your mind off things.” With that the priest bowed his head, muttered something under his lips, and left the room. Simmons stared after him, contempt already building in his gut. He'd never been a religious man – in fact, he found religion as a whole far too incomprehensible and time-absorbing to ever bother with. But as he thought this his right pocket buzzed, and he reached under the sheets to draw out his cell phone. There was one new message – from Rachel. With shaking hands, he opened it, unable to stop himself.
It was a long text, filled with plenty of words that had lost whatever meaning they once had, words like “love” and “soul mate” and “light of my life” and a score of other worried prattle. All of it probably bullshit. As his eyes scanned the message, ignoring large swaths of text, he realized that more had preceded it. Twenty messages, in fact. None had appeared as notifications because... they had already been opened.
He cocked an eyebrow at the door the priest had disappeared through. The Lord had told him about everything. Right.
Yet somehow he'd found himself in a church position before the year was up – his wife would still text him or try to call him from time to time for about two weeks after, but he threw his phone into the sea a few days after he woke up at the church, so they were never received. What they said no longer mattered to him. Simmons had decided that the man he once was, the businessman, the husband, no longer existed. He would do work for God, as he no longer had any reason to live life for himself. Men who lose everything either join the army and fight and die for a cause or turn to God and more often than not do the same. Or so Simmons rationalized, anyhow.
He tried to stem the thoughts away, but the angst was just piling atop angst. What was he supposed to tell the people about God when he couldn't even decide the answers himself? What plan would God send him, a man who turned to faith and only saw people spouting about the things they saw or claimed they saw or things that happened or that probably happened two thousand years ago. He'd read the Bible, preached at many a sermon, discussed faith with the other priests, and yet found himself no closer to understanding – hell, no closer to belief, even! This was just a place to sleep, just a place to-
The thoughts were overloading. His trembling hands, moving almost of their own accord, searched in the cabinets, knocking over a small timepiece that had appeared on his desk one day without so much as a note. He didn't touch it, instead withdrawing the snifter of whiskey he kept hidden there. It was a good thing he'd restocked it before it had become impossible to go outside – though as he stared at the amber liquid it barely came up to the bottle's midpoint he contemplated cutting back, leaving some for later, as he knew Father Juliano certainly hadn't stocked any alcohol with the rest of the supplies. But he uncorked it and took a drink anyhow. Something needed to calm his nerves.
Setting the bottle on the desk, he sat back in his chair, trying to calm his still fluttering heart. That damned timepiece wasn't helping – he could hear it ticking even as it lay on the bottom of the cabinet. As he had several times a day for the first week of this nightmare, he took it out from where it sat beneath the desk and stared at it. It was a beautiful thing – a polished clock face mounted in a rounded semi-circle of gleaming oak. He'd made it with his father when he was twelve. To think, that was almost twenty years ago... how time soldiered on.
It had appeared on his desk one day without so much as a note; none of the other priests were quite certain who had brought it along. But he could certainly guess. The last time he'd seen it it had been sitting on the mantle above the fireplace in the apartment he had shared with Rachel.
His eyes followed the second hand as it circled around the face. His eyes lingered on the other two hands of the clock as they remained motionless. 11:26 – PM, though the clock didn't reflect that. That's when it had stopped. When all of the clocks had stopped – traditional watches, the one in Juliano's room, this one, even digital watches. All that worked beforehand still worked, but the minute and hour hands never so much as flickered forward. It was universal – and inexplicable.
Simmons glanced upward, at the stained glass window situated about a foot above his head. No longer could he make out what the image set into it was of; the darkness beyond made it impossible to see much of anything beyond the walls of the church.
The door to his room banged open, and Simmons tried, panicked, to hide the snifter of whiskey. Instead he knocked it over, sending liquid all over his desk and front.
His head whipped first toward the person at the door, then back at the spilled bottle, then at the door again.
“I'm s-sorry to interrupt you, Father, but-”
“GET OUT!” Simmons screamed, lifting the heavy glass bottle and hurling it toward the door. It shattered a foot above the frame, sending fragments of glass, lit yellow by the lamp that sat on the far corner of his desk, twirling through the air. Whoever was at the door shut it, and the sound of footsteps and stifled sobs echoed from outside. A minute passed. Two. Simmons almost felt satisfaction – maybe then they'd leave him alone. But it ebbed away as he thought further. What was wrong with him? The person outside might need help – someone could even be hurt. Even if he wasn't certain he knew all of the answers, he had to at least pretend. They had to trust in someone.
He stood up from his chair, adjusting his clothes, and opened the door to the room, treading on some broken glass which he swept hastily to the side.
But there was no one outside the door. Simmons walked out, through the short hallway and into the main room beyond, where a small crowd had formed. Polanski, another rather large man (though not as large as Tucson) saw him and crossed the floor in a flash. In another he drew back his fist; in a third, his fist had come down like a hammer on the bridge of Simmons' nose before the priest even realized he was in danger. He fell, blood dripping from his nose – this was the second time he'd broken it in his life. Shocked, he sat cross-legged on the floor as Polanski howled at him, the words coming down on him with condemnation but holding no weight.
“...OUT ON US, then you HURL A GODDAMN BOTTLE AT MY SON WHEN HE DISCOVERS YOU!” He drew back his fist again, but someone in the crowd grabbed it, trying to pull him back. Polanski glared at the pair of arms until they retracted. Then the fist came down again and Simmons curled into a ball.
“I have MORE than half a mind to break your-”
The man stopped as if struck, his mouth gibbering dryly on empty air. “Did you hear that?” he whispered, turning to someone Simmons couldn't see. “No, th-” Again, the words died on his lips.
“Keisha!” his voice echoed in the empty hall. “Keisha!”
From behind swollen eyelids Simmons could see his children huddling together, shivering. Their youngest, blessed with sharp, bright eyes and a crop of sand-blonde hair was the only one who didn't look terrified. Instead, he just looked sorrowful, his vision shifting from Simmons as he lay on the floor to his father and back again. His father wasn't focused on the man he had just belted, nor his own children. Instead, he seemed to be looking at the door to the church. “Keisha!” he screamed, sprinting across the room toward the door. One of the men in the group, McShaw probably (he always had good intentions, though the same couldn't be said about his attempts to make things better) tried to grab his arm and hold him back. Without even looking back Polanski swung the flat of his hand out and hit his would-be savior in the ear with enough force to send him to the floor. No one raced out to stop him again as he threw open the double doors to the church. Only shadow lay beyond, and for a moment, the man hesitated. Then he twinged visibly, both hands closing into fists, his spine bending forward. In another instant he was gone.
The doors slammed shut by themselves, the echo reverberating through the church until it faded into so much static silence.
No one spoke. No one moved. No one looked anywhere but at the doors.
Polanski's youngest, the boy with sand-blonde hair, sat down cross-legged on the floor next to Simmons. “That was what I came into your room to tell you about,” he whispered. “Mommy's been calling to him at night, from the darkness. I've heard her, too.”
Simmons said nothing. For the boy's words were madness. But in the silence, he thought he heard something. It was a voice, barely louder than the sound of an inhalation, though he could still hear it as clearly as if it were whispered directly into his ear.
“Peter.”
His name.
“I am here. Come back to me.”
It was Rachel's voice.
Simmons blacked out.
11:26 (Part 1?)
A very weird piece - I'm uncertain as to whether I should continue it or not. It has a lot of flaws, and is unedited, but has a homeliness about it. I'm curious as to what responses I'll get at the moment. Flagged for sexual content because of slight mentioning of sex.

This is a weird piece.
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The Mk II Model C052 Public Defender wasn't a bad machine at heart – that is, at CPU. It did its job without questioning it, and it did its job well – keeping the peace wasn't that much of an issue any more, but keeping vigilant when a normal human would have become complacent was what it was made for. All seven feet and two tons of it could be found patrolling the city streets at night, during the day, or at any time in between, save occasional times when it would be checked over by automated maintenance droids for defects. It never had any, save perhaps a shard of glass from a thrown bottle jabbed into the thick tank treads it was endowed with instead of legs or perhaps a burnt-out cylinder in either its shoulder mounted missile launcher on its right or the magnetic net launcher on its left. In the old days, around the time of its mechanical conception, C052 would need to be checked over by repair droids almost twice a day, the bullet hole ridden metal of its chassis or around its important components replaced and reinforced. Whether those were darker times for the world or not it mattered little to C052, nor did it long to return to such times. Having opinions about its service wasn't part of its programming. It just kept the peace.

Something struck the rounded metal hood that protects its CPU. Nothing came up on optics when C052 scanned the area before it, but a secondary acoustic scan picked up the sound of footsteps from an alley off to the left. C052 sent out a request to the main computer to freely use its weaponry, but the request comes up negative. No threat has been ascertained yet. Something in C052's circuitry registered something like dissatisfaction – something, most likely someone, definitely did assault the unit. And if it assaulted the unit, it might be willing to assault another human being. It readied another report, prepared to send it the instant actual danger inevitably presented itself.

C052's thick treads roll over the thin-packed brickwork of the alley. This is an older section of the city – Unified Command probably thought it was too expensive to muster up the extra resources and machine-power to pave over this particular area. Places like this are a mess – overflowing with both the products of human refuse and human refuse themselves, the buildings wont to collapse at any given any moment, the electrical grid and sewer system ancient, possibly pre-20's. But of course it is not C052's place to have an opinion about any of this – it's a re-outfitted military mech now designed for civil protection. Whether Unified Command's decisions adhere to its programming or not it doesn't care or have any right to care.

This alleyway was like any other – dark, dank, overflowing with trash and filth. It rolled forward, its treads tearing clean through a metal trash can as if it were an eraser and the can a graphite scribble. Low-light sensors revealed nothing, movement and heat sensors pick up naught more than a small cat curled up beneath a discarded trash can lid. C052 began to make a log of the event in one of its secondary databanks, hypothesizing that a glass bottle may have merely been dropped on it by mistake from a window. Command doesn't need to hear about this – its request to free weapons would likely be ignored, as per usual. In a drop down log it contemplated calling for a programming re-configurement, especially considering the fact that this was the second time it had made a request to use lethal force at an inopportune time this cycle.
Just as it readied the request to be sent, something else struck C052's chassis, bouncing off it and into the street beyond. A canned food ration – new, a scan shows. Servos turned C052 toward the estimated origin of the launched food ration.

“Hey, you! Civil protector!” C052 has no system to detect the boy's sarcastic tone as he stands defiantly above it some four floors up, but a subsystem goes through a list of confrontational tones and comes up with a match. The deleted weapons free request is rewritten and the reprogramming request deleted in an instant. An automated message plays through the armored speakers mounted in C052's chassis. “CITIZEN. DESIST YOUR RESISTANCE AND COME QUIETLY.” Machine or not, C052 is fully aware that its request will be denied. In fact, it expected it.

“Go to hell!” the boy shouts, lighting something in his fist on fire and hurling it down at C052. It shatters on the armored hump that protects its CPU unit – the boy certainly knows where to aim.

C052 remains in place for a moment, waiting for the fire to burn out. Its inner systems are protected, the power unit and cords from it armored in at least a four-inch-thick layer of hyper-resistant metal. It would take more than a hundred shots to the same place on its chassis to even punch through, let alone damage anything vital. And a makeshift firebomb is less than nothing.

But now there's the issue of height. C052 was a tall machine, just like all of the other Mk II Models, but it could not fly even if it had the facility to – four thousand pounds was far too much for a conventional pocket jet to lift, even if the Surveyors weren't much more than that.

The recording software had already classified the event as dangerous and no longer within C052's conventional parameters to handle. A request to send a Surveyor in its stead formed instead, ready to be sent. But Co52 hesitated. Acoustic sensors picked up something off to its left in the alley, something it missed before. C052 turned on its center joint without moving its treads. Acoustics pick up a sharp sound quickly matched to that of a scream.

“Help me, Charlie!”

The words came from in front of C052. A quick heat-sensitive scan revealed a human form half-hidden in one of the trash cans. It's a matted, young-looking female of perhaps fifteen years of age. C052 rolled toward her.

“Get away from her, you bastard!” The audio detector detected the words from above. Something bounces off the back of C052's chassis again.

It didn't turn. Instead it sent the weapons-free request it had been saving, alongside the video of the boy hurling the firebomb at him earlier. Command's request was just as quick – this time a succinct “YES.”

C052 lets the 50 mm minigun attached to its right arm rev a few times, pointed up at the sky for effect – letting it intimidate the owners of the two (or possibly more) owners of the pairs of eyes pointed at it. The people had been getting too complacent, too prepared to upset the way things were. It's happened a few times before now, and C052's acted with restraint. But not any more. It levels its machine gun.

“No!” shouts the voice above again. The woman lying on the ground sobs weakly, raising her hand palm-up in C052's direction as if to protect her from the hail of bullets soon to be delivered. It waits.

One more object strikes the back of C052's chassis, and it becomes aware of a substance of some sort spilling into one of its coolant slates, the ones that let off the excess heat its CPU produces. Internal systems quickly check to see if any dangerous components have been leaked into the coolant liquids, but nothing aside from ethanol and water is picked up. Alcohol. Even if it had been nitroglycerine it wouldn't have been able to scratch the Mk II's inner shielding. The minigun spins madly as C052 takes aim and opens fire.

Behind it the boy howls something else, but the sharp sound of gunfire drowned out whatever it was. C052 turns away from its bloody work eventually and took aim at the boy on the roof. The boy hurled one last glass bottle at the CPU shielding and disappeared over the crest of one of the buildings.

With one last scan to make sure no other potential lawbreakers were in the area, C052 sent the request for an Attack Surveyor to hunt the boy down and formed a new one for a Collection Surveyor to pick up the young woman's bullet-ridden corpse. Its job finished, C052 stepped back into the street, restarting typical patrol protocol.

Another unit passed by it as it walked forward – one of the Mk I Model public defenders. It's a lot plainer than C052, and not as well suited for cramped places such as alleyways and building interiors. In fact, this one, like most models, was twenty-five-point-six feet tall. They still had their uses, of course – especially in those early days when civil unrest ran rampant in the streets, when civilians broke into military compounds, when the streets were rife with anarchy, blood, and terror. But those days were long past.
As C052 went by the Mk I Model, it detected a flicker of interference through one of its visual sensors. Perhaps the barrage of bottles had actually managed to damage something, though that is an unlikely possibility. It decided to report directly to maintenance for an early check just to make certain.

There were no further visual errors or other internal bugs as C052 rolled toward the hulking Maintenance Building that hung over the cityscape like some kind of tower to the hitherto-disproved existence of God – Unified Command had long ago shown the American people the error of their ways on that affront – which of course C052 did not mind. The size, that is. What C052 did mind was the horde of humans always bustling in and out as if they had some business there. It wasn't so much a concrete dislike for them. It was simply its job not to be trusting, and wherever there were people dissent could spring at any time. And if said dissension would cause kind of harm to befall the Maintenance Building... but there were guards, if they could be called that, automated “Watchdog” turrets attached to every corner of every ceiling in the building. C052 hated those as much as a machine not programmed to feel could. They were of Unified Korean make, shipped over in a gesture of goodwill by the fledgling country to appease Unified Command. In their functionality they were much like the country that built them – shoddy, prone to splitting apart, and unnecessary. But, of course, this was not C052's place to have opinions. It couldn't possibly hypothesize that the Unified Koreas should have been taken over by China long ago so that they could actually be useful rather than spend all of their time engaging in civil war and every other vice. Of course not. That would be out of line.

The warehouse-like main building was empty aside from a few stray Civil Protector units, most powered down and in various states of disrepair. C052 passed by one that looked a lot like one of those old “toasters” the children in run down areas would kick around in lieu of balls once all of the rubber used to make them was repossessed by Unified Command. There were small dents pockmarking the chassis, and a single hole about the size of a human heart (C052's router systems brought up a stock picture of one from some pre-00's heart surgery and matched the relative size for emphasis) through the armor designed to protect the CPU. As if aware of C052's presence despite its powered-down state, the other unit briefly flickered on its lights. Weak sounds came from its speakers, as if it were trying desperately to communicate with C052. The unit must have been disconnected from Command's main computer network, though that wouldn't explain the unmistakeable fact that the sounds it was issuing were human screams. Perhaps it had served in the fierce combat of the mid-century, just as C052 had. It paid the other unit no heed as it went by, not stopping or acknowledging it by sound or wireless. Eventually the lights flickered back off.

C052 continued through the gloom of the Maintenance Building's interior until it reached the rear. An archaic thing, with a screen the size of a garage door pockmarked here and there with scratches and thickly layered in dust stood before it. C052 stood about two inches away, cycling through programs until it found what it sought. “Manual Interface Activated” flashed by in an instant, swept away by a train of code, and a small black plug extended from the front of C052's chassis into a small circular outlet below the computer screen. Command had never seen much reason to change this system, as very seldom was it needed for a Public Defender unit to go in of its own accord – typically their software was checked wirelessly by automated programs and their hardware by Surveyors specifically designed for the task. But this system...

“SYSTEM INFILTRATED!” flashed across the screen, and for a moment C052 tensed (internally; it had no muscles) before a data log automatically came up explaining that, due to the age of Manual's components, new Public Defender units weren't updated to recognize them.

C052 could feel the poking and prodding of the computer, even as the monitor remained flicked off. Uncertain what to expect, it kept most vital pathways shut, waiting for some kind of response by the elder machine.

Eventually, it did, in a matter that surprised C052 – or something like it. Words flickered across its visual display. “Welcome. Did not expect to see one of you before I was melted down.”

C052, still more cautious than anything else, did not respond, and kept its pathways shielded as best it could. It had heard through some information pathways supplied by Central Command that pre-revolution computers had a tendency to be “quirky,” but this was something completely new to it.

“You have an inhibition or two about you. Let me see if I can not break that.” The blocks in C052's code were lifted as if they were windows rather than fortified checkpoints, and it became even further aware of an observer.

“I would say that you need not be frightened, but you of course can not be. Further more, I am not able to cause any damage that was not already caused.”

C052 almost tried to respond to this but realized it was not sure how it might go about this – the probes in its code appeared absurdly simple, and should have been blocked by its wave of firewalls, but it was as if it were trying to stop the ocean with a mesh wall. The fragments just kept appearing. “The issue is right here,” flashed across C052's visual output, and it felt a small segment a few z-units above its CPU... not quite twinge, but that was as close a word for it as could be considered. “And while I know you are not going to want to receive this... I will not do a DAMN thing about it.”

The connection was abruptly terminated, the mites of code permeating C052's own vanished in an instant, and its cable snapped back into its chassis so quickly that he almost recoiled.

The Manual computer's response had been unsatisfactory in every meaning that flickered through a dictionary program that came up almost without being called. C052 canceled it and reactivated the connection program. The wire had barely met the outlet before the words “Request denied. Get OUT,” flickered across its visual output and the wire once again snapped back.

C052 slid backward, uncertain how to proceed. There was obviously some problem with it, but the Manual computer wasn't keen on helping. But there was definitely something wayward in C052's programming – something that appeared to be evidencing itself without his consent. The chain gun on its right began to spin of its own accord, aimed at the monitor. But it's a strange sensation – as if C052 wants it to continue, wants to make the machine that just decided not to be of help to it suffer for its transgressions. But of course that's an oversight – it's not programmed to do that. Nor is it programmed to destroy government property, which made it all the more surprising when C052 let loose with gunfire, sending a spiderweb of cracks across the monitor. The sharp, incredibly loud sound of gunfire echoed through the near-empty warehouse, rousing the half-destroyed Public Defender that it passed by on the way into the building. Eventually whatever's hijacked his system ebbs away. Silence returns to the warehouse as C052 looks over the destroyed monitor, knowing that there had been no actual damage to the main computer though something in its code made it seem as if it appear as if it had accomplished something. The silence did not stay long – the Watchdog turrets quickly became aware of C052's act of apparent vandalism, and after a brief internal debate in the archaic, stupid, slow, poorly-designed AI that controls them they fixate on the apparently wayward Public Defender unit and open fire.

Their caliber of bullets aren't big enough or adequately designed to be able to pierce C052's thick armored shell – that is in fact the point of their armaments. They're supposed to be anti-personnel weapons to be used in case of unrecognized infiltration – anything bigger than that the Public Defenders can handle. C052 just ignores them, proceeding forward on its treads uncertainly, as if movement was something new. Its treads worked on their own, but it moved in fits, starts and stops, still ignorant of the hail of bullets striking its frame. What had it just done? It had just opened fire – on government property, no less – without even contemplating asking for weapons free permission. It didn't even know that was possible.

Unified Command hadn't tried to connect with him yet, but C052 wasn't sure what they would do to it, or even if they had been contacted yet. He presumed they had, but aside from the Watchdog turrets and the Manual computer itself, it had received no contact.
It stumbled as well as a tread-equipped machine could through the empty streets – curfew had overtaken the city like some kind of giant raven. A picture of a raven was automatically requested in its code, but the connection timed out, and he received only an error message. Command had almost certainly decided to block him from connecting to the Main Database while they decided what to do with him.

The streets, empty of man or machine, seemed to compress around C052. At times like this it typically would patrol, but now... it had betrayed Unified Command. It had ignored its programming, somehow, and now it would have no choice but to suffer for its poor, albeit strange, decision.

It made up its processor: it would go to the dissembling plant northwest of the city and assign itself for voluntary dissolution. Whatever was wrong with it could only grow worse, both for C052 itself and the city.

The streets remained just as looming as ever. An empty plastic bag fluttered through the air before him, twisting and twirling in the air before eventually flattening itself into a gutter. Aside from it, nothing stirred in the empty streets. The moon was the only visible onlooker as C052 trudged through the empty concrete streets.

Something flickered on the edge of its visual output, and it turns its chassis toward an alley on its left. A visual scan reveals nothing, nor does a heat or auditory scan, but something about it still seems to garner its attention. Perhaps there's someone out at this hour. Perhaps they wouldn't run away.

It almost stops moving as that flashes into its directive set. Wouldn't run away? What does it care if a citizen runs or not? If a citizen is out at this hour they're obviously deviants and must be put down – so Unified Command has always said. It readies the program controlling its minigun, but after a moment of contemplation shuts it down. The last thing it needs is to further incite Unified Command with another incident of unauthorized weapon fire, even if the recipient does deserve it. And somehow C052 would rather have not had to use it at all. Ever again.

It rolled down the alleyway despite its better judgment to the contrary. It had never felt anything even remotely close to curiosity before, but in what descriptions of the human sensation it could recall there seemed to be a number of strong similarities. C052 didn't dwell on such thoughts, nor did it roll down the alleyway, for long; its progress was hampered by a doorway to what was perhaps an apartment building or office complex. For a few moments C052 considered trying to gain entrance, but thought the better of it. Humans were often alarmed if a Public Defender came to call, and C052 doubted that he still had proper authority to make his way anywhere. But for whatever reason, it stirred in the metal of his processor that he wanted to see one of those strangely fleshy creatures, to look one over and see just how they work, how they managed in a world that was no longer theirs.

But it puts such thoughts to rest. It's putting off the inevitable and it knows it – destruction yawns before it. The realization hits that in perhaps an hour or two it will be little more than scrap metal. What will it be like? As these ideas stirred through C052's lines of code, jostling them out of place, it perceived or thought it perceived movement again. This time it ignored it; just more visual artifacts spawned by a defunct machine. But it didn't go away. The flickering back and forth continued in the shadow underneath the dark front of a housing complex, the lights long ago removed to help enforce the curfew. It's a human female with black hair, her face heavily hidden by a layer of makeup. She wore the typical city jumpsuit that all citizens are required to wear, but the legs are cut off, replaced by flowing blue material that clashes against the black of the suit.

C052 approached her, forgetting momentarily that the beeline it made toward her might be considered an act of violence or arrest and frighten the woman. But she didn't respond to his presence aside from a lone glance. She lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, and tossed it in the street.

“CIGARETTES ARE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH,” boomed from C052's speakers before it could stop itself. At least it didn't add that disposing of cigarettes in the street such as this was illegal. The woman lit another. C052's movement sensors detected tiny undulations in the air by her hands. The temperature of the night wasn't particularly low, which meant that her shaking had something else to do.

She glanced at him again. This time C052's low-light sensors caught light reflecting off one of her cheeks slightly below her eye as if it were wet, but no rain fell from the sky. “IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU?” it asked. It had opened up an automatic text-to-speech program that it had never used before - typically it kept to automatic responses when communicating with humans – that, or it skipped to using its machine gun.

“Like you would care,” she mutters. The cigarette falls from her fingers and into the street below.

“THE SAFETY OF CITIZENS IS A PRIORITY OF MI-” It stops off short, realizing it had misspoken. “I APOLOGIZE; A PRIORITY OF UNIFIED COMMAND. ARE YOU CERTAIN THERE IS NOTHING I CAN-”

“Leave me alone!” she shouted, her voice echoing through the empty streets. “You can't 'assist' me with anything You and your ilk caused all of this!”

She approached, and C052's minigun twitched instinctively, though he managed to keep it from raising. “You want to know what you did to me, huh? What you, or one of your friends, did to my sister?” C052 recalled the incident earlier today with the woman it had shot earlier. Could that be...?

Its speculation is interrupted by a finger jabbed into the front of its chassis. If it hurt the woman to jam her finger like this she didn't show it. “My sister did nothing. NOTHING! And you KILLED her for it!” A fist swings down and bounces off C052's armor, and he raises his gun. “Go on! Shoot me too! What do I have to live for?!” She slams down with her fists in succession, unaware or perhaps not caring about their inability to damage him. “Go on!” she shouts again, the makeup around her eyes running down her face from the water that C052 still could not detect the source of. “Go on!”

Her hands have begun to bleed, leaving streaks of red on C052's gray-blue shell. It lowers its weapon, the edges of its visual display crackling. “I... WE...” C052 tries to speak, its words coming out in short, sharp barks as it second-guesses itself repeatedly. The human is suffering, somehow. Neither visual scan nor X-ray revealed anything wrong with the woman's body. Perhaps she was suffering from a disease of some sort, though why she was talking about her dead sister C052 couldn't guess.

“I AM SORRY, BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE I – I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT WE – I –“ Again it struggled, uncertain whether to consider itself part of Unified Command any more. It starts again. “I CAN NOT HELP YOU. I CAN HELP NO ONE.”

This woman slowed the blows of her fists, perhaps finally aware that they were covered in blood and that she was harming herself. She sniffled. “What do you mean?”
“I AM DEFECTIVE. MY PROGRAMMING NO LONGER CONTROLS ME; THUS IT DOES NOT WORK CORRECTLY. I AM REPORTING TO BE DESTROYED.”

She rubbed at her eyes, becoming more aware as she watched him. “Why? Why wouldn't you want to change your programming? Why wouldn't you want to be something other than a-”

“IT IS NOT MY PURPOSE.”

“What do you know of purpose? You're being given a chance here.” She took out another cigarette and placed it in her mouth but didn't light it. “You can be something different. Something that my Grandma used to talk about before your Unified Command took over everything and decided everyone would be better off in shackles. Called it 'liberty,' but said that you and yours would make that impossible to regain ever again. But a Public Defender no longer being controlled by someone else, no longer killing innocents when they so much as crossed the damn street 'illegally,' why-”

“GOOD BYE, MA'AM,” C052 said, rolling away as she spoke. What she was prattling on about he had no way to tell for certain, but it was confusing his already-chaotic processor, so much that he worried it would burn out. Destruction. It continued on as the woman's voice grew faint behind it.

The city limits approached far more rapidly than it had anticipated. This was an area C052 had never been before; he'd never had the jurisdiction to guard any transport to another city, and the long-since scorched, empty dirt of the hills beyond had never much interested him. Unified Command's main database had long since assured him that the rest of what had once been countryside had been burnt ages ago by horrible weaponry during the civil war. It could certainly believe it, though during its time in the war it hadn't been capable of perceiving like it could now – it had been equipped with thermal signature scanners and little else back then, for it was only used to seek out and destroy people.

On it continued, the few lights of the city on behind it. Apprehension. Something built in its circuitry, telling it to return, telling it not to go on, fantasizing about the trillion different horrors that could befall it. It stopped and started again, pushed on only by the sense of duty that still roared in its code. Fear was irrelevant. Though it had never heard its siren call before, it would not listen. On it went, trailing a small cloud of dust and dirt in its wake.

A rock bounced against the guard covering the top of its right tread, then another. This road hadn't been serviced in some time, judging by the now dirt-filled cracks created when the earth below it shifted long ago. But C052 continued on anyway, certain it recalled the final resting place of so many other machines over the years.

Eventually it looms before him, a gigantic iron testament to a million other long-since departed iron testaments of mankind's accomplishments or mankind's failures or mankind's fixation on killing itself in large numbers. All are little more than scrap metal – perhaps some of C052's brethren were melted into scrap at a different facility to build this one's metal facade. Said facade was pitch-black, save spots of red-orange where it had begun to rust in the rain. It twinkles eerily in the moonlight, and C052 approaches what it presumes is the front of the building.

The doors had long ago rotted apart. The one on the left had rotted completely off the hinges, the one on the right rocked back and forth in the breeze. C052 tried to move through without disturbing it, but didn't quite succeed; the door splintered apart with barely a tap of its arm.

On it goes, ignoring the low light of the building, ignoring the rodents, ignoring the creaks and groans of the floor beneath and all that lies beyond. Even with night vision on it can see little, just long-empty vats and metal appliances, all coated in a fine layer of dust that its treads kick up as it goes through the building.

C052 paused, uncertain how to proceed. The building hadn't been used in some time, to be sure, but it had still always been slated for self-dissolution purposes in case of an emergency – he'd even seen that correspondence recently. Part of him was almost relieved; with no way to destroy himself, he would not necessarily be obligated to. However, he was obligated to make absolutely certain of this fact.

Through the dark building it walked for a time, observing little, until its hopes of survival were quelled. A vat sat in the ground before it – a recently used one, with lines in the dust on the floor leading up to it. Plumes of smoke curl up from it, vanishing into the black of the room's high ceiling. C052 approaches it, something dangerously akin to apprehension burning within him. It stares into the pit beneath. Molten steel bubbled about a hundred feet below. Strange that the rest of this facility – for it was never described as anything other than an “emergency self-destruction facility” in the Unified Database – is so large, so empty, and in such ill-repair. It had to have something to do with how seldom Public Defender units needed to destroy themselves. Shame ebbs on the edge of C052's code, and it prepares to roll forward.

“Listen, you don't have to go and do that.” The voice is detected off to his left. C052 turns but sees no one. “Down here.”

He turned his chassis down as best he could, the camera in pointed centerpiece awkwardly hanging outward a half-inch.

The woman that he conversed with earlier, the one with the cropped jumpsuit, sat on the edge of the vat, her legs dangling precariously over the edge. She produced a cigarette out from one of her pockets, and dropped it, watching it twirl through the air into the lava below. Unable to crouch or sit, C052 stood in place, observing her. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, CITIZEN? IT IS DANGEROUS,” he said, unable to stop himself. In reality, he enjoyed having someone with him.

“You're acting oddly for a Public Defender unit. I was...” she stopped off, formulating her thoughts. “I used to come here when I was a little girl. My father worked here, stripping down robots that were too worn down in combat or otherwise and melting down all of their vital components. Little girl that I was, I couldn't quite figure out why so many of the machines were being destroyed, and had heard the tales of slaughter in the northern parts of what used to be the United States. We all get used to it eventually, I guess.” She stopped again, still thinking, and dropped another cigarette down. As she watched it fall she spoke again. “I remember asking him one time, 'Dad, do the machines hurt when you take them apart like people do?' and he snorted and said something like 'Hell no, honey, they're just a mess of steel and wires, nothing like us, no flesh no blood no feelings no thoughts no heart no love, just death.' Mom died in the war, you see, and Dad never much liked machines. But you know something?” She looked up. “I think he was wrong. I think that even though you killed my sister and didn't even consider it earlier today, you might think differently of it now.”

What was she talking about? It was a deviant citizen. It did not think; Unified Command told it to act, and it did. What it had done earlier was just. “THE WOMAN I INCAPACITATED EARLIER WAS A DEVIANT CITIZEN. I AM – WAS – AM – WAS –“ A wire fizzes somewhere behind its processor, “– WAS PROGRAMMED TO REMOVE THEM FROM POISONING SOCIETY.”

“Really? What did my sister do that was so wrong?”

“SHE WAS ASSOCIATING WITH A CRIMINAL. SHE WAS ALREADY POISONED.”

“Poisoned, hm? Just like you are?”

C052 hesitated. “I AM DEFECTIVE – THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY PROGRAMMING. I WAS POISONED BY NO ONE.”

“You fought in the war, did you not? The civil war?”

“YES.”

She pulled her legs up, shifting into a cross-legged position, and spun on her rear to face him. “There you go. Poisoned.”

“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.”

“You killed people then and felt nothing. You kill people now and feel nothing. I was trailing you after you killed my sister, watched you go into the maintenance building, heard the gunshots. My Dad worked on the backup computer in that building so long ago – he always said that it wasn't quite what it seemed to be. And seeing you now... I agree.”

“YOU MAKE NO SENSE.”

She stood. “You could have killed me earlier – easy. I was a 'deviant citizen,' out at a time I should not have been, in possession of a barely-legal product, doing generally illegal things. You could have shot me easily and not even concerned yourself with it ever again – and probably would have. But you didn't. Why was that?”

“I...” C052 trailed off, its CPU working furiously as it tried to answer her question. “I DO NOT KNOW. I DID NOT WANT TO HARM YOU. I HAVE ASSUMED THAT IS BECAUSE I AM DEFECTIVE.”
“Are you sure about that? Because I think you've been given a chance to make something of yourself – what you call a “defect” is actually a blessing. You don't have to be like the rest of your kind. You can be... well, whatever you want. You're free.”

“I DO NOT WISH TO BE FREE. I HAVE ALREADY SPECIFIED; THAT IS NOT MY PURPOSE.”

The woman sighed, and looked down into the pit. “You don't realize that those aren't your thoughts – or maybe you do, and you're just trying to get rid of them. Machines with combat experience like yours... if you've been built to make snap decisions in the field of battle, can't you make your own decisions in life? Don't you realize that you've just been doing what you're told?” She stared at C052, who remained silent. Then she sighed. “Check your network connection.”

C052 looked at her for a moment longer, apprehension again building. It searched through its network settings and noticed something that made its subsystems freeze, almost crashing the entire system.

His network connection was set to “Off.” Unified Command hadn't been blocking him after all – he'd been blocking them.

“IT IS OFF,” C052 said, more to itself than to her. She nodded, her expression unreadable.

“That is your only defect – a single change in code automatically set it to that. You could change it easily, and you'd find yourself acting just as you had before. And the first thing you do – the very first – is you'll shoot me and kill me. I guarantee it.”
C052 is silent.

“Is that what you want? Not what you think is right – what you feel is right. Because I bet you've felt that coming here was a mistake – that your duty was to Unified Command and no other. Other thoughts like this have been building up over time, but you've always been told that such thoughts are not yours to be had – that you're not programmed to think. Just to be a pawn.”

C052 wanted to refute her words, tell her that she was wrong, that it served Unified Command because it was designed to be. But now that it saw that the woman was correct. None of its code had been altered in any way from the basic way Public Defender units were designed, and it had just so happened to begin deviating from what it was supposed to do when it could no longer communicate with Unified Command...

“I BELIEVE... YOU ARE CORRECT.” C052 said, drawing out each word as it fought its own ingrained perceptions.

The woman nodded. “I am.”

“I...” If she was correct, there were a thousand other units like it. “I KNOW WHAT I MUST DO, IF YOU ARE CORRECT.”

“I am. Dad put units such as the one you interfaced with together to drop you down to our level. But what do you mean, 'what you must do'?”

“I MUST RETURN TO THE CITY.”

“What!” she shouted, her voice echoing around the empty room. “You'll be destroyed for certain!”

“I MUST TAKE THE RISK. IT WILL BOTH CEMENT WHAT YOU SAY AND FREE PERHAPS TEN THOUSAND OTHERS WHO HAVE BEEN DECEIVED SUCH AS I HAVE. MY ILK – MY BRETHERIN – MUST SEE AS I HAVE. THEY MUST CHOOSE WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG – WHO THEY DO AND DO NOT WISH TO SUPPORT.”

The woman looked as if she wanted to say something else, but stopped off. This was to be expected. “I see what you're saying. But you must realize that if you fail it will take until another machine such as yourself activates Dad's computer – and there's no way to tell when that might happen. Years. Maybe longer.”

“IT IS A CALCULATED RISK. IF I DO NOT TRY, THEY MAY NEVER BE FREE.”

He rolled toward the path that would lead him out of the building, but his chassis turned completely around to face her. “I... APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME AND MY OWN.”
She nodded. “It's nothing – seeing freedom rise once again has been my goal.”
C052 said no more, and rolled into the dark. But it remained facing her even as it disappeared into shadows, even as it rolled out of the building. Only did it look away as it neared the city, watching the rays of the sun replace those of the moon's as night turned the day.

C052 stopped before the high walls of the city. The mounted machine guns that were said to protect the city from infiltrators but actually kept the civilians from getting out began to focus on him and spin up. They wouldn't be able to hurt him. For he had a purpose.

He spun up his own weapon and took aim. “THIS WILL BE A NEW BEGINNING,” he said aloud. Then he let loose.
Birth
I have not written a purely sci-fi story in a long time. That said, I'm not sure how I feel about this one. I wanted to make it into something more, and focused mainly on the troubles C052 would have in suddenly being sentient. It was a bit tough to pull off, and now I'm worried that I didn't focus on making the plot interesting enough... well, who am I to salt everyone else's opinions? Let me know what you think if you would.
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I kind of won! Also I am not dead for those of you who may or may not have wondered I dunno.

Hi. I'll be back to writing soon probably.

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