Disclaimer 1: This story is intended for adults. While there is no explicit sex within the story, there are allusions to sexual acts, including sex slavery, prostitution, underage sex, pregnancy, extramarital affairs, and chipmunks. If it is illegal to read this story where you are, don't read it. All characters in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to actual people is coincidental.
Disclaimer 2: The copyright stance taken by Universal Music Group within this story is purely speculative. To my knowledge, neither Universal Music Group nor U2 have stated their policy on intellectual property rights in the event of a pre-apocalyptic interstellar diaspora. You will have to ask them yourself.
Foreword: This story takes place in the Swarm Cycle shared story universe, created by Thinking Horndog. This story will probably be an exceptionally confusing entry point for a newcomer to the Swarm Cycle. If you are not familiar with the premise of this universe, I would recommend you first read Thinking Horndog's stories 'Average Joes' and 'Pickup Number Eighteen'. (Bonus: Those stories have sex in them.)
by Bad Line Ghoul
August 17, Year 3
"I come bearing gifts," Sergeant Hulegu said, entering the office.
"Hello, Hoola," Decurion Brett Melman said, not looking up from his work. "What did I win? I hope it's not more traumatized spare concubines."
"Hulegu," the female Marine grumped, "Hoo-lay-goo. It's not that hard."
"You need a nickname." The Civil Service officer looked up with a warm smile. "It looks like you need tea, too."
"Yes, please." She slumped in a chair, her proud Mongolian features betraying her exhaustion. "I need more than tea, but the hard stuff is putrid up here. And I was raised on fermented goat milk."
Melman stood to prepare the tea. "That's why you need a nickname, Hoola. You already look and speak like you stepped right out of the Golden Horde. You scare people."
"It's useful to be scary," she replied.
"Sometimes." He glanced across the room. Optio Pribbles was jamming paperwork into the filing cabinet like she was trying to kill Sa'arm in the bottom of the folders. "Sometimes it's a drawback."
Hulegu followed his gaze, curious. "Isn't that the volunteer Blake brought up the other day?" she asked quietly. "The rural girl, from his first pickup? I thought she was going to the Marines."
The little blonde teen began to slam the filing drawer open and shut furiously, banging as loudly as she could and growling through clenched teeth.
"Yes, she was," Melman said quietly. He raised his voice, but maintained his usual soothing tone. "Chastity, calm down please. You remember our talk about office decorum."
"Yes, Commander," she said. She looked at Sgt. Hulegu's uniform with envy.
"Decurion," Melman corrected. He turned back to his Marine guest, handing her a cup of tea. "So, Hoola, you said you had a gift for me. Is it oysters?"
"No, not the oysters. I found you some staff," the sergeant said, a little uncomfortably. "We picked him up at a resort spa in Germany. He specifically requested Civil Service."
"Excellent!" Melman beamed. "That is a gift, but I doubt I'll get to keep him -- the colonies need staffing far more than Artemis Base. I hope he's not afraid of hard work."
"I've seen the sub-scores, and his work ethic is excellent. In fact..." she paused, looking around. "Your conks aren't working in the office today, are they?"
"No," he replied, "they're with the spares down the hall, setting up the brothel for tonight. Why?"
"Jezebels!" Chastity shrieked from her filing cabinet. "Wanton painted whores!"
"That's enough, Optio Pribbles," he said firmly, closing his eyes in frustration. "Take your lunch break."
"I already did!" the girl objected.
"Then take a second lunch," he insisted. "You're eating for two now. And remember..."
"Stay aware from the spares," Chastity finished. She stormed from the room, giving the drawer of the filing cabinet a final slam.
"Apologies," he told Hulegu. "That girl will make a fine Marine in nine months, but she's a complete disaster as a CS officer." He opened his eyes brightly. "But enough about my worries, tell me about this new gentleman."
The Marine looked even more uncomfortable. "AI, display the dossier for Volunteer Wladislaw Pognanski. And tell Blake to escort him to the Decurion's office."
A standard dossier layout appeared on the wall -- standard, except for the flashing red border. Melman didn't notice the border, his eyes had snapped to the overall CAP score, displayed in bold type.
"7.6!" He squealed with glee, then ran over to the wall display, looking over the sub-scores. "Maximum scores on empathy, leadership, personnel organization, paternal instinct! Damn close to maximum on basic intelligence! Not very aggressive, but that's an asset for us! For Civil Service purposes, he's effectively a nine or a ten!"
Melman read on, his heart in his throat. "Basic engineering background ... how on earth was this gentleman just a simple dockworker? Oh, looks like he has trouble following orders. Well, I suppose that's no matter, we don't have a lot of middle management. With scores like this, he'll be running a planetary CS office from the word go! And ... wait ... what's this flag?" The note read 'Do Not Transport To Colony!!!', with the current date.
"Dockworker doesn't quite cover his old job," Hulegu murmured.
"AI, what are the details on this flag?" Melman asked.
<<Volunteer Pognanski was a labor organizer in Gdansk, >> the AI replied from the wall.
Hulegu put her hands up defensively. "Maybe gift was the wrong choice of words."
<<At his pickup, he insisted that his own concubines unionize against him. He encouraged the concubines of other volunteers to do the same.>>
"Unionize?" Melman's face went pale.
<<He was very enthusiastic on the subject.>>
"Hoola, what were you thinking?" He sat down slowly. "Don't you understand what we do here?" He drank down the rest of his tea, his hand shaking. "We're not like the colonial Civil Service offices, we rarely have to deal with 'widowed' or 'orphaned' concubines. Our main job here is rehabilitating new concubines who can't adjust, teaching them to be happy as, well, as breeding stock and property."
"I know, Brett," she assured him. "Remember? You took on Tasha when I couldn't handle her, gave me Alice instead. She's been great, by the way, she's really gotten close to Gregor."
The CS officer nodded. "So you, of all people, should see the problem. I'm all for improved conditions for concubines, I've fought for it tooth and nail, but, but, this? Here? Introducing an idea like collective bargaining would make it impossible for these people to adjust to their status. This man could undo everything this office has done!"
Hulegu sighed. "I know, and I looked for somewhere else to stash him. I tried every other posting I could. DECO flat out refuses to put him on a transport ship, they're afraid he might inadvertently start a rebellion."
"Yes, a fair concern," Melman agreed.
"That leaves assignments here in Earthat," she continued. "He can't do extractions, he'd contaminate all the new conks."
"No, we couldn't have that," he said, "my office would be swamped. We're stretched too thin as it is."
"Command won't take him, they don't want him anywhere near their conks. I brought him over to Logistics, he should be perfect for them. They laughed as soon as they saw him, then ran us out of the office when they read the file." Hulegu sighed. "Then my CO, Lt. Amiens, got wind of the guy. He insisted I get rid of him immediately. Actually, he ordered me to space him, but the AI stepped in."
Just then, the door opened and two men entered. Melman had met one of them -- Private Ed Blake, who had brought in a handful of concubines who had been rejected by their sponsor. The second man looked to be in his sixties. He was bald, with a bristly walrus mustache, an idiotic grin, and twinkling blue eyes. His C-cup man-breasts rested comfortably atop the spare tire around his belly. He was only wearing a Speedo. The first impression was of the illicit love child of Santa Claus and a manatee.
"Oh Lord," Melman said under his breath.
"He did request Civil Service," Sergeant Hulegu said.
"Hello boss!" the man smiled vacantly, waving.
"Decurion," Blake saluted smartly. "May I present your newest employee, Wola ... Wulda..." Blake shrugged. "Call him Pogs, he seems to like it."
Pogs laughed, still waving idly.
Melman rubbed his fingers over the bridge of his nose. "A pleasure. I'm Decurion Brett Melman. You should know, Optio..."
<<Due to his high CAP score, Wladislaw Pognanski has been granted an initial rank of Signifer.>>
"Lovely," Melman sighed. "As I was saying, Signifer, we have a dress code in this office. If you would be so kind, use that replicator to make yourself a Civil Service uniform."
Pognanski plodded over to the corner and began happily conversing with the wall in Polish.
Blake sat. "Speaking of uniforms, I passed that Pribbs kid in the hall, wearing CS gray. Why isn't she in the Marines?"
Melman nodded. "It's only temporary. She was impregnated during her extraction, and the AIs want her away from any dangerous tasks until she gives birth. Apparently, we're the safest department in the sector."
"Why not just send her to a Marine colony while she waits?" Blake asked.
"They want to wait and see where the staffing needs are, at that time. In the mean time, we're a horrible fit." Melman shook his head. "I don't understand it. She appears to deal fine with her own concubines, and mine, but she can't resist shaming the spares. She's always calling them whores, telling them to repent, so on. Lord knows why she draws the line there."
Blake stared carefully at a corner of the desk. "Yeah, that is weird."
In the corner, Pogs was still chattering away in Polish, rapidly skimming through the replicator catalog.
Blake looked plaintively at his superior. "Sarge, can we go now?" He glanced back at the near-naked Pole. "It's been a really long day."
Hulegu stood. "Yeah, I think we're done here."
"Wait!" Melman said. "As much as I ... appreciate ... your help with staffing, I did have that other request. What about my oysters?"
"Sorry Brett, we tried." Hulegu shrugged her shoulders. "We couldn't find a single oyster farm with an employee over 6.5."
"I don't need the employees, I need the oysters!" Melman insisted. "The Legate is dead set on setting up oyster farms for colonial CS offices. He thinks it's the perfect business to pair with the brothels -- an object lesson in explosive population growth, with high virility snacks as a bonus." He ran his hand over his balding scalp. "Ridiculously impractical, of course, but somehow that's my fault."
The sergeant spread her hands helplessly. "Out of my hands. We only go down if we can bring back people. Apparently, seafood is a low-CAP industry."
"Hoola," Melman nodded toward Pognanski, "you owe me."
Blake laughed as he left the room. "Hoola, that's a great nickname! Wait 'til I tell the guys."
Hulegu left too, calling after Blake. "Don't you dare, Private!"
Melman slumped back in his chair, alone with his speedo-wearing employee. 'The Legate just won't let go on this oyster business, and he's the only one holding those DECO Neanderthals at bay, ' he thought. He closed his eyes, feeling the migraine about to erupt. "Politics," he muttered. 'All I wanted to do was help some wayward concubines. Instead I waste my time on politics. And seafood. And now, naked Poles.'
Pognanski took an oversize uniform out of the replicator and began to pull it on. "Boss is worried. Understand why. Organized concubines cause problems. Pogs understand." He pointed to the rank insignia on his uniform, laughing. "Am management now."
"So," Melman asked hopefully, "you don't want to unionize them?"
Pogs looked completely befuddled. "Of course want to unionize! Negotiate with slaves no fun!" He shrugged. "Don't worry, will let you handle conks. Pogs stay away, make boss comfortable."
"And what, exactly," Melman asked, "will you be doing to contribute?"
"Pogs has good plan, but needs help," he grinned. "You give Pogs one week. Workshop, little Earth cash, one day with transporter. Maybe Pribbs girl to help." A manic gleam entered his eyes. "Pogs brings Boss oysters."
August 23, Year 3
Chastity Pribbles fumed as she watched the returning extraction team filter back into the transporter hub. 'It should be me, ' she thought. 'This child is keeping me from my destiny as a Warrior of Christ! I should be out battling the Devil's Swarm in the name of God, but instead I'll be filing stupid papers for nine months.'
She watched the newly Chosen milling about, their handmaidens clustering around. 'I can't even serve as a shepherd for the saved, as Private Blake did for me.' Her 5'2'' was too short for extraction duty, and the doctors said modifications had to wait until after the child was born. 'Why did He choose me if He has no use for me? What is His plan?'
Melman had assigned her to work under Pognanski for the past week. She hadn't actually spent any time with the mysterious man -- she'd barely met him. He'd been doing lots of secret work in his workshop. At least he'd allowed her to spend the week in the trainer, preparing to be a Marine. But today would be better. They were going down to Earth. They had a mission.
Chastity saw Private Blake walking over with a Marine sergeant. 'Hoola, ' she thought, 'some friend of Melman's.' She quickly checked that her gray Civil Service uniform was spotless, and offered a sharp salute to the two Marines.
"At ease, Optio Pribbles," Hoola said quickly, rolling her eyes. "Are you here to take the spares for orientation? 'Cause we don't have any this trip."
Chastity spat on the floor. "Good. The Unchosen belong on Earth with the rest of the sinners."
Blake looked uncomfortable. "So, um, why are you here, Pribbs?"
"I'm going to Earth on a mission!" Chastity beamed. "Ensign -- I mean, Signifer Pognanski will give me the details when he arrives." She hated the stupid Civil Service ranks. She hated the stupid Civil Service.
Hoola and Blake shared a meaningful look. "Pogs planned a mission?" Blake asked, surprised.
Chastity nodded. "He's kept all the details secret. He scored well over seven, he must be a truly great soul!"
Hoola and Blake shared another look. "There are different kinds of greatness," Hoola said carefully. "Have either of you had any Marine training?"
Chastity stood up a little straighter. "I've taken 74 hours in the trainer so far, 22 of those hours in Extraction Tactics. I can't speak for the Signifer."
At a nod from Hoola, Blake unhooked his pack and handed it to Chastity. "You should know how to use all this," Blake said. "Keep it close, just in case things go a little sideways."
The young girl took the pack reverently. Before she could thank the two marines, they both looked vacantly up at the ceiling.
'What are you saying?' she sub-vocalized to the AI through her comm chip. 'What's going on?'
<<'Go away, '>> the AI replied in her inner ear.
"We've gotta go, these guys are getting unruly." Blake pointed over his shoulder at the new volunteers. "Stay safe, kid."
Chastity watched the marines hurry into the crowd. 'AI, why won't you talk to me?' she asked. 'You're supposed to be helping me.'
<<'We've been over this. You need to get serious about optimizing your household for breeding. Until you do, we'll only talk to you in emergencies.'>>
'Disgusting, ' Chastity told the AI. 'No way I'm taking on a girl conk.' She glanced at the crowd of new volunteers, zeroing in on a female sponsor and her mostly female concubines. 'I'm a girl, I picked boy conks. That's the way it should be.' "I'm not going to sin with some girls just to please you, you perverted computer!" she shouted out loud.
The AI didn't respond, but several people stared.
'I don't need help from the stupid AI, anyway, ' she thought, 'I have the Lord!' She realized she was still holding Blake's field pack. 'And the Marines!' She dropped to her knees and looked through the pack. 'Stinger, hypno-pad, repulsor field generator, and ... ewww.' She extracted the bottle of lubricant and quickly walked across the room to toss it in the recycler.
"Hello, little Pribbs," Signifer Pognanski boomed from behind her. "Ready for secret mission?"
Chastity turned, then froze. Pognanski was out of uniform, pushing a two-wheeled dolly. On the dolly rested a washing machine. On the washing machine rested a bulging plastic trash bag.
"Wha ... wha ... huh?" she asked.
The older man laughed and threw his hands in the air. "We go get oysters! Confederacy need oysters! Pribbs and Pogs will get! Big fun!"
'Oysters?' she thought. 'That's my mission? Fetching someone's fudging lunch?!?'
The signifer continued with his idea of a briefing. "Only one rule for mission. Keep secret from civilians -- no uniforms, no tech left behind, everything disguise. Sorry, Pogs should have told you no uniform. Is all good, Pogs arrange cover stories. Did research on American fishing peoples."
"Washing machine?" Chastity asked stupidly.
<<Hi.>> The cycle indicator lit up as the machine spoke.
He laughed long and hard. "Favorite part of disguise! Is mobile replicator and scanner. Could not get small scanners like marines, they would not share. So Pogs build his own! It has self-blow-up feature, in case left behind, no evidence. Adapters to accept media inputs. Camera to record mission success." He pointed to the control panel. "Has own AI. Is little bit stupid, very small brain, need memory space for patterns. Is called Mobile Operations Replication Transcoder."
"I name him Stan." Pognanski smiled placidly.
"Um, sir?" she asked carefully, "wouldn't it be easier to just bring the oysters back through the transporter, then put them in a regular replicator?"
"Part of plan. Pribbs will see," he winked at her. "And no 'sir', call me Pogs. Now, put this on!" He pulled out a pair of yellow raincoats and handed the smaller one to Chastity.
"Is it raining there?" she asked, putting the raincoat on. "You know, the Confederacy has waterproof fabrics."
"Not for rain, for cover story." Pogs emptied the bag and picked up a bright yellow, wide brimmed rain hat. He put it on with a grin. "Am Gorton's Fisherman!" He picked up the last item. It was an umbrella. "Pribbs is Morton Salt Girl!" He opened the umbrella and handed it to her.
Chastity stared at him from beneath the umbrella, speechless for a moment. "Pogs? Sir?" She took a deep breath. "These aren't cover stories. They aren't even real people. These are corporate mascots. And I don't think the Salt Girl wears a raincoat."
"Of course wears raincoat! Why else umbrella?" He waved his hand dismissively. "Details not matter, no one run background check. Important thing, not look like Confederacy." He gave her a thumbs up. "Success, yes? Come, time for mission." He wheeled Stan over toward the transporter pads.
Chastity discarded the umbrella and ran to grab Blake's pack, then joined Pogs.
<<Please hold.>> The transporter room AI stopped them before they could leave. <<Confirming authorization.>>
They waited for a moment. Pogs hummed happily.
<<Please hold. Confirming again.>>
Chastity tightened the straps on her pack and said a prayer.
<<Confirmed. You actually do have authorization. Please proceed.>>
"Pogs, this does not look like the place to find oysters." Chastity looked around. They had teleported directly underneath a short pier. To either side was a long stretch of beach with scattered swimmers and sunbathers. Dunes, topped with long tufts of grass, largely screened the two of them from the beach.
Pogs laughed. "Silly Pribbs, oysters not here. This is hidden exit! No one look under pier. Oysters at fish market, we walk. Half mile north." He pointed up the beach. Then he frowned and pointed down the beach in the opposite direction. Finally, he shrugged. "One of those ways."
She groaned. "AI, do you..."
"Stan!" Pogs interrupted.
"Fine." She rolled her eyes. "Stan, do you know the local time?"
Chastity eyeballed the position of the sun, then pointed up the beach. "North is that way." She looked at the beach-goers again. "We're not going across the beach, are we? We look like perverts in these coats."
"No no no," he answered, "not perverts, fishermen. Keep cover straight, Pribbs! But not walk on beach, beach boring. Up and along boardwalk. More to see there!"
Pogs began to push the dolly up toward the street. Before he had rolled ten feet, the dolly started to sink into the sand. "Oops!" He worked the dolly back and forth. It sank deeper. "Hmm. Is small problem."
"Yes, Stan. Stuck." Pogs looked down at the half buried wheels, scratching his head.
"This isn't going to work, sir," Chastity warned. "We need to abort."
"No!" he insisted. "No abort! Have big plan, must complete mission!" He started to meander away, kicking the sand in frustration.
"Jiminy Cricket," Chastity muttered. 'If he's gonna insist on doing this, we'll need a track to move this piece of junk.' She took off her pack, desperately looking inside for something that might help. Then she froze, fingering the material of the pack. 'Might be stiff enough.'
"Stan," she asked, "you're a replicator, right? Can you replicate four more copies of this backpack?"
<<Need materials. HYDROGEN-CARBON-NITROGEN-OXYGEN-TRACES.>>
"Dang it," she muttered. She looked up to see Pogs wandering back, holding a seashell to his ear. He opened Stan's door and tossed the shell inside.
"Can hear ocean in space now!" Pogs beamed.
"Forget hearing the stupid ocean," Chastity said. "We can use those to move this thing. Go find more shells, driftwood, stuff like that. Anything organic or carbon-based."
Pogs bounced up and down. "Now Pribbs getting in spirit! Lots of fun stuff!" He ran off down the beach.
"Idiot." Pribbs moved her search back under the pier, gathering up some seaweed and rocks. She scraped a few barnacles off one of the pier supports before returning to Stan. She tossed the bundle into the machine.
<<NO! Need to scan. One at a time.>>
"I don't want to scan," she snapped, "I'm just giving you material. Why would I care about scanning random ... oh God." She turned to look down the beach. She saw her superior officer offering money to a small child, then taking the child's plastic beach toys. "Stan," she asked slowly, "what was your full title again?"
<<Mobile Operations Replication Transcoder. M.O.R.T.>>
"Replication Transcoder," she repeated, a sinking feeling deep in her gut. "That means recording replicator patterns? How many patterns are you built to hold?" She watched Pognanski picking up a discarded soda can.
<<Memory for thousands of new patterns. Stan will scan! Stan will scan!>>
'We're here for junk.' Chastity slumped down on the sand. 'We're not really here for oysters, we're here for completely useless junk. That's the real mission -- we're beachcombers from space.' "Well fudge me."
<<One at a time. Stan will scan!>>
"FINE!" she yelled. She yanked open the washing machine's door and tossed the contents onto the sand. She tossed the seaweed back in.
<<NOOOO! IT'S ALIVE!>>
She took the seaweed out and put in a rock instead. 'Of course, ' she thought, 'replicators can't create living creatures.'
Chastity replaced the rock with a handful of barnacles.
<<NOOOO! IT'S ALIVE!>>
"Really? Those things are alive?" She took the barnacles out, then smashed them violently between two of the rocks. 'God that feels good.' The crushed remains got tossed back into Stan. "Better?"
"Whatchya doin'?" Chastity turned at the sound of a young voice. She saw a young boy, maybe 9 or 10, in swim trunks. He was holding a half-eaten hot dog, and staring back and forth between Chastity and Stan. "Who are you?" the boy asked.
"We're fishermen," she replied. 'He's gonna see right through this.' She quickly rummaged through Blake's equipment, and pulled out the hypno-pad. "Here, this will explain everything." She handed the boy the hypno-pad.
The boy took the pad without thinking, and stared into the depths of the swirling pattern. He looked up in alarm. "You're BLAARRGH!" The child blew chunks of vomit all over the sand, making his own swirly pattern.
'Hmm, ' she thought, grabbing the pad back. 'It's preset to vomit. That won't work, it'll draw too much attention.'
The boy pointed at her and vomited again. "BLAARRGH! BLAARRGGHH!"
"That's right," Chastity said coldly, looking him in the eye. "I'm Blargh. Who are you going to tell about it? Try to tell anyone, you'll puke your brains out." She gestured vaguely up the beach. "Run along and pray for salvation."
The child ran away as fast as he could. The boy only paused as he passed Pogs, pointed, and vomited. Chastity watched the big idiot lumber back toward her, his arms full of junk. She turned her attention back to the hypno-pad, setting it for short-term memory loss.
"Boy dropped half hot dog!" Pogs beamed as he tossed the wiener in the washing machine. "Was wrong about beach, lot of good stuff!" He dumped his haul onto the ground. She looked over his treasure.
A plastic sand pail and shovel. A volleyball. A used condom. A crushed Pepsi can. A miniature wooden ship's wheel, badly cracked and warped. A punctured pair of Water-Wings. A pornographic magazine. A single flip-flop.
Pogs replaced the hot dog with the condom, then sat and started to eat the hot dog.
"Do you think this is some kind of game?" Chastity asked. "You think you can just beam down to Earth and play with junk on Confederacy time, and no one is going to call you out on it? We were Chosen for a reason, we're supposed to be doing something important!"
"Is important!" he insisted. "Understand, am not warrior. Not trusted with others' conks. Hard to fit in to Confederacy." He popped the remainder of the hot dog into his mouth, and continued with his mouth full. "Pogs realize where he fits in. Silly peoples fight war. War important, but peoples silly. Silly peoples will need silly things. Things they not think of." He pointed to his head. "Pogs do silly thinking for busy peoples."
<<Item scanned.>> Pogs took out the condom and threw in the plastic pail.
"You can't just make up a job for yourself," she argued. "I should teleport back up right now and report you. What do you think will happen then?"
"Can't go back without oysters!" he looked up with alarm. "Boss will be mad! Pogs will be stuck doing filing!" He slumped, then gave a wan smile. "Might not be too bad. Can spend more time with Pribbs!"
'I have to put a stop to this.' Chastity thought. 'It doesn't matter if I'm stuck with him all the time. How bad can it be?'
Pogs blew into the condom, inflating it, then tied off the end.
She wrinkled her nose. 'It's only for eight and a half months, then I transfer to the Marines. Thirty-six weeks. I can cope with him for that long.'
Pogs held up the inflated condom. "Pribbs know how to make giraffe, like party clown?"
'No, I can't.' Optio Pribbles closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate. She stood. "You stay here. I'm going to get more rocks."
Pogs looked confused. "Should get new things. Already have a rock." He held the rock up and pointed. "See?"
"I DON'T CARE!!" She pointed angrily down at Pogs. "I'm going to get more rocks, so we can get enough material stock, so we can make more backpacks, so we can get some traction, so we can get this hunk of bolts up off the beach. I'll get you out of this, with your oysters, on one condition -- we never, ever, work together again."
"On three," Chastity said. "One ... two ... THREE!" She and Pogs grunted as they heaved Stan a couple inches up and onto the lip of the boardwalk. They both sat down next to Stan to catch their breath, sweating heavily.
The sun beat down on their raincoats from high in the sky. It had taken a couple hours just to get the machine up the beach -- Pogs pushing the dolly, Chastity laying track, picking up the backpacks behind the dolly, then placing them down in front. The backpacks hadn't worked well empty, but filled with crushed barnacles, they functioned like a portable stretch of gravel road.
She stashed the bags of barnacles under the boardwalk, heaping some sand to camouflage them. "We'll re-use them on the way down," she said, "I don't want to waste another half hour gathering material stock."
"You folks need a hand?" a bicyclist asked, looking at them quizzically.
"No," Chastity sighed, "we're just taking a survey." She rummaged in her pack, dug out the hypno-pad, and handed it to the bicyclist. "Fill this out please." She had already dealt with half a dozen interlopers on the way up the beach.
The stranger looked up from the pad, blinking stupidly. "What was I saying?"
She took the pad from the man. "You were looking for a restroom." She turned the man around and pointed to an information kiosk. "Try asking them."
"Oh, thanks." The man wandered away.
"Pogs can move now," her partner wheezed, rising to his feet.
"Good," she replied, "because there's no stopping from here on out. To the oysters, then back." She looked up the road, which was mostly empty. "Not much foot traffic up here, good." 'Maybe we won't have to answer questions every 30 feet. Thank God he picked a scuzzy beach on a Tuesday. We'd be doomed on a weekend.'
The two of them began to walk north. "So why are you so out of shape?" Chastity asked. "Why not get a better body from the med-tubes?"
"No body requirement for Civil Service. Do not want stranger body, want to stay self." He shrugged. "Pogs is Pogs," he said, as if that explained everything. "Why Pribbs no change? Same reason, yes?"
She snorted. "I'd change in a heartbeat. My size is the only reason I'm stuck in the stupid Civil Service -- If I was larger, I could at least be doing extractions."
He looked confused. "So why little Pribbs still little Pribbs?"
"I can't have my body modified, not right now," she answered. "I'm pregnant."
Pogs stopped pushing the dolly and started spinning on the spot, hopping up and down while clapping excitedly. "Wonderful! Pribbs have little Pribbka!"
"Calm down and push Stan," she snapped. "Why don't you talk normal, anyway? We have translators and language trainers."
"Already speak English," he laughed. "Is language of docks! Well, is one of them." He shrugged and began rolling the dolly again. "Space and Earth, Pogs understands peoples, peoples understand Pogs. English not perfect, but works fine. Why wanting perfect?"
"Why not?" she exploded. "Don't you understand how special we are? We're the future! We have a destiny!" She lowered her voice to avoid attracting attention. "We need to be perfect, the best we can be -- humanity is starting over, through us."
Pogs looked down at her quizzically. "Everyone start over as perfect, humanity really die."
"Spare me," Chastity huffed. "We can still save souls. The best souls. People may miss things about this rotten world, but we need to..."
"ICE CREAM!" Pogs shouted, pushing Stan toward the vendor at a run.
" ... set priorities," she finished with a sigh. She ran to catch up to Pogs, who was looking over the vendor's wares excitedly. "Pogs, we have ice cream at home."
"Bah," he waved her away, "boring flavors. Always new flavors." He addressed the ice cream vendor. "Three scoops, please. Peanut Butter, Bubbles-Gum, and Pickle!"
The vendor took the money and handed Pogs his ice cream cone. Pogs tossed the ice cream cone into the washing machine. Chastity started looking for her hypno-pad.
"Um..." the vendor stared at the washing machine, then at the two raincoat-clad customers. "Can I help you with anything else?"
"No." Pogs blinked happily at the man.
Pogs took the smushed ice cream cone out of the washing machine, and offered it back to the vendor. "Refund?"
The vendor blinked back at him. "No."
"Take a look at this," Chastity said, handing the man the hypno-pad. While the vendor was entranced by the swirling pattern, she hissed at Pogs. "Stop making a scene!"
"Pribbs need cheer up," Pogs replied, handing her the cone. "Have ice cream." He rolled the dolly away.
"Wait! We can't go yet!" Chastity called after Pogs, but he ignored her. As soon as the vendor came to, she snatched the pad away from him. "We're health inspectors, you just passed," she explained to the vendor. "Have a nice day."
She ran to catch up with Pogs. "Don't wander off like that!" she scolded him.
"But look, convenience store!" Pogs said excitedly.
"NO!" she shouted, jumping in front of the dolly to bar his path. "We need to be discreet! You can't just wheel a washing machine into a store and expect no one will notice!"
He nodded in understanding. "Little Pribbs is right. Stay and guard Stan, Pogs go alone." He ran off and into the store.
"No! That's not what I meant! Come back, Pogs!" she desperately shouted after him. 'I can't leave Confed technology lying around on the street. Even if it is just Stan.' She tried to roll the machine out of sight, but it was too heavy for her. She slumped to the ground with her back to the machine. 'I do need ice cream.' She pushed the pickle-flavored scoop off the cone and licked at the Bubble-Gum while she waited. "Making a delivery!" she snapped at any passers-by who glanced her way.
"Back now!" Pogs called out a few minutes later, walking up with a couple of shopping bags. He opened Stan's door to toss something in, but Chastity slammed it shut immediately.
"No more scanning," she said. "We need oysters, nothing else."
"No, already bought," he insisted. "Music, Peanut M&Ms, nose-plug, jerky, yo-yo, DVDs! And second most important thing, after oysters!" He held up a bag of diapers.
"We already have diapers!" she hissed. "We're popping out babies fast as we can, you really think the Confederacy forgot diapers?"
"Not for babies," Pogs explained. "Is adult-size!"
Chastity sputtered. "Why would we ... the med-tubes can fix ... AAAGGGHHH! Fine! Fine! We can scan your junk, but roll Stan into an alley first, we can't do this in the street."
The sun was dropping in the sky by the time they finally rolled the washing machine up to the Swashbuckler's Reef Restaurant and Fish Market. "This is our last stop," Chastity hissed, "then we go home! Let me do the talking, not a peep out of you!"
"No peep!" Pogs nodded, "will wait outside with Stan."
'Shoot!' she thought. 'I can't leave him outside, he'll wander off to scan dog-poop or something.' "No, you and the tin can come in with me. I'll use the pad to handle any awkward questions." She jammed a finger at his face. "But I'm serious, don't talk! Not a single peep!"
"No peep," he confirmed.
They wheeled into the market, barely squeezing Stan through the door. Tanks of fresh seafood lined the walls, with a small counter and eating area toward the back. Luckily, there were no other customers. Chastity walked up to the counter, Pogs following behind. 'Good, only one employee on duty. Somehow, we must have beaten the dinner crowd.' The employee wore a fake eye-patch, and a plastic parrot was tied awkwardly to his shoulder, listing sideways. His name tag read 'Ahoy, Matey! I be Pirate Bob!'
"Welcome to Swashbuckler's Reef," Pirate Bob said in a flat, bored voice. "Will ye be needing seating, or seek ye the freshest seafood, straight from Davey Jones' locker, to bring back to ye own galley?" He finished the speech and slurped Mountain Dew noisily through a straw.
Chastity smiled. "I'd like a half-pint of fried oysters, please." She felt a tug on her raincoat.
"One sec," Pirate Bob replied. He turned away from the counter and started shoveling up fried oysters from beneath a heat lamp.
There was another tug on her raincoat. "Pogs need peep."
Pirate Bob came back with a small cardboard container of fried oysters. "Seven fifty, please. What's with the washing machine?"
"Here you go, keep the change." She handed Pirate Bob a ten-dollar bill and a hypno-pad. "What is it, Pogs?"
"Boss not want oysters cooked," Pogs whispered.
"Now you tell me," Chastity snapped. She wrinkled her nose. "Raw oysters, gross."
Pirate Bob blinked up from the hypno-pad. "Uh, sorry, what was your order again?"
She smiled as she took the pad back. "One pound of raw oysters, please."
"One sec." Pirate Bob walked out from behind the counter and scooped some oysters out of one of the tanks. "Twelve seventy-five. Sorry, we don't shuck 'em for you."
'What's shucking?' Chastity wondered. "No problem. Here you go." She handed Bob some money and the hypno-pad, and took the oysters. 'Finally, mission accomplished.' "Pogs," she said, "go lock the door." She tossed the bag of oysters into the washing machine.
<<NOOOO! IT'S ALIVE!>>
"Dang!" she shouted. "These are alive, too?"
"Is ok, Stan," Pogs called. "Not alive like kitty-cat alive, is stinky-slimy alive. Pogs promise it not count."
<<NOOOO! IT'S ALIVE!>>