Story: Sprite & Sprites.

Two glasses of diet lemon-lime soda sat between Colin and Janet. It was a particularly nice day in Chicago, in a restaurant within walking distance of Azure Planet Software, Janet’s workplace.

“Sprite Zero? Really?” Janet said.
“Try it. You’ll probably like it.” Colin said.

Janet took a sip, tasting the drink slightly. After a hum of approval, she proceeded to drink more.

“See?” Colin said.
“I knew I would like it. It’s just something I wouldn’t have ordered before.” Janet said.

Colin tapped his glass with the four fingers on his right hand.

“I saw the cases of Sprite in your pantry, Tron. Pick up a case of this next time you’re at the store.” Colin said.

Janet sipped her drink. Colin followed suit.

“How’s work, anyway?” Colin asked.
“Oh, you know. I sit at a computer for six hours.” Janet said.
“Y’know, one of our brand reps loves your software. He plays one of the games a lot. Something with cookies on it…”
Cookie Chaos? Yeah, that’s based on an old video game that Nintendo made back in the day.”

Colin checked his watch. 5:45 PM.

“Never was a video game fan. I had a Nintendo. Never got past the second dungeon in The Legend of Zelda…” Colin said.
“I can tell you aren’t a gamer.” Janet said.
“How so?” Colin asked.
“Because you just called the Nintendo Entertainment System a “Nintendo.” Janet said.
“Forgive me for not knowing the terminology, Tron.”
“It’s alright. Easy mistake to make.”

A restaurant server came by with a plate of nachos and set it between Colin and Janet.

“Ooh!” Janet said.
“Yeah, that looks alright.” Colin said.

Colin and Janet took turns devouring the plate of probably-microwaved goodness that sat in front of them.

“When are you headed back to California?” Janet asked.
“Monday morning.” Colin said.
“You’re here until Monday morning, I have off work the whole weekend. We’ve got a weekend to ourselves, I guess.” Janet said.

A server came by with a check. Janet reached for her wallet but Colin managed to get his out first. He handed a $20 to the server.

“Keep the change, as well.” Colin said.

The server thanked them and went away.

“You’re off work now, right?” Colin asked.
“Yep.” Janet said.
“Now what?” Colin asked.

Janet got out of her seat, Colin followed suit. Janet proceeded to put her hands on Colin’s shoulders and winked at him.

“Now we go back to my place.”

Janet began walking towards the exit doors.

“And I go grab my NES out of the closet and I show you how to get past Zelda‘s second dungeon.” Janet said.

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Story: Bright Red

“Your Campari and soda, Miss Arcast.”

The bartender presented Leah with her drink.

“What do I owe you?” Leah asked.
“Open bar, Miss.” the bartender said. “But, if you’re so inclined…”

The bartender pointed to a large fishbowl at the end of the counter, stuffed with various denominations of US currency.

“Of course.” Leah said.

She sipped her drink as the bartender went back to work on the other side of the bar.

A few people approached Leah. They didn’t have much to say. Mostly pleasantries.

“You look gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. I love the dress. Red is your color.” one person said.
“Well, thank you. I hope you’re enjoying the festivities.” Leah replied.
“Yes, we are.” The person replied.
“I think the next speaker is starting soon up front at the stage.” Leah said.
“Ooh! Gotta go! Pleasure to meet you, Miss Arcast!”

The person ran off in a hurry towards the bar exit.

Leah sat and drank her cocktail, even as more people started piling up around the bar.

“Did you mean it?” A person approached Leah and asked her from behind.
“Hm?” Leah turned around.
“Did you mean it all? Your speech?” the person asked.

Leah sipped her drink.

“…Of course. I funded this charity drive with my own money. I would like to give back as much as I’ve been given in the past decade.”

“That’s nice. Good for you. But what about your company’s plans for the future?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Arcast Exceed. Any hints on when we’re going to see a prototype?”
“…That’s a question better left for our brand representatives. Adam and Allison are located on the main floor, and they’d be happy to…”
“Nothing? No details?”
“Not from me, sorry.”

Leah looked at the person for a second.

“…I didn’t catch your name.” Leah said.

The person looked around the area at the crowds of people engaged in their drinks and their conversations.

“I, uh…”

A looming presence came up from behind the man.

“Oh, Colin. Everything alright?” Leah said.

The man turned around to see Colin staring at him, two security guards trailing behind him.

“Did you really think you could crash a private party and not have someone find you out?” Colin asked the man.
“I, uh… How did you find me?” the man asked.

Colin grabbed the man by the shoulders.

“You went in through a side door and nearly sprinted around trying to get here. I don’t even know how you found Leah at the bar.” Colin said.
“What’s the problem?”
“…Are you serious? That is a hell of a red flag.”
“Yeah! It’s my, uh, right. As a journalist…”
“Journalist? Got a media badge?”

The man felt around in his jacket pocket for his media badge, which he presented to Colin. Colin stared at the credentials, which were for a local television station, then proceeded to grab the man and secure him against the bar.

“What are you doing?” The journalist asked.
“You crashed a private event.” Colin said.
“I’m a journalist, man! I have a right-”
“I guarantee you that you don’t have a proper invite to this event, and since this is technically private property, you’re breaking and entering.” Colin said.
“Who are you?” The journalist asked.

Colin grabbed the man and gave him a slight push towards the two security guards.

“I’m a lot of things here. Right now, I’m head of security for Arcast Technologies. And if you don’t play nice and let these security guards escort you out of the building, you and I are going to have a bigger problem than you’re able to handle.”

The journalist gulped and allowed the security guards to take him away.

As the journalist was taken away, all of the people at the bar stopped to stare. Many couldn’t believe it happened.

After the security left the building, all eyes were on Colin and Leah.

Colin spoke up.

“Go back to your drinks, people. It was just a nut who wanted to get some info on a new smartphone.”

The crowd remained silent. Colin tried again.

“If you’re curious about our upcoming products, talk to Aly in the main ballroom.”

Still silent. Colin sighed.

“Drink, people! It’s New Year’s Eve. Auld Lang Syne and all that stuff. You don’t waste an open bar.”

Finally, the crowd started listening.

“That’s better.” Colin said.
“That was impressive. A little embarrassing, but impressive.” Leah said, her face slightly flushed.
“An open bar is a gift from the gods. People shouldn’t take it for granted.” Colin said.
“I wasn’t talking about that.” Leah said.
“I know.”
“People can be crazy, Colin.”

“Yep. They sure can. But that’s why you have a security team as good as you do. The president doesn’t have a team like the Arcast Tech security workers.”

Leah sipped her drink and stirred it around with a cocktail straw.

“Actually, they do. A few of our security officials worked for the White House in some capacity.” Leah said.
“How’d you get them on-board?” Colin asked.
“When your brother is running for senator, you tend to make government connections.” Leah said.
“Is that legal?” Colin asked.

Leah laughed.

“Of course.”

Leah continued enjoying her drink. Colin pulled up a seat next to her and ordered a negroni from the bartender after waving him down.

“How’ve the crowds been?” Colin asked.
“They’ve subsided.” Leah said.
“That’s good to know.”
“I guess. I hear and see a lot of people commenting from across the way.”
“What are they saying?”
“Nothing substantial. Just stuff like ‘Did you see her? Did you see her hair?'”
“That’s… interesting.”

Leah finished her drink.

“My dad always warned me to not let any success I have go to my head. ‘You be careful, it’s contagious.’ he’d say.” Leah said.
“But I bet it feels nice on some level.” Colin said.

Leah motioned around to the rest of the bar, which was packed. Most of the patrons were drinking champagne or champagne cocktails.

“This? Oh, yes. It feels so good. We launched a hell of a charity event for the city and for a really, really good cause. I couldn’t be happier. I love speaking to people after events like this, because I just feel like I’m on cloud nine. I just wish other people here actually wanted to talk about that. Not just small talk…” Leah said.

“I bet that makes it a little rough to know that the people you’re talking to don’t share that same enthusiasm.” Colin said.
“A little bit, yeah.” Leah said.

Colin finished his drink.

“You know that feeling?” Leah asked.
“Kinda feels like you’re drowning, huh?” Colin answered.
“Face down. In shallow-” Leah was interrupted.
“Water?” Colin asked, hoping to finish Leah’s thought.
“People. Shallow people.” Leah said.

Colin got up off of his bar stool next to Leah.

“How about I throw you a rope, then?” Colin asked.
“What do you mean?” Leah asked.

Colin motioned for Leah to follow him.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Colin said.

Colin waited for Leah to get off of her bar stool, and then headed outside with Leah in tow. Out at the valet parking area was a limousine.

“I talked with Allison and your receptionist. Cleared your schedule for the next week.” Colin said.
“What? Why?” Leah asked.
“You’re heading home for a week.”

Colin opened the back door of the limo.

“I know you haven’t been able to get back to Massachusetts for a while. I had your receptionist clear your schedule for the first week of January and then some, so you can actually take some time off. You’ve been redlining pretty hard lately, you need a break.”

Leah moved in and gave Colin a very tight embrace.

“Colin, I’m floored. Absolutely floored.”
“I thought you would be.”
“Who’s going to my meetings when I’m gone?”
“Allison and Adam are taking care of that.”
“And you?”
“I’m going with you. I’ve had a trip to Boston planned for a little while, myself.”
“I remember you telling me. I was jealous.”
“Now you don’t have to be.”
“…I don’t have a bag packed.”
“I’m sure the driver can make a quick stop.”
“And after that?”
“We’re taking the Arcast One over. It’s faster. I called the pilot, he’s ready and waiting.”
“And then?”
“We land at Logan. BOS, I think. I’m not too familiar with my airport callsigns.”
“That’s a start.”
“Indeed, it is.”

Leah stepped into the limo, Colin followed suit.

“You shouldn’t have, Colin.”
“Leah, you and your company gave me another chance at having a real life. Between you and my therapist, I owe more than I could ever repay. But I can try.”
“Thank you, Colin.”

Leah rested her head on Colin’s shoulder as the limo pulled out of the complex and into the streets of Pinnacle City, CA. They almost immediately hit a stoplight once on the main road.

“So. Are we going our separate ways once we get to Boston?” Leah asked.
“That’s entirely up to you.” Colin said.
“I think we could spend some time together. I know a few really nice nightclubs in the city. I’ll have to check to see if any bands are playing…”
“There will be plenty of time to do that on the plane, Leah.”

Colin reached over to a small compartment on the right inside the limousine, near the window. It was a small bar area. Inside a container of ice was a fully stocked chest of plastic containers of cranberry juice and miniature glass Perrier bottles.

“It’s not exactly champagne, but it’ll do. I figured you’d be through with booze at this time of night anyway.” Colin said.
“I’m fine with it.” Leah said.

Colin opened two bottles and gave one to Leah. They clinked the bottles together, with Colin saying a few words after:

“Happy New Year, Leah. Let’s make this year one to brag about.”

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Short Story: “To The Woman I Loved.”

Dana walked into the hospital room at 10:30 PM. Her mother Corey was wide awake, at a time when she would previously have been sleeping.

“Thanks for coming, Dana. I won’t take up too much time. It is a school night, after all…” Corey said.
“You know that I don’t have to worry about that anymore.” Dana said.
“I know, and I’m still not happy about it.” Corey said.
“I had to drop out. You know I didn’t really have a choice.” Dana said.
“No, I guess you didn’t.”
“How did the visit with the doctor go this time?”
“They want to keep me here for a few more days.”

Dana sighed, then stood silent.

“Come on, Dana. Don’t do that.” Corey said.
“I know. I miss you being home, is all.” Dana said.

Corey held out her right hand. Dana grabbed it.

“This is probably the best place for me to be right now.” Corey said.

Corey pointed to a box that was resting in her lap as she lay on the hospital bed.

“This is why I wanted you here. To see this.” Corey said.
“A package?” Dana asked, pulling up one of the nearby chairs to Corey’s bedside.

Corey took out the contents of the brown cardboard shipping box: a white box that was nearly the size of the shipping box itself. It had no logo on it except for a large blue “A”. Underneath that was a medium-sized opened white envelope.

“I need to read you the letter in the envelope first.” Corey said.
“What doess it say on the front?” Dana asked, pointing to the envelope itself.

Corey took a deep breath.

“A Letter To The Woman I Loved.”

Corey took multiple pages of paper out of the envelope and read them to Dana:

“Corey. It’s been a while. I owe you every explanation in the world for what happened. Most of it was beyond my control. But nevertheless, I have never been able to shake off my previous life, knowing that I had left you behind.

Nineteen years or so, I was hit head-on on the interstate. A trucker had a rear-view mirror blocked off and didn’t see me in my sedan. I was destroyed. Utterly destroyed. I’m 5% steel and carbon-fiber now, if you can believe it. Therapy was rough. Had to re-learn to walk. The same nurse asked me the same five questions every day to make sure that my brain was functioning properly.

We didn’t have the easiest of break-ups. I don’t even know what happened. Maybe it’s the accident screwing with my memory. I don’t know. I don’t know why you were so mad with me. For the life of me, I can’t think of it, and I definitely didn’t back then. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to make things right.

After therapy, things got blurry. Sort of. Long story short, I work for a tech company out in California called Arcast Technologies. You may have heard of them…”

Corey paused for a second to point at the television mounted to the ceiling – an Arcast Technologies model from 2008. Corey continued.

“…I want you to know that I didn’t mean to hurt you. Whatever I did all those years ago, I didn’t mean it. And I miss you. It’s taken me 19 years to say that to anyone.

Enclosed is a little item from our experimental tech department. Real bleeding-edge stuff. Have fun. Don’t pawn it.

– Colin Gear.”

Corey finished the letter with tears in her eyes.

“That’s…” Dana started to say, but was interrupted.
“Your father, Dana. This is a letter from your father.” Corey said.
“I thought you said he was-”
“I thought he was dead, too.”
“Well. Fuck.” Dana said.
“Sorry. I know I shouldn’t swear.”
“No, no. For this, you’re fine. That was my reaction, too.”

Dana and Corey sat in silence for a minute. Dana broke the silence with a question.

“So, Mom, what do we do?” Dana asked.
“Well, you can go home and go to bed.” Corey said.

Corey leaned in and hugged her daughter.

“What about you? How are you going to deal with all of this?” Dana asked.
“I’m going to call Arcast Technologies tomorrow morning.” Corey said.
“Great.” Dana said.

Dana looked at the clock. It was nearly 11 PM.

“You’ll need to leave soon, Dana. They like us to try to get some sleep at night.” Corey said.
“I… I know. I wish I could sleep here.” Dana said.
“Why?” Corey asked, “This place is awful. It’s cold. Sterile. Full of needles and tubes.”
“I… I don’t want to be alone.” Dana said, her voice slightly muted.

Corey leaned in and hugged Dana again.

“You aren’t. Nor will you ever be, if I have anything to do with it.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“You can’t worry about that, Dana.”
“…I can’t help it.”
“Go home. Get some sleep. You look like you haven’t slept in days.”

Dana gave her mother another hug before leaving the room.

Corey let out a deep breath and took another look at the package from Colin.

“I pulled your body out of that wreck, Colin. How the hell did you survive that?”

Corey’s words would have echoed off the walls if they weren’t partially soundproofed. Nobody was around to hear them anyway. Right before the silence became the loudest sound in the room, Corey just stared at the white Arcast Technologies box.

“Better yet, Colin… What the hell did you send me?”

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Story: A Glimpse of Tomorrow.

The main board room at Summerwinds Financial was sparsely-populated. White walls, a few florescent lights, and a dark brown conference table big enough for eight people, which had a single corporate-branded intercom phone connected in the middle to a cable that ran through a hole drilled in the middle of the table.

Only three men in business suits sat at the table on the far end. One of the executives reached over and touched a button on the intercom.

“Jessica, you can let the representative in.” they said.

A few seconds later, the door at the end of the hall opened. Colin stepped in, hauling a large briefcase. He wore a black business suit with a light blue dress shirt underneath.

“Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Colin Gear, senior VP of product develop-” Colin was interrupted.

“Get to the point, Mr. Gear. You have five minutes.” said one of the executives.
“Very well.” Colin said.

Colin took his suitcase and placed it on the far side of the desk away from the executives. He opened it up and showed them the contents.

“This is a Phillips CDI 370. It’s a portable CD player made in the early 1990s. At Arcast Technologies, we used to use one of these to display product information to clients.”

Colin took the device out of the case and held it in his hands.

“As you can see, it’s primitive by today’s standards – the screen is only three inches, and you have to be fairly close to it to read any text it displays, but back in 1993, this thing was revolutionary. It cut down on excess weight in a sales rep’s luggage that normally went to paperwork, and two compact discs could hold all of the images and sound that someone would need to show off new products with room to spare.”

“It’s not 1993, Mr. Gear.” the head executive said.
“No, sir, it isn’t. We live in the future.” Colin said.

Colin put the device down on the conference table.

“I like showing this to our clients. It shows how far we’ve come since even a few years ago when it comes to presentations. We used to use these things in lieu of showing off actual product because a lot of it was too hard to set up for any real demonstration – we used to have giant monitors, cameras the size of an engine block… You get the idea. Our new product is compact enough that most of it fits into your pocket.”

Colin reached into his pocket and pulled out a small round object with a USB cord sticking out of it.

“This, right here, is the future of video conferencing.” Colin said.

The executives sat in their chairs. One of them coughed slightly. Colin reached into his other pocket and took out a small portable battery, normally used for charging cell phones. He plugged the other device’s cable into it. A flash of light came from the device. Colin pointed it on the conference table with the light-emitting end away from the executives.

“Watch this.” Colin said.

The light on the device flickered, then got brighter. All of a sudden, Colin was not alone at his end of the table. A brown-haired woman sporting thick-rimmed glasses, a white lab coat and khakis appeared next to Colin and waved.

“Gentlemen, this is Allison Greyloch. She’s the head of Arcast Tech’s engineering wing. She put in a recording of herself to be used as a model for this demonstration.”

“What are we looking at, here?” one of the executives asked.
“It’s a hologram projection device. The tech you’re seeing here is the tech we offer.”
“That’s… astounding.”

Colin shut off the hologram with a push of a button on the top of the device.

“I thought you’d like it. I hope you can understand the potential uses something like this has for your company.” Colin said.
“Yes. We do. But what’s the cost?” the head executive asked.
“$100 per month per unit. Installation is a little extra.” Colin said.
“What else is needed for it?”
“A strong, reliable internet connection. I’m sure your IT department can work it out.”

The executives all talked amongst themselves quietly. Colin began packing his materials back into his suitcase.

“Mr. Gear… Colin, was it?”
“It is.”
“We’re very impressed.”
“I appreciate that, and I’m sure that the rest of us at Arcast Tech do, as well.”

The head executive stood up and walked towards Colin, who finished putting his items away. Colin held out his right hand, and the executive reached in to shake it.

The executive’s hand went right through Colin’s hand, which flickered slightly.

“What the…?”

He tried to shake Colin’s hand again, thinking he missed somehow, but this led to the same result as before. The executive stood for a second to process what had just happened.

“We’ll be in touch.” Colin said.

Colin adjusted his tie and grabbed his suitcase off of the table.

“Alright, Aly. I’m good. Power it down.” Colin said, speaking to someone who clearly wasn’t in the room.

With a slight flicker of light and a faint whirring noise, Colin’s hologram faded away.

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Story: Eight More Hours.

Janet stood behind the closed door that led outside her apartment, as her friend Colin laid out on the couch in the living room, half-asleep, half-awake.

“I didn’t know you’d be back so early.” Colin said.
“It’s Labor Day, Colin. Azure Planet Software had a half-day today.” Janet said.
“Oh. Right.” Colin said. He adjusted himself to sit properly on the couch.
“Rough night?” Janet asked.
“Not really. Though I did lock myself out earlier this morning when I went to get coffee.” Colin said.
“How’d you get back in?” Janet asked.
“I found the key under your mat.” Colin said.

Colin tossed a small patina-covered key at Janet’s general direction, which landed at her feet.

“A word of advice, Tron. Get a thicker doormat. You can see the outline of a key from a mile away with the one you have now.” Colin said.

Janet picked up the key and placed it in the pocket of her jeans. Making her way to her bedroom, she turned on the lights in her living room and kitchen.

“So, Tron, what were you planning to do today?” Colin asked.

Though Janet’s door was closed, her apartment’s walls were thin. She raised her voice and spoke freely:

“Well, I was planning on meeting a few co-workers for a couple of beers at The Viridian Room.” Janet said from her bedroom.

“Really? You hate beer.” Colin said.

There was no response from Janet. Colin continued:

“And the last time you went to The Viridian Room, they messed with your tab and overcharged you by $200.” Colin said.

The bedroom door opened and Janet appeared soon after, having changed out of her work clothes into a comfortable outfit of a black t-shirt and a pair of pink cotton pajama pants.

“Oh, yeah. That’s right. I guess I’ll just have to stay here with you until your flight later tonight.” Janet said.

She promptly sprinted to the living room couch and jumped on the cushion to the right of where Colin sat.

“Was the Viridian Room even an option?” Colin asked.
“Of course not. When is your flight, anyway?” Janet said.
“10:35 PM.” Colin said.
“So that gives us around eight hours to do whatever.” Janet said.
“What did you have in mind, Tron?”

Janet grabbed her television remote that was on a table to the right of the couch.

“Law & Order?” Tron held the remote up to show Colin her suggestion.

Colin put his arm around Janet, who pointed the remote at the television in front of them.

“Great idea.” Colin said.

Janet turned on her TV and began navigating through her DVR archive.

“Y’know, Tron. Uh…” Colin said.
“Hmm?” Janet responded.

Colin cleared his throat.

“I love this. Everything. Being here. With you.”

Janet put down the remote and looked at Colin.

“I do, too. Colin.”
“I don’t want to leave, Tron.”
“You’ve got a job back in California.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m not skipping out on them. I, uh, just wanted you to know that I’ve really enjoyed my time here. It’s been a welcome respite from all the stuff I deal with over at Arcast Tech. It’s going to be a nightmare to get back to work, to have to have my suits ready, to give all of the product demonstrations to our clients, to cram that friggin’ CDI into my suitcase along with the presentation discs… We’ve got one client group in Fairway Grove that we’re meeting with on Wednesday that… Hell, I’m rambling.”

“You’re fine.” Janet said.”

“I, uh….”

Colin took a deep breath.

“I think I love you, Janet.”

Janet’s eyes widened.

“You called me by my name. My real name.”
“I want you to know that I’m serious.”
“I… I believe you.”

Janet rested her head on Colin’s shoulder.

“What airline are you flying, anyway, Colin?”
“Ooh, perfect!”
“I have a friend who works as a check-in agent for Delta at O’Hare. I’ll call her later and see if she can get you a seat upgrade.”
“You don’t have to do that, Tron.”
“Too bad. I’m going to.”

Janet sat up and looked at Colin.

“Alright, Mr. Gear. We’ve got around eight hours to kill.”
“Yeah, we do, Ms. Blue… Damn, that sounds odd. Even more odd than calling you by your real name…”

Janet laughed.

“We should probably get started.” Janet said.

She grabbed the TV remote and hit the enter button on her DVR selection, which made the familiar opening to their show begin to play:

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups…

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Story: A Gift For An Android.

As the sound of vacuum cleaners drowned out most of the sound in the cubicle grid that comprised Azure Planet Software’s R&D department, Janet Blue sat at her desk, tapping away at a jumble of computer code that the layman would find incomprehensible. Her large mechanical keyboard made a loud, pronounced click with every keystroke.

After some time, Leslie, the worker in the cubicle to Janet’s right, stuck her head into Janet’s cubicle to see her hard at work.

“The cleaning crew is coming to our row next.” Leslie said.
“I’ll be done soon.” Janet said

Leslie looked at Janet’s computer, which was displaying an odd programming language.

“That isn’t our new app code.” Leslie said.
“Nope.” Janet said without looking away from her monitor.
“That doesn’t even look like real code.” Leslie asked.
“It’s something proprietary. It’s for something I’m working on at home.” Janet said.

Leslie walked into Janet’s cubicle completely.

“You’re using company time to work on a personal project?” Leslie asked.
“Of course not. Michael gave me permission to come in today to work on this.” Janet said.

Satisfied with the explanation, Leslie made her way back to her own cubicle. Janet kept working. After another five minutes, Leslie spoke up over the noise of the vacuum from her own cubicle:

“What are you making, anyway?” Leslie asked.
“I didn’t make this. Well, not all of it, anyway. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Janet replied, straining her voice over the volume.

Janet typed out the final lines of her program and saved multiple copies to multiple USB drives. Leslie walked over to Janet’s cubicle to see her cramming five drives in her pocket.

“I think you may have a problem, Jan.” Leslie said.
“I like to be thorough.”
“Still? Five backups?”
“You know how much of a pain it is to lose your only copy of something.”
“Still, though. Five?
“We get the drives for free, Leslie. I can take home a box of them if I really wanted to.”
“I suppose. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Leslie made her way toward the door as Janet shut down her workstation.

Outside, the two co-workers walked to their cars. Coincidentally, they parked within two spaces of each other.

“You hungry at all?” Leslie asked as Janet was unlocking her car.
“Nope. I need rest.”
“Suit yourself. After a day like this, I need to relax. I’m off to the Viridian Room.”

Leslie jumped into her car and sped off.

Janet entered her apartment after enduring a 45-minute commute home. Traffic was still nightmarish, even at the late hour of 9 PM. Janet walked into her living room to see her recent house guest, which happened to be an Arcast Technologies Model-1 Android.

The android sat still on the living room couch, but came to life as Janet walked into the room.

“Ms. Blue!” The android jumped off of the couch and proceeded to embrace Janet as she was putting her belongings down on the floor near the couch.

“I hope you kept yourself busy while I was at work.” Janet said.
“I did!” the android said.
“What did you do?”
“I looked out the window, mostly.”
“Really? For ten hours straight?”
“The skyline is quite lovely.”
“I see.”
“Oh, and your smoke detector in your kitchen gave a low-battery signal. I fixed it.”
“You fixed it?”
“I saw that you had spare 9-volt batteries in your pantry, so I replaced the one in the device.”
“Huh. Great. Thanks for that.”
“You’re welcome.”

The android stood in one place as Janet walked into her bedroom to change out of her Azure Planet work clothes. Janet spoke from across the apartment.

“I wasn’t planning on staying so late at work.” Janet said.
“I understand.” The android said, unmoving.
“I think I’ve put something together that can help you out, though.” Janet said.
“Oh? What could that be, Ms. Blue?”
“I’ll let you know in a few minutes, once I get out of the shower.”

The next sound that the android heard was running water going through the aging pipes of the apartment’s plumbing system.

The android continued to stand in place.

After five minutes, Janet emerged from her bedroom, dressed in her evening attire, which consisted of a large black t-shirt and cyan pajama bottoms.

The android stared at the design on Janet’s t-shirt.

“They’re a band. This is actually my boyfriend’s t-shirt.”
“That is interesting.”
“Yeah. Nada Surf wasn’t my thing originally, but Colin showed me that their recent albums are really nice. Their sound’s bright and optimistic. I like that.”

Janet walked up to the android and showed her one of the small USB drives from work.

“Do you have a USB port?” Janet asked. She thought for a second afterward of what she had just said.
“There should be one near the vocal replicator port.” The android said.

Janet turned the android around and opened the expansion bay at the back of her neck. She inserted the USB drive into a vacant USB port inside the bay, then closed the bay off, leaving a barely-noticeable break in the skin at the back of the android’s neck.

“It should kick in after a minute or so.” Janet said.
“What did you install?” The android asked, turning to face Janet.
“A fairly small file that was emailed to me by the head of Arcast Technologies’ engineering department.” Janet said.
“What sort of file?”

Janet smiled and put her hands on the android’s shoulders.

“A firmware upgrade.”

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Story: The Conference.

“Mrs. Gear?” said the principal.
“Hollett.” Corey said.
“What was that?” The principal asked.
“My name is Corey Hollett.”
“…And you’re Dana’s mother?”
“We must have a mistake on our records-”
“It’s no mistake. I gave Dana her father’s last name.”
“Oh. For what reason?”
“A very personal one that I’m not willing to divulge, Miss…”
“Penny Caldwell.”
“Got it.”

Principal Caldwell opened up a small file folder that was sitting on her desk. It was marked with a label at the top: GEAR, DANA, A.

“Mrs. Hollett-” Principal Caldwell was interrupted.
“Don’t call me that.” Corey said.
“…Okay. Miss-”
“‘Corey’ will suffice. I’ve never been a ‘Mrs.’ in my life.”
“Very well.”

Principal Caldwell shuffled through the papers until she got to a page with handwritten notes on large, mostly-empty white paper.

“Dana isn’t normally a problem student…” Principal Caldwell said.
“I hope not.” Corey said.
“It has only been recently that she has acted out.”
“Acted out?”
“Well, this particular incident is fairly disturbing.”
“We’ll wait until Rebecca’s parents arrive to talk about that.”

Corey sat in the office chair that the principal provided for her. Occasionally, she looked at her watch – a cumbersome LED timepiece given to her by her daughter after she overheard her mother discussing how hard it was to find watches that kept working after a day of constant physical stress.

A few minutes later, the office doors behind Corey opened, and in came the mother of Rebecca Owens, a fellow student. Trailing behind her was a man wearing a suit that he probably thought looked decent enough for the meeting.

“Sorry I’m late, Penny. Jim couldn’t make it, so I brought our attorney instead.” Rebecca’s mother said.
“You’re fine,” Principal Caldwell said, “Dana’s mother is already here.”

The attorney sat in a chair near Rebecca’s mother, who stared at Corey.

“So you’re the mother of that maniac?” said Rebecca’s mother.

Corey stood up and and stared the woman in the eye, as if she was a gazelle wandering into the den of a lion. Corey cleared her throat and spoke, half to the parents and half to the principal:

“I’m going to be very, very clear here: I would like to see your security footage of this incident. And I would like that to happen immediately.”

“Why bother? Your daughter-” Rebecca’s mother was interrupted.
“Shut up. Not another goddamn word.” Corey said.
“We don’t have any security footage-” The principal attempted to speak, but was interrupted.
“Your school is required by law to have security cameras in every hallway on the campus.” Corey said.
“That’s only a requirement of-” the principal said, clearly startled.
“Crighton Anderson is your school’s security officer, correct?” Corey asked.
“How do you know that?” The principal asked.

Corey reached into her pocket and took out a small square of leather. On the other side was a metal badge: OFFICER CORIANDER HOLLETT, FMPD

“Don’t mess around with me, lady.” Corey said.

Corey put her badge away and sighed heavily.

“Call Crighton and tell him to bring footage from yesterday’s ‘incident’.” Corey said.

The principal made a few phone calls. The first was to make sure Crighton Anderson was still on the property. The second was to ensure he could bring the footage from the day before into the principal’s office, and the third was for a television, because Halter Lake High School didn’t think that giving their principal an office computer with a working audio/visual input on it fit their budget for the quarter. After an eternity of awkward waiting, Officer Crighton Anderson came in with a mobile shelf containing a television and the school’s security system DVR.

After a few minutes of hooking it up and finding power for the TV and DVR, the footage played. Crighton set it to the proper time for playback, plus a few minutes before.

“Crighton, can you stand between me and the other two?” Corey asked.
“I was planning to.” Crighton said.
“It’s for their safety, not mine.” Corey said.

The security footage continued. It was in full color, unlike a lot of other school camera footage in the area. Halter Lake wanted to ensure students’ safety, and this was ostensibly a way to do it. After three minutes’ worth of no movement at all, suddenly the clock struck 2:30 and all of the students left their classes to get to their lockers. Dana’s was in the middle of the screen. As Dana was retrieving her books from her locker, someone came walking up to her with a math textbook.

“This is it.” said Rebecca’s mother.
“Shut it.” Corey said.

The girl with the book was Rebecca Owens, a relatively-popular girl at Halter Lake High School. Rebecca’s parents had initially wanted her to go to a private school when she graduated middle school, but they hit some hard times financially and had to scale back. Still, Rebecca treated herself and her friends as if they were a cut above the rest of the students.

Not that her parents would ever know that, anyway. As far as they knew, Rebecca was a straight-a student who had a flawless life. And, to their credit, they weren’t wrong. Rebecca was more or less the top of the food chain at HLHS. If there was ever a problem, Rebecca dealt with it. This included a number of things: Most notably, she spread rumors about people she didn’t like, and people believed her. It was Rebecca’s word over someone else’s, and the other person’s arguments didn’t matter. High school is cruel like that.

Imagine the surprise on the face of Rebecca’s mother when she saw her only daughter, the flawless, straight-a student, slam a large algebra textbook right into Dana’s head. The impact caused Dana to bump her forehead on her side of the locker, with the metal door-locking mechanism barely missing her left eye.

The video feed stayed crisp and clear for the next part.

Dana turned around and landed a large right hook square into Rebecca’s jaw. It was probably at this point that Rebecca realized that she had bitten off significantly more than she could chew; especially since that right hook was going to require her to have her jaw wired shut for a while.

Dana didn’t have a bad life growing up. She was raised by her mother, as her father wasn’t in the picture. That particular fact is not by choice, mind you, but suffice to say, he wasn’t around. Dana was always fairly quiet. She spent a lot of time at the precinct after school, doing homework and watching television on an old CRT set in her mother’s office. Occasionally, Dana would put a few quarters into the Bosconian arcade machine that was housed in the precinct break room, which often lead Dana to wonder how such an obscure arcade game made its way into the breakroom of a Southwest Florida police department.

Her school life was fairly generic, but her mother always worried about her safety since Dana opted to go to a public school. Corey briefly enrolled Dana in self-defense training to keep her safe, and, needless to say, it left an impression. Dana would probably have a decent rank in Krav Maga had she stuck with it for more than a month or two, but schoolwork was more important than learning how to beat the hell out of someone. The short time learning the art taught her one very important thing, however: “Girl fighting” is useless. If you’re going to fight, you fight. Not like a girl – no hair-pulling, shirt-ripping or bitch-calling. You just fight.

And, in Dana’s case, you win.

Whenever a student attempted to pull Dana off of Rebecca, she came back, hit after hit, despite Rebecca’s fruitless attempt at hurting Dana by moving her legs or grabbing at her hair. Dana eventually stopped her barrage when she thought Rebecca had finished, and returned to retrieving her belongings from her locker, only to have Rebecca try to grab at Dana’s hair and push her to the ground from behind her.

Once again, this didn’t end well for Rebecca. Dana landed a few swift shots to the stomach, which prevented any more retaliation from Rebecca from that point on.

The footage kept going after that, but the incident was done.

Rebecca’s mother was speechless. Her attorney spoke up:

“If you’ll excuse me…” the attorney said.

He promptly got up and walked out of the office.

“Now, Penny, was it?” Corey said.
“Yes.” Principal Caldwell said.
“Well, Penny,” Corey said, saying the principal’s name as slow as possible with as much disdain as she could conjure, “It looks a hell of a lot like Dana was defending herself.”
“That appears to be true, yes, but-” Principal Caldwell said.
“But nothing. This is self-defense.”
“Self-defense or not, we can’t have this sort of violence in school.”
“This sort of violence wouldn’t have happened without Rebecca starting with it.”
“Who started what doesn’t matter, Ms. Hollett-”
“For the last goddamn time, it is Corey. Corey Hollett.”
“It doesn’t matter who started the fight.”
“Are you kidding me? Of course it does!”
“Our school runs a zero-tolerance initiative, which means that during a physical altercation, both students are to be reprimanded.”
“Dana was defending herself!”
“She still attacked a straight-a student.”
“She defended herself.”
“It doesn’t matter.”

Rebecca’s mother spoke up, which led Corey to look at her:

“You better believe that I am pressing charges against Dana, and the school as well if you are planning on reprimanding my daughter.” Rebecca’s mother said.
“Go ahead. No jury in the world would convict my daughter.” Corey said.

Rebecca’s mother clearly didn’t expect to hear that.

Corey turned to the principal.

“Are every one of your conferences a goddamn ambush like this?” Corey said.
“What do you mean? Principal Caldwell asked.
“Having Rebecca’s mother bring her attorney? Intentionally playing dumb about school policy?”
“How was I supposed to know-”

Corey slammed her hands on the principal’s desk.

“The hell with that. Know this: If any punishment comes to my Dana, I will sue you and this entire school district, and personally call for your resignation in a public goddamn forum.”

Corey turned to the door and walked out of the room.

“Dana is suspended until further notice.” Principal Caldwell said, just before Corey was through the doors.

Corey looked back and briefly moved towards the door, but she ultimately stayed away from it.

Principal Caldwell’s secretary sat outside the door, and spoke to Corey:

“They usually make these decisions in a week or so. You’ll have a final answer from them on Monday.” said the secretary.

“Good,” Corey said, “I think Dana and I need a vacation…”

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