November 32nd, 2550, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
June’s stomach rumbled. None of her coworkers noticed or cared. She dared take a second to check the time. 05:27. Just over one quarter of an hour before she could take a break.
Her wristband buzzed, noticing the drop in efficiency and warning her that her pay was about to be docked. She sighed, turning her attention back to her work. The Terran Accord needed screws, bolts, and rivets in uncountable numbers, and somebody had to make them. That was her. That was June. Fifteen hundred 3mm screws an hour.
The morning shift was always the worst. June was paid by the screw, and it usually took until her first break before she could afford breakfast. If she could stay on track, she’d take her ten minute break and choke down some synthveg cubes and a cup of Cofv-e™ and then the rest of the day would go easier.
The minutes passed slowly. Hell, the years passed slowly. The work drilled little spiral grooves into June’s soul.
Eventually, her break came around. June walked away from her standing desk, stumbling towards the break room. It was a three minute walk, but if she hurried she could make it in two. Thankfully, breaks were staggered, so she only needed to squeeze between a couple dozen others packed into the tiny breakroom.
“Hey, Sarah. Good day?” June asked as she reached the front of the line. She swiped the magnetic strip of her payment disc (two 3mm screws) through the reader (nineteen 3mm screws) as the woman behind the counter handed her a stack of dry cubes and a disposable plastic cup (one 3mm screw) of a vaguely warm fluid filled with something modeled after one of the drinks of ancient times, back before the fifth world war had ended terrestrial food growth.
The woman gave the same tight smile she always did. “You know how it is, J. Oh! Hey, no, actually, something came for you, hang on.”
Something had come for her? Fuck. June swore under her breath. Which debt had she fallen behind on? She’d wonder if any of her family were dead, but they wouldn’t have been able to afford to send her a message. It didn’t take long for Sarah to return, holding a single-use message reader. Eight 3mm screws.
June took it with a sigh and moved over to her assigned standing zone, where she had a small shelf to set her cubes upon. Better get this over with now. She thumbed the biometric lock and…
Huh. June scrolled through the message quickly, scanning for keywords, and found none. She returned to the top. A picture. It was… trees around a lake, with twin suns in sunset. It was a motion picture, looping the same few seconds over and over, so she could see the gentle sway of trees and the soft ripples of the lake. It was beautiful.
June popped a cube into her mouth and started to suck.
The attached message was weird.
Hey! Erica here, your new pen-pal! I hope my ecard got to you okay,
<________>! Your bio said you like pictures of cool places and we just came across this gorgeous little planet on the borders of Terran space! Figured it would be a good way to say hello ::) Hope you’re having a good day! I’m not sure how you’ll get this message, but if you can’t respond to it from your pad, the return path on this one’ll stay valid for a few days!! - Erica
What the hell? June sipped her drink, which today tasted typically salty, and checked the message metadata.
She fumbled with the pad, almost dropping it. Holy shit. It wasn’t kidding. This thing was sent by dedicated comms drone?! Whoever sent it must be loaded, and probably furious that it’d reached the wrong person. Hell. June could just bin the reader and pretend she’d never seen it, but she’d registered her biometrics. If she didn’t respond, whatever rich asshole had sent this would probably sue her for chronological damages or something.
She tapped the ‘reply’ button and waited a moment while the pad synced back up with the awaiting mail drone.
helo. sry but i think u have teh wron addy? i don’t no u and im nobody. ill forget what i red, promise, please dont sue?
She thumbed send and watched a little animation as the mail drone reoriented, moved away from the lunar relay, and jumped away, then dropped the pad into the nearest furnace chute (5472 3mm screws), along with her cup and any of the cubes she hadn’t had time to eat, and then made her way back to her desk.
January 13th, 2551, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
June dropped her eighteen hundredth screw this hour into the tray, where it was quickly whisked away. There was some kind of war going on? Hell, there was always some kind of war going on, but this one seemed to have the factory buzzing in a way that most didn’t. Some said it was aliens. Some said it was the end of the world. Some said it was that little colony on Strive 2398 that wanted a tax exemption and claimed to have some RKVs pointed at Terra over it.
June didn’t care. Her quota kept on rising and if there was one thing life had burned into her by now it was that quotas never fell after whatever supposed disaster was over. Her fingers would bleed, but she didn’t have the time.
The extra money was nice, though. She could just about afford to get her cubes delivered to her desk now, which was good as she was having to work through most of her breaks. She didn’t bother to check the clock. She’d just work until the B shift came to relieve her, then take her commute, sleep, commute, and relieve them right back. The screws must flow.
There was a war on, didn’t you know?
The day went as every day did. Slowly. Eventually, it did end. Tired and battered June waited by the service exit to the factory, hoping there would soon be a free shuttle she could take home. Two-person shuttles were expensive, but also the only form of transport they could get organised here, at least since the last megatornado had ripped down the bridge and none of the ‘benevolent’ upper classes had cared enough to rebuild it.
“Hey, June.” Sarah’s tired voice was a welcome distraction. “Shame you don’t get over to the break room much these days. I liked your sm—” Sarah stopped talking as June glanced over, with a thin smile and a shrug. “Doesn’t matter. Oh, hey, you got another message a day or so back. I was gonna bring it over, but, quotas, right? A thousand cubes an hour now.”
She passed over another disposable pad and June searched her memories. Another? Oh, yeah, the mis-targeted mail she got last year. June shrugged and tapped the bioscanner.
Another picture greeted her. “Holy shit,” she said, looking closer, and then tilting it towards Sarah so she could appreciate it too. The last one had been unbelievable but realistic, but this one was just made up. A wide open forest, except the world turned upwards into the sky. As June tilted the device, the viewpoint for the photograph changed, and she realised this one was an all-angles shot. Some pretend world that curved up instead of down, in a giant ring.
“Dang, that’s some good art,” Sarah suggested. “Who’s sending you rich shit like that? You holding out on me, girl?”
June laughed. “Oh yeah, you know me. Here by choice, my butler’ll be getting a bath ready.” She grinned over at her colleague for a moment, before turning back to the pad and scrolling to the message.
Hey!! Erica here!! Yeah, totally right, wrong address, sorry. Bit of a panic over here, actually, we weren’t meant to be sending anything over your way, but that’s all okay now! So uh, it’s a little embarrassing, but maybe we can keep talking anyway? No worries if not, but I’d love to send you more cool pictures! This one is a little orbital about a thousand lights off of Sol, beautiful place! I hope you’ll forgive me, but the metadata suggested your datapad could do photographs, and maybe you could take me something and bounce it back? I’d love to get to know you! - Erica ::)
Huh. Weird. June took a look at the camera module on the disposable pad and figured out how to make it work, then pointed it at herself and Sarah, with the factory in the background. They smiled and the picture took.
Fuck, she looked like a mess. Hair all over the place, skin dirty. If she could afford a doctor they’d probably just condemn her.
January 16th, 2551, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
Hey!!! Erica here!! Thanks for the picture! You’re super cute ::) I’m kinda shy, so here’s a nice shot of some spaceship I was passing by!
June lay in bed. She should have been asleep, but when she’d gotten home she’d found a package waiting for her. A brand new, high-end datapad (zero 3mm screws? What the fuck.), already set up with a message blinking.
She could sell it for a month’s wages, easy. Something about the pictures she’d been getting, though, it reminded her of a world outside of her tiny habitation cube (three hundred and five 3mm screws) or the boundaries of the factory (One million, three hundred and fifteen thousand, two hundred and one 3mm screws).
June studied the photograph attached. Some kind of boxy ship. A warship, maybe? She could see the radiators glowing in incredible intricacy. The screen of this new pad seemed endlessly detailed. The details practically glowed.
hey erica, um, i dont really no how to do this but thats really pretty art! your really good at this i dont really have anything like that to share but here’s a picture of my hab cube! its not much but ive done what i can with it idk what you wanna see tbh, i cant really go anywhere to take pictures ’cos travel is expensiv
March 8th, 2551, New New Wales, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
June frowned, holding her pad up to the city skyline. She fiddled with settings, but she just couldn’t get her pictures to look anywhere near as good as Erica’s. Maybe she had an actual dedicated camera? It seemed like an absurd luxury, but somehow Erica’d managed to get June a day off. June’s manager (four 3mm screws) had been almost as surprised as June herself. Her position wasn’t even eligible for holiday time, and the two thousand screws/hour quota wasn’t going to fill itself. There was a war on, didn’t you know?
And didn’t she. June’s small shuttle out to New New Wales had had a news reel (ten 3mm screws). The tabloids were claiming that nightmare aliens from beyond the stars were coming to destroy them. The ‘grown up’ sources were more interested in the stock market reaching its highest level ever or fawning over the richest man in the world finally reaching a quintillion credits.
So, in other words, the news was basically the same as it had ever been.
June had taken a picture. She was taking pictures of everything. She didn’t expect to get another day off, ever. If the tabloids were right, maybe she’d get eaten by an alien in a few years, which at least meant she wouldn’t have to worry about financing her funeral. She had to build up a nice stack of things to trade back and forth with Eri. Somehow, the quality of her pen-pal’s art was relaxing. June couldn’t hope to match it, and they both knew it. Lower expectations were nice.
But she wasn’t on the clock here. No quota. June took a moment to stare out across the cityscape. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was different, and different was better.
Mickey 8th, 2552, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
Three thousand screws per hour.
June snapped a picture of the new work order and spent a moment doodling little devil horns on it. There was basically always a mail drone hanging in lunar orbit now just waiting for her message. Eri couldn’t get her days off any more, not with the war going so poorly, but their signal delay was under a day now. June kept time by the little dings of her pad indicating a new message had arrived with some unbelievable new piece of artwork. Today’s picture was an overhead shot of the weirdly silent capital city on—
“Cerania fell yesterday, they said.”
June frowned, glancing over. Ever since they’d hit twenty five hundred screws an hour, morale had been plummeting, and half the staff weren’t even trying any more. June was kind of among them, now. If the war was really going this badly then what was the point? The Cosmic Navy seemed to be slowing the xenos down, or at least, their approach had slowed in recent months, but the news reels still claimed they were heading straight for Terra herself. Earth. The shipyards cried out for screws and June was just so tired of it all.
Hey Eri!! Haha, look at my new quota :) :) Thanks for the composition tips last time btw, I think I’m starting to get it! I’d love to head out somewhere again but I’m pretty sure that if I asked for time off my manager would shoot me, lol Not that we can spare the bullets around here!! btw are you okay?? that last picture wasn’t recent, was it? news over here is saying Cerania’s a xeno hive now
November 16th, 2552, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
juuuuuuuuune!!!! ::D look at this moon! this is such a cool moon! it’s, um, geostationary with a gas giant in a trinary star system and apparently for the next few hundred years everything is gonna be in perfect synchronisation, so the planet doesn’t move in the sky and neither do the stars, and it’s just so still i’d love for you to see it one day <3 <3 Eri
May 19th, 2553, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
“Don’t be ridiculous,” June said, snatching back her synthveg cube. “Why would you believe anything the Terran government says? They said that if we couldn’t reach seven thousand screws an hour the war effort would collapse, but the screws are just piling up outside. Eri says it’s the shipyards running out of other stuff. We can take a few minutes extra on our break.”
Sarah glanced to the side, quietly crushing her cup. She sighed, all the fight going out of her. “How can you stand it?” she asked. The break room was only half full. There was a war on, didn’t you know? “Everyone is screaming that this is the end and how the fuck aren’t you panicking?”
June shrugged. “I told Eri that I loved her yesterday. I’m too busy panicking about that to care about some CEO’s profits.”
Sarah threw her hands up into the air, accidentally spilling liquid onto herself. Thankfully, the slimy glob just slid off of her clothes. “It’s not about the profits, June, they’re eating people!”
“They’re not eating people. Eri’s sent me pictures. People are still there, they’re just… I dunno. Maybe occupation wouldn’t be so bad?”
Sarah’s upper lip quivered in disgust. "You’re fucking with me, you don’t believe that. I can see right through the propaganda and I’m telling you, they’re eating people. Erica’s wrong, hon, why would she have any better knowledge than us?
June shrugged. “I think she’s rich? They probably don’t lie to rich people.”
May 20th, 2553, Fab 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
eriiiii look at this trash dumpster! they filled it with my screws!! they’re throwing them away lmao i love you, y’know? please don’t let me go. i wanna be yours.
January 18th, 2554, Vacant Unit 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
June waited in the job-seeking line, hand entwined with Sarah’s. They hoped that today could be the day. All around them, billboards celebrated the highest single-day rise in stock prices ever, bringing the market to previously unimaginable heights. All around them, scared faces congregated, waiting to be told that there still weren’t any jobs.
June should sell her datapad. They’d get a few days of food and shelter out of it, probably. Eri would understand. Things were hard everywhere now, and even Eri’s pictures had started getting less exciting, less exotic, like she couldn’t get too far out any more, whether she was taking pictures or creating her impossible photorealistic artwork. The alien menace was crowding them all in. Pinning humanity into a cage before it came to feast.
A man up at the front of the room called for attention before delivering the same news he had for the past week. No jobs. Nowhere to go. He couldn’t help them, and they couldn’t stay here.
January 19th, 2554, Vacant Unit 851, Earth, Sol, The Milky Way
hey erisorry for being quiet lately, things have just been hard since the fab closedkinda running out of new pictures so here’s one from the good timesmight have to sell the pad, sorry
Response times were getting great, now. June barely had to wait for an hour before the device pinged. A whole hour, crowded around the burning pile of old stuff she, Sarah, and a dozen others were using to keep the cold away. Yesterday’s news burned as well as anything. Some headline about a fortress world over by Brypso 3 being the latest one to fall. Why were they even printing this shit any more? It never changed anything.
no!! June please don’t leave me! ::(look i’m not meant to show you this but it’s a really pretty shot, and i really want you to see iti can’t send you any money i’m sorry, the channels are all shutting down, but i promise if you just hold on things will get betterplease don’t go
June 22nd, 2554, Hero’s Journey, Jupiter Orbit, Sol, The Milky Way
June swore. She never thought she’d miss the fucking quotas, but at least then she’d had a target. Now the tasks were endless. Fucking Terra had sold them out and everything was worse now.
July 30th, 2554, Hero’s Journey, Jupiter Orbit, Sol, The Milky Way
Sarah held June tight as the groaning ship’s reactor howled. Every jump was a kick in the chest and this was the third today. They were trying to keep out of the range of some fucking xeno titan but they just couldn’t move as fast. Sarah was doing sensors now for some fucking reason, and she’d caught the alien warship on the edge of their range. Even given that, they were losing ground fast.
“What do you think they’re really like?” June asked. “Do you think it’ll be quick?”
Sarah shrugged, with a sigh. “Maybe it won’t be that bad. I dunno. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at sensor readings the last few weeks, everything’s starting to blur into one.”
June missed having more than one friend. She even missed her manager. She missed Eri most of all, but at this point it was almost certain she was on some alien ship, if she was even still alive.
“God, what do we do?”
Sarah shrugged, again. “Their jumps are so clean. Their drive plume… it’s hard to explain, but it’s almost like a song. The sensor station turns stuff into sounds so it’s easier to pay half your attention to it while doing something else, and… ugh. Ours sounds like a fuckin’ buzzsaw, and theirs is…”
Sarah leaned back. They shared a bunk, because there wasn’t room for all the crew any more, but that was okay. June drifted to sleep as Sarah hummed an alien song straight into her heart.
August 8th, 2554, Free Martian Safehouse, Pluto, Sol, The Milky Way
C’mon, c’mon. June tapped her fingers impatiently while Sarah tweaked settings on the terminal (sixteen 3mm screws) they were sitting in front of. The Hero’s Journey was long since captured, but they’d escaped in a two-person planethopper just beforehand. It wasn’t much of a stealth ship, but they’d managed to steal the Hero’s Journey’s communication logs before running, which had led them to the safehouse.
With nothing better to do, June had finally convinced Sarah to put her new knowledge to work hunting down a very particular mail drone.
It wasn’t hard to find. It was still hanging around lunar orbit. A stream of messages spilled out over the screen.
june?? june! you reply to this this instant, young lady!! >::(
no no no june c’mon i’m almost there, please don’t have done this
okay i’m here, where are you? ::(
june?? oh dirt and roots did you join the rebellion? aaaaaaaa
okay no we’ve got your trail, i’m coming, just stay put for another couple days!! :;)
omg june were you on that escape shuttle?? look, just… we lost track of u. i’m gonna send a picture with this one, okay? please don’t be afraid! i promise that if we can just talk everything will make sense
It took a few minutes for Sarah to figure out how to extract the image from the data stream. They sat and stared.
Purple. Not even human at all. Four bright pink eyes and a thousand tiny purple leaves hanging off of green strands. It looked like somebody had taken a picture of something like a dragon and run filters over it, until they looked…
Well. Like one of the xeno scum that wanted humanity dead.
The two humans looked at each other for long moments with a dawning realisation. Sarah swore first. “Fuck. How long has this been going on for? You’ve been talking to Erica for years.”
“I… Can we reply?” June looked towards her partner, squeezing tight around her side. Sarah nodded, and passed June the input.
August 9th, 2554, PLO Spaceport, Pluto, Sol, The Milky Way
June stood in the quiet spaceport, nervously clutching her bag. She didn’t have to keep staring at the arrivals door (twenty two 3mm screws). She knew she’d probably be here for another twenty minutes at least. What else was she meant to do? Her heart was pounding. Was this even a good idea? Were her feelings even real?
Sarah was beside her, leaning against the wall, eyes closed. Probably a better idea, but June had way too much nervous energy. She paced back and forth in the tiny waiting area, eyes locked on the arrivals doors.
She’d never seen this creature in the flesh before. This was ridiculous. What was she doing? She’d thought she’d loved her, certainly, but, how could she be sur—
After a literal eternity, she heard the quiet hiss of equalising pressure. June’s eyes snapped to the opening doors as her heart banged in her chest.
“Holy shit you’re tall,” June breathed, as a figure stepped out of the human-sized airlock, hunched over, and then raised to her full height.
Elegantly woven vines formed a flowing waterfall that spiked maybe twenty feet into the air. Quadrupedal, massive, and utterly alien. Beautiful. Perfect. It was her. Much of her body was covered in tiny pink and purple bells, but that was covered in some kind of clothing. Nothing like a human design, but it hung off of her body like it had been tailored for the occasion.
She watched its four purple eyes scanning the room until finally they locked gaze with June’s.
The dragon hesitated. June didn’t, breaking out into a short run that terminated very suddenly as she hit one of Eri’s thick legs in a full-body hug.
“You aren’t what I imagined,” she admitted. “You’re, um. Big.”
The room shook as Eri laughed. “Nor you! Look at you! You’re so much more vibrant when you’re moving! I’m sorry, I’m not really laid out for human hugs, I was heading in the exact opposite direction when you got my first message. I haven’t really had time to learn how to look like you, but— I can change, if you’d like?”
June laughed, squeezing into the leg tighter. “I don’t care. I love you and if you’re a space dragon then that’s okay. I’m sorry that I ran.”
A low shudder ran through the dragon’s body. “Dirt, but I love you too, June. I— Oh, I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you the truth earlier, it was just—”
June shook her head with rapid movements. “I don’t care! You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me and if you’re going to eat me then that’s okay. I’m glad it’s you.”
Eri’s grin showed teeth by the hundred. “I didn’t come five thousand light years for a snack. I came for you.”
June buried her face against the leg. “Thank you.”
Erica leaned down, curling her neck around June’s body in a firm hug of her own. “Who’s the friend?” she asked, after a few long moments.
June winced. “So, yeah, about that. It’s been… a lot, recently, and I kinda got together with Sarah, and… I mean, I don’t know whether you’re okay with that.”
Erica licked her lips with a rapid nod. “Mmhm yes that’s okay absolutely yes—” Her long neck let her easily bring her head over to within inches of Sarah. She blew a puff of hot air into the waiting girl’s face. “Let me take care of you?”
December 24th, 2554, Elettarium, Sol Heliopause, The Milky Way
June Erigin, First Floret Pinnate, tore open the box containing her Christmas present. Apparently it was some old earth gift-giving ritual that the Affini were trying to bring back, which seemed absurd. June was curled up atop her owner and there wasn’t a 3mm screw within eighteen billion kilometers. Her life was a gift.
“I figured, y’know, it’s how we met,” Eri held June tight under one wing. “I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate that than to get you your own camera. Is it— Do you like it?”
June nodded rapidly. “I love it. Thank you.”
Goddess, she loved her goddess. Admittedly, it would have been hard not to now. Eri’s wing hung protectively over her, and some part of her—June didn’t care for the details—nestled around her mind, making sure she never had to think anything bad ever again.
Sarah Erigin, Second Floret Pinnate, was carefully held under the other wing, opening her own box. A canvas, a set of paints, and an audio system. “Oh shiiiiiit, Miss, you kidding me right now?”
Eri grinned, with a sharp shake of her head. “New captain just got elected, and this one found the idea of letting you record the new drive plume adorable. We’ll have to teach you how to put all the right hypnotics into it, but this time next year this ship’ll be playing your art to the universe.”
Both florets leaned their heads against Erica’s side, reaching across to clasp their hands together, and sighed happily. No more screws. No more Terra. Their whole world had shrunk to focus on this one beautiful creature, and it was better this way.
June scrambled up, twisting the dial on her new camera until tiny thrusters came to life and sent it floating away, twisting to point towards them. June fiddled with the small remote control unit.
The camera flashed.
Seventh Blossom, 16894th Efflorescence, 10 Lacertae Orbital
Eri and her florets flew far above the simulated oceans of the massive Affini ringworld. The pair of humans clung to Erica’s neck with the carefree abandon of things which knew themselves to be perfectly safe, laughing and cheering as they took large loops in the air.
Eri’s massive wings couldn’t possibly have kept her afloat even under real gravity, but nobody cared to point out the inconsistency. June’s camera flashed and Sarah’s paintbrush drew shaken lines.
They weren’t alone any more. No matter how fast humanity had run, no matter how hard it had fought, they hadn’t changed the outcome even one little bit.
Billions of humans, once so alone, joined the uncountable diversity of life in the greater cosmos, all brought under the caring wing of something once unimaginable. Benevolent, kind, generous life. All resistance had been ground into so much worthless dust, and what was left was a purer, happier humanity. A better humanity, and a June with hope for the future.
Also, finally no more fucking screws.