A Lighthouse Under a Sunless Sky
rating: +11+x

<- Part I


Part II


The crawler rumbled on, the shifting of its cargo of miscellaneous scrap on the flatcar trailers dragging behind it occasionally producing a clatter or thump that could be heard inside the narrow passenger area. There was a small poster attached to the wall right at the back of the crawler’s seating space, edges worn ragged and a tear in the side of the soft paper carefully repaired with tape. Scabs tried to make out what it said. Her eyesight had never been great but she felt it had been deteriorating faster these last few years. She hoped she’d keep her eyes. Sometimes she woke with the feeling of a cold sweat all over her and felt her heart rise in her chest like bile as she looked at the machine her immune system accepted but her mind could not comprehend. When she was younger- after she’d been assigned to the sewers and had gone under while the cyberthaum removed her legs- she’d had a reoccurring nightmare that her soul had followed her legs down into the reprocessor, her being shredded and re-purposed as she felt every movement of the blades, every touch of skin as the other missing parts danced around her in a waltz of bleeding, ragged flesh and decomposition as her arms, her neck, her face had followed them down one by one until all that was left of her was a mind locked in a numb shell in deep deaf darkness. She’d been very conscious of her sight since then. It felt like if that went too it’d be like falling back into that anaesthetized numbness, the distant sensation of the augment bonds splitting and what little she could feel of her legs just cutting off like a phone call ringing out.

She wondered what the world looked like through an ocular. Colours bleached? Blurry? Grainy? Artificial? Like watching the world through a screen while you were trapped inside your own head like an overmind?

The poster was red. She could see that much.

Some time later, Thinfingers called down from the cabin of the vehicle and Eithenin pushed himself off of the bench to clamber up to drive. “We’re almost here,” he said, Spittlestring waking with a grumble as Thinfingers hopped down and resumed sitting on the bench. “In, sell, out. Same as ever.”

i don’t like this one,” Spittlestring said quietly. “woman who runs it- olristaan- she’s a bit nuts.” He snorted. “i mean, no more nuts than me, but the difference is she runs an outpost and eithenin won’t put me in charge of anything more complex than a trolley.

Scabs looked at Spittlestring worriedly. “Eithenin said I should keep my head down,” she said. “Is she-

dangerous? yes,” Spittlestring said. “but not to us. unless you piss her off. look,” he said kindly, “you’ll hop out of the crawler so they can do a quick security check then you’ll be straight back in it while Eithenin negotiates prices for the scrap metal. just a few minutes of standing in the cold. nothing to go wrong.” He gave her a mismatched thumbs-up.

It didn’t reassure her.

Some time later the radio crackled into life before resolving into coherent speech. “-hicle, identify yourself or face retaliation. Repeat, this is Wermesckir outpost Orenlensca. Unidentified waste vehicle, identify yourself or face retaliat-.”

“Wermesckir outpost, this is Eithenin. We are expected,” he rasped.

There was a pause as the radio operator received the transmission. “Understood,” they said. “You will stop the vehicle at the marked safety line in front of the main gate. All occupants will disembark for an inspection. Suspicious activity will be met with gunfire.”

“Understood,” replied Eithenin. The crackle of the radio cut off.

“Fuck,” he said quietly. “That’s… tetchy.” Then, “Elbows!”

Elbows burst out of their hatch and scuttled along the roof of the crawler in a blur, launching into the cabin before Scabs could jolt in surprise.

“YES,” they spat from the cabin.

“Be ready to detach the trailers from this thing and leg it.”

“THINK TROUBLE?”

“I think nothing,” said Eithenin. “I take precautions.”

“YOU THINK TROUBLE.”

“I just said I don’t think that.”

“WILL HIDE IN ENGINE TO DISGUISE HEAT SIGNATURE,” said Elbows, apparently ignoring Eithenin’s rebuttal.

“Good,” said Eithenin.

When the crawler slowed to a stop Eithenin dropped down the ladder and placed a hand on the latch of the door to the outside.

“Best behaviour,” he said. “No profanity. That includes all of you.”

Deep in the recesses of the engine Scabs could have sworn she heard a faint “FUCK NO.

Then the door opened with a groan and a blast of cold air and Eithenin dropped down, followed by Thinfingers, who took a long step with his hands in his hands in his coat pockets, and Spittlestring, who lowered himself down slowly, his augments clicking in protest. Scabs was last. She hopped down, her smaller frame barely impacting the ice.

The outpost was big. Not massive, but the concrete walls, rough and pitted from the winds and airborne ice that pattered against her augments with faint tink-ing sounds, cast long, pitch-black shadows from the feverish brightness of the spotlights mounted on towers high above them. The outpost looked to be octagonal in shape, a geometric imposition against the rough flatness of the ice wastes. A broad octagonal tower sat in the centre, two skeletal radio towers decked with slowly sweeping spotlights grasping for the sky from its roof. Through the smog the Ring was visible as a faint dark line in the sky, framing the scene below. Before them was the buttress of a gatehouse, with two sliding doors standing open a crack.

Two squads of soldiers stood before the gatehouse, standing with geometric perfection in two blocks of eight. Scabs recognised them as Wermesckir from news broadcasts in Emtu-Rafich, but as she got closer she noticed small gaps in the wall of their uniformity. Things that didn’t quite fit, small decals on their armour, the huge rifles they carried hung with tiny steel charms. Names painted below the sigil of the hollow-eyed augment skull on their shoulders with eerily human care. Modifications. Individuality. Something antithetical to a faction built on uniformity. Just how much independence did the Olristaan have?

Behind them, the gate stood open a crack and cameras watched impassively from above. One of the soldiers held up a hand. Eithenin and the others stopped and Scabs stopped a second later, hurriedly stepping back into line. The soldier placidly returned their hand to their rifle then spoke, their synthetic voice emanating from a wedge-shaped speaker jutting from the roof of their mouth in place of a lower jaw.

“Raise your arms for a brief scan,” they stated.

Scabs assented and watched as the others did the same. The soldier swung their rifle onto their back and unclipped a plastic-cased device from their belt, casting it either side of each of the salvagers and checking a small readout in turn. They took extra care around Spittlestring, checking the little rectangular screen multiple times as if uncertain of the results. When he scanned Scabs they stopped, then turned their head to Eithenin.

“This one has magic in them,” they stated, their voice dead. “Why did you not inform us of this?”

Eithenin gestured mildly. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “Didn’t think you’d need forewarning.”

The soldier was expressionless. “Magic is a weapon,” they said. “We do not tolerate weapons in the outpost.”

The soldier turned to Scabs, the flat tops of the lenses around their eyes giving them an aspect of deep melancholy. “Do not attempt thaumaturgy within the outpost,” they said. “Magic use of any kind will be treated as drawing a weapon and will be met with lethal force.” They turned back to the line of soldiers and snapped back into formation without another word.

There was silence for a while but for the sounds of activity in the outpost. In the blustering wind Scabs remembered what Spittlestring had told her. A few minutes of standing in the cold. This felt longer than that. Just how badly were things going wrong? Was she in danger? She could probably outrun the soldiers, she reasoned, but she wouldn’t last long in the wastes. She shivered, drawing her coat closer around her. She felt uncomfortably like she was at the wrong end of a firing line.

Then the gates ground open another metre and stopped with a thunk that seemed to run into Scabs’ bones. A figure appeared in the gap, loping with a kind of complicated stateliness on long, multi-jointed legs. She stopped in the settling dust of the gate’s motion, gazing out at them. The soldiers saluted her in wordless synchronisation. She was more than twice as tall as any of them.

“Eithenin,” said the Olristaan, and her voice was warm and lyrical. “You have brought us quite the haul.” She gestured to the trailers with a long, thin arm. Though she was almost as lean as Scabs, the certainty with which she moved seemed to run with latent power. The kind of augments that could flip a tank. The kind of strength that only the very rich or very inventive could possess.

“And you have a new companion!” The Olristaan peered down at Scabs, loping towards them with her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s always so nice to see fresh blood in your band,” she said. “May I introduce myself?”

Eithenin turned a single red ocular towards Scabs. “You may, Olristaan,” he said.

“Though I have no doubt that Eithenin has already told you about me,” said the Olristaan, her legs folding to bring herself closer to Scabs’ height, “let me introduce myself.

“I am the Olristaan of this outpost,” she said, indicating the concrete structure behind her with a sweeping gesture, “and these are my children.” She tilted her head, seeming to smile wryly. Her face was long and thin, with a tapering, angular guard fitted over her jaw. “Though not in that crude way,” she said. “Their genetic stock is perfectly varied, I assure you. What is your name?”

“Scabs, Ma’a- I mea- Olristaan.”

The Olristaan seemed amused. “Don’t worry,” she said, the pastel edge of a laugh inflecting her voice. “Scabs. An interesting name. There was a time when I would have thought it peculiar, but I’ve spent too long out here to be surprised.” She gestured towards Spittlestring, who had his gaze glassily fixed nowhere in particular. “Ah, I remember when I thought Spittlestring had an odd name! I’m still embarrassed about that one. I hope he has forgiven me for my response at the time!”

i have, olristaan,” said Spittlestring quietly.

The Olristaan looked at Scabs carefully again. “I do have one question for you,” she said. “I hope it isn’t overstepping a line, but forgive me— your name. Given, or taken?”

“P-Pardon?”

“Your name. Were you given it, or did you take it?”

“I- uh-”

The Olristaan seemed sad. “Given, then,” she said. “Well. Enough questions!” She raised herself to her full height, striding towards Eithenin. “Let us negotiate,” she said, brusquely. “Firstly, waste tech. What of that do you have?”

Eithenin shrugged. “Nothing much, Olristaan,” he said. “We’ve already sold most of our stock off. Though I saved you a few things I thought you’d appreciate.”

“Let me see,” she said, striding past him.

“Don’t you want to look at the scrap?” Eithenin’s question seemed wary.

“Not unless any of it is at all functional,” said the Olristaan. “Is it?” She turned, looking down on him with an unwavering gaze.
“One skimmer with a radio that’s… potentially repairable.”

The Olristaan turned to the row of trailers behind the crawler, their loads covered by tarpaulins. “And the skimmer itself?”

“Irreparable. The back end was sticking out of the ice when we found it. The engine is a ball of rust.”

“Parts can be replaced,” said the Olristaan, a little distantly.

“Why the interest in waste vehicles?” Eithenin rasped.

“I guard the Wermesckir from the edge of the wastes,” the Olristaan said with rigid lightness. “It would be irrational to cut myself off completely.”
“I thought that your Wermesckir friends in the south didn’t like that sort of thing.”

“Times are changing, Scavenger,” she snapped. “Faster than I would like. Do not test me.”

“Changing how,” Eithenin rasped, and there was a core of steel behind his words.

Scabs stiffened, hearing the clack of the clamps on Eithenin’s faceplate snapping into place. The Olristaan was closer to the crawler than she was. How far would she have to walk before she got back to the band? How far would she get before her bloodheater failed and she froze solid, turn to rusting scrap metal and the porcelain shards of her bones? A sequence of quiet clicks emanated from the soldier’s rifles. Or would she would be melted to slag in a furnace, innards boiling and spitting from the bullet-holes in her chest, her flesh going out the chimney as smoke and ash?

The Olristaan didn’t move for a few seconds. Then she spoke, her voice quieter and a little resigned.

“Drop your guard. I have something which I want you to know. But first, I have something to show you.”

She straightened and looked through the narrow gap in the gate, speaking in a flashing burst of Blink from recessed lights on her faceplate, too fast for Scabs to follow. Then the gates ground fully open, slowly revealing a scene of chaos. The first thing Scabs noticed was the Wermesckir’s diminutive humanoid drones, running about and signalling to each other with waving arms and silent bursts of Blink. Then the obscured mechanical shape in the gap was revealed to be a vehicle, a big, ugly transport with the Wermesckir sigil in faded paint on the side. Then two more were revealed, buzzing with activity as they were loaded. As Scabs watched, a light tank was pulled up a ramp in the side of the larger vehicle.

Once the doors had fully opened, the Olristaan turned back to them. “We are leaving,” she said, simply. “There has been a coup. We do not know the details. As far as we know, our Glorious Leader is still alive, but it is only a matter of time. I do not plan to stay to gauge my new overlord’s temperament.”

Eithenin trudged closer, his faceplate opening back open a crack. “I appreciate the forwardness,” he said. “As will Needles. But allow me a word of warning of my own, as a gesture. The wastes are not empty. And few will welcome your sudden appearance.”

“I am aware,” the Olristaan said. “I do not plan to linger in this territory for long. Soon we will be nothing more than a memory in your long and storied history. A pleasant one, I hope.”

“Good,” grunted Eithenin. “You buying this scrap or not?”

“No,” said the Olristaan. “If you will excuse my bluntness. Without the outpost it’s just dead weight.”

“Excusing my bluntness, I came here with the expectation that you would buy and fuel isn’t cheap.”

“Fine. Two hundred credits per ton to pile it against the walls.”

Eithenin sighed lengthily. “Fine. Wastetech?”

“Show me anything you think will be of use. Time is pressing on me.”

“This way,” said Eithenin, trudging off towards the trailers. The Olristaan loped after him.

Spittlestring leaned over and tugged at Scabs’ arm. “come on,” he said. “let’s get us in the warm.

Scabs was making her way into the crawler when she hesitated. “No,” she said, suddenly. “I- I’ll be back.” Without waiting for a response she hurried after Eithenin.

“It’s a deal,” the Olristaan was saying. “I’ll pay up front. I understand that this is an act of generosity on your part but you must understand that it is even more so for me. I- oh, hello Scabs.”

Eithenin turned sharply towards Scabs. “I thought I could help,” she said, forcing the words out nonchalantly. “Taking the scrap in.”

“…Very considerate,” said the Olristaan. “I’m sure my drones will be glad of the extra hands. As I was saying,” she said, turning back to Eithenin, who kept a few oculars fixed on Scabs, “I hope that this doesn’t befoul an otherwise flawless relationship between our two parties.”

“It hasn’t, Olristaan,” replied Eithenin. “Credits in, scrap out, book closed for now. No hard feelings.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed the Olristaan, though her faux enthusiasm was tempered by a certain weariness in her voice. She turned back to the gate, flashing another burst of Blink. One of the soldiers turned and headed into the outpost before returning, a small group of worker drones hurrying through the gate after them a short while later. They dragged a few trolleys, thin steel legs straining at the uneven ice. When they reached the first of the crawler’s four flatcar trailers they undid the ties that held the tarp over the pile of scrap beneath. They wasted no time in clambering up and beginning to carry lumps of twisted and pitted metal onto their trolleys. Though the drones were humanoid there was something off about the way they moved, too precise, too fast. Being trapped in a machine chassis since birth changed people. Having no memory of the soft warmth of skin, however distant, however faint it was, made people think like machines. And being treated as just that did something, too.

Scabs made her way over to the drones. One stood apart, waiting for her.

[hello, scavenger,] they Blinked, slowly so she could understand. [the olristaan tells us you wish to help. very considerate of you. please help us drag this scrap back into the outpost.]

“Yes,” said Scabs. She grabbed the handle of the trolley the drone gestured to, already covered in a pile of rusted metal. The drone joined her and together they began dragging it towards the outpost, pneumatic tyres rasping against the ground.

[i am selvenn,] the drone said. [the olristaan allows us to take names,] they added, the emotion codes for joy/respect capping the statement.
Scabs nodded, awkwardly. “That’s nice,” she said. “I’m, uh, Scabs.” She hoped the drone could lip-read even if they were deaf. Many of the ones in Emtu-Rafich couldn’t.

The drone gave her a slightly odd look as they pulled the trolley through the ranks of soldiers, one giving her a placid look under the rim of their helmet as she passed. [thank you, Scabs,] Selvenn said. Scabs nodded and tried to focus on pulling the trolley for now. It wasn’t the right time for the plan, if she could call it that. More a half-formed, half-witted idea. There was a part- a large part- of her that was screaming at her for her stupidity, but it was a bit late to back down now.

It took a few more trips back and forth and a few more pleasantries, which, fortunately, Selvenn seemed more than happy to reciprocate despite Scabs’ cack-handedness at talking, before she made the plunge and asked the question.

“So, what do you think about the coup?”

Selvenn’s Blinkers stayed dark, the drone focussing on unloading another lump of rusted tech onto the cart. [sorry], they said, [the olristaan would not approve. let’s talk about something else.]. They paused for a second, then furtively Blinked another message. [the factory cities are silent, which means that the coup was fast and effective. they are either very good or have the support of most of the wermesckir. possibly both.]

Scabs frowned, putting another metallic lump of something onto the trolley. “That’s bad news for you, right?”

The drone looked at her sidelong. [why cut us off unless they do not think the olristaan would approve of them? no response to our transmissions and the normal broadcast radios are silent. It’s…] they paused. [eerie, for us. the olristaan too, though she hides it. the mumble is just… gone.]

Scabs pushed at the trolley, the drone’s feet digging into the ice as they got it moving. “The mumble?” she asked.

[radio blink receivers. we all have them. even the olristaan.] The drone glanced over their shoulder at the Olristaan deferentially, the huge augmentee striding about inside the compound, overseeing the efforts to leave. [they pick up the broadcasts from our cities. just a faint nattering of factory-chant. but we got used to it. now it’s too quiet. just static.]

“So what do you plan to do in the wastes? Just keep travelling until you get far enough away then set up again on the edge of the band somewhere else?”
Selvenn ignored her for a second. [i don’t know,] they said. [the olristaan has not told us.] The trolley creaked as they passed through the gate.

They stopped and dumped the scrap on a pile against the outer wall of the outpost and started pulling the trolley back again. Scabs watched as thick hoses running from the huge transports into the main building were disconnected one by one, dripping fuel and rapidly freezing fluids. The drones left them where they fell, bleeding little puddles onto the concrete.

Selvenn turned to look somewhere behind Scabs. Scabs followed his gaze and saw the Olristaan loping towards them. She felt a tap on her arm and realised that Selvenn was trying to speak to her. [we’re close to being done,] they said.

“Scabs,” the Olristaan called, effortlessly projecting over the whistling of the wind. “Thank you for the help! Usually the salvagers hide in that crawler and my drones do all the work but your aid has been a sweet addition to an unfortunately bitter parting. So thank you, truly.”

“It’s fine,” said Scabs. She looked towards the gate but couldn’t see Eithenin. She was on her own. “I’ll head back now,” she said. “Nice meeting you. Olristaan,” she added, hurriedly.

The Olristaan strode closer then slowed, turning from where they had been going to peer down at Scabs.

“Your wrists,” she said, and there was genuine sympathy in her voice.

“They’re fine,” said Scabs. “Really, Olristaan. Anyway Eithenin is-”

“Could I see? If I may?” The Olristaan’s head was tilted in concern.

Was there a choice?

“Yes, Olristaan.”

The seconds it took for the Olristaan to reach Scabs seemed stretched out with the logic of a nightmare.

The Olristaan crouched down, her legs folding neatly beneath her as she took Scabs’ wrist and inspected it. Her hands were cold on Scabs’ skin. Scabs tried to focus on that.

She pulled back the sleeve and turned her wrist over a little, examining the sores. Her eyes distorted slightly as lenses slid in from recesses above them, the enlarged pupils making her look sweet and childish. But there was something else. Discretely, Scabs looked up, trying not to turn her head too much. It was subtle, and without the lenses she doubted she’d have been able to notice, but her eyes were slightly different shades of green, one paler, almost blue, the other dark and flecked with little strands of gold. Scabs stiffened, then tried to relax again before the Olristaan noticed. She didn’t look up from Scabs’ wrist, so she assumed she’d gotten away with it, and then the Olristaan spoke.

“Why did you press Selvenn for information about my plans, Scabs?” A long-fingered hand reached up and pulled Scabs’ scarf down, the cold, smooth metal running along the pale, smarting flesh of her face. “Why did you do it?”

Scabs froze.

In one smooth motion the Olristaan slid her hand over Scabs’ head and gripped, a sudden feeling of pressure bursting in her head. Rather than offer explanation the Olristaan simply stared at Scabs with her big, warm, mismatched eyes.

“If those fingers so much as twitch,” the Olristaan said simply, “I will crush your head.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scabs, and she kept most of the tremor out of her voice. Then: “I didn’t mean anything, really, Olristaan. I was just asking, I promise!”
“The time for playing coy is further gone than the sun, meatbag,” the Olristaan said. “There is a way you get out of this alive, I assure you, and ways you end up the last thing that goes through this outpost’s forges, and ways where you go back missing parts. Where on that scale of eventualities you decide to end up relies on you, and how you answer my questions. Firstly.” The hand pulled Scabs closer. “Who asked you to do this?”

“Me,” Scabs said. “I- I thought it- I-”

The Olristaan snorted humourlessly. “An unsatisfying answer but a true one. Your abundance of flesh has evidently meddled with your hormonal balance and rotted your brain on trill-seeking, or perhaps just blunted your mind. Now. What do you know?”

“Just that-” Scabs stammered. “Just that you’re going into the wastes!”

“No. You know more.” The hand tightened.

“That you don’t have a plan!”

The Olristaan’s grip loosened a notch. “Well done, Scabs,” she said, cloyingly serious. “Perhaps we can make this relationship work after all. And what did you drag out of my drone about the coup?”

“That they don’t like you!” Scabs could see the gate behind the Olristaan’s looming form. Out there was the crawler. Out there was a way out. Scabs suddenly had the horrible realisation that if the Olristaan wanted to she could kill them all.

“My, you are a little interrogator,” said the Olristaan, and for the first time all the layers of sympathy and mockery in her voice were stripped away, leaving a husk more empty and inhuman that Elbow’s. “Shame about how this turned out.” The grip started to tighten and Scabs saw stars, bright and white. She wondered if this was what the sun had looked like.

“Given or taken,” she said, deliriously, hyperventilating, her breather filters making popping sucking noises.

The Olristaan paused her efforts to crush Scabs’ skull. “Pardon?” she asked, sounding affronted.

“Your eye,” said Scabs, and for the first time she was angry. “Were you given it, or did you take it?”

The Olristaan’s entire body twitched and she breathed in sharply through her teeth. Then she rammed her face straight into Scabs’, eyes searing straight into hers.

Given or taken? Is that it? Your last words?”

“You take it from one of your children?” Scabs sneered, the primal rage pushing all other emotions out. “Or did they line up to give it to their glorious Olristaan? Or did you ask nicely and wait for one of your acolytes to offer it so you could pretend it was their idea?”

“I took this eye,” the Olristaan spat, “because there wasn’t a choice. Because there isn’t enough moral philosophising in the world to ever make taking it right or give my children a leader when she is half-blind in the dark. I need to see to lead, Scabs, and if that makes me a monster then so be it. There is no best-case scenario, Scabs, where everyone walks out alive and clean. Just a middle ground where I act, and fewer of my children die.” The Olristaan unfolded her legs with a percussive burst of motion and cast Scabs aside, who stumbled, clutching her head.

“Run along, Scavenger,” the Olristaan called, her voice high and edged with mania, as though she was fighting to keep something sealed tight in her chest. “Enjoy your spotlessly clean trail of corpses as the world bends to fit your blind fucking moralising.”

Scabs ran.

The crawler was silent as it rumbled into the depths of the wastes. Sometimes the wind made a keening whistling noise as it passed over some imperfection in its rounded body.

Her name was Scabs, because that was all that was left of her.

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