Crawling to the Dark
rating: +6+x

<- Part I


“armour, boy, armour! i’m telling you, saddie needs a few good slabs of compound armour, ceramite isn’t worth shit against anything but small arms fire and melee blows!”

“And what, I end up fat and slow like your walking breezeblock? Manoeuvrability! World’s changing, old man!”

“oh don’t you start on my old girl-”

The voices echoed out of Wheelbarrow’s common room as Eithenin opened the door. Inside, half a dozen augmentees- probably most of Wheelbarrow’s denizens- sat around a collection of mismatched tables and repurposed workbenches watching Spittlestring’s argument with amusement below the curved arches of unadorned struts. They all looked up when Scabs entered, offering a variety of nods of acknowledgement, anatomically improbable salutes and, in the case of Elbows, who was sitting beneath Scuttleteeth, a flurry of excited limbs.

Scabs decided to keep it simple. “Nice to meet you, uh, you all,” she said, aware that she had only met a few of Wheelbarrow’s crew. “I’m S-”

Eithenin gently knocked a thick knuckle against her arm.

“I’m Scabs,” she said.

There was a loose chorus of greetings from the assembled augmentees. Eithenin trudged towards a bench and sat down heavily with a deeply satisfied sigh next to Spittlestring.

Scabs sat down opposite him, nodding politely at the man next to her. He was small and very humanoid, wearing an ankle-length coat that seemed almost to swallow him. Patches that had once been colourful were sewn into the dark tan, the elbows reinforced with two mismatched slabs of thick, rubberised fabric.

“Jabberjabber,” he said with a small nod.

so, you’re back,” said Spittlestring, his mismatched oculars turning to watch her. “thought you were down for good, some of us. not me, though. i knew you’d pull through.

“’Course you did,” smirked the man Spittlestring had been arguing with. “I’m Dench,” he said, turning towards her. “Heard there was shit going down around here and came to check on this old bag of spare parts.” He jostled Spittlestrings’ shoulder, who responded by reaching up with surprising deftness and grabbing Dench’s wrist.

oi,” he said. “first rebenca, now me?” He let go of Dench’s wrist and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Somehow, Scabs didn’t think he was really upset.

She took the moment to look around the room. The rest of Wheelbarrow’s crew had lapsed into their previous bubbles of conversation and, sitting amonst them, she gained a true appreciation for just how varied they were. One augmentee, taller than the rest, was engaged in the telling of some kind of joke with Thinfingers and a burly augmentee Scabs didn’t recognise. The tall augmentee was serpentine, a long neck extending without transition from her body. Her sides were smooth, long, tendril-like arms nestling like strands of intestines in a hollow down the centre of her body. They undulated slowly as she moved, as if caught in the teasing of an underwater current or the convulsions of a womb.

Further back, against the wall, a blocky woman bearing the empty stumps of weapon ports on her sloped shoulders sat, her slow, methodical artificial speech occasionally grumbling over the soft tones of a humanoid augmentee, still bearing a few of the ceramite plates of an Emenral citizen. They turned their face in Scabs’ direction and she saw that they had cut away half of their male-patterned faceplate neatly down the middle, the exposed, functional metal and plastic shifting animatedly as they talked. There were more people here than Scabs could count at a glance, but no more than… fifteen? Eighteen? For all its imposing size Wheelbarrow was no fortress. This was a skeleton crew.


She started, realising that Dench was trying to get her attention. She looked up at him and gave him an uncertain smile.

“So,” he said, the metal of his faceplates clicking into a surprisingly accurate facimily of a grin, “I’ve heard you’ve had quite the adventure getting here, Scabs.” He appraised her arm, seeming to find something amusing in it. “I like the name, by the way,” he added. “Just… not so accurate now, is it?”

Scabs flexed the bare struts of her temporary arm and brought her wrist up, half to play along, half to see for herself the absence of the twin unhealed wounds that had defined her. “No,” she said distantly. “I guess… I don’t.”

Dench’s smile softened. “Sorry, that was a bit… you look knackered. Eithenin better give you the softest bed here or I’m going to throw a hissy fit on your behalf. If you’re lucky,” he said, brows lowering conspiratorially as he brought her into a well-worn in-joke, “you might get to bunk with Jabberjabber.”

Jabberjabber took a quiet sip out of his mug.

“he don’t even slurp,” said Spittlestring. “it’s like he drinks the sound down with the… what you got in the mug, jabberjabber?”

Jabberjabber locked eyes with Spittlestring and took another sip. He declined to comment. Scabs was starting to think that his name was ironic.

“Water,” said Eithenin, though he sounded a touch uncertain.

“Engine grease,” suggested Dench.

Scabs tried to peek into Jabberjabber’s mug but he covered it with a hand. He looked around the table and gave them all a slow, measured wink.

Elbows scuttled over to them with a distinctive tapping of limbs and extended their back limbs, suddenly towering over Jabberjabber, oculars swerving left and right as they tried to catch a glimpse inside the small augmentee’s battered tin mug. Jabberjabber made a show of covering it with a palm and clutching it to his chest but then he held it up to Elbows and snapped his palm open for a split second. Elbows started and peered closer but Jabberjabber silently drank it down before anyone could react.

“Mm,” he said.

Elbows, disturbingly, was silent.

“how the fuck any of us have survived this long is beyond me,” said Spittlestring. “we’re like a vacuum for intelligence.”

“You especially,” said Eithenin. “You’re a walking philosophical conundrum about originality. Half of your bodyweight is solder and the other half is canned spam. How many body parts have you lost, again?”

“oh come on,” retorted Spittlestring. “watch it around the girl.”

Eithenin rubbed at the front of his faceplate. “Sorry, Scabs,” he said. “Not the best… thing to say right now.”

Scabs made a motion to show that she didn’t care, that she didn’t mind the reminder, but she flinched nonetheless.

The Olristaan. She could see those mismatched green eyes again. Searing in their lidless intensity, twitching as they picked apart every detail of her like rats in a frenzy of starvation. Pyerojen, that fall. Chertszen. Dead or just ‘dealt with’? Her hand, twisting like a clockwork dancer. Like a dancer in a cage. What had happened to Wheelbarrow’s last thaumaturge? What had happened that Chertszen had blamed the ringworker for?

“I need to pee,” she said faintly. “Could…”

“FIRST DOOR ON RIGHT,” spat Elbows promptly, gesturing to the door she had come through. “HARD MISS.”

“Thanks,” said Scabs, standing up. Behind her she could hear the conversation resuming about something menial.

She stepped into the toilet and closed the door. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, large. Big augmentees needed a big pisser. A hose for the collection of urine hung from a hook on a wall by a boxy metal sink. There was a toilet catering to more human anatomy next to it. Delightful.

But she wasn’t here for the amenities. Fucking fortunately.

She rested her head against the door and closed her eyes. She felt like how canned spam looked.

She had had quite enough of moral revelations. Scabs decided that if any more complex moral quandaries were presented to her she would simply take the most evil option and roll with it. Start eating children and sleeping on sheets stitched together from the organ bags of any who opposed her. The thought made her smile a little. Out of a sense of obligation she made a mental note to not actually do that.

Her headache resolutely refused to abate.

Scabs groaned quietly. The thought of going back into the noisy common room made her feel physically tense. She’d ask if there was some low-level repair job she could apply herself to somewhere quiet. That was about the extent of her abilities right now. She’d ask if she could grab some food to eat somewhere quiet first, though. A bottle of nutrient slop, at best. She took a deep breath in, put her hand on the doorhandle, released the breath, and stepped out into the corridor again. She walked back in as quickly as she could without making it obvious that she was hurrying and stood at the place where she had been sitting moments before before realising she looked a bit odd just standing there and leaned on the table. “I could use some food,” she said. “And is there anywhere quiet I could eat it? I have a bit of a headache.” She winced internally. She was sure that she had gotten something wrong in that sentence. Right now, all she wanted was to hide in a dark corner.

Eithenin broke off from his conversation to address her. “There shouldn’t be anyone up on the bridge. Bit of a climb but at least it’ll be quiet. Jabberjabber, go get her a block and show her the way? Try not to talk her to death,” he added. Jabberjabber threw his hands up in mock surrender and strode off into the room, patchwork coattails flapping behind him. He returned a few seconds later with a block of… something, neatly wrapped in greaseproof paper. He gestured with a tilt of his head for Scabs to follow and made for the exit.

“Thank you,” said Scabs, nodding at the table. Eithenin slid back the top section of his faceplate and fashioned the glowing red points of his articulated oculars into the shape of a hand giving a thumbs-up. Scabs smiled, despite herself. She wondered how many attempts it had taken for the ringworker to perfect that trick. She gave him a thumbs-up in return.

The Olristaan had been silent for so long that Selvenn had to prompt her in a burst of discrete Blink. [orders?]

She stared at the frame, a shapen-steel dreadnought waiting for her to step inside its embrace.

Every second she wasted was more time for Wheelbarrow to notice their presence, and another chance for greater pain.

It would fit her like a glove, she knew. Like skin. She knew this because she had made sure of it.

It looked shed, standing as it did at rest with the long wedge of its head bowed against the wall, the back of its legs and arms opened, empty and lifeless. Something flayed, perhaps, and true, there was something about the cold, hard rubber of the interior that spoke of the black stain of viscera. But its purpose was to be un-flayed, un-shed, for her to step into it, wet and neotenic, and become strong and hard and calloused, to make the dead thing live.

A drone stood on the maintenance platform beside it with a welding torch, the blue flame hissing expectantly. A surgeon and his scalpel, working in inverse. The clamps were not strong enough. She would be welded into the frame, the slits uncut. She would be leaving this thing in command of Wheelbarrow, or she would die of pilot fugue in it.

The pistons that sat along the blocky limbs were greased with oil, thick and dark, gifting her the strength to heft armour plate thick enough to render her impervious to small arms fire.

She reached out to touch the inside. Protective rubber, shaped in long hours sat still as her drones worked over her body like artisans forming a deathmask.

She grimaced, knowing that nobody would see.

Still, after all these years and all that pain, she was afraid of being trapped. A little nightmare of hers. At least, she smirked, I’m not afraid of the dark.

She stretched perfunctorily, rolled her neck, and slotted her limps one by one into the frame, at last bringing her face into the tight, enclosing dark.

The clamps were snapped closed. The Olristaan tried to flinch but could not. Some animal part of her brain screamed that she was suffocating.

There was a warmth running down her back that quickly built into a searing pinpoint of heat as the drone did his work, the softening of the rubber making her feel like she was melting.


She ignored the message.

Just as the last weld-line cooled there was a split second of blissful numbness as a drone connected her nervous system to that of the frame and she was left floating in quiet emptiness. And then, with a spark and a flash of new sensation, she was real again.

Selvenn stepped into view of the frame’s oculars, the feed spitting interference like ash from a fire. [be safe, olristaan,] he Blinked quickly. [i- we all, want you back safe.]

[if only we could hold wishes in our hands,] she Blinked to him, the languid, rough strength of the frame flexing and teetering on the edge of a violent mistake with every step, an overcoiled spring made to snap and hurt. [if only the clock could stop and the sands still in the hourglass. if only i could promise that i will come back safe.]

[be safe, holiada.]

The Olristaan didn’t slow, pitching down the ramp of the transport with each lurching step. The bisected grey of the sky and the darker grey of the sludge yawned in humbling enormity with her standing alone between them.

[watch your place, drone,] she snapped. Her jaw clenched. [i cannot be her right now.]

Her huge, clawed stabiliser feet impacted the ice. A wind hissed unfelt over her sensors as a weather front moved in from the deep wastes.

Her hands flexed and she fingered the huge rifle strapped to the thing’s side. A weapon modified from a tank cannon, latches waiting on the inside of her right arm to lock it into place to counter the recoil. But that was not the frame’s only weapon. Hanging at her waist was something she had laughed down at first as a frivolity, before she had seen wartime footage of a mech assault and understood just how poorly ranged weapons fared when a mech got close enough to punch.

Her hand grasped the hilt of a glyph-etched broadsword and she sent the order to move.

The bridge was clearly something which had been a part of Wheelbarrow since its excavator days, a wide room with thick double-glazed windows revealing a panoramic view of the wastes before and behind them. Consoles sat dusty and unused. Scabs frowned. They looked like they should be used for controlling Wheelbarrow but nobody was here. Was the huge vehicle on some kind of auto-pilot? An overmind?

“Needles,” said Jabberjabber. Scabs’ eyes widened. Jabberjabber nodded in confirmation.

So the man controlled Wheelbarrow in more ways than one.

Somewhere in the cabin a speaker crackled to life. “Nice to see you up and walking, Scabs,” said Needles. “You’re tough as ceramite, you are. Shoulda’ called you, Ceramitehead or something.” He paused. “I take it back, that’s a terrible name.”

“Thanks,” said Scabs, looking for the camera she knew Needles was watching her from.

“Back right corner- no, right as if you were standing facing to the front- there!” A camera waggled slightly. “Hello!” Scabs gave it a wave in response.

“I’m feeling better,” said Scabs. “Are… you okay?” It was probably best to return the gesture.

“Well I ain’t dead,” said Needles. “So, pretty good!”

“That sounds… good,” said Scabs. Beside her, Jabberjabber hid his head in his hands and started shaking with silent laughter.

“Nice to be thought of,” said Needles kindly. “You have a good heart, Scabs. Literally as well as, you know, metaphorically.”

Jabberjabber patted Scabs on the shoulder and held out the paper-wrapped nutrient block. She took it.

“Leave you to eat,” said Jabberjabber. He took a small bow, waved to Needles’ camera and headed back down the ladder.

Scabs sat down in Wheelbarrow’s main control chair. It was surprisingly comfortable, the cracked pleather raising a cloud of dust as she sat. She waited for it to settle before she unwrapped the block. It was brown and a little sticky but warm, raising a wisp of steam in the frigid air.

She took a bite. It tasted of slightly gristly nothing. That probably meant that it was good for her.

She swallowed. Actually, on second consideration, it had a mild aftertaste of salt. She thought back to the slightly more flavoursome nutrient bars she’d been living off thus far. Those had consisted mainly of sugar and had probably done horrific things to her innards but had been… alright? The marking on the packaging had been in a language she didn’t recognise, utilitarian script that made her think of anti-moisture silicon packets more than something made to be eaten. The crawler had been stacked with them. A shipping container of the little blue plastic-wrapped bars had probably gone missing somewhere.

Scabs watched the wastes rolling ahead, the pitted ice glowing from Wheelbarrow’s floodlights. To the left of the huge bucket wheel she could see, just out of sight, a huge trench, the sides piled high with dirty ice, the bottom regularly stamped with a row of rectangles. Caterpillar tracks. Scabs watched them as Wheelbarrow trundled along, the glowing point of a spotlight wandering over the trench. It was almost as wide as Wheelbarrow. Maybe, she thought, idly examining the way the tracks had been worn smooth and faint, older too. She wondered what she’d find at the end of those tracks. Wreckage? Or a rust-stain on the ice from where the vehicle had been scoured clean by generations of salvagers?

“Don’t think too hard about the tracks,” said Needles, reading Scabs’ gaze. “More often than not you don’t want to find what’s at the end of them. At best you find a bunch of very alive bastards twice as hard as you. At worst? You find what stopped them.”

Scabs looked out into the emptiness. The track suddenly swerved to the side and disappeared into the drifting haze. For just a moment she could have sworn she saw a shape, huge and dark and looming on rows upon rows of tracks as it shouldered its way deeper into the wastes, but before she could blink it was gone. A trick of the light.

She shivered.

“You’ve got to wonder where they were going,” she said. “And what made them turn. There’s nothing out here but ice, why would they…”

“Who knows?” said Needles. “There are so many things out here that seem to itch with stories just out of reach. But some stories don’t want endings, or even beginnings. I’ve heard of plenty of would-be storytellers who shoulder a pack and disappear into the dark with a grin and a wave, following some strange, fresh tracks that don’t fit with any vehicle they can imagine. Guys hitting the ice to find whatever had been following their crawler making those sad, lost noises. Smart guys, careful guys, going out in a group, with ammo and torches and every conceivable preparation to check out that lone corpse lying in a pool of blood so fresh it was still liquid, only for a sudden wind to blow the smog over them and then, when it passes, leave nothing behind but footsteps and clean, dry ice.”

The back of Scabs’ neck prickled.

“We ain’t welcome out here, Scabs,” said Needles warningly. “Don’t you forget that. And when you see, hear, smell something that don’t seem right, you tell anyone and everyone until your throat bleeds from yelling and we get the storm shutters down and the doors bolted and you make sure your gun ain’t jammed. Not that it’ll help, but it might just give you a little peace of mind until whatever it is leaves.”

Scabs let go of a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding in a puff of white. “Yeesh,” she said. She took a bite out of her block, noticing that she had managed to squish it into a notably less blocky shape. She loosened her grip.

“Well,” said Needles. “Nothing’ll happen to us for quite a while, probably.”

“Mmf,” said Scabs non-committally through a mouthful of block. There had been a lump hiding in that bite. She closed her eyes and swallowed. “What’s in this anyway?” she asked, wincing as she felt the lump travel down her throat.

“Algae,” said Needles vaguely. “Salt.” He paused. “Bugs.”

Scabs appraised the block with her ocular. There were certainly details in the brownish mass that could have been scuttling about at one point.

“Whelp!” said Needles. “That’s my grim prophesying quota for the day filled. I’ll leave you to eat. And, Scabs? Take a nap. You look knackered.”

“I will,” said Scabs.


“I promise,” said Scabs.

The speaker turned off with a pop.

She knew she didn’t mean it.

Scabs chewed her way through the rest of the block. Her mind was empty, but not the passive emptiness of peace. It was the oppressive emptiness of the wastes, the feeling of at once being too exposed and trapped by the pressing mass of the clouds of smog. Things were lurking there, just out of sight. Just waiting to be thought of.

Needles was right. Her mind itched, like the wastes. Like she couldn’t help but keep pulling the layers back to find what was beneath like tearing at a callus but all that was there were more unclear shapes just out of reach and the silent threat of something fetid and angry. She needed to know. She needed to know who she was. Because if she was what she had done-

One thing at a time.

One thing, at a time.

Scabs jolted to her feet and stared through the window, pushing her ocular to its limits as she scanned the smog. She felt the building pressure of a headache behind her eyes from the strain and ignored it. The clouds spiralled and swirled and scraped along the ground and there was nothing. And nothing. And nothing.

Scabs bowed her head and shut her ocular off, awkwardly clicking it back into place on the side of her skull. If there was a way to justify her continued existence to herself, it wasn’t out there.

She watched the bright lights of Wheelbarrow finger their way over the pockmarked terrain. A small depression caught her eye. Her eyes followed it as it disappeared under the tracks.

Something… she teased at the thought.

The past was behind her but the future was ahead? Something?

Scabs rubbed at her jaw, wincing as her cold fingers grazed the tender flesh. She didn’t know.

Out of nowhere her spine ran with buzzing ice. Scabs stood up straighter, her heart pulsing with the telltale intensity of growing panic. That feeling had been electric, like a seventh sense fluttering in her hindbrain. Something had changed.

Something moved on the wastes below. Her ocular snapped out of its housing and frantically scanned for the spot but there was nothing there. But… something was happening with the shadows outside Wheelbarrow. They were wrong, too dark, too shaped. She leant on the console again but started as a snap of electricity leapt from her fingers to the metal. It felt like there was static running through her veins.

Thaumaturgy made you sensitive to things. Emotions. Patterns in the weather. Mild precognition, sometimes. Anomalies. Anomalies most of all.

Oh, fuck.

“Needles,” she called, her voice rising as she watched grey casting lines drip from her twitching fingers, “I think something is wrong outside.”

The tanks tore over the ice, Wheelbarrow still hidden in the smog ahead, ice chips spraying and engines singing in a deep-throated chorus of torque and speed and power. The Olristaan’s ocular array pierced ahead, watching, scanning, observing. Her mind flicked through all she knew of Wheelbarrow with the regularity of a projector. The few images they had found. The accounts. The verbal accounts of what parts the salvagers had bartered and bought and stolen. All it would take was seeing the thing in its coarse physicality and all the disparate parts would finally fall into place onto it.

Wheelbarrow. She would have it. She would have its engine. She would have a home for her children where nothing could follow.

Her spine buzzed and in the dark of the frame her eyes widened. Something had changed-

A shadow stood up at the edge of the smog, flickering and contorting and translucent and staring straight at her. Its eye glowed white.

The Olristaan’s jaw clenched. She recognised that shape. All young olristaana bore the same augments but she knew exactly what she was looking at.

She screamed the order to avoid the shadow at all costs in silent Blink.

As the tanks broke formation avoid the shadow, suspension flexing under the Olristaan’s grip, the darkness at the edge of sight flexed and shuddered, white sparks beginning to fleck the haze.

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