rating: +4+x

Part I

She was Scabs now. That was the name they had given her and she knew that she couldn’t go back. The salvagers’ leader, a tough-looking man named Eithenin, had seen through her latest pseudonym in seconds. She’d have to watch out for him. She supposed that Scabs was the sort of person who had to watch out for people. That Scabs was better off than the person who had run from Emtu-Rafich.

The low, stuttering thrum of the engine rumbled through the crawler and into the back of her skull. Behind the deep thrum she could hear the wind pushing at the crawler’s rounded hull, flecks of ice hissing across the steel. When she slacked her jaw she could feel it in her teeth and where her upper lip met her augment skull, like she was part of the crawler dragging itself across the ice. She tried to focus on that, tuning out the argument between two of the salvagers. She wasn’t very successful.

Thinfingers, a lanky man who had been full-body augmented as was the norm out here in the wastes, threw down his hand of ratty cards in disgust, three long, plier-headed arms retracting back into his forearms. “It’s your eye, isn’t it,” he said, his rubber jaws clacking and enunciating the words strangely. “You can read my fucking cards and you’ve been doing it the whole time.”
His opponent, Spitstring, didn’t even look up from his own cards. “You just suck at poker,” he slurred, his cobbled-together bulk slumping further down the crawler’s bench. “Don’t be a bitch about it.”
Thinfingers made a punctured-sounding wheezing noise which Scabs guessed was the best he could approximate a hiss. “It’s that eye,” he repeated, banging his palms flat onto the dented metal table between them with a clang. “I shoulda had you blindfold it, you can read my cards by the, the, shit…” He trailed off. “The bits on the edge where they’re worn out,” he finished, anticlimactically.
Spitstring finally moved, looking up at Thinfingers as he jabbed apathetically at his mismatched left eye. “I can’t see shit outta this thing,” he said, letting his arm fall back down.
Thinfingers grimaced and leant in even closer, glaring at the offending eye. “Well that’s a fucking lie, isn’t it?” he said, jabbing at it with a finger himself. “I salvaged that myself, it’s proper ring-worker tech, and you should be thanking me instead of cheating me out of my hard earned credits.”
Spitstring sat in silence for a few seconds, motionless. “It’s for precision work,” he replied, slowly. “Unless you were holding your cards a dec1 in front of my face I couldn’t see them.”
“I think you’re lying,” Thinfingers returned.
“Whatever,” Spitstring replied, slumping even further into his seat with a messy series of clanks. “You couldn’t pay if you wanted too. You owe enough money to collapse the economy of a bandcity.”
Scabs tried to suppress a smile. They reminded her just a little of the good parts of what she had left behind, but the bad parts were all tangled up in them and she couldn’t pull the happy memories out of the ones she wanted to forget, the ones she wanted to hate but couldn’t quite.

There was a moment of silence, then Thinfingers pulled away and perched on the edge of the bench opposite Spitstring. For a second Scabs was worried that one of them would turn to her for entertainment now that their argument was done, but they remained silent. She gave them a wary glance around the edge of her lenses and decided to close her eyes. She’d been up a long time and it was still a few hours to the next outpost. She half-concentrated for a second and the three shutters around each of her eye lenses closed with a neat click, leaving her in almost complete darkness.

They’d picked her up at a nameless trading outpost in the unclaimed territory at the edge of the northern fringes of the band. If she was willing to work to pay her way, they’d let her stay on, take her off to their base of operations deeper into the wastes. Right now they were carrying a cargo of scrap and salvaged tech to sell off to the various factory factions and asteroid mining conglomerates that made a living on the edge, far from the influence of the massive underground bandcities that lined the equator. Out here, beyond the lifeline of the skyhooks and the constant presence of the ring, there was nothing. Just ice and anomalies.

Perfect for someone who wanted to disappear.

Scabs focused on the faint dot of light in the centre of her imperfect eyelids and tried to shut off the outside world. Within a few minutes the rhythmic sounds of the engine had lulled her to sleep.

“Elbows! Get off of her!”

Scabs snapped her eyes open and was immediately greeted with a distinctly inhuman face centimetres away from hers. It jerked back, surprised, and then let out a brief squeal of static as she grabbed it around its skinny neck before it could retreat back up the wall, snapping her split-palmed augment hand into the familiar circling rhythms of a grind kinetoglyph. Her fingers moved in a whirring mechanical blur as she brought the shuddering, spinning wheel of reddish-grey lines of energy centimetres away from its face. The thing- assumedly ‘Elbows’- was all arms around a wrist-thin body with a… head built around a small squarish speaker block with two teardrop-shaped eye lenses on arms jutting out either side of it, human eyes paired with domed camera lenses behind the scratched protective glass.
“SORRY,” they spat in a crude synthetic voice, “LET GO PLEASE.”
“Scabs, meet Elbows,” said the voice in a static-laden rasp. “They look after the engine. They don’t mean any harm, they’re just not the best with personal space. Elbows, say hello.”
Elbows waggled their eye lenses in what she assumed was a nod. “GREET HELLO SELF ELBOWS,” they spat. “LET GO NOW.”

The voice sighed with a sound like a radio dying, finally stepping into Scab’s eyeline and revealing the precise bulk of Eithenin. Unlike the other salvagers he’d kept himself tidy, repairing himself with skill that only came from being born into the task. He was an ex-ring worker, augmented with centimetres-thick armour to protect against the constant hail of micrometeors from thousands of years of construction and asteroid mining on and around the megastructure. Ring workers were rare planetside because they didn’t have the filter augments to strip oxygen from the noxious atmosphere, tying them to the orbital ring with its moderated atmospheres and oxygen tanks. But Eithenin had gotten out. Somehow. For some reason. Scabs was slowly beginning to realise that she was very much not the only one out here who was hiding from something.

“Scabs, let go of them,” Eithenin said, in a tone that was polite but brooked no argument. She cut the kinetoglyph and let go of Elbows, who immediately scuttled backwards up the wall, keeping their eyes on her all the way, neatly opening a panel at the back of the crawler with their hind limbs and disappearing into it. Scabs rubbed at her mouth with her wrist, the roughness of the scabs poking at her lips. Casting glyphs vibrated the ring of sores around where her hands met her wrists and it itched. She’d gotten too relaxed around the salvagers. These people were not her friends.

Eithenin trudged over to Thinfingers and gave the bench he was on a sharp kick. Thinfingers woke with a start and looked ready to spit a string of expletives until he looked up, saw Eithenin and caught himself. “Yes, boss?” he asked, slightly tentatively.
“Your turn to drive,” Eithenin replied.
“I though it was Spi-”
“Alright, alright…” Thinfingers rose and trudged over to the ladder to the raised cabin, climbing up swiftly despite his gangliness.
Eithenin collapsed onto the bench opposite Scabs with a heavy thunk. The little red lights of the cameras peeping out of his tri-sectioned protective faceplate disappeared and Scabs decided to leave him.

There was a slow creak and Elbows poked their eye lenses out of the bottom of the hinged panel they had disappeared into, crustacean-like. Scabs watched them, warily. “SCABS SAY HELLO NOW,” they spat.
Elbows poked their head out fully and twisted it left and right. “THANK YOU,” they spat, apparently satisfied. With disconcerting suddenness, they clambered out of the hatch and scuttled down, clattering across the floor with a rhythmic series of taps. They climbed up and crouched on the bench next to Scabs, this time safely out of arm’s reach. “FLESH”, they stated. Scabs opened her mouth and tried to work out what that meant. Elbows gestured to her lower face and arms with a few limbs. “FLESH,” they repeated.
“Okay… yeah, I’m not fully augmented,” she replied. “Have you not seen that before?”
“…Yes, I’m from a bandcity,” Scabs said, looking for a way out of the conversation.
“INTERESTING,” repeated Elbows. “EMTU-RAFICH. YES?”
Scabs looked at Elbows with renewed interest. “…How do you know that?”
“OBVIOUS,” they said, obtusely. “HOW END HERE?”
“I… had some problems, with being a-”
“Yeah. I, uh, broke their rules on magic use, and I had to leave in a hurry. They wanted to put me to work, making shit for them in their programme. So I ran.”
“INTERESTING,” repeated Elbows for the third time. “BUT NO COMPLETE TRUE.”
Scabs tightened. “You don’t know that, dipshit.”
Elbows watched her silently for a second, peering into her eyes with their own. “HEAR STORY EVENTUALLY,” they said, then turned and scuttled back up the wall and through their hatch without waiting for a response. Scabs shifted back from the edge of her seat and looked down at the floor. But in the corner of her eyes, she could see the singular red dot of one of Eithenin’s cameras, watching her silently through a slit in his faceplate.

The inside of the crawler was silent except for the sound of the wind, undercut with the rattle and thrum of the engine and the masticating grind of the tracks. After an indeterminate amount of time, Eithenin stood up and clanked back over to the ladder to the cabin. “We’re close,” he said, his voice carrying an air of warning that had not been present with the approaches to other outposts. Spitstring raised his head towards Eithenin. “Just over three clicks,” he said. “They’ll radio in a minute.”

Eithenin reached the ladder then paused, one hand on a rung, and half-turned towards her. “When we reach the outpost, don’t say too much. And if you have to speak to the woman who runs it, call her Olristaan. It’s her rank. Nobody knows her name.”

“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Scabs replied.
Eithenin grunted. “You will,” he said, and hauled himself up the ladder.
A second later Thinfinger clambered down the ladder, dropping the last few rungs and landing with a surprisingly quiet clank as he flexed his legs against the impact.
“Eithenin wants you up there,” he said, gesturing with a thumb without looking at her. Scabs nodded and climbed up into the cabin. It was small, with two seats, one for the driver and another for a passenger with a strip of windscreen little more than three decs high running around the front. Eithenin sat in the chair on the left, hands on the control levers either side of the chair. Scabs saw that the top section of his faceplate had slid back on top of his head, revealing a transparent bubble of glass beneath it. With the top triangular wedge raised the remaining two gave him the appearance of a garish grin. Beneath the glass, Scabs could see his cameras twitching about, a few pointing at her as she took the seat next to him. Apart from that, however, Eithenin didn’t acknowledge her. He just stared out into the static expanse, and after a while Scabs did the same.

Scabs wasn’t quite sure when the outpost came into view. It started as a faint grey smudge on the horizon, barely darker than the sky above it. After a while it began to darken and gain shape, a flat, blunt hexagon of concrete walls. A little after that and she could see the smoke plumes from the chimneys and the two watch towers jutting from it like antenna. By the time the concrete wall surrounding the outpost was distinguishable from the bunker-like structure itself, the Wermesckir had noticed them. The narrow of windscreen suddenly became a blazing strip of monochrome as the outpost turned its searchlights on them and Scabs winced, blinded, half-shutting her eyes against the assault of light. Then the radio burst into life with a crackle of muttering static and Eithenin made an indistinct noise that might have been a curse. He gently tweaked a dial on the radio, the white noise sharpening into an alert male voice. “-hicle, confirm your identity, purpose and occupants. Repeat, this is the Wermesckir northern defensive outpost hailing the approaching land vehicle, confirm y-”

Eithenin thumbed a button on the dashboard and spoke over the voice. “This is Eithenin of the crawler Rutter, here to trade scrap, occupants Eithenin, Spitstring, Thinfingers and Scabs, who is new to our organisation. Tell the Olristaan, she’s expecting us.”
The radio was silent for a second, then the voice responded. “Understood. Proceed towards the main gate and stop the vehicle approximately fifteen metres in front of it for inspection. You will all be treated to a brief search and scan. Suspicious behaviour will be greeted with artillery.”
The radio went silent. Eithenin shifted in his chair and finally turned a little towards her. “They’re not usually this tetchy,” he said. “I think… Elbows!” He called. “Get in here!”

Scabs felt her heartrate increase a touch. “Do you think that there’ll be trouble?”
Eithenin turned his cameras away from her. “I think nothing. I take precautions.”

There was a rapid series of skittering noises and Elbows literally launched themselves into the cabin, jumping from the ladder to the side of Eithenin’s chair, causing Scabs to jerk back and mentally restrain herself from hitting them with a kinetoglyph.
“YES?” They spat, politely. Eithenin sighed, thinking.
“Elbows, can you drive this thing?”
“YES,” Elbows spat, with what Scabs could swear was a touch of pride.
Can they even reach the pedals… you know what, probably.
Eithenin tapped a finger on the control levers. “Be ready to leave in a hurry. If we can get out of sight we can lose them in the wastes. Ditch the trailers at your discretion.”
Scabs looked at Elbows cynically. “How fast,” she asked, tentatively.
Eithenin grunted with a sound like a static pop and Elbows nodded and scuttled back down the ladder, followed by a small slamming noise as they shut their hatch behind them. That, apparently, settled the matter.

Once the crawler came within about twenty metres of the wall they slowed and stopped with a slight jolt that tugged at Scab’s innards, adding to her building sense of unease. Eithenin stood up, delicately, and gestured for her to go down with a hand wave. She got up and slid down the ladder.

Thinfingers was already waiting at the door. “They’re coming,”, he said, grinning fixedly and waggling his fingers at her. Scabs stepped behind him without responding. Thinfingers scowled at her and stepped aside as Eithenin trudged to the door, opening it with a reedy squeal as the the wind whipped in with a blast of cold air. He jumped down and waved towards the outpost, gesturing for Scabs to follow. She climbed down after him.

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, reached about twelve, thirteen metres high, with corners suggesting that it was octagonal in shape. The face they’d stopped in front of bore the concrete buttress of a gatehouse, two sliding doors standing open a crack.

There were two squads of Wermesckir waiting for them, standing unnervingly neatly in two blocks of eight either side of the gatehouse. As she got closer, though, she started to see the little gaps in the wall of uniformity. The neat repair jobs and the places where parts had been replaced, the weathering on the white-stamped sigils on their helmets and little differences in the huge automatic rifles they carried, small charms hanging off the barrels and subtle little decals of cogs and fires, names and phrases painted onto the gunmetal with eerily human care. Thinfingers elbowed her, seemingly unbothered by the soldiers.
“The Olristaan augments them with waste tech, if you’re wondering. And nah, it ain’t looked on, err, what’s…” he trailed off. “It’s not allowed in the Wemmie,” he finished, irritably, then caught a foul look from Eithenin and shut his mouth with a clack.

Once they got within a few metres of the line of soldiers one held up their hand, silent. 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 and prepare 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, waving it either side of each of them and checking a small readout in turn. He took extra care around Spitstring, checking the little rectangular screen multiple times as if uncertain of the results. When they scanned Scabs they stopped, then turned their head to Eithenin.
“This one has magic in them,” they stated. “Why did you not inform us of this?”
Corny, thought Scabs.
Eithenin shrugged. “Didn’t think you needed forewarning,” he said simply.

The soldier turned to Scabs, flat-topped eye lenses giving them the appearance of a melancholy skeleton as they stared down at her.
“Do not attempt thaumaturgy within the outpost,” they said. “Any attempts at magic of any kind will be treated as drawing a weapon and will be met with ballistics.” Then they turned back to the line of soldiers and snapped back onto formation.

There was silence for a while and Scabs began to feel uncomfortably like she was on the wrong end of a firing line, then the gate shuddered and ground open another metre. As the dust settled a tall, thin figure loped through the gap, multi-jointed legs carrying her forward with a kind of complicated stateliness. The soldiers saluted her arrival, rifles snapping to shoulders in wordless synchronisation. So this was the Olristaan. She was more than twice Scabs’ height but only a little bulkier, giving her the impression of being comically thin and weedy, though the certainty with which she moved spoke of strength that only came from augments that only the very rich or very inventive could afford.

She stopped between the soldiers and unclasped her hands from behind her back. She called to them, her voice organic, warm and slightly lyrical.

“Judging by the trailers you have brought us quite a haul, Eithenin. I’m sorry for the lack of a welcome, the Wermesckir is going through a bit of a turbulent time. And a new companion! It’s always nice to see your band with new blood! May I introduce myself?”

Eithenin turned a singular red lens towards Scabs. “You may, Olristaan,” he said.

So much for not saying anything.

The Olristaan turned to Scabs. “I’m sure that Eithenin has already told you all about me,” she said, the pastel edge of a laugh inflecting her voice. “But I will introduce myself anyway. I am the Olristaan of this outpost, and these are my people. And what is your name?
“Scabs, Ma’am.”
The Olristaan turned her head a little to the side. “I would call that name unconventional, but I’ve spent long enough in the wastes to know otherwise. Given or taken?”
“Your name, were you given it or did you take it?”
“I- um….”
The Olristaan nodded, continuing to watch Scabs. “Given, then,” she said. Suddenly, she turned to Eithenin, speaking brusquely. “Give me estimations for the scrap and any usable tech separately, Eithenin. And we’ll buy any functional wastetech.”

Eithenin shrugged. “Approximately twelve tonnes of scrap at two hundred credits per tonne. Five tonnes of semi-functional scrap, including a skater with a radio that almost functions, possibly ex-Gemehch. Tw-”
The Olristaan held up a finger and Eithenin stopped. “Recent?”
Eithenin shook himself from side to side, the closest he could approximate to shaking his head. “No. It’s maybe fifty or sixty years old and was found miles away from their current mining grounds. They won’t miss it.”
The Olristaan clicked her tongue. “Drag cities have long memories and do not mind hitting outposts with meteors by ‘accident’. Mind…” she trailed off. “No, we’ll take it. Does the engine still work?”
Eithenin shook again. “Jet engine. The back end was sticking out of the ice we found it in. It’s a ball of rust.”
“Parts can be replaced.”
Eithenin watched the Olristaan for a moment. “Why the interest in waste vehicles?” He asked, his rasp betraying a core of steel behind his words. The Olristaan shrugged, mimicking him.
“Times are changing, scavenger.”
“Your Wermesckir friends in the south would not be happy.”
“Circumstances have changed,” the Olristaan snapped. Scabs stiffened, hearing the clack of the clamps on Eithenin’s faceplate snapping into place. She flexed her fingers a little, running through the motions of a shield kinetoglyph in preparation as a sequence of quiet clicks emanated from the soldier’s rifles. It looked like there was going to be trouble after all.

The Olristaan didn’t move for a few seconds. Then she spoke, her voice quieter and a little resigned.
“Drop your guards. I have something which I want you to know, but first, I have something to show you.” She straightened up and looked through the narrow gap in the gate, speaking in a flashing burst of Blink from concealed 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 she hadn’t seen before 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 into 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, the Kemadotr is still alive, but it is only a matter of time. The cities are under a blackout so we have to assume that they have complete control of the Wermesckir.”

Apart from the sounds of the vehicles being loaded, there was silence. Tentatively, Scabs raised a hand. The Olristaan looked slightly confused for a second, then waved a hand at Scabs. “Ask your question, Scabs. You… don’t need to… oh, whatever makes you comfortable.”

Scabs lowered her hand, feeling a little stupid. She could feel Eithenin giving her a foul look as she spoke. “Why do you need the scrap? If you’re leaving?”
The Olristaan spread her arms wide. “Consider it a good-faith gesture,” she said, stepping aside and gesturing for the soldiers to retreat back into the compound. “A thank-you to the years of trade. Let’s get this thing in the compound, shall we? One last time?”

Eithenin started over towards the Olristaan. “Of course, Ma’am. Thinfingers, do what the Olristaan asked!” He called. Thinfingers, for once in his life, didn’t argue, hurrying back into the crawler. Spitstring followed him and Scabs, slightly hesitantly, hopped back into the crawler as it made its way through the gate under the watchful eyes of the Olristaan’s soldiers.

Once they were in the compound the Olristaan undid the ties on the first of the crawler’s flatcars and examined the pile of rusted, twisted metal underneath as drones pulled the tarp the rest of the way off. It might have been from a vehicle, or vehicles. The Olristaan stood and let the drones scramble up and begin digging through the pile, chattering wordlessly with the flickering lights of Blink. Wermesckir drones were humanoid, but the way they moved wasn’t quite that. Too quick and precise. Maybe it was from being augmented from birth. They’d never been anything but machines, so they moved like machines. Neat, fast, efficient. Fucking twitchy, Scabs’ subconscious offered. Scabs gave herself a metaphorical black look as she looked for something to do. They hadn’t agreed on a price yet, so should she unload or… she watched as Spitstring and Thinfingers jumped out of the crawler. She really didn’t want to ask them, but if she had no choice…

Just then, she felt a small tapping on her forearm. She flinched and looked down, seeing a drone looking up at her. They flashed at her in Blink, slowly. [hello salvager, we need help with getting trailers over to get ready for moving the salvage,] they said. Scabs nodded vigorously, relieved to not have to ask.
“Sure, I’ll help,” she said, then worried that the drone wouldn’t be able to hear her. “I’m Scabs,” she added, thinking that the drone could hopefully lip-read even if they were deaf.
The drone nodded then hurried off to the other side of the compound, gesturing for her to follow. [i am selvenn,] they Blinked at her as she caught up. [the olristaan allows us names,] they added, with a hint of reverence tinting the message. Scabs nodded uncomfortably, hoping that the conversation would be over quickly.
“That’s nice,” she said, awkwardly.
The drone gave her an odd look and grabbed the handle of a trailer sitting beside the main building. [thank you,] they said. Scabs grabbed the handle with them and together they started dragging it over to the crawler, grateful to have something to do.

Selvenn was quiet and didn’t push her to talk, but eventually Scabs’ curiosity overcame her awkwardness and she started asking questions. Most of them they artfully skirted without answering properly, especially the ones about the outpost, and the more Scabs talked to them the more she became sure that the Olristaan was using them to keep an eye on her. Eventually she asked if they “had magic,” as the soldier had put it. The drone hesitated, then held up a finger and made a circling motion. A small spark rose from the little glyph and hovered there, emitting a faintly glowing orange light like the last ember of a fire. [a little,] they replied. [not enough for more than tricks like this.]

I doubt that, thought Scabs. Feeling that the drone had started to open up a bit, she decided to push her advantage. “So, what do you know about the coup?”

Selvenn clammed up, unloading another lump of rusted tech onto the cart. [sorry], they said, [olristaan would not approve. let’s talk about something else.]. They paused for a second, then Blinked another message. [the factory cities are silent, which means that the coup was very 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 transmittions and the normal broadcast radios are silent. eerie for us. the olristaan too. 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. [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.]

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 in the direction of the crawler. 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.
The Olristaan slowed when she walked past them, nodding to Selvenn and sending him a rapid burst of Blink. “Good work, Scabs,” she said, approvingly. She made to turn away but hesitated, glancing down again at Scabs’ wrists. Self-conscious, Scabs tugged her coat sleeves over her sores and made to pull the trolley away before the Olristaan could ask her. But she only made it a few steps before the Olristaan spoke.

“Your wrists,” she said, softly.

Scabs gave the Olristaan a smile. “They’re fine,” she said. “Thank you for worrying though, Ma’am.” She turned and made to continue pulling the trolley but Selvenn had already pulled it away. She was left standing alone. Her mind raced. If there wasn’t an ulterior motive here, she’d eat Elbows. She couldn’t go to the trolley without running to catch up and that would look rude. But she also didn’t want to go along with whatever game the Olristaan wanted to play.

Was there even a choice?

The Olristaan took a step towards her, holding out a hand, palm up. “Could I see?” she asked, her voice carrying the echo of genuine sympathy.

The few steps over to the Olristaan were some of the longest Scabs had ever taken.

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

“You fear me.” Her voice was artfully touched with remorse, but it wasn’t a question.
Scabs stuttered. “I-”
“Why did you do it, Scabs?” She asked, softly.
She froze, her mind spasaming. Run? No. Lie? Maybe. “I don’t understand,” she said, as deferentially as she could with the nitrogen fear liquid in her blood.
Suddenly the hands on her wrists tightened like a hydraulic press. “Oh, don’t play at coy with me, meatbag.”
Scabs reflexively tried to pull away, then forced herself to be still. She said nothing, partially because she desperately thought that that might make the Olristaan less angry, partially because she was terrified mute. The Olristaan glared down, her gold-flecked eye boring into Scab’s own. Then she spat inside the tapered guard over her mouth.
“Pathetic,” she muttered, almost to herself. “You pushed for information from Selvenn. Why, oh why, do you think you can hide it now? He tried to protect you, you know,” she said, leaning in closer. “He tried to warn you, to keep you from prying, because he knows me, and he knows what I will do to keep us safe. Was it Eithenin?” She tilted her head, the familiar motion seeming insectile and dangerous. “No, this isn’t him. This was all you. Why? And don’t think you can dodge this question. I can’t smell fear but I can tell a lie from the mouth of the terrified.”
Scabs stuttered. “It was- me.”
“Because?” The wind hissed and a tarpaulin flapped like a blow, over and over.
“Be-because I thought it could keep them-”
“Liar.” The hands tightened a notch and Scabs felt her bones bend and strain.
“To keep myself safe!” She said, fear forcing the words out fluently. “To know if you were a threat!”

The Olristaan watched her, silently. “Well done,” she said, quietly. “The truth, and it all comes back around to fear. You fear me. But I don’t want you to be afraid, Scabs. At least not like this.” The Olristaan loosened her grip on Scabs’ wrists slightly. “I want you to be afraid usefully. So that you do not, say, anger the commander of an outpost by forcing their drone to reveal secrets. Let me… illuminate you on how the world works. The strong are dangerous, and the weak survive. You do not take down tyrants, because they breed like rats, and another will crawl in to take the place of the last. You protect those you can, and you protect yourself. There is no progress, and sometimes- no, often, the best good you can do is to stoop to their level, and kill without a thought, because thoughts are too close to moralising, and moralising is limiting while immorality- let’s call it evil- has no limits, no rules. So run, and burn, and shepherd, because the world will not bend to your morality and it will not accommodate for your fear.”
She’s insane, thought Scabs, terrified both of how small she felt before the Olristaan and the creeping sense that maybe, partially, she was right. But that’s what you did, the thought rose. You ran, when you could have done something.
But maybe…
Scabs clenched her fists and looked the Olristaan dead in her mismatched eyes. “Your eye. Given, or taken?”

The Olristaan laughed, but there was something just behind the laugh that was trying to push through, something she was keeping inside.
“I assume you mean my eye,” she said. “Bold! And misguided. But I suppose you have to be, to keep your flesh, out here.” She pulled herself to almost her full height, stretching Scabs’ arms above her head until she had to stand on tiptoes. “You want me to defend myself? Hm? Or did you simply not think this far ahead? Reacting, like a cornered animal? Seeking to prove yourself to me?” The Olristaan’s eye lenses shot back into their slots with a snap. “I took this eye from a drone. My drone. Because I had to.” The Olristaan’s eyes looked past her, past the walls, past the horizon. Then she let go of Scabs' arms, letting her drop to the ground. As Scabs cowered backwards, she heard the Olristaan speak, quietly, softly. “I don’t regret it,” she said.

Scabs cringed, hunched over where the Olristaan had left her, holding her hands against her body, for a long time. The Olristaan’s drones ignored her, but she could feel them watching. Eventually, Thinfingers came to drag her back into the crawler.

As the outpost faded from view, Elbows poked their head out of their hatch and watched her. They didn’t say anything. Just watched for a while, then retreated back to the engine.

The wind outside pattered ice-flecks frenetically against the hull. There was a storm coming.


The final blast door was the hardest, a deadlocked wall of almost metre-thick steel. Their cutting tools did nothing, so they got inventive. A railgun pilfered from a tank was wielded to the floor and wired directly to the main power grid. The recoil turned the gun to a twisted mass of scrap and crashed the grid after a singular shot but that was all they needed. Stooping under the wreck of the door they found him cowering, infantile, in the corner of a room painted in calm pastel colours. Two attendants cowered with him, stroking the smooth plastic of his face. His eyes were wild, frantic, but uncomprehending. The Wermesckir lost their leader long before this.

Then they leave, a little blood and viscera seeping out of the shattered plastic and metal.

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