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Part I

Her name was Scabs, because where her hands had been grafted to her wrists the thaumic bonds to meet flesh with metal had been improperly applied and a ring of flaking, bleeding, weeping sores and scabs had formed that rubbed on the elastic cuffs of her thick, padded coat. Her name was Scabs, because every move of her arms caused a twinging stab of raw pain to run down the soft insides of her forearms, pain that she had learned to tolerate with a twitch of her jaw and a grimace. Her name was Scabs, because that was what people saw, her half-failed augmentation undertaken in desperation or stupidity. Her name was Scabs, because when the salvagers who had offered to take her deeper into the wastes first saw her that was what they named her, and because any name was better than the one she had left behind. So she was Scabs, and she sat in the crawler as it juddered across the endless emptiness of the ice-wastes with her forearms resting on her knees so that everyone could see who she was. So that she was scabs, clinging on wetly and hiding the festering sore beneath.

The crawler’s engine rumbled and thrummed, the gouged plastic of the two benches in the narrow cabin doing little to dampen the constant vibrations. Across from her, ratty cards laid out on the bench between them, the crawler’s other two occupants were engaged in an intense game of some nameless card game. They were close enough to touch but so far they had ignored her.

One of them, tall and gangly with bare chrome and steel augments having replaced every scrap of skin like everyone out here but her, slammed down his hand of cards and gave his opponent, bulky and hunched, a mass of ugly and mismatched and much-repaired augments, a bitter look. “You can ‘ead my cardsh,” he spat, his rubber and plastic jaws mangling the words.

His opponent dropped his cards, the red and white patterned cardboard slipping through a fat, mittenlike hand with one too many fingers and fluttering down into his lap.

i’m half blind, thinfingers,” he said, his voice small and muffled but evidently still organic, his voicebox and mouth probably hidden somewhere in his chest. “i can’t hardly read the front of me own cards.

“Wif thos’ fanshy ocularsh?” Thinfingers retorted, indignant. A set of three plier-headed arms emerged from grooves in each of his forearms and twitched in agitation.

these fancy oculars are the reason i’m half blind, fuckwit. the interference is so bad it’s like i’m stuck inside a snowstorm and getting them to focus on close-up things makes me head hurt.” The two mechanical eyes jutting slightly from his face, otherwise featureless but for a circular breather filter, whirred slightly as they zoomed in and out to demonstrate. Thinfingers was apparently unconvinced. He turned to Scabs, who suddenly felt on-edge.

“Shcabsh? I whon, righ’?”

“I wasn’t paying attention. Sorry.” she replied. Unlike the two of them she still had skin, still had more flesh than just nerves cased in rubber, lungs adapted to fit with filter-breathers and a stomach to eat and shit nutrient blocks. A jaw, arms up to the wrists, lips, sallow cheeks meeting the steel of a half-augmented skull topped by flat protective plates- everything below her collar-bone and above her lips was worn steel but she had a mouth, a tongue, even a voicebox with a valve to keep the toxic air from going into her lungs. She breathed through four filters set into her chest which hissed quietly, stripping trace amounts of oxygen from the freezing smog. It was so cold, above ground. She could feel her bloodheater working overtime to keep her flesh from freezing solid in the air-cracking cold.

leave ‘er alone,” the other man said. “she’s not interested in your bullshit.

Thinfingers made a strangled hacking sound that could have been intended as anything from a laugh to a curse. “Whell I’m not fukin’ payin’, Shpi’leshring,” he said, pushing himself off the bench and making for the ladder up to the crawler’s raised cockpit. “You can bring it up wif the boss.”

Spittlestring (she guessed) sighed, a long, pneumatic hissing accompanied by a cloud of white breath from his filter. “not like he could pay anyway,” he said, turning to Scabs. “he owes people enough to collapse economies.” He chuckled. “you any good at cards, scabs? be nice to play against someone who loses less and isn’t so… bitchy.

Scabs gave him a flat smile. “I’m fine,” she said, meeting his gaze briefly before returning it to the ground.

suit yourself,” Spittlestring replied, carefully collecting the cards and piling them back into a deck.

They were not the ones who had named her Scabs.

Spittlestring turned to watch the front of the crawler with a groan and a creak of worn polymuscle. Scabs watched his posture. He seemed to be holding back a wry comment in anticipation of an arrival. And, with the heavy mechanical thunking of half a metric ton of armour plate and high-fidelity technology climbing down the ladder from the cockpit, the subject of the jab arrived.

"need a nap?" Spittlestring asked the figure, with the tone of someone who had made exactly the same joke exactly the same way for a very long time without it becoming any more or less funny.

His name was Eithenin, and he had been a ring worker. How he had gotten out, modified himself to survive outside of the ring’s moderated atmospheres and oxygen tanks which ring workers were designed to be dependant on, was beyond Scabs. But he had brought with him a level of augmentation that cut the bleeding edge of technology. Stocky and heavy-limbed, he looked as though he should be slow and ponderous, but every step was assured and precise, every move factoring in the shifting of the crawler. The sheer amount of armour plating he carried made him near-indestructible, intended as protection from micro-meteors from the centuries of construction on the huge orbital mega-structure but assumedly equally effective against bullets. And that was another puzzle. He hefted his weight with ease, but his augments should only have allowed him to carry his own bulk in light artificial gravity at best. So where had he gotten the ones he had? How had he gotten out? And what was he hiding from by being out here, trading scraps of rusted iron to outposts?

Spittlestring shuffled along the bench to make space for Eithenin, who sat down heavily with a sigh like a radio dying. The pinpoint red lights of a swarm of oculars peeked through little viewports in the three steel plates which covered the toughened glass bubble of his helmet. The top plate had been slid back a little, the oculars twitching about on thin arms half-visible in the glow of their own red light like long, thin teeth in a garish grin. Deep behind them, in the pitch-black recesses of his cavernous helmet, Scabs could see the glinting whites of human eyes blinking slowly at her.

“Only three more stops, then home,” he said, his voice infused with the fizzing rasp of static. “It might not be as warm as a bandcity but it’s a lot warmer than this crawler.” The red lights flickered to his left, to Spittlestring. “Spittlestring’s eager, I can tell,” he said. “Too cold out here for relics like him.”

The battered augmentee shrugged. “i’ll survive,” he said. “not like you can complain. bet you’re toasty warm in there, you fancy bastard.

Eithenin snorted in amusement. The oculars shoaled back to Scabs. He was silent for a minute, watching her. When he spoke again, his tone was perfunctory and hard-edged.

“Keep your head down at the next outpost, Scabs. It’s the northernmost stronghold of the Wermesckir. They like to find trouble.”

Scabs nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Head down. No trouble.” The words swam without meaning in her mind.

“And another thing. The woman who runs it- call her Olristaan. Nothing else. It’s her rank.”

Scabs nodded again. “Olristaan. Got it."

Eithenin grunted. “Good,” he said, simply. He shut his visor with a clack and the red lights blinked off all at once.

The Wermesckir. For every half-witted militia, every bandcity in need of strong, cheap, expendable troops, every fresh-skinned breakaway nation-sate without the means to produce their own weapons, the Wermesckir were there with an unchanging stock list of augment bodies, weapons and vehicles, the cheapest, most readily-available tools of violence on the market. They had already perfected the formula and the slant-eyed, helmeted skulls of their augment bodies marched wherever there was blood to be spilt this side of the band, adopted by whoever could pay the price for a shipment. The Wermesckir. Too apathetic to be drawn into conflict themselves, too big to be easily threatened, too cheap to be real competition for the factory-factions selling higher-fidelity kit. They had found their niche, and as long as there were people who knew human lives to be numbers on a chart they would be there, gifting the nameless masses bodies strong enough to stop the first volley of bullets and punch a few holes into the future scrap of the enemy, whoever that might be, whatever they might be fighting for.

Scabs snapped the irises over her eyes closed and tried to lower her guard enough to sleep. Behind the thin sheets of metal under the glass she was in darkness but for a single point of light at the centre of each which she had learned to ignore. But she was tired, and slowly that light faded.

“Elbows! Off her, now!”

Scabs was jolted awake, snapping her eyes open and sitting upright abruptly then jerking back immediately, greeted with a twisted, inhuman face gazing into hers from centimetres away. Two eyes in lenses on jointed stalks shifted to watch her, a speaker block on another arm swivelling left and right as small feeler sensors felt the air between them- until Scabs grabbed the thing by its wrist-thin neck and snapped her fingers into the juddering, circling rhythms of the only offensive kinetoglyph she knew. A wheel of shuddering lines of grey energy span with a high-pitched whine as she brought the grind kinetoglyph up, the speaker block on the thing making a strangled-sounding squawk and trying to pull away. Opposite from her, Eithenin held his hands up in a peacekeeping gesture.

“Scabs, meet Elbows. They look after the engine and they mean you no harm. Please let go of them. Elbows, Scabs. She’s new.”

The thing- Elbows- made another squawking sound in response. “LET GO PLEASE,” they spat, one eye gingerly watching the kinetoglyph while the other met her gaze. Their voice was crude and clearly synthetic, halfway between screaming and being strangled, each word sounding as though it were being dragged out of the grill on the thing’s speaker sideways and very much against its will.

“Scabs,” said Eithenin. His faceplate hung half-open and his oculars hung still and tense. His words were steel sheets, cold, precise and hard-edged.

Scabs cut the glyph. “Sorry,” she muttered. She let go of Elbows, who rapidly scuttled backwards up the wall. Their body was long and no thicker than their neck, multi-jointed limbs sprawling out and carrying the drone up the wall. She saw the faint glow of thaumic sigils lighting at the tips of its arms, allowing the drone to cling to the wall. Augmentation. She doubted Elbows had any magical ability. Elbows continued their backwards movement, keeping their eyes fixed on Scabs. They opened a hatch set into the back wall of the crawler with their back limbs and scuttled into it, shutting it firmly behind them.

With the sudden burst of adrenaline leaving Scabs’ system the stinging pain in her right wrist became overpowering. She gingerly pulled up her sleeve to inspect it better.

The violent movement of her augment hand had torn the weak flesh-bond around her augment, peeling it away at the skin. Dark blood pooled over her augment and her eyes watered as it throbbed. She needed to get it treated, now, before it got infected or she lost any more blood. She swore, panic fluttering in her. She knew how to make a spark hot enough to cauterise the wound but she didn’t know if that was right- back in Emtu-Rafich they had had first aid packs and procedures and doctors and, and, and she should never have left and she couldn’t even use her own stupid hand without breaking it and-

“Scabs, I think you need to let me see that.”
Eithenin was holding out a bulky hand. Scabs held her wrist out without looking up. There was the sound of Eithenin’s visor retracting further as he silently examined her wound. Then he spoke, loudly and calmly.

“Elbows? Get over here with the medkit. She’s split her bond.”

Elbows poked their head out from their hatch after a rapid series of scrambling sounds, watching Scabs carefully but not slowing as they hurried along the roof of the crawler, reaching into a drawer set into the wall by the ladder to the cockpit. They pulled out a dented, unmarked metal case, which they carefully held in several limbs below them before depositing it on the bench next to Eithenin. He turned his oculars back towards Scabs, still holding her wrist.

“Elbows is going to glue your wrist back together,” he said. Elbows scuttled down the wall and started rooting through the box, removing a few items and briefly appraising them. Eventually they dropped all but one, a yellow-coloured tube with silver showing through at the seams where it had been worn away.

“GLUE,” Elbows spat, helpfully. “BUT FIRST CUTTING NECROTIC TISSUE. HOLD STILL.” The end of one of their limbs split and splayed into a flower of fine manipulators. Scabs jolted.
“Wait, stop!” she cried. “You-”

Elbows folded the manipulators. “FLESH DEAD,” they spat. “NEED TO REMOVE OR WRIST WILL NOT HEAL TO AUGMENT. INFECTION.” They tilted their head at the neck, watching Scabs carefully. “CLOSE EYES AND COUNTDOWN?”

Scabs shook her head, trying to avoid moving her wrist in Eithenin’s vicelike grasp. “No,” she said, managing to keep her voice level. “Just do it.”

Elbows nodded, a disconcerting bobbing motion of the three separate components of their head. “FIVE,” they said, steadying a few manipulators on Scab’s wrist around the wound. “FOUR. TH-” on that they suddenly moved, their manipulators lunging into the welling blood of the cut. Scabs tried to jerk her arm away but Eithenin’s grip on her arm kept it steady, Elbows’ hairthin cutting implements buzzing, itching and shooting pain down Scabs’ arm as she gritted her teeth and slammed her eyes shut. There was a sizzling sound and a burning sensation, the whirring and metallic snipping of Elbows’ work reaching a crescendo, and then she felt the skin of her forearm pinched and tugged forwards and there was the cool sensation of the glue and it was over. Scabs opened her eyes. Elbows’ back arms passed their front arms a small roll of yellowed bandages which they inspected cynically before shrugging, a wavelike motion down their myriad limbs, and tossing it back behind them.


Scabs opened and shut her mouth a few times.

Elbows pattered over to the bench next to Scabs and sat down.


Scabs couldn’t help it. She laughed. It was a wheezing laugh, squeezing the last of the air out of her lungs, filter augments going putt-putt-putt as they spat small gusts of breath, but it was a laugh. In that moment she suddenly felt very lost and very alone. She drew her arms around herself, distantly reflecting that Elbows’ work on her wrist was exceptionally neat for how quickly they had done it. All that remained of the torn flesh was a thin red line where the flesh met the augment under a layer of cyanoacrylate.

Eithenin closed his faceplate and shut all but one of his oculars off, the single red light peeping through a port in the centre. “Flesh,” he rasped disparagingly. “Trouble right through to the bone. Give me the word and I’ll get you a new pair of arms, Scabs. The air out here isn’t fond of skin.” He gestured vaguely to her face. “We can do something about your jaw when we get back. We have the parts. A mask or filter guard, keep your innards and the outside apart.” He didn’t wait for a response before blinking that last light off.

Elbows looked at Scabs, twisting their head left and right. Scabs watched them warily.
“SCABS SAY HELLO NOW,” they spat.

Scabs blinked, wipers running over her eyes. “…Hello?” she said, still shaking a little.

“THANK YOU,” said Elbows. With disconcerting suddenness they scuttled over to the bench next to her with a rhythmic series of taps. Their eye lenses twisted on their stems quizzically.


“I… yeah,” she replied. “I… I’ll do something about it, I suppose.”

“NOT BAD THING,” the drone replied, gesturing with a few slender arms. “NO APPOLOGISE. BANDCITY, YES?”

“I, uh, came from-”


Now it was Scabs’ turn to look quizzical. “You… recognise my augments?”

“OBVIOUS,” said Elbows obtusely. “HOW HERE?”

Scabs looked down. “Had to leave,” she said.


The floor of the crawler had a raised grip pattern embossed onto the metal. “They wanted me for my abilities,” she said. “Thaumaturgy programme. Not… not a nice one.”

“SOME TRUE,” said Elbows, watching Scabs with a sad tilt to their eyes. “SOME FALSE.”

Scabs hands opened rigidly. “The fuck do you mean, some false?”

“HEAR FULL STORY EVENTUALLY,” Elbows spat, not unkindly.

“Don’t pretend you know anything about me,” Scabs said tightly. “And I don’t want to talk about it. So don’t press it.”

Elbows quietly slid off the bench and scuttled back up the wall to their hatch. They shut the flap gently with their back limbs and there was silence in the crawler.

“Hey- hey! You! Wait!”

She looked behind her warily at the source of the unhurried footsteps she had been hoping would take a turn. In the buttery yellow glow of the lights an unfamiliar figure hurried after her down the tunnel, hands in his pockets.

“What,” she called back, voice cold and as calm as she could make it.

“You’re the…” the figure looked on edge. “The thaumaturge,” he whispered.

She was already turning around. “No, I’m not,” she said. “Not a drop in me. Must have me confused with someone else.”

“Somebody saw.”

She stopped.

“Two days ago. In the sewers. You dropped your torch. You made a light. You thought you were alone. You weren’t.”

A stab of panic. She examined the figure. Their worn black-polymer trousers bore a rip at the knee revealing pallid flesh under the loose threads and she felt a stab of jealousy. So not a sewage worker, then. How did they know? How many people knew?

“It’s all right,” he said, holding up his hands to pacify her. “I work with law enforcement- not like that! Not like that! I haven’t told a soul! I swear! They reported it to me and I told them I’d handle it and to keep it quiet! But nobody knows now but me!”

“I-” She didn’t know what to say. “What do you want from me?” The tunnel was deserted but for her and the stranger but the echoes of her hushed voice carried.

“I don’t want anything,” he said. “I just- want to offer you something.” When she didn’t reply he dug through the folds of his coat and pulled out a piece of paper.

“I’m trying to change things,” he said, holding the paper out expectantly. “For the better. And I need people like you. People who know how to keep quiet. Who’ve already been shafted by the system."

She took the paper. On it was written an address in neat, careful handwriting. Somewhere in the bandcity’s backwaters. Her fingers traced the pencil marks, feeling their faint indentations.

“Who are you?” she asked, meeting the stranger’s eyes. They were blue. Deep blue.

“I’ll tell you my name if you come,” he said, mouth creasing into an awkward smile. “I kind of already know yours.

She shrugged awkwardly. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “I’ll…” she was insane to even consider it. But there she was. Something about him.

She turned and hurried away. The last image she had of him was his expectant half-wave of goodbye.

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