Smouldering in Pyerojen
rating: +9+x

<- Part I

Part V

Even with the back of her neck buzzing as if in anticipation of a blow- even with her eyes fixed down and numb- even as she tried to disappear into the joints of her augments- Scabs couldn’t help but relish the chance to see a dragcity.

“There was a mining outpost here,” Eithenin rasped, hands on the crawler’s control levers. “Iron for the Ring, a long time ago. They abandoned it when extracting the ore got too expensive and a nullstrider came back with a new asteroid cluster to dump. The Keenel brought Pyerojen here pretty soon after. Been processing what’s left and drilling for oil the past forty years or so, scraping the magma still seeping through the tectonic rift from the impact for energy, keeping the lights on. They’re bottom feeders. Slow, tough, patient. They don’t make a living off asteroid scraps, though. That’s just to tide them over. Their main racket is acting as a haven for wanderers like us.” Ethenin laughed, a single, hacking syllable. “They say there’s no money in war. Well, that’s only half-true. There’s plenty to be had, just so long as you keep all the war outside.”

When the city first began to show itself Scabs thought it was a storm cloud, a looming black shape too large to take in all at once as it faded in through the smog. Then she saw the twinkling of the warning lights and the deep, bitter orange of oil distillery towers burning in the oxygen-starved air and realised just how immense it was. Emtu-Rafich had been gargantuan but the twinned city was a place of low corridors and tight passageways which made you feel too big, too cumbersome, lost in a crowd of countless uncaring half-augmented faces. But this-

Against the flat, grey blankness of the ice wastes the dragcity was terrifyingly dark and real, an imposition reaching higher than Scabs could see through the crawler’s narrow windshield, a solid gunmetal and concrete block tearing at the cloud layer. The smoke from the burning lights of oil-processing towers mingled with the city smog into a miasma that crawled downwind as a single, foul entity, the windowless towers of the city sweating black carbon like a smouldering circuit board burning silicon and chrome into the flat cold nothing of the sky. Ships of various construction dotted the sky around it, flitting in and out of a port on the other side of the city like rats scurrying in and out of a burrow. The skates the thing rested on filled Scabs’ view, still now but waiting with the patience of ancient metal for the moment when they would be called on to move the city once more, when the huge winches would anchor their towerlike pitons into the ice and the kilometres-long construction would begin to drag itself to a new feeding ground. Those skates could push the crawler into the ground like a lump of gravel beneath a boot without the city even feeling a bump. Without taking more than a scratch.

Scabs wondered if she would ever get tired of seeing incredible things. It was… so different, out here. She remembered when a worker falling over in a sewage pipe had been all anyone at the treatment plant would talk about for- she’d counted- two weeks and three days. No, she thought, staring up at the city that moved. She didn’t miss those parts of Emtu-Rafich at all.

Eithenin stopped the crawler at the edge of an ungainly assortment of vehicles lined in the shadow of the megalithic structure and cut the engine. He turned to her, drawing the armour plate at the side of his faceplate fully back, his human eye watching her carefully. “Fuel first,” he said, harsh tones buzzing in and out of his speaker-conveyed voice. “Then we find the parts we need. Elbows will watch the crawler.” He grabbed a case from beside his seat and clicked it into place on a latch on his back, then opened a small hatch on his side and pulled out a pistol, putting it in the cup holder. “No weapons in the city,” he explained. “Not that that little thing could do much.”

“HAVE FUN SCABS,” called Elbows. “DO NOT MAKE KEENEL PISSED.” Scabs couldn’t be sure, but she thought the drone quietly added “again”. She decided to keep her mouth firmly shut this time.

She hopped down from the crawler’s door, hurrying aside as Eithenin dropped heavily behind her, his weight raising two small explosions of ice where his feet hit the ground. The wind was fierce this close to such a huge structure and Eithenin gestured towards a handrail and walkway set into the ground, his faceplate firmly shut against the gale. Scabs clutched onto it, grateful to get off the ice. She had been in serious danger of sliding off into the distance.

The walkway led to a concrete plinth with thick guide rails leading up into the city, a lift waiting halfway up the city’s sheer side at a cavernous opening only a little darker than the surface around it. Standing at the edge of a square marked out in yellow and black hazard paint were two figures, clad in ankle-length padded coats flapping in the gale, hands hidden in sleeves. They turned to watch Eithenin and Scabs, white ceramic faces impassive in the depths of their synthetic fur hoods. One was male-patterned, their mask a precise balance of stern angles and proud protuberances, the other female, their curves softer, more rounded, submissive and docile. Eithenin raised a hand in disinterested greeting and the female-patterned one started a little, tottering a step backwards, the male reaching an arm protectively around them. Scabs pulled her facemask further over her jaw and shivered. Emenral citizens. The uniform ceramic creeped her out. At least Emtu-Rafich had let her keep most of her face, even if she’d given up her legs to work in the sewage. There was something horrible about the almost human curves of their polished white faces. Uncanny.

The red dots of Eithenin’s oculars clustered at the top of his faceplate to watch the huge platform of the elevator, which had slowly began to move down towards them, silent in the howling wind. Scabs watched it too, for lack of anything better to do. It was surprisingly fast, reaching the bottom in around a minute, raising a small cloud of snow and dust as it slowed to meet the concrete. When the cloud of dust dispersed there was a single figure standing on it, maybe twenty-five decs tall and humanoid, more or less. They looked like someone had forgotten why the human form fitted together the way it did and had approximated. Their legs were subtly wrong in a way Scabs couldn’t quantify. Slightly too short, perhaps? Too bowed, or moving at subtly the wrong angles?

The figure raised their arms in a broad gesture of welcome. “Welcome to our city!” they cried, their voice reverberating over the wind. “We hope that your stay in our wonderful city is prosperous and enjoyable! All are welcome in Pyerojen!

Ethenin trudged onto the elevator, Scabs following after him, grateful that the handrail continued onto the platform. The two Emenrali stepped on after them, clinging to each other. Scabs fought the urge to sneer at them. Most of her anger, she knew, was propaganda. The rest, though, she knew all too well the cause of. She knew the name of it. But she couldn’t say it, couldn’t even think it. Her ghosts. One day, she thought. One day she’d mean enough to get help.

The platform rapidly picked up speed as it ascended, sparks occasionally spitting from the guide rails and Scabs feeling the acceleration in her knees. She wrapped her arms around the guard rail, deciding that her pride mattered less to her than than avoiding the potential of falling an uncomfortable distance and creating a Scabs-shaped impression in the ice. Both Eithenin and the tall figure were seemingly unaffected by the acceleration. She could feel Eithenin watching her. He gave her a little wave. She imagined he was amused. When they stopped moving Scabs was going to give him the finger. Both, fingers. When they stopped moving.

The elevator, fortunately, slowed before stopping. The entrance, which from the ground had appeared as simply a dark blotch on the sheer surface of the city, was hexagonal, a huge blast door shut against the storm before them. Little black bubbles containing the telltale glint of oculars watched her from the walls. There was no security in evidence. Except the tall figure. Scabs looked at them edgewise. She didn’t like them.

“I am happy to say that your journey here is almost at an end!” the voice came again, echoing in the comparative quiet of the windbreak. It was sappily, inhumanly cheerful. “Just proceed through the security terminal beyond and we’ll give you a brief and unobtrusive search!” They turned and walked off, a smaller door opening beside the huge blast door. Eithenin turned to check Scabs was following. Scabs came, a little wobblily. The ringworker offered her an arm, his rough chuckle carrying over the scream of the wind. Scabs gave him both fingers.

Beyond the door was a dingy hallway filled with sensor clusters on complicated arms which clicked and span as they examined them as they walked. “Please note that we do not advise young children visit Pyerojen!” the figure announced happily, striding along with rapid, clanking footsteps. “Some experience negative reactions to our security technology. We do not require you to sign any forms, but we do kindly remind you that Pyerojen is not responsible for your choice to visit Pyerojen!”

“Little bit of rad exposure,” Eithenin said. “Nothing worse than what you’ve already got from standing near me.”

Scabs decided not to ask.

They passed through an arch which buzzed quietly and entered a small seating area. “Please wait while your results are processed,” the figure announced, as ever, cheerfully. Eithenin sat and rested a hand on Scabs’ shoulder. [to give them time to scramble troops in case of trouble,] he tapped with a manipulator. [nothing to worry about]. Scabs sat and waited. The Emenrali couple sat opposite them, clearly nervous, shiftily watching the tall figure for their next instructions. She wondered what had brought them out here. The journey could not have been easy, especially over the wastes.

Eventually the figure spread their arms wide in an identical gesture of welcome to the one they had greeted them with. “Your scans have been processed and found to be within acceptable parameters,” they said. Behind them, the door slid open dramatically. “Welcome to our city,” they cried. “And remember: All are welcome in Pyerojen!” They stepped aside with mechanical theatricality, revealing a street with narrow shopfronts and huge support pillars grasping at a roof barely two stories above ground level. The space ran on into the smog in a hazy expanse of flickering neon lights between the honeycomb of the dragcity’s internal support bracing, the rattle of trains and the clatter of footsteps underscoring the sussurant rumble of distant industry on the floors above. Eithenin strode out, giving a brief bow of acknowledgement to the figure. Scabs hurried out after him, nodding in what she hoped was a respectful manner, closely followed by the two Emenrali, who hurried away without a glance back, heads down. Must be a story in there, thought Scabs. Was it fear or shame that bowed their heads and made furtive their eyes?

“Bloody Keenel,” Eithenin grunted once they were inside, dodging a loping pedestrian and giving them a foul look with his swarm of oculars. “Can’t deny it’s effective, though. This place is safe.” He snorted. “For the Keenel, at least. Which reminds me,” he added. “You know what they call those handrails?”

Scabs looked at Eithenin sideways. “This is an insult, isn’t it,” she said.

Eithenin rolled his rounded shoulders. “Can’t slip much past you, Scabs,” he rasped, amused. “It’s an insult. They’re called Squishycatchers. There’s a lot of traffic from the bandcities here, usually come to get augments and adaptations that aren’t easy to get down there, and you can tell them apart by the way they cling to those bars. Most come here to get their needle ports unlocked so they can inject, well-” Eithenin laughed. “Anything from methamphetamine to sex hormones. You’d be surprised how many of those medical tourists end up on the black market in bits. Or maybe you wouldn’t. You seen shit, Scabs?”

In a narrow alleyway between the buildings figures slumped as if dead, an unfurtive dealer gazing out with glassed oculars standing above them, glass vials of product illuminated by lights hanging off him as they glowed a kaleidoscope of pulsing colours. Watching his somnambulent charges so that they could buy the second dose, the second fix, and all the others after that, until their little flames at last blew out. In another alley, flickering lights backlit two figures engaging in the transactionary exchange of a quick fuck. Another alley along and the same service was offered at a premium, the alluring shame of flesh advertised by two alternating frames of twisted neon. The last place the human form beneath the steel was shown as anything but a relic, a fetishised rubber suit mimicking what had once been. Eithenin’s oculars watched her carefully. Pyerojen was safe, for the Keenel. Scabs had no doubt that her soft, pallid arms would make her a target.

They reached a storefront with the word ‘FUEL’ written in clear, bold letters in several languages above the door. Eithenin pushed it open without waiting for Scabs to respond. On the other side was a largish room filled with tables, half a dozen people with varying levels of augmentation sitting around and conversing quietly. At the back wall of the room a kiosk sat, an augmented figure sitting in the shadows within. A limb glinted in the glow of the striplights above as it waved towards the pair as they approached. Eithenin was the first to speak.

“Give us seven hundred and fifty litres, Abbensengya. We’re on a budget and in a hurry.”

The figure within moved indistinctly. Even this close Scabs was unable to make out the figure within. “Ei-the-nin,” they said, their voice a juddering stitching of aggressively cheerful vocal scraps. So that was what was wrong with the figure who had greeted them. “Your engine- is- putting us- out of- business! I wish- to see- the enhancements- on it- some day!”

“Wouldn’t you,” Eithenin replied. “Some day, Abbensengya. Wheelbarrow’ll need a proper look-over eventually.”

“So- you- keep- telling me!” Abbensengya replied, the sound of metal scraping accompanying a shift in the vague shape behind the white-scratched pexiglass. “But- that thing- keeps going- somehow! It is- due- repairs- surely?”

“Just a patch-up job for now,” Eithenin said. “We’re here for parts. You know how things are, I’m sure. How do the Keenel feel about-

“The Wermesckir,” the figure replied. That sound clip had an air of wary respect to it that had been absent in the others. “They- are not- a threat! There- is- no- danger- here! All are welcome in Pyerojen!

“So you keep telling me,” Eithenin said, wryly. Abbensengya played a burst of laughter sounds before abruptly cutting them off.

“Current prices are- eighteen- point- three- six- credits per litre,” they replied. “The- minor- increase is due to- increased- fuel- quality.”

“Good,” replied Eithenin. A small hatch opened in his side and he reached in and delicately pulled out a narrow credit box. “That’s thirteen thousand, seven hundred and seventy, correct?”

“Yes,” Abbensengya replied, apparently done with pleasantries.

Eithenin stuck the end of the credit box into a port at the front of the kiosk, a numeral rapidly decreasing on a readout on the side of the box as a rapid clicking noise emanated from the machine, the tiny micro-engraved standard credits being taken from its magazine. When it was done it emitted a single high tone and Eithenin pulled it out with a snap.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he rasped.
“The pleasure- was- mine!” said the vendor. They retreated further back into the shadows, a series of keyboard clacks accompanying vague insectile motions.

“A worker is working on bringing you your fuel now!” they said without turning. “We hope it gets you where you need to go! Why not sample some of our refreshments while you wait?”

“We’re good,” Eithenin grunted. “Nice seeing you, Abbensengya. Gotta get those parts.”

Abbensengya didn’t react, their form retreating backwards and up in a sudden burst of speed. There was the sound of a hatch clicking shut and then silence.

Eithenin trudged back towards the door. “Come on,” he said. “We have a market to visit.”

“Thought you’d be here.”

Scabs half-turned, then went back to watching the street below. She didn’t dare come out in the day, when it was busiest, but she liked to be here in the evening sometimes, watching the stragglers hurrying home. When there was less chance she’d be seen. Hands jammed into the deep pockets of her coat, hiding the still-fresh augments.

“What you seen?” he asked quietly, coming to stand in the alleyway beside her.

“Just people,” she said quietly.

He hesitated, then put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re close, you know,” he said. “A little longer, just a little longer now. Then nobody will have to hide in the shadows. Nobody like you will have to live like this.”

“Yeah,” she said, watching a group of four hurrying down the road together, laughing at some joke. Behind them the buildings rose up high, the space above open all the way to the floor of the level above. The closest to open space in Emtu-Rafich. Grey concrete and grey steel and orange lights.

“How are your hands,” he asked, quietly.

She buried them deeper in her coat pockets. “They work fine,” she said.

“Yeah, but… that bastard thaumtech messed up the glyphs, didn’t he?” the hand was withdrawn from the shoulder. “It’s my own fucking fault, Otti, I should have checked him better, I thought he came with recommendations- skies I’m so sorry, Otti.”

She didn’t reply for a moment. “It’s fine,” she said. “You didn’t have much choice. And it’s just soreness. The bond’s strong enough.”

“I’m not gonna forgive myself, you know. Just… can I see, at least?”

She looked at him uncertainly. “Here? You sure?”

He nodded. “Nobody’s here.”

She didn’t say a word. Just pulled one out of her coat pocket and held it out towards him.

“Jesus, Otti. I think it’s getting worse. I- I have salves back at the Hole,” he said, holding her wrist gently. His fingertips were soft. She could feel their dryness, the cracks in his skin, on the soft flesh of her underarm.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re so strong, Otti. Just a little longer and we can make this work. We can get these hands attached properly. And everything will be alright.”

He led her back into the grungy dimness of the alley.

The market, as it turned out, was a large, roofless building filled with vendors manning stalls and racks of various pieces of miscellaneous tech ranging from neat arrays of pipe fittings to shining augments resting on foam mats. Eithenin ignored them, heading for the back of the room. “Gotta grab a part for the engine,” he explained, edging around a buyer engaging in intense haggling over the price of an oddly-shaped circuit board. “Thaumic impulse modulator. Last one blew out.” At last they reached a smaller stall that stood apart from the others by the lack of stock displayed on its counter. The figure behind it watched them approach politely, hands clasped behind her back.

“Eithenin,” she said, warmly. “What’s it this time? Because if it’s for Needles and the last thing didn’t help…” she trailed off, the shoulder-length chains of glossy black-blue beads hanging all around her augment skull like a veil clacking as she shook her head softly.

“Nothing to do with that,” said Eithenin brusquely. “I need a thaumic impulse modulator for the engine, Chertszen. Do you-”

Chertszen was holding a small silver box with rounded corners, coloured wires trailing over her black-enamelled palm from its back. “This will work,” she said. “You will need to calibrate it for the stroke pattern. I don’t know the exact glyphs your engine works on either, the thaumics in this might need to be adjusted to be compatible. But this model is very flexible.”

Eithenin shrugged and reached for his credit box. “Clean,” he said, admiring the device as Chertszen placed it on the counter with a pearly clack. “As it happens we just picked up a new thamaturge. This is Scabs.” He patted Scabs on the shoulder briefly and she gave the woman a wave. Chertszen turned to Scabs, her beads swaying hypnotically.

“Run off to join the scavengers, have you?” she asked, a slightly bitter tone inflecting her voice.

Scabs shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, defensively.

Chertszen hesitated before speaking. “You’ll have to sell your soul out here to survive,” she said, “if you will forgive my dramatism. I certainly have.” She gestured around her, to the filigree of support structure that surrounded the layer of the dragcity. “I have freedom from an outside that I will never see again. Right now, you have the freedom of that outside. If you catch my drift.” She leaned forwards, revealing the glint of eyes behind the curtain of beads. She reached out a hand, effortlessly weaving a kinetoglyph in the air that glowed softly with precise strands of shimmering light.

“Power is a commodity,” she said, the strands of the glyph turning and evolving around her dancing fingers. “Believe me. You do not have power. What you have is market worth.” The glyph slowly faded out of existence, her hand slowing like a clockwork dancer run to the end of its spring. “Watch for the cages we weave for ourselves,” she said, turning her head coldly towards Eithenin. “And for those that others weave for us. But know that nothing will ever beat the safety of a good, strong cage.”

“How much,” asked Eithenin, breaking the silence.

“Seven-fifty,” Chertszen said. “Special price, just for you.”
Eithenin grunted. “Seven hundred.”
“You’re arguing over pocket change.”
“Times are tight. Seven-thirty.”
“Seven thirty-nine. Consider that a pity credit.”
“Now that’s just taking the piss,” Eithenin rasped, begrudging amusement in his voice.
“Not my fault that you set yourself up to have fun made of you. Ironband knows that there’s little enough fun in this stainless-steel shitstain.” Chertszen threw back her head and laughed, her beads swinging wildly.

“Seven thirty-nine it is,” Eithenin said. Scabs could hear his grin.

Chertszen pulled out a credit box of her own and linked it with Eithenin’s. The readout on hers went up as Eithenin’s went down with a corresponding rattle of tiny credit chips.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Chertszen said, not quite meeting Eithenin’s eyes.

“As ever,” Eithenin said, dropping the part into his case and swinging it onto his back. There was something of the lost in his voice.

“Take care of Scabs,” she said. “Promise me, Eithenin. Just… promise me.”

“I am taking care of her,” Eithenin said, ruffled.

Chertszen turned away and pushed aside a worn tarp that curtained off the back of her stall. “I just don’t want you paying me with credits from a set of second-hand augments,” she said, distantly. The curtain fell shut with a soft crackle.

“How close is it?”

“Fourty-four cells done,” she said, slumping back and holding her head in her hands, covering her eyes. “Thirty-six to go, working on number forty-five now.”

“Otti I appreciate that you’re trying really hard here but you need to go faster. At this rate we’re going to be eighteen days behind schedule. Eighteen. At that point you might as well not bother. We’ll have missed our chance.”

He crouched down in front of her, the Device sat on the bench between them. Though they were exactly the same size he seemed to loom like a thunderhead.

“You need a break, is that it?” he said. “A little lie-down? You know what, we’re all about ready to give up. Why don’t you join us? We can all lie down on the train tracks and let the eight: sixteen train to the factory run us over.”

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “I’m working as fast as I can.” She gingerly picked up the component and began weaving another glyph, trails of light in eratz colours floating off from the light spinning from her fingers and connecting to the component, etching spiralling symbols onto the thin steel. “This is hard,” she said. “But I’m getting faster.”

“You better hope so,” he said, nodding behind him to the others in the room next door. “The boys are getting impatient, and soon enough you won’t have me to deal with. It’ll be them. And you know what?” He leaned in, his lips hard and bloodless. “I’m not sure I’d stop them if they chose to do something,” he whispered.

She finished the glyph and placed the finger-sized component on the bench, flexing her fingers. That was the halfway point for that component, now. Six of the nine glyphs on the little explosive.

“Let them come,” she said, emptily. “I’ll watch those fat-fingered fucks try to cast glyphs from behind the veil.”

“I didn’t strike you as so petty, Otti,” he said, a sneer twisting his face. “We have a cause here that’s more than any one individual. That’s more than any of our personal grievances or your broken personality.”

“Of all the thaumaturges in Emtu-Rafich, I ended up with you,” he said as he stood, and he sounded so sad and so lost. “I can’t believe… you. This. Just make the Device, thamaturge,” he said. “Then you can crawl back to the sewers and nobody will ever, ever have to rely on someone like you ever again.”

When he left her throat was full of broken glass. When this was done, she’d run. When this was done she’d run and run and run until he was behind her. She’d leave him to his new utopia. She’d leave him to shape the world while she found somewhere he could never touch her again.

“Let’s get something to eat after I get the last few bits,” said Eithenin, turning his back on the stall and trudging off, each heavy footfall an unspoken word. “Real food that tastes of something, not just nutrient crap. You got taste buds?”

Scabs nodded, hurrying after him. “Yeah,” she said. “Bit worn out but, yeah. And, thank you.”

“My treat,” said Eithenin. His oculars did not turn to look at her. “I know a place Spittlestring’s been begging me to go to. Says it’s twice as addictive as the strongest crack they can sell you here. It shouldn’t be-”

Eithenin suddenly pulled her behind a stall without breaking pace, the latches of his faceplate slamming closed with a clank. “Bounty hunters. Keep quiet,” he murmured. “They’re not here for us.”

Scabs stole a look around the edges of her rims. There were two of them striding through the centre of the market, one tall and angular, a massive rifle with signs of wastetech tampering all over it cradled in his arms. The other was short and shining, moving with a scuttling motion on four thin crablike legs. They had no visible weapon.

Eithenin reached a trader selling various bottles of chemicals. “Hello,” he grunted. “You got a bottle of degreaser?”

The trader nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I’d assume you want a couple of litres, and the strong stuff?”

“Yeah,” said Eithenin. “What’s the biggest bottle you have?”

“I do barrels,” the man replied cheerfully. “I’ll help you roll it down to the lift if you want, get someone to watch my stall.”

Eithenin gave the man a gesture of assent, his attention on the two bounty hunters making their way into the market. Scabs slid behind Eithenin’s bulky form. She had a horrible feeling that Eithenin was wrong about them.

“How much,” he asked.

“Three… Sorry, sir,” the vendor said, worriedly, “but that man over there is gesturing for you to come over. Do you… know him?”

“No,” said Eithenin. “Actually we were just leaving.” He put a hand on Scab’s shoulder and manoeuvred her in front of him, keeping his body between Scabs and the bounty hunters. Scabs tensed and stumbled as Eithenin started to make his way to the market’s second exit. “Get ready to run,” he said tightly. His hand pinched at the flesh of her shoulder.

A voice called, thin and hard. “We see you.”

The owner of the voice stepped around the corner of the stall, a rifle aimed directly at them. “Otchen Revelkha,” he said, voice emanating from behind the armoured wedge of his face. “Emtu-Rafich politely asks you to return to the cities to await trail.” The other augmentee stepped out beside them, strutting on four thin, crablike legs. They were short and oddly proportioned, their augments blackened with an irregular sheen of oil and grease. They lacked a head, instead possessing a mass of feeler-like sensors protruding in a line down the centre of their chest, twitching as if in response to an invisible underwater current. Their arms were jointed unnaturally and terminated in slender multi-part pincers.

Scabs’ blood ran with fibreglass. That name. Not again. Not again. Not again.

“She’s with me,” Eithenin said, voice as cold as ice. “So talk to me.”

“Emtu-Rafich didn’t put in a warrant for you,” said the bounty hunter, training his rifle on Eithenin. It had two mismatched barrels and two separate magazines, an ocular resting on top of it in place of a scope. A nerve-wire encased in steel links ran from the gun straight into his forearm. “But a ringworker this far from the Ring… I’m sure someone would like you to turn up headless on their doorstep.”

“Try it,” growled Eithenin, his speakers crackling and popping.

The rifle produced a snapping sound. “I may do just that,” he said, gesturing languidly with the barrel of the gun, the ocular mounted on it shifting to look Eithenin up and down. “But wheeling you out of here on a trolley would be inconvenient, so me and my friend would very much just like to take the little felon in for trial. Do you know what she did? Hm? Bit out of the loop, are you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Eithenin snapped. “And given that I give zero fucks about your conversation how about I make this worth your while and you piss off?”

His companion turned to him, making a sequence of hissing, whistling and snorting sounds from a tumour-like protrusion of pipes near the top of their chest, jetting puffs of white breath into the stagnant air. The other bounty hunter responded with two percussive bursts of white noise without turning his head. “My friend says no,” he said. “Professional integrity. You understand.”

The sound of the rifle firing almost burst Scabs’ eardrums in a violent rupture of the air, the atmosphere itself torn apart by the movement of the bullet. But nothing happened. The bounty hunter froze for a second, confused.

“RUN!” Chertszen screamed, the gravity well that had diverted the bullet churning between her fingertips.

And Scabs ran.

She dived over the counter of a stall, pushing her way through the back and into another row of stalls, legs whining thinly. She heard a rapid skittering behind her and she dived left, legs sparking against the concrete as she slid round a corner just as the short bounty hunter lunged, down on all six limbs. They tore after her as Scabs scrambled to her feet. They were gaining on her, their feelers tracking her with ease as they tore towards her. She couldn’t hide and she couldn’t run. Scabs grabbed a length of pipe off of a stall without slowing, desperately trying to spark the kinetoglyph for inertia amplification in her free hand. Finally, her fingers feeling loose and clumsy, it caught, glowing a deep black, and she slammed it against the length of metal. It wouldn’t last long. She wheeled around and swung, just in time as the bounty hunter finally caught up with her and reared onto their back limbs. They caught the wild swing with a pincer, staggering back in surprise as the blow refused to slow. They dodged backwards, feelers retracting as the pipe scraped across the front of their chest, leaving a scratch in the glistening sheen of their augments. Scabs pulled back, straining against the pipe’s newfound troubled relationship with changes in momentum, muscles screaming as she brought it back around to swing again. But she was too slow. The bounty hunter darted forwards and the tip of their pincer jabbed through Scabs’ coat and into one of the filter augments in her chest. Pain and breathlessness shot through Scabs for a spilt second before the electricity hit her as the bounty hunter tased her. She dropped the pipe, which hung in mid-air as she convulsed, eyes flashing as her neural breadboard was scrambled. Then the pain eased as her augments adjusted and she slammed two grind kinetophyphs directly into the limb. There was a scream of tortured metal and a flurry of sparks but her assailant didn’t stop, their free arm lunging for her throat as one of their legs punched at her knee. Scabs stumbled but caught the lunge in half her hand, the mirrored second half casting a shock kinetoglyph which delivered just enough power to prevent the bounty hunter from ripping her jugular out. They stood struggling against each other for a moment, each unable to overpower the other. Her assailant spat a shrill and complex scream from their pipe assemblage, a stream of damp and marginally warmer air hitting Scabs in the face. In the distance a set of similar static bursts cut through the air, their companion replying in kind. The bounty hunter froze, then jerked free of Scab’s grasp and sprinted over the top of a stall just as Eithenin charged around the corner. Scabs stumbled away ahead of him, a jagged pain shooting through her chest. The loss of the filter wasn’t so bad- she could breath with three- but not if there was a shard of metal in her lung. She hoped the sharp sensation in her chest was just damage from the electrocution.

“Exit,” grunted Eithenin as he sprinted behind her. Scabs ran ahead, hearing the crack of gunshots and the crackle and buzz of thaumaturgy. Chertszen was holding off the other bounty hunter.

The burst out of the marketplace, Eithenin keeping pace with Scabs despite his bulk. “The main entrance is out,” he said, leading her further into the city. “If they have a warrant the Keenel know. They won’t let us out. So we go for plan B.” Eithenin’s cameras shoaled to look at Scabs. “We’re stealing a ship,” he said. “But unfortunately the airport is several levels and several locked blast doors away from us.”

“So we’re fucked,” said Scab wildly. “We-”

“The Keenel are incredibly serious about safety,” interrupted Eithenin. “And the thing they need to know most is that they can always flee if a level gets overrun or becomes contaminated somehow. So there are escape pods.” He paused, taking a sudden left into an alley, a pedlar of some illicit wares flattening themselves against the wall.

“Don’t suppose you’re in need of any oral sex hormones,” they said hopefully as Scabs shot past them. “Don’t worry about it!” they called after the pair. They sounded a bit disappointed. Business must be thin on the ground.

“I know where one is,” said Eithenin. “All we need to do is jack the panel to get us in.” He flexed a hand, an array of manipulators unfolding. He took another left, down a street lined with stumpy grey housing blocks and back in the direction of the entrance to the dragcity.

“I thought you said we couldn’t get out by the entrance,” Scabs panted.

“Near it,” Eithenin said. “I think.”


“Well there’s a set of doors that never get opened the right size for Keenel around there and…” Eithenin seemed a little lost for words. “It’s a very good guess,” he said firmly.

Scabs’ brain finally caught up with what Eithenin had said. “What do you mean, the right size for Keenel?

“Don’t worry about it,” returned Eithenin hurriedly. “Save energy for running.”

The wall loomed in front of them and Eithenin stopped abruptly, sparks flying as his feet grated against the concrete. “Here,” he said.

The doors were hexagonal and easily five metres tall. “The fuck do you mean, the right size for Keenel?” Scabs repeated breathlessly.

“I told you not to worry,” said Eithenin, striding over to an inconspicuous-looking panel on the wall. He tugged at it, trying to work tooltips under its edge, then shrugged and slammed a fist into it repeatedly. It deformed and Eithenin braced a foot against the wall and yanked it off with both hands and the empty yowling of twisting metal. There was a singular input port behind it, large, complex and circular, concentric rings of black metal that looked as though they were meant to slide around one another. Eithenin cracked open the top plate of his visor and his oculars clustered to stare, flicking rapidly as he tried to work out how to open the port. Then a splay of manipulators opened from his fingertips and he insterted them into the port, which began whirring and twisting.

After a desperate minute of fiddling with the panel, Eithenin swore. “Scabs, can you… thaumaturgy this open?”

Scabs shook her head, both in answer to Eithenin’s question and in refusal to accept the situation. “Of course not!” she snapped, verging on the edge of hysteria. “That’s not how thaumaturgy works, and even if it was I wouldn’t know how to!” She stared up at the enormous door that was blocking her way. Then she frowned.

“Why doesn’t it have a seam? A… where’s the gap where it opens?”

“The…” Eithenin turned his attention away from the panel to the door. “You’re right,” he said, slowly. “It’s just missing. Which means this door opens as a singular thing, and given it’s an emergency door it shouldn’t open upwards in case the power goes out. And given how careful the Keenel are…” he looked back at the port. “Well, at least we have more than one door to try,” he muttered, winding up for another punch.

The door fell open with a horrible grating noise and a rush of displaced air as it disappeared into the floor. There were two ground-shaking clangs as it- and the door beyond it which led directly out into the wastes- slammed into the bottom of their slots in the floor. The acrid air of the wastes came pouring in around the sleek shape of an aircraft with its wings folded, pushing Scabs and Eithenin back in a torrent of visibly white-tinted air. A split-second later the siren started, loud enough to make Scabs wince. It was all the motivation they needed. They sprinted for the aircraft. If the Keenel were impartial before they probably wouldn’t be so now.

They sprinted up a ramp at the back of the craft underneath the exposed cowling of a jet engine, revealing a long, wide interior with a complex-looking control panel. Scabs noted that the craft was far more spacious than was necessary. The inside was also far too bare for an escape craft. No benches, no seats, no straps. Just strange handholds regularly but widely spaced in the floor, walls and ceiling.

Eithenin reached the controls at the end of the craft, which were definitely not designed for standard humanoid anatomy. Scabs frantically looked it over while stealing glances behind her for the bounty hunters or, possibly worse, whoever this craft had actually been designed for.

Lights on the controls lit up and the craft began to thrum, the jet engine ramping from silence to soul-shaking screaming in a matter of seconds. The ship lurched but failed to move. Eithenin swore, cutting tools buzzing as he cracked open the control panel. “This thing’s clamped down,” he rasped, cutting the jet engine’s frenzied shaking. “Fucking-”

But Scabs was already running, feet slipping on the slippery floor of the craft. “I got it,” she called, the words sending a stab of pain through her pierced breather filter. She tore down the ramp and squeezed between the wall of the chamber and the ship, the wind pounding her like a physical thing. The aircraft sat on rails leading down out of the dragcity, wings folded against its body and there, fixing it firmly to the floor, were two huge clamps. Scabs forced her way forward and braced herself against the first with her free hand. A grind kinetoglyph wouldn’t work. She thought furiously, her feet sliding backwards as she clung to the clamp. Most of the few kinetoglyphs she knew were for enhancement, not manipulation, so- so-

You couldn’t cast by the book. The book, the formula, the patterns, they were part of it, but there was a place behind the hindbrain that sparked and hated and loved and wept, the animal that would rage and break and live. The place where magic came from. That would tear reality apart to let itself free.

Scabs screamed and her voice was silent in the wind. Her hand contorted itself into an unfamiliar shape. NOT HERE, her lips said. I’M NOT DYING HERE!

And reality twisted in her hands.

A blade of searing-hot air whistled over her hand and carved a trench in the metal, globs of glowing red metal blowing out and cooling into teardrops. Scabs pulled at the clasp and it bent free of the ship. She was buzzing with power and freedom, freedom from one more limitation. She was mage-drunk, drunk on who she was in that fleeting moment of living. The next clasp was sliced clean through, the cut running in molten slag, and as the ran for the other two the glyph burned like it would never go out, like it was filling her with its burning instead of sapping her empty. The metal melted and wept and bent to her will and only when she ran back into the ship, each stride certain and purposeful and filled with joy, that she cut the glyph.

Eithein watched her as he wrestled with the controls to the ship. “Fucking hell, Scabs,” he said. “You can… skies above.”

The energy from the glyph was slowly dissipating but Scabs was still riding high on what she had done. It felt like her flesh was aglow. “I didn’t know I could,” she said, breathlessly. “It just… happened.” The rumbling scream of the engine got louder as the ramp at the back swung closed. Scabs frowned. She felt a little off. She sat down, grabbing onto of one of the recessed handholds.

Then a mechanical stuttering filled the ship. Scabs wheeled round and saw a steel fist wedged in the top of the ramp, forcing it back down, the widening gap revealing the face of the bounty hunter. Half of his protective visor was missing, his face beneath an eyeless mess of exposed wiring and cracked plastic, sensor feelers groping at the air. The gap jerked open further and the other bounty hunter who had pierced her breather filter crawled through in a spasm of rapidly moving limbs, sprinting on all six limbs towards them. Their oil-slicked body bore rents and sections blackened from burns. They clung to the floor, sensors twitching, halfway down the ship.

The ship began to lurch forward just as the big bounty hunter pulled himself through head-first. “The thaumaturge is dealt with,” he said, pulling his rifle from his back, the nerve-wire snaking out from his arm and connecting to it with a snap. “I think now is the time to comply. We don’t want you, ringworker. Just the girl. And thaumaturges are cheap. You can find another.” The gun began to make a thin, pining sound. Eithenin didn’t turn, the ship lurching down the rails faster and faster.

Scabs’ arms felt funny.

“No,” he rasped. “You know that thing can’t hurt me and you want the girl alive. And besides.” The ship lurched and began to tilt forwards, Scabs gripping the handhold tightly, though her fingers felt weak and… brittle?

Eithenin turned to the bounty hunters, a bundle of coloured wires leading from the ship’s console spliced into a port in his palm. “It’s my way or all the way down,” he said,

and the ship fell off the side of the dragcity.

The larger bounty hunter slid back, diving for a handhold and slamming bodily into the floor with a crash as the ship fell, sliding towards the open ramp before catching themselves. The other stayed anchored to the floor, fighting to crawl towards Eithenin as the ship plummeted straight towards the ice-wastes below, invisible behind the ship’s windowless cockpit. Eithenin cackled, his speakers squealing and popping as the ship’s angle slowly, slowly inclined as the wind roared like a broken machine, feet anchored firmly to the deck.

The ship began to level out, great creaks emanating from either side of it as its wings unfolded, the sudden change in inertia forcing Scabs into the floor. The engine howled in a metallic keening as it was pushed far past its safe operating parameters and the ship began to shudder, its acceleration pushing the bounty hunters back.


Fuck- you,” the larger bounty hunter managed over the solid wall of sound that filled the crawler. Behind him, the open door loomed, the rapidly vanishing dragcity and the uncomfortably close ice blurred by the speed like a belt-sander.

“MY GAME NOW,” Eithenin called. To illustrate his point the ship jolted down and up, raising the occupants and slamming them against the floor.

Scabs was struggling to hold on. She tore her gaze away from the gaping maw that was the back of the ship and to her arms.

Something was happening to them. The flesh was grey and flaking. Scabs watched in silent horror as the skin honeycombed, revealing pale flesh beneath streaked with welling blood pouring out from the widening cracks in her meat as it withered. But worst was her hands. The skin was peeling back at the augment bond, the flesh beneath giving in and splitting, and splitting, and falling apart. Then the hand came clean off, Scabs watching with petrified numbness as the yellowing bone was exposed to the air, the flesh peeling back further and further as the hand clattered down the ship and fell out onto the wastes. The remaining hand lasted only a second before it gave way with snap of tendons and Scabs went sliding towards the open door as she clawed at the floor with her stumps, leaving streaks of black flesh on the stainless steal.

Scabs desperately tried to jam a foot onto one of the handholds on the floor as her arms continued to decay, little gobbets of flesh falling out through the open door, but she continued her slide, legs grating uselessly against the floor with showers of sparks. But before she could fall out of the door the larger bounty hunter saw her and swung out as she slid past, grabbing her by the throat.

Ringworker!” he screamed. “Fancy negotiating now?


Quit stalling and stop this craft or I beat the girl’s jaw in!” the bounty hunter screamed, fighting to be heard through the air thick with sound. Scabs pawed uselessly at the hand pinching at her throat with the bloodied stumps of her arms. The hand squeezing her windpipe closed made her feel like she couldn’t breathe. Oddly she didn’t fear death in that moment. What she was afraid of was going back to Emtu-Rafich.

Do you know, what she did?” the bounty hunter screamed, shaking Scabs by the throat.

Or, worse, that they would know. A trail of droplets of blood from her arms fell horizontally out of the ship. In decades to come those little spots of brown would lie there, on the ice, her DNA fragmented beyond recognition by time. All that would be left of her would be the shape of her pain in nameless little spots of blood.

Eithenin was silent. The bounty hunter continued. “A week ago there was an explosion in the city,” he said. “Big one.” He turned to Scabs, his eyeless gaze watching her as his sensors jittered gleefully. “Aimed at a government building. But it damaged the city foundations and an entire chunk of the level fell through onto the one below. A housing district. A death toll I would be ashamed to be associated with. One too big for the numbers to mean anything.

“SCABS WEREN’T IN EMTU-RAFICH A WEEK AGO,” Eithenin yelled, but he didn’t sound convinced. “NO WAY SHE COULD HAVE GOT TO THE WASTES THAT QUICK.”

Oh, she was long, long gone,” said the bounty hunter. “Fucked off before things got serious, didn’t you? But they weren’t exactly subtle, these revolutionaries. They left plenty, of evidence. Now if I was Emtu-Rafich I wouldn’t have given me an order to bring you in for trail. There’s only one way this turns out for you, Otchen Revelkha, and prison sentences are expensive.

The other bounty hunter, still clinging to the deck, whistled something almost imperceptible. The larger bounty hunter laughed. “My friend says that sometimes we take liberties with our orders,” he yelled. “That sometimes we get the luxury of snuffing out a real scumbag. And you are especially spineless, cockroach. Running for the cold, dark places out beyond the band.” The hand tightened. “But I’d like to see you before a judge,” he sneered. “I’d like to make you see what you did before you die.

Eithenin was silent. There was only the scream of the engine.

Then everything was thrown forwards as the ship abruptly slammed into the ice. Scabs’ neck was almost snapped by the sudden change in momentum and the bounty hunters were thrown forwards as the ship slid, bouncing roughly off the ice at a speed far too fast to be called a landing. The structure of the ship squealed and contorted as Eithenin disengaged his hand from the ship’s hot-wired console and strode down the deck, unbothered by the frantic bucking as his feet clamped onto the ground. He met the smaller bounty hunter with a kick that sent it sliding, body sparking against the ground. It only just managed to dodge Eithenin’s foot as he stamped down where it had been moments earlier, scuttling back to its partner who was standing up as the ship finally ground to a squealing stop, hand still gripping Scabs’ throat. With his free hand he drew his rifle from his back, jabbing the barrel onto Scabs’ cheekbone hard enough to bruise.

“We go free, with the girl,” he said. “You’ve lost this one, ringworker.”

Eithenin stopped abruptly, standing halfway between the ship’s console and the bounty hunters. “Where you going, then?” he said. “I took us deep into the wastes. You’ll walk back, will you? Like that?” Eithenin snorted, the static in his voice turning it into a dull screech. “I’m surprised you can stand.”

“Well seeing as you kindly fucked this ship we’ll have to,” the bounty hunter said. “But spare yourself from worrying about us. You’re a long way from home and you just pissed off the Keenel.”

“Like I said,” replied Eithenin. “We’re in the wastes. I’m already home. You, on the other hand, are very far away from your nice, cosy bandcity rat-burrow. So let’s negotiate. I get the girl. You get a ride home courtesy of us and the consolation that you can tell your employers you tried your best.

The smaller bounty hunter turned to the bigger one and whistled a short message. Scabs’ captor visibly bristled, replying in a short burst of static. “We’re leaving,” he said, half to Eithenin, half to his companion. “We’re closer to the band than you think. Follow us and we decide the girl isn’t worth the hassle.”

“I have money,” said Eithenin, emptily. “I can pay you. Twice, what they offered.”

The bounty hunter pushed his rifle further against Scabs’ face, the cold metal stinging and latent with the promise of abrupt death. “Sorry, ringworker,” he said. “Professional integrity. I keep my name clean.”

He started towards the door, dragging Scabs around as he strode. “Walk,” he said. Scabs obeyed. It looked like she would be joining the rest of her arms. Freezing until there was nothing left to recognise. Until all her names were worn away and she became a thing. A nameless corpse. The empty place where a memory should have been.

But there were worse things than being forgotten.

Better no name than hers.

A knee-high mist of ice-flecks streamed across the ground to the empty horizon. Scabs couldn’t turn her head. Grey smog. The grey ice. The faint horizon between them, juddering up and down as she stumbled. She could feel the ice already forming on the ruined stumps of her forearms.

Absurdly, below the whistle of the wind, she could hear the bounty hunter singing softly to himself, keeping time with the march of his footsteps and the pulse of his breath which Scabs could feel through his rigid grip on her neck. His partner chimed in, harmonizing with their whistling and putting. A soft, rhythmic melody in a language Scabs didn’t recognise.

After a while her footsteps synchronised with it too.

When Scabs began to stumble more frequently, as the ice began to grow inside her, the bounty hunter slung her over his shoulders and continued his march.

“Can’t cast spells without hands, can you,” he said. She could hear the exhaustion in his voice.

It was the last thing she heard him say. After that it was just the wind, feverishly modulated by her waning consciousness.



A vehicle, ruined beyond recognition as they sat in the lee, the bounty hunter fiddling frustratedly with a piece of tech. Radio, the thought dizzily. No help out here. Only silence. Only empty.



The song stopped.


A face.

Wait, thought Scabs, dimly. That wasn’t right. She was on the bounty-hunter’s shoulders. She couldn’t see a face.

She tried to look again but opening her eyes was so hard.

A voice was calling something. It hurt to listen to. So much hurt. But it was warm on the ground and the ice was soft.

She was moving. Moving hurt all the more. She didn’t want to move.

The ice wastes were shaking. Must be an earthquake, she thought. She’d always wanted to see an earthquake. She was seeing so many things out on the wastes, and they were warmer than people said. But now they were hurting, and it was so bad. Scabs groaned. She hurt. All over. She could feel her hands again because they hurt. But that wasn’t right. He’d taken her hands, hadn’t he? And she’d wanted to. Or he’d told her she’d wanted to and she’d wanted to want what he wanted. That’s a funny sentence, thought Scabs. She tried to laugh but opening her mouth hurt. Everything, hurt. It was like fire.


That was sound. She was hearing something. She focused on that thought. But she couldn’t go much further than that.

scabs awake- scabs awake! scabs listen now, elbows is here. can hear see? elbows right here. holding head. will get back to wheelbarrow. remember wheelbarrow? tap tap tap on head? scabs? how many arms? how many? try to talk to elbows.

Scabs groaned again. Listening to the voice hurt.

elbows right here. nice and warm in crawler. turned heat up special. special for scabs. have to drive, okay? will keep talking to scabs. listen to elbows and try to stay awake okay? scabs so strong. stay awake for elbows. elbows like talk to scabs. going now okay? try to say thing to elbows.

Scabs groaned again. She hated the voice. She just wanted to sleep. She hated that she’d been taken away from the soft ice where what she’d done couldn’t touch her.

“scabs have frostbite,” said the voice. “scabs not doing so well. scabs in crawler. remember crawler? long drive to see olristaan. remember olristaan? sold scrap, got credits. olristaan want scrap, give us credits. scabs make olristaan very cross. elbows give scabs blanket. special blanket. extra warm. and also elbows special blanket from in engine. elbows also wire jumpheater to scabs chest. scabs say something now. scabs?”

Everything felt like it was muffled in searing cotton wool. “El,” Scabs gasped. It made her tongue feel like it had been fed through a meat grinder.

“very good scabs well done scabs so strong keep fighting okay scabs doing so well just stay awake a little longer okay? okay?”

Elbows’ voice wasn’t that quiet. Scabs opened her eyes. She could see the little red poster on the wall. It was just a red splotch now. Crawler, she thought. The world was swimming in fever and she was sinking through it, tugged by currents of pain and nausea.

“scabs doing well,” said Elbows. “scabs need keep on little bit longer. scabs get better once at wheelbarrow. Scabs get better once at wheelbarrow. okay? scabs say something. please. stay awake, scabs. please. stay awake until wheelbarrow. then can sleep, okay? all pain will go and scabs get better.”

“I- sh…” Scabs trailed off. It made her feel so sick to speak. But the pain was good. The pain was what the world should have given her. She forced herself into the pain. “I- should have…” she gasped, a string of drool running down the burning flesh of her face. “Died,” she spat. “Let me- die.”

“no,” said Elbows. “scabs must be alive to fix. no matter what broken. fix nothing by dying. stay awake for elbows. stay awake. stay awake to fight ghosts. stay awake and scabs and elbows fight ghosts together.”

The crawler was a hell in a steel shell and Scabs was locked in the centre of it. Her body was a hell in a steel shell and she was locked inside it, running with liquid pain. Her mind was a hell in a silent steel shell and her ghosts were locked outside it, out of reach, in the past, in the places she had run away from. In the things she had done.

Her name was Otchen Revelkha, and she had done a terrible thing and did not know how to fix it.

After the passage of two or more centuries the paycheck killers were found there, two heaps of rust in each other's company. The salvager pulled them apart and inspected them for any parts not overtaken by red-black steelrot. She scratched at the side of her head in an effort to get at the itch building below the metal. Nothing usable, she decided. Not even worth marking for picking up with a bigger vehicle later. But as she jumped back onto her skiff she paused with her hand on the ignition, and with a pointless glance around her to check nobody could see and a quiet curse at her own sentimentality she stepped back onto the ice and drew the figures back together. She looked back, once, before they disappeared over the close horizon of the smog. Later, as she was lying with two bullet wounds in her torso in the alley three along from the shafttown bar where she had met the man who killed her, she remembered those bodies, and wondered if they would thank her in the After.

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