Warmth in the Smog
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<- Part I

Part VII


The Olristaan hunched over the seats in the lead transport’s cabin. The screen displayed the feed from the infra-red camera on the sensor array and the small red blotch in the centre of the bowed monitor was echoed by the distinct blip right at the edge of the radar’s range.

“Wheelbarrow,” she murmured. “It’s moving. Slowly, but it’s moving. They have the engine working.”

[orders?] the drone didn’t look up at her, focusing on the readouts as if the mobile platform would slip away into the smog if they looked away.

The Olristaan deliberated for a second, but the plans were already in place. “We ready the mobile armour,” she said, retreating back to her hunched position at the back of the cabin. “Follow with the transports when you receive the all-clear.”

[understood, olristaan,] Selvenn replied.

The Olristaan watched as the order was broadcast in flashing lights to the other two transports. The great ramps began their plummeting descent, impacting the ice with three great thumps. The tanks rolled down, sleek, turreted and fast, the results of years of tinkering and experimentation and stolen and bartered parts. There were six of them. She knew their crews by name. She knew all of her children, by name. She knew what they could do.

The only question was what Wheelbarrow could do.

She squeezed her way through the hatch into the bay below and readied herself to join them.

“You need to speak to her.”

Eithenin shifted his weight, as he often did when he was uncomfortable.

“Eithenin, I can’t do it for you,” said Needles bluntly. “It needs to be you. Elbows would do it happily, but they’re Elbows. There’s a fifty-fifty chance of it either working or backfiring horribly if they talk to her.”

“Better odds than I have,” Eithenin grumbled. Needles shifting his cystic bulk, ripples spreading across his mass of flesh. It would need pruning again soon. He’d grown another leg and there were veins climbing up over the drip lines, reaching for the ceiling.

“It has to be you,” repeated Needles. “And if- if- she’ll give any of us a confession of what she’s done, she’ll give it to you.”

Eithenin tapped his fingers on a lowered section of his faceplate, his brow furrowed sadly in the depths of his helmet. “I don’t get people,” he said. “You do. Not me. Fucking… Spittlestring, even Elbows would know better. You’re all better suited to this than me.”

“Eithenin, I need to know what she's done," Needles said. "I gotta know how badly Emtu-Rafich wants her dead. And-" he hesitated, a hand rhythmically tapping fingers to thumb.

"I need to know if she's a threat to us," he said.

"Fuck," said Eithenin.

"You're the only one I think she'll give anything approaching an honest answer to," Needles said. "What happened in Pyerojen, that's gotta mean something to her. You're the only one who can get close enough to help."

“People died because of her,” grunted Eithenin. “I’m not sure if I want to help.”

“Yes, lad,” said Needles patiently. “And in a nice, neat world we’d be able to work out who she is just from the one bad thing we know she’s done. But we don’t live in that world. We live in this one.”

“On the Ring everything worked like a knife or a hammer,” Eithenin rasped. “Either it cut things neatly in two or forced them into one. I thought escaping that would make me free. Instead- I don't know. All the answers are hiding in the mist. I can't figure shit out. Why… why am I scared to help her? I know Scabs needs help! I know that, but I don't know if- if she deserves it? Because she did something… abhorrent, and I… don't know where the point where good things become evil is. If I help her, and she… does something like that again, what does that make me? What does it make me that I knew that? It's like the dividing walls between that shit are all just shapes in the mist that drift apart the moment I get close."

"Eloquently put, lad," said the mass of flesh. "That's just how it be, sometimes. We have to hope that good intentions are enough. We don't really have much else. And if she's truly the person I hope she isn't… well, we tried."

The machine that ran away from home sighed, a long, painful crackle in the warm quiet.


Scabs stopped short, stumbling a half-step. “That’s not my name,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and she breathed heavily from the effort of moving. “My name’s Otchen.”

"The truth," Eithenin rasped warily. "It's a start." Then he caught himself. "Shit, that's not what I-"

“No,” said Scabs, unable to meet his gaze. “I deserved that.”

“We know about you,” said Eithenin quietly. “I had to tell Needles. But the rest- they don’t. Elbows suspects, and they’ll probably figure it out eventually on their own, but right now this is between you and me. And we need to talk.”

He walked past Scabs, feet thunking against the floor. “We’ll go somewhere quiet,” he said.

Scabs followed, stumbling a little, and Eithenin stopped. He held his arm out without fully turning.

She walked past him.

The room was small and warm, the walls lined with shelves holding small hydroponic beds. Transparent plastic domes covered them, UV lamps set into each quietly buzzing beneath the occasional hiss and burble of the pipes that fed the small leafy growths. Each was labelled in a curling, deliberate script Scabs couldn't make out. Two folding chairs sat empty.

Scabs slid down the wall and hugged her knees to her chest with her arm. She didn’t care how pathetic she looked.

“It was supposed to make the cities safe for everyone,” Scabs bit out, bitter. “It was supposed to mean that thaumaturges like me would never have to hide. Strike at the government, cut the rat’s head off. Magic for everyone. A new age of prosperity. And I bought it.”

Eithenin sat down on one of the chairs, the thick plastic and metal protesting with a groan, and listened.

“A bomb,” she said. “That’s why they chose me. Because I was careless with my magic, and they got wind of me. To make them a bomb powerful enough to knock a hole in the site of parliament without even getting close. Thaumic enhancements, all over it.

“It wasn’t complete when I left. I thought I knew how powerful it was. But I didn’t. I don’t think he knew either.” She spat the word out with disgust. “If it had been finished it might have destroyed the entire level. I don’t know. It shouldn’t have been able to damage the level supports but Emtu-Rafich is an old city.”

Eithenin shifted on his seat and his oculars briefly inspected his hands, flickering as they moved across the holes in his cracked open faceplate. "Makes sense," he said. "Don't fault yourself on that. Shit gets worn out. Corners get cut." He seemed like he was searching for something else to say.

The pipes made a quiet burbling noise.

“I had the chance to kill him, when I left," said Scabs. "He didn’t think I’d ever try. But I thought I could be better by letting him live. I didn’t want to bring myself to his level. He looked like a child when he slept. If I had-” she cut off but what was unsaid was clear.

"Maybe, maybe, maybe," said Eithenin. "I doubt that killing him would have prevented shit."

"But maybe it would have."

"That one thing you could have done," said Eithenin, "Is going to hurt forever. And there will be moments, here and there, where you forget the… barb. The shrapnel in your- not your mind. In your heart. A phantom pain just below were the bottom of your ribcage would be. That hurting. You'll forget it, here and there, and you'll live a little more in that moment and believe you deserve it, but then that memory will dig in and pull you away. And you won't want to be happy, or even just peaceful. Just…"

A droplet of water fell from the leaf of a plant into the hydroponic fluid with a plop.

"I don't know how you fix that feeling, Scabs," he said.

There was silence again.

“Suppose it's my turn for a story,” grunted Eithenin, without preamble.

Scabs half looked up, her ocular twitching before focusing back on somewhere on the floor. “You don’t need to-”

Eithenin cut her off. “Yeah, I do. Give and take, Scabs. There's got to be balance. Even for you."

Scabs shook her head without budging her gaze off of the vague point on the floor.

“I was a ringworker,” said Eithenin, ignoring her, “and I thought it was hell. So I started making plans to escape to the surface. I stole oxygen filters from a corpse fished out in a debris net so I could survive the surface. Augmented them on the Ring’s black market. Planned to smuggle myself out in a drop-pod as part of an asteroid cluster dump so I wouldn’t get picked off by the railgun network.”

His pause was thick with regret. “That didn’t happen, did it,” asked Scabs.

“No,” grunted Eithenin. “What happened instead was that it went wrong and I improvised.

“The nullstrider arrived two weeks early. The pod was ready but the ship I wanted to use to discretely get it into position was on the other side of the Ring transporting a strut.

“So I stole a worker transport.”

Eithenin’s oculars blinked off. “I should have known,” he said. “I’m a fucking ringworker. I should have known how orbital mechanics worked. I should have known that if I got it to chase the trajectory of something falling into the fucking atmosphere it would fall in behind it.”

His voicebox hissed with static and Scabs realised the ringworker was crying.

"You just… wanted something better," Scabs said, not knowing how to help. "There's… you're not evil."

“I saw it from the ground,” he said. “A burning star. They hadn’t had time to disembark when I took it at gunpoint. Melted to slag before it impacted. All of them inside.”

Scabs just sat in silence.

"So that's it," he rasped, and there was a new hoarseness to his voice beyond the static. "That's what I have to live with. And it's not the same as yours but it's pretty fucking close. And we just have to… keep living."

“So that’s it,” said Scabs, her voice buzzing hoarsely. “I keep breathing? Keep my veins warm?”

"I touched the ground for the first time outside a shafttown. Quiet and slowly falling to dereliction, like an organ built to be supplied by the beating heart of an asteroid mine that had exhausted itself forty years prior. I wasn't in a good state. But some kid- barely out of the nursery, fresh in his augments, had dropped some toy down a drainage grate. I got it out for him." Eithenin chuckled quietly without humour. "Just some kid and a toy truck. I didn't even know what it was, at the time. I just knew that he was sad, and that that feeling needed to go. It was the only kind of pain I could touch. So I…" Eithenin breathed out falteringly. "I kept trying to help. In any way I could. And sometimes it wasn't enough. And sometimes I made mistakes, and more people got hurt. And I felt like I was broken. And… I don't know, Scabs. But I kept trying. Keep, trying."

"I tried that," said Scabs, moisture welling in her half-blind eyes.

Eithenin rubbed at the front of his faceplate with his fingertips. "And you've learned a big fucking lesson," he said, the humour numb like a blow on an augment.

"But what the fuck am I supposed to do?" shouted Scabs.

"As much as you can!" Eithenin yelled. "Nothing more, nothing less! Because that's all anyone can do!"

"But how?" screamed Scabs, panic clawing at her muscles. "What am I meant to do now?"

“What we can!”

“The Olristaan was right,” Scabs said, her voice feverish with distress. “There’s nothing to live for but a filthy middle ground where you fight hard for something and less people die. And I don't even know what I'm fighting for!"

Eithenin’s faceplates drew back, revealing his face, the skin reddish and almost shining with brittleness in places, his brow furrowed below the ridges of skin where the thick nerve-wire needles ran into the grey matter of his brain. “There's always something to fight for," he said, each word heavy like a lead weight dropped on ice.

“What?” snapped Scabs.

He sank forwards, watery blue eyes locking with hers. “The right thing to do,” he said. “We just have to find it.”

Wheelbarrow’s engine churned, thaumic glyphs etched decades before pulsing as they did their great work. In the half-dark Elbows sat, watching the machine dance.

They were waiting for the news. It always hurt, when they helped someone who turned out to not deserve it. They hoped Scabs didn’t turn out to be one of those people.

But they would be there regardless, a hand out to help as best they knew.

They let the rhythm of the pistons fill their mind.

But there were no answers in the glowing metal.

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