Welcome to Wheelbarrow
rating: +9+x

<- Part I

Part IV

Scabs wasn’t sure what she’d expected when the scavengers had told her that they were returning to their base, but it sure as fuck hadn’t been Wheelbarrow.

Eithenin had described it as a “mobile platform” and she supposed that definition was at least ten percent accurate. Reaching about eighty, maybe ninety metres high and something like twice as long, two huge caterpillar tracks that nonetheless looked far too small to support the mass of girders and frame and bracing struts that climbed outwards from the wheelbase dragged the ungainly, asymmetrical mass over the ice. To the front was an immense wheel, suspended off the ground and notched with protrusions like some bizarre cog, until the crawler’s window drew closer and she realised that they were excavator buckets, rusted and battered long past use. At some point in a long distant past, Wheelbarrow had been a bucket wheel excavator. But now the wheel was fused in place, gantries and narrow rooms cut into its side. The main body of Wheelbarrow was a mess of shipping containers like a chaotic display of the stages of metal corrosion from exposure to the wastes, jutting out of the scaffold and studded with airlocks and connected seemingly at random by open gantries and enclosed tubular corridors.

Eithenin thumbed the radio and spoke. “Calli-”

An energetic chatter from the radio cut him off. “Eithenin! Is that you?”

Eithenin sighed. Scabs imagined that radio etiquette had been stricter on the ring. “Yes, it’s me,” he said. “All’s… well. We have a lot to talk over. But first, we have a new member. Scabs, say hello.”

“Hi,” Scabs said. The voice on the radio was quick to respond.

“Scabs, eh? Spittlestring give you that name? Or Thinfingers? Ah, don’t mind them,” the voice said, cheerfully, a touch of empathy inflecting the voice. “They’re dumb as shit but you’ll warm to them, and them to you. Bring Scabs straight up, Eithenin, I wanna meet them! Oh and I almost forgot,” they added, quickly. “I’m Needles, but we’ll get a proper introduction in a minute. Bye!” The radio cut off abruptly before the end of the last syllable of bye, Needles not even waiting to finish their own word. Then the radio cut back in just as quickly as it had cut off. “Oh, and I’ve told Scuttleteeth to lower the winch. Bye for real this time!”

Eithenin chuckled quietly. “Needles is… eccentric,” he said, a winch lowering from the belly of Wheelbarrow visible through the crawler’s windshield. “But he’s a good leader. I trust him. You will too, eventually.”

Once the crawler was hoisted up into the larger vehicle a number of long, narrow limbs that gestured frantically at the portholes guided it neatly into a bay. Eventually, Eithenin was satisfied and shut the engine off. He turned to Scabs, the wedge plates over the glass bubble of his faceplate fully retreating with a series of pneumatic hisses. Behind it, a pallid, indistinct face appeared, almost completely obscured by tubes.

He grinned, the tubes flexing like thick rubber muscle fibres. “We’re home,” he rasped. “Welcome to Wheelbarrow.”

Scabs was led through the narrow vehicle bay, a drone consisting of a small, rounded tubular body completely surrounded by a halo of disproportionately long limbs scuttling around the bay and operating the crane, two sets of feeler-like manipulators jutting from its front like jaws. The drone- probably Scuttleteeth- made a series of complex motions with its manipulators which Eithenin apparently understood, waving a hand in dismissal. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Eithenin said. “Good to see you too. Thinfingers, help them.”

Scabs followed in Eithenin’s heavy footsteps, Elbows cheerfully walking after her on their two back limbs, the others clasped behind their back. “SEE NEEDLES,” they spat. “YES.”

The way out of the vehicle bay was up a ladder into a hatch, leading into a room full of quietly humming generators, a huge engine at the back of the room looming silently. Wheelbarrow was still, for now, and the engine was quiet. Scabs could feel… something, though. Emanating from the machine. She slowed, drifting closer, the huge mass of cylinders and crankshafts looming over her. Slowly, suddenly feeling the need to show respect to this… thing, she held up her hand and cast a light kinetoglyph, her fingers carefully tracing the tight, looping patterns. In response, symbols etched onto the metal lit up one by one, the patterns running outwards until the whole engine softly glowed with light, from dull orange on the casing to bright, piercing white on the cylinders, rows of glyphs which she didn’t know pulsating in and out like the breathing of an animal. Scabs took a small step backwards in awe. She’d done enhancement before, but never…

“THAUMIC,” spat Elbows, stopping to gaze up at the engine. Scabs nodded, vaguely.

“Yeah,” she replied, not taking her eyes of the slumbering mass of the machine.


“I… yeah.”

Elbows looked sidelong at Scabs. “SOMETHING REMEMBERED,” they spat. “UNFORGOTTEN AGAINST WILL.”

Scabs cut the glyph and walked away, the light dying out behind her. She didn’t respond.

“I know it’s hard,” he had said, the exasperation in his voice obvious. “But you’re… you. I- we all know that. And you’re the kind of person who doesn’t stop when things get hard."

She nodded, and brought her hands up to the metal sheet. “Now make that panel stop a bullet,” he said, crouching behind her with an arm around her shoulders. She nodded, concentrated, and tried again.

She followed Eithenin up a narrow staircase into a series of rooms, a table decked with a chessboard, a pack of cards and a few loose nutrient wrappers sitting in the middle of a kind of common room. Shelves filled with drives and tapes lined the walls and a terminal sat, the screen dark, at the back of the room. Sealed doors led outside Wheelbarrow, small portholes revealing a distorted view of the grey ice of the wastes. Eithenin opened one and quickly stepped out, gesturing for Scabs and Elbows to follow as ice flecks fluttered into the room. Outside was bitingly cold, as ever, and the wind was getting stronger. She held the handrail of the gantry stairway tightly, the metal creaking and swaying. Behind her, Elbows had dropped their bizarre bipedal stance and clung on tightly with all limbs. Their small frame was in genuine danger of being blown away.

Eithenin reached a shipping container bolted onto Wheelbarrow halfway up the stairs, multiple different salvaged staircases bolted together reaching right the way up the irregular side of the massive vehicle. He wrestled yet another heavy airtight door open and squeezed inside, Scabs and Elbows following.

The container was lined with lockers and hooks hung with coats catering to a range of odd anatomies, multiple sleeves and hoods with holes in odd places abounding. Eithenin pushed through an interior door which opened with a pop of the rubber seal, revealing a hexagonal corridor dimly lit by low-power neon tubes glowing in lines of white, more doors set along its length. He started down it and Scabs followed, a little uncertainly. She'd never liked enclosed spaces and the windowless tunnel reminded her too much of Emtu-Rafich.

Eithenin kept walking, following the corridor right into the heart of Wheelbarrow before stopping at a door and inputting a code on a console beside it. The door opened with a click and a puff of air.

Inside, it was dark, the shipping container filled with vague shapes. Eithenin reached to the wall with practised confidence and flipped a switch, revealing racks of shelving supporting row after row of gas cannisters of various make. Scabs examined them as Eithenin made his way to a doorway at the other end of the container. A sturdy blue one marked O2. A larger one, the paint chipped at the top, OXYGEN: FLAMABLE. Another simply marked 8[2]. One with the green cross Emtu-Rafich used for medical equipment, marked Contents under pressure. HANDLE WITH CARE. She looked closer. O2 (Oxygen), written in letters worn away by the flaking paint around the top and bottom. The room, with its small, flickering blue light, was strangely menacing, an air of unreality pervading the rows of neatly stored, mismatched cannisters, the shadows behind them flickering in and out arrhythmically. Then Eithenin reached the door and knocked, a speaker somewhere crackled into life.

“I’m undoing the locks right now! Oh, and hello Elbows! You doing okay?”


The door’s locks undid with a harsh clank that echoed in the confined space. Eithenin opened the door, revealing a small airlock chamber with a circular door on the other side. Scabs and Elbows squeezed in, Elbows muttering something about too many doors. Scabs was a little startled. She hadn’t though that Elbows had more than one volume. The door swung shut of its own accord, locking with a clang. Then, without warning, sprinklers in the ceiling spat a thick mist of liquid down on them. Scabs spat some out, surprised. Her tastebuds were long numbed from atmospheric exposure but it tasted acrid and artificial. For a second she was worried that she’d been poisoned but then Eithenin half-turned to her, cameras shoaling to her side of his faceplate. “Just disinfectant,” he said. “Your organics are safe.”

Then the other side of the airlock opened with a thunk. Eithenin pushed the door open, his wide frame and the door blocking her view of the room beyond. The voice from the radio called out from within. “Sorry about the shower! I meant to warn you but I forgot until you were in, and there isn’t a speaker in there. Bit of a design flaw on my part, I must admit.” Eithenin moved aside and Scabs hesitantly stepped in. Then almost stepped out. From his voice she had known that Needles was partially organic, but she’d presumed a voicebox, a throat, a mouth- not-

The container was dimly lit, a few light bulbs giving off a warm, yellow glow that in other circumstances Scabs would have called romantic, or tasteful. But in this context all they did was illuminate…

Needles had evidently once been human. In fact, Scabs thought, somewhat hysterically, he was even more human now, by numbers. She could count about five pairs of hands, a few feet jutting out occasionally, a whole leg near the left of the mass that terminated in a malformed, eyeless head that had fused with the bottom of the heap of flesh, eyes gazing glassily all over his cystic bulk but many peering at her with a frightening amount of humanity. What was worse was that wherever the pale, soft, gently expanding and contracting mass of meat met the walls and floor of the room they fused to it, his body crawling up the needles that perforated him all over with tubes running up into the ceiling. She had heard horror stories about the thaumic part of adaptation going wrong but this… thing…

Then he spoke.

“Ah, I bet you’re wondering about my… current status! Bit of a story, that, but one for another day. To contract,” he said, an orifice that, from its movements, she supposed was a mouth convulsing the tumorous masses around it, “I had an accident with some impromptu cyberthaumics. Messed me up a bit, but as they say- what doesn’t kill you, you know.” The mouth laughed- no, mouths, as more orifices opened and joined in. Scabs found herself direly missing Thinfingers’ retching and clicking. There was something horribly wet about that laugh.

Eithenin rested a hand on her shoulder, a small tooltip protruding and rhythmically tapping her in Blink. Scabs was quick to decipher it, desperate to have something to think of that wasn’t Needles. [DO NOT TOUCH HIM,] Eithenin tapped out. [DANGEROUS.]

“We have some worrying news, Needles,” said Eithenin. “The Wermesckir have had-”

“I am aware,” said Needles. “An uprising. Heard it on broadband news radio, not too long before you arrived. I assume our little Wemmie friend told you?”

“She is moving out into the wastes. I believe that the Wermesckir may attempt to follow her. I suggest we move. Now.”

“Ah… Yes. I had a feeling you would say that,” said Needles, his bulk shifting. “I feel the same way, but I have some things I’d like to talk through with you in private first. But anyway! I haven’t said hello properly!” The orifices twisted into the most accurate smiles Scabs had seen since Emtu-Rafich. “Hello, Scabs! Is that what you want to be called?” Scabs hesitated, then shrugged.

“You can say if you don’t like it, you know,” the horror said sympathetically. “Ain’t nobody on Wheelbarrow would judge you for wanting a better name, no matter how quietly you say it. I wasn’t always Needles, you know.” He paused. “Well, obviously, but I wasn’t always Needles here. We’ve all got names we want to forget. Except for you, Eithenin. But you’re a bit odd.”

“First three digits of my unit code,” Eithenin added. “Eight-Three-Nine. It amused me.”

“ELBOWS,” Elbows said. They reached up and patted Scabs on the head, causing her to flinch. When Elbows didn’t stop she gave the drone a weak smile and let them continue. It was oddly comforting.

“I’m fine with Scabs,” she said. “Really. Thank you though,” she added awkwardly.

“Well, I’m here if you need me,” said Needles cheerfully. “I, uh, can’t really go anywhere. Oh yes! And you can use the intercom. Very handy!” The eyes turned to Elbows. “I assume that you’re okay, Elbows,” he said.

Elbows turned an eye towards Needles briefly before returning to patting Scabs on the head, the point of his multi-jointed limb making a small tink every time it hit the top of her flattened augment skull. “VERY NICE YES,” they spat. “MADE FRIEND. FRIEND PISSED OLRISTAAN. VERY AMUSING.” They paused. “FUNNY NOISE,” they added.

The mass convulsed in a way that made Scabs think of someone pushing themselves up in a chair in preparation to say something. “Right, I gotta talk to Eithenin,” he said. “Elbows, take Scabs down, show her the rop- well, wires and girders. Not the crawlspaces, she won’t fit. Nice meeting you, Scabs!” The door behind her opened, seemingly of its own accord, and Elbows stopped patting her head to guide her in. Scabs waved goodbye as the door swung shut. Right before it closed fully Needles called through. “This is home if you want it, Scabs! Remember tha-”

The disinfectant trickled down Scabs’ augments and got under the neck of her coat. Elbows reached out and took hold of her hand with a sticklike limb.

“Where is home to Scabs,” they spat, quietly. “Where is home?”

Scabs bit at her cheek.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought I had one before, but…”

“Ghosts do not starve.” Scabs looked at the drone, confused. “Must face them,” they continued.

Scabs tugged her hand free. “You’re not a fucking psychic,” she growled. “Stop acting like you know me.”

“Ghosts hard face alone.” It should have been hard to read emotion in Elbows but the concern in the drone’s camera lenses and watchful eyes seemed matched with simple, almost childish sincerity. Scabs looked away.

People were never what they seemed.

“You don’t fucking care, do you? You think this is a game! A fucking club where you get to practice tricks! I thought I could trust you, bitch. You fucking bitch.”

He sat down heavily, slumping down the wall with his head craned back. She hated when he was like this. “I’m trying, I swear!” she said, holding the useless, useless lump of matter that she couldn’t enhance no matter how many times she tried the glyph, again and again and again and failed over and over and over again. And he’d run out of patience. And it was all her fault.

“Do you even remember what we’re doing here?”

“I- yes, of course I do!”

He had looked at her, his jaw slack and dejected. “I don’t even know if I trust you any more.”

It hit her like a crowbar to the chest, wrenching her open and stinging her insides from toxic exposure. “Please! Just give me another chance! I-I promise I’ll get it right! I’ll prove- I’m dedicated! I remember why I’m here! Just- please!”

“So prove it,” he had snarled. “Magic that thing, you useless fucking maggot.”

After he had gone she had buried her face in her new hands, the ones he had gone through so much to get for her, because in the dark she couldn’t see the moisture fogging the insides of her eye lenses.

Scabs slammed the exterior door open and stepped into the cold. She gripped the guard rail and stared into the rising winds, flakes of of ice slamming themselves into her numb flesh.

She knew all about ghosts. She’d become one.

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