Soke woke on the cot, the blanket had ceased to scratch. He yawned, stretched, and kicked the other occupant awake.
“Get some caff ready, buddy.”
The other gobber, Opi, climbed out of the cot, and liberally scratched his ass on his way to the kitchen. Opi’s rotund body wobbled momentarily as he reached the cupboard. Mess was no consequence to him as pots, pans, and garbage was exhumed from the recess.
“Nuttin’ ‘ere, boss. Just this,” Opi held a nutri-tab in his open palm.
Soke snatched the tab, and swallowed it without a second thought.
“C’mon,” he slipped off the cot, “we got work to do if we want real food to fill our bellies today.”
The streets in the __________ district were considerably quieter than normal for the morning. Though talk on the street quickly revealed that the church was going to hand out food.
“Hear that, Opi? Food – food we don’t have to work our asses off for.”
Two decades past, Soke was a child then, one of many who lived on the streets of New Solamnos. This day was one of the bright, early days of the city when there were moments of quiet. Back then the seaside was clear of most of development. The largest building on the shore was the desalination plant, built on a rocky outcropping. Sea water was pumped in from one end, silt and detritus out the other, which created a foam lapped shore.
Children from all walks of life swarmed the shore in large gangs. They played games with vivid imaginations that children at the young ages of four to twelve so often have. Strewn along the beach was the rubble and remains of a long lost civilization. Broken pottery, collapsed buildings, and on the rare occasion sand bleached bones.
One child approached, he was older than most by anyone’s guess from his size. Both his expression and charismatic demeanour demanded attention. The children crowded around him, and the boys words captivated them. He had found a dead body, and would show it to those who were brave enough to follow him. Of course everyone around was initially brave enough, and the mob of children screamed, laughed, and boasted in the wake of the older child.
The first test split a majority – it was a rocky cliff down to the shore. The cliff stretched for miles in both directions, and only ended in one at the desalination plant. There was no going around it – only going down.
Soke was one of the dozen who braved the rocky descent. His dexterity, and small hands allowed him to easily find handholds. Another fatter gobber followed his path down. Once at the bottom they were led along a path that wound on the edge of the water. Shortly thereafter they arrived at a cave. The waterlines on the stone revealed that the cave would be submerged when the tides swept back in. Despite it being day, the light from outside did not penetrate the cave’s gloom. Light sticks were activated, and cast a yellow glow on the salt rimmed walls.
It was further into the cave that they encountered the corpse. The feminine shaped body lay face down in a pool of seawater. Surprisingly the corpse had not begun to bloat, as water soaked bodies were prone to do. On closer inspection, and stranger still were bands of wire diagonally wrapped around the head. Patches of her hair were missing, and the hair that remained was entwined with seaweed.
“It’s just a body. What are ya all scared of?” Said a girl with ballsy bravado as she sauntered to the body, peered at it closely, and poked it.
“See?!” She had turned around to face the other kids. Soke heard the sharp intake of breaths, and also felt his legs freeze. Behind the girl the corpse rose, its gangly form towered over the child before it. Water bubbled out of the corpse’s mouth, and dripped to the moist floor as a smile spread across the sodden woman’s lips. The sound of feet told Soke that some of the children had run off, but he was locked in place.
They felt, rather than saw the sunken eyes, hidden behind bound wire, gaze at each of them – the five children that remained.
“Brave children. Will you help me?” it spoke in a gentle, yet haggard voice.
The smile never left its face.
Some dwarf with a labour jack argued with a suspicious looking waif of a girl. Their argument, about their perspective spots in line, drew the attention of a guard.
“What a fool argument, eh Opi?” Soke nudged his buddy in the ribs. The other gobber stared back at him blankly. This was the biggest downside of this relationship – banter. Soke almost missed the egocentric, science-jargon filled monologues of the bastard doctors who operated, and ran tests on him. But now here was Opi, too dim witted to even converse with.
There was a commotion ahead, and the lines moved forward. An outer cordon of church guards kept the lines in check, and allowed the commoners to trickle in. Another row of church uniformed guards stood in front of the pallets of food, and the package managing acolytes. Each person who received a care package and earned the curious, and envious stares from other people still in line.
A rumble in the distance grew more distinct as it approached. Soke discerned not one, but multiple sources of the sound – engines. He nudged Opi once more to get his buddy’s attention. Four battered trucks drove up to the edge of the gathered crowd. On the bed of each truck was a mounted machine gun, manned by some desperate looking thugs. Armed gangers jumped out of the passenger sides, their rifles cocked for violence.
The largest, and healthiest thug raised his rifle in the air, and fired a couple shots. If he hadn’t the crowd’s attention then, now all eyes were on him.
“Give up the food and none o’ ya’s gets hurt!”
The church guards raised their weapons, and pushed forward to their misfortune. Gunfire raked the line of guards, as the heavy machine guns on the trucks tore them apart. Blood splashed on the dusty cobblestones. Citizens caught between spun and fell from the indiscriminate bullets.
“Anyone else?!” the apparent leader of the gang threatened.
A single shot fired and blew a hole through the head of a thug, brains flew out like a bowl of noodles that shattered on the floor.
“Who the fuck!?” the thugs began to scan the crowd more vigilantly.
Soke could smell the gun reside, but when he looked over Opi was already gone and scurrying between peoples’ legs towards the food. He glimpsed the other gobber, as he ran, reload the oversized pistol. Soke decided to duck behind the nearby labourjack, and was glad he did. The thugs seemed to disregard any pretence of civility, and began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Machine gun fire raked across the mob, the air filled with blood and screams.
Panic and fear flooded the city square, people fled in all directions, and trampled over those who had fallen. Some desperate citizens ran for the food, and found themselves transformed to bullet sponges by the gang.
As the crowd quickly thinned from those that began to flee, and those who died, the gang advanced towards their goal. Soke loaded his crossbow, and fired a shot. The bolt managed to find its target, but only stuck into the thug’s knee. His target stumbled, then turned and began to fire in Soke’s direction. The bullets ricocheted and scored the labourjack’s armor.
“Knurd! Get me out of here!” the dwarf was scooped up by the ‘jack, and both ran towards the food palettes. Soke dodged aside, but a few folk were helplessly trampled by the giant machine. The gobber cradled the crossbow in his arms, and followed in the duo’s wake. He almost regretted the decision as machine gun fire raked across the ‘jack’s chassis. Soke deftly leapt over a corpse, and found himself at the foot of one of the palette laden transport. The transport hovered gently about a foot off the ground, with its proximity Soke could hear the strained hum of its core that provided energy for the propulsion system.
Opi was above, at the top edge of the stacked goods, his hands groped in all directions to grab items and stuff them into his pack. Soke picked up a tin container, a golden, viscous substance leaked out of a couple neatly punched circular bullet holes. He dropped the can of cooking oil, and turned his attention back to the threat at hand.
The transport track rumbled, and jerked to a slow start. It began to pick up speed directly towards one of the gang’s idled trucks. On the truck-bed the gunner swung his machine gun to the approaching vehicle, and opened fire. The bullets riddled the machine, and the food it carried, with holes. The spatter of bullets was successful, and the track slowed to a stop a couple meters shy of the jeep. Now the food was in easy reach of the thugs.
Soke had chased after the runaway vehicle, worried for his partner’s safety. The other gobber had vanished from view. Soke extended his hand, bright runes glowed on his flesh then shed off like dead, dry skin. The alien characters swirled around his wrist before they blinked away. At the head of the track a contained hurricane of air lifted the contents of a spilt bag of flour, and created a blinding fog of white dust.
He emerged from the cloud unaffected by his creation, dagger in hand. Soke easily slipped behind one of the thugs, and buried the dagger into his target’s side. The violent exit of the blade sprayed blood onto the flour dusted ground. Red dough soon caked the ground where the thug fell. Soke turned to the truck behind him. The truck’s gunner had not stopped firing at the crowd of fleeing people.Two throwing knives flew from the thinning crowd, and studded the gunner standing on the jeep’s bed. She slumped down, one hand still ruthlessly clutched to the mounted gun.
Soke slid through the truck’s open window, and into the abandoned driver’s seat. The key was still in the ignition. He turned the key, and the truck engine growled energetically. Soke slid down the driver’s seat until he could touch the gas pedal. Though he could no longer see over the steering wheel, Soke hit the gas.
The truck lurched into motion, and quickly picked up speed. Things bumped off the truck’s body, by the sounds the things must have been people. The vehicle crashed into something, Soke’s head bounced off the wheel. He held onto the part that was struck, and lifted himself to look out of the vehicle. Just ahead, pinned between the jeep and a burning pallette was one of the thugs. The thug struggled fruitlessly against the jeep, his efforts were short lived as a halberd scythed through the air and cleanly severed his head.
Blood dripped from the halberd as it pulled back. Soke could see that the weapon was well used by how the gore was layered, blood had already congealed on its path down the haft. The weapon’s owner was none other than the city guardsman, in finely detailed armour, who had interrupted a row between the dwarven ‘jack owner, and the street girl. Halberd in hand, the guardsman, who moved with surprising speed, had already wheeled onto his next target.
Soke peeked out the window, and managed to spot Opi. The other gobber looked panicked, wide eyed with his oversized pistol in one hand, and the other arm wrapped around a parcel of food.
“Opi, get in here!”
Opi looked both ways before diving into the truck. His round face now had a dim smile on it.
The rotund gobber threw his pack in through the passenger window, and then followed it in.
“Take the pedals, I got the wheel,” Soke instructed. Opi slid into the pedal space, and looked up to Soke who stood on the driver’s seat, hands tightly gripping the wheel.
“Those gangers are running away, that’s our exit too.”
Soke steered the truck, and ordered Opi to slow down.
“Hey Hero!” He called out to the city guard who had fought most of the thugs, “You need a lift?”
The guard walked up, looked at the two gobbers, the loot in the back, and then eyed them both with a deep criticism.
“Are you going to distribute that?” the guard motioned to the items in the bed of the truck.
Soke gave what he thought was his most convincing smile.
“Of course! That’s Opi n’ me; perfect pictures of generosity.”
It did not seem to matter whether the guard believed him or not, because before Soke could react the man poked his halberd through the front tire. Soke’s hopes of cashing out with the truck’s bounty deflated with the tire.
As the guard moved on, Soke and Opi leapt out of the truck to salvage what loot they could from the bed of the truck.
“I got an idea, Opi, follow my lead.”
Soke trundled over towards the dwarf who was fussing over his labourjack.
“Hey buddy, nice haul you got there.”
They looked at each other for a moment, Soke felt something tickle in the back of his mind that told him he knew the dwarf from somewhere. The dwarf’s expression reflected a similar expression that people get when confronted with a face they vaguely remember.
“Name’s Soke, and this here is my partner Opi. I noticed yer a mechanic. Well, we’re good workers, me n’ Opi. Don’t need much, food and board, and we’ll sleep on the shop floor, not picky where we sleep.”
“No! Absolutely not! Toby And Sons will have nothing to do with any sort of thieves!”
Soke laughed the presumption aside, “You’ll find none of that from us, you have my word.”
The dwarf grunted, and guided his ‘jack down the road, away from the slaughter. Soke refused to surrender, and followed. Though his mind was elsewhere: who had seen him cast a spell, and why were both the dwarf and city guard strangely familiar.
The five children bounded out of the cave, intent on finding the objects that the dead woman lost. A few kilometres away they discovered the first object: the ivory comb. Penny grabbed it, and she screamed in shock as the comb burned her hand. Despite the pain she held on, and even displayed it to the others in a heroic flourish.
“That’s it?” one of the gobber’s said in an incredulous voice.
“Yes!!” the girl exclaimed.
“Let’s hurry and find the rest ‘fore it gets dark,” said the dwarven boy “Nana hates us late for supper.”
“A comb? How will we know it’s yours than any other garbage comb out there?” asked one of the children.
“Oh. Trust me, my child.” the ghastly apparition caressed the air between her and the children. Each one felt the faint touch of a hand on their cheek.
“You will know. You will know.”