Freelancer Mel searched the plate of chewed bones in front of her for any that still had meat left on them, and scrunched her nose. The heady mix of burnt plastic, boiled bones, tabac, ember lamps and bleach did nothing for her already poor appetite. Her cards lay face down on the table whilst others guarded theirs in their hands. The turn had gone and come ‘round the table. She picked a card in front of her and played it without looking, then leaned on her elbow, plucking a morsel from the pile.
“They’re a little dry,” she said and nodded her chin at the remains of a grabbit, sucking the scraps of meat off a slim bone.
Lucky Jak frowned at her grey, bland-looking meal.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat in public.” Jak said and turned himself towards her for better listening. Mel wished he hadn’t. She fought the urge to angle a sharp shoulder at Jak and cringing lightly as if expecting a blow. Lots of things she couldn’t do without paying in pain for it anymore, and when the body was mute, one had to do the talking with her words. She’d been playing it over in her head how she’d break the news of her prank with cool, and how she’d be rewarded with laughs, but it was suddenly hard to not see herself as a bored child driven to petty mischief out of boredom and resentment. Lately she’d taken to hobbling to the launch bay to watch javelins take off, secretly hoping that the lancers’ suits wouldn’t pass flight check. Kissing those contracts good-bye, pestering fellow freelancers for free drinks later in the evening. Many a Freelancer grounded with injury or a broken suit became a plastered fixture at Max’s.
“I just think there’s poetry in it,” Mel said and watched Rythe fold to the jeers of everybody else. “Falco hunting grabbits.” Mere minutes after Falco had folded and scooted, gossip about the mess in the cargo bay had reached Brin’s station. Sentinels were fierce gossips.
“Swear you cannot bring a single shipment of grabbits into Fort Tarsis without someone fingering the locks for fun,” Jak said and played another card. Mel followed suit. They watched other players, studied the table to catch up for a bit.
“I know what they brought these grabbits here for,” Mel spoke again. “They even hired me to survey the water table under the fort for this shit.”
“Hired… you. To survey the water table. Sure.” Jak said.
“You said something about a freelancer having to have skills other than…,” she nodded at Rythe who’d sidled up to Freelancer Archie to loudly offer advice. …Killing, Mel wanted to say, but the word lingered bitterly on her tongue. She’d begun to understand, she thought. When bombing your problems to death is no longer on the table, the language of gunfire frightened rather than reassured, and for each crowd that cheered at the outlaw trophies lancers like Rythe threw on the market cobblestones there was a family who anxiously put their ear to the ground to learn if there was a funeral in absentia to be held for someone they still loved, outlaw or no. Not all left for outlaws because they wanted to. Not all were even adults. Jak prodded her gently, then pulled the corner of his mouth into a small smile with his finger. Mel shook the frown from her face, then drank her snap, grateful for the distraction of its bite.
“So wait, I don’t get it. What exactly happened, where’s Kelly?” Jak asked.
“Kelly,” Mel said and leaned back in her chair. “Kelly is chasing grabbits down in the cargo bay that somehow got loose from their cages.”
Jak sighed. “Oh, Sayrna,” Jak said, pressing the conversation. “Always a bleeding heart for the critters, eh.”
“Who?” Mel said, pushed her plate away, and picked up her cards to refresh memory, then played another card.
“You know, the little regulator that you made cry? The animal activist?”
“Oh, her,” Mel said. “No. Me, man.”
Jak’s expression dropped and he slumped back in his chair. Jak always had lots of words to say for others, but with Mel he talked in gestures. Mirroring, he’d called it when she’d pointed it out once. Key to a comfortable conversation and happy spirits.
“But why?” Jak asked, drank from his nearly empty cup, and shook his head.
Mel sighed, hesitated, and then looked Lucky Jak in the eye.
“Look. I’m broke. My suit’s gone and I can’t fly for another month. All I’ve got is those caves and I only got a third upfront. I need the money, Jak. Falco’s out there chasing grabbits, while I’m here at the table making money that he ain’t. Simple,” she said, and wiped spit from the slack corner of her mouth, then fished around in her pockets for eyedrops. Some fussing about shrug off the keen sting of her oversharing, and perhaps darker reasons she’d hoped Jak wouldn’t prod for, because she was slightly drunk, and the bindings that held her heart’s storm at bay barely held. She would tell, and go to sleep and wake up in the morning, cursing herself for running her mouth.
“Besides, I got a free meal out of it, and now with the shipment tampered with, they can’t conduct the release. Means I’ll be kept on the payroll a while longer.”
That’s what she told herself. She knew they’d end the contract the moment the work required of her was done, and it was. Who knows why she really did it. Boredom? Malice? Frustration at the idleness in the prison of her broken bones and torn muscles, the foulness at the back of her throat when she had to listen to the other freelancers doing her job, clinking cups to their success and glory? Grace and patience, she told herself. The sheer joy some of the lancers around the table derived from killing those who’d fallen through the cracks of a failing government made her stomach turn. Grace and patience to not pull her pistol and whip it across Rythe’s loud mouth. Grace and patience to believe that all it was, was concern for the people and the desire to save them, and not envy, the shameful thrill of the kill, calling for the dawn to lend light and legitimacy as they cut their bloody path through people to follow their dead general to their tombs.
Jak folded, and waved off jeers from the other, flashing a rude gesture at Rythe when she patted the table at her side and beckoned him to join the ‘dunce row’.
“So,” Jak continued.
Mel drew a sharp breath and let her head drop forward, grimacing at the pain that shot through her neck and bloomed into her shoulders, then down her arms.
“What, Jak?” she asked with a strangled voice.
“So this is what you do these days? Sulk in the caves, commit bioterrorism?”
“And drink,” Mel offered helpfully, and raised her glass to her lips, drinking deeper than before. “I can’t fly, I can’t earn coin, I’m in pain and I am bored, so now I drink.”
“Attagirl, that’s a start,” Jak said. “You tell me all about it, yeah? See between us if we can’t find a solution that doesn’t involve chaos. Look, mate, you need to start telling someone, talk when something’s wrong, that way we can fix it, the last thing we need is something festering just because you’re too proud to ask. Help me, help you, because you bet I’ll be looking at angry Arcanists and a mess of numbers in my own papers three days from now because of your fucking about.”
Mel looked at Jak. He didn’t look angry. Exasperated, rather, and somehow compassionate.
“Eat my ass,” Mel replied flatly, and dove into the dregs of her cup, drink dribbling down the bad side of her face.
“You don’t have one, twiggy,” Jak shot back. “But I know someone who can get you one for free. Anyway,” Jak said and looked around, over the remaining players’ heads.
“Kelly should be back soon. Put enough grabbits in one place and the rest will follow, how hard can it be?”
“He won’t be back,” she muttered.
She pushed the plate full of bones aside and leaned on her elbows, comforted by the numbness the snap had cast over her, then tapped the side of the grabbit plate to draw Jak’s attention to it.
“I told you I was broke. I wasn’t being funny.”
Jak leaned his chin on his hands in silence, blinking harshly.
“Drunk, assless, broke, and breaking the law. A touch unhealthy, don’t you think?” Jak said.
Mel wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Heard a glass of snap every hour keeps cancer at bay,” she said, then looked around at each member of the team, and leaned back in her chair, the good side of her face pulling into a sneer.
“Doesn’t seem to be working, though. I’m folding.” She picked up her cards and tossed them all at Jak, those still playing raising their eyes at her, then shrugging before hunkering down again in their bitter, drawn-out battle against other for enough gold to feed someone for a week. She pushed up, grabbing onto the edge of the table for balance as she reached for her crutches.
“You’re not coming to the courtyard?” Jak asked. He’d gotten up too, hand out, ready to grab her should she fall.
“Killjoy Mel,” Jak sighed, took her cards and shuffled them back into the pile, then sat down again.
“Lucky Jak,” she acknowledged, awkwardly put both crutches in one hand, fingers straining to grasp both handles, and picked up her drink to take with, refilling it messily before she went.
She heard no scraping of chairs on the floor, or good-byes from anybody else as she pushed through the ornate carpets that hung about Brin’s station and hobbled into the night’s chill. Most of the time she didn’t mind. There was a lot a woman could do when spared from the spotlight that now burned Freelancer Kelly Falco, him who made it to the end when other freelancers dropped one after another, whether battered by the winds or by bullets or choosing to stay behind to hold off waves of Dominion or be picked up like toys by the Monitor, hatch and thrusters pried and broken off their backs, body pulled out of the suit like a snail from its shell.
She sighed, and prepared for the stairs ahead of her, one step at a time, grimacing from the jolts of pain. Sometimes she wondered what it was that made her disappear from people’s minds like that. Was a freelancer nothing without a javelin? Was it the particles of the winds punching through her every cell, every molecule for those cursed twenty minutes she’d crawled, exposed to the relic’s rage? Was it just the night and the ordinary joys people sought in it, putting inconveniences from their mind?
For all the blessed safety of the twilight, sometimes it still hurt that when the dawn came upon them, it always shone right through her, and it seemed that she’d become so insubstantial, so immaterial that she didn’t even cast a shadow.
She dropped a crutch, startled by something that exploded somewhere nearby, but when the noise was followed by whoops and laughter, she relaxed, and drank until her cup was empty, and loosened her shawl that covered the semi-flexible brace fitted over her chest and upper arms to prevent excess movement. She no longer felt the cold, maybe it was the drink, maybe it was the pain medicine, maybe both, and she’d spend her year’s last night hooked to a stomach pump. Maybe they’d find her frozen corpse in a pool of her own sick in some back alley between crates of coal and firewood for the homes. Whatever. Her head swam too much to attempt picking up the crutch, so she hobbled along, and left the fallen crutch to gods’ care.
The main street was filling with people. Nauseating smells wafted from the busy food stands, lights from the hanging lanterns becoming a dizzying blur of motes as she swiveled her head to look for gaps in the mass of people. She trudged forward, shoulders hitting others. Each gentle blow sent a shock of pain down her arms, cracking through the dullness of drink and sourcane, beating reality back into her like gods’ hands clay to begin shaping her, from pond scum at the bottom of dark waters to a woman, material, visible, impossible to ignore.
Someone rushed past her, slamming hard into her right shoulder. She grasped at the clothes of those in front of her, but the pain weakened her grip, and displeased voices rose. She felt someone’s arm grasp her fingers and pry them loose, and then she fell, landing hard on her knees. They were well-bound and padded for the fear of falling knocking the joint loose, breaking healing tendons, but though it kept the leg together, it did nothing for the surging pain that knocked the breath out of her. She swallowed hard to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged.
A widening circle was forming around her, she people’s feet turning on her heels, boot toes now pointing at her, and retreating. She groaned and pushed up enough to settle on her heels to gather some sense of up and down before attempting to rise. She heard no laughter or scowling derision, most just stared, their own drinks in hand, unsure of what to do, whispering to a friend, eyes never leaving her.
She tried rising, but her knees and hip protested, and she fell sideways and onto her elbow, dry heaving from the pain that cut through.
“I can’t get up,” she said. No one moved, some shuffled their feet, mumbling something that disappeared into the noises of the further crowd.
“I can’t get up,” she said more insistently, looking up, tone now pleading, rising, thin and reedy.
Suddenly she heard noises from behind her, and from the corner of her eye she saw the crowd parting, and familiar heavy, uneven steps approaching.
“Hold my shit,” she heard Haluk bark at some bystander. Someone dropped something nearby that shattered on impact.
“So broke you’re eating cobblestones now?” she heard her ask loudly enough for everybody to hear, and bring levity to the humiliating scene, then pinned her arms to her side and lifted her back to her feet with ease, holding on until she’d gathered her footing. She stared, stunned.
“How many of me are there?” Haluk asked. She looked down at him, and blinked as the bogfisher merrily seemed to engage in mitosis.
“A few,” she managed flatly as Haluk bent down to gather her fallen crutch, then collected his cane and the second crutch from a someone who whore freelancer symbols, but whom she didn’t recognise. The crow lost interest and turned away, the circle they’d formed around her collapsing unto itself.
“Don’t leave your shit around,” Haluk said amiably, shoving her two crutches at her, hands hovering about her as she awkwardly tucked them under each elbow until he was sure she didn’t kiss the pavement again.
“What do you want?” she slurred.
“To extend an invitation!” he said, and pointed to an opening in the crowd that snaked towards the direction of the strider bay. “To a gathering of cripples, drunks…” he paused to study her. She wished she could wipe her chin. She couldn’t feel the spittle on it, but she knew it was there, always leaking out of the slack, unmoving corner of her mouth. “…Crippled drunks.”
“Really,” she replied, and turned, leaning fully into the crutches. Four legs were difficult to manage when hammered, but a show of fragility for anyone who was still watching seemed like a good idea if only to save face.
“I was on a food run. Saw your crutch, figured you were at Brin’s, Jak told me you’d just left, so I went looking,” Haluk said, then cocked his head at a nearby kabob stall, taking point to muscle through the milling crowd in front of it, tapping strangers’ shins with his cane just enough to get grumbling people to scoot, but not escalate into a fight.
She stood back, grateful for the biting, sobering cold air, and watched the freelancer lay out his order, and the cook’s expression sour at the magnitude of the request at this busy hour, until Haluk pointed at the cooling treats on the back rack to placate the man. He didn’t need sizzling fresh food, he needed just enough to keep a gang on drunk people sated and going. The cook nodded, and began collecting everything on the burner to roll them up in paper before sighing, and reaching under the counter for a basket, then filling it to the brim.
It all took a while. The caves below Fort Tarsis, deep and damp and far away from the noises, called. She was too drunk to work, but the best she could do now to prevent further humiliation and avoid lectures on responsibility, and pitying eyes from those she’d spilled her troubles upon was to simply disappear. Once she hadn’t been shy with asking for help, but that was when help was extended freely, and the many failures of the Freelancers had not yet cast clouds over the rising sun whose light they so liked to clothe themselves in. She’d been breaking her toes and knuckles against closed doors for two wretched years, busting doors from hinges, dragging grieving, despondent people from their homes and putting them to work. It was demeaning. It had to be done, but nobody loved her for it, that she knew from the chicory vines the vandals of Fort Tarsis had wrapped around her Colossus before the flight that had rendered her crippled and grounded.
She stared at Haluk arguing with the stallkeeper who had emerged to angrily take the filled basket from the unhappy cook and order him to get back to the grill. He was talking with his free hand as loudly as he did with his voice, but the stallkeeper matched his tone in both, unrelenting. She looked away and wiped the spit from her chin, thought for a moment, then turned around, swaying unsteadily, crutches slipping on the frosted cobblestones. She began pushing her way through the crowd towards the safe dark of the back streets. Some complained, some made way without saying anything, some said ‘sorry’. She’d almost made it to the junction when freelancer Kelly slammed into her. The dense crowd stopped her momentum, and though she didn’t fall, she felt Kelly’s fingers grasp her arm and yank her upward, each motion followed by a pang of more pain.
“Kelly!” she exclaimed more chipperly than she wished. “Got the grabbits?” she asked, then froze, realising her mistake.
Freelancer Kelly cocked his eyebrows. “How do you know about the grabbits?”
“Sentinel gossip, man,” she said and forced a smile. “Going back to Brin’s?” she continued, speaking too quickly, words melting into unintelligible letter soup.
She caught Kelly’s puzzled look, then rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“What’s up? Why’d you leave Brin’s?” Kelly shouted up at her as she tried, at some painful cost, to bend a little to catch his words.
“I uh…” she started, then heard Haluk calling from behind her. “That,” she finished.
“Rookie!” Haluk greeted, a new, much smaller basket filled with some skewered meat and cheap wine hanging from his arm.
“Lost a fight?” Mel said, driving conversation away from grabbits and Brin’s.
“Eh, it was bound to happen, it’s been months, your names ain’t worth as much as they were before.”
Kelly burst into laughter bright laughter. Mel’s gaze bounced between the two.
“…that was an option?” Mel asked, stomach sinking a little.
“What, getting free shit by dropping your names? Y– yeah?” Haluk replied. “You didn’t know?”
She stared down at both Kelly and Haluk.
“….no??” she said.
“I did not raise her right,” Haluk said to Kelly and shook his head.
“You’re not my mother,” she mumbled as she watched Haluk let Kelly pick three skewers from the basket, then smacking Kelly’s fingers when he tried to go for a bottle.
“Yes, I am.” Haluk said blithely. He turned back to Kelly and leaned in, saying something to him that she couldn’t hear. Kelly nodded, glancing at her.
Suddenly they exchanged their good-byes. Kelly disappeared into the crowd with his skewers of meat as abruptly as he’d arrived, giving her only a gentle pat on the arm for a farewell and a quizzical smile to go with it.
“What did you tell him?” Mel asked when she no could make his head out of those of others in the crowd.
“Later,” Haluk said simply, and motioned her to follow, offering her a skewer from the basket, then rolled his eyes when she shook her head.
The strider bay was alive with celebrants too, but there was space to breathe, soft but chill wind blew more freely here, playing with hair and loose scarves, getting caught in the swathes of colourful fabrics draped over the docked striders. Wealthier striders wore crowns and vines of crystal lights in their bulb, those less fortunate dangled copper lanterns with live fire. The Shitmobile, sitting snugly on the ground with its legs snugly folded, had a bit of both, with crystal bulbs surrounding the hatch, and copper lanterns of all sizes swinging gently from the sides of its massive hammerhead. She noticed some of the lanterns being dark. Gone out, or maybe never lit. She wouldn’t put such sentimentality past the strider jockey banging at the latch, bellowing for those inside to let them in.
The hatch lurched, and opened to reveal the small javelin bay, meant to house four, with a repair station at the center. She climbed the hatch that had lowered itself into a ramp. Only two of the stations were filled. Before Mel could focus her eyes, she heard Haluk’s cane tap against her crutch.
“That-a-ways,” he said to her, nodding towards the general direction of where she remembered the kitchen area to be. Voices filled the strider’s belly, many of them, conversation and occasional dry laughter.
Getting to the kitchen was a struggle. Every inch of the limited space of the Strider was used, full of steps, shelves, storage areas, and now with many visitors, clutter. Overclothes, bags, thick cords torn loose from snapped zip ties, now a threat to even the surest of steps. The closer they got to the source of the voices, the more she lagged behind, throwing up apologetic glances and deformed half-smiles as she fumbled in the narrow spaces. A familiar phantom smell of bleach hung in the air. It always did in this strider, ever since she returned to it for the first time after abandoning it, and its denizens, to their obsession, damage and grief.
“Caught a fish!” she heard Haluk declare ahead and presenting her with a broad gesture. Her stomach lurched. With the smell and the warmth of the strider’s guts, her nausea returned. She stepped into the stream of light bleeding out of the kitchen.
Around the kitchen table sat some six people. Most she knew, one was a stranger.
“A friend from Fortuo,” Haluk said helpfully when she’d neglected to greet the table. “Friend from Fortuo, this is freelancer Mel, my favourite traitor in all the world,” Haluk continued. “Give me a moment, I need to feed these guys,” he said and walked to the table, then set the basket with the drinks and the now-cold kabob skewers on it.
“Dine, you fucking beasts,” Haluk said. “Do not point that stick at me, or it goes straight into your eyeball,” he followed up with, and hung his cane off a nearby handrail by the handle.
Mel looked at the offender. Jani. She caught her glance, and they shared a nod. Jani seemed drunk, but sat relaxed, drink in hand, the usually prominent furrows between her brows smoothed, picking at her teeth with the sharp end of the skewer that still had meat on it, laughing. There was a small javelin figurine in front of her, laying on its face, a fallen soldier. The smell of bleach seemed to fade a bit, and other smells entered the bouquet. Impending hangovers, food. Fresh grease clinging to the char on the grill. Body odour and sour farts, traces of bass notes of perfume on those who bothered with hygiene and beauty, all mixing with bleach. The Friend from Fortuo paid her no mind. His hand hovered above a game board, figurine between fingers by the head. Faye sat at the other end of the table, hands wrapped around a cup of something steaming, with no figurine of her own at all. A cypher in a game of bluffing and storytelling quickly sucked the joy out of the game for those not blessed with a cypher’s perception. Maybe that’s why Faye liked tapes with their disembodied voices, pre-recorded stories. There was no person there to read.
Next to her sat freelancer Griffin, somewhat apprehensive, with her javelin figurine on the board as well as an entire collection of accumulated miniature weapons, artifacts and and even a relic in front of her, a veritable treasure for those who knew the game. Before Mel could identify others, Haluk turned her gently by the shoulder back towards the strider bay.
“Come. Let’s go see your new toy.”
Mel let herself be shoved about without protesting, too drunk and tired to fight the veteran freelancer’s boundless energy. The place was far from any kind of home, the imprint the shapes within the strider had left on her memory still collected the bitter mold of unease and resentment, and the further they moved from the lively, though mellow company in the kitchen, the stronger the smell of bleach grew again, though this time she wasn’t sure if it wasn’t the real thing. Faye had been complaining about the stink of mold, ember, metal dust and rancid food in the bay bleeding into the rest of the strider for a while now.
She stopped just short of the platform leading up to the center station, and looked up at the tarp-covered javelin. She felt heat climb up her neck and palms grow sweaty. She knew what it was, and suddenly didn’t know what to think. Some days she’d been aching to get back into her suit, to see what it’d look like rebuilt and perfected. Now, though, when she watched Haluk climb onto the platform and close his fists around the edge of the tarp, her hand twitched in the air to stop him. Her crutch clattered onto the floor. Chatter in the kitchen quieted for a moment at the noise, but resumed quickly. Mel stared at Haluk, closed her fingers, then shoved her hand between the waist of her trousers. She looked at the crutch.
“Yeah, I’m not bending down for that,” she muttered, voice gritty from the frost and the abuse of hard snap.
“You’ll drop the other one too when you see it,” Haluk replied cheerfully, then, with one powerful move, pulled the tarp off the javelin and let it fall aside. He stood back, hands on hips, beaming up at the Colossus.
Mel stared at the colossus’ feet, that was as far as she got. New dread sat like weights on her chest. It dawned on her how comforting the excuse of a broken javelin had been for the past few months. Can’t fly, no suit. Looking at it meant acknowledging it, and what she may have lost. She remembered something like this from the past, wading through the shallows in tall rubber boots, fish by the gills in one hand, a fishgig in the other finding a floating foot in the reeds with a familiar sandal strapped to it, noticing a body floating, face down, further down the shore, knowing who it was by the clothes, but hoping that if she didn’t look too closely, it would not become a new reality. The very existence of this rebuilt javelin taunted her for her slow mending, hung by the door, one foot out to a future where she would not be able to follow.
“I’m not hearing any clattering, kid,” he said, eyeing his work up and down proudly.
She held on to her crutch and leaned her forehead against cool wood, gaze nailed on the Colossus’ feet.
“I need to sit down for a moment,” she said in a strangled voice, and heaved herself towards the hard bench nearby. She grasped the crutch with both hands, leaned her forehead against it, and closed her eye, then looked up so that she wouldn’t have to see through the other eye that never closed. She heard Haluk’s uneven, heavy footfalls descend the platform, and approach. The bench groaned under their combined weight. Haluk sighed.
“Not the reaction I was expecting, but hey, we can work on it.”
She turned her head just a little, forehead still resting against where her hands grasped the crutch, and opened her eye to look at him.
“What happens if I can’t fly it?” she asked quietly. “What if—”
“—you become like me,” Haluk interrupted. Mel cringed. Directness felt like a whip when turned around on her. “No. For that you’d have to put a few decades of work in.”
“You’ll be fine,” he continued. “Why and for how long are the real questions here.” Suddenly his tone was dark and tired.
“Your inspiring speeches used to be better,” Mel snapped.
“I used to see less,” Haluk replied simply. “Listen,” he said simply, and pointed at the kitchen where someone whooped, and someone groaned. Another little toy javelin cast to the margins of the board.
“You don’t really see them from high up in the air. We’re all very good at putting our fear in boxes, and those boxes are very large. When you come down though, and can’t get high on the sky again, that’s when you see. Boxes upon boxes full of fear, all stacked up along our walls until you’re bound to bump into a stack and it all comes crashing down.” Haluk searched his pockets until he found what he was looking for. A medium-sized flask. He twisted the stopper a little, but didn’t open it.
“You can fly only for so long, but on the ground there’s nothing to distract you. You can get drunk at your local watering hole, and most do. Those who don’t, they find other ways, but there will be a time when you have to deal with your shit, and then you don’t know how. Everybody cautions cyphers to not lose themselves to the anthem. Nobody warns a freelancer. A freelancer can go through a lot before throwing themselves off the wall without a suit.”
Mel closed her eyes again, focusing on the voices from the kitchen.
“When I came to the fort after I left the strider… about a year in, I think. You weren’t here so you didn’t see it. Sentinels just stopped going down to recover fallen bodies along the wall. Outlaws stripped the bodies of clothes and valuables, and then the wolven came and took the rest. It rains a lot, but if you go down and circle the fort, you can still find bones and rags. I’ve had Pirndel organize recovery efforts now that people are coming back, but you don’t have to look hard to find more,” she said. “It got better after a few months, but it felt like the moment the first few jumped, many others followed. Not everybody could afford to leave for Antium.”
Those had been horrid days. Just as she’d begun to feel that she’d managed to stop Fort Tarsis’ bleeding, flying out every day, pouring earned coin into infrastructure, ailing families of lost freelancers, public celebrations, people started dying. The enclaves of the fort’s Sentinels closed its grand doors and moved to smaller, vacant buildings. Brin’s tarp-covered corner that now boasted joy, creation, greenery and good time was a remnant of those days. Freelancers’ enclave stood open, but the vast empty spaces where lancers once milled got filled with just stuff. Storage. And the more people died or left, the less she’d been able to earn, and connections that she’d cultivated disappeared either back to the anthem itself, or closed their doors to her and this death-filled, unprofitable hellhole that Fort Tarsis had become.
“I know a thing about fear in a box. Doesn’t mean I need to be a part of your band of broken birds.” She leaned away from the crutch and stared Haluk in the eye, suddenly feeling sober, and spoiling for a fight. She’d heard enough assumptions about herself this night, and suffered enough pitying looks. The brief descent into memory carried the stink of bleach with it.
Haluk smiled. “You can’t even look at your javelin,” he said.
“Can you look at yours?” she fired back. “That your boy under the tarp in that corner over there?” She cocked her head towards the only other javelin in the bay.
“Careful now,” Haluk said, worrying at the stopper of his flask.
“You don’t know me.” She began to rise.
“Sit down,” Haluk ordered. She looked at him, breathing shallowly.
“Don’t raise your voice at me,” she said, but remained seated, pressing elbows against her sides until it hurt. Haluk twisted the metal stopper off the flask and drank, grimacing at the sting of its bitter contents.
“We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you. How’s life treated you since the Rage, huh?” Haluk continued. She didn’t answer.
“Yeah,” he said, attempting to contain his own temper. “See. Yeah. Nobody likes being reminded that there’s flesh inside all that metal, that there’s a cost to it all. Kills the freelancer magic, you know. People don’t know what to do with a broken freelancer. Everybody knows what we do is dangerous, but the dead make for better stories than the faded living.” He drank again. Mel looked at the flask.
“Share,” she said, nodding at the drink.
“Nuh-uh. You’re too drunk and I’m not drunk enough for this, and it’s all as unpleasant to me as it is to you. Wait your turn.”
“Haluk, putting aside pride and talking smack about freelancer magic. Never thought I’d see the day,” she said and laughed sourly.
“Yup. Things look a little different from beyond the veil,” Haluk replied and rolled his shoulders, relaxing. She felt a pang of guilt. He wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t want to hear any of this, not from him. Anybody but him, adding that last log to the pyre of what she’d secretly hoped that Freelancers still were, could be. Untouchable by the worries, burdens and fragility of the common people on the ground.
“Truth told, it keeps me busy,” he continued. “Without it, most days, it’s just sitting around with my thumbs up my ass, can’t do anything, one half is too scared and struck to get a word out around me, the other half can’t shut the fuck up, and neither know much about what to do with a ground-bound freelancer who didn’t have the good sense to die young and glorious.”
“I’m sorry,” Mel heard herself say, as if from far away. She looked away, and finally, at the colossus, standing empty and idle in the center of the repair platform, surrounded by parts not yet attached, and once her gaze landed, she couldn’t look away. Silence stretched in the javelin bay, even the noises from the kitchen seemed to silence to honour the moment.
“A relic,” she said. “In need of silencing. That’s what a freelancer who can’t fly is. Milling about without purpose. Remnant of something great, now a destructive burden that needs to be put down.” The javelin wasn’t a beauty, no marvel of design like some of the decorated Interceptors and Storms. It was a chimaera, old and new, cobbled together expertly from parts of multiple javelins. She saw pieces salvaged from her old Colossus that she left in the ruins of Freemark, recovered by the same teams that finally brought home the bodies of the fallen twenty three Freelancers. It seemed puny compared to her old destroyed Colossus, and naked. All pieces of armour, attached or not, were stripped of paint. It had core, and boasted a proud posture, but it wasn’t ready yet, for anything. It waited.
“Something like that, yeah,” she heard Haluk say quietly, and drink. Then she felt a tap at her thigh, and looked down at the offered flask.
“Nasty foot juice?” she asked.
“Yeah. Drink at your own peril. You’re not gonna feel great tomorrow.”
“I think I’m long past that point,” she said and accepted the flask. It tasted every bit as vile as she remembered, but the fumes immediately stopped that which had begun to turn into a headache.
“Look. I spent years getting people to buy into Freelancer glory, dying for that glory was just part and parcel of the job. I believed it all, and honestly I’d much rather take to the skies and shoot at something until I’m smiling. But I can’t. So if I surround myself with ‘broken birds’ as you put it, then it’s because no one else fucking will. There needs to be a place for those stuck in the after. Some kind of… something. Get food and shelter and some dignity who can no longer work. Some comfort and hope, and a new purpose. Maybe write a new Freelancer handbook on it.” Haluk pulled the tie from his hair and raked his fingers through it, looking frazzled. Suddenly a string of explosions went off somewhere outside, but the thick walls of the strider muffled the clap of the fireworks. The first hour of the new year had finally arrived, as more explosions followed – a tradition to light flames in the hearts of the fort’s citizens, and to intimidate those outside the walls. They listened in silence, working through the flask’s contents, Mel in tiny, prudent sips, Haluk in greedy mouthfuls until it was empty.
“Oof. Strong stuff,” Haluk said as he turned the flask upside down and let the last drops fall on the floor. Then he turned to Mel and flashed a broad smile. “Just like me. So what will we do with her colours?” he asked and nodded at the Colossus.
“Oh.. mm.” Mel blinked furiously as her vision doubled. She didn’t mind. Some drinks went to the wrong place, made her head hurt. Haluk’s Nasty Foot Juice lived up to its revolting name, but it was clean, it cut right through. She was almost certain the man liked to lace it with something not entirely legal.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never had my colours. I don’t know. I don’t care. You think of something. I want a fish on it.”
“A picture of a fish, on the forehead, like. You can take a bogfisher out of the Mirelands but–”
“–the waters follow wherever they go,” Haluk finished. “Alright, kid. Enough of sitting around, I’m drunk, which means I’m hungry, and all this talk is killing the festive mood.” He clapped his hands down on his legs and pushed off the bench, steadying himself on the handrails that ran through the strider. She noticed him shift the weight off his busted leg, stretching and bending it to soothe stiffness and pain.
“Killjoy Mel,” Mel said under her breath.
“What’s that now?” Haluk asked loudly. She shook her head.
“That’s what I was told. I’m Killjoy Mel.” She didn’t rise. What brief relief and levity the long talk and drinking had brought vanished as the memory of the night’s interactions and unsolved problems emerged.
“Who said?” Haluk barked, squaring up.
“I don’t tattle.”
“Yeah, you fucking do,” Haluk rolled his eyes. “Spill.”
“Jak. He called me ‘Killjoy Mel’ earlier.” She couldn’t tell if it was the drink, or an innocent joke had really wounded her more than she liked.
“Huh. Maybe Lucky Jak needs an invite to the broken birds club. I can arrange that,” Haluk said, now pacing, looking up and around, getting antsy.
“I can arrange it myself,” Mel said.
“No, you can’t. You’re broke, remember? And you don’t have to. That’s how you know that Jak likes you. He’s got nothing rude to say about people he dislikes, but a lot of shit to talk about friends.” He picked some loose strings off his stupid sweater. Faye had settled for gifting him one after all. Mel shook her head.
“Feels more like now that I can’t fly, shoot, or throw money at people or even walk right, everybody’s getting real bold about mouthing off at me.”
Haluk laughed and patted her on the shoulder. It hurt.
“Nah. That’s just you experiencing regular Tuesday outside of your big ol’ javelin for the first time in a very long while. Now stop sulking, get up, let’s go find something to eat and laugh at the losers in the kitchen.”
Mel refused to rise, feeling her mood grow maudlin again. It felt like the last bit of drink had washed the poison from a wound, but now it was free to bleed amply.
“But if I can’t fly, I cannot work. I can’t even get to myself to a more distant location without a jav. If this is Tuesday, I don’t want it,” she said, fighting back tears. “I can’t not work, man.”
Haluk’s expression softened. “Oh, if only you knew someone who had a strider, free food and a bunk with your name on it, that could take you to any location, and arrange a Freelancer escort for you. Kid, this is what I’m trying to do here, for all of us. Now though, come on. Let’s go join our people, we don’t have to think about any of this today. This night we eat, we celebrate, and drink until we’re—”
“—dead,” Mel interrupted.
“….passing out, and waking up tomorrow wishing we were dead, yes. Now, up, and let’s go find something to eat.”
Mel sat a while, staring at her Colossus through a film of tears. “Okay,” she exhaled, and nodded, less for Haluk and more for herself. “Okay,” she said again, and shifted her weight to rise, seeking support from the nearby handrails. She contemplated the crutches and decided to leave them. If she bent now, she thought, she’d fall. Haluk had gotten very good at brewing nasty foot juice, her head felt like it was full of oil and cotton. Even the pain faded into ambience. It’s not that her body didn’t hurt, it’s just she was too smashed to care. “Okay,” she said a third time in a whisper, and began walking, hand running along the handrail.
It didn’t take long until they’d reached the kitchen. She nodded a hello to those who cared to look at her, and claimed an empty chair between Faye and the Friend from Fortuo, who had not yet volunteered his name. His little javelin was still on the board, as was Griffin’s, but all others had been wiped, lying on sadly on their sides in what was a copper bowl converted into a ‘Freelancer Graveyard’.
Fortuo leaned over.
“Hey,” he said. His voice was clear and sonorous, not at all what she would’ve expected from someone with a face as leathery and worn as his.
“You get the chance to feel out the lining of that big girl of yours?”
“Ah… no,” Mel said.
“Make sure you will, then. Your girl Zoe here in Tarsis is a miracle worker, but she can’t pull materials like mine out of her ass. You give Haluk thanks, won’t you? I mean, anything for those who flew into the Rage and returned successful once and alive twice, but this is the stuff that lines the javelins of the royals, it’s what cushions the ass of the Emperor himself,” Fortuo said, gesturing with his hand in the rhythm of his speech as if conducting a choir.
“The Emperor, huh?” she asked, trying hard to keep words from melting into each other. Fortuo split into two Fortuos, and the whole room spun, though she noted the distinct lack of nausea. Haluk had gotten really good at brewing a perfect batch of nasty foot juice.
“Let’s make acquaintances, then. Pardon the opportunism,” she said, suddenly realising the error she’d made, but Fortuo only laughed.
“Opportunism is how you get old in Bastion,” Fortuo said. “Either way, when you slip into your jav and feel the lining, you will shit. Now excuse me, I’m about to pluck young Griffin over there of her feathers and wear them as a crown.” Fortuo turned away, cracked his knuckles, and picked a card from a thin pile in the center of the table. He read it, and smiled a broad, toothless smile.
The first thing she saw was blinding light. Her right eye felt dry and itchy, but when she tried to search her pockets for the eyedrops, she discovered that she couldn’t move.
The air was cold, she felt it with her nose and ears and lips. When her eyes adjusted to the light, the rest of her surroundings swam into focus.
She was still in the strider, in her bunk. The symbols that spelled her name were still poorly carved into the back of the bunk above hers. Around her the moving panels of the strider’s hull were lifted, revealing the inner cage through which small snowflakes streamed in. The sleeping quarters were freezing. Above her, someone snored her like a foghorn, and when she tried to move, she discovered that she couldn’t. She saw a pile of blankets thrown onto her, and when she felt around her with her hands as much as she could, she realised that someone had rolled her up in a carpet. She was still drunk, and her head hurt a little, though the rest of her was still too numb and loose to register any pain. She struggled, but she was stuck, good and well.
In the kitchen, music played, scratchy and soft from the well-played tapes. She heard people speaking quietly, but couldn’t make out the words or who spoke. Haluk’s bunk was empty, so was Faye’s. On the floor was a mountain of blankets and another carpet haphazardly thrown over it. Someone moved under it, turned and grunted, but didn’t speak or rise.
“Heeeey!” she crowed as loud as she could, voice snagging and breaking on the soreness of her abused vocal cords. She cried out again, until she heard the voices in the kitchen fall quiet, the clank of metal on ceramic plate. Soon, figures appeared in the doorway that she couldn’t fully see from behind her pile of blankets, entering one by one.
Faye and Haluk stood at her bedside, wrapped in wool shawls. Faye had ditched her cypher’s cowl for a soft grey silk wrap, her black leathers for a dove grey, patterned wool shawl that softened her strong features. She was radiant. Mel quickly averted her eyes.
Haluk, standing beside Faye, was a whole different story. He looked miserable, with dark under-eyes, slumped over ever so slightly in the tell-tale posture of someone who was having a very rough morning. He held two cups, both of them steaming. Behind them, Griffin lingered, leaning at the doorway, but keeping her distance.
The pair contemplated the constrained Mel in amused silence.
“How are you doing?” Haluk asked.
“How are you doing?” Mel asked right back. Haluk didn’t answer, but cocked his eyebrows, looked away, and drank from one of the mugs. It smelled of spices, raisins, and and berries.
“Faye. Why am I rolled up in a carpet?” she asked. Faye rested her elbow on her hand, playing with the decorated edge of her silk wrap. She inhaled sharply.
“I was going to ask you that, now that you’re awake and somewhat lucid. I tried to ask you last night, but you just kept demanding you be wrapped up in a blanket like a burrito. I think you even poked Maroun in the eye when we tried putting you to bed,” Faye said with a straight face, fingers still fidgeting. “So, Haluk, Griffin and Maroun went to the strider next door and banged on their hatch at five in the morning,” she said, and gave Haluk a pointed stare, then glared at her again, “to get you a “carpet worthy of a Freelancer”. Haluk rolled you in, and then they dragged you to bed.”
“Who the fuck is Maroun,” Mel muttered, staring up at Faye’s and Haluk’s vague expressions.
“The dude with the jav lining,” Haluk said flatly.
Mel closed her eyes and grimaced. Of course. Had to be him, had to make a fool out of herself in front of the Emperor’s own javelin lining specialist. There goes the money. Again.
“And you,” Mel looked at Haluk again who immediately dipped back into his hair of the dog again. “You thought this was a great idea?”
“Actually I don’t remember anything about any of this,” Haluk rasped into his drink, looking contrite, amused, and nauseated at once.
“What’s in the other mug,” she asked and tried to worm one of her arms out of the carpet to no avail.
“That’s spiced wine,” Faye said. “Haluk said you’re going to need it. I personally advise making good choices and sticking to the water for the d–”
“Get me out of this carpet and give me the fucking drink,” Mel said hoarsely, struggling more aggressively. Haluk set down the other drink on a nightstand next to the bunk bed, but then resumed his place, drinking and staring, swallowing hard, eyes watering. Faye didn’t move either, and Griffin snorted lightly before disappearing back into the kitchen. Faye shook her head and followed. Mel stared until Haluk flashed a broad smile, turned on his heel, and followed the women, leaving her alone with her predicament.
“Yeah, go get fucked, the lot of you,” Mel shouted, voice cracking. “Traitin’ bastards,” she mumbled. The pile of blankets on the floor groaned and said something in a language she couldn’t understand. It sounded a little rude.
She exhaled sharply, and closed her eyes, letting herself feel the phantom sensation of falling and spinning, the cold on her face. Chatter in the kitchen resumed, a laugh was shared, at her expense no doubt. The music kept playing, and the aches in her body and head returned, though only in timid pulses.
She smelled frost, and old dust and moisture in the carpet and blankets around her, and the sweet, inviting notes of the hot wine on the nightstand, so close yet so damned far. And not a trace of the stench of bleach in the air.