She pulled the helmet tight, checking the clasp once more in front of the big metal dome as the cold morning air washed over her. Trains rumbled in and out of the station. Looking up towards the pink dust sky torn by gravity trails travelling south. She knew what lay south. It wasn't hope. She saw a single knotted rope of distortion tearing to the heavens, its frayed bottom torn wide, showing the ascent in the gravitational wake.
The morning shuttle had left. She didn't know when it had gone, but she clearly had missed it. Maybe when she was down in the hole getting the last of her supplies before leaving this place behind.
East-1 was the principal station on this side of the country. Harare served as the deployment point towards the wall and maybe her bridge towards the future. Checking over herself once more before walking through and mixing into the crowd. She felt a duffel bag knock into her back, stumbling forward as she caught herself staring back in anger, crouched, ready to fight.
She saw a gruff figure seven-foot-tall orc shuffle past her with a large duffel bag slung over its shoulder. The orc appeared to pay no attention to her as he wandered into the building. Crossbox secured on his back at a casual slant. The large beastly weapon was probably a pistol to him, but to her, she would have had to hold it with both her hands and brace herself, least the recoil send her small frame flying across the room. In the small of his back, he wore a small bundle of bolts, horizontal in their configuration. They looked small and diminished against this large frame. They were the length of her forearm and the thickness of her thumb. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed a moment of embarrassment before hiking up her bag and continuing. Going forward into the building.
She was good at blending into a crowd, even with her short figure and her mix of unusual clothing. In this audience, she didn't stand out walking just a bit slower behind a group of corporate marines with their fast march and corporate gear. They're all of similar figure and build, uniform in their equipment. Shiny and new. There were a few scuff marks of use and professionalism, but they look like they had all come off the same assembly line. Roughly the same build and figure, all standard human. They marched three by weight in a tight formation, clearing a path in the crowd. She stepped in their wake, lost in the tide.
The domed metal of the train station hub East-1 was noticeable in its construction. Unusual among the oldest style buildings squat brick and tall concrete or the newer prefabs printed shapes. It was a statement piece. Probably one of the last great constructions in the area. A testament to the wall project bent iron bars of unthinkable length bending and forming a gridded dome bubbling from the earth. To her eye, it created a cocoon around the hub. Crystal panes sat in the grid squares directing light. It must have been marvellous with its white stone floor reflecting light. Sharp shadows cast by the ring of pillars dividing the central concourse from the outer wall ringed with shop facades, platforms and ticket booths. Imposing metal frame and clear crystal causing light to refract and reflect brightly off the white stone. An impressive monument to what mankind can achieve.
It was constructed maybe a hundred standard ago though it had experienced something like 300 years real. Dust stains and grime on the crystal barely let the light with a patina of bird shit and caked dust blocking out large sections. The sunlight which hit the white stone showed stained and worn cracked slabs. Replaced haphazardly with off white prefab worn from countless people, walking through the smoked, polluted city. Just uncared for, like most things in this part of the world.
The layout was elegant and functional in its simplicity. The north was a series of train platforms jutting just past the pillars. Fingering out towards danger and adventure. It was a metal web spreading out the hub as tree roots would overlap as switching lines crossed over, and the trains exited. Always going towards the north. At each platform stood the various officers or dockmen prepping their trains for departure or offloading various goods. As custom drones and workers inspected each person or item returned from the wild wall. Too many lessons had been learnt to slack in their scans.
In the oval centre of light and grime stood military companies and friends. Some had just rotated out and were expressing the joy of being alive with their tribe. New tattoos and drinking stories would be shared by the firelight or in neon bars. Corp regs not yet ranked to the officer lounge hung about with an air of superiority polishing their equipment rated to just a fraction of more value than their employer valued them. Paladins systemically beat on a begging pixie beggar boy unlucky enough to get close to the holy wrath. They did it with a joyless ritual which made her sure they were due to ship out, scared for their lives if their faith would hold the line once more. The pixie boy had a shattered wing, not cheap to fix that, but was now crawling away sufficiently beaten. Lucky to escape with his life, maybe the Paladins didn't want littering on their bill or perhaps they were just tired.
The south wall of the building was for commerce and connection. Well, for many, it was safety. For her, it was no future. She knew what was made to the south. She had spent some time there, really there was no hope, and she needed to go towards the danger towards hope after all these years. Maybe she had enough. Wow, had she planned well? She knew she had enough. As long as she passed without issue. Moving along the south side of the hall past the shop entrances avoiding drawing attention to herself.
When the alcoves were built between the white columns, they were occupied by shuttle connections, scribes stations, weapon shops, and high commerce. Now the broken columns showed the years through grime and their rebar bare in places. The rim was blocked off corporate barracks, tribal offices, and delivery services. Occasional betting shops highlighted the lack of drink, outlawed now in the hub after too many pitched battles. The two original frontages still polished white of the original construction were the Scribes under Heaven office and the shuttle station where the wealthy and expensed travelled.
Coverings in the archways, you could see shiny corporate officers and warehouse depot, drop off points, where various deliveries and organisations, very little commerce occurred in the hub. This was a place of business, this was a staging zone, a place of functionality. Her stomach growled in hunger and nerves, her muscles tensing in anticipation, she needed to calm down. Looking around for relief.
She immediately spotted two small food carts. A pie store appeared to be run by a gnomish figure. God knows what's in those, but almost certainly meat. She wasn't superstitious, but she knew that eating meat before your first deployment onto the wall was a clear sign that you just didn't think. Staring at the other stand, she proceeded forward to it. The small cart with three heater plates and an old grey-haired lady, human standard, wearing apron and smile, sat behind it on a small stole. Sizzling on the hot plates, were a mixture of mostly mushroom, chopped root veg and some beans.
A shelf of unlabeled well used herbs and spices were accompanied by regularly squeeze sauces more identified by colour than label. As she walked up, the tiny tannie stepped off the stool and stood up, just smiling towards her.
"I'll have whatever you're selling," waving her hand over the hot plates.
"Good dear. I only have one thing on the menu. Mushroom chow. 37 credits"
It was a bit dear for street food, but this was a port, she reached into her bag for the cred stick. Watching the old lady, with minimal fuss, pull out a cold flatbread and throw it on the heat plates next to the mushrooms, pressing down with an old metal spatula. The searing. Plating hot mushrooms and burnt veg onto the bread she mixed in some cheese. Without asking she reached for a blackened sauce jar previously unseen and dolloped a large black spoonful of darkness and onion onto the bread. Smiling like a hedge witch over a brew or an alleyway spell slinger over dice she grinned a secret smile showing gapped teeth, "Pickles from my own store just for you."
Oh, thank demons and praise luck an Omen. A good one which she needed this day. For her name or at least the only one she matched the fates. The old lady folds and flicks over the flatbread with the spatula in a practised motion. Pushing it into the heater, caking bits of brown and burn, and a million meals before this, the flare dents brown-black against the white bread, leaving a fingerprint of time.
It makes a sealed warm meal.
Glancing at her stick she sees 508,011 credits. Spotting the slot, she thumbs over 37C for the meal, grabbing the hot wrap with hunger and viciously devouring it. The warm mushrooms ooze between chunks of cheese only interrupted by crunchy burnt veg. The blast of pickle offsetting the soft creamy flavours with a tart bite of memory. Sealing her mouth around the warm flavours. Within moments she is sucking vegetable juices off her dusty fingertips, smiling.
The old lady was impressed at the speed at which it disappeared into her patron's gullet. Rough living and jobs learnt her the ways of eating fast. She hadn't eaten a hot meal in a week. Her tummy had been tied in knots by the nerves, and this was the only way she knew to calm it at the moment, and for a change, she had the creds to make it happen, this time at least.
Licking her fingers and looking over the station. She made idle chatter with the old lady. Trying to examine the various groups and the mood of the crowd. You always needed to know the mood lest you end up in the wrong eddy like that pixie boy. Sure an organised regiment of corporate troops march through without a care. The crowd parting like the sea leaving a churned wake of bruised egos and careful mutters but most moved like fish in the currents. Watching she could see tribal groups form, organised squads coming off rotation, companies drinking and playing cards and swapping stories, and everyone in their own clique and group.
There was a mix of almost all backgrounds. Formalised by everyone wearing combat gear and a sense of shared purpose. Sure there was no one of her slight build or dancer frame.
Knocking on her helmet and hiking her bag up. She waved farewell to the old lady and carefully plotted her path forward. Taking a moment to consult her pad. She had stolen it from a euro tourist several years back. It had taken most of her credits at the time to wipe it and reclaim the device for herself with a local fix monkey. A few adjustments have been made over the years. The most expensive repair was substituting a blown fuel cell that exploded in a surge. It was perhaps the second most precious thing she owned. Irreplaceable with her budget and resources. It was a good trade, expensive and dangerous, but a good trade.
Pulling up the live schedule from the local net she saw the platform schedules.
GUNTHER'S GUNS PLATFORM 13 0930 - 1130
Checking the net standard time, it was 0947 on last sync, she had plenty of time. Approaching as nonchalantly as possible but along the edge of the concourse, avoiding any large groups. She carefully eyed the blue lights. Signage for each platform were boxes illuminated bright blue with white painted numbers on. The blue boxes picking out the various platforms with their beastly machines and organised regiments waiting to board. Until eventually, she came to platform 13.
It was not the first time seeing the crew. Still, with a fresh set of eyes the hunking beast that lay on the platform was actually one of the smallest trains in the station, a single carriage, but unlike the streamlined multi-carriages parked on corporate lines, all the various creative but ritualistic messes of the tribal trains.
This was a functional beast, nothing covered it. It was a flatbed. Perhaps eighty paces long and four pieces wide. Wood and metal flooring open to the environment with a simple metal frame. Wasit high railing around it. The cargo was lashed and tied down. Least it fly off but fully exposed to the elements with a few items shyly hiding under the smallest piece of tarpaulin. Towards the front and the centre of the wooden platform, there was the spin drive squatting confidence in it's mass and power. This metal beast's heart of tension and torque just waiting to be released. The wheels removed and sunk into the platform to either side and just behind the spin drive appeared to be two metal bicycles. She knew they must be connected to the gearing somehow and in some fashion, but at this distance and from this angle she couldn't tell how.
Most of the equipment and cargo did not yet appear to be loaded onto the train. The diverse assortment of boxes and loose items piled next to the train in a disorderly fashion separated from the crowd by a fold-out metal table at the front. The first thing to catch her eye as she looked to the table was a tall man wrapped in black, sleeping underneath the table, snoring loudly. He had a silly-looking wide brim hat, a dark trench coat with armoured iron plates, clearly visible in their creases and folds. Thick buckled boots with toecaps covered his feet. The gloved hand she saw was entirely covered with fingertips bulging in some strange fashion. His face was wrapped in a black sating scarf and goggles. Shaded black. She could not pull her eyes from the peculiar figure snoring beneath the table. Until moments later, a rough voice interrupted her fascinated stare.
"Can I help you, girl?"
"Gunther," her tongue tripping over itself, "Gunther, sir! I've come to buy my stake."
She pulled herself upright to her full height of five foot nothing as the tall man rolled over and continued to snore. Her eyes quickly flying to a point just a hand's breadth the man's forehead. He was no man but a figure of legend calmly sitting behind the small folding metal table doing paperwork... ye gods on actual physical paper.
She knew of this man, the Captain of this bunch. Captain Gunther or the Gun of the Wall as some of the older folks called him. The middle-aged man was tall but not lanky shy of six feet. He was built sturdy with no spare height or bulk. His shoulders were reasonably broad under the khaki jacket worn but well cared for. He was looking her over, scratching the stubble with a strong start towards a full beard. His dark hair was full and slightly curved, all his grooming pointing towards a man who favoured a splash of water and minimum fuss while maintaining basic hygiene. The hand doing the scratching wasn't a hand at all but an iron claw crude in design no magic runes or cybernetics here. Missing was the famous gun prosthetic and she could not see the arm she knew from town tales to be chewed off above the elbow.
His cold grey eyes took in her new boots, well thoroughly used but these had no holes. She was rather proud of these fancy pants. Well smart trousers she had stolen, well borrowed okay more procured for services rendered from a club patron nights before. Heck, the corp girl should be grateful, cheap really for the night, waterproof and self-cleaning the shimmering grey fabric was well above her usual. To the faded denim jacket over the loose cotton black tank top with the small khaki pack on her back. His eyes lingering on her face, her purple eyes and sharp features, before smirking at the rusted miner's helmet strapped tight on her roughly cut hair which was dusty black at the moment.
Gunther's inspection done, he looked her dead in the eyes and asked, "You're sure you are in the right place girl?"
"Yes sir, I wish to sign up. I have my share."
"Very well I assume you know our charter and all the standard stuff?"
"Been told it all, Captain."
"Well, you are bound to have some accursed stupid thoughts, but I'll leave you to discover those. There are official questions that need asking. Name?"
"Pickle." She hadn't paused, but she waiting for the expected reaction, he had none calmly writing it down, but she was sure she had heard a chuckle from the table.
"Title or membership under Heaven?"
"Are you currently or have you in the last year been a subject, tribal member, corporate citizen, serf, indentured, summoned or otherwise engaged under quest, geas or formal obligation under Heaven?"
"Free scum sir."
Sure, Queenie would lay some claim but nothing any outside town would care to back. The club didn't know where she was and wouldn't know where she had gone. She could be wired or bewitched and dusted to the winds or gobbled by bits for all they knew. Jack Jack's boys hadn't known where she was for years, and she knows they didn't consider her valuable enough to ink.
"What about the helmet girl?"
"I can see that, but where did you get it."
"Found it, sir"
"Very well if you say so. Girl, they will know once they run you, so remember to be honest on these. Are you currently under any debts registered to heaven?"
"None," or rather none that the mighty cared for. Small scrip owed to friends and favours owed and owned the cultural currency of the town in which she was rich and poor.
He looked up again into her purple eyes, "If you lie to me it's Gods trouble for us all."
Unable to make direct eye contact, she responded with all the confidence she could muster. "No sir, human standard sir."
He paused, kicking the man under the table. She realised the snoring had been stopped for a while. Gunther's voice was monotone, "Malcolm, check out the girl."
The sleeping figure yawned and stretched in the most peculiar fashion. It wasn't a true yawn, but more like an oil slick noisily, expanding beneath the table. Flowing more than rolling or underneath the table, he extended up, lifting his shoulders too well about six feet. It wasn't like he had stood up but rather as if invisible strings had pulled him to his full height like a marionette. The strange wide-brimmed hat atop his head appeared to have a soft fabric cone collapsing in a lazy lean of folds. The hat's tip was actually adding to his imposing height. With all the dark fabric wrapping his form, he looked more mummy than man. All in black, not an inch of skin, hair or person showing.
His stretching yawn, arms akimbo, appeared to distort the space as his back bent straight and the room wobbled. No signed of muscles or bone that she could tell. He could almost be drawn into real life, like some crazed imagining. It was disturbing to look at his silent movements. Putting a foot towards her he stepped, pulling the room closer to him. Looking deeply into her eyes, purple reflecting in the goggles He stepped forward and looked deeply into purple eyes and then back at Gunther. Malcolm's voice was silk on silk sibilance with brass resonance. "You want to know what, the girls numbers?"
"No," the gruff man responded. "Is she safe?"
"Is it ever safe to bring riff-raff off the street?"
"Malcolm, can I put down human standard?"
She still hadn't exhaled watching this demon pantomime play out before her. She could pass. Without warning, gloved hands flew behind her, she tensed, expecting them to grab. The foul hands just floated over her buttocks and slowly went up her back without touching. It was somehow more intrusive and defiling. She could feel the tingle as his hand moved. She could not see it, but she could tell exactly where each fingertip was at any given moment.
Then just as she thought him done at the nape of her neck she exhaled. His fingers went into her hair between helmet and scalp, his fingers flew to her ears. No to her tips, the pointer tips of her ears. Thumb and trigger finger gently pinched both and withdrew all in a flash without and visible pause as his hands went back into his pockets.
That moment was the most intimate touch she had ever felt. She felt violated with her clothes on. Instant and total violation, she thought she would pass. She thought she'd be okay. The breath stuck in her throat. She couldn't finish breathing it out as her chest closed tight. Every muscle pulling in and pain flashing through her body as it tried to pull in on itself and disappear. To erase her from this world.
Most people didn't notice. Yeah, sure. The eyes, but everyone, okay maybe not everyone, mostly everyone, maybe even half of everyone, but more people than most had something. Eyes were common. Nice. Hell she didn't bother hiding them usually. For day to day she was generally able to tuck her tips in a hat. Hell even tucked into a bandana or even just her hair if she was careful.
If she was lucky, it was good enough. The helmet was surefire. The helmet was sure. The helmet was iron. Oh, what is she's gonna do. She had enough of share, but she didn't have enough for certification. She didn't have enough for insurance. She was done. She was doomed. Shouldn't have come. Back to the club, she went.
Oh, God. If this man had tried this at the club, he wouldn't last a moment. Bruno would have bounced him into the alleyway? She didn't care if he had any bones left. No Bruno would bounce him off the alley wall anyway. Bones or not they would have crunched and cracked, and he would have bounced and rolled, and it would have been the most hilarious thing in the world. Just sick twisted de... demon of a man would not exist before her.
She had wandered through the filth and dirt of this city and other others. The club was vile, but at least in the club, even though there wasn't a classic uniform, she and the other staff wore a uniform attitude. She was other. She was apart. She... she was safe. There were rules. Never before had someone so instantly, torn apart any shred of confidence, spent so long building, to come to this point and see it all fall.
"She's standard sir, well standard enough," Malcolm's voice flowed like a knife through her mind, he knew. Her train of thought derailed. She stood shocked and shaken to her core. She couldn't form a sentence in her mind, let alone on her lips. As she watched the silent exchange between the gruff man and the tall demon.
Silently she cheered on her hero, come on, oh Legendary Gun of the Wall. Gunther the Great will slay this vile demon and free her from this paralysis. Captain to one of the last free companies, guardian of humanity. The man before the nightmare army, please free me from this horror.
He seemed to shrug as if it was nothing.
"Well, that's the paperwork filled out. You know the share is currently 500,000 right?"
"Yes," her voice squeaked in shame as her hand shook. Her rage welled and pooled in her eyes, threatening. All that uncertain energy rushing into flight or fight. Unable to fight, being pushed into some pathetic moment. She would not break. Falling back onto formality, she barked. "Sir 500,000 credits for company share ready to stake."
"Okay, well, we've got the birth until eleven-thirty standard but I expect you to be back by eleven and inspected by scraps. Malcolm. Take her to the office of the scribe and get the paperwork registered. Sign it girl."
The form was now completely filled out. He pushed the form and a pencil in front of her. Signing her name in lead she eyed the top of the pencil with its sharp blade. Running her thumb over it, she pressed the small cut over her name. Blood and lead mixing name and print. Pushing the form back to Ganther.
Gunther takes it signing his own before reaching for a wax stick glittering next to him. He takes the wax stick, the mark of scribes and captains pushing it on the heater then paper. Pressing his thumbprint into the wax. Captains, didn't cut themselves. The saying went, "Captains had no more blood to spill and scribes have none to give". Gunther folded the form and handed it to Malcolm, who took it with a flourish.
"Make sure there aren't any problems, Malcolm," Gunther's eyes underlined the sentence. She couldn't see Malcolm's reaction as Gunther continued, "I'll wait for the geek and Russel. Get back sharpish. This is the last stray we sign today." With that Gunther seemed to start clearing the table.
"Come on, kitten," Malcolm's voice cooed behind her, "We'll be late."
Without shame the son of satan slithered his way to the south side where the scribe's office stood. She marched ahead, determined not to follow after the arrogant fool, let him be her shadow.
"Now now, kitten you will leave me behind," his voice came on her heels as he lazily followed.
She slowed her step. Grabbing the blade in her wrist cuff, she swung around as fast as she could and closed into him. Pressed the cold silvered blade into his stomach. She found the kink between two iron plates and rested the sharp tip against his skin with light pressure. She was confident she could drive it in with a moment's notice.
Looking up, staring into this tall fiends eyes as he slinked and curved. She just perceived darkness, dark goggles, dark cloth, looking down from the shadows of that ridiculous wide-brimmed hat. With the most venomous voice she could summon born in the dark pits, sharpened by the street and polished in the clubs, she said, "Address me like that again or touch me and I will have your guts on the floor. I don't care what Gunther says, you are a foul creature."
She could not see his smile through the wrapped fabrics but she could feel it. The mirth dripping onto his tone as his melodic response, "Of course kitty. Play nice now Pickle, or you will make daddy Gunther sad."
Pulling the blade back, she stalked off with a new purpose. Malcolm had called her bluff without hesitation or fear. Feeling the tall shadow follow her she decided then. She would not give him the satisfaction of guarding herself. She would show him the disdain of dismissing him as a threat and allow herself to be blind to his theatrics.
Walking into the office of the scribe was like stepping back in time. It was almost enough to forget the foul encounter. Grime and neglect painted the rest of the train station but here the white stone was clean and the crystal shone brightly. Crisp air sharp with polish and the smell of clean aged carpet as green felt carefully traced a civilised line of approach, lest the floor be marked by time.
Thick black knotted cord ran crystal poles waist-high separating the lines of carpet. Organised to lead a queue to three fine windows carved out of white stone with a heavy wood door discretely off to the side. The countertop was white and worn but clean. The windows weren't anything as brash as crystal, glass or bulletproof synthetics. Instead finely hammered iron formed complex patterns of leaves and flowers all polished black. The delicacy of the smith's work could make one forget the sheer stopping power of a thick iron grill that let sound, air and the barest light through.
They seem fragile but brutish at the same time. She had never quite seen such delicate artistry performed. The fact that the metal was kept clean of rust or mildew or artifice made them feel otherworldly. Rare to find anything in this part of the world that wasn't covered in grit and grime, dust and neglect, forgotten and left behind by humanity as they ravaged this corner of the world.
Only one counter was occupied. You could just barely make out the silhouette of someone knitting patiently unhurried. Confidently, she walked up to the scribe counter suddenly conscious of the ringing sounds of her boots on the stone just as the carpet swallowed them up. Her stride faltered for a moment before approaching and declaring, "I'm here to buy my share."
"Oh darling," came a kindly voice from behind the window. "One second as I put down my needles. Now, what company?"
Before she could answer, Malcolm reached over her shoulder and slid the folded paper form through a purpose-made gap in the ironwork. She had overlooked the flowers parting there, and a large leaf presented a slight lip. It was a subtle effect, but it was easy to spot once you knew it was there. She could hear the paper being unfolded, the keyboard clacking away. The scribe's motherly voice was punctuated by her key presses as she talked and worked.
"Gunther's Guns, my my an unusual first posting for someone so young. You sure you want to join such a group of scoundrels first time out? Join them if you must but many a fine corporation, guild organised tower. Maybe an academy tenure or one of the church towers. Free Towers are rough places for a girl of your age and the corporations or church both have long prospects?"
"Thanks mam," she interrupted the scribes' advice. "I prefer my freedom."
"Very well, I know better to try talk a lassie out of loony. I myself, oh well. They come with no backing and their tower is a rickety one. Gunther's men mostly come back it is true. He does run a tight ship, oh but if you could see him back when. Ah well the sky was brighter. You will have to deal with his crew..."
At this last statement her voice lost some of its sweetness and she appeared to look at Malcolm. He was currently examining his bulging glove tips as if they were painted nails fresh from the salon.
She tried to ignore the exchange, "That's okay I have confidence in the captain."
"Oh well let's get you in the system. Currently seven registered stakes this season, excluding the Captain of course. Charter is even stake so that means you'll get an eighth share, less the Captain and wall dues. Unless anyone else is signed up today?"
The scribe had pointedly directed her question upwards at Malcolm. His oily voice purred out flowing over her like waves of slick. "None so far."
The scribe continued, speaking to her once more. "Right well deary the stake will come to 500,000 credits this season per the Gun's Charter. Do you have that dear?"
"You have any debts, contracts or outstanding gravity debts under heaven?"
"Right, oh dear it looks like the ident number on here is blank. Have you not dealt under heaven before?"
"No ma'am. Gunther's Charter covers free agent registration."
"Unusual for one buying a stake," an air of question flaked her voice. "So registering you before heaven as well. The Charter does indeed cover that in your stake, but it is unusual. We have a blood signature and I see the Captain has filled out Geo Neutral Aligned Type."
That stun, she was technically a gnat. Few would hurl that insult in the city knowing its vile consequence but she knew it was a technical term. Besides at the end of this conversation she no longer would be. Without pause the scribe had continued on, picking up the thread again she heard her continue.
"Check can take a while but you will be in the system immediately. Oh dear, one moment we have a fracture. They tend to clear fast. You know we used to have to wait for the gap between, and there it is back again. Oh darling you know you can change your name under heaven correct? No fee if you're registering now."
Pickle blushing, she knew people laughed but it was her name. She hadn't used it in the club and not many in Jack Jack's knew it. Though everyone she ever considered a friend knew her by that name. It was hers, given in love.
"Pickle's fine ma'am."
"No family, clan or last name? Many people take an approved free name."
"Company name only ma'am."
"Pickle of Gunther's Gun. Very well next of kin or beneficiary is named?"
Their rally of questions was interrupted by Malcolm leaning onto the counter and looking directly at her, "Pardon me. Just don't child. You must name a blood benefit. We could kill you and the share would revert to the company. It is just too much temptation. Name someone, it doesn't matter who."
The scribe added, "Many name a charity or local establishment in repayment for kindness."
Kindness, she thought, remembering clawing her way from the depths to the limelight to where she was today. No charity. That wasn't technically true. There were those nuns in that Pretoria hospital the winter she had gotten sick. Oh, and Ghilli soup kitchen. Ghilli was safe and nice. Their wife Jenny was a friendly face for an urchin who needed a cheap meal. She softly ventured, "Ghilli soup kitchen in Mutare." She could hear that click-clack of keys. "I'm not sure of the business name."
"Well dear, I can find no soup kitchens registered in Mutare. I cannot list a benefit without a formal ident. We could send a letter of note?"
Malcolm shook his head, "No girl. Scraps could take it after our run, but nothing stops us saying we delivered it when we did not. Pick someone, anyone."
She tried again, "There is a hospital in Pretoria by the hill run by nuns. For sick children."
"Found it, yes I know it. Saint Angus on Mountain View. Yes there it is."
She had forgotten the name. It had been so long, she never would forget the pink fluid they gargled or the smell of the halls. The winter had been long and her leg was infected badly. The cold and pain had cleared and she had seen purple. She still loved that shade of purple flower.
"Yes ma'am. That's them, they were nice."
"Okay. Almost done, any magic to declare."
"You have that certified dear?"
Before she could react, Malcolm put his hand on the counter, clacking his fingers one at a time. Punctuating his words, "Human standard, dormant. Certified apprentice of Malcolm the Magnificent. Magus Academy." His finger's paused before he quietly added for her ears. "Apprenticeship has no fee girl."
She wanted an object, apprenticeship to this creature. Never never ever, but she couldn't afford the certification on top of the registration. She wasn't sure she would pass an official certification and a street cert good enough to pass register would cost almost as much if not more. Hundreds of thoughts passed through her mind and she tried to plot a way out of this new hell. Her hope is now tainted by the black stain. The sooner she spoke and washed off this stain from her new clean identity the better. Her voice sticking. Hope tainted. She couldn't.
Was he helping? He was helping, she thought. He had offered the advice and Gunther had sent him. No way would this fiend be helping, indeed he was was toying with her. Her mental exploration of her companion's motives were interrupted by the scribe.
"Okay? I have you registered. You have the stake in credits?"
"Yes." Breaking out of her drowning mind she pulled out her stick and slotted in the small illuminated slot in the counter. She thumbed over the 500,000 credits. The stick vibrated against the large amount. She quickly keyed her complete sequence. The small stick was only rated for a million tops. Its crude needle pin pieced her trigger as she keyed pulling the last piece of confirmation. Her fortune gone, the stick felt light. She felt the world swim in a moment of uncertainty.
"Give me a sec dearie, it takes a while to communicate with heaven. That orbital tore a fracture larger than most this morning. The pilot dropped like a stone. Ah there it is."
Apparently it's an eternity to heaven but a moment to us. Never mind when times slip a curse to hears the old printer file. A fire or fire up. The click and clack as paper moves and the receipt slowly rolled out. For a moment, it paused, then a slim metal plate the size of her thumb but thin as a fingernail clinked onto the large leaf which formed the letter slot in the grate. It was, of course, iron but in the elegant shining letter of gold written by the scribes practised hand was her name.
Pickle + Gunther's Gun
Lifting up the plate in shaking fingers she pulled out a small cord from a fine pouch in her pocket. Threading the expensive cord through two small holes in the nameplate, she wrapped it around her wrist. The cord slowly tightened and pulled as it felt the warmth of her skin. Slowly she watched the cord melt into her skin, drawing the plate into her right wrist. Embedded into her skin her identity forged in iron strengthened by blood. The letters of immutable gold holding her name and company.
Her name was written in the stars of heaven, she existed forever. No longer was she a mine rat in the darkness. No longer a street gnatt running. No longer a club girl in the bright lights. She existed. Yeah, Jack Jack's boys might find her. Yeah. Queenie, might wonder where she went off to. They didn't know if she was wired up or dusted out. Let them think her lots to bits or blown on the winds.
A registered standard human with a free company and capital stake, she had a future. She believed in the moment. Striding out into the hall with confidence, walking to the platform to catch her train. Arms stretched out, she hooted at the top of her voice, a guttural cry of triumph wordless in its joy. Shameless in its volume. For she was heaven wrought!
Unnoticed behind her, a black shadow stalked behind, a vertical oil slick flowing after. As she stopped by the platform, she paused once more, hearing that soft voice.
"Welcome to Gunther's Gun. Please die slowly."
This is an ongoing web novel updated every Thursday. I really hope you enjoy it, this is my first attempt but I've spent a lot of time in this world, over two decades. Running roleplaying campaigns, writing comics and creating stories so it feels really natural to tell a story in this world.