The Ball Twins
"Lock it and stock it." Gunther's voice brought her back into the moment as Pickle looked around the echoing underground train platform. The room was just long enough to accommodate the open train on rails with a small walkway upfront with a glittering bronze shaft perhaps two meters across running from floor to ceiling. The ceiling almost ten meters high above them, hard to tell with the low lighting.
The room was clad in poured concrete reinforced with dark iron ribbing and I-beams. The thick metal beams ran the length of the ceiling. To either side was a hard polished wood flooring covering the train platforms. The odd mixture of materials made her pause. The wood wasn't elaborate though it wasn't cheap exposed timber. Some dark heavy grain had been finely jointed and stained but was now dusty and well worn. Functional.
A large fluid tank of some sort squatted in the right back corner with piping run off into the ceiling. Two pairs of large doors on either side into other underground rooms. To her left was the console now being operated by a middle-aged man with dark black hair curly and thick in contrast to his weathered face and scrawny build. He wore a faded blue coverall with tools and pockets attached to every flat piece of fabric or obvious mounting point. As he pulled with both hands on a large level with a pressure handle grip, she heard the clunk and whoosh of mechanical systems. Slowly with less noise than expected, the large metal enforced started swinging shut to close in the room.
Walking over from the console with a friendly gait was the tall hunter who had greeted them. Smiling, he swapped greetings with Gunther pulling him up and in a hug. "Good trip, old man?"
"Good enough," Gunther answered with a warm smile that seemed out of place on the gruff man. Gunther stepped up onto the platform, surveying the train for a second. The tall, toned man next to Gunther was clearly an outdoors type. He had a silly soft hat with a wide brim folded in half stuck in a strap on his shoulder. His outfit was well made but worn, made from tan browns of subtle shades. The yellows and browns of a dry veld went well with his caramel skin. It was hard to tell how much of his colour was sun-kissed vs natural tone. He had a friendly smile like a big warm cat welcoming home its family but licking his lips at dinner as his eyes wandered over the train. She watched their conversation fascinated as the hunter's eyes returned to Gunther with a question.
"Maybe, Frank got Scraps' call about the Stalker," Gunther paused for a second to see the Hunter nod before continuing. "Well, the glider is back as well."
"God damn rip off," the old man threw into the conversation, pausing to sip from a mug. "Bastards trying to copy my idea without understanding it. Going to rile up the neighbours."
All men nodded sagely, the wise old men complaining about the antics of children. Gunther looked back at the train and started issuing orders.
"Ka, Scraps and Doc help Frank get the stock away, and the crane fitted. Scraps scoop on the way back. Girl, come here." Gunther waved Pickle over. She rushed over to the men, giving a rough salute which she had seen corp troopers and some mercenaries give. The old man lifted his cup, and the hunter gave a sharp parody of a salute. They all gave each other a look before chuckling. She lowered her eyes. Feeling the energy drain out of her.
"Now now, don't make fun of my kitten." She felt Malcolm's metal-tipped glove fingers rest on her shoulders. Firm and unwelcome. She was unsure if they were holding her down or up, but she knew he would be smiling. Gunther grunted, "Pickle here bought a stake. She is company now."
That changed the mood of the two men. They paused to really take her in. Both seemed to perform different calculus in their head as they inspected her. Before they could pronounce, the summation of their mental weighing Gunther continued. "Pickle, this is Frank, chief engineer. He runs this tower more than I do, and that there is Leon. Best point man on the wall. Leon, take the girl up top and keep watch while we unload. Get a gun in her hands, would you."
The old man had given a modest who me at Gunther's compliment. While Leon simply nodded his head at Gunther's assessment of his abilities. Leon gave a quick last hug and welcome Gunther before glaring past her shoulder and turning towards a large metal ladder. It was sunk into a concrete column running all the way to the ceiling. Just by the wall between the console and the ladder was a big flat open freight elevator. Just as Leon's boots touched the ladder, she felt Malcolm's hands give her a nudge forward to the ladder, his silk voice directed at Leon. "Take care of my new apprentice cookie."
Following after Leon, she started to climb up the ladder. The rungs were worn and cold but had worn grip tape, which showed signs of being replaced frequently. The ceiling was higher in the centre. The wall to ceiling height was much less, but the ladder didn't end at the ceiling. Instead, it extended up a cold concrete shaft next to the elevator until it reached about the same height she guessed as the peak of the arch. The dark cold shaft was unfamiliar to her. In an age where monsters wandered the dark and the wild was not just a tale of children but an existential threat, most spaces were well-lit. Even poor houses were well lit with cheap LEDs. Though as she climbed near the dim lamps, which illuminated the shaft with warm yellow light, she noticed a flicker to them.
They were dimmer than any light she had seen before, faint enough to see the led inside. She was used to bright lights, but these dim lights flickered like a fireplace or the candles from the nunnery. She found herself fascinated by them, only to have her inspection interrupted by a screech of metal as a trap door was opened by Leon above her. Realising she was lagging behind, she climbed up the last few rungs quickly to catch up.
As she stepped into the corridor, he closed the trapdoor behind her. Quickly opening a small door to his right. The door was reinforced metal again with a sense of weight which was not visible when it was opened. They walked out into a small open plan kitchen. It was well organised but used, strewn with reusable containers and labelled cupboards or containers. It immediately gave the sense of being an office kitchen, or at least that was her closest point of reference. She could see the labels and the passive-aggressive questions about who ate what just echoed in its labelled containers.
Leon didn't slow down for her or explain as they walked through a lounge area. Old chairs around a wooden table, bean bags and a small shelf of books. The light in this room all coming through long glass skylights set into the ceiling. The ground was covered in layers of shaggy rugs and worn carpet. Doors leading off in a bunch of directions the layout of the room pointed at one key point. A small ladder leading to a trapdoor between the two long skylights. Leon climbed up and lifted it open, letting more sunlight pour in as he climbed onto the roof. She quickly followed.
After the darkness of the underground train platform and then the lightning quick cut through the building, she was momentarily stunned by the bright sunlight. The ladder roof access was actually covered by a canvas roof pulled tight between some poles but the small shield gave little reprieve from the midday sun. Taking a moment to adjust she saw Leon stretch like he was finally comfortable. Pushing his hands into the small of his back and stretching out.
The roof was concrete but looked extremely lived in. Small patches of stretched canvas provided covered shade in various spots. A small table with four chairs, a stretch of fake grass carpet, a well used putting practice pitch. Small garden boxes dominated the roof, with a small greenhouse towards the back of the roof. The layout of the room was a squat capital T or a plus symbol without its top. Wider than tall, the wide face was presented out towards the front. The back section ran between rocks lifted up, a small kopje provided natural cover to the building. The back was home to the large rooftop greenhouse as well as a tall water tank.
Finally, the largest element on the front was a tall wooden watchtower atop metal beams. The weathered metal beams looked of the same sort which reinforced the train platform below. They seemed overlarge for the wooden watchtower with its wrapped wooden steps leading up. The strangest element was the bronze tube, two meters across, which she saw in the train platform below. It extended all the way up and to the top of the watchtower.
"What gun's you fired before Pickle?"
"Um a bunch, though most familiar with punch and needle guns."
"Small arms, high tech." Leon was unimpressed by the roster. "Anything larger?"
"Fired mag and plasma but not much. Just to try."
Raising an eyebrow Leon appeared to be adding a mental notch. "Well, spin rifles are our bread and butter though you need something to complement it. We can worry about that later. For now, use this until we train you on spin rifles."
Leon pulled out a small crossbow and a large rifle, he handed the crossbow to her. It had a rack of small bolts strapped to the side. She turned over the weapon which was well used. The tension pull was a wheel with a strange mounting she wasn't familiar with. She gave the wheel a few turns, slotting in one of the metal bolts and checking the safety was engaged. She slung the shoulder strap over her head looking to Leon for a cue. He was nodding.
"Lekker, maybe you do alright. Now let's check up on the balls." He was walking towards the tower before the sentence was finished. Climbing the wide winding wooden steps. They were comfortably wide and at a push, she could see two people crossing mid-climb without danger, though it might be tight. As they were climbing Leon added, "The balls are mercs, good ones but don't let them rib you too hard." He suddenly shouted up, "Ja kaks, all clear to climb?"
Two boyish voices answered from above, "Blue skies."
"Who is the girl, shore leave?" Chuckles from above punctuated the sentence with lewdness she was all too familiar with. Leon shook his head while finishing the last bit of the climb. She followed up after.
The thatch roof covered the heavy stained wood with a small railing around the edge which extended out from the base. The centre was dominated by a strange metal hatch into the metal tube which seemed to run through the building. Fat cables ran out from the tube. A small control console just to the side of the tube was decorated with physical buttons and switches. The other tubes ran out to either side to two large mounted weapons by the railing edge. The guns were on a swivel and the high tech nature of them seemed out of place. Oversized, these guns shared the bulky coverings she had seen on Gunther's rifle. Their long barrels and bulk appeared to be finely balanced. The umbilicals leading into the depths of the base.
The large weapons were offset by two short young men, they looked boyish and impish. Both wore baseball caps with a large letter B machine embroidered on the front. One of them wore a faded t-shirt with a complex gothic script forming a faded logo of some metal band. Copper Cow. She had never heard of them but they sounded foreign. The other boy wore a shirt of a cartoon head with robot red eyes and in place of hair a toaster had been drawn with two burnt pieces of toast popping out the head. Without blinking she knew the back would read, Heartbeat Required, Ghost Busters or No Robots. Some similar slogans from the anti-Phantom brigade. They both also wore silly grins of children, though both were in their early twenties.
"Who is the chick?" The left one asked.
"Brad and Brian this is Pick. She is company," Leon answered.
"Ooh fancy, and here I thought she was the entertainment."
"Don't mind my bro Pick. Always good to see another human on the wall."
She breathed in, feeling like her voice was unused to everyone speaking to and around her. Running her tongue around her mouth she answered. "Um thanks, actually my name is Pickle."
"What like the food?" Brian asked.
"Well, fuck ain't that strange."
Leon was glancing through the scope of his rifle, looking over the edge searching. Leon's voice was quieter with the weapon raised. "Anything?"
"Nah," Brad responded, spitting over the edge. "Not a peep."
"Captain wants us to go to green. Glider is back."
They both went to their guns and started searching the treeline. Pickle walked up to the railing and got her first real view of the wild. Her first thought was how beautiful it all was. The unbroken forest and veld mixed into the clear distance. Blue skies stretched across the horizon and it looked peaceful. She could see birds in the distance but no other wildlife.
The ground around the base was mown grass. It was kept trim and clear for perhaps seventy meters until the treeline started. The undergrowth and thick trees cloaked darkness which in the afternoon sun was hard to make out. The afternoon autumn sun hung lower in the sky glaring in their eyes. The wall faced north towards the equator so the shadows looked like fingers stretching out trying to touch them and pull them into the dark shadows of the trees.
On either side of the base, a woven wooden wall stretching three meters high stretched off into the distance to the left and right. She was tracking it with her eyes into the distance when Leon's quiet voice asked, "Can you see the demons?"
"What, demons. No, just trees and some birds."
"Look at those birds again," he handed over a small pair of binoculars. They were simple glass in a carved wooden frame with small pieces of leather. She held them up to her eyes. There were no digital readout or controls she could see. She squinted, trying to get them in place. Searching the sky for the birds, looking past to get her bearings and slowly panning to find the flock. Her breath paused, in her throat a hard lump.
They weren't birds, and they were a lot further away than she thought. Leather wings flapped, not entirely there, with an edge of shadow. The seven birds were each the size of a large car, and not a feather was among them. Long stretched beaks crudely extended from their body and small tails protruded out. Large talons looked oversized on the creatures. She thought their faces looked stretched from screams. It was then she realised that she could see their faces. The lump dropped from her throat into her stomach, heavy as a boulder. They were flying in their general direction.
Looking out from the zoomed view, she looked at Leon. He shook his head, heading to the console, he pulled out a keyboard. Typing out a message and then slammed a button. The boys were glancing over their shoulders over at Leon. He looked back at them, "I don't think so. I think MedPoll will pull them. Keep sharp we stay Green."
This satisfied the boys as they returned to scanning the treeline. Pickle confused, asked, "Green?"
Leon pointed at the console pushing the keyboard back into the console. On the top panel, a small dial dominated with a colour wheel. Blue, Green, Yellow, Red and Black. A small keyhole was next to the dial. Various toggles and switches took up the rest of the console. The dial was currently set to Green.
"We are here for the long haul. Can't be on our toes all the time. So we have alert levels. Blue is nothing sighted, all clear. We have two people on watch at all times but on Blue only one person needs to be eyes on at a time. We are Blue most of the time. Green is danger sighted." He pointed at the birds. "Don't be afraid to take us to Green. It means both eyes on, and a third person will come up to check in. Also, you should send a notice down on what you saw as soon as you can."
Leon pulled out a mechanical keyboard with wooden keys from the console. There were also fewer keys than she associated with a keyboard. Only letters and numbers with a space and return key. There was no screen or readout she could see. There was a small laminated label with some codes printed on it.
SOS - Send help
MDC - Wounded
TCK - Tech Broke
The list went on to list about 15 shortcodes. Then handwritten in sharpie were a few others much less formal.
AMM - Bring Bullets
FUD - Feed me
PIS - Rain
POO - Bucket run
Pushing the keyboard back in Leon continued in his explanation. "Yellow is engagement likely or engaged. For when the fighting is about to start or going on. On yellow everyone is up and alert unless on rest shift. We operate four shifts, can explain that later but on Yellow you need to know where your gun is even if you're not up top and unless you have a reason not to be we want you up top. Finally, Red is full attack, restrictions are lifted and everyone must be up top to fight." He pointed out towards the sky. "We are yellow because those demons will likely hit Medpoll, our neighbour. They could turn at any moment so stay alert."
With that Leon returned to the railing, inspecting the flock closing in. A gentle breeze blew in the cold air counter to the warm sunlight. She watched the large beasts flap their wings and draw in closer. When she realised something, "You never said what Black was?"
Brad quipped from over the barrel of his mounted gun. "We are fucked."
"Black is bad," Brian repeated.
In a calm voice, Leon clarified, "Black is bunker down or retreat as we call for aid. Only the Captain or Malcolm can call Black. If we go black, the tower is dead, and our neighbours or Heaven step in to seal the breach."
The tower went silent then as they watched the creatures approach the MedPoll tower. Its white tictac tower loomed on the horizon, waiting for combat. When the flock was still far beyond the treeline, suddenly two of them got yanked back into the sky up high then suddenly plummeted, the ragdoll form twirly and tumbling, breaking the parabolic course into more of a downward scramble. The remaining flying demons sped up to maybe twice their previous speed pin pointing on the white tower.
Thud, thud. Two more fell out of the sky. Pickle searched for a puff of smoke or the crack of a gun but there was nothing, just sudden destruction of the approaching threat. One missed as a bird demon dodged, tearing up its wing instead of the centre mass. The blood-soaked projectile which ripped the wing off was now clearly visible in its tumble. Whatever it was, it was solid and heavy with a ton of force behind it as the tumbling viscera flew off. The wounded beast flapped its one remaining wing, losing height to the tree line, before vanishing below and into the dark.
Suddenly the last remnants of the flock swooped down towards the tower. This time met with a rapid-fire, smaller fire ripping into them. Before they fell to the turf, black nightmares no more. Defeated and crushed on the wall. Pickle was impressed by the sheer efficiency of the weapons.
"Foking domkops. Kak. Shielded or no, that mag rail is going to get us surged one day." Leon cursed.
Brad added, "Well it saved their butt, though it was prob robots who fired it."
"Nah prob Toasters," quipped back Brian.
Leon cut them off. "Doesn't matter, we stay green. Half a mind to go yell."
This cut the mood and the boys focused in on the treeline. Scanning for incoming threats. The minutes stretched as they searched the treeline. Pickle sighted down her crossbow. She saw some rabbits grazing the long grass near the trees, a squirrel running along the branches. The forest wasn't still but constantly dancing in the wind and alive with small motions. It would have been dull but much less anxiety-inducing to watch a bare patch of ground instead of trying to pick out the danger from the chaos.
Following the motion of a bush, she saw a bush shake a little. Then she saw a set of twisted horns poking out from the wood. Before she could say anything the head popped up and a large kudu eye stared directly at her with its face side on. She watched as the creature chewed. A noise from the forest made the kudu raise its head and suddenly, a blast of air was felt to her left. As she registered it she saw a bolt the size of a small javelin stick into the tree beside the buck as it suddenly leapt out onto the grass and tore away to the right before jumping back into the tree line further down.
"Fucking Kak for brains, why did you shoot at a kudu?" asked Leon his voice shaking with rage.
"Sorry man I saw the horns and it was moving fast so I thought it was a threat," Brad answered.
"And you, shit for brain monkey missed?"
"It was moving fast, bloody thing is on the tree line. That's a long shot cold."
"Stupid and incompetent. You are retrieving that bolt."
"No way Leon, it's just one javelin."
"One javelin your stupid arse fired at a bloody buck. Fetch."
Grumbling, he stepped back from his gun, flipping on a safety.
"Pickle go with Brad. He needs someone to clamp the wire."
Brad picked up a rifle with two strange drums a larger one below the barrel and another smaller one just above the barrel further down. Slinging it over his shoulder. Heading down to the rooftop with Brad cursing the entire time as Leon took over his sentry post, they climbed down the wooden steps. The rooftop was surrounded by a small outcropping and low wall that stopped things rolling off, but she supposed it also stopped climbing critters. Brad took her to a section where he unclamped it and folded it onto the roof like a trapdoor opening towards the open air. Now leaving a gap in the outcropping defence ring. Brad picked up a black rope on a pulley system with a yellow handle on the end. The rope rang down into a drum along with two other similar arrangements. Brad explained.
"Now I'm going to be climbing down with this under tension. There is a little hook at the bottom, so I can latch it. The cord is tight," he tugged on the cord, showing it pulling back hard. "Now I can pull it but easier if you just pull the clutch here to free it. Let me climb down and hook then I will tug for you to push the lever back so the cord is tight. Got it?"
Pickle nodded, "I think so."
"Bloody better." Pulling on what looked like a whammy rod on a guitar mounted on the stock of the strange rifle. She could hear a quiet whirring noise as something sped up a little bit. Before nodding, he pressed the lever back and the sound ceased. He started descending, gun slung over his shoulder, down the wall for the two floors down to the ground. Securing the hook as mentioned before tugging it. She pulled the level feeling the cord pull tight. Curious, she went to the edge under the tower's shadow to watch his progress. He walked with his gun up, the rifle pulled strangely, as he turned to look around. Steady but fast. Not running but proceeding at pace.
As he walked forward, she noticed small red circles of laser light projected down from the tower. The laser light hadn't been on early and it painted the small red circles, all of which Brad seemed to avoid. Until finally, he reached the tree line where his large bolt was sunk into the tree trunk. Pulling out a small tool it looked like pliers but with a pair of doughnuts with a gap. He slipped the tool over the javelin sized bolt.
Closing the tool, it pressed against the trunk while clamping and pulling on the bolt. It yanked out the bolt out with a loud crack. Putting the tool back on his belt Brad held the bolt up like a trophy looking back at the tower. Walking back to the tower with the bolt he started playing around with the bolt and making fun with it. Hamming it up for the watching audience. Suddenly a tiny black cat bolted out of the tree line darting for Brad. Pickle yelled out a warning waving her hands. Brad blanched, turning around to see the kitten sized creature charging at him. He dropped the bolt reaching for his weapon, rushing to ready it. Slamming it in frustration.
The cat was a bit larger than a house cat, but the tail wasn't solid. Rather, it was a smoke wisp-like a tail swishing invisibly but leaving a smoke trail in the air where it was moments ago. Claws out, it landed on Brad's chest as he screamed and flailed with his gun. Pickle drew up her crossbow, trying to take the shot. Before she could bring it to her eye she heard a muffled gunshot from above. Moments later the creature's head exploded.
Brad stood there screaming with the hanging headless corpse hanging limply on his chest. After a moment of screaming, he reached onto his chest and ripped off the remains throwing them to the ground. He started stumbling towards the base. After moments the stumble turned into a run. Pickle watched with horror as his stumbling run stepped on a red circle, she held her breath, as he continued running. Nothing happened.
Brad slammed against the wall, pulling the handle off the hook, letting the tight cord drag him up the wall, over the edge and onto the ceiling. As Pickle pulled up the cursing and swearing man she saw blood smear his chest and his face was speckled with black muck. The smell was intense, burning and sickly sweet.
"Fucking cat," Brad's voice was broken and harsh. He started pulling off his shirt over his head. Wiping the muck with the crumpled bundle. Small scratches welled up red on his upper chest and some by his stomach. The wounds looked surprisingly shallow but were angry and welting.
Before Pickle could fully register the scene, Sarah was there. She was pressing Brad down, reassuring him. "Brad, count off to five." She pressed his head down so he was looking up. "Pickle his head, hold it." She grabbed his head, it felt warm.
"Fuck. Five, Four..."
Sarah was pouring water on the wound. The water touching the wound instantly steamed. Brad screamed his head pulling up against her hold, she pressed him down. Sarah wet a cloth, "It is okay, just need to clean the goo. Going to patch you up." She went to clean off all the dark material and blood. Reaching into her pockets, she pulled out a thick square. She pulled it apart and then slapped the thicker half onto Brad's chest with a brutal force. The moist slapping noise was accompanied by a heavy grunt from Brad as all his muscles tensed.
Pickle saw the veins around the patch swell as chemicals sunk into Brad's body. Sarah was now pulling out wadding and bandages, things familiar to her as she went to tend the wounds. Brad went a bit looser as the painkillers in the patch started their work. The work blurred until Brad was lying on the roof, topless surrounded by discarded single-use wrappers and medical debris. Sarah handed Pickle a wet wipe.
"Here pumpkin, clean up any of that goop. Not good to leave on your skin." Sarah quickly followed her own advice wiping herself down. Pickle washed her face and hands, seeing the wipe come away with a mix of blacks and reds. The smell of that sweet sickness was on the air. Looking down she saw Brad was unconscious.
"I knocked him out pumpkin, he did not need to stay awake. We are yellow."
"Will he be okay?"
"Yeah, big baby. Just a wisp cat scratches but you can never be too careful. Wild wounds tend to fester if you do not clean them right away. I should not call him a baby, they hurt to high heaven."
Pickle looked out to the brightly light scenery with a new horror in her belly. She thought back to the holos and fics about the wall with their great beasts and brave combat. The epic combat and action scenes. Nothing had prepared her for this brutal truth, it was the street writ large but she didn't know the rules. She felt that thick ball of anxiety in her stomach dissolving into writhing anxiety rising through her body. She felt her skin start vibrating as a high pitched whine built in her brain.
"Pumpkin," Sarah rested a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
Looking up she saw Sarah face swimming in red hair. Her freckles and green eyes looking at Pickle. She couldn't meet them, looking down at the ground. She pulled in her strength as Doc lifted her up to her feet.
"Come Pumpkin let's get you lying down."
She woke up looking at an unfamiliar ceiling. Her head was thick with fog. She hadn't been drinking, had she? The openness of her position sent a jolt of panic through her body. Still paralysed by sleep her normal instant alertness slipped out of her fingers. As her eyes darted around the ceiling, she noted the concrete ceiling broken by two thick slits of glass making long skylights. The glass was mattress thick and reflecting dusk or dawn light. Small lights in the room dimmed against the flooding sunlight. Her bed was in the corner far from the entrance.
Looking around, she was lying on a small bed with white sheets and a brown cotton blanket tightly wrapping the bed but she was lying on top of it. She was still fully dressed but her shoes were missing. Reaching up she touched her helmet, it was still there. She didn't see anyone else in the room. She sat up on the bed. Seeing her shoes with socks on the floor made her feel better. Her bag lay at the end of the bed, with the familiar small folded packet. The clothes the girls had bought for her before leaving.
The last day swam in her mind. Less than twenty-four hours ago she had pulled off the biggest robbery of her life, enough to start a new life. Buying a stake in a defence company working the wall, run by the man, the legend, Gunther the Gun. She had travelled to the edge and seen the wild. A small ball of emotion raised up in her throat. She swallowed it down with the memory. It didn't feel real.
Looking around the room she saw it was a large dormitory. The corner across from her was decorated sparsely with small tokens from beasts. The space was neat and organised with the most noticeable thing being a small glass fishbowl filled with smooth rocks. A multitude of colours. There are no precious stones, just regular pebbles like one would find in a river but a rich mix of colours and shapes.
The corner on the other side by the entrance was the most standout. It was a mess of tossed clothing, posters and some dirty plates and mugs. The beds were stacked on top of each other, making the only bunk bed in the dorm.
The other beds were made up like hers with no distinguishing marks other than some belongings and bags stacked at the end of the bed. She could tell from the bags who had claimed which bed. Seeing her immediate and only neighbour had been taken by Ka'Shek. His large duffel bag with its tribal patches was immediately noticeable. The next bed over had the small neat travel case on the end, the geek's bed then. The door itself wasn't a door, but layered material cut into strips in a thick design. Muffling light and sound from the outside. It was an impenetrable barrier to light and sound.
Pulling her shoes back on she noticed a locking trunk at the base of her bed. Thinking back to what was in the bag and her pockets. She didn't know who had a key to it, other than the key in the lock so she didn't trust it. She didn't want to put people on edge by appearing too private. She resolved to leave her bag on the bed, like the others had. Heading to the door she pushed the curtain aside.
Sitting on the sofa she saw Northcott, he was writing away in a small notebook. Busily scrawling away in his strange handwriting.
"They are on the roof," he pointed to the ladder to the roof. Quickly returning to his scribbles. She took in the room, this time she wasn't being rushed through the building. The bookshelf had a range of books on it but she also saw some boxes with colourful titles on them. To her right was the open plan kitchen, several dirty plates were stacked in the sink. The left wall had thick glass viewing windows showing a concrete stairwell with the bronze tube running through it and a thick metal reinforced door.
Turning around she saw it was the same type of door as the one that had led in here from the train platform. Looking back at that door on the same wall as the bedroom she noticed another reinforced door. She also saw that across from the dorm were two corridors. One led off away from the dorm, while the other led off along the kitchen. She saw several doors. It could all wait. She eyed the ladder up to the roof and climbed up pushing up the trapdoor.
She was immediately greeted by happy sounds as she stuck her head up, a cheer went up as she emerged. Happy laughter filled the air. The moment she was up and out a happy shirtless Brad came over to hug her.
"Pickle. You're alive."
"Um yeah, you were the one attacked."
"Oh. It was a pussy tat. He went scritchy scratch on my chest." The tipsy man stumbled back, pointing at his bandaged chest. The layered bandages looked like a noughts and crosses board on his scrawny chest. Surprisingly she smelled no alcohol on his breath. Brian came over and took his brother by the shoulders. "Come on Brad, let leave the nice lady alone."
Looking around the roof she saw a set of folding chairs set up around in a small circle. Brad being led back to them by Brian. Frank, Leon and Sarah were all chatting in a circle sitting in them while Ka sat cross-legged with tight animal skin and a bone needle stitching a design into the stretched hide. She walked up to greet them all. As she approached, Sarah grabbed a small tupperware and handed it to her.
"Feeling okay Pumpkin, getting knocked out twice in one day. Quite the start."
"Yeah, you could say that," she admitted.
The tupperware had a small wooden fork strapped to the top. It held a bunch of lukewarm curry and veg. Popping the lid the warm smell of onions and tomatoes filled her nose. Stirring it she let the conversation and laughter wash over her. Brad laughing much louder than the rest. She glanced over worried at him. Sarah caught her eye and winked, leaning over.
"He is still enjoying the pain killers I gave him."
"Ah, is he going to be okay?"
"Yeah. Mist cats are mostly harmless but they claw through almost anything. But they are mostly solitary. Still, the goop is dangerous. He will be fine."
"Is it okay for us to be up here making noise?"
"Yeah we are back in Blue. Besides Gun and Mal are on watch we could not be safer."
Looking over at Ka'shek she looked at him working a complex design into the stretch hide. Ka was pulling a bone needle through working a shiny silver thread into a complex design of sharp symbols she couldn't understand. She quietly ate her curry listening to the twins joking about as she watched the needle pull and poke. Slowly the design layering onto itself, growing in complexity. Watching the complex pattern grow she gently asked, "Ka what are you making?"
"I am weaving a ward of protection and hearth into the hide of this Wildebeest. It will protect my dreams and guard off evil spirits as I sleep. One cannot weave powerful hearth protection when travelling." Ka paused as he knotted a thread and clipped it. Pulling out another slightly different colour thread holding it up to the light as he rethreaded the needle. Pickle watched fascinated in the process as he tied off the length of the thread.
"Ka?" she waited for him to register her question, he gently hummed his acknowledgement. "So is it a thing you wear?"
Before Ka could answer Brad stumbled over, "It's his blankie, the big green giant is scared his brothers are going to come fuck him in the night."
A chill silence ran through the group. As Brian grabbed his brother, "Hey let's go grab a drink?"
"Don't give me this shit, why are we protecting people from monsters with fucking monsters."
Pickle watched everyone eye each other. Ka ignored the barrage continuing with his needlework. Sarah and Frank looked angrily at Brad while Brian looked around worried at all the faces. Brian tried pulling his brother away to the ladder. "Come on bro, you need a drink."
Brian pulled him away towards the ladder, carefully helping him down the ladder into the lounge. Frank looked the most awkward of all of them remaining.
"Sorry you had to deal with that Ka, he normally is better at holding his tongue." Frank was fiddling with his mug nursing the coffee looking worried at Ka'Shek. The orc continued working his needle leaving a silence in the air until he poked a new stitch then looked up at Frank and in his kinda melodic deep tones answered.
"We do not entertain fear or its weakened cousin of hate. Many slings have been fired at my people as the nightmares of the world have turned cowards to throw their stones at those who stand tall in this age. Many of the tribes worry and let their own fear exclude them but I choose to wander into the world to collect the good and bad. Even little men and their moods."
Sarah seethed at Ka's gentle and thoughtful response. "That is complete bullshit Ka. You should not have to nurse their feelings or my father's. You have a right to be angry at those idiots. Why Gunther hires them on I will never know."
Frank looked even more embarrassed as he responded, "Well it's hard to hire. The tower needs men." He paused awkwardly looking at this daughter and Pickle. "And women of course. But it's dangerous. Most sign up with the bigger towers. Not many free agents who are prepared to go low emission."
Sarah looked mildly less upset, "Still it is wrong. Plain wrong. I am glad they are not company."
"Wait company?" Pickle asked, "Someone said that earlier. I thought everyone on the tower was company?"
Frank shook his head, "No most on the towers are hired hands. Some like Ka have tribal associations which means they can't join. Others don't have the credit or trust. You are the first new company stakeholder we have had in seven years." Sarah was nodding enthusiastically as her father went on, "Sarah was born into it. Gunther and Malcolm hired me on to retrofit the tower. At the time I was one of the designers on the original wall project. This is one of the last remaining towers. I joined the company not long after with my wife. Leon and Willy a decade or so later."
"So why did Gunther let me just buy stake?" Pickle asked a little bit angry at her complete lack of understanding. Sarah and Frank looked at each other awkwardly. Frank looked back at her, paused then took a sip from his mug before staring into the mug considering. He slowly answered.
"Well, I can't speak for the Captain. He has his reasons but he must have seen something in you."
Her mind reeling at this response her brain popped a fact up from the depths, "Wait you said Gunther, Malcolm, Leon, Sarah and you... what about Scraps?"
"Oh no she has her own recovery and artefact business. She just runs our front office and does transit. But she is family."
Pickle looked up at the tower where Gunther and Malcolm both stood watch, wondering what was going through their minds. This little girl, as Gunther put it, showed up not to their office but the platform. Money in hand requesting assignment to one of the most dangerous places in the world. What an idiot she was, but she was here. She looked down at the empty tupperware and then at Ka quietly working on his blanket. Finally, she looked back at Gunther and Malcolm on the tower. The creepy tall mage made her reach up and touch her helmet self-consciously.
Flashes of light off in the distance east lit up the darkening sky. More booms continued off in the distance and flashes of gunfire as munitions were deployed en masse. Frank smiled, pulling his chair around so he had a view of the Mars tower. The big black needle in the sky. It's sharp pointy relief a knife-edge in the sky lit up by explosions in the distance. Frank laughed, "Our own fireworks show."
They watched the fireworks explode in the dark sunset sky. Watching the sky darken as the battle raged on. It seemed to grow in intensity over time. After a while, Brian joined them to watch the distant battle. Eventually, as it grew quiet and the sun hints of warmth drained from the day they saw the night sky fill with stars. Looking up at the bright night sky.
Living in the city she was used to seeing a dark grey blanket with a coin of white for the moon. Here the sky was a dark blanket with blues and swirls, deep colours she had never seen in the deep black. Crisp starlight painted the sky though no moon was to be seen in the dark sky. It was a stunning sight she felt like she could reach out and scoop a handful of stars. They were bright and solid without the gravity wakes and haze of the city.
Maybe she hadn't made the worst mistake.
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.