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Resting point
The Dime
wilowisp
Ok, after 3 hours of writing over the past 3 days, this is what has come together. No preconceived plan or intention when I started. It is at a good stopping point, so I'm not sure if I need to continue down this path, or switch back to Diego now that I've worked the rust off my fingers.

Dead Shores

When they released him from Maltiere Prison, there was no one there to greet him. It shouldn’t have surprised him - the type of persons he had called friend before his incarceration were the very reasons he had ended up there for twenty long years. They all probably thought him dead or didn’t bother to think of him at all. Still, the wind coming off the gray-skied shores cut a little deeper on this side of the walls, where he had dared hope someone, anyone would have been to welcome him back to the world of free men.

One of the guards hauled his meager bag from the floor of the small dinghy and dumped it roughly at his feet. Then without a word they pushed off again, back to the steel walls of Maltiere. Even one last insult would have been nice to hear; a rude joke, a taunt on how empty the dock was. But they were done with him. He had served his time, had been released, and now was outside of their world and their concern. All the beatings and bruises of the last two decades erased. He picked up his bag, wounded that the men who had watched him, thrashed him, degraded him could so easily return his voice and then just forget him.

There was no bus to take him back to the cities, no taxis to hail down or traffic to beg a ride. The coastline had died while he was in Maltiere, now just an empty gray stretch where he stood completely alone. There wasn’t even the chance of waiting for one of the great iron cars that had brought him to the dock twenty years past - those had stopped running at least five years ago. Maltiere was dying too, consuming the inmates it had, spitting out the husks, with no fresh meat coming in.

He set down the shore towards the east and the city of Hark, where he had been living before Maltiere had stolen his life. It would be well over two-days of walking, but there was nothing waiting for him at the docks. He could go west to cities like Leven and Omir, where his crimes would be unknown, but what was the point? After twenty years, he would be as much of a ghost in his own town, and at least he would know where to get a drink and a lay. The thought of each was an abstract happiness, a pleasant illusion, because the memories of such indulgences were so long ago, through fogs of labor, confinement and silence.

He tried talking to himself as he meandered down the coast, amidst piles of withered sea kelp and huge, melted hunks of metal. His mouth ached as he tried to form his lips into familiar shapes, shapes forbidden for so long. His throat could only muster the most guttural of noises - hisses and grunts and long cracking breaths. The pressure of his tongue against his own teeth was agony, and his cheeks were taut against movement. When after a half-an-hour he was still unable to create even a single intelligible word, he began to suspect that the block they had placed in his speech center hadn‘t come out so cleanly upon his release.

But then, he reasoned, so what? Would any of that mean he shouldn’t keep on his solitary march to Hark? In Hark he had met beggars who could do little more than chew their own tongue and spit the blood at passersby, and still they had always found a dry bed come nightfall. The city was made of alleyways and forgotten corners, which was why he had fit in so well the first time around.

So he continued on his trek, this time in deliberate silence, picking his way in between the ruins of great war machines thrown up by the powerful waves of storms at sea. He barely noticed them - they were worn and comfortable in the sands, relics of hundreds of years of naval battles gone awry for all sides. Maybe there were slightly more now than when he first went to Maltiere, but that could have been from fresh war or from an angry ocean churning up its troubled past.

He assumed it was morning when they had brought him to the prison gates, and that now it was sometime around noon, but he couldn’t be sure. The overcast sky was giving up no clues as to the location of the sun. He would know when night fell, for sure. He would slowly lose sight of the great iron wrecks in the distance that he followed like breadcrumbs dropped by a giant. It was far too early to expect the lights of Hark to glow in the distance as a new beacon - at some point he would have to find a comfortable place on the beach amidst the refuse and the rubble.

The waves were a gentle roar to his ears, a constant race and retreat that continued without pause. No matter how thick the walls, all the prisoners could always hear the waves in the distance, reminding them of their isolation and insignificance. On more than one occasion, all the guards had raised the alarms falsely, claiming the sea was rising and soon all the inmates would be drown in their own locked cells. The guards were good at their abuses, for the fear never lost its edge. He wondered if he would miss the sounds of the waves once he was in Hark, or if like in Maltiere, the sounds echoed throughout the entire city so that even the most landward home was constantly reminded of the presence of the mighty ocean. It wasn’t something he remembered from the first time, but his perspective had since changed.

The gray wash of everything, from sky to sea to sand, meant that when night fell, he did not notice for a while. Eventually, he placed his hand in front of his face, palm out, and could not see the familiar markings on the back that indicated his time as prisoner Y05V6. He dropped his bag into the sand, intent on resting in that very spot. He had seen no sign of life along the beach - no beast or bird, insect, crab or fish. He didn’t think he would be bothered until the morning.

He was wrong. There was a sharp, familiar kick to his side that, while oddly gentle still woke him from his slumber. He rolled onto his back, hands up in the air as a sign of submission to the guards. When a pair of cuffs didn’t immediately clamp to his wrist, he opened his eyes cautiously.

A dark skinned figure stood over him, bright green goggles obscuring most of the face. The mouth was clearly visible, though, turned down in a sharp grimace. A bulky duster jacket flapped harshly in the wind that had come up overnight.

“You can put those hands down,” she said, pulling the goggles up to reveal copper-brown eyes. He let his hands fall to his side, relieved to find he was not in his Maltieran cell. And that his brain was still understanding human speech, even if it wasn’t so keen on making it. He pushed himself up to sitting, intent on standing to meet the stranger eye to eye, when a quick brush of the jacket revealed a black firearm at her belt. “You can also stay on the ground for now.” The mouth was still a hard frown in his direction.

He watched her fingers play along the handle of the gun while she scanned the beach. Years of prison life had taught him how to observe without seeming like it. Trouble was that this woman had the same skill, and so they sized each other up without sharing a single glance. He wasn’t planning on violence or escape - where would he be escaping to? - so he was content to pretend to watch the rolling waves.

His new guard let out a sharp whistle, the kind he had never managed to master. She nodded to some distant figure on the beach, detaching itself from one of the scraps of debris. The figure started down the shoreline towards them, head shifting erratically between the hunks of metal and something carried in its hands. It didn’t seem to notice him sitting on the floor until it was on top of them.

“Em, we got some hot ones here! I’ll get them pinpointed and we’ll- whoa!” she stopped so suddenly in her tracks she almost toppled onto him. She pulled up her goggles as well, bright violet eyes looking him over. She was slighter than her cohort, and probably younger too. “Yowza! What we got here?”

“Flotsam washed up from Maltiere, from the look of his hand,” said the woman called Em. He couldn’t argue, for several reasons. “But I don’t like that he showed up exactly where we were planning on scrapping.” She stopped her continual scanning of the beach to return her hard gaze to him. “You got a name?”

He did. He hadn’t been able to utter it for years, and he longed to shout the name at the top of his lungs - to stop being Y05V6, tweak, dirt kisser, the innumerable nicknames that the guards taunted him with. But his brain wouldn’t let him. His mouth twitched and spasmed, his tongue flailed helplessly and he harshly whispered nothing. Em wasn’t pleased.

“You simple, or having a seizure?” she asked with a hint of distrust in her voice.

“Em, leave off,” the other woman said, coming to his defense with unexpected charity. She knelt down to his side and smiled at him. “They rip out the talking part of the brain when guys go to Maltiere. I’ve heard of more than a few, they don’t put it back in right. You know old Pankin, right? Got that verbal tick, always running through those lists of colors.”

“Yeah, I know old Pankin. I also know that you’d best leave off cozening our Maltieren guest here and get back to pinpointing our hot engines so we can get out of here.”

“We ain’t leaving him, are we?” He had no idea what he had done to win this woman’s championship in the face of her companion.

“If we do or if we don’t, that ain’t your call, Doma,” Em said. “Get back to sussing out which of these god ugly hunks of junk got something hot for us.” It was a clear dismissal, and the violet-eyed woman, Doma, wrinkled her face into a pout, picked up her handheld device and went back to the giant ruins. This time, though, she kept looking over her shoulders to keep an eye on the two.

Em sighed and sat herself down next to him in the sand. It seemed she had decided he wasn’t a threat, or at least one she could deal with quickly if the need arose. She looked out across the water, and he thought her the kind of woman who couldn’t easily manage a soft stare - if she was looking at you, it was business, and if it wasn’t business, she had to look away.

“It true?” she started. “What Dominica said about them…y’know, poking around with the talking part of your brain?” He nodded, and she made a small, grunt-like noise. “Damn. Pretty sick idea of keeping the peace, even if you are guilty as night. How long were you in there?”

He held up all his fingers once then twice.

“Twenty? What the hell did you do, crime or Sin? Never mind… even if you could tell me I’d probably be happiest not knowing.” There were crooked judges involved, and men with vendettas against other men than weren’t him, and empty promises to the citizens of Hark. He was guilty, there was no doubt, but even the prosecutors had been a little surprised by the sentence.

“Can you at least write your name?” she asked. He didn’t know. He put a finger into the cold sand and tried to trace out the first few letters, but they came out like arcane symbols that neither of them recognized. He clenched his jaw tight in frustration, wiping away the awkward letters with a single punch. He just wanted his name to be as free as his body, dammit!

Em leaned forward and started writing in the sand. She spelled out H-A-R-K. “That’s where we’re headed after we do some scrapping. Can you read that?” He nodded in earnest, and pointed east down the shoreline. “So you can understand what we say, and you can read. But no talking and no writing.” Apparently so. Em stood up from the sand. “Well, Wi-oh-five-vee-six, either you are a helluva liar or your in a world of messed up. In either case, I don’t really like the idea of bringing you with us, but the Twins preach charity among the damned.”

He stood up as well, picking up his bag and gesturing that he would just continue down the shore alone. Em laughed.

“It’s three days of walking to reach Hark from here, what with the new shoreline and all. You don’t got any food, and I would highly recommend you avoid drinking from the ocean, especially these days.” She came in a little closer to him. “But I want you to realize that this is just an act of charity. We get you there, we cut you loose. You understand?” He nodded.

Dominica let out a huge cry from some five-hundred feet down the beach, and started yelling Em’s name excitedly. Em motioned that he should follow as they trudged through the sand to where the smaller woman was waving her device high in the air next to a twisted arc of metal. She was yelling something but it was impossible to make out over the rising wind. It was only when she started running to meet them that she was audible.

“Em, Em, Em! We got something hotter than a hellhole down there. About twenty feet, this bit is just the tip. I don’t know if it’s a full matrix, or a powered box or what, but we need to call Gix to get the excay out here now! Look, look, see?” She thrust the display of her box at both of them, but it made no sense to him.

“Alright, Doma, calm down,” Em said, brushing away Dominica’s agitated hands. “I’ll get him in. In the meantime, see if there’s anything hot around that we can pull by ourselves.” She didn’t seem to be listening, eyes happily pouring over the screens read-out. “Doma!” Em barked, and the small woman jumped and scurried off quickly to the ruins still unchecked for… whatever it was they were scrapping for.

“Maybe you could earn your way to Hark,” Em muttered only partially to him as she took a small tablet from her duster pocket. She tapped it a few times and a screen popped to life with a discordant hum. She fiddled with some knobs until the hum went away, and the screen filled with the image of a wiry looking man. “Gix, pull on in with the excay.”

“About time I heard from you!” the man, Gix, said. “I’ve got scans overhead every five minutes and we both know the engine is leaking enough to tip off the most primitive Neanderthal if they get close. So dead shore, we outta here?”

“Nope, found something big, Doma says it’s buried, ‘bout twenty feet. Get your ass over here.”

“What? We don’t have time to be digging around in the sand! We have patrols out there, and more than enough illegal goods on board to get us sent away for years.”

Em winced at that part, looking briefly in his direction, but they both knew it was too late to play it off. Whatever they were pulling from the machines, it was illegal, and so he had left prison to find himself again in the company of criminals.

“Gix, I am so looking forward to the day when your balls drop.”

“Oh har-har, Emzhadeen, very funny. I’m serious, we should cut and run.”

“Stop wasting time. Man up and get the excay here.” On the screen, the nervous Gix looked like he was going to argue some more. “Do it!” and she shut off the screen.

They stood for a time with only the sound of the waves and the wind. Finally, she said “You help us dig that thing up, you get passage to Hark, guilt free. And a meal once we get there. Then you’re cut loose again. Deal?”

It was a familiar situation to him, a small task to get a small return and maybe it was a little illegal, but who would know? It was the first step on a path that had led him to Maltiere. He wasn’t sure he wanted to take that path again not even a day after leaving the prison walls. But he looked eastward down the shore, the endless trail of broken machines and dying seaweed. Not even a gull in the air. When the guards had left him alone on the docks, they had left him without a choice.

He shook Em’s outstretched hand, promising himself that once they were in Hark and he had had his meal, he’d getas far away from this crew as possible.

“Deal then, Wi-oh. My name’s Emzhadeen Ajady, but most people call me Em. Though I guess you won’t be calling me much of anything, will you?”

###

The excavator rolled into view within the half-hour, while Doma was still following the beeps of her scanner from wreckage to wreckage. He and Em had planted themselves next to the melted spire than marked Doma’s hidden treasure. They didn’t say much, him because of his brain’s burnt fuse, and Em because she didn’t like to talk, especially to those she didn’t trust yet. He could appreciate her attitude, but was envious that the choice not to talk for her was just that - a choice.

The sound of the excavator coming over the hills of dead grass overpowered the sound of the vicious wind, but he still heard the waves in the back of his ears. The excay was an ugly thing, cobbled together with as many different tools as one could imagine - shovels, cranes, lights, drills, picks, and something suspiciously like a cannon. It was hard to make out the cabin at the center of the mechanical chaos, the head in the midst of the dervish’s whirling. It rolled up next to them and stopped with an angry hiss.

The wiry, nervous man poked his head out of a window. “Ok, I’m here. So where to I dig?”

Em patted the metal frame next to her. “This is it. Doma says twenty feet, but who knows. Took you long enough.” She moved into range of the excay’s tools, climbing through the maze work to stand next to the cab’s open window.

“Like I said, we’ve got scans everywhere, so I was trying to avoid being caught, if that’s ok,” he returned sourly. Then Gix’s eyes settled on him. “And who in the hell is that?” No small amount of panic began to rise in Gix’s voice.

“Hired help,” Em said, and then she pointed at the buried wreck. “That’s all you need to worry about.”

“But who is he? Can we trust him?”

Em gave him a look from her perch by the cab. “More like he has no choice but to trust us.” He wasn’t fond of the pity he saw in her eyes. “You can call him Wi-oh.”

“Wi-oh? What the hell kind of name is Wi-oh?” He had to agree with Gix.

“You can call him the Great Albier Vestranomon for all I care. Just get the wreck dug up so we know if Doma’s scans are legit.”

Gix didn’t like that response - he didn’t seem to like any of the orders Em gave him, and it was clear that Emzhadeen was the one giving orders. Gix fought her but submitted, and Doma needed her to keep her focused. And he needed her sense of contract to get him to Hark. So the name ‘Wi-oh’ would have to do for now.

Excavating in the sand was tough work, with each grain desperate to go tumbling back down into the hold they were digging. He worked alongside Em in the pit, attaching the crane hooks every time it seemed they uncovered a piece that they could work towards their leverage. More than a few points of contact had snapped in half, done in by rust and age. Eventually, they reached the bulk of the wreckage, and it was mostly up to the crane to try to wrest is free. Em shared a flask of water with him as they surveyed the wreck.

Doma had returned from further down the shoreline. She had in her hands a small rusted box that she had pried off another piece of twisted metal. “Fully aligned crystals. Nothing active, but just waiting for the juice!” He didn’t know what that meant, but Em seemed satisfied with the find, and Doma tossed the goods into the excay’s cab. Then she turned her attention to the piece of debris they had halfway freed from the sand.

“Oh yeah, this baby’s sleeping, but wake her up and there’s gonna be hell raising, at your service!” She seemed gleeful at the thought of whatever weaponry lay dormant in the machine. “Kristo is gonna wet himself over this.”

“Can you get in from here, pull out what’s hot? I think the cranes are at max for getting it any further out of the sand.”

Dominica frowned in thought. “It’s not like a case of crystals or just a live board. It’s an entire… thing.” She gestured pointlessly with her hands, trying to communicate the complexity. “Best thing to do is pull up the entire thing and drag it back with us.”

“Are you crazy!?” Gix yelled from the cab window. “We try to haul that back with us we’re gonna break down before we even hit the offway!”

“Well what the hell do you want me to do about that?” Doma returned. “You want me to go back in time and ask the designers to please make their onboard systems a little easier to steal? Let me get right on that, Gix!”

“I’ve got power reserves at half and an airspace full of people looking for thieves like us, so excuse me for thinking we should dump this wreck and get ourselves back to safety!”

They continued to scream back and forth at each other while Em walked out to the half-buried wreckage. The cables of the crane were still taut and strained. “Doma,” she said softly, but was ignored. “Doma!” The other woman spun mid insult.

“Cut it up, pull out the pieces.” Doma stared at Em, open-jawed. “If the full system is functional, that means the pieces are good, right?”

“Well, right, but… Em, I can’t put it back together if I take it apart. There’s no one on this side of the ocean that can do that.”

“Doesn’t matter, I’m not asking you to put it back together. We can’t take it as it, we can’t leave it, we cut it up into pieces and glean what we can.”

“You know it’s a thousand times more valuable as a whole than what we‘d get for the pieces,” Doma warned.

Em shook her head. “We don’t have that choice. Cut it up. Get what you can, it’s better than nothing.”

Doma clearly didn’t like that option, but wordlessly got a box of tools from the excay and climbed out onto the surface of the wreck. The cranes buckled slightly, Gix yelled at her for the extra weight, she yelled back at him for calling her fat. She pulled off some plating, revealing complex patterns of metal and glass underneath, and went to disconnecting parts as large as she could.

Em had found her way over to his side. “It’s a shame. Dominica’s right, a fully operational system would have fetched a feast on the market, far more than selling it piece by piece.” They stood side by side in the wind, watching Doma’s quick fingers dismantle the hidden treasure. “But Twins help me, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe it’s a thousand times safer to not have something like that alive and awake in Hark.”

He knew that Em was using him as a confidant because he couldn’t talk. And because she probably knew that he was planning to be out of their lives as soon as he could. She was probably counting on it. It was strange, though, to have someone speak so softly to him by choice. In Maltiere, the guards were always screaming, or sneering or slinging their vicious lies. The prisoners couldn’t speak at all, and those who would have spoken in whispers if they had a voice were the ones who lasted the shortest.

Doma brought the dismantled pieces to the edge of the wreck, and he and Em took them from her and loaded them into the flatbed of the excay. It took the better part of two hours for Doma to work her way through the entire piece. She eventually was able to slip inside and would be gone for quiet minutes while Em watched the waves and Gix tapped nervously on the side of the cab. Then she would reappear with a new piece, an oddly configured mechanism of shiny parts and an almost palpable electricity.

Em didn’t say much more, except for asking Doma for updates. Eventually, Doma declared the iron beast gutted from anything salvageable and worth anything on the market. Gix was glad to hear it and almost cut the cranes loose before Doma had fully left the beast’s back. She yelled some more. Em had him help secure the payload to the flatbed, and then they both took a seat on the edge. Doma climbed in the cab with Gix, and took his bag with her, promising to keep it ‘safe’ with a wink.

The wheels of the excay started to grind away from the beach slowly. He looked out at the cold waves, relentless in their swell and retreat, still in his ears despite the deafening road of the excay engine. The tall pieces of melted iron stood like silent monoliths against the ashen sky. Gix estimated they would be in Hark by nightfall as they head south to the offway.

“We’ll get you a good meal there, as promised,” Em told him. “You must be starved.” In truth, he hadn’t noticed his gnawing stomach. In Maltiere, the prisoners got used to sporadic meals. At the moment, food would be welcomed, but it was hardly what burdened his mind. He waited until the shoreline disappeared over the horizon. But still he could hear the waves. “You did good, Wi-oh.”

He tried one last time to say his own name, but his face contorted, his wind pipe seized up. Instead, he just nodded. They reached the offway, deserted but still in good condition, and started to pick up some speed towards Hark. He wondered if that city would turn out to be just another dead shore for him.

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Well, this caught my interest. I really do want to read more, to learn more about this world and to find out what happens next.

That's no small thing!

Wow, that's a huge encouragement! Thank you. Perhaps this is territory best not left unexplored.

Yay! Ok, I guess I need to see what happens after what happens next. This 'planning only one scene in the future' is kinda exciting.

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