Akkaia is not a forgiving world. The equator is marred by a sheen of dead off-white, a great plain of salt from an ocean boiled into nothingness. The poles are heavily forested with thick, calamitous jungles, and everything between those two extremes is red, unyielding rock and dry yellow grass. Water would be worth more than gold, if Akkaians gave a damn about yellow lead.
Skips Luke was the exception to that rule. Wiry and silver-haired, he crouched behind the lip of an outcrop, battered optics pointed at his target.
The waystation huddled between two great boulders that leaned against each other drunkenly, their red hides fading to orange where the sun scoured them day after day. The heat was truly merciless here, scant miles from the northmost tip of the great plains. There was no other civilisation for hundreds of miles in any direction; the utter barren bleakness was enough to deter many would-be explorers and thieves. But Skips Luke was no ordinary thief.
“You see any guards?” Moge called from the base of the outcrop.
Moge was younger than Skips by a good dozen years, and a great deal stockier. “No better man to have at your back,” Skips would always say. Moge would always laugh and change the subject.
“Nah, I don’t. Don’t mean there ain’t any though.” Skips chewed the inside of his cheek thoughtfully.
“There’s gotta be. You said they was keepin’ something mighty pricey in there, right?” Moge gingerly clambered up alongside Skips, trying his damnedest to stay hidden. Skips shuffled aside to give him room and nodded.
“Aye. Something so pricey, in fact, that they didn’t dare say what it was on the comms.”
“Aw shit, Skips. You sayin’ we don’t even know what we’re stealin’?”
“Look, Moge, it’s Scarthagen. And what do I always say about Scarthagen?”
“They gots too much money, and they use it to buy peace an’ make war outta it… You say that every bloody time.”
“Aye, and when have I been wrong?”
“First time for everything, Skips.”
Moge held out a hand for the optics. Skips passed them, and began to slide carefully down the rear of the outcrop. Moge lingered for a moment longer, trying to scope out whatever the waystation might be hiding. It was to no avail.
“Aye. Pricey as hell, and guarded by isolation.” Skips smiled. Nowhere was isolated when you had the right sort of friends. With help from some unscrupulous city-folk from Lontar, they’d narrowed down the possible holding sites to three candidates. One had been abandoned for years, and the other destroyed by insurgency skirmishing. Thus, this one little waystation, hidden between the rocks, had to hold the object of their desire.
Now that Skips could see it up close, though, ‘little’ wasn’t the right word. Like all Scarthagen buildings, the waystation was sleek in a way that seemed pompous among the rust-blood-red Akkaian sands. It was as if the building was turning up a nonexistent nose at the thought of dirt befouling any part of it. And yet, dirt there was. And nothing else.
The slow walk down the hill and through the scrub had left Moge slightly winded, and now his breathing filled the silence. The waystation had no bored, overpaid guards to sneak past. It didn’t have any miserable, underpaid ones either. There was only the dust, the arrogant architecture, and the silence. Even the crunch of Skips’ boots as he knelt made him wince. He drew a few tools from his belt and began hunting for a maintenance panel. Moge kept watch, still and silent. Skips could feel the tension, the taut silence waiting to be shattered.
The maintenance panel came free with a pop that might as well have been a gunshot. Skips squared his shoulders and leaned into the cavity, expecting the usual trial by wire that was Scarthagen security. Instead, he found a mess of shredded cables and ruined control consoles, splattered with dark stains, the source of which he cared not to dwell upon.
“Moge, something is wonky here. We might have a bit of a job on our hands.”
“You’re telling me, mate… I think we might have company.” In all the years he’d worked with Moge, this was as close to fearful as Skips had ever heard him. Even during the occupation, when they were young men with all the foibles of the young, Moge had been stoic as a rock. Skips pulled himself out of the cavity to see Moge staring back the way they’d come, rifle gripped firmly across his chest. He jumped when Skips laid a hand on his shoulder, but his eyes didn’t leave the narrow defile at the far end of the gulley.
“I saw something move,” he whispered. “Something… Too long. Long arms. Definitely not human.”
Skips blew out a heavy sigh and rubbed his temples. “Can’t go back now, mate, we’ll be flat broke if we don’t find any good gear for the insurgency! Probably just some scavenger thing looking for an easy meal among the rocks. Easy now, Moge.”
Moge stared for a moment longer, then nodded and lowered the rifle. It was an old thing, pre-colonial and rugged, with crude-welded iron sights and a tendency to jam. But it could take most ammo types, and was cheap to fix. If you weren’t Scarthagen, you made do.
With the controls shredded beyond use, the only way they could open the door was with brute strength. Skips and Moge put their shoulders to the sliding metal surface and heaved with all their might. It would’ve been easier five years ago. Hell, it would’ve been easy with one more man. But Skips had a legend to maintain, to travel light and work alone. To be daring. No matter the cost. As the rusted, grimy metal slowly groaned open, Skips cursed the day he’d ever grown a sense of adventure.
The interior of the waystation was dank, dark, and grimier than the Sole City’s sordid underbelly. It struck Skips that the facility had been completely abandoned for some reason. The wind peaked its howling again, and he fought off a shiver as he stepped inside. The smell of rust and rot filled his nose, and the once-grand corridors echoed with footsteps he wished were quieter.
The interior was Scarthagen through and through. Sleek panels, spartan living for the menials, probably a cushy office for the executive. That and any armoury would be their target. Weapons for the insurgency, the interesting stuff for fences in Sole City. It was a strategy that made for a decent living; if nearly dying counted as living. Skips smiled wryly at the thought as they crept through the passages, shoulder-mounted lumens showing the way. Past a cramped mess hall buzzing with flies. Through a barracks filled with tossed sheets and unkempt beds, all covered in dust. Deeper into rot and gloom and abandonment, their nerves singing all the while. Every scampering windrat and flickering light pushed them closer to the edge of reason, and by the time they rounded a corner and came to thick blast doors with an inset keypad, both men were ready to cut and run at the drop of a hat.
“Right, this is it.” Skips knelt in front of the control panel and pulled a few stained pieces of paper from a hidden pocket under his fatigues. The codes scribbled on them were worth a two-generation stay in the labour camps, if not outright execution. Scarthagen had little patience for thieves. The door groaned open on half-ruined servos after the second attempt at entering the codes, and a waft of musty air spilled into the corridor.
The room beyond defied Skips’ expectations. It was festooned with thick, gnarled webbing of an origin he couldn’t place, the finery of an executive office shrouded. Only the central desk was untouched, even by dust; a ring of clean floor surrounded it and made a mockery of time and wind. And there, sitting innocuously on the desk, was a silver… thing. Skips could only compare it to an undersized potato, but he’d never claimed to be a man of words. It shimmered in the lumen-light, composed of tightly locked silver strands. They looked almost like muscles, like those exposed in the flayed sandbeasts his mother would hang in the cooling shed behind her butcher’s stand. As Skips stepped across the threshold of the dustless circle, he felt his skin prickle slightly. Moge stood watch at the doorway, and Skips could feel the disapproving look without turning round to see. But that was the way of it. Skips played the big damn hero and took stupid risks, Moge watched his back and cleaned up the mess.
The silver thing was cool in his hands, pleasantly so. Skips tucked it into a secure pocket and suddenly felt a patter of dust trickle down onto his forehead. Whatever the object could do, a sturdy set of pre-occupation fatigues did a good enough job of blocking it.
“We should hit the armoury and get the hell out.” Moge’s whisper was strained. The atmosphere was far from welcoming, and Skips wasn’t one to overstay his welcome. He nodded, and turned to lead them down another level. But before he could, something caught his ear. A shift in air currents, perhaps. A skitter of movement too large to be a windrat. Something was coming. He turned back to tell Moge.
The corridor stretched empty behind him.
With a sense of abject doom, Skips looked up.
The thing on the ceiling was huge, spindly and chitinous. In the low lumen light, it appeared a similar shade of brown to the plagues of cicada shells that littered the badlands every few years. Its mouthparts moved languidly as it ate its way through the last of Moge’s head. He hadn’t even had time to scream. The sounds were growing louder now, though still eerily muffled.
Skips was running before the sight of Moge, headless and pierced by innumerable forelimbs, could register properly. He sprinted back the way they’d come, worn boots slapping through the dust and his own ragged breathing filling the corridors as he went. And all the while, his careening thoughts rebounded from the single, unyielding truth. Moge was dead. Their luck had run out. Scarthagen had made something truly terrible, and left it to rot in the waystation.
It’s going to get out. Skips knew what he had to do. That thing would wreak havoc if it got loose. He skidded to a stop, framed in the light from the open blast door. His hands shook as they pulled free a pair of metallic cylinders and tossed them to either corner. They began to beep rapidly in the half-light, red lights flashing from either end. Skips ran even faster now, heart beating as raggedly as his breathing. The sand gave beneath his feet, just enough to tire him that little bit more and slow his strides.
So when the twin cylinders exploded with the force of a small asteroid impact behind him, Skips was close enough to feel the edge of the shockwave jolt his insides, and look back to see the plume of dust and smoke rise behind him. A few more steps and he began to feel wetness seeping down his back, and a sort of cold numbness. He staggered to a halt.
Blood splattered the sand below him as he breathed raggedly.
His vision began to grow dark.