No one here is who you think

No one here is who you think

[Told in the words of Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan]

If you want to make it in this world you need scrap; if you want scrap you need to travel with Scrappers; and if you travel with Scrappers you’re going to tangle with Chroniclers. Chroniclers are a kind of pimp, squatting over the ravaged body of the world that was, dealing in scrap and iridium secrets instead of flesh and burn-dreams. They sell secrets the way my kind sell dreams, and they use up Scrappers like an unruly flesh-pedlar. And just like every pimp they have their thugs and enforcers, the people they call Fuses and Shutters. This is the tale of how my little gang fell afoul of the Fuse called Case, and killed him.

My little gang haven’t been together long, but we’re tight. We are five:

  • Me, Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan, I trade in secrets and other people’s sins, but I have a knife for your ribs, if one dark night I decide you need it
  • Tesla, a Scrapper girl who is a master in crafting and repairing things, but has forgotten more about her cat Coils than she has ever learnt about human relations
  • Judie, a Scrapper girl who knows about artifacts and trade, the kind of girl who’ll get you rich in the wilderness if Tesla doesn’t get us all dead
  • Ronan, a Clanner from some hold-out enclave in Borca, who understands nothing but force and fear
  • Karl, a Spitalian who doesn’t smell too bad or act too crazy for a Viviesectionist Fascist

We met on a job for some Chronicler called Carl, no relation to the mad bio-fascist of course, and since we were all heading towards Justitian after the completion of our job, we decided to stick together for safety. Just because we’re in the wilderness doesn’t mean there aren’t towns where we can’t attend to our vices; and if there is a place that caters to the appetites of the living, then I know of it. So I led our little party to a dusty, nowhere town called Tumbler, that is famous for the ales it brews. After a couple of days of camping and burning leperos, everyone needed a hearty drink, so into town we went.

The ale was as good as its reputation, but the hospitality was a little rough and the other guests were nasty. There were two men drinking at a table when we arrived, giving off the cool air of menace that tells anyone with sense to stay away and mind their own business. Of course that’s not enough of an air of anything to discourage Tesla from disturbing them with breezy talk of treasures lost, until Karl managed to drag her away. We all noticed something off about those men, but didn’t think more of it until the inkeep’s son burst in, proudly waving some drafts around and declaring to all who would listen that he had made some money. This stupid man-child’s mother tried to get him to still his mouth but he was as clueless as Tesla, waving those drafts around like a fool and bragging loudly until those two men stood up, marched over and punched him down. I thought that king-hit was maybe just a sign of a short temper but something else was up, because they started demanding to know where he got his drafts from, and one of them was standing on his hand while the other wrenched his head around. It was a paltry handful of drafts too, not worth shaking someone down for, and these boys were deadly grim about it. Our Spitalian doesn’t like to see idiots beaten for no reason, and stepped in with splayer in hand to enforce a little peace, and that’s when one of those two boys pulled out a shocker and let rip on Karl.

A shocker means either these two boys were Chroniclers, or they were the kind of men who kill Chroniclers. I stepped in to break up the fight and calm it all down, and that’s when I saw that yes these boys had Chronicler tattoos on their heads, but they were trying to hide them. I pushed one away and put some authority over on the other one, enough to break up the fight before our Clanner went psychopathic, but things were tense there and our Spitalian was standing there shaking, near pissing himself and quivering in the aftermath of the shocker, looking real angry and ready to start burning things down – an impulse that’s never far from action for your average Spitalian – and the whole situation was looking a little tense. But now Tesla had her hand on her shotgun, Judie had parted her stinking robes just enough to show off the pistol at her tattered belt, and everyone was putting on menaces. The two men backed away, and then they left, throwing out a few not-so-subtle hints about what the Chroniclers would do when they heard we were sheltering a fraud and threatening their agents.

We paid it no mind. No blood had been spilled, just a little disagreement amongst travelers. By way of payment for his life I took the man-child’s drafts and handed them over to Judie but she was none too happy with them: counterfeit, she said, a passing likeness to real drafts but nothing that would fool the Chroniclers’ scanners – this was fake money, and the kind of fake money that got you hunted down and murdered if you happened to try and use it. Our little act of kindness wasn’t going to be paying any bills, and instead we’d just made powerful enemies. We were about to take the Spitalian to task for interfering in business not our own when the man-child’s mother reappeared, promising us free run of her bar by way of recompense, and slopping more of her disgusting gendo stew down in front of us. Fair enough, but what did this fraudulent money mean? Everyone knows it’s not good to travel with a mystery at your back, and I never met a mystery that I couldn’t turn to a profit. So we decided to investigate.

While we tried to calm the man-child down and get him to tell us where he got the fake drafts our Spitalian went wandering outside to look around. He remembered that we had seen a little Chronicler Alcove when we entered town and went over to talk to the Chronicler who worked there. That Chronicler, called Token, seemed really eager to spill the beans about the two men we had crossed. They were on a mission to “clean up” a nest of bad people near town who were suspected of producing fake drafts, and anyone who dealt with them. If we really wanted to help the town and make a bit of reward we could get to that nest first and find out who was doing the counterfeiting, then sell our success to those two Chroniclers. Token gave us a map to a nearby stronghold that he thought might be the source of the drafts, though he wasn’t sure. He said we could easily confirm if the stronghold was dealing in fake drafts by trading an artifact with them.  He gave us this big, weird engine-like thing with a couple of lights on it that got Tesla and Judie all excited – a real artifact! – and offered to let us use it provided we took it to that stronghold and traded it for drafts, then did what had to be done if we found out the drafts were fake. Sure! There’s obviously money in this one way or another … why not? Off we went …

Not your average money-lender

Not your average money-lender

The nest was only a few hours away, a warren of overgrown and crumbling warehouses with a larger, more intact building at its center. We picked our way through dusty, vine-clogged streets between rusting, empty buildings until we found ourselves facing this huge central storage building, dark and forbidding and obviously adapted: its crumbling walls were held upright with concrete braces and buttresses, and some of its windows had been patched with plastic. In the middle of this looming masterpiece of jury-rigged pre-eschaton ruin the central doors were cast wide open, and in the darkness within a faint light blinked on and off, strangely inviting amongst the vines, dust and rust. In we went.

The warehouse was empty except for a single container suspended in the air in the middle of the room. It was held in the air by a creaking crane, suspended over a pit in the floor and obviously designed to fall rapidly into the hole if anything went wrong, blocking the pit. A strange contraption we thought, until we saw that the light was a flickering screen inside the container, and heard the Chronicler’s voice.

“DEMAND: Cease and state business, standard entrance protocols!”

Chroniclers’ screeches aren’t speech to me, they’re a mockery of human interaction, but to Scrappers like Tesla and Judy they make perfect sense. One of our stinking wreck-crawlers replied to say we had an artifact to trade, and stepped forward to show off the weird engine thing. The Chronicler’s vocoder descended into a rain of feedback and weird screeching until the weirdo inside the outfit managed to get a hold of his emotions, and then spoke in a higher-pitched, more scratchy tone.

“INITIATE TRADE: Approach, supplicate, ingratiate.”

Tesla did just that, lugging the engine thing forward on her little loot sled until she was close, then grunting and hauling the thing across the small gap onto the front of the container, where the Chronicler sat behind a kind of grille. The Chronicler dragged it inside and squealed in overloaded freqencies of machine-obssessed delight, started fiddling with the dials on the engine-thing.

Apparently this is how Chroniclers trade. Just like a burn-dealer with his most desperate junkie.

The trade didn’t go any further though, because the engine thing blew up with a big roar and a brilliant cascade of sparks and flashes. We all fell back in shock, blinking and stunned, and before we could recover we heard the winches creak and groan, and then squeal as the container fell into the pit. A moment later there was a crash when it hit the bottom, and a great cloud of stinking dust rolled out of the pit. Tesla and Judie were babbling at each other, first in horror at the thought of destroying an artifact, then in anger when they realized Token must have rigged the thing to blow up.

This was only our first disappointment in a long, bloody and dirty afternoon.

Creeping up to the pit edge and looking in, we could see the container broken and surrounded with clouds of dust and what looked like mobs of gendos. There were breaks in the rusted roof, so we lowered ourselves carefully down and into the crate. We were expecting to find the Chronicler dead at his desk, but most of the interior was undamaged – it looked like whatever explosion the Chronicler had triggered was mostly light and sparks, and probably the Chronicler’s suit protected against the blast. They’re tough as well as incomprehensible, those strange digital vultures. We poked around in the crate a bit but there was nothing here and the only way was out, but as we were preparing to leave a huge, probably rabid gendo started hurling itself against the grille that the Chronicler had previously been looking out of. The first heave just shocked us but with its second leap it was obviously going to snap its way through that grille, which was little better than a mosquito net. The Vivisectionist stepped up to the plate, sticking his splayer through the grille and stabbing the stupid great dog as it jumped. The dog fell back with that satisfying whining yap that gendos let rip when they are reminded who is boss, and we decided it was best we not waste any more time in this stinking pit. We jumped out the grille one by one and found ourselves facing a short tunnel. This tunnel opened up into a big space that must have been another part of the warehouse, scattered with containers. In the middle of this huge room there was a big pyramid constructed of containers, all piled up on top of each other in some kind of crazed tribute to … something. The containers arranged around the pyramid formed a kind of labyrinth that we had to enter to get to that pyramid.

As we entered we saw the Chronicler, struggling ahead of us, mask ripped off, probably by the explosion. It was a woman! Do Chroniclers even have a gender? Both our wretched metal-scrapers were silent on that question, but it struck me as a little sly – and was she … an Apocalyptic? Something sinister was happening down here. We were into some kind of plot, no doubt. I don’t know anything about these dirty tech-traders, who leer over old capacitors like a Jehammedan over a set of Borcan tits, but I’m pretty sure that if this was a Chronicler alcove, of this size, there would be more people around, and we wouldn’t be fighting our way through gangs of wild gendos to talk to a Chronicler who can’t identify a jury-rigged artifact. So best to press on and find out who these tricksters are, before we kill them …

We followed her but she disappeared again. When we got closer to the pyramid, in amongst the containers, we saw a big sign painted on one container: an arrow pointing right, with the words “This Way” written beneath. Tesla and Judie were starting to get fidgety, and Tesla was tugging on the Vivisectionist’s wetsuit. “What?” he says in his big dumb way, looking down at her like she’s a bug he’s going to flame out. She shrinks away like she always does when that gas-masked fiend turns on her, but managers to whisper “It’s a Cave Bear, Mister!” before sliding away into the shadows. The cat, Coils, which always purrs when it sees me, hisses at the Spitalian. He’s a figure of unity to be sure, that Neoprene burner. Still, better to have a Spitalian on your side, if there’s going to be one around. I keep telling Tesla that but she prefers her colleagues to have a face, and manners. Skittish girl, really.

Still, this is the Scrapper’s world, not mine. No opium den of lascivious Apocalyptic pleasure, this ascetic zone of dust and machine oil. Best to listen to the girls. I grabbed Judie – we have a rapport, in which I pretend to care for her gibbering stories about artifacts, and she warns me before I touch anything radioactive – and she explained to me that sometimes Scrappers go rabid and wild (sometimes! so what are these two?!) and if they’re really tough and strong they set up these underground lairs full of traps, and dare other Scrappers and random fools to come in and test the traps, then feed the remains to the gendos. They’re mostly characters out of myth, not real folks, but everything the Scrappers tell each other about Cave Bears accords with what we’re seeing here. Maybe time to take it carefully.

Ronan grunted at that, and fingered an arrow to his bow. That bow … Ronan’s answer to everything except dental hygiene issues (he has a stick of bark for that, the pig). The Spitalian, of course, was striding forward like a sacrificial idiot, which I guess his kind are, basically, and heading for a ramp of steel and wood that led up towards the pyramid. We followed him, Ronan scrambling to get ahead and make a proper marching order, and as soon as he took the lead Ronan promptly fell through a set of weak slats, crunching onto the slats and kicking wildly with legs left dangling in open space. Down below the gendos growled and gathered, looking timid at first and then gathering courage as they saw Ronan’s pathetically kicking legs. They surged forward, and also started running up the slope towards us. I put a crossbow bolt in one and Karl struck out at another, and the Scrappers managed to drag Ronan away from the snapping gendo jaws. Clear! the gendos fell back, licking their wounds and growling, and we climbed further up the slope.

We struggled through a couple more traps and up to the top of the pyramid. As we expected the inside was hollow, some kind of structure, so we descended into a a new network of containers. Once we got down into the pyramid we found a weird network of corridors, lined with screens and flickering with neon light. We saw that woman again, running ahead, so we chased her but she disappeared. Somewhere in the twisting alleys of sweating metal we stumbled across a screen on one wall with a repetitive series of images that got our greasy steel-scrapers yammering. The first was an image of a powerful-looking man, scraggly hair around a handsome but cruel face; the next was a barcode with the word EMBARGO scrawled across it. The third simply said “3000 DRAFTS”. Our two Scrapper girls started chanting “The Blacksmith!” in unison until our Spitalian slapped one across the face (she didn’t feel it beneath the greasy scarves) and I slapped the other on the arse. Tesla might act innocent but she reacts real fast to a hearty arse-slapping, and she turned on me straight away. I’ve a surfeit of arse-slapping experience, so I caught her hand and yelled “What is this filth?!” to which she replied “The Blacksmith!”

Unhelpful, Scrappers. But you can’t get rich without their efforts. You have to be patient. Just think of them as burn junkies with a severe vitamin deficiency and you can keep your patience. “WHO IS HE?!” I yelled in my most patient voice, and she briefly told me: He’s an evil bastard who set up a nest, and is famous for killing people.

I was just discussing the benefits of killing him first when one wall broke open with a huge, shattering crash and a massive, horrifying smelly beast of a man came smashing through, carrying a huge battle axe aimed straight at me. It was just like being in the boudouir of the Voivode of Tatabanya when I was sharing tea with the Voivode’s daughter and his bodyguards mistook me for a rapist (I don’t know how). Only they were smaller, and less aggressive. I escaped them with panache and style, but I escaped this monster much more easily – his axe caught on a fragment of metal and the momentum of his charge almost wrenched his shoulders out of his sockets, so I slipped way while he was pulling his arms back together. Then Ronan fired an arrow at him and suddenly he was gone as fast as he came.

How a man that size can move that fast I don’t know, but none of us wanted to find out. We decided to keep moving, and see if we could find the woman. We did, although that raging monster crashed out of the shadows twice more while we searched, trying to cut down Ronan both times and missing but disappearing into the shadows before we could catch him. But finally we did, and that woman was with him, fading into the shadows behind him as he charged in to strike.

We made short work of him once he was in the open with no mirrors to hide behind. Or, to be specific, Tesla made short work of him: while he and Ronan were sparring she slipped in, put her shotgun under his face and discharged both barrels. The rest was just cleanup work, really, and then we were standing there gasping and trying to clear our heads. Well, most of us were trying to clear our heads – Ronan was cutting off the Blacksmith’s Head so we could claim that 3000 draft prize.

And that’s when those Chronicler boys turned up, the two men we saw at Tumbler and a third guy, marching down a gangplank towards us, guns drawn. Ronan stepped forward, carrying the head, and I yelled to them, “Hoy, well met! Here’s your counterfeiter! Now, would you like to share the reward with us?”

Their response was to sneer and start shooting.

A few seconds later the dust cleared and all three were done for. Two were dead and one wasn’t feeling very chatty so we killed him too. None the wiser about what was going on, we trooped out of the pyramid to find a small gang of Chroniclers waiting for us. These Chroniclers at least were interested in talking, and so we found out that we had been completely wrong about everything. There was no 3000 draft reward on the Blacksmith – he was embargoed, which means the Chroniclers don’t deal with him but doesn’t mean they’ll kill him. The 3000 drafts was the amount of fake drafts he had been found guilty of using, not a reward on his head. There was no clean up mission planned for the Blacksmith, and the three men we killed, though they used to be Chroniclers, seemed to have no connection to the actual Chronicler guild or its field agents.

We had stumbled onto some kind of plot involving ex-Chroniclers, probably trying to take over the Blacksmith’s lair for their own purposes. But we didn’t really know why or even understand who these people were. But we had survived and gained the favour of the Chroniclers. Perhaps there is reward to be found in pursuing this scheme to its devious end…?

Time and the tarot will tell. But I have a nose for secrets and profit, and I can feel both here. Along with a fair portion of danger.

But my gang can handle it. This world is full of secrets, and full of people who will reward you for them – or kill you for them. So let us see what we can dig up, what we can sell, and who will try to kill us.

Picture credits: Pictures are from the deviant Art website of the illustrator for the game, Marko Djurdjevic.