The Itch by A.C. Arquin. Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC
Tak opened his eyes and sat up, wincing and testing. Everything hurt, but aside from his throbbing nose nothing felt broken. A small miracle. He was sitting on a thin pad on the ground, with other wounded people laid out on both sides of him. An old woman on a cot in front of him moaned and rolled, dropping a bloody cloth to the ground. A dark, wet stain spread across her stomach.
Tak grabbed the cloth and gently rolled the woman onto her back, pressing the cloth to the wound. Her eyes were closed. She had dark skin and a strong, hooked nose. Her dry lips were clamped in a tight line of pain.
"Don't move, you'll just make it worse." He didn't know if she could hear him or not, but he figured a friendly voice couldn't hurt.
He was in a makeshift triage tent. Dozens of cots had been set up, ragged sheets strung over them to provide a roof. Guttering oil lamps hung on chains, turning bloodstains black and sinister with their shifting illumination. A handful of exhausted-looking doctors and nurses shuffled around the room, doing what they could. Eventually, one of them wandered close enough for Tak to speak to her.
"This woman needs help."
"Yes, we'll get to her when we can." The doctor waved him away distractedly as she bent over a young man with bandages covering half his face. It wasn't until she straightened and turned, allowing the light to play along the bronze of her arm, that he recognized the gearjoiner.
"We have to stop meeting like this."
She glanced at him and did a double take. "Tox, what happened to you? And what are you doing here?"
"It's a long story. At the moment, I'm keeping pressure on this woman's wound. You?"
"Not enough, I'm afraid." She scrubbed a hand across the blue fuzz on her scalp as she moved across the cot from him, holding the tip of her bronze arm against the woman's neck to check her pulse. "What's wrong with her?"
"She's got a big hole in her gut that's bleeding pretty bad. Maybe more, I don't know." He shrugged, wincing as his bruised ribs protested the motion.
"You know her?"
"No. I'm just trying to help."
"All right, let me see."
She moved Tak's hands aside and peeled the woman's shirt away from her belly, exposing a puncture wound two fingers wide. Dark blood welled to the surface as she pulled a pair of goggles from her pocket and balanced them on her nose, plugging a wire attached to the frames into a port on her bronze arm. She cranked a small key beside the port, producing the steady tick of clockwork. The lenses began to glow with green light, and she held the tip of her arm over the gash, "hmmming" and "ahhhing" as she fiddled with a set of controls above her elbow. Tak shuddered at the grotesqueness of it.
"OK," she said at last, folding the goggles up and returning them to her pocket, "let's get her stitched up."
"Us? I'm not a doctor."
"Neither am I. It doesn't matter. You're here, you're helping." Her tone acknowledged no alternatives. "Keep putting pressure on the wound."
"Uh, sure. I can do that."
Tak chewed his lip as he watched her haul a cart over to the cot and pull several things out of wooden drawers. Then she snapped a tight glove over her flesh hand and rinsed both it and her claw with a brown bottle of alcohol.
"Hold her still, this is going to burn."
Tak gripped the old woman's shoulders and swallowed. This was not quite the activity he'd anticipated for his Savaday evening. Throw some darts? Sure. Play a game of surround? Gladly. Hold a badly injured woman down while a gearjoiner sterilized her stab wound with grain alcohol? He hadn't even realized that was an option.
She swabbed the blood from the wound, brown bottle poised above the gash.
Tak clenched his jaw and nodded.
The old woman thrashed as the clear liquid hit the wound. Her eyes popped open and her back arched, breath hissing between her yellowed teeth. She was surprisingly strong, and Tak had to bear down, using his weight to keep her from rolling off the cot. The gearjoiner let the alcohol pour for a full five seconds before she stoppered the brown glass and returned it to the cart. The old woman deflated like a bellows, tension leaking from her breath by breath until at last she lay limp, her eyes drooping shut once again.
Tak released a long breath he hadn't realized he was holding. This was nothing like the controlled laboratory environment he was used to.
"That was intense."
"That was the easy part." The gearjoiner smirked at him. "Now I'm going to need you to hold the edges of the wound together while I stitch her up."
Tak blanched and took a step back.
"Just put your hands on either side of the wound, a few inches away, and push the flesh together," she instructed. She guided a length of black thread through the eye of a large needle and tied off the end.
"I don't know if I can—"
"Quit whining. You want to help? This is the way you do it." She pulled a second pair of gloves from the cart and held them out. Tak looked at the old woman's drawn face. Her dark skin looked paler than it had before. He swallowed and took the gloves.
"All right. I mean, what else have I got to do?" His laugh sounded a little hysterical, even to him.
"Right. You should feel honored, really. I turned down three dates to be here tonight."
"Oh, is this a date then? An exclusive little table, romantic lighting. A nice big bottle of alcohol."
"Don't you wish," she said. She sterilized his gloves with the alcohol, then brandished the needle at him. "Are you ready to do this?"
"Yeah." Wincing, he hesitantly placed his hands on either side of the gash. The old woman's flesh was sticky with blood. "Let's do it."
Tak was surprised at how little time it took: a dozen quick stitches and she was done. No different than watching his mother sew up a pair of socks, really.
The gearjoiner snipped off the end of the thread with a pair of silver shears. "See? Piece of cake. Thanks for helping."
"Yeah, no problem." Tak managed a shaky smile.
"I'm Ridi." She stripped off the glove and offered him her hand.
"Tak. Nice to meet you."
"What are you doing tonight, Tak?"
"Well, I didn't really have any plans."
"Great; I've got a little project for you." She cocked her head and looked at him speculatively.
"But first, I think we might want to do something about that nose."
By the time Tak stumbled out of the tent, the sun was rising—clouds dabbed with orange and pink drifting above the still-dark city canyons. He blinked sandpaper eyes, his jaw cracking in a yawn that pulled at the bandages holding the splint on his nose. He'd spent the whole night helping Ridi treat people who had been injured in the protest.
The diversity of the wounded surprised him. There were bright-eyed students and older workers, bogpeople, children and elderly folks, and even a handful of freakish chameleons. So many bandages and wounds had passed beneath his hands that he'd stopped seeing their faces, his eyes focusing only on the slashes, the punctures, the bruises and breaks.
His bones ached with exhaustion, but it was a good kind of ache. He'd helped people. Made a difference. He felt better about himself than he had in weeks.
"You want to get some breakfast?"
He turned to see Ridi stumbling out of the tent after him, a streak of dried blood purpling the hair above her temple. She'd changed out of her scrubs and wore a grey and black striped shawl draped over her conductor's overalls and black boots. A worn backpack was slung over her shoulder.
"I thought you didn't like me?"
"I don't. But I'm hungry and I don't feel like eating alone. Are you coming or what?"
Tak laughed. "Yeah, OK. Lead on, O Golden Guide."
She stopped and glared at him.
"If you start spouting Gear Cult propaganda at me, I'll have to hurt you."
"Yes, O Sacred Gear Priestess, whatever you—Ow!" He rubbed the shoulder where she'd punched him with her bronze claw.
"I did warn you." She smirked. "Now shut up and walk."
The streets were empty, except for the occasional brightly painted rickshaw carrying a very early worker or a very late partygoer to their destination, gears clicking and whirring in time with the pumping legs of the pedalboys. Ahead of them, golden sunlight dripped and ran down the spire of the Hilstrat trade building, the second-tallest building in the city.
"Wax city," Tak mused.
"Wax city," he repeated. "Buildings melting in the dawn / Running for shelter / Beneath shelterless sky."
Ridi shook her head. "I don't get you. You spout asinine Strata propaganda at me in a bar, then spend an entire night helping people who were injured in an anti-Strata protest, and now you start quoting poetry at me. Who the hell are you?"
"I don't know. A month ago, I knew. Now?" Tak shrugged.
Unbidden, images of Lauren flashed through his mind. Lauren asleep in their bed, golden morning sunlight slanting across the small mole beneath her ear. The curve of her hip beneath the blankets. Her blond hair tumbling over the pillowcase. An invisible fist reached inside of him and squeezed, and he had to stop to catch his breath.
"Are you OK?" Ridi turned, her head tilted with concern.
"Yeah, fine. I'm just hungry." Tak shoved his hands in his pockets, striding ahead. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"A little place I know. It's the perfect balance of sugar and grease after a long night."
They ended up at a tiny autocup diner on the edge of the vegetable market, its dark, polished wooden benches contrasting tastefully with the gleaming brass fixtures and large windows.
They flipped through the menu and punched their orders into the tabletop terminal, dropping the appropriate coins into the slot. Coffee was stirred and sipped as they waited for the food to arrive, watching the vendors set up their stalls through the condensation on the window.
Ridi reached out and pressed the side of her fist to the glass, making a curved imprint in the moisture. Using her fingertip, she capped the shape with five quick dots.
Tak laughed. "Like the ones they put on birth certificates. I've always found it odd that they paint the feet of newborns with ink. Who came up with that idea?"
"Printers, most likely. Nice little niche market for them," Ridi said. "People do a lot of things I don't understand. For instance, can you imagine getting up this early every day? I mean, it's beautiful out, but—"
"I used to," Tak said quietly. "Sunrise was my favorite time of day."
"Yet another strike against you." She made a tally on the wet window with her finger. "So far that's two for and two against. You're a confusing individual, Tak."
"No, not really."
He buried his face in the steam rising from the cup, allowing it to caress his cheeks and tickle his hair. It wasn't as rich as the coffee he used to drink in the Mastrat compound, but if he closed his eyes he could almost believe he was in his old apartment, the sun warming his back through the high-rise window. Good coffee. Warm sunlight. He liked simple things.
"You're going to make me drag it out of you, aren't you?"
"Maybe I prefer to remain mysterious. Questions are always more interesting than answers."
"True," she conceded. "But I still want answers. What's your story, Tak? Who are you?"
The food arrived before he could come up with an answer, accompanied by a great squealing and clacking of gears as it trundled down the conveyer belt from the kitchen. Tak scooped up his plate of eggs and potatoes and set about buttering his toast with a vengeance. The food in the Undercity might not be as good as the food inside the Mastrat compound, but he was ravenous, and everything tasted better when you were hungry.
Slowly, around, and sometimes through mouthfuls of food, he told her of Newcape and Seyastrat. Of his father and mother. How he'd traveled a thousand kilometers and given up his family name for a Mastrat internship, and how it had all gone horribly wrong.
"A biologist, eh? No wonder you were such a good helper at the clinic," Ridi said sympathetically. "So that girl at The Aqueduct stole your notes?"
"Yeah. And with them my only chance of getting my old life back."
"Well," Ridi said thoughtfully, tapping her fork on her plate, "I know someone who might be able to help you find them. You probably won't like it though; it could involve things that you and your gods of science don't believe in."
"I'll believe anything if you can prove to me that it works," Tak said, shrugging. "At this point I'll take help from just about anywhere."
"It'll cost you too."
"I've still got some money."
"It might not cost money."
"I don't know. There are things worth more than money out here. Costs are variable."
Tak looked into her emerald eyes. "I've got nothing else to lose. Whatever the price is, I'll pay it."
She held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded.
"All right. After breakfast we'll take a little walk." She slurped down some coffee and sighed in contentment. "You're better off out here anyway. Those Strata twats make everyone's lives hell."
"Yeah, everyone out here."
"Is that the extent of your compassion, Tak? As long as everything's fine for you, everything's fine for the world?"
"It's not that simple."
"No? Sure sounds that way to me."
Tak pushed his eggs around with his fork, thinking. He'd never had his worldview questioned before, and he found it difficult to articulate his thoughts. Also, he liked Ridi, despite her grotesque arm, and he didn't want her to think he was a twat.
"Look, I know the Strata aren't perfect. They take advantage of people, bend laws to suit themselves, and generally act as if the world revolves around them. But the thing is, it does."
He scraped the remnants of his breakfast off to one side of his plate and started sketching a chart on the other half with ketchup, warming to his subject. "Look, Mastrat controls the shipping companies, right? They also control the water bureau, city hall, and the courts. That's our food, our clothing, our water, our laws, our police: that's everything. They control the game. You can choose to play it or not, but if you don't play, all you're ever going to get is the scraps that fall off the edge of the board."
"They don't control everything. They don't control the people."
"Sure they don't." Tak puffed his scorn. "We just spent all night discovering firsthand how much they don't control the people. As far as Mastrat is concerned, that protest was a rousing success."
"We just need more people," Ridi insisted. "We need to get everyone out in the streets. They can't beat all of us; they need us. We're the ones who buy their products. We fuel their little empire."
"OK. Just for the sake of argument, let's say everyone stops buying Mastrat products. Which is a ludicrous premise, but let's just say. What then? What are they going to eat? Where will they get their water? Mastrat controls everything that comes into the Undercity. Do you think people are going to starve to death for ideology?"
Ridi smirked and drew a big null sign on the window.
"That's where you're wrong. You're a strat-baby, Tak, so of course you believe that everything comes from Mastrat. That's the official line. But those of us who live out here in the real world know better. You see those vegetable sellers out there?" She pointed out the window with her knife. The yellow traces of yolk clinging to the blade complemented the royal blue of her hair perfectly. "I guarantee you half of what they're selling didn't come through Mastrat."
Tak laughed. "That's ridiculous."
"It's true. People are slippery, Tak, and they don't like cages. You try to put them in a box and they'll always find a way to slip under the curtain. I'm mixing my metaphors here, but you know what I mean."
"That may be true, but I still don't believe you. There is no way half the produce in that market came into the city illegally."
Ridi arched an eyebrow. "Wanna bet?"
"And how do you propose to prove that? Are you just going to walk up to the vendors and say, 'Excuse me, but is your produce illegal?'" Tak mopped his plate with the last of his toast.
"I have my ways. Come on, I'll take you on an educational tour. First I'll prove how little you know, then I'll help you find your satchel. Are you in?"
"Sure, why not. What have I got to lose?"
She grinned wickedly. "That's the question, isn't it?"