The Itch by A.C.. Arquin. Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC
Tak dreamed of the guttersnipe. The girl was sitting on a bench in a factory, black hair curling wildly around her head, one of a row of children that stretched away in an impossible line, curving down to disappear over the horizon. Some of them had metal parts grafted onto their bodies, gears and boxes and wires bulging grotesquely through their clothing. On the table in front of them were pills and bottles, which the children filled with delicate, charred fingers.
The girl squirmed on the bench, scratching at a red spot on her neck. She caught snatches of the other children's thoughts: Gina was hungry, Bats was sad, Fivver was frightened.
Fivver, at least, had good reason. He was sitting naked and shivering on the metal examination table in the white room, his skinny arms wrapped around his ribs. A white coated man with a multi-lensed mechanical eye was filling a brass syringe, his back to the boy, dark shadows pooling beneath his prominent Adam's apple. He grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth, as he drew dark fluid out of a vial.
The girl scratched at her neck, her stomach twisting with fear as the line inched forward.
Soon it would be her turn in the room once again.
Tak surfaced to the snap and crackle of the fire in his ears, woodsmoke tickling his nose. He became aware of soft cushions cradling his back as the ceiling swam into focus above him.
Rolling his eyes to the left, he saw Blossom sitting in a worn armchair beside him, clicking away at a red ball of yarn with a pair of silver knitting needles.
"What happened?" he croaked.
"The tea, dear. You needed to be in the right state of mind."
He slowly levered himself to a sitting position, scrubbing his hands over his face to clear the cobwebs.
"I dreamed—I dreamed about the girl. The guttersnipe. She was in some kind of factory." He yawned, his jaw cracking. "And there was a nasty-looking doctor with a syringe—"
"Very good, it sounds like you're getting exactly what you wanted."
"But, where's my satchel? I want my satchel, not the street girl."
"All in good time. Seek the girl, and you'll find what you need."
"But how? How do I find her? I don't even know if that factory is a real place. That doesn't help me at all."
"Patience," Blossom snapped, her kindly facade folding to reveal something cold and ruthless. She sighed and reached for her teacup, and in an instant the doddering old woman was back. "You've established the connection now. You'll find her, you have my word. What you do then is, of course, entirely your own business. But you seem like a smart boy. I'm sure you'll figure something out."
"Who are you?" Tak breathed, suddenly frightened. "What did you do with my blood?"
"Blood has power. You have to give something to get something. As for me, I'm just an old woman in a basement, minding her own business. Of course, my business covers a lot of ground." She chuckled softly and the predatory smile flashed again, pushing back the smooth skin of her plump, pink cheeks. "Now, about that favor. I would like you to deliver a message
* * *
Ridi lounged in the sun on the front step of the building, her back against the wall, long legs crossed over the cracked cement. She looked up at him, shading her eyes with her hand.
"Tox, aren't you hot?" Tak asked. "It's steamy out here."
"Nah," she replied, climbing stiffly to her feet. "I'm part lizard. I can lay in the sun all day."
Tak looked at her uncertainly. "Part lizard?"
"No, idiot. I'm not literally part lizard. It's just a figure of speech."
"Oh, sorry. I just... I don't know. I've seen a lot of chameleons out here, and you do have a metal arm, so—"
"Don't they teach you anything in those fancy Strata schools? I swear I don't even know where to begin with you sometimes." Ridi shook her head and started walking. Tak fell into step beside her. "Look, how do you know the people you've seen are chameleons?"
"Well, it's obvious. They've got scales or fur or big teeth and red eyes or something."
"Exactly. Do I have any of those things?"
"Well, no, but that doesn't mean—"
"Yes, it does. Chameleons want you to know that they're chameleons. There's no point if nobody can tell."
"Oh." Tak chewed on that for a minute. "It's not like that in the Strata. There all the body mods are kept beneath the surface."
Now it was Ridi's turn to goggle. "All of them? Why?"
"It's frowned upon."
"Frowned upon? Are you kidding me? I thought the Strata were trying to maximize human potential."
"They are, but—" He paused beside the dark entrance to a bar. "This heat is killing me. Do you want to stop here and get a nightcap?"
"A nightcap? It's barely noon."
"Sure, but we've been up all night, so it still counts."
Ridi laughed. "Whatever you say, strat-baby. I'll just chalk this up as another one of your strange customs."
Inside, the bar was mercifully cool, and smelled like years of stale cinta smoke. The temperature change rolled over Tak's skin like a balm, and he sighed as they pulled themselves up onto a pair of barstools and ordered ralto. The surface of the bar was scarred and sticky beneath his fingertips.
"That's better," he said, smacking his lips. He scratched at the sweat trickling down behind his ear. "Now, as I was saying. The Strata are interested in maximizing human potential, but the emphasis there is on the human part. Anything that makes us look less human, like gearjoining or chameleoning, is frowned upon, and most people find them pretty revolting."
A deep voice cut in behind him, "You want to come over here and say that to my face?"
Tak spun around to see a huge chameleon rise from the table behind them. The being in question was as wide as a rickshaw, and covered in short, white striped fur. Wet, thumb-long slits served as nostrils between the vertical feline pupils that divided its golden eyes. The chameleon growled, baring a mouth full of sharp, predatory teeth.
"I uh, I didn't mean—" Actually, if he was being honest, he did mean it. The creature before him was revolting. But admitting that would severely impair his chances of walking out of the bar alive.
"No? Then what exactly did you mean?" The creature towered over him, its rank breath hot on his face.
Tak fought against his gag reflex. "I was just—I was just relaying to my companion how they think about such things inside the compounds."
"And what makes you different? You look like a strat-baby to me." The chameleon's teeth were inches away from his face. It wrapped thick, clawed fingers around his neck. "I think I should be insulted."
"Take your hands off my friend."
Tak followed the chameleon's eyes down to Ridi's knife, pressed against the fur just beneath its ribcage.
It hissed, "You're making a mistake."
"No, you're the one who's made a mistake. Apologize to my friend," Ridi's voice was flat and surgically calm.
"You'll regret this."
"I already do. I'm going to have to sanitize the tip of my knife with a blowtorch after touching your dirty hide." She dug the point in and the chameleon flinched. "Now apologize."
"Fine. My apologies." Glaring, it stepped back, cat eyes burning with anger. It snarled at them and spit on the floor, then stalked away into the afternoon.
Tak sagged back on his stool. He took a shaky swig of ralto.
"Thanks. I thought that thing was going to rip my throat out."
"That 'thing' is a person. If you're going to keep insulting them, maybe I should call them back and let them do what they will."
"Hey, that's not fair! They attacked me. In my book that makes them a 'thing,' no matter what they look like."
Ridi looked skeptical. "Mmmhmm, keep paddling. The shit is getting deep." She laughed as Tak threw up his hands and scowled. "So did you get what you needed back there?"
"I guess? I don't know. The whole experience is difficult to quantify." He told her about the old woman, and the blood, and the dream. "You could have warned me she was a Gear Cultist. You don't believe in that rot, do you?"
"Give me some credit. I have a bronze arm, not a bronze brain."
"So why did you take me to her, then?"
"Well, just because I don't believe in the entire Book of Gears doesn't mean there isn't something there. I've seen gear readers predictions come true too many times not to acknowledge that there must be some truth to them. And she is the best gear reader in the Undercity."
"I guess that's fair."
"So, what did it cost you?"
"She said I owed her a favor. I'm supposed to deliver a message to some Sa'crab named Ca'riv, in a bar called The Grotto."
Ridi whistled. "You don't mess around with the shallow end, do you?"
"What's that supposed to mean? Do you know him?"
"Can't say that I know him personally, but, yeah, I've heard of him."
Something in her voice made Tak wary. "Is he dangerous?"
"Let's just say he's very well connected. You definitely do not want to get on his bad side." She dredged up a tight smile that was not at all reassuring. "Just show the proper amount of respect and you should be fine."
"Wonderful. This day keeps getting better and better. Can you take me to the Grotto?"
"Sorry, but I can't. I've gotta get home. Ask around on River Street and you'll find it easy enough." Her emerald eyes caught his. "Be careful, OK?"
"Yeah, thanks." Tak yawned. "I think I need to get some sleep soon."
"What, you're not going to stay up all day and keep right on going? You are such a delicate flower."
"Sorry, not all of us have gears to keep us going."
"Well, that's your problem right there. If you had gears, your life would be much, much easier."
Tak nodded toward her arm, "Did it hurt?"
Ridi's eyes darkened, and she fingered the curving metal.
"Yeah, it did. When do we start looking for this satchel of yours?"
"Well, I figure it's partially my fault it got stolen, since it was my drunk ass falling off the stool that gave that guttersnipe her opening. Why else do you think I've been trying to help you get it back?"
"Oh. Well, um, OK. Thank you. Meet me tomorrow morning at the autocup?"
"Sure." Ridi rose, yawning and stretching her arms over her head while arching her back. Her long limbs cracked and popped, and Tak tried not to stare at the way her ribcage lifted her breasts against her shirt. He sipped his ralto to cover the heat rising in his bandaged cheeks.
"I don't know how I can repay you for helping me."
"Don't worry about it," Ridi said with a wink. "You can owe me a favor." She smirked and sauntered away into the sunlight.
Admiring her silhouette as she pushed out through the door, Tak decided that owing her a favor might not be such a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.