A/N: This is a short story I’ve had lying around for a while. I just posted a related story to the Wenches’ Cauldron blog here: http://wenchescauldron.blogspot.com/2014/07/an-everyone.html. I figured both stories featuring Kaylin should be available, especially since her first story has been such a triumph for me. Hope you all enjoy it, and we’ll get back to talking about writing another time.
Kaylin clapped her hand over the boy’s mouth. Her right arm tightened around his middle and drew him close, out of the daylight. She dragged him to the wall of the sewer tunnel and hid there. The boy tried not to struggle, though she could feel his panicked, ragged breathing every time he exhaled against her hand. He tried drawing in more air, and every time the unforgiving grip of her arm around his chest limited his intake. She did not care, though. It would be better for him to pass out than for the gearhead to spot them. She could see the bolt-brain’s face pressed against the rusted grate. The hexagonal screws sticking out from his face clanged against the iron and his glass optics clicked with every unsettling blink of the bronze lids. Sunlight flickered and dimmed as he shifted for a better angle, but he’d never spot them, not where Kaylin hid.
It was the boy’s fault that they had to hide. He had yelled at the sight of her arm, the one that practically crushed his rib cage at the moment. She eased the pressure, just enough to prevent him from wheezing. They waited like that for a long time, her with a hand over his mouth and an arm around his chest; the gearhead with his face pressed to the grate, listening. Even after he got up and left, they waited. They waited after Kaylin’s joints ached from holding the awkward position. Her back had gone numb where it pressed against the wall. She didn’t care. They weren’t going to move until they were sure the gearhead and all the others were gone.
When she finally did let go, the boy did not run away. Instead, he staggered to the other side of the tunnel and sat down. He stared up at her, unblinking. It took Kaylin a few moments before she sat down across from him. The boy looked typical for a scavenger. His face was smudged with grime and he wore ragged clothes. She knew she looked just as bad. He probably had not seen anyone close to his age for a very long time. His gaze kept drifting to her arm, and that was certainly more interesting than her age.
Her old arm had been crushed when a building collapsed. Any normal person would have amputated. Not the gearheads, though. She could imagine how they found her body mangled in a heap of rubble, how they dug her out carefully, like extracting an artifact. A soldier would have passed her over, but the gearheads did not operate that way. They needed to recruit more to their side. Recruitment started with improving the conditions of others around them. They saw her arm as an area for improvement.
Well, improvement was one way to put it.
She flexed the digits of the new mechanism. The cogs and wheels spun. The pistons sunk and pulled depending on what motion she made. Part of her marveled at how the gearheads had attached her tendons to the machinery. Bronze clamps fastened to her muscles and the ligaments. When she flexed, the appropriate pumps engaged to mimic the movements of live tissue. Her cauterized skin stood out sharply against the bronze and copper. She clenched the finger-like cogs into a fist. No wonder the boy had screamed when he saw her. She looked just like one of the monsters.
“Is something wrong, gearhead?” the boy asked in a mocking tone.
Kaylin glanced over at him. “I’m not one of them,” she said.
The boy laughed and slumped back against the wall. “You sure look like one,” he said, echoing her thoughts.
Kaylin turned away from him. She crossed her arms then uncrossed them as her skin came in contact with the metal arm. She felt the need to rationalize herself to the boy, if only to prove she was still just as human as him. “Why would I be hiding down here if I was a gearhead?”
The boy shrugged. “They don’t really make sense to me. If someone put bolts in their head, you’d figure they’re not all there.” The boy paused for a moment, obviously waiting for a response, but Kaylin ignored the comment. “So, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Kaylin.” She waited a few moments before returning the favor. “What’s yours?”
Kaylin nodded and looked down. She had been trying to fold her hands together, but when her fingers came into contact with the bronze digits she stopped. Instead she glanced at the tunnel ceiling and listened. She heard nothing. “You think they’re all gone?” she asked.
Mark shrugged. “Who cares? More will be back later.”
Kaylin nodded and took a moment to study Mark. He had to be one of the first children she had seen in years. All the others had either died in air raids or been sent to live elsewhere. Kaylin was probably one of the few who did not get sent away at the start. Her parents could not afford it. Now, at fifteen, she felt older than fifty.
“Well, it seems like the front has moved on,” said Kaylin. She stood up and stretched her legs. “I’m going to find some food if you’d like to join me.”
Mark nodded and they set off for the sewer exit. Kaylin climbed up to the surface first before waving to Mark. He followed after her, and once his fingers closed over the opening, she leaned down and pulled him up the rest of the way. They sat on the street for a moment and looked around.
“I can’t see a thing,” Mark said. They both looked around the ruined town. Nothing moved.
“Good,” Kaylin said. “Hopefully that means we’re alone.” She stood and dusted her ragged clothes off. Mark stepped ahead of her and took off. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Where do you think?” Mark turned and waved her onward. “Keep up, now. I hate being out here.”
Kaylin shook her head and ran forward. Mark was similar to other kids living in the rubble. Well, the rare few she met at least. He followed the same instinctive rules that guided her, the first being to keep low and to keep moving. In fact, she had been trying to catch a boat across the river when she got caught in the last raid. It was the only reason she delayed seeking shelter. Boats ferrying civilians were a rare occurrence. The attempt to catch that one had almost killed her. It should have killed her. Instead, she woke up on a lab table with a new arm. After that, everyone had avoided her. No one opened their doors to her. No one would feed her or show her even a glimmer of kindness. No one except the gearheads.
Mark glanced back at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” said Kaylin. She shook her head and followed Mark down one of the wider streets. They walked clear of the town. Mark led her down a nearly-faded path that looked more like a game trail than a walkway. “Where are you going?” she repeated.
The trees on the outer edge of town looked charred if not completely burned. The fighting had probably taken place somewhere nearby. “You sure it’s safe, Mark?” she asked.
“Sure is. No one knew about it except me and my mom.”
Kaylin expected the burn damage to recede as they moved deeper into the woods, but evidence of the battle still surrounded them. The ground looked treaded upon, and none of the footprints rested on the path. The vegetation looked torn as if bullets had whizzed through. “Mark.”
The boy looked back at her. “What?”
“This was a battlefield.”
He looked at the torn earth. “So?” Kaylin sighed and followed after the boy. She watched her step carefully as they moved farther into the trees. After a while they made it to a clearing. The wear on the earth was not so bad, but tracks remained pressed in the dirt. “Here we are!” he declared. Kaylin glanced around. Most of the foliage remained undamaged. The green, jagged leaves looked familiar, like some plant one of the other scavengers had urged her to pay attention to.
“And what’s here?” she asked.
Mark walked over to one of the bushes and grabbed a branch. “Look.” He lifted up, exposing the round, red berries growing underneath. “They’re still in season,” he said. Mark picked one and popped it into his mouth. “They’re prefect.” He picked another one and held it out to Kaylin. She reached out with a hand until she saw the bronze gleaming in the morning light. She pulled back and reached out with her left instead. He placed the berry in her palm and she ate it. The small berry tasted better than she could have imagined, like red wine, or what she thought red wine should taste like. She had gone a very long time without food.
“That’s amazing,” she said. Kaylin approached the nearest bush and began gathering berries. A lot remained despite the obvious use the path had seen. Troops usually scavenged the areas clean when they moved through or torched any resources. She stopped gathering berries and looked down at the earth; it was dark and moist, packed down and freshly turned.
Dirt sprayed everywhere. Metal screeched against metal, then the high, pained cries of Mark followed. Kaylin turned and saw the boy tumble to the ground, a large animatronic spider attached to his calf. He screamed and clutched at his leg, eyes wide in terror as the metallic pincers sunk through his flesh and anchored to the bone. The eight needle-like legs clenched around his calf. “Kaylin!” he yelled. “Kaylin, help!”
She rushed to his side and knelt down. “I’m here,” she said. “I’m here, don’t panic.”
The mechanism clicked as the pincers locked into place. Scatter spiders. Of course the gearheads would plant them around the food. Only the army or scavengers would go for wild resources. Mark’s howls pulled her from her thoughts. “Get it off me! Get it off!”
The trap clicked again and began ticking. She had a couple minutes before the shell of the body exploded bits of shrapnel everywhere. The gearheads had designed it specifically so that the victim would kill others by limping off to get help. “I can do this,” she said. She reached for the loose plate on the spider’s backside, but her cog fingers scraped against the metal uselessly. “I’ve disarmed these before.” She reached with her left hand instead and pried off the plating. The mess of springs and cogs inside were designed to be temperamental. If she yanked stuff loose at random, the device detonated early.
“Kaylin, don’t leave me,” said Mark. His face was white. He was probably going into shock. “You gotta get it off me.”
“I’m trying, shut up.” She needed both her hands. That was the problem. Kaylin reached with the metal arm and pinched one of the main cogs still with her mechanical fingers. The wheels halted and the pistons slowed. Usually she stopped the cogs with her left hand, but she did not trust the next task to the metal digits. She reached in with her normal hand, gently pushing aside several springs until her fingers found it: the smallest piston in the machine. She pinched it closed and listened to the slow whine of the steam building up. All she had to do from here was unhook one spring with her right finger. She extended her pinky; the joints groaned. The metal would not flex to the side far enough. The spring lay just out of reach. As much as she tried, she could not get it to hook, just brush against the cog. The seconds slipped by. She knew she had run out of time. She let the piston go and withdrew her hands.
“Did you fix it?” Mark asked. His chest heaved as he gasped and fought off mounting panic. “Why’s it still attached?”
Kaylin could not look him in the eye. “I can’t do it,” she said. She flexed her fingers. “This arm… the fingers don’t work like my old ones.” She stood up.
“Kaylin.” Mark reached down and grabbed the pincers. He tried to pry them loose. “Kaylin please don’t leave me.”
“I’m sorry.” She stepped back. “I have to go.”
“Don’t leave me!” he yelled. “Don’t leave, you hear me?”
She turned and ran.
She did not stop. She made it out of the clearing, deep into the forest. The spider detonated with a clang that reverberated through the air. She raised her arms instinctively, though nothing could harm her at this distance. Mark’s screams ceased.
For a while, she fought the urge to scream. Things always happened too fast since the war started. One minute, everything was fine. The next, everything was blown up or mechanized. Both sides had a way of ruining things.
Her stomach growled and she did scream. Why didn’t the gearheads just replace her stomach? Or her heart? Maybe they should have bolted her brain, too. She raised her hands to rub her face, but jumped when the cold metal of her right hand came into contact. The metal was always there, always reminding her. She had contemplated chopping it off, had contemplated worse. She was a coward, though. She wanted to see this war out, and in that moment her stomach ached with hunger pains.
Kaylin looked back toward the clearing and set out for it. When she returned, she dared not walk on the bare soil. She kept her eyes on the ground and cut a wide path to the back where the berries remained. As carefully as she could, she reached out and plucked one of the berries from the bush with her mechanical hand. She held the food in the sunlight and examined it close. Red glinted off the berry’s skin. She ate it anyways.