This was written as a collaboration between me and Chakat Honeymane. I directed most of the story (probably more than was fair…I'll try to be a little more hands-off in future installments) and wrote dialogue for Hardscrabble, and Honeymane wrote the character Strongtail. We had a lot of fun working on it, and hope to continue it soon. Special thanks to Shifti wiki administrator ShadowWolf for looking it over and making many constructive suggestions!
A Hardscrabble Life, Episode One: Breaking the Chayne
By Chris Meadows and Chakat Honeymane
Sunset painted the western sky. A small slate-grey felitaur form dodged into an alley. It ducked into a recessed doorway, hiding in the deeper shadows. The pursuing footsteps came closer…ever closer…
Hardscrabble huddled low. Shi made hirself as small as shi could. The knapsack dug into hir chest. There wasn't much in it. Pickings were slim at the city market—it had been months since the last freighter.
It wasn't fair, Hardscrabble thought, that it should get harder to get away the less shi was able to steal. But returning empty-handed wasn't an option. Chayne wouldn't be happy—and he'd make sure shi was downright miserable.
Shaking hir head, Hardscrabble scolded hirself for hir bellyaching. That wouldn't put food in hir aching belly. And if the Polizei found hir, starving would be a blessing. Shi hunched down, making hirself as small as shi could. Maybe hir dark grey color would blend enough with the shadows to let them pass hir by…
Then Hardscrabble stifled a cry as the door suddenly opened inward behind hir, and she tumbled backward through it.
Hardscrabble hastily scrambled back to hir feet, just inside the doorway. Hir head jerked back and forth as shi glanced fearfully around. There were shapes in the darkened room that shi just couldn't make out—hir night vision hadn't been the same since a Polizei flashbang had gone off right in hir face. Shi heard the footsteps behind hir, growing louder. Shi still hesitated. Bad as the Polizei were, walking into a trap might be worse.
Vision was out; what else? Shi couldn't smell anything but dust and soot—it made hir want to sneeze. But…there was hir other sense. The one that told hir what people were feeling. There was something there, if shi could just calm down enough to focus—
A disembodied voice boomed, "God damn it, get your ass in here!"
A long, black tail reached out of the shadows and pulled the hapless 'taur deeper into the room. The tail's owner quickly shut the door, and flicked on the light, revealing another feline centaur—who was also remarkably black. Judging by the black smear the tail had left around Hardscrabble's upper torso however, hir coloring wasn't exactly natural.
Hardscrabble cowered back against the wall. "Who—who are you?"
"I'm Jesus," shi said. "Missed my mark and ended up in this body."
Hardscrabble cocked hir head. "Really?" She had no idea who "Jesus" was, but that didn't matter. This was…another creature like hir! Shi had only dim early-childhood memories of seeing others like hirself, back on board the Freebird. There hadn't ever been any others since she'd been here.
"No you dumbass," the soot covered 'taur growled, "Do I look like a Jewish carpenter to you?"
Hardscrabble blinked. "I don't know…what's a Jewish?"
The 'taur shook hir head in disbelief. "It's not important. I am, however, here to save your sorry ass, kid."
Hardscrabble frowned. "But…I don't have an ass. Only farmers and merchants keep livestock."
"Oh for—" the other 'taur said, biting off hir next comment as shi took another look at Hardscrabble. "Your sorry tail, then." And as Hardscrabble opened hir mouth again, shi rolled hir eyes. "And the rest of you, too."
"But—who are you?" Hardscrabble asked again. Then shi frowned, putting two and two together. "You're not going to take me back to the Freebird. I'm not going."
"What the hell is Freebird?" the 'taur growled, pressing hir ear to the door.
"It's the bad place," Hardscrabble said darkly.
"Well, m'dear, if we don't move it, this is going to be a very bad place," the taur said very softly, hir voice suddenly dropping. Turning and bending down, shi grasped a chunk of the floor paneling, and lifted it up, revealing a steep stairwell. "Down here, quickly."
Hardscrabble eyed the stranger nervously. Shi'd only just met hir—but both hir street instincts and the weird feel shi'd always had for people were telling hir to go, now. Shi shrugged the pack onto hir shoulders, ducked forward and slid down the hidden stairs. A moment later, the stranger slid in after hir—then the stone settled back into place, leaving them in total darkness.
Argos had never exactly been the most bountiful rock discovered in terms of minerals, but there had been a little platinum, and gold and silver enough for a number of companies to set up small scale operations. For a while it was prosperous, until the veins started to run out. It wasn't long before the the first bombings began—out of work miners, with perhaps a bit too much to drink, inspired by fools who were capable of making speeches, but not of solving any problems. It didn't take long for the government to fall completely.
The one that replaced it was made up of the dregs from middle management of half a dozen corporations who'd been left behind when their employers no longer found it cost-effective to pull them out—people too good to get their hands dirty, and also too good at getting others to do that dirty work. They'd organized a putsch to sweep their last competition from the map and consolidate control over all the played-out mines.
Then, surprise surprise, the mines started producing again. Not gold or silver this time, but Boronike—a very rare mineral needed for building starships, worth substantially more than standard elements that could be pulled out of any asteroid. Suddenly this sleepy little mining planet was busier than ever—not to mention less civilized, and more dangerous. For those who had just been trying to live here, it was a disaster.
But disasters like Argos were Strongtail's bread and butter. As a reporter shi was expected to go to any accident, disaster or tragedy and…well, report on it. As hir editor would say, the bigger, the better, and there were few stories as big as Argos.
Strong had always been on the look out for breaks, stories that could really propel hir through the ranks and make hir a big name reporter, so when the editor asked for volunteers to go, hir hand shot up. Finally, shi thought, shi'd get to report on news that wasn't so soft a newborn kitten could eat it.
"I wish I had could be reporting on that now," shi muttered to hirself.
In retrospect, shi should have kept her hand straight down—shi never did have great luck. The first six days had been fine, but the seventh was murder—literally. It had started with a pounding ache in hir head, and had ended with most of hir fellow reporters having bullets in theirs.
Shi'd spent longer than shi liked to think about dodging local patrols and living hand to mouth. Finally, shi'd made hir way to Petros, the closest thing to civilization on this benighted rock—only to find that none of the vendors in the city market would have anything to do with hir.
It had taken some time, and judicious thumping of heads, to ferret out the problem. It turned out that shi looked like a known thief and pickpocket. Not exactly like, as in same color fur and everything…but another feline 'taur, which stood out a great deal on this mainly-humanoid world. That had tickled Strongtail's curiosity enough for hir to look into it—and then, examining the scene of the latest crimes, shi had smelled a fellow chakat!
Strongtail could have shouted for joy. Shi'd been so lonely, these last few months. It wasn't healthy for a chakat to go so long without someone else of hir own kind to talk to, share emotions with—to sleep with.
But this, Strongtail reflected, looking over at the sleeping cub, was not what shi had been hoping for.
On the other hand, the kid was a mystery—and Strongtail thrived on mysteries. Shi leaned in for a closer examination. It would at least take hir mind off of other things.
The kid's age was hard to guess. Shi could be a big-for-hir-age six, or a malnourished twelve—though given that shi'd been living on the streets, Strongtail was inclined to place the guess toward the older-and-malnourished end of the scale. Hir coat was a uniform slate grey—just about what had been called "blue" in Terran housecats.
That coat partly concealed a network of scars, most of them old and faded, and hir left ear had a small triangular notch cut in it near the base. It was definitely cut, Strongtail reflected, because it was far too regular to be a bite or a tear. The mutilation made Strongtail wince, and finger hir own ear. It also made hir angry, which surprised hir—after months of aggravation on this hellhole, shi hadn't thought shi still had the capacity for anger left.
Strongtail sighed. Well, like it or not, as the only other chakat within lightyears, the kid was hir responsibility now—and it looked like shi hadn't had a decent meal in forever. Or a decent grooming, either, come to that—but first things first. Shi unpacked the thermelectric camp stove from hir knapsack and rummaged for a couple of the Star Fleet ration packs she'd bought after convincing a merchant shi wasn't a thief. (Though given that he dealt in obvious black-market goods, it was pot and kettle in any case.)
As the "tantalizing" aroma of (so-called) food cooking filled the small cellar space, Strongtail settled down to groom the soot out of hir coat.
Hardscrabble was dreaming. Shi hadn't had this dream in a while.
The Bad Place. Someone was carrying hir. Hir mother? Lights were flickering. Place was shaking. Someone behind hir. Hir father?
Another explosion. The Bad Place shook again. Shi was on the floor. Hir leg hurt.
Shi was in a smaller room. Shi saw the others—hir mother, father?—through a pane of blurred glass. Shi distinctly heard the words, "—hardscrabble, but at least shi'll have a chance."
Then everything shook again, and it all went away.
With a strangled cry, Hardscrabble jerked awake, scrambling to hir feet. Shi was in darkness. Not complete darkness, but enough. Shi couldn't see more than a few inches. "Wh—where—?" Then shi remembered—the doorway, and the stranger, and…
Shi felt around hirself frantically, then relaxed when shi felt the straps of hir knapsack nearby. From the heft, it didn't feel like anything had been taken. Well, at least shi had that much. Chayne wouldn't beat hir tonight. Well, not hard anyway.
"Hey calm down kiddo, I'm not going to take your stuff."
"W-who are you?" Hardscrabble asked, hugging the knapsack to hir chest protectively.
"We went through this when we got down here, I'm Strongtail, remember? I know I look a bit different with the soot gone, but I still smell and sound the same."
"Oh. Um. Yeah, you do," Hardscrabble mumbled, watching the light-colored blur of the stranger moving around in the darkened room. "Of course you do!" shi added, louder. "But that's just a name. Who are you?" Then, curiosity overcoming caution, "And what are you?"
Strongtail's voice came from Hardscrabble's right. "I'm over here. Can you see me at all?"
Hardscrabble quickly turned to face the voice. "Sure! I see you just fine! I was just…um…looking at something else."
"Uh huh." the voice said skeptically, "Close your eyes while I turn on the light."
Hardscrabble scrunched up hir face, squeezing hir eyes tightly shut, and covered them with a hand for good measure. A moment later, shi felt the change in light and hesitantly blinked hir eyes open. There was a small battery-powered camp lantern hanging from the ceiling now, casting moving shadows everywhere as it swung gently back and forth and settled into place.
Before Hardscrabble sat a 'taur of the same size and proportions as the one who had saved hir, but this one was a dull orange, with stripes of lighter orange in a tabby pattern and the classic tabby "M" mark on hir forehead. Between hir forelegs rested a bowl filled with dark-colored water and a soot-stained wet rag.
Hardscrabble blinked. "Oh. That's you?"
"Surprised?" Strongtail smiled warmly, as shi reached into a knapsack of hir own and pulled out a dull metal looking case with a red cross on it. "Come over here for a moment, I want to check something."
Hardscrabble hesitated, but did as Strongtail requested. "What's that?" It looked like one of the things the more upscale market stalls sold—the ones with security that kept out even the smartest of Chayne's kids (which shi immodestly but probably accurately reckoned to be hirself).
"It's a medkit." The tabby showed hir the contents of it as shi opened it. Shi selected one of the tools and showed it to Hardscrabble. "This is for checking eyes, to see if there's anything wrong with them. It works like this." Shi held it up to her own eyes and activated it. It beeped and lit up for a moment. "See? Now I'm going to use it on you, all right?"
Hardscrabble stared, transfixed. Shi wasn't sure shi liked the idea of someone poking around with hir eyes—but this was magic tech. Shi'd never been this close to someone using it before, and shi was naturally curious. "A-all right."
Gently, Strongtail took a firm grasp of the child's head and put it up to hir eyes. "Try to hold still and not blink." Affter a moment the device beeped twice and Strongtail let go of hir charge's head. "Almost all your tapetum lucidum is gone. What happened?"
Hardscrabble blinked, puzzled. "I…musta left it somewhere?"
"What I mean is, when did you start having trouble seeing in the dark, sweetie?" Strongtail asked softly, replacing the tool into the kit and running hir fingers over the others.
Hardscrabble blinked. "Oh. Why didn't you say so?"
"I don't know." The 'taur sighed.
"It was a while back. Trouble happened at the Market. Wasn't fast enough to get away." Shi shrugged. It wasn't something shi liked to talk about, but on the other hand shi'd never met another being like hir before, either. Maybe if shi answered Strongtail's questions, Strongtail would answer some of hirs.
"Are those scars from the 'trouble' too?"
Hardscrabble blinked. "Scars? What scars?"
Strongtail shook hir head. "It's not important, but I'd like to do a complete examination of you, if you're all right with that. We could do it now or later."
Hardscrabble shrank back, clutching the knapsack to hir chest. "Uh…d'nno. I don't know anything about you."
"I suppose I have been vague, haven't I? You could ask while I'm doing the examination."
"D'nno'f I wanna be…'zamined," Hardscrabble mumbled. "Don' like how that sounds."
"Alright. Maybe you'll change your mind later." Strongtail flipped the medkit closed and replaced it into hir bag. "But I bet you're hungry. Would you like something to eat? I haven't much…but what's mine is yours."
Hardscrabble frowned at hir. "Why? You've been real helpful, but nobody's like that 'less they want something."
"Why? Because you're just a kitten for Christ's sake! You shouldn't be going through this shit, not at your age." Strongtail exclaimed.
Hardscrabble jumped back at the sudden shout. "I can take care'v myself," shi said defensively. "Have so far."
"I didn't say you haven't been," Strong sighed heavily. "But you shouldn't have to. I'd like to help you."
Hardscrabble all but glowered. "Why?" Shi glanced around, looking for exits.
"Because we're chakats, and that's what chakats do for one another, especially when it's an older one helping a younger one." Strongtail said, crossing hir arms across hir chest.
Hardscrabble froze. Chakats. Shi remembered that word from somewhere, now that shi heard it again. Sometime back before shi knew what words meant. Back in the Bad Place. "We're…chakats? That's what…I am?"
"You don't even know what you are?"
Hardscrabble closed up again. "'Course I do," shi mumbled. "I always go around saying to myself, 'I'm so glad I'm a chakat. Wouldn't want to be anything else.'"
"Uh huh, and why do you say that? What makes you so glad to be a chakat?"
"Um…it's a secret. I don't hafta tell you." If Strongtail was going to start prying like this, maybe it might be safer outside. Hardscrabble started looking for exits again. It looked like there might be a hole in the cellar wall just beyond the other chakat…
Shaking hir head, Strong reached into hir sack. Shi rummaged for a moment, then pulled out a wrapped food bar and offered it to Hardscrabble. "Okay, fine, eat this while I finish up cooking for the two of us. Ask me anything you want, maybe it'll make you less fearful of me."
Hardscrabble peered suspiciously at the bar, making no move to accept it. Shi remembered the time one merchant had "accidentally" left a case of poisoned food bars out. Some of the other kids had almost died, though shi'd eaten three bars and barely felt queasy. Still…
Strong sighed, opened the wrapping, took a bite hirself, chewed it, swallowed it, then opened hir mouth and waggled hir tongue to show hir mouth was now empty. "Mmm, yummy. There! Satisfied?" Shi offered the remainder back. Hardscrabble snatched it greedily from hir hand and wolfed it down.
"Heh. That's what I thought. You could use some meat on your bones—you look like you haven't had a good meal since you were weaned."
"I've had lots of good meals," Hardscrabble insisted. "Tons of 'em." They had been good. Of course, none of them had been very big…
Strongtail nodded as shi returned to cooking stew.
Hardscrabble watched hir for a while. Then shi spoke up again. "Um…where are chakats from?" Shi paused a moment, considering how that sounded, then quickly added, "I already know, of course. I just want to see if you do."
"We're originally from Earth, but most of us nowadays are born and raised on Chakona." Strong smiled, remembering better times, "That's where I'm from, Chakona."
"Chakona…" Hardscrabble murmured. The word seemed familiar, but shi wasn't sure where shi'd heard it before. "What's it like there?" She paused, decided this was a question shi didn't have to "already know" the answer to, and didn't make that claim.
"It's a hell of a lot nicer then this shithole, that's for sure. If I can, I'll take you there if you'd like."
Hardscrabble fixed her with another gimlet stare. "And what would I hafta do in return, huh? I've had people wanna 'take me places' before. Noooo thanks."
"Well, I might ask you to give me your side of the story," the tabby said, "You could start by telling me your name."
Hardscrabble shrugged. That much couldn't hurt, anyway. "'m called Hardscrabble."
"What's your parents' names?" Strongtail asked, before pausing and catching hirself, "Sorry, I forgot this is your question period, not mine."
"Why're you so int'rested in me, huh?" Well, if shi thought about it, Hardscrabble supposed, it would kind of make sense for Strongtail to be just as interested in hir as shi was in Strongtail and for the same reason: there weren't any other creatures—chakats, Hardscrabble corrected hirself—like them around for hundreds of kilometers, maybe even on the entire planet. Certainly Hardscrabble hadn't ever seen another since the Bad Place. But shi still wanted to hear Strongtail explain it for hirself.
"Three reasons." Strongtail held up hir hand with three of hir fingers raised and counted them off. "One, I'm just naturally curious, all chakats are. Two, I'm a reporter by trade, which makes discovering you on this hellhole very interesting. And finally, three, I haven't had another soul to talk to in months who wasn't trying to jam a knife between my ribs, it's refreshing, and I'm hoping we can be friends."
Hardscrabble's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh." Shi hadn't expected quite so detailed an answer—and Strongtail "felt" like shi was telling the truth. Hardscrabble hadn't expected that, either. All this time, hir gift for sensing what people were feeling had been hir big edge in avoiding getting taken in by all the predators and cons out there. Shi'd come to trust it, to rely on it. Was it finally letting hir down now? Or could this stranger really be what shi seemed?
"What do you say? Friends?" Strong smiled warmly, and more than a bit hopefully. "The stew is ready…I think, it's hard to tell with this stuff sometimes."
Hardscrabble screwed up hir face in serious thought. If shi was going to stop trusting hir "feelings" now, shi wouldn't be able to trust them again. Did shi really want to second-guess hirself like that for the rest of hir life? "All right," Hardscrabble said at last. But shi was unable to resist adding, "For now."
"Okay, that's fair." Strong nodded—before suddenly hugging the younger chakat. Hardscrabble stiffened…but hir resolve melted before Strongtail's sudden outpouring of emotions. Shi'd never felt emotions so strongly before. Shi felt them reaching inside of hir, touching something shi didn't even remember having. Shi was powerless to move under such an onslaught. Shi could only hug back…and wonder where the tears soaking Strongtail's shoulder came from. They couldn't be hir own.
After a few moments, Strong finally pulled back. Shi also seemed to be sniffling. "It's, uh…stew's ready."
Hardscrabble opened hir mouth to reply, but hir growling stomach spoke more clearly than shi could.
"I got no plates, so we'll have to eat out of the pot." Strong said, wiping a tear from hir cheek, before composing hirself and producing two spoons for each of them.
Hardscrabble shrugged. "Works for me." Shi'd eaten out of worse. At least the pot seemed reasonably clean.
They ate in silence for a while, before Strong broke it. "You can still ask me questions you know."
Hardscrabble blinked at hir, spoon halfway to hir mouth. "I don' talk while eating," shi mumbled. Shi felt faintly embarrassed at the puzzlement shi sensed coming off of Strongtail. Shi knew shi didn't know how to act like "real people" in a lot of ways; this was just one of them, shi guessed. "Habit."
"Oh." Strong paused, "I guess you haven't really had many people to talk to."
"And it means everyone else's eating faster'n you are," Hardscrabble explained.
"Oh," Strongtail said again. They passed the rest of the meal in mutual silence.
Strongtail had hir fill of the ration stew well before Hardscrabble. To be honest, shi'd had hir fill of it before shi'd even started. As often as shi'd had to eat field rations, shi now fully understood why Star Fleet soldiers had so many unprintable names for them. But shi had to eat to keep hir strength up, and to reassure Hardscrabble that they weren't poisoned.
Not that Hardscrabble seemed to have any such worries. After Strong had taken the first bite, the kid ate with the gusto of someone who didn't know where or when hir next meal was going to come from. Shi ate like the guerilla campaigners shi'd interviewed on Amazonia—or the neighborhood stray cats hir neighbors used to feed when shi’d lived a while on Earth, for that matter. It wasn't right for a kid like this to eat like that.
After Hardscrabble had finished licking the pot until it was almost as clean as Strongtail could have gotten it by washing it, Strongtail asked, "So…if you don't mind my asking…"
Hardscrabble looked up suspiciously—though not as suspiciously as shi had before the meal, Strongtail noted. "Yeah?"
"…where do you usually sleep most nights?"
"Well, I—" Hardscrabble paused, and hir eyes widened. "What time is it?
"Late." Strong shrugged, "I had to sell my chronometer, so I haven't a clue. Why?"
"Oh shit! Shit shit shit!" Hardscrabble swore, scrambling to hir feet. "I gotta get back! He'll think I've run off!"
"Chayne! He's the one who…takes care of us," Hardscrabble said. "Quick, outta the way. I gotta go!"
Strongtail blinked. Shi could feel the fear coming off the cub like a dense fog. "Takes care you? What is he? Your pimp?"
Hardscrabble bridled. "He is not! We just… bring him stuff." Shi shouldered hir knapsack.
"Uh huh." Strongtail replied, "what sort of stuff?"
"Just… stuff," Hardscrabble said defensively, eyeing the hole in the wall behind Strongtail. Maybe it led to one of the sewers or storm drains.
"Stolen stuff? Does he beat you if you don't?" The spike in fear from Hardscrabble told hir shi had struck a nerve. As did the way Hardscrabble lunged forward a moment later, dashing for the hole and freedom—only to find hirself stuck in the bathroom, a small closet with no exits but the hole in the floor. Shi backed out a moment later, wrinkling hir nose, then looked around for the stairs—which currently had Strongtail sitting in front of them.
"I've really gotta go!" Hardscrabble insisted, hir tail lashing.
"Well, you were in the right room for that just a moment ago," Strongtail said. "I'm not sure I should really let you leave…from your reaction I'm guessing he'll beat you bad."
"Let me by!" Hardscrabble growled. "It only gets worse the later I get!"
"Why go back at all?"
Hardscrabble gestured incoherently. "Because it gets worse the later I get!"
Strongtail sighed. Shi could see there was nothing for it. If shi tried to keep Hardscrabble there against hir will, it would destroy the trust shi had worked so hard to build. But if shi let hir go…well, sometimes life just sucked.
"All right…if that's what you really want." Shi moved aside, and Hardscrabble scrambled up the stairs as if hir tail was on fire. Strongtail took a deep breath and released it, and quickly threw the pot, heater, and lantern back into the knapsack and slung it on hir back. Then shi was up the stairs hirself, somewhat more quietly.
"Pain in the ass." shi muttered. Glancing to the left and right to make sure the coast was clear, shi trotted up the street in the direction shi sensed Hardscrabble had taken.
Hardscrabble bounded down an alley, Argos's three and a half moons casting crazy triple-shadows all around. Shi'd never been this late before—and with so little to show for her day's work besides! Chayne was going to beat hir bloody—and shi was going to deserve it. Maybe if shi'd made one more pass through the Market…or not been so late…
Shi paused at the alley mouth, listening for signs of pursuit. Shi wouldn't have put it past Strongtail to try to follow hir—but shi didn't see anything. Shi didn't sense any pursuit, either—though her "feelings" worked best at close ranges.
But shi couldn't wait out here forever. Like shi'd told Strongtail, the later she got, the worse it was going to be. Best to go ahead and take hir punishment. Pity…Strongtail had seemed like a nice person, but Petros wasn't a place for nice people. Shi'd be better off on hir own.
Hardscrabble turned down another alley, slipping in behind a row of run-down warehouses. The second-from the last one had a hole knocked in the wall, with a metal grating fastened over it with a chain and padlock. "Hey! It's me!" Hardscrabble hissed.
A pair of eyes blinked out at hir from behind the grate. "Sheez, d'yer know what time it is?" a voice hissed. "He's in a right mood! Where've you been?"
"I got cornered by the cops, okay?" Hardscrabble whispered. "I had to lay low 'til they moved on. I came as soon as I could, honest!"
There was a rattle of chains as the watcher on the other side of the door reached out to grab the padlock and unlocked it with a key. The grate swung aside, creaking on rusty hinges.
"Ah!" a sardonic voice came from deeper in the gloomy warehouse. "So my little Hardscrabble has decided to grace us with the pleasure of hir company after all!"
Hardscrabble swallowed, but there was nothing for it. Shi moved into the warehouse, hir poor night-vision turning it into one big dim blur, save where guttering torches lined the walls. But shi remembered well enough what it was like. There was a big central area, where a fire pit had been dug in the floor. In the winter, they scavenged furniture and old crates to burn there, and huddled around it for warmth. It would be empty now of anything but a few old cinders—the nights were starting to cool, but not cold enough for a fire yet.
The sleeping areas were all along the outer walls, piles of cast-off or stolen bedding arranged in neat rows. Everybody took care of his own, and maybe a friend's or two. Nobody stole anyone else's stuff here—Chayne came down hard on kids who did that—but a certain amount of lending went on.
Right now, all the kids were gathered in the middle of the room, around the empty fire pit. as Chayne liked to have them in the evenings. He liked to be able to look over his little fiefdom and see at a glance if anyone was missing. Which meant hir absence had been spotted right away.
Taking a deep breath, Hardscrabble made hir way up the central aisle without stumbling over anything in the dark, but it was suddenly too quiet. Nobody was saying a word. Even the kids who would otherwise have thought it funny to stick out a leg and trip hir kept to themselves this time. That was bad.
There he was, sitting on the old easy chair that was his "throne". It was too dark to make him out, but Hardscrabble knew only too well what Chayne looked like. He was tall and clean-shaven, with a razor scar across his left cheek. His nose had been broken half a dozen times and never set properly, and his lips were always twisted into a sarcastic sneer. His hair was greased back and dyed black, but the dye never seemed to hide the grey that was starting to come in at the roots. He dressed simply, in a pair of torn jeans and a leather jacket, with a length of the chain that (along with his poor spelling) gave him his name looped around one arm. He was unwinding that chain now—Hardscrabble heard the little clinks it made as he wound it through his fingers.
"There wuz cops," Hardscrabble insisted, hir voice sounding unnaturally loud to hir in the hushed room. "I had to hide up. I couldn't come out 'til I was sure they'd left. I didn't wanna lead them back here, you know how you tell us about that…" Shi was aware shi was babbling, but guessed it couldn't hurt.
Hardscrabble heard the chain clink as Chayne stretched it between his fingers. "All right, all right, that's understandable," he said, his voice overflowing with reasonableness in a way that made the hackles stand up on the back of Hardscrabble's neck. "So let's see what you brought me." He held out a hand for hir knapsack, and shi hastily shrugged out of it and handed it over.
Chayne weighed the knapsack thoughtfully in one hand. "Doesn't seem to be so much there. This doesn't look good at all…" He walked over to a table and upended the knapsack onto it. "Mmm, let's see. Two cans of beans. One ear of corn. An apple—with a bite out of it. A pack of cigarettes…hmm, my favorite brand. All right, credit for that. A gold…plated…bracelet. And…a wallet, with seven credits, no ID or credit cards…"
Chayne shook his head. sadly. "Oh, Hardscrabble, Hardscrabble, what am I to do with you? You know everyone has to pull their own weight. You know I have to keep my other little ones fed." He waved his arm at the several dozen other children arrayed on the floor of the warehouse. "And you know I have a curfew." He stretched the chain out between his hands again. "If it had only been poor pickings or being late…one of those, I could have forgiven."
Liar, thought Hardscrabble, starting to back away. Not that it would help. The other kids would grab and hold hir just so they didn't get punished too.
"But both at once? Oh, no, I can't let that pass." Chayne advanced on hir. "Tell me. Who took you in when everyone else would just have left you to starve on the street, another freak ex-slave?"
"Y-you did, Chayne," Hardscrabble whined.
"And who fed you with the sweat of his own brow?"
Sweat of whose brows? Hardscrabble thought rebelliously, glancing at the other kids all around hir. But shi answered meekly, "You did, Chayne."
"Who did his best to teach you a useful trade, to help you get ahead in this world when anybody else would just have left you to rot?"
Hardscrabble sighed resignedly. "You did, Chayne."
"Now you just hold still. This will hurt me more than it will hurt you." Chayne raised his arm.
Strongtail slipped into the alley behind the warehouse, and stopped for a moment. Shi'd felt Hardscrabble come this way just a few minutes ago—but now that shi got here, shi was sensing a lot more people than shi'd expected — most of them young, and almost all of them…anticipating something. "On the bright side," shi muttered, "at least I can guess which warehouse it is."
No one else was anywhere near, so Strongtail threw caution to the winds and bounded up the alley to the second-last warehouse. Shi pulled up short at the grating over the hole, shading hir eyes to try to get a good look inside but it was too light out here from the moons to see much. Shi rattled the grate experimentally, then saw the chain and padlock.
Strongtail growled, reaching into hir knapsack. Hir hand closed around a pistol-grip, then shi shook hir head. Shi didn't know how much charge was left in that. Best to save it for when shi really needed it. She pushed it aside, and pulled out a small leather case instead. "Time for mama's special 'press pass,'" shi muttered, pulling a couple of picks out and setting to work. Luckily the lock was an old one; it yielded quickly to hir expert ministrations.
As the chain fell away, Strong flinched. Someone had just hit Scrabs hard—shi could feel the cub's pain as the yowl echoed through the cavernous warehouse. And…something started to come over hir. Shi needed to get through this door, NOW!
Dropping all pretense of stealth, shi yanked the grating aside. It made the most awful screeches as it scraped over the ground. Over the pained cries of hir fellow chakat however, they went unnoticed. All eyes were on the dais at the end of the room where Hardscrabble lay sprawled before the man Strongtail could only assume to be Chayne. Even as shi watched, he raised his chain arm again…
Time slowed down. Time sped up. Everything happened at once. Everything remained frozen forever. Somewhere, someone screamed. Someone cried. Someone YOWLED. Strongtail's throat was raw. There were bits of something stuck between hir teeth, and something wet and salty on hir tongue, and something wet pooled around hir pawhands.
Strongtail opened hir eyes. As the red mists faded away, shi became conscious that shi was standing in a pool of blood. It soaked hir paws, and had spattered all across hir chest. Its source appeared to be the throat of the man Chayne, which someone had torn open. He was lying on his back in front of hir, an expression of surprise and panic forever frozen on his face. The chain had slipped from numb fingers and lay to one side.
Behind hir, shi heard Hardscrabble whimpering. It was the only sound shi heard—apart from that, the room was as silent as a tomb. But the shocked horror from several dozen young minds pressed in upon hir like a thousand tons of snow.
Strong took a deep breath, pulling hirself together a bit, before spitting on the monster's face, cleaning some of his blood from hir mouth. Shi felt ill—worse then shit, in fact—but there'd be time for that later, right now shi had to make hir escape. Hellhole or not, Petros still had a police department.
Turning, shi scooped up the quivering body of Scrabs, and leaped off the platform. Shi landed carefully so not to injure the child further, and headed for the exit. But…shi paused, and looked back.
The other children were still standing or sitting around the circle. One of the younger kids was apparently trying to revive the lifeless body by shaking him. "Chayne? Wake up, Chayne…" It was stupid, but it was also rather sad. As horrible a man as Chayne had been, he was probably the closest thing a number of those children had to any sort of father. On any other planet the children would need months or years of therapy to recover from the abuses they suffered at this man's hands…It pained Strongtail to know that none of them would get that help, or even find someone kind to take care of them, to heal them.
But there were too many for hir to look after, so crying, Strong slipped into the night with Hardscrabble. Dozens of young faces watched in complete silence as they left. Silence still reigned as the grating clanked back into place.
Then thin, reedy wails began to arise from the younger children. The sounds chased Strongtail into the alleyway. Hir hands were full with Hardscrabble, so shi couldn't cover hir ears to block them out. But even if shi could have, nothing could muffle the feelings that were flooding hir empathic link. Shock was giving way to horror, confusion, and…grief.
Perhaps worse was what shi felt from the older kids, the ones more hardened to life on the streets. Relief—and opportunism. Every one of them saw himself as the next Chayne—and so the cycle would continue. Strong blinked away the tears, and stumbled back up the alley. Shi had to get away. Only distance would block out what shi didn't want to feel anymore.
Back inside the decrepit warehouse, after a brief altercation, one of the oldest of the kids slowly came forward up the aisle. He knelt next to Chayne's body for a moment…then rose, with the length of chain gripped tightly in one hand. "Right," he said to the room at large, as he gave the body a nudge with his foot. "Somebody get this shit outta here."
To be continued in Episode Two.
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