But whAT if YOU DId?

WORDS: 4300
CONTENT: Internal conflict, anxiety, allusions to traumatic pasts, nonbinary Zenith

Zenith's recent experiences have finally begun to sweep the dust off of the painting of hir past, and so far, it's not a pretty one. Ze wants to know things, sure, but ze's not certain ze'd like to know the people.

At least, that's what ze thought. Minds can change in the blink of an eye when faced with a choice that has, up until now, been purely hypothetical.

The first instalment of Lost In Transit, initially intended to be a one-off inspired by the 2019 NeoScum Valentine. Rewritten and re-illustrated in 2023 to better align with subsequent character development and later events of NeoScum podcast.

You’re in a gas station when you see them.

The NeoScum were hungry, and you all shot out of the doors like racetrack greyhounds the second the engine cut and over to the aged, neon-clad diner across the street. The place had clearly seen better days, but the singular waiter was happy to see some new faces passing through, and the food was decent, though at this point you’re all grateful for anything that's affordable and properly-cooked. Your baseline for what could be considered bad food has changed drastically since you stepped into Xanadu's cabin.

You've since split off, wanting to stretch your legs, get some space and enjoy the fresh air before gearing up for another God-knows-how-many hours on the road. So, here you are, in the convenience store at the gas station, sourcing snacks that haven't spent a mystery amount of time aging in one of Xanadu's storage compartments and aren't a texture nightmare to keep you going until you can reasonably (or unreasonably) expect to acquire your next meal.

The town has been pretty dead so far, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the store is empty, too. Someone else enters after a few minutes, but other than hearing the blown-out, fuzzy ringing of the dying electronic bell at the door, you pay no attention until their silhouette enters your peripheral vision.

A couple of aisles over, someone is picking out drinks from one of the refrigerators. Your gaze only lingers for a second, dropping as they turn around, but what you catch a glimpse of at the last moment makes your blood run cold.

Was that a Ͼ?

You find yourself frozen in place. Did you record it? You didn't record it. Of course you didn't record it, because you couldn't have seen that coming. You want to look up. You don't. The air shifts: they're walking behind you, (close enough to touch, but you don't), past you, towards the back of the store. It takes a several seconds once they're out of sight for you to unstick yourself from your place on the floor and dart down an adjacent aisle. Did they notice you? Were they looking? Does it mean anything that they ignored you if they were?

You do your best to look casual and like you’re absolutely not at all stalking a stranger around an empty store, despite your racing heart. Tensed to recoil at any second, you peer around the shelving unit you've taken shelter behind. From here, you can't see their face, but you do see their hand: very obviously cybernetic and branded with the same distinct logo as yours. You consider, briefly, running a quick scan to get the full scope on what they're running, but almost immediately decide against it. Bad idea. You're fucked if it goes wrong.

You think about what might happen if you make eye contact. You think about why you’re even tailing them in the first place. What’s your goal, here? What are you trying to achieve?

You didn't want to remember them. You didn't want to know these people. But now a voice speaks in your head:

What if you did?

You want answers. You don't know if this is the person who can give you them, but you won't find out until you ask.

You never did ask that fucking dog guy about his implants, and the doctor that frankensteined him together was a dead end, too. Every single lead you've followed so far has been fucking fruitless. Are you really going to throw this opportunity away?

You might not ever be in a position like this again.

The decision is already made.

You peek around the corner once more, just enough to see your quarry eyeing up the pharmaceutical section. Probably a woman, if you had to take a guess; about your height, with bobbed red hair long enough to cover the implants in her skull that you're going to assume are there, and clad in a uniform of lightweight purple body armour. Quality stuff, not something you'd find just anyone parading around in, well-fitted and comfortable.

Lists of possible careers and loyalties are already flitting through your mind. Too corporate for a runner. None of the branding or flashy exclusive equipment of a megacorp or one of their subdivisions. A local company?

Logic resurfaces for a brief, screaming moment. What are you doing? This is so stupid. This could take a bad turn so fast. You don’t know who she's working with, why she's here, if she even got out like you apparently did. It's possible she didn't. You don’t know what happened to the ones who stayed, and you don’t know what damage that did, and you don’t know if they held any care or sympathy for the others they were trained with by the end of it all.

She might not. Maybe she doesn’t care the slightest bit for your shared past, and frankly you don’t know if that would make it better or worse.

Your dry tongue scrapes at the roof of your mouth and you’re struggling not to go into full panic mode. Think about it. You can walk right on out of the store, tell nobody you were here, and pretend none of this ever happened. You can carry on pursuing your past all alone, avoiding the reality that there are other people like you in the world, and you definitely won't lament this lost opportunity while it eats at you inside for years to come.

...Yeah, see, this is why we have to address this.

It makes sense, based on what little you know, that you would have been one of several, but actually encountering one of those several others is so different and so much scarier than anything your imagination could have spun up. How the fuck do you approach this? “Hey, weird question, but were you also forcibly operated on and put through intense combat training as a child by some kind of sketchy cybernetics corp?” Does she even know? Does she remember? What were the chances of this ever happening?

You’re so lost in your own head that when she rounds the corner from the aisle, it makes you jump, and you drop some of the packets of food you’d had clutched in your arms this whole time. It catches her equally off-guard; she reels back a little, blinks, then gives you an apologetic look as she bends to help you collect the dropped items.


“No, it’s fine, it’s fine.” You quickly dip your head to try and hide your left eye as you kneel down, hoping that your sleeves cover your hands (they don't) and your collar hides the implants on your head (it doesn't). Fuck. Fuck. Your heart is in your throat and you know you’re going to have to look her in the face but maybe if you can drag this out long enough you can avoid it, or at least figure out what you’re going to say, or– or–

She's already back on her feet. You've been staring at the floor for several seconds. Slowly, you stand again, and do your best not to falter as you raise your head and hold your hand out to accept the bag of chips the stranger is offering you. Your eyes meet.

Time stops.

(There is a scar around her left eye. Different to yours, but alike. It forms an A-shape that slices through her eyebrow.)

The air around you is heavy all of a sudden, dense, suffocating. The brief hope you had allowed yourself a glimpse at of some kind of miracle moment falls to the ground, dead. Neither of you tries to hide the fact that you’re staring right at the other's ocular drone. If the ground opened up and you sunk straight down into hell right now, you’d be totally fine with that.

“Hey. Uh. Look, maybe this is weird, but--” What are you saying. You stop mid-sentence, jaw slack, which isn't much better. The conversational slot machine spinning in your head is failing to land on an arrangement of words that ends that sentence tactfully. Whatever power you entrusted with your ability to successfully navigate this interaction, it has failed at step 1.

“Sorry.” The stranger’s expression is no longer apologetic. It’s cold and a little angry and she turns and strides away towards the cashier--a bored-looking ork who regards you both with complete apathy--drinks and pill packs in hand.

Fuck. Fucking shit. You scramble after her--not too close behind because you don’t want to scare her even more--hurriedly pay for your things and try to cram the juice and protein bars into your pockets as you tumble out of the shop door. Your head is on a swivel, hoping she hasn’t gotten too far, and--there she is, making a hasty exit along a street across the road, to your left.

Did you know her? Did you hurt her, or her you? Does she know something you've done that was so irremediably heinous that she can't even bear to look at you?

You follow after her. Not quite running, but she’s moving quickly and you have to break into a near-jog to catch up.

“Hey.” You slow as you draw near. “Wait, just a sec--”

She whips around to face you. Faster than you can even register, she grabs your arm and yanks you down an adjacent alleyway. You slam into the brick hard, the metal plate at the back of your head striking it with a dull clang that makes your vision swim. The disorientation from the motion and impact is only momentary, but it's all she needs; one arm pins your body to the wall, and you feel the fingers of her other hand close around your throat. The mechanics inside her arm thrum as her gun unfolds from within the casing.

"Okay, okay--ow--hey--"

"I'm not going back." The stranger’s eyes are narrow and her expression fierce. "I knew you sick sons of bitches would find me one day, but I'm not going back. I don't want to kill you, okay? I don't." Her voice wavers. The hand around your neck tightens nonetheless. "I just want to give you the option to leave, first. We don't have to do this. You don't have to do this. At all."

You have to recalibrate very, very rapidly. You didn't actually expect her to try to kill you as soon as you were in semi-private.

You didn’t come here to shed blood.

“Woah, woah--I don't know what you're talking about." As poorly as this is going, you're confident she won't open fire. Not now, not here, not if she wants to remain discreet. Despite this, your clawing at her arm and attempts to find leverage against the wall are in vain; she presses the other one harder against your ribs.

“Don’t fucking lie to me. Did they send you to bring me back? Or did they just want me dead? They don't care about you, you know. Whatever they promised y--”

“I’m not lying!” you sputter. Her grip on your neck tightens enough for you to be concerned about the bruising it'll leave. You change tactics and reach for her neck in kind, but she parries your hand with ease; you try to kick her away only for her to roll with the motion, barely budging, most of the force absorbed by her armour. She's good. "I'm not--nobody sent me. I just--just wanted to talk, okay?"

“Talk about what?”

“Maybe we can have this conversation when you're not choking me."

Silence. A few seconds. The pressure on your neck eases up.

“What do you want?”

“I--The--” Stop. Okay. Breathe. One thing at a time. “Your implants are from C&C Logistics, right? And you know they're a front for Legacy of Adam?” Her expression darkens. Thiiiiis is not going well. "Okay, hey, I'm sorry. I get that this is not a great first impression. I just--I saw--I thought--"

"You what?

“I don’t know, okay?” This was a bad idea. This was a terrible idea. She's still looking at you like she'd gut you at a moment's notice. You’ve held yourself together so well for years, only for the defensive walls of that carefully-constructed fortress to begin to crumble alarmingly fast. You feel vulnerable. You don’t like to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is dangerous. Somehow, this is something you've known all your life.

“I don’t know. I've been--I'm looking for information. About them. I don't know if you know, or remember, or if you're contractually obligated to kill me so I can never truly escape or something, but if there's anything you can tell me--I don't remember--”

You stumble, pause and take a deep breath. You exhale slowly and you try again.

“I want to know who they are. I want to know what we are. And I want to know how. And why. And who I was, before.”

"You think I know any of that? You think they ever explained anything to us?"

"I don't know! That's the point!" You feel small. You feel stupid. You feel a way you haven’t in a long time. Of course they wouldn't tell you the truth of things, as far as they could get away with it. It'd never be that simple. "I just..."

What? What is it you really want?

“I just wanted to talk to someone who gets it.

The words are out of your mouth before you can stop them, and hey, Satan, if you’re down there, that sinkhole would go down real smooth right now. Failing that, a well-timed interruption from one of your fellow scummers would do the trick. Unfortunately for you, a quick matrix sweep of the immediate area tells you none of them are close by, so it looks like Operation Hellhole is still your best prospect for getting the fuck out of this.

For a minute, there’s just… quiet. Crying is a rare occurrence for you, but the fight to hold back tears is a hard one. You think about walking away, but you opened this wound and now you need closure. This is a conversation you have to see to the end.

Eventually, the stranger speaks.

"God. You really don't know, do you." Statement, not question. You glance up. Her head is bowed, eyes turned to the side, the wild and furious look gone. "I'm sorry. I was always so scared that they'd--there were rumours about what they did with--I was never sure if people like you were real."

"What do you mean, people like me?"

“People who..." The rest of the sentence never makes it past her lips. Her jaw trembles like she's on the brink of forcing the words out before eventually clamping shut. She tries another angle instead. "What’s your name?”

You want to keep pressing her, but you guess you have to start somewhere.


The corners of the stranger’s mouth twitch upwards.

“Hi, Zenith.” She extends a hand towards you. “I’m Aubrey.”

You reach out to shake it and can't help but stare. It's strange to see yourself reflected so literally.

“So, you--I don't know how this works--you're not still with them,” you say. You're giddy with... something. Relief or anxiety or both. The end result is the same. "They're not doing some weird brain hacking on you, or anything crazy like that."

“No. I mean, I fucking hope not. There was a transport accident,” she states preemptively. “Some of us... we just about made it out, and split as soon as we could. We figured it'd be more work for them to track us all separately, so... maybe they just wouldn't bother. Six years lucky, so far. I’m with a security firm now." She taps the little logo on her vest: the silhouette of a centaur drawing back a bow. "What about you? Do you...?”

You actually try to remember, like her story might have awoken something, but reaching back, your memory is as blank as ever. Nothing but white and static and vague shapes and noise with no sense of time or place.

“I don’t know,” you answer finally. She gives you... some kind of look. Pained? Sympathetic? Longing? “I woke up in Seattle that was just… it. I was in the esports scene for a while but it was... eeeh. Competing professionally wasn't for me. I'm freelancing now."


"Yeah. I'll be real: usually, when I talk to security guards, it goes a lot worse than this."

“So you… huh. And you really don’t remember anything before...?”


She laughs softly. Wistfully. “I’m kind of jealous.”

“It’s really not as fun as it sounds.”

The laughter fades to a sad smile, and she looks away.

“You shouldn’t take it for granted. I don't know how or why you... left, but it's good that you did. You're better off not knowing how they treated us.” She stops for a moment, still not looking at you. Your chest aches.

"Come on," you urge. "Who are they? You can't tell me something? Anything?"

"They're bad fucking news." She scrubs at her face with her hands and squeezes her eyes shut. "I don't--I don't know you, so I don't think we're from the same... place, exactly, but I don't think it matters. I think they were probably as bad to you as they were to me. We weren't--we weren't people to them, okay? I can tell you that. We weren't people. We were their product."

And you were not good enough.

"What product? What do they do?" What did we do?

Cool, humid air. Tree bark snagging your clothes. The way the sound of your gun unfolding blends in with the rainfall.

"You don't want to know. I promise, you really don't."

The phantom sensation of something in your absent left arm being connected for the first time. The bioelectrical rush of every neuron coming online all at once; the sudden flood of contradictory impulses and conflicting sensations. You are screaming. Nobody cares.

"You don't get to choose that--"

Two small hands in the dark.

“Stop. Please." She inhales deep, and exhales hard. Before you can strike with another question, she disarms you with one of her own. "What are you doing here, anyway? Seems like a weird place for a job."

Struck off-guard by the diversion, an answer falls out of your mouth before you can even think to protest. "I'm just stopping through. We've got somewhere to be.”

“You too, huh? Someone hired us out for a--shit, hold on.” Aubrey blinks, and you recognise the rapid back-and-forth of her eyes across an AR feed. “Fucking--sorry, I hate to cut this short, but my team is hassling me. I was only meant to be gone ten minutes--”

"Okay, but--" You can't leave here with nothing. Think. "If I wanted to find Legacy of Adam, where would I go?"

She looks at you. Long and hard. Her face is unreadable.

"I don't know," she answers finally. "Really. I've been trying to put as much distance between me and them as I can for the past six years. I don't know where you come from. I don't know where you'd start looking for them. I'm sorry."

“No, no, I--I get it. It's a lot. It’s… fine.” Is it? It’s not. You have a million unasked questions. You bite your tongue and swallow them.

"I really have to..."

“Right. I should probably figure out where the rest of my crew went.”

Aubrey steps past you. You pull down the sleeve of your jacket to wipe away the tear residue from your eye. You turn to follow her back out onto the street, but both of you hesitate and exchange glances.

Unplanned, wordless, and in perfect sync, you turn and wrap your arms around one another.

Something about it feels familiar. Deep in the recesses of your memories, something stirs; the vaguest recollection of clinging to someone else, of being clung to, of the inherent fear in the act. Perhaps you did care for one another, whoever else those others were, no matter how hard your superiors tried to beat the compassion out of you.

There is no exchange of words; her arms around you and the mutual experience of this impossible moment already tell you everything. This is I'm glad I met you. This is I'm sorry. This is I wish I could say more. This is I want to help you. This is I don't know how to help you. This is please don't do this. This is good luck.

If nothing else, you have this. Some confirmation. You're not the only one.

When you pull back from her, Aubrey is smiling apologetically. “Sorry I pulled a gun on you.”

“It's cool,” you reply, unable to keep a grin off your face, “I’ve come way closer to dying than that before. But thanks.” She chuckles, but then her brow furrows into a frown.

“Be careful out there, okay? I'm still waiting for them to try and reclaim me for parts or something, eventually. I don't know if they track us, but...”

“I will. I’ll be careful.” You look down at your hand, still clasped in hers; apparently it's not just you who's reluctant to let go. Ten carefully constructed carbon-compound fingers wrap around time-scarred, silicone-padded palms, the halos on the backs of them glowing softly in the shadows of the buildings that surround you. There's a distinct sensation that something inside you has changed; some part of you that you didn’t even know existed no longer feels quite as empty as it would have done before today.

There’s another moment of silence. You can feel the question that threatens to break it hanging over you both.

"Would you--"

"I don't--"

Both of you stop two words into your sentences, and both of you gesture emphatically at the other to continue.

"What?" Aubrey finally blurts out. "Oh my god. Just say it."

"Would you want to--What's your number? Can I at least call you later?"

In a fraction of a second, all the warmth is gone from her voice. "No. I don't want to know. You can do what you want, but I don't want to be part of it. I can't. If they could trace me through you... I don't want them to find me. I can't take a risk like that."

You can’t decide if the emotion you're experiencing is relief or disappointment. Relief, at being able to write this interaction and all the complicated feelings attached to it off, and move on; disappointment at what could have come of it, if you had more time. If you could just talk a little more. If she wasn't so scared. If she could shed light on the things you've seen in your flashbacks. If only if only if only.

It's not too late to try and strongarm something out of her. You don't want to, but you could. Technically. Theoretically? You consider yourself, in your jacket and pants and sneakers, not exactly in the best shape, against her in her armour, probably better fed and rested, her strength already proven.

You don't want to fight her--not just because you think she'd win.

"You know what? I don't blame you." If not the mysterious Legacy of Adam themselves showing up on her doorstep, it'd be someone else, with how your luck's been. "We have a lot of angry people looking for us, and we’ve had to do some convoluted stuff with our comm security. It’s a whole thing. Point is, if you’re already worried about Legacy of Adam or whoever else coming after you, you’re better off not getting wrapped up in everything we have going on, too.”

You reluctantly release her hand, as she does yours, and the two of you step back out into the sunlight.

“I still think you're crazy for doing this,” Aubrey says. “But I hope you... figure things out. I hope it's worth it.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Me too.” You exhale heavily. “Just--Thanks. For talking. Even just for a minute. And, y'know, I definitely looked like a creep for a hot second back there, so don’t feel too bad about nearly shooting me.”

"Maybe I overreacted," she laughs. "I promise I don't normally greet people like that."

“I've known people with worse ways of saying hello.”

“As much as I'd love to hear about it, I gotta go.” She’s begun to back away, half-turned to start jogging down the sidewalk. “Good luck! Stay safe!”

“You too,” you call back. And then you stand there, watching, unwilling or unable to look away as she disappears around the street corner.

Gone, just like that.

You're too preoccupied trying to figure out where to start unpacking what the fuck just happened to you to notice the footsteps approaching behind you until Dak drops his arm across your shoulders and you nearly jump out of your skin.

"Jesus Christ, man."

"We were waiting for you!" Dak grins and leans his weight against you.

"You couldn't fuckin' DM me, or something?" You try to wriggle out from his hold, with limited success.

"Oh, you know. Reception's real bad out here."

"Yeah, yeah." It's not. He just... cares more than that? You guess? That's weird to think about. You can add it to your list of things you need to unpack when you have a minute to yourself. "I was just about to head back, anyway." You manage to duck out from under his arm and do a 180 pivot to walk away, and Dak quickly follows after you.

"Who was that you were talking to?"

Should you tell him? Not now. Maybe later.

"Nobody," you reply, feigning nonchalance as best you can. "I was just asking for directions."