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.
(The first instalment of Lost In Transit, initially intended to be a one-off inspired by the 2019 NeoScum Valentine. Little did I know...)
You’re in a gas station when you see them.
Xanadu is parked up outside; you stopped in this little nowhere town to grab a bite to eat, all hungry enough to shoot out of the doors like racetrack greyhounds the second the engine cut and over to the grubby diner across the street. The place had clearly seen better days, but the staff seemed happy to see some new faces passing through, and the food was decent–though at this point, you’re all grateful for a sit-down meal anywhere, quality irrespective, as opposed to living on scraps that could be described as varying degrees of stolen or whatever dubious substance Dak has managed to procure and is insisting is “real trucker food”. Everyone split off afterwards, 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, now, here you are in the convenience store at the truck stop, gathering up snacks to keep you going for the next day or two of driving.
The town has been pretty dead so far, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the shop is empty, either, until you notice the shadow of another person in 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 an ocular drone?
Frozen in place, you curse yourself for not having recorded it, even though of course you didn’t fucking record it because there’s no way, no way in hell you could ever have known that was coming, and–they’re gone, now, having moved back behind a taller shelf, and it takes a few seconds for you to unstick yourself from your place on the floor and dart down the adjacent aisle.
Despite your racing heart, you do your best to look casual and like you’re absolutely not at all following this complete stranger as you briefly catch sight of them between aisles again. You don’t see their face, but you do see their hand: metallic and marked with a glowing, white crescent. Just like yours. They still haven’t noticed you–or if they have, they’re ignoring you. 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 said you didn’t want to remember. You said you wouldn’t want to know them. But a voice speaks in your head:
What if you did?
You want answers, don’t you? Faced with this, right here, right now, this impossible chance, something you couldn’t believe would ever actually come to fruition–are you really going to throw an opportunity like this away?
You might not ever be in this position again.
The decision is already made.
You stop again, this time at the end of an aisle, peeking around the corner just enough to see your quarry eyeing up the pharmaceutical section before quickly retracting your head. A woman, if you had to take a guess, about your height, with auburn hair long enough to cover the implants in her skull that you can only assume are there, and clad in light body armour. Quality stuff–not something you’d find just anyone parading around in.
Lists of possible careers and loyalties are already flitting through your mind. This is so stupid. This could take a bad turn sofast. You don’t know who she’s working with. You don’t know if she got out. 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.
Maybe they didn’t. Maybe she wouldn’t care the slightest bit for your shared past, and frankly you don’t know if that would make it better or worse.
Your mouth is dry and you’re struggling not to go into full panic mode: just walk right out of the store, tell nobody, pretend none of this ever happened, and carry on with your life never fully taking in the reality that there are other people like you in the world. Part of you has always known it, but actually encountering one of them is so different and so much scarier than anything you could have imagined. 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 a cybernetics corp to be shunted into someone’s private army?” Does she even know? Does she even remember?
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 food packets you’d had clenched in your fist this whole time. It catches her off-guard in turn–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 and your collar hides the implants on your head well enough. 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–
Taking a deep breath, you stand again, and do your best not to falter as you raise your head and reach out to accept the bag of chips the stranger holds out for you. Your eyes meet.
The air around you is heavy all of a sudden, dense, suffocating. Neither of you tries to hide the fact that you’re staring right at each others’ drones. If the ground opened up and you sunk straight down into hell right now, you’d be totally fine with that.
“Look, I…” You lose your train of thought immediately. There are so many thoughts and feelings fighting to make themselves known that none of them can make it through the door.
“Sorry.” The stranger’s expression is no longer apologetic. It’s cold and a little angry and she turns and strides away towards the bored-looking ork cashier at the till with her bottles and packets of pills.
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 soda and cereal 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 down a street to the left.
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 turns to face you. Faster than you can even register, you’re being whipped into an adjacent alleyway and your back meets solid brick, pinned in place by one metal hand with another at your throat. You can feel the mechanics of her arm whirring as her gun unsheathes.
“Did they fucking send you?” The stranger’s eyes are narrow and her expression fierce. You have to recalibrate rapidly: things have gone south, and you need to be ready to fight, if it comes to it. But you didn’t come here to shed blood.
“Don’t fucking lie to me. Did they send you to bring me back? Because this is pathetic and they’re going to have to try a lot harder. I’m not going. You can’t take–”
“I’m not lying!” You squirm uncomfortably against the brick as she presses her hand harder into your throat. “Nobody sent me! I’m not–I just wanted to talk, okay? I just… wanted to talk.”
“Talk about what?”
“Can you get your gun away from my fucking neck first?
Silence. Then the pressure on your throat eases up.
“What do you want?”
You stare dumbly for a few moments. Put on the spot, your ability to form coherent sentences has gone straight out the window.
“I– The–” You stop. Okay. Breathe. One thing at a time. “You’re–C&C Logistics, right? Legacy of Adam?” God, even saying the words aloud makes you nervous. “Look, I’m sorry for following you. I know that was weird. I’ve never met anyone else… like this. From them. I thought, you know, you could…”
“I don’t know, okay?” This was a bad idea. This was a terrible idea, because you’ve held yourself together so well for years, and now all it’s taken is a fucking breeze for that carefully-constructed fortress to begin to crumble, and you’re ready to start crying at any second in front of someone you don’t even know. You’re vulnerable. You don’t like to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is dangerous. “I don’t know. I’ve been– I’m looking for information. About them. I don’t remember anything from when I was… with them. I just–”
You pause. You take a deep breath. You exhale slowly. Try again.
“I want to know who they are. I want to know why they made me–make us–and I want to know about who’s… using people like us. What they planned on doing with us.” The words leave such a bad taste in your mouth. It stings more than you’d like to admit to acknowledge, out loud, that you were once nothing more than a product to someone. That in a sense, you always will be.
“Like that isn’t obvious?” She’s giving you a look that sits somewhere between boredom, frustration and… fear? “They made us to kill people. Do you want all the gory details?”
“No,” you answer, weakly, all of a sudden feeling so stupid and so small in a way you haven’t in a long time. “But…”
“But what?” She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, like she’s antsy, eager to get away. “Look, I have people waiting for me, so if you’re ready to stop dredging up shit that I never want to think about again–”
“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. The fight to hold back tears is a hard one. Crying always makes your left eye socket burn even though nothing comes out. You think about just walking away, but you need this. You opened this wound and now you need closure. This is a conversation you have to see to the end.
Eventually, the stranger steps forwards. This time, she makes no attempt to assault you.
“What’s your name?”
You take a few ragged breaths and do your best to keep your voice from wobbling.
The corners of the stranger’s mouth twitch upwards.
“Hi, Zenith.” She offers her hand out. You take it. “I’m Aubrey.”
It’s your turn to smile, and the smile breaks into laughter out of sheer relief– relief that you’re not dead already, or relief that you don’t have to walk away feeling like you fucked this whole thing up, or something like that. Aubrey laughs, too. Just a little bit.
“So, you–you’re not with them, then,” you say. A statement more than a question. Aubrey shakes her head.
“No. Transport accident,” she states preemptively. “A bunch of us… we just about made it out. We got ourselves set up–money, ID–as fast as we could, then split. Figured we’d be harder for them to catch moving alone rather than in a group, if they wanted to track us down. I’m with a security firm now. 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 with no sense of time or place.
“I don’t know,” you answer finally; and, then, seeing her quizzical look: “I woke up in Seattle that was just… it. I knew how to hack and I knew how to fight. I was in the pro gaming scene for a while, but shadowrunning is… more interesting.”
Aubrey’s expression softens somewhat as you speak.
“So you… huh. And you really don’t remember anything before that?” When you shake your head, she laughs softly. Sadly. “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. It’s a good thing that you got out. It’s not fun trying to break the mindset that you have no worth as a real person, either.” She stops for a moment, still not looking at you. Her words make your chest ache. You’re on the brink of an apology, but she lifts her head and speaks again before you can get a word in. “So, you’re out here on a run? Seems like kind of a bum town for that sort of thing.”
“No, actually. Well, kind of. We just stopped–”
“Oop.” Aubrey raises a hand to stop you and blinks a couple of times; she seems to look past you for a second before zoning back in and sighing. “Sorry, I hate to cut this short, but my supervisor is hassling me. I was only meant to be gone ten minutes–”
“No, no, it’s… fine.” Is it? It’s not. You have a million unasked questions. There’s so much more you want to say. You bite your tongue instead. “I should probably figure out where the rest of my crew went, too.”
You take a moment to wipe away the tear residue from your eye. You step forwards, back towards the street, but both of you hesitate and exchange glances.
And then, unplanned and wordless but synchronised nonetheless, you reach out and wrap your arms around one another.
Something about it feels familiar. Deep in the recesses of your memories, something stirs; you think, maybe, that you shared similar embraces with other trainees, all those years ago. Perhaps you did care for one another, no matter how hard your superiors tried to beat the compassion out of you.
There is something unspoken yet knowing in the hug. An invisible, intangible energy passes between you; the silent recognition of the pain you both endured, the trauma it left, the way it still clings to you as you try to forge your new lives–and, now, in this impossible moment, the mutual reassurance that you can keep moving forward; the knowledge that you will. You hold on tight–just as she does to you–and linger for as long as you can before she eases away. When you finally separate, you still have one of her hands clasped in your own.
“It was nice to meet you, Zenith.” Aubrey smiles again. “Sorry I pulled a gun on you.”
“Thanks. But trust me,” you reply, unable to keep a grin off your face, “I’ve come way closer to death than that before.” She chuckles, but then her brow furrows into a frown.
“Be careful out there, okay? If you really want to go looking for answers, you won’t go unnoticed. They never completely write off runaways as losses.”
“I will. I’ll be careful.” You look down at where your hands are joined: almost-identical silver fingers wrapped around one another, the brands on the backs of your palms glowing softly in the shadows of the buildings that rise up either side of you. You feel the 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 brief silence. You can feel the question that threatens to break it hanging over you both.
“I don’t think it’s safe for us to stay in contact.” You can’t decide if the emotion her words flood you with is relief or disappointment.
“Probably not,” you say, quietly, with a little affirmative nod. “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.” She looks concerned, but you can’t help but smile, just thinking about how fucking crazy the last couple weeks have been. “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.”
Your hands slip apart as the two of you step back out into the sunlight.
“I guess I won’t see you again,” Aubrey says. “But I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“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 minute back there, so don’t feel too bad about putting a gun to my throat.”
She grins, now, and opens her mouth to respond, but then a voice shouts from further down the street:
She spins, looks at the figure waving at her, and then turns back to you with a shrug.
“Like I said, I gotta go.” She’s already backing away, half-turned to start jogging. “Good luck! Stay safe!”
“You too,” you call back, and then you just stand there, watching, unwilling or unable to look away as her figure grows smaller until she eventually joins the other person at the end of the street. You get that ache in your chest again as they round the corner, and finally disappear out of sight. Somehow, you feel like you know her so much better than your short encounter could possibly have allowed.
A weathered hand suddenly claps you on the shoulder and makes you jump for the second time today.
“He-ey, Z! Who’re you talking to?” Dak squints at the far end of the street where Aubrey just made her exit. You pause. You think. You speak.
“Just an old friend.”