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     Blink wasn’t precisely sure what she’d been expecting, when Halli had explained that the scrapyard they were going to head to was the smallest and closest of the three in their district, but the towering mountain of old metal that confronted her left her almost speechless. If this was small, however big must the largest one be? Piled high in front of her was everything from kitchen appliances to vehicles to lengths of battered old cabling and industrial equipment, all equally algae-covered and rusted together and overgrown with opportunistic little weeds. Twenty years of being picked through for supplies had barely dented it.

     Halli’s voice broke her from her stupor; “Here; you’ll want to wear these.”

     Blink turned, to find Halli with her arm outstretched, holding two small bag-like objects on the end of a set of strings. “Beg pardon?”

     “I know you laima have tough feet,” the smaller female explained, “but there’s plenty of bits in there which are sharp enough to slash even your toes.”

     Blink took the objects, which revealed themselves to be a kind of very simple leather ‘shoe’ with a thick, probably metal-lined sole. “Oh, thank you.” She carefully slipped her feet into the leather ‘bootlets’, and laced them around her ankle. “I hope I don’t fall over.”

     Halli glanced back at her. “Why would you?”

     Blink smiled, awkwardly, and took one hesitant step forwards, to check how her balance felt. “I’m not very experienced in walking on these legs, yet, let alone walking with things attached to my feet.” Although she didn’t feel particularly stable, she managed to at least stay standing. It felt very strange, the way her toes automatically flexed and tried to grasp at the smooth interior of the shoe, the way they did to help her balance when she went barefoot. Just another learning experience, Bee, she reassured herself. You’ll get the hang of it.

     The scrapheap was truly a treasure trove of discarded metal, born of desperation to keep the streets and public buildings usable. If something stopped working – a lamp, a refrigerator, a vehicle, a transformer in an electrical substation? It just got removed and dumped in the heap, presumably with the ultimate aim of having someone come along and sort it all out later, once the virus had been defeated.

     Of course, when the virus won the battle, the heap of broken-down equipment and vehicles stayed right where it had been dumped, rusting away into the dirt. Blink swallowed over an awkward lump in her throat – had Frond not ‘changed’ her, she might have ended up in here herself, out of fuel and slowly corroding into terminal immobility like a big broken doll.

     Halli had already begun to rummage through the heap for her supplies; Blink steeled her nerve, shook off her distracted, depressed frame of mind, and climbed unsteadily into the heap.

     By noon, a small pile of supplies had grown up in the clear spot where they’d left their bags, including a small electric motor that looked like it might still work, with a little tweaking. Halli couldn’t help grinning about that – since the old diesel-powered generator they used finally ran out of fuel, it had become a laborious daily task, operating the manual pump to fill the water tank in the Library attic just so they could have running water. All they needed now was a turbine or some sort to attach to the motor, and they could use the regular strong sea breeze to power the pump, instead.

     From somewhere just above where Blink was working, something chirped, sharply, followed by a muted buzz, like would come from vibrating equipment. The fessine glanced up, concerned that something was going to fall on her head-

     Staring down at her was the same small, fuzzy brown face as she’d seen before, at the doctor’s surgery – only this time, it was attached to a torso, and very clearly had its dark-eyed attention fixed on her. It waved its antennae and clicked its horizontal beak, sharply, and squeaked again for emphasis.

     Blink jumped backwards, alarmed, and almost lost her balance. “What-...?”

     “It’s all right.” Halli’s voice spoke from close to her elbow, keeping low to avoid startling her further. “It’s only a bug. It wants to come past you.”

     “A bug?” Blink couldn’t tear her gaze from the small creature above her head. “It’s a very big bug-!”

     “Well, that’s more of a nickname. They’re actually called danata, but the laima in the Library group took to calling them bugs, and it stuck.” Halli caught her arm and coaxed her a step or two backwards.

     “Are-... are they dangerous?” Blink watched as the small creature climbed out of the heap, revealing a lightly striped golden-brown fuzzy body, with six segmented limbs and a set of delicate, translucent wings. The reason for the nickname ‘bug’ became immediately apparent – danata were apparently descended from insects. It looked like a giant, bipedal honeybee, complete with a stinger.

     “They have the potential to be,” Halli confirmed, “but we’ve always treated them with respect and they seem to appreciate it. They’re fairly non-confrontational, so long as you don’t act aggressively towards them.”

     The two women watched as the danata climbed past, carrying a mass of scavenged wire that it had carefully straightened and tidied into a big loop, and now carried over its shoulder. It bowed politely and flicked its wings as it passed, but that was the limit to which it paid them any attention.

     “Do they understand us?” Blink wondered. Another three danata had emerged from the scrap, by now, and now stood in a small clear patch of ground waiting for the first to join them.

     “I think so.” Halli nodded. “People of Hesger used to trade with them, apparently. We’ve never been able to confirm it ourselves, at the Library, because they don’t speak a word of Common – I don’t think they can, physically – and don’t seem inclined to start to trade with us, either.”

     Watching the little group of insect-people discussing their finds, Blink was intrigued by how small they were. If standing on a level surface, the head of even the very tallest of the little creatures would have barely reached halfway up her leg. It intrigued her to know how they planned to get their own little selection of supplies back home to wherever they lived.

     “I think we’ve found enough, for now,” Halli decided, wiping her grimy hands clean on a rag. “We won’t be able to carry much more. There’s usually plenty of food on the beach, and it’s fairly safe. Blights don’t seem to like the sea, very much. Let’s go find something to eat, then we can head back.”

     Blink smiled. “That would be nice…”

     The beach was only a short walk away. Expecting a wide, smooth expanse of golden sand, Blink was a little surprised to instead find a fierce, rocky shoreline, built of jagged boulders. There was a little sand, but only in small patches, dotted among the rocks. Thick growths of green seaweed made the ground slippery, and tiny crustaceans coated the rocks, the thousands of shells leaving the shore looking like someone had covered it in gritty grey clay.

     It was so nice to get the ‘boots’ off, Blink mused, kicking her toes free and giving them a good stretch. Useful though they were, they left her feet feeling cramped and stiff. The sand beneath her feet felt pleasantly cold and damp, and soothing to her sore pads.

     Halli too had abandoned her boots on the damp sand, and now sat up on one of the taller stands of rock, dabbling her feet in one of the ubiquitous rockpools. She looked… oddly sombre, with her lips pursed and a faraway look in her eyes.

     Blink hesitated behind her. “Is everything all right?”

     The zaar glanced down. “Hmm?”

     “You just looked sad.” Blink climbed gingerly up to sit on one of the damp boulders next to her. She could feel the rough, scratchy texture of the tiny crustaceans coating the rocks through even the thick fabric of her trousers. “I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to hurt your feelings. I know I’ve not really been very useful, yet-”

     Halli’s face creased in a small smile. “It’s nothing you’ve done,” she reassured. “I’m just thinking.”


     Halli’s smile faltered, and she directed her gaze back out over the ocean, quietly. “I had a family, once,” she explained, wistfully. “A long time ago. We had a little boat, and used to come down here in the summer to fish, sometimes.” After a pause, and a cough to clear her throat, she added; “I lost all three of them.”

     Blink found she suddenly wasn’t really sure what to say. Of course, she should have anticipated that at least some of the Library’s inhabitants had lost people they loved, but it still came as a bit of a shock to actually hear it. “Do you miss them?” She blurted the words out before she really realised what she was saying. Stupid question, of course she does! “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. I-I just meant... do-... do you-... we can go back if you want, I just-”

     Fortunately, Halli interrupted before she could dig herself in too deep. “It’s all right. It was me that suggested we come down here. I just...” She shrugged one shoulder, and smiled, sadly. “I’m used to not coming here with anyone. I forgot how it affects me, sometimes.” She inhaled a long, steadying breath, before going on. “I really should have got over it, by now; it all happened a lifetime ago. Everyone had to get on with life, as best we could, just like we do at the moment. The world wasn’t going to stop turning just because people were getting sick, we all still had to eat and keep warm and try to keep safe. I went out to work, and my husband did his best to look after our two younglings, but I lost all three in the end.” Halli shook her head, reluctantly. “Heff doesn’t discriminate. If you’re warm blooded, you’re a target.”

     Spontaneously, Blink gave her a hug. “I’m sorry.”

     “What are you sorry for?” Halli chuckled, tiredly, but let her head rest against the taller woman’s chest. “You didn’t give it to us.” She sighed, softly, returning the gesture. “...but thank you.”

     Blink could feel her trembling, very slightly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

     “You weren’t to know.”

     The zaar’s quiet reassurance didn’t help the guilt that weighed like a physical substance on Blink’s shoulders. She kept her arms around her, gently brushing the flat of her palm down her back, and wishing she could hum, reassuringly, as she’d always done in the past. (Annoyingly, this new voice didn’t seem able to generate the same soothing harmonics that she was familiar with, just a dull, monotone drone.)

     “Some days, I wish I’d followed them,” Halli admitted. “Or lost my mind like everyone else, at very least, so I didn’t have to think about it. I still dream about heff giving me wings, so I can fly away some day.”

     “Well-… I hope you don’t fly away, just yet,” Blink said, quietly. “Maybe I’m being selfish, but I’m enjoying your company.”

     Halli finally lifted her head from Blink’s shoulder, and coughed, trying to get rid of the tightness in her voice. “You said you had a family, back home?” she prompted, hoping to change the subject.

     Blink nodded. “Yes. Well-… sort of,” she clarified, at least managing to laugh, grimly. “I don’t think I deserve to call them family, as I haven’t made it very easy for them. They don’t deserve all the problems I’ve caused them.” She studied her toes, and wiggled them slowly against the chilly seaweed. “It all seems like I’m whining about nothing. In comparison to everything people here have gone through, you know?”

     Halli gave her a look. “You don’t seem like the sort to just whine about nothing.”

     Blink laughed, uneasily, and shifted her shoulders. Poor Halli had lost everyone she loved, under the most horrible circumstances imaginable, and here she sat, whining bitterly about the most trivial, inconsequential things. “Then I’m sorry I’ve misled you. Rae will confirm I rarely have anything important to get upset about. It’s probably having a genuine problem to be upset about that’s shocked me into silence.”

     Halli nodded, thoughtfully, but remained quiet, to encourage her to go on.

     Having the zaar’s polite, understanding gaze on her made Blink unrealistically uneasy. She felt the need to blurt out excuses to prove she didn’t really have anything to worry about. “My bearer had to bring me up on his own, because my sire thought I was an obstacle and didn’t want me. Then, when I grew up, I fell in love with my best friend.” Giving a voice to the words left her feeling… hollow. “I couldn’t bear the idea of sharing her with someone. I turned into a horrible jealous clingy obsessive that just pushed everyone away.” She sat on her hands, to keep them from trembling. The gritty surface of the shellfish-covered rocks pressed into her palms – the discomfort gave her something to concentrate on. “I thought it was best to remove myself, before I destroyed everything.” She drew in a steadying breath. “Now I won’t even get the chance to tell them where I am, before-… uh, before anything happens.”

     “If you had the chance to speak to them,” Halli wondered, “would they come here for you?”

     Blink looked away, quietly. “I don’t know. I’ve not called them in months,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to say, apart from ‘sorry’.”

     Halli bumped her with her shoulder, and reminded, gently; “that’s a good start.”

     Blink glanced down at her, but Halli was looking away again.

     “I hope you get your chance to speak to them,” the smaller woman went on, without any hint of duplicity. “It’d be nice to meet them, someday.”

     “Yeah,” Blink agreed, faintly. “It would.”

     Halli cleared her throat, awkwardly. “Look at me. I suggested we come here for something to eat, and managed to distract both of us from actually eating,” she scolded herself. Fetching her knife out of the sheath strapped to her thigh, she flattened the blade against the rock, next to what Blink had originally taken to just be a bubbly, algae-covered discolouration, and carefully sliced off one of the ‘pebbles’. “Here.”

     “What is it?” Blink took it, gingerly. Holding it close to her face, she could see that it wasn’t actually solid, but lots of individual overlapping plates, all growing up from the bottom.

     “A little plant. I forget the proper name.

     “What do I do with it...?”

     “Well, we were discussing eating, so...” Halli demonstrated, slicing off another of the little round plants and popping the whole thing into her mouth.

     Warily, Blink copied, nibbling carefully at it; the waxy skin refused to yield to her teeth, at first. Pushing it to the back of her mouth, she bit down more energetically, and the tiny round succulent exploded into a mass of juice and tiny seeds in her mouth; she made a startled noise and almost spat it out, reflexively.

     Halli chuckled. “That caught me out first time, too,” she agreed. Brushing her hand through a tough little plant growing in a shallow gully between two rocks, she added; “these are a little more palatable.”

     “I expected it to be solid,” Blink admitted, around the awkward mouthful, chewing carefully at the individual seeds. “It... doesn’t really taste of much, either. Sort of... watery sugar.” She plucked up a couple of branches, and nibbled, dispiritedly. “It tastes like the sea smells,” she commented, quietly, studying the finely divided branches and rolling them between thumb and forefinger. It looked almost like it was made of plastic; fat, shiny and slightly translucent. “Sort of... salt, and mud, and seaweed.” Such a fragile thing, life. Ended so easily.

     Halli leaned closer, and covered Blink’s free hand with her deformed ‘flipper’. “It’ll be all right.”

     Blink waved the straggly little branches, as though for emphasis. “How can it be? I’m like this stupid little plant. Any day now, heff will come along and tear me up by the roots.”

     Halli kept her gaze steady. “Because you’re laima, you’re stronger than you think, and you have friends around you. We’ll make sure you survive this.”

* * * * *

     The two women might have avoided the beach, had they realised they were being observed. Up on the roof of a distant tower-block, keeping careful, suspicious watch over Library territory, a small male nyen sat by a telescope, watching them with undisguised curiosity.

     So the Library had someone new in the group, eh? He licked his lips. Just the sort of thing the boss should be made aware of. Perhaps they were survivors of that crash, a few days ago? Zinovy had seen the vessel come down, in the mountains, but assumed that the occupants had died, or else escaped this wretched planet in the smaller vehicle that followed it. Newcomers were just what the stagnant, boring city of Kust needed. And women were just what one bored, sex-starved little hart needed...

     With their unusual, lab-built genetics, nyen tended to catch heff and bleed to death in very short order. Where the average life-expectancy of any other species was at least a few months, most nyen with heff were lucky to hit twenty days. Zinovy was one of few exceptions to the rule, and not only did he survive, he actually came out stronger for it – strong enough that he fancied himself as a future leader.

     Tevak was the boss, of course, and Zinovy obeyed the gold-skinned giant without question – wouldn’t dare act up, at least not openly! He actually valued keeping his body in good health – but that didn’t mean Zinovy had to like him, or like his policies. His dark, suspicious little eyes were constantly roving for an opportunity to knock Tevak off his pedestal, and take over. One day the giant brute would make a mistake, and when he did, Zinovy would be in there, twisting the knife.

     He reapplied his eye to the telescope. One of the two on the beach was familiar to him – a fierce, aggressive little fal who didn’t seem to be scared of anything and had on several occasions actually squared off against him, when he’d intruded on her territory. She had lightning reflexes and wasn’t slow to use the little knife she usually kept with her. He twitched his tailtip, irritably; she’d almost cut it clean off, once, with a lucky blow from her blade, and a phantom reminder of the pain echoed right to the tail’s sensitive tip. She wasn’t what interested him, though; if he never bumped into the aggressive, violent little whore ever again, it’d still be soon.

     No, it was the newcomer that had Zinovy watching, rapt. Pretty little fessine, looked like – pale skin, daintily built, nice little breasts, sand-coloured hair pulled up into bunches (or maybe ‘handles’?) on either side of her head, and not too outlandishly tall, either. Pleasantly pocket-sized, in fact. The sort that could be tucked away in a cupboard without any great fuss.

     And more importantly, apparently not bearing any hallmarks of infection. He licked his lips, curiously. His tribe had precious few females, right now, and those that they did have – those that behaved like women, anyway – were either ugly, or violent, or both. No sweet, meek little women to warm the bed of a needy male. The only remotely good looking one had turned into a shrieking, flame-haired banshee that let no-one touch her except Tevak and Asnate, and used her position as the boss’s favourite to keep all the others in line.

     Of course, he’d have to tell Tevak; trying to sneak this new little pretty thing into their building would never work, and would probably earn him a beating, but if he played it just right, he might be allowed to share...

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