[YC126 NECWC] Florence's Tale

“Well, I’m in a tight pickle. Again. But I’ll work out of it.

You know I always do, little bro.

It’s been too long since we spoke. Way too long, and I’m sorry for that. Life’s getting harder - there’s a war going on topside, if you can believe that! Ironguard’s overthrowing the Company, and a bunch of rabbits are landing too. Not as much artillery this time, thank the Tunnels. There’s a ship overhead that was firing missiles, but they’ve been rather precise, mostly hitting Ironguard facilities, and you know we don’t care for them anyway.

It started a couple days ago. Some goldborn from offworld looking for a meeting with the Company. Don’t know why, don’t care why. But then the bombings started.

I thought it was the mines, at first. They’re always blowing things up down there. But then there was screaming, and fire and smoke, and … it was the War all over again. Stampedes in the streets as folks ran for their lives, the bells, the constant gunfire. The Bell tolled, day and night, a warning too late for any of us.

Most of us rockborn fled back into the slums and tunnels. We’re resilient - the Tunnels shelter us, guard us. And no one comes to us. The War sure didn’t. The Eagles didn’t when they turned the Square into a lake of blood.

Enough of the damn war. You probably want to know how we’re doing. Well, we’re doing quite fine. Little Ameliana’s still growing - she’s still at the orphanage.

What’s that? Oh, no, not that orphanage. Well, it’s the Lucky Children, over by March Avenue. Still got a sweatshop downstairs and terrible dorms, but at least it’s not a hellhole. What? Amie’s too young to be scaving on the streets, and you know that, bro. Trafficking? No, you’re remembering wrong - that’s the old one! … Well, she likes it, alright? Haven’t had complaints, so she’ll stay there. Safer for her.

Kaylyn? She’s still living in that abandoned silo. You know, the one where all the urchins go? Yeah, she’s living there. Got a good company ‘round her too. Fifty of them or so, they’ve fought off any attempts by the gangs to get in and steal the caches of food and whatnot that they’ve stashed in there. I visit, I do, but the urchins don’t like me that much anymore. It’s a long story.

Me? I’m doing well too - what about me? What pickle? I said that? Oh … right - yeah, that’s a long story, so settle in. You remember the so-called King of the Haven? The Tunnel Spider? Got ears everywhere, and fingers in half the criminal enterprises in the colony? No … no, no, you’re thinking about the mine overseer. Spider’s the guy with the walled estate in the Haven. You’ve gotta remember that one - hell, you tried to rob it! … What’s that? No, the one with a tower over the gate - you got caught by his guards trying to shimmy up the rear wall. Yeah, that one!

Well, I tried to rob him too.

Hey, don’t sound so outraged. He’s a goldborn - he sleeps in more money than any of us would ever see. You tried it too. … Yeah, well I’ve always been better than you, little bro. … Hey, I actually made it over the wall, ‘aight? And got inside - hey, don’t sound so surprised!

No, not just inside his house - inside his vault. That’s right, he has a damn vault. Full of coins, and slips, and jewels - it was awesome. I filled up my bags, and left.

Well, what do you think happened? No, I got away safely … of course I got caught. Whole damn setup was a trap. They knew I was coming. Hey, I still got farther than you. … Oh, fine. Call it a tie then.

Well, the Spider offered me a job. Don’t know why he went through such an elaborate setup, but he said he’d let me keep the stuff I took if I did something for him. And I’d get something extra.

What? No, no, you wouldn’t walk away from that. I know you, hell no you wouldn’t. … Well, I didn’t.

He wanted me to rob some goldborn. They had some trinket he wanted, or so I understood. Damn bastards were pretending to be rockborn, if you can believe that!

Well, they didn’t do a good job of it - anyone with eyes knew there was something off about them. Word was they were plants, but I guess not. Sure not Ironguard, at least. Ain’t no goldborn on this forsaken rock who’ll make enemies of the Ironguard.

How’d it go? Well, I tried. I’ve always hated fighting, but you know I do well at it, at least. Stay in the shadows; pepper projectiles; slip in, slip out. And if it comes to it, slip a dagger in their ribs. Didn’t have to do that last part, thank the Tunnels. Place was like a makeshift hospital. Guy under a sheet, lotsa blood and screams. Only one guard, and that guy was bleeding like a pig outa his shoulder. Didn’t take me long to get that damn trinket, some card they left lying on the table, and made a break for it.

No, I didn’t get far. Not far at all. Don’t know if it was luck, or a trap, or what. But they caught me with a damn tripwire at the door. Could’ve still slipped away, but I ran into some dude coming out from the bathroom. Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. Wasn’t long before I ended up on the floor, trussed up in a ball."

“Let me up, damnit! Damn you, let me up!” Florence shouted, struggling helplessly against her bonds. She spit on the floor as she wriggled like a stuck fish.

“Oh, none of that, now,” an older Civire man dressed in fatigues said. “Come on, out with it, now. Who hired you? Why are you here?”

“No one hired me, goldborn!” Florence snarled in reply. “I’m here for that card!”

“And why this card? Eh? What significance has it to you?” The man asked, brandishing the gold plated metal card in the thief’s face.

“Why do you think? It’s gold, it’s cool. Fetch me a good price on the street, it would!” Florence snorted. “Shouldn’t take you too many brain cells to put that together. Though you might not have that many to start with, anyway!”

“What’d you say?!” the man roared, rearing his fist back.

“Hey, hey, hey!” a younger Gallente shouted as he ran over and grabbed the older man by the arm. “Take a breath, boss. Take a walk.”

“Let me go!”

“Take a walk, sarge. I’ve got this,” the younger man admonished. He pointed to the living room. “Check on the guys, ‘aight? They need you. I got her.”

“Fine, suit yourself,” the man snarled in reply. “Suit yourself.”

The Gallente watched his Caldari boss walk away before turning to Florence. “Hey, I’m Rotti. What’s your name?”

“Your mother!”

The man sighed in reply and squatted down. “I don’t want to hurt you, alright? I’m sure you’re just trying to make a quick kred. I can help you.”

Florence spat and turned her head away in reply. The Gallente sighed again as he stood and ducked into the next room. He returned a minute later, dragging two chairs behind him, and placed them against the wall.

“You don’t want to talk, that’s fine,” Rotti said, kneeling next to Florence. He reached into a pocket, withdrew a switchblade, and flicked it open.

“I’m going to cut you loose, but don’t try anything, alright?”

When Florence didn’t reply, Rotti began cutting her bonds. As soon as he freed her legs, she bolted for the door. Rotti reacted immediately, collapsing and kicking his legs out to trip the girl. Florence froze as she felt the cold steel of a laspistol resting on her neck.

“I suggest you don’t try that again,” Rotti said. He waited a beat before holstering his gun and picking his knife back up. “Now let’s continue, shall we?”

Florence didn’t resist as Rotti severed the last of her bonds, gently dragged her to one of the chairs, and plopped her in the seat. As he cuffed her wrist to the chair, Rotti said, “You don’t want to talk, that’s fine. I’m going to sit here with you until you do. I’m not your enemy, and I don’t want to be.”

"Yeah, that’s a first. Ain’t no one ever do that, bro. You rob a rockborn, he’ll beat and rob you. You rob a goldborn, he’ll send you to the Ironguard. And you get caught by the Ironguard, well, you’re lucky if all you get is a day of public beatings.

Well, he waited. And waited. Didn’t say a word for hours after that.

I wasn’t going to say anything either. But eventually something inside me … something clicked. And I told him my name.

No, not an alias. My actual name. I know, it’s normally not a good idea, but this time, I think it was. I really do.

After I told him my name, he started talking. He talked about his life, about his fellow men, about his family back home. He said they were rabbits, an advance team for goldborn offworld. He asked me about me, about you, about Amie, and K, and how we came to be on the streets. I didn’t tell much, but they asked, and that’s a first.

Yeah, not like any goldborn I’ve ever met. Not any rockborn either. Most folks on this world don’t give a damn about who you are.

Well, I wasn’t liked by the rest of Rotti’s crew. Not at all. His boss still had it out for me."

“What are you doing?!” Florence heard a man shout in the other room. The Gallente woman next to her rose and moved to stand in the doorway.

“Bringing food for Florence.”

“The thief? She ain’t getting ■■■■! We barely have enough for us. She wants food, she tells us who sent her first.”

“She’ll tell us if we treat her well, not if we starve her!”

“Well, she’s not getting food, and that’s an order! She wants food, she gives us something first!”

“Fine, then take this back. That’s my ration.” A few seconds later, the Gallente woman in the doorway moved aside and Rotti stormed in.

“Here, take these,” he said, handing over two packaged energy bars. “Boss doesn’t want me giving you a full meal, so you’ll have to live with that. I’m sorry.”

“Won’t this get you into trouble?” Florence asked hesitantly.

Rotti chuckled and held up another bar and a plate of salad. “No, that’s my food. And I’m giving it to you. Sarge doesn’t get a say.”

Behind Rotti, the Gallente woman looked uncomfortable, shaking her head as she turned and walked into the other room.
“He really doesn’t like me, does he? Your boss?”

“No, it’s not you,. Look, we’ve had some hard fighting recently. Suffered a lot of injuries,” Rotti said, pointing to his bandaged knee. He turned to the sheet on the ground, barely visible through the doorway, and a tear slid down his cheek as he continued. “Lost some of our own, too. Sarge just isn’t happy about our situation. And you breaking in pissed him off.”

“He was a friend?” Florence asked.

“Yeah. He was next to me when he got shot. Leaves a wife and two kids. Really good friend.”

“Well, I’d like to show you something.”

"That night, I told Rotti and his boss about the Spider. I told him how he really wanted the card and was paying a fortune for a thief to steal it. In response, Rotti’s boss gave me an offer. Help them break into a transmitter center, and they’d cut me loose. Rotti said he’d also secure some compensation for me. I agreed, and Rotti uncuffed me. I was still under guard, but they let me roam around.

What’d I show? Ohh … I’m sure you have a guess."

“What’s this place?” Rotti said, reaching up to doff his hood.

“Hey, keep that on! This place has been many things. A collapsed mine, a quarry, a graveyard.” Florence replied. “Come on!”

Florence scrambled down into the pit and began digging through piles of loose rock. “Your friend, his face look like any of these rocks?”

“No?” Rotti replied, now thoroughly confused.

“You sure? Look closer,” Florence ordered as she held up one of the smooth, worn rocks. “No one knows how these rocks are created. But this quarry here has some of the roundest, most worn rocks on this world.”

Rotti knelt down and began sifting through the rocks. “I still don’t know what we’re doing,” he muttered.

“It’s a tradition here,” Florence said as she picked her way through the piles of rock to the wall. “All these nooks, that’s a grave. A rock for a skull, and a rock for a headstone. Cheap.”

“So, what? You put a rock in a hole, seal it up, call it a grave? That why you said this is a graveyard?” Rotti asked, amazed.

“Yes, but you find a rock that looks like the face of the deceased. So when you open it up and talk … yes, that’s a thing, don’t look at me like that … you feel like you’re talking to those you lost,” Florence said, forcing her voice to remain even. She shook her head as she pulled a thin metal file from her pocket. “If you find a rock that’s similar, you can use this to file it down better. I took a peek through your flat, there’s no place for a rock-grave, so you can use one of the empty crevices here.”

“You sound like you’ve done this,” Rotti said as he began picking through the rocks again.

“Once or twice.”

"I don’t know why I turned against them. I really had a good time with them. Taught them the ways on this world. Might be that sergeant - he reminds me of the goldborn. Even after I agreed to help him, he was still a prick. Might be greed. Might be some resentment that they had another life, one without me. Honestly, I really don’t know.

But I regret it. You know how we look at plants. Weak. Cowards. Crushed. And I became a plant. I talked to them, listened to them. Learned about them. And when it came time, I brought the Ironguard down on them. I still remember the looks on their faces … ”

“Here they are. In there,” Florence said to the masked, armored man next to her, who nodded.

“The key?”

Florence fished into her pocket and withdrew a small metal card. “Here.”

“Alright, boys, let’s move,” the man growled, waving his fellow Ironguards forward as he snatched the key. “You stay here, girl.”

Florence ducked back into the shadows and watched the Ironguards stack up silently on the doorway.

“Go!” their leader growled, holding the keycard against an electronic lock until it turned green. The Ironguards swarmed into the room, shouting and firing shock grenades from their launchers.

“What?!”

“Hey!”

“Who the hell are you?!”

“What the … ?!”

Then, a couple gunshots rang out. Unable to control herself, Florence dashed into the room. One rabbit was lying in a pool of blood, a pistol on the ground inches away from his outstretched hand. The other three rabbits were bound and surrounded by shouting Ironguard. Rotti was the first to notice the Achuran teen.

“Florence! Get out of here! Get out!” He began shouting.

Then, Florence heard a booming laugh from behind her, and a heavy gauntlet fell on her shoulder.

“She’s not going anywhere,” the Ironguard lieutenant said behind her. “She’s with us. Always been. Tell them, Florence.”

“I’m sorry,” Florence choked out as she donned her hood. Shouting ensued.

“You traitor!” the sergeant rabbit said. “Rotti, I told you!”

“Florence! Florence!”

An Ironguard stepped up next to the lieutenant and said, “We’ve found the codes.”

“Excellent. Inform the Spider. Let’s go. And bring them with us, the Spider will like having more captives in his web,” the lieutenant ordered, taking the card from his subordinate’s hand.

“And her?” the Ironguard asked.

The lieutenant lifted his hand from her shoulder. “She has her arrangement. It’s not our place to interfere.”

Florence immediately bolted into the shadowy doorway, the eyes of the rabbits she betrayed burning holes in her back, and vanished into the night.

“What’s that? Yes, I know that’s how it is. There’s no friends on the streets. But it doesn’t make me feel better. I don’t feel any better at all. I likely never will.

Well, I meet the Spider tomorrow for final payment. That’ll be my ticket offworld. I don’t know where I’ll go from here - maybe I’ll go find Auntie. Or make a life for myself in Archa. Just … get away from here - the rocks, the slums, all of it. I wish I could bring all of you, I really do. You, and little Amie, and Kay. Maybe I’ll be back someday. Back for all of you. … But if I’m not, save a place for me. When the Tunnels take me, be here for me, m’kay?

The Tunnels take all, and the Tunnels watch all. May they bring prosperity in the darkness,” Florence recited. She brought a clenched, trembling fist to her breast and tried to shake away her tears as she stroked the worn pits and ridges of the oblong rock in the cranny. Standing, she reached down to her feet and sealed the cranny and the two neighboring it with large, jagged rocks before zipping up her sweater, donning her hood, and slipping back through the damp drainage pipe out into the fiery night.

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