Pajak didn’t speak. He couldn’t.
Had the skin covered her whole face, perhaps he wouldn’t have recognized her. But as it was, with only half a milky white mask of Topsider skin, Avani was all too recognizable.
Her eyes glinted, foggy and orange with disease. Lips pulled themselves into a shallow smile as she studied him, never flinching or showing any sign of fear.
“ How?” It was all he could force out. Avani was dead-- dead and scrapped. He’d made sure of that.
Avani slid the breathing mask back over her face, and he watched as some of the rust in her eyes receded. She kept the beaked one hanging by her side, dangling between two gloved fingers. “I was the first.”
Pajak shook his head, wrestling with the mixture of emotions assaulting him. Revulsion. Old hatred. Confusion. “What is that supposed to mean? Let’s not speak in riddles, Doctor.”
At this, Avani tipped her head back and let out a shrill, gasping laugh. The insanity of it was enough to make his metal joints feel stiff. “The Prowlers weren’t created overnight. There were experiments, many experiments, and then tests .” Dim light glittered across her eyes, making the rust look like a glossy coat of paint. “She needed me sentient enough to scream, to let her know when I felt pain or anger. She forgot that sentience means fighting back.”
Suspicion tightened Pajak’s expression. “Why have you been working with me all this time, after dying at my hand? What have you got to gain?”
“ Simple things, Pajak, simple things.” Avani slipped the beaked mask back over her face, once again becoming his beloved Plague Doctor-- though, he may have to reevaluate those feelings. She twirled around once, gesturing to their cavernous surroundings with a flourish of her hand. “The Machine once sang with joy and thrummed with life. We were Webley’s happy children, living as intended, in harmony with one another. And then we turned away… you turned everyone away.”
The sudden spike of venom in her tone made Pajak back up a step, a cold, rigid sensation building in his gut. She let out a breath, a low laugh making her shoulders shake. “Don’t be afraid, Pajak. I may loathe you, but we’re in this together. You will help me reset all of this to how it’s supposed to be-- just me, you, Cog, and Webley. We’ll start over. I’ll build a new clinic, and you can do whatever it is you do down in your hidey-hole.”
Pajak knew, deep within himself, that this had taken a turn towards something bad. But then he remembered the Prowlers, and his enraged Gearrtha, brimming with strength. The chaos. The power.
“ Here’s the thing,” Avani lifted a vial from her belt, swirling the luminous liquid inside and examining it casually. “You can either side with me and stand a chance, or you can continue on your fool’s quest and be bested again by a couple of juvenile Topsiders. Pick your poison, Pajak.”
Avani was the key, now.
And if there was one thing Pajak had learned over the years, it was to never pass up an opportunity.
The Plague Doctor took pleasure in her enemies’ surprise when she dropped amongst them. It was almost comical: a pause, a few blinks, dumb stares. Her Prowlers stood at the ready around her, shoved into a dazed state as they awaited her command.
This would have been an easy battle; in fact, she need not have interrupted at all. But, well, she could never ignore her Kip getting himself into trouble. Speaking of Kip, if took a moment for her to locate the boy again; he had such a penchant for disappearing at the most inconvenient of times. She found him wrapped up rather uncomfortably in a large male Topsider’s hold, staring at her with wide eyes filled with equal amounts of curiosity and dread.
“ Look, our beef isn’t with any of you.”
The Doctor snapped her gaze to the Topsider who’d spoken. She was an absolute mountain of a woman, but unlike most of her type, intelligence and caution were present in every movement she made. A good, worthy opponent; too bad the Doctor’s interest lay elsewhere.
The Topsider’s eyes strayed to a waddling figure a few meters away, and she jerked her head in his direction. “Except that guy. Screw that guy. Otherwise we have what we came here for.”
The Doctor grinned under her mask. “Ah, but I don’t.”
“ What is it you want?” the male asked, drawing her attention to him.
“ Funny you should ask.” She took a few steps forward, making both Topsiders tense in preparation. The Doctor made no move to attack, however. She only lifted a finger, pointing straight at Kip. “You’re holding him right now.”
“ You want the kid?” The male Topsider nearly burst into flames at her request, and she could feel the indignation radiating off his friend. “What do you want him for?”
“ Relax, I won’t harm the child. I intend to keep him quite safe. In fact, I’ll be the safest person for him to be with when fate clamps its jaws down on the Machine.”
“ Forget it, freak.” The woman growled-- actually growled -- at her before shouting “Maza! Kip! Get outta here!”
“ Van, you can’t--”
Maza’s sentence wasn’t even out yet before the Doctor found her legs swept out from under her, and she collided with the ground, a several-hundred-pound Topsider pinning her down. “I said GET OUT!”
“ You’ll pay for this,” the Doctor whispered, every footstep from Maza breaking her heart little by little as he fled with Kip.
She gasped when pain bloomed in her back, joints and delicate machinery groaning as Van’s knee pressed into her. “What was that, you piece of garbage?”
Laughter bubbled up in the Doctor’s throat, spilling over into a single raspy note that rang throughout the Machine. “I said…” she coughed, tasting oil. “You’ll pay for this. Did you forget about the Prowlers, Topsider?”
A strangled shout, and then the weight was gone. The Doctor stumbled to her feet, straightening her jacket, and glanced in Van’s direction. An even match, she thought; a Topsider would do much better against her Prowlers than a Dweller would, and this one seemed to possess exceptional strength. A fifty-fifty chance.
“ It will be interesting to see if you pop up again,” the Doctor murmured, more to herself than to Van, before turning towards where she knew Pajak would be waiting.
“ You’re not welcome here.” The Doctor spoke plainly, neutrally; of all the mixed-up feelings she held within her, this Topsider was deserving of none of them. “I suggest you leave before things get unnecessarily messy. No need to spill your blood for something you have no stake in.”
The Topsider tossed her head, colors mixing and melding in her dreadlocks. “You see, that’s the problem. Nobody wants me to have any fun.” She rolled her eyes, and the first twinge of annoyance made itself known in the back of the Doctor’s mind. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve formally met. My name’s Ypsilon, and it’s been like three whole hours since I killed a…”
Her bravado-soaked introduction trailed off, and the Doctor staved off a laugh. He must’ve just arrived. “Yes, I’m sure you’re a very competent warrior, but, well… consider me hard to impress. You, on the other hand, seem easily surprised into silence.”
Maza’s hand settled on Ypsilon’s shoulder, but she remained stiff and blank, both brows furrowed and eyes wide. “...Father?”
“ I’ll say, it was difficult, finding enough parts to piece him back together. He’s still not in prime condition, but, eh.” The Doctor gave a lighthearted shrug, practically beaming with pride. “I take it as a compliment you recognize him. Didn’t you just have that revelation recently?”
“ There was… symbol… picture…” Ypsilon stumbled back, still focused in on Cog. As much as the Doctor wanted to look down at him, she settled for running her fingers through his short hair, savoring the slick feeling of metal wires. He still had to shuffle along, half-crawling, since she’d been unable to find a mechanism to properly power his legs; for now, however, he was helping plenty just by being here.
Then rage flooded Ypsilon’s features, and she ripped her gun from its holster. “You-- you freak of nature! What’d you do to him!?”
The Doctor smiled under her mask. Knocked off her rhythm and raw with emotion, Ypsilon would be a much more predictable target. She turned to give the infected Captain Silny a small nod, already backing up. “Kill them. But do not fire your weapons or you will further damage the ship.”
This would be interesting.
The Doctor groaned as she fell back, pain ripping through her body in waves. That was one thing about using the old, unaltered version of the Prowler formula-- no painkiller. Her chest burned where Van had kicked it, and breath came in wheezy rasps, punctuated by an oily cough.
Struggling back to her feet, she stared across the ship at Van. The Topsider clenched a knife in one hand, and the other floated uncertainly about, as if she didn’t know whether to block or ready a blow.
“ What? Is this where you give up?” Van demanded, out of breath and full of desperation.
The Doctor said nothing. She would lose this fight; it was looking more and more apparent by the minute. Her fifty percent had failed. The coin had been tossed, and it hadn’t landed in her favor.
She had one last thing to do before she admitted defeat, however.
Fingers wrapped around her mask, tugging gently. She ignored Van’s shaky question, likely another jab, as she flipped up her mask.
The reaction was slow. At first, it was only mild revulsion on Van’s face: the expression of one seeing a Dweller with Topsider skin surgically applied. The Doctor took great pleasure in watching that change, watching the horror grow, as Van took her in.
The skin’s color. The tiny imperfections that she would know by heart, like the birthmark just along the hairline. The colorful but dull dreadlocks, lying dead and limp, against the scalp she’d stolen to cover her own damaged head.
“ ...That ain’t right,” Van muttered. She tried to force disgust into her voice, but it was too shaken, too close to tears. “How do-- how do you look exactly like her? Half of you, anyway.”
“ Oh, it wasn’t hard. I don’t suppose your friends told you about the Toppers, did they?”
Van shook her head no.
Avani grinned as wide as she could, even as her dented cheek protested it. “The rich ones of us like to pretend they’re Topsiders. They have imitation skin stretched and fitted to their faces, then attached by way of surgery. It’s an expensive process, mostly due to the lack of spare leather to use as skin.”
She reached up to her cheek, pinching the white skin between two fingers and giving it a light tug. Her eyes glimmered orange as she watched Van, took note of every minor reaction. A twitch of the eye, grinding of the jaw. It was bothering her, a fact that brought glee to Avani’s last moments. “She told me all about you. Your name was her last dying breath.”
That was it. Van screamed, a sound so saturated with fury and grief and shock that Avani was almost empathetic.
Instead, she threw her head back and laughed.
She kept laughing until something struck her throat, and for a second time, the world fell to silent black.
“ Hey. I-- we got more tea, if anyone’s… yeah.”
No one responded to Adal and Arija’s entrance. Ypsilon remained rooted in her spot, cuddled next to Maza by the fireplace. He kept switching between rubbing circles in her back and staring plaintively towards where Van rocked, curled in on herself, in a corner.
The sounds of Kip’s work, a cacophony of clangs and metallic clattering, echoed loud enough to alert someone on the other side of the World Machine. Every now and again it would get louder when his door swung open, admitting a strangely quiet Molly as she ran to and fro to fetch tools and supplies. They watched food go in once, along with a cup of hot tea, but only her dishes had come out.
Adal cleared his throat, setting his tray down on the coffee table. “Al’s watching Webley. He’s recovering.”
Maza gave him a nod and a smile, but his positivity faded fast. “That’s good. Al always knows what he’s doing.”
“ So does Webley,” Arija spoke up, voice pumped full of vigor. “As soon as he’s up, we’re striking back. We’re ending this, once and for all. Together.”
It was silent for a few moments before Ypsilon raised her head, lip twitching. “You’re right, Arija. This has all gone way too far. I’m not going back to Taraveil until that slimeball is smeared across the bottom of the Machine.”
Van sat up too, fists clenching on either side of her. “I’m with Ypsilon. They took Soisha, and I’m not stopping until Pajak’s paid the same price as the Plague Doctor.”
“ I’m down, too,” Maza declared, hand coming to a stop on Ypsilon’s shoulder blades. “We’re in this together, for better or worse.”
Adal and Arija shared a look, mustering whatever smile they could, and Adal turned to look at the room. “Alright, then. I just got one question for you.” Raising a fist, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Whose Machine!?”
For once, no one made fun of him. They all mirrored him, even Ypsilon, and their shout of “OUR MACHINE!” could’ve woken the dead.
It was their Machine, and they were going to take it back.