Utopia's Scorpions

by Bryce Harrington

Do you know what it's like to be an outsider? I mean, a real outsider. Not just new and unfamiliar... but fundamentally just never fitting in, no matter how hard you might try. Maybe, like me, you suffer something that sets you apart physically, drawing undeserved ridicule. Or maybe a difference in belief, or philosophy, or you're just not wired to do well with others. You might find criticism in other's words too easily... For whatever the reason, you too have grown to fear the crowds, to feel paranoia of the group-think. Not that you don't want to be a part of the crowd - you do - but just that you dread the pain of being cast out and shamed; you dread being an outsider, yet this fear inevitably forces you into that place, no matter how hard you try otherwise.

If you understand the outsider's dilemma, then maybe, just maybe, you can understand the irresistible force that drew me to the Scorpions that first day. The irony is intoxicating: Can you imagine finding freedom in an iron cage? Of finding security in a life of danger? Of finding ordered purpose in a life of anarchy? Of gaining acceptance from society by rejecting and being rejected by it? Respect from being utter disrespectful?

It was only the first faint fumes of these ideas that were in my head on that blisteringly hot afternoon, when my nose finally detected that steamy mildew and iron odor I'd heard so much about. Blood flushed into my face and my heart pulsed with anticipation. The desert hamlet's streets had emptied of villagers, perhaps less so from the Scorpions than from the plain old heat, but whatever the reason, it was welcome by me. A couple mailed soldiers lazed in the shadow of a straw-thatched inn's porch. Some dusty dwarven miners tended to their overloaded mules, spitting chewed goo through holes in their teeth and cursing mightily recursive epithets (as dwarves are wont to do). A young lass aired linens on a rack while her children played in the street, evidently oblivious or innured to the heat.

The gray cobblestone streets were half-covered with a thick sheet of fine tan sand, like an ocean of paint carelessly sloshed across its surface. The buildings to either side stood two stories and crowded against each other, as if by proximity their backs could shield the simple street from the onrush of the desert. Yet the absence of a single structure - a blacksmith's workshop, no doubt consumed by fire, judging from the black char and scorching on the bakery on the one side, and the pub on the other - had opened a critical chink in the chain of buildings, allowing the wind a channel through which to pour its scouring bile. I shivered at its whistling and moaning.

And it was here, surrounding the ruins of the metalsmith's forge, that I saw the great machines, sending out glaring reflections of the sun's image off their polished metal armatures and fittings. Later I'd learn their true name: AMH-XLII, or "Armoured mechanical horse, design forty-two." There was also a forty, and a couple ancient naught-nines, but it was the XLII's that enspelled me. I could smell the musty leather scent overlaid with the strong odor of oil, and spiced with a whiff of burnt brimstone.

The machines were like great crouching bears, petrified as they prepared to spring forth. I could imagine that standing at full height, they'd easily reach to two-thirds the height of the buildings near them. The metallic back legs were folded close to the ground, and the forearms braced stiffly straight down onto the ground, reminding me of a dog sitting and waiting for scraps, yet the way the head hung on the massive iron shoulders conveyed a clear message that this machine had no need for mere scraps, and the way the machines were parked in a line told that it needed no master, for it was a member of a powerful pack.

As I neared, I noticed that each of the steely beasts bore a unique signature. Most were enameled evocatively, with red, black, and yellow paint, to give the appearance of sharp-toothed sneers and jagged spines. Several had protruberances carved into glaring gargoyles, a few with coarse phrases, and one was decorated with the bony remains of a scrub dragon. I approached and peered up into the chest of the latter, my eyes taking in every knob and strap, handle and lever that I could. It was amazing... A man-sized cavity was reached by means of a few strategically placed foot-plates, where hid a loose net of chains. Thick metal bars formed a secure cage around this area, and to each bar was carefully laced a scale, attached in such a way that cool breezes could flow through, yet injurious projectiles would be deflected. A braided leather harness hung on a hook, evidently worn by the occupant during operation. This harness was salted and black from sweat and heavy use, and stained with rust red streaks from the chains (I assumed).

"Keep your snotty paws off my skel, you damn filthy orc! What in the hell do you think you're doing?! Git the sot away from there or I'll come out there and put another hole into yer arse!"

I started back. I froze, an arm's breadth from the device. A monster of a man flung a clay stein at me, shattering it against the stones, then returned to his business inside the pub.

I wasn't particularly insulted; I'd been called much more vile terms, with much more venom. Nor was I particularly frightened. Being half-orc, I was something of a monster-man myself, as I'd been told often and since a very young age. If there is one thing about me that I have confidence in, it's the strength of my arm, and while I may not have the explosive violent streak most assume of my heritage, I certainly do have the stubbornness. I may not be the best warrior, but I've taken plenty of lumps and when it comes to fisticuffs, can certainly hold my own.

So I brazenly rested my arm against the "skel", and blew a whistle through my fingers.

Have you ever come to a point in your life where a single, small action or a seemingly small decision would cause a cascade of changes and forever change everything about you? That little whistle was that for me.

The man emerged, glowering. He was dressed head to foot in sandy leather, with worn-shiny hooks and rings lashed to limbs and torso. He was in his mid-twenties, with a horrible scar across his face that could only have been produced by a serrated battle axe - the kind my mother's people would have used. He had the scraggly beard of an infrequently shaved man, and the hesitant swagger of one whose bravery has come mainly from a bottle. I could take him, I was sure of it. I motioned him forward and grinned.

Twenty others emerged from the pub behind him, similarly dressed. I squinted and counted. Twenty-three. Hmm.

I considered options, didn't see too many, and decided to just use simple honesty.

"I've heard legends about you, and have traveled far to see for my own what the truth is. Maybe I'll join you. Or maybe I'll leave my life in the sand here tonight, and that'll be the end of me. I can see that you've fought orcs before, and while my blood is only part so, I'm sure you can already feel the extra crease forming in your skull, that I'll give you before I go down. My name is Truk and I am the most unwanted bastard son of Lord Gorngast. C'mon."

They ALL complied with this wish. The fight went as most do: A lot of darkness, dirt, and pain. I came to an unknown number of hours or days later.

Blood caked my eyelids shut, and my ears rang, but I could smell the scent of a Scorpion. I tried saying something witty but it came out as, "Ughroo grlg cough cough."

An arm wrapped around my neck and lifted me, and a cup dripped water into my throat. I rolled over and vomited, apparently to my host's humor. A hot, wet rag landed on my face and I scrubbed my eyes and groaned as I struggled to a sitting position.

Bleary eyed, I appraised the blurry form before me in the darkened room. "I'm not dead?" I half asked, half-stated.

"Truk, you're too ornery to die, apparently."

"So what happened? And what are you going to do with me now? And who are you?"

"Ah, well you're free to go - or to stay - as you wish. Jack was so drunk you put him flat with just one punch. We managed to get you taken care of too, but, well, you weren't the second to go down, and there's a lot of black eyes and missing teeth to go around. We don't normally take in recruits, so we're not giving you a skel or anything, but figured what the hell, we'd clean ya up and letcha hang around if you want. You earned that much. And they call me Peaches."

I grunted and grinned, and wondered at this man who welcomed foes into his clan. I also wondered how I could get my hands on a skel for myself. The second question was about to be answered; the first has taken considerably longer.

*

Peaches was the de facto chief of the pack, but decisions were made by consensus. At least, theoretically... in reality they usually were made by individual action: accepting daring challenges as I had, taking the initiative in the lead, or just plain doing it yourself and proving it to be right. These fellows lived the belief that inspiration, talent, dedication, passion, and merit were what determined Good from Bad. They had a word for this (an orcish word, I was amused to notice): 'staztux'.

This led directly to my second test, the following day when I awoke and found myself able to stand with a manageable amount of pain. I dressed and looked around.

They'd ditched me.

They'd mounted up and left the inn we'd been staying at. They hadn't paid for my stay, nor their own, as I was to learn repeatedly with increasing forcefulness from the innkeeper.

Bastards.

I retrieved my horse from the stables and set out tracking the Scorpions once again. It certainly wasn't hard, merely mildly annoying; the skel's tore up the desert track like nothing known to man nor orc. The prints were a hand's-breadth deep and the smell of steam and oil was unmistakable.

By the pace it was clear the pack was moving at high speed, so I made haste as best my horse could across the irregular surface, studded with wiry brush and littered with rocks and boulders.

At midday I paused, putting my horse in the shade of a gully, and we watered ourselves while waiting for the sun to lay off the heat a bit. I heard a "ka-thunk chink chink" - the distinctive sound of a distant skel. I peeked up over the gully's lip and scanned through the brown shrubbery and dead grasses.

It was Jack's skel; easily distinguished by the scale pattern of its surface. There weren't any other skels around and he was headed straight for me.

I was a dead man. Er, dead half-man. Whatever. Evidently he was still pissed at me from the other night and had snuck off to finish me. I wasn't sure I could outrun him on horseback. Certainly I couldn't survive a direct encounter.

Crap.

I decided to hold tight; the gully was deep, and it would hide me well enough. He'd probably follow the path they'd made earlier as he backtracked, and so he'd approach to within fifty paces of me. If I was lucky and did not move a muscle, maybe he'd pass right by. And so I waited and listened to the machine approach.

The skel moved on two legs, which ka-thunk-ka-thunk'd their way across the ground. Chains, scales, and plates clanked, jingled, and shuddered with each step. Underneath this rattling din was the "pupupupupu" of what I imagined must be the engine, punctuated at seemingly random times by hisses and rushes as steam was let loose. Good god, that thing could make enough noise to peel the skin off a cactus.

My horse wrestled my full attention away from the noise. The poor thing's eyes were lolling in their sockets, and a thick foam was dripping down from its jaw and along the harness to drool up my hands. "Yuck!" I doubled my grip on the twisted leather and pulled the animal's head to the ground. It calmed a bit, but I could see waves of shivers repeatedly roll across its back. I tsked as I noticed the small cloud of dust that had gotten kicked up in the struggle and wondered if it'd be noticeable.

Suddenly the horse went very still, and its eyes stole heaven. I thought for a moment that the creature had given out in fright, but I realized that it was fixated on something behind me. My gut grew heavy as I twisted my neck around and looked upward.

There, staring down at me from a few-score paces away, was Jack and his skel.

That did it for me. I swung my leg around in an effort to get myself mounted and ready to flee. This was precisely not what my horse needed at that particular moment. The harness ripped itself free from my hands and the animal nearly backflipped as it rose, turn, and tore off away from the skel and I.

Wonderful. Now what?

The sides of the gully dribbled down under the weight of the machine. I raised my head and looked upward, my eyes wide and noticing every detail in a second's time. The great metal legs were comprised of heavy steel beams wrapped around massive piston rods; from my position I could not see these rods, of course, and obviously for the very tactically sound reason of keeping stray spear points out of the joints. The knee joints rode on massive springs encircling the leg rods, allowing the legs to take out every jolt and jar of the road. Jack had mounted rows of scrub dragon claws down the side of the legs, and from my vantage point I could see that they had more than just a decorative purpose: a mere bump along side a running skel would eviscerate a horse.

Compared with the legs, the skel's arms seemed almost tiny. Each arm was built from brass rods and shiny square steel beams, much thinner and shorter than the legs, but with larger and more powerful joints; I imagined that they could shoot forth in a blink to skewer or grab its prey. One of the hands was configured into a massive gripper, its two tongs thick and sturdy; I could imagine the power it could apply to rip a tree right out of the soil, or to squeeze and pop a half-orc's head like a grape. The other hand was fitted with blades whose edges glistened and blazed in the sunlight. I also noticed three small nozzles affixed in the hand mechanism and terminating three long hoses that ran back to the skel's torso. God only knew what could be made to spew forth from those.

The belly of the skel was an intricate mesh of bars and chain. A good spear thrust might strike home, but more likely than not the head of the spear would be snapped off or jammed. I was certain Jack could see me clearly, yet I could not discern even a finger of him.

My hand felt for my sword and drew it forth as I straightened. The sweat of fear dripped from my forehead. I cursed the poor luck of my sorry hide. I straightened my back. If I was to die, I would die fighting. I took a step back. Both of my hands gripped my sword. Tightly.

A curtain of chain in the skel's belly shifted aside to reveal Jack's hairy head. An arm and finger stabbed beyond, towards my newly efficient horse.

"Your horse ran off."

I blinked. What, was he gloating?

"Indeed." I shouted back, half-growling.

"Need a ride, then?"

What?? Ah.

*

The wind rushed into my face as we swam the surface of the sandy wasteland. I ratcheted myself tightly atop the back of the skel as its heavy legs sped across the flatland. The sky splashed itself with purple and orange streaks running forever across the countless miles of grass tufts and broken rocks. The landscape descended before us into a sea of dust-haze.

I felt my heart beat in sync with the machine's foot-falls. Ka-thump, ka-thump. The whistle of the wind reduced the machine's roar to a hum.

I couldn't believe the sense of freedom - and power - that came from merely being a passenger on such a thing, and I longed to learn the experience of actually being in control of it. To travel so rapidly where-ever your nose might lead. To travel over any ground. To rip apart any obstacle that stood in your way. To fear no man.

The skel took a sharp turn to the left towards a cleft in the hills, and within minutes descended into an enclave around a small pool and surrounded by gnarled pine and stunted oaks. There on the far side I spied the camp, but also noticed something odd. Scattered all around the lake were jagged metal sheets, rusty rods spearing chaotically, and hunks of things mechanical, forced to death in some distant battle of a nature beyond my powers of creativity to imagine.

Within a quarter of an hour we'd circled the lake and arrived. I dismounted and gawked. Scores of skels - many of types extremely unlike what I'd seen so far - sat in ruins in this elemental graveyard. But other things laid in rest here, too: things of a vile and monstrous nature, an uncalled for perversion of the gods' creations. Things that were not machine nor animal, but a sick conjunction of both.

A mound of putrifying flesh, splintered bone, and orange-brown rust as tall as a haystack had evolved into a colony of flies and their maggots. Black scaled creatures the size of ponies lay dead all around, most half buried in the dirt; some showing heads filled not with mouths and eyes but with ghastly tentacles and knobs. Other dead creatures drew cold into my veins.

I tried not to look (or smell) too near these things. Thankfully camp was a good quarter mile distant from the first of these horrors. Jack maneuvered his vehicle the remainder of the distance while I took the remainder of the hike on my own legs.

Peaches called me over to the deep pit-fire, where several men were roasting fresh venison on metal spits laid over the top of the furnace. Fifteen dead trees had been uprooted and piled by the pit as firewood. The rich warm smoky smell of the steaks was overlaid by the intoxicating scent of baked garlic and other tubers. My mouth watered.

"So slow poke, you almost missed dinner! Got here just in time though."

My mind, distracted as it was by the desire of my stomach, allowed me to say nothing but a grunt of assent.

Peaches put his hand on my shoulder and swung me about. He pointed over the field of metallic carcasses and ruin. "This is our workshop, Truk. From the remnants of this old war we find the materials for our own machines." He looked me in the eye. "If you can build your own skel, Truk, then you will be one of us." My throat had no words. Peaches again took a survey of the field, turned and looked across the horizon, and then continued. "There is a battle coming. A horrible one. We'll need every skel we can get. And brave men."

"And half-orcs?"

"Especially half-orcs!" He chuckled and slapped his hands together: "But first dinner. Come!"

*

It mystified me why these men had shrugged off society in favor of living like bandits in the wildlands. Wouldn't it be easy to find employment from some king or baron in his army? Or to build castles or clear forests? With the speed they covered ground, wouldn't a merchant find them invaluable? So why were they seen only in the hands of men living outside the framework of society?

In my experience, only those who Outwardly, these guys weren't that different from many humans I'd seen. Maybe a tad hairier and more unkempt than others, and perhaps their behavior was a tad rawer and cruder, but human just the same.

That is, until I saw the cook.

The cook was a Dipvira.

You don't run into dipviras very often, and rarely individual ones, and most certainly not ones that are members of non-dipviran groups like the Scorpions. Dipviras are, basically, great big bees. Eyes as large as saucers, wings like great panes of stained glass, and mandibles that look like they could snip the head off a pig. This one actually looked a lot more like a giant horsefly, to me, but then I'd never seen one up close before. Its body was a dark black-blue, with a purple-silver hair covering its abdomen. I noticed a deep scar across its forehead; in fact one of its antenna had been sheared clean off.

"Mmurhuhu's not much good in a fist-fight, but boy can she cook."

I looked askance to Jake. He smiled back. "She?" I asked, dumbfounded.

"All dipviras are female. 'Cept da drones, but they're lazy and just screw until they die. What a life. Anyway, she raises honeybees, too. You haven't lived until you've had her honeyed roast shank. Mmm."

In fact it was so. I'd never had such a meal before, spiced not only by the excellent cooking of such a strange being, but also by the knowledge that a group that would accept into its brotherhood so different a creature as that, would of course accept a mere half-orc. I guess, for the first time in my life, I felt like here I belonged; here I could make a difference.

Of course, that presupposed that I could achieve the seemingly insurmountable goal of building a skel. Well, all in good time.

*

"You know, I wonder sometimes if the people who made the skel's had much idea of what they really could be used for. I mean, did they foresee how versatile these things could be, or are they amazed at the life they've taken on by themselves? Or do they not even care?"

Jack scoffed. "Peaches, quit yer philosophy-thinking. You know damn well the Apothecaries made these, and had only one use for 'em. What we make out of 'em is our own doing, not theirs. And they might care, but they ain't got a choice in the matter now."

Peaches shrugged and grunted, and the two continued wrestling free a huge sheet of metal out of a junk pile, and drug it over to where I was working.

"I see you like mahogany," Peaches remarked to me, noting the work I'd made of the pilot's cage of a salvaged AMH-XLI. I'd decided to model my skel on the XLII's design because of its sleekness, but because of that model's popularity in this crew, I figured spare parts would be hard to come by. I'd found a few forty-one's, though, and the designs were similar enough that we would be able to adapt with some devoted effort. The forty-one was larger and slower than the forty-two, and was mechanically more complex; I was told this complexity was a design flaw, because in the field it tended to jam and freeze up constantly. There was a good reason parts for forty-one's were so plentiful...

I looked at the mahogany. "Well there's so much of it, and I like the look of it. I suppose there's something wrong with it, that you guys don't use it much?"

Jack quickly offered his critique: "It's a damn fire hazard, and it splinters and breaks. After a while it gets covered in oil and smells and rots. You're a fool to put it on."

Peaches countered. "It's okay to use it. The wood helps muffle some of the rattle, and it's lighter and easier to replace than metal. Mostly the reason we don't use it is symbolic. Back home, only the officers were allowed that wood; the rest of us were stuck using green pine, which never lasted long. They wouldn't let us use metal though, and it became a real contention point."

"It's all just about money." Jack interjected. "They figured, 'metal is more expensive than wood', so that's how they thought. But meanwhile us skellers we're spending half our time cutting trees and replacing parts. If they'd have just let us use metal and be done with it, it would have been a lot less hassle and a lot easier for everyone in the long run."

Peaches nodded and wrinkled his face into a smile. "We've made quite a few changes to the original design. The problems we had with the pine doesn't exist with the mahogany, and no one is ever going to mistake you for an officer."

The three of us chuckled and turned attention to the sheet of metal to scrape and oil the rust off, polish it back to a decent sheen, and glop it with black wax-like rust-proofing paint that the dipvira produced somehow.

I found the tools that we used as fascinating as the skel's themselves. They had a fully portable blacksmith's shop, with all the usual tools, but the most interesting ones were those built onto or attached to the skels themselves. I learned that the hoses laced into the skel's structure connected to huge tanks of hot oil and boiling water that surrounded the skel's heart-engine. The steam on the water was kept at such a powerful pressure that it could push and pull the skel's limbs, but could also be tapped to power tools - rotary drills and saws, jack-hammers and pincers, and bolt-throwers and steam-sprayers. The oil too could be sprayed forth (and even ignited, I was told), though this was a last resort since it depleted the skel of hard-to-replace fluids.

Of course, the tools were perfect for assembling a new skel. We had no deadline and could take the joy of learning and working the tools as it came, solving each problem as we ran into it. The hardest problems were the small parts. Succumbing to rust quickly, they were difficult to find and time consuming to salvage, so we had to produce them ourselves. The men had set up a hearth and set up huge stone work tables nearby. Molten metal was poured into brick molds (which sometimes had to be created manually). Once cooled, these were trimmed and filed to a proper fit. The end result was beautiful, and the work was enjoyable, but also dangerous and time consuming.

With the sheet metal in hand, Peaches, myself, and Olchin started attaching these small parts to which the chains and controls would be attached.

Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask: "So this name 'Peaches'. Howdya get it?"

A serious look came over Peaches' face as he turned and gave me a stiff appraisal. With a deft clutch of his crotch he explained: "Some say they're that big, my friend."

I chortled and tossed a spanner at him as I got back to work.

*

Finally, within only a fortnight, we were finished. We'd even found a spare heart-engine (the hardest part of the skel to acquire); it was old but still could "pull juice", whatever that meant. I was amazed; a team of skilled dwarven craftsmen under the careful management of a team of experienced architects and supervisors could take years to create even a modest chapel, yet somehow we'd managed what seemed to be an equivalent feat in just two weeks?

Peaches just chuckled when I asked him about this. I got a much better answer from Jack the night after we had put the finishing touches on it. "If you guys can build a skel in such a short time, why don't you employ yourselves to build even bigger things? Or to transport goods for merchants? You guys could be the vanguard of a king's army! Then you could be earning titles, gaining respected ranks, and gathering gold by the barrels!"

Jack kicked rocks. "Feh, but then we'd be living under another's control. We've got what we want; we can get all we need on our own. The price of that gold is a kind of slavery. Even were it not the literal slavery of our homeland, we've still seen how it locks you in. With wealth also comes debt. And with debt comes the insistence that you must pay it, even if by bits week by week. And with unforgivingly regular payments comes the loss of any choice except to work as intently as your liege demands. You're forced to take risks that you shouldn't; to expend more of your blood for your lord than he deserves; fear of the debt and fear of loss of the friends you've made among your comrades drives you to make meaningless, irrelevant, and silly sacrifices. At the end of the day, you have naught to show but a debt that you've barely paid off and the missing life that your lord has managed to subvert for his own glory. And trust me; gold always finds an expense, it doesn't matter at all how much you have of it.

"And for what? Sum it up and remember why you got into it in the first place: The love of the machine, and the love of the battle. You don't need a lord to do those two things. Not really, you don't. More likely than not the lord wouldn't understand the machine anyway, and would misdirect you in the battle, and then..." He made a "poof" motion with his fingers. "No. Figure out how to get your own food by your own hands, directly. Live free and independent. Then, if you actually want someone to guide you, then you pick out the guy you want leading you yourself, into the battles you want to fight, rather than on how large of a coin purse he passes out each week. Besides, there's millions of men chasing the titles, and the ranks, and the purses, but think how few are doing what we're doing? Do you want to be known as an okay purse chaser, acknowledged in passing by the vast horde of other purse chasers, or do you want to be part of something better? If you're a hunk of iron, do you really want to be yet another nail in the side of someone else's house, or would you rather be the vastly more important claw-tip in one of these skels?"

I grinned as I clambered into my skel. I knew exactly what I wanted to be, and now I had the means to prove it.