Outworld/The Heart of the Machine
Nothing of Consequence
- Authors: Engineer Crankshaft and At Dawn and At Dusk
Dawn hesitated at the edge of the platform, one foot still planted firmly on the train floor behind her. She hadn’t exactly been expecting the station to be a hive of activity, but nor had she been prepared for its complete desertion. The urge to back-up, take the train round to anywhere else, hummed inside her - mixing with the thrum of the automated engines that ran the territory. She swallowed and stepped onto the station proper.
As the lonely locomotive pulled on along the tracks and the cargo bay doors started closing, she straightened her green military coat and pushed her blond hair from her face - necessary precautions, but uncomfortable nonetheless. Blond was really not her colour, but it matched the sharp chin and green eyes she had shaped herself as a mask. Forcing confidence into her step, she started her search.
The Heart of the Machine was a very different place within than without, a never-ending maze of ship corridors with engine rooms and workshops seemingly behind every door, the steady pulse of engines and gears vibrating through the ground and up into her veins. Much like the station, life was scarce, though the odd squeak hinted at a smaller form of life, and the occasional shouted conversation of engineers did reach her. Each turn made her feel more and more out of place - a Liberator in a Engineers world, a Penitent in a memory of her old life - but she pushed on, searching desperately for the person she needed to speak to before she chickened out and ran back to the station, the whole endeavour abandoned.
Crankshaft was concentrating, deep in contemplation within their Dream foundry workshop, when someone tapping them quite insistently disturbed their thoughts. “I recall asking that I not be disturbed when in here unless it was urgent,” Crankshaft enquired as they opened their eyes to look at the Engineer who was standing, somewhat awkwardly, in front of them, “So, what is it this time?”
“Well... there’s someone here... and we’re not sure if she’s a visitor, or someone aiming to cause ... trouble.” Crankshaft tilted their head quizzically “Well that does sound... interesting. I think I’ll go have a word with them.” Standing up, they readjusted their numerous tool belts and bags, before striding out of the room.
The metal was cool against the palm of her hand, keeping her grounded as she followed the twists and turns. She passed engine after engine, air vents and open man holes again and again. So focused, was Dawn, on the sensation that is wasn’t until she smacked right into a chest that she realised she had company. Green eyes flicked between the tall, unrecognisable mousey blond and the all too familiar face of Crankshaft.
She hesitated only a moment more.
“Hello, Crankshaft. It’s been a while.” She allowed the shaping to drop from her eyes for a moment, flashing deep brown and praying for both recognition and safety.
“I’m sorry, but I don't believe we’ve met. How can I help, Liberator...?
“Maxim. As in Maxim gun?” She smiled shyly, rubbing the back of her neck in feigned bashfulness. “Not many people know of it - rather overshadowed by its big sister, the Gatling Gun. I suppose I’m forgettable too.”
“Liberators generally aren’t forgettable in my experience comrade. And I did ask how I could help.”
Dawn sighed, dropping her hand back to her side. “Trust me, I’m the forgettable kind. In any case, I had been hoping to talk to you. I was in the area so I thought I would drop by. I can leave though, if you would rather.”
“No, no, if conversation is what you are after, that is fine,” Crankshaft turned and gestured for Maxim to keep up, “Some of my petitioners were worried that you might be an industrioclast, here to cause trouble.
It was hard for Dawn to keep the curl form the corner of her lips. “Industrioclasts could be anywhere. It is always best to keep vigilant. Isn’t that what they taught us?” The smile flickered and faded. “I am not here to cause trouble, Crankshaft. Don’t worry.”
“Glad to hear it.” Turning off of the corridor, Crankshaft lead Maxim into a large hall, far more spacious than anything that had been seen so far. Tables were spread throughout the hall, with varying size groups of Combine sat at them, talking and playing games. Crankshaft raised their voice to be heard over the general hubbub of chatter and jollity. “Welcome to the discussion hall. Let us find an empty table, and then we can chat.” Dawn whistled lowly.
“Impressive. I remember when Valve shaped this. Gotta hand it to him - he certainly has an eye for the imposing and productive.” She followed the others lead, settling quickly onto a bench when a table was sourced and shifting awkwardly in her clothes. “I’m glad to see your territory is thriving.”
Sitting down, Crankshaft paused at Maxims’ words. “You remember Valve sha..ping.. This...? And yet... I do not recognise you. Who are you really, Maxi... Of course. I should have realised sooner. And how can I help you Gatl...Dawn?”
“I thought my hints were plain enough, my apologies, Crankshaft.” A beat. “I happened to be in the area and… despite my prior judgement against it, decided to come speak to you. Regarding what I said in my letters.” She shrugged. “I have my reasons for changing my mind.”
“Of course you do.”
Dawn’s eyes met with Crankshafts, a flicker of pain in them before it was smothered by something frighteningly like indifference. “I do. You can think what you like about me, about my choices or my conviction, but I am still learning how to be my own person. I am still a walking contradiction and I will be until I can let go of who I once was completely.”
Crankshaft smirked. “So what was it you wanted to talk about? I will admit to still being confused as to why it is me you want to talk to.”
“It is something of little consequence to you, I expect, but something I feel you should know nonetheless. I do not think it fair for one of us to know and the other to not.” Dawn shifted again, sliding her hands into her pockets and glancing around. As was usual when comrades got together, voices were loud and conversations were hard to pick apart from each other. She smiled a little to herself before looking back to Crankshaft. “Do you remember the second night of the first Grand Cycle? When Dynamics was accusing me of being up to something regarding Axle?”
“Vaguely, but it has been quite a while since the first Grand Cycle, and I was mostly just enjoying the company of my comrades at the time. If I recall he also accused me of something?”
“He did. Said we both had the same ‘Up to something, smile.’ And Opportunity got excited about the prospect we might be related but I blew it off as impossible. I had been stuck with my first ship for far longer than normal... Did they ever tell you the name of the ship you were born on Crankshaft?”
“No, no-one ever mentioned, and I never thought to ask. I had my comrades, and then we had a ship of our own. And then I had the RATA and my new comrades. I have always had my comrades, does it matter which ship I came from?”
Dawn nodded, smiled slightly. “Like I said, this will be of little consequence to you but it was ‘The Endless March Towards Freedom’... The same one as me.”
Crankshaft’s brow furrowed, “How do you know that? And how do I know you’re not just making this up?”
“What do I have to gain, Crankshaft? I know that blood family means next to nothing to the Combine - a ship is your home and its crew your family. Parents and siblings mean little to either of us and I do not expect this to change anything going forward. I just thought you had the right to know that I am your sister, since I know that you are my sibling. I couldn’t let go of the Combine without letting that go too.” Dawn sighed looking down at the table. “I know because of something that happened at the last Grand Cycle. I know a lot more about our parents than what you probably want to know. Have no expectation of you believing me or you wanting to know more. But I had a sense of duty to at least let you know. Perhaps I just didn’t want to be alone in knowing…. Whatever choice I make, it’ll be the wrong one in the end. May as well make it a choice I believe in.”
Crankshaft paused momentarily, before leaning closer, their hand reaching out for Dawn’s on the table. “You say we are siblings. Strangely, I do not find myself surprised by this. That we found this out after what has happened strikes me oddly, as you are correct that the Combine is my family, but that does not change the fact that you are too. It does explain... some things. You say you remember our parents? Do you also remember the ship? What was it like?”
“The ship was a small one.” She replied, eyes pinned on where their hands lay on the table. “Smaller than the V.T.P I think, though it felt big at the size I was. I think, perhaps, it had been designed for stealth rather than anything else… The crew was small too, the bare bones really. I remember them caring for me. I remember them mentioning you once or twice and wondering who you were…”
“Why were you on the ship for so long? I assume you’re my younger sister then?”
“Not exactly, no.” Dawn looked up at her sibling, scanning across their face, clearly weighing up something. “Any time they went to the Inner Assembly, they would hide me. I didn’t remember that until recently. I had always been told that our ship had been on a long haul mission and only remembered flashes of my childhood until I went digging into my memories.” She looked away again. “I still couldn’t quite piece it together and looking in Crooked Gallery's I was able to pull out some documents, obscure though they were. There were countless records of The Endless March Towards Freedom resupplying with the Assembly before my birthday - notes that Sprocket was carrying a child. It didn’t add up at all that they could have hidden me, until I found the documents detailing both our upbringings in the inner assembly. Neither of us have records of which ship we come from, but yours is roughly 4 years before mine… I… I think we may be more than siblings. Either a strange twist of dissonance… or non-identical twins. I am… really not sure.”
“Our parents, and presumably the other members of the ship... HID you? From the rest of the Combine? That makes no sense...” Confusion etched itself deep within Crankshafts face while an eyebrow raised on Dawn’s.
Crankshaft stood up, pacing back and forth along the length of the table, muttering to themself. Dawn let the eyebrow relax again and watched them calmly. Eventually they stopped pacing, choosing to sit down next to Gatling this time, “Are you trying to tell me that my pare... your paren... our parents... are Industrioclasts?”
“Were Industrioclasts, yes.” She tentatively reached her hand out to theirs, the touch light enough that it could be pulled away from with ease.
At her touch, Crankshaft went still, the grease stains on their skin standing out against their quickening pallor. She quickly pulled her hand away.
“I believe they gave you up in order to keep me,” She said softly. “And raise me to be like them.”
Crankshaft snorted with laughter before once again becoming stone-faced and quiet. “I’m sure they'd be very proud.” Their voice was tinged with the slightest hint of malice and sadness. Dawn barely flinched.
“Perhaps. But it doesn't matter.” She gazed around the room and shrugged. “None of what I did was because of, or for them. I was 4 when I was found and they were killed and my memories repressed. They barely have any claim on me, despite trying to.”
“And do you regret the life, the family, the friends that the Combine gave you? Would you have preferred a different upbringing?” It was Dawn’s turn to frown.
“The family? No. Not for a moment… The life… that is something else entirely and is as much my own doing as the Combine’s.”
Confusion once again rippled across Crankshaft’s face, before it settled into an expression of calm interest. “And what would you have me do, now you have told me this?”
“Why do you think I would have you do anything? I told you I was aware of how little it was likely to mean to you and that my reasons for sharing were mostly selfishness and a sense of duty to do so. What you do next is up to… well. What you do next is not for me to say.” She tilted her head to the side, interest flicking in her own eyes. “Surely this changes nothing?”
“It changes nothing for the Combine.” The smirk of their mouth did not match the slight pain hiding behind their eyes, or what they had left unsaid. “But has telling me changed anything for you? Are you able to now able to let go of the Combine? Are you now able to let go of me? After all, wasn't that the point of this endeavour?” Dawn’s eyes flickered over her siblings face, from the corners of their smirk to the shadows dancing behind their bravado. She gave a sad smile.
“Haven’t you noticed how bad I am at sticking to my convictions?” She slid herself from out between the bench and table, straightening her jacket and dusting off her trousers.
“Intent on leaving so soon?” The smirk dropped and Crankshaft stood, reaching out to grasp one of Dawn’s hands within their own. “Please, stay a while, at least let me give you the guided tour, maybe play some games?”
“I…” Their hands were rough against hers, years of hard labour showing in calluses and warmth. Her fingers wrapped around their palm, squeezing softly. “I assumed you wouldn’t...” The sentence hung in the air, broken and caught on Dawn’s lips. She caught Crankshafts eyes and let hers shift away from green once more to mirror the engineers own for a moment. The same deep brown colour and shadowing pain. She squeezed their hand again and let a tentative, genuine smile curl the corners of her mouth. “I would love that, Crankshaft.”
-- FIN --
It has been months since your surprise visit and revelation. As every day passes and I do not hear from you, I assume that the visit succeeded in allowing you to let go of the Combine, to let go of me.
And yet, with every passing day, and the chances of this being the case increasing, I find myself wishing it were not so. I do not feel as though I know you, not properly, and I do not understand you, or indeed your reasons for not-too-distant choices.
An open line of communication is requested, a chance to talk, to understand. We had lives before the Nexus, stories that can be shared. You have chosen a different path, for reasons I cannot fathom. I would hear your reasons, your problems, your “solutions” if you would tell them.