Life Is Hard and Then You Mutate

First time in New Warped City? Read this.

New Warped City. When the first modulation hit everything changed, even the name.

The effects weren’t localised to Madhattan, or the Eastern Seaboard or North America or Earth. There’s no-one to tell anyone how extensive the modulation was. Science needs stability, lenses need precise curves, computers need logic.

The nights are dark in New Warped City and when the corkscrew moon isn’t dimly glowing you can finally see the stars, but you can’t recognise any of them. In the black sky there are clusters and voids, great blue and green sweepings of light, ripples, spirals, godawful confusions and nonstellations. Every night a wedge of an entire galaxy, cut like a piece of sparkle pie, sweeps overhead, disintegrating in a fear almost audible.

As above, so below. Nothing escaped the modulation.

New Warped City

“I want to be modded like Ladybug,” said Hester.

Hester and her mother were returning to the Apthorp camp after visiting the waterhole, their shoulders aching under the ropes supporting their sloshing water bags.

“You don’t want to be like her. She’s no use to anybody.”

“She seems to be a whole lot of use to a whole lot of people.”

“She has to be or she doesn’t eat.”

“Seems easier than scrounging.”

“Seems doesn’t mean it is.”

“I wish I was modded so we didn’t have to scrounge or fetch water.”

“If you’re lucky, my sweet, you’ll never be modded. Look at Nubs. Look at Scoop. Look at me.”

Nubs, nee Agnes, hopped through a mod field and came out with her legs truncated, left barely long enough to keep her butt off the ground, their new blunt ends a carpet of undulating nubs. She could glide slowly upon them, but mainly swung along on her hands as it was faster. It changed her head, too. Before, she had been a friend, but after it was like she was intent on being an enemy to everyone. Then there was Scoop, nee Jeremy. A mod field hopped him. Right in camp. It dropped out of the air, passed over him and disappeared into the ground. It left him webbed–loose folds of skin between his fingers, between his arms and his sides, between his legs down to his ankles. He got about in a long dirty poncho now.

That wouldn’t happen to her. She wanted to point out Midnight, who got perfectly black fur from a mod field. It was short, velvety to the touch and glistened in the light. It did come with a second set of drooping ears whose holes connected to nothing but each other. They were kind of cute, but she had to keep them plugged because of bugs. There was also Squidge. He had jumped through a mod field on a dare and got wings, beautiful rainbow-feathered wings, six pairs of them running down his back, all of them squidgeon-sized. He used them to keep the batflies off, so they weren’t just pretty.

Her friends’ mods were nothing like Ladybug’s, but it was all the defense she could muster. Before she could start, her mother’s wide hand, wider than a shovel head, wrapped around her arm and she was dragged off the sidewalk.

“Why are we crossing the street?”

“Just getting out of the sun.”

“I can see it! There’s a field there.”

“And we’re keeping away from it. I don’t need anymore twisting and you’re perfect just the way you are.”

In the quiet of the street she could just hear the sizzle of the mod field. It was a shimmer in the air above the sidewalk, moving upwards, its path a lazy widening helix that expanded until it was brushing the building, changing the colour of the stone, the texture, the material, warping its even surface in streaks every time its sweeping path coincided with the wall. Then it popped and was gone.

“Good riddance,” said her mother, who has been called Paddles since her collision with a mod field.

Time passes.

Being part of the camp in the courtyard of Apthorp was safer than living out on the streets. You could still lose limbs to giant claws or be strangled by a tentacle, but it would be the result of someone’s grudge instead of something’s hunger. Really, the big difference was you were less likely to be eaten in Apthorp. Any increase in safety came from friends, not Apthorp’s walls. If you had friends, friends that had passed through mod fields and emerged with intimidating mutations, friends of a retaliatory nature, you were less likely to be bothered. But the modded were often mad, so no-one was completely safe.

Hester, her mother, and the other women in their circle of shelters, Bent Annie, Bumps, and Mandy, had Briney and their shared gusto for blood debts.

Briney was tall, dark and skinny, like a shadow stretched by the afternoon’s ending, like a living wire, and she could swing a thin hand through a man’s throat before he knew he should duck. Hester once saw her slap a man, Roscoe, a blunted stump of a man, shortened by a mod field, a harasser of women. Rather, she saw Roscoe before and after the slap. No-one saw the slap because Briney’s arm was not a sight, but a sound. A whip crack followed by the clatter of teeth hitting the ground after flying through Roscoe’s cheek. He dropped like a void had popped right under him. Everyone heard what he said, so no-one was going to be coming after Briney, not without starting something new, but the circle was ready for it, ready to back her up with nail-studded clubs, fire-hardened sticks pointed for digging and Mandy’s axe.

Time passes.

It was barely light when her mother prodded her with a finger.

“Up, child. We’ve got scrounging to do.”

The air was cool and damp and grey.

“But the fog,” said Hester.

From her bed of plaited rags she could see the mist curling over the void bitten edge of the Apthorp walls. They didn’t even open the gates if fog had drifted in from the river.

“It’ll lift,” said her mother, “and we’ll be ready to go when it does.”

The industriousness of her mother and the other women exhausted Hester. She was sure no-one worked harder than their little group. Out every morning at dawn. Out to collect water. Out trying to be second to the rivergreen. It’s always better to let another group or another camp get there first and scare off or feed whatever might be lying in wait.

Scrounging in rivergreen meant searching out mushrooms and other fungi, digging up roots, picking the leaves and doughy appendages of the plants. There was plenty of greens to go around. Cabbage ivy would overgrow Madhattan if they weren’t stripped back every day.

When opportunities presented themselves, small animals – rats, the dumb kind, squidgeons, moleworms – were bludgeoned or stabbed and thrown into shoulder bags.

Hester’s shoulder bag was supposed to come back full of fuel for the fire. That was eminently unfair. The bag was huge. To fill it with the small twigs and dried leaves that she could gather was impossible and it made no sense. The circle scrounged more than they could eat and were always trading it or drying it. Why not trade for someone else’s twigs and leaves? That question made her mother growl and if the bag wasn’t full enough when they returned to Apthorp Hester would be served her dinner cold.

“When do you think it’s going to lift, Paddles?” inquired Bent Annie from outside the lean-to. Hester’s mother had become Paddles when the mod field gave her twenty thick fingers and a thumb the size of a baby’s leg on each broad hand. When she held you by your arm your arm was not going anywhere.

“It’ll lift when it lifts,” said Paddles.

“It’s getting brighter,” said Bent Annie, so called for the sharp S-bend in her spine that left her looking up from waist height.

“But it ain’t getting thinner,” whistled Mandy. She had a slight speech impediment from the brown cluster of insectile mouthparts that erupted from the lower half of her face. They were delicate and prehensile. As well as eating with them, she used them for fine sewing and needlework she could trade for the soft fruits she loved.

With no way to know when the fog would lift all they could do was sit around and wait. Hester made an excuse and crept back into the lean-to and onto her bed, her scrounging bag across her belly, and dozed, lulled by the voices of the circle and the broader camp and the sounds of activity.

She must have slept again, because her mother was kicking her foot. “Up, Hester. We’re heading.”

Their path to the crowd gathering at the archway that led west out of Apthorp took them past Ladybug’s circle. It was late enough in the morning that they had gathered and started drinking. They were laughing as Ladybug held court, her six dainty ankles and calves showing from below her carefully arranged skirts.

“I want to be like Ladybug,” said Hester. “She never goes scrounging.”

“Ha!” her mother barked. Bent Annie, Bumps, and Briney added their cackles. “She’s scrounging now. She’s always scrounging. We’ll be eating dinner later and she’ll still be scrounging.”

It didn’t look like scrounging to Hester. It looked like fun. Ladybug and the people gathered around her were all having fun. Talking and laughing. They weren’t picking up twigs for a fire or ramming sticks into the shifting ground to skewer moleworms.

Ugh. That was going to be her day. Moleworms tasted like mud. But they were easier to catch than rats, less dangerous than squirrels and had fewer bones than either. Boiled with roots and mushrooms they made up a common stew. A stew so brown all it needed was a few leaves and you could call it a mud puddle. That’s what Hester called the mix on account of its colour, flavour and texture. Everyone else called it stew. Ladybug didn’t eat mud puddle. She was sure of that.

The Apthorp gatekeepers were Bickle, tall as a tower and bright as one, and Worms, named for the fringe of brown stringy flesh that started back where his ears should be, ran along both cheeks to meet below his nose, and dangled down past his jawline. They dripped when he was shaking you down for Spikes’ share on your way back in and as they swung and bounced sharp teeth peeked between them.

The gatekeepers didn’t rush for anyone except Spikes, the current self-anointed warlord of Apthorp. No-one could leave until Bickle had shifted the stacks of engine blocks to the side and dragged the screeching gates open. The waiting crowd jostled and hooted, but no-one dared suggest Worms and Bickle speed things up. That’s how you spent the night on the other side of the gate and became a stripped carcass that Bickle had to kick out of the way in the morning. Unless you could afford their “fines”.

Hester crossed her arms and rolled her eyes as the crowd, needing desperately to be out scrounging, shifted and she was trod on and pressed back against her mother, who was not nearly annoyed enough by this daily ritual of frustration. So Hester did her best to bring their annoyance into closer alignment.

“Ladybug doesn’t have to wait for the gate,” she said.

Her mother emitted a “Pff!” but said nothing else.

“I am so going to be like Ladybug as soon as I can,” she announced.

The man in front of her, it was the famously ugly Pick, looked back over his shoulder and fixed a big eye on her. A mod had re-shaped his head, moving his eyes outwards on bone spurs while narrowing everything below - his nose, his mouth and chin. It was an ugly head on a hulking body, but housed within the deformed shell was a soul of pure filth.

“You can’t match her range of options,” he said, his leer displaying tiny brown teeth, “but you sure are prettier and I’m damn sure you run sweeter. I’d line up for you.”

Her mother’s great hand appeared over her shoulder and pushed Pick, turning him back around.

“You keep your words to yourself and keep yourself away from us,” said her mother.

Pick laughed, his closest eye swivelling between Hester and Paddles. “She’s outgrowing you, Paddles. She’ll be more popular than Ladybug, all so pretty. Just needs the right mod. Give her something extra.”

He shut up when Briney leaned down and waved a dark finger back and forth in front of his face. He watched it like a snake. When she jabbed it in his direction, a feint, a threat, he turned pale and pushed his way through the crowd to get away from her.

“Tell me that isn’t worse than scrounging,” her mother said in her ear.

Pick was awful. She wouldn’t let him sit in her circle. Ladybug was always sending men and women away. Clappy got sent away twice. First time he came back carrying a pile of pristine magazines upon the pair of little arms that grew out of his chest. He wouldn’t tell anyone where he found them. Ladybug had held one of his chest-hands while she flipped through the pages. Next day, though, she sent him away again and he never tried to get back in.

There was a limp cheer, more a sigh of relief, from the crowd as the gate was finally opened. The lingering fog meant they had fewer daylight hours to stave off hunger, the evening cold, and Spikes’ goons. Let Worms pass word up to Spikes that you were behind on your gate cut or your camp cut and he’d send down Hooks and Kraken, or Moose or Stabitha, to drive you out of Apthorp, clutching desperately to what little you had, trying not to drop it as you were slapped and kicked towards the gate and through it. It always happened at night, just before the gates were shut, so you’d have no time to find another camp that might take you. Of course Ladybug didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out. Spikes’ goons were often sitting around her circle. Sometimes the circle was just his goons.

The crowd started to move. Hester avoided feet and tried not to get pushed into anyone’s back and ducked sticks and bags in the face as they squeezed through the archway. The crush got even tighter at the gate. She hated the bodies all pressing together with her in the middle. The weird smells. You learned who was afraid of a damp cloth and who mods had left emanating alien odours. The closeness was awful. As she passed through the gate just ahead of her mother, and the crush depressurised as everyone fanned out into the street, rushing to scrounge, to forage, to deal, to collect water from the wormhole on 75th, she was thinking on how Pick was never going to sit near her and he’d get none of whatever sweetness he was after.

It was a rivergreen day. Hester liked the water days better. They were easier. Carrying back the water wasn’t easier, but waiting for a space at the edge of the channel was. And it was interesting seeing all the other people from the other camps. And the wormhole was always fascinating. A jet of water started out of nothing, just floating in the air above everyone’s head, even Briney’s. She couldn’t even reach it with the tip of a slender black finger. It blasted at an angle towards the ground and had dug its way through the road surface until its own depth was enough to disperse it and then it flowed outward.

It had been spraying out clean water for as long as anyone could remember. Long enough for people to pile up fallen bricks, blocks and chunks of cement to slow down its rush to the river and have spots to submerge bottles and dip buckets. Away from the wormhole people would perform a cautious wash. You never knew what might swim upstream against the current.

Collecting water was almost a holiday, unless a winter was underway. It was never cold enough to freeze the jet, but the mist could fall like snow and it was icy all around it.

But today they were hurrying to the rivergreen, the long band of ground that ran between the deadly river and the ruined edge of the city. Get there early and you didn’t have to stray to far into the place. Get there late and you were forced to keep moving deeper in, closer to the river and closer to the dangers that moved below its surface. She knew never to approach the river’s edge, and never to believe for a second that a shiny glass bottle or a pile of kindling sitting on its stone edge had been left by a forgetful land dweller and was hers for the taking. It was always weresquid tricks.

They weren’t first, people from one of the smaller camps were already on the closest patches between the trees, but they were a good second and would forage within sight of buildings.

Hester hated, hated, picking up dead twigs and leaves. It was tedious. It was hard. Everyone scrounged for kindling to make fires. If she was really lucky she might find a branch. After she snapped it into pieces it would take up space in her bag.

What she hated most was that she had to go under the trees, under their umbrella of branches, to find the sticks, which meant being closer to squirrels. Not every tree held squirrels. Some looked empty, sounded empty, as you stepped under their branches and peered up into their canopy. You’d start collecting the fallen twigs, bent over, always bent over, filling your hand with twigs, then straighten up, look around, because you don’t ever stop looking around for too long in Madhattan, glance overhead and there’d be a line of squirrels watching you. You’d get a little rush of adrenalin, not quite enough to panic, and you’d walk out and try and find another tree.

The squirrels were why there were trees, why people scrounged wood from the rubble of fallen buildings instead of chopping up trees. The squirrels were why Hester collected fallen twigs and never snapped a single branch, no matter how dead and rotted, from a standing tree. And if she did find a fallen branch, she didn’t break it until she was out in the open, far from any tree. If you ever wanted to know how many squirrels there really were, break a branch. Or even better, take an axe to a tree.

“Range where I can see you,” said her mother. She was already eyeing the ground, where a patch of grass was lifting. Moleworm sign.

Hester looked around. She couldn’t see any other kids among the wandering, stooping and squatting figures. Briney was a ways off, at the stand of tall firs, using her height and long arms to pick leaves off the climbing vines that most people couldn’t reach. She didn’t have to spend the day bending down.

“And watch out for squirrels and weresquids. I know.”

“That’s a girl.”

Paddles plunged her stick into the ground. A faint squeal rose from the earth.

“That’s one for the gatekeepers. Now to find one for our dinner.”

Hester walked away before she was asked to help dig up the ugly pink thing and finish it off.

The ground was still wet from the fog. No point in collecting leaves. They wouldn’t dry in her bag. She wandered into the shade of a tree. It was a modded oak, much like a normal oak except its branches grew fatter and twisted, its leaves were mottled and almost round, and its lumpen acorns, if eaten, would bloat a person until they burst like a balloon. The squirrels still ate them without any problems.

Hester felt an acorn under her foot. She looked up and around for squirrels. They wouldn’t like to see this. She looked to where her mother squatted in the distance over a moleworm the size of her lower leg, gutting it. She wouldn’t like to see this either. Hester picked up the nut and squeezed it to crack the shell, which she peeled off, leaving the pale yellow meat. She broke off a tiny wedge, threw the rest away, and put the tree trunk between herself and her mother as she sucked on it. It was the sweetest taste in the rivergreen, perhaps in all of Madhattan. That’s why the nuts were called candygripe. You’d suck on them until your stomach hurt, oh so careful not to swallow the flesh itself, then you’d spit it out.

She leaned against the tree, swallowed some, spat some. The sweetness lasted longer that way. She should be bent over picking up twigs, but the necessity of it all set her against starting. It was unfair. Ladybug wasn’t out in the rivergreen gutting moleworms or picking up sticks. Hester was sure there were men and women out right now gathering fuel for the big fire she sat before every night until late, laughing among the circle, all of them hoping she’d take them into her hut with its four walls and a door that closed for the night.

She was named Ladybug on account of all the legs and it was known that each pair framed their own unique delight. Maybe this was the kind of mod Pick had been leering about. If extra legs meant Hester had to walk less, scrounge less, go to bed with a full stomach more often, then that was a mod she could live with. Paddles didn’t want her modded at all.

“You might come out with your nose here and your mouth there,” she would say. Such a nice looking child in this time and place was a rare thing. Too rare to be thrown away in a mod field.

Her belly wobbled and she spat out the sliver of nut. Her mother had moved on to another part of the clearing, turning over the earth near a tree with her stick, looking for fungus between the roots.

Hester bent over and picked up a twig, looked at it, sighed, pushed herself off the trunk of the tree and started gathering more. She hated it, but she hated being cold more, she hated eating cold mud puddle more. Her path brought her out into the sunlight and the warmth chased away the thoughts of cold. She straightened up and shook the bag. It was a quarter full already.

Paddles waved at her, her hand like a pale flag, and pointed at the ground. Hester brought up her hands in the classic “what do you think I’m doing?” pose. She was too far away for her mother to make out the accompanying expression.

From overhead there came a snap, followed by a sizzling that rose and fell in intensity. The universe, in its advance towards dissolution, had allowed a mod field to pop into existence directly above her. She could just barely see it against the perfect blue of the sky. It was like ripples in ice, but moving, twisting, turning. And the ripples were getting closer. It was descending towards her.

Her scalp tingled in anticipation. This was it. She let the bag slide off her shoulder and drop to the ground. This was her chance to stop with the damn scrounging. Paddles could stop scrounging, too. Men and women would fight to bring them anything they wanted. Across the way, her mother was down on one knee, pushing aside mounds of dirt with her hands, pulling out dark lumps of fungus. The mod approached and Hester closed her eyes.

The sunlight glowed through her eyelids, like she was standing in a fire. She held her breath. She could feel the fabric of her shirt against her neck. The sizzling grew louder, fainter, louder, fainter, fainter. She opened an eye, saw the mod field weaving erratically away towards the river.

“Dammit!”

She stamped her foot, picked up her bag and stomped towards her mother. It must be time to eat something.

“You need to work faster,” said her mother as they sat in the shade chewing on last night’s baked roots. “We’ve gotta head back soon. The fog took most of the morning.”

“I know.”

“There’s lots of sticks under this tree and no squirrels.”

“I can see that.”

“Can you see to choosing for us then if we’re going to be hungry or cold tonight because unless I find another molie we’re going to be giving this one to Worms or your kindling and you don’t have enough to give or to cook with so we’re going to be cold and hungry.”

“Briney or Bumps will help us out.”

“Thinking like that is how we starve next time a winter comes. Feast together, starve alone.”

The last winter had dragged out for a month. They were eating moldy root and dried greens soup and expecting to join the pile of frozen dead out in the street when the cold ended as quickly as it started.

Hester shivered.

“Ugh. Scrounge or die. It’s so unfair.”

“Scrounging isn’t so bad,” said her mother, shuffling around in her bag. “Look at this fungus I found. It’s a beauty.”

On her hand it looked small, but the twisted black fungus was substantial in size.

“And that molie.” She whistled. “I think we should keep it for ourselves. Eat half tonight with this fungus. A good feed. Dry the rest for later. You’ll need to gather extra because we’ll need to give Worms a bag’s worth in place of the molie.”

Hester groaned. Paddles stood up and grabbed her stick.

“Come on. Don’t let your mother go to bed cold and hungry. Get going. I’m going to try for moleworms up over there. The shadows should be pushing them into the middle where the ground’s warmer. And watch out. It’s been a bit moddy around here. Lots of little ones popping in and out. You don’t want a hole or a horn in your head.”

The motherly guilt stacked on top of the memory of winter was good for another quarter bag of sticks and twigs. She even broke the long ones to the right length. But then the futility and boredom of it all overwhelmed her again and she found herself walking around and around the trunk of the tree, the fingertips of her right hand bumping over the rough bark. She wasn’t thinking anything. She didn’t want to think about anything because all there was to think about was the scrounging and the hunger and the cold.

She stopped and watched her mother walking slowly across the clearing, scanning the ground, her stick ready. Love and guilt roiled inside of her. Her mother wavered, wriggled. A mod field had popped into existence between them. A large one hanging just above the ground.

Hester ran. It was bigger than she thought, and closer. The sizzling grew loud. The circle of rippling air started to rise and all Hester could think about was legs, her legs, Ladybug’s legs, and she jumped, bringing up her knees, trying to get her whole body to pass through the field.

There was no memory of pain. Most people attest to the immense pain of passing through a mod field. You would expect being re-arranged at an atomic level might involve some discomfort. If there was any pain for Hester it was hidden within a moment of unconsciousness. She woke up on the ground. As she sat up her mother was running towards her.

Her legs were out straight and they had not increased in number. Two huge brown furred arms reached out to touch them and she screamed.

The mod field had done its thing, shifting the patches of quantum foam that under-girded her arms and under the foam, shifting the dreams of forms that shape the foam. Here it was “Arms” that raised the white cap on the nearest peak of the roiling form-space, and Hester was slid along one if its curling branches, away from the overlaps from which “human girl” was composed, and towards the crest of “cave bear”. What form dreamed, foam followed, expanding space, crowding it with densities that became particles, particles that combined in vast numbers to become an atom, atoms that joined to create the molecules that made the cells that shaped her hands into massive paws with long, curved black claws extending from them.

How else had she changed? She felt her face. There was a sting from her claws, but under the dark pads of her new fingers she felt the smooth skin of her cheeks.

“Oh, Hester!” Her mother dropped to her knees beside her, tears spilling down her cheeks. She held Hester’s arms in her shovel hands and lowered them gently.

“You’ve cut your face. You’re bleeding, dear.”

That was the end of scrounging. Hester’s new claws had opened deep gashes under each eye. They would need some help from Mandy. She was as adept at stitching flesh with her mandibles as she was stitching cloth. Hopefully she’d be back from the water hole.

Paddles wasn’t happy but hid it behind concern. Her fool girl had gone and jumped through a mod field despite all her warnings. Now she had giant bear arms hanging nearly to the ground, her face was cut up, and they had to get back into Apthorp with one moleworm, some fungus, some greens and not enough kindling. Dinner was going to be cold tonight.

Hester was furious. With her arms. With her mother. With the world. The fury was fascinating. She’d been cross before, often, regularly, petulantly, but that just made her want to wheedle and sulk. This fury, it was different. She could feel it in the base of her new claws like a knuckle that needed to be cracked.

The other women scrounging in the rivergreen were sympathetic, even the strangers. They had gathered to cluck and tisk and offer scraps and shirt corners to wipe off the blood, to help mend her burst top so she was covered enough to get back to camp. Briney had patted her head and suggested digging for moleworms would be easy for her, which made Hester growl.

None of the women had scrounged enough to want to head back and it wasn’t the kind of thing you could ask a person to do, so Hester and her mother made their own cautious way towards the start of 84th.

As they walked along the crooked street there was no-one else about. There would be a rush once the sun got low enough. Everyone out scrounging would come running back at once, taking advantage of safety in numbers.

No-one was going to sit around and admire her bear arms. Part of her fury was directed at herself, Hester in the past, the girl with slender arms, who had jumped through the mod field. Fucking price of wisdom, she thought to herself. Stupid girl couldn’t even fill a bag with sticks when surrounded by trees. Because of her, Hester with bear arms was going to have a cold dinner. And so was her mother.

There was a dip in her fury. Paddles had been right. About everything.

“I’m sorry I didn’t fill my bag,” whispered Hester as they crept up to the intersection with West End Avenue and peered up and down the way for threats.

“One cold dinner won’t kill us,” whispered Paddles and she rubbed her child’s back before taking a furry elbow in hand and leading her around the corner, pretending not to mind the drops of blood that marked their path all the way back to the rivergreen.

They were a block out from Apthorp when Pick and another man, Scunge, stepped out of an empty doorway and into their path. Scunge had loose skin that hung in folds. He never washed.

Pick stood and blinked his big eyes and laughed and Scunge joined in.

“Ladybug’s got nothing to worry about!” he said, and shifted the bag he carried from one shoulder to the other so he could jab an elbow into the other man’s side.

“I don’t know,” said Scunge. “She might be more competition than Ladybug could bear.”

They both laughed. Hester’s fury returned.

“Just let us pass, Pick. We need to get her face looked at,” said Paddles.

“Too late for that,” said Scunge.

Pick stopped laughing. He looked up and down the empty street. “There’s a new toll for this block. We’ll take that molie I can see stretching out your bag.”

“There’s no such toll,” said Paddles. She looked up and down the street, too, and wished Briney had come with them. A delay might bring a friend, anyone, into sight.

“You go and ask Spikes. There’s a toll and Scunge here and I are the collectors.”

“Yeah, go ask Spikes,” said Scunge.

“Wouldn’t it be better cooked? I could cook it for you.”

“Like Worms isn’t going to take it,” said Pick and he stepped in to grab the bag.

Her arm was already swinging before Hester knew what she was doing. The fury had taken over and it gave Pick a backhanded blow that caught him behind the knob of bone that held his right eye. The force spun him around and he fell.

Luckily for Scunge at this point Hester still fought like a human child, so he was hit in the face with a poorly clenched fist instead of razor sharp claws. It was still enough to knock him off his feet and he was unconscious when he hit the ground.

“Hester?” was all Paddles said. It wasn’t admonition. It was concern and wonder and relief. Concern for her daughter’s heart, violence not being a choice she made often, wonder at the child’s strength and speed, and relief, arrived earlier than expected, that Hester would survive in this world even if something happened to her.

Hester didn’t say anything. She picked up the bag that Pick had dropped. It was heavy with rectangles of wood Pick and Scunge had pried off a parquet floor in an abandoned apartment somewhere. It was enough for four or five fires even after Worms took Spikes’ share. She pulled the rope handles over her shoulder. She could feel the weight in her legs, but not her arms.

The fury was still there. She was furious in her triumph. She was furious that there was an alternative to scrounging. She was furious that it wasn’t as easy as Ladybug’s. She was furious that it wasn’t too hard. Paddles wouldn’t be cold or hungry, but she wouldn’t be happy.

As if on cue, Paddles said “I don’t think we should take that.”

Hester didn’t turn around. The fury that seemed to be a part of her new arms gave a little glow.

“You heard him. There’s a toll on the block,” she said and started walking.

Paddles sighed and followed her daughter. Tonight’s dinner would be hot, and it would be filling, but it wasn’t going to sit easy in her stomach.

The End

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