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Part One: A Life Underfoot

 

 

Deep below the surface of a poisoned world, a dead and desolate place long abandoned, there is life. The Lowcity, a simple name for something so significant, is the last known bastion of civilisation in an empty land, a place where the remaining people of what once was must struggle together to survive- and, perhaps, more. Their forms are varied, their societies all but incompatible, their futures bleak. Hot, and cramped, and utilitarian, the Lowcity is not a place of beauty. Its people will never again see a blue sky above their heads, feel the cool breeze on their skin- those who have skin. They live in a world that will always be less than it once was..And yet, they struggle on. Because, if nothing else, struggling on is what people do.

Let me tell you about them.

Of all the myriad peoples that live in the ancient Lowcity, the Skitterlings are the second least Beloved. Long ago, in a time now forgotten, they had been a simple folk that lived simple lives, with no need for the so-called “Civilisation” that other folk held in such high regard. For the most part the Skitterlings had kept to their natural territory: the plains and savannas where they burrowed into the soft dirt with their sharp chitinous hands and made their homes. They lived in large communal groups they called “Clutches”, which could range in size anywhere from ten to several hundred depending on the available resources and societal factors. A Clutch was a group of Skitterlings, rather than a geographical designation; the same burrow could contain many individual Clutches, intermingling in complex ways that tended to be incomprehensible to outsiders but made a sort of natural logic to those within. Conflict between Skitterlings within a Clutch was all but unheard of: if discord broke out within a Clutch, it simply dissolved and reformed in a more workable form, with the problematic elements disappearing into other Clutches that better suited them. Conflict between Clutches was uncommon, but still happened from time to time. But even then, blood was very rarely drawn: the preferred method for resolving disputes was to surreptitiously modify- or collapse- the tunnel network of the enemy until eventually there was little chance that the opposing Clutches would ever see one another again. By the time a reunion occurred, an unspoken etiquette dictated that the conflict had been “forgotten” in the interim.

There were also those who left behind their Clutch, seeking out the potential that Civilisation allegedly held. They settled down in towns and cities: usually those that had already established themselves as cosmopolitan but they could sometimes be found in the settlements of the Umbressi, whose… utilitarian tendencies could reliably overcome any inherent prejudices. Skitterlings are, after all, small and dextrous and excellent diggers, and while the Umbressi had designed mighty machines that could dig and tunnel and excavate enormous quantities of soil with ease, the precision with which the Skitterlings could dig smaller tunnels was useful in specific circumstances. Perhaps the Umbressi somehow knew, even then, that such skills would become even more useful in the days to come.

“Skitterling'' was not a name that the Skittlerings used for themselves in those days- in fact, they had no name for their species. Individuals had names, and Clutches had names, but there was no word in their tongue for their kind as a whole. Perhaps they had never needed one before, as it was only in the century or so before the Departure that interactions between them and the other peoples of the surface reached any meaningful level. “Skitterling”, then, was a name given to them by others, a simplistic and yet not unreasonable name for these strange creatures that burrowed and crawled literally underfoot. In those days, they had little use for it if they were even aware of it. Most had scarcely more interaction with those who walked on the surface than they did with the Gasbags that drift high above it. Presumably, most would happily have kept things that way. Certainly, they would prefer it to what happened instead.

Some might have thought that the Skitterlings would do well in the aftermath of the Departure, that calamity which poisoned the sky and scoured the surface of all but the hardiest of weeds. After all, while most others who survived had to migrate underground, the Skitterlings already lived there. No great industrial projects or societal upheavals should have been required, they could simply retreat into their tunnels and live on happily as ever before. But, of course, that was not the case. Skitterling society had never much cared for farming, preferring instead to hunt for creatures even smaller than themselves- on the rodents and birds on the surface, bugs below. When the world ended, and the things you might mistake for birds and rodents went away, it quickly became clear that bugs would not suffice as their only food source. Attempts to produce subterranean fungus farms were also for naught: even if they had been successful, there was also the problem of the toxic air. Skitterlings need less oxygen than most, but with every breath they took in their old tunnels they brought themselves closer to death.

Skitterlings need to eat, and breathe, and while some clung to their old lives in their old tunnels nearer to the surface, those who survived realised that they had to adapt. They had to change their way of life, even abandon it. It was difficult, tragic, but it was easier than breathing poison and eating dirt. So, some Skitterlings sought out Civilisation. And Civilisation, at this point, could only mean the Lowcity. That labyrinthine network of tunnels and shafts that began as Umbressi mines which were converted on the fly into the world’s last city was not dissimilar to the tunnels that the Skitterlings had called home- to outsiders. For those who had spent far more of their lives above ground than the Skitterlings cared to, a hole was a hole, and having to live in any hole was a misery. For the Skitterlings, it was hell. There were no Clutches here: the process of creating the Lowcity had been a great collaborative work by many races- the engineering brilliance of the Umbressi, combined with the determination of all those who wanted to survive, all under the watchful eye of the Lesh. It was almost inspiring. But this union of races, of disparate people, was never more than a thing of necessity, and it was never meant to last. Even in this new world, living under the ashes of the old one, ancient grudges remained, along with mundane selfishness and all the other things one tends to find in a Civilisation. This world was as incomprehensible to the Skitterlings as theirs had been to outsiders. It was also their only hope of survival. The Lowcity was, as far as they or anyone knew, the only place in the entire world where one could breathe without risking a coughing fit, where one’s lungs didn’t fill with blood during the night.

And so the Skitterlings who became the ancestors of the Skitterlings who live today settled into this new world. And their lot in this place was far more complex and far less peaceful than it had ever been in the old world. The construction- or, excavation- had long since begun before the refugees arrived, aided in small but important ways by those Skitterlings who had already been living among the Umbressi. It was only by the testimony of these formerly separated brethren and their ever-practical Umbressi patrons that Skitterlings were given a place in this new society- if one can apply such a word to the Lowcity. Today the crucial role they played in the city’s construction is forgotten by most, whether through wilful ignorance or the same historical decay that has afflicted much of the Lowcity’s past. Their capacity for fine, precise tunnelling made them perfectly suited for that most specific of tasks: spreading the network of small, fleshy tubes that provide the air the city’s denizens need to breathe. Now, Skitterlings tend to be curious sorts, burrowing and scurrying after whatever their keen noses pick up. But if any of them were curious about the tubes, their nature and how it was that the Umbressi or the Lesh or the Grib had developed them, they did not dare ask. They knew their position in this new world was precarious, and didn’t want to risk upsetting anyone with more social cachet than them. They needn’t have worried. They were doomed either way.

It is perhaps important that one understands what a Skitterling looks like, in order to understand the way they are often perceived. Small, bipedal, and covered in a brownish coat of what appears at a glance to be fur but is in fact tiny feathers, one might suspect that they evolved from some avian species, similar to those poor souls who now call themselves the The Fallen. But they lack wings, or beaks, and the fact they lived underground even when the air was clean should probably have been a hint. Closer inspection finds even further strange incongruities to their form: as previously mentioned, their hands and feet are covered in a chitinous shell that sharpens into claws at the fingertips. Their eyes are small and beady, while their ears are almost entirely recessed into their heads; as such, both their hearing and their sight are just okay. Their snouts are long, but rather than tapering down to a point they flared outward, their prodigious nostrils so wide that if one looks at a Skitterling face to face they have to make an effort not to look up the full length of their noses. WIth affection they are, bluntly, utterly bizarre to look at. There can be no doubt that this contributes to the way they are perceived by others. While there is a great breadth of formal variety among the other races that dwell within the Lowcity, there is something about the chaos of the Skitterlings’ appearance that is commonly found to be off-putting. Prior to the great migration few had heard of them. Among those who had, there was a common perception of them as animals, vermin, more akin to the critters they hunted than any civilised folk. They lived underground- how could they be more than animals. The irony is not easily lost. After the Lowcity was established, one might think that the Skitterlings’ key role in its creation would warrant them some degree of respect and appreciation. But there is little time for such things in a place like the Lowcity, where living is a matter of survival. And, perhaps cynically, it must be acknowledged that some people simply like to dislike someone. It can help societal cohesion to have an outgroup, a type of person it’s okay to dislike- or so the people who go around seeking out people to discriminate will tell you. Then centuries went by, or perhaps millenia- nobody is quite sure- and the reasons why people mistreated the Skitterlings were forgotten, if reasons ever existed. The Skitterlings’ lot in life was simply the way that it was, and always had been.

There is a Skitterling living now in the ancient Lowcity named Skrrsh. That isn’t quite how she would pronounce her name, but as Skitterling speech involves tones both below and above what most others can even hear it will have to do. Skrrsh is a Dig, which is a euphemistic term among modern Skitterlings for someone who just does odd jobs, for whatever recompense they can get. After all, for a Skitterling in the Lowcity, just about everything involves digging in one way or another. Today, Skrrsh is digging towards a bazaar, one of several that she often frequents when looking for work. She avoids the main tunnels that other Lowcity residents frequent, instead digging her own self-sealing tunnels a few metres apart from them. This is a common practise among the modern Skitterlings, and one which draws the ire of some who believe that the Skitterlings who live below them are surely destabilising the entire city with their unnecessary tunnelling when they could simply use the existing passages. The irony that the Skitterlings dig to avoid these tunnels, where they regularly face abuse from these sorts, is lost on them.

Skrrsh arrives at the bazaar and begins her usual rounds, scurrying from stall to stall and lingering until she is told to move on. She doesn’t need to say anything: most of the stall owners recognise her, and even those who don’t can recognise that she is a Dig. They simply shake their heads abruptly at the sight of her and she leaves, without complaint or hint of animosity. It’s just business, or the lack thereof. Perhaps tomorrow. Eventually she comes to a stall selling the soft, slimy tubers that Skrrsh recognises but has never been able to afford. Behind the counter, a Grib scratches at its flaky skin with one of its freshly slickened hands, pondering for a moment. Next to it, a Fallen mercenary watches Skrrsh coldly, his predatory avian gaze recalling ages long gone in which his kind might have hunted hers from the sky above. Skrrsh ignores him, despite the profound difference in size and status between them. After all, she has her dignity. Could a bird forced to live under a sky of stone say the same?

After much deliberation it seems like the Grib must have decided it can use Skrrsh’s help after all, as it grunts out a few short words describing the task at hand: retrieving a lost shipment of the tubers that were its trade. It had gone missing without trace from a storeroom in the night and would need to be returned with all haste, lest the stall miss out on a full day’s worth of trade. Even one so comparatively prosperous as a merchant can suddenly find himself in a precarious position. The tubers are famous for their strong taste and odour, so locating them is a task well-suited to the Skitterking’s prodigious sense of smell. And so it offers a fairly generous payment of starchy roots- nutritious, if not exactly tasty. And, of course, not the same tubers that Skrrsh is being sent to retrieve, which are far too rich for a mere Skitterling’s belly. Skrrsh accepts. No haggling, as typical: a Grib will, on occasion, debase itself by employing a Skitterling, but it will never stoop so low as to negotiate with one. Gingerly, reluctantly, the Grib holds out one of its precious tubers for Skrrsh to smell, her flared nostrils breathing in its peppery smell deeply. She closes her eyes, not just to memorise the scent, but to savour it. And then, without another word, she leaves. She has already picked up the faintest trace of a trail. But first, she must assemble a Dig Crew. She already knows that this will not be a one Skitterling job. She finds it in other two Digs like herself, prowling the bazaar for work, one from her Clutch and one from another. The old borders between Clutches are more… blurred in this new world. Together, they head for the storeroom where the Grib claims to have lost its produce. It takes them no time at all to discover what the owner missed: the telltale signs of disturbed soil where a Skitterling had tunnelled away in the night. Skrrch flares her nostrils and breathes deeply, then jerks her head at her comrades. Then, wordlessly, she burrows into the ground, following the scent while the others follow her.

It takes the Dig Crew little time to find the culprits. It takes them even less time to tear them apart. Skitterlings have few advantages in a fight, but the power of an ambush is certainly among them. The poor dead hadn’t even had a chance to enjoy the spoils of their theft, having seemingly focused their efforts on covering their tracks. As Skitterlings, they should have known better than to think they could defeat another Skitterling’s nose. They had only just pried open the box when Skrrsh and her companions had arrived in the cramped hollow of their hideout, and now as their lifeblood seeps into the soil their killers quickly pack up their target and leave. There is no glory in this. It is simply survival. The Dig Crew says nothing as they return to the Grib merchant, simply accepting their payment in exchange for the tubers and leaving. They say nothing to the Fallen, whose look of contempt has become one of disgust at this trio of kinslayers. They split their prize and go their separate ways. Skrrsh begins the journey home, her prize strapped tightly to her chest as she burrows back down, down through the soil to the lowest parts of the Lowcity where the Skitterlings now make their home.

Far from the surface tunnels where they used to live, the realm of the Skitterlings is now deep below the ground, at the farthest reaches of the breathtubes that make life in the Lowcity possible. Hot and dry and more densely packed than the loose dirt that their ancestors had called home, it is nonetheless theirs. Few others are willing to come so deep- if they even could- so it is a place of relative safety… if not comfort, necessarily. The old traditions of Clutches and territorial squabbles live on, more a matter of instinct than conscious choice. Things are less harmonious than they once were, less idyllic, but there are none alive who remember those days, and so there are none to mourn them. Those who live now simply survive, and do what they must to continue doing so. Were they able to simply live on in isolation their lives would likely be easier, but that is not the case. Precious little else lives so deep below the surface, and so Skitterlings such as Skrrsh must climb higher into the Lowcity for whatever supplies they can secure, by whatever means necessary. There are, of course, still a small number who work with the Umbressi, their services still of use for a variety of purposes. But long gone are the days where they were permitted to live among their “Civilised” patrons. They live with the rest of their kin, in the deepest deep, where they belong, making the lengthy journey up to Umbressi territory every day. They live better than most Skitterlings, but that is a poor metric to use.

Skrrsh returns now to her Clutch, whose name will be translated as Coarsefeather, a mid-size group of Skitterlings living in the lowest part of the Lowcity. She deposits her reward of starchy roots in the communal stockpile, returning the cheers of appreciation from her kin with a simple, humble nod. Then she retreats down a small side tunnel, away from the common areas, to where her children rest. Their small, fuzzy head perk up as she approaches, and they let out cries of delight, followed by hisses of irritation as she licks them clean of dirt. Then, their eyes widen, as she pries apart the chitin shell on one of her forearms and pull out the prize she had hidden there, a theft that went unnoticed even by the others in her Dig Crew: a single slimy tuber, its enticing smell filling the small cave in an instant. She puts it in her mouth and chews it for a moment, savouring the intoxicating complexity of the flavour for a few glorious moments. Then, she opens her mouth once more, and deposits a portion of the chewed-up tuber into the mouths of each of her young. They chitter and dance with excitement, the joy of a new flavour- the best flavour they had ever tasted- overwhelming them for a moment. Skrrsh savours this sight even more than she had the brief taste of the tuber. She had not grown up with such things, and she does not partake of them now. Her dinner will be taken from the roots in the communal stockpile, nearly flavourless but very nutritious. Such things are for her children, who she hopes- believes- will grow up to live better lives than she had led. Lives with more moments like this, and fewer like the things she had done to bring this one about. It is a foolish hope. A stupid one. Skrrsh knows this. She doesn't care. As the meal in her children’s belly begins to make them sleepy, she curls up around them and coos them gently to sleep while she waits for her mate to return home from whatever errands drew him away from the Clutch. She even allows herself a few precious moments of sleep, and in her dreams she sees her children growing big and strong and living a better life than her, and building an even better ones for their children. And perhaps they will. But that would be another story. Another tale in the bizarre, beautiful, and constantly shifting world of the Lowcity.

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