Chapter 1: Before

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By the time I was seventeen, I'd seen approximately five dead bodies. Nothing ever quite prepared me for the shock of the experience. Sometimes the bodies were floppy and other times unthinkably stiff. And the smell. I always thought I knew the dismally sweet smell and somehow it continued to be a surprise each time we came into contact. Rotten things were different; rotten celery doesn't smell the same as a human corpse. Animals had a very distinct smell of decomposing. It was not just degradation of flesh but decay of breath, of vitality and life. The thing that set us apart from rocks and metal which never broke down in the same manner we did.

I found the dead raccoon in the back of the car, stiff and smelly. Its abdomen was bloated and his limbs were obscurely rigid. Even the whipping winds couldn't carry away the scent fast enough. While I rolled down the ancient windows and prepared to deal with the disposal of the body, I reflected on those five bodies. Only two of them had names to me.

The first was when I was very young, still at the orphanage. I didn't really remember much from the time before Hatsui bought me, but I remembered the child. Its body was blue and stagnant in the trashcan in the alley behind the orphanage. It was my chore to take out the garbage, which was when I discovered the small boy. His limp arms wrapped around himself and he just starting to smell sweet with decay. I had nightmares about dead boys in trash cans for weeks.

The second body was an old man that used to be a mechanic with us, decades older than Magda. I had only known him for a few weeks before I saw him as a dead body. He laid in his bunk motionless and pale. He died in his sleep, Magda would later tell me. His death led to Karl's acquisition. We were easily replaced.

The third was a racer. It was at Dead World's opening ceremonies. Usually it had a fairly tame beginning, an all cement path concerned with speed and getting away from the other racers. The third body flipped his car within the first mile and managed to crawl out of the burning frame. Flames swallowed his back and head. He screamed as he burned and I watched helplessly, just as helpless as the other mechanics. His screams cut themselves into my memory. The image of his blackened body on the cement, choking on flames as his life left him was unforgettable. What was it about death that makes such a lasting etch in human memory?

Wind roared against the thin metal of the car, singing through the gears and twists of wires. Even with the darkness of nightfall, the wind was poisoned with the unfortunate lingering heat from the day. The car had become a sweltering oven. I remained patient in my perch, my body spread against the smelly interior carpet of the faded red SUV. Bony fingers tinkered away with wires under the dash. An unfortunate amount of sweat collected under my eyes and on my lip. I kept wiping it away with the ratty scarf used to keep my face hidden, smearing a bit of motor oil and dust on my skin each time. The sweat made things difficult. I missed the bitterness of a desert winter, where things were frigid but dry.

My eyes flicked over to the tiny dashboard clock and saw it illuminated five minutes past midnight. I sighed.

The push to keep working smoldered in my bones, but the lights were starting to buzz and my eyes became sticky with exhaustion. The looming presence of an early wake up call also pressed against me. Just one more hour and then I'd go to bed, I promised myself. The time to work on a vehicle I had pored years into fixing up was precious, so I could push through the exhaustion.

A few minutes after my resolve to keep working, I heard a noise over the whipping wind. I stopped my movement, closed my eyes and focused on the sounds around me. Past the wind I could hear the rhythmic flapping sound of small blades. A security drone.

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