When Whip went skeg, he arranged a meet with a back-alley butcher, a coin-friend whose pockets rattled with illegal meds. When the coast was clear the gear was brought out of hiding. At least the stained hack-saw was much neater than an axe.
The amateur surgeon cauterised the stumps with an old oxy-set while his chums kept lookout for the pol, throwing the feet over his shoulder for the dogs to snap up.
The best surgeons claimed that they could do the chop and fit a skeg with a rig in five minutes or less, but Sad Pepe’s personal best was seven minutes even. Anything else was either boasting or butchery.
The main struts of a skeg rig eventually fused with the shin-bone, but the first month or so it was just stainless steel pegs and wires, driving Whip’s immune system nuts. He’d been dosed with dirty nano-work, old cancer-killing stock bred into a dubious cure-all. A nostalgic fallacy, given the filth on the street and the clip-clop of horse shoes on asphalt.
The drive train went underneath the muscle itself, something like the innards of an old clock, a mesh of gears and cogs. Then the winder cranks, one in each leg, protruding between the peroneus longus and the tibialis anterior, reminding the world that anyone mad enough to actually go through with this was not a human now. More a wind-up toy with a death-wish.
Finally, a pair of wheels were connected to the bottom of the rig, hooked up to the drive-train dangling from each bleeding leg. The most popular option was a pneumatic tyre with a knobbly grip, one foot in diameter, filled with smart-gel to ward off punctures, magic goop to heal over little nicks and tears.
Good suspension was a must.
When Whip survived this procedure, shook off the inevitable infection, unlearnt the life-long art of walking and earnt his gangdanna, he had the right to call himself a skeg.
* * *
Whip never stopped rolling. He slept upright like the horses he’d once curried, rolling around in slow circles, motivators clicking as the tension slowly bled from his rig. The constant ache in his legs became a dull absence, and even the lowest gears began to struggle as his muscles and tendons relaxed.
For that moment, Whip was nothing more than a cripple, a tottering freak with several kilograms of metal and rubber protruding from his mutilated legs.
Whip knelt down, winding the cranks, feeling the first delicious tickle as his muscle fibres stretched. He redoubled his efforts, until every muscle from the hip down burned with tension. Motivators humming, he could feel the potential, and Whip danced on the spot like a Lippizaner in dressage, testing the rig. He was ready to roll.
Five years in from his own chop, and Whip was a world removed from the stable-lad he’d been. His legs were enormous, twin trunks of muscle, and his only concession to decency was a filthy kilt. His hair and beard were a knotty tangle, partially hidden beneath a gangdanna.
An arc of goth-print rose above his navel, the ink rainbow pasted across his abs reading ‘NEVA STOP ROLLIN’.
Whip usually went lookout, keeping an eye on his mob, tonight kipped out in a run down park. The abandoned edges of the old burba were best for skegs, and the pol rarely visited, save to scope for looters.
‘Reveille, you dozing dogs!’ Whip shouted, scooting through the pack of dozing freaks, clipping his wheels against theirs. Cursing, his mob met the dawn, grumbling and winding their own leg cranks. Some of them hit the go-powder, passing around a paper funnel and drawing in that magic dust through red-ringed nostrils.
‘Don’t sob so hard for a bed and a pair of shoes, me grumpy chums. You all wanted this life,’ Whip laughed, rolling down an ancient and rusted slippery-dip.
‘Yeah, but I didn’t want Lord Whip crowing every dawn,’ young Rabbit said, and the mob whistled and clapped.
‘Alright, you bunch of sooking babs, we’re off to the metro,’ Whip said through a wide grin. ‘I’ve got an inkling that there’s good fetch at Jona Smif’s today.’
They rolled through the inner burba, a mob just over a dozen strong, laughing and jostling and darting through the morning traffic, baker’s nags and the last of the crap-carters. Whip rolled at the front, legs sweeping and motivators whining, working up through the gears until he was somewhere between a canter and a gallop. When a milkman cursed them for spooking his horse, Whip rolled backwards, pointing to his tattoo and staring at the man, daring him to go for the switch.
The man looked away, swallowing his outrage, and Whip laughed. The rest of his mob whipped past the cart like hornets, fly-wheels whining, and the old nag jerked around in its harness, terrified by the noise and the speed of these butchered men.
The fetch-house of Jona Smif was a squat lean-to, cheap like the man himself. The mismatched fibro shell was connected to the power and best of all, the telling-phone. Smif was the real deal and all the mobs knew it.
‘Look there,’ someone said, and Whip saw another skeg mob, sprawled across the footpath like feral dogs. He didn’t know their gangdanna, and didn’t care. They’d staked out Smif’s joint, and he wanted it.
‘Roll on now,’ Whip told them. ‘Or grief.’
One of them arced up, a wirey little bruiser with a mouth to her. Skeg women were a hard kind, nothing feminine left to them after they swapped their feet for wheels. She launched into a string of foul language, and so it was grief that they chose.
The mobs circled each other, testing and baiting and waiting for one to make the first move. The street cleared of walkin-folk in seconds. This new mob had strength in numbers, but some of them looked new to their rigs, and Whip reckoned on them not being worth squat in a rumble.
They did for them, but not before their mouthpiece pulled some ballerina move, clocking Rabbit in the head with one of her wheels. Such flexibility he might have appreciated under different circumstances, but the skinny kid was left shaking the pain out of his brain-pan as the other mob rolled on.
‘Can’t even see straight,’ Rabbit said shakily when he stood, and Whip swore. He was the quickest skeg rolling under his gangdanna, and knew the metro better than any of them. They would have to work double hard to make up for his thumped noggin.
Then the first jobs came in over the tellingphone, and Jona Smif was out on the stoop, handing out chits and haggling over the fetch-fee.
‘This one’s right urgent,’ he said, ‘Plans or summat, got to be before the suits within the hour.’
Grimacing, Whip knelt down and took the chit out of Smif’s hand. He was the only one who could do the fetch, but he didn’t know the area as well as Rabbit, who seemingly had all the shortcuts carved onto the insides of his eyeballs.
He poured on the speed as he rolled to the pick-up, a munici depot. To Whip’s eternal shame, he got the address wrong. He rolled around, thumbing through his old road-book and cursing, finally hitting the right depot.
‘Quick now,’ some daft desk-jockey told him as he stuffed the rolled sheaf of paper into his pack. ‘You’re right late.’
There’d be hell to pay if he muffed this, and Jona Smif might not pony up with the fetch-fee. Always a first time for everything, but Whip didn’t have to like it.
Not paying attention as he read his grid-guide, he moved through the horses, steam-carts and bicycles by instinct but didn’t see some poor lady making to cross the street. He knocked her onto her broad backside, sent her groceries flying.
He might have hung around and helped her pick up if he’d the time. As it was, the minutes were falling by and he was right late. A wave of apology was the best he could give as he kept rolling, but this was seen by a polizei, who turned the klaxon on his coughing steam-bike and gave chase.
‘Stop, skeg!’ the chubby law-lark yelled through a loudhailer. Whip spared them a glance, and saw the pol in the side-car cranking on a wireless tellingphone.
‘Never stop rolling,’ he said to himself.
Head bent he laid the power on, sweeping his legs and working through the gears until the motivators screamed and whined like they would fall apart.
He pulled away from the pol, and took a cunning left through a cramped street-fair. He flipped the bird and laughed at the pair, who turned their great sputtering machine around and took off with an angry roar.
‘Left you damn fools in my spin,’ he laughed.
But it was far from good. The law was probably staking the main roads, and he’d have to sneak through the curly little alleys and lanes to get to the drop-off.
‘Never muffed a fetch, not gonna start to,’ he panted, rolling on. It was the best time he’d ever made, scraping his arms on brick when he took those tight turns too fast, knocking over bins and such, and he rolled into his drop-off, right on the knocker.
He was panting like a racehorse, covered in scratches and sweat, knowing that the pol would be watching for him all day. He stepped into that office, locking his wheels and clumping awkwardly across the carpet floor, jerking the plans out of his pack. Tossed them onto the counter and made as to leave.
The young lass behind the desk cleared her throat. Whip thought she might be about to tell him off for leaving wheel marks on the carpet, or to accuse him of being late with the drop.
‘Come here, skeg,’ she ordered him, a sneaky little smile on her dial. He was a handsome lad and got his fair share of attention, figured her as another fool girl love-mad for skegs. She was Vietnamese, a pretty girl dressed plain, with a laddish bob-cut and wary eyes.
‘You’re a fair lass,’ Whip said, leaning on her counter and giving her the once-over. ‘But you’ve no wheels, and I’ll only break your heart.’
‘You forgot your docket,’ she said, stamping it ‘DELIVERED’ and sliding it across the counter. ‘Well, don’t let me keep you.’
* * *
Early next morning, Whip left his mob, went off on his own business. He went to the munici offices, lurked around by the fruit sellers and water-haulers, waiting for the morning rush. The horse-trolleys and bicycles began to arrive from the burba, spilling walkin-folk into the metro for another day of coin chasing.
He saw her, the girl from yesterday. She stepped from the back of a horse-lugged bus, looking a little bit lost in all the chaos. She couldn’t spot a street-sweep and made to cross the street anyway, pulling up the hem of her dress, eyeing the growing sea of horse dung with disgust.
Whip saw his chance, and in a flash he cut across the traffic, sweeping the lass into his arms and depositing her safely on the far side of the street. It was all over in a moment and she barely had time to blink.
‘Get lost, skeg,’ she growled, glaring up at him from somewhere near his navel. He stood there on the sidewalk, motivators quietly humming as he watched her walk into the building.
He was out the front of her office the next morning, and swept a path across the street for her, him who’d never lifted a broom in his life. He fixed to deliver all the fetch to that building, and would only do those runs, smiling at her as she drove her ‘DELIVERED’ stamp into the dockets with great force.
Day after day he bothered that poor girl, and weathered her scorn, noting that she still did not send for the pol. He learnt that her name was Anh. One day, she gave him the dried leftovers of her bánh mì and a hello. Some weeks later they were standing at her front doorstep and she still hadn’t told him to nick off.
‘Well, goodnight I guess,’ Anh said with some surprise, and shut the door in his face. But she didn’t slam it, and Whip counted this as progress.
‘Will you bring me a sandwich tomorrow?’ he shouted through the keyhole.
‘Maybe,’ came her muffled reply.
* * *
They began a deliciously slow courtship, and it was the same old story, told with different parts. Once it was skin or religion, but the modern scandal was a modified daring to step out with a ‘classic’ human. The mixed couple of the day, greeted with finger-waggling and disgusted whispers in the salons.
He brought Anh to meet his mob, the most important thing in his life meeting the previous most important thing. Some of the lads were a little bit sore, and while no-one gave her grief, you could see their disgust. The great Whip, brought low by some piece of walkin-folk fluff.
‘This is ridiculous,’ Rabbit whispered to Whip. They were rolling slow through a quiet part of the burba, letting Anh keep up with them. She was in one of those feet-strapping rigs, legs all awobble and many a time upended on her arse. The skeg only laughed the once, until Whip unpacked his fists and got a beating out.
Some folks take to wheels, some never get the knack, but Whip knew she’d never fall in love with her wheels. She’d never get the chop, not even for him.
* * *
They were meandering, following the canals. It was a Sunday, and with the barge-masters in church and the usual tangle of horses a-stabled he could get a good run along the banksides, the slow rhythm of the metro streets stilled during God’s hour. Anh didn’t care much for church and skeg never went, nor were expected to.
Anh clutched to Whip’s back as they drifted down the street, her legs wrapped around his waist. She’d given up the feet-rig as a bruise-maker and a bad idea.
‘I love you Anh,’ he blurted out, fooled by the romance of the setting. He couldn’t see her face, but felt her arms tighten around him. He instantly regretted saying it, but went on. ‘I can’t hold it in any longer, I love you and I want to be with you.’
‘Whip,’ she said. ‘Whip, you’re a good boy. But it won’t work. We should end this.’
He slowed, let the wheels spin, the gears work down, and then finally he rolled to a stop. He felt her arms relax, and she slid off his back.
‘So that’s it then,’ he said, not asking. ‘We’re different, so you just give up. I’m not a thug on wheels, you know that.’
‘No, Whip. It’s not about that.’ But her voice gave, and they both heard the lie.
‘It is. I don’t care that you’re walkin-folk, that the lads give me a ribbing over you. I don’t see feet, I only see you.’
‘I won’t go through with it,’ Anh said suddenly. ‘I won’t—my feet—’
‘I don’t want you to get a rig,’ Whip said. ‘You don’t belong in that world.’
‘But that’s it!’ she said. ‘You don’t belong in mine! Do you think I want to show my skeg boyfriend to my neighbours, people from work? I’ll probably get fired.’
‘For seeing a skeg?’ he snorted. ‘Right.’
‘It happens. They sacked some girl in accounts, she wore his gangdanna as if it didn’t matter. She had her hand in the till, supporting his mob.’
‘Who cares what people think? We can make it work.’
‘We can’t! You—you’re not normal,’ Anh cried.
She ran, and he let her go. He’d run out of words anyway. Whip rolled alone for a long while, just looking at the filthy muck floating along the canal.
He rolled here and there, gave his rig an absolute flogging. It began to sink in that this was a goodbye of sorts. He’d never move this fast again.
Whip was going to need a lot of money.
* * *
Next day Whip pulled Rabbit aside, asked if he would go as his second. Death-run, high stakes.
‘No Whip, oh no,’ he said. ‘Whatever trouble you’re in, it can’t be that bad. Let your mob help you out, we’re your brothers. Don’t do this.’
‘I want you as my second. I’ll go alone if I have to.’
Loyalty was its own currency in skeg circles, and so they rolled. This death-run was being held in a warehouse, spotters on the roof to watch for polizei. Whip’s mob didn’t usually hold much truck with this, figuring it was a sport for washed-up skegs in need of fast cash.
All for the rich folk in need of excitement, those willing to pay skegs to strap on blades and have at one another. An underclass of an underclass, these warrior skeg were often seen on the roll, all hacked up with scars and that mad gleam in their eyes.
‘She’s not worth it,’ Rabbit said. They were sized up for blades, great sharp cutters strapped to their forearms. They had a handle in the middle, like the hated baton of the pol. Whip and Rabbit were to race around the pallets and barrels and other junk they’d arranged into an obstacle course. Another pair of skeg would come for them, legs pumping and sharp blades swinging.
‘We should roll on,’ Rabbit said. ‘Who cares what these mongrels think?’
‘Well, we’re here now,’ Whip said.
‘I’m so scared I’m about to piss my cullottes.’
Whip ran his blades against each other, the sharp edges going snikt! ‘Look at yonder skegs. We can take them.’
They’d been matched up against a pair of menacing shapes, just beyond the circle of flickering torches. The odds slated onto the bookies’ chalkboards put them at very long odds to even come out alive. Their opponents were sparring against each other, blades flashing and clanging.
‘Please Whip,’ Rabbit begged. ‘We don’t need to do this. They’re gonna kill us.’
‘I need the money!’ Whip snarled.
‘Why? You don’t need lodgings, and your rig looks fine to me. All you need is food and go-powder, and we can spot you if you’re short.’
‘I need an operation,’ Whip said, and would say no more.
Someone blew a whistle, and they were herded into the makeshift arena, prepped for the death-run. The crowd were right up to the torch-line, howling and waving their betting slips in the air.
‘Money’s no good if you’re dead,’ Rabbit said.
‘Go then, you pink puss. I’ll do this without you.’ Not unknown for a seconder to pass on a death-run, but solo fights were fine. He’d go toe-to-toe with their chief cutter for half the purse.
‘She’s not worth dying for,’ Rabbit said, and threw his blades down against the cement floor. The mob booed and laughed and threw their empties at the lone skeg.
‘I need you now Whip, brother’s got to watch a brother’s back,’ Rabbit yelled, a half-empty bottle nearly hitting him in the head.
After a moment of indecision, Whip closed his eyes with a grimace, pulling off his blades. The pair traded punches and abuse with the crowd the whole way to the door, and barely made it out of that place. A trio of skegs tried to jump them in a back-street over their voided wager, but Whip took a beating to them with a fury Rabbit had never seen.
The next day, Whip vanished.
* * *
Rabbit had been as far as Anh’s front door once, and knew the way. She answered the door when he knocked, had it sitting on its chain.
‘Oh. What do you want?’ she asked. Her face was lined with worry, eyes reddened from crying.
‘I’m worried about Whip. Have you seen my brother?’ A moment’s pause, a heavy sigh. She unchained the door.
‘Come in,’ she said. He locked his wheels, moving clumsily over her wooden floorboards, trying not to knock the knick-knacks and ornaments over.
‘Through here,’ she said, ushering him into her living room. He could see Whip sitting down in an arm-chair, facing the window. The curtains were parted and he must have been looking out at the stars or the moon or something. A kerosene lamp flickered on the sideboard, giving a weak light to the room.
Rabbit clambered awkwardly across the tatty old rug, and when he saw Whip he gasped. His rig was gone. Completely gone. They’d pulled the boxes and gadgets and gears out of him, separated the steel struts from his shin-bones. Where his legs had ended in stumps were a pair of feet, pale and held on with thick black stitches. His new feet were marble white, except for the ends of his toes, which were a worrisome dark colour.
‘The doctors grew these in a tube, took a bit of my hip bone. First time it’s ever been done,’ Whip said, looking at Rabbit from the chair where he rested. Anh fetched him a thin blanket, which she put across his lap to hold off the winter chill. He looked weak, worn out. Rabbit stood there, towering over him in his rig, and Whip seemed less than a man, something broken and wasted.
‘Why did you do it?’ Rabbit whispered.
‘We disgust them,’ Whip said. ‘We fetch and scurry for those walkin-folk, and they admire us but there’s envy too. How a skeg can roll so very quick, while they must toddle down the road on their feet.’
He waggled the pale flesh, as if making some sort of point. The lamp ticked and hissed, and Whip was quiet, contemplating the lumps of meat tacked onto his legs.
‘Did it work? Can you wriggle your toes?’ Rabbit asked, and Whip bit his lip. Finally he shook his head no.
‘Spend all of my coin on the feet, but didn’t have enough to pay the bills. The doc did a rush job. Reckons they’re gangrenous now.’ He sounded calm but something in his face spoke of panic and worry.
Rabbit offered to pony up enough coin to get him back into a rig, knowing that he’d decline the offer. He wasn’t skeg now, could not accept charity from those he’d cut out of his life.
‘Well, goodbye then,’ Rabbit said, and the last he saw of Whip was a broken figure hunched in a chair, keeping a silent vigil as his feet slowly killed him.
* * *
Some years later, Rabbit caught a bus, quietly nodding off, lulled by the hum of the hydrogen engine warbling underneath him. It still took some time to traverse the old metro, but it was market day, the streets choked with nags hauling ancient carts. Mostly a show for the tourists nowadays.
A courier sped past on a sleek little scooter, its exhaust puffing water vapour, and climbed up onto the footpath when the horses proved too slow.
He did not see any skeg rolling today.
‘Nostalgia is a thing of the past,’ he told the nun seated opposite, who did not even look up from her romance novel. Snorting, he waved his hand above, fumbling for the stop-cord, and reaching for his cane he stood.
Rabbit left the lonely bus-stop and walked into the cemetery, limping and leaning heavily on the stick, but walking. The stone he was looking for was modest, with a tiny plaque. With some difficulty he knelt before Whip’s resting place, his new feet throbbing.
‘Roll on, my brother,’ he said, and finally laid his gangdanna down.