Muscle Memory


Nihlus turned on the cold water as far as the tap could go. After a few minutes of this, after he began to shiver, he cranked up the hot water instead.

The air was heavy with steam—he hadn’t turned the extra cycler on—but that was just fine with him. His face had been contorted with pain in the beginning. The expression had gradually relaxed, turning into a sort of simultaneous grimace and frown. The water running between the crevices of his back plates was scalding. He let it burn its course.

Love. How he hated that word. He pressed a clenched fist to the glass panel. Burn it. Burn it all.

The soap was not in an automatic dispenser. It was not even liquid; it was in the form of a highly caustic amber bar. He grabbed the bulk of the thing rather than the slices laid out neatly for him, and began to wash. One hand still braced against the glass.

He hated how close it lied to pain and shame and anger. Not a coin. A four-sided die. Damn chance and dice and how things never turn out his way.

His fingers shook, causing him to drop the bar. He did not pick it up, instead giving it a good kick. It ricocheted off of the wall, around the glass panel, and went spinning out of sight over the bathroom tiles. Angrily, he snatched one of the slices off the shelf and continued to scrub his hide raw. Who still used solid soap these days? The things belonged halfway across the galactic arm on backwater colonies with drying funding and wooden shacks and vermin scrabbling on the insides of intake pipes. His skin began to protest. He ignored it.

That was the problem, wasn’t it? The die wasn’t fair. Especially not for upstarts from said backwater planets with accents and just enough creds to buy a slab of meat from an uppity place as sustenance for the rest of their lives. And who actually knew what dice were, having once whittled them out of chunks of aluminium.

The slice of soap was gone, and he had only washed his lower half. He speared another with a talon and resumed his furious scrubbing. It had to be gone.

And also, for problem cases in the Hierarchy, for the boys and girls who were beaten and spit on in the recesses of the claustrophobic changing rooms, for all those who had rebelled and torn their would-be assaulters new ones and been assigned to toilet duty in punishment. For those who found out early on that the real world didn’t work that way.

Nihlus managed to stretch the second slice till the end; he had a sliver left by the time he was done with the tip of his fringe. He examined the now-yellow piece in his palm, and then crushed it. The surprisingly sharp edges bit into his palm.

All of a sudden, he noticed the burning. If not for the moisture, he could have sworn he was able to smell the metallic tang of scorched ferrokeratin. But maybe it was just the pain and his overclocked nerves.

The bathroom door slid open to reveal a dimly lit room and a towel, folded neatly at his feet. He picked it up. It was of a good fabric, but threadbare. His.

He never folded his towels.

“Saren,” he voiced as he dried himself off, “it remembers. It’s just not listening to what I’m telling it—“

“Then let it remember.”

Nihlus stood, silent and naked, in the middle of the room.

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