by Siri Paulson
Astrolabe started out of a nightmare, his face wet with tears. Toric had been calling for him, his brother’s voice getting farther and farther away as the monster carried him off. It was a Type III monster, the ones with the legs that stayed long and powerful no matter how their bodies shifted. He had known it was pointless to chase the thing, but he’d been trying anyway, in his sleep.
His sheets were twisted and soaked with sweat, and the stump of his right arm ached horribly. It wouldn’t ease up until the doctor’s assistant came to change the dressing and administer his next dose of goatweed. No point trying to sleep again now.
He got out of bed and checked for daylight in the crack between the heavy shutters of the room where he was staying in the Medical wing. Satisfied, he unbolted them one-handed and pushed them open. The night chill was already fading, early morning was seeping across the sky, and he could see the fighter trios trickling back across the rooftops and the street in front of HQ. Some were limping or leaning on each other. Was Theo among them? He didn’t even know whether she was already back on patrol with her new trio, the two young fighters who had replaced him and Toric.
The fighters were only three stories down, but as Astrolabe leaned his head on the window frame to watch, they felt as distant, as unreachable, as Toric. Or was it Astrolabe who had traveled the distance? Everything familiar felt strange now, the routines of HQ continuing unchanged without him. The world felt cold and grey, and he felt very tired.
A knock came at the door. He ignored it. The knock came again, louder, and he thought suddenly of the room next to his, where two fighters lay in quarantine. They needed rest to beat the sickness, and it wasn’t right for him to let them be awakened just because he didn’t want to answer the door.
He opened it and immediately regretted it. Dean Prosody strode in briskly.
Astrolabe turned away, fiddling with the blanket on his cot.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“About the same, sir. The doctor said it would take weeks to heal.”
“I know. I’ve spoken to her. Your arm wasn’t what I was asking about.”
He turned reluctantly. Her blue eyes caught his in their sharp gaze. He couldn’t hold it, and glanced down.
“I’m fine, sir.”
There was a silence. He knew the dean was waiting for him to speak. But his words piled up behind his lips and would not come out.
“If you’re fine, then the doctor could do with this room back. Have you thought about where you’re going? Or did you want to stay on, like Solvent?”
Astrolabe shut his eyes. His old room was full of Toric; he knew that without even visiting it. So was the whole blasted building—that or the people he used to fight with, defending the City from the nightly influx of monsters. Solvent had faced the same thing and managed to get over that somehow. Impossible. He had to leave HQ…but when he tried to imagine it, never mind thinking of what he might do when he left, his whole mind went blank.
There was a shifting sound, and the weight of Dean Prosody’s hand on his shoulder. “I won’t kick you out, Astrolabe. But you can’t hide in here forever.”
“I can for as long as you’ll let me. Sir.”
She sighed. “Have you talked to anyone?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to see anyone.” That wasn’t entirely true—he longed for company sometimes—but he didn’t want to find out how they would look at him, didn’t want to limp through a conversation, didn’t know if he could even hold a coherent conversation. And all of that was too complicated to explain, especially to his superior.
“Have you considered that they might want to see you?” Dean Prosody asked.
He couldn’t stop his eyes from opening, flicking up to meet hers. “Do they?”
Uncharacteristically, she hesitated. “Theosophy can’t handle it right now, but Solvent has been asking…”
A part of him wanted Solvent, wanted to cling to her and bury his face in her neck and never let go. The desire shook him. “No.”
Dean Prosody stood. “Very well. You’re on garden duty the day after tomorrow.”
He stared at her, feeling a rush of cold through his body. “Sir? I can’t—”
“The last injured fighter who was taking care of it is back on active duty, and someone needs to tend the plants or we don’t eat.”
Her eyes were like stone. “You’re a smart kid, Astrolabe. You’ll figure something out.”
“Yes sir,” he said automatically.
She went to the door and then paused, her gaze lingering on his face. He steadfastly stared across the room at nothing. Finally she left. The door closing was pain and relief all at once.
Time passed without his noting it. The doctor’s assistant came and went and came and went. Astrolabe was lying on his cot, staring at the ceiling in near-darkness, when he heard the door ease open.
“Who said you could come in without knocking?” he demanded. He went to prop himself up on his elbows, remembered, and shifted awkwardly to sit up.
Whoever was at the door still hadn’t come in. He could see only a shape in the hallway. “Who’s there?”
The shape stepped forward. He still couldn’t see a face, but he knew the body, the way it moved. “Solvent?”
“Yeah.” She stopped just inside the room. “I thought maybe this would go better in darkness. That way I can’t see your…your face, and you can’t see mine.”
It was, he realized, exactly what he’d needed. “Thanks. How did you know?”
“I’ve been where you are. Remember?”
She’d left the Militia years ago, after the failed expedition into the University ruins. It had nearly broken her. But she hadn’t lost a sibling, or a limb. “It’s not the same at all.”
“No?” She crossed the room to sit on the end of his cot, though he hadn’t invited her in. “What’s it like, then?”
He laughed, a bitter sound. “The dean been after you to get me talking?”
“She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Solvent was quiet for a moment. “When I left, I felt completely useless and alone. My partners were dead, most of the people I’d trained with were dead. I wasn’t exactly functional; I had to quit or I’d be a danger to my new trio. But I had no idea what to do besides fighting, where to find meaning. It took a while, but I did find it eventually.”
“You didn’t lose your fucking brother.”
She shifted on the cot, gripping his leg. “Didn’t I ever tell you why I joined the Militia?”
He remembered, then, and wished he could take back his words. But she pressed on.
“I saw my whole family killed in one night. I survived because I was small enough to hide in the ceiling, and big enough to climb the shelves to get there. My big sister, my brother, my little sister, and my papa and mama…” She stopped and swallowed. “The monsters didn’t drag me down and eat me, even though they could probably smell me. It took me years to figure out why. You know why they didn’t? Because they had already fucking had their meal.” She leaned forward. “I lived through that. So can you.”
Astrolabe was quiet for a while before he realized he was clenching his fist. “I found him, you know. Rhetoric. They’d just left him there in the ruins, for later, I guess. At first I thought he might still be alive, but”—flash of rolling him over, seeing the blood everywhere, getting it on both hands—”he wasn’t.” He went quiet again, groping for words, and finally whispered, “I never thought he’d be the one to go first. I never imagined being alone.”
“Astro, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. You’re not alone.” Solvent took a deep breath. “I’m making you an offer. Come join Hydroponics, like I did. You and I aren’t the only ex-fighters working there. ”
He didn’t answer. Memories of Toric flooded his mind. Playing Militia and chasing each other up and down the ladders and alleys outside the gated street where their house stood—Astrolabe’s legs were shorter, but he was quicker when they play-fought. Toric sneaking them both into their father’s study and teaching him to read so they could surprise their parents. Envying Toric his newfound height and muscles when Toric hit puberty first. Later, envying Toric’s flair for chatting up boys, even though Astrolabe himself leaned the other way. The two of them standing before their parents at sixteen and asking for permission to join the Militia, braving their father’s worry and their mother’s disappointment—she’d hoped that one of them would want to become Dean of Biology after their father. That had been four years ago, on the other side of a gap that yawned so wide it threatened to swallow him. He couldn’t remember anymore whose idea it had been to join up, but he had an awful feeling that it had been his.
He blinked and the darkened room came back, but Solvent was gone. Only a dent in the cot remained.
Two days later, he dragged himself up to the rooftop gardens.
Solvent went up there often, he knew, but she’d already left for her shift at Hydroponics, and Theo was sleeping. He’d timed it that way. The sun was hot on his neck as he bent over the vegetable beds, but nobody was around to watch while he fumbled at the plants and tried to pick the tomatoes one-handed. That went reasonably well, once he got the hang of it—the ripe ones just came right off. But his left hand was awkward with the knife when he tried to cut the peppers from their stalks, and cutting greens was hopeless.
“Toric, you blasted idiot,” he muttered. “Why did you have do this to me? We should have listened to Mother and Father. You’d be dean and set yourself up with a nice boy and adopt yourself an orphan, just like you always wanted. I’d be your secretary and tutor to your child, and we’d live next door to each other until we grew old. That’s what was supposed to happen. Not—not this.”
At some point he found himself angrily yanking out carrots, one after another.
He stopped, horrified—some of the carrots he’d pulled weren’t full-grown, and the small ones wouldn’t go nearly as far in a stew or soup. He’d wasted nutrients. This had to stop. At least if he took Solvent’s offer and joined Hydroponics, he’d be supervised until they were sure he could do the tasks on his own. Surely he couldn’t destroy anything that way. It didn’t matter what he wanted or didn’t want; at least he could busy himself, be useful to the City, and maybe get out of his own head for a little while.
He told Solvent and Dean Prosody the next day. She made him wait a few more days while she found him a set of ground-floor rooms. He got the all-clear from the doctor, after promising to come back every few days for a check-up. Theo came to see him in Medical, finally. It didn’t go well, but at least that was done with. He wanted to start at Hydroponics immediately, but the dean made him promise—since she could no longer give him orders—to wait a little after he moved out of HQ, to readjust to civilian life. Then it was done, and he left HQ for the last time.
Days later, Astrolabe left his new rooms for the first time. He’d spent days hiding behind those walls, but suddenly as dawn broke one morning he couldn’t stand to be in that building a moment longer. As soon as curfew ended, he was out the door.
At first he just walked, not paying attention to where he was going, wishing only to put distance between himself and his new building and all the whole people inside. Small clusters of people on the street parted for him, and he barely noticed. Their whispers, their deference, did not concern him.
He came back to himself some time later, standing on a street corner he knew well. He and Toric had spent the first sixteen years of their lives there. His parents’ house was down at the middle of the block, surrounded by other large houses. The whole street was fenced off with iron gates—built centuries ago, when iron was a slightly less precious commodity—and patrolled by the best trios. These people didn’t lose their lives to the monsters. Not unless they were stupid enough to join the militia with their stupid brothers.
Through the gate he spotted Paradigm, the chancellor’s son, striding down the street as if he owned it. Which he more or less did. They’d grown up not exactly friends, but moving in the same circles, the parties that went right until curfew, the same tailor re-cutting their suits to take the greatest advantage of the fabric as they grew… Astrolabe still wore that suit to dinner with his parents on his day off. Or had, until—
He turned abruptly and was off again, plunging into the nearest alley lest Paradigm see him when he reached the gate. His parents weren’t allowed into HQ. They’d been sending messages by courier, but they would have to wait until he wanted to see them. Which he didn’t. Not yet, maybe not ever.
Again he walked without consciously picking a direction, until he came back to himself in another alley far from home, well across the City in a poor area close to the ruins. This alley was tiny and dark, strewn across with detritus—a set of rooms destroyed and not yet picked over. Last night, must have been. He averted his eyes and focused on his feet, on not tripping; his balance wasn’t what it had been, between the missing arm and his days upon days out of action.
In the rubble, something made a sound.
Astrolabe spun, scanning for a rock or board he could use as a weapon, even as his intellect said it couldn’t be a monster. They couldn’t survive in this dimension during the day, except in the ruins, where the effects of the Rift offset the influence of the sun. But if not a monster, then…
He leaned over the pile of bricks and wood. “Hello?”
A small sob met his ears.
Then he was digging, one-handed, angling his torso awkwardly to lift, using his legs to brace, as he tore the rubble apart. At first he saw nothing but more rubble. Then a heavy beam from what must have been the ceiling. He shifted bricks from the side, more carefully. Beneath the beam, a small face appeared.
Astrolabe stared at it blankly. It stared back for a long moment, eyes wide. Then it said, “Hurts.”
For a moment he couldn’t find his voice to respond. Finally he got out, “Hang on. I’m coming back with help. Just hang on.”
He had to muster the neighbors to help; he didn’t dare move the beam one-handed and risk the whole thing shifting. After banging on a few doors, he understood why no-one had come sooner: the neighborhood was full of rock salt users and fatherless households scrabbling to get by. It took him longer than he’d hoped to find a few strong bodies sober enough to help.
Back at the rubble, he knelt, feeling useless, and stretched out his hand to the small face under the beam. A tiny, dusty hand appeared and clung to his. He stayed there while the other men moved around him and the child, careless of the way their limbs swung and their two hands worked together. He focused on the child instead.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said, feeling stupid. Of course it wasn’t all right, but what else could he say? “We’re going to get you out of here. You’ll be fine, you’ll see.” The child stared at him, barely blinking, but the tiny hand tightened on his. He kept talking, unsure if his stream of words was even helping. But it was the one thing he could do.
The men grunted together and lifted. The beam came up. Astrolabe leaned forward to lift the child out before he remembered he couldn’t. But the child—a boy, he saw now—was already moving, climbing out of a small nook below the beam. Small arms went around Astrolabe’s legs and clung.
He looked around. The men were already dispersing, casting sympathetic glances but showing no sign of doing anything more than that. “Does this one have any relatives living?” he called out. “Someone who could take care of him? Anyone?”
One of the men paused. “His mother…left. We heard it happen, last night.” Carried off by monsters, he meant. “She was alone in the City, far as I knows. Nobody here can feed another mouth. Shame, but there it is.” He rested a hand on the boy’s hair, stiff with brick dust and blood. “Sorry, kid.”
Then he shuffled off, leaving Astrolabe alone with the boy.
Astrolabe detached himself and looked down. The boy couldn’t have been more than six years old, badly bruised and scraped but apparently no worse. He looked up, wide-eyed. “Where’s my mama?” he said in a small voice.
Astrolabe swallowed. “Gone,” he managed. “But you’re all right now. I’ll—I’ll take care of you. My name’s Astrolabe, but you can call me Astro. What’s yours?”
“Cal. Have you ever had a big brother?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, you have one now. Is that all right with you?”
Cal considered him solemnly. “What happened to your arm?”
“The monsters got it,” Astrolabe said. “But they didn’t get me. I’m stronger than they are.”
Cal’s chin came up. “Me too.”
Astrolabe paused. “It’s all right to have big feelings, though. Being strong doesn’t mean you can’t cry when you need to. It just means…after that, you pick yourself up and keep going.”
A small nod.
“Come on. I need to make a new home, and so do you.”
“Together?” said the small voice.
Cal reached up and took his left hand. Astrolabe led him gently down the alley and out into the morning sun.
Want to read more about this world?
Buy City of Hope and Ruin by Kit Campbell and Siri Paulson
Read “A Constant Companion” (a Briony prequel short) by Kit Campbell