art by Erin Cardwell
many years ago
Perseus woke up screaming.
A nurse hurried into the room.
Perseus swung around and tried to stand, but the nurse forced him back down.
“You try to stand up and you’ll be falling right over.”
“I’m fine,” Perseus insisted.
“Like hell you are,” the nurse responded. “You’re missing a limb, sieve-brain!”
His stay in the hospital flooded back to him. He’d been caught up in the dream, walking down Scorpio Avenue.
Coming back to the present burned.
He allowed her to push him back down on the bed. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She stepped outside.
He leaned back, trying not to think about her.
His missing left foot throbbed. He doubled over and massaged the right one. After a minute he decided that wasn’t helping and worked his thumbs over the stump of shin instead. The newly printed skin was soft to the touch and hairless, with no noticeable scar.
He heard someone enter. He looked up, hopeful that it was one of his friends finally come to check in on him, but it was just the nurse again. She was carrying a shoe, and draped over her arm was an exoskin.
“Who’s that for?” he asked.
She threw her shoulders back, putting her free hand on her hip.
“Already?” He reached out, and she handed it to him. He inspected the seamless left leg of the suit.
“Are you going to put it on or just play with it?”
“Oh, I trust that it fits.”
“Of course it fits! You’re being discharged.”
Perseus opened his mouth, and then shut it again. “Where’s my leg?”
“You mean your artificial leg? I don’t think you’re getting one.”
She shrugged. “You have a job?”
She shrugged again. “I’d check with your boss.” She dropped the shoe on the floor next to the bed. “The records don’t show it.”
He pulled a tablet from a pocket on the side of the bed to speak to his pax. “PZ, let Mister Kern know I’m being discharged and ask him when I should come into work next.”
“I didn’t mean right now,” the nurse said. She gestured for him to put the suit on.
He scowled up at her. She was sturdily built. If it came to force, she could make him do it.
“Fine.” He shoved the tablet back in the pocket. He flipped the legs of the exoskin inside out. He glanced up at her as he shoved his right foot down into that side. He rolled it up his knee, then started the left leg as well. When he got it up his thighs, he was struggling to get it any further.
“You need some help?” the nurse offered.
She gave him a look.
“Yeah, yeah, ‘like hell I am.'” He motioned her over, and she helped him balance as he stood. As she held him up, he pulled the exoskin up above his waist under the hospital gown. She supported him while he sat back down.
“So, no job, no leg, huh?” he asked as he pulled the hospital gown off over his head. He inverted the arms of the exoskin, and slipped his hands in.
“More like ‘no job, no insurance, no advanced care.'”
He shrugged the shoulders on, and zipped it from hip to neck. “Well it’s a good thing I have a job then.”
She nodded, appearing unconvinced. “You got it from here?”
She stepped out.
He pulled the hood of the exoskin up over his head, and it cinched into place, from bottom to top. The comfortable pressure felt like home.
“I missed you,” he said.
“It’s not like you haven’t had access to me.” Even his PZ’s masculine voice sounded more familiar coming through his helmet.
“It’s not the same,” he said. He reached down and put on his one shoe.
“Message from Mr. Kern: You don’t work here anymore.”
“Excuse me?” Perseus shot back.
“I tried to tell you,” PZ said. “But you were ignoring everyone’s messages.”
“Who’s side are you on, anyway?”
“Yours. I’m your pax.”
Perseus rolled his eyes.
“Mr. Kern: You’re completely irresponsible. You missed every single one of your scheduled shifts. And you were completely radio dark when I tried to contact you about it.”
A stab of pain shot through his chest, and he fought to suppress the memories of her.
“My reason for not coming in to work was a one-time thing, and it’s over now. Please consider bringing me back onto the team.”
“Your position has been filled.”
“I didn’t come in to work because I got hit by a burning meteor!”
“So you’re the one from those news stories a few weeks back?”
“That was me.”
There was a pause. Perseus knew the pity card would get him his job back.
“That doesn’t explain your radio silence before the meteor incident.”
Perseus’ chest throbbed. “Call the nurse back in, PZ.”
As he waited for her to return, memories forced their way into his mind. Walking down Scorpio Avenue. The tortured look on her face. The nauseating whirl of stars and streetlights as he fell onto his back. Her hand slipping through his as she stepped out his door. The pressure of his exoskin forming a tourniquet just below his knee. And the pain. Waves upon waves of pain.
“You okay?” The nurse’s voice broke the trance.
He raised his head from between his knees and looked up at her.
“I guess I don’t have a job.”
She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Look, I won’t make you get outta here this minute, but I’d try to find something real soon if I was you.”
She stepped out again.
He tried to steady his breathing and his racing pulse. “Lora…” he started to dictate the message, but broke off as his voice shook. He picked up the tablet and typed it instead. “Lora broke up with me. I tried to talk myself into coming in to work, but the possibility of seeing her there was too much. I was depressed, I think. I wasn’t answering anyone’s messages, not just yours.” He couldn’t make himself proofread it before sending it off to Mr. Kern.
“You left the rest of the team in a tight spot,” Mr. Kern responded. “They had to cover all your shifts. They can’t trust you anymore, and neither can I.”
“Then I’ll start from the bottom again. Just please take me back on.”
He laid down and buried his face in the pillow. He didn’t look up when he heard the nurse come back in.
“You gotta go,” she said.
He let her haul him to his feet and shove a crutch under his left arm. He hobbled slowly out the door.
The walk home from the hospital was a fight. Like his shoe, the bottom of the crutch was an electromagnet. After a block, his left shoulder was exhausted from lifting it from the pavement. Soon, he felt his armpit chafing. By the time he got to his building, he was stopping several times a block to rest.
He leaned heavily against the wall, and touched the button to open the airlock.
He hit it again. Still nothing.
“Is it down?”
“Something else you missed,” PZ said. “You got evicted.”
“You couldn’t have told me earlier?”
“You didn’t tell me where you were going, and in the past you’ve thought it too ‘spooky’ when I take a guess.”
“Burn it!” He took the crutch from under his arm and leaned on the wall beside the airlock. “What about my stuff?”
He slumped down onto the steel pavement. He wanted to just curl up into a ball, but he kept himself sitting upright. “Ask Minter if I can stay at his place.”
“Minter: Hell no! After what you did to Lora?”
Perseus cursed again. Of course they would take her side. All of his friends had been her friends first.
The doors of the airlock slid open, and someone stepped out. He thought about hurrying to catch the door before it slid shut, but what would be the use? Once he was inside, the only thing he could access was the common john.
The john! He should have used the toilet before leaving the hospital.
He scrambled up, but the airlock doors slid shut before he could get inside.
“Can I help you?”
Perseus glanced over his shoulder at the stranger behind him.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, moving out of the way of the doors.
“You’re okay. This isn’t my building. You just look like you might need some help.”
“That’s an understatement,” Perseus mumbled.
Without a word, the stranger knelt and fiddled with the electronics near the bottom of the crutch. “Give that a shot,” he said, rising.
Perseus looked at him skeptically, but took a step — and nearly lost his balance as he jerked up far too hard on the crutch. Once he had his balance, he spun back to the stranger.
“Infinitely,” Perseus replied. “Thank you.”
The stranger made slight bow. “Tawm.”
“Perseus. Nice to meet you.”
“You were hurrying to get inside. What is it you need?”
He hesitated. “The toilet.”
Tawm nodded. “Follow me.”
Tawm led the way — slowly enough for Perseus to keep up easily — to an older section of the city, and up to a particularly battered-looking building. There were dents and scratches all over its surface. It looked very nearly as scarred as the moon itself. There was a metal plate bolted over where the airlock controls should be.
Tawm sent a message as they approached it. After a moment, the doors slid open. A woman came running up behind them. Tawm held the door for her to follow them in. He assumed that she was speaking to her pax because her mouth was moving, but even when the air pressure reached atmospheric, he couldn’t hear even a muffled voice.
Tawm slid the glass from his helmet back over his head. Perseus was about to follow suit, but he stopped as he noticed the haziness of the air.
The inside of the building also betrayed its age. First, the walls were an unbroken collage of graffiti. He glanced into one of the rooms, where plants were growing in a system built from a hodgepodge of outdated and modern tech. Fish gaped at him from yellow and violet tanks.
They passed people in the corridor. First, a skinner with eyes that were glassy and vacant. Nectar? Next, a group of stocky men and women brandishing a variety of weapons. Thugs.
Perseus started to lose his nerve.
“The toilet is right in here,” Tawm motioned.
Perseus glanced around anxiously. Another skinner passed them. Her eyes were clear and bright, she was smiling at something down the hall behind him. She raised her hand to wave. The sleeve on the other side hung limp, empty.
Perseus turned to watch her as she met a guy skinner down the hall who threw an arm around her shoulders. They turned a corner out of sight.
He relaxed a little and stepped into the toilet. Tawm was waiting for him when he came back out.
Perseus followed him to the end of the corridor into what appeared to be an office. When they entered, he saw it was much larger than he had anticipated, and was furnished more like a living room.
“Have a seat.”
Perseus sat, but Tawm paced.
A woman followed them into the room, carrying an oblong bundle. She walked over to him and knelt. She unwrapped the bundle, revealing an artificial leg. It was old — it looked like a spring instead of like an ankle and foot — and it was worn.
“I… what? Thank you.”
The woman made a sign to him.
“You’re welcome,” PZ interpreted.
He wanted to ask if she could talk, but stopped himself.
She began strapping the leg in place.
“Why are you helping me?” Perseus asked.
Tawm was standing in the doorway, looking down the length of the corridor. He spoke without turning around. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
He inhaled a deep breath.
“Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The woman signed again. “It’s ready.” Then she stood, hovering off to the side.
Tawm turned back to him.
Perseus stood up slowly. He took a step, holding the arm of the sofa.
“Bravo.” Tawm said. A group of thugs passed behind him in the hazy, graffitied corridor.
Perseus looked back down at his feet and took another step. Then he pushed the glass of his helmet up away from his face. He could get used to it.
Read the next chapter: Ruke