She was wrong. She said my head was full of rocks. It isn’t. I know because there’s blood on my fingers. My head throbs, beats, aches. It burns. My hand is wedged beneath something, but my fingers can touch my scalp. Blood.
I can’t help but think of her. Where is she? Does she bleed? I want to believe she is safe, but something’s happened, an explosion, an earthquake. I don’t know. I was asleep when…din, motion, pain. I am on my bed. My bed is beneath the roof. The roof has collapsed.
She said I was too intense, that I would miss the end of the world if it happened when I was focused on something else. Wrong again. She won’t be pleased to hear she’s wrong. Twice wrong.
I think I lose consciousness for a time. Maybe I don’t. I can move my other arm, my left arm. My legs push off some of the weight pressing down on me. I shift. Bruises, cuts. They don’t matter. The fog in my brain is clearing. I realize I am on the floor, not on the bed as I thought. The bed is on top of me. I don’t know how. And on top of that is not the roof, but the brick wall, collapsed. There is light from somewhere. Yes, the roof is gone. It’s morning, almost, somewhere above me. If I listen, I can hear an indistinct roar.
It doesn’t matter. Something’s happened. Something massive. I need to know she’s safe. She’ll be in the Wheel, in her Tower, in her room. Safe. I’ll make certain she’s safe. That’s what I do.
Bit by bit I burrow my way out. The walls of my apartment are broken, jagged edges like shards of glass in a broken-out window. I can see across the street. The building there is disfigured, a face beaten bloody. Smoke, fire, more sensed than seen. The roar is clearer now–screaming, crying, shouting.
I can’t see the Wheel from my apartment. I am on the outer edge of the city, in a room chosen for me by the authorities of Section Three. The current experiment does not go well for those of us on the ground. The wreckage of my room is hardly a loss.
Screaming, crying, shouting….
It doesn’t matter. I can’t save them all. They have each other. They don’t need me. But she does.
My legs threaten to buckle as I stand. I force them ramrod straight. I wipe the blood out of my eyes. I’m not bleeding badly. It has nearly stopped on its own.
In the corner, my chest of drawers still stands, somehow, like a good soldier. Climbing over the tiles of what was once my roof, I find my legs. I force my knees to hold. They hold. The body will obey. It will obey. I wrench open the top drawer. It always sticks. I pull out my pistol, a rarity for a non-Select, and strap three knives to my belt. Panicked people do stupid things. If it’s an attack, the weapons might not be enough. It doesn’t matter. I’m good with the knives, and a few well-placed blasts at the right moment go a long way.
My shoes are somewhere in the rubble. I keep them under my bed. I don’t have time to scrounge for them. It’s quicker to wrap my feet. The arm of my leather jacket is visible beneath the fallen bricks of the chimney. I dig it out, cut it up. I tie the makeshift shoes on with belts. It’ll work for now.
I scramble over the mound of brick and tile, managing the terrain with increasing agility. A creak shivers down the building. I don’t stop to wonder. Hesitation is a sure way to die.
The stairs are out, or enough to make it difficult. The drop is ten feet. I take it, twist my ankle. Ankles heal. I have learned to let pain skulk in a corner of my consciousness, unnoticed. I have a mission; pain is a distraction. When one is truly immersed in the goal, hunger doesn’t matter, fatigue doesn’t matter, pain doesn’t matter. Focus, mission, her.
The next staircase is intact. Tenants call me for help. Someone’s stuck beneath the rubble. I’m already past when the words register. A rough hand grabs my shoulder. “I can’t,” I say. “I have to go. She needs me.” He’s yelling at me now, tugging my arm. I swat him away. He grabs again. I push him down, two-handed hard, and move on. I should have socked him, but he was desperate, panicked. I have the one I need to help; he has his.
She might be in her suite, covered in glass and iron and blood. Dead, maybe. Then I will bury her. If she lives, I will keep her alive. Others want her dead. She laughs at them. I don’t. Sometimes the world shudders. Buildings collapse. She can’t protect herself from everything.
On the ground floor, I stop. I hesitate. The man above needed my help. Desperately. Who had he said was trapped? His wife?
In the street, I can taste smoke, fire, death. Above, it was panorama. Here, it’s a punch in the face. And another smell–ionized air. It’s been three years, at least. I was with her when she surveyed the wreckage after the first third-gen battery exploded. Gruesome. The air still sizzled with the acrid tang of spent magic. It sizzles now, so thick it makes my skin itch.
It’s strangely still. Not quiet, but all the usual sounds are gone, the roar and bustle and rough-housing of the Grunt transformed. Instead, shouts, calls for help, breaking glass, screams of barbarism taking hold, but I can’t see anyone moving or I only see bits and pieces, as if in a series of photos that has been stitched together. One of the trams hunkers against the street, the body twisted into refuse, the wires that feed it power snapped, limp, like arms with broken bones.
I break into a run toward the Well and the Wheel, the source of power and the siphon. The grocer next door is overrun. Men flee with arms full of food. Already looting, and the city is still shaking off the shock like a man shaking off a deep slumber. I know in my bones it is the city burning, not just the Grunt, not just Section Three. When the shock is past, then what? Men fend for themselves. It’s animal instinct. How do you fight that?
You beat it down.
She has decided she no longer needs me, that she can fend for herself. She’s wrong.