Though I was hesitant to let a surface-dweller anywhere near my injuries, let alone with sharp and pointed objects, I had no other options. My jacket hung on a clothesline hung across the middle of the room, the bloodstain more or less washed out of it. The girl had cut away the left sleeve of my shirt to get to the cut, as removing the shirt would have required movement in directions that I wasn’t sure I could manage.
She sat me in a chair next to a small table and gave me a small piece of wood. “Put this between your teeth.”
I look at her, raising one eyebrow. “Why would I-” She poured a small amount of liquid from a bottle over the wound, and I crammed the scrap of wood in my mouth and clamped down on it, shaking lightly. Whatever primitive disinfectant she used burned worse than the lasersword had, trickling past the burns, which probably didn’t need it, to the bottom of the wound where my fall had broken open the skin, which probably did.
As soon as I stopped shaking, she dabbed at it with a piece of linen, cleaning and drying it, before preparing a needle and thread. I kept biting down on the piece of wood, watching her closely. I’d seen surgical stitches before, and I wasn’t going to let her mess up my arm.
Much to my surprise, her touch was light and swift, her fingers moving the needle smoothly back and forth, closing the wound with as much dexterity and grace as any noble doctor. After she finished the stitches, she opened a small jar, using two fingers to scoop out a small dollop of salve. She spread it evenly along the wound, then gently rubbed it in, her fingers stronger than her slight build would suggest. She stepped back, wiping her hands on the rag tucked into her belt. “How does that feel?”
I slowly moved my shoulder, flexing it lightly, testing the range of motion. “Surprisingly good.” I used it to push up from the chair; I could feel that it was weaker than it should have been, but the salve reduced the pain to a dull ache and the stitches kept me from making it worse, so long as I didn’t push it. “It’s not my dominant hand, so it shouldn’t impair my fighting much.”
She stood still, watching me test her handiwork. When I held out my hand for my lasersword, she scowled lightly, perhaps realizing that this was the moment of truth. Once I had my lasersword, the balance of power shifted to me. Slowly, she pulled it from her pouch and laid it in my hand.
With an inward sigh of relief, I slipped it into its holster, feeling whole again. “There’s no time to waste.” I plucked my jacket off the clothesline, pulling it on despite the slight dampness. “You know where the nearest shuttle tower is, yes?” At her nod, I went to the door and pushed it open. “Let’s go, then.”
We walked to the end of the alley in silence, and down the next half-dozen streets. Eventually we stepped onto a wider, main street. I could see, directly ahead in the distance, the shuttle tower, rising above the faint shimmer of the suppression field. I took a step forward, ready to be out of the dingy, stinking place, but the girl gripped my arm with those deceptively delicate hands, holding me back.
“Look,” she said, pointing ahead. I lowered my gaze from the tower to the street, and saw a crowd gathering. Many carried crude signs or clubs.
“Is that a riot?” I frowned. I hadn’t heard of a riot on the surface in years.
“In a sense. More like a picket line. There are many down here who resent those who go to serve the nobles. There must be a recruitment shuttle coming in today.” She shook her head. “We can’t go that way. That crowd will tear you apart. You stand out.”
I looked down at her, thinking. With a shrug, I slipped my jacket off, bundling it up and tossing it into an already-overflowing rubbish bin. I crouched, ran my hand through the dirt, and rubbed my hands together, smearing the dirt up my arms, running my hands over my face to complete the look. I turned back to the girl.
She rolled her eyes lightly. “It’ll do. Come on. We still need to take back streets.”
We left the main road again, and she led me through a labyrinth of dirt and stone. I had known that the people on the surface lived poorly, but not how poorly. Far from the simple life I had envisioned, each family in a small apartment, with enough simple, nutritious foods to keep them well-fed, the living standards I saw could hardly be called ‘living’ at all. The girl glanced over her shoulder at me, a sad smile touching her lips as she saw the shock that must have been evident on my face. “Do you see now, Alphonse? We’re not just poor. The system kills families by starvation and exposure every day. It has to be changed.”
I shrugged uneasily. The system had run smoothly for many years. Surely, there were less drastic measure by which to change it.
Before I could suggest anything of such a nature to the girl, we turned onto a more isolated alley. The girl grew tense, pausing halfway down the alley. “We should go back. This is-”
“An ambush?” A big, burly man stepped out from one of the doorways, chuckling darkly, as a second man, wielding a wooden board with several nails driven through it, dropped down from the low rooftop. Behind us, two more thugs appeared, holding lengths of lead pipe. “You bet it is.” He grinned, eyeing the girl beside me. “And today’s your lucky day, fella. Just give us the girl, and you can walk.”
Her eyes went wide and fixed on me. The blood drained from her face, as, for the first time, she was afraid. I glanced down the alley, and realized I could just see the shuttle tower from here. I didn’t need her any longer.
“That’s a very generous offer,” I said to the burly leader. “But here’s my counter.” I pulled the lasersword from my belt. “Let us both pass, and I don’t kill the four of you.”
His men looked uneasy, but he laughed, flicking his wrist to extend a hidden blade, which he gripped, ready for combat. “Take your best shot, pretty-boy.”
I smirked, bringing the sword up into a combat stance. I pressed the central button to deploy it.
It fizzled briefly, then went dead. My heart dropped into my stomach as I realized it had been damaged when I fell.
The brutish leader laughed, a dark, menacing sound. “Get ‘em.”