The first thug’s nailboard made an almost humorously gentle ‘swoosh’ sound as it passed over my head. I had already ducked and rolled forward, passing under his legs. At the perfect moment, I braced my hands on the rough ground and extended upward, like an inverted jack-in-the-box. My heavy boots collided with his groin, lifting him nearly a foot into the air and depositing him in an insentient heap.
I whirled, seeing the girl holding off the two thugs that had appeared behind us. The kitchen knife flashed in her hand as she waved it defensively. My attention was quickly taken, however, by the leader, who had picked up the fallen man’s nailboard in his off hand. He rushed me, stabbing high with his blade as he swept the board low. With no way to dodge and maintain my ground, I jumped back, finding myself already out of space in this narrow alley, my back quite literally up against the wall.
My opponent grinned and swung his nailboard again, aiming to bash my head between the spiked wood and the hard wall. I dropped into a crouch, then planted my hands against the ground, lifted my feet, and kicked out at his knees. A loud crack resounded in the narrow alley, and he cried out, dropping both the board and the blade as he fell backwards.
I pushed myself back to my feet, picking up his blade and sinking it into his chest in one smooth motion. As his movements ceased, I drew the blade out and looked back at the girl. She had slit the throat of one of the thugs, but as I watched, the second swung his pipe low, slamming into her lower leg from the side.
The thug left himself wide open as I raised the pipe for a finishing blow, and I sprang forward, running him through. His pipe clattered to the ground, released from nerveless fingers as his body slid off the blade. I wiped it on his body and stuck it into my belt, turning to the girl, who had dragged herself to a sitting position against one wall.
Her skin was pale, and she gnawed on her lip as she slowly touched her leg. It was clearly broken. I knelt beside her, and she looked up into my eyes. “Go on, then,” she hissed. “I can’t stop you.”
With a faint smile, I slipped one arm under her knees, careful of her broken leg, and the other arm around her torso, lifting her as I stood. She let out a squeak as the movement surprised her, then a hiss as her leg was jostled slightly. Her arm went around my neck, gripping me tightly. She looked up at me, those shining green eyes misty with pain and uncertainty.
“I can’t leave you just yet,” I murmured, carrying her down the alley. “You still have my ident card.”
She slowly relaxed, as much as she could, given the pain in her leg. Our new, slow pace and the delay of the fight caused us to arrive at the shuttle tower just in time to see the recruitment shuttle lift off, flying up towards the mansion. The absence of the shuttle, however, meant the picketers had dispersed, and no one challenged us as we approached the base of the tower.
The guard at the window gave us a bored look. “This isn’t a medical facility, and the recruitment shuttle left ten minutes ago.”
I looked down at the girl, and she fished my ident out of her blouse, pressing it flat against the window. I said, in the most noble voice that I could muster, “I am Alphonse Benedict Meridius the fourth, and I demand you open this tower and summon a shuttle to return me to my home.”
His eyes widened as he looked from the ident to me and back again, seeing past the dirt and grime to recognize me. “Master Meridius! Forgive me, I didn’t recognize you!” He pressed a button and the door slid open. I carried the girl through, listening to him chatter into a radio, calling for a shuttle. I ignored him and went directly to the elevator. The girl pushed the button to open it, and selected the launch pad as our destination once we were inside.
She looked up at me as the elevator ascended the tower. “You’re really taking me up.”
I chuckled softly and nodded. “I promised I would.”
“Mm.” She rested her head against my shoulder again, and we rode in silence to the launch pad. A small, powerful personal shuttle had already arrived, and the hatch opened as we approached. I stepped in and set her gently into one of the seats, sitting across from her. I did not address the pilot, and so he did not speak, despite the slew of questions I could read in his face. He simply did his duty. The shuttle door shut, and the engines flared. I was going home.
“She’s a surface-dweller!”
“She saved my life.”
For the first time in years, possibly the first time ever, I was having a conversation with my father.
He sat behind his desk, frail body quivering with rage, and I stood in front of him, still covered in the dirt of the surface and wearing my shirt with one sleeve. In contrast to my father’s fury, I stood calmly at attention, my hands clasped behind my back.
“I will not have a surface dweller sullying my family name!” he wheezed, pounding his fist on the desk.
“It’s my name as well, father. And it is my future. I am no longer a child, as you yourself said. I will lead this family when you are gone, and she will be part of it.”
He growled and ground his teeth, but could not seem to find a reply. Instead he angrily gestured for me to leave his office, which I did with pleasure. I returned to my quarters, tossing my worn and filthy clothes into the laundry chute, then stepped into the shower. The hot water rinsed away the grunge of the surface, and soothed the aches and scrapes I had acquired on the surface.
Though I kept it brief, by the time I finished my shower, the servants had already set out a clean set of clothes for me. I dressed, savoring the feel of the clean fabric against my skin. I headed out into the house, making my way to the balcony from which Edward had knocked me. To my surprise, it had been replaced by a large digital viewscreen, which showed the city below.
I turned to see one of my friends running towards me, grinning. I braced myself and received his vigorous embrace, laughing. “I wasn’t even gone for a full day.”
“Oh, but we thought you were dead!” He pulled back, grinning, gripping my arms. “But you’re not. You’re back!” His face lit up again. “Oh! This should be yours, now.”
He reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a lasersword controller. “It’s Edward’s. They charged him with attacking your sister and murdering you. I don’t think the fact that you’re alive will change anything.”
I grinned, taking it from him. It was the same model as mine, and had been wiped of Edward’s imprint. At my touch, a thumb scanner came up. I pressed my thumb to it, binding the weapong to me. As it beeped confirmation I looked up at my friend, grasping his arm. “Thank you. This means a lot.”
His reply, whatever it might have been, was interrupted when something over my shoulder caught his attention. A grin crept onto his face and he gave me a knowing wink. “Glad you like it. I just remembered I have… things that I need to go do. Somewhere else.” He slipped out of the room, leaving me to turn and see what it was that had him acting so-
Strange. It was the girl. Cleaned and healed and in fresh clothes, though in the same efficient style she’d worn on the surface. She smiled a bit when she saw me. “Good docs you have up here.” She did a little skip on her restored leg. “Good as new.”
“You clean up nicely,” I said, nodding. She laughed a bit, coming to join me by the viewscreen. For a long moment, neither of us spoke. Then finally, she broke the silence.
“I can almost see why you don’t care. From up here, it all looks pretty decent.” She
let out a soft sigh. “Too bad it’s all an illusion.” She reached out and flicked the screen, making it ripple, the pixels becoming apparent.
“That’s why you’re here.” I reached out and took her hand, standing with her. “So
we can change it.”
She nodded softly, squeezing my hand gently. “Together. The one true noble and the girl from the surface.”
I smiled and nodded. “Together.”