Lamenting City, Chapter 3: Air

Before NaNoWriMo begins, I give you all the third chapter of Lamenting City. Remember, this is second draft stuff, so it’s likely still rough around the edges. Constructive criticism welcome.

This chapter in particular was a pain to write both times. It definitely needs more work.


“Ah, so you’re the one Lorelei told me about!” The man straightened his gray shoulder pad and rested his bandaged arm on the table. He looked up at Axel, his brown eyes darting around and his body shivering, like he expected her to just beat him up. “You’re Axel, right? Wow, uh… I barely recognized you! I’m sorry. Uh, I’m Steel.”

Axel cocked her head to the side, and then she shrugged. She wanted to speak, but the dull ache in her throat warned her not to. She hoped Steel would be more understanding than Lorelei had been. She wanted to yell at that old woman for sending her off the way she did.

The air weighed her down, and she wanted to get the job over with so she could breathe properly. When she did that, she could focus her energy on speaking to Lorelei without her tablet.

“Not very talkative these days, I see…” Steel chuckled, flashing her a sheepish grin. “Now, the job you came here for… Let’s get on with that.”

Steel reached down for the bag with his good arm, wincing as he lifted it up and placed it in front of Axel. Cirrus stepped closer and sniffed it, Axel making no move to stop her. She’d look through it herself, and it didn’t hurt to get Cirrus’ approval first.

“That bag’s got all the tools you’ll need to patch up anything that’s broken,” Steel explained, relaxing in the chair and holding his injured arm. “It’s also got a map of the environmental and life support management section, and a manual for all its computer systems, in case you need that. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the air’s been pretty bad lately, or actually, worse than usual… I’m the one in charge of handling the life support systems on this half of the Valiance, but I broke my arm last time I went there… I’m really sorry to have to ask you to do this, but would you? I can’t do it until my arm heals, and it’s not going to do that fast enough.”

Axel nodded, feeling a spark in her mind at the mention of the Valiance. Unfortunately, it died just as quickly as it had appeared, and she couldn’t piece together what the Valiance actually was. She frowned, but let it go for the moment.

“Oh, if I were you, I’d go and put that dog somewhere safe,” Steel said, and when Axel gave him an inquisitive look, he sighed. “As you can probably guess by my arm, the environmental and life support section is very dangerous. It hasn’t been the same since the crash. So, take my advice and send Fido home…”

It’s Cirrus, not Fido… Axel nodded and picked up the bag, looking around the room. The sounds of the fans running at max speed and the lamp swinging back and forth filled her ears, and she took a deep breath, feeling light-headed. The sooner I finish this job, the sooner I’ll start to feel better, even if it’s just a little bit…

Axel hoisted the bag over her shoulder and gave Steel one last nod of understanding before she walked out of the room and re-entered the corridors of steam. She’d head to her room first and drop Cirrus off there. She didn’t want to part with her, even if it was temporary, but she couldn’t risk her health or even life. Her room would be the safest place for her.

She received stares from other people as she walked, but she didn’t meet any of their gazes. She had a job to do, and no time to deal with people she didn’t know the names of. She ignored the nagging voice at the back of her mind, silencing its attempts to make her worry about them. No, not going to feel self-conscious right now…

She couldn’t wrap her head around the entire place being only half of the Valiance. She didn’t want to imagine how big the full Valiance was, her legs aching at the thought of walking from the end of one half and to the other. Exhaustion tugged at her, begging her to sit down and rest. She ignored it.

Each breath she took didn’t feel like enough, and she quickened them, her lungs aching from the steam and smoke. She took in a big gulp of air, earning a tickle in her throat that a coughing fit would soon follow. She braced herself for it, holding her breath to at least delay it. Her lungs protested, forcing her to breath in again and start coughing. She kept walking anyway.

Cirrus whined and nudged Axel with her snout as she coughed. Axel offered her a thin smile, her eye watering and her ribcage in agony. Sharp pain struck with every breath she took, and she refused to cry out and hurt her throat even more. She coughed again.
She thought about the Valiance, more to distract herself from the pain than anything else, although the desire to piece everything together still remained. She hated how every corridor looked the same, and wondered if she had thought differently before the darkness took her. She tried to imagine a world outside the browns and grays.

She wouldn’t be surprised if the Valiance had been like this from the very beginning.
Her coughing fit ended a few minutes before she reached her room, the sharp pains replaced by dull aches. Putting it behind her, she opened the door and gently nudged Cirrus inside despite the dog’s protests. Cirrus turned around and tried to bolt out of the room, stopped by the door closing in her face. She clawed at it and whined. Axel cringed. I’m sorry, Cirrus. I’ll bring you a bone when I get back, if there are any.

Axel reached into the bag, pulling out the stained, wrinkled map and opening it up to make sense of the faded layout. Paper? Didn’t know they still used that… Well, I guess that’s one little piece, then.

Her eyes widened at the size of the layout. For a mere half, this part of the Valiance was even bigger than she thought. The path to the environmental and life support section would take hours, promising more exhaustion and pain. She tightened her grip on the map and clenched her teeth, swallowing back a groan.

She rolled the map up and put it back into the bag. She agreed to do the job, not that Lorelei gave her a choice in the matter. Lorelei wanted the pay, and Axel just wanted the cleaner air.

The people leaning against the walls and watching her threw insults and the occasional empty can or bottle her way, emboldened by Cirrus’ absence. She dodged the cans and shot each of them vicious, one-eyed glares and moved on. She didn’t have time to actually deal with them, and probably never had the time to.

She passed by a group of three teenagers, all of them glaring at her. The younger girl in the middle held a bottle and looked up at Axel, eyes alight with hate and fear. Her clothes hung loose against her thin frame, and her body trembled both from the fear and the weakness. The other teens fared no better, to the boy to the left of her having trouble keeping his eyes open and the girl to the right of her shivering and coughing.

Axel stopped and turned to look at them, inhaling sharply as her chest tightened. They didn’t stop glaring, and the younger girl tightened her grip on the bottle. A pitiful whine escaped her throat and her green eyes glistened with tears. She threw the bottle at Axel, and Axel caught it in her hand and handed it back to her.

Wish you’d just tell me what your problem is with me, but I doubt you’d say anything even if I could ask… Axel shrugged, catching the bottle again when the girl threw it at her with more force. She shook her head and returned the bottle, dodging a weak punch from the boy. Pointless…

“Just leave us alone, you’ve done enough!” The older girl shrieked, swinging her fist at Axel and missing by an inch when Axel stepped back. “Go away!”

Axel blinked and stepped back, staring at the teens and then finally shaking her head. She mouthed an apology and walked away, listening to them mutter and curse behind her back. Within seconds the steam muffled their words and Axel committed the encounter to her memory. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me…

She climbed up stairway after stairway and the occasional lift that actually functioned, seeing less and less people the more levels she went up. She passed by flickering lights and until she found herself approaching a pitch black corridor. She reached into the bag and pulled out the flashlight, pointing it at the dirty floors and seeing exposed vents. A chilling breeze went through the corridor, the only source of sound.

The flashlight flickered and Axel tightened her grip as if she could stop it from dying. Stopping and rummaging through the bag for one of the three replacement cells or the flashlight’s portable charger crossed her mind until she took a better look at the flashlight. Taking apart its delicate plastic case in the dark would be an exercise in futility, and as would doing it with the light still on.

Don’t you go shutting down on me, you piece of crap… Axel kept walking, smacking the flashlight and stopping its flickering for a few precious minutes. She approached the flight of rickety stairs, feeling it sway with each step she took. She held onto the railing and the flashlight, making her way up to the next level, leaving the cold behind and entering a sweltering nightmare. She squinted and ran down the corridors, pointing the flashlight forward and watching for debris or holes in the floor.

She slipped on a loose sheet of metal and dropped the flashlight, sliding towards the railing and digging her nails into the floor to slow herself down. She moved her right foot out, the bottom of her boot colliding with the metal post and allowing her to the reach up and grab the hot railing before she reached the edge. She heard the sheet clang against the wall as it fell into the abyss.

This place wouldn’t be so dangerous if more people actually bothered to come up here and maintain it… Axel’s heart pounded against her chest and she couldn’t get enough air in her lungs. She forced herself to her feet and let go of the railing, hissing from the pain in her unprotected fingers. She picked up the flashlight and continued walking, reaching the next flight of stairs.

She reached the highest floor of the Valiance’s Providence half, where huge windows lined the walls.

The flashlight flickered again and Axel smacked it, quickening her steps and getting closer to the entrance to the environmental and life support section. She pulled a card out of the bag and slid it through the reader attached to the door, watching it slide open and reveal a room with a dim light. She turned the flashlight off. She’d replace its cell after she completed her job.

Upon entering the environmental and life support section, Axel was hit with how massive it was. Fans, scrubbers, computer systems, other bits of machinery, and even plants filled the room, and Axel looked up to see a ceiling she couldn’t reach by jumping, unlike the corridors outside. The room felt like another world.

She then noticed most of the machines were damaged and the majority of the plants were dead while the rest were dying. She allowed a growl of displeasure to escape her throat and she walked over to the nearest computer, waiting for the flickering monitor to right itself so she could check its status. Better to check things first before she tried to fix the problem and probably hurt herself.

She gingerly placed her fingers on the keyboard, wincing at the heat rising from the metal. The monitor flickered again and the computer’s operating system warned of an imminent shutdown that would bring all of the environmental and life support systems with it.

Well, there’s my priority… Axel looked through the computer’s reports, her stomach churning. Too many systems needed to be outright replaced, but she had only the means to repair. Whatever she did would only delay the inevitable breaking down of the systems and the downfall of the Valiance’s Providence half. She doubted the Conscience half would do any better.

Funny, I can remember little tidbits like this, but I still don’t really remember what the Valiance itself actually is… Bah.

Done reading the reports, Axel switched over to the controls of the heating and cooling systems. Before she could do anything else, she needed to save the computers from reaching their breaking point and melting down. Axel flipped a few switches and clicked a few commands, stepping back and waiting for the machines to do the rest.

Nothing happened in the following seconds, and Axel reached for the keyboard, right as the fans turned again and cooler air filtered into the room. She adjusted the systems again, wanting to strike a balance between hot and cold before it shifted to another extreme.

A loud crash resounded throughout the room and Axel raised her head, looking up at the fans. One of the larger fans had something blocking its rotation, and upon closer inspection, she realized it was a broken blade.

How did that even happen… Axel considered it fortunate the security systems were working well enough to shut the fan down. She didn’t want to imagine what could’ve gone wrong had it somehow knocked the blade away. It landing on the floor was a best case scenario, and thinking about the worst case scenarios wouldn’t help her.

She gave the room another look in search of anything she might’ve missed the first time. Her eye fell upon a ladder lying on the floor, and the gears of her brain moved to the tune of her steps. She picked up the ladder and her entire body exploded in pain, prompting her to drop it and fall to her knees, biting back a scream.

Gripping her shoulder, Axel took in and released deep breaths, trying to chase the pain away. Even the simple act of breathing aggravated her nerves and kept the pain fresh. For a moment, she saw only white. She wanted to curse or at least slam her fist into the floor, but she couldn’t bring herself to do anything except breathe.

Screw it, Axel forced herself to her feet, her muscles and nerves screaming at her to stop. She gritted her teeth and picked up the ladder, her body trembling and threatening to collapse. She walked over to the wall, slamming the ladder against it and taking a moment to steady herself. The temperature in the room had dropped just enough to provide her some relief.

Axel opened her eye and gripped both sides of the ladder, placing her right foot on it and steadily climbing, doing her best to ignore the wobbling of the thin, worn metal. Reaching the top, she slowly pulled the blade away from the fan and looked it over. The fan would be able to run decent enough without it. She didn’t find that ideal, and wished she could replace the entire fan. Another thing for her to curse and ponder, she supposed.

Shrugging, Axel took one step down on the ladder and set the blade at the top. The fan sprang to life and at full speed, blowing her and the sheet of metal away, the razor sharp metal almost slicing her head off. Pushing back against the numbness of fear trying to overtake her mind, she curled her body and brought her chin upon her chest so that her back hit the floor and not her head. The impact knocked the air out of her lungs and further stoked the fires of agony plaguing her body.

The blade smacked into the wall near her, bouncing off it and harmlessly landing on the floor. Axel barely noticed it, her mind managing only a single thought of relief that the blade hadn’t hit her.

Her mind disconnected from reality to escape the pain, leaving her feeling like little more than a zombie. Her mouth hung open and her eye stared at the ceiling with no purpose, her consciousness wanting to fade.

When everything else wanted to abandon her, she clung to stubbornness, pulling herself away from oblivion just enough to get back on her feet. It hardly felt like a victory with her ears ringing and her blurry vision. She staggered back to the computers, her limbs like jelly. The fan had dropped down on her list of priorities.

The scrubbers needed to be cleaned and a few were blocked by debris, some of the power crystals had burst, and the plants needed sustenance to keep them alive. That was all Axel could make sense of, her mind begging her to let it shut down. She could rest when she finished her work, no matter how much her body disagreed with her.

Axel walked over to the power generator that housed the crystals, opening one of the drawers. She gingerly removed the broken crystals from the drawer, tossing them into a nearby sack already filled with pieces of crystals. Once she finished with them, she looked over the remaining crystals, seeing most of them were almost empty. She groaned and slumped her shoulders. What does it take to recharge them or just get new ones? Ugh…

She checked the system each crystal powered, frowning as she pulled one crystal out of its slot and placed it into one where a broken crystal had been. She scanned the crystals and systems again, prioritizing certain functions over others and rearranging what few crystals were left.

And once she finished with that drawer, she closed it and pulled open another, repeating the process until she moved on to the next drawer. She risked slipping into a state of disassociation thanks to the monotony of it all, but she kept herself grounded until she finished the job. With all broken crystals removed and the rest shuffled to the systems that mattered most, she stepped away from the generator and took a deep breath, her brain waking with the cool oxygen filling her lungs.

Hopefully those systems I chose to cut off have enough reserve power to last until… Well, I hope I made the right decisions…

Axel returned to her bag, looking through it and coughing from the smoke still in the air. She frowning, pulling out what little resources she had to treat the plants. There were no seeds to replace the dead plants with, and she didn’t have enough nutrient shots to give all the plants that were still alive. She could only slow down their deaths.

She leaned her head to the side, her stomach churning from exhaustion and nausea. She grabbed all of the syringes for the plants and stood up, forcing her eyes to stay open. She made her way to the plants, examining them and mentally prioritizing them. No, I need to find another way…

Axel ran her finger down one of the vines, drawn to its green colour against a world of brown and gray. She struggled to grasp the simple fact that they were real when they didn’t match the environment around them. If she had ever seen a plant before, she didn’t remember.

The less vibrant plants looked fragile enough to make Axel fear they’d crumble under her touch. She picked up one of the syringes with her right hand, setting the others down nearby. She focused on the scrambled mental list she created, holding the syringe towards one of the weaker plants she thought might survive. Waiting a moment for the shaking in her arm to subside, she touched the plant with the syringe’s tip. She pressed the black button, watching the blue fluid drain from its container and into the plant, perking it up instantly.

What is this stuff supposed to be, anyway? Looks that stimulant Lorelei had me drink… For all I know, it probably is, would fit the rest of this giant piece of scrap metal.

She noticed the syringe had drained half of the liquid, and she pressed the button to stop it. She held it at eye level, and then turned her attention to another plant, injecting it with what remained. The syringe empty, she set it aside and reached for a full one, splitting its contents between two other plants.

Axel gave each of the plants a guilty look, wishing she could give them a full dose instead of prolonging their death. But even in her cloudy mind, she knew giving one plant all of the liquid contained in one syringe meant another wouldn’t get a single drop. She couldn’t tolerate condemning one to die. In a fair world, they’d all be healthy. Her head hurt from thinking about it.

She picked up the empty syringes and returned them to the bag, setting her sights on the scrubbers next. Like a robot, she moved the debris with little care for her own safety, almost cutting herself on the sharp edge of a piece of metal. She tossed all of the debris into a pile, a chill going up her spine from the cool air. That task done, she stepped over to the control panel of the scrubbers and keyed in the cleaning protocols.

The sound of the machinery as the protocols kicked in proved loud enough to send a splitting headache down the center of Axel’s skull. She dashed away from the scrubbers, shoving any lingering doubt aside with the comforting idea they’d do their job without her assistance. Her body lacked the strength to keep going, and she was losing the will to force it.

She picked up the bag and slung it over her shoulder, wincing from the weight. She staggered towards the exit, her work in the section done.

Perhaps the next time everything breaks down, Steel’s arm will have healed enough so he can take care of it all himself…

Once she stepped outside the room, she froze in place at the sight she missed when she first arrived. A city nestled between orange mountains, shining like a beacon of golden light and beauty. Strength and wonder surged through her body in equal measure, and she stepped close to the window, placing her on it and finding the distance made the city look like it was the same size.

Of course… Axel’s chest trembled from laughter trying to escape. How could I have forgotten about this? The city we came here to build… The city that we can’t ever touch...

Her laughter came out as wheezes, and once she started, she couldn’t stop it. Each laugh felt like tiny knives were piercing her insides, and tears clouded her eye. Exhaustion finally took hold, and she collapsed onto the cold, hard floor, descending into the black inside her mind.


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