Another product of the same world that created 'Hard Luck Blues'. Though said world has changed somewhat since this piece was written, certain constants remain - it was broken deliberately, and though centuries have passed since that time, some still suffer the effects.
She is one of them - a dancer not built for life in the wake of the apocalypse.
Her world was perfect, moments before it reached its end.
She stretched high on her toes with confidence, bringing silver arms overhead in a flourish, like the rapid blossoming of a flower. The curtains on either side danced with elusive sparkles, and the one who watched her did so with perfect regard, the sort of smile that fed her soul. A goblet of wine forgotten in one hand as he beheld her performance, and beyond, the lights of the waning night shone like constellations through picture windows.
As if she had been lifted to dance among the stars, and at the bidding of the tune, her leading foot carried her into a dizzying spin.
Her vision fell across those full-length windows for only instants at a time in its process, but that was enough for her to see. Dawn's first hints crawling gold on what little she could glimpse of the horizon. A flicker far higher, silver and cold, perhaps the beginning of an oddly timed storm.
Yet it grew, more and more, with each time she spun back toward the view. Spreading like spilled water, eating the clouds with its crackling edges. He was no longer watching her, turned in his chair to observe the new spectacle, and that leading foot trailed against the floor to bring her to a gradual halt.
The sky was devouring itself in an ocean of screaming static, and through it, she was almost certain that she could see. Hints of strange images, new things, twisted in crimson and flashing too quickly to be made out. That scream was only building, and the windows gave way before it, showering to the floor in countless beautiful shards.
He was stumbling back from their assault, hands thrown high to protect his face. When he turned to her, it was with rivulets of red migrating down face and chest, torn through by the sheer force of shrapnel. The wind was unleashed on their private room, tearing at the curtains and scattering that glass further. Lashing at hair and dress as she reached out to him, taking her first step from the small stage that she'd so enjoyed.
With that step, the world buckled beneath them both. Somewhere in the dozen storeys that separated them from the ground, the stone was shifting sideways, tilting the room's contents inexorably toward those shattered windows. The shards were pouring free like water, and the suddenness of it all took her feet from beneath her, scrambling for a hold on anything that might be solid enough to arrest her fall.
But he was sliding as well, rolling far more freely. His passage left a trail of bloody crimson across the floor, and as best she could, she directed her movements toward his. Reaching out for one of the hands with which he grasped so futilely, brushing his fingers with the cold weight of her own.
A moment's fleeting contact, made even as they reached the room's edge together. Gravity tore him from her grasp, and they were falling separately through the shrieking air.
Among fragments of shining glass, each turning separately to catch the sky's new light. Once again, she was floating among makeshift stars, but all of the grace that she knew so well had abandoned her. There was no surface on which she could find purchase, and she flailed in desperation as the roof of a far lower structure rose to meet her.
“Hey- hey, look at this. Is that...”
Was someone calling? She hadn't meant to let herself run idle. Would she be scolded for her inattentiveness?
“It can't f- it is. Shades alive, it is! Get it out of there, come on, lend me a hand!”
Something had closed warm over her wrist, flesh and blood pulsing against the polished metal of her body. Why couldn't she see?
Optics were functioning, faithfully transmitting their signal. Yet all they would reveal was darkness, and most of her limbs were stubbornly motionless.
The realization was cause enough for panic, but even that accomplished so little. Three limbs were still utterly stationary, and the fourth had been wrenched from that warm grip, prompting a stream of unfamiliar words with the harshness of curses.
“It's awake,” that gruff voice was announcing overhead. “Grab the rope.”
Meaning unknown, intent unknown, until something else was lowered to encircle her wrist. The rough, unforgiving braid of the aforementioned rope, closing tight as it was pulled from above.
But its insistent tug was not enough to free her. The weight that pinned most of her body would not acknowledge that paltry effort, and if she wasn't able to tell them so, they would only succeed in damaging her arm.
The thought should have been impetus enough for all that allowed her to project her voice, the wires and speakers that transmitted her notions into the world at large. Yet something was seizing deep within her chest, the repetitive click of mechanisms pushing against a failing part. The words would not find their way through, reduced to a tremulous murmur octaves below that which she had intended.
Pain. Trembling in those parts as they ground to a halt again, abruptly reviving itself as a stronger tug on the rope caused her to cry out. A high, warbling, pointless note, communicating so little as she-
Then mercy, and relief. Something was shoving at the stubborn obstructions that held her limbs, and she could move her other arm by centimetres. A freedom that she used to assist the unseen samaritan, bracing her palm against that considerable weight and forcing it upward as best she could manage.
Stone, irregular in size and shape. Masonry cracked and worn, packed in close about her body. Realizing her predicament only increased her frantic determination to escape from it, worming her way loose with every new centimetre of mobility. Light was beckoning from overhead, a silver glow between leaning stones, and the one who held the rope was no longer tugging so thoughtlessly. Instead guiding her progress, ensuring that she didn't slip back into her previous confinement.
The light and woven braids were her guidance, her hope. Goading her on as she assisted the efforts of her rescuers, pushing herself high to thrust her free hand through that blessed gap in the stone.
The warmth was back, intertwining with her fingers and lifting her toward the light. The masonry was crumbling to dust on either side, and so suddenly, she found herself hanging in open air. One arm held by rope, the other by human fingers, lowering her slowly to sit against the ruins that had contained her.
Ruins. She had been-
Falling in her final memory. Her optics had reliably delivered every moment of the descent, and for once, she had wished for proper eyes that she could shut. Arms had been raised uselessly to protect her head, and then...
Then nothing. Then the dark, and two strangers coaxing her free.
Looming, dirty men, their shirts marked with plentiful stains and their bare arms bound by bandages. Bearded and weather-worn, regarding her with something close to dubious hope.
Behind them, the world stretched grey and shattered as far as her body would allow her to discern. Rolling hills of rubble and dust, like a desert sifted by the slightest breath of wind. That silver luminescence danced free wherever shards of glass protruded from the disarray, and tilting her head back toward the sky ruined her fragile comprehension of that which surrounded her.
The sun still boldly shone, but its rays were cast in fragments, obscured by the mysterious layer that dominated the heavens. Elusive and distorted, far too familiar. Like the intertwining of static and dark that had dominated the sky prior to her fall, a herald of the pitching, the breaking, the...
But it was broken already, all of it. She couldn't be in the same place, in the city of silver towers and streets that shone as veins of light. It could never have fallen that way, it had been so much more solid and real than her. She had braced open fingers against its walls, and it had been immovable, as though sprouting up from the very stone beneath the earth's surface.
It all simply couldn't be gone.
Her first attempt to rise was restrained by another cold, clicking spasm, bringing one hand to her chest against a pain that she couldn't hope to mend. Inches short of its destination, it slowed to a halt, and she finally found the time to behold her own body's damage.
Tarnished fingers, bending at far more angles than should have been possible. The arm to which they were attached was pitted and torn, wounds old or deep enough that probing the limb caused her no additional pain. The pale fabric that had concealed it like a bird's spreading wing was unrecognizable, reduced to a few scant shreds at the elbow and wrist.
She had fallen. She had been buried, wounded, and had lain in the dark long enough for the agony to numb itself. For the ruined world to sift and crumble, but that still wasn't possible, because-
“Think it's broken?”
They were still regarding her as one, and hope was giving way to disapproval. The thicker and paler of the two stooped to examine her more closely, and for the first time in her life she shrank back from the attention of another being.
Why? So hard to say. Something behind his eyes that reminded her far too much of the restless sky, its shifting, ominous layers. His hand was extended to her, hanging motionless in the air, and all prior experience told her that she was meant to take it.
Still, something trembled in her core as she laid her hand atop his, watching in silence as he turned her dented, perforated limb upside and down in the light. Those wild brows had drawn tight and troubled, his grip immovable as he rose without releasing her fingers. Forcing her to find her feet as well, chittering in pained protest as her body continued to disallow words.
With her balance found, however, it seemed that she'd be able to keep it. Miraculously, everything that allowed her to imitate a human stance was intact and cooperative, shifting by the smallest fractions of centimetres as her weight settled against their guidance.
“Not so much that it can't work,” the man who gripped her hand announced in a voice like glass and gravel. “Looks as though our luck's finally turning around.”
The world through which they led her was a shadow, a poor memory of all that it had once been. Fields of rubble unrecognizable as the structures that had stood there before, and the nagging ache in her chest felt as though it had more than mechanical causes.
It had all been perfect. A dress finer than any she'd worn before, an audience of one that still managed to provide as much attention as her heart could contain. The music, spilling over itself like water dripping from bent, glistening leaves.
He would have been broken by such a fall. Ruined more thoroughly than those buildings, bones protruding from skin like struts through the torn fabric of a tent. He was gone, and everything else had been taken with him.
She had not meant to slow her pace, and a firm hand against her back forced her to keep it. Driving her onward as quickly as she could manage, bare feet plowing through dust and glass worn as smooth as the same. She did not have to ask whether it was her choice to accompany them that way, not looking at the thicker man who led and the rope still coiled about his hands. They may have been pleased to find and regard her, but it was not in any way that seemed to feed her crafted heart.
Then she would stop, far sooner than later. The spark of delight they'd felt upon finding her must have been enough for those minutes of activity, but it wouldn't last, and she had no easy means of making it apparent to them. Something clicking and straining in the path of her voice, fingers too twisted and broken to write. Somehow, they had to be told of what she needed.
Perhaps she could show them. If they would slow that dogged pace for only a few seconds, she would find a way to reveal her hunger through gesture and nonverbal sound. She would make them understand, even if it meant-
As though the yearning of her heart had somehow reached him, the one who led was beginning to slow. Not to a halt, however – enough to raise a hand, to point across the dunes of rubble to something hardly distinguished from the same.
Demarcated by masonry and metal, makeshift walls that looked as though a strong enough wind would sweep them aside in pieces. The opening in their closest side was hardly wide enough for the passage of a single being walking straight, and within, hints of activity made themselves apparent.
Crossing the gap this way or that, lingering long enough to shout or answer words that she could not distinguish from that distance. Moments of life framed in the approaching doorway, an eagerness that sped every part responsible for putting her in motion.
So near. If those within were surprised to see her, their attention captured in any sort of positive manner, then it would be enough to sustain her for days. Weeks, perhaps, if she was clever enough about endearing herself to them thereafter.
She would remain awake long enough to discover what had happened to the world, and how it might be set to rights.
Those who led and escorted did not hesitate to usher her through that opening, and as warmth spread like spiderwebs through her chest, it became clear that she was regarded as closely as she had hoped. Those nearby were pausing, turning to stare, their arms wrapped in plentiful bandages and faces smudged with dirt. Ragged as those who had brought her there, looking to her with something far too much like hope.
Was that the place where they lived?
It hardly seemed possible, so far removed from the silver towers of her memory. Sheets of corrugated metal and the most mobile slabs of masonry had been assembled into rough squares within those guarding walls, hardly fit for more than blocking the weather's whims. Most had no proper doors, nor windows, and the light that shone through their borders made it clear how far they were from waterproof.
Like toys, like what a child would build from blocks. She had never heard of humans attempting to live that way, and couldn't imagine that they found it very comfortable to try.
“That's a golem,” one of them was exclaiming nearby, a woman of few years and painfully slight build. “Isn't it? Where did you find such a thing?”
The man who had led seemed to feed on attention as thoroughly and gleefully as she did, swelling with pride to recount his accomplishment. “North of here,” he boomed in announcement, “Pile of rubble five minutes' walk from the gate, looks like it used to be some sort of residential building. Get Gilf and his workers in there on the morrow – who knows what else we might dig up?”
Scavengers. She had never been torn in quite that way before, standing with fingers closed as tightly as possible over her arms. Still bending in the wrong directions, inside as well as out – why did it bother her to hear them speak that way?
Because the pile of rubble they discussed so easily had been home, and they didn't care. With smiles on their faces, they would pillage it for whatever hadn't broken or rotted away.
At the same time, letting her vision trail across their miserable settlement again, it was clear just how badly they needed whatever they might find. Those who approached looked as though they had seen months of desperation, skin drawn as tight as canvas over bone. Concealed by rags, looking to her with expressions that made her insides tremble anew.
They needed what she was meant to offer, didn't they? A happy distraction, the sight of something beautiful. Whatever damage had been done to her body, it wouldn't prevent her from stretching onto her toes, and every part of her seemed to prime itself for the movements that were meant to follow.
But a thick, unforgiving hand had closed over her wrist again, that of the thicker, louder man. Bringing her abruptly off-balance, forcing her to stumble in a way that her shattered insides and sense of rhythm absolutely hated. Those who had gathered were parting around him, and without loosening his grip, he strode through their midst toward one of the closest, largest structures in that makeshift town.
“It's going to do us a lot of good,” he was proclaiming to those who followed, as though leading a parade or announcing a performance onstage. “Damaged or no, these things are brilliant – put a tool in its hand, and it'll have this place set to rights within days, you mark my words.”
He couldn't mean what it sounded as though he meant. Bringing her to an abrupt halt before the structure in question, close enough to see how it sagged at the roof's edge and gaped around the corners of its rare door. Problems, plain to see, but she had never been taught or programmed to-
He had stooped for something abandoned at its base, straightening to hold the claimed object in her direction. A tool of some sort, or so she could only guess by what he'd said before. She had never seen something of that shape before, awkward angles welded together in a way that didn't look as though it could be good for anything.
When he continued to stare, she reached out reluctantly to claim it from his hand. Heavier than she would have guessed, pitted and cold. Rusted in far too many places, just as confusing as it had been before she'd placed her fingers around it. Could she even be sure what end was to be held, and which was to be applied to the structure in front of her?
“Go on,” the loud man urged her with dark, impatient attention. “Fix it.”
Fix it? It was a pile of trash in loose formation. As near as she could tell, only gravity held it in its current shape, and even that seemed ready to abandon its struggle. If she could have spoken in that moment, she would have suggested tearing it down to the ground and building properly in its place.
But how would one build properly with the materials on hand? The tool she'd never seen before, the metal weak enough for holes to be rusted directly through it. They were building from the ruins of what had been in that place before, and it wasn't going to work.
The sound that left her was more tremulous than she had planned, high and imploring. Yet it wouldn't form, wouldn't filter through the systems that were meant to make words. Only by raising her arms to shrug with the tool in hand could she communicate that she simply didn't know.
When she did, the change in his face made her mistake immediately apparent. The blood behind it seemed close to a boil, rising to redden his cheeks and swelling his eyes in their sockets. Something beyond anger, yet more broken, something for which she'd never been given a word.
Something that urged him into sudden motion, a hand planted firm and splayed against her chest. That high note left her chest again, more abrupt in its beginning and end as he shoved her from her centre of balance.
Broken and miscalibrated limbs couldn't react quickly enough to the movement, and the tool left her hands as she met the coarse gravel of the ground. The faces that loomed above were disappointed or simply dismissive, save for that of the looming man, which still darkened with rage overhead.
It was the first time. The first time, in all of her existence, that she'd made a mistake she could not even attempt to fix.