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Steel Helixby Ann Tonsor Zeddies
Rameau knew that something was wrong. He was watching the colors dance. Streaks of many hues drifted past his face--deep red, magenta, and bubbles of frothy pink, as if someone had been washing their hands of the whole mess with a bar of ruby soap.
The bubbles slow-danced, coalescing into faceted clusters, surfing in slow motion to their silent extinction against a ventilation grid. A film of deepening red layers grew against that grid and the wall around it, clotted purple-black in the center, surrounded by a corona of red. As if the walls could bruise.
The colored circle drew his gaze like a mandala. It was the one focal point in a spinning world. For he was spinning slowly with the colors. The brightest ribbon of all trailed past his face as he spun, and the bubbles burst against his face with a soft wet kiss, and a smell--
Blood. It's blood in free fall.
His face intersected with the ribbon of droplets, and he choked. His body twisted in a spasm of agony, retching the choking moisture out of his lungs. He gasped.
Why is there no air?
Because the Dome is holed!
His transient bubble of calm burst. He was fully conscious again, just in time to die.
The trajectory of the blood ribbons showed where the holes were. The blood, the other tumbling bodies like Rameau, and what was left of the air, all aimed inexorably toward the pinpricks and gashes in the Dome's crystal skin. The fluids and the air would escape out into space. Solid objects would remain behind, dancing their foolish dance in an empty bubble.
Dance. I was watching the dance when--I was up on the light bar--
He thrashed against the current, trying to change direction. When he turned his head, his entire body turned in a slow pirouette, and the stream of red bubbles crossed his face again. Something red and wet bumped against his side, and he tried to brush it away, but couldn't move his arm.
The limb came into sharp focus. He could view it clinically, as if he were diagnosing someone else.
That's my arm. Crushing injury. The bones are smashed. Severe blood loss--
His chest heaved in involuntary, gasping spasms that he recognized as the precursors to asphyxiation.
Air--where? Emergency suits--
He knew where the suits were. He hadn't been that far from the locker--perched on the bar that supported the colored lights, the perfect vantage point to see the dance, to watch over the dancers. And then--how far had he drifted?
Catch hold of something--
But all was in motion. Smashed and jagged objects waltzed past him. He might be crushed before he suffocated. Gathering speed, a clump of debris flashed toward him, and for a moment he glimpsed arms outspread--an offer, or a plea for help? Then he saw the face, frozen in pop-eyed, eternal surprise.
He lashed out with both feet, connected with a soggy thump. The body tumbled away, and Rameau cartwheeled on a new vector, toward the wall. He scraped along its curve, staring for a cold moment into the void that lay just beyond the transparent skin. Then he crashed into a projecting bracket and threw his good arm over it before he could bounce off. He clung, and gasped, and the spinning in his head slowly stilled.
He shifted his grasp from the bracket to the beam it supported, and kicked himself along the beam, sliding like a bead on a wire. He reached the utility locker and slapped it open. His movements were wide and spastic now. He could no longer coordinate his fingers. His field of vision narrowed to a graying tunnel through which he could barely see the glimmer of helmet stripes.
One-handed, he jammed the helmet onto his head and bit down on the mouthpiece. Oxygen blasted into him like cool fire. His sight returned.
Too bright! Too bright!
The pain came back with it, blazing up in his arm like a blowtorch in his veins.
The suit was full-zip; he could yank it open one-handed. He thrust a leg in to hold it in place. He couldn't get his injured arm into the armhole. Crying aloud with pain, he used his good arm to stuff the mangled mass into place, and hit the differential pressure node on the shoulder. As he struggled into the rest of the suit and zipped it shut, the left sleeve pressurized itself around the injury. It shut off the bleeding like a tourniquet. A good feature--he remembered approving it himself. He let the mouthpiece retract as the suit sealed and filled with air. Automatically, it began to administer medications to ease pain and shock.
He knew what he had to do next. Not get to the clinic and treat himself. Not assess the casualties. The one thing that mattered was to find Dakini.
She was dancing. She was dancing when they--
He found another suit and stuck his good arm through the belt so he wouldn't lose his grip on it. He switched his suit mike to external and launched himself away, calling her name.
Bodies and debris swept past him, still dangerous even now that he was suited up. He aimed himself spinward, going with them but a little faster, passing through the silent herd, looking for the one, singular shape. The dead spared him guilt. Not one showed any twitch of life. They had passed beyond the bounds of Rameau's duty. Someone else would have to serve them now.
But Dakini--if she's--what can I--with one hand--
He pushed that thought away. He could get her into the suit. He could drag her to safety, somewhere.
Then he saw a glint of gold among the pale, the dark, the buff, the ashy drab, the endless sequence of debris. Her long gold limbs spinning slowly, alone, on the far side of the swarm, still glinting in the last splintered light from the spots. Just as he'd seen her first, alone and dancing. He shot toward her through the slow avalanche of corpses.
O Kannon, O Compassionate One--
He was stammering prayers and adjurations he'd abandoned long ago. He tranced out for a moment--not surprising with the suit dripping meds into every vein--then came back into focus, and found himself vainly trying to wrap the suit around Dakini's drifting body. He should have known better. There was no way to fit her impossibly long and slender arms and legs into a suit made for a human. No help there.
He yanked the helmet loose--too sharp a movement; it sent him drifting away from her. He snatched her back only just in time, letting the helmet go. It bobbed away.
Sobbing under his breath, he wrapped his legs around hers to hold her, pulled the helmet back.
He tried to force the mouthpiece between her lips, but her mouth hung slack. The blast of air fanned the blood in streaks across her golden cheeks, but there was no answering gasp. Her head nodded in the current, like a flower too heavy for its stalk.
She was dancing. She was only dancing. And they--
He tried to breathe into her mouth, the old low-tech way he'd learned long before he came to Varuna, to this station that had the best equipment anywhere, the best guards, the most infalliable shields, this paradise where the rich and mighty came, because here no one could--
No one could die.
Her throat was crushed. Her chest was crushed. His offered breath could not pass the blood crusted on her lips. He had known. He had known too much about this body not to know.
He had been hidden among the lights, and hadn't seen the first disturbance as the invaders swept though the house, through the patrons in their box seats. He had only seen them when they fell through the Dome itself and smashed the dancers aside like kites in a downdraft. He had known in the first moment, as he saw her flung aside. He had launched himself toward her, as the patrons fled the other way.
But they got there first. The Rukh.
And as the massive, heavy fists descended on him, too, as their bludgeons crushed and tore, he'd known. Just one of those blows would have been enough to shatter her grace forever. They'd killed him, but it would take a while to die. For her, one brutal moment had been enough.
He let the helmet go, and drifted. It didn't matter now.
All that mattered was not letting go of her. Until. But it was hard to be sure his grasp was gentle enough, through the thick gloves of the suit. The micro-g transforms were so fragile, so easily damaged. It was the first thing a genedoc had to learn about them. He had learned. He'd given the transforms the very best of care. Until now.
"I'm sorry," he said.
The last of the air, on its way to the stars, carried them to the inner shell, and Rameau let himself float there, fending off the wall with his back, so Dakini's head was cushioned from any impact. He turned his face to the wall, looking down into the great darkness. He could see the edge of Garuda, the planet they orbited, rising below the station, and the bright reddish spark of Meru, sunward. Dakini had seen this every day, had known every day that she could never go there, never leave the bright bubble that imprisoned her.
And I didn't help her. I helped them keep her here. I thought Varuna was safe.
And now? O Kannon, does her soul fly free?
There was no answer from the Compassionate One. The Reform Mahayana that Rameau's parents had practiced claimed that transforms had no souls. Created by humans, they had no place on the wheel of life. When they died, they simply stopped, and would not be reborn. If Rameau had still believed that any being heard his words, his one prayer would have been to stop with her. He didn't want to be reborn.
A thousand lives of suffering couldn't make up for what I've done. And this one will be over soon.
He tried to focus on her face, but darkness spread into his field of vision. Then a flutter of white caught his attention, and he looked up.
A child floated above him, just out of reach. He thought it was a girl, though he couldn't be sure. She wore only a thin white coverall, and she was very pale. Wisps of hair stirred in the last of the breeze. There couldn't possibly be enough air left for her to breathe. He thought vaguely of the helmet. If she could get to it, she might still be all right. He tried to reach out to her, to say "Don't be frightened," but he could only make a faint choking sound.
She didn't look frightened, though he was. She moved a hand to her face, with a puzzled expression. Dakini's arms floated free of Rameau's grasp, as he tried to reach the child, and the movement appeared to catch the child's eye. As if curious, she stretched out to touch Dakini's hand. There was a sound like a sigh, though the Dome was nearly vacuum by now.
Suddenly Rameau realized that the girl had a massive dark bruise on the cheek she had touched. How had he missed that? It spread over her whole face as he watched. Her fingers, touching Dakini's, turned purple, then black. She slumped inward, and shrank, and her body shriveled and cracked like a puffball, releasing a faint brown mist. For a moment he could see pale bones in a cloud of dark fluid. Then even those turned to powder and drifted away.
This can't be real.
Involuntarily, he clutched Dakini closer. She seemed to crumple in his arms. He looked down. Her face was covered with a dark, sticky substance. He tried to brush it away with his gloved hand. His hand went through her face. There was no face, just a gelid mass that melted away when he touched it. Then there was no body. Just a dark liquid that soaked his suit and ebbed away.
And she was gone.
Staring around him, too shocked to make a sound, he saw the other corpses disintegrating. In a slow wave, spreading outward as if he were ground zero, the bodies twisted in on themselves, and shrank, and a brown mist hovered for an instant before dispersing into the empty Dome. All around him, the dead were dying a second death.
As the bodies dissipated, he saw the massive figures who had been hovering behind them, in their dun-colored p-suits. He had nowhere to run. He could only watch as they closed in on him.
He expected them to kill him. He took a deep breath for his final moment. But the moment went on. And on. He had to breathe again. Huge hands grasped him, and towed him across the Dome, and then out of it, into a narrow space where he bumped against the walls. Yet his life had not ended. He felt restraints close around him, painfully tight, and then the crushing pressure of hard acceleration. He blacked out.
He regained consciousness knowing there was weight, because someone had dumped him onto a hard, cold surface. The shock brought a moment of agonized clarity. The suit was gone. He was naked and cold, and he couldn't feel his arm at all. A deep voice spoke. The only word he understood was his own name.
"Huh. E go terminate," said another voice, close to his ear, and then laughed cheerfully.
"Cohort, unspecified, is conscious," said another. This voice had the inhumanly calm intonation of an AI monitor. Relief shot through Rameau; he must be in a hospital. He felt no pain. He had air. He was conscious. They must be treating him, whoever they were. He'd be all right.
Don't panic, he thought.
Then he opened his eyes.
The surface he lay on wasn't a bed. It was a moving belt like a conveyor. He scanned the rest of the room, and gasped. He wasn't in a normal hospital room; instead, the belt carried him around the perimeter of a cylindrical space. If this was a hospital, it was in orbit.
Before he could move or speak, something soft but tight wrapped around his legs, and a plastic shield closed down over his chest. A mask descended to cover his nose and mouth. He tried to raise his arms, to get hold of it and tear it loose, but only one of his hands seemed to move. He still couldn't feel the other arm.
I am panicking.
Where's my arm?
He could feel his shoulder. The joint was pulled painfully taut.
Like they're trying to rip my arm off!
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