He couldn’t move. Though he fought desperately, his body wouldn’t respond. He could see and feel, but no matter how he willed himself to act, nothing would happen. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. Panic flooded him.

A figure stepped into view, shapeless behind a mask and sealed suit, blocking out the light. He fought to stand, to run, even just to try and roll to the side. He couldn’t. Helpless, he was forced to watch himself be picked up, limp in his captor’s arms while his mind battered madly at the bars of its cage. He couldn’t so much as twitch as they began to descend a flight of stairs, step by deliberate, awful step. With every step the light grew darker, turning to a faint and sickly green. His captor looked at him, mask blankly emotionless, and he inwardly shrank away — but his body was unresponsive. Even when he was placed on a metal chair, hundreds of surgical implements arrayed all around, and strapped into place, he couldn’t move. The cold hand of dread tightened still further, and he would have begged if he’d been able, his courage crumbled in the face of his utter helplessness.

Instead, he could do nothing, powerless. His captor selected a blade, green light glinting from its razor edge, and her sinister voice sounded in his mind, breaking into even that last sanctum.

‘Who are you?’ Then, stepping towards him: ‘Let’s find out.’

Jax shot bolt upright with a yell, his heart racing, panting as though he’d just run a hundred miles. He couldn’t catch his breath, fear washing through him, demanding that he run. The darkened room around him was filled with half-seen familiar shapes, the bed beneath him soft, and warm where he’d been lying. The silvered, yellowish light of a Grehstadt night filtered in through the window: he’d left the curtains open. A nightmare, it had been a nightmare. He was safe.

He pressed a hand to his heart, still racing as though it wanted to break free, and bowed his head, trying unsuccessfully to calm down. Inside his own home, familiar enough by now that he could walk around even in the dark without tripping, he had to be safe. Had to be.

It didn’t help much. Jax swallowed, trying to force back the remembered panic and horror. Feeling wretchedly vulnerable, he got up, crossing to the window and opening it, letting the chill night breeze ruffle and dry his hair as he rested his arms on the sill and hung his head, staring at nothing, listening to the sounds of the Tinkerers’ District at night without hearing them. Cold air washed over him, steadying, even if it did smell of oil and smoke and cut metal and a peculiar mixture of unidentifiable chemicals. It wasn’t the chill that made him shudder, or grit his teeth and clench his fists, still half hanging out of the open window. A whole new dimension of horror had opened beneath him, and he couldn’t shut it away.

Only when his breathing had finally calmed and his heart had finally slowed, only when the cold of the night air had chilled him to the bone, did Jax move again. He got up stiffly, shivering a little, and pulled the window almost, but not quite, closed. There would be no more sleep tonight, exhausted though he was. Driven by the need to feel more in control of something, Jax turned on the light and found himself fresh clothes for the morning before making his way to the shower.

He fiddled with the essence plate on the wall as the water poured down, turning it from hot to cold and back again, switching from one extreme to the other. The water concealed and washed away most of the signs of another sleepless night, and by the time he finally stepped out and got dressed, he looked almost presentable, save for the shadows beneath his eyes. Being ready to face the day helped. It was thin, thin ice he was on, but he felt a little more secure in himself as he headed up to the roof and the variety of optics set up there.

The night sky was rather obscured from Grehstadt, hidden in the glow of the city at night, but Jax didn’t care. Wearing a long coat against the cold, he adjusted his telescope, aiming it up at the soft white glow of the ring that bridged the sky and looking through. It seemed whole to the naked eye, a soft white smudge as if some giant had smeared paint across the sky, but through his telescopes he could see rocks drifting in their orbit as well as the surrounding halo of dust. Some inventors had dedicated their lives to cataloguing them; others to doing the same for the stars. Jax took a notebook from his pocket and flipped it open, finding a new page and making notes with a recently sharpened pencil as he triangulated on known rocks.

Identified: KY 142203 “Laura”. Time: 03:03. Position…

He’d never spent time looking at the ring save to calibrate his optics, or to admire it with the naked eye as a thing of beauty. Now, hunting down its component pieces had become a welcome, soothing distraction when mind and body were too weary to focus on either of the tasks he considered his real work. As he tracked another tiny, drifting piece of rock, he wondered if they had an essence signature, wondered if he might be able to see it. It occurred to him that he could build a lightspy lens to fit on one of his telescopes, and find out. The idea generated a burst of interest and a welcome spark of energy, but he continued his quiet, methodical work for another three asteroids before finally covering over the telescope once more and stretching, notebook still in hand. A mug or three of coffee, and he might just be able to get the framework for the lens designed without too many mistakes…

Return to Grehstadt

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Paralysis, a story by V. L. Bending in the Grehstadt setting by Jean-David Bodenan, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.