In the uneasy peace following the Retributive War, a number of city-states sprung up, each with their own distinct cultures and ideologies. Of these states, I am of the opinion that none has a stranger or more enduring story than Inapithe.
– May Hawkins, Inapithe: A City Between Ages
Gear I-22 is misaligned.
It's the first thing Astrid notices when she unscrews the paneling of the engine that sits above her head. The gear in question is slightly out of its well; its long teeth only barely interlocking with its neighbors.
Astrid's goal is to take apart the engine and figure out how it works, so she knows that it would be pointless to waste time on something so trivial. She already lost over an hour disassembling and reassembling the conversion matrix in an effort to improve it, and even more time counting and replacing all the stripped screws.
Astrid bites her lip, and sweat drips from the small of her back onto the floor. She can do this. All she has to do is move on to the next piece of the engine.
She manages for five seconds before diving in with both hands and nudging the offensive gear back into place. She exhales in relief, and the dull surfaces grow foggy with her breath. Several strands of long, blonde hair caught in the gears above wave back and forth, and with a contented sigh she slips her spidery fingers into the gears' teeth and begins cleaning them, running her fingertips across the smooth metal.
A discordant voice issues from her tablet computer, and the screen floods the corner of her vision with light. “Good morning. At the sound of the tone, it will be 5:00 AM.” The voice is quickly followed by a pure note like that from a tuning fork, which hangs in the air for a half dozen seconds before fading away.
Astrid groans and throws her arms over her face. This is the second time this week. It wasn't like she intended to stay up the whole night, time had just gotten away from her. When she is working, both the hours and her need for sleep disappear into the background. It's only now that her focus is broken that she begins to feel the prickles of exhaustion in her neck and temples.
It occurs to her that she could just spend the day sleeping here. It's not as if there is anyone to tell her not to. The engine above her blurs as she lets her eyes drift closed.
Her tablet flickers to life again. “You have seventy one unread notifications, and four missed reminders. The most recent reminder is two days old.” The alarm sounds again, this time growing steadily louder instead of fading. Astrid groans again and reluctantly rolls out from under the engine. When she stands up, her vision blurs, and her stomach gives a sickening jump. She leans on the engine for support, picks up her tablet. It's the newest model, although she has taken it apart and put it back together so many times that it is almost impossible to tell. She silences the alarm with a few deft flicks of her fingers.
It is impossible for Astrid to tell whether her alarm is corrects imply by looking around her room. The concrete walls are entirely devoid of windows, as well as decorations or blemishes of any sort. The floor too is bare, aside from the engine sitting in the center of the room and the large collection of tools scattered around it. The only other things of note in the room are a carefully organized workbench, a bed, and a metal door, set into the wall. It could be noon, and she would have no idea.
She picks up her tablet again. “What's my newest missed reminder?”
“Your oldest missed reminder is as follows: Dear future self, remember to buy food. Semicolon, closed parentheses. This reminder is three days overdue.”
As if in response, her stomach growls. Astrid groans again, and spends several minutes stumbling around the room and rubbing the tiredness from her eyes. She grabs the cleanest shirt she can find, digs her messenger bag out from under her bedcovers, and makes a concerted effort at combing her hair, but gives up when the comb nearly snaps in half. She puts her hand on the metal door leading outside, then stops.
Her heart pounds against her ribs, and she swallows. She doesn't really need to go outside, does she? It's only been a few days since she last ate, and she would lose valuable minutes that she could be spending repairing the engine, or sorting through spare parts. No, it would simply be pragmatic to stay in her apartment, not weak, or cowardly. Just a valuable use of her time.
Her stomach rumbles again.
She lifts her tablet in front of her face and turns the camera on, purposely tilts it upward so it does not show her grease-stained overalls and bony arms, and all she has to contend with is her owlish face and frizzy mane of blonde hair. “Hi, my name is Astrid,” she whispers to the camera. “I'd like to buy some bread.” She puts on her brightest smile, and watches it reflected in the tablet's camera. Again and again she repeats the phrase, sounding a little more confident each time.
“You can do this,” she whispers, and the image of her on the tablet mimics her movements. “You're strong. You can do this.” She wrenches open the door, and a lazy wave of cool air rolls over her. She is met not by a blaze of sunlight, but instead by the semidarkness of the world just before dawn. Unwilling to give herself time of second thoughts, she shuts the door behind her and puts her hands on the metal rungs bolted into the wall.
Climbing the ladder is one of the only parts of leaving her apartment that Astrid enjoys. Logically, she knows that she should just take one of the ramps, but this way is so much more interesting. Climbing down is like being a tiny island in a storm-tossed sea. All she has to do is look down, she can see the city of Inapithe, the crooked streets spread out below her in all of their unkempt glory, and the colorful, steep roofs glittering like so many pebbles in a river. Steeples and balconies jut from many of the buildings, turning the already chaotic landscape into something nigh-incomprehensible; a melting pot of aggressive architecture without any sense of cohesion.
When Astrid finally gets to the bottom of the ladder, her arms are aching, but she feels a little better. The streets are all but deserted; only the most industrious of residents have begun their morning routines. Shouldering her bag, she sets out, taking the same route she always does. She steals silently through alley after alley, keeping her steps as light as possible on the uneven pavement. Once, she thinks she sees someone rounding a corner, and she immediately ducks into a doorway, waiting until she is absolutely sure they are gone. After five minutes of jogging, she arrives at her destination. She slows to a walk, then stops just around the corner so she can peek around it.
Even at this hour, the neighborhood market is busy. Men and women mill about and wait in lines at tiny stalls, marked by a variety of banners in flags, squashed between buildings and set up against one another, all selling different sorts of handcrafted oddities. Astrid spies who she is looking for almost immediately. A tall man with braided hair and a bright yellow shirt, sitting at his stall and looking decidedly bored. “Rock Bread: For when the Going gets Tough,” his sign dully proclaims. Out of all the stalls, his is perhaps the only one with no line.
“Hi,” she murmurs under her breath, digging her fingers into the corner of the building. “My name is Astrid. I'd like to buy some bread.” It sounds a lot less confident out here than it does alone, in her room. There are too many variables to consider. What if the vendor is out bread? What if he refuses to sell to her? Should she specify the number of loaves, or wait until he asks her? It dawns on her that despite the number of times she has observed him, she does not know his name. Should she ask? Are customers supposed to ask things like that? Would it be weird to ask him that?
The urge to go back home settles in Astrid's stomach, and as the only thing currently occupying her stomach, it settles hard. She is sure that she can survive without food for another day, or failing that, scrounge some sort of snack from whatever is in her house currently. The market will be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. No need for rush.
She turns to head back to her apartment, then pauses, the urge to go home joined, as always, by guilt. “I should be better than this,” she mutters to herself. Quietly, she wills herself to pick her foot up, spin on her heel, and march straight into the market. Doing that, however, would mean people looking at her, and having to talk to people, and having to pretend that she isn't completely terrified. The thought turns her stomach, but then again, so does the thought of admitting defeat and returning to her apartment. She teeters back and forth at the edge of the alley, unsure of what to do.
Something brushes her elbow, and Astrid's entire body seizes. Breathless, she watches a woman hurry past her into the market without so much as a backward glance. Her heart thuds against her ribs with such a tenor and ferocity that it feels as if her entire body is thrumming. Wordlessly, she turns ad runs back toward her apartment. She knew from the moment she left that this was a terrible idea. Better to stay at home today, and make the trip tomorrow, when she has had more time to prepare.
Astrid's apartment is within sight when she is halted in her flight by a firm hand on her shoulder, and a gravelly exclamation of, “Hold it right there!”
Astrid skids to a halt, her head spinning slightly from the effort of running. Her heart leaps up into her throat, but kindly removes itself a moment later, when Astrid notices that the hand in question is a mechanical prosthetic with exposed joints. She takes a deep breath, puts on her best smile, and looks downward at the squat woman gripping her shoulder. “Hi, Pell. It's nice to see you.”
Pell scowls at her from around a mop of ginger hair and half a dozen piercings. Despite having known her for almost her entire life, and Pell only coming up to Astrid's armpit, she projects such an intimidating aura that Astrid cannot help but to feel slightly cowed. “Don't you 'Hi Pell' me!” she says crossly. “Why haven't you been over recently? I was just coming over to check on you!”
“I've been... busy.” Astrid tries to worm herself out of Pell's grasp, but the woman's iron fingers remain unmoved.
Pell's eyes narrow. “Breakfast. My place. Now,” she says in a low voice.
“But I've already eaten,” Astrid protests weakly.
“Right, I'm sure you have. Now come on.”
Astrid reluctantly allows herself to be led away from her apartment, and down a series of twisting alleys. Pell talks the entire time, fueled by a seemingly endless source of internal anger. “You sent me letters every week when you lived up in the Heights, even if they were just about how bored out of your mind your were. Then, a month ago, you move here, barely two streets down from me, and I see you exactly once. Care to explain that?”
“I'm sorry, Pell.”
“You better be sorry,” Pell grumbles, scowling at the buildings around her. “People are saying that there are androids here; you could have been dead, for all I knew. I can't believe you; shutting your oldest friend out like that.”
Astrid rolls her eyes, and grins. “Oldest friend in what sense?”
Pell wags a metal finger at her in warning. “Watch it. I'm only seven years older than you.”
“Seven and a half, technically.”
After several more minutes of traveling, all of which are filled with increasingly melodramatic lamentations from Pell, the two of them arrive at their destination: A small, grey, two-story building haphazardly squashed between a playhouse and an apartment building, looking for all the world as if it might collapse in on itself at the slightest provocation. “Pell's Tattoos and Piercings,” a sign in a window proclaims.
Pell shoos Astrid inside, and immediately bustles into a back room, leaving Astrid to take in the numerous drawings of tattoos plastering the walls, all rendered lovingly in black ink. Just by being here, Astrid can feel some of the tension from this morning uncoiling in her stomach. Pell's shop is dark, cool, and most important of all, isolated.
Pell appears back in the room a few moments later, carrying a small loaf of bread and a package of dried fruit. She sits Astrid down and waits for her to begin eating before talking again.
“I was worried about you, Astrid,” Pell says quietly, her voice devoid of its previous sarcasm. She walks across the room and puts her arms around Astrid's wide shoulders. “You move here, and then disappear on me.”
“I'm ok, Pell.” Astrid murmurs around the bread. “Seriously.”
“You say that, but I'm still going to worry. It's my job.” Pell releases her and hops up onto a counter. “Our situations are a little different. I chose to come to Inapithe.”
Astrid winces. There are times when she appreciates Pell's bluntness, but this isn't one of them. “I guess.” She finishes the bread and moves onto the dried fruit. The feeling in her stomach dictates that she shovel them in her mouth as quickly as possible, but she would rather Pell not know how hungry she is. Instead, she takes small, polite bites, and asks a question that will land her in safer territory. “How's your hand doing?”
Pell smiles, and raises her metal hand up to her face, flexing the fingers. In the past, Astrid had begged Pell to see a magus about grafting skin onto it, or at least let her cover the exposed joints but Pell had staunchly refused, saying that she wanted everyone to see Astrid's handiwork. Astrid was never sure whether the pun was intentional. “When I lost it, I was worried I wouldn't be able to use a needle again, but it's almost as precise as the real thing. I still don't know how you do it.”
Astrid smiles, and looks down at the table, a slight heat creeping into her cheeks. “It wasn't too hard. I used some old anatomy diagrams as a base, adjusted for weight and density, created an interface that could—”
“All right, all right, you don't have to explain it. I've never had a head for engineering,” Pell laughs. “Speaking of,” she says, growing more serious, “Have you found a job yet?”
Astrid immediately stops smiling. “Oh. Um. I'm not sure. I'm taking apart an engine from the scrap yard right now, maybe I can sell it once I get it working again? Would people buy something like that?”
“In this city? Only if you paint it and give it a gauche title.” Pell pinches the bridge of her nose. “Astrid, we've talked about this.”
“I know!” Astrid says defensively. “It's just taking me time to figure out what to do, that's all!”
“Astrid. Hon. I love you, but you can't keep ignoring this. You can't have much still saved up, and you need a source of income.” Pell leans forward, and her expression softens. “I'm sorry. I don't want to say it, but I think it needs to be said: Do you honestly think that you'll be able to rely on your Dad to bail you out, after what happened?”
Silence stretches between the two of them for several seconds, broken only by the distant rumble of the house's heating unit.
“No,” Astrid eventually manages, in a very small voice. “No, I don't.” She looks up at Pell. “Where do I start?”
Pell hops off the counter, and produces a piece of paper from inside her pocket. “Actually, that's part of why I was looking for you today. This city already has too many independent artists, and I know you might have some trouble with the conventional interview process for a lot of positions, so I've been looking into alternatives.” Pell pauses, allowing Astrid to mouth, “Thank you,” before continuing. “There's a little group that has an opening. Young, around your age. I've done needle work a couple of them, and they're good kids. Bright, and decent enough people.”
“What do they do?”
“Does it matter? They're in desperate need of someone good with machines. You could apply.”
Astrid hesitates. Applying for a job would probably mean doing an interview, and she's not sure how well she will be able to handle that. Moreover, with details this sparse, the likelihood of it being a good position isn't high. At the same time, she trusts Pell's judgement, at least in areas not related to the aesthetics of facial piercings, and her friend is right: She needs a job.
“Thank you, Pell,” Astrid says. “I'll do it.” She reaches for the piece of paper in Pell's outstretched hand, but Pell snatches it back out of her reach before she can grab it.
“Not so fast. This offer is conditional. I need you to do something for me.”
“Of course it is. What do you need?” Astrid asks, feeling slightly apprehensive.
Pell smiles. “Tomorrow, you go to the market, and you talk to someone.”
“What?” Astrid exclaims.
“I know that kind of thing is hard for you,” Pell says, patting her on the shoulder. “But you can't starve yourself because you're afraid of talking to people. Come on. One person, that's all I'm asking. Maybe you'll make a friend.”
It takes a lot of cajoling and a few threats, but eventually Astrid agrees. After all, she reasons, tomorrow is a long time away.