‘Solace’: 2020 Ubyssey sci-fi contest runner-up

Cold fluorescent lights beat down unsteadily on the rickety, rust-bitten balcony.

Cold fluorescent lights beat down unsteadily on the rickety, rust-bitten balcony. I bit back a string of curses as I fought with the door’s stubborn lock, walked to the door at the end of the hall and saw a small, delicate figure sitting upright on the rosy bed. Anastasia looked at me and lit up with a warm smile. “Ty!”

I put a finger to my lips, but couldn’t help smiling myself. I let my bag down gingerly.

She threw her arms around me, thin wispy little things, and I gave her a tight hug. “You don’t need to shout, don’t strain yourself,” I replied quietly. If she was energetic enough for a bear hug, she had a good day. I released her. “Did you go to school?”

She smiled, “Yeah! The stream kept glitching, but I was there for most of math and all of history.” She patted a bulky VR headset fondly on her nightstand.

“How did you feel today?

“Okay. I was able to get up and walk around the house!”

“That’s wonderful!”

“A couple days ago, it was bad though,” she said. “I got another fever and I couldn’t fall asleep.”

That stung like a knife to the gut. She must’ve kept that to herself; I had no idea. “Oh Ana, I’m so—”

“No, you don’t apologize.” She smiled again, a bright true smile. “I know you’re working hard, you always get home so late. At least Mum and Dad keep sending medicine, even though they’re away.”

I inhaled through my nose and forced a clay smile. “It is thoughtful of them. Oh, speaking of which,” I rummaged through my bag, “Here. This will last two weeks.”

“Thaaank you.” She accepted the small pristine vials lined up on their little white rack and placed it beside her headset. “They’re always so pretty, how do they make them like that?”

“That’s Sector One for you,” I sneered. The cutting edge of science and humanity. “They’ve got the best brains in the system on that Bridge,” I replied. “Manufacturing these is probably a piece of cake.”

“When I grow up, I wanna move to Sector One,” she reclined into her pillows, suddenly looking very tired. “Can we, Ty? I promise I’ll study hard so I can get a good job,” she gave a big yawn. “Then... We can see... Mum and Dad...”

I gave her forehead a goodnight kiss and she drifted off to sleep. Good thing too; she couldn’t see the guilty tears scalding my eyes.

. . .

Two weeks later, I found myself in the cramped metal gutter of the maintenance road that ran from Sector One’s main pharmaceutical facility to the rest of the Haven. I lurked just ahead of the security checkpoint, waiting for my target. When the armored truck left the guards and automated turrets behind, I attacked the government vehicle. Again. With practiced efficiency, I used a plasma cutter I ‘borrowed’ from work to open it up. Soon, I found it: crates full of little white racks holding delicate glass vials that twinkled in the moving streetlight. I breathed a sigh of relief I didn’t know I’d been holding: Anastasia could live off these for years. I began stuffing the racks into my bag when a shadow passed over the twinkling glass. I whipped around as I felt a hot line draw itself across my stomach. In front of me stood a Sentinel holding a knife dripping with blood. My blood.

“Unknown thief, you are sentenced to death fo—”

With an animal scream, I tackled them, raised the cutter to their chest and flipped the on switch. The visor howled as we rolled to a stop along the road. I stood. My head was getting fuzzy and static teased the corners of my eyes. I felt my stomach and it came back wet and red. I covered the wound with my arm and focused on one thing: getting home.

. . .

I tried to steady myself against the heavy front door, but my wet hand slipped and I collapsed to the ground. There was a pitter-patter from down the hall. I looked up to see Ana, wrapped in a blanket and leaning against the wall, her hand covering a horror-stricken mouth.

“T-Ty?...”

I was losing too much blood to be gentle. “Ana, grab me a towel and a knife.” I could feel my breathing becoming ragged. “And some hot water. In a bowl. Quickly.” I closed my eyes and hauled myself up to sit against the wall, trying to get my breathing under control. She returned with the supplies and then scurried to the sink. Gritting my teeth, I began slicing the fabric into strips. Ana placed a metal bowl of steaming water beside me and sat in silent terror. I cut my shirt open and she gasped at the ugly red slash across my stomach.

“It... It’ll be fine,” she whimpered, “I’ll call the Bridge. I’ll call Mom and Dad They’ll-they’ll fix you!” She bolted.

“Ana, no!” I shouted after her. Sweat was leaking into my eyes and I blinked the stinging back. Not like this, it couldn’t be this. “Come back! Don’t call the Bridge!”

She melted from the dark hallway. “... Yes, Anastasia and Tiger Lawson from Sector Seventeen. We’re in Block Three, Unit Twenty-Two-Eleven... Huh? What do you mean—”

“Ana, stop!” I was losing myself. The static in my eyes encroached on my window to the world. I pressed the blue towel to my gut and it instantly turned an ugly purple.

“—unregistered residents? My brother works for... A-Anyway, nevermind that! I need Dr. Lawson on the line, her children need—”

“ANA PUT THE PHONE DOWN!” There was no helping it now. She needed to know.

She abruptly dropped the phone, retreating from me with wide, quivering eyes. She looked like a frightened baby animal. Her small, shaking hands crumpled against her mouth in an expression of raw fear that rent my slowing heart. I don’t yell at my sister, I don’t.

“Ana, listen to me...” I took a ragged breath. “I lied. About our parents. The truth is... we never had any.”

Her face stiffened into a ceramic mask. “What are you talking about, Ty?”

“Ana, I’m sorry...” This wasn’t supposed to happen. This would break her. But it was too late now.

“What are you saying?” The ceramic started cracking and leaking. “They wanted to get a roof over their kids’ heads...”

“No, it was me.” I could barely see the mask anymore, it became a blurry spider web of cracks. The Bridge would send more Sentinels soon. It was illegal for orphans to occupy property, much less ones in possession of contraband Grade-A medicine. If they caught her, they would take her back. Back to their shitty public orphanage that provided their children nothing but loneliness. Back to the hellhole that leaked too many heavy metals into their water. Back to the place that poisoned my sister.

“Ana, listen. I have an envelope of money under my bed, take it. You need to pack a bag... The biggest you can carry. Pack your school headset and some food and clothes and—” I pushed my own bag forward, ignoring the fact that my fingers barely felt my bag at all. “Here’s your medicine. It’s everything I could grab — it’ll last you a while...” My hearing was fading.

Her wide eyes crept closer. “Everything you could grab?” She gasped. “The medicine... It was you, Ty? It wasn’t sent from the Bridge? It was you all this time?”

“I’m sorry you had to find out this way...” My tongue slowed. I was out of time. “Keep yourself safe...”

“Ty? Tiger!?” I felt a hand jostle my shoulder. I blinked and saw my sister for the last time kneeling next to me, tear-stained and bone-white with shock.

I looked her full in the face, the one person I truly loved. “I’m sorry, Ana. I’m—I’m sorry...”

Darkness as deep as space itself, but devoid of starlight, swallowed me as I left my family behind.