2016
10.07

Stargazing

A clear night. Hannabelle was back up to the hatch she had found while exploring the rooftops. The most dangerous hatch was still there, tempting her. A twist of the handle and the hatch unlocked, giving way as she pushed it open, letting her crawl out to sit on the narrow ledge outside.

Night time wind against her skin. She had no idea of what wind was: she had never experienced wind inside the dome. Only out here could wind be found.

She leaned back to watch the stars and the strange thing which would change shape from a shard to a disk and back. It was big now, bright enough to let her see clearly, but not as big as it could be. Her back against the gently curving dome. The thick surface was chilly to her back despite the warmth of the early summer day which had been bright and warm barely hours earlier. In silence she watched the stars while other people were sleeping, feeling as if the hatch was her own secret, that the beauty of the night sky was hers alone.

As always she kept the hatch open, terrified of what would happen if it should fall back in place and leave her stranded out there for when the clouds returned and the rain would fall again. She was not sure quite what would happen to her if she was caught out in the rain but she knew that the rains would kill and knowing that she would die was bad enough for her to be cautious.

She had not thought much about would happen to her if she was caught by something else out there. She was careful to only sneak out late at night when people were asleep, to only sneak out while her parents were sleeping and the station town below was still and quiet. She had never got in much trouble for climbing around on the rooftops even when people had spotted her, and this hatch was just another step up. Another rooftop of sorts. Only a slight anxiety remained every time she crawled out. A fear of getting caught by one of the adults, of them discovering her secret hiding place and taking it away from her.

A fear of someone locking the hatch for good and taking the stars from her.

Hannabelle never saw the woman’s head appear in the hatch for a moment to look at her before disappearing back down for a moment to consider the options. Suddenly it appeared again: a Protector leaping up through the hatch, settling down on her heels on the narrow ledge. Hannabelle screamed in surprise and alarm, scrambling to get up, staring at the sudden intruder who was cutting off her only path of escape. Her heart started pounding away as she looked around in a panic for anywhere to go or hide, despite knowing that she had already been seen.

The intruder just looked at her, then laughed. “Looks like you’ve seen a ghost, kid.”

Hannabelle felt her teeth chatter together in fear. She could identify the woman as a Protector and she knew that Protectors were dangerous people, and the fact that the woman was a very small one did nothing to take the sharpness out of her every movement or the confidence of her posture.

“Hey, kid, don’t jump of the ledge or anything. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Hannabelle opened her mouth to say something, then looked away in shame. “Please don’t tell mom and dad.”

The Protector laughed again, almost incredulously. “Why would I do that?”

Hannabelle anxiously glanced back to her. “I don’t know? Isn’t that what adults do?”

The Protector reached out her hand. “I’m Lea. Protector from the Agency over at Budapest. Settle back down, kid. Don’t make any sudden movements, all right?”

Hannabelle glanced down at the hand and did not take it. She drew away slightly, realising that she was at the edge of the ledge. Lea straightened up further.

“Don’t move, kid. It’s a long way down.”

“You people are dangerous.”

“Not as dangerous as a thirty metre drop to a painful death, kid. Least a Protector would kill you all quick and easy.”

Hannabelle had never really looked down before, only up to the skies. Now she did look down to where the dome was curving down, to cover a few more houses, then fading over to the dimmed gradient silver and grey to blend into the sky and hide the wasteland outside as it came to a sheer drop. She saw the ground far below, covered in stone and dust and she felt dread and dreadful dizziness. The world tilted and spun.

She screamed as she fell over, closer to the edge.

A steady hand grabbed the sleeve of her jacket and tipped her back up against the dome.

“Really, by the damn Stewards, settle the hell back down, kid.”

Hannabelle tried to pull her sleeve free but the only thing which happened was that the Protector followed along, slipping in closer.

“I swear that if you pull us both down to our deaths you will be in so much trouble, young lady. I’ll so tell your folks back home.”

Hannabelle stared up at her in terror, then it faded off into confusion. “What? That doesn’t even make any sense. How could you?”

“Couldn’t,” Lea grinned with laughter in her eyes. “Just wanted to get you thinking and talking. What’s your name, kid?”

“Hannabelle,” she said. “Or Bella.”

“You often go out here for stargazing, Bella?”

“Whenever the stars come out.”

“And you’ve done it many times?”

“Yes, many, many times.”

Lea nodded and leaned back against the dome, looking up. She did not let go of Hannabelle’s sleeve for even a moment; even as she seemed to relax her hold remained as steady. “I felt the smells of night and decided to investigate it. Saw a hatch open and thought to myself that that’s no good.” She raised her other hand, reaching out for the stars. “When I saw you laying out here I thought it seemed pretty good. Never been out like this before. Never at night.”

Hannabelle turned her head to watch the Protector in surprise. “You’ve been outside the dome?!”

“Plenty of times. But only during the day. Much easier to spot the clouds then.”

“Really?! I don’t believe you.”

“Calling me a liar, kid?” Lea chuckled.

“Well, you have already lied to me once.” Hannabelle furrowed her brow. “When you said you’d tell mom and dad if we died.”

“Guess I did, huh? You’re not all that bad, I guess.” Lea nodded her approval. “But this is true. I’ve been out many times. To see what’s out there. See what can be salvaged.”

“Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”

Lea nodded. “Like you wouldn’t believe, kid.”

“And what about the rains?”

“We go out when the weather is clear, like it is now.”

“What about the sun?”

“The sun’s a real, bloody pain. But we do it anyway. It’s important work.”

“Aren’t you scared?”

Lea remained silent for a while, looking up to the sky. When she spoke again her voice was thoughtful. “Sometimes. Sometimes often. But I figure just like with you and this stargazing thing it should only be dangerous if I mess up.”

“You could have scared me into falling off earlier.”

“I would’ve caught you,” Lea smiled, then pulled gently on the sleeve she was still holding. “I did, actually.”

Hannabelle shivered. “What will you do with me? Will you hurt me?”

“Not even slightly. But I’ll tell you you should never go out here again.”

“Why?!”

“Because I’m kind of required to.”

“I’ll go out again.” Hannabelle turned to her defiantly. “I like the stars.”

“Well, as long as I’m not around I figure it’s really not on my head.” Lea shrugged. “I’ll still tell you you should never do this again.”

Hannabelle mumbled: “It’s only dangerous if someone come and mess things up by scaring me into falling off the ledge.”

“What’s that you’re saying, kid? You’re blaming me now?”

“Yeah.”

Lea shook her head. “By the Stewards. You’d make a fucking excellent Protector, you would. You already talk like one of us.”

“At least I’m not lying to people.”

The Protector looked amused. “You’ll learn. Good way of getting out of trouble sometimes. Like now. Could just tell me this was stupid of you and that it’s your first time and it will never happen again Protector Lea and that you’re very sorry or something.”

“Would you really fall for that?”

“Not at all, but as I said, figure it’s not really my problem any more after I’ve already left.”

“You don’t really care about me, do you?”

“Sure I do.” Lea turned to face her. “If I didn’t care about you there’s no way I’d let you get away with doing something like this. If you fall and die, yeah, you’ll die and that’s bad, but not only that; no one would close this hatch after you. A few hours later the rain would roll in and fall in through the hatch, nothing to stop it. It would poison everything, Hannabelle. Pretty sure many more people would die before someone put an end to it.” Lea fell quiet, waiting for her words to sink in as she turned back to the stars. “You never really thought about it like that, did you, kid?”

Hannabelle shook her head, feeling slightly numb from the chock of the realisation. No, she had not thought of that, not at all, but now she did. Now she understood what consequences of her actions might actually have had for people if anything would ever have happened to her. She said nothing.

In silence she tilted her head back to watch the stars again. With the firm grasp of her sleeve and the closeness of the woman Protector by her side the stars seemed so distant.

“The moon is so bright tonight,” Lea said after a long time. “I like how it turns everything to blue and silver, don’t you?”

“The moon?”

“That big light up there. It’s its name.”

“The disc that changes its shape?”

“Yeah, that one.” Lea took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s a ball, not a disk. My Steward taught me that. It’s round and it doesn’t change shape. It looks that way because of its shadow. Or ours.”

“What do you mean? With our shadow?”

“The world. When the sun is behind us we cast a shadow on it, and it looks like it’s just a shard. But it’s a ball.”

“No way,” Hannabelle protested. “You’re lying again.”

Lea shrugged, watching the stars in silence.

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s a ball. A white ball, like this place. A place of dust, I’ve been told.”

“And clouds and rain?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps it has clouds and rain.”

“Perhaps that’s why it’s white.”

“Would make sense. All I know is that there’s dust there. A lot of it. And that we can’t live there either. Once people went there, you know? They went to the skies and they returned.”

“No way!”

“They did. I swear by the Stewards they did!” Lea raised her hand to the moon as if she was trying to pick it out of the sky. When she continued her voice was quiet as if talking to herself. “I always think about how lucky they must have been to be allowed to do something so dangerous. To go up to the skies themselves. To find another place where we can’t live. To wander there far from home, all alone in the silence. Such brave people. What a feeling it must have been.”

“How could they be there?”

“They had some sort of armour to protect them. Like the domes we have.”

Hannabelle shivered, hugging her shoulders. “Sound lonely. Very lonely.”

“Yeah. It does, doesn’t it.”

“And they died there?”

“Nah, they came back, kid. Fell back out of the skies eventually, in a box thing. Like a shooting star. That’s how we know. They told people afterwards.”

“You learned this in school?”

“Never went. My Steward taught me this. Not sure how he knows all this, but he knows many things about the skies. He knows more about the skies than he knows about the tunnels.” She turned to Hannabelle again. “Hey, you go to school, kid?”

“I did for a while, but my parents took me out when we moved. And here there’s no school. They can’t pay for private lessons, so…”

“Tough,” Lea admitted. “Well, you wouldn’t learn much of anything useful there anyway.”

“No, probably not.”

The Protector nodded. “I’m happy I got to see them from up here.”

Another silence, stretching out like the wasteland below. Suddenly Lea let go of Hannabelle’s sleeve and sat up, stretching her arms and legs.

“Well, thank you for the company, Hannabelle, but I should get going. I guess I’ll just pretend you lied to me and said you won’t ever do this again, and be on my way.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because you obviously know what you’re doing and I have to get going, so I’m just going to trust you with that. I’ll still suggest you never do this again, because if another Protector find you up here they might not be as understanding as I am.”

“I still will, though,” Hannabelle told her.

“I know you will, but you seem to know what you’re doing. Just don’t mess up, Bella, because if you do you won’t be the only one to die. Always remember that.” Lea jumped back down the hatch. “Safe travels, kid, wherever you’re going.”

Hannabelle looked after her, moving closer to the hatch. “Hey, wait a moment!”

Lea poked her head back up. “What is it, kid?”

Hannabelle looked away. “I was just wondering about something.”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Do all Protectors go outside?”

“Nah, far from it. Only a few of us. Only some of the best are allowed to go outside.”

“So you’re very good?”

“Yeah, I guess I am. Or my Steward is really upset with me but too lazy to have the Council let me know it.”

“They ask the Council to tell you off when you do stuff?”

For the first time it was as if a shadow passed over Lea. She tensed up slightly, looking away. “Guess that’s one way to put it. Yeah, sure. Let’s leave it at that.”

“But it doesn’t happen often, does it?”

Lea shook her head. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Stewards seem kind,” Hannabelle nodded. “Some say hello to me and wave to me when we cross paths. They don’t seem as if they would be very scary.”

Lea pressed her lips together slightly for a moment. “Beware of the Stewards, kid. They’re dangerous. They’re often more dangerous than we are. They’re not what they seem to be.”

“Really? They don’t seem very scary. You’re telling me they are?”

“Not like us, but they are definitely dangerous in their own way. Give them your name and they’ll tear out your soul through your throat and put it in a jar for their little collection.”

Hannabelle laughed at the joke, falling silent when Lea did not join in. The Protector just remained in place to watch her in silence.

“There’s no such thing as souls,” Hannabelle eventually said.

“There most definitely is,” Lea nodded.

“And a Steward has taken yours from you and put it in a jar?”

“Well, the jar is a metaphor. The part about them taking one’s soul is not.”

“Can’t you just take it back?”

“No, I doubt that.”

Hannabelle nodded. “You seem to do well anyway.”

“It’s safe there with him. He takes good care of it.”

There was silence for a while, but Lea made no other attempt at leaving.

“What’s out there?” Hannabelle asked suddenly, waving her hand at the world around them.

“Dust.” Lea sounded sad. “It’s mostly dust. And places full of dead trees. Huge, dead trees. They are just as silver as the moon. They look like bones. And sometimes there are things like cities, domeless cities, all empty. Like, all the parts of a city is there, with beds and kitchens and cutlery, but there are no people. It’s a really strange feeling.”

“No people anywhere?”

“Nothing.”

“But there used to be?”

“Many people, yes.”

More silence. Hannabelle peered out over the landscape.

“I want to go out there and look too.”

“Don’t wander off, kid. This is dangerous enough for you.”

“No, I mean I want to become a Protector too. I want to go out there and see these cities and trees too.”

Lea pressed her lips together for a moment, looking thoughtful. “How old are you, kid?”

“I’m seventeen.”

“Well, that’s definitely more than fifteen, but I’m pretty sure your folks will think you trying to become one of us just to wander off into the wasteland much more upsetting than hearing you’re sneaking out to watch the stars at night.”

“What about your parents? What did they say when you told them?”

Lea shook her head with a blank expression. “Didn’t have any.”

Hannabelle opened her mouth, blinking in surprise and horror. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“No worries, kid. Wasn’t all that bad. Most of the time, at least. No one to give me trouble or tell me to clean my room or whatever parents are supposed to do. I was my own kid until one day I decided to go to an Agency and see if that was somewhere I wanted to be. And then a Steward came to speak to me and I told him my name. And then this happened.”

She smiled quietly, stroking her metal insignia.

“He stole your soul and put it in a jar?”

“It was more like I let him have it. Seemed he’d treat it better than I was.”

The air rumbled and Lea snapped her head up to watch the skies. “Come back inside now, kid. We can talk more inside, but we’re heading back in right now.”

The stars had disappeared behind a rising darkness over at the horizon and it was approaching fast. Hannabelle understood at once and as soon as Lea had disappeared out of sight she jumped back down through the hatch, landing on the roof beneath. Before she had even had time to sit back up Lea was back at the hatch, closing it, locking it, making sure everything was in order. Hannabelle watched her movements in wonder. Every movement was sharp and to the point.

Having finished her task she sat down on the roof beside Hannabelle, stretching her neck to peer out through the thick plastic as the stars went out one by one. The moon went dimmer, flickering a bit as if struggling against the dark, then it too disappeared. They sat in silence for perhaps fifteen minutes, almost holding their breaths as they waited.

The rain came, pattering lightly against the dome at first, then getting worse. They watched the water wash down the side, first in rivers then in ripples. The Protector took a deep breath.

“It’s so beautiful. It can kill you, but it’s still so beautiful. I wonder what it would feel like to walk through that.”

“Terror, I think,” Hannabelle whispered, the rain almost drowning her out.

To her surprise Lea began laughing quietly to herself. “I bet there would definitely be terror too.”

“How does it kill?”

“I’ve never cared to find out. I don’t care how it kills. All I know is that it does, and that there is no way I could fight it. You can’t tell rain to back off or you’ll break it. You can’t break rain. Rain just breaks you, but there is no way you can break the rain or scare it away. So I’ve never even asked.”

“Have you ever seen the rain kill?”

“If I’ve seen someone while they’ve been dying from it?”

Hannabelle nodded.

“No, never.” She pulled her shoulders back, then let them relax.

“So how do you know it even does?”

Lea tensed up, throwing Hannabelle a long, almost regretful glance. “I’ve seen people who’s died from it afterwards. After they’ve been dead for a while.” She cut Hannabelle off as soon as she opened her mouth to ask more. “And I will not talk about it, so don’t even ask. I don’t want to talk about it, all right? Ask me about anything but that.”

“Have you ever been out there when it’s been raining? I mean, outside the dome?”

“Yes. A few times we’ve had to camp outside in shelters of our own but usually we follow the tunnels when we explore, so at first sign of trouble we head for the nearest smoke shaft and just hide down there. Most of them have ladders. For the engineers and the maintenance crew.”

“Most of them?”

“Yeah.”

“But not all of them?”

“No, not even by far.”

“So what would you have done if the nearest one had no ladder?”

Lea clenched her teeth for a moment, inhaling through her nose, then slowly exhaling through the teeth. She closed her eyes, then opened them to look at the rippling water again. “We would have found out what the rain feels like and how it kills.”

Hannabelle swallowed hard, looking away from the Protector. “I understand.”

“Would be the same for you, you know, if you managed to become a Protector, and managed to get good enough, and you were allowed to go out on those expeditions.”

“Only dangerous if one messes up, right?”

Lea turned to face her again, a dark smile on her lips. Sadness was in her eyes. “Sure, kid. Usually. Although sometimes someone else messes up and one still ends up just as dead. Or just chance happens, and chance plays unfair. It happens too.”

Hannabelle nodded and the Protector got up again, stretching her arms and legs while doubling over not to hit the dome with her head.

“I have to return to the Agency now. It’s pretty late and I still haven’t gotten my dinner.” She sat back down on her heels. “What about you, kid?”

“Well, the stars are gone now, so I should probably go home.”

Lea remained silent for a moment, motionless as she watched the other. “Unless you were honest about that thing about wanting to become a Protector to get out there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if that is what you want, you could always come with me to the Agency and see what it’s like there.”

Hannabelle licked her lips nervously. “That’s kind of sudden.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to lock you up there, kid. You could go whenever you wanted.”

“My parents will worry if I’m gone when they wake up.”

“Then let’s leave them a note saying you’re safe and with a friend and that you will be returned in one piece.”

Hannabelle listened to the sound of the rain as it whisper-pattered against the thick dome. “I don’t know…”

Lea blinked slowly. “You can’t write or something, kid?”

“I can write, it’s just that… I can’t really just take off like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because they will worry.”

The Protector thought about this. “They will worry less if you don’t tell them at all?”

“Perhaps if I talked to them and explained stuff they would understand it.”

“Kid, you haven’t even been to an Agency yet and you haven’t met a Steward yet and you have no idea if you ever want to go through all of that yet. Better not to worry them if you don’t have to. Better to figure out what you actually want first, isn’t it, so they at least worry for the right reasons.”

Lea’s reasoning made sense to Hannabelle.

“I would be free to leave.”

“Yeah, always. No one would try to keep you.”

“Except for if a Steward steals my soul for a collection.”

Lea chuckled quietly. “That’s always a risk with them, whether you meet one at an Agency or on the street, so don’t worry about it, kid. If a Steward wants your soul he’ll have it before you realise that he’s even gotten it from you. And then into the jar it goes. Into the collection it goes.”

Hannabelle shivered. “I still don’t believe in souls.”

“In that case you have nothing you should worry about, do you?”

“I guess not…”

“So just do it. Be decisive. Write your folks a note and come with me and meet a Steward. Talk to him. Ask him stuff and find your answers. Just don’t give him your name and don’t let him give you one. You’re someone with things to lose, so you should know what you need to know before you decide to throw what you have away.”

Hannabelle nodded. “I’ll do it. I’ll write them a note and I’ll come with you.”

Lea smiled and nodded her approval. Together they left the roof and the hatch behind. When they passed Hannabelle’s house she slipped inside to write the note. The Protector was still there, waiting for her as she came back out and set off towards the Agency. Hannabelle said nothing to her about how she had lied and written that she was off to visit a friend who needed her help. It had seemed so much like a good way to get out of trouble, she figured. A good way to spare them the worry for just a little, little while. If she was lucky it would be for long enough to find some answers.

It should not be dangerous unless she messed up.

She hoped there was no such things as souls. If she did not know she had a soul or what it felt like, perhaps she wouldn’t notice if it went missing, and that thought scared her.

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