Natela tensed as the gun was drawn from its holster and then pointed directly at her. She’d stared down the barrel of a gun one or twice before, but back then it had always been with the assumption that its wielder would not fire unless she did something stupid. Now, that assumption was reversed. Staying still and doing what was expected of her was about to get her killed.
And then it did.
One moment she was nervous almost to the point of tears, and the next, there was a jolt and everything was different. She could see up and down and everywhere all at once. But she couldn’t feel anything! She couldn’t talk, or blink her eyes, or even move! At the edges of her “vision” she could see her Ghost expanded around her… holding on to her. It was disorienting and terrifying, but it only lasted a couple of seconds. She stiffened again as she was enveloped in light… and then she was back to being her whole self once more. Still thoroughly in a panic, Natela threw herself hard into the nearby padded wall and scrambled to her feet as best she could.
“It’s all right, you’re ok, try and keep calm,” her shooter said to her. “Come on, shake it off. We’ve all been dead before… and now so have you.”
“And… and that’s what it feels like… out there?” Natela asked as she fought down her emotions.
“Yes, mostly,” combat instructor Trii said after putting away her weapon. “Of course, what you just experienced was a clean headshot. The enemy isn’t often so kind.”
“Right…” Natela said softly. “Just once today, right? I can go now?” she asked, her voice making it clear that she might break down and cry if the answer was a no.
“Of course. The first time is always hard. You officially have the rest of the day off, and the weekend to recover. If you’ll take some advice, when you think about it, because you will, try to think of it as a technological process. Anything else will tie you in knots…”
Natela just nodded.
“Hey, you did better than most…” instructor Trii called after her as she slipped out the door.
Natela walked quickly down the hall, towards the closest women’s locker room, studiously ignoring every tech, maintance worker, and Guardian she passed along the way. She was sure each and every one of them could see right through her, right through the facade of calm she was barely hanging on to. Inside, things weren’t any better. She’d hoped for an empty room, but it wasn’t to be. There were a handful of Guardians in varoius states of undress, changing or inspecting their gear, leaving her no place to be alone. A tall one, dressed in Warlock robes, pushed past her on her way to the door. Deciding it was more awkward to stand and fret, Natela moved to her locker began undoing her own armor. There were straps and zippers and buttons all over her flexible leather suit, holding it tight against her skin. Finding them all had been a problem at first, now the problem was keeping her hands steady enough to undo them all.
“Tough time out there?” a blue skinned Titan asked while checking her helmet. Natela wondered if it was as heavy as it looked, then quickly replied with another one of her uneasy nods.
“We all have those days. Be brave, you’ll get through it,” the Awoken said before she too moved towards the exit.
‘Be brave…’ That seemed to be a motto around The Tower. Natela sat down to pull off her boots then sighed… She’d been trying to ‘be brave’ for the past two months and hadn’t gotten very far with it. Her heart just wasn’t in it. Oh sure, she’d learned a whole lot ever since leaving her life on the streets behind. She’d studied constantly, learning about enemies and tactics and protocols. She’d been drilled endlessly. She could now shoot and dodge and throw her knife at a target several meters away… But the thought of going beyond the walls of The City… of fighting the aliens she’d only seen in combat footage… It unnerved her. Hell, being killed and brought back just moments ago had been unsettling enough, and that had been done in a special room, with a friendly, reassuring instructor, all on top of hundreds of previous assurances that it would all work.
Her Ghost chirped, still buried in its holding place within one of her armor’s pockets, spurring her back into action. It was nearly time to pick up Luminita.
“Ok, I’ve got it,” Natela said, silencing the alarm.
Out of everything, her younger sister had been the one true light in her life. Luminita was in school now, learning things and making friends. Even better, she was looking far more healthy that she had in years. They both were, actually, but Luminita especially. On the street, between her occasional, strange bouts of sickness and neither of them knowing when they’d next their next meal… she’d been in pretty bad shape. Now though, she almost glowed in comparison to how she’d been before. That, if nothing else, Natela mused, made all the rest of it bearable. She finished changing into her, comfortable, properly fitting street clothes… something she’d never thought she’d have just two months ago… and headed out. She swung by the small cafeteria style space on her way out, paid for a single nutrient bar while covertly pocketing three, then hurried towards the elevator that would take her down to The Tower’s ground level. She’d just rounded the last corner between her and the elevator when her Ghost began nagging her again, this time with a much more urgent sound.
“Your sister’s school is calling,” it began as soon as she pulled it out of her pocket. “Your sister collapsed roughly thirty minutes ago and they haven’t been able to revive her. She’s being taken to Traveler’s Light General as we speak.”
“Get me transport, now,” Natela ordered as she broke into a run.
“Diverting public transport during Green Level city status is illegal… but that’s never stopped you before,” her Ghost replied wryly. “I’ll have something waiting for you.”
Natela cursed as she missed the elevator, but then realized it was probably a blessing in disguise. She burst into the nearby stairwell and, without even thinking about it, flung her self over the railing. There was a certain thrill to it, falling as floor after floor zipped by far faster than any elevator would have. At the last second Natela looked up and blinked upward. The sudden burst of directed speed largely canceled out her downward momentum, reducing what would have been a painful, life threatening impact to merely a heavy but manageable landing. It scared the heck out of a maintenance worker one level above her, though. Sprinting again, Natela emerged on the street in front of The Tower and spotted a frustrated technician yelling at an uncooperative auto-taxi. Realizing it was waiting for her, she charged past him and threw herself into the back seat just as the door opened. The car immediately sped off, leaving the bewildered tech to wonder what had happened.
Twenty minutes later Natela burst into the ER lobby demanding to know the whereabouts of her sister. It took two then three nurses to calm her down and lead her to a seat in the waiting area. They only managed to get away from her with the promise that someone would speak to her soon. That someone turned out to Dr. Eman, a young ER doctor not all that much older than she was.
“Ms. Murk? You’re Luminita’s sister and guardian, correct?”
“I am,” Natela said, standing and shaking his hand, not really sure why she was doing it. “What’s happened to my sister, is she hurt?”
“Not… exactly,” the doctor told her. He indicated that she should sit, then took a seat across from her before speaking again. “Your sister arrived in a kind of shock. Her body had begun to shutdown due to a rare enzyme deficiency. We’ve stabilized her for now, but I’m afraid her long term prognosis is… hard to predict.”
“What do you mean?”
The young doctor took a deep breath, then explained, “We’ve seen this condition a few times before but have never cracked what exactly causes it. A patient’s key enzyme levels will vary higher and lower over the course of weeks or months or sometimes even years. They might be stable for long stretches, then dip for a few days, and then return to normal. A small dip might show as fatigue or weakness, but a larger drop…”
“Wait…” Natela said. “Would this… she’s had poor health all her life. She’d feel bad some days, and get sick… tired mostly… every few months. Once a couple of years ago she got real bad. I thought she was… I thought I was going to lose her. She slept for three days straight but then came out of it.” Natela looked down at the floor for a moment then speaking more quietly said, “I don’t remember it that well… but I think it’s how our mother died.”
“It would likely be a genetic condition,” Dr. Eman confirmed.
“But Luminita is going to be all right now, isn’t she?”
“In the short term, yes,” Dr. Eman said. “We can synthesize the enzymes her body needs easily enough. Long term though…” he said, “…the hospital doesn’t have the resources to treat her long term. Nobody does.”
“But you just said…”
Dr. Eman took a quick glance around the waiting room checking for anyone in earshot. “You’re a Guardian, right?” He asked in a hushed tone. “Not Luminita’s legal guardian, but an actual Guardian of The City?”
“Yes…” Natela answered, unsure what he was leading up to.
“The only way to synthesize the injections your sister needs is by reprograming Glimmer. The hospital has an emergency supply, some of which we used to stabilize your sister, but now that we know her condition is long term we can’t afford to… to waste our supply on someone with a terminal condition. But, if we had…”
“…if there was an outside supply it would be possible to keep her healthy.” Natela finished, getting it.
It sounded simple, Natela realized, but the weight of what she’d just suggested pressed down on her, dampening her spirits. She crossed her arms over her chest as she considered the ramifications. Glimmer was essential to The City and to the war effort, that had been drilled into her time and time again over the past two months. A large percentage Guardians found outside the walls was marked for their use in the defense of The City. The rest was doled out in specific, highly controlled amounts. With such limited supplies, too much going to any one industry could be disastrous, or might be used for profiteering… something The City, Humanity itself even, just couldn’t afford. Therefore, any unauthorized Glimmer smuggling was considered to be highly illegal. Beyond permanent induced coma style illegal, even.
“I know what I’m asking is… difficult,” Dr. Eman said, “but it’s your sister’s only long term hope.”
Natela nodded, but then her hand brushed over the two nutrient bars she’d stolen earlier and she smiled a small smile. “You’re right, it is difficult, but that’s never stopped me before. I’ll do it. Can I see my sister now?”
“Of course, right this way,” Dr. Eman replied.
He led her back to one of the emergency triage rooms. Inside, Luminita was awake and responsive. She smiled as she saw her big sister approaching.
“How are you feeling?” Natela asked as she sat in a chair next to her sister’s bed.
“Better, I think. My head still hurts though…” She paused then worriedly said, “I don’t know what happened…”
“It’s ok,” Natela replied gently, “I do. It was your sickness again, but the doctors and I think we know how to fix it now.” Her sister smiled and Natela smiled back.
Three days later, with her sister recovering at their home, Natela stepped off a FOTC transport in the midst of Old Russia. Before, she’d held back, she’d been afraid. Agreeing to become a Guardian had simply been a way to get her and her sister off the streets. But to actually commit to it, to stop holding back, to put her life on the line… that had taken something more.
Before, she’d needed a reason to go beyond The City’s walls.
Now, she had one.