Titus coughed into his fist as he walked, trying to ignore the bitterly cold wind. It was the start of winter, and there were scant few people willing to brave the elements with him at this time of night. The street before him was empty save for a lone drunkard huddled in a doorway ahead. Titus' lips thinned at that: the woman would quickly find herself in a cell if she didn't find her way home soon.
He checked his chrono, then cursed under his breath. Jules had kept him longer than he had thought. He would be lucky to be back at the hab within ten minutes of the curfew now. Grumbling, he started to jog, wincing as aches flared up in his knees and back. Sixty wasn't the best age to be running through the winter streets after midnight, new hips or no.
The drunkard looked up at him as he drew closer, and Titus could see the street lights glinting from the woman's eyes deep beneath the hood that swathed her head and shoulders. The drunk lurched forwards to her knees, and Titus heard a muffled groan emerge from beneath the cloth-covered mound.
As he drew abreast of her, the drunk threw herself sideways onto Titus. Her arms went around his legs, and he went down shouting beneath her surprising weight. He felt his finger crack as he came down heavily on his side, and swore violently at the sudden sharp pain.
"What in the name of the Emperor…" he started, trying to extricate himself from the tangle of limbs, but he trailed off as he noticed that she was barely moving. From beneath her hood there came a constant stream of words in a language that he didn't recognise.
"Miss?" he ventured, pulling himself free of her grasp. "Are you alright? You sound fevered."
She made no visible reaction for a second, and he was opening his mouth to try again when she abruptly snapped out of her fever. Her head turned up to his, and he gasped as the light fell on her face. Her right eye was a dusty white oval, and around the implant her pale skin had become a dark scab radiating outwards down to her jawline. What looked like blood oozed from the cracked black skin.
He recoiled. "Plague," he hissed.
"Please," she croaked, her voice weak and thick with phlegm. "Not disease. I… I thought…"
He pulled away, but found himself unable to simply leave her there in the street.
She looked around, and when she turned back to him her expression was bewildered. "Whe-where am I?" she asked. "I rem-ember… a spire… and then… f-falling…"
He crouched down next to her. Whatever it was afflicting her, he couldn't just let her die here in the cold. "Whatever's happened to you miss, it'll do no good to be thinking of it now." He took her arm and lifted her gently to her knees, draping her half over his shoulder. He winced as he saw her hand slip from under her sleeve – the flesh was the same crusted black as around her eye, and the tips of her fingers looked sharp as knives. "Come with me. I'll get you a bed for the night, and some medical help in the morning, and we can sort this mess out."
With his help, she lurched to her feet, and the two staggered down the street. Titus noted with puzzlement that she seemed to be recovering as they walked. Her step became slowly stronger, and he needed to support her less and less. He tried to focus on that phenomenon alone, to distract himself from the occasional mutterings and whispers that fell from her lips in that foreign language.
By the time they reached his hab, miraculously without encountering any guards, the time was late enough that the entry and hallways were deserted. They struggled with stairs and doors, but he eventually managed to get the woman up to his apartment. Trying to offer whatever soothing words he could, he lowered her down onto his couch. She subsided almost immediately into ceaseless mumblings, and he stumbled off into the kitchen.
He poured himself a tall glass of firewater, cursed his own generosity, and downed it. What would happen to him if someone found her in here? She could be a fugitive, or worse. He poured himself another drink. He could have the arbites themselves battering down his door by the end of the week. All it would take was for one person to notice something amiss. He sank the second drink. Warp, all it would take would be for someone to see her through a window. He was in a single apartment, and while fraternisation was allowed, cohabitation was not.
There was nothing to be done now though, short of tipping her straight out of the window while she slept. Judging by her story though, someone may well have already tried that, and it hadn't seemed to work. Or they just weren't high enough.
No. He couldn't just kill her like that. Not after he had risked everything just to bring her up here. He made his way to his bedroom. He was too kind sometimes. Too kind by half.
. . . . . . . . .
He awoke to a cutting shriek. Scrambling out of bed and into the main room, he saw the source of the scream. The woman was sitting bolt upright in the couch, head whipping frantically from side to side. Her hands had formed into claws, and her scabbed fingers had ripped the back of his couch to shreds. Her eyes touched on him, and she almost fell from the couch in panic.
"Please," he said, holding his arms out, palms upwards, "I don't mean you any harm. I rescued you from the street last night and brought you here out of the cold. My name is Titus, Titus Shansburgh."
She stared wide-eyed at him for a second, and he suppressed a shudder at the animal instinct he saw floating across her one good eye. Mercifully, her hair had fallen across her artificial eye. He made no moves, and she eventually, slowly, seemed to relax. She blinked once, and then when she looked up at him it was a look full of awareness.
"I… I'm sorry for that," she said, her voice seemingly cured of the hoarse gargle from last night. "I don't- I don't know what h-happened to me just then. I saw this pla-ce and I… freaked out."
"It's alright," he said, and walked slowly round to her. He slid down onto the arm of the couch. "Can you remember what happened last night?"
She shook her head. "B-bits and pieces, that's all. I was… falling, and then… nothing."
"Do you remember where you were falling from?"
"I… n-no I don't. It's just… blank. And before that, I th-think there were people. But I don't know who. Or where."
Well he really had dropped himself in it this time. Her memory was just as tattered as last night, and her strange skin problem showed no signs of subsiding. And to top it off, by her voice she was as flat-footed as he was.
Still, she would either regain her memory, or she wouldn't. Until then, there were more pressing concerns. "Breakfast?" he asked.
The question seemed to catch her off guard. "Breakfast?"
"Yeah," he chuckled. "You know, food you have in the morning? Cereal, bread, that sort of stuff? Ringing any bells?" He was only half joking. With the girl's mind in the state it was, he wouldn't be surprised if she didn't know what breakfast was.
"Oh, y-yes," she said. "I remember. It's just been so long since I…" She trailed off, looking down.
What the hell is wrong with this girl's life? "Well, I think I can manage some cheese on toast, so you'll start this morning off right, at least." He moved into the kitchen, calling back over his shoulder, "Hungry?"
She nodded, and followed him quietly into the kitchen, taking a place at his small table while he busied himself at the cooker. "I don't mean to pry," he said while the bread was toasting, "but you've got to understand I took a damn large risk bringing you here. All I want is to find out a bit about the girl that I'm hiding in my apartment." He smiled to take the sting out of the words. The last thing the girl needed right now was more pain.
The corners of her mouth turned hesitantly upwards in a smile of her own, and she glanced down before speaking. "I understand, I really do. I'm just… I can't- I don't know myself right now."
"It's alright," he said. "Do you remember anything further back? I'm not talking last night, I mean weeks, or hell, even years."
She paused, pushing her hair out of her eye. As she did so, her fingers brushed over her implant, and without seeming to notice it, she shuddered. "I think… I think I was rich," she said quietly. "There w-were servants, and my father. We were high up, in a spire." She let a small smile cross over her lips. "I remember watching the speeders go past the windows in the rain."
She paused as he set down a plate in front of her, and took a bite. "Thank you," she said, mouth still full.
He sat down opposite her. "Don't worry about it. How are you feeling?"
"Much better," she said. "I feel almost as good as new. Better, even." She swallowed, then went pale. Titus started to lean forwards as she looked about to retch, but she managed to control herself. "I-I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me there." She pushed the plate away.
He sat back, digging in to his own breakfast. "You're probably just a little drained from whatever happened last night. You say you're feeling fine otherwise?"
"Yes," she nodded. "I think… I think I was bad last night…"
He nodded. "As bad as any I've seen."
"…But I don't feel any pain this morning. I don't even feel s-sick – except for when I ate a moment ago."
He was sure that there was something profoundly wrong with the girl. Whether it was just a new upspire disease or something worse, he didn't know, but it spoke of something amiss in the upper levels. Nobleborn girls didn't fall from spires every week.
He took another bite, and gestured to her face. "Your eye," he managed around the slightly burned toast, "Is it an augmetic?"
She reached up and touched her cheek just below her implant, wincing as she felt the cracked, black skin around it. "I w-wish I knew," she said. "I must have had it for years… I can't remember not having it. I can see fine, so it must be an aug-metic."
A gift from daddy that didn't take? "And the skin? Is that from a botch job on the implantation?"
She shook her head. "I don- no, it isn't. I remember being told to stay in bed so my 'illness' wouldn't get worse. They even moved my bed to the window so I c-could look outside. I could see the hurricane going past."
This jerked him upright. "The… hurricane?" he asked tentatively.
She frowned. "Surely… y-you saw it, didn't you? You can't have missed it; it was so close I could feel it."
"There hasn't been a hurricane here for more than a thousand years," he said gently. "Not since the Mechanicus found the polar weather machines."
She looked lost. "Then what did I see?"
Wouldn't we all like to know… "I don't know, child. I honestly don't know."
"What's wrong with me?" she snapped, years welling in her good eye. "I don't even know who I am!"
"It's okay," he said, doing his best to calm her down. "Whatever happened, it's in the past now. You don't have to think about it. It's okay that you don't remember things. You'll find them eventually."
She looked up at him. "You really think I will?"
How the hell should I know? "If course I do child. It's probably just shock from the cold and the fall."
She looked puzzled. "The… fall?"
"You said you remembered falling last night," he said, frowning. "I thought you meant you'd fallen from a window or something."
"I don't think… I don't remember last night."
Well isn't that brilliant. He resolved to do some digging later, to find out if anything out of the ordinary had happened in the levels above last night. Surely people would notice something as violent as a fall.
He checked his chrono, then swore. His should have left for his shift five minutes ago. "Look," he said, "I'm sorry to leave it here, but I've got to leave for work. You're more than welcome to stay here. There's food in the cupboards, and drink in the taps."
She nodded. "Thank you Titus." For some reason, he was touched that she remembered his name.
"It's nothing," he said, jumping out of his chair and scrabbling about for his bag. "I'm sure anyone would do the same." He found the bag, and was halfway through the front door before he turned around one last time. "Just… don't get too worked up about things, okay?" he said softly. "I'll ask around at work, maybe we can piece this mess together later."
She smiled, and then he was out the door and jogging.