She was drowning.
But she didn’t panic despite realizing that air had been replaced with water. She had been here many times before, and she instinctively held her breath.
The water’s cold caress raised goosebumps on her naked skin. She reflexively curled her legs and wrapped her arms around her chest at the realization of her nudity, but her limbs felt heavy. She opened her eyes to thick darkness. It wasn’t just murk, but total absence of light.
She stretched her hand out a few inches from her body. Her fingers touched a smooth, cool surface, like glass. Tracing her fingers along the surface, she discovered it came to a rounded point above her head. She released a small spurt of stale air out between her lips.
With more urgency, she pushed her fingers down along the surface, bending her knees and reaching below her feet. She could find no seam or break in the material, which rounded to an end again as it had above her head.
Straightening, she placed both her hands against the surface in front of her face. She braced her back against the surface behind her, shivering at the feeling of cold glass against her skin. She pushed against the glass tube. But it’s solidity did not give way. She kicked at the sides of the tube, her prison, with bare feet and knees. Agonizing pressure in her lungs increased, and the air began escaping from her lips in bursts and bubbles.
She knew in the next breath she would breathe water. Zee smashed her fists against the tube.
Inside the darkened locker—apartment—Zee jerked awake. She paused, leaning wearily against the straps that held her naked body vertically in the small space, and tried to shake off the drowning dream and discern what had awakened her. A tinny knock sounded against the locker’s—apartment’s—door.
“Wh-who’s there?” Zee called, fumbling for the light.
“It’s Ben.” His muffled voice came through the door. “The shuttle is here and I just wanted to find out if you were still going—”
“Shit,” Zee said. Her hand passed in front of the light panel and LEDs illuminated the interior of her locker—apartment—and released her sleeping straps in the same moment. “Just one minute,” she called to him, silently cursing her faulty alarm clock. She fumbled for another panel and pulled it aside to reveal an array of suits, cleaned and pressed and far more ready for the day than she was. She quickly slipped on undergarments and a white blouse, chose the gray pencil skirt and a matching jacket.
The panel to her right shimmered to reveal her reflection. She expertly pulled her unruly black hair into a simple, if severe, ponytail and checked her teeth and the creases on her jacket. Nothing could be out of place, as stated in her lease agreement. She applied her makeup mask, using the mirror to correctly align it, and a moment later it dissolved over her face, leaving the appropriate amount of powder and paint to her eyes and lips. Checking the results in the mirror and sliding the frames of her glasses over her ears, she nodded.
She grabbed a compact bag, which she had thankfully packed yesterday, and pushing up a corner of her sleeve, she tapped the flexible tab screen built into her arm and the door panel of her locker—apartment—slid open. Zee blinked in the brighter light of the Standard Maintenance warehouse. Ben stepped back as her door opened. He wore a dark gray Standard Maintenance jumpsuit, the logo in orange lettering. The fading bruises on his face hardly looked professional.
He shuffled his feet, and then stood there, silently staring at her. After a moment, his eyes slid away from hers and he scratched an eyebrow. “Good morni—”
“I thought we were late,” Zee said.
Something flashed in his eyes, but he turned before she could understand it. He headed for the elevator to the roof. She followed him, and they loaded into the elevator. They rode it to the roof in a heavy silence. It stuttered to a stop and the door slid open. A short, bare hallway led to the roof.
Outside, a glowing mass of neon signs and billboards fought the descent of darkness. From the roof of Standard Maintenance, they could see the partially submerged glory of Rust’s Downtown district to the west, and north up the Elliot Isthmus to Governor’s Hill, which shone the brightest of all. To the east, the city climbed vertically with a raucous swirl of colors, handily blocking the view of the eastern Wilds.
The massive shuttle hovered on the landing pad in the center of the roof. It had no wings, but its spherical body held clusters of magnets and turbines, their power a low hum over the sound of the city. Arrays of stabilizing vents hissed and clicked. Rice stood outside the hatch, arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently.
Her dark eyes flashed over Zee as she and Ben approached. Rice’s slim eyebrow raised. “That’s a bold move,” she said in a low voice as Zee passed her near the shuttle hatch.
Zee paused. “What?”
Rice’s lips tugged up to a grin. “Wearing a skirt in Zero-G,” she said. “Very bold,” her nose wrinkled.
Zee blinked and a sigh hissed out between her teeth. “Do I have time to change?” she asked, keeping her tone and expression even.
“Nope,” said Rice, eyes glinting.
Zee’s jaw tightened. “Fine,” she said. She stepped into the shuttle. “I can handle it.” She could handle anything. It was in her lease agreement.
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