Bystander (Short Story Series #5)

I know I said I wouldn’t be posting short stories in a while, but with what’s going on in the world right now, I suddenly felt the overwhelming need to write. It just poured out of me, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.

So I decided to just go with it. Thankfully, we have a long weekend here (I have Monday and Tuesday off from university for Pentecost break) – just don’t expect me to start posting this much every week. I’ll probably go back to my Friday schedule very soon 😉

Anyway, maybe some of you can get something about of this story. It’s extremely dark though, so don’t go into it if that makes you uncomfortable. Also, it’s meant to be read as a companion to The Stars in the Sky, a story I wrote back in 2017. If you want to read this, I’d honestly recommend you read The Stars in the Sky first, because it’ll probably clear up a lot of the world building in this one.

Trigger warnings: rape, self-harm


Bystander

The engineer fumbled for her socks. The room was drenched in darkness, the only light coming from the communicator bracelet on her wrist. She studied the way it hit her arm, eerily illuminating the veins beneath the surface of her skin.

“What are you doing?”

A mumbled voice from the bed made all her precautions unnecessary. She cursed inwardly, but she didn’t call for lights.

“Nothing. Just some accident with a drill that they want me to have a look at. Go back to sleep.”

The girl in her bed mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over, which made the engineer think that she had probably taken her words to heart. After some further struggling, she eventually managed to pull both socks onto her feet – though whether they were turned the right way was anyone’s guess – and tiptoed out into the hallway.

The AI lit the corridor at her command, and she shrugged into her shoes, watching how they caressed her feet. She didn’t really want to leave the girl. They’d been together a couple of times before, and she was a good companion. Even better in bed.

She hoped the problem would be a pretty straightforward fix. It might be nothing, really, as maintenance was particularly paranoid when it came to the drills. Which probably made sense. About forty years after the first colony, the ice had frozen over due to negligence on some worker’s part, and everyone inside that dome had died. True, back then the domes hadn’t been self-sufficient yet, and Europans were now no longer dependent on supplies from Terran ships. But there had still been accidents in the past.

The engineer just wished that someone else could have taken care of it that particular Jup-rot. She’d only just gotten off her shift. However, the new chief engineer had only been assigned to the dome a couple of rots earlier, and since she was the most experienced, she supposed it made sense that he’d want her to have a look.

The engineer called for the lights to dim and stepped outside into the dome. The familiar musty smell of recycled street air hit her. It was comforting. Though she really could have used some caffeine before she left.

***

She debarked from the train on the outskirts of the mining district. She would have preferred to go directly to the drills, but this train didn’t run all the way there, so she’d inevitably have to walk the last 1.3 kilometers.

Not that she minded walking. But the mining district made her uneasy. It was mostly poor Europans that lived here. Poor Europans and thousands of immigrants who had fled there during the Terran Wars. Not that she had anything against them – what Earth had done to these people was terrible, and she was glad the Europan government had decided to step in. And they had needed people to help out with mining and work the ice drills. But no one could deny that crime was higher in this part of the dome. Walking here alone, especially during mid-rot when many people were home and sleeping, made her uncomfortable.

***

The drill problem had really been an easy fix. One of the generator coils had overheated, and the others had pretty much repaired it by the time she’d arrived. She was slightly annoyed. The new chief engineer could probably tell, because he apologized about fifty times for having pulled her out of bed for nothing. However, since the apology was delivered along with a steaming cup of coffee, she decided she might as well go ahead and accept it. Grudgingly.

She made her way back through the district, already fantasizing about the comfortable bed waiting for her at home. Maybe even a few kisses. After this pointless trip, it would feel good to have someone actually need her. She was impatient to be back, and since she didn’t have anything better to do, she watched her shadow grow and shorten as she went from streetlight to streetlight. She silently counted how long it took for her shadow-head to reach the next crack in the pavement. It was a pointless and fun occupation.

***

Even for mid-rot, there weren’t that many people out and about. A woman was ushering children out of a laundry building, snapping at the boy for pinching the girl. The engineer smiled, reminiscing about her own childhood. She’d once punched a boy in her cohort in the nose because he’d said she ran like a girl, and their caregivers had taken her aside and scolded her heavily. She hadn’t felt particularly guilty then. Maybe she’d apply to be a caregiver herself someday. She’d always liked children, even though they were snotty and annoying. They just had something endearing.

***

She had almost made it back to the train station when she heard it. A whimper, coming from an alleyway across the street. A patroller was pressing a girl against the wall, gripping her arms much too tightly.

The engineer froze. The girl was clearly Terran – her skin had that weird opaque look that prevented light from passing through, skin that came from a place were people were still exposed to the sun. The engineer glanced around, hoping to see someone else, anyone else, there. But the streets were empty, save for the gentle hum of the air filters that provided a permanent background noise for the dome.

The girl whimpered again, and then her eyes flashed to the engineer’s. Full of terror. Pleading.

The patroller saw.

He, too, turned to look at the engineer.

She took a step back.

“It’s all right,” he called out.

Instinctively, the engineer felt that it wasn’t.

“Just a minor misunderstanding. Caught this one stealing from a local shop, and we can’t have that, now can we?”

The engineer nodded numbly as the patroller’s hand moved to the zipper of the girl’s jacket, toying with it. She could see the red fabric of the coat shimmer through his hand. She stared at him, watched as his lips curved upward as he moved the girl’s zipper down an inch. The girl’s lip quivered. Her eyes were brown.

The engineer didn’t think she had ever seen eyes with that much pigment before. She thought that maybe, the eyes did look guilty.

“No, I suppose we can’t,” she said. Her voice shook.

The patroller smiled.

The engineer hated him.

She hated the girl’s pathetic brown eyes.

She hated herself, too, as she walked away.

***

“You’ve been awfully quiet this rot,” said the girl from the engineer’s bed. “Did something happen with that job you had to do?”

The engineer shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine.”

“I just didn’t get a lot of sleep, is all. Now would you quit badgering me?!” She said it a bit more forcefully than she’d meant to.

“Alright, alright. Chill.” The girl placed a cup of coffee in front of the engineer. “I was just asking. Honestly, it’s a good thing you settled things last mid-rot, I heard the mining district’s in an uproar. You wouldn’t want to go there now.”

The engineer felt a trickling sense of dread.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing really. They found a dead Terran girl there this rot-shift. Raped. A witness said they saw a Europan patroller around were they found her body, and of course everyone jumped to conclusions. Now the Terrans are all riled up about it. The usual stuff. Honestly, they should really do something about that district. It attracts crime like a magnet, if you ask me.”

The engineer felt something in her chest constrict. She remembered those horrible brown eyes, looking at hers, pleading.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, they really should.” She was trying hard not to cry.

“Look, are you’re sure you’re alright? Really don’t look so good.”

“I have to pee.”

***

She locked the bathroom door, ignoring the girl’s worried voice outside. She bent over the toilet bowl, sure that she would have to throw up. But she didn’t. She just made a few retching noises, wanted to heave up that horrible knot in her chest, but nothing happened. She hugged her arms around her body, tightly, and started shaking.

Her reflection in the full-length mirror that spanned across the wall did the same thing. She looked at that girl, the one in that reflection. Watched the tears trickle over those veins that you could see glowing bluishly beneath her skin. Traced them back to the reddish eyes they originated from. Who had ever said that red was a good eye color, anyway? What made brown less deserving? Why hadn’t she ever really seen brown eyes before?

Suddenly furious at the girl in the reflection, the engineer slammed her fists into her, screaming. Snot, tears, and eventually blood smeared across reflection-engineer’s face, but the mirror didn’t break. The engineer wanted it to shatter, but it didn’t.

Instead, what gave way was the bathroom door, and the engineer felt arms wrap around her from behind.

“Shh. Shh, it’s okay.”

It wasn’t. She tried to tell the owner of the arms that.

“It will be.” The owner of the arms sounded desperate. “We’ll make it okay.”

The engineer clung closer to the arms and sobbed.

She wanted to believe that the voice was right. But how could anything in a world like this ever be fixed? When terrible things like this happened, and terrible people like her felt so helpless, how could anything ever be okay?

“We’ll make it okay,” said the owner of the arms.

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