Helena tucks one violet tentacle behind her ear and makes a pencil mark on the notepad in her lap, taking inventory. A child wanders through the tent, rubbing its grimy little fingers on everything, and driving her mad. She doesn’t understand how anyone does it--procreate that is. She has a hard enough time carrying on a conversation without wanting to sew most people’s mouths shut.
Helena surrounds herself by the spices and herbal medicines of home, but it doesn’t truly compare. Even here in the upper bazaar, where the air is purified and the water flows freely, the general atmosphere of the city sours her mood. She prefers to be on the ground level, even with its lack of sunlight. The people there are friendlier, more willing to share all of the nothing they have with each other. Every minute she spends at work peddling goods to the wealthy reminds her that she isn’t here of her own volition. That her home in the western reaches isn’t home to anyone, anymore.
“You got parents, kid?” she asks through gritted teeth.
The child, who’s now scrutinizing a vial of ground crimson mytofly powder, looks back at her dumbfounded.
Setting her notebook down on the desk, Helena stands with her arms crossed over her chest. “We both know that you heard me.”
The child looks up at her with doe eyes, his index finger pointed at his face as if to ask, Who, me?
“I’m sorry squirt, but if you’re not here to buy anything, you’ve got to scram” she says, tapping her foot on the ground.
His sky-blue tentacles flush with embarrassment as he slowly edges himself outside. He pockets a vial of shillerbeast droppings before running out. Helena halfheartedly chases after him, but doesn’t bother going farther than a few feet. She returns to her desk and smiles, satisfied that the brat has no idea he’s pilfered cattle shit. Its only purpose past excretion to help burn warts off the feet of rich women.
The scent of cooking flesh emanates from the mess tents on the platform below. Her stomach curls, knowing that a living creature suffered just to feed the pampered clientele that often peruse but rarely buy her goods. She hasn’t ever eaten an animal -- harvested their bones, teeth, hair, and droppings for medicinal purposes, sure, but only after some other predator had done its dirty work. Always scavenged from the wreckage of the food-chain, never purchased from a poacher or the black market. There was no death on her hands or in her stomach, and she preferred to keep it that way.
A dull rumbling from below knocks Helena off balance, followed by what sounds unmistakably like screaming. She gathers as many of her high-value items as she can fit into a satchel and abandons the rest. The rooftop system of bazaar platforms is flanked on all sides by even higher skyscrapers, so she can’t see the cause of the commotion but she can smell the heavy smoke in the air. The same kind that filled her village before it was reduced to ash and dust.
Fellow merchants tiptoe around the square, buzzing with a general sense of uncertainty. Gathering in one of the gardens at the far end of the platform to panic about what is happening. Helena wastes no time on curiosity, heading toward the chainlink ladders opposite them. There are public elevators nearby that are bound to be at capacity soon, full of patrons scrambling to reunite with their families. She heads instead toward the freight elevators used by the working class. Slower, but able to help her escape the sudden chaos.
Halfway down the ladder Helena watches as an unfamiliar warship tears through the southern spire, raining glass shards and rubble down around her. Crushing whole sections of the market and killing dozens in the process. She tightens her grip on the chains and pauses for a moment to grieve the people she couldn’t stand. An alarm sounds as the Queen’s Wolfpac arms the anti-aircraft weaponry to little avail. These ships are unlike any she’s ever seen, even when the armies of this very city ripped her home to shreds, making an orphan of her.
Helena drops the last fifteen feet to the next platform and sprints to her last hope of safety. Blue-skins from all levels lay strewn about, wounded or in utter shock. Her self-preservation instinct prevents her from helping anyone until she turns a corner and sees the child from her shop weeping over what is likely his mother’s corpse.
“Hey kid,” she shouts over the disarray.
He turns, eyebrows raised, and offers the vial back to her in defeat. His sobs are quiet, but piercing. She flashes back to the moment her own parents were taken from her.
“Oh shove off with that,” she grumbles, grabbing him by the shirt collar. “Don’t just sit here and die like the rest of them. Follow me.”
The boy, still years off from puberty with tentacles barely yet down to his shoulders, hesitates. Clutches at his mother’s lifeless shoulders and kisses her cheek before relenting, and following Helena to the old freight.
A small crowd of custodial workers and merchants face off with a smaller still group of Wolfpac security and upper platform residents. She pushes the child behind a dumpster, holds a finger up to her mouth to shush him, and searches her satchel for the milkroot she always carries with her.
“Now if you’d all just calm down,” says the yellow-robed guard, a lieutenant of some sort with a smokers gravel in her voice, “I’m sure we can all fit in the freight if everyone would line up in an orderly manner.”
“Like hell we can,” spat one of the janitors, his face covered with pockmarks. “This is a one-way trip to our level, your apartments are all in the upper spires. I suggest you head there”
One of the tourists retorts, “You mean the spire that just came crashing down? Or the one right next to it surrounded by an alien armada?”
“Don’t mean shit to me,” grumbles the janitor.
The tourist gasps, “I will not be spoken to this way. Guards, do something about these cretins.”
Helena can feel the tension rising as she approaches the commotion, one side bound to throw the first punch any second now. She ties a mask over her face and drops the vial of milkroot onto the ground, crushing it under her boot.
A wispy cloud envelops both sides in seconds as they all begin to cough. Milkroot acts as a sleep aid in the smallest of doses and can cause temporary paralysis when entered into the atmosphere in bulk. Harmless, really, if you weren’t considering the likelihood of this crowd’s survival. Helena doesn’t allow herself to consider this fact, though. She beckons the child to her side and punches in the coordinates for the lowermost sector. By her logic, the lower they are, the longer it’ll take for the warships to get to them.
The ride down takes a few hours, as fits of starts and stops threaten to halt their progress. The child’s sobs fill the otherwise empty chamber, she hands him a small fern that works as a natural sedative, but he declines. She’s incapable of offering any other measure of comfort.
With nowhere else to go, the two enter Helena’s usual haunt, Reyna’s. The bar’s floor is sticky from spilled liquor and blood from frequent brawls. Reyna herself stands calmly cleaning a glass with a wet rag and raises her eyebrows, “Who’s the runt?”
Helena shrugs. The kid himself offers no insight.
“Why’d you bring him here? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
She helps the kid up onto the stool and hands him Reyna’s jar of pickled eggs. “City’s under some sort of attack. I think work’s over for just about everyone today.”
Reyna grunts, “Wondered why the circuit stopped working.” The barkeep presses a button underneath the counter that puts the place on lockdown. The drunks here at this time of day don’t seem to notice.
“Have you heard from Argus?” Helena asks, trying not to sound too hopeful that Reyna’s youngest brother would be present.
“Not since the idiot got himself arrested, no,” she replies.
“Damn, poor kid. I hope it's well guarded enough for him to survive this mess.”
Reyna nods, a solemn look on her face. She pulls a disruptor rifle off the wall and charges it. She tries handing a pistol to Helena.
“You know I don’t do guns.”
Reyna shrugs and presses another hidden button, opening up a concealed door in the floor to the sewers. “C’mon,” she says, “we should find Uncle Vernon and the boys. Hole up somewhere until this all blows over.”
Helena takes the boy by the wrist and together they follow her only friend into the depths, and away from a life she had only ever tolerated. Never enjoyed.