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Tovilarn gripped the pole with his heavy leather gloves and hitched himself a little higher. Rain and wind lashed his hair against his face, blond strands clinging to his skin. He blinked them out of the way and climbed farther. Below him the City of Lights was not living up to its name. The black blot of outage eclipsed almost half the municipality, like a bite taken out of a moon cookie. Author's Notes
It was Tovilarn's duty as a repairman to get the lights back on. He cast an experienced eye over the city, noting what lay within the dark swath: the hospital, a steam-powered factory, one of the major rail hubs, and several blocks of crucial government offices. Without gas to some of those, people wouldn't just be inconvenienced; they could be really hurt, or even die. Tovilarn had to get the lights back on somehow.
It was difficult even to keep his grip on the slick pole. The weather seemed to run mad in this place, high on a cliff overlooking the Empire. Sometimes it behaved normally, but other times storms would come up without warning, strong enough to tear loose shingles and topple street lamps. A flurry of ice pellets struck Tovilarn's cheek, and he turned his face into his shoulder to protect it.
Some of the gas poles had come down, all right, but it wasn't due to storm damage. He knew what that looked like. What he had seen was wood turned to powder as if from dry rot, metal fittings rotted away in orange rust. No telling how long it would take to replace the affected sections, so Tovilarn would just have to route around them. He knew he could do it; he knew the map of the city's infrastructure like he knew his own license case. All he had to do was rerig the pipes, either repairing them or turning off badly damaged sections so the gas couldn't escape. His hands were deft as they uncoupled the heavy equipment and made the necessary changes.
It was dangerous, of course. Tovilarn knew that; everyone was learning how risky it could be to climb high in this place. The strange accidents plaguing the City of Lights were disproportionately scaled to higher locations. Several guilds, including his, had already instituted hazard pay for citizens whose jobs took them above street level.
Tovilarn had volunteered for this duty precisely because of that. He was strong and fast and skilled; he could get the job done and get down. The hazard pay all went into a special high-interest account at the bank, to be saved for his children's education. He already had enough to pay for his oldest daughter Kirim to go as far as allowed, even if she didn't score well enough to advance at government expense. She was only in second form; by the time the younger girls needed it, the account should have accrued more than enough to cover them as well. It filled him with joy to see how happy his family was in this new city where they could afford all the luxuries they wanted. The Empire made good on the dreams of its citizens.
Tovilarn scrambled down the pole, ran across the empty intersection, and then climbed up the big observation towers on the opposite side. He was almost done. Only this last connection remained to be made.
Even with the storm drenching him, he felt a fierce satisfaction in his work. It was hard and dangerous, but he loved it. This job made him feel like a hero. People depended on him, and Tovilarn never let them down. He might not be a Scientist, but everyone knew how important the utilities were. When he spoke of his work, other citizens always smiled approval and treated him with respect. They knew who kept the lights on, who got them back on after an outage to drive the dark away. Tovilarn had never liked the dark very much.
With quick strokes of his wrench, Tovilarn tightened the last nuts into place. He tucked his tools back into his belt. Carefully he shifted his grip, making sure to stay well away from the gas-bearing parts of the equipment. Then he twisted the valve to transfer gas from the old route to the new one --
-- and held his breath, waiting to see if --
-- the patches held, and the lights began to come on where lamplighters waited at crucial locations. The City of Lights regained its name, broad expanses blinking to life as the transfer stations picked up the flow and shunted it into neighborhoods and business districts. Only the single block holding the original damage remained unlit. The hospital blazed to life, a dazzling beacon even at this distance, and not far away the steam factory revived next.
Tovilarn grinned as the city, his city, glimmered through the storm. Light caught the raindrops like a fall of crystals. He could see his house from here, or at least the block where his house stood, just there where the street curved a little around a particularly stubborn outcropping of rock. He knew they would be cheering, as they always did, "Yay! Papa put the lights back on!"
In an instant, everything shifted, a wave of vertigo and the hairs on his arm standing up as if lightning was about to strike, and then --
* * *
Ashrein ran her fingers over and over the little slip of paper. It was so small, so light, and yet the heaviest thing she had ever touched. The thick paper held up even after all the times she had unfolded and refolded it over the past tenday.
The Empire regrets the loss of your husband in performance of his duty. In recognition of this tragedy, your family is hereby cleared for travel to any destination in the Empire should you wish to relocate away from painful memories ...
Ashrein folded the condolence letter one last time and tucked it into the pocket of her blouse. Resolutely she turned her attention to packing. The Empire had promised her relocation, and she was going to take it. They were moving to Tifijimi, as far away from the City of Lights as she could get. If the brochures in the travel office held true, it was a thriving town on a lovely island. The people there understood what it was like to lose someone in the line of duty, because Tifijimi provided many of the warsailors who protected the Empire's shipping from the fierce creatures of the ocean.
And it was at sea level. That mattered to her now.
"I miss Papa," Kirim said sadly.
"So do I, sweetheart," said Ashrein. "He may have died a hero, but that doesn't make it any easier to go on without him, does it?"
"I'll miss my friends too," Kirim said. "I liked living here. The City of Lights is all new and shiny."
So is a fresh mousetrap when you lay it down, Ashrein thought, but she did not say that aloud. "It's a beautiful city, but you know what? So is Tifijimi. I hear they have flowers in all the colors there are, and people wear clothes with pictures painted right on them," Ashrein said. "We're going to live in a wonderful little cottage with a beach for our very own. And every time we look out our windows at our pretty piece of ocean, we'll think of Tovilarn, because he made it possible. We'll all make new friends there, too, and we'll tell them about the adventures we had here. Will you try to think of the happy things like that?"
Kirim gave her a watery smile. "I'll try," she said. The little girl hugged her mother and then returned to her own packing.
Ashrein did likewise, but every few minutes, her gaze turned to the other piece of paper she had been fondling for days. The saturated colors of the brochure made Tifijimi look like a fantasy land of tropical delights. Ashrein knew, of course, that once you got to know it, Tifijimi would be much like any other town, with its nice places and nasty places and people of all sorts. Still she loved the idea of it, somewhere warm and open and colorful. Somewhere they could go to heal from the terrible wound to their family.
She left the condolence letter folded in her pocket, and the brochure open.
(This story continues in Beachfront Propriety.)
This story came out of the April 2014 Muse Fusion Bingo. It also fills the "Power outage" square in my Cottoncandy Bingo Card 3-30-14. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette.