Sophia Forrester knows exactly where her center of gravity rests: on the mound of her pubic bone, right underneath the start of the short hairs and above what she mentally considers sexual territory. This is the zone that she measures her safety from. As long as that spot is below the guard railing that separates her body from thin, empty air, Sophia can stretch as far as she wants over the edge and not worry. She's secure.
Stiff-legged, hands behind her back, Sophia hangs her upper body over the railing of the Silvana as it scuds across the heavens. If her hair were down, it would tangle in the breeze and eventually web across her eyes--but it's not, because she is a first officer, and that fact burns as hot in her blood as the knowledge of her gravitational pivot. She is the first officer on the Silvana, which is captained by one Alex Rowe, and that's the other fact that supports her when she's bowed down over nothingness: she works for him.
She can lean on this, and be safe.
White void-clouds streak by underneath the airship. The Silvana casts shadows on their surface, hazy on the ocean of mist. They're so far up that if Sophia toppled off, she could indulge in the illusion of free-fall, crisp uniform snapping about her as she plummeted down. Her glasses would rip away in the wind. Her lungs would fight with the air thrusting into her nose and opened mouth, struggling to maintain consciousness even when there would be no purpose, save to watch the ground swell into a brown ocean that would gobble up her horizon lines, and her with it.
Each morning, Sophia stands at the balcony for so long that the guards exchange glances and begin to whisper worriedly, things about suicide and is she going to jump? In reality, Sophia is only measuring the pressure of her body against the rail. Testing herself, a little. Seeing if she's fattened overnight, top-heavy with emotion in her chest that would tip her over as neatly as a child's broken toy. Sophia's heart is overstuffed. Possibly her mind; she's not sure, so she checks herself each morning at the balcony rail.
Legs spread. Chin up. Center of gravity in place.
When she's ready, Sophia leans against the metal bar. Hands take position, twisting and folding themselves into a crab of fingers in the small of her back. The wind buffets her, sucking at Sophia's hearing while it plucks at her body, hoping to wrestle her off the walkway and send her spinning free.
Trusting in the strength of the railing and in her own perfect, patient calculations, Sophia tilts her body forward until she is suspended halfway over death.
She looks down. She thinks.
There's much that presses Sophia's head low, to stare at the Silvana painting its silhouette on cloud-waves. At nineteen, she has discovered that her pencil finally balances behind one ear without sliding off; that's what makes her suddenly feel like an adult, complete with glasses and her hair wound up in coils. The glimpse she caught of herself in a mirror resembled a librarian, or an accountant. Not a woman in hiding, with the secret of the Exile tucked between her ears.
If she were home, Sophia's father would be talking about marriage alliances that would culminate before her twentieth year. Instead, she is a first mate, and watches death go by twice each morning. First in rolling white mounds of vapor, oxygen thin and reedy in her lungs from the higher altitude; the second, when her captain turns to her and asks for the daily coordinates.
Eventually, the touch of bookishness will become more than a hint, and then settle concretely into the trappings of an old maid. The role of first mate will grow musty and tiresome; Alex's face eternally pointed towards the stern, fixated on the past, unable to catch up with the dead. In the process, forgetting the living.
They will both grow grey, she and him. If they survive that long.
Sophia is, in reality, terrified of her position on the Silvana. In more ways than one--but she has become better at holding it back over the years. Each time she hears the crew accept her orders, Sophia's mouth becomes brittle and motionless on her face. She is frightened of blind trust; she has seen what it has done to her father. Sophia does not understand why the crew of the Silvana listens to her commands, counting out a thousand different reasons to herself in the thin sheets of her bed, but she knows she must accept it in one form or another. She will be a leader someday, and when it happens, her personal gravity will either hold or send her flying.
If the wars don't kill her first. Hanging over the side of the airship, Sophia considers her life to consist of the slow-seconds before missile impact. It has the same thick feeling of dread; the same sickening knowledge that your enemy has triangulated upon you, and that nothing you can do will stop it. Occasionally, at her post, Sophia finds herself fixated on the cockpit window. She envisions the way her head would turn to the side just in time to catch a glimpse of the fatal accident that will punch the unsinkable Silvana clean out of the sky. Fantasizes the fireball that will erupt upon collision.
Death has worn on Sophia's nerves, but she keeps herself safe by measuring out her hips. As long as that curve of bone rests below the rail, she won't fall.
There's an old nursery rhyme that she remembers Marius having sung to her, long ago before she joined the Silvana. Sophia, during times when imaginary flames explode into hungry lotus-blossoms and lick at the glass of her mind, hums it underneath her breath. It calms her. Her hands touch her stomach, folding like nestled birds across her intestines, and she knows they are five inches from security.
The world would be different if she died. Sophia knows this, not out of vanity, but on a gruelingly personal level that stems from both genetics and the knowledge that goes with them. The world would change, and few people would know why because Sophia has lived hidden for so very long that they don't even think to look for her for hope.
They'd never know if she went off the edge.
Despite that, Sophia's weight remains carefully measured. Her routine sends her up to the balcony walk between the times of seven-forty-five in the morning and eight o'clock, after which her work-shift is expected to begin. She lasts until seven in the evening, with a break between.
At eight, Alex will already be up on the commanding bridge of the Silvana, and won't notice any tardiness on Sophia's behalf, save to comment about how first officers should set better examples.
Sophia counts off the seconds of her pulse as the ship's engines thrum. Sixty ticks to a minute; fifteen minutes for her morning meditations. Her hands are behind her back. Her shoulders are pitched forward.
Twenty seconds for the engines to burst. Thirty for the emergency klaxon to ring. Seventy for the heat-wave to engulf the cockpit officers, and fry the entire ship to a crisp.
When she reaches the count of nine hundred, Sophia turns away from the yawning emptiness and descends the stairwell methodically, step by step. She shorts the last flight of stairs, kicking off midway down, leaping into the air. Alex would reprimand her if he saw, but he doesn't see.
He never does.
As she soars, gazelle-ankles arched, attention trained on the perfection of her landing, Sophia thinks about how many ways a person can fall.
Her boots impact the metal squarely as she lands. Knees crouching, impetus of her body soaking into her hamstrings. The iron crunch is enough to ring warning on the nerves of the mechanics nearby, who jerk their heads around at the sound. Mechanical faults on airships are scant preludes to explosion, and a moment's laxity is a moment too late.
Sophia straightens. She nods to them, brisk and efficient, and the guards look away from the invasion of noise, murmuring to each other in reassurance, just someone jumping.