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Chapter 9: Tightrope Exposition

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


At the tender age of fifteen-and-something Varrett had given in to peer-pressured curiosity and bought what he’d assumed to be a flake of dragon scale.

He’d squeaked his way through the purchase with the elegance of a freaked out teen, and then he’d carried the thin, red chip in its tiny tin for weeks before he’d finally worked up enough rebellious courage to lock himself into his room onboard the Dream of Neverland. She’d been moored at an orbital island above Yaer’Ard right then, her navigation and communications systems in pieces after a rough ride through the Well. Repairs had been slow. Money tight. And he’d been too young to care about any of it.

He’d dimmed his room’s lights to the point of them being useless, had laid back on his bunk, and plopped the flake on the tip of his tongue. Then he’d waited. And waited. And waited, the Neverland quietly cycling through her routines beyond the cabin bulkheads.

Dragon flakes were meant to crack your eyes open, to let you see through those mortal trappings blinding you so you could spy on people’s souls. Including your very own. That’s what it said on the tin, anyway. Literally.

Well. That’d been a load of bull, hadn’t it?

When the dragon scale had finally hit him (hard), it’d been shit. He’d hallucinated for hours, had seen the Neverland’s walls turn liquid and threaten to drown him, and watched in helpless horror as squirming tendrils made from molten iron had tried to squeeze the life out of him.

But it’d all just been in his head. The hallucinations had sat on the surface, a trip hardly any worse than his first horror VR flick experience, with the exception that he hadn’t been able to unplug. Fucked up as the shit he’d seen had been, he’d known it hadn’t been real, even if it had done its very best pretending.

This? This shit right now?

It was worse. Oh, it was so much worse.

The Pagan clapped her hands. The light show vanished. But Varrett remained violated. Yeah. Violated. That was a great word right there. Something had reached inside him and it’d grabbed him and it’d rummaged around where nothing ever should be doing any rummaging, and now he felt awful.

His skin crawled. On the inside. His heart was denting his ribcage up real bad, as he stood there staring at the Pagan and her Patron with his jaw in desperate need of re-hinging. His mind felt one wrong thought away from crumbling.

・・・“Don’t overthink it,” the cat— the Patron, SIN, or whatever —said, her cat mouth moving in perfect sync with the words. She peered at him from between her Pagan’s arms, looking nothing like a thing that could fry his neurons to a crip.

You should have stayed in bed, he lamented in silence. Out loud, he just about managed a small, miserable groan and a grab at the back of his neck. He was going to have an aneurysm.

Unless his low blood pressure got him first. Or he straight up starved. Taking a deep breath, Varrett swept all the unknowns that’d been piling up under a lumpy rug. He’d have to deal with this, yeah. But there wasn’t going to be any dealing with anything unless he understood it, and he didn’t stand a chance understanding squat while he was hangry.

“You know, anyone reasonable would show you the door,” he said, his words coming out tight.

・・・“Lucky us you’re everything but, mh?” The ca— SIN —climbed from her Pagan’s arms, an animation so intricate he thought he saw her paws leave indents where they touched skin or cloth. She scaled the Pagan’s shoulder, flicked her tail once, and then leapt up onto the back of the couch to look out across the sad remains of Horizon’s Crown’s nighttime skyline.

That, too, made no sense. The Patron had no eyes to look out that way with since her Pagan a) was busy studying the carpets and b) had a pair of organic eyes. Did that mean she was using his?

Varrett blinked, turned sharply, and kicked the thought of the Patron seeing through his veil to the side and into a dark corner. No. Not dealing with this right now. He’d continue with the sandwiches. Because sandwiches made sense. He could deal with sandwiches. Easy.

He popped the lid off one of the boozy peach jam jars he’d looted earlier today and gave the thing a quick whiff to check if it’d gone bad. See? Easy. Even if knowing what/who sat behind him was hella distracting. He dumped a generous blob of jam on his bread, gave it a sloppy pat with a knife, and folded the second slice over it. So what if he’d stuck an anchor somewhere where he shouldn’t have and there’d been consequences? He pushed down on the bread. Goopy jam got squished out from between the slices. No big deal. He’d get his shit together and he’d figure it out. Maybe not right now, sure, but this wasn’t so bad, was it?

Varrett glanced at the couch. Specifically at the Pagan, who looked nothing like the woman who’d faced him in the Limbo den.

And who almost beat the shit out of you.

He grunted and slapped down two more slices of bread. Those got vegetable paste spread on them because no way she’d get the good stuff. He was petty like that.

Well, that’s not entirely true though, is it, he thought. Not the bit about him being petty. Because, damn, was he petty. The bit about her looking different. She didn’t. Not really. She had the same features. The same haircut. Same gear. But that was where the similarities ended.

He spread the vegetable paste while keeping an eye on her.

At the den, she’d carried herself straight, her shoulders hard and every step full of violent purpose. A purpose that’d shown in her eyes just as much as it’d shown in how she’d held the baton; like she’d known exactly what to do with it if he’d given her the chance. Now? Now, all that violence was gone, replaced by a fallen together, huddled thing. She looked about as threatening as a round, poofy bird.

It weirded him out, okay?

He folded her bread slices together and stuck the knife into his mouth.

What doesn’t weird you out right now?

The Pagan flinched when he flicked the knife into the sink — and when he turned back into the living room carrying the soggy sandwiches, she shifted back, like she was trying to slide between the couch cushions.

Fear.

Just like Mom had said: she was absolutely terrified.

For a second, Varrett felt like a jerk. An excruciating second which he spent chewing on his bottom lip and trying to reassess the situation. Least until her Patron slunk along the backrest and past her shoulders and he remembered the whole trying to punch his lights out thing.

No. She didn’t need his pity.

So what if she’d just stranded herself in Horizon’s Crown? Wasn’t like that was something you did on a whim or by accident alone; at some point in time she must have made a decision. A colossally stupid one.

“Why were you on the shuttle?” He offered her the question alongside her sandwich, holding it out in front of her. When she made to take it, he jerked it out of reach. “You didn’t just figure Hey, Horizon’s Crown has great weather this time of year. I should pop down for a tan. Are you—” He gestured at the both of them. “—running? Did you think no one’d care if a Pagan and her Patron rock up here?”

Her eyes fixed on the sandwich, but not in an I’m real hungry, give me the grub, kind of way. More in a defeated I don’t know what else to look at one.

“No,” she eventually said at length before turning her chin to look at SIN parked on the backrest.

SIN shrugged. ・・・“We’re here to find her sister.”

Varrett blinked. “Her…”

・・・“Sister. Tre lend me strength, aren’t you Hawk Jockeys supposed to be quick of wit?”

He glared.

・・・“We lost her when she came to Elpis right before the outbreak. Haven’t heard a peep since.”

Because she’s dead. Or worse, he thought.

The Pagan folded forward and pushed her thumb into her palm. When she spoke, her voice was thin. “I know she’s here. I know she’s alive.”

At any other given time, Varrett might have gotten down on his knees right about now, turned up the puppy dog eyes, and launched into a speech about hope and probabilities and chances. But today? Today, he froze.

“Hold up,” he croaked. “Can you— can you read my mind? Like, my thoughts? What I’m thinking?” Hoo-boy, so much for getting his shit together.

She finally looked up, though she didn’t hold his eyes for longer than a second before they drifted off to his shoulder. “No, of course not,” she mumbled.

He took a deep breath. “Can… she?”

・・・“No,” the Patron said.

“Probably,” confessed the Pagan.

Varrett’s eye twitched. “You want that sandwich anytime soon?”

She sat in silence for a moment, like she contemplated the question, and finally gave a timid nod.

“Then get your stories straight.” He jabbed his elbow at the front door. “Earlier, when I came in? I heard you. Clear as day.”

“That’s different. It’s more like broadcasting with intent. Talking without talking, if that makes any sense.” Her thumb pushed harder into her palm. “It’s hard to explain.”

He gave his bottom lip another thoughtful chew. “Right. So, like a neuralware veil link? You get to dial the sensitivity up or down so the interface doesn’t lag or pick up on the wrong stimuli? The whole ‘Shit, I could go for some noodles right now’ thing where you don’t want it to list every noodle joint just ‘cause you got a craving?”

“I suppose. SIN and I agreed she ought to not listen in unasked and, for the most part, she doesn’t. She’s polite like that. I mean, sometimes.”

SIN snorted and earned herself a sharp look from her Pagan. Sharpish, anyway. There wasn’t a single hard edge on that woman.

“And while I’m past making a fuss about it, she’ll extend that courtesy to you and stay out of your thoughts. Entirely. At all times. Won’t she?”

Varrett had his doubt face on. One that turned hard when SIN fixed him in a steady stare.

・・・“As long as he doesn’t fancy throwing you out any windows again,” she said. Unlike her Pagan, she held his eyes. “Uncalled for, that was.”

He fought the urge to squish his sandwich, wanting nothing more than to ball his hand into a fist. And maybe stomp his foot while he was at it.

“Please, SIN. I’ve already got a headache and this isn’t helping.”

・・・“Fine. She will. Elaya be my witness all over again.”

His doubt face still engaged, Varrett relented. There was nothing but exhaustion rolling off the Pagan and he couldn’t keep pretending that it wasn’t scratching at his conscience. Circumstances aside (glowy, pawed circumstances and weird-ass trippy visions), what he had sitting in front of him was a tired and scared woman.

“Deal,” he said, lowering her sandwich into easy reach. “Sophya, right?”

She nodded. The sandwich remained unclaimed.

“Sophya.” He practically had to push the food under her nose before she finally grabbed it. “My mom took a gamble letting you stay. Don’t make her regret it, yeah? You leave her and Gabe out of this and I’ll even consider apologizing for the window thing.”

Her eyes flicked up briefly from where she’d been staring at the sandwich. Though she didn’t seem near as fascinated by it as SIN, who’d slunk down from the back of the couch to sniff at the bread. He tried not to ‘overthink’ why a projection would do that. God, there was a lot he was trying not to think about right now, wasn’t there?

Eventually, Sophya nodded.

“Now you— and her —need to figure out how to explain all this crap to me.” He gestured between them, his bread flopping around in his hand, hopelessly soggy from the jam. “You know. That— that— that whatever it was. And then you fix it.”

Her brow furrowed, but she nodded again. Gee, her nods were about the sorriest things. Blink once and you’d miss them.

Varrett took a ginormous bite from his sandwich, choked it down, and added (with his mouth still busy): “Once you don’t have a headache.”

That prompted her to raise her chin and give him a look he sorted under surprised, but it didn’t mean she held it very long. Before too long she’d dropped her eyes back to her food. Her untouched food.

Sighing— and cracking a wide yawn that made his jaw pop —Varrett abandoned the couch and wandered across the room to throw a bunch of drawers open. Maybe she was one of those Can’t eat while someone’s looking at me people.

“You get the couch,” he said, returning with spare blankets and a pillow. “Scoot.”

Sophya didn’t as much scoot as she shied away from him, like he’d snap her way and bite her head off or something. And hey, there was that you’re a jerk moment again. A moment he didn’t need and a moment he didn’t want and one that made him wish she’d stop looking so damn timid and try to box him in the throat instead.

At least then he’d stop having to feel so God damn conflicted.

Grunting at himself, Varrett shoved one end of the blanket into the gap by the couch’s armrest and threw the other end in her direction. She lifted her food out of the way when the blanket landed on her lap and regarded him with a brief, muted look out of dull (and still bloodshot) eyes. Yeah, definitely no veils. They had a bruised depth that no artificial replacement could have mimicked, no matter how expensive.

He cleared his throat. “Alright. Now for the ground rules. You’re not touching anything. I see you snooping around and I’ll stop caring what Mom thinks and drag you down to Castle Guard by the ponytail if I have to. She’ll forgive me.”

・・・“I won’t.”

He tossed the pillow at SIN. She dodged it like any real cat would have, with grace and a glare of pure indignation.

“No snooping,” Sophya echoed back at him before she finally got around to nibbling on her food.

“Good girl.”

She froze mid-nibble.

Varrett figured he might have found that cute if he hadn’t been so damn grouchy. He was tired, okay? And his stomach bullying him still wasn’t helping. Adamant to reclaim some sort of control, he got up, left Sophya where she was without further comment, and returned to the kitchen on a quest for more bread stacks. He made two more sets— more jam, more veggie paste —got a mini-tray and two filled glasses of water, and, ultimately, dumped himself into the recliner facing her. The second veggie sandwich landed on the coffee table, along with the water. His feet followed.

Cue awkward silence.

・・・“He’s got questions,” SIN said as she hopped onto the table and slunk around near his feet. He leaned them away when she drew close enough to touch the soles of his boots.

She wasn’t wrong though. Annoying? Yeah. Creepy? Absolutely. Wrong? No.

“A whole bag full of ‘em.” He pretended to be pinching a note from a bag hanging in the air in front of him, even squinted at his empty fingers like he was reading. At least until they weren’t empty anymore. Without warning, a slip of lightly glowing paper appeared pinched between his fingers. Varrett’s heart rapped against his chest. He dropped the paper. It unravelled into light as it fell, vanishing.

・・・“What’d that one say?”

“Stop. Doing. That,” he half-growled, every word an exercise in restraint.

・・・“Wasn’t me,” she said, coyly. Back on the couch, her Pagan turned a faint shade of red around the cheeks.

What in the—

・・・“So. What’d it say?”

Varrett took an angry chomp out of his sandwich and didn’t bother chewing. “Monarch doesn’t usually do visiting hours in HC, so how’d you get on the shuttle? Do you work for them?”

Sophya gave her food a contemplative look before her eyes flicked up and met his. Did they stick this time? Nope. A tick later and they slid to his shoulder. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose and her brows pinched.

・・・“We came down with a group of press reps,” SIN offered. “See, it’s been three years since Elpis got locked down and that means three years of curated news and updates funnelled up through your Monarch administration. That’s a lot of years for everyone else to start spinning all sorts of wild tales about what’s really going on down here.”

He cocked a brow. Not that it came as much of a surprise, but hearing it from someone who’d only recently been free to roam the settled systems however they pleased (while he was stuck down here like gum plastered to a rotting shoe) hit different.

・・・“Trine got tired of the rumours and organized a joint press effort to get reputable sources down into the city. Ones that the public will listen to and who they’ll believe in a three-years-since kind of deal.”

Varrett’s eyes slid from Sophya to SIN and back. “You’re a reporter then? Looking for a scoop and your sis?”

Sophya shook her head. “I’m not,” she said, finally having found her voice or something. “Charlie Crane is.”

“Charlie-who?”

・・・“Charlie Crane, a mind-bogglingly good shutterbug she is. A prodigy of prodigies. Royalty to be among the media vultures. A queen vulture, if you will.”

Sophya huffed. But she kept talking, putting each word after the other with what Varrett began to realize must have been a lot of effort. “Trine reserved three seats in the group for a competition, which they opened up to people with a less traditional audience. One went to an independent WreadSheet blogger, one to—” She hesitated. “—a kid with like two-hundred-million-or-so Echo subscribers and, ah, a shutterbug with a gift.”

・・・“All thanks to a bit of algorithm tweaking.”

“You hacked yourself a ticket? How very NetPagan of you.”

Sophya’s lips twitched and her throat bobbed. She didn’t look up.

Hey. V? Yeah. You. You’re a jerk.

“Alright. Okay. So— now you’re in HC. Let’s assume for a second you didn’t crash and everything is going perfectly. How did you plan on finding your sister? Or, you know, if we get even deeper into the hypothetical, make it off the planet with her?”

For a while, neither of them spoke and Varrett thought he saw SIN look to Sophya with an expression of… what? Pity? It looked sad, anyway.

“I don’t know. I thought I’d start by asking? The arcologies are supposed to have records of everyone who took shelter in them, no?”

“Mhmm,” was all he had to say to that, too busy scarfing down another quarter of his second sandwich to form more words.

“And after that, I thought I’d— wing it. Hard planning when you don’t know what you’re walking into because everyone is being cagy about what’s happening down here.”

Wow. Was this for real? Was he supposed to believe her?

“I don’t know if I’m buying any of this,” he said, truthfully. “But I do know that you’re either really brave or really, really stupid.”

・・・“Her? Mostly wayward. That’s her,” SIN said.

Sophya sniffed and glared at her. “Oh, get bent,” she muttered back, only to flinch and pinch at her nose again, her brow furrowed in pain.

Wayward.

Get bent.

A feather pendant, and all that swearing to Elaya?

“You’re Aestling,” his mouth said before he got around to telling it how it ought to mind its own business for a bit longer. Maybe by gobbling down both their sandwiches, considering she’d be working on her first for the rest of the night at the pace she was going.

・・・“A tired one,” SIN replied without missing a beat. She stuck herself between them, her tail held exceptionally high. “She needs rest. What’s it matter anyway? You one of those Earthers? Are you about to give us a speech? I don’t like speeches.”

“What? No. But Aestling aren’t your typical Pagans, are they? It’s not very a’sam ley.

・・・“Aha, look at that. He speaks some Aesten after all.”

“He does. And he also knows it’s more of an Earther thing to go make deals with our home-baked gods.”

SIN’s head turned — and kept rotating until she flopped onto her back, her paws up to knead air. ・・・“Or goddesses.”

“That’s not what—” He clenched his jaw. “For the record? I know you’re just a fuckton of nasty ones and zeroes.”

・・・“Ow. You wound me.”

“If only,” he muttered back.


When Sophya had imagined all the things she’d find down in Horizon’s Crown, SIN bickering with a man lounging in a recliner hadn’t crossed her mind once. She kept out of it, her eyes fixed on the bread in her hands while trying not to move too much. Every time she did, the needles in her head grew into awfully large spikes.

“You really don’t like my cooking, huh?”

She jerked her chin up. STAB went a particularly painful spike, one that sat somewhere at the base of her skull.

The man— whose name she’d already forgotten, but who SIN helpfully labelled with a V floating by his forehead —looked right at her.

Was he smiling? She blinked, wondering if it’d melt away, but, no. It was still there. A smile. It looked tired and wasn’t on quite evenly, hiking up a bit higher into his stubble on one side than the other, but… it was a smile. The first one since he’d murder-strutted through the door and thought about defenestrating her; a desire so vivid, she now realised it’d been him imagining it, not her, and she’d just picked it up like she’d caught a glance at a flick running on a screen while passing by.

A shiver ran up and down her spine.

“Cooking,” he repeated, quieter this time around and with air-quotes added for effect. His smile grew a tad. If there was a word for it out there, then it’d be disarming.

Except Sophya was about as armed as a mudworm. One that didn’t know what to do with the question or the smile and defaulted to saying nothing.

“It’s the bread, isn’t it? It’s more spongy than wheat bread.”

She nodded dumbly along. It did have a bit of an odd texture.

“Elpis has these willow stalk things that grow all year long and put down roots practically everywhere. So that’s what that is.”

Another dumb nod.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said — right before he yawned loudly and stuffed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth. Not at the same time, of course. That’d be silly.

Used to it.

The words slowly sank deeper and a weight so great she thought it’d crush her right then and there settled over her. It came with a wash of frigid cold chased by boiling heat, and the not-wheat bread in her hands was suddenly both the most significant and pointless thing in the universe. Sophya looked out the window again. Out over Horizon’s Crown.

Elaya shepherd her sad little soul…

…she really hadn’t thought any of this through.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to ponder that for long.


The front door opened and Ellen came on through, prompting V’s feet to fly off the table. Sophya entertained the thought that maybe he wasn’t meant to slouch in the recliner like that: with his boots up, his ankles crossed, and a heavy stare levelled her way over the tips of those boots. The stare had nailed her to the sofa about as effectively as literal nails would have. Smile or not.

He got up, took two long steps over to Ellen, and snatched a WreadSheet from her extended hand. One flick of his wrist and it came on. His brow pinched.

“Those are her intake documents,” Ellen explained.

V’s brow went from pinching to slanting down like he was the one with the headache. “Uh-huh. I can read. So, uh, hey— that’s funny. This looks like your signature down here.” He tapped the WreadSheet. “Right where it says unit registration? That chicken scratch looks like it says Ellen Vickers.

“Mhm,” she hummed in reply.

“Mom.” He glared. Very sharply, Sophya decided. And maybe a little desperately.

Ellen didn’t look fuzzed in the slightest. She glanced over to the sofa, gave Sophya a passing wink, and then turned back to V with a smile on her lips. “What’d I say about mom-ing me?”

“Fucking hell. When you said ’stay’ earlier, I figured you meant for the night. You know, like a cosy sleepover until she’s registered with Dispatch?”

Ellen shrugged.

He took another peek at the sheet and lowered his voice, the volume dragged down by something else than a genuine attempt at keeping her from hearing. Shame, maybe. “I know I said I had this, and I meant it, but that doesn’t change how we’re almost broke.”

“She doesn’t have a single credit to her name yet. You know what happens if you start off with debt in the Castles.”

“Yeah. I know.“ He paused. His jaw flexed. And then he tossed Sophya a look and threw his hands up. “No offence, but this isn’t our problem. She isn’t our problem.”

・・・“Oh, I’m about to make this—” SIN started, but Sophya clicked her teeth down on her tongue and pumped one hand into a fist. Shush. SIN huffed and rolled herself into a cinnamon coloured ball while Sophya struggled with herding together her thoughts. They were all upside down. She put some of them upright, waited for one more beat, and finally found the courage to speak.

“He’s right. I’m not your problem and I’m not about to make myself that. So, thank you. For trying. For the help. But I’ll manage from here.”

She always did. Somehow.

“See?” V spread his arms. “She’ll be fine.”

“Will you both stop?” Ellen jerked her chair around to face Sophya. “You don’t have any Castle credit yet. Without it, Dispatch will toss you into the mass barracks until you can buy your way out. To buy your way out, you need credits, and the only way to get credits is Dispatch assigned labour.”

Sophya sank deeper into the sofa. Ellen’s stare was no less effective than V’s.

A stare which she thankfully turned back on her son. “Does she look like she’ll be labouring any time soon? Hm? She’s been in a crash, V. She needs time, which Dispatch won’t give her any of. Add to that her pretty cranials and she’ll be dead in a week.”

Sophya’s jaw jumped. She brushed a trembling finger over the grooves of her implants.

“Wow, Mom. That’s harsh.”

“So is Horizon’s Crown.”

V let out a drawn-out sigh and grabbed at the back of his neck. If he’d looked up— which he fortunately didn’t —he’d have seen letters and numbers floating above his unkempt mop of hair.

Mom Vickers: 2, said the first row, all perky angles and smooth curves in rich neon orange.V: 0, said the one underneath. Its lines were droopy. And the colour dim.

Still curled in a ball, SIN purred up a smug storm.

“That’s settled, then?” Ellen asked.

Sophya didn’t catch V’s response and neither did she manage to put one together herself. She was in pain. She was confused and she was scared. And tucked under all that she was also mortified over how helpless she felt.

Someone put the WreadSheet down on the coffee table. Told her to fill out the rest. She barely mustered a nod. Pain blockers followed: two small pills that got left behind next to her water glass.

Then, some unknown time later, Ellen said You’ll feel better tomorrow. Sophya wasn’t convinced. She just sat there, food in her hands that made her stomach roil whenever she smelled it, and that growing sense of helplessness dancing on her shoulders.

The lights dimmed.

A door closed.

Finally, Sophya lifted her head, only to find Ellen gone and V pausing by his door, a look thrown her way that said Behave, or else, before he ducked into the room. The door shut with a soft click of wood on wood.

・・・“We’ll grow on him,” SIN said. Her gently glowing form and the lights seeping in through the large windows was all Sophya had to see by.

Sophya exhaled slowly, traded the food for a gulp of water and the pain blockers, and then struggled to lie down.

“I don’t want to grow on anyone,” she whispered. She pulled the blanket up to her chin with aching arms. And wished for sleep to come fetch her. It was the only way left for her to slip Horizon’s Crown’s terrible grip.