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Aphelion

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Episode 3

Any Other Way

 

 

Chapter 12: Goes well with trauma.

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Goes well with food, read the cracked screen which hung at an angle in the elevator’s corner. The screen flickered. Not all intentional either, since the thing was clearly broken. Goes well without, followed, along with a perfectly exaggerated picture of a foaming glass of beer.

The thought of food— let alone beer —made Sophya’s stomach lurch. She looked down, hoping that’d be better, but all she found down there was a grimy floor between her shoes and, well, pain. Her neck ached. Her bones felt brittle.

And, to be quite honest, she disliked that.

She disliked the hurt. She disliked the rattle of the cabin. She disliked the jingle of the screen’s sorry speakers. How her head pounded. How the elevator door opened and how V guided her from the cabin, his arm at her back.

He kept a polite distance this time. Didn’t touch her even once, and yet she felt a light pull where his arm hovered; a surface tension that skimmed across her skin and made certain that she kept walking, lest his touch would land.

Yes, she most definitely disliked that.

Gods, she even disliked SIN’s never-ending curiosity as SIN flitted about, a blur of colour that couldn’t make up its mind if it’d like to be a bird or a miniature dragon, and as such had decided on dragon wings, a dragon’s horned head, and a long-feathered plumage.

With her jaw clenched, Sophya shuffled onwards.

Those sluggish steps? Yes, she disliked those, too. And how she got looked at funny at the checkpoint, how she felt judged and talked about the moment her back was turned.

Sophya, miserable as she was, disliked the entire universe. What an unkind thing it was.

Halfway down the too-long hallway, SIN decided she’d grown bored of flying. She landed on Sophya’s shoulder, drawing V’s eyes as she did, and dug her needles for claws into Sophya’s skin with an electric kind of pinch. Then she preened herself, because whyever not, her dragon jaw snapping softly and her feathers shedding colourful motes of light.

At the door— a door to what Sophya realised with dread was meant to be home (How’d that happen?) —V stopped. He put himself in front of it and she knew he was looking at her even before she worked up the courage to raise her chin.

Her teeth ground together.

He, too, disliked a great deal of things at present.

“Alright. I can’t babysit you—“ V gestured vaguely. “—two. I— We— Mom, Gabe, etc, we need credits and that means I gotta work.”

・・・“Driving a cab. In your apocalypse.” SIN’s head tilted so far sideways, she good as looked at him upside down.

“N- no. Yeah. Okay. Kind of. You know what, that’s unimportant and I’m not talking to you.” His eyes fixed on Sophya. Entirely.

She really disliked that.

“Listen very close. I am leaving you here. Here. With my family.” His stare weighed on her enough to squeeze the air from her lungs. “So don’t forget who got you out of the Limbo den and who’s giving you a place to stay. Behave.”

・・・“Haven’t you noticed?” SIN said. “She’s harmless.”

“And you,” he snapped, “I don’t want you fucking with my head while I’m out there.”

・・・“Rrrr. Feisty.”

V’s left eye twitched.

・・・“Fine. Cross my heart. No messing about in your noggin.”

His throat bobbed and he swiped his hand down his face, but, eventually, he went ahead and let them in.


The flat had grown a battlefield on its carpeted floor. Every-day objects shaped a city underneath the coffee table; from stacks of mugs for towers to a hole-riddled dome (a sieve) at the city’s centre. Toy cars occupied imaginary streets. And at the city’s border raged a war between beasts and man’s war machines. Orchestrated by a little boy, no less.

“How is Sebastian?” Ellen Vickers asked from over by the panorama window. She was reading a book. The paper sort, not a WreadSheet. “Did your adventure last evening get him into any trouble?”

“Nothing he can’t handle,” was V’s reply, which he left hanging there as he vanished through his door.

That left Sophya awkwardly stranded in the living room, with Ellen and Gabriel looking up at her.

Sophya most certainly disliked that. So much, she thought it may have been worse than actively fearing for her life. Until she remembered Pete.

Enthusiastic, young, tragically mortal, Pete.

“You look awful.” Ellen closed her book and slid it into a satchel of sorts attached to her wheelchair, before she wheeled away from the window. The make-believe city and its war had been arranged so that she could pass through it without knocking anything over.

Sophya mulled over what she ought to say to that. Yes, I know? Or maybe nothing. Maybe saying nothing was best, and so she kept quiet and only once looked up when SIN took off from her shoulder to fly over to the window. There, the dragon-bird dispersed into a shower of petals and reshaped herself into a cat.

“Are you all set with Dispatch?” Ellen’s question came with a pointed look Sophya’s way, which reminded her a little of whenever Krisi had asked if she’d done her homework.

And now why was she thinking about Krisi? Hugging her arms to her chest, Sophya tried to get ahead of thoughts of her long-lost sister and— with a great deal more effort than it should have been —tried on talking. “I’ve got an ID. But I didn’t feel too well, so we came right back up after the visit to the— ah— the security station?”

“Castle Guard.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that.”

. . .

And what now?

・・・“This place is—“ SIN began—

“This place is well put together?” Sophya concluded. “I mean, the entire arcology? You’ve got police of sorts. A government, too.”

“You could say that.”

“And elections? I’ve seen posters down in the hub and I’ll be honest that isn’t what I’d expected.”

“We’re creatures of habit,” Ellen said, her tone a bit wry. “God forbid we don’t get lied to by a politician for too long or don’t have to pay rent. We’d go feral.” She motioned to the sofa. “Go on. Sit.”

Sophya manoeuvred through the miniature city, and when she sat, a cheese grater shaped tower had itself toppled by a large, stomping reptile kind of thing.

Dinosaurs, the Earthers called them. They were fascinating, in a way, what with how some looked eerily similar to Reaper Devils; a mystery about as thick as the one about how Earthers had known dragons as nothing but figments of their collective imagination.

“We even have bars.” Ellen leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. She was studying Sophya and Sophya, predictable, disliked that. “Restaurants, too, though you’re hard-pressed finding a big selection, a bit like our markets.”

What was she trying to do? Comfort her? Reassure her? Get to the point of everything is going to be alright, even though that’d be a horrible lie and she really had no one but herself to blame?

“There’s even theatre, if that’s your kind of thing, with nightly shows over in the first tower. They perform old Earther plays on even days and Aestling ones on odd days.”

・・・“Oh! Can we go? We must go.” SIN had stretched herself over the back of the sofa, her whiskers twitching and her paws kneading at the air. “There’s absolutely no way we are not going.”

Sophya winced.

“See,” Ellen continued, unaware of Sophya having herself peer-pressured, “Horizon’s Crown isn’t the end of the world. I like to think of it as end of world adjacent, if you will.”

Objectively speaking, Ellen’s encouragement hadn’t been half bad. Realistically though it fell about as flat as Sophya felt. Which Ellen seemed to notice.

“Alright. That’s settled. You’re going to get some rest,” she said. “And after that, I’ll take you to an infirmary.”

Sophya pushed her thumb into her palm and carefully shook her head. “No, that’s fine. I mean, I’m fine. My careChip would tell me if I needed a doctor and it’s kept up alright so far.”

SIN sighed. Blip went a message as it popped into view; the audio entirely unnecessary but laced with a hint of SIN’s frustration. Medical Attention Advised, was what the message read. Sophya dismissed it with a snap of will.

Stop it, she thought. Loudly.

“You’re a worse liar than my son. And I insist. If only so we can get you the right meds.”

“Which’ll cost—“

“I insist,” Ellen echoed, leaving Sophya to capitulate with a meek nod.

A nod that ended with her staring past her knees and down at her dirty shoes. Shoes she should have taken off by the door, she thought, wearily, and wiggled her toes in them.

Gods, when’d she last had shoes that filthy?

Stations and Orbital Islands were clean. Dry. There wasn’t any dirt— or rubble or blood —and even dust had a hard time settling. Even though she’d lived like a mouse that’d gnawed itself a home in a shoe, she’d been a clean mouse. Like the one scurrying up to sit between her shoes; big-eared, small-nosed, with a long, pink tail and tiny pink fingers. Its coat was a drab brown.

Sophya frowned and imagined it a wee chubbier. The mouse puffed out — and then it winked out of existence when a shadow fell over them both and a knee landed on the floor in front of her.

Not only a knee, of course. It came attached to a leg and all, and when her eyes snapped up she found V blinking at the spot between her feet. Right where the mouse had just been.

“Roar!” went Gabriel. “Boom!” Buildings toppled. People screamed (or at least she figured that was what the “Aaa! Aaa!” was meant to be), and then V lifted his eyes to stare at her.

He’d traded in his linen shirt (the one with the deep neckline) and his jeans for something a lot more dangerous looking. Something similar to what he’d worn when SIN had met him back at that den. He still wore his headband though. Along with a whole lot of distrust.

V pointed over his shoulder. “You can crash in my room while I’m gone,” he said, and that surprised her enough to get her to sit up almost straight. “Mom will offer hers—“

“—she certainly is,” Ellen confirmed.

“—but she gets her privacy. And you’re not touching anything, capeesh?”

Sophya’s brows knitted together. “Ca...”

His face went momentarily blank before his mouth quirked into a faint smile. “Means do you understand.”

“Ah. Yes. I do.”

“Great.” He slipped two fingers into a pocket on his trousers, a gesture that made her look and quickly catch sight of a handgun strapped to his thigh. With that came a sudden clarity; the knowledge that, wherever he was going, it was not about to be particularly safe.

“Here,” he said and pulled a familiar chain from the pocket. “You dropped that and I figured you’d want it back.”

Her feather pendant. She’d assumed it lost forever, and now that it dangled there in front of her, all Sophya could do was stare at it. At least until he pulled the chain’s loop wide apart, shifted closer, and slowly lowered it over her head. Neither the chain nor his knuckles touched her. They were a whisper apart from her, a threat of warmth that stayed clear of her until he let go and the chain settled around her neck.

If she’d put it there— if she’d just swiped the pendant from a table —it’d have been cold, but, instead, the metal links carried an intrusive, unfamiliar warmth.

And yet—

Her necklace. Her gods forsaken necklace.

How come she’d gotten her jewellery back, and how come she’d made it out of the den, and how come a boy screaming for his mother hadn’t?

・・・“Stop,” SIN said. She’d slunk down from the back of the sofa and leaned against Sophya’s hip. A soft purr rumbled around in her chest. “You’re spiralling.”

Sophya, desperate to shake a sudden, overwhelming urge to bawl, pushed her tongue against her teeth and set her jaw so tight, she thought it might come away with hairline fractures.

And V looked at her with an odd curiosity that she couldn’t stand.

“Don’t make me regret this,” he whispered after a moment of staring.

Which was funny. Almost.

Since all Sophya felt made of right now was just that.


Minutes later, Ellen offered Sophya water and a slice of bread. The water she took. The bread she could barely stand to look at. Then— on account of Gabriel being a whirlwind that couldn’t be contained —Ellen shooed her off the sofa and into V’s room.

“Rest,” the Vickers mother insisted.

Sophya relented. She peeled her shoes off— which was a lot of effort and almost made her head spin off her shoulders —and then dragged herself to the door. There, she met another challenge: the actual walking in bit. Why? Because she felt like a trespasser. Which was silly, really, considering he’d invited her.

Still.

SIN, free from shame, had already made herself at home on the bed, where she’d traded in her paws for barefooted feet. Not like that made her any less cattish, truth be told.

・・・“Come in already.” SIN flopped to the side and wiggled her fingers at Sophya. “And look. Isn’t this all fascinating? There’s no rhyme or reason to this place.” She swung her arm up to indicate a landscape of too much everything crammed into a too-small space. “This man ’s a disaster.”

“Be nice,” Sophya mouthed and finally closed the door.

・・・“I’m being perfectly mild-mannered.”

“Of course you are,” she whispered. Her shuffle from the door to the bed, which stood at the far left side of the room, was a slow affair. And not one she spent being nosy. She was far too exhausted for that.

“How are you so calm about all of this?” Sophya asked once she passed the room’s desk. It had a chair pushed under it and was loaded down with papers, WreadSheets, electronics, and Ro-knew-what-else. If it’d ever been used to write on, then that’d been about two layers of clutter ago. “Why aren’t you… scared?”

SIN sat up. While that didn’t make the bed creak under her, it gave an idea of a creak. A suggestion, one for Sophya to accept at face value.

“Because I’m terrified. I think, anyway. Under all the tired. But you? It’s like you’re enjoying this.”

SIN’s eyes drifted down and she jutted her narrow chin towards Sophya’s feet. Sophya, always attentive to SIN’s whims, looked down. A length of cloth had caught on her toes. One of V’s headbands, she figured, since she’d seen a set of drawers out of the corner of her eye that’d been overflowing with them.

. . .

There was no way she’d risk bending down to get it. She might fall and never get up. Sighing, she continued her long and hazardous journey from here to bed.

・・・“It’s new,” SIN eventually said. “We’ve not had new in years. Hell, I hadn’t known this to be anywhere near possible and I ought to know this sort of thing, shouldn’t I?”

“You didn’t know shuttles can crash?”

SIN expression flattened. The look she threw Sophya was about as deadpan as she could possibly manage.

・・・“No. This.” A mess of smoky threads bloomed in the air, pulled along by SIN’s arm sweeping to the side. Their colours remained unchanged from earlier; SIN’s hard red, Sophya’s dusky blue, and V’s twitching orange.

“So— you’re—“ Sophya reached the bed. Which, as it turned out, was low enough to have her ache all over as she struggled to sit. “—in two places at once now? One SIN here, one SIN there? I can’t fathom.”

・・・“No.”

Sophya willed her legs up on the bed next, careful to avoid SIN out of habit alone. “No? Does that mean the solution to this is that we get far, far away from him and never look back? Because I’m all for that, except for the bit where it’d require me to walk.”

・・・“Afraid not.”

Retrieving the headband from her foot came next and that proved to be a slow and painful quest by itself. She was winded by the time she’d grabbed it. Her ears gave a shrill ring.

“And what does that mean?”

・・・“I— I don’t know.” SIN’s tone was uncharacteristically morose. “All I’m certain of is that he left a piece with us and we, in turn, left pieces with him. Plural. You and me, both.” SIN flicked a finger at an orange curl of smoke. The smoke unfurled in response, forming a tail of sorts that wrapped tight around SIN’s finger. Glaring, she tried to pull away, but the thread held fast. “I can’t talk to him. Or see him. But he’s here regardless, like a sneeze that won’t let itself be — you know — sneezed.”

SIN shook her finger. The thread clung on.

・・・“And the farther away he gets, the more unpleasant the unsneezed sneeze. Now, I’ve got not the slightest what this feels like to him, but I wager it won’t be too comfortable or — oh will you let go already.” Frustrated, SIN jerked her wrist left, then right, a motion she had to repeat four times before the thread finally let go, leaving it to slink back into the squirming mass of coloured smoke.

Sophya didn’t know what to make of what SIN had said. Especially about the bit where she’d mentioned they’d both left something with him — and how that ought to distress her a lot more than it currently did. But as it was, that particular demon shuffled neatly in line and waited its turn, while Sophya sunk into the bed, the headband still clutched in her hand.

The moment she’d settled down, the sheets and pillows surrounded her with a scent not unlike peat ground to ash; the same as what’d tickled at her nose when V had draped the pendant over her neck.

She puffed out air. Her grip on the headband tightened.

“It was terrible for me,” she admitted. “You were gone, SIN. For the first time. Ever. Gone.” Tears burnt at her eyes. She blinked them away. “I was alone and I didn’t know what to do.”

Once again, the bed didn’t creak. Not really. Though Sophya understood it ought to and accepted the illusion; especially once SIN had returned to be all lank and paws and white-tufted ears, and had climbed onto her chest. Her touch wasn’t real and neither was the weight. The pressure, a warm, electric buzz, was a hollow suggestion playing off Sophya’s soul, but even so, it was all she’d ever known. All she’d ever had. And all she couldn’t be without.

Ever again.

“I’m scared. I’m scared that if I close my eyes and if I fall asleep, I’ll wake up to that pit in me again and that you’ll be gone. For good.”

・・・“I won’t,” SIN said, her voice wrapped in a purr. “I’ll be right here when you wake. I promise.”

Sophya disliked how she feared it anyway. How she dreaded it, and how she couldn’t fight her exhaustion anymore.

The very same pulled her under, though not before she remembered she’d forgotten something crucial. Something so important, it baffled her how’d she forgotten it in the first place. But there it was: tucked away in the recess of her mind, where it’d waited patiently for her thoughts to still before it made itself known again.

Her dreams.

She’d dreamt.

Of Krisi. Of Dust and Ruin. Of Folly’s child, come falling.

Sophya, her fingers squeezing the cloth she still held on to, grappled with sleep.

Sleep won.