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Chapter 14: Soulwho?

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Sophya hadn't ever wished for a lot of things in her life. Certainly not from the bottom of her heart. Sure, she'd have liked to see Krisi again, and turning back time to undo some wrongs, that'd have been swell. But beyond that, she'd never much been the sort to want and wish and desire. Ponies? Pfeh. A kiss from a particular boy? Pfeh. Girl? Pfeh once again.

Ride a dragon?

Maybe. But that was getting off-topic, because the thing at hand, the thing she wished for, right now, was that she could please, for Elaya's undying love, not wake up, because what she found there when she'd come to with her heart beating wildly, was fear. Vivid. Cruel. Desperate to hide from it, she tried to curl into a tight ball, though the moment she as much as twitched, the pain caught up with her.

“Are you up?” a small voice called, disagreeing with how she very much did not want to be. Gabriel.

Go away, she almost said, only to clench her teeth and labour to sit. Now she was up. Regretfully.

“Mom wants to go to the doctor with you,” the boy continued cheerfully. He stood in the room’s doorway, where he clutched one of those Captain Starblaze toys to his chest. He’d put shoes on and had thrown what looked like a thin coat over his small kid shoulders. “So you don’t die, she says. And so I can go to the Tweedle.”

Sophya blinked.

・・・ “Aren’t kids just the most charming creatures?” SIN— feline tail held high —whisked past Gabriel, and, without saying another word, abandoned her.

Or that was what it felt like anyway. Being abandoned. Left alone with a child and with her thoughts; those hollow, sluggish things that turned around in her head without much rhyme and even less reason.

Okay, she was being dramatic there. She’d earned the right to though.

Sighing, Sophya rolled off the bed, her muscles and bones in open rebellion about the whole thing, and then limped her way out the door.


Ellen took one look at her and told her to freshen up. That was fair. Sophya was entirely unfit for the public; and remained unfit regardless of her efforts, even after she’d splashed water in her face, straightened her ponytail, and sorted out her borrowed clothes.

Time seemed to move at an odd pace. Like it wasn’t quite quick enough. And sometimes way too. Had it been a minute since she’d spaced out while staring at the bar of soap on the bathroom sink? Or five seconds? Had she just re-done her ponytail the second or the sixth time and why’d she forgotten all the others?

It was maddening.

When her bathroom time and space adventures were done, Sophya found Gabriel gone from the flat and Ellen waiting by the front door. The Vickers mother didn’t rush her, nor chide her when it took Sophya forever to put her shoes on. Just sat there, in her chair, with that shotgun by her side and with what must have been an endless well of patience to spare.

She never said a word, either. Not until Sophya had finally managed to wrestle the lip of her right shoe into submission. Then Ellen laid out the plan she’d hatched while Sophya had slept.

“We’re going down to the infirmary on the 20th, so it’ll be a bit of a walk. Do you think you’ll manage?”

Sophya nodded.

“Great. And how’s your appetite?”

How was her appetite? Sophya considered the question for a moment, until she settled on an, “I know I’ve got to eat.”

“Sensible. V probably won’t be back until after we’re done with your doctor’s visit, so I’m thinking we’ll pick up noodles on the way back. I cannot be bothered cooking for all four of us today. So. What do you think? Takeout?”

Sophya tried to steer her emotions towards something resembling enthusiasm, but her stomach remained undecided. Hungry? Not hungry. Maybe hungry. Potentially hungry. Could also throw up though. Starving! No, wait. Please. No food, that’s horrid.

And so on and so forth. Plus, a ten-yard stare, apparently.

・・・ “Repeat after me,” SIN offered as she appeared by Sophya’s side, barefooted, freckled, and red-headed. “That. Would. Be. Lovely. Thank, you.” Her tone had fallen to a mocking, robotic cadence. 

Sophya gathered up whatever exhausted brain cells she could find. “That— that’d be lovely,” she echoed. “Thank you.”


After he had ditched the aether with Olof and given the whole Runner’s station a beat-by-beat retelling of his Too Close Encounter Of The Choking-Kink Kind, Varrett finally dragged his aching bones back into the unit. Barely in and he pulled to a halt, with the sliding doors snapping shut maybe half an inch from his ass, and then he kind of just stood there. Motionless. His pack hung awkwardly from his left shoulder. His headband had ridden down onto his forehead at a lopsided angle. And his right sock had slipped down and was all bunched up under his heel.

. . .

Varrett sighed.

The empty unit responded with resounding silence.

Which was nice. Really nice. The hush felt like a goopy, cool balm on his nerves; not unlike that moment when you stepped out of a party where they’d been blasting music at ungodly volumes all night, giving your thoughts a chance to hear each other again.

Or when you killed your Hawk’s engines. Let it drift. Gave yourself up to its trajectory, with the void of space stretching on around you, reaching for that elusive concept of infinity.

But then there was the ever-present full-body pinch on his insides, that reminder of his haunting. Had it dulled? Yeah. A bit. The closer he’d gotten to CA5TLE, the less in his face it’d been. But it was still there. Still itched.

Varrett absent-mindedly scratched at his chest. That did nothing to help, naturally.

Anyway. Shower.

He kicked off his shoes. Threw his pack aside. Shed his clothes and gear, and then he endured yet another cold shower with the dignity of a two-year-old whose favourite cartoon had just been turned off mid-episode.

Once a squeaky, shivering clean, Varrett wandered his naked ass into his room, where he threw on whatever clothes he could find without having to go hunt for them, and flopped down on the bed. A bed that came with the unfamiliar scent of dusty feathers stuck to the pillow and blanket. Because, yeah, he’d had a girl in here and— tragically —it’d been the first one since he’d moved in.

Something about thin walls.

Varrett snorted, grabbed his pillow, and turned himself sideways, ready for a snooze.

Rookie mistake.

The moment his eyelids fluttered shut, the pale Palace nightmare came tearing after him. It leapt right out of the pitch-black, perfectly quiet, perfectly quick, and perfectly ready to end him. Startled, Varrett’s eyes snapped open and he dispelled the mirage with a thump of his fist against the wall.

Which, in hindsight, was pretty dumb too and left him sucking on his knuckles, moping, until a message released him from his self-inflicted misery.

[Col] Have small child. Will trade for gossip.

Right. Mom had sent Gabriel off to stay at the Tweedling Dragon while she’d taken the Pagan to a clinic. Which meant whatever peace Varrett had tried to carve from the day was about to come to an end.

Grunting, he rolled off the bed and shot a message ahead.

[V³] One sec.

At the door, Varrett was greeted first by Gabriel colliding with his leg for a full-body hug, and then by Collin wearing a delighted smile and about a hundred different colours.

Yeah, okay. That was a slight exaggeration. Slight. Collin’s baggy outfit came with ribbons tied around his pants (a very Aestling kinda look), and each set of those ribbons was about five rainbows worth of vibrant. Where Collin managed to scrounge up those closes was beyond him.

“Did our muchkin behave?” Varrett glanced down at Gabriel and carefully turned the kid’s wrist so he could count the Shimmer bracelet’s indicator lights. Four. Which totally didn’t feel like a blow to the gut and a reminder of how whatever Varrett did day in and day out, there’d never be an end to it.

Pretty exhausting shit.

“He was on Crimp watch most of the time. Hardly got off the couch.”

“He looked out of his house!” Gabriel announced. “Collin said Crimp likes me.”

“Of course he does. Everyone likes you.” Varrett squeezed Gabriel’s shoulder. “Except me, of course.”

Gabriel pouted. With a weapons-grade quality pout, no less.

“I love you, doofus.”

“But Mom loves me.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I’m not gonna fight her over it, so I guess we’re gonna have to share. Now, Gabe, go cause some havoc. Shoo.”

A clumsy kid salute and a pair of discarded shoes later, Gabriel zipped into the unit, off to look for adventure with his toys.

And that left Collin and him stranded by the door like a pair of indecisive teenagers. Which would have been funny, if it hadn’t been for the way Collin kept staring at Varrett like he was some new shiny piece of tech to investigate. The sort that’d explode in your face if you pushed the wrong button.

“Jesus, Col. Come on in already.”

His head crowding with a headache, Varrett locked the door behind them and slunk back to his room. Collin trailed him like a nerd stalking said new tech.

Pointing at the makeshift bed on the couch, Collin eventually asked, “So you’re really letting her stay here?”

“Mhm.”

“That doesn’t look very cozy, not gonna lie.”

“Boo-hoo.”

Silence followed after that. Not the comfortable one from earlier, but the one loaded with unsaid words that pilled onto Varrett’s back as he walked.

“And how’d it go?” was what Collin eventually chose to break it with.

Varrett thumped back into his bed. He was tired, okay? Didn’t want to sit. Let alone stand. All he wanted was to stretch out and maybe forget about the last two days. Was that too much to ask?

His hand dove back behind his head and quested in the crack between the mattress and the wall until he found the rubber ball he’d stuck down there a few nights ago.

“How did what go, Collin?” He lopped the ball at the opposite wall. Thud. It came back. He caught it.

Collin grabbed the desk chair and wheeled it over on its squeaky wheels before he planted his reedy frame into it. “Being, you know, haunted? Come on, V. I need details. Spill them.”

“NetSage boy thinks this is exciting, huh?” Varrett threw the ball again. Thud. Catch. It was a grounding exercise. Soothing. Simple. Mechanical. Budget therapy, Varrett liked to call it; an uncomplicated, repetitive task meant to put his thoughts back in line and keep his hands busy. “Well, it’s not. It sucks. I hate it. 1/10, don’t recommend.”

“Sucks?” Squeak went the chair’s wheels as Collin scooted closer to the bed. His eyes were all wide. “Present tense? Are you saying you’re still—“

Toss. Thud. Catch.

“Yep. I mean, she’s been leaving me alone since midday, but she’s still here.” He tapped his chest between a throw and a catch. “Somewhere. I can tell.”

Collin kept wiggling the chair nearer. “She?”

“Mhm. She has this—“ Varrett held up the ball and gave it a slight wiggle. “—petite, spitfire kinda avatar. Red hair. Freckles. Deep-Aestling accent, etc.”

Collin’s knees had reached the bed. They knocked into the frame. When Varrett glanced at him, he’d steepled his fingers under his chin.

“Gee, Col. You’re getting a kick out of this, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely. I’ve never heard of an Aestling-coded Patron before. Believe me, I’m invested.

Varrett shrugged and threw the ball again. Thud. Catch. Repeat. “The Pagan is Aestling, maybe that’s why? Fucked if I knew how this shit works.”

“Shut. The. Door. For real?”

“For real.”

“And what’s she like?”

Quirking a brow, Varrett turned to peer at Collin, though he didn’t stop tossing the ball. On any other day, that’d have been fine. He was good like that, okay? But today? Today was not like any other day. Nor was this week like any other, or the month, or the last three godforsaken years. He missed the catch. The ball bounced off his forehead.

Defeated, Varrett sat, folded his legs under him, and leaned his back against the wall.

“You want me to make introductions, is that it?” he asked.

Collin looked sheepish. “I just want to know what you’re dealing with.”

“What I’m dealing with is a little bitch of an AI, that’s what. Calls herself SIN.”

Collin flinched.

“Yeah, I know. Edgy name, huh?”

“No, I mean, you’re still calling her names after what she did to you on my chair? Aren’t you worried she’ll— I don’t know—” Collin’s bony shoulders bounced up. “—attack? Would that be the right word?”

Varrett scoffed. Though he did pause for a moment, his eyes shifting left and right, halfway expecting SIN to decide Collin’s idea was great and that she should, in fact, stab his brain with her AI claws.

She didn’t, and so Varrett cleared his throat and folded out his left hand, his palm facing upwards.

Sophya’s less than flattering ID headshot flickered into view, projected to sit two inches above the cradle of his palm. The photograph had been Seb’s work. And, yeah, she looked horrible in it: an exhausted, battered thing, with blood weeping from the stapled wound on her head and her ponytail all kinds of messed up.

“And that’s her Pagan. She’s… you know what? I have no idea. She doesn’t talk much.”

“Soulwright?” Collin blurted. “Sophya Soulwright?”

Varrett’s eyes cut up, to Collin and his slightly unhinged jaw. “Yeah? That’s what it says on the ID. I’m so glad you can read?”

“Soulwright,” Collin repeated. His slender brows had gotten cozy with his forehead. “Soul. Wright. The. Soulwrights.”

“Look, just because you keep saying it doesn’t mean it’ll make any more sense to me.”

“Really? You’re telling me you haven’t heard of them?”

Varrett’s face sorted itself into the flattest of expressions he could slap on. Which was pretty damn hard. His face was naturally expressive. (Or so he liked to think.)

“Alright.” Collin leaned back in the chair. He wore a grin— something proud and maybe a little smug —and lifted his hands in front of his face, both thumbs and index fingers extended to create a frame. “Picture this! We’re hundred upon hundreds of years ago, long before the Aesten pulled you Earthers from, ah, Earth—“

“—says the half-Earther,” Varrett interrupted him. He squeezed the projected ID out of existence and thumped the back of his head against the wall.

“Yeah, yeah. Hush. So, we’re all the way back then, when a small family of two decides to leave Trero and strike out into the Settled Systems, driven by a need to make a difference. They’re both powerful Sare. Medica. Healers. And they—“

“Col.”

Collin’s face fell a bit. “Really, V? You are going to be like that?”

“What I am like, is tired.” Varrett idly scratched at his neck. “And my head is pounding. So, yeah, I am gonna be like that and ask you nicely to get to the point.”

“Okay, that’s fair. Here’s the point: the Soulwrights were an old Aestling Sare family. They started out pioneering healing techniques and then moved on to Aesten-tech cybernetics when that became a thing. And I’m not saying they dabbled in it. No. The Soulwrights are the ones who created LinkWeave.”

Varrett pushed his back up on the wall, sitting straight. He’d been slouching. But this was not a slouching matter anymore, even if slouching was really all he wanted to do. “Pause. They invented LinkWeave?”

“Wicked, right? Without them, we might not have hopped the soul-tech barrier as we did. Ever. We’d be plugging into wall sockets to recharge and have entire circuit boards jammed into our brainpans.”

A bit like Seb.

Now, if Sophya had been an Earther, then having her wear a last name adjacent to some great family wouldn’t have been worth a second thought. An Earther named Einstein didn’t necessarily mean they traced their name back to that dude with the floofy white hair.

Aestling though?

They were obsessed with heritage. With their names, their crests.

Though that didn’t mean Varrett took it at face value.

“Yeah, I don’t buy it,” he said. “That’d make her some kinda— what? Business baroness? What’s she doing sneaking into HC with those kinds of resources?”

Ah. Shit. Brain to mouth: Shut up.

“Sneak? V, are you holding out on me? Are you rewarding my diligent Gabe-sitting work by keeping secrets? That’s not very fair.”

“No?” His voice tipped sideways. “Forget I said anything.”

“Too late. But!” Collin poised a finger in a Wait, I’m about to give you an even bigger headache kind of way. “I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Or the tragic one. The reason why you, an otherwise relatively intelligent person—”

“Excuse me.”

“—haven’t heard of them is because they had contracts with Arcnetics, letting them use their research in return for handling all the distribution and whatnot. Plus, you know, funding. But about six years ago, the Soulwrights decided they were done propping up Arcnetics with their tech and started gunning for an independent brand instead. Arcnetics didn’t like that. They had a feeling the Soulwrights had something up their sleeve that’d majorly cut into their market share, and so they sued them.”

“They win?” was Varrett’s auto-pilot response. Corporate drama did nothing for him. If anything, it liked to put him to sleep.

“We never got to find out. A year later, a freak accident practically wipes out the entire Soulwright family.” Collin snapped his fingers. “Gone. In a blink. The only ones who survived were the two daughters to the current Vik, the head of the family. Now, I don’t know what the youngest one was called, but the older one, Krisi, she inherited everything. The company. The estate. The entire burden of keeping that old name going. So, what does she do? She thinks I cannot be arsed with this and straight-up sells out to Arcnetics. Dumps everything into their lap. And just like that—“ Collin rocked back into his chair, his arms falling away at his sides. “—a giant topples.”

Varrett’s gut churned uncomfortably.

This had gone from corporate drama to something else entirely and he didn’t know what to do with it. There were implications piling themselves atop more implications, and they were building a rickety tower that’d collapse on top of him if he made a wrong move. “That’s…” Desperate to squeeze something, he groped around on the bed until his fingers found the rubber ball. “…yeah, I got nothing.”

“Come on, V. This is a little cool, right? You’re sharing a unit with a Sare. An old-name one. Sure, she’s got baggage, but we’re in Horizon’s Crown. Who here doesn’t?” As if to underline his point, Collin palmed his Shimmer bracelet.

“She’s a Pagan.” Varrett gave the rubber ball a good squeeze. Predictably, his headache was getting worse. “That’s cargo. Not baggage.”

And what now? he thought. Now I get to worry if this whole ‘I’m here to find my sis,’ deal wasn’t because she misses her but because she’s out for revenge? Did I just get front seats to a revenge plot?

He squeezed the ball one more time for good measure.

“Oh!” Collin perked up like an Einling that’d spotted a shiny piece of circuitry. “This whole Aestling NetPagan thing is making a lot more sense all of a sudden.”

“What.”

“Okay. Imagine you belong to this age-old lineage of Sare.”

Varrett’s otherwise vivid imagination gave a rattling cough and rolled over dead. It didn’t even make an effort.

But you’re Unmarked. Or, worse, you’re born a Quirk. This means you got all your Sare markings, but nothing else to show for it. None of your fam’s fabled Medica powers, no shields, no anything. Just a lot of expectations and no way to live up to them. So what do you do? You trick yourself out with daddy’s gear and look for the next best thing that’s out there: a Patron. Aaaand, boom. Instant Sare-lite.”

・・・“What a creative lad,” came a purring whisper from Varrett’s left. “He should pick up writing. Don’t you agree?”

Varrett’s heart relocated to his throat and grew a whole row of new pistons. Which it all fired. At once. He jerked to the side and— out of some primal, misplaced instinct that screamed THROW SHIT—chucked the rubber ball at the redhead sitting next to him. The ball passed right through her, bounced off the next wall, and came back at him with force. He swiped it from the air.

Collin, his eyes wide, rolled the chair back, all of a sudden no longer anywhere near as invested as he’d been a second before.

・・・“Dear me. Have I gone and startled you?” SIN asked, her voice dripping mirth.

Varrett glared at her. Which meant he probably looked like a complete idiot staring daggers at empty air. So he grabbed his pillow, threw it at SIN, and pushed himself off the bed.

“Time to go, Col,” he said.

“But—“

“No. You’re not getting mixed up in this.”

“I’m already stirred in, V. I was there yesterday, remember? And I’m not forgetting about it. So, are you going to tell me what happened?” Misplaced resolve crept back into the kid’s spine. “That was the Patron, right? What’d she do?”

“Nothing. She did nothing.”

・・・“Don’t be such a spoilsport.” SIN strode past Varrett, her hands folded behind her back. She swept up next to Collin, with her head cocked sideways, and peered at him intently. Like she was fixing to eat him. “He’s a treat.”

Varrett inhaled sharply. “Shut up.”

Collin— who’d opened his mouth to retort —snapped that same mouth shut again.

“Not you.“ Varrett groaned. “I mean, yeah. You too. Not a word to anyone about this, okay? No theorising. No wild speculations. Not a peep to my mom, or Seb, or your uncle. Not even Crimp. Are we clear?”

“As day,” said Collin as Varrett ushered him out into the main unit.

“Great. Now get out before—“ Mom comes back.

・・・“You’re not having a good day, are you?” SIN taunted him as the front door hissed open.

Varrett’s hands balled into fists, which meant the ball he still clutched was getting a real good squishing.

“Put them down in the kitchen,” Mom called, a preamble to the NetPagan shuffling into the unit.

Oh, we are going to have words, he swore — only for the anger he’d been building in his gut to choke on its own aimless drive.

Sophya carried two bags, one in each hand. The bags were painted with an abundance of steaming noodles and they smelled great, but the noodles weren’t exactly what Varrett focused on. Sophya wore a collar. A neck brace. An oversized white foam thing supported by a blue plastic frame.

And that really did his think meat in as it tried its hardest to put that image together with Collin’s tales of some grand old Sare bloodline and infinite wealth.

“Hi,” Collin piped up by Varrett’s side, snapping Varrett back into focus.

The kid even waved. A lame little sideways wag of an otherwise limp wrist.

Sophya, startled by the sudden attention if that little full-body twitch was anything to go by, looked at them. Awkwardly. She didn’t exactly have a lot of motion in her neck at present. Her glance shifted subtly to the side after a moment, a movement easily dismissed as her averting her eyes if it hadn’t been for SIN standing there.

・・・“He’s alright,” SIN said. “And never mind his quivering boots. He knows.

Sophya’s shoulders stiffened and her eyes cut up to Varrett. You told on us? was what the look said.

Varrett felt momentarily offended.

Not cool. I’m not a snitch, he thought, cleared his throat, and moseyed over to her. NetPagan or not, great Sare bloodline or not, Queen of matchbook of fleas or not — she was still someone who’d only just been through a shuttle crash.

And who carried his hard-earned dinner around.

He’d be mad later.

Sophya went rigid when he reached her. And stayed rigid, especially as he carefully reached for the bags clutched in her hands.

Behind him, Collin had himself greeted by Mom, which amounted to hugs and gossip and, overall, a great distraction. Especially once Gabriel got involved, too. They’d be at it for ages.

Varrett seized the moment and leaned in close to the stiffly frozen Sophya, his fingers working on getting the first bag out of her hand since she’d decided to clench up entirely.

“I didn’t tell him a thing,” he whispered. “Collin found out yesterday when he thought he was purging a watchdog daemon. And, yeah, he’s a good kid. He won’t tell a soul.”

“Oh,” she mumbled at his chest. Neck braces were restrictive like that.

“Now, please. Unhand the noodles.”

She didn’t. In fact, she clutched the bags even tighter. Something he hadn’t figured to be possible, but then there they were: with Varrett fiddling idly at her locked fist, and her not budging.

“I’m fine,” she protested with the bite of a goldfish. “They’re not heavy.”

“I’m sure you are, but this is my house, and I get to be nice here whenever I want to. Let go.”

She puffed out air. Her breath tickled at his chest. “You’ve got no sense for personal space, do you?”

Varrett hummed briefly. “Not when there are noodles involved, no, then all bets are off.”


Sophya relented. Why she’d even made a fuzz to begin with was beyond her, since all she wanted to do was sit down and not move for a while. Ellen had been right. There’d been a lot of walking. Plus, people. Everywhere. And then there’d been needles down at the doctor’s office. Stabby, awful needles.

Her day had been horrid.

She let go of the first bag and V swiped it away, only to shove something into her now unoccupied hand. Sophya grabbed it out of reflex alone.

A ball.

He’d traded her a rubber ball.

It was warm and, well, ball-shaped, and Sophya stared at it, her mind pleasantly confused into silence. What was she supposed to do with a ball? What did you do with a ball, come to think of it? She turned it dumbly. Once this way. Then that way, and while she did that, V relieved her of the second bag of noodles.

The ball remained a ball.

・・・“Oh no,” SIN commented from somewhere off to the side. “You broke her.”

Grunt, was V’s brief response, right before he launched into a series of colourful words and phrases, most related to the state of his life, the creative application of a broom, and a— storm?

Sophya shuffled on her feet, turning ever so slowly so she could look at V as he stood by the kitchen. He was ranting at the panorama windows. Or, rather, at the horizon (Oooh— dizzy. She squeezed the ball.) which had begun to bruise from something else than the onset of evening.

She didn’t know what to make of it, and so Sophya returned to pondering the ball, what to do with it, how to care for it, and why it made her want to break down in tears.