Aboard the Winnow
“Wow. Wow! Artifact must’ve fallen out.” Avett throws his hand out into the void. “Artifact fell out! Where? How fucking far back did you drop it?”
“Don’t worry,” Lili mumbles, “I’ll just wait for the dread to settle in.”
“Fuck!” A fist-sized rock shoots past her ear, hits the wall ten metres in front of her, and smashes into a million pieces. “Incompetant. Literally useless! How do you do this—you do something impressive, you disappoint me, you compromise the mission, then you somehow impress me again. We’re supposed to get to know each other on the field, princess. Not go through every fuckin’ stage of post marital counselling, dammit!”
Lili flinches at that. Marital. It takes all of her mental power to not recall that particularly pleasant dream. She knows she should be feeling a hot cloud of shame right now for dropping the artifact, but the truth is she doesn’t care what he has to say at all. Her pockets were sealed—and are still sealed—shut. There is no physically feasible way that the artifact could’ve even left her pocket. It had, quite literally, vanished into thin fucking air. But she digresses. Avett’s voice is a low buzz of white noise against the constant hum of—no, not dread, not anymore. The constant thrum of indignation. Of wanting to do something, anything, so badly that it starts to gnaw at your insides.
She locks up her discomfort. Locks it all away into a tight, iron-padded box and swallows the key. She needs to focus on the artifact, not what it wants her to feel.
Maybe the key to getting out of the mall is figuring out exactly what the artifact wants from them.
She glances back at Avett. He’s red faced, panting, clearly enraged despite Lili’s disengagement from the conversation. Precisely because of Lili’s disengagement. This is the same kid who whacked off in the detention room seven years ago. Who somehow got into enough trouble everyday to practically live in said room for an entire year. And now look at him—a hardass, unforgiving egotist.
She liked the story. It pulled her out of that dark spot, made her experience actually bearable. Hell, she’s even willing to bet that the artifact liked it, considering it immediately released its hold on her upon hearing the first part of his…
Lili glances back at her own hands. The artifact hates her. Or, at least, in comparison to its relationship with Avett. She remembers the immense disappointment it had felt when she broke out of her dream. How it had expected her to not only experience the euphoria of starting a family, but also to see its dream to its end.
How it had flashed in Avett’s hands not a moment after, as if it had found a home and a long lost friend all at once.
“I can’t believe it.” Avett grabs her shoulder, digs his fingers into her bones like he’s a grave robber and she’s a corpse. “That went in one ear and out the other, huh? You really just don’t give a—”
“Did you, by any chance, know any A or S rank dragons?”
Stunned into silence, it’s all Avett can do to keep his mouth from gaping like a dumb fish. It’s enough for Lili to wrench his hand off her shoulder and say, “Friend, interest, romantic intrigue—it doesn’t matter what type of relationship it was.”
He doubles down on the violence instead, gripping fistfuls of her cape in anger. “What, suggesting I fuck dragons now? Is that what we’re doing? Because I could deliver a whole damn cargo bay full of targeted insults before you even get one out.”
“The artifact. It knows you. By extension, the dragon knows you as well.”
She watches with bated breath as his hands ball tighter in her cape before he lets her go and paces back a few steps.
Then he immediately whirls on her again. “Let me get this straight. I’m a merc. We don’t talk to dragons—we kill them. I don’t know what you did out in the field for six years—mighta’ fucked with your head a little—but you don’t talk to dragons. That’s not a thing that happens.”
Even then, there’s doubt in his eyes. The pieces are all falling into place, and it’s starting to make sense why the artifact had given him such a knowing flash when he’d taken it in his hands.
She’s not so eager about this next part, but she powers through all the same.
“Tell me another story about yourself,” Lili asks. “We might not be able to find the artifact—maybe we can entice it back.”
For a second, Lili worries that he’ll brush her off again. That he’ll call her idea rubbish and start walking off, artifact scanner in one hand, the Therian equivalent of a middle finger in the other.
But then he looks behind and below him, throws down his crossbow, and sits.
“Couldn’t hurt to try, I guess.”
Lili takes her spot next to him on the ground. He shuffles slightly to the side, gives her a scowl that wrinkles the markings at his eyes.
“I have had at least six exes,” he finally settles on saying.
A solid beat of silence wafts through the air.
“No reaction. Ok.” He starts counting on his fingers. “First I had Eri. Middle school. Forgot why we broke up. Then right after I had Aoife. Broke up with her because she had the same name as my sister. Then I had Bel—forgot her full name, but we dated in merc school—pretty much a specialised high school for mercenaries—she broke up with me over… something. Had something to do with grades. She came out the next year.”
The list goes on and on. Lili has always thought that relationships—romantic and otherwise—were a heavy investment of emotion, a grand opening of one’s true person to the other. Avett burns through women like kindling. He’s forgotten the presence they’ve had in his life already. Or maybe it’s just easier to say you’ve forgotten.
“…And then there’s Jasmina.” Avett toys with the artifact scanner in his hands. “My father and her mother were good friends; naturally, we got arranged together. I was nineteen—already two years into bounty hunting. We broke up because… I’m a merc. And I only ever got to visit home for a month every year.”
He rubs his mouth with a hand.
Then he catches himself and shoots a glance at Lili. “That enough for you?”
She shrugs. “I dunno, never been in a relationship.”
He chokes. “The artifact, smartass.”
Right. Right. She shuts her eyes, searching for that thread of injustice. At this point, it’s hardly there anymore—faded into an insignificant blip, a wisp of carefully bottled rage. Disappointment weighs down her stomach before molding itself into shame. She’d been wrong after all.
But when she turns to meet Avett’s no doubtedly smug gaze, she’s met with something else.
A hot, powerful surge of energy, similar to the artifact’s own—and entirely different. To compare these two would be like putting a tsunami against a wave at low tide. Same concept, same idea, different magnitudes. They had been lured here, all for this. She clutches her head. It’s going to overwhelm her. What should she do about it?
Something stirs inside of Lili. Don’t let it find me, don’t let it find me, it whispers. It’s dark, sinister, burns like charcoal and warms her soul from the inside out.
For the second time that day, she’s hiding. She grabs at everything and anything she knows about herself and swirls it all behind a curtain, away from the artifact, away from the world like she’s always done.
And it works. The energy passes over her like a hawk that’s missed its prey. She’s safe.
Then she snaps her eyes open again. What about Avett? She scrambles over the rubble, trips over the ground on those same damn tiles. Where is he? If he’s not trained, he can’t hide his soul, and if he can’t hide himself then—
A groan, and then the slow crunch of ceramic material against concrete. Lili whips around. He’s behind her, crumpled up and twitching in pain, but he’s there. She heaves a sigh of relief.
“Avett?” Lili leans down and touches his shoulder. He shifts, then bats her away like a fly.
“I’m fine, don’t touch me.” He rolls onto his back, hand massaging his forehead. “Wait, where…”
It’s then that Lili realises that their surroundings have changed. Instead of dull, paint-faded storefronts, they’re surrounded by shelves and crates of weaponry and ammunition. The walls are a shiny, metallic grey, and they’re close enough to make merely being in this room an unpleasant squeeze. A ship’s storage room.
Avett jumps to his feet and immediately stumbles into the nearest cluster of boxes. Lili reaches out to steady him before he turns this entire area inside out, but he pounds a fist into the wall before he trips over himself again. The fluorescent lights flicker to life above them. When he lets his arm fall to his side, Lili can’t see any indication of a button there. For all she knows, he’s just slammed a wall and hoped for the best.
“Have you…” Lili trails off. She wants to ask if Avett’s been here before, in this specific room, except he’s already tripping over himself towards the door, his breath quickening as he fumbles with the handle.
“We can’t be here,” he mumbles. His voice is a low drone, as if he’s reciting a mantra to himself. “We can’t be here—fucking—open!”
The door gives a few adamant clicks before swinging outwards and slamming against the other side of the wall.
This time, it’s Lili’s turn to stagger backwards.
On the wall in front of them, in no uncertain terms, is a bright splatter of blood.
“Holy shit,” she ends up saying.
Avett crumples to his knees, his eyes wholly trained on the sight in front of him. She wonders if he can smell the lingering tang of iron because of his Kattish nose. Or if he’s too shellshocked to even perceive anything other than the sight of… even Lili has to look away. The amount of violence that had to have taken place for blood to spill like that is palpable.
She steps past Avett. He doesn’t need her support right now—he just needs a moment to himself. Besides, he’s been swatting her away all day. What’s he going to get out of her comfort?
When she enters the corridor, she finds that the location of each room is similar to the Winnow’s. None of the lights are on, but the navigation room is lit up. A low, warm glow against the dim walls.
She gives one last glance to Avett.
“Look if you want, I guess.” He’s curled himself into a ball against the wall, his knees tucked into his chest. “Whatever… gets us out of here.”
She’s not sure what she’ll be looking at all, but she makes her way down the corridor anyway. Slumped against the walls are two bodies, though thankfully, their faces have been blurred into obscurity. There’s a man mumbling something, and strangely enough, the closer she gets to it the further he seems to go. Like he’s fading. Time is just not on his side anymore.
Then there’s a familiar, soft yet harsh-toned voice. “Please! I’ll do everything right next time, I-I’ll stay on the ship, just—fucking stay with me, I’m begging you—”
Lili whirls around, expecting Avett to be there, sobbing his eyes out and acting weirdly out-of-character. No, the sound came from in front of her. In navigation.
She sneaks up to the entrance and peeks around the corner.
Avett is kneeling over a bloodied figure. He’s wearing the full arms specialist uniform; a bright splash of yellow against the cold bite of steel. The whole scene, in fact, seems far too saturated for the scene that’s unfolding right in front of her.
The man below him is wearing the backline caster’s uniform. The blood blends in perfectly with his tunic, making it look like his clothes have simply pooled around him. He’s got a shock of white, cropped hair, and he’s also got a pair of mobile, animalistic ears upon his head. Kattish. Might have graduated with Avett. They’re both so young, Lili thinks. She can’t look away. She’s clearly infringing on Avett’s privacy here, and yet the scene is so deeply tragic that she can’t help but stand and remember her own tragedies.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it.” The man touches a bloody hand to Avett’s cheek, leaving three red strokes. “You compromised the entire mission. You are incompetent—useless, even. But you’re alive. You’re the last one standing on this bitching merc ship.”
Avett doesn’t say a word, only takes his hand in a shaky grip.
“Don’t look at me like that.” The caster manages a grin. “Don’t look at me like I haven’t just slaughtered two of our crew members.”
The bloodstain on the walls. The bodies she’d found on her way here.
Lili feels her stomach drop as she watches Avett shake the stilled figure over and over, his shrill cries blending and fading into each other until the room is dark once more.
The figures have vanished.
Lili turns, and sees that another part of the ship is lit up. The small room in front of the ship’s entrance. Avett is sitting down on a bench, still wearing his yellow jumpsuit, the three lines of blood on his cheek having dried into a deep brown a while ago. When she turns the corner, she sees two masked figures in long cloaks. Judging from their heights, both are Gallian. New Order Gallians, from the way they’re talking.
“There’s just a kid on this ship,” one mumbles to the other. “One traumatised, scared kid. Looks like the majority of his crew died fighting each other over A04’s aura.”
“Talk like he’s actually in the room, alright?” The slightly taller Gallian leans down, his large hands gripping Avett’s shoulders easily. “You’re lucky you got out alive. You and your crew are C rankers—pitted against an A rank. One that’s been stumping the IRC’s dispatch team for a good damn year now precisely because of what happened here.” He gestures to the bloodstain. The sheets of cloth thrown over the lumps of dead bodies.
Avett doesn’t follow his gaze. The first Gallian sighs like he’s got a warm bed and a cold dinner waiting from him at home. “Need your name, age, race, specialisation…”
“My ID’s here,” Avett says, a hand in his pocket already.
“Nope. It’s protocol. State your details.”
He pauses for a second before responding with, “Avett Ironsturm, seventeen, Kattish, arms specialist and mechanic onboard the Steelian.”
Lili’s hands stiffen against her sides. He was nineteen when he first arrived on Earth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was also his first day working as a merc. This is something even Ysh’vanna, someone who seems far too aware of her crew’s private affairs, doesn’t know.
“In what region did your crew encounter A04?”
“Stars,” the taller Gallian says. “A04 overloaded the navigation panel the moment the Steelian came within a kilometre of it. He piloted this junker all the way to Central Therius manually.”
The shorter Gallian shoots him a glance. “What was that about talking to the kid, not at him?”
Further exchanges are made, words passed but nothing seems to budge Avett. He just sits, head down, hands curled lightly on his knees, and answers every question they throw at him. Lili doesn’t even realise that the scene has faded entirely until she’s left standing in the dark hulls of the ship again, the figures—and bodies, thankfully—now blinked out of existence.
She doesn’t know what to say.
“Now you know,” a voice behind her croaks. “My dirty little secret.”
“I don’t understand.” Lili doesn’t turn to meet him, her eyes fixed to the ground. “Your crew… just collectively all lost it? Started murdering each other out of nowhere?”
She hears the awkward shifting of clothes, the all too attentive tug at the hem of his jacket. “That particular A rank… A04, had a particularly potent aura that reduced the inhibitions of every biological lifeform within a kilometre of it. Made us violent.”
Hot blood splatters across the walls of her mind. “Did… did you?”
A sigh. Avett pushes past Lili and seats himself on the bench. “Could’ve approached the subject a little more tactfully, but no. I didn’t kill any of my crewmates. Figured out how to leave this place yet, princess? Because I’m really not interested in having you rifle through my memories like this.”
She falters. “I… this is all—”
Something terrible snaps in Avett. Like a rubber band that’s been stretched for far, far too long.
“All what, princess?” He storms up to her, grabs her shoulders so tightly that she can feel his fingers stabbing into her skin. Her wound throbs. “You’re sorry this happened to me? You’re fucking giving me pity? You wouldn’t be the first—nor the last—fucker to do it.”
Lili blinks. Avett’s using her as an outlet for his rage again, and she’s doing fuck all about it. She’d always believed that being someone who existed, someone who swam with the current rather than against it, was easier than fighting back and making a place for yourself. But now she’s up against Avett, and she’s done everything to please him—but he’s still angry. It’s like he can tear right through all of those disinterested facades and guards and walls, and see her for who she really is. A nobody. A girl too afraid to care.
Avett simply continues. “Know why it’s a secret? Know why this memory’s down here, instead of up here?” He stabs a finger into his head. ”To keep people like you, people who’d never fucking understand, from telling me just how sorry they are that something like this happened to poor old me, and how terrible everything is that I didn’t do anything to deserve it—”
She can’t stand it. Can’t stand being his punching bag. How had she endured eighteen years of all of this wall hugging?
Avett is sent stumbling backwards until he hits the wall on the other side. Lili looks down at her hand.
It’s faintly stinging of ether and indignation.
“You think I don’t get it?” she shrills. Her hand splays against the wall between his head and neck. “Everyone I knew is gone. Either they’re dead, or I’ll never see them again. My entire life before all of this—gone, gone, all fucking gone.”
He tries to push her back, but the pure, instinctual rage that’s boiling away at her insides is far, far too potent. Her ether flares as she holds him there. Forcing him to listen.
“That’s not all, asshole—I spent fucking three years wallowing in my own mental filth after Ava died, and I watched it happen. I was useless. She berated me every fucking minute she spent struggling to stay awake, then after that she begged me to just end her sorry life. My childhood friend of eighteen years, someone who molded me into their perfect little bitch—and she’s in a pool of her own blood, begging for a sweeter death while I’m trying in vain to save her. Everyday I ask myself if I care that I’ve lost her, and everyday I come up with another, totally different answer. I don’t want to hear that, ‘but you don’t understand!’ garbage. Because I do. More than you know.”
For once, Avett is at a loss for words. Finally, he asks, “Did… you?”
Lili narrows her eyes and steels her jaw. Her arm falls to her side.
“S-stars.” He looks to the floor. “I’m… sorry that happened to you.”
Despite herself, she chuckles and folds her arms.
Avett blushes. Hard. Even his tail starts wiggling out of discomfort. “Eating my own words, huh.”
“I was isolated for four years following Ava’s death, so nobody was around to ‘console’ me—but I don’t think there are words big enough to express sympathy at that level. But there are actions.” She folds her arms and leans against the wall next to him. “I’ll listen to you.”
Avett hesitates for the briefest of seconds, but it’s enough to make Lili’s breath catch in her throat. Maybe she’d been too hard on him, maybe what she’d said was absolutely irredeemable, and now he’s never, ever going to want anything to do with her again.
But then he bumps his shoulder against hers and whispers, “Thanks.” It’s a small gesture, and she almost mistakes it for something less than friendly. The mere brush of skin to skin contact, something she’d never taken as a necessity even in her isolated years, ripples through her body—makes her feel like she’s basking in the warmth of the sun in autumn.
And then he starts talking.