You’ve got this, she told herself, you can do this. Yet if that was the case, why did she feel so sick? Well, Poppy, she told herself the card clasped in her hand, that much should be fairly obvious. Her gaze darted again towards the ring of people surrounding her in the cordoned off space, their makeshift arena, a notable absence amongst them.
Across from her the older woman looked dispassionate, stern and unyielding, still in her lab coat, the midday sun high above her, the shape of her homunculus floating before her. That expression would soon change, Poppy thought to herself.
The woman’s creature was an ugly, infantile shape, almost human but for the wings that spread from its back. She knew, of course, that they were not real wings; that was impossible. If they were wings, they would need to be a lot bigger in order to support its weight. She knew that they were actually antennae, methods by which the artificial creature sensed the movements of both predator and prey, but it didn’t make the sight any less unnerving.
A cherub, they called it, XF-C class she was told, as if such things meant anything to her.
Why did other people pick the weird ones? Was it to psyche out their opponents? Why had she even agreed to do this? A stupid tournament between impossible creatures held at the behest of the world’s most expansive and morally dubious corporation, the Firmament Foundation. Her grandfather’s equally dubious legacy.
He would be watching, she thought with disgust. Maybe not in the crowd, but somewhere, from a window, on a monitor screen—the Foundation’s most revered figurehead, Doc Labyrinth, would be watching events as they unfolded.
Yet he wouldn’t be the only one watching, would he? She lifted her head, scanning the crowd, trying to see that familiar face, the one face that would give her the courage to overcome her reluctance.
Then what? she asked herself. Will you go weak at the knees? Will you start fawning like a child? You’re not a child, Poppy Labyrinth, you’re the best at what you do, so why don’t you prove it?
She held the card tighter, the muscles of her arm tense, and hesitated: not quite able to bring up to the cheap red and yellow plastic box she wore upon her wrist; not yet ready to commit to the fact that she was participating in something so very, very stupid.
You’ve got this, she told herself again, you can do this.
Her lips twitched, she brought the card down, sliding it through the narrow trench, feeling the shape of it dissolve into light as it passed through, slipping from her fingers.
“Apprentice Summoner Poppy requests your presence!” she called out, her voice carrying none of the anxiety she felt. “Magcat, come through!”
Instantly, the light coalesced into a shape in the dirt, a slender and graceful black cat with open magpie wings, tail swishing angrily behind her, her mouth open in a warning hiss.
Before her, the older woman wasted no time.
“Charlie! Dust Storm!” she yelled, throwing her arm out, pointing towards Poppy.
The gesture made the shape of her coat stir up around her, revealing the tweed skirt, the dark of her turtleneck sweater.
The tiny cherub did not hesitate, its delicate frame tensing, the antennae stirring up the dust at their feet, swaying the petals of the flowers beyond their makeshift arena.
Poppy ground her teeth together. The goal of the tiny cherub’s movements was not to cause harm but to distract, she knew this. All of those who favoured creatures like the cherub were the same, their attention focused on overcompensating for the weaknesses of the physical form in order to distract prey and move in close-range where they might seize hold and take advantage. The antennae that sprung from the cherub’s back
s and gave it that angelic quality were used to search out the location of those around it, to listen to changes in the environment and know when it was in danger. So, when your first move was making this much dust in order to disconcert your foe, you only put yourself at a disadvantage.
It didn’t matter. Her magcat was a mid-range homunculus, a winged beast, but that didn’t mean that Poppy was going to yield the initiative.
“Don’t pay attention, take flight!” she said firmly.
The lithe creature darted forward, tail swishing, running low to the ground as if her aim was to charge directly at the cherub, until, at the last moment, her wings lifted her up, the shape of her lithe body soaring above them, stirring up a wave of dust and dirt before the other homunculus in such a fashion that it put the smaller creature’s efforts to shame.
“Pounce!” Poppy called out sharply.
Through the cloud of dust summoned by both its own efforts and that of her magcat’s wings, she saw a look of panic on the all-too human face of the other homunculus.
The older woman’s voice was suddenly fraught, full of panic, and her command was entirely too late. Not so dispassionate now, Poppy thought. From above, the magcat descended, slamming into the other creature, crushing into the ground, its antennae crumpled beneath it, the weight of her forepaws pinning it to the dirt.
How cruel, Poppy thought, almost as if the matter did not concern her. How very much like a cat.
She didn’t like people who named their homunculi, it was unsightly, as if they were something more than spontaneously grown frames host to complex computer programmes. They weren’t real animals, no more authentic than the mechanical creatures popular in cities so cramped that real pets were impossible, and yet like such automata, people continued to project their own feelings onto them. It infuriated her.
The head of her magcat darted forward and she seized the cherub by the neck, shaking it like a rag doll, the most authentic imitation of feline behaviour the AI that controlled it could muster.
“Charlie!” the woman cried, dropping to her knees in the dirt.
They could have been anything, they could have been kind, they could have been loyal, why would you programme them to be this real?
As if searching for answers, she found herself scanning the crowd once more, her heart skipping a beat as she caught sight of him, his dark eyes, his tousled brown hair, the sleeves of his lab coat rolled up to the elbows, and she felt a tremble run through her.
We could be anything too, she thought, as if speaking to him. We could be better than this, we could be kinder than this.
He smiled warmly back at her, and she wondered if he would ever really understand the depth of her feelings for him.
“Charlie!” the woman in the dirt cried again.
“Magcat,” she announced, almost with disinterest, lifting her arm limply, holding out her hand, “come back.”
Without question, the beast dissolved into light, a dancing rainbow of colour that crossed the ground so fast that no one saw the moment in which it once more became a card in her hand.
Before her, the older woman lifted up the wounded cherub, her hair falling in front of her face, its tips touching the dirt as she cried.
They’re not real, Poppy thought again. If she recalled it, its body would be mended next time it was generated, and the computer that controlled it might even have learnt something from how quickly it was defeated.
They’re not real.
When she lifted her head again to search the crowd once more, he was no longer there.
She awoke with a start, uncertain where she was, her eyes wild, head still full of dreams of the past, and it was only when the sweat began to dry and she began to awaken to the humidity, the window wide open above the bed, the absence of a breeze to stir the thin net curtains, that her heartbeat slowed and she registered where she was.
Sleepily, she reached up and pushed the palm of a hand into her right eye, exciting patterns of colour with the motion, something to pepper the dark, to make her feel like she wasn’t the only person awake in the heat of the night.
At her side, Mia shifted, a tiny moan escaping her lips, and although Poppy could not see her, she imagined her shape amidst the residue of the colour and the shadows, dark hair upon the pillow, her lips gently moving, her eyelids perhaps fluttering.
In the dark, as her eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom once more, she reached up and felt the coarseness of her own hair, the cheap bleach having made it brittle, as if she could snap it off like strands of uncooked spaghetti.
You should take better care of yourself, Poppy Labyrinth, she told herself, and yet, at the same time, why bother, she had already made it with the hottest girl in town. Her lips twitched in a smile, amused at her own arrogance, amused at the idea that anyone could imagine that such was the most pressing of her priorities. There was so much that she was uncertain of, so much that she was scared, and Christ, she would never say it directly, but sometimes she was grateful of Mia’s presence in her life just because it gave her a place to return, a place that wasn’t someone’s sofa.
Such smiles happened less now, that smug congratulatory sense of pride she had felt so often whilst living on the island, and the faded easily. Just thinking of the way things used to be made her sad now. Maybe that was why she had that stupid dream, the half-recollection of some stupid fight she had thought she had forgotten about, David’s face in the crowd, the shape of him forever out of her reach.
It was funny how quickly he had slipped away from her. Two years, that was all it took to forget someone you once thought was the most important person in your life. David in her memories was two men now, the smart, caring older man she had fallen in love with, and the father of her best friend. Never at the same time was he both, instead now it was as if she had known twins, one of whom she had fallen deeply in love with, the other whom she felt nothing but antipathy for.
Again, she lifted her hands, pushed them into the both eyes this time, trying to rub out the dream of those stupid, childish days. She was an adult now, seventeen years old, making her own way in the world, and David, and her grandfather, and the Firmament Foundation as a whole, they were all in her past now—at least, she wished they were.
Beyond the window, beyond the absence of the breeze, she could hear the chatter of chugabugs and bugachugs in the jungle. Even here, half the world away, it felt like she could not run far enough to escape the influence of the Foundation.
She let her hands drop into the thin sheets, and then felt guilty, worried that she might have stirred Mia from her slumber. However, even in the dark of the night, Poppy knew that the most beautiful girl in the city was capable of sleeping through any kind of natural catastrophe, not least of her all her girlfriend’s late night anxiety.
She sighed. Maybe she should get up, see if they had left any of that horrible military ration coffee
left that someone had first stolen and then abandoned upon a visit to Mia’s tiny apartment. Leah maybe, she thought, or Izan. Her lips twitched. Thinking about Izan in the middle of the night would get her nowhere. Hastily, she pulled her legs up under her chin, the covers sliding off as she sat there in the dark, dressed only in someone’s faded grey t-shirt, a band logo scratched across the front in such cursive lettering that she could not read it.
She didn’t like Izan, not like that. Maybe she might have once, but then she had met Mia. She felt responsible for him though, like an older sister. He was so stupid, she wondered how he had survived for so long before they had met.
The entire shape of her world was Mia, and yet despite this, she kept having feelings for others. Once maybe her entire world had been David, but she had soon learnt to forget that. Was this what life was about? Feeling things for others but forever reshuffling your priorities? She hoped not. She wanted to stay with Mia until the lines blurred between them, until they were indistinguishable from one another; she wanted to crawl inside Mia and live in her heart the way she had never been able to do with David. If she did that, then maybe everything would be all right, maybe she’d never need to change, never need to meet any other person, never need to worry about how others looked at her, or how she felt about that.
It was lonely in the dark being the only person awake; it was lonely with only the chugabug song through the window and the memories of her old life.
Maybe, she thought, when the sun finally crawled its way up along the horizon, her new life would finally begin.