Croatia is gone. The wrecked hotel is gone. And I am returned to the Riptide, flat on my back, with CAUSE gazing down at me with concern.
Not companionable concern, of course. More the type of concern typically felt when the most valuable merchandise has been dropped; an unsettling sensation that some digits just dripped off the asking price.
AD: “You kept your eyes open, didn’t you?”
“Was I not supposed to?” I was suffering a headache, some almighty retina burn and clouded vision; that or the lights had fused.
CS: “You admitted to having traversed dimensional tears before. Normally, it is the expectation that experienced persons only kept their eyes open the first time.”
“I don’t tend to go in for ‘normal expectations.'”
I sat up, CAUSE leaned back.
I studied them all as if seeing them for the first time. During our excursion, I hadn’t seen the future. The divide between realities had temporarily displaced me and I’d lived it. Something
had happened was going to happen to this lot*. All of them except:
A vibrantly decorated, physically substantial boot was planted against my windpipe, and pushed decisively downwards. My head met the floor, having already been damaged by an earlier wall. With spots exploding in my eyes, the Captain loomed over me.
CS: “What did you just call me?”
I made a sound like a broken whistle, and – not for the first time – idly wondered why there are morons in existence who use strangling as an interrogation device. Next, we’ll blind me and then stick me in front of a line up…
CS: “Use those two syllables in my presence again and I shall relieve you of your spine, via your mouth.”
The Captain removed his heavy footing, and he, Spark Plug and the owl exited the bridge. Ethereal did and didn’t do the same. Only Angel Demon remained, staring at me with an even greater intensity than before.
They’d known my name. Now, inexplicably, I had one of theirs.
AD: “What did you see in there?”
I coughed like a lifelong smoker and forced my eyes to stop streaming. In response, the bridge of my nose started to itch.
“You should already know,” I muttered, hoarsely.
AD: “Memories gained between realities are unreadable.” Spoken in the condescending tone adopted for a slow audience.
“Because they are not memories,” in an equally derogatory tone. A future lived is a foresight, not a memory, and the mind will eagerly delete it for arriving in the wrong order.
I rubbed my forehead. All well and good saying that, but, Timelord brains aren’t exactly prone to losing things.
Sudden additional pressure clasped around my neck; effortless strength lifted me upright and off the ground. Angel Demon had shifted into their latter category. A solitary, leathery wing burst free from the right shoulder blade, the same side as the arm holding me. Their face became a darker shade of red, and fangs crept over the bottom lip.
Five additional pressure points in my neck announced the arrival of claws.
Bad day to be HH’s neck…
AD: “What. Did. You. See?”
My eyes trailed upwards to the cockpit screen, and the depths of black space beyond, fully aware that it wasn’t “space” at all. No stars, no planets, no anything. We were no longer adrift, I can tell, the Riptide has mass again. We had torn through the universe, and landed.
AD squeezed slightly, bringing my attention back around. My concentration has never been well prioritised. Threats upon my life do usually lead to an inspection of the local scenery. I’d like to die somewhere nice, after all.
I inhaled, badly, wheezed instead and AD relaxed their grip a fraction.
AD: “Whose future?”
AD: “You don’t have one.”
I hadn’t been kidnapped/escorted for a catch-up, then.
I reclaimed another slight percentage of my windpipe.
“Nor do you.”
Angel Demon snarled; a deep, guttural disturbance in the air, a sound that threatened torturous years of darkness. Their mouth was now mostly teeth.
My headache was worsening and foggy vision was drifting towards opaque. I’d had enough. Both my hands latched onto their muscular forearm, a limb that felt stronger than most steel girders, and activated Greed( ).
Angel Demon howled and stumbled backwards, staring in horror at their arm. I dropped the few inches to ground level, rebalanced, and rubbed my neck. My hand came away with the faintest smears of blood.
“Con…congratulations,” I croaked, “your right arm is now…” – a pause for the QUARK report to kick in – “three point eight years older than your left.”
Angel Demon was still transfixed by their limb. There was no tissue damage, scarring, burn marks, nothing; no evidence to show I’d done anything. Yet, the rush of energy and input from my right wrist confirmed that I had. It wasn’t nearly as bad as stealing life from the robots, but my veins were pulsing with energy and I could feel myself trembling. I felt more alive, probably because I ever-so-slightly was.
AD: “What did you do to me?”
“I don’t know.”
They glared back, in a mixture of amazed anguish, knowing that I was telling the truth.
“Did it hurt?”
AD: “You really don’t know?”
And in that moment, demonic entity or not, I saw upon them the same expression as Aloy’s. Fear, with none of its complexities. After two years of dedicated hunting after me, suddenly Angel Demon appeared eager to inhabit any space that was as far away from me as possible.
I’d frightened an entity that would call perdition their paradise. I almost apologised; when the Captain called out from the next level down.
CS: “AD! Bring the cargo. Then we can get the hell on with our lives.”
A void of silence reopened at the end of his sentence, containing just myself and the demon, staring each other down.
“This price, whatever it is, that I have on my head? Is it worth it?”
I’d love to know how much I’m worth. Who wouldn’t?
“You were each given a gift, weren’t you?” I asked, remembering the jewel tucked away in Spark Plug’s denim pocket. “What was yours?”
AD: “I get to do the universe a favour.” Angel Demon did their best to compose themselves. “Saving it from you.”
They reverted back to their more ‘conservative’ form. I watched them debate securing my arm, an idea that was instantly dismissed. AD pointed to the door and followed me out of the cockpit.
Into a future that none of us would enjoy…
* I also get a holiday to Croatia. So…silver linings and all that.