Chapter 4 - Full of Angles & Starlight
"Where are the captain and the crew?"
A little girl, perhaps no more than five years old stands at the cabin doorway. Her eyes shine pale and brilliant beneath thick dark curls. A simple grey dress covers her small frame. She wears no shoes.
The father busies himself with ropes and cleats, making the little black ship fast and seaworthy.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't know you were on board." He speaks gently to the child, with genuine concern. "I'll put you ashore at the next port and see you get back home."
Sparkling spray whips high behind her. Seabirds circle in a painted sky and the wind disturbs her chestnut hair. The boat pitches from side to side, but she remains rock steady. She is unfamiliar, but there is something about her that snags on his memory like a burr on carded wool.
The father pulls the sheet tight to optimise the aerofoil and drops the long knife-like keel deep into the sparkling brine.
"I have a very important job to do. You can help if you like."
The girl remains rock steady on the pitching deck. Her gaze commands his attention. Although she is immobile, her body seems to flicker like a moth's wing. It is as though, in moving so quickly, she appears still.
It seems to the father that if he were to look away from her, even for an instant, she might suddenly be standing somewhere else entirely. Perhaps even standing in a different universe.
For the briefest moment, her plain grey dress flickers into static and the world turns about her like a dream.
"You're a pirate." Her voice is fierce. Her commanding tone belies her age. "You will turn this boat around right now, and you will surrender to the port authorities." She means what she says. She is used to being obeyed.
The father studies the little girl. She barely reaches his waist. He should feel confident, but the way she looks at him, and the way her form shifts makes him uneasy. It is hard to look directly at her. It's as though, even though she appears to be before him, she is really hundreds of millions of miles away. His eyes can't get a lock.
And there is something more. In her pale eyes, he sees fear. Not fear of him, fear of something else - something bad.
Lysa is almost out of sight now. The small black boat makes easy headway through a light swell. There are no following sails on the horizon and no sign of pursuit. The drowning barge is a small black dot against the blue. The captain is most likely speaking to the Ombudsman now. Turning around would be suicide.
"Listen, I'm sorry, I didn't know you were on board. I really really need to use this ship. I'll see you get home." Despite himself, the father is unnerved.
The girl's stare is level. "This doesn't matter. You will do as I say or…"
"…or things will not go so well for you."
Something strange is happening now. Her simple grey dress is restructuring itself. Smooth white plates billow around her, shifting and overlapping, flowing like armoured smoke. Perhaps it has been this way all along; the father can't be sure.
It is a warning.
He squares his shoulders resolutely. "We're making for the Citadel, and that's final. I don't want to hurt you, but if you want to fight me about it, I'll tie you to the mast and drop you off when we get there." He turns away for a moment, and as he does so, he feels a sudden rushing of wind.
The girl's right arm is unfolding, becoming massive, the whole structure of her body is redrawing itself, a chaotic fractal refactoring. Inside, she is full of angles and starlight.
Her tone is no longer fierce but pleading. She is afraid. "You don't understand, just do it please, I don't want to have to…" As the father watches, the little girl's legs elongate, flip and reverse, the toes pointed like a ballerina. Her skin is laminar. Smooth white plates flow over and around one another. White armour encases her chest; her right arm is a blank spinning cylinder; her left, an elegant fist; her torso, an armoured pillar.
She towers over him. "Please, I can't stop it…" A white visor hides her face. The amplified voice of a frightened little girl emanates from the monstrous body.
The father rolls as a burst of fire licks out casually from the spinning fist. Shards of coal fibre fly from the cabin and mast. Water founts off the bow and the little boat rocks as the elegant monster turns for a second shot. Despite its apparent weight, it moves gracefully, like a dancer.
The father ducks behind the cabin, keeping low, trying to circle the creature.
An electrical whine of gathering power escalates beyond human hearing. There is absolute silence as if all sound is sucked from the universe. Then the release. The entire cabin disintegrates into a savage mess of flying dust and whirling coal fibre shards. The creature's arm flickers back, absorbing the shock in a carefully choreographed recoil, almost too fast to see.
The father lies stunned on the deck. Shards of fibre and black dust nearly cover him. With flawless precision, the creature closes the distance. It lifts him easily; the beautiful white fist completely encases his chest. The other arm, a spinning white cylinder, rises for a final shot.
When it speaks, the voice is no longer that of a little girl, it is deep and menacing, a voice from the pit. "You should have listened to her. You don't belong here."
"Please," the father stares up into the blank white face of the creature. "I have to save them. I have to save my children."
The huge form steps back as though surprised. Its grip relaxes slightly. Then the voice changes. "Daddy?" It is the voice of a little girl again.
"Isobella?" How could he not have recognised her? Her face had been darkened by the sun, but how could he forget the face of his own precious little girl? How could she forget him?
"Isobella!" Could it be? The laminar plates are folding back on themselves now, the legs shortening, her body redrawing itself into a little girl again. The flickering armour once more takes on the appearance of a plain grey dress.
A child once more, she falls into his arms, and he enfolds her with all the mighty love of a father's heart.
"Isobella, Isobella, I am so sorry I let you down. You don't know how far I've come to find you."
"Daddy!" But then her voice becomes quieter, almost ashamed. "Daddy they took away my heart."
The father checks her, rests his head against her chest; he hears nothing.
"They gave me a stoneheart Daddy. I can't go home without my heart. I'll die. I can't be a little girl anymore."
He takes her in his arms, stroking her hair, trying to make everything OK. For a long time, they stay like that, the father and his child beneath the dome of the sky. She seems to vibrate, as though enormous energy flows through her. The plated armour that enfolds her has the appearance of a grey dress once more, but he can still feel it. Her skin is hard, and it shifts under his hand as he holds her close. He knows she can now never take it off.
"It's going to be OK now. Daddy's got you. Everything is going to be okay."
And despite himself he prays to a God he doesn't believe in. Please God, please let it be okay.