A Heart Full Of Dust
Al Bruno III
The trawler's engine hummed and sputtered as it cruised through the darkness. Vagabond stood alone at the bow, staring up at the night sky. Lily was below decks resting, Kurt was on the bridge, trying to make sure the repairs he'd made to the rudder would last. They were on the fifth hour of their journey and it was becoming more and more evident to Vagabond that they weren't going to make it.
“Can you help me for a second?”
Vagabond spun around, his heart leaping to his throat.
“Sorry.” Rhea said, “Did I startle you?”
“I didn't hear you come up.”
“Not bad for an old lady eh?”
“You're not that old.”
She chuckled and shook her head, “Bless you Vagabond, you can't even suck up right.”
He decided to ignore that, “What can I do for you?”
She tossed him a moldy box of gauze bandages, “I need you to change the dressing on my wound.”
“Sure. Sit with me.” he sat on the deck and motioned for her to join him, “I wanted to ask you a few things anyway.”
Rhea sat on the deck and offered him the remains of her left arm. He slowly began to unwrap the cloth tourniquet. He let the cloth fall to the deck. A nub of bone poked out of the blackened stump, “Does it hurt?”
“This is the second time I've lost this hand.” Rhea fished around in her robes for a cigarette and popped it in her mouth. Then she began to search for a lighter, “I'm pretty much used to it by now.”
She began to furiously search her pockets, “And where is my lighter?”
“Why were you waiting to act? After all you had the Splinter, a piece of the very Ruins of Creation. Why didn't you use it?” he opened the moldy box of bandages and found her Zippo inside. He tossed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said lighting up, “and you know the thing has a mind of its own.”
He tied off the first layer of bandages and started on the second, “So you started having the dreams?”
“Yeah.” she pulled her stump from his grip and examined it, nodding with approval, “It would appear as this weird lounge singer in this bright red jacket with glitter sewn into the seams.”
“The last one was before you showed up again. I found myself in this white hot spotlight, I had been skinned. I knew it was a dream but it hurt. It was like my every nerve ending was on fire. I stood there, in the spotlight feeling hundreds of eyes upon me. Then someone from the darkness handed me a baton and told me to twirl.”
Vagabond felt his mouth go dry.
“And so I did, and I wasn't doing so bad. And the thing was that the more I twirled it- the less I hurt. I don't know when, but music had started to play,” she lit the new cigarette and inhaled deeply, “I began to realize that I was on a stage performing, but I couldn't see my audience because of the glare of the spotlight. I started to get confident, I marched around, twirled it on the tips of my fingers and then for the finale I tossed the baton in the air. It went up and out of my vision and when it came back... somehow the ends had caught fire.”
“You don't say,” he whispered.
“I caught it and tried to keep it spinning but before I knew what was happening I was burning. The flames were consuming me. I stumbled from the spotlight and saw my audience for the first time, it was a lone Monarch. I'd-I'd never seen one before but I just knew that's what it was. I woke up screaming.” she blew smoke.
They were quiet for a time and then Vagabond asked, “Did you use the Splinter to make that Lily?”
“After my daughter died I burned her body and placed the ashes in the mechanical heart of a Zosimus-type Homunculus.”
Vagabond stumbled to his feet, “You mean that really is her?”
“Yes,” Rhea said weakly, “Give or take a few memories. I didn't think it would really work but it did. I captured her soul.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he leaned against the railing, “Why have you gone from wanting to kill me to being so dammed chummy?”
“First of all because you saved our lives and second of all because I've been watching you two together. You really care for her,” Rhea stared at a fixed point on the deck, “Regardless of what you did or didn't do, you really do care.”
“I love her but what is your point?”
“I want you to swear to me that no matter what happens you'll protect her.”
“Of course I'll protect her.”
“No. It's not good enough- swear to me you'll protect her. Swear to me that you won't let her die all over again.”
“Of course I'll protect her. But tell me why she doesn't know the truth.”
She laughed bitterly, “I think our relationship is strained enough. Besides I'm afraid that the realization she's human trapped in a mechanical body might drive her mad. I've worked very hard to convince her that she's a simple Homunculus.”
“Including leaving a false set of journals and notes in the greenhouse where you knew she'd find them,” he realized.
“Yes. Hopefully thinking she's just a copy of my daughter is what keeps her sane.”
“If you ask me that sounds cruel.”
“Can't you understand? I'm trying to do the right things, but I'm not perfect,” Rhea said.
Vagabond leaned in close to her, “Wasn't that always my excuse?”