• Published 20th Dec 2016
  • 1,174 Views, 94 Comments

Amphorae - Dave Bryant

After being defeated and effectively destroyed, the sirens are shattered vessels. Can a youth social worker help them glue themselves back together into something resembling whole people?

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“Yes, I’d like to speak to Doctor W—” Rose broke off and raised her good eyebrow, then with a hint of asperity continued, “This is a professional call and has nothing to do with any current cases. Tell him Captain Rose Brass wants to discuss some possible new cases for him.” After a beat she added in a no-nonsense voice, “I’ll wait.”

With that she punched the speaker button and replaced the handset. Cell phones were the model of convenience, but for discussing sensitive matters, they still took a back seat to land lines. As distorted hold music floated up from the tinny speaker—straining to fill even her shoebox-sized office—Rose idled through routine paperwork, shuffling actual sheets or tapping keys for virtual ones. When the tortured notes abruptly ceased, she snatched up the handset again, automatically canceling the speaker function. A smile of genuine pleasure crossed her face.

“Hello, Doc. How’re you doing?” She listened and swiveled her desk chair from side to side in small arcs. “I’m fine, but I’ve got three clients who aren’t.” A pause and a sigh followed. “Of course we do, but none of them have security clearances, and you do. . . . Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction when the Powers That Be dumped the cases on me, but for once they were dead right when they classified the whole case file.”

Reflexively she shook her head. “No, I remember your lecture about trying to work with people who aren’t willing to cooperate. Based on their reactions when I floated the notion, I don’t think they’re ready to consent to counseling just yet. I’m pretty sure they’re on the bubble, though, and there could be trouble brewing, so I thought I’d talk it over with you before that happened. I wanted to get some advice—and to brief you in so we can move on it right away if things go pear-shaped. I’ve already cleared it with higher authority.”

Despite herself, a short laugh escaped. “Carpe diem, and yeah, I’m sure. . . . Okay, hang on a second.” She cradled the receiver against a shoulder and rummaged for pen and pad. “Ready. Mm-hm—” She jotted down the appointment information, inspected the result, then read it back.

Upon confirmation she’d copied it correctly, she went on with uncharacteristic diffidence, “Ah . . . listen, there’s just one thing. My budget—” Another smile blossomed as worry gave way to relief. “Thanks a million, Doc. Maybe I can get some matching funds from the same Powers That Be. They stuck me with this, they can pony up some taxpayer money.” She grimaced at the inadvertent play on words, imagining Princess Twilight’s or Sunset’s reactions. At least they were more likely to be amused than offended.

“Adagio, dear, aren’t you going to finish your dinner?” Harmonia’s voice betrayed nothing but mild concern. None of her three charges could have guessed how much effort it took to keep it that way.

“I’m done,” Adagio snapped. “Don’t hassle me.” She shoved back her chair, jerked to her feet, and stormed out of the dining room on bare feet. The orange curls that should bounce around her head lay lank; T-shirt and jeans hung on her thin frame.

An awkward silence reigned. Sonata hunched down and concentrated with singular attention on her half-empty plate. Aria scowled after the vanished girl. Logos and Harmonia exchanged sidelong glances and restrained their knowing sighs.

All three sirens were caught in a downward spiral after the shattering revelation of being adrift in time, piled on the underlying trauma of everything they’d suffered since losing their magic. Sonata teetered continually on the edge of undirected panic. Aria’s efforts to control her temper all but ceased. Adagio’s symptoms were more complicated.

The situation hadn’t escalated to physical violence . . . yet. The presence of their caretakers undoubtedly factored into that restraint, but there also was no doubt it was a matter of when, not if, the restraint would end. Everyone was feeling the strain.

Logos, Harmonia, even Rose had more authority than babysitters, but not as much as parents, and under similar circumstances teens enjoyed—if that was the word—somewhat greater autonomy than children. Until certain thresholds were crossed, or permissions given, law and custom placed sharp constraints on the older trio’s actions, and not without reason. In the mean time they were fighting a holding action, as Rose put it when they returned from the wedding trip, though she’d promised then to take what measures she could.

For the moment, that holding action took the form of coaxing the remaining two into finishing their dinners.

“All right, you two. That’s enough.” Logos stood in the doorway to Adagio’s room, arms folded and eyebrow cocked. He regarded the two girls, facing off in aggressive stances, over his eyeglasses. “Is there something either of you want to talk about?”

“Not me,” muttered Aria as she hunched her shoulders and buried her fists in her pockets.

“None of your business,” Adagio blurted. She turned away and busied herself with the paraphernalia of schoolwork still covering her small desk.

Logos took a long moment for a slow inhalation and exhalation, not quite a sigh, then said gently, “We’re always ready to listen, you know.” When neither girl took up this opening, he shook his head. “It’s late, and both of you should be getting ready for bed.” He stepped back pointedly, clearing the path for Aria to leave. With manifest reluctance she did, not meeting his eye as she passed.

Adagio he left to her own devices after a searching look. She didn’t slam the door behind him—quite—but it shut emphatically enough to express her mood. The nightly ritual proceeded with absent, mechanical motions; she hardly glanced at her own actions. Instead her eyes were distant and her face was drawn.

Aria had burst into her room and badgered her—first about walking out on dinner, then, as they started to argue, dredging up the past. Both of them kept their voices down at first, not wanting to draw the attention of anyone else, but of course that didn’t last.

How dare she! Always poking and prodding, thinking she knew better! Being a leader was more than just wanting to be in charge. There was all the planning, the eye for opportunities and the ability to seize them, the will to carry through in spite of . . .

In spite of being banished to an alien world. In spite of being not just defeated but destroyed. In spite of being nothing but harmless teenage girls. In spite of homelessness and fear and humiliation.

Adagio sneered. So Aria wanted to know what was wrong with her? Oh, not much. Just getting ground into the mud over and over and over, and them along with her because she brought them to it. What did they have to show for all their efforts—her efforts? The world they came from was gone forever. The world they came to was turning out to be far more complicated and dangerous than they could have imagined.

She climbed into bed, shut off the bedside light, and lay back to stare blindly into the darkness. Maybe Aria would do a better job; she sure couldn’t do a worse one. Sonata followed along because she didn’t know how to do anything else, and look what it got her. Oh yes, Adagio Dazzle was a leader, all right, one for the history books.

Time seemed suspended as she relived every misstep, every wrong turn on the long journey that ended here, in this bland cookie-cutter middle-class house, so powerless they were forced to depend on the charity of an impersonal bureaucracy because the alternative was even worse. Her life was like one of those strange little streets she’d glimpsed elsewhere in the neighborhood that went half a block and stopped in a big bulb of pavement—cul de sac, that was what they called it.

She was so tired. Nothing she did worked; there were no right choices. Even grabbing the biggest hammer she could find and smashing everything she could reach, satisfying as it might be, wouldn’t end well. She just didn’t know what to do any more, and even if she did, none of it mattered anyway.

Well, there was one thing she could do. It probably was wrong too, but that just meant she’d be consistently wrong, at least. With an air of forlorn decision, she got out of bed again.

Aria levered herself up with a grunt and knuckled her weary eyes. It had taken forever to doze off, wired as she was from anger and adrenalin. Even then the sleep had been fitful, bouncing from stage to stage seemingly at random. Fading half-remembered fragments of dreams and nightmares whirled in her head, nonsensical and sinister visions distorted and commingled—Equestria as she remembered it, Equestria as it might be after centuries, a wholly different dimension of strange creatures and stranger machines, a city vaster than most others she’d seen yet regarded by its inhabitants as merely moderate in size. Trying to conquer a gigantic, well-organized world, fighting whole armies of hard, fearless people like Captain Brass—

She shook her head and drew up her knees under the sheet and blanket, then crossed her arms on them and brooded. Most of all it was the quarrel hours ago that haunted her.

Adagio was acting really weird. It might be a relief she wasn’t as bossy as she used to be, but she didn’t seem to have anything left in her, like she was a rag doll that somehow was able to move and talk. Well, except when she threw a fit that made even Aria look patient and long-tempered, but those didn’t last, and when they were over, Adagio went back to being a zombie.

Aria wouldn’t admit it to another living soul, but all of that made her scared and angry. She didn’t know what to do or to say that might fix things; the argument sure proved that. But she had to do something about it, middle of the night or not. If nothing else, maybe it would help her sleep afterward.

She blew out a breath and got up, then exited her bedroom, moving carefully and quietly in the dimness; with dark-adjusted eyes, the residual light of a modern dwelling in a suburban neighborhood was enough to navigate. Adagio’s door, she realized, was already open. She frowned and glanced at the vestibule overlooking the lower floor. No reflected glow betrayed a late-night raid on the kitchen for a snack. She looked the other way, at the nearby bathroom. The door was closed, but no light showed under it.

The frown deepened. One of the older couple’s firm rules was to leave the bathroom door open after leaving, to signal the room was unoccupied and available for use. Maybe scatter-brained Sonata forgot. She heaved a put-upon sigh and went to repair the oversight, and maybe to make use of it herself before doing so.

When the door opened, not quite as silently as she’d managed leaving her room, a soft noise followed. She could swear it was a moan, but that didn’t make sense. She flipped the switch and blinked in the sudden light.

Adagio, still clad in her pajamas, sat on the toilet seat, leaning against the tank, head back. Her hands half-curled limply on her lap. Daubs and smears of red were visible on the floor, the side of the tub, the vanity top—but her forearms, hands, and thighs glistened with it. Aria stood frozen for a moment, unable to breathe.

Then, without any memory of moving, she was pounding both fists on the master-bedroom door and shouting at the top of her lungs.

The living room was crowded with bystanders and tension, both directed at the slightly rumpled paramedic who faced them with the equanimity of a professional secure in his expertise and position. “She’s stabilized now and ready for transport as soon as I can get out of here,” he hinted broadly.

On the couch, Sonata hugged her knees and rested her forehead on them. Aria sat beside her looking pale and blank. The paramedic had given them a quick once-over as well, found to no one’s surprise they were suffering from shock, and recommended they see a physician or a nurse-practitioner.

Everyone else stood in a loose semicircle facing the uniformed paramedic. Logos and Harmonia, clad in bathrobes and with their arms around each other, were distraught but functional. The special agent in charge and her deputy, dressed hastily enough to opt for open carry, wore their game faces, impassive and thin-lipped. Plainclothed Detective Blue, disheveled at the end of a long shift, looked more or less the same, if a little more forbidding.

Rose was grim and haggard. For the first time since she’d taken the sirens’ case, the rest of the room’s occupants saw her in something other than her trademark pastel business suits. A faded leather bomber jacket hung open over an azure sports bra and her well-worn shoulder rig; baggy BDU pants and tactical boots, side zippers still open, completed the after-hours ensemble.

The paramedic looked around at the expressions and sighed, then ran the fingers of a hand through his short hair. In low tones he described how close-run the frantic rescue efforts had been, how they would have come to naught had the wounds been made even a little differently. The adult onlookers winced. The younger pair, screened by the standing bodies from the quiet words and accompanying gestures, remained lost in their thoughts.

In a more conversational voice, he continued, “She’ll need some surgery and time to recover, but she’ll be fine—if she gets the other help she needs. I’m guessin’ the rules should let you do that, Ms. Brass, now that she crossed the line.” The paramedic nodded to a fellow professional, if in a different field, who nodded back, albeit with less assurance.

“Now I really do gotta go.” He suited action to words and vanished out the door. In seconds a heavy-duty diesel snorted to life and red strobes through the curtained windows lent a surreal dance-party air to the room.

As both rumble and lights faded down the street, those who remained looked at each other and groped for their composure. After a few moments, chatter and milling began. The agents left to assemble and send a team to the hospital. Logos and Harmonia went to put on street wear before departing for the same destination. Rose glanced at Blue, who rolled his eyes but nodded, and both of them approached the two girls on the couch.

She crouched to look up at them and said gently, “Get dressed, you two. We’re going to the hospital.” It took them most of a minute to start tracking again, but eventually they nodded wordlessly and clambered to their feet. She stood and shepherded them upstairs, where she waited until they reappeared.

More or less by accident, a convoy formed up minutes later. Blue led off in his unmarked car, chauffering Rose, Aria, and Sonata. Logos and Harmonia followed. A carful of female agents brought up the rear. In none of the three was there any conversation.

Author's Note:

Adagio’s basic psychological struggle is with depression—her aspirations, her power, her arrogance all have been shattered, and with that her confidence as well. Her despair is more complex than Aria’s burning rage and Sonata’s bewildered fear: an admixture of sadness, defeat, weariness, crushing emotional pain, and—much though she might deny it—guilt, less for her misdeeds than for leading her companions into disaster. Finding her way out of her personal labyrinth will be difficult and often painful, however necessary.
   The Greek goddess Artemis was a complex figure: superlative huntress, nature goddess, and other things besides, each aspect identified with its own epithet. As Artemis Iokheira, the latter meaning “showered by arrows”, her golden shafts brought sudden death to girls and young women.
   I’d like to thank (in alphabetical order) BenRG, FanOfMostEverything, and Rose Quill for acting as sounding boards on this chapter. Their advice was invaluable—even the advice I didn’t take!

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