This story originally appeared in the Manchester Unbreakable charity anthology, which now seems unfortunately out of print. As a result, I am reprinting the story here. If you like the story, I encourage you to contribute to a charity of your choice from this list at CharityWatch.org.
“Dyad” edited by Kimmy Pagnotta.
Arcadia’s world was fire and pain and blood, followed by darkness.
She awoke in the hospital, a bandage over her left eye and a heaviness on her chest that felt as though it would never lift. Her first question was regarding her mother, and when the nurses looked away she knew. Arcadia inquired about her sister Melody and discovered that she was in another ward, in intensive care but expected to make it.
The following weeks were filled with a bitterness that Arcadia’s seventeen years had not prepared her for. There was the funeral, which her doctors would not allow her to attend. Then there were the awkward visits from her father, a corporate man with whom Arcadia had few dealings but still loved, despite the awkward silences and the pain he was clearly dealing with as well. There were some touch-and-go operations for Melody but finally a plateau was reached and she would make it.
But her mother was still gone. And judging by the bandaged stubs where her legs once protruded, Arcadia figured her dreams of an Air Force career were gone as well.
The weeks dragged on, the dull antiseptic pale grey of the hospital walls and floors smearing the days into a hazy timelessness. Her spirits lifted briefly when it was discovered her left eye would heal fine and the bandage was removed.
Arcadia’s physical therapy sessions were a hollow facade of human interaction. Her instructor, a perky older woman named Nancy, did her best to raise her spirits but Arcadia’s mind was trapped in a sliver of time, and what she could remember Arcadia was still trying to process.
Out shopping with her mother and sister. Screams, and an explosion. Concrete and rocks everywhere. Darkness. Then a voice.
“Hey,” came the soothing calm, female, radiant.
Arcadia remembered blinking in the dark, wondering if this was Death and how she sounded so polite.
“Please, can you hear me? Please tell me you’re…” The voice trailed off, worry carved into each word.
Recent events rushed through her mind. Arcadia reflexively went to raise her arms but could not. She realized that she was pinned down.
“I’m here! I can hear you!” she cried. Claustrophobia was gripping Arcadia. She was covered and could not move.
A sigh of relief. “Okay, good. Listen… you’re pinned down. There were some blasts and… well, I’ve been helping to clear some of the debris and could see your heat signature through the rock…”
See my heat signature? Arcadia’s already confused reality grew even cloudier.
“What do you mean by ‘you could see my heat signature’?”
A chuckle. “That’s… that’s the question you ask first?”
The woman’s accent was an American one.
Arcadia heard something shift, a twisting of metal and displacement of something heavy, and the woman grunting slightly.
“Oi, are you operating some machinery or something?” Arcadia asked. Anything she could do to take her mind off of the panic hovering at the edge of every second.
“If by ‘machinery’ you mean ‘my arms’, then yes.”
Arcadia paused at that.
In recent months, she had heard the rumors. That in America, in the wake of some strange phenomenon involving holes in space and creatures poking through, that someone… a woman, at that… had appeared. Someone with superhuman powers. An actual hero in a world that was mundane and, at times, desperately bleak.
“You’re… you’re that Sovereign lady, aren’t you?”
Another chuckle and shifting of heavy materials. “Yeah. Now I wonder why I didn’t go with ‘Lady Sovereign’. I guess I wanted to just outright claim the name.”
“Hell yes.” A realization. “I can’t feel my legs.” Tears and panic drew closer.
“Don’t focus on that right now,” Sovereign said. “Right now, I need you to focus on my voice. You’re going to get out of this. You’re going to be fine.”
That was when a large chunk of concrete was removed, and the darkness was divided by searing light.
It took a moment for Arcadia’s eye to adjust. To her shock, she could not see out of her left eye, but her right one perceived Sovereign, her dark hair flowing down over shoulders and costume.
“No cape?” Arcadia asked.
Sovereign smiled. “Nah. Wouldn’t want it to get caught-”. Then her face went grim. “Hey? Stay with me-”
But Arcadia had tumbled into darkness.
You’re going to be fine.
Arcadia looked down at her legs.
No, I’m not.
More listless weeks passed. Dreams of fire and pain. Her physical therapy helped divide the days but there was always an ache. Not the phantom pain of her limbs, but the haziness of her future. In her room, with her arms much more used to the weightiness of the wheelchair, Arcadia moved over to a small table, where a sleek model of the F-22 Raptor sat. She picked it up and studied its contours, her focus wavering as her mind drifted between the present and a future she no longer saw ahead of her.
Arcadia was poised to finish her last year of school before university, and then the Air Force. Sure, there was always a chance that she could wash out, or not make it as pilot and perhaps be better suited for a Communications or other technical career.
But neither were choices that appealed to her. She wanted to fly.
Arcadia glanced out at the night sky. And not for the first time, it felt as far off as the stars.
“You have a visitor,” her father said, in a voice that had more jolly and surprise than she had heard in a long time.
From the kitchen, Arcadia wheeled herself around and began to move towards the front door.
“No,” her father said, nodding towards the backdoor. “She’s in the backyard.”
“‘She’?” Arcadia asked, and then understanding took hold. Arcadia quickly moved towards the back of the house, and rolled down the newly-installed ramp.
And there she was.
Arcadia immediately noted the faint but still very present golden hue that permeated Sovereign’s presence. Arcadia stared at her for a moment, and then realized that her mouth was slightly agape. She took a quick breath and composed herself.
“Hello,” Arcadia said.
Sovereign smiled. “Hello, Arcadia. It’s good to see you again.”
Arcadia smiled shyly, and looked down and away.
“How are you holding up?” Sovereign asked.
“Well, I get better parking spots now.”
Sovereign tilted her head to the side with a small smile “That’s… good? I guess?” She allowed a beat to pass. “I guess I’m not terribly good with small talk.”
“A superhero that’s socially awkward?” Arcadia deadpanned.
Sovereign laughed. “Well, I’m still pretty new at this.”
A silence settled between them.
“So why did you come?” Arcadia asked at length.
“I wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I’ve been out of the hospital for weeks. Why now?” An edge crept into Arcadia’s voice.
Sovereign remained calm. “I figured that you were adjusting to a new routine. I didn’t want to disrupt that.”
Arcadia let out a bitter laugh, tears coming before she even knew she felt like crying.
“My whole life has been disrupted! My legs are gone! I’m never going to join the Air Force. I’m never going to fly! It’s all I’ve wanted since I was a little kid.” The sobs came in rushing waves. “And now I’m nothing!”
Arcadia’s tears flowed as she cradled her head in her hands. Sovereign knelt down in front of Arcadia and gently placed her hands on Arcadia’s.
“That’s not true. That’s not remotely true, Arcadia,” Sovereign said, her voice suffused with empathy.
“How can you say that?” Arcadia lashed out, immediately regretting the enmity in her voice. She looked down at her lap, shame rising in her chest. “You don’t know that,” she whispered.
Sovereign stood. “Cover your eyes,” she said gently.
Before Arcadia could look up, she heard Sovereign say a word.
A flash of light and a sound not too dissimilar to thunder filled the air, and Arcadia winced. But when she looked back, she saw a woman standing there.
A regular woman.
It was Sovereign, Arcadia reasoned, but different. Not as tall. The golden hue was gone. She looked different, as well. Very similar but different enough that there was no way anyone would know the two were the same person.
The woman sat down on the porch next to Arcadia.
“My name is Mercedes Salvador,” she said, reaching down to her right shoe, which she removed. It took a moment for Arcadia to realize that Mercedes had actually removed her prosthetic leg. She held it out to Arcadia. “This doesn’t stop me from flying.”
Arcadia’s face went flush and the tears returned.
And as Sovereign flew through the skies over Manchester, Arcadia held on and laughed with a joy she had thought long dead.
I’m going to be fine.
The skies no longer felt so far away.
© 2020 Julio Angel Ortiz.