The angel fell to the ground, screaming and on fire. The massed ranks of soldiers cheered – for once, a victory! – but those nearest where she landed recoiled in fear. The ground turned to ash on her impact. She shouted a curse at them, for delaying her, and she cursed herself for falling into such an obvious trap.
Sophia tore away at the outer layers of her clothing, flinging gossamer scraps into the air where they burned to nothing. Her power burned away with them. The voices of her sisters and brothers and cousins, that she’d known all her life, receded from her mind. A wind blew across the battlefield and right through her, sapping her strength; it also blew across the invisible cage that she knew enveloped the sky. She could just barely hear the whistle of the wind between the contracting bars.
A man stepped towards her. He had a slightly different kind of hat than the soldiers around him, so Sophia guessed that he was an officer. She glanced around the faces assembled: all men. Would her sex make her a greater abomination in their eyes? It would certainly make for an uncomfortable imprisonment, if she allowed herself to be captured.
The voices were gone. Her power was mostly burned away. A web was falling to the ground, to trap her in this time and place. She was alone. She stood up.
She had some power left, at least. The officer aimed his pistol at her; she flicked a wrist and turned it to dust. Once she had reversed the spin of a star, and that had not taken half the toll of this single act of unmaking. Sophia staggered. She had not expected to be so weak – had not, truly, known that such weakness was possible. The cage was descending. She cold not survive long in this place and time.
The officer stared at her, slack-jawed. She had perhaps ten seconds before he gave the order. Sophia opened up her mind – she tried to ignore the bleak, howling void that had been torn in the side of her soul – and searched the nearby crowd for potential sympathetics.
There. Three men out of eighteen whose minds had not yet been corrupted by the hierarchy of army life. Conscripts, given no choice but to fight, not understanding the cause of the conflict. She pushed gently and the walls around their minds collapsed. Her soul was laid bare to them, and theirs to her. They were overwhelmed, but Sophia was used to holding the whole of history in her head.
The officer’s name was Wilkins. Jonathan Wilkins. She concentrated on memories of him. He was a good captain. He was said to have dragged a wounded man two miles to a field hospital. He helped his men to write letters – had, in fact, begun teaching some of them to read and write for themselves. Sophia smiled a thin-lipped smile. They were so pathetically grateful. Like a father to his men, she thought. And he was a father too: married with one son, and another on the way.
The web-cage was getting closer, drawn to her open soul. It would wrap her up and tie her down, rob her of what little power she still had, if she did not move quickly. She concentrated on those memories of Jonathan Wilkins: his son was called Luke; when there had been a shortage, he’d insisted on sharing his food with the enlisted men, and had agitated for his peers to do the same. Sophia realised, as Wilkins turned his head to give the order to fire, that he was very nearly on her side. She felt a stab of regret at what she had to do.
Sophia willed a sword into her hand. No good – too much. She tried smaller. She just about managed a small needle, with the very last of her power. It was blacker than black, linked to the void in her mind where her sisters and brothers and cousins had once been. The first syllable escaped Jonathan Wilkins’ lips; Sophia leaped forwards and sank the needle deep into his flesh.
He was pulled through the black shard: first pulped, then ground to dust. The vacuum of the void was not satisfied with this. It had the whole of history to replace. It drew in his future and his past: his son was unmade, his marriage never happened, his birth was undone. The web-cage in the sky warped as memories flared and reformed. Jonathan Wilkins had never been.
Reality started to re-order itself. Sophia allowed the needle to dissipate: it had served its purpose, and besides, she needed to concentrate on the memories that had never been. She ran to one of the conscripts – Jonathan Wilkins had given him a pair of good, thick socks… but no, he realised, that was actually Sergeant Nick Holmes. It was enough. Sophia tugged at the discrepancies and contradictions. The cage in the sky was torn apart and the scraps that were left burned into nothing.
Two conflicting sets of memories, both equally true: those in Sophia’s mind and those in the soldiers’. There was power there – not much, but enough. She focused it in front of her, where the air started to wave, as if under intense heat. She reached out with her mind and her hands, twisting and twisting, channelling the memetic difference into a swirling vortex.
She tilted it just so, and it opened up. Sophia could not survive in this place, at this time: she had to go somewhere else, or somewhen else. She took a deep breath in and leaped into the unknown.