Ryan bit back on a scream of pain as his recruit slumped onto him. He turned his head a little to look at her – she was unconscious, bleeding and very, very pale. As pale as he was, he presumed. He lifted the arm from his uninjured side and pushed her a little – her injured shoulder was still touching the ice, but the weight was gone from him. Weight that only would have made him bleed out faster. Weight that would bring him closer to death.
Three minutes now.
The ice had done a lot to stem the flow of blood. It had done a lot to…
A lot to save his life.
He dropped his head back to the floor, into the pool of his own blood and did all he could to concentrate on slowing the flow of blood. He had enough time, if the rescue came when it was promised, and not long after, then they would both be fine. If it came much after that…then perhaps not.
It’d be fitting way though, a bullet to the lung, just like Carol. Bleeding out in a blackout zone, just like Carol. Except that she had been alone. She had died, alone in the dark, and he hadn’t even known she was missing.
Stef shivered, the small motions reverberating through the bags of ice.
Two minutes now.
The Solstice had looked right at his recruit and not recognised her. He’d bought the accent, and the fear. He hadn’t recognised a girl that he was willing to kill only a couple of days ago. That was what bothered him the most about the Solstice…they were so willing to dole out the death penalty – without thinking, without remorse, and without considering the effects.
They had killed a room of computer geniuses to stop them from relaying information about the code. Information that the Agency already had. They killed for no reason, then immediately forgot about it.
It was different for the Agency. They killed specific targets. They killed honest threats. They killed those who refused to back down from their ideals and cooperate. They killed those that wasted their second chances.
Then sometimes…they…he…nearly killed those who hadn’t done anything wrong. Those that… ‘I’m sorry Stef,’ he whispered to his unconscious recruit. She continued to shiver, and he foolishly hoped that the remaining time would go faster than it should.
One minute now.
He focused on the ceiling tiles, counting them to keep his mind active. Anything to keep himself active. Anything to keep himself alive.
This was different to dragging his broken, constantly glitching body out of a blackout zone. It was different, this injury had taken the fight from him, and there was no way that he could even attempt to drag himself to safety. It was worse, because he couldn’t fight it, couldn’t struggle through it, could only wait for rescue, or death, whichever came first.
Suddenly all the worry dropped away. The blackout zone disappeared and they were safe again. He concentrated for a moment, but they were shifted out before he had a chance to think the command.
He blinked, and found himself in Jones’ lab, naked and in a tank full of stabiliser liquid. His head bobbed in the viscous liquid, and he saw the blood spiraling out from the wound and into the fluid, like ink in water. A shock went through the tank, and he felt the bullet forcing it’s way back out of the entry wound.
The bullet clattered to the bottom of the tank and he let himself feel a little better, knowing that the worst was still to come. A large amount of the fluid drained away, and he took a breath of fresh Agency air.
Jones appeared in front of him, a large tray of medical instruments and vials of brightly-coloured liquids in his hands. ‘Don’t try and move yet, sir, the injury is still quite bad.’
‘Where’s my recruit?’ The rest off the fluid drained away, a thick mesh net covered his lower half, then the bottom of tank rose, effectively turning it into a surgery bed.
‘In the infirmary, getting surgery. She got out of it better than you did, sir. How long did you have left?’ the tech asked as he buttoned up his lab coat to avoid getting splashed by the blue fluid.
‘Not long, Jones, not very long at all.’ He looked away. ‘A lot closer than I want to admit.’
He stared at the tool in Jones’ hand, it was a simple, flat, roughly square piece of steel with a small round button at it’s centre; below the button was a serial number, his serial number. Jones pressed the button and a thin wedge of light appeared above the tool.
Jones leaned over him and gave him an apologetic look before cutting into his chest. There was no pain, but it always felt as through there should be pain – it was a mortal assumption, but one that most agents came to have. The tech agent neatly carved out the section of flesh around the bullet hole, then quickly disposed of it in the bin behind him.
He kept himself calm, despite the huge hole in his chest – there was no danger now, and he’d had the operation more times than he cared to remember. The tech loaded the first vial into the long hypodermic needle, and injected it into what was left of his right lung. After a moment, he felt it begin to regrew, but he kept his breath steady, not wanting to burst newly-grown alveoli.
Carefully, and with an instrument that looked very much like a pair of pliers, the tech removed all the bone fragments from his shattered ribs, then injected the second vial straight into the bone. The bone regrew – the sound was similar to the sound of a tree growing, if it was sped up a million times, but quietened down to barely above a whisper.
The next vial made the flesh regrow, then the last covered it back over with skin. The tech placed the hypodermic needle down, then tore open a cloth-backed gelatin patch, which he placed over the newly regrown skin, and affixed with blue tape.
The gelatin would help the regrown area to set, to heal properly, and to seal the skin against the microscopic chance of infection. Then, in a couple of hours, it would fade away into ash, just like the lump of flesh that had been removed, just like any blood in the store that the clean-up crew didn’t take care of, just like any dead agent left in a blackout zone. Ashes to ashes, no traces left behind.
No traces. No memories. No evidence. No impact. There and gone, just like ghosts. There and gone, leaving as little a footprint on the world as possible.
‘There you go, sir,’ Jones said, ‘hopefully as good as new.’
‘Thank you,’ he said as he required himself back into his uniform, ‘thank you, Jones.’
‘Your recruit is still in surgery,’ the tech said, ‘but she’s stable. And I’m not the only one you should be thanking, without her emails…’
He nodded to this information – the knowledge that she was stable lifted a weight from him, though he had expected no less from the Parkers, there were very few situations that they couldn’t pull a recruit back from, and their survival rate was among the highest of the Agencies, even if some of their patients had problems with the bedside manner of one half of the team.
He shifted back to his office. He ran a check – the clean-up crew had been sent to the shop, and were taking the appropriate actions, and they would deal with all of the resultant issues – like informing the family of the dead clerk.
A dead clerk that could have just as easily have been a dead recruit. A dead clerk that very nearly was a dead recruit. He slumped in his chair and spun his chair to face the window, wincing at the phantom pain in his chest – no ghosts haunted his vision, and he was grateful for that.
The image of his injured recruit flashed in his mind – the pain on her face, how pale she’d been in comparison to the blood that had stained her clothes, but behind it all, the same determination that had made her strong enough to ignore him when he’d had a gun to her head.
The same determination that was surely a factor in how she’d managed to hold onto the memory of him for so long.
The memory that…
The memory that had changed her life.
He looked down at the little girl and the doll he’d handed her – she was ignoring him now, content to play with the newly-repaired doll. He stared at her for a moment, amazed, even with all that she’d gone through, even with two of the most powerful beings in the multiverse within ten feet of her, even with no idea where she was – other than the calmness that Limbo suffused into a mortal – there seemed to be nothing more important than her doll. Mortals were amazing…and their children even more so, in truth, he envied them a little.
He looked up to Death. ‘May I take her back now, my Lady?’
Death stood silently for a moment, staring down at the child, then frowned with her “human” face. ‘No, she has not said yes yet.’
He began to form a protest – a child so young could barely form sentences, let alone voice a decision like that, the magnitude of the situation was so far beyond her that- Something grabbed his leg, his initial reaction was to kick, but he stilled the instinct and looked down. The girl was hugging his leg, the doll hanging limply in the crook of her arm. She mumbled something that sounded like “thank you”.
He looked back at the Lady, she was smiling. ‘Now she has,’ she said.
He knelt and picked up the girl, holding her close – he had no intention of letting go of her as he had done her doll. ‘Time to go home Stephanie.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Death said. ‘You know there’s a chance she won’t make it back. Are you still willing to take that chance with her life?’
He stood this ground, and held the girl a little tighter, as if he could protect her from the situation. ‘This was my mistake. I need to correct it.’
‘You’re doing this out of guilt.’
‘I could have handled the situation better.’
‘Not guilt about this,’ she clarified. ‘It’s nothing to do with the child in your arms, and everything to do with the other girl.’
He swallowed and simply stared at Death there was no point in arguing the sisters knew everything – your motivations, your choices your thoughts. It was impossible to keep anything from them. A small hand reached up and pushed on his face. ‘Dun cry!’
Death stared at him. ‘I just don’t want you to make another mistake out of guilt.’
‘We couldn’t,’ he choked. ‘Have predicted what happened with Carol. I can’t undo that mistake, I’m not trying to make up for it-’
Her stare cut through him. ‘Yes. You are.’
‘My Lady, I am going to take this child home.’
‘By their traditions,’ she said after a long moment, ‘you’ll be responsible for her.’
‘No,’ he countered. ‘Everyone is responsible for themselves. Their own mistakes. Their own choices. Their own lives. To imply outside responsibility implies they lack the will to be responsible.’
‘This is still your choice?’
‘You have to know this will affect her.’
‘She’s a child, she won’t remember.’
‘Believe what you wish.’ She lifted a hand and a door into the darkness appeared.
He felt the child tense up and hold him tighter. ‘Don’t be afraid, Stephanie, I’m taking you home.’ He bowed his head to the Lady and stepped through the door and into the darkness. He hated the darkness, the disassociation and the urge to sink through it. Slowly, but surely, the made their way “up”, sometimes walking, sometimes floating, sometimes simply drifting. The journey always seemed to be a slow one, even though no time existed in Death’s domain.
The child tensed in his arms, her small hands grabbing handfuls of his shirt. She made small noises, but didn’t cry out – as if too afraid to make that much noise in this place of eternal silence. She pushed herself against his chest, and buried her head there, hiding in one darkness to save herself from another.
They broke through the surface into the living world and the child screamed. He’d had the experience described to him, it was like living and dying in the same moment, it was like all of the pain of your life all at once, it was like being born again.
For a moment, the child stopped screaming – he’d heard that there was a sudden peace that came with your soul finally reattaching itself fully to the body. The silence didn’t last long, however, as she the pain soon took back over. He clutched her, and could feel warm blood leaking out against his chest.
The bullet wound was now nothing more than a flesh wound – survivable, but still painful. He took a fleeting glance at the nursery – it was still devoid of parents, or people of any kind. With a thought, he shifted to the Agency infirmary, and placed the girl on the closest bed. He looked up for the doctors, but they appeared without a word.
The taller twin pushed him back. ‘How bad?’
‘Flesh wound,’ he answered, as the girl’s top was snipped away, revealing the ugly wound in her chest.
The shorter Parker injected the child with a tiny needle, and she calmed. ‘That’ll stop the pain. What’d you tell the parents, or are they waiting in the next room?’ he asked, jerking his head towards the morgue.
‘Nothing,’ he answered honestly, ‘there was no time. They…don’t know anything.’
‘Are you wanting stealth, here, boss? Or you ok giving the kid a scar?’
He thought back to the house, to the lack of response to the shots fired, to the lack of parental concern. ‘Quick and quiet,’ he said, ‘skin swatch if you have to, if we’re lucky, we can get this done under the radar.’
He stepped back to let the doctors do their work, and felt the material of his shirt catch against his chest. He looked down and found the child’s slowly drying blood.
‘So their kid nearly gets killed, gets kidnapped and operated on, and mumsy and daddy are completely unaware?’ the taller Parker asked. ‘Shiny, let’s be bad guys.’
‘There’s no evil in saving parents from a trauma,’ his shorter twin reasoned. ‘How would you feel if she were your child?’
This earned a smirk from the taller doctor. ‘So let’s be glad we can’t get burdened with sprog.’
He touched a hand to the blood, then shook himself and required his skin to refresh itself, and for a new shirt to appear. One quick refresh later, it was gone, but part of him could still feel it, so he refreshed his skin another dozen times, the each so quickly after the other that he could see the skin on his hands rippling.
He walked away from the doctors, retreating to their small office, and sat in one of the chairs, watching them operate on the child through the window. He lifted his head and dropped into communication mode, the world in front of him taking on a soft gray fuzz.
His tech agent’s face appeared in his vision, obscured slightly by the same gray fuzz. [Yes sir?]
He sent the address of the house he’d taken the child from. [Any emergency calls from that address?]
[One moment, I’ll check.] The tech’s face turned away, and was lit by the pale light of his monitor. Lips pursed as the sound of keys being tapped and a mouse being clicked filtered through. Jones looked back to him. [No, nothing. Only call in the last fifteen minutes was to a car phone. Are you expecting trouble?]
[I’m almost hoping for it,] he admitted. [Could you keep an eye on it for a little while, I’ll let you know when you can stop.]
He dropped out of communication mode, and the world regained its hard edges. He looked up and out at the doctors, who seemed to be nearly done with what they were doing. He slowly rose from the chair, and walked back out to them.
‘Ready as you need her,’ the taller Parker said. ‘Fixed the damage. Used one of your skin swatches, and a gel patch over the top.’
The taller Parker gave him an incredulous look. ‘Yeah, not protocol, I know, but since when is anything we do? Regular could look a little weird, especially on a babe, not the same colour. Yours will fade in a couple of hours, and babies get messy. No harm, no foul. No evidence. Bowie got something right.’
‘I don’t like that song,’ his twin remarked as he injected the girl with another needle, this one serving to wake her up. ‘Should take her back now, sir, lest you get called a changeling.’
He moved forward, and pulled the little girl into a sitting position, she blinked a few times, and sneezed on him, before dropping her head and trying to go back to sleep. He lifted her and shifted her back to the house.
Still, no one had noticed.
He put the girl back into the playpen, one thought replacing her clothes with clothes identical to those that she had begun the day in, another shifted her doll into the playpen with her. She grabbed the doll, and looked up at him. ‘Play?’ she asked, awake-again wide blue eyes looking up at him.
‘I can’t,’ he said, feeling self-conscious at talking to a child.
She pushed herself up and reached a small, pudgy arm through the playpen bars and grabbed hold of his jacket. ‘Play,’ she said again.
He crouched down to her level, and stared at her through the bars. He smiled, and opened his mouth to speak when he heard footsteps in the hall. He quickly stood and shifted away, leaving the child to her family, to her constants, not to those that were nothing but ash.