Stef skidded to a halt when Ryan spun and, for what seemed to be the millionth time, aimed his gun at her, but with the image of her dead triplet still burnt into his mind, the tiny piece of metal didn’t seem to be so scary. She threw her hands up in the air. ‘It’s me, it’s me.’
‘Jones should have shifted you back by now.’
‘Enid was working with Astrin, but she was- I watched him kill me.’ She raised a hand to her mouth. ‘He killed me. He- Right in front of me. I…couldn’t…’ She swallowed and tried to push away the trauma-inducing images so that she could get back on topic. ‘She was working with him. Working with him. She had a blackout bomb. I did-’ She folded her arms across her chest. ‘I did what I had to.’ She gave him a panicked look, dropped her gun and threw her arms around him. ‘Shoot me if you want,’ she mumbled into his chest. ‘I need this, and I don’t have ready access to my safety-laptop.’
‘Time bomb?’ he asked quietly.
‘Something like that, there were two other me’s.’
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
Who are you kidding?
I’m trying to be brave.
Good girl, just keep the façade up a little longer then you can go hide in a wardrobe.
She couldn’t hold back a sniffle, and she reached up to hold onto his jacket. ‘I know what my liver looks like,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t know that.’
He lifted one of his arms and wrapped it around her shoulders. She almost pulled away – being comforted was so alien. Affection was unfamiliar. Being almost able to cry in the presence of someone else was a new experience as well.
‘I can shift you back.’
She sniffed again, enjoyed the small measure of safety the hug gave for another moment, then pulled away. ‘The fact that you didn’t just do it means I have a choice in the matter.’
He nodded once. ‘You do, though I assume the safety of the tech department-’
She shook her head, crouched and picked up her gun. ‘I have field aptitude, right? I want to use it. I’m not going to be afraid anymore. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.’
‘Stef, look up.’
She looked up, readying herself for the disappointment of not seeing another zeppelin. Instead, there was something a lot more impressive. What few clouds there were in the sky were all circling around a central point, almost like a hurricane. The moon was out, but the light seemed dull, as if the mood of the night had stolen it away, or as though it was weakened by giving birth to a phoenix.
‘No prizes for guessing what that is,’ she commented. ‘How long?’
‘Not long. It will come into this world through there, but there’s no telling where it will touch down.’
‘So it’s like chasing a rainbow?’ He gave her a deadpan look. ‘So why don’t we just hijack a helicopter and jump down onto it?’
‘Recruit, why would we need to hijack a helicopter?’
‘Cause everything’s more fun with hijackings?’
‘Recruit…’ He shook his head. ‘With the amount of chaos around you, you could pass for a fey.’
Is that a compliment or an insult? ‘When’s it going to fall?’
‘Very soon.’
‘How do you know?’
He gave her a confused look. ‘I can just feel it, can’t- No, sorry, of course you can’t. I, we, just know.’
‘M-word, gotcha.’
‘Recruit, with the evidence that you-’ he pushed her aside and fired off three quick shots. A man with dark green hair fell and slowly began to sink into the concrete. Ryan ran over to him and kicked at the body, it stopped sinking, shook, and collapsed.
‘Was that a-?’
‘No, it was a halfbreed.’
‘Cause I’d really rather you weren’t buried alive under concrete.’
‘Again. Halfbreed. And it wasn’t even a city hob. Only city hobs have an affiliation with concrete.’
‘Is there a plan?’
He looked at the sky. ‘Yes, a very simple one.’ She stared at him. ‘Taylor’s recruits are working to clear the area on the far side of that building,’ he said with a point. ‘As well as locate the leech. My recruits – the other ones that I came with – are clearing this side in teams.’
‘Why didn’t anyone notice that Enid was missing? She was alone.’
‘So much as we can plan, in the field, things rarely go to plan.’ He pointed down the alley. ‘That way, there’s no one left down here.’
She took one last look at the sky, then fell into step behind him.
‘Ry-’ she began.
‘You can’t let it affect you,’ he said without turning. ’It wasn’t you, that’s what you have to focus on.’
‘But it was me. It. Was. Me. I-’
‘In that universe, I lost my recruit, if you can’t keep your focus, I might lose her here too.’
‘Have you ever…?’
‘Yes. But it’s different for agents, we know how to separate out our feelings, to understand what is now, what we can change, from that which we can do nothing about.’
‘Fine, but I can’t trip a-’
‘Fire, to your left, now,’ he said without breaking step.
She started and turned to the left, a Solstice hung from the building’s ladder, a long, dirty coat blending him in with the night. She fumbled with her gun, clicking the safety off as the Solstice jumped off the ladder, and fired. It caught him in the shoulder, but he kept moving, reaching into his coat – presumably for a weapon.
She gritted her teeth and fired again, this time it hit his chest. She fired again, and this time, he stopped moving. Closing her eyes, she let herself absorb the situation for a moment, then caught up with the one guiding her through this strange new life.
She looked up, watching the clouds circle the area where the mirror would fall, then scanned the rooftops for anyone deciding to take the high route. There was no one, then a figure slowly faded into view. She lifted the gun again, wanting to get the drop on the newcomer.
A strong hand grasped the barrel of her gun. ‘When I gave you a high score for field aptitude, I assumed you always took note of the situation.’
Ryan pointed to the figure, and she let go of the gun. She stumbled back, eyes locked on Death.
The reaper turned, her scythe catching the moon’s dull light.
‘Is she- She’s- I don’t-’
‘She is doing her job, as we are doing ours, nothing more.’
‘She’s not gonna punish us, or try and stop us, or tip the odds in anyone’s favour or-’
‘That is not what she does. She is simply the gatekeeper. Keep up.’ He pressed her gun against her. ‘Focus, recruit. Just focus.’
Death turned her head to look at her, her face that of a grinning skeleton. There was no emotion there, no hint that she was the kind of reaper that indulged in chamomile tea or curry, no hint of anything recognisable as human.
She felt like a bug.
She ground her feet into the concrete, took a deep breath, conjured an image of monkeys with grenades, then curled her hands around her gun, felt the now-familiar weight and pushed out all other thoughts that weren’t vital to putting one foot in front of the other and following her boss towards more violence and almost certain grievous bodily harm.