Stef stumbled back from the fight, and mopped the blood from her cheek – the knife had only glanced her, she’d been lucky, she’d been very lucky – for once, her “move or die” reflexes had been functioning. Ryan was still fighting the good fight – his challengers were two halfbreeds of some sort; they bled too easily to be real fey. His fighting style impressed her, the fact that he could do it without ruining his suit impressed her more.
She tucked her gun into her waistband – even at this range, she didn’t trust herself to take the shot, just in case she ended up shooting her boss. She was sure there was some kind of rule about that in the non-existent handbook.
Field aptitude…yeah right…
That’s my line.
I don’t know what to do…
And you think you’re a genius.
I don’t want to shoot him, that’d be BAD!
She watched them fight for another long moment, their footwork mesmerising her, and for a moment, she regretted never going back to dance class after-
‘Higher, ladies, higher!’
It was ballet. She hated ballet. All leaping about and frilly dresses. It was the kind of lesson that her mother would actually show up to, and be disappointed each and every time.
‘I said higher, Stephanie!’ her instructor screeched as she swung the riding crop. It snapped her in the ankle, and she stumbled away from the wall-
She pulled the gun from her waistband, crouched, and shot at the ankles of the halfbreed closest to her. After four shots, she managed to hit his left foot. Close enough. He stumbled, and his friend took off into the night. Ryan straightened himself, his suit rippling back to clean and new as he looked down at the halfbreed. ‘Go home,’ he ordered, ‘there’s no opportunity here for you.’
‘You’ll just destroy it!’
‘We have to. No wish is worth the risk it represents.’
‘Agents don’t wish for anything,’ the halfbreed snapped, his hand glowing orange.
Ryan silenced further comment and attack with two bullets. ‘What I said is the truth,’ he said as he crouched to inspect the body, ‘the cost can be far too great. If you come in contact with a piece of mirror, call me immediately, I’ll destroy it.’
She crinkled her nose and placed her gun back in her waistband. ‘You don’t trust me to do it myself?’
‘Each piece of mirror can grant a wish-’
‘I have you,’ she blushed, ‘you know what I mean. I have this, this whole world, and a neverending supply of cookies, what else could I possibly wish for?’
He gave her the same confused look that he’d been giving her the whole of the first day – the mix of confusion and bemusement – then smiled. ‘There’s nothing else you’d wish for?’
‘Wishes are too frippy. I’d never hunt the white stag with intentions of catching it. There’s what is, and what isn’t, if you can just wish for what you want, or wish everything better, doesn’t it undermine every action you make if you can just wish for whatever you wanted?’
She grinned. ‘Strange, I know, you’re welcome.’ There was a sound from down the alley, and he spun toward it. ‘You go ahead,’ she said as she required a bottle of water, ‘I need a minute.’
He nodded and ran toward the sound, leaving her alone with her thoughts for a moment. She tore the cap off the bottle, and fought urges to gulp the entire thing down – feeling waterlogged and useless was the last thing she wanted – for once, she was contributing, even if she still couldn’t shoot straight.
She took another sip of water and then felt the oddly familiar sensation of a gun being pressed to her head. ‘Make any noise and I’ll end you right now.’
He tore the gun out of her waistband, grabbed a fistful of her hair and forced her to look at him. ‘Recruit bitch.’ His grip tightened, threatening to pull the entire clump of hair out. She immediately required another gun, and this one was torn from her hand. He jammed his gun up under her chin, the cold metal against her skin grounding her in the reality of the situation far more than she would have liked. ‘I can end you, right here and right now.’
Words of bravado stuck in her throat – he wasn’t Ryan, he wasn’t a man looking for a reason not to shoot, he wasn’t a man looking for a reason to give a smelly hacker a second chance. He was mad, utterly and entirely, and for once, she didn’t feel like poking a land mine.
Without another word, Kane pulled her down the alley and into one of the closed factories. It was dark inside, the only light coming from two small torches, and the dusty skylight above. ‘Recruits are to be punished. The proxies cannot be blamed, they are weapons, doing as they were made to do, but recruits…humans that willingly betray their own people, there’s something so disgusting about that.’
She giggled. A self-preservation instinct kicked in and she clamped a hand over her mouth. She giggled again. This earned her a punch to the face. ‘What’s so funny?’ he demanded.
‘You’re so angry, and it’s your fault that I’m here.’
This only served to confuse him. ‘You’re the whore of proxies, nothing to do with me.’
‘Fine then, not you per se, but Maestro. Everything to do with Maestro. And if it wasn’t for you, no one would have known about all the strange crap that went on at the time, you tied everything together, you made us realise that it was a conspiracy, that there was something more going on. He was brilliant. He was daring. When someone like that disappears, people tend to notice. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to finding out about weird-arse conspiracies and finding yourself in the middle of one.’
This earned her another punch.
She stumbled back, and watched dumbly as he lifted his gun.
Require: brick wall.
A wall appeared in front of her, and she heard the shot from the gun. The wall was thirty feet high, so there was no chance that he was going to scale it…though the fact that it as only ten feet wide was going to cause a few problems.
Panicked, she looked up in the hopes of seeing her angel flying toward her to save the day. There was nothing there, except the dirty skylight ceiling and the swirling clouds beyond.
Skylights will do.
With a thought, she required a gun. Her next thought pulled the trigger half a dozen times. Her third thought informed the first two thoughts that their actions really should have had more…thought behind them.
With a metallic groaning, the glass sky fell.
You never, ever think anything through, do you?
She collapsed to the floor, kept safe by a thick layer of corrugated cardboard. She shrieked as a thick shard pierced the box and cut sliced open her sleeve. Require: new box! The cardboard box was replaced, but still the shards continued to fall.
After a moment, Kane stopped screaming.
Her heart caught in her throat, she rested her head on her knees and took a moment to breathe.
Footsteps approached, and she instinctively covered her nose and mouth, not wanting someone to notice the entirely conspicuous cardboard box. Or the thirty-foot brick wall. The shoes of the approaching footsteps squeaked, and she relaxed – it was the kind of sound that freshly-required pinchy-leather-agent-shoes would make.
She made a quick requirement, and waited to see if narcs knew how to play hide and seek. A moment later, the box was pulled away, and she quickly lifted her requirement, a piece of paper with a red exclamation point printed on it, above her head.
Ryan stared at the piece of paper, confused. ‘I heard major property damage,’ he said, ‘and suspected it was you.’
‘You have no basis for that!’ she argued, letting the piece of paper fall to the floor.
‘On your first day, you asked for a rocket launcher. It’s not that much of a jump.’ He offered a hand down to her, she stood and brushed the dust from herself.
‘And it’s only the roof…we’ll pay for it, right?’
‘Recruit,’ he said as he reached across to pull a some debris from her hair. ‘The point is to not cause the damage in the first place.’
She rolled her eyes and followed him from the building. ‘I’ll remember that for next time, but seriously, I came up with that in like ten seconds, didn’t-’ A flash in the sky stole away flippant thoughts.
The patch of sky in the centre of the clouds pulsed and crashed, the sky itself rippling and bursting like the ocean in the middle of a storm. Sudden, quick, bursts of light, escaped it, patches of sunlight from a dead world.
‘Keep watching,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s happening.’
‘Trust me,’ she said, ‘the last thing I’m going to do is blink.’
The sky exploded.
On instinct, she hid behind him – fearful that the phoenix had returned. She held onto his jacket as strong gusts of wind threatened to drag her tiny body into the night. There was a crash of thunder, one loud enough to remind her of why people were afraid of storms, then all fell silent.
She stared straight ahead at his jacket. Ok, I did my bit, let me go home now. She took a deep breath as the world around her spun. Please let me go home…
She slowly stepped away from him and looked up. The sky had stopped crashing, all of the clouds had disappeared, and only the only thing that remained was a small spinning glint of silver in the sky.
‘Oh, that’s the-’
‘Of course.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘Coming?’ She nodded furiously. ‘All right, but if-’
She smiled, and ignored the voices in her head. ‘I’m a big girl, I’ll be fine.’ He looked at her, then past her at the room of debris. ‘I…promise to only cause minimum damage to property?’ He stared at her for a moment longer, then nodded. He moved off and she fell into step behind him.
‘Why don’t you just shift up there and grab it?’ she asked after a moment.
‘We just…can’t,’ he said, ‘it won’t allow us to. It’s almost as though…it wants to be fair.’
‘Not in so many words. But, at the same time, yes.’
She stared up at the sky and watched the mirror tumble, spin, stretch and skew, its shape never staying the same even for a minute. There were no longer any shouts or sounds of fighting from behind them, it was all in in front of them. You’re heading for a clusterfuck, this isn’t where you should be. Shut up. Dorian said- ‘I don’t care what Dorian said!’ she growled. Ryan turned to look at her. ‘Sorry, talking to myself.’
‘If you want me to send you back…’
I do. I do. Send me back. I’m fine with the computers. I’m fine with the techs. It’s where I belong. I’m sorry, but it’s where I belong. I can’t…I’m not made for this kind of thing. I’m a damn hacker! I’m just a damn hacker!
The world spun and she concentrated on his suit. On the new normal. On her new frame of reference. ‘No.’
‘Not going anywhere. Please, let me stay?’
He looked at her for a long moment, and she expected to find herself once again surrounded by computers and free snacks. ‘As you wish.’
Three Solstice emerged from the shadows, and she couldn’t help but grin. At least, until they drew their guns. Ryan pushed her to the ground and shifted into the middle of them, one shot him a few times before having the gun ripped out of his hand, the second ran and the third came toward her.
Again, her flight instincts kicked in, and she ran for the closest building’s escape ladder. She quickly scaled it with the skills and expertise of someone who had spent entirely too much time on the monkey bars, and reached the top before the Solstice had even managed to get to the middle.
She quickly crouched and required the bolts that held the frame to the roof away, then shoved the ladder – the Solstice swore at her, then lost his grip on the falling ladder. She drew her gun as he fell, but didn’t pull the trigger – at this distance, she knew she’d waste the entire clip before managing to even get close to him. Ryan shot the Solstice, then shifted up to meet her.
There were no sounds behind them now, just the sounds of crowds of people fighting, screaming and dying in front of them. The mirror, on the other hand, slowly tumbled through the sky, unimpeded by all the lives being lost to obtain it. It was madness. This. Is. Mirrorfall?
‘Stef, we have to…’ he began. ‘You don’t have to come.’
The sounds of all the fights drummed in her ears. ‘I just can’t jump into the middle of something that big. I…can’t…’
She swallowed. ‘And suddenly I lose my name again. I’ll catch up with you. I just need a minute. This is bigger than…anything I’ve ever…it’s so much bigger. I just need a minute. Just need a minute.’ This time, he seemed less certain. ‘The worst I can do from here is be useless. I want to see something through to the end for once.’
‘All right.’ After a long moment, he nodded, then shifted away.
She let out a long breath, sat down on the dusty roof, and took a few deep breaths. With the possibility removed that she was going to become a part of it, the fights seemed so much more distant.
The mirror, the heart of a dead world, simply continued to tumbled overhead. For an object that was the centre of so much pain, death and destruction, it was so underwhelming. It was a cheap special effect. It was nothing amazing. Just a mercurial blob, slowly descending toward whatever grasping fingers could reach it first.
She glared at it as she crossed over the roof, to get just a little closer to it. She reached the edge of the roof, and required a small bridge over gap over to the next building.
‘You don’t look that great,’ she muttered angrily. ‘Stupid m-word mirror. Stupid m-word.’ She bit her lip. ‘You killed da-da-duh-doi-damnit. Dajulveed, I hope someone turns you into a damn puppy!’ The mirror shuddered. ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong with puppies.’ The mirror spun, and resumed its slow fall to earth. ‘What the hell did Dajulveed do to?-’ The mirror shuddered again. ‘Holy fsck, are you listening to me, you stupid McGuffin?’
After a moment, it resumed its journey.
‘Dajulveed,’ she whispered. This time it didn’t shudder, it simply began to spin like a top. ‘Dajulveed,’ she said louder. The mirror continued to spin. ‘Dajulveed,’ she said a third time, and this time, it started to move toward her. Her heart beat quickly, enthused at the thought that something so simple as words had an effect on something as magical as the mirror.
‘Faster, you stupid magic mirror, faster!’ She grinned. ‘Dajulveed!’ she shouted. ‘Dajulveed!’ It began to race toward her, outdistancing all of the fights, all of the deaths, and all that wished to use it for their own ends. It was one giant wish, and there was nothing she wanted.
She ran back across the rooftop, and the bridge, just to give herself a little more distance – she had no doubt that there were both monsters and men that could run faster than a little hacker. The fights were coming closer, but for now, she was still on her own.
She clutched the gun that appeared in her hand, but made no move to lift her arm, it hung limply at her side, heavy with the responsibility of the choice. The choice to destroy the one thing left of a world. The choice to destroy people’s chances at wishes. The choice to destroy something that could end the world. The obvious choice.
‘Dajulveed!’ she screamed one last time, and the mirror came to a stop above her.
Just blow this thing and you can go home and have cookies.
She clicked off the safety, centred herself and gripped the gun. The mirror hung above her, just waiting for whatever happened next. ‘Just breathe,’ she whispered to herself. ’Just do it, Spyder, just do it.’
She planted her feet firmly and lined up the shot. Smirking, she lifted her gun and fired.
She immediately threw her hands over her face, expecting the mirror to shatter and ensure her seven years of bad luck. Chancing a look, she found that magical mirrors didn’t necessarily follow the physics of their humdrum cousins. The bullet had impacted – she could see the hole in the mirror’s body, but it had seemingly had no effect.
She wrapped her finger around the trigger to fire again, but stopped herself as one section of the mirror began to spin and skew, like a piece of clay in the hands of an inexpert modeler. As it spun, she could see the bullet’s path, and it’s still-desperate bid for freedom – it had stretched the skin of the mirror to its breaking point. Stress ripples ran over the surface of the mirror, and she could hear it groaning, the groan of a wooden ship, the groan of an old tree about to fall, the groan of a truck as it rammed into a much smaller car.
The bullet stretched the skin even further, then with surprisingly little ceremony, it broke free and shot off into the night.
A crack ran through the mirror, making a fine spider web pattern through all of the stress ripples, it shrieked for a moment, as if in pain from trying to hold itself together, then exploded.
She barely had time to blink as a large shard shot toward her.
Ryan snapped his head toward the source of the explosion. It hadn’t been a bomb, or a blackout grenade, it hadn’t been-
It was suddenly became very apparent that the mirror was gone. The subliminal force it exuded in its complete form was missing, and the world felt a lot lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted. The Solstice would have only heard the explosion, none of them were in tune enough to feel any of the effects the mirror had on the world, and if they could, they would likely punish themselves for being abominations. The fey would notice – and many of them already had, he observed, as he watched them fade away, step through doors that weren’t usually there, or slip beneath the concrete.
The mirror’s presence was gone, that meant that the mirror had used, destroyed, or spirited away from the city. Destruction was an unlikely possibility, as there was always someone around who wanted to use it, even if it was for altruistic purposes. The chance that it had been used was one they always had to face, and was one they had already prepared themselves for, so much as the unknown could be prepared for. Spirited away, on the other hand, was far more of a grey area – some courts liked to hold a piece of mirror “for a rainy day” or “just in case” though never had any intent of using it for destructive purposes.
He shifted toward the explosion, and took a few steps down the dark street, unsure of exactly where it had been. Something crunched beneath his foot, and he looked down and a dirty, broken, reflection stared back up at him.
He knelt and picked up the small fragment of mirror, the power flowing through it and into his fingertips left no doubt that it was a piece of the mirror, not some piece of debris from an earlier fight. He rolled it into the palm of his hand and willed it to disappear. Mirrors, even tiny fragments, were dangerous, and had to be destroyed, and no tiny wish would give him what he wanted.
He watched as the shard crumbled into smaller fragments, ground itself down to sand, then was whisked away by the smallest breeze, and faded from the world. Another shard, illuminated by a street light, caught his attention, and he destroyed it as he done to the first.
A much larger piece crashed down to the ground beside him, he destroyed it, then looked up to where it had come from – several other large pieces teetered dangerously on the edge of the building’s roof. He shifted up, and immediately a dozen shards stared back at him, all of them catching the dull light of the reemerging moon.
‘Clean-up crew to-’ he said as he turned slowly, careful taking count of each of the shards. A dozen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Seventeen. He turned to look at the rest of the roof.
Seventeen shards, and one body.
‘Sir?’ came the reply.
‘Don’t report in yet,’ he said as he stripped all emotion from his voice, ‘the area isn’t secure yet.’
He ignored the shards of mirror, and slowly walked over to the body. It wasn’t moving. It wasn’t breathing. There was no life sign on his scanner. He came up behind it, careful to avoid the small pool of blood, and the large, ragged shard that protruded from its back, knelt and pressed two fingers to the corpse’s throat. There was no pulse.
He gently rolled the body onto its back, just to confirm the identity – a confirmation he’d had as soon as he’d seen her dirty sneakers. ‘Stef…’ Glassy eyes stared out into the night as the moon glinted off the large chunk of mirror lodged in her chest. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered as he pushed her eyelids closed, ‘I’m so sorry.’
The corpse gave no answer, not that he expected one.
He looked away from her for a moment, to the rest of the mirror fragments on the rooftop. They all had be destroyed. Every single of one of them. That was the rule with mirrors – no pieces were to be left intact. Using them was too dangerous. Wishes were too dangerous. Their use only encouraged more people to do so, and escalation was the last thing they needed. It was destruction that stopped further destruction.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said again.
It was her expression that haunted him the most, it had been one of shock, one of disbelief. She obviously hadn’t been expecting her plan to backfire the way it did.
‘What were you thinking?’ he asked of the corpse – it wasn’t the first time he’d spoken to a corpse, and he doubted it would the last. There was no question that she was dead, but if the mirror had-
He looked at the other shards again, all the little pieces of a dead world that had to be destroyed, then back at the body of his recruit. He grabbed the hunk of mirror that protruded from her chest with both hands – the sharp edges cutting his palms open – and did what he had to do.