The rooftop was quiet.
Stef stood and waited for a moment, as Ryan paced, then took up a position at one of the corners. The area was industrial, a small sea of tin roofs and flat concrete roofs. Everything was in darkness, aside from some small security lights and the street lamps.
It would have been serene, if not for the sounds of fights.
There were also the sounds of traffic – people going about their usual business, their humdrum lives, completely unaware of anything more important than getting home to their partner, two-point-five-kids, and dinner.
She leaned over the edge of the building and stared down at an empty street. ‘Um?’
Ryan turned to her.
‘How are we stopping the muggles from blundering in on us?’
He gave the narcy smile. ‘We’ve got several measures in place, as just using one type of control would be too obvious. We’ve blocked one set of roads with road works, set up a detour to take them away from this area, and have artificially inflated the traffic on other roads that may lead in this direction, so that people are more likely to take the detour.’ He turned to her. ‘We’re also manipulating the traffic signals directly to make the traffic as effective as possible.’
‘We have the police blocking off one section, discouraging traffic from going into the area, but also drawing attention from the’ – he paused for a moment – ‘overtly interested public to that false event, rather than this. For people with a genuine need to enter the area – which, so far, has been no one – we’re explaining that there’s a murderer in the area and requesting that their business be delayed for a few hours, or until the morning.’
She thought for a moment. ‘Which ties in nicely with the police barricade?’
Ryan nodded. ‘Things have been staged so that there’s two visible bodies – covered, of course – in view of the media, so that will draw questions, and if we’re lucky, that will be the front page story tomorrow, rather than odd meteorological activity, or–’
‘Or a gorram war and every blogger going on about magic.’
‘Does it work?’
‘You’ve been a recruit less than a week. You tell me.’
‘Like I said, I believed, but I didn’t have a reason to.’
‘Then we must do a good enough job.’
There was a rush of sound and Ryan spun, his gun appearing in his hand.
A blond man in a multicolored shirt stood there, an easy expression on his face. Ryan’s hand immediately dropped, as did his head.
Panic slid into her – the drop had been so sudden, it could have been an attack. She moved forwards, but Ryan’s hand shot out and grabbed her.
‘Hey, Ryan,’ the man said, with the easy drawl of a surfer or a hippie. ‘Where’s the observation area?’
Ryan kept his head bowed for another moment, then straightened and pointed to his left. ‘Just follow the blue markers,’ he said, in a quiet, respectful voice. ‘And I won’t bore you with the usual warnings, sir.’
‘Thanks, man.’ The hippie disappeared with another rush of sound.
‘Do I get to ask “What the fuck?”’ she asked.
‘He’s a god.’ Ryan went back to scanning the road and the buildings.
‘To–’ Ryan coughed, his voice clearing. ‘To be precise, he’s a diminished god, but we still afford him all the respect that his kind demand.’
‘That dirty hippie was a god?’
‘Get your gun.’
She required her gun, and he moved in front of her. Two men came up the ladder at the other end of the building, and Ryan fired, taking out the first man before second slid back out of sight.
Ryan shifted across the building, then jumped off the side.
Stef stood, frozen, unsure of what to do. Ryan could move faster than the Solstice, but he–
Her shoulder hurt. She turned her head to the side and saw a rip in her uniform.
She dropped and flattened herself against the roof as holes exploded in the concrete around her.
Someone is shooting at you!
‘I fucking know!’
Require: bulletproof shield.
The blasts against the concrete stopped, instead replaced with the sound of impacts against heavy, hopefully-impenetrable plastic.
She felt wetness in her pants and required a new uniform before she tentatively looked around and pushed herself to her feet.
The clear shield in front of her was spider-webbed with cracks and impacts, the bullets embedded as smushed little lumps of metal in the plastic.
A thought refreshed the shield and extended it along the building.
‘Stef!’ Ryan’s hand clapped on her shoulder. ‘Are you all right?’
The question took a moment to sink in. It was still so strange for anyone to care about her current status.
‘Yeah, um, yeah, I’m fine.’
Another bullet hit the shield.
She shook her head. ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’
One definition, anyway.
Ryan disappeared, then reappeared.
‘I can dismiss the shield?’ The plastic disappeared even as she asked. She rubbed at her shoulder.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘It didn’t hit me, just my uniform, so it doesn’t really hurt or whatever.’ She pulled her hand away from her shoulder. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Ready for the next location?’
For two hours they shifted around, yelling at fae, fighting Solstice, killing Solstice, directing people towards the observation areas, and helping other recruits.
They shifted to the sloped tin roof of a building, and Stef leaned against an air-conditioning unit.
I should be fucking exhausted.
It’s probably adrenaline. You’ll probably sleep for a month after this.
Lightning cracked, and static electricity filled the air.
‘Stef, look up.’
She looked up and saw a hole in the sky. It looked funny, almost unreal, like the image of a sinkhole in metropolitan area. Something not right and probably shopped.
The edges of the sky seemed to rush into the hole, as if it were some sort of upside-down sink. A blob of silver fell through, and the hole closed as quickly as it had opened.
‘Um,’ she said as she stared at the lumpy blob. ‘That’s it?’
I kinda expected a bit more ceremony.
The blob moved strangely, like liquid in zero G, and began to tumble away from them.
‘You gonna shift up and grab it?’ she asked. ‘Doesn’t this make it game over?’
‘Watch,’ he said.
A dozen dark shapes moved towards the mirror. They seemed to be unable to touch it – some passing through it, some bouncing back as if they’d hit a force field.
‘The mirror is fickle,’ he said. ‘And now things get even more dangerous.’
The shapes in the sky began to turn on each other and fight in mid-air.
‘Come on,’ he said, turning his head towards the door that led into the building.
She followed him into the warehouse and, as she did, heard what had attracted his attention: shouting.
The top level was an abbreviated mezzanine, containing a small office and a plastic table and chairs. The floor below, though, was covered in shelves, filled with hundreds and hundreds of boxes. Around the edges of the bottom floor were more offices, or smaller storerooms – the low light made it impossible to tell.
Half a dozen men were fighting on the bottom floor, near a van.
Ryan’s face had an odd expression on it.
‘What?’ she asked quietly.
‘In other circumstances,’ he said, ‘this would be funny. Solstice and slavers fighting. Whoever wins will still be a problem for us.’
‘Then can we just require popcorn and watch them kill each other?’
He pointed to the van. ‘No, because they’re likely fighting over whatever or whoever is in there.’ He got the looking-at-HUD expression on his face.
The van disappeared.
The effect was almost comic. The men stopped fighting as if there’d been a record scratch.
‘Did you do that?’
He nodded. ‘It’s more difficult to shift fae than humans, as their magic can interfere unless they’ve got tracking blue in their system.’
‘So you just concentrated really hard and hoped?’
‘I flooded the van’s interior with blue,’ he said, looking almost sheepish. ‘They’ll be a little wet.’ He grabbed the back of her vest and pulled her back from the edge of the mezzanine, and out of the line of sight of the men on the floor below. ‘I’m just lucky the van hadn’t been treated with blackout energy, else that would have been impossible.’
‘They can do that?’
He nodded. ‘Water is a common medium to distribute it, so they set up piping in a vehicle, and we’re unable to touch it.’
The men had resumed fighting each other.
‘I’m surprised no one is dead yet,’ she said.
‘Dead men are of no use to the slavers, and the Solstice will kill, but capture first, and a slow death afterwards is all too common.’
‘We could just require rocket launchers and–’
‘No,’ he said, in an all-too-sensible voice. ‘We’re trying to avoid property damage, Recruit.’
There was a loud noise, a wave of heat, and the floor beneath them disappeared.
She screamed and grabbed for a piece of railing that was falling beside them.
She opened her eyes slowly, her head pounding. For a moment, she stared at her outstretched hands and seemed to have twenty fingers. She groaned, nearly swooned, and fought to keep her eyes open.
‘Ryan?’ Stef spat blood. ‘Ryan?’
She pushed on the railing, taking stock of herself. Head was still attached; her arms seemed to be working. She could feel her toes.
Ten of her fingers still lay on the ground.
She stumbled a little, pressed a hand to her bloody head, and tried not to fall over as she looked back to the ground.
She was buried under the rubble.
She pressed her hands to herself.
Fuck, am I dead?
She reached down to touch the hands buried under the rubble, hands attached to a body that was under the piece of floor and railing she’d held on to. Her hands went through hers, but she could feel the cold metal, the floor, the pain in her head.
Is – is this what being a ghost is? You can touch everything but people?
Ryan appeared through the swirling dust. He was bleeding, and his uniform, for once, didn’t look perfect; but he smiled as he saw her, then jogged towards her, favouring his left leg a little.
Well, at least he’s dead if I’m dead.
He reached her and put his hands on her shoulders – and his hands went right through her body.
But he can see me! I’m not a ghost!
The smile left his face immediately.
Stef felt herself panic. ‘Hey, hey, what’s wrong?’
He lifted a hand towards her shoulder and tried pushing it against her. Again, it went straight through her body.
A sick feeling settled in her stomach. She clenched her hands for a moment, then pointed down.
He kept his eyes on her on her for a moment, then looked down.
He went to his knees – his hands were able to touch the buried Stef just fine. He grabbed at the pieces of debris and appeared to throw them away, even though they stayed in place.
I’ve got a theory.
Yeah, I think I know what you’re thinking.
He grabbed at the buried Stef and pulled her free, falling into a heap on the rubble.
She was dead; there wasn’t even a question that she was dead. People, though they didn’t usually show it, generally needed most of their brain to function. The buried Stef didn’t even have most of her head.
Not-dead Stef saw, but didn’t hear, Ryan scream.
His body went rigid, and he seemed to sober. He gently put down the dead version of her, stood, and gave her a stern look.
‘Follow me,’ he said, the words clear, even though she couldn’t hear him.
He led her through the warehouse, skirting around the edges – he took point, checking each intersection of shelves, then waved her on. They passed another Ryan and Stef, this Ryan digging a half-buried and still alive Stef out of the rubble – that Ryan was hurt as well, a lot more than the one acting as her guide, and was surrounded by bodies.
Ryan led her up over the pile of rubble towards a third Ryan, who seemed to be dazed and only half conscious. The Ryan guiding her gave her a nod, and she ran forwards, pressed a hand against the dazed Ryan, and felt suit beneath her hand. She turned and nodded at the other Ryan. With a sad expression, he nodded, turned, and walked back up over the pile of rubble.
‘Hey.’ She pushed on her Ryan’s shoulder. ‘You awake?’
Require: water. Require: med kit. Require: help.
She knelt in front of Ryan, the corners of exploded bricks digging into her knees. She fished her tie out of her vest and pressed it to the bleeding cut on his head. ‘Waking up is a good idea.’
Come on, please. Please be okay.
He grabbed for her hand, and he seemed to wake up a little. ‘Stef?’
‘Yeah, it’s me.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘One of me is.’
He blinked slowly. ‘What?’
She moved to sit beside him. ‘Okay, it’s possible I was seeing things, but this is one of those cases where I don’t think so. Stuff went ’splodey, then there was two of me, then there was another you, and the other me was dead, then the other you brought me here.’
He lifted a hand and looked at the blood. ‘Blackout.’
‘That, or we forgot the magic word.’
‘If they set off more than one blackout bomb, you might have been–’
‘Peeking at other dimensions?’
He nodded, then groaned as if movement had been a bad idea. ‘Every choice makes a reality, so one second, one slight difference as the platform was falling–’
‘Chaos theory in action. Yeah. Why’d they let off more than one though?’
‘If it was coordinated well enough, a few bombs could be blacking out the majority of the area, which would make their movements easier. He looked around. ‘But it is unusual for them to include actual explosives in their bombs.’
‘Well, lucky us.’
‘We should go to the roof, and see if we can assess the extent of it. We might have to go to one of the safe areas.’
She patted down her pockets and found a map. ‘We’re…’ She trailed off as she traced around the map with her finger. ‘Here,’ she said finally. ‘Kind of a shitty spot for getting to the safe houses.’
‘We should still go to the roof,’ he said as he stood.
Slowly, they made their way over the pile of rubble and to the stairs.
She grabbed the railing and shook them, testing how sturdy they were, then nodded when they stayed in place.
‘You go up first,’ he said.
She nodded and walked quickly up the stairs, testing each of them in turn. The stairs where the mezzanine had been were a little twisted, but they still took her weight.
She coughed as she made it back out onto the roof, glad to clear her lungs and breathe clean air again.
She looked around – there were a lot more people noises up there. Screams, shouts, closer fights. She wrapped her arms around herself and took another deep breath.
Something silver flashed in the corner of her eye.
She looked up and saw the mirror tumbling overhead, still high in the air, out of touch, but far closer than it had been when it had fallen through the hole in the sky.
No one else was close. No one was chasing for it, flying near it, trying to get it.
She looked around, then jumped at it, her feet barely coming a foot off the ground. She looked across the roof, then ran and took another jump at it – still far too low.
‘I wish you gone! I wish you gone!’
The mirror quivered but just kept moving, apparently uninterested in her shouted wish.
‘Dammit! Come on. You’re so close.’
Stef felt the weight in her holster.
She pulled her gun free, took off the safety, then aimed it at the mirror. Breaking it was the second-best thing to destroying it completely, or maybe destroying it like this would mean no wishes for anyone.
At least it’s a big enough target.
She smiled, took a deep breath, then nodded to herself.
I can do this.
She took another couple of steps closer, checked her footing, aimed again, then fired.
[table id=15 /]
The rooftop was quiet.