45 – Incremental Changes

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The owner of the rather impressive scream was still fighting against whoever was causing him pain when they reintegrated.

Curiously, Ryan hadn’t shifted them directly into the fray – instead, they were a few metres back from two fighting men, hidden from view by a couple of industrial bins.

Stef looked down to her hand as Ryan pressed something small and hard into it – a headset, which she dutifully slipped into her ear.

‘On a night like tonight,’ he said, the sound only coming through her headset, rather than from his voicebox and mouth. ‘It never hurts to be careful. Too many would take advantage of a recruit’s – or even an agent’s – desire to help first, and ask questions later.’

The two men – one obviously a fairy, though only one of his wings was visible – were brawling like someone had announced “two men enter, one man leaves”. Both were bleeding, and neither seemed inclined to stop.

She looked down, made sure she wasn’t going to make any noise by changing her position, and shuffled a half-step to her right to get a better view.

The better view was far less pleasant – with her new angle it was obvious that the fight had started unfairly – there was a third man on the ground, either dead or very much on his way, and lying beside him was the fairy’s other wing.

She looked up at Ryan, then mouthed the word “now?”.

He shook his head, and again his voice came through her headset. ‘This situation is funny, in a hideous kind of way.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘I’ve got identities for both – well, all three – of these individuals. Two Solstice, one slaver, whoever wins will still be a problem for us.’

‘Wonderful,’ she muttered soundlessly.

‘Tell me what you see.’

She pulled out her phone, winced, set the brightness to minimum, then opened her text chat with him. {Idiots. Fighting.}

‘Tell me what you see, Recruit.’

This is a learning opportunity, Spyder. See, don’t just look.

She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and tried to see with a fresh perspective. She looked past the fighting men – he already knew who they were, so that couldn’t have been what he wanted her to see.

Behind them was a warehouse dock, a standard, ill-painted roller door, a trolley that probably should have been-

{Roller door. Partially up} she texted. {Could be more inside?}

‘Very good,’ he said, and she couldn’t stop herself from smiling as warm fuzzies flooded her system. ‘Now, what would be your next move?’

{Need to be able to see inside. Could be one guy. Could be a hundred guys.}

‘Likely closer to the former,’ Ryan said, ‘but there is some interference inside preventing more than a basic scan. That indicates that there’s some Solstice technology inside.’

She pulled up Screen from her recent contacts. {Still floating? Can you get a drone into the building in front of me and give me a live feed?}

{Bat incoming. Point your head at the building you’re talking about.}

She straightened, and looked directly at the warehouse behind the fighting men – who had seemed to exhaust themselves in the fight-or-die intensity of a few moments prior and were now limping in weak circles around each other.

An impression of dark-on-dark rushed overhead and she caught sight of a fruit bat as it disappeared through a broken pane of an upper window.

Immediately, a feed appeared on her phone, stabilizing as the drone settled. A light touch on the screen brought up the options, and two more taps shared the feed with Ryan.

‘Ah,’ Ryan said after a moment of examining the feed. ‘It’s what I suspected. The van,’ he said, indicating to her phone, ‘it’s a mobile blackout zone for transporting prisoners.’

{That’s bad. What do we do?}

The world blurred as they shifted again – this time, they appeared inside the warehouse, the metal floor of a storage mezzanine beneath their feet.

She looked around – from what she could see, and from what the bat had shown, they were alone. ‘What about Punch-and-Judy?’ she asked, keeping her voice quiet nonetheless.

‘Combat recruits are coming for them.’

‘What now?’

‘Show me inside the van.’

She flicked back to her conversation with Screen. {Inside the van, please.}

There was a scrabbling noise near the half-open roller door and a moment later someone – the one-winged fairy – ducked under the door, blood dripping from the stump that had been his other wing.

He ran towards the van, shouting a name she couldn’t make out, and made it there at the same time as the image from the bat drone stablised.

Inside the van were dead fae – obviously dead fae – unless there was some magic that would allow someone to survive a shot to the head, along with what were surely too many spare petrol canisters lined along one wall of the van.

‘There’s no one in there that needs saving,’ she said. ‘Not that I can see. Do we need to check anyway?’

The one-winged fairy grabbed the door of the van, and as he did, the world went white.

There were feelings, sensations, absent of context, of meaning, of anything.

A hand on her arm, that hand being ripped away.

The feeling of flight, of weightlessness.

The roar of the truck that had scarred her tiny body.

She stared, not seeing, not-

She blinked, and she knew time had passed.

Spyder?

She closed her eyes.

Wake up.

I’m here. I think.

Skin cold and warm and wet and-

All she could feel was the breath from her nose on her upper lip.

Open your eyes.

I’m too-

She coughed and it hurt.

Floaty. All floaty.

What about Ryan?

Fear overrode pain and she forced her eyes open.

Inventory. Start.

Slowly, she wiggled each finger and toe – all twenty seemed to be accounted for, even if a lot of them hurt to move. She lay on her side, her legs trapped under a shelving unit that had fallen from the mezzanine with her, but all she couldn’t see anything else for all the hair in her eyes.

With a grunt, she pulled her right hand towards her face to smooth her hair back, but it-

‘Wha…’

Her hand came through the hair blocking her vision, but…it hadn’t parted the strands, it had…

She moved her hand back and forth, and each time, it seemed to clip through the hair like a poorly-programmed video game asset or-

I’m not…brain enough for this…

She clipped her hand back through the hair, got her hair out of her face – which still left her staring at hair.

‘Come the fuck on,’ she mumbled, then bit into her index finger – hoping the pain would give her focus – it wasn’t the healthiest way to deal with the situation, but it had an unfortunate history of working.

‘Ow.’

She bit herself again.

‘Ow!’

‘Hey doc, it hurts when I do this,’ she mumbled, then shuffled, wiggling out from under the lighter debris that covered her, and with a couple of shoves, retrieved her legs from under the shelving unit.

Head still spinning, she sat up, knocked her back of her head against a piece of something that had been out of field of fuzzy vision, and felt herself freeze as she saw a suit.

For one panic-filled instant between two heartbeats, she thought it was Ryan – but confusion dripped into her brain as she recognised herself.

‘Did…’ she asked no-one, her mouth full of dust, ‘did I level up dissociation so much I unlocked third-person mode?’

She slowly patted herself down – she felt real, and there were a tonne of tiny, useless details that wouldn’t be there if she was hallucinating.

Taste. Sound. Feeling. Hearing. Sight.

I am here in this moment.

She reached down and touched her doppleganger’s back – but like her hand had done with the hair, it went straight through, as if the other Stef wasn’t there at all.

‘What the fuck is-’

Am I dead? Is – is this what being a ghost is? You can touch everything but your own corpse?

And the her-or-other-her was a corpse – she couldn’t see her other’s head, but it disappeared under a piece of shelving at a strange angle and there was far too much blood to-

‘Then who is-’

There had been- She fought to think straight. The van had been blacked-out, and it had exploded. And- Someone – Ryan or Jonesy or- Someone had said that enough bombs going off in the one spot could crack dimensions just a bit.

Stef of Earth-1 was okay, Stef of Earth-2 wasn’t.

‘Sorry,’ she said, unsure of why she was apologising, but knowing it felt right. ‘Sorry.’

There was movement, and she looked up from herself, saw Ryan – bleeding from a cut on his head and sans his jacket for the first time since she’d met him – and ran to him.

Instead of being met with an agent hug, she stumbled through him, and barely caught herself before falling.

Ryan of Earth-2 was okay, which meant-

It’s not an even exchange, it doesn’t work that way. Stop it right now!

She straightened, and looked at the other Ryan, knowing what she had to show him.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said as she pointed. ‘I’m really, really sorry.’

Ryan-2 walked past her, following her point, footsteps slow, already acting like a man at a memorial. There was no need for him to run – unless she’d been severely misinformed about human anatomy, you needed most of your head to live, and that blood she’d seen-

She gave him his privacy, not watching – somehow feeling like a voyeur, like a helpless bystander who was doing nothing but making the situation worse.

A lot of people had the desire to attend their own funerals, to see what people would say about them, to know secretly how people felt, and to bask in the adulation and praise whose floodgates were only opened when the target of that goodwill wasn’t around to embarrass the well-wisher for their verbosity.

She’d never imagined her own funeral. She’d imagined – and predicted – passing quietly away in her flat, oozing corpse juices onto her bed or couch, inconveniencing her landlord, but otherwise being cremated with little ceremony or notice.

There was no-one around to care, except now…there was the man quietly weeping next to her doppleganger’s corpse.

After a moment, Ryan-2 entered her field of vision again – he’d done his best to look like he hadn’t been crying, but the grief was still far too evident on his face.

‘I saw another,’ he said, his voice distorted a little, his image wavering a bit – whatever was allowing this peek into another world was fading. ‘Follow me, I’ll take you to him.’ Ryan-2 paused, then reached his hand forward, hovering it just above her cheek. ‘I’m proud,’ he said, his voice cracking on top of the distortion, ‘of you. Live a happy life, please.’

‘I’ll try,’ she whispered.

He walked forward, picking his way through fallen debris and cracked cement, to the far side of the warehouse, where most of the mezzanine had fallen. Sitting awkwardly on a flat slab of concrete, and leaning against the corrugated wall, was another Ryan.

Ryan-hopefully-1 looked up, lifted a bloody hand away from his side, and reached for her.

Breath caught in her chest, in case this was Ryan-3, she reached out, and let out a gasp as her fingers touched his. She stumbled forward, dropped her knees, and hugged him – careful not to press in on the bloody spot on his uniform.

‘Are- Are you okay?’ she burbled, trying to stop herself from crying with relief.

‘It’s not deep,’ he said, ‘painful, but I’ll be fine.’

‘Stef?’ he said after a moment.

‘Hm?’

‘We need to regroup. The stairs look relatively intact, can you go to the roof and see if there’s a System connection?’

She nodded, stood and after hesitating for a second, pulled out her gun. Curt was right, one training session didn’t make for an action hero, but right now, in a blackout zone, with an injured agent, any protection was better than nothing.

Careful not to step too heavily, she picked her way up the metal stairs – stairs which, thankfully, seemed to be mostly intact, aside from losing several connections to the wall – definitely not OSHA-compliant, but safe enough to traverse.

Once out onto the roof, she took in a lungful of clean air, then pulled out her phone. Credit had to be given to whatever combination of science and magic had put it together, as even after a fall that had killed her Earth-2 doppelganger, there was only one small crack across the bottom half of the screen – not nearly enough to interfere with its operation.

She flicked it on, but wasn’t surprised to see no System signal – though if they needed to order food, the regular human internet was working.

Internet meant GPS, which meant- She opened the map that she’d spent the afternoon examining and altering with the techs – her position pinged, then began to show supplies and safe zones – they were near a couple of medical supply drops, but the nearest safe zone was-

Something moved, and she spun towards it, dropping her phone to put a second hand on her gun to steady it, adopting the stance she’d practiced for way, way too brief a time.

The mirror tumbled overhead – for the moment, no-one was fighting for control of it, no figures flew around it, trying to grab it and make their wishes.

It flowed and deformed, a living blob of mercury, a T-1000 practicing interpretive dance. Every now and then when moonlight or artificial light touched it, it refracted as a rainbow, iridescent and magical.

It was gorgeous, but it could end the world.

And maybe for the first time ever, she didn’t want the world to go away.

‘One large mirror could end the word, a thousand grains of sand…not so much.’

Ryan had said that most mirrors were shattered, but for whatever reason, this one was still intact. Still…looming large with apocalyptic possibilities. Still- It tumbled directly overhead, so close that she could see her reflection, distorted as it was in the liquid mass of the mirror.

Breaking it was the second-best thing to destroying it completely. Cracking it into a million tiny pieces maybe meant that a million tiny wishes would be granted. New cars, not new continents. A flame war, not a world war. Lotto wins and exams passed, tiny things that would change the lives of the people wishing, without changing the world.

And she could make it happen. Do something good for once. Prove that she could be a good recruit. That she could listen and take initiative.

She adjusted her grip on her gun, and flicked off the safety.

At least it’s a big enough target.

She smiled, took a deep breath, then nodded to herself.

I can do this.

She checked her footing, aimed again, then fired.

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It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.

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See you next time, Recruit.

44 - Mirrorfall
46 - Joy and Sorrow

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Lightdefender
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Lightdefender

I like the new bit at the end, with Stef’s thoughts. I’m not sure she made the best decision here (or that Ryan would agree with her decision) but I still like her putting some thought into it, instead of “see mirror, fire”.

I’m guessing the next chapter will be Ryan’s POV?

Lightdefender
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Lightdefender

Rereading this before going on the new chapters (I do that) . . . it seems that Ryan doesn’t actually do much of anything (other than shift them into position). I get trying to give Stef some experience, but maybe this isn’t the best time or place to make her figure stuff out on her own? They have sims for that.