28 – The Pain Scale

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Stef was a cynic, and she knew that.

Despite that, she knew she found far more moments of beauty in the world than a lot of people.

It wasn’t hard if your heart wasn’t hardened in every way. Despite the firewalls around the figurative version of her blood pump, several areas been granted exceptions.

It was easy to see greatness in a perfect line of code or well-done cable management. A perfect moment could exist when a video game glitched in a perfect, absurd way.

And the transit of the marshmallow down the river of hot fudge was a sight to behold.

It had begun as two marshmallows – one pink, one white, as was the custom – but the white one had become lodged on an outcropping of dusted nuts, leaving the pink to sally forth on its own.

And despite the dangers untold, the treacherous areas of melting ice cream under the harsh heat of the fudge, the marshmallow continued its journey towards the glass sundae dish.

She pushed her spoon forward, scooped up the marshmallow, and swallowed it.

Beside her, Ryan pressed his own spoon into the tiny scoop of ice-cream that he had agreed to.

He’d put up a token protest, insisting that he didn’t need to eat. She’d pouted, pointed out that vanilla was a safe, sensible choice, and allowed her to order him a kiddie cup.

Her own sundae was far more extravagant – multiple scoops of ice cream that were going to be cold goop before she could get through them all, but each flavour had looked more delicious than the last.

A smile tried to form on her face. Despite the utter, utter strangeness of the situation, there was something – a lot of somethings – strange and wonderful about what was happening.

Magic was real. Magic was-

It’s not the magic. Not right now.

Right now, she was- This was an entirely new experience. She’d had ice-cream with both of her parents. With either parent had been tense, but family trips had meant that her mother and father had been getting ice cream, and she’d been some sort of tagalong goblin third wheel.

And there’d always been implicit pressure to go with sensible choices – and that was when one of her parents hadn’t simply ordered for her, feeling that they knew best what she would want. Her mother, picking the ice cream that fit the aesthetics of her perfect little doll; her father pointing to whatever was the featured image in the kid’s section of the menu.

She’d never had ice cream with someone who genuinely seemed to enjoy her presence.

She’d never had anyone who seemed to genuinely enjoy her presence.

It was strange not to feel like a burden. Weird not to feel like a piece of shit waiting to be scraped away.

She watched Ryan take a small, delicate bite of the vanilla ice cream and smiled.

On the counter between them sat their phoenix feathers, still and golden, residual heat giving off the feel of a morning sun.

She stared at the opals, then took out her phone and checked the date – there were a few weeks until her birthday – something that she hadn’t bothered to think about in years.

While she’d been at school, presents had arrived, bought and shipped by one of the estate employees. Employees who had surely used a spreadsheet to figure out exactly how much to spend in each category of present, according to her age and relative importance to the family.

There was always at least one piece of jewellery, with a propensity to include a birthstone.

With a few exceptions, she’d sold every piece – a couple had been kept for strategic purposes. Sometimes full-Stephanie-mode required accessories and her family would have questioned if she’d shown up to an event wearing hastily-purposed pound shop jewellery.

After the presents had stopped, she’d allowed the birthdays to pass by without notice or celebration. Buying herself a cake and celebrating on her own was a brand of pathetic she’d managed to avoid.

This year, maybe…maybe it could be different. There were reasons to be happy, reasons to celebrate her most recent rotation around the sun.

Ryan seemed like the person who, even as just a boss, would purchase some kind of perfunctory present. And a perfunctory gift from someone who was just getting to know her would mean more than the presents decided by spreadsheet.

One came from an obligation, the other from kindness.

He pointed to the side of the sundae, so she spun the bowl and worked on the melting side that had so far escaped her attention.

And it wasn’t even about getting a gift. It was about…being thought about. Being cared about.

She didn’t know how to people. She didn’t know how to be a person, how to interact with society. And somehow, things were okay despite that.

Words that had been bubbling under the surface of her brain bubbled a little insistently.

He’d said he was continuing a tradition – and there was a knot of anxiety and- Hope. It might have been hope. Might have just been a different kind of fear. Maybe hope was a kind of fear. Maybe-

There was the question as to whether he had meant the tradition of director and underling; or parent and child.

And she was reading too much into every action. Into every small kindness. But- But there was a wealth of reading material.

Whatever relationship this was, it wasn’t a normal boss and employee dynamic. Normal bosses didn’t take their employees for ice cream. Didn’t pat them on the head and make them feel special. Didn’t start to backfill a lifetime of missing experiences.

But-

But it was so stupid. And she was being stupid. And-

There was a clattering sound.

Ryan started to move-

The world went white.

And there was pain.

Nothing made sense. She could- Nothing. Everything. Pain. Lots of pain.

The world was still images. Frames that could barely be interpreted as she blinked – probably blinked – she was probably blinking. It hurt to blink. It-

There was light above her. Shaking and- The fluorescent light. Above. She was on her back. Pain in her head from hitting the floor. Pain in her face from something. Weight-

Ryan was crouching over her, shielding her. ‘Move.’

The word wasn’t shouted. Wasn’t screamed. But it was a command, as fundamental as “breathe” or “circulate blood”. It meant “move or die”, it meant-

Ryan hauled on her shoulder, half-lifting her as he turned her over, his hand moving to the middle of her back as he pushed her towards the back of the store.

She scrambled to get her feet under her, and his hand didn’t let her go until they had caught. He hadn’t let her fall. And he was still behind her. Guarding her. Shielding her from whatever had happened.

She crashed into the ice-cream freezer and grabbed for the counter, still not taking in a lot of detail. Everything was- Whatever had made the pain- Brain wasn’t working yet. And she could feel blood.

Sound and noise and pain and blood and a car crushed by a truck. Not being able to see because her pain couldn’t process. Blood pooling on her lap, so warm it had felt like a blanket until her leg had twitched.

There was an explosion to her left, and she looked down to see the register with a hole in it.

MOVE!

She stared at the register. The cash drawer slowly opened, exposing silver and gold coins, which caught the frantic light of the swinging fluorescent tube.

Move or die, Spyder. Move or die. Move or die.

There was warmth on her hands, and she looked down to see blood. Drips. Drops. Dripping blood. Coming from- She raised a hand to her face and felt a bloody cheek, and the twitch of sharp pain as she felt something embedded there. Glass. From the window.

The window had been the pain and- And that meant- Someone had attacked them.

Move or die.

She looked back towards the window, and- And Ryan. He was moving, but it seemed to be slow motion. Or that was her own brain. And everything was-

Focus.

Sounds of thunder. And Ryan stopped moving for a moment.

And the world seemed to speed back up to real-time as her brain started to cooperate again.

Ryan turned, and there was another sou- Another gunshot, and his time, he went down onto his knees, and slipped sideways without grace, without ceremony, just dea-

I will not think that word!

With a movement that would have impressed Madame Costeau – if her old ballet teacher could have ever been impressed by anyone ever – she dropped and pushed her through the hole under the counter – if nothing else, it put the freezer between herself and whoever was out there causing pain and making Ryan-

He is not. He’s not. He’s not dead.

She wasn’t armed. She had no resources except what the staff of some tiny ice cream store decided to have laying about. It was going to be slim pickings – she very much doubted that numbered amongst the ice cream scoops and thermometers were any cannons or howitzers.

Know your limitations.

That’s not the problem.

She could hurt someone – rather, she had no compunctions against hurting someone. This was life or death, and Ryan was- Ryan was in no condition to help. And she had a decade of paranoid and intrusive thoughts preparing her for every scenario.

What she would do if the creak in her hall was a burglar or axe murderer. And the answer had always been simple: grab the nearest sharp or heavy object and make them not a threat any longer.

But that lack of a prohibition against hurting humans had to be weighed against a tiny hacker body that was comprised mostly of coffee and Doritos. A tiny hacker body with the added debuff of being hurt, and probably still not operating at one hundred per cent brain.

She half-couched behind the freezer, the cold at odds with the hot blood on her hands.

Blood didn’t look like strawberry syrup, not even a little.

There was a crunch on glass. Footsteps. Someone moving that wasn’t her or Ryan.

She slowly lifted her head towards the oncoming death, terrified, but some part of her wasn’t content to go to her death staring at her hands.

Staring at her hands and a pair of scissors, abandoned next to a box of straws.

Slowly, so that the movement was subtle, she lifted the scissors, and let her hand drop down to her side. Not much of a weapon. But it was a chance. One chance.

It was the smallest things that made a difference.

A second, a bare second either way and the truck wouldn’t have smashed into her mother’s car. A million small choices and the man who had taken her hostage would have never come into her house. One less request of ice cream and the person she owed so much to wouldn’t be lying on the floor, still not moving.

A man. White man. Stylish hair. Leather jacket. The expensive kind, the kind her cousins wore when they were trying to look cool – a different kind of cool to the vibe put off by their Maseratis, anyway.

And he was bloodless, at least literally, as compared to seemingly everything else in the store. As compared to her. Compared to Ryan, who still hadn’t moved.

Please don’t be dead.

The Solstice took another step towards Ryan, his gun moving slowly, looking for the perfect shot to finish off the agent.

No.

‘Hey!’ she screamed as she stood to her full height. ‘Leave him alone!’ The words tore themselves out, movement and sound, even while the rest of her was frozen. He couldn’t kill Ryan. She wouldn’t let-

A shot shattered the curved glass of the freezer, and she scrambled sideways, further away from Ryan, if only to buy him a few more seconds. He had to live. It didn’t matter what happened to her. He had to live and-

She dropped the scissors as a shot grazed her arm.

After another step, she ran out of room behind the counter to run. The clerk wasn’t there – presumably, there was some back door that she wasn’t seeing or some place to hide. In this space, there was no place to hide, nothing to defend herself with, nothing but a small, empty square of hip-higher countertop between her and the man with the gun.

Without a word, the man levelled his gun at her. Black. Compact. Nothing showy. Nothing fancy. Not one of Lara Croft’s gigantic Desert Eagles. Just a small piece of engineering, designed for killing.

He twisted his head once more to look back at Ryan, to make sure that he wasn’t a threat, then brought his focus back to her.

She couldn’t- Anything. He wasn’t even a person anymore, just a blobby mess holding a far-too-real gun.

He was going to kill her, and she couldn’t move.

There was a flash.

New wetness on her shirt.

She touched her fingers to the spreading stain, then stared at her fingers.

He’d-

Gunshot.

He’d-

He was back in focus now. Hyperreal. The world caught in a breath. She could see every detail of him. Of the jacket. The little patch of dried blood on his chin, like he’d cut himself shaving.

Close your eyes, you don’t have to be brave.

A second slug slammed into her. A punch that pushed all the breath from her body.

Make it quick. Please make it quick.

There was the sound of another shot, but this time, there was no pain.

‘Stef!’

Ryan’s voice. Thick and choking, but alive.

She opened her eyes and saw the Solstice slump and fall, blood on the side of his face.

‘Stef!’

‘Here,’ she called, oddly feeling like she was responding to roll call. Oddly like- Like-

Her head spun.

She looked down at herself, the two- There was no hope for her shirt. And the pants were probably-

Her legs tried to give out, but she grabbed onto the counter for balance.

Just a minute more. Give me one more minute, dammit.

It was like the accident all over again. So much pain that her body had given up on trying to feel any of it. Every second one more waltz step towards never waking up again. And that was okay. But- But she had to help-

Help-

Fingers slick with blood, she fumbled her phone from her pocket. She tried to unlock it, but it refused to respond to her touch.

Oh come on, please-

She scrubbed left hand against her pant leg to make her fingers clean enough for the screen to recognise her as human. As soon as the home screen appeared, she pressed her thumb to the emergency button, just as Curt had shown her when she’d been setting up her phone.

Three seconds later, the screen went green, and the visualization of a soundwave appeared. ‘Situation?’ a voice asked.

‘Ryan’s hurt,’ she whispered, words hurting, ‘save him.’

The Tech said something, but sound- Sound was no good, all making no sense, all bye-bye and-

If they came, they needed to come quickly. Quick would be a rescue, slow would be a clean-up operation.

Tears slid down her cheeks.

She wanted-

She took a step back towards Ryan, marvelling at how bright her blood was. So bright. Pretty. Roses and fires and-

She wanted to see him one more time before all the red had vacated her body.

Enough of her brain knew what pain was to know that it wasn’t going to last much longer.

Unable to bend, she fumbled with the latch that held the little gate to the front of the store closed and made her way to Ryan. With whatever strength he had left, he’d had managed to sit up, his back against the faux-wood panelling that ran beneath the freezer.

He was pale, bleeding, and in worse shape than she was, which was definitely an achievement.

Ryan looked up at her, only moving his eyes. ‘I thought-’ He sighed, then his eyes moved. ‘You’re hurt.’

‘I called for help.’ She took a step, to line herself to fall next to him. ‘I need to sit.’

‘No.’ Ryan’s hand moved, his fingers making weak shooing motions. ‘Don’t touch me,’ he said, the words sad, not harsh. ‘If you touch me- Your blue-’ He coughed, and a fresh spot of blood joined the pool on the ground. ‘Will prioritise me.’

That would be okay.

It didn’t really matter if she died.

And if she could help-

‘Stef-’

She looked at the floor, grit her teeth, and aimed her knees down, barely keeping the scream inside as she hit the ground.

‘Ryan?’ her voice was thin, scared.

‘Everything will be all right-’ he started, a smile forming on lips that been coughing up blood.

‘Thank you.’

She laid a hand on his.

Her head whirled like she’d been on a Nightmare Mode carousel. She pitched forward, the glass fragments in her cheek driving further in as her head slumped into his chest.

There was pain.

The pain went away.

This Week's Promo



Available now from author Miranda Sparks


Glimmer Girl


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.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as Glimmer Girl, or even Kaira Cade. This is my story.

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See you next week, Recruit.

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Chinthor

Ok. In comparison to earlier versions of this scene… I’m torn. The other version had Stef being a bit more competent. Not super-hero levels, but a very scrappy bit of nerd-rage, kinda fueled by a touch of “how dare this happen when everything else was going so well!” And so, torn. I really want Stef to have her awesome moments. But I concede that might be asking a bit much of our tiny hacker.

Loved the line about what tiny hacker bodies are made of, tho. 😉

A few nits to pick:

she dropped and pushed her through the hole – should be “her (something) through the hole” right? Self, body, individual body part or segment, but something.

nothing but a small, empty square of hip-higher countertop between – think this was supposed to be hip-high. Also, my spell checker doesn’t like “countertop,” but what does it know?

See ya later, Stormy. Gonna binge the old archives (every version I can find) looking for gems.

Nathan

lightdefender

God. This chapter.

Even knowing basically what was coming, you made it hurt.

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