The window exploded.
By all the usual tropes, Stef should have seen everything in slow motion. The torturous bullet time where you were forced to see everything in horrific detail, unable to act.
It wasn’t slow. It was over before she could even begin to process it.
She coughed, and everything hurt.
She fought for her mind to catch up with the situation. She’d been sitting on a seat, eating ice cream. She wasn’t sitting any more, and the pain wasn’t just that of an ice cream headache.
She coughed again, her tongue suddenly screaming with pain, and tried to focus.
Three cannon-blasts erupted over her head – Ryan firing his gun.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, ready to take in new information. She was on the floor, sprawled face down and less-than-gracefully on the tiles. There was a smear of blood beneath her head.
A dozen points of pain finally made themselves known. A face full of glass. She blinked both eyes a few times, ensuring their function. A face full of glass, and she could still see. That had to have used up a lot of luck.
Three more shots, then she felt Ryan grab the back of her vest and lift her from the floor, her feet running on air for a moment as she fought for balance. Wordlessly, he shoved her towards the counter, towards safety.
Shots whizzed by, close, too close. One of them was going to hit her; one of them was going to–
Stef heard a grunt of pain and the thud of a body falling to the floor.
Her heart stopped.
She turned, nearly lost her footing, and saw Ryan on the floor, weakly grasping at his chest.
Oh, please, god, no.
A bullet slammed into the cash register beside her, but her legs remained frozen.
Move, move, move!
Ryan’s head lolled in her direction. ‘Run,’ he said, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Oh, please, god, no.
Move, or he’s going to die!
Her heart pounded in her throat.
She threw herself forward, grabbed his hand and haltingly dragged him behind the counter. Angels were heavier than they looked. She clamped down on stray thoughts. Stray thoughts took away processing power. Processing power was what they needed to live.
If they were going to live.
He hand grabbed at hers. ‘Run,’ he said again.
Footsteps crunched on broken glass.
Her head swam, all limbs frozen and waiting for the inevitable conclusion. Game over, man, game over. Restart from last save. Ryan was–
She gulped, feeling like she’d swallowed glass.
The footsteps came closer.
She looked up and down the counter, looking for anything she could use, anything she could do. A rocket launcher. An escape module. One second. Two second. Any infinitesimal unit of time could be their last. There was no scenario where–
She pulled Ryan’s gun from his slack hand.
There was no scenario where one stupid hacker was going to win against someone who actually knew what they were doing.
It could buy a couple more seconds. Give Ryan a few more seconds to make his peace, or–
A lump formed in her throat. He going to die. He was going to die, and it was her fault. He couldn’t die. He wasn’t allowed to die. Angels weren’t supposed to die.
So make sure he doesn’t.
She released her other hand from the angel’s jacket and crept way along the counter, glad of the slip-proof rubber that ate the sound.
Stef heard another footstep. Faster, she had to move faster.
There were two exits from behind the counter – an open one, which she’d dragged Ryan through. The other was a counter-height swing gate that the Solstice shouldn’t have noticed. Shouldn’t have.
She pushed on the gate, heart skipping in case it squeaked and gave her away.
The Solstice was two steps from the counter, two steps from getting a clear shot at Ryan, gun drawn, cautious.
Han shot first.
She lifted the Ryan’s gun, aimed at the centre of mass, and fired.
‘Fuck!’ she shouted in unison with the Solstice.
She fired again, missing again.
He fired back, the wall beside her exploding into splinters.
The gun shook in her hand and her fingers slipped on the trigger before she forced them back into place. Any shot she took now had no chance of–
He fired again. There was no shower of splinters this time; the shot must have–
The pain registered.
The Solstice grinned and took a step towards her. ‘Little Agency bitch, you–’
Stef saw something move, and the man fell, his head smacking into the counter before he landed on the floor. She looked past him and saw Ryan splayed out on the floor, his hand wrapped around the man’s leg.
She tried to breathe, but everything hurt.
One. Two. Three.
Counting helped with pain. Counting always helped with pain. Counting made paper cuts go away, and Fibonacci numbers made ripped stitches bearable.
Get up. Get up. Get up.
She pushed herself to her feet and held the gun as tightly as she could. She pushed away from the wall, almost glad to see blood. Blood meant an exit wound. Exit wound meant through and through–
She reached for the counter and let it bear her weight as she stumble-walked the few feet to the Solstice. He was still alive. Still breathing. Out cold, but he could wake up.
I’m not taking the chance.
She steadied herself against the counter with one hand, trying not to look into the display case at all of the ice cream. She bent, woozy for a moment as blood rushed to her head, pressed Ryan’s gun to the back of the man’s head, and fired. The Solstice’s head bounced a little, leaving another mess to be cleaned up.
Stef took a breath, wished she hadn’t. and went to her knees beside Ryan.
He was still alive, and that was more than enough reason to smile.
‘Help me,’ he whispered as his eyes fixed on her. The hand that wasn’t around the man’s ankle was grasping at his jacket, a deliberate movement, not the random jerks of a dying man.
‘What do you need?’ she said, putting her hand over his to still the movement. Any movement was a waste. Any movement could kill him.
‘Blue,’ he slurred.
She bit down on her tongue to still the half-dozen questions. She looked to where his fingers had been, flipped open his jacket, and began to rifle around in his pockets, wincing in pain with every extended movement.
Ignore the blood. Ignore the blood. Ignore the blood.
He was bleeding. He was dying. He was going to die. He–
She found a slim, hand-sized foil packet and pulled it out. ‘This?’
He blinked once.
She carefully tore open the top, unsure of what to expect. It was certainly blue. Blue goop.
Help me, blue goop. You’re his only hope.
‘What do I do?’
He made a weak noise and rolled his eyes towards his chest.
She rested the packet against his side, held onto the edges of the tear in his shirt, and ripped it open further to reveal the wound.
Oh, please work.
She lifted the package of blue goop, angled it carefully, and poured it into the wound. It moved slowly, more gel than liquid, but as she slowly squeezed it up like toothpaste from a tube, it poured more readily into the wound.
He grunted in pain.
Am I making it worse?
She looked into the bleeding hole and watched as it slowly stopped pumping blood and even made an attempt to close.
He lifted his hands and took the packet from her, digging his fingers in to find the last vestiges of the miracle goop to press into the wound.
He groaned in exertion and pressed his hands against the floor.
‘Do – do you want to sit up?’
She grabbed one of his hands with both of her small bloody ones and gently pulled him up, then helped him lean against one side of the entryway behind the counter.
‘Should you be moving?’ she asked, then spat blood. She ran her fingers over her cheek and found a thin shard of glass that was embedded deep enough to scratch at her tongue. She grasped it, the sharp edge cutting into her skin, pulled it out, and tossed it to the floor. ‘I don’t think you should be moving.’
He coughed and leant to the side to let blood leak from his mouth.
Okay, so not drowning in blood is probably an advantage.
She leaned against the counter opposite him and tried not to move.
‘Shift us out?’
He shook his head, his movements still slow, but he didn’t look like he was dying so quickly anymore. ‘Blackout.’
‘How do we get out?’
He coughed more blood, then raised his head to look at her. ‘You’re hurt.’
She didn’t dare look down at herself. Seeing it would make it real. Making it real would make it hurt more. Making it hurt more would make her pass out. Passing out wasn’t an acceptable option. Exits were agency, hospital, and north. Not passing out.
You didn’t reply. Stop making him worry!
‘I – I – I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’ve had worse. And that’s not hyperbole–’ She winced and shut her mouth.
Okay, no more multi-syllabic words.
‘How do we get out if we can’t shift?’ she asked, pressing her hands against the cool tiles of the floor.
‘I saw a phone,’ he said.
She gave a half-assed look around. She didn’t need a phone; she needed a bed. There was nothing that couldn’t wait until later. Nothing that a nap couldn’t fix. Nothing that pulling warm covers over her head couldn’t fix.
She slumped forward, the backs of her hands resting against her thighs. Blood had saturated her vest, turning the dark blue into into something ugly.
There was so much blood.
Dark blue hid it better than a ballerina outfit did.
Will the blue goop work on me?
I just need another minute.
Ryan’s voice cut through the miasma of pain and fog.
She shook her head. ‘Sorry.’
‘Look at me.’
She raised her head.
Some trick of light made him look scared for a moment before it passed. ‘I can’t move,’ Ryan said. ‘If I do, I’ll rip this open, and I’ll–’
‘I’ll do it,’ she said, cutting him off.
You aren’t going to die. You aren’t going to die. I’m not gonna let you.
She started mentally reciting the Fibonacci sequence. ‘Tell me what to do.’
‘The phone,’ he said, his breath hitching, ‘is a metre and a half to your right. Please.’
She looked up, at the back wall of the store, and saw the white phone hanging on the wall.
It was so close.
She forced herself to her feet. Everything hurt too much. It wasn’t supposed to hurt this much.
Pain didn’t matter. Only the angel mattered.
She stumbled and fell against the back wall, then groped her way along the wall.
She swooned for a moment. Sleep. Just a five-minute nap. Just a quick–
Stop yelling at me.
She grabbed at the phone.
Who the fuck do I call?
Emergency services. Curt said the call gets routed.
She leaned heavily against the wall, begging it to keep her standing. She punched in triple-nine and raised it to her ear.
Wrong country, genius.
Triple-zero, not triple-nine.
She hung up, then dialled again.
‘Fire, police, or ambulance?’
‘Fire, police, or ambulance?’
‘Miss, if you’re–’
‘Agency. Fuck you, Agency!’
The line went silent for a moment, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
‘Agency,’ a voice said.
She slid to the floor. ‘Oh thank god. Help. Please.’
‘What agency do you need?’
‘Brisbane. Queen Street.’
Enough with the fucking phone tag!
She pressed a hand to her stomach. ‘Please tell me you work for Jones.’
‘We need help.’
She heard a mouse clicking. ‘You’re in a blackout, and–’
A voice cut in. ‘Stef?’
‘Is the director with you?’
She forced herself to look at Ryan. Pale, but still breathing. ‘He’s dying,’ she said, her voice catching.
‘Recruit, have you used his blue–’
‘I used the blue goop. Just help him!’
There was silence for a moment.
‘Help’s on its way. Not very pleasant help, but help all the same. Just hold on another minute. Keep the line open.’
‘K.’ She dropped the phone to the floor and crawled back to Ryan. ‘They’re coming.’
He raised a pale hand and pressed the back of it to her cheek. ‘Thank you.’
She tilted her head to rest against his hand. Anything to keep her awake for another moment. Anything to–
Big stompy feet clumped through the store, crushing glass and furniture and whatever else. There were the squeaky wheels of a gurney too, but they were barely audible over the elephant stomps.
A huge hand grabbed her and pulled her away from Ryan, and slammed her back against the other side of the counter entryway.
Taylor, who looked even taller from the vantage point of the floor, grabbed Ryan and lifted him like he weighed nothing more than a doll. Taylor placed him on the gurney and started to wheel him out of the store.
‘W – wait,’ she mumbled.
I’m still alive. Don’t leave me behind!
She fell forwards and struggled to bear her weight on her knees. As clumsy as a toddler learning to walk, she slowly got up.
Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.
A hand grabbed her, and she managed a look up – some combat recruit dressed head-to-toe in blue heavy-duty gear. ‘Are you hurt?’
She started to lie but then nodded and let him help her out of the store. Taylor and Ryan were already gone, but another handful of men in blue, dressed for war, stood outside the store.
‘The edge of the blackout is just there,’ the combat recruit said.
She looked up and followed where he was pointing to, and saw a line hastily spray-painted onto the road. ‘Oh, okies,’ she said, ‘that’s not that far.’
He helped her stumble towards safety.
‘Hewitt,’ he said, ‘two to shift to the infirmary.’
The world blurred, and she fought the urge to puke.
The bright lights of the infirmary assaulted her eyes, keeping everything blurry.
‘If it’s okay,’ she said to the twin blurs of the doctors. ‘I’m gonna pass out now.’
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