It hurt to cough. It hurt to breathe. It hurt.
He stared down at his recruit, trying to ignore the countdown timer in his HUD. The number was already too low, ticking away only seconds until his predicted death. He tried not to breathe, tried not to aggravate a wound that could tear open with the slightest provocation.
The emergency pack was the only reason he was still conscious.
The numbers continued to tick lower and lower.
Stef shivered, and he extended his fingers to grab at her arm, to comfort her a little. A few seconds disappeared with the movement, but it was worth it. She’d saved him, nearly at the cost of her own life.
It was a depressing truth that with each new update, the timer got more accurate. Hitting zero didn’t mean death, but every second after it stopped counting was begged, borrowed, or stolen.
Heavy, familiar footsteps came into the store, and Stef was pulled away.
Taylor roughly grabbed him and lifted him from the floor to dump him onto a trolley. Ryan was wheeled over broken glass and out into the night. The edge of the blackout was close, as expected.
Relief washed over him as he felt his connection to the system come back. A shift processed, and he found himself in Jones’s lab, in one of the large tanks.
Blood tainted the blue, darkening the large tank before it quickly dissolved. His clothes disappeared, and more blood flowed into the tank, red clouds that spiralled away from his body.
He opened his mouth and breathed in a deep lungful of blue.
It didn’t hurt to cough. It didn’t hurt to breathe. It didn’t hurt anymore.
He opened his eyes, glad that his countdown timer had disappeared.
He concentrated and brought up Stef’s vitals in his HUD. She was fine. A small icon indicated that surgery was in progress, and he set a notification for when it was done. He breathed a sigh of relief, a thin stream of bubbles flowing through the blue.
He closed his eyes and floated for a few minutes, his mind calming from the fight and the panic.
There was a tapping. He turned his head and saw Jones through the walls of the tank.
The tech’s face appeared in his HUD. [You’ve stabilised, sir. Mind if I deal with the damage?]
He took a moment to reply – there was nothing that compared to the stability and safety of being submerged in blue. He nodded, and the tech shifted him from the tank and onto a surgical table.
Jones handed him a towel, and Ryan wiped the excess blue from his face.
‘Just the one shot, sir? Scans aren’t picking up anything else.’
‘One was enough.’ He dismissing the towel.
Jones nodded, and an IV stand holding a bag of blue appeared. He leaned across Ryan and pressed the end of the cord to his arm. The end of cord pinched against his skin, then connected, providing a slow, steady flow into his system.
The tech pressed a metal cylinder to his chest, over the remains of the wound. The ends of the cylinder glowed with bright blue light and began to cut into his chest.
It didn’t hurt, though it always seemed as if it should. The device made slow progress, cutting inch-thick rounds of flesh and bone from his body, ejecting them into the small, steel bucket that Jones held.
The surgery could be done without the illusion of flesh and bone, but when the injury had been done to flesh and bone, as was the case in a blackout zone, it was safer – if less pleasant – to do it in this fashion. Scans and diagnostics were infallible, of course, but one-in-a-million accidents did happen.
All traces of the injury had to be cut away – if damaged blue was allowed to be part of new growth, then there was a chance of integrity loss. It was safer to completely remove the area and regrow it from fresh blue.
The cylinder touched the table with a dull sound, and Jones gently pulled it from Ryan’s chest, then discarded the bucket of flesh.
The tech lifted a simple, flat, roughly square piece of steel with a small round button at its centre. Below the button was a serial number – Ryan’s serial number. Jones pressed the button, and a thin wedge of light appeared above the tool.
Jones cut away at some of the ragged edges that the cylinder hadn’t captured, then looked at a large monitor.
An outline of Ryan’s upper half appeared, showing the gaping cylindrical hole as white. Jones zoomed closer, revealing two more specks of red. He moved the tool once more, then used a smaller scalpel to cut at something just inside the hole.
A scan ran in triplicate, each one giving the all-clear.
Jones pressed a few buttons on the IV, and the flow rate increased.
The hole slowly closed – fully healed, this time, not just as a stopgap measure. After a few moments, Jones removed the IV and let the scan run again. A window appeared in Ryan’s HUD, asking for permission to run a deep diagnostic scan, and he accepted it.
As the scan ran, Jones cleared away the equipment.
Ryan minimised the scan details and looked at Stef’s vitals again. Everything looked steadier, calmer – sedation, painkillers, and a surgery going well.
The scan hit twenty-five percent.
‘You can sit up now, sir, if you like.’
Ryan sat up and required his uniform.
‘Any objections if I give this to my kids to play with?’ Jones asked, holding up the bucket. ‘They usually only get samples I make in the lab.’
‘Which are indistinguishable from the real thing,’ Ryan said. ‘If it helps your recruits, go ahead.’
He stood, straightened his jacket, and watched as the surgery icon disappeared from his recruit’s profile. He looked to the tech. ‘The rest can be done remotely, correct?’
He shifted to the infirmary and saw Parker-2, his lab coat liberally covered in blood – Stef’s blood – drinking a beer. The doctor put his feet up on the desk and grinned. ‘She’s fine. My better half is just finishing up with her now.’
Parker-2 tipped the beer back, then tossed the bottle over his head to land perfectly in the bin. ‘She’ll have a scar, but I don’t think she’ll notice. What the hell is up with your recruit, Ryan? She’s got more scar tissue than half of the combat recruits we treat.’
Parker-1 walked into this office. ‘What he means to say, sir, is that it was a clean enough injury. It managed to not to hit anything too important–’
‘–Though it was still more challenging than that flesh wound from the first time you brought her in,’ Parker-2 finished.
Ryan nodded and wondered, for a brief second, how things would have played out if she had remembered the Parkers and not him.
Parker-2 pulled the lid from another beer. ‘Want one?’ he asked, proffering the bottle.
Ryan shook his head. ‘No, thank you.’
Paker-2 shrugged, handed the bottle to his twin, then opened another for himself.
Parker-1 gave him a sympathetic look. ‘She’ll be awake in a few hours. She’s in bed four if you want to check on her.’
He nodded and left the doctors to their drinks.
The infirmary was empty – the only drawn curtain was around bed four. Ryan pulled the curtain aside, stepped through, then closed it.
Stef looked dead.
In the low, soft lights of the infirmary, she looked more like a corpse than the toddler he’d held. He looked to the her vitals in his HUD, then to the machines that surrounded her, all confirming the simple truth that she was going to be okay.
Ryan sat in the visitor chair and held her hand anyway.
She was so pale.
Her wound had not nearly been as severe as his, and his doctors were among the best – one of the few positive things he could claim about his agency – but none of that seemed to take away from the heavy feeling of worry in his chest.
It was an old worry but a familiar worry. The strange, contradictory feeling of knowing everything was fine, but needing it confirmed by a smile.
The worry that had come with seeing Alexander fall from a tree and being a second too slow to do anything about it. The fear that came with the inhuman scream of a child with a greenstick fracture. The relief of seeing his son, arm in a sling, playing awkwardly with the new toys Ryan had required to make the boy happy.
The worry that had come with any number of falls from a bike, from a tree, with colds and chicken pox and other ailments.
A parent’s worry.
The worry of hearing a shot aimed at his recruit. The fear that had filled the silence that followed.
He looked at his hand holding hers. It would be easy enough to let it go, to shift away and focus on paperwork. It would be easy to distance himself from her, to treat her like his other recruits.
She wasn’t like his other recruits.
She was his recruit, but that almost seemed incidental. She was the toddler he’d saved; she was the girl who remembered him. She was excited by magic, and he was able to show it to her – something he’d never been able to do with his son.
She stirred, and he let go of her hand. He stood and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
It was arrogant to think of himself as her father. Arrogant, even insulting, to think that she needed someone like that. She’d let him comfort her, let him guide her, looked to him expecting guidance and wanting pride.
He kissed her forehead and smoothed her hair back.
He closed the readout of her vitals in his HUD, secure enough in the doctors’ ability to keep her safe, and shifted from the infirmary.
Ryan sat at his desk and pulled a small bottle of scotch from the bottom drawer. He poured a small measure and spun to look out the wall of windows that showed his city.
A window appeared, showing that the scan had completed with no issue, and he closed it with a thought.
He leaned back in his hair and sipped at the scotch.
‘Time to go home, Stephanie.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Death said. ‘You know there’s a chance she won’t make it back. Are you still willing to take that chance with her life?’
He stood his ground and held the girl a little more tightly, as if he could protect her from the situation. ‘This was my mistake. I need to correct it.’
Death paused a long moment. ‘By their traditions, you’ll be responsible for her.’
‘No,’ he countered. ‘Just responsible for giving her a chance.’
‘This is still your choice?’
‘You have to know this will affect her.’
‘She’s a child. She won’t remember.’
‘Believe what you wish.’ Death lifted a hand, and a door into the darkness appeared.
He felt the child tense up and hold him tighter. ‘Don’t be afraid, Stephanie. I’m taking you home.’ He bowed his head to the Lady and stepped through the door and into the darkness. He hated the darkness, the disassociation and the urge to sink through it. Slowly but surely, he made their way “up” – sometimes walking, sometimes floating, sometimes simply drifting. The journey always seemed to be a slow one, though no time existed in Death’s domain.
The child grabbed handfuls of his shirt and buried her face against his chest, trying to hide herself from the nothingness around them.
They broke through the surface into the living world, and the child screamed. He’d had the experience described to him: It was like living and dying in the same moment; it was like all the pain of your life all at once; it was like being born again.
He clutched her and could feel warm blood leaking out against his chest.
The bullet wound was now nothing more than a flesh wound – survivable, but still painful. He took a fleeting glance at the nursery – it was still devoid of parents or people of any kind. She needed medical attention, and there was no point in wasting moments to track down neglectful parents.
With a thought, he shifted to the agency infirmary and placed the girl on the closest bed. Ryan looked up for the doctors, but they appeared without a word.
Parker-2 pushed him back. ‘How bad?’
‘Flesh wound,’ he answered as the girl’s top was snipped away, revealing the ugly wound in her chest.
Parker-1 injected the child with a tiny needle, and she calmed. ‘That’ll stop the pain. What’d you tell the parents, or are they waiting in the next room?’ he asked, jerking his head towards the morgue.
‘Nothing,’ he answered honestly. ‘There was no time. They…don’t know anything.’
‘Are you wanting stealth, here, boss? Or you okay giving the kid a scar?’
Ryan thought back to the house, to the lack of response to the shots fired, to the lack of parental concern. ‘Quick and quiet,’ he said. ‘No scar. If we’re lucky, we can get this done under the radar.’
‘So their kid nearly gets killed, gets kidnapped and operated on, and mumsy and daddy are completely unaware?’ Parker-2 said. ‘I like this.’
‘There’s no evil in saving parents from the trauma,’ Parker-1 reasoned. ‘How would you feel if she were your child?’
This earned a smirk from Parker-2. ‘So let’s be glad we can’t get burdened with brats.’
Parker-1 sighed. ‘You…’
Ryan stepped back to let the doctors do their work and felt the material of his shirt catch against his chest.
He looked down and found the child’s slowly drying blood.
He touched the blood, then shook himself. He required his skin to refresh itself and a new shirt to appear. One quick refresh later, the blood was gone, but part of him could still feel it, so he refreshed his skin another dozen times, the each so quickly after the other that he could see the skin on his hands rippling.
He walked away from the doctors, retreating to their small office, and sat in one of the chairs. He watched them operate on the child through the window. Ryan lifted his head and dropped into communication mode, the world in front of him taking on a soft grey fuzz.
His tech agent’s face appeared in his vision, obscured slightly by the same grey fuzz. [Yes, sir?]
Ryan sent the address of the house he’d taken the child from. [Any emergency calls from that address?]
[One moment. I’ll check.] The tech’s face turned away and was lit by the pale light of his monitor. Lips pursed as the sound of keys being tapped and a mouse being clicked filtered through. Jones looked back to him. [No, nothing. Only call in the last fifteen minutes was to a car phone. Are you expecting trouble?]
[I’m almost hoping for it,] he admitted. [Could you keep an eye on it for a little while? I’ll let you know when you can stop.]
Ryan dropped out of communication mode, and the world regained its hard edges. He looked up and out the window at the doctors, who seemed to be nearly done with what they were doing. He slowly rose from the chair and walked back out to them.
‘Ready as you need her,’ the taller Parker said.
‘Fixed the damage. Gave her a dose of recruit blue to speed it along. Give it an hour, and no one will notice.
‘But–’ he started.
‘I know it’s not protocol,’ Parker-2 said, ‘but it’s quick. You wanted it done quick.’
Parker-1 looked to him. ‘You should take her back now, sir, lest you get called a kidnapper.’
Ryan moved forwards and pulled the little girl into a sitting position. She blinked a few times and sneezed on him, before dropping her head and trying to go back to sleep. He lifted her and shifted her back to the house.
Still, no one had noticed.
He put the girl back into the playpen, one thought replacing her clothes with clothes identical to those that she had begun the day in; another thought shifted her doll into the playpen with her.
She grabbed the doll. ‘Play?’ she asked, awake again, wide blue eyes looking up at him.
‘I can’t,’ he said.
She pushed herself up and reached a small, pudgy arm through the playpen bars to grab hold of his jacket. ‘Play,’ she said again.
He crouched down to her level and stared at her through the bars. He smiled and opened his mouth to speak when he heard footsteps in the hall. He quickly stood and shifted away, leaving the child to her family, to her constants, not to those who were nothing but ash.
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