A child screamed.
Ryan swore as he lost his footing on the uneven carpet and only regained his balance two steps into the room. It was a pastel-painted nursery so perfect it could have been featured in a magazine.
A silenced shot—deafening in the confined space—hit the wall beside his head. He didn’t need to worry—the criminal had seemingly run out any weapon that could hurt him. Ordinary bullets were no threat to him—but they were to the crying child, the little girl, struggling against the Solstice operative holding a gun to her head.
Ryan raised his own gun. It raised the stakes, especially now that it was a hostage situation, but he couldn’t allow the chase to go on any longer. Entering a civilian dwelling was a sure sign that the man—nameless for now while the search for the operative’s file was still running in his HUD—had crossed a line and wouldn’t hesitate to cross more.
Murder of fae was one thing—it was a standard crime for a member of the Solstice. Threatening a civilian—a civilian child no less—went against the organisation’s so-called “humanitarian” goals. Threat to action was one twitch of a finger, and given how ragged and desperate the operative was looking, there was a frighteningly good chance that he might murder the child by accident.
A ping in his HUD alerted him that the man’s file had finally been found—Daniel Thomson. A file well out of date and marked “inactive”— a sign that Thomson had either been on a leave of absence, or simply working deep within the Solstice, well out of the eyes of the Agency.
‘Back. Off,’ Thomson said, the first words spoken since the beginning of the chase. He still had dried blood from the fae boy he’d murdered on his hands, and it was now rubbing onto the little girl’s purple dinosaur shirt.
Ryan looked to the little girl, and hoped, prayed that she would settle down before Thomson decided to just start shaking her. Tiny little blue eyes locked onto his, and she settled. However rusty his skills as a father were, there must have been something in his expression that still worked on small children.
The little girl stopped screaming and thrashing, settling instead for sobbing against the china doll she held in her hands.
A hostage situation, and one that was sure to go downhill fast—this was a private residence after all—and even though the house was large, and there was an event going on in part of the garden, it was logically only a matter of time before a parent came to check on their child.
‘Put the child down,’ Ryan said, barking out the order. ‘I’m willing to talk.’ A dialogue was pointless, but it would give him a few more seconds to rescue the child. A few more seconds without another death on his conscience. He retreated a few steps, to calm Thomson a little.
‘I don’t want to talk,’ Thomson said, giving the little girl a rough shake. ‘I want to live.’
Ryan scanned the man. The reason for his panic was clear, the blackout energy in the Solstice’s body was degrading. Five minutes—give or take a few seconds—and his time was up. Five minutes, and Ryan would be able to shift the criminal straight into an Agency cell.
He didn’t have five minutes; the little girl didn’t have five minutes. ‘Put the—’
Thomson gripped the child tighter, the pain making her struggle again. The doll slid from her hands and fell to the floor. There’d been a chance whilst she had been still, and he’d missed it. Now, with the hostage flailing again, he couldn’t chance taking the shot with the little girl still in Thomson’s arms. Even an infinitesimal miscalculation would—
He couldn’t have another death on his conscience. Not two in one day.
The chances of a miscalculation were themselves infinitesimal. His HUD-assisted aiming was perfect. He could take the shot. He could take the chance.
She wailed again, and his resolve wavered.
The easiest way to change the situation would have been to shift the child away from Thomson, to teleport her into his own arms, her playpen, one of the other rooms, or – at the extreme – his agency, where there was no chance of injury. It was dangerous, too dangerous, given how close the gun was to her head.
Shifting, despite how quick and painless it was, could be detected by those with enough practice. A momentary tactile difference in the skin just before the shift, and that moment would be all Thomson needed to pull the trigger.
There were still no screaming parents, no concerned visitors phoning the authorities—his HUD indicated that—nothing, just the sounds of the party outside. From an emotional standpoint, it was horrible; from a strategic standpoint, it was the best scenario he could ever hope for. The less complicated the situation, the better.
‘One last chance,’ Ryan said. ‘Put the child down.’
Thomson started to back away to the door. Something crunched, and the man looked down, distracted by whatever he had stepped on.
In that split second, Ryan shifted the girl away from Thomson, one arm clutching her tightly as she reintegrated, holding her close, trying to convey without words that she was safe.
Confused, then enraged, Thomson looked back up at him, then swung his gun up and took a few shots. The anger, combined with his clear exhaustion, made the shots go wild—one bullet lodged in Ryan’s shoulder, but he pushed away the pain. It would pass soon enough.
‘You brought this on yourself.’ He adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. The man fell, and blood began to seep into the expensive rug.
There was something warm against his side, and he looked down to comfort the little girl, knowing that a nappy change was the least of–
Half-closed, dead little blue eyes stared at him, stared past him, stared nowhere. He dismissed his gun with a thought, and he lifted her to inspect her, feeling the blood on his hand before he saw it.
Blood oozed from a gaping hole in her chest. Her life leaked out, staining her soft purple top, dripped onto his hand before it fell to the floor, the beginnings of a puddle starting near his feet.
His fault. Another death on his conscience. Another innocent life gone.
He pulled the child close and lifted a hand to close her eyes. It was the least he could do. It was all he could do.
There was a flash of blue to his left, a light barely in his field of vision.
Ryan turned towards the twinkling light, time rushing and freezing as he did. His thoughts ground to a half as the tiny spark of the girl’s soul floated past.
One more chance to put things right.
He pulled his right arm tighter to his body, holding the tiny dead girl as if she were the most precious thing in the world, then lunged towards the soul. On his first try, his hand passed right through it, ignoring him as if he were on a totally different plane of existence, which after all, he was.
Souls only lingered for the briefest of moments before falling into Death’s realm, and whatever came next. And if he missed this chance, then—
The soul floated higher, a dust mote in sunlight, and began to fade away like an after-image. He concentrated on the weight of the little girl, on all of the experiences she would never have, on the knowledge that she would never open her eyes again and grabbed for the soul.
This time, he felt tenuous contact, wind and sunlight caught in a palm on a winter’s morning. He held onto the feeling, and closed his fingers around it, light streaming through his fingers like he had captured the smallest star.
The feeling of sunlight disappeared, and the soul grew heavy. Screaming started in his head, blocking out all other sound. The sounds from the beginning of life, from the end of life, from chances denied and hopes dashed.
It grew hotter and hotter, a molten ball of lead trying to escape his grasp. He stumbled, feeling sweat pouring down his face as he fell to his knees, light beginning to crack through the back of his hand as the soul tried to melt its way his flesh to an escape.
He had to hold on. Every second was one more chance to get her attention. She would feel him interfering. She would—
A cold breeze blew from behind him.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She sounded disappointed, as usual.
For a moment more, Ryan stared at the light streaming through his fingers, then opened his hand and let the soul float away, a balloon without a string. He curled his fingers over his burnt palm and turned to face Death.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked again.
He looked away from her, then down at the dead child in his arms. ‘She’s too old to become a Starbright–’
‘Far too old,’ she snapped, staring at him with her skeletal face. ‘Your point?’
‘Lady, please, I—’
‘Don’t beg, Ryan.’
He held the little corpse held tighter. ‘Please.’
For a moment, Death said nothing, then she stepped forward, and touched a humanlike hand to the little girl’s cheek. ‘She is too young to make the choice on her own.’
There was such a note of finality in her voice. He followed the line of Death’s cloaked arm to the little girl’s face. ‘So, she’s passed on?’
The oldest of the three Ladies stared at him, expression unreadable. She turned away from him for a moment, and his heart sank. She took a step towards the nursery window, stared down at the party in the garden, then looked back at him, a human face replacing her skeletal visage.
Death pulled away her hood, and silver hair spilled out over her shoulders. ‘Think about why you’re doing this, Ryan.’
‘It’s my job,’ he said.
She walked back to him. ‘This is not your job, angel,’ she said as she lifted his hand. She ran cool fingers across the burn. The pain and the injury disappearing with her touch.
‘Please,’ Ryan said, nearly choking on the word. He looked up at her. ‘Please, my Lady.’ He felt tears stinging at the backs of his eyes, but he quickly blinked them away.
‘I do wish you would consider the consequences.’
‘She’s a child; the consequence would be a life.’
‘If you want to retrieve her soul, Ryan, put her body down.’
He held the girl for a moment more, then knelt and placed the body back in her playpen, laying her on the blanket embroidered with her name.
Ryan looked away from her, from his failure, from the blood covering her, and his gaze fell on the broken china doll—the thing Thomson had stepped on. He picked it up. It was something familiar, and hopefully it would convince her to trust him, to come back with him, to reject death.
Death took a step towards him, and everything fell away. For a moment, he saw the house in its constituent parts—each piece turned into dust, leaving nothing behind, until he was alone in the blackness. He took a breath, then let himself go, and he dropped through the darkness, through the emptiness that was Death’s realm.
There was no need to stare out into the darkness. There was nothing to see, nothing to do but imagine monsters in the darkness, so he closed his eyes and waited for the journey to end.
After a small eternity, he felt solid ground under his feet, and after a moment to collect his thoughts, he felt brave enough to look. Limbo’s eternal storm clouds swirled overhead in the grey sky—promising a storm that never came, brimming with rain that never fell, and occasionally cracking with lightning that never struck the ground and that was never followed by thunder.
The grey earth beneath his feet let up little puffs of dust as he crossed towards the tree line of the winter-dead forest and two little girls.
One of the girls was the child he was there to save, the other was the grey land’s guardian.
Limbo rolled a bright red ball towards the dead child, turned to him, laughed, and looked away. Limbo existed entirely in greyscale, her hair silver, her skin ashen, and her eyes black. Even her monk’s robe was in muted tones. Limbo, despite her age and responsibility, always appeared as a child.
All he could do was watch them play. The girl he’d failed was happy. All her fear had disappeared. There were no more terrified screams or tears of pain, there was just the ball and her new playmate. Children adjusted so quickly. He envied them that quality.
His hands shook, and Ryan buried them in his pockets—it was a useless gesture. The sisters would know how he felt, know his thoughts and decisions before he spoke them aloud. His mind was as open as a picture book with large text. Secrets were an impossibility when dealing with the Ladies. Death knew his fears, his paranoia, his guilt. It was more honesty than he preferred. Bravado didn’t work. Facades of strength did nothing to keep her from seeing his lack of conviction.
The little dead girl caught the ball, bounced it, and pushed it back towards Limbo. Limbo turned to him and laughed, the innocent sound doing a lot to make him feel a little better about the situation.
He sat on the felled log behind Limbo and watched the girls play for a few long moments.
The ball rolled in his direction, and he pushed it back towards the little dead girl. She barely looked at him, her attention entirely focussed on the ball. The lack of attention didn’t bother him. He was an agent. He wasn’t there to be noticed. He wasn’t there to be remembered. Today would happen, and then it would be lost in the miasma that was the foggy memories of childhood. His mistake wouldn’t impact her.
If he could take her back.
If he took her back.
‘You’re right to hesitate,’ Death said as she stood beside him, making him feel so small. She touched his arm, a rare gesture of affection. ‘You do not have the right to do this. You can’t force this choice on her.’
‘It’s my right,’ he said as he uncurled his fists within his pockets, ‘to try and save her.’
‘Is this really saving her, Ryan?’ Death stepped in front of him, blocking his view of her sister and the little girl. Death’s face was skeletal for a moment, angry, before appearing human again. ‘There is every chance,’ she said, ‘that she will become a ghost. Is that what you wish on her?’
He felt a chill as he struggled for an answer. ‘My Lady—’
‘Do you want her to become a ghost?’ she asked.
It took every shred of self-control to keep his voice calm. ‘Of course not.’
‘Then let her pass.’
He looked away from Death and down to Stephanie again. ‘She deserves a chance,’ he said, the words coming easily as the decision fortified in his mind. ‘She has to have a chance.’
‘This isn’t even about her,’ Death said, an angry edge to her voice, her skeletal face returning and staring through him. ‘You’ve no investment in the child. You’re acting out of guilt because of—’
‘I know,’ he snapped, and shame overtook the anger. He hung his head and stared at his feet, unable to meet Death’s gaze, taking in the detail of the fine dust covering his leather shoes. ‘I know why I’m doing this,’ he said, quieter that time. He looked back up at her. ‘I need to save someone,’ he said weakly, ‘even if it isn’t Carol.’
Death sighed and stared off into the dead forest of identical trees for what seemed an eternity. ‘As is your wish,’ she said at last. ‘But she has to come willingly.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, my Lady.’
Ryan stepped over the fallen tree and walked towards the little girl. Limbo grabbed his pants leg and offered the red ball. He stooped and accepted it, thanking her with a nod. She stared at him for a moment, her black eyes reflecting his unsure expression back at him, before she smiled, climbed to her feet, and ran off into her forest.
Stephanie stared after her playmate for a moment, then began to get to her feet to follow Limbo into the never-ending forest.
‘Wait,’ he said, not wanting to risk losing her. He held up the ball, sat in the dust, then rolled it across to her. She clapped her hands and pushed it back towards him. Children’s games. A skill that had grown rusty with disuse, a skill he didn’t mind reviving, if only for a few minutes. He pushed on the ball again and reached for the doll that he’d brought with him.
The doll was missing.
That time when she rolled the ball back, he let it go past his leg and hit the log behind him.
He looked at the ground around him and to the log where he had sat.
He looked up and followed his footprints in the dust back to the place he had entered the grey land. No doll.
‘You dropped it,’ Death said, picking the question from his mind. ‘What’s to say that you wouldn’t drop her?’ The broken doll appeared in Death’s hand, and she passed it to him.
‘I would be—’ he said, then faltered. Careful? He would be so much more careful with a child than with a doll. The doll wasn’t important. The doll wasn’t a small, precious life that needed protecting. The doll wasn’t a tiny step towards redemption.
He noticed that the girl was watching him, staring at the doll in his hand through the wispy brown hair over her tiny blue eyes. He couldn’t leave her behind. ‘I would be a lot more careful with her,’ he said as he offered the doll to its small owner. ‘I will be more careful with her.’
The child’s eyes grew even wider, then filled with tears, her tiny pink mouth opening to let forth yet another wail. He looked back to Death, wondering what he’d—
His gaze fell on the doll in his hand. He’d grabbed it without thinking, without repairing it. He shoved the broken, bloody mess into his jacket, out of the little girl’s sight.
In Limbo, he had no connection to the System, so he couldn’t require the doll fixed. Any other time, it would have been the least of his worries, the enormity of standing separate from the world far outweighing his ability – or need – to conjure items. But now, in this moment, with a crying child in front of him, it felt as though he was missing a limb.
It was such a small thing, and he was without his usual way to fix it.
The land being what it was though, it had a way of providing what you needed, of paying heed to small wishes, of filling simple needs. He brushed a finger over the broken edge of the china doll’s head and concentrated, opening his mind, and asking for the doll to be whole again.
Immediately, he felt the broken face flow, tiny, perfect features once again in place. The was a fuzzing sensation under his palm as the clothes replaced themselves, clean cotton and silk, the blood disappearing like a bad memory.
With a smile, he pulled the renewed doll from his jacket and held it up to the girl.
The screams stopped, and the tears disappeared. She rubbed her dirty face with a sleeve, then half-stood, resting one hand on his leg and grabbing with the other for her doll. He lowered it to her reaching hand, and she dropped back to the ground, her tiny, pudgy arms wrapped tightly around the redhead doll. She buried her face in the doll’s frizzy hair, her hands curling into the fabric of the doll’s dress.
He let himself take comfort in making her happy for a moment, then rose and looked at Death, whose face was skeletal again. ‘May I take her home now?’
‘She has not said yes yet, Ryan. She has to make the choice.’
He opened his mouth to protest, a dozen arguments forming in his mind, each fighting to be the first stated. A child so young had no way to understand the choice she was being asked to make, nor any way to articulate the answer. It was unfair. He’d failed after all. There was no way to—
There was a tug on his jacket. He looked down and saw the girl. She smiled up at him, then hugged his right leg, mumbling something that was probably a thank you into the fabric of his pants.
Death put a hand on his shoulder and smiled down at him. ‘She wants to go with you. That’s a “yes”, Ryan.’
He knelt and picked up the little girl and her doll. ‘Time to go home, Stephanie.’
May 2, 2015, 4:05 a.m.
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