Raimi pushed the customer out with the converter kit.
“If they’re that desperate…” she murmured. She listened for a moment to the sounds of battle from the front of the store.
She turned to the people whom she had been assigned to protect. They were mostly children and the elderly, with a few men and women unsuited to combat scattered among them.
“I’d like those of you who are willing to join me in a prayer,” she said to them.
All of those gathered in the back of the store formed a circle and joined hands. Once they had come together, Raimi spoke.
“To the Powers that Be,” Raimi said. “Whoever they might be. I have never been terribly religious, so I’m not sure exactly how to address you.”
She cleared her throat.
“An ongoing thread throughout all of the dogmas that I’ve run into seems to be that you want us to improve. We have to face adversity and discover within ourselves the strength that will allow us to persevere, to keep on keeping on despite all. That’s why you test us, why you put us through such awful shit.
“It’s why you give us abusive spouses and cruel strangers, why you throw tempests and hurricanes and monsters at us. It’s why you inspire us to hate each other, give us the tools to kill. It is all, apparently, to better us and to give us that mental shielding. We have to get used to the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people, that sometimes decent people die for no reason.
“But out there in the store right now is a set of really great people. There’s a young couple desperately trying to figure out how to love each other. There’s a big-hearted girl, the sweetest I know, dying of two dozen bullet wounds. There is a misguided little sprite who is kind of a dumbass, but is trying very hard to be a good guy. And I like him a lot, anyway.
“These people are the heart of New Washington. They are everyday people in the most colorful and interesting way. They live and love and are so full of personality, and they just exemplify everything about our city that makes it special. I am in love with them. If they get snuffed out because of this—this ill-conceived power-grab, it will be a surer sign that all this destiny talk is a steaming pile than any of the saddest bards’ songs.
“Basically, I guess that what I’m saying is … throw us a fucking bone, ey?”
There were a few seconds of silence. Suddenly, a voice seemed to come from everywhere. “Hello?”
“God?” she asked.
“Uh … no,” the voice said, obviously a bit weirded out. “Scott. Is that you, Raimi?”
“God!” Raimi said, her eyes wide. She practically flew to the door.
“We’re seriously running low here,” Click said, his voice taking on a desperate edge.
“Just keep her alive!” Alan said, pulling the pin on a grenade. “We are not letting her go gentle into that whatever night!”
“What?” Click said.
“The—I was quoting—forget it! Just keep her alive until death tears her from your claws!”
“That’s going to be—throw that fucking grenade!” Click shouted.
Alan turned and hurled the grenade, scattering a group of soldiers. Click and Alan ducked as the grenade went off. The soldiers regrouped too quickly for Alan’s tastes.
“That’s going to be soon, Alan!” Click shouted.
“Just keep her alive!” Alan snapped, firing his shotgun into the crowd and ducking back into cover. “In the off chance that … I don’t know, a doctor materializes out of the ether—”
“Poof,” Raimi said over the radio. “You’ve got a guest.”
Alan turned back to see two familiar forms running toward them. His eyes went wide.
“Dr. Wallace!” he said. “Mya!”
The Pol’s Cat grinned and struck a pose. Dr. Wallace held a full-service medkit aloft. “Point me at the patient, Alan.”
“She’s right there,” he said, pointing at Michelle-Bear’s prone form. “Please be careful; there’s no good cover near her. Why the hell are you guys here?”
“Matt asked us to meet him for lunch,” Mya said as Dr. Wallace approached Michelle-Bear in a crouching scuttle.
“Are my guests here?” Matt asked over the radio.
“I owe you so big,” Alan replied.
“I’d tell you to pay it forward,” Matt said, “But you already are. Tell my guests that I’m sorry, but I’m busy shooting people.”
“This is really bad,” Scott said. “I’m not sure that I can save her.”
“Please try,” Alan said.
“I’ll give it everything I have,” Scott said, setting to work.
“Is it just me, or am I the only person who’s killed any soldiers in the last five minutes?” To’mas asked over the radio.
“It’s the blockades,” Alan said. “They’re setting up a perimeter inside the store.”
He looked at the remaining troops. No one had been lost, but he could see several wounded fighters continuing to hold their positions. Even Zap, who looked barely conscious, was clumsily firing volleys of automatic fire at the enemy, leaning against Steve as she did the same.
Click, who was covered in blood, limped over to Alan. “This is too much, Alan,” he said. “We have to surrender.”
“Click,” Alan said, shaking his head. “That is not an option. If Mayfield takes this precinct, we are well and truly fucked. This is the only strategic point in the area. We have to hold until forces get here.”
“There aren’t any forces, Alan!” Click said. “They’re all in other precincts.”
Alan set his jaw and took a deep breath, surveying the forces. This wasn’t a fighting force. In a real war, people would be dying, ground would be gained and lost. People would be expendable. This wasn’t war, though, and his fighters weren’t soldiers. They were not his comrades in arms, they were his friends. Losing even one of them would be more than he could bear.
It was at his most shamed, on the crest of his most difficult decision, that Alan was saved from having to make it.
A pair of amplified voices shouted from outside. “For the Company!”
Sounds of chaos and battle followed. The soldiers stationed inside craned their necks to see what was going on.
The voices cried out again. “For the Precinct!”
More chaos could be heard outside of the visual range of the store. The soldiers inside registered alarm. The fighting in the store dwindled as employees, customers and soldiers alike tried to see the source of the disturbance.
“For New Washington!” the voices cried.
Then entered the Cavalry.
Five Mayfield soldiers were pushed through the door and scattered, revealing the triumphant figures of Sir Lewis Birchmore and Sir Drake Kunimitsu behind them. Both were in traditional Knights’ Combat Suits, finely-pressed business attire designed for maximum ease of movement. Each had his sword and pistol in either hand, and they moved together like a well-oiled machine.
The soldiers in their way fell like leaves, cut and gunned down by soldiers of the highest skill. Behind the Knights came a small squadron of Better Living, Ltd. soldiers, covering their Knights in a tight formation.
The employees stared, dumbfounded, as the battle was swiftly won.
Less than five minutes later, the surviving Mayfield soldiers had surrendered and been led away by Better Living Military Police.
Sir Kunimitsu ran up to Alan. “Please say that I am not too late.”
“I…” Alan stammered, pointing at Sir Birchmore. “He…”
Sir Birchmore drew himself up and said in a pained tone, “The possibility of losing this territory to a company as unethical as Mayfield is more important than … than petty rivalries.”
“Sir Birchmore and I have declared an all-points truce until this conflict is over,” Sir Kunimitsu said. “He met with my company shortly before the attack, when we were preparing to move.”
“You—anticipated this?” Alan said.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” Sir Kunimitsu said, a little incredulous. “Mayfield’s withdrawal of occupation forces made it plain to us. What we miscalculated was the time of the attack; had you not held this ground until our arrival, we might have lost the territory.”
The Knight clapped Alan on the shoulder. “You have done very well, Alan,” he said. “Very very well.”
“Hello!” Dr. Wallace called out. “Crisis not over! Dying girl!”
Alan skipped to the doctor’s side. “What’s going on?”
“Too much organ damage for a physic alone,” Scott said, shaking his head. “I can’t do this without magic, and that is not my department.”
“Get Zap over here!” Alan shouted.
“No!” Steve said, wrapping her arms around Zap’s dazed form protectively. “He’s exhausted! He’ll die if he tries to cast anything more!”
Sir Kunimitsu gaped at Michelle-Bear’s heavily damaged body. “That’s…”
“The waitress who confronted me,” Sir Birchmore said.
“You were the CK she stood up to?” Click barked. “Your antics got her fired!”
Sir Birchmore was quiet for a moment. “So I suppose it’s my fault that she’s here and wounded, eh?”
“More or less, yeah,” Alan said, somewhat worried about what the knight’s reaction might be.
Sir Birchmore reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small container that looked rather like a glasses case. “I’d been saving this for a special occasion,” he said, “but I’ve got to make amends with the young lady. I suppose that saving a life is special enough.”
He tossed the case across the room at Steve, who snatched it out of the air.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Give it to your tired friend,” he said.
Puzzled, Steve opened the case. A luminous golden ball slipped out of it and floated just above the surface of the barrier.
“Beautiful,” Click breathed.
“It’s a shot of Aura!” Steve shouted. “Zap, drink this!”
“Fuck yeah,” Zap murmured. “I could use a drink.”
Steve moved her hand around the ball and tipped it into Zap’s mouth. He closed his eyes. A warm glow surrounded him for a moment, then his eyes snapped open, energetic and full of alacrity. In a single fluid motion, Zap righted himself, vaulted over the barrier and ran toward Michelle-Bear. He was already chanting in the arcane language; in one of his hands was a green leaf he had withdrawn from his duffel bag. The leaf trailed a faint blue glow behind it.
Zap reached Michelle-Bear, placed the leaf on her ravaged midsection, and clapped his hands together. The words of his spell echoed through the room, bouncing off of each other and building a powerful, surging momentum. Dr. Wallace worked behind him, diverting the healing energies with his diagnostic device and using gauze to staunch Michelle-Bear’s wounds.
A few minutes later, Zap stopped chanting. He fell back into a sitting position, panting heavily but lucid.
“She’s stable,” Dr. Wallace said softly. “Very badly damaged, but stable.”
Nalley burst into a fresh bout of weeping. Alan gave Sir Birchmore an earnest look. “We owe you one,” he said.
“No,” Sir Birchmore said. “Only repaying a boon.”
“You owe me one,” Dr. Wallace said.
“I’ll get in on that too,” Zap panted.
“Yeah, me too,” Matt joined in, sauntering out from the stun turret booth.
“Sure,” Alan said, rolling his eyes. “I owe everybody one except Sir Birchmore. Now let’s account for our customers and secure the door so I can make a report.”
As the employees bustled about gathering customers and consolidating weapons, Zap struggled to his feet and leaned heavily on the nearest shelf. After a moment, he realized that Steve was hovering near him.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Like I’m going to sleep for twelve hours,” Zap replied.
“Okay, I can wait that long,” Steve said.
Zap blinked. “For what?”
“For my date,” Steve said. “That you are going to take me on.”
“Oh,” Zap said. “Okay.”
“But I am not going to wait twelve hours for a kiss,” she said.
Zap and Steve looked at each other for a few moments. Steve closed the distance, reaching up and wrapping her arms around Zap’s neck. She brought his face down to hers and their lips met softly. They shared a kiss that lasted several seconds before the sound of a shutter interrupted them.
They broke the kiss and stared at Matt. Matt lowered his camera, grinned, waved to the couple, then moved along.
Steve and Zap’s eyes met again. Unhurried, they moved in for another kiss.
This time, no one interrupted them.