Counting Heartbeats

Prompt: I was with Justus, wanting them all to regret the monsters they'd become. by Kabobbles. It's That Time Again

Follow-up to “Accounting for Redemption.”

Liana Mir

Liana Mir reads, writes, and wrangles the muses from her mundane home in the Colorado Rockies and, occasionally, from the other side of the Barrier.

Series Listing

16 — 02. Summer

When the Clock Strikes Midnight

16 — 02. Summer through 03. Autumn

Wake and Thrive

16 — 03. Autumn through 17 — 01. Spring

Its Own Absolution

16 — 03. Late Autumn

After the Grief

16 — 03. Late Autumn

Battery Acid

17 — 02. Summer

Accounting for Redemption

17 — 02. Summer

Counting Heartbeats

18 — 01. Spring

Song Between the Waking and the Dreaming

20 — 04. Winter

Echoes of Anchor Lost

21 — 01. Spring

Don’t Remind Me That It’s Over

21 — 02. Summer


21— 02 Summer through 22 — 01 Spring

Name Me Another (or Glass Angel, Redux)

22 — 01. Spring

Glass Angel

22 — 01. Spring

Pause the Sonata

22 — 02. Summer

Without a Reason

22 — 03. Autumn

Learning Legato

23 — 02. Summer

Acceptable Cost

23 — 02. Summer

History Lesson on the Night Train

23 — 03. Autumn

Abyss Looking Back

23 — 03. Autumn

Collateral Damage

23 — 03. Autumn

Five Reasons I Love You

23 — 03. Autumn

Little Things

23 — 03. Autumn

Owning Beauty

23 — 04. Winter

Dream the Dance

23 — 04. Winter

Snow Day

24 — 02. Summer

As the River Breathes

AU 21 — 04. Winter

Normal written in coffee grounds

Counting Heartbeats

She didn't have the luxury of regret.

Shift may not have had a soul, but she had a heart and for some d— reason it was still beating. And she had Justus. She just didn’t know how to save him.

17 — 02. Summer
Kingdoms and Thorn Science Fiction
Flash Fiction Short Story

Regret. It wasn’t something Shift often indulged in, and it was an indulgence. She shifted out of her clothes—only way to keep a knife on her body at all times—and ignored the excess mass as she stepped under the spray of her private shower and washed away her conversation with Justus. Her protege. Hers.

D— it. She hated that it was the first one she didn’t share with Watcher.

Hot water washed out the most dirt, but it couldn’t clean her soul of blood or wipe away the accounts she kept in her own personal history of horrors. She had walked back after the one vacation they had ever given her—that one opportunity to pretend she was normal, not a killer, not a whore, not a government operative with more atrocities on her hands than any teenager had a right to. Who was she kidding? Nothing about this was right—and they had showed her into the cell where Justus was chained and already bleeding from the beating and bruising they’d given him.

Quick assessment. She’d done this sort of thing too long to be less than quick. He’d been captured roughly four or five days prior and been given barely enough water to keep him alive, little food. Pre-processing. Her stomach clenched. It was illegal to make more special types.

“He’s yours if you want him.” Chandler nodded in Justus’ direction.

Shift hated the team handler with a loathing that only waited to finish him off because Watcher had told her to let him live. Now Shift was team leader. If she killed Chandler, it would come back to haunt her team.

She turned to Justus, took his head in her hands, and yanked it up to look into his eyes.

He was resigned to his own death. She could see his fate written there. But there was strength too.

She had lost her conscience long ago, gave it away with her only child, knowing she would never have the right to say no to what she was asked ever again. Chandler didn’t know about Anna, but Shift wasn’t about to let him have a reason to look up her exceptions file and decide she wasn’t holding up her end of the bargain. And now, Shift knew the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. She’d say there was hope for her yet, but she didn’t care about the difference between right and wrong and that’s why she recognized this death in the prisoner’s eyes.

But she had a heart. She had a heart. And for some d— reason, it was still beating.

She stepped back, straightened, shifted just slightly and put her hand on the cold metal of the gun slung in a holster at the hip of her dress. She was wearing dark auburn hair today, naturally sultry eyes, a thickness of muscle she omitted for her blonde, innocent self. This skin of hers didn’t care about the consequences.

“I never lose one of my own,” Shift spat out harshly. It was a promise Watcher had made and kept. It was the promise that no matter what it took to keep her people alive, Shift was willing to pay that price.

She saw the flicker of understanding and uncertainty in his eyes.

“Do you want my protection?” It was cruel to ask it of him, ask him to decide between death and becoming a monster, but she had just enough heart left to offer him the choice between a clean conscience and a life beyond this moment, a chance for enough years to eventually find his own absolution for what she would make of him. She would break him, remake him, and turn him into something he’d never want to be if he wanted to live. It was the only path to survival.

His throat worked, raw perhaps from the lack of water, and then finally, slowly, and with too much understanding in those eyes, said, “Yes.”

She breathed out normally, suddenly aware she hadn’t been. She wouldn’t have to add a mercy killing to her sins, just the destruction of a life. She’d done that too many times to count. Shift nodded abruptly to Chandler. “I’ll take him.”

First blood.

Shift stepped out of the shower, toweled dry, and shifted her clothes back to strip them off and change.

She carefully undid the security on her top bureau drawer and untaped a picture from under the top of the wood. Flipped it over, looked at it. A brunette toddler, laughing over something her foster father had said. Anna. Beautiful. Shift’s only unwitting mistake.

She couldn’t regret it. Oh, she could regret finding out about sex the stupid way, regret having gotten pregnant, regret that she’d had to sell her soul to keep this tiny, beautiful daughter of hers innocent and out of the Department which claimed ownership of any children born to operatives. But she couldn’t regret that Anna was alive, beautiful, innocent. She couldn’t regret that her daughter would never be an operative, that her daughter would never kill, that her daughter would never whore herself out for a country she didn’t believe in, that her daughter was Shift’s one exception to the rules of the Department and that Shift could never have any other.

How can I hold my books out to your God and ask Him to wipe out the ledger I’ve written in blood when I don’t regret it?” she had asked Justus, her protege, the one person she had trained who wondered if he could ever wash the bloodstains from his own history.

She couldn’t. She just… couldn’t.

Shift tucked the picture carefully back in its place, smoothing over the tape with her thumb. She redid the security on her drawer, and shifted her gun into its holster, picked up the latest evaluation report on Justus’ performance. Excellent. She’d taught him well.

It would take some doing to lessen the weight she’d placed on him when she offered her protection. He honestly considered his unwillingness to die for failure to perform a weakness.

Maybe she had no soul. Justus reminded her she still had a heart and it was beating. Grace, mercy, forgiveness for presumptuous sin—what did she know of that?

Shift left her room and headed down to the base’s library to do some research. She had a heart. She could do this for him. She had a heart. And for some d— reason, it was still beating.


Kingdoms and Thorn Science Fiction

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2 Responses to Counting Heartbeats

  1. Beverly says:

    I felt there was a much bigger story that I was just glimpsing here, and there wre a lot facts about this universe I feel like I didn't quite grasp. But the snaphot was very intriguing.

    • Liana says:

      Thank you! And you are right. There are more flash fic pieces and at least one actual short story in the storyworld, but right now, I'm hipdeep in longer work for the world. Novels.

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