The Five Stages of Grief
by Michelle Ann King
The news breaks at half past ten in the morning. At first I just snort and dismiss it, because
faking her own death is exactly the kind of thing she does all the time. But it's coming from
multiple sources, including some usually reliable ones, with witness reports and footage of what
does actually look very much like a body. Her body.
The queue to see Insight is three miles long as usual, so I disable the security to her building
and go in via the roof.
She looks alarmed when she sees me. "Safeguard? What are you doing here? Is something
wrong? The Prime Minister's coming in at twelve, is there--"
I put up a hand to stop her. "No, it's nothing to do with that. I'm here because I need to ask
you about Surekill. I need to know what happened."
Her concern morphs into a smile. "Oh yeah, I heard about that. Fantastic news, huh?"
When I don't respond, the smile fades a little. "I mean, I'm sorry it wasn't you that got her,
but it's still--"
"Just tell me what happened, Insight."
"Okay, yeah. Give me a second." She closes her eyes and makes a series of tiny hand
movements, as if plucking something out of the air. "Okay. It went down pretty much as they
said on the TV. They weren't on her radar--they weren't on anyone's radar, they're just kids--so
she didn't take them seriously."
She opens her eyes again and shrugs. "Basically, they just got lucky. That's the way it goes,
"No. For some, maybe, but not for her. This has to be deliberate. Part of her plan."
Because it's never what it seems, when things look like they've gone wrong for her. She
always has an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda. It's always part of the plan.
"Nope. Not this time. She's dead, all right. As a dodo." Insight pauses, her head on one side.
"Although I suppose that metaphor doesn't work so well now, does it, since Resurrection brought
them back? He makes a small fortune out of that farm, did you know that? Supplies all the top
restaurants. But anyway, yes, the point is that you can rest easy. She's dead. As a doornail."
I shake my head. "No. That's not possible."
She frowns and lifts her chin. Offended. "You asked, I answered. And I don't get things
Then her expression softens. "Look, I get it, Safeguard. I do. You don't want to take any
chances. I understand that. But trust me, she's gone. It's over. You can relax."
The smile returns. "You know what you should do? Go and find those kids. Help them
celebrate. But in the meantime, some of us poor sods still have work to do, so . . ."
"Of course," I say, and head back to the roof.
Because she's right: I should go and find those kids.
They weren't on anyone's radar, Insight said.
It's true. They're in my files, because everyone who can so much as levitate a pencil is in my
files, but I have to dig deep to find them. Five kids, the oldest only fifteen. They'd applied to
work for me, and been sent the standard "come back when you're grown up" response.
Five kids, five untrained amateur kids, and they go up against Surekill. It should have been
like a bunch of mayflies trying to bring down a jumbo jet. It should have been a massacre.
I find them celebrating by holding an audience at the town hall. When they've finished
smiling and waving and posing for pictures, I pull the group leader outside. I ask why they tried
this alone, without discussion or preparation. Without backup. I ask what the hell they were
He blinks hard and gives me a tiny, one-shouldered shrug. "We just wanted to, you know . . .
get your attention."
I clap him on the shoulder. "Well, guess what? You succeeded."
He inhales sharply as the collarbone snaps. Not even the most basic skeletal protection in
place; very sloppy. If he'd ever made it to a job interview, it would have ended right there.
"This is a dangerous business," I tell him, gripping his shoulder harder to emphasise my
point. He hisses between his teeth. "Extremely dangerous. You could have been killed. You
should have been killed."
Wiping these kids out would take me about as much time and effort as blinking, so it should
have been the same for Surekill. I wish I could ask her what the hell she was thinking.
Bones grind under my hand. "I'm sorry," the kid grits out. "I'm sorry, Safeguard! I'm sorry!
I let him go and he staggers backwards, breathing hard.
"I thought you'd be pleased," he says. It sounds confused. Plaintive.
My hand clenches into a fist and I have to work hard to make it uncurl.
"I'm sorry," the kid says again. A fine tremble has worked its way into his voice. "It was
stupid. I understand that now. But it turned out okay. We're all fine. And we got her. We did it,
Safeguard. So there's no harm done, right?"
"No harm done," I repeat, slowly. My voice trembles a little, too.
He opens his mouth to say something else, but I shake my head and he goes quiet again. I
don't want to hear any more.
At least I get away from there--and him--before I punch anything.
I land at the side of the freshly-opened grave and Resurrection jumps, bashing his knee on
the headstone and almost taking a tumble into the hole.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," he says, clutching his chest. "I can't restart my own heart, you
"I need you to do something for me," I say.
He grins. "Did you forget to water your houseplants again? I swear, you are the only person I
know who can kill a cactus. Well, apart from Surekill, obviously. She can--I mean, she could--"
"Can you bring her back?"
He stares at me. "Can I--are you serious? Surekill? Is that what you're asking, if I can
"No. Of course not. That's ridiculous." He perches on the gravestone and frowns. "Why
would you even want that? You've been trying to kill her for as long as I can remember."
"I know that. But think about it, Resurrection. Is her death going to usher in a Golden Age of
peace and harmony? Or is it more likely to create a power vacuum where every remaining villain
in the city fights each other for the chance to take her place, unleashing an unheard-of level of
chaos, violence, and collateral damage?"
If he does think about it, it doesn't take him long. "No. I am not bringing her back.
"You're not listening to me. If--"
"I am listening. Power vacuum, chaos, violence. But that's why we've got you, isn't it?
Whatever happens, you'll deal with it. Just like you always do. There's no need to start doubting
"I'm not. That's not what this is about. Haven't you ever heard it said, better the devil you
"Of course I have. But I don't think it applies in this instance. I'm not sure there could be a
worse devil than her."
At his feet, the grave dirt starts to swirl and shift.
"I can pay," I tell him. "Whatever it costs. I wouldn't expect you to--"
He looks up at me and his mouth twists. "It's not about money, Safeguard."
He reaches down and grasps the small, pale hand poking out of the grave. The smell hits me
like a blow, and I have to step back.
"The answer's no," he says. "And it's going to stay no. Now, you can either get out of my
face or help me pull this poor sod out of here."
I opt for choice number one.
Over the next week or so there are a lot of phone calls, a lot of messages, a lot of
hammerings on my door. But if there's one building in the city that's secure against unwanted
visitors, it's mine. Only Surekill could ever get in here, and she's not coming.
I sit on the floor with the lights off, the only illumination coming from the soft glow of the
laptop screen. Online, the word has started going out that I've retired. Or gone on holiday. Or on
an undercover mission for the government. Or taken up golf. Or squirrelled myself away in a
cabin in the woods to write my memoirs.
People debate it in posts, emails, tweets, discussion threads. A flood of interview requests
threatens to drown me. They want to know where I am, what's going on, how I'm going to spend
my time now she's gone.
All good questions.
There's a private message from my personal assistant: Some people are asking if you're
upset, because she was your sister. I've prepared a statement to say you might have shared
genetic material, but you weren't family--that the day she chose to become a killer was the day
you stopped thinking of her as your sister. Is that okay? Shall I release it?
I close the laptop lid without replying to anyone.
Naturally, there's no funeral; nobody wants to memorialise her.
There is a will, however, which comes as a surprise. It never occurred to me she would think
about such things. That she would ever imagine, let alone prepare for, her own death.
Everything she had--everything that isn't stolen or illegal to possess, anyway--has been left
to me. There's some money, which I give to victim-support charities, plus a set of keys to her
house, her vehicle fleet, and what turns out to be a secret underground facility. Part of this has
been tunneled underneath Insight's office, which makes me smile. Guess nobody ever asked her
the right questions.
The recon team wants to burn it down and salt the earth, but I get no sense of evil from the
place. Just emptiness.
"There's no point being wasteful," I tell them. "We should use it."
One of the weapons techs glances around at the shelves and storage lockers cautiously. "I
suppose we could try and repurpose some of this for defense."
"The best defense is a good offence," I murmur, hefting a laser-sighted crossbow. It's
beautifully balanced; just the way I like it.
Some of the storage lockers hold clothes: outfits for blending in at any kind of occasion,
from a drug deal to a high-powered business meeting, plus uniforms for what looks like every
profession and company in the city. There's more specialised kit too--items loaded with
technological enhancements even I can't identify--as well as her more instantly recognisable
costumes. There's at least one target I know of who succumbed to a massive heart attack the
moment he saw her, in full regalia, sitting in his living room. I remember her laughing about it.
"Easiest job I ever did," she said.
I take the costume out of its wrapping and hold it up. We were the same height, the same
build. It would fit me perfectly.
"I know what you're thinking," the weapons tech says. "What you're planning to do."
I keep my face blank and my voice mild. "Is that so?"
He nods. "You're going to try and take her place. Be the one who takes over. You're going
to infiltrate the network, get to the heart of it, and bring it down from within."
When I don't immediately respond, he shoots me a look. It's clear that he's expecting
approval, so I give it to him. "Well done."
He basks. "It's a smart plan. Dangerous, though. People will get hurt."
I don't disagree.
"You have to deal with things as they are," I tell him. "Not as you wish they were. The world
changes, and you have to get used to that. You have to adapt. Make new plans."
He nods again. "Smart."
I think so too, although I can't really take credit: I read it in a magazine article about the five
stages of grief. That's from the last one: acceptance.
"Hey, look at this," one of the computer techs says. "There's some more decryption to do,
but it looks like her client list. And there are some big names on here."
It's hard to feel as excited as he is about this discovery--somehow, I doubt that list will be
much different to my own--but I do my best. Fake it till you make it. I read that in the same
I go 'round to everyone individually, offering smiles and thanks and promises of bonuses.
"Well done," I say. "I'm proud of you all. But let's get back to work, shall we? You know
how this goes--things to do, people to kill."
There's a tiny moment of silence before everyone laughs. And then we get back to work.