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The Demoted

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 The first time she saw the light on the device on her chest flicker, she didn't think much of it. A screw here, a new wire there, five minutes with Winston and it would be good as new. Lena Oxton, nicknamed Tracer and proud owner of a unique chronal accelerator, let her fingers run over the smooth metal, tapping the sides of the device until the humming sound returned to its familiar tone. A quick look over her shoulder confirmed that the area was clear, and she blinked out of cover, ready to get back into the fray.

 The second time the device actually sputtered and halted for a good second before starting up again, a high-pitched, screeching sound coming from within. It had been late to the point of early, and Tracer was sleeping soundly until the noise tore her from her slumber. She jolted up, breathing hard - for a second completely convinced it was just a nightmare. As she slowly looked down at her chest, the light from the accelerator, the only thing keeping her anchored in her own time, was dim and weak. The whining sound was still audible over her heavy breathing. It took a couple seconds for the realization to dawn on her that something was very wrong. She scrambled out of bed, fighting the covers that tangled around her legs.

 

'Ah, bloody hell,' Lena muttered as she rolled on the hardwood floor, forcefully shoving the covers off. There were clothes and personal belongings strewn about the floor of her small apartment. It only had one room, with a narrow window to the west, looking out over the outskirts of London. On the other side was a small, old-fashioned kitchen with a single compact cupboard, filled to the brim with crisps and instant noodles, and a mini-fridge. Yesterday's takeout was thrown carelessly in the sink, to be thrown out later. There were cups and dirty dishes on the dusty kitchen counter. In the room was one reclining chair, a definitely well-loved chair that had obviously seen many homes before this one. The brown leather on the seat and armrests had been worn out, leaving holes and scuffmarks all over it. The delicately curved wooden legs of the chair had been chewed and abused by pets of the previous owners. Apparently the chair had even survived an attack with a knife, which had left a deep gash down the back rest. Mercy had stitched it back up, more for Lena's amusement than for her own conviction that it would help the chair last longer. Lena was strangely attached to her chair, probably because it had an unusual history, like her.

 

Most of the space in the room was taken up by the bed. It was a spacious bed for one person, wider than usual. The metal frame was simple, but sturdy. More clothes had been carelessly thrown onto the foot end of the bed, except for Lena's trademark leather jacket, which hung from one of the corner pillars of the bed's metal frame. Lena fumbled about, feeling under the bed with both hands, then inspecting the mattress and piled-on clothes. Her fingers closed around smooth metal and with a gleeful 'Ha!' she pulled her phone out from under a pair of jeans. She dialed Winston's number, and pressed speaker function so she could put the phone down and clamber up on the bed. The phone rang several times before the line connected and Lena was greeted with a very tired-sounding 'Tracer?'

'Winston, is that you?' Lena chirped. 'I need your help, love!'

'Honestly Lena, do you know what time it is?' Winston growled, obviously not really mad at her. He had never been one for regular sleeping rhythms either, anyway.

'Oh, did I wake ya?' Lena giggled. Winston's grunt in response confirmed her suspicions that he had in fact not been sleeping.

'What's the matter?' Winston asked, suddenly serious. Lena took a second to exhale before she answered.

'It's my chronal accelerator. It's been acting up and tonight it really looked like it was gonna give up on me for a sec there,' Lena sighed as she glanced downwards at the pulsing device on her chest. 'Still doesn't quite sound right, too. Gave me a bit of a startle. '

'I can imagine,' Winston answered, concern clearly audible in his voice. 'Come on down as soon as you can. I'll see what I can do.'

 

The Overwatch post, or what was left of it anyway, was an underground facility hidden as the backyard of an antique shack on private property. Lena jumped over the closed fence, blinking did have its advantages after all, and swung open the half unhinged door to the cabin. Under the carpet was a high-tech latch door, smooth black metal clashing horribly with the rest of the dusty interior. She pressed her hand to a scanner until the latch made a beeping sound and a robotic voice said 'Tracer identified.' The metallic clank under the latch indicated that it had been unlocked, and with some effort Lena pulled the heavy latch open. After lowering herself on the metal staircase, the latch closed behind her, sliding back into the lock.

The outpost was different from how she remembered it. Instead of stark white, brightly lit hallways, the lights were dimmed, some seemed broken. Dust gathered in the corners of the otherwise pristine rooms. As she traversed the maze of offices and meeting rooms, Lena noticed a distinct lack of people at work. Computers had been removed or broken open to use for parts. Paperwork was stacked up and on and under the cabinets, as if people had been looking for vital documents in a hurry and left. She rounded the left corner and knocked on the door to Winston's lab. Because she saw light coming from within, she stepped in, calling out for her old friend. 'Winston? You there?'

'Over here,' was the grunted reply from the large, round computer station on the other side of the room. Where usually Athena, Winston's VI assistant, was brightly displayed over several screens, now only one screen was lit. An old desk lamp illuminated the workspace, instead of the lamps overhead. Winston was working on a portable shield, but it gave errors and high-pitched warning sounds as he tried to turn it on. He straightened his glasses before smiling at the girl approaching him. 'Good to see you, Lena.'

'You too,' Lena beamed back. Then her face fell a bit as she crossed her arms and asked, 'what happened here, anyway? It looks like a dump. And that's saying something, if you've seen my apartment.'

'I have, in fact, seen your apartment,' Winston grinned, 'but yes, you're right.' He sighed deeply before continuing. 'It's been a struggle to keep everything running, Lena. I won't bore you with the details, it's none of your concern anyway-' Lena snorted at that.

'None of my concern? Love, you've gotta be joking.' She blinked across the room to retrieve a chair and sat down next to her friend. 'Is there anything I can do?'

'Not right now, I'm afraid,' Winston shook his head in defeat. 'Ever since Overwatch was disbanded, the government had been trying to cut off our resources. Lately, they have succeeded, leaving us with no funds and no materials. We're cutting back the costs of everything, but soon we'll run out.'

'What does that mean? Where will you go?' Lena asked, her eyes wide with concern. Winston returned her gaze with a gloomy expression.

'I'm afraid the more important question is; where will you go, Lena, when I no longer have the means to maintain your accelerator?'

 

She'd thought about it. She'd thought about it often in quiet moments or in the heat of battle, those kinds of thoughts you can't really stop even though you want them to. The kinds of thoughts that shoot images of your worst fears through your mind even though you never asked for them.

The kinds of thoughts that reminded her of being lost in time. Swimming, drowning, existing in nothingness or not existing in the muddled quicksand that was time. The kind of thoughts that would send icy chills down her spine.

She'd considered dying a trivial issue. She was a military woman, a pilot, trained and drilled with always that thought in mind; you could die. And then the Slipstream happened and suddenly dying seemed like a considerably more humane option than being trapped in non-existence. When one dies, at least they're at rest. Maybe they even get to see their loved ones again, who knows. But non-existence is just that, it's a feeling of being without purpose, watching time twirl and spin and wrap around itself until everything is a blur.

She chewed on the inside of her lip as Winston tinkered with her accelerator, leaning back in her chair and trying not to move, so as to not disturb him. She did not know what would become of her if the accelerator eventually failed. She had never been in the Slipstream long enough to fully realize its effects on her, but she assumed time would still have some sort of influence on her. Eventually, she would die, even in non-existence, right?

'Winston?' she asked in a timid voice. 'What influence does the chronal accelerator have on me?'

'It anchors you in time,' Winston answered, clearly trained for this answer, as if he'd explained a thousand times. Lena shook her head in response.

'I know that. I mean, what side effects does it have? When will I start to notice?'

Winston crinkled his brow at that, and pushed his glasses back onto his wide nose. He gave her a piercing glaze, which she returned proudly. She didn't want him to pity her.

'As a scientist, I loathe to say I don't yet know,' Winston decided to reply. 'I have some suspicions, but nothing confirmed. If only I had more resources, we could run tests on your aging process and check if that is all proceeding normally. I have yet to see any signs of increased aging, but I can't tell what's going on at a cellular level by simply looking at you.' He clicked a panel of the accelerator back in place and smiled when it hummed healthily. 'For now, you should be good.'

'Thank you, love,' Lena smiled, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. Winston picked up on it, but decided not to ask.

'I will gather whatever materials I can to save them for your next checkup. Keep an eye on that accelerator, I made some provisional repairs, but it's not like my... usual quality.'

'Will do. I'm just glad I'm good to go again.'

'Call me whenever you need help,' Winston reassured her as he walked her to the door. 'Oh, and if you leave, best take the west exit. You don't want to be near Mercy's station right now.'

'Why?'

'I told you, resources are sparse. We ran out of anesthetics weeks ago.' As if on cue, a hoarse cry filled the hallways, echoing faintly before dying down.

 

There was absolutely nothing heroic about missions. Briefing, meeting point, open fire, protect the asset, debrief. Wash the blood from your hands when you get home. Lena felt bitter as she slumped behind cover. A deep gash ran over the side of her accelerator where a bullet had grazed it. She checked it for other damage, but it seemed to be superficial. Gritting her teeth, she rolled over and opened fire. Blinking over the battlefield, she took down Talon terrorists hiding behind their cars. Her comm whirred before Winston's voice croaked in her ear.

'Sniper, on top of the red building. Be on your guard.' Lena cursed under her breath and rolled behind a pillar.

'Could've said that earlier, Winston,' she breathed in the comm, 'I was wondering who almost hit me.'

From the corner of her eye, she saw the glitter of metal against the bright sunlight on the rooftop over the square. The shining black of the rifle barrel tilted to the side, picking off Overwatch agents with deadly precision. Bingo. Lena couldn't help but smirk as she zipped upwards, a flurry of blue, hastily moving towards her target.

 

Une, deux, trois, Widowmaker counted in her head as she fired her rounds. Three agents went down, almost simultaneously. She scanned the field, but a sudden silence was the only thing that filled it. Narrowing her eyes, she activated her visor and looked closer. That annoying scout had been hiding just a second ago, where did she run off to-

'Lookin' for me?' A giggle behind her. Widowmaker quickly rolled over, for a fraction of a second looking straight at the barrel of a compact handgun, kicking out her legs as she dodged the shot and opened fire of her own. Tracer blinked in and out of reach, laughing as she went, pressing forward. Widowmaker was slowly but surely pushed backwards, until she felt the edge of the roof with the back of her heel. Gritting her teeth, she considered her options; keep firing until the nuisance leaves, press forward, or -

An unexpected kick to the stomach made the decision for her. She gasped for air, clutching her torso as her knees buckled and she tumbled backwards down the roof. On pure instinct, she deployed her grapple in mid-air and grabbed on to the building across the street, changing her falling direction to a swinging motion. With a snakelike movement of her muscular body, she swung up and landed gracefully on the roof, a good ten meters from where Tracer stood, the chasm that was the street dividing them.

'So rude,' Widowmaker sneered, 'but pointless.' Her voice was strangely calm for someone who'd just escaped death by falling.

'Would ya rather have some bullets then, love?' Tracer beamed, holding both her handguns at the ready. In response, Widowmaker raised her rifle with a smirk.

'You'd be dead before you pulled the trigger, choupette. Besides,' Widowmaker made sure to visibly lower her rifle to aim it at Tracer's chest, 'you are a walking bullseye, just begging to be shot.'

'Don't you dare!' Tracer cried, charging up and blinking across the divide, going in for the closer range, where she was at the advantage. She managed to kick away Widowmaker's rifle, but then Widowmaker retaliated with a brutal right hook, which she narrowly dodged. She couldn't dodge the armored boot that followed however, and felt a rib crack on the left side of her body. She gasped, and that was all the opportunity the sniper needed. Tracer was thrown on her back, one hand pinned by Widowmaker's knee, the other one held above her head. Widowmaker had gotten hold of one of her handguns and pressed it harshly against her throat. She chuckled in a low voice as the brunette writhed in vain.

'Always a pleasure hunting you, Tracer,' Widowmaker whispered, a hint of a smile tugging at her lips. 'Ever so nice of you to let us take what we need.' She leaned back slightly so Tracer could see the field below, where Talon agents were gathering in large numbers, pushing back the thinned-out Overwatch forces. Tracer's eyes widened, and she mouthed a defying 'no!'. Widowmaker pushed the gun harder against Tracer's slender neck.

'However, I'm afraid my time to chit-chat is running out.' Now the smile truly broke through and turned into a wicked grin. 'And as for yours...´

Without so much as even blinking, Widowmaker clicked the safety off of the handgun, aimed at the bright blue target on Tracer's chest, and pulled the trigger.