Taylor glared at the experiment, at the thing they had the audacity to call an agent. A tech recruit, he could have ignored her if she’d been a tech recruit. They wouldn’t be in this mess if Ryan had done his damn duty and assigned her to the right department.
He took a step closer, but she didn’t move.
Worse than Whitman. A hundred times worse than Whitman. Whitman didn’t have mirror. Whitman didn’t have a chance of ending the world if someone cracked open her chest and made a wish.
She had to die. She had to die. It was for the greater good. It was to keep everyone safe. It was to keep Magnolia safe. It was to keep him safe.
He grabbed her by the hair and bent her forward, her hands flailing as he forced her to face the floor. With a shove, she landed on the floor, thin limbs sprawled. He knelt beside her, one hand on the back of her neck, keeping her face pressed against the floor. His other hand grabbed at her uniform, pulling her shirt and vest up to expose her lower back.
She screamed, her head thrashing against his hand. He resisted the urge to crush it, like he had done so many time in her limit testing. It was so easy to collapse her skull, to watch the horror freeze on her face as bone caved under his hand, thoughts still sparking as he held her brains in his hands.
He placed his hand flat against the small of her back.
Snuff out one tiny life. Make everyone safe. It was so easy. So easy. So easy. No reason to hesitate.
Her screams were getting annoying.
He had no reason to hesitate.
He drove a finger through skin and muscle, and wrapped it around the vertebra that contained the toxin.
He closed his eyes and crushed it.
He let go of her, and stood. She flipped onto her back, eyes wide and staring as the toxin took effect. Her feet went first, melting into a boiling puddle of blue, bubbling on his gym floor.
She was crying.
It was supposed to be painless, but she was crying anyway. Her legs ballooned for a moment, then burst open, joining the bubbling mess. Her torso caved, leaving the heart exposed, burning, melting into a pile of dissipating silver.
She stared at him, still conscious, as her face melted away, and there was nothing left but a mess on the floor. The blue boiled itself away, and left nothing but a tacky stain on the floor.
He looked away from the floor. ‘What?’
Magnolia picked the discarded tablet computer up and stared at the screen. ‘Training sim?’
Her fingers moved across the screen and the stain on the floor disappeared.
‘I didn’t enjoy it.’
‘Want to run it again, sir?’
‘I didn’t enjoy it, Magnolia. There’s something wrong with me.’
He required the tablet away, took her in his arms and held her for a moment. Touch. Connection. Comfort. Still so new. Still so wonderful. Something he had to protect.
‘There’s something I have to do, Magnolia.’
‘But I want you first.’
* * * * *
Stef twirled the pen in her hand. ‘I need a favour.’
‘Stamp goes there, newbie.’
She gave him a withering look. ‘Thanks, I’d forgotten that in the last five minutes.’
He lifted his milkshake from between the shrinking piles of paperwork. ‘We only took lunch an hour ago, so you’re not due for an internet break yet.’
‘I wasn’t going to ask for one.’
The milkshake disappeared from his hand. ‘What’s up, newbie?’
She swung her feet for a moment, then turned her chair to face him. ‘I haven’t looked at certain files out of respect for Ryan, but now that-’ She paused for a moment. ‘But now I want to look at them. But I think it’s going to be bad, so could you look at them with me?’
‘Well, mostly, the last day of Agent Whitman’s life.’
He was quiet for a moment, then nodded. ‘Yeah, Stef, I can do that.’
‘If you want.’
‘We’ll use the training simulator in the gym,’ she said. ‘I swear, the minute I hit my six-month mark, my extra room is going to be a private holodeck.’
‘Yeah, you’ve been saying that since you found out you can have an add-on room.’
‘It’s not fair I have to wait six months!’
‘I’m still on probation and you’re arguing about not fair?’
‘You won’t be on probation forever, Aide O’Connor. Besides, I’m better at whinging than you, so I get to do it more often.’
‘To my infinite joy. Finish up this form and we’ll go.’
She stamped, signed and accepted the digital copy. ‘Done.’
He looked at the desk, and began to tap the remains of lunch, the empty wrappers and plates disappearing with a touch.
‘It’s so weird,’ she said as she held her last bite of burger in her hand, staring at it like Yorick’s skull.
‘Something in particular?’ he prompted after a moment.
‘I was raised in a house where money was no object. We had servants for fuck’s sake. Not just at grandfather’s house either, over here with just my parents. Kitchen staff, cleaners, a butler, James had a valet, my mother had all these girls who used to come and go doing her make-up and dressmaking and whatever else. No nanny though, they never sprung for a nanny, whatever needed doing with me just got shared among the household staff.’
‘I’m trying to imagine that.’
‘Don’t even try. Don’t think of all the cool butlers like Alfred and Niles and whatever, the reason those guys are cool is because they’re the exception. Not everyone gets a cool snarky butler or a cook that’s just like a grandmother. Most of the time you get what they really are, people employed to do a job. They’re not family, they’re not friends, they’re employees.’
‘And burgers made you think about the service industry?’
‘No. That’s the context. This is the sort of money I come from, I just want you to grok on to that. It was a hell of a culture shock to go from that to learning to love ramen because I was afraid of running out of money.’
He gave her a small smile.
‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I eat much anyway. Noodles and takeout. Cheap crap, so I didn’t really have to worry about cooking or whatever. But I got used to it really quickly, so that’s normal for me now. And it’s what I tend to require. Burgers. Fries. Honey chicken. Same sort of stuff I’ve been living on for years. I don’t require the hoity-toity dishes, I don’t require whatever the hell angry-TV-chef-of-the-week is pimping.’
‘So, for once, you’re like everyone else, congrats newbie.’
‘And that would be my really, really drawn out point.’ She wiggled her fingers. ‘Requiring is like having phenomenal cosmic powers, you can conjure pretty much anything you could ever want, but people don’t.’
‘Still not entirely sure what your point was.’
‘I dunno, it’s kind of comforting though to know people can stay the same even if something big changes.’
‘She went crazy and killed people, and there’s nothing to say that I won’t do the same.’
She looked up and blinked. ‘For what?’
‘For getting back to what’s actually bothering you.’
‘Sometimes it’s hard for me to face things head on, so I have to come at it from a weird angle.’
She nodded, and shifted them to the door of the gym.
Every recruit stared at them as they entered the room. There was a big difference between an assumption due to circumstantial evidence, and the gossips spreading the announcement. He wondered who it had been – Taylor didn’t care, Magnolia associated with her fellow recruits less than he did, Ryan knew the truth, the techs didn’t share information across departmental borders, so it couldn’t have been Jones. Clarke, probably, disseminated directly, or through the Parkers. Secrets were hard to keep in an Agency. Their faces held curiosity to jealously and everything in between, but none of them said a word.
Brian caught his gaze and smirked.
He moved closer to Stef, like a protective boyfriend would, and glared back at Brian. Keeping up the image was fine by him, especially if it kept douchey closet agent fetishists away from her.
He turned and watched her enter her security code and open up an eyes-only secure directory. She scrolled through, and after a moment, a loading bar appeared and began to fill.
‘You need some help, Agent Mimosa?’ Brian asked as he strode across the gym – somehow managing to have lost his shirt in the last thirty seconds.
‘No thanks, recruit, we’re good,’ she said, the neutral tone of voice telling him she’d triggered /serious.
‘You really should get to-‘
The loading bar finished, and she turned to shake her head. ‘I’d say “maybe next time” but I don’t think it’s likely. You’re due to go on patrol in ten minutes anyway, so shouldn’t you be getting ready? Or at least finish dressing yourself?’
The door to the training simulator slid open and Stef pulled him inside, the whoosh of the doors blocking out Brian’s words.
‘I set it to skip to the end,’ Stef said, ‘I didn’t want to watch it in detail, just see the damage.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said.
One of the combat floor hallways lay in front of them. There were smears of blood on the wall, some of the lights were broken, and there were spent casings everywhere. It didn’t take long to find the first dead recruit, or the second, or the third.
‘Imagine what she could have done with a mirror.’
‘Not sure it would have made a difference,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
He pointed at the trail of bodies. ‘No thought went into this. All of these people were just in the way – there’s glancing blows, cuts that wouldn’t have been fatal if treatment had been available, or just big hits that kept them down. This wasn’t methodical, this wasn’t thinking violence, this was just reacting to things that got in the way.’
‘Then explain that,’ she said as they rounded the corner to the centrepiece of this slasher flick, ‘explain him.’
Taylor was held in place against the wall, arms pinned with knives like he was some sort of like, hyper-violent butterfly. Twenty years difference, and he still looked the same, except for the colour of his hair and the expression on his face. The Taylor that stalked the halls looking for weak prey wasn’t the hurt, beaten thing that hung crucified against the wall.
‘He must of kept getting in her way,’ he said, ‘the defensive wounds are incidental, the real damage came after she pinned him, and even then, there’s lots of damage that wouldn’t be there if she was thinking about what she was doing. Pinned, go for the throat, the heart, the major arteries, there’s no direction to this. She just kept cutting until something else distracted her.’
‘I could never do this. Even- Even if I was out of my mind, I wouldn’t do this.’ She sat on the ground, avoiding the biggest puddles of blood. ‘I’ve never hurt anyone when- I’ve never hurt anyone. I get locked in my own head, or I externalise by accident, I get so afraid that I can’t do anything, or so paranoid I come up with realistic reasons to hurt my furniture. I’ve done all that, but I’ve never hurt anyone. Hurt myself a couple of times, on accident, or on purpose, but never other people. Never. I’m not the danger Taylor thinks I am.’
He sat beside her, and she leaned against his shoulder. ‘I know, newbie, I know.’
‘I can’t even beat you up, what chance do I have of pulling off mass destruction?’
‘Is she why you’re powered down?’
‘Big, big resounding yes to that. I did finally get an auto-pilot off button, which is going to come in handy. I would like to be able to throw the first punch though, instead of having to provoke people into hitting me.’
‘At least you’ve still got plenty of ways to provoke me,’ he said.
‘You’re a huge target,’ she said, ‘fanboy.’
‘Jonesy never found anything wrong. He looked through every bit of code and he couldn’t find anything wrong. No reason why there’d be this massive lack of control or why she’d default to kill everything, especially because it wasn’t combat agent code she got boosted with. She just got boosted with cut and paste sections of default field agent code.’
‘Is that what you have too?’
‘Mostly,’ she said, ‘but Jonesy also did a lot of custom coding for me. I wasn’t time sensitive like her transfer was, so he had more time to play, and he had to make allowances for the mirror as well.’
She stood and stared at Taylor’s corpse. ‘It’s weird he used to be a blonde, he used to match Grigori.’ She slapped herself. ‘And now I’ve got bad head images again. Why, why, why did she have to tell me that? I’m not going to be able to look at either of them again without thinking about, er-’ she held up her hands, pressed her palms together and thumped the heels of her hands against one another.
‘That is not what sex looks like.’
‘I don’t care!’
‘You ready to head out?’
‘Is he ever going to look at me and not see this?’
‘I don’t know newbie.’
‘It’s not fair.’ She kicked the wall and then jumped around. ‘Ow, that actually hurt! Stupid wall.’ She kicked it again. ‘Ok, ow again.’
He pulled her away from the wall. ‘You didn’t complain about getting hurt when you were kicking that troll the other day.’
‘I like to focus on the small things.’
‘I don’t understand that.’
‘You want to know why?’ she said, her voice raising a notch and turning serious. She grabbed his hand, backed up against the nearest wall, and pushed it up under her shirt, leaving it rest over her heart. ‘This is why.’
He tried to pull his hand away.
‘You want to know why I whinge about the tiny things? Why I sweat the small stuff? It’s this. This is why I’ll dance around for two whole minutes after I get a papercut, even though that’s one hundred and eighteen seconds longer than it takes to heal. It’s why I let the papercuts bother me, but not the fights that leave me in shreds and swimming in Jonesy’s tank for an hour while he tries to figure out where my guts go.’
She pressed her hand on his for a moment, then lets hers slip away. He kept his hand over her heart, feeling the odd coolness under the skin.
‘If I stop and let all of this catch up with me, I’m afraid of what it’ll do. I mean, my logic aside, what if it’s inevitable that I do the same thing? Sometimes I think that maybe the only reason I haven’t gone on a rampage is because I was crazy already and that’s like, like it’s my protective bubble, that it’s rock-paper-scissors and my crazy’s just better.’ She looked left and right, then leaned her head forward and rested it against his shoulder. ‘This is why I don’t think about it, because as soon as I think about one aspect, I have to think about it all.’
‘Hey, it’s ok.’
He wrapped his spare arm around her shoulders, and held her close.
The floor hit him in the face.
He moaned in pain as he rolled and slammed against the wall. He lay dazed for a moment, imagining cartoon birds circling his head. He gave himself a moment to ensure everything had stopped spinning before standing.
‘No touchie, got it, but-’
Taylor held Stef by the neck, her feet kicking the air.
He clutched his hand reflexively, but only grabbed air.
‘Let her go,’ he said as he pulled his gun from his holster. ‘Agent Taylor-’
The agent turned his gaze on him. ‘Leave.’
He leveled his gun at the agent. ‘Let her go.’
‘Don’t raise a-’
‘-a weapon against you unless I intend to use it. I’ve heard your speech Taylor, do you know often you say that? I have the intent.’
‘You’re dead, recruit.’
‘Yeah, but I’ll take you out first. After I put on the suit, I didn’t think I’d go out killing agents, but given the circumstances, I’m ok with it.’
‘Told you to leave.’
‘You can’t hurt me.’
‘You put up blackout conditions. You made yourself vulnerable.’
He pulled the trigger.
The shot was loud in the confined space, but Taylor’s arm buckled and he let go of Stef. She stumbled back against the wall, gasping. She turned to run to him, but Taylor’s other arm blocked her path. She retreated a couple of steps, but the agent didn’t grab her again. Taylor’s injured arm hung at his side, blood dripping off his fingers, mixing with the simulated blood on the floor.
‘I’m scared,’ she said.
‘You should be!’ Taylor roared.
‘Not of you. Of her. You’re the fscking Terminator and you’re so scared of her that you think I’m a threat. Look at me, do I look like a threat?!’
‘Do I look like a threat?!’ she said, her voice louder and louder with each word.
‘In the time I’ve been here, what have I done to do you? Other than exist? Nothing. Save your girlfriend. I’m not her, and I’m scared of becoming her. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead, simple as that.’
Taylor growled, then raised his hand.
He pulled the trigger.
The combat agent’s knee exploded, and fell out from under him, for a moment, looking like he was proposing to Stef.
He took three quick steps forward, grabbed her hand, and pulled her out of Taylor’s reach. She stumbled and nearly fell over her own feet, but caught hold of his coat and leaned against him for support, for safety, for protection. He was going to keep her safe, he was going to protect her, he was going to-
Taylor pushed himself to his feet, coming up with both hands balled into fists.
Taylor reached toward his jacket, toward one of the probable hundred weapons he had about his person. A warning shot to the floor in front of his feet froze the combat agent’s hand. ‘I wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘if I were you, I really wouldn’t. You have to realise, I’m adept at keeping people alive to suffer.’
‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ Stef said. ‘I’m not going to stop him from hurting you, but I don’t want to do what she did to you!’
Stef stood straighter and took a little step forward. He moved to the side, to keep his aim on Taylor.
‘You weren’t the only one she hurt,’ she said. ‘What about all the recruits she killed? Do you think I’d want to kill techs? She had a go at Ryan too, I’d kill myself before I hurt him.’
‘You want to hate me because I’m weak? Go ahead. Because you don’t recognise me as an agent? Go ahead. Because you think I should be working for Jonesy, or because I haven’t proved myself, any of that, go ahead, because that is all me. Hate me for me, go ahead, it’s mutual.’
He felt a smile creep onto his lips.
‘I’m going to kill you, Mimosa, it’s the-’
‘What then?’ she said, interrupting the agent’s threat.
‘What happens then? Presuming, you know, that you’re willing to take Curt out as well, and that he doesn’t get you first, what then? You can’t just hide the fact that you killed us both. Training sim blackout conditions only cover requiring, shifting and healing, all the surveillance still works, so that means you’ve got to take out the tech department as well. Doing that, you’re going to make a bit of noise, so the combat recruits will come up, and you’ll have to kill all them as well. And then anyone else who gets in your way. And then the Enforcers who come and try to deal with you. And anyone who gets in your way on your way to your escape, presumably to fairyland. And then you’ll spend the next however many years spending all your time looking over your shoulder for any black-listed fae they hire to take you out.’
She let out a long breath and Taylor just stared.
‘That tired me just thinking about, are you willing to do all that, just to deal with me?’
Taylor continued to stare.
‘Toss me into a blackout, rip out my heart, trip my off-switch or recite the shatter sequence, you’ve got four ways to kill me.’
Damnit newbie, don’t give him ideas.
‘Can’t you just wait,’ she said, ‘until I fuck up and deserve it?’
‘I could kill you.’
‘I could end the world. I’m not going to.’
Taylor stayed silent.
‘Truce, please?’ Stef said. ‘Can you just drop this? Just-‘
‘Are you arguing with me, Mimosa?’
Taylor stood still for a few minutes, then shifted away.
A small silver sachet with a sticker identifying it as Stef’s blue appeared in his empty hand. He holstered his gun, and walked across to her, avoiding the puddles of Taylor’s blood.
‘That was strangely anticlimactic.’
‘You really think he’s going to back off?’
She gave a shrug. ‘I can only hope. Otherwise, you can shoot him again.’
‘I would like to try and avoid that if possible, I’m trying to have a clean record here.’
‘Can I give you points for this?’
‘For the last time, newbie there’s no points system, you don’t get recruit XP or anything else. Now, let me look at you.’ He crooked a finger and slid it under her chin, slowly tilting her face up. It was a gentle motion, romantic in any other circumstance, the prelude to a kiss, not usually rewarded with a view of bruises.
‘You got off easier than he did,’ he said, took his finger away and ripped open the small packet of blue. ‘Stand still.’ He coated his fingers in the semi-solid blue and began to smear it across the red marks across her throat. The red marks disappeared and the blue soaked into her skin.
‘Are there any leftovers?’ she asked as he took his hand away.
He looked down at the small packet, sighed, then handed it over. She gave a small squee, tore the packet down the seams, then dug in the corners for any leftover blue, scooping it up with her finger, and sucking it off.
‘There’s nothing normal about this.’
‘It’s better than letting it go to waste.’
‘It’s required, it’s not going to waste. How can you even eat that anyway, it’s-‘
She waggled a blue-covered finger in front of his face. ‘Don’t say it’s gross till you’ve tried it.’
‘How is it different to drinking your own blood or lymph fluids?’
‘But it’s nommable magic…’
She pressed her finger to his lips. ‘Just try it.’
He shook his head.
He pushed her hand away and licked the residue she’d left on his lips. ‘It doesn’t taste like anything, really.’
She shrugged. ‘I know, but I keep eating it in case one day it tastes like electric blueberries.’
‘It’s what I thought it would taste like the first time I saw it. Makes sense, don’t you think?’
She grinned at him. ‘Yeah, but what fun would life be if it made sense?’