October 5th

Curt took Magnolia’s nipple gently between his teeth, applied pressure for just a moment, then released it, and focussed on increasing his pace – feeling his orgasm move from pending to very imminent.

There was a growl from somewhere behind him.

He seized and gracelessly rolled off Magnolia in an effort to see behind himself. He slipped off the edge of the narrow bed, landing in a heap on the floor, his head cracking against the wall.

He locked eyes with Taylor, his mind racing to try and ascertain what the worst part of the situation was – that Taylor was staring at him naked, that he’d come from the shock or that Magnolia was sniggering.

Her brief amusement ended after a brief moment though, as she rose from the bed. ‘What’s the situation, sir?’ she asked, all business, despite being naked and covered in sweat.

Taylor finally looked away from him. ‘Team went after Solstice. Ambush. Need back up.’ Taylor’s gaze swung back towards him. ‘Bring O’Connor.’

‘Yes sir. We’ll be ready to go in two. Alert Hewitt and his team. I’ll make sure we’ve got active scholars.’

Taylor gave her a sharp nod, then shifted from the room.

Magnolia turned her head to look down at him. ‘I think I said two minutes, O’Connor. Be sure you wipe the cum off, it’s not a good look.’

‘I’m Field,’ he said dumbly, requiring a wad of tissues to clean himself up. ‘What good am I to you?’

Her hands went to her hair, plaits forming beneath her fingers as she required her hair into place. He got one more look at her back, and the small black feathers there before a dress covered her body.

‘You’re Solstice,’ she said. ‘Your tactics are useful. It’s easier to use you in person than call up your old reports.’

His hands froze on his belt. ‘You read my reports?’

‘You’re an asset O’Connor, even if Ryan doesn’t treat you like one.’

Pride swelled in him, and he required a fresh uniform onto his body, giving up on the one he’d abandoned on her floor. His hands went to his coat, checking for his weapon, checking his pockets and folds for all the tricks that came with his modified uniform requirement.

Magnolia pressed her hand to her headset. ‘Mer, you on channel? I need a scramble. No. Not eggs.’ She turned away and spoke quietly for a moment, then turned back. ‘If you’re not ready-’ she said.

He quickly stepped across the room and opened the door. ‘Ladies first.’

Magnolia smirked at him, and the world fuzzed as they were shifted.

‘Report,’ she said as they reintegrated. They were in a darkened office building – six other combat recruits sat on the edges of desks and on swivel chairs.

‘So far as I understand it,’ Hewitt said, ‘Wilson’s team went in, then the area went black. Techs raised the alarm. We’re lucky, this street’s fairly quiet at night, which is why no-one noticed the hand.’

Curt’s hand snapped up. ‘Hand?’

‘It was lying on the road in front of the building.’

‘Where is it?’

‘It got sent back to medical to get chilled,’ Hewitt said. He picked up a tablet and passed it across. ‘Photos if you need it.’

The photos were raw snaps from the Parkers’ feed – no data, no Medical division borders, but it had the detail he needed. He glanced at Magnolia, and she gave him a small nod.

Curt closed his eyes for a second, centred himself, and pressed his hands into his sides, feeling the uniform fabric beneath his fingers.

‘The owner of this hand is dead or will be soon,’ he said. ‘Four man team?’ Hewitt nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘four prisoners in a place not built to hold them is too many.’ He held up the tablet. ‘This is their sign to us that they aren’t fucking around, are more than willing to kill all the hostages, but are willing to negotiate. They’re trapped, that’s the good news. The bad is everything else. Is a negotiator being called in?’ Magnolia stared at him, and he felt like an idiot. ‘Ah. We’re the negotiators?’

‘Agent Taylor and four drones are doing a sweep of the building,’ Hewitt said. ‘We’ll know more in a minute. What’s their move from here?’

‘It’s a demoralising act, to make the others cooperate, to get as much information out of them before-’ Curt felt his mind hitch. ‘This isn’t your first week, you guys should know this.’

‘We use experts when we have them,’ Hewitt said without hesitation. ‘Details they might know that we might miss – the fact that it’s a left hand could have some significance, for example.’

‘Most Solstice aren’t that smart,’ Curt said.

Deride the Solstice. Insult them. Talk down about them. They weren’t smart, fun or clever. They were nothing except a bunch of bigoted idiots, no better than morons who would go gay bashing if the mood struck – and there was no small crossover in that Venn Diagram.

The hand was just a hand – it had meaning, but it was one of the few things that did. Any other body part removed was just that – a way to torture, a way to hurt, a way to strike back at the inhuman bastards in suits.

The hand was symbolic, and it was one of the few pieces of symbology that the Solstice used. With how spread out they were, and by the necessity of the cell structure, people said they had found it difficult to press out more than the basic message.

The Solstice worked together, were funded by central sources, but other than that, they tended to act independently.

‘O’Connor,’ Magnolia snapped.

‘It’s what it appears to be,’ he said as he handed the tablet back to Hewitt. ‘We’re on the clock, and we’re probably going to find at least one body.’

Magnolia nodded, then looked up as Taylor shifted in.

‘Fourteenth floor,’ he said. ‘The glass has been hardened. They’re all away from the walls.Snipers will be ineffective. Sent the drones in, all were destroyed. Scholars are working on visibility.’ Taylor swung his gaze to Curt and gave a grunt.

Curt went rigid, and relayed a shortened version of his assessment.

‘Frontal assault?’

‘That would give you four dead, sir.’

‘Give me an option.’

Taylor was listening to him. Really listening to him, expecting input, ideas and knowledge.

Something Ryan had never done.

‘How many elevators were there?’

‘Three.’

‘Two will be disabled, and they’ll have a guard in the last one. Somewhere between three and ten flights up from the ground floor – so that if we do send someone in, they’ll have an armed guard on them at all times.’

Taylor’s look was expectant, tinged with angry.

‘We send someone in, they hit the elevator, and leave a phone so they have some way of communicating with us. Don’t rig the phone to blow, because most of the time they hand it to one of the recruits to talk. There’s also a fifty percent chance of whoever takes it being taken themselves. Lobby’s out of the blackout, so they can be shifted away, but that could aggravate them.’

He tried to force his mind to work faster, aware that someone was bleeding to death. ‘We get the techs flooding the pipes with blue, then we trigger the sprinklers. There’s a very good chance you’ll lose at least one person, if they’re smart. If I had- It’s not TV, not everyone turns their gun away when there’s an obvious distraction. A lot of the time, it’s easier to fire, then deal with it, but it’s still the best option, even if it leads to a casualty. If we’re talking, then there’s less of a chance of them shooting someone in anger. We could set this building on fire, and get in the real fire brigade so it looks like their sensors were just too sensitive, but that will take too much time and involve more civilians. Any concussive entry, and you’re probably looking at two kills.’ He tried to force his back more rigid. ‘This is my recommendation, sir.’

Taylor’s look was glassy, and Curt wondered for a moment if he’d bored the agent into a coma.

‘Scholars are doing the pipes,’ Taylor rumbled. ‘You take the phone. Field are usually the negotiators. If they take you, don’t fight.’

Curt pressed his teeth together to stop his mouth from gaping – Taylor had started to enact his plan before he’d even finished talking. He flicked a look at Magnolia, wondering if she could push for a transfer to Combat for him.

Taylor moved away, and began to organise his recruits.

Hewitt offered a bullet-proof vest but he shook his head. ‘They’d aim for my head, that would be useless.’ He took a standard-issue phone from Magnolia, then pressed the button on his earpiece. ‘Raz, you there?’

‘Been listening in, Agent C!’

‘Get me shifted straight into the lobby of that building.’

‘Jonesy says three…twoooo…’ The world blurred and there was the strange sensation of sound catching up with him as he reintegrated. ‘One!’

He gripped the phone, looked up to the security camera in the corner of the lobby, held the phone up, then strode forward – keeping an eye out for tripwires – and pressed the elevator call button.

Ten seconds later, the doors of the lift slid open.

He raised his hands, keeping them away from his body to ensure that he didn’t appear to be a threat.

The kid in the lift couldn’t have been more than seventeen. He smirked to himself, at thinking of someone just two years younger as a “kid”, but the kid seemed a lot younger than he had at the same age – and he doubted the young Solstice in front of him was being fast tracked through the interrogation program.

‘I’m Recruit O’Connor,’ he said in a slow, calm voice. ‘I’m here to open a line of negotiations to get out people back.’ He waved the phone with the hand slightly. ‘This is a direct line to the Agent in charge.’

‘Get in the lift!’ the boy shouted, the words coming out all at once. ‘Don’t move or I’ll blow your head off!’

The instructions were mutually exclusive, but now wasn’t the time to mention that. Curt slowly walked forward, keeping his hands up, and joined the young man in the lift. Curt took in the Solstice’s outfit as the kid pushed the gun into his back – amateur mistake number three in just the last ten seconds – it was smart casual, he probably worked in the office, probably doing one of the myriad of non-combat roles that people forgot the Solstice needed – scheduling, accounting, logistics.

Curt wouldn’t have been surprised if it was the first time he’d held a gun.

The doors slid closed but nothing happened. The gun ground against his spine. ‘What did you do?!’

‘You didn’t press the button,’ he said, adding a friendly tone to his voice. ‘Your people are on fourteen, right?’

‘Ye-yeah,’ the kid said, deflating a bit as he hit the button. Just as quickly, he pointed the gun at Curt’s face. ‘Don’t move! And don’t talk! I know you’re going to try and trick me, Agent!’

‘Recruit. I’m just as human as you are. And just as human as the guys you’ve got upstairs.’ The dark spots of blood on the kid’s pants was unmistakable – blood. ‘The full-time guys are really messing up your office, aren’t they?’

‘They weren’t even supposed to be here!’ he said, his voice a high-pitched mix of whine and panic. ‘And one of them just- This is just freight and shipping.’

‘And how’s your week been? Fucks and shits, or flowers and sunshine?’

The expression on the Solstice’s face changed. ‘How do you-?’

The elevator beeped and the doors slid open. ‘I’m on your side,’ Curt said with a smile.

The Solstice pulled the phone from his hand, awkwardly pushed the gun into his back again, and pushed him out of the lift. ‘Guys!’ he called, his voice moving back into panic again.

The lift well lead into a reception area – one man with a gun stood there, looking a lot more competent than the part-timer.

The man stepped forward, and shoved the part-timer back, pulled the gun and phone from his hands, and pointed at the reception desk. ‘Stay there.’

‘I’m Recruit O’Connor,’ he said again. ‘Lead the way to my people.’

He wasn’t at all surprised when the man punched him in the face.

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