Magnolia easily fell into step beside her commander. Taylor kept his gait so that they could walk in step with each other – it kept their circumstances the same in the field. There was an inherent flaw – they could both be killed at the same time – but the benefit far outweighed the risks. It meant they would be on the same side of a blackout zone, or both within range of an enemy.
It meant they were never alone.
It was also the only reason they had both been vulnerable to the reaper that had cornered them, and the only reason they had been able to escape.
He hesitated in front of the gym’s private sim room. Though the gym itself was more than capable of displaying training sims – as the piles of dissipating gore surrounding them demonstrated – it made a practical kind of sense to run scenarios in the specialised room.
A file loaded, and he pushed open the door.
He looked past her. ‘It’s necessary to understand.’ He stood straight. ‘Follow.’
Magnolia’s head swum – after an eternity of hints and pieces of the truth, she was finally going to know – there was something powerful about being trusted enough to know, and something devastating about his need to share something…private with her.
He would have told her, in his own time, she knew. The fact that he was being pushed, due to circumstance, that was something she didn’t like.
‘This is what Whitman did,’ he said as she stepped in. The door closed and disappeared into part of the wall.
The Combat floor corridor stared back at her. ‘There was nothing wrong,’ he said. ‘Unexpected. We were unprepared.’
Alarms blared, and she jumped as the door beside them opened. Taylor stepped out – and he looked so different to her commander. The hair was different – the one in this memory was blond. The face was the same, but the eyes were different. The blond man wasn’t her commander. He was…but not.
She stilled her face, careful to keep it smooth of emotion, then looked back to her commander. ‘Sir?’
‘Lockdown conditions,’ he said. ‘No warning. We were closed off.’
They followed the old Taylor through the Combat hall, watched him yell instructions to recruits – the kind of instructions you do when you aren’t sure if there’s a real emergency or what the situation is. Suit up, get into teams, secure the armouries. The basic precautions.
They rode up in a lift, and exited on the Field floor. They turned two corners, then it was obvious that something was wrong.
A recruit lay on the floor. The old Taylor went to his knees beside the young man, who was desperately trying to stop his life from bleeding away – someone had slashed his neck but hadn’t done a very good job of it.
The recruit grabbed for Taylor and expired before the agent could do anything.
Magnolia followed her commander and his memory to Ryan’s office. Like the recruit, the agent was also on the ground, bleeding. The wounds were non-fatal though – nasty, deep cuts in his face, defensive wounds on his arms, and a deep gut wound.
The weapon had been fae – that was obvious from the fact that Ryan hadn’t been able to regenerate at all.
The blonde Taylor knelt. ‘Sir, are you conscious?’ His hands worked over Ryan’s suit, and he found a packet of blue. He tore open Ryan’s shirt and applied it to the gut wound, which immediately started to seal. ‘Sir?’
Ryan grunted, and his eyes fluttered open.
‘Where did she get the weapons, sir?’
‘Me,’ Ryan choked. ‘She got them from me.’
‘But sir, you surely–’
‘She wanted access to the weapons locker… She’s been researching… She… Why…’
She looked to her commander as his memory squeezed the last of the blue from the foil packet. He caught her gaze for a moment, then looked back to the men on the floor.
‘What’s the damage?’ Ryan asked.
‘Lockdown. Did you–’
Ryan swooned for a moment. ‘I did. She’s–’ He looked up, eyes clear. ‘The recruits!’
‘At least one is dead.’ Taylor looked away and wiped Ryan’s blood on his pants. ‘Ryan, you know what has to be done.’
‘No!’ He struggled to sit up, but Taylor pushed down on his chest. ‘You can’t–’
‘Love her. I know, sir. But she– I’m sorry, sir, but there is no choice.’
‘You don’t have to.’
Ryan reached for the blonde Taylor again, but his arm slackened and dropped as the director fell unconscious.
She followed her commander and his memory out of Ryan’s office. Blood from three different dead recruits made the trail easy to follow. Magnolia stole another glance at her commander, who was tense beyond anything she’d ever seen.
The blood led them up to the tech floor. Three techs had gone down fighting – they all wore pieces of body armour, and one held a grenade in their hand, the pin still safely in place.
Taylor checked each body – a stupid, useless manoeuvre, a waste of time – and two corridors later, the blood trail stopped, as the one making it was standing still.
Ryan had excellent taste in women. Whitman was tall, blonde, and gorgeous – even with the sheen of blood over her suit, she was incredibly hot. Her gaze was unfocused, her lids heavy over her eyes as if she wasn’t even seeing what she’d done.
The knife in her hand wasn’t held with any degree of professionalism, or with any sign that the wielder knew what she was doing.
Whitman stood left of centre in the hall, her hands swinging slightly, blood falling in arcs of small drops. Magnolia leant her head forward as a soft sound reached her – Whitman was singing. It was a wordless tune, the kind of non-song that parents sang to their kids to get them to sleep.
She stole another look at her commander as his memory walked forward. He was pale. He was– Magnolia overwrote the thought before it could fully form, then looked at him again. He was afraid. It wasn’t something she was used to seeing on his face, but it was there.
It was worse than the fear he’d shown when they’d been cornered by the reaper.
Whitman turned a corner, and the memory of Taylor followed, but her commander didn’t move.
‘Whitman,’ he rumbled slowly. ‘Ryan’s lover. Aide. Murdered by Solstice. Augmented. Full agent.’ He touched a hand to his head. ‘Six months of function, then–’
There were gunshots from where Whitman and Taylor’s memory had gone.
‘No warning. No cause. The Scholar never found a reason,’ he said, his face twisting. ‘She murdered.’ There was a scream – a scream from his memory.
‘The scholar was an idiot,’ Taylor said. ‘He thought he could do something.’
He reached across to her and gripped her upper arm.
There were more sounds.
‘She didn’t feel pain. She’d never fought like this. It was–’
His hand slid up onto her shoulder, then up further – four fingers around the back of her neck, his thumb resting beside her ear.
There were two thumps from around the corner, and Taylor shook with each one.
The sounds stopped.
Taylor closed his eyes for a moment.
His thumb slid from her ear and onto her cheek.
Magnolia allowed herself a moment to enjoy the situation, then flicked her eyes up and studied his face. He was…all the things he never allowed anyone to attribute to him. Weak. Scared. Beaten.
He bowed his head, then took his hand away, turned, and followed after Whitman and his memory.
By the time they turned the corner, Whitman was gone, and only the corpse of his memory remained.
The blond version of her commander was pinned to the wall, like a butterfly in a display case. Knives through his hands, holding him in place, his body sagging towards the floor.
Blood pooled on the floor, the soft drops from the corpse the only sound in the hall.
Magnolia raised a hand to her mouth, unable to hold back her shock.
‘Ryan killed her,’ her commander said as he turned to face her, looking away from his own body. ‘Too late. Fifteen dead. Eighteen injured. All survivors were transferred. The agency was crippled for months.’
Taylor looked down at her, and some hardness came back to his face. ‘Don’t.’
She took her hand away from her mouth. ‘Sorry, sir.’
His eyes stayed on her. ‘You’re crying.’
She looked away, embarrassed.
‘This isn’t for weakness,’ he said. ‘This is for strength. So you know it’s a threat. It has to be destroyed.’
Taylor took a step closer. ‘We look for threats from the outside. We don’t protect ourselves from what’s in the building.’ He lifted a hand and stabbed a finger in the direction that Whitman had gone. ‘This is what she’ll do. Ryan can’t see it. The Scholar won’t see it. You–’
Resolve coalesced, and she nodded. ‘I’ll do whatever is needed, sir.’