November 2nd

After his fourth training program, Taylor stopped to breathe for a moment.

Fading sim opponents littered the floor of his gym, a testament to the rate at which he’d completed all four routines.

Each sim of a different kind, a different type of monster to test his skills, to concentrate his thoughts on anything other than the blonde woman.

For a moment, he considered a shower, but that was a wasteful habit and he had no need of it. He had vague flashes of such wasteful habits, but nothing more. Memories without meaning.

He wasn’t human; he wasn’t weak; he had none of their frailties. He was above that; he was beyond the point where anything could hurt him. He was better than that.

Better than the man he had been.

Better than the man who had died at the hands of something that shouldn’t have existed.

Taylor balled his hands into fists and tried to imagine that he couldn’t feel the blades sliding into his flesh.

One requirement refreshed himself, clearing the sweat from his body. Another had him in his formal uniform, the unfamiliarity of the suit making him uncomfortable.

The blazer and tailored pants were far too constricting, the tie served no purpose, and it was much harder to weave in harm-resistant thread into something that looked like a business shirt than it was to strengthen a decent military jacket.

Still, he had no intention of approaching Reynolds in anything less than formal dress. It wouldn’t have been right.

It wasn’t battle, but there were still protocols to be followed.

He accessed his short list of saved shift locations, and processed the one second from the top – the director’s office.

The director made no move to welcome him, to ask about the intrusion or to ask for a status report. The director simply sat there, his head resting on his desk, his breathing slow and regular.

No change from the last time he’d seen him. No change in decades – not that any was expected. There was no expectation for him to wake up, but the hope remained anyway.

‘Reynolds,’ he said as he approached the desk, far too aware of the sounds his suit was making. ‘Sir?’

Director Reynolds said nothing, his eyes staring across at some point on the far wall.

‘He’s done it again,’ he said.

The director made a small groan, shifted his head a little, and began to drool.

He rounded Reynolds’ desk. ‘You need to stop it.’

He lifted the director away from the desk, wiped away the drool with the handkerchief in his pocket – likely the only advantage of wearing the suit, and gently placed the older agent back down. A simple requirement replaced Reynold’s dust-covered suit with a clean one.

‘He’s done you nothing but disservice. You should have chosen me.’

The catatonic director still remained silent.

‘You should have chosen me!’ he screamed.

Reynolds began to drool again.

‘Make him go in your place.’

The door to Reynolds’ office opened, and Ryan walked in – the sombre look on his face changing to one of shock.

Taylor reverted his uniform to the standard BDUs – the formal uniform was for Reynolds, and only Reynolds. Ryan deserved none of the respect afford to an agency director.

Ryan took one more step into the office, then furrowed his brow. ‘I didn’t know you visited him.’

Taylor punched him in the face.

Before the agent had time to react, Taylor shot out his left palm, angling it so that Ryan’s head snapped back. He lifted his leg and kick-pushed the man from Reynolds’ office – his director had to be allowed to dream in peace.

Another kick, and Ryan was slammed back against the wall of the abbreviated corridor.

Ryan was an easy target. He fought like an administrator. Field agents were designed to be combat-capable. Another disservice Ryan was doing to Reynolds.

He punched Ryan again, and finally the agent shifted back out of his range.

Taylor flexed his hands, ready if Ryan came within his range again. ‘What use will she be?’

Ryan touched his face, and the bruises faded.  ‘What do you mean?’

There were no appropriate term. ‘Your recruit,’ he said. The term would serve, even if it was inappropriate. ‘What use? What duty?’

‘She will–’

‘No talent,’ he spat. ‘No skill.’

‘The decision,’ Ryan said as he straightened his jacket, ‘was Enforcer Crawford’s to make.’

Still offering no explanation or apology. No reason as to why he was willing to repeat a mistake.

‘It’s a liability!’

Ryan took a step towards him. ‘So were you.’

A thought summoned Magnolia.

Taylor turned his head to look at her, and easily ignored her state of incomplete dress, her open corset that barely covered her breasts, the fading bruises on her pale skin, and the lines of fine muscle definition. All unimportant, ignored.

‘On your knees,’ he ordered his recruit. With a sharp nod, she was on her knees in front of him, an expectant look on her face – ready to do her Duty.

His next thought had a gun in his hand. Magnolia didn’t flinch.

‘Don’t!’ he vaguely heard Ryan shout.

Taylor pulled the trigger twice. One to the shoulder. One to the knee.

Ryan was damning him with words – though none of them were angel magic. None stopped him from making his point.

Magnolia had stayed upright, despite the blood and pain.

She was good. She was trained.

She was good enough to kill him. He had made her good enough to kill him.

Taylor stood at attention. ‘Recruit guidelines, from page one, now.’

‘Recruit handbook, version 85.1.5, current to all recruitments up to and including September, according to the standard calendar,’ she began, dropping the injured shoulder a little to alleviate some of the pain.

A notification of a shift request came in. All shifts concerning his recruits were fed to his HUD, but only Magnolia’s mattered. He overrode the request – Ryan had used agent clearance, not director clearance – and his aide stayed where she was.

The Parkers would be employed shortly – this was a demonstration, not a test.

‘Get her medical attention, now,’ he heard Ryan order.

He looked up at Ryan. ‘No.’

‘You bastard! She’s–’

He heard Magnolia’s voice falter at “bastard”. It was no surprise. Ryan used the word far more liberally than most agents.

‘Version changes to this document include–’ Magnolia continued, trying to keep the pain from her voice.

‘Magnolia is a recruit,’ he said, cutting off the other agent. ‘This is what they are. They are tools to be use, at our discretion, for whatever we wish, however we wish. They fight, they die, – that is their entire purpose.’ He wanted to reach for a weapon. ‘That is their Duty.’

He took a step toward Ryan and looked down on the shorter agent. ‘This is what a recruit should be able to do. You’re weak, your recruits are weak, and this experiment… She won’t pass the limit testing, I won’t let her pass the limit testing. End this now.’

‘No.’

‘You’re creating another Whitman.’

Ryan’s face went impassive. ‘And I killed Carol, didn’t I? I’m sorry that it wasn’t before she attacked you. I’ve apologised a thousand times. I cannot make up for what she did. We brought you back; we tried; we did all we could.’

‘You–’

‘I killed Carol,’ Ryan said again. ‘I did what I had to do. Compared to that…killing Stef would be easy.’

Another lie. Another lie that he continued to tell.

He balled his fist again. ‘A mistake that you–’

‘This discussion is over,’ Ryan said, then turned and shifted away.

‘–pertaining to the second–’ Magnolia continued to recite.

Taylor crouched in front of Magnolia and dragged her to her feet. He took some of her weight, freeing the burden from her right leg.

‘When the Parkers finish with you,’ he said to his recruit, ‘we’ll design the limit tests.’

‘Yes, sir.’ She looked up at him, creases of pain on her face, but she was still battle-ready. She was as he needed her.

He squeezed her upper-arm a little more, then shifted her to the Parkers.

There was a white hallway and a bloodstain – just as there had been with Whitman. The same silence there had been after the mad Whitman had gone into a room full of recruits, and walked out of a room full of bodies.

He immediately shifted to his recruits’ gym and began to shout orders, ordering them into formations. A pointless exercise, other than its inherent value to test their readiness. But noise – any noise, even useless noise – was better than being alone and frightened.