Taylor paced his office.
Six steps. About-face. Six steps. About-face.
Mimosa’s experimentation protocol sat on his desk, next to the original augmentation report for Whitman. Magnolia would look for similarities. Areas they could exploit. Elements that should not be repeated.
Six steps. About-face.
It was recommended that combat agents set a sleep cycle of six hours. The minimum was four hours. There was no maximum, except limits imposed by duty and schedule.
He usually took seven hours. It was a common number. Seven was a good number amongst agents. Considered lucky.
Eleven PM to six AM, when there were no duties to attend to.
His HUD clock read 1:02 AM.
He stopped pacing, retrieved Ursur’s axe from the armoury, and returned to his office.
Taylor shouldered the axe and initiated the first element to his sleep routine.
His desk, his chair, and Magnolia’s chair, disappeared. A simple bed – single, with agency-blue linen – appeared, and he sat.
He retrieved his whetstone from the inside pocket of his jacket and began to sharpen the axe. It was as much a ritual as it was a necessity. It was always sharp. It was always ready.
He rested his fingers on the weapon’s one imperfection – the area that had been chipped away, creating the piece that had been used in Magnolia’s knife.
Taylor lifted the axe and scanned the edge, determining that it was at peak sharpness.
He lifted his head and made another familiar requirement – two hooks to hold it on the wall beside his bed. He would return it to the armoury in the morning.
Second element to his sleep routine. Clothing. He lifted the sheet, required away his clothes, and lay in the bed.
Clothing was a distraction during sleep, and there were spare uniforms in boxes under the bed – part of his standard requirement for this routine.
He flicked through his HUD and started his sleep cycle. His eyes closed. His breathing slowed. His consciousness started to shallow, but he caught it, unwilling to be unaware.
Some agents chose to have their HUD shut off when they closed their eyes. It was…a human thing.
He allowed his minimal HUD to continue – and it was only rare moments when he chose to switch it off entirely.
His caches began to empty, or place elements into longer-term storage. Scans began to run on every bit of his blue. As usual, it started with his toes. There was a light sensation against his foot, but he ignored it.
Agents didn’t dream.
The Lost and the Agency had made a deal to save the world. All the dreams of every agent, until the mirrorfall of Earth, would be fed to Sol, in place of feeding him the civilian population.
Agents didn’t dream, but some thoughts were easier. Some memories were more vibrant.
He thought of Whitman.
Taylor forced his eyes open, cancelled his sleep cycle, and sat up.
For a moment, he simply sat in his bed, listening to all of the minutiae of the Agency’s nighttime sounds to ensure that he was alone. There were sounds that logically shouldn’t be there, but were, mostly to make the recruits more comfortable.
The buzz of lights. The click and rumble of air conditioning.
Sounds and voices never made it through the doors and walls – if he chose to murder someone in his office, someone with their ear pressed to the door would never hear anything – but the passive, enforced environmental noises travelled as far as they naturally would.
He could hear the lift – he wasn’t the only one awake at this hour. Techs. Late-shift Field recruits. Jones.
Other people were still alive.
Whitman had attacked when it was bright, sunny, and warm – yet nights were still the worst.
He required his uniform back, stood, restored his desk, and walked back into the gym.
The program finished loading before he reached the simulator room. Programs that ran often were stored in quick-access memory.
The Whitman incident never left the quick-access memory.
He stepped in, closing the door, leaving behind the real agency, for the memory of one.
It was easy to follow Whitman’s trail of blood. It was easy to take steps he’d taken thousands of times before.
He lagged at certain corners, long enough to miss the moment of his own death.
He didn’t interact with the memory. It was possible. To play at changing the outcome. To wish for something different.
None of the other scenarios would ever come true. Pretending otherwise was pointless. Childish. Weak.
He took the final corner and walked to the man pinned to the wall.
Taylor stared at his corpse. At the corpse of who he had been. Who everyone thought he still was.
The body was his. The memories were his.
There was still a difference between him and the man pinned like a butterfly.
He took a step closer, wrapped one arm around the corpse’s body, and pulled the knives from his hands, then laid the body in the pool of blood that had settled on the floor.
The knives in his hands were what he remembered most. Pinned. Trapped.
The knives had been fae, and they had slowed him with each slash, leaving him unable to fight back.
He’d died of a dozen wounds, unable to do anything to stop himself from bleeding out.
He lifted his corpse’s hands, and laid them over his eyes. It was tradition. It was respect. It was what you did with a dead agent.
You didn’t bring them back.
He laid his hands on his corpses, feeling the phantom pain in his hands. It had been the last thing he’d felt, the last sensation recorded by his former’s life.
He was a templated replacement, and no one would acknowledge it.
Taylor balled his fists, stood, and refreshed his uniform. Blood of his former always soaked through his pants. He always felt his own blood. It made it real. It kept the memory from deteriorating. It never went away. Even when he refused to visit the memory for months at a time, it never went away. It was the strongest thing in his mind, and it never went away.
There were tears on his cheeks, and he wiped them away. There were always tears. He couldn’t stop them in here. Some reaction on the part of his former. Some part of his memory from this time. Emotion from someone he wasn’t anymore.
Magnolia had cried.
The weakness had been for him, not for the template.
It was past her shift. She was always on duty. Just like him. He’d taught her well. She knew her duty better than anyone else in their agency.
She was better than anyone else in the agency.
There was a scream. Recruit Millhouse. The last recruit Whitman killed.
Pain touched his hands again.
He shifted to Magnolia.
Magnolia wasn’t alone in her room – a brief scan revealed it to be one of the techs. Screen. A recruitment he was directly responsible for. Asset to the scholars. Potentially part god, according the rumours.
He made a short noise to get her attention.
Magnolia quickly sat up, pulling her face from the other woman’s crotch, slipped from the bed, and snapped to attention – an act made no less respectful by her state of incomplete dress.
His eyes focussed on her legs for a moment.
He looked at her. ‘Recruit–’
‘Sorry, sir,’ the scholar recruit said, sitting up and gathering the sheet to her chest. ‘If I’d known she was on shift–’
He gave a short growl, which made the recruit smile. A contrary reaction. Not what he had expected. Another element outside of parameters.
He looked back to Magnolia, who was now battle-ready in every capacity. ‘Sir, what’s the situation?’
He targeted a shift to his gym, his automatic preference including Magnolia in the shift catchment, and he immediately began to pace in circles around her. Movement was good. Movement prevented thought. Movement would have helped him avoid Whitman’s knife. There was always a need for movement. Movement and action and training and duty.
He threw a punch at the back of her head and was pleased as she twisted backward, wrapped her hands around his arm, and used his momentum to throw him forward.
One spar led to another, to another and another.
He won seven in a row. The last left her lying prone on the floor before him, a hole ripped in the back of her dress, revealing her black feathers.
Magnolia slowly pushed herself up – she was slower than she was supposed to be. Her battle-readiness had dropped below acceptable levels.
She planted her feet, refreshed her clothes and her hair, giving the appearance of being ready for duty, and raised her hands, ready to defend herself.
Ready to defend, not to attack. A sign she was slowing.
He moved his hands down, and began a kata – it took her three seconds, but she fell into step with him.
Three forms later, she was a half-movement behind him.
Five forms later, she was a full movement behind him – which made the exercise pointless. The goal was to remain in sync, to be aware of what they could do. To be in harmony. It made strategic sense.
At the end of the thirteenth set, she went down onto one knee, lifted her skirt to reveal a hidden pocket, and pulled a small plastic vial from it – a stimulant. She replaced her skirt and stood, reaching to uncap the stimulant.
He took a step closer and put a hand over hers, stopping the action.
A word would have done, but there hadn’t been words since she entered his gym.
‘Sir,’ she said slowly, not taking any action to free herself from his grip. ‘I’m slowing down. If I don’t have this, I’m not going to be–’
He raised a hand, and her words stopped.
Stimulants were acceptable under battle conditions. This wasn’t battle conditions. At most, it was battle-preparedness. The new Whitman didn’t pose an immediate threat. Mimosa was a future threat.
‘Sleep,’ he said.
If she stayed, things would–
His hands ached, and he could feel blood.
She had to stay.
He hadn’t let her hand go.
Magnolia stared at him for a moment, black eyes scanning his face. ‘Sir, it would be efficient to set up a cot in the corner. I have preparedness drills I need to run here as soon as I go on shift.’
He nodded, and required the standard set-up. It wasn’t the first time beds had been required in the gym – it was part of several drills and contingency plans. They were set up in the corner furthest from the armoury, out of the way of any preparations that might need to occur.
Three army-green cots, each with a pillow and a blanket, were half-hidden behind a three-panel divider, which was the same green as the cots.
He let go of her hand, and she walked towards her cot – the centre one. Her dress disappeared, replaced with a blue cotton camisole, and matching underwear. It was basic; it was agency colours; it was acceptable.
She retained her combat boots until she reached the bed, then sat and manually removed them, laying her knife on top of a folded set of clothes – a precaution in case the system went down during sleep, and climbed into bed without another word. An order followed. One element within parameters.
He tightened the wraps around his hands – each made from strips of fabric from her skirt, rolled his shoulders, and began to attack the punching bag. Sleep wasn’t necessary. Preparations were necessary. Preparedness was necessary.
Whitman had killed him. Mimosa wouldn’t get the same chance.