Taylor stared at his HUD clock.
Attempts at sleep had failed, as they had done every night. His system had started enforcing maintenance periods, though these only slowed his reaction times, they didn’t stop him from being active.
Jones had warned him about integrity loss. Glitches. A loss of battle-readiness.
Jones had seen the inside of the wall. Several times.
Jones had stopped worrying.
He adjusted the wraps on his hands. Pieces of Magnolia’s skirt. An element inside parameters. The only element inside parameters.
Grigori was asleep somewhere – either in his assigned guest quarters, or had gone back to his own agency for Brisbane’s night.
Magnolia was asleep in the corner of the gym, on a cot that was appearing every night.
And Whitman wouldn’t stop singing.
He hit the punching bag, again and again, trying to make her stop.
She was lingering in the door, but only when he wasn’t looking.
He punched the bag, and it ripped free of the chain, crashing the floor in a graceless heap. Just like the recruits she’d murdered.
Sweat dripped down his face, and his hands were bloody from the effort he’d put into training.
He turned, and followed Whitman.
She kept ahead of him, always just out of sight. She evaded him along through the combat floor, and up the multiple flights of stairs – and he was never able to see more than a flash of blonde hair, or the very trailing edge of her suit.
There were bloody handprints on the wall.
He kicked the door to the tech floor open, and there was nothing but silence.
He slammed the door behind him, balled his hands into fists, and walked towards the only logical place where she would go.
A trail of blood spots led him to his death. To where his death always happened.
His body wasn’t against the wall.
He’d followed. The meat for the slaughter.
She was going to kill him again.
Whitman’s song rose again.
He refused to die again.
A door opened behind him, and he whirled on her, grabbed Whitman, slammed her into the wall, and threw her to the floor.
A tech screamed, and begged for mercy.
He looked away from Whitman’s victim on the floor and turned round and round, only able to see her hair, trailing behind her, perfect, despite the blood everywhere else.
He turned in the other direction, and finally came face to face with her.
She smiled, and raised one of the fae knives, blood dripping from its point.
The tech on the floor tried to crawl away, and Whitman turned from him, going after the scholar.
He shoved Whitman aside, and bent to grab the scholar. He’d failed to protect them the previous time. This time, there would be survivors.
Recruit Luk twisted and screamed as Taylor pulled him to his feet and locked one arm around his chest, ready to turn his back and protect him from Whitman and-
Whitman had disappeared again, her wordless singing still floated through the hall though.
Another scholar pulled herself away from the wall. He blinked, unable to read his HUD, and tried to recognise her. One of Magnolia’s lovers.
‘Agent Taylor,’ the scholar said, her hands out in front of her. ‘Sir.’
He turned, keeping hold of Recruit Luk as he looked for Whitman. If she stabbed him in the back-
‘Agent Taylor,’ the other scholar said again. ‘Sir. Sir. Let him go. Sir, he’s injured. Agent Taylor. It’s your duty to remand that recruit to medical.’
The scholar took a step closer, and ran one hand through her purple hair. ‘Sir. Agent Taylor. I’ll take care of that recruit for you. Agent Taylor, it’s not something you have to deal with.’
He allowed his grip to slacken on Recruit Luk, and the scholar pulled him away.
‘Thank you, Agent Taylor,’ she said, and shoved the recruit behind her. He took two steps, then went to his hands and knees, starting to crawl away, before he collapsed. Whitman had injured him, but he’d live.
‘Agent Taylor, sir,’ the scholar said. ‘What is the situation here? What resources do you need?’
Whitman had retreated. The danger was over.
‘Mag-nol-li-a,’ he said slowly. It was logical to have his aide. It was logical to have his- Magnolia. He needed Magnolia.
‘Agent Taylor, she is on her way, sir. Is there any other assistance I can provide, sir?’
‘No, recruit,’ he said, and focussed on the wall where he’d died. He’d stopped it for tonight. He’d saved at least two lives – his and the recruit.
He lifted his hand to his face, and wiped away the sweat. He turned to look at her – she was dressed for combat, but seemed-
‘Sir,’ she said, ‘has the situation been contained?’
‘Yes, recruit,’ he said.
Magnolia. Everything was making more sense. He blinked, and looked around again. There were no traces of Whitman. There was nothing but-
There was a recruit on the floor. Whitman hadn’t hurt him, he had.
He turned back to Magnolia, and bowed his head towards her. ‘Magnolia-’
She nodded quickly. ‘I’m on it, sir.’
He shifted back to the gym, required a new punching bag, and stood in his starting position, his arms heavy at his side.