Magnolia knocked on Taylor’s office door, after a non-responsive minute, she twisted the handle and walked in.
There was blood everywhere. Holes were punched in the walls, furniture was upturned and a there was a report in the middle of his desk, impaled by a large knife. She carefully removed the knife and read over the sections of the report that weren’t folded or torn. Her own words stared back at her, and she realised that it was the reply to the proposal she’d written.
A negative reply.
The wall behind her exploded, the force blew her over the desk and onto the floor, but she was on her feet instantly, required gun in her hand. An ugly demon halfbreed struggled on the desk, but was silenced when its head was torn off.
She blinked and wiped some of the splattered blood from her cheek. ‘Sir,’ she said as she stared at him. His uniform was ripped, torn, burnt and bloody – all of his exposed skin was covered in cuts and bruises and the gym behind him was full of generated training enemies.
He glared at her. ‘Your proposal was rejected.’
‘I’m sorry sir.’
‘It was deemed,’ he said as he spat blood. ‘A preemptive action, as Edward has not submitted his report yet.’
‘How much longer is he going to be here, sir?’
‘Don’t know,’ Taylor admitted, tearing off a burnt section of his shirt. ‘Wouldn’t think it would take this long to assess an incompetent leader.’
‘Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long, sir?’ she suggested.
‘It only took the enforcers a week to completely overhaul Florence. There’s no reason Edward’s inefficiency should be hindering us this much.’ He stepped back through the broken wall, and punched one of the paused training aids.
‘Have you thought about confronting him about it, sir?’ she asked as she followed him through into his private gym – the broken bodies of several dozen training aids littered the ground, and a dozen more stood paused for him to take on.
‘It wouldn’t do any good.’
‘I’m sorry for my failure sir, if the proposal had-’ He smacked the side of the head to silence her.
‘It was rejected as being preemptive, no other reason.’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Now there’s just the-’ He cut himself off and his eyes glazed over for the moment. ‘O’Connor entered a blackout zone fifteen minutes ago and hasn’t resurfaced – observe and retrieve if necessary.’
‘Of course sir, but…he’s field sir, what are the rest of them doing?’
‘This is the third time in a week, it needs an objective observation.’
‘Yes sir. Which blackout zone?’
‘The Wintergarden.’
Wanting to impress him, she snapped a salute and faded away. Ghostly pieces of ground appeared in her vision as her concentration lapsed halfway there, she allowed herself to fade back in, lest she be lost in the in-between place.
She looked at where she was in comparison to the Agency. ‘New record,’ she muttered. ‘Not bad.’ She shook herself and refreshed her clothes before walking up the mall. Requiring her headset, she pressed the button as she checked the knife in her boot. ‘Hey Mer, you on channel?’
‘Nopenope,’ came a squeaky-voiced reply – the tech recruit that carried around a turtle, if she was correct. ‘He’s asleep on the couch. Can I be of service, scary-warrior-lady?’
She sighed. ‘Just tell me O’Connor’s last known position so I know which part of the zone to start with.’
‘He just used his credit card at McDonald’s.’
‘How long ago is “just”?’
‘Three minutes…forty-six seconds. Forty-seven, forty-’
‘I get the idea.’ She required away her headset and walked into the Wintergarden.
It was such an anomaly – to have a permanent blackout zone so close to the Agency – it had been a bold move on their part, one that had cost the lives of quite a few of their people, but one that had been ultimately successful. It provided them a safe haven – one that, because it was such a public place, it would do the Agency more harm than good to venture into, even if the risks were worth it.
Staying out of the public’s general knowledge was a key element for both sides. She sighed and walked down the stairs – back when she had been in Cryo’s gang, the modus operandi had been “do it and damn the world” – he hadn’t cared if the media had caught sight of them, or how much Solstice or Agency attention they had drawn. His modus operandi had gotten him killed. His modus operandi had given her an actual purpose in life.
‘The fucking suits are here!’
Cryo simply shrugged and pulled his shotgun from his coat – he was a bad shot with it, worse than he was with a handgun, but he carried it because he thought it made him look cool. She held in a scream as he lovingly stroked it. ‘We’re ready for them.’
‘We’re not fucking ready for them!’
‘Know your place, bird-girl. If I say we’re ready for them, then we’re ready for them.’
‘She’s right, man, get us out of here.’
Cryo shook his head. ‘We’re not going to run from them. This is our last stand, it’s been-’
She punched him in the face. ‘Our last what? We’re petty fucking criminals, we don’t have last stands, we run so we can rip someone else off tomorrow.’
He swung his shotgun around and hit her in the head with its butt. ‘I could have left you to die, Mongolia, I didn’t. You owe me your life, now stand there and die.’
The Wintergarden was busy, as it always was – girls browsing the stores, people eating their lunch, or just tapping away on their phones. O’Connor was one of those.
An ex-Solstice recruit using a mobile phone in a known blackout zone. She tensed her leg, confirming that her knife was still there – she had a feeling she was going to have to use it. She pulled a feather from her hair and crushed it in her hand, taking a moment to centre herself. Taylor was fond of jumping to conclusions – it wasn’t a fault, as it had saved their lives more than once – but she enjoyed having all the facts that she could act without impediments.
He looked up from his fast-food lunch and saw her, he froze for a second, fear flooding his eyes. He looked at the phone, hurriedly typed a few more buttons, then laid it on the table, along with his hands. A gesture of fealty.
She quickly navigated the crowds and walked over to his table. ‘Hey Mags,’ he said, his voice neutral.
‘O’Connor.’
He attempted a smile. ‘Come on Mags, you can call me Curt you know.’ She gave him no response. ‘So…’ he said.
‘I’m giving you a chance to explain yourself.’
He gestured to the Happy Meal. ‘Lunch. I always feel like I’m stealing when I require brand-name stuff.’
‘And you’d know a lot about stealing.’
‘You’re confusing me with the terrible trio,’ he said as he pushed the bright plastic car around. ‘They’re the thieves.’
‘No-one gets a third chance.’
He spread his arms wide. ‘I’m. Eating. Lunch. That’s all I’m doing.’
She snatched the phone from the table. ‘Then why are you in a blackout zone? This isn’t a standard-issue phone, it wouldn’t work in here if it was.’
‘You don’t yell at the tech recruits for having-’
‘The tech recruits don’t come into blackout zones for the purposes of illicit communication.’
‘My loyalty is to the Agency,’ he growled. ‘But this has nothing to do with them.’
‘You’re on probation, everything you do is of interest.’
‘I had to leave everything behind when I was transferred. Everything. When I come here, I get to be a normal human being for five fucking minutes.’
She just stared at him.
He picked up the phone, and pressed a few numbers, then tossed it up to her. ‘Here. This is what it’s all about.’
She grabbed the phone, and a photo of a little girl stared back at her. ‘What’s with the Kodak moment?’
He glared at her. ‘That’s my daughter.’
‘Is the mother Solstice?’
He shook his head. ‘No, but may as well be for all the communication I get out of her. I had to leave everything behind, but I still have a couple of friends there, sometimes they send me photos. I can’t go to the city, her mother refuses to have anything to do with me, and none of my letters get through. This is the only way I can see her grow up.’
‘She looks like she’s four, aren’t you just-’
‘Yeah, I knocked her mother up after our formal. Go ahead, lecture me.’
She simply snorted and handed back the phone.‘Remember who you work for, though. You have to stay the fuck out of blackout zones, or we are going to start monitoring you. Closely.’
‘Go ahead,’ he said, ‘I don’t have any secrets.’