The Grey Edge: Chapter Twenty-Five

Taylor stood and stared at the door. All in all, it was a simple door. Agency standard. It was just a door. There had been iron gates guarding enemy strongholds that had caused less trepidation, time-locked safes easier to breach.
Explosives wouldn’t work. They would open the door – probably – but they would make him fail the more important part of this self-driven mission – what was to happen once on the other side of the door.
It wasn’t simply a case of breaching the sanctum and making a demand. Demanding would have him knocked back, ridiculed, cast out.

They already knew he was invading. He could hear the denizens’ titters and high-pitched giggles from behind the walls of the adjoining rooms. Hidden like goblins in the walls or not, they knew he was there, so there was no turning back.
Not that he would. The mission was too important.
…the mission was too important.
She was too important.
He lifted a hand, curled it into a fist, and knocked.
The door opened, and the master of the realm stared back at him. The blond stared at him, hands steepled in front of him. ‘You were standing there for ten minutes,’ Jones said, ‘I was going to start charging you rent.’
He took a step into the scholar’s office. Small talk, he couldn’t do small talk, he wasn’t programmed for small talk. He was programmed to snap necks, cut throats, and do his duty in the most violently efficient way possible.
That left him nothing to say.
‘Is your internal navigation in need of calibration again?’ the scholar asked. ‘Or did you mean to be down here?’
Words, words, words.
Eloquence he didn’t have. A particular type of bravado he did not possess.
‘Taylor?’ There was a beep from one of the computers, and Jones spun on his chair to look at the screen for a moment. The tech grimaced, and shut off the screen. ‘Really, what do you want? That just put me in a foul mood and I was already having a bad night.’
Opportunity. An opening for attack.
He moved his head to make it obvious he was looking at the computer. ‘What did?’
‘Streaming feed from the Tomlin Project. Sometimes I-’ the tech shook his head. ‘Not that you care. Oh, thanks by the way, one of my kids took a photo of that hole in the wall, and it put me in the top twenty of the lol!agents for the day, I like it when that happens. What do you want, Taylor?’
‘She’s still up with the Parkers, so you are lost.’
Words were-
The scholar folded his arms across his chest. ‘What?’
‘Yes, Magnolia, I know her.’
Words, words, words.
The scholar stood. ‘Have a conversation with me, or leave.’
‘She’s dying.’
‘I know,’ Jones said. ‘And there isn’t anything I can do. Half a pint of Stef’s blue in her system doesn’t magically put her in my jurisdiction. I can’t do anything.’
Words. So much harder than actions.
‘Fix her?’
‘I can’t.’
‘You fixed Mimosa.’
‘Stef wasn’t broken, she just got an upgrade. Mags…if I’m reading the updates right, this is right down her bloodline – can you tell me how far that extends? Even if I generated her a new body, and transferred her consciousness over, who can say whether or not the warden can still get to her? What if her thought patterns are enough to constitute still being part of the family? There’s no guarantee that it would work.’
‘I’m sick of hearing that.’
‘She’s of no use to you now, want me to organise a temp aide?’
‘You do and I’ll-’
The scholar shook his head. ‘There’s no basis for me to even begin requisitioning the paperwork.’
‘There was no basis for Whitman!’
‘Sure there was,’ Jones said as he walked to the other side of the lab and retrieved a bowl from a refrigerator. ‘Ryan was in love, it’s all the justification that was needed.’
He stared at the scholar. ‘Then use that justification.’
Jones picked at the pieces of fruit in the bowl. ‘It’s not that simple, Taylor, you can’t just…’ The scholar paused for a moment. ‘What… precisely are you saying?’
‘If it’s something that can be used as-’
Jones placed the bowl of fruit down. ‘Stef isn’t even six months old yet, they’re not going to give the go-ahead to have two experiments of that caliber in the one Agency, we’re not zoned for that, so to speak. And you’re missing the fact that it might not even work. If it’s her mother doing this, then you have to deal with her. My suggestion would be to kill Magpie, but that’s only the opinion of a scholar.’
‘Killing a warden is not the easiest of tasks.’
‘I’m sorry,’ the scholar said. ‘More so if you are in love with her.’
‘If you can’t do anything, it has no bearing on the situation.’
‘If you say so.’
He shifted to the gym, placed his weapons down, picked up a small, innocuous sphere and slipped it into his pocket. He concentrated on the infirmary, and shifted. The doctors left the main room as he walked in, the taller of the twins merely stopping to state that the macro was running automatically, that there was no need to breathe for her, the system was doing it.
He was a damn traitor.
He was her lover.
Duty first.
Duty first.
Duty first.
It was the only rule that made any damn sense, it was the one command that was there from generation to recycling.
Duty first.
Duty for the sake of duty, that had always been good enough.
He sat in the small chair beside the bed, and she didn’t even stir to recognise his presence. She was dying. She was going to slip away without a fight, and that was unacceptable. It was a worse betrayal than what he was considering. It was unacceptable.
She wasn’t going to die.
Duty for a reason. Duty first. Duty for her. Duty for the system. Duty to his being. Duty to the end.
The scholars were useless and, temptation or no, the mirror was out of reach – even if he could get his hands on it, they would stop him before he could use it, or kill Magnolia as the wish’s product, for being made without paperwork. The doctors couldn’t do anything. No one could do anything.
There was no other option.
‘Magnolia.’ She flexed her fingers. He lifted her hand and put it on his. ‘Do you trust me?’
She moved a single finger, tapped it, then let it lie still.
He stood, lifted her, and shifted to the roof. He easily held her with one hand, required a knife, and ran it across her palm, spilling blood on the concrete roof. He grabbed her arm, pulled a handful of feathers free, and crushed them in his hand and felt the magic tingle against his hand.
Another shift had them atop the building opposite the Agency. He spilled more of her blood, tore out another bunch of feathers, and drew a rough shape in the spilled blood with his shoe.
Spilling her blood was enough to get the warden’s attention – pain of their kind always was, especially when it was so close, and the blood so thick. It would only take a moment. Whether the moment was long enough to let them avoid being shifted back was another.
‘Give her to me.’
He spun, and saw Magpie standing there – beak out of place on a human-seeming face, wings that were more fabric than instruments of flight were wrapped around her, shielding her from the chill.
‘Heal her.’
Magpie scoffed at him. ‘So you can take her back?’
He pulled the small, silver sphere from his pocket, and dropped it. The calm, mirror-like surface shattered, and green liquid spilled out. Time. The smallest of amounts, but enough to render him inert. Enough to stop an escape shift, or an attempted rescue.
Enough to put them at a dangerous disadvantage.
‘Heal her,’ he said again.
‘If I let her live,’ the warden said, ‘she’s coming with me.’
‘I assumed as much, Magpie. I will be going with her.’
The magpie warden stared at him, her emotions unreadable. ‘Put her down,’ Magpie said.
He did as instructed, and stepped back. Close enough to come to her aid, if needed, not so close as to appear… compromised.
He was compromised.
He was a fool.
He was a traitor.
Magpie knelt, and ran a hand over Magnolia’s mutated body. Immediately, and with screams of pain, she began to transform back to her normal self.
‘Sir?’ she said, blinking up at him.
The stars blinked out, the concrete below his feet became foggy, and the city disappeared as Magpie faded them away.