Experiment: Day 10
Taylor reached his four-hundredth push-up, then started the count again.
There were no unusual sounds in the gym. This was expected. This met parameters. Nothing to indicate attack. Nothing to indicate that steps needed to be taken.
There was the sound of fabric moving two-point-seven metres to his left. Expected. Magnolia shifting in her sleep.
It was the third night in a week there’d been a silent agreement that she would stay.
There were two army-green cots set up near the bleachers – one of which she occupied under a thin blanket. The other was empty. Would remain empty. Sleep wasn’t necessary. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not until the mistake was dealt with.
Contingency planning had lasted well into the evening, as had checks of supplies laid in for their various blackout and lockdown scenarios. The Agency needed to be self-sufficient during a crisis. During a war. During a demon attack.
Have the supplies to repel Whitman. Losses had been unacceptable the previous time. There would be no way that they would allow it to happen again.
There had been no warning. No sign. No intelligence to act from. It had been a random act that had resulted in unacceptable damages.
He punched the floor, then continued with his regimen.
Magnolia understood the danger. Magnolia understood what Whitman was capable of. Magnolia wouldn’t hesitate when Duty demanded action.
He focussed and brought more HUD menus into view. He selected the shortcut for the security feeds. Combat was first. Combat was always first. They couldn’t mount a counterattack if they were compromised.
The halls were empty. The main gym was empty. Hewitt and his partner lay against each other in the common room, watching television.
His lip curled as he flicked to the next feed and saw a scholar looking directly at him. Merlin. The one who wasn’t even a recruit. The reader. Another unacceptable variable.
Merlin stared directly into the feed and waved. Taylor checked the location of the camera – the dining hall – and like most of the Agency security, there was no camera, just the feed from the building itself. The default angles were high, unmoving, like most security cameras, but that was simply for ease of use, to make each sweep easy.
The scholar continued to look at the feed.
Merlin waved, then wandered away. Taylor flicked back to another feed, but the scholar had disappeared. Shifted out. The answer was logical. The boy had been shifted out.
Taylor resumed his push-ups, and slowly went through the feeds for Field and the scholars – there was activity on the scholar’s floor, but that was normal. Expected.
He brought up the feeds for the basement, and allowed the views around Whitman’s tank to fill his HUD.
Ryan was with Whitman. Mimosa. Mistake. Ryan was with the mistake. The mistake was asleep, her head on Ryan’s lap. Ryan was awake, surrounded by paperwork. Inefficient. Reynolds would never have been so inefficient as to work away from the office.
Reynolds had chosen poorly. There were far better choices for interim director.
Samuels would have been a better pick. Applebaum would have a better choice. Natalie would have been a better choice.
Taylor would have been a better choice. Reynolds had chosen Ryan. Reynolds had chosen the inferior agent. He would have been the better choice. He wasn’t weak. He wasn’t fallible. He didn’t make mistakes like Ryan.
He stared at the security feed. It was the same as it had been on all the previous nights. The mistake slept – far longer than an agent should, despite the Scholar’s insistence that they would have to treat her like an agent.
If she passed the limit tests.
She wasn’t going to pass the limit tests.
Ryan was there. Wasting time. Being inefficient. Ignoring his Duty. Ignoring Taylor’s requests to have the experiment terminated.
Ryan had ignored all the petitions to destroy the mistake.
Ryan shifted away.
Taylor blinked, and checked the other feeds from the basement, before pinging the so-called Director’s location – Central, a meeting in Central, judging by the icons denoting him as busy.
He stood, his count forgotten.
The mistake was alone.
He refreshed his skin and felt the sweat disappear. He required a fresh uniform and approached Magnolia’s bed. Usually, she slept naked – emergencies during the night that had required her to respond immediately had more than proven it as an expected behaviour.
The mistake induced a different behaviour. The possibility of lockdown procedures being activated meant the time to dress was an unacceptable waste of time.
The black sleeveless shirt was also unusual. Not part of her expected wardrobe. It was too simple. A standard requirement – an undershirt option from the training uniform. Not a custom piece like the rest of her clothing.
She stirred, and her eyes opened a second later – well within parameters. Some things could always be counted on. She could always be counted on.
She reached under her pillow as she sat up, her sheathed knife in hand. ‘Sir? Situation?’
She stood, her top and simple skirt changing to a black and white dress – far more Magnolia than the clothes she’d slept in. Her hair pulled itself back from her face and sorted itself into its usual configuration. He grunted a slight agreement. The actions weren’t vanity, they were tests of the system – ensuring that requiring was working, was responding, and able to assist with whatever moves they made.
‘What are we-‘
‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘Stay here. Monitor. Decide if a contingency is required.’
He shifted to the basement, to the mistake’s tank.
The glass was unbreakable. His access was insufficient to grant him entry. Protocols ensure that only certain persons could shift her. It was impossible to breach the tank.
It was impossible that Whitman had killed him.
As a recruit, she had been satisfactory. As an agent, approaching satisfactory. As a threat-
He took a step closer, and stared at the blonde woman in the tank. Immobile but for small breaths. She looked harmless. She didn’t look like a killer.
She was a threat.
Taylor stood, scanning, assessing, watching. She was a threat. Limit tests were still too far away. Limit tests weren’t a guarantee of death.
Whitman turned in her sleep.
Execution orders had been denied. Duty had been spat on.
He scanned the door, moved a few inches to his left, and punched the door. Magnolia had read the specifications. There were weak points in the tank’s design. Weak points that couldn’t be logically exploited. It would take a direct attack on the Agency for the tanks to fail.
Whitman stumbled to her feet, blonde hair fanning out. Mimosa. Threat. Mimosa looked ready to soil herself again. Whitman stared at him, ready to kill again. Whitman- Mimosa backed away at the far wall of the tank. Whitman stared at him. There was blood. His blood.
Taylor punched the door again. Mimosa made a high-pitched, fearful noise. Whitman needed to be destroyed.
There wasn’t anything that he couldn’t destroy.
He punched the glass again and again. Bones in his hands broke, and only managed partial mends between blows.
Whitman smirked. Mimosa tore the covers off the bed and a computer went spinning across the floor. Whitman licked blood from her lips. Mimosa swore and slid to her knees to grab the laptop.
Taylor grit his teeth against the pain.
Magnolia’s voice. She was still alive. She was going to stop him from doing what was necessary. She was-
[Destroy the computer,] came the clipped instruction. [It’ll delay the techs.]
His lip curled into a grin as he stopped his assault on the door. It was impossible to manipulate the atmosphere within the tank. Impossible to fill it with liquid. Impossible to kill her with a requirement. Impossible to implant anything in the tank. Not impossible to dismiss.
An opportunity he’d missed. An opportunity Magnolia had seen.
He focused on the laptop, and dismissed it.
Whitman howled. Mimosa whimpered and fell to her rear, sitting on the discarded blankets. Whitman smiled as though she had a plan. Mimosa cried.
He hit the glass again and again, felt his shoulder dislodge, but kept attacking. Kept attacking, like Whitman had done. Like Whitman would do again.
The glass was covered in blood.
He smashed his hand into the glass, and all the skin on his hand split in a dozen places.
Mimosa moved slowly, awkwardly back onto the bed. Whitman danced before him, attractive and covered in his blood. Mimosa got her hands on more tech, which he dismissed piece by piece. She finally held up a pillow in one hand, which he dismissed in case it held something dangerous.
The glass cracked.
Mimosa froze to the spot. Whitman laughed and dared him to try and kill her.
Taylor processed the voice. Ally. Not threat.
He punched the glass again, and the crack expanded.
He dropped his arms to his sides. Bones began to mend. He turned to the blond agent behind him. [Help me.] He couldn’t let the mistake hear him. Assistance meant weakness. Meant he was incapable of dealing with her himself. Assistance meant a greater chance of success. Assistance meant-
‘You can wait until the limit tests,’ Grigori said. ‘This is just going to piss off Ryan.’
‘She has to die!’
Grigori put a hand on his shoulder. ‘And she will.’
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
Taylor processed the voice. Scholar. Not an active threat. Problem.
Taylor shook the hand away, turned back to the glass, focussed on Whitman, and punched again.
The door finally shattered.
Whitman came at him. He punched, and hit nothing but air as she dodged. Mimosa sat on the bed, shaking.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ the Scholar screamed again.
Taylor turned, his fist finding Jones’ face. Taylor felt the Scholar’s bones break from the force of the blow. Jones shifted into the tank, non-uniform shoes crunching on the pieces of unbreakable glass. Mimosa disappeared. Whitman danced around the tank, almost gleeful at the turn of events.
He felt Grigori move closer. [She’s gone, Taylor, and I can’t track her.]
Whitman moved closer.
Taylor punched Whitman again, who dodged, again.
‘I hate to ask a third time,’ Jones said, ‘but what the fuck are you doing?’ The Scholar focussed on him. ‘When was the last time you slept?’ Jones moved closer, his feet crunching on the glass. ‘I’m running a scan and-‘
Taylor grabbed Jones’ shoulder and drove his bloody fist into the Scholar’s middle. ‘You did this,’ he hissed at Jones before he dropped him. ‘Your fault then. Your fault now.’
Grigori wrapped an arm around his shoulders. [Retreat. Now.]
Taylor whipped his head around to look at the blond agent. ‘You can’t-‘
The basement dissolved with a shift, and the gym came back into view. Grigori let go of Taylor’s shoulder and walked towards Magnolia. ‘Which one’s his?’ Grigori asked, pointing at the beds.
‘The one on the right,’ Magnolia said.
Grigori turned and stalked back to Taylor. ‘I blame myself,’ Grigori said, ‘but I couldn’t get away sooner than this. You know I’ve had to move the stars to get the time off as it is. You haven’t slept since it happened, have you?’
‘And there’s my answer,’ Grigori said. ‘Now take your fucking clothes off and get into bed.’
Taylor heard Magnolia make a small noise, but ignored it. It was a comment on the stupidity of Grigori’s idea. He didn’t need sleep. There were plans that needed to be made.
‘I said,’ Grigori repeated, ‘take your fucking clothes off. You need to sleep. Your system is completely haywire. If we’re lucky you can avoid going to the techs for repair. If you’re lucky. You are going to sleep until I come get you. Do you understand?’
‘I’m not going to listen to you.’
Grigori pressed a hand to his face. ‘Taylor, I’m not going to give you a choice in the matter.’
Taylor didn’t have a chance to react as Grigori opened his mouth, uttered a single word, and his body froze. Taylor assessed his capabilities. No movement of his extremities. No shifting. No requiring. He was vulnerable.
Grigori turned away. ‘Magnolia, come help me with this.’
Taylor grunted his approval of Magnolia.
‘You two are so stubborn,’ Grigori said with a groan. ‘How I put up with you, I don’t know.’ Taylor felt his body relax as control was returned to him. ‘You might only need a little each night, Taylor, but sleep is necessary, you know that. Who were you attacking downstairs?’
Taylor struggled for a thought. ‘Whitman. Mimosa. Mistake. Threat.’
‘You are so close to collapsing into a self-induced glitch it isn’t funny,’ Grigori said. ‘If you won’t listen to me, then listen to her.’
Taylor turned to look at Magnolia, whose expression was weak for a moment, before she snapped back to her usual self. Strong. Within parameters. ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘your current state of battle-readiness is below your usual acceptable threshold. Your reaction times have slowed by fifteen percent in the last three days. The threat is contained for now. It would be prudent to take this chance to prepare for any contingencies.’
‘It’s weakness,’ he snapped in her face.
She stabbed him in the shoulder.
He barely had time to react to the pain before she drew the knife out at a sharp angle.
He punched at her with a bloody hand, but missed.
She ducked under his arm, and cut down the length of his sleeve. The blade barely cut into him. She was good. He had trained her. She was good.
Magnolia could kill him. He’d trained her so that she could kill him.
He shifted at her to close the distance, but grabbed only air as she faded. She came back into the world on his shoulders, knife at his throat, her weight pressing down on his injured shoulder.
Her thighs clamped around his head, keeping him in place, her muscles pressing against his skin.
He thrust a hand up, stopping the blade from cutting him, then let himself drop backwards, slamming her to the floor. Something cracked as they made contact.
Magnolia lay dazed for a moment as he rolled, his face pressing against her skirt for a moment before he moved to straddle her, to wrap his hands around her throat and snap-
She faded again, appearing on his back. She slammed the knife into his injured shoulder again. The pain made him hesitate. Consider. Plan. The best action to take was-
She backed away, slammed a booted foot into his face, then flipped him onto his back.
She straddled him, and drew her knife across his throat, drawing blood, but leaving him alive.
Magnolia stared down at him, then pressed her knife into his hand. Permission to kill her. Permission to take his anger out on her. A sign that she was doing nothing but adhering to duty.
Black eyes stared down at him. ‘I should be dead, sir,’ she said simply. ‘At least six times over. You are better than this, sir.’
Taylor closed his eyes, the fight replaying in his head. Six. There had been at least six opportunities to kill her. Opportunities he had missed.
He was weak.
He was in pain.
He opened his eyes. ‘Magnolia.’
‘My suggestion is six hours, sir,’ she said without further prompting. ‘It isn’t as much as you require, however it does match up with when the Scholar’s tests on the experiment start today. If we coordinate tactical rest periods to coincide with when existing Agency defences provide defacto protection against the experiment, we will maintain the upper hand.’
Appreciation. He felt appreciation.
‘Magnolia,’ he said again.
She flashed a brief smile as she removed herself from his chest. ‘Grigori’s getting the first aid kit, sir.’
He stood and pressed a hand to his throat. Fresh blood mixed with drying blood. Magnolia was the perfect recruit. Taylor followed her to the bleachers as Grigori returned with the first aid kit. Grigori smiled at him.
‘There is nothing that we can’t do,’ Grigori said. ‘And that includes dealing with Ryan’s mistakes.’
Experiment: Day 10