The Grey Edge: Chapter Thirty-Eight

Sweat poured down his body, soaking the useless bandages, the blanket and the hard pillow beneath his head.
Withdrawal. It was worse than dying. It was worse than-
Whitman looked down at him, blue eyes staring uncomprehendingly, staring past him, through him, not even acknowledging that he was there. She had been pretty – delicate features, well-kept hair, immaculate suit. It was hard, however, to remain pretty caked in that much blood.

There were drying patches of it on her jacket, a lump coagulating on her vest – Ryan’s blood, that had to be Ryan’s blood, it had been so long that it was beginning to turn to ash.
He cough, and he coughed blood – or it could be his. She had found him. She had found him, even here, and she was going to make him pay whatever she felt-
No, it was just insanity, just insanity, she wasn’t rational, she wasn’t thinking, she was just acting out, just lashing at whatever got in her way.
‘Leave me alone,’ he whispered.
She blinked, and her eyes focused. She put a hand on his chest and all he could feel was pain.
He pushed on the bed, and with an effort, rolled himself off. The floor was cold, was-
Magnolia hit the wall in front of him. She was wearing another of the skimpy dresses her family had gifted to her. She was bleeding, hurt, but not making a noise.
Carol crouched in front of him, the ends of her blonde hair tickling his face. ‘Ok, I’ll leave you alone.’ She took a step toward Magnolia and he lunged after her, grabbing for her legs, but his hands went straight through, as if she were nothing more than a ghost.
He felt tension against his healing wounds, scars threatening to tear themselves open, threatening to leave him dying on the floor again.
This time, he heard Magnolia scream. He pushed himself up on one hand and lunged again, grabbing for-
Someone slapped him across the face, and hands grabbed him as he slowly opened his eyes. This time, it was Clarke looking down at him.
‘If I had known this was the welcome I was going to get, I would have just spent my time having sex instead.’
He coughed again, but this time, no blood came out.
‘It’s strange to see you weak,’ Clarke said, ‘haven’t seen that in a long time.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘You want me to lie, or do you want the truth?’
He glared at the liaison agent. ‘Truth.’
‘Are you able to sit up?’
He gave a grunt and pushed himself up. He stared at his useless legs, steadied himself, then resumed glaring at Clarke.
‘You’ve got to trust me, ok, Taylor?’
Clarke slid something from his jacket pocket. ‘Open up.’
He opened his mouth to question the other agent, but found his mouth filled with a semi-solid block, rather than his query. The block had the consistency of butter, but tasted like blue.
‘Bite down,’ Clarke said. ‘This is going to hurt.’ Clarke disappeared around behind him, pressed a hand against the bulk of his scar tissue, then slid his hand up so that his entire forearm lay against his spine. ‘Pray, you big bastard, just pray.’
There was pain.
He felt himself tearing out chunks of his hair, he felt himself choking on the butter-like blue, he felt the floor as it smacked him in the face, he felt the bed as it fell onto him, he felt pain in his left knee as he hit it against-
He screamed, trying to clear his airways, trying to take in breath, he couldn’t breathe, he was going to die in pain. He always died in pain, he was going to-
The pain tripled as he felt his bones stretching, popping, pushing new feet out from the stumps on his legs.
Bright white supernovas flashed in his eyes, arcs of pain threatening to drag him into unconsciousness, threatening to-
There were ten disconcerting sensations as toes popped from his newly grown feet.
Clarke, now minus a hand, pulled the bed away, and retrieved the half block of blue that had fallen to the floor. The liaison tore a chunk and rubbed it over his newborn feet. ‘I couldn’t smuggle in shoes, so don’t step on broken glass.’
Pain. Still so much pain.
Whitman looked down at him as he let himself collapse back onto the floor. Blood dripped from her hand and down onto his face. ‘I’m not done with you.’
He rolled over, and got to his feet, prepared to tear her head off, not willing to go down without a fight again, not willing to-
‘Slowly!’ Clarke screamed at him, ‘else this is all for nothing, now cover your ears.’
The wall beside him exploded, and he suddenly felt less pain, he felt…System area. It was a system area.
‘You going to work your way up to where, when and who?’ Clarke said, ‘move!’ he yelled as he pushed him through the hole in the wall. ‘System bombs, maybe now you’ll cut the nerds a break?’
He tried to require a gun, and he felt pressure against his hand, but no weapon appeared.
‘They aren’t perfect,’ Clarke said as they were hurried down the hall by half a dozen recruits – all of which he had been perfectly willing to let go, all of which were pushing pieces of equipment at him as they made their way down the hall.
By the second intersection he had a gun, had a knife and had a jacket. Painkillers – for what little good they were doing, had been pumped into his system.
There were gunshots, and two figures made it around the corner – Ryan and his pet mistake. Mimosa had a firm grasp of Ryan’s jacket, like a kite’s tether, and her usual terrified expression. Something normal at least.
‘Next system deployment in seventeen seconds,’ Ryan said. ‘And that hall is clear.’
‘Magnolia?’ he asked as he slipped on a proffered pair of pants and forced his new, sore, feet into a pair of boots.
‘If Clarke’s information is reliable, she’s this way,’ Ryan said, ‘we’ve-’
He stopped listening as he saw Whitman approach – she sauntered down the hall, her hair blowing in a dozen different directions as the blast from the system bombs went off, before she joined their group.
Ryan continued to talk strategy, unable to see his girlfriend right there, unable to smell the blood over her face, over her clothes, unable to feel her sliding her hands up his arm, or her face as she kissed his cheek.
He twitched, then lifted his gun. Kill the threat, get rid of it, even if they couldn’t see it.
Whitman saw the gun, however, and skipped back a couple of paces, leaving him with his gun pointed at Mimosa’s head.
Mimosa, who no longer looked afraid. Mimosa, covered in as much blood as Whitman was. Mimosa, holding Magnolia’s head.
He pulled the trigger, but the shot went wild as Ryan drove his shoulder into his chest, throwing him back against the wall. His commander grabbed his shoulder and slammed them against the wall and held him there. He felt the gun being pulled from his hand, and saw the disappointment in Ryan’s eyes. Disappointment, and contempt.
‘I know you’re in withdrawal, but you need to focus,’ he snapped as he slammed him against the wall again.
‘Whitman-’ he began.
‘That was Stef!’ Ryan shouted.
‘I can see Whitman,’ he said, his voice sounding pathetic and weak.
Ryan looked away and gave a heavy sigh. ‘Do you think that if Carol was here, I’d be wasting my time trying to rescue you?!’ He let go of his shoulders and took a step back.
Carol approached again, a knife in her hand, but he looked away. He saw Magnolia being thrown against the wall, her dress in tatters, her head bleeding. He spun away, and saw Mimosa on the floor, Magnolia’s head in her lap, eating a biscuit, the crumbs falling into the decapitated head’s bloody hair.
He turned away again, away from all of the illusions, leaned heavily against the wall and let himself fall.
Ryan put a hand to his head. ‘You’ve seen me go through this, just hold on a bit longer.’
‘Magpies coming!’ he heard one of the recruits shout.
He took a deep breath. ‘Give me a gun.’
Ryan pressed a gun into his hand. ‘Just be careful where you’re aiming.’
They made it down the next two long sections of hall, set up another system bomb explosion, then came to their first real resistance – two dozen magpies, all armed. He took up a firing position with his recruits, but all hell broke loose when another dozen magpies faded in behind them.
He tore the halberd from the closest one and stabbed its former owner. Two bullets slammed into his arm, and he lost his grip on the weapon. Two of his recruits fell to gunfire, another with a knife through his throat.
Whitman laughed in his ear as he emptied his clip and reloaded one-handed.
There was the clank of armour as the other two dozen magpies approached.
Slaughter, it was going to be a slaughter.
Gods, he would-
He lifted his gun and shot at the next target, but he faded away. With a soft intake of air, they all faded away. The sound of armour disappeared, the sounds of guns being fired and reloaded disappeared, and there was nothing but the sound of one weak experiment crying.
He looked across the hall, and saw Mimosa sprawled on her back, bloody hand on the floor, blood pouring freely from her chest. Ryan was at her side, making soothing noises as he tore open an emergency pack. He watched Ryan rub the liquid blue into the girl’s chest, then help her to sit up. She clung to him like a monkey, and continued to cry.
Ryan looked across at him. ‘You really owe her now, that took a big chunk of mirror. Go, get Magnolia, hurry, we’ll set up an exit.’
He rallied his remaining recruits, left the bodies, the other two agents and the crying mistake behind, and made it down the next hall, followed by a positively gleeful Whitman, who was all too happy to expound about the ways that their plan could go wrong.
He heard Magnolia scream, and this time, it was no phantom.
He kicked in the closest door, ran across the room and tackled her brother off the bed. Magpie’s favoured son split his head open as they hit the wall, but opened his mouth to speak. He pushed a hand over the young man’s mouth, then snapped his neck, as easily as he had done with Torgon Assail.
He stood, and caught Magnolia as she stumbled off the bed. ‘I’m fine sir,’ she said before he had a chance to say anything. She stared down at the corpse, spat on it, then looked to the door. There were bruises, there were cuts, her wrist was broken. She wasn’t fine, but it was all easily taken care of.
‘This way,’ he said, ‘they’re setting up an escape.’
‘What about my mother?’ she asked as they quickly moved back toward the others.
‘Some other time,’ he said, ‘she’ll have to back off.’
Ryan waved at them, and they quickened their pace as the next bomb started to count down. He pressed her into the wall, to protect her from debris, to feel her close, to protect him from the phantoms.
She kissed him as the bomb went off.
This system was the most powerful yet, and after a moment, Magpie’s court disappeared, and the sterile landscape of the infirmary came into view.
The dead were taken first – wheeled one by one to the morgue after a quick scan. Clarke, suffering nothing more than scratches, loudly announced that he would seek treatment elsewhere, and shifted away.
Ryan excused himself and the experiment – which thankfully had stopped crying.
Four recruits, two doctors, one insane blonde, himself and the lo…the woman he…
Words were for thinking men.
He kissed her, then required chairs for them both as they waited for the doctors to see them.
Fifteen minutes later, the taller of the Parkers called for Magnolia, and as she moved up onto the closest examination table, he felt himself being shifted away.
Jones’ lab came into view. ‘She’s going to be fine,’ the scholar said as the tank began to fill with stabilising fluid. ‘You on the other hand, are going to take some work.’
‘I’m seeing-’
‘I know,’ Jones said as he poured several containers of liquid into the tank. ‘Get in.’
He required away his clothes and stepped into the filling tank. ‘Do something about it.’
The phantom-Mimosa jumped into the tub wearing a frilly pink bathing suit, and began to bob the decapitated head in and out of the water. He shuddered as Magnolia’s lifeless eyes stared at him, and as the blood from the head began to spread out in the thick stabilising liquid.
‘Not going to be that simple,’ Jones said, ‘withdrawal on top of injury like this, on top of that patch-job surgery – you’re welcome by the way – we’re not just going to be able to fix you in two minutes, two weeks probably, but not two minutes.’
‘Two weeks of-’
There was pain in his chest, and he looked down to see scratches pouring blood into the tub.
Jones laid a patch of blue over the scratches. ‘That’s going to be worse than the hallucinations,’ the scholar said with an apologetic look. ‘Any injury you’ve sustained could be recalled, it’s just a way of your body handling the data it’s trying and failing to process.’
‘I can’t-’
‘At least you’re alive, at least she’s safe, can you be grateful for that?’
He thought for a moment, then gave a slow nod.
After an hour in the tank, dozens of injections and lots of technical explanations that he didn’t care for, Jones finally released him.
He shifted to Magnolia, who sat cross-legged on her bed blindfolded with a disassembled gun lying on the sheet in front of her.
He watched Carol chase her through the room before they both disappeared. He coughed and she removed her blindfold.
‘I was instructed to let Jones work in peace,’ she said as the gun parts disappeared. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
He joined her on the bed, pulled her into an embrace, and kissed her. ‘Are you?’ he asked as she rested her head against his shoulder.
‘I didn’t expect our first night to turn out like that,’ she said. ‘I don’t-’
He kissed her again, and talking seemed to lose its appeal, as did clothes after a minute. It wasn’t like it had been the last time – there was no arousal this time, nothing but need to press his body against hers, to feel her there, to know she was safe, and to be comforted himself. It was weakness, but an acceptable one. A blanket covered them, and he let himself fall asleep without initiating a sleep cycle.