Soldier, p.10
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       Soldier, p.10

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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“Son of a bitch,” Riley breathed, sounding horrified. I glanced at him, and even in the minimal illumination from the flashlight, his face was deathly pale. “This is...this must be one of the labs Remy always talked about.” He looked at me, his eyes a little wild. “Remember, Firebrand? What he said, about Talon shipping their ‘undesirable’ dragons to a lab? Dammit, he was right all along.”

  Remy. Remy was another rogue, a scrawny hatchling Riley had gotten away from Talon because he was “too small,” his bloodline “unsuitable” for the breeding pool. I’d briefly met him and another hatchling, Nettle, at Riley’s hideout in Crescent Beach, before we all had to flee from St. George. Remy liked to tell stories, and one of the stories he told was that Talon sent undesirable hatchlings to secret laboratories to be—in his own words—sliced up and poked and prodded and turned into something new.

  Riley had scoffed at the stories then. Now, it was pretty hard not to believe it.

  “Is this...where the hatchlings are going?” Riley whispered. He sounded more than horrified. He sounded sick, and he stared at the glass tube like he’d just witnessed a baby being murdered in front of him. “All my rogues, all the hatchlings taken away by the organization. When Talon finds them again, is this where they end up? As some sick lab experiment?”

  He smashed a fist into an unbroken part of the tube, shattering it. I jumped. Glass shards rained to the floor, pinging off the cold tile, as Riley stood there, shaking.

  “I promised I would keep them safe,” he rasped, mostly to himself now. Blood welled from his cut hand and dripped to the floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I swore to free as many of my kind as I could before the organization killed me. That’s been my mission for so long, getting dragons out, making them see the truth of Talon, even though I knew it was dangerous. Even though I knew some of them might be killed. I hated every single death, but I knew they would be better off free. But this...” His gaze, bright with anguish, slid over the tube. “How can I stand against this? How can I justify freeing anyone, convince any hatchling to trust me, when I know they could end up here?”

  I stepped forward, gently taking his hand and holding it in both of mine. “This is why we can’t give up,” I whispered as his tortured gaze flicked to me. “This is why we have to keep fighting. We have to show everyone what Talon is really like, that they’re willing to sacrifice their own kind for gain. If we don’t, even more hatchlings could end up in a place like this.”

  Riley took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “You’re right. We can’t stop. We can’t let this continue. The organization will do horrible things to their hatchlings and undesirables even if there are no rogues to take the fall. If I don’t keep fighting Talon, who will?”

  “I will,” I said softly.

  He chuckled. “I don’t know, Firebrand. Think you can handle a dozen hormonal teen dragons if I go down someday?”

  “I lived with an obnoxious twin brother for years,” I responded. “I think I could manage.” He arched a dubious eyebrow, and I sobered. “But that’s not going to happen, Riley, because you’re not going to die. This work, what you’re doing now, is too important. Someone has to stand against Talon, to show our kind what the organization is really like. And you’re the only one who has a chance.” I raised my chin, my voice firm. “You can’t let them win. We can’t let them win. And I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to succeed.” Riley was motionless, watching me with glittering gold eyes, and I held his stare. “I’m not walking away from this,” I told him. “Or you. I’ll keep fighting, however long it takes.”

  Riley blinked slowly and when he opened his eyes, it was Cobalt staring out at me with an intense, hungry gaze. My own instincts responded, rising to the surface, making my skin flush. I was suddenly aware of our surroundings—dark, empty, isolated. No one here but us. My skin felt tight against my bones, stretched out and constricting, and the air in my lungs tasted like smoke.

  No, I thought, willing the heat inside to die down. Not now. Focus, Ember. A creepy abandoned laboratory is not the place for...anything, really. Get a hold of yourself.

  “Come on,” Riley said after a moment of intense silence. His voice sounded strained, frustrated. “I don’t think we’re going to learn anything else. Let’s get out of here.”

  Silently, we headed back through the corridor and empty rooms, past the row of glass containers and up the stairs again. Neither of us said anything, but halfway up the stairwell, Riley jerked to a halt, putting out a hand to stop me. Puzzled, I looked up and saw that he had a strange frown on his face, as if he was trying to catch something just out of earshot.

  “Wes? Can you hear me?” Putting a hand to his ear, his brow furrowed. “The signal is breaking up, Wes. I can barely understand you. Slow down. What are you shouting about—

  “No.” He stopped, the blood draining from his face. “You can’t be serious.” Another second’s pause, and he shook his head. “Shit. Wes, get out of here now! That’s an order!”

  Whirling around, he pointed frantically down the stairs. “Go back!” he snarled at me, as I stared at him, wide-eyed. “Move, Firebrand! St. George is here—”

  A boom from up top made me jump, and beams of light flooded the stairwell as a squad of armed, masked soldiers burst through the door and started pouring down the steps.

  DANTE

  “So,” I began, staring around at the table of dragons and humans, all older than me. “Tell me where we stand on progress with the vessels.”

  Vessels. Not clones. Both Talon and the scientists refused to call them clones, despite them being exactly that. Genetic replicas, grown in vat from the DNA of their original counterparts. I didn’t know the reasoning behind this. Maybe Talon thought the term clone too demeaning, as if we as a race would somehow be lessened for creating carbon copies of ourselves. Or maybe it was something else. Personally, I found the term vessel even more disturbing, because it implied they were just there to be filled. That they were empty. That something inside was missing.

  Regardless, my personal tastes didn’t matter. Whatever we called them, I had a job to do, and I wouldn’t fail.

  I observed the table before me with cool detachment, noting everyone in attendance. Dr. Olsen, the lead scientist, sat on one side looking impatient, as if he would rather be at work. Another human, the one responsible for the care and general well-being of the vessels, sat beside him. Mr. Schulz was a small, severe man, all points and hard angles, with a thin mouth and impassive black eyes. He was, to hear Dr. Olsen speak of him, quite brilliant with the vessels, but I wouldn’t put anything small and vulnerable in his care and expect it to live very long. A human female with thick glasses hovered over her tablet on the other side of the table, and seemed quite nervous about being there. Or maybe it was who she was seated next to that was disconcerting.

  A massive black man with huge scarred forearms sat in the chair to the woman’s left, his elbows resting on the table and his chin on his knuckles. Four pale claw marks were slashed down his right eye, rendering it blind, but by no means decreasing his lethality. He was, of course, a dragon, a young adult who was known simply as Mace. I didn’t know much about him, just that he was a higher-ranking dragon who trained young Gilas for combat and protection work. And that he didn’t think much of me. I’d seen him curl a lip in my direction the second I walked in, no doubt wondering why he was under the command of some skinny Chameleon hatchling he’d never seen before. That was fine. I didn’t need him to like me; I just needed him to follow orders.

  “Progress?” Dr. Olsen repeated, sounding faintly insulted. “We have awakened nine more vessels without setbacks or side effects, bringing the total number up to twenty-two. Eighteen of those vessels have been able to Shift and hold a human form for a minimum of forty-eight hours, and could possibly do so for longer if we order it. They are able to learn and retain an enormous amount
of information in a short period, and once they have memorized a command, they do not forget. I’d say progress has been extraordinary, Mr. Hill.”

  “But there was an incident recently,” I said, making him frown. “With one of the vessels. Something where you couldn’t control it, is that correct?”

  “Well...yes, but—”

  “One of the vessels attacked a worker,” Mr. Schulz said, his nasal voice interrupting the scientist. “We don’t know what set it off, but during a normal exercise it turned and savaged one of its handlers, nearly killing him before we could subdue it. After the incident, it became docile and responsive again, but we’ve had it in isolation since the attack.”

  “What can we do to prevent such attacks in the future?”

  “We don’t know,” the woman said, looking up from her tablet. “Its programming should have made it impossible for it to attack anyone in the facility.” She shook her head and glanced at the screen again, fingers tapping. “We’re testing it by itself now to see if we can pinpoint the trigger. But it might just have been a glitch in the brain cells that caused it to act out.”

  I nodded and finally turned my attention to the other dragon in the room, who met my gaze with cold apathy. “Just Mace, is that correct?” I asked, and he nodded once. “You’ve seen the vessels in action. How soon can you have them in full fighting force?”

  He smirked. “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “Lots of things. Can they follow orders? How fast do they learn commands? Will they work together, or will it be like training a pack of hounds that hate each other? Because let’s face it—those...things aren’t really dragons.” His expression twisted into one of pure contempt. “They’re dogs that look like us and can Shift into human form, that’s all.”

  “I beg your pardon!” Dr. Olsen exclaimed, half rising from his chair. “Dogs? You couldn’t even begin to understand the complexity of these vessels, sir. Their genetic makeup is nearly identical to your own, perhaps even improved upon. Their growth rate, learning capacity, everything, has been accelerated, and they have been programmed with the highest intelligence possible while still maintaining their tractability. They are a marvel of science, technology and ancient magic, and they certainly are not simply dogs that can change their shape at will.”

  Mace sneered. “You tell them to sit, they sit. You tell them roll over, they roll over. One of them snapped and now needs to be muzzled to be allowed anywhere near humans. Yeah, they’re dogs. Scaly, semi-intelligent, flying dogs.” He shook his head. “You’re never going to convince me that those copies are anything like us.”

  “Enough,” I said, as the scientist rose fully upright, bristling with fury and indignation. “Dr. Olsen, please sit down. Mr. Mace, it doesn’t matter what the vessels are, or your personal thoughts on them. You will still train them as you would any new recruit, and you will get them battle ready as soon as you can, because that is what Talon requires. Their success or failure reflects on you—on all of us. The organization has given us this task, and we must see it through.” I narrowed my eyes at the other dragon. “Unless, of course, you want to inform Talon that the project they have invested so much time, resources and money into is a waste, and the subjects are nothing but intelligent canines.”

  Mace glared at me, his face tight, then smirked. “No, we can’t have them thinking that, can we?” he muttered, and bowed his head. A short, simple gesture in my direction. “All right, boss,” he said, only slightly begrudgingly. “If that’s what you want, I’ll whip these dragon dogs into shape in no time.”

  “Good.” I smiled as Dr. Olsen sat down again, still glowering. “We’re a team,” I reminded them. “With a common interest. Our goals are the same, and the organization is watching us. If there is a problem, or if you need anything, please come to me. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that we succeed. Is that understood?”

  “Yes, sir,” said nearly everyone, including Mace.

  “All right.” I nodded and looked at Dr. Olsen, the only one who hadn’t answered with the rest of them. “One more thing,” I told him. “You understand, more than anyone, that this project must succeed. We cannot allow anything to endanger it. There can be no instability, no ‘glitches’ in the program. Nothing we cannot predict.”

  “I know that, Mr. Hill,” Dr. Olsen said. “And you are obviously leading up to something. So please stop stalling. Whatever you want me to do, out with it already.”

  “As you say.” I hardened my voice and crushed my own doubts. This was necessary, I told myself. I had to prove to the team, to the workers and to Talon, that I had the strength to make this project a success. Even if some things had to be sacrificed. “The vessel that attacked the worker,” I said, watching Dr. Olsen’s face turn white. “Terminate it.”

  RILEY

  I leaped back, drawing my gun and firing at the first soldiers that came down the stairs. The shots boomed in the dark stairwell, flaring white and sparking off the railing and walls. The soldiers didn’t slow down, their heavy combat armor deflecting the pistol rounds as they raised their assault rifles.

  There was a ripple of energy, and a small red dragon suddenly appeared, nearly crushing me into the wall, a split second before her jaws opened and a column of flame roared up the steps. It blazed a furious orange in the enclosed space, turning the stairwell into an oven and catching the first soldiers in the blast. They flinched back with cries of alarm and pain, giving us a few seconds to flee down the stairs. Before the roar of assault rifles joined the deafening cacophony as the rest of them opened fire.

  I hit the door first and yanked it open to let the red dragon bound through before I darted in behind her. “This way!” I hissed, running past the rows of glass tubes and ducking behind one of the long white counters, kneeling down to stay hidden. Ember followed, pressed close to the floor like a cat, her wings folded tight to her body. Peeking around the corner, I whispered a curse. Across the floor, on the opposite wall, the stairwell door opened and soldiers spilled into the lab.

  “Dammit,” I whispered, shrugging out of my jacket and tossing it aside. “There’s no way out. We’re going to have to fight our way through.” The gun holster and 9 mm joined the discarded jacket; it was no use trying to shoot the enemy. That heavy armor would just absorb pistol rounds. Not that claws and teeth would fare much better; if I was close enough to a soldier of St. George to bite him, he and his friends were definitely close enough to shoot me full of holes.

  “How many of them?” Ember growled softly.

  “Hard to say. At least eight, maybe more.”

  I shivered, trying to banish the sudden fear, the dark reality of the situation. We were trapped. I tried to tell myself this was no different than the other times St. George had had us surrounded, but I knew better. There was no escape from this floor. No windows, no back doors, no hidden exits. No way out except up the stairs that were now crawling with soldiers and guns. I didn’t know how many soldiers were above us or might have surrounded the building, but the chances of even making it to the front entrance seemed pretty bleak.

  Ember was watching me, green eyes bright in the shadows of the room. She crouched against the wall with her wings pressed close and her tail curled around herself. Even with her fangs slightly bared and her sides heaving with fear, she was still beautiful, elegant, fiery, everything my dragon wanted. And she was probably going to die here with me.

  I gave her a weary smile.

  “Well, looks like you got your wish, Firebrand,” I whispered, feeling the heat in my veins rise up, growing hotter by the second. “Screw this waiting around. If we survive this, I swear you will have my full attention from now on.”

  Her eyes flashed, and I released the hold on my true self, letting Cobalt surge to the surface. My wings unfurled, brushing the countertop, and my talons clicked on the tile floor as I sank
down and made myself small, folding my wings tight to my body. The soldiers reached the first of the countertops and began filing down the rows, guns and flashlights leading the way.

  I nudged Ember’s shoulder and we slunk away, staying low like stalking cats, darting behind counters and avoiding the beams of light sliding over the walls and floor. The soldiers fanned out as they moved through the aisles, never far from each other. I glanced back at the exit and saw a pair guarding the door, blocking escape. My heart sank. Too many of them. We could keep pressing farther into the lab, knowing we’d eventually run out of space, or we could go forward and risk running through a bullet storm.

  Ember pressed close, brushing my shoulder with hers, and my pulse spiked. I looked over, saw the fierce determination in her gaze and felt a defiant growl rumble in my throat as a hot, vicious rage spread through my veins. Ember was mine. The other half of me. And I would fight Talon, St. George and the entire damned world to keep her safe.

  I jerked my head toward the back room and we crept toward it, my best hope being to avoid St. George for a few minutes while I figured out a plan to save our hides. Ember followed, perfectly silent, not even her talons clicking on the tile to give us away. But the soldiers were closer than I thought. As we moved from one counter to another, a flashlight beam sliced over us and someone gave a shout.

  Gunfire exploded, making me cringe. Ember snarled, hunkering down, as bullets peppered the countertop and shattered the glass vials overhead. The din was deafening, and I hissed a curse, trying to think. I knew the soldiers would be converging on this spot, weaving between aisles and continuing to fire as they advanced, but we couldn’t move without risking a few bullets to the back.

  “Here!” Ember hissed, darting to the counter opposite us and lashing out with her claws. A pair of cabinet doors slid back, revealing cleaning solutions and aerosol cans, the opening just big enough for a dragon to slip through, and she gestured at me frantically. “Come on!”

 
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