Soldier, p.13
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       Soldier, p.13

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “I...don’t know.” Ms. Sutton ran a hand down her face. “Maybe. The behavior programming is supposed to be foolproof. Trying to change them now could have...unexpected consequences.”

  “Try.” My voice came out flat, nonnegotiable. Dr. Olsen glared at me, and I turned on him, narrowing my eyes. “This is unacceptable, Doctor. They cannot be so empty that they have no independent thoughts of their own.”

  “Talon told me that obedience is crucial—”

  “I’m not saying they should question orders,” I snapped. “I’m saying they shouldn’t walk off a cliff without blinking an eye because we told them to march forward.” I stepped back, preparing to leave because I couldn’t stand there any longer knowing the empty, blood-drenched thing that was supposed to be a dragon stood right below us. “Fix it,” I told the scientist again. “I don’t care how. I don’t want more incidents like the one I saw today. Is that understood, Doctor?”

  Dr. Olson looked sullen, but nodded. Ms. Sutton gave a tight nod, as well. I whirled and stalked out of the training arena before I could say anything else.

  Back in my office, I sank down behind my desk, put my elbows on the wood and ran my hands over my scalp. Well, that was...disturbing. I knew the vessels’ programming and behavior modifications had been extensive, but that creature in the training room today wasn’t a dragon. It wasn’t even a dog, as Mace had so inelegantly commented not long ago. At least dogs had thoughts and feelings of their own. The vessel was a machine. A living, breathing machine.

  This can’t be what Talon envisioned, I thought, jiggling my computer screen to life, knowing I needed to report today’s incident to the organization. I know these creatures are bred for war. I know they’ve been created so that we stand a chance against St. George, but how far is too far? What were we sacrificing to save our race from extinction? If a hundred vessels died so that one “real” dragon would be saved, was it worth it?

  Ember wouldn’t think so.

  I frowned at the thought of my disgraced twin. I’d been keeping myself deliberately busy so that I wouldn’t speculate about where she was, what she was doing, but sometimes she crept in all the same. Where was Ember now, I wondered. If Talon found my sister, Mr. Roth had assured me that I would be the first to know. That I hadn’t heard anything meant she was probably still causing trouble for the organization with that rogue dragon she’d met in Crescent Beach. Being drawn further into the lies and machinations of Cobalt and his network of criminals. If things continued down this path, I wasn’t certain my wayward sibling could be saved. I was even less certain that she would want to be.

  Ember made her choice. I shook myself and began composing an email to the organization. Her fate was out of my hands, and I trusted that Talon knew what it was doing. I couldn’t worry about my twin now. I had my own problems to deal with.

  I finished the email detailing the incident in the training room and hit Send, watching the message vanish from the screen. It was probably a good thing Ember wasn’t here now, I reflected, leaning back in the seat. She was too emotional. Too hotheaded. She let feelings get in the way of logic and judgment, and wouldn’t have taken that scene in the training room well at all. Whereas I, while I didn’t like what had been done to the vessels as a whole, could at least understand Talon’s intent. We needed soldiers to bolster our numbers, to fight in the war with St. George. It was necessary for our survival as a race.

  Maybe that was why Talon had chosen me for this project. They knew I would do anything to ensure our survival. Including tasks that would horrify my sibling.

  My computer chimed, indicating a new message had come through. It was from Talon headquarters, re: The incident in the training room. Surprised at the fast response, I clicked on the email. Per usual, it wasn’t very long and got right to the point.

  Mr. Hill,

  Thank you for the update regarding Project 223590. We understand your concerns. However, the organization is pleased with the behavior of the vessel in question. Your suggestion to modify the subject’s future programming has been denied. Continue development as normal. If necessary, modify techniques to better fit the subject’s behavior. We appreciate your concern, and we will be happy to send help if you feel it is required.

  Irvin Hawkins, Chief of Project Management

  My stomach turned. Continue development as normal. Talon didn’t want the vessels to change. Perhaps they didn’t understand the dragon’s complete roboticness...but maybe they did. Maybe that was what they’d been going for all along. Dragons that wouldn’t question orders, that would blindly do whatever they were told, even at the expense of their own lives.

  A chill went through me and I shook it off. I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t my decision, not anymore. The organization had spoken. I was certainly not going inform them that I needed help on this project; such an admittance would weaken their trust and label me as incompetent. So be it. If Talon wanted mindless soldiers, I would give them mindless soldiers.

  Even if I had to sell my soul to do it.

  GARRET

  “Garret.”

  Tristan’s voice was stony, his eyes hard as we stared at each other over the barrel of the M4. One hand rested on his rifle, the other crept toward the sidearm at his thigh. I raised my weapon, narrowing my eyes.

  “Don’t.”

  The hand froze. Tristan glared at me, icy contempt written across his face, but he dropped his arm. My insides were a conflicted mess, the past warring with what I knew I had to do, but I kept my arm steady, the gun barrel aimed at center mass. At this close range, Tristan’s body armor would not protect him. One shot and it would be over.

  “I should’ve known we would find you here,” Tristan said, his voice pitched low. “The commander said these could be the same lizards that broke into the chapterhouse that night to free you. Returning the favor, partner?” He shook his head, not bothering to hide his disgust. “You really have switched sides, haven’t you? Working with the enemy now, Garret? Killing your former brothers to save them?”

  “The Order didn’t give me much choice, did they?” My voice came out flat, cold. “After everything I did, after all the years I gave them, followed commands, risked my life without a second thought, they would have shot me down for showing mercy to an enemy.”

  “To a dragon!” Tristan’s lip curled at the name. “To a soulless lizard, who turned you against everything you once believed in. We don’t show mercy to dragons, Garret, you know that! They don’t deserve mercy, or understanding, or compassion because they’re not capable of it.”

  “And what if they are?” I asked softly. “What if everything we thought we knew about dragons was a lie? What if they are capable of mercy, and compassion, and humanity? Where would the Order be then? How would St. George justify their actions, centuries of slaughter and blood and death, if they knew not all dragons are soulless monsters?”

  “Listen to yourself,” Tristan returned, his expression now caught between disgust and pity. “You sound like one of their slaves, someone they’ve manipulated so thoroughly you don’t know what’s real anymore.” He paused, as if weighing his next words, before adding, “And I think your feelings for that girl are making you see things that aren’t there. You always believed in what we did, until she came along.” His voice hardened. “She’s a dragon, Garret. A monster. You’re only fooling yourself if you think otherwise.”

  I ignored that brief stab to the heart, knowing this was useless. Tristan’s beliefs would never waver. He was a soldier of St. George; his convictions were ironclad. I knew, because I had thought the same. And there was no time to stand here and argue with my ex-partner. Jade was waiting for my signal, and Ember and Riley were trapped in the building with the soldiers closing in. Maybe it was already too late. Much as I wanted to talk to Tristan, to explain everything I had learned, I had to move on.

 
Raising the M4, I met Tristan’s steely gaze. “Turn around,” I ordered, and his eyes went dark.

  “Are you going to shoot me now, partner?” he asked softly. “To save the lizards? What’s the matter, can’t look me in the eye when you pull the trigger?”

  I kept my face blank, my voice cold, as I answered. “Now.”

  Tristan eyed me a moment longer, then spun on his knees and faced the wall. Keeping the gun raised, I walked carefully forward until I stood just a few feet away, the barrel hovering a few inches from the back of his skull.

  I wasn’t going to shoot him. Despite everything, even knowing that he was my enemy and would take me out if given the command, I couldn’t kill him. He would wake up with another throbbing headache, courtesy of a rifle butt to the back of the head, and his treasured sniper rifle would be lost forever, but I wasn’t going to stand there and execute my former partner in cold blood. But as I drew back to strike, a flurry of gunfire rang out from the building across from us, followed by excited shouts and barked commands. My attention flickered to the scene outside, just as Tristan whirled on me and lunged.

  I jerked up as Tristan slammed into my legs, knocking me off my feet. I hit the floor on my back, and he was on me instantly, grabbing my wrist, keeping the gun pointed away from him. We scrabbled for the weapon, throwing punches when we could, trying to overwhelm the other. I took a couple hard shots to the skull that rocked my head to the side and turned my vision fuzzy, and fought to keep myself protected with one arm.

  There was a glint of metal as Tristan suddenly pulled a knife from his vest and sliced it down toward my throat. I threw up my arm, blocking his wrist, feeling the very edge of the blade press against my skin.

  Setting his jaw, Tristan leaned his weight into the knife, and my arm started to shake as the blade began slicing into flesh. “I’m sorry, Garret,” I heard him mutter, as a thin line of blood ran down my shirt. My other hand was pinned to the floor; I couldn’t bring the rifle around to bear. “I wish it didn’t have to end like this. I wish we’d never gone to Crescent Beach, and that damn bitch dragon had never gotten her claws into you.” Regret flashed across his face, before his expression turned steely. “I never thought I’d see the day when the Perfect Soldier became a slave to the lizards.”

  “At least I know the truth,” I gritted back. “I’m not the one who’s being lied to.” His brow furrowed, and I spat the truth at him. “The Patriarch works for Talon, Tristan! All of St. George is under the rule of the organization, they just don’t know it!”

  Tristan’s eyes widened in shock. The blade at my throat eased the tiniest bit, though it didn’t move completely. For a moment, he looked dumbstruck, and I released the grip on my gun. Twisting my arm out of his grip, I shot my hand up to his neck while jerking my head and body to the side, yanking Tristan off balance. The blade scored my neck, slicing another shallow cut across my skin before thunking into the floorboards. Bucking out from under him, I grabbed the rifle, lying forgotten at my side and smashed it into the side of his head. Tristan jerked, falling to his elbows, and I hit him once more, knocking his head to the side. He collapsed to his stomach and didn’t get up.

  Panting, I rolled to my knees, ignoring the stinging in my neck, and dug my phone out of a pocket. “Jade,” I rasped when the dragon picked up. “Go.”

  “Understood.”

  I held my breath, waiting. Then, a roar echoed over the buildings, igniting a flurry of shouting among the soldiers stationed outside. Peering out the window, I saw the men across the street climbing into SUVs, while the commander pointed to the other end of the lot. I followed his gaze, just as a long, long coiling tail dropped from a rooftop in a flash of green and vanished behind the buildings.

  My breath caught at the size. It was at least twice as large as Ember, maybe bigger. How old was Jade, anyway? She definitely wasn’t a hatchling, or even a Juvenile like Riley. A dragon that large had to be an Adult, which meant that the Eastern dragon who’d agreed to help me on my mission could be a few hundred years old.

  Regardless of her age, she’d certainly accomplished what she’d set out to do. Engines flared, and the two Order vehicles tore off after the Eastern dragon, squealing around a warehouse and out of sight. In seconds, the entrance was clear of cars and only a pair of guards had been left behind.

  Silently hoping Jade would be all right, I drew back from the window and slid the Glock into its holster, mentally preparing myself for what came next. The real challenge began now. But I would not falter. I would fight my way through the building, past a horde of my former brothers if necessary, and hope I could reach the fiery red dragon in time. But there was one last thing I had to do.

  Turning, I knelt beside Tristan, slung his rifle over my shoulder and relieved him of his sidearm, feeling a sharp pang of guilt for what I had done. Again. After this, we were truly enemies. After this, I didn’t think I’d be able to avoid pulling the trigger if we ever crossed paths again. Because he surely wouldn’t.

  “I’m sorry, Tristan,” I muttered and raced out the door without looking back.

  Ember, I’m coming. Just hold on.

  EMBER

  No way. I stared at the human before me, waiting for my startled brain to catch up to reality. This... How was he here? I hadn’t seen him in nearly a month, and he suddenly popped in out of nowhere, at the exact moment we needed him most?

  “Ember!” The soldier fired twice more and turned to me, metallic-gray eyes piercing through the smoke and darkness, making my heart leap with recognition. If I hadn’t been sure this was Garret Xavier Sebastian before, there could be no question now. “We have to move,” he snapped, jerking me back to the present. Oh, right. Guns. Bullets. Soldiers. We were kind of surrounded, weren’t we? “Where’s Riley?”

  “Here.” The sleek blue dragon appeared out of the smoke, eyes shining gold in the smoke and darkness. Relief shot through me at his arrival, though if we got out of this, I was going to tear into him for that crazy suicide rush. He eyed Garret suspiciously but didn’t challenge him as we turned toward the exit. “Never thought I’d be mildly happy to see you, St. George,” he growled. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

  Garret took something from his belt and moved to the door, peering through with narrowed eyes. “When we reach the main room,” he said over his shoulder, “go left. There are fewer soldiers on that side. I’ll take right and meet you at the exit.” He raised his arm, and I tensed to bolt through the door. “On my signal...close your eyes for a second, then go!”

  He hurled the grenade into the dark room, where it exploded in a blinding flash of light that flared even through my closed lids. Lunging through the flash, Garret immediately began firing short three-round bursts as he went. Shouts and returning gunfire followed, flaring white in the shadows, and the soldier disappeared into the chaos.

  Cobalt and I sprang through the door and quickly banked left, hugging the wall and keeping low as we fled. Tile scraped frantically under my claws as I made a beeline toward the door, ignoring the shots and bullets sparking off the counters and machines around us. A soldier popped out of cover, firing his gun at the other side of the room, and I pounced on him with a snarl, driving him to the ground and slamming his head against the floor until he stopped fighting. Another masked human stepped in front of us, raising his weapon, and Cobalt blasted out a line of flame that engulfed the human and sent him reeling away.

  Something hit me in the flank, tearing through scales and muscle and sending a flare of pain up my leg. I staggered, nearly crashing to the floor, and heard Cobalt’s enraged snarl behind me. Lunging to my side, he nudged me anxiously, his shoulder brushing mine as he crouched down.

  “Come on, Firebrand. Keep going. We’re almost there.”

  Gritting my teeth, I made a last rush for the exit. A soldier stood in front of the door, barring the way out, but gunfire
blared, and the human jerked and dropped to the floor a moment before Garret appeared, his face grim as he slammed into the door and shoved it open.

  “Go!”

  We went, scrambling single file up the stairs, our talons scraping against metal and iron. The soldier followed, covering our escape and firing back down the staircase. The ground floor was eerily empty, save for a couple motionless soldiers on the floor near the entrance to the stairwell. I ignored them, and the blood pooling beneath their bodies, and bounded for the exit. Lowering my head as I reached the door, I hit the glass barrier with my horns and it flew open with a crash, spilling us into the open.

  Cobalt spun on Garret as he followed us into the empty lot. “Where to now, St. George?” he snarled.

  A deafening honk interrupted him. I looked up to see a semi barrel through a couple parked vehicles, smashing them aside, before it came to a skidding halt in front of the building. A dark-haired woman leaned out the driver’s window, gesturing frantically to Garret.

  “Get in! The soldiers are following! Let’s go!”

  Garret immediately ran for the back of the truck, not stopping to question this strange person who showed up out of nowhere with a tractor-trailer. I shook off my astonishment and hurried after him, just as gunshots rang out behind us and pinged against the side of the truck. The soldier leaped into the open container and returned fire as Cobalt and I bounded into the metal box. The long container was musty and hot, and smelled of rust, but I wasn’t going to complain. As soon as we were inside, the wheels screeched and the truck surged forward, picking up speed as it moved away from the building. A trio of soldiers rushed into the lot and raised their guns at the back of the truck a second before Garret reached out and slammed down the door, plunging us into darkness.

 
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