Soldier, p.7
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       Soldier, p.7

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  “And how many have survived?”

  “Thirteen vessels have lived through the initial adjustment phase and are expected to continue without support.”

  He said it with satisfaction, but I felt my stomach twist painfully at the number. The project was progressing at an astonishing rate. More than half the replicas had survived, better than predicted, but that was still nine dragons that hadn’t made it. Dragons who had died because they hadn’t developed properly, or whose minds had been damaged from the programming process. Or, worst of all, had simply never developed that mysterious spark of life that couldn’t be replicated by science. Their lungs and hearts functioned, everything seemed to be working fine, but they were empty shells; living pieces of meat that slowly starved to death when the feeding tubes were removed.

  It made me sick to think about. In fact, though I would never admit it out loud, the whole thing was making me rather ill. Was this truly the only way we could survive? Making clones of ourselves? Dragons who were grown in a vat, whose memories and personality traits were artificially implanted to make them more compliant? It didn’t sit well with me, but at the same time, I trusted that the organization knew what it was doing. This was a war, and we were vastly outnumbered. Every year, we lost more of our kind to St. George, and their numbers weren’t getting any smaller. Something had to be done to even out the score, or we would find ourselves close to extinction again.

  “And how is their training progressing?” Mr. Roth inquired as we continued down the corridor, passing armed guards and other scientists, who bowed their heads or averted their gazes as we went by. Mr. Roth paid them no attention whatsoever. “Have they shown any signs of being able to Shift?”

  Dr. Olsen paused at a heavy metal door, punched a code into the keypad beside it and pressed his thumb to the lit screen. It beeped, flashed green and the door unlocked with a soft hiss. The scientist looked back at us and smiled. “Come see for yourself,” he replied, and opened the door.

  I stepped through the frame onto a metal balcony that overlooked a large room. The walls and floor were cement, and the ceiling rose above us in a steel dome. Several doors of heavy-duty steel were set into the walls every dozen or so feet, individual cells that made me shiver.

  A dozen lean, metallic-gray bodies lay on the cold concrete floor, unmoving. They didn’t stir or look up, or give any indication that they’d heard us, and my heart gave a violent lurch as, for just a moment, I thought they were dead. But then the scientist stepped to the edge of the railing and raised his arms, as if embracing them all.

  “Hello, my darlings!” Dr. Olsen called into the room, his voice echoing in the vast space around us. No response from the dragons below, not even a tail or wing twitch, and the scientist smacked his forehead. “Oh, that’s right. I told them to stay.” He clapped his hands. “Up here, please! Everyone, look at me!”

  As one, the dragons raised their heads and looked up.

  My skin crawled, and I clutched the cold railing, repressing a shiver as I stared at them. These were hatchlings, my age, or they would have been if they’d had a normal hatching. They were dragons who should have been like me, but they were all...wrong. There was no spark of personality, no individual that stood out from the rest, no defining features or characteristics. They were carbon copies, perfectly alike, staring up at us with eyes as blank and empty as a statue.

  “We’re still in the testing phase,” Dr. Olsen said, observing the dragons with a faint smile on his face. “There have been a few hiccups here and there—you have to tell them when to eat, and sleep, and...well, let’s say they don’t follow the call of nature on their own. But we’ve found them highly responsive to stimuli and able to retain nearly everything they have learned. So far, they are able to follow complex commands without fail, provided you show them what you want them to do first. Observe.”

  He pulled a silver dog whistle from inside his lab coat, then blew on it sharply, though the only sound I heard was a faint, high-pitched hissing noise. The clones, however, straightened and instantly began to Shift. Scales melted away; wings shrank down and vanished; tails, claws and horns disappeared. Now a dozen barefoot, identical humans stood in two neat rows at the edge of the room. They wore skintight black briefs, their heads were shaved, and I could just make out a line of numbers tattooed above their left ears. Thirteen pairs of blank, silvery eyes stared fixedly at the scientist, unblinking.

  A chill crept up my back. Somehow, this was even worse.

  “Marvelous,” breathed Mr. Roth, gazing down at the replicas with a broad smile on his face. “They can Shift, after all. The organization will be very pleased, indeed.”

  I swallowed the dryness in my throat. “Why do they all look the same, Dr. Olsen?”

  “Part of their genetic code,” the scientist replied. “They look the same because they share the same genetic makeup. You can’t clump them together in public, of course, but they are much easier to hide and transport in human form.” Dr. Olsen beamed, as if showing off a winning science project. “The knowledge of Shifting was also part of the encoding,” he went on, turning to Mr. Roth. “So these dozen hatchlings managed to learn and reliably perform the skill in a few days, rather than the standard two years.”

  “Very impressive,” Mr. Roth said, a dark gleam in his eyes as he stared down at them. “And how long have they been able to hold a human shape, Doctor?”

  “We’ve been slowly testing to see how long they are able to remain Shifted,” the scientist replied, gazing over the clones with an almost fatherly smile on his face. “So far, they can reliably retain human form for eight hours.”

  “Excellent. So they are very nearly ready.” Mr. Roth nodded once, then turned to me. “Soon, Mr. Hill, you will have the opportunity to prove yourself. You will have the chance to show Talon exactly what you, and these vessels, can do.” I gave him a puzzled look, and he gestured back to the creatures below us. “We will need the clones ready for battle as soon as possible, able to follow commands and kill without question. We need them to be a fighting force, and you will be in charge of overseeing this project, Mr. Hill.” His smile widened as I blinked at him in shock. “We realize you are not a Viper or a Basilisk and this is not what you were trained for, but nonetheless, Talon is entrusting you with this task. I hope you surpass all our expectations.”

  “Sir...” For a moment, I stumbled on what I wanted to say, torn between confusion and horror. Talon was putting me in charge of making the vessels battle ready? Why? I wasn’t prepared for this. My calling was politics and business, meeting important people and swaying them to our way of thinking. Blending in to the human population. What did I know about preparing things for war?

  “You have questions,” Mr. Roth said matter-of-factly, still smiling at me. “Don’t be afraid to ask, Mr. Hill. Talon wants you to be fully comfortable in the tasks we set for you.”

  “I only have one question, sir,” I said, knowing that statement wasn’t entirely true. It didn’t matter what I felt or what doubts I had. It didn’t matter that just watching the vessels from a hundred yards away made my skin crawl, and that I certainly didn’t want to get close to any of them. When Talon gave you a job, you did it, no questions asked. Talon’s interest lay in how well you completed your task and whether you succeeded or failed. Nothing else mattered.

  “Why me?” I asked. I didn’t explain what I meant; Mr. Roth already knew. Loyalty and determination could get you only so far. I was a hatchling, and this was possibly Talon’s biggest, most expensive project to date. Yes, I had managed to impress the organization, but they were taking a massive risk by bringing me on. Even I understood that.

  Mr. Roth regarded me with cold professionalism. “Because it’s in your blood, Mr. Hill,” he said, and walked away, leaving me staring after him in utter confusion.

  GARRET

  When I opened my eyes, the
world was still dark. My skull throbbed, and the air was hot, stale, and smelled of burlap and sweat. I raised my head and realized it was covered with a thick black bag. My hands had been tied behind my back, bound with coarse rope, and there was a cloth gag in my mouth. Judging from the rumble of an engine and the vibrations of my seat, I could guess I was in the backseat of a car, heading in an indeterminate direction.

  I shifted, and something hard and pointed pressed into my ribs from the side. “Don’t try anything,” said a voice, the same female who’d been waiting for me at the hotel. “Just relax. It won’t be much longer.”

  Who are you? I wanted to ask. Are you with St. George, or Talon? If you know who I am, why haven’t you killed me yet?

  Maybe they were taking me to the Patriarch. Perhaps the leader of St. George wished to see the traitor in person so he could execute him himself. Grim as it was, that was the best scenario I could hope for. St. George would show me no mercy, but at least it would be over quickly. If this was Talon, they’d probably want to interrogate me for information on Riley’s rogue underground and the Order. I could take a lot of pain, and I’d been trained to withstand torture without breaking, but I could only imagine what Talon would do to a former soldier of St. George.

  Unfortunately, I could only wait until my captors revealed who they were and what they wanted from me. Meanwhile, across the ocean, Ember was still in danger, unaware that she and Riley were walking into a trap. Helpless, I clenched my fists against my back, well aware that every mile, every minute that ticked by, took me ever farther from getting to them in time and closer to losing the red dragon forever.

  We drove on for several more minutes, taking multiple twists and turns, before the car finally shuddered to a halt. Still blindfolded, I was dragged out of the vehicle, led across a cement floor and down a flight of steps. The air was cold and damp, cooling my face a little through the suffocating bag, making it easier to breathe. There was a scraping sound, like a chair was being dragged across the floor behind me. A moment later, I was pushed into it, and the sack was torn from my head.

  Blinking, I looked around. I was in a basement, with thick stone walls and a few shelves holding various outdoor tools. There were no windows, and only one dim lightbulb, flickering right above my head. Three people surrounded me; two bald, grave-looking men standing to either side of my chair, and the small Asian woman I’d seen earlier. I hadn’t gotten a good look at her before I’d been knocked senseless, but seeing her now, I realized she wasn’t very old—though her exact age was impossible to tell, and she was very attractive. She regarded me coolly with her arms crossed over her chest before stepping forward and yanking the gag from my mouth.

  “Apologies for the somewhat barbaric treatment.” Her voice was soft and had the faintest hint of an accent. “Normally we are not quite so rude, but I couldn’t take any chances with the Order being so close. We had to move quickly, and I didn’t have time for arguments. I hope you understand.”

  I didn’t answer, though my heart sank at her words. Not from the Order. So, they were part of Talon, after all. I took a furtive breath, steeling myself for what was to come. They’d no doubt brought me here, where screams and cries of pain would go unheard, to interrogate me. But I would not break. I would not give up Ember’s location, or Riley’s underground. The next few hours might have me wishing I was dead, but I would not betray the girl I loved to the organization. They would have to kill me.

  The woman cocked her head at me, dark eyes narrowing, and her voice turned hard. “So. Now that that’s out of the way...why are you here? Who sent you? And please,” she added, holding up a hand, “don’t try to lie and claim you don’t know what I’m talking about. We have seen you outside St. George. You’ve been trailing the Patriarch for days. We know you are involved, and that you’re working for the organization. You wouldn’t be following the leader of St. George if you weren’t.”

  Still silent, I blinked. Now I was confused. Why accuse me of being from “the organization” if she was from Talon herself? I knew she couldn’t be from the Order, but if she wasn’t part of Talon, and she wasn’t of St. George, who was she?

  The woman stepped forward, looming over my chair. Something feral glittered in her dark eyes, and for a moment, the pupils almost appeared green. “So, talk, mortal,” she commanded, as with a jolt, I realized what she was. “I don’t have time for games, and recently I’ve been a little short on patience. I really would prefer to be civil, but if you do not cooperate, I will reluctantly have it done the hard way.”

  “I... Are you from Talon?” I asked instead, and she frowned.

  “No.” For some reason, the very thought seemed to disgust her. Her lips curled in an expression of loathing that could not be faked. “I am not. Nor will I ever be part of that cursed organization.”

  “But...you are a dragon.”

  She sighed, and I caught a hint of smoke on her breath, though it was different, somehow. Almost spicy, like incense. “I do loathe that word,” she murmured, more to herself than to me. “So clunky and inelegant. It lumps us all into one basket, assumes that we are all one and the same.” She scowled at me. “Yes, mortal,” she said bluntly. “I am, as you say, a dragon. In my language, I am known as a shen-lung, though I don’t expect you to remember that. Continue to call me dragon, if you like, but you will talk and you will tell me about Talon and what they are doing here.”

  An Eastern dragon. For a moment, I could only stare in wonder. We—St. George—knew so little of them. I had never even seen an Eastern dragon before, though I knew they existed. Unlike their Western counterparts, the dragons of the Orient were far more reclusive and difficult to track down. In the Order, not much was known about them, though it was assumed they were still part of Talon, as all dragons were.

  I knew better, now. And if this woman, this shen-lung, despised Talon as much as she appeared to, maybe I could turn this to my advantage. If I could get her to trust me.

  “I’m not from Talon,” I said.

  She was clearly unconvinced. “Don’t make this hard on yourself,” she said, though her voice wasn’t threatening or ominous, it was just weary. “I truly do not wish to hurt you, especially one so young, but I will have answers. You were clearly following the leader of the Order. Spying on him, as we were. No one from St. George would do such a thing—the only one to benefit from such activities would be Talon. So please.” She made a vague gesture with a hand, and the two men flanking me closed in, resting corded hands on my shoulders. I felt the strength in their fingers as they squeezed; my bones started to bend from the pressure. “Dispense with the lies. Talon cannot protect you now. I will ask once more. Who are you, and why are you here?”

  “I am not working for Talon,” I said again, keeping my voice steady through the growing pain. “And you can have your thugs hit me, break my arms, whatever—I’ll still give you the same answer. I can’t tell you anything about Talon, because I’m not from the organization.”

  “Then who are you working for?” the woman asked in an overly patient tone. “You know far too much to be an ordinary human. What is your interest in the Patriarch? Who are you, exactly?” When I didn’t answer, the dragon’s voice became lethally soft. “If you want me to start believing you, mortal, this is your last chance.”

  I clenched my jaw. If I told her who I really was, what I really was, she might kill me, anyway. I didn’t know what Eastern dragons thought of the Order, but I could assume they knew who we were and what we did. St. George was the enemy of all dragons, and Talon would show me no mercy. Would their Eastern counterparts do the same?

  I hesitated a moment longer, then decided to take the gamble. Even though I knew it was risky and she might immediately have her thugs snap my neck if she knew the truth. But I was out of options and in desperate need of allies. If I could convince this dragon we were on the same side, maybe we could help each o
ther. If she didn’t decide to kill me on principle.

  “I know about Talon and the Patriarch,” I said carefully, feeling my heartbeat pick up, “because...I was part of the Order. I was once a soldier of St. George.”

  Both men straightened, and the dragon drew back, narrowing her eyes. “This is a lie,” she stated, her voice hard. “Soldiers of St. George never leave the Order. You are lying again—”

  “I’m not,” I insisted.

  “You must be.” She glared down, anger and hatred glittering from her previously calm expression. “If you know about Talon and the Order, you know what St. George does to us.”

  “Yes,” I agreed. “I know. If I’m lying, why would I tell you I’ve taken part in slaughtering your kind?” She had no answer for that, watching me with hard black eyes. “I was a soldier of the Order,” I said again. “If you want the truth, there it is.”

  She frowned, suspicion and curiosity warring with anger and hate. “Why would you tell me this?” she asked in a soft voice, coming forward again. “You say you were part of the Order that would see us extinct. You have admitted to killing my kind, massacring us wholesale, in the name of your God.” She leaned forward, close enough for me to see my reflection in her jet-black eyes. “The only reason I do not kill you where you stand is because you told the truth, and you knew what that would mean. I find myself curious as to why. Why would a soldier of St. George reveal himself to his enemy? What kind of game are you playing?”

  “It’s not a game,” I told her. “I’m not your enemy. And I’m not part of the Order any longer. We can help each other.” One of the men snorted, but I ignored him. “I have information on the Patriarch and Talon,” I continued, holding her gaze, “and I’m willing to share it with you. But you have to trust me.”

  “Trust you?” The dragon rose, giving me a look of contempt. “Trust you?” Walking to the opposite wall, she stood there a moment, arms crossed, as if trying to compose herself. “Do you know why I’m here, mortal?” she said, whirling around again. “Do you think I want to be in this bizarre country, surrounded by oblivious mortals and their strange customs? I had a temple, in the Hua Shan mountains. A small, isolated temple perched on a cliff, where I lived in peace with the humans for over a hundred years. The temple monks all knew me and revered me. I was the third dragon to make my home there, as my ancestors did before me.