Soldier, p.9
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       Soldier, p.9

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  Ember cocked her head, looking bewildered. “Why?”

  “Well, because...” I raised my hands like I was hefting a watermelon. “The egg inside her gets too big and starts to stretch...certain things—”

  “Okay, okay.” Ember held up both hands, wrinkling her nose. “I get it. Point taken.” She frowned. “So, how long after...breeding...does it take for the egg to come out?”

  “Fifteen months. And most of that time will be spent in dragon form. From what I’ve been able to discern, as soon as the egg is laid, it’s taken from the female and sent to the hatchery, where it’s put under an incubator. The hatchlings grow up never knowing their parents—they’re raised to be loyal to the organization and nothing else, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. So you can see why Talon maintains such a tight hold on their breeding facilities. And why no one in the organization is allowed to choose their own mates.”

  “Well, that’s...awful, as usual.” Ember snorted. “So Talon tells you who you’re going to be mated with, as well? Good thing I’m out of the organization, then.”

  A sudden, awkward silence fell. My stomach danced, and I didn’t know if it was me or Cobalt tying himself into a knot. I sneaked a glance at Ember and saw her staring rigidly forward, her cheeks as red as her hair.

  We rounded a corner, and I lurched to a halt. About a hundred yards away, another building sat alone and quiet at the end of the lot. It looked the same as the ones surrounding it: deserted and abandoned. No cars, no lights, no people.

  But it was the sign near the entrance that caught my attention.

  Quickly, I ducked behind the wall, pulling Ember with me. She gave me a puzzled look but didn’t say anything as I scanned the area for cameras, guards, security, anything that seemed out of place.

  Nothing. This was getting weirder and weirder.

  “Did you see anything?” Ember whispered, peering around my arm.

  “No,” I muttered, drawing back. “But we’re in the right place.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Do you see the sign?” I gestured back to the building. NewTech Industries, it read. Building a Brighter Tomorrow.

  I smiled grimly. “NewTech is one of Talon’s branches,” I said. “They maintain a front as a medical equipment manufacturer, but they’re really a genetics research lab working for the organization.”

  “Do you think this is where they keep the breeders?”

  “I don’t know. Wes, did you get that?” I continued, speaking into the wire. “There’s a NewTech branch here, but it looks deserted. Could this be the facility? Everything we’ve seen so far has been empty.”

  “Hang on.” There was a pause as Wes turned to his trusty laptop. After a few silent minutes, he muttered, “Well, according to the internet, there was a NewTech lab here. But it was shut down five years ago and has been abandoned ever since.”

  “Dammit.” I clenched a fist against the brick wall. It seemed the likelihood that this was the facility I’d been searching for had completely vanished. I’d suspected as much, from the lack of security around the building, but I still held out hope that we might find it. “So this was a waste of time. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted Griffin.”

  Ember put a hand my arm. “We’ve come all this way, and it is a Talon facility,” she observed, as Cobalt leaped inside at her touch. “Maybe we should go in, see if they’ve left anything behind that we can use against the organization. Maybe there’s something that will tell us where the real facilities are.”

  “I doubt it, Firebrand.” Even if this had been a facility, there were no dragons here now, and the chance to rescue the breeders was gone. It was back to square one. “But, yeah, we should go in, look around. Any dirty secrets we can dig up, any hints at what Talon is up to will be worth it. Let’s just be cautious. We don’t know what’s really in there.”

  “I don’t like this, Riley,” Wes muttered, a worried buzz in my ear. “It’s too clean. Something about this whole situation seems wrong.”

  “We won’t be long,” I told him, walking around the corner toward the building at the end of the lot. Wes was right; the area was way too clean to be in use anymore, but we still might be able to learn some things about Talon. I wasn’t about to give up on the breeding facilities. “It’s worth a quick look around,” I said. “Fifteen minutes, tops, and then we’ll leave. If you see anything strange out there, let me know.”

  Wes gave a frustrated sigh. “Right. Well, be careful, Riley. If you hear me screaming, you’ll know something’s up.”

  Warily, Ember and I made our way across the lot. The NewTech lab remained eerily silent as we edged up the steps to the main entrance. I scanned every corner and wall of the building for cameras, alarms, motion sensors, anything. But, like the rest of the lot, it was disturbingly empty.

  Two large glass doors sat at the top of the steps, unbroken and locked. I reached into my jacket lining for the picks I always carried and easily jimmied the lock open, with Ember watching curiously over my shoulder.

  “You’re good at that,” she remarked as the mechanism clicked under my fingers. “I keep forgetting you have breaking and entering down to an art form.” I grinned at her.

  “It’s what I do, Firebrand. That and blowing up buildings.” Carefully, I pulled the door open, and we picked our way into the lobby. I scanned the walls and floors for bullet holes, grenade burns, pools of dried blood, telltale signs of trigger-happy St. George soldiers. But, aside from being dark and abandoned, the place was almost pristine. A large white welcome counter sat against the back wall, dusty models of prosthetic limbs set out on display. I saw Ember shiver and wrinkle her nose at them. Brochures were scattered across the tile floor, rustling underfoot as we walked.

  “Everything looks pretty normal,” Ember remarked, picking up one of the brochures and flipping it open. “Creepy dismembered limbs aside. No signs of the Order, anyway. Or Talon.”

  I walked to the welcome counter, taking everything in. “No computer,” I mused, seeing the spot where a computer would have rested. Ember followed my gaze and frowned.

  “Stolen?”

  “Maybe. Given everything we’ve seen so far, though, not likely. Nothing else has been touched, and prosthetics are damned expensive for thieves to leave behind. Talon probably took it themselves.”

  “So we won’t be able to see what this place really is.”

  “Not here,” I agreed. This was just the front, to keep up appearances. I glanced down a corridor that snaked off into the darkness. “We’ll have to go deeper if we want to find what they’ve really been up to.”

  As I suspected, the first floor held nothing interesting. Ember and I passed offices filled with desks and chairs and models of prosthetic limbs sitting on display. Like they were trying overly hard to appear legit, that everything here was as it seemed. As we went farther into the building, however, I began to notice the inconsistencies.

  There were no computers, anywhere, in the rooms. No security cameras in the halls. No files scattered among the brochures and envelopes on the ground. Anything that would hold any bit of information concerning the building or the business was gone. And I realized why the grounds out front had been completely empty.

  “This place has been cleaned,” I said.

  “Oh?” Wes said in my ear, sounding wary. “Well, that’s bloody suspicious. Not surprising, though, considering this is a Talon business.”

  Ember glanced at me, frowning. “What does that mean?”

  “It means that Talon has erased all the information regarding this facility,” I replied. “Computers, files, even the security cameras. Anything that showed what went on here has been stripped and taken away or destroyed.”

  Her eyes gleamed in the dim light, and she gave a thoughtful nod. “Which means they’re definitely hiding something.”


  “Yeah,” I growled. “Let’s keep searching.”

  We continued farther into the building, passing more of the same. Silent, abandoned rooms and darkness. None of the elevators worked, but through a pair of doors that read Employees Only Beyond This Point, a flight of metal stairs led down into the unknown.

  Motioning Ember to stop, I stepped back into the hall. “Wes,” I said, “we found the stairs down. Everything still okay out there?”

  “Pretty much,” was the terse reply. “I still don’t like this, Riley, have I mentioned that before? Poking around Talon’s territory is always risky, even if this place is abandoned. You two almost done in there?”

  “Almost. Nothing interesting up top, but I want to keep searching.” Opening the door again, I peered down the stairwell, seeing it vanish into the dark. “If Talon is hiding something here, it won’t be out in the open,” I said, my voice echoing down the shaft. “We’re heading to the lower floors now. Just keep watching the building.”

  “Roger that,” Wes sighed, and I stepped into the stairwell and turned on my flashlight.

  Ember followed, our footsteps thumping against the metal steps and reverberating up the shaft. About halfway down, Wes’s voice started to sputter, and by the time we reached the bottom, it had flickered out entirely.

  “Great,” I muttered. “Wes, you there? Can you hear me?” No answer, just the continuous sound of static. I looked over at Ember and frowned. “Signal cut out,” I told her. “I lost Wes. Looks like it’s just us now.”

  She blinked. “Should we go back?”

  “No.” I glanced at the door that marked the end of the stairway. “I want to see what this place is,” I said firmly. “If this was the facility at some point, I want to learn as much as I can. Anything to help me find the current one. Come on.”

  The door at the bottom of the steps was metal and a touch pad hung beside the frame, a final security measure against interlopers. But the screen was dark, and the handle turned easily under my palm as I wrenched it down. Shoving the door back, I stepped through the frame and shone the flashlight beam into the room.

  For a moment, as the faint light scuttled over the walls and floor, I could only stare, the pit of my stomach coiling like a frightened snake. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this.

  “What the hell?” I whispered.

  EMBER

  Okay, I was definitely creeped out here.

  Too many horror flicks when I was growing up, I supposed. When I was about thirteen, I went through a phase where I was addicted to ghost and monster movies. Freddy, Jason, Chucky, The Ring, The Grudge, all the Aliens, Predator, Poltergeist; I devoured everything that involved some kind of creature tearing people apart or freaking them out. I drove Dante crazy with the times I would sneak into his room late at night because I was convinced some pale little girl would crawl through the television and flicker her way to my bed. Paranormal movies always got to me, because while I was fairly certain the Alien or Predator would die from a fireball between the eyes, and even Jason would be no match for a dragon, what could you do to a ghost?

  True, this was not your typical poltergeist set, but that didn’t mean anything. I’d seen plenty of sci-fi movies where the heroes were sent to investigate a laboratory or compound or spaceship that had abruptly gone dark, and everything was quiet and abandoned when they arrived, but you just knew something was still out there, stalking them.

  In fact, I think I’d seen this exact setup before: the creepy underground lab, the rows of strange machines, the large glass cylinders stretched to the ceiling. I could feel a shiver run up my spine as Riley’s flashlight beam skittered over the tubes, all thankfully empty but no less disturbing. I knew what those tubes were for: growing things. Living things. Either trying to improve upon nature, or to create something new. And it was always, as every movie, book and story had shown, a very, very bad idea.

  “What the hell?” Riley muttered, echoing my sentiments. Scanning the light around the room, which was large and stretched back into the darkness, he shook his head. Beyond the glass cylinders were seemingly endless rows of countertops, aisles upon aisles of flat surfaces holding glass vials, beakers, strange machines and other lab-y things. “This is a Talon laboratory, all right,” Riley said. “I’d heard of these places when I was still with the organization, but I’ve never seen one before. What were they doing down here?” He pinned the beam on one of the containers, revealing a set of tubes and wires hanging down from the inside. “Those vats look all kinds of ominous, don’t they? What do you think was in them?”

  I swallowed. All the answers I could think of made my skin crawl. “Maybe Talon was secretly operating a chocolate factory,” I joked, “because they discovered that making chocolate is much more rewarding than trying to take over everything.”

  Riley snorted. “If they put something in the bars that turned all humans into mindless drones, I wouldn’t put it past them,” he replied. “But I doubt that’s what happened here, Firebrand.”

  “Okay, but if we run into chocolate-fueled zombies, you owe me dinner.”

  “Always the zombies with you.”

  Our voices sounded too glib, too light and breezy for the surroundings. Silence fell, and the shadows seemed to press in, as if offended by our flippancy. Riley swept his flashlight beam around, his tone grave once more. “Though they were definitely working on something,” he muttered. “I’d give my back teeth to know what Talon was really doing here. And why this place is deserted now.”

  My skin prickled. In the movies, the answer to that question was always the same: because the specimens, prisoners, or experiments had all escaped and gone on a killing spree before everything was locked down.

  Riley sighed. “Come on,” he told me, turning from the row of vats, as if he didn’t want to stare at them any longer. “Let’s see if we can find some answers.”

  As we went farther into the lab, passing the long rows of countertops, the feeling that I’d seen this all before continued to haunt me. Riley and I were the unsuspecting humans venturing into the monster’s lair and, at any moment, some twisted freak of nature was going to come leaping out at us. Of course, those movies never had protagonists who happened to be dragons, and when the raging monstrosity did finally appear, it always sank its claws into a soft, easily-ripped-apart human. I’d always wondered what the monster would do if its prey suddenly turned into a winged, scaly, sharp-toothed monster itself. Probably the reason that there were no dragons starring in horror movies—the real monster wouldn’t be quite as scary in comparison.

  Will you stop thinking about that? This isn’t the movies. Focus, Ember.

  “Look at this,” Riley muttered, shining his flashlight into the corner of the room. A door stood on the far wall with the words Danger! Authorized Personnel Only in large red letters across the front. “That looks like all kinds of fun.”

  Riley strode across the room to push open the door. It swung back to reveal another long hallway, with one wall made of thick glass. The room beyond the glass was a mess: shelves tipped over, chairs knocked down, papers and debris strewed everywhere.

  “What happened here?” Riley mused as we traversed the hallway and edged through the door. The hinges groaned as we pushed it back, and I wrinkled my nose. The place smelled of bleach and chemicals and sterilizer, but beneath all that, like a stain soaked deep into the carpet, it still reeked faintly of blood and fear. My dragon growled uneasily as the door creaked shut behind us. Something had happened in this room. Something awful. Continuing my movie comparison, this was the place where the aliens or monsters or clones finally escaped and slaughtered every living soul in a violent, bloody massacre. There were no bloodstains, no skeletons or mangled bodies lying on the floor, but judging from the smell, I guessed someone had cleaned up whatever mess was left behind.

  I
mentioned this to Riley, who snorted.

  “Normally I’d say you’ve been watching too many Alien flicks, Firebrand,” he said, his voice echoing weirdly in the absolute silence. “But it’s kind of hard to argue when you’re staring at that.”

  He swept his flashlight beam around, and my stomach knotted. In the center of the room, another large holding vat rose up from the tile, but this one had been smashed and broken, glass scattered about the floor in front of the machine.

  “Looks like whatever they were trying to do didn’t turn out like they expected,” he muttered, walking forward. My dragon hissed, reluctant to get closer to that yawning tube, but I strode after him, glass crinkling under my feet as I got close. “What does that look like to you?” Riley asked, shining the beam into the cylinder. A tangle of clear tubes and wires hung from the ceiling, slowly dripping water into the vat, and I shivered.

  “Like something broke out.”

  “Yep.” Riley backed up, eyes dark as he gazed around the room. “So, the question is...what were they keeping down here? What kind of twisted experiments were they performing?”

  “Maybe we can find something. If Wes could get into the computer system—”

  He shook his head. “If I know Talon, they didn’t leave any information behind. All data will be wiped, all files removed, everything about this place will be gone. Frankly, I’m surprised we found this much—it’s not like the organization to leave a mess like this behind, unless they needed to clear everyone out as quickly as possible.”

  I caught a glimmer in the glass—four slashes raked lengthwise down the wall—and felt my stomach drop. Whatever made those gashes wasn’t huge, probably no larger than a tiger. I knew, because I had seen claw marks like this before, when I had made them. They were the exact size of a Shifted hatchling dragon’s.