Zurich, Switzerland.

November 6th, 2065


" What is your name ? "

ZSF noncom Sgt. Zuher, his white and black camouflage digital camo uniform spattered with the blood, dust, and grime of the battle that had consumed Zurich, held his HVK-30 rifle in one hand, and put out the other, gripping the shoulder of, and steadying, the solider that had just jerkily and lethargically staggered from the smoldering, burning carcass of the Coalescence corporation's HQ complex.

The man looked a mess, Zuher noted.

His face- strongly resembling Eliot Stabler- was haggard and ashen, as if he'd been enduring his worst imaginable nightmare, and had only just awoken. Bit of shrapnel and kicked up concrete chips had nicked him there as well, leaving bloody scratches and cuts. Like Zuher, this man-whoever he was- also was covered in the grim and dust of battle, spattered all over his US Military issued digital fatigues and battle armor.

About the only bits of him that looked close to intact, were his synthetic arms.

Zuher had noticed those at once.

It was difficult not to; so many soldiers these days, in armies all over the world, had been replaced by those bipedal ( and fearsomely strong ) Grunt combat robots, and of the relatively few soldiers who were still active and in the field, the number of those who were cybernetically enhanced was very small indeed. And, on a final note, they were universally employed as Black Ops warriors, sent on missions that were off the books, and off the grid.

Whoever this man was, Zuher realized, he must have been to places, and done things, that no rank and file solider would realistically ever expect.

Perhaps that explained why he was here, in Zurich, in the midst of what was the most cataclysmic terrorist attack in the city's history.

There would be many questions for this man, but, first:

" Who are you ? ", the ZSF noncom pressed, with more emphasis now. This man, this solider, was obviously a tad disoriented, so perhaps he hadn't heard the first question.

This was crucial. What was an American Black Ops solider doing here ?

Who was he ?

The solider's gaze, for once, finally seemed to focus on Zuher, rather than aimlessly off into space. He blinked rapidly more than once, as if waking from sleeping for hours.

As if aware of his surroundings only now.

He finally said something:

" Taylor. "

He spoke with a gravelly tone, with a scratch to it.

" My name, is Taylor ".


They'd finally left him alone.

After a battery and gauntlet of getting checked by ZSF medics, and " questioned " by their officers, the local troops had finally left Taylor to be by himself. He wasn't alone, per se; the ZSF riflemen were still spread out all over the area directly in front of the Coalescence HQ. Still, they'd finally backed off, providing him with some much desired space.

That was fine with him. Many of them were busy anyway, clearing away the dozens of burned and bullet riddled Grunt robots that were littered left, right, and center, far and wide over the charcoal shaded, expansive steps that let up the soaring and sharp sided fortress that was the HQ.

A squad of them had been assigned to " observe " him ( so they said, anyway ), and they were lingering by the flank of an APC parked a few yards away. One of them, with sergeant stripes on his upper arms, kept glancing at Taylor, helmeted head canted as if Taylor was some sort of exotic animal that'd wandered out of the zoo.

Or as if he knew hims, somehow from somewhere. Occasionally, he'd judge one of his squad, and gesture to Taylor, speaking in low tones to them about the lone US Black Ops who'd dropped onto their laps.

Sitting on the back of a ZSF Combat Ambulance, Taylor had his elbows braced on his legs, and stared at the pavement that his well worn boots were resting against. He didn't pay much attention to anyone, or anything else.

Finally, he could examine himself. Check that he was really all there; psychically, at least.

All 4 limbs. These steel ones are not my own, but they are. They're all here.

Taylor turned his right hand over, staring at the metal palm.

Its me, all right. This is my body.

But, that was all he could be sure of. This may be his body, but as he sat here thinking about it- thinking about, everything, really- there was a strong, lingering doubt that any of this was from his own mind.

I am not in the Frozen Forest

Somewhere calm.

Somewhere-

Taylor smacked the side of his head, snarling, out to stop that ghostly whisper that only he could hear.

What was more aggravating, and confusing, was that that whisper, was Taylor himself ! He recognized his own speech, the one he'd known all his life. Nobody was speaking to him. It was just himself, talking to himself, about that Frozen Forest.

The Frozen Forest.

Home of Corvus.

Corvus ?

The Frozen Forest ?

The names jumped to Taylor's awareness, if not his memory.

" Aghh ", he growled, rubbing his eyes with both hands.

He knew it wasn't anywhere, but within the DNI. He knew, it was something forged by the evil minds at Coalesence to give their Hive mind test subjects a measure of peace.

He'd seen places he'd fought through there, in that place. Places he'd been, when he hunted Dylan Stone:

Kebechet, the Egyptian city buried in sand, lost to the dunes.

Singapore, burned and blasted into flora covered rubble and ruins by the detonation at Coalescence.

Lotus Towers, the gargantuan, soaring, twin peaked complex smack in the middle of Cairo. Home to over a thousand within its walls, it'd reminded Taylor a bit of Judge Dredd.

All of those locations. They'd all appeared in the Frozen Forest.

How could they have ?

Taylor blinked again, as thoughts surrounding all of them flashed through his consciousness.

He saw a forest, one that seemed to come straight out of Alaska, smothered in the purest white snow, with crusts of ice and spears of icicles hanging from their gnarled branches. It seemed to stretch on and on, just an expanse of trees, and white.

The forest was frozen. And it was so relaxing, somehow. It was somewhere, calming. Somewhere-

Enough !

As if a switch had been thrown, Taylor's anger toward all of it rose. He couldn't be sure of why, only that he somehow had a powerful, seething desire to stop thinking about it.

He was alive. He was out of that place, wherever it was. He'd left it behind. The DNI, Coalescence, all of it.

That was a new thought, and it gave Taylor new strength, and new clarity.

He sat up straight, palms resting on his legs.

Done. Done, he was, with this kind of life. Black Ops had been his calling for years, yes, and one that he'd been willing to receive his metal limbs for to begin with. Taylor would be lying to himself if she said that he wouldn't be proud of the difference he'd left on the world as a result of his actions, and those of his team.

Moreover, he'd been proud to face the risks of having something as unknown as a Direct Neural Interface.

But, it'd cost him.

Cost him that team, for example.

And that was why, he had to walk away. One way or another, Taylor was sure he had to walk away from this. He'd tend his resignation as soon as he could, first chance that came his way. If they refused, or dragged their heels, those WA brass, he'd vanish.

He was good at that, after all. He was Black Ops.

Until it cost him his team.

Diaz. Maretti. Hall.

Diaz. Always the technophile

Maretti. Reminds me of that girl, Jennifer, in 5th grade: both were always a smartass

Hall. At least she understood history. Fixation on the Battle of the Bulge.

All of them. His loyal, trusted team. His family, really. All of them had DNIs, just like him. All of them had gotten it placed, after following him through Singapore, through Kebechet, and through the Lotus Towers.

They'd been with with him every step of the way.

Until that very thing they had, that DNI, consumed them.

Literally.

His team and family, gone.

Something, dark. Something, evil. Something, angry, born within the DNI, had devoured them.

Craved out of pain itself, what that, thing, had been. Roiling with anger, screaming to know what it was, and why it existed. Some sort of, nightmarish bundle of what looked like pure energy.

Corvus.

What was it ?

It controlled everything in there. It was literally crafting a nightmare, the kind where everything seems to be coming for you, and you have no control over anything. It's coming for you, and you can hardly fight back.

It did everything to my team. Pulled the strings, pushed us along where it wanted us to go.

But, its gone now.

If it wasn't, I'd now. If, of course, I am still me right now.

" Taylor ! "

Taylor blinked, as someone called his name.

A female voice.

I know who that is !

More memories raced in, all in just a few fragments of seconds, ones Taylor thought were buried, or ones that he wasn't sure he'd collected himself, but had no doubt they were his:

A bandanna, offered to him in a hospital.

This woman, telling him she wouldn't leave him, because he hadn't left her.

A burning building, carrying her out.

Taylor knew who she was.

" Rachel ?! ", he exclaimed, standing up.

He looked around. Was this- hearing her, of all of everyone- just another construct in his head ?

The DNI. Was even this, just now, just more of its manipulation ?

" Taylor ?! "

Again. She was calling him !

Taylor saw the ZSF soliders reacting. They were turning their heads around, unslinging their rifles.

They'd heard it as well ! Taylor wasn't just hearing things !

Rachel.

Are you here ?

You were right. You were so right.

I won't put anything over you again, Rachel. I swear. You and I had- still have- something real going on. Throwing that away would be a horrendous mistake for me, and I refuse to repeat mistakes.

Please, you have to truly be here.

He yelled her name, stepping away from the ambulance, realizing he had more strength in himself, and was steadier walking, than he'd thought.

" Rachel- "

And, then he saw her.

Appearing between a duo of parked APCs, at the base of the entrance stairs.

Black CIA field gear, with that white Trident symbol on the chest. Oval face, with that lock of dark hair hanging over her forehead.

Covered in all the grime and muck of battle, but there was no mistaking it.

That was her.

And, if everyone else could see her, then-

She's actually here !

" LNO Kane ? ", one of the ZSF soldiers addressed her, approaching the agent. He was the one with the sergeant's stripes.

" Wh- ? ", Kane slowed down, glancing at him.

" Yes, that is me ", she confirmed breathlessly, having run all the way here. " Have you found a solider with cybernetic enhancements here ? His name is John Taylor- "

" Taylor ? ", repeated the Sergeant. " Yes, we found someone by that name. We have him under medical watch, until- "

" Rachel ! "

Taylor's shout got all of their attention. He was close now, only a few yards away from them, still striding slowly but steadily along.

He wouldn't let anything stop him from getting to her.

Then she saw him.

" T-Taylor ?! "

The shock and surprise on her face was clear as crystal, but it was exactly what Taylor wanted.

A ghost- something from that hateful DNI- wouldn't react that way. She was real. They were all real.

Without further preamble or ado, Taylor embraced her. It was a little awkward, as he hadn't done this for a long while, but even so-

It felt right.

The ZSF

Rachel.

She inhaled slightly as Taylor's arms- metal though they may be- closed around her. She was shorter than him, so he pressed his face into her hair.

Held her to close to him.

" Its you, isn't it ? ", he whispered. " Am I- are we- still in his world ? "

Anyone else would've called that cryptic, but Rachel understood all of it.

Every bit of it.

She hugged him back.

" Yes. It really is me, John. You're ok. You're free "

She reoriented herself to be able to look him in the eyes.

Taylor looked into hers.

Beautiful brown ones.

She was smiling now.

" You did it, John. Corvus is dead. We're free. "

She was right. Taylor understood that more than anything.

And now, he wouldn't let anything get between them.

" We are, aren't we. ", he agreed with her.

" I didn't leave you, you didn't leave me. "

" let's keep them that way , eh ? "

Rachel laughed lightly, an amazing sound.

" Sounds like an actionable plan. "

Taylor smiled back.

Then, kissed her properly.

And she returned it fiercely