Stef watched as Ryan put a hand to the not-so-secret panel on the elevator wall, it slipped away and revealed six more options not available to recruits – or to her.
‘My security clearance must suck if I can’t touch these.’
‘They’re not necessary to your role. I wouldn’t have access to them if I wasn’t acting director.’
‘That makes me feel a little better.’
He pressed the button for the basement. ‘I’m glad you’re somewhat prepared,’ he said, ‘it is…somewhat less than pleasant.’
She grinned up at him. ‘I love how when you say that, you actually mean “the worst thing you can possibly imagine”.’
‘I can imagine worse things.’
‘Yeah, me too, but you know what I mean.’
‘Most of the time at least.’
They rode in silence for a moment. ‘How-how deep is the basement exactly?’ she asked. ‘This is way more than a couple of floors.’
‘We’re already there, I just haven’t opened the doors yet.’
‘How bad can it be compared to everything else I’ve seen?’
‘It’s different, because it’s Agency-sanctioned.’
‘I’m not suddenly going to flip and become a disloyal brat. Every secret organisation has its secrets, and technically, aren’t I one of these freaks?’
‘I’d never let them bring you down here.’
She regarded him quietly for a moment. ‘It’s even less pleasant than I’m imagining, isn’t it?’
‘There’s a lot of things in the world I can protect you from, Stef, things I haven’t told you, things I won’t show you, this is one of those things I wish I could keep you away from.’
Warm fuzzies +10.
He held out his hand. ‘At least you’ll never have to come down here again.’
She took his hand and the doors slid open.
She had expected dark. She had expected dank. Lightning wouldn’t have been out of the question, nor was an Agency-issued mad scientist/evil-Jonesy-with-a-goatee cackling like a deranged Doctor Frankenstein.
What she hadn’t expected was…just another floor of the Agency. Same colour scheme. Same recycled air. Same bright fluorescent bulbs bringing light to every corner of this hell-on-Queen-Street.
And hell it certainly was.
Plexiglas cages spanned the length of the room, two rows to their left, two rows to their right – probably forty in all – separated by a wide corridor.
Forty cages, most of them occupied. Dark shapes moved within the close cages and she forced herself not to focus, to leave them as indistinct blobs. If she didn’t see them, if she didn’t focus, then they weren’t real. Or…were real, but less real.
She began to back up, but the lift had disappeared, as had the buttons to call it. There was nothing but a blank space on the wall where her escape should have been.
‘This isn’t fair,’ she whispered.
‘You have to be down here for an hour,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Ok, let’s get this over and done with.’ She doubled her grip on his hand. ‘Explain it.’
‘It’s storage for all the testing we’re commissioned to do. Most Agencies have something similar, though their capacity depends on the number of assignments given. It’s how improvements are made to existing software, certain elements or upgrades are deemed unusable or disallowed, or proposals for our next incarnations are made.’
The stopped in front of a water-filled tank, where one of the freaks swam in a consistent, bot-like pattern. His flesh was pale and missing all of the…detail. The skin was plastic-smooth, without detail or defamation, his chest was without muscles lines or…nipples, and – as was overtly obvious as he swam past at eye level, he was as accurate as a Ken doll.
‘In case of the dolphin uprising?’ she asked, straining to force some humour into her voice.
‘Proposed essentially as a Navy Seal team. We function just fine beneath the surface, but this type of Agent would have been a specialist.’
‘I’m not seeing the logic gap.’
‘The project was scrapped when it was seen as unnecessary – we honestly don’t do enough underwater work to warrant a specialist model.’
She tapped the glass and the mer-agent stopped swimming in circles and turned to look at her. Oversized, transparent green eyes stared back at her.
She stepped back, afraid of the dead eyes.
‘Resume,’ Ryan ordered in a raised voice, and the mer-agent resumed his circuits of the tank. ‘Most of the experiments have no thought patterns, Stef, they aren’t sentient. We avoid being cruel when we can. Any reactions you see are programmed, or the basest level of instincts. They won’t hurt you.’
‘Why don’t you just destroy them?’
‘So that someone else doesn’t create the same experiment. If a tech wants to work on a similar project, they’re free to continue on with an existing experiment.’
‘Still…’
‘It’s kinder this way, especially when it comes to the sentient ones.’
‘And how many is that?’
‘Less than a quarter have sentience, and of those, only a few are awake at any given time.’
‘Would I have been asleep?’
He squeezed her hand. ‘I would have let you choose.’
The next cage along held a bloody, gaunt experiment, who sat in the far corner, biting pieces out of his arm.
‘Are you sure you didn’t lie to me about zombies?’ she asked, keeping a careful distance from the cage.
‘Other than the trashmaids, there are no zombies.’
She stared at him.
She bit his arm.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Trying to see if I like the taste of flesh,’ she mumbled through a mouthful of sleeve.
‘And how do you like the taste of suit.’
‘I prefer cookies.’ She released his arm. ‘Ok, if no zombies, then what the fsck is he doing?’
‘We can…consume components containing active blue to heal injuries.’
‘Ew.’
‘It has saved a lot of lives.’
‘Still, ew.’
‘This experiment is ongoing, though not actively being worked on at the moment. It’s to try and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of…the consumed components.’
‘More bang for the cannibalistic buck?’
‘Precisely.’
He pointed out another fifteen experiments, another fifteen freaks. Most of them, in comparison to the mer-agent and the zombie were positively banal, but all of them had the same dead, soulless eyes, all of which seemed to stare right through her as if she were just as soulless as they were.
She stared down at his feet as he finished explaining the last freak – one apparently to incease the productivity of a certain group of sub-processes without burning out an agent’s brain.
‘I’m sorry if I’m boring you,’ he said, not sounding very sorry at all.
‘I’m waiting for it to drop.’
‘What?’
‘The other shoe.’
‘Ah,’ he said a little sadly, ‘well, this is just the first room.’
‘Out of how many?’
‘Three. The next two-’
She forced a smirk. ‘Let me guess, are less pleasant than this one?’
‘Something like that.’ He took her hand and lead her towards the door to the next room.