‘That is one big pile of shit.’
This cage was the biggest Stef had seen yet, but it wasn’t the creature inside that held her attention, but its leavings. The pile of faeces was as tall as she was, and could definitely take her in a fight. She pulled her gaze away from the brown pile and looked at the experiment. Like the gorillas, the Behemoth was indescribably wrong.
Instead of a man reformed into the shape of a great ape, it was a man pressed into the shape of an elephant. Limbs, thick as tree trunks touched the ground, fingers and toes curled in, fused, useless, vestigial. The hips had been shifted slightly, so that the back could lay ramrod straight – for carrying agents to war, supplies, or to hold a dance party when the battle was done. The head was essentially human, though bald, and grotesquely large. No intelligence flickered behind the eyes.
‘Urge to puke…rising again.’
‘Observe the-’ Ryan faltered and made a motion at the faeces. ‘Just watch.’
She stared at the poop. The bottom of the mound began to liquefy, the solid turning into a bright green sludge before her eyes.
The sludge spread, but didn’t pool for too long, instead soaking into the ground in short order, reappearing as a mossy covering after a moment.
‘Behemoth used mossy consecrate. It’s…a confusing amount of effective?’
‘It breaks down magics in the soil – it has a limited effect at the moment, but it’s hoped that it can be increased, and that’s only the by-product, look.’
He pointed and she looked back into the cage. Coral-like fungal structures began to stretch up from the ground – four in total, spotted randomly around the mossy area. They quickly reached four feet in height before blue buds began to appear. The buds seem to glow for a moment before inflating like balloons, leaving lemon-sized pieces of blue fruit hanging from the coral structures.
‘Ok, um, lolwut?’
‘It consumes waste – trash, carrion, all the litter that you could imagine finding on a battlefield. It processes it, and the breakdown is as you see.’
‘And the plants?’
‘Sustenance. The fruits contained distilled blue, and for severely injured agents, it’s thought that it would be easier to eat a piece of fruit than…part of another agent.’
‘There’s an unhealthy amount of cannibalism going on down here.’
‘It’s a rather singular advantage that we have – it has a time frame, but all the same, it’s an advantage.’
Stef turned to look at him. ‘Huh, yeah, I haven’t asked about that. How’s that work? I mean, obviously things go to shit once you’re in a blackout zone, but…’
‘The timeframes differ from agent to agent – generally it’s thirty-six to forty-eight hours – enough time for an operation in a fae area, time to escape, or time to have a weekend off in Fairyland.’
She looked at him, and his brow furrowed. ‘What?’
She tapped her fingers together. ‘It’s just weird, yanno.’
‘That you- We- Agency peoples- Get time off. It doesn’t really match up with any of the tropes.’
His narcy expression reappeared. ‘Don’t expect to get a lot of time off-’
‘I don’t, I don’t.’ She stared at the floor. ‘Hey, Ryan…all the war prep, it’s just for “just in case” right?’
‘There’s no harm in being prepared.’
‘So where’s the nephilim? Or are you going to turn around, pat me on the head and say “no Stef, you are the nephilims”?’
‘I, er, could if you wanted me to.’
She considered it for a minute. ‘Nah, I’m freak enough without another epithet for people to throw at me.’
‘It’s this way.’
The real nephilim was the least freaky thing in the kingdom of freaks. It was large – but at least the proportions were right this time, it was, all things considered, just a giant.
‘What’s the thing around its neck?’
‘Nothing important,’ Ryan said as he looked up at the chain, ‘just decoration, they’re all rejected Agency logos.’
She gave a slight shrug. ‘Are we done here?’
‘You have to see the third room.’
She stared down at her dirty shoes. ‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Third room,’ he said as he looked to the door.
‘How bad is this going to be?’
‘It’s…different to what you’ve seen so far.’
He pushed on the door and it swung open.
It was a morgue.
A wall of freezer doors stared at her as she stepped into the room.
‘Ryan…I don’t want to be here.’
‘Whatever you want to show me, I don’t want to see it!’
He placed his hands on her shoulders, and sank down to look her in the eye. ‘I know what this all appears to be, but I promise you, it’s not.’
She hugged her arms around herself. ‘This is a morgue, and it’s- And you’re gonna tell me that there’s a mistake-’ She sank down to her knees. ‘And you’re gonna stick me in one of these drawers and go away and I’ll be alone forever!’
His arms were around her a second later. ‘Of course I’m not. This is- This is our history, I wanted to show you our history.’
‘The fuck? It’s a morgue!’
He stood, and helped her back to her feet. He opened one door and pulled out the drawer, revealing himself.
‘It’s not a morgue, because the bodies here were never alive. This is simply a register of every agent who has ever been active in this region.’
She stepped closer to the apparently-dead Ryan poked his face. ‘There wasn’t an easier way to do this? A less ooky way?’
A pained looked crossed his face for a moment. ‘Some suspect it’s a way to remind us of our mortality.’
She looked around, counting the drawers. ‘Ok, so…you, Jonesy, Juggernaut. Um…the secretary lady and the grumpy old guy?’
‘Natalie and Applebaum, yes.’
Ryan pressed a hand against one drawer. ‘Samuels was our tech agent, but he died quite a while ago. The others are from our various outposts, some current, some former.’ He walked along the wall and opened up another door.
This drawer held Carol, pretty and perfect, not like the mad roommate she’d had in the oubliette. Ryan rested his hand against Carol’s cheek for a moment, then looked across at Stef.
‘I need to tell you something. Something I should have told you. Context you should have had.’
‘It’s funny,’ Ryan said mirthlessly. ‘How things are circular. Cause and effect. It’s all so strange sometimes. Carol died, I made her an agent. And then I lost her again. When that happened…I was not…I was far from my usual standard of work for weeks afterward. There was a Solstice, I let him get away, and I chased him. He killed a little girl. It was my fault. I…I couldn’t handle that. I couldn’t let another person die because of my actions. I saved you, Stef, but it wasn’t altruism, it wasn’t because I cared about you, it was because I needed to save someone, anyone. If I hadn’t been- If Carol hadn’t- I wouldn’t have. I’ve never done it before or since. You were the right victim at the right time, and you are ascribing heroic attributes to-’
Tears streamed down her face. ‘Shut up already!’
She pressed her hands against her head. ‘You didn’t save me, you saved the idea of me, that’s pretty much a fair assessment of what you’re saving?’
‘Guess what?’ she said, talking over him. ‘We’re more than even, cause the idea of you kept saving me!’
She pressed her hands into her eyes. ‘I remembered you, and you were kind. And- And you’re the only reason I’m alive. I told you- I told you I’d tried to kill myself.’ She choked for a moment. ‘Well, not so much tried as pretty much did. Pills, a lot of pills, and then it was dark and I was going, and I remembered- You. Blue.’ She made a wild gesture at him. ‘All I can assume is what I mostly saw was your vest, cause blue is very prominent in my head! And then I didn’t want to die any more. So- I- There was puking. And I didn’t- I’m still here and- Because of you.’
He shifted to her, and held her as she collapsed against him.
‘I needed the idea of you more than you ever needed the idea of me.’ He lifted her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’
‘You’ve got nothing to apologise for,’ he said as he stroked her hair. ‘Stop thinking that you have to apologise to me.’
‘I hope I can live up to what your idea of me is. I’ll do my best not to disappoint you.’
Stef wiped her nose on her sleeve. ‘I- I want to-’
Call you Dad. I want to call you Dad.
Words meant things. Titles meant things. Calling him that would mean accepting that he wasn’t going to get rid of her. He could still get rid of her. He should get rid of her.
James had never held her. James had never saved her. James had never made sad feels go away.
She was still nothing but shit. She didn’t deserve the care of a magic-angel-narc.
She pushed on his shoulders, and he lowered her to the ground.
I can’t. Not yet.
‘So what’s next?’
Ryan took her hand. ‘Your new room, at least for the time being.’