Curt slipped the bag off his shoulder, and let his arm hang, so that the bag was level with his thigh – given the dark colour of the bag, and the black of his coat, it was unlikely that she’d see it, unless she was specifically looking for it.
The elevator door slid open, and he stepped out into the basement.
It was exactly as strange as advertised.
A large room spread out before him, with ceilings that were easily fifty feet above his head, giving the place a warehouse feel – but rather than the shelves of Lost and Found, there were rows of glass and steel enclosures, like he’d stepped into some made scientist’s den.
He blew out a breath, and began to walk forward, keeping his distance from all of the tanks, lest one of the creeping shadows burst forward and drag him back as a meal.
Most of the enclosures were empty, but every so often, there was something hidden behind a crate, of bundled in rags. Things that were probably agents. Things he didn’t want to think about.
There was something…almost antiquated about the look of the tanks, and so far, none of them had contained Stef – at least, he hoped none of the things he’d seen was her.
There was the clank of machinery, and he turned to watch a bundle of limbs fall from a chute, and land on the floor of the tank beside him. A gaunt, sickly looking, completely naked agent skittered forth from a corner, lifted an arm and began to chew on it.
‘Oh, dear fucking god.’
His hand was on his mouth before he could make another sound, his nails digging into his cheek to stop himself from screaming.
He could run. He should run. There was nothing down here that necessitated seeing all the horrors around him-
Old-style gaming music filtered in above the sound of the monster’s chewing.
He turned, and ran towards the source of the sound.
He stopped at an intersection between tanks, and the music stopped. ‘Hello?’ a voice called.
He lifted his head. ‘Newbie?’
‘Down here!’ There was a slapping, and he turned his head, seeing movement a few rows down.
He adjusted the laptop bag again, ran his hand through his hair – trying to look as though he hadn’t been running from monsters, and walked calmly towards her cell.
It was nicer than the cell Petersen had forced him into, but there was no other way of thinking of it. She was hidden away, out of sight of everyone, amongst freaks that would never see the light of day.
She was in a cell, and it was his fault.
She waved at him as he came into view, then turned and hit a button, and a door in the longer wall slid open, allowing him in.
He took a moment to assess her tank – it was one of the larger ones he’d seen. There was a bed, which lay opposite the door, covered in pillows, files, and snacks. There was a small fridge at the foot of the bed, a bin with trash around it, and a few pages of code tacked to the wall.
Not bad, but still a prison cell.
‘Hi,’ she said, retreating to the bed. ‘Ryan said you’d come by. Um. Hi,’ she said again. ‘So there’s been a couple of- I’m an agent. Hi.’
He stepped into the cell, and felt his heart seize as the door slid closed behind him.
‘I had no idea,’ he said, ‘that Mags and Taylor were coming. If I did, then-’
She looked away. ‘Wasn’t your fault.’
‘Newbie,’ he said casually, trying to hide a smile, ‘I got you a present.’
She gave him a quizzical look. ‘Hm?’
He lifted the bag onto the bed, laying it in the small spot between all the snacks.
Joy burned on his face for a moment, before it was stripped away, her eyes hollow and disbelieving. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s your-’ he unzipped the bag and turned it towards her. ‘Security had it in evidence-’
‘Magnolia killed him, I saw it.’
He slid the laptop out of the bag and pushed it towards her. ‘It was all surface damage, according to my IT guru,’ he said. ‘Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a requirement or three. It’s your laptop, same as you left it.’
Stef hesitated for a moment, then pulled the machine from his hands and cuddled it to her chest, like it was a teddy. ‘You promise?’ she asked after a moment, her voice tiny, desperate, a child wanting to know Santa was real.
‘Raz wasn’t sure about data loss, but suspects its fine – I didn’t want him to boot it up without your permission, and you were kind of out of commission, so this was my first chance to ask. Take a look, if there’s anything else to fix, write me a very specific list, and I’ll have it-’
‘Him. His name’s Frankie. You saved him, you should know his name. Well, it’s Prometheus, but I only call him that when I’m angry.’ She bent her head and kissed the closest edge, then placed it on the bed and began to start it up.
He stared at her, not caring how confused he looked. ‘How do you get Frankie out of Prometheus? I’ve seen the movie but-’
‘Frankenstein. Frankie for Frankenstein,’ she said distractedly as the start-up noise played – a good sign, so far as he knew.
She looked up, then brushed some hair away from her eyes. ‘Hm?’
‘I’m even more confused now.’
‘Frankenstein. Book. Kind of a-’
He made a face. ‘Don’t treat me like an idiot.’
‘The subtitle is The Modern Prometheus. Ergo Prometheus equals Frankie.’
‘You realise that’s more than a little obtuse, right?’
She smiled. ‘Exactly how I like it.’
He gave her a few minutes to click around. ‘Does it – he – look okay?’
There were tears in the corners of her eyes. ‘He’s…fine.’ She hunched, her shoulders coming up to her ears. ‘I didn’t think I’d- I thought he was gone for good.’ She looked confused. ‘I’m still not really good at peopling…so I don’t know how to say thank you.’
He put a hand to his ear. ‘What were those last two words?’
He smiled. ‘You’re welcome.’
The single moment of safety had passed. He’d given her the present, and with it, the last valid reason he had to talk to her, when she inevitably told him to piss right the fuck off.
He leaned against the wall of the tank, and tried to set his face into a neutral expression. ‘Stef?’
She didn’t look up.
‘There’s something-’ Fear was building in his chest. It wasn’t too late to run. It couldn’t be too late to run, and to pretend he’d never made the deal with Ryan. ‘Something I-’
She looked up at him, and even clicked her laptop closed. ‘Did I do something wrong?’
He raised his hands, a gesture of surrender. ‘Newbie, I promised Ryan I’d tell you something. As soon as you want me to shut up and leave, you just give the word. I will not bother you for one more second than you want.’
His heart pounded in his chest.
Ryan knew. The other agents knew. Magnolia knew, and seemed to adore his skillset.
Stef pulled the laptop to her chest. ‘Hey, Padawan, you’re kind of freaking me out right now.’
‘I told you I was a redshirt,’ he said, pressing his hands together. ‘That was a lie. It’s also a lie I’m allowed to tell. The Agency in general, and Ryan in particular allow me that cover story, so that it’s easier for me to interact with other recruits. Recruits tend to have a tough enough time with-‘ He ground his foot against the floor of the tank. ‘Sorry. I’m stalling.’
He required a chair, uncertain that his legs were willing to hold him, let out a long breath, and sank down, his forearms resting on his thighs.
There was a minute of silence, then he lifted his head. ‘I used to torture fae.’He took a breath. ‘I can- I could justify it at the time. I can make excuses now, but the long and short of it is that. I interrogated fae. And- I was good at it.’ He gripped his hands together. ‘A natural.’
Part of him wanted to cry. Part of him always wanted to cry when he thought about what he’d done. Part of him wanted one of the damn proxies to nut up and shoot him in the head.
And no part of him wanted to scare a newbie that had already been through far too much.
‘Justify it,’ she said hoarsely. ‘Tell me why.’
His head snapped up, and he knew he was starting to cry. ‘Huh?’
‘You heard me,’ she said, her voice tight. ‘I’m giving you a chance. Help me understand.’
He gave a half-manic laugh, pressed his hands to his face for a moment, then straightened, and stood – careful to keep his distance. ‘The first thing I ever saw…My introduction to this side of reality, was a monster. I was out with my girlfriend and our daughter. Pay day. It was pay day, and we were having a night out. And then…there was a monster, tearing up the café across from us. There were tables and chairs and people flying everywhere. And everyone was screaming. And- And it wasn’t smoke and mirrors or candid camera, there was a real, goddamn monster, and it was attacking people.’
‘Okay…’ she said, prompting him as he went silent.
‘It wasn’t the Agency who showed up, it was the Solstice. They started to subdue it, but they weren’t having much luck. I got my ex to run – it wasn’t chasing the people who ran, just the ones that were- Targets of opportunity. I figured she’d be safe. She got away, and I went and helped.’
‘What was it?’
‘A dancing bear that someone had let loose.’ He tapped the back of the chair. ‘Do you remember the sim from the morning after you got shot? The thing you thought was a centaur?’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, Ryan told me. They’re like…’ she said as she snapped her fingers, ‘he called them mockeries.’
‘Yeah, those. Not all of them are quite as harmless as the centaurs tend to be. This one had gored four people by the time we managed to bring it down.’
‘So they were saviours then?’
‘They’d just helped protect a whole street full of people, so yeah, I figured they were the good guys.’
‘And then they recruited you.’
He shook his head. ‘They bugged out pretty quick. One guy slipped me a card. I had a lunch with a few of them the next week, and I got hired. They put me in…fricking customer service, shipping and freight when they first brought me on, while they did the introductions. Then I started on raids. Then on…interrogation.’
He met her eyes, and she looked terrified.
‘How could you not know?’ she asked, her voice tiny, and he hoped he’d imagined it.
‘They only ever showed me monsters, newbie, I swear to god. Mockeries and freaks and animals, and fae that don’t even remotely look human. It was easy to buy into-’
‘Didn’t you ever see a fairy? A nymph?’
‘Not until I was brainwashed so much that I saw…pretty fae as being deceptive. That they were all dangerous, no matter what they looked like.’
She didn’t say anything.
He didn’t deserve a response.
He took three slow breaths, then smoothed the lines of his jacket, and lifted his hand for to hit the tank’s door release button.
‘Who’s your favourite captain?’
‘I told you,’ he said without thinking, ‘Kirk, first amongst captains.’ He hesitated, then looked up. ‘You don’t have to accept this. You don’t have to pretend to-’
‘Don’t leave,’ she said, her voice almost too small to be heard. She slid forward on the bed, let her legs dangle over, and began to tap the floor with the toes of her shoes. ‘I’m freaked out, and you can’t expect me to just handle that without processing, and-’
‘I don’t, newbie, I don’t expect…anything. I had to tell you, it’s up to you how you react.’
‘I’m trying to react,’ she said, her voice straining. ‘You- With the words- Stop.’
He lifted a hand, and very clearly covered his mouth.
‘The Agency wouldn’t- Ryan wouldn’t keep you if you weren’t safe. If you weren’t…good.’ A look of distaste crossed her face. She pressed a hand to her forehead. ‘You don’t like that, do you- You don’t like- You’re not proud, or- Anything, are you?’
He pressed his mouth into a thin line and shook his head.
‘Okay,’ she said, seeming like she needed to force the word out.
He raised one of his hands slightly. ‘I have tattoos- That- We did them to commemorate- It was expected of someone in my role.’ His voice was cracking. ‘I still have them- So- So I don’t forget what I did.’ He focussed on her face. ‘I’m not proud, newbie. I hate it. I hate what I did.’
She grabbed a lock of hair and began to roll it between two fingers. ‘You wanna watch Khan?’ she asked, not quite looking at him.
‘Wh-at?’ he asked, a lump catching in this throat.
She let go of her hair and looked at her knees. ‘You were nice to me. You were nice to me and you didn’t have to be. You’re not yelling at me for being weird. You- I’m pretty sure Ryan would know the dad rules well enough not to let a bad guy near the person he’s starting to call his little girl, so you’re probably not a bad guy. If you are a bad guy, please don’t hurt me. If you’re not, I’d like to continue the friends thing. Because I don’t have any. And I probably need the practice. And I don’t think you have any either. And. So. Yeah. Khan?’
He required a bucket of popcorn larger than her head, and took two steps toward the bed. ‘May I sit? You don’t exactly have a couch.’
She tucked Frankie behind her, gripped the edge of the sheet, and pulled it towards her, awkwardly folding everything into it, in one messy pile before she pushed it off the edge of the bed. She threw him a pillow. ‘I may have spilled Coke on that, you might need a new one.’
He smirked. ‘I’m sure Agent Jones can organise a maid service if you need.’
‘Oh, shut up and require the movie,’ she said, faceplanting into the popcorn.
The words finally caught in his mind. ‘You can’t require?’
She shook her head, two pieces of popcorn sticking to her hair. ‘Nope. No shifting. No requiring. I have a HUD, but half of the functionality isn’t there. But it’s still fscking awesome. You’ve got more cool agency powers than me at the moment. Hence, you’re the vending machine.’
There was already a massive TV on the wall, so one element was already taken care of.
He required the movie – glad that there was a logical component to requiring. The film appeared on the screen, and a remote appeared next to his hand – though Require: play and Require: pause worked just as well when focused on a screen during playback.
He rolled the remote in his hand. ‘You doing okay, Stef?’ he asked, reaching to grab a few kernels from the popcorn bucket. ‘You kind of-’
‘I’m-’ she faltered. ‘Look, you gave me all this popcorn, can I at least have a drink as well?’ He required a two-litre Mountain Dew, and held it out towards her, not wanting to push. She wrapped her hand around the top of the bottle, and looked up to meet his eyes for a brief second before looking away, and pulling the bottle to her chest. ‘I’m somewhere between totally utterly and completely awesome, because I have literally become a computer, and that is…so totally fucking amazing,’ she said, her hands shaking so much that popcorn fell out of the bucket. ‘So I’m caught between that and-’ She focussed back on the popcorn. ‘I’m scared,’ she said simply. ‘This is so big, and hard, and I feel like I don’t have any room to fuck up, when that’s what I’m best at.’
He reached out a hand, his palm upturned, and required one of the gold-star chocolates. ‘Don’t you keep telling me you’re a genius?’ He smiled, and dropped the chocolate into her hand. ‘You’ll figure it out, newbie.’