Experiment: Day 7
September 30th
The world seemed to spin as the elevator descended. Curt put a hand against the cool metal of the elevator wall. It was nowhere near as bad as Magnolia’s fade to the hell under Queen Street, but it was pretty bad.
Panic crawled around his heart like a living thing.
She’d be dead. She’d be tortured. The cage would have shrunk so that it was impossible to move. She’d be cut. Burnt. Naked. Starving. Screaming for death.
The world tilted at an odd angle as the doors slid open.
It was a sick test. Petersen was waiting for him. Waiting to finish the job.
Curt stepped out and walked the basement. He’d kept his weapons – they came as part of his standard uniform requirements, so there was no need to draw attention to himself.
Not that a gun would stop an agent.
There was more than one way to escape.
He punched an empty tank as he walked towards the corner, where the newbie’s tank had been. The water-bound agent was still swimming laps, and didn’t even deign to look at him as he passed.
He let out a slight breath – the large tank was still there. He stopped walking and listened – there were no sounds other than the strokes from the swimming freak. No sounds of a nerdy recruit. No sounds of torture. Nothing.
Curt sucked in a deep breath. Ryan wasn’t Petersen. Ryan wasn’t Petersen. There was a chance that everything was as it appeared. There was a chance she was ok.
It was the cat in the box. If he left without seeing anything, there would always be the chance she was ok. Not knowing was sometimes better than knowing.
Not knowing, not seeing, not telling. If he didn’t see her, he didn’t have to spill his secrets, didn’t have to lay his past bare and wait for judgement.
‘Hello?’
A voice. Her voice.
Curt felt himself deflate. She was alive. She was still capable of speech. She wasn’t screaming for help.
He forced himself forward, and came up in front of the tank.
Bed, fridge, computer, litter from snacks. It looked like a dirty, nerdy bedroom. It wasn’t a torture chamber. It wasn’t-
It was empty.
He blinked and looked again – furniture, food and electronics were there, but there was no sign of an occupant.
‘Newbie?’
A white piece of paper was thrust up from behind the bed, with nothing but a large, red exclamation mark on it.
He dug through memories. ‘That’s…Metal Gear, right?’
Her head appeared, and she rested her chin on the bed, a grin on her face. ‘Are you also a closet gamer, Trekkie?’ She crawled up from her hiding spot and sat cross-legged on the bed, the grin gone. ‘So, um, yeah, hi?’
He had a hundred questions, a hundred things he needed to know. A hundred things that had to wait. ‘Hey newbie, nice room.’
‘Ryan said you’d be visiting.’
‘What else did he say?’
Stef shrugged. ‘He said you’d do a lot of talking, then I can say GTFO or not. So, scary bird girl told you about me, right? I’m sure that’s against protocol or something.’
He leaned against the tank door. ‘To put it lightly. But everything’s a bit unusual.’
‘Yeah, and-‘
He pushed a fist against the door. ‘I wasn’t a redshirt.’
She stared at him for a moment. ‘Huh?’
‘Agent Ryan’s condition for being allowed to come down here,’ he said, his chest tightening. ‘I have to spill my origin story.’
Walk away. He could walk away. If someone knew, everyone would know. Everyone would see him as a fucking monster. He was a fucking monster.
Walking away was smarter.
He pressed his hand against the cold glass. A cage with toys was still a cage. He would have clung to King Ursur if it had meant not being alone.
He forced himself to look at her. ‘I wasn’t a redshirt. I was an interrogator.’
Her face was as neutral as an agent’s. ‘By that,’ she said, her voice dull, ‘you mean torture, don’t you.’
‘I do.’
He tried to control the need to shake. ‘I was good at it. A natural. Torture’s only good to get what you already know, but Solstice interrogations aren’t even that. If a thing isn’t human, it needs to hurt.’ He was good at making people hurt. Too good at it. His tattoo itched. ‘Ryan knows. My records are sealed from recruits, which is why I’m allowed to tell people I was a redshirt, means I get a second chance. But. Well, you’re not a recruit anymore, so you get to know too.’
Her brow furrowed. ‘Unsure what to do with data.’
‘Tell me to get the fuck out?’ he suggested. He swallowed. ‘It doesn’t- It was never anyone who looked human. Just- Everyone they brought to me looked like it stepped out of the scary as fuck section of a D&D manual. I didn’t know fae could be people. They’re good at sectioning information like that.’
She continued to stare at him. ‘You said you saved a baby,’ she said. ‘Was that just cover story too?’
‘No, that part was true.’ His throat clenched, hoping she didn’t ask for details.
She stood up and walked closer to the glass, then raised a hand, pressed on something, and the door opened.
‘You gonna spit in my face, newbie?’
‘I trust Ryan,’ she said, then went back to the bed, shoved it back against the glass and sat. ‘Sorry, wasn’t expecting guests.’
He hesitated on the threshold. ‘Agent Ryan doesn’t trust me,’ he said. ‘Just so you understand that. He doesn’t trust me as far as he could throw me. I am useful and I tend to act within a certain set of parameters. I’m reliable, I’m predictable, none of that means he trusts me.’
She pointed a slightly trembling hand at him. ‘You’re wearing blue, not grey. He lets you walk around. It’s close enough.’
‘How the fuck are you ok with this?’
She tilted her head. ‘It was the truth, from a certain point of view.’ She shrugged her small shoulders. ‘I’m a freak in a basement full of freaks, I’ve been given the distinct impression that people aren’t going to…look kindly on this particular experiment.’ She stared at the floor. ‘Not like I haven’t done stuff I’m not proud of. So. Yeah.’ She shrugged, and plucked at the sheet.
He felt some of the stress leaving his body. ‘Newbie-‘
She hunched her shoulders deeply. ‘You didn’t have to be nice to me. The training sim with the dickhead. I needed to get out and you got me out. You-‘ she stabbed a finger into the bed, and seemed to take effort to force the words out. ‘You get that I’m a bit…wrong.’ She looked up, the neutral expression back on her face. ‘Come in, if the door doesn’t close within five minutes, I’ll sort of be rendered unconscious. Safety, you know.’
He couldn’t bring himself to step into the room. The door would shut, he’d be trapped. She was a trap. Live bait. Trying to make him voluntarily-
‘Are they hurting you?’ the question slipped out, unbidden, uncontrolled, loud and audible to all the speakers.
He stepped into the room and the glass door slid across.
‘What?’ Stef asked, shock on her face.
He balled his hands into fists. ‘Are they hurting you?’
‘I won’t- No. No they aren’t.’
He stepped closer. ‘Newbie, all you have to do is give me a sign- Just one hint and if they’re-‘
‘They aren’t,’ she said firmly. ‘I don’t know- I don’t know what you know.’
‘You got hurt, you’re getting augmented, you’ll be my boss.’ He forced a smile. ‘But I’ve still got seniority.’
‘That’s- That’s pretty much it. I got hurt. It was my own fucking fault. Ryan didn’t have to do anything, he could have let me bleed out and kicked my corpse. He didn’t. He saved me. Again. Jonesy used a laser on me, but even that was awesome instead of hurty. Yeah, ok, this isn’t the best room I’ve ever had, but I’m ok.’
Curt forced down the lump in his throat. Everything was what it appeared. Ryan wasn’t Petersen.
A strange looked crossed her face. ‘Are- Are you gonna leave now?’
He took a step back. ‘Sure. Sorry.’
She shook her hands. ‘No. I meant. You can stay.’ She hung her head. ‘Sorry. Or- I don’t even know why you’re here.’
‘I just wanted to know you were ok.’
Her head snapped up, shock on her face again. ‘Why?’
He dug into his pocket and pulled out the bag of chocolate stars, then made a motion towards the bed. She nodded, and he sat. ‘You disappeared. The cover story didn’t make sense. It was worth checking into.’
‘Still doesn’t answer the question.’
He opened the bag and proffered the stars to her. ‘You might have to ask it again, newbie.’
She took two and stuffed them into her cheeks. ‘I can follow the effect, but I’m looking for the cause. Inciting event. Why the fuck did you care in the first place?’
He felt his eyebrows raise. ‘Basic human decency?’
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice quiet. ‘I don’t have a lot of experience with that.’ She shrugged, got off the bed and went to the fridge. ‘I can’t really require anything at the moment. I get it in small windows, but Jonesy doesn’t want too much interfering with the blue.’ She pulled out a large bottle of Mountain Dew and got back to the bed. ‘So, fair warning, I will be using you as a vending machine before you leave.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said. He looked around the room again – there was one thing missing. ‘Hey, newbie?’
‘Hm?’
‘Where’s your bathroom?’
She tipped the bottle up and began to scull the contents. ‘Hm?’
‘Bathroom?’
She lowered the bottle and looked around, panic slipping onto her face. ‘…there’s no bathroom.’ She stood and went to each corner. ‘I- I’ve- I don’t have the best sense of time, but, it’s been more than a day, right?’
‘Yeah, it’s been a week.’
She leaned against the glass door. ‘I don’t think I’ve been to the toilet since I got here.’
He stood up and held out his hands. ‘Hey. Calm down. Agent don’t need to pee. You probably just got that advantage really early on.’
‘They could have told me!’
Curt kept quiet, listening for any sign that there was more to this than met the eye, that it was a deliberate attempt at torture, that it was- He ground his foot against the floor. In front of him stood the same newbie who’d walked out of the restaurant with sauce on her vest, had zoned out at least once in every conversation they’d had, and who readily cast aspersions on how well she functioned.
That all added up to someone who would easily fail to notice a lack of bathroom breaks.
‘Agent don’t pee?’ she asked, finally stopping her pacing of the tank.
He shook his head. ‘I mean, they can, but it’s usually not necessary. Blackout zones and Fairyland are another deal entirely.’
She stared at him, a grin slowly lighting up her face. ‘This is going to be so awesome for raiding.’ She paused. ‘Gaming thing, not like a Viking.’
‘Yeah, I know, I’ve spent more than five minutes in the tech department, newbie.’
She sat back down. ‘What you told me, it was kind of a big deal, right?’
‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘it was.’
‘I could have been a princess.’
Curt tilted his head. ‘Pardon, newbie?’
‘Princess,’ Stef repeated, ‘I could have been a princess. Was almost a princess. Got the proposal and everything.’
He stared at her and slowly tried to process the information. ‘I’m- I’m going to need a bit more information.’
‘Ok, so, you’ve seen Harry Potter, right?’
He nodded.
‘That’s the kind of place I went to school. Yanno, minus the magic, without the poor people, and with much stupider uniforms. Boarding school. One of the other girls there was dating a prince.’
‘Which one?’
‘Not to sounds like a hipster, but unless you’re up on European royalty, you wouldn’t know him.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway, they broke up, and it sort of turned into The Most Dangerous Game or something. A prince on school grounds who might be looking for rebound sex or the next potential princess. They were literally chasing him through the grounds.’ She held up her hands. ‘And I do mean literally.’
‘Including you?’
‘I was sitting in my room playing,’ she smirked, ‘playing Metal Gear actually. That’s why I remembered this. He bursts in through the door and offers me the moon if I hide him from the ravenous pack of she-wolves trying to get him. He hides in my wardrobes, they come by, see that it’s just me, and head off.’
‘I can’t help but imagine all this with the Benny Hill music.’
‘School’s never normal, but yeah, this was kind of surreal. Mob mentality. I don’t know what the hell they thought they were going to do with him if they caught him. It’s that dog chasing cars, wanna know how I got these scars thing.’ She looked uncomfortable for a moment. ‘He comes out of the wardrobe, begs me to keep him hidden until the next day, then sees what I’m doing, and then calms down a lot.’
He looked carefully at her face, for any tells, any signs that she was lying. Nothing, there was nothing. ‘Gamer prince?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, total dork hidden beneath all the etiquette. So we played, he decimated my snack supplies, at some point he came out of the closet, I was ok with that, so he proposed.’
‘He wanted a beard?’
‘Yeah. His parents were cool enough, but in private. Publically, they needed their son to be all straight and married and two-point-three kids and whatever. I mean, they were pretty progressive, considering he was seeing his valet, I mean, ignore the gay thing, seeing the help is an entire other level of-‘ She broke off and matched his stare. ‘What?’
‘Sorry,’ he said as he shook his head. ‘I just didn’t imagine- I don’t know a lot of- So, your family is rich then.’
‘Ri-donk-ulously wealthy,’ she said. ‘Both sides. Like…yeah. They also have standards. So. Yeah. They aren’t- If I never, ever have anything to do with them ever again, I’ll be able to die happy. Again.’
Die. She’d died. Guilt curled in his stomach. The imagined torture had been so much worse than anything she’d gone through that he hadn’t even thought to ask about what she’d been through. ‘Hey, newbie?’
‘Morning, Recruits,’ a woman’s voice said.
Curt looked up and saw Agent Jones.
‘Um,’ Stef said, sliding a bit closer, ‘my people memory sucks, do I know her?’
‘I’m hurt,’ Jones said as she opened the door. Jones smiled at him. ‘Curt, want to explain?’
Curt looked at Stef and shrugged. ‘Agent Jones is a girl sometimes.’
Jones grinned at them, and Curt felt himself smile in return – there was something completely gorgeous about Jones in her female presentation. Andrea was brunette, and her hair was either perfect in an up-do, or half controlled with a large clip. Today was messy, a large chunk of it was captured with a green clip that matched her eyes, though long strands spilled down over her shoulders.
‘I love how eloquent he is,’ Andrea said with a grin at Stef. ‘I’m genderfluid, it’s not entirely uncommon for agents. Bothered.’
Curt turned his head to look at Stef. The newbie stared with a mix of reverence and hero worship. ‘You’re really pretty, Jonesy,’ Stef said. ‘And I need that T-shirt,’ she said, breaking from her awed expression. ‘Require: that!’
Andrea grinned, and a duplicate of her shirt – one with infinitely repeating blue and orange circles on it – appeared on Stef.
Curt stood. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ he said.
Andrea waved her hand. ‘No, no, don’t leave. I’m just filling up her tank.’ An IV bag of blue appeared in her hands and Stef dutifully lifted her arm.
‘But blue replicates in system territory,’ Curt said without thinking.
‘Correct,’ Andrea said, ‘but only up to set limits. Since her augmentation is being done component by component, we’re upping her blue manually.’ Andrea squished the bag between her hands. ‘And this has been prepped specially, so if there’s a problem, we know exactly what to remove.’
A wire appeared in Andrea’s hand and she pressed it to Stef’s arm – there was no needle, that was always the weird part when tech agents worked on other agents. The skin glowed blue for a moment as the connection was made, and with a slight sound of suction, the blue began to flow from the bag in Andrea’s hand.
Andrea hung it on a freshly-required IV stand, then gave Stef a serious look. ‘I’ve got an eye on you, but if you feel weird, just ping me, ok?’
Stef nodded. ‘I know.’
‘Be back later,’ Andrea then, then she shifted away.
‘It does feel weird,’ Stef said after a moment. ‘Cause if you think about it, it’s like acid burning away my cells and replacing them with duplicates. But I’m really good at psychosomatic symptoms.’ She stared at the bed. ‘I’m pretty good at every psycho.’
‘Hey,’ he said gently. ‘It’s ok.’
‘Don’t you have shit to do?’ she asked, bringing her knees to her chest. ‘Important, recruity stuff?’
He shrugged. ‘I can be somewhere else if you want.’
She rested her chin on her knees and hunched herself. ‘I’m gonna ask you something, and it’s going to sound weird, and you don’t have to-’
‘Newbie.’
She stared at her feet. ‘You think we could be friends?’
‘Huh?’
‘Forget it.’
‘No, I mean, sure,’ he said. ‘I’m just wondering why you’re being weird and formal about it.’
‘Because I don’t know how it works. I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t have…any friends. I mean, I think knowing each other’s secret origins lets me skip the pre-approval process, right?’
He stared at her for a moment. He was scum and he didn’t deserve a chance. He especially didn’t deserve a chance with his past in the open.
‘Forget it,’ she said again. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to-‘
‘I’m safe,’ he blurted. ‘Whatever else I am, I’m safe. I don’t take new recruits on Dumpster runs, and I try not to be a douche, and I’ll help you out, just so long as you give me some kind of clue when you’re gonna freak out,’ he swallowed. ‘If you can, you know what I mean.’ He stood up. ‘You don’t have to- What I was, people can’t look past that, and-‘
‘Good thing I’m not people,’ she said. She raised her hand. ‘So. Um. Friends. I don’t know what I have to do. Or-‘
Pity welled up as he studied her face, looking for any signs that she was pulling an act, or playing up her naiveté to ridiculous levels. She wasn’t joking. She didn’t have any friends, and she deserved better than him.
It was only for a couple of weeks. Once she was out of the basement, it would be an easy thing to better integrate her with the techs, get them to accept her as basically one of their own. Give her options. Options that didn’t include him.
‘You don’t have to do anything, newbie,’ he said. ‘Just relax, okay?’ She stared at her hand, so he shook it. ‘Ok. There. Friends.’
He smiled.
‘Are there rules?’ she asked, slowly unfolding herself.
He sat back on the bed, and moved to lean against the wall – careful to leave her with a size cushion of space – three feet, two pillows and her laptop. He pointed at the wall that contained the door, and a large television appeared.
‘You know my deep, dark secret,’ he said, pushing his voice to cartoon super villain tones. ‘Now all that’s left is to make a choice.’ He pointed to the bed and all of the Trek movies appeared. He leaned closer. ‘I’ll be very amenable to requiring snacks if you pick Khan,’ he said in a conspiratorial whisper.
She was quiet for a moment.
‘Newbie?’
‘I’ll chase him round the Moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up! Prepare to play DVD!’
A few thoughts filled the bed with snacks. He required away his shoes and sat comfortably, nearly able to ignore that he was in a cage, with a girl that at least one person wanted dead.
Another thought started the movie.
He let himself smile as she reached around for the various snacks, a few of which he dismissed and required closer to her as she reached the extend of the IV’s cord.
The Agency was holding a recruit in a tank amongst freaks. He knew. He cared.