Stef secured her footing as the shift processed – unsure of where they were. All of the agency that she’d seen so far – except for Lost and Found had a fairly uniform look. Clean and corporate, lots of white, black, grey and blue.
It was still the Agency, it had the same smell, the same taste of recycled air. It wasn’t a clean narcy office, or some command centre full of geeks. It was-
Where the fuck are we?
The ceiling was high above them – taller than the gym, about as tall as the huge testing room that had contained the warehouse. Bright strips of fluorescent lights shone down, but somehow the area seemed dark anyway. Huge tanks – each at least ten feet long, stood in an orderly grid – thick glass bounded by riveted steel. The majority were empty – some were filled with blue goop. Some had small, dark shapes moving inside.
It was a horror/survival game. That was the only logical explanation. They’d shifted into a video game.
She tightened her grip on his hand, not wanting to get left behind.
‘I’d like you to prepare yourself. Some of what you’re about to see is…’ he hesitated, ‘somewhat less than pleasant.’
She grinned up at him, trying to project a false bravado. ‘I love how when you say that, you actually mean “the worst thing you can possibly imagine”.’
‘Most of the time, I can still imagine worse things.’
‘Yeah, me too, but you know what I mean.’
‘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.
‘This is, to use a phrase, this agency’s programmer’s sandbox. We’re in a continual state of improvement, most of these changes are minor, and are nothing more than bug fixes, or tiny improvements to processing power.’ He stopped in front of the aquatic agent’s tank. ‘Sometimes though, more detailed modifications need to be made, or specialised agents need to be created.’
She nodded – that made sense – though that didn’t seem to necessitate it looking like a scary-as-fuck video game level.
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.
‘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.’
‘We have to account for all scenarios. Some are simple, adapting to work more closely with certain fae, so we need an agent who works natively at six inches high, or can easily navigate tunnels. I can acquire night vision – superior to what I already have – but as it’s not something I use every day, I wouldn’t be the best person for that.’ He pointed to the aquatic agent. ‘This set of modifications was for a time when we thought we may need to do more underwater work, as it stands, it’s not necessary.’
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.’
‘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.’
She pressed her face against the glass. ‘Can I ask the obvious question?’
He smiled. ‘No, your answer is “yes”. Yes, Stef, there are mermaids. There’s also sirens and selkies and various animal fae that can take on similar appearances.’
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘there are other things to see, some may not be as interesting to you.’
They walked past rows and rows of empty tanks. ‘We try to keep most of the experiments in storage when they aren’t actively being researched – with the exception of yourself, none of them are conscious, they mostly have instincts if they have anything at all.’
They passed through a door and into a larger section. Here there wasn’t the concentration of tanks that the first room held. ‘The experiments here…They have more of a combat focus, for the possibility of war.’
This seemed to surprise her. ‘I- You mean like open war, not stupid Solstice war, yeah?’
Ryan nodded. ‘It’s always something we have to consider.’ He looked at the enclosures, trying to decide where to start. ‘Some of these experiments are less than pleasant,’ he said.
She smirked 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.’
He smiled. ‘Most of the time at least.’
She moved towards one of the cages, and he caught her shoulder. ‘Don’t be frightened, nothing in here can hurt you.’
She looked at the cage, back at him, then moved back to stand beside him, and took his hand. ‘You led, I’ll follow.’
He led her to the tank – it was probably the worst to start with. The thing it held was, if it hadn’t been naked and covered in blood and gore, to all appearances, a regular agent. The fact that it was naked, and covered in blood and gore rather detracted from the image.
Stef immediately took a step behind him. ‘Um,’ she said urgently. ‘Um! Um!’
He turned to look at her, trying to block the view of the tank as much as he could. ‘I know what you’re going to say-‘
‘You have a fucking zombie!’ she shouted, her voice going up in pitch. ‘You have a fucking zombie. You- I can’t even- EX-PLAIN! EX-PLAIN!’
He turned, and watched the experiment gnaw on an arm. ‘I did warn you that some things were less pleasant. You understand what we are. What I am, and what you are.’
‘Awesome science nanite angels.’
‘You’ve seen blue, you know how it works-’
She held up her hand, her eyes darting from side to side. ‘Wow-‘ She stared at her hands for a moment, then looked back at him. ‘We can-‘ She rocked back and forth for a moment. ‘We can reuse ourselves? Like, if you’ve forgotten your blue in the store, you could have nommed your hand?’
He stared down at her, surprised and proud. ‘Well done.’
She stood straight, smiled wide and almost seemed to glow. ‘I’m right?’
‘You are. Blue is undifferentiated, so we can take blue from any part of our body to heal an injury. In blackout, obviously, we’re functionally human, so we can’t simply bleed on ourselves and heal, but if we process it, by pulping flesh, then it can act as a stopgap measure.’
‘And zombie here?’
‘It’s not dead, Stef, he’s much closer to a cannibal,’ he said dryly. ‘The process is far from efficient, he simply consumes, and they measure the ratio of material consumed to wounds healed, and work on improving it.’
‘I…I am surprisingly okay with this.’
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.’