The tank Ryan led her to was sparse. Like all of the rest of the freak cages, there was a vague Bioshock feel to it – thick, thick glass – which Stef didn’t doubt was some kind of super composite material. If it kept in things like the behemoth, then it had to be something stronger than regular glass.
All of the edges were bounded by thick, riveted metal, making it seem somehow more industrial than glass-supervillain-prison.
And it was utterly sparse. A rectangle prism prison – about the size of her bedroom in her apartment, that held nothing in it.
Ryan touched a panel near the door and the front wall depressed and slid open. He gave her an encouraging smile, and she stepped inside.
He followed her in, and objects began to appear – a long, wide bed, that was probably going to have to double as her couch, a small fridge – which she hoped contained snacks and drinks, blankets, pillows, and a few folded sets of clothes – most were copies of her uniform, but some were civilian shirts and pants.
‘Your ability to require has been turned off,’ he said as she sat on the bed. ‘It’s not deemed necessary throughout this-‘ he hesitated. ‘Trial period,’ he said at last.
Stef kicked off her sneakers, and looked up at him. ‘There is a fuckton that you aren’t telling me,’ she said without preamble or sugar coating. He was hesitating more than normal. He was trying so hard to seem normal that he was- Something was going on, something that he would surely call “less than pleasant”.
And for him, “less than pleasant” could mean execution.
They’d avoided all of the bad things. She was legal, at least in the eyes of the Agency. They’d followed the rules as much as they could, and even if they had a problem with the chunk of Dajulveed in her chest, they weren’t actively trying to do anything about it.
Ryan sat beside her, leaned down and kissed the top of her head. ‘There are times I wish I hadn’t adopted a genius.’
The words were perfect – they reconfirmed that he still wanted her, didn’t mind teaching her, didn’t mind being her dad. The words, however, did nothing to make her feel any better. ‘It doesn’t take a genius,’ she said, ‘to figure out you’re acting like you’re waiting for a dozen shoes to drop.’
‘You are-‘ he started. ‘You will be an agent. With full rank, if not full privledge. You were not, however, generated in the traditional sense, so you’re classed as an experiment, and therefore there are potential issues to mitigate.’
‘Stop with the circumlocution,’ she said, and wrapped her arm around his. ‘It’s not going to get any better if you-‘
‘Taylor is going to torture you,’ he said, the words bare, his voice cracking as he said them. ‘They’re called limit tests, but they are, in every fashion, Agency-approved torture. They are designed to put an experiment through their paces, to test their reactions to certain extreme stimulus – temperature extremes, trauma, and-‘ He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. ‘And I can’t do anything to stop it. It’s part of the deal that has to be- If you want to be part of the Agency, this is the price they require.’
She was very glad his arm was around her.
She stared at the floor of her tank for a moment, then lifted her legs up onto the bed and snuggled against him – like she’d done in the oubliette. Dad arms were made of strong-tanium, and could protect you from the entire world if they needed to. ‘But it-‘ she said, trying to force her voice to be neutral. ‘Stuff doesn’t hurt as much for an agent, right? It’d be stupid if it did.’
‘You are correct,’ he said after a moment, ‘but- But there is the initial pain, and the psychological factors to take into account, Stef-‘
She sat up, freeing herself of his arm. ‘I want to be here,’ she said, hating herself for the quaver in her voice. ‘I want to be here. I’ve never wanted anything before, and I want to be here. I want to- I want to be with you. I want the suit, and I want to see magic. I accept the price, if that’s what it’s going to take, because- Because it’s worth it in the end.’
Ryan looked as though he were on the edge of crying. ‘I beg you not to hate me for what they put you through. My only concern was that you lived, I didn’t- I didn’t think to-‘
‘I could never hate you,’ she said. She hugged him, and buried her head against his chest. It wasn’t the perfect time, and she still wasn’t ready, but it would make him feel better. ‘I love you, dad.’
As soon as the word came out, she felt stupid for having feared saying it.
James had never been “dad”, James had always been “Father” – and it hadn’t been because he’d been a stiff upper-class Englishman, it had been because “father” was a biological fact he’d been unable to repudiate; whereas he’d never had the inclination to be anything so close as a “dad”.
Childhood had been an unmitigated disaster; a journey fraught with dangers untold, were nothing so pleasant as goblins lurked around each corner. On one side – her mother, who loved her, even if the person she loved mostly lived in her head. A version of Stef that fit within the image that her mum had desperately tried to cultivate.
With her mother, there had always been a rift, and she had never been quite sure why. It was like something kept them in two separate, parallel worlds – able to interact, but never really to grow attached.
Her father, on the other hand, had done everything shy of being openly abusive. He ignored her, belittled her, and wouldn’t ever acknowledge her accomplishments.
He hated her as much as he could, without throwing her out of the house – and she was sure that only his status kept him from doing that.
Childhood had been a constant series of gambits, of using her tiny brain to keep out of everyone’s way, to calculate what level of cuteness would get her through a meal, or make James deflect him anger.
It had been stressful, and it hadn’t been fun.
Ryan, on the other hand, was a dad from a storybook. Strong and sensible and kind – someone who was giving her a safe space to be as childish as she needed to be, a second chance to have the childhood she’d always been denied.
Ryan – strong and kind and sensible – was crying, and she could feel his tears dropping onto her head.
After a moment, he pulled away, so that he could dab at his face with a handkerchief, and his face did the strange static-like thing where it refreshed and became brand-new again – an elegant solution when you didn’t want anyone to know you’d been crying.
‘No one has called me that in a very long time,’ he said. ‘And it means more than you can know.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘I’m not sure what quirk of my programming it is, but I have always felt the urge to teach, to care, to- To be a parent. To be a father. It is-‘
She pulled away, failing to make her face neutral. ‘I-‘ she looked away. ‘I might have-‘ She bit her lip. ‘I’ve got a theory, if you don’t-‘
He laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘What is it?’
‘Rhys,’ she said, and hunched herself deeply, unsure of what his reaction was going to be.
‘Rhys?’ he asked, his eyes narrowing. ‘How do you- Who told you-‘
She wrapped her arms around her stomach. ‘Who do you think I’ve been hanging out with?’ she asked. ‘For however long I’ve been gone. He was right there in the-‘ She looked away. ‘I didn’t mean to make you mad.’
‘I’m not mad,’ he said gently, but clearly, ‘there are just so many people who judge me for having part of that man in my code. Who draw comparison, who-‘
‘You’re not him,’ she said, breaking in, ‘you are seriously, seriously, not him. He’s- He’s a complete dick. He’s creepy and violent and- If it was him offering me the agency, I wouldn’t take it.’ She forced a smile. ‘You aren’t your parents, and that counts for code or genetics.’
‘I count Director Reynolds as my paternal figure,’ Ryan said quietly. ‘But, nonetheless, you said-‘
‘Rhys- He said that the last thing he ever did with his life was knock up some lady, because he wanted to have a kid so badly, so that he wasn’t forgotten. If- If his code is in you, maybe that instinct was one of those things you got. I’m just glad you didn’t get his knife play tendencies,’ she said, flinching at the memory of the dusker trying to cut out her eyes. ‘He’s awful,’ she said, trying to find a way to sum up the situation, ‘you’re not.’
Ryan was quiet for a long moment. ‘I know his son,’ he said. ‘His son is a good man.’
Stef perked up at his. ‘Tell me about him? I kind of need to know for the next time I die. Apples cost information cause your code-daddy is a prick and wouldn’t just share.’
‘Later,’ Ryan said. ‘For now, you should get some rest.’
‘It’s like-‘ she stared into her HUD. ‘It’s nowhere near bedtime.’
‘Even if you don’t sleep,’ he said, ‘I’d like you to rest, to process everything that’s happened.’
She shuffled back, and laid down, one pillow under her head, one clutched to her chest. ‘You sure everything is okay?’ she asked, and reached for his hand. ‘Aside from the Taylor stuff?’
He took his hand. ‘So far as I know,’ he said. ‘Do you want me to stay until you get to sleep?’ He required a large, leather-bound book. ‘I used to read to Alexander when he had trouble sleeping. I hope you’re not insulted, but it- It helped him. I enjoyed reading to him. I could- I could read something to you.’
She opened her mouth to talk, then closed it. ‘I’d- I’d like that please. Doesn’t- Doesn’t this make me a poor candidate to be an agent though?’
He moved to sit beside her head, and angled the book towards her. ‘Perhaps if you stop thinking of agents as paragons of excellence, you’ll stop judging yourself so harshly in comparison.’ He opened the book to the table of contents. ‘Pick one.’
She rested her chin on his crooked arm. ‘Are these the nice ones, or the original ones?’ She sat up. ‘Ok, um, I don’t recognise these. I thought you would have gone with Cinderella and stuff.’
He ruffled her hair. ‘If you want human stories-‘
‘These are fae stories?’ She looked up at him, her eyes wide. ‘So, like, faerie-fairy tales? Fae tales?’
‘So much as you have the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, the fae tend to grow up with Spi of Sol and Amberjack. Spi’s collections focus on the stories of starchildren, preserved stories from different cultures. Amberjack simply picked the popular stories from the fae races and adapted them for a wider audiences – not all gnomish values translate, and the nuances of sheti are impossible enough for adults to comprehend, let alone children.’
She grabbed the edge of the book and angled it so she could see the cover. ‘This doesn’t say Spi or Amberjack though.’ She looked at the logo. ‘Clover.’
‘And so much as you have Disney, fae children have the Clover Corporation.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘So these are the nice ones.’
‘They are a little less sanitised. I couldn’t show Alex the movies, of course, but one more book of stories wouldn’t be out of place.’ He lifted his arm, and allowed her to lean against his side, moving the book so that she would have an excellent view of the pictures.
He closed the book, opened it again, and let her see the empty name plate – her name had appeared on it, and she made a happy noise against his side.
‘I love you, Stef,’ Ryan said as he pointed to a story. ‘I’ll be here for you, as long as I can be, and for so long as you need me to be.’
‘Less talk,’ she said, ‘more reading, or I’m going to deduct dad-points.’
He chuckled, and it was like the strange tension from mentioning Rhys had disappeared. ‘And how many of those do I have?’
‘Only about a million,’ she said immediately, ‘but it’s still bad to lose points.’
‘Of course,’ he said, and he turned to the story. ‘It was the brightest night of the year,’ he began, and she felt herself drift to sleep, listening to a story of air nymphs colouring clouds to please the moon.