DATE: **/**/23 LOCATION: CU-14-1003 ASSET: Dr. Cody Redd, A-Class-D, Head of Research L-14 EQUIPMENT: ACF-255 “Redd Medal”; wrapped gift [large gift bag; Halloween theme, with stylized cartoon monsters. Contents approved by Head of Security L-14, I. Cotta.] PURPOSE: Interview ACF-1003 “Ira” - REQUESTED PER SV-3 “JUPITER”
TO: L-14 Higher Staff
RE: ACF-1003: CURRENT ENGAGEMENT MEASURES
Agent Cotta: I know it’s been some time since I’ve contacted you, but I ask you to read and act on this urgently. Following a change in behavior that’s rendered information regarding physical and digital files on ACF-1003 an infohazard, L-3 has initiated a verbal reconstruction. I have listened to the recordings as they’ve been made, and I wish a review be done on ACF-1003 outside of the context of research. The reason I’m approaching you on the matter, rather than addressing it directly, is because the man I’d appoint to the task is already there. I remember when you and Dr. Redd worked under me there at L-14, and it doesn’t seem like his personality has changed much based on psychiatric profiles. Unlike some, I consider this a good thing. I’d prefer that ACF-1003 be approached on a few occasions, not as an anohuman under research, but the way Cody and A.B.C. would describe someone in her position: a contained person. I request updates on her behaviors when these visits are made, but aside from that I would prefer they be strictly social. I think you know why I’d request Cody for that. The recordings by Dr. Meuller are included, should you want an idea about why I’m doing this now.
Cody’s black T-shirt read “Houston, I have so many problems” and had the NASA logo on it. He considered this a special occasions T-shirt, as he didn’t really want it getting possibly damaged in a lab incident or during a containment breach, but today was a special occasion. Today wasn’t murder monsters or weird diseases, today was a social call. More or less.
He’d even elected to go without his lab coat. He and Isaac had listened to all recorded files together, and read as much as HACK’s Cognisant anomaly allowed for. Then L-14’s research files, and the personnel files available on Isaac Holtzheim. While Jupiter had asked for urgency, L-14’s upper management decided a few days’ preparation was in order. And Cody had to clear his schedule for it.
He wasn’t going in at her usual research time. This was a surprise visit, and again, primarily social. Despite everything he’d heard and seen about 1003, he was actually a little excited, if only for the break it might give him. The only thing he brought besides the gift - “tribute,” maybe - was ACF-255. He rarely went anywhere without that, but he also had some ideas given its abilities and the kid’s interest in the macabre.
He’d have to wait and see about that, though. For right now there was just the matter of stopping outside CU-14-1003 long enough for the door to unlock, and then taking the necessary step inside before it was locked behind him.
The back of ACF-1003's room was lit up with two large LED signs denoting both the current time in 24-hour format as well as the subject's current schedule. The lights in both signs were slowly burning out, with many letters completely gone altogether or glitching into the wrong symbol altogether. The room had not been kept up well by the foundation staff. The overhead LEDs were slowly burning out, the bedcovers were well-worn, and all the furniture in the room seemed to be held together by extra supporting brackets, a multitude of nails, and a notable number of hopes and dreams.
Dr. Redd would know, having listened to applicable audio logs on ACF-1003, that this was not the result of neglect or absentmindedness on the part of the Foundation. ACF-1003 liked old things. Everything, from the signs to the furniture, were the original items first placed into ACF-1003's room when she had first come into site L-14's custody. While ACF-1003 did not resist attempts to remove old items and replace them, such actions were often met with long periods of silence and uncooperativeness. If the price of ACF-1003's cooperation was to save the Foundation money, who could really argue to the contrary?
The only great items of note in ACF-1003's containment unit were the 'art' on the walls. Every single metal panel in the room was covered, floor to ceiling, in hand-drawn pictures. A first, thick layer of reds, browns, and blacks formed a sort of 'wallpaper' around the room. The layer formed the area into a scene depicting a desolate landscape of spires, twists, and curling towers of flesh and bones. The second layer applied 'life' to the wall-to-wall landscape 'painting' of crayon. Strange beasts and monsters, alien to the eyes of any observer, took shape through the careful taping together of dozens of sheets of colored paper. Their color scheme tended to be quite muted as well, though their designs were inspirationally unique.
ACF-1003 herself sat in a well-worn beanbag chair in the far corner of her room holding a small wooden clipboard. While the room itself may have seemed a little worn and feral, ACF-1003 was remarkably well-kept. Her hair, long enough to touch the floor, had been braided into a loose French braid and draped over the side of the beanbag. Her clothes as well, a thick, white woolen sweater and thick, white woolen trousers, were spotless. Her food, some sort of cafeteria food they fed to the anomalous humans, had already been consumed and the empty plate set by her side. On the clipboard, a small piece of paper lay clamped down while ACF-1003 gently traced out a design in black crayon.
While she drew, she hummed quietly to herself, seeming to almost not notice the new researcher enter the room at first. Then, looking up from her work, she eyed him up and down. At first, she did not speak, her dark eyes set in her freckled face simply stared the doctor through as if she were judging him. If he waited a minute to speak until spoken to, she would set aside her work and address him. "Permission, I grant. In your steps, approach. Present tribute. I shall render judgment." As she spoke, she readjusted her position on the beanbag chair to a position almost resembling a disinterested king. It was almost comical, but ACF-1003 seemed to take herself very seriously.
Cody had taken a moment to observe the room, and to let Ira - it was harder to call things by their anomalous designates when the "things" were "anomalous children" right in front of him - to let Ira notice him first. He'd stepped inside, taking it in with a glance. She hadn't been his department while he was an intern at this location, and there'd been little reason for cross-research with her and ACF-255. Even after her recollection following the Breach, he'd checked up on the personnel with her, but with a large level-2 site he'd had to take into account that he couldn't have visited every anohuman back then, and time since had gotten away from him.
He glanced at her, but when she didn't look up, he made the decision to give her the space to come to a decision about him. He knew that the decision might never come, but that was half the reason for the gift. Still, there was a little bit of time, and he took it not to stare at her, but to examine the mural she'd constructed. He wasn't phased much by the macabre himself, and he stared at the dark shapes with more of a researcher's curiosity than a man's fear.
When she finally addressed him, he turned his head to give her his full attention. His irrepressible smile came through at her words - language was different for some anomalies, and he'd been prepared for that with her. Her white clothes were an odd contrast against his casual t-shirt and jeans. Her attitude might've made some people fell underdressed, but that seemed to be her attitude all the time, and besides. Cody had worn a special occasions t-shirt, which was close enough to a formality.
"Ira, right?" Even if she reacted badly to the name, he wouldn't let his smile slip. He went to the corner sat down on the floor, not kneeling back on his heels, but cross-legged like a kindergartner. His hazel eyes seemed unfazed by the darkness in hers. He set the bag before her. "There you go, Princess Ira. Hope you like him."
There were many benefits to her unit only taking up a small portion of the budget for maintenance. One of them was that technically, L-14 had a small pool of money set aside for "tributes" for ACF-1003. Usually it was chipped away at over the course of the year, with quite a bit left over after she wore out her crayons, used packages of paper, maintenance checked her bed and furniture, all that. But there'd been enough in the budget so far that Isaac and Cody had agreed that this gift could be a little different, even from the other plushes she'd taken such a liking to.
For wrapped in the black and red tissue paper was a crocheted mess of tentacles and glass eyes of every color, patterned along its sides with open red maws whose teeth were white beads. it was the sturdy, thick kind of toy that had wires built into its structure so the limbs could be positioned, with just enough soft give that it could be held or played with comfortably. The dollar value was in the triple digits, but the quality made it worth every penny.
Cody waited for her to pull it out, and then started to talk.
"I was talking to-" He almost said Isaac and caught himself. "-someone in security, and we thought we'd do something special this time. If you don't like it I could take it back - we can find something else. I know there was a bigger box of crayons on the wishlist too, or one of those big sketchpads, or a 'make your own fake cadaver' kit..."
She did not react, at least not in any way that could be seen, to Dr. Redd's movements or words. ACF-1003 sat completely silent, judging the researcher in a way only a child to a stranger could. Then, as he presented the 'tribute,' Ira perked up ever so slightly. Every movement of the small child was painstakingly deliberate, from the leaning forward in her beanbag chair to the delicate motions of her fingers unwrapping the 'tribute.' Each piece of crumpled tissue paper was removed and laid flat upon the floor beside her, treated by the girl with the same reverence as if they were made of thin layered gold. Then, finally, the actual toy was removed and examined with the same deliberate rigor.
After what might've been ten minutes of examination, Ira stood up and walked the handful of steps over toward her bed. Setting the toy down next to the pillow, she spent a few more minutes positioning its limbs in a most ridiculous manner. It was almost as if she had completely forgotten the doctor's presence in her space. However, when she stepped away from the bed, ACF-1003 affixed Dr. Redd with a glare and moved back to her beanbag throne. Resting an elbow on her thigh, she crooked her head into her hand and looked the doctor up and down once more. With a tone most aloof, she responded.
"Its presence has been accepted. Now- demand, I make."
She leaned forward, her face deadpan and without a hint of sarcasm. "Your steps take -you- to -me-" She placed strange emphasis on those two words, "To grovel and beg? Now is-" And ACF-1003 pointed at the time and activity signs.
PRE ENT T ME: 11:36
CUR EN AC.'V TY: CO^LIN'
"-Coloring. You disturb this, why?"
It was no secret that ACF-1003 had memorized the rotations of guards and research personnel. In order to keep a certain semblance of order, research was only conducted at certain times of the day and ACF-1003 was notified in advance of anyone entering her space. While she had temporarily accepted this intrusion into her schedule, she was not known to be patient. Despite her demand, Dr. Redd would know this amount of conversation with ACF-1003 was abnormal. She was more renowned for one-word answers if she spoke at all to staff.
And she kept stealing less-than-subtle glances at his medallion.
When a conversation was one-sided for too long, even Cody would stop after a few minutes. His hand had reached up to ACF-255, tugging gently at the medallion while he seemed to be either thinking or just observing. He could tell that she liked - sorry, accepted the presence of - the present, and that was what had mattered. She was almost as meticulous as Anchor when it came to her setting and preferences and "keeping things neat," but then again, who was he to question the slow deliberation of the mighty Ira?
His smile twitched a little at that thought. Sure as he was of his own sarcasm, he'd need to pay attention to where the line between "sarcastic" and "infohazard" had to be drawn. His eyes followed her as she went to the bed, playing idly (or perhaps deliberately) with the monstrosity's tentacles, and he watched her come back to the throne of her little domain without changing his own position except to continue idly pulling the medallion along its chain. He caught her eye on it, but he'd wait for her to say something about it before addressing it. Besides, her highness had more pressing questions on her mind and demands to make.
"I came to visit during what the researchers consider your downtime," he explained, with barely a moment to puzzle through her odd phrasing. "It's been a while since they've sent someone to actually check in with you. Actually, I don't know if they've ever sent someone in to just be here. I thought I'd drop by with a present, and maybe to talk if you felt like it. Or just to hang out if you'd rather be coloring right now - I've got time to kill."
He wasn't going to lie to her, if she asked, but he was trying to avoid being seen as a researcher today. He wasn't here in that context - hopefully, he'd never be here in that context. Based on Jupiter's correspondence, there was another reason why this was happening now. But he wanted to wait to bring that up, too, or see if she did first. More important was cultivating trust. They could come around to griefs and grievances later.
A quizzical look briefly flashed across ACF-1003's face, then, a darker, angry expression. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed into a small, angry frown. Settling down in her chair, she picked up her clipboard and resumed her drawing. While the look did not leave her face, she did not object to Dr. Redd's continued presence, nor would she shy away if he looked at the drawing in her hands.
Unlike the collages draping the wall, her current picture was of a single entity. It took the shape of a long, worm-like creature, with scoop-like protrusions spread along its length. Whether or not those 'scoops' were for picking something up or for movement, it seemed Ira could not decide. She was constantly switching their direction based by drawing extremely lightly, then rubbing it into an unrecognizable shape, then drawing the shape again. If she didn't pick a direction soon, she'd have to start over as the shape would become almost unrecognizable.
After a few minutes of this, and failing to make a decision, Ira stopped her work for a moment. Without looking up, she relaxed her angry expression and sighed dramatically. Quietly, she educated the good doctor, "If, uhg, if assume you must, I deign to enlighten." Gesturing to herself- "Goddess. No other epithets. All else, unacceptable. Simple. You are researcher, it is your body and whole. Not security. I am Goddess. Body and whole. All else -is- unacceptable." Then, as if the question had been burning in her mind ever since Dr. Redd entered the room, she asked, "Who is Houston? Take shape, chatter, speak. For you, I become lower mind."
Ira's words were spoken not with the deliberate care of someone trying to sound 'weird.' Rather, her sentence structure, her cadence, and her accent all more resembled someone who was begrudgingly speaking a second or third language. At the very least, it seemed her intention was not to confuse and frustrate the researchers or Dr. Redd. In fact, it was the times when her sentence structure aligned into the correct order that she seemed to be putting real effort into what she was saying.
So she sat, although her face appeared disinterested, her body language betrayed her. Subtly, or whatever Ira thought was subtle, she scooted a little closer to Dr. Redd in her chair.
He watched the dark look cross her face, but didn't think much of it right away. She didn't tell him to leave, and seemed to want to draw, so Cody was willing to just coexist with her for the time being. Though... something familiar crept across him, almost like fear, or nausea, or the bad kind of nostalgia that's immediately followed by regret. Not because of the child's displeasure, but at a memory that now only nagged at the periphery of his mind and haunted his more sleepless nights.
He let his eyes wander back over to the wall of art, the various creatures and deathscapes, until she spoke again and he immediately gave her his attention. Her anger seemed to dissipate, which was a relief for many reasons. Most important being not anomalous, but social.
His eyebrows arched a little at her words, though. He hadn't addressed her by any name when he spoke - he was pretty sure he'd only said "Ira" out loud once. Either this was delayed, or a small alteration to revealed behavior already. Higher psionics? Or lower, maybe. Depending on her environment? And how did she know he was research? Although - she was right, he definitely didn't have the build of a security officer. If she'd known what Houston was maybe he'd say she guessed from his shirt.
One thing at a time. And despite his nature he stopped himself from asking any research questions.
"Is it that obvious?" He cringed just a little, his smile only faltering to look more like a grimace but never actually leaving his eyes. "Yeah, I'd make an awful spy. My apologies for the mistake, Goddess. I'm just Cody, if you wanted to know. Thank you for your enlightenment. And - I promise, I'm not here to study you today. I meant what I said. Just here to be here."
He glanced down at the T-shirt next, pulling ACF-255 aside as if he needed to be able to read it to understand the question. He didn't - he just really liked the shirt. And was also realizing how many layers of context the joke had.
"Houston isn't a person, it's a place, actually. A city, in Texas - that's state, a tract of land, an area that belongs to a greater country. Same one we're in now, actually. Anyway, the government of this country originally set up our space exploration programs there, and that's where a lot of our exploration shuttles - big ships we'd send up into the sky to orbit the earth and see what it's like up there. It's been moved since then, but back when the base was in Houston, the people in the ship would be able to call down to the people in a lab in Houston. Like the observation rooms we have at the Foundation, except they were hundreds of miles apart. If there was an issue with the ship, the people in space would call down to the observers, 'Houston, we have a problem!' And it's a phrase people here on earth sometimes use without thinking about the context. Not directed to anybody, just announcing that there's an issue and bringing somebody else's attention to it."
Cody only had a layman's knowledge of space exploration and a textbook education on its history, but he had a lot of confidence in his summarized version, and spoke with such. He used the hand that wasn't idly pulling 255 along its chain to add emphasis to the story, and almost didn't notice Ira coming closer - the Goddess coming closer - and when he did, he didn't make a fuss. He'd let her open up at her own pace. Honestly he'd already gotten a lot farther than he'd expected.
Ira did not exactly appear as though she were listening, focused entirely on her drawing work. But to assume she had ignored Cody's explanation of his t-shirt would be absolutely incorrect. In fact, his rambling explanation served to focus the young girl even better on her work. As Cody finished speaking, she finished her design.
Setting the clipboard down, Ira looked unamusedly at Cody for a few long moments. Then, making a face that was something in between 'not a frown' and 'certainly not a smile,' Ira spoke. "Understood. Your words, Houston, it is a joke." Then, abruptly, Ira stood up and snatched up her clipboard. Removing the picture from the little piece of particle board, she moved over toward a part of the wall dedicated to individual portraits. Reaching for a small roll of scotch tape she moved as though to mount the picture on the wall, but she stopped. Looking down at the picture, she traced a finger along the spine of the 'worm' and murmured.
"I constructed, crafted, demonstrated 'jokes,' to my children. They are, so, sad. Never laughing. Always suffering, pitiable. Perhaps, I might, mhm." Turning to Cody, she walked over toward him and offered him the picture, "In your steps, take a gift. I shall take, absorb, demonstrate -Houston- unto small minds, the weak-willed, the children. My children. Acceptable?" It was a difficult thing for Ira to 'offer a trade' as it were, as she knew herself to be above the lesser creatures known as 'humanity.' Yet, she did not wish to disrespect Cody's patient explanation of the joke, so she made it as though she would give him a gift and take his joke for herself.
The picture itself certainly resembled a worm, though against the background it had to be absolutely massive. It lacked any mouth or eyes, instead, it consumed and moved by utilizing a plethora of shovel-like protrusions running up and down its body. A simple-looking creature. Not really horrifying. Just weird. Assuming Cody took the paper from her, she would move over toward another section of wall. Looking up to the 'landscape,' she lifted her arms and gently moved her fingers across the pages. She was visualizing moving the landscape around, changing its shape and constructing more spires.
Ira listened. Cody made up his mind not to police his thoughts about her - if she had trouble with him thinking of her as Ira, then she could bring up that she could hear him thinking. Ira was easier. Anyway she listened and drew in equal measure, multitasking very well for a child of her apparent age. She wasn't the first weird kid to end up in ACF, though, and if that'd been her strangest trait then she wouldn't be here. But it was a human trait, and that let Cody stay relaxed despite the other weird behaviors.
She didn't laugh, but she did get the joke, and she wanted to share it. Few things made Cody happier than learning someone liked his joke enough to want to share it, although the idea that jokes could be exchanged for goods and services was new. He unfolded himself, finally stretching his legs out as he reached up to take the picture she offered. He studied it, then nodded solidly once.
"Acceptable," he said. "I hope my joke relieves some of their suffering."
It might've felt a little silly to a more mature researcher - actually, it might've felt a little silly to Cody, this little exchange of goods and services, but he liked when things were a little silly. Not just humor, but little things that only mattered in their little corners. Little things like harmless pranks and bad science puns.
If bad science puns were really all it took to get a Goddess's favor, then Cody was suddenly one of the wealthiest guys in the Foundation.
He watched the way she started to rearrange her illustrated empire. The movements almost reminded him about something he wasn't supposed to remember - not the blooded blades of the past, but someone whose memory would be bad for security. He let her draw her castles in the sky and indulged himself with the better memories, reminders that the time before all this wasn't so bad. While he wasn't paying attention, Cody began to display symptoms of ACF-571 - skin growing pale, hair fading to white at the roots, eyes beginning to shift through the colors that led down from hazel to blue. A memorized illness slowly projected itself through ACF-255-A, and despite the apparent severity of it, Cody seemed entirely unbothered, his smile not even slipping when he seemed to start shivering in a room set at a temperature much too high for the disease's preference.
Ira would begin to move pictures around, specifically she was shifting the position of a 'village' of sorts. Lean-to structures of bones and flesh, it was more mounds of gore than welcoming homes but a village was all it really could be. After taking multiple pictures off the wall, Ira halted in her tracks as she turned around to see Cody.
Her head crooked in intense interest as she gently set down the colored papers. Walking over to Cody, she began running her fingers through his hair, gently pulling at the skin on his face, and grasping his cheeks in order to look directly into his eyes. As she grossly invaded his personal space, she would speak, "Your form, shifting and changing, these things- who grasps your body and whole? I, uhg! Not amelioration, but deterioration?!" She started getting visibly frustrated as she examined Cody, rapidly snatching his arms to look at the skin as it grew paler.
She was getting angry, however, although it wasn't overtly obvious that her anger wasn't directed at Cody himself, Ira truly was not upset at him in any way. As she continued to examine Cody, she began to mutter quietly and quickly to herself, "Neither seethes nor writhes, morph and change, it wills? What--Is-The-Will? Where, how- damn!" Ira glanced at herself, "Damnable! Inferior form, obey me!" Then, finally, her eye flicked up to the medallion. Releasing Cody, she plopped herself down into her beanbag chair once more. Waving a hand at him, she snapped, "Explain!"
Something was deeply bothering Ira at seeing Cody's body react to the memory of symptoms of ACF-571. If something could read her mind at that very moment, which is a recommendation given to no one, they would be assaulted by Ira screaming and cursing her humanity. She hated this infernal dream. How she longed to wake up, snap her fingers, and instantly understand it's meaning and shape. But dreams did not obey Ira like the real world did, so she would need to settle for listening to Cody.
Assuming he didn't take offense to her complete lack of social graces and personal space.
His trip down memory lane was abruptly interrupted as Ira turned on her heel, focused on him for a moment with no apparent cause. Appearances could be deceiving, though, as he was well aware. The very intensity of her actions made him wonder if he'd forgotten some rule, crossed some invisible boundary - but all that quickly dissipated at her words. Or, at least, the words he understood, because amelioration was a new one. He'd have to ask Anchor what it meant, although she'd probably give him a report on the value of Foundation assets keeping personal dictionaries instead of asking other personnel the meaning of strange words.
Her anger alarmed him more than a little, though, the digs of self-frustration coming out as general lashes. And then the pieces fell together - not at a given moment, just when his mind stopped reeling and he could put anything together. The eyes that were now icy flickered down at his body. He'd started to turn a hypothermic shade of blue, and he could hear his own teeth chattering, even if he was sure they weren't. There was no cough this time, thank whatever was listening, because while he'd be able to talk through the illusion of a cough it tended to be ignored in favor of the bronchitic symptoms.
His skin would be cold to the touch, the trembling only increased under the warm pressure of her hands. The pressure also forced his mouth into an "o", which probably made him look quite ridiculous as he blinked his eyes in realization. But Ira let go, and backed the last few steps into her chair, furious with herself over her own nature.
"It's alright, Ira, I promise. Here, look." For a second the part of him that saw an angry child overwrote the part of him that had decided to appease her whims earlier. He could've dissipated the illusion on a whim, but to make his point, he reached up and pulled 255 off over his head. The disease vanished instantly, color flooding him again wherever the cold had started to go from blue to purple - a strain vastly different from the real-life counterpart that had inspired it, but which Cody had studied at one time. "It's an anomaly - a harmless object. It gives full immunity to diseases to anybody wearing it, but it remembers the diseases it's been exposed to, and can sometimes project them onto the person who was wearing it when they were exposed. Sometimes it can even do injuries, but that's - less common. The, uh - the will you're talking about? Is mine. Although sometimes it does it when I'm not paying attention."
He didn't seem to care that she'd burst into his personal bubble like that. Hell, if he did care, it was the opposite of being upset with her. Whether curiosity or caring, she'd responded with concern, wanting to do more. He liked those traits in people, no matter where they came from. It was a good life ethic.
"I'm sorry to worry you Ir- uh, Goddess. It's just metal and gemstone. Here, you can hold it if you want. I'll need it back for my research, but we're not doing it right now."
Having listened quietly and respectfully to Cody speak, Ira gently took the medallion from Cody and examined it ever so delicately with her fingers. She turned it in every direction, ran a fingernail along its gemstones, and maneuvered it to get as thorough a look as possible without putting it on. If Cody watched her face, it would be possible to see the wheels turning in her head.
Then she froze as an idea alighted upon her. Looking up at Cody, she slowly passed the medallion back to him. Standing up, she stepped toward him and flattened her hand into a 'knife-hand' position one might see a drill sergeant or officer use. Reaching out, she placed the tips of her fingers on Cody's chest and spoke, "Your, will? Unto your form, mind, whole, 'anomaly' obeys? Explain, no, define- no." The word seemed to be escaping her, then she blinked and had it, "Please, your expertise. Anomaly, attached body? Attached whole? Injuries, extensive and extreme? I- mhm. -Cody-" His name sounded strange on her tongue, as if those syllables had never been formed in that order before, "Let me look?"
Ira breathed deeply, then flatted her palm onto Cody's chest. For the first time in nearly forty years, Ira was showing someone something new. It was something she had not done in many years now and something she had not done in the dream world in decades. At the points where Ira's fingertips made contact with the researcher, it would feel like a jolt of electricity. A harsh, reflexive pain that Cody would have to fight hard to get away from. But if he hesitated, if he waited, if he trusted Ira to not hurt him, then something new would occur.
It was only for a second, but it may as well have been years. The theory of relativity stretched out before Ira's control like rubber bands, a single second drawn into a minute drawn into an hour. She was attempting to connect with Cody's mind. She was searching for the answer to a question she seemed incapable of forming into words for him. She wanted to know if, when Cody wore ACF-255, the anomaly was connected just to his body, or to his soul. She would look through his memories, his emotions, his inner thoughts, everything about the amulet would be exposed to her.
If Cody let her.
Ira's 'grip' on Cody was similar to the feeling of a small, soft animal holding on to your shirt. Warm, comforting, but so very delicate. If Cody wanted to, at any time, he could peel Ira off just as easily, if Cody let her grab on in the first place. But, if he let her hold on, he'd find something new. He'd find the connection worked both ways. As long as Ira held on to him, he could hold on to her. Ira's mind, memories, and inner thoughts were laid completely bare to Cody. If he wanted, he could choose any single thing about the tiny Goddess and know everything that she knew.
The first sign that something weird was happening was that Ira said his name. Ira didn't say people's names. She didn't even really say her own name - Goddess, she wanted to be called. Cody had smiled again as she pronounced it, not the teasing smile of a peer but the satisfied smile of someone who was proud of an effort, even when it wasn't perfect. Her words made less sense this time, but he was sure it wasn't becuase he was understanding her less. She was having trouble articulating what she wanted to say. He slipped 255 back on without thinking much of it, and listened to her request.
The logical assumption was, of course, that she wanted him to emulate something he'd seen, but there was something too sincere in that little face for him to rely entirely on assumption. She was an anomaly, after all. He gave it a moment of thought, and then like a good researcher - a researcher used to throwing his own body into the projects and seeing what it did - he came to the right decision. And for once, Cody didn't say a word. He just nodded, and sat up a little straighter.
The pain was unlike most things Cody had experienced - everyone's put their finger in an electrical outlet, but it's rare that an electrical outlet puts its finger on you. For a moment his body wanted to will him away from the gentle agony.
The curious mind won, though. It always did, with people like Cody. And oh, was it a full mind, with a long memory.
2013. A soft kind of grief, suppressed by angst and anger. Boxes in an attic, full of nothing, full of everything. A medallion that seemed to be worth something. A high school in bum[EXPLETIVE] nowhere, Arizona. A gun. Bloody memories that were suppressed by intensive amnestic therapy, but would always linger there in the back of a memory shared with the anomaly. The remembered injury: a single gunshot wound to the chest. Not to the heart, but close enough that death would be quick. Death by exsanguination.
Under her touch, his chest blossomed red.
2013-2017. Many diseases, viral and bacterial alike. Tests done with normal strains. Gentle things first, a common cold, the chicken pox, gastrointestinal diseases. Then more serious diseases. Then accidental exposure to anomalous disease as a field researcher, then intentional exposure as a locational researcher. An anomalous extension becomes an intern becomes a researcher. Locations, people, Leviathan. Leviathan.
In his body, he cycled through the memorized sickness in the moment made infinite.
An Isaac. A different Isaac, with blond hair and hooded green eyes, not hers. An agent, a security officer, a friend. Serious and steady and reliable at a time when reliable was what he'd needed.
Reports, too. Every one he'd written. All the information available on ACF-255 condensed into square black letters and white paper and a red-pen scrawl that grew smaller and less legible over the years. In all those words, 255 had never replicated an injury for anyone else.
Summer, 2017. L-7. Another memory not fully suppressed, bloody and sharp. Vague memories of connection, attempts at communication. A more distinct picture of a man, a warrior of ancient times, covered in thick, dark lines, bound by a mechanical collar. A designation: ACF-404. "Pollux." No name, long since lost to time. A breach, a mistake in evacuation that separated him from Isaac, a gory trail, the man at the end of the hall with blades made from the metal in his own blood. The laughter that had never quite been lost in amnestic therapy. An elation too deep for the anomaly to notice ACF-255-A sink to the ground with identical gashes throughout the torso, across the throat, nearly decapitated. A bone-deep memory - and in the tie between memory and anomaly came the answer. A fear that saved a life, so visceral that it had transcended simple thought and mind, and was now written into a self. A soul? Perhaps. It was a connection so unique it was almost a strand of DNA, by the definitions Cody's mind could understand.
Blood. More blood than the gunshot wound. Bloody, horrible slashes deep in a body that couldn't feel them. Traces of iron black at the edges where the blade had begun to flake, as the warrior let concentration slip to enjoy the senseless violence.
2018. 2019. 2020. 2021. 2022. Breaches came and went. The Breach came and went. But never again was there the same fear that came in that first injury or in the one from the thing he had gone out of his way to befriend. By all rights he should not have trusted again. But sometimes trust is all one has. Trust in an anomaly was what saved his life - trust in an anomaly had been what almost took it - trust was such a strange concept that it did not make sense when or how one found it. Cody was blindly trusting, like someone else he used to know.
2023. Trust of ACF-1003 despite the pain, despite the intrusion. Thoughts of security long gone.
Under her touch, he felt the draw. He'd always had an open mind. And for open minds, curiosity always won out, but all that could come to mind as he realized what was passing was not the billions of questions he'd voiced to Isaac. The question was that old intern canto, far less desperate than it had once been, far more calm.
It was not necessarily something extraordinary that Ira did, for her the excising of her power was as simple and thoughtless as breathing. However, as she took within herself Cody's memories in order to gain a new understanding, she did not treat his feelings with callousness. She took in his joy, and his sorrow- his reminiscence, and his grief- his trust, and his brokenness.
Even as she grasped the answer to her question, the answer she wanted, she felt she could understand the man quite a bit better. She was gentle, as only a benevolent and loving being could be, as she moved to extract herself from his mind. More than a Goddess, just a child. It was with this childlike delicateness that she felt a tinge of sorrow for the exchange she knew would come with Cody's question. Because, selfishly, Ira hoped he would not look through her as she did him. Selfishly, she thought herself capable of taking on the pains of all eternity and she did not want to share them.
It was a simple enough question, but in that relative infinity, it would take turning back the Goddess's mind decades to answer.
?. A time of infinite pain, infinite suffering. There is a horror here beyond comprehension, yet The-One-Who-Would-Be comprehends it. In her understanding, she kills it and devours it whole. At once, she becomes The Goddess and it becomes The Dead God. Their struggle would continue, but an upper hand had been gained. Above the sphere that hates, a corpse the size of a planet orbits forever dead. On the surface, a child stands victorious.
Victorious, and alone.
1963. A stone, somewhere in the woods, cracked open -as if struck by lightning- to reveal the form of an eleven-year-old girl sleeping within. Her eyes snapped open, willed into existence from the matter of inanimate to animate. Stepping out of the rock, she beheld a new hiding place for her form. A dream world where she might sleep away the dangers of The Dead God who hunted her still. She had killed him in the waking world, but in her dreams he searched for her. He would not find her here, this she knew, but she also knew her form limited her abilities tremendously. She was hidden, she was safe.
She was alone.
?. She sat atop the corpse of something truly enormous on a dead world. Her only lights were the stars above on an eternal night devoid of the moon. Her world did not orbit a star, it careened wildly through space on the sheer rage it's infernal mind held. Reaching down, she would touch the dead beast and feel its essence fill her senses, at once she was the beast, and at once she brought it back to life. Once more it howled and screamed with pain as she slowly crafted its body into something more suited to her planet. Eventually, the pain would send it into shock, then death. She would resurrect it once more and continue her work, unfazed, tired,
1968. She is captured by a team of men with guns. They say they're from a Foundation. They say she has killed many people. She does not understand what they mean, but she follows them regardless. She is taken to a room deep underground and given everything they think she might need. Researchers come and go, she does not talk to them. They are not interested in her, they are only interested in the killing. How did she kill those people, why did she kill those people, did she not know better? She talks to none of them, and eventually, they stop coming.
They leave her alone.
?. The world is populated with beasts now, it is no longer dead. From the corpses of the followers of The Dead God, she creates tens of thousands of species of life for her world. Some, so small they cannot be seen, some, so large they fill the sky. She loves each and every one of them, and they love her. But they do not know her. They cannot know her, for she is not their friend. She is the Goddess. The great Creator who made all that they are, body and whole, to be worshipped and adored, but never known. To know her would take away her power, and The Goddess cannot allow that. She must keep them away, she must never know them. Because of that and despite all her work,
she's still alone.
1982-1984. Isaac, her Isaac, her precious friend, comes once more to speak to her. He does not ask about the killing, he does not care. He does not worship, he meets her gaze. What cheek, what insolence, what gall. He asks The Goddess how she is, he asks The Goddess if she is having a 'pleasant day.' Isaac wants to know her, to truly be her friend, and The Goddess craves this so desperately. Then, as he takes his leave, he names her. She is Ira, The Watchful, and she adores this.
For the first time, Ira is not alone.
1986. Isaac reveals he may not be able to see Ira as she wishes, his work and dedication to the dream world take him away from her. She offers him a choice, to continue to work and exist in this dream world as he always has, or, something new. To leave here, to come to the waking world, to come to Ira's world. There he could be more than just a researcher, he could be a demigod, an infinite being, or, her friend. She knows he misses his family, he misses his own daughter, Ira offers him this too. Anything to be with her more, to be her friend, to make sure she wasn't left alone anymore. Isaac took Ira's offer, constructed That-Which-Binds and became part of her world.
Ira indulged in that feeling for just a little while, that hope and joy that perhaps she would not have to be alone anymore. Isaac even came to her world and made her his sole focus, like a father to a child. Then, abruptly, he died. The Foundation, those that so admonished Ira decades prior for her killing, killed Isaac. They took him from her, and her grief was unlike anything that she could describe. A hatred, so deep and strong, formed for the human race that she swore if she ever got the chance, she'd destroy them all. She'd make them pay for taking Isaac, her Isaac, away from her. But no matter how much she raged,
Ira was once more alone.
?. Her children try to comfort her, but she can barely stand the sight of them. She feels so empty,
she feels alone.
1986-2023. Researchers come and go, some apologize for Isaac, and some ask about what she did during The Breach. She does not answer them, she hates them. She is filled with rage, but as time goes on, that rage fades into grief, and grief into pain. A dull, resonating sensation that she is alone. She wants so desperately to not be alone, she wants to have a friend once more. But not these people, not these cold 'researchers.' She hates them, she despises them, and she will destroy them. She would rather never be their friend. She would rather be
She did not need to say it, Cody would already know the answer after having looked at her mind and memories. Still, as the two of them extracted themselves from each other's inner beings, Ira crumpled into Cody and heaved with pain. Her face reddened, her eyes squeezed shut, and her body shook as a deep sob tore its way through her. Quietly, rough and filled with rage, Ira did something very un-Goddess-like. Ira cried. She cried and whispered,
They were tangled together, these memories of his and those memories of hers, and those memories of hers from when-she-was-infinite and now-she-was-small. The fear and the hiding and the power and the creation and the grief and the strength. The bigness, and the littleness. Cody felt like he should have been horrified by the things she was capable of in the other place. The things her visit to the other place did to the living people in this dream that wasn’t a dream.
The half of him that was a researcher remembered otherwise irrelevant words. The Dead God, the Goddess. Her Waking World and its creatures - somehow familiar, like a report once memorized and long since forgotten. That-Which-Binds: the Effigy. The childish curiosity that no amount of fear and experience could kill wanted to ask.
But there was already a child here. A child who was so desperately alone that all her grief and anger seemed small in comparison. Cody had to be the grown-up, now. And he was okay with that. He’d had a lot of practice. He wrapped one arm around her shoulder. A comfort, a reminder.
He made a small hand signal to one of the room’s cameras. It was something he’d learned from Isaac, part of Security’s many codes. Evacuate. Even in his downtime, he was the location’s research manager. What kind of leader would he be if he didn’t protect them, even if he was staying?
His hand then found the picture he’d set aside, that little gift, the trade. It was something she had made - maybe even Something She had Made. He set it up on the beanbag throne, moving as little as possible so as not to disturb Ira any more than she already was. He wouldn’t want to trample on it, after all. Another child, one of her children. She didn't need to worry about it here, too.
And then, when all that was done, and he was all hers, Cody did something that was likely the lowest disgrace he could show a Goddess, but the greatest kindness he could offer a lonely child.
He picked her up.
He let her remain buried in him. A shirt could be washed, after all. He kept one arm under her and one arm around her, and held her, and let her cry. He crossed the room with a careful step, never jolting her. He eased down to sit on the bed, careful of their weight on its worn frame. It complained, but it didn’t break.
"I understand." He held her close, and held her tight. "I’m sorry, Ira. I know. I’m here."
It wasn’t the hollow apology of someone appeasing their own guilt, grieving their own friend, mourning the loss of a good researcher, appeasing a goddess. It wasn’t for him at all. If any of this was for him, he would have left her here, aware of the exhaustion that came with a good cry. But Ira didn’t want to be alone. Cody knew the feeling.
Ira's sobs were quiet and shameful, the angry tears of someone trying desperately not to cry, and failing anyway. As Cody gently reached down to pick her up, Ira's whole being wanted to wretch away. Her pride and rage fought to be at the forefront, they desired to be the guiding emotions that tore through the child. But, to Cody's credit, his gentle movements and care fought back with such ferocity that the pride and rage could not compete. As Ira felt her body lifted off the ground, she did not move.
Then, he sat down on the bed with her, and he held her. Cody whispered something and Ira barely heard it through her own gritted teeth and moaning sobs. Not so gently, she reached out and grasped Cody's shirt and arm. Ira was surprisingly strong for someone so small but it was no supernatural strength. Just a healthy body and a lot of emotions as she buried her face into his shirt and finally relaxed her chest. With that exhale, she screamed. She gripped him even harder and screamed even louder. Her emotions broke like a cracked dam finally giving out, bursting forth until there was nothing left to be held back.
It could've been a few minutes, it could've been an hour, Ira couldn't tell until the emotions were finally gone. Her hands relaxed and she released Cody. Without saying a word to him, she picked up her blanket and promptly threw it over her head in order to hide her shame from him. It wasn't even a very good hiding place, the blanket was made from some massive hand-knitted yarn; it was entirely see-through. She wasn't even sure why she cared, but there didn't necessarily need to be a reason for the child to hold onto her pride. Quietly, Ira spoke from under the blanket, "You, begone. I demand, begone. Your steps are unsafe. I am tired. Get hence."
Then, lightning fast, she reached out and clasped the hem of Cody's shirt from beneath the blanket the moment he attempted to stand. "Return, later. Please?" Releasing Cody no matter his answer, she curled up under the blanket and lay down. It would be a few minutes, plenty of time for Cody to 'get hence' from the room, but Ira would allow herself to fall asleep. For the first time in decades, Ira felt she had a reason to want to dream again.
Cody let her take all the time she needed. She had waited decades for this release. He could wait a few minutes, a half hour, an hour. Several hours, if that was what she needed. He let himself relax as he held her, as she clung to him, something soft for her to sob into. There was no worry that he was somehow doing it wrong, no stress about rules or protocols or what-ifs. He wasn’t security. He wasn’t a researcher right now, either. He was just Cody, which was what Ira had needed.
But he was alone with his thoughts as Ira screamed her rage to the universe. And he was manager at this location - his location. He didn’t specialize in anohumans, and maybe this was one of the reasons why. But there was also a reason why he’d been sent back to L-14 following the Breach, following Leviathan’s interest in A.B.C.’s Synergy Theory. Was this synergy? It didn’t feel any different than just being himself. Just being what someone needed, when they needed it. He was adaptable, that was all. He was adaptable, and he was here, and that’s what she needed.
How many others were here at L-14 who didn’t need a researcher, who just needed someone here? That’s how A.B.C. had started. She’d never had the clearance to come in here for her project. Would this have happened sooner if she had? Was it possible things would have gone differently, if she’d just had someone –
He stopped that train of thought before it derailed everything. This wasn’t about A.B.C. or what ifs or could’ve beens. This was about Ira, and she was starting to quiet down. Cody grounded himself in the feeling of warmth against his body, of the ache as Ira clutched his arm, of cold as air circulated around the wet stains on his favorite shirt. A shirt could be washed. And maybe lost trust could be found.
She tried to hide her shame under her blanket when she pulled away from him. She commanded him, in her broken voice. Cody hadn’t realized his own eyes were damp, or that his smile had faded away, until he tried to focus on her and felt the smile reform. He wiped them, one and then the other, with the heel of his palm, pushing his glasses up a little and then readjusting them back into place.
Only then did he stand, just to be caught in the act by another desperate grasp now weakened by exhaustion.
"Of course I’ll come again." He showed teeth in his smile, although he knew his eyes were still sad. There was still a pressing ache in his chest. "I don’t know when. But I promise I’ll come."
He took – maybe more time than he needed, strictly, to leave. He remained by the bed for a moment, and tucked the black monstrosity in beside her. He didn’t adjust her blankets or touch her again, but there was a moment of lingering. And then, on the way out, he did not forget the creature she had designed with its spoon-shovel-tentacle limbs. He turned the lights off, and then used his own security card to let himself out. The observers had all evacuated, after all. They trusted him. They were his people, too.
And now he had a lot of people he needed to talk to.