DATE: **/**/23 LOCATION: ACF-1325-A ASSET: Dr. Cody Redd, A-Class-D, Head of Research L-14 EQUIPMENT: ACF-255 “Redd Medal”; medium-weight bomber jacket, well-worn; brown hiking boots, well-worn; Red Bull [interior pocket] PURPOSE: Personal Investigation
Cody hadn’t changed his mind about this being a good way to spend his downtime, but damn, did he wish it was just a little warmer.
He’d remembered gloves, and a jacket, and heavier boots, and thicker blue jeans, but not a hat. Now, he wasn’t outright cold, exactly. He hadn’t lost feeling in any of his extremities and he was pretty sure if it wasn’t for the psychological effect of seeing snow this wouldn’t be too different from an air conditioned building. It was just that any feeling that was like cold was immediately interpreted as the end of the world by his body.
In his defense, Arizona never got this cold. He’d grown up in the dry kind of hot that roasted you all the way through, but he’d made a personal vow never to prefer the cold and damp to sun-baked desert, even if the sun-baked desert barely even felt like it was ever home. The only reason he even owned a non-Foundation-logo jacket was because he’d inherited his grandfather’s - the same jacket he’d worn in high school to be cool, despite the Arizona heat, and the jacket he’d almost died in the week ACF found out about his existence. It was now zipped up over his May the Mass Times Acceleration Be With You shirt and ACF-255. While he was willing to risk an interaction with an ungraded Risky-Class anomalous entity, he drew the line at potential exposure to snow.
He was very well aware that he might not even see ACF-1325-B this trip. Or next trip, or ever. She didn’t always appear. He could easily be wasting his time. But at least it wasn’t valuable research time he was wasting – just personal downtime. Downtime he’d followed procedures and protocols for appropriate rest periods for, although he did bring an energy drink just in case.
Had anyone experimented with the relationship between 1325-B and caffeine stimulants? Probably not. That’d be a huge risk, and he wouldn’t encourage a risk in security to satisfy personal curiosity. The only thing he’d risk here was himself, although what he was risking beyond merely “being a little too chilly” was a matter of perspective. And, hey, even if he never saw 1325-B, he’d gotten a peaceful walk in for the day. That alone was worth the trip.
At first, it seemed the good doctor's little trip into the woods was to be only that - relaxing, of course, because this place existed to be relaxing, but also - inevitably - solitary. However, as he traveled through the trees, words cut through the quiet. A hushed voice, rising and falling, excited, but never loud. This wasn't the place for loud things.
Were he to follow the sound, he'd see her through the trees. A shadowy figure, no more than five feet tall, hair trailing behind through trunks and ridges like a wisp of smoke. She was sitting. Not on the ground - in the air. It was relatively normal behavior, for ACF-1325-B, to pose variously in above the ground. She seemed to take a bit of delight in it, taking the freedom as a form of self-expression.
It was a bit more unusual, of course, for ACF-1325-B to be spotted before she spotted you. It happened, from time to time - researchers had surprised her, before, when her attention was taken by something else - but these candid moments were few and far between. Hard to not be noticed by a thing that could seemingly be everywhere inside this place.
What was truly unusual, though, was that someone else was with her. A somewhat familiar man dressed in tattered khakis and the draped remains of a labcoat. He stood rigid beside her while she giggled, giving a little twirl in the air. She said something to him. He stiffly nodded, then - in a voice that was hers, but deeper - said something back. Another laugh.
It cut short less than a second later.
With a crack, then man was gone, light and snow and air collapsing around where he'd been. Charity spun to face Cody, hands folded under her ankles, knees folded against her chest, hesitantly watching.
Of course Cody followed the sound of voices in the woods. Not necessarily because he was an idiot - although this didn't necessarily preclude that - but because he was curious. He wasn't exceptionally quiet in his movements, although the snow did help soften his footsteps. Was someone else scheduled to be here today? He thought there shouldn't be any researchers performing internal observations - that was part of the reason he'd picked this time.
Except it wasn't a researcher. Not one he recognized, anyway, although the lab coat made it obvious that it was supposed to be a researcher. He listened to her push her voice out his mouth -
And then she saw Cody, and the not-really-a-researcher was gone, and suddenly he had her full attention.
"Hi- I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt." Frankly, the way she curled in on herself made him feel like an ass. He took both hands out of the pockets of his jacket, and pointed back in the direction he came with his thumbs. "I could just- go, if you want."
Although, like an idiot, he hadn't paid attention to where the exit had gone. And also like an idiot he was letting questions run wild in his head, because oh boy, this was a new behavior. He had no idea if it was undocumented, that ACF-1325 seemed to be capable of actual play, even on a weird anomalous 'this is probably a researcher that wandered too far in actually' way. Was that his real body, or had she just-
Nope. Stop that. Bad Cody. She didn't like to be researched, and he wasn't here to research anyway. His brain never stopped asking, though, and he felt a little awkward waiting for her to make a decision about him.
Slowly, Charity unfolded, relaxing a bit. She offered a slight, sharp smile, tilting her head to the side.
"I just didn't expect someone. Not outside of your little schedules."
She spread her legs out behind her, kicking the air, body slipping through the trees as she closed the distance between them. Distance itself closed, too, trees shuttering together, simultaneously forming a wall behind her and opening a clearing in front of her where Cody stood. She settled in the air, there, sitting cross-legged again a couple feet aside-above the man.
Then Charity blinked, leaning in over her lap.
"You're new, but you're not. You've been here before, but you're not one of the come-and-goers." Another blink. "I know you. Well. The before-you. You've rotted a little more since then."
For a second, Cody wasn't really sure what she was talking about. He'd acted as observation intern for a while on a lot of anomalies at L-14, but he'd double checked the record that he'd never actually come in here. Unless it was off the record?
And then the realization dawned on him.
Back in Cody's day, there'd been a little betting game called "see how far you can go without getting eaten." It wasn't just 1325- it was any anomaly that wasn't too dangerous while being just risky enough for interns to not technically be allowed to go in and see them by themselves. They'd pay off the observation researchers by doing their paperwork for them, which was the actual risk of the bet, because the run-into-a-CU-and-see-what-happens part was exhilarating. At least, if you weren't a goody-two-shoes. The rules included never going too far from the door, and never engaging recklessly with the anomaly, but besides that, it was free, almost-completely-unnoticed reign.
Cody was pretty sure he'd never actually met 1325-B in any of his excursions in here, but obviously she'd noticed him. He didn't lean away from her when the distance closed. The trees parted around them, and he turned his head to watch her watch him.
"Wow. I almost forgot about that." He pushed his not-too-long-yet hair back out of his eyes with a gloved hand as he experienced a blast from the past. His signature smile began to melt back through, and he laughed a little. "I've- yeah, I guess I've 'rotted a little.' Technically that's accurate."
If he'd really wanted to, he could use ACF-255 to look like he'd rotted more, but after Ira's response to its behaviors he decided to resist the temptation. Besides, she'd already moved on to another question.
"I was assigned to another location. I had to go away for a while. And now I guess I've rotted a little too much, for those kinds of bets. I'm supposed to be responsible now."
He made air-quotes around "responsible", and said it a little through his nose. Clearly a joke.
Curling up again - this time, more as if going to sleep than her previous anxiety - Charity orbited around Cody's head, hair following the circle in trail to form an oversized halo in the air above him.
"I don't forget things. I don't put faces in meat like you. I carve them in stone."
She giggled, but a moment later, her expression grew slightly more serious.
"Was it rude to say you rotted? I wouldn't like being reminded of that. I just thought it was a funny thing to say." Her orbit halted in front of him, her face on the same level as his, but upside down. "I'll never understand why things have to end. It's so - stupid."
"Oh, no, it was funny." He hadn't expected 1325-B (mem., name) to be so self-conscious about her behaviors. Most anomalies were just Like That, and the people who worked with them didn't expect apology or shame. And that wasn't even that weird of a thing - it was a joke he'd heard phrased somewhat differently between researchers over the years.
"Kids these days and their cellular decompositions." He did what he always did and compensated for the downturn in mood with a joke of his own. "Passage of time is kinda dumb, though. We've got stuff here that can stop it but a lot of the time they also stop you and then it's a whole thing. Way too much paperwork for the trouble if you ask me. Might as well let things go until they stop."
He stuffed his hands back into his pockets, not because they were cold or he had any reason to hide them, but because he wasn't doing anything else with them right now. At least he could forget about the snow what with talking to- oh, right.
"Oh, right," he repeated out loud, focusing on semi-eye-contact and trying to remember all the good extradimensional manners lessons Strings had given him. "I don't think you want me to keep thinking of you as Thirteen-Twenty-Five-B. Is there something else you'd like me to call you?"
He was going to make a joke about being too corporeal for her, but then she mentioned Charles. Anybody who’d read the file knew about Charles. And name-giving – there was definitely some deja vu there. It wasn’t a Name, and it wasn’t ‘given’ in that weird-emphasis-sense that magic people used too much.
"It’s a little dated," he admitted, "but I think it’s a nice name. Charles had good taste."
Had? Has? That wasn’t really Cody’s – heh, his department. Almost like security! Well, anything to kick the researcher habit of asking too many questions at once. However, unlike secret or magic people, he didn’t really feel too paranoid about returning the favor, or offering her his hand to maybe shake, if she felt so inclined, or do something weird with, which was more likely in this kind of situation.
"Cody!" she replied cheerfully, saying the name as if testing out the word for the first time. "Cody. Cody. That's fun. I do like that."
As he stretched out his hand, Charity stared at it blankly for a moment - holding up her own hand and glancing at it as if trying to put the action to a meaning. After a long pause, she gave a light -
- and the forest shifted again, wall of trees turning into walls, snowy ground into wooden paneling under foot. The smell of rubber and varnish filled the air, and somewhere in the distance, the sound of squeaking shoes. Charity was now holding a simple orange ball - perhaps a bit too large, perhaps a bit too bright - and she pushed it into Cody's palm.
Charity tested his name, which was very different from the way Ira had tested his name. She seemed to really like it, which was great. She didn’t seem to know what to do with his hand, though, but the “oh!” might’ve almost hinted she understood.
And yep, she decided on the weird. The lights, the smell, the sounds, all hit him before he actually recognized the L-14 basketball court. A ball was pressed against his gloved hand, which felt weird, maybe because he knew the standard weight and size of a basketball, or maybe because he was wearing gloves and that definitely wasn’t appropriate dress for a gymnasium.
He put the odd-feeling ball under his arm and started to take off layers. His gloves went into his pocket, and he shouldered out of Dakota Redd’s jacket, making sure to never drop the maybe-basketball. Mayball, he decided, because nobody could stop that awful contraction in his mind. Or maybe Charity could, but he didn’t actually ask her that, because that’d be rude.
His black May the Mass Times Acceleration Be With You t-shirt was now fully visible, as he stepped to the side and dropped the coat on the sidelines. ACF-255 was also visible and stood in sharp contrast against the vinyl print and dark cotton, until Cody used his free hand to tuck it under. He turned back to Charity and set about trying to spin the mayball on his finger.
"Anybody ever showed you how to play basketball, Charity?"
Charity watched intently as Cody stripped off his outer clothes in favor of some inner clothes. Whether or not this was part of the basketball experience, Charity wasn't certain, but seeing as she did not wear any clothes she couldn't take part in it. She felt a bit disappointed in that. Maybe she'd have to ask for some, if they were going to play basketball some more.
The ball wobbled as it spun on Cody's finger, its weight and texture a bit too different, a bit too lopsided for it to properly balance.
If he tried to bounce it though, it would perfectly spring back, exactly like from memory. Some feelings had a chance of holding up better, after all. Charity grinned a cheshire grin, shaking her head furiously enough to send ripples back through her hair.
"Never heard of it, but I like games. How do you play?"
The mayball wobbled and almost fell a few times, which was noted and should’ve been expected given it was anomalous and probably-not-real given the nature of 1325-A. Cody did give it a little dribble, and felt it bounce up perfectly to meet his palm. The weight was off, but the purpose was understood, and that was what was important.
Maybe Cody’s smile was also just a bit too lopsided and too sharp as well, when Charity asked him how to play. It wasn’t quite the warning smile of Dr. Cody Redd, Mischievist, but it wasn’t too far off. He set off and explained the rules as well as he could, as simply as he could, and with great vigor – or at least the rules that mattered. Really, without a whole team, the rules of basketball were “put the ball in the hole,” but he went into the minimum details about dribbling and pivoting, and demonstrated with relative skill. It was a little bit of a shame that Cody hadn’t ever kept good enough grades to make it onto the high school team; they might’ve actually won a few times.
“If none of that makes sense, I can show you while we play if you’re still interested. I know it can be a lot the first time.”
He’d played with plenty of anomalies before. He’d never played inside one. Maybe the physics or rules would be different, like the basketball; maybe Charity would always win, which was fine by Cody. He wouldn’t play recreationally if it was all about winning, after all. And it’d be fun to see what Charity did with just the basic guidelines anyway.
...maybe that was too much researcher. He was better off just waiting to see what she did when he decided to toss the ball to her with both hands.
There were a lot of rules, and all of them seemed arbitrary. That was something Charity had learned about people - from Charles' paintings to Laine's puzzle and now to Cody's basketball. People had a habit of applying order to things, and finding fun in it. It really was quite silly, but she supposed it made sense, in some strange way. Rules gave you something to do, and there wasn't anything more terrible in existence than existing without a purpose.
Listening intently, Charity took the ball, drifting slowly down until her feet touched the ground. Since you only had to bounce the ball if you were touching the ground, she could've simply held it as she floated, but seeing as Cody wasn't able to do that that seemed to be in violation of a more implicit rule of the game. Instead, she awkwardly bounced the mayball in her hand as she moved forward, trying to push past the doctor towards the ring in the air behind him - her ring, with which she could, conceivably, score increased numbers.
"Can I have a purpose?" She said idly, mind continuing on a train of thought she hadn't said out loud. "I have a name, which helps a lot, but I think I'd like a purpose too."
She caught the mayball, and it was game on. Cody fell into step naturally, although he was mostly gauging how she played for now. Not researcher-gauging, but sports-gauging, someone figuring out the new player or other team.
At least, it wasn’t researcher-gauging until she asked him for a purpose, which gave him enough pause that she’d have an opening to slip past him for the first point.
“Hmm.” Both a potential disappointment, and a full consideration. He had a lot of ideas of course, but those were – experimental. He really doubted Charity wanted her purpose to be experimentation, though, given how averse she was to questions.
There was another idea, a little less professional, but he decided that now was the time for the good kind of questions.
The pause was enough time for Charity to slip past him, bouncing the ball twice before throwing it at the ring. It could've easily gone in, if she wanted it to, but that would've been against those hidden rules too, so instead the ball flew wildly - free from the hands of someone who'd literally never thrown anything before - bounced off the backboard, and flew back in the opposite direction across the court.
"I don't know what I want," she admitted, wiping a hand across her forehead in imitation, even though she wasn't sweating in the slightest. "I don't know enough to know what I want. Maybe - I'll be a basketball person. Is that a type of person? Or does everyone basketball?"
“Oh, no,” Cody laughed – not mocking at all – as the ball bounced back. He caught it in both hands, which wasn’t in the rules, but he walked up beside Charity. “Lots of people hate basketball. Or any kind of sport, really. Which is just fine for them, they’ve got other things they like. My buddy Isaac plays video games. We’ve got an anomaly that likes paperwork and puzzles. Here– while we talk, watch me.”
He moved into proper form, and demonstrated a throw. It nicked the hoop, but fell through and bounced back. He caught it again, and repeated the process.
“I could set it up so you could talk to some of them, if you’d like. Maybe not researchers, because we tend to make everything some kind of research project. But– I’ve got agents that might appreciate the break. And maybe if you’re okay with it, a few other anomalies. I know you’ve already talked to Anchor, right? We could do more interactions like that while you figure yourself out.”
He hadn’t really forgotten what he was talking to, but he also hadn’t really known what he’d see in the first place. The image of her and the conjured-up-maybe-researcher lingered in his mind, and her willingness to abide by the rules of the game, even if he slipped out of them for the sake of demonstration. When it came bouncing back the second time, he tossed the Mayball back to her, then took a few steps closer to the hoop, where it’d be easier for her to throw from.
Her not-friend-but-acquaintance. Laine was very different from Cody, so it wasn't much of a surprise that she was considered an anomaly while he was not. Her mind was - organized, in a strange way. She supposed that was anomalous enough.
"I met Laine. I liked Laine. We both enjoy the quiet, and she taught me about puzzles. Maybe I can be a basketball-and-puzzle person."
She took the ball from him, walking up to the ring and trying to throw the ball in the way he'd shown. It bounced against the back, again, but this time she'd thrown it less-so, so when it ricocheted it fell into the ring below. She grinned.
"I'm not one of those people. I like basketball. It's silly."
With a skip, she left the ground, floating back beside Cody's head.
"I'd like to meet more people. That would be nice. It's hard to figure out what type of person I'd be without a lot of examples."
Then, a bit quieter -
"It'd be even easier if you let me out, you know."
Charity got the ball in off the backboard this time, and Cody clapped twice before catching it with both hands. “Nice!”
She didn’t need him to explain that Laine was Anchor, which was good. And it was good that they got along. Maybe he’d have to have Anchor come in here more often; maybe he’d offer to send her in with a non-anomalous puzzle, or better yet– had anyone checked to see if Anchor liked board games? Maybe he’d ask her. He still had to ask her about amelioration anyway.
And then the addendum. Cody had begun to dribble the ball, but paused, scooping the ball from the bottom to hold it. He looked to Charity, and then sighed, very softly. Of course. It always came back to that, not just with her– with half the stuff they had here. More than half the people. It wasn’t a prison. Leviathan was actively working to make sure it wasn’t a prison, as were he and Isaac. But it wasn’t exactly freedom, either.
“Charity… you know I can’t do that.” He started to dribble the ball again with one hand, his expression more serious, more thoughtful. “You know that, right? It’s – my purpose is to make sure everyone stays safe.”
His mind drifted back to the researcher. Did she realize she wasn’t safe? Could he explain that in a way she would understand? That wasn’t a research question. It wasn’t security, either; it was a people question. Cody tended to be good with people, but she wasn’t completely a people, nor was she completely a place. Just thinking about that made him… tired, somehow. The can of RedBull in the coat pocket over on the sidelines was suddenly very appealing, but he waited for Charity’s reply. It’d be important for decisions, moving forward.
The basketball game was all but forgotten. Charity remained floating, her arms folding as she looked in the opposite direction of Cody. In a moment, the court was gone, the ball was gone, only the forest, because it was always the forest.
"What if it's my purpose to leave? What then?"
She didn't sound angry, but she didn't sound happy. More - exasperated.
"Is your purpose more important than mine? Is it your purpose to make your purpose more important than mine?"
She flipped midair, eye catching his.
"I could've left. Both times, I could've. But I didn't. I wanted to take them with me. Show them Me. So I pulled and I pulled and I pulled, but not to pull myself out. To pull them in." She bared her teeth. "It didn't work. I know that now. I won't try it again, but I just want someone to pull on me. Let me become. I want to be me, just like - like you can be you. It isn't fair."