I Didn't Ask to Get Made
Chapter 4: Surface
"I have a plan."
Dr. Veydra frowns at her screen. A cup of coffee sits cold and unfinished at her left hand, while a pen drums impatiently in her right.
"Again—same time point," she tells the computer. After a brief pause, the footage on the screen replays for what seems like the hundredth time. In reality, it's only the twenty-second—not that she meant to keep count, but it's fascinating, the things that float just beneath the level of your awareness. Numbers, patterns, anomalies: telling details tend to pool within the subconscious mind and can easily be brought to the surface, given time and training.
Lately, she has noticed more than a few troubling details about eight-two-six.
Detail one. The subject's rekindled interest in the audio-visual feed. After having practically ignored the feed for the past few months, eight-two-six is now requesting clips left and right—mostly to do with mechanics, or chemistry, or electronics. It's a relief to see him so mentally active again—his assessments have improved drastically—but she can't help but wonder why. Why the sudden change?
Detail two. The subject's obsession with the 'tinkering box' Zeph gave him. Admittedly, the subject has always shown an affinity for mechanics and engineering, so the obsession in and of itself is not so surprising. What is surprising is that the obsession is new, but the box is old. Eight-two-six had that box in his possession for nearly a month before showing any real interest in it, outside of some dutiful tinkering in Zeph's presence. The box had been put aside and neglected for weeks, and now out of the blue, eight-two-six was spending his every spare moment poking around in it? Again, why?
Initially, Veydra had seen the box as an overindulgence, and had not hesitated to share that opinion with her supervisor. But she eventually conceded that a few metal trinkets and playthings were acceptable, so long as they couldn't possibly be crafted into anything dangerous. She's now beginning to wish she had stood her ground.
Eight-two-six is up to something—she just isn't sure what, yet. Hence her investigation into the security footage.
Normally, the footage sits untouched, except for randomly chosen clips that the interns watch for security purposes. Given the volume of material to sift through, it's taken her a few nights to find anything relevant, even watching at double or triple speed. Now that this clip is finally in front of her, though, she can't tear her eyes from it. It's a fairly straightforward scene, but she senses that there's more to it than what's on the surface. That there are hidden details on the brink of revealing themselves, if she just gives them the time and space to come to light.
She lets the clip play all the way through.
It was taken from the subject's holding room three nights prior. In the clip, eight-two-six clumsily walks into his tinkering box, spilling its contents across the floor. He then freezes, apparently contemplating the scattered pieces. Unfortunately, his back is to the camera—not an ideal angle, since his face and paws are obscured. Still, Veydra can at least make out the basics of what happens next: the subject has what appears to be a nervous breakdown. He slowly crumples in on himself, and his knees hit the cell floor. He starts to laugh and then sob uncontrollably, a sound that Veydra finds jarring. Whenever eight-two-six opens his mouth to speak, she still half-expects to hear his old repertoire of animal clicks and chatters. Not this perfectly cephoid voice, that can laugh and cry (like hers).
She takes a sip of coffee and grimaces at its now-tepid state, without looking away from her computer.
On the screen, eight-two-six eventually calms. Or more accurately, his hysteria subsides, because eight-two-six doesn't actually 'calm'—instead, he launches himself into action. He races around the room to gather the spilled pieces from the tinkering box, examining and then sorting each one. His back is no longer to the camera—even with the slightly grainy footage, Veydra finally has a clear view of his face. And she can tell that something in his expression has changed. Eight-two-six is awake, alert... almost manically energetic.
Which is what makes the next part of the footage so suspicious—
But a tremor starts in her right hand. Frightening in its familiarity, it interrupts her focus. No, no, not again. The tremor is barely perceptible—it could easily go unnoticed by an outside observer—but it's there. Gritting her teeth, Veydra concentrates on the movement, struggling to counter it. Slowly, she re-establishes a steady tap-tap of the pen in her hand, like she's practiced. Back in control, she releases a shaky breath.
She wishes she could simply attribute the tremor to stress, or to a nervous tic, or even to the copious amounts of caffeine she's been consuming lately—in fact, back when the tremors began, that's exactly what she convinced herself was happening—but by now, she knows better. She's a scientist, after all, an observer. She's fully aware of her genetic history, and of the all-too familiar pattern of deterioration. (It starts with shaking hands, then behavioral changes, and then...) But she tries not to think about the 'and then'.
She forces her attention back to the screen in front of her. "Skip back one minute, then play," she says firmly. The screen dutifully complies.
She focuses on the image of the subject. She rewatches the hysteria, then the manic intensity, then— There. The part that she finds so suspicious.
Detail three. The subject notices the security cameras, tries to hide the fact he's noticed them, and doesn't quite succeed.
At that point in the footage, the subject has gathered most of the mechanical components and arranged them in concentric circles. He sits at the center of the array, positioned so that his right profile is in view. Most of the mechanical pieces on the floor are in plain view of the camera, as well, except for a handful of pieces directly to the subject's left. Leaning forward, the subject grabs a mass of wires. He turns them in his hands, untangling them, checking for breakages. He then turns to his right, to reach for something behind him— And freezes.
Eight-two-six looks briefly to his right, then snaps his head back: a quick, shallow movement, almost like a twitch. And it may be a trick of the light, or it may be nothing at all, but it almost looks to Veydra as if eight-two-six remembers the security camera, instinctively starts to turn toward it, then catches himself.
After a moment, he relaxes again, settling into a casual posture.
Almost too casual... artfully casual? Deceptively casual?
After a minute or two of listless tinkering—nothing close to the energy he had shown just moments ago—eight-two-six stretches, yawns, and slides his paws into his pockets. He then heads to bed, stepping carefully around the mess on the floor. He cuts out the lights, although the camera still provides infrared vision of his small form. He curls under the covers, tossing and turning lightly in his sleep. Which is odd, because— Detail four. The subject typically sleeps like an overfed globnark in hibernation. And he rarely, if ever, uses the covers. Ergo, he was hiding something.
Then again, she has to consider the possibility that her suspicions are based on nothing more than paranoia. What if she were misinterpreting the situation entirely, reading nonexistent details into a perfectly innocent scene? After all, being a scientist means striving for objectivity in everything, self-assessment included. If, as a mental exercise, she were to force herself to assume the perspective of an outside observer—neither scientist nor subject—then she would probably take one look at the harried, sleep-deprived (maybe mentally ill) scientist sitting in front of a computer screen, alone in the dark long after normal work hours, and put her odds of paranoia at roughly... eighty percent. Meanwhile, the odds of the forlorn little subject concocting some grandiose, yet-to-be-determined scheme? Twenty percent at best—if she was being truly objective, then probably more like twelve. Knowing Zeph, he would have even made an argument for five percent or lower, but then again, ARC's lead scientist is far too trusting for his own good. Sometimes it baffles her, how such a gentle person came to pursue this line of work.
When Veydra signed on to the ARC Project as its second-lead investigator, she did so with the unspoken understanding that she would take charge of the more sordid aspects of the project—aspects that Zeph wished to distance himself from.
She and her assigned team performed vivisections. Zeph and his team monitored life signs.
She and her team identified the specimens that suited their purposes, and terminated the ones that did not. Zeph and his team saw to the development and delivery of the survivors.
She conducted conditioning sessions to increase subject compliance and provide negative reinforcement when necessary. Zeph always declined to attend, citing studies on the comparative advantages of positive enforcement, but he never actually used his authority as principal investigator to do away with the electric shock procedures.
She took the lead in training a terrified eight-two-six to speak, all but prying the words from his throat so that the project would meet its ridiculously ambitious goals for verbal development. Zeph, during his occasional visits, preferred to do most of the talking himself, which gave the subject the chance to listen and absorb instead of perform, but also forced Veydra to play catch-up the next day.
And now lately, Veydra has been ripping apart Subject X, excising tissue samples, prodding at the core, and testing the creature's limits (while trying to ignore its screams). Zeph has been working in the main laboratory, examining the tissue samples on a cellular and molecular level to determine the mechanisms behind X's regenerative abilities.
She takes no pleasure in causing undue pain, but neither does she shy away from what needs to be done. She has learned to accept the blood on her hands. Zeph, meanwhile, is still doing whatever he can to convince himself that his hands are clean—that they aren't dripping with red, like hers. She rationalizes the red. He simply denies its existence.
Not that she resents him for his naivete—she is too fond of him for that, and she appreciates the balance of their working relationship. She will allow him his weaknesses, since he has been more than patient in working around hers: Where she rushes headlong, he reins her in. And where he tiptoes, she strides.
It wasn't until a few months ago that she had come to truly appreciate her supervisor. With the initiation of Phase Two, the Institute had finally begun to tap eight-two-six's cognitive potential, though not quickly enough for Veydra's liking. She had been confident in the numbers, had seen the results indicating a level-eight intelligence, and had wanted to bump up the timetable for running the audio-visual feed at max capacity. Zeph had not shared her confidence.
"Numbers tell only a part of the story," he had told her mildly, adjusting his glasses. "We also have to consider the psychological well-being of the subject—a factor that can be, ah, difficult to quantify during the pre-verbal stages of development. My advice would be to err on the side of caution."
She frowns. "With all due respect, sir, we've had the feed at eighty percent capacity for over two months now. Eight-two-six has had more than enough time to adjust." He looks skeptical, but she plows ahead. "I believe we could easily push him to a hundred percent," she argues. "We've already blown past all known markers for cognitive progress in genetically modified species, so why not take advantage of the subject's full potential?"
Zeph must have caught the edge of desperation in her voice, because his eyes soften. Damn him for seeing straight through her. "Dr. Veydra, I have to ask—why the sudden investment in speeding up the project?" And then the really dreaded question, in an almost infuriatingly gentle voice— "Is this about your mother?"
She says nothing, which of course says everything.
"How is she? Any word?"
She almost makes up a happy lie. But there's always something about Zeph, something about that voice, that makes her want to come clean. "...Her prognosis is poor," she finally manages. "Cranial imaging showed advanced neurodegeneration, indicating progression towards the final stages of disease." The words sound stilted and overly clinical even to her: more like a doctor describing a patient than a daughter distraught over a parent. But if hiding behind words was the only way to keep herself from falling apart in front of her supervisor, then dammit, that's exactly what she was going to do. "If we move to a hundred percent capacity now," she presses on, "we might have publishable results within the next sixth months—we can submit our next grant for the third funding quarter instead of the fourth."
And then we can push for another wave of testing in lower life forms, followed by voluntary testing in higher life forms, and maybe by then we'll have our shit together, and the cybernetic and cerebral augments will be enough to keep my mother from choking to death on her own fucking spit.
She knows what Zeph will say, what he probably should say. That, at the moment, she doesn't have the emotional wherewithal needed to make an objective decision. That she needs to step outside of herself and think rationally about the hidden consequences of changing the project timetable. That the standard protocols are standard for a reason. That, for consistency's sake, any changes to the timetable would have to apply to all future subjects—not just eight-two-six—regardless of their ability to handle accelerated instruction.
That she can't hang all her hopes for her mother's survival (and now, maybe her own) on this project. It's a conversation they've had before, though not in so many words:
"Think of ARC as an exercise in 'pure' science," he told her once, in response to her question on practical applications. "ARC is intended to push the boundaries of genetic, cybernetic, and cognitive modification—to test what's possible. I have to warn you that the medical applications of this project, specifically with regards to treating neurodegenerative disorders, may, ah, be limited. I say this not to discourage you, but to prepare you for the possibility that you may not get the outcome you're looking for."
Facing her mentor now, Veydra fully expects to hear a similar speech.
But this time, instead of standing in her way, Zeph steps aside. "I want this to be your call," he tells her. "I trust you'll make the right one. You're a brilliant scientist—you don't need a relic like me micromanaging your every step," he chuckles. "I would still caution you to think carefully about this decision—but it's yours to make."
She realizes that her jaw is hanging open. "Zeph, I—" she doesn't know what to say, so she settles on a sincere thank you.
That same day, she gives the order to the increase the rate of audio-visual input to a hundred percent. The subject whines and scratches at his ears, but Veydra assures herself that it's a typical reaction, and that the subject simply needs time to adjust. Her mind leaps ahead to the next steps. She is thinking about data collection, and analysis plans, and a second cohort of specimens—
When she and team walk in the door the next morning and find the subject self-mutilated. The cochlear implant lies on the cage floor, still crackling with sounds of the feed, while the thirty-thousand-unit retinal implant is completely beyond repair.
Furious with the subject, and even more so with herself, she orders him brought to the conditioning chamber. And, oddly enough, when she bites out the word 'no' and watches eight-two-six writhe and whine under the current, something in her stomach uncoils itself and starts to ease. And maybe there is no pleasure in meting out pain (at least that's what she tells herself), but this is about more than just pain. This is about anger, and release, and so she orders the switch thrown again. And again, ignoring the startled glances of her subordinates.
She would have probably thrown it a fourth time, but one of the technicians timidly points out that standard procedure is to apply the shock twice.
"Fine, then get him out of my sight," she barks out, and they quickly comply. She remains in the conditioning chamber as the technicians start to half drag, half carry the limp subject down the hall. The conversation is too faint to hear, but she can easily imagine the whispers: 'what the hell was that' and 'I've never seen her snap before' and 'we should run some diagnostics on eight-two-six, make sure there's no permanent damage'.
Thankfully, there isn't—she's already in enough trouble as it is.
In the end, instead of shortening the project by three months, her actions delay it by two. She is almost tempted to call in sick, the day after the incident—she doesn't want to have to face Zeph's disappointment, when she is already so bitterly disappointed in herself. But when she does check in with her supervisor later that day, there are no reprimands, no 'I-told-you-so's, no well-deserved lectures about letting her personal problems obscure her professional judgment. Instead, Zeph acts like nothing ever happened. He launches straight into their morning meeting, handing her a file on an upcoming procedure—vocal surgeries for eight-two-six. He begins to ramble excitedly, like he always does, as if pausing for breath is a minor annoyance rather than a necessity. He reiterates that the subject already possesses the capacity for speech, but lacks the physical means to act on that capacity, and that according to data from the psychology wing, the subject was already thinking in terms of words, not vague associations or impressions, but actual words, and wasn't that an incredible achievement!
It really was an incredible achievement. So before she knows it, Veydra is swept up in Zeph's enthusiasm, nodding, smiling, even laughing. The scientists review the files, mapping out what tissues need to be removed or thinned out for the vocal surgeries, what muscles groups need to be strengthened, what clonal tissues will have to be grown, if any. It's a familiar, time-tested rhythm between them, and Veydra is deeply grateful for it.
The closest Zeph comes to mentioning the incident is when their meeting ends and she rises to leave his office, file in hand. "Dr. Veydra," he says sincerely, "if there's ever anything I can do." I'm here.
She's glad she's already headed out the door. Otherwise, she probably would fall apart in front of her supervisor, after all.
Ever since then, she has respected and trusted Zeph implicitly, in all matters. Well, all matters except one: his bewildering pretense of pursuing a friendship with subject eight-two-six. An absurd notion, given their line of work. Zeph is far too lenient, far too trusting. Fortunately for him, he has her as a second-in-command: if he can be there for her, then she can be there for him, too.
As she continues to play and replay the footage, she remains convinced of her initial suspicions. Odds and forced perspectives aside, every erratic behavior and every glance points to the same invariable conclusion, and nothing will convince her otherwise:
Eight-two-six is up to something—and she is determined to find out what.
The tremor in her right hand continues to come and go throughout the night—each time is a struggle to regain control. She notes the increasing frequency, and knows what it means for her, but pushes the thought from her mind.
(It starts with shaking hands. Then behavioral changes, often including but not limited to obsessive paranoia...)
So! Another antagonist. Don't worry, I promise we'll get back to our hero's POV soon—for now, though, I thought it would be fun to leave you in a 'villain's' headspace. That way, you won't know exactly what Rocket is up to: you'll have to piece it together as Veydra does. (Mwahaha.)
In case it wasn't clear from the context, 'cephoid' is what I'm using as a substitute for the word 'human'. (E.g. "She always half-expects to hear his old repertoire of animal clicks and chatters. Not this perfectly [human] voice, that can laugh and cry.") I'm often tempted to write the word 'human', especially when describing how the other characters perceive Rocket's actions and behaviors (e.g. 'That was surprisingly human of him'), or when describing how the characters appear (e.g. 'The plant-creature, whatever it was, was humanoid'). But I can't actually use 'human' or 'humanoid', since of course the Guardians universe is populated by aliens. Shiny, blue, green, red, cyborg, tattooed aliens, presumably in galaxies far, far away. When I was in Rocket's head, I was able to use the word 'More' to describe his sentience and human qualities, but I highly doubted the scientists would do the same. So, in the absence of a correct word, I just gave up and slapped together a new one—'cephoid'. Hope it wasn't too jarring (I feel like I've cheated on the English language).
I'm cheating on my usual 'no plugs' rule, too: gameloverx recently drew some fan-art for this story, and I was just so honored that I had to mention it! Check out her Zeph interpretation (which I immediately inducted into my head-canon, by the way) on her tumblr page, under user name videogamelover99.
And as always, thanks for reading and reviewing!