The creature before them cowered against the alley wall. Its body curled up around itself, all six legs collected under it, eyes gazing wide up at the muzzle of the gun. Agent Esposito pinned the creature with her gaze. It was a pathetic but disturbing looking thing, about the size of a large dog, with mottled slate gray skin and a mane of thick, matted black fur from its neck down its spine and chest. It had four arms ending in human-like hands, and from what she had seen already tonight, could move on its hind legs like a person, or on its legs and front...arms, legs, whatever they were - like an animal, with the second pair tucked against its chest. In place of its head was a large feline skull, with no flesh or skin, and solid glowing white eyes sunken deep into the sockets.
It was the thing of nightmares, and many a horror movie, and yet here it was, emaciated and trembling like an abused animal. She wondered why it hadn’t tried to attack them yet. Even their more pacifistic targets usually showed some sort of hostility when cornered like this - a warning growl, a flash of teeth, a swipe of the claws - but this one, nothing. It just looked up at her, silent, still, waiting for her to make a decision.
Her partner stood behind her, quiet as he always was at this part of the mission. Even quieter, perhaps. She knew why.
Their partnership had become an amicable one, and they even enjoyed each other’s company off-duty. But they still had their reservations, and as soon as they went out in the field, those reservations became apparent. Zephran had resigned himself to doing as he was bidden, even long after the threat of the electrical shock had been removed from the equation. Nina, on the other hand, had resigned herself to dealing with his targetless pain and anger after the mission was completed. He knew she could never stop this job, and she knew he could never turn on his own kind with a peaceful mind.
They both doubted either of them ever got much sleep.
But that night was different. That night Zephran remained quiet the entire ride back to base and much of the night. Nina had long since stopped leaving him in the containment cell outside. They were partners, and partners could share a cabin. And that night, she was glad she did, else she would never have seen the way he sat listlessly on the floor in front of the couch for what had to be hours, only responding when he was directly addressed.
She made a cup of hot chocolate for herself, then a small saucepan for him, and brought both over to set them on the coffee table. He didn’t move. She rested a tentative hand on his back - they still had their hangups about physical contact, but it seemed important now. “Zeph?”
“What’s wrong?” She held the saucepan out in front of him.
He glanced at it, then took it from her, but did not drink from it. “The usual.”
Nina paused, then sat on the couch behind him and took the mug in her hands with a faint smile. “No. If this was the usual, you would be yelling and roaring and tearing up trees and I would be throwing empty threats to lock you in your cell if you didn’t calm down.” No response. Her smile faded. “So what is it really?”
There was a long moment of silence before he finally answered, looking down into his pot. “I have been thinking.”
He sighed, but continued. “I have been thinking about what we do, and why we do it.”
Nina tilted her head. They had had this conversation before. She finally conceded some time ago, much to Zephran’s pleasure, that there were probably better alternatives to what they were doing. “We know why. DISE doesn’t look kindly on dissenters, whether they’re monster or human. And dissenters don’t get fired, they go missing.”
He shook his head. “No, why does DISE do it, and why do they force us to do it?”
Nina stopped. If she was honest, she had never thought about that. Now it seemed obvious. She should have been questioning her superiors’ motives from the beginning. Even as she doubted them, her mouth parroted what she’d been told her entire life. “They want to protect humanity, and they believe the only way to do that is to remove and control anything supernatural that poses a threat. And they want to improve humanity, and they believe the only way to do that is by studying the supernatural.”
Zeph turned his head. “Do you really believe that?”
She furrowed her brows. “Believe what?”
“That they are only concerned with monsters that pose a threat to humans, and that they study us the way they do for the greater good?”
Her shoulders sank. “Well...I don’t agree with them necessarily, but I think their hearts are in the right place. Just...their methods need work.”
“Need work.” He snorted.
“You know what I mean.”
“But you don’t know what I mean.” He shook his head and twisted to face her, setting the hot chocolate back on the table. “They study us for three things: what we can contribute to medical science, what we can contribute to combat, and meaningless curiosity. For combat, they take their readings and their test results and their samples and send them off to whoever wants it. And as for their test subjects, either we die in the laboratory, we’re sold to somewhere else for who knows what, or we’re sent out with a human chaperone to kill and torture our own kind.”
Nina froze, staring at him as he spoke. Zephran almost never talked about his time in the lab. Everything she knew about what happened there came from DISE’s paperwork and test results on him. She was shocked, and also somehow not surprised. What surprised her more than anything was how even his tone was, so calm, with no trace of anger or contempt in his voice that she’d come to expect from him. Only dejected resignation and sadness. It did not suit him.
“And after all of these dissenters and escapees are rounded up or dead,” he continued without waiting for her to respond, “what then? What will happen to the rest of us that have been captured? They will continue their experiments until we have died or outlived our usefulness. And then they will kill us, until all of us are gone for good.”
He lifted his head to look at her directly. His voice finally cracked with emotion. “Nina…” Her eyes welled up at the pain in his voice as he spoke her name. “Nina, I am going to die by their hand. I know that. But I am going to die having helped the genocide of my own people, and forcing them to go through the same abuse and persecution that the rest of us have. And I….I’m not sure I can live with that. I’m not sure I want to live long enough to let them kill me after I’ve done their bidding for my entire life.”
They looked at each other for a long moment in silence. A tear finally escaped and rolled down Nina’s cheek. She wiped it away quickly and stood. “I’m sorry.” She disappeared into her room and stayed there for the remainder of the night, where she heard the gentle clinks of Zephran cleaning up.
This was their first mission since that talk. As harmless as this cat entity appeared to be, it had been extremely difficult to track down, leaving Nina plenty of time to reflect on what Zephran had said that night. He was right. She knew he was right. She had spent months upon months thinking of him as an exception to the rule; that monsters could not be trusted, except Zephran, she of course trusted him, he would never hurt an innocent human, not him, not her Zeph, he was a rare good egg in a clutch of rotten ones. She realized now how fucking stupid she had been. How many other agents’ partners were just like him? Angry, hopeless, battered, and above all afraid for their bodies and their souls? How many of them were not fortunate enough to be matched to an agent with enough compassion to see how wrong this was?
She gazed down the barrel of her gun at the cat creature. They were sent after it because it had supposedly been stealing food and livestock from the locals. Was she ready to condemn it to death for petty crimes, or sentence it to a life of horrific experiments? Farmers often shot wolves, foxes, and cougars that took their livestock. Was this any different? One shot and the creature would meet a quick, humane end, and the town could go back to their daily lives. But what if it was sentient? Zephran was always quick to remind her that a predatory nature and the inability to speak human languages were not proof of a lack of sentience. And if this was one of those cases, then this would be more akin to shooting a street thief for stealing food to survive - and judging by the protruding ribs straining against the skin with the rise and fall of each breath, that was likely the case - and there was no denying that would be wrong. If it was only stealing out of desperation, then could she really fault it for-
Zephran’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts. She’d been holding this poor creature at gunpoint for minutes. Slowly she lowered the gun, but caution refused to let her holster it. “Zeph, how much meat do we have left at the cabin?”
“Uh, a-a couple of deer I think. Four hundred pounds, maybe four-fifty. Why?”
“How long will that hold you over for?”
Zephran glanced between Nina and the cat creature. He wasn’t sure how any of this was relevant now, unless… “Three or four days. We could hunt again if we need more.”
Nina hesitated, then nodded. She crouched down slowly and held her hands toward the creature, palms out. It watched her, cautious and untrusting, but curious. She lowered the gun to the pavement by her side, setting it down gently and raising her now empty hands again. The creature readjusted on its feet, but didn’t dare move.
“Do you understand me?” She was careful to keep her voice gentle but firm, and annunciated her syllables.
The cat paused, then slowly nodded.
“Can you speak?”
Another pause. “Sss-ssssommme…”
Nina nodded in return. “We are going to take you to our cabin and give you some food. Then we’re going to take you somewhere far away from humans, and you must stay there. No more stealing or hunting farm animals. Do you understand?”
“Yes. You have been taking food from the humans who live here. The animals you killed belong to them, and they are angry that you killed them.” The monster looked even more confused now, but reluctant to prolong this talk. Nina glanced at Zephran, then back to it. “If the food is inside a human building, or inside a field with a human fence around it, you have to leave it alone. Do you understand?”
It hesitated, but nodded again.
“I mean it, you must stay where we bring you. If humans find you again, they will try to kill you.” It tensed, then nodded again. “Good.”
Nina rose to her feet and gestured for Zephran to come closer. He hurried over and crouched at her side, bringing him closer to her eye level and making him less imposing to the creature.
“Stay here with it,” said Nina. “I’m gonna go get the van and then we need to move.” Without waiting for a response, she spun on her heels and sprinted out of the alley.
The cat eagerly scarfed down each scrap of venison Zephran idly tossed its way. He had to feed it piece by piece, after it tore into the larger cuts of meat far more voraciously than they suspected was healthy. Nina could feel his eyes on her as she loaded a small sack full of more venison. They would let the creature fill up now, rest on the way to some remote tract of land, and then set it free with a few days’ worth of food before it could hunt again.
Nina had been pacing the front yard on the phone with her superiors ever since they returned. Zephran watched her while he fed the creature, but did not dare interrupt. Finally she hung up, dropped the phone to her side, tilted her head back, and took a deep breath.
Zephran stood and closed the containment cell door to keep the cat from wandering off or eating more than its share - it didn’t seem fazed. He left it to approach Nina now that there was no risk of blowing their cover. She looked up at him a bit uncomfortably.
He shifted on his feet. “Hey.”
“Are you alright?“ she asked after a moment.
Zephran tilted his head. “Are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? You’re setting a target free.”
Nina glanced toward the cell and shrugged. “It’s not really hurting anyone…”
He tilted his head, then crossed his arms. “They rarely are.”
She sighed and rolled her head back. “Okay, look, I don’t know. It just….feels like a good idea.” She crossed her arms back at him. “I thought you’d be happy.”
Immediately held his hands up. “I am not complaining, believe me. I’m just making sure you didn’t hit your head or catch a fever or something.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. Did you feed it?” He nodded, and she nodded back.
Zephran scanned the edge of the tree line around the cabin, then looked back down at his partner. “How are you going to explain this to DISE?”
She sighed and rubbed a hand over her face. “I told them it got away, but we know where it’s going, and we think we’ve got it cornered. I figure…..we’ll take it somewhere and then walk it into the woods somewhere and let it go. There’s all kinds of hunting and trapping stores nearby, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find some black pelts to fake some case photos…..” She paused, tapping a finger to her chin. “Or maybe we can say we had to burn it…”
She stopped mid-thought to look up at him.