Part 1 : Whoa, Here She Comes
“Please put your hand into the mouth of the statue.” D-19238 did nothing. “I said put your hand in the mouth of the statue.”
D-19238 simply grinned. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
“Failure to obey will have consequences. Put your hand in the mouth of the statue. I won’t ask you again.”
“You’re the egghead who’s dating the skip, aren’t you?”
“That line of questioning is totally unacceptable.”
“Why're you all flustered, then? You seem a little defensive.”
He had her there. She was saved from having to answer by Reynolds’ arrival.
“Dr. Agarwal, you're needed in the western wing. You have an appointment with 5760 scheduled in fifteen minutes. Schedule change.”
As she sighed and shut the door behind her, she could still hear the D-Class call, "Try and get it on film for me, will you, Reynolds?"
When she reached the observation chamber, 5760 appeared to be having an argument with itself.
"Will you just shut up for once in your - well. Life isn't the right word. Leave me the fuck alone, why don't you?"
5760 suddenly raised its paws into the air and howled. Fear and adrenaline exploded through Lakshmi, leaving her trembling, weak-kneed.
Is this how the deer feels, when it sees the wolf?
She did not feel like anything so much as prey. She looked at 5760, and saw nothing human at all.
A grotesque spire of bone had grown in the midst of the forest, reaching and grasping. Lakshmi felt a pull in her own skeleton, and then a dull ache in the center of her bones. She held up her hand and watched as strange, ominous lumps began to grow through her skin, yearning outwards towards that awful tower. She turned to see Reynolds whimpering as tendrils of calcium pushed through his hand, splitting it open.
5760's voice was the rough, scraping snarl of claws on bone and the rustle of ragged fur on dusty cave walls. It said nothing intelligible, but concepts and sensations flowed through Lakshmi's mind, a flood of alien consciousness.
Child, youth, inexperienced. A young pup that whimpered with a human child's voice.
A gift. Strength. Speed. The feel of bone beneath Lakshmi's fingers, and the sudden awareness of every bit of bone she possessed, and those of her colleagues - the entire site, a massive constellation of calcium and enamel. The power itching behind those pale green eyes.
The gift, refused.
Humans - a faceless mass of them, the scent warm and delectable. 5760's hunger made Lakshmi's mouth water, and she shuddered.
Meat. Blood. Liver, kidneys, muscles. Lifting its face from someone's ribcage, skull lurid with blood.
A man's head crushed in a terrible paw.
A corpse rotting to nothing. Another, crumbling to dust.
Disdain for the terrified hearts beating rapidly on the other side of the Plexiglass window.
In the woods at night, prowling silently behind a hiker, tapetum lucidum glowing.
Breaking out, chasing after terrified researchers that could be caught at any second, just to prolong the hunt - playing with your food.
Lakshmi could barely keep from vomiting as she - it - no, she - tore open her own chest and ate her own heart, jaws slavering. She could feel the toughness of the muscle against her back molars, the warmth of the blood coating her hands and mouth.
"Get. Out." This was 5760's normal voice again, sounding breathless, and Lakshmi was back in her own head.
The structure turned to dust, and the bony vines retreated back beneath Lakshmi's skin. 5760's chest was visibly heaving. Yet when Lakshmi stepped closer to the window, it began to wave enthusiastically.
"Sorry about that! Fucker doesn't know when to quit. Is your hand okay?"
Lakshmi flexed it carefully. It would be sore for a bit, but it didn't seem to require stitches.
"It appears functional."
"Okay, good. Good. You ready for our date?"
"I'm sorry, what?!"
"You're fine. I've got him under control. Go get your hand bandaged up, though. I'll be waiting for you."
Whether near or far, I am always yours…Brendon Urie crooned over the loudspeakers in 5760’s containment cell. Unfortunately, Lakshmi was unable to appreciate his silken notes due to the fact that every fiber of her body was terrified. Pressed against 5760’s bone-white fur in a ghoulish caricature of a waltz, she was at least grateful that 5760 had agreed to lead. Between her terror and lack of coordination, she didn’t think she could have led a mannequin. She kept waiting for 5760's cheerful voice to morph into that hellish rasp, and for her bones to start rebelling against the rest of her once more. 5760 was doing an excellent job of ignoring her discomfort and pretending like Lakshmi hadn't almost died gruesomely. Lakshmi didn't entirely blame it for not wanting to talk about the earlier incident - she didn't want to spend another second remembering it.
"It happens all the time," was 5760's only response, when Lakshmi asked if 5760 was okay. "You get used to it. You're totally safe now, I promise. It doesn't happen when I know you're here."
Lakshmi wasn't reassured, not after she had just experienced the sensation of devouring herself alive. But as she thought about it, that had been the exact point when 5760 had become lucid again. She tried to remember if 5760 had seen her before it's… other occupant… had torn the control away. She didn't think so.
“I’m really glad we get to spend this time together,” 5760 said, as though they were at a couples retreat and not slow-dancing in a forest full of bone trees. Lakshmi decided the thing was either extremely determined to having a "normal" evening, or it had a remarkable capacity for self-delusion. Possibly both.
“Would you mind the claws?” she managed to squeak out, “they’re poking into my side.”
“Sorry,” said 5760, and loosened its grip on her waist. “This is such a beautiful song,” 5760 continued blithely. “You know the lyrics are his wedding vows to his wife?”
“Mmm,” said Lakshmi, trying to ignore the tiny skeletal abominations squeaking and chattering in the calcified underbrush. “I think you’ve mentioned that before, yes.”
“It's a good song. Sweet, but…sensual, almost. Seductive.” If 5760 had eyebrows, it would have raised them suggestively.
Great. Now it was hitting on her on top of everything else.
Lakshmi could barely keep her voice from trembling. “Could we perhaps keep this conversation professional?”
“I'm just trying to make things a little less formal."
"I would appreciate a certain degree of formality, actually."
"Fine. Be a killjoy that way.”
“Whatever you say.”
The song ended, and over the loudspeakers came a distinctively eighties beat, followed by the unmistakable notes of Hall and Oates.
“She’ll only come out at night…The lean and hungry type.”
Not for the first time that night, Lakshmi wondered what she had done to deserve this, or who she had pissed off on 5760’s research detail.
“Sorry,” said 5760 without any hint of shame, “little gallows humor.”
Lakshmi was beginning to despise Fridays.
"Lakshmi," chirped a cheerful voice from outside her office door, "can we come in?"
"Hi, Meyers," Lakshmi called distractedly. "Who's 'we?'"
"Me," Reynolds said, quivering. Meyers practically shoved him further into the room. He cleared his throat. "Sorry about not telling you about the procedures for 5760 like I was supposed to," he mutters. "I was afraid you'd yell at me, or that you'd think it was a joke or that you wouldn't do it and then Gonzalez would yell at me." He fiddled nervously with his watchband.
Lakshmi rolled her eyes, but smiled anyway. Typical Reynolds. "Just please don't do it again."
"Great," Meyers said, "apology satisfactory. Now, out, Reynolds."
"But - "
"You're so mean to that boy." Lakshmi watched Reynolds scurry away down the hall.
"I don't know where they found him," Meyers said, shaking her head. "How are you doing?"
"It's been stressful. I keep feeling like people are laughing at me behind my back. Actually, I know they are. More than usual, I mean."
"Well, I've made it clear that it's not a laughing matter. You're doing a good thing, honey. If you having candlelit dinners with a wendigo means people are safe, you're a hero in the eyes of anyone who's got more than three brain cells."
"I know. I saw what happened when 5760 loses it. It's… I don't want to talk about it. And then I can't access anything about it - who it is, where it was found, anything about the entity that inhabits it. Which, given the incident earlier, seems incredibly dangerous. I'm on its research detail but I can't get access."
"Ask it yourself, then," Meyers suggested.
"I can't do that."
"Yes you can, honey. Call it on its bullshit. You have a right to know."
"A right to know," Lakshmi echoed, squaring her shoulders.
End Part 2
Part 3: The Beast You've Made Of Me
Part 4: I Keep The Wolf From The Door
Part 5: I Slip, I'm Still An Animal