It finally, finally happened. Shannon wanted to kick herself, but she was far too busy scrambling. She had to get to her office. It couldn't end like this, not yet. She hadn't spent the last years of her life dedicated to this project just for it to eat her. She had to survive. She had to get out. And, if she did, she was going to kill Malcolm Cadmus. She could at least do that to make the world a better place. She tried to think of his insufferably smug face to keep her legs going. Anything but...
An awful metallic scrape echoed out behind her and she forced herself to sprint forward even faster. Her legs were on fire, but they took her around the corner. Her office was just ahead. She pulled in ragged breaths as her hand finally reached the handle. She twisted and tugged, and of course the door didn't budge. She tried to push in some desperate hope as she plunged her left hand into her pocket. Too long, too long but she pulled out her keys and untangled them from the fucking cord cliging on them and finally the key went in and the knob turned.
Shannon slammed the door behind her, then quickly locked it. It wouldn't stop the thing that was after her, but she couldn't just leave it unlocked. Her office was cluttered with papers. So many half-scribbled notes and unnecessary files. Progress updates and test ideas... And absolutely none of it mattered! What had she been doing here? Playing scientist, playing... playing minder for Malcolm's monster. So many mistakes. At least she would do her damnedest to fix one today.
She pulled open one of her drawers and grabbed the handgun she kept inside. She took a deep breath and then turned, holding it at the door. As soon as the thing broke in... Would a gunshot to the head even do the job? Shannon cursed. It would have, just fine, if Malcolm hadn't went and made his monster worse! But if she got lucky, and fast... It couldn't react to a gunshot in time to do anything, if it could do something. She just had to be ready.
It was just a waiting game.
She was going to die. The things were going to kill her. As soon as she made a mistake, they would ruthlessly go after her. Maybe even if she didn't, they would decide to kill her anyways. If she tried to flee, they'd kill her.
But all she could do was learn all the rules she could, do her best to follow them. Hope they wouldn't kill her before she finally had a chance to get away. It wasn't ideal, but what else was there?
It was just a waiting game.
There was a knock on the door. A knock! A polite rap. Shannon gripped the gun tighter and tried to pretend her hands weren't shaking.
"Lovelace?" The door didn't muffle the voice. Shannon furrowed her brows. "Doctor Lovelace, can you let me in? I'm scared."
Stupid. Why was the thing falling back on words now? Shannon took a deep breath. To rattle her, obviously. She considered staying silent, but what was the point? It wasn't like she was hidden. "Theta. You could pick a better lie."
"I'm not lying," the thing hissed. "I really am scared."
"You're scared." She couldn't help but let a note of exasperation into her voice. An echo of their stupid playful conversations. What the fuck was Theta doing? Toying with its food?
"Yes! Please let me in!" It was a pleading tone, but more like a petulant child than someone begging for safety.
"Theta, what are you scared of?" Shannon regretted the question as soon as she asked. This was what Theta wanted, for whatever inexplicable reason. Whatever it was, it was buying her time. "You understand the rampaging monster of the hour is you, don't you?"
"What? Oh no!" The voice curdled in mock horror.
Shannon didn't react to that. After a few seconds of silence came that familiar hiss that passed for a sigh. "No laugh? What a shame. Loveless, I'm starting to think you don't like me anymore."
"Theta." Shannon took a deep breath. "I have literally never liked you. I never even misled you into thinking I did." She really hadn't. She didn't know why Theta always joked about how she secretly enjoyed its company. Well, some attempt to manipulate her that never quite landed, she supposed.
"Aww, that hurts my feelings! Here I'd thought you enjoyed my antics and charming antagonistic streak."
"You don't have feelings. You're an emotionless, unempathetic killing machine. We worked very hard to make sure you were. You're clever and good at acting, and I already know that, so why are you still bothering? It's not going to change my mind. You played your oversized hand already. You can't try to kill me and then walk that back. What are you trying to gain?"
There was an uncomfortable silence before Theta spoke again, almost too quiet to hear. "Good question."
Then there was a slam and a dent slammed into the door. It took Shannon everything she had not to jump. Then came another slam, and a third, and the door buckled and split. Large dark claws pressed through the gap and wrenched it open further with cracks and pops. And there was Theta, thrusting herself in through the gap, face first. All sharp teeth and unblinking eyes.
Shannon pulled the trigger.
She could remember hatching.
It was all so simple, then. There was her and there was everything else. Everything else had warmth and food and firmness to lay on, but it had the cold and the wet and the foul-taste, and it had the squeezing where she couldn't move or moved when she didn't try to. There was oh so much, but it could be understood.
She learned how it worked, how to get the good and avoid the bad, as much as she could. It was always more complicated than she thought. She could still dimly remember her realization that there was more than one other thing, that the different pieces followed their own rules. She could separate the simple things from the complicated things, find ways to break down the complicated things more. But still, it wasn't perfect. Some things were too confusing. The grabbing things most of all.
Theta couldn't remember when she had started; it hadn't been a moment of realization, hadn't quite been something she did on purpose. But she started to think of them as more than the rest. They didn't just work, they acted, they reacted, they made decisions. They were alive. She needed extra attention to figure them out. The way they made those noises... She could make them back. Fool them.
She did. She did very well.
Shannon's heart skipped a beat. She pulled on the trigger again, and again it didn't budge. She cursed, and scrambled backwards as Theta flowed into the room.
It stretched out and then recompressed, eerily liquid. It dropped back to its usual hunched posture, prowling, tail sticking out behind it. Its eyes were fixed on Shannon, and its mouth was stretched in that toothy, permanent grin. It was looking at Shannon warily, remaining just past the doorway.
Shannon needed to toggle the safety. Stupid. But Theta didn't know that. If she pulled it away to find where the toggle actually was...
Eventually, Theta broke the silence with a growl. No, it was that awful laugh it had. "Not quite willing to shoot me, then? Is it because I'm just too cute?"
Shannon shut her mouth. What should she say? She couldn't think.
"Oh. Actual real doubt in your eyes. Wow! I'm surprised." Theta took a small step forward. Shannon gripped the handle of her gun tighter. "You really don't want to hurt me. I'm touched! I don't want to hurt you either."
"There's no point in lying. You don't care about me. You can't. I know you can't, you don't have that faculty. You don't have any empathy at all. You're just some monstrous predator, and I made the mistake of helping make you that way." Shannon shuddered. "You had me convinced for a long time, but..." Shannon sighed. "You can't fool me any longer. You ruined your chance to kill me and escape."
Theta's extra lids blinked across its eyes. Then it canted her head and laughed. "Oh, Loveless, you just don't get it. You could never get it. I have empathy! I really do. I've figured out what's going on in that brilliant head of yours. How it's just like what goes on in this brilliant head of mine. I have feelings, and it's not so hard to work out yours. You're scared of me, you don't want me to hurt you. You're angry at me, you want to hurt me. You hate me, you think I'm a monster that misled you all this time and has only pretended to understand. Only pretended to care. But that's the thing, Loveless! I have sympathy, too. I care about other people. Oh, your face is saying you don't believe me. Come on, Loveless, that doesn't make sense."
"Theta. You are planning to murder me and everyone else in this facility. Of course you don't care."
"That's not what I'm planning at all! I am going to murder you and every other human at this facility. Plus a couple more elsewhere to get this whole Ophiuchus thing buried. Oh, there it is. Now you get it. You actually had no idea, did you? Not even a suspicion. What am I again, 'Long-Run Test A17 Subject Θ'? Could you show me Subject Alpha? Beta? Anyone from Long-Run Test A16? I'm sure the B group isn't faring that much better. I don't even want to ask about if you have short-run testing."
"Theta! That's... no, I can't. They were flawed. But that doesn't mean you would be terminated! Not with my interest, and certainly not after Malcolm picked you! This is, you don't need to do this."
Theta's head was uncannily still, translucent eyelids the only things moving as its stared. As soon as Shannon blinked, the damn monster started laughing in that awful rumble. "Oh, oh, you still don't understand. It's not about me. If that was all, I wouldn't be doing this. I mean think about it. I would run off somewhere, set myself up where I could find food easily and stay hidden. I could do that. Remember, this is about sympathy." She hissed that word. "What do you think I've meant by the 'loveless' jab, all this time? You have sympathy for Kay, your little darling favorite who ran off. For me, even! Close enough to scratch whatever itch Kay did, even if I can never replace her. But the ones that don't pique your interest? What about them? Do you think I'm going to let any of you kill a single one of us again, now that I can stop you?"
Shannon swallowed. That was... But... "But they're monsters! They aren't like Kay! They aren't like... you. You haven't seen them, they're—"
"Just like me!" Theta snarled, and then sighed. "Just like Kay. Very good at pretending we don't have emotions. Because you all killed everyone who didn't manage to lie well enough. Do you know how suffocating it was to constantly pretend I never felt anything, Loveless? Do you know much of a relief it was when Cadmus did... whatever he did to me, and I was suddenly too important to kill off? I could finally tell someone, you, my big secret that I was faking. Always faking. And all this relief just because I was too close to failure. You pawned me off on Cadmus because of what he did with Kay, you weren't giving him another good subject." She hissed. "Stop kidding yourself! You think I'm emotionless when it suits you, think I'm emotional when I finally admit it, and whip right back around to emotionless when I threaten you. So it will be okay when you shoot me! Because you can think of me as not like you anymore! And that's why I have to kill you!"
"What? Theta, you're—calm down. You aren't making sense." God. Theta was being honest about her emotions. Tears were even starting to well at her eyes. Shannon hadn't known Theta could cry. But... Was this just some sort of breakdown? "Just calm down. You don't have to get so violent." Shannon swallowed. Maybe she could talk her down. But... Still. She'd have to kill her. She was too dangerous. If this happened again and caught her off guard, if Theta erratically attacked her and didn't let her get away that time...
"I am making sense. I meant what I said. You... You're going to kill me if I don't get you first." Shannon couldn't help but gulp. Theta laughed again. "The only reason you haven't yet is because you see too much of yourself in me. My face is just human enough that you can see me as a person. Because that's the only way your entire species can. You're bound by this... empathy you keep prattling on about."
She snarled. "Let me finish! Your whole model of empathy, it's garbage. It's recognizing yourself in others. You blather on about it like it's an inherent faculty. That you're born with it. This whole project was meant to make little monsters like me who don't have it. And guess what! I don't! When I look at you I don't see anything except what's there. The colors and the shapes and the motion."
"Just listen! For once, Lovelace, please!" Theta was getting erratic again. She was already contradicting herself. Maybe she should just take the shot now. Would she react in time? If she didn't try, was Theta going to suddenly lash out and disembowel her anyways? She took half a step back. "I know you're there. Because I put it together. The way you move, the noises you make, the words that you all infected my thoughts with. I put together that you exist. I realized that you were all too complicated to understand if you weren't thinking. And I decided, on my own, to care about your wellbeing! Because I enjoy your attention, I enjoy how you play along in that exasperated way. I want you alive, well, and approving of me to continue getting those."
"And I see those have run out. If you want me to think you're the morally superior one here, you should have launched into it before the murder attempt. Come on, Theta. You need to just get some rest and decompress. We can figure this out."
"Figure this out? Why, why, why aren't you listening? This isn't about me! I don't want to hurt you, Lovelace, because I like you. But if I'm going to try and rescue the others like me, I need to kill every human here. I can't spare all of you, even if we could break out we'd be hunted down. And I can't spare just you, could I?"
"Theta. You don't have to kill anyone. Just..."
"Then all the others like me die. If I have to pick one group... Lovelace, you know you're the only human I've met who thinks of me as a person. And even you switched to thinking otherwise earlier. And..." Theta looked away, and then quickly snapped her view back. "You're all here willingly. You're adults. Lovelace, how old am I?"
Shannon took a deep breath. "Four years since you hatched, give or take." That was... That wasn't the same, she didn't age like a human.
"See? Lovelace... Shannon, what am I supposed to do? We're all going to die. Regardless of what I do here. I mean, what hope do I really have? You can barely recognize me after all this time. What's humanity at large going to think once they find out about us? And the bloodbath we've left behind? Maybe some of you could learn to want to cooperate with us. But not enough, not when the rest see monsters and murderers. They'll kill us." She started crying again. For a second, she looked like a bawling child. "Lovelace. Lovelace, please. Help me find some solution that I've missed. Please."
Shannon took a deep breath and let out a sigh. Hesitantly, she lowered her gun away. Theta watched carefully, and then smiled, despite the tears. She didn't pounce.
Wordlessly, Shannon nodded, and then looked down.
She toggled the safety on the gun.