And Then It Was Morning
rating: +102+x

Niles originally thought it had been the carcass. The lion corpse that they'd fed 4966 for testing a few days before might have had toxins in it - it could have eaten poisoned meat left out by villagers near its home, or perhaps a mining operation nearby had contaminated its favorite watering hole with heavy metals. But the tests came back negative for any kind of toxin. That didn't really tell them anything, however - the toxins could still be lurking in the little plush, though how they were affecting him, she couldn't fathom.

The more she watched him, though, (given the circumstances she was not about to refer to 4966 as "it") the more she thought it might have been something else. Something more insidious. Something they could do nothing about.

They had grabbed her in the hallway as she took a break from analyzing the latest manifestation data for 1155. Shepherd, the research tech, had pulled her aside.

"Bannock wants your opinion," he said. She'd shrugged and agreed, assuming it was the pet project they'd talked about a month ago, the one on whether or not the pack dynamics of 939 were being altered due to captivity.

When Shepherd led her to 4966's chamber, she was baffled, then concerned. What would they want an expert in predator psychology for? Had 4966 become 1048? Had they made a deadly mistake? Dr. Niles Hessen braced herself for blood.

There was no carnage when she arrived, simply a troubled-looking Bannock.

"Thanks for coming, Hessen."

"Of course. Not sure how I'm qualified to help, but if I can do something, I'm happy to."

"You've spent the most time with 4966 bar the people actually assigned to it. I need you to make sure we're not making a mountain out of a molehill."

"All right."

"Go in, spend a little time with him, and then we'll talk. I don't want to color your perception."

Niles nodded and entered the chamber.

"Tubbioca?" 4966 didn't respond to its number. He claimed he couldn't remember such a big number, and while that was definitely plausible, Niles suspected he just liked hearing his name.

The plush poked out of his nest of blankets. She knelt beside its bed.

"Hey, little guy. You wanna play?"

Normally the plush would have wiggled his way into her lap, and they would have played with the one of the little jingly balls that littered the floor of his chamber, or she would have teased him with the feather on the end of the stick, or she would have tossed him in the air (gently, of course) while he squealed in delight.

But he didn't move from his bed. Niles narrowed her brow. Tubbioca had a strict naptime schedule, yes, but this wasn't when he would normally be asleep.

"You okay, little buddy?" No movement or acknowledgement that he'd heard her. She frowned. She peeked under the blankets to find that he had gone back to sleep. She tucked him back in and left the chamber.

Bannock looked at her with a subtle but keen sort of anticipation - the way someone looked, for example, when waiting to hear from your mother-in-law how she'd liked the new way you'd cooked the potatoes. The way you look when you are invested in the outcome but don't want to look like you care.

"He's definitely off," Niles said, nodding slowly. "He doesn't normally sleep at this hour, and he almost always prefers play to sleep. This isn't like him."

"All right. It's not just me and Shepherd, then. Thanks for taking a look."

"Any time."

She made to leave, but Bannock placed a hand on her shoulder before she reached the door.

"Hessen?"

"Yeah?"

"If - if you think of anything that might explain this, any solution, any idea - let me know."

"Will do."

And she did turn it over the rest of the day, worrying the concept until its edges were smooth. She didn't stop when she clocked out for the day - she kept circling back to it as Elle drove them home, over and over. She wasn't worried about the lack of answers right now - she knew she would think of it when she least expected it. All she needed to do now was consider the problem from every angle and ingrain its nuances into her brain, so that her subconscious could continue to play while she did other things.

This was an approach that had served Niles well many times. She did not expect it would fail her now.

She was right to have faith - halfway through dinner, Niles' body went stiff, and she dropped her fork with a clatter.

"Hibernation. He's hibernating! That's it. It's the start of winter, maybe he's got a cycle like a bear. Why he would is a mystery, but that's got to be what it is."

Elle, who had been in the middle of explaining her thoughts on the ending of Game of Thrones, blinked, and simply sighed when Niles excused herself to make a call to Bannock. They had been together long enough that Elle understood she would never have her wife's undivided attention.

Niles slept soundly that night - the little plush's apathy had bothered her more than she cared to admit.

All was well for about three days. And then Shepherd appeared in her office doorway.

"He won't eat."

Her heart sunk. She tried to rationalize it as the disappointment of a theory being disproved, that this was a purely scientific disappointment. She knew that this was a lie, however, and that any real attachment to 4966 would have consequences. She put the thought out of her mind for the moment. She would deal with how much 4966's condition was bothering her when they had fixed it.

Bannock looked more overtly worried this time, and Shepherd was visibly jittery. At least if she was reprimanded for undue attachment, she wouldn't be alone.

"All right. Shepherd, here's 12 dollars. Buy a variety of snacks from the vending machine. Go for fatty ones, or ones with a lot of sugar. I want to test a theory."

Shepherd left, money in hand.

"What's your theory?"

"Bears are selective what they eat before hibernating. They try to optimize fat intake to bulk up as much as possible. A bear about to hibernate won't even eat whole salmon - they eat the belly, the eyes, and the skin. All the fattiest parts. The chow we feed him now is more protein heavy. If he goes for the vending machine snacks, hibernation is still on the table."

Bannock nodded. When Shepherd returned with the snacks, they spent a few minutes unwrapping candy bars in silence.

Niles entered the chamber. She laid out the snacks in front of Tubbioca's bed, making sure he could see them all without having to move too much. She lifted the blanket and smiled.

"Hi, Tubby. I brought you some munchies."

Tubby didn't really respond at first. He made a small, scared, unsure sound. Niles stroked him with two fingers, not applying much pressure. Just enough to hopefully reassure the poor little guy some.

"They're all for you. Will you try them for me?"

He climbed down from the ladder to his bed, and Niles noticed his movements were a little more irregular than normal. He ate a third of a Cheeto halfheartedly. The potato chip bag was sniffed, and then ignored. He refused to look twice at the Snickers. The peanut butter cup he finally seemed to show some interest in, and Niles brightened when he takes a small bite. He swallowed after a bit, but then convulsed and threw it back up. He looked at her with woven eyes, and began to whimper.

She picked him up and pressed him to her chest.

"It's okay. I know, you don't feel good. I'm sorry about that. I'll get this cleaned up, and you go back to sleep."

She placed him back into his bed, collected the snacks, and left.

Shepherd and Bannock stared at her as she throws away the snacks. There was a crushing silence.

"He… He doesn't need to eat, right?" Shepherd breaks the silence.

"I don't believe so."

"So we can just leave him his chow, and he'll eat when he feels like it, yeah?"

Bannock shrugged. "Update the protocol. This may just be an episode."

Niles stared fixedly at a spot on the wall. Her mind wore grooves in the problem as she traced all of its aspects over and over again.

The ride home was a solemn one. Elle placed a hand on her wife's, though no acknowledgement of the gesture followed.

Niles took two extra melatonin supplements to sleep that night.

She threw herself into her work the next couple of days. It was not a coping mechanism that had ever worked for her, and she did not believe that it would suddenly start working now, but no other alternatives remained.

An idea came to her when she was tallying successful kills made by 469.

She arrived at Bannock's office disheveled and out of breath. "Can you get a body?"

"Sorry?"

"A human body. For 4966. If he can talk -"

"He can tell us what's wrong. Let me put in a call right now."

Thirty-five minutes later, Bannock, Shepherd and Niles watched as 4966 consumes the D-Class's eviscerated body. Once finished, Niles turned on the recorder, and Bannock began the questions.

"Hi, 4966. How are you feeling?"

"Bad. My tummy hurt. Head hurt."

Niles tensed slightly.

"Do you know why?"

"Dunno. Want it to stop. Want Niles."

"She's right here, Tubbioca. She's right here with me."

"Hold." Tubbioca wiggled his front paws. Niles placed him gently onto her lap.

"Tubbioca, how can we help you? Can we do something to make it better? Are the lights too bright? Do you need a different bed?"

Tubbioca didn't respond. Instead, he began to sniffle. The sniffles turned into cries, and the cries to sobs. Niles closed her eyes and began to stroke him gently.

She wanted to say it would be okay. But the lie wouldn't help any one of them.

She had no idea how long he cried, but he stopped eventually. She placed him back down on the ground, and let him climb up the ladder back to his bed. When he began to climb, though, his motions were - well, they had never been graceful, but this was something else. He made it up six rungs before falling off.

"It's okay. You're just a little shaken today," Bannock said softly. "Try again." The next attempt only got to five. The third time, three. Niles sighed, took the bed down from the cat tower, and placed it on the ground.

There was a trick someone had taught Niles years ago. If you felt like you were going to cry, you looked up as far as your eyes could move, without moving your head at all. This had never once worked for her. She tried it anyway.

She excused herself from the containment chamber and returned to her work.

The Cajun shrimp she'd made for dinner tasted like dust in her mouth. She ate a few bites and pushed away the rest. She stood to clear it into the garbage. When she had scraped the plate clean, though, she didn't return to her seat. She simply stood over the sink where she had placed her dish, feeling like if she moved, something irreparable would crumble around her.

Elle's hands wrapped around her waist. Her wife pulled Niles into her, pressing her lips to the top of Niles' head.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I can't. I -"

"Okay. Then just let me hold you."

They stayed like that. Not for long, but long enough. Three melatonin, that night. She made a note to talk to a doctor about Ambien at some point.

The next day was a constant sort of dodge and parry with her own brain. Anything that made her think of 4966 was batted away as quickly as it came. She managed to be decently productive in spite of the mental whack-a-mole, and resolved to do the same the next day, where it shockingly proved still effective. The day after that, there were stretches of two to three hours where she didn't think once about the little plush.

And then Bannock himself showed up at her door, looking grim. A reluctant harbinger.

"Where's Shepherd?"

"He asked to be reassigned."

"Understandable," Niles said, letting exhaustion creep into her voice.

"I can stop, you know." Niles cocked her head. "Stop telling you about what's going on. I won't update you. You can just… stop being part of this."

"No. I'm in this till the - in this for the long haul."

"Niles. This might be the end."

"What? No. No, that's - what? How?"

"Come and see."

Tubbioca was moving, up and active. But when she saw what he was doing, she would have rather he stayed asleep.

Over and over again, he rammed his head into the wall, the gentle puff sounds punctuating a low, almost inaudible keen of agony.

"Oh my god." Niles instinctively brought her hand to her mouth and bit the flesh just under the base of her thumb - an old habit to ground herself when she was overwhelmed by stimuli or emotions. It worked enough that she could stifle the urge to cry, and turn to Bannock to recommend he request another body.

They fed it to him with anxious hands, gently urging him to eat it, apologizing for the pain that it must be causing him.

"Hi, Tubby," Niles began, keeping the tremble from her voice. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"

"Want stop. Head hurt. Tummy hurt. Brain hurt. Want - want - " he stopped, trembling.

"What do you want, Tubbioca?"

"Forgot."

"What do you mean?"

"Not remember."

"Can you point to what you want, little guy?"

He raised one paw and touched Niles on the knee.

"Of course. I'm right here. I'll be right back, okay? I gotta do one thing, and then you can have me for as long as you want. Bannock, stay with him. I need to call Elle."

"What for?"

"Tell her I'm staying here tonight."

"You'll get reprimanded. We both will."

"Please, Randall. He's - he's - we both know what's next. Please don't make him go through it alone."

Bannock closed his eyes for a long time. A slow, pervasive expression of despair and exhaustion seemed to appear in his face, signifying the breaking of some internal tower of resolve. He opened his eyes and nodded. "I'll tell the supervisors that I authorized it. Once he vomits and we clean up, I'll have them bring you something to sleep on.

Tubbioca was visibly trembling after he retched up what remained of the body. She helped the janitors mop up the mess. Once the chamber was clean, she brought in the mattress, blanket and pillow they procured for her. Bannock gave her a bag of Tostitos himself.

"In case he wants one," he said. She nodded. "I'm headed home. Do you mind if I have a moment alone with him?"

"Go ahead." She shut off the intercom after he entered. He came out looking - hollow is the best word she could find for it. When he left, she entered the chamber.

She arranged his blankets carefully and moved his bed next to her mattress. He peeked out to rest his face against her arm. She offered him a Tostito out of habit, remembering all the times she'd brought him a snack from the vending machine when she needed a break from merciless hunters and their savaged kills. He wouldn't take it.

She ate it herself, though her mouth was so dry that it made swallowing hard. She opened her book and began to read. She was at once totally immersed and not at all paying attention. She studied each word but barely remembered the one that came before.

A gentle touch on her arm. Tubbioca raised himself with a whimper, the question clear in his eyes.

"Of course. Come cuddle, Tubby. I'm right here." She placed him on her chest, pressing him close with a hand. "I love you, little guy. I love you so much, okay?" She heard a small soft sound in response. Niles fell asleep as his breathing finally calmed.

She woke, eyes crusty, mouth dry. Tubbioca was waiting right where he had been when she fell asleep. His eyes were open. In her just-woken brain, she found this to be a reason for happiness.

"How'd you sleep, lil guy? Feelin' better?"

No response. Understanding hit, not sharply like a sniper's bullet, but bluntly, like a sledgehammer. She poked his paw, moved it. Nothing. She squished him gently, then harder.

She closed her eyes, and thought that this must be what it is to be buried in an avalanche - to have no air to breathe, to be crushed under tons and tons of pressure, to see no way out.

When Elle came to find her, she found Niles sobbing on the floor of the chamber. Her wife held her tight, stroking her hair. The inert remains of 4966 were squished between them, Niles gripping him tight in her hand.

Dr. Niles Hessen and Dr. Randall Bannock submitted a joint request that Dr. Niles Hessen be allowed to keep the now-Neutralized 4966. MTF Captain Elle Ives and Laboratory Technician Jacob Shepherd both pledged their support to the motion.

The request was swiftly denied.

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