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rating: +80+x

On an overcast Thursday morning in the summer of 1998, Level 2 Researcher Shiloh Hoffman woke up as they usually did: approximately six and a half seconds too late.

They blinked, sat up, and rubbed the ever-present sleep out of their eyes as Maisy snuffled at their face. Six and a half seconds later, the alarm stopped ringing in their ears. Having confirmed Shiloh's consciousness, Maisy dutifully trotted across the room and returned with the ankle of their left leg carried delicately in her mouth.

"Thank you, Mae," Shiloh murmured, vaguely patting the air around where it would make sense for their service dog's head to be. It always took them a few minutes to calibrate their spatial awareness in the mornings, like a computer waking from hibernation. This time, they managed to get in a solid pat or two before she left to retrieve their sock and shoe.

Shiloh dragged their legs to the side of the bed, painstakingly affixing their prosthetic. It had been nearly a year now, but it was still a discomforting, unfamiliar situation. There were clothes folded up on the bedside table that they didn’t remember putting there, but knew from experience they’d chosen last night; a fairly standard soft cotton t-shirt, sweatpants, and mismatched sweatshirt.

It wasn’t exactly business casual, but they’d been allowed to wear more comfortable clothes to work to help compensate for all of their capital-I Issues. Accommodations, they’d called it. Dr. Laraskë had joked that the higher-ups felt bad for ruining their life, so they let them have a permanent Casual Friday. Shiloh hadn’t really gotten the joke.

They pinned their Foundation ID to their hoodie—it was outdated, with an old picture and the title still reading AGENT - MU-4 (“DEBUGGERS”), they’d have to get that fixed eventually—and stood, unsteadily, with Maisy nervously circling their legs. “Mmalright,” Shiloh mumbled, taking six and a half seconds to ensure the sturdiness of their upright position before patting her behind the ears, more confidently now.

Breakfast. Maisy led them to the kitchen, almost more aware of their routine than they were. It was their usual, a “protein shake” that was more of a highly calculated nutrient slop which happened to have some sort of chocolate flavoring thrown into it at some point. It worked, and it was cheap. That was all that really mattered.

Shiloh could hear someone a few doors over running a blender, which was new. Most people in this complex were their coworkers, so the whole building woke up at the same time every morning. Laraskë always complained about it being “feudalistic”, which Shiloh didn’t quite understand. Sure, the site director technically owned the building, and it was pretty much the cheapest place to live within fifty miles, but it wasn’t like they had no choices at all. Right?

The doorbell rang. Six and a half seconds later, Shiloh got up to answer the door.

"Hi," they mumbled on instinct, then looked about two feet down to Laraskë's eye level. "Hey."

She grinned and flashed a peace sign, which would have been less weird had she been about fifteen years younger. "Ready to go, kiddo?"

"Don't call me that," Shiloh muttered, but it was good-natured. They couldn't drive on their own because of the Issues, and Laraskë somehow managed to make giving them a ride to work every day not as weird as it sounded on paper. They were an extremely odd pair, and Shiloh couldn't quite recall when they had met or how they had become friends. "Lemme get Maisy and then we can go."

Maisy perked up at the mention of her name, then trotted obediently over for her vest and harness. She'd come pre-trained. It was one of the few upsides to everything that had happened. "Alright, ready."

"Let's bounce."

"Please don't say that."

The drive wasn't long. Neither of them spoke, but it was a comfortable silence; Shiloh was used to Laraskë driving like a maniac by now, and she kept the radio on a nice station. They usually preferred easy listening, music that didn't demand any mental energy, but the vapid pop that played on the radio asked for about as much engagement from them, if not less. They leaned back against the seat and watched the unmarked concrete monoliths surrounding Site-15 pass by.

I know it's up for me

(If you steal my sunshine)

Making sure I'm not in too deep

(If you steal my sunshine)

Shiloh's casual, cozy-looking outfit and permanent droopy-eyed tiredness hopefully made them look a little less intimidating, but the fact remained that they were a nearly seven-foot muscular guy in a facility that employed mostly scrawny intellectual types. Even Laraskë leading them to their workstation didn't spare them of more than a few double takes.

On some level, though, it made sense. Shiloh really was out of place in Site-15, but the universe had conspired to push them out of where it had actually made sense for them to be, and now here they were, a nervous wreck of an ex-MTF agent who had to attend Weird Therapy weekly to make sure their brain didn’t completely disintegrate.

They hadn’t always been so skittish. Actually, they had used to be the exact opposite: confident, competent, maybe a little loud, but overall had their ducks in a row. It fit better, that description; it was a mental image that made more sense with their actual appearance.

And then one of those fucking chicken-beasts from hell had to go and—

It was more complicated than that, though. Everything was.

In Epsilon-11, they taught new agents that there were three responses to fear: fight, flight, and freeze. Their job, their CO had said, was to train themselves into responding with fight, every time. The training was more mental than physical, conditioning their startle response to be an instant punch to the nose and a hand ready on a sidearm. Shiloh—Agent Hoffman, back then—had taken to it quickly, and for a year and a half they were invincible.

And then—and then. To put it plainly, they proved themself wrong.

It had been a standard breach call, and by then they had climbed up the ranks. Their CO—Agent Oliveira, during the off-hours—had called on Shiloh personally to act as second in command. Nine of the bastards, a damaged containment chamber, and Site-114 on total lockdown, and Nine-Tailed Fox, subunit γ, was called in to clean up. It was chaos, but chaos Shiloh could handle. Was handling, at least until the instincts they thought were permanently drilled into their head faltered.

Six of them were down, and those fucking eggs were everywhere, but Shiloh had let themselves grow too confident, and then they had radioed Oliveira, and then—a gap in their memory. Crucial moments, lost to their own negligence. There was a blank space between the point they'd decided to take a quick breather and—

—and one of them on their leg and dripping, dripping everywhere, a disgusting slurry of marrow and tendons and blood pooled in the cavity of their skin. It was mottled red and thick and smeared on the fucking thing's face and they had fired two shots into its head and four shots into its carcass, and then the trigger clicked seventeen more times on an empty chamber and they were frozen.

That was it, really. Shiloh froze. They had fired on pure adrenaline and then slumped and waited for unconsciousness once the immediate threat was gone, the beast that had gouged out their leg lying dead to the side. They could still hear the wailing as more of them rampaged, and all Shiloh did was wait, for blood loss or shock or another one of those fucking things to finish them off. Shrieks reverberated through the halls of Site-114, and Oliveira’s voice faded to static. For twenty-six minutes, everything was over.

They kept track of the time, stared at the digital clock across the hall as they waited for their vision to go black. Somehow, though, it had still felt like an eternity before Oliveira managed to find them. By that point, they were done with the dry heaving, done with the choking on bile, done with the twitching and writhing to somehow make a half-dissolved leg easier to bear. All they had left to give was shallow breaths and a limp body trembling with feverish shock as Oliveira slung them over his shoulder and started towards the medical ward.

He was everything an MTF agent should be. He'd been injured—there were gouges on his arms where the spit of those things had gotten on him—but was still on his feet and alert, even with bits of blood and flesh spattering his tactical vest. Shiloh cursed their own cowardice, then, hated themself for not being able to prevent it or at least to help. Oliveira didn't seem angry, though; he talked to Shiloh as he carried them, managing to find words that weren't empty, soothing you'll be okay and you did well and everyone else is alright and you're gonna be okay, Hoffman, I promise, just stay with me

The necrosis-blackened remains of their leg, barely attached by half-melted skin and muscle fibers, succumbed to their own weight and hit the floor with a sickening smack. From then on, everything was dark.

—Shiloh came to with the sounds of various discordant beeps and murmurs ringing uncomfortably in their ears. It was an unfamiliar room—they had been invincible, what reason did they have to be in the medical ward—and they didn’t recognize most of the faces, except that of Oliveira, who had fallen asleep standing up across the room from them. They couldn’t recall exactly what had happened, but they remembered thinking that if Oliveira was there with them, it had to be okay. Right?

As much as they could manage through a haze of sedatives, Shiloh had smiled.

—Shiloh came to and their leg was numb. Their leg, their fucking leg Oliveira please you have to help me I can’t feel my fucking leg—

Someone held them down, stuck a syringe into their arm, spoke to them like they were a frightened animal. They couldn’t remember when they had stopped thrashing.

—Shiloh came to, and there were hundreds of butterflies, all over their body. The room swam. It smelled like blood and rubbing alcohol. They tried to say something, but it came out upside down.

—Shiloh came to, that lovely drug-haze faded but still present, pain throbbing in their—their leg was gone. They remembered now, their leg was gone, melted and sticky, splattered on the linoleum floor.

The space where their leg ended was covered by a sheet now, and Shiloh assumed that meant it was still too gross to look at. They choked on—something, for certain, maybe a memory, maybe a feeling, coughing and retching as the pain and the sights and sounds crashed through their head again in waves.

Some attendant—a nurse, maybe—hovered over them as soon as they started dry heaving, talking to them in a high-pitched voice, but they couldn't understand, couldn't make anything out under the static buzzing in their ears. "Fuck," they gasped out, phantom aches stinging muscles that weren't there anymore, "fuck, fuck—"

"Hoffman— Shiloh, hey, listen—" A familiar lightly accented voice, a familiar tall, blurry figure hurrying across the room to their side. Oliveira took their hand in both of his, rubbed it lightly with his thumb. "—Hey, you're okay. You're okay, I'm here, look at me. Look— look at me."

They coughed, wiped their mouth, swept at the heat starting to prick at the corner of their eyes. The memories were frozen deep in their lungs, seizing their chest and wracking them with guilt. Freezing up again, just like before. "I fucked up." Shiloh took in a heavy, forced breath, more shaky than they wanted. "I fucked up. I'm sorry."

"Look at me, Shiloh." It was more firm now, and that familiar authoritative tone combined with their seldom-heard first name forced their gaze up. Oliveira looked—emotional, but what about they couldn't quite tell. "It's not your fault. You got the worst of it, everyone else was okay. You did well, understand? It's not— don't blame yourself. That's not like you."

It was almost too intense to bear. Shiloh shrugged noncommittally, letting their eyes wander to the abrupt end of their leg under the sheet. "Th— thanks." They took another shuddering breath. So this was what was happening now. This was reality, unavoidable. "You don't have to— it's fine. I'll be fine. Sorry."

"Stop apologizing." Oliveira's voice sounded clouded with worry in a way they'd never heard. "I mean, jesus. You were—" He cleared his throat. "The surgery was rough. It was infected, you weren't taking to it well, it was bad, okay? I thought we'd lose you." He squeezed their hand again. "Cut yourself a break, will you?"

Shiloh mentally filed it away to take to heart later. "Surgery?"

"You were out for a few days, Hoffman." Oliveira pulled his lips back in a grimace. "It's all patched up now. They tried to ask you what you wanted to do about keeping your knee, but you haven't been lucid enough until today."

They didn't feel very lucid. "Oh." A pause. "I don't know."

Oliveira's expression shifted almost imperceptibly. He sighed, leaning back in his chair, letting go of their hand in the process. Its absence ached a little. "Shit was rough. I hope they let you get some more rest before they start pestering you." He paused, visibly swallowed. "I hope we can work it out."

Work it out felt like a phrase heavy with implications, but neither of them acknowledged it. Shiloh nodded lightly, letting their head fall back against the thin paper covering the hospital bed.

They complained, later, of their leg hurting, so whatever drug cocktail was being pumped into them was amped up. The rest of the week was spent in an aching, drowsy state of near-consciousness as various people in suits and lab coats they vaguely recognized spoke to them, asked them to sign forms, took notes. It had been hard to hold on to, a continuous hazy march of performed admirably and of course there will be compensation and We're sorry, but and no longer fit to serve and less active opportunities available and absolutely, just sign right here.

Three Fridays after their leg was torn off, Shiloh left the medical ward with crutches, a prescription for 15mg of an anomalous opium compound, and the job title Stationary Agent of MTF Mu-4 ("Debuggers"), subunit λ. They didn't remember when it had happened, just that it had happened. Not a demotion, the woman in a suit had cheerfully informed them, a skill-based reassignment. They almost admired how easily she lied to their face.

They were given a week of paid leave to recover, then transferred to Site-15.

"…new terminals, but it's not like that'll make a difference. You with me, kiddo?"

Six and a half seconds later, Shiloh shook themself, sighed forcefully. "Yeah. Quit calling me that."

"Good, 'cause this is our floor." Laraskë grinned, holding her hand over the elevator door to keep it open. "After you."

Shiloh stepped out into the hallway, Maisy's claws click-clacking on the linoleum beside them.

They missed Oliveira.

half one of two
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