Theresa ended the call, and slid her phone back into her lab coat pocket.
“Everything okay?” Holly asked. They threw away their empty paper cups of coffee and walked out of the break room.
“It’s fine,” Theresa said with a shrug. “Nathan just wanted to know when I’d be getting home.”
Holly giggled. “Well, he can’t have his cake until you get back. He’s… what? Seven now?”
“Seven. That’s such a nice age.”
“Compared to when he was three, definitely.”
The walk to the lab took them ten minutes of keycard swipes, private elevators, and identity checks. Theresa had known some of the guards at the security station for years, but each time they requested her ID card, scanned it for authenticity, locked away her personal belongings in a safe, and asked her to provide the two daily passwords. It was tedious, but necessary. They’d been lax on security before, and it had cost them.
They came to the tinted-glass doors of the lab.
“Are you ready for this?” asked Theresa.
The younger woman swallowed hard. She’d never looked as young and as nervous to Theresa as she did then.
“I think so, Doctor Morris,” she said hesitantly. “But that thing… it frightens me.”
“Fear’s a luxury we can’t afford here,” said Theresa. “It wants us to be afraid of it. Don’t give it what it wants.”
Theresa swiped her keycard at the lab door’s scanner and punched in the security code. The tinted-glass door slid back with a smooth electric purr, and they walked in.
To call the room a lab was probably generous. It was a wide open space, with various items of scientific equipment at the edges of the room. There were four other scientists in the room, adjusting settings on machines, or analysing data.
There was a fifth creature in the room, and although it looked like a person, it certainly wasn’t one. It was restrained, spread-eagled, to a vertical slab. Each time Theresa saw it, she instinctively thought of a pinned butterfly in a display case.
“Subject C77F,” said Theresa, not as a greeting but more of a demand that it pay attention.
The creature’s head had been slumped down in its chest. It slowly looked up at Theresa with large, bright eyes that had become too hurt and too weary to play host to hate.
“My name is Leafwhistle,” it wheezed.
“I’ve told you before,” said Theresa, “the Auspex Group does not recognise or acknowledge the name that your kind use to identify you. You are Subject C77F. You are an Intruder, Titania class.”
The creature’s head dropped again, and it sobbed. Theresa heard Holly make a small, distressed gasp, and she herself felt a small stir of emotion at the sound of the creature’s misery, but she quashed it.
She had to admit, it was hard to remain unsympathetic. The Titanians were good at masquerading as their prey, skilled at wearing their masks of false humanity.
Subject C77F resembled a young teenage girl in many ways; one who was still stuck in scrawny, awkward adolescent limbo, but the resemblance was there, and it was uncanny. Its long hair had been highlighter-pen-green, but they’d shaved it bald since they’d caught it.
They’d not only shaved it; they’d stripped it, plucked off its wings, scrubbed its flesh sterile-raw with chlorine soap, bound it at the ankles and wrists with iron manacles, and surrounded the slab to which it was pinned with a ring of salt and woven red verbena and St John’s wort. The Intruders had such bizarre vulnerabilities; it only served as a reminder to how unnatural they were.
They had other, more mundane vulnerabilities too. Subject C77F’s pale skin was stained with bruises, scabbed cuts, and the marks of electrical burns.
“Look at me,” said Theresa.
Subject C77F did so, and again Theresa had to stamp down on her nascent sense of sympathy. It wasn’t a girl. It wasn’t human. It was a monster.
“Where were you taking those children?” Theresa asked.
Subject C77F breathed deeply and looked away.
“Someplace where they would’ve been happy,” it whispered.
“And where’s that? Your domain?”
Subject C77F shook its head weakly.
“Not my domain. The Queen’s.”
Theresa turned to Holly.
Holly had been lost in thought. It was easy to become enchanted by a Titanian, even one as broken and pathetic as this one. She snapped out of it with a shake of her head.
“Pop quiz. Who’s the Queen?”
Holly fumbled with the tablet in her hands, swiping through archive documents until she found what she was looking for.
“The Malefic Entity known as Queen Mab,” she said. “Also known as the Queen of Stars and Night, the Dark Fairy Mother, the Gluttonwitch, the…”
“Thank you Holly.”
Theresa turned her attention back to Subject C77F.
“Your queen’s domain then. That’s where you were taking them.”
“What were you going to do to them?”
It didn’t answer. Theresa sighed impatiently, and took a small iron cross out of her lab coat pocket. She stepped into the ring of salt and flowers, and pressed it to the creature’s bare chest. It shrieked in pain, and thrashed in its restraints.
When Theresa took the cross away, there was an angry red weal on Subject C77F’s pale skin.
“What were you going to do them?” Theresa repeated when the screams had stopped.
“Their hopes, their dreams, their joys…” it murmured.
“You were going to take their souls.”
Subject C77F nodded.
The Titanian ran a thin, vividly pink tongue over its scabbed lips.
“We cannot live without them,” it said at last. “The Secret City cannot exist without the joy we take from them.”
“Then maybe it shouldn’t exist at all,” snapped Theresa. “If abducting children is what it takes.”
“They would’ve been happy…” Subject C77F sobbed again.
“Before you drained them dry? Before you murdered them?” shouted Theresa. She wanted to hit it, to kill it, but instead she took a step back, outside the woven ring. She took a deep breath and tried to clear her head.
They’d caught the Titanian a few days ago. It had been masquerading as an assistant at a kid’s activity club. The Auspex team had been lucky to stop it, luckier even to capture it. Like all Intruders, the Titanians were easy to detain when you knew their weaknesses, but catching them in the first place was the tough thing.
Theresa couldn’t help but think of the kids they’d saved. They hadn’t understood what had happened. They’d cried as their young pretty leader was dragged away. The youngest had only been seven.
Theresa thought of her son, seven years old. She thought of the Titanians and their parasitic society, and all the children that had gone missing over the centuries, never to be found.
She took another deep breath, forcing herself to calm down.
Theresa was about to ask the creature another question when she heard a phone ringing. It took a few seconds for her to realise that it was her phone, the phone that she could’ve sworn that she’d left at the security station along with all her other personal belongings.
“Didn’t you-“ Holly started to say.
“I thought so too,” said Theresa, taking the phone out of her lab coat pocket. The screen blinked Unknown.
Theresa tapped the screen and put the phone to her ear. She walked over to the corner and turned her back to the room to have some privacy.
No one responded to her. The line sounded bad, muffled and crackly.
“Hello?” she said again.
Her heart flash-froze in her chest.
“Nathan?” she said. “Nathan, is that you?”
“Mummy? They’re – ”
Her son’s voice stopped abruptly and was replaced with eerie high-pitched giggling. Then the line went dead.
Theresa whirled round and stormed across to Subject C77F. This time she hit it, a tightly-curled fist to the side of its face that snapped its head back.
“What have you done?” she screamed.
For the first time since Theresa had entered the room, Subject C77F smiled. The smile was a sick, ugly thing of sharp blood-stained teeth.
“You bitch!” yelled Theresa, drawing back her arm for another punch.
A hand snatched her wrist and stopped her.
Theresa turned, and saw that Holly had grabbed her. The other four scientists were standing behind her in a huddle.
“That’s enough of that, Dr Morris.”
“Holly, let me –“
The words died in her mouth when she looked – really looked – at her young assistant. She saw eyes too large and too bright and too full of mercurial wickedness to be human.
The Intruder that had called itself Holly stepped into the ring of woven flowers, and the remains of her disguise fell away like a curtain.
“Please,” Theresa sobbed. Terror leaked into her chest and down her spine like acid. The Intruder’s grip on her wrist was brutally strong. “My son…”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him,” said Holly. “He’ll be just fine. For a while.”
She leaned in so that she should whisper into Theresa’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelt like tropical flowers. “Besides, I thought that fear was a luxury that you couldn’t afford.”
“How long have you – “
Holly flicked a glance to the other scientists, who stood dumb and glassy-eyed.
“Get my sister down. Now.”
The enchanted men and women undid Subject C77F’s restraints. It fell from the slab, its legs weak and shaky.
“Sister…” it wept.
“The Queen will decide what to do with you, you stupid little failure,” said Holly through a poisonous smile. Subject C77F wailed piteously.
“And as for you,” she said, looking at Theresa, still held firm in her grip. “You’re wrong about my kind, you know.”
She threw Theresa to the four other scientists, and before she could fight back, they’d strapped her to the slab.
“The joy of human children isn’t the only thing that let us thrive,” explained Holly. “The suffering of adults is just as valid. I’m sure you of all people will appreciate a scientific demonstration.”
She held out a hand, and one of the scientists placed a scalpel in it.