Maybe They've Changed
rating: +8+x

Theta huddled in the corner, fighting the urge to go into the fetal position. It would have been prudent to manifest a weapon, like a spear to keep this thing at bay, or just to pass through the wall and run away. But that scream… The sound wasn't just dissonant. It seemed to reach the ears on levels of reality that were the quantum resonance equivalent of tritones apart. It turned one's limbs to jelly and one's mind to… what was that smell? Peanut butter? Did this monster have to smell like the only thing in the multiverse Theta was allergic to?

It was an enormous cat shaped thing, with slimy, veined skin rippling with muscles. It resembled a panther, but that inky black surface wasn't fur. It had a frilled, reptilian collar that flared out into webbed spikes, making it look, in profile, quite like a lion. Two pairs of eyes sat above a very snappy looking mouth. One pair was front facing, like any other predator. The other pair were on the sides, as if the beast had adapted a trait from some creature it used to hunt. All four were almost completely white, each with a very small black dot in the center. This thing probably relied on more senses than just—

The monster shrieked again, and all rational thought vanished. Theta couldn't think, couldn't move. Just waited to die, unwilling to even look at that monster in the face. It had always been a possibility, infinite worlds mathematically meant infinite danger, after all. But death had always felt like something that happened to other people. Side characters, temporary figures along for part of a journey, and then they died. But reality is not a story. It is cold, and it cares not for drama or plot or feelings of completeness. What is, simply is.

Just as Theta had come to terms with the normality of death, the door flew inward off its hinges. A Foundation Mobile Task Force Agent stepped through, holding some sort of gun-like weapon with a dish on the front. Over his shoulder, he ordered Theta to cover their ears, and aimed the weapon at the creature. Theta, still groggy, barely managed to do just that before a very loud sound blasted out of the weapon.

The pulse made ripples through the air in a sort of ring shape, and impacted the monster hard enough to send it rolling sideways, but it got to its feet again before it had even stopped moving. The Operative dropped the 'force gun,' and stated aloud, "ineffective," probably to his helmet mic for record keeping. The monster hissed, and pounced low to the ground at the Operative.

"Shit," he said, hastily pulling out his pistol. The beast must have been a foot from him when the bullet smashed into its skull, forcing it downward and apparently stunning it. Four more Agents filed in behind the first, forming a semicircle around the recovering beast. The first Agent backed off towards the others, completing the defensive line.

"No entry wound, no permanent injury visible," stated the center-right, a female judging by the voice.

The cat let out another angry screech as it rose, and Theta was hit with another wave of non-function. The Agents, however, showed no reaction.

"I can tell you're hollering there buddy, but we came prepared. We can't hear you," came a rather taunting male voice from the far left.

The creature sized up the group, then screamed again. Theta almost blacked out this time, waves of pain traveling along a hyper-tense nervous system.

"That means no language comprehension, at least not English," stated the female Agent.

"Five, get the civilian out of here and to the van for debrief. We still don't know what repeated exposure to that sound does to people," came the orders from the middle Operative, apparently the leader.

"Copy that," said the Agent closest to the corner where Theta huddled, still in audio-shock. The Agent backed up towards Theta, keeping his eyes on the monster. Back around behind the other Agents they went, slowly and carefully. The beast stood coiled, watching them go, probing for any weakness in the line of soldiers before it. The leader, probably 'One,' continued speaking as Theta shuffled behind him.

"One bullet stunned it, so I think a few more and we can knock it out."

Theta and the Operative designated 'Five' were in the doorway, almost out of harm's way, when the left-most agent turned his head to watch them go. An instinctive motion, he wanted to make sure he knew where his comrade and the civilian were, and if they were okay. But well meaning as it was, the action nearly got him killed.

Letting loose a victorious cry, the cat lunged at him before any of the Agents could react. Theta saw hooked fangs sink into lightly protected shoulder muscle before being shoved backwards out the door, the offending Operative turning inside and drawing his weapon.

From inside came the primal roar of an injured human male, followed by the crash of a huge body, then frantic scrabbling and snarling. A pause, then four nearly simultaneous gunshots, and one more vocalization from the creature, this time more of an extremely loud yelp.

'Five,' breathing hard, emerged with the injured man draped over his shoulder. He practically carried him all the way to the van, then leaned him against the back bumper and tire, sitting up. After checking that the wound wasn't bleeding too much, he returned and helped Theta get settled in the open trunk of the van, legs hanging over the back. The Agent handed over a thermos of extremely horrendously mind-numbingly strong coffee, which Theta drank from deeply (despite evolutionary sensors which were screaming something about poison.)

Agent Five then appeared to receive orders inside his helmet. He paused for a moment and then said aloud, "yes sir," moving around to the side door of the van. He returned carrying what looked to be a briefcase sized chunk of folded stiff-wire mesh, and some metallic rope.

"Stay here and rest for a moment, sir. We'll be back out to debrief you in a moment. This will all be over very soon."

The agent was obviously preoccupied, choosing to fiddle with the device he had retrieved rather than look at Theta while he spoke. His tone carried the words as if the man had said them a thousand times. He toted the case and bindings into the building.

Now, if Theta were to have a 'gender' like the residents of this universe, it would probably be closer to female. But these Jailers didn't need to know that. They thought they were taking care of a civilian, and Theta had no problem letting it stay that way. If they knew the truth, it would be straight to a cell, no more questions. Actually, a lot more questions, but the cell was the main point. Was it wise to stay here and wait for the Jailers to return to their van and do whatever their idea of debrief was? Or was the best option to flee now, disappear and become just another unaccounted for anomaly in their database? Theta wanted to leave right away, go and recover in peace.

But curiosity made its point, a convincing one, and what was that other feeling? A sense of gratitude made itself known among the other emotions in Theta's mind. There was a time in the Jailers' history when the Agents would be expected to let the monster devour its prey, just to see what happened, before engaging. It seemed they, or at least this Task Force, of this universe, had outgrown that mindset. It certainly would have been safer for them if they didn't enter when the beast was already on attack mode, but was instead preoccupied with…

Too much time thinking. Theta was still sat in the back of the van, legs swinging like a child, when the Operatives filed out of the door towards the van. Agents One and Five were carrying a large cage between them like a couch, containing the bound creature. As they approached the door, the material of the cage, which presumably used to be the case Agent Five had carried in, rearranged itself so as to be longer and thinner, fitting through the door easily. It returned to normal size as Five exited, the tiger not having stirred during all the shifting.

An Operative that hadn't yet spoken during the incident approached. This one had a lower, but still recognizably female voice. A different accent from any of the others.

"Sorry love, we need to load Skippy over here into the back. Mind hopping off for a minute?"

"Come on, Two," called Agent One. "You can't call every single animate anomaly we recover 'Skippy.' It's an old joke, and it was terrible the first time."

"Sorry," she called back. "I just can't resist. Alright miss," she said, focusing her visor towards Theta, "its time for your debrief. I understand that this all has been a right shock for you but I promise, you can forget about all this and move on with your life very soon. We just-"

"Bone structure indicates you're talking to a man," interjected Agent Three, the other female, who was busy tending to Agent Four's injuries. Then, more to herself, she muttered, "Ugh, this idiot tore a hole in his trapezius with all his thrashing. And I'm sure he'll wake up shouting, 'that was fun!' Moron."

Agent Two, who had turned her head over towards Three, snapped her view back to her charge and exclaimed, "I'm so sorry!"

Theta gave an apologetic shrug. Best to agree with the one who knew the human body very well, and would call out discrepancies. "It's no big deal, I didn't want to bother you."

"Alright, well, sorry again, but we do have some questions for you. In the name of good records, you know."

"Yeah. Yeah of course," Theta said, in a pretty good imitation of 'shaken but recovering.' In reality, recovery was complete. There had been too many screaming blood gods and towering behemoths and un-rememberable world consumers for this scuffle to leave much of a psychological mark. But the role of the civilian had to be played, for everyone's good. Theta drank some more coffee and prepared some believable answers.

Several months later, Theta was standing before a shelf, trying to remember the title of the book they were searching for. It was those cursed amnestics again. Theta had been required to ingest them after debrief was over, to avoid suspicion. Once digested, the drugs' enchantment resistant properties became clear. Theta could not nullify them entirely, but could only spread their effects out over a long period of time. So, for the next thirteen Salgar cycles, the drugs would eat all sorts of small memories. The Way to the bathroom, the names of various acquaintances, an illogical peanut allergy, the title or contents of a sought after tome.

As with every time the memory of the incident presented itself, other emotions took the opportunity to push forward. The rush of being pleasantly surprised. Something like guilt, but not for lying to them. Lying was, of course, just a part of communication. But a sadness, that those particular people didn't know the gratitude of the one they had saved, that they thought they wiped the memories of their good deeds out of existence. A sense of debt. Back home, when someone does something genuinely good, you do not just leave with a cursory 'thank you.' You indicate that you are willing to act on your gratitude. There was a certain regret at that missing piece of the whole interaction. And now, since anything better to do had been forgotten, Theta decided to make good on that sense of reciprocity.

Theta first wrote five identical letters. They were written on Watcher-Stalk papyrus, in Memory-Squid ink. Then enchanted so that they would follow their addressees constantly. The letters would always manifest on the nearest desk-like surface to the person they were intended for, even after opened and read. When placed in a pocket or similar close-keeping storage, the letters would be content, only activating again if abandoned. It was a little pushy, but Theta felt such tactics were worth the goal. Some classic anti-deception magic, and the work was complete. Theta headed to the Mail-Way hub.

"It's going to take a while," said the resident Wanderer, after doing the usual double take at the mention of Sol-Prime. "We don't have a distribution center on that side, for obvious reasons, and Cromwells hardly ever go there-"

"No, it's fine, please don't bother the Cromwells. Just… Push them through, if you would."

The worker, now suitably confused, shook its head and said, "Alright, if that suits you. That'll be twenty-five Essence of Communication."

Theta swiped the small brass Library Card between the pages of the closed book on the counter (the card being not yet upgraded with a chip), and the mailer took the five envelopes to a back room. The room was full of mail slot-sized Ways, to worlds which had active interaction with the Library. Many of them had buildings on the other end, which passed any mail sent through over to the local postal service, and took care of getting any packages or letters back to the Library. Theta walked away, mentally 'replaying' what the sensation would be when it happened. And they knew, to a near fact, that it would.

To the members of Mobile Task Force Theta-27 ("Acute Bunch")
If you want to contain these letters, and never touch or see them again, that's perfectly fine. I suppose they would, in your eyes, qualify as anomalous objects. Strongboxes made of steel quenched with peanut oil should do just fine. Airtight, at least two inches thick, with a physical lock using no less than 13 tumblers, which must also be constructed of peanut-cured steel.
You might remember me, you might not. I'm the 'civilian' you saved who shared a name with your group designation. We had quite the laugh about it.
I wanted to thank all of you for saving my life from that very loud cat, and for treating me with decency and respect. I'll even forgive the amnestics. It's protocol, I get it.
Understand, there is a reason people where I'm from call you and your Foundation 'The Jailers.' You represent everything we stand against. You represent security over rights. Secrecy over knowledge. Fight over freedom. We see you as cold, cruel, and unfeeling, your jangling keys growing ever heavier as you lock up more and more living beings, for the high crime of being different. We see you as greedy, mistrusting, and agoraphobic, hiding more and more of your world from your own people.
But you five, specifically, have my thanks. And if the time should come when any of you needs me, in a moment of danger or loss or just to talk over a cup of that ridiculous coffee, write my name on this page. If your need is true and your intentions pure, I will hear your call, and I will be there.
-Six (pending emergency field assignment)

P.S. Say hello to Skippy for me.

To be continued…

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