Slayer had a wonderful sense of smell, but she was new to it. Very new. She knew only three things about this creature — one, it was a werewolf. That meant it was, at its core, human. And it had been eating at the college cafeteria of UC Sunnydale. The college cafeteria’s bottomless pot of beef stew was distinctive enough that Slayer could smell when one of her friends had had a cup of it two days later. Slayer doubted they ever cleaned out the pot, just kept adding more ingredients when it got low.
Willow didn’t like the stuff much, but Oz, Oz couldn’t get enough of it.
Spike bared his fangs, and the werewolf growled, forcing itself onto its ill-fitting semi-humanoid legs.
“No, no, no, Spike, listen to me! That’s—”
Spike wasn’t listening, and neither was the werewolf. Both of them snarled, Spike’s yellow eyes fixed on the beast. Slayer tried to get a grip on his coat, but Spike lunged, leaving it behind in her grip.
The two fell creatures were already writhing on the floor, tearing at each other. This was not how she wanted this to go! Spike and Oz — how could it not be Oz? How many werewolves frequented UC Sunnydale, after all?— were snarling and snapping, fang against fang. Spike’s cranberry overshirt was shredded in a moment without his coat to protect it, and fur was already flying as Spike, woozy and blood-starved as he was, tried desperately to get his fangs into the beast’s throat.
She was about to lose one of them. Both of them! No! Slayer plunged into the fray, dropping the coat, wrestling out the cords around her wrists, hoping to get them around Oz, hold him captive until the moon set and they could explain things to him, join forces. If only Spike would listen. But he was too addled and desperate to listen, so even though Slayer was trying to get between them, he kept pushing past her, fist and fangs and fury.
“Spike, no, no, don’t, he’s human! He doesn’t mean this—”
The werewolf made a deeply eloquent argument that that didn’t matter, as it buffeted Slayer hard in the back of the head, slicing at her scalp with its claws, sending her toppling into Spike. At the beast’s attack, Spike seemed to grow even angrier, his hunger replaced by sheer rage as he roared, leaping over Slayer like the monster he was.
“Don’t do it!” Slayer screamed, but it was already done. The only reason it hadn’t been done almost instantly was because Spike was weak. There was a sickening crack, and the werewolf went limp on the ground, Spike’s hands on either side of its head.
Slayer felt sick. She knew, from the experience with that werewolf hunter who had tried to kill Oz last year, that even dead the beast would not return to human form until the moon set. So she was spared the sight of Spike, the man (not man, the vampire) who she had been cuddling and snuggling and kissing and riding, feasting from the throat of her fallen friend. She looked away, cringing in sudden horror of the whole situation. What was she doing here? How had it come to this? Any of this?
She knew a vampire could feast very quickly if he wanted to, so the sudden thump as Spike released the dead beast did not surprise her by coming so soon. “Slayer,” Spike said. The clarity of his voice told her he’d let his fangs down. “Get in on this.”
Slayer retched. The scent of the human blood under the werewolf spicing was appealing, which made her retch even more.
Spike’s hands reached out and touched her shoulders, and Slayer hit them away. Then she punched him, hard, harder, sending him staggering back across the room.
“Couldn’t you listen to me?” Slayer shouted at him. “I told you to stop! I begged you to stop!”
“The sodding thing was trying to kill you!”
“Oh, and that’s your job, right?” Slayer snapped. “Pissed off it was horning in on your territory? I know it, I knew it, you let a guy touch you, and — gah!” She smacked him hard, and heard the cartilage crunch in his nose. For a split second she felt worried — that was one more injury they were going to have to try and heal, and they were both low on blood. But they weren’t. He was flush with blood, she could see it in his color, he was alive with it, and it was because he had just eaten — “He was my friend!” Slayer shouted, half sobbing. “He was an innocent, he did everything he could, from the beginning, never to hurt anyone, he was good! He was my friend, he was Willow’s, he was good!”
“Him!” Slayer shouted, gesturing wildly at the fallen werewolf, and she attacked Spike again, pushing him back against the wall. “Oz — was — my — friend! You evil — murdering — bastard!” She hit him, over and over, harder and harder, it wasn’t until several strikes later that she finally heard what he was trying to say.
“It’s a girl, it’s a girl, the thing’s a girl! Buffy... it’s not... Buffy...! I swear, Buffy....”
Slayer stopped with her hand still pulled back for a strike. A girl? The werewolf was female?
For a long moment the two vampires stared at each other, Spike’s face already swollen and misshapen, Slayer’s blood dripping down the back collar of the black T-shirt she wore. Then Spike’s head lolled back. “Spike,” Buffy said, suddenly horrified at herself. What was she doing? But what had he done? What was the right thing...?
And the question was taken out of her hands as the fire nozzles came down. At first she simply sagged, thinking the hose was about to clear their corpses again, but no. For the first time, the stiff wire traveled along its little track, aimed the nozzle, and spat a burst of flame at the two of them.
Slayer was so surprised she let Spike’s shirt go and backed away, only a second later realizing she should drag Spike with her if she didn’t want him incinerated. (Did she want him incinerated? Did she really want him dead, after this?) The two hoses split up, one driving Slayer back across the floor, past the carcass of the werewolf (was it really a female? It really wasn’t Oz?) across the arena with little bursts of flame, while the other hose held Spike at bay against the wall. Even if he was trying to follow her, the wandering flame wouldn’t have permitted it.
As Slayer was driven to the other wall, the door at the upper level opened, and something that looked like a fire ladder dropped over the side. One of the soldiers looked down into the arena with a smile he obviously thought was charming. “Well, girl. Looks like you get a second chance at life.”
“All right,” Slayer asked. “So what’s the sitch?”
The woman Spike had mocked earlier was standing in what looked like a cross between a bad military movie’s war room and a college human-biology lab.
“I’m so pleased to speak with you,” she said. “I’m professor Walsh, of the Demon Research Initiative.” She held out her hand for Slayer to shake, which she did, nervously, as Finn kept his gun trained on her the whole time. Slayer probably could have yanked Walsh into her arms and severed her spine against her knee before Finn could even have gotten a shot off, but that wouldn’t get her out of here. The place would probably go into lockdown if she killed these two, and the innocuous door she’d had to go through to get here, though plainly labeled with only the number 314, had been heavy, and locked firmly behind them.
“They call me Slayer.”
“So I had heard,” Walsh said. “I’ve been doing a bit of research into you. Both of you, really, but you seem to be the one to speak to.”
Slayer looked past her. She recognized those windows behind her. Sure enough, when she went to peer down, there was Spike, still in the bone-strewn arena, looking very, very small. He was examining his coat.
“What is this place?” Slayer asked.
“This is the Initiative,” Walsh said. “We’re a military research and development agency, dedicated to investigating demonic potential, and protecting the human populace from the threat.”
“Thanks for the info,” Slayer asked. “But what is this place? We’re still in Sunnydale, and that werewolf down there was a student at the college.”
Walsh and Finn looked at each other. “Yes,” Walsh said carefully. “We are indeed still in Sunnydale. Our headquarters are underground.”
“Natural caves, or part of the demon-friendly sewer system the Mayor and his cronies created?”
Walsh and Finn glanced at each other again. “Mostly natural cave formations,” Walsh admitted. “Quite a bit was excavated a few years ago by our own faculty.”
“Right,” Slayer said. She turned to look at the two of them. “And this part of the Initiative isn’t part of the general writ, is it? Otherwise you two wouldn’t be keeping it so secret, and he’d have a squad at his back.”
Walsh smiled. “I was told you were intelligent,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure I could believe it.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m brill,” Slayer said, realizing she was tipping her hand. Probably wasn’t quite time for an air-headed hair-toss, though. “What’d you wanna talk to me about?”
“I wanted to get to know you,” Walsh said, sitting down at what was clearly a desk prepared for this interview. “I find you and your companion fascinating.”
“He’s not my companion,” Slayer snapped. “We just found each other in the same boat at the same time, is all.”
“So I’m coming to understand,” Walsh said. “Riley, would you fetch our guest some refreshment?”
Riley went over to a table and came back a moment later with a plastic donor bag of human blood. Slayer’s eyes dilated as she stared at it, and she could feel her face wanting to vamp out, she was so hungry, but she kept it down. This was probably a test. “No thank you,” she said. “I don’t drink human if I can help it.”
Walsh nodded, as if she had been half expecting this, and Finn pulled out a coffee mug which held — Slayer sniffed it — pigs blood. She closed her eyes, still forcing the fangs down, and took a sip. It didn’t seem drugged. She forced herself to drink it casually, rather than chugging it like her body was screaming it wanted to. She couldn’t quite stop her hand from shaking, though, so she put the cup on the table and held it for long moments between sips while they spoke. “So,” she asked. “Can we cut to the chase? What is it that you want from me?”
And Slayer sat there, sipping her blood methodically while Professor Walsh spun out what seemed to be a well rehearsed spiel. It was fairly predictable — World-domination without ever saying the word, self-aggrandizing dreams of improving humanity, yadda-yadda. Slayer was frankly bored by all of it, but she made herself look interested, look like she was buying it, kept up an interested chirp as if it all made sense to her, and she agreed wholeheartedly.
“Demons cling to old ways and ancient feuds, but are hopeless with technology. Unworthy. Disappointed by demonkind, we turn to humans. Smart, adaptive, but emotional and weak. Blind. There is imperfection everywhere. Something must be done,” Walsh continued.
Sounded like the goddamn eugenics of the Third Reich. “Indeed,” Slayer said, almost soothingly.
“And so we come to you,” Walsh said, as if Slayer had been following her on some intellectual journey, rather than just watching the woman wander through her own twisted-mental-pathways. “You appear unique among our records. We have been testing you, and your companion.” (Slayer stopped herself from announcing No kidding! in a sarcastic voice.) “Your ingenuity, your intellect, your combined strategy, that is in itself remarkable. And yet, there is a marked difference between you and your partner.” Walsh turned to her, as if about to make a revelation. “You do not wish to kill human beings.”
I’m not alone. Give any vampire an incentive not to, and an alternate food source, and most of them will give it up, so long as they can still get their fight on someway or another. Ask any baddie in LA, or hell, half the baddies here in Sunnydale, they’ll know most vamps minion up real easy, so long as you give them the right motivation and a strong enough role model. The real question isn’t whether I’ll kill humans, the question is why, but you know, I don’t think you deserve any of this information, Slayer didn’t say.
“Well, they’re just people,” she said, with her eyes wide. “I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Which is what makes you unique,” Walsh said. “Once we had our hands on you, I started looking for information. Asking other captives, for example. We caught quite a number of vampires on the outskirts of the city proper, by that old factory that is being refurbished.”
Slayer kept her face carefully neutral. She hadn’t specifically told any of her boys not to give her away to scary military commandos with sadistic tendencies who thought all demons, regardless of danger to humans, were just beasts one could torture with impunity. (Slayer was pretty sure this shit still wouldn’t be okay if the demons were just dogs or something. She thought it was sick, and she was a vampire!) She didn’t know what they would say about her. She knew their loyalty to her was a capricious beast at the best of times, dependent upon her strength, her generosity in blood and funds, her fairness in listening to disputes between them, and her utter willingness to beat up or dust, with extreme prejudice, anyone who stepped over the line.
“They claim you used to be something called a slayer,” Walsh said.
“The,” Slayer said. “Vampire Slayer, comma, the. There’s usually only one.”
“Yes, so our research tells us. I... believed the slayer was nothing more than legend, much like the other tales and stories the demons spell out amongst themselves.”
“Well, I exist. Or I did.”
“You still do,” Walsh said. “In a certain form. And the creatures we captured, they claim you have a soul? Is this a residual of your... slayer form?”
Getting into it would be a bitch. “It’s just a saying,” she said. “It means my goal is, I don’t want to kill.”
Walsh looked triumphant. “I knew it! I knew it! Francis, make a note... oh.” She glanced at Finn. Riley Finn wasn’t Francis — Slayer bet it was the other lab coat that had been making research notes in the corridor before, who for some reason wasn’t in on this interview with this vampire. “Well, this is being recorded anyway,” Walsh said hurriedly, glancing at a camera mounted on a wall. “Is this a common phrase among vampires? That those who don’t want to kill have, as you put it, souls?”
“We have records, you see, dating back to World War II. Other vampires, with souls. Specifically an... Angelus. Have you heard of him?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Slayer said.
“He used to work for us,” Walsh said, something that would have surprised Slayer a lot more a year ago.
“Indeed. He performed quite a number of missions for the earliest incarnation of our agency. We were hoping it would be possible to replicate the results of our successful missions with him.”
“The goal? Which missions, exactly?”
“I... really only have records of the one,” Walsh admitted. “But I’m certain there are more at higher levels of security. In any case, he too was considered different from his brethren. Was he a slayer, as well, in his life?”
“Are you certain of that?”
Slayer shrugged. “No, I guess I don’t know anything about that. I guess he could have been.” Now was the time for the air-headed hair-toss.
“Well. I wanted to perform some neurological tests on you,” Walsh said. “Nothing invasive,” she added. She pulled up a machine with a bunch of little wires attached to it, and little soft stickers on the ends. “We use these in doctor’s offices, to monitor brain function. It reads the electrical impulses in your neural pathways, and allows us to keep a record of your instincts and reactions.”
“It’s like a lie detector test? Is that the goal?”
“It’s similar,” Walsh acknowledged. “But only in mechanics. This reads things like balance, neurological stimulus, brain adaptation, arousal.” She held out a page of wavy lines on paper. “It reads your neurological reactions and gives us a printout like this. We haven’t had a subject who we trusted enough to interview while we monitored.”
“Well, I guess I’m willing to have you read my brain,” Slayer said. “But I wish I knew what the ultimate goal was.”
“The goal,” Walsh said evenly, “is to put demonkind on our side. The goal is to make all vampires, and all demons, ours to control. The goal is to rescue our fallen soldiers and make them strong again. The goal is to change everything!”
Slayer managed not to cringe as she took a swallow of her blood. That was some goal. “How would you achieve that goal?”
“First step is testing,” Walsh said. “But I have a prototype in the works, a neuro-microchip, behavioral modification. If I can perfect it, I can implant it in every vampire we catch! Right now we can only prevent them from harming living, organic animal life, but with the implants we can use them to catch other demons. And if we can use the pathways of your neurological distinctiveness, perhaps we can prevent them from killing our own soldiers! We can send the modified creatures to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, South America, we can forward America’s interests, forward humanity’s interests, perfect my children, my beautiful sons!”
“Uh... Professor Walsh?” Finn asked from his place against the wall. “Why are you telling her all that?”
Walsh blinked, looking confused, and then shook her head. “There’s no reason she shouldn’t know her part in the great design!” She said. “Our goals are similar.”
“Our goals are,” Slayer said quietly. “You’re right.” She swallowed the last of her blood. “Hook me up to her machine, soldier man. I can’t wait to be part of the great design.”
As Walsh prepared her machine, and Finn kept Slayer covered (it would seem they weren’t complete idiots) Slayer stepped over to the window to look down on Spike. The moon must have set. The body on the floor was human, and naked, and Slayer was incredibly relieved to see that it was not Oz who lay there. It was someone else, young, attractive, Slayer half thought she recognized her from some sets she’d played at the Bronze. Wasn’t she a singer? She couldn’t remember. She was probably very like Oz, though. Music. Beef stew. How much of that was werewolf, and how much just personality? Wolves liked to howl... that was music, right?
Slayer was making herself think all this, because she was also watching Spike as he feasted on the girl’s throat. She knew he was hungry. She knew this werewolf wasn’t Oz, and so probably wasn’t an innocent, since all the research indicated that they really, really did like eating human flesh. But watching Spike sucking on the blood of the naked girl still made Slayer’s insides seize up, as the demon in her screamed, Look at him! He is power! and the soul inside her cried out, Look at him! He’s a monster!
“This chip,” she said suddenly, as Walsh came up behind her.
“The monitor is ready.”
“Good. This chip. Can you implant it in any vampire?”
“Yes. Once it’s perfected.”
“This chip,” Slayer said again. “If you put it in a vampire, they can’t hurt human beings?”
“No,” Walsh said. “If a vampire with the implant were to attack a human, it would suffer debilitating pain.”
“But he could still fight?” Slayer asked. “Other demons, say? Other vampires? He could still keep his place with them, even with this chip?”
“It truly isn’t perfected yet,” Walsh said. “As of now, at the first attempt to attack a human, the pain causes more severe brain damage than I had hoped. We’re trying to find the right balance between pain and degeneration.”
“But this chip,” Slayer said again. “You could implant it in, say, Spike down there, right? You could bring him up here? For the chip? And then he couldn’t hurt anyone?”
“Yes. I’m sure we could. We had planned on implanting it in subjects just like him, in fact.”
“So this chip,” Slayer said again. “Implanting this chip, this would make him harmless? He’s such a good fighter, you know. He’s strong, and he’s good with strategy. You’ve seen that, right?”
“Too bad you can’t bring him here, and implant this chip in Spike,” she said. “It would be pretty awesome. If you’re after soldiers, he’s really among the best.”
“I was interested in further studies of this chip technology,” Walsh said.
“And the faster you bring him here, implant this chip, the faster you can research it, right? Maybe you should bring him and implant this chip soon, you know? Maybe using the research you get from my neuro testing, maybe this chip could be perfected?”
“Perhaps....” Walsh looked over at Finn. “Finn, send a message to Angleman. Let him know that we’re accelerating implementation of the prototype chip on subject 13. We should bring him here and prepare for surgery. Tomorrow.”
“Using my test results,” Slayer said again, louder. “With me. Because, without my brain patterns there, as you’re implanting, this chip won’t be as effective.”
“Indeed,” Walsh said. “Your test results will prove invaluable. Parallel readings… monitoring both of your brain patterns for implantation. Yes. This chip. Definitely time for implementation of this chip.” She pulled Slayer over and sat her down in a chair, then stuck the soft spongy stickers all over her head and in a few places around her throat and on her fingertips. Slayer felt like a squid with all the little tentacles hooked up to her, but they didn’t actually hurt.
“Please listen as I say the following words,” Walsh said. “You don’t have to respond outwardly. When we’re done with the aural portion of the test, I will hold up various images.” She set a bunch of flashcards on the table. Buffy saw an image of a campfire, a wooden cross, and a photograph of Spike among the others before Walsh gathered the cards back up and turned them face down on the table. “Let us begin. God. Devil. Right. Wrong. Evil. Vampire. Human.”
Slayer was hard pressed not to roll her eyes as she listened to the litany. She was exhausted already from keeping her eyes fixed on Walsh’s, and her exertion was starting to give her a headache. But she couldn’t let on. She couldn’t let on at all that it had drained her. These people weren’t dumb.
And one of the words they threw at her was, in fact, the word, “Thrall.”