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Monsters, Inc.

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The first question new recruits asked—after “What?”, “Really?”, “Oh God, all this time?”, “How do you sleep at night?” and “Is there dental?”—was “Why?” Not why the sacrifices, the monsters, the secrecy—everyone was pretty clear on that by this point. No, the question was: Why the elevators?

“Seriously,” every new recruit said, usually in a tone that implied they thought they were the first person to point this out, “why do you have elevators leading from the monster cages to your inner base?”

When Mona Collins was head of training, she always gave the same answer with the same big grin of someone who was never going to get tired of this joke. “We do have to walk them.” Her favorite part of the job was the moment when the recruits found out just how much she wasn’t joking.

***

As Mike came back from the break room, two fresh mugs of coffee in hand, Nat Robins from Maintenance was just finishing the weekly diagnostic of the elevator switch board. Mike put her cup on the table behind her. “Done peeing?” she asked without looking up from her circuitry.

Mike outstretched his arms. “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

She nodded, only half-focused on him as something sparked between her fingers. “Shoot.” As Nat quietly muttered to herself, Mike sat back and got as comfortable as you could in the control booth seats. Secret organization dedicated to committing atrocities to prevent the death of every living thing on Earth, and yet it couldn’t order one goddamn comfortable office chair.

“Below says we got to be humane,” Nat said apropos of nothing. “Like, okay, let’s think about that for a second.”

Mike blew on his coffee and sipped it. It tasted like shit. “Why?”

“Because thinking is good and should be done at least twice a day. And there’s a new memo, went out this morning.”

Mike must have missed it, in the same way that a soldier on a battlefield hopes all the bullets miss him. “What’d it say?”

“More of the same. Don’t taunt the monsters. Don’t tap on their glass. Remember that they are valuable blah de blah blahs blahs who totally don’t, like, freaking murder people.”

“To be fair,” Mike said, rifling through his desk drawer for some sugar packets, “so do we.”

“We do it for a reason. They do it for fun.”

“That is a reason.”

“Ha. You’re so clever. Pass me the green pliers.” Mike passed her the green pliers with one hand while he stirred his coffee with the other. “And it’s like, humane? You wanna use a different word than humane, guys?”

“I don’t think I understand your objection.” He sipped his coffee. Now it tasted like sugary shit. “God, I think that actually made it worse.”

“Humane,” Nat said pointedly. “To monsters. Like, get the irony? They aren’t even human. So we’re being humane to things that aren’t human. Humane to things that kill humans.”

“I don’t think that’s irony.”

“I think it’s irony.”

“I don’t think it’s irony. Besides,” he added before she could say that it was totally irony because the two of them had had conversations before that were nothing but two sentences repeated for an hour, and Mike thought he should stop that before it began, “we’re not humane because the monsters are human. We’re humane because we’re human. We try to treat dogs and cats nicely, the least we can do is the same for mermen and unicorns. And let’s not pat ourselves on the ass too hard here. We take them out for walks so they don’t try to kill themselves in their cages, we’re not exactly Mother Teresa here.”

Nat clearly found that reasoning lacking, but something interesting appeared to be happening with the wires in her hands so she was going back to ignoring him. She was very young, Mike thought at moments like this. Young and new. This year would be her second harvest; people always said that was the hardest one. You knew exactly what to expect, but you still weren’t ready for it. Nat still had the sensitivity of a new recruit. Her self-righteousness was cute, really. Made Mike all nostalgic. This year would be his fifteenth harvest, and by this point, you stopped caring that the things you took care of killed the people you took the job to protect.

Now that’s irony, Mike thought.

Nat stood and cracked her back. “Alright.” She patted the console. “You should be good. Something funky was going on with the internal mapping, but I fixed it before you accidentally brought up the Sirens when you wanted the Knife Bats. Who are you bringing up today?”

Mike flipped his reading glasses down from his forehead and cheeked the board. “We’re prepped for the Dismemberment Goblins or the Snowman.”

“Do the Snowman.” Nat started packing up all her tools. “It is December, you know.”

“The seasonally appropriate hell beast it is.” Mike picked up the phone for the intercom. “Control Booth to Facilities, Control Booth to Facilities, prepare to receive Asset X-92 for scheduled exercise. For your safety, nonessential employees must now vacate level C until we sound the all-clear.” He hung up. “Thanks for your help.”

Nat snorted and shook her head. “Exercise,” she said scornfully.

“What?” Mike said. “We’ve got to be humane.” He sipped his coffee. It was cold now. Sometimes life was harder than it needed to be.

***

Everyone had their favorite monster. Management discouraged it, of course, but Management wasn’t in the belly with the beasts. They only saw what the monsters did out in the field. Zoology hung out with them for the other 364 days of the year. You get attached.

Some people got more attached then others.

“I don’t understand their decision,” Becky said to Amanda on their way back to the Rec Room. “The art program’s been such a success! Why would you cut something that’s working? Just look at the Twins!”

“I know, I know,” Amanda said. “Did you see their last painting? That was real good. Not just ‘good for a monster’ either but genuinely an accomplished piece of art. I thought about hanging it in the break room if it wasn’t for all the—you know.”

“Dismemberment, yeah.” They stopped outside the door as Becky patted herself down for her badge. “But honestly, and I know I’m just going to sound like the worst kind of proud parent, but that was a fairly tasteful depiction of dismemberment.”

Amanda swiped her card and pressed her hand against the reader. “Amanda Cho. We could always hang the painting in the Cabin.”

“Becky Connors.” The door swung open. “That’s a great idea. The décor in there is getting stale.”

The observation platform overlooked the Recreation Room, a fully customizable, highly defensible containment area for the out-of-cage monsters, or OOCMs in the official jargon. Right now, the room was as accurate a recreation of the Louisiana bayou as could possibly be attained indoors. The merman was making laps somewhere underneath the murky surface. Periodically, one of the very, very, very well-armored guards would toss in a few more live fish for it to chase, and a little jet of blood would shoot up.

Amanda sat at her desk and woke her computer up. “I’ll give my recommendation at the meeting, but you know the budget’s tight this year.”

Becky sighed. “I know. And the arts are always first on the chopping block.”

“Look on the plus side. We’ve got some fresh cadavers for the girls to play with. They’ll love that.”

“It’s true, they will.” Becky stood by the massive windows and looked down at the merman happily devoured a salmon. “I just think that we’re reaching a genuine breakthrough with the girls. They’re really blossoming, and I don’t want to undo all the progress we’ve made.”

“Becky, we’re keeping them entertained. We’re not trying to cure them. That’s actually the opposite of what we want. They’re evil demon spirits trapped in the bodies of their first victims. You just have to accept that.”

“I know. I know. It’s just.” Becky shook her head and said with an apologetic laugh, “I just want them to be happy.” And then, “Oh no.”

“What?”

“Better call for backup. Merman’s getting frisky down there.”

Down in the Rec Room, one of the guards was trying to kick the merman off his leg. One of his partners appeared to be laughing too hard to help. The other was taking pictures on his phone. “Look at him play,” Becky said affectionately.

“This is why people think you’re weird, Becky,” Amanda said, picking up the phone to call security.

“But he’s so cute!”

“You need a vacation. You need to go hug some kitties and puppies. You need to watch the videos of these guys killing people.”

One of the guards finally ran over and punched the merman in the gills. “Maybe we could argue that the art program helps the monsters explore their aggression in a healthy way that doesn’t involve employees.”

Amanda loved Becky, she really did, but one day someone was going to find Becky's mutilated corpse in the Rec Room after she tried to hug a monster, and no one would be surprised at all.

***

It took the Organization a long time to recognize it for what it was, but in 1970, they finally admitted that, yes, contrary to everything they had believed possible, some of the monsters were…friends.

This complicated matters. Understandable, the Organization had been operated under the official policy that monster were, well, monsters, incapable of forming any real bonds or experiencing any positive emotion. However, there had always been behavior that defied this schema. That some nights Mother Buckner would comb out her daughter's hair and braid it again could be explained by practicality—the youngest Buckner was hardly capable of braiding her own hair, was she? But there was no reason that her hair had to be braided, or that Mother Buckner would have to undo her daughter’s old braids, or that the Mother should gently stroke her daughter’s hair as she did so.

More troubling were the inter-cage relationships. When the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Yeti started playing Patty Cakes on either side of the glass, Management finally admitted it was time for a meeting. According to the official minutes of the policy meeting, after four hours of bitter, violent, and sporadically racist debate, the then-head of Zoology ended the discussion by slapping his hand on the table and shouting, “Fuck it! Fuck it all! We’ll give them fucking playdates, I don’t even care anymore, you bunch of goddamn idiots. I’m going to lunch.”

And that angry, offhand remark became Organization policy. It wasn’t their proudest day.

The first few years of policy implementation had some rough patches. For example, in the late 1960s, the North American branch had attained a pack of flesh-eating leprechauns. They were an immediate hit. One hundred percent kill rate, very easy to clean up after, and small enough that you could pop them all in one cage. In 1972, they’d been put in the Rec Room with the Good Neighbors (currently on loan to Eastern Europe). The leprechauns had been massacred in less than five minutes. The carnage was horrible. A bit cathartic, but horrible. The organization learned their lesson: some monsters didn’t mix.

And in a memorable incident on June 2, 1974, they learned another important lesson: some monsters mixed too well.

“We should stop them,” Security Officer Max Pullman said numbly. He wanted to look away from the horror. He couldn’t.

Security Officer Griff DeYoung could and was and had no intention of ever stopping. “Be my guest.”

“I’m not gonna do it by myself!”

“Well, motherfucker, I ain’t gonna do it at all. You think I’m gonna get within twenty feet of that fucking crime against nature?” Griff said loudly. He was trying very hard to drown out the noise coming from the other side of the Rec Room.

Max gripped his stun stick tighter and shifted from foot to foot. “Maybe we should just let them finish.”

Griff groaned. “Aw, Jesus, I didn’t want to think about them finishing. Goddamn it, who’s gonna clean that up?”

“It could be worse,” Max said while Griff muttered something that sounded like fucking tree jizz, Jesus Christ. “At least the Angry Molesting Trees being sort of…tender.”

Griff gave Max a look that clearly said that Griff did not think that made anything better. “That shit ain’t the Angry Molesting Tree. That’s the Angry Consensual Touching Tree. That’s the fucking Tender Love Making and Spooning Afterwards Tree.”

Max scrunched his forehead. “And that’s worse?”

“Hell yeah! Shit, I can handle tree rape. I’m trained for tree rape. I had a three week fucking seminar on tree rape.” Griff glanced contemptuously over his shoulder and promptly jerked his head forward again. “Jesus motherfucker goddamnit. What the fuck am I supposed to do about intimate tree love making"?”

“I can’t believe that the reason this is horrifying to you is that it’s consensual,” Max said. “Look, does it help that Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain, is whipping the Tree and calling it naughty?”

“Nope.” Griff shook his head once. “No. Nope. Fucking nope.”

The Organization didn’t pair Fornicus and the Tree together after that. In 1978, Dr. Becky Connors proposed overruling that decision to, “allow the monsters to explore the sexuality that is so central to their identities.” No new ruling has yet been made.

***

At the American Division, the 1981 Incident had no title besides "the 1981 Incident." From them, that was enough. Their sister branches disagreed. Within the larger North America Branch, the Canadian Division referred to it as the Southern Fuckup; continuing the theme, the Mexican Division called it the Northern Fuckup. The headquarters in Stockholm's name translated to "The American Fiasco." The South African Division sent the newly fired Director Victor Wainio a fruit basket with a card attached that read, "Our consolations regarding your horrendous failure. We are using the videos from Wainio's Last Stand as training exercises for our new hires." And Japan referred to it as standard American operating procedure, which caused a fistfight between the American and Japanese delegations at the 1982 Conference in Munich. In the Americans' mind, this was the sole positive outcome of the Incident since the Americans roundly won. While punching a Japanese engineer in the face, American Supervisor Jack Tran reportedly shouted, "We do slashers, motherfucker! We do chainsaw massacres! Where are your ghost girls now?"

The new North American Director promised that his employees involved in the violence would be punished; they were promptly promoted.

Overall, however, the failure of the 1981 Harvest was an unmatched black mark on the name of the facility. In a year that would have otherwise boasted a one hundred percent success rate, the American Division codenamed "The Cabin in the Woods" failed so monumentally from start to finish that it was legendary before the night was done. It started, as it often did, with Maintenance.

At six o'clock the morning before the Harvest, maintenance worker Alex Muhammad came in to clean the Rec Room. Two minutes later, he was on the phone with the head of Maintenance. "Vomit, sir. Vomit everywhere. Yes sir, it does appear to be acidic. No sir, I haven't touched it. With all do respect sir, I'm not gonna. I don't know why it wasn't cleaned last night." Five minutes after that, he was on the phone with the head of Zoology. "Ma'am, I don't know who was in here last night, but something's wrong with one of your beasts. We've got clear signs of illness sprayed all over this place."

Head of Zoology Dr. Maxine Stone thanked him for his concern and hung up the phone. She went back to bed. Because Maintenance was the only department in the facility that didn't require a college degree for all its positions, the more educated departments tended to take a dim view of their capacity. Everyone besides Maintenance generally agreed that it was best if Maintenance stuck solely to Maintenance and even then you still might need to doublecheck their work. Maintenance pretended they didn't know people said this, went out of their way to make life harder for everyone else, and played stupid when they were confronted. It was not a very effective relationship, though Maintenance did enjoy their jobs more than any other department. For one, they were the only department that got good coffee.

When Dr. Stone came into work two hours later, she wished for the first time that she had listened to Maintenance. "What the hell is going on in The Yeti's cage?" she asked when she pulled up the camera feeds.

"Nothing much," her assistant said before he looked at the screen. Then he looked at the screen. "Holy shit!"

"Like I said," she snapped. "What the hell's going on? When did this start?"

"Uhh," her assistant said. Later inquest would reveal that Dr. Jake Tanner had not been monitoring the cages at any point that night. Right now, he stammered out, "He was fine the last time I checked."

"When was that?" Dr. Stone asked.

"Two hours ago?"

In fact, The Yeti had been violently vomiting since approximately four in the afternoon the day before. While out on routine exercise, he'd abandoned his usual methodical style of mutilation and sliced the cadaver from neck to groin. He then proceeded to wrap it around him like a blanket. His guards at the time, untrained and unaware of this deviation from The Yeti's normal patterns, did nothing until his scheduled exercise time was over. When they lassoed him and tried to pull him back to the elevators, The Yeti began vomiting. Which was new. Much like friendship, disease was thought to be one of those things that monsters were immune to. With the benefit of hindsight, we can laugh at these obviously antiquated ideas now. However, at the time, they assumed it was a trick. They dragged The Yeti back to his cell and notified Maintenance that the Rec Room needed cleaning. Since Maintenance knew that the Rec Room wouldn’t be used for the next week as the Harvest consumed everyone’s time, they ignored the call.

By the time they brought The Yeti up for examination, he’d been sick for sixteen hours without intervention. No one knew with what. Someone suggested it was a demonic version of the flu. This is exactly what it was. In the investigation afterwards, the zoologists involved pretended that they seriously considered this option. However, at the time they dismissed the suggestion as a joke and said that perhaps The Yeti was simply mutating into a new type of monster, one that spat acid. “Yes, and curls into a ball in the corner when you prod him,” one doctor sarcastically said, the only one who disputed this idea.

In the end, they decided to keep The Yeti in one of the upper cells for observation. “Removed the COMIC STRIP from the BASEMENT,” read the beginning of the emergency memo that went out to the Operations Department. “Asset X-34, codenamed THE YETI, will not be in circulation.”

“You took care of the film strip, right?” Jeff from Operations asked his partner Kevin as they preformed the final preparations of the Cabin.

“Yeah, totally,” said Kevin who hadn’t read the memo and wasn’t aware it existed.

“You’re sure?”

“Got it. Checked it three times.”

What he had checked three times was that the film strip was in the basement. Last Harvest, they’d forgotten to put it down there and Chem complained bitterly that the betting pool wasn’t fair now. Kevin had made very sure that it was there this year.

The Harvest started normally enough. The Harbringer, a pleasant old man who was very good at acting named Jeremiah warned the sacrifices that there was danger at the Tillerman place. The sacrifices ignored him. All according to plan. Then the betting pool started.

“Put me down for The Yeti,” Kevin from Operations said.

Supervisor Langley laughed. “You really don’t like your money, do you?”

Kevin laughed too. “Why do you say that?”

Langley frowned. “Wait, why do you say that?”

Once they were on the same page, with Kevin hyperventilating and repeating over and over again, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”

“Shut up,” Langley said. “Shut up. Jesus, alright, this is what we’re going to do. We’re just not going to tell anyone. The Yeti hasn’t been picked for the last fifteen Harvests. No one picks the film strip. It’s the least interesting thing in that basement, and none of this year’s sacrifices like films enough to be curious.”

“Shouldn’t we tell someone?” Kevin asked. “We send someone up the monster elevator, get them into the basement, and get them out before the kids arrive.”

“Look.” Langley pointed at the screens. The sacrifices had just pulled up to the house.

“Shit,” Kevin said.

“Shit,” Langley agreed. “If they go to the lake, we’ll move in then. But it’s too risky with them in the house. This entire thing’ll go to shit if they get the idea that there’s more going on. And there’s no reason to alarm anyone if nothing’s happened yet.”

Translation: There’s no reason to tell anyone that we fucked up if they don’t have to know. Kevin understood that without Langley needing to say it.

“Alright.” Kevin nodded. “Alright. Alright. No one picks The Yeti. No one ever picks The Yeti.”

The kids didn’t go to the lake. The kids hung around the house all afternoon. The kids went down to the basement. Kevin and Langley furiously clenched as they stumbled around in the dark.

“Hey, Kevin,” the head of Operations asked, staring at the screen in horror. “Is that the film strip?”

“Mggm,” Kevin said in response.

“Hey, guys,” the Fool holding the film strip said. “Check out this weird film.”

The observation room was dead silent. The sacrifices huddled around the film strip, holding it to the light. “What does it mean?” the Whore asked.

“Shit,” Langley said.

“Did they just pick The Yeti?” Supervisor Brooks asked.

“Shit,” Langley repeated.

“Wow, that’s weird,” the Virgin said. “Come on, guys. Let’s get out of here.”

“Good idea,” said the Fool, and the sacrifices left the basement and closed the door.

The observation room was dead silent again. The red phone began to ring.

A minute later, Langley hung up the phone like a man who’d heard his own death sentence. “We got to get those kids back in the basement.”

They blasted open the cellar doors again and again. Eventually the Fool moved a chair on top of it. “Dude, tell your cousin that his floor is fucked up,” he told the Scholar. The Athlete and the Whore went out to the woods to have sex. It was, they said repeatedly, the best sex they had ever had.

“I love you so much,” the Athlete said to the Whore.

“I love you too,” she said. “I’m so glad that I met you.”

“Can we just send it The Yeti?” Brooks asked.

Langley showed him the feed from the upper cells. “We’ve been trying to wake him up for the last hour. At one point, he tried to attack Jenkins. Jenkins said The Yeti gnawed on his wrist for a while and then went back to sleep.”

Back at the Cabin, the Fool had started a game of Never Have I Ever that had devolved into the two boys describing the plots of the pornos they’d seen. The Virgin laughed so hard, beer came out her nose.

In the observation booth, Langley tried opening the basement door again.

“Oh my God,” the Virgin said. “This is the best vacation I’ve ever been on!”

The Athlete and the Whore came back to the Cabin, the biggest grins on their faces. The Whore held up her left hand. “We’re getting—”

The Virgin hugged her before she could finish the sentence.

Someone offered Brooks and Langley a bottle of vodka. They took it.

The red phone rang again.

“Don’t worry,” Mary from Chem said as reassuringly as she could. “We know Japan’s going to succeed.”

Kevin from Operations was off crying somewhere.

The sacrifices stayed all weekend at the Cabin. On Sunday, they went swimming. The Whore and the Virgin discussed wedding plans. The Scholar and the Athlete cooked up more meat than the group could eat. The Fool passed out weed.

“Well, the world didn’t end,” Brooks said as the kids drove away with the happiest memories of their lives. “That is literally the only good thing that we can say about this. The world didn’t end.”

Then the calls from other branches started coming in. That effectively killed what was left of Brooks’ optimism.

“Hello, American Division?” someone from the French Division said. There was giggling in the background. “My daughter is turning eighteen this weekend and I want to send her someplace nice. Can you take care of that? I know you’ll give her a good, safe time.”

“Congratulations on your wedding!” the fax from the Peruvian Division said. “Perhaps you can offer your catering services to the young couple.”

When the Russian Division called, they just laughed and laughed and laughed until America hung up.

The 1981 Incident was deemed to be the most complete failure of a Harvest on record. “And that record stretches back to prehistory,” the Japanese delegate to the ’82 conference told the American delegate before they started punching each other in the face. “So your failure is literally the worst failure in the history of history and then a little before.”

There was massive reform within the American Division after that. They all basically boiled down to “Do Your Fucking Job,” which the new Supervisors literally had hung in the break rooms. The old management was fired, almost a complete clean sweep. Kevin, somehow, kept his job. Even he didn’t think that was fair, but he kept his mouth shut and complained to no one and was the best employee Maintenance had ever had because no one knew what happened to you when you got fired.

’81 became a legend. “Did you double check the circuits?” one employee would say to another. “We don’t want another ’81 on our hands.”

“Fix that elevator pronto. We don’t want ’81 again.”

“Make sure the cellar door’s oiled. It’ll be ’81 all over again if we can’t even get it open.”

“What happened in ’81?” became another of those questions new recruits asked, and the older employees fought to be the one to tell them. “What happened in ’81?” someone asked, and someone who’d never been there told them about just as someone had once told them. It became a myth; it became a legend. It kept operatives up at night, turning over the failure in their head. It was the specter that haunted them day and night.

In 2000, Kevin from Operations died. The Organization paid for his funeral. The day after they buried him, Security got a panicked call from the Zoology Division. “We’ve got an invading ghost, repeat, an invading ghost,” Dr. Cho hissed into the phone before the line cut off. When the guards got there, they found Dr. Cho surrounded by a circle of salt, a little battered but very much alive. Dr. Connors was not so lucky. “She tried reasoning with him,” Dr. Cho sobbed as they wheeled Dr. Connors’ corpse away. No one was surprised.

Security cornered Kevin in Corridor C-5. He was partially translucent now, but otherwise he looked as he did in life. “Sorry, Kevin,” Agent Bower said as they suctioned him up. They shot him into Elevator B and sent him down. He seemed to get along with the other monsters. The Yeti seemed to like him. Each year, one Division bet on him. No sacrifice had picked him yet, but that wasn’t the point. Kevin had let them down in life, but he was a company man in death. You had to respect that. And most employees did. Some joked bitterly that this was the Organization’s retirement plan, but if the rest felt that way, they didn’t say it. They didn’t want to speak badly of the ghosts that came back. After all, you never knew where you were going after death. And when the Organization called you back to finish the work you’d started in life, you damn well hoped someone’d bother to treat you humanely.