"… once the D-Class personnel have finished rinsing the outside of the container using fire hoses, a third personnel will approach the container, and then affix the module to the outside of the structure. The microphone should pick up any vocalizations made by Skip Seven-Eight-Four." Doctor Lorenzo indicated a microphone and a speaker located on the console. "Speak into this microphone. It will transmit to the speaker in the communications module. Seven-Eight-Four should be able to pick up the vibrations through contact."
"That will not be sufficient, Doctor Lorenzo." Director Valentine's eyes were hard as flint, matching the steely grey of her hair, and her voice carried the snap of many years of authority. "I need to get inside the containment chamber and speak to Andrews directly."
Lorenzo hesitated. "Ma'am," he said, his lilting, Castillian accent tinged with doubt, "Seven-Eight-Four is a highly dangerous Keter-Class SCP that has already claimed the life of at least one other human being. I can't recommend that you be allowed in there."
"Your objections are duly noted and overruled." She opened her briefcase and handed a manila envelope to the perplexed scientist. "My papers. As of 0600 hours this morning, Overseer Eleven has given me clearance for direct access to this artifact."
The Spaniard glanced over the papers. "Looks like it's all in order," he sighed. "Except for the fact that it's absolutely loco. All right. There's a changing room to the left of the main entrance for Foundation personnel. Remove all your clothes and personal effects and change into scrubs. Angie will get you a respirator and some goggles and brief you on the safety procedures."
"Thank you, Doctor Lorenzo."
She had expected the interior of the containment chamber to be dark and gloomy, filled with shadows and grime, a monstrous home for the monster it contained. The brightly lit chamber was far less dramatic, but given the choice between drama and safety, Valentine preferred the one that let her walk out alive.
Seven-Eight-Four's tendency to assimilate any silicon and metal it came into contact with meant that steel and glass were verboten. Transparent acrylic and concrete were the materials of choice. The heavy concrete container rested at the bottom of a deep pool of acetone, the sharp odor of the solvent cutting through her paper-and-cloth respirator mask. The acetone was a safety measure: the nanomachines that made up the artifact's mechanical portions were very similar to proteins, and would disintegrate under heat and heavy solvents.
She tried not to think about the fail-safe measure that relied on the first method.
"You didn't have to come in here with me," she said.
The figure in the blue hazmat suit next to her shook its head, the gesture muted by the loose hood. "I'm responsible for this artifact," Lorenzo said. "I'm not letting an outsider in here alone."
"I see. Please tell the Deltas to raise the artifact."
Lorenzo nodded to the two figures in orange hazmat suits, who began to turn the capstan on the far side of the chamber. A series of ropes and pulleys, all made out of non-metallic materials, raised the heavy concrete chamber out of its acetone bath like a monster rising from the sea depths. A third D-Class, carrying a sprayer on its back, stood by nervously, fiddling with the controls of his device. "If I may ask, what's the reason for all this?" Lorenzo asked.
"Psychological analysis," Valentine said. "Overseers want to find out what's going on in his head."
"Really? Because I can tell you right now. Nothing. He's like an animal, all he knows is food and pain. I know he was some kind of agent before, but he's just a monster now."
"He wasn't just 'some kind of agent,' Lorenzo, he was a member of Pandora's Box. He's the one who stopped Steel Doll. He's helped capture over a dozen SCPs in the wild, three Keter-Class. He was… he IS a hero, and he deserves better than to be treated like a caged beast." Her last words were punctuated by the heavy thud of the containment chamber being locked into place, suspended just over the pool of solvent.
Lorenzo's lip twisted into a half-sneer, half smile. "I'm sorry. I'll be sure to show the proper respect," he said.
"See that you do. Is it possible for me to speak to him directly?" Valentine asked.
"There is a port on the top of the chamber for replenishing the nutrient bath. We normally keep it sealed except when attached to the pipe, but…"
Lorenzo nodded and shouted something in Spanish to the figures in the orange haz-mat suits. They flinched noticeably. One of them protested in the same language, only to be shouted down by Lorenzo. There was a brief hesitation, then one of the D-Classes started to gingerly approach the concrete cube, while the other two grabbed sprayers and looked on nervously. "Please stay behind the yellow line, Director," Lorenzo said. "We've been trying to train him not to cross the line using aversion therapy. It's been… well, we've had some success."
"Thank you." Valentine stepped back over the spray-painted line on the floor. "Any particular reason why the containment crew is mostly Spanish-speaking?"
"Easy to acquire. Some third-world dictator needs a few trouble-makers disappeared? We need a few warm bodies. Mutually beneficial agreement." Lorenzo smiled. "I think the guy climbing the ladder's here for calling Hugo Chavez a fat bastard on national TV."
"Hm." Valentine crossed her arms. "Convenient."
"Absolutely. Oh, hang on, here it comes. This is actually pretty cool," Lorenzo said, chuckling nervously.
The D-Class opened the port, then hastily ran down the ladder and back to his companions, picking up a spray tank and strapping it to his back. Slowly at first, a tendril of steel and glass emerged from the opening, swaying back and forth like a snake. A bulbous growth appeared at the end, then split open to reveal a small blue gem the size of a marble. "We're pretty sure that's a visual receptor of some sort," Lorenzo whispered. "It seems to be made up of thousands of tiny photoreceptors and lenses, kind of like an insect's eye."
"How well does he see?" Valentine asked.
The tendril snaked towards the two scientists, approached the yellow line, hesitated. The sapphire-blue eye turned towards the D-Classes, who gripped their sprayers tightly. The thing paused, then withdrew about a meter from the line. The orange-suited men relaxed visibly.
"If it crosses the line, it gets a full spray from the solvent, then reduced nutrition for a week," Lorenzo explained. "It seems to be the only way to get it to obey." He smiled at Valentine. The older woman just stared back at him coldly, and the younger scientist coughed and cleared his throat.
Valentine turned her attention back to Seven-Eight Four, which seemed to be reconfiguring itself. A blob of nanomaterial oozed down the length of the tendril (like a mouse being swallowed by a snake, she thought), then formed itself into a crude face, a second blue eye opening up next to the first. Valentine had seen photographs of Agent Andrews before his accident, and recognized the pudgy cheeks and pursed lips: the rest of it, however, was crude, a vague approximation of a human face formed by a mind that had nearly forgotten what it looked like.
"Andrews," Valentine said. "Can you hear me?"
"Seven-Eight-Four can pick up air vibrations," Lorenzo chimed in. "It talks back by forming and vibrating…"
"Shut up." Valentine cut Lorenzo off angrily. "Andrews," she repeated, "Can you hear me?"
The mouth opened, and a membrane stretching across the back, just behind the teeth, began to vibrate. "yessssss," it said, in a buzzing, electronic approximation of a human voice. "i kckkckkcan hear yyyou."
"Do you know who I am, Andrews?" Valentine said.
"anddddddrrrrrers is deaddeddeddead i am sevensevev—"
"Do you know who I am, Andrews?" Valentine repeated sternly.
The eyes turned and regarded Valentine closely. "dirrrrecccctor jjjjjanice valenvalentine. yoyoyou werrrrrrrre the one the one who reckakckakrcruited mmmmmmme from em em em eye yay titititieee."
"Yes, Andrews," Valentine said, smiling. Her eyes were bright with triumph. "So you do remember things from the past."
"rrrrremember. nnnononono longerrlongerrrrr carrrre. i am stitstststeeel now. steeel. perfect. moving beyond mere fleshflesh to perfection."
"Really?" Valentine's smile widened to a fierce, triumphant grin. She pulled off her hazmat suit glove, and before Lorenzo realized what she was doing, had pulled a small photograph out from the glove, held it up in front of the creature's eyes. It depicted a young woman wearing a blue hospital gown laying on a bed, hooked up to a respirator, her eyes staring blankly up at the camera flash. "And what if I told you," the Director said, "that Beatrix Maddox is still alive?"