An Impenitent Thief

rating: +59+x

"Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee
Lousy…"‎

I hate that song so fuckin' much I could almost die. In fact, I just almost did.‎

I freeze, one foot in the air, sweating inside the heavy sound-dampening suit. I slowly lower my padded boot to a clear spot on the floor, trying to avoid the metal shards and wiring. Breaking the rules - that would have been a fuckin' stupid way to die.

Rules are the first thing you learn when you arrive here, after they process you. Not guard rules (although they beat those into you pretty quick): skip rules. Everyone talks about 173 - but not trying to scare the newbies, trying to teach them. Follow the rules and maybe you'll walk out alive.‎

I look down the hallway to the tangle of copper wires, slowly swaying like long grass in an afternoon breeze. This little fucker has rules. You can ‎move, if you're quiet. You can make noise, if you stop moving. But if you make noise and then move? You're dead.

Still, 14 decibels is so quiet - softer than a whisper. Even with the suits, even with the Silencer dampening all sound from the other end of the hall, a chunk of metal underfoot might have been too loud. And those chunks are what it did to the drone.‎ I need to tread carefully.

Zhao looks at me, trying to work out what's wrong. I give her one slow blink for 'okay' - we have a system for when we need to be silent, even without our hands free. The foam baffles‎ we're carrying are bulky, unwieldy, but they're the only way to recontain the skip so we can move it to a soundproof cell. Zhao nods back at me, slowly, and we resume our careful, ponderous walk towards the skip.

She's always been a mother hen, Zhao. After they put me in Eta-11's custody for SCP-092 testing, she was the first to treat me like a real person. The first one to ask my name, not just my number. Doesn't talk about kids of her own. But she was fussing over that terrified girl we found earlier tonight, before the breach alarm went off. The girl who was asking about 012. Another skip with rules, except the rules won't keep you safe. If you see it, you're dead.

Walking so slowly stretches things out endlessly. There's too much time to think. I have to keep watching the skip to remind myself to focus. Funny though, when you look at it for long enough, it almost seems peaceful, like a horse's mane, or long hair shimmering underwater.‎ It's been forever since I had long hair.‎

"I was not brought up that way…"

I really can't get that song out of my head. Sandra Dee, what an awful name. I never told Zhao my real name - I never told anyone here. That name belongs to someone else - a kid that lived outside these walls. A kid who liked to steal, did some stupid shit, and paid for it.‎

I regret what happened, after. But I don't regret the stealing. I still do it, sometimes. Just to keep in practice, for the feeling of getting away with it. A little extra food, or some cigarettes, when I was in the cells. I don't take anything from the team, though. They aren't like the rest, so they don't deserve it. Although they'd probably blame me anyway if something went missing - they're always watching me like they know I'll try something. Always talking about me, like they were to that girl tonight. I saw how she looked at me, when I came into the den.

I did take something tonight‎, not from the team but from site security. A mini flashlight - when I saw it earlier tonight, during the bug-hunt, I wanted it. The big bunch of keys it's attached to might be interesting too, but it was the flashlight that grabbed me. I can feel it pressed in the pocket of my uniform, under the padded suit. I definitely don't regret taking it.

There were thieves in the bible, I remember suddenly. Two of them, crucified with Jesus. One of them asked Jesus for forgiveness, the little ass-kisser. The other one didn't say anything. Did he have any regrets? I wonder what he thought about, nailed up on a cross for everyone to look at and gossip about. Up on Mount Golgotha. Funny, that's the name of 012 as well.

I need to focus again. We're moving so deliberately, one eye on the noise meters flashing on the inside of our visors, so aware of the danger.‎ I'd almost forgotten what it was like, knowing you could die any time.

"I know what you wanna do…"

The worst thing is, the name is a joke at my expense. After a while in testing, they started calling me "D". I guess I'd lived long enough to be more than a number, but less than a person. And when the others finally asked my name, I wouldn't tell them, so "Dee" stuck. What do you call something that you pick up off the street, and adopt, and give it a new name and a place to sleep? Right: a stray.

The skip is only a few feet away now. Zhao nods again, and we lower the baffles to the ground, and start to join them together, making a soundproof box. Perfect teamwork.

They say I'm part of the team, a full MTF member, but I know that's not true. They still know where I came from. Every time they do something for me, every meal or rec break or talk with me, feels like charity, feels patronising. And one day, when the last of them get too old and Eta-11 gets shut down, they'll get‎ amnestics and retirement with their families. What will I get?

The tendrils are still waving, scratching against the floor and moving the skip around. It looks sharper, up close. More metallic, more alien. From here the wires aren't floating, they're reaching. Searching. Hunting. But they're pushing it across the floor, right towards the box, exactly where it needs to go.

And then the Silencer malfunctions, and all hell breaks loose.

The beeping blows the sensors way past 14 decibels. Zhao and I are frozen in place, but suddenly I see movement. Just a head stuck around the corner to see what's happening, but the skip is so fast. A dozen wires shoot lightning-quick down the hall, bursting through the foam baffles. The guard has no time to react before they grab him and haul him into the corridor, twisting snake-like around him as more and more tendrils flow down to join them. And then…

I have to watch it. I can't turn my head or close my eyes. I try to turn my mind off ‎but I have to watch it shake him and shake him.

It doesn't last long, less than a minute. The copper snakes trail back in to the body of the skip, just a couple of feet across again. They draw back through the holes in the ruined baffle and I try to think what we can do. And then, after an age, once it's safe to move again, I look at Zhao.

She's gone. She didn't see it, but she watched me see it. Her breathing is shallow and her eyes are unfocused - she's lost it. It's been too long - she's forgotten how it f‎eels to have death breathing over your shoulder. She is motioning feebly to abort, but what the hell will we do then? Godammit, why did you have to choose today to pussy out, you weak bi-

Jesus fuck it's on my foot! The skip has ‎shuffled right onto my padded boot. My breath catches in my throat and my tongue turns to sandpaper. I can feel the copper wires scratching against my calf, the thick fabric warped and stretched by the movement. It feels obscene. This fuckin' thing is so wrong, why can't they just destroy it? It seems to sit there forever, blindly waving, and I just want to ‎scream, to kick it away, to end it all in a moment of blessed release.

And then it's off me, and I can breathe again. My mind is racing, but it's all about how the Silencer's broken, the foam's broken, Zhao's broken. We're fucked, we're fucked, we're - no, shut up. I have to think about what to do.‎ I have time to think - I'm not moving, and I won't make any sound inside the suit.

The s‎uit! The tendrils didn't pierce it, because the material has some give. And it will block enough sound to let us get a new box around the skip. All I have to do is drape the suit over it, and then wait for backup.

I start loosening the fabric ties - no noisy zips or velcro. I'm not looking at Zhao, she may as well not be here.‎ Once the suit is off, I feel very exposed, even in my uniform. My skin prickles and the sweat on my face is cold. I can't look at the sensor anymore, so I can't afford to make a sound. But the skip is still close - I just need to lean over and cover it without any noise.

"Just keep your cool…"

Godammit, that song! Of course, right when I need to concentrate most, that "gift" from my so-called teammates comes back to bite me. I'm trying to breathe silently, but I can feel my jaw clench.

Turn me from a lab rat into a stray mutt they've adopted, and they expect me to be grateful? Expect me to risk my life for their broken task force that no-one gives a shit about? ‎ Expect me to save their asses when they can't do the job themselves?

My blood is boiling. I'm leaning as far out as I can, weight all on one foot, reaching out with the suit in both hands, when it happens.

The flashlight in my pocket slips out, and the ring of keys tumbles to the floor.

In that moment, as I lose my balance and know that I am dead, a memory hits me from fifteen years ago. ‎

Raised voices. I come out to see half the squad arguing with some pencil-neck from RAISA. Daniels, Smith, Stepovski, even Hennessey is bellowing. The info-sec rat is flanked by burly site guards, and things feel ugly. Then the Commander comes in. He takes the RAISA papers, waves the rat away, reads them and then looks up. At me. And the Commander says, clearly and slowly: "I'm afraid that your records are out of date. This woman is an MTF agent, and under my jurisdiction. You have no authority here. Agent… Agent Dee, you may return to your post."

That's the last thought I have, watching the keys drop, feeling myself fall. I remember feeling proud.

And then Zhao's hand comes from nowhere, sliding under the keys, catching them, muffling them in the soft glove of her suit. I'm not falling any more - Zhao is crouched, her other hand against my collarbone, holding me in balance.‎ She looks up at me - I see her eyes scan left to the sensor - and gives me a slow blink. And Zhao gets up, takes the suit from my hands, ‎and wraps the skip as carefully as a baby.

Once it's in a new box, and wheeled silently away to a new containment cell, I look over at Zhao. She takes off the hood of her suit, and sinks slowly to the floor - it looks like she's crying. Weak as shit, I start to think, but then my legs turn to jelly and I'm sitting on the floor next to her and somehow there are tears on my face too. Zhao hands me the flashlight and the keys without a word. She just puts an arm around my shoulders, and we sit there for a long time in silence.

What do you call a group of people that you mostly can't stand, but they're the only people who really know you, and you owe them everything? Oh yeah: family.‎

Afterwards, the Commander requests a commendation for us. He saw the whole thing, but couldn't risk ‎approaching once the Silencer died. He says H and Mike did a good job containing the other skips, and we've all earned some down time. Ha, that was basically the first up-time we've had in two years.

So how strange is it that all those auditory skips broke containment at the same time? It's like someone wanted us kept busy. I almost suspect the Commander of trying to keep the MTF in business. Why would anyone do it otherwise?

It's not until the next day that we find out SCP-012 was stolen.‎

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