Autonomy, Part IV
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"And you say it has been over one year since you experienced uncontrollable effects?"

"Correct."

"You do not experience specifically reality-altering uncontrollable effects at all, even when outside the boundaries of this room or away from a Scranton Reality Anchor or related equipment?"

"I do not, and I don't experience the panic symptoms that usually signified the onset, either."

"What about controllable effects? Any of those?"

Jasper Ramirez thinks for a moment, fingers clasped under the table. "Very limited localized reality manipulation, like within a meter of my body."

"Okay, noted. We may need to gather further information at some point, but given that your internal Hume levels have dropped to a range of 110 to 120, the claims appear reasonable. Thank you for your time, SCP-4427." The woman in the gray suit stands up and leaves, heeled boots ringing against the concrete. She doesn't close the door behind her. No one has in several days, but Jasper hasn't seen any of the other anomalies around.

They stand up and amble into their small kitchen. There's not much left other than cans of soup and frozen meals; they wonder when or if anyone is going to ask them for their shopping list. The site has been getting emptier and emptier over the past several months. They turn around and exit the room and the chamber, walking down several meters to the employee break room. They flip the light on and pick up the landline phone, breathing steadily as they dial a number from memory.

"Um, yes, hello? This is M-Mary," the other end coughs. "Oh, pardon me…"

"It's me, Mom. Jasper."

"Oh my goodness, honey. Are you alright?"

"Yep. They told me a few days ago that they want to move me off Earth. Some lady just interviewed me, probably for that. As soon as they feel certain that I won't destroy something, I guess."

"Off Earth? Gracious me. What's the matter with Earth?"

"Uh, have you looked outside?" Jasper hasn't in several days, but she doesn't need to know that.

"Well, no. There is not much to look at out there, honey…"

"Because everyone left or went nuts because they can't remember anything. Pretty soon all the automated infrastructure is going to fail too because there's no one to debug the McDonald's robots or perform oil changes on the self-driving cars."

"Well goodness, I- I suppose…"

They grit their teeth. "Look, do you have anywhere to go? I don't think society is going to improve from here. It may not be too long before the food crisis affects you too. Would you be willing to come with us if I can somehow talk them into it?"

She ignores the question or doesn't process it. "But… But do you want to leave?"

"It doesn't matter. Do you have anyone with a lot of land and food? Any of those crazy conspiracy friends of yours have a bunker or some shit? I really want you to have a plan for the next few weeks. Get to somewhere that you'll be safe for a few years at least, really plan for the worst."

"Oh, Ricky and the boys offered for me to drive up to the farm, but I'd rather wait until-"

"Don't wait! Don't wait, get there now."

"Calm down! Nothing is going on outside."

"Well, it's a great time to leave, then. And come to think of it, you'd hate it in space, I'm sure. Ricky's land is the safest place for you."

She lets out a long sigh, buzzing through the speaker. "If I pack up for Ricky's and leave this afternoon, will you stop worrying about me?"

"Yes. Within reason."

"Oh, honey. I'll never stop asking God why this happened to you…"

They never know what to say to that. "We'll have the answers one day."

"That we will, honey. Listen, now, when are you leaving?"

"I'll see. There's barely anyone here. I keep getting worried that they forgot me and I'm just going to die alone down here." They feel their pulse jump in their throat and sway a little, the colors of their vision distorting into shorter wavelengths. They shake their head, hair flying. "But I know that's not true. You know how much I hate being alone." The purple tones turn back into their normal colors. They relax their shoulders. "Anyway. I'll get over it. Don't worry about me."

"Well, maybe things will be different up there. Maybe you can meet someone."

"Mom. I'm old. And I bet I'll still be subject to the exact same fucking regulations up there anyway."

"Watch your mouth! And if I can meet your stepfather in my seventies, you should do just fine in your fifties! Maybe you'll meet some sort of interesting… alien… person. Imagine that!"

They stifle a laugh. "Maybe, Mom. Maybe."

There's a knock on the door. They jump, losing their grip on the phone. "Oh, uh, I guess someone is down here. I'll talk to you as soon as I can, okay? Don't change your number. I know the phones work up there, but I think the cell towers are gonna go out soon down here so I'm gonna be fast, alright? Once I give you a new number for me once I get up there you should call me from Ricky's-"

"Okay, honey. Okay. We'll be alright, and you never forget that I'm with you and God is with you, okay?"

They sigh and look at the ceiling. "Yep. I, uh, respect your feelings and I love you."

"I love you too, Jasper."

They hang up and open the door. Two North Carolina State Troopers are waiting outside of it. Jasper widens their eyes, startled. "Um, hi?"

"Jose Ramirez?" the tall one asks. The strip on his vest reads A. Brown.

Their gut twists. "Jose is my legal name but I only use Jasper."

"I see. Well, Mr. Ramirez-"

"And I'm not a man. Look at me." They zip their jumpsuit up to their neck and cross their arms over their breasts. "Look, I don't mean any disrespect, but who the hell let you guys down here?"

Brown cocks his head. "We did. Reports indicate you have not experienced anomalous effects in over 12 months."

Ah, so the pantsuit-ed lady was a government bureaucrat. Jasper makes a note to only disclose things to people with the Foundation logo visible somewhere on their clothing in the future, though they now suspect they may not have the chance again. "Yes."

"Well, your time is here, then. No more containment." Brown and his nameless partner look at them expectantly, smiling.

"You- what?"

"You're out. You can be a civilian again. We've got your Social Security card, all that stuff. Come down to the station."

"Ahah, what? Where am I supposed to live?"

The two men look at each other. "Well, there are the shelters if you don't have plans or family who can help you."

They dig their fingers against the door, swinging on it slightly. "I thought the Foundation was taking me to Lunar Area-32."

"The Foundation does not have the resources anymore to look after non-anomalous people. We'll make sure you get set up again, don't worry. America is still going strong, I promise. You ready to go pack up?"

"But I am anomalous."

"Are your effects controllable within the regulations required by NC law?"

"I… guess?"

"Right, that's what our report said."

"But- Where are- Who's letting you-"

"We are," Brown explains, hands spread wide with palms out like he's explaining something to a child. "We are letting us, okay? North Carolina is letting you. I know you've been in here a long, long time. You're a little out of it. But we are legally moving you out of Foundation custody for good, and you don't have to worry about this stuff from this point forward, alright?"

They stare, mouth agape. "But I don't want that. Earth is fucked. And I'll argue with you there: especially America."

"Buddy, there's war and drama out there in space too, I can promise you that," the shorter cop chuckles. "If not more out there than here. Now come on, let's get going. This isn't something the state will debate, and it's for your own good."

Those last four words are always a stab in the chest regardless of what uniform the speaker is wearing. "No it isn't," they retort. "Every time someone says that fucking phrase to me I know there's trouble. And I'm not taking orders from anyone other than Foundation personnel, period."

The cops look at each other for a long second. "Well, alrighty then… Wait here and we'll get someone."

"Fine."

They close the door and wait, pacing as a minute ticks by, and then another, and then ten. They're reaching for the handle to leave when hurried footsteps sound in the hall; a man not too much older than Jasper is standing at a respectful distance on the other side of the door, clad in a dirty white t-shirt tucked into the gray uniform pants that Site-42 had switched to in the 2030s. Jasper never liked those as much as the old black ones.

"Hi," they start. "You know what's going on with the cops?"

"Hi Jasper." He doesn't introduce himself. "Yes, sorry. So no, you don't have to go with the state. Your name shouldn't have been on that list." His sparse gray hair is curling with sweat, arm muscles swollen under his shirt despite his age. Jasper finds their eyes wandering as he continues, oblivious.

"Gotcha," they drone.

"Right, uh, as you know they're not letting all the skips tag along up there, which is why I and a few others are going to stay behind provided nothing changes in the next few months, but you're actually one that is. Getting out of here, that is. Former Site-42 Director Eric Radford cited your history of cooperative behavior and requested that we offer you a position in either data entry, networking, or records management as Level 1 E-class personnel at Orbital Area-11, should you desire it."

They snap their eyes back to meet his. "What?"

"I'm confused too, trust me. But we've got the paperwork, so it's up to you."

"W-what about my SCP designation?"

He laughs. "I mean, you can use the same number as your personnel ID if you want. I doubt anybody will judge."

"Not that, I mean- is this because I can control my effects now? Does 'space Foundation' employ anomalies, is that it?"

"It would appear so, in a limited manner. Then again, I heard stories of anomalous employees long before the notion was so obviously counterintuitive to the majority, and I know there're plenty of nonhuman personnel the further you get from Earth. I expect an anomalous human is no different provided no safety threat is posed."

They have questions, but all of them can wait when there are only two options on the table. They can already feel their pulse thumping faster. "I'll go. Yep. Yep, let's do it, let's go. Get me the fuck off this planet."

The nameless agent chuckles and steps aside, gesturing for them to head down the hall in front of him.


Extrasolar Activities Division Operations Security Overseer Eric Radford thinks his new title is about four words too long to have a nice ring to it like Site Director did. Orbital Area-11 also feels too much like a space station to consider a home; he keeps reminding himself that it is a space station, in addition to being his home, and there's nothing he can do to change that. He walks deliberately down the hallway toward the R&D wing, still trying to get used to artificial gravity. After he's flashed his left palm at the access scanner, he strides in and makes a beeline for Dr. Mallory Wickerford's lab.

"Where's Wickerford?" he asks her team of six young researchers from 42, all of whom are wearing expressions like they've just seen a ghost. "Jeez, are y'all alright?" he mutters.

"Yes sir," one of them answers with a nervous laugh. "I can't speak for everyone but, uh, I think I'm just a little on-edge because I'm still getting used to everything…" She swivels her chair from the computer station toward the floor-to-ceiling window and focuses on a pulsing star in the distance. "…Uh, up here," she finishes.

"I feel much the same."

"I got used to it pretty quick, not gonna lie," the young woman welding a robotic limb in the corner says. "Being in 42 was boring. No offense, Director."

"None taken." He takes a beat and turns back to his right. "Uh, Sarah?"

"Oh, sorry, yes. Dr. Wickerford is in her office."

"Thank you." He doesn't know which room it is, but he doesn't want to make a fool of himself so he just hopes it's down the only hallway in the room. He brushes past a table of nothing but spare android parts, grimacing at a realistic human head with its eyes removed and wires hanging out. He should probably be reprimanding them for having such a mess out in the open, but he dislikes interfering with other departments' spaces more and more the older he gets.

"Hello Mallory," he says dryly, knocking on her open door.

She smirks and looks up from her pile of printouts. "I thought you'd never visit me, Eric." Radford sees lines of code on the transparent glass monitors before she pushes them back toward the wall and the computer goes to sleep. She stands up.

"You don't look a day younger."

"I can't say the same about you, Eric." She leans on her desk. "Do sit down."

He smiles. "Stop saying my name so much, Mallory."

"No, Eric."

He steps inside and closes the door. "You always were so cold."

"Not cruel." She winks. "But seriously, let me know if you would like some new skin. It can be grown from your cells quickly, won't even see the difference! And don't be so dramatic. It's only been a few months since last we saw each other."

"I'm really not into that space-age shit. You know how it is."

"Suit yourself." She sits back down and puts a heeled foot up on the desk, flexing her ankle at him. "I know you're not in here just to say hi to me. What do you want?"

"We've got a problem with Trauss." His gut sinks when he says it.

"It's a shame what happened to him."

"What can you mean by that?" He forces a laugh, deep lines forming on his face. Neptune's vibrant blue body creeps into view in the window behind her as the station rotates.

"You know I don't sugarcoat, Eric. 51174.edk is not Trauss. An ED-K file is a file. Just a file. A file that acts like a person, written in a language that acts like thought." She flicks the monitor array back over by the handle and grabs the mouse. "In this case a dead person. Beyond that, there were a handful of things about him that High Command didn't like in our first ED-K++ edit subject. Little useless personality traits that were preventing him from being a more effective agent, but still, I couldn't imagine an easier template for the breed of personnel High Command is after in this age than him."

"Okay."

She takes an oddly timed pause to chug from the water bottle on her desk. Radford thinks its contents smell a little stronger than water. "All thanks to my efforts when he was younger, of course. So, anyway, I deleted the traits in question," she continues with a cough, "traits which are specified in 'Directive C-42' provided to you directly from High Command, last I knew. But I'm losing myself; you say there's a problem? Do you need a new iteration?"

He pinches the bridge of his nose until it's uncomfortable. "Can you hear the words you choose when you talk about this stuff, Mallory?"

"Oh, roll that chair on over here and look at this, Eric," she barks. "Stop getting hung up on fabricated ethics and look at the facts, why don't you. Look, this is the file." She clicks a folder on the rightmost desktop.

"You and I have done a few shitty things in our time, but…" He loses the other half of the thought.

"Which version of it do you want?"

He looks at the list. There are 27 of them, all timestamped to the minute in the file name and sorted by date. "How are there this many? He didn't transfer bodies that many times."

"Oh, these are mostly versions I messed around with before High Command decided on one. Each file is composed of about 400,000 Unicode characters. Typically around 900 kilobytes each."

"That's- tiny? Right?"

"Yes."

"How is that possible?"

"Well, it's nothing but text. Like I said, ED-K++ and all earlier versions of ED-K use Unicode. The file size checks out to me." She keys ctrl + f and leaves the cursor flashing. "And I'm not just saying that because I was one of the original developers of the language. Here, see for yourself. I'll run one of these instances in the text window-"

"No, no. Christ. I don't want to instant-message with a disembodied copy of someone. Just let me tell you what's going on, please."

"Alright, alright." She reclines in her chair.

"Whatever version of his file you sent off as the final… didn't work out all that great. The handler had to do a remote override pretty quick right in the middle of a would-be-interrogation. As an OpSec guy I need to worry about that now, as you know. As you also know, we had him trying to grab some MC&D tech-"

"I am aware."

He runs a hand through his hair. "Well, he just wasn't compliant with the override, and it almost blew our cover. This is after our systems grossly miscalculated the transfer point inside of the bar, but that's- you don't need to worry about those details. But yes, he was not compliant with orders — not by any intention, it seemed — but I would have expected better from him, knowing him how I do. Can you do anything about that subconscious reaction that prevented him from having an adaptive response to that partial remote override?"

Mallory sucks her teeth. "Well, I can do my best in prowling through those sections for what to edit, but an ED-K file cannot perfectly emulate a human consciousness, as I was just discussing. I'm guessing the handlers preferred to keep the offending iteration out of the body until further notice?"

"Yep."

She swivels around again, eyes rolled back. "…And the file disappeared, didn't it? Is that your problem?"

"Yep."

"Knew it."

"But you have a backup of it, right?"

"Of course I have a backup. You should have told me sooner. His PII will have automatically saved a backup to the engineering desktop in the lab immediately prior to remote override. I'll start editing it now. Has the handler returned the body here?"

"Yes. You know, sometimes I wonder why we can't just use the handler."

She purses her lips. "Not safe. The handler is a different behavioral structure entirely and is not suited for field work. Edited in vastly different ways."

Radford nods. "I trust your judgement."

"Then there's nothing to worry about. I'll begin a new iteration right away."

He pauses, studying the different colors of light shining through her glasses and creating gleaming dots on her glossy nails. "I don't know as much as I probably should on this, but what could come of that file being missing?"

"Oh, absolutely nothing. There are too many iterations of the individual in existence at this point for any sort of sapience to be tied to it."

He raises his eyebrows. "Really? Is… that an exact science?"

"Certainly you haven't forgotten who you're working for, Eric."

He stares at Neptune, trying to enjoy the last few seconds of rotation. "Of all the hundreds who have died with PIIs in them, how many of them have you edited the ED-K scripts- of? You know what I mean."

"I have not edited anyone other than Trauss. The Ethics Committee — powerless as they may seem at this point in history — will only approve such a thing on a case-by-case basis, do you recall? If you don't agree with that limitation on my artificial intelligence research, perhaps you should-"

"Okay, okay. I know what I need to know. I'll think about it." He huffs and looks at his watch. "Alright. So you're gonna start editing, I'm not gonna worry about the missing file, no worries, blah blah. Got it, got it," he finishes under his breath. "Damn am I old. Listen, I've got a meeting with an important somebody who just got out of 42 in the nick of time. I'll see you soon."

"Take care, Eric."

"You as well." He ducks out, giving a polite nod to the ladies in the lab as he swings back into the hallway and makes his way to his office. He chews his lip, mentally preparing himself for an awkward first-time meeting with someone he lived within 200 meters of for two decades; the personnel class limitations are going to put the on-hire handshake out of the question, too.

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