Dr. Herrero walked slowly along the empty white corridor, like a condemned to the scaffold. His footsteps echoed on the cold walls, while several cameras observed him from the ceiling. He knew that he was being analyzed by the most sophisticated surveillance devices ever invented by man. If those cameras at any moment found anything abnormal, the security system would have activated the alarm in the whole building and the automatic sentry machine guns stationed near the door at the end of the corridor, capable of tearing any intruder into pieces in a few seconds, would have blown him away.
Hilarious, he thought. The defenses would do nothing against the one they're actually afraid of.
Nothing happened. Dr. Herrero arrived in front of the massive steel door resembling a monolithic tombstone. He said, with a calm and determined tone that didn’t show the storm of emotions weighing in his heart, "Dr. Robert Herrero, Clearance Level 5, Access Code 09-42-8695." The microphone above his head registered his words, and the sentry turrets, which hadn’t stopped pointing at him since when he arrived there, immediately disengaged themselves and started guarding the corridor again. He pressed his hand on the digital fingerprint sensor and the enormous door opened without a sound.
It. It. They always called her "it". Like an animal. Like an object. Like something worthless.
Robert entered the elevator, as empty as the rest of the facility, and the door closed behind him. Even there, he was constantly monitored by video cameras. He didn’t pay them any attention, and, as he had done many other times, pressed the single, big grey button on the wall of the lift, which started descending into the darkness. Dr. Herrero crossed his arms and waited, giving an absent look to his reflection in the elevator’s mirror. Time had not been gentle with him. He was still good looking for his age, but his face was marked by wrinkles, his hair grey and his right cheek crossed by a long, thin scar. He touched it gently, thinking that, maybe, the end of that story was finally near.
Am I ready? I know what they'll ask me. Am I ready?
The elevator reached the floor, 400 metres under the Italian surface. The secret bunker didn't have a name; it was built to host the most important meetings of the Foundation, and the Foundation wasn't in the habit of giving a place a name if it didn’t officially exist. As the door opened, Dr. Herrero was greeted by two men in black uniforms. Robert knew one of them, the German, Captain Strauss. He was rapidly making a career for himself, and his presence there made Herrero think about his son, Martin. Made him think about how much Martin hated him. What hurt Robert the most was that Martin had a good reason to hate him.
Strauss saluted him. "Greetings, Dr. Herrero," he said in awkward English. "I have been ordered to inform you that the assembly is about to begin. Your presence is required as soon as possible." Robert nodded and walked down the gently sloping hallway, heading to the conference room. All his confusion disappeared during that walk, supplanted by a sense of urge and anxiety. After all, he was a member of the Foundation, and he had made vows to it. Most of the researchers laughed at those vows, laughed at the old words. Secure, contain, protect. Robert lost a lot for those vows, and they were all he had left. He had lost his wife. He had lost his sons. The words were what he hadn't lost.
Arriving in front of the room, Dr. Herrero stopped, revised mentally the information he had, breathed deeply to calm himself, and opened the door.
The room was occupied by a large, round mahogany table. Around it there were almost two dozen people, speaking in a low tone. There were members from every secret department of the Foundation, though oddly not a single member of the Senior Staff. Robert noted in particular three figures, two men and a woman, in black business suits. He had never seen them before. As soon as he walked into the room, Dr. Jonathan Redwood, the American presiding over the meeting, welcomed him. “Hello, Robert. We were waiting for you. Please, have a seat.” Robert walked to the nearest empty chair and glanced at his colleagues; most looked nervous and stressed. This probably feels awkward for them, Robert thought. Redwood stood up.
"Gentlemen’’, said Redwood. "Before we begin, I’d like to remind you all that this meeting is classified Level 5-Black, as per protocol GK-09-Black, and what we are going to discuss today is classified for all individuals without level 5, O5, or GK-X clearance. Our orders come from the director of Project Green King, and to him and him alone do we report our actions.” He looked at the people around him. "Is that clear?’’ Everyone nodded.
"Good. In that case, we can begin." he said, clearing his throat. “As you have been informed, Project Green King is focused on the containment of an entity considered one of the most powerful beings the Foundation has ever faced. This being is a reality bender identified as Entity HL-49, or by its original codename, 'Green King.' This entity may have existed for years, maybe decades, before its interactions with the organizations predating the Foundation. At some point after this "discovery", it began to investigate us. Our best psychological profile—"
"Guess," one of the dark-suited men said, his Krakow accent showing. "Your best guess."
Dr. Redwood cleared his throat, looked around nervously. "Our profile suggests that it was scared. It knew that, if we captured it, we’d eventually find a way to keep it contained forever.” Redwood stopped, drank a sip of water and began talking again. "To obtain the information it needed to escape us, the Green King resorted to an ingenious strategy, as Operative Magnus will now explain you. Magnus?”
The dark-suited heckler from before stood up. “Thank you, Dr. Redwood. Green King, thanks to its abilities, managed somehow to create a reality bender under its control using only an ordinary man. This person, contained by us, is SCP-343. His infiltration was total, and after him came others, but for a long time we didn't suspect anything. And this gave the Green King enough time to spy us…spy on us.” Magnus shook his head at the English phrase.
"Today, we have uncovered three different entities within the Foundation that worked for the Green King," Magnus continued. "And we would have never discovered we were being spied upon at all were it not for the Green King’s difficulties in controlling its puppets.’’ Magnus stopped for a second, then resumed talking: "It made a mistake. During an attempt to gather information, the entity appears to have suffered some sort of episode or break; during this, its puppet, a young Palauan girl, was freed from its control and began confessing to us that it had been "possessed," as she put it, by a being that was giving it anomalous abilities and monitoring its interactions with Foundation personnel. In combination with the already extant evidence of the Green King's existence that the Foundation had, we were able to deduce this particular entity's involvement. That was the beginning of our problems. It became more careful, more shrewd, it found methods to prevent us from finding it. We continued looking for it, winning some battles, losing others. The situation, however, remained somewhat stable. Back then, the Green King was a powerful reality bender, but still a reality bender like many others, simply trying to escape from us.’’
Magnus lowered his voice. "Operative Amber will continue the briefing from this point." He sat, and the black-suited woman sitting beside him stood up.
"On 11 February 1974, during our sole offensive measure to date, two unnamed mobile task forces launched a direct assault upon a suburban home in eastern Pennsylvania where it was believed the Green King was basing its operations at that time."
"Its base was in a populated town?" one of the other, unnamed researchers asked.
"This is not a press conference," Operative Magnus said. "Please remain silent throughout the briefing, Taurus." He turned to the woman. "Please continue."
"During the attack," Amber continued, "two civilians were killed. Judging from radio transmissions from operating agents in the field, the civilians were between the ages of eight and fifteen years of age, both male. Entity HL-49 was engaged moments thereafter, the entity apparently having discovered the deaths of the two civilians in the house. A screaming was heard over the radio just before contact with the assault force was lost entirely. Moments afterward, an explosion was registered within the on-site fission reactor of Site 86, from which the assault was launched. The Site was lost with all hands."
The room sat in silence while the assembled individuals absorbed this information. Operative Amber continued moments later.
"Event E-GK-04 was one of the largest attacks against the Foundation ever recorded in our history. Perhaps most frighteningly, our psychological analysis of the Entity suggests that its restraint came primarily out of a lack of thorough intelligence gathering."
"Restraint?" a voice in the room said.
Operative Amber paused, looked at the speaker. "The Entity's restraint in not killing every man and woman working for the Foundation was due to ignorance. It didn't take the time to track us all down, then burned down one of its best leads; one of its operatives was working out of that Site. The annihilation of Site 86 was, in the end, just a self-defence act, and the Green King kept running away without any actively hostile action against us, but it was starting to break down mentally. It might have lost its mind entirely. Then, it…" Amber paused a moment, cleared her throat. She briefly made eye contact with Herrero, looked down at her notes. "Several years later—"
"I can tell the story from here out," Herrero said. Robert stood up, slowly, while the people in the room looked at him. His blue eyes seemed like trying to incinerate Amber. He knew she knew the story; at least, her version of it, but he was nevertheless raging. It wasn't her place. "Sit down," he said to Amber. "Now.’’ The wrath in his voice made the woman turn pale slightly, and she sat.
"I was twenty-seven when I met her, my wife." Herrero continued. "We met in a park one night, late at night, later than either of us should have been out. We were both running away from something, wandering, hoping to find something better, and we found each other. She told me about her first love, the breakup. I told her about mine. I told her a little bit about the Foundation, some of it a cover story, some of it…maybe more than I should have. She told me about her job, how much she hated it, how much she—"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand how this is relevant—"
"You can wait a goddamned minute, Jeff. Yeah, I know I'm not supposed to call you by your names. But you dragged me in here, and you know what you're asking me to do, and I know what you're asking me to do, so you can sit through my little pity party." Herrero sighed. "It was a quick courtship, a quick…it was just all so fast. I fell in love with her. We were happy, for the first time in our lives. That was all I knew."
"One morning, right around four o'clock, we were asleep. I was restless, I got up and went to the kitchen. Right at that moment, there was an explosion. Explosions. An attack. I was a desk worker, I had no experience with what was happening. I was knocked unconscious by some force. When I woke up, I was blindfolded, tied to a chair. A voice kept asking me questions, random questions. Pain happened. I blacked out."
"The Green King used torture? Can't it—" The black-suited man stopped, seeing the look Magnus gave him. Robert couldn't see that look, but he was sure the operative wouldn't be interrupting again.
"No," Robert said. "Two mobile task forces swarmed our house, took me into custody. She had left already, had known what was coming. The Foundation had figured it out somehow. It was just another operation for them." Robert looked up at the ceiling. "She knew I worked for the Foundation. It was infiltration for her, at least at the beginning. Maybe the whole time. I lost my wife, and I'll never know if she felt anything for me or not or if she used me to get to the Foundation. I'll never know if she thinks I set her up. I'll never have an answer to that I can believe. Ever."
The room was silent as the implications set in.
Redwood stood up and coughed, embarrassed. Then he spoke: "After… after this Event, E-GK-06, the Green King became actively hostile to the Foundation, and the leaders of the Green King Project decided to make its existence a secret to everybody but a few personnel. This happened twenty-five years ago. And now, I’ll let Operative Taurus conclude.’’ Then he sat, and he looked sideways at Robert, feeling bad for him. Robert looked like he had lost all energy, and simply sat there, staring at the table.
Operative Taurus, a corpulent Hispanic, stood up: "Since E-GK-06, the Green King has become more hostile, dangerous and aggressive to the Foundation as time passed. As years gone by, the deterioration of its mental and moral conditions, which had stopped during its relationship with Dr. Herrero, resumed at an even faster pace. Now, we think it is at a final stage. As the psychological evaluations say, the Green King is tired, exhausted, and doesn’t want to fight or hide anymore, and these discouragement and depression can lead to unpredictable consequences. As you know, four days ago we had two more Events, and yesterday Site 40 was attacked. We know the Green King is involved.’’
"Thus, the Green King Project leaders have decided to eliminate this threat once and for all. The Neutralization Committee expressed their agreement, and our R&D division has developed a weapon that we believe will be able to render the Green King harmless for enough time to kill it. All what we need’’, he said, looking at the people around him, "are the right time and place, and a bait to lure it and maintain it in the same spot for enough time to let us activate the weapon."
The people around the table started talking all together, and Taurus had to speak up to make them stop. "It will have to be a carefully chosen bait. Considering its hate towards us and its powers, we’ll have to choose the right person, someone able to speak with it for several minutes without being annihilated.’’ He looked at Robert. "Dr. Herrero, we think the best candidate for this task is you.’’
The room was again silent. Everyone was speechless. Robert seemed not having heard at first, then he started emitting a guttural sound that made the people around him shiver, while his shoulders winced. The laughter exploded, harsh and raucous. The laughter of an insane man. It seemed like boiling water was gurgling in the man’s throat, and when it faded, its echo resounded on the walls. Dr. Herrero stood up, his face darkened and pointing towards the floor. He spoke with a low and dreadful tone.
"You are asking me to help you kill the woman I love, trying to take advantage on an oath I took when I was too young to really understand it and that I am too honest, or stupid, to stop observing. You take advantage on the fact that I haven’t seen her for decades, hoping I accept. Now tell me, you manipulative sons-of-bitches: why should I do it?’’
"Dr. Herrero," Magnus said, a frown flashing across his face.
"No, goddammit, I deserve an explanation. You tell me exactly why I haven't given enough yet."
Robert threw his hands up. His mind was confused, but in the great storm of thoughts, one of them stood mighty and beautiful, like a beacon in the darkness. I would see her again.
Am I ready? I know what they'll ask me. Am I ready?
He looked up, and a single, bright tear fell from his right eye.
"All right. I'll do it."