It was cold. Winter bore down on the black stone spires and slave pits and smokestacks of Daevon in a sheet of frozen lead. Snow and ash had mixed into an indefinable slurry that filled the narrow streets. The lamps fought uselessly against the encompassing darkness. In the gloom, some stray dogs picked at the frozen body of a slave that had not made it home to his master’s hearth.
The artist reclined in her eggshell chair, nude. Silks and furs were draped haphazardly around her, more or less unneeded in the soft warmth of her studio.
The euphoria of the act was still fresh, the electric thrill of giving life to art. Her hands moved with precision and speed, detailing words, figures, shapes. Ink blossomed out across the sheet of vellum that was stretched out and held taught by jointed iron legs. Ink was the life of art as blood was the life of man.
She had made, created, given birth to, was art.
The ink had all pooled in the basin underneath her as she made the first incision, thin and black, pouring out of her body without staining. The gift of the Horned King, that his disciples might turn their own life into art for his glory.
She had worked quickly after that, carefully preparing the vellum, her heart filled with joy. She took the skin, treating it with the appropriate chemicals and spices, draining the rest of the ink off into the basin.
That done, what remained had been burnt in the furnace shrine set in the wall, with incense and prayers, underneath the painted stone form of the King, and it was pleasing to the artist’s lord. It was the King’s command that he take part in the art, for if the King bore godhood in his crown, and the art was the artist, thus the art-artist likewise came to godhood.
According to tradition, the umbilical cord was tied around her neck.
She continued to work, pouring her life, her soul, into her art, and the frozen night pressed on outside. In time, when the grey smog-smeared dawn approached, she put down her pens, and smiling at the work she had done, the artist began to sew up the slit in her belly.
All this this was pleasing to Moluch, the Horned King Crowned in Shame.
Mary-Ann sat on the floor, propped up against the couch, and plucked at her guitar. Naomi sat and watched with bright eyes.
“I’ve walked ten thousand miles, ten thousand miles to see you…And every gasp of breath, I grabbed it just to find you…I climbed up every hill to get to you…I wandered ancient lands to hold just you…and every single step of the way, I pa-a-a-a-ay…every single night and daa-aaa-aay…”
“adaa,” Naomi said, reaching out to touch the guitar.
“Yep. This is my guitar. I don’t think you’re big enough to play it yet, though.” She set the guitar to the side and placed her daughter on her lap. “You’d try eating it, and you don’t want a slobbery guitar, do you?” She gave Naomi a tickle.
Mother and daughter had the house to themselves that evening: Salah was out at the Chapterhouse helping with the graduation ceremony for this batch of recruits. It wasn’t as if it was a closed affair or anything, but Salah had the car today and the timing didn’t work out to come pick Mary-Ann and Naomi up. That was something of a disappointment, but so things went.
Mary-Ann checked Naomi’s diaper. Nope. Still clean.
It had been a just over two years since she had been in their shoes, taking her oath of office, though all things considered that could have been another person entirely, wrapped up in a blanket of quiet, desperate, melancholy. Time and care and love had done their job at unraveling that cocoon. The world was brighter now. Life was better.
A sharp rapport of knocks on the front door interrupted her musing.
“Hm? Come on, let’s see who it is.” Mary-Ann picked up Naomi and walked to the door. The knocking continued, pausing every few seconds and starting up again.
“Hold on, hold on, I’m coming!”
Mary-Ann opened the door to see two men standing on the front step, one shorter and balding, the other taller with salt and pepper hair. Both were wearing suits: Not secret service suits, or Jehovah’s Witnesses suits, but closer to insurance salesmen suits. Alarm bells went off in her head: never trust men who turn up in pairs on front steps wearing suits, ever. Their eyes confirmed her suspicions: Dull, glassy eyes, like a cow’s. Foundation eyes.
Her stomach sunk.
Son of a motherfuck they have the address?
“Ms. Mary-Ann Lewitt, my name is Mr. Redmond,” the taller man said. “The Foundation is in need of your assistance.”
“If you want help, call the office of external affairs at the Chapterhouse. I don’t know how you got my name or my address, but I want you off my property. Now.”
“I’m sorry, I’m being unclear.” Redmond continued. “The Foundation requires you specifically. This is a matter of the utmost importance, and it requires your complete cooperation.”
“Important enough that you can just walk up to my front door?”
“Yes.” His face was completely serious. “I apologize, Ms. Lewitt, but time is of the essence. We are in the process of alerting the Initiative, but we cannot wait for the bureaucracy to play catch-up.”
Mary-Ann hesitated for a moment, waiting for her gut to percolate an answer. Amidst all the fishiness, she could feel that instinctive lump of certainty that something was seriously wrong and it needed dealing with right now. Her gut had spoken.
“Come on in, then. Make it quick.”
Salah glanced at his watch: 6:48. The graduation ceremony had finished up early. A small group of recruits this time, and a lot of the pomp and circumstance had been cut down significantly from the previous year.
Always such promise at the ceremony, but it was the next few weeks and months that would decide who stayed in the Shepherds. Death was always a possibility, but the more pressing subject was the strain of the position. People simply broke down, unable to cope with being thrown face-first into the horrific absurdities of the world. But, this was the Horizon Initiative, built on shaken faith that could still stand tall. They would do fine, Salah assured himself.
Salah got in the car. Time to go home. The digital watch on his left wrist reflected the evening sun.
Mary-Ann sat on the couch, Naomi in her lap. Redmond sat in the chair across the room. His accomplice Brown stood in the corner.
“The item in question is designated SCP-089, a Canaanite statue dating from the second century BCE. SCP-089 will provide a name, a command, and a fanciful description of a disaster that will occur if the named individual does not complete the task. Ten hours ago, SCP-089 underwent a locution event, naming you as the chosen individual.”
“And that means…what?”
“SCP-089’s demands are identical in all events: that the selected individual performs a ritual in order to prevent or stop the promised disaster event. This ritual will entail, must entail, the loss of that individual’s child.”
The universe froze. Mary-Ann stared at Redmond mutely for a moment, trying to process the information, trying to find some misheard word or slip of the tongue. He did not just say that. He did not just say that…He did. That is what he said. She pulled Naomi closer to her instinctively. No. She wasn’t letting them take her. Over her dead body.
“Get out of my house,” she said, voice low, barely covered up a savage snarl. “Get out. If you or your Foundation friends come back, I start shooting you. Got it?”
“I understand, Ms. Lewitt. This is not an easy thing to accept. However, I cannot leave. SCP-089 has made its threat, and so the ritual must be carried out. If it is not, or if it is delayed beyond seventy-two hours, the disaster SCP-089 threatens will begin. We know of no alternative method to prevent these disasters from occurring.”
“Have you tried smashing it? Smashing it is a nice idea.” Mary-Ann’s voice dripped with mockery and venom. Fucking Foundation packrats.
“Ms. Lewitt, I believe you are at least somewhat aware of the principles of the Foundation. Our protocols ban the destruction of items and entities except in the most extreme of circumstances. Furthermore, the process has already begun. If SCP-089 were destroyed now, the ritual could not be completed, and the disaster would not end. Beyond this, it is unknown if SCP-089 causes the disaster itself, or simply warns of it. Its destruction could be the loss of not only a means of prevention, but an early detection system.”
Mary-Ann couldn’t help but laugh. It was a bitter, ugly sound.
“And that’s all it is to you, isn’t it? You just go around picking up new kids to kill when the batteries run low."
“No. It is a necessity to prevent greater destruction. Do not be fooled into thinking that we are unaware of what it is that we do, Ms. Lewitt. The Foundation is aware of what it asks, and it asks only because it knows the alternative.”
“And what’s the alternative?”
Redmond cleared his throat.
“’The earth shall tremble in the land of the people of Dae, and lo, all the peoples shall know the flesh that hates’… we believe this to be in reference to an anomaly currently contained by the Foundation in the region of Lake Baikal in Siberia.” Redmond motioned for Brown to come over. He did, handing Mary-Ann a tablet. The picture displayed on it was the inside of a house, with something like a man sitting at a table. The thing’s skin was brown and waxy, a blobby, grotesque amalgamation of tumors and scar tissue and dried vomit. There was no head, just a melting mass of red flesh coiled on the tabletop. Mary-Ann made sure to have it positioned where Naomi couldn’t see the screen as she went through more pictures of infected people and rotting villages. To be completely honest with herself, Mary-Ann couldn’t help but compare these things to the Flood. Dangerous thinking, that. Thinking things operated on the same level as their fictional counterparts generally led to being dead.
“The anomaly, designated SCP-610, is an infectious disease, something akin to a virulent, easily communicable cancer,” Redmond said. “610 cell growth is capable of consuming a person within five hours, turning them into what you see there. There is no cure, save complete immolation. Eventually, when infected individuals progress to the later forms of the disease and are gathered in a high enough density, SCP-610 will begin to change the local environment, in a form of terraforming. At this point, it is capable of spreading by air.”
“Then destroy it. Just say it was a military test or something, you guys can get away with that, right? Or just a forest fire, I don’t know. Put more men on the job, double your security, put it on absolute lockdown… for the love of God do your jobs!”
Redmond shook his head.
“The outcome is pre-ordained, Ms. Lewitt. If we were to attempt more security and hope that all would be well without the ritual, it is inevitable that a single infected individual would escape. Events would twist themselves until it happened. Slips of the tongue, slips of the mind, building up until that one fatal mistake occurs. Destroying it without the ritual would likely ignite full-out war, or many other unforeseen consequences.”
“You’re sure? There’s no other way.”
“If there was, we would not be here, Ms. Lewitt. I’m sorry.”
“How bad is it going to be? Maybe we can just wait it out…”
“The nearest city to the containment zone has a population of a five hundred thousand. If the infection were to take hold of the city, it would easily reach enough density to begin aerial spread and terraforming operations. At that point, it would begin spreading into Mongolia and China, through the Middle East, and to eastern Europe. Were the infection to reach this point, it is doubtful that even a nuclear sterilization of the continent would be enough to contain it. The death toll by then would be in the billions.”
Billions. It always sounded like a fake number, something so big that the average person couldn’t imagine the size. Just a word, something that didn’t even really exist. But that was a lie. It did exist.
“This can be stopped, Ms. Lewitt. Those deaths can be avoided.” Redmond straightened his tie. “Instead of a continent lost, instead of five hundred thousand lost, one life is given to save them. That is the definition of heroism, Ms. Lewitt. You and your daughter are in a position to save the world, or damn it. I do not say that lightly.”
Mary-Ann said nothing as she stared a patch of carpet off to the side. She didn’t want to look into those Foundation cow-eyes, not for this. Naomi was resting against her chest, breathing softly. Already asleep, even though her fate was being decided.
God, please, help me. Please.
“Would you die to protect your daughter, Ms. Lewitt?” Redmond asked.
“Would you kill to protect her?”
“Not a burglar or a murderer or a kidnapper. An innocent person on the street. If your daughter were sick, and the only way to save her life would be to walk out your door, find a child, put a gun to his head, and pull the trigger, would you do that, Ms. Lewitt? Would you kill him, and then kill his mother, and his father, and his brothers and sisters, his friends, his classmates, his teachers…everyone he has ever known or met or heard of? And you find that it isn’t enough. Would you walk down the street, and start killing his neighbors, and their families? Could you keep killing and killing and killing until five hundred thousand people were dead, just to keep your daughter alive? And then find out that it wasn’t enough, that she was still dying, that you had to kill more, and more, and more, until you can look back on everything you’ve destroyed and everyone you’ve killed and say that you did it for her. When she grows up, will you be able to look her in the face and tell her that you did it all for her?”
“Stop.” Mary-Ann looked up from the floor. “Just…stop.” There were no tears. The old hollowness was back, welcoming her into that gaping, toothless abyss with empty arms. Instinctively, the walls went up in her mind, the door was locked, but the cruel claws of the world tore down her defenses. There was no alternative here. The outcome was pre-ordained.
No…please, God, no…
She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t be that killer Redmond described. No sane person could. No sane person would wish for mothers and fathers and children that fate of life as a blob of cancerous flesh, mindless and undying. For a moment, her imagination turned Naomi into one of them, a lump of raw red meat and dead brown scars. Bile rose in Mary-Ann’s throat. No. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t be that monster. She couldn’t pass that fate to another.
But she would not live as the monster that killed her own daughter either. She would not live with that shame. She would not live with the guilt.
No. She would not live with that. She would only hope that Naomi would forgive her. That Salah would forgive her. That God would forgive her.
I love you.
“I’m going to call my husband,” she said, finally.
“Of course,” Redmond said.
Mary-Ann shifted Naomi on her lap, to reach over to where her cell phone lay.
Pick up your phone…pick up your phone…Salah, pick up your phone…just pick up your fucking phone for once in your life…
“Hello, this is Salah. I’m not here at the moment, so please leave me a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Have a wonderful day.”
“Salah, it’s me. There’s…there’s been some big stuff going down. Foundation’s here, they need me and Naomi to go with them. I’ll call you again soon. We’ll be okay. I love you. Bye.”
“And so Ab-Leshal returns to us, crowned in triumph,” the slave-broker said as he looked out over the snowy city from his balcony, wine glass in hand. “The crowd goes wild.”
He had read the accounts of what they had returned with. Twelve thousand slaves, five thousand greatmeasures of gold, seven thousand of iron, ten of bronze, the corpse of a god and the secret of true immortality. The greatest triumph of the age.
The slave-broker sipped from his glass. From his perspective, he was able to see one of the great concourses that led to the high temple in the center of the city, filled to trampling density with soldiers and celebrators. Each man who so as much held a sword or musket would find himself welcome in any whorehouse in the city, simply for having served under the command of Ab-Leshal, the First Sword of Daevon.
The slave-broker’s magecraft eyes allowed him far better sight than normal men so that even at this distance he could focus on the people around the altar that had been set up at the foot of the high temple steps. There were the high priests, covered head to toe in crimson and robes. There was Ab-Leshal, more wall than man, tattooed and craggy. The Fourth and Seventh Swords were also present, slim and effeminate Jad-kar Dark-Blade and the neurotic, wide-eyed Bergon Soulbearer, each standing a respectful distance behind Ab-Leshal. There was Odrahn Kahd the Master of the Keys, Pratan Dai the Craftmaster, the Master Generals Hradun, Vasig, and Khazes, Curix Noan, the artist called the mistress of ink, and dozens of other government and religious officials, all dressed in their finest.
Surrounding the high altar were smaller altars, headed by towering idols of the gods: The King-In-Scarlet, the Nothing-In-All, the Hanged King, the Eternal Texts, Moluch the King Crowned in Shame, the Wonder-Maker, Gothog the Mighty, the Mother of Them All, Molug the Broken Fist, Carthac the Many-Faced King, and others.
A gong sounded, followed by three blasts on the twenty-foot temple horns. Bonfires burst to life at the feet of the idols, clouds of incense rising into the air as the chants started and the blood began to flow, first from the mammoths that had pulled the idols into place, and then from the captives. They would work their way up, from the smallest to the greatest, finally sacrificing the pieces of the broken god itself. It would not end until long after sunset, when the gutters ran thick with scabbing blood.
The slave-broker did not kneel with the crowd, nor did he feel like taking part in the following orgy and slaughter. He was a well-traveled man, who had seen, bought, and sold a great many wonders throughout the empire and beyond. His fear and awe of the gods was on a purely professional basis.
The slave-broker drained what remained of his wine, his gaze lingering for a time on the bull-headed idol in the distance, before he turned and walked back inside.