Dr. Iceberg wove his way down the hall on a makeshift I.V. crutch, with Dr. Gears limping alongside. Most of the security teams and cleaning crews had already passed, so they had the hall to themselves, which was probably for the best as neither was too stable. Iceberg had his hand clamped over his chest, and wheezed every few steps, flecks of blood dotting his tattered clothes. Gears stood straighter, but tipped hard to the right with each step, a slow, steady stream of blood leaking from a wound in his thigh on his tattered, scorched left side. They walked, two scorched, broken, bleeding men in an empty hallway, stumbling and weaving to the Infirmary and leaving small patches of blood and burnt material behind. The officer on the security cameras for that area took almost no notice, logging only “Doctors passed, injured.”
The request form read “Application testing for possible military/decommissioning via thermal and H.E. materials”. It should have read “Dr. Iceberg throws bombs at things”. Being as explosives, triplicate oversight reports, and chocolate bars were his three major passions, this shouldn't have been as bad an idea as it was. Things were going well while the conventional explosives were still being used, but when Dr. Iceberg started using his “home brew” devices, things rapidly started to go less well. Several explosions were forceful enough to receive complaints from Site Security, while the second-to-last device caused some major damage to the outside walls of the test chamber.
However, much like throwing a football in the house next to a breakable vase, “blow things up” is a game that is fun right until the last time it's played. The last toss was an item labeled on the test manifest as a “Slowbomb”. It seemed to be a dud at first, the wire-wrapped cube sliding harmlessly to a stop at the far end of the chamber. As the two men watched from what they felt was a point of safety, the device slowly started to distort, then rip apart, showing a white-hot mass of roiling plasma inside its structure. It expanded like a flower opening in a dream, moving an inch every ten or twenty seconds, a slow-motion explosion. It was as the rapidly swelling wall of flame started to march past the “safe beyond this point” line that Iceberg's manic grin started to fade.
The next slice of time was hazy to both men. Dr. Gears was able to recall slightly more details, but most of it boiled down to flames, alarms, men in containment suits, and the strong smell of frying pork. Both were funneled out to triage, made capable of walking, then sent down to the infirmary under their own power. The Walk of Shame is a very different thing inside The Foundation, and Iceberg was especially glad that the hall was empty. Gears, as always, was impassive, and except for the bodily damage and limp, appeared basically unchanged from when he entered the testing room. As they approached the infirmary Iceberg wondered, for the thousandth time, if he really was some kind of robot.
The infirmary admitted them with a minimum of notice, as they were dealing with the after-effects of a light bulb that, when powered up, emitted light that caused most bones to start to liquefy and extrude through the sweat glands. Neither of the two doctors were overly injured (by Foundation standards), so they quickly found themselves in hospital beds and nearly forgotten as the team rushed to deal with newer and stranger injuries.
As Iceberg fingered at the cool gel patch covering a nasty burn on his right arm, he looked over at Dr. Gears. Impassive as always, his leg was wrapped in a soft cast and elevated, with several small gauze patches on his face, neck, and arms in varying shades of red, pink, and black.
Iceberg winced a bit, feeling something mildly fractured shift in his chest, and nodded to Dr. Gears. “Ahh…sorry about that, again. I…really didn't expect it to get that out of hand, honestly.”
Gears nodded slightly, still facing the ceiling. “There is no need. Accidents happen.”
Iceberg leaned back, sighing as the pain killers started to pull him down in to deep, dreamless rest.
He woke with a groan to the sound of tapping. Gingerly shaking his head to clear it, he turned to see Dr. Gears tapping with a stylus at the screen of a tablet laptop. He seemed ignorant of Iceberg, or at least uncaring, so Iceberg decided to try and see how sitting up would go. The first flex of his abdomen brought a lancing comet of pain arcing through his chest, so he rapidly decided to postpone any testing and fell back with a groan.
Gears finished, carefully placing the computer on a side table and nodding to Iceberg. “You were asleep when they changed your wrappings. You won't be able to move in any serious way for two days. I will be unable to walk for four days, and have had to reassign our schedules to others.”
Iceberg sighed, closing his eyes as he eased back on the pillow. Two days of hospital food and company with a man who's been accused of being a robot multiple times, rarely in jest. Lovely. He passed some time daydreaming, mentally working out the kinks on the Slowbomb until he started feeling restless again. He turned again to Gears, watching him stare at the ceiling, arms crossed, breathing regularly. “Hey Gears…are you awake?” he asked, hoping he wasn't sleeping with his eyes open again. He knew it was just a trick you could learn, but with Gears, it was just creepy.
The tall, thin man turned his head slowly to look at Iceberg, face nearly immobile but for his mouth. “Yes, Dr. Iceberg, I am. What is it?”
Faced now with the older man's full attention, Iceberg suddenly felt oddly uncomfortable and unprepared, as if he'd suddenly been called on to answer a question while he'd been daydreaming. “Uh…well, I was wondering…why do Kain, Agent Fritz and that one tubby janitor always call you Cog?”
Dr. Gears stared a few moments, blinking slowly. “Your last name is not Dr. Iceberg, correct?”
Iceberg blinked, taken off-guard, before stammering, “Y-yeah…I mean no…or, I mean, yes, that's not my last name.”
Gears nodded, making a small gesture with his hand. “It is an alternate identification designation assigned by Site Security. Policy on this topic has been in a near-constant state of flux, both due to alterations in administrative staff, and planned security cycling. Most of the identification designations are picked at random, with some following a set assigning protocol. Some also appear to have been chosen as a form of 'gag' or 'inside joke'. However, this was not always the case.”
He paused, taking a breath, and Iceberg kept totally silent. This was the longest non-work or survival related conversation Gears had ever engaged in with Iceberg, and he didn't want to break the spell.
“During my intake, the security protocols were still being derived from old military designations and acronyms. My initial designation was 'C.O.G.', derived from the initials of my name. Later, when a determination was made that this was too much of a security weakness, my designation was altered to 'Gears', most likely due to my extensive work on SCP-882 and the similarity to my previous designation.”
Iceberg sat, processing a moment before speaking. “Wait…so…Cog is your initials? So what is your actual name?”
Gears blinked several times slowly, still watching Iceberg, and the young man knew that no answer was forthcoming. He changed tactics, hoping to probe for more information, the exercise taking his mind off the pulsing pain in his side.
“Alright, so…Gears, honestly, are you a robot? Or like…a Vulcan or something? You have to admit you're not really…ah…normal.”
Dr. Gears laid back, resting his hands on his chest. Iceberg was expecting silence, or his methodical, mechanical “I am not a robot.” reply that really did nothing to help. Instead, Gears drew in a breath slowly, and explained. “My mental peculiarities are somewhat sedate when compared to the various emergent coping mechanisms developed by other staff members. However, I can understand how mine are particularly noticeable. No, I am not a 'robot' or any other form of altered human, or non-human.” He paused, blinking several times, before continuing. “I simply…adapted too well.”
Iceberg watched the older man reclining in the hospital bed, confused. He could almost swear that Gears seemed…conflicted, or even depressed. He was about to ask, when Dr. Gears started up again. “I am not an emotionless robot. I feel. I feel pain and sadness at the loss of a friend. I feel joy when achieving a positive goal, and regret when falling short. I feel fear, even horror, when faced with things capable of great harm, or worse. It is not that I can not feel. It is that I can not respond to it. Much like the feeling you have when on powerful narcotic pain killers, I am aware of my feelings, and what I am supposed to do with them, but they feel distant…disconnected. Like seeing someone crying, and feeling a slight empathy for their plight, but not being moved to tears yourself.”
Iceberg sat, slightly stunned. His damned imagination ran off almost instantly, trying to conceive of going through everything he had already been pushed through…but this time, unable to react. Feeling all the pain, and joy, and fear, but being locked away with it, like a lunatic in a rubber room. Observed, logged, then forgotten. Iceberg shuddered, unable to look directly at Gears for a time. When he finally looked back, Gears was still staring, and Iceberg had to repress another involuntary shudder. He was about to ask another question when a nurse came in and carted him off for some blood tests. He was also informed that an oversight committee would be looking in to his explosive research at the end of the month. By the time he made it back, Dr. Gears was already asleep.
The next day Iceberg woke up late, and to his great joy was able to move with a minimum of blinding pain. The bed next to him was empty, and Iceberg looked at it thoughtfully. Since being recruited by The Foundation (fresh from college, no less), he'd been paired up with Dr. Gears almost constantly. He'd been very scared at first. Many of the new recruits reacted with varying degrees of fear, awe, and pity when he told them his new assignment, which did nothing for his already limited confidence. What's more, it took months to realize that Gears didn't actually hate him, that it was just his default setting of total indifference. Even worse, they kept getting assigned to the worst jobs…he still shivered to think about his first run-in with an SCP-882 breach.
Still, after all this time, he knew next to nothing about Dr. Gears. Many of the other staff were pretty vocal about who they used to be, and some even were allowed a semi-normal life outside the site. Gears, however, was a black box. No idle conversation of the past, no hidden tokens or photos in the desk (he'd checked), no…anything, really. Never leaves the site except for Foundation business, never takes any time off, never engages in any non-work activity unless forced to. What was even stranger was that NOBODY knew anything about him. Even the classic busybodies around the site had no real clue who he was, and the database became a large, password-encrusted tower of doom when asked about Dr. Gears.
The sharp click of the door brought Iceberg back to reality quickly. Gears hobbled slightly as he worked his way to the bed, laying down and adjusting a bandage at his side. He spoke to the ceiling, not a gesture or look for the man he was addressing. “I am being released early. You will need to remain here for another day, but I expect you to be ready to resume your duties as soon as you are released.”
Iceberg sighed, shaking his head and looking away. Silence drew out for long moments before Iceberg turned, looked pointedly at Gears, and said “What the hell happened to you? I mean…what the fuck, man? You're goddamn Spock but without those little lapses of human feeling…did they experiment on you, did you have a breakdown, what the hell?”
As Gears stared at him, Iceberg became acutely aware of the fact that what he had just said may amount to insubordination or “unauthorized security probing” of a level where “large men with guns” is the most comforting portion of the disciplinary measure. The two men stared for what felt like a long time, Iceberg almost unwilling to blink, feeling a creeping measure of fear on par with reviewing security tapes of SCP-173.
After a time, Gears blinked, slowly, and nodded. “What happened. I have been asked that multiple times, and I know of many more theories to this effect. What happened…was nothing unique. Nothing that is impossible to repeat, or hasn't happened to others. It is easy to assume that there was a single 'defining moment' in the transition to my current state, but I do not believe this to be so. It is… gradual. Like a sickness. After a time, you simply wake up… different.”
Iceberg shook his head, processing this new tidbit. “Okay…so you just… declined, I guess? Jesus… I mean… how the hell does something like that happen? You still haven't said what actually happened, what started this…”
He trailed off as Gears turned to stare at the younger man again. “Are you loyal to The Foundation, Doctor Iceberg? I assume you will reply in the positive, but think before you respond. I am loyal, but not because of a sense of duty or empowerment. I believe, fully, in the work being done here. I believe that, without The Foundation, humanity as we know it would crumble in a very short time. I believe that we, the few with the resources and means to do so, have the direct obligation to insulate others from all that we are containing.”
The door to the room opened with a small, poorly-oiled and annoying squeal that went totally unnoticed by Iceberg. Even as a young-ish doctor entered and started reading off discharge information in the general direction of Dr. Gears, Iceberg still heard little. Unsettling ideas were bumping around, unpleasant recollections of tests ordered and observed… of instances where the “greater good” overwhelmed normal human decency. Moments where he knew, for a fact, that he should be repulsed… or frightened… or at least unsettled, but felt only mild interest, at best. He snapped back from the increasingly stormy seas of his mind when Gears started to leave the hospital bed, aided by an arm from the doctor. “…why are you telling me this?” he asked.
Doctor Gears turned slightly and spoke to Iceberg over his shoulder, his voice carrying that odd toneless quality again. “In regards to your request in relation to our future work, you may find the literature I mentioned enlightening. In addition, there is an epitaph in Tasmania, Australia that may prove useful as a motto or guide stone. I will expect you to report in for new assignments as soon as you are discharged.” The young-ish medical doctor looked between the two others, slightly confused and wary, but continued to help Gears from the room. Iceberg was left alone in seconds, both unsettled and deeply confused.
It wasn't until days later that Iceberg got the chance to try and investigate the rather cryptic message. Gears had mentioned nothing more about anything he had said in the hospital, and Iceberg had found himself deluged with paperwork and solo testing. He had barely spoken to or seen anyone for nearly two days, and finally decided a little investigation might break up the tedium. It took only a little prodding to find what he was looking for, but it took more time to process:
"As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, soon you shall be -
Prepare yourself to follow me."
Iceberg sat alone in the deepest bowels of the underground site, surrounded by mounds of neatly typed records of horrors and atrocities, and tried very hard not to feel cold.