Howard knew he should be afraid.
He knew any place where they insisted on calling you by a number was a place you didn’t want to be. He knew that a lab coat gave a man the idea that he could do things to people that he normally wouldn’t do. He had heard the whispers. He knew that sometimes the men, clad in disposable looking orange jumpsuits, that they took away from the dormitory were sometimes never seen again.
He knew he should have the same hollow, terrified look he saw in the eyes of all the other D-Class. But each time he searched his heart for fear, he never found it. Perhaps it was there somewhere, but it was buried beneath a much stronger feeling.
He was excited.
The world before his incarceration at Site-48 had been one of banal certainties. Up was up. People were people, just greedy animals pushing and shoving to reach the tops of their sad little hills. Money governed the world. The secrets kept were gray: who killed who, who bought who, which politicians were puppets, which corporations were the puppeteers. There was nothing hiding in the dark. There was no veil to be pierced. Death was not a door, just a fade to endless black.
On his first day here, he was escorted to a room that had seemed like any other, but when he entered it he had found himself in a vast darkness, reaching back and up into an eternity. The only light came from a circle of red candles, flickering madly without source of wind. In the center was a little girl in a white dress, wearing pigtails held by ribbons the same murky red as the candles around her. She was staring at him with a fuming gaze and a malevolent expression on her face.
She hovered three feet off the ground. Her eyes were red.
He had been given a line to deliver to her, but it wasn’t until prompted by the voice in his earpiece that he remembered to do anything but meet that crimson gaze with gaping awe.
Howard cleared his throat and spoke his line. “We await your prophecy.”
She spoke to him in his father’s voice. Not his rich, laughing cadence, but his deathbed voice. Choked with cancer and dread, in those terrible days when the sickness had found its way up his spine and into his brain.
The words didn’t matter. He was sure they had recorded them because they never asked. He wouldn’t have remembered anyway. Listening had been a migraine, drawing whimpers from his lips and a torrent of blood from his nose. And there had been pictures forced into his head, the fingers of her words driving into the soft of his mind like a boot into mud. Buildings falling. The sky burning. A hundred thousand souls afflicted with boils and plagues. The end. The end of everything.
He shuffled back to the dormitory led by two guards with hands loosely clasped around his biceps. They knew he was beyond running. What they didn’t know was that beneath his physical distress, the seed of the excitement he would come to know had found purchase in the soil of his heart.
A demon, he thought, I just met an honest to god motherfucking demon.
Perhaps that wasn’t accurate. Maybe she was just some megalomaniac, psychic eight year old with a serious grudge to bear on the human race. It didn’t really matter, did it? Whatever she was, he was certain she was real. The veil he never believed was there had been lifted.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Howard thought, and if he hadn’t been so drained by the encounter, he probably would have let out a little giggle.
He lay on his bunk feeling as if he had run ten miles, his body limp, but his mind raced. Surely they didn’t need this massive facility for just one evil little girl. When they brought him here, they had ushered him through endless gray corridors, down countless floors in a freight elevator, and then through another maze until they reached Dormitory 64. It housed about fifty of his orange clad brethren. Even if this was the last of the dorms, which he doubted very much, that was at least 300 inmates just like him. Far too many to use on one little demon. What else did they keep here? How many other monsters were there? How many other Sites like this existed.
His stomach suddenly cramped and he rushed to the latrine in his cell just in time. As his body released its sick, he still knew was luckier than some of the others. If the rumors were to be believed, and at this point why not, diarrhea and a nosebleed was a birthday party compared to the other options available.
The days passed. They had taken him to his new acquaintance twice more and each time had been the same. The line was spoken, his body and mind was assailed, his weakened form escorted back to his cell to lay limply until the sickness came. The miraculous might have become monotony if not for the growing excitement. He had been tempted to break the script, to ask the little prophetess his own questions, but for all his excitement and curiosity, he was no fool. Disobedience was not tolerated by men who named you a number.
And so Howard sat, watching his fellow D-Class over a meal that was as institutional as the aluminum tin it came in, waiting for his next visit with what he had come to think of as his Little Demon. There was never much conversation in the cafeteria, and if there was it was always in a conspiratorial whisper. Most of the men, like himself, had come from prison and were well accustomed to the culture between inmate and guard. You did your best to let the screws know as little about you as possible. Any information was a weakness to be turned against you. They find out you like fresh air? Expect solitary. They find out you like to jog to pass the time in the yard? Expect the next blow to the knee. The find out you’ve made a friend or two? Watch how long they let that last.
He found the guards here were different, though. They didn’t look to take advantage of your humanity. Rather, they seemed to disregard it entirely. They all looked on you with flat gray eyes, the way someone might regard a piece of furniture: invisible until it had a use. It wasn’t like they had to worry about escape attempts or violence. The place defined the word fortress: clearly underground, everything made of concrete and steel, cameras roosting in every possible corner like sleeping bats. And the guards had armor out of some sci-fi war movie, sometimes wearing helmets that obscured their faces behind black, reflective glass. Not quite Stormtroopers, but the comparison could be made, though he doubted there was anything amiss with how they aimed the rifles they carried. His uncle had been a sergeant in the Marines, and every one of these guys made him look a soft as taffy.
If the guards had more interest in the inmates, they may have noticed that he was different than those around him. He didn’t hunch over his meal, his posture bent by terror, like a rabbit expecting a hawk to swoop in a flash of talons and feathers. He surveyed the dorm like a man on a lunch break, sitting on a park bench and enjoying the breeze. He had been in prison long enough to know you didn’t sit around smiling unless you wanted someone’s fist to change the shape of your mouth, but if the guards had looked closer, they might have seen something in his eyes or the corners of his mouth to betray him. And so, relaxed as he was, on the verge of lounging in his seat waiting to visit his Little Demon, he was the first inmate to notice when things suddenly went wrong.
Howard saw when the guards simultaneously stiffen, a few raising their gloved hands to their ear, listening intently as some transmission came over their radio. He saw when half the contingent guarding them moved hurriedly towards the door, the first urgently punching the keypad. When the door hissed upward, he heard a popping sound he knew well from what he thought of, affectionately, as the Bank Caper that ultimately ended with his residence at Site-48. Of course, on that occasion it had been far more intimate, not distant pops but loud bangs and the whine of bullets meant for him, missing their mark. He had sent his own in return, and with better aim. He had no illusions that he was not where he belonged.
The door closed behind the troop and for a few minutes, all was quiet again. A few of the other inmates also looked towards the door, roused from the daze of their imprisonment by the activity. It seemed that would be the extent of the excitement and Howard relaxed a little.
Then the door exploded, showering the nearest two tables with chunks of concrete the size of volley balls.
The hallway was awash in red light and now gunfire hammered the air in the cafeteria. A guard went pelting past the door from the right, followed by a tendril of scarlet brilliance. It winked out a moment later, finding its target past Howard's view. Following it close behind was his Little Demon, glowing feverishly. She drifted past the hole that was once a door. She never spared the inmates a glance, but several of the ribbons of red light flowing from her flew into the room and struck some of the survivors of the initial blast. They were replaced with gleaming skeletons that stood, held by some invisible force. When she had passed, they collapsed in a clatter of bones. The remaining guards in the cafeteria pursued, opening fire that crashed around them like thunder. And then they, too, were gone.
The silence that followed was a physical thing. No one moved. Then an alarm began to bray and their hypnotism was broken. One of the prisoners suddenly leapt from their collective paralysis and fled through the door. He was momentarily followed by a torrent of the rest.
All this Howard watched from his seat, now tense and upright, but unmoving. He waited until but a few stragglers remained and rose from the bench. The fleeing inmates had their choice of left, towards the murderous thing that had floated past them, and right, from which the thing had come. There was no consensus, and so they split into twin orange rivers. The handful that remained busied themselves by cowering beneath tables and in corners. The alarm continued its shrill cries.
He rose and cautiously approached the opening. He should have been afraid. Or gleeful at the prospect of escape. At the very least, some engine of self preservation should have roared to life and made its demands. He felt none of these things.
What he felt was excitement. And purpose.
Maybe none of the others had seen the world remade in his Little Demon’s image. The seas of bile. The sky choked with ash. The twisted, festering corpse of a world destroyed. Maybe they hadn’t seen what he’d seen, or maybe they didn’t care, but he had and he did. When he reached the door, he turned right, towards where the men in white coats had imprisoned his Little Demon.
The hallway was littered with bones. Most of the many doors had suffered the same fate as the one he had passed through, and their gaping holes revealed some workstations, but mostly more endless corridors. This place was even bigger than he had thought. Hopefully his Little Monster hadn’t blown the doors off the cells of some of her fellow inhabitants. Occasionally he would see a man in an orange jumpsuit darting down one of these revealed passageways, but his corridor was clear of people. The bones scattered about were probably a strong deterrent. He proceeded onward, doing his best not to disturb the gruesome little piles and trying not to be too hard on himself when he did. The bones' previous owners were well beyond caring.
The hallway was awkward and angular, he assumed by design. It made traveling quickly difficult, surely an extra measure against escape attempts of any kind. His Little Demon had been unhindered, though, sometimes leaving a smoldering hole where a jutting corner had been. Even still, his view forward was often obscured, but he was good with direction, and knew he was going the right way.
But with his line of sight obscured and the endless howl of the alarms, he had no awareness that he was no longer alone until the D-Class crashed into him, hard, running in the other direction. He didn’t know the guy’s name, but he knew him just the same. It’s hard not to remember the tallest, biggest, meanest looking bastard you’d ever seen in your life. 6'6" at least, probably over three hundred pounds, the epitome of criminal muscle. Howard rebounded off him, and then was instantly pulled close as the big moose grabbed his shoulders and began to shake him. He made no demands. His face was blank with idiot, animal terror, barely seeing the man he was throttling. Howard weighed in at a modest 170, and flopped like a doll in the giant's grip. Even still, Howard prided himself as a man who knew how to handle himself and stay cool when things went sideways. Had his head not been whipping back and forth, he might have rolled his eyes.
Some people simply cannot handle themselves in a crisis, he thought, and punched the man square in the throat. He left him gasping on the floor and moved on.
He arrived at his Little Monster’s cell without further incident. The wall and the door were rubble. Without her malign presence, the place was no longer a vast, dark cave, but a holding cell not much larger than his. The candles remained in their circle save for one, lying on its side, and all were extinguished. The room adjacent was also blown apart. It was clearly an observation room for keeping an eye on her and avoiding her terrible stare. Flames flickered here and there, and while he assumed a facility such as this would have some sort of fire suppression system, it clearly hadn’t shown up to the party. In the center of the room was a desk ringed by three piles of bones. It had avoided most of the damage, though a chunk of concrete sat in its middle like the world’s most excessive paperweight. He pushed it aside and scanned the papers scattered over the desk's surface.
Howard believed himself fairly intelligent, but most of what he saw was completely beyond him. Finally, he came upon a document labeled, “Restricted to Level 3 Access Only.” Promising. He broke the seal of the document and flipped through the pages.
Once, long before the Bank Caper, he had purchased a book shelf from Ikea. After reading the assembly instructions three times, he had unceremoniously dumped the fifty or so pieces in his basement for his future self to contend with. For all he knew, it was still there. This document was three times as long and five times more confusing. What the hell is a Keter? He leafed through Testing Logs and Addendum with a growing sense of frustration. He took a breath and started over. Finally, he found what he was looking for.
Special Containment Procedures: SCP-3108-1 is to be housed in a standard Humanoid Containment Unit. At all times, SCP-3108-1 must be encircled by ten lit instances of SCP-3108-2. If at any time an instance of SCP-3108-2 is removed or extinguished, failsafe protocol Epsilon-48a must immediately be enacted.
Failsafe, my ass, Howard thought.
He gathered up an armful of loose papers and rolled them into a makeshift torch. In the far corner of the room, a table that once held testing supplies of some kind had gone from smoldering to merrily burning, letting out an increasingly problematic plume of acrid smoke. He hurried over, lit his torch and dashed into his Little Demon’s private quarters.
In his hurry, he almost went ass over tea kettle when he stepped on a femur. He skidded along and managed to keep his balance. The pile of bones was beside the fallen candle. Perhaps she had convinced someone to knock it over. Or maybe the poor bastard had flubbed his one line. He righted the candle and lit it.
The response was immediate. An inhuman screech filled the room, drowning out the constant alarm completely. He felt her racing towards him. He scrambled around the circle and had all but one lit when she flew into the doorway.
She was almost to bright too look at, but he met her red gaze regardless. Had he thought it fuming? Now it was blazing, two twin suns straight from hell burning into the core of him. His head flooded with obsenities, flesh and flame and disease and death. A red tendril ripped out from her, filling his vision. He dropped to his belly and watched it fly over his shoulder and bend back to wrap him in its killing light. He thrust his sputtering torch towards the last candle and knew he was dead.
He lay there a moment before he realized death hadn’t come. The candle was lit. His Little Demon floated again in the center of the circle, her usually dead face a snarl of hate. She hammered at him with images. His mother ravaged by unspeakable creatures. His father a mass of tumors yet still somehow alive, writhing in agony. His own corpse squirming with maggots the size of severed fingers. Death. Rot. Despair.
Mewling like a wounded animal, he fled from her on all fours. Once he rounded the corner, free from her otherworldly sight, the pictures stopped, but his mind felt like it had been wrung by clawed hands and soaked in pus. His nose was a river of blood and the sobs that wrenched out of him were harsh and painful. When the weeping subsided, he leaned back against the wall, exhausted. He sat there for what felt like a very long time.
Perhaps he dozed. Maybe his mind just let him escape for a bit. Either way, the three guards, armed with guns that looked like they might destroy a building with a single shot, scared a little scream out of him when they suddenly appeared standing over him, their faces hidden behind the black glass of their helmets. One looked in the room, and gave a little nod. He stepped a distance away and began talking quickly into the headset in his helmet.
“What happened?” demanded the nearest guard. His weapon wasn’t trained on Howard, but his posture was still of one in a combat situation. Howard weakly raised his hands and stood on legs that made no promise of holding him up for long.
“I…” he began, and then coughed a bit. The guard stood watching him, inscrutable behind his helmet. Howard took a deep breath and began again.
“I lit the candles. I went into that room and found that report. I’ll show you.”
They let him stumble into the observation room to the desk. He leaned against it for support. He picked up the document, and held it out to the guard. The guard glanced at it briefly before snapping it shut.
““You read the report?” The voice was distorted, digitally amplified, and cold.
“Yes,” he turned and glanced towards the wall between him and his Little Demon. It was mostly holes and through it he could see her. She was staring into his eyes, and for the first time since their first encounter, she was smiling. With lips that felt numb he said, “I had to figure…”
And that is when they shot him.