When they finally came for her, it wasn't a black bag over her head in the middle of the night. It wasn't an MTF snatching her off the street on the way home. It wasn't tranquilizers in her coffee, or a subliminal command through her workstation. It wasn't even a Site Security officer, one gloved hand guiding her to the holding cells, the other resting lightly on a holstered taser. When they finally came for Ellen O'Connor, it was a balding, hunched man knocking almost apologetically on the open door of her office.
"Agent O'Connor, my name is Doctor Brian Parkes. We'd like to talk to you about some, uh, irregularities in the use of your Foundation access codes."
It was so innocuous that her first thought was, who wears a brown tie? Her second was, wait - who is 'we'?
"Perhaps we can talk about this in my offices, Agent O'Connor?"
In the lift, Dr. Parkes swiped his access card and pressed the buttons for the two lowest floors simultaneously. The lift started a slow descent, mirroring Ellen's sinking feeling. She'd known that this was going to happen - one day, any day, soon. You can't look for the Foundation's secrets and expect them not to notice. She had kept going anyway. She'd needed to find out. To know.
The lift stopped, doors opening onto an unfamiliar level. The corridors seemed older, the decor slightly behind the times. But Ellen could hear the hum of processor cooling fans through the office doorways. Through one she glimpsed the server stacks - hundreds of slim layers, scores of towers. Whatever this place was, they had plenty of tech.
Dr. Parkes stopped, turning to usher her to a chair in a small office. Not an office, Ellen realised as the door clicked shut, an interrogation room.
"So, Agent O'Connor. Shall we begin by recounting your employment history? For the record, you understand."
"Uh, sure. Where do you want me to…"
"Your time in the FBI showed a high degree of skill in analysis, but you became fixated on patterns that only you perceived. Eventually you gave a briefing to your Assistant Director in which you insisted that certain terror cells must be communicating with ultra-modern technology, beyond even the NSA's ability to intercept. This did not go well, and your reputation was shattered. Fortunately a new Director approached you, from a department you hadn't heard of before."
Dr. Parkes looked down at the file in front of him, the manila folder a sickly yellow in the room's fluorescent lights.
"Again, your early days at the UIU were characterised by strong results. But once again, you pushed too far. You saw investigations going cold, explanations that sounded convincing until you looked at them in concert. Not just yours, but other agents' cases, historic files. You started outlining the evidence for another organisation interfering with UIU jurisdiction and removing evidence for its own purposes. You speculated that your superiors must know of that organisation, and be liaising with it. But before you could finish your report, you were dismissed from the FBI for reasons we both know are false. Now you work for the very organisation you were investigating."
Dr. Parkes held Ellen's gaze.
"Are you seeing a pattern here, Agent O'Connor? Your skills, such as they are, have a history of getting you into trouble in your place of work."
"I can explain," Ellen began.
"No you can't," said Dr. Parkes, cutting her off. "I will explain. You will answer my questions. Tell me, from your time here, what do you see as the Foundation's purpose?"
"Uh, its purpose is, uh, to obtain anomalous items and entities, to ensure that they remain secured, and to protect the wider public from their effects."
"Spoken like a true naif. Drop the training video act, Agent O'Connor - what purpose does the Foundation serve?"
Ellen wasn't sure how to react. Why such general questions? If they already knew what she had done, why not sanction her immediately? The interrogation felt unreal, like play-acting. But if she was done for already, there was no reason to hide her opinions.
"Its purpose," she said, "is to ensure that reality stays normal."
"'Stays normal'?" Dr. Parkes sounded incredulous. "Many anomalies have existed for far longer than the Foundation itself. Who decides what is real, what is normal?"
"The Foundation decides. Which I guess means the O5 Council does."
"And what gives them the right to do that?"
"Well, nothing. The Foundation wasn't given the right, we assumed it. No-one gives us permission, no-one controls us except us."
"Are you comfortable with this - having someone else, someone utterly unaccountable, define your reality?"
"Not entirely. But I can see how the Foundation works, the good it does. I support what the O5 are trying to achieve."
Dr. Parkes rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing his glasses up, then looked back across the table. "And your idea of 'support' involved a breach of information security across hundreds of containment files, did it?"
Ellen could feel the sweat on her palms, her heart rate increasing. She tried to focus.
"The first thing you should know is -"
"No. We know you didn't act alone. Your contact in InfoSec has already been disciplined. We know how you did it. We are interested in why."
"Okay." Ellen took a slow breath. "You know that I am on the MC&D taskforce, right?"
"Your file suggests that you and the other analysts have had some success in predicting their activities."
"I was looking at some of their items we'd recovered, and something didn't fit. Eight sixty-five and Fifteen seventy-one are both MC&D objects, but we didn't obtain the gun until a few years ago, and we've had the wallet since the eighties. Why number them that way around?"
Even in this room, with this man, just talking about the problem was like the first hit of caffeine in the morning. "It was such a small thing, but no-one could explain it properly - they told me that SCP numbers were assigned by the system. But a system should make sense - it should operate to a set of rules. I needed to know what the rules were."
"And what did you learn?"
Ellen's face fell with a sudden thought. "Wait, is Sam okay? You said 'disciplined', but what -"
"Agent O'Connor, answer the question." Dr. Parkes was implacable.
"Okay. I learned that there isn't a system, not like people think. Sam got me the access to look behind the text, at the page sources, the editing history, all of it. There is another department within the Foundation - not on any of the lists I've seen. And I think you must work for them."
The man across the table from her blinked slowly, his face placid. "You're saying that there is a department that assigns SCP numbers?"
Ellen could feel the warm rush of an idea expanding. She pressed forward with the thought.
"Not just numbers. It looks like they - like you - can re-categorise SCP files within the database, influence their level of research priority, even alter the re-assignment of D-Class personnel and researchers to particular items or entities. You must be able to track access and cross reference it, which is how you knew what I was looking at, how close I was to figuring it out. The processing power in the offices here means you must be running algorithms over some pretty huge databases. Does the O5 even know about this?"
"Of course they know about us. It was O5-10 who established us as an adjunct to RAISA. You are currently in the offices of the Meta-Records Division. Whether you leave, however, depends on your answer to my next question. A question which I think you might be able to anticipate."
Ellen nodded slowly. Understanding was tantalisingly close - she just needed to talk it out slowly and calmly.
"You already know what I did, and how I did it, but you brought me in for questioning anyway. And not with security, so whatever your plans are, they're off the record. You ask me philosophical questions about the Foundation - that must have had a purpose, but it wasn't to understand why I breached security. Ah - you wanted to know more about me. And you wanted to know how much I'd learned about your division - what I'd been able to work out."
Ellen's mind was racing, and her voice started to betray her excitement. "So it was a test! You wanted to see if I could work it out, whether I knew what was going on. And the pattern you talked about, it's not just that I push too far in my job and get in trouble. It's what happens after I get into trouble. So when you say 'whether I leave', that's not a threat. You're going to ask me whether I want to work for you."
Traces of a smile were showing at the corners of Dr. Parkes' eyes. "Very good, Ellen. Now, do you have any questions for us?"
"Will be fine. Amnestics, of course, but otherwise unharmed. Anything else?"
"How close was I to the truth - to what you do?"
"Fairly close. We were tracking your investigation - many of our recruits start in a similar way. And we can manage the database as you suggested, but it's more than that. Based on our data, we can determine the likelihood, sometimes even the timing, of potential containment breaches, and act to prevent them. We perform risk analysis on potential cross-testing of anomalies - some of the tests we've suggested have given us new containment methods and field tech. Not much of the Foundation knows about us, but we're closely engaged with the Ethics Committee - our recommendations on D-Class assignments have reduced casualties by four percent over the past two years."
It felt like Dr. Parkes had been waiting to give this speech. His voice was warmer, his shoulders less tense. "We have huge amounts of information, Ellen, but what we need are people to interpret it. People who will question what's in front of them, and find counter-intuitive answers. People like you, if you'll join us."
"Thank you, Dr. Parkes. I would be delighted. Although there is one more thing."
"Sorry, it's so pointless, but it's how I got here. What is the process for numbering anomalies?"
"You said yourself, there is no system."
Ellen's brows furrowed. "But that doesn't make any sense. If you have the amount of data you seem to, it would be easier to manage if the containment procedures were rationally ordered."
"Ellen, it's not something that has to make sense. It's actually a holdover from the early days of the Foundation."
"Sorry, but can that be right? Surely you would have overhauled it. So if we assume that there is a rational basis for numbering non-consecutively…" Ellen stopped cold, and she felt her brain start to spin with a sudden kick of adrenaline.
"Ellen, I'm afraid that information is classified Level 4," Dr. Parkes' smile was fading now. "Should we discuss your new terms of employment?"
"You're deleting them. Aren't you? You're deleting files. I don't know how many, but based on the gaps between the MC&D items - there must be thousands." Ellen was staring, disbelieving.
"Listen to what you're saying. We are part of RAISA. We would never take the risk of deleting containment procedure files."
Ellen's hands slumped to the table. "No. No, you're right - you wouldn't delete the files. You're destroying the skips."
"It's the most rational explanation. You number the files in sequence as the items are brought into containment, but then you de-classify some skips - hundreds of skips - leaving gaps in the numbering which are filled with more recent acquisitions. But you aren't just removing the containment protocols from the records, you're destroying the items themselves."
Dr. Parkes sighed, a slow exhalation that left his shoulders hunched. "This is not a subject I wanted to discuss today."
"But this goes against everything the Foundation stands for."
"Does it? You said yourself that the Foundation manages the rest of the world's perceived reality. If we decide that some anomalies shouldn't exist, there isn't anyone to ask permission."
"But why destroy them?"
"Because they are of no use to us." Dr. Parkes sounded exasperated - like this was something he had explained too many times. "We have thousands of items and entities in containment, and we're finding them more and more quickly. Many are essentially duplicates of things we already have. Others aren't sufficiently anomalous to be interesting. Anything that isn't potentially useful for research is just taking up money and time. We need that resource for the nightmares out there that could wipe the planet clean. If we can't use an anomaly, we have to destroy it if we can."
"Then how are we different to the GOC? Wait, does the Council know about this part of your work?"
"I'm sorry, Agent O'Connor, but I can't answer all of your questions. I've already told you more than I should."
"Then what? Amnestics all round?"
"That won't be possible. You see, we don't just destroy items - we sometimes have to destroy people. The wrong type of people - those who will disturb the organisation, who make everything all about them. This isn't just a job interview. We needed to see whether your skills were useful to us, but we also wanted to see whether those skills would be more trouble than they are worth. And now my superiors will be taking a vote to see if you should be allowed to remain in the site."
"I don't believe you."
"Ellen, I'm afraid that it is of no consequence whether you -"
"No, I don't believe you." Ellen's voice was louder, more confident. "What you're saying is nonsense. The Foundation wouldn't set up promotion interviews where the second prize is death. That's a lie, and not a very good one."
"Agent O'Connor -"
"No! Let me finish. You've been talking so much that I've only just realised. A Department operating with this much secrecy needs internal accountability, which means there's no way an interview like this would be conducted by a single person. Your superiors, as you call them, are watching us. Not just me: both of us. So they've just seen that you weren't able to keep me from the truth about destroying skips, and that you don't lie very convincingly when you're under pressure. Not really the skills required for a Department that no-one is meant to know about. I wonder whether you're responsible for the lack of security on the files that Sam accessed for me?"
Dr. Parkes was standing with both hands on the table. "I'm calling security."
"Go ahead. I'll just talk to your superiors for a minute." Ellen looked for the cameras, then gave up and leaned forward to speak to the room at large. "I think you're all out of hoops for me to jump through. This was a job interview, but not just for any job - it was for his job. Well, I'm going to be changing some of his policies, but yes, I accept."
There was no response.
Dr. Parkes moved towards the door, shaking his head at Ellen. "Too far, Agent O'Connor. Don't you think I would have known if -"
His hand was half-way to the door handle when the walls reverberated with the voice from the hidden speakers. "Agent O'Connor, welcome to the Meta-Records Division. Your new clearance will be sent to you shortly."
Ellen let out a long exhalation of relief, collapsing into her chair. Dr. Parkes froze for a second, and then spun, as if he could find where that voice had come from.
It spoke again. "Thank you, Dr. Parkes. That will be all."
The door opened.
When they finally came for Brian Parkes, it was a white-coated researcher with a syringe of Class-C amnestic.