SCP-2156 didn’t think that she was a person who wanted many things. Honestly, she didn’t really care what happened to herself; maybe she had cared when Professor Harley had called her in to have a “talk” that left her trembling and shaking; maybe she had cared when she had realized that she was in no way capable of functioning as a human being, let alone as a cashier. But that was the past, and the past was gone. Since then she had realized that she had no recourse if the deck was stacked against her.
So, truth be told, even though she had probably cared when suddenly Jessica was a ball of skin and blood trapped in a cage of bone, she didn’t really recall much of a reaction to waking up the next morning in a jail cell. It was a new place, nothing more. There were new people. She imagined that for most, things like freedom or autonomy or normality were all very attractive, appealing concepts, but SCP-2156 did not want. She did not care if she got better or worse. She wasn’t sure what better or worse was. “Better” was a conception of herself where she did not have to stay in this cage so that other people would not be hurt. “Better” her belonged in society. “Better” her was strange and alien, and she was not sure she liked this person.
SCP-2156 wanted only very few things. Sleep was one of them.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought that we’d be discussing meds today. You know. For, uh, for the insomnia?”
“I know,” Dr. Garland said, clasping his hands together. His face was pinched in something that looked like frustration. “And I’m sorry. We want to be absolutely certain that any medication we give you doesn’t interact in unexpected ways with your anomalous condition. We’re still not sure if the condition is biological in nature, and if it is, we certainly don’t want…”
Dr. Garland coughed. “Yes. We’re going to have to wait on medication.”
This was a pretty serious problem, wasn’t it? SCP-2156 had learned that life was hemmed on both sides by antithetical contradictions. On one side was the eternal sleep of death and on the other side was the waking death of insomnia. She walked through the valley of two deaths and was not afraid. But regardless of poetics, the waking death was miserable, and even if SCP-2156 didn’t want much she still wanted sleep.
Once upon a time she had been pretty sure that if she went crazy there would be some sort of procedure for either making her sane again or else quarantining her from the sane people who didn’t deserve to be in contact with her, but actually going crazy and discovering that there was some inscrutable and hideous enigma wrapped inside her bones had taught her that no such procedure existed. Therapy and the Foundation were bullshit. Garland was pretty nice though.
That was it.
SCP-2156 stared at Garland. She wondered what it was like to be a therapist working for the Foundation. How much did Garland think about his own work? How much did Garland’s consciousness press against the confines of the Foundation’s bars? It was trivially easy to manipulate and lie. SCP-2156 wasn’t stupid; Garland did it to her every day. Was it to help or to control? To accept or to assimilate? There was no observable distinction between any of those things.
But most of all SCP-2156 was struck by how well Garland hid the signs of helplessness and impotency that brewed within him. People had layers. All she did was shuffle them around. The whole was the sum of the parts and summation was commutative so what did it matter what order people were in? Whether it was ugly or beautiful all of it was you. All of it was her. What did she want? She didn’t know. Nothing and everything. Shuffling herself was hard.
“If there’s anything you’d like to talk about…”
She was being led back to her room. She didn’t know why she had been taken out. The blank, sterile hallway was marked at regular intervals by the pattern: guard-door-guard, guard-door-guard. She didn’t know where the Foundation got this many people to dress up in black combat gear and stand still. She could not see their faces. They flashed by like rows of orchard trees planted in the nothingness between San Francisco and Los Angeles. They flashed by like a deck of cards being shuffled. They flashed by like a flipbook animation. Stillness begot motion. There were contradictions hiding in the fabric of all things.
One of the guards was shuffling a deck of cards in his hands. SCP-2156 heard the machine-gun flickering of card slapping against card over and over. The next guard was also shuffling a deck of cards. The third one was playing with a matryoshka doll.
She was in her cell again. There was another matryoshka doll. Who cared? Strange things happened.
SCP-2156 sat down by the doll and figured that she would unravel the secrets of the universe.
One layer gone. Capillary beds. She had never needed to play solitaire with her body to figure out what was one layer down. Red flesh. Raw, stinging pain. She winced as blood flowing from the ripped skin around her nails dripped onto her calculus final. Professor Davidson never noticed it. She remembered not being able to sleep for the first time and wondering if she was going insane.
Two layers gone. She had broken her arm playing basketball. The bone stuck through the skin. Morphine coursed through her veins, and she understood why people said that morphine was addictive. Addiction was another paradox, like life. On either side of the valley there was the sleeping release from pain or the waking embrace of it. A body anesthetized and a mind awakened were in symmetry. Millions of people needed to dig to find emotion.
Three layers gone. The world was far more complicated than she had imagined, and nobody was in any position to understand it. Did they try to understand her? A girl who played solitaire with the world? She looked inside her and saw nothing but black and red, flashing and shuffling. Black blobs—might be a card—stood on either side of her. White blob—definitely not a card—explained what they did. The goal of the Special Containment Procedures Foundation was to observe preternatural phenomena and develop new theories of science based on their behavior. She knew with complete certainty that white blob was lying to her.
There was nothing predictable and certainly nothing understandable about the world. She saw the universe and all its layers. She saw gloved hands hiding red skin shuffle the layers of the universe over and over and over again. If she were to stop those hands then she could finally flip through the cards and figure out how the universe’s cards were stacked, but nobody would ever stop them. They were eternal.
Four layers gone. She dried off her hair, checked to make sure her roommate was still out, and started crying. Mom called to ask her if everything was all right. The boy two rows down and three columns to the left said, “Don’t stick it in the crazy.” She looked at a piece of paper and saw nothing but a game of windowed solitaire. She realized that she could not learn or excel in school. She realized that nobody had the patience to put up with her. She realized that there was nothing connecting her to the world, and all the realizations mounted higher until she reached the truth of the world, placed upon a glowing pedestal—the world could not have her.
She saw red and black—black hair sticking out of red flesh. Red blood and black bile.
She removed the fifth layer. The doll was smiling at her. She began to fall through the layers, and as they flashed by they showed her the stuttering, banal flipbook movie of her existence. There was neither end nor bottom; there was only the truth that the fifth layer was oblivion and that oblivion was all she would ever be.
Her skin was thin and fragile, and inside of her there was nothing.
“How’s your sleep been?”
SCP-2156 stared at the wood grain of the table. “It’s been all right.”
“Nothing too out of the ordinary going on with your sleep patterns recently?”
The creases of her gloves were like the weathered face of an old lady. She was wearing somebody else’s skin because nobody, least of all herself, could stand her own.
There was a red pen in front of Garland. She wondered why he wrote in red.
The wall was monochromatic. It had always been monochromatic. What a dumb observation.
Garland coughed. “SCP-2156?”
“Sorry. I just…yeah.” SCP-2156 looked Garland in the face for a second, felt him staring back at her, and then looked away. “I think that everything’s been fine.”
She remembered the matryoshka doll. Ever since she had come into this cell she had realized that she was self-aware of much more than before. When she went into the temporary nirvana of re-shuffling she could feel each layer of her mind shift against the other until for a moment, perfect harmony and order was achieved, before entropy piled up while doubt and hate bred and multiplied in the recesses of her mind. She could touch each layer of her soul. And now, she could feel the matryoshka doll imprinted on every one of them.
“Are you sure?”
Who the hell did Garland think he was? A ball of good intentions and mediocre actions trying to read her mind? She was the one who could see the layers, not him. He was a man with the insight of a toddler.
Garland scratched his neck. “We really can’t proceed with the sleeping medication matter until we’re absolutely certain that nothing unexpected is going on with your condition. We want to do everything possible to help you, SCP-2156, but I must remind you that we are an organization that serves the public first and foremost. We can’t afford…”
“I’m not hiding anything.”
Her matryoshka doll reshuffled until the dream became the deepest layer.
SCP-2156 pulled on her gloves. “So that’s a ‘no’ on meds, I guess.”
“How am I supposed to sleep?”
“Well, we can keep working on your anxiety. Until I receive a green light for some sort of sleeping medication, that’s the most we can do, unfortunately.”
SCP-2156 sat in silence. She felt her cheeks begin to tingle. She didn’t want many things, but those things that she did want were beginning to pile up. She wanted sleep. She didn’t want to keep talking to Garland. She wanted nothing more than to disappear, because she could be completely certain that absolutely nobody would miss her.
“I’m sorry? I didn’t—can you speak up?”
“I just want some meds, all right? I know I'm a threat, and I know that I’m dangerous. But I really don’t know what I deserve, or if I even deserve anything—I just—this is all that I want, I swear, I just want some sleep. Do you have any idea how boring it gets in here? Four walls, some shitty books, and a brain that doesn’t know how to fucking go to sleep? I know you know it’s boring, that’s why you keep sending people, but do you have any idea how much time I spend in here with nothing but my thoughts—“
They flickered one after the other after the other, but no matter how fast they raced they would never go fast enough to reveal the truth.
“— about how—about how—“
There was the world, comprised entirely of this cell. There were people who day by day were unaware that the present was slipping them by and that a stranger would be occupying their skin in the next second. They didn’t have to care. The world was in a state of perpetual blissful innocence. It was painted in colors that would make a baby laugh and coo, hues of industrial ink that were to be played with by smooth hands.
The world had one layer. It could not be shuffled. There was no place in it that she belonged.
It was at times like these that the miasma of SCP-2156’s thoughts coalesced into something that could be called emotion; this time, like most times, that emotion was fear. A red sliver of skin poked through the gap between her right glove and her wrist. It was the same color as a clown’s nose or a sports car, except her skin was dull and dry, giving it a grayish tint.
She had been kneeling on the floor of her college dormitory when she saw herself in the shattered remains of a mirror, face bright red like a caricature of a human being. God, she was hideous.
“I just want some sleep,” she said to nobody. Garland was long gone.
All seven face-up cards were red. She screamed in frustration as the world fell apart around her.
“Hey, have a seat. Sorry we’re out of coffee. And donuts. Also sorry that we had to call you over on such short notice, Doctor, uh…Garland. Been busy.”
Garland nodded. “I understand. Please, take your time.”
The meeting room was a perfect example of the Foundation not really getting aesthetics. It was blandly pleasant, but it made Garland feel detached, like he was an avatar projected into this half-real room. Everything was too bright and too smooth. The room felt like it was melting.
Garland briefly wondered how the researchers could put up with such a charade, because they knew the internal anatomy of the Foundation, what fueled its beating heart, and what perverse blood flowed through its tortuous limbs. Everything was so much more real when the skin matched the flesh in barren, ugly containment cells. Garland almost felt more at home there, where at least the Foundation achieved some sort of consistency. If he could choose one thing to fix about the Foundation, it would be the incoherency in the inoffensively flat décor of the offices.
“Right. As you probably know, I’m the HMCL supervisor for SCP-641. Uh, you’ve read the file?”
Garland nodded again.
“Fantastic. Nice to meet you.”
They shook hands. Garland smelled his cologne. His palms were crisp and perfectly dry.
“Mm. I understand that, yesterday, SCP-2156 underwent one of its…active phases? And that you were present?”
“Report says that you were almost…mm. Kind of dangerous, isn’t it? I’d talk to your HMCL guy about modifying the containment procedures, honestly.”
Garland shrugged. “There are hazards. Humanoids can get upset during sessions. It’s happened before. I have a decent bereavement package, so I don't complain.”
The HMCL supervisor laughed briefly and loudly. “Of course. Anyway. A strange coincidence happened. At the same time as that active state, SCP-641 showed us some, uh, previously unobserved behavior. Spontaneously started disassembling itself.”
“So you’re hypothesizing a connection.”
“Hey,” the supervisor said, throwing his hands in the air. “We scan the event logs for this sort of coincidence for a reason. One skip is containable. Two is bad news. If one of those two is a humanoid, worse news. Look, I’ve been in this for some time, and honestly, ten years ago, this happens, I commission Telekill rooms.”
The supervisor laughed again, loud and short like before. “Yeah. 641 has mind-affecting abilities, which nine times out of ten implies some sort of psychic potential, and from the file, 2156 sounds a lot like a bixby—“
“Uh, reality warper. Excuse the slang. Some of my retrieval buddies have rubbed off on me. It’s a reality warper.”
“SCP-2156 hasn’t really demonstrated any willful control over its anomalous properties, and I was under the impression that was one of the criteria to be considered…”
The supervisor waved his hand. “Criteria don’t matter. You can’t categorize something if you don’t understand it. Functionally speaking, it might not look like a reality warper, but the nature of its abilities would seem to suggest—look, this is a discussion I should be having with 2156’s HMCL supervisor. Sorry. Let’s get back on track. What we need to know is if 2156 has been behaving normally lately.”
“Would you like suspicion or fact?”
“Suspicion is usually more useful.”
“There have been subtle irregularities. I think that it’s hiding something. Besides the recent preoccupation with sleeping medication, it becomes nervous each time we discuss its dreams.”
“Right. I’ll have you submit a formal report later. We need to document these sorts of things. Besides that, though, I just thought that I’d give you a heads-up that you might not be working on the 2156 project for much longer.”
“First of all, this isn’t set, because if it were, your supervisor would be the one telling you this, not me. I don’t know anything for certain. I’m just speculating. And second of all, this isn’t a reflection on your capabilities whatsoever. In fact, it has nothing to do with them.”
There was a moment of silence as the HMCL supervisor sighed. “There are just patterns, you know. I’m speaking here as an employee to an employee, not HMCL staff to skip therapist. The Foundation’s going to cut its losses soon.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There are some things that are not supposed to be in this world—or, well, we’ve determined that they’re not supposed to, anyway. Which is reasonable, you know, because both of us have done enough work in this place to know that somebody has to make those decisions. And sometimes I guess that we pretend that we’re trying to help…”
The two men made eye contact for a moment as the reality of Garland’s occupation occurred to both of them simultaneously. “Well,” the supervisor said. “I mean, in some cases we probably do make decent efforts at helping. But, really, if we start thinking about questions of necessity, then things get messy. Humanoids…a friend of mine in retrieval said that she thought of them like shipwrecked sailors, and for a while we like to think that providing therapy and protecting them and whatever is like trying to guide them back home, but the reality of the situation is that we’re not home, we’re the island in the middle of nowhere. And SCP-2156 is going to realize that very soon.”
There was a long silence as Garland stared at the man.
“I’m not sure…” Garland said.
“Well, whatever,” the supervisor said. “Not our job to think about this.”
SCP-2156 woke up to a lie staring her in the face. The bed and the walls and the drawer and her clothes all seemed to be the same, but they were not. SCP-2156 could look one layer—just one layer—down beneath the surface of the façade and see the deception. She had been moved. The Foundation had changed its evaluation of her, and now the walls themselves muttered of containment instead of protection and of safety instead of welfare. How long had she been asleep? Thirty minutes, an hour? The Foundation worked quickly.
She had dreamt about the matryoshka doll every time she had gone to sleep for the past—ten meals divided by three and rounded down, that was three days. The doll was calling for her, and if SCP-2156 knew anything she knew that matryoshka dolls weren’t supposed to send out siren songs.
She could see her entire past laid out in picture frames by the matryoshka doll. She could relive every weakness and insecurity, and in doing so, she grew one step closer and closer to the truth, to that nothingness that was inside her, and out of that void something of great design and inscrutable purpose would be born. For one instant everything would fall into order, and then she would be at peace. The only way forward was the doll. So long as she kept finding new layers within herself, she could keep shuffling, and so long as she kept shuffling, she would find order. So long as there was the chance that order would be found, she could maintain the delusion that everything would be all right. That was how critical the doll was to everything. To the universe itself. It was a small, wooden, painted toy that formed a pillar holding up the sky.
She needed to be reshuffled again, but for that reshuffling to mean anything, she needed the doll. In the corners of her mind that the doll whispered to, there was nothing but silence.
SCP-2156 stood and began to pace. She told herself that she needed to calm down—but who was really telling her that? Was it really her?
“I just need some sleep,” she said.
The Foundation wasn’t giving her any sleeping meds. Why was it so hard? What was so difficult about giving somebody with insomnia medication? She wanted nothing more than for her brain to be pummeled into unconsciousness by a chemical cocktail. The snarling abominations of 3 AM doubts were prowling about her on all sides. She was continually hounded by them. An eternal hunt with herself comprised the entirety of her existence, and she was tired of running in circles.
If everything could just shut up for a moment—
She just needed some sleep.
The Foundation had moved her. They had uprooted her out of one of its metal labyrinths and popped her straight into another. The matryoshka doll was gone, but something was whispering truths into her ear even now. The universe cascaded in a series of layers that she could sift through and examine at her leisure. Garland wasn’t coming back. She doubted any of the others were either. Deep in the roaring machinery of the dark, ancient monolith that called itself the SCP Foundation, men in white lab coats were typing away at computers, filing reports. These reports were aimed at changing the special containment procedures of the object known as SCP-2156. There would be restrictions imposed and precautions taken. An incident report had been filed when she had almost killed Garland. But the Foundation, for all its knowledge and its power, could not know everything, and in those twisting alleyways of ignorance, the Foundation’s power meant nothing.
No matter what, they could not say how the deck would be ordered.
Time passed. There were no meals, so she couldn’t say how much. After time was finished passing, one of the room’s walls became transparent. An unfamiliar man in a white coat stood on the other side.
“Good morning, SCP-2156.”
“Why have you taken me here?”
“You have been relocated because we’re concerned about your safety and the general well-being. Specifically, we have good reason to believe that there were unforeseen factors about your prior containment site that negatively influenced your mental health. These factors constituted an unacceptable risk of containment breach. As such, we have taken steps to minimize cross-contamination potential and—"
“Why isn’t Garland coming back?”
The doctor’s face scrunched up. “I’m sorry?”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
She had seen muscle and sinew. She had seen bones, marrow, capillaries, veins, organs—its heart and all the chambers, the valves pumping all the sludge through the body—the nerves leading up to a brain that hid secrets from itself. She had seen it all. The Foundation didn’t even know itself. They were kindred spirits, like that—
“Don’t lie to me,” she said again. She knew where she was. She was on the very fringes of the world, where everything that did not belong was placed so that it could continue on not-belonging inoffensively. For all of history the Foundation had kept everything safely on the sidelines so that society could function. She knew the truth.
And of herself, what did she know?
The doctor took a picture out of his coat. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s the doll.”
“Where have you seen it?”
“Everywhere? I don’t understand.”
“In my sleep and in my dreams. Out of the corners of my eyes. It’s on the fringe, just like I am.”
“Have you ever begun to disassemble this object?”
SCP-2156 closed her eyes. “Over and over.”
“Right. Why did you not report the reoccurrence of this object in your dreams to your therapist?”
SCP-2156 was silent.
“All right. I want you to understand that there have been new restrictions placed upon you. The luxuries of your previous containment protocols were contingent upon an incident-free record, a condition which has decidedly not been met. You almost killed the previous therapist. We will have to be much more cautious when dealing with you.”
SCP-2156 looked up and opened her eyes. “I have a question. Are you going to give me sleeping meds?”
“In all likelihood, no. We do not acquiesce to the demands of SCP objects when there is no good reason to do so.”
“Right,” SCP-2156 said. “That’s right.”
There was nothing resembling humanity here. The Foundation stripped it away from their own agents and researchers just as readily as it did so from its prisoners. She could feel the throbbing hum of mystery packed against horror packed against contradiction. The Foundation was a teeming, frothing ocean, filled from top to bottom with things that nobody could understand, an impenetrable, unknowable volume of liquid black. The Foundation did not care for anything or help anything because whatever agency of its own it had spent hiding its own secrets from itself.
She felt a moment of truth and absolute clarity. There had been a festering, ugly emotion deep inside of her for the past several days—it had been the fear-anger of anxiety and insecurity. She had been laboring under the misconception that here she was out of place and that the world outside of these walls was hers. She had thought it was where she belonged, despite her ink-black skin spotted red with murder. But she had been very, very wrong. She did not belong in the world because it had one layer and no mysteries. When she had realized this truth she had been afraid, but the truth had to be accepted.
There was a Foundation under the Foundation of sterile white lab coats and precisely operated mechanical cell doors. There was a Foundation of unspeakable inhumanity and cruelty, there was a Foundation of self-sacrifice and heroism, there was a Foundation of unreality and insanity and madness all lurking beneath the surface. Every single Foundation employee she had witnessed had only been the facade of the madhouse. They were being moved by purposes mysterious to guard objects unknowable.
She felt the fear-anger build. There was no escape from the walls of this Foundation, not even in her own sleep. Everything might be plausibly acceptable if her masters were simple, knowable people—university deans, parents, supervisors—but this was not the case. Something in the contradiction of an organization trying to give order to the most absolute chaos had fractured the layers of the people in charge. One day, perhaps arbitrarily, these people had decided not to give her sleep.
Sleep had been the illusory chemical sanctuary from the world in which she did not belong. It was gone. What remained were bloodshot eyes and a desert of a mind where the winds of fatigue and doubt constantly scoured the surface of the sand. SCP-2156 felt a cruel, vindictive satisfaction. Whatever happened from here on out was not her fault. The Foundation had not given her sleep. It had dragged her to the very boundaries of the waking world and then forced her to remain. Whatever happened as a consequence could not be avoided.
Emotion drained from her. She closed her eyes and felt beneath her for the layers of the world. She could shuffle them however she saw fit.
The doll was calling for her again. It was calling for her with a mind powerful enough to reach out of the wooden confines of the toy and invade the private sanctuary of the human soul. Within that mind was boundless potential for torture and sadism, for the violent restructuring of the pliable human consciousness, but it held within it only one thought. The doll wanted nothing more than to be taken apart, it wanted nothing more than to see the world fall apart around it—for her to strip away pretension after pretension until nothing but the dizzying void of the center remained. The Foundation had made a mistake. Distance was of no concern anymore.
She moved the ace of clubs to the home stack; the face-down card underneath it flipped over to reveal the impassive face of the matryoshka doll staring back at her. See? There it was at her feet. Solitaire was easy.
The researcher’s eyes widened before the wall became opaque again. SCP-2156 didn’t care. This was exactly where she belonged, in this institution of horrors, in this room with the matryoshka doll on the floor. She would find all the layers of the Foundation, and she would find all the layers of herself. SCP-2156 began to cry. She couldn’t remember being this happy.
She knelt down, grasped the doll, and disappeared.
SCP-2156 was dying. Death was not nearly as unpleasant as she might have expected. It was, in truth, rather relaxing to feel each memory and thought that had ever once comprised her identity be stripped away from her. She felt a sensation of impending peace. To death, to sleep, to the unknown oblivion—wherever the destination, she was falling…
A stack of cards spread itself out in a fan before her and revealed the world. She could see the Foundation scrambling to evacuate the area. She could see the GOC detect a burst of Aspect Radiation at a Foundation Site and watched the legion of politicians and hypocrites begin plotting. She saw her family and friends, stumbling through life only marginally more ignorant than they had once been. She saw rain fall on the graves of the people she had killed. All of it was inconsequential.
The doll guided the reshuffling of her layers. She was to be remade into something that would never have to beg its captors for sleeping medications, something that would never begin hyperventilating in a cafeteria, something that would never stay awake waiting for the morning to come. It would be neither better nor worse than her; it would neither be her nor would it not be her. It would only be, and it would belong. She would be made into something that could see the layers of everything for all its complexity and nonsense.
There was an unpleasant moment when the last remaining thing that could be said to be her was destroyed, when she existed only as form without definition, before her parts began to collapse upon themselves, forming layer after layer of a psyche and a body. In this new body she felt the thrill of inhumanity rush through her limbs. She saw the fan of cards and remarked how simple it was to shuffle them around.
As the final layer of what she was to become clicked into place around her, SCP-2156’s first and last thought was that all she had wanted was some sleep.