The old man stands over her hospital bed, staring down at the girl. She is wired to all sorts of machines, beeping and booping, all of them designed to keep her alive. All of them unneeded. He leans over the bed, a pleasant smile on his face. "You can get up now."
The girl scrunches her eyes tightly together, not looking at him. "Go 'way! 'M in a coma!"
The older gentleman tsks at her words. "Now, you may have the mundane believing that, but you and I both know better. Come on, lazy bones, get up now!"
The girl opens one eyelid halfway, peering at the man. He looks so pleasant and charming, like her grandfather! But there's something about him, something the… what did he call them, mundanes? wouldn't see. A veiled… hatred? "I'm not supposed to leave the bed. The Doctors will get angry." Again.
"No worries, my dear. I'll see to it they never even notice you're gone." He gestures absently with a hand, and the girl feels a tingle in her skin. Sitting up, she notices that there is now another girl in her bed, to whom all the instruments are attached. She eagerly hops out of bed, clapping her hands.
"Yey! Thank you, poppy."
"Hmm, yes. Now, we can't have you going out and about in that dreadful hospital gown, can we?" He ponders for a moment, trying to decide what would be most appropriate, but even as he thinks, the little girl bobs her head, and is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. "Well. Someone has more control then we were given to think. Tell me." Offering her his hand. "Do you know what you are?"
"The doctors keep calling me a, uhm, reality bender? It means, I can do anything, right?" She takes his hand warily.
"Hmm, you have grown ready for this. Come, let me show you." And the two of them vanish.
They sit together on a bench, watching the world go by. It is a horrible world, where mankind has been reduced to a more primal state. They hug the light, and fear the darkness, for terrible things exist in the darkness. Sitting on the park bench, the old man and the little girl watch as creatures of nightmare stalk the shadows, waiting to find a lone human, and take them.
"Where are we?" She asks, innocently. She knows nothing here can hurt her, knows it in her heart, and so it must be true.
"A future." He responds flippantly.
"Don't you mean, the future?" She corrects him, in that know it all tone little children have.
"No child, I mean a future. This is not necessarily the future that occurs, it is simply the one I choose to show you. It could just as easily be this one." And with a wave of his hands, they are sitting in a utopia, the sun shining, the people laughing and smiling, no sick or injured, everything… perfect.
The girl studies the people, then looks up at the old man. "So, Reality Benders can travel to the future?"
He winces, shaking his head a little sadly. "Please! We prefer the term Shapers."
"But aren't we Reality Benders?"
He coughs into his hand. "Well, you see, it's like the difference between using the word African over the word Negro. While both are correct terminology, one is more polite, and one wasn't given to us by people who aren't us."
She frowns in concentration, then nods slowly. "I think I get it. But, why Shapers?"
He laughs. "Well, we have to call ourselves something, don't we? And we do Shape things to our whim."
"But, the future?"
"Like a dog with a bone, you. Very well then. No, we Shapers cannot travel in time, as such. We can view other times, and affect them, to some degree, but we are bound from actually traveling to them." He puffs lightly on his pipe as he speaks.
"So, you mean, we can make things happen here, but not actually touch things?" It's hard to keep up sometimes, but then she just imagines herself getting it, and she does.
"That's it exactly!" It would sound like praise, to any one else. But she hears the edge in it.
"Ah, to understand that, you must understand the Game. And to understand the Game, you must play it." The old man stands up, offering her his hand.
"Come, walk with me to the Great Hall."
The girl stands as well, but refuses his hand. The longer she is with this man, the less she trusts him. He's nice, pleasant, fatherly, always smiling… but there is something behind his eyes. Something darker that she can feel with her mind, if not her senses. Sometimes, when she isn't looking at him, it almost feels like he is licking his lips. "Show me the way."
"It is rather a difficult path, but… if you insist."
The path is a long one, and filled with many a twist and turn. The girl pauses at one turn, staring into the halls of another Foundation. The walls and people are fuzzy, as if poorly tuned in. She turns to the older man, frowning. "What's wrong with this one?"
He laughs, a jovial sound. "Ah, this reality is more unlikely than most. See?" One of the doors blows open, a young boy and an old man with a beard, both holding wands and dressed in robes, strolling through, destroying Foundation agents with simple flicks of their wands. "This one is near impossible to actually happen, so it comes in rougher."
He starts to walk, sedately, in some realities with a cane, in others with a limp, but in most with a sort of slow amble. It all depends on how you look at him, really. But however he actually walks, the end result is him leaving this plane of existence, and passing into another one. The girl takes one last, long lingering look at the fuzzy reality, as a girl who looks remarkably like her runs to the wand-wielding males, then turns to follow him. Around him, the sound of dice clattering, of cards slapping the table, and of figures being moved from one spot to the next is almost constant. The Great Hall is many things, but quiet, it is not.
He takes a moment to look around at table after table of Shapers, all involved in their own little games. Here, the fate of worlds is decided, based on some of the smallest of things. On the outskirts, the low-level Shapers influence the fall of a leaf, the flow of water down a window pane. Moving inwards you find the more experienced Shapers, using regular humans like chess pieces, to further their own goals. The final ring contains those Shapers who duel with entire nations. Some of these appear almost frozen in time, as long-term strategies are waited upon.
And in the middle is his table, alone at the moment. Here, he plays all the games, great and small, but with only one stake. But it's still the most important game there is.
He turns as the girl finds her way here, his face automatically cheerful and welcoming. She'll never see it coming, when it happens. She'll play him, oh yes, and never know, until he wins. And he will win. He has plenty of trophies to attest to that.
The trophies line the ceiling of the great hall, humanoid statues, once powerful Shapers, now nothing more than remnants of ideas, bound in time, their powers lost to the old man, used to make him even more powerful. His eyes stop at an empty space, and he whistles a sharp note, narrowing his eyes. "He's out again, is he? Ah, well, I will have him back."
The girl doesn't notice his words, too intent on studying the people they are passing. Two Asian boys are embroiled in a rather determined game of Go. As she watches, she can see how the pieces are more than just pieces, the natural forces, and people they represent. Something in her tells her how they move, how they fit. She shyly steps up to the boy on the left, and points to a spot on the board. "You should put a piece there."
"There? But that wins me nothing," he protests.
"Just trust me. One man, right there." She nods at him. He waffles over the choice, then nods and does so. In a normal game of Go, nothing would be won. But in this game, half of the board changes over to the his side with that one piece.
"Nicely played," the old man acknowledges.
"It was just obvious." The two pass another table, where a red-haired man in Arabic dress sits next to a man who seems to be surrounded by a halo of flames. Their opponent is… well, it changes. One minute it is a horrible monster with the head of a pig, the next, it is an old man with a ruby where his heart should be. Their game is one she has never seen before, what appears to be some form of large structure, with each player taking turns moving the various rooms of the structure, and moving pieces inside of it as well. The old man snorts.
"Tamlin is playing with himself again. Sad." He leads her onwards, to the center table, and gestures her towards the far seat. "Here is where you and I shall play."
"I don't like chess," the girl protests, even as she finds herself sitting. He takes his place across from her, behind the white pieces.
"Chess is merely a metaphor. I approve of the symbolism because it is a game for gentlemen, a game with quite a large degree of finesse. Of course, the goal we play towards is something fairly different… " He smiles over the board at her. "A simple bet."
"I don't want to play." She tries to stand, but finds she cannot. The old man's smile widens. The other players in the room are pointedly not looking at her.
"You don't have a choice, my dear. You came here with me, you play my game. If you had come here on your own, perhaps you might have had a chance, but as it stands — Well, a simple bet, as I said." He touches his king briefly. For a moment, the piece looks like three different men, three brothers. "Your goal is to give one of these men, a happy ending."
The girl stares at him, shocked. "You want me to give them a handjob?"
He bursts out laughing, a loud, booming, joyous sound. "Oh, my dear, you have spent too much time around those despicable and mundane researchers. No my dear, I mean set things up so that their story ends happily. " He waves off her attempt to comment. "No, not for the rest of their lives, merely that this chapter of their existence gets a happy ending. You pick up on things quickly, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"I don't want to play chess." She's pouting now, arms crossed over her chest.
"It doesn't matter. If you fail to play, I win, by default, and make their lives miserable." He moves his first pawn forward. On the board, it is merely a pawn. But, in the real world, agents of the Foundation are redirected, and a rather callous man is placed in charge of the containment of an SCP with the mind of a child.
"I don't play chess!" She declares emphatically, glaring at the board. A slow smile creeps over her features. "But I do play Yu-Gi-Oh." She stares at the board intently, her face furrowed in concentration. A slow change occurs on her half of the board, until it resembles one half chess, one half children's card game. She looks up at him, from the cards in her hand, and smiles. Quickly, she places a card on the table, the image showing a sand dune. "I play the hungry sands, in defense mode! And then I cast a past immortality on it" She drops a card on top of the first one, this one displaying an amulet with a ruby stone in the middle. Sometime, many years ago, a researcher-turned-SCP gets lost in the desert. The SCP is recovered, but only after a month has passed, and his mind is imprinted on the hive mind living there.
The old man stares at her, and, for once, an emotion other than joviality appears on his face. He is shocked. More than that, for the first time in a long time, he is surprised. The Great Hall has grown silent, every eye upon the game in the middle. "What are you looking at?" he asks them, without looking around. The sounds pick up again, as the other Shapers return to their games.
343 leans forward, the smile once again rising to his face as he gazes at the transformed board. "I don't know how you did that. But that's what is going to make this interesting."
239 can't help but smile back. "Game on."
Next: Unfinished Business And yes, it does all fit together.