O5-2 carefully arranged the surgical mask over her face, tugging the disposable fabric this way and that, ensuring that her mouth and nose were covered properly. She bent down and eased off her black pumps, exchanging them for a pair of sterile slippers. A set of gloves and a disposable cap were on the table next to her.
"Is this really the extent of protocol for interacting with a four-hundred-year-old-man?" said the Overseer as she looked down at her new shoes with disgust.
"You're worried about protocol at a time like this?" Dr. Zhang adjusted his glasses as he examined the tablet in his hand.
"A time like this. What could you possibly know about that? You live in a separate world from us. That's exactly what Existential Isolation Facility Beta was designed for." O5-2 tucked her long silver hair under the cap, pushing individual strands away from her forehead and up underneath the protective garment.
"Overseers aren't supposed to be here. Should I even ask why that rule is being waived today?"
"No. You shouldn't." She pulled the latex gloves onto her hands, accentuating the end of her sentence with a tight snap. "And don't."
The Overseer and the Site Director passed the rest of their time preparing in silence. A soft chime and a green icon flashing on the Director's tablet indicated that the subject was ready. Dr. Zhang began to speak. O5-2 spoke instead.
"No recording devices. No one else." O5-2 held her security pass up to the reader on the hermetically sealed door. Latches clicked open as her card was acknowledged, air rushing past them from the positive pressurized antechamber.
She looked one last time at Dr. Zhang. "I was never here. Do you understand?"
The Site Director nodded. O5-2 didn't bother to wait for acknowledgment as she proceeded into the main chamber.
The second door sealed behind her automatically. Before her was a man in a hospital bed, at the center of a mass of tubes, wires and specialized lifts designed to enable movement with the least possible effort. She only knew that this was a man because she had read the file; the person before her was a shriveled husk of cobweb-thin strands of hair and translucent, spotted skin. Machines registered respiration and heartbeat, assuring anyone who cared to listen that this was a living creature.
She sat in the chair placed at the ancient man's side by the research staff. A speaker was wired to the bedside railing next to the man.
The wasted old man moved his lips, faint noises wheezing out of him, captured by the small microphone next to his mouth, held in place with surgical tape. Several seconds elapsed before a monotone voice emerged from the speaker, reconstructing and interpreting his barely perceptible words.
"You are the first of the quiet times. Some peace and quiet, finally."
O5-2 parsed the response. Not an answer to any questions she might ask. No causality issues yet.
The monotone voice resumed. "Suffering. Cruelty. The currency by which the world is purchased. Everything that you are is a reflection of this. You will remember the true nature of cruelty in time."
She had to be careful now. This sounded like something. She went through the checklist of questions she had prepared, mentally forbidding herself from any desire to deviate from the script. She read aloud the question that she thought fit the answer best.
"What is the price that we will need to pay for this?"
She didn't like the stilted manner of this conversation. O5-2 watched a thin stream of spittle trickle out of the corner of 411's mouth as his lips moved. She waited for the transcription.
"Your kind did not just appear in my path. I recognize your faces. All of my life I have seen faces like yours. Not full of fear, and desperation and hate like the faces of my recent years. But joy. The happiness of untroubled days, illumined by a different star. Your future is clear in my past. You have been, and you will continue to be."
A different star. This was consistent with the data from the newest Determinative Set that had been examined. The nature of how it would occur was murky, as all data from SCP-2003 were, but the possibility that escape from 001 was an option had been tantalizingly coming into focus for the past several weeks.
There was a future after all.
She started to speak the question to the answer. She was cut off by monotone, clipped laughter from the speaker. Something about it chilled her. She started again.
"411, does humanity exist in your past?" Her feelings of relief collided with the unnatural flow of the conversation. Her elation at being able to believe in another path forward was cut with something that felt like poison inside her. Nothing about this interaction felt right. Many items provided glimpses of the future. All of them distorted those events through the madman lenses of their creators, human and otherwise. The future was forbidden from the central planning process, but O5-2 felt the need to make an exception, given the vote that was before them tomorrow.
The speaker crackled once more, breaking her thoughts. "A barren rock. Home to terrors beyond imagining. It is well that life has fled. It is even better that life for others continues far away from this place."
Well. The next response was an easy one, then. She sighed, annoyed with the rules of this game despite the awful gravity of the situation.
"Is there a future for humanity on Earth?"
That was the last non-pleasantry she had been planning on asking of the decrepit humanoid. Precious little material, but apparently an extended conversation would kill someone of this advanced age. Then they'd all be truly screwed. She decided to wait a few more moments while the time-wasted man gasped words inaudibly in his own slow time. Her vote tomorrow was decided now. She began to formulate the beginnings of the argument she would make to her peers. How would she reconcile-
"The Planet of Hands. This is what we are to speak of. I am from there, you know. As are you, child. You shall know more of it in time. I am glad to be here now instead."
O5-2 sighed. Senility hadn't been mentioned in the file, but it was certainly to be expected from someone who had racked up multiple centuries of life. A brief thought occurred that perhaps 411's other answers should be reconsidered. She banished it quickly. Any chance, no matter how slight, was better than tomorrow's proposal. She focused herself on convincing the others.
"Greetings, prodigal daughter. Unlike me, you'll be home soon." The ancient face on the bed twisted into something resembling a polite smile. Like she had just walked in the room. That was her cue, thankfully.
"Greetings, SCP-411." O5-2 promptly stood up, turned around, and left the chamber.