Almost five hours down I-75 later, Quinn MacAllister and Darnell Christman stepped out of their van in front of a nondescript office building in Cincinnati. They'd been caught in a traffic jam halfway past Columbus, which was around the time the van gave out as well, meaning they had to call AAA. And then it started sleeting.
"Fucking hell," Quinn groaned, stretching for the first time since Bucyrus, her hair falling around her head and her bones popping. "That felt like it took almost two years."
From the back of the truck, Darnell retrieved a biohazard container, looking at it warily. "So, what's the plan after this?"
"Go home," Quinn said, "Explain to Harley why I'm almost two days late back, and pray that she doesn't think I've actually had an affair."
Her partner nodded, and started into the building; inside was a white hall, with a sign behind the desk reading "South Cincinnati Planning". It was allegedly a construction company, but anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention to the anomalous world knew what the SCP Acronym meant. They usually weren't stupid enough to use it anymore. Usually.
Quinn approached the desk, and looked at the receptionist behind it. It was a man wearing a loose shirt and khakis, talking on the phone about a deal that was being made between South Cincinnati Planning and a construction union. She leaned over the desk, noting a bulge in his sock, concealing either a knife or a gun.
When the receptionist hung up, he looked at Quinn, and cleared his throat. "Was Wilbur right?"
"Yes, but Orville wasn't wrong either."
He nodded, and handed her a key from behind the desk. "Turn it counter-clockwise in the emergency stop switch, then select the basement floor."
Darnell was already in the elevator by the time she took the key, his thumb leaving an imprint in the elevator open button. Quinn inserted the key, and when she turned it, the lift shook and groaned, like the building was clearing its throat.
Once she selected the basement, the elevator lurched, groaned, and then began dropping at a speed that was disconcerting. When it finally leveled out, Quinn was clutching the handrails inside the elevator like she was going to fly off.
"I've heard that there's a Skipper lab in every major city," Darnell said as he scratched his nose. "Didn't think that Cinncy qualified."
"There's at least one. I hear that they have one under Progressive Field in Cleveland."
"No foolin'?" Darnell laughed. "No wonder the Indians keep losing. Who knows what kind of shit they're testing under there."
The elevator eventually stopped with a ding, and opened to the sound of air conditioners and halls that were a dull white, illuminated by fluorescent lights. Along the walls were posters reminding people who visited of safety protocols, or what passed for it in the Foundation.
In front of them, they were greeted by an older man, balding, with rimless glasses resting against his face. He looked like he was Chinese, and had a missing finger on his left hand; Quinn wondered how he lost that. "Agents MacAllister and Christman? You have the sample?"
Darnell held out the biohazard container. "Hell of a sample. It's… we don't know what. Sculpture that used to be someone."
"Hmm." The man snapped his fingers, and a pair of Foundation agents took the container from them. "Well, thank you for agreeing to transport it. We'll take it from here."
Quinn stepped forward to speak, but Darnell tapped her on the shoulder, and gave her a look that said both 'don't start shit' and 'let me talk'. "With all due respect, Dr…."
"Dr. Zhou," Darnell said. "We've just driven non-stop from Lake Erie. Do y'think we could at least use the can?"
Zhou rolled his eyes. "Very well." He pointed back down the hallway. "Restrooms are unisex, down 30 meters, to the left. Don't look in any of the windows, don't touch any of the doors, don't make eye contact with anyone."
"Thanks." Darnell walked along, and Quinn followed. They looked at each other, and Darnell was the first to speak. "Maybe you should've stayed topside."
"Why?" Quinn asked, looking away from one of the researchers who passed by.
"Because, if ya don't mind me saying, you kind of have a hate boner for the Skippers."
Quinn coughed into her hand to conceal a snicker. "Darnell, you're thirty-five in two months. Did you seriously just use the term 'hate boner'?"
"The concept of a hate boner defies generational boundaries." He looked around the hallway. "Wonder what they have in here."
"Can't be anything world-ending if they're willing to have it under a major population center."" She looked at her partner and frowned. "All right, what's up?"
"The whole 'using the can' excuse is bunk." She stood in the middle of the hallway, a frown on her face. "You're trying to find out more about it. As much as I hate to say it: this is their jurisdiction now."
"Technically," Darnell began explaining, "Under the Paperclip Clause of the Whitman-Ross Act, the Unusual Incidents Unit has at least partial jurisdiction over any matters that pertain to the United States Government and anomalous actions taken by or against it."
Quinn frowned, chewing a nail, "The Skippers aren't exactly known for following protocol. See: Loveland."
"Yeah, that was a cluster and a quarter." He kept on walking. "Still, we may be able to finagle it."
"Right." Once they arrived at the washrooms, Quinn felt at her head, and sighed. She hadn't had a proper wash since yesterday morning. "Think they have showers in there?"
"One way to find out," Darnell nodded. "See you on the flipside."
She strode into the washroom, the large, metal door slamming behind her; if Quinn had to guess, it was about a foot thick, and heavy, probably had some kind of piston or hydraulic system so that they could open without you needing to break your arm. Probably so that you had some sense of security in case something broke out.
There were no showers in the bathroom, but there was a sink large enough for her to, at least, rinse her hair. Bowing her head, she ran water over her mane, sighing and feeling pieces of Sandusky flow out- debris from the bank, an insect that had nested in her hair in the car, and a small stone that had somehow become lodged in her bangs.
"Christ," Quinn shivered, watching it flow down the sink. "I am going to need to spend an hour in the shower when I get home."
She watched the debris circle the drain, the stone stuck in the sink, making soft click-click sounds as it pinged against the metal. She stood there, and watched it, before a curious hand wandered towards it.
She held it in her hand, and swore that she heard a girl with skin like freshly-tilled dirt laughing behind her. She turned, and there was nothing. Just her, alone. She pocketed the rock and headed out of the washroom.
The ride back to Quinn's place was mostly silent, bar the NPR station. They stopped in front of her apartment, and Darnell gave Quinn a wry look. "You'll be fine."
"I don't want a repeat of last year," Quinn groaned. "I just wish I could tell her about half of this. Even a quarter of it. Fuck, at the very least, the entire werewolf thing. She was wondering why I kept having nightmares…" She rubbed her face, and unlatched her seatbelt, opening the door. "Thanks for the ride, Darnell."
"Mac." Darnell looked at her, hand on the steering wheel. "Ask her if she wants dinner tonight with me and Danielle. But… Christ, shower first."
"Same to you, stinkass." She circled around the back of the van, and looked at the looming apartment building as Darnell drove off, before beginning her ascent into the five-story red-brick complex that looked more ominous than it had in almost a year.
Harley Sterling was waiting for Quinn when she came through the door, sitting at the coffee table that Harley's mother had given her, reading an issue of National Geographic. She looked over the magazine at Quinn, and closed the periodical, laying it on the table and sighing. "Hey."
"Hi, Harl." Quinn looked sheepish as she set her phone down on the counter. "I'm… I'm gonna shower. I fucking reek."
"Right, you do that." Harley rose from the couch and proceeded to the kitchen. "I'm gonna make some coffee for you, hon."
"Thanks. Love you." With that, Quinn vanished into the bathroom, and a sound of running water and falling clothing followed.
Harley made sure the door was locked before picking up Quinn's phone, staring at the lock screen, an image of a psychotic clown girl that somehow had more fans than Bruce Springsteen. She knew the combination. She could look through it, see what she had been doing for the last three days, if she had really gone to Sandusky… see who the hell those people outside their apartment once a week.
She had noticed them when Quinn got transferred to Unusual Incidents. UFO Chasers, Quinn said, pointless work. Since then, she had seen people walking along outside, usually at night, trying to look as normal as possible; talking on cell phones, having conversations, getting into fights, having drinks. But they made the mistake of sending the same actor twice.
Someone was spying on them. Did Quinn know this? Did she know who they were? Would it have-
She nearly dropped the phone as it suddenly rang, humming in her hand and playing notes that were both incredibly annoying and instantly forgettable. She fumbled with it, and in doing so, accidentally answered the call.
Shit. She looked at the number, and saw that it was blocked. Must have been government stuff. She didn't know what compelled her to bring it to her face. "Hello?"
"…Agent MacAllister?" A voice, male, on the other end, inquisitive.
"Her wife, actually. She's in the shower."
"Well, when you can, forward a message to her? Tell her that…" There was an long pause, as if she was listening to a tape that had skipped a track, "Mike from Samson-Cooper Pharmaceuticals called. I'm an informant on a case of hers…"
"Right, drug bust. The whole LSD thing, yeah? Or Spirit Dust or whatever?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"All right, Mike, I'll tell her. Samson-Cooper…"
"Pharmaceuticals. Samson-Cooper Pharmaceuticals. Tell her that exactly."
"Will do." Harley hung up the phone and frowned. Since when did an informant have a blocked number? And… she'd heard that name. Samson-Cooper.
She looked out the window, and sure enough, there was a bench outside with an advertisement plastered on the back advertising a painkiller manufactured by Samson-Cooper Pharma. Weird coincidence.
She put the phone down, and sat on the couch, running her fingers through her hair. She'd been in Iraq, seen people get shelled to shit, seen a car blow up in front of her in a convoy, and then get discharged with a slap on the ass on the way out because she had the audacity to have a girlfriend. And here she was, paranoid about the woman she loved cheating on her.
She'd seen people get blown up, literally had to help pick up the pieces of one of her squad members so that they could be put into a bag, and… this is what was scaring her. The thought of her wife cheating on her with someone who had a blocked number.
Quinn came out of the shower a few minutes later, wearing as much as Lady Godiva, but with a more sensible haircut. She dried her hair, and gave her a quirk of the eyebrow, and headed down the hallway.
Harley sighed and followed. She needed this. Some time next to her.
"Someone called for you," Harley said as she looked through her laundry. "When you were in the shower."
"Hope you didn't forget their name." Quinn was finally getting into some clothes of her own, putting a brush through her hair, getting ready to get back to work.
"It was… Mack? No, Mike. From Samson-Cooper Pharmaceuticals."
Quinn dropped her hairbrush with a loud clunk and ran from the room, to her phone. She noted that Harley had moved it, undid the lock, and re-dialed the number. A voice on the other end spoke. "Did you pick up the roses?"
"No, all they had was snapdragons." Quinn tugged at her hair slightly. "Really not the best code to use around my wife," she whispered into the phone.
"We need you to come back down to Site-92 immediately."
"…what?" Quinn's face screwed up.
"The South Cincinnati building. We have a car coming for you. It's regarding the anomaly you brought in."
"Fucking…" Quinn rubbed her face. "That's your jurisdiction. We're not even going to bother with Whitman-Ross. What the hell do I have to do with it-"
"Does the name Jo Ann Storm mean anything to you?"
Quinn nearly dropped her phone. Jo Ann Storm was a kid from back home, in Green Pastures. Went missing around the time Quinn left. Around the time a lot of other kids went missing. Around the time a girl with skin like freshly-tilled dirt had broken Quinn's heart.
"…let me get a shirt on." She went back to her room, and looked at Harley, swallowing as she felt a lump form in her throat. A memetic lock, they called it. Something to keep her from vomiting information about the Veiled World to anyone who walked by. She wished that she could break it, that she could tell her wife about everything- the monsters they fought, the bureaucracy, the fact that the UIU wasn't just a glorified X-Files, that her work mattered… but she couldn't.
"Harley…" she started. "I…" she wanted to tell her about home. About what had happened, about Jo Ann, about Jemma, about Clyde and Chuck and Emily and Kendall and Jo Ann. About how her world went to hell in a handbasket almost seventeen years ago. But she couldn't. "…have work. There's a new lead, we may not have taken down the ring entirely."
Harley looked at her, incredulous. There was that look again, the suspicion and doubt. "All right. Can I expect you back soon?"
"Before midnight, swear to god." She approached her wife, and exchanged a kiss. She felt it, a bit of the passion, still there on her lips. A sign that things might be all right. "…Love ya, Silver."
Harley Sterling smiled as Quinn left the room, before going to their bedroom window and pulling down one slat of the plastic blinds, pressing her nose against the winter-cold glass. She saw a pair of men drinking coffee outside; the same men had been having an argument outside their apartment a week ago.
She sat down in bed, and opened up a book she had kept on her bedside for weeks; a tourist's guidebook, with two tickets used as a bookmark.
Darnell was already waiting for her when Quinn was escorted down to Site-92 by a man who had stiff arms and no eyebrows. Darnell frowned at Quinn as they walked, turning into a hallway labeled "Processing".
"Quinn," Darnell asked, a high tone in his voice showing some concern, "Who the hell is Jo Ann Storm?"
"She's…" Quinn blinked, her tongue going numb in her mouth, her mind going blank, as she shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry. Not cleared. Gag Order."
"…you're fucking kidding." Darnell groaned. "God, I sometimes wish they would just mindwipe us like the good old days."
"…I want to tell you. I really do. But it's to do with home, and-" Her head spun as she tried to tell him, and she leaned against the Agent, who helped prop her up, patting her shoulder.
"Easy there," He said, helping her get back on her feet and speaking into an earpiece. "Tell Memetics that we need a countermeme for a gag order. Send it to Dr. Zhou. It's urgent."
Quinn nodded her thanks, and soon, the two of them were led into a room where the sculpture-person from Sandusky was laid out on a table, like a scene from an autopsy. Quinn swallowed as she looked at it, and then looked to Dr. Zhou, who was removing a set of gloves. Quinn's hands covered her mouth as she gasped. "That's-"
"Jo Ann Storm. Resident of Green Pastures, Iowa, missing since 1998. One of a dozen missing children from that time."
"I remember," Quinn swallowed. "I… god, that sucked for the whole town."
Zhou nodded, and his pocket buzzed. He took out the phone within, unlocked it, and handed it to Quinn. "Watch the screen, please."
Quinn looked at the screen. It first displayed a countdown from 3… 2… 1…
She fell over, only to be caught by the Foundation agent behind her. She didn't remember what she saw, but she felt a weight on her mind being lifted, a block being destroyed. She handed the phone back to Zhou. "…ow."
"Counter-memes are hardly ever pleasant," he said, holding out his hand for the phone. "Quinn MacAllister, your mother was a Schafer, yes?"
"Hold the phone," Darnell held up his hands as Zhou did exactly that. "Quinn, are you going to tell me just what the fuck is going on? Is anyone?"
Dr. Zhou looked between the agents and the body on the table. "These are the remains of Jo Ann Storm. Former Resident of Green Pastures, Iowa, and a Class-3 Meteoromancer. She was a tool of Grassroots, subject to a Project SMILODON experiment, and…"
"…my next-door neighbor," Quinn sighed, looking at Darnell, an apologetic look in her eyes. "I think I need to tell you about my hometown."