Part 1: Whoa, Here She Comes
Part 3: The Beast You've Made Of Me
“This was…surprisingly nice, 5760. Though you've provided me with a particularly low standard.” 5760’s ears perked in happiness. Despite the flickering candlelight making 5760’s various bony protrusions cast ominous shadows, Lakshmi had to grudgingly admit that 5760 looked kind of adorable.
“I’m glad you liked it. I remembered you like lobster, so I asked if they could whip something up for you. It’s your birthday. You deserve something special.” 5760 propped its face in both hands and leaned forwards.
“Well, if this is an attempt to get back in my good graces, consider it failed. So don't get any ideas.” Only Reynolds, Meyers, and Gonzalez had remembered. Reynolds had stammered out a happy birthday and promptly disappeared. Meyers had brought in cupcakes. Gonzalez had presented her with the paperwork that officially raised her salary.
“I almost forgot! I have a present for you,” said 5760, producing a brown paper package from under the table. “Open it, will you?”
“It's not going to work.”
“It's not meant to endear me to you. Now open it.”
“I don't know what you're trying to accomplish, but…” Lakshmi grumbled as she opened the package. “You shouldn’t have. You really shouldn’t have.”
“Put it on.”
Lakshmi does, and the candlelight makes the intricate detailing on the bone of the bracelet come to life.
“I made it. Just playing around. Carving things. Manipulating things. It’s not romantic or anything. More like a make-up gift for putting you through all of this.”
They were interrupted by siren klaxons, followed by the metallic clank of the multi-lock security system fitting into place.
“Attention,” said a male voice over the speakers, “SCP-8004 has breached containment. Please proceed in an orderly manner to your designated checkpoints. Security personnel are to proceed to the rendezvous point designated for Scenario 8004-Delta. Remain calm and proceed to your stations."
"Which one is 8004?" 5760 asked quietly, after a long silence.
"I'm…I'm not sure."
"Hey, Agarwal. You and the skip okay in there?"
"Yeah, we're all right. We're locked in here, but there's nothing else getting in or out."
"You stay there. You're probably safer than the rest of us. Keter cells should work as well from the outside as they do from the inside."
"Okay. Will do." A pause. "Gonzalez?"
"What is 8004, exactly?"
"It's the hair and nails one. It's gonna be a bitch to get back in its box."
"Ugh. That. Well, I won't keep you."
"See you on the other side, kid." The voice in her ear went silent.
5760 laid down next to Lakshmi, ears perked.
"You okay, Shmi? You're trembling."
"Yeah. I'm fine. Just…Keter breaches. Rarely fun. Someone usually dies. More than one someone."
"This one doesn't seem too bad, It's a mass of keratin and chitin, right?"
"That eats people."
"Okay, so it's like ten of those hair things you pull out of your shower drain with a couple bug legs and fingernail clippings added in."
"I can still take it."
Lakshmi laughed, voice trembling. They waited in silence, the quiet scraping of the spinal vines against the femoral trunks oddly soothing. The bone forest, for all its horror, was a quiet sanctuary.
"Do you hear that?" 5760's voice was terse and hushed. The fur on its hackles was rising slowly, spines at attention.
"Listen." At first all she could detect was the ambient chattering and creaking of the skeletal woods. And then.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
"That dripping noise?"
"Your ears must be better than mine. What are you hearing?"
"I think it's -"
"Wait. I think I hear it too."
The drip was increasing in speed, but that wasn't all. She could just barely hear the click-tick, clack-tack of a thousand insect legs and shells skittering through the pipes. The gritty scrape of keratin spears like foot-long fingernails dragging themselves forward. And faintest of all, a low moan of agony.
SCP-8004 is composed of five substances: keratin, chitin, an oil-based compound it uses to aid locomotion, a corrosive slurry used for digestion, and a paralytic toxin for incapacitating prey. The sentence flashed through Lakshmi's mind, word for word, in the crystalline calmness of terror.
5760 paced and stalked, growling and lashing its tail. Gonzalez's voice crackled to terrified life.
"The thing's coming your way, Agarwal."
The scraping sound grew louder. Lakshmi could tell that there were two separate victims whimpering in pain.
"I can hear it. It's in the pipes."
"We're sending people your way. Hang in there."
"I can smell it," snarled 5760, "I can hear it, I can't see it. But it's coming closer."
"Stay with me, kid." Lakshmi could hear him grind his teeth. "Now, the thing's hard to kill through brute force, but once you cut something off, it can't reform. Keep it away from you, crush the pincers and shells if you can. Watch out for the hair. It'll tangle you, and it'll burn like hell if it touches you."
A slithering, oozing, chittering cacophony filled Lakshmi's ears. She could smell it, too - an awful, sour, corrosive smell. Hydrochloric acid, and something else - something like copper and loose teeth and parking garages.
"You still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"Stay close to 5760. Dog, if you're hearing this, keep her safe. Is it coming from the ground piping, or the vents in the ceiling?"
"Both. We can't get up a tree, but the ground won't be safe, either."
Click-clack, tik-tik-tak. Closer. Closer. 5760 prowled in close, protective circles.
"Now, I'm gonna need you to -"
Lakshmi didn't hear what Gonzalez wanted them to do next. A flaming, incessant pain shot through her legs and rocketed down every neuron in her body - a thousand tiny bright pinpricks of venom. Her muscles began to spasm uncontrollably, and her legs collapsed out from under her. Clawing incessantly at the ground, she was dragged through the calcified underbrush, a burning, viscous pain oozing up her leg. Her glasses and earpiece were knocked off, her limbs twitching and heart racing.
The last thing she said was "AVERY!" before her jaw locked altogether.
Out of the corner of her eyes, she could detect a hint of neon orange, blurred but highly visible. As the tendrils of hair and pincers dragged her around a shrub, she got close enough to see what it was.
A neon orange watchband, still fixed to a slowly dissolving wrist. Reynolds.
As she was pulled away by the rough spears of keratin embedded in her leg, Lakshmi came face to face with Meyers. Neither could speak, but Lakshmi had just enough control of her limbs left to move her hand over Vera's own, and squeeze.
A bristling, clicking noise. Lakshmi guessed it was 8004 moving its chitinous parts to its outside as a defensive shell to protect against outside attack.
Which could only mean -
A scream that turned Lakshmi's spinal fluid to liquid nitrogen pierced the air.
5760 was a white flash of teeth and claws, cutting the tendril of hair that ensnared Lakshmi with one quick swipe of its claws. Lakshmi felt a scuttling sensation, and saw dozens of the tiny skeletal creatures that lived the forest racing over her to defend their creator. Rodent skulls fused to lizard bodies chewed through insect pincers. Bird-squirrel hybrids pecked away at clumps of hair and chitin. The fight was punctuated by 5760's haunting yowls and the scrape of bone on keratin. The earth itself began to split, and a wall of bone rose in front of Lakshmi's eyes. The protein mass was beaten back by a monolith of porous calcium.
C'mon, Avery. Hang in there.
The wendigo creature's blows sounded weaker, and its yowls had changed to whimpers of pain. She could see 8004's iridescent blackish ooze burning through 5760's pelt.
All at once, there was a crash and a storm of heavy-booted footsteps, and the staccato shouts of security forces. Gunfire, and the hiss of chemicals.
5760 made its way over to her, limping heavily.
Gonzalez knelt beside her, presses a syringe into her neck. "Don't worry, kid," he murmurs, scooping her up in his arms like a bride, "we've got you. You're going to be just fine."
Gonzalez was waiting in the chair in the infirmary when she woke. His left eye was covered by a bandage, and his left arm was in a sling.
"How long have you been here?"
"Eh, just a few hours. I was asleep for most of it. The doc told me not to do anything too strenuous, so I figured I'd check in on you, and the chair turned out to be really fucking comfy." Gonzalez grinned, looking a little ghoulish with his bruises and eyepatch.
"Is your eye okay?"
"Oh, yeah, it'll be fine in a week. Got a shard of keratin or some shit. Hurt like hell, but nothing time won't heal."
Lakshmi sat up. "Was anyone else hurt?"
Gonzalez's face went stony. "Yeah, actually. Three guys on security got liquified by that goddamn hairball. All good guys. Meyers and Reynolds both got caught. Meyers'll live. Reynolds died two hours ago. Barely recognizable. All that acid shit, you know? We sent his money to his mom back in Harlem. She thinks he died in a car crash. He died getting everyone else out of the wing. Couldn't fucking look me in the eye or speak a goddamn word to me without stammering, but…"
They sat in silence for a minute. Reynolds, dead.
Lakshmi couldn't decide whether or not to ask him about 5760.
She rescued you. You owe it to her to do this, at least.
"5760? Doing all right. Clever - she noticed the thing couldn't dissolve bone, so she managed to cover the thing in bone and trap it against the wall until we got here - like holding a cup over a spider. Came out of it pretty beat up, but nothing a good rest won't fix. Wanna see her?"
"I'd…I'd rather not.
"The thing saved your life, Agarwal. You owe it to her to go check up."
"Fine. But I don't have to enjoy it."
Lakshmi swung out of bed, only to nearly collapse. Gonzalez caught her, laughing, and handed her a crutch.
"Easy, tiger. Easy."
The walk to 5760's temporary enclosure was far too long and strained Lakshmi's already-sore muscles. It was worth it, however, when 5760 saw her and immediately started tail-wagging hard enough to make surgical equipment fall off tables. It was the first time Lakshmi had laughed in quite a while.
"I'll leave you two alone," Gonzalez said. Lakshmi knelt on the jumbo-sized air mattress they'd laid down, across from 5760. Lakshmi expected to feel awkward, but instead, it was surprisingly easy to be this close.
Saving someone's life will do that, it seems.
"How're you feeling?"
"I'm fine. I've coughed up hairballs worse than that thing."
"Only cats do that."
"Really, though - how are you doing?"
"I'm okay. Sore, though. You?"
"I'm totally fine. Thanks to you."
There was something there, on the tip of her tongue, something at once fragile and urgent, but Lakshmi either didn't have the words or couldn't bring herself to say it.
She patted 5760's head once, then rose to go.
"You - you called me Avery. When we were in the forest. You've never done that. Not here."
"I - I just - I - "
5760 shifted. She leaned to cup Lakshmi's face, traced her cheekbone ever so gently with one clawed toe.
She should step away. A day ago, she would have stepped away. But Lakshmi put a hand over 5760's - Avery's - paw, closed her eyes, and held it closer. She stepped forward and leaned so that their foreheads were just touching.
I could stay like this. Touching her.
She climbed on next to Avery, who put one arm around her and pulled her close. Avery smelt like snow and pine needles and musk. "I missed lying next to you," she murmurred in Lakshmi's ear. "I missed the way your hair feels. The way your skin smells. Are you still using the same shampoo from college?"
"It's good for my hair."
Avery laughed, and it's the first time Lakshmi wasn't jarred by the dissonance of the fanged maw and the bell-like sound. "You're so cute when you're defensive," Avery said, ears twitching with mirth. Avery leaned forward and touched the very tips of her teeth to Lakshmi's lips. "I would kiss you if I could," she whispered, "but this will have do."
But then there are footsteps outside and is that the door opening and oh god, what are we doing? "I have to go," she stammers while springing away, "thank you for saving me," - don't think of Reynolds don't look back at Avery - and leaves in a rush.
She dreamed, that night, of bone-white fur, and woke up restless, frozen and searing all at once.
After she'd had her morning coffee, though, she shed the dreamlike state.
What was I thinking!? They could have footage on security, Ethics could be coming for me right now…Okay. We'll tell them it was just weird stress responses. It's just. A natural human reaction. Post-traumatic experience, people tend to have great affection for their rescuer. That's all. You don't feel that way about her - it. You don't actually have feelings for it.
She would have to be more careful from now on. She couldn't have them thinking she had feelings for 5760. Perhaps more importantly, she couldn't have 5760 thinking she had feelings for 5760.
5760 perked up immediately when she entered, and it broke Lakshmi's heart just a tiny bit.
"Hi!" she - it chirped when she walked in. 5760 rose and hugged her tightly. Lakshmi didn't return the embrace.
"Hello, 5760," Lakshmi replied. 5760's ears drooped noticeably.
"Everything's perfectly fine, thank you. I'm afraid I need to clear up some misconceptions. About what may have transpired between us last night."
5760 flattened its ears. "Okay."
"I just want to make it very clear that any…affection I may have shown you was merely a product of gratitude and stress. I have no romantic feelings for you whatsoever."
"Seriously? You expect me to believe that?"
"I don't know what else to tell you."
"Look, are they making you say this?
"I'm doing this of my own free will."
"I can't accept that."
"You have to," she said, and turned away.
"I thought there was something between us. A little bit. Maybe not now, but…at some point."
"You were mistaken."
"C'mon, Lakshmi. Last night - you let me hold you. You came to me. You didn't have to, but you did anyway. Don't tell me that doesn't mean anything."
"It was a natural response to a traumatic event," she snapped. "I'm on your research detail, 5760. Do you really need that explained to you, what that means? Because it means I don't care about you. That's what it means."
5760 looks at her blankly. "Go," it said finally.
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
"Just go. I'll be fine. I don't want to deal with this right now, okay? Just let me sleep."
Lakshmi didn't think twice as she left 5760 alone in the forest and locked the door behind her.
"Hi, 5760," she called into the forest. No response. It had been a week since their last meeting. Lakshmi wasn't entirely certain how receptive SCP-5760 would be to her presence.
"Don't take it personally." Gonzalez's voice crackled in her headset. "It had a rough night - whatever's trying to possess it was laying low for the last month or two, but it resurfaced tonight with a fucking passion. Nobody was hurt, but there was a hell of ruckus. It managed to gain control in time to save three researchers and an agent, but the thing didn't like that. It kept bashing itself into the walls, cutting itself - we think as punishment." Gonzalez spat the word out. "We had to sedate it in order to treat it. It's sleeping right now."
This is my fault.
"I'll be quick, then." She tried and failed to keep the guilt from her voice.
Lakshmi picked her way past shrubbery made of metatarsals and found 5760 sleeping with its nose tucked under its tail.
This would be a hell of a lot easier if it didn't look so much like an overgrown puppy sometimes.
As she knelt down beside it, it cracked open one bleary eye.
"Hey," she whispered. "Didn't mean to wake you."
Avery always was a terror in the mornings.
"I just wanted to apologize. For earlier. I just..I said some things I shouldn't have. I didn't mean what I said, abut you not…I was angry and I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me. I regret it. I wish I'd never said any of it. And before you say it was fine, it wasn't. And I understand if you don't want to talk to me, and…"
"No. 's fine. 'pology 'cepted. Woulda done same."
"I'll leave you to your nap, then," Lakshmi said, patting it on the skull before starting to creep away.
A rustle. 5760 cocked its head ever so slightly. "Stay?"
"Of course. Of course I'll stay."
"Th'nk." Lakshmi knelt and allowed 5760 to rest its head in her lap. She stroked its head gently until its slow, even breathing had drowned out the never ending chatter of the skeletal forest.
In spite of herself, before she left, she planted a quick kiss on 5760's skull, right between its antlers.
"Gonzalez," she called, not bothering to knock, "I know I'm early, but you said you wanted to see me -" But Gonzalez was gathering his things from his desk and packing them in a cardboard box. He looked up and gave her a wry smile. "Actually, Chief of Security wanted to see you. That's not me anymore. When an overgrown hairball escapes from the cell you built for it special so it wouldn't escape, you lose a lot of job security."
A woman with skin like coal and eyes like onyx walked in, dreadlocks braided back impeccably.
"Dr. Agarwal, I presume."
"I'm Monika Lowell. New chief of security."
"I'll be out of here," Gonzalez said, pushing through the door with his shoulder.
"Sit, Doctor," requested Lowell, and Lakshmi sat.
"Gonzalez gave me a summary of the current containment procedures for 5760," she said. Lakshmi nodded. "It seems to me your initial concerns were completely legitimate. Ethics will certainly be hearing about this." Lakshmi's stomach dropped. "I'm taking you off of 5760's research detail," Lowell continued.
Lakshmi had always known this would happen, in the back of her head. The idea was a relief, and yet…
"I'm not certain that's a good idea," she managed.
"The fact is, you never should have been on it in the first place."
"I don't think you understand -"
"Gonzalez told me all about their experiments with 5760. But he forgot that we don't cater to anomalies just because they threaten us. Also, the blatant disregard for professionalism - I mean, it used to be your partner. There's no way you could ever be objective."
Lakshmi was silent. She couldn't protest, because that would be evidence of attachment. It would be easier to just acquiesce. To give in. And didn't she want this? But when she tried to open her mouth to agree, she could feel those pale green eyes watching her.
I thought there was something between us, she'd said, quiet and resigned. And she'd been right.
"I'll let you know what the new containment procedures will be so you can approve them, seeing as you have a history with 5760. After that, you'll be reassigned."
She merely nodded, and begged Avery not to judge her.
What choice do I have?
End of Part 4
Part 5: I Slip, I'm Still An Animal