Iris had been trying to reach through a photograph for the last several hours.
It was an ordinary photograph. She'd taken it with her own camera a few minutes ago, as she had done with the last few dozen photographs. And yet, when she tried to reach through, she had difficulty. Sometimes her hand just wouldn't go through. More often, what came through was a phantom version of her hand: hazy, flickering, difficult to see.
She tossed the photograph onto the desk, groaning in frustration. The nameless researcher assigned to monitor her training raised an eyebrow. "Need a break?" he asked laconically.
Iris shook her head. "I want some answers."
"Well, physiologically, you're fine," the researcher said, tapping the back of his pen against his clipboard. "So the problem must be psych—"
"That's not what I mean," Iris interrupted. "I want some answers. Some real answers Like, who's in charge of this thing? Who's the new General Bowe?"
"That's… most probably classified."
"Probably?" Iris glared at the researcher. He shrugged back. She wanted to slap the smile off his bland face. "I want to see him," she said.
"I don't think that's really necessary." Researcher No-Name smiled politely. "Why don't we give it another try? Repeat from the top of Exercise November Six?"
Iris shook her head. "No. I'm done here." She stood and walked to the doorway. There was a security camera above it: she looked straight into the dark, unblinking lens. "I know you're out there," she said, "and we need to meet. I need to talk to you, or this whole thing is going to fail."
Somewhere else, 'The New General Bowe' woke up at an unknowable time, a million miles away from her body. The real world was loud, but unintelligible, across a foggy chasm. Light thought her heart might be racing, but it was hard to tell.
What triggered it this time? A dream, maybe. She tried to think back, and only got vague nonsense: images of images of blood and grabbing with faint overtones of you fucked everything up…
The timing could not be random. The announcement about Alpha-9's approval by the Overseer Council came through last night. She'd stayed up for four hours making phone calls, and she couldn't remember what happened after that, so, yeah, that must been it.
For an unknown length of time, she sat upright in bed, arms wrapped around her body, numb and unresponsive even through two alarms and a ringing phone. Funny how she could be the very picture of composure during a crisis, but wait until her brain spat out the wrong image while she was sleeping and the world may as well be ending.
At some point, Vaux, her assistant, knocked on the door to make sure she was alive and to tell her that she was fine, that nothing urgent was happening right now, and that he'd rescheduled aside her morning appointments and would come by later with food and coffee. Then he left her alone to ride it out.
She often wondered what amazingly selfless deed she'd ever done to deserve that man.
At around twelve, Light finally appeared in the office, foggy and raw but mostly in her skin again.
Vaux looked up from a nest of paperwork that he'd been slogging his way through like a champion. "How are you?" he asked politely.
"No unusual symptoms," Light said. "Normal, mostly. The blood test—"
"Medical's expecting you any time."
She nodded. "Good. Thanks. Thank you."
Vaux smiled, and said something she didn't quite process. Light flexed her left hand, hoping she hadn't sprained it again while dissociating wildly. She hated physical therapy. "What's going on?" she asked.
"You still have two meetings today that I couldn't get rid of," Vaux said. "Aktus sent you some files on his latest reports. We have more news from the O5 Council, and you have to meet with the other Directors about those tomorrow. And Kain arrived here early this morning."
"Cain with a C or a K?" Light asked.
"Kain with a K. Dr. Elliott and Director Moose are with him. They wanted to see you, but I told them you were on the phone with an O5."
"Thanks. What else?"
"You were also scheduled to meet with Cain with a C. But Director Moose tried to pull some strings to get herself assigned to bring him in to Alpha-9. I let her succeed. She's already done, and he's on board. The report summary's in your inbox. Your first meeting is with Director Moose. She says she has a concern."
"She wouldn't say. If I had to guess, it's probably about Alpha-9 in general."
Light nodded. "Cain — SCP-073 — I'll need to go see him myself soon."
"Already scheduled for next week."
"Thanks. Who's my second meeting with?"
"Uh." Vaux checked his notes. "Tav-666."
Vaux turned out to be right about Director Moose, as he usually did.
Two minutes after 1 PM, Director Light walked into the meeting room, dressed in her standard uniform: white oxford shirt, black slacks, neat wingtip shoes, dark circles under her eyes.
Director Moose was already there, pacing on the other side of the room, an ill-fitting suit draped over her too-tall frame. The dark circles under her eyes matched Light's. The woman with the funny name hadn't been expected to last long in her position as director of Site-19 — no one had lasted long, besides Strelnikov, who was supposed to be temporary, and who finally demanded to be replaced. Moose had lasted for over a year so far, but not without the job taking its toll.
The only other thing in the room was a brown, wrapped package.
"I obtained the items you asked about," Moose said, without preamble. "They're… close to your specifications. It wasn't easy. But they will work, even for someone like you, who isn't a Type Blue. I checked them myself. There are instructions with the packaging."
"Thank you so much," Light said. "If there's anything I can do for you—"
Moose shook her head. "You already have. Thank you for letting me approach Cain."
"You should thank Vaux for that. The report says that went well."
"You got a report already?"
"Yet another thing I'm thanking Vaux for." Light took a seat. "What did you do to convince Cain to join?"
"I didn't have to do anything." Moose got a funny look on her face. "He agreed immediately. I admit, I was surprised. Given all the history there, with… with SCP-076-2, and Omega-7…"
Light thought about that. "Maybe the O5s asked him in the first place? I'm not going to complain about things going right for once."
"They won't stay that way," Moose said, dryly.
"Probably not." Light shrugged.
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Moose said. "About Alpha-9."
"They sent me the reports last week," Moose said. "I read them top to bottom. Looking for a good enough reason to recreate something as dangerous as Omega-7. What I found was a lot of political maneuvering, going back years, and Iris shooting some unidentified insurgents during an incursion on this Site. Nothing else. All quiet on the anomalous front. Yet Alpha-9 has been created anyway. As of last night."
"I have my own hesitations," Light said. "But I thought you'd be on board with the Foundation taking a different approach to using anomalies."
"Because I'm an anomaly myself? That is exactly why I think this is excessively dangerous."
Most people didn't know it, but Moose was what they called a Type Blue. A paranormal magician, in her life before the Foundation. Ex-Serpent's Hand.
"Don't misunderstand me," Moose said. "To borrow a phrase from others — extraordinary risks require extraordinary justification. I see the risk here. I don't see the extraordinary justification."
Light nodded. "It's the long-term risk, I think. Maybe even medium-term. Right? Our ordinary resources are stretched to their limits. Our anomalous resources are barely being tapped. And we're still identifying possible SCPs almost every day. Maybe we don't have the extraordinary justification right exactly now, but we will." She hesitated. "Unless the O5s know something we don't."
"You know I'm a Company woman," Moose said. "But for some people, that won't be good enough."
Light nodded. "Why didn't you refuse to participate on Alpha-9? You could have."
"Because I understand how anomalies work, out there in the real world," Moose said. "No one on your current field team even knows what a Type Blue is. I know you're considering Aleksander Foxx — and he also works for Marshall, Carter, and Dark. This is already a risk. If I can prevent it becoming a disaster, a least in some way, I'm obligated to try." She looked at Light. "I imagine that's why you're involved in this, too."
She wasn't wrong. They were both quiet for a minute.
"A Factotum came to see me last night," Moose said, finally. "After the Council voted to approve Alpha-9. Called themselves Loyalty. Not very subtle."
"What'd they say?"
"They told me how Alpha-9 was approved," Moose said. "They told me it wasn't the Council's best judgment that let the vote pass. It was political wrangling. And existential fear, that none of them wanted to say outright. The Council was waiting for something like this to come along, and once it did, they only needed someone to say, well, here's a project we like. We'll run it. We'll take the fall if things go wrong. When things go wrong."
Moose paused again, staring at the table, tapping her fingers on the back of an empty chair.
"Was that me?" Light asked.
Moose shook her head. "Loyalty told me that it was a member of the Council. Who volunteered to take the fall if Alpha-9 turns out like Omega-7. They said it was O5-10."
O5-10? Light was slightly surprised. She'd only heard from O5-7 for the duration of this project.
But then, that made a certain amount of sense. O5-7 never seemed to be the type to put herself on the line for a project like this. That's why she had… well, people like Light. And Clef, before her…
"Why'd you request to bring in Cain yourself?"
"To rip the band-aid off." Moose paused. "And so no one else could fuck it up."
"This will have consequences," Moose said. "No one's forgotten Omega-7. Don't expect that to be a good thing."
"That's been on my mind," Light said. "We have a lot of preparation to take care of."
"I have to get back to work. Good luck, Director Light. I'll see you soon." Moose stopped tapping her fingers on the chair. "Don't delay. We may have less time than we think."
Light didn't plan to.
The next meeting, with Tav-666, came too quickly.
This time, sitting at the long conference table were the ugliest, most slovenly man in the world, and his polar opposite: attractive, neatly groomed, and female.
Light knew the man well. The woman, she knew of.
"Alto," Light said. "Sorry for keeping you waiting."
"Sophia," Clef replied, that rictuslike grin of his never leaving his face. "Allow me to introduce my former secretary and current protege, Andrea S. Adams."
"Adams," Light said, extending her hand in greeting. "I've heard quite a bit about you. Good work extracting Iris from that GOC snatch-and-grab."
Adams's lip twitched a bare millimeter at that as the two women shook hands. Clef's expression was… much more readable. "Apologies if I kept you waiting," Light continued. "You've heard the news?"
"The Overwatch vote? Yup! God help us all." Clef laughed.
"You weren't expecting it? From the orders…"
"The oh-fives will order any damn thing they think is a good idea," Clef said. "Or a bad one, if it's a Tuesday. Doesn't mean Last Hope wasn't going to be controversial. You ask me, I bet the vote barely slid past."
Light flexed her left hand, remembering what Moose had said. "Alpha-9 is still widely unpopular."
"You bet your ass. And now everyone's going to know about it."
She nodded. "In that case, we have a growing problem and I need your thoughts." Light opened a file on her tablet and turns it around to show the others. "Dr. Maynard Maddox, Site Director, Site 88. Agent Richard Gillian, Unit 18. There are more, and we don't know who they are."
"What are they?"
"Foxes in the henhouse."
Clef took the tablet and narrowed his eyes, looking them over. "Traitors. Known affiliations?"
"Gillian worked with an undercover op a few years ago that had some questionable encounters with the Insurgency. Maddox, not sure. Both of them leaked planted information, one of which led to an attack on Site-88 by unknown hostiles."
"There are more?" asked Adams.
"Yes. Most of them are biding their time. I was attacked at Site-77. SCP-1501 hadn't breached containment for months before that, and the investigation showed obvious signs of sabotage. It was an attempt on my life."
"No suspects?" Clef asked, passing the photos to Adams.
"Gillespie has assured me that the acting site director, her grandson Ralph Roget, is investigating," Light said.
"He's twenty-two." Light made a face. "I mean— I trust Gillespie's judgement— kind of— the point is, there are double agents perceiving Alpha-9 as an unprecedented threat. And they're waking up. It's a threat to the project as a whole, not just me. Can you look into this?"
"We can start with investigating all outgoing communications, plus people going off-site," Clef said.
"Is that feasible?"
"We have an asset that can handle it," Clef said, smirking. Adams flinched.
"Good," said Light. "Anything else?"
"Not much," Adams said, "but if you plan to get shot at more, you should look into buying a bulletproof vest. I hear they come in designer colors these days."
Light snorted. "Oh, sure. I'll look into it."
Clef accompanied her to the third meeting of the day. He kept up a stream of terse commentary all the way there, until they reached the secure conference room in the heart of Site-17. Security, secretaries, and anyone else without at least Level 4 clearance had been relegated outside for the next two hours.
Clef sounded even more displeased when he appraised the buffet spread, provided by site catering.
"There's a perfectly good IHOP in town," he said. "Why aren't we eating there?"
"What's wrong with the food?" Light asked. It had seemed good enough on the online menu.
"It's inedible, that's what." Clef put four biscuits on his plate. "It's not worth having a meeting anywhere if you can't order chicken and waffles, and get coffee spilled on you by a hungover waitress."
"What is it with you and meeting in diners? What is it with all of you and meeting in diners?"
"I don't like the formality," Site-77 Director Shirley Gillespie said, cutting in next to them. "Diners have coziness. You can have an honest chat if it's just two people in a booth. In a room like this…"
"…you have security." Light frowned. "For one."
"Are you that confident that none of our guards are Insurgency moles?" Clef looked at the room — or maybe it was just his plate — with distaste. "Let's just get this over with."
The three of them left the catering table to join the other directors. They were all here, in the expansive Site-17 meeting room, everyone who'd been invited to the first meeting. Besides Light, Clef, and Gillespie — and Director Moose, nodding to Light as she sat down at the table — there were Bright, Aktus, and two directors Light had just met: Jonathan Nardieu and Marcia Cortez.
One was prominent by her absence: RAISA Director Maria Jones was working on a number of secret assignments, and not just for Alpha-9; shortly after the word of Council approve, Jones sent Light a curt yet apologetic message saying she expected to be absent for a while. Light didn't hold it against her; Jones was the woman who'd had to close Omega-7's files, after all. All of this must be hitting close to home.
Clef walked around the table and punched Bright in the shoulder, and received a (mostly amiable) punch in return from the currently thirty-something Indian man. He sat down by Gillespie in a far corner, and took up a slouched pose that clearly communicated his intent to participate in nothing else beyond the substandard food on his plate.
Fair enough. He wasn't technically part of Alpha-9, after all. They'd had their real meeting already.
Clef wasn't wrong about security, Light reflected. Half the directors involved in Alpha-9 in a room together was the kind of thing that security did not recommend, and Light was inclined to agree. It would, however, be a necessary risk for this project. Speed was essential, and there was only so much you could do to protect teleconferences from intelligence leaks.
Light couldn't help but glance at Gillespie. It hadn't been long since the containment breach they'd been trapped in together, but Gillespie wasn't acting any differently at all. Her eyes were closed, and she was sipping her tea.
As for the rest, they were all engaged with their plates to varying degrees, but every once in a while, their eyes would flick over to glance at her. Sometimes their expressions were hostile. Other times, they were pitying. Mostly, though, they just seemed curious.
Light took a moment to slowly chew a piece of potato, swallowing it down despite a dry mouth and closed throat. She waited until a natural lull in the conversation to walk to the podium and adjust the mic. It let out a brief squeal of feedback, and the conversation ebbed.
"Thank you all for coming," she began. "As you know, Alpha-Nine has just been officially approved as a Mobile Task Force. All of you have a great amount of influence in the future of this project. This will in turn influence the future of the Foundation. Our first Asset, Iris, is in training now. There will be more."
She waited for any kind of response. There was none. "So. Um. Anyone have anything they want to discuss to start us off?"
A moment of silence. Then a middle-aged man raised his hand. "Yes, Director Nardieu," Light said.
Jonathan Nardieu nodded, got to his feet, and opened up a well-worn spiral-bound notebook. "Director Light," he said by way of greeting. "I've just been reviewing clips from SCP-105's training sessions," he said. "She's on a level with some of our MTF agents already, with only a month of training. It's almost as she has some form of photographic memory, if you'll pardon the pun. I wonder if it's natural, or some kind of secondary mutation of her anomalous ability…"
"Secondary mutation?" Bright scoffed. "What are you, twelve?"
"I don't see what you mean," Nardieu said, looking surprised to be contradicted.
"That's literally X-Men terminology, and you damn well know it."
Marcia Cortez spoke up. "I agree with Jack," she said. "We need to be careful with our terminology. If this experiment is going to work, we need to stay as professional as possible…"
"If she is a superhero, she's a broken one," Moose interjected. "Her abilities haven't been functioning at their prior baseline in the last few days since the Coalition encounter."
"Spooked, perhaps," Aktus suggested. He'd been the first to arrive at the table this morning, but this was the first he'd looked up from reading the files on his tablet. "That incident was highly unusual. Even more so than that unresolved containment breach which started this whole mess."
"Maybe she's faking it again," Cortez suggested.
"Glass's psych assessment says she's not," Nardieu said.
Cortez shook her head. "Glass was always too sympathetic to humanoid skips." She shot Bright a look that seemed oddly apologetic. Bright didn't seem to notice, concentrating on his meal.
"Iris Thompson is just a girl with a special ability," Nardieu said. "She can't be that dangerous to us. We all deal with worse on a daily basis."
"… nukes disguised as Girl Scouts," Clef muttered.
"Excuse me?" Nardieu asked.
"I said, don't underestimate the damn Skip just because it looks like a pretty girl," Clef snapped. "Iris Thompson is dangerous. The only question is whether she's dangerous to us or the enemy."
"Well, maybe if you didn't treat her like a caged beast—"
"Let's get back on task," Light said. "Iris's performance has degraded. It could just be because she hasn't used her abilities in a long time. It could also be due to the phases of the moon or the alignment of the planets or something else we will never know. As it currently stands, we just don't have enough data. So let's move on." She turned to the other side of the conference room. "Gillespie, Aktus, what's the status on the other projects for Alpha-9?"
Gillespie put down her glass and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. "Most of the usable objects at my disposal, in Site-77, were denied. I have a few…. grey cases, where our previous research indicates a potentially smooth transfer to more violent means. But other than that, a lot of rejections."
Aktus nodded. "My recommendations were largely vetoed as well, despite your sign-off. Unfortunately I don't have much more to add yet, though I've received a new list of anomalies to assess."
"For whatever that's worth," Nardieu said. "I don't mean to complain, but… between all of us, we requested access to over two hundred SCP items. Our list now is… Do we even have half a dozen? Besides Iris, we have Cain, a broken reality bender, a severed hand…"
"Brain in a jar and apocalypse explorer?" Nardieu asked. "All right, not bad, but it's still only two…"
"… however," Aktus continued, glaring at the younger man, "that doesn't include secondary anomalous assets that don't fall under Special Containment Procedures, and can thus have fewer barriers to overcome. Andrea Adams and her suit. Professor Crow and his projects. This Foxx fellow. The Alexandra A.I.. Chelsea Elliott. Everett Mann. Kiryu's butterflies…"
"Technically, myself," Moose said dryly. "Given that I'm a Type Blue." Nardieu and Cortez looked blank. "GOC term. Means once upon a time I cast a whole lot of magic spells. In case any of you didn't know that I'm ex-Hand." She took a drink. "And there's you, Bright."
"No," Bright said. "Neither of us are anomalous weapons, or Alpha-9 assets. I'm here in my capacity as Personnel Director. And I think it's for the best if this… task force… stays small. It's already bigger than Omega-7 ever was."
"Weren't you on Omega-7?" Nardieu asked.
"No, I was not," Bright said. "As Personnel Director, I was part of the group dealing with new additions to Omega-7."
"Omega-7 had so few anomalies, though." Nardieu frowned.
"Yes," Bright said. "There was a reason for that. Just like this task force already has too many anomalies. They're probably going to give us more, but we don't need more. At all."
"It's a fairly big vote of confidence that they assigned us Cain," Aktus said, interrupting. "You know how the Council feels about him."
Gillespie looked down at her glass. "I can't say I'm sure that we should return to putting anomalies in charge of anomalies, besides the obvious exception of Dr. Bright. But Iris? One would think with a project like this, we could find someone with more experience to act as Team Leader."
"I agree," Bright said. "But it doesn't matter. The order to put Iris in charge comes from above. Nothing we can do about it."
"She's only in charge of a team," Aktus said. "She's not in charge of Alpha-9. That's us."
"I really think there's no cause for worry here," Nardieu said. "Just look at those videos. She's a perfect fit. I think—"
"We know what you think." Bright didn't look up from his food. "You're practically drooling."
"Excuse me?" Nardieu clenched his fist around his fork. "Are you accusing me of unprofessional behavior? Because if so, I want—"
"No one's accusing anyone of anything," Light cut in. "It was a bad joke. Right, Jack?"
"The worst," Bright agreed.
"Good. Now that's settled, is there anything else?"
"There's another issue on the table," Nardieu said. "Iris… asked to see the 'new Bowe'." He looked at Light. "I think that means you."
Light looked down at her tablet. There was a video clip still playing there, in which a pixelated blonde figure plunged her hand through a polaroid picture, and the ghost of a hand re-emerged several feet away. "I know," she said. "I should have done it sooner."
"I'm not sure we should expand our personal contact with these anomalies so quickly," Cortez said, frowning.
Light shrugged. "Maybe not. But if we can't trust Iris, this project was doomed from the cradle. I'll talk to her."
"Charles Vaux? You're Light's secretary."
Vaux looked up at the attractive woman in the slate-grey suit, who had appeared in the room across from him. "Oh— Agent Adams. I didn't know you were here."
"Oh, sorry. Old habit," Adams said. "What's your dog's name?"
"It's cute. Foundation bred?"
"Yep. She was trained for security and then as a sniffer, but… Too friendly."
"I can tell. She looks like a sweetie. May I?" When Vaux nodded, Adams leaned down and gave the pit bull a friendly pat on the head. Mango grinned and panted, then rolled over onto her back for a well-appreciated tummy rub.
Vaux smiled serenely. "Did you want something, Agent?"
"I had a question about your boss," Adams said, kneeling beside the dog.
Vaux frowned. "About Light?"
"Let me get to the point. You know what Tav-666 is."
"I do," Vaux said.
"You know what our job is."
"Alright. We're aware that you arrange some kind of medical service for Dr. Light on a semi-regular basis, often after she's taken some time off work. You've been careful to keep it off the files. This raises some concerns."
Vaux frowned. "I'm not at liberty to discuss my boss's medical issues."
"She on drugs? Painkillers, something stronger?" No response. Adams charged on. "Charles… can I call you Charles?"
"No," Vaux said.
"All right, then. Mister Vaux, as far as we know, Clef and I are the first ones to learn about this. If she's got something going on, we need to know, because there are people out there who can find out and use this against her."
"Ask her yourself."
Vaux was stony-faced.
"Look," Adams said, "You tell me right now, just between two coworkers, and you won't get in trouble for this. Your boss might not get in trouble for this. Hell, we may not even have to report this to the Overseers, depending on what it is. But if you don't tell me under the table, then I need to do an official investigation. And then people will get in trouble."
Vaux twitched. Mango sat upright, ears low, shoulders raised. She pulled away from Adams and trotted over to Vaux's side, resting her head on his knee. Vaux gently reached out a hand and patted his beloved dog's head. "Dr. Light has a mental health condition that occasionally causes her to become confused about reality," he said slowly. "This is in her medical file."
"The effects of this can be similar to mind-altering substances the Foundation employs. So for… a while, Light's been having me run tests for amnestics after her episodes. More recently, drugs and poisons. Either way, you can imagine why she'd prefer not to let the council — or anyone — know."
Adams nodded again, slowly. "Ever had a positive result?"
"Not yet. But Alpha-9's only been in the works for a month."
Adams nodded yet again. "If you ever get a hit, let me know."
Vaux smiled, hand wrapped around Mango's leash, the very picture of compliance. "You'll be the second person I tell."
They took Iris from her containment cell early in the morning, and marched her across the Site and into an office she'd never seen before. The office was barren, but the furniture was nice, and the room large. Someone important, then. A director.
Iris knew that Site-17, like its big sister Site-19, had offices for far many more directors than just the current person in charge. The Foundation's biggest sites couldn't be run by just one person. Last she'd heard, Site-17 didn't even have a single official director. So this could be anyone.
Once Iris was seated, a black man holding the leash of a service dog, opened the office door. A white woman entered behind him. She recognized neither.
"Iris," said the woman. "It's very good to meet you." She was short, scarred, unsmiling, had her hair pulled back out of her face. She could have been from the military, but if this was who Iris suspected, she wasn't.
"You're Bowe," Iris said.
"Not quite." The woman looked surprised, and almost smiled. "I'm Sophia Light. I'm the director of Alpha-9."
They shook hands firmly but briefly.
"I've heard of you," Iris said. "You're a researcher."
"I have been," said Light. She sat. "I have a background in microbiology and infectious diseases. For the last, hm, three years, I've been the director of a small site up in Svalbard."
Those islands north of Norway, Iris recalled. She'd been there. "Do you have polar bears up there?"
"Now and then. The site is mostly underground, so it's not an issue." Light paused. "My assistant told me I should have them trained as guards. As they say in research files, 'This was not attempted.'"
"I could be wrong, but— I don't think there was a site there, when I was in Omega-7."
Pandora's Box had gone there once, and since there hadn't been a local site, they'd flown into Longyearbyen. She'd wandered the streets with the other humans on the team, past the colored houses and flying metal tramways. Sharp, smooth brown mountains and the smell of the sea.
Able had stayed with the plane. He didn't do tourism.
"You're right," said Light. "Svalbard is one of a dozen multi-object sites constructed in the last five years."
Iris took that in. "O5-10 told me that they're finding anomalies at a record rate."
"We have to put them somewhere."
Iris nodded. There was silence for a moment.
Light spoke again. "How, um. What do you think of the training so far?"
"I, uh." Iris stopped. What did she think about it? "It's, uh. I like having my camera back. And all this new technology is amazing. Digital televisions. iPhones."
Light nodded. "What about your recent difficulties with your ability?"
"I don't know." She kind of wished she were back in her cell. It was a thought that had been intruding often lately — she didn't want it, but there with her blankets and books and the heater turned up to a comfortable level, just her — there in her cell, there in her box — it was a strange thought.
She pushed it away, suddenly tired. "Does it matter? I'm not faking it. I know I'm not getting out and I've spent most of my life here now. That I can remember. I'm not trying to get out, I just want to know. Does this team really need me?"
"I don't want to add too much pressure, but you are the reason the team exists. What you can do has inspired the whole project."
"That— that— that's not—" Iris sputtered and cut off, and couldn't keep from shuddering. "That's too much."
Light raised her hands. "Sorry," she said. "That's. Not quite what I meant."
"Isn't it? You brought all of this together, because you knew I would do— I mean, you thought I could—"
She didn't want to finish any of those thoughts here, now. Iris launched herself out of her chair and paced the length of the office. She half expected the guards from outside to rush in and restrain her. Director Light twitched, but didn't otherwise react.
"Iris," Light said, slowly. "What I mean to say is yes. Alpha-9 does need you."
Light sighed. "Because you're the only anomalous survivor of Omega-7. Because you represent what might have been, the first time, if we'd done things right. Because you know what this is like, in a way no one else does. Because there is no one else quite like you in the Foundation. We have to have someone, and you're the best someone we have. We— I— want to help you."
"Help me what? Perform better in the field?"
"That or anything else," said Light. "What do you need? What do you want to know?"
"That's a hell of a question." Iris stopped pacing, and took a few breaths. "When Adams took me out, last month, to those bars. That was real, right?"
"It wasn't staged. I mean— No, no, of course it wasn't." Iris ducked her head into her hand, clenched her teeth.
"I chewed Clef out myself afterward," said Light. "Not that Adams shouldn't have done it. She should have told me, and I would have told her to bring additional security. But it certainly happened. What makes you say that?"
"It felt fake," Iris said. She lifted her head from her hands, and stared at a spot on the wall instead.
"No, go on," said Light.
"Like, um." Iris swallowed. "I've spent the last seven years in a box. It's a fancy box, but it's not the real world. And then suddenly you need my help with something, I get dragged out and get to see the real world again, and… it feels like somewhere fictional. A movie set. The moon."
Light nodded. "Not that different from here."
"I don't know. Maybe I was too excited for it. Maybe I just thought it would be different."
Light nodded, slowly. "Sometimes when the Foundation recruits new staff, they give them Class-A amnestics. Wipes them clean. They claim it's cleaner, easier to train the agents, reduces possible objections to the line of work. It happened to friends of mine. I've never liked that approach."
Iris' gut twisted. She'd heard about that, but no one had really wanted to discuss it. Certainly not a director. "Because it's horrific?"
"I don't even think it's very effective. To be a part of the Foundation, you have to protect. To be good at it, you have to have a vested interest in the world out there. Know that it's worth fighting for. When you take that away, they're just following orders."
Iris sighed. "Good thing your agents aren't your objects, then."
"They are as of now," said Light. "Iris, we need to do better by you. And we, the people in power, need to make that work. Hell, even if your abilities went away tomorrow, you have insight into Omega-7 and where it went wrong. You know what we've done wrong by SCPs before. So, listen. It'll be alright."
"How can you be sure?"
"I can't," Light said. "But I can do everything in my power to make it so. And so can you."
"You're not just an object," Light said. "We didn't need to make you the leader of an Alpha-9 team. We chose to do that partly because it's where you would be if you were any other agent." She smiled. "Well, any other agent with your unique capabilities. My point is — You're part of the Foundation, as much as we are."
Iris didn't know if she believed Light — in fact, she didn't. This seemed like another manipulation, even if Light herself was genuine. They'd manipulated Able, too, given him control over the makeup of the Omega-7 strike team, let him strut around Site-17, indulged his homicidal desires, so long as he was useful, until they couldn't keep him entertained any longer, and she…
No, no. Don't think about that again. Not now.
Did it matter either way? She didn't know how she felt about all this. Besides tired.
"What are you going to do?" asked Iris.
"First, you're going to take a break. From anything testing-related. Even if you come back and it's back to square one, that's fine. We all need time off."
"I thought you researcher types never did that." Iris almost smiled. Even knowing that it was a ploy for her favor, well, it kind of worked. She could use a respite.
Light leaned back in her chair, fiddling with a pen and staring off. "As for the near future… I have a few ideas."
"Perhaps you'd like to meet an old friend?" Light asked.
"Iris, this is SCP-073."
"Hi," she said, nervously. She hadn't seem him since… since.
"Hello, Iris," Cain said. He smiled gently. His eyes looked so old and sad, despite the youth of his other features. He was like him, but older, more worn, more warm.
Director Moose was watching them closely. Iris glanced at her. She gave a little shrug. "I know the two of you have met already," she said. "073 is going to be helping us. Among other things, he's going to be interviewing everyone after each mission. Get impressions of how things went, what things went well, and where we could improve."
"And remember," she said.
"We've done this dance before," Cain said. "The tempo's changed, but it's still our song."
"How have you been?" she asked, her voice low and soft. Her eyes stung slighly.
"I've been well. Not terribly busy. I like the quiet. I missed you, though."
Suddenly, the tears fell freely, and she embraced the old man. "I missed you too," she said. "I never got to say goodbye. Not even to you."
He held her, awkwardly at first, then more warmly, or as warmly as his metal arms would allow. "It's okay. We're here now."
"Ready," Iris said.
"Begin," the researcher replied.
She dropped to one knee, raised the camera, and braced her elbow against her knee, thumbing the telephoto control as she did so. A quick snap of the shutter button, and she ducked back behind the wall, waiting for a few eternal seconds as the image downloaded to the iPad.
Once it did, she could identify the keys on the hook. The image was a bit blurry, but she was still able to make out the room numbers on the green tabs. She pushed her hand through the screen and gently unhooked the key labeled "207" from the pegboard. Slowly, carefully, she carried it across the room and dropped it into the mail slot of the hotel room door.
A man in black tactical gear grabbed the keys before they could even hit the ground. Silently, the team made their way up to the second floor of the shoot house, pausing at each door to check for ambush.
Finally, they made it to the motel room marked "207." The point man raised a small video camera up to the window, swore softly. "Claymore mine attached to door," he whispered over the comm.
"Send me the still," Iris said.
"Wait one… transmitting," the point man whispered.
Iris thumbed a control on her iPad, waited a moment for the picture to download. Sure enough, there was indeed a claymore mine facing the doorway, rigged to a wire attached to the door. "Damn," she whispered. "I don't think I can disarm the trigger."
"Should we go loud?" the point man asked.
"Wait one," Iris whispered back. She searched the photo carefully and smiled. "Get me a zoom shot of the full-length mirror," she said. "I can see the back of the claymore from there…"
They were standing in Nardieu’s office.
“It worked?” asked Cortez.
“It worked,” said Nardieu. “Very clever.”
Light shrugged. “Her meeting Cain was going to happen anyways.”
“So you allowed it to happen at such a time that Iris thought she was being rewarded,” Cortez said. “For once, Nardieu and I are in agreement— that is clever.”
Light snorted. “That’s too clever for me. I may have suspected it would help. And expedited the process.”
“I’m just glad it worked,” said Nardieu. He threw up his arms. “We finally have a success under our belt— Last Hope will fly yet. Could I offer either of you a drink? No? Well, I’m meeting my secretary, you’ll have to excuse me. Let me know if you need me.”
They watched Nardieu wave off a security escort as he left.
“Are all the Site-17 directors this unprotective of their space?” asked Light.
“Not really,” says Cortez. “But you have to have a certain amount of trust to co-direct a site like Seventeen. And as far as he trusts me, he trusts you even more.”
“Really?” said Light. “Why?"
“Because you're directing his dream task force. And you're famous.”
“Oh. Jesus. Director Cortez, I just wanted to say that I understand your reservations about Alpha Nine. They’re absolutely reasonable. But I want to thank you for your help and resources. Your expertise.”
Cortez shrugged and chewed on her lip. “If the Fivers weren’t breathing down my neck, it might be different.”
“Of course. Nonetheless. Also, sorry for turning your site into a zoo.”
“You said it’ll move out eventually?”
“One way or another.” said Light. “I’m working on it. Have a good evening, Cortez.”
“And you, Dr. Light.” Cortez sat down to go through files. Light let herself out.
“Escort to Personnel, please,” she told the guard outside the door. Her own two guards, recruited from separate sites and personally recommended by O5-7, did unfortunately have to sleep. If Vaux was around when she got there, she'd have him take notes. If not, half an hour on the treadmill might do her good. Her head was buzzing.
Their draft list of anomalies was ready now. It wasn’t set in stone yet, and even if the anomalies themselves agreed, there were directors and researchers and other interested parties to assuage.
“Elevator or stairs, Director?” asked the guard.
“Stairs,” said Light. It was just one story, if she remembered correctly. She’d give Clef or Adams— no, definitely Adams— a crack at the new recruits, too. Let No Name Given prepare. God knows they’d need it.
Something brought her out of her reverie— the guard was behind her, and walking too slow, or maybe too quickly. Light glanced around, suddenly aware that she was a small woman alone with a larger man behaving unexpectedly. Aside from the two of them, the stairwell was completely empty.
Her pace must have changed— he knew that she knew.
The guard muttered “This is for Asher,” before kicking her down the stairs.
She tumbled and bounced. Her skull clattered on concrete. Stars flickered in her vision as she slammed into the wall at the bottom of the landing. It almost hid the jagged line of his tactical knife.
The guard’s footsteps were heavy and measured on the stairs, coming closer. She wheezed and coughed. When he got close, she reared onto her knees and knocked him backward.
Back on her feet. He grabbed her left wrist, the one in a brace. Oh, no—
Light’s brain flooded with adrenaline. She suddenly found herself cringing and saying “Nonononono–” out loud, which was highly embarrassing—
— then wonder of wonders, maybe out of surprise, the guard actually let go—
By the time she re-oriented, he had moved in and grabbed her upper arm, but that was manageable. She stomped onto his instep (he wears boots so it won’t break bone, but he’s distracted), kneed his groin (his grip loosens), swung a fist lazily at his head, and reached into her pocket. He reached up to catch the blow—
— and Light pepper-sprayed the shit out of him.
(Run, now— guards are trained with capsaicin spray so I have maybe ten seconds before—)
Light fished in her pocket again and pulled out a small bracelet made of blue feathers, courtesy of Director Tilda David Moose.
She put it on, and turned invisible.
At 6:38 PM local time, Site Security was alerted that one of its guards has gone AWOL and attacked a member of senior staff. They received this alert when said member of senior staff materialized outside their office. The rogue operative was found and apprehended.
Sophia Light was assigned to a saferoom, and her personal guards summoned. A doctor inspected her, and she fielded a quick call from a distracted O5-7, who asked about her health and sounded like she was on the phone with two people at once. Cortez checked in as well, and apologized, which Light was rather touched by. Security for Site-17 launched an immediate investigation.
“Look for Asher,” Light told them. “He mentioned an Asher.”
Light waited in the saferoom for three hours, and tried not to completely space out, with mixed results. Her guards would understand, but it was embarrassing— and what if she couldn't trust them either? That had been entirely too close a call. While she grappled with paranoia, Site Security swarmed out to gather information: on the guard, on his plans, on potential allies or traps at the site.
Then they brought her what they found.
His name was Robert Blankenship, Level Two, and he left a suicide note in his room. He didn’t expect to survive his errand. In the letter, he described his brother, Asher Blankenship, recruited at the same time from the Navy in Whidbey Island, Washington, in 1999. They spent most of their careers with the Foundation in different places, but found ways to stay close nonetheless. Asher was an incredibly skilled marksman, Robert was merely adequate- both were extremely loyal.
Asher was recruited to Mobile Task Force Omega-7.
Able tore him in half.
The psych department thought Robert had worked through the trauma. They noted that he was assuaged when Omega-7 was shut down forever.
Light grimaced. “So when he heard it was being reformed—”
“He felt it was necessary to… take some kind of action.” Site-17’s security director came personally. He was a short, chagrined-looking man who couldn’t stop picking at his shirt collar.
“How sure are you of all of this? If he wasn’t working alone—”
“Everything checks out. He wasn’t, uh, well, all the weapons he was carrying were standard issue. Knew where you were— that was his clearance too. He used a scrubber to, uh, hide his image from the cameras once he went rogue, but it was a Foundation standard scrubber. So we could de-scrub it easily. The one he was wearing went missing from the site armory four days ago, which he had access to.”
“His plans after me?”
“He was going to take out as much of Alpha Niner’s infrastructure as possible and, uh, ‘make it on his own.’ His words.”
Light sighed. “So he was working entirely on his own. That's… some relief. I do appreciate your diligence. Do another loyalty check on your current guards when you can, please. I'll be changing my own safety habits. If he were a better assassin, I would be very dead right now.”
“Director? What should we do with him?”
“Robert Blankenship. We’re going to let him hang for a few more days to see if he says anything else. After that, uh, what do you want?”
Light squeezed her eyes shut. "Who else knows?"
"Nobody outside this room and three of my best staff. Word may still get out, though."
That sealed it. "Policy is clear. Termination."
The security director looked startled. “As you say, director.”
Maybe it was too far. She could have been merciful, but honestly, what did he expect? Seven’s guards flanked her as she went toward the saferoom exit. One of them held the door open. If you play with fire…
She stopped. “Did Asher Blankenship have any other brothers?”
“Uh… No more siblings.”
“Robert, or anyone else from Omega-7? Do they have living family or romantic connections at the Foundation?”
He gave her a long look. “I don’t know, Director. I’ll have a list sent to you.”
How long must that list be? Would it even be enough? What about friends? Co-workers? Light shut her eyes. She'd be on that list. Several times over.
“Thank you. That will be all.”