In The End
rating: +35+x

You've done a hundred rituals like this. You can tell something's off, different this time.

It's not the ritual. The ritual is the same, you're pretty sure. Not that you can be totally sure. You never remember exactly what you've done after, and not because of amnestics. Command never bothers to hand down amnestics. Things like what you're doing can't easily stay in human memory. Your brains aren't built for it. At least, not if you finish enough of the ritual to comprehend the result. You and your team of collaborators have an admirably high completion rate.

But while you can't recall exactly, the motions are familiar. The steps like muscle memory. The blood. The chanting. The casting of raw, fresh bones. The drawing of ever-more complex designs in substances you don't care to identify, handed to you by the pitiless white gloves of Command's Agents.

Agents theoretically just like you. Agents of the SCP Foundation. Except they're nothing like you. Such is the power of the hierarchies you never would've guessed existed before.

In another sense, they are exactly like you. In a very literal sense. You see your mirror, Command's second-in-command (heh), a grim person standing there, watching you, but with the lack of interest of a sated predator.

You're extra concerned by this. Not because your mirror is here. (No, you're the mirror. Not the other way around. They cast the reflections. You are all the reflected.) Mirrors are almost everyday at this point. You've personally killed a mirror of yourself (or someone you know, even someone you cared about, but only a mirror, only ever a mirror) more times than you care to remember.

That's your job. You're a Collaborator. You know how the universal hierarchies are set up, and you're doing what you can to keep everyone you know alive.

Why you're concerned: your mirror is here at all. Command doesn't usually bring agents from his neck of the woods. But besides your mirror, you count half a dozen more, recognizable as Command's people by their clothing. Three in grim labcoats over suits, three in military uniforms, all bearing Foundation insignia (far more ostentatious than your own familiar Foundation agents, or most of the mirrors you've ever seen). They're flanked by a cadre of black-suited, black-helmeted (telekill, they call it, and somehow their telekill doesn't seem to blow everyone up) Foundation Agents. (Mirrors, too? Who knows behind those helmets?)

Why are they here? They don't like to risk themselves, these people you never know what to call besides Overwatch, which used to mean something different, back when you still had a real O5 Command.

Maybe they're just here to observe business as usual. But you doubt that. Command is clearly restless. You don't like when he's restless.

You continue carrying out the ritual. The ritual is nearing completion. You retroactively recognize the eerie-yet-familiar flashes of light, the pits in reality that form and vanish before your eyes, the growing feeling like you're collectively grabbing a live wire out of the deep hidden circuitry of the universe. The vast artificial room (titanium alloy — why do they make everything out of titanium, anyway?) pulsing to the tune of an alien, arrhythmic heartbeat.

You steal another glance at your mirror. You wonder if you killed — what? your original? — if you would simply shrivel up or turn to dust or simply drop dead. You wonder if nothing would happen at all.

You can't be thinking these thoughts. You could never, ever, ever betray Project Palisade. Or you're the next stake in the wall.

Instead, you watch Li. She's new at this. This is her first time. She was doing alright earlier. As she dips her hand in the flowing blood, her hands are visibly shaking. You pity her. And envy her.

She doesn't have real blood on her hands yet. But she's about to.

The ritual is almost complete when Command barks the order to stop. We collectively stare at him like confused sheep.

"We're trying something different," Command says.

"Like what?" you blurt out. (It's always been your job to speak for the group, since Command's mirror — someone you cared for deeply — died during the first ritual your group ever carried out to completion.)

"It needs to be darker," Command says.

It's such a banal thing to say that you have no response.

"This," Command says. "This ritual. All this. It isn't dark enough. Not in a cosmic, or literal sense. It lacks impact. Real impact. We're going to make it darker."

Behind him, your mirror nods in agreement.

You look around. "Like, make it darker how? Paint everything black?"

He doesn't laugh at the joke.

"Bring in the subjects," he says.

They bring in the subjects. You start to feel sick as you watch. A group of children. No older than preteen. The youngest is barely walking. They're wide-eyed, baffled, scared.

"What are we supposed to do with them?" you ask.

He looks at you like you're stupid. "They're all virgins."

"Of course they're virgins," you say. "They're children."

Your mirror steps forward, removing a printed sheet from a set of file folders. Hands you the sheet.

You glance over it. Everyone else in your group is watching you.

"You can't be serious," you say.

"You will follow the updated test protocol," Command says. "You understand the consequences for ceasing experiment cooperation."

Of course you fucking understand. You're collaborators. You all understand what happens if you don't follow orders. Command has never had to keep you in line. You do it to each other. For the ones you left behind at home.

World after world after world, you stay in line.

It's ludicrous to balk at this, at something as small as this.

"Call up the first subject," Command says.

You call up the first subject. You think of the subject carefully as an "it". Dehumanization as a form of emotional removal. That's what the Foundation trains you to do. Both the Foundations.

A metal tool is being pressed into your hands. You find yourself frozen still. Dissociating.

You are dimly aware of more restlessness from the other agents from Overwatch.

"O5 won't like this."

"They knew this might eventually have to happen." Command.

"We have to at least try it." Your mirror. "They'll look the other way. We need results. We've gotten nothing good in a long time — we need to step up the game. We're erasing everything anyway." A long pause, then a whisper that you can still hear, as close as you are. "We've done so much worse than this, objectively speaking."

You will not stare at the test subject. The test subject is brave. The test subject is not crying.

Command is talking to you again.

"Remove the subject's leftmost phalanges as marked on the testing diagram."

You don't move.

"Remove the subject's leftmost phalanges as marked on the testing diagram."

You don't move. You can't do this.

Command repeats the sentence a third time.

You remember your home. Your loved ones. Your family, your co-workers, the annoying neighbors you used to hate. They seem far away. You don't know what will happen to them. Maybe it would be alright. Maybe it's not too late to stop.

You remove the subject's leftmost phalanges as marked on the testing diagram.

***

When it's over, and the subject lies in carefully separated pieces on the floor in a pool of liquid, you hardly believe what you've done, what you've gone through with.

You aren't looking at the other test subjects, but you can hear them (emitting distressed vocalizations, a voice says in the back of your head with the proper clinical remove). You notice that Li — poor Li — has passed out, slumped in a pool of ritual blood which now almost looks like it's coming from her body, her fingers (fingers) draped over a soiled paintbrush.

You cast your eyes distantly at your collaborators. You see the horror you expect. But you also see gratitude. Gratitude that you did this, not them.

Command shifts his shoulders. He hasn't looked up in quite some time, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on whatever is written on the files he's been holding in front of him.

"Call up the next subject," he says.

***

But you don't continue the experiment with the next subject.

You can't believe your eyes, because it's like something you could have once imagined. But not the kind of thing you expected to imagine again.

A blazing white light. Spreading wings.

Something like a sword.

You remember little except for the evacuation. In an orderly fashion. The blazing light hangs over the air, over the children, unmoving. The children are sobbing — fear? joy? — and you have no idea what emotions you are feeling, or even if you have any emotions left at all.

You are herded (Li is lifted) into low, gray vehicles stamped with the sign of the SCP Foundation.

You drive for several hours before you're hauled out into a gray, foggy day. Day has lasted too long. Somewhere where you weren't paying attention, Command slipped your group between worlds again.

Command and the other agents don't seem particularly angry with you. Which should come as a relief, but doesn't quite relief. You're having a hard time caring.

Command orders you to stay when he dismisses the rest of your group after the debriefing.

He doesn't say anything for a while, just paces around, fills out forms, types up file entries. You recognize that he's updating a test log and an administrative report, maybe even an addendum to an SCP article, the way you might once have done, the way some of your colleagues still do.

"It was a test," Command abruptly says to you. "To see how far we could go. Apparently we got our answer."

A long wait. Apparently he wants a response from you.

"It's my job," Command says. "Plenty of other teams out there working more mundane angles. Trying to find a way to stop the Worm. My job is to draw out divines. This was probably the most successful experiment I've ever had."

This is more than Command's ever told you before.

"What about the children?" you ask.

"The subjects? We could always have put them back together. We will put the initial subject together. It won't remember a thing."

You sit there, in awe somehow.

"We have the technology," he says. "Of course we do. We're not like your home Foundation. We never chained our hands. Do you really think you couldn't make a cure-all if you didn't have regulations against it?"

You don't know, but you doubt you'd like what it look would look like. You say something along those lines, but Command isn't listening. He's shaking his head.

"I know they like to plant these rules in your Foundations to limit the experiment parameters, but I always thought you'd be more effective if you were let off your leashes. Maybe you'd actually figure out how to stop the Worm. Of course… Maybe you'd figure out how to unravel our Palisade if you did. Turn it against us. Yes, I'd believe you'd do that first before stopping the Worm. Logically, it would be easier. Since we know how to do that, after all, and we don't know how to stop the Worm. I suppose you have to be kept in your place."

He expects you to react to that.

"They were children," you say.

"This shouldn't be a surprise. Your Foundation follows the same protocols. Don't think of them as people. They're fodder."

"Aren't we fodder too?"

He seems impatient. "You were. We made you people. We decided you are people, we decided you matter, and so you are, and so you do. Listen. Think of it as editing. A book, or a piece of art. You need to make the mistakes to figure out what you really want."

"Mistakes?"

"Yes."

You don't know what to say, so you don't say anything.

You wonder what you saw. An angel? A goddess?

You ask, "So you went so far that the literal forces of the universe decided to step in?"

Command shrugs. "They don't seem to object to massacring uncountable billions," he says. "The rituals work because they let them. It doesn't impress me that they draw a line at child torture."

You again don't have a response. Command doesn't seem to need one, now.

"Doomsday doesn't feel personal, I suppose," he says. "Listen. We had to bait them. We must find out why the Worm exists. We assume tampering with the forces behind existence will eventually let us figure it out. Or maybe one of your people will. Either way."

You still don't have an answer.

"We're the heroes, here." He smiles. A hint of irony, like he knows it's a cliche? "The gods or fate or the universe put us in this position. They created the scenario in which we did this. Isn't that endorsement enough?"

You don't understand why he even cares about endorsement at this stage.

He's getting excited again.

"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," he says. "Maybe the others are right. This little child-loving god or angel or whatever — it's small potatoes. I could make something more impressive in a fucking lab. Nothing compared to the Worm. Blessed be the children, who cares? Grimdark isn't sustainable, not like this. It's missing… it's missing the creativity."

You're starting to feel a little more afraid.

"That's it," he says. "That's the key. The Worm? Fuck the Worm. It just erases our fucking realities. You can't even see it! Can't even comprehend it! It's not even a fucking Worm! Baiting it to universe after universe — that's not gonna draw out any self-respecting divines hiding out there. Where's the meteor heading dramatically towards Earth? Where are the swarms of human-faced locusts? Where's the Wolf striding the horizon? Where's the XK-Class End of the World scenario?"

He's grinning now. Excited. Thrilling at his own words.

"Doomsday," he says. "That's the answer. The principalities and powers love a good doomsday."

He sets down his notebook with a note of finality. "We'll have to try a few."

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