Adrian Andrews's eyes shot open. Beatrix was leaning over him, a worried expression on her face. His jaw hurt and his teeth tasted like pennies. He sat up slowly, groaning as the world spun around him, the low vibration of the helicopter's rotors setting a counterpoint to his throbbing headache. "What happened?"
"We hit turbulence," Beats said. "You hit your head. I think you're fine, but I want you to lay still for a moment."
"No. What happened?" Adrian repeated.
Beats nodded. "Volcanic explosion," she said. The world outside was on fire, casting a lurid scarlet light into the helicopter's interior. "The Yellowstone National Park megavolcano must have erupted."
"If it was volcanic, we'd be dead," Adrian insisted. "This was existential." He struggled to his feet and leaned over the pilot's shoulder. "Pilot, switch to channel Theta-Prime."
"Sir? There is no channel Theta…" The pilot took a second look at the comm console, and suddenly there it was. An eleventh channel among the ten marked on the dial. "… switching to channel Theta-Prime," he said, flipping the switch.
There was a burst of static, then a man's voice came in over the comms system. "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? This is _}¡§¤þ! Can anyone hear me?"
"_}¡§¤þ! Thank God!" Adrian breathed a sigh of relief. "We're on our way. Is iµ²¬® all right?"
"iµ²¬® doesn't exist any more," _}¡§¤þ said. "I'm all that's left. F©r G©¼'s sÀk¿, À¼riÀ£, ¼©£'t ±¿t m¿ vÀ£ish…"
The voice disappeared, and the last thing the man said vanished from Adrian's memory. An entire Foundation site was gone. A man whom he was sure had been a close friend now no longer existed. Had never existed.
He couldn't even remember his name…
The signal disappeared in a burst of eldritch feedback. A brief click, and the dial set itself back to a number that existed in reality.
"Sir?" the pilot said, "what do we do now?"
The only thing we can do, Adrian thought. "Inform O5 Council that we've just had a CK-Class Restructuring Event," he said. "And get us on the ground somewhere safe as soon as possible. There might still be a chance to save something…"
The room was in chaos. It was the distinctly surreal kind of chaos that occurs when everyone knows that something horrible has happened, but no one remembers what it was.
There was, however, one person who did know. He sat in his chair silently reviewing his notes, waiting for the chaos to die down, which it finally did when the nondescript person at the head of the table rapped a gold-plated fountain pen against the mahogany surface.
"Ten. Report," One said, once the noise had died down.
Ten was a slender, bookish man with olive-colored skin and long, ebony-black hair done into a shoulder-length braid. He was known as the quietest member of the Overseer Council, the one who attended every meeting, took notes, and said nothing. Some of his colleagues wondered what his actual job was.
They would find out today.
"Let me start at the beginning," Ten said. "We have established that the likely cause of the event was a researcher at the Site who was doing research into anomalous effect miscability…"
"In English, please?" Eleven demanded.
"… he was combining SCPs and reporting on the results," Ten went on. "He was working on improvements to SCP-2000…"
"Wait a minute. Back up," Nine interrupted. "There is no SCP-2000. The Special Containment Procedures directory only goes up to SCP-999."
"It does now," Ten said grimly. "It didn't three hours ago. We've lost over two-thirds of the SCPs we had in containment…"
"That's impossible!" one of the O5s shouted. "How the hell could there be a containment breach of that magnitude when…"
"… absolutely idiotic!" someone else protested. "You're telling me a single accident at one site caused…"
"SILENCE!" One barked.
"For the past thirty years, this man's job has been to watch and wait for exactly this kind of event to occur," One said sternly. "Now that it has, I am ordering all of you to sit down, shut up, and let him do his goddamn job. And maybe, just maybe, listen to him as if he's the expert on a subject that none of the rest of us know a single goddamn thing about!"
The silence continued.
"Ten," One said. "Proceed."
Ten nodded and pushed his glasses back into place with his ring finger. Throughout the entire shouting match, he had remained calm and silent. "All right. Let me change tack." Ten said. He shuffled the papers in his hand until he found the page he was looking for, took a deep breath, and continued speaking. "SCP-2000 is… was… a Thaumiel-Class…" He raised a hand to forestall the obvious argument. "Thaumiel is a containment class that apparently doesn't exist any more," Ten explained. "It refers to anomalies that, in themselves, are used to contain or protect from other anomalies."
"Thank you, Ten. Proceed," One said.
"SCP-2000… was… an emergency system designated "Deus Ex Machina," Ten said, arbitrarily choosing a tense. "The system was designed to trigger upon detection of a world-altering event. The way it works is a bit complicated, but it comes down to a series of cloning devices and mind-control systems that can repopulate the earth after a K-class event with cloned human beings with implanted false memories."
"You're saying a CK-Class Restructuring Event was caused by a human cloning device?" Nine asked.
"Of course not. But SCP-2000 was the final fail-safe in case of human extinction. In order to keep the system safe in case of a temporal or reality-altering event, the entire thing was placed in the single most existentially secure site on Earth: inside Yellowstone Mountain. Right above the Bloom."
Ten raised his hands to forestall yet another chorus of complaints and questions. "The Bloom is a Black Box SCP," he continued. "It's one that, up until this point, has been known only to four Overseers: myself, One, Two, and Thirteen. It's a reset button for the universe."
"Ten is oversimplifying, of course," One said curtly.
"Given the time constraints, I didn't feel that I had time to get into the whole 'trans-universal flower' and 'multiversal observer' aspects of the artifact," Ten said calmly. "All everyone else needs to know right now is that the Bloom seems to be the separation point between several different versions of possibility. The Bloom itself is the most existentially stable point on the planet, which is why we placed our last-resort species recovery system right on top of it.
"Unfortunately," Ten continued, "Yellowstone Mountain happened to also be a massive megavolcano which is tectonically unstable and is overdue to erupt, which is why… Dr. Null… was assigned to find a way to duplicate the Bloom's protective effects elsewhere, in the hopes of either moving or duplicating it at a more stable position. Unfortunately, something seems to have gone wrong. Rather than holding different parallel universes apart, the Bloom is now drawing them together."
"There weren't Scranton Reality Anchors around this thing?" Nine asked.
"The Scranton Reality Anchors around that 'thing' are the only reason why our universe hasn't already vanished," Ten explained. "If I may?"
He tapped a control on his keyboard, and an image appeared on the screen behind him. "This is a false-color representation of the current mathematical reality," he said. "The blue spheres represent adjunct timelines and Schroedinger-type uncertainties. The yellow spirals represent the separate universes and timelines. This image was taken over the course of the past year at one of our temporal research facilities" He tapped a control, and the image began to move. "And now a live feed."
The image, which had previously been mostly static, now swirled and bubbled, like yellow flowers floating in a sea of foam. Slowly, but inexorably, the flowers were starting to come together. "Timelines are like protons and antiprotons," Ten explained. "When two separate but incompatible realities intersect, the result is mutual annihilation. With The Bloom drawing neighboring realities towards ours, the end result is obvious."
Ten tapped a control, and the words "PROJECTED SEQUENCE OF EVENTS" appeared on the top of the screen. "The first intersection of universes will result in collapse of the space-time membranes that surround our reality. Causality will cease to exist. Events will no longer be distinct moments in time. Where Schroedinger's famous cat was once alive and dead simultaneously, there will now be two cats, one alive one dead, both coexisting. This obviously cannot be possible, so both cats will be mutually annihilated."
Ten grimaced. "This annihilation reaction will result in the release of unimaginable amounts of energy. The resulting energy will accelerate the convergence process, drawing even more parallel universes together at an ever-quickening rate." On the screen, the flowers folded into each other, swirled, and vanished into grey foam, until nothing else existed. "And that," Ten said, "will be it."
"ZK-Class Reality Failure Scenario," One said.
"I don't think we have a term for what's about to happen, but that comes closest," Ten admitted. "Unless we do something within the next few hours, we're going to lose everything. We have a last-ditch contingency plan, but the chances of it succeeding are miniscule. The only other option I see is to deal with The Bloom itself, which will entail entering the Yellowstone Mountain facility."
"What assets do we have in place that can respond in time?" One asked.
"Just one," Ten admitted. "Mobile Task Force Omega-7: Pandora's Box. Team Able is currently out of contact, but we've managed to get into contact with the force leader for Team Iris - he was, in fact, the agent who originally called in this alert. They will be ready to enter the facility within the hour."
"Does anyone else have anything to add?" One asked. No one did. "Then deploy them," he continued. "And keep me informed." The O5 Council's leader turned to Ten, his dark eyes flashing intently. "Get this taken care of," he said. "Do whatever you need to. You have full operational authority over all Foundation assets until this crisis is over."
Ten nodded in reply.
Yellowstone Mountain had mostly stabilized. Rather than looking like a poor-quality VHS tape, it was now just fuzzy and somewhat translucent, like an out-of-focus photograph. Every once in a while, it would flicker and change, as some alternate possibility asserted itself upon this reality.
Three Humvees approached the landed helicopter at the foot of the mountain. Twelve soldiers (six men, five women, and Effy) disembarked. One of the soldiers, a huge man with ebony skin and a hint of electric-blue eyeshadow above his intense eyes, emerged from the lead vehicle carrying two kit bags. He tossed them onto the ground at Adrian and Beatrix's feet.
"Good of you to join us," Agent William Abrams said, smirking. "Though I bet you'd rather be alone in bed with Beats right now."
"Hey, what about me?" Beats muttered, as she rummaged through her kit bag for her BDUs. She carelessly stripped off her trench coat and nightgown, trading them for her combat gear. "I was promised breakfast in bed," she said, pulling a slate-grey sports bra on over her head.
"Really? Damn, girl, you've got him wrapped around your little finger," Billy said, grinning.
"It's where I prefer to be," Adrian said. He too had stripped, and was trading in his tuxedo-print boxers for a much more sedate pair of dark grey skivvies. "What's the situation with Team Able?"
"Don't know," Bill admitted. "We're still trying to get in contact. They were inside the facility when the Event occurred."
"Damn," Adrian muttered, pulling on a pair of grey digital camouflage trousers. "All right, guys, load up for close quarters battle. I want you and Effie on rifles, everyone else takes SMGs or carbines. Medium armor: no point in getting killed by some monster from another dimension while trying to fix a temporal anomaly—"
"What about me?"
Eleven pairs of eyes turned to look at SCP-105. The blonde teenager stood in the doorway of the helicopter, clutching her silver pistol case. "I don't have my kit, but I can help—"
"Non-Omega-Seven personnel will not participate in this operation," Adrian said curtly.
"Adrian, those are my friends…"
"Non-Omega-Seven personnel will NOT participate in this operation!" Adrian repeated. "Pilot, get this SCP object back into containment as soon as possible. If it gives you any trouble, you are authorized to taze it and take it back home unconscious."
Adrian deliberately did not look as he heard the girl begin to sob. He kept his eyes locked on his gear as he heard Beats lead SCP-105 back into the helicopter, heard the rotors spin up and felt the vehicle take off behind him.
"Damn," Billy said. "That was fucking cold."
"Right now she's a liability, not an asset," Adrian snapped. "The sooner she's out of the operating area, the better."
"Keep telling yourself that. Me, I think you just don't want to take her into that," Billy said, gesturing to the still-flickering mountain.
Adrian's reply was interrupted by a slender, androgynous figure jogging up, holding a laptop computer. "We've made contact with Team Able," Agent Fatima Workwise said. "He wants to talk to you."
"Fuck," Adrian muttered. "It just gets better and better." He accepted the laptop from Effy. "Go for Team Iris— Jesus!"
That last exclamation was for the scene on the laptop computer. An entire hallway splattered with blood. Crazily swinging fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Panicked shouts and the sound of gunfire from off-screen. But the thing that had prompted the profanity was the man laying on the lab table: tall, cold, olive-skinned, black haired, skin covered in scarlet tattoos. His body below his waist was an explosion of gore.
"Andrews," Able rasped. "Report."
Adrian breathed deeply, the gorge rising in his throat. It took him three deep breaths to recover. "Team Iris is ready to breach and enter," Adrian said. "All present and accounted for except Iris Actual."
"Good." Able closed his eyes for a moment. "I am done killing for a time," he said at last. "You will take command of this operation."
Adrian felt cold. "Sir? Squire is next in the chain of command…"
"Squire is a warrior, as am I. If I did not succeed, he will not either. This problem requires a scholar. Mind, not muscle will win this." The tall, dark-haired figure on the screen collapsed and exhaled deeply. It did not move again.
The camera shifted, revealing the grime-and-soot stained visage of an older man with ginger hair, shot with silver. "You heard the man, sir," Agent Squire said. "Orders?"
"Shit." Adrian breathed deeply. "All right, where are you guys holed up?"
"Security Station Niner. We're pretty safe here, but there are hostiles roaming the halls. We've taken quite a few casualties and are currently combat ineffective." Squire smiled grimly. "Just another day in Pandora's Box, I suppose."
"All right." Adrian gestured over his shoulder, felt a map being pressed into his hand. "Thanks," he said, unfolding the map on the hood of the Humvee. "All right," he repeated. "Security Station Niner. We'll enter…" Adrian frowned and shook his head. His vision kept getting blurry, and every time he blinked, the shape of the hallways changed. "Damn it. The map keeps changing on me."
"You should try walking through those hallways sometime." Squire grim smile widened. "Real pain in the ass, what with the walls trying to eat you alive."
The seconds ticked by as Adrian glared at the map for a few more moments, then gave up. "All right, wait five," he said to the laptop computer. He picked up the map and carried it out of the computer's field of view, waved his hand in the air in a small circle to rally the soldiers. "Team Iris!" he shouted. "Huddle up! I need some ideas…"