General Bowe's paternal great-grandfather had died at Gettysburg under the command of General Armstead during Pickett's famous doomed charge. He had been one of the brave Confederate soldiers to cross the stone wall at the Bloody Angle, had been shot in the gut by a damned dirty Yankee, stood his ground as his comrades-in-arms retreated, and used his last breath to stab a filthy Irishman in the heart. It was a story passed down on his father's side of the family as an example of the courage and bravery of the Bowe bloodline.
General Bowe's maternal great-grandfather had also died at Gettysburg. He'd been a member of the 69th Pennsylvania under Colonel Joshua T. Owen, one of the brave men who'd defended the stone wall at the Bloody Angle. He'd shot a filthy slave-owning rebel scum in the belly and stood at the center of the heaviest fighting at the Confederacy's high-water mark, but when the enemy retreated, he hadn't noticed that the one of the damned Johnny Rebs weren't quite dead. The cowardly Southerner had bayoneted him in the heart as he leaped over the fence, and the two of them had died in each other's arms.
There was no way of knowing whether General Robert Ulysses Abraham Jefferson Bowe's great-grandfathers had really killed each other at the Battle of Gettysburg, but it made sense to him. General Bowe was a man at war with everything, including himself. He was a scholar who had chosen a career in the military, a scientist who studied the unscientific, a soldier without a war to fight. Internal conflict was his raison d'etre.
9/11 had been the worst day in American history for many people. Not so for General Bowe. For the General, the worst terrorist attack on American soil had meant a chance to put into action the plans he'd been making for years. It was a chance for his secret negotiations with the shadowy organization known only as The Foundation to be brought into the (relative) light of black ops. The last few years had been very good for General Bowe. Multiple successful operations overseas had resulted in increased funding for the Bowe Commission's projects.
And now, within the last twelve hours, things had gone to shit.
"First," he said, as the leader of the Overseer Council sat down across from him, "You need to assure me that what's going on at Yellowstone isn't a terrorist attack, and that it's going to be taken care of."
The Overseer said, "Yellowstone is not a terrorist attack. It is more like an accident in weapons development testing. The situation will be resolved within the next 24 hours."
"Good," General Bowe said. "I'll hold you to that." He jotted down a note on a pad of sketch paper. "I need a situation report."
The Overseer said, "Yellowstone Mountain is currently in temporal and existential flux. Aside from that, we are still trying to assess the damage. Due to the CK-Class restructuring, all of our Special Containment Procedures databases have desynchronized. China, Korea, Japan, and Russia branches are all showing different file numbers for different objects. We're currently sorting them out by using the American database as a baseline, and affixing a suffix to the foreign branches' desynchronized entries, but it is a lengthy process that might never be fully resolved."
"I disapproved of your organization having foreign outposts," General Bowe reminded the Overseer. "I was afraid that something like this might happen."
The Overseer said, "You were concerned about the security of our foreign offices. This is hardly the same thing."
"Nevertheless, it is the opinion of this Commission that the Foundation's foreign offices now represent an unacceptable security risk." General Bowe turned to the next page on his sketch pad, jotted down another note. "Following the end of this current crisis, you will present a plan to decommission them and consolidate your anomalies in American containment sites within no more than five years."
The Overseer said, "We were promised oversight of our own operations. Relocating our inventory will be problematic. This is not to mention those anomalies that cannot be relocated due to size or other factors."
"That was before you idiots blew up Yellowstone Mountain," General Bowe said, "and before you lied to us about the state of your weapons development division."
The Overseer said. "We have not… "
"I know about Project Olympia," General Bowe interrupted. "Your scientists created a line of production-model super-soldiers and somehow neglected to report that to the Commission. I've read about the capabilites of the Olympia line. Do you know how many American special operations soldiers have died since the start of the war? Do you know how many lives could have been saved?"
The Overseer said nothing.
"Your Foundation's had its fun for long enough. Time to put on your big boy pants and become part of the government," General Bowe said. He folded up his sketch book and got to his feet. "I'll be in touch regarding the consolidation of Foundation assets into the Department of Paranormal Warfare tomorrow afternoon."
The Overseer said, "There is no Department of Paranormal Warfare."
"There will be tomorrow. The President and I will make sure of it."
The General left the office without saying goodbye or asking for a salute.
The Overseer remained in its seat after he had gone.
"This idea sucks," Adrian said.
"It was the best we could do," Bill said. "Get ready."
Adrian took a deep breath, revved the engine, and clutched the steering wheel tightly.
The answer, as it turned out, had been fairly simple. Going in using the front door was out of the question: too many hostiles roaming the halls, too much distance to cover surrounded by hostiles of every possible shape and size. On the other hand, there was the reality destabilization… namely, the fact that Yellowstone Mountain was replaced with an empty field of geysers and hotsprings for about thirty seconds every thirty minutes.
Beatrix had done the math. A vehicle that traveled at approximately thirty miles per hour should barely have enough time to travel through the solid granite and arrive at the location of the main carpark just as the mountain reappeared. It was kind of like driving through a bunch of swinging pendulums, if the pendulums were universes and the metaphor was a little less forced.
Adrian glanced at the other passengers in his humvee. Bill rode shotgun, SAW across his lap. Beats, Effie and Vincent were in the back seat: Effie standing by to jump into the turret and man the .50 cal if things went bad.
If things went bad… The universe was going mad. There was a goddamn mountain flicking in and out of existence in front of him. And he was worried about things getting worse…
"Ten seconds," Bill said, and Adrian gripped the steering wheel even more tightly. "Seven. Six, Five…"
Adrian put the vehicle in gear just as Bill said "Five," started accelerating as Bill said "Three," had a horrible moment when he thought that the timing was off and they were about to drive straight into a granite wall, and then the mountain disappeared and they were driving along a flat volcanic plain. Adrian ignored the other vehicles behind him, ignored everything but the broken road before him and Bill's voice counting down, "eight, seven, six, five, four, three…" and then the flat plains disappeared, and they were driving through a parking garage with flickering fluorescent lights and blood all over the ground, and the wall was getting close, so damn close, Adrian slammed the brakes and the tires squealed and the humvee slewed left and it slammed into the concrete wall and went CRUNCH.
"CONTACT RIGHT!" Bill shouted. His SAW fired off three short bursts. Vincent was screaming something, then Adrian heard the staccato chatter of Beatrix's submachinegun, and then came the low, steady thud of the .50 opening up, and then silence.
Adrian glanced out the right side of the vehicle. Something big, grey, and humanoid lay on the ground, now riddled with bullets and breathing its last. At the front of its head, where a face should have been, was a blank, greyish nothing.
A bloody, wet gurgle from the back. Adrian turned to look. He immediately wished he hadn't. Vince was slumped against the door, twitching and gasping. The entire front of his head, from his ears forward, was just… gone. Effie drew her pistol, put it to his temple, and fired once. The thing that had been Vince went still.
Adrian swallowed hard and turned away. "S… Sound off!" he shouted into the darkness.
"This is Car Two!" came a shout from behind him. "Frederickson! Everyone's fine, but the back end of the car's stuck in the wall!"
Shit, Adrian whispered. The timing must have changed. He took a deep breath before asking the question no one wanted the answer to. "Car Three?"
A long pause. "I can see their front bumper sticking out of the wall behind me," Frederickson shouted. "That's it." Silence again. "How about you?"
Adrian glanced into the back of the humvee. Beatrix was wiping off her bloodied face with a shaking hand, while Effie and Bill wrestled Vince's still body out of the back seat. "One casualty," he said. "It's Vince. Fatal."
Another heartbeat's worth of silence. "Shit," Frederickson said. "All right, what's the plan?"
"Can you see us?" Adrian asked.
"Yeah, I can see your tail lights."
"Then disembark and grab what you can. Move your squad up and we'll proceed from here on foot."
"Roger. Moving," Frederickson said.
Adrian rubbed his upper lip, despair setting in. One minute into the mission, and Team Iris had already suffered five casualties out of their original fourteen. Even for Pandora's Box, those were not good figures.
He checked his carbine, slung it over his shoulder, and climbed out of the driver's side door. Something squished under his foot as he stepped out of the car, and he shone his flashlight down to see what it was.
It was a face. Vince's. Adrian allowed himself a moment of revulsion before closing his eyes and doing his breathing exercises. His fingers clenched tightly, gripping a scalpel that didn't exist.
There are a lot of different ways to think about skulking through a monster-ridden facility in the middle of a temporal flux event. One is "nightmare." Another is "death trap."
Omega-7 called it "movement through hostile territory." Single-file line, weapons raised, checking and double-checking every corner and intersection. Communicating only through hand gestures, taps on the shoulder, and squeezes on the leg. Just another series of corridors and doorways to be checked, cleared, and moved through.
They encountered no further hostiles, although they could, on occasion, hear growls, grunts, and screams from deeper inside the facility. The odd flickering and fuzziness faded away as they proceeded further and got closer to the Scranton Reality Anchors at the heart of the base. All in all, their movement was quick, professional, and by the numbers.
The thing laying outside Security Station Nine resembled a hugely obese human being, albeit one that was over nine feet tall and covered in oozing sores and tumors. A large number of rotting, disintegrating corpses lay all around it, most of them dressed in the uniforms of Mobile Task Force personnel.
One of the least decomposed was an older man with ginger hair, shot with silver. Squire had died in close contact with the monster. His corpse still held a tarnished knife in one hand. The other was sunk wrist-deep into the rolls of fat around the creature's neck.
"They were attacked shortly after you entered the facility," a low voice said in an unfamiliar accent. "Unfortunately, they were all dead by the time I arrived."
The nine surviving members of Mobile Task Force Omega-7 turned to face the figure stepping out of the shadows. He was very tall and handsome, and his arms were made of steel.
"Cain," Beatrix breathed. She lowered her weapon. A moment later, at a gesture from Adrian, the rest of Omega-7 followed.
"I would not approach the corpse too closely, if I were you," the tall, Semitic-looking man said. "Even dead, the noxious fumes could prove fatal."
"Team, fall back," Adrian ordered. "Masks on. Rally at Conference Room Six. Fredrickson, take point."
He spared Squire one last look as the team retreated. The old man's body had dissolved into slime, leaving only a goo-covered skeleton behind. The dagger had corroded into a clump of rust, and a few moments later, even that had crumbled into reddish-brown dust.
"All right," Adrian said to his squad leaders, as the rest of the team took up rest positions inside the conference room. "Let's review the situation. Liquids?"
"Green all around," Beatrix said. "Untainted, plenty of reserves."
"Full loads on my team," Frederickson said.
"Effie and me are down one mag each. Reloaded from Vince, picked up his spares. We're green," Bill said.
"All right. No injuries, KIAs are leave-in-place. As for mission-essential equipment…" Adrian scoffed and shook his head. "At this point, guys, I'm not sure what our mission is any more. Team Able is down, presumed KIA. The nine of us aren't going to make it much further into the site. If this were any other mission, I'd call us combat ineffective and scrub it."
"But it's not any other mission," Beatrix pointed out. "This is it. We're all that's left."
"Right," Adrian said grimly. "So I'm taking suggestions for ideas on what we should do next."
"Has anyone suggested… you know. Asking the ancient Sumerian whatchamacallit?" Frederickson asked.
All three of them turned to regard SCP-073. He alone had not entered the conference room, and was standing in the hallway outside, calmly looking down the darkened corridors, his steel hands clasped in front of him in an oddly demure fashion.
Adrian and Beatrix exchanged a look. "It's worth a shot," Beatrix admitted.
"Yes," Cain said. "I do have some advice on what you can do to rectify this situation."
"All right," Adrian said. "Why didn't you say something before?"
"You did not ask," Cain replied. "An answer is of no use if the question is not asked."
"All right," Adrian repeated. "Well, I'm asking now. What do we do?"
"That would depend on your definition of the word 'we,'" Cain said. "If by 'we,' you refer to you, the woman, and I… that is an answer I do not wish to give. If by 'we,' you refer to your squad in general… most of them will be of no use. Aside from you and your lover, the rest are irrelevant."
"… I'm not sure I understood correctly," Frederickson said, after a long pause, "But I think Cain just told us to fuck off and let you and Beats handle the rest."
"It would appear so," Adrian said, sighing. "Beats?"
"The way I see it," Beatrix said, "Cain's the only one who has any ideas, which means he's already one step ahead of the rest of us. I say we do as he suggests." She gave the tall man a cold glare.
"All right," Adrian said. "Then we're decided. Beats and I will go with Cain. As for the rest of the squad… Frederickson, you're in command now. I suggest you take the rest of the team and retreat to our starting point. There should be an exit in… about fifteen minutes…"
"Begging your pardon, sir, but all three humvees are fucked. No way we can run fast enough to make it outside the mountain before it resolidifies," Frederickson pointed out. "Our only way out is through the front entrance."
"That's going to take you through the thickest areas of hostile activity," Adrian pointed out. "Odds aren't good."
"So in that case, we may as well come with you, right?" Frederickson said. "We're dead if we try to escape anyway, so we may as well join the suicide mission."
"Sorry, Adrian," Frederickson said. "You put me in command of the squad, remember? This isn't up to you any more. We're coming along."
"All right." Adrian said. "Form up on me and let's get started…"
And elsewhere in the facility, surrounded by the dead and dying, a stone cube opened up, and a tall, naked man with scarlet tattoos all over his olive skin emerged once more into the world.