Chapter Six: "Breach"
In the end, it was easy. Keagan had noticed in his first days at the facility that D-Class from the other shift on janitorial duty were unaccompanied by guards, and as he expected, shortly after sightings of that shift ceased, security on maintenance duties lightened dramatically, to the extent that he was able to roam the corridors quite freely as long he had his mop in hand. From then on it was a simple case of finding the passage between the blue-line corridors that led to the laboratories and the orange-line dormitories, and equidistant from the two nearest guard posts, and busying himself there for as many days as it took.
Time in the facility was something stretching and elastic—the only clocks were watches on the wrists of the staff and the only reason he knew he had been there for two and a half weeks was because a couple of the other prisoners had begun a night watch that marked off sunrises, counting the days until freedom. Even then there was doubt over whether Travis Lemure had marked the same day twice after dozing off. But with some practice you could roughly ascertain the time of day by how many white-coats you saw around and the number of empty mugs of coffee at the guardpost windows.
By Keagan's reckoning, it was evening when Patrick Goettsch returned to the dormitories, eyes dark and haunted. He had a charmed life, it seemed—Keagan had learned from Travis that he had returned from his experimentation with 1062 with nothing more serious than a tendency to use Roman numerals and the inexplicable conviction that Cornwall was an overseas territory of Spain. He turned the corner, and Keagan was waiting for him. He grabbed the man by his orange jumpsuit and battered him into the wall. Goettsch immediately started swinging his elbow into Keagan's belly, but Keagan ignored the pain and used his body weight to crush the other man down, an arm bar pressing against his chin.
"I was worried the white-coats would get you before I could," Keagan said, his voice hoarse. "But look at you; you're a fucking cockroach. You know they ran out of space on the wall for you? They've had to start a second list."
"Please, I don't know anything, you bastard, just leave me alone," begged Goettsch, but even as he spoke he swiped his foot out, hoping to unbalance Keagan enough to get free.
Keagan had previously thought about it for a long time and decided brain blows, body shots and choking were the worst way to subdue someone when you had very little time to get information from them. Instead, he stamped on Goettsch's outstretched knee, drawing a piteous wail. He followed it by angling Goettsch's arm and smashing the elbow against the wall. Simple lever action.
"Who told you to say I killed the Judge?" Keagan shouted.
"I don't know, I don't know…" Goettsch said, trying to twist out of the armlock with a junior-school karate move. Keagan rested a knee on Goettsch's back and braced himself so Goettsch was effectively trying to pull his own arm out of joint, giving an extra tug for good measure.
"You don't know? Someone talked to you, you stupid shit. Why don't you describe them?"
"I don't—AAGH—please, no, just stop. Don't make me say it. AAAA."
Keagan caught Goettsch's watering eyes straying up to the nearest security camera. No alarms yet, but somewhere blue-hats were putting down their sixteenth cup of coffee and picking up their tazers. They hadn't killed Cancer, but then he had neither been outside the dormitory nor started the fight.
"That's right, they're coming to save you, Goettsch, but they'll be too late. For the next few seconds, I'm God. Who killed the Judge?!" He heard distant shouts and tore brutally at Goettsch's shoulder, feeling it pop out of joint. The scream emanating from the chubby inmate seemed barely human, then he suddenly went quiet. Worried the shock had killed him, Keagan leaned in and Goettsch grabbed his top with his remaining arm, whispering to him desperately as the sound of running began to drum up the corridor towards them.
"It's them! The fucking SCP Foundation! They came to me, told me you and the Judge were in it together, said the Judge didn't have long to live and to say I heard you threatening him. I didn't kill the Judge. I don't know who did it, but they made it happen. Please, please… I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Blue blurs rounded the corner and hands seized Keagan, ploughing him to the ground. Something narrow and sharp hissed into his upper arm and the world began to retreat into the black. Before he lost consciousness, his last view was of Goettsch, lying against the wall like a broken doll, arms and legs at impossible angles, blood pouring from his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue. He looked down at Keagan and said, louder, in a bitter voice:
"They said they would protect me."
When he wakes up, he's standing in a red-lit metal corridor, somewhere that looks a hell of a lot like where he blacked out—or at least a similar facility. There's screaming and shouting, and the sound of klaxons, and he wonders whether they're coming to stop him, stop him—doing what? There's no-one else around. Wasn't he waiting for someone?
A squad of black-helmeted men with MP7s run past, not even registering his presence. There's something more important happening here, he thinks, and turns and follows them, finding that he keeps pace easily with the men, even though he's walking—well, floating—and they are running flat out.
"…repeat, 1447 is breaching containment. Ablative armour is being compromised," one of them shouts into their shoulder radio.
The men take up positions at the entrance of a heavy metal door at the terminus of a single red line. Their leader taps in a code into the keypad, and the door opens.
He follows the men into the room and realises he's been here before—something like a converted warehouse with a steel cube suspended at its centre. But something's wrong. Dents are appearing in the cube, the whole space ringing like a bell as whatever is inside strikes the interior of its prison with enough force to deform it. The edges are coming apart—swathes of steel, centimetres thick, peeling away as the whole cube changes shape. The cables absorb a lot of the force—the cube is oscillating wildly in its restraints—but it isn't enough.
More black-helmets pour in, taking up fire positions around the cube. The leader of the original squad is calling for a 'backup containment unit', but there seems to be some problems and it's taking longer than expected.
"Fuck." says the lead black-helmet. Then to the men around him: "Okay, we've got our orders. Hold the fucking thing in place for as long as possible. Once the auxiliary unit's ready, push it there."
The blows from within the cube come with the frequency and force of a pneumatic drill, pulsing and strobing, and there's a sudden popping, rushing noise as one corner of the cube begins to sag. He can hear something behind the blows, now, a droning, keening sound which he is realises is a chant.
"Hermetic failure," one of the black-helmets notes with some alarm, and they raise their weapons.
"Hold," says the frontman. "Hold."
Then all hell breaks loose. Something like a snake or ribbon squirms through the the crack, and the first man begins shooting. All at once, everything judders, as though the foundations of the world have come loose, and the walls of the warehouse are torn to shreds, tiny torn leaves of sheet metal floating through the air. The metal cables anchoring the cube to the walls are severed and it falls to the ground. At least three of the men go down at the same moment, their eyes and throats suddenly empty hollows welling up red. Streaks of blood splattering in lunatic lines, painting spirograph patterns on the floor around them.
"Follow the blood!" screams the lead black-helmet. "Tag the fucking thing!"
The ragged walls light up with ricochets and another man drops, clutching his knee, and a second later is gone—taken by the hurricane. The droning increases in volume, and he realises he is hearing a voice.
Then, abruptly, everything stops, and the thing that has escaped from the cube is before him. It is wearing orange, and for a moment he wonders if it is a D-Class prisoner, then he realises what he is seeing are robes, like a Tibetan monk. Its face is blurred and distorted, but there are two pinpricks of white light in it that might be eyes. It takes him a moment to recognise that he has been seen.
The drone resolves itself in his mind into words. Who are you? it asks. It's a good question.
"I don't know," he says, "I—I just found myself here."
"What is it doing?" shouts one of the soldiers. "It just stopped."
He turns to see the men repositioning themselves around the orange-robed thing, guns raised.
You might be useful, it says, the voice distant in the chaos of the droning chant. He finds he cannot move his arms, his legs. The thing reaches out and takes hold of his head gently, palm over his eyes. Its fingers end in sharp points like talons and he feels them press against his temples.
"It's getting ready to do something," decides the lead black-helmet. "Drive it back towards the containment unit!"
He hears nothing as the guns fire. He thinks he must have been hit, for his perspective is drawing back, sinking into the ground, dissolving. He watches as bullets ripple through the form of the orange-robed thing as though through a cloud, helical spirals of its substance exploding from the exit wounds before inexorably falling back together, the gaps in its flesh caused by the passage of the bullets knitting as soon as they are opened.
You needn't be concerned, it says to him. You're not really here, after all. Then it turns and, to the amazement of the watching black-helmets, walks back into its ruined cell.
Keagan—that was his name, how could he have forgotten it?—woke slowly, each sense reporting for duty one at a time. Touch: cool sheets, crisply laid out, quite luxurious for an inmate until it dawned upon you that you were not merely cool but cold; the sheets attenuated to the point of thermal transparency by regular heavy disinfection and dry cleaning. Hearing: quiet bustling, a sense of purpose, but also the deep breathing of those sleeping under the influence of anaesthetics. Smell: antiseptic tang, an aftertaste of vaporised ink reminiscent of a printer's shop or a tattoo parlour. Keagan didn't even bother opening his eyes; he could place himself in the medical wing of the facility, where the little bald man had engraved Keagan's designation on his wrist and chest.
For the first time since the death of the Judge, Keagan had time and clarity enough to think over his situation and weigh up the evidence, as one might assess a car and make an estimate of what it would take to make right.
He vaguely recalled hearing of villages on Salisbury plain evacuated during World War 2, handed over to the Americans for training purposes; easy to think there could have been other small conurbations in the area, quietly removed from the records and used for purposes that could not officially be endorsed by the government or military. The important parts of the facility were maintained well—but you only had to look at areas like the D-Class dormitories to see the facility was decades old. Possible, of course, that it had only recently been taken over by the Foundation—possible too, that the use of D-Class as cheap, expendable test subjects in their fucked-up experiments was a new innovation. But he doubted it.
From his conversation with the young researcher, Edward, it appeared there were strict restrictions on how and when even staff were permitted to interact with the outside world. Edward seemed like a special case—maybe others were allowed to sign a non-disclosure agreement and went home to their families on weekends. But the notion that convicts would ever be permitted to leave was a nonsense. Under normal circumstances that didn't leave too many options. The prisoners could keep track of time—with a sizeable margin of error, but nevertheless—and each one expected to be released to a gradual programme of fake addiction clinics and offender management schemes in about a fortnight. Could they be simply rounded up and told the promise was a fraud and that they would spend the rest of their lives in the service of the Foundation? Of course they could. But then, why maintain the pretence through the early days of the programme? Why not disabuse them of any notions of freedom at orientation? Keagan remembered the court reporter, Deloitte, saying they recruited 18 shifts a year—some mental arithmetic showed they must overlap for about a week. The restrictions on speaking to other D-Class shifts would make sense if the other shift had been told they would never see the light of day—but thus far everything Keagan had seen exactly fitted the schedule they were on; in another week or so they would begin to see new faces above orange jumpsuits—a new junior Shift A recruited fresh from lifers across the country—and a week after that…
Bang. "Can I say that?" Dr Skinner's glib query, the shame-faced lab technicians, Edward's statement about what the Foundation's protection made him overlook—right now there was only one hypothesis, and that was that Keagan, Cameron Moat, Travis Lemure, Cancer, Ronny Feldspar and the rest would be quietly disposed of. Maybe they would be ushered into another decontamination room as an ostensible prelude to getting back on the bus, and the gas would flow out of the showerheads, and that would be it. Perhaps they wouldn't even get that faint hope—they would go to sleep on their last day of service, and petrol exhausts would be hooked up to the slats at the top of the wall, and the next day the blue-hats would clear away the bodies. Maybe that's what the stain around the walls was—some reaction of the paint to carbon monoxide or whatever else they pumped in. Or maybe they would be taken away, one at a time, for a debrief and introduction to their new identities, but the room would be dark to hide the stains on the floor and some grizzled veteran of the Foundation who could say 'I've seen everything' would unholster his gun and press it to the back of their heads…
Keagan opened his eyes and watched staff move between beds with clipboards in hand. The light that shone through the windows was real, not artificial, and for a moment he thought of the park he had seen on the bus journey. Ronny and Patrick were here—the former, both legs and one arm in splints, looked away quickly when he saw Keagan's eye on him, but the terror had gone, perhaps sensing that he had at last satisfied Keagan's search for answers. Ronny, on the other hand, was eyeing him as though weighing up his options; the stump of his shattered hand in a sling. Not good, thought Keagan, in a place with surgical implements. Hagman, of course, was nowhere to be seen; Keagan suspected the guards had exercised their full prerogative as soon as he was far enough away from the dormitories.
Keagan allowed the people to blur away and sat, feeling the sub-pain granularity of the bruises over his body, the sore pinpricks on his arm where the taser had hit. Suddenly—and there was never a reason, it always seemed to happen on its own strange schedule—everything snapped back again and he realised the young researcher, Edward, was sitting next to his bed and talking to him. He had not registered him drawing up a chair and had no idea of what he might have been saying. Keagan struggled up to a half-sitting position and focused on his words.
"…studied Philosophy, which I guess was good enough, so one of my duties is talking to staff, in particular D-Class, whose behaviour might have been out of the ordinary, and making a judgement as to whether it might have been influenced by the skips they have been working on."
"You want to know why I attacked Patrick Goettsch," said Keagan slowly.
"Yes," said Edward, yawning suddenly and stretching out the arm holding the clipboard. Keagan caught a couple of words on the printed standardised tickboxes—'Gross Material Delusion', 'Undifferentiated Violence'. None were ticked, yet.
"And if I don't provide a satisfactory answer?"
"I'm sorry," said Edward. "I need you to work with me on this. If I can't provide a mundane reason for the attack they'll assume it was related to the recent experiments you did with Professor Reeds, and you'll be ruled contaminated. They need you to be—'re-usable'. If you're contaminated by a specific skip you'll be handed over to that team for destructive testing."
Destructive testing. Keagan saw the scalpels, the endless syringes, the electric saws contained within that euphemistic phrase.
"If you survive, you won't be D-Class any more—you'll be reclassified as part of the skip; that is, part of the phenomenon the procedures exist to contain. I've seen it done, and I never want to again. Please, tell me what happened."
Keagan took a deep breath. Just the Cliff Notes version, please: "It had nothing to do with Professor Reeds and his fucking dart board. Patrick Goettsch came from the same prison as I did; he snitched on me to the guards about a murder that happened inside; the one I was going down for before I joined the programme. It took me this long to get access to him—he was never in the dormitories the same time I was, and it's only recently I started getting left alone by the guards on maintenance duty."
Edward scribbled, eyes bright. "You were just settling an old score."
"And is this likely to re-occur? I mean, are you two likely to get into fights in future?"
"I don't think so," said Keagan, watching Goettsch out of the corner of his eye. "It's not that I suddenly don't have a problem with what he did anymore, but I'm done if he is."
"Okay," said Edward. "Now, I should probably ask you this; it was asked me and I thought it was ridiculous at the time, it covers half a dozen minor conditions that most people don't even seek medical treatment for and describes a good chunk of the UK population and, I imagine, a greater proportion of the prison population. But here goes: have you been experiencing any—" he rattled off the list from memory: "—lost time; hallucinations; sudden mood shifts; encounters with anomalous—that's supernatural—entities, I should point out outside the supervised Special Containment Procedures; rashes or other illness; loss of energy; trouble sleeping; strange or disturbing dreams; perceptions of reality or history that are out of sync with others around you; or emotional or cognitive difficulties?"
Keagan thought carefully before speaking: "No. I know I get angry easily, but that's not something new. I wouldn't be here at all if it were."
"Good," said Edward. "Thanks. I can take this to the Director. Please, just—try and keep your head down."
"Did you say anything?" asked Keagan. "I mean, did you put in a good word? Is that why they didn't just shoot me?"
Edward stood up. "Okay," he said, "I've got to get on. Serious injury during experimentation. D-7780. Who the hell is that?"
"That's the skinny guy in the corner," said Keagan, gesturing. "Ronny Feldspar. He was the Docklands Shooter." The explication earned a blank stare.
"I think I must have missed that," said Edward. "Thanks."
He moved away, tapping his pen against his wrist. Keagan watched for a little while as Edward talked to Ronny.
"Yes, there is a conspiracy," Edward was saying. "It's bigger than anything you've ever imagined. This organisation alone, in the UK alone, draws down hundreds of billions of pounds a year, including money siphoned from government budgets. The thing is, none of the organisations you're talking about exist."
Ronny shook his head violently. "You're wrong," he said, "the Masons control the government, the Royal Family aren't even human…"
"If that were true, we would have sent in a strike team and shot them. Then we would have covered it up. It wouldn't even make the Ten O'Clock news. The monarchy would be half-forgotten by the weekend and fictional by next week. Look, forget the Masons. There's a secret society in the UK that includes hundreds of politicians, tycoons, media celebrities. It's a gentleman's club called Marshall, Carter & Dark, and they're the reason I can't leave this place. They're international arms dealers, money launderers and blackmailers, and they have people in every national government and police force. But here's the thing—so do we. And so do the Global Occult Coalition. And the Chaos Insurgency, and the Russians… I admit, I'm not very high up in this thing, but I seriously doubt that the Overseers of the Foundation report to anyone but each other, let alone some sad ring of Bohemian intellectuals."
Ronny seemed to take the news badly—after a little while longer he flipped over to face the wall and refused to answer any more of Edward's questions about how his injuries and who he felt was responsible. Keagan turned to look at Patrick, who had been watching him.
"I meant what I said," Keagan called over to him. Patrick looked down.
"I know," he said. "I'm done too."
Keagan and Ronny were released at the same time, with Goettsch still laid up with multiple fractures from Keagan's beating. On their return to the dormitories, they were greeted with hushed whispers, as though they had come back from the dead. Others had not. Ronny, snarling at any suggestion he let anyone else handle the red chalk, clambered awkwardly over the bunks and scrawled shaky Xs with his good hand. Seven in total since Keagan had been taken away; including Goettsch, Shift B now consisted of 10 men. Cameron and Travis were gone—dead or transferred to another facility, no-one knew—leaving just Ronny from HMP Wormwood Scrubs.
As soon as the situation had settled down, Keagan began to explain what he had reasoned out while convalescing in the medical unit. He met some resistance at first, the way anyone might when trying to persuade eight traumatised men that their only hope of getting out of the nightmare they found themselves in was a fraud.
"Why would they do that?" shouted the shaven-headed convict from HMP Belmarsh whose name Keagan had never bothered to learn. "Why bother telling us all that bullshit about low-security facilities and gradually getting out of the system if it wasn't true?"
"I think you know that," Keagan said calmly, face angled away from the chunky protrusions in the ceiling he suspected housed the CCTV. "It gave us something to look forward to, something to make us keep our heads down and do what we're told. If they'd said on the first day that we weren't going home, ever, that we'd been lured here on false pretenses, how much co-operation do you think there would have been? Even if you don't believe they're going to kill us when our shift's over, look at the maths. How many of us are going to be left at the end of the month? And then what? At best, you get put together with other survivors and the cycle begins again until everyone is dead anyway."
"Way you put it—KAK—” Cancer objected, "doesn't seem like we have a lot of choice in the matter."
"There's always a choice," Keagan said. "One of the researchers told me supply trucks come in and out every Thursday. We get a pass or find a way out through the kitchens or something, we can hitch a ride."
Cancer laughed, breathlessly. "You're talking about jailbreak."
"I'm pretty sure this jail doesn't officially exist. If we can get out, what are they going to do? I know someone on the outside who's looking into this place—she wanted to publish an exposé. All we have to do is get to one of the army bases—the real army, I mean—in the area."
"Come on," he said. "You know what I'm saying makes sense. Surely it's better than waiting to be shot."
"I'd rather be shot than gassed," Ronny said in a subdued voice, looking up at the stains on the walls. "Someone told me, you never hear the bullet that kills you. It's just—lights out."
No-one responded, but as the evening went on, one after another of the inmates came over to Keagan's bunk and made some non-committal offer to map out the facility or try to figure out what backroutes might exist. What he'd said had hit home—perhaps they realised that with Goettsch's terror at an end they could no longer rely on him to take their place in the Foundation's experiments; had seen what happened to those with not so apparently charmed lives while he had been laid up in the medical unit. But Keagan couldn't rely on them, not really. They were institutionalised, he realised—fortunately for the British public at large, they thought of escaping prison as something that happened in dimly remembered Hollywood movies, not to them. And you're not institutionalised? said the little voice. You had a job at Wormwood Scrubs—two if you counted your failed stint as bodyguard. You were happy to wait out your time. That was different, he thought, angrily, that was outside—and paused for a moment at the thought that HMP Wormwood Scrubs was now 'outside'.
The idea that an unguarded back way out might exist was seductive, of course, but probably unlikely given the fortress-like levels of security at the main entrance. Their best chance had to lie in the keycards—if you could wrestle one off a suitably senior guard you could presumably make significant headway towards the entrance, although most likely the attack would be quickly registered and the facility locked down.
The first objective, of course, given that Shift B's already tenuous calendar had disintegrated further with the loss of its principal keepers, was to find out the day of the week. Given they had at most two weeks left, there was no opportunity for trial and error. Keagan spent some time thinking—you couldn't use the presence of staff as a barometer without a clear indication of who was allowed home and when, and monitoring supplies was probably out given that they had at most one opportunity to notice a marked replenishment that might suggest a delivery. But the facility's computers would still need to have an accurate time, even if access to the internet was restricted. Patrick Goettsch, on his return from the medical wing, was immediately dispatched again complaining of sharp pains in his dislocated shoulder, and reported having observed the system clock on one of the electronic drips. It was Tuesday, the 16th of August. Soon the replacement Shift A would be here, a fresh batch of quarrelsome lifers, and the guards would be on high alert.
Keagan therefore decided that any attempt to be free of the facility had to happen on the eve of the 18th. What he would do if he actually managed to clear the gates was less clear—if he was able to hide long enough to smuggle himself away in one of the supply trucks he could wait there until they reached their destination—most likely one of the regular army bases he had mentioned. Whether he could trust its occupants was another matter—there was every likelihood given how well-entrenched within the country's systems the Foundation seemed to be that they would simply turn him back over to the custody of Dr Skinner. Escape then—but there was a reason the facility in which he now resided had no walls—or rather, its walls were miles thick, a great open expanse of muddy fields and unexploded ordnance, standing between him and civilisation. That part of the plan, Keagan decided, would have to be thought up on the fly. As to getting out of their imposingly sealed dormitories, however, he was reasonably sure that would be the easiest part.
Surprisingly, the reconnoitres of the other inmates proved successful—there was indeed another exit that led directly out into the churned-up vehicle yard. A couple of them had been drafted into waste disposal and had caught tantalising glimpses of the outside world. The bad news, of course, was that it was locked down with a series of keycard-activated gates, similar to the main entrance, but Keagan seriously doubted it was as closely monitored.
The following night there was an electric atmosphere in the dormitories—the topic on everyone's lips seemed to be what Keagan was going to do, and to Keagan's dismay that was how it was invariably framed—what he, and no-one else, was going to do.
"How're you going to get out in the first place?" asked the younger Belmarsh inmate. "Doors look solid to me."
"They are." Keagan said. "But if you've listened whenever they open and close them, the bolt is spring-loaded and pulled back with an electromagnet. That means if the power goes out it's locked shut. But D-Class staff don't grow on trees, and they go as far as to treat us when we beat each other up, which makes me think there would be some kind of failsafe if there was a fire that disabled the mains supply. Who has the lighter?"
Cancer did, handing it over warily. "I really hope—KAHHK—you're not gonna torch the place."
"Hopefully I won't need to. There should be a sensor close to the door mechanism that registers high temperatures and engages a backup battery." He looked along the featureless surface of the wall, imagining the mechanisms behind the concrete.
"Right about here." He flicked the lighter on and held it up to the wall. The grey paint flaked and peeled away, turning black and falling to the floor in a neat little circle. The inmates looked on as the little store of lighter fuel diminished.
"You're wasting it," Cancer said accusingly.
Keagan looked at the little lighter. Was it really powerful enough to heat the wall in that spot sufficiently to simulate a fire? A few seconds later, there was a thin hum, then the familiar click-buzz. Keagan quickly spreadeagled himself over the wall, keeping the lighter in place while wedging the door open with the tip of one shoe. One of the others could have held it open, he thought, but they were too busy watching him. The Great Escape, he thought, back on TV. He tossed the lighter back to Cancer.
There was probably a guard watching the feeds—maybe even assisted by an algorithm that picked up on unusual levels of movement or noise, but at this time of night, Keagan hoped his brain was too fried by caffeine to make sense of what he was seeing—an inmate slipping through a narrow crack in a door that should be impregnable.
The sudden relief of the corridor—cold air untainted by body odour or the revenant spirit of last night's powdered eggs—sent a thrill through him. He waited a second to see if any other inmate would follow after him—when none were forthcoming he set off at a steady lope down the corridors, remembering the directions he had been given by the reluctant waste disposal technicians.
Collect blue lines, keep the green lines to your right… it seemed to make sense, and soon Keagan was running along a corridor with four blue stripes on the walls, green lines falling away as soon as they appeared. The door ahead was locked but not keycard protected, the interior darkened, behind reinforced glass. Keagan looked at the lock for a second then, bracing himself against the opposite wall, kicked the handle hard up and right. The sound of the mortise block splintering told Keagan he'd correctly identified the mechanism and the door swung loosely open as he pushed at it.
Keagan emerged into a large, split-level area, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he picked out the faint gleam of computer screens. He swore softly under his breath. The area was plainly somewhere D-Class weren't supposed to be—some kind of administrative area, maybe handling logistics or co-ordinating manpower across the facility—but it was most distinctly not the kitchens or anywhere that might logically lead there.
Plan B, he thought. This was an office, which meant during the day there must be staff working here. No matter how strict your security, no matter how inhumanly regimented you try to keep your staff, there'll always be someone who loses their access credentials and gets buzzed through by the guard or swiped out by a colleague. And in a place like this, if you find a keycard, you don't turn it in, you keep it at the bottom of a drawer somewhere so if you lose your own one you aren't immediately screwed. That was the theory, anyway.
Keagan began ransacking the desks whilst making as little noise as possible, and when he exhausted the possibilities of the smaller, raised area he descended the staircase and began work on the workstations there. A certain amount of leeway had been allowed to make the workspaces tolerable to exist in—the odd potted plant, amusing parodies of heavy lifting guidance sellotaped to the side of the printers ("Just let your ghost lift the box for you, you fucking idiot", the annotation now read pointing to the dotted outline of the ideal posture overlaying the diagrammed office worker), even, somewhat improbably given what Keagan suspected was true of the Foundation's policies regarding contact with one's family, a couple of World's Best Dad mugs left on the tables. What there were not, however, were any keycards.
Come on, come on, he thought, feeling underneath and behind prolapsed drawers in case a spare card had been stuck to it with Blu-Tack. He lifted monitors and shuffled desks, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the Foundation didn't care to conform to his experiences of the outside world. Plan C. He began to dump trays of documents onto the floor, looking through them for anything useful. A map, he thought. A passcode. Any fucking thing. He started scanning the documents.
SCP-287 is a Viking longsword, measuring 78cm from pommel to tip, and weighing 1077g.
What? No. He threw the paper on the floor and picked up another paperclipped file.
When spread onto a surface as paint, the liquid takes on a slight red tone which fades as it dries. The final dry color is a pale white.
bags often contain multiple parts, such as heart and lungs, while the intestinal tract is usually split into cca 1.5m segments, each packed separately
Jesus, no, stop.
The blood and tissue is mixed with the food sauce in a manner to suggest it was added to the food prior to consumption.
He was making whimpering noises now, kneeling in the middle of the ruined office, scanning each of the useless, lunatic files one by one before hurling them from him. He wanted to cry, he wanted to be sick, he wanted to-
"Okay. That's enough. Put your hands behind your head slowly."
And—Christ—they snapped in, not all at the same time but in a dizzying wave, the men who had been standing around him, watching him, for—seconds, minutes—pistols drawn. Change blindness, he thought. He probably should have had that checked out, at some point in the last few years. Too late now, of—stop it.
"How the hell did you even get out of the dormitory?"
Keagan didn't respond, sitting mute in the middle of the floor. It's not something you did, he thought numbly. It's something you are. You don't fuck up, you are a fuckup. Your whole damn life. Why? Why do I deserve…? You know why, said the little voice. What did I do? You know what, said the little voice.
One of the blue-hats began talking and he swiveled his head to look at them as though they were something alien.
"…about as serious as it gets without killing someone or breaching containment, I mean, he's out of D-Class accomodation, in a secure area, trashing the place. We get a new batch of the fuckers in a few days, we don't need him around pulling any more of this shit."
The first speaker, whose greying temples marked him out as the senior officer, addressed Keagan: "You know the drill, D-8671. You violate the rules, we decide what happens to you. Right now. That's our prerogative. You understand?"
Keagan spoke, his voice tired. "Yes, I understand."
The greying blue-hat raised his gun, but suddenly there seemed to be some disagreement in the ranks. One of the junior blue-hats spoke up:
"D-8671. Isn't he the guy they were going to send over to Dr Barker tomorrow?"
The gun was lowered. "That right, D-8671? You been assigned to 554?"
"I don't know," he said quietly.
The lead blue-hat took a few paces back and spoke into the radio clipped to his chest. Keagan caught a few words: "…then wake him up!"
The other guards kept Keagan at gunpoint but moved back slightly. Keagan thought he could detect in their distant gazes some hint of the emotion he had seen in the faces of the white-coats when he had been tasked with clearing up the liquefied corpse of one of his fellow inmates.
The lead blue-hat had apparently finished his call. "Well, it seems you're needed for the time being. Not my call. Gradley seems to have taken a shine to you—he can babysit you until Barker deigns to show up. Get up! Don't try anything or Skinner and Barker together won't stop me lighting you up."
Keagan watched the soft gleam of the nearest P229 barrel, traced the shape of the weapon down to its handle, where a dark cable connected it to the guard's belt. Even if I got hold of it, Keagan thought, I wouldn't make it out of this room. Instead, he got to his feet and bowed his head. The lead blue-hat shoved a pair of plastic handcuffs at his chest; he put them on, and allowed himself to be frogmarched out of the wrecked office. His feet caught a fragment of PC casing, a smashed lampshade. When did I do that, he wondered?
Chapter Seven: "The Necessary Illusion"
Edward was there when they reached the nearest guard post, wearing a blue dressing-gown and a long-suffering expression as he sipped a mug of cocoa. His pale skin looked positively ghostly under the bright lights of the secure panic room.
Keagan was bundled in and thrown into a chair, his wrists still bound behind him. One of the blue-hats remained behind at the door, weapon in hand. They sat there for a while, Edward drinking his cocoa and watching him warily.
At length Edward looked up. "You're a fucking pain in the ass, you know that?"
There was a further silence for the span of about a minute.
"…I'm sorry for getting you up so late," Keagan said at last.
"Before I came here I was an investment banker in the City," Edward said. "I'm used to late nights. So you tried to break out."
"Figured it was better than waiting around to get killed. That's what you do, isn't it, at the end of a D-Class shift? Kill everyone who's left."
Edward said nothing.
"But seems like I won't have to wait that long. I've been assigned to 554." Keagan saw Edward's eyes widen slightly. "Now, that's a bit of a puzzle, but I've been thinking about it. Did you know us D-Class record the numbers of the Special Containment Procedures we work with on the walls of the dormitories?"
"I didn't," Edward said.
"Well, we do. Now, that would be an interesting study—who started that tradition? I don't think anyone on my shift ever discussed it, but we all do it, and we all know what it means when someone puts a cross on the end of someone else's list. Now, the numbers on the walls range from the hundreds up to the high thousands; unless they're assigned randomly, 554 must have been known to the Foundation for a long while. Is that reasonable?"
Edward looked at the guard at the door. He nodded slowly while taking a sip from his mug.
"Okay," Keagan said. "So here's the thing. I haven't seen 554 written anywhere in the dormitory. Not once. I reckon there's years and years of D-Class who've written on those walls. So that means either the Foundation has known about 554 for years but never dared do experiments on it until now because it's so dangerous—or something happens that means no-one who ever works with 554 writes its number on the wall. Am I close?"
Edward shifted in his chair. "Keagan, I can't discuss that with you."
"Why not? I'm pretty sure it's going to kill me in a few hours."
Edward folded his slipped-socked feet up into the chair to get them off the chilly tiled floor of the muster point. "Look, Keagan, let me tell you a story."
"As long as it doesn't take the rest of my life." Keagan choked out a bitter bark of a laugh.
"It's a story that was told me when I first arrived here," Edward said. "So there's every chance that it's a load of horse shit. But even if it is, it still illustrates exactly what I'm trying to say. Anyway, you know about the amnesiacs?"
"No. You mean—people who forget things?"
"Well, no, that's what the word should mean. Around here, though, it's what we call what should really be named 'amnestics'. Substances that induce memory loss. Don't ask me why they use the other word, probably someone at the top misspoke early on and no-one ever bothered to correct them. You've seen some of the things we keep here?"
Keagan nodded, but the words were an icy shock to him. Did I overlook that, he thought?
"Well, most of the time they come on our radar because someone reports having what might be termed a supernatural experience. Something that doesn't fit into the modern idea of a logical universe. People falling through the cracks into the world. They can't cope with what they've seen."
"You brainwash them," Keagan said, slowly.
"We take away the memories. In many cases it's the only way people can go on. When they work: sometimes they remove the higher levels of cognitive memory but not the emotional connections, and on some people it doesn't work at all. That's why I'm here—I'm immune, apparently. They never figured out why. But anyway, amnesiacs are one of the most important tools in the Foundation's arsenal. They let us cover up things that it would be impossible to explain away otherwise. But because they're not 100% effective, the Foundation is always looking for ways to accomplish the same effect without recourse to chemicals. So anyway, there was a psychiatrist—usually when you hear the story he was in Sector-30, that's Germany, but I've also heard versions where he was in Britain, the US, Argentina… But the name's always the same. Dr Glüt.
"He was recruited for his research into behavioural modification. The Foundation told him … there were no such things as amnesiacs, or at least, that the higher level ones were a fraud, designed to make squeamish Foundation agents think we had a magic pill that made bad memories go away. He and his team were led to believe that the only way people were ever persuaded to forget what they'd seen was—" he paused for a second. "Through torture. They told him that the only thing standing between civilisation and anarchy was a room full of scalpels, electrodes, and black hoods. He was told that the people he was … experimenting on were civilians who had to be persuaded that what they had seen wasn't true, that they'd gone insane."
Keagan felt his lips peeling back from over his teeth. "And what were they really?"
"D-Class, mostly. Mostly. And it worked—at least the story says it worked. Dr Glüt used physical pain and good old fashioned operant conditioning to make people override their own perceptions. He was—a man at the top of his profession. But here's the thing about the story—the Foundation wasn't interested in the people Dr Glüt abused. That wasn't the point of the project. They already knew that extensive torture and psychological abuse could affect recollection. They wanted to learn how someone held up under the pressure of having to inflict terrible pain on another human being, hour after hour, every day."
"Milgram," said Keagan, recalling Professor Reeds. "They weren't studying the learner. They were studying the teacher."
"Yes. But Dr Glüt lasted longer than anyone thought possible. They kept sending him people to torture, kept making the stakes in the fantasy scenarios they fed him higher. But he continued, year after year. He became an embarrassment to the Overseers; I guess they expected to see some signs of conscience, not just a machine that went on performing the worst acts one human being can do to another for decades. Then he just broke. Completely and utterly. His wife says he woke up one day and his mind was gone. Reduced to a gibbering wreck.
"The story is told as a morality tale, but for me it represents something else—the Foundation doesn't tell the truth. Maybe not to anyone. I think I'm working as a researcher and counsellor, studying anomalous objects, talking to D-Class subjects who break the rules. But who knows? Maybe this whole place is here to study me and they're waiting to see how much I can take. They tell me they let someone called Dr Glüt torture people for decades just so they could see whether he could take the strain. They tell me they lie through their teeth to get volunteers for their experiments, most of whom die, then they kill the ones who survive. Maybe the Foundation doesn't do any of those things. What seems to be the end might not be."
"That's how you justify being here," Keagan said bitterly. "'It might all be a lie.' That's what you're counting on."
Edward flushed, dark red, and tears welled up in his eyes. "The Foundation does good," he said, with a sudden burst of forcefulness. "Even by lying. We keep the necessary illusion going. For everyone."
Edward looked down, starting to shiver. "That science works, that it isn't just a bad approximation of one small part of a universe characterised by madness and illogic. That the ground is firm and won't drop away from you at any moment. Without the illusion—there is no reality, as our civilisation understands it. Without us—no laws of physics, no laws of mathematics. We've decided what is considered part of reality and what is considered supernatural—it's arbitrary, a man-made distinction."
Keagan thought for a moment. "Einstein must've really done a number on you."
"The atom bomb. Yes. There was a lot of debate amongst the Overseers over whether atomic weapons should be considered anomalous. But it was 'our' side—the Allies—who had developed it, and the Foundation was a lot weaker then, for a number of reasons. Pragmatism won out."
They settled back into silence for a while. Keagan closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but found it impossible. After a while he said.
"Edward, this is important. The amnesiacs. How powerful are they?"
Edward had been staring through the reinforced glass of the guard post office into the dark of the corridor outside. He jolted back to attention as Keagan spoke.
"Pretty powerful. Not that I can speak from experience—the one time someone tried to use a Class-A amnesiac on me, it induced a seizure rather than wiping my memory."
"Could they wipe out a month's worth of memories?"
Edward looked at Keagan and some understanding seemed to pass between them, some recognition of the dim spark of hope represented here. Edward sagged in his chair. "I'm sorry," he said. "I've never known an amnesiac that works like that. Class-C and Class-B induce suggestibility and prevent formation of new memories while under the influence respectively. Class-A blocks recent memories from properly settling into long-term memory—at best you lose about half a day. The only thing more powerful is the Class Omega amnesiac, which induces complete memory and personality destruction—effectively kills you as a personality."
Keagan nodded. "I just thought … maybe at the end you're just wiped clean, sent off somewhere to live quietly with no knowledge of the Foundation."
"It's a nice thought."
"But not true."
"…No. I don't think so."
"Okay." Keagan leaned back again. Then: "You know, before you asked me whether I had had any strange dreams. I lied when I said I didn't. I don't want you to get in trouble."
Edward exhaled heavily and reached for his pad. "How are they unusual?"
"They're in a place I've never been before, but I've seen it several times now in different dreams. It's a place like this. There's a big open area, like a warehouse or a hangar, and a metal cube strung up in the middle of it with cables from the corners of the room. There's something in it. Trying to get out."
Edward's breath caught, just for a second. "You've seen what's inside?"
"Yes. It's like a monk. A Buddhist monk. But its face is fucked up, you can't focus on it at all. No-one else in the dream could see me, but it could. It seemed—surprised, I don't know."
"Thank you." Edward said, distantly. "Thank you. I need to talk to someone."
He got up, sliding his mug over to the far side of the table. The guard on the door stirred himself.
"Agent Moon said you're to remain with D-8671 until Dr Barker gets in."
"Well," said Edward, voice sharp-edged, "I need to talk to the Director. Last time I checked, I'm not D-Class. And I certainly don't take orders from you. If Agent Moon doesn't like it, maybe he can shoot me later."
The guard shrugged—'on your head be it'—and moved aside. Edward swept by him, hands clenched tightly by his sides.
The guard turned his attention back to Keagan but made no attempt to speak. Keagan waited there, drifting in and out of a feather-light, dreamless sleep that would be disturbed by every movement on the silent CCTV monitors. He saw five black-helmets entering the dormitory, MP7s drawn, taking a head-count at gunpoint. Keagan watched helplessly, willing the other inmates not to get themselves killed. But they seemed withdrawn, compliant—perhaps demoralised by the evident failure of Keagan's escape attempt. Even Ronny kneeled down on the floor with his hands beside his head.
Later he saw Edward hurrying through a corridor. The blue-hat he identified as Agent Moon meeting a white-coat near the entrance gate, making obsequious gestures as though to placate him for having awoken him earlier. Other white-coats beginning to filter in through the corridors, laboratories. It was morning. The white-coats arrived in the bomb-ruin of the administrative office with postures of disbelief and exasperation, the blue-hat left on duty there making commiseratory nods.
"It's time," said the guard at the door—only the second time that night he had spoken—and hauled Keagan up by his forearm, led him out into the corridor again. The little voice was screaming in his head—kick to the knee, shoulder-barge him as he drops, bite his throat until you find the jugular, do something, but he wasn't listening.
When Keagan and his chaperone reached the laboratory—larger and better-equipped that the ones he'd seen thus far, with banks of computer screens surrounding a central raised platform—he was surprised to see Cancer, standing between two guards on one side of the room. Beside him, Ronny Feldspar, still nursing the stub of his wrist. He wondered whether they had been allowed to mark '554' on the wall before they left the dormitories. They seemed just as surprised to see him, Ronny throwing him a look of fear mixed with hate. However, he was not permitted to join them—instead, he was kept under separate watch at the other end of the laboratory, reinforcing Keagan's impression that he was to play a special role in this experiment.
Dr Skinner was there, grey hair gelled up as usual, chatting animatedly to another white-coat, a bespectacled black man with short white hair, the one he had seen Agent Moon greet on the CCTV. The second man seemed irritated at having to be present—no doubt annoyed that Keagan's escape attempt had forced him to bring forward the time of the experiment; he kept glancing at his watch and scowling. This, Keagan surmised, was Dr Barker. At least six younger white-coats were bustling around the monitors, ticking off boxes on clipboards and talking in urgent, clipped tones.
Agent Moon and half a dozen blue-hats were present, too—the first time he had seen a heavy guard presence during an experiment; whether for him or for what might be about to happen he could not know.
"Okay, people," Dr Skinner announced, quietening the discussions of the junior white-coats. "I know this experiment is particularly complex, so I shan't get in your way more than I have to. I'm just here to observe in my capacity as D-Class personnel supervisor, to make sure sector assets are being expended properly."
Expended. Keagan thought. He would have said 'used' if he expected all of us to walk away. He wondered how Ronny felt, so close to the heart of a real conspiracy that considered men's lives resources to be burned through—but so far from the theories he had cherished.
The Professor nodded at Dr Barker, who stepped forward, tapping on his lapel mic. "Is this thing on?" The last syllable suddenly boomed throughout the laboratory and one of the junior technicians turned to give him the thumbs up. "Good. For the record, today we'll be testing boundary conditions for 554-Boojum. The object itself is now on high surveillance—” he pointed to one of the screens, which showed a great rusting device, oxidised iron over weather-streaked concrete, resting on what appeared to be a rural hillside "—and we are streaming records live from a backup server at Site-60 to compare the secondary effects of 554-Boojum in real-time. Dr Rolfus is on hand at Site-60 to handle data uploads."
A disgruntled-sounding voice boomed out of the speakers, almost entirely incomprehensible though Keagan thought he caught the word 'ingrates'. One of the technicians winced and removed his headphones.
Dr Skinner cut in smoothly. "Thank you for your forebearance, Dr Rolfus. We've had to move the experiment forward for security reasons. I'll also thank you to keep focused on your current task rather than going back over the unfortunate circumstances that led to your reassignment up north, hmm?"
The voice made a further uncomplimentary-sounding interjection, but it was muted.
"Very well," Dr Barker continued, "The subject currently designated 554-2 was euthanised today at 0400 hours; we will effectively be starting with a clean slate. Subject D-8671 will be exposed to the 554 effect and thus redesignated 554-2. In the course of this experiment we will be triggering a 554-Boojum event, which necessarily involves the creation of another 554-2 subject. The most suitable subject for this purpose has been selected as D-7761,"—that was Cancer—"whose limited lifespan due to a medical condition offers possibilities for the future study of 554-Boojum in cases of natural death."
Keagan looked over at the other two inmates. Cancer's expression was neutral. He would survive Shift B, then; but would spend what little life he had left locked away, integrated into Special Containment Procedures 554.
Dr Barker was still talking, and Keagan forced himself to pay attention: "…will determine the exact threshold 554 considers 'observation', as well as whether an instance of 554-2 is able to prevent a former 554-2 subject from undergoing 554-Boojum. D-8671 will be converted into 554-2, then D-7761 exposed. D-8671, as the former 554-2 subject, will thus be subject to 554-Boojum. Observation of the subject will be gradually diminished through a number of means including reducing ambient light in order to determine the key threshold for observation." He looked over towards the door. "Ah. Thank you, Agent Piper. Please bring in the viewing apparatus." A black box on wheels, the size of a room service trolley, was wheeled into the room and positioned near the central dais. "In order to minimise exposure of other personnel, the two D-Class subjects will be briefly shown an electronic image of 554-1 that has been determined to transmit the effect."
He turned, and began addressing Keagan. "D-8671—is that him? I can't read his designation label from here." A guard briefly confirmed that Keagan was, indeed, D-8671. "Good. D-8671, approach the viewing apparatus and place your head in the viewing chamber, located on the near side of the apparatus."
Keagan had never understood why, in films, people willingly co-operated with those they suspected were about to kill them—why they dug their own graves, literally, or figuratively by divulging the information keeping them alive. Now he understood—it was based on a truth. You did what you were told to survive a few more minutes, even if you knew it made your death all the more certain. You killed two men to avoid paying them off, the little voice retorted, but you won't fight for your own life. Pathetic. But there was nothing Keagan could do. He was a car with a dead engine, being pushed up a hill an inch at a time. He walked over to the dark box and took up what he presumed to be the correct position, head lowered into the square notch cut out of the side of the trolley, forehead resting on a curved stand apparently provided for that purpose.
"In a few seconds you will see an image on the monitor below you. Please tell us what you see."
Keagan waited—the space below him remained black, and some activity around him led him to believe the apparatus wasn't quite ready.
"Technician Grant, the question is not whether it's working or not. I can see it's not working. The question is why. Please find that out, and rectify it," Dr Barker snapped from somewhere behind him.
"You want me to take a look?" Keagan said, sarcastically. "Electronics aren't my forte, but I'm sure I could get it going, if it's just a monitor. I can give you a fair quote, and I take cash…"
"That won't be necessary, D-8671. Please remain quiet unless instructed to speak."
But someone wasn't keeping quiet. Someone was shouting something loudly, a long way away, and getting closer. Soon it was possible to make out that what was being shouted was along the lines of 'Stop the experiment! Stop it now!".
Dr Barker sighed, the sound distorting into a deep crackle as it fed through his label mike. "Agent Moon, please see what's going on outside.
Keagan heard the familiar swipe-ratchet of a keycard-operated door, and the voice suddenly came into focus. "Let me in! Let me—oh."
"Researcher Gradley." Moon's voice, more than a note of exasperation in it. "This is a restricted experiment and you aren't permitted to be here, let alone disrupting the procedure by yelling outside."
"It's okay," Keagan interjected, still kneeling with his head in the trolley, "They can't get it working anyway. I offered to fix it for them."
Edward butted in: "I have compelling reason to believe this experiment is at risk of causing cross-contamination between two different Special Containment Procedures. D-8671 told me just a few hours ago that he's been having unusual dreams. He described them to me. I've been in contact with Site-60, and they've confirmed all the details. It's 1447."
"And that is?" asked Moon. "You'll have to excuse me, I don't actually carry around the entire SCP object database in my head."
"The tulpa," pressed Edward. "A self-sustaining manifest thought-form, in containment at Site-60. He described its appearance, its containment unit, the surrounding facility—everything. Oh, for the love of Christ, is that Dr Rolfus on the monitor over there? Site-60 is part of this experiment?"
"Only to compare personnel records. 554's secondary effects including altering local written and electronic data."
Well, that explained the walls, at least.
"Look, you have to shut this down, or at least choose another subject. 1447 tried to breach containment a week ago—”
"Nothing new there, as I recall." Dr Skinner's voice.
"and exhibited highly unusual behaviour while doing so. The Director won't tolerate—”
"Look, Edward," Agent Moon interrupted. "The experiment's already in progress. The subjects have already been chosen based on clear criteria of suitability—”
"Because D-8671 tried to escape, you mean," Edward challenged.
"—yes. That's valid criteria. But also because he had an ongoing case moving through the courts and it saves us quite a bit of bother if all that goes away without us having to do mop-up." The Judge, Keagan thought. So, no-one, not even a plausible suspect, would stand trial for the murder of Wesley Kellogg. What a surprise.
"Look, it may come as a shock to you," Agent Moon continued, "but this isn't the US, we don't have the same resources available to us, and we can't afford the same degree of separation between different projects. Every D-Class here, including D-8671, has been involved with multiple skips since they arrived. You want to scrap a highly valuable experiment because one scumbag's been having dreams that happen to sound like another skip out of thousands somewhere else in the world? I'm guessing if the Director felt as strongly as you we wouldn't be hearing this from one junior researcher yelling in the corridor."
"I wasn't able to raise him," Edward said. "Professor Gelding said…"
"Frankly," Dr Skinner said, "I don't give a damn what Professor Gelding says or thinks. I authorised this experiment, not him, and it will proceed on my say-so. Technician Grant, what the hell is the holdup?"
"Sorry sir, should be working now."
"Agent Moon, get Gradley out of my—I mean, Dr Barker's—laboratory. And tell him he's lucky I don't initiate disciplinary procedures against him for trying to usurp the chain of command. Dr Barker, please continue."
"Thank you, Dr Skinner. Grant, show D-8671 the image."
Sudden light, painful after the darkness of the box. A corridor—no, a crawlspace, dirt on the ground. Something inside, a black plastic bag, sealed shut with strips of duct tape. Human-sized. Light shining through at the far end.
"What do you see, D-8671? Describe the image?"
"It's somewhere dark. Looks like the space underneath something big. There's what looks like a body in a black plastic bin liner underneath it."
"Describe the body, D-8671."
"I can't. I just told you, it's wrapped in a bin liner."
"Does it fill the whole space? Is it large, or small? Does it cover the stains at the centre of the space?"
"It looks like it's curled up, but it's pretty big. I don't see any stains."
"Good. For the record 554-1 in static images remains unchanged since the last experiment. Technician Grant, please secure the viewing apparatus."
The image disappeared again, engulfed by blackness.
"D-8671, you are now redesignated 554-2. Please take your head out of the viewing chamber and move over to the testing platform."
A blue-hat pulled on Keagan's cuffs and he hit his head on the rim of the trolley, just below the crown of his head at the back. "Shit," he said, unable to rub the area due to his restraints but feeling something trickle down through the short coarse hair.
"Agent Matthews, try to avoid undue damage to the subject. Please help him into place on the testing platform."
Keagan was led over and through gestures told to escalate the steps up to the central dais.
"Technician Grant, please can we test the lighting?"
The lights around the dais dimmed, the screens on the walls winking out. Keagan was left illuminated at the centre of the space, bright white lighting beating down on his face and shoulders. Keagan could make out the shine of Dr Barker's spectacles in the darkness, watching him.
"Thank you. Please restore regular lighting conditions. Agent Moon, please escort D-7780 to the observation deck around the testing platform."
Ronny was led to the central dais, and ushered up to a second, slightly lower ring, separated from the higher platform by a low railing.
"D-7780, please keep 554-2 under close observation at all times unless otherwise instructed."
Ronny's eyes were quivering, betrayed, flashes of the whites showing. Keagan thought he seemed on the verge of breaking down completely.
"D-7761, please position yourself at the viewing apparatus."
Keagan watched as Cancer walked over and kneeled by the trolley. He saw the older man flinch as his face was lit up from below by the screen. Keagan felt something—barely perceptible; a slight buzzing-tugging-tingling as though something were softly taking hold of him by his collar and trying to pull him away.
"D-7761. What do you see?"
"Describe the body. Is it large or small? Does it have the legs tucked up under it."
"What fucking—KAAK—body? You've shown me an empty crawlspace."
"There's a plastic bin liner in the crawlspace. It contains a body. Describe it to me or you will face immediate correctional action."
Agent Moon put his hand on his gun.
Cancer began chuckling, interspersed with -sucking, wet coughs, as though something inside him was tearing loose. "You mean you'll shoot me, like you're gonna—HAKH—shoot everyone else, right? Doesn't matter. There's no—KKUK—body in the picture. Come and have a look yourself if you got a problem with it."
Obviously this wasn't the response the white-coats had been expecting. Dr Barker switched off his lapel mic and went into conference with Dr Skinner for several minutes before turning his mic back on.
"Thank you, D-7761. You are now designated 554-2. Please proceed to the observation deck."
"So who am I now?" Keagan asked. "If I'm not 554-2 anymore?"
Barker seemed momentarily nonplussed by the question. Then: "The subject on the testing platform is once again designated D-9671."
"D-8671," Keagan suggested, but the error went uncorrected.
"Technician Grant, please dim the facility lighting."
Once again the lights around the dais went out. Other than the distant gleam of the Doctor's glasses, all Keagan could see were Cancer and Ronny Feldspar at the edge of the spotlight.
"554-2, D-7780, please maintain unbroken observation of D-9671 unless otherwise instructed."
Cancer's eyes seemed emptied of everything.
"I'm sorry," Keagan said to both of them. "I really am."
"Yes, yes," Dr Barker said wearily. "Let's not have any histrionics. Technician Grant, please reduce ambient lighting by 50%. Just as a reminder to researchers and technicians—as well as to our honoured guest Dr Skinner—please view the subject only via the monitors to avoid observer interference."
The light beating down on Keagan faded gradually, from bright white to a dimmer yellow. The buzzing, however, rose in his ears, the feeling that something was trying to snatch him away intensifying.
"For the record the subject is stable at 840 lumens," noted Dr Barker. "Technician Grant, reduce the lighting by a further 30%."
The dim yellow of the light was progressively replaced now by a twilight blue. Cancer and Ronny's faces seemed to float in the darkness, eyes and mouths distorted by shadow. Keagan rubbed his eyes—a darkness was forming, behind the eyes, behind everything. The sensation of being grabbed grew still further—it felt like a dozen hands were slashing out through the darkness, grabbing at his shoulders, his torso, trying to get a good grip, but somehow slipping away, something still stopping them.
"Subject still stable at 350 lumens. 554-2, please turn around and move away from the observation deck."
Cancer's lip twisted up. For a moment he didn't move. Then he said "I'm sorry too," and turned away.
"Subject stable at 350 lumens with a single observer. D-7780, please maintain observation of the subject while we prepare the second part of this experiment. Technician Grant, please prepare the graduated mechanical removal."
After a couple of seconds, Keagan's eyes adjusted to the dark and he saw the researchers scurrying about, wheeling around cameras and monitors on stands. He turned his attention back to Ronny. The skinny killer was smirking, cradling the ruin of his left hand with the tattooed right one, still hidden in his sleeve as though it were shameful to him. Ronny's chest began to rise and fall in a series of sharp exhalations. Keagan wondered for a moment if he was having some kind of panic attack until he realised he was chuckling under his breath, the movement becoming more and more pronounced until it became audible. Oh no, he thought. You stupid bastard. You're going to do something, aren't you?
"D-7780? D-7780, what are you doing? Stop that. Maintain unbroken observation of the subject. That's all I want you to do. Just … stop that, now."
Ronny was laughing his ass off now, sinking down until his hands were on his knees. He fixed Keagan with one last stare.
"Fuck you," he said, and turned around. At that moment, Keagan felt the hands finally catch hold, latching onto fabric, hair, flesh. He was being pulled away.
"Lights!" screamed Dr Barker from somewhere very far away. "Turn the fucking lights on! Turn the—”
The static rose around Keagan and drowned him in the darkness.
He tumbled through an icy void, wind howling in his face. He could feel something coming, something cold and sharp and hungry. He looked towards it and could almost imagine seeing it—black knives rushing through the night. Then it was as if two hands had closed around him and shut out the cold. The dark was now the dark of the womb, and Keagan felt himself curl up in it, tucking his legs up under him. He felt a great thrumming pass through the presence that held him and realised he had heard it before, from outside. In here the chant it was slower, deeper, comprehensible, syllables permeating the dark.
OM MANE PEMI HUNG OM MANE PEMI HUNG OM MANE PEMI HUNG
Just for a moment the chant faltered, a curdled wave of pain washing over Keagan as the entity cried out. Great ragged holes appeared in the hands, the cold rushing in and piercing Keagan, his chest and abdomen lighting up with agony. But whatever wielded those knives in the dark had been slowed by its passage through the substance of those hands—forced to expend more of its rage and hate than it could justify burrowing through them, and even as Keagan felt its blades cutting into his flesh they crumbled to night-black ash, falling away into the dark.
And on the edge of the great vibration, like the froth of a wave hitting the rocks, he heard the voice.
A gift, it said. From a prisoner to a prisoner.
Sam Deloitte rose and put on a dressing-gown, went through to the kitchen of her flat and put the kettle on, curling up on a beanbag chair with the mail and her laptop. She had two hearings to cover today, but they were both in the afternoon, and neither was particularly challenging—a drink driving case involving the son of a local Labour councillor, and a mugging of a 72-year-old woman, to which the accused was expected to plead guilty. She went through the slightly damp, dog-eared envelopes that had been stuffed her letterbox.
Circular. Circular. 'This is not a circular', which in British advertising parlance means 'This is a circular'. An electricity bill and, in the same batch of mail, a demand for payment. Sam had phoned up British Gas three times in the last week and eventually secured an agreement from one Rajay in Customer Services that she would be able to pay over 14 months rather than 12. This had clearly not been passed onto any other part of the organisation. Then something that caught her eye; an envelope with 'FOICOMMONS' stamped in the top right corner. She tore it open excitedly and discovered within a response to one of her Freedom of Information Act requests. This is what it said:
Dear Ms Deloitte
Thank you for your request for information dated 25th July 2011, received by us on 27th July 2011, and is copied below.
You asked for information in relation to contact between the SCP Foundation Group and Members of Parliament. The response is given below.
The House does not hold the information you are seeking.
You may, if dissatisfied with the treatment of your request, ask the House of Commons to conduct an internal review of this decision. Requests for internal review should be addressed to…
Sam sighed heavily. Of course, it wouldn't be that easy.
The man in the cell had returned from his shower. He had fifteen minutes to make himself presentable and report for work. His cellmate was probably still at breakfast—he spent as little time in the cell as he could, for the man hadn't quite given up his protective shield, the mannerisms and affectations designed to deflect aggression. In the library, however, he was learning to leave it behind—after a few false starts staring through gaps on the shelves at browsers he suspected were likely to abscond without signing a book out. He had even managed a few civil words with Don Dacyk, between pages of The Sum Of All Fears.
The heat of summer was already beginning to drop away, a faint and distant chill entering these dog days. B block had seen an influx of new faces, some of which had quickly disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived. It had become an easy pattern, if you knew what to look for; men receiving unexpected visits and returning excited, skeptical, puzzled by an offer made. A few days later they would be gone, and the guards would affect nonchalant ignorance when anyone asked after them. The man in the cell could no longer remember exactly who had drawn his attention to the disappearances. They came and went, but he remained. And yet he had changed, was changing.
For a moment, he stood still at the centre of the cell, then, without knowing exactly what had led to the decision, turned and eased the bunk bed away from the wall, feeling the cracks at the bottom of the wall behind the legs. He withdrew a couple of the drawings, paper hardened and cracking as he unfolded them. He held them up to the light and for a second saw the world behind them again—the river, the skyline, the remembered tiny people making their way through the landscape. He blinked his watery eyes in the bright sunlight filtering through the bars and smiled.
Timothy McGage was halfway between his 134th and 136th pullup when the doorbell rang. He lowered himself slowly to the floor and roughly towelled off the sweat rolling down his face and shoulders. He was glad of the interruption—he had found himself exercising obsessively, spending hour after hour driving away thought through physical exercise. He relished the notion of someone to talk to—not that he could ever talk about what was pushing him away from friends, his fiancé, his family.
The money had arrived in his bank account, just as he had been told it would, but suddenly there seemed nothing to spend it on. All desire, or drive, all ambition seemed to have vanished. Indeed, he felt nauseous every time he logged onto internet banking and saw it sitting there in his current account, under the heading 'Prison Officers Association Annual Raffle—Cash Prize'. He had begun looking over his shoulder at night, sure he had seen the same car before or that someone was following him.
Tugging at his damp white wife-beater to allow air to circulate, he approached the door, the atrium lined with modern art pieces he had once thought were the height of sophistication but which he could now barely bring himself to look at. There was a shadow on the other side of the door, and he opened it.
"Sorry," he said, "I was just in the middle of my workout. Why don't you—”
He trailed off when he registered the face of the man at the door.
"You're here," he said. He took a step back, face suddenly grey and jaw slack. "Why are you here? Jesus Christ."
The man at the door's arm moved—a blur of motion, barely perceptible, before it stopped with a shudder that seemed to shake the world. He was suddenly holding something—dark brown, about the size of a clenched fist.
Pain in McGage's chest, unlike anything he had ever felt. He staggered back, falling heavily against the wall and dislodging a singularly repulsive pottery piece. Already the air in his lungs seemed anoxic, his vision blurring around the edges.
He looked at the thing in the man's hand.
"You've relied on it for so long," the man said, a faint smile playing around his lips, "but you've never even seen its true colour until now. What insight I give you."
It still pulsed, faintly, between the man's fingers—trying to stem the sudden vacuum. If it could, McGage realised, it would push oxygenated blood all the way around the universe for him.
"I'm sorry," McGage tried to say to his heart, but what came out of his blue lips was a hiss. I let you down, didn't I?
"No loose ends," said the man at the door happily, unceremoniously dropping the thing he was holding onto the corpse of Timothy McGage before closing the door carefully with his elbow. He wiped his hand on the immaculately trimmed lawn of the bungalow and walked down the street, humming to himself. It was turning into a beautiful day.
Chapter Eight: "Mr Brightside"
He awakened to a sucking, smothering blackness, and he spent a moment lying there, suffocating in it until he realised this was real, that he was lying on soil and dirt and there was something over his face, choking him. He tried to reach up, but his hands were bound to his sides by something clinging and plastic. The thing over his face billowed in and out as he sucked at it, and eventually, though a supreme effort of inhalation, he got it into his mouth and chewed on it until he felt it soften and tear, and he breathed cool, revitalising air through the rent. After a minute more, his eyes began to detect a faint light permeating the black plastic over his face.
He thought carefully about his position then arched his back, stretching the plastic around his arms. Further extension was cut short by the painful collision of his ribcage with what seemed to be a low metal ceiling. Instead, he lay down and used the extra slack near his hands to search over the ground. Soon he found what he was looking for—a sharp-edged stone—and, holding it through the plastic, began worrying at the material held taut between his wrists until it gave way, freeing his arms. He turned onto his side and, clawing at the stuff with his hands, began to push with each foot in turn, until the plastic began crinkling up and he wriggled out of it like a newly pupated insect. He was lying in a crawlspace, under a great, rusting metal tank, which made occasional clanking and whirring noises, like someone fiddling with a gearbox. The sun was shining through on either side, illuminating an expanse of green grass that stretched into the distance. He took great, gulping breaths, lying on his back with his arms and legs stretched to the extent that the space under the machine would allow.
Soon the desire to leave this cramped place became overwhelming—but it still struggled against the fear he had, that somehow, the universe outside was an illusion, or else a radical misinterpretation by his oxygen-starved brain of some space more in keeping with the world he had come to know. He entertained then for a little while a notion that the thing above him was the suspended chassis of a Renault Clio, that he had somehow fallen asleep in the inspection pit and had a dream; the longest and strangest he had ever experienced, with murder, prison, clandestine organisations and logic-defying experiments. Wasn't it more plausible than the notion he was where his senses still stubbornly insisted on reporting he was? It would surely be OK if he stayed here a little while longer.
He couldn't pin down exactly what caused him to move—some play of the light on the grass, the distant susurration of water on rock he heard that brought back in one flash a holiday he had taken once with his family on the south coast, the cry of the birds… Once his body had taken that decision he scrabbled out of the space under the rusting tank like a man possessed, making little whimpering noises as he dragged himself out of that dark space into the light.
It blinded him momentarily, and in that second all he could see was light. Then it faded and he saw he knelt on a grassy hillside under a blue sky, a hedgerow of tangled vines and nettles blocking the view over the cliff, but the horizon extending beyond it in a way that can only be experienced when there is truly nothing else there but open water reflecting the light. Above him, he saw little holiday chalets clinging to the hillside, a long way from civilisation for those inclined to be alone. Below him, a distant holiday park, caravans stretching out in neat little rows, a narrow curving path leading off down the cliff. He bowed his head, prostrating himself over the grass, smelling it and the soil beneath.
A distant throb of pain caught his attention, and for the first time Keagan—the name jumped back as soon as he turned his attention inward—thought to examine himself. His hands, of course, were pebble-dashed and scraped from clawing his way over the bare earth under the machine; his knees felt similarly ill-used beneath the stained orange jumpsuit. His torso…
A series of evenly-spaced puncture wounds dotted his torso, crusted dried blood caking the jumpsuit to his torso. The shock made him sit down on his bottom—he plucked at the cloth with shaking hands to try and get a better look at the injuries, distantly worried that it would cause them to start bleeding again. Once the jumpsuit had been stripped half-off he could see the wounds—deep but not enough to penetrate any organs, and scabbed-over, already healing. Something bothered him, something he'd missed. He looked back at his hands, at his left wrist, then at his chest. No tattoos; his designation, D-8671, had been excised as though it had never existed. He prodded at the areas, as though there might be some residual discomfort from whatever had sucked the ink out of his cells.
He looked back at the rusted iron edifice on the hillside. This, then, was 554, the device he had seen on the monitors back in the darkness of Dr Barker's laboratory. He tried to remember whether he or Dr Skinner had given away any indication as to the location of the object, but came up blank. One thing Barker had said stuck with him, though.
The object itself is now on high surveillance.
Keagan jolted up, looked around, shaking his head to try and clear change-blindness. He half expected the blue-hats to pull their appearing trick again, reveal that he'd been sitting there like an idiot while they strolled up and surrounded him. What would that mean? It had been abundantly clear that they had not expected him to survive the transition, which as far as he could make out from the convoluted experiment Dr Barker had devised necessarily involved the transformation of the subject from living human to a corpse bundled up in a bin liner. Probably they would decide to take him apart to try and see how he had accomplished the feat of avoiding this process.
He glanced up at the cliffs, along the coastal walking paths, but the only people he saw were distant blobs of colour, families walking together in the sun. Even so, he reasoned, the fact that the machine was relatively open, albeit isolated, strongly implied some kind of ongoing surveillance to avoid hikers stumbling over it and its grisly cargo. Accordingly, he decided it would be best to put some distance between himself and it, and he set off at what he judged to be an inconspicuous jog in the direction of the holiday park, quickly joining an overgrown National Trust trail.
His first priority was finding out where he was… no, scratch that, he thought, catching sight of his bloody jumpsuit out of the corner of his eye as he jogged, his first priority was to look less like someone fleeing the scene of a gruesome murder. He paused underneath a weeping willow and stripped off the jumpsuit to the waist, ripping the garment away from the waist up and tucking the excess fabric into the waistband of the grey and undoubtedly fifth-hand underwear the Foundation had issued. He held the torn upper half of the jumpsuit in the shallow river running down beside the path and dabbed at his injuries until the crusted blood around them was gone, leaving only the narrow scabs over the wounds themselves.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the glass of a large conservatory jutting out onto the back of the trail—the remainder of the jumpsuit could pass for a pair of jogging bottoms, at least at a decent distance, and the wounds at least looked merely sore, rather than a reason to call the police. He actually passed another jogger, a middle-aged man isolated from the world by a set of earphones, coming the other way—Keagan nodded to the man and received a perfunctory nod in return.
The trees parted ahead of him and a sign proclaimed that he was entering Culver Down Caravan Park—he vaguely tried to remember whether he had heard of Culver Down but decided he had not. There were relatively few holidaymakers around—most of them presumably gone off on various sightseeing expeditions. Keagan slowed to a trot as he passed the first row of caravans and eventually found what he was looking for—each had at its back a simple clothesline suspended between two posts hammered into the ground, and it wasn't long before Keagan found a shirt and trousers that looked like it might be in his size.
He stopped, quickly scanning the windows but not taking too long to check he was alone before calmly removing the garments and changing into them behind the shelter of a beach towel. He tried to project the impression of a man on holiday having just completed his morning and changing into the clothes in which he intended to go about his business in the rest of the day. There was nothing he could do about the grubby off-white plimsolls right now, of course, but with any luck they would simply reinforce the impression of the casual but energetic holidaymaker.
Thus attired, he walked into the holiday park reception, hoping the owner of the shirt wasn't doing some early morning shopping. He gave a friendly smile and wave to the plump blonde woman at the kiosk and wandered over to the leaflets section. "Wildlife Parks and Zoos on the Isle of Wight", "IOW attractions and things to do", "History of the Island", and so on. Keagan was stunned. 554 had apparently transported him a good 50 miles south and off the mainland. This would present additional challenges, of course. The receptionist saw him staring uncomprehendingly at the leaflets and came over, asking him if he was OK.
"Sure," Keagan managed to say. "Just a bit overwhelmed. I haven't been on holiday for a while."
She beamed back. "It can be difficult to know what to do first. Did you come in last night? I don't think I saw you."
Think. Does that mean she wasn't on duty? Too risky to assume that and say someone else signed him in. He plumped for something generic.
"Yeah—thought I'd have a lie-in."
That seemed to do the job and she floated back to her desk where she was halfway through a Sudoku puzzle.
The leaflets were close enough to the newspaper rack that Keagan was able to peruse the front covers without any reasonable expectation of him buying them. The park shop carried The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and a couple of local newspapers like the Wight Herald. But it was the date that struck him most—Monday, 15th August. Keagan blinked. As far as he was concerned, it was Thursday—two days after Goettsch had confirmed the date from the computer in the medical wing, the day after he had broken out of D-Block Alpha-2.
There were a couple of possibilities:
That Goettsch had lied about the date, hoping to disclose Keagan's escape attempt in return for privileges or perhaps a stay of execution at the end of his shift. Possible, but the elusive convict had seemed genuine in the medical wing about a cessation of hostilities.
That Culver Down Holiday Park was so laughably isolated that it could not maintain a current stock of newspapers. Unlikely—the shop seemed well stocked with perishables and given the size of the island could not be far from a town or village.
That 554 had somehow transported him backwards in time. If this was true, somewhere to the north, another Keagan, or rather his previous self, would be waking up in the medical wing after attacking Patrick Goettsch. Thinking about it made his head ring slightly, and he decided that it probably didn't matter.
He left the shop with his questions about his location answered, but a host of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his place. With no money, even getting off the island and back to the mainland was impossible—with the best will in the world he didn't feel up to swimming the 5 miles from the Isle of Wight to Southampton. And if he did, what then? Questions of chronology aside, he had just escaped from a top secret pseudo-governmental facility, to whose custody he had been transferred from a Category B prison where he had been serving a life sentence. Was he now a fugitive, he wondered?
His stomach rumbled, and he realised he was terribly hungry, as though he hadn't eaten for days. Fuck it, he thought. The notion of looting one of the caravans was tempting, and it seemed likely that more than one had been left unlocked as their occupants bundled off to the beach or a local heritage site. However, the layout of the park meant he would be extremely visible while trying the doors, and the receptionist was likely to recognise him as the guy she didn't remember booking in. Instead, he set off again over the countryside, this time walking over the fields in the bright sunlight. He walked uphill, into the sun, and it warmed his skin and made him narrow his eyes.
Eventually he found what he was looking for—a lay-by where several cars were parked, unattended, their owners having left to go rambling over the downs. He had been prepared to knock out a window—easy enough if you know where to hit it—and trigger a car alarm but in the end it proved unnecessary. One of the vehicles was a Fiat Eper, a beautifully designed but incompetently produced vehicle from the late 90s that was always a nightmare to find parts for because it had been officially recalled due to a rather glaring security flaw. To whit, if you pressed down on the rubber sealing around the driver's side door window in just the right spot, it actuated the interior locking mechanism. He gouged his thumb hard into the corner of the window, feeling the loose plate that connected directly to the interior door handle mounting, and shoved at it. The door opened with a sleek hydraulic whisper and Keagan got in, hoping any other walkers would just see a man casually opening his own car.
The glove compartment was empty, but underneath the passenger seat he found a zip-top bag the owner had presumably deemed too heavy to carry with them while hiking. Opening it, he found water in a Coke bottle—he sucked at it thirstily as he rummaged through the other items—a wallet containing debit and credit cards, the owner's driver's license and about £300, probably the owner's holiday money. Keagan checked the inside of the wallet to make sure the owner hadn't been stupid enough to write his PIN number there, then took the money and tossed the wallet back in the bag. A chunky feature phone, which he pocketed. This seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the bag—he discounted the towel and floppy beach hat as too bulky and incongruous respectively to consider taking with him. Keagan stuffed the bag back under the seat and left the Eper, and the scene of the crime, as swiftly as he dared. The Eper was easy enough to get going without a key—the key mechanism could simply be pried off with a butterknife or similar to reveal the rotation switch—but whilst a stolen car would probably be passed onto the authorities within hours and leave him an easy target, he hoped the missing phone and money might go unnoticed for a little while longer, or even written off by the owner as lost somewhere on their journeys.
Accordingly, Keagan continued walking along the road, letting the sun play over him. With the orange jumpsuit discarded behind him and his identification tattoos mysteriously vanished, it was easy to imagine that he had hallucinated everything that had happened to him (but just how far back?, the little voice said in a meaningful tone), been attacked and left for dead in the countryside and in his fever dreams concocted Creepy Bastard, the Judge, the Foundation… But at length he became aware of a dull ache at the back of his head, and reaching up found where he had clocked his head on the rim of the viewing apparatus in Dr Barker's laboratory. The injury was fresh—when he withdrew his hands a little liquid blood adhered to the fingertips. As far as that part of him was concerned, the experiment had taken place mere hours ago at most.
After a while, the distant caravans began to give way to cottages, which showed increasing signs of permanent occupation, and at length he arrived in a village the signs proclaimed to be Bembridge—he stopped at a pub that looked as though it still existed in the 1950s and ordered a steak and kidney pie and chips. It came doused in a rich gravy that he could feel bulking up the inside of his arteries, but he felt a lot better for the meal. As he paid up with the stolen money he realised it was the first meal in four months he had chosen for himself.
He walked out onto the harbour and looked out at the ocean. After a few minutes he tabbed on the phone. It had about half its battery charge remaining. He thumbed in 150 and was greeted with an automated recording informing him he had one pound and eleven pence remaining. He should of course have considered the possibility that the device would be pay-as-you-go and attempted to top it up using the owner's debit card, but he supposed he could always get a new SIM card if need be. The first thought he had was of Lauren, and he entered her landline number (why had he never bothered to remember her mobile number? because it had been the first contact on his list and it was easier to scroll down one notch, of course). He expected to get the answerphone but instead it was picked up within the first three rings.
"020 5640 7864. This is Callum." A man's voice again, the one he had heard before.
"It's Keagan," Keagan said through gritted teeth. "Is Lauren there?"
"Keagan O'Neill. Look, I just need to talk to her for a couple of minutes, tops. I'm on pay-as-you-go and…"
"This some kind of sales call? I don't think we're interested, mate."
"What? No, this is Keagan O'Neill. Her old boyfriend."
There was a long pause.
"Well," the voice said. "I'm her current boyfriend and I've never heard of you. Think I'd like it to stay that way. I'm gonna hang up now."
Dial tone. Keagan stood, watching a distant yacht moving impossibly slowly over the horizon. What, exactly, was he supposed to make of that? He thumbed 150 again.
"You have seventy-nine pee remaining."
Keagan exhaled and tried to remember the contact details that had been given to him by the court reporter, eventually coming out with what he was reasonably certain was her mobile number. He thumbed it in and listened to it ring.
"Sam Deloitte speaking".
"Hello, Sam? This is Keagan."
"Oh, right. You'll have to remind me, what was this about?"
Not this again, thought Keagan. He pressed on, hoping that she had just forgotten about him in the weeks since she had visited him in Wormwood Scrubs.
"Err, I was doing a life sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. You came to visit, remember? In July."
"Sorry, not ringing any bells. Are you calling from prison?"
"No, I'm not."
"I see. Are you out on parole?"
"Not as such. It's complicated."
"Okay. Do you have my email address?" Her voice started to sound a little strained. "If you want to email me over what you wanted to talk about, I'm sure I can arrange…"
"I have information about the SCP Foundation," he said, cutting her off.
Silence for a moment. Then, in a terse whisper: "How do you know about that?"
"You told me about it. Then, for the last month I've been inside one of their facilities. You really don't remember coming to Wormwood Scrubs and talking about this?"
"I—I don't. Let me get a pad and I—”
"I'm not talking about this over the phone," Keagan said. "I'm going to run out of credit anyway. Look, I'm on the Isle of Wight right now. I need you to book a ticket in my name on a ferry from Cowes tomorrow."
"Why can't you just—OK, I take that back. I don't want to know. No, I mean—I do need to know what's going on. Are you an escapee? There are some limits on what I can do ethically as a reporter. And how do I know you have anything relevant to tell me?"
"Okay," Keagan said. "As far as I have this worked out, I haven't actually escaped. It was sort of accidental, I think. Or at least, I didn't know it was happening. I don't know if the Foundation understands what's happened, but I'm pretty sure the regular police won't be looking for me. I mean, not for that, though I did take some guy's holiday cash. And his phone."
"Oh Christ," said the reporter's voice faintly, but Keagan pressed on.
"Anyway, I'm a source. I'm not even asking for money, just a ticket off this island. Look, I'll give you a name. There's a researcher—not a prisoner, a staff member—who entered the Foundation because he was being threatened by another organisation, some sort of club for politicians and rich shits. Edward Gradley. Look into him. He's been there for at least a year or so—he lived in the City but hadn't heard about the Dockland Massacre. He was some kind of banker."
"And he's with the Foundation now?"
"Yes. He didn't seem very happy."
"Right." A scritching in the background as the reporter jotted down details. "If your lead checks out, I'll pay your travel expenses as far as Southampton. Contact me when you're on the mainland and we can arrange a meeting."
Keagan thanked the reporter and after agreeing a time for the ferry, should she decide his information was good, gave her his email address to send the ticket details to, which, he realised about five seconds after ending the call, probably no longer existed if the Foundation was as thorough as it seemed. He tried accessing the web through the feature phone, but it took so long that he eventually decided it wasn't going to work and spent the afternoon browsing the shops in Bembridge, keeping an eye open for an internet café. Although unsuccessful in this goal, he did manage to put together a few items he thought would be of use—a hiker's backpack, several packets of nuts and dried fruit, a paper roadmap of the UK, and a new pair of boots, all put together accounting for a good £80 of the money he had swiped from the Eper. He briefly considered hanging onto the plimsolls to show Sam Deloitte, but reasoned that slapping a pair of scuffed-up, odorous gym shoes with no identifying marks on them on the table as proof of the existence of a clandestine organisation with tendrils throughout the UK justice system was unlikely to gain him much credibility. You've still got the underpants if it comes to that, he thought. He turned his head, suddenly—something kept intruding at the edge of his peripheral vision, a presence that seemed to linger as he moved from scene to scene. Nothing seemed out of place, though. He was tempted to dismiss it as nerves, but the thought that someone from the Foundation might have noticed his unexpected departure from 554 and followed him was enough to keep him on edge.
He caught a bus to Cowes, arriving as the sun showed signs of setting, and checked into a B&B, ordering bangers and mash from the elderly couple who ran the establishment, on which he slathered enough brown sauce and mustard—condiments, how he missed them!—to draw curious glances from the other guests. The sheets were soft and recently laundered, and it was only by chance that the antiquated phone had an alarm set for 7.30am that prevented him sleeping in. He tried to remember what he had dreamed, but it was already thin and insubstantial, though it had seemed so important at the time. Brief, disjointed flashes came to mind—a door with a name on it, just out of focus, digging with his bare hands, somewhere cold, then, still shivering, somewhere else, pulling himself out of chill, dark water. That was all.
He was still unable to determine whether or not he was still the account holder of ku.oc.sriaperotuahtebmal|llieno.k#ku.oc.sriaperotuahtebmal|llieno.k by the time the 08.00 ferry from Southampton pulled into the harbour, but he bluffed his way through at the ticket office after the staff were able to pull up the reservation with his name on it. No, no ID, said Keagan ruefully. Some bastard had nicked it, together with his floppy hat and towel, and all his credit cards. They commiserated with him, gave him the ticket (turned out he could have paid in cash on the day after all) and left him to wander the docks for the half hour or so until the ferry set off. The niggling presence at the edge of his vision he had first noticed in Bembridge had followed him, he noticed with some disquiet. He was still unable to focus on who or what might be the source of his misgivings—nobody seemed familiar or out of place—but he was struck by the conviction that they should not be able to trace him to the mainland, and accordingly dawdled until the very last minute before making a dash for the pedestrian boarding platform. The luxuriantly mustachioed boarding official blew his whistle impatiently but held the gate open until Keagan cleared it. Follow that, Keagan thought.
The ferry shuddered under Keagan's feet as it set off, and he and the other passengers wandered around the interior until the announcer had completed her rather tinny explanation of the fire and evacuation drills. Thereafter it seemed much too warm to remain inside the glass-walled cabin and Keagan proceeded up the stairs to the observation deck, where the wind whipped at him fiercely, forcing him around to the rear of the vessel where he was protected from the worst of the elements and afforded some shade by the cabin. He watched as the ship left the harbour and the island (the old joke: what's brown and steaming and comes out of Cowes? The Isle of Wight ferry.).
A young woman, perhaps five or ten years his junior, strolled over, holding a Dr Pepper presumably purchased from the onboard shop, and came to stand beside him, looking at the waves. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye—she was attractive, broadly Caucasian but with very striking eyes that suggested Asian parentage.
"I love looking over the side at the waves hitting the side of the ferry," she said, evidently trying to strike up a conversation. "The wake can be quite hypnotic when the sun hits it."
"Oh right," Keagan said, clumsily. "Do you travel this way often?"
"I get out to the island whenever I can. My parents own a café on the beach, near a holiday park, then come back to the mainland for the winter."
"Sounds like a good idea for a gentle family business."
"You'd be surprised," she retorted. "Can be quite cutthroat. There's always several cafés per beach, and they're all competing for custom during the busy period. Dad told me one time during a wet spell someone sneaked in overnight and slashed all his umbrellas."
"And what about you?" she asked, smiling. "You don't strike me as a frequent traveller."
"Just on vacation," he said. "I don't get out much, usually."
"And are you still on vacation?" She edged a little closer. "I wouldn't mind some company, if you're free?"
Keagan looked up at the perfect blue sky and the waves, and across at the woman on the deck. He had made up his mind to say he had a few days free, but then he remembered Lauren and felt vaguely guilty.
"Sorry," he said, looking away again. "All business from here on in."
"That's a shame," she said, and moved off. Keagan went back inside and ordered a rum and Coke to console himself.
Southampton harbour was an ugly, jagged mess, concrete docks jutting out from the coast at seemingly random intervals. Relics of a proud naval history, now mostly reduced to ferries and the occasional P&O cruise liner. The city now belonged to men like Cameron Moat. Keagan wondered if anyone had taken over his empire or whether the splinters were still squabbling for territory.
When he was safely esconced on the Southern Railway service to London—apologising to the young man in the Che Guevara beret and as-yet unfulfilled promise of a wispy moustache who tripped over him in the aisle—settled himself in a window seat. It was warm but not unpleasantly so and he felt himself beginning to nod off. He was jolted awake by a hideous tinny samba sample he eventually determined was the stolen phone's ringtone, courtesy of the man in the Fiat Eper. It hadn't been cut off yet, then. He took it out and clumsily prodded the resistive screen until he found the precise angle that would allow him to accept the call.
"Hello?" a female voice said, "Keagan O'Neill?"
"My lead was good then," he grunted, looking out of the window as the world blurred by.
Sam's voice when she replied was distant, thoughtful. "Sort of. Edward Gradley's dead. At least officially. There's a murder trial still ongoing involving several partners at his firm—police reckon they were trying to cover up some kind of insider trading scandal. But the case records are full of redactions; there's clearly something going on they don't want the general public knowing about. So yes, it was good enough for me to pay your way. Now, I want everything. Names, dates, locations."
"What happened to the meeting? To be honest I'd rather talk about this sort of stuff in person."
"Well," she said, "I'm not so happy about it. I spoke to the paper's lawyer…"
"Why the hell did you do that?" said Keagan, finding himself getting annoyed.
"Let me see, because you say you were serving a life sentence then 'accidentally' escaped? Or because you contacted me out of the blue, claiming to know me, with details of an investigation I've kept off the records? He thinks I should give the police your number."
"Look," Keagan said, "there's got to be a mutually agreeable place we can do this. A café or something with lots of people around." And fucking hard to get out of if she just tells the authorities that's where I'll be, he thought, immediately regretting the suggestion.
A pause. "Okay," Sam said. "There's a salad bar on Bermondsey Street in Southwark. Called Urbanity. You know it?"
"I know the street," he said, though the entire concept of a 'salad' bar had clearly passed him by. "What time?"
Having thus agreed to bait what seemed like a very possible trap, Keagan turned the phone off to preserve its already dwindling charge and busied himself reading the 'Quiet' signs above the windows. Apparently he wasn't supposed to have taken a call in this carriage, which probably explained why the purse-lipped old lady across the eye kept glaring at him. The young guevarista behind him didn't seem to be paying much attention to the signs either—Keagan could hear the drum and bass thumping out of his earbuds.
The world put itself back together again, one building at a time, and soon they approached the outskirts of London. The meeting had been set for 5.30pm that afternoon, but Keagan had rehearsed another appointment in his mind since the ferry, and it couldn't wait.
He got off at Clapham Junction and walked a half mile or so along twisting pavements until he found the route he had driven every day on his way from the shop. He turned his collar up against the thin drizzle which had arrived to ruin the sunshine—or perhaps it had been here in London all along. Welcome home. He let the pedestrians and sluggish traffic fade away into the background until he was walking alone, almost in a trance.
He walked up to the apartment building, realising he didn't live there anymore, that the key, if the locks hadn't been changed, would have been handed into the custody of the Foundation with all his other earthly possessions, and if Agent Howard had been telling the truth, had since been consigned to the furnace. A myopically hunched elderly man saw him staring futilely up and down the door, and asked him if he was a resident.
"No," Keagan said (you could have lied and said you'd lost your key, the little voice said, why didn't you?), "I'm here to see—to see Lauren Vale. In 212, if she's still here."
"Oh!" said the old man with some surprise. "I think she might be out. But I'll let you in—there's a sofa in the entrance hall if you want to wait, if you like."
Keagan nodded mute agreement, and as they came through into the space he had traversed every day for almost two years, he found himself compelled to remark, for reasons that baffled him, "It's a lovely place, isn't it?"
"Yes, definitely—” agreed the old man. "And very reasonably priced, at least for London. I only moved in recently."
Keagan sat on the sofa for a few minutes before he decided the old man might have been wrong about Lauren being out and ascended the staircase. It was true, it had been a lovely place to live. They could never have afforded it on his income from the auto shop; Lauren had contributed the lion's share of the rent from her earnings as a hotel manager.
He reached the apartment he had lived in and rapped on the door. When there was no response, he thumped on it with his fist, and when there was still no signs of life, he kicked it, leaving a noticeable dent in the lacquered door about the size and shape of the toecap of his hiking boots. He descended to the reception area and let himself out. He turned right on a whim and began wandering along the streets, having no particular purpose or direction. The feeling of being followed had returned, slightly—certainly not to the same, almost supernatural degree he had felt before on the Isle of Wight, but enough to keep him glancing over his shoulder.
When he saw Lauren, he first wondered whether he was imagining it—had superimposed her features in his mind on the top of some other passer-by's face, but when she came closer, walking in the opposite direction alongside a man with short-cropped blond hair, he realised she was real. He had supposed she was still in work (something he had entirely forgotten in the teary reconciliations he had allowed himself to imagine), but obviously she had taken the day off. She was laughing and joking with her compatriot, who wore an awkward grin and a Union Jack T-shirt under a hooded jacket. She leaned in and pecked his cheek, and Keagan felt something in his chest wither away.
"Lauren!" he shouted, jogging across the road in front of a white van, the driver of which elected to sound his horn despite the fact that he plainly wasn't moving an inch anyway in the capital's perma-gridlock. "Lauren, wait up."
The little voice inside his head decided to weigh in, pointing out how unrealistic, how self-centred his notions had been of knocking on Lauren's door and finding her still tear-streaked, despondent, as though only a night had passed since his trial, only for heaven's light to shine across her features upon seeing him, Keagan, alive and free. More likely, it said, that she would have looked through the peephole, double-locked the door and called the police. But the look she gave him now—of simple, politely confused bafflement—does he mean me?—was if anything more hurtful. Oh no, he thought. No.
"Lauren," he said. "It's me. I'm out."
Lauren put on a fixed smile, the sort of smile you smile when someone clearly knows you, but you cannot for the life of you place them. "Oh right. I am silly, I can't quite recall where—”
The man with her seemed to show more signs of recognition, scanning recent memories to try and find a match. When whatever process in his head found what it was looking for, his eyes seemed to grow more hostile and he stepped forward.
"I've heard your voice before, mate. On the phone. Lauren, you know this man at all?"
Lauren clearly hadn't been told of the exchange and her look of confusion only deepened as she tried to reconcile social politeness with the obvious friction with the man Keagan now identified as the voice on the phone. She took his arm, a security-seeking gesture.
"Really, I'm not sure…"
"Yeah? That's very interesting that is," said Callum, "given the story he tried to palm me off with. Said he was your old boyfriend." To Keagan: "What are you, some kind of stalker or something?"
"Lauren," Keagan said, trying his best to ignore the buzzing behind his eyes. "Please. We went out for eighteen months, we lived together." Then, lamely, "We went to the Lake District, don't you remember?" And for a moment he was no longer sure whether that had been real or a dream he'd had once. "I've—I've been in jail."
Lauren's expression changed, polite confusion giving way to fear, and her grip on her boyfriend's arm became tighter. "Callum, let's go."
"No." Keagan said, and he realised what he was feeling was also fear, something cold and lonely and dark. "No. You've got a locket around your neck—I gave you that. It's got a picture of both of us in it, unless you've changed that too, like the fucking answerphone message. Look at it. Look at it!"
Instead Lauren began to edge behind Callum.
"You're clearly mental, mate." Callum said, putting one hand inside his pocket. It might be a phone, to call the police, or it might be something else. "Go away. Right now."
"Not until you look at that locket," Keagan said. "Lauren, you were the one who said I had to choose whether we stayed together? Remember? You asked if I still loved you! Look at it!"
Keagan lunged forward, elbowing Callum aside, grabbing at the locket. She shrieked, sudden and high, and pulled away, breaking the delicate chain around her neck. Callum immediately rushed back in, barging him to the ground. Keagan hit the pavement hard, leaving bits of tarmac embedded in his palms. The locket remained looped around one of his hands and he kicked Callum away as he bore down on him, trying to flip open its delicate golden clamshell with fingers that seemed too thick and coarse. He found the crack between the two halves of the locket and used one of his fingernails to prise it open. What was inside was a little piece of white card, the sort of thing that a department store might put inside a locket to show you the size of the photo you could insert. It had a little red logo on it, Wild Acres, and he remembered he had seen it before when he first picked out the locket, almost two years ago.
"It's empty," he said thickly. Then, to Lauren, who was sagging against Callum, both of them breathing heavily, he bellowed. "See! Why would you have an empty locket! It doesn't make any sense. You put the piece of card back in…" And then he remembered she had never had the card, he had thrown it away before he had given it to her, and everything suddenly seemed to tremble and waver. Falling through the cracks in the world, Edward Gradley had said.
A policeman, soft-capped in a day-glo jacket, saw the tableaux the three of them formed and walked over briskly.
"Everything OK?" he asked.
"I was just leaving," Keagan said, picking himself up.
"This creep assaulted my girlfriend and stole her locket," Callum said. "He's fucking mental."
"Do you have the lady's locket, sir?" The policeman turned a wary eye on Keagan.
"Yes," he said, holding it out. He hadn't meant to hand it over, but the policeman took it, roughly, and fingered the broken ends of the chain. "But I bought it," he added, quietly.
The policeman turned back to Lauren. He didn't say anything, but she flushed red, oddly, and looked at the ground. "I don't remember where I got the locket," she said carefully, as though exploring the edges of an abscess. "But I've never seen this man before in my life."
"Do you have any identification?" This from the policeman to Keagan.
"No," he said. "It all got burned up." He wasn't entirely sure why he added that detail, but it probably didn't help matters. Show him the underpants, the little voice said sarcastically. That'll make it all right.
"Come on sir," the policeman said to Keagan, his tone revealingly gentle. "I think we ought to get you down the station, don't you? Figure out where you live and whether you're getting any help."
"No," Keagan said, shaking his head. "No, I've got a meeting."
"AA, is it sir? I'm sure we can get your sponsor in if you need to talk to someone. Come on now."
Chapter Nine: "Safe as Houses"
Callum initially insisted on following Keagan to the station to 'press charges', as he put it, but as they waited for a patrol car the policeman persuaded him that he need only take their contact details and would be in touch if they had more questions—especially pertaining to the matter of the locket which seemed to him very strange indeed, that Lauren couldn't account for its purchase despite it being as far as he could see brand new, not even a photo in it, but which he restored to her possession nonetheless.
The back of the police car was soft and quiet, and the policeman hadn't cuffed him, but it was no less a cell than the prison van, and Keagan sat slumped, face in his hands. Half a day, he thought. That's the best the Foundation's memory drugs could do, if Edward Gradley was to be believed. This wasn't, couldn't be the Foundation's doing.
When he arrived at the police station, he was parked in a small interview room with Ikea furniture and no windows, and left there while station staff dealt with other menaces to society, whose voices he occasionally heard raised in the corridor outside. Eventually a female PCSO with a notepad came in and tried to coax various details out of him while a police constable stood at the back. He considered giving them made-up information, but reasoned that was as likely to attract the attention of the Foundation if they were looking for an escaped D-Class prisoner who might have gone back to his old haunts as coming clean. Instead, he gave them his name, the address of the apartment he'd shared with Lauren, his auto-shop. He didn't give them a next of kin, partially because he suspected how that telephone conversation might now go and couldn't bear to be told 'Sir, we've spoken to Mrs O'Neill and she doesn't recall having a son'. He told them he had been in a fight at the shop and didn't elaborate.
The PCSO went away and dutifully returned about half an hour later with a hopeless expression. He just about caught the edge of her conversation with the constable, which included the phrases 'delusional' and 'an estate agent's', which he guessed accounted for Lambeth Auto Repairs; a twinge of pain there, something else dear to him lost. She spoke to him quietly and patiently, explaining they weren't quite able to verify the details he'd provided, and gave him the option of trying again, perhaps, she suggested, with a different name? When he proffered a muttered decline to this offer, she informed him that they had contacted Maudsley Hospital and that he would be taken there in the first instance until they could figure out where he was staying. Keagan listened. He hadn't learned anything new, but it had confirmed everything he'd suspected. He had been erased, completely. Ironically the Foundation's offer seemed to have worked out after all for him, since the police's evident failure to find any trace of him presumably meant that his criminal record had indeed been quietly disappeared. Otherwise, he thought, the Metropolitan Police Force were about to discharge an escaped multiple murderer who had clearly identified himself to them into the care of the NHS; an embarassing lapse of vigilance there unless he had truly been wiped from the criminal justice system.
The PCSO made her excuses and left to write up the paperwork before her shift ended. The mobile he'd been using as a watch had been taken away from him together with his carefully assembled rucksack of supplies and the residue of the stolen money (he suspected from the bumpiness of the chair that there was still some change in his back pocket from the train fare but feared to check it in case it was noticed). However, there was an analogue clock on the wall, which read quarter to five. Looks like Sam Deloitte's going to be ordering salad for one, he thought.
There was an odd clattering sound in the hallway, clearly audible through the interview room door, and the constable left, warning Keagan to behave himself, lest, presumably, he make himself an imaginary fort out of the table or other such mischief. There seemed to suddenly be an acrid smell in the air, and a lot of people shouting and running. Then, the door clicked. Keagan got up and walked over to it—the handle turned and it opened, but what was beyond was an abyss of smoke, dense black and choking. He couldn't see any flames, and when he hurriedly closed the door again and put his palm to its surface it was still cool. The tendrils of smoke he had already admitted into the room rose up and gathered around the ceiling, where they refused to set off any kind of alarm or sprinkler.
Okay, Keagan thought. You could stay here and hope it's not a fire or chemical fumes, and hope someone finds you before you run out of oxygen, so they can cart you off to a hospital for sectioning. Or, if that doesn't appeal, you could try to leave. He called up in his mind the path he had taken through the building, and for a moment it seemed very clear and lucid, until he hit a snag just before he reached the interview rooms—he'd been distracted by a mohawk'd young man refusing to be ushered into another such room, being held almost horizontal by a constable and planting skinny legs either side of the doorway while howling about the Magna Carta. He couldn't remember whether he had subsequently been led left or right. Oh well, he thought, 50-50 is better than nothing.
He pulled his shirt up over his head and, taking a deep breath, blundered out into the corridor, feeling his way along the wall and trying to avoid making a turn into another interview room. The smoke clung to him, smothering even without trying to take a breath. He jarred his shin on what he identified as one of the low, magazine-strewn tables in the waiting area, provided for the benefit of family members waiting to talk to an arrestee and involuntarily exhaled, losing a good half of his precious hoarded oxygen.
He limped on in the dark, until he collided bodily with what he supposed to be the reception desk, and was suddenly able to navigate by a dim, smoky light shining through the shirt. Blinking against the smoke that was still managing to permeate the weave of the garment he pressed on until he encountered and felt his way around the glass frontage before finding egress. After removing his head from the shirt he found himself amidst absolute bedlam, visitors mixed up with arrestees evacuated from the cells, all milling around inside a notional cordon created by equally confused-looking police and community support officers. There was still no indication of a fire alarm and half the police appeared to be on their mobiles, presumably making 999 calls ("What services do you require?" "This is the police. We need the fire service."). What the hell just happened, he thought? It took him a moment to realise no-one seemed to be looking in his direction, and began moving off towards the edge of the car park.
The lack of attention didn't last long. "Hey," shouted a PCSO. "Were you inside? No-one leaves until everyone's accounted for!"
No use denying it, with his smoke-blackened shirt and watering eyes. "I'm an engineer," he said, gesturing expansively as if to indicate that given a moment he could go get his tools and pitch in. The PCSO seemed unsure how to take this declaration, but at that moment Mr Mohawk, a kindred spirit, it appeared, of Ronny Feldspar, started shouting 'lawful rebellion!' and bit a police constable's ear, and Keagan took the opportunity to walk—calmly, confidently, not attracting any attention at all—out of the car park and onto the thoroughfare. The remaining two pound and forty-nine pence in his pocket sufficed to purchase a garish British Bulldog shirt from a street vendor; he rolled up the one he had stolen from a washing line on the Isle of Wight, wiped his face with it and threw it in a dog litter bin. The sensation of a pursuer had resumed and he looped around a tenement block to ensure one of the PCSOs had not taken it upon themselves to re-apprehend him. At one point he thought he saw someone ducking back into an archway when he turned—hardly police behaviour. But if he had been erased so thoroughly by 554, did even the Foundation retain any record of his existence? He thus almost managed to persuade himself he was being paranoid.
Keagan had no means of telling the time as he approached Bermondsey Street (short of asking a policeman, which he thought might be pressing his luck), though the reader may be interested to know it was 17.47. Urbanity was a sleek, stylish vegan café slightly set back from the street with silver lettering on a black banner and rich purple furnishings around glass tables. He saw Sam Deloitte, kicking her legs under a slightly oversized bar seat and tucking into a large bowl of spring greens with a grim expression. He was about to enter when something drew his eye to the large men seated at two opposite corners of the café, sipping soy shakes. Something in the way they glanced at each other and Sam made Keagan uneasy. Police, or just friends brought along in case of trouble? He doubted anyone could connect the dots between the obviously disturbed man who had engaged in a street brawl earlier in the day and the informant Sam Deloitte was due to meet—based on everything he had learned thus far, she likely no longer even knew what he looked like—but still, he found he dare not go in.
The persistent presence in his peripheral vision suddenly forced itself in on his awareness and he focused on it in the Urbanity storefront glass. Someone was standing a good distance away, constantly changing angle but always keeping Keagan in their field of view. Black beret, red Guerrillero Heroico T-shirt, pretending to be listening to music on his iPhone. The fucking college kid on the bus! Keagan turned away from the café and began walking towards the kid, who tried to wander off to one side and let Keagan pass. Keagan changed direction. Keagan saw the kid pale as he realised he'd been made and try to slip off into the crowd, but Keagan sprinted after him as fast as he dared moving against the flow of pedestrian traffic, and pursued him up a back street. Keagan rounded a corner—there was no sign of his tail, but it was a narrow, cobbled street, with no offshoots, and as he approached a substantial awning in front of a closed antique store he heard the sound of someone sucking air, trying to get their breath back. Keagan swung left as he passed the shop and barrelled into the kid, who had been crouched in the doorway. The kid pushed back with surprising strength and tried to squirm away around the edges of the awning, but Keagan reached out, grabbed his ankle and unbalanced him, bringing him down painfully on the cobblestones. Keagan hauled the tail up and grabbed both his arms behind his back, pushing him against the storefront.
"Why were you following me?" he asked through clenched teeth, wrenching at the kid's shoulders.
"Wasn't—I swear—OH SHIT—” the kid broke off into whimpering as Keagan held his forearm a couple of millimeters short of dislocation.
"I think we both know that's untrue. Did you do something back at the police station? Set off a smoke grenade or something?" A startled look in the kid's eyes made Keagan loosen his grip slightly and the kid retaliated by kicking Keagan in the chest. Keagan staggered back but found he still blocked off the kid's exit from the awning, spreading his arms wide like a rugby player.
"Are you with the Foundation?" he asked.
"I'm not with the guys who abducted and experimented on you, if that's what you mean," the kid said with sudden fierceness. "We're the real Foundation. The good Foundation. We're trying to help you."
The 'safe house', as the kid described it, was a shabby Georgian two-storey that might once have been a linen bleachers. Lime had soaked its way into the pale, peeling walls, and the smell lingered, even a century on. There was no handle or lock on the door—from the outside one might have taken it for one of the many derelict period buildings littering Southwark's streets. The kid rapped out 'Shave and a Haircut' on the door and thirty seconds or so later it was opened to them by a rangy older man who in a more flattering light—say, lying on a street corner—might have passed for a member of the unhomed. The ground floor was unlit, dingy narrow hallways littered with discarded pizza boxes.
The kid led Keagan upstairs, where, set back from the street, a number of more orderly rooms had been lit with desklamps, a distant chugging betraying the presence of a generator.
"The building's officially empty, so we can't be seen drawing power from the grid," the kid explained. He pushed open a door. "This is the situation room."
The 'situation room' had once been a parlour, and later, perhaps the location of the bleaching vats, as the smell of hydrogen peroxide was almost overpowering. A number of mismatched tables had been pushed together into the centre of the room, on top of which was spread a wide array of papers, books, CDs and mobile phones. "Burners," the kid explained when he saw Keagan looking at them. "Any communication with other cells has to be completely untraceable."
Other than the shabbily dressed individual who seemed to act as the doorman, there were three other men in the building other than the kid and Keagan. He quickly began to think of them as Walrus—the professorial gentleman with the Wilford Brimley mustache and elbow-patches, Jitters—the twitchy guy in a City suit, and Bones, a gaunt, clean-shaven man with a thin mouth, who occupied himself by picking his fingernails with a knife. Though not a lot of import actually seemed to be taking place in the situation room, the three men did their best to give the impression of uninterrupted activity, plotting points on road maps, scribbling notes, and occasionally making phonecalls on the burner mobiles and taking brief status reports. Certainly no-one seemed to have time to spare for the new arrival, with the result that the kid was left to find Keagan a seat and fire up the camp stove to make a pot of tea.
"I'm Renton," the kid said once the saucepan of water had boiled and been poured over the Tetley's packets in the chipped mugs he'd fished out of a cardboard box. "Mark Renton."
"Keagan O'Neill," Keagan responded. "Look, this is all rather confusing. You said you were with the real Foundation?"
"Yes," Renton nodded furiously. "The original SCP Foundation, the one before the war."
"If you don't mind me saying, this doesn't look a lot like the place I was in. It looks a lot less … well funded."
Renton had the good grace to looked embarassed. "Um. Well, you see, I should probably clue you in on the situation here." He gestured to a large and slightly dog-eared map Blu-Tacked to the wall, made up of numerous printed pieces of A4. It was a map of the world, divided into various semi-regular quadrilaterals delineated by dotted lines. Each had a number—the lowest numbers started from the US eastern seaboard, spiralling more or less counter-clockwise, taking in the rest of the Americas, Europe and Africa, then Asia and the Far East and lastly Russia and the former Soviet Union states. The British Isles, Iceland and Greenland occupied a distorted wedge-shape that comprehended most of the North Sea, labelled '25'.
Most of the world was coloured in a vivid red. Spots of blue stood out in the sea of red, almost hidden by a forest of pins pushed into them. The Baltic, central Africa, Cuba and Central America. Paraguay. Papua New Guinea.
"Blue countries are the ones that still recognise and work with us. Red countries have switched to recognising the reactionaries." Renton pouted, as though offended that his favourite colour had been used to denote the enemy.
"Reactionaries?" Keagan asked.
"Guess they didn't tell you any of this while you were at the Sector-25 facility, huh?"
Keagan looked blank.
"That's the place on Salisbury plain. Wow, they seriously don't believe in letting people know what they're getting into, huh? Anyway, the Foundation is the successor to a whole bunch of societies and trusts set up to investigate and contain the preternatural. You've probably seen some of the stuff that gets hushed up."
"One of those precursors, ASCI—” he pronounced it 'asskey', like the web coding language “—that's the American Supernatural Containment Initiative—goes back to before the American Civil War. The Foundation itself was formed in the early 1900s and in the early years it was mostly American. There's a long story behind the Foundation's involvement in the First World War, and it has a lot to do with what happened in 1911 and something called the Feypact, but to cut it short, a lot of good people in the Foundation weren't happy with the way we'd handled it, including several members of the O5 Council."
"The Overseers. The people with the top level clearance in the Foundation. At least, they used to be, and still are in the real Foundation. Anyway, in 1924 one of our guys anonymously published a memorandum that argued we couldn't just keep the stuff we found in dark rooms and experiment on them—we had to use them for the benefit of mankind. That kind of set off a shitstorm."
"Other people actually disagreed with that?"
"Well, there was a little more to it, but yeah. These guys—what we call the reactionaries, real totalitarian hardcases—banned owning copies of the memorandum and tried to demote members of the O5 Council who supported it. All the way down to D-Class."
Keagan thought for a moment. "But I thought the O5s were supposed to be the highest authority. You're talking about a coup."
"Damn right. It all came to a head on 10th June 1924. Our O5s knew the reactionary O5s had no support so they called for a vote of no confidence in the whole Council. If successful, it triggers new elections for every Overseer position except the one who called for the measure—and everyone with level 5 clearance gets to vote, not just the Overseers. Well, everyone voted, and they started counting. It got to 53% in our favour, then they—the reactionary O5s—stopped the count. Just straight up had security guards march in and take the ballot boxes away at gunpoint. Well, our guys declared the reactionary O5s traitors and ordered them arrested, except they'd already run off to facilities loyal to them when they got wind the count wasn't going their way. Then they sent the task forces loyal to them to take over Foundation HQ."
"Civil war is what happened. We had the upper hand until 1925—I mean, we outnumbered them three to two. Then the reactionaries suckered in most of our forces by leaking evidence they were going to weaponise—well, we knew it was probably a hoax but we couldn't take the risk. Basically they were threatening to use this thing to destroy human consciousness—everywhere—unless we showed. They keep it in Pyongyang now in co-operation with the North Korean government, which should tell you something about the sort of people we're up against. We went in and basically we got slaughtered. Since then, the reactionaries have taken back almost all the pre-war sites and assets—at least, the ones they knew about. The reactionaries say the civil war ended in 1926, but as far as we're concerned, we're still here and still fighting!" Renton raised his voice to a passionate shout at the end of this summation as though he had been personally involved, which Keagan thought was rich coming from someone who probably wasn't alive 20 years ago let alone 60. Walrus looked over and gave a thumbs-up.
"Since then, world governments have been steadily shifting to supporting the reactionaries. I guess you can't really blame them—the other guys got the bases and most of the supernatural stuff. But all that's gonna change, pretty soon."
"What do you mean?"
But before Renton could elaborate, the thrum of the generator, which Keagan had all but tuned out, choked and stuttered, and the lamps around the room began to flicker.
"Oh, for god's sake, not this again," Walrus exclaimed wearily before the entire room was cast into pitch blackness. After a couple of seconds Keagan's eyes adjusted enough to pick out the faint traces of light shining through from the side of the building that faced the street, but not enough to see with.
"Renton, get the stove on for light," someone else—probably Jitters—called.
There was a lot of blundering and crashing around near Keagan before Renton called, in solemn tones, "I think I've just broken it."
Keagan exhaled. "Look, just turn on some of the phones and use the screens as torches so we can see what we're doing. Where do you keep the generator?"
In a few seconds, enough of the burners had been flicked on to provide a low level of radiance and Walrus, carrying a Blackberry before him for light, led Keagan further into the depths of the building where the generator sat lifeless on the floor of what had probably been a bedroom and, given the sleeping bag in one corner, apparently still was despite the racket the thing must output. A snaggled mass of splitters and extension cables spilled out into the corridor, strands snaking off into the four rooms used by the cell.
"I try to keep it going, but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to when it goes out," Walrus complained. "As far as I can see there's nothing wrong with it. A kick often works."
Keagan flicked the breaker and turned the generator on again. It made what sounded like a three-quarter turn before shorting again.
"See what I mean?" Walrus said.
Keagan took the phone and held it close to the dead generator, prodding the click wheel every few seconds to keep the screen lit. After a few seconds he took the power cable, gently, and followed it along to the small black box, half-buried by wiring. He picked it up and shook it, listening to the rattle.
"You're right, there's nothing wrong with it. The problem's with the inverter. These things are all solid state, so that rattling's probably the inside of the power switch come loose. Every time someone pulls on one of those wires, or trips over them in the corridor this thing's getting bashed about and it's pretty random whether the switch ends up touching the contacts. Right now it seems to be trapped in the back here and I can't shake it into place. I'll need a screwdriver—” he squinted at the box—"cross-head for preference—and something metal and fairly pliable I can wedge into the gap. The back plate of one of those phones would work."
Walrus looked at Keagan for a moment, then disappeared, feeling his way along the wall. He emerged a few minutes later with Bones, who carried more burners for light and a toolbox. They pried the aluminium back off a T-Mobile Jive and Keagan bent it between his fingers into a rough U-shape, so it filled the space the switch had taken up and bridged the two contacts. He slid it back into place and reset the breaker before turning the generator on again. The rough chugging and smell of diesel resumed, half a second before the lights came back on.
"Man of the hour," Renton commented drily, leaning against the doorway of the generator room. Then: "I wonder whether Schaeffer couldn't use someone like you on the Project."
"The what?" Keagan asked.
"What I was telling you about. Our latest and greatest attempt to get one over on the reactionaries. Yeah, I think he'd love to have you onboard. You seem to have the technical know-how and you've been inside a Foundation—well, reactionary-controlled—facility, so you've got some insight into this sort of stuff. We'd need to get our guy in Whitehall to approve it, though."
"Look," said Keagan, "this all sounds great, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for all this cloak-and-dagger stuff. You know, I think I'm going to head off now."
Renton cleared his throat and Jitters strolled across the doorway in a manner calculated to appear casual but which Keagan realised conclusively cut off his means of escape.
"I really don't think that's such a great idea," the kid said nonchalantly. "If our observers saw you crawl out of 882 alive—”
"You mean 554," Keagan said, increasingly baffled.
"No, I mean 882. 554 is what the reactionaries call it, because they don't have the original 554 any more. That's because we got it back in the 70s. It's a mirror that swaps you with a duplicate from a dimension with reversed chirality, for reference. Utterly fucking useless. Anyway, if we saw you, the reactionaries probably did, too. They don't have our easygoing attitude towards people who've got up close and personal with the preternatural, but you probably know that. Right now, we're offering you a job. You turn that down, we put you back on the streets and let you take your chances with the reactionaries." Renton stretched his hands wide. "Really, we're your best bet right now."
Keagan thought for a moment. The men's demeanour told him they weren't as willing to let him risk capture by the Foundation as Renton implied—at the very least he knew about the cell's safe house and he could deduce from what they'd said that they either had some kind of listening post on the Isle of Wight, or informants within the Foundation itself. Best, then, to play along, at least until a moment presented itself to slip away.
"Then I guess I'm in," he said warily. "So what next?"
"Next?" Renton grinned widely. "I already told you. Now you meet our man in Whitehall. But first, we need to debrief you."
Chapter Ten: "The Wedge"
'Debriefing' involved several days of recounting his experiences at the Sector-25 facility on Salisbury Plain—each of the cell members would take turns asking questions and noting the answers down on a reporter's pad. Hours passed strangely in the safe house, lit perpetually by desklamps—if you wanted to sleep, you went to an unlit room for a while, with the cell members generally taking it in shifts over an eighteen-hour period, with another six hours a day when all four were working at the same time—but Keagan reckoned it was Friday before the questions began feeling strained and the cell members started spending more time talking to each other and distributing the information he had provided throughout their organisation. Somewhere between the Chinese takeaways and the attempts to get him to sketch out a map of the facility on the back of a Liberal Democrat local election flyer from 2010, he had caught up with himself. There's my chance to cause a time paradox gone, he thought.
The immaculately polished black BMW drew up to the front of the safe house about twenty minutes after Renton disappeared into one of the abandoned rooms with a mobile they kept locked in a medicine cabinet, presumably to avoid mixing it up with the sixty or so other disposable phones scattered throughout the safe house. It was quickly decided that Renton would accompany Keagan while the rest remained behind co-ordinating the rollout of the new intelligence.
How incongruous it seemed to walk out of the nearly derelict safe house into the plush leatherette of the BMW, the driver a large clean-shaven man in a tailored suit who watched them over dark glasses. Keagan stopped for a moment, his hand on the open door. He looked up and down the street, calculating vaguely whether he stood a fighting chance of being able to run off. Renton interrupted his thoughts by shoving Keagan into the nearside seat in a fashion that was only calculated to appear playful then jumped in himself, so Keagan was forced over to the far door of the vehicle, where he noticed central locking was engaged.
"Just get in, will you? Sir Malcolm doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Keagan had seen London through the windows of his own Volkswagen Jetta (which now probably no longer existed), of a prison bus, of a police car. Now he saw it through the tinted windows of a sleek politician's taxi. It was raining slightly, and the last of the rush-hour crush was limping on, painfully, to its destination, secure in the knowledge that whilst they were at least forty-five minutes late, the weekend was only eight (or rather, seven and a quarter) hours away. Keagan had never understood the comments office-working clients made, often as early as Tuesday afternoon—how they wished the weekend was here! Oh for it to be a few hours further towards that goal. Then, when they returned the next Monday for their ride, they seemed none the happier for having had their wish—how quickly the weekend goes, they said, and then, back to the horror that they seemed to consider to constitute their lives. Of course, he had started in his trade as an apprentice at 14 and been self-employed as a vehicle repairman by 19, so maybe there was some crucial difference between owning a business and being subject to the whims of an employer.
Keagan turned his attention from the glum faces at the steering wheels around them to the BMW's other passenger. Renton kept shifting in his seat, looking at his reflection in the window and adjusting his ridiculous beret.
"Sir Malcolm's your man in Whitehall, then?" The name rung a dim bell, but nothing more—the sort of name that might come up in passing in a news report dealing with some intricate Constitutional question, five seconds before Keagan flicked over to something lighter.
"Yes. Malcolm Urquhart. That's who we're going to speak to."
"So he's in charge of—the real Foundation?"
"No way." Renton's raised voice attracted the attention of the driver, who flicked a look over his shoulder. Renton suddenly looked very sheepish and continued in a lower voice. "I already told you. The O5 Council is the supreme authority. Even if—well, Commodore Schaeffer, seems to take his orders directly from Sir Malcolm these days."
"Schaeffer? He's the guy behind the 'Project' you want me to help with."
"Yes. If it goes to plan, the reactionaries will be severely embarrassed, and the UK government will have to change its recognition to us. It might even bring down the Coalition, which is why Sir Malcolm is so important, and why we have to give him consideration. He's the highest-ranking government official in Britain to acknowledge us for decades. If he could get the Government to recognise us as the legitimate Foundation—well, it's never happened before. No national government has switched back to recognising us after the reactionaries got hold of them. Anything could happen. We could be talking about the British Army expelling the reactionaries from Foundation facilities by force."
"So how did you get into all this? If you'll excuse me asking."
Renton looked out through the car door window. "Well, I haven't been in the Foundation very long." No surprise there, thought Keagan. "I started out with Socialist Students, then someone got me into the Art Violence movement. Have you ever heard of it?"
Keagan searched his memory for a moment, then remembered Fredericka Mendelbrot and her bizarre list of supposed terrorist groups. "I think someone mentioned it once."
"It's all about organising active resistance against an ossified political and art establishment order. You know, Art is Politics and Politics is Art. By making people confront Art—real Art, which is political thought manifest in a physical statement—you get them to wake up and see they've been supporting a political class that just imitates what it thinks they want to hear, just like old-order representational artists just copy what they see." He sounded like he was reading from a pamphlet. "I kind of burned a few bridges doing it. Metaphorically, I mean. Well, mostly. Then I started getting into environmentalist protest movements. I travelled across the country hooking up with other people who wanted to fight back against exploitation of our countryside. One of those ended…" he shuddered. "Not well. People ended up dead. I guess that's what you get…" he mumbled something mostly to himself that Keagan thought sounded a lot like 'taking orders from a tree'.
"Anyway, that put me on the Foundation radar—both the reactionaries and the real ones. Fortunately for me, the real Foundation got to me first. They fixed my head, made it so I didn't hear … well anyway, they set me right. The Art Violence group I was with used preternatural items to try and cause chaos. The Foundation wants to use them to make life better for everyone."
"The real Foundation, you mean."
"Of course. Like I said, the reactionaries just want to lock it away and decide what's 'real' and what's 'supernatural' for everyone else. They're a bunch of fascists when you get down to it. But I guess you already know that. Were you D-Class?"
Keagan nodded. "They said the D means Disposable."
"Really? Is that what they said it stands for? Heh." He suddenly looked awkward. "I mean, that sort of makes sense. Wouldn't want people to know what racist fucks they are."
"The D. No, it goes all the way back to ASCI. The American Civil War. Back then, when they needed people to go into these sort of situations—preternatural, I mean—they would use black slaves. Then they invented a new psychological disorder to 'explain' the disappearances, said it caused sufferers to spontaneously escape into the wilderness, with the inference they'd just run away and died somewhere. They called it Drapetomania."
"I see." Keagan actually thought it sounded like an after-the-fact explanation, the sort of thing that might circulate amongst people with a reason to believe it—because, say, it suits you to believe your opponents are the successors of vile slaveowners (ignoring the fact that by your own story your side has the better claim to descend from those same slaveowners). The same went for the 'Disposable' explanation Dr Skinner had proffered. Far more likely that when the phrase 'D-Class' had first been used the higher security clearances had followed a similar format—'B-Class', 'A-Class', etc. The higher rungs had been revamped, with the lowliest researcher now at level 1. Civilians, of course, are level 0. But what do you do with the people who had no clearance—no rights at all, in fact—but who inexplicably seem to take part in highly dangerous and sensitive experiments? You keep the old terminology and you make up various explanations for why it doesn't fit the pattern of the other clearance levels.
"So where did you learn how to tail people?" Keagan asked. "Is that something the Foundation taught you? I mean, I thought someone was following me but I didn't notice you at all until I got to Southampton."
Renton's brow crinkled. "What do you mean?"
"Well," Keagan said, "you followed me all the way from 554—I mean, 882 or whatever—all the way to Cowes without me getting a clear look at you once. I thought I'd shaken you for sure. Then I saw you on the Southampton bus but had no idea you were following me. It's only when I saw you on Bermondsey Street I put two and two together."
"No, I was given your photo and told to track you when you got off the boat at Southampton. I was meeting with a cell in the West Country. Camped out the ferry for the best part of a day watching for you. I thought you might have hitched a ride on one of the cars coming off the ferry and got past me. As far as I know you ditched our man at Culver Down—ducked onto a nature trail or something. You're saying someone was following you before you saw me?"
"Yes—I mean, I'm not sure. I never actually saw anyone clearly. It was just a feeling."
"Shit. Driver, pull over for a minute." The driver initially didn't respond and Keagan had to rap his shoulder with his knuckles and repeat the order. The driver eventually complied, rolling his eyes. They sat at the side of the road for a couple of minutes, the driver complaining that he was liable to be ticketed for stopping on double yellow lines, until Renton had satisfied himself that none of the vehicles behind them had pulled over or circled around.
"Like I said," Keagan continued wearily, "I'm pretty sure I lost them when I got on the ferry, four days ago. You think they were with the Foun…—with the reactionaries?"
"Maybe," Renton said. He was quiet for the rest of the ride.
The car purred into a reserved parking bay at the front of one of the many neoclassical stone piles on Horse Guards Avenue; from the armed police on the elegantly stepped entrance Keagan guessed it was something to do with the Ministry of Defence, if not actually part of Main Building. If anyone thought it odd that a teenager dressed like a Daily Mail reader's fever dream of a leftist student and a slightly disheveled man in his early thirties and a shirt with a cartoon bulldog on the front were ushered quickly and respectfully inside, no-one commented on it. Renton glanced in Keagan's direction, critically. "I should have had you neaten yourself up," he said. They were given visitor badges—Keagan noticed with some chagrin they had spelt his name 'Cagan'—and escorted up several levels of modern, open-plan workspaces before they reached a number of more private personal offices near the top of the building, wood-panelled with rich carpet underfoot.
The name on the panel of the door at the end of the corridor read 'Sir Malcolm Urquhart MP—Minister Without Portfolio'. The guard rapped briskly on the door with his knuckles then stood by, hands clasped behind his back.
"Okay," Renton said to Keagan, exhaling. "Let me do the talking. If he asks you something, try to be polite, OK? Don't make him angry."
Keagan found himself suppressing a chuckle. "What is this, a job interview?"
"Enter," said the man inside. The guard pushed the door open and permitted Renton and Keagan to enter.
The man at the desk set aside a stack of papers he had been working on and looked up, gesturing widely that they should take a seat. The first thing that struck Keagan about the man were the eyes—piercingly blue and vaguely uncomfortable to look at. He had a full head of dark hair, little twists of grey insinuating themselves in the forelock, and a sort of blandly handsome politician's face with a pencil moustache of the sort worn by British pilots in old war movies. He was smiling, and the teeth were brilliantly white and even, but the effect was rather spoilt by an unfortunate case of diastema, splitting the smile in two.
Keagan sat down in the plush, dark green chair, a relic of Victoriana, as was much of the rest of the room. Sir Malcolm had outfitted his office with two dark oak bookshelves, densely lined with faded cloth back tomes. Keagan caught glimpses of On the Origin of Species nestling alongside The Pilgrim's Progress and other volumes he didn't recognise, the Bhagavad Gita and Tripitaka. A man of eclectic tastes, then. Sir Malcolm rose from his chair and walked around the desk, clasping his hands together.
"Such a pleasure to see you again, my dear boy—Benton, was it? Or was it Brent?" He seemed not to notice the visitor badges.
"Renton, sir," Renton said. "Mark Renton."
"Of course, of course. You must excuse me, it's been a hellish few days." He put his hand gently on Renton's shoulders and the kid suddenly went stiff, jaw clenched involuntarily. Keagan thought Sir Malcolm's hands remained there just a little longer than seemed justifiable. Sir Malcolm suddenly clucked his tongue and turned to Keagan.
"And this is the man you've been telling me about! So you've seen what's happening on the other side of the curtain and lived to tell about it. I'd like to shake your hand."
Keagan extended a hand almost by reflex and Sir Malcolm grabbed it firmly, eyes searching, measuring, evaluating.
"I-I thought he could be of some use up North," Renton said hesitantly. "Commodore Schaeffer keeps sending messages saying he's short of skilled engineers. Keagan seems pretty handy at that sort of thing."
"Hmm," Sir Malcolm said. "A good thought that. Try to hold it a little longer." He took his seat again, picked up the phone on his desk. "Samantha, please tell Matthew we're ready for tea."
"Oh, we really couldn't…" Renton began.
"I wouldn't dream of letting you go until you'd had something warming. I imagine it can get pretty miserable in those unheated safe houses."
A few seconds later there was a knock on the door and Sir Malcolm clapped. A young man in a suit and tie entered with a silver tray bearing a number of rough-hewn dark vessels and two packets of green powder.
"It's maccha," Sir Malcolm explained in response to Keagan's dubious gaze. "Milled green tea. First taken thick, then a thinner tea in the second cup."
He thanked the aide, who bowed and left quietly. Sir Malcolm exhaled audibly as he snipped the first packet open with a slim pair of scissors and stirred the mixture into the cups. The vivid green spiral pattern it made as the silver spoon whisked at it reminded Keagan of something, but then it dissolved, melting into the water until it became a uniform opaque green. The tea was warm and vaguely sweet, but seemed to Keagan oddly insubstantial, the flavour constantly verging on perceptible then disappearing like smoke. The second cup, produced from the finer-milled powder in the other packet, was even fainter, seeming to him to be little more than hot water. Renton made attempts to appear enthralled by the drink but evidently found the texture disagreeable, as he kept making little coughing-retching spasms as he choked it down. After they had finished they sat quietly, Sir Malcolm smiling beatifically.
"If you'll excuse me saying," Keagan said, and Renton looked over at him with an alarmed expression, "isn't there normally more to a tea ceremony? I don't know, I'm just going off the TV here."
Sir Malcolm's smile wavered for a moment before returning in full force. "Oh yes, there's a lot of nonsense about time and place, and taking your shoes off and ritual washing. To be honest, I've never seen the point. Who has time for it? No, I've boiled it down to its essence, if you'll excuse the pun—green tea taken hot, twice a day, to sharpen the mind. Now," he continued, "to business. How much has the young man here told you about the Project?"
Keagan thought for a moment before he spoke, neither wishing to imply that Renton had given too much away nor that he had failed to brief Keagan for the meeting adequately.
"That it's a plan to embarass the Foundation—I mean, the faction currently recognised as the Foundation—and get the UK Government to flip its recognition to your side."
Sir Malcolm chuckled. "A little simplistic, but that's the general notion. Now, I imagine having been inside a Foundation facility you've seen that the world we're operating in doesn't exactly conform to the notions of Western materialism." He paused for a moment, and Keagan nodded to prompt him to continue. "Well, our fundamental problem is that at its root, the government doesn't want to believe the supernatural exists. Most of my fellow parliamentarians would rather exist in the world of their constituents, where the main problems in life are pot holes and the credit crunch. The Foundation, you see, just does too good a job—any preternatural outbreaks get stamped out in quick order, forgetfulness-pills get passed out and everyone goes home. Until a few years ago the Government didn't even require the Foundation to notify it after an incident."
"What happened a few years ago?"
"Let's just say Her Majesty got an up-close-and-personal experience with a rather extreme outbreak—some sort of self-help book gone literally viral—and refused to take the pills from anyone but her personal medical staff. She summoned the PM—that was Major—and he threw a hissy fit when he discovered that his security clearance was five levels too low to be briefed on the existence of the Foundation. He went to Maggie, who of course had been involved with the Ronald Reagan thing and knew a fair bit, and that was that; these days GCHQ liaises between the Home Secretary and the Foundation and produces a report for Cabinet meetings. That's the crack. And now we have the wedge."
Keagan blinked. "I think you've lost me."
"Then I'll be quite plain. There a number of things out there that the Foundation knows about but doesn't really contain or control in any significant way. Dormant things, not quite sleeping, not quite dead. Things that would strain even the copious ability of the Foundation to cover over. We're going to wake one up!"
"Erm, are we talking Godzilla here? This all seems pretty far-fetched…"
"Keagan," Renton began coldly, but Sir Malcolm cut him off.
"Actually, my dear fellow, you're not far off the mark. Up in Greenland, there's something that really has to be seen to be believed—a monster that's been sleeping since the start of the last Ice Age. Commodore Schaeffer is up there now, working on rousing it from its slumber. A lot of politicians in this country and in the Nordics are going to be brought very rudely face-to-face with the supernatural, and they won't be able to rely on the Foundation to keep it from becoming common knowledge. I will be able to make the case that the Foundation has simply failed in its duties to the common good—that Britain needs to take a good, long look at whom it trusts to keep it safe. Can we continue to rely on unproved spinoffs who since taking the reins have recklessly endangered our nation and its friends and allies?" His voice rose and Keagan realised he had seamlessly shifted into a rehearsed speech. Sir Malcolm slapped the table with his palm. "No! We must act to take the unquantifiably dangerous and unpredictable supernatural arsenal being stockpiled in this country out of the hands of these renegades and return it to the Foundation that was first established to secure our freedom and prosperity. Furthermore, Mister Speaker—” he's mad, Keagan realised. Completely mad. “—I call for a full and frank public inquiry into when and how the transfer of this country's support to the unlawful clique who now engage in paramilitary action on British soil was approved and abetted!"
Keagan clapped, weakly, unsure how to respond.
"Anyway—” Sir Malcolm swayed slightly, slightly taken aback it seemed by his own fit of impromptu rhetoric. "Anyway. This young man seems to have volunteered you for the general effort. Are you any good with vehicles?"
"I was a mechanic," Keagan ventured. "A good one. I'd supply references but I don't think my clients would remember me."
"He's been through 882," Renton explained, quickly. "The history-erasing machine." What Keagan had felt hadn't been a machine, but he kept silent.
Sir Malcolm began explaining the details of what Keagan would be required to do—maintaining equipment under punishing conditions and helping out in any way besides—but Keagan felt his gaze and attention slipping away. Sir Malcolm's head seemed to balloon in size relative to his body, his facial features shrinking until they occupied an area the size of a postage stamp on his face. Visual distortion, a part of him thought distantly. That's a new one. He realised he couldn't move—the chair was the size of a continent and he sat precariously at the edge, feet dangling over an infinite precipice. The room retreated and it roared out of the darkness:
Please, I don't know what you want.
You're 1447, aren't you? The thing in the box.
Is that him?
Is that… what? What do you want with me?
Help me stop him.
Please, I can't, I can't, there's too many of us in here
"actually below the freezing point of petrol, if you can imagine it, so I understand they have a system of windbreaks."
Sir Malcolm snapped into focus and proportion, and incredibly he was still talking. Some part of Keagan had remained focused enough to nod knowledgeably, and he heard himself say:
"You know, I think it would do me a lot of good. It definitely sounds bracing; I'm not much of a summer person anyway."
"Well then, it's settled!" Sir Malcolm said. "Benton, send one of your chaps to escort him on the way north; he'll stay with Schaeffer's lot. You, I want back with the Bath group. The rest of your South West London lot should report to the general South East operations corps."
"You're breaking up the cell?" Renton looked heartbroken. "I—I would need to get permission from the chain of command…"
"No need, no need," Sir Malcolm brushed aside the suggestion. "There are two types of people in this world, my boy, those who act, and those who fear to act. After this, the whole world is going to be different. You should align yourself with those who have the power to shape it."
Something in what Sir Malcolm had said made the hairs on the back of Keagan's neck stand on end. Carefully, quietly, he said:
"Sir Malcolm, may I ask you a question?"
Sir Malcolm turned back to Keagan, and smiled his broken smile. "Of course. Fire away."
"You said most MPs and Lords and whatever don't want to believe that the Foundation is real—that all this supernatural stuff is going on. What makes you different?"
Sir Malcolm rose again from his chair and began to orbit the office. "Well, I've always been a little more open-minded than my peers. When I was younger I became interested in spiritualism, and metaphysics. Later, I looked to eastern religions. Siddhartha Gautama, Lao Tzu. I discovered that I had a certain acuity of mind that acquitted itself well in the deeper exercises of these disciplines. I spent some time in Tibet with a group of monks there—they taught me the art of externalising my thoughts, manifesting them into something visible. To do it you have to be able to precisely visualise what you are creating down to the smallest detail. It can take pupils years to master, but I found a shortcut. I thought—whom do I know so intimately I can visualise every part of their body—and even their mind?" He waited for guesses. When none were forthcoming from Keagan or Renton he went on, triumphantly. "Myself! I visualised and externalised myself. The monks said to choose something else, but I think they say that to everyone. I could tell they were cross I had short-circuited their windy lectures."
Keagan sat there, listening to Sir Malcolm pouring out his lunatic ideas, feeling more certain and more sick every moment.
The phone on Sir Malcolm desk began to ring. "Just a second," he said. He picked it up and listened to the voice on the other end.
"I'm sorry," he said, brow furrowing, "but this is a personal call. I don't think you need anything further from me?"
Renton mutely shook his head and began to rise. Keagan sat in near-shock for a moment until Renton pulled at the sleeve of his T-shirt to get him to his feet.
Sir Malcolm waved distractedly in their direction then turned towards the window with the phone in his hand, cord spiralling from him back to the desk. The door was opened for them a fraction of a second before they reached it by the guard, who ushered them out into the corridor.
"What the hell was that?" Renton hissed, as enough space opened up between them and the guard for conversation. "You completely spaced out in there."
"It's nothing, really. Just—I remembered something important."
"Really?" Renton asked scornfully. "More important than being sent to Greenland to help in a plan to topple governments and overthrow a secret conspiracy? You must have some interesting priorities going for you there."
Keagan didn't reply. It was currently taking a certain amount of self-control not to turn around, run back through the offices, kick open Sir Malcolm's door and throttle him until he confessed to being the man who had corresponded with 'Jacky' just days before the Judge's murder. He was reasonably sure given the police presence on the premises that he wouldn't get very far afterwards. It was all circumstantial, but Keagan himself had no doubt that he had seen and talked to the Judge's last mark. What did that mean? He had assumed since attacking and interrogating Patrick Goettsch that it had been the organisation that had approached him that had enticed Goettsch into perjury with the promise of freedom and protection—had naturally called up in his mind the image of Fredericka Mendelbrot sitting opposite Goettsch, telling him he would be taken far away from the man he was about to accuse. But thinking back, Goettsch had never actually identified the individual who had fed him the information about the scam—only that they represented the Foundation. Which one?, he thought.
They waited in the reception, at Renton's urging, to see whether there might be any further word from Sir Malcolm after he had finished his call, and his instincts proved good—a crumpled note was borne down to them by one of the security guards, which on folding turned out to be a napkin enclosing three £50 notes. On it had been written, in perfect copperplate, 'get him kitted out'.
"I guess you can't really have credit cards," Keagan reflected, "because then they could trace where the money was coming from."
"No," Renton agreed. "Got to be cash. Come on, we'll hit up some outdoor stores." He looked thoroughly miserable as they walked down the steps.
"No offence, but it seems like Sir Malcolm is giving out quite a few orders. Not just to this Schaeffer guy."
"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Renton said, bitterly. "Doesn't it just seem that way?"
Any thoughts Keagan had of escape had for the moment gone into hiding—as he followed Renton through a series of clothing and shoe-shops, drawing strange looks from the cashiers and other customers as he walked out into the late summer heat carrying thermal jackets, ski goggles and snowshoes. I can't stop, he thought. Not before I know why.
"I don't have to put all this on now, do I?" Keagan asked, only half-jokingly. When they returned to the safehouse Renton shooed Keagan off into one of the unused rooms and broke the news to the other cell members. They seemed to take it, if possible, even worse than Renton, and Keagan heard shouting building to a fever-pitch before a table was overturned with a number of soft, plinking crunches that could well have been a dozen or so of the cell's burners calling it a day. Eventually Bones, haggard-eyed and lips curled into a snarl, opened the door of the room Keagan was in and barked they had better set off straight away. Keagan insisted it was only humane that he be allowed at least a wash first, and on reflection Bones conceded that sharing a car with a man who hadn't even seen a flannel in four days straight might not be such a brilliant idea. Accordingly, they boiled some water in an electric kettle and sent him off with a shaving mirror, a piece of wadded-up shirt and a comb. When he was finished, he thought the week's worth of stubble he was sporting still made him look like someone you wouldn't give a lift to, but at least he was somewhat cleaner and more presentable.
It was midday by the time the rent-a-car arrived, driven by what was presumably a member of another London-based cell, or perhaps of the more general regional cadre Sir Malcolm had mentioned. Bones said nothing to him as he got in the passenger seat; Keagan had barely clambered into the back and closed the door before the driver hit the pedal and started a vigorous but ultimately futile attempt to navigate the streets of London at speed, which resulted in a nauseating stop-start motion as he thrust forward then slammed on the brakes in the face of traffic lights and queues. Given the limited communication that seemed to be taking place Keagan presumed he knew where he was going, otherwise he was going to look pretty silly. His concerns multiplied as the driver crossed Westminster Bridge, beeping at slow-moving traffic and jockeying between lanes the whole way, then made efforts to join the southbound New Kent Road.
"Maybe I've got this wrong," Keagan said, "but aren't we supposed to be going to Greenland?"
"We are," Bones said, and apparently considered that ample information to satisfy his petitioner's curiosity.
Keagan sat watching people walk across a pedestrian crossing in front of them while the driver revved the car impatiently. Bones at least seemed satisfied, unless, of course, he had absolutely no idea which direction they were, in fact, going. When they passed Elephant and Castle with no signs of changing direction, Keagan felt it his duty to speak again.
"I'm probably a novice at this. Isn't Iceland generally more—I don't know, north?"
Bones responded, voice drenched in a corrosive sarcasm that left Keagan's mild attempt looking distinctly weedy. "Is it? I had no fucking idea."
Finally, the lunatic at the wheel was able to distract himself from trying to run over grandmothers long enough to put Keagan out of his misery. "You don't go north from London if you wanna get to Iceland, mate. We're going through the Eurotunnel, driving through the Low Countries, then getting the ferry from Denmark."
That's me told, Keagan thought. They joined the M20 at Dartford and once again the buildings evaporated, this time into the heat-hazed tarmac wilderness of the motorway. They stopped at a petrol station in Aylesford—Bones got out and would return a few minutes later with Lucozade and Polos—apparently his idea of a balanced meal on the move—and copies of The Sun. The headline: 'I still hear his awful scream when I close my eyes'. Something about a shark attack. Keagan opted not to pick up the copy Bones chucked him—he'd always been more of an Evening Standard man in any case. The sports, anyway.
They reached Folkestone at about 3.30pm, and Keagan discovered the reason for the driver's haste. Somehow Keagan had imagined that one drove through the Chunnel, had prepared himself for just mile after mile of lights flashing by in darkness on enclosing brick walls, like Blackwall writ large. Of course, that was a nonsense—imagine the effect of a pileup 15 miles in, deep under the English Channel, tangled wreckage cutting Britain off from the continent, impossible to recover and stranding hundreds of people below the English Channel, all slowly suffocating. Instead, a vehicle shuttle whisked 600 vehicles at a time back and forth between Folkestone and Calais.
"Erm, don't we need passports?" Keagan suddenly realised with some alarm as they drew up in the line to roll onto the shuttle. He couldn't be entirely sure that his own would not have expired had it not almost certainly been utterly erased from existence; the last time he had used it had been a senior year University jaunt, a decade ago. Bones tossed him something dark blue over his shoulder. Keagan caught it; no mention of European Union, 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' rather than 'Northern Ireland'. Pre-2006, which meant pre-biometric.
"You're Martin Bell," Bones said without further explanation.
The customs official didn't even ask to see in the trunk—I thought they were supposed to be doing that now, Keagan thought vaguely—he just waved them through when he saw three UK passports pressed to the windows. The interior of the shuttle was brightly lit and the walls a savagely cheerful yellow but the sudden relief from the maniac at the wheel's driving style was such that Keagan felt immediately drowsy and curled up on the back seat, and in the absence of conversation from his fellow travellers was soon asleep.
The two men entered Lambeth Auto Repairs where he was working in the auto shop. The long-handled wrench was in his hand; levering off the rusted wheel nuts on a 2004 Suzuki Swift. Last time they had visited him they had worn expensive suits but seemed ill at ease in them, one rolling cigarette papers in clammy hands.
He didn't look at them, because they didn't exist for him, yet. If he had to look at them, think about them again, they would become real and he would have to make a decision.
I didn't get your call, Theo Megali said. Our offer only has a limited time period.
There was a clatter from the back of the shop as Steven Crae began picking things up and dropping them on the floor like an animal, taking his world away from him, one properly knolled array of spanners at a time.
I'm not interested in what you're selling. Get out of my shop.
I've tried to be absolutely as clear as I can be.
I reckon I get you.
I don't think you get us at all.
Just one more moment, please, just let me stay asleep one more moment.
Something rustled nearby, Megali's jacket, and he couldn't put it off any longer. A hand on his shoulder. He turned and swung the wrench, but it went wide. Megali drew the knife out of his jacket as Crae stepped in with the bat, hit his hand just above the knuckles. He dropped the wrench on the floor.
Megali stepped in and he watched him slide the silver thing in his hand into his abdomen once, twice, four times, six times. There's no pain at first, something strangely academic. Then there is pain; unimaginable, icy cold. He's drawing back, sinking into the ground, dissolving.
"Oh shit," he heard Megali say. "Oh shit. Why the fuck did you do that?"
"Me? You stabbed him, you fucking wanker, why the hell did you bring that thing?"
His vision faded but he heard footsteps, running from the shop. At least close the door, he thinks.
You didn't notice when you died, did you?
Shut up, you bastard.
What's your name?
What's your name?
What's your name?
What's your name?
He awoke shivering, and folded his arms over his chest and belly, the scabbed-over wounds aching with cold. There was daylight outside the carriage windows.
The French customs was the next hurdle, but it seemed the fix was already in. Bones waved out of his window at a customs official—a tubby man with greasy black hair and a goatee—and told him in carefully enunciated tones, appropos it seemed of nothing for any ticket had surely been arranged in advance—"Second Class, Please." The French official suddenly adjusted his cap, muttered 'Ce n'est pas grave, monsieur' and gestured for them to move on.
Other than the disconcerting sensation of driving on the right hand side of the road there seemed to be little to differentiate the hours that subsequently passed from those Keagan had spent recently being driven through English countryside, save only that Bones spent more time fiddling with a sat-nav and giving directions such as 'north for fifty kilometres' which were, in the stated opinion of the driver whose name Keagan had still not learned, 'completely fucking useless'. They reached Belgium as it was getting dark and Bones took his shift at the wheel. His driving style was considerably smoother than the man he replaced but he made up for this by making repeated turns onto the wrong side of the road, then having to reverse back out into Antwerp traffic which made the journey if anything more nerve-splitting. Only once they reached the German Autobahnen did he come into his own, cruising past Osnabrück, Bremen and Hamburg as his co-driver snored in the passenger seat.
Keagan remembered hearing that Denmark had vowed to beef up its border controls with Germany despite being in the Schengen Zone—this however presented no impediment to their progress, as rather than go through customs Bones abruptly stopped the car and roused his passengers with the words "Get out." He then proceeded to stride away over a starlit field with Keagan and the other cell member lagging behind Keagan managed to bruise his elbow after tripping in a narrow stream which on reflection was probably the border. On the other side, Bones began wandering, apparently aimlessly, holding his arm outstretched. Keagan was about to ask his compatriot if Bones was feeling alright when suddenly a brief flicker of light from his hand was matched by a flash and unlocking tone from what he had assumed to be a boulder but was in fact a Ford C-Max with Danish plates parked underneath a tree. They drove north as day broke, and as Keagan watched through the windows of the car it seemed as though time had been accelerated, each hour colder and greyer than the last, Summer giving way to Autumn as they passed through Aalborg and over the bridge to Jutland.
The water beneath the ferry departing Hirtshals was clear and silvery, the light from a sun that seemed unnaturally low in the sky gleaming off it. Keagan had asked off-hand how long the journey would take and was astonished to learn he would be on the ferry for two days. The food was palatable if blandly prepared and Keagan slept well and dreamlessly, luxuriating in the fact that for the first time since being convicted he had a cabin to himself, even if Bones contrived to manifest every time Keagan entered or left. They arrived in Seyðisfjørð, Iceland after a brief stopover in the Faroes—the locals were friendly and photogenic, and spoke excellent English, even if they seemed slightly dubious of Bones' explanations that the three rough-looking men with overnight bags and one case of clothes between them were researchers going to study global warming in the glaciers of north-east Greenland. They should have sent Renton, Keagan reflected, he could probably have sold them on the environmental angle. But they didn't need to convince the Icelanders of their intentions—one taxi drive later they made Egilsstaðir Airport where a Cessna stood ready. The pilot, a man Bones hailed as Blaer, was swaddled in padded thermals, his face all but hidden by a thick woolen scarf.
"You should wear anything warm you have now," he said, "I tell the Commodore, if you freeze to death, not my problem." This prompted Bones to crack open the briefcase and apportion what outdoors garments they had not already donned, though Keagan still felt alarmingly underdressed next to the Icelander. The propeller spun up and they creaked forward along the single airstrip, gaining speed until they rose into the grey sky. It didn't take long before the cold, which Keagan had thought oppressive in Iceland, began to settle on them, biting at their bones. Blaer spent much of the journey on the radio, talking in urgent, clipped Danish.
"He's telling them we're landing at Kulusuk Airport," Bones explained. "Actually, we're going to tragically lose contact with air traffic control and crash about 20 miles north near the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier."
This was the longest sustained speech Keagan had heard Bones produce, and its content hardly reassured him. He watched the horizon for signs of land. About fifteen minutes later, Blaer brought the pantomime to a climax, several times yelling what sounded for all the world like 'motorfail' before flicking the radio off.
"Hold onto something," Blaer said cheerfully before wrenching the plane onto a new course with what seemed like an excessive degree of violence. The bag with the satnav and skiing goggles started sliding around below the seat and bashing them in the shins until Keagan stepped on it. He wiped the condensation on the window away with his sleeve and saw they were passing over land—snowbound, but terra firma nonetheless.
"That's it," Bones said fifteen minutes later, pointing out a distant flicker of light which as they approached resolved itself into a collection of buildings. Fortunately, their purported fatal crash turned out to be a relatively controlled and moderately comfortable landing at a small concrete runway at the edge of the compound after obtaining permission to land from the English-speaking voice that answered when Blaer retuned the radio. As they descended Keagan noted two low buildings which might have been barracks and a garage, a taller structure which looked like it did double duty as a command post and traffic control, and a curious collection of tumbledown buildings ringed by a high fence, the whole camp surrounded by short sections of cinderblock wall that were probably the windbreak Sir Malcolm had mentioned.
"Isn't it a bit risky to give the impression we've crashed?" Keagan asked. "I mean, won't the authorities send out a search party? They'll expect to find a burned out Cessna with three dead bodies in it."
"Already organised that," Bones said, and Keagan decided he and the cell member probably weren't destined to be the best of friends.
Once the Cessna had come to a halt they bundled out and were greeted by five men in large parkas, two with Colt C8 Carbines slung over their shoulders.
The centre figure approached and shook hands with Blaer and Bones before dislodging just enough of his scarf to speak. "Welcome to Greenland, gentlemen," he said in cut-glass tones that could have secured him a career as a 1970s BBC newsreader. "Are you ready to change the world?"
The warmth inside the radio station hit them like a blast furnace and they quickly shed their outer layers. The man who had addressed them removed his hood to reveal an alarming profusity of ginger hair and beard, surrounding crinkled blue eyes and an aquiline nose. This, Keagan surmised, must be Commodore Schaeffer.
"You'll be bunked with the men in the barracks," he boomed, "but tonight you'll dine with me. Just a little ritual. This is the engineer, yes?" He looked Keagan up and down. A bulky blond man emerged from the kitchen area with steaming mugs of Bovril and the four new arrivals accepted them gratefully.
"Yes," Bones said. "Sir Malcolm thought he might be of use."
"He will be, if he's any good. Kaali, give him a quick tour of the place with particular emphasis on the garage. That's where he'll be working. Two of the 88s broke down last week, so he can start on those first thing tomorrow." Then, to Keagan, "I didn't catch the name."
"Keagan, sir." Keagan wasn't sure exactly how one addressed a Commodore, if indeed the rank was legitimate and not simply a nickname. Schaeffer chuckled.
"Good to make your acquaintance. Come on, let Kaali give you a tour. I think the others have seen the camp before—yes?—well then, I can give you a rundown of our current progress in the map room." With that, Schaeffer turned heel and vigorously strode upstairs, leaving Bones, Blaer and the driver to trot after him. The large blond man who was presumably Kaali shrugged and began re-donning his outer layers. Keagan was hardly thrilled by the notion of going back outside so soon but reasoning that dawdling probably wouldn't go over too well likewise redressed, and they plunged back into the cold, now accompanied by snowflakes swirling in the large spotlights that had come on to illuminate the base.
"The concrete breakers around the base protect us from the worst of the chill," Kaali said, which Keagan found hard to believe given how biting the wind was even within the barrier. "Out there the wind can be strong enough to tip over even a Unimog if it's on rough terrain." He rewound the scarf around his face, only speaking again when they had attained the shelter of the barracks.
"There's 32 Foundation men on the base, mostly Danish ex-military. They oversee the work and keep the peace."
"Is Schaeffer a real Commodore?" Keagan asked, gulping what still seemed like mostly frozen air.
"He held that rank in the West German Navy. Whether the Bundeswehr still considers him an officer I couldn't say."
The barracks were built longways, with open-ended partition walls dividing the area into pods, each containing two bunk beds. At the end, a smaller kitchen and dining area showed some signs of activity, iron vessels on gas stoves boiling up what smelt like a lamb hotpot. Keagan was minded to stay a little longer but Kaali was already pushing back out. He walked quickly past the large fenced area and its shacks with Keagan lagging behind—he saw the occasional wisp of smoke rising from amongst the buildings.
"Who lives there?" Keagan asked, looking through the wire mesh.
"The workers," said Kaali, muffled through his scarf, and did not elaborate. The garage was a large, corrugated iron-clad building at the edge of the complex with a concrete floor, and was every bit as cold as Keagan imagined it would be. Even with a few oil heaters scattered around the floor providing sharp, prickly heat, probably for the benefit of the vehicles, he'd definitely be working in gloves. The Project's vehicle fleet was an eclectic assortment of jeeps, snow ploughs, half-tracks and trucks, all by the looks of them military surplus. Most of the models were unfamiliar to him but he saw what the Colonel had described as 88s—three half-ton Land-Rovers with fully enclosed carriages, two of which had been all but dismembered, parts strewn around on the floor.
"Broke down, huh?" Keagan commented. "Looks like someone's ripped the things apart."
"That's Teitur for you. Try to stay on his good side. He's not the best vehicle mechanic but he's been the one holding everything together up until now. He's probably out at one of the the drill sites."
"You know," Keagan said, trying to pre-empt Kaali before he strode back out into what was threatening to become a blizzard, "I don't think anyone's actually explained to me what we're doing here. Drill sites? Sir Malcolm seemed to think there was some kind of 'monster' out here."
Kaali grinned. "The Commodore will want to take you out onto the glacier tomorrow. You'll see it for yourself then. If I tried to explain it now, you wouldn't believe it."
Dinner was a steaming roast poulet with stuffing balls laced with orange rind and crisp roasted parsnips. To celebrate the arrival of the newcomers Commodore Schaeffer had them open a bottle of 1936 cognac, which went a long way towards restoring Keagan's spirits after his tour of the frozen base.
They ate in the map room at the top of the radar tower—the table covered in aerial photography and topographic maps of the area had been quickly cleared away by two of Schaeffer's men and replaced with a spotless white tablecloth. The room had large windows set into each wall, against which white snowflakes beat continually in front of a black sky, but the whole room was warmed by the kitchen below, giving the strange impression of eating on the top of a rocky plateau, exposed to the elements yet warm and dry.
Schaeffer played a charming and sophisticated host, and the discussion rapidly escalated out of Keagan's grasp, covering topics as diverse as monetary policy and the Impressionist movement. At length the discussion swung around to the Foundation itself and the civil war.
"What I don't quite understand," Keagan ventured between mouthfuls, "is how the reactionaries see all this. I was told that the Foundation—I mean, the faction recognised by the UK and I guess Danish Governments—basically considers the Civil War over, but how can they take that position when all this," he waved his arm around the room to suggest the base, the cells, the whole organisation, feeling slightly lightheaded from the cognac, "is going on. Do they really not know anything about what you're doing?"
"Our greatest ally is the reactionaries' arrogance," Schaeffer said. "They know we exist—probably have a vague idea of where we are and that we're planning something big. The problem they have is they want to control everything, even the minds of the people who work for them. Only a few of the reactionaries are told the truth about what happened in the 1920s—even then they aren't given the full story. Most of them are just told that we are a 'rogue cell' of agents who quietly disappeared one day and took confidential knowledge and preternatural assets with them. They even impugn us with a name that as far as I know no-one in the real Foundation ever used before they invented it. Invented it to create the impression of a splintered, confused terrorist movement, united by ideology, no organisation."
"What was the name?"
"They call us the Chaos Insurgency. Like something out of a child's story."
Keagan remembered it had been one of the groups Fredericka Mendelbrot had mentioned. "So they don't try and shut you—us—down? From what I've seen these people seem to have eyes everywhere."
Commodore Schaeffer smiled, wiping a morsel of stuffing out of his moustache. "I didn't say they aren't coming after us. But there's a lot of other people who want what the Foundation has, as the reactionaries see it more powerful and organised than we are. The Global Occult Coalition, the Iranians, Marshall, Carter & Dark. One upside to our unfortunate exile has been that we aren't the ones being targeted by these groups. That will, of course, change once we get a foothold back on the international stage, but for now we benefit from other players in the preternatural world believing the reactionary line."
"Seems to me if you get it all back you'll be very vulnerable," Keagan said. "I mean, even if the government turfs out the reactionaries for you, you'll be starting from scratch organisationally. You'd either have to let a lot of the reactionaries back into the warm to keep things going or recruit a whole load of people at once, which I'm guessing would defeat the whole secrecy thing the Foundation has going on."
Schaeffer frowned. "A concern for another day, I think. For now, let's eat, drink. And let's toast Sir Malcolm, without whom the Project could never have been undertaken."
The bottle of cognac was recirculated and glasses refilled as Commodore Schaeffer's toast was taken up in somewhat muted tones by the other men around the table. By the time they had finished, Keagan's ears were buzzing from the drink and rich food and he wanted nothing more than sleep. Kaali showed him and the other newcomers back to the barracks, where a pod had been cleared for them—the bunk was hard but the sheets soft and clean, and Keagan quickly succumbed to unconsciousness.