“I-I-I just can’t. You can’t make me.”
Anguis Salvia leaned back in his seat, tapping a pen against his notepad. The interview room was a comfortable looking space, with neutral colors and no tables or clocks, just a pair of old leather chairs and a wide-screen TV showing a crackling fire. Functional enough for a psychotherapist’s office, even if it was a shallow disguise.
“I can't force you to say anything, Jason. We’re only here to talk about what you want to talk about.”
Jason Snodgrass, a Level 4 Operator, put his head in his hands and tried to tuck all three in-between his knees. “I-It’s been a y-year and I c-can’t stop! I have panic attacks. I can’t s-sleep. I stutter all the time now! I never used to st-tutter!”
“Take a long, controlling breath,” Salvia said. “It'll help.”
Jason took several desperate gulps of air. “N-no, you d-don’t understand, it’s all worse, it’s getting worse!”
“Since last year?”
Tearful eyes met Salvia’s. “Y-you were there! You lost it!” His eyes darted down to Salvia’s feet.
“We all lost something that day.”
“Not everyone!” Jason snapped. “I did, and Amy and Shu and that Latino asshole who always had Coronas at lunch. Everyone but you! Fuck’s sake, Doc, look at you!”
Salvia held up a calming hand. “I-”
Jason shot to his feet. “But you didn’t lose anything! All of us, it didn’t just hurt us! It reached in and took something away! Something that made us whole! He took it from us, but he left you alone! Why?!”
The door flew open. A pair of fridge-sized men in cheap black suits appeared and rushed at Jason.
“Woah, woah!” Salvia said.
“Get away from me!” Jason shouted at them, swinging his fists at the empty air.
Alex and Trebek—names Salvia gave them because of their matching mustaches—moved with the practiced ease of professional orderlies. They pinned Jason down, bound his hands in plastic zip-wire and hauled him out, all the while Jason screamed at the top of his lungs.
A moment later Trebek gorilla’ed his way back into the room. “You alright, Doc?”
Salvia tugged off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “This aggression will not stand, man.”
“He was getting violent. Regulations.”
“I can’t earn his trust if you hired goons are gonna drag him away every session.”
Trebek's only response was a wordless grunt. He squeezed himself back out the door after his companion.
Alone with his thoughts, Salvia scanned over his notes.
Private-Ryan Sybil Isaac-Clarke Movie-Night.
All code, of course. A patient getting a hold of his notes would be less upset to see random words than “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (Private Ryan), “Mood Swings” (Sybil), “Survivor Guilt” (Isaac Clarke), and “Blame Projection” (Movie Night).
Pretty cut and dry, really. Jason was sinking into the deep end. Under normal circumstances, he would be recommended for a stay at a mental healthcare facility, to focus his attention on improving full-time.
But this was the Foundation. Its business was the extra-natural, and its currency was madness. Pragmatic efficiency was considered the only way to deal with the "loose change." The thought made Salvia grimace.
He stood, nearly tripping as his prosthetic slid out from under his right knee. With a bit of effort he wiggled it back into place. Leaning on his wooden, snake-headed cane, he headed for the door.
The therapist's office outside was all blank white walls and grey office carpeting. There was a minimum of aesthetic comfort, designed to keep people focused on their work.
Maria, the receptionist, gave Salvia a sympathetic look. “Wow, huh?”
“Wow, yeah. They taking him upstairs?”
Salvia sighed, patting his pockets. “Gimme a renewal form.”
Maria handed him the documents and Salvia started down the hall.
“You want me to cancel two o’clock?” She asked after him.
“Yeah,” Salvia said. “Rebook for three.”
“You got it, Doc.”
Salvia wandered the maze of narrow hallways. Site 17’s non-research Level 3 Staff were mostly confined to what Salvia thought of as the “Office Complex” floor, which was closer to the surface than the research and containment levels he knew were somewhere far below.
A woman’s voice called out to him. “Anguis, I just saw Jason.”
Salvia turned to greet Johanson, one of his fellow psychologists in the Office Complex. Her hands were tucked into the white lab coat she wore when she was preparing pharmaceuticals.
“Took him upstairs?” Salvia asked.
“Yeah. He was shouting about you.”
“He’s still having trouble with what happened.”
“Him and almost everyone,” Johanson said. She let the statement hang in the air like a question.
Salvia considered her for a moment, then walked away.
“Shu is up to five pills a day just to get to sleep at night. How do you handle it, Anguis?” Johanson asked.
“White Russians and pizza on Fridays,” Salvia responded.
“Comfort in ritual, Sarah.”
He reached his private office and shut the door behind him. The scent of old cigarette smoke and cheap pine air fresheners greeted him. The office wasn’t much bigger than a child’s bedroom, dominated by a cluttered desk and a couple of filing cabinets. Unlike the hallways outside, Salvia kept a lot of personal trappings on the walls, most of which were pinup girls from a tattoo magazine thumb-tacked above his door.
He swept his hands over the desk and found a pack of cigarettes. “Foundation’s Finest” was written on one side. Instead of a picture of lung cancer or a tracheotomy scar to dissuade smokers from their habit, the pack had a photo of a Foundation agent with a missing arm and a torso covered in bloody gashes. His eyes seemed to be accusing the photographer of the deed.
Vigilance Always was the warning caption written in bold white, and below it in gold: Secure, Contain, Protect.
Salvia stared at the picture and tucked a cigarette between his lips. His stainless steel Zippo, marked with the emblem of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, sat atop his pile of “To Do” papers. He flicked it open and lit up while he sank into his chair.
When he held out his hands, they were shaking. He watched them, expressionless, then picked up his cane, pretending to inspect it. The snake-head pommel's plastic ruby eyes stared back at him, jaws wide and blunt fangs bared.
When his cigarette had burned down to a nub, he mashed it into the ashtray and set Jason’s papers in front of him. Request for Level A Cognitive Renewal was written at the top, the Foundation’s not-so-clever code for “erase this guy’s memories.”
It wasn’t like it was a rare procedure, Salvia told himself. He didn’t know the history, but at some point in early 20th century the Foundation had gotten its hand on some pretty efficient chemical substances that could selectively erase memories. Nothing like "forget dad” or “forget math” or anything, but if you wanted to forget a day, a month, a year, the Foundation had you covered. Salvia had never seen the stuff himself, but his colleagues all agreed it had to be some kind of needle, because exposed subjects were up and about in less than a day. Salvia wasn’t so sure about that. He’d seen A Clockwork Orange, and he was a psychologist. The brain didn't necessarily store memories in chronological order.
Didn’t matter. The Foundation had it and used it, frequently. Destroyed who you were now and returned you to who you were then. Hard to imagine. Scary even.
Salvia was about to sign his name on the paper, but he felt dirty somehow in doing it. How easy it would be to just wipe away Jason’s bad dreams. Too easy. How many so-called psychotherapists in this office had shipped off hurting men and women to the brain-drain? How many in the Foundation had turned their job into a cold, mechanical assembly line? “Doc, I’m hurting,” “Here, lemme wipe your memories.”
“-reached into us and took something away!” Jason's words echoed in Salvia’s mind.
Something that made us whole.
But he left you alone.
Salvia worked the prosthetic under his knee. “Whole is a matter of perspective, man.”
The walls shuddered, and his office fell into darkness. Moments later emergency lights cast a weak red glow over his desk and the distant wail of alarm klaxons rang out in the hallways.
Salvia froze, his pen hovering over the signature line. Somewhere upstairs he heard the pop-pop of gunfire and angry voices shouting orders.
He went out into the hallway, which was similarly dark. Johanson came out of her office further down the hall, looking perplexed and scared.
Then Alex and Trebek rumbled past them, gripping pistols in their meaty fists.
“Indoors,” Alex said with military crispness. “Security lockdown people, so get in and lock down. We’ll signal you when it’s clear.”
“What’s going on?” Johanson asked, "I hear gunfire!" But the goons kept on their way without looking back.
“And a shudder ‘fore the lights went out,” Salvia agreed. He felt a tinge of nervousness creep down his spine. He fished out another cigarette.
“What do we do?”
“What they say, I guess,” Salvia said. He patted himself down but he'd left the Zippo on his desk. He went back into his office. The gunfire outside was muffled through the door, making the room eerily quiet. The lighter wasn’t on his desk. Where’d it go? He sat down and started pulling open the desk drawers.
Salvia jumped. “Yeah, hello?”
The door opened, and a short man in a dapper black suit and a bowler hat entered. He carried an umbrella in one hand, neatly bound and with a toucan-headed pommel. Salvia was stricken by the resemblance the man had to the actor Toby Jones.
“Good day,” the man said. His voice carried a careful British inflection.
Salvia's mind tried, but failed to build a coherent reason for a well-dressed man with a funny umbrella to step into his office during raid. “Uh,” came his logical reply.
“I don’t have an appointment, but would you have a spot available for me?”
Salvia sank into his seat. An appointment? “Uh, who-?”
“Who am I?”
“A Gentleman.” He tipped his hat and approached the desk. “Forgive the enigmas, but my schedule is a bit rushed as of late. You are Doctor Anguis Salvia, correct?”
“I am?” Salvia asked. He gave his head a shake. “Uh, yeah. I um, yeah. Sorry. The office is a bit hectic today.” He gestured at the door.
The Gentleman—and Salvia suspected the capitalization was proper—laughed, an honest if practiced gesture. “Not at all. That’s part of the reason why I’m here.”
“Oh?” Salvia asked. He opened his drawers for another look inside. “You’re here, because of that?”
“No and yes,” the Gentleman said. “Not my doing of course, I had hoped to approach you under calmer circumstances. Are you looking for your cane?”
Salvia glanced up at him. “A light.”
The Gentleman reached into his coat and withdrew a long wooden match. “I’m not particular to ignition fluids. Matches preserve the flavor of the tobacco. But I confess I may simply be biased.”
Salvia leaned forward to take the match, but it hissed and ignited before his eyes. He licked his lips, lit the cigarette, and took a long puff to steady his shaking hands. The fire danced in the Gentleman’s smiling eyes.
“Comfort in ritual, man.” Salvia said.
“You ah, aren’t with the Foundation?” Salvia asked. He wondered if the phones were still working. Could he call security if he had to?
“No, but my companions do work with them from time to time, in high places.” The Gentleman withdrew a smoking pipe from his coat and put it to his teeth. The match—still lit—sparked the tobacco within and Salvia caught the scent of fine-aged leaf. It made his own cigarette taste like the bitter, factory-processed coffin nail it was.
The two smoked in silence for a minute, blocking out the uncertain world around them. Finally Salvia sat up. “Maybe you should tell me why you’re here.”
The Gentleman puffed a smoke ring into the air. “I like your cane.”
“Made it myself.”
“In China? I noticed the debossing.”
“Part of the joke,” Salvia said.
“Of course. I need a psychotherapist.”
“Strange place to find one.”
“Yet here you are.”
“A lot of them are better than me. Even in this facility.”
“I know,” the Gentleman said. “Though perhaps not at qualified. I know of your record, Doctor. You’ve passed up opportunities for advancement before. Your most recent promotion after the, ah, unpleasantness last year, was not due to your own efforts. You recognize this, of course?”
“They want to keep an eye on anyone exposed to last year’s breach.” Salvia said.
“No and yes. But that is semantics. Your current position cannot be very rewarding.”
“Puts food on my plate.”
The Gentleman smiled. “I admire your capacity to find contentment in your means. Raw ambition—power for its own sake—is best suited to capitalists and warlords. It’s unbefitting of a gentleman.”
Salvia nodded. “Far out.”
A loud boom—louder than gunfire or thunder—rang out. The Gentleman pursed his lips, reached into his pocket and produced a silver watch.
“What’s going on?” Salvia asked.
“The consequences of ambition,” the Gentleman said. “Dr. Salvia, I ask for a moment of your time. If you would come with me-”
“We can’t go out there.”
“Of course you can. I know the way, and I promise you we’ll be there and back with time to spare. Perhaps all this unpleasantness will have sorted itself out by then. Shall we?”
“Where are we going?”
Someone ran by Salvia’s door, screaming in pain. More gunfire followed after him.
"Away from the danger, I can promise you that. I can’t guarantee the same if we stay.”
Salvia weighed his options and stood. “Alright, but you’d better not expect me to run anywhere.” He tapped the cane against his prosthetic.
“Nothing you can’t handle,” the Gentleman promised. “Keep that cane close.”
He opened the door and strode out without a pause. The hallway smelled of gunsmoke. Something dark and wet had splashed the wall, almost black in the emergency lighting.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Truthfully, no, but the odds are in your favor,” the Gentleman said. He fell into a speed walk, towards the distant sounds of gunfire.
Salvia followed, knuckles creaking as he gripped his cane. “What about Johanson and the others?”
"They're safe enough staying put. Quiet as foxes, now.”
They hurried down the hall, passing tell-tale signs of violence. Bullet holes dotted the walls, smoke wafted in the air. Salvia didn’t even see the corpse until he stumbled over it. Cursing, he backed himself up against the wall. It was Trebek, staring up at the ceiling, his piercing stare seemed to be accusing it of being insubordinate.
“Nothing to do for him now,” the Gentleman said. “Keep up, please.”
He went to the end of the hall, stepping around bullet casings and discarded ammo cartridges to a door marked “Custodian.”
“The janitor’s closet?” Salvia asked.
The Gentleman reached into his coat and produced a long iron key, the kind used to open doors about a hundred years ago. He set the key—too large to fit any modern keyhole—against the door handle and it swung open with a click. “Coming?”
Salvia blinked at him. “Are you a wizard?”
A gunshot rang out. Salvia felt something zip through his long, unkempt hair and thap against wall.
The Gentleman reached out with his umbrella, hooked Salvia’s belt with the pommel’s toucan beak, and yanked the surprised psychologist through the door. With a fluid motion, the Gentleman shut the door behind him, nodding as it locked itself.
“That was close.”
“You’re not kidding!” Salvia said. “Jesus man, who was that?”
“Serpent’s Hand. He can’t get in.”
Salvia took a moment to straighten his prosthetic. The room was full of janitorial equipment; buckets, mops and jugs of chemicals in all the colors of the rainbow. The air stank of antiseptics and bleach.
“So now what?” Salvia asked. “We’re just gonna hide in here? My office was better, man.”
The Gentleman glanced at his pocket watch. “Timing is everything, Doctor Salvia. Tell me, what do you think of the human race?”
“Is this really the time for existentialism?”
The Gentleman was taken aback by that response, but then he smiled. “Intriguing.”
“Can we go now?” Salvia said. “That Hand-guy might start shooting through the door.”
“Unlikely, but yes, we shall be on our way.” The Gentleman tapped the wall again, and with a shudder it opened, the panels folding into the wall.
Salvia froze. Beyond was another hallway, one he was sure did not exist in Site 17. He knew that, because this hallway had floor-to-ceiling windows on its right side, providing a superb view of a bustling city below.
He shuffled towards the windows. “Is this an illusion?”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Most assuredly not.”
Salvia turned to face the Gentleman. The closet they’d stepped out of was gone. Behind them there was only more hallway. Salvia gave a yelp and stumbled back, the prosthetic slipped out from under him and he fell to the floor. His cane rolled to a stop at the Gentleman’s feet.
Panic rushed through him. This couldn’t be right couldn’t be right couldn’t be—
The Gentleman picked up the cane, admiring it for a moment before resting it on Salvia’s chest. “Care for a smoke?”
Salvia’s hands gripped the cane like a lifeline. “Hell yes.”
The Gentleman produced a second pipe, smaller than his own, and set it in Salvia’s lips. Another self-lighting match appeared, and the Gentleman held it to the pipe while Salvia took a puff. The smoothest tobacco he’d ever tasted filled his lungs.
He sat up with a bit of effort. “Where’d you buy this stuff?”
“I grow it, in my garden.”
“You're too kind. Comfort in ritual, yes?”
“You haven’t laced it with MJ, have you? They test me at least twice a month.”
The Gentleman laughed. “No. Too bitter for my nostrils.”
They smoked for a moment. “How is this possible?” Salvia asked.
“It’s a long explanation. And I’m sorry to admit I don’t know much more about it than you.”
Salvia swallowed. “I’ve heard of- I heard talk. About groups like the Foundation. But steeped into shit I don’t really pretend to understand. Are you with the Wanderer’s Library?”
The Gentleman smirked. “No.”
“Uh… the Factory?”
The Gentleman’s smile dropped. “Don’t even speak of such things, Doctor Salvia.” There was a cold edge to his voice.
“Not your fault. No more questions about that subject. Even asking can draw the answer's attention.”
“So who are you?” Salvia asked.
“A Gentleman.” He smiled.
Salvia sighed. “Alright. So where are we—how did we get here?”
“We are in Chicago. The North American branch of Marshall, Carter and Dark. And we walked here.”
“Jesus,” Salvia said.
“Not to worry. Get your leg on and we’ll be off before they know it.”
Salvia worked the prosthetic back into place and struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane. “Mind if I keep the pipe for now?”
The Gentleman nodded. “You look like a man in need of fine tobacco.”
The hallway led to an open office floor filled with cubicles. People worked at computers, speaking in hushed tones into headsets. No one looked up when Salvia and the Gentleman entered.
“Hard at work,” the Gentleman said, with an approving nod.
“Aren’t these guys, like, the bad guys?” Salvia asked.
“Aren’t you?” The Gentleman asked. “Shades of grey, Doctor. Mustn’t point fingers.”
“Whatever,” Salvia said. He tried to read what the employees were working on but couldn’t make anything out from his distance. It was hard to believe the people before him worked for MC&D. Most of them looked like college interns in sweater vests and cheap ties, not the sharply-dressed Luciferan power-brokers Salvia had come to equate with them.
“This way please,” the Gentleman said.
They hurried along, darting through the rows of cubicles in a seemingly random pattern, but it seemed to Salvia that the Gentleman was leading them to a door marked “Hazelwood.”
Before they reached it Salvia was stopped by a pained scream. Heads appeared above the cubicles like gophers. A chubby young man—no more than twenty, Salvia was sure—clutched his scalp like he was trying to pull his own skin off. He fell, smashing his forehead against his desk before convulsing on the floor.
“Jesus!” Salvia uttered. “He’s having a seizure!”
A woman whirled, her eyes huge and frightened. “What? Who are you?”
“Get him on his side!” Salvia barked.
Several employees jumped to, rolling the man over. One of them balling up his jacket into a pillow to support his head.
The Gentleman tapped Salvia’s shoulder. “We mustn’t tarry, Doctor.”
“He’ll be fine,” the Gentleman said. “They’ll take care of him.”
“Doctor please, one can’t fix all the world’s problems at once. And not to be unkind, but I was here first.”
Salvia frowned, but followed. “Make sure he keeps breathing!” He shouted behind him.
The Gentleman produced his iron key and pressed it to Hazelwood’s door, which opened obediently. He stepped in and held the door open for Salvia, who entered a spacious, empty office. The door swung shut and locked behind them.
“Okay, what the hell is going on?” Salvia asked, shaking his cane at the Gentleman. “My brain is blowing its rape whistle, man! Don’t tell me that kid just randomly had a seizure!”
The Gentleman held up a hand. “Stay calm. Breathe. Smoke.”
Salvia puffed on his pipe, then pulled it from his mouth. “Are you drugging me or something?”
“I wouldn’t do that to the tobacco.”
“Then tell me what’s going on.”
“We’re almost there,” the Gentleman said. “Our destination will have more answers than I can offer.”
“Where are we going, then? The Wanderer’s Library? The Matrix? Fucking Oz, man?”
“Of course not. We’re on our way to a Foundation facility, by way of a detour. We’re almost there.”
“What facility? Site Nineteen? Site Seventeen?”
“Its designation is classified. I’m sorry, but it’s better for your continued employment if you don’t know it. ”
“Jesus Christ, you’d get better results with honey than horseshit, man.”
The Gentleman frowned, reaching into his coat and checking his pocket watch. “Calm yourself, and try to mind your manners. Comfort in ritual, Doctor.”
Salvia ran his hand through his hair, pacing in the office. “What caused it?”
“The seizure,” Salvia said. “You know, don’t you?”
“Marshall, Carter and Dark does not deal exclusively with we mere humans. Negotiating with some of their clientele requires a measure of mental fortitude. Or an efficient turnover record.”
“Will he die?”
“I’d say not. He can be easily replaced, but in truth the Firm sees greater advantages in keeping its peons hearty and hale than simply… tossing them to the lions?”
Salvia frowned. “Point made.”
"Good." The Gentleman checked his watch again. “Time to go.”
He went to the window and tapped it with his umbrella. The glass slid easily out of place and dropped out of sight.
“Woah, woah!” Salvia cried as the wind rushed in. Papers went flying from the desk and scattered into the sky.
“Mind the step,” the Gentleman said. He walked off the edge.
“Jesus!” Salvia exclaimed. He went to the edge and looked out. The street was far, far below. He couldn’t see any sign of the pane of glass or the Gentleman. “Fuck me. Too heavy. Just too heavy."
He white-knuckled his cane, terrified that if he let go he would just drop out of the world like a video game character caught in a glitch. Fear clawed at him, trying to find purchase and drive him into a panic. There was nothing, nothing out there. He just saw down. And at the end of down, a sudden stop.
“Are you coming?” The Gentleman’s voice spoke out from the empty air.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” Salvia replied.
“It’s quite safe.”
“Doctor, we don’t have all day.”
“Says the goddamn wizard. This isn’t cool, man!”
“If it helps, there is really no going back from here. Marshall, Carter and Dark will not be pleased to find a Foundation employee in the heart of their operations. The employee benefits are exceptional, but you aren’t an employee. And the Foundation will not even know you’re here.”
“Friggin’ rhino’s bargain,” Salvia muttered. “Why not just put a gun to my head?”
“Because one way or another, you already had one to your head when we met. I offered you a way out in exchange for your help.”
“This is why I hate you people!” Salvia said, “The Foundation, the Hand, this fucking office Wolfram and Hart bullshit! And you! Fuckin’ Arnim Zola in a bowler hat telling me to leap off a building! The fuck do you think I am? I’m… I’m just a guy, man! I smoke a pack a day, I eat poutine, I watch porn, I order pizza, and I just wanna get through life with a minimum of fucking stress, goddamnit!”
The Gentleman’s voice was calm, even amused. “You chose an odd profession for a Dudeist. Please Doctor, I’m in need of your help.”
“Why? What can I possible give you that you can’t already do with your key and your hat and your tobacco?”
“Results,” the Gentleman said. “The building’s security has been alerted to you. Time to make a choice. I’d rather they didn’t find you.”
Salvia swallowed and stared at the streets below. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“I’m not trying to trick you into suicide, doctor.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Indeed, but it is the truth.”
Someone knocked at the door. "Open up!"
“Doctor?” The Gentleman asked.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck it!”
Then stumbled and landed hard on a metallic floor in an enclosed space, brightly lit from the ceiling above.
“Woah!” Salvia cried. “Woah, woah! I’m fucking sick of falling on my ass already!”
The Gentleman stepped into his view, hands on his umbrella, a smile on his face. “See? Nothing to it.”
“Christ man, don’t fucking do that to me!”
As he stood, Salvia's eyes were drawn to the odd welding scars that marked the floor. And he saw more on the walls. Long and curved like talons. The air was heavy and acrid in his nostrils.
“Where are we?” He asked.
“Her chambers,” the Gentleman said.
The wall shuddered, and alarm klaxons began to sound. Panels retracted, exposing a large cylindrical canister.
682 was written on the side in flaking white paint.
“Get behind me, please,” the Gentleman said. “She’s shy around newcomers.”
Salvia felt the pipe drop out of his mouth, but his mind was very far away from it.
The canister hissed, and clear tubes connected to it drained away some kind of brackish green fluid. The hatch opened, and the mostly-melted remains of a reptilian thing dropped out onto the floor with a wet slap.
Salvia made a sound, somewhere between a whimper and a scream. His mind seemed to pull at him, trying to drag his consciousness away from what he was looking at. He wanted to run, to cry, to bash his own skull against the wall until his brain broke free.
The Gentleman puffed on his pipe.
The mass of ruined flesh shuddered. What Salvia realized was an exposed lung inflated and deflated, expelling green liquid onto the floor.
Not dead not dead not dead notdeadnotdead—
“We,” Salvia whispered. “Shouldn’t be here.”
“No,” the Gentleman agreed, just as quietly. “Try not to speak.”
SCP-682 flexed and shivered, then began to take shape. Flesh darkened, blood—if Salvia could call it that—began to pump from what he assumed were veins. Or maybe he just thought they were. Maybe he was just imagining organs, to make sense of something so wrong that looking at it was harmful otherwise. He thought of the boy in Marshall, Carter and Dark his brain short circuiting just for talking to something humanity hadn't evolved to perceive. He realized somewhere in his mind that he was digging a furrow into his cane with the edge of his thumbnail.
What might be a torso sat up, what were probably arms stretched, and what couldn’t be a head turned to regard them both. It tilted to the side, like a puppy considering a strange new sound.
Then it leaped, impossibly fast. Claws reached out for them and then came down on the metallic floor, scratching fresh gouges into it. A guttural sound rumbled from 682’s chest. “Disgusting.”
The Gentleman offered a weak smile. “Good evening.”
“Disgusting…” 682 started to pace like a caged animal. If Salvia had been a madman, he could have reached out and brushed its limbs with his fingertips.
“We’re trying out best,” the Gentleman said. “Baby steps.”
682 snarled, coughing up something that slapped against Salvia’s face. Against all sanity, he let out a whimper. 682 whirled on him, teeth bared. Thick rivulets of saliva oozed from long teeth.
“Please,” the Gentleman said. “He’s my guest.”
682 didn’t seem to be listening. The moment went on for hours inside Salvia’s head. Finally it backed away, and its gaze met his own. Raw hatred pulsed from it, beating at his psyche with all the grace of a machete. Salvia felt his bladder give up the fight.
The Gentleman cleared his throat. “We need access to the Archive.”
682 snarled. “Always. Never. I am not your charge!”
“No,” the Gentleman said. “You are not.”
It paced again, back and forth, back and forth. Finally it turned away from them both. “Go.”
The Gentleman nodded. “Thank you, Lady.”
“Yes. But we’re trying.”
682 growled. It crawled towards its canister, muttering to itself.
“There,” the Gentleman said to Salvia. “We can go. A Gentleman does not overstay his welcome.”
He led Salvia—by the hand—towards the door. When Salvia realized this he eagerly fell into step.
“Doctor.” 682’s voice rang out in the room. The Gentleman stopped and both men turned to regard it.
“When are you going to let me out of this box?”
The Gentleman licked his lips. “Sooner than you might be ready.”
682 chuffed, but Salvia couldn’t tell if it was annoyed or amused. It entered the canister, which sealed shut and began filling with green fluid that sizzled away 682’s flesh, even as it relaxed into what looked like a sleeping posture.
“Come along, Anguis,” the Gentleman said. “We’re at our destination.” He opened the door and pushed Salvia through.
They found themselves in an empty black void. Salvia's feet were touching something solid, but the sheer feeling of vastness almost stole his breath.
Instead, he fell to his knees and vomited. The Gentleman stood a respectable distance away, patiently waiting as Salvia let up his morning Cheerios.
“A natural reaction, all things considered.”
“Fuck me,” Salvia said. “Do you realize what that thing was?”
“She. And yes. This way.”
Salvia shuddered. He wanted to scream and keep screaming. He pressed the snake-head pommel of his cane to his face, taking several steadying breaths until he could finally will himself to stand.
“Where are we?”
“Elsewhere,” the Gentleman said. “An archive for my companions and I. Think of it as a library for things that shouldn’t be. Yet. Or otherwise.”
“Exactly. There it is.”
A light came on, a Chinese paper lantern that cast a red glow. Below it was a pedestal made from wood, and atop that a folded piece of paper. The Gentleman came to stand beside it.
“Doctor,” he said, gesturing at the paper. “Would you open this for me?”
Salvia blinked. “Are you… are you shitting me?”
“No.” The Gentleman said. His face was flat, but his tone was heavy with importance.
“You brought me through all that… for this?”
“That’s it? No sword in the stone? No Matrix, no Wonderland… just a fucking piece of paper?”
Salvia wiped his lips. “I can’t take these games anymore, man.”
The Gentleman shook his head. “Anguis, I wouldn’t have brought you through all of that, exposed you to all of this, if the task in front of you was a mere matter of physical labor. I asked earlier what you thought of the human race. You said it was a matter of existentialism. You have no idea yet how astute your answer was. Every day the human race must make rational sense of an absurd, irrational world. Today you were exposed to a sample of that truth, a truth so many men—including the Foundation itself—have happily dismissed as imaginative insanity, or deluded themselves into believing they simply lack the scientific language to define.
"But the truth is much deeper. You looked into that truth, Doctor Salvia. Lesser men would be consuming their own fingers at my feet right now, or been a meal for the Lady, or a red smear in afternoon traffic. You watched a man try to sell vacation shares to an entity whose language caused his mind to shut down. You walked hundreds of miles with a single step. You lost your leg during a containment breach more than a year ago, and I’m not speaking of a simple separation of flesh. The being you faced reached into your essence and took a piece of you away. Without that piece, your leg simply ceased. Your young friend Jason Snodgrass was correct. You all lost something, and it is driving Jason and the others to madness because they cannot replace it. Yet you did.”
The Gentleman smiled. “I like your cane.” He gestured at the piece of paper.
Salvia let out a long breath. “What’s in it?”
Salvia came forward to lean over the pedestal. The paper looked innocuous enough. His hands shook as he picked it up and opened it, holding it under the light.
“What do you see?” The Gentleman asked.
Salvia set the paper down. “A recipe for White Russians. And a coupon for pizza.”
The light went out, and the paper vanished. Salvia felt its physical presence fade away. Lost in the labyrinthine everything that was the Gentleman’s Archive.
“Very good, Doctor. My name is Bartleby. At your service.” He looked at his pocket watch, which wasn't really a pocket watch. “Just in time. You’re fortunate.”
“Round pegs don’t fit square holes,” Bartleby said. “Consider it a test. And a wager.”
“To what end?”
Bartleby smiled. “Keep a hand on that cane, Doctor.” He tapped his umbrella on the floor.
- - -
Salvia sat up with a start. He was in his office, at his desk. Klaxons were wailing outside. Before his eyes could adjust, the lights came back on and he winced under their glare. Seconds later the door opened, and Alex entered dressed in Kevlar. He trained the business end of a pistol on Salvia. “Doctor?”
“I’m here, I’m fine,” Salvia said. “What’s going on?”
“Serpent’s Hand,” Alex said. “We’re doing a sweep and moving everyone to the mess for headcount. On your feet.”
“Fine.” Salvia patted himself down. His clothes were clean, not a sign of the ordeal he’d been through. The ashtray was empty. The pipe was gone. Had he even left?
His eyes caught Jason’s papers, still waiting for his signature. Frowning, he signed them. “Maybe a piece is missing. Don’t know if I can replace it, but I can at least give you a decent night’s sleep.”
“Doc?” Alex asked.
“Nothing.” Salvia he went to the door. To his relief he saw Johanson being ushered out of her office towards the messhall. She waved at him, her expression relieved.
“I’ve had enough perspective for today,” Salvia muttered. “I’ll thank you not to drop any more on me.”
He shut the door behind him. Bartleby watched him go, and was soon joined by Melinda and Jorgen.
“Well?” Jorgen asked.
“I think I earned that cognac,” Bartleby said.
Melinda rolled her eyes. “This is still a mistake. The man is an utter slob. He soiled himself. Twice.”
“You didn’t exactly keep a stiff upper lip when you met her, Melinda,” Jorgon said.
“We were all something rougher once,” Bartleby stated. “But we’ll make a Gentleman of him yet.”