Trailing fire, the orb sailed across times and spaces, its sheer momentum carrying it inexorably through the barriers between universes. In some, ones where the laws of physics weren’t as honest and upstanding, it picked up speed, or spiralled through vortices, or shattered various crystalline spheres.
Regardless, though, it moved. Past a line. And a racket. And hit – not the ground, but a ground. A rather important ground, in fact. Its home ground. It hit the ground with a soft tunk, and bounced, coming to rest like a tennis ball in a tuft of grass at the base of a well-maintained chain-link fence. In a deep, concrete-lined shaft in another dimension, the air exploded into fire and rust.
Site-93, SCP-2117 Containment Pit, ██████████, Australia
It took several seconds for Doctor Douglas Vulpura to re-focus his vision. It hadn't been a loud sound, but its abruptness was deafening. For some reason, he was reminded of a time in Grade 7 when he'd been hit full-on in the face with a soft dodgeball.
"Everyone all right?", he asked somewhat muzzily. There was a chorus of disorientated groans from the rest of the research team, accompanied by some muffled swearing which meant the answer to that question was probably 'yes, ow, you bastard'.
It was only then that Vulpura turned his attention to an intense red glow coming from the containment pit's heat-shielded camera system monitors. There was something resting in the bottom of the pit. At first he thought it might be an egg. A green, fuzzy egg. No, that wasn't right. He squinted, resting one sweaty palm on the console as he leaned unsteadily closer to the screen. It was a tennis ball. In his containment pit. An intact, brand-new tennis ball. Which was hot enough to make the chemically-treated concrete it rested on glow cherry-red.
"Someone get on the phone with Site Command," he said, feeling competing waves of bewilderment and adrenaline wash over him.
"I think the Oxidist just missed a Volley Event."
Across the court, a cephalopodic monstrosity hissed through its teeth. “Zao-junshi, is something wrong? You’re not exactly looking at the top of your game today.”
Zao sighed, wiping open flame from his brow with one of his forelimbs. He set the racket down on one of the less heat-twisted sections of court, placing two more limbs on his lower back as he craned backwards, feeling the deep ache in his core. The creature across the court oozed through the net, proffering a bottle of water. It was a symbolic gesture at best, but he appreciated the intent. “Thanks, Huoyao-yisheng, but it’s nothing. Just not feeling it today, I guess.”
The creature cocked one of many eyebrows. “No need to use honorifics with me, Zao-junshi. This isn’t an appointment with your doctor, this is tennis. And before you protest-“
Rolling his eyes, Zao finished the sentence. “I get the title ‘cause I’m a war hero and it’s the right thing to do, yadda yadda yadda. Spare me, Huoyao.”
Huoyao placed a friendly hand on Zao's shoulder, unfolding cartilaginous tentacles to protect its skin from the intense heat radiating off him. It had been a cephalopod for as long as Zao had known him – a common enough practice among military medical personnel. In recent years, 'going squid' had become a popular fad in the Synocracy, but few were willing to commit to the level of amorphous spinelessness that Huoyao maintained. Zao never thought to enquire what Huoyao had been before the war; he'd always thought the notion of asking someone what body they'd been birthed or mass-produced into a little tasteless. “Seriously, Zao-junshi, what’s up? You were giving as good as you were taking for the first few rounds and then – pfffthbt.”
Zao ignored the faint hissing as his squamous companion’s mucus flash-boiled off his skin, and sighed again. “Huoyao, in your professional opinion, am I too old to travel?”
The doctor – no, his friend – scoffed.
“Where’s this coming from, Zao? Sure, you’re no spring daisy, but it’s not like you’re getting senile or anything. Nothing’s stopping you from travelling.”
They walked slowly into the shade of the nearest awning, letting the peaceful organic hum of Xin/Wellington wash over them. Zao settled himself gingerly in a heat-resistant chair, reducing his mass and thermal output to keep the delicate paisley fabric from igniting. “I haven’t – since the end of the War, it’s just that I haven’t had a reason to, and –“
Huoyao crossed several dozen arms, frowning. “You’re thinking of visiting the IAI? I mean sure, you’d probably be able to get an entry pass, but still, there are better destinations if you want to put your feet up. I know a lovely vineyard in the Western Synocracy that –“
“No, it has to be the Imperium. Don’t ask me why. Not quite sure myself, honestly. Well…”
“Well? Got a good reason to visit a semi-failed police state, Zao?”
Site-93, SCP-1917 Containment Area, ██████████, Australia
She was working on a new project – Balancing Act was her draft title – when she noticed it. The art piece was something unusual, in that she was assembling it outside her production facilities. Quite simply, it was a stack of forty Italian CV-33 tankettes, balanced on their ends. As she worked, carefully polishing and re-finishing the thin steel plates of the little vehicles to ensure their centres of gravity were perfectly aligned, it occurred to her that this wasn't even really art. She couldn't delude herself- she just really wanted to see if she could stack forty tanks. And that was terrible.
Stretching up a davit with a camera on the end, she surveyed her work so far. Five little tankettes, swaying somewhat precariously on the gentle outback breeze. Her Foundation guards, quite sensibly, were keeping their distance. She had never extended a camera this high. On a whim, she took a slow look around, raising the articulated davit even higher. Nothing but fences and tank traps and the nearby low domes of the Foundation tank garage. And beyond that, a – what was that?
She hastily manufactured several thick lenses, passing them out her main hatch and rigging up a simple chain drive to slot them into place on the end of the davit. There was a wide area of empty ground, apparently untrodden. Its border was surrounded with low grassy hummocks, which she skimmed over with her newly-installed telescopic vision, but in the centre of the rough circle of ground, there was a humanoid shape. A statue. A very familiar statue, one she'd seen in hundreds of newsreels and microfiche journals back home. A figure in a posture of supplication, borne downwards under the weight of a heavy flywheel.
She gasped, starting. The rumble of her treads knocked over the tower of tankettes. The Extrusion.
Zao harrumphed despite himself. Huoyao was right, of course. The Imperium Australis Incognita had never been particularly friendly to the citizenry of the Synocracy, even before disputes over higher-dimensional territory rights had erupted into war. The War. There'd been a time, just after the armistice, when it seemed like the situation might improve – both sides could agree that they'd gotten the violence and the anger out of their systems, and had proved their respective national might. But then the IAI's government had collapsed, and the Synocracy's hopes for easy coexistence had collapsed with it. “I know, I know it’s a stupid idea. But, see- when they first manufactured me, it was just after they’d broken the story on the Extrusion. I was young. I was curious. Never got a chance to – I wasn’t stationed anywhere nearby during the War, and after the coup- anyways. I just think it would be nice to see it before it’s too late.”
It was Huoyao’s turn to sigh, though it did so with significantly more sarcastic exasperation. “Zao, you’ve got a good three or four centuries left, easy. Can’t you wait for the regime to change and go then? Hell, I'd love to come along. But not to the Imperium. And certainly not to the Extrusion. You know what that place does to biological materials, even dimensions away."
Zao chuckled dryly. "Hell, old age must be doing things to me. I know this sounds like weird angsty hooey to you, Huoyao. And believe me, I can't believe it's coming out of my mouth. But I've just got a… a certainty, you hear? Call it fate. Or predestination. Or- or maybe just a hunch. I need to visit the Extrusion, and I need to visit it soon."
Zao had packed light. He missed his home comforts, but as Huoyao had pointed out, the more he carried the longer he'd spend in the torturous maze that was the IAI's infamous customs facilities. So he'd loaded a satchel with some non-threatening reading material (a few books of classic fiction he'd been meaning to read for decades, but never quite managed) and small vial of powdered aluminum in case he got peckish. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be doing much good.
He stood in the centre of a towering chamber, its boilerplate steel floor well-lit by spotlights hanging from the distant ceiling. The walls were unbroken- even the door had closed flush behind him – but he was sure on some level that he was under surveillance. Before him was a low table, made of some kind of brushed aluminum decorated with inlaid wires in a riot of metallic shades. Behind it sat the three customs officers, their humanity – the Imperium had never adopted body modification or replacement on the level the Synocracy endorsed – disguised by their thick, intricate uniforms, the vibrant fabrics a stark contrast to the grey metal of the rest of the chamber.
The one on the left broke the silence first, the heavily embroidered veil it wore over its head fluttering slightly. "You are a veteran of the War of Aggression."
It was a statement, not a question. Zao could only give a curt nod, frowning internally at the officer's terminology. "Yes, I am. And happily retired. My intent in –"
The one in the middle interrupted him, thin jets of blue mist or powder spraying from the delicate grilles that covered its pewter mask. "You are an Oxidist. A manufactured entity designed for long-range multirole anti-materiel and manufacturing sabotage operations."
Zao did his best to conceal his concern. He'd expected a grilling in customs, but this wasn't how he'd imagined it. "I am, but I have been decommissioned and all my offensive capabilities reduced. I fail to see how this could be a concern."
The one on the right, its upper body concealed in an explosion of multicoloured fabrics, raised what might have been a four-fingered hand in a gesture that was either a censure or a blessing. "Your kind accounted for eighty-seven percent of Imperium's sentient mechanical casualties during the War. Zao-junshi, we have every right to be concerned. What is your purpose in coming here?"
The one on the left shifted slightly, embroidery catching the light. "The purpose of all Synocratic aggressors is by definition suspect."
The one in the middle, marinating in its blue cloud, cocked its head. "Since the end of the conflict and the election of the Ruling Council, Synocratic forces have undergone a significant reduction in effective strength, but have made significant increases in their covert operations and intelligence divisions."
Zao couldn't hide his frustration any longer. "Look," he snapped, perhaps with too much anger in his voice, "I am an old man. The war is behind us. I am here to visit the Extrusion to satisfy my own personal curiosity. If the Imperium is so worried about elderly veterans spying on them, why keep the border open at all?"
The one on the left seemed pleased. "We do not worry, Oxidist. But your point is duly noted."
The one on the right made another inscrutable gesture. "The Extrusion is not a popular destination, Zao-junshi."
The one in the middle spoke before he could respond. "The Ruling Council acknowledges the responsibility of the previous administration for the crime against reality that is the Extrusion, but will not take responsibility for any side-effects of its clearly abnormal nature."
The one on the left nodded slightly. Or maybe it was just a current of air. "The Extrusion was avoided by Synocratic invaders during the War of Aggression."
The one in the middle seemed to lean back, sucking the blue haze back into its mask. "Information on the effects the Extrusion has on Oxidist-type manufactured life forms is minimal."
The one on the right stood in a rush of susurrating fabrics. "Very well. Zao-junshi, consensus has been reached. Entry permission is granted."
Zao stood there bewildered as they produced paperwork seemingly from nowhere, the deep thud of stamps hitting pages washing over him. What had just happened? Did they want him to visit the Extrusion? He had the sinking feeling that he was being enmeshed in something far greater than himself. In a daze, he stepped through the suddenly-open door before him (hadn't there been a desk there, just moments ago?) and out into the light.
He stood on a well-maintained gravel road, the monolithic forms of the customs house and its guardian Mark 35 sentient manufactories to his back. Ahead was a single pillar of blue-green stone, the only markings on it those nine letters the War had drilled into his memory. IMP.AUS.INC.
He shook himself, thermite skin crackling softly, and, still unsure, set off into enemy territory.