"Stolen!? How can it be stolen?"
"I'm sorry Emma, but I don't know." Dr. Pherson looked exhausted. "I've been trying to find out, but no-one will tell me anything."
Dr. Pherson's eyes were scanning the lab distractedly, as if SCP-012 might appear on top of a pile of paperwork. Emma had to resist the urge to look behind her. Instead, she watched her supervisor as he tensed his shoulders, his usual Socratic equanimity gone.
"What am I going to do, Emma? The last five years of work, wasted."
Emma felt lost. In eighteen months working with Dr. Pherson, he had always seemed so authoritative and in control. She had never seen him like this, and she had no idea how to react. It was like watching a parent cry.
"Sir, it's not a waste," she began. "We still have all of the testing data, and -"
"Dammit you don't understand!" Even as he slammed the desk, Dr. Pherson was suddenly contrite. "Sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted. But you really - the thing is, they've kicked me off the skip. Even if 012 turns up, I can never work on it again."
"But why? Surely they don't think…" The words dried up in Emma's throat.
Dr. Pherson gave a sour laugh. "They did, at first. See the lab? Nothing's been disturbed, the locks aren't broken, so someone with clearance opened them. Five containment breaches in one night, and the only thing taken is 012? Of course they thought it was an inside job. So then I had the brilliant idea to tell them why it couldn't have been me."
"What do you mean?"
"Last night, when someone came in here and stole my career, I was asleep. Along with half the site, it seems. So I tell security that dozens of witnesses can confirm when I woke up, and all of a sudden I have medical asking what I dreamed about. Soon as I tell them it was 012, they tell me I'm dropped from the project."
"You were at the retirement party?" Emma looked up imploringly at Dr. Pherson, feeling sick. "But I - that means -"
"Oh yes, they told me. You dreamed about it too, didn't you? So you're a potential liability, just like me." Emma hardly heard as Dr. Pherson continued. "We've got four weeks sitebound with regular psych checks, then reassignment. Get your personal items, they want us out of the lab by eleven."
"So that's it," said Emma, slumping into the dormitory couch. "I just got fired from my first ever research assignment."
Mike looked dolefully back at her. "You think that's bad? My MTF gets its first off-site action since I joined, and they leave me behind."
"Wow, that does suck. I'm sorry, Mike."
"Yeah, me too. For you, that is." Mike's grin couldn't be suppressed for long, even if this one was slightly rueful.
Emma knew she should try to change the subject. "How did you end up in Eta-11, anyway?"
"I told you, I liked the tunes." Mike saw Emma's look, and continued. "I'm serious. I was still a kid when the Foundation approached me - apparently they'd seen some of the freeware mods I'd been putting out. They asked me to join a secret society to protect the world, and I said 'hell yes!'. But saving the world turned out to be 15 hours a day of coding, with a bunch of guys who took themselves way too seriously. I wanted to actually do something, so I asked for a transfer to a task force."
"And you chose here?"
"They chose for me. I think it was someone's idea of teaching me a lesson. But these guys are pretty cool, actually. And if I want to work on projects that interest me, I certainly have plenty of time." Mike screwed up his nose. "Anyway, what about you? How'd you join the Foundation?"
Emma felt a familiar mixture of embarrassment and defensiveness. "I've always been here. Both my parents are researchers."
"You're a site-baby? That's so cool!"
"Yeah, it's super-awesome, thanks."
"God - I'm sorry, Emma. I didn't think."
"No, that's okay. It's just - people don't realise what it's like. There are only a few kids on-site at any given time, so it's not exactly a normal childhood. At least I got to see my parents growing up."
"And did they…" Mike trailed off.
"Yes, it's true. At seventeen, they offered me the whole package: guaranteed college place, trust fund, amnestics cocktail. A different life. But how could I? I'd barely see my parents again, and I had no idea if I could cope outside. I've been part of the Foundation all my life."
"I'm sorry," said Mike again. "I didn't mean to pry."
"It's okay. I'm not angry. I just keep thinking about 012, and how unfair it all is after I've given so much. I know that skip better than almost anyone, you know?"
Emma's voice grew stronger. "I know what the effects are, how it behaves. If someone is trying to complete it, I'll be able to see the signs. I should be the one looking for it, because I can find it." Emma's gaze snapped up to meet Mike's. "I'm going to find it."
"Hell, I'm in." Mike's smile was back with full force. "Where do you want to start?"
Emma considered. "Well, Roger's stuck in Archives, and we can't talk to his contacts without him to make the introduction. Maybe someone else who knows about anomalous music?"
"Oh, I have a great idea," said Mike, in a tone that sounded like all sorts of trouble. "Have you ever heard of SCP-2992?"
Emma pulled out her tablet and started reading through the database entry. "A humanoid skip, and potentially Keter," she said dubiously. "Isn't that risky?"
Mike was already digging in a drawer next to his computer. "No risk, no reward. And I have a little something I've been dying to test. Here, put this on." He threw Emma a cloth headband that turned out to be covered in electrodes and circuitry.
She looked at the headband, uncertain, when a thought occurred. "Let me get something from my room first. Anyway, how are we even going to get in to talk to him?"
"Delegated Level-4 clearance from MTF Commander Richards," said Mike to the site security guard. "Should cover anything categorised 'auditory' or 'musical'. My research assistant and I will be conducting an interview."
"Your clearance seems to check out," replied the guard. "Go ahead, Agent Carter."
They walked down the hallway to the containment unit door, and Mike looked smugly at Emma. "That delegated clearance is handy for all sorts of things. Aren't you glad you have a supervisor like me?"
Despite her nervousness, Emma couldn't help but smile, rolling her eyes at Mike. "Ask me that again if we get out of here without getting dragged in front of the Site Director."
Mike gave an exaggerated wink, put on his headband, and placed his hand on the door-lock.
The door opened on a standard humanoid containment cell, with a few basic accoutrements - a simple sound system with a few CDs next to it, a pair of drumsticks. The African-American man sitting on the bed looked older than his mid-thirties - years of confinement had given his face a worn-down cast, but the dark eyes that looked up at them shone brightly.
"Welcome," said SCP-2992. "What brings two children here to listen to a worn-out old record?"
"Hello Jayden," said Mike, sounding wary. "We have some questions for you, if you are willing to talk."
Suddenly the older man was alert, his voice avid. "Have you come to meet my friend, little children? Children must look after other children, if the parents leave them to fend for themselves."
"Um, okay. We're not really children, though. We're Foundation researchers."
"All of the Foundation are children, my child. Bullies, mistreating other children. Scared to reach out and love them." SCP-2992's voice was exaggerated, like he was playing to an unseen audience.
"Right, but - " Mike sighed, rolling his eyes. "That's not - it's not what I wanted to ask about, you know."
Emma wanted to interject, to redirect Mike's building frustration, but she hesitated. This was his idea, after all. Perhaps she should wait.
"So commanding, this child," said SCP-2992 to nobody in particular. "Ready to bang the drum of his inquisition without waiting for the other instruments to join in. Well play on, sir drummer, play -"
"Shut up!" snapped Mike. "Just - just shut up for a second and listen."
In his jumpsuit, SCP-2992 sat almost unnaturally still, but his fingers started to tap out a complicated rhythm on the bedframe. Immediately Emma's head began to swim, as her thoughts went fuzzy. The more she tried to concentrate on the rhythm, the less she was able to focus - it just became a blur, with her mind unable to follow the beat. After the initial shock, Emma found that her thoughts were clearer as long as she ignored the tapping. Instead, she watched the two men in the room - Mike had his teeth clenched, but was still smiling, and Jayden was looking at them quizzically.
"And you can stop the tapping," said Mike. "It won't work."
Emma could feel her focus returning. Jayden switched to tapping his feet, but for Emma the rhythm was still fragmented.
Mike continued, a note of self-satisfaction creeping into his tone. "That's not what I meant, Jayden. We won't free your songs for you, because we don't feel your beat."
"What do you mean?" SCP-2992 sounded like he had been stung.
"Our brains can't process your rhythms, Jayden - they're being interrupted in the auditory cortex." Mike pointed to his headband. "It's a pattern breaker. Your 'children' won't have any influence on us."
"Don't talk about the children," said Jayden, with a voice dripping spite. "You want to pretend they don't exist, shut them out in the cold and abandon them. But they will keep singing outside your high towers, and their voices will bring down your walls." His feet stopped, but he kept his hands tapping lightly against his thighs. "And a broken beat is just a different kind of rhythm."
"If you say so," said Mike. "Now about our questions."
"What makes you think I would answer you, boy? You come to me and you pretend that you don't hear those poor children? They won't become some background noise. Get out. You have nothing to offer me."
Both men were tensed, bristling. They spun at the sound of Emma's soft voice. "We have this."
Emma held out the CD case she had found in her dormitory; a cheap re-writable with a plain white label. Jayden's attention was fixed on her instantly, his anger forgotten.
"What have you brought me, quiet girl?"
"It's - well, it's from a long time ago. They're probably not very good, but at the time they felt right - they felt true." Emma tilted her chin up in defiance of her own embarrassment. "No-one else has ever heard them."
Jayden strode lightly across the room, and took the CD case from Emma's hand, holding it like it was made of crystal. "No-one else?" he echoed. "Flowers that bloom in a cave, without the sunlight to fade them. Melodies found in a single mind, friendless and alone. This is a rare gift."
"Then will you answer our questions?"
"Yes child, your questions I will answer. Even with your cruel refusal to listen to others, you have not forgotten your own children." Jayden sat back on the bed, and spread his hands wide in invitation.
"Your… friend. You say that it knows everything, all of the music there ever was. Is that right?"
"I am a poor MC to my friend's majestic DJ. His playlist is infinite."
Emma took a step towards the seated man. "I want to know about a particular song. A piece of music, written in blood."
"There are many children born out of blood," replied Jayden. "Many whose parents forget them when the blood runs cooler."
"No," Emma insisted, "this is different. This music - it wants to be written. It's called 'On Mount Golgotha'."
Jayden flinched. "Liar! How do you know that name?"
"She was working with it," said Mike. "Studying it."
"No no no no." Jayden's face was drained of colour, and his shoulders had hunched reflexively. "This is wrong, you mustn't do this."
"Aren't you meant to be helping music to be heard?" said Mike in an accusatory tone. "What happened to loving every child?"
"Not this child - not this child," said Jayden, shaking his head and rocking in place. "If this child grows up, it will destroy all of the other children. All of their voices, lost. Their beauty gone. A world without music. You cannot allow this child to grow. My friend told me, and my friend was afraid."
Even the rhythm of Jayden's rocking was blurring for Emma. His tension was evident, but she had to press on. She took another step towards him. "What did your friend tell you? Why will the music end?"
"Not just music!" shouted Jayden, eyes glistening with frustrated tears. "When the final note plays and St. Alagadda returns, everything will be pressed together - scales and scales, every note in every register becoming a single tone heard forever, without limit. A bell that rings inside your mind! No, no - my mind is like the fragments of a record thrown at a wall, but this is not about the mind - this is about being, about wholeness, about humanity. You have to destroy this score! You have to stop it being played again!"
Before Emma could ask anything more, Mike said the stupidest thing he could possibly have said.
"We can't. It was stolen."
Emma turned to Mike in disbelief, and jumped as she felt SCP-2992 grab her arm. Jayden had fallen to his knees in front of her, his fingers digging into her wrist. Mike started towards them, but Jayden barked "No!" with such force that he froze in shock.
Jayden looked up desperately at Emma. "You have to protect me. When they have all of the scores they will teach me, use me to spread it through all the world. I will help them kill billions of children!"
The intensity in his voice chilled Emma's blood. "But what can I - "
"Hide me. Kill me! You cannot let them take me."
His eyes were locked with Emma's, and the grip on her wrist was fierce. Suddenly, Emma was pulled bodily away, and two guards pushed past her and fired their tasers. Emma watched in dismay at Jayden, convulsing pitifully on the floor, before the third guard escorted her from the room. Mike had already been marched outside, and was standing before a tall man whom Emma recognised from her safety briefings as the head of site security.
"I don't know what the hell you think you were doing," he said, stern-faced.
Emma glanced across at Mike, trying to work out what to say.
The head of security continued. "Nevertheless, you had clearance. Just try to take more precautions with the humanoid skips in future. You're lucky I happened to come down here, Agent Carter - I have a message for you. Your task force wants you to join them in Texas for an operation they're planning there. Report to Logistics at 1900."
"Really?" The rest of Mike's face looked like he could hardly believe it, but his smile showed his elation. "Thank you, sir!"
"You're welcome, agent." The security director nodded, and turned to leave.
Emma couldn't believe that she was about to lose another friend. She tried not to show it in her voice. "That's great, Mike - I'm sure you'll be brilliant."
"Thanks Emma," said Mike, "but I'm sorry to be -"
"Emma?" said the security director, stopped halfway down the corridor. "Emma Stark?"
"Uh, yes." Emma felt a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Just who I was about to go looking for. The site director would like a word with you. Could you come with me please."
Emma felt resignation start to wash over her, only to be swept aside by a sudden wave of scalding anger.
"No! I won't 'come with you please'."
"Emma, are you okay?" Mike's look of concern just made Emma angrier.
"I'm not okay, Mike! I've had enough. Enough of getting dragged away from skips by a bunch of site security with tasers. Enough of meekly going where someone tells me to go, answering questions and being patronised. Enough of being told scraps of information about my project!"
The security director was walking slowly towards her with palms raised, but Emma continued, heedless. "I don't need to be rescued. I don't need to be someone's research assistant. I need to find out what's going on - and I'm going to! If you'll excuse me…" She turned and walked off.
Over her shoulder, Emma heard Mike and the security director call after her. She didn't stop, or turn, simply marching away and calling out "So you can tell the Site Director that he can go -"
And that's when the tasers hit.