Prisoners
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"You know she's going to die, right? That you'll be asking a probable god to die?"

"…"

"Well, hell." The woman ground out her cigarette. "Better than an Earth-shaped hole in the universe." She stood. "Let's get to it."


Present Day


The woman known as L.S., infamous leader in the Serpent's Hand, known to the Foundation by the name of The Black Queen, read a book by candlelight in the Wanderers' Library, and thought about the end of the world.

Here in the East Aera Wing — the Library was big enough to have wings named this way, like countries — it was night.

Technically, the Wanderers' Library did not have day or night. But day-night cycles were key to maintaining the healthy magical and psychological function of all manner of beings. As a great many books within the Library itself could tell you.

So, many of the Library's wings had day-night cycles. Bright light during the 'day', darkness and dimmed lights at 'night'. Variations on the theme in the stranger, farther-out wings. Illusions of meteor showers. Hovering alien planets. Dim gods peering through the chandeliers.

'Night', here in the East Aera Wing, meant swirling star-patterns, black and white in a purple and gold sky above the fog masking the top of the stacks. A vision from another world. The night sky of Sarra Mello.

L.S. had once taken a Way to Sarra Mello. An awful place, with air like breathing lava, and hordes of fae insects trying to eat your succulent eyeballs. But she'd always loved that sky… that sky like a Van Gogh painting. She came here, sometimes, to think.

Tonight, she considered how her old enemy, the SCP Foundation, the shadow organization that had stolen her father from her, was about to end the world.

She'd had advance warning. Lucky. One of the birds had whispered in her ear. Another Little Sister, sending her a message from another world.

L.S. watched the clock of her pocket-watch tick down to exactly twenty-four hours remaining before the end of the world.

At twenty-three hours and fifty-nine seconds, she snapped her book shut and headed for the Archives.


Two Months Ago


Kendra Campbell stared at the interview subject seated, handcuffed, across the table, and hated her.

It wasn't just the subject, one Joanna [Middle-Name-Redacted] Cross, that Campbell hated. She hated working on Mobile Task Force Tau-9. She hated being called a "Bookworm". She hated investigating magic, she hated researching a fucking magical library she'd never even seen, and she hated investigating a magical organization almost entirely made up of self-righteous magical pricks.

But just for right now she probably hated Joanna Cross the most.

INTERVIEW t356y-SH-CROSS-CAMPBELL, NUMBER 35

Interviewer: Dr. Kendra Campbell, MTF Tau-9 Researcher, Clearance Level 2, Gen. Special Access Program Tau-9.
Subject: Joanna Cross, Serpent's Hand operative ██████
Observers: ███████, █████, █████████

[Note: Dr. Campbell shows signs of frustration. Takes an unnecessarily long time to being reading assigned list of questions.]

Dr. Campbell: Is it true that your first and last name is Joanna Cross?

Operative Cross: Yes.

[Dr. Campbell pauses again. Signs of frustration evident.]

Dr. Campbell: Is it true that—

Operative Cross: This is your thirty-fifth interrogation of me, Doctor. You already know what I will say. What makes you think this time will be any different?

[Dr. Campbell pauses for a lengthy period of time.]

Dr. Campbell: Interview terminated.

[Operative Cross does not speak. Dr. Campbell exits interrogation room.]


"I don't understand why we're still interrogating her," Campbell said, slowing to match her pace with the leisurely strides of Dr. Gears. She was in trouble, she knew she was in trouble, but she'd found that Gears didn't even notice jokes, let alone the petulance she was feeling right now. "She's said the same exact things in all thirty-four previous interviews. What was the point of number thirty-five?"

Gears took his time answering. Campbell resisted the urge to try to figure out what he was thinking. Gears bore the same facial expression that he always did, a cold look of bland calculation. "Gears," indeed. That too-perfect name. Joke? Code? Fortuitous coincidence?

"I'm a researcher, not an agent," she continued. "I have exactly zero training in interrogation."

"The reasoning is above your clearance level," Gears said. "The fact that you are a researcher and not an agent is one reason why you were given a script. You are working with items recovered from the breach in which the interview subject was captured. Therefore, you are an appropriate choice for interviewer."

"I can't even ask her anything useful."

"You have done admirably in following the letter of the rules," Gears said. "As instructed, you did not deviate from the script. It is, as you know, acceptable for an interviewer to end an interview early for reasons of an emotionally distraught state. However, others may not feel convinced that your emotional state merited ending the interview after hearing the answer to only one question."

"Is there really no one else who can do this?"

"There is only one deemed qualified to interview this subject who is not otherwise engaged," Gears said.

"Who? Can you get them on it?"

"Doctor Rita Butler is the only other available member on Mobile Task Force Tau-9 deemed appropriate by Site Command to interview this subject."

Campbell stopped short.

That was the other thing about Joanna Cross. Joanna Cross had a sister.

A half-sister, but they'd grown up together. A half-sister who was also assigned to Mobile Task Force Tau-9. A quiet, occasionally funny woman, also a doctor, a bit of a nebbish but in an endearing way.

A sister named Rita Butler.

"But… that's her sister, sir," Campbell said.

"Nevertheless, Doctor."

Campbell stared into Gears' passive, implacable face. This was manipulation, she knew. She didn't think it was coming from Gears — if Gears was even capable of being manipulative if not ordered to by his superiors — but it was still working.

"I… you're right," Campbell said. "I apologize."

Gears nodded, once. "I have scheduled your next interview for tomorrow morning."


EXCERPT FROM INTERVIEW t356y-SH-CROSS-CAMPBELL, NUMBER 36

Interviewer: Dr. Kendra Campbell, MTF Tau-9 Researcher, Clearance Level 2, Gen. Special Access Program Tau-9.
Subject: Joanna Cross, Serpent's Hand operative ██████
Observers: ███████, █████, █████████

Dr. Campbell: Is it true that you work for the organization calling themselves the Serpent's Hand?

Operative Cross: Yes.

Dr. Campbell: Did you help conduct a raid on Foundation Secure Facility Site-17?

Operative Cross: Yes.

Dr. Campbell: How did the rest of your group escape?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you.

Dr. Campbell: Why did your group breach Site-17? What was your goal?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you.

Dr. Campbell: Was your goal to remove SCP-239, referred to the Serpent's Hand as "The Witch Child", from its containment cell?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you.

Dr. Campbell: Were you involved with prior attempts by the Serpent's Hand to breach SCP-239's security?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you.

Dr. Campbell: Which SCP objects in Foundation custody are you aware of?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you.

[Truncated for length. Campbell finishes reading assigned list of questions; Cross responds as before.]

[Dr. Campbell begins to exit the room.]

Operative Cross: Doctor?

[Dr. Campbell stops in place. Note: This is the first instance of Operative Cross speaking a phrase that is not in response to a question.]

Operative Cross: I'll make you a deal. Come see me tomorrow without a script. Come with your own questions. Real questions. Not this half-assed memetic bullshit.

Dr. Campbell: [hesitates before answering] And if I can't?

Operative Cross: Then why bother coming back at all? You could interview me a hundred times. Or five hundred. You already know every single thing I'll say.

Dr. Campbell: Why are you talking to me now?

Operative Cross: I feel sorry for you.

Dr. Campbell: [clears throat] I don't know if I can get approval for this.

Operative Cross: I wouldn't want you to break any rules. Tell you what. Tell your bosses to ask their friends in the GOC what a geas is.

Dr. Campbell: Why?

Operative Cross: I'm not going to tell you. [smiles] Say hello to my sister for me.


Rita Butler had been keeping to herself since the breach of Site-17 two months back. Understandable, since she'd just then learned that her sister was a Hand agent.

Rita had been as surprised as everyone else. She'd barely seen Joanna since the incident in which she'd been recruited by the Foundation.

That incident… Containment breach by SCP-682, of all things. Now that gave you special cachet in water-cooler conversation.

682 was one of the big-name SCPs, one of the ones that everyone knew about, including all the people who weren't supposed to. 'Her' breach had been an especially spectacular one, with 682 escaping from emergency Foundation transport and rampaging through New York City like a classic movie monster. He'd even smashed up a smaller skyscraper.

Rita and Joanna had gotten lucky — they ended up in the hospital with only minor injuries, even though they'd been right at ground zero when 682 came crashing out of the sky.

A night on the town with 682 was quite the introduction to the paranormal, and so when the Foundation came calling after her, she said yes, happily, and never looked back. Her husband was dead, her biologist colleagues distant. She joked that 682 was just too cool to not want to see more of the same.

That wasn't true. It had been the most terrifying experience of her entire life.

To think that the world was chock-full of things like this… to not know, to be clueless and vulnerable again, sounded like the scariest thing in the world.

At least the Foundation had a good handle on the situation. If you were gonna die, you'd be able to look death in the eyes. Civilians on the street wouldn't get that chance.

But Joanna hadn't been recruited. Maybe the Foundation didn't need more anthropologists-with-a-minor-in-religion. Or maybe she'd failed whatever behind the scenes personality test the Foundation had given her. Who knows.

Joanna was mindwiped, and Rita joined the Foundation.

She'd thought that was the end of it — it's not like she told Joanna much about her work as an regular biologist anyway; they mostly saw each other on Christmas and Easter. Then, this.

Joanna Cross, member of the Serpent's Hand. Joanna Cross, the terrorist.

It was enough to make you hole up in your room forever and never come out.

But she was just so tired of being alone. Not just this month, but always.

So tonight, when a few members MTF Tau-9 went out for drinks, Rita went with them. "Out" was just to the Site-17 bar, which was mostly empty right now, but hey, at least they had a bar, unlike most Foundation sites.

She braced herself for all the questions that would come about Joanna. But before she got the courage to talk to anyone, Tau-9 local section leader John Peters was stumbling drunk and dominating all conversation.

"It's about courage," Peters proclaimed. "Anyone can get skill. Talent is bullshit. Courage is the most important thing."

"Man, you're just talking bullshit," the man next to him said. Who was that — Agent Ramesh Patel? God, that shouldn't have been hard to remember. She really needed to get out more.

"Courage!" Peters dramatically raised his fist into the air, ignoring Patel. "The courage to act! To act when no one else will."

"And America?" Patel asked. "The America to act, to America when no other America will."

"Fuck off, Ramesh," Peters said. "This is real talk time, goddammit. This isn't just… goddamn rhetoric."

"You need either many more drinks or far fewer." Patel tried to take away Peters' glass.

Peters pushed him off. "No, man. No. I'm not just talking bullshit. Like… let's get real world here. Let's use a real world example." Peters swayed back and forth, surveying the room, and his eyes settled on Rita. "You! Butler!"

Rita jumped a little on her stool and set down her vodka. "Sir?"

"We're off-duty, goddammit," Peters said. "Butler. Butler. My friend, my compadre. Let's say… let's say there was a bomb in Site-17. Across the site in Section 3. Someone just called and told us. We have no way of knowing when it's gonna go off. Definitely WILL go off. You with me so far?"

"Yeah," Rita said. "There's a bomb."

"You two got this," Patel said. "I'm getting another drink."

"Right," said Peters. "Alright, so let's say we got Section 3 evac'd, but some poor old lady grandmother scientist, maybe someone like Bart from accounting — okay some poor old dude grandmother scientist — look, he's stuck back there, because he broke his hip or some shit."

"Okay," Rita said.

"Everyone except us is tied up. I dunno, containing skips or eaten by gremlins or something. And we gotta decide if one of us is gonna hop in a truck and go into Section 3 and get this old lady. No one's gonna get ordered to do it, so forget that bit." He took a drink, and looked at Rita again. "So?"

"I don't get what you mean," Rita said.

"I'm talking about courage," Peters said. "Which of us would have the balls to volunteer to jump in that truck and drive over to Section 3 and go save that old lady?"

Rita watched him blankly.

"Would you, Doctor Butler, have the balls to go rescue that old lady, even though you might get blown to kingdom come along with her? It's a key question. A question we all gotta ask ourselves."

"I don't know about that," Rita said. "I can't drive, so… I don't think I'd have to, uh, confront that question."

Peters stared at her. "You can't drive?"

"I grew up in New York," she said. "Not easy to own a car in a big city."

"And you never learned?"

"No…"

"Well, shit." Peters looked like his entire view of the world was shifting. Rita became conscious that everyone else in the bar had shut up and was listening to them. "Let's get you some driving lessons, stat! How about it?"

Rita looked down at her cup. "I've never needed to drive," she said. "It doesn't really agree with me. And I pretty much live onsite, now…" She felt strange, defending something completely different than she'd been expecting to defend.

"Oh, goddammit," Peters said. "Look, I…" He looked at his glass. "I need another fucking drink. Let's come back to this, Butler. Just one second—"

And then Peters and Patel got into a minor scuffle over Peters trying to get another drink, and by the time the others broke them up, Peters had forgotten the whole thing.

No one got around to asking Rita about Joanna, or about the status of her loyalties to the Foundation.

She finished her drink in silence.


Twelve hours after the interview, Campbell sat in her research lab, examining a pale blue origami flower chain found on Cross when she was captured.

"Blue lily chains/Faerie chains", the label said. Reports from Tau-9's field agents confirmed that the flower chains were popular amongst the younger Hand members, and that they had a number of anomalous effects. Precisely what anomalous effects the flower chains may have had were blacked out of the reports. That was for higher clearance levels.

But she wanted to know, and Gears didn't mind her testing. In the last few weeks she'd run every test she could think of on the flower chains, twice. They seemed about as anomalous as suspicious-looking dirt.

She began gathering up the papers strewn across her desk. "Enough for tonight," she said aloud.

"Enough of what?" a voice asked from behind.

Startled, Campbell glanced back to see a too-pale man in a labcoat approaching her desk.

"Hello, Doctor Campbell," the man said.

Campbell squinted in the fading light. She hadn't noticed that the lighting in her office had gotten so dim — or, hell, at least it was hopefully the lighting and not some horrible subtle anomalous side effect of these stupid flower chains. Either way, the man wasn't wearing a name tag.

"Sorry, do I know…"

Then she saw the thing around his neck. That necklace with that ornate amulet. The red jewel gleaming in the center of a starburst.

SCP-963-1. Doctor Bright. Director Bright.

Campbell felt the papers slip from her hand.

She'd seen Dr. Bright in person only once before, during the chaos of the Site-17 breach in which Joanna Cross was captured.

She'd seen a breaching SCP, a humanoid with a featureless face and scaled black skin, morph its hand into a long, sharp sword — a German Zweihander, actually, complete with the tiny spierhaken prongs emerging from the blade a short way up from the hilt — and shove that Zweihander directly through Bright's chest in one swift motion.

When it withdrew the blade, the prongs caught on the necklace around Bright's neck, and that amulet came away with it.

And then the faceless horror suddenly became docile. Because it had become Bright.

"Relax," Bright said. "I'm here to give you good news."

He held out a slim file folder. She took it.

"I didn't know Directors hand-delivered good news," Campbell said. The back of her throat was dry.

Bright chuckled. "We're changing your orders. Take a look."

Campbell flipped open the file folder and read the instructions. They were remarkably short.

She cleared her throat. "Sorry, did I read this right? I can ask Cross literally anything, so long as I am the only one who comes up with the questions?"

"Don't worry." Bright's tone was open, friendly. "If she ends up telling you anything you're not supposed to hear, we'll just wipe your memory. Not a big deal."

"Not a big deal?" The line slipped out before she could stop it.

Bright only smiled, and walked away.


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