"You want to bring back Omega-7. What did you expect?"
Ten smiled uncertainly. "Not bring back," she said. "Resurrect. In a new form. Better."
The oracle's laughter vibrated in the air, personable yet inhuman.
This was not a good sign.
Technically, Ten and her allies had not acted incorrectly by starting the Alpha-9 project without explicit approval from the rest of the Council.
Ten and Nine had come to see the oracles together. The oracles were each SCPs in the technical sense, but, like all Black Box SCPs, they had no Special Containment Procedures files. No one below the Council and their Staff even knew they existed. They had no numbers, only descriptors.
The oracle Ten intended to see was "The Steel Man."
Ten said little as they made the long trip in the quiet railway car. She gripped her tablet computer harder than usual. An alien moon shone above, and unfamiliar stars glittered in a black sky. They rode across the long salt flats of the in-between places, their destination away from reality and time.
Nine didn't object to her silence, and for this, Ten was grateful.
The black sky lightened, and the unearthly dawn came as they reached their destination. Ten and Nine disembarked and stood in front of the vast glass Archive that housed the oracles, a complex that hung from the sky like a spiderweb. Only the entryways touched the ground.
The oracles' white-robed guardians came out to meet them. They were ever-silent, with no mouths. Their left hands were golden chains, attached to gleaming lanterns. They led Ten through the halls of the frosted-glass structure to the steel man's chamber.
Through the translucent walls of the structure, Ten could see vague impressions of white-robed guardians moving like ghosts through the maze. In the adjacent waiting room, a blurred shadow that was her assistant, Salt, paced back and forth. A gallery of shadows lurked in the adjoining rooms — other oracles which Ten had deliberately denied herself clearance to see.
The chamber was an atrium on the edge of the complex, looking out over a lush valley too garish to ever have existed on Earth. Atop a low platform decorated with intricately carved ivory inlays crouched a monstrous, many-armed hulk, huddled underneath a white and gold robe that filled the room to its corners. He had many faces, and each one was a mask carved from ivory, jade, redwood and obsidian.
The only other thing in the room was a single chair carved from the bones of a primordial beast, which Ten took.
"Welcome," the steel man said. "Speak."
The oracle's laughter vibrated in the air.
Ten said more.
He laughed more.
"You're laughing at me quite a lot," Ten said. "Perhaps this is why no one comes to talk to you."
"I exist to serve," the steel man said. "As with the other oracles, I am yours to heed or disregard as you please."
"Very well. You are the newest organ of the Overseer Council. There have been an uncommon number of additions to this Council in the last twenty years. Your friend, Nine, being one of them."
The steel man lowered his gaze. Ten followed his line of sight, through the glass floor.
Nine stood in the valley below, on a mountain slope close to the bottom of the glass building. She was alone, leaning on her walking stick. Perhaps she was just waiting.
Ten wasn't familiar with all the oracles here, which wasn't unusual for a Council member. Even when you could know everything, you knew there were some things you didn't want to know. She'd considered and dismissed the idea of visiting one of the more powerful and more alien oracles.
Nine had always thought different.
"She is more human than you are," the steel man said. "The most human of all of you."
"We're all human."
"In the technical sense." Another chuckle. "She is your strongest ally. You realize the ramifications, yes? You are the only member of the Council newer than her."
"I've been in the Foundation longer than she has."
"She is an exception. She was chosen to be an exception."
Nine was unique. She had discovered the existence of the anomalous without ever finding out about the Foundation, and been recruited into the Overseer Council without ever rising through the Foundation's ranks. The Council had needed a new Nine, and badly wanted an outside perspective.
"They have invested much in her," the steel man said. "They will not be eager to admit their experiment failed. But you? They can get another Archivist, just like when they executed your predecessor. Perhaps your assistant, Salt. Or that exceptional Director Maria Jones…"
Ten winced. "Then perhaps my foolishness will benefit another." She looked down at Nine. "Is she waiting for an oracle?"
"She is speaking to one."
"In the mountain." The steel man's highest face smiled. "The Oracle of Earth speaks to very few, and not for long. She seems to favor Nine. That is perhaps, not surprising."
"We digress," the steel man said. "You began this project on your own. With allies, yes, but very few. Why?"
"I didn't think it would come to a Council vote," Ten admitted.
"And that is why you are here now."
"Yes," Ten said. "I imagine this is why you're an oracle."
The steel man chuckled approvingly. "Tell me. What were you thinking, when you chose to do things this way?"
Ten hesitated. "I was thinking that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission."
"Your immediate predecessor would have agreed," the steel man said. "Allow me to suggest that this is why he had the shortest tenure of any Council member within my memory."
Ten thought of SCP-003. "I am not even close to that foolish," she said.
"Indulge me," the steel man said. "Do you know the last time that the Council lost this many members within twenty years?"
"The Foundation Civil War," Ten said.
"Yes. The creation of the Chaos Insurgency by rogue Overseers. You are aware the precise details? Of their motives?"
"Of course. The man who was Seven—"
"Come now, come now," the steel man interrupted. "Yes, Seven provided their rhetoric. Seven crystallized their operations and provided the name. His rhetoric was, and is, very effective, as the large number of promising young recruits snapped up by the Insurgency proves. It is true that Seven was unhappy and wished for a loosening of protocol, but Seven did not start the Insurgency. In fact, Seven never planned to defect from the Foundation at all."
Ten was quiet.
"You do not need me, to learn these things," the steel man said. "All the records are open to you."
"I've been preoccupied," Ten said. "Contrary to popular belief, I'm still human."
"Ah yes," the steel man said. "I imagine you have been preoccupied indeed. I would envy you, were I human. As the Archivist, you possess knowledge even the other Council members do not share. Each time the world has ended. Each time it was been restored. One could even call you an oracle yourself. And yet, here you are."
His masks stared into the distance.
"I came here to hear your perspective," Ten said. "So, how would you characterize the beginning of the Insurgency?"
"Her number was Eleven. She was possessed of far too much knowledge for her own good, even for one of you."
"She became consumed with a singular idea. She wished for the Foundation to increase its research into the anomalous." The masks looked meaningfully at Ten. "She was called 'The Warden'. She developed many of the Foundation's early containment procedures. She felt that we were handicapped by limiting ourselves to containment without understanding. It was her argument that this was not truly containment at all."
"I see where you're going," Ten said. "Those do resemble the principles behind the Resurrection Project."
"Eleven also wished for us to reclassify humanoids into a separate category. She lobbied for our soldiers and researchers to work with humanoid anomalies, as equals."
Ten hesitated. "Alpha-9 isn't nearly so radical."
"Perhaps it is closer than you wish to admit." The steel man spread his arms. "Eleven forced the issue at the Council, as you have done now. When the others would not be swayed, she and her allies defected from the Foundation."
"I would never consider starting a second Insurgency."
"Wouldn't you?" He let the words linger. "Of course you wouldn't. But they might not believe that." All the masks focused on Ten. "Pit the Foundation against the Global Occult Coalition. Who will win?"
Ten stared at the steel man. This wasn't the first time she'd heard the question, but never before so directly.
"Will you not answer?"
"Well, the Coalition has a far greater number of active paramilitary assets. They have direct diplomatic ties with UN member nations, giving them freedom of movement through those nations. They are, however, hampered by their role as a UN-affiliated peacekeeping and reaction force. They have far fewer paranormal assets, but they are more likely to make use of them. We have the defensive advantage, they have the offensive advantage.
Ten paused. "But the Coalition will not come into open conflict with us so long as we don't represent an existential threat," she went on. "They prize secrecy too much. This is all theoretical."
"It may be less theoretical very soon," the steel man said. "What about the ORIA?"
"Or, perhaps, the Horizon Initiative? The Insurgency, were it to receive a new swell of support? The Serpent's Hand? The Forgotten Sons? Even the UIU, with an influx of funding?"
"I don't see…" Ten trailed off.
"What if you provoke them to all move against the Foundation at the same time?" the steel man asked. "Who wins?"
"I don't know." Ten felt a sinking feeling in her gut. "We can't know."
"But you should be asking the question, nonetheless."
Ten looked down at Nine again. As if in response, Nine pivoted away from the mountain. She faced the valley and raised her walking stick like Moses parting the Red Sea.
The valley rumbled with thunder. The ground shook. In the distance, a vast plateau rose into the air.
Ten watched in astonishment.
The thunder grew louder, and then settled, along with the new forested mesa, in the center of the valley. Nine lowered her walking stick and stood over the valley, observing her apparent handiwork.
"There is another name you should consider, besides Eleven," the steel man said. "Kondraki."
Ten shook her head. "I know Eight will make the comparison, but that's foolish. Kondraki destroyed Site-19 with intent. That is why he had to go."
"Then why did the Council wait so long to order his assassination? What convinced them to finally act?"
"I'm not certain precisely what you mean to imply," Ten said.
"Of course you are certain." The steel man gave her a grin from his highest face.
Ten turned away. She was certain. She just hadn't wanted to make the parallel.
At the height of Kondraki's power within the Foundation, he had campaigned for weaponization of SCPs. He'd promoted the expansion of anomalous task forces like Omega-7 — and why wouldn't he, given his bond with SCP-408? He had begun to strike out on his own, without the rubber stamps of his higher-ups.
The Council had feared he would start another Insurgency. They had concluded that he was too dangerous to let live.
And then there were the other agents that Kondraki's death had silenced…
"What do you recommend I do?" Ten asked.
"What you should have done at the beginning. Go to the others. Ask for their support."
Ten nodded. "What else?"
"Expect this to go badly for you." For the first time in the conversation, all of the masks were grinning. "And be very grateful if it does not."