A xenobiologist and a botanist sat beneath the shade of a tree in the forest outside Site-93. The latter rested her head on the former’s shoulder and softly hummed. After several moments, she brushed her short blond hair behind her ear, and reached into her jacket pocket where she pulled out a thin chain. A small silver carving of a tulip dangled from its end.
The xenobiologist delicately held the metal flower and looked it over, one eyebrow raised.
“So you’ll come back…” the botanist clarified. “Tulips are perennials. They always come back.”
The botanist tightly squeezed her companion’s hand.
“Promise me you’ll come back…”
The xenobiologist ran a thumb over the pendant. A small heart was engraved on the center of the stem.
“It will be a routine mission,” the xenobiologist replied with a reassuring smile. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Dr. Sandra Gonzalez sat at the foot of a tall pine tree beneath a violet sky. All over her uniform, several small cuts could be seen where a horde of mechanical spiders had attempted to grab her, tan skin visible through the holes in the jet black fabric. Her neck length black hair was let down as she quietly hummed to herself, running the thin fingers of her right hand over the cool metal of the tulip pendant that she kept in her pocket.
Around her the surviving members of Eta-13 quietly chattered among themselves, having just escaped one danger and possibly setting themselves up for another. They had started the day twenty strong. Now they were diminished to thirteen.
“Okay.” Well’s deep voice broke her concentration. She looked over to see the battle torn sergeant motioning toward a spot at the center of the clearing. “Gather round people, we have some things to discuss.”
Dr. Gonzalez sighed and tied her hair back before she joined the small semicircle that had formed in front of Wells and Dr. Baldric. When all hands were accounted for, Baldric drew a small schema into the dirt.
“Alright,” Wells began, pointing at the X. “This is where we are. For obvious reasons we can’t go back the way we came." Wells pointed towards the doodle of an angry spider next to the X. "Lucky for us, this particular part of The Gate has another means of accessing SCP-2344 not too far from here.”
“This second Gate is located at a former Foundation outpost,” Baldric spoke as he began to add onto the schema.
“It was called Cronos Outpost. Since we all still have our keys, we should be able to use this as a means of getting back into SCP-2344. Not only would that place us in a separate part of the passage than the one we were just in, but that section of the Gate Passage is also close to Armstrong Outpost."
"For those of you who don't know, that falls within the territory of 2344-1-Alpha. Or as they would prefer to be called, the Oldomerites,” Baldric continued.
“This particular group is highly cooperative with Foundation expeditions," Wells added. "They’ll be sure to help us get home, or at least to Armstrong Outpost. No fuss, no muss.”
Baldric added a small smiley face in the dirt, grinning as he looked up at Wells. The sergeant rolled his eyes. The rest of the task force murmured with the sounds of approval, save for Gonzalez.
“No fuss?” Gonzalez asked. “Before we all jump on board with this plan, I think you should key everyone else into a small detail about Cronos Outpost.”
Gonzalez turned to Candle.
“James, remind me again. Why was Cronos Outpost abandoned?”
The medic sighed and closed his eyes.
“The natives there slaughtered the personnel and razed most of the outpost to the ground.”
“Our crew currently consists of a handful of scientists and seven security agents.” Gonzalez continued. “That’s hardly a fighting force capable of raiding an occupied ruin.”
“And what would you suggest we do, Sandra?” Baldric inquired. “Do you expect us to just wait around here?”
“Why not?” Gonzalez shrugged. “Wait a day for those spiders to clear out, and then we go back the way we came.”
“Whatever sent those spiders is going to know they didn’t finish the job,” Wells chimed in. “If you think so little of us against the natives, how well do you think we’d do against a force of radical Hand agents?”
“We’re going for a ‘lesser of two evils’ approach,” Baldric added. “Trust me, if there was a third, less dangerous option, we wouldn’t even have considered this scheme. We’re just out of luck.”
“You’re leading us to our deaths.” Gonzalez shook her head.
“Better to meet it head on than waiting around here for it to find us,” Agent Turner piped up, her monotone voice sounding from the back of the cluster. Gonzalez turned to face the slender Asian woman. As she prepared to respond, whispers of agreement could be heard among the rest of the task force. Gonzalez threw up her hands in frustration.
“Well, alright then,” she conceded.
Wells and Baldric both gave satisfied nods.
“Get ready for travel.” Wells ordered. “We have a fair amount of ground to cover.”
After several hours of travel the sun began to set, causing the violet sky to change to a deep merlot. Eventually, the light began to die, forcing Eta-13 to make camp at the top of a hill. While the rest of the task force drifted to sleep, Gonzalez chose to remain awake. Her eyes were plastered to the sky. While this world had no moon to illuminate the horizon, the darkness was pierced with the faint glow of countless stars.
“Why did you find it necessary to argue with Wells?”
Gonzalez jumped at the sound of a monotone voice beside her. Sitting on a stump just a few feet away was Jia Turner.
“Because I didn’t want Wells to get the rest of us killed,” Gonzalez replied flatly.
"Don't we all…" Turner grinned. "This is, what, your third trip through the Gate? Fourth?"
"Thought so. Scared?"
"Me too." Turner nodded. "This is my fourteenth. Not quite Candle's record, but close. Each of those missions was lead by Baldric and Wells. Lots of close calls."
Gonzalez gave an exhausted sigh.
“What’s your point?” she asked.
“I’ve worked with Baldric and Wells for a long time," Turner explained. "They argue about everything. I once saw them get into a heated debate about whether toilet paper goes over or under. So, when they agree on something, there is a very good chance that it’s the best option."
She then chuckled briefly, as she looked up to the sky.
“You promised Dr. Hayes that you would return to her, right?” She asked. “She’s the one that gave you that tulip pendant, isn't she? I’ve seen you fiddling with it whenever you can. ”
"What? How did you even come to that…" Gonzalez returned, stopping when Turner held up her hand with a sly smile.
"I spend a lot of my free time in the woods near Site-93, too. My point is that Baldric and Wells know what they are doing. They'll get you back to Cameron in one piece. You just have to give them the benefit of the doubt."
Gonzalez fell silent. She starred at up at the sky for several moments before she pulled out the tulip pendant, rubbing her thumb over the etching of the heart.
"Before we left, I told Cameron that this was going to be a routine mission," Gonzalez said with a sad smile. "'What could go wrong…' I asked."
"Irony sure is a bitch," Turner said as she stifled a laugh. She lingered for a few more moments before finally standing up, returning her gaze to the sky.
“Anyway,” she added. “It sure is a beautiful night out. You take care.”
Gonzalez held the tulip pendant tightly as Turner silently walked away.
Eta-13 continued their trek at first light. The hills and trees of the forests slowly descended into meadows and scrublands. The longer the party marched onward, the more tightly everyone held their weapons. While there had still been no signs of the natives, there was always the potential for a crossbow bolt to fly out of the tall grass.
Gonzalez marched near the center of the party, behind Candle and a young engineer who never seemed to leave the medic's side. The edges of the tulip pendant began to cut into her palm as she continuously squeezed the metal token, her eyes darting rapidly in search of light reflecting in the grass. After another hour of walking, Wells eventually had the team stop for a short rest. Gonzalez sat down, and closed her eyes, humming to herself as she attempted to calm her fluttering heart.
My, my, my. So many humans so far from home.
A faint, familiar, feminine voice sounded in the back of Gonzalez’s mind. Gonzalez’s eyes snapped open. The rest of the task force was equally shocked, suggesting they had heard the voice as well. Hands dashed for weapons as a small orb of glowing pink light manifested itself at the center of the group.
I thought you had abandoned your little fort here.
The voice came through much clearer this time. Gonzalez recognized it as the same voice that belonged to a certain botanist she knew.
“What are you?” Bell asked in amazement, his mouth slightly open as he looked on in wonder.
“That is a 2344-1-Theta,” Baldric answered. “Also known as a Razumite. They can communicate directly with the consciousness of most beings.”
“That also means that they can read minds to certain degree,” Wells added.
Quite. The entity spoke. The humans who lived at that base you had here called me Lilith. You humans truly know how to flatter. But enough about me, what brings you all so deep into this dull land? Returning to reclaim your castle?
“Our business is our own,” Wells replied.
Oh no. Not anymore. Lilith replied, floating towards Wells. You’re the king here, aren’t you? Or at least the lead fool. Trying to get back home? Perhaps I can help you?
“Help us how?” Baldric asked.
Well… Lilith lazily floated towards Baldric. Someone has to make sure I don’t tell the Camdorians that you’re here. After all, they sure do hate the “beings of the three arrows.” Goodness knows what they might do to you if they caught you.
The ball of light then flung itself towards Candle.
Oh, silly me, you already do know, don’t you? Even better.
Candle looked down at the ground.
“What are your demands?” Wells asked. The orb's attention returned to him.
Nothing too outlandish. I need a key to the Planestrider’s Path. You all seem to have plenty.
"Why?" Baldric's eyebrows rose. "Razumites can apparate into and out of the Gate Passage at will. You don't need one."
My business is my own. Lilith gleefully chirped. Do we have a deal?
“Can’t do it.” Wells replied sharply. The pink orb seemed to rapidly bob up and down, as if it were laughing.
And why is that?
“You’re asking us to voluntarily leave one of our members behind,” said Baldric. “That’s just not something we’re going to do. We haven’t seen any sign of these ‘Camdorians’ during our entire time here. For all we know you’re just another con artist.”
But do you really want to take that chance, scholar? Lilith rapidly closed the distance between it and Baldric. Are you going to risk thirteen lives to save one?
The pink orb then zipped over to Wells.
Your poor leadership already cost you seven people’s lives. Do you want more blood on your hands?
Lilith then disappeared, and reappeared next to Candle.
You’ve already left one person behind. You should easily be able to do it again.
Candle immediately tightened his fists as he silently stared at the Razumite.
Or perhaps you’d rather volunteer to stay behind yourself? Ease that heavy conscience?
Lilith then turned its attention to Gonzalez.
Ooooooooh… The orb slowly floated towards her. You have someone waiting for you. Isn’t one of their lives worth seeing Cameron again? Help me and I’ll help you. My way is that third path that Baldric talked about earlier. Isn’t funny how he’s still considering that scheme? Go ahead and grab your pistol. Pick one. I won't judge.
Gonzalez looked to Wells and Baldric.
"Are you insane?" Gonzalez asked. "I'm not doing that."
Then I'll kill you. Lilith hissed. And after that I'll kill her too. It will be simple. Easy as 1, 2, 3.
The orb disappeared and Gonzalez felt a hum in the back of her mind. Low at first, but then growing to a loud roar.
"It can't hurt you Dr. Gonzalez," Baldric shouted through the din "They can't physically interact with corporeal creatures! Don't be fooled!"
Gonzalez eyes were wide. She felt her arms go numb, as she clawed at her skull. The roar in her head felt like it was coating her brain in a thick syrup. She quickly glanced over to Wells who simply shook his head, then to Candle, who mouthed, Its going to be okay. Finally her vision fell back on Baldric.
“Sandra,” he said, “Razumites are Loki, Coyote, and every other trickster archetype rolled into one. It's putting on an act. Don’t listen.”
Last chance… Kill Baldric, you know you want to… Lilith's snarled.
Gonzalez felt her hands violently shake as one quickly reached towards her hips. She closed her eyes and let out a wail.
Lilith and Turner’s voices sounded at the same time. Gonzalez felt herself get knocked down, hitting the grass with a dull thud. Upon opening her eyes, she found Turner on top of her. Gonzalez’s hand rested firmly in her pocket, the tiny silver tulip sending searing pain up her arm as she grabbed it as hard as she could. Gonzalez shook her head violently.
GET UP! Lilith screamed in Gonzalez's mind. GET UP YOU STUPID BITCH! FIGHT FOR ME!
The roaring suddenly stopped. Gonzalez blinked several times and looked around. Lilith floated a few feet away, her form having changed from an orb to the pink silhouette of Dr. Cameron Hayes.
Sandra… the silhouette whispered. Fight for me…
Lilith then slowly drifted above the group and disappeared with a loud pop, the MTF's minds filled with the sound of a blaring tuba.
For the next several moments the entire MTF was silent. Each member taking in the proceeding incident with various combinations of exhausted sighs and worried murmurs. Turner helped Gonzalez to her feet. The xenobiologist removed her hand from her pocket. Three small trickles of blood ran from where the pendant had dug deepest into her palm. A few seconds later, Baldric and Wells approached.
"Sandra," Baldric said in transit, "I'm so sorr…"
The anthropologist didn't get to finish his sentence. As soon as he was in range, Gonzalez slammed her bloody fist into his face. As Baldric fell back, the crowd descended into an incoherent jumble of shouting.
"You bastard," Gonzalez shouted. Turner held her back to prevent any follow up punches. Tears ran down her cheeks as she once again violently shook her head, the sticky feeling of Lilith's presence still lingering in her mind. "I told you that this is exactly what was going to happen! Now that thing is going to alert the natives! You're leading us right to the slaughter!"
Gonzalez attempted to shake herself loose from Turner's grip, her eyes bloodshot as she hissed at Baldric. Before she could get loose, however, Wells approached from behind and forcefully gripped the woman in a tight bear hug, lifting her off the ground and beginning to carry her away from the rest of the group. The sergeant grunted as Gonzalez attempted to kick him, but he persevered. Gonzalez's struggle soon died down as she was carried away.
"Candle, with me," Wells shouted. The medic quickly followed behind, the trio eventually coming to a stop several dozen meters away from the rest of the MTF. Without a word the medic proceeded to bandage Gonzalez's hand.
"You going to punch me too?" Wells asked as he watched the medic work. "Cause I don't think you're going to lay me out as easily as you did poor Johna."
Gonzalez didn't respond. Wells sighed.
"Lilith sounded like Dr. Hayes to you, didn't it?" Wells continued.
"Yeah… I thought so," Wells mumbled. He then turned to Candle. "What did it sound like to you, James?"
Candle shook his head and chuckled.
“It sounded like Blaire, sir.”
"That's twisted…" Wells gave the medic a small smile. "It sounded like Director Kauffman to me."
"Wow!" Candle laughed. "That's wrong on so many levels."
"It sure is," Wells replied. "You see, Gonzalez, that's how Razumites operate. They get inside your head and move shit around. Needless to say they aren't delicate about it. You did a great job handling that…"
Gonzalez closed her eyes, and turned her head away.
"You have every right to be mad, scared, angry, what have you. I don't blame you for that. But, before you sprint back to the group and start taking Baldric's teeth out, I need you to remember three things. First, he's a good shot, so we'll need him when we finally arrive at Cronos. Second, if you're going to get mad at him, you might as well get mad at me; I helped mastermind this idea. Third, if you're so gung-ho on kicking Johna's ass, you need to wait until we get back to Site-93. Even then, you're going to need to wait your turn. I'm first in line."
The sergeant gave both Gonzalez and Candle a small nod before he began to walk back towards the rest of the MTF.
"I'll leave you here with Candle. Take five to cool off. Once you return, the only thing you are allowed to do to Dr. Baldric is apologize."
Without another word, Wells walked off, leaving the medic alone with his silent patient.
Candle finished applying the bandage and smiled. “Good as new. Come on, Wells wants us to get going before we lose any more time.”
Gonzalez nodded, and began to fall back in line. Along the way, she caught Turner’s eye, mouthing Thank you to her. The agent nodded and gave a small smile in return.
Eta-13 then proceeded to move on, Cronos Outpost still far away.