Dr. Lang woke up happy. Everything was okay again, the way it was meant to be. He had fixed it. Or maybe it had never happened, and was all a misunderstanding.
A moment later, the dread hit. The relief had been a dream. A stomachache knotted itself in his gut and sent a wave of dull pain up his body, into his arms and throat. It was the dull ache of never being able to get comfortable, a constant shortness of breath, a constriction of the throat. It was the kind of pain that was always there, shadowing every moment, even the good ones.
"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," he quoted to himself in the shower, before a sarcastic chuckle and a shake of his head. Who was he talking to? Himself? God, if there was one? The O5s? Whoever he was talking to, he blamed them. What kind of God would let this happen? How could HE, Dr. Lang, let this happen? He was a Director for one of the most important sites of the humongous goddamn shadow paranormal super-government! How the hell did HE let that happen? Then he remembered the O5s. Fuck them. In all their knowledge and power, they still refused to do anything about it. He needed to convince them. But he remembered that he tried, and it didn't work. He needed to do something himself.
He thought back to the moment, as he always did. He had given the command, the techie had hit the enter key, and then… nothing. He had wondered if there was an error, if it even had any effect. Then the radio call. It worked… sort of. The entire beam hadn't just been redirected, it had disappeared entirely. Well, good, he had thought, that should please the O5s. Odd outcome, though. Then the second radio call a few minutes later, about the supernovas. Supernovae, whatever. That's when the dread first hit. Well, first it was disbelief, then dread, then a moment later, an overwhelming panic. "Oh SHIT!!!" he had screamed into the receiver. At least the initial panic cleared when he verified that there was no danger to Earth. At least we were in the clear.
But the slow, gnawing dread had continued to build. They say time heals all wounds, but this one just got worse and worse. Five months, and it still consumed his life. He supposed he knew how people felt who lost spouses or entire families in car wrecks or fires. Some of them still hurt after five months, even five years, and that's normal. So maybe this was just normal.
Dr. Lang snickered in disbelief again. The hot water had just run out.
"Dr. Lang, please."
"Yes, sir." Marty's tone seemed a little sarcastic. Whatever, let the little prick feel however he wants. "Here is your fax on retro-causality, two skip briefs, and the Level-3 file on the SRAs. It's almost all redacted, and the woman said you'll need to VPN in and request it yourself if you want the Level-4, and you'd need to fill out…"
"Yes, just put it all on my desk," Lang interrupted sharply, "In the box, please. No, The INBOX, please!" Dr. Lang sighed. Everything annoyed him these days. He knew he was just lashing out. But at the same time, the little shit didn't have to be such a retard, either.
It turned out to be all useless, anyway. The retro-causality brief was based on the same Grandfather-Paradox bullshit he'd read a thousand times. All wrong. As for the skips, one was a minor trinket, some camera that took pictures of the past, and the other was just some door that could only be open or shut every 27.18 minutes. He was sure the researchers would never understand the significance of that number, the ignorant little fucks, he smiled sarcastically to himself. Too bad the file on the SRAs was so redacted he wasn't sure why the Level 3 version existed at all.
"The invention of the Scranton Reality Anchor (SRA) appears to [REDACTED] and is credited to [REDACTED] Due to the expense involved in producing [REDACTED] Foundation-wide implementation of the device has been limited to units capable of an area of effect less than two cubic meters (“Use of mSRA ‘Scranton Boxes’ to Provide Mission Critical Document Security” L. Piedmont et. al., Foundation, Vol 106.8, pp 10-14, 1988)."
Dr. Lang chuckled, violently ripped up the papers, and threw them in the trash. He idly speculated what would happen if he lit the trash can on fire. The smoke alarm would go off, the guards would rush in, he would play it cool. "What? What's wrong? Oh, the fire? What about it? Yeah, it's a waste basket fire. Big fucking deal. Why don't you go back to guarding the WEAPON THAT BLEW UP A FEW TRILLION LIVES. WE DEMOLISHED COUNTLESS FUCKING CIVILIZATIONS AND YOU FUCKS ARE WORRIED ABOUT SOME BURNING PAPER." God, he hated those useless morons. Was it time for lunch yet?
The day only got worse: meatloaf. It looked like literal shit. Seriously, if the cafeteria ladies had squatted on the pan, pinched a few loaves, put it in the oven, and served it, that's exactly what it would like.
Dr. Lang was ready for a drink before noon. At least he thought he was. He never understood how people became drunks, the stuff tasted like piss and made you feel even worse. Those tiny little fucks with their problems of women and marriage and jobs and kids. He WISHED he had those problems. He had murdered an advanced alien civilization, accidentally extinguished the life from hundreds of suns, and you didn't see him drinking. He took a walk instead.
He brushed his hand along the beryllium bronze walls of the underground complex. This place was like a gold mine. Well, a copper mine. Bronze mine. Were there bronze mines? Either way, the Foundation kept asking for larger and larger "samples" and he didn't think they were really testing it. Probably just trying to pay all their bills. He smirked at the thought of the Foundation hocking chunks of copper at a salvage yard.
He finally reached the window to dash four. The Neutron Star. This thing was beautiful, he couldn't deny that, but being here always filled him with more pain and dread and heartache than anywhere else. But it let him focus on it.
After all, he needed to save them. He thought of poets and artists, operas, cities, towers, magnificent works of architecture, people playing in parks, dogs, insects, trees, all living and working together in harmony. All dead, all gone, all because of him. So he wept. He needed to save them. Why did they die? Why did any of this happen?
He wept and thought of spaceships. Orbiting worlds. A bright future of thriving life, a galaxy teeming with beauty and art and consciousness and happiness and trade and love and he killed it all. Cavemen aliens extinguished before they could become great. Veritable gods of space and time, wiped out by one. careless. hand. Wiped out by their own invention. Why were they so stupid? Why didn't they secure it? Why did they build it in the first place? And why here, on Earth?
Maybe this is just how life is… maybe it is the nature of the universe, a fundamental law, that intelligent life will inevitably wipe itself out?
Dr. Lang waited for an answer.
There was no answer. The Neutron Star continued to burn, as it always had, mindless, careless.
Maybe it was test. Maybe it was his job to fix it. Maybe that was what life was about: making mistakes and fixing them, even the biggest ones.
Maybe he wasn't a destroyer after all, an insignificant ant who accidentally set off a nuclear bomb. Maybe he was a builder. A rebuilder. Maybe he could fix this, and he would be like Prometheus or Jesus or something.
For what it's worth, he was trying… as much as he could, anyway. His Level 4/2100 Clearance gave him access to info on less skips than one might think. But they were the key. Somehow, somewhere, in some Foundation vault, or protected in some innocuous warehouse, there was something, probably a few things, that could let him save them. Time Travel was real, after all, and one could change things. That's how they died, that's how they would be saved. He resolved himself to try even harder, to stop worrying about possibly getting in trouble. What could they do to him anyway? Fire him? Kill him? D-Class duty? Big deal. He could accept any fate at this point.
He deserved it.
"Wowzers…" Dr. Lang said aloud to himself, grinning ear to ear with excitement. He needed to quit talking to himself, he noted quickly. But this… this was better than he could have hoped for! He felt a wave of hope wash over him, physically warming him. It was something he hadn't felt in a long time.
It had taken Dr. Lang nearly four months just to piece together the fact that his mystery Doctor even existed, reading between the lines on redacted reports, unclassified containment documents, and asking just the right innocuous questions to just the right innocuous researchers. It took him another two months to come up with an innocent, legitimate reason to request access to the information he wasn't supposed to know anything about.
"Experimental analysis cross-referenced with Foundation assets at CERN and MIT confirms the theoretical ‘T’ boson is being actively produced by the Neutron Star -4. Tachyonic Flux has been measured at non-negligible deviations from normal." Dr. Lang had written in his report. All bullshit, but the only people on Earth who could verify that already worked for him. Approval came quietly a few weeks later in the form of a simple e-mail. "You have been summarily approved for Level 4 Clearance Level Theta [General Restricted Temporal Anomaly Database]," the e-mail began, before detailing his new responsibilities and listing points of contact.
Dr. Lang had assumed his mystery man would be a researcher who had studied temporal anomalies enough to really grasp the basic principles, had written up a few temporal skips, and with a little luck, had tried a handful of other experiments. Dr. Lang assumed this would be a guy who had sent a few letters to the past or heard from the future or something. He was not expecting this.
"Signed Dr. Thad Zah-yank," Dr. Lang read aloud, wondering what kind of name "Xyank" was. If Document-1780-WL was legitimate, and admittedly he had every reason to believe it wasn't, then Xyank was a real-life Dr. Who, running around and fixing temporal anomalies. Xyank even had his own Containment Task Force Delta-t that he recruited from across different timelines. Jesus. This was pure science fiction. But this was the Foundation after all, the same Foundation with boreholes filled with infinite books and time travelling boats. Contacting Xyank didn't seem too difficult, one just needed access to SCP-1780.
This guy, this Dr. Xyank, he was the key to fixing everything.
"Your request to test SCP-1780 has been summarily DENIED. As this is your fourth request to access SCP-1780, your fifth request will be reviewed by the O5 council."
Shit. -They- sure wouldn't give him access to SCP-1780. They might even catch on if this was brought to their attention. It had been a long shot anyway, trying to convince this Dr. Schrader that SCP-1780 had any relationship to the Tripwire.
He decided to take a different approach, and looked up her profile on the intranet. HMCL Supervisor. PhD in Theoretical Physics from Berkeley with Foundation certificates in Anomalous Materials Handling and Temporal Anomalies. E-Mail address, phone number. Personalized profile, she had two dogs and liked country music. And she was giving an open Level-3 seminar on Safe Handling of Temporal Anomalies in October at Site-17.
Dr. Lang clicked the link and registered for the Seminar.
The flight from Antarctica was long and boring, made a hundred times longer by his mind's inability to shut the fuck up and just let him sleep. The entire flight, his internal monologue just kept racing and going over every little impossible-to-predict detail. He must have gone over what he might say to Dr. Schrader six hundred times. Yet despite his brain's best effort, his plan was actually very simple. He would listen to the seminar, try and pick up on a topic that she felt passionate about, then approach her afterwards and ask her some questions about it. He wouldn't schmooze her, but he'd be friendly and act interested enough in whatever she had to say. Finally he'd introduce himself and see if he couldn't persuade her to at least sit in on an SCP-1780 experiment. And then, if and when Xyank showed up, he'd break protocol, interrupt the experiment, get Xyank's attention, and Dr. Who would fix everything. Simple really.
The seminar was long and boring, made a hundred times longer by the boring subject matter and disinterested presenter.
"Guards are ordered to use lethal force against anyone attempting to interrupt a temporal experiment, for obvious reasons. We've never had an issue on this site, and this goes without saying, but obviously, you are never, ever, to disrupt an active temporal experiment except via a certified failsafe."
A few things had already gone not-quite-according to plan. First was that Schrader wasn't putting on this seminar due to any passion for Temporal Safety. She was required to put it on as part of her job. She admitted as much and apologized to the audience before she even began. She didn't even make the slides, they had been passed down by her predecessor. Worse, Dr. Lang was one of twelve attendees, and most of the others seemed to be from the same department as her and were required to be there. Only he and one other gentleman seemed out of place.
"Exploration of temporal anomalies is restricted to D personnel and robots only." Dr. Shrader droned, reading almost verbatim from a slide. "When in use, anomalies need to be guarded by three Level 3 security personnel. If you can't schedule a security detail, don't run the test. It's as simple as that, people."
The seminar clearly did not apply to him in the least.
When the end finally came, Dr. Lang felt the rush of relief followed by the nervous knot in his stomach. This had to go right. While the audience was clearing the room and chatting, Dr. Lang approached the podium. "Dr. Shrader," he said to get her attention, "Great, ah, presentation." Shit. Shit! He was as good as useless right now. His mind suddenly went blank and he had NO idea what to say.
"And you are?" she asked. Shit. Shit. Shit. He didn't want to play his hand this early!
"Ahhh… well… I'm Dr. Lang." he smiled.
"Oh yes! You! You've been trying to schedule time with SCP-1780!" Dr. Shrader said, smiling.
"Yeah, that's me!" Lang responded. Phew! She was being nice and not acting suspicious in the least! Maybe everything would work out, after all.
"Well. I guess you must be eager. You came all the way from… where, exactly?"
"Ahhh, Springfield," Dr. Lang lied. She wasn't cleared to know where he came from, and the closer his fake location, the less desperate he sounded.
"Oh, I didn't know we had a site there. But who knows anything these days, right!?" Dr. Shrader said, laughing, with a "you know how it is" tone in her voice. Dr. Lang knew exactly how it was. No one really knew anything these days.
"Yeah! … so, about 1780… well, I'm very interested. Would it be possible for me to, maybe, sit in on one of your experiments?"
"Absolutely!" Dr. Shrader responded. Dr. Lang had to use every last bit of concentration to keep his face from evoking emotion.
"You've got Level 4 Clearance and, well, you've just had your required safety brief, so everything is in order." Was it really that easy? Was that all it was?
"Has your paperwork been sent to Cindy?" Dr. Shrader asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"Sorry?" Uh oh. Maybe there was a hiccup after all.
"You need to send your paperwork to the front desk here if…"
"Oh, yes, I have sent it to the Front Desk." Dr. Lang responded. Of course he had. How else did he get in the front door past all the guards? Some people just had no common sense.
Two days later Dr. Lang sat with Dr. Shrader and two researchers in a little darkened room behind a one way mirror. Cameras and sensitive recording equipment covered the rear wall. Three disinterested security personnel sat on the far side of the room, guarding the door to the test chamber.
Through the glass, across the chamber, was a nondescript wooden door, adorned by a single empty nameplate mount. In the middle of the chamber sat a little tracked robot the size of a child's wagon, one single mechanical arm folded up on top of it. The arm held a nameplate.
"Doctor Thaddeus Xah-yank," Dr. Lang said aloud.
"There's a debate over whether it's pronounced 'Xah-yank' or 'Zank' or 'Zee-ankh.'"
"Wait, you've never met him?" Dr. Lang asked, trying to hide his shock.
"We've seen him, but we've never been able to detain him or hold him for very long. He always manages to get away," the attractive young Researcher said.
"Shut up, we're starting," the other Researcher said, a grumpy balding man in his mid-forties.
The little robot rolled forward, creeping along slowly. An eternity later, it stopped. Its little arm extended slowly. It moved perfectly to one side, then back, sliding the nameplate into the template. The arm retracted slightly, before slowly grinding towards the doorknob. Dr. Lang held his breath as the robotic arm slowly squeezed down, then slowly spun counterclockwise…
The door burst open with a bang, slamming the robot aside like a toy. Dr. Lang nearly had a heart attack.
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, your timeline does NOT get any answers," said the loud, distinct voice coming from the odd little man. He quickly paced right up to the one-way mirror and began banging on it. "Get that through your heads and STOP. TESTING. If I catch you again, I'll be forced to take action!" Xyank turned around and started walking back towards the open door.
"Wait!" Dr. Lang shouted. Xyank didn't hear him. Thick glass. Dr. Lang banged on it several times, so hard his fist hurt. Xyank stopped, and turned slowly toward the mirror.
"What the heck are you doing?" Shrader shouted at Lang, "You are NOT to interrupt the experiment!"
"Fuck that," Dr. Lang said, lunging toward the door to open it. It was locked. "Give me the keys." he said to security, "Open the door right now." The security guards hesitated and looked at each other. "I said NOW! I am a Level 4 Site Director and I demand you open this…"
"STOP IT!" Shrader yelled. "You are NOT opening that door! Stop him if at any cost if he tries," she ordered, her face flushing red with anger.
"Whatever, you fucks, you're NOT stopping this." Dr. Lang had come too far. He lunged back towards the mirror, grabbed a metal stool, and slammed it against the glass. It bounced off. He hit it again.
Xyank slowly walked towards the mirror, hearing the quiet thumps, confused.
"STOP IT!" Shrader yelled again. "STOP IT! STOP HIM!" Dr. Lang continued to slam the stool against the mirror. A tiny crack started to form.
Dr. Lang did not hear the gunshot. He was dead before the sound reached him.