There is a gun in his hands. AR-15 automatic rifle (his mind supplies automatically), standard issue for new Agents or emergency armament, fairly new, pretty battered. He's familiar with this one, and likes it: it feels much more important than the others he's fired. Right now he's field-stripping it with practiced ease, and—
He freezes, his hands jerking in sudden horror. He is field-stripping a rifle, and he knows how to shoot it. He's never held a gun in his life! How—
“Fifty-five, Jim.” The voice comes from his left. Jim snaps his head around to stare, wildly, at the source. Ragged brown hair, a crumpled lab coat. It's Madeline, Dr. Madeline Vogler, of all people, sitting beside him on the park bench and cleaning her own gun with the same swift, automatic movements. She hasn't looked up.
”What?” he squeaks. “Madeline, what are you doing? You can’t handle a gun, you’re an engineer, you’ve never shot one in your life! What’s happening?”
“Oh-fifty-five.” She cuts him off dully, glancing up from her work. Her gray eyes are dull, bruised with tiredness, and the fine lines on her brow were never that deep. The lab coat is a half-shredded montage of stains, and the name embroidered above the breast pocket isn’t hers. “Remember agreeing that something wasn’t round?”
Oh. He nearly chokes. SCP-055 certainly isn’t round; Madeline and her team had confirmed it. It took them months, and many rounds of negation, but they learned a few important facts. The thing can’t be remembered, not even indirectly, except for what it isn’t. It isn’t alive. It isn’t safe — oh, God, it’s not safe! And it isn’t contained…
It isn’t contained any more. And Jim doesn’t remember very much of his recent history.
Panic floods Jim as he realizes what this means. How long has it been since he remembers doing anything? How long has it been since he’s formed a lasting memory — since he was doing something that didn’t involve 055?
Too long, he thinks. Madeline is a gaunt, ravaged shadow; he’s not much better, he decides, looking down to take in his own frame. It takes a while to lose that much sleep. Some of the scars — new scars — must have taken weeks to heal.
And when did he learn to shoot a gun, least of all this gun? Now that he allows himself to look at it closely, warily accepting that he’s familiar with such things, he can tell that even by Foundation standards it is not a normal weapon. The firing mechanism has been replaced with a jerry-rigged tangle of circuitry, fiberglass, crystals, and something like flower petals. There's something else at the base of the trigger; he squints at it, decides that it isn't important, and passes over it. The magazine is entirely too heavy and too blue, and it sloshes.
He forces himself to nod, finally answering Madeline’s question. “What are we doing here? With the guns, and…” here he gestures vaguely at the strange mechanism, “that? On this bench, of all places?”
“I don't remember — ” and her eyes snap shut, pain flickering across her face — “but you said that I'd said that you'd… Never mind. You said we had to shoot something, and that we’d know what, when it was time.”
“I said? What about Agent Segel?” But the moment the name leaves his mouth, he knows. Madeline's look of bemused grief only confirms it. “She didn't make it, did she?”
“No. Nobody did.”
“Chen? Alex? Araya?” Madeline only shakes her head. “Kyle? At least tell me Kyle's okay? Damn!” He knows his voice is rising in anguish, and his eyes are blurring. His entire team — the entire staff of the Site? All of them?
“Nobody.” Madeline's eyes are suspiciously bright, too, but she hasn't taken them off her work. “Jim, we can't talk about it now.”
“Shut up and let me explain!” Her fingers clench somewhere inside her gun. “We have to finish what we're doing and be ready when it gets here. I'm going to forget everything again in another minute or two, and you'll have to tell me, all right? There's no one else left to do it.”
That does quiet him. He looks back down at the half-disassembled gun in his lap. It needs to be put back together, now that he’s cleaned it. His hands seem to know what to do; he starts sliding the pieces into each other.
She lets out a breath, going back to her own work. “Okay. We’re in the park on the other side of Springfield from the Site. We don’t want to go back there; I don’t know why. There’s nobody else in town, maybe nobody in the state. We’ve got supplies to last a few weeks stashed in the bushes next to you. We have to keep these guns in good condition, make sure the crystals don’t tarnish and the petals stay alive, spend as much time on this bench as we can, and always be ready to attack. Got it?”
“All you said last time, yeah.”
Jim nods numbly.
“Madeline?” he asks after a moment. “How long has it been?”
“A few weeks, I think. Long enough. My oldest scars are at least that old, and I haven’t got anything newer than a week.”
Jim’s own body bears out her assessment: he’s got a few new aches, but nothing pressing. He considers them, looking up into the sky as he works. Their bench sits at the edge of an open athletic field, with summer-lush woods behind, but there are no birds. A football lies abandoned, one end crumpled inward, a few yards away. “How long will we be waiting?”
“As long as we need to.” She finishes reassembling her gun and hefts it briefly. There is something brittle and flinty in her movements. “I don’t really know.”
Another pause. Jim stills his hands, resting them on his knees. The park’s stillness is a lead weight against his temples. “And we’re the last ones?”
“Maybe. As far as we know.” Madeline won’t meet his eyes.
“Then this could be futile. 055 could already have won.”
Madeline whips around to glare at him, her whole posture suddenly lit with desperate ferocity. “Don’t!” she snaps. “Don’t talk like that! We can’t think like that! We don’t know anything else we can be doing — for Christ’s sake, Jim, we can’t remember ten minutes ago. We could be the last thing keeping the world alive, for all you know!”
“Okay!” He pulls his head back as if struck, raising his hands. “Okay. We’ll stay. As long as we need to.”
“As long as we need to.” She gives a firm, sharp nod, a peck from a raptor beak. Jim doesn’t dare contradict her.
Then she nods again, softer, and suddenly uncertain. Again, barely moving her head, staring around herself in sudden confusion. “Jim? What the — What are we doing here?”
Jim’s throat clenches tight, stopping his voice and breath. She’s forgotten again. Just as he will, in another few minutes.
“055, Madeline. Remember agreeing that something wasn’t round?”