Two months passed since the strange final interview with Joanna Cross.
The day began on which the Foundation's mistake would end the world. But Kendra Campbell did not know that.
As the day went on, Kendra Campbell became more and more sure that she could hear some kind of humming. No one else could hear it: never a good sign.
She decided that she would call in to the site therapists on Monday. She hoped maybe Glass was around again. He was always cool.
The clock ticked down.
Thirty minutes remained before the end of the world.
Campbell returned to her desk after a late lunch break and found that she had a message waiting for her.
I am afraid I have not been completely forthcoming with you.
Footsteps, behind her. Campbell turned around — and stared down the barrel of a gun.
Joanna Cross approached Campbell's desk. In one hand she held a gun. In the other she held a gigantic potted flower by the stem.
"Hello, Doctor Campbell," she said. "Long time no see."
After several hours of climbing stairs, swimming through multi-colored oceans, and climbing through the machinery underneath the Library, Alison Chao carefully stepped through a tangle of roots and onto a thin, long wedge of granite protruding out into thin air. Rain, Septima, and Dega followed.
Thirty minutes left to go, Alison thought.
They stood in front of a vast sky.
"Sky" was a bit of a wrong word for it, but no better one came to mind. It was a nice clear, blue and possessed of a number of pleasant-looking clouds. Up above at the top of the sky, a vast network of roots weaved itself into the distance. Amorphous floating light sources moved slowly through the root-hung chandeliers, the kind found all over the Library.
The sky below seemed endless. Alison wasn't even sure there was ground down there. True, this space was technically all contained on the inside of the Library, but…
Dega swished her tail. "Is this a bad time to mention I'm afraid of heights?"
"I've got some rocks I could throw down there," Rain said. "So we can listen to hear when they hit the bottom."
Septima collapsed to her knees and planted her ear firmly against the rock, and started whispering.
"Jeez," Rain said. "Just a bad joke."
"I require silence!" Septima said. "I am communing with the rock."
"Don't," Alison said. "You'll need all your power for where we're about to go."
Septima shot her a glare. "This takes no power. I am merely communing. If anything, this would help regain my power." She huffed a little bit, like an angry cat. "Please, I will need quiet, respectful silence." She resumed murmuring.
They waited several long minutes in silence.
Presently, a shape soared towards them, resolving into the figure of a humanoid with four vast wings.
"Good," Alison said. "He's here."
Septima leaped to her feet. "I have finished communing with the rock," she said. "It is a very, very, very long way down."
"Great to know," Rain murmured.
The four-winged figure drew close and dropped down, folding his wings as he landed and smoothly transitioning into a bow. Alison and her companions bowed in return.
"Greetings," the humanoid said. His face was covered in a thin coating of down, and his hair seemed to be entirely feathers; otherwise, he looked relatively human. "I am Ataxis. I believe we have not time for true introductions, for we must make haste." He gestured at Alison. "Do you have my payment?"
"I do," Alison said. She reached into her pocket, drew out a simple, silver key, and pressed it into the avian man's hand.
Ataxis examined the key from several different directions, gave it an experimental lick, and swallowed it whole.
An immensely pleased expression crossed his face. "Excellent!" he proclaimed. "Truly satisfying, truly. You are a woman who makes good on her bargains! And so, without further ado—" Ataxis pivoted on one foot, facing out towards the sky, opened all four wings at once, and swept his left hand upward.
One instant there was nothing but sky at the edge of the granite protrusion, and the next that space was occupied by a massive crystalline door.
Alison reached out and touched it, closing her eyes and concentrating for a moment. Then she smiled.
"This will do nicely," she said to Ataxis.
"Most excellent," Ataxis said. "You will understand if I would like to be far away before you open this door. And… remember to shut it after you."
When Ataxis had flown away into the distance, Alison finally sighed in relief.
"Okay," Rain said. "It's a door. Where to?"
The door began to open. First, there was only diffuse light in the doorway. Then, the mist resolved itself into a plain, metallic-grey corridor.
"This," Alison said, "is a Way directly into Site-17."
An indefinable hum began to fill the air as Alison and her companions stepped through the door.
For a long moment, Kendra Campbell stared down the barrel of Joanna Cross's gun. Then Cross lowered the gun.
"I will shoot you if I have to," Cross said. "But I really, really don't want to."
Cross chuckled. "Call it affection."
Campbell eyed the plant. "What the hell is that thing?"
The plant was… hard to look at. Green, with a pink-and-red blossom, but with a sheen about it that made it look like the colors were swimming. And the way it was shaped — the color of the green was off, the stem too thick, too smooth. It seemed like a thing shaped into the idea of a plant rather than a living organism.
"It's a focus," Cross said. "When you asked me two months ago if I was here to break out the Witch Child — the answer is yes. But it's not the whole answer."
"Alright," Campbell said. "What's the whole answer?"
Cross looked at the watch strapped to her wrist. Funny, Campbell thought, I haven't seen anyone wearing a wristwatch in a while.
"The world ends in twenty-six minutes," Cross said.
"What," Campbell said.
"Twenty-five minutes now," Cross said. "Walk with me. Walk ahead of me. I'm gonna need your keycard to open doors."
"Where are we going?"
"To the Site-17 bar."
"You want to get a drink?"
"What better time than right before the end of the world?" Cross laughed. "No, there's an actual reason. Let's get moving. We're running out of time, you know…"
Sigurrós Stefánsdóttir was still listening. Only twenty minutes left to go.
The song was changing. Building. More words and not-words being added to the chorus. A curious pain from everywhere, a full-body headache. She could barely hold still.
Then she saw the light opening in her mind's eye. Down the hallway. A familiar form stepping through, with three companions.
She was still pulling out the IV tubes when the woman opened the door, but she remembered her manners.
"Hello," she said. "My name is Sigurrós. It's nice to finally meet you."
"Likewise," Alison said. "Pardon me as I get ritualistic here for a moment. I, Alison Chao, known as L.S., also known as the Black Queen, come here to meet with you on behalf of the inhabitants of this plant, on behalf of the Serpent's Hand, and on behalf of myself. I have come to ask a bargain of you."
Fifteen minutes left to go.
There were new words in song now, new words that Sigurrós could recognize.
Never never never never
Yesterday and forever
Forever and ever and ever and ever
Never never never never
Never never never never…
Cross led Campbell through the labyrinth of hallways that was Site-17.
"You're obviously not supposed to be here," Campbell said. "You're gonna get jumped first time we pass security."
"I've given myself a bit of a glamour," Cross said. "But I don't really think it'll be a problem. I don't think many people are going to be paying us much attention."
The sound of shouts came from down the corridor. Campbell listened to the security codes echoing through the speaker.
"Shit," she said. "Containment breach. SCP-239."
"Not a moment too soon," Cross said.
"You're ending the world," said Campbell.
"What?" A note of surprise was in Cross' voice.
"Really, after all that talk, this is what it comes down to. You releasing a reality bender and ending the world." Campbell laughed. "To think I almost fell for all that shit you said."
Cross sighed. "We're not ending the world. We're saving it."
Cross paused, moved ahead of Campbell, cautiously peered round a corner, continued. "Remember that breach — the one when your friends captured me? We didn't cause that breach. We came here to try to stop that breach."
"You came here to stop a containment breach?"
"We knew about it in advance," Cross said. "A hole in reality erasing an entire planet — yeah, that's gonna leave a mark. In both the future and the past. Fortunately for us."
They arrived in front of the Site-17 bar. A dozen members of an MTF detachment squad raced past them. Not one batted an eyelash.
"I see the glamour's working pretty well," Cross said. "It's because of Rita, even though she doesn't know it… Family members are mystically connected. The glamor makes me seem like I should fit in here because my sister fits in here."
"So—" Campbell started to say.
In the next instant, she saw a massive explosion balloon above one of the holding facilities a block away. Not natural: A flash of blackness, not light. The instant after, she was knocked off her feet by the shockwave.
Cross had been knocked over too. She sat up, still clutching her giant potted plant. She stared at the black flames and swore loudly.
Campbell hauled herself up off the ground, ran her keycard through the slot, and stumbled through the door.
The humming was everywhere, now.
Rita Butler had been drinking, sitting alone, in the Site-17 rec room. The rules were lax here; it was easy to sneak in the vodka in clear plastic bottles.
There were always people here in the rec room, but they were people doing their own thing — playing ping-pong, punching hanging bags, lifting weights. People who wouldn't talk to her.
It was, in its own way, a perfectly acceptable existence.
When the klaxons went off, she hadn't thought to head for the doors fast enough, and her way was blocked by a milling crowd of people by the time she had.
Then a burst of green light blew the side doors right open.
In came four people who clearly didn't belong. A lizard-person, a woman in a flamboyant outfit waving a staff, and another woman with color-shifting skin.
The woman who led them was dressed in street clothing, carried a strange-looking shotgun and a giant flower, and looked deadly serious.
"Get out of here if you don't want to die," the leader said, and to punctuate that, she raised the shotgun in the air, and fired a blast of green light at the ceiling.
The crowd scattered away. The leader pointed her minions in various directions, and they scattered along with the crowd. But she herself strode forward, eyes searching the crowd — landing on Rita.
Shit. She froze in place. Deer in the headlights reaction. You need to run.
But the leader was upon her, before she knew it, seizing her arm, leaning in, hissing in her ear. "Your sister is here, trying to save the world. Help her, for gods' sakes. She's in the cafeteria. Go. Now."
And then she was striding away, leaving Rita shaken and alone in the emptying building.
After a minute, Rita lurched towards the door. She grabbed an abandoned sidearm on her way out.
Sigurrós Stefánsdóttir heard the words of the song reach the fever pitch she'd been waiting for, that she'd been dreading.
They were running through the hallways, Alison just ahead of her and the others close behind, but they weren't going to make it to the surface in time. Somewhere up above, she could hear the chittering of innumerable wings.
She could teleport herself there… but she could sense reality shaping up there on the surface, and you never wanted to be so sloppy with another reality shaper. They could smack you right back to where you'd come from, she'd heard.
Sigurrós looked up at the ceiling. Her feet lifted from the floor. She rose into the air.
Never never never never never never never…
The nice thing about the Site-17 bar is that one of its main rooms had a wall of surveillance camera feeds.
The Foundation knew its personnel, at least to that extent; if a containment breach happened in the evening when a lot of people were (mostly) off-duty drinking, it was to everyone's advantage to get as many people aware of the situation as well. Even if some of them were drunk. People joked that containment breaches were to the Foundation what sports were to everyone else.
Right now they showed the breaching SCP-239.
239 was crossing camera feeds at a rapid rate, heading for the surface of the Site via the most direct route possible. She simply… unfolded the chambers and hallways out of her way and let them settle back into place after her. It was both impressive and oddly tidy.
Campbell had never seen a reality bender in action before, but the thought rose in her mind: She knows how to clean up after herself.
Behind her, Cross was doing… something… with her potted plant. Taking it out of the pot, holding it over the center of the floor with one hand, making odd shapes in the air with her other hand.
"I hope to god you're telling the truth about trying to save the world," Campbell said.
"Shit," Cross said. "It's not taking."
Campbell was transfixed by the cameras. She saw something familiar.
A creature that she'd last seen wearing SCP-963. A humanoid with a featureless face and scaled black skin.
Sigurrós burst through to the surface, letting her feet touch down on concrete, closing up the path she'd taken behind her.
It felt a little startling breathing the surface air again. Physically, not just in a dream form. She hadn't expected there to be that much of a difference.
In fact, it felt very odd to be breathing like this, she realized. She needed to go back to her room. She needed just a bit… just little bit more sleep…
She startled awake as she nearly fell over. The adrenaline rush countered the soporific effect, and she realized the presence of something behind her.
She turned around to see a blank, scaled face watching at her through invisible, myriad eyes. Eyes within eyes within eyes. No mouth, but a voice. That eternal murmur…
The murmur had a feeling soaked through it, the urge to go to sleep and never wake up again. Not noticeable until you got close, until it was almost too late…
"My name is Sigurrós," she told the thing. "Who are you?"
In response, it reached out, invisibly, with its mind, and touched her. Seeking, probing. Sigurrós was startled enough by this that she didn't immediately stop it. Then, she probed back.
The strange creature seemed to open up, to unfold in response to her probe. And it kept opening, further and further, eternally branching tendrils, reaching out far away into forever —
"You're… a Way," Sigurrós said aloud.
Five minutes left until the end of the world.
It was almost comical, the way Cross was looking at her weird potted plant in obvious frustration.
"Alright," Cross said. "Breathe, start again." She began moving her hands again in a new pattern.
Campbell watched the screen. "What is that thing?"
"You were there when I was captured," Cross said. "You saw Dr. Bright killed and resurrected."
"Yeah." Campbell thought back, remembering the necklace curling around that sword. But…
"Just keep asking me questions," Cross said. "I'm not joking. I get anxiety. Talking helps my anxiety."
"No shit," Campbell said. "Okay. I saw 963… Bright… take over that… that thing. I thought that… killed it?"
Cross laughed a little bit. "That thing is the personification of a damaged Way, forced into humanoid form to heal itself."
"A Way? A magical passageway?"
"At least you Bookworms know that." Cross moved her fingers a little faster, making shapes in the air. "This transformation almost never happens, especially not like this. We all had the bad luck that your Foundation found it first. Wandering the wilderness alone, blundering across highways, scaring farmers…"
"Why didn't 963 kill it?"
"Because it's not possible to kill a Way. But you can damage it. You can make it vulnerable. And… there are things that live in Ways. Things that prey on the vulnerable. Some of them are things that never did exist, and never will exist, and don't exist, but desperately, desperately want to."
"And they're… dangerous?"
"More than anything you can imagine." Cross grimaced, paused in her invisible-pattern-weaving, shook out one of her hands, and continued. "They are the Neverwere. You can understand them as parasites of the soul."
"They are deeply unhappy and deeply hungry, and this one has landed the most powerful host it could imagine. This one is trying to become a Way. To take over its host."
"It only got that foothold because of the damage that… soul-searing medallion did. Nine sixty three. And then it only worked because the Way is in this form, so its soul has become something a Neverwere can understand." Cross laughed. "It's as if reality is conspiring against us."
"Why is that a problem?"
"Because it won't work. It can't become the Way. And the way it is, it can only stay stable for so long. Soon… it's going to go nuclear."
"What happens then?"
Cross smiled grimly. "A hole in the universe where the Earth used to be."
Campbell took that in. "How do we fix this?"
"The Witch Child," Cross said. "She has to kill it."
"What is the plant for?"
"It's a focus." Cross adjusted the angle of the plant's stem. "Sigurrós is young, inexperienced, and the only person currently on this planet who can help. These things are designed to help her."
"We've got to metaphysically plant them in magically "key" areas of Site-17. In this case, the bar is a locus of human energy, but it's such drunken energy that I'm having trouble—"
Cross stopped talking.
Campbell had been watching 239 and the faceless humanoid stand stock still in front of each other in an apparent staring contest. She turned to look to see what was going on.
She saw Rita Butler, standing in the doorway and aiming a gun at Joanna Cross' head.