Snakes And Ladders
rating: +81+x

A lot of people pass through Site-19.

The most common movement is the daily rush from lab station to experimental room to cafeteria back to lab station (with a few detours to the restrooms). Then there are those who move from enlightened to exhausted. There are those who move from mundanity to madness. There are the others who pass through sterile rooms in body bags, and move no more.

And then there are the movements that are not through halls, but through hierarchies.

When Researcher Zyn Kiryu was first assigned to Site-19, her orientation included a tour of the biological anomaly containment cells and a quick meal in the ground floor cafeteria. She was then offered space in the on-site living quarters. She decided she could learn to ignore the pervasive emptiness of the halls and the faint mechanical buzzing present everywhere in the site.

She'd get used to it because in the midst of the lesser anomalies she'd been shown, she'd seen something that remained in her memory long after the voice of the guide had faded out. SCP-408 would soon need a new assignment of Level-2 caretakers watching its feeding schedule. The tour guide had recalled that Zyn liked butterflies, and wouldn't it be nice if she was on the roster for 408 after she'd gotten settled in and was ready for it?

Watching a cluster of the butterflies morph into a perfect replica of the silver pendant she wore, Zyn told herself that one day, that Level-2 would be her, and wondered what "ready" meant.

A week later, Zyn moved in. She brought the usual necessities, and a few personal possessions to stave off the unfamiliarity. A spider plant in a pot decorated with painted butterflies. A gift from her old school friends: a teddy bear wearing a little lab coat. Her spare poetry journal.

Flushed with the excitement of her first day as a live-in researcher, Zyn immediately sought out the 408 roster and added her name to the list of hopefuls hoping to work with the illusory butterflies. Later the same day, she received a very polite, professional email informing her that she'd been taken off the list because she lacked the requisite experience, and please do not re-apply at this time.

Zyn blinked at the email, then closed it and shut down her Foundation-issue laptop. She picked up her lab-coat teddy bear and put it on her head, concentrating on keeping it balanced. She then stared out her window, sulking, for the next half an hour.

Lack of experience. Do not re-apply. Not good enough.

The next day found Zyn tearing through the living quarters in a mad dash because somehow she'd lost three pair of socks she must have misplaced during the move-in. Someone who was napping earlier had pity and pointed her towards the Lost and Found.

Said Lost and Found was a large cardboard box sitting in the quarters' main common room. Zyn approached the box with caution, noting the stained sleeve of a lab coat trailing over one side, and wondered if she should have brought protective gloves.

She didn't find any socks, but halfway through the box she unearthed a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, wrapped in a plain paper cover so as to seem utterly unremarkable. She opened to the first page, where three names were written neatly, next to dates. The most recent owner had purchased it second-hand nearly thirty years ago.

After some hesitation, Zyn took the book.

Reading The Art of War gave her a strange sort of comfort. She was new, unknown, effectively nonexistent to everyone else in the site. With only a Bachelor's and a few years of graduate-level lab work, she knew she wouldn't be turning heads anytime soon. The book provided advice and guidance no one else would give.

Think of the reasons not to trust you. Eliminate those reasons.

She needed allies to stand a chance here. Allies, not minions, because you want someone just as good as you watching your back. Someone who will claw for recognition just like you, plot and plan and covet just like you, will consider your achievements a means towards their own ambitions.

She’d made it this far relying on herself to keep promises, repay favors, gather friends. This was just a new piece of the sky to navigate, a new network of clouds and stars to build.

She drew a butterfly in her poetry notebook, labeled it "408", and added in parentheses, "someday".

Two weeks in, Zyn endured her first failed experiment. Glassware cracked, sample rendered unusable, hours upon hours’ worth of careful work lost in one careless mistake. Her coworkers barely spared her a second glance; just shrugged it off and left her to mop up the sad remains of the biological anomaly slide.

It wasn't that they disliked her, she decided as she tossed out the cleaning rag and her soiled gloves. They didn't even know enough about her to like or dislike. Only a few of her labmates remembered her face, and even fewer bothered to learn her name. Why would someone be concerned about a nameless stranger's mistakes?

When Zyn slunk back into her quarters later, she ignored her notebook and glared at the Sharks of the World calendar she'd affixed to the wall opposite her desk. Logic. She could drown out this bitter taste of not good enough with logic. Facts. Hard truths. The shortfin mako shark is the fastest shark in existence. Highly intelligent, and capable of leaping nine meters into the air…

What is a worse thing that could have happened?

The unstable sample might have exploded, contaminating the entire lab and all the researchers present.

What is the worst thing that could have happened?

Everyone might have died.

Did the worst thing happen?

No. Not even close.

Then you pick up the pieces and salvage something from this.

Zyn crumpled a tissue, swiped at her eyes, opened up the Foundation internal messaging system, and read through the newest memos without really reading them. She remembered the indifferent looks of the other researchers in the lab. Allies, she reminded herself. You need allies.

She saw a memo sent out two days ago, mentioning two Level-1 interns coming into the lab for the first time.

No one else cares about these guys, she thought. They're distancing themselves in case the new meat makes mistakes… I can use this. I can't be the only newcomer to mess up. I can't be the only one to feel dejected, lonely, not good enough… I may be new and inexperienced, but I can still become a mentor. A colleague. A friend. Someone to share stories with. Someone who makes this place less empty, less cold.

Zyn composed a message to the new initiates.

The next afternoon found Zyn sitting alone at a table in the site's second-floor cafeteria. In between bites of sandwich, she was composing a sonnet about the inevitability of failure when someone (one of her supervisor's colleagues, apparently) sat down in the seat across from her.

"I hear you're new to the labs," the guy said as he set down a lunch tray, opened a container of dressing, and proceeded to drown his salad in it.

Zyn blinked. "Yes," she ventured, "I am. Nice to meet you, Doctor—?"

The man told her his name and a lot of things she hadn't even asked for: department, clearance level, and half an hour of personal anecdotes. Zyn hardly got a word in edgewise, but as she listened to the man describe the various insect toxins his lab encountered, she busied herself picking apart the monologue for cues.

Shaking his head, eyebrows drawn, hand gripping coffee cup tightly when talking about recent data. I should make a sympathetic sound and avoid introducing the topic… Posture relaxed, more gestures, talking about some sort of experimental prototype. Make sure to bring that up if you ever see the guy again.

When the man finally stood and thanked her politely for the discussion (Kiryu, he called her, not Zyn), Zyn scratched out the two rhyming lines she'd composed and scribbled down everything she remembered from the encounter.

Eventually, the notebook came to hold more people than poetry; every time Zyn learned something about someone, she wrote it down. It was a way to remember faces, names, life stories, when they next met… and they would come to remember her name, even if they only knew her as the person who remembered them.

It took time, but it was an investment. Every person was someone to share lunch with, someone to swap gossip with, someone to vent to when lab work went awry. Moreover, they could also vouch for her, bring her closer to 408, give her an advantage over anyone else aiming to be 408's caretaker.

Chance was something Zyn never trusted. When it came to things she really wanted, she preferred to stack the deck in her favor.

Somehow, Zyn attracted the attention of a lab director. She was invited to research meetings. The supervisors discussed a lab transfer. She did the transfer paperwork herself (show them your worth. Demonstrate responsibility and self-sufficiency).

On her first day in the new lab, she entered the room ready to get to know the other lab technicians, hopeful and wondering where the anomalous insect specimens were… but the lab techs exchanged sheepish looks and mumbled something about a miscommunication. They ushered her into the near-ancient lab archives holding handwritten notes, case files, and other artifacts of research from decades ago. She was asked to retrieve a series of documents, and maybe do something about the deplorable state of the stacks.

Zyn kept her expression carefully neutral, put away her lab gear, and got to work pulling charts. When the door closed and she was left on her own (can't spare a second of their time for the new person?), she sauntered over to a stray plastic cup sitting on a bookshelf (no doubt left by some slob who didn't pick up after themselves), scooped it up, and calmly crushed it in her fist.

It wasn't anger, she told herself. She was just making the trash more space-efficient.

For the next few days, Zyn reported directly to the archives and made herself comfortable there, shuffling between the rows of accumulated research. Dust and solitude make decent company for strategy, she thought while she tugged at a sheaf of diagnostic graphs jammed between two binders. The lab techs would be very much indebted to her when she fixed up the mess here, Zyn told herself. Then she grit her teeth as a stray medical certificate grazed her hand, and she bandaged her third paper cut that week.

Since no one who visited these archives ever talked much, Zyn had plenty of space to think about how to turn the situation to her favor. She would do her assigned task well. Better than well. She'd practice searching the shelves until navigating the stacks felt so natural that others envied her skill. Then she'd develop a system to make it that easy for everyone else. There would be no more to gain keeping her here, and no choice but to move her on.

It took a week. The lab techs blinked at how simple it was to find documents now that she'd rearranged the previously-outdated catalogs. They thanked her briefly, and moved her onto the cold storage freezers. It was a step up, Zyn told herself. She would handle the dead bugs first, and push forward until they trusted her with the living.

That night, she opened her notebook and turned to the page with the butterfly. She drew another butterfly below it, wrote the date, and wrote one word: "Soon".

Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your silence that of the forest.

Zyn was mentally reciting passages from Sun Tzu the day she met someone she immediately admired.

She had been rearranging preserved liver slices in the communal cold storage chambers (seven years of backlogged specimens since the last big sample transfer and consolidation) when someone called out her name. "Kiryu, is that you?" A man stepped between the stainless steel shelving units. He looked about her age, maybe a little older. "It's good to finally meet you. Did you know people in the other bio labs call you the freezer fairy?"

She was getting a hell of a lot of mileage out of her practiced "true neutral" expression. But she was curious. "I'm Zyn. I don't know about the fairy part, though. Last I checked, no magic wand, no sparkles, no wings." She made a show of looking over her shoulder as if checking.

The man smirked. "Researcher Kiryu, the one who flits between the shelves like a butterfly on the wind." He waved at a nearby shelf. "Everything gets magically organized when you're around, though no one notices you actually moving things."

Zyn wondered if that comment was supposed to sound vaguely insulting. She also wondered why no one seemed to want to call her by her first name, but went with a smile anyway. Even if you disagree, don't challenge someone unless you need something from them. "Guess that does sound like me." Stay focused on the immediate. "Is there a specimen you're looking for?"

"Yeah. Any chance you know where that three-headed sulfuric acid-spitting centipede and its siblings are?" The man shifted his gaze to a collection of microscope slides, and Zyn got a better look at him: tall, sturdy-looking shoulders, and a rather garish streak of blue (I'll have to ask him about that sometime) in his otherwise dark hair.

Zyn paused, racked her memory, and told him where he'd find the centipedes in about five seconds. The man seemed impressed. "Pretty impressive, Kiryu." He grinned and scratched the collar of his shirt, the motion revealing a small dragon-like design embroidered onto the sleeve of his lab coat (this guy does needlework?). "What will the lab techs do when you leave this place behind?"

When Zyn offered the man a hesitant chuckle (maybe he'd like to get lunch sometime?), he folded his arms (hiding the embroidery. Is he embarrassed by it?) and shrugged. "I'm joking. But there's been talk in the labs about having you train some of the others. Your system works more than well enough to adopt. Higher-ups like your ideas."

This person is privy to conversations that I'm not supposed to hear, was what Zyn heard. She nodded, and this time her smile was genuine. "If the system works, I'd be happy to teach others to use it. Thanks for the heads-up, Researcher…?"

"Mercer. Riven Mercer. I work in the lab two doors down."

That was a lab on 408's feeding rotation list.

"Nice to meet you, Researcher Mercer. Maybe we'll run into each other again sometime." We're definitely running into each other again sometime.

Zyn didn't write his name down. She would remember it without the notebook.

Three days later, Zyn was given a team of bright-eyed super-excited lab interns. Over the next few weeks, she taught them how to navigate the labyrinthine cold storage rooms, setting each intern in charge of a section of the organisms and organs locked in frozen sleep. She taught them how to talk to the supervisors, coaxed them to take pride in their responsibility, to be the experts that others would ask for help, to carve out their own prestige.

The division of labor gave her time to return to the labs, handling samples instead of just putting them on the right shelves. It was still a far cry from working behind the locked doors marked "SCP-", but Zyn still had her interns, her reputation as "The Freezer Fairy," and a notebook full of favors waiting to be called in. Would it be enough?

She remembered Mercer's carefree smirk, and the centipedes.

The freezer team settled into a daily routine. Zyn would meet with the interns twice a day in the morning and evening. The time in between was spent patrolling the cold storage. Sometimes they'd all exchange terrible science puns they'd heard in grad school — the guy in charge of the human anatomy section always got the most groans. The day the shyest intern told her that he looked forward to the team lunches, Zyn hummed upbeat pop tunes for the rest of the shift.

Things were comfortable.

Then, one day after lunch, Zyn entered the cold storage vault and heard a scream.

Following the noise, Zyn rushed through the racks of stinging, piercing, biting specimens, and stiffened when she saw one of her interns sprawled against a shelf, clutching an arm and breathing raggedly. On the ground, scuttling through shards of broken specimen case, was a vividly-striped magenta scorpion.

Cold storage suddenly seemed warm compared to the ice in her veins. Not on my watch, fucker…

Zyn grabbed the only thing she could reach—a stapler. Maneuvering herself towards the gasping intern, Zyn clenched her hands until they steadied. In a split second she saw the pincers click and the stinger sway.

Zyn lashed out in sheer reflex. The toe of her right shoe met carapace, and the scorpion was flung against a steel cabinet. It fell and flopped onto its back, and Zyn stomped on it, swiveling her foot as she crouched down to put her full weight onto the thing once, twice, three times.

When she saw the still form twitch, she brought down the stapler's pointy edge in terrified reaction, the sound of her intern fighting for breath drowning out the last noises made by the clawed menace as it went limp.

Zyn breathed out and collapsed against a wall, shaking, scorpion guts smeared on her gloves.

"That's why we wear closed-toed shoes in the lab," she said.

She wouldn't remember much of the next hour; her interns later told her that she'd seemed catatonic as she silently transferred the scorpion's near-dismembered remains into a reinforced plastic container, and the biohazard team arrived to clean up the mess.

Zyn later endured a long and demeaning lecture from her supervisor about the crucial specimen she'd destroyed, her carelessness when it came to emergencies, and her disregard for proper procedure. She should have let security handle it, left the intern to fend for herself. Untrained personnel shouldn't engage. Better to lose one than two.

The callousness of the higher-ups left Zyn seething quietly for weeks. Apparently, the simple medical kit tucked away at the front entrance of cold storage was supposed to be more than sufficient. Besides, the interns had been trained in emergency procedures (a two hour seminar months ago) and a breach that threatened the life of only one person was a low priority situation…

That night, Zyn tossed The Art of War back into the lost and found box.

It was obvious that the freezer interns couldn't count on immediate backup for anything less than a dinosaur breaking out. Zyn decided that her team would never again be left in the lurch with only some bandages and disinfectant. She didn't want a med-kit in every section, she wanted a specialized chemical kit on every shelf: unique to the type of anomalies stored nearby, whether poisonous arthropod, noxious reptile, or rabid mammal.

The specialized kits would take months to design, approve, and process, and even longer to put together. Zyn knew that if she worked on a side project, she wouldn't be able to compete for a 408 slot… To hell with it, she thought.

Her pitch was met with enough enthusiasm to get her interns kicked out of the cafeteria. The next day, Zyn began drafting her proposal. The report was twenty pages long and cost her several nights of sleep, but when the first prototype (Arthropod series, Zyn noted with a grin) was handed to her by an amused-looking Riven Mercer himself, she felt like she was finally getting somewhere. Within a year, the kits had been implemented in every lab at the Site.

By that time, Zyn had transferred to Riven's lab to begin advanced lab experimentation. Unfortunately, Mercer had gone on to work in anomalous object processing (promoted before I could catch up…), and the 408 roster had been changed.

Her new lab wasn't on the list.

A few months passed. The days turned into routine, an endless blur of tests, samples, analyses.

“Researcher Kiryu?” Someone Zyn didn’t know was standing behind her. Someone she was immediately suspicious of, since she was currently in the biological anomaly lab, holding a syringe filled with a caustic substance, and the man didn't seem to care about startling her.

“Yes, sir?” Zyn capped the syringe and placed it to the side. The motion had become familiar after months upon months of practice. Being interrupted in the middle of an experiment wasn't.

“I’ve seen your group’s work. Your former interns are doing an excellent job.” The man was… hard to place. He was a doctor; that was all she could be certain of. She couldn't recall ever seeing him, meaning he had to fall on one of the extremes. Newest of the new, or…

Zyn suppressed a twitch. “I’m glad to hear the interns are doing well, sir,” she ventured carefully.

The man ignored her pleasantries. “You're moving up to my lab. Check your memos, move your belongings, find someone to watch your ducklings. Oh, and bring protective gear. I’m going to dissect brains today. I expect you in place in one hour, freshly scrubbed.”

He didn’t tell her that they would be dissecting the brain of a deceased reality bender.

When she exited the lab hours later, visibly shaken, Zyn reviewed what she’d learned: Dr. Everett Mann was a no-nonsense man. He was meticulous in his procedures, terrifyingly adept with a scalpel, and her new supervisor.

The next day saw her analyzing the brain slices under microscope. Successive weeks led to the generation of pages upon pages of complex diagrams, sketches, figures. With so much data came the possibility of manipulation. Practical manipulation, Mann promised, and the engineering of new anomalies nigh-fully understood.

Further time spent with Dr. Mann revealed an almost worrisome fascination with the esoteric structures of the once-anomalous cadavers, verging on mania. Though some of his beliefs were rather unorthodox, he held to them fiercely, with a self-assuredness Zyn envied. When Mann was in these excited phases, usually pacing around in a lab coat splattered with the evidence of successive dissections, Zyn listened raptly to his theories and scribbled out pages and pages of notes.

Six months into her tutelage, Zyn was granted her first pet project: “Kiryu, I want you to take what you’ve learned and make something,” Mann said. “Give it a form and give it a will to obey. You will be assigned ten lab assistants and you have authority to make requests for materials, which will be approved or denied as I see fit.”

That night Zyn tore out the notebook page with the butterflies and taped it to the wall, next to the calendar.

Without hesitation, she crossed out the "408".

A few years passed. During that time, Zyn ended up discussing her pet project with almost everyone she met. It started out as smalltalk when people asked what she was up to in the labs, but the excitement in the replies came as a shock to her. People from all sorts of departments offered to help out, and to Zyn's surprise, turned aside her insistence on repaying the debts.

Raw materials? Level-2, full-time researcher, Anatomy and Physiology department. The guy who remembers the day of the week based on the color of the pen in his lab coat pocket. Enthusiastic. My favorite intern from the old team.

"Researcher Kiryu! It's been forever! I got promoted, just like you thought! Remember, you called me the Viceroy of Viscera 'cause I was in charge of the organs in storage? I miss you big time, yeah. You and your dumb bug jokes. Come on in, we just got a new 'bender brain…"

A framework? Level-3, senior researcher, BioMed Engineering department. The lady with the painted nails. Easygoing. I like listening to her talk about the latest site news.

"Oh hey, 'Ryu. Good to see you again. You should visit, I'm pretty sure there's a deceased 408 sample sitting around in my lab somewhere. More than enough for a cell swatch. Thanks so much for teaching my BME techs your system, by the way: the archives and freezers haven't been so neat in decades."

Power? I need some way to keep this thing alive, and living. Level-4, lab director, jumps between three departments. The older woman who likes the soft cloths used to clean eyeglasses. Stately. I looked up to her when I first met her.

"The crystals bend the light, see. You can work the wavelengths into whatever pattern you like. Test them out, Kiryu. That kit of yours saved two of my fingers last week."

Will? How do I make this thing process, learn, adapt, obey? Level-4, lab director, Research and Development. The gentleman whose projects are all ongoing, has yet to bear workable results, who ended up using his own cells for his experiments. Meditative. He understood how I felt when everything was stagnating.

"Here. My research notes. An old man's rambles. Make the most of them, Miss Kiryu. And… thank you for listening."

Bit by bit, department by department, the pieces of the puzzle were mapped out, assembled, and put together.

When Zyn held her first complete, whole, unblemished magnum opus, a Painted Lady butterfly shimmering with wavelengths of light arranged to the patterns of reality bender cortical columns and infused with her own cells, her own DNA… as she watched the luminescent wings open and close as the butterfly regarded her serenely, faces and names passing through her mind as she remembered the collaboration that had brought her to this point… she felt worthwhile. Meaningful.


“Hello,” she said.

The butterfly tilted its antennae and slowly, steadily, brought its front legs together: with each contact tap, a syllable of sound.

"Hello. Zyn."

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