It came as a great shock to Doctor Martin the day the Blank Man appeared before him and offered to show him a world without the Foundation.
It would, of course, come as a shock to anyone. To be sitting in one's office during the middle of a fairly busy day, only to look up from your work and see the outline of a man standing in front of you. To see such a strange thing is simply outside the human experience, and to feel shocked by it is only natural. For Doctor Martin, however, his background with the SCP Foundation meant he had spent many years in exposure to such things. The shock should not have come to him at all.
Perhaps it was because he had never seen anything like the Blank Man before. After all, even with his extensive knowledge of the anomalous and macabre, Doctor Martin had only seen a small fraction of what the universe had to offer him. But even the multi-pronged vagabond from the twelfth-dimension had not fazed him the day it stole the heart of his secretary. So that could not be it.
Perhaps it was because this was his first time working in a site where objects capable of inducing such hallucinations were stored. Having never seen this particular sort of thing before could have caught him off guard. But he knew full well that the nearest object capable of such mind-altering effects was far enough away to not impact him in the slightest. So it was probably not that.
No, it was most likely because Doctor Martin simply did not expect it. In all his years with the Foundation, few normal people had dared enter his office while he busied himself with work. Fewer strange creatures at that. Doctor Martin was used to the solitude his working hours provided him. A sudden interruption, especially one of such a strange magnitude as this, had simply caught him off guard.
As Doctor Martin attempted to regain his senses, the Blank Man reiterated Its - His? Was it right to call something that looked somewhat like a man and spoke somewhat like a man, but was clearly not a man a He? - offer: It was capable of tearing open the fabric of reality, in such a fashion that would not harm the larger structure of it, and forming a portal to another universe. Another universe where the Foundation had never existed. It was capable of doing so, and would do so just for Doctor Martin. Moreover, It was quite willing to do so, somewhat eager, even.
Doctor Martin let his options run through his head. Logic dictated that he should call security and initiate a Site lockdown, in order to capture this thing and begin study of It. That was, of course, what any other sane, rational person would do when faced with a situation similar to this. His hand was already on the buzzer; all it would take was a simple muscle spasm to take this thing and lock It away for the rest of Its days.
But in the back of his head, Doctor Martin knew he could not. There was something about the Blank Man he could not place his finger upon. Something about It that suggested any attempt to contain it would result in Its vanishing, never to be seen nor heard from again. This would, of course, be perfectly ideal, as it meant the Foundation would never have to waste resources trying to study and understand this thing. And yet, the offer It made to Doctor Martin was so compelling, so strange and alien and potentially horrifying, that he just could not refuse.
And so, Doctor Martin raised his hand from the buzzer, looked straight into the Blank Man's nonexistent face, and stepped around his desk, nodding his head.
The Blank Man nodded too, and turned Its form about to face the wall behind it. Doctor Martin had long grown used to bland, washed-out colors and slightly cracked doorframe he faced on a daily basis, and still expected them to be there now. Imagine his surprise when his eyes were met with a dazzling array of colors not of this Earth, or indeed, of any Earth anywhere. The alien colors danced and flashed and sang, moving in dazzling, complex patterns no eye could hope to comprehend. To any well-worn traveler of the interstellar planes, such a sight is perfectly normal, and not worth much contemplation. To a man fresh out of his universe, the space between realities was both awe-inspiring and awful.
Before he could be completely lost in the dazzling array of color and spectacle, Doctor Martin felt a pressure on his wrist, and looked in what he assumed was the frontal direction. The outline of the Blank Man stood there, pulling him through the madness and into the darkness of a new world's night.
Doctor Martin did not know what he had expected to find in this new universe. The thought of what would have happened had the Foundation never come into being had played across his mind once every few years, but he had never seriously considered it a possibility. The SCP Foundation existing seemed as natural a fact as the sun rising in the east, or grass growing green. As he tried to shake off the effects of interstellar travel, Doctor Martin attempted to reason out what state humankind would have gotten to without the Foundation's guidance these last forty years.
He did not stray too far from the path he had expected to take. Of course, the initial appearance of the sculpture would not have brought about too much change. It would certainly have caused untold loss of life, but nothing that the world could not deal with. No, it was all the strange things that had come in its wake; all those cosmic horrors from beyond the veil of reality arriving in our simple little plane of existence. Those would be the things capable of destroying the world. Without the Foundation there, mankind would not have made it a year out of 173's first sighting.
Images of a blasted heath of a land came to Doctor Martin's mind; charred skeletal remains peppering the landscape, rotting husks of buildings toppling to the ground one by one, an unnatural stillness in the air. A true post-apocalyptic world.
What he saw, however, was something quite entirely different. Doctor Martin and the Blank Man stood on a grassy hill, overlooking a small settlement in what looked to be Norway, judging by the towering fjords to the east. Birdsong filled the air, wind swept playfully through the grass, and in the distance, Doctor Martin could hear small children at play. The sunlight and warmth on his face told him this was summertime.
But this couldn't be Norway. Norway would have been torn apart decades ago, leaving nothing but a few small islands sticking about the raging sea of magma. If the Foundation hadn't intervened…
Doctor Martin turned to the Blank Man and demanded to know what had happened to keep this place so orderly. Was the ritual simply nonexistent in this universe? Was there some other organization who intervened? Was this, perhaps, in the distant past, before the Foundation even existed?
The Blank Man shook Its head region, and responded: No, this is the modern day. The exact same hour of the exact same day of the exact same year Doctor Martin had just stepped out of. It was just a Norwegian settlement in a universe where the Foundation just did not exist. No other differences. Just a lack of the Foundation.
Then this must be a fluke, Doctor Martin realized. A small part of the world that managed to escape the widespread destruction, through what means he could not possibly fathom, but managed to escape it nonetheless. That must be it, right?
The world shifted, and Doctor Martin found himself and the Blank Man standing in the middle of Times Square, with rush hour traffic roaring all around them. Then they appeared in the London Underground, a busy crowd of commuters hustling to catch the 4:37 train. And again they shifted, this time showing up in Beijing.
Time after time they shifted across the world, how many times Doctor Martin was not sure of. But even though they remained in one spot for no more than a second or two, it was enough to show Doctor Martin a planet that had evidently survived without the shadowy gaze of the Foundation hovering over it. Somehow, someway, every tiny little detail was still there.
Not exactly, the Blank Man replied, standing as stock still as It had throughout the whole trip. Some things did change without the Foundation around. There were no young girls impregnated with horrors from beyond, no farmers massacred by a reptilian demon, no time when London was torn to pieces and rebuilt with a Glasgow smile running across the city. All those people who suffered and died at the hands of the monstrosities the Foundation contained simply went on living their lives untouched, as content or miserable as they would have been otherwise, until they either passed away or made it to the modern day.
Doctor Martin could not understand this. The Blank Man had quite clearly stated the only difference between this universe and his native one was the lack of the SCP Foundation. That was the basis for this whole trip, was it not? Could it be that the Blank Man had lied in order to achieve some higher, more sinister purpose?
The Blank Man let out the closest thing to a sigh It could muster, and looked directly into Doctor Martin's eyes. There had, perhaps, been some miscommunication, entirely on the Blank Man's part. It was true this universe lacked the existence of an SCP Foundation, there was no denying that fact. The lack of the Foundation, however, was more a catalyst for change than any sole, unique difference in these timelines. Without the Foundation… well, perhaps it was better to show Doctor Martin.
The pair shifted once again, to the inside of a small diner in the desert. It was a scene of understated carnage. Most of the people sitting within the booths or on stools had expressions of mild shock on their faces, while the waitress behind the counter had a look of utter terror on her face. Her mouth half open in a scream, her eyes clamped tightly shut. A few small patches of blood stained the ground and counter. Each and every head in the diner was either tilted or twisted in an unnatural way.
Doctor Martin, seeking a sight less stomach-upsetting than this, glanced at the calendar on the wall. Forty years in the past. He remembered this day.
The Blank Man, having spent Its time staring into the face of a gruff-looking man, shifted Itself and Doctor Martin once again. Stumbling slightly on the uneven ground beneath his feet, Doctor Martin looked up and found himself standing in the middle of a barren desert, the rim of a canyon a few kilometers ahead. Before he could comprehend any more than this, a vaguely human shaped blur tore straight past him, kicking up a cloud of rock and sand as it went by.
The Blank Man nodded once again. It could tell what Doctor Martin was thinking: He recognized this place, did he not? He could even remember the exact details of this day. A young man, starting fresh at an organization dedicated to containing hazardous materials, receiving word that something had slaughtered a diner full of people not six miles from where they were stationed. An indication that something had just rushed past their front door, its trail leading quite clearly back to the diner. A brief consideration by the higher-ups to just let it go, let someone else more capable of handling such a thing take care of matters. And then…
Doctor Martin remembered. He had been selected to go out and investigate what this thing was. They had encountered it less than a hundred meters away from the cliff in the distance. It had killed two men and severely injured him before taking off once again. They had lost a few good men, but gained invaluable knowledge of how the sculpture worked, and how to catch it. Two tries later, and the object was given the designation SCP-173, and locked up tight. And as time went on, that hazardous materials containment team had grown massively in scope, phasing out the hundred and seventy-two other materials and objects they had collected in favor of far stranger things. Forty years of growth, study, and protection. Forty years of securing, containing, and protecting. Forty years of this, Doctor Martin had seen, and it had all started just up ahead, with his small team's encounter with the original.
But for whatever reason, Doctor Martin and his team simply were not there.
Shifting once again, the pair stood upon the edge of the cliff. The blurred figure continued to rush towards them. Though no specific details could be made out of it, Doctor Martin could tell it intended to turn as soon as possible, just avoiding the cliff and continuing to speed along the edge. The figure started to do so, and indeed looked as if it would make it.
And then, there was a statue in place of the blur, skidding along the desert sand. Some small lizard from below or a bird up on high must have spotted it, however momentarily, freezing it into rock and paint. The statue tumbled over itself a few times before toppling over the rim and falling out of sight.
Peering over the edge, Doctor Martin dimly saw a shattered figure, dashed out across the rocks below. The world shifted, and the pair stood at the bottom of the cliff, next to the broken, scattered stones of what was once SCP-173. The wind was already blowing sand over the rocks; in a few years time, nobody would even know this horrid, nightmarish creature had ever existed.
This sort of thing had happened countless times before, the Blank Man observed, Its feet digging at the sand around the sculpture's head. Inexplicable deaths, unexplained phenomena, unexpected vanishings, horrid monsters with razor sharp teeth, all the things that keep men awake at night. All of them glitches in the reality of space-time, of course. Things either never meant to be, or just plain showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That statue was no different. Just appearing, lost and confused in the middle of the desert, and finding itself frozen in place whenever any living creature looked upon it. So it lashed out, killed a few people, and fled across the desert sands.
In Doctor Martin's universe, the natural thing for people to do in this sort of situation was respond. A reactive species, the human race. If something goes wrong or is out of the ordinary, they go at it until there's no reasonable explanation and just leave it at that, or find some way to bring it into their sphere of understanding. It is a bit of a confusing trait to have; after all, most other highly intelligent, reactive species eventually wind up sticking their noses somewhere they don't belong and getting them bit off. But that's just a simple digression.
The point is, in Doctor Martin's universe, a few people reacted to a simple, everyday mistake in the universe, and locked it up. In this universe, they decided it was somebody else's problem, and just let it slide, quite literally, off a cliff. That's the key difference here. The Blank Man did not know exactly why the universe responded in the way it did. Most likely because mankind had never reacted on such a large scale and managed to capture one of its mistakes. What does a universe normally do when such a thing happens within it? The Blank Man, much as It would like to say, simply could not say.
But whatever the normal reaction to such things was, the universe looked at such a strange event happening surrounding one of its glitches, and decided that mankind needed more of a challenge. It needed more things like this. So it started making more. Small objects with little quirks scattered here and there, people given fantastic, horrifying powers then and now, unfathomable monsters of unknowable terror plucked from their places every now and again, even an idea planted into some lunatic's head once in a while. The whole spectrum of things normally considered defects in a universe were now being saturated across one planet, just to give a few members of one little reactive species something to do.
In essence, in dedicating itself to the protection of mankind, the Foundation inadvertently created the things mankind needed protection from.
As Doctor Martin took this all in, he continued to stare into the spray-painted green eyes of the shattered sculpture. He had always looked at this thing as the root of all the world's troubles. The spark that started a raging forest fire of madness and death across the world, a fire the Foundation could never put out, only just barely contain. A simple little match in a dry wood causing so much trouble. But now? They hadn't been working to stamp out the fire by containing this thing; they'd been pouring gasoline on it.
And then the madness of the dancing colors overtook the wind and the sand and the broken statue. Barely even noticing the enticing wonders around him, Doctor Martin slowly climbed to his feet, and stood stock still next to the Blank Man as his office reformed around him.
The Blank Man thanked Doctor Martin for his time. It is not very often one of Its stature attempts to show someone like him the truth, and even rarer for the journey to be seen to its conclusion. So It thanked Doctor Martin for having gone through with the offer, and expressed a sincerest hope he had learned something of value from this little excursion. Then, without making a move, the Blank Man was gone, disturbing nothing and looking for all the world as if It had never been there at all.
Doctor Martin stood in the middle of his office, contemplating the bland, washed-out colors of his wall, and the slightly cracked wooden doorframe. There was much for him to think about. Many actions to be contemplated. He had things to do with the knowledge he had obtained, things he needed to do in order to make the world a better place. But first…
Doctor Martin opened his door, and stepped out.
None know what became of Dr. Harold Martin after that day. All security tapes show a disturbance of some nature in his office, scrambling the video feed throughout the site, and when they come back, all show him having vanished. Despite a lack of paperwork, amnesiac requests or termination documents, the next day there was no evidence Doctor Martin had ever been associated with the SCP Foundation. Rumors persist that he was involved with several terrorist attacks by various Groups of Interest in the following weeks, but no solid evidence showing this or the contrary have shown up. Only one man knows of the Blank Man, and he has disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Perhaps Doctor Martin's encounter with the Blank Man, and his trip to an alternate universe weren't even real. He was, after all, getting on in his years, and was working at a site where several mind-altering objects were stored. Perhaps the Blank Man was real, and Its revelations about the nature of the universe were spot on. Maybe, just maybe, the Foundation could have averted all the death and destruction in the world if it had just sat back and done nothing.
But then, this is a tale dealing with alternate realities. And that's always the key word when it comes to these sort of tales, isn't it?