The intruder appears to her as she kneels on a sloping, angular plane, of waving, waist-high red grass. Her field notebooks flutter, their pages fan back, and the grass is blown back in concentric circles. The thing itself is awash in glow and flickering shadows, then drops like a bird onto the firmament.
“YOU,” it says. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Testing out early retirement options,” says the woman in the grass, who hasn't looked up yet. She's petite, pale, with a ropy build. A scar running down her face. “There's lots of area for phylogenetic research, in the-”
“Oh sweet Cthulhu. No you're not,” the intruder snaps. “For one, you're still, like, a hundred years younger than Garrison. You're not retiring now. And whatever's going on, you're going to have to get over it, soon. We have business. Your whole world-”
“You know…” The woman picks herself up, and dusts off the knees of her incongruous lab coat. The red blades of grass stand up on end, and the intruder can finally see clawed footprints in the muck underneath them. “I know I'm dreaming right now. And for part of my subconscious, you're being very demanding.”
She turns around, slowly. Then she notices his suit and bowler hat.
“Oh,” says Sophia Light.
“Right,” says 990.
Sophia looks around. “I would have cleaned up the place if I knew you were coming,” she says. “Why are you here?”
“Well, I'd say we're due for a little calamity. Wouldn't you?” He holds out his hand. “I've been blindsided, as of late. What I once saw in the future is no longer there at all. Something has changed. Big things are moving, Doctor Light. Whole lot of fish, no time to fry. Your whole world is about to turn sideways. Need to see?”
She touches his hand, and their surroundings change. Halfway-outdated Foundation architecture, older site, probably an auxiliary wing. Not one she's been in, in some time anyways, but the feel of it seems familiar. They are several stories underground, but sunlight streams in from gaping holes ripped out above them.
“This, Doctor, is your precious Site Fourteen.”
“Is it?” She tilts her head all around, pursed her lips. “Was Agent-”
“Ordinarily, I'd care, but right now this goes beyond your personal crap. And you're going to sit back and listen to what I say. It's not just Fourteen. It's going to be all of them. Something's changed and I can't tell you exactly how it'll play out, but your precious Foundation is about to be horribly, hideously, calamitously outmatched.”
The echoey, almost-silence of the burned-out building is, if you listen hard enough, rather calming.
“How can I stop it?”
“No one can stop it.”
Sophia looks up, and studies his face. “You just said you've been blindsided by this nonspecific disaster. And I haven't heard Johanna or the fivers or anyone getting a visit, so you haven't been working down the ladder. So what, this is a social call?” She pauses. “And how do you know it's unstoppable?”
He glares at her. “If this seems unplanned, I didn't expect you to work that out in your sleep, but fine- yes, it is, I've been low on time. But listen. Here's what you would have done, if I weren't here. You would have looked at the information. Talked it over with Garrison and Barculo and Vaux, whoever you trust these days. Maybe phoned a friend. Then, you would have compared what's happening with previous disasters of similar magnitude, looked for anomalous causes, then, finally, began preparing for the worst plausible result you could extrapolate.”
“That's what I would have done?”
“Yes. It would have been smart.”
“And what are you saying I should do?”
“I'm saying that this is going to get worse, and if you want to even live to have a battle plan, you're going to prepare for the worst- to start. Find your resources, gather your armies. Might play out that not everyone in the Foundation is your best friend.”
She nearly laughs. “What armies?”
“See, that kind of attitude is going to have to change.” 990 flickers in place, like a movie still. He checks his watch.
“I mean,” says Sophia, and then she does laugh. “I think you think you're doing me a favor. So thanks for telling me about the impending doom and all that jazz. But this is hilariously nonspecific. Can you tell me, say, what's going to happen? Or what kind of 'preparations' I should make?”
The bowler-hatted figure in his outdated suit checks his watch once more. “No, I can't, and it's already happened. Welcome to Armageddon. This is Day One.” He flickers again, and starts to walk away, then pauses. “Oh, and you're right- I'm not working down the ladder, and I am doing you a favor. Whenever you get done… Remember that.”
She blinks. “You think somehow I'll help you-”
And then he is gone. Sophia is alone in the skeletal ruins of Site 14. Motes of dust seep gently down from the surface, landing on the illuminated surface of an unreadable Object Class designation, bolted to the remains of a metal door. Deep in the fallen timber and rebar, something begins to stir.
Sophia sat bolt upright. Someone was pounding on her door. She dimly registered darkness, the scent of cleaning fluid, the tight sensation of hospital corners on fitted sheets. Her phone ringing and ringing. Knocking harder.
She pulled herself out of bed instantly, nearly falling as the blood in her legs caught up to her head, then gathering herself to pull the door open. “Yes?”
Elliot Barculo, Regional Security Director, currently stationed at the Svalbard Site, was propped in her doorway. Deep lines in his face. “Jesus Christ, Sophia, were you asleep?”
“I- maybe-” She squinted, confused, and rubbed her eyes. The idea of Sophia Light oversleeping was preposterous- “Did something happen at Site 14?”
He scowled. “How the hell did you know that?”
“It's not just Site 14. Oh Christ.” Barculo sighed and turned his back. “No time. Johanna's waiting in the debrief room. Plane's in the airfield, if the sky's safe. We need a plan. Come on."
Sophia grabbed her jacket, and closed the bedroom door behind her. “Start talking on the way.”
Johanna Garrison, perched on the end of the conference table, looked older than Light could have ever imagined. Gabriel Bryant, personnel and espionage director, stood behind Johanna with an arm on her shoulder. Johanna and Sophia shared a look as Sophia entered the room, but neither said anything about the timing. Sophia's friend and apprentice, Charles Vaux, fixed an apprehensive look at her. Alerts were streaming onto Sophia's phone- containment breached at sites 14, 16, 19, 23, 40, 41, 42 A through D.
“This started at Site 10?” Sophia asked.
“As best anyone can figure,” said Bryant. “The site itself actually suffered no damage, although it teleported entirely to New Hampshire shortly before the other breaches.”
“Right. Researcher there- Dr. Yara Mirski- claims to have made contact with the responsible entity, says she tried to stop it.”
“What was the entity?”
“Actually, we have no idea.”
More than a handful of breakouts, sites around the world reported anomalies and disturbances. On the conference room screen, a report came in that SCP-1688 had materialized over its containment area and grown to four times the size it had ever been, driving arrows of lightning all over a nearby Foundation facility and small town. Reportedly the whole town had unilaterally joined together, in some kind of engineering project on a massive scale. At the same time, a ring-shaped stormcloud had formed several kilometers to the east, and was raising pallid spirits from the ground that it passed over. Reports showed SCP-460 moving across the sky at impossible speeds, with an army of ghosts trailing in its wake.
The next update was only video: a lightning storm, massive and striking ground so frequently that it looked like a comb of jagged white lines, and a large, circular, ochre stormcloud, rammed halfway into it. Faint white figures on the ground below seemed fixed in place, or spun out of shape like molten glass.
Ten minutes later, the yellow cloud and the ghosts were gone completely, and the lightning was still going.
“Okay.” Sophia stopped pacing, and panned through incoming alerts. "The O5 Council has been silent, which makes me think we've been attacked. CI? Maybe the Hand? A lot of the missing ones are Sentients. The other anomalies could be… distractions?”
“But not all. For heaven's sake, Sophia, the duck pond?” Garrison was still staring at the screens.
“Putting something there is the kind of mistake I'd make if I was trying to get at us with an incomplete set of archives.” Sophia's phone rang, despite the fact that she'd disabled it. She looked at the caller.
“Light,” Barculo said in monotone, “I know that some of these sites are yours, and you have to get to stabilizing, but some are mine too, and we need to start tracking them down. I don't think they're going to the same place, but there must be a link, so we'll start pulling-”
“Actually,” said Sophia, “I'm going to start planning for a second wave, possibly worse than this one. I would start now. And I'm sorry, I have to take this.”
She stepped out of the conference room. All down the hall, LEDs on security cameras and recorders were going out. Then she picked up the phone, and let it sit between her hand and her ear, and inhaled for a moment before speaking.
“Are you really her?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the Administrator of the SCP Foundation. “SCP-027, I think, is about to break containment." Fingers clacked on a computer keyboard. "As it's your site, please do anything humanly possible to prevent this from happening.”
“Of course,” said Sophia automatically.
The call quit.
She started dialing.