She awoke in a plush, high backed chair, facing a delicately-carved marble fireplace containing a layer of glowing embers. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light in the room, she noticed ornate mahogany wood paneling on the walls, and a grand piano in the far corner behind her. Bookcases lined the opposite wall, and she noticed a finely-wrought crystal chandelier hanging over her head. Thompson uncomprehendingly took in her elegant surroundings, putting her hands to her face as if to reassure herself she still existed. She noticed an empty chair next to hers, facing the fire as well. As she looked back at the fireplace, she noticed a bust of Apollo, oriented to face her, its pupilless eyes communicating no feeling or purpose that she recognized. Thompson stirred herself and moved to take a closer look at the statue.
"Please, there's no need to get up just yet. Can I interest you in refreshments?"
Thompson started at the voice behind her. As she turned, she saw an older, heavyset man, with a mop of gray hair and a bushy white beard. His face expressed kindness and knowing, though not without a hint of mischief. He wore an orange jumpsuit much the same as hers; the customary ID number, stenciled over the heart, read SCP-343. In his hand was the largest hamburger she had ever seen.
She searched for words. "Is this…am I…"
The old man took a large bite from his hamburger. "Why yes, you are indeed thirsty. Please, help yourself to some mineral water from the side table next to you," he said while chewing.
Thompson looked to her left, and saw a pitcher of water and a glass. Why not? She poured herself a glass, and realized that she was indeed parched. After draining her glass and refilling it, she turned back to the man, who was now sitting in the chair beside her.
The man genteely dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a silk handkerchief, all traces of the hamburger vanished. "Jones in Accounting asked me if I had ever had a burger from Dale's in Schenectady. It's not often that someone can recommend a new place to me, I've been around. Ever since, I can't get enough of these things. I'll have to send him a Christmas card."
He tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket. He turned to look at Thompson and smiled. "If I said that I was who you're implying I am, would you believe me?"
Thompson thought for a moment. "I don't think so."
The old man laughed. "Well, you're one up on most of the guys in here. You do look a little old to be believing in Santa."
She leaned back in her chair. "Something's not right. I'm in here, but I get the feeling I'm still in Site-17. SCP-343. What should I call you?"
The old man winked. "How about Dale today. I have a lot of respect for his work."
"Okay, Dale. I don't think I'm dead. I can't be. But I'm not exactly 'here', either."
"Right you are, Iris."
Thompson paused. "You know who I am, then."
The old man looked into the fireplace. "In a way, yes, I do. I've heard of you. And I've heard a lot about you. But until today you've been a stranger. Right now, at this moment, you are unconscious, temporarily removed from your typical position and lying in a heap on the floor of Cell 58 in Corridor Twelve. In 4 minutes and 28 seconds, Security Technician Reinhardt will notice that something's not right, and an emergency team will be dispatched. You are also, presently, in Cell 21 in Corridor Five. It's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Iris."
She looked at the old man. "…you're that guy that the guards talk about. The one everyone wants to go visit. If you're him, I can't understand why you didn't just pop me into your cell to talk to me earlier."
Dale scratched his beard. "It's not quite as simple as that. I perceive many things, Iris. What appears to the staff here as parlor tricks and miracles is merely movement in other forms."
Thompson poured another glass of water. "What, like other dimensions?"
Dale pulled a slightly sour-looking face. "If you must, I suppose. I dislike that term, it makes me sound like a horrible Flash Gordon villain. But yes, I move in worlds stacked on top of this one. As do you, though you don't know that yet."
The old man continued. "But, for all of my artifice, all of my ability, I am surrounded here by things for which I have no account. This chamber of horrors, this grubby little bunker that would crack the sanity of most by means of an afternoon tour, to me, it's a ghost town. Every containment unit, every storage locker, every cell an empty space. All of them. Every single item in containment here is a blank to me. It's fascinating."
Thompson considered Dale carefully. "What you were saying earlier. What don't I know yet?"
The old man leaned closer. "You poor girl. Many things. We have three minutes and twelve seconds remaining, so I shall be brief."
Dale stood up and started ambling towards the piano. "The good news," he said, theatrically pointing a finger skywards, "is that you are no mere curiosity with a penchant for photography. That parlor trick is just that. A trick." Dale turned back towards Thompson. "Have you ever considered that looking at pictures was simply a focal point, a way to wrap your mind around something that, in your world, should not be?"
She opened her mouth to answer.
"No, surely not," Dale continued. "You are something far more otherworldly and dangerous than they suspect. The potential you have to wreak changes on the realms around you is far in excess of what could be expected by man or god. However!" The old man assumed a position behind Thompson's chair, peering at her from around the side.
"However," said Dale, in a subdued, yet dramatically inflected voice, "your mind, or what will become of your mind, or what's left of it, is ill-suited to such circumstances. Whatever fills this wonderful little facility with invisible treasures seems to have seen fit to play a particularly complex joke on you. Whatever you started out as, you are far less human than they suspect. Than you yourself suspect."
Through the improbability and absurdity of the moment, Thompson felt her face turn red; her hands balled up into fists. "That's not what it's like." She looked away. "Everyone here 'suspects' alright. Everyone suspects, but I'm the only one who really knows. The only one who knows, but none of you ever ask me. No, they'd rather run their tests, write their reports and then go home like it doesn't matter."
Tears came to her eyes as she turned to face the old man. "Why am I in here with you, anyway? I never asked for this, I never went around pretending to be a fucking bearded man in the sky!" Her words started to come in short bursts as she fought back sobs. "I never did anything to anyone! I even helped them with that psycho with the tattoos! Less than human? Fuck you!"
Thompson sank in her chair, her thin frame heaving with each breath as she succumbed unwillingly to the last four years. She buried her face in her hands, ashamed and once again unable to control the situation. "I'm not like the rest of you," she said through sobs. "I can choose to not be some freak show. I can choose to be more than that."
Dale pulled himself up to his full height. "More or less, depends on the direction from which you are considered."
The old man frowned. "You should know that when the staff come and talk to me, half of what they talk to me about is you. Your presence here has inspired a need for forgiveness that even hard people like the Foundation require. Absolution, of course, is one of my more popular magic tricks. My chats have, in turn, enabled this Site to keep carrying out its functions. Including those related to you."
Thompson stammered. "Wh…what?"
"In carrying out its mission, Site-17 also carries out my mission. Though I think those two things are going to diverge quite soon."
"What mission? What mission is worth this?" Thompson spat out, still futilely fighting back the tears.
"Due to what you are, there was little danger of you fully accomplishing what you set out to do. But you've managed to really hurt yourself this time. You've triggered something. What you have done is set events in motion far more than a single death could have accomplished. You, the Foundation, and even I, we are all about to be freed from the illusion of control that shackles each and every-"
A beeping sound came from the old man's wrist. He checked his Casio digital watch. "Ah, my manners. They have fled me. Time's up!"
With that, he snapped his fingers.
In an instant, Thompson was in a hospital bed. The sensation of tubes running down from her nose and mouth into her chest greeted her. Hastily, she clawed at the apparatus on her face, pulling the tubes out of her airway for what felt like ten meters. Her heart raced, and she noticed the IV lines in her wrist. Her stomach throbbed with dull pain. As she looked around, she recognized the secure medical bay. Shock was followed by profound disappointment. A lock across the room disengaged, and the servo arms of the reinforced doors whined to life, announcing the arrival of Dr. Lin.
The doctor was flanked by a weary nurse and Security Director Burton; Thompson recognized the director from the Pandora's Box support staff. More than the nurse, Burton looked haggard and careworn. His eyes were bloodshot. All three strode briskly to her bed.
"She regained consciousness a minute or two ago," the nurse hurriedly explained to Dr. Whitman.
As the nurse said this, Thompson suddenly had a vision of herself surrounded by medical staff, monitors and equipment everywhere. Someone was yelling in the background. All vision in her left eye suddenly ceased. She was temporarily stupefied.
Dr. Lin approached her, his furrowed brow the only disturbance on his bespectacled, dispassionate face. "Looks like your procedures need another update, Burton."
The Security Director winced. He looked at Thompson, head hung low on his massive frame. "You okay, kid?"
Thompson looked Burton in the eyes. Blurry light began filtering back in to her left eye.
"No." Her voice creaked through her throat, raspy like a woman several decades older.
Dr. Lin turned to the nurse. "Let's get some diazepam going and station a couple of security personnel on watch for the time being. We'll do an examination at 1520 hours."
With that, the doctor and the nurse resumed their duties elsewhere. Burton lingered. He looked as though he was going to speak several times, but stopped each time.
Thompson adjusted herself in her bed to position her head higher. Sitting up was too difficult. "Why this time?" she wheezed.
Burton sighed. "Three-four-three said I should come see you. Said that it wasn't doing anyone any good to keep ignoring these."
She managed a weak, derisive laugh. "How kind of you."
He blanched. "There's all kinds of stuff I should have said earlier. I don't know how to say it now. But three-four-three told me to pass something along."
"Did he?" she replied, thick with sarcasm.
Burton hesitated, doubt darkening his expression. "He said…he said to tell you, 'Sector 3 is lost, abort procedures.' I don't know why."
Thompson's eyes widened at the words. Suddenly, Burton looked fifteen years younger, but bruised and scraped up. She perceived terror, not her own, but a detached notion of impending demise, somewhere on the edges of her consciousness. Fluorescent lights flickered on in her vision, superimposed onto the scene of the medical bay. Three vertically aligned cables, taut with some heavy load attached at the end, vibrated, in time with what felt like heavy footsteps. A black shaft yawned impossibly deep below. She felt her left side start to seize up, the muscles in her limbs contracting painfully. Burton looked on in horror. A new realization dawned on her.
"What are you keeping in Basement 17-E?" she pleaded. "What do you guys have down there?"
The Security Director recoiled from her, the blood drained completely from his face in an instant. Wordlessly, they stared at each other for what felt like minutes.
Suddenly, the sound of klaxons blared across the PA system. Burton took several steps back, vainly attempting to process what just happened before picking up his handheld and barking some unintelligible commands into it. A voice filtered down through the speakers in the ceiling.
"Attention all personnel. Security Protocol A is being engaged. Repeat. Security Protocol A is being engaged. All staff report to emergency stations and await further instructions. Level K containment breach event underway. Repeat. Level K containment breach underway. Over."
Burton ran out of the room. She heard the sounds of steel security barriers slamming into place several halls away. Somewhere, out in the din of the increasing chaos outside her door, she thought she heard an old man, softly chuckling.