A story in thirteen parts. Read in order.
I've taken the briefcase and I'm running, running because that's all that's left to do. The embassy is 20 more miles east, I can see the lights from the suburbs already. I'm out of shape but that doesn't matter. All I have is this briefcase and the thoughts in my head, and we're going to the embassy. Then I'll appeal to the CIA or maybe Interpol, ask for protective custody. I'll let them put me in prison while they verify everything I'll tell them. Hell, I know how bureaucracies work, maybe they'll leave me in a cell my whole life, but that's alright, we'll have all the time in the world to find out what's in the briefcase. And I'll be safe: If I learned anything, it's that not even mad men with hammers can cross two feet of concrete.
Especially if they don't want to.
Look, pavement at my feet. The briefcase shuffles like paper in a breeze and I quicken a little more.
Take the briefcase and run away? Yes, I'm running, but not out of cowardice, I'm doing what no one's been brave enough to do yet. What no one's been able to, either — but they won’t be able to catch me. It's been in the works for years, too. I didn't just get spooked, didn't have a breakdown, I've known and planned exactly for this since years ago, the night of my first promotion.
God, when they write the report, I hope they get it wrong.
It was my upgrade to Level 2, three years and some important research on something or other under my belt, and the first real promotion anyone in my unit had in a while. Brenda went crazy — we couldn't leave the site because of a security warning, but she got snacks and booze in the breakroom, pretty soon the whole residency hall showed up. There was a party, there was some music, pretty soon everyone was either in their rooms or passed out on the couches, and it was just me and this aged and completely shitfaced Level 4 named Howey, who I didn't know very well.
“See. The Foundation is like one of those giant-ass tropical flowers you can walk by for three-hundred-sixty-four days of the year and not notice- but once in a while, once in a blue moon, you see it on Resurrection Day, the one day it blooms, and it takes so long — the first petal pulls back, that’s when you see it, that’s your fake SWAT teams and squads, kids in military suits doing cover-ups. And another pulls back and you see everything that’s been built, all the resources, how can you possibly pay this much money for something you can’t see, for ghost things. You hear stories, that’s all there motherfucking is at first, one story or a passing rumor, about the thing inside, that strange thing everyone says is at the core. You only see it once in a decade.
“But the final leaf pulls back, and it’s right there, it’s what you’ve been looking for: stinks like rotting flesh, you have no idea what it is. But you know right then that everything you’ve been doing is for this thing to bloom. It’s for this, this is the most important thing there is, and it looks like shit. The flies come down, they like the smell, they flock around it and leave, and then the corpse flower closes up again, for another fifteen years of hiding out.
“That’s a fucked-up existence, isn’t it? Spending all your time smelling like the dead, 20 years just waiting to attract flies? If I were that, I’d hate it. I’d want out. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, even if it’s stupid.”
I was pretty sure we'd never actually met each other, and I only had a dim clue of what he was talking about, which scared me, because of all the cameras and microphones and god knows what. So I told him that, but Howey just laughed.
"There are no cameras."
Howey left site about five months later, they said it was a regular transfer. No one ever tried to ask me about what he said.
And it wasn't true. It's not like they tell you anything, ever, especially when you're new. But you can't just say that all of that, everything that you do, everything other people die for, and all that blood and horror, is to attract flies. You do it for everyone else in the world, too. Maybe High Command did know about that mutinous conversation, and didn't do anything (to me) just because they knew I didn't believe it.
Brenda and I were promoted on the same day, the second time. She was focusing on containment, by then, and I was getting a lot better at fiddling with my drugs and compounds. There was a little ceremony, more official this time. We grinned and took the pictures that ended up on our new security passes.
A man we hadn't met walked through the door, near the end. He had a tweed suit, brown coat, gray hat, tie with birds on it, a little blackbird pinned on the hat. The three highest-ranking people in the room looked scared out of their wits — but we didn't see that, yet.
He walked in, smiled, didn't introduce himself, and congratulated us on our Level-3 clearances. Made some joke about the pay raises. Everyone laughed. He walked over to me, threw his arm around me, pointed at Brenda conspiratorially. He said, "Watch out for that one," then left, chuckling a little.
And we laughed too, which made it alright. The three Level-Fours present all sighed and looked like they'd just found fifty dollars in their pants, or maybe escaped a mad dog, sweat rolling down their backs. Well, they should be happy, right? We were being promoted. But as we left, I heard one of them say a name, to the others. Just one name.
And then I went back to just being happy that I was alive, like some little Level-One again.
I got a little scared that night, but thought about my nice big office as Head of Material Science and thought I'd try it out for a day. Read more black bars, and… it seemed alright. This wasn't like being at the bottom at all. I could take trips, guards wouldn't stop me, I could finally get a good look at whatever I had to work on, and I think quality shot up — I got called in on one project off-site, then another.
Then my first paycheck came in, and I bought one of those massage chairs for the office, and that was all I really needed. Two years happened.
The O5 council is one of those secrets that's a secret until you're Clearance 2 — and then it's just creepy. They're the people who control the Foundation. Who are they? Oh, they have numbers, not names. Who were they? Fuck knows.
But secrets make me bitter. This is what we did.
We were given samples, and specific instructions. A molecular formula — send it on — the primary compound in a substance — send it on. The Foundation employs scientific sweatshop labor, although, as in sweatshops, “employed” is a loose word. We were given some designations, real ones, and the opportunity to study them — in close containment — as if to show us, yes, the Foundation actually possesses miracles.
You can split a human in these conditions into two categories: The ones that take orders as they get them, and the ones that are, as I think they call them in youth shelters, “flight risks.” Obviously: there are still guards at the lab doors, by Level 2.
The little demonstrations do something for the flight risks; and it’s safe, it’s not like the Big F actually needs to know why a snail makes chemically improbable acid. Who cares about that? Why would you? Why? Why? Why?
I can’t say why 001 really caught my interest, except that it did. The first time I even figured out what an Object was, was before Levels One through Five even came into the picture, when it was just me and some no-named Doctor of something or other in an auxiliary facility. I had even just been handed my little employment pamphlet full of bullshit, like:
Why does the Foundation contain?
Because the alternatives are worse.
What is the purpose of the Foundation?
To protect and improve humanity.
But I didn’t even care about that yet.
“So, this is 876.”
“A sample, right.”
“Object number Eight-seven-six.”
“There are eight-hundred-and-seventy-five more of these.”
“Blows the mind, doesn’t it?” The doctor, a lanky man with straw hair, grinned.
“What’s the first one?”
“Hell, even I can’t tell you that.”
“What’s the second one?”
“Computer or something? Check the sample, I think it’s getting away.”
After that, I got recruited for real and sold my soul to the Foundation, and learned to keep my mouth shut. But I didn’t stop wondering about it.
But I didn’t stop wondering about it, even when it nearly killed me.
The research director, my boss, called me down one day. She had me sit down in her big office, and looked me up and down. “Records,” she started, jumping straight to the point in her usual way, “have shown you’re showing a lot of interest in SCP-001.”
Shit, I had tried to keep the searches subtle. “How do you figure that?”
“We know.” She smiled placidly, and brushed her brown hair back past that scar on her cheek, the one my predecessor told me never ever to ask about ever. “Anything to say about it?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Well, Command isn’t very happy.” Neither was she. She shuffled through some papers. “You’re not the first one, you know.”
“To go digging. But like I said, it makes them antsy. Command. They don’t like people intruding into their territory. Long story short, you’re being transferred.”
“Not permanently.” She closed her folder. “I’m really, really sorry to lose you. They’re building a new site there and want experts — you happen to be handy. Please pack your things.”
“Wow, fuck you.”
“Never heard that one before.” She laughed, like a dog.
It was a project they wanted some coordination on, a new site and new containment in West Africa. So I went. It was built next to a little runway and some abandoned farm units — a few architects were figuring out how to retrofit everything into housing and containment units, and the rest of us were solidifying the few units already built.
There were four rows of metal silos being converted — that was what we were working with. In A-Silo, where I was, it boiled down to cooking up compounds and a below-zero cooling system for volatile compounds, under an open-air shed, with cooking pots and camp stoves, and a bunch of big guys who didn't speak English. In short, it was like summer camp. Rolling on a hot, threadbare cot at night, under yards of mosquito netting, I was starting to consider asking for a full-time transfer.
Then the sirens started up from B-Silo.
Every one of us jumped up and started getting dressed, making our way to the food-cellar-turned-bomb-bunker outside. From the window, what looked like big arms of light were ripping into the silo. Were coming up out of it. I grabbed the guys who were lingering by the window and pulled them on.
Outside, the bomb shelter was a mad dash away, and we started on it, but not before the entire ground lit up. It was covered in light, glinting off of nowhere. One of the guys stepped where it was lit, and he turned into smoke.
From the ruins of B-Silo, there was a person made of pure starlight and aurora. It held its arms up, in wonder, like coming out of Plato’s cave.
I heard people screaming behind me — at least four of them were dead; there were three of us in the last mote of darkness.
Until floodlights came on, slowly, like an early dawn — enough to shun the thing back into its cage, and illuminate the ruins of the entire almost-site. All the buildings were burning, there was nothing higher than my head left standing. Thirty people were dead.
Within half an hour, a helicopter buzzed overhead and settled into the charred nest of a building. We moved around slowly, trying to extinguish buildings or find what we could, or keep up a series of radio communications for help. Two guards rolled out and opened the doors, and I’m surprised they didn’t lay out a fucking carpet. O5-3 stepped out of the chopper.
Suffice to say, everybody stopped.
Everyone — even some of the sad level-1 saps who didn’t speak a word of English — stood up and didn’t say a word. Or breathe. The guy theoretically in charge now, another three with some history in the military, didn’t say anything. Three just looked around.
“Whose,” he said, “fault is this?”
I swear to God the wind held its breath. Several buildings gently smoldered.
The other guy stepped forward, looking like he was expecting the grand firing squad any time. Three walked towards him.
Three nodded, then looked around, at all of us.
“I expect all of this will be cleaned up.”
Then he got in his chopper and left. Once it drifted behind a cloud, the spell broke, and I ran over to ask the military guy what he said. It took a few minutes to get his attention, and then he just looked at me, staring a thousand yards away, terrified.
“He said to clean up.”
Two weeks later, I was back on a plane to Site sweet Site 27, and that was my encounter with Three.
For a long time, I thought it was the suit. You could do anything in a suit like that.
Brenda was ecstatic to have me back — said she knew I wasn’t going to stay in Ghana forever, and dragged me around and showed me everything she had been working on while I was gone. Her department had been busy.
She made me look all over one cell. Inside, there was a guy who could start fires with his hands; arrested over 15 times for petty arson. The main room was hexagonal and domed with a camera sealed off by glass at the very top. Mats — Brenda said they were fireproof — littered the floor, along with a chair, TV, and DVD player. We went up a level — inside the cell, a ladder went up to a small bedroom, separated by a screen door.
“Really?” I asked.
“Go with it,” she said.
There was a bed, mirror, and chest of drawers. There were no windows or direct screens- we were looking in through computer screens, which she said were hidden in the ceiling panels. There was a tiny bathroom on the first floor, separated by a screen.
Brenda turned to me, beaming. “Get it?”
“Okay. Let me elaborate.” She turned off the screen and looked at me. “He can close the bedroom door on us if he wants. We won’t go in unless he breaks the cameras. We have permission to delay experimentation for up to 24 hours if he doesn’t come out.”
“You’re kidding me.”
She sighed. “We had to fight Ethics on it all the way- but, honestly, he’ll never force us. We had a psychologist go through his history, medical, psychological, and criminal records, found a recurring desire to be recognized as an adult. So we gave him responsibility. If he burns any of the stuff, we won’t replace it for at least a month. An architect designed it — no windows in the bedroom, no obvious cameras, it’s recessed, gives him a sense of privacy. He asked for the TV, but we’ve denied most of his requests so far. We haven’t had any problems.
“The compound’s easily mass-produced. He’s only Safe, but we have very similar plans for Euclids and even Keters in the process of approval. See — okay, you’re still confused. It’s not hard to design prison cells. The problem is, once you do, you have to turn every hallway outside the cells into prisons. Every laboratory or facility they touch has to be a prison. All of that really drives up the bottom line. And everyone they contact has to be a guard. Sooner or later, they stop caring, or try to kill themselves.
“With this, containment becomes a cinch — have a guy with a gun somewhere, but most of these guys will never try anything. The biggest problem with prison cells is that if you’re dealing with our guys, there’s always the risk that they’ll do something you don’t know about and then break out. You see what I’m getting at now?”
“Lots of our subjects say they haven’t felt this safe in their whole lives. We’ve designed the best prison cell in the world — the inmates don’t want to leave.”
There’s a worm at the heart of the tower, there’s a swamp under the city, there’s something in all of this. I didn’t know what it was yet.
What it went like was this: someone on the council took a liking to me. I didn’t know that, at first, either, but I felt like Pip in London, knowing that some mysterious force was pushing me upward, but not the hand behind it. Level 4 — Brenda hated me — Director of Research Analysis- and favorable reports coming in from different angles. Little raises, favors, privileges, things they don’t do for Level Twos — things that showed that someone out there was watching.
I gave a presentation about some house to Seven and her train. She asked intelligent questions. The whole thing was a test, of course, but to what end? And Five came around once. Appointing new O5s was apparently rare to the point of legendary — there was just something long-lived about them — but even they need staff.
But that gave them a lot of time to think, meaning I had plenty of time to worry about my mysterious benefactor. Five, adjusting his black-and-yellow blackbird tie like it was the most important thing on his mind, didn’t say much.
“We could use more like you, at all levels.” He smiled. “You’ve been good with promotions up until now. Why so reluctant?”
“For starters--” It seemed safe to talk, it wasn’t like they were going to throw me under a bus just for this— “I still have no idea what you guys do.”
Five just smiled. He didn’t say anything.
“I mean, I’ve met you and Seven and sort of Three. It seems like you’re grooming me or setting me up for something- hell- destiny, or whatever, and I have no idea what.”
“Well, you’re not entirely incorrect. As you know, we have a very large charge in the scheme of things — running operations, managing what a site or two alone can’t, making sure the Foundation is moving in the right places and the right directions. We need the right people for our designs.” He smiled placidly once more and curled his salt-and-pepper mustache idly.
“Which you still haven’t explained.”
“Of course not. You’d need to be one of us to understand.”
I was a little annoyed. “Are we done here?”
“Absolutely. We’ll keep in touch.”
It seemed like he actually wanted me to think about it, which was both refreshingly polite and terrifying. You hear stories — people who some upper-level attaches to and pulls up the ranks just to play with, kids dealing with things they aren’t prepared for all, the suicides and renegades and demotion-without-honors. Everyone thinks they can handle everything. Well, I was curious, but not that curious. Whatever could do that to a person — I didn’t want to know that. I didn’t want to know who could.
“You should be scared,” said Brenda, over the phone.
“I heard they found out some staff member that was a traitor — feeding information to the Chaos Insurgency — and they didn’t tell anyone or do the normal thing. They just sent an email to the directors, and then one of them walked into the cafeteria and shot him.”
“What do I do?”
“Honestly… If you ignore them, they’ll probably keep hounding you. Maybe you should do it, but… you have to promise me you’ll be so careful.”
“Right. If you hear about my body being found in a ditch or I drop off the face of the earth in a few days, tell my parents I loved them.”
Somehow, Brenda didn’t think that was very funny.
Six months later, a paper showed up on my desk. It said, “Will you come?” There was a little sketch of a flock of five blackbirds with it, which just seemed obvious.
When the black helicopter landed and I finally went, they were waiting for me. I was taken to some obscure bunker in… BC, of all places, and they were waiting for me at a table. Thirteen.
“We’re glad you’re here,” said Five. He looked at the officer next to him, a fat dark woman in green. “Seems like your work actually paid off, Seven.”
Oh, Seven. Of course. I should have guessed.
“It took time, though. You’ve got spirit.” She smiled. “Ready to join the dark side?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Speak up, kid,” an old woman said.
“I guess so,” I started. “But you guys freak me the hell out.” There was appreciative laughter all around.
“Have you figured it out yet?” Seven asked. “You spent so much time digging. Well, there’s no secret riddle at the heart of everything, that you’ll find out about. Just a couple of our private charges with no bearing on the rest of the world, and then… there’s only us. What do you think?”
The briefcase, the first time I saw it, was on a table in a locked room. It was natty crocodile skin and shiny, like it wasn’t opened that often, and had some metal fixtures I couldn’t make out. We were looking through a window.
“If you read that there, that would explain everything,” Seven told me. “But that would be too easy, so you don’t get to. That’s that. Over here’s your quarters for the next few weeks.”
I had the notion, as we passed by it, that the window we looked through was plate glass, and that the room the briefcase was in looked exactly like a containment cell.
Then again, so did every room here.
So, this little building was the big Secret Edifice? This was the point of everything? Everything I was looking for had been right here? I wondered who founded the Foundation and what they had been thinking. I even asked Seven about 001.
“You’re not very quick, are you? Well, stay with us in our little fortress for a while longer, you’ll work it out in the end.”
But the Foundation — I knew this by now — wasn’t a fortress, it was a fly trap. It was huge and exotic and invisible and rotten to the core. All those other mysteries were just petals- distractions. Once you’re at the center of it, it’s plain as daylight.
Think about it — they don’t seem to get older. They don’t get hurt. They can walk through a fire or a warzone, no problemo, which also makes them the luckiest bastards on the planet- and isn’t that the most dangerous thing you’ve ever heard? God, I’d love to meet the genius who came up with this containment unit. SCP-001 locked away and never getting out. Brenda wouldn’t stand a chance.
Seven lied to me through her teeth all evening — here’s maybe the most powerful woman in the world, and she’s wearing a mint green pantsuit, and she’s lying at me through her teeth.
She said that this was the most necessary position in the world, that she’d understand my reluctance now but expected me to shape into it — mistaking my silence for confusion- that I’d work out what they were designing the Foundation towards. She said it wasn’t complete.
But the woman was a liar. Maybe if you saw it as a riddle, it made more sense-
Why does the Foundation contain?
As a distraction.
What is the purpose of the Foundation?
To contain the O5 council.
And that was the best flytrap ever made.
But it was unfair. The Foundation literally held countries for ransom. We had a workforce that rivaled the largest companies in existence. A democratic government might be able to do a better job than us. It was unfair that we were putting every citizen in the world at risk without even telling them what the danger was. And as for them, the high court with the magic army — well, I had a plan. I was going to run so far into the light with their secrets that they’d have to chase me there to get them back. I knew enough to outrun the coverup crews and hide from the snipers, and if they came for me themselves — maybe they’d just fry like vampires in the sun.
I didn’t do it that night, but two weeks later, I didn’t go to sleep. Seven had taught me security codes, and the first one I tried opened the door to that room.
The other trick they have for making sure that people don’t do what I’m doing, is security — when someone reaches four or three, the paycheck skyrockets, and the security disappears — suddenly it’s all, don’t go, you’re doing us a service, we need you, we owe it to you.
In this context, though, the only thing it meant was that the door on my way out wasn’t locked.
The briefcase is heavy and cold in my hand, shaking as I run for it. I’m tired already, but it’s all I have, and my feet are pulling on in some direction as by invisible, perpetual volition.
The first shapes of skyscrapers are beginning to glow on the horizon. I can see them clearly. Yes, I can see them clearly.