"I'm going to see the other members of the Council," Ten said. "I want you to come with me."
Salt had known this was coming, since the visit to the oracles. Her first reaction was guarded excitement. As was typical for a Factotum, she'd only met a few Council members. Even working so close to the Council, you never forgot how larger-than-life they really were. Who wouldn't be curious?
Then she wondered why Ten would do that. Some Council members took associates everywhere, but Ten was a loner.
And the vote on Alpha-9 was imminent.
She expected to die, Salt realized. Ten, the Archivist, the keeper of the ends of the world, had always been fatalistic. This was a parting gesture.
"I counseled waiting." Two's tone was gentle.
They'd met Two in the vast garden that housed SCP-006. Here at the spring's source, the foliage grew dense and rich and alien. There were things that lived here and nowhere else, primordial refugees from a time that no longer existed.
Two was an old, grandmotherly white woman. One of the oldest members of the O5 Council, maybe one of the original twelve. She wore casual clothing and a grey hand-knit shawl decorated with pink flowers and a straw hat that mostly hid the scars on her face.
Salt envied her. As Ten's decoy, she moved like Ten, smiled like Ten, and dressed in Ten's fitted, confining suits. Salt wondered if Two employed decoys from the Factotum, too — a small herd of kindly grandmothers with identical flowery shawls.
"I believe the vote will pass," Two said. "It's only a matter of how. You have Four, Nine, me, and yourself. Your trouble will be getting above four votes."
"Seven supports the project," Ten said.
"Of course. Seven never regretted the old days. But she is a tactician to the core." Two paused. "If Seven votes against this project, then you should expect an attempt on your life in the next several days."
Ten looked startled. "She wouldn't—"
"Of course not," Two said. "Seven is a barometer. If she sides against you, it's because she knows something. Make sure you speak with her soon."
One of Three's proxies came to see Ten, surrounded by agents of MTF Alpha-1.
Alpha-1, the Red Right Hand, was the Council's personal Task Force: part terrifying inquisitorial squad, and part Council's personal guard. Three didn't take much advantage of that, preferring other security methods, but lavished agents and resources on all their assistants.
Salt knew this proxy distantly: a well-dressed Japanese-American woman named Flint. Flint delivered Ten an envelope. It contained a flash drive adorned with a happy face sticker, which Ten pocketed without explanation, and a note on expensive stationery.
I'm sorry, but this isn't my fight. If you need anything else, feel free to ask.
Four's message warned them that the meeting location was "a place where humans are not meant to tread." It turned out to be a Waffle House somewhere in the Midwest. The hour was late. Snow fell outside.
Salt watched the patrons as they waited. A woman wearing a trucker hat, hoop earrings, and tap shoes. An unthinkably massive man with greenish skin. A hunched man sitting six seats away. Salt looked away, then back, and he was five seats away.
Again, and three seats.
Salt was trained to evaluate detail quickly. The man's eyes didn't match. His clothes weren't fitted correctly. One of his nostrils was missing.
The other customers were the same — even from a distance, something was off. The only exception was the waitress, who watched them with a strange intensity.
"Ma'am?" Salt said.
"It's alright," Ten murmured.
"Hello." Salt looked up to see Four, smiling at her without a care in the world. "My apologies for keeping you waiting."
"It's no trouble," Ten replied.
Salt looked back at the hunched man. Six seats away.
The waitress eyed Four, visibly sighed, and turned away. Four looked much the same as he always did. His suit and shoes were pristine, barely touched by the snowfall. He didn't even seem cold. That was the thing about Four. All Council members occasionally seemed preternatural, but Four was preternatural.
Many people found Four irritating. Too mysterious. Even though he was unusually free with personal information. Salt knew that he was of Native Australian descent (by way of Toronto), that he was assigned female at birth, that he had once been an exceptional Foundation field agent, and that he liked to practice sleight of hand — badly. More than she knew even about Ten.
But Four would tell you nothing about his most remarkable trait: a clearly anomalous ability to walk vast distances in impossibly short time.
Salt understood. Four was like a vampire in a world where nobody knew anything at all about vampires. Why tell people about crosses, about garlic? All O5s were like that, Four only more so.
"What is this place?" Salt asked.
"This is a Waffle House at three in the morning." Four picked up a menu. "A place of wrongness and unnatural entities. But I repeat myself."
"I assume we aren't in danger?"
"Ma'am, we're always in danger," Four said. "This world's a dangerous place. If one place wears its danger more on its sleeve than another, well, at least everyone's following the same playbook, right?"
Salt looked at Ten. Ten looked neutral.
"This seems like SCP-1670," Salt said. "There should be a rule about having two of the same anomaly."
"I'll keep that in mind next time I talk to them."
"I asked you here to discuss your vote," Ten said.
"And why would that be?" Four looked surprised. "My opinion remains the same as always. I see no special reason to have any discomfort regarding the use of anomalies."
"Things could get ugly. I wondered if you wished to abstain."
The waitress brought them plates, though they hadn't ordered. Fried eggs for Ten. Eggs Benedict and coffee for Salt — exactly what she'd been considering. A pile of waffles drowned in syrup for Four.
Four dug in. "I appreciate your concern, but I am in no danger. I'm only sorry to say that I can do little to help you."
"I understand." Ten hesitated. "You know about the…"
"Possible assassination threat, yes." Four scoffed. "So wasteful. More fun with more players at the table, don't you think?"
"Only thirteen places," Ten said. "Each player can be replaced."
"That depends entirely on which table you're talking about." Four took another bite of waffle. "Still, you can be confident that you have my vote. And…" He smiled. "…that it will not be my knife in your back."
They met Five at the Foundation's busiest facility that wasn't Site-19. Salt and Ten had to wade through a hive of activity to find the right office. Five was deep in discussion with an uncomfortable-looking portly gentleman.
"Come on in!" Five smiled widely under his salt-and-pepper mustache. He was wearing a black-and-yellow blackbird tie. Another blackbird perched atop his gray hat.
Everyone knew about those damn blackbirds.
Salt observed that this was, in fact, the portly gentleman's office. He seemed to be a secretary. Certainly not cleared for Council discussions.
"I thought you'd be alone," Ten said, in a tone that said no such thing. "I'll come back—"
"Oh no, this is fine." Five winked at the secretary. "What can I do for you?"
"I've come to ask you what your vote will be," Ten said.
"On Alpha-9?" Five shook his head. "Oh, no. God no. That should never be allowed to pass."
Salt's stomach sank. She'd expected Five to abstain. He didn't favor projects like this, but if he thought it sufficiently entertaining, he was usually willing to step aside. If this was his reaction…
"Is there something that could convince you otherwise?" Ten asked.
"Oh… probably not. If this passes, it will endanger everyone in the Foundation." Five slung an arm around the terrified secretary's shoulders. "In a year I could be saying 'I told you so' in the ruins of this very office, over this poor gentleman's corpse!"
"Right," Ten said icily.
"Then again," Five said, still smiling, "who knows? I've been wrong before. Maybe it'll work out. Or maybe the end of the world as we know it won't be so bad." His jollity fell away. "In seriousness, Ten, I'm sorry. But I won't vote for this."
Ten nodded. "Thank you for your time."
"You are more than welcome." Five turned back to the secretary. "Now, where were we?"
Salt and Ten let themselves out as the man struggled to come up with an answer.
They met Six at a station filled with hundreds of people on hundreds of monitors. Here, walking back and forth, barking out orders, Six was at home.
Six was a tanned white man in a white suit with a white wolf's-headed cane and a white Stetson. American personnel called him "Cowboy." Non-Americans called him "The American."
Presently, he was overseeing the aftermath of a containment breach. A fire raged on one screen. A roiling pale mass flowed across another. A sea of red obscured a third.
"Pull the teams from Sector Seventeen and send them to Eight," Six said. "Seventeen's lost, I've seen what the tagliatelli can do. Get another squad to Sector Five: we can't afford a second alfredo flood."
Salt and Ten watched as Six directed his forces with easy mastery. When the breach looked like it was under control, he approached and greeted them. "You can speak freely here," Six said. "I trust everyone in this room."
"I got the breach alert on the way over," Ten said. "That was handled well."
Six chuckled. "Trying to butter me up?" He waved off her objection. "I'm kidding. I read the Alpha-9 report you sent. I'd have appreciated it a bit more if you'd sent it to me before you started the project."
"I apologize," Ten said. "I misread the situation. I didn't wish to make your job more difficult."
Six nodded. "Yours was not the only report sent to me in the last few days. I received several from Eight's office alone. Seems they don't approve of Alpha-9."
"Which did you find more convincing?"
"I found all the reports convincing," Six said. "I see a whole lot of upsides, and a whole lot of downsides. This could be a disaster waiting to happen."
"Yes," Ten said. "I believe that the benefits outweigh the risks."
"I appreciate that, but it's still more risk when we have enough to deal with already." Six pointed at the fires burning on the monitors. "The Insurgency's breached that damn pasta pot three times in the past year. They're mocking us, because we're vulnerable."
"I would respectfully suggest that this illustrates why we need Alpha-9," Ten said.
"Or maybe it just means we can't afford any new risks." Six paused. "If this is worth the risk, then find a way to prove it."
Seven was a fat South Asian woman who dressed like she'd blown up a thrift store. Unlike Six, she would never be confused with a movie star. But she inhabited her power like a second skin. She stood at the prow of a battleship, watching the horizon, mint-green scarf whipping in the wind.
"Recognize these?" she asked, gesturing to cannons mounted in huge turrets.
Salt did not. They were sleek, blue, chrome-patterned, like something out of neo-classical sci-fi.
"They're called L-Cannons," Seven said admiringly. "They fire anomalous lightning. Nonfatal, and doesn't disperse in water. They use a lot of water, so they're easiest to use on the ocean. We use them to subdue aquatic anomalies."
"Eldritch stun-guns," Salt said.
"Came from Project Zeus. Anomalous weaponry — lightning from heaven, right? Zeus seemed pretty promising until the Council got wind and shut it down."
"I'm seeing the parallel," Ten said wryly.
"They only made five of these babies. But we learned a lot. If they shut down Alpha-9, we'll have learned a lot too. And we can try again in another ten years."
"We might not have another ten years," Ten said.
"We're all but immortal. We've got time."
"What if we don't? What if the end is right around the corner?"
Seven waved her off. "You sound just like the last Ten. You remind me that there is such a thing as too much knowledge. All those ends of the world rattling around in your head. Look around us. What do you see?"
"The sea," Ten said. "The sun rising."
"You see the world," Seven said. "It's still here. Despite everything, we're still here."
They were silent for a while, the ocean breeze drifting around them.
"You've helped Project Resurrection more than anyone," Ten asked. "How do you plan to vote?"
Seven smiled. "I don't know."
The ship sailed on, into the sunrise.
They met Eight in a crowded office, hunched over in his chair, surrounded by his proxies. Salt felt the discomfort of their stares. She had advised Ten against coming here. Eight was never going to support Alpha-9.
Nine years ago, Eight had been the newest member of the Council, as Ten was now. Salt remembered him then, ambitious, full of energy. Among his first acts was approval of a plan which led to the destruction of Site-19. He had never recovered.
Now, Eight's proxies ran his office. They spoke for him here, too.
"I can't believe you would come here." This proxy was Pine, a by-the-book woman Eight had taken on nine years ago as damage control. "You know the way these things should be done. You chose to flout them."
Willow, rumored to have been narrowly passed over for a Council position, worked on Foundation infrastructure. "You're new," he told Ten. "A member of the Council can do anything they wish, but they shouldn't. You had no right to start a project like this. You should have come to the Council first."
"I don't know what the hell you and your staff were thinking." Dogwood, who spoke for Eight so much that many thought he was Eight. "There are plenty of projects on the Council's plate that are actually worthy. More manpower. Expanding existing Task Forces. Overhauling existing operations, not starting new ones. Fucking seriously." He glanced at Salt. "You're not stupid. Tell her."
Salt looked away. She was used to Ten commanding fear and respect; the attitude of Eight's staff disturbed her.
Ten looked at Eight. "What do you have to say?" she asked.
"We speak for Eight," Willow said. "You know this. We've—"
"Leave," Eight murmured.
"Not Ten. The rest of you. Leave the room."
Willow looked astonished. "But—"
Eight clutched his chair's armrests. "Get out!"
Pine shook her head and left. Dogwood left calmly. Willow sat in his seat for a moment before rising, a picture of barely contained fury.
In a few moments, only Eight, Ten, and Salt remained in the office.
"They are right," Eight said, in a voice harsh with disuse. "Your project will fail. As it should be." He was silent for a moment. "It's wrong, what we do. Thirteen people, controlling the fate of the Foundation, the fate of all mankind… It's a cruel joke. We shouldn't even exist. None of us deserve to stay on this Council."
Eight looked up at Ten, his mouth drawn in a grim line. "But you'll go before I do."
Before, Nine had been Donna Whetu Taylor, Maori New Zealander, noted geologist. She landed on the Foundation's radar when she independently discovered the presence of anomalies. She'd been developing a unified theory of anomalies. It wasn't perfect, but it impressed the Council enough that she was put on a very unusual list.
The list to replace O5-9.
Nine took them to visit SCP-2697, the watershed of a creek in Nevada, which burned yearly with anomalous fire. Their helicopter landed in a cloud of gray ash, and Salt followed the Council members through the dust.
Nine seemed eager and embarrassed. "Besides our protections, which I can't study, this is only the second time I've come this close to an anomaly since joining the Council. The first was that Oracle."
Ten nodded. Salt watched curiously. Officially, no member of the Council was allowed to come into contact with any anomaly. In practice… so long as they didn't do it publicly, who could stop them? But, while the Council hadn't actually restricted her access, Nine was particularly kept apart.
They hiked through an aspen grove with barely charred leaves. If it weren't for the ash on the ground, no one could've guessed a wildfire burned through here only days ago.
Nine stopped to examine a rabbit. Like most of 2697's wildlife it seemed very interested in the interlopers. One of its legs was almost burned off, exposing white bone. Nine almost touched it, hesitated, and called over an agent to hold it for her.
"Remarkable," Nine breathed. "The leg is fully functional. Most of the fur doesn't even look burned." She stood up. "There are two anomalies here — the first exists to contain the second, something underneath us, dangerous to all life."
She held out her hand for the rabbit to sniff.
"These animals are agents of the paranatural world. They keep us safe, and are rewarded for it." She pointed at the rabbit's leg, where ash was causing flesh to grow over the exposed bone. "This place may be an anomaly, but it has a kinship with us. It secures, contains, and protects. Why don't we acknowledge that kinship?"
Ten was quiet.
"That's why I wanted to come here." Nine smiled into the breeze. "I wanted to see that we are not alone."
They visited a bar after, incognito. Nine drank like a fish. Ten matched her. Salt watched.
"I gotta admit I'm frustrated sometimes," Nine said. "You all are so damn cagey." She shook her head. "No one explained all this to me, you know. First I thought it was because I was so new. Then they added you, and you're…"
Ten looked at her glass. "I am one of them like you're not."
"At least you'll drink with me. The others… It's like you want to live up to your reputation of Omniscient Council of Possible Supervillains. I'm surprised we don't get cats to pet and mustaches to twirl."
"I did have a pet cat," Ten said. "I gave her up when I joined the Council."
Nine shook her head again. "Good god, if that's the kind of key personal information that you let slip when you get drunk…"
They were quiet for a moment.
"I'm sorry about your cat," Nine said.
"Think nothing of it," Ten said.
"So why am I different?" Nine asked.
Ten looked conflicted. "Ah, hell." She downed another shot. "If I'm not long for this Council, consider this my parting gift. The Council is afraid of you."
Nine furrowed her brow. "Why would they be… afraid?"
"Because . . we all think the same way. It's just what happens, when you rise through the Foundation. How you look at the universe is different from us. And how the universe looks at you." Ten looked at Salt. "Help me explain."
Salt was startled, but complied. "The Council knows you won't attack anyone, and you don't have a personal power base. It's about why they chose you to replace 963-2, not someone else."
"Oh?" Nine said.
"So much of the anomalous depends on perspective. All those self-made Type Blues in the Serpent's Hand and the GOC. Our more esoteric thought-based containment procedures. The entire anti-memetics department… The Council is afraid of losing your unique perspective. They're also afraid of what your perspective might do." Salt hesitated. "They think you're going to change everything, be wiped from existence, or some combination of both."
They were quiet for a long time. "Do I end the world?" Nine asked Ten.
"We all end the world," Ten said. "In some way or another."
"Do we save it?"
Ten stared into her empty glass. "Who knows?"
Ten ordered Salt to watch her as she slept that night. She woke several times, babbling odd things before falling asleep again. She seemed more than drunk: sick, maybe delirious. Salt had never seen her this way.
Salt kept targeted amnestic pills in a little cup next to her caffeine pills, in case Ten let something slip that she wasn't supposed to know. The audio-video feed would verify that later, but Salt hadn't passed all the Factotum's loyalty tests for nothing.
"They will send her to see the plague first… and then, who knows…"
"First Zero, and Adam, then Nine, and then if the pattern holds…"
"What if this isn't enough? Only thorns… for how long? If we can't find another chance…"
"The Black Queen must know… she closed the Way… all her little birds scattered… in the Library… if I could see that catalogue… Perhaps Four…"
"The first cracks are already here, and the dandelions…"
Eventually, Ten slept for a long while. Salt watched her in the dark. She deconstructed Ten's appearance, as she had many times before. That nose, the slight freckles, the curly hair, the slender hands…
It had been disturbing, back when they'd altered her to take Ten's appearance. They shared only certain baseline qualities: African descent, US origin, cisgendered female. Everything else had been different. She'd been heavier and shorter than Ten, her skin had different undertones, her hair had been less kinky, her eyes a different shade of brown.
This was the face that had looked back at her in the mirror for nearing half a decade. This was her job, to be Ten's twin. If Ten was… removed, because of Alpha-9, would she be asked to keep this appearance, as a security feint? Would they revert her to the way she was before, replaced by a decoy compatible with the new Ten? Was that what she wanted?
The hours ticked by.
Ten woke again in the wee hours of the morning. She shot up from her bed like a bullet, eyes staring everywhere. Sweat poured down her face.
"If I die," she said. "If I die, you have to tell the next Ten to go to the Bloom. They have to find out what Cain and Able did, and why. There is a reason for all of this, and Cain knows. You must tell the next Ten to speak to Cain about the Bloom."
She sat back on the bed, panting, looking at the floor.
Salt recognized enough to know that she was not allowed to know what Ten was saying. Horrified, she reached for her amnestic pills.
Ten slapped them out of her hand.
"You will not forget!" She grabbed Salt by her collar. "You will remember! Promise me!"
"I promise," Salt said.
Ten stared at her, breathing hard. Then she released her, laid down, and returned to sleep.
Eleven took the use of proxies further than other Council members — not even Eleven's Factotums knew which was the real Eleven. Perhaps it didn't matter.
Salt and Ten met with two maybe-proxies. "The Mailman" greeted them politely. Rumor claimed he was once an actual mailman. His Staff joked about him "going postal," but only joked. He oversaw the Class D pool. Every mass intake, every use of Protocol 12, every assessment for mind-wipe or termination.
"The Liar" sat on the edge of the Mailman's desk. Today, her skin was white as death. She wore a tight-fitted black suit with red pinstripes and a plunging neckline. The Liar held court over the Foundation's Department of Disinformation. Probably.
"Welcome!" Her stark makeup accentuated her intense stare and fierce grin. "We're sorry more of us couldn't make it! The Senator sends his regards."
"I appreciate that you asked for me," the Mailman said. "But as things stand… I wish both sides the best. You've seen so many other Council members already, I'm not sure what I can say that they haven't said better."
"So many other Council members, indeed!" The Liar shook her head. "How lucky for you, Salt. You must have learned so many juicy secrets… Would you like to learn another?"
"From you?" Salt smiled. "Why not?"
"I tell plenty of truths," the Liar said. "I expect you'll soon learn more exciting secrets. I'd like to upstage them in advance. So here is half of my secret. Maybe you've already guessed it, from what they call me." She leaned in close to Salt, and stage whispered. "I am the Devil."
"Alto Clef already pulled that one."
"But that was only half of the secret! Guess the other half."
Salt felt skeptical. "You're… also Alto Clef?"
The Liar laughed. "I like this one, Ten! It's so lonely down here… You should bring her around more often."
"Perhaps," Ten said.
The Liar looked suddenly serious. "My lovelies. I am indeed Alto Clef, and also, the Devil. If you tell, no one will ever believe you. Not even on this Council. That's why Seven felt she could approach me that way. Shameful. First making me put on that fat male body again, and then hanging my daughter over my head? So cruel." She shook her finger at them. "I hope you had nothing to do with that. But even if you did… I'll bear it, because I am loyal to this Foundation. Aren't you?"
"Don't mistake me," the Liar said. "The Devil could never run the Foundation. I am under God's thumb. Returned, however temporarily, to my former role. That of Accuser. Of Adversary. The others have split opinions. Left to them, Eleven would abstain from the vote… so it comes down to me." She sighed. "And I cannot support your project. I simply cannot."
"Understood," Ten said.
The Mailman pushed aside some of his stacked-up paperwork. "You're welcome here anytime, Ten, but…" He was trying hard not to look exasperated. "May I please have my office back?"
They met with Agent Troy Lament in place of Twelve. Rain poured down overhead.
Lament wasn't a Factotum, but close. He was of that rare breed of Foundation agent usually assigned to projects that were both vital and possibly fatal. Invaluable, yet expendable.
Sometimes the projects were people. Gears. Everett Mann. And though he didn't know it, Lament was a Council project too. Another success: another who did not remember his real name or history, nor the family he'd left behind.
"I'm told you're not cleared to know about O5-12, ma'am," Lament said to Salt. "Please assume anything I say about them is disinformation. That sound good?"
"May I ask why Twelve sent you as a proxy?"
"Nope," Lament said.
Salt smiled. "Perhaps a personal question?"
"Depends what the question is."
"I heard you were offered the Commander position for MTF Alpha-9, before Sophia Light." Salt looked at Lament carefully. "And that you… declined?"
"If you don't already know, ma'am, I think I should go ahead and not answer that." Lament wiped rain out of his eyes.
"Then Twelve's verdict is unfavorable," Ten said.
"Sorry," Lament said. "They don't want to see us go back to Pandora's Box. They feel that using SCPs is the Insurgency's bailiwick. SCP task forces are just too far from the Foundation's actual mission."
"I understand," Ten said.
"One last thing…" Lament looked uncomfortable. "Twelve feels you are a valuable member of the Council… and you shouldn't let yourself go down like this. I'm heavily paraphrasing, here… They say you should consider apologizing, backing off, and living to fight another day."
Ten nodded. "Thank you for your time, Agent Lament. Please relay my thanks to O5-12."
Thunder rumbled overhead. They headed for shelter. Ten looked contemplative, rain soaking her curls. Salt watched her and shivered.
Thirteen. Tamlin. A person said to be unstuck from space and time, able to see the future.
Thirteen's vote usually passed between Council members, used only as a tiebreaker. When Thirteen chose to vote personally, everyone took notice. It meant that the course of the Foundation was about to change.
Ten's hope was that Thirteen would consider this vote such a shift in course, and that Thirteen would favor her cause.
There were many paths to see Thirteen. Under Kilimanjaro, governed by wind and fog. Under Uluru, by permission of the Anangu. In the Marianas Trench, by submersible. And here, under the Olympus Mountains.
All led to an incandescent blue lake. In the lake was a half-submerged bronze castle, more gargantuan than any ever seen, a castle for giants.
Salt and Ten entered a rowboat at the shore. Ten whispered a soft verse in another language. The boat's empty seats filled with pale, shimmering phantoms.
The boat moved on towards the castle. Salt could see writing etched on the castle walls, between arterial tubes running with lake water. The writing swam when she tried to read it. She looked away, until the boat rode a reverse waterfall to the castle's landing.
Mammoth doors swung open. An inscription: None who die may leave.
This castle was not always mind-bending, she'd heard. But today it was in fine form. Rooms spun, melt, fused and turned. Salt was quickly unsure what was real. A shrine to a shadow called Old Aggie, here… a nest of squirrels with butterfly wings, there. Ten seemed to navigate the maze easily. Salt stumbled after.
They entered a room full of books, handless clocks, and a fireplace with ruby fire. Thirteen greeted them.
Most people saw Thirteen as a red-haired man of varying description. Sometimes, a woman. Disturbingly, Salt saw Thirteen as another mirror to her and Ten, except with vibrant red hair, and deep green eyes. She wore a labcoat, a turban, and a friendly, innocent smile.
Thirteen and Ten talked. Salt couldn't understand the words. She tried to focus on anything at all.
She picked up one of the books filling the shelves. A diary, filled with handwriting. She checked another book. Another. All different languages, same handwriting. She couldn't focus…
Afterwards, she remembered only one thing Thirteen had said.
"Oh, no." Thirteen had looked surprised. "I don't vote on the matter of Alpha-9. This time."
One, the Founder, was the hardest to see. Or maybe Ten had wanted more time to brace herself.
A mansion crowned the top of a hill, surrounded by orderly white labs and peaceful woods. One border was a sheer cliff. It reminded Salt of wealthy coastal homes with whitewater views worth millions. But One's mansion overlooked a bustling city — a view of the rest of humanity.
Salt and Ten were ushered into an impressive study. Maps and framed black-and-white photos adorned the walls.
A pale, well-dressed man entered. He reminded Salt of someone — she wasn't sure who.
He shook Salt's hand. "I am Aaron. You must be wondering if I am O5-1, or a decoy like you. I will say this… You have O5-1's regards. You have come to ask for One's vote?"
"Yes," Ten said.
Aaron opened an unlabeled amber bottle and poured glasses. "Cognac. A unique vintage. It doesn't technically exist on Earth any longer. Don't be shy — if I don't drink it with visitors, it can never be drunk."
Salt sipped from the glass. It tasted of honey, and something else, unidentifiable, alien.
Aaron watched her expression. "A memory of the Garden," he said.
They walked through a maze of bright labs, and boarded a glass elevator.
Aaron smiled. "I made that cognac sound spooky, didn't I? It wasn't mystical — just really good cognac. But it seemed anomalous, right?"
Salt nodded, embarrassed.
"It's all a matter of perspective. Is that a fairy, or an miniature flying humanoid? Is that a mind-bending eldritch horror, or an anomalous memetic pattern? Is that a dark primordial god, or an SCP with a multi-digit number?"
A bright white underground facility came into view. The walls and ceilings were also tempered glass. The facility hummed with activity. Researchers, agents, D-Class.
"Among other things," Aaron said, "this facility contains what I am about to show you. No, it's not SCP-001. Not nearly that interesting."
The elevator sank past the facility, then emerged again into a dark cavern.
The cavern was massive, dwarfing Thirteen's lake. As Salt stared, she found she could make out… faces. The cavern was half-filled with a gallery of statues. Too immense to have been constructed here, underground.
"I hate this place," Aaron said. "It's an ordinary SCP, classified for historical reasons. We completed research on it back in '85."
A ways into the cavern, a fire burned. Beyond the fire… Salt could make out a procession of massive shadows moving slowly through the deep dark.
"What are they?" Salt asked.
"It doesn't matter. We are the Foundation. We contain things like this. We don't dress them up. We don't give them power. I'd have paved this whole thing over long ago, if I had my way, and good riddance." He sighed.
They walked out to the fire. A small group formed a ring around it. The most unusual was a bearded man who sat on a carved stone throne.
"This is where we come to remember," someone said. "All the eras erased or unremembered, when all of humanity huddled around fires like this one." Firelight danced across her face. "Here, we remind ourselves what it is like to be afraid."
"We protect normalcy," another said. "We do not choose normalcy. Increasing our use of anomalies is a dangerous step. One that could lead us, like the Insurgency, down the path towards trying to become like God."
"What do you advise?" Ten asked.
The bearded man looked at Ten. "You know what's coming. I hope you do not regret what you have done, and what you mean to do. Do not drag us back into the dark."
They returned to the surface in silence.
"I can't tell you how One will vote," Aaron said. "But you've been heard." He shook Salt's hand. "Perhaps we will meet again."
The Council meeting was attended securely, members represented in shadows. Salt and other personal Factotum were allowed to observe.
The debate was quick. Salt grew frustrated, watching, as Ten said very little in defense of Alpha-9. Maybe she'd already given up.
The Council voted.
Support: Two, Four, Nine, Ten
Oppose: One, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Eleven, Twelve
Abstain: Three, Thirteen
Alpha-9 was over. All that buildup, Salt thought, just to end like this, a quiet deflation.
There would be assassins, now. If they were lucky, there would only be assassins.
"I have another matter to bring to the table," Eight said. "Two or Four have acted appropriately, but their allies have not. With regret… I propose the censure of O5-9 and O5-10."
Salt watched with horror. The Council wouldn't censure Nine, but Ten…
She looked at Eight's shadow and felt something close to loathing. He should have a little more sympathy, she thought. It was his head on the chopping block nine years ago.
But then, maybe that was why he didn't.
Ten finally spoke.
"This is not about me," she said. "It is not about repeating the old mistakes. We all know we have changed. At the root, this is about SCP-076-2. Its turning was… a betrayal that we will never forget.
"But Alpha-9 is not about SCP-076-2. It is about SCP-105. During the breach at Site-19 — when she encountered agents of the Coalition — her actions were remarkable. She went above and beyond the call of duty, as someone who that call of duty does not even officially apply to.
"She is, potentially, an ideal agent. She understands how we work. She is calm under fire. She is loyal. Cage her again, and she'll stay loyal.
"She is anomalous. Jack Bright resides in a soul jar with an SCP designation. Tilda Moose, a Type Blue, is the Director of Site-19. And we drink from the Fountain. What is more anomalous than eternal youth? SCP-105 is no different from one of us.
"Look how big this project became, so quickly. Frightening, or promising, none of us fully understand the ramifications here. I will not disavow this project. This is an idea whose time has come."
The clock ticked on. Salt felt her heart beat in her chest, watching the screen, waiting for the silence to be broken.
At last, One sighed. "Very well," he said. "Until such time as we can prove the effectiveness or danger of Alpha-9, consider my vote changed to Abstain."
Salt realized what had happened. What was happening—
"The vote remains four to six." Astonishment was in Eight's voice. "The motion still does not pass."
"Four to five," Six said. "I abstain. I hope you know what you're doing, Ten."
Seven sounded amused. "I confess, despite my ambivalence on its merits, I genuinely like the Alpha-9 project. I will change my vote to Support. I believe that is now… five to four, in favor."
"You bastards." Eight's voice shook with anger. "Anyone else? Anyone else wish to support this foolish dream?"
But it was a mistake. Salt could see that now. Eight had to see it too—
Eleven's vote switched silently from Oppose to Abstain.
After a moment, Five's vote switched to Abstain too.
Eight shook his head. When he spoke, the anger was gone from his voice. "My friends," he said, "I sincerely apologize. I look at these plans, and I see not the mistakes of others, but my own. I see Site-19 burning again. But… I see that my judgment has become compromised. I will trust you. I change my vote to Support. God help us all."
Salt stared at Eight's screen. The expression on Eight's shadow-face remained carefully neutral.
He'd realized it too, nearly too late. That the other Council members were never going to be convinced, but that they were going to let it happen anyway. They just wanted Ten to take the leap. They wanted her, when she ought to have backed off, to put everything on the line.
"Eh," Twelve's computerized voice said. "Both sides have fairly good arguments. But I still feel that Alpha-9 is too clearly dangerous for us to endorse, and I feel more strongly about that than I feel about punishing Eight's political error. I confirm my vote to Oppose."
"A respectable stance," One said.
The final vote stood: six to one.
"Consider carefully, Ten," One said. "If the consequences for this project are dire as we fear… if the Foundation comes crashing on our heads, it will come crashing on your head first."
The meeting closed. The shadows rose from their seats and disappeared into their respective darknesses.
Salt had a final thought as she and Ten left the Council chambers. If someone sent assassins… they wouldn't be sent for Ten. The opposition would target Alpha-9 directly.
But that was a worry for later. For now, Salt smiled.
Alpha-Niner was Go.