Within the cramped dirt tunnels of the Gate Passage a group of eleven humans dressed in the field gear of an SCP Foundation task force limped onward. They were beaten, bloodied, bruised, and carried with them the pungent smell of body odor, sweat, and fear. While they had started their expedition with twenty, now they were down to eleven. They were MTF Eta-13, Gulliver's Tourists, and they were heading home.
Some, like Sgt. Darren Wells and Dr. Johna Baldric, were people of action. Leaders who were at their wits end attempting to have their version of Eta-13 avoid the fate of their predecessor, Donald Blaire. Having lost almost half the task force under their watch, the two of them agreed their success was mixed. As they lead the group through the tunnels, both of them held their heads high, faking a level of confidence they no longer had.
Others, like Dr. Sandra Gonzalez, were skilled scientists who were out of their depth on an expedition that had long ago stopped being scientific. As she kept up with the group, she held a metal tulip pendent tightly in her hand, reminding her of someone waiting for her to return to Site-93.
Still others, like Agent Jia Turner, were tough soldiers who had fought tooth and nail to try and keep the task force alive and in one piece. Agent Turner's head constantly swiveled about as she kept on searching for the next source of danger. No matter how well she and the other security forces planned, there was always another source of danger.
All members of the task force, however, were like Researcher Joseph Bell. They had each watched as men and women that they had called their friends died before their eyes, with little they could do to stop it. Bell limped along with his colleagues, his eyes plastered to the smooth dirt floor. The absence of a lanky medic by his side weighed heavily on his mind.
"So," Gonzalez whispered to Turner, breaking the silence. "Have you met the Oldomerites before?"
"Yeah, on three different occasions," Turner answered. "Why?"
"What are we in for?" The xenobiologist asked.
"Picture a centaur… except the horse is actually a giant ant. And the person is a skeleton. Now make this ant centaur a telepathic bureaucrat and you have an Oldomerite."
Gonzalez blinked a few times as the mental picture ran in and out of her psyche.
"Quiet!" Baldric shouted back from the front of the line, cutting Turner and Gonzalez's conversation short. "We're almost there…"
Within the next hundred meters, the dirt tunnel gave way to a smooth passage made of pure amber. Occasionally, deep within the petrified resin, the forms of trapped aquatic creatures could be seen. Then the passage opened up into an enormous pit that disappeared into the darkness, trap doors lining its walls. A single narrow, amber bridge offered the only way across.
"I'll be the one doing the talking," Baldric whispered to Wells as they began to lead the task force across the bridge. Baldric then turned his head back to the rest of his colleagues. "Follow my lead."
Just as the task force reached the midpoint of the bridge, the cavern filled with the sound of slamming doors, followed by a high pitched chittering as twenty insectoid creatures scaled the cavern walls, stopping just above the level of the bridge. Their humanoid upper halves swiveled as they shouldered what appeared to be rifles, taking aim at the humans on the bridge. Baldric immediately kneeled. The rest of the task force followed suit. At the sight of this spectacle, the chittering of the Oldomerites continued. Eventually, an Oldomerite wearing a silver and gold cape crawled toward the group from the far end of the bridge.
Klakata Baldric? Klakata Wells? It spoke in a feminine voice. Your colleagues at your Hill in our territory did not say we would be seeing you this cycle. This is most irregular.
"Klakata Teyo," Baldric replied in as courteous a voice as he could muster. "Our Line set out on a journey into a foreign section of the Inner Hill many days ago and were attacked by machines belonging to the Hand. We fled through another world, and then to here seeking asylum. Our Line would be indebted to you."
A bold move even for the Hand, Teyo commented. She then looked over the various members of the task force. Has your Line brought the expected toll?
"We are short on supplies," Baldric answered. "Our Line will be more than happy to provide payment once we make it to our Hill…"
We made it clear to Klakata Kauffman that there are no exceptions granted… Teyo scolded. Your Line has come a long way to be turned back.
"Klakata Teyo, please!" Baldric pleaded. "Our pursuers will know we are here. If we are turned back here, we will likely be slaughtered. We'll double, even triple the toll, but we need to first get to -"
Baldric was interrupted by the sound of crashing thunder. He and the rest of Eta-13 turned their heads. Standing behind them, right before the bridge were three individuals dressed in black. Their faces were obscured by red masks, the emblem of a serpent wrapping around a human hand engraved on the center. Floating behind them were ten beings covered in brownish-green cloaks with no feet dangling beneath them. A spherical mirror took the place of a face beneath their hoods. Each carried a black crossbow.
"Oldomerite!" one of the Hand agents shouted in a deep voice. "We demand you surrender these Jailors to us at once! They have committed crimes against the Hydra's Spine, and must be held accountable."
Your Line comes into our territory uninvited, accompanied by an army of Camdorians, and then demand custody of our guests? Teyo hissed. You disrespect this Line, and the rule of Queen Cheyka. You will get nothing!
The Hand agent held up a clenched fist, which then burst into a ball of crackling blue energy.
"We will take them by force if we must."
The cavern then briefly filled with the sound of chittering among the Oldomerites, but then stopped.
So be it, Felkata…
The cavern erupted into a thunder of gunfire as the Oldomerites attached to the surrounding cavern walls took aim on the Camdorians and opened fire. The Camdorians let out a chorus of blazing trumpet wails, and flew into the cavern to engage their insectoid foes. The sound of gunfire and crossbows firing was occasionally interrupted by sounds of shattering glass, grand pianos crashing down stairs, and the death chitters of Oldomerites crashing down the walls into the depths below.
"Formation!" Wells barked over the din of combat. Eta-13 quickly rose to their feet, turned, and in turn, opened fire upon the Hand agents now attempting to cross the bridge. One of the Hand agents raised their arms, a bright red field appearing in front of them blocking the Task Force's bullets. Another Hand agent used a knife to slice his arm open, the blood that poured out quickly turning to purple electricity which he shot forward in a massive arc. While most of the task force was able to duck in time, a researcher and security agent were hit and sent screaming in pain over the side of the bridge and into the depths below.
Klakata Teyo! Turner shouted within her mind as she reloaded her rifle. Throw me over their shield!
The Oldomerite officer nodded, quickly scurrying forward, rifle in one hand, and grabbing Turner with the other. With a massive jerk, Teyo's skeletal arm flung the agent forward, her slender frame flying above the hand agents and over their defense. She landed with a acrobatic roll, turning as she landed and firing off a burst into the back of the Hand agent producing the force field. The Hand agent fell forward, dead. At this same moment, the last of the Camdorians was gunned down by the Oldomerites, its lower body violently cracking as it was sucked into a hole an Oldomerite marksman had made within its mirrored head.
The two remaining Hand agents looked to one another, to the MTF that stood before them, and finally to Teyo. They raised their arms in surrender, and began to kneel.
Once, long ago, when this Line was still bound to the string and stick, the Camdorians could push us around. Teyo lectured as she approached the would be invaders. But that was in the past, and the Camdorians have no more power here than you.
The Oldomerites on the walls loaded their next shots in unison, then trained their rifles on the Hand agents.
Keep that in mind the next time you wish to start wars between worlds. Now, be gone.
The Hand agents remained motionless for several moments but then rose, and vanished in puffs of black smoke.
Come now Klakatas, Teyo said, beckoning Eta-13 to cross the bridge. Let us get your Line to your Hill. Giving us the opportunity to put those Felkatas in their place was toll enough.
The two Hand agents made their way through the depths of the Hydra's Spine in a fuming silence. Months of planning, acquiring supplies, gathering enough Camdorian volunteers had been wasted. It was unlikely they'd get quite as good a shot at the Jailors as this for a long time.
"What do we do now?" One of the Hand agents asked in a guttural voice.
"We go back to square one," the other replied in a deep voice. "We spy, we stalk, we find out what we need to know, then we attack again. We rinse and repeat enough times, the Jailors will be driven out of the Spine."
"They'll be expecting future ambushes though," the first agent commented as he shook his head. "It'll get harder and harder each time."
"It sure will, but it's all worth it in the end. This place deserves to be free from the Jailors and their oppression. The peoples of the Hydra's Spine deserve to be free, even if some of them don't want to be."
The two agents then turned around a bend in the passage. Their exit into the Wanderer's Library was nearby. To their surprise, standing in the middle of the passage was another Hand agent dressed exactly as they were, waiting for them to arrive.
"You two really screwed the pooch this time," said the third agent. "Unauthorized aggression against the Jailors… Getting a fellow member of the Hand killed… Leading a Camdorian invasion of the Oldomerite Hill… Oldomerite delegates to the Library have already petitioned for you to be banished."
"They can't do that!" The guttural agent protested. "They have no authority in the Library. That's bullshit!"
"They can, and have," the third agent replied. "You two were officially banished as of thirty minutes ago."
"Yes," the third agent sighed. She then proceeded to hand out two bronze gears to her banished comrades. "Vance wanted me to give these to you. You can use them a few exits back to get back to Earth. Seattle to be specific. You're on your own from there."
Without another word, the third agent stepped through the near by door, then vanished into the Wanderer's Library, leaving her former friends behind. The two banished Hand agents stood in shock for several moments, contemplating their next move.
"So…" said the guttural agent as he examined the bronze gear "Back to square one?"
"Back to square one," the agent with the deep voice replied. "Fuck it. Guess we have to do this alone from here on out."
It was raining at Site-93 when MTF Eta-13 stepped through the Gate, and back onto Earth. Five weeks later, and eleven members fewer, they returned to little fanfare. Instead, they were greeted by the stares of construction workers, and the silent authority of the quarantine team. One by one, each member of Eta-13 was taken to their own quarantine cell. It would be another week before they were free. One week of nothing but relaxing in private cells, away from clockwork spiders, Razumite mind games, and the wrath of native inhabitants of hostile worlds. The members of Eta-13 could not have been happier.
Baldric and Wells
"Well, that could have been worse," Baldric said with a heavy sigh as he and Wells left Director Kauffman's office.
"He yelled at us for nearly an hour," Wells commented, walking along side his friend as they headed towards the Site cafeteria. "Can't say that I blame him though, the whole incident could have been handled a lot better."
"Also could have been handled a lot worse," Baldric replied with a shrug. "We could have all died. Kaufman should be glad we didn't end up like Blaire. You got us through in mostly one piece."
Along the way they passed a small wall that was covered in bronze plaques. Each one had the name of a Foundation employee killed within the Gate Passage. Wells cringed as he watched one of the workers finish putting up the last of eleven new additions to the list. He felt Baldric put a hand on his shoulder.
"If it's any consolation," said the anthropologist, "you'll probably get an approval on that security increase you proposed before we left."
Baldric gave Wells a sad chuckle.
Wells responded with a melancholy smile.
"Come on," he finally said. "Lets get some coffee. We're going to be burning the midnight oil for a bit with all the paperwork this is going to create."
Dr. Gonzalez sighed and hesitantly stepped into the Site-93 botany lab. There, a short, blonde, botanist named Dr. Cameron Hayes looked up from her desk as though she had seen a ghost.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey," Gonzalez replied.
"You came back…"
Gonzalez held up the tulip pendent that hung around her neck and grinned.
"Tulips are perennials. They always come back."
Within the blink of an eye, Hayes has crossed the room, wrapping Gonzalez into a tight hug.
"I was so worried I'd see your name on the wall when Eta-13 finally returned…"
"Wow," Gonzalez chuckled as she ran a finger through Hayes' hair, "thanks for the vote of confidence."
Hayes laughed softly, grinning sheepishly at her companion.
"I'm here now, though," Gonzalez added. "No place else I'd rather be."
Hayes rested her head on the Gonzalez’s shoulder and softly hummed.
Bell and Turner
Joseph Bell stood alone before the wall bearing the names of fallen Eta-13 members. It was late into the night, and aside from the occasional custodial staff he was the only soul in sight. His eyes remained plastered on one particular plaque.
33 Gate Entries
"What part about it is eating you the most?"
Bell turned with a start to find Jia Turner standing beside him.
"Do you ever stop doing that to people?!?" Bell asked. Turner simply laughed and shook her head.
"Nope. But seriously, what's the part about the whole Candle thing that's eating you the most?"
Bell sighed, and turned back to the plaque.
"Probably the part where I made a decision to help the task force that resulted in me killing the closest thing I had to a friend. I'd say that's a thing that's really 'eating me.'"
"Don't waste your venom on me, champ," Turner replied. "And I told you before, you didn't kill Candle, he took that path himself. Guy had a thing for heroics."
Bell shook his head.
"If I hadn't accepted Lilith's deal…"
"Candle would have offered up his own key instead."
"Oh for fuck sake, just leave me alone!" Bell snapped. "Shouldn't you be stalking Wells, or Baldric, or something?"
"I'm going to let you in on a secret kid," she said. "How much did Candle tell you about his and Blaire's last run?"
"Where is this going?" Bell gave a confused sneer. "How is that relevant?"
"Just humor me, alright?"
"Not a hell of a lot. Blaire's Eta-13 went to investigate Cronos, the team got slaughtered, Candle and Blaire made a run for a Gate, and Blaire got nabbed on the way. What's your point?"
"Candle left Blaire for dead on that run," Turner answered. "I think I'm the only one he told. Don't know why. But that secret's was eating away at him, bad. Guess this move was a way for him to redeem himself. You didn't kill him, kid. The man has had a death wish for years."
Bell's mouth hung open in shock. He sighed deeply, then slumped to the floor beneath the wall of plaques. Turner took a seat next to him.
"Truth's a bitch, isn't it."
"Is that what happens to you when you stick with the Tourists long enough?"
"I don't know. Maybe?" Turner shrugged. "Guess the only way to find out is to beat Candle's entry record."
She got to her feet and offered Bell a hand up.
"I bet you could do it, if you wanted. God knows you're about as brave and as stupid as Candle was."
Bell gave a small smile and accepted the hand up. Turner gave him a satisfied nod and began to walk away.
"Where are you going?" Bell asked.
"Have to go stalk Wells, or Baldric, or something. You take care, kid."
Bell nodded with a chuckle and watched her exit the building and vanish into the night.