In the hours of morning that still flirted with night, as Doctor Edith Spencer combed through layers of data from another world, she reflected on the pathways of life. If someone had asked herself a year ago about her future plans, she would have described a rapid ascent through the ranks of the Foundation, with the goal of becoming senior researcher at Site 81. Five years before that, she would have talked about her doctoral research, and her bright future career in academia. And ten years before that, the idea that she would even complete college seemed as laughable as an all-powerful organization suppressing the existence of things that went bump in the night. But somehow, the twists and turns of her life had led her here, with a metaphorical gun to the head of the Foundation and her finger on the trigger.
A sequence of events totally unpredictable yet fully inevitable.
It was six months ago that the Watchers had approached her. It had been a still June night, one of the many where she was the only one left in the lab long after the end of testing. She didn't mind her coworkers. Many of them she genuinely liked. But it was these times, secluded away with only her notes and her data, that she felt she could truly think. She always did her best work here. And her senior researchers' surprise at seeing a new batch of analysis and conclusions when he arrived in the morning didn't hurt. But most of all she just liked the feel of the lab at night. The silence of the normal busy equipment. The solitary light at her desk, like a shield between her and the outside world. The idea that anything happening during these hours was hers alone to keep.
So she instantly felt the presence of another person in the room. She pushed back from her desking, spinning to face the intruder. She hadn't heard the door open, but he stood there still. A pale-skinned, balding man clutching the edge of desk in the same way her grandfather clutched his cane. A wrinkled tattoo of an eye was on the back of his hand. He smiled at her. The expression was warm and terrifying.
"How did you get in here?" said Spencer. The only people with access to the lab were researchers and select administration. She didn't recognize him as one from the site. From a different area then? Someone even higher up?
The man stepped towards her, still gripping the edge of the table. He swayed slightly as he walked. Almost unconsciously, Spencer stepped back with him. As if his presence were a physical force pushing her away. "You're better than this, Edith."
"That's what I've been trying to tell my supervisor, but he just doesn't seem to listen." Stupid. Wisecracking to cover up the fear. As if that would make it less obvious.
"They say this is about protecting the world. Keeping the peace. But you know better than that. You've already felt the doubt, haven't you?" He pulled a manilla folder from inside his coat. "You've seen the signs."
"Should I call security? I'm beginning to think I should call security."
He placed the folder on the table in front of her. "Read this. Then you'll understand." And with that, he left.
When she got home, she opened the envelope. Inside was a stack of papers, perhaps 30 in all. The story they told seemed ridiculous. This was not the first Foundation to exist. Reality was not what it appeared to be. The world had ended once, and the founders had rebuilt it. Reshaped it. Put it under their thumb and squeezed until it screamed.
It was a ridiculous story. One that went against everything she knew. And yet. something about it tugged at her. She should have just dismissed the report outright. Instead she began to search. And the more she searched, the more discrepancies she found. The more incongruities. The more warnings.
She never saw the man again. A different Watcher returned to her two weeks later. By then she'd read the contents of the envelope so many times that she had them memorized to the punctuation, and she hadn't been able to get more than three hours of sleep at a time. The new man asked her if she understood what needed to happen. She said she did. He asked if she was ready. She told him to lead the way.
And now, six months later, she sat in her office watching the blip that was Dr. Clef wander through the map of Site 2000 and disappear. She smiled, more out of reflex than happiness. Good. He was doing his part. Time to do hers. Grabbing her backpack, she left her lab and stepped into the bowels of Site 81.
Entering the containment wing was sickeningly easy. The guards only gave her the most cursory examination as she walked through the check point. After all, what was there to worry about? Just Dr. Spencer doing some night research, like she had almost every day for the past year. A small thread of guilt tugged at the back of her mind, but she brushed it aside. She could wallow in guilt later. Now there was work to do.
She shouldn't have had access to most of the containment areas. As a recently promoted full-researcher, the only scip on site she was allowed to even know about was whatever one currently fell under her study. But having two O5 council members and a site director on her side meant doors didn't stay locked for long. She flashed her badge over the door to L-wing and stepped through.
Aside from a few echoing growls and hisses, the biological containment wing of Site 81 was silent. Dim lights highlighted the specks of dust drifting through the air. It felt more like a tomb than research station. Her footsteps echoed as she routed through the hallways. Around her dozens of anomalies held in only by a few feet of steel and glass moved. Most of them could easily kill her. Many would do even worse. It was a thought she'd become strangely comfortable with. Spend long enough dancing on the knife's edge, and you forget that it cuts.
The door to the creature's containment sat on the eastern edge of the wing. Normally, it was impenetrable except by using enough explosives to destroy half the building it was in. All it took Spencer to get in was a 7 digit key, provided by the O5. The door slid open without a noise. Exactly the same way it would for anyone else accessing the chamber. But she wasn't anyone else.
Her stomach clenched as she stepped through the door. She'd read all the documentation on the scip. Every testing log, every data collection, every recovery file. Each boiled down to the same conclusion- we don't know. We don't know where it came from. We don't know what it wants. We don't know why it does what it does, and half the time we don't even know what it's doing. Even putting it in the biological wing had been a guess, a symbolic shrug of the shoulders accompanied by a "hey, at least it looks alive."
The crystals grew in rough, uneven formations that didn't seem to have any underlying pattern. They had covered every centimeter of the 120 meters of surface area within the cell, and when that was done it had begun to cover itself. There were spheres, jagged pyramids, deformed pyramids, stalactites. Each crystal flashed with its own color and rhythm, reds and purples and yellows and teals that seemed to form a pattern just out of reach of full comprehension. As Spencer walked further into the room, the rhythms slowed. The colors deepened. A slow murmur built in the room. The whispers of thousands of inhuman intelligences, reawakening.
In the documentation, beneath the careful layers of clinical language, Spencer had read fear. It wasn’t because they didn’t understand the creatures. The Foundation thrived in the realms of mystery. There was nothing more pleasurable to it than dissecting an enemy and examining it molecule by molecule. It was because they understood just enough. They understood that there was no observed limit to its replication. They understood that it warped the laws of physics around it. That it was communicating with something beyond the scope of this reality. But they didn’t know what.
The Watchers did. And they wanted to meet it. Spencer withdrew the tools from her backpack- a jar and chisel. Simple enough. She began to chip off the crystals. The lights seized as she struck the rocks, and the whispers intensified, but there was no other reaction from the creatures. As the chips fell into the jar, their light faded to a dim glow. Once it was finished she replaced the jar in her bag, took a final look at the room, and left the room. She didn’t close the door.
Behind her, too small for human eyes to see, luminous crystals sprouted along the corridor walls.