"Dr. Agarwal," Reynolds poked his head nervously into Lakshmi's office, "you're needed in 5760's enclosure."
"That’s the kitten, right? The kitten that cures all forms of pediatric cancer?"
"No, that's 5670. This is the thing we brought in from Canada."
“Wait a minute, how many D-Class did it eat?”
“Nine,” Reynolds said, voice barely audible. He fiddled nervously with his watchband, a bright orange that clashed weirdly with his light brown skin.
“Why do they want me?”
"I don't know. I'm just doing what Gonzalez told me. But you're already five minutes late."
"Well, whose fault is that?"
"There was… a conflict of interest. Everything's a little behind schedule. But, you need to go. Like, right now.”
Probably just jittery. He saw that thing eat those D-Class, that can’t have made him any less anxious than he already was. Hell, I’d be sweating through my lab coat if I’d seen that.
As far as she could remember, 5760’s anomalous properties had nothing to do with her research. SCP-5760, Keter Class, possesses the ability to manipulate ossiferous tissue, capable of producing a cry which causes instinctive fear response in all tested mammals and birds… Nothing she would really help with.
Lakshmi frowned as she looked at the schedule on her tablet. Dr. Agarwal, SCP-5760's Containment cell, 7:00 this evening.
"The thing's waiting for you," Gonzalez said sharply when she arrived outside 5760's containment cell. "Would it have killed you to at least jog?" He shoved a security briefing into her hand and pushed her towards the door. "Read and walk in. Multitask. You're already late. There's a guard tailing you. Everything's gonna be fine. Now go."
As if on cue, large thumping sounds could be heard from inside 5760’s enclosure, followed by skittering, scraping sounds that seemed to come from everywhere. She forgot to read through the briefing as she walked through the hall from the observation chamber to the enclosure.
She opened the door to see a dimly-lit forest populated by sickly-looking, white trees. The security guard stationed himself behind one of them, and prepared his rifle. If she remembered correctly from the documentation, the trees were human bone, with marrow pulsing at their core.
Just then, she saw it - the glimmering, reflective eyes of 5760, peering out from between the trees. There was just enough light for Lakshmi to see the glistening whiteness of its multiple rows of teeth. She locked eyes with it, and both remained motionless. 5760 opened its jaw and crept the slightest bit closer. It dropped to the ground, inching closer all the while, and Lakshmi was close enough to see the strands of saliva dripping off its multiple rows of glistening white teeth.
All at once, it sprang for her, its canid, skull-like face the last thing she would ever see before being devoured -
It seemed instead of devouring her, 5760 was going to kill her via asphyxiation. Or possibly by crushing her ribcage.
Lakshmi could feel herself being physically lifted off the ground in what could only be described as a bear hug. Wolf hug. Wendigo hug? Irrelevant.
“Hello, SCP-5760.” she managed through its embrace, voice muffled by its fur. “Would you mind putting me down? Rib cage. Crushing. Breathing. Need to.”
Lakshmi fell to the floor with an undignified thump. “Thank you, 5760. You requested to meet with me?”
5760 nodded, sat back, and looked at her with an expression that on a normal canine would have qualified as adoration. Upon hearing a thumping noise, Lakshmi looked and found that 5760’s tail was indeed wagging.
"Hello, 5760. I take it you're happy to see me."
“Yes! Sorry about earlier,” 5760 said, surprisingly cheerful, “I just got…overexcited.” Its voice was definitely feminine, definitely American, and probably around Lakshmi’s age, though anything else was hard to determine.
"No apologies necessary. Now, let me see what tests were we scheduled to do today…"
"Oh, there's no tests. I did that yesterday."
"That can't be right…" Lakshmi checked the briefing Gonzalez had shoved at her.
Morale-boosting interaction as a precautionary measure - no data gathering or testing required.
"Well… okay, then."
5760 gestured for her to follow it deeper into the forest.
It led Lakshmi to a little clearing encircled by a ring of enormous ossified tree trunks. If she remembered her anatomy, they were femurs.
In the center of the glade was a small, wrought iron table set for two, covered with a white tablecloth, complete with candles and a bottle of champagne.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
"No," said 5760, eyes wide. "Didn't you read the protocol?"
Lakshmi checked the manila folder again - and found it called for a setup identical to the one she was staring at.
"What on earth…"
"Sit down," 5760 urged.
Well, best get this over with…
"Why is this happening?"
"Check your briefing. I think it's all explained."
Lakshmi looked it over again.
Due to the ancient and alien nature of the entity cohabiting in 5760's consciousness that causes it to become randomly aggressive, regular exposure to human social customs and normal human interaction has proven to be the best way to reduce containment breaches. The entity does not appear to comprehend such behavior in humans and, as such, they deter it from attempting to regain control.
"Why not just expose you to human media? Why is the bone forest even here? Isn't that inhibiting progress?"
"The thing keeps building the forest every time I tear it down. I just have to work within it."
"That still doesn't explain why we're having a candlelit dinner. "
"It's the best way to keep it subdued. I listened to some people talking on a hike, one day - not hunting them, just listening, understanding their conversation. Imagining how I would reply. And it started pulling back. They left, but I kept doing it - imagining conversations, calling up memories. The ones that scared it most were romantic memories. And I want it to stay scared. When it's scared, it's not in control, and then I stay in here, and no one gets hurt."
"But why me?"
"Well…I was looking for someone else gay, honestly. Gonzalez told me you were, and…"
An awkward silence.
"So. I guess…Hmm. Tell me about yourself." 5760 said, taking a seat across from her and making the rest of the table look doll-like by comparison. "Are you single?"
What did I do to deserve this?
"I am, at the moment," she said, meeting 5760's eyes without blinking. "My previous girlfriend was abducted while hiking in the woods two years ago. They still haven't found her body."
A long pause.
"She broke up with me out of nowhere for frivolous commitment reasons shortly before it happened, so it's not quite as tragic as you'd expect. But it was a difficult time. We'd been together since undergrad."
"Well, she was an idiot," said 5760 with a suggestive look in its eye, "because I can't imagine anyone leaving someone as pretty as you."
Lakshmi resisted the urge to down the entire glass of champagne in one gulp.
This was going to be a very long evening.
“This is ridiculous,” Lakshmi said, slamming a hand down on Gonzalez’s desk.
“It’s the only option we have,” said Gonzalez.
“Are you really sure that’s the case? Because from where I’m standing, it looks like you’re either prostituting me as an excuse not to do your goddamn job, or playing a very ill-thought-out prank.”
“We’re not prostituting you.” Gonzalez rolled his eyes. “Quit being overdramatic. Nobody’s making you have sex with the thing. It’s a goddamned date every other evening. Takes up two, maybe three hours of your time, maximum. You’ll get better food than what we serve in the caf, if you want to think of it that way. We've been testing for months on this, Agarwal. Just trust us. Honestly, people would kill for duty like this. Making small talk with the bonewolf and eating filet mignon, or some shit? Don't look a gift horse in the mouth here!"
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
“I mean, you didn’t really have a choice. But thanks for doing this the easy way. Lot less messy.”
“But I want a raise.”
“Well, you’d have to take that up with Administration, kid. But I don’t think you’ll have trouble convincing ‘em.”
“So there’s -” Lakshmi was interrupted by the loud crunch of a pelvic bone. “Sorry,” 5760 said, “that was louder than I thought it would be. Continue.”
“You have some marrow on your…” Lakshmi didn’t know what to call the bony plated structure protruding through 5760’s chest fur, so she just gestured to the equivalent area on her own body.
“Thanks,” 5760 said, flicking it off with one clawed finger.
“As I was saying,” Lakshmi said, “we’ve made some progress in capturing the man who instigated your transformation.”
“They have video footage of the guy who drugged me, dragged me back to his shack in the middle of Bumfuck, Canada, force-fed me bone powder, and then left me tied to a cliff in the forest wearing nothing but a deer skull and a wolf pelt after doing some kind of black magic ritual shit. I feel like he should be easier to find.”
“Gonzalez is furious. Apparently intelligence has screwed up royally.”
5760 took Lakshmi’s hand in its own taloned paw, and put another paw along the side of her face. “Let’s not talk about work,” it said.
Lakshmi powered up the desktop in her lab, glaring at the flickering fluorescent lights above her. The strobe effect was worsening her headache and her patience.
She logged into the Foundation database, pulled up 5760's records. Somewhere, there would be an explanation for these…Lakshmi barely considered them containment procedures. As she attempted to access the containment records, an error message flashed on her screen.
LEVEL 3 CREDENTIALS NEEDED.
Lakshmi swore under her breath. "I am level three," she muttered, pounding in her ID number aggressively.
When it gave her an infuriatingly condescending access denied message, Lakshmi had to resist the urge to break the monitor.
She counted to twenty in Hindi instead, trying to calm herself. As she reached sixteen, something occurred to her - that this might not have been an error.
Somebody might be trying to keep something from her. She remembered Gonzalez's misdirection and 5760's clumsy attempts at evasion - she knew nothing about 5760 before it had come into custody, not even its former name.
She stared at the image of 5760, the flickering lighting giving its face an uncanny quality.
Lakshmi had never taken kindly to being deceived. She was not about to allow this… whatever it was… to have the upper hand.
Gonzalez walked towards the car, the streetlamp above flickering ominously. He heard the metallic rattle of a can rolling downhill, and checked to make sure he wasn't being followed. He saw only a stray cat trotting lazily after its (probably tetanus-infested) toy.
Gonzalez got into the car.
"You're late," the would-be driver said.
"Maybe you're just early."
The driver didn't seem to enjoy his attempt at humor. "You told us you've solved the problem with…remind me of her name, again."
"Avery. Her name's Avery."
"The procedures I've told you about - they're working. It's been three weeks since we implemented them, and we've had no breaches at all. Even with the plans before this, we'd get two or three breakouts a week. Now, nothing."
"I imagine we should be ready for extraction soon. I can't imagine the Jailors are happy about the current containment methods, given their…unorthodox nature."
"They're not my biggest fans right now, so I'd appreciate it if we could up the timetable a little bit."
"Consider it done. I'll send you more information about a date for removal."
The driver turned to go, but Gonzalez stopped him, putting a hand on his arm.
"We're bringing Agarwal, too. Make sure you tell them that."
"That would be ill-advised for a number of reasons."
"If we don't bring her with us, I can't guarantee you Avery won't lose it during transport. She snaps, kills her transport team, comes to in the middle of Canada, Foundation finds her again, decides she isn't worth the trouble and shoots her."
"Very well. But if anything goes wrong, it's on you."
The driver left the car, leaving Gonzalez alone in the frigid November night.
End Part 1