"How long have we got?" Matthew said, his stomach growling.
Zeke had been looking at his watch almost constantly for the last twenty minutes. “Three minutes, ten seconds. Nine seconds.” A pause. “Five seconds.”
“Which way did you say it is?” Matthew asked.
“Do you have to keep asking?”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Have you checked your gun?”
Matthew gripped the MP7 tight. “I did that an hour ago. And half an hour ago. And ten minutes ago. I have ten bullets, and I’d like to stop thinking about that. I haven’t eaten in two days, and I don’t know what day it was then. Don’t wanna think about those either. Which way is the building you saw?”
Zeke’s face scrunched up. “Um…”
“It was Friday. This is Sunday, so that was Friday.”
“Just follow me when the time comes. I know where it is.”
Matthew sighed. “How long we got?”
Zeke lifted his head up. “Can’t you hear? It’s started.”
Matthew listened. From this close to Braunschweig, he could always hear the screaming. Usually the victims, the hunted. Sometimes the Embracers. It didn’t matter. Twenty-three hours a day, always screaming. Screaming until there wasn’t anyone left to scream. Twenty-three hours a day. One hour a day…
The Embracers were quiet because of their ritual. Matthew figured the rest were just tired of all the noise.
The Hour had come. Matthew and Zeke rose from their hole. As usual, Zeke led, and Matthew followed.
“Can you at least say how far away it was?” Matthew asked. “It’s been twenty minutes. If we need to turn around…”
“That’s not going to happen,” Zeke said. “Look, I know you don’t have training, and it wouldn’t matter if you did, not now, but that’s not the point. It’s…” Zeke thought. Matthew always thought of Sarah Palin, a lifetime and a hemisphere ago, whenever Zeke thought really hard about something, because he always looked like it took a lot more effort than it should have.
“It’s principle,” Zeke finally said. “You don’t turn around. Not after this. Either we find more food, maybe a way west, a way back to the States, or we die. No option three.” Zeke huffed with finality.
“Fine,” Matthew said. “How far?”
“Ten minutes, fifteen tops. No more.”
They kept walking in silence. Matthew was often silent around Zeke during their “missions.” Anything he said would just make Zeke mad. Zeke never wanted to hear that Matthew had “given up hope,” as he put it; had given up hope of rescue, had given up hope well before they had even met. Zeke didn’t want to hear that the Embracers were almost certainly back home, and in Brazil, and Africa, and China, and probably fucking Antarctica, if there was someone left there who wasn’t one of them. Everywhere.
Zeke went on because he dreamt of being at home, maybe on the cover of Time, famous. “The Man who Survived Europe,” front cover. Maybe next to the story about how the war was over, and we had won. Matthew kept going because he was too stupid to die already.
Zeke’s sense of timing was spot on, for once. They reached the little concrete bunker thirty-five minutes after they left. Zeke’s NATO training (“brainwashing,” Matthew had called it, back when it had only saved his life once or twice) kicked in, and Matthew went to open the door for him. Zeke went in point, AR-15 and six rounds leading the way. They cleared the first couple of rooms the same way. All bedrooms, bare-bones, beds and desks, double occupancy. All empty. The mess was like the others they had seen, refrigerator full of spoiled food, pantry full of half-edible canned food. Maybe a week’s-worth, maybe ten days. They could carry six. A good day’s work.
Matthew wanted to get some sleep, but Zeke was sure he heard something. Not Embracers; their ritual wasn’t quite over yet. Something else, and something in the bunker. There was one room left.
Matthew was glad Zeke’s boot was in such good shape, a credit to the young sergeant major this pair had come from. The wooden door splintered around the lock and swung forward.
Details come very clearly during times of crisis. One man, gun in mouth, red face covered in tears. Tag on white lab coat reads “SCP Foundation,” then his picture, then “MORGAN, LEVEL 2.” Papers all over the floor, the desk, taped to the walls. A copy of the New York Times, dated five months earlier (Matthew thought); headline read
’CHICAGO NOT YET LOST TO ENEMY,’ GENERAL SANDUSKY SAYS
WITHDRAWAL ORDERED, ELECTIONS POSTPONED TWO MORE MONTHS
Matthew hated being right.
An electric typewriter sat next to a broken computer monitor. The draft of some page of a report sat in the cradle, with some revisions.
The manifestation of Script 82 on ██/██12 was reported at 02:01:13
The procedure for containment was followed, though all chanters were not contained. Neurotoxin deployment approved by control at
Neurotoxin initially believed to be effective, but confirmation not received from site. Protocol required for loss of communication includes
Failure to activate on-site warhead
Failure to react quickly to cultist activity, beyond suppression in media
Failure to coordinate when global contamination
Failure failure failure
Cowardice Failure comes from cowardice
Researcher Morgan showed cowardice and is a failure failure failure failure fAILure FAIlure FAIluRE FAILED FAILED YOU FAILED FAILED FAILED TRUSTED YOU FAILED YOU FAILED—
“I couldn’t…I couldn’t…” The man had taken the gun out of his mouth. “I couldn’t make the… the…” He kept sobbing. “…couldn’t…”
Zeke heard it first, of course. The chanting. It was close, very close. Too close. They were almost inside.
“I couldn’t make the tough calls,” the red-faced man said. The gunshot blew the top of his head all over the wall behind him.
The Embracers knew what room to go to now. Matthew and Zeke exchanged a quick look, then ran for hiding spots. Matthew got a closet, jumped inside, and made his breathing as quiet as possible. Zeke dove under the bed.
Heavy, perfectly coordinated Latin tones rolled down the hallway. No opera, no chorus, had ever matched the perfection in those chants. You couldn’t let yourself think of it as beautiful, or the next step would be seeking them out, getting out of hiding, running towards them. Some nights, as Matthew lay awake, the only thing that drowned out the hunger or terror or pain was the thought that just maybe, if he would go towards the sound, if he would embrace—
Matthew clenched on his empty stomach. You can’t think that. There could be a way out. There could be—
Two of them walked into the room, looking around. The rest gathered around the doorway, still chanting. The danger was in how normal they looked; no drooling, no hobbling, no blood-covered shirts. They could have been insurance salesmen, or kindergarten teachers. They glanced around, then looked at the bed.
Matthew didn’t know how Zeke had given himself away. Surely the soldier was better at hiding than the embassy desk clerk, he had saved Matthew so many times since Kiev, there was no way…
They dragged him out and pinned him against the wall. Matthew couldn’t hear what they said to him (not that he didn’t know the words by heart by now), but even over the loud Latin coming from the hallway, Zeke’s yelling was audible.
The Embracers grabbed him by the head and spoke. Zeke struggled. “Fuck you, no, it’s, no, no, don’t—“
The Embracers spoke again.
“I’m not gonna do it! You can’t make me! I’m not—“
The Embracers spoke again.
“I won’t I won’t I won’t do it no no no—“
The Embracers spoke again.
Zeke screamed the word “I” for two full minutes as Matthew counted off the seconds, plugging his ears as well as he could. I should do something, he thought, I should do anything, he’s all I’ve got—
Zeke stopped screaming and looked straight ahead. That was when Matthew realized that the difference was in the eyes. It wasn’t anything so garish as fangs or wolf ears. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the Embracers didn’t register. No humans present in this building. None but Matthew.
One Embracer spoke again, the same statement as before. Zeke answered, quietly but firmly. The Embracer repeated them. Matthew half-heard the words.
“The time…has come…”
Zeke replied, faintly, “We…many…”
The Embracer spoke again. “The time of plurality has come.”
Now the rest joined the chorus. “We embrace the many.”
Have to do something, he thought…
“THE TIME OF PLURALITY HAS COME.”
“WE EMBRACE THE MANY,” they said.
The Latin chanting resumed. Matthew couldn’t make the tough call either, and was almost relieved when the three Embracers turned toward the closet, looking at him.