The afternoon sun shone relentlessly on a remote corner of the Arizona desert, a flat plain dotted with little more than scrub, rolling hills on the horizon. No cloud served to mitigate the heat and light everywhere. It was the sort of place you could see for miles and miles. You could see because there was nothing to see. A little shack right here, a dusty rental car nearby. Nothing.
El Conserje had walked here, having hopped off a pickup traversing a lonely stretch of highway a couple miles away. He came prepared for the trek across the scorching landscape: plenty of water, space blanket for the night, protein bars for focus, and a bandolier of magazines for his pistols. He tensed, fully expecting his quarry to see him approach from miles away. He came, knowing death would meet him on this path. He gave thanks to Jesus and Mary as he pistol-whipped the first person he saw at the shack entrance, unaccountably blind to his approach.
Then he asked them for deliverance upon viewing the carnage within. The shack and its occupants had already been vandalized. Beakers, glass tubes, flasks had been shoved wherever they would fit (for loose definitions of “fit”) and shattered. One man looked like he had burned from the inside out. He realized he only once before seen a pipe made from a human skull, but at least that one had been long dead beforehand.
Needing answers, he handcuffed his captive and cracked open some smelling salts. The other man gagged and returned to consciousness with a start and a pounding headache.
“Hey, muchacho, did you do this?” he demanded.
The man rolled his head uneasily around and slowly registered the scene through a bloodshot haze. He blearily answered, “Uh… No. Did you?”
The hitman cursed and pulled out a water bottle, opening it and letting his captive take a sip. Indicating the scene with his pistol, he explained the situation. “No. Yeah, I’m here to hit them. But I ain’t no sick fuck.”
He grabbed his target by the chin, looked over his dark stubble, his stained button-down shirt. He looked over the pistol and radio he had carried, the small case emblazoned with some weird three-arrow symbol he’d never seen before. “Nah,” he continued, pushing his face away. “You didn’t kill them. But you gotta help me. I ain't here to kill you, but I gotta know who you are, before I change my mind.”
Cognizance reentered his hostage with the sip of water and he made a quick assessment. Captor clearly intelligent, keeping control. Good. Equipment on the table, behind his captor. Good. The meth lab’s inhabitants, still dead. Good. Body sore, hands cuffed, head pounding, but still intact. Good. The sun peeking through the slats in the shack wall, low in the sky.
Shit. “Quick, what time is it?”
Hector backhanded him. “Nuh uh. Name first. Who are you with?”
"Agent Rashaun Washington. DOD. You're on federal land, and I have to evacuate everyone before a nuclear test tonight."
His captor rolled his eyes and chuckled. "Gonna be nuked, huh? I'm sent out here just to end some desert rat who's gonna just get nuked anyway? That's good. I should be honored." His grin fell off instantly as he pointed his pistol at Rashaun's head. "I ain't no fool, and you ain't no fed. Now, tell me what's going on before I gotta kill you."
Agent Washington looked past the gun in his face to his belongings. The seal on the case remained intact. Good. Amnestics still available. “Okay, yes, I'm with a group called the SCP Foundation. Friend. Not here for the law or the drugs. Take what you want, but we need to get out of here now.” Urgent.
No way was this guy going to steer the situation. He grabbed Agent Washington by the shirt. “I ain’t never heard of the SCP Foundation. Why are you here?”
“I was here to evacuate the people using this shack. This is a Class 4 containment zone, and we need everyone out for their safety before nightfall. What time is it?”
El Conserje squinted, looking first at this strange “agent,” then at the twisted body pile. Suddenly, he recognized that if this guy before him hadn't killed them… “Madre de Dios…” He twisted Agent Washington around and undid his cuffs.
In turn, Rashaun jumped forward and grabbed the radio and switched it on. “Control, this is Mr. President. Mr. President calling in.”
The radio emitted a static burst and a woman spoke. “Prez, where have you been? You missed the check in window. Status?”
“Alive, with one other. Requesting evac.”
“Negative, Prez. We’d get to you after sunset. Hold position and come back in the morning. Do not drive out. I repeat, do not drive out. Stay away from any vehicle or road.”
“Acknowledged. Staying put.”
“…Stay safe. 973 only manifests on the road. Y-You should be fine.” The radio went silent.
Rashaun's companion watched the exchange in confusion. “What’s 973?”
The agent swallowed and gestured towards the festering heap. "The thing that did that."
"I know that, but what did that?"
Rashaun sighed. "There's a legend of a crooked cop that lives out here. Died forty-plus years ago. Full of hatred. And during the night, he patrols this section of highway, just waiting for someone to speed, drive drunk, something. Waiting for someone to screw up. Then, he comes out of nowhere, chases them down, and," he points towards the former occupants, "does that."
The hitman grimaced. "A ghost? A ghost did all that? I ain't never heard of a ghost that violent. That's, like, pure hate. I mean, I've killed plenty. I've seen the sick shit the lords will do to make sure no one fucks with them. But this? That's so… useless."
The hitman extended his hand. "Hector. Hector Ochoa. Let's get through the night."
The sun had set, and darkness fell rapidly. The sky was clear, and the full moon lit the landscape across the dust and rocks to the horizon. All still, punctuated occasionally by a coyote's howl. In the clarity of the dark, a pair of headlights appeared on the distant road. Hector tapped Rashaun's shoulder and pointed it out. The agent looked out at the vehicle and reached for his radio.
"Control, this is Mr. President. I see a car on the highway. Reporting possible civilian breach."
"Negative, Prez. No civilians have attempted to access the containment area tonight."
"Vehicle is approaching our location. Has an evac been sent?"
"Uh… Negative, all our cars are accounted for. Aren't you a >static< ways from the road, though?"
"Affirmative. Hard to tell how far away the car is, but it's heading in this direction."
"Oh god… Prez, that's none of us. >static< Probable >static< cover. Repeat, you have to >static< RUN FUCKER"
Rashaun dropped the radio and stared at it as he tried to get his breathing under control. It kept broadcasting, as a man's voice, cocky and cracking, cut through heavy static to say, again and again, RUN FUCKER.
Hector pointed urgently at the dropped radio. "That's the ghost?" His face hardened as Rashaun nodded. The hitman swallowed a prayer and replied, "Listen, I knew going into this that it was designed as a death sentence for me. First, I was going to get all shot up by some meth heads just walking to this lousy shack. Then, you tell me this whole place is gonna get nuked. That was good. I coulda taken being nuked. But now, the only reason I'm still alive is because we're being hunted by a dead crooked cop who got to my target first? No. That makes no sense. Not gonna happen."
The agent stooped to pick the radio back up. "A lot of things don't make sense. My whole job is all about things that don't make sense." He looked out at the approaching car. Still over a mile away, its lights flashed red and blue across the desert plain as it veered off the road and started across the flat, rocky terrain.
The radio crackled, "DON'T THINK I DON'T SEE YOU."
Hector grabbed Rashaun by the collar. "What are you doing? We gotta do something. You say you know this guy? How we supposed to fight a ghost?"
Agent Washington seemed to withdraw into himself. "There are few accounts of someone surviving an encounter with SCP-973. 973 keeps to the road and punishes all offenses found by the target."
"Keeps to the road, my ass! That fucker's coming right here!" Pointing to the bodies, he added, "He was here yesterday!"
"We should be safe as long as we don't break any laws…" Rashaun wasn't sure he was convincing himself.
Hector snorted as the cop car approached. "Don't break any fucking laws? You might be some fucking angel, Mr. President, but I kill people for a living. I ain't licensed for this gun. I'm an illegal. I'm a fucking walking crime who's about to have a meter of broken glass shoved up his ass. No."
Rashaun snapped out of his adrenaline-addled reverie. "I gotta get you out of here. Quick, in the car."
Hector rushed into following him out of the shack, arguing, "But you said speeding won't help!"
Sirens pierced the air as the aged police car sped the last distance towards the two men. Rashaun pulled out his key fob, and watched confusedly as it slipped from his grasp and flew forward while he suddenly sprawled out on the dirt, Hector tackling him. A second later, the police car, swerved slightly to ram the other car at full speed. The night exploded with the sounds of crunching metal and shattering glass. The rental rolled and bounced with the energy from the now stopped and only partly dented police car.
The radio crackled, "YOU WON'T BE NEEDING THAT WHERE YOU'RE GOING, BOY."
The pair scrambled up from their place in the dirt while the white late-70s Ford Mustang's door opened. A sleek black boot trod firmly on the ground. A tall figure stood up. His outfit was khaki, blending slightly with the landscape. He adjusted his belt and stretched out a crick in his neck. A faint red light appeared to glow behind his Aviators. He pulled a baton from his belt as he swaggered forward. His mouth, topped with a handlebar mustache, curled up in a sneer to reveal pitch blackness within.
The radio reported, "NOW, ARE WE GOING TO DO THIS THE EASY WAY, OR THE HARD WAY?"
"The hard way, pinche poli!"
Two shots struck the cop. One in the shoulder, one in the jaw. Hector squatted tensely, coiled like a spring, a smoking pistol in each hand. A step past him, Rashaun turned slightly, one eye on the door to the shack, one on his erstwhile partner.
The cop did not so much flinch as flicker. Like a flame's twist, like a line of static on a frame of film, his wounds glowed red and adjusted out of focus, two spots of patchy uncertainty on his otherwise crisp, diabolic countenance. He grinned broadly and continued his approach, baton slowly twirling in his hand.
Rashaun grabbed Hector by the shoulder and pulled him back into the shack. He upended a table and barricaded the door. "What do you think you're doing?" he chided. "It's a Class 3 apparitional entity! Its physicality only shows minor degradation to integrity from attack!"
Hector stared lost at the agent. "It what?"
"It - It's a ghost. You can't shoot a ghost."
"I kinda just did."
"Yeah, but it didn't slow it down or anything."
"I did something. What about you?"
The shack rang out like a bell, as the corrugated metal wall dented inward. The blows struck again and again, until the tip of the baton, looking raw and fraying bits of red glow, poked through a hole where the wall buckled.
The radio crackled, "YOU SHOULD'VE RUN, FUCKER."
Hector squeaked, "What? How? This guy don't give up!"
Rashaun replied, panic and the autopilot of urgency encroaching on his voice, "Initial containment attempt resulted in the death of nine personnel but determined that the SCP was not invulnerable and could be damaged. Night ended in successful dissipation of entity with a nine day lag time between apparitions. Entity preferably attacked personnel with a criminal record… especially those with violent felonies and moving violations…"
Hector pulled up a pair of closed paint buckets from under the bodies. "So if you're the goody two-shoes you act like, it's only after me, got it. Serves me right. I know, you try to do the right thing, but time comes, you gotta break the rules to follow them, and bam, they got you."
The wall groaned and shrieked as SCP-973 slowly tore it away. His hands grasped and bent the sheet metal like stiff cardboard.
Rashaun looked at Hector's activities. "What's this?"
"Maybe we can't shoot him, so how about we blow him up?"
"…Maybe we can." Rashaun looked around the debris and bodies, moved some plywood boards and found a gas generator. He checked the fuel gauge, and hauled it up by the buckets. "This has got to be the worst meth lab ever. An accident waiting to happen. My chem teacher would have my hide if I tried anything like this."
"I need a wick or a fuse or something, something to get the fire out fast," Hector commented. He winced, made the sign of the cross, and reached for what he needed, pulled deep into one of the corpses. A long cotton towel was extracted, slick and sticky with putrefying body fat. Stuffing one end of it into the generator's gas tank, he stuck the other end in one of the buckets and Rashaun revved the engine to start burning.
The shack's wall gave way and SCP-973 stepped through the breach. The generator sputtered and smoked and rumbled. The two men picked up a large piece of plywood and bull rushed the cop, barreling him over as they scrambled back out past him. The apparition punched through a section of the plywood and grasped Hector's ankle as he passed. The hitman cried out as he kicked against the vice grip, pulling his body free not so much through his own strength but as his foot slid out of a section of a layer of his skin, suddenly burnt and decaying from the policeman's touch. Rashaun hefted his partner's weight on his shoulder as Hector hobbled as fast as he could from the shack.
Not waiting for safety, Hector fired at the bucket through the hole in the wall. SCP-973 stood to stare at the two men as the bucket punctured, its contents splattered, the towel caught fire, and the entire shack, coated in unvented grime, exploded.
Hector and Rashaun flattened against the ground as the flames from the shack lit the landscape. Bits of shrapnel cut into their backs, leaving a collection of searing slices in their wake. They rested, pulling themselves up slowly, looking back at the wreckage.
"That looks like it did it," Rashaun said, helping Hector up on his feet. "We did it!" Rashaun and Hector hugged, ignoring the shards of agony in their backs.
The radio replied, "ASSAULTING A POLICE OFFICER GETS YOU BIG TIME, FUCKERS."
From the wreckage shambled a distorted, flaming form, glowing like an ember and dissociating like static. It moved slow, walking, swaggering. It swung a baton, glowing red and wavering, in whatever its hand was now, as it approached.
"I can't outrun him!" Hector called, limping painedly. "Just go! It's me he wants anyway! I'm supposed to die tonight? Okay."
Rashaun snarled. "Hell no. My job is protecting people from things like that. I'm getting you out of here!"
"How? I can't run. You can't carry me all the rest of the night with that on our tail."
"I'm stealing his car."
Rashaun dragged Hector to the passenger side of the police car, its flashers and engine still running, and jumped into the driver's seat as Hector got himself seated. The car smelled of death and cigar smoke and semen, like dread stabbing their nostrils. In the rearview mirror, the eldritch being broke into a run, closing the gap between them. Without waiting to shut the doors, Rashaun stomped the gas pedal. The car belched a sulfurous cloud of caustic exhaust, and dashed forward. The doors pulled themselves shut with the sudden acceleration, and its occupants held on tight as they pulled it out away from the shack, toward the road.
The crimson broken glow shrank in the rear view mirror. The car's police radio came alive. "RUN FUCKER. RUN FUCKER. RUN FUCKER."
Hector pointed at the radio and laughed through the pain. "That's all he can say, now. I think we beat him. How long we gotta outrun him?"
Rashaun, focused on the drive, replied, "He's gone during the day. Probably sunrise and we'll be fine. Or if we get out of the range of the effect. We should just drive out of here, now."
The car felt horribly dilapidated, as if it should break down or explode at any moment. The police lights continued to flash, painting the night desert in reds and blues. Rashaun kept to the task of getting as much distance between him and the shack, and out of the range of 973's effect.
"Hope you didn't lose anything important back there," Hector mused.
"What do you mean?"
"You had that locked case. Left it back there when we blew up the shack."
Agent Washington felt an automatic response, a sudden rise of bile that he just ignored and swallowed back down. The amnestics were lost. Hector would know after tonight. "No. Not important." He wasn't so sure. Policy in this case was simple. Remove all witnesses. Hector was weak, in pain. It would be easy to overpower him. He's supposed to die tonight. He said so.
Rashaun wasn't sure what the car would do at the boundary of the effect. Evidence to date indicated that the vehicle dematerialized during the day. Maybe the car crashed. Maybe it burned. Maybe it simply disappeared or returned to whatever dimension or circle of hell or whatever it came from. He pressed down on the accelerator, watching the gauge read 70 MPH, 80, 90.
He heard a pistol cock. "You know," Hector suggested, "if I'm going to die tonight, I'd rather know it was from you, than some thing out there."
"W - what?"
"I can see what you're thinking, compadre. I spent my whole life killing people. I know when a guy needs to kill. You never had it on your face before. That's why I let you live back at the shack. But now, if I do what I'm supposed to, you're dead. And let me guess, if you do what you're supposed to, I'm dead."
"Something like that."
"So what's stopping you?"
"It ain't right. My role is protecting humanity and now I have to kill you."
"Right, ain't right… Funny talk coming from a guy who just stole a cop car."
"Maintaining secrecy of the Foundation and its mission is paramount to the protection of normalcy," Agent Washington recited. "Revealing oneself is acceptable in order to prevent containment breach, as long as amnestic treatment is delivered immediately afterward. Knowledge of the Foundation's purpose must remain solely for personnel…" Sweat started beading and trickling down his brow.
"What, is all this what you learn in the Foundation?"
"¿Que? You wanna make sense?"
"I gotta turn you in."
"Yeah, to get sent to prison by the feds and get killed there? Same thing, muchacho. Just be a man and do what you gotta."
Rashaun started wondering when the inside of the car got so hot. "No, wait. What you do is tell the officer you volunteer for D-class. I'll pull some strings, get you janitorial duty. You'd still be officially a prisoner, but you'll be working for the Foundation and no one has to die tonight."
Hector wiped his eyes with his shirt and lowered his pistol. "You serious? What, you gonna have me cleaning up after things like this?"
Rashaun nodded and replied, "Sometimes you gotta -"
Hector finished with him: "- break the rules to follow them!"
Rashaun shifted. "Is this car getting hot?"
The dashboard started to crack and splinter before them. Faint ember-red light started leaking through. The steering wheel was crumbling beneath Rashaun's fingers, and the windshield cracked and split.
The radio called out, "TIME FOR YOU GIRLS TO COME WITH ME."
Rashaun looked up, and saw the orange and white boards of the road barricade ahead. He slammed on the brakes. "We gotta get out of the car now!" The two men opened the doors and dove from the car. They struck the ground hard, and rolled, scraping themselves up further and reminding themselves that there was still more pain that could be felt.
The car careened toward the barricade. It buckled, imploded, and crushed itself into a scarlet smear of static before disappearing.
Hector lay in agony, scraped, flensed, and burned. He hazily watched other people approach, also bearing the same insignia his new friend had. He lost consciousness before sunrise, but offered a prayer to Jesus and Mary, knowing that dawn would still come for him, after all.