With her right hand pressed against cold steel, Dr. Kowalski guided herself through darkness. Steps forward were apprehensive shuffles. She had a sleep mask over her eyes, but she found herself wishing she had brought a gas mask as well. No one ever told her what this thing smelled like. But no one who got this close to it lived to tell.
Once, when Danielle Kowalski was a young child, she was afraid to go in the ocean. Her mother had warned her about stingrays, and the fear of stepping on one had put her off swimming for more than a few years. Her father, though, he believed people should be forced to face their fears. He taught her how to shuffle her feet. "Then the stingrays will know you're coming, and they'll just swim away." Dr. Kowalski wondered if her father would have regretted teaching her to be brave if he had ever known the career path that bravery had opened up for her. The Foundation killed the last of that hesitant child.
She could hear it now, its labored breath that seemed a mix of a whimper and a death rattle. She hoped to not touch it. Another step forward. Either Dr. Kowalski was close enough to feel the heat of its breath or the tension was setting her blood on fire. The instant camera in her left hand was unwieldy. She hoped to not drop it because she would dare not try to pick it back up. Snap. But no flash. If she could see the flash, then she would be in real danger. This kind of stingray doesn't swim away.
The process was painfully slow. Step forward, step back. Turn the camera up, turn it down. One by one, she placed each photograph it spat out into her pocket. If she could have pulled off her blinder to check the time, she would have known that forty-eight minutes had passed between her entering the containment chamber and expending the last of her film. Statistically, at least one photograph would do the job, but Dr. Kowalski had no safe way to verify that.
Kowalski's colleagues would have thought her insane if they knew what she was doing. Fortunately, their time was occupied. On this day, this particular site was receiving its first official visit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After North Korea, after what the Diet in Tokyo had exposed, after the Foundation fell under the spotlight of every journalist on the planet - the world was surely about to change. Everyone, Kowalski thought, needs something for protection now. With no hope of ever having something so useful as Dr. Bright's amulet, the photographs she had taken would have to suffice.
15 Months Later
"You've wasted an hour of my time already, Dr. Kowalski. In your former line of work, I'm sure you know what the next part of an interrogation consists of. So I would think it to be in your best interest if you would stop feigning ignorance and tell me where the SCP-610 specimens were stored. You were the senior researcher on that project - you know."
The uninvited man who spoke these words inside Dr. Kowalski's apartment had burnt through three cigarettes since the interrogation had begun. Yes, her life was in danger, but she couldn't help feel most upset about the fact that the smell of his smokes was going to sink right into her furniture and carpet. Her eyes had been turned downward through most of this; it wasn't that she couldn't look a man in his eyes and lie - she was quite effective at doing that well. She didn't think he was worthy of it.
This man, who introduced himself as Agent O'Brien, liked to smile. He carried the demeanor of a battle-hardened general and looked the part: short grey hair, a square jaw, and a tall build. His patience for the former Foundation researcher was waning, too - though the two masked lackeys he brought along kept as still as statues, waiting and watching.
"Let me ask you, Agent O'Brien," Kowalski began, gaze still affixed on the floor. "Have you been so busy trying to find me that you haven't even kept up with the news? Does 'The Berlin Accords Against Weaponized Anomalies' ring a bell for you, asshole?" Kowalski met his eyes on that last word, her youthful face grimacing in stern defiance.
O'Brien stared past her glasses, pass her icy blue eyes; he stared straight through her.
"Hold her arm," he commanded one of his underlings. The masked man moved forward and grabbed Kowalski's wrist. O'Brien seized the middle finger of her right hand at the base and drove the thinnest knife he had under her polished fingernail. Kowalski flailed a bit, trying not to scream. But she did, and her heart raced as she knew this would get much, much worse.
"The Kremlin hasn't ratified it yet - so I don't think the Senate will be too keen on doing that either," O'Brien said with a bit of chuckle. The researcher's blood trickled out onto his black, leather glove. He wiped it off on her cheek. "Let me be clear - the Russians have everything they need to fuck with that skin disease, all around Lake Baikal. You don't think it's reasonable for the United States government to want to understand what could be used against us? Hell, I don't care what you think we're going to do with it. I want those specimens."
When Kowalski had finally caught her breath and stifled her urge to scream out in pain again, she pointed to her bedroom with her unharmed hand and said "Bottom left drawer, manila envelope. Something I kept with me since leaving the Foundation. I'm sure you'll find it interesting."
"Go check," O'Brien commanded his men, who in less than a minute had noisily ransacked the room and returned with a manila envelope just as the researcher promised. O'Brien grabbed the envelope for a look inside. His satisfaction faded quickly.
"The fuck are these?" he asked as he began littering the floor with photographs. Now Kowalski would definitely keep her eyes turned up. O'Brien paused before discarding one, just long enough to have a good, long look before stating "I don't think this ugly motherfucker with the fucked up jaw has anything to do with what I asked you for." Angry, he put out his latest cigarette on Kowalski's neck. She gasped as the agonizing burn momentarily left her breathless.
"Let me tell you a story," said O'Brien. "Because I think your Foundation sure thought they were powerful hiding in the shadows. But I'd like to explain to you why you're wrong."
He pulled up a chair from her kitchen table and sat down across from her. Kowalski would endure whatever tale this prick wanted to spew - she only needed to wait now.
"When I was up and coming, I was a DEA agent in Colombia in the late 80's, part of the team hunting down Pablo Escobar. I had a narco in custody, and this little spick was every bit uncooperative as you are now. He kept repeating 'Do you know who you're fucking with?'
"He thought his cartel was hot shit. He insisted they owned all the law enforcement in Colombia, that they were the ones who ran Medellin. So I asked him, 'If you run this city, why do you bury your money, why do you have to smuggle your coke? Surely', I said, 'if you're in charge, you'd peddle your coke out in the open. You wouldn't tuck your guns.' I pulled out mine and shot him in his kneecap. 'That's power. I don't hide my gun, it's right here for you to see,' I said as he bled all over the police station floor.
"Your Foundation hid in the shadows, doctor. But let me make it abundantly clear for you. The power was always ours. Your 'anomalies' belong to us. Your research belongs to us. Your life belongs to us, and if I'm so inclined your ass belongs to me before I'm done with you. So one more time, I'm going to ask you what you did with the six-ten specimens because the next finger of yours I take my knife to is coming off."
"Sir," one of O'Brien's lackeys said. "I think there's something outside."
Kowalski shut her eyes as soon as she saw a long arm with corpse-like skin phase through the wall as if it weren't even there.
The gunshots rang out in quick succession. The smell of gunpowder filled her nostrils as her ears rang and she stared into darkness. She heard screams. She heard bones snapping. She even heard a sickening slurping sound she wouldn't want to see the source of, even if it wouldn't kill her. After a few minutes of pandemonium, agony, it was quiet again; save for the same awful breathing she remembered.
Eyes still shut tight, she felt her way to her front door. So much blood had soaked her carpet, every step she took made a sloshing sound. The smell of what just occurred would never come out either.
"Run along now, Zero Nine Six," Kowalski told her savior. "There are worse monsters in this world than you."