Outside the apartment’s windows, the sound of children laughing drifted from the park, a block away.
Professor Ian Thomas sank into his couch without really looking around the room. He closed his eyes. It had been a long day. The historian could not remember the last time it had been a short day. He let out a long sigh and rubbed at his temples, reaching for the bottle of bourbon he saved in the cabinet nearby for serious emergencies.
It wasn’t there.
“Check the coffee table, Professor.” It took a moment for the voice to register for him, and when it did, it was nonetheless peculiar. Adjectives filtered into his mind without actually corresponding to definite details. He knew the voice was even, cultured, the slight hints of a strange accent … but he could not identify a gender, an age, or a precise tone.
His instincts screamed at him, but he found himself reaching leisurely for the filled glass on the glass surface all the same. Like a man struggling against the tide, he tried to focus on the source of the voice and found a pair of eyes in a face that, like the voice, his mind refused to describe.
“Relax, Professor,” the black-red eyes said. “Have a sip, it’ll make this go easier. It’s quite good, if you don’t mind me saying so.” The eyes raised a half-filled glass in a slender hand and tipped it towards him. “I’ve been sampling it. You will pardon me my transgression, I hope. I was raised in slightly different codes of hospitality.”
The historian brushed away the cobwebs of his mind and sat up straighter. He knew his uninvited guest; his mind was racing down remembered pathways … accounts of blood and fire. He swallowed and set the glass firmly down. “I think I will wait,” he said in a quavering voice. “How did you find me?”
“Come, Professor, you’re well-acquainted with me,” the visitor said. “I’m pleased to see you and your colleagues so enthusiastic about my memoirs. The amount of energy you have put into collecting them astounds me.”
The eyes narrowed slightly. “Let’s use your colleagues’ term for me, Professor. Keep this professional.”
Thomas swallowed hard. “You are SCP-140-A,” he said.
“Quite so. Are you surprised?”
The historian shivered. Despite his best efforts, his fingers began tapping nervously on the coffee table. He felt the other’s wry amusement and cursed the weakness of his knees. This was not supposed to be his element. “I’m …” he swallowed, licking his lips, “I’m sorry, but you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Of course I do. I would not be here if I did not.” SCP-140-A’s eyes were hard to read, but he felt the amusement growing. “Professor, I have not survived for centuries by being incautious. I learn. I listen. I adapt. I have no interest in exposing myself to unnecessary risk. I chose you because you are an educated man. Because my sources indicate that unlike some among your colleagues you have no proficiency in the use of the regulation pistol you are presently fumbling to grasp, while I have killed before and will do so again with a smile.”
It laughed, and something about the sound made Thomas think of breaking glass, skittering across his nerves. “Relax, Professor. You are my host. I have no interest in violence tonight, but in the event you attempt a facsimile of cheap heroism, my snipers will put a bullet in your brain before you hear the crack of gunfire.”
Thomas dropped the useless pistol with the faintest flicker of secret relief. He cleared his throat, leaned forward, and did his best to look the well-dressed intruder in the face, though his eyes smarted when he tried to look too closely. “Then why are you here?”
“Your Foundation has sought me for some time,” SCP-140-A replied, “much as the Inquisition and the Templars and the ghazis before them. In my time, leaders met each other face to face.” It smiled with teeth like a row of gleaming knives. “I felt it necessary to provide you the same courtesy.”
The historian swallowed again and nodded. “I see,” he said. “I don’t suppose you would be interested in formal negotiations with Foundation authorities.”
“Somehow, I doubt they would be conducted in good faith,” SCP-140-A replied. It sat back on the couch opposite Thomas’, looking uncomfortably at home. The … whatever it was let out a sigh and set its drink down. Thin hands pressed tightly together before their owner’s face.
“Yours is a strange era, Professor,” it said. “I’ve learned much of your colleagues. My time was an age of kings. Blood was spilt in the name of gods and glory. Your colleagues do not fight for either.” It laughed sharply. “I don’t pretend to understand all your methods, and yet I know your capacity for ruthlessness. But not in search of land, power, not even peace. Your sacrifices are in the name of …” it made a disgusted sound, “’normality.’ Could you think of no better cause but the preservation of the mediocre?”
“Is that why you wrote it?”
“Need it have been in the service of some nefarious plot?” SCP-140-A replied. It crossed one long leg across the other; the red-black eyes half-lidded. “Perhaps I was merely lonely. Nostalgic.”
“Yes. The good old days. How I miss my ritual sacrifice.”
“Come, Professor, you’re wiser than that. You know how brutal and violent the ancient world once was.” SCP-140-A sounded thoughtful. “And yet from the wreckage of an empire that salted fields and killed one in ten for disloyalty, your people built this age of technological wonders. Do you think these marvels of science and steel any less forged in blood?”
“We didn’t do it literally,” the historian replied. He took a sip of his drink, despite knowing he should stay on his toes. “You had your chance.”
“And yet you remain curious,” the guest said. “The Foundation snatched you from a promising career in academia, if I recall correctly. I know you’ve mused about what would happen in the case of another … I believe you call them ‘expansion events,’ yes? Any honest historian would.” It smiled. “But you haven’t really been a historian for years, have you?”
“You resent your employment,” it replied. “I don’t blame you. How many of your colleagues share your passion?” It took a sip of its drink and shook its head. “Your expertise is met by disdain, even contempt. I saw Alexandria burn, Professor, and the Bonfire of the Vanities, and the fires in Munich. And I wept. So much knowledge destroyed. Your colleagues would have you preserve a new Dark Age.”
“And your alternative is … what, exactly?” the historian asked, trying to ignore the uncomfortable, nervous way the other’s words bit at him. His fingers drummed unconsciously on the table’s surface. “Usher in one myself in a fit of pique? Or are you just suggesting I make it public?”
“Why else didn’t you warn them about the dig site, Professor?”
A lump of glacial ice dropped into Thomas’ guts. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he snapped. The bourbon in his hand was beginning to look more tempting by the moment.
“Oh, pardon me, I didn’t mean to be rude.” The visitor leaned forward, cupping its narrow chin in a long pale hand. Black-red eyes seemed to sparkle with interest. “It’s a natural assumption. Surely you foresaw some danger. One of the Foundation’s few historians would be considered enough of an authority on the subject that it’s hard to conceive of his warnings being ignored by his colleagues. I don’t blame you, Professor. You can’t exactly publish material on the subject, nor can you teach, so all you have left is …” it shrugged, “research.”
“I warned them,” Thomas hissed, the memory hot in his head. He licked his lips nervously and downed the remainder of his glass’ contents in a swallow. The glass and the hand that held it trembled as a tide of memories flickered through his brain.
He had seen the photos taken at the ill-fated dig. They held the kind of uneasy fascination fever-dreams possessed, beautiful things and horrible things still artful in their craft. And he had listened to the recordings. They kept him awake at night.
“I’m sure you did,” the visitor said comfortingly, and reached out to pat Thomas’ shoulder. Beneath the fabric, his skin crawled at the contact. “It’s on the record, after all. ‘Professor Thomas advises caution.’ Very matter-of-fact phrasing. It’s hardly your fault if you expected them not to listen.”
“This conversation is over.”
“Is it? Well, I suppose that’s fair,” the visitor said with a strange half-smile. “You need some time to think, no doubt. I’ve enjoyed our time together, Professor. It’s a pleasure to talk to a man who knows who and what I am. A man who truly appreciates my work. I’ll stop by again another time.”
It rose from its seat and stretched, producing a small piece of paper looking like it had been torn from a notepad. There was a cellphone number written in a neat hand. “If you change your mind, Professor, you’ll know where to find me.”