Technician Palmer yawned.
It was 0520, only 40 minutes until the end of his 6-hour shift. A shift spent in Monitoring Station Delta of Foundation Area-12, a shift that consisted of keeping watch over CCTV and audio feeds, checking monitors to ensure functional operation of vital systems, and occasionally serving as tech support for hapless researchers. So far, the past few hours had been relatively uneventful. The CCTV feeds showed contained SCP-objects behaving nominally, the audio feeds brought the sounds of late-night researchers soldiering on, and the monitors' data showed that all systems were functioning normally. It had been boring, certainly, but Goethe's Faust helped to alleviate the doldrum of it all. That is, when Palmer could sneak in a page or two. He knew reading on the job was highly improper, especially when such dangerous objects were under watch. But hell, it helped keep the eyes open better than the standard-issue caffeine pills could. And being awake and doing a bit of light reading was better than being asleep and totally unobservant.
He had just finished the first dialogue between The Lord and Mephistopheles when a red light began blinking on one of the monitors. Palmer looked up from the book and squinted at the screen. According to the data, a lighting unit had failed in a containment cell. When prompted, additional data appeared on the screen:
WARNING: SYSTEM MALFUNCTION
LOCATION: CONTAINMENT WING BETA, CELL 017
OBJECT CLASS: K
THREAT GRADE: ALPHA
CONTACT SUPERVISOR IMMEDIATELY.
Palmer's heart skipped a beat. Object Class K. Keter-Class. Those were the dangerous objects, the Alpha-priority entities. Area-12 had multiple such entities contained within it, but this was the first time he had seen a malfunction trigger an Alpha threat-grade. Prior to being stationed at Area-12, Palmer had worked as a Senior Technician at Sector-28, a low-threat containment facility on Vancouver Island. His reassignment to Area-12 had been a necessity, after an incident at Area-12 left several personnel…unable to continue in their duties. Palmer wasn't used to such a high degree of danger. Threat-Grade Alpha was terrifying. What Threat-Grade Alpha meant was that a system malfunction posed a real and present threat to the containment of an SCP-object, and that breach of said containment itself posed a significant threat to the facility or its personnel. Personnel that included himself.
Palmer wasted no time in contacting his supervisor. When the line connected, he was greeted with a tired voice.
"Sanders here, go ahead."
Palmer's voice shook as he spoke into the intercom. "Uh, sir, we have a system malfunction in Containment Wing Beta, Cell zero-one-seven. Appears to be a lighting unit failure."
Sanders' voice sounded slightly shaky as well. "Zero-one-seven? Keter-Class object?"
Palmer swallowed hard. "Affirmative."
There was a second of silence.
"Fuck. Alright, set THREATCON in Wing Beta to Omega and standby to initiate both lockdown and Protocol 305-Utah if necessary. I'm contacting the Response Team now. Good work, Palmer."
Palmer only hoped that his work would be worth it. He hit the button to put Wing Beta on THREATCON Omega and entered his access code to arm Protocol 305-Utah. Over the facility's loudspeakers, a klaxon sounded and an automated voice spoke a message.
"Warning. THREATCON in Containment Wing Beta has been set to Omega. All non-essential personnel please evacuate the area. This is not a drill. Repeat, THREATCON in Containment Wing Beta has been set to Omega. All non-essential personnel…"
Palmer prayed that the Response Team would be quick.
In a hall of Containment Wing Beta, Response Team Echo began setting up to deal with the crisis in Cell-017. A red warning light spun overhead, letting any and all personnel know that this area was on high alert. Armed guards kept watch at the entrances and exits to the hall, as well as by the doors of other containment cells. Several researchers and staff passed through, one swiping her card on a door's reader and going into a cell with a trolley filled with meat. Although it was essential to secure the area in the event of a containment breach, of equal importance was the proper containment of other objects in the vicinity. What utter irony it would be, for one containment breach to occur because the efforts of preventing a breach interfered with another object's containment! It was for this reason that Response Team Echo operated with optimum efficiency, maintaining the least presence necessary to complete their duties.
At present, Maintenance Technician Swinburne was in the process of suiting up, pulling a reflective bodysuit up his torso. A real live technician was required for this task; usually, lighting fixtures could be replaced from the back or sides, but SCP-017's containment cell was bordered on multiple sides by other SCP objects whose containment procedures left no available space for even a crawl-area. Standing by were backup technicians in the event that Swinburne was unable to complete the task appointed him. On the ground was a very large high-intensity arc lamp bulb, with three others in their packaging nearby. Also on site was a portable generator, to which were hooked up several standing lamps of nearly the same intensity as their cousins on the floor. These were positioned such that, in complement with the overhead lighting (set to maximum brightness) the area was wholly illuminated, each person barely casting any shadow.
Next to Swinburne was Dr. Martell, lead researcher assigned to SCP-017. As Swinburne struggled with the suit, Martell gave a last-minute briefing.
"No cupping your hands; no walking with your legs too close together; remember to keep your fingers loose and apart."
"Uh-huh." Swinburne pulled his right arm into the sleeve of the suit.
"Walk in a shuffling motion. At no point should you raise your feet—-even with the room as bright as it is, a foot even a centimeter above the ground is likely to cast a minute shadow."
"Roger." The left arm went next.
"Carry the package away from your body, at chest level. The lamps are designed to be incredibly easy to replace. Pop out the recessed trim on the spotlight, unscrew the old bulb, and screw the new one in. After installation, the new unit will return to full brightness in just under a second. The bulbs are hot, but you shouldn't have to worry—your suit is insulated well enough, and we keep that room frosty to prevent other bulbs from overheating."
"And most importantly, be aware of your body movements. There are lamps recessed into the floor of the containment room, with just enough spacing to move through without blocking them. Slow, deliberate movements are key here. The suit is reflective enough that a slight interference with the lamps' beams should be relatively safe, but we're obviously not in the business to take those chances."
"You don't need to tell me that." Swinburne zippered shut the mask to the neck portion, noting that even the zipper and slider were coated with ultra-reflective chromium. He adjusted the mask so that the eye pieces lined up perfectly. The eyepieces were made of highly tinted, very dark lenses that appeared contiguous with the rest of the suit. He pushed his earpiece deeper into his ear, a piece connected to a radio with a voice-activated switch, which completely eliminated the need to touch anything. With that, he was done. Fully suited-up. Ready to go in.
Martell gave him one last look-over, and nodded. "Alright. There's nothing else to say except get in, get out, and-good luck."
The two shook hands, and Swinburne carefully picked up the replacement bulb. Martell went to the door to 017 and began the process of opening it; a primary swipe-access card, followed by a biometric palm scanner, a retina scan, and a voice-recognition system. If any of these failed, access would be denied unless overridden by one of the facility's Deputy Directors or higher.
After a moment, the light over the door blinked green. Access granted.
Dr. Martell pulled open the door and nodded one last time. Swinburne stepped into the cell, which was actually an elevator—the real containment area was below. Martell closed the door, the hermetic seal making a hiss sound as it closed up. And then Swinburne was moving down.
Swinburne, like most Level-2 Technicians, knew he was replaceable. It came with the territory. Though obviously not as knowledgeable about the SCP-objects contained at Area-12 as other personnel, he knew two things-how to perform necessary maintenance on a variety of the containment zones at Area-12, and how to keep his mouth shut. Prior to employment by the Foundation, he had served as a combat engineer in the Army. He was used to the chain of command, taking orders, and especially the impending sense of danger. He'd served two tours in Afghanistan, earning an Army Commendation Medal and a Purple Heart; the leg still hurt like a bitch sometimes. This was, of course, before he had been selected as a 'special candidate' for something called the 'Foundation'—back then, he'd had no idea what that word would come to mean. But he'd passed the evals and qualifications, ending up one among only three other such individuals. Of course the Foundation had had to reveal some of its nature before signing on potential valuable personnel; a Level-2 Tech was a far greater asset to the Foundation than a handful of Level-0 service personnel, and especially more valuable than a Class-D (although they were useful in their own right.) So when Swinburne had heard of anomalous materials, special containment procedures, and the need to secure, contain, and protect; he'd been intrigued. Not particularly religious, he still possessed a mite of wonderment about things; the world was interesting, and a chance to be a part of an organization that revealed just how interesting was not an opportunity he was willing to pass up. That and, refusal of the Foundation's offer came under penalty of amnestics and total relocation. So he'd accepted.
As it so happened, nothing could really have prepared him for the reality of the Foundation. He had seen things that he wouldn't have believed possible, things that no person could ever have dreamed of. Of course, he knew, it was better that way. To disrupt the status quo of the outside world with knowledge it was not prepared for would be disastrous. Although some of the things the Foundation kept contained were disastrous to begin with.
For instance, this object, SCP-017. Swinburne had read the file on it—a being composed seemingly of smoke or shadow that could completely eradicate anything that cast a shadow upon it. Things like that were horrifying in fiction, but to know that they actually existed and were being kept under lock-and-key by some paragovernmental agency? It was almost too much to comprehend. No wonder the Foundation scheduled so many regular psychological checkups.
The lift reached the bottom of the shaft. In front of Swinburne stretched a small corridor, with high-powered lamps set into the floor, ceiling, and walls. Even with the thick insulated suit on, Swinburne was cold. Martell hadn't been lying when he said they kept it frosty: it must have been -6 Centigrade. Though that was probably a good thing; so many lights operating round-the-clock were likely prone to overheating and potential failure. The Foundation always did everything possible to prevent such a thing from occurring.
At the end of the corridor was a glass door with a glass handle, the kind of doors you see in supermarkets. Swinburne took a deep breath, swallowed hard, then used his knee to push open the door into the main containment chamber for SCP-017.
The entire room was bathed in brilliant, white light, emanating from every possible surface. There must have been hundreds of high-powered incandescent bulbs in the six-meter-cubed area. Swinburne thought it a Godsend that the Foundation had the resources to keep these sorts of facilities operating. He looked up and saw the clear plastic suspension chamber in the center of the room that contained 017 itself; a small Perspex box, maybe the size of a safe. Huddled against one of the transparent walls was a childlike figure, a perfect dark blot against the blinding light in the rest of the chamber. It was completely immobile and looked, for all intents and purposes, harmless. Though anyone who had clearance to perform maintenance on Cell 017 knew better. Inside the suit, and despite the cold, a bead of sweat rolled down Swinburne's forehead. He forced himself to maintain composure. The slightest misstep or error would cost him his life. He had seen combat before, in the Army, but that was under different terms; a man shooting a bullet into your body is natural, acceptable. This…this was anomalous.
Swinburne squinted, scanning the bright room to locate the blown-out bulb. It was on the opposite side on the room at about waist-height. Thank God it hadn't been one of the bulbs in the ceiling. Slowly, being careful not to step in front of any lights unnecessarily, he made his way across the room. Despite his training, his Army experience, every terror he had ever experienced, this really took the cake. Swinburne could feel his heart hammering in his chest, his body break out in a sweat, and his mouth wither like an African drought. Each step he took closer to his destination was one step closer to potential oblivion at the hands of the thing suspended above him. He wanted to look up, make sure that it wasn't moving or reacting, but he forced himself to keep moving ahead, bulb held out in his hands in front of him, every motion calculated so as not to create any shadow.
"What's your status, Swinburne?"
Martell's voice in his ear gave him a start. He kept steady hands on the bulb and took the final few steps to the blown-out bulb.
"I'm at the blow-out now," he said, speaking aloud into the receiver. "Everything's optimal so far. No activity on zero-one-seven."
"Good. You know what to do if there's any change in the situation."
The line went silent. Swinburne knew that to change the blow-out, he'd have to be blocking several of the containment lamps. That wasn't a problem, though; there were enough lamps in the room, coupled with the high reflectivity of the suit, to ensure that no shadows would be cast.
Swinburne bent down and used his hands to pry out the recessed trim around the bulb, a circular trim coated with chromium. Carefully,
he set it down on the ground and started to unscrew the blown-out bulb. Initially, the bulb refused to move, but after a few good clockwise twists, it started to come out. A shiver ran down Swinburne's spine, thinking of the thing to which his back was turned. After a few more twists, the old bulb was released. He set it next to the chromium trim and began to screw in the new bulb.
For those precious few moments of counter-clockwise screwing, only one thought passed through Swinburne's head:
And then the new bulb was glowing bright, causing Swinburne to squint. He popped the trim back into place, took the old bulb, and headed back towards the lift. Only once did he glance back up at 017, hanging in its suspension chamber. As always, it was immobile, but all the same, another shiver passed through Swinburne's body.
When he was back into the lift and it was moving up, away from the mad chamber holding a monster, Swinburne collapsed, slinking against the wall of the lift and fighting back great heaving sobs. He managed to stand and compose himself before the lift opened out into the hall of Containment Wing Beta. Swinburne pulled the zipper down on his suit and pulled off the face mask, sucking in great gulps of air. He gave Dr. Martell and the other members of Response Team Echo a thumbs-up.
Dr. Martell nodded and spoke into a walkie-talkie. "System malfunction rectified, stand down THREATCON Omega. Repeat, system malfunction rectified."
After a moment, the flashing hazard lights shut off. Over the PA system, a voice declared:
"Attention all personnel: THREATCON in Containment Wing Beta has been set to Neutral. All personnel are to return to their duties as normal. Repeat, THREATCON in Containment Wing Beta…
Martell walked over to Swinburne and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Good work, Lloyd. C'mon, let's get some coffee at the canteen."
Lloyd Swinburne nodded, feeling more drained than he had ever been. As the two men walked down the hall, the message on the loudspeaker continued to play; Response Team Echo dispersed and went back to stand-by, and researchers and staff went about their duties in Containment Wing Beta as if nothing had happened.