The Good Work
rating: +28+x

Content Warning: This tale contains scenes of institutional homophobia and transphobia.

1963


18 November

OSAT Headquarters: Ottawa, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


I wonder if you can unhinge your jaw.

Dr. Vivian Lesley Scout felt his eyes narrow as the thought struck him. He felt the thin line of his mouth quirk upward slightly at the edges. He let it happen; he let the little man in the big hat wonder why he was being smirked at. There was no doubt in Scout's mind that he would. Sergeant Raynard Watts was extraordinarily self-conscious, as all little men in big hats were, driven to distraction by never quite knowing what others really thought about them.

But you're not self-conscious enough to control your tells, are you, Raynard? As if on cue, Watts once again stuck his tongue in and out, like a snake, as he always did when he was nervous. He was always nervous when Scout was sitting in his office; Scout was a man in control, and Watts desperately wanted to be one himself.

The Superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Occult and Supernatural Activity Taskforce, a pinch-faced little weasel lacking the mental muscle mass to support such a ponderous title, glared across his too-large desk at Scout with undisguised contempt. He waved the sheaf of papers in his gloved hand. "Do you know how many letters I got today, telling me to mind my own business?"

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The Co-Director of Provisional Site-43 inclined his head forward, letting his spectacles and black fedora obscure his eyes in just the way he knew the man found intimidating. He never took his hat off for Watts. "Not enough for you to actually do it, I imagine."

Watts slapped the papers on the desktop. "We've giving this test to everyone, Director. Everyone in sensitive political or educational positions. Everyone who's a danger to national security."

OSAT was essentially the RCMP's paranormal affairs division; the idea that this fell under their purview was darkly hilarious to Scout. He twisted his smirk into a sneer; conversations with Watts were excellent dramatic practice. "You know for a fact I deal in matters more urgent than national security."

Watts laughed. He almost certainly thought he had a booming laugh; it was, of course, more of a bray. "You and me both. It's only a matter of time before I find out what's so special about that forest you're squatting in, and we'll see how insolent you are when the playing field is levelled." He smoothed out his cochineal-red uniform tunic and tried to match Scout's sneer; the malice was there, but the confidence was lacking. "You know what your problem is? You actually like this stuff. Did I ever tell you about my great, great, great, great grandfather?"

"You did not," said Scout. "But he sounds pretty great."

"Ha ha." Watts pulled his gloves tighter, tongue still working overtime. "He was like you. Couldn't get enough of this magical nonsense. It drove him to distraction. It drove him to his death. He eventually vanished without a trace in the Bahamas, and rumour has it he took a whole community with him. The weight of his ambition dragged him down. Really makes you think, eh?"

Scout nodded. "It makes me think you're too focused on the past, Watts. And it makes me think you need to take a look at the real world. Don't feed me these cautionary tales, give me something real to work with."

"Fine, how's this for real: people with your… proclivities shouldn't get within a country mile of the extranormal world. You can't be trusted, so you need to be tested."

Scout rolled his eyes, and Watts scoffed. "What, you don't think I'm serious? You don't think the commies are looking for people to blackmail? You don't think—"

"Don't strain yourself, Raynard," Scout interrupted. "The things I think about are well beyond you. The things I don't think about would drive you mad." He stood up, and began buttoning his suit jacket. "I'm not taking your fool test. Nobody at the Foundation is. We don't answer to you."

"People like you don't answer to anybody," Watts spat. "Not your country, not your countrymen, not your God. People like you, and I don't mean—"

"I know what you mean." Scout pulled the door open, forcing himself to remain calm. "Just as I know you're not man enough to say it out loud."

He felt the little man's beady little eyes on his back as he shut the door between them.


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1829


11 October

Vienna: State of Vienna, Republic of Austria


He could feel them again, sparks dancing on the surface of his brain, burning through the cerebrospinal fluid and impacting on the inner surface of his skull. In all the years he'd been alive, he'd never gotten used to the sensation. In some respects it was not unpleasant; it meant that people were reading, after all, and he'd always believed in the transformative nature of literature.

Words have power.

He had mixed feelings about said power, however; thanks to him, some literature could transform a person into a smoking pile of charred ash. The tingling in his brain really signified that the curse he had unwittingly placed on his native tongue, which had since spread to cover half the languages of Europe, was claiming new victims. In a very real sense Thilo Zwist inhabited the tongues descended from medieval German, and every time some unfortunate soul discovered him in a book, on a placard, or in some scrap of yellowed newsprint, they began their descent to a violent demise which would baffle authorities both civil and scientific. And every time that happened, he felt an invisible pull towards them. In a few moments he would know, without knowing why he knew it, who they were and where they lived. Not with enough clarity to intercede directly, but he had become a master at indirect intervention.

He glanced down at his writing desk, at the cheaply-printed phrenology manual he'd purchased from the local chemist. He reached into the top drawer and pulled out a clean sheet of paper, loaded up his fountain pen, and began writing.

"Dr. Fraud's Catalogue of Non-Conforming Crania," he muttered, thinking of all the damage this dangerous dross was doing, picturing the holes being drilled into people's heads, the men and women damned to death or prison for something as prosaic as the shapes of their skulls. "For the Identification of Undesirables, the Remedy of the Feeble-Minded, and the Insulting of One's Noxious Neighbours." The more obviously fake the pamphlet was, the stronger his art would become. As he poured his strange power into the phraseology, infecting it with a thoroughly supernatural grammar, he felt the pops and fizzes beneath his brow subside somewhat. He was creating another masterpiece, though only he would recognize it as such; he was furthering the good work.

He wrote late into the night, page on page of utter nonsense, and by the time he was writing by sunlight rather than candlelight he had a book whose cover would draw sufferers of his magical malady like flies, whose prose would instantly arrest their spontaneous combustion, whose skillful illustrations would make them think twice about ever again measuring the bumps on anyone's head.

He had just enough time to get schnitzel and coffee before the print shop opened.


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1963


20 November

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"So, what'd the hat want?"

Scout placed his own hat on the rack, and shrugged off his coat. "The hat's mad that he hasn't found anything magical in our forests, and his boss is breathing down his neck about it, so he wants to give me a test instead."

"Oh?" Dr. Wynn Rydderech, barrel-chested and balding, was hunched over his end of their shared desk. He was scribbling furiously on graph paper, with a different coloured pen in each hand. "The stress test they're giving to the civil service?"

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Scout shook his head, sitting down across from his partner. "Didn't I tell you? It's not a stress test, that's just the lie they're pushing. What are you working on?"

"No, you didn't tell me." Ryderrech was graphing two plots of data at the same time; even upside-down, Scout knew it was a chemical analysis. Rydderech, of course, knew that Scout knew, so he ignored the question. "Tell me now."

Scout clasped his hands together and stretched. "They're showing people lewd photographs of men. They're showing men lewd photographs of men. To see if they're homosexual."

Rydderech's pens stopped moving. "They're not."

Scout unbuttoned his waistcoat. "Watts has the Prime Minister convinced that homosexuality is anomalous. He's found some crackpot from McGill to make him a machine that measures pupil dilation while they show you photos of blokes in bathing suits."

Rydderech shook his head, and started plotting again. "Did you take it?"

"No, I didn't damn well take it." Scout loosened his tie. "Even without our resources, they should be scientific enough to know that it's bunk."

Rydderech nodded, not taking his eyes off the data. "You should've taken it."

Scout didn't respond.

"Since it's bunk anyway," Rydderech added, still not looking up. "You don't want Watts coming after you."

Scout sighed. "If he wants to give me a reason to amnesticize him, that's his business."

Rydderech sighed back at him. "It's your business, Viv. Mine, too."

Scout didn't respond, again. Rydderech suddenly dropped both pens and shot him a mischievous grin. "Blokes in bathing suits, you say? I know what your pupils would do."

Scout almost managed not to grin back at him. "That only happened once."


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1905


13 September

Cardiff University: Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland


This is a prank. I am being pranked. Scout walked through the chocked-open door. Toxicologists don't hang out at the gym.

He looked down at the corked beaker of orange fluid in his hand, and sighed. It was driving him slowly insane; a week ago, he would never have considered his present course of action. But after three different professors and both of his research partners had cut ties with him over the contents of that beaker, he'd become more than desperate for answers. He'd posted a plea for help in the dormitory commons; after four excruciating days he'd received a simple tacked-on response: "Meet me in the weight room."

He was completely unfamiliar with the layout of the gymnasium; he was, frankly, lost in any building that did not possess at least one lab. He was a jogger, and a hiker, but he didn't lift weights and he didn't swim.

"—ould report you to the police!" A deep male voice, English, from behind a set of double doors. Scout already knew the weight room would be thoroughly empty of scientists, and his curiosity was piqued, and as he coddled his curiosity like a favoured pet he immediately headed for the doors.

"And I should report you to the national healthcare system, but unfortunately we don't bloody have one." This voice was Welsh, strident but very confident, and very angry. Scout pushed open the doors. "You want to swim around in everyone's mucous and urine, you be my guest, but at least hear me out first!"

Scout didn't even see the English man when he entered the cavernous space housing the university's indoor swimming pool. His attention was fully fixed on the Welsh man, red-headed, barrel-chested and fighting fit in a form-fitting striped bathing costume. His hands were planted firmly on his firm hips, his chest was stuck out provocatively, and his round face was flushed. "I have permission from the dean," he roared. "I've been working on this for months. It's perfectly safe."

Scout finally noticed the other man, a bearded fellow in overalls, when he began to speak again. "You're pouring chemicals into the pool water!"

"I'm not the only one!"

"How can you possibly think this is safe? How can you expect me to think it's safe?!"

Scout crept forward, looking for a better angle on the swimmer. Something about him was vaguely familiar, and he told himself this was the reason for his interest.

"Because I'm a chemical engineer, and I've made a study of it. Do you not remember typhoid? If we hadn't started chlorinating the water supply, we'd all have typhoid right now. This is the same principle."

A chemical engineer? Scout now knew he would never see the weight room, prank or no. He fixed on this as his new excuse for closely watching the angry, well-built swimmer.

The maintenance man shook his head. "I've never heard of chlorinating a swimming pool. I'm going to find the dean; I want you to dismantle that thing before I get back." He turned away so abruptly that Scout was caught by surprise; they bumped into each other hard, and Scout promptly fell over.

"Sorry, mate," the maintenance man grumbled as he pushed the doors back open.

"Imbecile," the swimmer muttered. "You alright?" He walked over and extended a hand; Scout's eyes unfocused as the swimmer's bundled crotch swung precariously close to his spectacles.

"I'm fine." Scout took the swimmer's hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. The motion seemed effortless; he felt momentarily weightless. "Did you say you're a chemical engineer?"

The swimmer nodded. "I am. Wynn Rydderech, second year PhD program in toxicology. Do I know you from somewhere?"

Scout snapped his fingers. "You were at the department orientation. I'm a first year, same program. Vivian Scout."

"A fellow poisoner!" Rydderech chuckled. "I don't visit the department much. I do better work when I'm swimming." He walked over to the pool, and Scout noticed a milk crate full of copper tubes floating in it. "Or at least I would, if I could convince these idiots to let me purify the water."

Scout knelt down to examine the device. "You scratch-built a chlorinator?"

Rydderech knelt beside him and nodded. "The principle is sound. I don't see how anyone could want to swim around in there, knowing what's already swimming around in there."

Scout remembered the phial still clutched in his hand. "You know about breaking down chemicals, then."

Rydderech grinned; he seemed to have an awful lot of teeth, and they were very, very clean. "I doubt there's anyone in Cardiff who knows more."

Scout handed him the beaker. "Ever seen anything like this?"

Rydderech took it. There were small black flakes floating in the orange mixture; when he spun the beaker, they swirled in the wrong direction. His grin widened. "Where did you get it?"

"I synthesized it." Now Rydderech's eyes widened, and Scout found himself grinning too as he continued. "Found an old alchemy book in the library, thought I'd see if there was any scientific basis to its recipes. That," and he pointed at the beaker, "is called aqua invicta. It can't be broken down by any chemical process known to man. I've lost two friends and three supervisors trying to find someone to take it seriously."

"Well." Rydderech stood up, and again offered Scout his hand. "I'd say a good partner is worth at least five bad colleagues."


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1963


3 December

OSAT Headquarters: Ottawa, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Rydderech had always enjoyed calculus. His passion was the transformation of dangerous things into inert things; his passion was change, and calculus was the branch of mathematics specifically designed to make change comprehensible. Predictable. Sensible, even. Sociopolitical calculus, however, he had always despised. He didn't consider this ironic; he considered the terminology an affront to proper science.

Vivian's the social scientist, his internal monologue grumbled as he entered Watts' office. The hell am I doing here.

The scene within would have been comical, were it not so immediately upsetting. Watts wasn't sitting behind his desk, but was rather sitting behind the man who was sitting behind it. With his bright red Mountie uniform, his big brown hat, and his black-gloved hands folded in his lap, he looked like a petulant child being disciplined on Halloween.

The man behind the desk looked worse. He had wild, staring eyes, short curly hair in a mesmerizing mix of black and grey tones, and jowls to make a Bassett hound proud. Rydderech knew him by the jowls the moment he saw them.

"Mr. Prime Minister," he said.

John Diefenbaker gestured at the chair across from him. "Have a seat, doctor. This shouldn't take long." He snapped his fingers over his shoulder; he did it again, and Watts reluctantly stood up.

"No doubt Dr. Scout told you about the equipment we're testing," the sergeant said. He almost sat down on the edge of the desk, but when an impressive glower from Diefenbaker aborted that action he leaned awkwardly against it instead.

"He told me you're trying to measure the unmeasurable." Rydderech tried to look more affronted than concerned.

"We don't think it's unmeasurable," Diefenbaker blustered. He put Rydderech in mind of a St. Bernard trying to shake rain off its coat; his movements were erratic, his voice deep, his speech patterns just this side of blubbering. "For the sake of our democracy, it can't be."

For the sake of… sheesh. Diefenbaker had been a lawyer before he became a politician.

"And anyway, isn't that what you people do? Quantify deviance?"

Rydderech raised one finger, and not the one he wanted to raise. "First, it isn't deviance. Homosexuality is attested in the animal kingdom, and restricting sexual activity to reproduction is the worst kind of biological reductionism." Diefenbaker winced at the word 'homosexual', but had clearly stopped listening by the word 'biological'. Watts, however, looked like a viper waiting to pounce. "Two, pupil dilation doesn't tell you anything about attraction. All you've got is a false positives generator, and the human brain is already great at generating those."

Diefenbaker shook his head theatrically. He did everything theatrically. "Our man from McGill says it works, and we have his qualifications in hand. What are your qualifications, again?"

"I have a PhD in toxicology from Cardiff University," Rydderech responded blandly. Like all academics, he had that answer on instant recall.

"Cardiff," said Watts. He rested one hand on the desk, ignoring Diefenbaker's glare with obvious effort. "Wales. How long has it been since you've been back to Wales, Dr. Rydderech?"

Rydderech shrugged, not liking where this was going. "Years. This is my home, now."

Watts shook his head. "Is it? You don't have citizenship. You're here under the sufferance of the Canadian federal government. We could deport you at any moment, if you give us a reason." He grinned. "Give us a reason, please, doctor."

"I didn't know he was British," Diefenbaker murmured. "You didn't tell me he was British."

"What different does it make?" Watts half-waved dismissively, then realized what he was doing and stuffed the hand in his jacket pocket. "This man is a security risk. I don't care if he came direct from London, he needs to take the test like everyone else in a sensitive position. We can't have men of weak character knowing our comings and goings."

Diefenbaker looked troubled. "He doesn't look like a pervert to me."

"Thanks," said Rydderech. His mind was already racing. They can't touch Viv, but… That humanistic calculus again. The Foundation could overturn the Canadian government if it wanted to, but why would it ever want to? Overwatch preferred to have cooperation from the nations where it operated. It was easier that way, more efficient. Rydderech was getting near the end of his useful career was a researcher; if deporting him made the Prime Minister more tractable, and satiated Watts' lust for blood…

"The Fruit Machine isn't quite ready for you yet," said Watts. "It still needs adjustment. But we thought you might want to know ahead of time! Give you a few months to think about your personal habits. Maybe pack a bag."

"Rayford," Diefenbaker warned.

"Raynard," Watts whined.

Rydderech found himself standing up. His legs were weak, and he nearly sat down again. "You don't want to be doing this." He looked down at Diefenbaker; there was uncertainty in those narrow blue eyes, but it was almost lost in a sea of liquid paranoia. No help there. "History isn't kind to bigots."

Diefenbaker scoffed. "There's no bigotry in Canada, doctor. We're all Canadians." He chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. "Some of us just shouldn't be."


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1908


14 February

Cardiff University: Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland


They were roommates now, in a double dorm room cluttered with borrowed or bought scientific equipment, papers pilfered from the campus library and endless stacks of notebooks filled with prosaic calculations and fantastical theories. PhD students were expected to live off-campus, but they'd both wheedled room assignments by promising their dean a wide variety of free labwork. The concept of PhD students with practical value had impressed him enough to put in a good word, and presto chango.

It had taken Rydderech less than a month of infuriating Scout's roommate by spending every day and every night in their room to get them both reassigned together.

"My father thinks it's demonic possession," Rydderech sighed. He stretched out on his bed, accidentally kicking over a thick pile of chicken-scratch diagrams. "Dammit."

"It might be demonic possession." Scout was sitting at their desk, paging through a toxicology periodical. "You Welsh have a whole panoply of demons."

"None of them are possessors, though." Rydderech pulled a thoroughly-squashed issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society out from under his back, and tossed it on the floor. "He just feels guilty. He got Ashley that job."

Scout nodded. "How did he get electrocuted?"

"No crack about the benighted Welsh lacking electricity?" Rydderech raised a bushy red eyebrow. "Well, Ashley works in a garment factory. I think I told you that? The owner was testing out a new machine, labour-saving." He frowned. "So he didn't have to pay as many people."

"Hoorah, technology," Scout mock-cheered.

"Hoorah," Rydderech agreed. "Ashley was the unlucky operator. Apparently his boss didn't understand the concept of grounding. Well, he does now."

"Ouch." Scout let that fact hang in the air for a moment. "How badly was your brother hurt?"

"Pretty bad. Limb spasms, some memory loss. People spend so much time thinking about their squishy, meaty bits, they forget that electricity is what really runs the show."

"Not like you, eh?" Scout put the journal down. "You don't waste time with squishy meat."

"I should think not." Rydderech rolled over to look at him. "I have a swimmer's physique. Nothing squishy about it."

Scout walked over and sat down on the floor, beside the bed. He poked Rydderech in the stomach. "That was definitely true, three years ago."

"Hey." Rydderech smiled. "Anyway, my father says Ash hasn't been himself lately. Wants to get out of Swansea, see the world. Maybe go to university."

"Perish the thought." Scout scooted up against the bedframe, his back to Rydderech. "It's frightening, though, isn't it?"

"What?" The tone of Rydderech's voice was peculiar.

"Electricity. There's a lot we don't understand about it, even now. Even being what we are." He rubbed his neck.

"What we are, yeah." Ryderrech flicked Scout's hand away, and began massaging his shoulders. "Because what we are is electricity."

Scout laughed, and took off his spectacles. He put them on the bedside table and closed his eyes. "That's a bit much, isn't it?"

"No, it's not." Rydderech sounded deadly serious. "Chemistry and electricity, Vivian. Everything about us, everything we are, represents either a quantity of chemicals or a spark of electricity. Our minds are the most complex pieces of scientific apparatus on the planet, each of them unique."

Scout leaned his head back on the mattress. "That's a lovely, terrifying thought. Thank you."

"I think it's a comforting thought." Rydderech let go of Scout's shoulders, and after a moment's hesitation, brushed a lock of Scout's hair off his forehead.

Scout kept his expression carefully neutral. "Why is it comforting?"

Rydderech tapped him on the forehead twice, gently. "What we do with our chemistry and electricity defines who we are," he whispered. "Who others perceive us to be. But there are limits set in scientific stone. It's impossible to be something impossible. We work within boundaries we don't get to choose."

"Ah." Scout opened his eyes. "That is comforting."

"Why do you agree?" Rydderech was now speaking so softly, Scout almost felt rather than heard the words.

He took a deep breath. "Because it means our wants and needs aren't our fault."

He heard a soft whoosh, and the sound of a wick being cranked down as the room was plunged into darkness. Rydderech had extinguished the kerosene lamp.

"They aren't faults at all," Rydderech whispered. Scout was already climbing onto the bed when Rydderech reached down to pull him up.


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1963


3 December

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


The door to the Director's Complex slammed open, and Scout looked up in surprise. Rydderech was flushed. His mouth was working soundlessly. He'd obviously been crying. He looked at Scout for a moment, his eyes haunted, and then he slammed the door closed even harder. His jaw was working so hard, his face momentarily distorted beyond recognition.

Scout stood up from their desk. "What happened?"

Rydderech clenched his hands into fists and just stood there, fairly vibrating. His teeth were gritted. The veins on his neck stood out. He was pale.

"Hey." Scout approached him cautiously. "Hey. What happened? What did he say?"

Rydderech began to weep, and Scout walked behind him. "It's alright. It's alright." He pulled the stocky man into a tight embrace, arms around his stomach. "Take as long as you need."

It'll give me time to plan.


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1910


9 January

Cardiff University: Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland


"Just a little graduation present. Something to remember me by, while you're wasting away in some Canadian basement archive."

Scout regarded the unmarked bottle with suspicion; it glittered in the warm light of their shared apartment's kitchen. "But what is it?"

Rydderech jammed his penknife into the cork and pulled it out with a satisfying schlonk. "Your aqua invicta, vanquished. I've been letting it age."

He wouldn't meet Scout's eyes as he searched their kitchen cabinets for a pair of glasses. Scout cleared his throat. "I have more than one question."

"Naturally."

"First off: when did you figure out how to abate it?"

"Last January." Rydderech settled on a pair of ceramic mugs; he'd apparently remembered hocking their crystalware to buy a new calcinator. "It wasn't worth drinking until it became a real vintage, so."

Scout rested his elbows on the kitchen table, and his square chin in his hands. "Second: how did you abate it?"

Rydderech poured from the bottle until both mugs were full. "Well, you know how I'm a genius?"

"I've heard it said."

"Well, it's true. So I examined the ritual you used, hunted down the original Latin text, and had our best translator work out the precise semantic reversal of the alchemical process." There was just enough wine, if that was what it was, to fill the two mugs to the brim. There hadn't been nearly that much liquid in the beaker.

"So, you're a genius because you know a good translator?"

"Science is a collaborative enterprise." Rydderech sat down across from him.

"Mhmm. Third…"

"Why are we drinking it?" Rydderech grinned. "Because you used a Glyndwr white, and that's just too good to waste."

Scout sat back up and took the mug Rydderech proffered. "You were able to turn it back into wine? Completely back into wine?"

"Of course." Rydderech's deep brown eyes bored into Scout's deep grey. "Don't you trust me?"

Scout inclined his head slightly, then tossed the mug back and downed its contents in one gigantic gulp. Rydderech guffawed, and followed suit. "The Oenophilic Club would have our heads for this."

Scout dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief and smiled. "What did it actually turn into?"

"Chlorine. I poured it out in the gymnasium pool. I always get what I want eventually, you know?" Rydderech picked up the bottle and regarded it fondly. "Ashley sent me this for my birthday. He works at Glyndwr now, didn't I tell you?"

Scout shook his head, still smiling. "No, you didn't tell me."

"Must have slipped my mind. So, how did you know it wasn't really your beaker of badness?"

A few different answers suggested themselves; he ignored them. Instead he leaned forward and whispered, inches from his partner's face: "It's like you said. I trust you."

Rydderech leaned forward, too, and they shared the lingering taste of the wine on their lips.


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1963


5 December

Site-01: Undisclosed Location, United States of America


The O5s usually had brushed plastic screens set up in front of their individual desks, obscuring their features and producing a chilling backlit effect in the dark. Scout had last seen it twenty years ago. Today the screens were stacked in a corner of the conference room, and the lights were on. Three men he already knew by sight were sitting in comfortable chairs in front of him; he was sitting on a comfortable chair of his own, which Six had helpfully told him belonged to Thirteen. It was considerably less worn-in than theirs were.

"Werewolves," Six sighed. "Well, a curfew is definitely the way to go. Do try to capture them this time, won't you?"

Scout nodded, making a note. "Will do."

"Any trouble from your special guest?"

Scout winced, but shook his head. "Not since 1960, no. He's getting morose."

"Good."

"Now," said Eight, "about this operation report." He tapped the neat bundle of papers sitting in his lap. "You're straining credulity at this point, Vivian."

Scout shrugged. "Nothing's changed. Zwist's memetics catch us out every single time. There's a good chance we'll never be able to capture him. He neutralizes anyone who gets close."

"Neutralizes is the wrong word." Six leaned forward. "You know how we use that word. He knocks people out, or sends them on errands, or otherwise incapacitates them without recourse to violence. The memeticist who infected the English language with a disease that causes people to catch fire plays softball with your agents. Why would that be?"

"Because the disease was an accident, and he's trying to save lives, not end them." Scout nearly added that the English language represented merely a fraction of SCP-5382's range, but thought better of it.

"You sound quite fond of him," Nine remarked.

"I hope you're not suggesting I'm intentionally letting him get away," Scout bristled. He'd been practicing this particular bristle for quite some time.

"We know you're loyal, Vivian," Eight sighed. "What we don't know is why you don't ask us to send Hammer Down to capture Zwist."

Scout made sure they saw him nearly burst out laughing. His face was very scrutable when he wanted it to be. "Zwist isn't dangerous, but deploying Hammer Down certainly is. He's doing demonstrable good, fixing a problem he himself created. A high-profile takedown is in nobody's best interests. The side-effects of his work are even better, honestly; every new piece of junk literature he ensconces the cure in makes the world a less credulous place. Makes our jobs easier."

Six looked down at Scout's report, and nodded. "Says here anti-communist propaganda in the papers is down three percent since he published that raft of posters about how Stalin literally eats babies. Memetics baffle me." He looked up again. "Three percent, though. Is that statistically significant?"

Scout smiled. "With respect, sir, please leave the statistics to me."

"Fair enough." Six tossed the report onto the floor; someone else would pick it up when he went back to wherever it was he'd come to this meeting from. "So you think it's better to pursue him low-key, and let him do his thing, than waste resources on a definite capture."

"Absolutely. And the training value is tremendous." Scout allowed the smile to widen slightly. "I don't think of any agent as fully-fledged until they've walked off a Thilo Zwist special. They remember that headache for the rest of their lives, and I don't quite have the statistics to back this claim up, but I believe those lives tend to be longer as well."

"Fine." Nine shrugged. "Thank you for the report, Vivian. Is there anything else, or shall we reconvene next month?"

Scout reached beside the chair and pulled a folder from his travel bag. "There's always something else with me, sir, as you well know."


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1915


1 April

University of New Brunswick: Fredericton, New Brunswick, Dominion of Canada


His first dissertation defense, back at Cardiff, had been much better-attended. Wales was certainly not the centre of the world by any stretch, but the land of Scout's birth was even more desperately peripheral to the international academic community. Nevertheless he was proud of his work, the weighty tome he now held in his hands:


WORDS HAVE POWER:

Propaganda, Poison, and the Giftschreiber, 1219-1642

by

V.L. Scout

a thesis submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Graduate Department of the Department of History
University of New Brunswick

1915

The first time Scout had announced his intention to seek a second doctorate, Rydderech had laughed. The first time he'd really believed it, he'd cried. Wynn had a deal with an Austrian chemical company which would allow him to open up a small laboratory for testing his radical theories on the breakdown of hazardous materials; he wanted Scout to join him, as a partner in more ways than one. But Scout could never forget that little book of recipes he'd found, and its indisputable testament to a more supernatural alchemy. He'd been consumed by the need to know more, to learn more. UNB had offered him a scholarship, and he'd sailed back to Canada to immerse himself in history.

And what a strange history he'd found. Over the past five years he'd written four hundred pages about an ancient Austrian society dedicated to perfecting the art of propaganda, ending in a brutal suppression on the eve of a great battle. This monograph was more carefully curated than his supervisors would ever know; his research had uncovered truths which, if published, would have immediately crushed his academic aspirations.

One such parcel of truth was the only other object on his writing desk at present: his typed translation of a mouldering yellow document stashed in some forgotten corner of the Prussian Privy State Archives.

My mentor called it the Work, this marriage of symbols and meaning which so affects the minds of men. I found the terminology apt; the Work was neither right nor wrong, inherently. The Writers bent the minds of men to achieve certain desirable effects, and the Poison-Writers snapped the minds of men in half, destroyed them partially or utterly, made them fall apart or unmade them entirely.

My mentor is dead; the Writers are dead; the Poison-Writers, I so desperately hope, are dead as well. Only I remain, and I have no taste for carrying on the Work. I have no desire for money or fame. I have seen everything I love perish in flame, and it has left me with only one overpowering desire: to correct the mistakes I have made, and to use my terrible gifts in some way which might justify my ongoing existence. Words have power… mine more than most.

I have a term of my own for this atonement, and in the unlikely event I ever myself become a mentor, I will pass it along to my student:

The Good Work.

These words had haunted him for more than two years. The good work. Wynn was already doing it; Scout desperately wanted to be doing it, too. He simply did not know how. He wished he could ask the author of this mysterious scrap of paper… what really terrified him was the belief, unshakeable, that he probably could if he tried hard enough.

The giftschreiber, the Poison-Writers, had been destroyed a quarter-millennia ago. The man who had written this note had known them personally.

The man who had written this note had written it sometime in the past fifty years.

It was impossible. It was absurd. But he remembered the aqua invicta, and he remembered Wynn's stories about supernatural happenings in his home village of Aflendid, and he remembered every document he'd read since 1910 which had felt like one strange piece in a vastly stranger puzzle whose contours he could not yet begin to glimpse, and he wondered: could it nevertheless be true?

He did what he always did when he felt uncertain about something. He rolled a piece of paper into his typewriter, and posed a question to a man who lived an ocean away.

The letter would reach Wynn Rydderech one week later, and after some deliberation Rydderech would pass it along to his superiors. The following day two men in plain clothes would approach Vivian Lesley Scout, soon-to-be PhD, and offer him a job.


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1964


24 January

Edmonton: Strathcona County, Alberta, Canada


Newspaper cartoonist Wil Deaver, a portly, bearded old man with a chronically forgettable face, put the finishing touches on his latest strip and waited for it to dry. Dreck, he thought happily. Complete and utter dreck. It was dreck which would save lives; it was dreck which would raise the standards of comic strip readers worldwide. Not bad for something which only took him a few seconds' work every day.

Like the four hundred dailies he'd "drawn" before it, it featured a cat (he imagined it was orange, though the comics were all monochrome) looking back and forth as disembodied voices continued a conversation in medias res. Sometimes the conversations made sense; sometimes, as with today's effort, they teetered precariously on the edge of madness.

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The feeling of accomplishment only lasted a few fleeting moments, and then the malaise returned. "Yes," Zwist said to his abhorrent creation. "When indeed."


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1916


31 December

Historical Review Group CLIO-4: Toronto, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout could see that she was trying not to cry, so he reached into his bag and withdrew an envelope. "This came from Ilse today," he said. He examined the postmark, waiting until he heard the tiny cough and sniffle that signalled the recovery of her composure before he looked up again.

"What's she have to say?" Her voice cracked; Dr. Lys Reynders was one of the strongest people he'd ever met, but the knowledge of what was about to happen to her would have broken any of the O5s in two.

Scout opened the slot in the containment cell wall, and placed the envelope inside. Reynders removed it on her side, and considered it for a moment. "One of the last things I'm ever going to do…" She swallowed. "I'm going to read something." She wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her labcoat. "Funny, right?"

He knew what she meant, but it wasn't funny. She was in this mess because of something she'd read, though they still didn't know what. She was the only member of his team of archival researchers to have stumbled upon whatever cancerous phrase was causing her plight; he was sure he should be thankful for that, but he couldn't quite see his way clear. Somewhere above them, there was a New Year's party going on. She'd asked him not to spoil it for them.

She opened the envelope, scanned the letter briefly, then burst completely into tears. He pretended to scan the pathology report clipped to the divider, as though the truth of her condition wasn't written all over her body.

Her skin was orange; he could almost pretend it was a heavy suntan, under the warm electric light, except that he knew her skin was the burning kind. And it's about to NO. NO.

He forced the thought down hard, and gave her what he hoped was a hopeful smile. She smiled back at him, her lips a dull yellow well beyond the range of jaundice, her tear-filled eyes rimmed with an unnatural red. She placed one hand on the divider, and although he couldn't see them, he knew the fingernails were an unpleasant cyanotic blue. She was dying an absurd, undignified death, and all he could do was place his own hand over hers and hope the gesture meant something. They were separated by almost precisely enough transparent material to withstand the force of—

Don't do this to her. He took a deep breath. This isn't about you.

She glanced over his shoulder at the clock on the wall. He knew without looking that it was nearly midnight.

"Guess I don't get a New Year's kiss," she whispered.

He didn't trust himself to respond.

"You're going to find out why this is happening," she said. Her voice was stronger, now. "And you're going to do something about it."

"Of course." He could feel her warmth, even through the divider. "Of course. Whatever did this, whoever caused this…"

She shook her head. "Not for revenge, Vivian." She tried her damnedest to smile, only missing it by a slim margin. She spoke what to him, and to everyone who worked with him, were the most magic of all possible words: "For the good work."

It happened just a few moments after midnight.


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1964


3 February

Nexus-94: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout watched the wind whip tiny white caps off the surface of Lake Huron and listened to the rustling of the pines, remembering when such a pause for reflection would have immediately occasioned his violent death. The spirits of this place had reached an uneasy understanding with him and his, for reasons Raynard Watts would never, and could never be allowed to, understand.

"You think he'll come, then?" Kishkedee, the elder from Kettle Point who'd been Scout's first point of contact with the reservations which now made up Nexus-94, was watching him watch the lake. The much older woman had always known which way to look; she'd always needed to.

"I do, yes." Scout tilted his hat down over his spectacles, shading them from the glare. He had no reason to be inscrutable with Kishkedee. "He's getting desperate. OSAT has been scouring the lake for anything anomalous, and the lake has shut him out. He needs a win, and he thinks this machine is going to get it for him."

Kishkedee shrugged. "He avoids the reservations; he knows not to tread on your toes. He's spent weeks prowling the forests, of course, looking for our miracles, but he never finds them. He throws a fit, he leaves, and he's always just as useless when he returns the next time."

Scout frowned. "Every man has a breaking point, and Watts isn't strong. I think it'll happen soon. If there's nothing supernatural on the surface for him to exploit, I'm afraid he'll try to uproot the entire forest."

Kishkedee laughed. "You wouldn't let that happen."

"Neither would you."

"No, I certainly wouldn't." Kishkedee considered. "What would he do, do you think, if he actually found something?"

Scout glanced at her, the tempestuous waters momentarily forgotten. "Come again?"


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1922


10 July

Historical Review Group CLIO-4: Toronto, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout took off his glasses, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. He rolled the sheet of paper out of his typewriter and stared at what he'd managed so far.

PERSON OF INTEREST CLASSIFICATION: Pending

SUBJECT NAME: Thilo Zwist (presumed)

SUBJECT ALIAS(ES): Dr. Ira Braun, Dr. Thaddeus Bromide, Dr. Gerund Fraud

DESCRIPTION: Thilo Zwist is a purveyor of medicinal substances of dubious substance value whose primary anomalous attribute would appear to be extreme long life. He has been advertising and selling panacea in North America since at least the early 1800s, and evidence suggests his activity in central Europe many decades prior. Chemical analysis of Zwist's compounds has found

"Has found what," he muttered. There was only one man he trusted to complete said chemical analysis, and he was over three thousand miles away.

There was a knock on his office door, and he worked the sheet back into the typewriter. "Come in."

The door opened, and Dr. Ilse Reynders walked in. She was in the process of smoothing out her labcoat; though the Simpson Centre for Policy was known for employing medical doctors, a woman entering the building dressed like a doctor was bound to call down far too much unwanted attention for a Foundation front company. The price he paid for setting up shop in a major metropolis; Project CLIO needed access to civilian archives and civilian researchers to identify historical anomalies, and like a good historian he had gone to where the documents were.

Reynders was carrying an envelope. "From the AAG. Dr. Rydderech's analysis." Wynn Rydderech had founded the Acroamatic Abatement Group in Vienna shortly after joining the Foundation in 1914; he was pursuing his dream of breaking apart the mysterious muck which plagued humankind, while Scout had been raking up new muck in Canada.

Scout pushed the typewriter aside, and she placed the envelope on his desk. It was addressed very simply: "Vivian." The Foundation had its own couriers, and the correspondence between these two doctors was already well-known to all of them.

Perhaps too well-known.

Reynders walked to the window to look out at the street below as Scout tore open the envelope. He kept things relatively casual at the Project; academics, in his experience, responded much more favourably to a collegiate atmosphere than they did to military discipline.

Rydderech's note was short and to-the-point, as always.

Viv,

Have examined the bottle of "Asclepian Alcohol" you sent. Label claims it contains samarium, antimony, radon and "wolfram" (which is tungsten), so rather than curing "scrumpox," which is herpes gladiatorum, it should cause cancer, respiratory illness, cancer, and cancer respectively.

Lucky for us it actually contains Scotch whiskey, brown sugar, cinnamon and ground tea leaves. What's this fellow's game?

Re: your other dilemma; suggest you think on our conversation at the Cardiff faculty club. Should prove instructive.

— Wynn

"Anything helpful?" Reynders asked. She was easily his closest friend at the Project; he'd gone to console her on her sister's passing in 1917, and had ended up hiring her instead. She'd been all too eager to accept his condolences, and to see the mysterious work her sister had been doing. Rydderech had accused him of switching out one goldfish for another; that barb had made him feel guilt towards both of them for months afterward.

He held up the note, and she took it. "Hmm. The medicine really is bunk, eh? You'd think an immortal could come up with a better way to make a quick buck."

"You would think." Scout leaned back in his chair, remembering what he and Wynn had gotten up to at the Cardiff faculty club. It had been educational, but not in a strictly scientific sense.

"What's this about the faculty club?" Reynders asked.

Scout waved it off. "That's a dead end. Every time I ask him about something, he thinks he's already given me the answer years prior. His cleverness is retroactively enhanced in reminiscence."

She smiled widely at that, and he saw how cheerfully she accepted what should have been an obvious lie, and he felt that twinge of guilt again. Ilse Reynders was all too eager to discount the rumours about Scout and Rydderech, as she'd dropped him enough romantic hints over the years to fill a pulp novel. She would never understand his failure to respond; he had only her expectation that he would make the first move to keep the problem from escalating rapidly.

"You have anything for me, Vivian?" She'd phrased it like that for a reason.

"No, thank you, Ilse. I'll see you at the daily briefing."

She flashed another warm smile to hide her disappointment. "Always." And then she was gone, and the door was closed.

He looked at the unfinished Person of Interest profile. He could finish it, of course, but the information he had left to add was barely information at all, so he unrolled it again and put a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter.

Wynn,

Many thanks for the speedy analysis. The good doctor remains one step ahead of us. Have considered our conversation at the faculty club; suggest you reconsider in light of what we learned at the Dean's summer residence back in '09.


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1964


8 February

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout held the receiver hard against his ear, as though the sound might leak out of his office — the least porous space in the Site — and incriminate him for his perfidy. "It's strange, hearing your voice so clearly. Instead of through a door."

"I wouldn't say the quality is much improved," said Zwist.

"Well, there's an awful lot of scrambling on the line."

"Naturally."

It was funny; after decades of constant correspondence, they were both somewhat at a loss for words when confronted with audible proof of the other's attention.

"So, what occasioned this change of heart?" Scout was more aware of his own heart's change at this moment than he had been in years. "You're not getting sick of the chase, are you?"

"Of course not." Zwist didn't sound sick, exactly, but he did sound tired. "But… do you know that feeling you get, when you've been awake too long and you suddenly don't care what's going on around you?"

"Yes. My job keeps me up at odd hours, sometimes."

Zwist snorted. "I should imagine. Well, I hope you'll never have to feel it for yourself, but… actually that sounds terrible, please understand that I mean this in the nicest possible way, but that feeling of all the colour leeching out when it's well past your bedtime? There's a sort of mortality equivalent to it, which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy." He took Scout's difficulty parsing this material as an opportunity to add: "Or my best friend."

Scout nodded to himself. "You feel like you've lived too long."

"Yes. Perhaps. I don't know. It isn't always like that, but… I've spent three hundred and eighteen years on a carousel, Vivian, and sometimes I want off. I can forgive myself for wanting to take a break, but only because I know it can't ever happen."

"It could happen." Scout could hear his heart in his ears, now, almost louder than Zwist's voice. "You could let us help you."

Zwist laughed; Scout had heard laughs like that before, in barracks after an agent had died, in bars after a battle had been lost. "We both know how that would go. The order of your acronym. You'd spend so much time locking me up, I'd lose too many patients. And I could never trust your Foundation with my work—"

"The good work," Scout interrupted.

"Yes, the good work. You would want me to teach my techniques to you, and I would refuse. You would want me to apply my powers, and I would refuse. You would let the world catch fire one poor soul at a time, rather than let me practice my art in public as I have been doing all these years. I refer here to the institutional 'you', of course."

"Of course." Scout leaned back in his chair, and considered. "There might be a way to give you a second wind, though."

There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. "What do you have in mind?"

"I flatter myself that I have more fantastic stories under my belt than any other man in Canada," said Scout. "Any other man besides your venerable self. What say we trade?"


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1933


11 November

Historical Review Group CLIO-4: Toronto, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout read the letter again, from start to finish. He had the time; he would normally need to be lecturing at the University of Toronto soon, to keep up his cover identity, but he'd given his students Remembrance Day off and told them to reflect on violence instead of perpetrating it with their papers. The scientist within him wanted to see if his reaction changed when the revelation was no longer new; he was already planning to send the thing to Rydderech and see what he made of it, to complete the comparison.

Dr. Scout,

If you come to believe that a man is wise, you must know that it means he was once a fool. We are the sum of our mistakes, at our best, because we take lessons most keenly at our worst.

I have made many mistakes, but chief among them this: when I was young, when my heart burned with idealism, when I could bend the world across my knee if I so chose, someone pricked me and I cried out. I boiled myself into every crack in the grammar of my native tongue, and some echo of my fury simmers there still. While you chase me, I chase my own tale tail, trying and failing to eradicate the evidence of my ancient stupidity.

You pursue this disease with a fervour that seems, to my eyes, personal. It pains me to think that I may have taken someone from you. You have suggested that we might correspond; though the prospect excites me, I could not in good faith accept that generous offer without alerting you to my failings.

For who I have been, I am sorry. For today I remain

Yours,

Thilo

The fiery finale of Lys Reynders had never left his mind's eye. The Foundation had captured and sequestered away dozens of sufferers of what Zwist called "progressive hypercholeritic paroxysm," and all had met with the same sticky end. There was blood on the hands of the man he had come to admire, whose drive to do better had driven Scout to better himself.

He set himself the task of pondering it further. He thought of how he might phrase his request to Rydderech. He weighed the moral options, and decided to sleep on the matter.

A few minutes later, he pulled out his typewriter and began his correspondence with Thilo Zwist. He would not forget that his distant friend had once been a fool, but neither could he pretend that he was not wise.


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1964


9 March

Kettle Point Reservation: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"That," said Kishkedee, "is a slur."

"Whatever," snapped Watts. "You know what I'm talking about. I want to see them all. I want them to take the test."

They were standing on the porch of Kishkedee's home, a landmark on the res for its bright red roof. The men in the bright red uniforms had come here to plan their raids on the homes of her neighbours. They were going to regret it.

"If you test me," said Kishkedee, "you may find I test you back."

Watts put both gloved hands on his hips and puffed out his chest. He looked like a sickly bear trying to make itself seem big. "Tell me where I can find the rest, and I won't make this hard for you." These words were very familiar to her; OSAT hadn't come knocking in a long while, but Mounties writ large were no strangers to the res. They were typically here to kidnap children, however, dragging them away to off-site schools (where they would die of tuberculosis) or off-site homes (where they would be taught to forget their parents). They were here for the adults today, but it was all the same to her, just as the indians were all the same to Watts.

Kishkedee shook her head. "Leave, and don't come back. Remember the Mishipeshu."

Watts laughed. "I've never had a problem with cats, and we're nowhere near the lake. It's wide-open spaces at Kettle Point; nowhere for your monsters to hide. Now tell me where I can find the other ber—"

"Ikwekaazo," said Kishkedee. "The men who choose to be women."

"Yeah," said Watts. "I'm not saying that. But if what I've heard is true, you're the ones with the power around here. You know the rituals. You keep the knowledge. You can show us where the spirits are."

"We all know rituals, and keep knowledge. That's what human beings do. You should go back to your home, and talk to your own spirits."

Watts jerked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing at a covered truck with two Mounties stationed beside it. "There's a machine in there that'll tell me what kind of man, or woman, you are. It's taken us years to develop. It's very effective. If you don't tell me who your friends are, I'll just have to test everyone at Kettle Point until I find them."

Kishkedee shrugged. "Then that's what you'll have to do."

Watts snapped his fingers over his shoulder, and two of his Mounties flanked Kishkedee. "Remember that it was your idea to do this the hard w—" he said. At the moment when he would have finished the final word, the two men grabbed Kishkedee by her forearms and pulled her off the porch.

Kishkedee's neighbours would later report hearing a sound like thunder pealing down from a blue sky. Watts had once blown a tire on his truck while speeding down a gravel road; it sounded something like that to him, only happening directly inside of his head. The trees were blown back by the force of that single outrageous CRACK, and Watts fell to his knees, clutching his ears and screaming. The two Mounties holding Kishkedee struck their faces on the stone path, and began to bleed; the other two were thrown aside by the impact of a tremendous gust of wind which completely flattened the truck, and the device held within it. Only Kishkedee was still standing. She looked up, and saw a vast bird returning to the clouds on wings as vast and dark as a stormy sky; Watts began to wail, his ears ringing with the echoes of that single mighty blast. Kishkedee walked past him into the house to telephone Lake Huron Supply, Control and Purification. They would be happy to speed her guests on their way back to Ottawa.


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1942


3 April

Canadian Forces Camp Ipperwash: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"Good god, that's deep."

Scout clapped Rydderech on the shoulder, then skidded down the side of the pit. The cloud of dust he produced was soon joined by another as Rydderech slid down behind him, and they both coughed for a few moments as they found their feet on the ledge.

They were on the lip of an enormous quarry, a vast excavation of the ground which would one day be filled with machinery, people, walls and floors and ceilings and quite a lot of backfilled soil.

"How far down they going?" Rydderech asked.

"About sixty feet."

Rydderech nodded, waving away the last motes of disturbed limestone. "Pretty deep. A proper underground lair."

Scout took off his dusty glasses and cleaned them with a thin linen cloth. "That's not where we're building the Site, Wynn. We're building the Site," and he replaced the glasses on his face so he could see his partner's, "about two thirds of a mile down."

Rydderech pursed his lips and nodded, clearly trying not to laugh aloud. "Ah ha." He scratched the red peach fuzz which now sufficed for his hair. "Right. Alright. What?"

Scout did laugh. "Turns out there's caverns galore down there. Lord knows what made them. Maybe we'll find something new to contain."

"Baby's first Euclid. Well, that's lucky."

"It could have been luckier." Scout waved at the gigantic cleft in the earth. "We only need enough space for an elevator shaft, now; real luck would've been finding the tunnels before we dug this bloody great pit."

"And it is a bloody great pit." Rydderech stuck both hands in his jacket pockets and looked down at the small gaggle of workers below; Scout watched an MTF walking the rim of the pit, documenting the earthworks with their cameras and notepads.

"Give any more thought to the architecture?" Rydderech asked.

"As a matter of fact, I have." Scout pulled out a notepad of his own. "CLIO-4 is going to need extensive archives, a library, and a lot of office space. The AAG is going to need a great many laboratories, in addition to the refineries you're building at the lake." Scout nudged Rydderech. "It really is going to belong to both of us equally, Wynn."

Rydderech smiled. "Wouldn't have it any other way, Co-Director."

"Well, about that." Scout tucked the notebook away again. "Seems like half the documents we look at these days are cognitohazardous. It would be safer to dispose of them if we had an AcroAbate facility in the actual Site."

Rydderech nodded.

"And if we've got one centrally located, you should have your offices there. I'll have my offices in the archives. You still following?"

Rydderech raised an eyebrow; he looked very quizzical without much hair to diminish the effect. "Why wouldn't I be following?"

"I just need to make sure you're paying careful attention, because this is a very important question I'm about to ask you. Can you think of any reason, any good reason at all, why you and I shouldn't share living quarters right between our respective Sections?"

Rydderech's eyes widened, and he squinted at the suddenly increased sunlight. He bit his lower lip.

"Think about it for a moment, Wynn. Because if you can come up with a reason, any reason sensible enough to occur to anyone else at all, we shouldn't do it."

Scout looked back down at the gradually-deepening chasm, unable to meet his partner's eyes until he had an answer. It was usually Wynn who looked away at moments like this; they'd grown more and more alike the longer they'd spent apart.

"I can't think of anything," Rydderech finally said, very softly.

As they peered into the pit, wondering how long it would be before they could glimpse their shared future below, Scout reached out and grasped Rydderech's shoulder again.


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1964


10 March

OSAT Headquarters: Ottawa, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"You set me up." The little man tossed his big hat onto his desk; it slid almost frictionlessly across the scattered papers and tumbled to the floor beside Scout's chair. "You goddamn set me up, Scout! After everything I've done for you."

Scout crossed his legs in the uncomfortable chair, keeping his expression carefully neutral. He was still wearing his own hat. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

Watts laughed. This time it sounded like a Ross Rifle jamming in the mud. "I'm sure you damn well do. You tricked me into going there, fed my agents bad intel."

"If you're confessing to monitoring our communications, Watts, perhaps we should summon the Prime Minister to listen."

"Shut up!" Watts swatted his Venetian blinds down, his tongue shooting in and out of his mouth like he was lapping at a plate of milk. "You let those damn indians make a fool out of me, get knocked on my ass by whatever that thing in the sky was. Four of my men will never hear again, and I still can't get the ringing out of my ears. I've lost face, and I've lost funding, you filthy…" He clenched his fists instead of finishing his sentence, and started a new one. "You have some nerve, pretending not to know."

"Oh, that's not what I'm pretending not to know." Scout smiled placidly. "I absolutely did do what you're accusing me of. I knew what was going to happen. If you'd been paying attention, if you'd ever made a habit of paying attention, you'd have known too. I freely admit to playing you like a fiddle." He let the smile drop abruptly. "What I do not know is what you mean by 'everything I've done for you'. Unless you mean everything you've done, or tried to do, to me, you have me rather at a disadvantage."

Watts sat down hard in his chair; the cushion audibly suffered from the impact. "That'll be the day," he snarled. "The day Vivian Scout suffers a disadvantage. You know, I'll be lucky to keep my job? I'll be lucky if they don't just shutter OSAT, after the mess you let me make."

"You made the mess on your own, Watts. Like you always do."

The sergeant waved at him irritably, knocking over the set of tiny Canadian and RCMP flags which sat on his blotter and lightly stabbing his right hand with a flagpole cap. He swore unintelligibly, spun to face the window, and kicked the wainscoting with one tall black boot. "Diefenbaker wants me to take a leave of absence."

Scout nodded, more to emphasize the victory to himself than to acknowledge the statement. "Probably for the best."

Watts ran a hand through his sweaty, receding black hairline. "I'm sick of that fucking lake anyway. Did I hear you say you're a hiker, once? Maybe I'll take up hiking."

Scout's heart stood still. He hadn't expected this. He'd daydreamed about it, half-consciously planned for the contingency, but even so the moment was too perfect, too sudden, too terrible and grand to be true. He didn't know whether to—

"Montréal," Scout snapped, cutting off his own internal monologue as the rush of adrenaline shuddered through him.

Watts glared over his shoulder. "What's in Montreal?" He pronounced it wrong, despite having just heard it pronounced correctly.

"Mount Royal Park, and the hike to end all hikes."

Watts nodded absent-mindedly. "At least you're good for something. At least you're good for something." He spun back around, picked up his hat, and settled it carefully on his head. He glanced over Scout's shoulder at the full-length mirror on the opposite wall, and adjusted the tilt ever-so-slightly. Scout saw a faint hint of self-satisfaction on the man's hatchet face, and almost took back the fatal suggestion.

And then Watts said "Rydderech gets his test when I come home," and Scout's retraction died a definitive death in his frontal lobe.

He stood up and buttoned his greatcoat. "We'll be waiting," he said. "Don't hurry back."

"You can't ever let someone else have the last word, can you?" Watts grumbled as Scout opened the door.

Scout looked back at him with a sympathy he wasn't sure he really felt, thinned his lips to a grim line, and turned away for what he knew would be the final time.


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1949


29 August

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"We don't talk much about violence, do we?"

Rydderech shrugged and shoved the box of poutine across the table. "That's your lunchtime topic choice?"

Scout speared a pile of French fries and cheese onto his plate, and pushed a thin pile of papers towards Rydderech with his other hand. "Zwist is obsessed with violence. I don't know what happened in his past, but he's a committed pacifist."

Rydderech glanced at the correspondence. Scout and Zwist had written almost as many letters to each other over the years as Scout and Rydderech had during their three decades of absence from each other's physical lives. "He must be committed, if he's kept that attitude since… how old do you figure he is?"

"I figure he's about three hundred and change." Scout took a moment to enjoy the play of potato, gravy and curd on his tongue, then swallowed and continued. "Maybe age gives you perspective on the value of life."

"You're a pacifist, too." Rydderech pushed the letters back. "Compensating for all that jingoistic nonsense you spouted back in the Great War."

"I never did." Scout picked up the box and dumped the rest of the poutine onto his plate. Rydderech let this act of petty revenge pass without comment. "I was young and stupid, and the Germans were experimenting with zombie gas, if you'll recall."

"That reminds me." Rydderech scrabbled through the pile of notes which dominated his side of the table and was making a serious push onto Scout's own. "I've been working on a cure for zombie gas."

"Don't change the subject. Do you remember when O5 asked us how many D-class we needed?"

Rydderech cleared his plate, and mumbled something mushy and vague.

"And you said housing this many researchers near AcroAbate was already a risk, even with all our safety measures, so it was too dangerous to bring in random outsiders? 'Outside variables', I recall you called them."

Rydderech shrugged. "This is going somewhere, I presume."

Scout watched his partner rifle through his busywork, refusing to meet his eyes as always. "I don't know. We…" He picked up his fork again. "We just don't talk that much about violence."

"Age isn't the only thing that gives you perspective," Rydderech muttered. He picked up his plate and stood up; he rested his free hand on Scout's shoulder, just for a moment, as he walked past him to the kitchen.


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1964


17 March

Mount Royal Park: Montréal, Québec, Dominion of Canada


The sun was slinking past Mount Royal for the benighted Québeckers below as Raynard Watts reached what passed for its summit. It hadn't been a difficult hike, despite Scout's bold claim; he'd managed to resist the urge to take the simple trails cris-crossing the rather poor excuse for a slope which rose up from the heart of Montréal, but even then it had been a leisurely couple of hours on an incline not nearly extreme enough to make him break a sweat. Still, the air was clean and the trees were green, so his miniscule effort was not at all wasted.

He shouldered his pack and smiled, adjusting the brim of his hat so he could watch the sunset through the reddening oaks. He wasn't wearing his uniform, but he'd have felt naked without the hat. The park was entirely empty; the mayor had declared a nightly curfew weeks ago, for reasons which baffled Watts.

Who cares if there's a few perverts in the park? It made him want to laugh out loud. That's basically what parks are for.

The wind moaned mournfully through the trees, and Watts sat down on a wooden bench beside what had to be the ugliest piece of religious statuary ever erected. It was a metal lattice Christian cross, glowing white with the help of dozens of lightbulbs. It had to be a hundred feet tall. It was absurd, but there was something about it he found entertaining.

He suddenly laughed out loud. It hadn't been a bad vacation, but the cross reminded him of the work he had yet to accomplish back in Ottawa. He was going to crucify Vivian Scout, but not before he'd made an example of Wynn Rydderech.

That's not the wind. He dismissed the thought, even as the moaning increased in pitch. When the moaning suddenly snapped into a guttural growl, he leapt to his feet and pulled his sidearm from its holster. "Who's there?"

He regretted the stupid question immediately. He knew that sound, and he knew he wasn't going to get an answer. The growling was coming from… it was coming from all around him, actually, between the trunks of the trees in the gathering dark. The light from the cross luridly illuminated the simple gravel parklet, but he couldn't make out… he couldn't quite make out…

…eyes in the dark, shining like a cat's in flash-light.

He pointed his pistol at the nearest pair, cocked his head to one side, stuck his tongue out and squeezed the trigger. The yelp he got in response was tremendously satisfying.

The sound of claws clicking on gravel behind him sapped the feeling away in an instant, and he was already full-on terrified when he turned around in time to receive a razor-sharp slash across his chest.

He ran.

He heard them barrelling through the brush behind him, and he ran. He grasped at the gash in his stomach, felt something soft and supple and slick and tubular like a silk bag full of jelly slip between his fingers, and he ran. He tried to point his pistol behind him, and it fell from his freezing cold fingers, and he ran.

He fell to the ground, guts spilling on a bed of lillies he could barely see in the dying half-light, and searched the sky for the sign of the glowing cross. He didn't find it. He stuck his tongue out of his mouth and screamed, and when the pain finally hit him full-bore and he slammed his jaws shut, he bit the end off and screamed once more. As the lanky, furred shapes circled him at an ever-closing distance, in his heart and mind he ran as fast as his body never would again.


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1954


9 May

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Got you now.

"This is the place, sir," his driver announced unnecessarily. Scout had done the research; he'd made almost every significant discovery about this particular Person of Interest over the past four decades. He knew that the witty, acerbic novelist with the pen name of Hammond Washburn was in actuality the ancient Austrian memeticist with the real name of Thilo Zwist, and he knew that this out-of-the-way print shop was where he went to produce his memetic books.

He opened the car door, got out, and straightened his suit and tie. He retrieved his hat from the dash, secured it on his head at a rakish angle, and closed the door. "Shall we?"

The car was parked across the street from the shop. The assembled agents, four in number, spread out and crossed as casually as they could. The shop was sat between two alleyways, so a single agent dodged off the sidewalk down each one. Another mounted a fire escape and headed up to the second floor; the last moved to enter the shop itself, but Scout silently shook his head. The agent pursed his lips, nodded, and headed back to the car as Scout himself jogged through the light afternoon traffic.

INCIDENT REPORT: PoI-382-17

REPORTING AGENT: Dr. V.L. Scout

Pursuit and Suppression Section reconnaissance information, coupled with research by the Archives and Revision Section, determined that PoI-382 would be engaging in a commercial transaction at a private business in Cabbagetown, Toronto. MTF Alpha-43 ("Witch Hunters") engaged the subject at this location.

Agent Denis Bonaville recalls proceeding down the northern alleyway beside the structure and locating a side entrance. The door swung open unexpectedly, and he noticed a plain white poster pasted to it reading "Say it isn't so" in plain black text. He immediately stopped advancing and radioed to announce that the alleyway was clear, before heading back to the vehicle. (This poster was retrieved after conclusion of the operation; any memetic qualities it once held have since disappeared.)

Agent Nathaniel Hart recalls ascending a fire escape to the second floor, proceeding through the print shop owner's private apartments, and entering the shop from the back room. He encountered PoI-382 there, and attempted to draw his sidearm; PoI-382 asked him not to do so, with peculiar phrasing he could not later recall, and Agent Hart instead handed his sidearm to the subject and exclaimed "I'm a big fan of your work." He admits that this information was freely given, though he insists the self-disarming was compelled.

Agent Stephen McAfree recalls proceeding down the southern alleyway without incident, and locating a second side entrance to the print shop. This entrance was also papered over with a memetic poster, but Agent McAfree remembered his training, ignored it, and entered the structure.

The front door was unlocked, so Scout walked in. For a print shop, the interior was fairly tidy: huge stacks of paper sheets, most of them matte, some of them glossy, a myriad of art supplies, and all sorts of machinery he couldn't place. There was a cash register on the counter; there was a neat stack of bills beside it.

Behind the counter, the shop owner was lightly snoring on a stool. Scout smiled, and—

He heard a door open somewhere in the back rooms, then shouting, then hushed conversation, then nothing at all. He walked around the corner, checked his sidearm without really meaning to use it, and heard a second door opening as he pushed through a fabric curtain just in time to catch Agent Stephen McAfree as he fell.

He took stock of his situation as he lowered McAfree to the floor. The printer's back room was cramped, full of posters in cardboard tubes and posters in frames and frames without posters stacked on metal shelves and piles of discarded paper scraps. There were three doors visible from where he crouched: one was ajar, revealing the alleyway without, one was marked PRIVATE, and the third was marked WASHROOM. He heard a click from the latter, and smiled. He walked over and rapped on the wooden surface.

"Occupied," an old man's strident voice called out, only slightly muffled by the door.

"Afternoon, Thilo."

"Afternoon, Vivian."

Scout grinned, and knelt down to examine McAfree more thoroughly. There was a white rectangular calling card on the floor beside him, and Scout made a point of not looking at it. "Did you need to shoot the whammy on him?"

Zwist sighed. "He surprised me. I wouldn't have come here if I'd known this place had two side doors. What kind of a print shop has two side doors?"

Scout glanced at one of the framed posters. "The kind of print shop that caters to… a specific clientele." He grabbed a few pieces of blank paper, crumpled them up and slid them under McAfree's head. "Where are my other two agents?"

"One of them is already back in the car; I told him to look both ways before he crosses any streets. The other is upstairs, cooking dinner for the shop owner. I do hope he knows how to cook."

"Oh, probably." Scout stood up. "They do their own cooking in the Witch Hunters, since that unfortunate incident with the alphabet soup."

"Serves you right for trying to capture me at a soup kitchen."

Scout leaned on the door. "We almost had you this time. You're getting sloppy."

"Don't flatter yourself. How's Dr. Rydderech?"

Scout felt suddenly guilty, though he wasn't sure why. "Wynn's good. Only three more materials handling accidents since last we spoke." He rolled his eyes.

Zwist tutted. "You'd think a toxicologist would know how to avoid toxin exposure."

"You'd think a memeticist would be able to print his own books."

"Printing presses are heavy, and I need to keep moving." Zwist paused. "I would give your men a passing grade, today. The one on the floor remembered not to look at my poster. He's a keeper."

Scout sat down on the floor, still leaning against the door. "I'll tell him you said that. It might cheer him up."

He could almost imagine Zwist nodding. "It might. Words have power."

Scout chuckled. "You know that better than anyone. So, how's the chase been treating you?"

He felt rather than heard Zwist pressing his own back to the other side of the door. "Great fun. I do hope I'm not keeping you from anything important back home."

That twinge of mysterious guilt again. Scout winced. "I don't mind the fresh air, every now and again. And the conversation's good."

A card shot out under the door beside him. He frowned. "I wasn't born yesterday, Thilo."

"Don't you trust me?"

Now the guilt was almost overpowering, but at least he knew why. He picked up the card and examined it; the message was short and simple. "No, nobody's listening in."

"Alright, well… do they know you're not really trying to capture me?"

Scout grinned. "What makes you think I'm not really trying to capture you?

Agent McAfree was surprised by a memetic hazard printed on a piece of printer's stock, and disabled.

The subject escaped the print shop via an unsecured rear window. Dr. Scout was unable to make visual contact, and without reinforcements, could not pursue.

CONCLUSIONS: PoI-382 remains at large. In spite of this, MTF Alpha-43's performance and conduct were unimpeachable.


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1964


30 March

OSAT Headquarters: Ottawa, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Bluff and blushing Sergeant Gordon Shine, late of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's "D" Division and newly minted Superintendent of OSAT, stood up when Scout walked into his office. "Thanks for coming, Director. Please, have a seat."

Scout considered flatly turning him down, but the strain on Shine's face suggested he didn't need to be dramatic with his power plays. He sat down.

Shine took his own chair and shuffled the papers on his desk. Scout could see they were blank forms. "We have a lot to discuss. Have you heard about Superintendent Watts?"

Scout cracked his knuckles, one by one. "Not from you. But yes."

Shine's mouth migrated to one side of his head. His brow furrowed. He was either the worst or the best actor Scout had ever met. "You don't seem upset."

Scout nodded. "I'm not. I don't really care that Watts is dead. No, strike that," and he leaned forward, hands on his knees, "I do care. I'm quite pleased about it. He was a miserable little shit, and I hope it hurt."

Shine's mouth dropped open. He shuffled the papers again. Scout allowed him a moment to regain his composure; he allowed him a few moments more, and then Shine started talking in a much more subdued tone. "I'm sure it did, since he was disembowelled and partially eaten while still alive."

Scout felt his left eye twitch slightly at this news; he was sure it wasn't visible behind his spectacles. "Well, that's a bit much… but only a bit."

Shine tried to tent his fingers, but ended up scattering his forms instead. A worthy successor to Watts. He stuck his ungloved hands below the desk, probably under his belt where they couldn't do any further damage. "We don't need to be confrontational about this, Director. The Prime Minister thinks—"

Scout made a slicing motion with his hand, and marvelled at the result: Shine shut his mouth. Magnificent. "The Prime Minister is a lunatic. He was half-mad when he took office, and he's full-on mad right now. Don't tell me what he thinks, Shine, tell me what you think. Why am I talking to you this way?"

Shine blinked his placid blue eyes. "I think you're asserting dominance."

"Damn right I am." Scout leaned back again. "Watts tried to walk all over me, so I let him walk beside me instead. You're not going to walk beside me, Shine. I've seen where you people are headed."

Shine shook his head; his hat, which fit him far better than Watts' had, rotated awkwardly on his scalp. "Look. We're on the same—"

"Do you know what a loup-garou is, Superintendent?"

Shine trailed off.

"Well? Do you?"

Shine reached under the desk blotter and pulled out a single piece of paper. Even upside-down, Scout knew what it was: an autopsy report. Shine scanned it briefly, grimaced, and looked up. "Yes, I know what a loup-garou is. And of course you would."

"Of course I would. And of course Watts didn't; he didn't speak a word of French, and he never collected knowledge that took more than a moment's glance to obtain. Show me that you're different, Shine. Ask yourself why I would mention loup-garou to you, and tell me what you come up with."

Shine didn't respond.

Scout stood up. "You won't be testing any more of my personnel, and you'll be staying out of Nexus-94. I might press for you to stop using that stupid machine entirely, and I'd suggest you don't press back. You suspect what I'm capable of doing indirectly; you'd be amazed what the Foundation can achieve with directed action."

He walked to the door, put one hand on the knob, then looked back at Shine with a vicious grin that hurt his cheeks. He couldn't even see the other man through the reflection of the sun on his spectacles; he revelled in the thought of how ghoulish he must look.

"Congratulations on your promotion."

His stomach was growling with acid and his mouth was bone dry, his heart was pounding and he nearly vomited when he sat down in his car, but he was grinning through the guilt all the way back to the airport.


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1960


June 18

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout slammed his fist on the unbreakable window of the containment cell, and swore. He swore under his breath, but only just barely; he was aware of his entire senior staff watching him closely, but again only just barely.

His attention was fixed on the roiling tempest of light and colour behind the faux-glass, the figure wading calmly through the thick haze of airborne effluence and the figure lying prone in the middle of it. The first figure reached the second figure, stooped down, and scooped him up; the motion seemed effortless, and Scout remembered Rydderech pulling him to his feet in the Cardiff gymnasium with a clarity which startled and frightened him.

"How long," he breathed, watching that eerily composed humanoid creature carry the love of his life across an ocean of black-flaked orange gas.

Senior Researcher Isaak Okorie was finishing hurried calculations on his labcoat sleeve. "At least half an hour," he said. "The pipe's still venting, and we need to flush the chamber completely before anyone goes in there."

The man who was not a man carried Rydderech to the far corner of the room, as far away from the open pipe and the ventilation grates as he could get. Scout's heart skipped a beat when he saw through the miasma that his partner was still breathing; he pressed his hand against the window, and saw Lys Reynders weeping away the last moments of her life in his own reflection.

"I didn't know." Rydderech's lab assistant, a gaunt and wiry young man named Edwin Falkirk, was searching Scout's graven stone face for some sign of acknowledgement. "He told me he was bringing in a consultant. He didn't tell me he was bringing in…" Falkirk faltered, and pointed. "Whatever that is."

Scout scanned the hall. Everyone but Falkirk was cleared to know about the being presently standing watch over his Co-Director's flattened form. He gathered his wits together, and spoke. "This doesn't spread. Anyone speaks a word of this, they'd better have their affairs in order."

Nods all around.

As the scene behind the glass became gradually more visible, Scout felt his temper rising in tune with his blood pressure. The cell was built around one of the conduits feeding esoteric waste from the containment chambers above to the Acroamatic Abatement facilities below; this particular one had an access hatch, allowing researchers to monitor the flow and experiment on it before it reached its final destination and was neutralized. Rydderech hadn't scheduled a test for today, and certainly hadn't told Scout over breakfast that he planned to involve an SCP subject in his research.

Especially not that SCP subject. Scout weight his options, such as they were; it had proven impossible to amnesticize away knowledge of this particular entity. Falkirk was apparently about to get a clearance upgrade. He wouldn't have been Scout's first choice.

God dammit, Wynn.

Thirty minutes passed in the span of about three decades, and the containment chamber was safely habitable again. Two technicians from Health and Pathology approached the airlock door, pushing a cart full of medical instruments and supplies.

Behind the glass, Rydderech was staggering to his feet. His partner in crime walked into the centre of the cell and sat down, assuming the recapture position.

Scout tapped the nearest tech on the shoulder. "How long is quarantine for this kind of exposure?"

The tech shrugged. "Three days minimum. Suits don't help, so we'll be in there with him the whole time." He smiled gamely. "Not a lot of fun."

Scout nodded. When the airlock door opened and the techs moved in, he followed them.

"Dr. Scout?" said Falkirk. His face was a mask of confusion.

"Tell the All-Sections Chief he's in charge for at least three days." Scout pulled the airlock door shut.

The assembled researchers watched as the interior door swung open. They watched as the lab techs trundled slowly past the seated figure which exhibited no ill effects from the impossible things it had been breathing for nearly an hour. They watched as Scout brushed past them, embraced Rydderech roughly and did not let go.

"What the hell is this?" said Falkirk, eyes wide.


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1964


31 March

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


Scout opened his bedroom door to reveal Wynn Rydderech sitting on the bed. His partner looked tired, confused and angry. His voice was hoarse as he asked: "Did you kill Raynard Watts?"

Scout's mind shot like a bullet over half a dozen different ways to prevaricate. Werewolves had killed Raynard Watts; Scout had been at 43 the entire time; Scout had only made an innocent suggestion; so on, and so forth. The bullet struck its inevitable target instead, and he told the truth as he always did. "Yes. I killed Raynard Watts." He shrugged off his suit coat.

"Does it occur to you…" Rydderech cleared his throat. "Does it occur to you that he was persecuting us because he thought we were dangerous?" He was clutching at the bedsheets. "Because he thought we could be blackmailed into doing despicable things, because of who we are? Does it occur to you that you acted exactly the way he thought you would?" He was still hoarse, but he was nearly shouting now.

Scout unbuttoned his waistcoat. "No. Those things do not occur to me. Because the first two aren't true, and the last one isn't what happened." He unbuttoned his dress shirt, and pulled off his tie. "Watts didn't think we were dangerous. He thought we were weak-willed and deviant, and he despised us for it, but he knew us for who we really are nevertheless. He knew we could never be blackmailed, browbeaten, or won over by promises of silence. He knew our principles backward and forward; he'd come up hard against them for thirty years." Scout neatly folded the tie and set it down on his dresser. "He didn't hate us because we were a threat, Wynn. He hated us because he wanted to hate us."

Rydderech was shaking his head. "How does that change the meaning of what you did? He threatened to expose us, and you murdered him."

"I murdered him, but not because he threatened to expose us." Scout walked over to the bed. "You think I was worried about Watts getting you deported? Christ, Wynn, you think I would have let that happen?" For the thousandth time, Rydderech wouldn't meet his eyes. "If Overwatch came to me and said 'Look, Scout, you have to send Rydderech back to Austria', I would have given them an ultimatum: send the whole Site there, or go fuck themselves."

Rydderech's eyes were shining. "You don't give ultimatums to Overwatch." He was staring at the floor.

"They don't have any power we didn't give them, Wynn. You and I." He'd finally mustered the courage to sit down, silently begging Rydderech not to flinch away. He didn't. "We built this place as much as, no, much more than they did. Even old and grey and fat, we're two of the smartest, most respected, most invaluable people at 43. I don't think they would have stooped to deporting you; I guarantee they would've alienated Watts before alienating me."

Rydderech looked at him now, finally, and the expression on his face broke Scout's heart in precisely the right way. "Then why did you do it? If you didn't think there was a risk, if you didn't think he could hurt me… why?"

"Because he tried." Scout stood up and walked back to the dresser, pulling a key from his pants pocket. He unlocked the top drawer, and withdrew a sealed yellow envelope. "This is a blanket authorization from Overwatch to take any action I deem necessary to protect this Site and its personnel from one Raynard Watts, dangerous idiot until recently at large. I walked into Site-01 and demanded it shortly after you met with him. They didn't bat an eye, Wynn. Only three O5s were even there, and they didn't bother to call the rest. I left with this envelope three hours later." He sat back down on the bed, and handed it to Rydderech. "That snotty little piece of trash was trying to destroy you. He was too competent to really do it, but that doesn't matter." Rydderech took the envelope, and brushed its seal with his thumb. He made no move to break it.

Scout sighed. "None of it matters except for this: Raynard Watts was the kind of man who would hurt Wynn Rydderech just to hurt Vivian Scout. He was willing to ruin a good man's life and stop the good work in its tracks just to spite me. We were going to dispose of him sooner or later; knowing that, would you expect me to wait until after he'd taken his shot? That piece of paper was my excuse," and he tapped the envelope, "but it wasn't my reason. Even if I didn't have clearance, even if I didn't have an exit strategy, I would have done it anyway. Because trust me, if some jumped-up son of a bitch in spats and riding pants wants to hurt the man I love, you're god damn right I'm going to throw him to the werewolves."

Rydderech stared at him, mouth agape, and burst out laughing just moments before Scout himself did. "Love is frightening."

"To some more than others." He nodded at the envelope. "Gonna open that? Make sure it is what I said it is?"

"No."

"Why not?"

Rydderech leaned over and kissed him. "It's like you said. I trust you."


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1962


13 September

Provisional Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Dominion of Canada


"Maybe we should invite Zwist over for dinner."

"Hmm?" Scout glanced at Rydderech, seated beside him on the chesterfield. The other man was watching him carefully; Scout hadn't noticed when he'd stopped reading his analysis charts. "Yes, that's an excellent idea. Maybe his memetics can amnesticize Falkirk."

Complaining about Edwin Falkirk was usually irresistible to Rydderech, so Scout knew something was up when it didn't happen. Rydderech tapped the letter in Scout's hand. "What's your wizard boyfriend want today?"

Scout immediately tossed the letter over his shoulder and kissed Rydderech on the cheek before they heard it flutter to the floor.

"What was that for?" Rydderech was blushing; Scout could almost picture how he'd looked when the fuzz on his head had been red, instead of…

…the fuzz on his head was red. Scout leaned back, staring at him. "Did you dye your… scalp?"

Rydderech laughed, then rubbed his head. "What? Don't change the subject."

Scout stood up. "No, I'm serious Wynn, your hair is…" Grey. His hair was grey, as it had been for decades. Scout took off his spectacles and rubbed them on his overcoat.

"I appreciate the grand gestures, Vivian, but I really do want to know what's in the letter."

Scout walked behind the chesterfield and snatched up the sheet of paper, then flopped onto a well-worn armchair across from the couch. "He's been seeing more cases in Russia lately, and he's settled on ads for treating sluggish schizophrenia."

Rydderech frowned. "What the hell is sluggish schizophrenia?"

"Sluggish schizophrenia is absolutely nothing at all. The Soviets use that diagnosis to pathologize dissent. You know how Thilo feels about politicized pseudoscience—"

"Overwatch should hear you calling him 'Thilo'."

"—so he's chosen a particularly nasty way to mock this." Scout shook out the letter, ignoring his partner's interrupting, and read. "Viv,

I've tried, I really have, but this is too much even for me. I have to stop. Lord knows this campaign's working; everybody's keen on natural nonsense now, so they're ready and willing to listen, and once the cure takes hold and they see what I'm selling the repugnance hits them and they leave well alone. But it's repugnant to me too, Viv; it was funny when I dreamed it up, but I never want to hear the words "urine therapy" ever again.

Rydderech mouthed "Viv" both times it came up, but let Scout finish before he asked the obvious question: "Urine therapy?"

Scout nodded. "It's exactly what it sounds like."

Rydderech shuddered. "People shouldn't drink waste products."

"You're one to talk."

He knew it was the right thing to say, an important thing to say, just as he'd known the reaction it would provoke. Rydderech tensed up all over. "You have a point, you want to make it in plain language. Practice your pretty words for pretty Thilo."

"Thilo's fat, and his beard reaches his chest, according to what few eye-witness reports we have." Scout removed his spectacles, and picked up their case from the coffee table. "And I don't have anything new to say, but since you haven't been more careful with your fire-playing lately, I'll say the old stuff again: you're taking too many chances."

Rydderech blew out a breath in exasperation. "I'm doing the good work, Vivian. I've broken down some of the most dangerous things that have ever existed, in my labs. I haven't achieved that by spending every spare moment worrying about my own safety." He watched Scout slide his spectacles into their clamshell. "I think recondite material is frightened of me, at this point. I'm probably immune."

"You're not immune, and you're not immortal." Scout slid the clamshell onto the coffee table. "And have you even considered how this is affecting the Site?"

Rydderech made an are-you-joking face. "How would it even? What are you talking about?"

Scout held up his right index finger. "One, you've practically left me to manage the place myself, and two," the middle finger joined it, "you're driving me to distraction with worry."

Rydderech laughed. "Driving you out of the house, more like. You're spending too much time on the beat with your thugs to do much mismanagement."

They stared at each other for a moment, listening to the soft hum of the heating apparatus in the walls.

"I need you," Scout finally said. "Please don't die."

"I'm not going to die," Rydderech snapped. He pulled his charts back out of the seat cushions. "And I love you too, you inconstant gadfly."


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1965


1 April

Ipperwash Provincial Park: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"I've given that a lot of thought." Rydderech stretched. "My last official act as Co-Director. Do you think I could just outright fire someone? Without cause? It would be a one-shot deal."

"Only if it's Falkirk." Scout reached down to pluck the bottle out of its paper bag. "And you'd have to fire him out of a cannon."

Rydderech laughed. "Do we have a cannon?"

"No, but we could make one." Scout uncorked the bottle.

"That was some speech you gave." Rydderech smirked. "I thought you history types always dredge up the past, our great accomplishments, all that sentimental nonsense at times like this."

Scout shook his head. "Things are only moving forward from this moment on." He took a swig. "Mm. Your turn."

Rydderech took the clear glass flask, which caught the setting sun magnificently. "Where'd this come from?"

"Thilo sent it, along with his compliments."

Rydderech sighed. "Can't seem to shake that third wheel." He took a long draught, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Pretty watery, though it's no aqua invicta. Still, the grapes are good. What's the vintage?" He squinted. "No label."

"Search me. Something French, I think." The wine had been watery, but it warmed Scout up nevertheless. "It's my birthday, you know."

"I do know. I asked Overwatch to drop our provisional status today, specifically."

Scout arched an eyebrow at him. "You did?"

"Yup." Rydderech nodded. "Won't bother asking if you trust me."

"As you shouldn't." Scout took the bottle back, and made another serious attempt to empty it. There was still enough left for Rydderech to take a second swig of his own. "What shall you do with all your new-found free time?

Rydderech guffawed. "My new-found free what? I spend almost every hour up to my elbows… wearing protective gear… in magic nonsense. Free time my ass."

"I appreciate that bit about the protective gear, you're learning diplomacy at last." Scout breathed in the clean air of the park; they didn't come up here very often. He marvelled at how natty and new Rydderech's suit looked in the natural light. It was older than half of their researchers. "Thought you might at least take up a hobby, now your admin duties are done with."

"I wasn't fulfilling them anyway, as you've so kindly reminded me." Rydderech chuckled. "What, do you expect me to take up canoeing or something?"

As if in response, an enormous pair of horns emerged from the lakebed below. It was followed by a vast, lithe, feline-serpentine form which looked up at them curiously, whipping its shining copper tail to and fro. They both froze.

"Do they have a sense of occasion?" Scout asked, through clenched teeth.

The Mishipeshu laid down on the cooling sands of the beach, flicking its wickedly-sharp tail at them playfully. Scout considered calling it in.

"Don't you dare call this in," Rydderech hissed. "I'm not walking back to our newly non-Provisional Site with a buzz on."

When it became apparent that the creature had no interest in consuming them, they both tentatively relaxed. Scout almost laughed aloud, but thought that might have been pushing his luck.

"We're always walking a line," Rydderech murmured.

"Beg your pardon?" Scout tore his gaze from the mythological beast to watch his partner's face.

Rydderech looked suddenly very pensive. "Sometimes things go wrong gradually. Mistakes add up. Some spillage here, some breakage there. Sometimes it's all at once; I still don't know how I survived that breach back in '60."

"And I still don't know what you were thinking," Scout added. "Taking that thing in there with you."

"Everyone's a thing to somebody. But that's not what I'm trying to get at." Rydderech watched the copper cat stretch its clawed paws against the carpet of glittering dust, then reached into his waistcoat and produced a creased envelope. "This isn't much of a present, but it's important. I want you to open it, if…"

He seemed at a loss for words. Scout let him try for a moment, then smiled sadly. "If you're not able to tell me to open it."

"Exactly." Rydderech stole a furtive glance at him, then passed the envelope over. Scout tucked it away in his own waistcoat, and allowed the moment to pass by watching the slumbering lake monster spring easily to its feet, its yellow eyes opened wide. It yowled at them once, plaintively, then turned and headed back into the lake. They watched the sunlight slide along the knife's edge of its tail; Scout put his arm around Rydderech, and pulled him close. They didn't start to feel the chill for more than an hour.


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1966


14 November

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Wynn Rydderech examined himself in his bathroom mirror. He hadn't aged a day since 1960; he wasn't sure he'd aged more than a year since 1942. He had somehow failed to see it until now; something in the clarity of this moment in time revealed it to him, in all its naked awful glory, and he knew what he had to do.

The night before had been better than perfect, as almost every night had been since they'd first moved into their absurd underground laboratory together. They had made love like two fumbling, foolish old men, and retired to their separate beds to make the most of their sporadic sleeping schedules. He had awoken shortly after five in the morning, as he always did; he had taken a shower, as he always did; he had straightened his tie and buckled his belt, as he always did.

Between taking a shower and securing his accessories, he usually put his clothes on. Or did he? Did his clothes magically appear on his body every day at the moment he stepped out of the stall, and he just hadn't noticed until today? Because today was his birthday, and he'd been considering wearing that hideous pinstripe suit Vivian had purchased for him back in '47, he'd suddenly realized that he was very much already dressed and had very much contributed no physical effort towards achieving it. His appearance had simply snapped into line with his self-image, without him even needing to consciously attempt the change.

He knew what he was, now. He knew precisely how far the Foundation's tolerance would stretch. He knew why it had happened, and he knew what had to happen next.

He still punched the glass out of the mirror before he left, though, and he was still crying as he walked through the halls to his office, the wounds already long healed.


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"Vivian. Calm down. VIVIAN!" Zwist was actually shouting at him on the telephone; Scout was frantic, he was babbling, and he knew it, but he didn't know how to stop. "Vivian, take a breath. You're in control."

"He's gone." Scout's hands were shaking, and he almost dropped the secure redline telephone onto his desk. His legs were aching with the need to pace, so he stood up — the phone cord dragged the receiver onto the floor, and he didn't even notice the impact as it hit the carpet — and walked over to make sure the door was locked. "He's gone, and he's not coming back."

"Where did he go?"

"Down. Down under the Site, into the tunnels. Did you know there's… he's down there, okay, and he's building some kind of factory. I think he's trying to…" Scout closed his eyes, and willed his voice to stabilize. He suddenly needed to sit down, so he sat down on the floor. He'd never sat on his office floor before. "He's trying to keep doing the work, Thilo. He's sick, and he's still trying to do the work."

"Sick how? You said he's building a factory. That doesn't make any sense."

"HE doesn't make any sense!" Scout wanted to throw the phone across the room. "Breakage and spills, that breach, always poking and prodding, never thinking about… that son of…" He forced himself not to complete the curse. He didn't mean it. He wanted to mean it.

"You're saying something in the chemicals… changed him."

Scout couldn't force his teeth apart, but he could still manage a terse "Yes."

"Changed him a lot?"

"Changed him enough." Scout had seen the images the MTF had brought back; in the single day since Rydderech had disappeared, an entire industrial district had sprung up in the yawning chasm nobody had known stretched away beneath the Site. "He wrote me a letter… he knew this was going to happen. He fucking knew, but…" Scout tore his glasses from his face, and rubbed his eyes vigorously. "He doesn't want me to see what he is, now. He won't let me help him."

Zwist stayed silent. Scout rocked back on his haunches; at his age it should've hurt, but he couldn't feel anything so prosaic right now. "Thilo, I think I've lost him."

Zwist stayed silent a moment longer, and when he finally spoke it was very softly indeed. "I don't think that's possible."


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Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-W: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Standing in the centre of an unspeakably vast factory which only existed in reality because reality had become responsive to the contours of his mind, Wynn Rydderech stared at his hands. He wondered if he should be feeling the first pangs of arthritis. He wondered if the veins should be visible, if the skin should be coarser. He waved his hands in front of him, just so, and a computer console popped into existence with a sudden rush of displaced air, and he wondered if that was normal. Mostly he wondered if he should be doing what he was about to do.

You owe it to him. That wasn't quite right. He needs you. That made better sense, but still didn't quite You need him that was it.

He sat down at the chair (and suddenly there was a chair), cracked his knuckles (he was fairly certain he'd always had those) and began typing at a keyboard which only existed after the first few keystrokes landed. The screen sparked to life, and he knew that Scout would see his words just moments after he typed them. He'd hooked up the printer before embarking on his odyssey.

I'm so very sorry. He wasn't sure why he was even bothering to type it; simply thinking it into existence somehow seemed callous and cruel.

Wynn? Is that you?

This gave him a moment's pause. Was it him? He shuddered. He'd come down here not one moment too soon; he'd nearly lost himself entirely at the moment he'd reached the bottom, as though Scout's proximity had been his only tether to the reality inhabited by everyone else. The simplest things now escaped him unless he chose to give them focus, as though the power to control every atom around him required such a titanic act of ongoing concentration that everything else became somehow less real.

It's me. He was fairly certain it was true.

Please come back.

That was never going to happen. Rydderech closed his eyes, anticipating tears; they came, but only because he had anticipated them. He was going to have to learn to stop anticipating tears.

Why is it never going to happen?

Had he typed that first thought? He hadn't meant to. He pushed away from the keyboard, staggering to his feet, and closed his eyes. He didn't need a screen to see the words, and he certainly didn't need a screen to respond to them.

Because I'm not myself. The image of Scout, distraught and alone, made his breath catch in his throat. I'm fine down here. Don't worry.

"How do you expect me not to worry?!" Half a mile above him, more than half a mile below the surface of the Earth, Scout was typing those words on a keyboard. Rydderech imagined his partner was standing in front of him instead, delivering them in person, and so in some sense he didn't fully understand, his partner really was.

He opened his eyes. Scout was still there, and still not there. He would never really be Concentrate.

"Concentrate on what?" Scout looked old, and exhausted. His hair was a mess, and there were lines on his face that Rydderech had never seen before, and it pained him immensely to imagine he'd missed the formation of those lines. He'd seen every change the man had gone through over the past two decades in person, but the magnitude of their separation hadn't arrested the march of entropy. Time wore on, as if their inability to manage each other's changes wasn't reason enough for the world to stop spinning.

Rydderech reached up to caress his partner's face. "I love you," he said.


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Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Scout looked to his left. Edwin Falkirk, Researcher in Applied Occultism, watched the words scroll up the hole-punched paper in dot matrix glory. Scout saw the incredulity on his face. This was really happening. It was all coming apart.

Scout looked to his right. Titas Hein, Chief of Identity and Technocryptography, had briefly stopped examining the thoroughly anomalous terminal Rydderech had left behind to stare at the blatant declaration of something altogether unexpected.

Don't do this to him. He took a deep breath. This isn't about you.

Scout looked at the blinking display which represented his final link to the man who meant everything to him, and he said the words aloud even as he tapped them out with professional ease: "I love you too."


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1970


2 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


You don't need to worry about that. I'm well beyond the need for sweaters.

Three different researchers offered helpful suggestions for what Scout should type in response. He ignored them all, and typed instead: "It's very cold up here, so I thought I'd ask."

You could come down here, and we could warm each other up.

Nobody had anything to say about that; two of his advisers looked pointedly away. Scout kept his face composed as he responded: "This is meant to be a professional conversation, Wynn."

Then call me Dr. Rydderech.

This new material you've been piping down is really something special. I've compiled a lexicon for you.

"What the hell does that mean?" Hein pointed at the printout. "Is he talking about—"

"I'll ask him." Before Scout could type anything, however, a new message appeared.

Oh god, what have I been saying? What did I say after you asked about my sweater?

Scout very much wanted to cry. "Don't worry about it, Wynn. What's this about a lexicon? We sent you microorganism-infested sand."

Did I say anything wrong? I didn't mean to get you in trouble. Oh, Christ, I'm so confused.

It's these damn bugs. They won't shut up.

Scout nudged his entomology expert, who was playing with her security badge. "Is it possible he's talking to the sand?"

She opened her mouth, but it took a moment for her to phrase a response. "I don't know how to answer that question, sir."

He looked back at the screen, at a loss himself. Nothing about this was right. He'd asked Overwatch on ten separate occasions, eight times in writing and twice in person, to let him go down there and retrieve his partner. He knew Wynn didn't want him down there, knew Wynn would try to stop him, but he had a heartbreaking physical need to make the attempt. On each occasion they'd told him they were still considering the matter; the last time, at Site-01, they'd given him the dark room and plastic screen treatment. Wynn Rydderech, SCP-5520, was still the Foundation's de facto expert on acroamatic abatement; doubly so, now that his capacities were no longer limited by universal constraints. They even had containment procedures for him; if he became too difficult to control, with a simple three-man operation they could flood the entire chasm with water from Lake Huron and drown Scout's oldest friend in the dark.

You have to hang on.

"What?"

You have to hang on. We've been apart before; the distance is vertical now, instead of horizontal, but the same principle applies. You're my lifeline. You're the only one who gives a damn about me up there, Vivian. If you don't hang on, I'm going to fall, and I can't see the bottom from where I

He waited, but only for a few seconds. He couldn't wait longer than that. "From where you what? Wynn?"

No response.

"Wynn? Are you still there? Wynn?"

Is this the sand, or is it

Where am I?

With mechanical precision, Scout deactivated the terminal, told his staff that Dr. Rydderech would be of no further use today, waited for them to clear the room, and closed the door before breaking down.


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1977


9 March

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


I'm awake. "I'm awake." Scout slapped the intercom button over his bed. "I'm awake. What is it?"

"It's 5520, sir. It's asking for you again. It's… it's asking a lot."

He slapped the button again and moaned. He rolled out of bed, finding only one of his slippers, and staggered into the washroom. Not enough time. He staggered back into the bedroom, picking up the neatly-pressed suit on his dresser and kicking the slipper under the bed. As he pulled on the suit jacket, he noticed the time on his alarm clock: 2:52 AM.

"Christ, Wynn." He'd almost started buttoning the jacket before he realized he hadn't put his dress shirt on first.

I&T was dead this time of night; only the technician watching 5520's Wynn's terminal was still there, and he looked positively elated to see Scout. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, though he didn't look sorry, "but I didn't know what to do."

The messages on the paper were clear enough.

You never hold me

You never hold me

You never hold me

You'll never hold me

Scout rubbed his temples, willing his ancient brain awake.

"Sir?"

Scout didn't answer. He rubbed his entire face, like he was taking a shower. He hadn't taken a shower yet. He hadn't been able to countenance leaving Wynn alone for that long.

"Sir, is there someone else we should call? In emergencies, when you're asleep?"

Scout spun in the chair and nearly struck the man with his outstretched, quivering finger. "You call someone else, anyone else, and I'll feed you to the cats myself."


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1983


22 June

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Scout shook his head, as though Zwist could see it on the other end of the line. "No, they haven't given us any trouble since '81. But don't think I don't appreciate the offer."

"Thought I'd ask." Zwist sounded buoyant. "And how's Dr. Rydderech? Or should I ask?"

"You can ask…" Scout stopped himself from shaking his head a second time. "Even I don't know how I'll answer."

"Let's change the subject, then. Why don't w—"

"Why do you call him Dr. Rydderech?" Scout had hardly made the conscious decision to ask.

Zwist paused. "What?"

"I always call him Wynn, when I talk to you. Why don't you call him Wynn?"

Another pause. "Because I don't know him. His first name… that seems like something special between the two of you. I've never even met him. It would feel disrespectful for me to use it."

"I don't know." Scout picked his hat up off his lap, and ran his finger around the brim. "I don't think it would be disrespectful. It's not like what he's doing now… his doctorate has very little to do with it."

"Did it ever?"

Scout had to give him that one. "True enough. What were you going to say?"

"I was going to suggest… well, it can wait."

Scout slid his feet off the desk and sat up straight. "No, I want to hear this."

Zwist laughed. "You don't even know what it is."

"Anything that gives you pause is worth hearing, I'd imagine. Come on, Thilo, out with it."

This time the response came so late, Scout almost thought the line was dead. "Is anyone listening?"

Scout cleared his throat. "If anyone's listening to my secret phone call on a secured line to a secured line with a Person of Interest on which there is a standing capture-on-sight order, please stop. He has something sensitive to impart." He reduced the theatricality in his tone a notch. "That satisfy you?"

Zwist sighed. "It's just… I don't know. How many years have you been chasing me, now?"

"That depends on where you measure it from. In a sense I've been chasing the idea of you for nearly eighty years."

"Do you think… would it spoil things terribly if we met?"

The felt and plastic under his fingertips, the receiver against his ear, the cushion of the chair and the fabric of his clothing all fell away from him, and he felt only the sound of Zwist's slightly-too-quick breathing and the niggling memory of Wynn Rydderech, toiling away in the black below.

"I think…" Scout hated the sound of his own voice, and he hated the words more. "No, I don't think it would… spoil things."

"But."

He screwed his eyes shut. "But I do think it would be… disrespectful."

He almost imagined he could see Zwist nodding, on the other end. "That's your decision to make, Vivian. It will always be yours."

His second phone line lit up, and he swallowed the lump in his throat. "I have to go. I'll… I'll give it some thought."

"I wouldn't," said Zwist. "I'd say and do whatever feels right in the moment, and leave it at that."

"What if nothing ever feels right?"

This time Zwist had no answer at all; after a few more moments passed, the second line still blinking insistently, Scout gently pressed down the switchhook.


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1989


19 February

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"I don't know. This doesn't feel… I don't know."

"It doesn't matter how it feels to you. It matters how it feels to him. He's in pain."

"And I'm not?"

"No. Not right now. When you turn off that terminal, you'll have all the time in the world to be in pain, and I'll still be here. But right now, he needs you, and you need to be there for him."

Scout stared at the blank screen, holding on to the telephone receiver for dear life. He was certain the scramblers were working; he could redirect his redline to anywhere in the Site, now. It had been an obvious request to make, and nobody at Identity and Technocryptography had batted an eye. Sometimes the Director needed to make a secure call when he wasn't in his office. What could be more natural?

He was watching a reality-bender lose his mind in realtime thought-to-text, while another talked him through talking him down on the telephone. What could be less natural?

"What's he saying?" Zwist asked, very gently. "Read his words to me."

It felt like sacrilege, but Zwist was right. A little betrayal could help a lot, and Scout's own well of words had long dried up. He picked up the latest printout. "Okay. Uh…"

You've forgotten about me

You never loved me

You hate me

I miss you

I need you

AI(NO2)3

"That last one is the formula for aluminium nitrate," Scout sighed. "I don't know what it's in reference to, or how he even got the printer to do subscript."

"Alright." He heard Zwist furiously scribbling, and a thought occurred to him, and he almost didn't speak it aloud.

"You're not going to use your… art, on him, are you?"

"No. I can't really do that at a distance."

"You did, at the beginning. With the disease."

"That was a special case." Zwist's pen was still scratching up a storm. "Considering how unusual your method of communication with him is, I might not even be able to work my magic if I were actually right there with you."

"Probably for the best." Scout rubbed his eyes; he'd already discarded his spectacles on the desk. "I don't know if I'd… if he'd want that."

"Okay, I'm ready." Zwist took a deep breath. "I want you to type what I tell you, and I don't want you to stop and ask questions, or second-guess anything. Just trust me."

Scout's own deep breath made his lungs hurt. "Fire away."

Zwist began to speak, slowly and deliberately, in a tone of voice Scout had never heard him use before. It wasn't high and querulous, as it usually was; it was oddly melodic, comforting, even charming. He was entranced. He typed along with it, internalizing every turn of phrase. He wondered if Zwist was lying about his powers. He chose to trust that he wasn't.

"There is no power on this Earth which could cause me to forget about you. In all the years I've been alive, I have never been close to anyone as I have been with you. I would never allow such a thing to happen; it would cheapen what we've shared, and almost nothing would give me more pain than that." Scout was so familiar with the rhythm of Zwist's writing that he even knew where the semicolons and commas went. He kept perfect pace. "If I have never loved you, then I have never loved. I know that you love me, and I know that if it were possible, if invisible forces we do not control would allow it, we would be together now. We've been apart before, but it only brought us closer together. I don't blame you for your absence; I don't blame you for your pain; I don't blame you for what you felt you had to do, for the distance you need to keep and the walls you had to put up between us. I could never hate you; even as brilliant and powerful as you are, you would be powerless to lower my estimation of your strength, your grace, and your drive to do the right thing. If I can't have you here, beside me, I will take you as you are, because I will never stop needing you. Even if it hurts."

"Even if it hurts," Zwist repeated. Scout struck the final key, and slumped down in his chair.

A moment passed, and then the printer started printing. It took Scout almost a full minute to reach over and tear off the sheet.

this isnt what i wanted

this isnt what you wanted

this isnt your fault

i will never

He rested the sheet on the desk, and his forehead on the sheet, and began to weep. Zwist stayed on the line until he was ready to talk again.


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1995


30 July

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Scout clapped the Chair of Administration and Oversight on the shoulder. "You'll do fine. It's a good plan."

Dr. Allan McInnis glanced down at Scout's hand. He didn't complain about the overly familiar gesture; this was his way of reciprocating. "I'm not worried about my performance," he said. "I'm worried about how well it will go over."

One kilometre above them, Canadian Forces Camp Ipperwash was no longer in chaos. It had been in chaos for most of May, but one half of the belligerents had finally withdrawn yesterday. Without the army occupying what had once been their sacred lands, the Stony Cree occupying Site-43's topside front were settling down to what they fully expected to be a long occupation of their own.

"You've got a silver tongue," Scout's lab assistant replied. Dr. Harold Blank, one of the Site's newest hires and Scout's final PhD student before retiring his civilian career, looked absolutely miserable. Nobody trapped in the underground Site was sleeping well, and Blank didn't handle not sleeping well, well. "There's nobody I'd rather have blowing smoke up their asses than you."

McInnis inclined his head in Blank's direction. "Thank you, Harry, for your vote of confidence." He pressed the button to call the topside elevator, and buttoned up the collar of his black work shirt. "You're absolutely certain this is the course you want to take, sir?"

Scout nodded. "Bring their leader down here. Show him what we've got to offer. Promise him our protection. Say it like you mean it, because it's true." He turned to Blank. "And what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to keep Dr. Falkirk busy, so he doesn't find out." Blank rolled his eyes. "I don't see why you can't just order him to keep his nose out of it."

"He's my deputy," Scout scolded. "I can't mess around with him like that."

"But you can tell me to."

"Exactly."

"Sometimes I feel like I never actually graduated."

Scout clapped Blank on his shoulder, too. "That's because your supervisor's still around. I'm going to make myself scarce." He started to walk away.

McInnis glanced after him curiously. "Where are you going to be while I'm making my pitch, sir?"

Scout replied over his shoulder, not turning back: "You don't need to know. You don't need me, anymore."


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"About a week," Scout typed. "When it was just the military up there, we could come and go as we please. But the Stony aren't in on our little secret, and we doubt they'll be pleased to learn that someone sunk a three hundred and seventy-two thousand square metre facility into their sacred lands, so we've been keeping a low profile."

I have some experience with keeping a low profile.

So, you're stuck underground, eh? Welcome to my world.

Scout laughed. "I don't know how you've put up with it so long, I'm getting downright squirrelly here."

I haven't had a choice.

I've wanted one.

But I haven't had one.

It took a moment for the smile to die off Scout's lips; the response caught him badly off-guard. "What do you mean?" he typed.

Who controls the floodgates, Vivian?

He felt an icy chill which had nothing to do with the altitude wash over him. "I do."

Who controls the floodgates, Vivian?

"I told you, Wynn. I do."

Who controls the floodgates, Vivian?

Scout was having trouble breathing. "Wynn, if you're asking me for something, I need you to come right out and say it." It was so much easier to type than to speak.

Come right out and say what?

Scout threw his glasses at the base of the monitor and hammered his forehead with his wrists. He hammered out a rephrase: "Do you want me to open the floodgates, Wynn?"

When he realized no response was forthcoming, it was all he could do not to scream.


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1996


9 February

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Scout had worn his best, oldest suit. It was slightly too tight, slightly too sharp; the finer lines had made him look almost nightmarishly severe in the mirror, and that had made him glad. He wanted them to be able to say he'd frightened them, he'd imposed upon them, he'd made them act without thinking about what they were doing.

"Dr. Blank, Dr. McInnis, we are enacting SUNDOWN Protocol." They nodded, almost simultaneously. The three of them were alone in the Administration and Oversight hub.

He'd worn his darkest spectacles, the ones he only wore when he went topside, and his hat, which he only ever wore out of the Site. He hoped to appear as the spectre of his own reputation rather than the fallible, emotional human being he knew himself to be. They both knew him that way, too, but he hoped for a moment to make them forget.

"Dr. Blank, please confirm the security of the Lake Huron perimeter." Scout's voice was cool and calm. He'd popped a few pills beforehand; he'd made this decision emotionally, but he would make his final move with complete rationality.

"Perimeter confirmed. The southern shore is clear."

His face might as well have been a deathmask. His tone was appropriately funereal. He approached roboticism as he said the final, fateful words: "Dr. McInnis, please prepare the floodgate doors." Scout himself would push the fatal button. He owed that much to all of them. It's what you wanted, Wynn. I'm sorry I couldn't do b—

"Dr. McInnis, please do NOT prepare the floodgate doors." The voice of the All-Sections Chief, Edwin Falkirk, filtered over the ceiling intercom. "Not that you can; I&T has taken your panels off-line."

The door to the hub slid open, and Falkirk strode in. Two armed agents were with him. "Take Dr. Scout into custody," he crowed. "He and I are going on a trip."


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10 February

Site-01: Undisclosed Location, United States of America


O5-8 pressed a button on his desk, and the whirr of the tape recorder ceased. "No, Dr. Scout, thank you. I understand how hard this has been."

Scout had been ready to leave; the interview was over, his reasons had been disgorged, his resignation was the only thing left on his mind. But that final twist of the knife was too much, too much, and he had to respond. "I'm sorry, sir; do you?"

The plastic screens were a thing of the past; they'd found some way to darken the space around the Overseers so that only their silhouettes were visible. It was impossible to read the emotions of what was, for all intents and purposes, a cardboard cutout of a man. One man. Scout waited for an answer.

When he realized he wasn't going to get one, he pressed the point. "Why did I even have control of the floodgates, if you were never going to let me use them?"

Nothing.

"What do you have to lose by admitting the truth? Are you allergic to it? Does it get stuck in your throat like a chicken bone, or are you just habitually mute on the topic of honesty? I'm not going to tell anyone. We both know I'll be dead by this time next year anyway."

Was that a sigh, or just a trick of the light and the air conditioning?

"Fine. Whatever. Expect my letter."

He walked to the door.

"Vivian."

He put his hand on the handle.

"Vivian."

He didn't turn around, but he did hesitate.

"What made you think we'd let you do it?"

He suffered, suddenly, the overpowering urge to spit in the other man's face. He pressed the handle down slightly. "Because I had the right," he said.

"What made you think you had the right?"

"Because he gave it to me. Because he gave everything to me, and I him."

"Say it precisely. Tell me what you're really thinking."

Scout turned around, straightening his tie, tugging out his collar, rotating the cuffs of his jacket. He wondered how his spectacles looked in the dark. He hoped they were shining; his eyes certainly were. "Wynn Rydderech was my partner," he said. "He meant everything to me. He was my lover; in every way that matters, he was my husband. He trusted me to do what needed to be done, he asked me for it, and I promised him I would. You made a liar out of me." He would not, could not soften the blow with something so pointless and obscene as a "sir."

The shape of a man considered him for a moment.

"We'll monitor the situation," it said at last.

"Fine. You do that." This time Scout walked briskly to the door, and threw it open before the Overseer could say another word. The leering visage of Edwin Falkirk filled his vision; if it had been possible, Scout knew his All-Sections Chief would have been listening in with a cup to his ear.

"Evening, Director," said Falkirk.

Scout jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Go get your reward." He didn't even care enough about the man to snap it.

"Please stay one moment longer, Dr. Scout," Eight called.

Scout remembered what he'd told Rydderech after Watts' violent death, and very seriously considered saying something he knew he wouldn't regret in response. But he didn't. He had things to put in order back at 43, and people depending on him, and he knew better than to leave it all in Falkirk's capable but callous hands. Falkirk brushed past him insolently, and he shut the door.

"This won't take a moment, gentlemen." The Overseer kept an even tone; Scout wondered if he'd have been able to do the same. He wondered if the man he'd known was really still there behind that desk, or if something altogether different had replaced him. "The matter of Dr. Scout's actions is closed; you will not discuss it further with your colleagues, is this clear?"

Falkirk glanced at Scout, who shrugged. "He's asking you, not me. My integrity isn't in question."

Falkirk snorted. "Yes, sir, very clear."

"Good." The silhouette leaned forward. "Dr. Scout will remain Director of Site-43 until further notice, but he has broached the matter of his successor with us on several occasions before."

Falkirk nodded eagerly.

"As All-Sections Chief of Site-43, you are next in line for the Directorship. But your recent actions lead us to believe you are not properly fit for the post."

Falkirk half-nodded, before his jaw dropped. "What?"

"While you followed proper procedure by informing us of Dr. Scout's actions, the means by which you acquired said information leave much to be desired. You circumvented normal channels, disobeyed direct orders from your superiors, and engaged in clandestine behaviour unbefitting of administrative staff."

"That's not… you can't be s—"

"You will be transferred to Site-19, effective immediately. We will reconsider your position after twelve months. Dr. Allan McInnis will be promoted to All-Sections Chief, in anticipation of his Directorship upon Dr. Scout's retirement."

"That's ridiculous." Scout thought Falkirk himself might spit. He was nearly frothing at the mouth. "This man," and he pointed so suddenly Scout briefly feared for the safety of his spectacles, "bent an entire Site around his little office affair, right under your noses, and you're lettin—"

"Dr. Falkirk, please leave the room." The Overseer didn't shout; he didn't have to. Falkirk spun on his heels and left, slamming the door open and leaving it hanging.

Scout watched him go, then stood for a moment in the slim line of light pouring in from the hallway. "Was that supposed to mean something? Am I supposed to be grateful, now?"

The silhouette shrugged.

"Thanks for nothing," Scout said. He clapped his hat on his head, flipped back the brim, and walked out of Eight's shadow for good.


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1997


March 29

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


It was a wide bench, and it seated the three of them quite comfortably. They sat on either side of Scout, the better to help him stand up when the need arose. He appreciated and resented the gesture in almost equal measure.

"More Sites should have a lake," Blank mused.

Scout nodded.

"There's 81," said McInnis.

"81 is under a lake," Blank laughed. "Not the same thing at all."

Again, Scout nodded.

"I do take your point, Harry. It's very peaceful out here." McInnis breathed deeply; Scout resented him for that, too, just for a moment.

"And here I thought you had no emotions."

"Don't you two ever shut up?"

Both of them turned to stare at him; he looked up at the afternoon sun, letting it glint off his spectacles one final time, leaving them hanging for a few more seconds before he grinned. "Thought my hat might fall off, but it was worth it."

Blank looked gutted, and McInnis looked sombre. Scout laughed again, and nudged them both. "Cheer up already. It's almost over, and you can get back to work."

"We're going to miss you," said McInnis. Scout knew it was true; he also knew Blank would miss him more, but would be unable to say it out loud. Blank would be nodding, though. He glanced at the younger historian. He was nodding.

"Don't let the place go to pot when I'm gone." Scout shifted uncomfortably on the bench; even just sitting upright took a lot out of him. He'd been lucky to stagger this far from the car, even with his cane and the help of the two young researchers. "And don't name anything after me."

"I was thinking I'd name a cat after you," said Blank. His voice was rough.

"That's fair. I never had a cat. Are they nice?" Scout scratched his nose.

Blank laughed incredulously. "You're one hundred and twelve years old. How have you never had a cat?"

Scout considered this for a moment. The lake was unusually calm today; there was barely a breeze in the air. "There's a lot of things I haven't done, Harry."

They didn't know what to say to that, obviously, so he said something of his own instead. "If you find a way…" He cleared his throat. "If you find a way to do something about…"

He wasn't surprised to find he couldn't complete the thought, just as he wasn't completely surprised when both men laid their hands on his shoulders.

"We'll bring him home," said McInnis.

"We won't forget," Blank promised.

Scout nodded. The lake was shimmering in an ocean of tears he couldn't quite bring himself to weep. He didn't want to spoil the sunlit moment. "Good. Because…" He sighed, taking off his spectacles awkwardly and wiping his eyes dry. "I tried to kill him, you know. Because he wanted it. Because all I had left was helping him to die in the manner of his choosing. But I couldn't give him that. I failed him."

"You didn't fail anybody," said Blank. "You—"

"Oh, drop it, Harry. We all fail, all the time. We're a Foundation of failures, each and every one of us. We fail our friends, our family, our lovers; the only thing that makes it bearable, is knowing we haven't totally failed all this." He waved at the sun streaming through the branches of the pines.

"You were there for him when he needed you," said McInnis.

Scout scoffed. "And what good did it do him?"

Blank looked earnest; Blank never, ever looked earnest. "All the good in the world. You wrote to him almost every day for thirty years, back in the day, isn't that what you told me? How was typing on a screen any different?"

Scout shook his head. "We weren't together. I couldn't touch him. I couldn't hold him. I couldn't…" He couldn't stop shaking his head. "It was only words."

"Exactly." Blank nodded. "And what did you always say about words?"

It took Scout a moment to realize what the much, much younger man meant. He pursed his lips. He closed his eyes. He nodded.

Words have power.

"Thank you," he said. He opened his eyes, with some effort. "Do you know… in spite of everything…"

"What?" McInnis asked.

Scout smiled a thin, sad smile. "Knowing that they'll both still be out there, somewhere, that they'll never really die… I think that might be the only thing that makes me unafraid to close my eyes, at night."

He closed his eyes. He was suddenly quite tired. He folded his spectacles in his hand by muscle memory, and placed them in his jacket pocket. He took as deep breath as he could, and released it at length.

He opened his eyes, and glanced at the two men watching him with bated breath.

"Well, come on, help an old fellow up. I'm not dying in front of the lake like some god-damn cliché."


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1 April

Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-W: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


He felt it as a moving of the earth, as a ripple in the fabric of what he still understood to be his being. He felt that final cut as keenly as he'd felt anything in his long life, and even though he didn't need to eat, or breathe, or make love, the sensation of his lover's death struck him like a burning hunger, like a sudden asphyxiation, like an ache in his body he could not control.

Wynn Rydderech allowed himself this moment of helplessness, imagined the feeling of kneecaps shattering on cold stone, imagined the tears he could only cry if he concentrated. He calculated the saline quotient by heart, so that he could taste the bitter salt of loss.

"Goodbye, Vivian," he said to the uncaring pit that was his home. He held fast to the memory of what he had just felt, knowing it would pass from him as did all things but the memory of the man's name, the man's face, and the swelling in his own chest as these totems of devotion crossed the sparkling pathways of his electrochemical miracle.


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Ipperwash Provincial Park: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


It was a risk, of course, but Zwist attended the funeral. He could think of a dozen good reasons for not doing so, but none of them were his truth, and he'd long ago decided that he wouldn't keep living so far beyond his appointed hour if it meant living a lie, so he went. Only one person recognized him, a researcher from Site-43 who wanted to talk again when the moment was right; Zwist knew the young man well, knew from Scout's own words to trust him, so he agreed to see him again some day. To tell his story. But not today; today, he would not look back.

He'd spent the week watching Scout's humble home in Grand Bend, wondering if he should break their unspoken pact and knock on the front door. He wondered if there were agents watching him, or if they knew to leave well enough alone. In the end he decided to retain the purity of their acquaintance, the intimate distance they had shared, and leave well enough alone himself.

He sat next to the rift in the earth beside the lake, peered over the edge of his notebook into its murky depths, and considered. A fox crested the hill above, and looked down at him with an almost human intelligence; knowing what he did about this place, he'd almost decided to speak a word of greeting before it bounded away into the surrounding trees.

He smiled.

The earth beneath him was spiderwebbed with tunnels just like this one, all connected, a nexus of subterranean roads from lake to lake to lake. Some of those pathways led to a lonely cleft, narrow but impossibly tall, stretching out beneath Site-43, where lived a lonely man who could never die. A man like him, consumed by the need to fix things which could not be fixed, to improve the lives of people he would never see and could never meet. A man with nothing left to him but the urge and the will to do the good work.

As he put pen to paper and began to write, he resolved some day — not today, but some day — to make that man's acquaintance, and to speak of old loves long lost.

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