Under New Management
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rating: +34+x

Under New Management


Asterisk43.png

2003

13 January

Site-01: Undisclosed Location


"We have always had the utmost confidence in you, Director McInnis," the darkness lied to him.

McInnisDark.jpg

"Thank you, sir." He said it like he meant it. That was his gift, how he'd earned his title.

Most first-time visitors to Site-01 made the mistake of dressing to impress. McInnis, conversely, had always had the benefit of Vivian Scout's advice. "The lights in that room never come on unless the Council is alone. In fact, they never come on unless the Council is alone and they need to see each other. Don't worry about how you look; they don't care. You might as well be comfortable in the dark while you're uncomfortable in the dark. Worry about what you're going to say, and worry even more about what they're going to say to you."

He was only a little bit worried. This wasn't his first rodeo.

It wasn't even in his first dozen.

"However," the modulated voice continued after a pregnant pause, "we cannot ignore the egregious lapse of safety protocols attested by the events of last September." McInnis heard it all before it reached his ears; this was precisely how he might have written it.

Civility, however, demanded a response. "Of course."

"We are therefore compelled to temporarily relieve you of your post."

What? He had expected to be cautioned. He had expected to be chastened. He had not at all expected to be fired. His vocal reaction was nevertheless measured to the cent. "May I ask why? If this response is proportionate, my understanding of the situation must be lacking."

There was a chortle from a different corner of the lightless void, and a new vocoder chimed in. "That was your equivalent of an angry outburst, Allan. Get it all out."

This was O5-13, the Mediator. McInnis knew that nobody made it to Clearance Level 4 without a patron, and he suspected that 13 was his. He also knew 13 was likely still on his side, since he'd made it to Clearance Level 5, but he nevertheless took a moment to sand down the barely-rough edges of his mood even further before restating his case. The demands of civility were many and varied. "I am familiar with the containment breach statistics for the Foundation writ large, and the statistics for Site-43, and how they do or do not correlate. Sir, sirs, not only was the regrettable toll of this incident still well below the organizational norm; not only did my staff, in the main, respond with admirable alacrity and judgement; this incident represents no pattern of negligence occurring under my watch. Site-43 is the safest large containment facility we operate, and I am again left figuratively in the dark if there is good cause to take issue with my leadership thereof."

There were a few muted chuckles. They enjoyed a good joke now and then, or even a not-so-good one. Not many people were willing to jest in the presence of the Overseer Council, and the habitually-dour McInnis ranked at the bottom of their list of likely jesters. This, like everything else he did, was calculated. He was only so often predictable because it let him choose when to be unpredictable, and make it count.

"We have received a formal objection to your Directorship from a member of your own senior staff." O5-1 again. "In response, the Site-01 liaison for Site-17 has claimed — not without reason — that this disaster does represent a longstanding trend at your facility: an overtly humanistic, unserious, laissez-faire approach to doing our collective business." It all made perfect, deadly sense now. The Site-01 liaison for Site-17 thought he ought to be the Director of Site-43, had thought so for a long, long time. McInnis was one of several reasons he instead held the former position, and had been pointedly snubbed for the latter. "A pattern, in your terms, of negligence. In light of the incident with your janitorial technicians on September the 17th, we are obliged to investigate."

Nobody on Earth could oblige the Overseers to do something they didn't already want to do. Nevertheless, McInnis inclined his head. There was no way they could see it, but he knew they probably could anyway. "And you are, of course, under no obligation to explain yourselves to me. Thank you for so doing. May I ask: who will undertake my duties, in my absence?"

"You may not." The new voice was unfamiliar. McInnis only knew six of the O5s, and this wasn't one of them. "Suffice to say they are experienced with the context of the post. You will not, however, be absent. You will be returned to Site-43, and relieved of active duty, but your permissions will go unchanged."

McInnis blinked, even in the dark. "I beg your pardon? Sir?"

The shadows were a smile… more than one smile. A starless expanse of bared teeth. He couldn't see, but he didn't need to.

It was in the air.

"Noted." O5-1 already sounded bored. "Should we decide to grant it, you will be among the first to know."


Asterisk43.png

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"Hello, Harry."

"Hello, Karey. How's the beach?" Administration and Oversight looked, of course, nothing like a beach — though you could probably sell it as a beachfront hotel, an expensive, extensive one requiring two dozen cubicles' worth of administrators.

Administration and Oversight is the fanciest Section of Site-43, featuring cocoa porcelain floor tiles, oak panelled walls, and even oak-panelled cubicles. The Administration subSection acts as a foyer, with an array of workstations around a raised daïs where the Chief lords from on high; the office of the Director's secretary, which of course provides further access to the office of the Director, is located here. The Hiring and Regulation Section, where the most prosaic tasks of people-management are carried out, is also accessed from the foyer — sandwiched between A&O and the habs, where their clients live. The Oversight subSection in the rear is primarily comprised of Operations Control, a NASA-esque monitoring room with rows of terminals and two big boards (one horizontal for planning, the other vertical for display).

The whole is a cluster of mundanity, generally agreed to be the dullest corner of an otherwise stimulating post.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

Karen Elstrom wasn't dressed to work at a hotel, and she wasn't dressed mundanely either. She really was kitted out for a day at the beach.

It was Harry, with his archival flair for paraphrasing, who had once described Elstrom as a 'temporarily-embarrassed administrator'. The Chair of A&O was fourth in line from the Director's seat, but was in a more practical sense the Site's chief operating officer; the All-Sections Chief was focused on inter-Sectional coordination, and the top archivists and occultists were far too busy parsing paper and making magic, respectively, to be bothered with minding the shop writ large. Elstrom, however, was not even the Chair.

She was his assistant — merely the biggest fish in a very large secretarial pool.

And while she didn't dress for the job she had, she didn't dress for the job she so obviously wanted either. A&O personnel got to wear whatever they damn well liked, not being scientists or technicians or agents, or even visible in their sequestered office blocks. Most opted for business casual, if they were young, and business formal or just plain casual if they were old and stuffy or old and no longer capable of giving a shit. Elstrom, in defiance of the norm, took advantage of the Site's perfectly-tuned climate control to essay sunny vests over sleeveless shirts. Today the vest was orange, and the shirt was blue, and in combination with her shampoo commercial-styled honey blonde hair and sky-blue eyes, she looked like the sort of secretary whose boss definitely didn't manage operations for a shadowy global conspiracy.

Elstrom.jpg

It therefore wasn't her appearance which spoke to her career aspirations, but her demeanour. Whether she didn't get his joke, or did and didn't care for it, she didn't so much as crack a smile. She did, however, glance up from her terminal. "What can I do for you?"

"You can make small talk." He leaned on the wooden half-wall. "Nobody's looking over your shoulder this late in the evening."

"Oh." She widened her eyes in affected awe. "You're humanizing the interaction. You must want something good."

He brushed it off. "Nay, 'tis but a trifle. Hardly worth mentioning, certainly not worth rushing into. But tell me, Karen, do you like movies?"

"In general?" She pretended to consider. "Do I enjoy the approximately one-quarter of popular cultural production that is moving pictures on the silver screen?"

"Yeah." He nodded. "That."

"Yes, Harry, I like movies just fine. Hell of a question to make a special trip for."

"Hey, every trip to this fine establishment, to see these fine people, is special." They were, of course, completely and totally alone. Operations Control ran continuous shifts, but general admin was an eight-to-five. "Why you gotta impugn my motives?"

"This isn't as funny as you think it is." She returned to her leisurely typing.

"It doesn't have to be. It just has to be funnier than sitting here alone, typing up whateverthefuck."

She didn't stop. "I see. You don't need to try very hard with me, because of how boring both I and my job are."

He gasped in mock shock. "I never said you were boring."

She rolled her eyes.

"Fine, fine, I recognize the symptoms of Harry poisoning, I'll get to the point. Can I book the I&T conference room for tonight? Short notice, I know, but."

"Dr. Blank." She folded her hands in front of her keyboard. "The I&T conference room is presently scheduled for non-use."

He actually recoiled. "Karen. You can't schedule something for non-use. Either it's scheduled for occupancy — which it isn't — or it… isn't. Which it isn't."

She shook her head, and a golden barrier tumbled down between them. She flicked it back with practiced ease, like a model, and explained. "Dr. Blank. In the Administration and Oversight Facility Scheduling System — FSS — each partitioned space at Site-43 may have only one of only two possible flags set for any single half-hour block: scheduled for use, or scheduled for non-use. All rooms in Identity and Technocryptography are scheduled for non-use at this time."

He blinked rapidly. He wondered if this had something to do with McInnis, who looked like a retired Olympic swimmer but spoke like a funeral director. Is this what they mean by 'bureaucratohazards'? "Karen. Your shift ended an hour ago, and you just read out a raft of official terminology in full — and supplied a goddamn acronym, like you're doing your own verbal footnotes. You know who does that? Computers." He tapped the top of her CRT for emphasis. "Computers do that."

She exhaled, with a hint of smile. It might have been a chuckle, singular.

"And you're not a computer, and neither am I, so can we end this bizarre interaction on the very human note where you schedule us in, and go get the key?"

She shook her head again; the hair stayed in place this time. "You need to make your request during working hours, Dr. Blank. Those are the rules."

He pointed at her. "You're still working, Dr. Elstrom."

She clicked her tongue. "That's rules lawyering."

"—Dr. Blank," he finished for her.

"Dr. Blank," she agreed. He saw, for the first time, something like a twinkle in her eye.

He rested both shoulders on the monitor, then his chin on both palms. "It's a good movie."

She shrugged. "Hardly seems pertinent. But do go on."

"Back to the Future."

Suddenly, she smiled. She had a wide, white smile. "I see." She tapped a few keys, rapid fire, then stood up. "Obviously there was some electronic snafu in processing your request."

"Well, obviously." He followed her to the Chief's daïs, lined on three sides by a gleaming bank of cabinets.

She knelt in front of one, tapped her ID badge on the reader, opened the door and took out a plain white keycard before standing up again. "We'll call this a technical issue with the logging system."

"The FSS," he corrected. "Can't trust those computers; go for the human touch every time." He held out his hand.

She took it, instead of passing the card over. "I'm concerned about the irregularity, Dr. Blank. I'll need to supervise your event, to make sure there aren't any further difficulties."

He laughed. "First the admin, then the oversight."

"Always the oversight," she corrected him. He led her towards the glass double doors; by the time they passed her desk again, she was the one leading.


Asterisk43.png

14 January


McInnis was granted the dubious honour of knowing his replacement's name an hour before the chopper arrived. The word arrived at his personal terminal in a coded transmission on a carrier wave undetectable by any other piece of equipment in the Site, a wave undeterred by any amount of soil or bedrock or concrete or steel, and so in the privacy of his office he stared at the insult in cold contempt.

Five minutes later he stood, and began walking. He smiled politely and nodded at his secretary, a lean and clean-cut young man named Zulfikar; he smiled politely and nodded at the soldierly Chief of A&O, Rory Skellicorne, who was sitting on his raised throne and chatting with Karen Elstrom — their little tableau resembling nothing so much as a lawyer approaching the bench, and knowing Elstrom the resemblance was more than merely visual; he smiled politely and nodded at Elstrom, and then quite mercifully he had passed out of the foyer and didn't have to smile politely and nod at anyone until he reached the All-Sections Chief's offices in Habitation and Sustenance, whereupon he smiled and nodded at Dolly Ferber, his deputy's own aging secretary. He didn't have to ask if the ASC was present, and he didn't have to ask to be buzzed in. He didn't even have to knock, if he didn't want to; there was no room in Site-43 he wasn't immediately entitled to enter, though he was about to surrender that power. Among many others, some of them never even used. He opened the door, passed through, and did not close it behind him.

The ASC was seated behind his handcrafted pine desk, neatly-aligned sheaf of papers in hand. The tanned and muscular man looked up, said "Sir," and then — of course — smiled and nodded.

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"Come out here for a second, please, Nim." McInnis headed back into the outer office without waiting for a response.

Ferber looked up at him curiously as he stood in the centre of her workspace, hands in his pants pockets, the very picture of casual control. He pursed his lips at her by way of reacknowledgement, as his nattily-dressed second came out to see what was what.

"Please record, Miss Ferber." McInnis waited until she'd pressed the button under the lip of her desk before continuing. He made eye contact with the ASC without really being mentally present, and recited: "In the presence of a witness at Security Clearance Level 2 or higher, I hereby relinquish my control of Site-43 to you, my duly-appointed deputy. At your earliest convenience, confirm my security code: McInnis amity theta desuetude eleven abiogenesis thamaniya Ganymede Xerxes prudentia temerity. This code will be retired, and you will be provided a temporary Security Clearance Level 5 code of your own until such time as the pro-tem Director arrives to relieve you. This is projected to take place in approximately…" He checked his watch as the unflappable ASC stared at him in unaccustomed disbelief. "…forty-seven minutes. Please relieve me at this time."

"I relieve you, sir." The other man knew his protocols backwards and forwards, so he didn't even have to think about what to say. From the look on his face, this was a very good thing.

"I stand relieved." McInnis felt his shoulders slumping, so he turned away to disguise it. "And a great bloody relief it is."


Asterisk43.png

Ibanez sighed as the helicopter descended. "Hate this shit."

Harry raised an eyebrow as the trees and grass began to shudder; his hair, sprayed in misplace as it was, didn't budge. Ibanez's was slicked back, and Lillian's was too short. "What shit?"

"Meet the new boss shit." Her eyes narrowed as the dust picked up. "Never the same as the old boss."

"Shit," Harry supplied helpfully.

"You know what I mean, though." She shielded her eyes from the sun, and peered straight up. "You've seen it on TV. The new guy parachutes in, and he's an asshole, right, and he insists everybody do things his way, right."

"How many new bosses have you even had?" Harry scoffed. "Is it not just Allan? Allan's like Scout with an extra varnish coat."

"And no hat," Ibanez countered. "I liked that hat."

"I plan on ignoring whoever it is," Lillian drawled.

"Like you did Allan," Ibanez agreed.

"You did Allan?!" Harry gasped.

They both wanted to respond to that, but the roar of the approaching rotors wouldn't allow it. It didn't matter anyway; as soon as they saw who was sitting in the back of the chopper, the topic was irrevocably changed.

"No," Harry whispered into the wind.

"They wouldn't send fucking FALKIRK," Ibanez shouted.

"Of course they wouldn't!" Harry shouted as the agent helped what was unmistakably Edwin fucking Falkirk out of the cabin. "He's… they must've sent him to… orient…?"

Falkirk had stuffed a duffel bag into the agent's arms, and the agent was still trying to figure out what to do with it when the helicopter took off again.

"Fuck," Lillian stated matter-of-factly.

"Maybe it's the agent." Harry looked between his two colleagues for support. "It could be the agent. In disguise."

"Fuck." Ibanez kicked the dirt.

Falkirk strutted towards them like a stop-motion skeleton, wavy hair parting in the departing breeze. He had high, prominent cheekbones — so prominent they threatened to burst from beneath his veiny, almost translucent skin — gaunt cheeks, a narrow slit of a mouth and beady little dark brown eyes. His hair was backswept, salt-and-pepper fading to salt-and-gravel with age. His neck was so narrow that his starched shirt collar never touched it; beneath his exorbitantly expensive-looking morning dress suit he was all bones and no fat, like a whip made of wire or an armature straining within a sack of too-thin flesh. As he neared their position he reached up to adjust his tie with one arthritic claw, head tilting back so he could look down his twisted nose at them.

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He nodded jerkily at each in turn, and half-snarled: "Harold. Ibanez. Lyle."

Lillian didn't so much as twitch.

She simply reached up, and tugged the neckline of her dress shirt down lower.

Falkirk sneered.


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With the exception of those who'd been forcibly removed, diplomatic protocol demanded an outgoing Site Director meet with their replacement personally for the transfer of power. McInnis was diplomatically outgoing, but in this case he ignored protocol in favour of strategy. Diplomatic strategy told him what snubbing Falkirk would tell him, to wit: the pro-tem Director's arrival was no major event, and the pro-tem Director himself was therefore no major player. McInnis knew Falkirk wouldn't immediately perceive the insult, drunk on his perceived victory, but he also knew that the man was extraordinarily preoccupied with his personal honour and slights against it. At the first chance for quiet reflection, he'd immediately start stewing. And so, McInnis turned away from the topside elevator and simply went for a walk.

He passed back through A&O, which was all in an uproar over the impending change of hands, and didn't nod or smile at anybody. They didn't need the distraction, and he wasn't in the mood. He broke with habit and steered clear of his own office, which of course was no longer his, and instead headed north to S&C.

Security and Containment is the only piecemeal Section of Site-43, being split into four separate sectors. The cell blocks and storage facilities containing the actual SCP objects comprise the first sublevel, draining their deadly juices into ApplOcc and AcroAbate, while the other three encircle the bulk of the third. The main armoury, shooting range, barracks and bullpen are all found in S&C Southeast, while S&C Northwest and South are smaller rapid response outposts. Northwest is the only bottom-floor sector not serviced by the Inter-Sectional Subway System, devoted as it is to the protection of Admin and Oversight; the track actually splits to ensure that the bottom two can always enjoy uninterrupted access to each other. Each S&C sector is an expanse of gleaming, dark, pockmarked yellow concrete. The nicknames this queasy design choice occasioned are as predictable as they are impolite.

Until early January of 2003, S&C agents not deployed in armour wore thin blue khaki shirts with matching pants. These outfits were flexible and well-ventilated, but they also provided essentially zero insulation. This was not a problem for their Chief — "I've got plenty of insulation to spare" — but fat-free folk such as Janet Gwilherm found the Cub Scout jackets intolerably cool in the worst possible sense. Even Stewart Radcliffe, who had been a Cub Scout, hated and complained bitterly about the things at every bi-monthly meeting. Cross-departmental politics would soon usher in a new era of sartorial efficiency, though neither Gwilherm or Radcliffe would be around to benefit from it.

The Janitorial and Maintenance Section had been due to switch out their padded uniform vests for jumpsuits since the year 2000. Caving under pressure from his techs to throw out the stuffy, puffy, stiff old vinyl things and get with the nylon program, Chief Nascimbeni placed an order with the H&R clothiers (who were all too happy to work on something that wasn't yet another variation on the labcoat form). As soon as they got wind of this, Ibanez's agents kicked up a righteous fuss. Why should the janitors work in comfort while the guards suffered? She was willing to test out the prototypes, but she didn't like what she saw or felt. "It's all well and good for Janet Gwilherm and her rectangular washboard," she announced, "but the top-heavy among us aren't keen to get our chests yanked down and our asses ridden up on. You see this shit on Star Trek and you think 'ooh, yes, that looks lovely, that looks so futuristic' but what you don't understand is that they're literally pulling the actors to the ground like a second force of gravity, and wrinkling up like nobody's business. They had to spritz the suits with water and iron them — on the actors — to keep the wrinkles out. I don't think my crew wants to be damp, singed and scoliotic for the privilege of looking cool. And if they do… well, fuck them then."

My account of what follows is merely informed speculation. Chief Ibanez realized that if J&M got hold of their suits, she'd never hear the end of it, so she hatched the kind of devious and petty scheme she'd seen the academics spring on each other: she insisted that S&C get first crack, as they're higher on the essential services hierarchy, and then she simply stalled. The suits were never quite right, and she sent the haberdashers back to their drawing boards time and time again.

It remains a mystery why she finally relented.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

McInnis had watched this drama unfold with mounting amusement. He'd wondered if the old uniforms would ever be phased out. It was such a minor, pointless little fracas; the guards and techs had no idea what the holdup could be, and for his part Nascimbeni had seemed serene. McInnis suspected the old mechanic had a nostalgic attachment to his orange vests, and was all too happy putting off their retirement.

And yet, in late September of 2002, Ibanez had started pressing H&R and Trevor Bremmel, the Site's chief gearhead, to finalize their designs. By October they were doing test fittings; by November they were sizing up both Sections and perfecting the body molds which would allow them to stitch together custom suits for every possible frame. By December J&M got their first suits — Ibanez had mysteriously retracted her claim of primacy, presumably so the techs could act as Guinea pigs and the last minute kinks could be worked out before her agents got involved.

McInnis was momentarily taken aback by all the blue jumpsuits he passed after trading the cool cinnamon corridors of A&O for the jaundiced cinderblock bunker beyond. He'd completely forgotten that the change was scheduled for today. The suits seemed to fit snugly, they flexed perfectly, they looked every bit the project for the new millennium they'd been intended to be.

He still couldn't imagine what had changed the Chief's mind.

He supposed, absent anything more important to do with his newly-free time, he could simply ask her. It wouldn't do for him to lose track of what motivated his senior staff… assuming that power relation would ever again be operative.


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From the desk of Director A.J. McInnis

My predecessor held this post, which he himself inaugurated, for over five decades. I have reason to believe my tenure will be not so long, nor so distinguished, nor so self-evidently instructive. To this end I write these words for my successor, that they might learn from my successes and failures alike.

I have tried to comprehend the people who work here, to rationalize the human systems upholding our Veil of Secrecy, achieving via diplomacy and clear communication what cannot be won through fear or force. It has always been my belief that to protect the people of this Earth from the worst the universe can throw at them, we must be the very best versions of ourselves. It has been my life's work to pass on that outlook, to exhort my colleagues not to sink to the situation, but instead rise to it as a challenge. Excel our own expectations. Lead by example. These are not, and cannot be, perfectly efficient systems, and we must therefore search for optimizations wherever they might be found.

For authority attenuates through delegation, like electricity lost as heat along the line. The Deputy Director of each Site is your capacitor, storing and disseminating the power generated by your… station. (The metaphor, I now realize, is so apt as to be embarrassing.) With a well-chosen deputy, little is wasted and much can be accomplished. Working in concert, you take the authority devolved from the O5 Council into your august bodies, then pass it along to those who can use it best. Why would you instead hoard it, see it bleed into nothing, wasting away in a testament to personal vanity? You will not, if you are a well-chosen Director with a well-chosen Deputy.

Vivian Scout was the finest choice of his era for the former post, but he did not have a well-chosen deputy. Small wonder; neither choice was his, and the judgement of committees is often collectively fallible.

"It's good to be back." The old battle-whip's gnarled fingers were flexing at nothing as the elevator descended, and his smile was very cruel. The agent who'd flown in with him, one of those generic white models with the big chin and the bland expression, made a point of staring straight ahead. Harry wondered whether he knew from experience that this was the best way to endure Falkirk's presence, or had just gotten lucky with a lack of imagination.

A response was obviously expected, and Harry didn't trust his companions not to start an incident. Being the responsible one in the room, even a room so small as this one, was a novel experience for him. "I take it this is just a temporary post?"

A series of divots spread across the old man's skin as his smile widened. "Already remembering the good times, eh? No, I think we'll let them roll again for a while. Along with a few choice heads." He glanced meaningfully at Lillihammer; she blinked politely back at him.

"Won't be much time for that," Ibanez remarked. "The whole Site is still on double duty with repairs and remodelling."

"Oh," Falkirk chuckled, "we'll make the time."

Edwin Falkirk was foisted on Site-43 like an unearned parking ticket. We are conditioned to think of the Overseers as unknowable, exceptional, superhuman, fully removed from the realm of quotidian concerns, alien in aims and manner. They do things for reasons we cannot comprehend, because only they can see the big picture, only their brains are big enough. If this is true, then I have never met an Overseer. The men and women I have spoken with are not unpossessed by wordly matters. Electronic modulation and artificial darkness cannot disguise the fact that they have voices, and behind those voices bodies, and within those bodies, personalities. They are, in at least some sense, human beings. I am therefore not quick to dismiss the notion that Falkirk is the brother, or son, or grandson or nephew or any other biological derivation from someone sitting in judgement at Overwatch Command. It is the shortest distance between two points: the way he is, and the power vested in him. It is certainly not serenity, nor patience, nor trustworthiness which has commended him to his duties. He performs them indifferently at best, and abhorrently by habit.

The elevator door opened, revealing the main hall of the third sublevel. It was a wide open space with an extra high ceiling — Applied Occultism was some ways to the east, allowing for a little extra headroom — and a vast cream-tiled foyer floor emblazoned with the emblem of the Site, Lake Huron's black silhouette within a rainbow-backed badge. Falkirk scowled at it, and when he saw who was waiting for him at the centre of that contrasting circle, his lip curled up dangerously.

The All-Sections Chief stepped forward, all smiles, hand outstretched. Save for his dark tan, he could have stepped straight out of any tailor's catalogue. "Welcome to Site-43, Director." His tone was rich and warm.

Falkirk ignored the hand, which returned to its owner's side. "Hello again, kemosabe."

The ASC was obviously going to let that slide. Harry liked to think that, given a moment to speak up, he would have. Lillian and Ibanez didn't give him that moment, however, both of them spluttering at once. Lillian was louder: "Kemosabe was the Lone Ranger."

"You're thinking Tonto," Ibanez added. "Which is, you know."

"Racist," Harry finished.

I worked with this man in various capacities for nearly one quarter-century.

Were I to massage the data, I could tell you with certainty that no human being is perfectly odious in every respect. I once caught Rudolph Marroquin playing Zork II on the terminal we would one day learn he'd been using to blackmail his I&T staff. I saw Gedeon Van Rompay, a more cold-blooded and ruthless MTF commander than the most bloodthirsty Director could hope to employ, petting Harold Blank's cat when he thought nobody was looking. Martin Strauss was the longest-lasting master of S&C because he kept his emotions in check and a tight leash on his agents, but just before he retired he told me the only ribald joke I have ever laughed at. Nobody is all bad, or all business, all the time.

But in twenty-three years I never heard Edwin Falkirk say anything, never saw him do anything, morally lighter than deep grey. As the Chief of Administration and Oversight I kept a file on the fellow with which I fully intended to bury him deeper than the deepest sublevel — which, you will soon come to know, is not the third — and though I never had occasion to deploy it, I remain confident it would have utterly obliterated him. He seemed the perfect storm of every execrable quality mankind has ever, in aggregate, moved beyond… though I truly wonder whether he meant any of the terrible things which so often came out of his mouth. Sometimes I wonder if he was testing his colleagues, and at other times I suspect he merely liked to keep them off guard. If you asked Izaak Okorie, he would have told you Falkirk was an incorrigible segregationist. Arik Euler suspected him of antisemitism. Ilse Reynders considered him a misogynist, and she was able to develop this impression without ever leaving her incinerator. On my first day at Site-43 in 1973, the first thing he said to me was "An Englishman? You must be a pervert, or else Scout never would have hired you." I prompted him for clarification, and this is what he provided: "After a decade of jibber-jabber from these third-world blockheads, I thought I'd never hear an English accent not coming out of a Hindoo's mouth." I am confident, absolutely confident he would have spelled it that way.

And yet I do persist in imagining that these attitudes held some deeper meaning. That he was working to some sort of plan, that his biases were conscious, intentional, and directed. That this was how he was choosing to discharge his power, with some inscrutable goal in mind.

To imagine otherwise would be a condemnation of the human creature in archetype.

Falkirk ignored their censure. "Where's McInnis?"

"Indisposed," the ASC responded smoothly. "It's my duty to pass on control of the Site, and supply you with your command code."

"We'll do that in my office." Falkirk started for A&O, and they all fell in beside or behind him. "Then you can fuck off to your hovel."

Harry actually missed a step, and nearly fell over.

"Sir?" The ASC's voice was a marvel of even-keel.

"I've had your job, I know what it's worth — and therefore, what you're worth. I'll choose my own deputy. When I'm done with you, go back to your own people." Again that sadistic sneer. "Tell them to prepare for a renegotiation of terms."


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McInnis couldn't find his security chief anywhere, and without access to the surveillance mechanisms in the Office of the Director, he was left with mere supposition. He supposed she'd most likely gone to the helipad, to meet Falkirk; it gave him a perverse thrill to imagine the old man greeted by Delfina Ibanez and Lillian Lillihammer on his return to Site-43, the two staff members least likely to suffer his stupidity. It wasn't a very McInnis-like thought, but then, he was on enforced leave.

He decided to do a circuit of the Site before attending to farther fields. From S&C Northwest he passed through the cool blue haven of Health and Pathology, strolling past Melissa Bradbury's private room. There was a J&M tech standing outside her door, staring at it with shoulders slumped; this could be no other than Philip Deering. A quick scan revealed the mirror monster lurking in the polished red surface of a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.

This was no containment breach.

In 1970, Vivian Scout designated a slogan for Site-43: "Subverting Common Practice." The alphabetical correlation took advantage of the newly-implemented Frontispiece effect, imbuing it with succour for our confederates and confusion for both our enemies and those whom we are charged to protect. But it was not a flippant turn of phrase; at Site-43, we are officially committed to finding a better way. That has always been our goal, and the fact that we are allowed a freer hand in our affairs than Sites in the continental United States enjoy — what Harold Blank has called our "latitude latitude" — has enabled us to pursue it with great effectiveness. Common practice at Site-19 is to contain and protect, meaning to put our problems in boxes, and lock them in. That is not always the most efficient, most effective course, but it is typically the most immediately safe course. There is no larger containment facility than Site-19, and the constant arrival of new SCP objects there necessitates a quick and dirty solution in something like ten out of ten cases. We have the luxury to do better, and in so doing, to nudge the containment paradigm toward sustainability.

At Site-19, SCP-5056 would have been given isolation testing until the maximum effective reach of its 'screech' effect had been ascertained. It would then have been entombed underground, with an interdiction radius sufficient to prevent Foundation staff or civilians from coming into range. That this would require a very expensive box would not be a major consideration. Even less important: the logistical requirement that the mirror monster's human 'host', Philip Deering, be entombed along with it. This is not mere speculation on my part. We have done this before, in similar cases, and it has worked — if the progressively worsening insanity of a buried and aggressive creature does not count against your rubric for success.

At Site-43, SCP-5056 was treated as a system, and accommodated appropriately. Philip Deering became, without his knowledge, 5056-B, while the entity necessitating his classification became 5056-A. Their joint containment chamber is still a hole in the ground, but it is a hole larger than any indoor structure known to mundane man: Site-43 itself. It was speculated by Dr. Blank that if Deering were returned to active duty and allowed to resume his roaming course of cleaning, and if a series of mirrors were placed at strategic locations around the Site to provide it sufficient manifestation space, they could continue their shared orbits in perpetuity. We've not heard a peep of protest from the creature (or, rather, Deering has not.)

The germ of this idea came to Dr. Blank while he was pondering the loss of his research partner. "This place," he told me, "is a prison. Work is a prison. But we pretend it isn't, and when we pretend long and hard enough, we forget the truth." I understand the pessimism of this interpretation, but given the fact that he had every reason not to want to see the apparition thrive, it was nevertheless also a generous one. And to that end, that design, that subversion of common practice, Philip Deering has continued to live his average life in relative comfort. Our only major sacrifice on his altar is the use of personal eyewear, now forbidden by standing order.

Were he instead interred out of sight, I might find it difficult to put him out of mind.

Nobody had actually told Deering that he, himself, now had an SCP classification. He thought he'd been allowed back on the job because his lingering visitor required no further containment, unaware that he himself was now acting as a piece of containment apparatus. The matter was likely closed until Deering either died, or requested vacation time.

Given his almost total lack of broad horizons, smart money was on the former coming first.

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Still, this was a little too close to a criminal returning to the scene of his crime for McInnis' comfort. He approached with silent tread, then called out gently: "Technician?"

Deering jumped, turning in midair. He opened his mouth… then glanced furtively at the fire hydrant. He'd obviously just heard something unpleasant, and -A's vocal slit was quivering viciously. "Sorry, sir. Uh… hello. Can I help you?"

McInnis kept his stance casual, hands in his pants pockets. "I've been relieved, Mr. Deering. You won't have to call me 'sir' for a while." This was not in fact true, since McInnis had retained his very high security clearance level — higher, in fact, than Falkirk's — but the kid didn't need to know that. "However, if you were planning on paying Dr. Bradbury a visit…"

Deering raised both hands in protest. "No, sir! Sorry! I just…" He hung his head lamely. "I still feel…" He glanced at the extinguisher again. "Yeah. Exactly."

McInnis didn't need to ask. "From proximity to injustice, we derive guilt. Guilt impels us to act justly. Beyond that capacity to improve us, however, it does not do to linger on it."

The young tech nodded, not obviously comprehending what he'd just been told. "Right. Sure. I'm just… I can't really… externalize what happened, you know?" He gestured at the shiny red reflection. "This thing is like my shadow, and it… put someone in a coma. Someone I thought was pretty…" He seemed lost for the right word, then visibly panicked at how the sentence sounded ending that way. "Pretty nice. She was pretty nice. And she should've woken up by now."

"She'll wake up when she's ready." McInnis was surprised to see Deering's light brown eyes fixed on him, devouring every word. If he'd needed a pep talk, Nascimbeni ought to have provided by now. "And if she never is ready, that won't make this any more your fault." He shook out his sleeve, and looked down at his Rolex. "Of course, if you work many more unpaid extra hours, that should weigh heavily on your conscience. Letting down your fellow labourers, and all that."

Deering didn't receive the jest as such, instead taking it as an order to stand down. He snapped an entirely inappropriate salute. "Right. Sorry, again. Thanks. I'll… I've got one more jannie stop to make for the day, then I'll get back to my room."

McInnis suppressed a chuckle. "You're not confined to quarters, technician. Don't confine yourself."

He felt a pang of guilt at that little white lie… but reminded himself that the reasoning was sound. He needed Philip Deering live, hearty and hale, even though he wouldn't have been able to explain it to his staff if they'd put a gun to his head and asked.


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1996

3 February


"Dark matter." Scout tapped his hat against the wall, and let it drop onto its hook. He'd had the hook installed in McInnis' office back in July, because this was now his first destination on entering the Site each day. "Ready?"

McInnis unlocked the top drawer of his desk to pull out a notepad and pencil. "Ready."

The Director sat down. "I have a list of names. They will be important names. I want you to write the names down, and when you acquire the people who belong to them — in the fullness of time, don't seek anyone out — I want you to take great care that you retain them." The old man tilted his head forward, so that McInnis could see his soft brown eyes through the ever-present lens glare. "No matter their apparent utility. You will keep them here, protect them, defend them if necessary. They must remain sane, and they must remain whole, until you know the reason why."

McInnis nodded. Scout was ramping up his presentation of these 'dark matter'-coded directives, which certainly made sense; he was approaching the end of his tenure at the Site, and McInnis was to be his successor. He'd explained the concept succinctly: "Dark matter is an enigma which we know to be vital, but do not understand. I will not be explaining these things to you, but I will nevertheless expect you to honour them. Recognize them as fact, work around them, but consider them inviolable. Trust that the explanation is out there, and that you will have it — if not, perhaps, before you need to act on faith."

The directives never, ever, made a lick of sense. It didn't matter, and they both knew it. When Scout demanded, his will would be done.

"William Wettle." The Director closed his eyes, as though drawing something up from long-term memory. At one hundred and eleven years old, that was a very long term indeed. "Elizabeth Windsor. Philip Deering."

McInnis hadn't so much as heard of a single one of them, but he never doubted some day he would. He duly wrote them down.


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2003

14 January


Deering nodded and ambled away, glancing back from time to time for approval. McInnis nodded in encouragement, smiling, all the while wondering how he'd managed to dispel the other man's gloom with nothing but a brief burst of parsimony.


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Falkirk swept into A&O like a conquering hero, his one-man escort and the All-Sections Chief in tow. Blank and Lillihammer had ducked out of his entourage at the first possible opportunity, and Ibanez had muttered something about finding the pro-tem Director a full security detail. The old man had barely acknowledged any of it, so intent was he on receiving the keys to his new castle and shedding the remaining tails.

The admin staff stood to attention while he stomped across the putative beach. He nodded curtly at Skellicorne, and seemed ready to dodge into McInnis' office when he suddenly espied Karen. He stared at her.

He then addressed her. "You. Eye candy. Qualifications?"

"I have a doctorate in business administration." It was both response and bewildered defence.

"Good enough. I'm auditing everyone's business, starting tomorrow." He pointed at Skellicorne. "Get me her file."

Skellicorne nodded, speechless.

Falkirk crooked a forefinger at the ASC. "Give me the good word, then I can go freshen up." He suddenly turned to grin down the room of silent eyes. "And get an early start on spring cleaning."

January, Karen thought, is an early spring indeed.


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Falkirk had a personal rule for washroom selection. If they were in well-travelled areas, he steered well clear — he wasn't keen on treading through anyone else's filth. If they were out of circulation, he avoided those as well; the cleaners would treat them as low-priority targets. He therefore had a favourite washroom in Admin and Oversight, and was pleased to see it still in operation: outside the wide bank of foyer windows and around a hairpin curve, off the beaten path but not so far that it ever escaped janitorial scrutiny for long. He had, in fact, seen one of the J&M stiffs heading in there a few minutes ago, likely to check on the status of the soap dispensers or toilet paper. That was good. Falkirk carried sanitary wipes, but hated to use them. Sanitary wipes were carcinogenic, and he hadn't gotten to his ripe old age by tempting fate.

Except, of course, that he actually had… but it had definitely been a one-time deal.

He left his escort at the bend in the corridor, and headed for the washroom door. He suddenly remembered that the Director's office had its own attached ensuite, and felt his face contorting into a scowl on its own initiative. God dammit. Well, he wasn't going to walk back to A&O and convince them he was a senile old fool before his first proper day in office. He was committed now.

It hadn't taken long to get his new password from the ASC and send the Indian packing, but it ought to have been long enough to… dammit. No, the tech was still in there. From the sound of it, he was… singing?

He chuckled to himself as he pushed the door open. He would take issue with this man's alacrity, probably on his permanent record, but if the grunts wanted to whistle while they worked then who was he to—


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McInnis just missed an encounter with Falkirk as he walked back through Habitation and Sustenance. The crotchety old campaigner was moving at double speed, like he had somewhere to be, and when it became apparent what that somewhere was, it was a source of some wry amusement. Waterworks gone weak in your golden years, Edwin?

He left his replacement behind, and headed for J&M.

J&M is the jockstrap of Site-43, where its unmentionables are hidden. A wasteland of poured concrete, glazed dark orange and smooth as ice, an inherently moppable space with so little aesthetic value that superficial cracks and chips do nothing to diminish its relative beauty. The first thing you notice is the sound: not loud, at least not in the halls, but certainly omnipresent. The rushing of water through pipes, the thrumming of generators, the clatter of trash into compactors, it all bleeds together into a steady susurrus which has been alternately described as a soothing rhythm and an industrial brown note. Here the massive geothermal vents, which in ages past likely kept the randy water cats warm while they worked themselves out of heat; there the obscenely huge primary water tanks, each three storeys tall, feeding the comparatively tiny children which polka-dot each other Section; here again the machine shops and manufactories where over five hundred custom-died tools are cast, tested, and assigned to their proper owners.

Its size and situation aside, it is the most practical chunk of real estate in the entire facility.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

It wasn't so much a hum as a constant, cacophonous crash today. The gunkfall from Applied Occultism had to go somewhere, and AAF-D was now nothing but shortfall, and -B and -C had their own crosses to bear. Nascimbeni had therefore routed the runoff through a holding pattern in the rarely-used overflow pipes. The generators were going full-tilt, and every ounce of power the vents could pour out was being bled into welders and rolling mills and concrete mixers to supply the total physical refurbishment of the badly-damaged Site and its return to status quo ante rupturam. The workshops were running twenty-four-seven to keep abreast of demands for new materials and equipment. J&M was attempting to replicate, then improve upon, a decade of intense construction in a few short months.

They were just about managing it, too.

I have periodically slummed with the janitors and technicians over the years, inquiring as to their duties and remarking approvingly on their progress. It's good form for a leader, and I always enjoy working out the little puzzles of human interaction such visits present. It is in this capacity that I most often encounter Noè Nascimbeni, since beyond meetings of the Joint Chairs and Chiefs there is precious little reason for the kings of the blue and white collars to confab. J&M keeps the amenities ticking over and dirt off the floors, and everyone else generally leaves them to it. But down in the trenches, Nascimbeni is inescapable. He gives advice. He lends a hand, or two. He rarely takes on maintenance tasks alone, preferring to lead junior techs by example or bang out solutions with the seniors. When he isn't working with his workforce, he's chatting with them. Asking after not their jobs but their families, their friends, their hobbies and their hopes. He has the closest-knit selection of personnel in an already close-knit community, and the diplomat in me has always envied him very much for it.

Today, however, the old plumber was nowhere to be found. There were plenty of techs scuttling to and fro, some of them saluting as Deering had done, the veterans nodding with friendly respect or averting their eyes; the Employee of the Month for October 2002, Chuck Carter, managed to blend both approaches. (Carter had won the award for saving Eileen Veiksaar's life. That had been in September, but of course there was a seven-way tie that month which had rather pre-empted him.) Nascimbeni had busied himself with chewing out the new hires on occasion in November, and lamenting the slow progress of his old hands in December, but it now occurred to McInnis that he hadn't heard a grandfatherly yarn or stern, shouted lecture echoing the halls since the new year had dawned.

He decided to find out why that might be.

Nascimbeni's office door was closed, though the attached break room was deserted. McInnis knocked; circumstances had changed since the last time he'd encountered a closed door.

"What?" came the reply, distant and disinterested.

"Are you busy, Chief?"

"Yes," Nascimbeni snapped. "But come in if you have to."

Suspension or not, McInnis was still the most highly-ranked person at Site-43; his clearance was, in fact, at the absolute ceiling for anyone who wasn't an Overseer. Nascimbeni's tone and word choice were hardly well-tailored to that audience, which put McInnis on guard as he tugged on the handle.

There were great bulky heaps of blueprint all over the chief's desk, stuck to his lockers and filing cabinets with magnets or rolled up against the walls. He was flipping through clipboard after clipboard, no doubt the daily reports from the long-concluded day shift, and scribbling something onto a yellow legal pad. He didn't look up. "This area's off-limits to civilians."

"Very amusing. They're all off-limits, unless there's been a very recent policy change." McInnis noted bare spots on the plaster wall; Nascimbeni had been a smoker in the nineties, and cigarette smoke left stains, which left telltale squares of empty space whenever fixtures were removed. "Have you shared that sense of humour with your people, of late?"

"Don't have time for cracking wise. Work to do." The chief tossed a clipboard to the end of his desk. "Look at this. We've replaced one point five percent of the wiring. One point goddamn five percent."

McInnis glanced down at the graphs. "Which wiring?"

"ALL THE WIRING!" The old man was suddenly shouting. "Every inch. One point five percent. And you know what that means?"

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McInnis examined the new lines on Nascimbeni's face, which had already looked like a European roadmap for as long as they'd been acquainted. "You've been working hard?"

"We've been working not hard enough. The containment damage is three percent, and most of our wiring is containment-relevant." Nascimbeni pulled off his baseball cap and rubbed his temples. "I'd wager there's a solid percentage point worth of crossed wires left to fix, and we can't figure out where they are. I still think we ought to scuttle this whole damn Site and start over from scratch."

"You might think it, but it's not what you want." McInnis noticed that the office, like Lillihammer's, had no chairs for visitors. He was certain that had not always been the case. "Neither of us have that many years left in us."

"Probably for the best," Nascimbeni growled.

McInnis slid the clipboard back into the pile. "Are you riding your people too hard, chief? I've seen some peaked faces out there."

"Surprised you've seen anything, from the comfort of your office."

"Yes," McInnis mused. "It's certainly difficult to keep tabs from afar." He pointedly examined the office walls. There were no windows.

"They don't need babysitting." The old tech flipped a clipboard onto the floor, and began pulling at the blueprints. "They need to suck it up, and get things done."

"You used to get things done together."

It wasn't easy to glare menacingly with dark brown eyes, but Nascimbeni managed it. McInnis recalled the incident report for his altercation with Vanchev; according to Nicolescu, the punched tech had 'dropped like a sack of potatoes'. "I used to let things slide, Allan, and you used to let me. Did you see where the slide ended?"

McInnis raised his eyebrows, the closest he ever came to expressing exasperation. "I wasn't aware of any flaws in your management method, Noè. Whatever you might think, it's my opinion that your leadership was unimpeachable."

Nascimbeni bolted out of his chair, extending an accusatory finger. "It wasn't leadership — not that you'd know anything about it. I wasn't their boss, I was their buddy. I was complicit in their dog-fucking, shit-shooting and off-goofing. Then crunch time came, and they had to rely on their training, and guess what? They didn't remember it, and they got crunched. Because I got sloppy, and you didn't stop me." He chucked the blueprint he was carrying at the wall, and it flapped antidramatically to the floor. "You should've fired me. Falkirk still should fire me. And yet here I am, today, screaming at you, and I'm willing to bet I'll still be around tomorrow to scream some more. And for what?"

He stood, shaking, demanding cold satisfaction. "For WHAT?"

McInnis never responded to rhetorical questions. "This is your solution? Hiding in your office while the worker bees buzz, or going off on your own to crawl under consoles or behind the walls? You haven't traded leading from the front for leading from behind; you're not leading at all, anymore."

"I don't have to take this from you. You're not the Director, and the new guy knows how to knuckle down." His hands were balling up. "Even if I'll end up wanting to feed him my knuckles. He's still got a better chance of leading us through this mess than you ever did."

"I think you'll come to regret what you're doing — and what you aren't." McInnis returned to the doorway; there were still no techs in the breakroom. "You think leadership is a spectrum, from good to bad, but you're wrong. There's two spectrums: good leadership, and bad. Getting too close is one pole, not getting close enough is the latter. Getting close enough, but maintaining control—"

"Get out of my office." Nascimbeni slid back into his chair. "You wanna pass on platitudes, write a damn book."


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"Do we have eyes on Director Falkirk yet?"

Rory Skellicorne did not fluster easily. Karen had once seen him stare down a ghost — the Lady in Red, who haunted the Inter-Sectional Subway System and was awfully difficult to stare down, as she possessed no eyes. He'd punched a meme-drunk saboteur on December 31, 1999, almost singlehandedly preventing a local occurrence of the Y2K bug. He'd even stood up to Ibanez in a pool hall argument for nearly a minute before caving. He was made of stern stuff, for a paper-pusher.

But losing a Site Director — this one in particular — had him flustered. Without a dedicated AI, it was tough to track individual movements throughout the facility except when keycard readers or other high-security apparatus were engaged.

The Chief of A&O was probably also afraid that someone on his staff was going to slip up in the presence of the new boss, since he'd had to start clarifying 'Director Falkirk' or people consistently thought he was talking about McInnis…

"Got him." Karen double-checked the data on her screen, and frowned. "He used his access card on the Director's Complex… he's in the personal washroom. His personal washroom." She'd nearly slipped up herself, there.

Skellicorne walked over to see what she was seeing. "Please tell me you came by this information both honestly and innocently."

She'd brought up the services map. She circled the relevant numbers with her cursor. "Clean water usage, high volume. He's either taking a shower, or doing laundry; could be both, I guess. Chiefs Veiksaar or Nascimbeni might know more precisely…"

Skellicorne waved it off. "No, thank you Karen, that'll do. As long as we know where he is. Must be freshening up after the trip."

"Not a long trip, though," Karen mused.

Skellicorne froze on his way up the daïs steps. He turned to fix her with a worried state. "He came from Site-01, Karen. You'd better not know where that is."

"Don't have to." She had manifest logs up now. "The helicopter he took has been recalled without first refuelling. Director's orders."

"What?" Skellicorne walked back down the steps and looked over her shoulder again. "How's the agent who accompanied him getting back home?"

"He's not, at least for a while." She'd had the H&P monitoring system minimized — at Falkirk's age, a trip to the hospital had been one likely explanation for his disappearing act — and she maximized it again. "Agent Manley is sleeping off amnestic application, as of five minutes ago."

Skellicorne's mouth was moving silently. He finally managed: "Director's orders?"

She scrolled down so he could see Falkirk's scrawled electronic signature. He'd apparently done it on the agent's duty tablet; judging by the router he'd used, he'd just come out of a washroom near A&O, then headed straight for McInnis' quarters (and a second bathroom) while the agent went to get his short-term memory wiped.

She glanced up at her supervisor. "Should we send someone to meet him?"

Skellicorne shook his head. "No, he knows the territory. He'll find his way back. In the meantime, probably best to let him do… whatever it is he's doing."


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Falkirk returned to A&O with a vengeance, treading so heavily he could have been leaving dents in the floor tiles. Karen noticed for the first time that his suit pants didn't match his jacket. In fact—

Skellicorne met him at the edge of the cube farm, and tried to hand him a folder. "Dr. Elstrom's file."

Falkirk slapped it out of his hand with a dismissive upswing, and the loose papers rained back down. Skellicorne backed off in surprise as the old man pointed at Karen. "YOU. Janitor with mirror gremlin. Number?"

"Uh." She glanced at Skellicorne; he mouthed the answer at her, and she spoke it aloud. "5056? Philip Deering."

"Files. Everything. Database entry, revision history, pre-pub notes." He sounded like he was chewing gravel. He was definitely grinding his teeth, a dubious proposition at his obvious age.

Karen nodded, glancing down at her screen. Her fingers had preceded her eyes. "Dr. Blank is the researcher of note. Well, Blank and Bradbury, but she—"

"Don't care. Don't want Blank's excuses. Want raw data, all of it, and a private presentation." He took a deep breath, and exhaled with a wracking shudder. "Think of it as a job talk."

"A job talk?" Her mouth had gone quite dry. "What job?"

Falkirk stalked into Zulfikar's office. "Pick your poison."


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It was nearly midnight now, and there was only one person McInnis could talk to that he knew would definitely be awake. He didn't want to sleep, and he didn't want to stop talking; he'd always felt like he could accomplish anything so long as the dialogue was ongoing, and he very much needed to accomplish something today.

The subway ride to AAF-D took approximately twenty minutes. He would have preferred to meet with the All-Sections Chief, but didn't want to further estrange his former deputy from the pro-tem Director. Ilse Reynders, on the other hand, was unlikely to be high on the new boss' shit list. He did not possess the power to dismiss her, and her itinerary was unlikely to be full.

I am ashamed to admit that it's devilishly difficult to keep Dr. Reynders apprised, at times. Alone of all the senior staff, she can't be encountered by chance in the halls or caught up with at Sectional meetings. She is confined to commodious quarters which were once the Anomalous Documents Disposal Chamber in AAF-A, before the incinerator exploded in her face and bathed her with anachronic particles. She hasn't aged a single day since 1942, hasn't eaten, drank, slept, defecated, urinated, fornicated, changed her clothes or hair or otherwise dealt with the care and upkeep of the traditionally-perishable human form in all those years. She has simply persisted, through the decades, dealing as best she can with the only avenues of change available to her: intellectual and emotional. For reasons not entirely understood, although time stands still within the ADDC, Dr. Reynders is capable of standard locomotion, the exercise of her senses, processing and retaining information… and deteriorating mentally, while her physical makeup remains immaculate. The core issue is not her invisibly advanced old age, but rather the isolation and hopelessness endemic to her situation. She has earned thirteen doctorate degrees in that chamber, a steady stream of reading material beamed through its single large window, but she seems unlikely to earn a fourteenth. All that knowledge has yet to free her from her prison, and that has taken a terrible toll.

I am also ashamed to have done so little to relieve her of this burden. There are few more profitable places to spend one's free time than the company of the SCP Foundation's single oldest and single wisest parascientist.

Reynders was distraught, even by her recent standards. There were big dark bags beneath her massive, baby blue eyes, and this was odd; she did occasionally need to rest her brain, but only to collect her thoughts. She hadn't had a dream since the middle of the Second World War. Her ginger hair was a mess, which meant she'd been pulling at it recently — it gradually curled back into place, no matter how she styled it. There was worry in those striking eyes, worry and confusion and embarrassment and maybe, perhaps, even fear.

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"Have I caught you at a bad time?" he asked.

She picked up an old yellow pencil from the inside sill. It was attached to the window with a string, allowing the mic on the glass to pick her up. She shook her ruffled red head. "No. Yes. Well, it's not getting any better." Her voice came out of a speaker in the wall, reformulated out of vibrations in the wide glass window which was effectively her world.

"What isn't?"

She sneered in self-directed disgust. "The nightmares."

Ilse Reynders was a practical woman. She engaged in no magical thinking — except where the magic was academically attested — and possessed no irrational fears. "Nightmares?"

It was wrong to press, and very wrong to do so tersely. He knew this immediately, but not immediately enough. Off my game. No wonder they're firing me.

"Anoki didn't tell you?" Reynders sighed. "I'm having… day terrors, I guess you'd call them. Seeing things which aren't there."

"What sorts of things?" Obviously the sorts of things the Chair of Psychology and Parapsychology didn't think were worth reporting to the Site Director.

"People." She shuddered. "People running. People hiding. People… disappearing. People who aren't there."

He nodded. "If they aren't there, disappearing is only polite."

She smiled grimly. "All it takes for a man to paraphrase poetry at me is a little insanity, eh? But don't try to distract me. I don't want to be distracted from losing my mind, I want to arrest it." She cocked her head to one side. "Speaking of arrest…"

"Yes. My replacement has arrived."

She examined him for a moment, then asked: "Is it Falkirk?"

McInnis spoke to Reynders less often, on a day-to-day basis, than anyone he spoke to regularly. She didn't talk to anyone else regularly, save for Harold Blank and her psychiatrists. She didn't even know Arik Euler was back at the Site, and they'd once worked as closely together as the ADDC window would permit. She had nevertheless heard McInnis laugh more often than anyone else in his employ ever had, not least because most of them had not and would not ever. Her scalpel-sharp brain could always startle him into mirth, and it did so now. "Yes. Yes, it's Falkirk. How did you know?"

She shrugged. "Patterns. They trusted him over Viv, when Viv started doing his own thing. Makes sense they might trust him over you, hand-picked as you were."

"I'm not sure trust comes into it. Or rather, it's not that they trust me less than they trust him, it's that they trust him to be… the way that he is." They both knew what that meant. Reynders had once theorized that the man had been chosen as Site-01's liaison to Site-43, and later Scout's All-Sections Chief, because he could be reliably expected to oppose their touchy-feely excesses.

"That's one way of looking at it," she agreed.

"Someone on staff thinks I've gone soft." He made eye contact; she didn't react to this assertion at all. "They went over my head to undermine me, and you don't perform a complex maneuver like that for no reason."

"Hmm. Do you know who it was?"

"No, but I'd like to."

She picked at the caulking around the window with her free hand. She re-applied it every few years, though this was mostly busywork. The seals keeping her world apart from the one which had moved on without her were mostly on the outside. "So, ask around. Get your house in order."

He hesitated. "What if it's not my house anymore?"

She tilted her chin. "Then take it back. Own your environment. See where the limits are. Define your own capacity for action." He could tell by the way the corners of her mouth quirked up that she knew how ironic this advice would seem, considering the source. "What if it's a test?"

"I've considered that." He had in fact, at length, since hearing he could keep his clearance level. "If their faith in me is shaken, they might want to see how I handle this… slight. Whether I can come back from it, or whether I've lost my touch."

He suddenly realized he rather had. He would never before have said something so crass as lost my touch in the company of Ilse Reynders, who had last touched another human being well before McInnis had himself been born. That's twice in one conversation.

From the look in her eyes — unguarded, as they always were — she'd noticed. "You've certainly fallen out of routine. What's keeping you from your bunk? You were always a subscriber to the 'early to bed' theory."

He tented his hands together and flexed his finger joints. "When I wake up tomorrow, there will be nothing more for me to do than there is right now."

"Do you know that, though?" She adjusted her glasses, which was also merely habit; given time, they'd creep back where they belonged on their own. This, she'd once told him, was the most unnatural thing of all; everyone else at 43 who wore glasses perfectly understood what she meant (though at present, nobody else was wearing them). "Do you know Falkirk won't have set the whole place in shambles by breakfast? He's going to try turning everything upside-down. He's going to try to prove that he was right all along."

McInnis leaned on the wall beside the window. "Do you think so? Do you think he'd risk upsetting the ship? He's inherited one of the finest facilities we have, all he needs to do to prove his bona fides is not blow it up." He winced again. "The way it blew up on his predecessor's watch."

Reynders walked away, as far as her tether would allow. She liked to pace when she thought, and since alone of the Site's staff she was always thinking, she paced a lot. "He wants to prove that he's a leader, so here's what he'll do: he's going to prove that you weren't one, and then he's going to find a way to make his mark. Put the stamp of his leadership on the Site. Win big, in a way that can't be misinterpreted. I think you'll find he's hiring, firing, and/or restructuring within a day of getting stuck in, reshaping the Site in his image so he starts to seem indispensable."

He nodded. "Sound analysis of a sound plan. One doesn't get recognized by going with the flow. What do you think I ought to do about it?"

"Nothing."

He waited.

"You're not going to do anything about him. You need to work on you. You're going to keep taking your little sympathy tour — because I know darn well that's what this is — get your boots on the ground for a change, and then you're going to figure out what you could have been doing better. What you can do better, going forward. And when he drops the balls he's juggling on his bony old feet and breaks his brittle little birdie-bones, you'll be there to pick them up." She laughed, very briefly, almost bitterly. "The balls, not his feet-bones. Guess I should've gotten a communications degree in there, somewhere. Like you."

He smiled at her with genuine affection. "You could teach communications, Dr. Reynders, and you could teach it to me. And you may have a previously-unsuspected gift for strategic analysis in the balance."

She smiled back at him, though it was strained. "I take the long view, Director, and disregard peripheral things. I can hardly do otherwise."


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Falkirk brooded in his office for twenty minutes before storming back out at half past eight. Skellicorne finally let the day shift go, over three hours late, and his phrasing was quite pointed: "Knock off for the night, folks. I think we'll all need to be well-rested for tomorrow." He was making eye contact with her, and her alone, when he said this, and it transitioned into a pained farewell glance as he followed the remainder of his staff through the double doors.

Falkirk needed those files, and he was going to have them the moment he barged back into A&O — no matter how early in the day that might be. He'd given her a task, and she was going to stay at her post until it was finished.

She allowed herself a power nap at ten o'clock, and woke up energized enough to finish all the admin items left outstanding from this very disjointed day. Allan McInnis was heading home from AAF-A long before she had finished setting things in order.


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The vast majority of our career personnel were recruited by Dr. Scout. He was instrumental in hiring every Chair and every Chief who presently serves at Site-43, myself very much included.

I have done my part to extend this tradition, taking an interest wherever I can, and I know it was not entirely my own idea to do this. My memory, both short- and long-term, is excellent — though, of course, not a patch on Dr. Lillihammer's — and yet I can't quite recall the details. I remember my predecessor exhorting me to, above all else, "find them early, before cynicism and bloody-mindedness get their claws into them, before they've picked a side," but I cannot for the life of me describe the context of this advice. I know that he had a very good reason for making his demand, one of his infrequent 'dark matter' directives… and I believe that's why I have forgotten.

Someone has altered the past, and done so untidily. The event remains clear, but the cause is occluded. Temporal interventions don't happen every day, but often enough that one learns to recognize them when they do.

In any case this mandate was still operating on my mind in March of 1996, at which point the flow of time remained unbroken. I had decided to engage in a field operation with Pursuit and Suppression, against the strenuous protests of Chief Van Rompay. We had identified an anomalous financial entity operating not too terribly far from Site-43, the Bank of Simcoe South. The red flags were many: promotional material suggested it belonged to a chain, but no other franchisees could be found; Simcoe County was far too small to support a national bank; 'Simcoe South' was an electoral district defunct since 1988; and, most notably, the place itself was a handsome brownstone with street lamps and benches and an ATM booth and a tall, handsome chestnut tree… on a dusty sideroad, at the edge of a farmer's field.

Reconnaissance confirmed our suspicions. Only one of the bank's supposed employees had a home address corresponding to a real location. Only one of them had educational credentials which checked out. Only one had paid taxes, owned a motor vehicle, had parents, a birth certificate. The rest were fictions at best, and creations of whoever had created the bank, more likely. We could find no record of anyone ever having had an account with the BoSS, nor attempting to do their banking there. It was a place of business where no business was done. Chief Van Rompay wanted to go in guns blazing, as he always did, and I tempered this urge, as I always did. I am first and foremost a communicator, and I saw a chance to communicate.

The Chief was not pleased with the results, but I felt my effort amply repaid.

1996

11 March

Bank of Simcoe South: Adjala-Tosorontio, Simcoe County, Ontario, Canada


Karen Elstrom stared out her office window at the chestnut tree.

There had been a time, she knew, when American Chestnuts had filled the southern tip of this province, tall and strong. This one was tall and strong by modern standards, a solid eleven metres — even more impressive since it sat in the precise middle of absolute nowhere — but in years gone by it would have been nearly three times that size.

She found this comforting. The men and women who had settled this country had chopped down all the chestnuts, brought order to the forests. She was vaguely aware there had been people living beneath those trees, but she preferred not to think about people. People got in the way, and she didn't like obstructions. She liked this one well enough, though, because it reminded her the world could be made responsive to rationalization.

She loved to work late, and was doing so now. It was past seven o'clock, and the sun was going down. The other employees had left for the day, walking down the interminable sideroad in the opposite direction of her home in Bradford. Sometimes she thought about following them, to see where they went, but somehow she never got around to it.

She focused on the spreadsheet in front of her, moving the numbers around. There was complex math involved, and new data arrived on her desk each morning before she clocked in; it usually took her all day to get through it, leaving precious little time for socializing with the other three clerks or the manager. She very much liked it that way, too.

Today, though, she had an appointment. The very first she'd ever had, and it was set for after hours. At any other bank this would have been impossible, but at the BoSS there were no rules of note. In any case she was more than a little excited to learn what kind of business could be transacted at her bank.

She didn't actually know anything about it. She didn't even know what the numbers signified.

There was a knock on the front door, and she walked into the main hall to answer it. Before her stood a man slightly shorter than her, which made him slightly short — as she was slightly tall, for a woman. He had a friendly face, buzz-cut hair and a placid demeanour. When he spoke — "Good evening, Karen isn't it?" it was with an English accent, and oooh that's a jackpot.

She tried not to blush as she ushered him into her office. "That's right. And you must be Allan."

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"As charged." He took the seat she indicated, and glanced out the window. "That's a beautiful tree you have."

"Well, the bank has it." She called up Allan's file on her computer. "I just work here."

"Oh, indeed? I thought you must be the branch manager, as we can't seem to contact anyone else."

What? She raised an eyebrow at him. "Four other people work here, Allan. I'm just the one who took the call."

"Of course." He folded his hands in his lap and smiled encouragingly at her. "How long have you been employed at the BoSS?"

"Just over a year." For some reason the file wasn't loading; she felt her pulse quicken.

"I must say, this is a strange place for a bank. Do you get many walk-ins?"

She laughed. "You're the first person other than me I've ever seen walk through that door." She paused.

He nodded. "You never see the other employees arrive?"

She turned away from the frozen screen. "No, they're always here when…" Her mind was racing. "I think they live nearby?"

Allan shook his head. "There are no houses nearby, Karen. Nobody lives around here. Not for more kilometres than a bank clark is willing to walk to work."

She turned off the terminal screen, folded her hands on the desk, and leaned forward. She almost felt the need to whisper. "What are you saying, precisely?"

"I'm saying…" He was staring over her shoulder, dark eyes widening. "…that we need to leave. Promptly. "

"What?" She snorted derisively; his charm was definitely wearing off, but fast. "I'm not going anywhere with you, buddy, it's past seven and I—"

He pointed, and against instinct she turned to look.

The wood panelling of her office wall was melting. It was nothing but a thin veneer over top of a throbbing wall of bright red gristle. She didn't scream, but she did kick back off her filing cabinet and crash her chair into her desk…

…which melted, too, and she heard Allan jump to his feet. "Karen. Come on. Now."

She stood up, conscious that the carpet was coming away on her shoes in thick sweaty globs, that there was something grey and slimy underneath. His hand was outstretched over the gory gristle into which her computer was sinking, fizzling and sparking as it was consumed, and she allowed him to haul her through the doorway as its frame began to sag.

There were clerks at all three terminals, in their casual clothes which never seemed to change day-by-day, though their exposed skin was now an undifferentiated mass of corpuscles. "Next!" Sandy Sherman called out cheerfully. "Next!" the others agreed in tandem. None of them had mouths.

Allan pulled her towards the front door, and she stared at the congealing mass of meatspace with fascinated horror. Something was coming out of the manager's office. Something with teeth.

And then they were outside, on the stoop. She knew for sure she had just lost her mind when she heard herself say: "So much for financial stability."

He looked like he wanted to laugh, but he didn't. Instead, he pointed. "Please tell me that's not a company car." The roar of a helicopter became audible overhead. "I walked here, more or less."

She felt, rather than saw, the chestnut rising up behind them as they fled into the night together.


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2003

14 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


The files were on the Director's desk, and she was preparing to finally clock out when she heard the foyer doors swing open again. Falkirk walked into the office a moment later, the fire in his eyes now burning low, muscles still tense beneath his fancy clothes. "What's your job?" he asked, sitting down behind McInnis' his desk after taking a moment to glare at the painting on the wall.

She stood there awkwardly, empty clipboard in hand. "I'm the Administrative Assistant to the Ch—"

He waved it away like a bad smell. "Not your job title, your job. What do you do?"

She recalibrated. "I field reque—"

The hands again. "You make judgements."

She waited for him to continue.

He did. "People ask you if they can do things, and you tell them what the rules say. What's their relationship to the rules? The staff of Site-43? In your estimation?"

She regretted not taking Skellicorne's implicit advice earlier. "They… well, they don't like them much. Generally."

"And what's your relationship to the rules? Beyond your job. How do you feel about them?"

"I think everything we do is dangerous, and we need guidelines to keep us safe." It was a fair point; she wasn't sure why it should make her feel guilty to speak it out loud.

"Precisely." The old man leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled over his chest. It looked menacing as all get out. "So you're on the side of keeping us safe, and you have to argue with people all day long from that perspective. What does that make them? For arguing with you?"

She shook her head. "I'm not sure that's fair, sir. Usually they're just… looking for clarif—"

"Usually they're looking to put one over on you, or find a loophole." He was sneering. "They're wild horses testing the fences, Karen. And you know what horses are?"

"Well… yes, but—"

"Horses," Falkirk spat, "are the stupidest animals known to man. They shit in their beds, they kick their minders, they batter their homes apart, they panic in a pinch, they rush headlong into burning barns. McInnis likes to accommodate the horses, do you see? Just like Scout before him." He gestured at the painting, for some reason. "He likes to watch them prance around, pretty and perfect and utterly empty-headed, and when they break their legs, he lets people like you put them down. I don't want to offload the moral responsibility to police these people to an administrative body with no teeth. If they kick you, you need to be able to kick back. If they buck you, you need to have the power to break them — before they break you, the only thing between them and a world without fences."

This was a lot to process. She wished there was another chair in the office; there had been before, but Falkirk had chucked it out. "We're talking about some of the most intelligent human beings in the world, sir. Respectfully."

"Don't 'respectfully' me. You think I'm wrong, you tell me so. But I'll tell you this right back: nobody on Earth is so stupid as a smart person. These are people who could out-fox an actual fox, but can't tie their own shoelaces. They're lazy; they have lazy brains. They hate to learn, outside the narrow categories of knowledge they've each laid claim to. That's why they hate your rules, Karen. They can't be bothered to learn them, and when they run afoul, they think 'oh, here's an obstruction to be overcome' instead of 'ah, I've done something wrong, I ought to correct my behaviour'. They'll do anything to avoid facing consequences for their errors; their reaction to being in the wrong is to negotiate. Now tell me I'm wrong about that."

She remembered Harry Blank, and the Archives and Revision movie night, and she didn't tell him anything.

"You can't, eh? Or maybe you think you can, but you're holding your tongue." He clicked his. "Well, that's a start. You know your place. Starting tomorrow, we're going to show everyone else what theirs is." He glanced down at the folder on the blotter. "Are these the files on Deering?"

"Yes, sir."

He grinned; his teeth were unexpectedly perfect, bright and gleaming white. He tapped the desk with apparent pleasure. "Excellent. Yes, we're going to have a busy week, you and I."

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