Turnover
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rating: +30+x

Turnover


Asterisk43.png

2003

15 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


When Karen clocked back in at seven in the morning, she found Falkirk already in his office. She usually started work an hour before everyone else — an hour for which she would not be paid — and even when she was running a little late, she was still almost always alone. She wasn't sure she liked this change of routine.

He didn't seem displeased to see her, at least. "Go get a chair, and sit down." The reports from the previous night were still on the desk, but disassembled. Their contents had been rearranged into piles, whose logic she couldn't guess at a glance.

She walked back into the foyer, grabbed her office chair, and returned to find him holding up the database entry for SCP-5056 by both edges. His hands shook quite badly. "What's missing here?"

She took her seat, and glanced over the page. Object class, special containment procedures, description, addendum with tests… "Nothing jumps out at me, sir."

He set it down in front of her. "Good choice of words. This thing is a murder monster. It jumps out at people. When they tried to isolate it, it blew out everyone's eardrums. When they tried to cage it, it blew out Bradbury's brain. How many hostile Groups of Interest are you aware of, Karen?"

She'd seen a lot of lists over the past few years. "Uh… Chaos Insurgency, Serpent's Hand, two different churches of the Broken God… Vikander-Kneed… Marshall, Carter & Dark, Anderson Robotics… even our insurers, Goldbaker-Reinz, are—"

He waved irritably. "I was looking for a number. The number is very high, yes? And what qualms do this array of foes have about mobilizing anomalies against us?

It was a much easier question, but she found it much harder to speak the answer. "None, sir. Universally, none."

"Correct. And how do we combat them? When we can be bothered?"

"Mobile task forces, primarily." Her suspicions about where this was headed were all but confirmed.

"You see what I'm driving at. We fight monsters with men, which axiomatically transforms men into monsters. Why not skip a step? Fight monsters with monsters." He tapped the file. "There's nothing, absolutely nothing in here about the paramilitary benefits of a creature which cannot be harmed, can go anywhere light can go, and can drive a man insane at its leisure. Imagine if we were to drop this pathetic janitor into the Insurgency's hardened mobile array? Imagine it loose in the Wanderers' Library, giving those selfrighteous Archivists something incorporeal to chew on. Imagine…" An unpleasant look of absolute rapture spread across his withered features. "Imagine if we could decouple it from Deering entirely, take him out of the picture, and fully weaponize the thing."

This was all rather a lot at seven in the morning. "I knew we sometimes incorporate paratech into our gear," she began, very carefully, "but my understanding is that Overwatch is opposed to the formal use of anomalies in the field. It goes against our containment ethos."

"Containment ethos." Falkirk barked out a single syllable of scornful laughter. "This beast is wandering the halls right now, free as a bird, with its idiot victim in tow. Site-43 is where containment goes to die, and while that's reprehensible and needs to change, in the interim… well, it has its uses. Nobody's made use before, and I intend to start."

She nodded. "I thought you were here, sir, with respect, to conduct an investigation into Director McInnis' conduct?"

He grinned so wide, she half expected the corners of his mouth to start bleeding. "And that's precisely what this is going to be. If you want to have a career in administration, Karen, you need to remember: we don't just want you identifying problems. We want you identifying solutions."


Asterisk43.png

It took McInnis another long ride along the rails, a walk through AAF-A and a chilly stroll through the off-limits quadrant of Ipperwash Provincial Park to find Chief Ibanez. She was putting her new recruits through their literal paces in the forested core of the interdiction zone; S&C had taken on ten new agents in the wake of the AAF-D breach, and its Chief had taken a personal interest in their training. He was treated to the once-rare sight of Delfina Ibanez jogging, puffing along in her jumpsuit as five bulky guards struggled to keep pace at either arm. She was definitely making them work for it.

When she saw him approaching across the snowy centre field, she stopped and called attention. He shook his head as he stepped onto the track. "Don't mind me, just a highly-paid observer today."

Ibanez glared at the guards, each in turn. "Give us a few more laps before lunch, if you've got it in you." They dutifully set off.

"I'm surprised to find you out here." He stuck his gloved hands in his pockets; the wind through the pines was merciless. "I thought you liked to generate an aura of distant mystery in their first week."

"Yeah, well, maybe it was too distant." She watched them round the first turn in smart sync. "There's such a thing as esprit de corps."

IbanezFriendly.jpg

The two of them started along the track in the opposite direction. "I distinctly recall a not-much-younger security chief telling me that esprit de corps was a problematic term, because—"

"—focusing on spirits and bodies is morbid, yeah. Well, I've changed my mind. I used to think my job was to keep their esprits in their corpses, not hold their goddamn hands, but I've had a bit of a re-think." She was full of energy, hopping on the balls of her feet whenever he fell slightly behind. "You know I hate the psych angle, but under all that muscle, Ngo tells me these folk are actually human beings? Apparently, if they think I've got their backs, they'll listen when I tell them to advance."

"Seems to me you're just trading in aphorisms." Nascimbeni's earlier accusation on the same note still stung a little. "Have you practical proof that this method is any better?

Ibanez waited until the guards had passed them by before replying. "Evidence, I dunno, but the logic seems sound. Sending people to die isn't leadership, it's authority. Authority is the special trick they let you pull on them when you've put in your leadership hours. And leading isn't about telling people what to do, Allan, it's right there in the word — you can't lead from behind."

He clicked his tongue. "Linguistic contortionism, Chief. I thought you were more practical than this."

She pointed at the group of joggers now halfway across the field again. "You want to put yourself out there, be the one in charge? You don't want to turn around and find out nobody was behind you all along." She shot him a meaningful glance. "Think anybody's levied a complaint about your dismissal, yet?"

He allowed her to rejoin the runners, and watched them move away from him for a while before heading back to AAF-A.


Asterisk43.png

16 January


NOTICE FROM THE OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR, SITE-43

OD.png

The latitude afforded Site-43 in the management of its affairs thus far has been predicated on a promise of increased efficiency, in both containment and research. As a duly-appointed officer of Overwatch Command, I rate the progress achieved on these two fronts as strictly average and seriously disappointing, respectively. To that end I am mandating a full audit of every Section at this Site, to be conducted by a representative of this office.

I expect your full compliance.

Direct all inquiries to Dr. K. Elstrom, Office of the Director.

— Falkirk, Edwin T. (Director, Site-43)

Karen's hands were shaking a little as she read the draft memo. "Who's the representative?" she asked, very quietly.

"Who do you think?" Falkirk was watching her closely.

She nodded. "I don't… I'm not sure I can do this."

ElstromUnsure.jpg

"No? That's unfortunate." He cracked his knuckles; the sound was sickening. "I didn't want to believe you were the same as all the rest."

She placed the paper on his desk, and pursed her lips. "Meaning what, sir?"

"What are the most important Sections of this Site, Dr. Elstrom?"

She was already getting used to his abrupt changes of tack, and again she did know this one. "Acroamatic Abatement, and Archives and Revision."

"And who is the Chair of Acroamatic Abatement?"

"There isn't one. The Chair of Applied Occultism does double duty."

"Why?"

She didn't precisely know, but he hated to hear it, so… "Because of the similarity of the portfolios—"

"I didn't ask for the official lie. What's the actual reason?"

She threw up her hands. "I don't know. Dr. Scout didn't want to replace Dr. Rydderech when he disappeared, and even if he had, he'd have had to pass over Dr. Reynders for the post, and he knew that would upset her?" It all came out in a rush of half-baked supposition.

"That's it, actually." He seemed satisfied. "That's it precisely. Now, are these good reasons?"

She shrugged. "Not particularly. No."

"And what about Archives and Revision? Who's the chair?"

"Harr—" She cleared her throat. "Harold Blank."

"How old is he?"

She'd thought about it. "I have no idea."

"You have some idea. Guess."

"Forty?"

"Thirty-six. Now tell me, Dr. Elstrom: how many department heads at other Sites are thirty-six years old?"

This constant bombardment was exhausting. She wished he'd just get the lecture over with. "I would imagine not that many."

Falkirk had a look of smug malice on his face. "Lillian Lillihammer is being set up to replace Del Olmo, once Euler slopes back to 87. She's exactly the same age as Blank. So is Veiksaar. Ibanez is twelve years younger — twelve years younger! — and she's in charge of Security and Containment, our banner bearers. Okorie will probably replace Zlatá before she's thirty. McInnis became Director in his forties. What's going on here, do you think?"


Asterisk43.png

1999

11 March

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


He offered to drive, but she assured him she could manage. It was true; driving was an exercise in reflexes, acuity, and the following of rules. Driving calmed her down.

She really, very badly needed to calm down right now.

"I'd like to talk to you for a moment now, Karen. Are you of a mind to listen, or would you prefer—"

"Talk," she said. "Definitely talk." She needed her mind occupied. It kept wandering back to the faceless tellers in the flesh-formed bank hall.

"Thank you." McInnis hadn't told her where to drive, but he had told her not to look in the rear-view mirrors. She hadn't argued; whatever the helicopter people were about, she was sure she didn't want to know. "You're wondering one of two things, right now. What just happened, and why did it not fully faze me. Which would—"

"You," she said. "I don't want to think about the bank. I sat in that bank, I ate my lunch…" She felt like she might vomit, even dry heaved a bit. He gave her a look of concern, but made no move to touch her back or steady her hands on the wheel. It was almost as though he knew about the pepperspray in the glove compartment. She kept control of the vehicle, and gradually regained control of her stomach. "No, not the bank. Talk about you."

"Very well. I told you my real name today, Karen, because if you'd been part of that thing back there, it wouldn't have mattered, and if this meeting had gone a little differently, we could have made you forget. We can still make you forget, in fact. Forget this ever happened. Forget you ever worked at the Bank of Simcoe South, had ever even heard of it. We could craft for you a cover story so convincing, it would convince even you. I'm sure that sounds plenty attractive right now."

McInnisSad.jpg

They were alone on this stretch of dirt road, no lights in front… don't look behind. It was just her, and him, and between them the horrible impossibility of what they'd just escaped from. She felt like she was losing her grasp on reality, drifting out to sea, and McInnis was offering a lifeline. She nodded, but said nothing.

"There are, however, other options available to you. We're going to need to have a talk, you and I, about everything you saw and said and did inside that bank — not now!" He saw her hands clenching the wheel even tighter, and his voice became low and soothing. "Not now, not yet. I'm going to tell you where to drive, and it's going to be a long haul. If we take the back roads — and that would be my preference — we'll have maybe three hours and change to get acquainted."

She looked at him dead on for the first time since climbing into her ancient sedan with its old-timey waistbelts and faux-wood side panels. "Is this a kidnapping?"

"Yes." He nodded for emphasis. "Yes, of course it is. You've just seen something terrible, and it's my job to make sure of two things: first, the terrible thing is understood as clearly as possible, and second, it can't hurt anyone else. But that includes you, Karen, and you have my word that no harm is going to come to you tonight. Not with me."

She looked back at the road, bleached grey in the high-beam light. She hadn't even noticed when she'd flicked the high-beams on. "Great. Sounds great. I guess stopping for coffee is too much to ask?"

"Not at all. I wouldn't mind using a gas station restroom, actually, and perhaps picking up a pack of…" He shook his head. "No, that's in the past. But the restroom would still be lovely."

"Dunno what kind of gas stations you've been using." She glanced at him again. "You're not afraid I'll try to run away if you leave me alone?"

He shook his head. "No, Karen Elstrom of 18 Goose Crescent, Cedarville, Ontario, I'm not particularly worried."

She pulled the car onto the shoulder, as gently as she could, then slowed to a stop and put the parking brake on. She looked him dead in his dark brown eyes, and said: "Who the fuck are you?"

"I'm the Director of Site-43," he said. "There's a Site-01, and a Site-02, and a Site-322, and many of the numbers in-between… and we've got much more than just Sites, you see."

She didn't see. "What do you do? At Site-43?"

"We protect people. People like you. From things like that." He pointed at the rear-view mirrors she wasn't allowed to look into, one by one. "And that's your other option: working with me, with people like me, to keep the world safe."

She stared at him. "I'm thirty years old."

"The young have fresh ideas," he agreed.

"I have an MBA."

"Not all ideas are created equal," he admitted with a smile, "but our business needs administration no less than any large corporation's. More, in fact, I'm quite confident in saying."

She gazed out the windshield at the darkening sky, at the stars, at the distant light pollution of Toronto on the very far horizon. She looked down at her dashboard, at the indicator telling her she was nearly out of gas, at the McDonald's soda cup in the cupholder, at the immaculate bucket seats of the car she never could have afforded without a loan from her parents, at Allan McInnis in his expensive casualwear. At the moment, this strange moment in time, it made a certain sense to her.

"How well does it pay?" she found herself asking.

He laughed out loud. "Well, it's a living. Do you get claustrophobic?"


Asterisk43.png

2003

15 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"'Young people have fresh ideas'," she recited from memory. That's what Allan—" Oops. Well, it's out. Move on. "—told me. And Okorie and Ibanez are special cases, inducted at an early age."

Falkirk scoffed. "We're in the realm of official excuses again. Let me try another question: where do you keep your ugly doctors?"

She gaped at him. "Huh?"

"Your ugly doctors. Academics range from bookish to homely, as a general rule, and yet the homeliest person I've seen here is Wettle. Most of your colleagues look like the movie versions of themselves. I'll compound the question and set it you again: why is this facility full of attractive young people instead of effective, experienced ones?"

Her cheeks would be achieving an all-natural rouge now. "Are you implying I got my job the same way?"

"Have I merely been implying? I meant to state it nakedly." He looked her up and down without the faintest hint of shame. "Look in the mirror, and tell me that your brain is your most immediately marketable asset."

She remembered the bank in the boonies. She remembered driving out of a warzone as the helicopters landed and the mobile task force set to the building-sized blob of blubber with flamethrowers and abatement tanks — though she didn't remember that stuff was happening, since she'd been forbidden to see, but she'd handled the expenditure forms for it all as her first official duty at Site-43. She remembered the long drive to Ipperwash, McInnis buying her coffee at the first Shell station they found, then asking after her education, her prospects and skills, and at the time it had seemed like a trick to calm her racing nerves, but then after the longest interview of her life she'd discovered that the proffered job was not a ruse…

…and he'd damn well never tried to sneak a look down her shirt. Falkirk was talking shit, and she was going to tell him s—

"You're at a loss. I understand!" He did look like he thought he understood, like he thought she would naturally agree with him. "I felt something similar once, though from the other side of the fence, when I realized I would never be a part of their young and restless crowd. It's a sickening thing to behold, I know. But they made a serious mistake in hiring you, Dr. Elstrom."

She shook her head. He'd obviously rehearsed this speech, so she might as well let it play out. "They did?"

"Very much so. Because alone among the beautiful people, I strongly suspect you've got a brain in your pretty little head. You're a quick study, and you've got an edge. I want to sharpen you up further. I want to make them regret thinking you were just another dumb blonde."

"I'm not here to help you take revenge." It was not the diplomatic thing to say, but it was the right thing. I think.

"Good. Revenge is petty, and the world can't afford to employ petty defenders. I want you to help me shake things up so that the perverts and dilettantes have to start actually doing the work we hired them to do. No more shirking. No more prioritizing grab-ass over research. Let's give them back their dignity, doctor, whether they want it or not. Shall we?"

Grab-ass. She found herself nodding.

He took it as assent. "Good. Here's where I want you first—"

"Actually, sir?" She sat up straighter in the chair. "If I might make a suggestion."


Asterisk43.png

Kettle Point Reserve: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


McInnis had never visited the All-Sections Chief at his home. It was a charming little clapboard, more than enough space for one man — which was all it ever had to contain, and not very often. Like most of the senior staff, the ASC spent virtually all his time either at work or in his dedicated dorm. It was a strange sensation for both of them, then, to be sitting in the simple pine-and-lino kitchen and watching the trees sway outside.

"I don't trust him there alone," McInnis sighed. Even in this personal setting, even removed from their posts, it was hard to talk about anything but their jobs.

"He's not alone." The ASC was sipping at a cup of tea, looking serene and collected as ever. His composure was so legendarily unflappable that even McInnis was regularly jealous. "Harry and Lillian know what he's like. They'll be watching him."

ASCHome.jpg

"They can watch all they like, Nim, but he's Directing. You barely had to work with this man, you don't know what he's like with authority. He doesn't want to be in charge because he loves power; he's not a control freak. He hasn't got ends to justify his means. He's just… well, mean. He wants to be in charge because we don't want him in charge, and he's going to do everything he can to do nothing we want done." It had always been easy to bitch about Falkirk. He'd been the Site's prime hate sink for thirty years, and Allan found that even he was not immune to the appeal. "That's why they made him the 01 liaison in the first place, back in the sixties. He's a contrarian, and he doesn't get it honestly. He doesn't consider all the variables and come to a decision, he just decides what he wants, what he believes, who he likes and who he hates, and he acts on that." He tapped the table to emphasize each point.

"And why is that worse than what you are?"

McInnis gave his erstwhile deputy a cockeyed glance.

"Why do you want to be in charge? You're not trying to impress anybody, and your tastes are Spartan so you definitely don't need the money." This seemed more than a little ironic, the two of them sitting in a house which hadn't changed an iota since it had been purchased for the asking price, no questions asked, in the late 1990s. "What's driving you? The satisfaction of a job well done? The sense of purpose? The need to protect the world? What?"

McInnis thought about that, and said the first few things that came to mind. "I believed that I was good at it. I've always believed that people should act according to their gifts."

The ASC laughed. He laughed easily; it was one of the most immediate factors distinguishing the two of them. The others were the fact that while McInnis wasn't pale, the ASC was dark, and while McInnis was short, the ASC was nearly as tall as Lillihammer. "Well that's very Vulcan of you, sir, but it doesn't explain why you're so upset about September all these months later."

McInnis pulled a face. "What? Who says I'm upset about anything? I'm a Site Director, Nim, my feathers don't ruffle that easily."

"Easily?" The only man snorted. "It was a disaster, and it affected everyone. It ruffled all the feathers. And it changed you."

He said nothing in response.

"You've still got your gift of gab, and your equanimity, but you've lost hold of the reins. Nascimbeni barely listens to you, and Ibanez doesn't talk to you. You were blaming yourself for what happened long before the Council did."

Again he did not respond.

"Director—"

He held up a hand. "Allan. Not Director anymore."

"Allan, I'm going to tell you a story. Most of it you already know, or could have guessed, but I'm going to tell it anyway because that's what my people do, and we're on their land. Your task will be simple: as you own this story as well, you'll make sure I get the details correct. Understood?"

McInnis nodded, bemused.

The ASC pulled his sock feet up, and sat cross-legged on the chair in his fancy leisurewear. He was completely incapable of looking ridiculous, no matter what he did. He narrowed his eyes, and began to intone: "1995. I was studying law out west, preparing to be one more in a long line of treaty negotiators, when I heard what was happening here. The protest."

The protest, what was today called the Ipperwash Crisis, had been precipitated by the federal Department of Defence during the Second World War. They had appropriated Indian reserves along the Lake Huron shoreline to create Military Camp Ipperwash; the land was subsequently ceded to the provincial government and reorganized into Ipperwash Provincial Park, a significant portion of which was later secretly donated to the SCP Foundation for the construction of Site-43. The First Nations had never been invited back onto their land, so in 1995 they'd decided to come calling.

"The cause was righteous," the ASC continued, "the need was great, and I answered the call. I came home to this place…"

"You weren't living at Ipperwash before the protest," McInnis interrupted. "You also weren't living at Kettle Point. Your mother took you away when you were just a small child. Did you leave that unclear to test my oral copyediting skills?"

The ASC smiled, but ignored the question. "You're right, of course. This hadn't been my home for years, many years, and I had been young and foolish then. I believed in the tales the elders told, believed them to relay actual fact, not metaphor. I even believed, in my childish imagination, that I had seen a few of the miracles myself. So foolish. In Alberta, with my mother, I learned to scoff at the old stories. I learned that magic was a property of legend, that no monsters roamed the Earth but the ones we made of ourselves. Like the one my father had become, as had his father before him, in those boarding schools far from prying eyes and standards. I learned to feel distaste and sympathy for those I'd left behind, and when that call to action came, I had to swallow the former to act on the latter. I came to Ipperwash to help with the struggle, and endure the storytelling only as much as I needed to."

McInnis nodded.

"On my first night, the provincial police tried to land a patrol boat on Ipperwash Beach and sneak an armed officer into our camp. I was out on a patrol of my own — alone — when I stumbled upon his craft. The province had warned the OPP not to use the lake—"

"That was the official story," McInnis corrected. "It was actually us."

The ASC inclined his head, and smiled again. "— but they had not listened, and it came back to bite them. Hard and literal. I found this wounded spy lying in a rut on the beach, screaming, a gigantic cat-snake-fish thing gnawing on one of his legs. He was calling for his mother; did you know that's a thing people really do?" He still looked amazed, at the memory. "I thought it was only in the movies. He was calling for his mother, and when he heard my approach — because he'd taken in a breath, to sustain the screaming — he called out to me instead."

McInnis could almost picture it. The ASC had a deep, hypnotic voice.

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what that thing was. But I knew it was going to kill him if I didn't intervene… so I did. I walked out of the bush, and onto the sands. It saw me." The Chief breathed deep. "The beach was blue with moonlight, and the moon was in both of its huge, slitted eyes and glinting off its bronze tail, twitching with agitation. It stared at me for a moment, jaw still locked upon its prey, and then it released him and raised its head to consider me more closely. I saw the blood dripping from its fangs. I heard the man whimpering. I thought I was going to die."

The wind whipped the tops of the pines with a sudden rush of force.

"And then, and I will swear on this to my dying day, it nodded at me and walked straight back into the lake. Never looked back. I ran to my truck and called emergency services on my old sat phone, and they were there in seconds."

"More like we were there in seconds." McInnis had been the Chief of A&O at the time, had handled the calls himself. "Couldn't have you reporting a water panther attack to the authorities, or the media. Treat, amnesticize, release. Of course, you didn't stick around."

"And a few days later, a man I had never seen before walked out of a building in the camp that I knew perfectly well he had never walked into." They shared a meaningful smile. "Two of my friends had him in their power within moments, but he wasn't afraid. Not like the cops. The cops were always terrified of us; you can still see it in the photographs. It's like they think they're going to get scalped. In my mind, they're all that coward writhing on the sand, moments from grisly death, weak and in the wrong. But you? Calm as a cucumber, cocksure and confident."

"I was terrified," McInnis chuckled. "We don't have natives where I grew up, unless you count the Scots — and I'm half-Scot myself. But I had the firm belief that people are people the world over, so I came up and out to talk."

"And what did you say?"

"Well," he recalled, "you spoke first."

"Who are you with?" The massive man in the bandana, standing at the head of the group, pointed a heavy pine branch at me.

I raised my hands, slowly. "Nobody you know. Not the police, and not the government."

"How long have you been hiding in there?" The big fellow looked past me, at the nondescript building I'd somehow emerged from. Camp Ipperwash was under native control; there should've been no way some random white man could have still been inside.

"Must've been days," one of the other protesters remarked. "Been keeping a close eye."

"Look at him, though," another argued, pointing. "Freshly-pressed, like Nim was before we set him straight."

They laughed. Their leader smiled ruefully at them.

"I've been hiding in there since well before all this started," I said.

"That's where you're wrong." The big man walked up and poked me lightly in the chest with his stick. "This started centuries ago, and unless we handle this now, today, it'll still be going for centuries. So I don't have time to play games with you, mystery man. Tell me straight: where did you come from?"

I gestured at my origin point, and said: "I'd rather tell you in private."

Why he agreed to come with me, alone, I will never know. I have asked him, and he has trouble giving me a straight answer. We simply decided to trust each other, saw perhaps some inherent commonality in our earnestness and plain speech, and I brought him into a world he'd had no idea existed. A world beneath his feet.

"This is obscene," he said, as I led him past rows of containment chambers. "This land isn't yours, above or below. You shouldn't be here."

I nodded. "We're here under the sufferance of your people, though most of them don't know it. We made arrangements with the elders—"

"The elders can't make this decision alone!" For a man so tall, so broad and so obviously strong, he had an uncommon grasp on oratory. "They derive their authority from consent. They negotiate. They inform, and we accede."

"Stop it there." The ASC smiled. "You're not half-bad at this… Allan. I didn't hear anything meriting correction."

"But you did hear a moral, somehow. What was it? There can be no authority without consent? As I told you at the time, consent was impossible. You couldn't all know our secret. We couldn't ask everyone, so we asked a privileged few. Scout did."

"Yes. In 1942, you — the royal you, Scout and the Foundation — attempted to pass your crime onto others. Told the elders who you were and what you were doing, offered them clean water and protection from the Mounties, and they arbitrarily decided to trust you. That's what you think happened — the royal you, and you yourself."

McInnis blinked. "And? It's not?"

The ASC laughed. "Of course it's not. In 1942 every man, woman and child in this community was told, by those elders Scout trusted so readily, what was really going on. What was at stake. What this deal with the devil they did not know would mean for them. Did he really think they'd abandon their trust in each other, and adopt your means of authority? Our societies don't run on security clearance levels. We don't compartmentalize our knowledge. When you induct each new elder into the conspiracy, they're smiling and nodding and pretending to learn things they've known all their lives. When the decision was made to allow the Foundation to stay — not that there was any chance of making it leave, of course, but still — it was made in the old way. And the secret was kept, from the outside world and the one below, perfect. In perpetuity." He looked rueful. "Until just now, I suppose."

He couldn't quite process this. "How long have you known? You personally, I mean."

"Not long!" The ASC laughed. "This afternoon, actually."

"What?"

"I haven't been home in a long, long time. I decided to ask a few questions, and got surprisingly direct answers. Those other men I met you with, at the Camp in '95? They knew. All the protestors knew. Only the strangers from afar, like myself, were in the dark. That's why I was able to convince them to let you alone, and focus our efforts on the government. They already knew to trust you, from their parents, from their grandparents. They just wanted you to affirm that trust for them, and they sent me as their innocent little envoy." He inclined his head. "Alright, not so little."

McInnis shook his head. "If there's a lesson for the present situation in here, you shouldn't have buried it in…" He laughed, he actually laughed. "You shouldn't have stuck it in the middle of this absurd revelation."

The ASC smiled broadly at him. "Here's what I think the lesson is, Allan. You got the first part on your own: you can rule indifferently by fiat, but you can only rule well by consent. And consent requires periodic renewal. Fiat doesn't, but that's both because, and why, it only works in the short term. You might be able to hang on to power for a while by only making the higher-ups happy, but it's a delicate dance. When you fall, and you will fall… if you have no support from below…"

"You keep falling." McInnis took a deep breath, and released a deep sigh. "And it's a long way down from 43."


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Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Karen found Blank where he'd been every day since September 18, 2002: in Bradbury's hospital room. By now it was apparent to everyone but him that his research partner was never going to wake up, but he still did all his work in there nevertheless, on the off chance that each new day might be the one. He looked up as she walked in, and smiled. "Working hours! Should we talk about scheduling the room for Part II?"

She'd chosen her first words with care on the way, but this torpedoed them spectacularly. "What?"

"Back to the Future: Part II! Not as good as the first, but then, what is? Nothing. No movie, anyway." He scooted over on the couch. "Have a seat, and we'll negotiate."

She didn't sit down. "Actually, I'm here to… talk to you. About the audit. That Dr. Falkirk wants." This was precisely how she hadn't planned to say it.

He looked immediately crestfallen. "Oh. That. I assumed it was a gag. What's he doing an audit for, anyway? I thought he was here to judge McInnis."

"He's here to assess what Allan…" Dammit. "…did, and what effect it's had. He can't do that without interviewing the Chairs and Chiefs."

Harry looked confused. "And yet here you are, doing that. For him." He patted the cushion. "Come on, Karey, sit down. You're freaking me out."

Where do you keep your ugly doctors?

"I think I'd rather stand, Dr. Blank. Can we keep this professional?"

Blank blinked.

She glanced at her clipboard. "You haven't been overseeing your staff in person since September. Why is that?"

His eyebrows shot up, furrowing his forehead. He pointed at the prone form beneath the blue sheets.

"Dr. Bradbury is in the care of the finest medical unit in this province. Your people have work that needs doing, and you have leadership training you're meant to be using." It was true; that didn't make it any easier to say out loud. "Can you effectively lead your team from here?"

"I'm sorry, are you bringing your DBA to bear on my gaggle of academics? Because I don't know if you know this, but researchers do their best research when you leave them the hell alone." Over the course of these two sentences, every trace of affability fell away.

"Is that really true, Dr. Blank? Really? Your presence at A&R wouldn't have any effect whatsoever on productivity? Because so far as I can tell, Dr. Bradbury isn't benefiting one bit from your supervision. She's in a coma. She's no more likely to respond to your presence than that mirror monst—"

"What the fuck is this?" Harry stood up. "It's bad enough bringing the inquisition against Allan, you've got to pick away at everyone else? How're we ever going to get things moving again if everyone's looking behind their backs? Falkirk—"

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"Director McInnis allowed a cascade containment breach to occur, according to Director Falkirk, and it's just one symptom of a chain of irresponsibility leading back for decades to a flawed conception of Site hierarchy." These were Falkirk's talking points, not hers, but that bit about everyone looking behind their backs made her want to reach out and shake him, make him see the hypocrisy. She couldn't do that, but she could do this. "If everyone had been properly trained, and knew their duties, it never would have happened. If it had happened, and the appropriate compensatory actions had been taken, we wouldn't be at this point of advanced collapse."

"Advanced…?!" He walked to the end of the bed, and hauled the curtain across the room so that they were hidden from the hallway. He held the flap open for her. "Get out, and go tell your boss that archivists don't need oversight, and too many Directors spoils the film."

She was getting hot under the collar herself. "I'll pass it along. But you might want to consider what's more important here, Harry: staying loyal, or preventing comas."

She stepped through the gap in the curtains, leaving him shaking with rage in obscurity.


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17 January


There was a Mountie sitting in Falkirk's office. Karen barely registered the fact that the Mountie was a woman, in the same way that one rarely notices whether an attack dog with foaming jaws has visible genitals; there had been women on the force since the 1970s, but no member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ever entered Site-43 under friendly circumstances.

The woman glanced over her shoulder at Karen. "Afternoon."

Karen wasn't sure what to say, or do. "Afternoon? Sorry to… interrupt."

"As you should be," Falkirk crooned. "What do you want?"

She took the folder out from under her arm. "The files you asked for, sir. A&R, R&E, T&T and QS. I'll start on the others today."

"No, not today." He gestured at the desk, then at an empty chair. He must've brought in another for his guest. "Put the files down, then put yourself down."

The Mountie guffawed. "Phrasing!"

Karen placed the folder on the desk blotter, and took a seat. The Mountie extended a hand. "Superintendent Morwen Couch. OSAT."

Karen took the hand and shook it, mind awhirl. She was thinking that the last head of the Occult and Supernatural Activities Taskforce had been a man named Shine, which had seemed improbable until she'd meet a woman named Couch. She was thinking that an RCMP officer within the Site was bad enough, but the head of OSAT was simply unconscionable. She was thinking that she might get to see Allan McInnis visibly angry in the near future; she'd never seen that before. She wasn't sure anyone had.

She wasn't sure if she wanted to.

"As you know," Falkirk said, "Our relationship with OSAT is a work in progress."

Karen did not, in fact, know this. What she knew was that the SCP Foundation considered OSAT to be incompetent, partisan, destructive, and prejudiced. She said none of that. She nodded.

"I've chosen to make it one of my first projects as Site Director. Sergeant Couch and I are arranging a little… transfer of responsibilities."

"Transfer…" Karen didn't comprehend.

"We're allies," Couch explained. "Our organizations both want what's best for Canada. A single friendly gesture will go a long way towards proving that."

OSAT was certainly in the spectrum of normalcy organizations which included the SCP Foundation, but allies the two were not. OSAT had attempted to invade the Site twice, once under the direction of a hostile Group of Interest — and they'd succeeded, on that second occasion. They'd opened fire on the Site Director. This was absurd.

"We might even be able to put in a good word for you with the Council," Couch continued.

This took Elstrom a moment. At first she thought Couch meant the O5 Council; that didn't make any sense, but on the other hand, none of this did. Then she realized the sergeant was referring to the Council of 108, the ruling body of the Global Occult Coalition. OSAT had gained a seat on the Council when l’Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, a founding party, had been expelled for attempting a ritual working to affect the course of the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. That had turned a few heads; the GOC preferred to destroy paranormal threats, but OSAT had been commissioned to harness and exploit them.

The contradiction had never, to Elstrom's knowledge, been resolved.

"What's the proposal here, sir?" Karen asked slowly.

"It's not a proposal, it's going to happen. This is the plan I arrived with, and I'm going to see it through." Falkirk looked very pleased with himself. "On January 21, OSAT is going to take charge of one of our Nexus creatures. Nothing of major consequence, but they have their own special interest."

"That we do," Couch remarked with a smile.

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"And in return, they're going to pass along a few items confiscated from an SCP we jointly decommissioned a few years back. Before your time, I believe: 5281? 5281-D, now."

She'd heard about that. "Bonhomme Sept-Heures? The sandman AO has been using to train Okorie?"

Falkirk frowned. "They what?"

Uh. "The skeleton keeps generating sand, and they've been using it as a reagent. What? What's wrong?"

The Director pro tem was turning purple, and Couch was turning the colour of her uniform. She spoke first: "I was under the impression that decommissioning an object took it permanently out of anomalous commission. Are you saying it's still producing phenomena?"

"Regardless," Falkirk interrupted, glaring at Karen, "yes, that's the object we're talking about. The Foundation kept the skeleton, and OSAT got its hat and cloak. We'll be having those back, and they can have their werewolf."

"Werewolf?" Karen looked between the two of them; they were staring daggers at each other, presumably over the gaffe she herself had just committed. "You're giving them a werewolf?"

"A werewolf in a coma," Couch corrected.

"Perhaps we could make it a two-in-one deal," the old man snapped. "Would you like a doctor in a coma, to start off your collection?"

She knew he wasn't serious, but that he would even say it out loud…

Falkirk tossed an envelope on the Elstrom end of his desk. "Take this to S&C, make sure they sign off, and don't take any guff. If they chew you out for less than the rest of your work day, feel free to audit the rent-a-cops while you're there."


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"That son of a BITCH!" Ibanez swept a folder off her desk, scattering the papers within to the artificial winds. "And that bitch full stop!"

McInnis leaned on one of the other desks dotting the bullpen. "What did she say?"

"She wanted to know why I hadn't trained the troops personally, implied it was my fault…" She clenched her little hands into fists. "No, start over. She implied they did something, ANYTHING wrong on the day. They weren't trained right, so they made mistakes. They didn't FUCKING," and she whacked the concrete wall for punctuation, "do ANYTHING FUCKING WRONG!"

"Of course they didn't." It was the honest truth. "They did precisely what you told them to do, and you did precisely what I asked for. The only wild card was Wettle."

"And it's not like we can plan for what happens with goddamn… Willy Wettle and the Fuckup Factory. You should've closed Rep Studies ages ago, Allan, they're useless and you know it."

He shook his head. "I understand why you would think that. I've occasionally heard the same sentiment from scientists, and they ought to know better. From your perspective, replication is redundant. From my perspective, and the perspective of parascience, it keeps us from making the same mistakes twice — or even once. It tells us the difference between patterns and flukes. Without replication, we can't really know anything."

Ibanez kicked her desk. "Well as far as the fucking DIRECTOR is concerned, you can just go with your gut and say 'fuck off' to the facts. Falkirk's a goddamn menace, Allan, and he's going to get us all killed. Do you know what he's told me to do?"

He raised both hands to stop her. "I don't. And I don't want you getting in trouble just because you told me."

She turned her burgundy glare on him. "More like you don't want to get involved. Enjoying your holiday, sir? A break from all those responsibilities you've definitely been fulfilling, these past few months?"

He glanced down at his hands, incidentally espying the redline telephone he'd called when the breach had started. The last time he'd spoken to Janet Gwilherm, the moment he'd set the end of her life in motion.

"Replication studies," he said.

"What?"

"Replication studies, and patterns." He pushed off the desk. "We've all fallen into ruts, Delfina. We've failed to move beyond. Harry's still in H&S, you're still making up for sending strangers to their deaths, let me finish," and the steel in his tone brought her up suddenly short, sharp retort obviously cooling on her tongue, "and Noè shut that door on your agents, and hasn't stopped shutting doors since. Okorie and Lillihammer can't let their mentors go. Everyone's trying to muddle through January but nothing's going right, all their instincts are wrong, because to some extent it's still September inside. Falkirk is correct, in a sense."

She waited, face full-on flushed.

"It's long past time we shook things up."


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18 January


NOTICE FROM THE OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR, SITE-43

OD.png

After decades of experimentation with containment methods directly contravening the established logic of the SCP Foundation, Site-43 is poised to make a quantum leap forward in our handling of anomalous threats. As a duly-appointed officer of Overwatch Command, I am redirecting our efforts towards the creation of an entirely new Section, dedicated to the development of anomalous arms and armour for use by our agents in the field.

Dr. Trevor Bremmel is hereby promoted to Chair of Arms and Equipment.

Direct all inquiries to Dr. K. Elstrom, Office of the Director.

— Falkirk, Edwin T. (Director, Site-43)

Karen whistled. "A lot of people are not gonna like that, sir."

"Let me know if any of their complaints are interesting." The old man yawned. "Now, do you expect me to rationalize this for you, too, or do you think you could just do what you're told like a good little soldier?"

"I'm not a soldier." She made no move to rise. "And between this and the meeting with OSAT, sir, I do think I'm owed an explanation if you want my help."

He beamed at her. It wasn't a good look. "Developing some straight lines in that lovely curved backbone of yours, are we? Good." She had to fight the sudden urge to stand and walk away. She won, just barely. "I won't be around forever, and you'll need that iron for dealing with these idiotic ingrates moving forward."

"I just don't see what any of this has to do with the breach," she said. "Which is what they sent you here to look into."

"They sent me here," Falkirk snarled, "to determine whether the leadership of Site-43 has been leading it to ruin. This entire facility is an experiment, Karen, in creative containment. Things are permitted here which would never even be considered anywhere else. But they always stop just shy of the mark, don't they? They never apply what they learn." He sat back in his chair, and sighed. "I'm going to prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that our anomalous inventory is a tool like any other. A weapon to be wielded. McInnis ought to have done the same, he's had five whole years to get good value out of these people, and I'm going to pick up his slack."

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"And what about the handover? To the Mounties? What're you hoping to gain from that?"

"Oh, that's just the start!" He clapped his bulge-knuckled hands together with glee. "All these myth monsters are made of such fascinating stuff. They're almost all invulnerable, did you know that? Somehow virtually every item in our database is anomalously resistant to destruction. That's part of the reason the DeD doesn't take requests lightly; it takes an awful lot of time and effort to figure out how to trash an SCP." The DeD was the Decommissioning Department. "For all we know, the Man of the Hour was wearing the armour of the future. We could make it into hyper-flexible Kevlar, or derive some new… antistatic… whatever, from it." He waved his own vagueness away. "We won't know until Bremmel gets to work. But this will only be the start, believe you me! We're going to do great things with A&E."

She shook her head. "But that isn't… that isn't what we do. We're not the… Swords, Cannons and Police Foundation." She wished she'd taken the time to think up a better acronym beforehand. "What makes you think we should be?"

"Personal experience." He seemed lost in thought, which was probably why he hadn't bitten off her head for all the backtalk yet. "I know I'm right, and what's more, I know how the O5s think. More than McInnis knows, and more than you could ever guess."

She decided to push her luck. This was too important to shy away from. She leaned forward, hands clasped in her lap, and said: "Explain it to me, then."

He fixed his bleary eyes on her again. "You want me to tell you a story, little girl?"

She bit back a frustrated huff. "I want you to help me understand."

But it was too late for redirection. His expression softened, his eyes unfocused. "I was a private in the Black Watch in '42. We'd picked up Russia in '41, after Operation Barbarossa — Hitler doesn't get enough credit for his stupidity, thanks to his other famous qualities — and that gave us a little leeway for joint operations in the deep continent. A fellow attached to the Canadian Army, such as it was, came by looking for volunteers—"

"Wait," she said. "1945? World War Two? How old are you?"

"I was fourteen," he smiled. "Join-up age was 18. That was the first thing my recruiting officer said to me, before he even said 'hello'. I took the hint; I didn't want to miss the fun, and it looked like it was winding down. Had a hasty training, and they sent me to a camp on the continent where this mystery man was looking for able bodies." His wizened features eased further. "I think, in retrospect, he wasn't looking for the best of the best. We were a screen for what was actually going on."

"Which was what?"

"The Germans were getting close to Astrakhan, in Russia, and all we were told was that a strategic asset in the region needed protection. There was a Dr. Davies with the spook, another Canadian, and it was our job to escort him to some random bloody point on the map to make sure the Germans didn't get there first. A matter of some importance, they said, but they didn't say more. They didn't have to, because that's how war works."

He was lost in reminiscence now. "The target turned out to be a natural spring on the lee of the greenest little hill you ever did see. I saw a lot of mud and rubble in Europe, but this place… you would swear that nothing had ever died there. The liveliest spot in all of God's creation; you might even call it the Grotto of Eden." He smiled at his little joke. "We took Dr. Davies there, facing absolutely no resistance whatsoever, and he started taking samples of the water. Little vials. He ran tests in a tent on the hillside while we bivouacked, swapping tobacco and snuff, writing letters and passing the time with games of makeshift football. The only thing they told us, the spook and the doctor both, was that under no circumstances were we to go near that puddle of water."

He suddenly became aware of her presence again. "Oh, I should have said at the outset: this information is Overseers-only. If you ever tell a living soul what I've already told you, or anything that comes after, you'll be dead within the hour along with everyone you've spoken to in months." He continued, heedless of her shock. "We camped for six days, only drinking from our rations, no water for anything else. We were always a foul bunch, but we got plenty fouler in the countryside with no way to wash the dirt off. I've always fancied myself a tidy man," and he adjusted his cufflinks absent-mindedly, "and it rather offended my sensibilities that we should be turned into unwashed pigs within spitting distance of such a lovely little pool. On the last day I had very sharp words with Dr. Davies, who told me in no uncertain terms that it was my duty to do what I was told, and not to bother with the itches and the bug-bites and the grime, and I must admit my tolerance for authority rather ran out at that moment."

She found this relatable. "What did you do?"

"I went down to the spring that night, knowing full well we were embarking on the morn, knowing full well they would see me with my clean hair and clean face and know what I had done, and took a bath in their god-damned water."

She smiled. "I imagine you got in a lot of trouble."

"I got shot in the face."

She stopped smiling. "What?"

Falkirk tapped his left orbital bone. "In one side and out the other. It was the spook; he caught me slinking back to camp, and put one right through my eye. Left me to bleed to death in an abandoned Russian foxhole just down the hill. I don't know what he told the others when the sun came up, but off they marched without me."

She'd quite lost the thread. "I don't understand. What saved you? The Foundation? Is that how you joined up?"

"It's how I joined up, but nobody saved me. The bullet wound healed overnight."

A breeze whistled through the air vents as neither of them said anything.

"The water?" she said, finally.

"The water. Davies was with the Suffield Experimental Station in Alberta, doing chemical weapons research. They'd heard from their Soviet spies that there was something in the water near Astrakhan, something that meddled with your DNA, induced mutations, and they wanted to see if they could weaponize it." He chuckled. "Something was obviously lost in the translation, because of course that water wasn't dangerous at all. It was a veritable—"

"Fountain of youth," she said.

"Well," he shrugged. "Close enough. I didn't get any younger, but I felt a whole hell of a lot better — even minus the part where a fatal wound didn't kill me. The Foundation had been tracking down the same sources Davies had used, and a team arrived on-site the next day. They took me in custody, did all sorts of tests, made me tell them everything I knew."

She remembered the long drive in the lonely dark.

"They picked up Davies on his way back to England, got his side of the story, and within a week Suffield wasn't an army base at all anymore. The Foundation flexed their muscle and took it, lock stock and viral barrel."

"And made Davies stop his chemical research?"

Falkirk scoffed. "Hardly. He kept on doing it, and I asked if I could help. I had a strong body and a clear mind, and if they wanted a test subject, well, I was already primed and ready."

She wasn't at all sure what to say about that.

"Because, you understand, Davies was looking at things the right way 'round." He sat forward again, eyes almost pleading for understanding behind the indignation. "These things we keep under lock and key, they have enormous potential if only we'd put them to use. I'm not talking about the water — God knows we don't need humans living longer lives — but the wars we could win, the order we could impose, if we put this inventory to work for us…" He sighed. "Davies and I were simpatico on the matter, and we set to work bringing the Council around. It took decades, and it's still not done, but… well, they're a patient lot. They can afford to be. Because of what we found, together."

"And you?" she asked. "Are you patient too?"

He shook his head. "No, Karen, my patience has rather run out, like the holy water in my veins. I think it's time to demonstrate, unambiguously this time, that we're fighting a war without proper munitions."


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19 January


The sign over the door said 'ARMS AND EQUIPMENT'. To put a sign on a door was to take symbolic possession, but putting one on the lintel was an assertion of long-term residence. It was, in every respect, a match for the Section signs found across the Site. But what was inside…

It was chaos. There hadn't been time to fab up a lab for Bremmel's new division, so he'd instead moved all his equipment into the disused storage spaces once dedicated to Procurement and Liquidation. The old offices had been blocked up — nobody wanted to explain why, not even Harold Blank, though perhaps he had his own reasons for recalcitrance now — but the oblong warehouses full of low-key anomalous tat bought at auction or from private sales and left to moulder away in darkness were eminently available for creative repurposing. A team of techs from J&M had carted in Bremmel's lathes and grinders and presses and mills, and set them up against the walls. A wide array of items once held in Low Yield Storage had been broken out of mothballs, and were now arranged like garage sale offerings on stolen cafeteria tables. The room was wall-to-wall cardboard, and Bremmel seemed intent on filling up the remainder of his space with frantic shouting.

"DON'T TOUCH THAT!" The podgy middle-aged man hopscotched between a set of plastic tubs to intercept an orange-vested labourer. The man had what looked to be an empty cardboard box in his arms. "PUT IT DOWN, PUT IT DOWN! NO! ON THE TABLE, YOU BUFFOON!"

Karen watched in bemusement as the man, one 'C. CARTER', gently placed the box where Bremmel had indicated. The scientist brushed back his puffy grey hair and, puffing with exertion, rapped his knuckles against the cardboard. "Do you have any idea what this is?"

Carter shook his head. "No, sir, I don't. What—"

Bremmel actually stood up on his tippy-toes — he was a short and stocky specimen — and whacked the tech on the side of his head. "I'm not here to answer your questions! Get out of here, and tell Nascimbeni I don't want you anymore. He can send me brawn with brains, next time."

Carter slunk out of the warehouse. Karen gave him a sympathetic smile as he passed her by. She walked over to the table, and pointed at the box. "What is it?"

"What?" Bremmel blinked his tiny little eyes at her. "What is what? Oh." He glanced where she was pointing. "It's just a box. I just can't stand the look on that oaf's face, all the time. Moping around." His eyes narrowed. "Then again, the look on your face—"

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"Did you get the items?" Karen sighed. "That's all I'm here to ask you."

"Oh, yes, yes!" Bremmel came alive again, and danced across the room to an orange metal locker undoubtedly purloined from J&M. "The redcoats brought them in this morning."

Karen wasn't sure how Falkirk had convinced Couch to fulfill her end of the bargain early; she certainly wouldn't put it past the hateful old man to welsh on the deal. But the proof was clear enough: Bremmel reached into the locker and withdrew a moth-eaten, battered Victorian-era riding cape, cloak, and top hat. He presented them to her proudly. "Behold! Magic hobo rags."

They smelled like… She actually reached up to plug her nose. "Disgusting."

"Yes, well, he did eat a lot of children while he was wearing them." Bremmel placed the items back in the locker, one at a time. "In any case, I've already run the tests the Director asked for."

"And?"

"And I'm pleased to tell you, we were able to identify the fabric to a high degree of accuracy." He beamed so hard, his eyes disappeared into the bags of flesh above and below them. "It's wool."

She nodded. "And?"

His eyes re-emerged as his face fell. "And what? It's wool. He wore woollen clothes. Quite common, the world 'round, in those times. You know."

She counted to three in her head before responding. "Yes, Dr. Bremmel, I do know that. But how about their resilience? Elasticity? Do they stop bullets? Are they resistant to rot? What are their anomalous qualities?"

He blinked, and her dread deepened as he took a moment to consider his next words. When they came, they were precisely what she'd been afraid of.

"They're… wool." Bremmel shook his head. "'Do they stop bullets'. You're lucky you've got a pretty face, young woman."


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"AND THEN HE FUCKING SAID 'OUR JOB IS TO TAKE CARE OF THE FUTURE, HARRY. THE PAST IS DEAD'! I nearly said 'I WISH YOU WERE'!"

"AT LEAST HE CALLS YOU BY YOUR FUCKING NAME! I haven't heard 'Lyle' so many times in one day since the first time Eileen and I fu—"

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McInnis knocked on the doorframe. "Hello. Am I interrupting anything?"

Blank and Lillihammer both stopped mid-shout, and turned to look at him.

He glanced out into the hallway encircling Blank's private lab. "I just thought I'd ask, since, ah, the door isn't closed." There were a few agents and doctors clustered against the nearest unwindowed wall, stifling laughter.

"Who cares?" Blank snapped. "We're fucked already anyway."

"Who fucking cares," she agreed. "Son of a bitch is going to fire us both, he just hasn't figured out the nastiest way to do it yet. I bet for me he finds some loophole about, I don't know, sex changes being considered anomalous by the Ye Olde Canada Spookiness Commission or whatever the fuck it was called."

"The Dominion Occult Matters Authority," Harry supplied. "DOMA. Merged with the American Secure Containment Initiative in—"

"Harry," said Lillihammer. She took him by the shoulders, and pulled him forwards until their noses were touching — she had to bend down a bit to achieve this. "Harry. Harry."

"Lillian. Lillian."

"The past is dead, Harry."

He screamed inarticulately in her face while McInnis closed the door.

They were all on the same side.


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20 January


Harry looked over the heterogeneous Joint Chairs and Chiefs in their homogeneous seating arrangements, and sighed. "Alright, so… who usually chairs these meetings?"

"ASC," said Skellicorne, unhelpfully.

"Which… there isn't one, right now. So who gets the hotseat?"

Ibanez smirked. "Pretty sure you do, Hairy Hank."

"What?" He took a step back, suddenly realizing why he'd been given the head of the table.

"Departmental seniority, like the US chain of succession. A&R and AcroAbate are the oldest, and AcroAbate hasn't had a Chief since '66."

"Okay," said Harry, slowly, "but the Chief of AO is the Chief of AcroAbate."

"No, officially they're just overseeing it. It's not a separate thing."

He felt the panic rising. "Okay, but I mean… Russia inherited the USSR's Security Council seat—"

Ibanez laughed. "You wanna use a UN metaphor, go join the GOC."

Harry threw up his arms in defeat. "OKAY, fuck, fine, I'm chairing this. I'm mentioning you all in my execution speech, and it's going to be VERY unfavourable. Who wants to kick us off, so to speak? What's the point of this meeting?"

"Getting rid of Falkirk," said Ibanez.

He shook his head. "That's only if we're unanimous. We just need a quorum to halt the audit, though."

"Why?" This was Gedeon Van Rompay, the hatchet-faced Chief of Pursuit and Suppression. "What've you all got to hide?"

Everyone turned to stare at him.

"Leapt right to the cop response, huh Ged?" Harry observed.

"He's not the cop," said Ibanez. "I'm the cop. And I still think Falkirk is bullshit."

"I've seen a serious uptick in nervous wrecks over the past few days." This was Koda Anoki, the long-haired and soft-voiced top psychologist. "I don't think we can handle an additional and unnecessary stressor, with the events of last September still so fresh in everyone's minds."

"Seconding," said LeClair.

Van Rompay scowled at them both. "That was months ago. For god's sake, people, suck it up." They all turned to stare at him again, and he glowered at each in turn.

"That isn't how brains work," Euler remarked. "At all. You may trust me on this."

"We've had serious departmental losses," Adrijan Zlatá muttered. He seemed drowsy, only half-present. "I think it's unfair to be judging our performance under these conditions, and certainly it's unfair to pin what happened on McInnis. And you should've heard what he said to Okorie…"

Trevor Bremmel piped up next. "Well, I for one am—"

"—not a real chief," said Ibanez. "Noè, you've been awful quiet."

Nascimbeni was sitting at the opposite end of the table, slumped in his seat, arms crossed. "Nothing to say. I support the audit."

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The curious eyes turned his way.

"Seriously?" Harry marvelled at him. "Half of Falkirk's bullshit make-work is getting dumped on your people, right now."

The head technician shot a smug, sidelong glance at the carpet. "You say 'right now' like it's outside the norm."

"What I mean is, if he's gonna find fault with anything, it's gonna be with you. With your techs. With Ambrogi and Markey, Vanchev and Nicolescu, and definitely Deering." Harry shook his head. "Dude is on a goddamn warpath with Deering, it's not even funny."

"What's this?" said Eileen, looking from Harry to Nascimbeni.

The chief sighed. "They had an… altercation, in the washroom. Falkirk told me to shelve the report, so it's a classified incident."

"A classified bathroom incident?" Van Rompay's angular brows plunged precipitously.

Eileen frowned. "We're all the same clearance level in here, Noè."

"Yes," he nodded, "and that level is too low."

"This is getting us nowhere." Skellicorne thumped the table rhythmically, his way of demanding silence. "We need a deliberate, programmatic opposition to the audit, or we're just spinning our wheels. Here's the A&O perspective: he's acting outside his remit. He wasn't sent here to alter affairs at the Site, he was sent to investigate McInnis. Instead, he's all but kidnapped one of my best workers—"

"—not that she seems to mind all that much—" Michael Nass interrupted. The pudgy, kind-faced academic theologian had spent most of the afternoon trying to keep his star pupil from gouging out Elstrom's eyes after the latter mixed up the Theology and Teleology Section with the Department of Tactical Theology.

"—and he's taking up all our time with digging up dirt. I think it's a waste of resources for no appreciable gain, and I'd be willing to put my name beside a bald statement of that fact."

"I think he's trying to shutter T&T," Nass added, "and there's absolutely no reason for that. I'll write up a paragraph."

"Arms and Equipment—" Bremmel began.

"—isn't a real Section," Du finished. "I had Elstrom in my office today, trying to decide if my people are good value for the Foundation. I'm not going to call her 'Dr. Elstrom', because Business Administration is not a real doctorate — sorry, Rory."

Skellicorne shrugged. "I don't have a doctorate in anything."

Du continued. "She didn't understand a thing I told her, and I'm worried she'll translate that as 'QS does random bullshit'."

"Oh, do you not?" Van Rompay chuckled.

"Look," said Harry. "Let's not focus on Karen, alright? None of this was her idea."

Skellicorne nodded. "Exactly."

"Yeah, poor Karen," Ibanez pouted. "Not at all a toadie little lickspittle."

Harry stared at her. "Where did you even get those words?"

"That calendar you gave me. The medieval—"

"The medieval one, shit, yeah!" He grinned. "I remember now."

Euler had zoned out during the banter, but he came back in fine form. "I'm opposed to unsympathetic over-reach, and I've said so directly to Overwatch before. I'll co-sign any objection."

"It's driving everyone to distraction," said Gennady Styles. The whip-thin, balding administrator always carefully read the room before making himself heard. "Hiring and Reg is on your side."

Eileen was nodding along. "We have enough re-wiring to do, without some yutz who was born before computers existed getting in our faces. I'm in."

"Me too." This was Anastasios Mataxas, a pleasantly disheveled oldster who'd been kicked upstairs from Theology and Teleology to be Chair of Research and Experimentation. R&E was a sort of uber-Section managing the Site's labs and collaborative projects, and Mataxas had gotten its top job as a consolation prize when his ghost-searching department had been scuttled at a meeting not very unlike this one. "Every research team is afraid they'll lose funding or personnel because of this, and we have too many vital projects going right now. It's got to stop."

Harry nodded, and smiled; he had voted against Spectrometry and Spectremetry, so he always tried to be extra polite with Mataxas. "Obviously I'm with the objectors. Gedeon, you're opposed?"

Van Rompay shrugged. "Enh, whatever. Our job is protection. If you all feel threatened, I'll stand with you. Misgivings notwithstanding."

"Noè?" Harry asked.

Nascimbeni was barely paying attention. "Record me opposed, and write up your objection anyway."

Good enough, I guess. "Alright, we're well past quorum. Rory, can your people help us draft something?"

Skellicorne cracked his knuckles. "I'll do it myself. I'm afraid my people are more or less his people, at the moment."

Euler frowned. "I'm a little perturbed by this us-versus-them mentality…"

"But?" Harry prompted.

"…but Falkirk is sort of the universal 'them', isn't he? The ultimate bad-faith contrarian. I've known him longer than anyone else in this room, and he hasn't changed since before many of your staff members were even born. He's not going to bend unless someone with a bit more leverage gives him a push, and that basically means Overwatch Command."

No-one could object to that. Harry looked around for any further comments, and when there were none, he nodded. "Very well then. Ladies and gentlemen, we stand adjourned."

"I'll sign the damn thing, you know," Bremmel groused. "This wasn't how I wanted to get my way."

"We'll save you a space at the bottom," Harry assured him.

"Where does McInnis sign?" Nascimbeni asked. "Because he obviously put you up to this, Harry."

Harry didn't feel the need to dignify that with a response.


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20 January


"I can't believe they'd do that." Karen felt miserable, and more than a little afraid.

Falkirk chuckled as he piled the papers into his briefcase. "Can't you? Listen, I've been called before the Council before. They'll read me the riot act, then send me right back. They want this investigation to go forward, they won't let rank dissent get in the way."

That didn't reassure her much. "It's just… some of these people are my friends, sir. I feel like I'm being asked—"

"No one is asking you to do anything, Karen. I have the authority to give you orders, and the rest of them have no authority over you at all. I'm making you Deputy Director before I go, and I want you to make damn sure we're ready for the handover tomorrow."

She'd long since lost the ability to be surprised by his random acts of authority. "You still think that's going to happen? Sir, if they're this opposed to you already—"

He held up a hand, sharply. "I worked at this facility for thirty years, Karen, and you know what the secret to my longevity was? Knowing these people. Really, honestly knowing them. Knowing that I was better than they were, knowing that I could be trusted farther than they could, knowing that when the tough decisions needed to be made, I would be able to make them, because I knew each and every human being here except for me was just expendable. They're not your friends, they're your opponents, in one of two ways. Either they're the obstacles on your course to efficiency, or the anchors keeping you from making any progress at all." As he always did when he rattled off one of these little rants, he got a faraway look behind his cataracts. "If you take the first option, they'll hate you, but it won't matter; you'll be protecting the world at large, and against that metric, what matter a few little birds out of sorts? If you take the second, if you try to keep them happy and satisfied and thinking well of you, you'll lose sight of the big picture and make the wrong decisions for all of us… and they'll hate you for that, shortly before they die. Don't let this backwater country fool you; 43 is one of the few facilities responsible for preventing an XK-class scenario."

She opened her mouth, not sure if it was to demand a follow-up to this extraordinary statement or simply to take in oxygen.

He anticipated her query nevertheless. "I can't tell you which — I don't even know myself — but I can tell you what that means for the work you're doing. It means that if your guiding light in each interaction is the desire to be thought well of, you are the point of failure that gets us all killed." He placed a hand on her shoulder; it was like being reassured by a Terminator with metal fatigue. "Thirty years of me was too much, I can see that in their eyes now. Thirty years of hating me for micromanaging their lives to macromanage a response to the threats we face… That's a long time to resent someone, to see them as the face of denial, to know that the denial is right even when it's not what you want. I was their daily reminder that their concerns were petty and their bleeding-heart philosophies inappropriate. I'm still going to be that, for however much longer I've got — and I intend to keep this post for a long, long time." He sighed. "But I'm old, and this battle is just beginning. The question you should be asking yourself, the question I'll ask you before long, is this: when I'm gone, who's going to make the hard calls? If it isn't you… who else?"

He didn't wait for her answer, which was good, because she didn't have one.


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McInnis waited until Falkirk had left before confronting Elstrom. She was sitting in the office that had until very recently belonged to him, chair bumped up awkwardly against the wrong side of the desk, doing paperwork.

"Why not move into the secretary's office?" he asked.

She jumped in the seat, and put one hand on her heart. "Ugh," she said. "Sorry. Uh… I don't know. He likes me better where he can see me." She winced; she'd heard how it sounded.

He ambled over to the desk, looking up at the framed painting as he always did. "What's he up to?"

She affected innocence. "Nothing I'm aware of, unless you mean the investigation — which obviously I can't discuss with you. Sir." She seemed uncertain about that last word.

"I wouldn't dream of putting you in a tight spot there. But no, I mean what's he up to?" He looked down at her. "I saw Morwen Couch the other day. I know he's planning something. S&C doesn't know about it, P&S doesn't know about it. So what is it?"

She had a pained expression now. "I really, honestly can't say, sir. Director Falkirk is keeping a tight lid on things."

McInnis examined her face. "Are you sure of that? Do you trust those skeletal hands that far? Because I would say, in light of today's events, that he's rather losing his grip."

She stiffened in her chair. "Did you precipitate that, sir? Are you really so afraid of what he might find?"

"No, Dr. Elstrom, I'm afraid of what he might do. My concern is with the safety, stability and continuity of this Site."

"And not your legacy?" Every word she spoke was making her wince, like she had a sore tooth. "I know Dr. Falkirk was responsible for Dr. Scout's removal. And now he's doing the same to you. That doesn't make you angry? You're not motivated by revenge?"

He graced her with a look of absolute pity and empathy, and responded: "This is one of the most important posts a human being can have, Dr. Elstrom. Anyone who would use it for something so petty as vengeance is a clear and present danger to the survival of mankind."

And then, as he judged the moment right, he left her to her paperwork.


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The thing in Chamber N-13 was revolting. It was roughly humanoid, skin and bones and patches of blotchy brown fur all matted and stringy. It got regular baths, but they never seemed to help. It drooled ceaselessly from slack canine jaws, its breath was a putrid low gargle, and it smelled like what it was: a wet, dying dog. It was not, all these things considered, the most striking specimen of werewolf contained at Site-43. Neither was it the only such specimen. There were three other loups-garou in Chamber N-11 down the corridor, in more spacious accommodations because they, unlike Specimen N-13, were conscious and ambulatory. If they were aware that another of their number was being held in such close proximity, they gave no sign. They paced their habitat of stunted trees and artificial grass, growling and snarling and occasionally baying at the moon. How they knew when the moon was out was a mystery; they'd been deep underground for nearly four decades now, their wicked black eyes weakening and their fur going grey, but somehow they could still sense the lunar course. N-13, for its part, twitched and moaned when its counterparts sang their mournful tune. It was the only thing which could penetrate the coma.

Ibanez scowled at it through the one-way glass, then turned the scowl on Karen. "You are not fucking serious."

"Dead," she replied, instantly regretting the choice of words.

Ibanez put her hands on her hips. "No sell. I'll wait for the Director to get back. The real Director."

"No, you won't." Elstrom drew herself to her full height, putting her head a head and a half above the security chief's. "I'm his deputy, and I'm ordering you. Make ready for the transfer, it's happening tomorrow morning at 8 AM sharp."

"Sharp," Ibanez spat. "You're just picking all the right damn words today, aren't you, Karen?"


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21 January


"I dunno." Technician first class Charles Carter scratched the back of his neck. "I'd like to ask the boss."

CarterWorried.jpg

"We don't have time for that," Ibanez pointed at the duty roster. Everyone else had a specific task for the day; Nascimbeni's line read simply 'DISCRETIONARY'. "He's doing the distant god reigning from afar bullshit again; for all we know he's in AAF-A, and we need this handled now."

"Well, alright." Carter glanced at his work tablet. "No issues in recent memory with Chamber N-13. Only two action items for the loup-garou chambers all of last year; keycard reader on N-11 replaced on September 13 by… Sergey Vanchev, and cleanup in the same chamber on the 17th after Paul Nicolescu…" Carter blew out a breath. "Yeah, you know all this."

Ibanez winced. "Real auspicious. Well, grab the slab and let's go."

Carter pulled a collapsible gurney out of the pile, and shook it out until the wheels touched the tiles. "Tag says this set passed bi-yearly inspection on… oh."

"What?"

"September 4."

"Oh, you know what? Fuck this." She thumbed her radio. "Ibanez to 43 actual."

No response.

She tried again: "This is Chief Ibanez, Security and Containment, calling Deputy Director Karen Elstrom. Please respond immediately."

Still nothing.

She cursed under her breath, and pointed at the gurney. "Take this to the Attic, but do not under any circumstances load anything onto it until you see my face. Capisce?"

He nodded. "I don't take orders from Mounties."

She patted his arm. "Attaboy."


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Elstrom was standing beside a black OSAT Humvee in the middle of Camp Ipperwash, talking to Morwen Couch. The radio she'd been given just an hour ago was sitting on the hood. The power light was red.

Ibanez walked past them, reached over and flicked the gauge. There was a click, and the light turned green. "Thanks for listening, Karen."

Elstrom looked bleary-eyed and blasted. "Sorry. Sorry. He left me paperwork before he left, and there was… a lot. Of it." She gestured nonindicatively.

"How?" Ibanez glanced at the Superintendent; Couch pursed her lips, and shrugged. "It's just a simple anomaly handover. We've already got the clothes in lockup."

"You're welcome," Couch smiled.

Elstrom sighed. "No, this was about his report. For Overwatch. He wants…" She shook her head, hard. "Uh, I think he wants basically everybody fired, or maybe firing-squadded, I dunno. He's not happy. I've got disciplinary reports, reports of improper conduct… the sex stuff alone—"

"Sex stuff?" Couch looked liable to burst out laughing. "Oh, dear. Oh, dear."

"Upshut, horse pig." Couch stiffened against the Humvee's flank. Ibanez turned back to Elstrom. "Explain."

Elstrom looked lost in the woods; appropriate enough, considering their sylvan backdrop. "He thinks we need to stop all relationship declarations, pre—" She yawned. "—prevent people from, in his words, 'fornicating on company time', and institute rigorous health checks for venereal disease."

Couch was vibrating, one brown glove up to her mouth.

"Pretty sure we already check for that." Ibanez made a small sound of frustration, then remembered her purpose here. "Hey. I just checked the gurneys — thanks for giving me no notice on that, by the way," she added in an aside to the Mountie, "and they're no good. Last checked before the breach."

Couch popped the door on the hummer, and climbed in.

Elstrom blinked. "Visible damage?"

"No, but that's hardly the point, is it? The gurneys are containment apparatus. They're almost definitely compromised."

Elstrom rubbed her eyes. "For fuck's sake, can't you just…" She made her own sound of frustration, twice as weary if not half as dangerous. "No, you're right. Okay. I'll tell Couch to wait, you get Nascimbeni on the horn."

"Nascimbeni's a no-go. Probably off pouting in some conduit with only one entrance halfway up the Site's rotten ass. This is your show, Deputy Director; you need to call it off yourself."

Elstrom looked very tired as she turned to rap on Couch's opaque, tinted window.


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Chuck Carter was good at small talk, and he attempted to make it with the two RCMP constables standing watch outside N-13. They weren't having it, so he stood in silence with the gurney behind him, waiting for word from on high.

The Mounties had in-seam radios, and one of them crackled to life. "Do you have the package?"

"No, sir." The constable looked embarrassed. "There's a problem with the equipment."

"What equipment? What kind of equipment do you need to pick up a half-dead werewolf?" The man was about to explain when Couch's voice cut him off again. "How about your equipment, constable? Not anything wrong with that, is there?"

Carter gave him a sympathetic look.

"No, sir, there's nothing wrong with my equipment." The man clearly hadn't enjoyed saying that out loud.

"Do you see what you need in front of you?"

Both Mounties looked at the gurney. Carter widened his stance in front of it, protectively.

"Yes, sir."

"Then take it, and take custody of what's ours."

In an instant, two S&C agents walked around the corridor corner. They were armed. They, also, were not interested in small talk.

The constable with the radio pointed at the gurney. "We're not here for trouble, we're here for the wolf. Give us a hand, and we'll be out of your hair."

Carter shook his head. "Nobody does anything until I've got clearance from either Chief Ibanez or the Deputy Director."

The other Mountie sighed. "What if we took the gurney into the chamber, and one of you nice guys came in to help us load the sucker up? You can lock the door behind us until your bosses get back to you. Just so we're not stuck here with our thumbs up our asses, right?"

He smiled.

Carter considered it for a moment, then remembered he didn't need to.


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"Sure. Fine. Lock them in, and let them do it."

"Karen!" Ibanez snatched the radio out of her hand. "Are you out of your—"

Elstrom snatched it back. "They're locking the goddamn door! There is literally nothing that could go wrong. When we get hold of Nascimbeni, he can check the gurney out, and when we're sure it's safe, they can leave the chamber. What could possibly, conceivably be the problem with that?"

The security chief rolled her eyes. "The inconceivable is my business, Karen. You took accounting at college."

Within the hummer, they could just make out Couch's silhouette. She held her radio at the ready.


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Carter watched through the chamber door window as the two Mounties and one of the S&C agents, a man named I have no idea what his name is, manhandled the slobbering and comatose creature off its stationary bed and onto the gurney.

He remembered that they'd replaced all the beds in the chambers, in case of collapse due to the breach effect.

He thought those Mounties were probably pretty brave to risk their lives this way; that, or their boss was in an even fouler mood than his was these days.

"If I was at Site-19," he said to the other agent, a woman named Holt, "I'd be shitting bricks right now."

"If you were at 19," Holt replied easily, "we would've shot these fuckers at the gate."

"I'm not su—"

There was a sudden screech of metal, and one side of the gurney crumpled inward.

The werewolf fell three feet to the hard tiles, and they could almost hear its bones snap on impact.

They could definitely hear the unholy howl it made an instant later.


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Ibanez had just stepped off the first sublevel elevator when she heard it — an ear-splitting wail, and then another, and then another. It was coming from the Nexus chambers, and she immediately crouched down and began pounding the tiles. There was something in the sound which did not suggest the sad keening of lonely wolves to an invisible moon, but rather something more urgent.

The next thing she heard was the breach alarm, as the hall turned blood red.

"Fuck. Fuck!"

Her radio activated. "Report!"

It was Elstrom, so she ignored it. There was gunfire from ahead, and she pressed her back to the corner. "Clear?" she shouted. "Clear?" She didn't want to walk into someone's firing line. Christ, Ana, I really wish you hadn't died—

There was a clattering sound, and a handgun skidded across the tiles in front of her. It was covered in blood; she didn't have time to parse this visual before the arm it had probably been attached too came flying past the corner as well, severed near the jumpsuit shoulder seam.

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She rounded the corner, levelled her firearm, and put three bullets into the back of the nearest werewolf. There were three of them — there are three of them, total — and they were advancing on Holt's crumpled form. She was missing an arm, and most of her face; she was already dead. The other agent, Lewis Bosch, was also on the floor, in several different spreading spots. Carter was cowering against the gurney.

"The chamber!" Ibanez shouted, putting a round into each of the other arc-spined monstrosities. The floor was slick with saliva. They hardly seemed to notice the bullets, and they were hunched over such that she couldn't get a shot at their heads. Their legs were all bone; she knew she could hit them, but she didn't think it would do much good.

To his credit, Carter both understood and obeyed the directive. He dove for the containment chamber, and slammed one hand over the control panel. She saw him gibbering out an audio code; she waited until his mouth stopped moving to put a bullet right through one canine jaw as the creature turned to attack him. It fell to one side, clutching at its face and roaring in pain and wrath. The door slid open, and Ibanez saw Carter dive through…

…and then fall roughly back out, as the door slammed shut again. He fell into the arms of the second wolf, and she emptied the rest of her magazine into its chest…

…as it stabbed both clawed hands into Carter's chest, and tore open his ribcage. He fell to the ground in a puddle of gore, dying without a sound.

Ibanez slammed in a second magazine as the two upright creatures turned this way and that, stupidly searching for the source of their minor inconvenience. Just give me one good shot, you fucking—

BANG. BANG. BANG. A geyser of blood erupted over the back of the werewolf which had killed Carter, as its head exploded. Before it mercifully hid his messy remains from view, another three shots clustered in the cranium of the other wolf and it, too, fell.

At the other end of the hall, Morwen Couch lowered her pistol.

Ibanez approached, muscles suddenly aching, hands shaking. There was a growl from the surviving wolf, and she began to empty her second magazine into its upturned face…

…but she kept three bullets, and pointed her weapon at the Chief Superintendent of OSAT.

Couch took her finger off the trigger, and raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. "We're locked down," she said. "Give us elevator access, let us take that thing out of here, and you'll never see us again."

Ibanez paused. "Not the only way to never see you again," she said through gritted teeth. She considered what could have caused Carter to tumble back out of the chamber, and added with deadly calm: "Not even the best."


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Karen was still standing at the Humvee, radio clutched uselessly to her breast, when the distant door swung open. She'd been trying to reach Ibanez, or Nascimbeni, or anybody who knew what was going on for almost ten minutes.

Nobody was answering.

Couch and her Mounties emerged, the latter pulling the gurney along. The specimen was writhing in pain, howling into the clear blue sky, chest heaving with an unaccustomed rush of woodland air. The Superintendent was preparing a long, white needle; she stabbed it into the wolf's ribcage, and forced the plunger down.

It was still shaking and growling as they reached their vehicle — Karen gave them a wide berth, staring at the drooling mess with unabashed horror — but by the time they popped the trunk and slid it in, its convulsions had stopped.

Couch tossed the spent syringe onto the asphalt as the agents pulled down the hatch. "Appreciate the assist," she said.

Karen stared at her.

"A piece of free advice, kid: everyone's got motivations, and most of them aren't good. You don't know who to trust? Well, don't trust anybody." She pulled off her gloves, and folded them together. "Figure out their motivations, and ask yourself this: what will it get them, in the end?" She patted Karen on the shoulder. "Don't be a martyr to someone else's cause."

She was climbing into the passenger side when Karen suddenly took a step forward, and called out: "Couch?"

The Mountie looked back at her, one hand on the door handle.

"I hope it pisses all over your FUCKING UPHOLSTERY."

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The other woman smiled, then offered a mocking salute before pulling the door shut.


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22 January


Falkirk was apoplectic. "How could you have let this happen? How could you have allowed this to happen? They're going to make this my fault, just you wait."

Karen watched him pace. "Whose fault would you say it was."

He glared at her. "Grow up, little girl. Take some responsibility. I'm gone for one day, and what happens? You cock the whole thing up."

Anger and shame in competition for control, she put her hands behind her back to disguise their transformation into fists. "I executed your orders. I'm not sure how you think I could've countermanded the Superintendent of OSAT."

"Ha! The Superintendent of OSAT! Commander-in-chaps. I thought you knew how to keep control, Karen. I thought you were learning." He sat down heavily behind McInnis' desk. "Some idiot breaks a keycard reader, and nobody notices. Some other idiot forgets to replace vital containment apparatus, and still nobody notices."

"The entire Site was broken," Karen protested wearily. "We haven't had the time—"

"They. Not we, they. Don't associate yourself with their mistakes. Take the wins, dodge the losses." He took a deep breath, papery skin fluttering around his throat, and a rough approximation of his habitual sneer returned. "The transfer still happened, we still got the artifacts. Couch knows she caused this, as much as you did." Karen wanted to protest, but she was focusing on keeping her weak knees solid. "Bremmel got the hat and cape? Did you at least handle that correctly?"

"Yes, sir. I don't know what defensive use you're hoping to get out of some mouldering old Victorian clothing, but—"

"Feh. He's a clever one, he'll figure something out. Of course I wasn't planning on proving my point with just one object, but…" Falkirk suddenly blurted out a strangled note of wrath, and swept his outbox off the desk. His hand began to bleed.

Neither of them said anything for nearly a full minute.

"Going to have to move up the timetable," he finally muttered.

"What does that mean?"

He reached into the desk, and pulled out a neat little pile of paper. "This is a requisition form for an experiment chamber, technicians, and some basic equipment. I want you to take it where it needs to go, and make sure everything's in order. Actually make sure, this time; not like you did yesterday." He leered at her with his horribly perfect teeth. "If this is my last chance, I'll damn well make sure it's yours, too. That is a threat."


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McInnis found Nascimbeni in the morgue, as he'd known he would. The old man was staring at the lockers where Carter, Holt and Bosch's corpses were cooling. They weren't vital enough to justify thaumaturgic preservation, and there was, after all, little doubt about their causes of death — and precious little to preserve.

He chose his words very carefully. That was his skill; that was how he intended to reclaim his position. "Was it easier, Noè?"

Nascimbeni turned to stare at him, eyes glassy and uncomprehending. He looked like he'd just taken a physical beating, like someone had sucked all the marrow out of his shoulders. "What?"

"Losing Carter. Was it easier because you pretended not to care? While he was alive?"

Slowly, very slowly, the other man's fingers curled.

"Did things go better at one remove? Did all the extra drilling and training make that much of a difference, Noè? Do you feel better because you weren't there when he died, didn't see it happen, didn't have anything to do with it?"

The fingers formed into fists.

McInnis pointed at his own chin. "Get it over with, you pathetic old man, so we can fix this fucking mess."

It hurt more than he'd thought it would.


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23 January


"Fifteen in favour, none against." Blank blew out a breath. "By unanimous order of the Joint Chairs and Chiefs, Dr. Allan McInnis is restored to Directorship of Site-43."

McInnis nodded, rubbing his jaw and chewing thoughtfully. They all noticed it, just as they noticed how Nascimbeni was nursing his right hand. Neither man had offered an explanation, so none of the others asked. "Well, then. Chief Ibanez, if you could supply me an escort? I think I'll have that office back."


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Falkirk wasn't in the office, but Elstrom was behind her old desk in A&O. There was paperwork in front of her, but she wasn't looking at it. Her eyes were trained on the door; she watched the guards file in, followed by Ibanez, followed by McInnis.

"Dr. Elstrom." He waved the guards off. "Where's Falkirk?"

"I can't tell you, sir."

She looked like she wanted to cry, or maybe break something. He decided to play to the second impulse. "We're relieving him of duty. The vote was unanimous. We need to retrieve his access code, and take him into custody. Where is he?"

She swallowed a lump in her throat. "I don't know if I believe you, sir. And he said he's working under orders from Overwatch."

McInnis glanced back at Ibanez, then leaned over her computer monitor. "Overwatch doesn't know that their breach investigator just caused another breach. If he's up to something, it's likely to be something desperate — and yesterday was already the shameful scheme of a desperate man. Do you really think we would have gained anything from that little stunt, even had it gone to plan?"

She looked down.

"Dr. Elstrom. This isn't your fault. It's mine, as before. Let the solution be to your credit."

She looked up, and told him.


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"Hypoxia," one of the techs reported.

Falkirk leaned towards the observation glass, wondering when Deering's face would turn blue. When the corduroy demon haunting him would realize that their partnership had ended. When it would be freed, for other purposes. This was the moment of truth, the proof in the pudding.

"Now we'll see," he leered.

And then the world disappeared.

He was staring through the back of a deformed silhouette at a young girl, no older than eight, lying on the ground with a broken jaw. He looked down at his tiny child's fist, covered in blood, and when he looked up his father was raising his own hand to strike, and when he recoiled he fell back over his mother's prone form, blood from her mouth tracing the lines of grouting in the kitchen floor which in an instant were instead the lines on the stockade bars separating him from the men he'd ratted out to the staff sergeant, claiming clemency for himself at their cost, and as they swore cockney vengeance on him he felt the bullet boring through his eye as Raynard Watts, Chief Superintendent of OSAT, put him down on the outskirts of Astrakhan. The lens was cracking, ocular fluid bubbling out and running down his cheek, and he screamed as every impure thought and moment of cruelty and failure and fetish and feeling of loss or shame or rage entered into him at precisely the moment he stuck his right hand into the orbit of his left eye, and pulled it out with a nauseating snap of his optic nerve.

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The images skipped but a beat, then resumed, and he felt the pain in his right eye, and as he raised his left hand he felt the last thing he would feel for quite some time: strong arms holding him back as a detestably familiar and calm voice declared: "Administrative override. Abort this experiment!" A tapping of keys on the console, and then, "McInnis amity theta desuetude…"

Desuetude, thought Falkirk in the midst of his mental overload. The lapse of authority.

And he, himself, lapsed into unconsciousness.


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24 January


Karen met McInnis' eyes. She owed him that much. "Why did he do it?"

McInnis turned his chair to one side, and glanced up at The Treachery of Images. "Reprisal. Deering embarrassed him."

She didn't have it in her to be amazed, or angry, or even disappointed. She didn't have much left in her at all. "That's no reason. Nobody even knew."

"Deering knew."

"And what was he gonna do? Tell someone?" She hung her head. "What a stupid, petty… Was that the only motivation he had? For any of it?"

The Director turned back to her. "What do you think?"

She held his gaze again. "I think… I think everything he did was wrong, and I think every reason he had for doing it was wrong."

"But?"

"But I think…"

McInnis nodded. "Say it out loud."

"I think he was right about the rut, sir. And I think he was right about most of the mistakes we've made."

"I've made," he gently corrected her.

"You've made." She shook her head. "No, not just you. Not anymore. Things need to change, across the board. Just like he said."

"Not just like he said, and not across the board." McInnis smiled. "He was wrong about the humanism, he was wrong about the tone, and he misjudged almost everyone who works here at this Site. He tried to change the wrong things, and because he was wrong, nobody will ever remember him — except as a cautionary tale. It's up to us to do better; to change the things which really do need to change."

'Us'. Not bloody likely. She felt defeated, exhausted, ground down. She was having trouble focusing on his words; words of her own demanded release. She spoke them slowly, robotically. "Do I need to write up the papers, sir, or can you do it by fiat?"

He shook his head. "Do what?"

She threw out a timorous stress-chuckle. "Finish me off. Send me packing. Amnesticize and release, or however it's got to go. I'm sorry I let you down."

She'd never seen such a look of empathy on anyone's face before. "There have been enough fiats in the past few days, I think, and 'finishing you off' is beyond my moral prerogative."

She'd been wrong, yet again. There was still room for surprises in what passed for her life. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you and I have let these people down, Karen, and we can neither forgive, absolve, nor blame each other. We don't have the right, and we haven't got the time." He stood up, and walked around the desk to stand in front of her. "Instead, we own our failures. We build our people back up."

He extended a hand.

"Because that's what leadership is."

At the moment, this terrible moment in time, it made a certain sense to her. So she took his hand, and hoped that he was right.

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