A Convincing Lyre

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The concert hall was silent, expectant.

Emma looked out, dazzled by the stage lights. If there was an audience out there, it was shrouded in the blackness beyond. Blackness like the mouth of a deep pit, like an open throat ready to…

The soft rustle of her silk dress brought Emma back. She felt herself take a performer's stance - feet shoulder-width, knees slightly bent, shoulders relaxed. There was no music stand in front of her, no score - she didn't need it. In front of the darkened hall, Emma was ready.

She stole a glance to her left. From here, the conductor's face was a blur in her peripheral vision, but she could make out his black tailsuit, and the sharp tip of his baton. It motioned in rapid circles, and Emma could feel the unseen orchestra beyond as it stretched itself and then coiled, ready to spring. The baton seemed to sense it too, snapping to a quivering pause like a hare at full alert, sensing an unseen threat.

The moment stretched endlessly - the bright stage, the enveloping dark, all on a razor's edge. Emma felt a prickling at the nape of her neck.

And suddenly they were off - the baton's leaping upbeat, and the orchestra giving chase in a sharp Scherzo. In her focus, the music seemed to flow around Emma without reaching her, leaving only the sounds of its creation. The blowing of air into woodwinds, the scrape of bowing, the shuffling of fingers on valves and keys and strings, a tide of shadowy noises swept past without the sounds it formed. Emma could feel the music - its drive, its urgency, its sinuous scuttling - but she could not hear it.

Her cue was coming. The intensity of the orchestra was rising in a frenzied rush. From the corner of her eye, Emma saw the conductor half-turn, and breathed deeply. The baton flashed down at her like a lightning strike, and Emma opened her mouth to sing.

No sound came out. Emma's hand sprang reflexively to her throat, and her eyes widened. The skeletal sounds of the orchestra, the music she could not hear, pressed onward heedlessly. Emma could see the baton crash down towards her again and again, and felt the weight of the cavernous darkness beyond the stage pressing upon her. Her fingers clutched her voicebox as if to squeeze out her trapped voice. Nothing.

Panicked, Emma clawed at her throat, her nails gouging the soft flesh around her larynx. Her breathing was ragged, and she gagged as she gripped harder, pulling with slick fingers. Blood ran down her neck both inside and out, the taste of it acrid at the back of her mouth. The spotlights blazed, the orchestra plunged onwards. The baton fell at her a final time, and Emma clenched her hand and ripped it away from her throat, feeling the cartilage tear and seeing pink ribbons trail wetly behind. As the silent maelstrom behind her reached a climax, she held her bloodied, mangled larynx aloft, dripping flesh and gore. It pulsed in her hand.

And Emma heard it scream.

She woke to the sound of a soft high-pitched buzzing, and the sight of a middle-aged man leaning down with a concerned expression.

"Don't try to get up. Waking you with Tone K can leave you a little unsteady. Can you tell me your name?"

The man flicked a switch on a device he was holding, and the buzzing stopped. The device, which looked like a cross between a pistol and a miniature bullhorn, slid back into its holster on the man's belt, and Emma noticed his uniform. A Mobile Task Force officer.

"Junior Researcher Emma Stark. Who are you?"

"Commander Samuel Richards, ma'am, Task Force Eta-11."

"We have an Eta-11? Are you related to See No Ev-" Emma trailed off as she saw the man's jaw stiffen, grey stubble sharp against his skin. She looked away, and noticed the dimly-lit room beyond for the first time. The remnants of the retirement party were obscured by site security officers and a few other MTF agents helping dazed-looking researchers to their feet. "What happened?"

"You tell us." A woman's voice answered, and Emma turned to see another MTF agent, a slim Asian woman with thick streaks of grey hair at her temples. "Thirty researchers fall asleep simultaneously - was this the most boring party ever?"

Emma shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, I don't remember. I was here with Roger, and then I was - I had an awful nightmare."

"Most likely someone spiked the punch," said Commander Richards. "It's lucky you weren't all lying here for hours - we have Hennessy to thank for that." He indicated another MTF agent across the room, a stocky older man who waved back in acknowledgement.

Emma felt bewildered - Hennessy looked in his late sixties, far too old to be in a task force - but she managed a weak "Thank you."

"He can't hear you." Commander Richards was curt. "He's been deaf for thirty years."

"But he's a good lip-reader," added the woman, gently helping Emma to her feet, "and deafness can be an advantage in this job."

"I'm not sure I understand - what job?"

"Mobile Task Force Eta-11. Specialists in auditory, sonic and musical anomalies." Commander Richards sounded proud, Emma thought, but also a little defensive.

"Musical? Because my nightmare - no wait, can I ask you about -"

Emma gasped as she was cut off by a sudden shout from across the room. One of the site security officers was spinning around like he'd been stung.

"What the hell! Who did that?"

Richards took two strides forward. "Officer! Remain calm. What did you see?"

"Sir, I didn't see anything, but I ran into something, I swear it."

"No-one move. Are you sure, officer?"

The security officer nodded, eyes wide. "There's something in here with us, sir."

The room fell silent. Emma turned her head frantically, searching in the half-light for a threat. There was nothing. Her breathing quickened, and she felt the Asian woman's hand on her shoulder.

Another MTF agent, a wiry, buzz-cut woman in her forties, chimed in. "Sir, I think he's right. I felt something earlier, but wasn't sure."

"Thank you, Agent Dee." Richards looked sharply back at Emma. "You said nightmares. Are you still afraid?"

Emma could hardly speak. Suddenly Richards' eyes focussed in the corner behind her, and he pulled the device from his belt and aimed it past her shoulder, pulling the trigger.

The sound was like being inside a bell. Emma felt her head vibrating with the shock of the noise, and then all she could hear was the high-pitched whine of silence. She staggered and turned away, and in the darkened corner behind her she saw it.

It was splayed on all fours like a lizard, skinny limbs almost blue-white. Its head was up-turned in challenge, but where its face should be was just a blank sheet of skin. The creature swayed sinuously, as if looking for an escape.

Emma half-heard shouts from behind her. Site security officers rushed past her with tasers lit, and Emma felt the Asian woman pull her back. The ringing in her ears started to clear as she looked up at Commander Richards, who was barking instructions to the room.

"SCP-932. Invisible until the soundwaves hit them. Hennessy, Dee, you know the drill - set your resonators to 510 Hertz, around a hundred deebs. Switch visual to sonar - if you spot anything less than five feet tall, light it up. Take the officers - they can bag 'em for recontainment." Richards looked down at the Asian agent with Emma. "Zhao, take her back to quarters. She's too scared to stay here - those things feed on fear. Right: you three, with me."

As the Commander strode away, Agent Zhao smiled down at Emma. "It's going to be fine, honey. Here, put these in. I always keep a spare pair."

Emma looked at the ear-plugs in her hand, green LEDs winking on one end. She pressed them into her ears, and looked quizzically at Zhao - her hearing didn't feel muffled. The agent had pulled on her goggles and was scanning the room, sound gun raised.

"Come on," she said. "Let's get out of here."

The corridors felt interminable as Agent Zhao stepped slowly ahead of her, scanning each intersection carefully and waving the security officers onwards. Emma couldn't bear any more silence.

"I'm sorry if I'm an imposition," she ventured.

"Not at all," said Zhao without turning. "Don't let the Commander give you the wrong impression. He's just a little highly strung, and you weren't to know how he feels about Eta-10."

"See No Evil? I just thought -"

"I know, honey. But it's been a long time since we were in that league." Zhao held up a hand, checked a room to the side, then continued. "They get all the press, the manpower, the budget, but what can you do? Memetics gets custody of most of the musical memes, and auditory skips just don't get as much attention. The Commander knows it - Eta-11 is slowly fading out." She sighed softly.

"But what about tonight? Without you, they would never catch those, those things."

Agent Zhao laughed, a light trilling. "That's so sweet, dear, but this is our first action in more than eighteen months. If Hennessy hadn't been at your party, it probably wouldn't have been us at all." She stopped in the doorway of a wide hall. "Wait, can you see that?"

"What?" The room ahead was a blank grey.

"Oh. Well, here goes." Zhao fired the resonator, swore to herself, and fired again.

Emma had braced for the noise, but this time the tone was no more than a loud hum. She had no trouble hearing Zhao's voice over the repeated notes blasting into the hall.

"Earplugs working? They should be bringing everything down to - dammit, slippery little - to around sixty decibels, without reducing - aha, gotcha!"

Two more of the pale, faceless children were revealed in the room ahead. The security officers leapt forward, grabbing the entities and pulling out flex cuffs. Agent Zhao nodded to them, and led Emma down two further corridors, finally arriving in a bright dormitory.

The common room was the typical MTF layout - couches, monitors, a basic kitchenette - although the speaker set-up in the corner looked rather elaborate. Emma could see through half-open doors to a room full of bunks, and another with racks of equipment. Her first impression was interrupted by a grinning face that popped out from behind one of the computer screens.

"Hey, we have a visitor! I'm Mike, Mike Carter."

He was young, younger than Emma - early twenties, maybe? "Hi, I'm Emma Stark."

"Nice to meet you, Emma. Welcome to the lair of the Savage Beasts!"

"Mike. You know the Commander doesn't like that nickname." Zhao slumped on a couch, loosening her boots, and motioned Emma to an armchair.

"Well it's the only one we have."

"Other than 'Old Farts'," said Zhao. "Mike's the only recruit we've had in twenty-five years. God knows why he joined."

"Because we get the best tunes around here, that's why." Mike laughed, and fixed Emma with an enthusiastic stare. "Hey, what music are you into? Rush? Grateful Dead?"

"Uh, I've heard of them," Emma ventured.

"Newer, of course. Radiohead? Tupac? I have some Tupac verses I bet you've never heard!"

"Mike, stop trying to get everyone to listen -"

Agent Zhao was cut off by Hennessy, who stumbled into the room, out of breath. He smiled at his squad-mates, and again when he saw Emma.

Thank you very much for rescuing me, Emma signed to him.

Hennessy's smile grew broader. You're very welcome.

Agent Zhao shot Emma a look. "You know ASL?"

"My younger brother had otitis, so I had to learn."

"You don't want to join us, do you?" Turning back to Hennessy, Zhao asked How many did you catch?

Hennessy held up two fingers, then reached into his pocket, producing a CD and handing it to Mike with a flourish. I found this at the party. Could be relevant.

"You found it where?" Mike looked confused. "You have to go slower for me, H!"

"See," said Zhao, ignoring Mike's mock scowl, "you'd be more use to us than him! And we need someone new to join before we all die off." She looked at Hennessy and signed Sorry.

Have to go some time, he signed back cheerfully, before walking into the equipment room.

"But what about the other agent," said Emma. "Agent Dee? She's not that old."

Emma watched Mike and Zhao exchange meaningful glances. Agent Zhao began carefully. "Agent Dee isn't really Sandra's name. Well, neither is Sandra. It's more of a nickname, I guess. Um."

Mike jumped in. "You see, Dee's not her name - it's her personnel class."

Emma was shocked. "You have a D-Class? On an MTF?"

"I told you we were short-handed," said Zhao. "And we've known Sandy for years - she's been with us since she was Mike's age. We trust her."

"Not to mention she still holds the record for most 092 instances tested without fatality," added Mike.

Emma's mind was whirring with questions, but just as she was about to ask another, Mike interrupted. "Speak of the devil!"

Agent Dee slouched through the doorway, followed closely by Commander Richards. He gave a taut smile to his motley MTF.

"Good work, Agents. Site security has confirmed recovery of all of the 932 instances. I'll be submitting my incident report tomorrow, so no need to send me your sections before then. Don't forget to submit any evidence from the scene for filing." Richards tilted his hawkish face towards Emma. "And it looks like we can let you get back to your evening, ma'am. I'm sure Roger Anderson is keen to know that you're safe."

"Actually, Commander, do you mind if I ask a question? It's just I never knew that we had a - I mean, I've never had the chance to meet a team specialising in musical anomalies."

Commander Richards waited impassively. Emma stood up, looking around to the gathered agents.

"So for my first research project, I have been assigned to SCP-012. And there are some things about it that don't make any sense."

"You're asking the wrong people. Twelve looks like music, yes, but it's a cogni - a visual hazard, not an auditory one."

"But it could be auditory, if someone performed it."

"They tried that, and it was a cacophanous mess, so they gave up. In fact, probably the only person alive who has heard it can't hear anything any more."

Richards nodded to Hennessy, who was leaning in the doorway to the equipment room. He smiled ironically and signed, I sometimes wish I had gone deaf before I had to supervise that test!

Emma could feel her frustration building. "But that was an unfinished section. It might sound very different when it is finished. And it is very close. In fact I think - I think it might want to be finished."

Agent Zhao had started to ask her a question when Mike interrupted with a yell. "Holy crap, guys - look at this!" His startled face was lit by the computer screen. "That CD you found at the party, H? That has some serious memetics on it."

"Agent Carter, you know that you're not permitted to review anomalous materials here without authorisation."

"Sorry sir, but this was just too weird to wait." Agents Zhao and Hennessy crowded behind him as Mike pointed to the screen. "You see this? I've split out a single line from the track, which seems normal enough."

Mike clicked the mouse, and the room filled with the sound of a stringed instrument being plucked in a ponderous, chromatic melody.

"Sounds old," said Agent Dee. "A zither?"

"No," said Zhao, "you can hear the plectrum. And it sounds like fewer strings. Maybe a lyre."

"Whatever, that's not the point." Mike sounded impatient. "The point is that there are literally like a hundred of these melodies, all wrapped together, playing at once. And when I ran it through to check for cog-hazards, the scanner went off the charts!"

Zhao stood reading the screen over Mike's shoulder. "The overlapping patterns of the signals are associated with relaxation, suggestibility and somnolence."

"So now we know why the party went to sleep," Dee shot back.

"But that's not all," said Mike. "After about ten minutes of that, the patterns change completely. Polytonal, atonal, what sounds like someone hitting the side of the instrument, scratching it - it goes haywire."

"And the resulting sound texture is designed to be processed by the thalamus as a signal to the amygdala." Zhao looked up in shock. "It's designed to make the listener afraid."

No, signed Hennessy, all the listeners were asleep. This is designed to give them nightmares. Emma, what did you say your dream was about?

Emma noticed that everyone in the room was staring at her. All the fear of her dream, that silent, bloody performance, came flooding back.

"Jesus Christ" said Agent Dee, "SCP-932 feeds on fear. Someone let those things out deliberately."

"That's speculation," said Commander Richards coolly. "To what end?"

I think someone wanted to kill a researcher, signed Hennessy, and they were prepared to murder everyone at that party to do it.

Emma started to shiver, and then jumped as an alarm blared above her head.

"Sir, containment breach!"

"I see it, agent - looks like they want us again. Getting the details through now."

Emma watched intently as the Commander's eyes widened.

"Multiple anomalies. SCPs 126, 1493, 1860, 2337, all loose. Goddammit, and the noise has caused 339 to breach. Right - Carter, Hennessy - go to level seven and bring extra hearing protection for the guards. Zhao, Dee, get the Silencer and head to K-sector. I'll be down there shortly. And be careful."

For the second time that night, the MTF stirred into action. Emma saw Mike swing his arms in a huge clap as he leapt from his chair, beaming madly.

"Let's do this, baby! We're getting the band back together!"

Two minutes later, in the empty dormitory, Emma thought, Or maybe the orchestra is just tuning up.

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