A Sort of Challenge

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It was eight in the morning and researcher Riven Mercer was on fire.

That fact was probably something he should be more worried about, he thought to himself as he walked a pace and a half to his right and reached for the cold water tap of the lab sink. It was just too damn early to be in the experimental rooms. Dunking his now gently-smoking lab coat sleeve into the stream of icy water, Riven leveled an unamused glare at the lava-burping rainbow lorikeet sitting on a perch a few feet away. The bird had the cheek to blink innocently back at him. Riven caved and reached over to ruffle the bird's head feathers before he looked over his lab notes. "There's a good birdie."

Maybe he’d be more impressed if he hadn’t seen that tortoise with a shell that could be used as a barbecue grill. That was part of the cache from six months ago.

Grabbing a pen and scribbling down a series of observations about the bird, Riven glanced warily at said bird and wondered if he should relocate to the combustion lab in case lava wasn’t the only thing the lorikeet could barf out. He flipped through the initial data collections: the bird’s diet wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it was reputedly brought to the mainland after being purchased somewhere near a Hawaiian volcano from someone shady-looking… okay what the hell, the bird was coughing up black pellets onto the experimental lab floor.

Riven put down the notes and dove for the broom and dustpan.

It was nine-thirty in the morning and Riven had found a new intern to watch (observe, engage in experimental scrutiny with, poke until something interesting happened, etc.) the bird. Riven was now sitting in the spare room adjacent to the experimental labs, sipping from a cup of tea (lukewarm, getting colder by the second) and reading through the current list of anomalous items assigned to Kiryu Labs.

The bird was something Mark had been nice enough to assign to him, Riven thought. He liked animals. He’d studied behavioral biology, and his eventual doctorate (courtesy of accelerated Foundation programs) would be about that topic. Level-2 researchers were rarely given charge of creatures that merited special containment, so being able to study the less-dangerous animal anomalies was something Riven constantly looked forward to.

The door opened, and Agent Tai Yang Shen walked in. Riven made eye contact and suppressed the subconscious urge to spit out the tea in his mouth so he could ask if it was time to go on another offsite field trip. Agent Shen rarely, if ever, showed up at the Labs, and when he did show up, it meant an interesting assignment outside the experimental rooms.

“Did Mark page you?” Shen eventually asked. Riven shook his head and mentally cataloged the agent’s appearance: plain slacks, white collared jacket, light briefcase…Maybe they were headed to an anomalous bank? Or some corporate agency? Would he get to go undercover? He'd never gone on an undercover outing! Maybe he'd have an alias and alternate identity and everything!

Shen was sporting a small, though rather amused grin when he handed Riven a sheet of paper. It appeared to be a printout of a transcripted note. “You should read this before you ask any questions.”


This is a message to all of you that work at SCP, as a sort of challenge.

My name is the Grinner, and I am an "anomaly" of sorts. For you see, I devour the flesh of any creature with a heart beat, and it has led to the deaths of hundreds upon thousands of people, luckily at times where war was afoot. But I digress, I will continue to devour the flesh until my untimely capture.

Perhaps, I should enlighten you on what I am, as a way of making things easier for you scientists, if I am captured. I'm 10 feet tall, and my neck is bulbous in size, and about 4 feet long. I appear to wear a mask with a huge grin on it (it's pure white, and is my face). I speak through my teeth eloquently, and only open my maw when consuming flesh. I am not satisfied until my face becomes completely red and dripping with crimson. I have massive fists for mashing and smashing, but a small set of legs. Oh, I forgot to mention, I also have a long, black mane! It's quite luscious, I assure you.

But to make things quick, since it's almost time for my 2:30 meal, I leave you with this: If you dare to find me, you'll have to search all of canada, and pray that you have some powerful tranquilizers, unless you really want me to feed so badly.

Sincerely, The Grinner.

“So we’re looking for a reverse T-rex with a thing for face paint?” Riven flipped the sheet over, then flipped back to the note and scanned it again. “Well, they signed it ‘sincerely’. I suppose that’s got to count for something.”

“That letter is actually about ten meters long,” Shen opened the briefcase and took out a series of photographs, handing them over to Riven. “It was found by Foundation recon during a routine sweep. There’s an old abandoned office building a few kilometers from the site, and the entire parking lot was turned into a calling card.”

Riven stared at the photos. It looked like a preschooler the size of a building had scrawled giant letters across the formerly neatly-partitioned lot, in what looked like dried glue. “Did anyone run analysis on the area? What the writing ink stuff was, or if there was any other evidence left at the scene?”

Shen nodded. “The writing was done entirely in some sort of opaque white substance, similar in chemical composition to, well, snail slime. We’re not sure how long it had been sitting there, but the team that discovered it put a tarp over the words so we don’t get curious helicopters landing near the suspicion area.”

Flipping through the photos again, Riven spoke up, “So how does Kiryu Labs relate to this thing?”

“A secondary team was sent out to scout the area. They’ve identified a building with trace residue at the entrance and a few inner rooms. That residue matches the samples collected from the giant parking lot letter.” Shen took the photos back and closed the briefcase. “Infrared scans are pretty inconclusive at the moment, but there’s some sort of entity in the building. It’s small, but it’s there.”

“So both of us are being sent in?”

Shen sat down on one of the sofas. “Yes. You’ve done some good animal behavior work and your biology background makes you ideal for this task.” The agent glanced at his watch. “You’ve got half an hour to come up with a list of sedatives and any other equipment you think you’ll need. I’ll wait here for the moment, but remember—”

Riven was halfway out the door. “Gotcha. I’ll be back with five minutes to spare, Tai.”

“—to pack light.” Shen watched the door swing shut.

Twenty minutes later, Riven was staring at a row of syringes neatly arranged by dosage on the lab bench in front of him. Tai had even provided a handy carrying case for the capped needles, clearly, the man had access to all kinds of strange things. Foundation gear could be oddly specific.

Riven would later find out that he did not need an alias for the assignment. This disappointed him somewhat, but he was given a just-in-case cover story: he was an environmental specialist traveling with his entrepreneur friend Shen to “inspect” the abandoned office facility.

Riven began to consider all sorts of potential dialogues until Shen told him that it wasn’t likely they’d encounter any other humans. So Riven switched to rehearsing in his head rather than out loud. He also thought it was a little unfair that Shen got to carry a Taser and he didn’t. Then again, Riven had enough sedative in his pockets to knock out a small herd of elephants.

The transport dropped Riven and Agent Shen off at the very edge of the abandoned office complex’s parking lot. The tarp stretched over the message to the Foundation was an off-yellow, boring, and probably doing its job well.

“We’re looking for the main center plaza,” Shen said as he began to walk towards the offices. “Let me know if you start seeing anything weird.”

“Sure. I brought my field kit, so I can nab some samples if we have the time.” Riven increased his stride slightly to match the agent’s. He began to notice that Shen was paying more and more attention to the ground than the old, worn-out buildings they were walking amongst.

After about five minutes of staring at Shen staring at the sidewalk, Riven began to spot patches of shining pale mass, crystallized an amorphous, glossy white and gleaming in the sunlight of late afternoon. “We’re close?” he asked.

Shen bent down and examined a patch of dried slime, eyes following a splattered pattern further on. “It looks like a trail begins near those double doors.”

“Old places like these give me the creeps,” Riven confided as he and Shen stalked through the remains of old filing cabinets, shelving units, and rickety tables. Mildew speckled the walls, and Riven stepped away from Shen at the moment to examine a small patch of mold that looked like it had been scraped at. “So much for the eating human flesh bit. If there’s anything alive and eating here, it’s gotta be an herbivore. The most it’d find around here is maybe the odd mushroom.”

“That’s reassuring,” Shen replied evenly as he used his foot to scuff at a patch of slime. It made an unpleasant sucking sound. “Hmm.”

The faint shafts of sunlight filtering in through the dusty windows cast the room in a greyish sort of haze, and Riven paused in his somewhat-dazed examination of a withered office plant. “Is that…?”

Shen was using a silver-colored stick-like implement (probably the latest in Foundation investigative poking-tech) to jab at the mucus. Unlike the dried and slightly crumbling remains they had encountered before, this blob was softer, and gave way. “I think we’re close.”

The trail of fresh off-white mucus grew thicker down the hallway, and about three-fourths of the way through veered off sharply into one of the adjoining rooms.

“I’ve notified a backup team to be on standby,” Shen whispered as they slowly approached the open door. He was slipping his phone back into his pocket. “If I’m not out in ten minutes, leave the building.”

Shit, I hope it never comes to that. Foundation protocol is scary sometimes, Riven thought as he nodded in reply to Shen. Shen’s probably said that line a million times, though. I wonder if he ever thinks he won’t actually make it out.

The agent slipped into the room on silent feet, walking smoothly as if he had every reason to be in an old abandoned office complex. Riven waited.

There was a muffled squeal and a slightly wet sounding squishing, as if someone had stepped in a bucket of far-too-overripe fruit. Riven shuddered and patted the pocket his case of syringes was in. He waited a few heartbeats more. There was a muffled noise of surprised, and a single spoken “huh.”

Riven decided he was done waiting. “Shen? You there?” He called cautiously into the hallway.

“Normally, I’d tell you never to reveal yourself unless told to, but I think you should just come in.” To Riven’s relief, Shen sounded as unruffled as ever. “Our terrifying monster was, ah, a bit exaggerated.”

Riven dashed into the room and paused when he saw its anomalous occupant.

Shen wasn’t quite kidding. The entity they both were looking at seemed more like an overgrown garden slug with stubby legs than what Riven had been expecting—though it seemed like the statement about the four-foot long neck was accurate, at least. It was a dull, pasty white, and the face at the end of the neck was smooth and featureless, save two eyes and a mouth. When on its feet with its neck low as it was currently standing, it barely came up to Riven’s knees.

Upon Riven’s sudden appearance, the creature reared up in alarm, surprising Shen into reaching for his Taser, when it screeched in a slightly gargled-sounding voice, “You’ll never take me alive!” and attempted to throw itself out the nearest window. Its neck prevented it from getting far. Apparently, Riven deduced, speaking long vowels with its mouth open caused its neck to inflate rapidly. The creature unbalanced itself and flopped over backwards, deflating rather sullenly as it lay on the ground.

Agent Shen poked it with his foot. “Are you really this alleged Grinner?”

The creature burbled something resentful, and then replied, “No. That’s my big brother. He’s the real Grinner. He’s real. He’s going to come and eat you all. Be scared.”

Riven and Shen exchanged looks.

Rocking itself from side to side, the creature struggled to right itself back onto its stubby appendages. “You’ll be sorry you messed with me. I’m dangerous too.” Fluid was leaking from its eyes and dripping into a sloppy, soggy puddle near its face.

Shen opened his mouth to speak, but Riven beat him to it. He stepped smoothly in front of the sluglike entity and made a show of uncapping one of the syringes he was given. “Okay, if you’re the Grinner’s little brother, we’re going to need to take you into custody. If you cooperate, I won’t have to use this.” He shook the syringe so the fluid within sloshed noticeably.

There was a shriek and the creature’s neck began to inflate again. Riven put the needle away, glanced at Shen (the Agent nodded), and continued, “You’re a danger to the human race, and it’s our job to protect them. And we’re going to find your brother too, and give him a serious talk about threatening people.”

The creature deflated again. It lay on its side and sniffled a bit. “You’d better find him.”

It took all of one and a half minutes for the backup team to arrive. It took half a minute for them to restrain and sedate the alleged Grinner’s little brother, and twenty minutes to haul it out of the building and into the waiting transport. Apparently it was much heavier and slimier than it looked.

“Your perseverance with this case was appreciated,” Shen commented afterward as he and Riven raided the Kiryu Labs’ not-so-secret spare room snack stash. Riven was chomping his way through a bag of cookies while Shen, health nut that he was, peeled a tangerine. The mission debriefing hadn’t taken long at all, and now the two of them had about an hour or so before they needed to report for further instruction regarding the entity now in Foundation custody.

“Do you think the Grinner actually exists? Or that there’s actually a big brother involved?” Riven asked as he brushed some crumbs off his sleeve.

“No idea. The creature we detained is probably being questioned at the moment, and frankly I’m more interested in how it knew about the Foundation to begin with.” Shen had removed the peel from the tangerine in one piece, and was arranging it back into a sphere-ish shape. “We’ll decide what to do after the interview. All in all, it was an unusual assignment.”

Riven nodded. It hadn’t been the most exciting Kiryu Labs field trip ever, but it was still pretty fun, Riven thought as he leaned back in one of the spare room chairs. He hoped he wouldn’t be kept to the labs for too long again. Getting enough fresh air was something he’d taken for granted when he first started Foundation work, and frankly, the repeated experimental trials had a way of wearing down a researcher—it was a little sad, in a way, that anomalies eventually became something commonplace. The spark of wonder he’d experienced during his first days was getting fainter, and he’d been spending more and more time wondering when the next interesting thing would show up.

Riven’s cell phone was ringing. He was probably needed in the experimental rooms to help with the new interns again. He could already feel the fatigue coming on. Was it too much to ask for a nap…

The cheerful deedle-deedle ringtone was persistent. Heaving a sigh of long-suffered patience when he saw the caller ID, Riven answered with a noncommittal “Hey, Mark.”

“Rivs, I’m in the combustion lab. The bird you were working with exploded when we tried to bathe it. Regular water. Strangest thing. I sent the intern working with me to get a biohazard team, but I need someone to help me clean up the bird… or, you know, what’s left of it.”

Riven blinked, and realized in retrospect, he had kind of liked that stupid bird. “Wait, Mark, isn’t the combustion lab already equipped to deal with—”

“The floor is now lava.”

Grinning, Riven grabbed an emergency fire extinguisher from the spare room’s wall rack. “Should’ve said that first, Mark.”

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