A Study In Cinnabar

A Study in Cinnabar


ETTRA Operations, Area-09

Monday afternoon

On the whiteboard was a single word, written in red felt tip pen:


The board showed evidence of multiple recent erasures in multiple different colours, trace outlines of arrows pointing to statements of fact and open questions, some circled, some not. The markers were all abandoned on the metal catch tray, because Dr. Dan — sitting with his head in his hands, elbows on the table — was out of ideas. His subordinates beavered away at their computer stations, trying to remain quiet during his sulk.

"Felicitations, Dr. Dan! Whatever is the matter?" Dr. Gat exclaimed. He was carrying a tray full of coffee mugs; he placed one in front of his morose supervisor. "Say, do you get sick of people saying 'Dr. Dan' all the time? One imagines it would become… irritating."

"It's better than the alternative," Dan mumbled. And you know all about irritating, buddy.

"Oh, yes, restricted personal information, so very secret society. I like it. But what has you in such a huff, on this fine underground afternoon?"

Dan grimaced at him. "You in the same briefing as me, Gat? You read the same documents? Then you know how little we have to go on. One lost agent's info dump, a conspiracy wall's worth of cryptic clippings, and the ravings of a mad, somehow sapient sea slug which form the only coherent narrative we have about the target."

"Well, let us assume that the information we have, vague as it is, is entirely accurate. What do we actually know?"

"Uh…" Dan pushed back from the table. "I'm paraphrasing, but we have some unknown anomalous being appearing on 093-E, an alternate Earth, in the 17th century. He gives out advanced technology like candy, and says there's gonna be a war to determine who is 'clean' of sin. He says it's gonna happen in ten years, so get ready… and then he vanishes."

He smiled ruefully. "Well, everyone goes to war anyway, because humans are already incredibly comfortable with self-destruction. That's the last we hear of Him directly, if you can call myth and legend 'direct', but the people use his technology to make horrible weapons and wipe each other out. We know the dominant culture still existed in the 19th century, based on Blackwood's journals, but in terms of actual firsthand information about Him? Goddamn nothing."

"Hmmm. 'Weapons'. Not quite the word I'd choose, Dr. Dan."


Briefing Room A2, Area-09

Monday morning, four hours earlier

"Weapons?" Carlotta leaned forward in her chair. "What exactly are you talking about?"

Sophia sighed. "Well, at some point during the war, the Holy Union of Land started experimenting with a substance known as His Tears. It was supposed to cleanse His Chosen of sin, but it ended up creating abominations who walked the land and absorbed the sins of others. We have firsthand accounts of giant humanoid torso creatures that suck up and kill anything they find, and we're assuming they're one and the same. Additionally, we've documented 'spirits' hanging around the dead cities, which can't be seen in person but show up on video; we have to assume these are also the result of experimentation."

Lucretia shook her head. "Torso/head creatures? What?"

Sophia dimmed the lights and started the overhead projector. An image came up on the screen, grainy and tinged blue, depicting a three-storey-tall detached humanoid torso attacking the members of a mobile task force.

"Oh," Lucretia nodded. "That is very horrible."

"Yes. And the worst part is, they're not susceptible to firearms. At least not what we usually equip our MTFs with."

Dr. Dan piped up from the back of the room.

"We do have records of weaponry that should be effective. We even had a few examples in storage, at some point, and might still. I've got people looking into it. Until something turns up, anyone venturing into 093-E is best advised to avoid the torso party."

Carlotta turned in her chair. "Sorry, I know it's probably rude to just ask, but… who are you?"

He waved at her. "Dan. Hi!"

"Very helpful," Sophia sighed.

He stood, and cleared his throat. "That's Dr. Dan, surname redacted, and I'm the Director of ETTRA. It's my-slash-our job to preemptively, or reactively in the case of the recent foofarah at Site-19, develop and implement plans to contain or neutralize anomalous emergencies."

"His department is also under the Project Resurrection mandate, so he answers to me." Dan was clearly about to say something clever, but Sophia paved right over him. "We're combining our efforts on this one. Consider ETTRA a think tank focused on practical solutions that you, or our other assets, will implement."

"Wait," said Rainer. "Dr. Dan Redacted… that's familiar."

Dan stuck his hands in the pockets of his lab coat and rocked back on his heels, looking at the ceiling.

"Weren't you incarcerated? For, like, ever?"

Dan grumbled a response.

"Sorry, Redacted. What you say?" asked Lucretia.

"Yes! I was locked up for the last ten years, for reasons you aren't and won't ever be cleared for." Boredom and irritation were fighting for control of his face. "All you need to know is that I've proved my usefulness, and I'm out on a work release program."

An awkward silence settled over the room, as each of the Alpha-9 members openly stared at him.

"Okay, not a lot of moral high ground in this room right now. Until recently, you were a pit fighter for a Sarkic cult, you were in a medically-induced coma, and you were a reject from a 1930s radio drama. The only one of you who isn't a walking red flag is the UIU agent, but I'm sure Agent Deneb has some dirt under her fingernails too, or else why would she be here?"

Lucretia, Carlotta and Rainer all started to say something when SCP-4494 spoke up loudly. "So, you're a criminal?" He placed a hand on one of his shadowy holsters.

Dan's eyes widened. "Chill out, Kent Allard! I did my time!"

"That is not my name. My name is The Specter." He stuck out his chest, even though he was sitting down.

Dan shrugged. "Was that supposed to be impressive? I know a guy who gets a guitar chord from nowhere when he says his name." He shook his head. "Anyway, it was a joke. Don't you read?"

"Not really. My work keeps me pretty busy, putting down evildoers and enforcing the Law."

"He's got fifty-two rules about it, even," Rainer piped up.

"I do! Would you like to hear them, Dr. Redacted?"

Lucretia and Carlotta both groaned. Dan smiled at them. "Yeah, maybe some other time?"

Sophia snapped her fingers, and all eyes returned to her. "Can we focus on the matter at hand? Our initial forays into 093-E were brief, and only occasionally successful. We're going to have to go deeper." She smiled grimly. "And that's not the royal 'we'."


ETTRA Operations, Area-09

Monday afternoon

Gat looked dubious. "Attending the multiversal bivouac yourself seems uncharacteristically brash, Dr. Dan."

"It's not my first choice, but I really feel like one of us needs to be on-site to get a sense of the big picture. It's either me, or Sophia." Dan grinned sheepishly. "I don't think you've got the practical bent for an operation behind enemy lines."

"None taken," Gat smiled, as though Dan had said 'No offense', which he hadn't. "But I do think you're underestimating the value of arm's-length delegation and armchair cogitation."

"We'll leave the first to whoever stays behind, and the second to you. I really think this is the way to go, though. Since 093 was originally tested, no-one's crossed the mirror. All we've got are spooky stories and some very visceral images. I suppose the Council thought it was contained well enough, as long as we don't activate the disk, but Bowe shot that theory full of holes."

"He punctured a great many pretensions with his sharp retort to the status quo." Gat stroked his chin. "Unleashing an eldritch superbeing on the unsuspecting people of our Earth is so unsportsmanlike, don't you think?"

Dan narrowed his eyes. "Bowe wasn't playing sports, he was playing chess. He forced us to use anomalies against him, so we'd fast-track Alpha-9. Even dead, he's forcing us to keep the ball rolling. We're still playing his game, and please let's not overextend the metaphor any further. It is what it is, and we need to make the best of things."

Gat nodded. "So, feet on the ground, field research and all that rot. Not a particularly enticing proposal, when set against the possibility of meeting up with these thrilling fellows." Gat pointed at the picture of the Unclean stuck to the whiteboard.

"Those 'fellows' are a good example of how little we know, though. What's to say He had anything to do with them at all?"


Briefing Room A2, Area-09

Monday morning, four hours earlier

"What's our main objective going to be?" Carlotta asked. "What are we hoping to accomplish?"

This time Dan was quicker than Sophia. "We-slash-you won't be hunting big uglies, if that's what you're worried about. I need facts in hand, so I can start making my genius plans. You'll be collecting those facts. Think of it as… aggressive research."

"Not so good at 'research'. Why we going?" asked Lucretia.

Dan almost beat Sophia to it again, but she cleared her throat and he held up his hands in mock surrender. "On the macro level," she said, "we think these people, if there's any of them left, are about to declare war on us."

She let that sink in for a moment before continuing. "On the micro level, we are going because Dr. Dan and I have both got it into our thick heads that we need to see it for ourselves, and given the fact that I'm an indispensable element of the Foundation's command structure and he subsists on three different types of caffeine and oxygen, we're going to need backup either way."

Lucretia cracked her knuckles with a theatrical flourish, and grinned. "I can do backup, and aggressive."

Carlotta and Rainer laughed. Dan blew air through his teeth.

"What are the operational guidelines?" Rainer asked.

Dan's eyebrows raised themselves. Better check the kid's service jacket, he's clearly got some experience,

"Reconnaissance," Sophia responded. "The minute you get serious hostiles, you exfiltrate. We're looking for intelligence, not victory."

"We don't even know what victory looks like," Dan added.

"Right." Carlotta nodded. "So, what's the connection between the giant crawling torsos and our target?"

"We don't know. That's the short answer. The long answer is—"

"We don't know shit," Dan finished.

"Thank you," Sophia muttered. "The world is practically empty, but there's lots of documentation floating around. Even some computer systems left running, last we were there. Get what you can from wherever you can."

"Do we know the origin story of this multiversal crisis?" The Specter asked. "The content of their characters?"

"We know they've got names that'll make you snort Coke up your nose," Dan responded.

"Come again?"

"Alberious Farafan. Herverf Jakulsiv. A sweet little girl named, and I shit you not here, Lisstieria."

Sophia sighed. "I'm glad you've been committing the important details to memory."

"Hey, these are important details. There are, in fact, no unimportant details where E-093 is concerned. I expect everybody who might come into contact with one of these creepy fuckers to be well and fully prepared to not snicker at their stupid names. We don't want an interplanetary incident because some MTF schmoe didn't expect to be greeted by Marlmolive Schlovokian or whatever."

Sophia snorted.

"As for soul searching, well." Dan shrugged. "I doubt we're finding the secret Him bible. Which is actually a thing — part classic fire and brimstone, part otherworldly, eldritch mania — and it'd be a really cool thing to actually have. But this was an advanced society, at least technologically, so fingers crossed for something a little more… academic." He actually crossed his fingers as he said this.

Gat spoke up, over his shoulder; he'd been standing in the doorway, looking the wrong way. "You will be entering the playground of a mad god, picking through the pieces of his discarded planetary playset and looking for the lost assembly instructions. I would caution you against expecting a rational environment, as I or you or I again might recognize."

"So, He's a reality bender?" Carlotta ventured with a grimace.

Dan waved the question off. "No, or at least it doesn't seem likely. He pursued technical solutions to the Unclean problem; why do that if you can just magic it away? Whoever, whatever He is, He went with the 'death cult' approach to get things done. That suggests practical limitations, to my mind at least." He paused. "My mind is the most, by the way. But I do still expect input."

"Remember," Gat continued, still not turning around, "that His worshipful masses regarded Him as a figure of awesome and terrible aspect, with powers both fantastic and frightening. If He cannot precisely bend reality 'round His knee, we should still not expect Him to play by the Laws of Cricket. All of you can no doubt attest," and he finally swivelled in place, gesturing at the members of Alpha-9, "that a reality ruleset of significant strength can imprint itself on an otherwise mundane mundi. His connection to 093-E may be less physical, and more… esoteric."

Carlotta blinked rapidly. "What does that mean, Doctor?"

Gat smiled earnestly. "I have no idea! It's all quite fascinating."


ETTRA Operations, Area-09

Monday afternoon

"It's not bloody fascinating, Irving!" Dan massaged his buzzing head. "Everyone's likely to be absorbed by a torso monster over there… I can't believe you said that."

Gat shrugged. "The anomalous isn't bound by etiquette or polite thinking. Following it down its viscous trail of mystery requires stern vicissitude… and a healthy helping of blind luck, I've found."

"Ever so helpful. Remind me why I hired you?"

Gat indicated the mug of steaming coffee. Dan laughed and took a sip, before coughing.

"Jesus Christ, did you make this?! It's like motor oil."

"Director Light mentioned you drink too much coffee, so I made it double strong so you don't have to drink as many cups!" The tip of Gat's finger bounced off the tip of Dan's nose, lightly. "It's all about gaming the systems."

Dan grimaced, but took another horrendous sip. He glanced over at the white board, with its ominous, dominant 'HIM'.

He got up, drew a line to another circle, and wrote "Corruption?" in it.


Briefing Room A2, Area-09

Monday morning, four hours earlier

"The creatures attack anyone they see, but they don't just pummel their targets." Sophia gripped the podium. "We only have one rather questionable firsthand account, but they seem to incorporate their victims after absorption. In the rare case where an Unclean is neutralized, it dissolves into its component elements. The victims literally come pouring out."

"They are being okay, then?" Lucretia asked.

Dan shook his head. "I wouldn't count on it. Maybe if it's only a quick ingestion? We've got zero data on that. So, let's try not to get intimate with them. Just as important, we need to have absolutely no contact with the Tears."

"You mentioned that before," Rainer said. "What are the Tears?"

"Ah, well, we have zero-plus-one data on that. They were being used to 'cleanse' everyday citizens, as in purifying them of their sins. The documents we have are ghastly. And the Tears seem to have somehow resulted in the Unclean torso monsters."

Rainer blinked. "Wait, so, the religious leaders were using this stuff to 'treat' the Sinful, and they knew it created the Unclean?"

"Big shock surprise. Opiate of masses… faith!" Lucretia made a spitting sound.

Dan looked at her with wide eyes. Lucretia laughed. "What? I read book. Russian literary class big on Marx, you surprised?"

Carlotta smirked at her. "Right so, we go in, we don't touch the Tears, and we don't get cornered by the Unclean. All while trying to find working databases and written documents. Terrific."

"Never fear, Agent Deneb! We shall overcome these lawless creatures," the shadow man cried. "The SPECTER knows!"

"Come on," snapped Dan. "You're just doing a bit now, right?"


Testing Chamber Echo, Area-09

Tuesday morning

The inscribed cinnabar disk lay flat against the surface of the upright, full-length mirror. They had never figured out how it defied gravity in that way; in a human hand, the disc had no adhesive properties whatsoever. It was a very old mystery, at this point, but not the oldest one they hoped to solve.

"How'd you even get it here?" Dan asked.

"O5-10 authorized further testing, for reconnaissance purposes only. Any further actions will need the Council's approval."

Dan nodded absentmindedly, his eyes panning over the small group of Alpha-9 members checking their gear in the observation room.

"What are we getting ourselves into with this crew, Sophia?"

"They look like a group of misfits, and I mean, they are…but there's something special here, too. I think, if they survive long enough, they'll gel and do some great work." She patted him on the shoulder. "So, let's try not to get them killed."

"I would also like to avoid the 'being killed' option." Dan looked over at the red cinnabar disc affixed to the mirror, and pursed his lips. "Right. Well, I think we've put this off long enough. Who's going in?"

She smiled. She'd been waiting for this moment. "I'll flip you for it."


She pointed at the disc. "We've passed that thing through every pair of human hands at 19 and 09. Nobody produces a new colour. Blue, green and violet for most of the D-class, yellow and red for staff. There might not even be any more colours, which would mean no more fun destinations."

Dan sighed. "That's pretty much what I expected. Handled it once myself, back in '07, and got yellow."

"I got blue in '05." Sophia gestured at it. "We should both try it again. If one of us gets a new colour, that one goes. If neither of us does, I do."

He looked askance at her. She smiled apologetically. "We've both got new regrets since 2007."

He looked at the small red disc, and sighed. "That's… you're not wrong."

She plucked the disc off the mirror; it immediately emitted a soft green glow. She held it just a moment longer, then pressed it back against the glass. The reflection warped and wobbled, then faded entirely; the mirror now framed a vast, empty farmscape, covered in a verdant tinge.

"New regrets indeed," Dan remarked.

She pulled the disc back, and the glass swam into re-existence. "Your turn."

She held it out to him.

He took it.


Mirror Test 6: Color (Orange)
Subject is Dr. Dan ███████, Male, 44 years of age, mildly atrophied muscular physique.

rating: +66+x

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