I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire...
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rating: +35+x

The Ice-Burg was easily the best dairy bar in all of Douglas County— the milkshakes were creamy, the burgers were hot, and the cheese fries didn't taste like they were half-prepared from a freezer bag. People would come all the way down to Sloth's Pit from Superior in order to have a so-called 'pizza burger', which was what Dr. Christopher Hastings was attempting to enjoy at that moment.

One hand was on the burger, the other on his phone, scrolling through a Foundation bulletin about wildfires on the other side of the country. His reflection in the phone's screen as he turned it off showed a man in his mid-thirties, with blonde hair sticking up at odd angles as to look almost horn-like. He picked at his burger half-heartedly.

"You okay, hon?" Ruby Williams stole one of his fries as she asked this, dipping it into some cheese sauce.

"It's official. Polystichum xenosa is extinct in the wild."

"Oh." Ruby frowned. She'd taken some interest in para-botany since she and Chris had started dating, so she knew what it meant. "Greatsword Fern? Really?"

"Their entire habitat was ravaged by the fires caused by some fucking idiot holding a gender reveal party." He laughed, bitterly. "Congratulations, your stupid parasite of a child is responsible for wiping out an entire species of very rare, very anomalous fern that had the potential to cure cancer. The only remaining specimens of it are here at 87, 29 and 53." He shook his head. "The fact that we're eating at a Dairy Bar in October is proof the world is on fire, and nobody wants to do a damn thing about it." He tore into his burger with an angry growl. "Hell, I'm not helping. The cow that was killed to make this produced enough methane to kill a man, and the amount of rainforest cleared to make it will probably accelerate our climate apocalypse by about five years, all because stupid, fat Americans want to eat their fucking beef."

Ruby sighed, thankful that they were the only customers here— it was the middle of the day on a weekday, so the worst they could get was judging looks from the staff themselves. She sipped at her Pepsi. "Ever hear of the ''fuck it' adjustment'?"

"You've told me before," he sighed. "If you can't control it, say 'fuck it' and forget that it's a problem. But I can't, because I'm part of the one damn organization on the planet that can do something about it, but because half of the fucking Council makes their money off of fossil fuels—"

Ruby put her hand up. "You're going into conspiracy mode, hon."

"Sorry," he sighed. "But. Fuck, I study plants for a living, and we're killing them off en masse for our own greed and gluttony. I feel like…" He looked past the red building the Ice-Burg occupied, a genuine drive-in from the 1950's at the edge of town, past which there were only woods. "I feel like whatever's coming to us, we deserve it."

The rest of the meal was eaten in silence, except for Ruby pulling out a flask and mixing its contents with Chris's milkshake.

Two hours later, Christopher Hastings was in Greenhouse 3, talking to one of the last Greatsword Ferns in the world.

The thing was so called because each of the fronts on the fern resembled a sword, and were large and sharp enough to match— the north-west corner of Greenhouse 3 was entirely occupied by the plant, which stood a good six feet above Chris's head at its lowest point. He stroked its leaves and sighed.

"Maybe you'll bear seeds, soon," he hoped. "And we can try to repopulate you in your native environment. Hell, maybe the Foundation missed a few— I know you can survive in caves, and there have to be a few out there, right?" He shook his head. "Right."

He turned to face the rest of the greenhouse. It was a balmy 70 degrees in the so-called hothouse, colder than the outside, a fact which Hastings did not appreciate. Greenhouse 3 was meant for the containment of specimens native to temperate rainforests, and was easily his favorite, between the Jengawood Bonsais, the Strutting Shrubs, and the Carnivorous Plant section. Talking of, it was feeding time.

Chris took out a burger he had gotten from Ice-Burg, and made his way over to one of the carnivorous plants. They looked like they were straight out of Little Shop of Horrors, which was because they were— when the high school had put on the musical, someone in the science club had tried their hands at genetic modification and had created a Venus flytrap the size of a car that could sing, dance, and nearly kill the actress who played Audrey.

He threw the burger into the thing's maw— an entire pit had been dug out in the center of the greenhouse, lined with concrete past the dirt, as to stop its growth. But it would still need pruning soon.

The sprinklers started going off, and Chris found himself becoming soaked. He was about to spit out a curse, when he realized that it wasn't the sprinklers meant for watering the plants— it was the fire suppression system. And the alarm hadn't gone off.

He made his way to the door to the hothouse, pushing on it. It stuck there, fast. He wiggled the handle, pulled, slammed his whole weight against it, but it wouldn't budge. He picked up a hammer that was used for repairs and tried smashing through the glass— nothing. And the sprinklers kept running.

But it wasn't water coming from the sprinklers— stagnant as it would be, it didn't smell like this. It almost smelled like… "Gasoline." His eyes widened. "Shit."

He immediately dove into the concrete pit, yelling out an apology to the plant at the bottom.

Rudy's Cafe was a simple storefront in downtown Sloth's Pit— it was down the street from the library, at the corner, with seating both in front and in back. The front of it was a glass window with a large sign that read "PLEASE WEAR MASKS WHEN ENTERING" hanging in it, and a photograph of the deceased Rudolph Dyer sat beneath it, smiling at the customers with a guarantee that, despite it being in different hands, the food was still as good.

Alison Carol and Robert Tofflemire both sat behind the cafe at an extra-long table. Robert was enjoying his meal, while Alison was scrolling through something on her phone, making damn sure that Robert couldn't read it.

An update for you guys (flagging @rabbitholydiver here especially) about the whole deal with the phobic migration. New reports came in from Chicago about a family being terrorized by visions of their dog being torn to bits by something that looked like their neighbor (a known animal abuser). The dog was fine, but all of this led to said neighbor being shot.

A week before that, a child in Carol Stream was cornered in a public bathroom stall by what he described as a 'man with pointy hands' and mutilated, though is thankfully alive and stable. Authorities aren't releasing much beyond that.

There have been a dozen incidents in the Chicago area, and it seems to be following its northward track to… somewhere. If the timetable I have is correct, then it arrived in Milwaukee on September 15th, the same date that a congregation at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church reported seeing an image of Christ descending from his crucifix and proclaiming that none of them were saved…

"Isn't Pryce from Carol Stream?"

"Hmm?" Robert looked up from his Pain au Chocolate. "Yeah, I think so. What's up?"

"Just something I read." She wrinkled her nose, wincing slightly and rubbing at it. "Ow."

"Still sore from your COVID test?" Robert asked, looking over his spectacles. "That's why I've got mine scheduled for the evenings. Doesn't ruin your whole day after."

"Mmm." Alison sipped at her iced tea from behind her mask, the straw inserted beneath it. She looked more carefully at her partner. "Since when do you wear glasses?"

"I've worn contacts since you've known me, but they've stopped manufacturing them in light of…" He waved his hand around. "Yeah."

"Eesh. Sorry."

"Shouldn't affect me on ops." He dug into his pocket, bringing out a set of goggles. "Prescription tactical gear. Can you believe what we think of sometimes?"

Alison's reply was muffled by the sound of fire engines rolling out of the station, horns blaring for the second time in the past week. From the sound of it, they were heading east, and—

And on the east end of town, where Site-87 should be, there was a column of black smoke rising.

The plants around Christopher burned.

Being in the wet maw of the thing at the bottom of the pit helped shield him from the fire, whose source he could not pinpoint. But as he climbed out from the concrete pit, a shirt covering his face on top of his mask to minimize smoke inhalation, he knew what he saw could not be possible.

His life's work, his friends, were burning around him. And beyond that— the Site? The town? The door to the hothouse seemed to be open, now, and he was sure he saw Site-87 in flames, tinted green by whatever toxins were burning from within the site.

"Not possible." He tugged at his hair. "Not possible. You were in the pit for only three minutes. No fire spreads that quickly unless it's nuclear, and if it was nuclear, you'd be a shadow on the ground. This is some kind of bizarre space that's trying to make you crazy. This isn't real. This i—"

He leaned on the rail that surrounded the concrete pit, letting out a screech of pain as his hand burned. Despite not looking it, the rail was hot enough to cause blisters on his hand. And it wasn't just his screech he was hearing.

"Help us!"

"You failed us!"

"Why didn't you help us!"

"You did this to us! Why did you do this to us?!"

He braced himself against the heat, and made his way out of the hothouse, into the burning landscape beyond. Townsfolk had surrounded the burning ruins of the site, and were trying to climb through the windows— not that they could access the site proper that way.

Those who weren't on fire looked like they had been exposed to some bizarre mutagens— legs that were too long, arms with too many hands, necks without heads. A woman carried a long, limp thing in her arms that Chris thought was a bundle of cloth at first, but then he realized that it was a child, gasping and screaming for breath in the choking miasma of the air.

And all the while, Site-87, and the town, burned, and screamed. And Christopher knew, somehow, that it was his fault, that he should have been better, that he should have taken responsibility and somehow gotten the Foundation to fix this before this all happened.

"Not real," he said, clutching his burnt hand and walking away from the greenhouse. "Not real. This isn't real."

When Robert and Alison pulled up to the site, the former didn't even wait for the car to come to a stop before exiting, scrabbling through the dirt as he ran to the back of the site.

"—can't be a coincidence!" He heard Ruby Williams shout to her brother. "One second he goes off on a polemic about climate change, the next he's stuck in a burning building?"

"It's suspicious, I'll grant that," Blake Williams said, "But we need to let the fire department do their jobs, sis. We can't go rushing in there."

"What's burning?" Robert came out from the passenger's side of the car and ran up to the Williams twins. "What's going on?"

"G-greenhouse 3," Ruby swallowed. "Chris was in there, had been since we got back from lunch. Jesus Christ…"

Robert heard at least three different hoses going, trying to extinguish the blaze. Sloth's Pit only had a handful of fire engines, and from the look of it, at least half of them were here. "Anyone go in yet?"

Ruby shook her head. "They're saying that… something's weird. There's heat and smoke and things are burning, but they can't see any fire."

"That settles it then." Robert rolled his neck. "I'm going in."

"What?" Alison rounded the corner as he spoke. "What do you mean, 'I'm going in'?"

"Used to be a firefighter for the National Guard. I know the procedure."

Ruby, Blake and Alison all watched as Robert flashed his badge at a firefighter— scratch that, the fire chief— and commandeered his gear.

Alison stepped up beside him, flashing her own badge. "Gonna need another set."

"Alice, no—" Robert held up a trembling hand.

"You honestly want to go into a burning building, let alone an anomalous one, alone?" She frowned as she noticed the tremor. "You good?"

"Bad memories. First found out about the anomalous because I had to fight a living forest fire." He took the jacket as the chief started to strip down. "If you're coming in, I can't promise I can get you and Hastings out."

Alison chewed on that thought, and nodded. "Comms on at all times. Things get too hairy, you evac."

"You almost sound like you're worried about me," Robert shook his head. "I'll be fine, Alice. Really."

After a few more minutes, Robert, suited up and carrying a spare oxygen tank in one hand, entered the burning greenhouse.

Christopher's thoughts alternated between "Not real" and "My fault". This couldn't be happening, but it had, but the town can't be burning, but it was. Mutated, burning things that may have once been people lunged at him occasionally, screaming, growling. He could see the hatred in their eyes, the blame they placed on him solely.

"My fault," he gasped. "This is my fault. All of it. All of it…" He had walked away from Site-87 at this point, and found himself in the woods. Trees were engulfed in flame, the entire historic forest surrounding the town burning, all his fault, all the Foundation's fault. They should have acted before they got to this point, anyone could have. But they didn't.

He found one of the few patches of grass that hadn't been scorched by the inferno, and sat upon it. He couldn't think. He was having trouble breathing, his heart was racing, he had sweat that had absolutely nothing to do with the heat, and— when had he started crying? What was happening here? He took a breath, and it turned into a gasping sob which made his chest ache.

He shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears, blocking out the light and roar of the fire. The last thing he wanted to do was die having a panic attack.

Robert Tofflemire stepped through the other side of the greenhouse, finding himself in something that looked like Sloth's Pit set ablaze. But… it wasn't. The fire looked like it was being broadcasted onto the buildings by a reel-to-reel projector. The burning masses of people were nothing but flaming, misshapen scarecrows. The pungent smoke? That much was real, at least. Smelled like a tire fire, even through the respirator.

The grass beneath him crunched unnaturally, and he realized it was some kind of artificial sod. The whole thing had the feel of a 'haunted experience' he had encountered in an amusement park around Halloween at one point— an outdoor haunted house, basically. But Tofflemire couldn't help but feel as if this whole thing looked very different to Dr. Hastings.

"Okay, you weird, cheap, extra-dimensional haunted experience, meet modern technology. Hey, Helen?" A tone sounded from his earpiece. "What is my position relative to Dr. Christopher Hastings?"

«Dr. Hastings is approximately five-hundred meters west of your location. GPS data is unavailable.»

Tofflemire started hustling through the landscape, into the woods. They were similarly cheap-looking, with the same projected flames, and what appeared to be artificial snowflakes mimicking ash. Every single tree was exactly the same as well. Cheap, manufactured.

In the distance, he saw a figure in a labcoat, curled up on itself, rocking back and forth and whimpering. Tofflemire moved faster.

Hastings heard something coming towards him through the inferno, and looked upright to see a figure approaching him, ablaze, screaming. He stood up and backed away. "Back the fuck off!"

"Haaasshhtiiiiings!" It called, reaching out to grab him with a gloved hand. "Haaaaashtiiiiings!"

Hastings found a knife in his hand— where had it come from— and swung it at the thing coming towards him. "I-I'm sorry! I-I didn't mean to!"

The thing paused— its face, though melting was visibly confused.

"I-I should have d-done more! I could have st-stopped this! The w-world is burning and it's my fault and I'm sorry and—"

The creature raised its hand, and Hastings swung at it. "I-I'm sorry, please! I— I—"

The thing recoiled, and produced something from what Hastings thought was a pocket— a photograph of Ruby, somehow untouched by the fire.

Hastings stared at it, and knelt to collect it; the thing didn't stop him. It didn't do anything except stand there as he picked it up. "Where'd you get this?" He asked, brandishing it at the creature. "Well? Say something!"

March, 2020

"…are you going to say something?"

Researcher Christopher Hastings looked down at the table before him, and then up at Ruby. "What's there to say? I fucked up, big time. Stuttered my way through my whole defense."

"Hey, most people don't even get a thesis to defend for their doctorate." Ruby opened another bottle of beer and started drinking it. "And it's… kind of a formality, isn't it? Like, your thesis has been evaluated and all that."

"Still!" Chris tugged at his hair, making it messier still. "Jesus Christ, the amount of typos I found after I submitted it."

"One or two extra periods isn't going to break a thesis hon.." Ruby looked over the bound volume on the table by him, and opened it. "Though this is the first time I've seen one in book form. 'A Botanical Necropsy of SCP-097'."

"Dry as sand." Hastings shook his head.

"Hon— Chris. Look, you're stressing out over nothing. What's done is done. The past is dead now, it can no longer hurt you."

"…you did not just quote Night Vale at me." Chris hid his smirk behind his hand. "Did you read it?"

"Of course. I didn't understand a lot of it, but what I did… the work that Hubble did to make 097-1 grow that massive and contain something that malicious. I wish I could've talked to him more."

Chris's phone buzzed— a text was on the screen. He sighed. "Partridge wants me to see him. Probably going to give me the bad news in person."

"Ever hear of the 'fuck it' adjustment?" Ruby took another swig of her beer. "If you can't control what's happening, if it's completely out of your control, don't stress over it. Just say 'fuck it', out loud if you need to, and move on."

"So… if I don't get my doctorate? Just say 'fuck it'?"

Ruby nodded.

"Right. Well. Fuck it, I guess."

Dr. Christopher Hastings exited the break room to receive the best news of his life.

"Yeah." Hastings rubbed his nose. "Fuck it. Just… fuck it. Nothing I can do, so fuck it all."

Reality made a bwoop sound, and he found himself back in the conspicuously unburned Greenhouse 3, with a fireman by his side. It took him a moment to look through the respirator, but he eventually realized wo it was. "Tofflemire?"

"What the hell was that?" Tofflemire asked, helping him to his feet, "And why the hell did you saying 'fuck it' fix it?"

"I don't know." He looked at the photograph in his hand. "Where'd you get this?"

"Magic pockets." Tofflemire reached into a pocket on the firefighter's jacket and produced three different types of candy, a bottle of aspirin, and a roll of bandages. "Side effect of the whole Pit Sloth fiasco. Neat, huh?"

"Useful." Hastings looked down at the photograph and sighed. "I owe her an apology. Long story. Oh!" He rushed to the other side of the greenhouse, and sighed with relief as he saw the Greatsword Fern was intact.

Then, thoroughly exhausted, Christopher Hastings fainted.

The Next Morning…

"That was Ruby at the hospital." Tofflemire placed his phone back in his pocket. "They're keeping Hastings there for observation. Something about 'heightened adrenaline levels'."

Alison spat toothpaste into the sink and looked at Tofflemire, rolling her neck. "You did good, even if you didn't need the gear. What the hell happened, anyway?"

"If I had to guess?" Tofflemire scrolled through his phone, before throwing it to Alison. "Read this."

The phone had an article on it. "'On the Occurrence of Phobic Manifestations in Modern America' by… Randall Owings? Who's that?"

"Phobologist, works at a site down in Arkansas. His work is mundo classified, don't know why. But that article describes… events where your worst fear becomes reality."

"And you think that's what happened?" She frowned. "From what you said, it was like a bad haunted house."

"I don't think it was meant for me. It feels like it was built for Hastings, and I ruined the illusion by entering it." He frowned. "They're thinking of bringing February out of his coma in a couple of days."

"You think a… 'phobic manifestation' got him, too?" Alison wrinkled her nose. "He… has been antsy about cops for a while. It's worth looking into."

There was a knock on the wall outside the bathroom. The two of them turned to find Agent Seren Pryce, her blonde hair in a messy ponytail, looking at them. "Drew the short straw in your absence, Carol. One of the washers at the Laundr-O-Matic tried to eat someone, we're to handle it. Toff, you're with Grey— spectral disturbance at the Wal-Mart."

"Wonderful." Alison placed her toothbrush in a baggie and gave Robert a nod, before departing.

"Try not to die of excitement!" He called after them.

"Fuck you too!" Alison laughed.

Then, silence.

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