Eater Of Souls
rating: +33+x

Dr. Greel stared at the bank of screens, attempting to will some sort of conclusion into being, owing to the fact that nothing else over the last few weeks had seemed to work. He sighed, turning away and rubbing his face, pushing his small reading glasses up. Ultimately, it was most likely a wild goose chase at best, and a dangerous distraction at worst. Still, these things itched and tickled, prying at his mind like a glimmer amid moss and fallen leaves. There was something here, he just wasn't seeing it, too grounded or too free to bring the wider pattern into focus. He swore softly, hissing the last syllable as he looked at one of the screens. A massive maw, lunging at the screen, teeth a mish-mash of various predatory archetypes, tongue a ragged blob studded with spent bullets and shrapnel. Greel felt as if he'd been tumbling into it for weeks.

“Quite the interesting bedtime reading…do you jump over to traffic accidents when you want to relax?”

Dr. Greel jumped at the voice, whirling around even as he identified the soft lilt. Dr. Franks smiled in the gloom outside the semicircle of computer screens, her pale, narrow features seeming to float above her lab coat, wreathed in a small haze of curly brown hair. Greel huffed, sinking back into his seat and turning back to the screens, a soft chuckle following Franks as she moved closer, leaning in beside him.

“At this point, I'd rather be in one. Worst hell is the one you make for yourself…” Greel muttered, trailing into grumbling complaints as he clicked a few screens from black sleep.

“I thought you'd made headway? Last week at review you said you'd had success following the historical angle.”

“I was, just turns out it was another blind alley. Convergent myth evolution, raccoon and red pandas, ended up just reinforcing Snorlinson's papers more then any of mine. Got a commendation from archives.”

“Something's better then nothing, Greel.”

“Yeah, 'better to have loved and lost” and all that. Try it sometime.”

Franks chuckled again, scanning over the collection of images and text. She was briefly reminded of her early student days, reading Lovecraft in the drowsy twilight of the university library. The Necronomicon was said to drive men mad with a glance at its pages, the bizarre unreality and challenge to the mind too much for normal sanity to endure. This collection would have been right at home, and she worried that perhaps it bore the same effect.

“Greel, sometimes just coming at things with fresh eyes is best. No, really, don't be like that.” she smiled at his sudden glare, the angle of light making him look much older then he seemed, much frailer.

“Franks, if Pike sent you here, I'll tell you the same thing I did him, I have a commission and approval to pursue this research and it's up next month. If they want to yank me then, fine, but I'm not going to waste my time and theirs by dumping early because the going got hard.”

She shook her head, rising back to standing as he turned back to the screens.

“Pikes didn't send me, or Overwatch, or anyone. I'm worried you're getting jammed down a hole that you won't stop digging. It's valid, yes, but sometimes you just have to come up for air. Remember back when I was working on 882, the memetics review?”

“Franks, it's not-”

“Just listen. I'd been banging my head over the progression angle for a week, I had the proposal for full activation on my desk, I was that twisted up over it. I ended up getting yanked off for a new containment evaluation, was out for five days. When I came back, I clicked together the formula in less then three hours, ended up saving a few lives that would have been spent needlessly.”

“So, what…you're saying I can't see the scales for the trees?”

“No, what i'm saying is that you wouldn't even know if you were in the forest right now. There's nothing bad or wrong about taking a step back, it's because we don't that so many end up…poorly.”

Dr. Greel stared at the screen, eyes fixed on rolling totals. Lives, equipment, money, spooling out city's worth of lost resources. He huffed, sighing as he let his head drop, hanging loosely as his thin, black hair shifted over his face.

“Alright, alright, I get it, and I'm not blind. I know I'm spinning around, it's just…there's something here, dammit! I'm worried that if I step back, I'll loose what little threads I've gained.”

Franks moved away, the soft clatter of wheels approaching as she pulled a desk chair up to the wide table beside Greel, her small hands coming to rest in her lap.

“Ok, so don't. Present your findings, pretend I'm one of the intake guys from Archives. Tell me what you have, and I'll determine if you're totally insane yet.”

Dr. Greel barked a laugh, leaning back and smoothing his several-days-unwashed hair.

“Are you teasing me, or trying to spare me? Not much point, really, I'll have to do the real thing in a few weeks anyway.”

“Well this is perfect then, you can get your story straight ahead of time. Pretend I know nothing, and it won't be a stretch because I'm not sure I actually do know anything.”

Greel looked at her, Frank's smile somewhere between indulgent and mocking, drawing a brief flicker of his own before he turned, clicking and shuffling the window. The center screen displayed a massive, sodden hulk, wreathed in toxic looking smoke and splashes of gore and chemicals. The smooth, semi-conical head jutted before a dripping mane of hair, or fur, trailing down the long body and thick lashing tale. It looked like a crocodile from the depths of a fever dream, painted by someone who had never actually seen a crocodile. Bits of bone and tissue jutted and bulged from random holes and wounds across the slimy body.

Greel drew himself up some, gesturing to the image with a roll of his fingers.

“SCP-682, one of the face cards in the deck of nightmares of The Foundation. Big, strong, adaptive, and functionally immortal, with a mental doctrine that could make Pol Pot look like a children's show host and a body like Godzilla's stillborn twin. One of the few things The Foundation has and is actively trying to kill, and despite it's time in containment, and breaches, one of the least understood.”

“Also apparently have a lovely singing voice.”

Greel stared at Franks, the silence stretching as his face wandered from annoyance to cautious curiosity. Franks slowly raised her hands, palms out as she smiled sheepishly.

“I-it's a joke, I'm joking, Greel.”

“…Don't do that. With how this has been running I'm not in a position to exclude any data.”

“My fault, sorry. What's the thrust?”

Greel composed himself swiftly, clicking and starting slideshows, varying from starcharts to traffic patterns, stone carvings to renaissance masters.

“One of the main problems is we know so little about 682. There's plenty of theory, and even some proven work, but a lot of the big questions are still unanswered, or even addressed, especially if they don't relate to containment or decommissioning. This isn't a flaw in the system, it's just an outgrowth of necessity. My work was…is to try and uncover some of the background information on the big lizard. Where it came from, what it did before containment, why the hell it hates us so much. The pressing questions like how to kill it, and how to keep it dead of course come into play, but I'm following the less beaten paths with this.”

“Sounds great, more data always helps. However, like you said, is the effort worth it? There's many unknowns, but some of the big questions are on the way to cracked already, even if it's slow going. Or is this a challenge paper? What about Gears and the 'balloon reality' theory?”

Greel waved a hand dismissively, warming to the topic now, crossing his legs and he leaned back.

“I'm not disputing major theories, at least not directly, or intentionally. I'm more interested in unexplored connection and background than progressing theory. 682 may well be an intrusion of some other existence, with the form we see a sort of 'glitch' as our reality tries to interpret the incorrect data, like feeding an image file through an audio mixer. Red Theory is just as likely, and not mutually exclusive, really. What better destroyer them a leviathan from beyond the stars? My concern is mainly what the hell this thing was doing before it was locked up, and why hasn't mankind, and life in general, been extinguished long before 682 was contained?”

Dr Franks nodded slightly, glancing between Greel and the screens. She had to smother a grin, watching his hands begin to wave and dance as he talked. Once you became a lecturer, it was like a virus you never truly rid yourself of, always waiting to manifest again, and it showed with Greel.

“Alright, so, we dismiss the current questions, and look to things that have no direct bearing on how to kill or contain the beast. I won't ask why, but what, exactly, started this?”

“I've always had a knack for anomaly theory, and I'd hoped that by diving in to enough material, I might connect something. Turning shapes into patterns by dialing back the zoom far enough, sifting out the tailing of other research to see if someone missed a nugget.”

“Ah-ah, that's how, not what. What got you cooking on this project that's got you up in the middle of the night?”

Greel glanced sidelong at Franks, bringing up a stone carving of a maned crocodile, jaws wide beside a scale.

“Sobek, one of the old Egyptian gods. Sat at the scales of judgment, where the hearts of the dead were weighed against the feather of Truth. If judged good, the soul may ascend, if not it would be cast into the waiting jaws of Sobek, to be consumed and destroyed. Old myth, yes, but the depiction matches up so well with the common form of 682, and the finality of its existence just stood out too cleanly to me. I wondered, now we're here.”

Dr. Franks raised an eyebrow, smiling and she peered at the carving.

“So…682 was worshiped by the Egyptians?”

Greel scoffed, flicking his hand over the keyboard while glaring at Franks, banishing the image to be replaced with a scrolling slideshow of lizard-like depictions through history.

“Dammit, Franks, I told you to knock that off! No, it was not…or at least not largely, or by what we would call Egyptians…hell, maybe it was. That's not the point though. Throughout history, there's depictions of lizard-like beings, but never ENTIRELY lizard. They often have other bits, and are almost always destroyers and shape-shifters, dragging humanity down with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Every major continent, every major religion, there's always the Great Dragon, the Serpent, the scaled Other that seeks the downfall of humanity. Reptiles are dangerous, sure, but this kind of unified structure, even in areas were they are uncommon, or even benign, it's too glaring to just dismiss.”

“South America has the Great Feathered Serpent who supposedly taught them how to live. China and Japan both have rather benevolent dragons. Most of the Asian cultures and religions view their scaled deities in a rather kind light. Are you sure you're not seeing faces in clouds, making the data fit your theory?”

He sighed, but grinned as he shifted more readouts and totals, displaying spidery webworks of interconnection.

“Heh, I knew you'd say that, and I'm not saying all these myths have their roots in the same spring, or even the majority of them. Even taking into account human pattern recognition and myth progression, there's still more then enough loose ends to draw a conclusion, or at least propose one.”

“Collective unconscious? Handfull of ideas in powerful hands, spooled out over a few thousand years, and suddenly it's the Truth.”

Greel pointed an accusing finger, face hardening as she smirked back.

“Don't you pull that bullshit on me, you know for a fact that anomalies follow Snorlinson's Memetic Progression Model and not the standard, even accounting for overlap. This is not a myth that dreamed itself into being, Franks, this is a truth that we've collectively been trying to forget.”

“Alright, alright, stand down. This is all great, Greel, but where are we going? If you were trying to drum up grant money back in the world, this would be lovely, but here it's taking up data cycles.”

“Listen, you wanted the whole presentation, here it is. Bottom to top, you just want the highlight reel you can wait for my actual, COMPLETED findings.”

“I'm mum, notes in hand, eyes bright.”

Greel glowered for a few beats, finally turning away with a huff, shifting his displays once again. Franks was still concerned, but the form was shifting. Initially, she had worried he'd backed himself into a corner, walled in by paradox and false leads, beating against them like a moth in a jar. Now, she was worried that he had actually caught the tail of something, and was willing to grind himself to dust over it. She honestly didn't know which would be worse.

“Specifically, there's two primary prongs with this. Where and how did 682 exist in the past, if at all? What sort of evidence did it leave behind, in the land or the people, to mark its passage? This leads to and is directly connected to the other: if it did exist for any length of time before containment, why aren't we all dead? This is the big fruit at the end of the tree, Franks. If this horror existed for any significant time, and we're still all here, then it must have stopped killing everything. It must have stopped, or been stopped, and kept as such, likely for long periods of time. 682 either has a dormancy cycle, encounters earth-present conditions that cause it to calm or sleep, or there is some means to contain it available to early cultures.”

“Alright, that's…admittedly compelling. However we don't know those things, and you're not the first to ask these questions. Plus there's the 'stroke-blind' principal; 'don't play with it, you'll go blind'. Even if these conditions existed in the past, it's possible, and even likely, that our ongoing efforts have screwed it up.”

“Yes, crude as your observation is, this is true, however that doesn't invalidate the research. If we can understand, even if it's invalid, it might help with containment, or even killing the thing.”

“Isn't this all a house on sand, though? This stems from the basic principal that 682 existed for long periods before containment. Some of the older Iceberg papers indicate that the basic nature of 682 might invalidate chronological ordering. Is, was, will be, effect without cause, and it's not even a unique principal in the modern catalog.”

Sighing, Greel leaned one arm against the desk, propping his head up against his hand.

“That's the point, Franks. It's clarifying the assumptions. We're going in circles with this. Yes, before you even bloody start, I know, they're valid, and it's circular because the logic is gapped, but just go with me on this for a second.”

She readjusted herself in her seat, imaginary notepad at the ready, much to Greel's disdain.

“I'm not just looking at the historical record. I've been given access to a lot of Gear's work, even the very early stuff before present containment. 682 is scared, Franks. It's not made of hate, it's made of terror. The same way sad people will turn angry with time, 682 is lashing out because it doesn't know what else to do. It's an intelligent being, shockingly so, but it's somehow…trapped here, in a reality so alien it's physically painful, and it's wrapped up in the same material. Still, it understands, and learns, even accepts things that it can. Organics are the problem, as well as some innate frustration. It smashes communication drones and devices because the sound of even our communication patterns finally disgust it too much to contain. However, it still understands enough to make that connection, to think.”

“I've read a lot of the papers, Greel…but I get it. There's more than just a meat grinder going on. That still doesn't explain, or even justify, the research.”

“I think one of the main issues is this; we've been assuming 682 is a continuous being. That it exists with some kind of permanency, yet nothing else seems to follow known law. What if this isn't the case, and the 'balloon' theory is only partially right? What if, instead of a finger stuck into the skin of our balloon of a universe, it's more like someone tangled up in a sheet, with the odd limb poking out for a bit, only to go back under as they roll over? What if 682 isn't an entity, but an event.”

They sat in silence for several seconds, Franks mentally rolling the ball of that suggestion in her mind, examining it for dents and flaws.

“So, the idea is that…something happens, which may or may not have relation to the state of our reality, and 682 sort of…rolls into being? And then, after some other unknown something, it rolls back out again? Is it just time, then? We just have to sit and wait for the Deus Ex Machina to yank it back offstage?”

Greel chuckled, shrugging his shoulders as he started to bring up topographic maps.

“Reality's not always the best storyteller, so yes, it's possible. It's likely there's some environmental conditions that need to be met, memetic or meteorological, that clot and congeal around the essence of 682 and cause it to manifest here. A theory buried in some of the early records stated that the acid might work because it emulates something in 682's natural environment, that it's not the corrosive, but the familiarity that makes it lie down. Whatever it is, it's very unlikely that 682 is willingly, or even knowingly, causing it. Equally unlikely is the idea that 682 can somehow undo the process, or that just reversing it will make it go away. Events, manifestation, separate events, de-manifestation.”

“Okay, so in this case, why isn't it trying to trigger the exit, then? If it worked before, it'll likely work again, or at least it's a good starting point. Basic problem solving, which it's rather capable with.”

“It might be different every time. Or it doesn't understand our reality enough to consistently trigger the same effects. However, I don't think that's entirely the case. I think it is, somehow. It's trying to do things that will free it.”

“So…butchering everything with a cell structure is the plan?”

“Possible, but unlikely. That may be part of it, an echo carried in blood rites and such, here and there. No, I think it's trying, but it can't focus enough to do so.”

“Because we're so very distracting?”

“Imagine trying to tell someone how to, say, swap out an alternator in a car. Not easy, but not at all impossible. Now imagine doing it, but the person you're talking to has extremely advanced syphilis, and is chewing a baby's face off while actively raping your mother's corpse.”

“Fuck, Greel!”

“That's 682. Not the rotting necrophiliac, the person trying to give direction. That's a portion of the level of revulsion it feels for this world's organic life. Even if it could, somehow, make us understand, interacting long enough to do so is all but impossible. It's stuck trying to trigger conditions or events, or just being present when they occur.”

“Trans-dimensional bus stops, so to speak. Where does 053 figure into this then? It didn't really do anything during exposure, pretty close to docile even.”

“It's outside the scope of the current project, but I think 053 isn't from here, however it looks. Likely not from wherever 682 is from, but different enough not to be upsetting. Honestly, it appears to act that way with a lot of anomalous items, provided they're not dangerous or aggressive. It's just here, it's us it has the problem with. Likely why it tries to initiate contact with some of them. However it doesn't help us much, and again, outside the current scope.”

“The human element is somewhat the important bit. So, where does all this tie in to historical record?”

Greel turned, watching the screens, brows furrowed. This was the sticking point, or near to it, anyway.

“This is built on a lot of assumptions, Franks. Behavior, Realspace theory, the works. Eventually, though, we have to take the leap, right? Science is supposed to be about questions, not answers.”

Dr Franks watched Greel pointedly avoid her gaze. Shuffling data and building a bulwark of data and excuses. She shifted closer slightly, her face pinching with a slowly rising concern. Greel was scared. Or at least seriously concerned. She'd been assuming that he'd not found anything and was shattering from it…now her fears started to congeal around a more likely core. It might well be he'd found something…and was now desperately trying to mitigate or even invalidate it.

“Greel, stop dancing around this. What do you think you've found?”

Silence spooled out in the dark room. Finally Dr Greel spoke, still watching the screens, the light washing the color from his lined face.

“I started to look into cycles, and dead places. There are many all around the world, blasted wastes that often used to be green and fertile. Lake Eyre in Australia, the north Sahara, plateaus and valleys across Asia and Russia, the whole of Antarctica. Tombs where some bacteria and maybe a few insects find a foothold, but little else, and with histories of sterile death before that which spool back for ages. It was an easy assumption to make, working off the dataset I had. Uncontained, 682 will consume and destroy all life it finds, so look for places barren of life. It didn't make sense, though. Most of these places are nowhere near any kind of human…anything. There would be little to no record, nothing to account for the plague of shifting serpents in history. Nobody to tell the tale.”

Franks watched, and listened, an odd, trembling fear flickering in her throat as Greel drove on.

“I looked at civilizations and cultures, trying to find…something. If 682 manifested near a culture, there would be records of it, and probably clear ones. But nothing, not a thing. I realized that, if something existed in the archaeological record, then it hadn't seen 682. A lovely theory, shot to hell by simple facts and evidence. Honestly I should have been happy, eliminating variables is the only way to find truth. Things still didn't seem to make sense, though. Little snippets and whispers that I couldn't let go. So I decided to shut them up, and prove why my work to this point was bullshit.”

“…So what did you figure out?”

“That, most likely, I'm actually right, but it won't ever be proven.”

Franks shook her head softly, gesturing to the screens.

“If that's true, that you are right, then even if you can't prove it conclusively, you'll lay the groundwork. We all stand-”

“No, Franks, I mean that if I'm right there won't be anybody here to confirm it.”

More silence, the two researchers frozen in slowly passing seconds.

“It was realizing that 682 may be an effect, not a cause. Things happen that slowly align points of timespace with others somewhere else. There's a bleed-over as they do so, and 682 glitches into being. It's possible there's more then one, or it's just a chunk of something else that gets pinched by the conflux. It may rage and kill, sure, but that's not the issue. Wherever this thing is from, it's…honestly, it's hard to even imagine how alien and hostile it is. Maybe a layer of entropy or something, I don't know. This link, however, is something natural, at least I think so. It just…happens, and 682 comes. Then, eventually, it resolves. Maybe 682 helps it along, maybe not, but it resolves. 682…dies, or goes back or whatever, and the whole thing starts over.”

“Greel…what's the cycle? What are you talking about?”

“…The great cycle, the big one…death, and rebirth.”

“So it's some kind of…death god or something?”

“That implies participation, it's an observer at best. No, it's an effect, not a cause. It's the little crumbs that don't make sense, the out of place artifacts and linked myth cycles on other sides of the world, the vague memory of catastrophe and scales. I'm not even sure it's really an anomalous event…more like a natural disaster we don't understand yet. Like ascribing storms to angry gods. There's no…there's not even evidence Franks, not directly.”

“Greel, stop hiding behind what ifs and tell me what the hell you're talking about!”

He turned, finally. His eyes were slightly glassy with held tears, his face seeming fallen, somehow, just in the time they'd been talking.

“Every so often a culture fails. This happens, sure, but sometimes it's not just a breakdown. There's some massive…catastrophe, either so rapid or so total that everything is destroyed at the same time. Next to no survivors, and the few that do manage to escape are to spread and too few to ever rebuild. They vanish into other populations, with just a few odd rocks and stories to mark their passage. The collapse is so total even the land will often die, everything from buildings to plants turned to shadows and dust. Just tiny hints, some carvings in Antarctica, the ash layer in the Middle East, the red-haired, blue-eyed kings of myth in Asia, South America, Egypt. Something…happens, and an entire culture, even an advanced, powerful one is blasted from reality so totally that even the collective unconscious forgets them. And this process, this cycle, is what makes 682 manifest, amid the beginning of the end.”

Franks blinked, letting the connections slowly form, feeling that hard knot of worry slowly drag down through her throat to her belly, settling like a cold, nauseating stone.

“Wait, wait, if that's true, then-”

“It's easy to blame the person executing you for your death. It's not even inaccurate. Even if it's a punishment or a command from others, blame has to go somewhere. Shoot the messenger, especially if he's shooting back. A dragon comes and destroys, why would you not then blame it for wider destruction? The few survivors warn of a shifting trickster, a roaring monster, a herald for the road of ruin. But it's an effect, not the cause. It's the bullet, not the gun that's firing it.”

“Wait, Greel, if this is right, then this…682 manifests when this 'catastrophe' starts, and is stuck until it resolves. Which means if…”

Franks trailed off, the implication not new, or even unexpected within The Foundation. Still, it struck with a sickening lurch of realization, like finding a stair missing on a flight you walk up and down every day. Greel nodded, tired face pulling into a flat smile.

“If 682 is manifest, now, it means our current civilization is going to be obliterated so totally that later generations will view us as a myth, at best. At worst we'll be an odd, yet dismissed anomaly in the sediment layer. I've been beating my head against the wall trying to determine what the hell this gestalt event actually is, or what needs to happen to make 682 manifest or leave. Trying to shed light on the frame of it all, and having no goddamn luck. No evidence, too many loose theories…no record, because nobody and nothing survived to pass it. It's easy to dismiss on the surface, but I'm right, I know I am.”

“I-I think you are too, Greel. Fuck, I mean…fuck.”

“Even if I do work it out…I don't think it's fixable. Maybe we can draw it out, or something, we're damn good at that, but…yeah.”

They sat, looking at and through each other. Greel suddenly smiled, patting his knees as he sat upright.

“Well, in the end, it's just the end of the world. It's not even that clean of a theory, really. Just a lot of suppositions hung on a spindly frame. Maybe 682 is some sort of soul-swallowing horror, drawing life from our reality like a very angry, animate tongue stuck into a honey jar. Maybe the joining of human will does something, makes a sound or smell that sometimes gets them sucked, shivering, out of the shell of realspace. Maybe he's just a fish sucked up a drainage tube. Most likely, I've been at it too long and am seeing faces in clouds, right?”

She looked at him, the sudden one-eighty turn leaving her jarred and confused, but not for long. One could endure just so much weight. Only so much helpless, nameless fear could be carried at a time. Whether for her, or for himself, she still snatched at the opportunity.

“See? I told you talking it out helps. Even if it's bad, expressing it at least get it out…misery loves company and all that.”

Greel nodded, his smile genuine, if a bit forced.

“I told you it was pretty out-there. Maybe you're right. Some air might do me good, or at least stretching my legs.”

“That sounds a bit better. We could go nose around hydroponics a bit, soak some negative ions.”

Franks rose, slotting the new, larval fear squirming in her chest away with a host of others, trying not to dwell on what events could happen that would make a unchained 682 vanish from human memory and record multiple times by non-anomalous means. She strode through the dark, opening the door a bit swifter, finding the light outside more comforting then she cared to dwell on.

“Come on, Greel, no time like the present, right?”

He turned, looking to her, framed by the light outside. The contrast making her a fuzzy silhouette. A black cutout, like a shadow burned into concrete. He turned back, eyes rolling over the screens. Leering idols, melted stone, a slumbering, pointless mystery. Likely wrong, and if right, impossible to fully verify without utter and total annihilation. An old memory bubbling up, lapping waters on an evening lake, a bigger, wider world, a rolling voice above his shoulder. He spoke it, softly, reaching to turn off the screens.

“You can be right, or you can be happy, it's rare you get both…”

“Humm? What's that?”

“Nothing. Just old bones.”

Ignorance may not be bliss, Greel thought as he rose from the silent threat of the screens, but it was certainly easier to deal with.

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