Lessons for Old Dogs

« Counterpoint | Hub | Duets »

rating: +58+x

"Mike, look out!" yelled Zhao.

The brass city was collapsing around them. Mike slammed to a stop as an enormous bell crashed to the ground in front of him.

"The players must be - huh - losing precision," he panted. "Why did they - hooh - use a brass band?"

Zhao yanked him onto the pavement as the drumskin street tore open. "Trust me," she said, "you don't want to be here when it's catgut and piano wire."

Lifting a streak of silver-grey hair back from her temples, Zhao spoke into her headpiece. "H, where are you? We need to get out."

Four blocks away, Agent Hennessy looked past the text on his visor, at the massive beast a few feet from him. Its powerful metallic legs were curled into a crouch, valves pulsing rhythmically. It turned its head back and forth, and its cymbal-jaws opened, emitting a long horn note of challenge. If he ran, if he made any noise, it would sense him.

His right hand pressed the the communicator at his belt, trying to move as little as possible. 333-C. Stuck. You go.

A nearby flute-tower crumbled and fell, scattering nickel silver keys across the road. SCP-333-C sprang instinctively towards the noise, turning its back on Hennessy.

He ran.

Carter and Zhao were running too, desperately trying to avoid the rain of bronze and steel debris. Ahead, Mike could see the performance hall - the exit. As they reached the doorway, he turned back to look for Hennessy. The streets were full of twisted metal, but empty of life. The doorframe shook as another building fell.

Zhao was shouting into her headset. "H, please! Tell us where you are!"

Hiding. Too far.

"Where? We'll find you." Even as Zhao said it, they heard the bellowing horn again.

No. Get out. Tell them stop playing.

The shaking was getting worse. A door-sized reed slid from the hall's roof and thudded into the pavement in front of them like a guillotine.

"If they stop playing, you'll die!" said Zhao, frantic.

Not dead. Stasis.

The howls of the -C were louder now. Mike saw it burst out of a building up the street. It ran towards them, claws tearing through the shining sidewalk.

"Zhao, it's coming for the exit. We have to go!"

Mike grabbed Zhao's arm. She looked at him with pleading eyes.

The beast was almost on them.

"H, I can't -" she said into the headset. "I -"

Come back for me.

They leapt through the doorway.

The concert hall was silent, expectant.

She 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…

Emma found her focus, bringing herself back. She was wearing a black shirt and trousers - appropriate for a performer, but also reminiscent of her new MTF uniform.

She wanted to look to her left, but couldn't manage it. She needed to look professional in front of the darkened hall. Instead she stole a glance downwards. There was a music stand in front of her, but the score sitting on it seemed blurry. Still, she didn't need it.

Behind her, Emma sensed the unseen orchestra as it stretched itself and then coiled, ready to spring, waiting for the baton's signal. Who was it holding that baton? Emma still could not turn to look.

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.

As the orchestra took off, Emma strained to concentrate on the music. She could hear notes, even the occasional chord, but the full sweep and scope of the work eluded her. What was left were scraps of jangling discord, impossible to piece together.

Emma breathed deeply. Her cue was coming. From the corner of her eye, Emma saw the conductor half-turn. This was her chance. As the baton flashed down like a lightning strike, Emma spun sharply to look left.

The conductor was shrouded in black, darker even than the hall itself. Its face was a pallid carnival mask, featureless but for a leering grin. The eyes were black and empty, and as Emma stared, it loomed closer and larger above her, seeming to fill the hall, to fill the world.

And Emma heard it scream.

She woke to the sight of Agent Sherry Wilson leaning over her.

"Hey, how are you feeling?" came Wilson's calming voice.

Eyes adjusting to the lights, Emma looked around the sleep lab, adrenaline still pumping.

"Did you see it?" she asked.

"Most of it," replied Sherry. "I was in the back of the audience. But it went differently this time, right? You seemed to have more control."

Emma breathed deliberately, trying to slow her heart. "Yes. I changed my clothes, and I managed to turn." As the dream faded, it was easier to remember why she was doing this. "I could even hear the music - some of it, anyway."

"Hmm. I could see them playing, but I didn't hear anything." Sherry scanned through the readings on the touchscreen next to Emma's bed. Of all the members of MTF Omicron-Rho that Emma had worked with, she seemed the most thorough, the most collected.

"This is much better, Emma," she continued. "Good alpha-wave levels, and your breathing stayed steady. Just need to work on staying locked in the dream, even when something surprising happens."

"Actually, I won't need to worry about waking up," said Emma. "How have the others been going?"

Sherry gave an involuntary glance across to the empty beds on the other side of the room.

"They're definitely improving. We tried Hennessey, Zhao and Carter in a few SCP-333 scenarios."

"The musical city? That's appropriate." Emma smiled, and sat up.

"They're adapting well to the dream, staying lucid, finding solutions." Sherry sounded genuinely impressed. "Hennessey actually came up with something I hadn't seen anyone try before."

"Good." Emma's smile grew determined. "That's very good. I'd like to run the same scenarios, please. When can you schedule me in?"

Sherry's look of concern only lasted a fraction of a second, but Emma spotted it.

"I'm not sure," said Sherry, folding her arms. "Unless you're fully trained, we normally wouldn't advise more than three sessions a week."

Emma frowned. "Let's make it tomorrow. I don't have that much time."

Agent Sandra Dee staggered from the tunnel, the ringing in her ears fading. She dropped to one knee, out of breath and trying not to retch. From the corner of her eye, she could see a man step towards her, holding a clipboard and stopwatch.

"Thirty-seven minutes, nineteen seconds," said Sergeant Graham Towers of MTF Zeta-9. "Not bad for a first run through the grinder, especially at your -"

Dee swung her head up fiercely, but the movement was too sudden - black spots filled her vision, and she almost collapsed. She waved away the agent's proffered hand, and shut her eyes tight.

Sergeant Towers had clearly been trained to keep candidates talking after they got through the course. "You never considered joining the Mole Rats then?"

"Wasn't … an option at the time," said Dee, through gritted teeth.

"That's a shame. You did a good job, particularly with the gravitational distortion sections. A tip for the perspective-null room - you can often make quicker progress with one or even both eyes closed. Although you got unlucky with your route, hitting that straight after sensory deprivation."

"Uh huh." Dee had heard enough. Her head was still throbbing, and she lifted herself gingerly into the chair Towers offered.

Twenty minutes later she was still sitting there, just outside the exit from "Mole Rat Maze", watching the Sergeant look anxiously at his watch.

"An hour is the limit, I'm going to have to go in," he said, more to himself than to her.

Just as he put down his clipboard, there was a noise from the tunnel. Towers raced over as Roger Anderson emerged, slumping to the ground and rolling on to his back. Anderson's chest heaved, and Dee watched as Towers checked his pulse and pupils before grabbing some oxygen from the med-pack.

Dee stood slowly, making sure she had her balance back, and strolled over to where Roger was lying. He had taken off the oxygen mask, but was still too weak to sit up.

Agent Dee brought her boots together with a snap, right next to his head. "So, Anderson. Looking forward to being back in the field?"

Towers shot her a look. She met his gaze.

"Come on, Towers," she said, "surely he's set a new record for the octogenarians?"

She spotted the stopwatch, still around Towers' neck.

"There you are, Anderson. Fifty-nine minutes, twelve seconds."

Roger groaned. "Why is it always twelve?"

Emma was starting to get used to meetings in the Site Director's office. She tried to sit still while Director Arora walked slowly around his desk to sit across from her.

The Director unclasped his hands and spread them apart, palms up. Clearly a practised gesture. "So Commander Stark, how is the training going?"

He was stalling; Emma knew he had seen the reports. She aimed to keep her voice light. "The team is performing well, generally strong results, considering. We could use a few more members though. Have you had any luck with recruits?" It wasn't what she had scheduled the meeting for, but it would be a start.

Director Arora was clearly growing accustomed to her newfound directness. He smiled, but she thought she caught a flash of misgiving behind it.

"I think I have two pieces of good news for you there," he said. "Dr. Bettina Reynard is a senior Memetics researcher who is joining us from Site-17, and Charla Flores had just been recruited to Cognitohazards, but her supervisor has gone on medical leave."

"That's good," said Emma. "We could use some more specialists. I know exactly what Dr. Reynard can start with. I don't suppose they have any musical background?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure," replied the Director. "But they should be with you soon, so you'll be able to find out. We have a D-Class who I understand is very musical, but, uh, I'm not sure you would want him in your squad."

Arora paused. Emma waited.

"About your other request," he continued, finally. "I can see why you want to do it, but I just don't know if I can authorise -"

"Sir, with respect, if we're serious about learning more about Twelve, then I think it's the best way forward. The team will be ready."

"Will they?" said Arora. "I'd like to hear your full risk analysis first."

Emma tried to stay calm. "Okay sir, there are four key elements to consider…"

As she left the room fifteen minutes later, Emma realised her hands had been clenched so hard they'd left fingernail marks on her palms.

The spare lab-room was almost empty as Mike and Hennessy walked in. All of the equipment had been cleared out, leaving just four rows of benches and stools, one of which was occupied by a dark-haired young woman, reading.

"Hi," said Mike, "you must be Charla."

The woman looked up from her text. "Charlie," she said. "That's what my family always called me."

"Nice to meet you, Charlie. I'm Mike, and this is H." Mike indicated the smiling Agent Hennessy beside him. "Welcome to Eta-11."

"H?" asked Charlie with a quizzical look.

"For Hennessy." Mike turned to him, grinning. "Or is it Hearing Loss? I can never remember."

"Hey!" said Hennessy loudly.

Turn it down, signed Mike, and continued, "H is deaf, as you may have worked out. He can talk, but we try not to let him. Never has anything interesting to say."

I'll give you interesting, signed Hennessy, and then saw Charlie's nonplussed look. Mike, you're freaking her out. Stop being weird.

"What did he say?" Charlie asked, unsure where to direct the question.

Mike didn't miss a beat. "H was just apologising for being weird, so it's - ow!" He grabbed the back of his head, where Hennessy had cuffed him playfully. "Okay, I'm sorry, Charlie. I was just messing around with H, but it's not fair when you don't know us. You'll regret ever joining Eta-11."

"Oh no, that's okay," said Charlie, settling her hands back down on her book. "To be honest, I'm glad for the change. My last posting - well, it ended a bit strangely. Still, it's been a pretty full on start. I never knew how much training a task force needed."

"Neither did we," Mike laughed. "Did you do the Mole Rat Maze yet?"

"God, yes - that was ridiculous. I couldn't -" Charlie cut off as the door of the lab opened and a researcher walked in.

She was slightly stiff, as if uncertain she was in the right room. She carried a stack of what looked like VR goggles, held in place with her chin.

"Is this Mobile Task Force Eta-11?" Her voice had the slightest hint of a European accent. "This is all of you - there is no-one else?"

"You saw Zhao, Sandra and Roger on Tuesday, right?" Mike replied. "So yeah, apart from Emma that's all of us." Mike waited for a response, eventually wilting in the woman's stare. "We're kind of a small MTF," he added.

The woman hesitated, lips pursed, before putting the sets of goggles on the bench with a half-sigh. "Okay. My name is Dr. Reynard, senior memetics liaison to Eta-11." She pushed a few greying hairs back from her face. "I will be running your Memetic Resistance tests today."

More tests? signed Hennessy wearily.

Dr. Reynard handed out the goggles, and gave them each an electronic grip topped with a button.

"On these headsets, you will experience typical task force activities in a range of environments. When you perceive danger, or determine that a defensive action is required, you are to press the button on your grip.

"The presentation includes a series of perception-altering stimuli, which I have myself designed. These are quite safe, but will test your memetic resistance on various measures: reduced attention span, slower reaction times, impaired judgement and fine motor control."

"So it's like a game, then?" asked Charlie.

"It is a test," replied Dr. Reynard, with a curt nod. "You will be scored for both speed and accuracy in recognizing and responding to legitimate threats."

"Uh, can you tell us the score to beat?" asked Mike, pulling the goggles on to his head. "I mean, from Tuesday."

Dr. Reynard paused. "It is rather interesting, actually. Most of the team were in the average range, but Agent Dee was in the ninety-fifth percentile across all measures."

"Makes sense," Mike chirped. "After the number of times she tested - ow! Again, H?"

Hennessy scowled at Mike, who looked chastened. "I mean, I guess Agent Dee has had a lot of exposure to mind-altering anomalies."

"D, H, do you all have letters?" Charlie pushed the goggles up from her eyes to ask.

"Oh - no, Dee is definitely her name," said Mike hurriedly.

"Like John Dee? Cool. I almost transferred to Alchemical Studies," said Charlie.

Dr. Reynard coughed. "If you are all now ready, shall we get on with the test?"

She flicked a switch on a central console as they lowered their goggles and tightened the straps. The last thing Mike heard before the headphones kicked in was Hennessey's voice counting down from a hundred in multiples of seven.

Four days later, the lab was full again, with the whole of Eta-11 in attendance. Zhao and Mike were sitting with Charlie, laughing at something on her phone. Behind them, Roger Anderson and Dr. Reynard were deep in debate. Agent Dee lounged in the back corner chatting to Hennessy, who was struggling to sign with a half-eaten sandwich in one hand.

They looked up as the door opened and Emma came in. Agent Zhao jumped from her chair and stood, and the others joined her, with the exception of Dee, who looked coolly from the back of the room.

"That's not necessary, guys," said Emma, blushing slightly and waving them to sit again.

As they were doing so, another man entered. He was mid-fifties, short and lean, with bushy grey hair and a thin beard. He walked into the room as if expecting it to lunge forward and swallow him.

Charlie was the only one to recognize him, whispering to Mike, "Oh my god, do you know who -"

She was interrupted by Emma, whose voice betrayed both her discomfort with giving speeches and the feeling that she was obliged to give one. "I know you've been wondering why we've been training so hard, and I'm sorry that I haven't been able to tell you yet. The truth is, I've only just received approval from the Site Director to let you know our next mission.

"Since SCP-012 was stolen, we've had almost no clear leads. Commander - well, ex-Commander Richards has no memory of where he hid the score. The Foundation has been unable to track Dr. Pherson, or find out who his associates are. And we know so little about the anomaly itself. But we have one source of information, and I intend to pursue it."

Emma looked at the expectant faces of the MTF. Her MTF. Zhao gave her a brief smile of support.

She continued. "That's the reason for all of the training so far, and I'm afraid there's more to come. Dealing with spatial anomalies, memetic resistance, lucid dreaming - we're going to need all of that."

They had started to understand, thought Emma. Dee had come off the back wall and was sitting straight, Roger was pushing his glasses up over widened eyes, Dr. Reynard was nodding. Emma saw Mike turn to Charla in sudden realization.

"So now that we have official approval, there's someone we need to speak with. MTF Eta-11, this is Dr. Calixto Narváez. We're going to Alagadda."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License