Pass It On
rating: +15+x

2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


It was finally ending.

He was no stranger to long-term projects, but even so, it had often seemed that he would never be quit of this one. It had hung over his head every day, a thing unfinished; there was always more to plan, more to learn about the various Sites and Groups of Interest, more work to be done to ensure that the most ambitious thing he'd yet attempted reached a firm and satisfying conclusion. It had taken months — months! — of his life, hours upon hours of research, and more preparation than he'd have been able to imagine back when he first conceived of this harebrained scheme. From a deceptively simple germ of an idea, it had grown and grown into a genuine monster. The platonic ideal of feature creep. The most nightmarishly convoluted thing he could ever imagine having to plot out, an impenetrable web of lies and misdirection, a machine made entirely out of moving parts. Its final shape did not quite represent the limits of his imagination, but this singular concept? Oh, yes, he felt he had done everything there was to be done with it.

For this, impossibly, was the end. After today, it would all be over but the crying.

Daniil Sokolsky did not intend to be the one in tears.

"He's been loose in the Site this whole time?!" Eileen Veiksaar looked close to tears herself. "You knew he was probably going to knock us out, and you just let him do it?!"

"I forgot you weren't there for the briefing." They were jogging down the halls of I&T, headed for the communications server room. "I keep picturing you there, because it was in your office."

She rolled her eyes.

"These ops are no good if we don't know what the moles want." Glass-walled computer labs sailed past, lights off, screens dark. "The whole point was to gather intel, not just stomp on sabotage. Pensak's a planner, but he's not a dreamer. He's doing what he's doing for someone else. If we took him out ahead of time, we'd never know who sent him. Who masterminded attacks across the globe, Eileen. That's worth a little risk."

"But the Site! The whole goddamn Site!" She looked like she wanted to strangle him; then again, the unaccustomed exercise was making them both turn red. "Tell me Alpha-9 is coming."

"Odds are they've been called away. Pensak would've made sure of it."

"ETTRA?"

"Same deal."

"What about the other Sites? 87? 246?"

"Told them to stand by. We don't know… how bad… this is going… to be. Had… to cut… our losses." He was getting winded now.

"Our LOSSES?"

"Worst… case… scenario. Anyway, it's… fine. Elstrom… and Bradbury… and the ASC… are handling. It."

She turned to stare at him, and they almost missed their next turn. "With what? All the passwords… are either in Pensak's head… or the moles' heads… or out of the country! Where did you get… three more?!" She took a deep breath. "Four more, because… you obviously… still have… one?" She was in worse shape than he was, but didn't like to show it.

"Four more," Sokolsky mused. "Let's see."


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2017


8 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"Time travel doesn't work that way." Thaddeus Xyank, Director of the Temporal Anomalies Department, was clearly unimpressed.

"It absolutely doesn't." Alice Forth, Director of the Department of Temporal Anomalies, was even less impressed.

"This isn't time travel. It's timeline travel." Sokolsky was an impulsive individual, and he hated oversight. He was a man with an efficient mind, so he also hated redundancy. Worst of all he hated being confused, so the existence of two different departments with almost the same name whose heads either couldn't or wouldn't explain the difference between their duties was almost more than he could bear.

But only almost. If their meddling was required to make this work, then so be it. It was simply too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

They watched on the monitor as a confused old man in a labcoat walked the halls of Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-D, just as he had on 9 September last year when the recursive annual explosion had killed him very dead indeed. Dr. Adrijan Zlatá had been the victim of a catastrophic computer glitch which put him in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, and considering the place in question was AAF-D he'd be living that worst possible time over and over and over each year for all eternity. Zlatá had been a good scientist and an amiable sort, so Sokolsky considered that unfortunate. He'd also been carrying SCP-5109 in his head, however, which Sokolsky had considered an unbearable tragedy.

"It'll only work once," Xyank predicted. "Just the once."

"There's nothing in any model to suggest why it should work more than once," Forth agreed.

"Just watch," Sokolsky sighed.

One man and one woman in strange black uniforms materialized in front of Zlatá, who responded with not unexpected shock. (It was even less unexpected for already having happened last year.) The man waved a small black penlight in Zlatá's eyes, while the woman seized his shoulders and leaned in. As if in a trance, the doctor began to speak; they couldn't hear it, since the cameras in AAF-D hadn't been able to transmit sound back in 2002, and AAF-D was now experiencing 2002 for the fifteenth time.

When Zlatá finished speaking, the first man waved the magic wand again. By the time Zlatá blinked, they had disappeared.

The baffled doctor leaned on a nearby pillar for support. It exploded in a shower of neon sparks, and he turned bright white for just a moment before hitting the tiles as a rain of pink-skinned blue lemons, split neatly down the middle.

There was a rush of air, and Sokolsky turned around. The two TAD agents saluted Xyank, who nodded. "Well?"

The female agent nodded back. "I have the password."

Forth cursed under her breath. "But we already got it back from him last year!"

"That was the last-year version of him." Sokolsky pointed at the monitor. "He's been incorporated into the loop now. Every time 5243 brings him back, he'll have a fresh instance of 5109 in his head."

"Where did you get this 'instance' theory from, anyway?" Xyank asked.

Sokolsky shrugged. "Lucky guess."


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2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"And that's… it?" Veiksaar shook her head.

"Yup. Did it again in '18… '19… and last… year. Worked… every time."

"Seventeen… passwords." She couldn't or wouldn't stop shaking her head. "Jesus. Christ."

They had reached the server room. Sokolsky hammered at the keypad, seemingly at random, and received a negatory beep. Veiksaar dodged into the attached office, and came back out with a tablet. "I'm assuming you cut off all my permissions?"

"Sort of!" Sokolsky whacked a few more keys, and was met with a second beep. "I isolated you to the VIP channel. You won't be able to interact with most stuff, but you'll have your uses."

She stared at him. "You what."

He pointed at the tablet. "Go ahead, pull up Clio. Ask her for a recent activities check on Pensak, Elstrom, Bradbury, Kuroki and McInnis. He'll have shut down her higher functions, and be monitoring the lower ones — but he won't see you, because again, VIP. You're a ghost."

She tapped out the commands without looking. She was still staring at him. "You gave stealth access to a traitor?"

He tried one more time to open the door, though she didn't think he was trying very hard. "If your betrayal had involved shooting me or something, I definitely wouldn't have. That report ready yet?"

It was. She showed him.

R. Pensak executes a full lockdown on the Inter-Sectional Subway System from Terminal SC001.

RPensak is in transit.

RPensak activates Terminal AO002.

RPensak executes alterations to the Site-43 Permissions Schedule from Terminal AO002.

KTElstrom cancels alterations to the Site-43 Permissions Schedule from Terminal AO001.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal AO001.

KTElstrom is unconscious.

RPensak executes a full database download from Terminal RE001.

HKuroki79 remotely cancels a full lockdown on the Inter-Sectional Subway System from Terminal ISSS032.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal ISSS032.

HKuroki79 is unconscious.

MBradbury is now in transit.

RPensak is now in transit.

MBradbury cancels a full database download from Terminal RE001.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal RE001.

MBradbury is unconscious.

"Harry's gonna be pissed," Sokolsky mused.

"The hell is doing that? Knocking them out?"

"Pensak. Must've set up something to shoot cognitos at anyone who tries to use their terminals."

"Why not just lock the terminals down?"

"Because this way he can nail anyone who's inclined to meddle. Same principle as my stings — if he blanket-blocks all access, he won't know who's out and about."

"So Karen and Melissa and… whoever Kuroki is, are down. We're out of passwords now?"

"Oh, hardly. The ASC has one, and he's obviously already picked up McInnis at Grand Bend — that's who Kuroki is with, they're coming back into the Site from the I-triple-S. Two more on our side. In the meantime, we need to get some comms going."

He began to jog away, then looked back when he saw she was still standing at the door. "Coming?"

She pointed at the server room. "I thought we were going to reactivate the main comms?"

"Like hell. Pensak will have booby-trapped them. I just want him to think I've tried it, because that's the sensible thing for me to do. He can't know I have a better way."

"What better way?"

"I've got someone on the inside."


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Ilse Reynders was thinking.

She had been thinking for a good long time. The quandary presently vexing her had dominated her existence for… well, she preferred not to think about that. The situation hadn't seen any progress in a great many years; neither had she, as far as an untrained observer wandering past her only window on the world would see. Her hair, her clothing, her long labcoat and her surroundings were all hopelessly out of date. She was a moving picture from a different era, and only she knew for certain that she was three-dimensional.

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She was thinking, as she nearly always was, about getting out. The Anomalous Documents Disposal Chamber in Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-A was her domain, and her prison. For reasons too complicated to explain except at length, if she left this room the lingering effects of an old workplace accident would kill her almost instantly.

There had been times when that hadn't sounded so bad. Times when the chance to step outside and breathe the air of a changed world — even the recycled air of a changed world — had seemed almost worth the near certainty of violent death. The years had taken a great many things from her, though she'd taken in a great deal herself. Because of that, because of what she'd done with her almost limitless free time, those self-destructive thoughts were mostly in her distant past. She'd learned too much, achieved too much to give up now. It wouldn't be long before she cracked the case, her case, then cracked open that long-sealed door and escaped to safety. Not long.

Never long.

There was a flash from the computer monitor facing her window in the hall. Apparently she had a message. AAF-A was a long way from the bulk of Site-43, having been the very first facility constructed on the shores of Lake Huron, and most people preferred to place a call rather than visit her 'personally'.

Not like they can get up close anyway.

She walked to the window and picked up a pencil off the sill. It was attached to a string, which was itself attached to the window by a piece of ancient but unaging masking tape. On the other side of the window was a high-gain microphone; when she held the pencil in her hand, she could be heard. She had telepresence in most well-travelled areas of the Site, ostensibly so she could weigh in on important intellectual matters. Really, she knew, it was to make her feel like part of the family. Like this was her home.

She had never set foot in the main facility of Site-43.

"Accept." The screen flashed again, and a bald face appeared. "Hello, Daniil. You look harried."

Sokolsky huffed. "You should see how Harry looks."

"It's happening?"

"Just like I said. You ready?"

She smiled. "End call." Her desktop reappeared. "Execute program TELEAANWEZIGHEID." A neatly-labelled map of Site-43 appeared on her monitor, and Sokolsky began to recite something that sounded like gibberish but wouldn't for long.

Just as she had been doing since time immemorial, she built up a store of knowledge in preparation for the next step.


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Veiksaar unspliced the leads running from the conference room screen to the PDA they'd snagged from her deputy chief's office. She felt kind of good having been able to help, if only in little ways, but her deepening confusion made her feel much worse. "What can Ilse do? She's the least-mobile person in the Site."

"She's going to start piping passwords to everyone who's near a terminal, and they're going to pass them to everyone who's not so they can get near a terminal and chip in. Our man Roger is about to have himself a very, very bad day." Sokolsky hopped up on the table and began kicking his legs, quite merrily.

She put both hands on both of his knees, and leaned forward. He kicked her once with each leg, then stopped.

"Passwords."

"Ayup."

"You said you only had four more! And they're all in use, except the one you kept!" She really did look like she might cry.

"Oh, yeah. I picked up a few extras while you were snagging that tablet."

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Picked up from where?"

He narrowed his eyes with pleasure. "Remember that box Willie brought home from Sloth's Pit? The one he thought had animal scat inside? It didn't have animal scat inside."

Her lip quivered. "I mean, I didn't think it did. Whatever was in there was rattling around."

Sokolsky shrugged. "Could've been dried animal scat. But no." He pulled out a tape recorder, and brandished it at her. "Passwords."

She blinked. "Passwords. From?"

He grinned. "From me!"


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2020


2 December

Site-87: Douglas County, Wisconsin, United States of America


Tristan Bailey shook his head. "That's a big ask, Dr. Sokolsky."

"Aw, come on. When's the last time you did something really fun with the MUTA?"

He wasn't going to have to press very hard. The Multi-Universal Transit Array was Bailey's pride and joy; he'd been one of its primary operators before becoming Director of Site-87, and Sokolsky knew for a fact that he missed hopping dimensions and observing distant worlds with impossible flora, fauna, physics and most of all, people. Negotiating with alternate Foundations was more his brother's bag, but he was almost certainly still game.

Bailey's face still hinted at resistance. He was trying to be diplomatic, and he was also trying to be responsible. Neither sat perfectly well on him, but he was trying. "You have O5 approval for this?"

Sokolsky nodded. "And it's important, Mr. Director. This is going to save a lot of lives. Your father would have been proud."

Bailey burst out laughing. "You don't need to lay it on so thick, buddy. You know I want to do this, I just need to do my due diligence. Out of curiosity, how many do you need?"

Sokolsky shrugged. "How many can you get?"


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2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Veiksaar's eyes were watering. "You… borrowed them. From alternate Earths?"

"Alternate Sokolskys!" He hummed happily to himself.

She looked like she was either going to kiss him or slap him. Finally, she pounded both of his knees with her fists and walked away. "How many?"

"Would you believe five?"

She turned to glare at him. "I wouldn't believe anything, at this point, so I'm not sure why I asked. What's next?"

Sokolsky pointed at the monitor. "Can you get the good channels on that thing?


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McInnis and the All-Sections Chief entered Site-43 via the subway stop servicing both the hospital and dormitory sectors. It was a terminal station with a wraparound platform, Health and Pathology/Psychology and Parapsychology to the north and Habitation and Sustenance to the south. They went south, but only for a moment.

At a brisk walk, hitting the invisible wall was not unlike hitting a real one.

Neither McInnis nor his deputy were given to loud exclamations, but neither were they particularly pleased.

"Gentlemen," said a voice from behind them. They turned to see Viola Morse, the Serpent's Hand mole from Site-91, standing in the cab of a parked subway train. She was leaning out the window, her right hand rotating in a constant clockwise motion. "I don't suppose one of you is a thaumaturge?"

McInnis was the first to speak. He was a trained diplomat, after all. "Agent Morse. We could use your help."

Morse barked out something in the neighbourhood of a laugh. "I think you've got your sides mixed up."

"We have that in common," the All-Sections Chief remarked. "From what I understand, you're the only enemy operative who repented today."

Morse's hand was shaking as it turned. "That's a strong word. I had… I let personal considerations get in the way of what I had to do. Don't imagine I'll do it again."

McInnis shook his head. "Personal considerations? Do you realize how unhinged Pensak is, the things he's done? The things he's going to do? If he thinks it'll get him out of here, he might very well bring this entire Site down on our heads."

Morse sneered at him. "So what? Better to die in knowledge than to live in ignorance."

"Knowledge," said the All-Sections Chief. "I presume you met Sunita Misra? Did knowing what she knew about Site-36 set her free?"

Morse didn't answer.

The Chief kept pressing. "She tried to get it carpet-bombed, you know. The greatest collection of religious literature and artifacts outside the Wanderers' Library. Irreplaceable knowledge, burned away. Just to make her feel better about how she'd lived her life."

Morse bit her lower lip. "I'm not Misra."

"No," McInnis agreed. "You're just enabling her, and people like her. Please look at me." Morse had been staring at her own hand. She obligingly made eye contact. "I am willing to discuss releasing you to Serpent's Hand custody. We could use some goodwill on that front, honestly. But you're going to have to help us."

She snorted. "Help the Jailors. That'll really ingratiate me with the Librarians."

"Who's the lesser of two evils?" the Chief asked her. "The Jailors, or the Book Burners?"

Gradually, her hand stopped turning.


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Trevor Bremmel was a mad scientist.

This was not an unusual vocation amongst SCP researchers, though it came in two different flavours depending on where one put the emphasis. There were those who could themselves be considered mad, and Bremmel didn't begrudge them this; one of his fondest memories was being mistaken for Everett Mann at a Site-19 colloquium back in 2018. (One of his least-fond memories was being mistaken for Danny DeVito on Halloween of the same year; he had also once been told, by Harold Blank, that he looked like some famous archaeologist or other. Bremmel had been unwilling to admit that 'famous archaeologist' represented an extant category of human being.) But then there were those whose science itself carried the stigma of insanity, the cohort to which Bremmel could proudly claim affiliation. His specific mania was for tools, machinery, and weaponry, which was why he was the Chief of Arms and Equipment at Site-43.

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It certainly wasn't because of his leadership skills. Bremmel might have looked like a kindly old man — wild, wispy grey hair on the back of his head, a pot belly, a denim jacket under his dark blue engineer's labcoat and a perpetually rheumy expression — but whenever the gears in his head stopped spinning, whenever he turned from thoughts of stress values and blast radii and crush depths and discovered the real world in front of him, his blurry eyes narrowed and his slouch tensed up and he lashed out at anyone within lashing range. He'd been through nine lab assistants since he started at Site-43 in 1985, and more than a few of them were now in permanent detention at Site-06-3. He had a talent for transferring his agitation to others.

Bremmel, in short, didn't care for having to pay attention to the way things were. He was somewhat more interested in the way things might be, with the application of a little elbow grease and copious quantities of actual grease, but mostly he preferred imagination to reality. He was, at this moment, in an in-between state thanks to the collision of Daniil Sokolsky's plan with Roger Pensak's. He had things to do, but he couldn't do them yet. He had to wait.

He somehow liked the combination even less than the individual states.

"Plug it back in," he snapped. "We'll run another diagnostic."

His lab assistant shook her head. "We already ran three. It works. It's fine. Do you have the remote still?"

He patted his labcoat breast pocket. It jangled. "Somewhere in here." He paused, then patted each of his other four pockets. "Or in here. It's fine." He blinked. "Plug it back in, I said."

"He'll think we meddled with it if we plug it back in!" Joanna Bremmel put both hands on her hips and glared at him. She reminded him of her mother when she did that — not because her mother had been easily offended (or Joanna would certainly never have been conceived), but because her mother had also had hips. Bremmel himself was roughly rectangular. "He'll be here any minute, and then I can get my password."

Bremmel shook his head. "I told them not to include you."

"What?!" She stomped her foot, now reminding him of himself. "Why? We've got security guards, dad, so it's not your job to protect me."

Bremmel reached out and fiddled with the gun on its pair of metal mounts. "I told them not to include you because you're no good at taking orders. Probably screw the whole thing up. For example: PLUG IT IN!"

At this moment, the door to the workshop slid open. Pensak entered, service weapon in hand. "Plug it in?" he repeated. "I thought it was finished."

"It is finished," Joanna growled.

"Good." Pensak walked up to the gun, an ugly mess of welded metal and multicoloured wires, and examined it carefully. "I'll take it."

Joanna considered picking up her chair and braining him, but only because she'd seen movies. It wasn't a serious consideration. Bremmel hardly even seemed to notice when Pensak lifted his experimental weapon off the table and left the workshop; his eyes were already glazed over again.

A minute after the door slid shut, the intercom beeped. "Assistant Researcher Bremmel?" a woman's voice asked.

"That's me," Joanna agreed.

"Are you ready to receive? Is your father in audio range?"

She glanced at him. He was smiling serenely, and counting what appeared to be two different quantities on his hands. "No. Go ahead."


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Sokolsky and Veiksaar sat down at the conference table and turned to face the monitor. She'd had to do a much more aggressive job of rewiring to achieve the effect he wanted, but at this point in her career she could do any calculations short of quantum computing with only half her attention, so it didn't take long. Her tablet on the table had so many wires going into and out of it that it looked like a vital component ripped out of the wall.

"We ready?" Sokolsky asked.

Veiksaar nodded.

He spoke the password aloud, and felt it leave his mind immediately. Veiksaar began tapping on her tablet, unlocking the Site .aic's higher functions; they would need her to do considerably more than just send and receive messages. Veiksaar winced as she executed the command, obviously wondering if her VIP account would shield her from Pensak's memetics.

Evidently, it did. Veiksaar gave Sokolsky a strange look. "Clio's firing on all cylinders again. Do you want your password back?"

He shrugged. "Nah, we might need you to do more scut work while the real operators tackle the good stuff. Clio, you there?"

The .aic obligingly appeared on the screen before Veiksaar had a chance to react to that phrasing.

Yes, Dr. Sokolsky. Welcome home!

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"Have you been tracking Dr. Reynders' transmissions? Do you have a manifest?"

Yes and also yes!

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"And do we have control of the Site security cameras again?"

That's three for three, sir! Agent Yancy just used his new copy of SCP-5109 to restore camera permissions. I'm afraid he's unconscious now, though.

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"He won't be the last one. Alright, here's what I want to see: 43NET activity log on the top left, for the entire password keeper manifest; Pensak on the top right, whatever cameras you've got — but do not pan to track, we don't want him clueing in; then the most relevant keepers on the bottom left and bottom right, subdividing further if things get hairy. Use your judgement, but remember: we want to be able to see the big picture. And on my word, patch me through to Ilse so we can start daisy chaining orders."

You got it, boss.

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Eileen shook her head. "Elaborate setup just to order half a dozen people around."

Sokolsky's eyes widened innocently. "Who said it was only half a dozen?"

She widened her own eyes in mockery. "You did!"

He waggled his face at her. "And you believed me?"


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The experimental rifle was scarcely more than a comfort blanket for Pensak, but he found it very comforting indeed. He slung its black Mylar strap over his back, the reassuring weight reminding him that if push came to shove he could literally tunnel his way out of Site-43 and into the surrounding tunnels through sheer bedrock. Bremmel had based the design on something he'd built in an alternate timeline, a device he'd only heard about second-hand; it didn't take much to set a mad scientist's feverish imagination ticking over. He'd been more than thrilled to explain the thing to Pensak, thinking nothing of his unusual interest in a weapon far too expensive and destructive to ever see Security and Containment use. Pensak had wanted to know if there were any moving parts, what kind of ammunition it used, whether it carried an electric charge, whether it could in any way be used to harm its own user. He'd then stolen the blueprints and had them checked out with his source for illicit tech, a crotchety old woman who'd once worked at Prometheus Labs. She'd declared it absolutely safe to steal, and then offered to pay him more money than he'd earned in ten years at the Foundation if he stole it for her specifically.

It wasn't that he thought Bremmel was clever enough to suspect treachery, or conscientious to try and prevent it. It wasn't that he really thought Sokolsky would try to remotely electrocute him with a stolen rifle. It was more that Pensak hadn't allowed himself one inch of intellectual slovenliness since deciding to embark upon this enterprise. Everything was planned out well ahead of time, and in excruciating detail. Nothing left to happenstance, or the wiliness of others.

He walked into Eileen Veiksaar's office, noting that the Sampis were all still slumped on the floor. Just as he'd planned. As he approached her desk, he noticed that all of the books had fallen out of the case Veiksaar herself had been leaning on. She was somewhere under a pile of technical literature. That struck him as hilarious.

He had realized Sokolsky was missing by the time he reached Veiksaar's terminal. He had begun to suspect that Veiksaar wasn't under that pile of books by the time the terminal booted up.

By the time he saw that his database download had been cancelled, a million priceless nuggets of data lost to him quite permanently, he no longer felt quite so certain about the soundness of his plan.


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On the screen, Pensak's mouth was moving very rapidly. He shoved Veiksaar's monitor off the desk, and it clattered against one of the bookshelves before landing squarely on Wettle's gut. The portly scientist squirmed as Pensak stormed out, slamming the door shut behind him.

"Clio, monitor the task force. Inform Dr. Reynders when they're active."

Will do.

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Veiksaar pointed at the screen. Pensak was rushing for the Security and Containment Section, his personal bailiwick, a hideous hunk of machinery on his back. "I'm going to keep count, you know. Of the passwords."

Sokolsky reached across the desk to pat her hand. "Let me know what number you come up with, and I'll tell you the relevant truths."

Pensak had reached S&C, and was stepping into his own office. Sokolsky took a deep breath, cleared his mind, and began relaying orders.


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Pensak's mind was clear. He didn't have time for an internal monologue. Things were going wrong. He had to work fast.

All his agents were sequestered in the barracks, save for three — Todd, Donovan, and Khan — who were heading through the containment blocks in his direction. That wouldn't do. He unlocked and opened every chamber door; there weren't many Keters at Site-43, but there were enough Euclids of sufficient complexity to keep those three occupied for a while. Long enough.

He tabbed away, so he didn't see them split up and start accessing the exterior keypads, re-locking the doors with their copies of the once one-time password. He also didn't see the least-dangerous Euclid of all leave its cell and head for the elevator with singular purpose.

He set off the alarms in the Habitation and Sustenance Section, after raising their volume to a deafening level. He didn't intend to visit the dorms until he needed to take the elevator, and he still had items to collect before that happened. The Chief of H&S would have a thirty-second window to cancel the alarm, not that he could do so without a copy of SCP-5109.

Noor Zaman, the Chief in question, was the fastest typist at Site-43. Forty-one characters in thirty seconds was no challenge at all. The alarms never went off, not that Pensak noticed. He should have noticed, because of course whenever his commands were cancelled he was meant to get a notice. He didn't, because I&T Technician Winston Barkley used his copy of the password to shut down the notifications system. Zaman and Barkley would sleep the sleep of the just, stunned by Pensak's memetic payload at their respective terminals.

The last thing he did in his office was disable the topside interdiction zone. He was counting on extraction, and the electrified fence and electronic countermeasures would have made that difficult.

He was much happier not knowing that I&T Technician Tomas Abreu immediately restored those countermeasures, and that fact that said technician got knocked out for his troubles would have hardly provided much consolation.


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"Wake up, sleepyheads. Rise and shine! Up and at 'em! Other clichés! There you go. Good morning, Sampis!"

Ilse Reynders. Ilse Reynders was chirping in his ear. It was very, very loud. Harold Blank rolled onto his back, and coughed. His head was pounding.

Someone kicked him in the head, hard. His head was pounding harder now. It had been a big black boot; it had been Delfina Ibanez's big black boot. She was struggling to her feet. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck," she said.

"What fuck?" Udo Okorie moaned from somewhere near his feet.

"I'm going to need you all to come over to the terminal," Ilse was saying. "One by one. I have some passwords to hand out."

"Passwords?" Wettle mumbled, squirming on the floor next to Harry. "What's that ab— hey?"

"Hey what," growled Lillian.

"Somebody barfed on my shoes."

Ibanez reached the terminal first. "Hit me, Ilse."

Harry heard a meaningless string of characters. Since Ibanez was closest to the terminal, it wasn't meaningless to her at all. The moment the transfer completed she bolted to the door, hammered the keypad like it owed her money, flung the door open and disappeared into the hall.

"Next, please!"


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The gun wasn't going to be enough.

Pensak needed more to show for his betrayal than one junky piece of paratech. He had control of the ISSS, and this block of S&C had its own dedicated station, so he ordered the train to pick him up and jetted back to the research sector. A quick look at his tablet revealed—

"Fuck!" he shouted. He wanted to fling the tablet to the floor, but he obviously couldn't, so he kicked the nearest chair and tore a strip of green fabric off it. Someone had blocked everything he'd done in S&C. Someone knew what he was up to.

Someone was watching him.

As an experiment, he shut off the cameras in the ISSS. The red light blinking above him briefly went dim — and across the Site, from the comfort of his bed, Technician Bevan swiped up a storm on his PDA then fell instantly unconscious — and then the light came back again. The cameras had only been offline for forty seconds, tops.

"FUCK!" The tablet was shock-proof and shatter-proof, so he swatted the camera down with it. There were no sparks, just a tinkling of glass and a satisfying metallic crunch.

Clio. It had to be, somehow. He sent the .aic a kill command — and Clio's avatar disappeared from the conference room monitor — and Veiksaar restarted her with forty-two taps of her tablet. Pensak didn't know that last part, but he was by no means certain the command had worked. He was afraid to send it twice. He almost felt like every time he used one of the 5109-compromised systems, someone might steal an instance of the password out of his head.

You're losing your grip. Focus. FOCUS!

He got off at the next stop, and headed into R&C.


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"That's fifteen more passwords." Sokolsky hadn't heard a tone of wonder like that from Veiksaar for years. He wondered if she was regretting her decisions, or feeling they'd been vindicated. "Fifteen is ten more than five. And I'm guessing you've got, hell, fifteen more."

"Fifteen more," he agreed. He watched her closely, to see her reaction. He'd waited a long time to get these secrets off his chest.

She stared at the screen. She didn't look at him.

She watched Pensak race through the Spectrometry and Spectremetry labs, her eyes flitting rapidly back and forth.

She burst out laughing, taking her glasses off to brush away the tears. "You ridiculous son of a bitch," she said. "Where the fuck."

He told her.


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2012


9 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Daniil Sokolsky's first psych review at Site-43 had contained the word 'troubling'. The word had reappeared the next year, in the company of the phrase 'matter of serious concern'. The year after that had seen the advent of the word 'terrifying', which had appeared in every subsequent review in a wide variety of different contexts until the present day. He had every reason to expect Nhung Ngo, his psychologist of record, to come up with an even more hyperbolic intensifier once the actions he was presently engaged in came to light.

"Can I get dressed?" Wettle whined.

He was always whining.

"No," Sokolsky told him, "but you can get your naked self out of my lab. They'll be taking your Humes in the next room."

Sokolsky had just finished stripping Wettle of his clothes, since they belonged to an alternate dimension. He'd just come back from stopping the Breach that Keeps On Breaching, SCP-5243, thereby restoring the prime timeline which from Sokolsky's perspective had never been interrupted. Precisely one day later, Wettle, his clothing, and his fellow task force members and their clothing would catch up with that fact. They would be debriefed by Ngo, relay their no doubt traumatic experiences in the alternate reality they had just successfully erased, and they would try even harder next year not to accidentally create an alternate timeline again.

PTF Sampi-5243 ("See You in September") had correctly play-acted the events of 8 September 2002 seven times, resulting in no changes to the timestream, and they had screwed it up three times. This last time had been different, however, and the difference meant that Daniil Sokolsky was about to have to make a call to Overwatch Command. Someone up there would know what he knew, because someone up there would have read the psych reviews that called him terrifying and they'd guess what was about to happen.

You couldn't bring an object back from an alternate timeline. All objects snapped out of existence after twenty-four hours. The One-Time Password had been discovered in 2009, however, and it was not an object. Sokolsky knew himself well. He knew what he'd do if he discovered that his reality was about to end, but a bit of sleight-of-hand could bestow a lasting memento unto himself.

Hours later, when all the staff had returned to their dorms, Sokolsky took Wettle's labcoat out of the plastic container he'd dropped it into. It had to be Wettle, of course, because Wettle was an idiot. Wettle wouldn't notice. Wettle never even put his hands into his own pockets, because Wettle had absolutely zero self-consciousness.

Wettle's lower right pocket contained a USB stick.

Sokolsky inserted it into his laboratory terminal. His hands didn't shake. He knew very well what he'd find, and he found it: a .wav file.

He played it back, and learned a lot.


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2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"No," said Veiksaar.

"Yes," said Sokolsky.

"NO," Veiksaar fairly shouted.

"Oh, yes. Yes, Eileen, Yes." Sokolsky barely suppressed a giggle.

"You got copies of the password from yourself. You, from the doomed timeline, sent yourself a recording. And that worked? The memory didn't fade?"

"The memory didn't fade. The USB stick did, right on the dot, but the password remained." He tapped his temple. "It has remarkable ontological persistence, this thing, don't you think? We'll have to do studies on it, once this is all over." He smiled grimly. "That's the royal 'we', I'm afraid. You'll be in detention at Area-06."

She hardly seemed to hear him. "So, what… you got one copy every time there was a failed breach, and an alt timeline? That's only three times since Elstrom first got it in 2008!"

"Where did I say I got the first thirteen copies from, though?"

She blinked. "You stood outside AAF-D, and when the breach happened, you picked up oh for fuck's sake you're not serious."

He laughed. "I know, right? I know! Every alt-me did the same thing. Isn't that great? In 2012, I got sent five copies. In 2017, eleven. In 2018, thirteen. Twenty-nine more copies. The last version of me was dead at the end of his timeline, but he still managed to plan it out ahead of time so Willie would bring me my batch of passwords. Gotta admire that dedication to the bit."

"I thought you said you had thirty, though. Fifteen plus fifteen."

He spread his hands on the table. "Hey, I exaggerate. This is known."

She frowned. "The numbers still don't work out. Those last two years…" She tapped her tablet rapidly. "You got three extra passwords."

He waved vaguely. "Details, details."


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When first constructed, Site-43 had two primary purposes: collection, and destruction. Archives and Revision was one of the largest historical research groups within the Foundation, and Acroamatic Abatement was the nerve centre of its push to neutralize dangerous anomalous byproducts. These two functions were built into the infrastructure of the Site; every Section had circulation systems for transporting documents either to storage facilities or incinerators, every research lab could summon texts or samples and see them delivered on an endless series of conveyor belts and elevators within a matter of minutes. Keeping the system clear, preventing blockages, and preventing intentional misuse was one of the most important duties performed by the Site's artificially intelligent conscript, Cliometria.

At the moment, however, Clio was otherwise occupied.

Sunita Misra had no illusions of escape. Pensak had told her, quite frankly, how far he was willing to go today if his opponents pushed him to it — and she hoped they would. This place was only marginally less an unholy nightmare than had been Site-36, a prison complex built beneath stolen and sacred indigenous land. She wouldn't be sorry to see it go…

But Pensak's plan made no provision for the destruction of the books and artifacts which filled the halls of Theology and Teleology, Site-43's religious research Section. Misra was going to make sure that if anyone decided to dig them back up, they'd find nothing but ashes.

She locked the door behind her, and considered. She was standing in a rotunda surrounded with offices and filled with desks and computer terminals, one in the centre raised up on a slight daïs. That was her destination. If Pensak had been telling the truth — and in this single case, he had no reason not to be — that would be where the Section Chair monitored his underlings and managed the circulation system.

She stepped onto the little platform, sat down, and flicked on the monitor. The computer had already been on, so it was just a matter of entering the credentials Pensak had supplied, then typing in the copy of 5109 they hadn't had time to make her surrender. Praxis. She found the relevant application quickly, noted that all of T&T's religious and sacrilegeous texts were sitting safe and sound in their hoppers… and with a few keystrokes, and a few more applications of the one-time password, she sent them on their long and winding road to incineration.

One of the office doors opened, and before Misra even saw her target, she had the service weapon she'd taken from the S&C lockup out of its holster and precisely aimed.

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A middle-aged woman in a labcoat was standing in the office doorway, her posture arrogant, her expression… playful? She had a messy topknot of greying hair, enormous black-rimmed glasses and a gold medallion around her neck. Misra recognized the symbols on the medallion, and felt a rush of rage: it was like a sampler of religious iconography, no doubt to provide some small protection from the profane objects these people handled daily.

Give me an excuse to see if it stops bullets.

"Hi," the woman said. "I'm Brenda."

Misra glanced at the terminal, confirmed that the books were on their way to destruction, and stood up. "How did you get out of your office, Brenda? They're all supposed to be password-locked."

Brenda shrugged. "Universal perversity, maybe? Or are you one of those idiots who thinks everything happens for a reason?"

The urge to shoot the woman intensified. "Of course you wouldn't be a believer, in your line of work."

Brenda smiled. It was a condescending smile. "I used to be. Why else would I sign up to study gods and godlings and godhead? But it's been…" Misra thought she spied a flicker of weariness on the woman's face. "I dunno, it's been a discouraging process. The world seemed a lot more full of wonder before I read the database that covers it end-to-end. Before I knew the extent of the heavenly hosts on Earth, and saw honestly not a lot worth writing home about."

Misra felt her temper rising. "This is a pointless conversation."

Brenda shrugged. "Let's get to the point, then. You have the password in your head, and obviously I do too. What do you think it means?"

"Means?"

"The words. Throw out the numbers, and consider the words. It's a phrase, right? What does it mean?"

Misra's arm was getting tired, but she kept the gun levelled. "I don't think it means a thing. Is this your gotcha moment? Are you trying to get me to admit that there's meaningless shit in the world? Because I've gotta say, that dog won't hunt with me. I was GOC, lady. I know that not everything has meaning. I know all about futility. Even if I could really understand all this anomalous nonsense, I wouldn't be ennobled by the knowledge. I'm not going to waste my time craving things that don't satisfy. That's what faith has given me."

Corbin laughed. "Wow, you do go on, huh? Good for you, having all that thought through. But I don't agree. The password definitely means something! It means that nothing has meaning. It's a riddle for the ages, secret knowledge only a select few can possess, and yet it's a goddamn joke, isn't it? How profoundly unsatisfying. How absurd."

Misra felt her finger tightening on the trigger. "So what?"

"Do you know where it came from? We think it was burned off one of our subjects in containment. Not a god, per se, but something even stranger. That breach shaved a slice off of a primordial force in human form, and not only is that slice completely comprehensible, it's downright disappointing. How does that make you feel?"

Misra sighed. "Like you've been wasting my time."

Corbin grinned. "Bingo!"

Misra blinked. She frowned. She turned to look at the terminal, and a strange feeling of free-fall struck her, and she called up the circulation system's internal security cameras.

The books weren't heading for the incinerator anymore. They were bunching up on the conveyor belts, running up against.. nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nothing she could see.

Thaumaturgy. The books were striking an invisible thaumaturgic barrier. Misra sat down, gun still pointed unerringly at Corbin's forehead, and tried to redirect around the obstruction.

The system refused her request.

Corbin clearly heard the error tone. "Something wrong?"

Misra typed the password out again with one hand, fingers flying frantically. Once again, her request was refused. "The access code's changed!" she shouted. She kicked off the chair, and it rolled off the daïs and fell over. "To what?!"

Corbin pretended to consider. "Have you tried Morse Code?"

Misra figured out the joke in the moment before the main door to the rotunda — which she had locked with the one-time password — slid open, and a pink unicorn in a tutu walked in and blasted her across the room with a solid stream of sparkling colour.

The last thing she thought before striking the wall was that the joke, like most things, was basically meaningless.


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There was a stock thought in the spiritus mundi which Pensak had himself never once thought.

This can't be happening.

His years with the IDF had taught him both to recognize and to accept reality as such. He'd been tasked with making Byzantine plots digestible, irrational motives comprehensible, and reprehensible deeds palatable. His years with the Foundation had focused and honed these skills, though Site-43 both encouraged and required less devious thinking than most other postings. In all this time he had never once sunk to contemplating that desperate phrase:

This can't be happening.

This day was meant to be a strictly ordered series of actions and consequences, and he was in control. There were no unknown variables. He'd accounted for everything but the literally impossible so this can't be happening this can't be happening THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING THIS CAN'T

The literally impossible awaited him at every turn. The subway station at R&E wouldn't let him in, because somebody — Senior I&T Technician Ruan, though he didn't know that — had turned the lockdown he'd meant for McInnis around on him. He was able to bypass it and break into Quantum Supermechanics, where he intended to hijack the stochastic network and start predicting these unexpected attacks… but even though he'd installed a backdoor into the QS server, he found that someone — Section Chair Xinyi Du, though he didn't know that — had changed the password on him. He tried to handshake with the I&T server and completely shut it down, to perform a full permissions wipe — Dr. Cann put the kibosh on. Pensak wasn't having this shit anymore, so he tried it again. This time Dr. Dray cancelled his shutdown request. It took him three more tries, and his deeply buried meme-sender knocking out both Drs. Rance and Wichman, to finally kill the thing. He watched the router on the ceiling carefully, and when the blinkenlights were cycling in just the right way to suggest that the server was back online, he tried to log in… and all the notifications he'd been missing since this farce began flooding his screen, thanks to Joanna Bremmel. He wasn't going to be able to alter any more passwords now, not even the ones he'd altered ahead of time.

This. Can't. Be. Happening.

He entered Memetics and Countermemetics, found a wall panel and jacked in. Lights out, everybody, he thought fiercely as he deployed the memetics package he'd installed a week ago — and got nothing but an error message in response, because Lillian Lillihammer had just finished deleting his files. She was now sleeping cross-legged in her office, which was at the end of a long tunnel designed to neutralize memetic effects. That was lucky, because if he'd been able to see her from the hall, he would've vaporized her with Bremmel's gun.

At any rate, he wanted blood. It was time to even the odds. He keyed up the containment systems in Applied Occultism, and ordered a complete halt to all circulation. All the esoteric gunk under microscopic study would stop swirling around, and within a matter of minutes, burst. It would rain down on the research levels, and… Jesus Christ, he was letting the situation get the best of him, wasn't he?

It didn't matter, because Udo Okorie recirculated the pipes at her office terminal.

He started hitting buttons at random as he ran through the empty halls.


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RPensak is in transit.

RPensak deactivates the fluorescent lighting system Site-wide.

IAchterberg reactivates the fluorescent lighting system Site-wide from Terminal AR014.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal AR014.

IAchterberg is unconscious.

RPensak remotely deactivates the safety countermeasures for Anomalous Documents Storage.

HBlank remotely reactivates the safety countermeasures for Anomalous Documents Storage from Terminal AR001.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal AR001.

HBlank is unconscious.

RPensak remotely deactivates the air recycling system.

HForsythe remotely reactivates the air recycling system from Terminal HP001.

A cognitohazardous agent is delivered to Terminal HP001.

HForsythe is unconscious.

RPensak enacts INTERITAS Protocol.

"Jesus Fucking Christ," Veiksaar breathed.

Even Sokolsky was awed. "Did he just…"

They watched in solemn silence as ten members of MTF Rho-43 ("Home Invaders") input the one-time password, one after the other, to block Pensak's action. He just kept doing it, over and over. INTERITAS came with a hefty wait time of one full minute, so it never came close, but it still felt close. He finally gave up, visibly furious, and stormed into Arms and Equipment.

He had just attempted to set off the shaped charges seeded in the Second Sublevel of Security and Containment, collapsing the entire subterranean structure. There was only one more drastic recourse available to anyone working at Site-43.

Their traitorous former protector was now very desperate indeed.


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Maintenance Technician Eddie Simms had one job: to lock the bulkhead door located just past the cramped space he was camped out in. When the cognitohazard alarms had gone off, he'd stupidly dodged into a janitor's closet. He was, on his worse days, also a janitor, so the smell of cleaning fluid and dried mop fibres was briefly comforting.

Then it was unpleasant.

Then it was suffocating.

Then he had to pee.

He hadn't heard from Dr. Reynders in what felt like ages. He figured it couldn't hurt to cross the hall and use the washroom. He wasn't about to rejoin his colleagues after all this was over having pissed his jumpsuit.

He opened the door, and it struck Roger Pensak.

Roger Pensak struck him back, and he fell into the closet ass-first. His ass was suddenly wet, and he wondered if he had in fact pissed his jumpsuit… but no. He'd fallen into the mop bucket, and there was still water in it.

Pensak hauled him up by his suit collar. "Password," the big man snarled.

Eddie opened his mouth to say that he didn't know what that meant, and instead blurted out all forty-one characters.

Pensak threw him back into the bucket, and stalked away.

He still had to pee—

There was a sudden flash, and a woman in black tactical gear appeared in front of him. He didn't get a good look at her before she bent down and spoke into his ear, but he did see the Greek letter Δ on her lapel patch.

She spoke the one-time password into his ear, then disappeared again.

He didn't have time to think about what had just happened. He scrambled out of the bucket, snatched his PDA off the wall shelf, and locked the bulkhead door. He only hoped that Pensak hadn't r—

The bucket broke his fall, for the third time.


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For the second time that morning, Sokolsky looked surprised.

"Should we tell anyone about that?" Veiksaar asked him.

At the same time he answered "No," she said it herself. He nodded.

Pensak was hopping mad about the detour, and he did something about it. He tried to set off an EMP bomb Bremmel had been building in the central lab. Bremmel had built a killswitch into it, of course, which he'd given to Max Vroom — the tech chief Lillihammer had brought back with her from Site-45. Vroom took his first hit for the team.

"He'll go far," Sokolsky mused. "Probably get your job."

A hail of gunfire erupted around Pensak's feet as he ran out of the R&E sectors, and they saw Delfina Ibanez barrelling towards him. He pointed his tablet at the door to the utility corridors and hammered at it madly; the door slid open, then shut behind him. Ibanez set to punching at the keypad, but her quarry now had a forty-one character lead.

Back in Admin and Oversight, Pensak raced past Elstrom's office. He was heading for the real prize. There was little doubt what he was about to try to do. Veiksaar looked at Sokolsky, and saw worry in his eyes for the first time.

Ever.

McInnis' personal terminal in the Director's office was sunken into his desk, and it took a passcode to access. It also took a passcode to deny that access, so Drs. Wettle and Voclain in A&R both knocked themselves out to stop him. No loss there, but Sokolsky made sure nobody else interfered — "We're getting low on passwords," he reminded Reynders over their makeshift intercom.

"Getting low?" Veiksaar snorted. "You're at a serious deficit."


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Morse had failed him. Misra had failed him. Everyone was out to get him now, so you know what? Fuck everyone.

Pensak struck the final key, then stared at the screen for a moment. The counter ticked down. He had thirty minutes left, one half-hour to blow this joint before the joint, itself, blew.

There's no going back now.

DISCIDIUM Protocol was designed for one thing, and one thing only. Unlike INTERITAS, which would severely cripple the Site and kill dozens, possibly hundreds of staff members and anomalies, DISCIDIUM would utterly annihilate the entire facility and plunge it into the caverns below.

"It's not my fault," he said to the empty air as he walked out of the office. "You should have just taken the loss."

The bright lights snapped from white to red throughout the Site, and Cliometria.aic's voice rang out: "Warning. A catastrophic structural event is imminent. All personnel, proceed to the topside elevator for extraction." They would have a hard time doing that, locked in their rooms, but Pensak didn't care. He was well beyond caring about anything at this point. He was done.

When he was out of range, the door to McInnis' personal washroom swung open and the All-Sections Chief stepped in. He pulled out the Director's desk chair, sat down, and began to type out a string of code which would perpetuate the alarm cycle even if the self-destruct protocol were deactivated. It was a substantial change, so it required a password; the password, specifically.

It was a comfortable chair for sleeping in.

McInnis himself emerged from the washroom, checked his deputy's pulse, sat down on the floor and pulled the keyboard and monitor down with him. He would've rather not looked at the screen, but of course it was a very involved process to input his administrative override.

For the science, he closed his eyes on the final keystroke.

The question of whether the cognitohazards were visual or audiovisual was settled when he immediately sagged against the desk.


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"I think we need a systems overhaul," Veiksaar muttered.

"I think we need less ways to blow up the Site," Sokolsky countered.

"It's not either-or."

"At least we don't have a nuke."

Pensak was in Health and Pathology now. A quick interface with a wall panel went terribly wrong, zapping his tablet and shocking him badly. Across the Site in Replication Studies, Dr. O'Conner passed out. Soporific gas intended for the Security and Containment chambers overhead began leaking into the hall — Dr. Yang had utilized an ingenious backdoor through the payroll system, then went to his restful reward — and Pensak broke into Helena Forsythe's office, snatched the tablet out of her unconscious fingers, and shut the valves. He then tried to overstress the tanks, blowing out the entire sytem; that didn't work, though it did indirectly put Senior Agent Jeremy Farrow to sleep.

The windows of Forsythe's office shattered one by one, and Pensak ducked down out of sight. Ibanez was on the warpath.


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Ilse Reynders considered the growing list of orders, and frowned. "I think we're going to run out of passwords."

Sokolsky's voice was excited, but if there was a note of uncertainty there she couldn't detect it. "I don't think so. What time is it in Germany?"

Ilse frowned. "Early afternoon. Why?"

"Is Corbin at the main comms?"

"Yes. You want to play that card now?" The main comms door was, as Sokolsky knew, keypad locked. Reactivating the Site-to-Site network would almost certainly carry a cognitohazardous effect, though Corbin would send her password back to the general pool before doing so. Still, Pensak was likely waiting for just this very play, and would have the system shut down again before long. "We're not likely to get more than a few minutes of communication."

"That's fine. If I'm right, there'll be a call coming in from Germany. If I'm wrong, call Site-246 and have them send in the marines." Site-246 was located on the floor of Lake Superior, and therefore no stranger to underwater operations; an amphibious unit had been sent in as backup hours ago, and was waiting for the signal to enter 43 via the floodgates. They were probably getting anxious — the water panthers hadn't attacked Foundation forces in decades, but they weren't precisely welcoming either.

It didn't end up mattering. Getting the comms back up did, in fact, take Brenda Corbin down, and there was, in fact, a pending transmission request from Site-54.

Philip Deering and Amelia Torosyan, battered and bruised and very, very tired-looking, appeared on Ilse's screen. "Need another password?" Amelia asked.

"I think we'll have two, in a moment," Phil remarked. He stepped out of the camera view to show a man in a security outfit being strangled by a… thing, a gigantic thing composed entirely of cardboard boxes.

"I'M THE TUNNEL MONSTER," it roared.

It sounded happy.


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"Alright, that's the prepwork done," said Sokolsky. "Let's put the fear of God into him."

The next few commands seemed almost cruel, though that impression was tempered by the fact that Pensak had just decided to murder nearly four hundred people. Sokolsky had his remaining password keepers lead the traitor a merry chase through the corridors: Dr. Mataxas blew out a steam vent, blocking his way out of the hospital wards, and he had to re-route through the ISSS station; Agent Mataxas (the former's brother) tripped him up with the turnstyles, and though he was able to clamber over them, he spent the next few minutes rubbing his thighs; Drs. Ascher and Reyes fried two sequential keypad locks, and Pensak obliterated both doors with the gun he'd taken from Bremmel's workshop. He was in Habitation and Sustenance, finally, and had clearly decided to cut his losses. He was making a beeline for the elevator.

More potshots from Ibanez, and he immediately changed course. "Must have mapped out a dozen routes beforehand," Sokolsky remarked with obvious admiration. It didn't work out for him, however, because the next keypad he tried to access wouldn't accept his password. He was in the main cafeteria now; just moments prior, a member of the hospitality staff named Wyers had reprogrammed it and then stepped into the thawing freezer. Agent McTeer knocked out the lights (and herself), Dr. Duson shut the ISSS bulkheads, Junior Technician Nascimbeni used Corbin's password to activate the sprinkler system, Dr. Wattana turned the cafeteria radiators up to full, Dr. Goh (visiting from Site-65 in Singapore) shorted out the electrics in the kitchenette and Technician Al-Ghamdi re-activated the klaxons.

Under this sustained audiovisualphysical assault, it was small wonder that Pensak obliterated the nearest wall with his gun and staggered out into the hall.

Deep within the walls of the Security and Containment central offices, Technician Jessie MacCrum tore through a final bundle of wires and insulation, found the tiny terminal where Pensak had set up his memetic countermeasures, and rather than tapping out her copy of the password whacked the thing five times with a wrench.

Pensak was clutching at his ears, trying in vain to shut out the sirens. The elevator was just around the corner.

Almost as an afterthought, Ibanez shot him in the back.


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Through the shoulder.

"Ouch," said Veiksaar. She leaned back in her chair. "That'll slow him down."

Sokolsky's calm demeanour had entirely returned with the removal of Pensak's malicious code from the equation. "And with four passwords to spare! Always leave a buffer." He stretched, and yawned. "Welp, now we've got time."

She raised an eyebrow. "Time?"

He raised her one back. "For you to ask me where I got fifty-four copies of the password from."


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2004


9 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


As Lillian Lillihammer walked out of the cafeteria, Sokolsky's face split into a wide grin. Maybe timeline travel? It was the only thing that explained her sudden change in demeanour. Something had changed in the world, something involving her but apparently not involving him. He wondered what that could be, and how he could make it involve him.


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It was timeline travel. And it was glorious.

The moment he heard their crazy story, their tale of spending a year in a doomed timeline then wiping it from existence, he both knew it was true and knew what his alternate self would have done. He was a researcher without portfolio, an eccentric known for non-linear thinking, so it was no trouble at all to insert himself into the debriefing procedures. He fed everyone some nonsense about wanting to take the Hume signatures on the timeline travellers' clothing, and nobody batted an eye. He certainly didn't have to fight any jealous colleagues for that particular honour.

When he found what he found in Wettle's labcoat, he slipped it into his pants pocket and very carefully went through the motions with the rest of their things before clocking out early. Everyone else was clustered around Dr. Ngo's office, eager to see why seven members of staff — including the Director! — were being interrogated.

He just wanted to hear what was on the tape recorder.


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"I don't know why I'm doing it," his doppelganger mused. "Maybe I just want to imagine the look on my face. Maybe I want to imagine a world where I've got a leg up on everybody else… no, strike 'maybe', I definitely want that. I also have to admit that I very much enjoy the thought of launching this thing like an astronaut across the dimensional gulf. So, here you have it. A recording of my voice. That might not seem like much, but it's about to."

And then the recording of his voice intoned forty-one characters in a leisurely drawl. They were nonsense to Sokolsky, until suddenly they meant everything in the world, in more than one world, to him. And then the voice repeated them, all forty-one, and his mind felt fuzzy and full.

"You're welcome," said the annihilated Sokolsky. "Until the next fuckup!"

The tape ran out.


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2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Veiksaar had lost her capacity for amazement. "They discovered 5109 in 2002, in the alternate timeline. Meaning someone who died in the original breach in our timeline didn't, and they got it from them."

"Apparently."

"So you got two passwords in 2004."

"Evidently."

"Am I to extrapolate from this?"

Sokolsky spread his hands wide. "Please."

"You got another message in 2008, when the second new timeline collapsed. Six more passwords."

"Uh-huh."

"And then… Jesus Fuck, wait a second."

Sokolsky chuckled. "Here it comes."

"You already told me you got passwords in 2012, 2017, and 2018. But you lied about how many, right? They didn't start getting their copies in 2009, like we did, they had them starting from 2003. That's… that's where you got them all. I can't do the math in my head right now," and she actually clutched at her head with both hands, "but that's it, isn't it? You were lying before, when the math didn't add up. With the ones you got from Zlatá included, that's the fifty-four. Fifty-nine, with the ones you got from Bailey."

"An impressive number, if not a nice round one."

He pointed at the screen. Pensak was in the elevator, going up.

Then going down.

Then going up.

Then going down.

Then going up.

Then doing down — and he looked like he might scream. Sokolsky's personal staff, who had been following along with the project from its inception and who had been invaluable in its execution, made one final contribution each.

"So much for having four to spare," Veiksaar remarked. She looked heartened by how close it was. Maybe she felt vindicated.

Sokolsky shook his head. "I still have four to spare. I wasn't lying — there's still three more I didn't tell you about."

He didn't think he'd ever seen someone look so utterly defeated.

He was hoping to, within the next few minutes.

"Well, go ahead," she muttered. "Tell your story, if it's elevator ride length or shorter."


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2015


21 December

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Xyank was visibly upset. "That's really pushing it."

Sokolsky laughed. "I take that as a compliment, coming from you."

Forth was even more visibly upset. "No, seriously. You think Zlatá's ghost is going to show up next year, and you want to snatch the password from him, fine. I don't think it'll happen, and if it does I don't think it'll work, but fine. But if I'm hearing this right — and I really hope I'm not — you want us to commit to attempting the same thing in any future alternate timelines. During the event which, if everything goes to plan, will collapse them. You're talking about endangering Thad's agents just to—"

"Just to what, Alice? Just to get another edge, is that what you were going to say? Because I think we all know how the O5s will see it."

Xyank regarded him coolly. "I think we all know that how I see it is the only thing that matters on this subject. You convince me, or it doesn't happen."

Forth said nothing.

Sokolsky said—


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2021


2 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"What? What did you say?" Veiksaar's eyes were focusing and unfocusing.

"Something that convinced him. Three more passwords from the brief window when alternate dead Zlatás popped into existence in two different hellworlds. How's your head?"

"My head's fine, because I've stopped even trying to follow along with this bullshit. As far as I'm concerned, you plucked these things out of thin air."


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I can still make this work.

So what if he hadn't liberated any artifacts. So what if he hadn't copied down the files from 43NET. He'd still achieved his most important goal. He'd shot 001-B. He'd be set for life. He could live without the private jet, and maybe without the private yacht.

The doors opened, and Pensak staggered out. He was still bleeding, quite profusely in fact, but he couldn't do anything about that. He had to use both hands on Bremmel's ridiculous gun, and he needed the ridiculous gun to tunnel through the bedrock into the subterranean warrens the water panthers had carved out in ancient times. That was his escape route now, since the elevator had refused to ascend. Good enough for Rask, good enough for me. At least there isn't an ocean on the other side. Nobody was going to be following him, because everybody was going to be… dead…

Mike?

Michael D. Nass, Chair of Theology and Teleology, was sitting in a chair beside the touchscreen lock granting access to the 001 cells. He'd apparently tried to get in, and been hit with the cognitohazards. Pensak almost laughed. "Trying to find god, at the end?"

He fought the urge to peer in the windows, and instead made sure the locks were engaged. They weren't.

He engaged them. If there was anyone in there, they'd be entombed along with everyone else now.

He walked to the end of the hall, to the dead end which he knew backed onto the weakest section of strata. This was going to be a complicated bit of dematerialization; he hoped the jury-rigged weapon was up to it.

He pointed the rifle, and pulled the lever down hard.

Nothing happened.

The door to 001-A's chamber slid open, and Pensak spun around. Trevor Bremmel walked out, holding a small remote control. He tossed it on the floor, and smiled. "I told you I couldn't use it to zap you remotely. I didn't say anything about remote shutoffs."

Pensak knelt to pick up the remote, and Bremmel kneed him in his wounded shoulder. He dropped the remote, staggered back and struck the wall… and started laughing. "Come on, Trevor. Did you hear the sirens? The warning? This whole place is about to go kaput. Turn the gun back on, and I'll take you with me." He hefted the ugly piece of machinery. "I've got an in with some old Prometheus folks. They'd take you in a heartbeat."

Bremmel seemed to consider for just a moment, then nodded. "Alright," he said. "But first I want you to shoot the other one."

Pensak blinked. "What?"

"Shoot the other one. Open the door, and shoot him. Like you shot his brother." Bremmel pointed at 001-A's chamber.

Pensak had no idea what the man was talking about, but he did know he was losing too much blood to argue. "Fine," he said. "You go stand in the elevator, so I know there's no bullshit, and I'll put a bullet in."

Bremmel nodded, and walked away.

Pensak blew out a breath, wondering how many minutes were left on the ticker. He drew his sidearm. He tapped out the one-time password for the final time, unlocked the door to 001-A's chamber, and walked in. He was losing too much blood. He practically had tunnel vision now.

The chamber stood vacant before him.

"What the fuck?" he whispered. When he turned back around, a woman's black dress shoe attached to a small but well-trained woman smashed his nose into jelly.


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The alarms stopped. The warnings stopped. Everything stopped. Held breaths were released.

Veiksaar suddenly felt very tired. "Hope she's okay. Nhung's too old to be delivering flying kicks."

Sokolsky looked wide awake. "That's all you have to say?"

She shook her head. "What else is there?"

He smiled, and waited.

She waited back at him.

His impatience won out. "You're not going to ask, this time?"

She shrugged. "How about I guess."

He inclined his head.

"You already told me you've been collecting the password every year since 2009 by camping out near AAF-D during the breach. That was half a lie. You've been doing it since 2004, because alternate you told you how. You skipped 2009, for whatever reason—"

"Stomach bug," he admitted.

"—and Elstrom got it." She rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I thought I had this thing in my head for a long time. You've almost had it for decades. You had it first, and you'll have it last."

"And best," he added. "You forgot best."

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