Chapter 4 - Homecoming

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Huxley hadn't remembered how warm and dry the air at Site-49 was when he stepped off the plane. It was almost hostile to his nostrils. Sweat formed on the sides of his face as he surveyed the yellow fields that surrounded the airstrip and the black mountains that cut into the land in the distance. He leaned against the railing as Emma followed him. His chest was heaving again. A voice in his head asked him why he wasn't doing it himself, why he was relying on her.

He didn't have time to answer that question as Emma, with a bright and cherry face, unleashed a torrent of comments about the place. She seemed immune to the harsh atmosphere. The two exchanged remarks as Huxley moved into his wheelchair. As they talked, Huxley saw a man exit one of the worker's entrances and make his way towards them.

Emma spotted him, and there was a subconscious agreement between them that she would take the lead. Like a friendly predator, Emma walked towards the man, hand outstretched to greet him. Huxley followed at a slow pace, keeping his eyes pointed away. The plane rushed past his head and sped sped away across the airfield.

Time passed slowly as Emma spoke with the man, like it was afraid to move forward. Finally, he reached over to shake Huxley's hand.

"And welcome back, Williams." The man grinned. "I hope you enjoyed your short vacation."

Huxley looked up at the familiar face, at the man's thick brow and chapped lips and stubbled chin that held dozens of tiny circular scars, almost like he had fallen face-first onto a bed of nails. His eyes were a murky brown like driftwood, and held a glimmer that suggested that there was some kind of soul behind them. Every time Huxley looked into them, he would always stare for a little too long, getting lost in the man's normal, acceptable features. The man's name was David. The David that had been Huxley's only regular acquaintance at Site-49.

"I didn't die. That means at least four people owe me money," Huxley said, shaking David's hand.

David laughed. It was surprisingly high-pitched, a sound that came from within his throat. Emma laughed too, but hers manifested from deep within her skull, like it was entirely calculated beforehand. A primal trigger went off in Huxley's mind, and he couldn't find the humor in it anymore. His face fell to a blank look.

"Oh shit, I forgot to introduce myself. David Emmerson, I spoke to you over the phone."

Embarrassment, pity, and slight disgust flashed across Emma's face over the course of a few split-seconds. Her mouth hung open, then closed, then grew into a smile. She was like a malfunctioning robot, her face stiff and hollow.

"Emma Sandaran," she responded. "I imagine you and Huxley were friends?"

"Oh, Williams has been here his entire career. Haven't you? Yeah, I'm pretty sure; six or seven years now?" David waved Emma away and focused on Huxley. Her face scrunched up, and she crossed her arms.

"A little under nine." Huxley grunted between words.

"Hell yeah," David said. "People like Williams more than the office dog, heh. Very lovable guy, isn't he?" His question didn't sound like it needed an answer, but Emma provided one.

"Oh, stop," she said, all of that anger somehow disappearing in a second, "You're going to make him blush." There was no hint of sarcasm or malice. It unnerved Huxley to no end. David, meanwhile, burst out into another fit of laughter, his large, meaty hand on his gut.

The group made their way to the doorway, David hurrying ahead to be at the front, Huxley slowing down to be at the back, and Emma finding whatever place was most comfortable in the middle. David flashed a blue plastic card at the keycard scanner by the door, and it popped open. The sight of sterile blue walls and bright artificial lights calmed Huxley's nerves a little. Before David could turn around, Huxley was already inside.

The tunnels were the veins of Site-49. They wove through the ground with no apparent rhyme or reason, sometimes extending straight forward for hundreds of meters, sometimes jutting left and right and left and right, sometimes presenting dozens of stairways that spiraled downward so far it took hours just to reach the bottom. Sometimes, it felt like the walls themselves shifted. They twisted around each other, creating an intricate web of concrete.

Huxley's wheels squeaked as they met the expanded metal floor. The sound was annoyingly loud, and killed any lingering discussions within the group. Nobody wanted to try and challenge it. The three passed door after door that led to empty room after empty room. There was rust on almost every hinge, and the ones that didn't have any were coated in dust, waiting for the day that they would finally be opened for the first time.

After a while, Huxley noticed that Emma was slowly falling behind the group. He was keeping up with David, ready for when they would inevitably find the place they were looking for, but she seemed uncomfortable to be there. She drew her arms behind her back and kept her eyes on the walls. Huxley wanted to throw a cursory glance at her, but he quickly shot that idea down. She had done nothing wrong, so why make her think that she had? She was new in this environment, so it made sense that she was hesitant to speak. He kept his gaze straight, and waited for her to find her way into the conversation.

"This place is really a maze, huh? Don't worry. Everybody's had that feeling. You'll get used to it after a while." There was a devilish grin on David's face.

Emma laughed. "It is, yeah."

"Hell, I've been here for over a decade and I still don't know everything about it. I mean, I walked through every single hallway of this place, but I just can't… get my brain to make a map of it all. They probably put some amnestic thing in the walls that's messing with our heads, making us forget. Something subtle, something undetectable."

"What makes you say that?" Emma asked.

Huxley jumped in, "I think that's just you, David."

"What?" David responded. "It's definitely not. I know you, you forget things all the time!"

"No. I remember things very well actually. At least better than you. I could probably tell you the latest subtherium capture report word-for-word."

"Oh, that's just because you reread the fucking reports." David threw in a chuckle. "You saw him do that right, Sandaran? He reads his reports like, a dozen times over. I have no idea why."

"I have to remember them. It's my job."

"Yeah, but do you think that you get an extra five cents if you can recite it on command? You know we have the reports ourselves, right?"

Huxley didn't respond. Eventually, the group came across a reinforced door that was fitted with a bullet-resistant window that was the size of Huxley's hand. It was obscured by smoky blue fog that warped the light around it. When he put his hand to it, it felt like ice was painfully stabbing into him. He quickly pulled away as David entered his credentials and opened the door.

Inside were a tiny set of wooden chairs that were positioned around a large glass table like thrones in a war room. An enormous television screen took up one of the walls, with a small doorway positioned directly in front of it on the opposite wall. David led the two to two of the smaller seats, pushing one of them aside for Huxley. His wheelchair was just barely able to prop Huxley up enough to rest his forearms on the table.

"I already pinged Director Flynn, so he should be here in a couple minutes or so. But he's old and, you know, so give him a little." With a nod, David unlocked the other door and disappeared behind it. Huxley narrowed his eyes, confused. He had been in this office countless times, but he had never noticed that door before.

Emma folded her hands on her lap. "He seems nice," she said.

"Yeah." Huxley's eye twitched.

"He sounded a lot different on the phone. He was… I don't like saying it, but he was quite a bit meaner. Has he been grouchy around you recently? He has, hasn't he?"

"No, he's like that every day."

"He sounded like he was having a bad day."

"He has a lot of bad days." Huxley words drifted away towards the end of his sentence. He suddenly grew more attentive to everything else in the room besides Emma, the one living thing beside him.

"Really?" Emma pushed herself forward, forcing his gaze back on to her. "Then why was he so…?"

"Nice?" Huxley couldn't tell if that was what she was actually asking. He went with it anyway. "He acts like that in front of every new person here. It's his nerves — they make him act polite in-person. He'll get back to his usual self in a few hours." Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Emma's dry smile tighten.

"Does he always joke around with you like that?"

"What does this have to do with the mission?" Huxley's words were too direct. He could see the embarrassment that was quickly filling Emma's eyes as she realized that she had pushed too far. A half-second later, he spoke again with a new tone, hoping that Emma would somehow forget his sudden burst of anger. "Yes. Yes he jokes like that."

She took a second to respond, but like he thought, there wasn't an ounce of bitterness or shock in her voice. "It must, uh, it must be hard to deal with that all day. He should really stop doing that. It's mean, it's cruel. And you know how we view cruelty here."

"He's better than most people."

A loud creak startled the two back into professional demeanors: shoulders back, chests out, backs straight. They watched with careful eyes as a graying man with a folder in his hands and steel-toed cowboy boots on his feet entered. The room heated up a few degrees. With each step, there was a hard clink. He was a heavy-set man with a large beard and a larger gut, his sweat-stained shirt tucked into his unprofessional pants — he looked like the exact opposite of a Site Director. This was a conscious choice, Huxley realized after a few encounters. Director Flynn owned as many black suits as was required, but he always preferred to wear more casual clothing with his employees. Huxley was sure there was some manipulative reason behind that, but he had never had time to figure out what.

Director Flynn did not sit in his usual spot, instead choosing a seat right in front of Emma, who remained still in his presence. David haphazardly took a seat next to the Director, placing a laptop onto the table. This caused blood to fire in Huxley's ears for some reason, and he began to simulate ways that he could get the Director to sit in front of him instead.

"Bring up the… Arizona presentation, right?" Director Flynn's voice sounded very, very young, too much to be real. If one were to hear it in isolation, they would have automatically assumed it belonged to a young adult or maybe a matured teenager, but the Director was even older than the Site. He was a young boy when the Pulse happened, and he constantly spouted off stories about life before the Veil fell, about pointless arguments and conflicts, about the ignorant masses and the hedonistic elites, about the false Gods and prophets. Nobody would ask for these stories, but nobody would stop him once he started, either.

The Director sauntered over to the television and fiddled with the buttons until the screen flashed white, eventually fading to the default homescreen. A metallic-patterned background offset by a grayscale SCP Foundation logo seared itself into Huxley's mind. ​He didn't look away. The Director had a keen eye for those kinds of flinches, and would always take time to acknowledge them loudly and obnoxiously.

David typed something on his laptop, and a few seconds later a short video began to play. Japanese immigrants, kilometer-wide ritual sites, squadrons of soldiers gunning down cultists, and carcasses of large unworldly creatures were fired rapidly across the screen. It took all of Huxley's and Emma's attention just to keep up. Suddenly, the gruesome videos shifted into black-and-white helicopter footage.

The Director spoke. "This is our target. A small settlement, they call it 'Leupp', or 'The Future Garden'. A group of Sarkics built it in California in 1933 while they were fleeing from Japan. It's been destroyed a handful of times and most of their members have been apprehended, but the few that escape always just migrate south and build another. The military has chased them all the way through California and Arizona, but now they're at their last stop."

A map appeared on the screen, with a line of red dots showing the locations of the previous settlements, eventually ending at the absolute bottom of the state. "They're hold up right on the U.S.-Mexico border, meaning that if we don't get all of them now, they'll be out of our jurisdiction. And you know how they treat Sarkics down there." The map was replaced by a photograph of young men and women, face-down, floating down a river that was choked with bodies and blood.

The Director leaned forward and stared at Huxley for a long, long few seconds. Huxley didn't move a muscle. The Director said, "We thought we had finally gotten rid of them in the 2010s, but…" He finally broke his gaze, allowing Huxley time to breathe. The interviewer still tried his hardest not to, though. "…apparently, we didn't."

The screen cut back to the helicopter feed that swept across buildings, roads, monasteries, graveyards, and acres upon acres of farmland. Everything was surrounded by black rubble. Sometimes, a few survivors appeared as malformed white shapes. The helicopter honed in on these shapes, on the frightened faces of those that had just had their livelihoods taken away in minutes from a missile strike. A man fell to his knees and cried out to his god, but all he received were bullet wounds from a sniper that he had no chance of hiding from.

Emma's hand shot up so fast, the rest of the men could feel a short gust of wind flying past them. She waited for Director Flynn to nod at her.

"Why do you need us then? I'm sure violence would be justified in this case. They're a threat to humanity's future." She was smiling. Huxley couldn't see it, but he knew that it was there. The way her words shook a little like she was just barely keeping her excitement in check show it. The way that her head tilted down a little, hiding her neck from a potential attack, showed it.

"What? No, no, of course not. We don't use violence much anymore, not since the Pulse. You should know why, especially." The Director turned his freezing gaze on, and directed it squarely at Emma's forehead. She just barely managed to jump out of the way to avoid an awkward moment of eye contact.

"I see you've heard of me. Yes, I am her daughter," she responded.

The Director chuckled like a child. David and Huxley laughed along, albeit with weaker versions. "Yeah, you sure are." The Director wiped his mouth. Was that pity in his eyes? "I'll refresh your memory, then. We don't kill Sarkics, we vaccinate them. We help them, like doctors. The Committee has already approved their treatment, and you two are here to convince them to take it. Subtheriums tend to be terrified of anything human."

There was a tingle of pain at the base of Huxley's spine. The pain rushed up his nervous system up into his brain, where it infected him with embarrassment and humiliation. That last comment from Director Flynn, it wasn't directed at Emma. The Sarkics needed someone they could relate to, a face that they could look at and couldn't associate with the SCP Foundation. They wanted a monster to convince them to give up their fight.

They wanted his face.

The presentation continued: command structures, interrogation tactics, bargaining chips. The best place to shoot was the head rather than the chest — neutralize the target instantaneously before they can retaliate. Huxley's brain was slowly getting away from him. He felt like he was swimming in an endless ocean in a realm where time melted into waves that crashed into the milky shores of his skull. It was so warm.

Before he knew it, he was alone with Emma. Both David and The Director had left without a notice. Huxley wasn't sure if Emma was contemplating doing the same, of leaving him alone in this room. Maybe she was in the same place that he was, diving down into the suffocating depths of her mind. He assumed that that was the correct conclusion, and waited for her to come back.

A while later, he blurted out, "We should get going." Emma twitched herself awake. "Our next flight's tomorrow. We're staying here for the night."

Emma kept herself from yawning. "Where are we supposed to sleep?"

"The living quarters." Huxley wheeled himself around and headed for the exit. If he took the lead, he might have been able to avoid the rest of the conversation.

Emma shoved her chair back. "Shouldn't we wait for David?" she said. Huxley halted.

"He already left."

Emma considered saying something else, but didn't. She let Huxley leave. There was a dull pain in her head, but she kept herself from showing it. It was a common thing, she said. Everybody in here had one at one point or another, that's what David told her. She had just had one yesterday. She repeated that to herself every time the pain stabbed into her again, hoping that eventually it would become true.

The room was nicer than Emma had expected.

It contained a few things: a bed, a table, and a nightstand that was filled with dozens and dozens of bottles of sleeping medication. A dirty window filtered dim brown light onto the bed. If she squinted, she might have been able to see to the other side. Fields of blue, red, and gold were compressed and darkened into different shades of black. Dead silhouettes of trees blended into the rolling hills like a painting.

The sheets felt bitter, like they didn't want her to sit on them. She decided then that she would keep on her clothes for the night. They wouldn't keep her warm, but at least they wouldn't hurt her. She almost laughed about it. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to worry about, but she did. Emma couldn't stop herself from working up an intense fear within herself, pushing herself as far as she could before her natural mechanisms erased them.

There was a single bang on the door followed by a few quiet ones. Emma snapped into position, dusting off her hands with one hand and fixing her hair with the other. She mustered up as much confidence as she could as she strode to the door. As if she were on autopilot, her hand maneuvered itself to the doorknob, gripped it hard, and twisted it around.

It was David. Right in front of her was a sweaty, tired, guilt-faced David.

He gasped when he saw her still in her work clothes. A part of her wasn't sure if David wanted her to answer the door at all. "Why are you up so late? You should get some sleep." he said. "It's… I don't know, but it's almost tomorrow."

"Then good morning, then." It wasn't the morning, but that didn't matter. Emma's eyes instantly began scanning for weaknesses. She expected them to bring her some kind of advantage, but instead they slapped her in the face and told her to just think about the situation. Right in front of her was a large, tired, possibly drunk man. He was in her room. He was within arm's reach of her.

"Oh, shit. Wait, I'm sorry. Let me start over." David seemed more embarrassed with his apology than what caused it. "Can we talk? Private, here, in your room. It'll only take a few minutes. It's important."

Emma looked the man up and down, inspecting every crease in his face for dishonesty. The lights in the Site had shut off hours ago. The only things that still held power was the battery-power lamp on the desk. Adrenaline started to flow. Slowly, cautiously, she nodded and took a step back. Once David was inside, he immediately started to pace around the room. She leaned against one of the walls.

"You should move to the other wall." David put a finger to her lips.

"Why?" she responded.

David grew frustrated. "The walls are thin."

"What does that matter?"

David pointed to the wall and mouthed, "It's about Huxley." Emma conjured an image of him in her mind. She pictured him sleeping innocently, buried in the thin sheets, transcribing documents in his dreams. That wasn't how he was actually sleeping, though. Emma was certain of that. He was probably restless, trying desperately to force his brain to accept sleep.

She eased off of the wall and slipped behind the desk, still allowing herself a layer of defense against David. The hair on her neck stood still like thousands of tiny soldiers.

"What is it?" Emma kept her tone friendly. She repeated to herself: Emma doesn't think this is dangerous, Emma won't raise her tone, Emma can not care less about this situation.

"You haven't noticed it already?" David said, managing to avoid her defense completely.

Another strategy emerged. "Like, his demeanor? He has seemed pretty down lately, kind of quiet."

"No, not just that." David wiped the sweat from his forehead. "The way he talked, he couldn't even look you in the eye. Just the way he looks is different. He's never like this."

"I mean, it might just be hard to tell how he normally looks considering… y'know."

"What? No, I don't care that he's a cripple. Or that he looks disfigured. He's fine with it, so I'm fine with it. It's not important." David cleared his throat. Emma flashed red. "I mean… I don't know. He… doesn't really talk about it. I've known him for almost a decade at this point, but he's never brought it up. I've tried to force him into telling me something, but he shuts me down every time. Hell, he even had his medical profile expunged."

"You can do that?"

"No, you can't." David scratched his chin. "Or at least I can't. Hey, what's your clearance level? You're the same as him, aren't you?"

Emma nodded. "Level-3."

"Oh, great. That's really great. Um, I'm not sure if you understand, but I've known Huxley for a very, very long time. He doesn't each lunch with anyone else, just me. There could be eleven other tables in the cafeteria, but he always sits next to me. He looks out for me, and I look out for him." David's eyes were heavy like stones. It looked like speaking gave him great pain. "Could you get me his medical records?"

Emma was silent for a few minutes. Most of that time was spent thinking, but even when she had found a conclusion, she waited just a little longer. "Why?" she said.

"Because…" David sighed, rubbing his hands across his head. "Because he's been in pain. I don't know if it's something physical or just in his head, but there's something there. When he conducts interviews, he's… different. I remember once he talked with a subtherium for three hours, and didn't ask one of the questions he was supposed to. It's like he wants to talk to those things more than he wants to talk to me."

He waited for Emma to respond, but he only received a glazed-over stare. She found herself leaning forward, subconsciously mimicking the pose of the things that she interviewed. David grew angrier the longer she refused to answer, eventually tipping over — he threw up his hands and groaned.

"Just find out what you can, please. I'm not asking you to throw him in a cell, I just want to make sure I'm not seeing zebras everywhere," he said.

Something clicked inside Emma's mind. She didn't fully understand it, nor did she know how to, but she felt it burning in her heart and her head and her stomach like a raging fire. It wasn't anxiety, but something that filled her with just as much nervous energy; it wasn't frustration, but something that trapped her just the same.


That was the last thing that had come out of Emma's mouth. The man claiming to be David turned around and stomped out of the room. His steps weren't this heavy normally. He was doing that on purpose. One good thing about the walls at Site-49 were that they stripped all sounds passing through them down to their barest essentials. There was no echo, no reverberation, no distortion; only the action. It was useful to eavesdroppers.

It was useful to Huxley.

If somebody had entered his room right then, he would have likely been thrown into a mental asylum. He had already stripped off all of his clothes besides a sweat-drenched pair of underwear. His eyes were bloodshot and his vision was blurry. His ears still worked though, he made sure of that. He had honed the ability to catch every word and lock it safely inside his head.

Emma sighed. There was a soft knock, then whispers as she sat down on the bed. She muttered something to herself. Huxley held back his breathing, terrified of giving Emma even a hint that he could hear her. There was a creak. Huxley whirled his head around. He didn't know if the sound was from Emma's room or his own. He scoured his room, but couldn't find an intruder.

There was nothing, nothing but blank walls and a blank bed and blank sleeping pills strewn across the desk. Emma hadn't heard him. It was alright. Yes, Huxley knew it was alright. Nothing was wrong. Soon, she would drag herself to bed and force herself to sleep. He should have done the same thing hours ago, but as with most nights, there was something dragging his mind away from it.

He slowly moved to his bed, but he couldn't bring himself to collapse into the warm sheets and get rid of these paranoid thoughts.

He wanted to run, but his legs would snap if he tried. He wanted to fight, but the noise would alert Emma. He wanted to sleep, but Huxley stayed away. He breathed in and tried to yell. Nothing came out. Rearing back, he tried desperately to get something, anything out, but his throat was empty. The sting of disappointment that followed was one that was all too familiar to him. It was yet another part of his body that was malfunctioning and could never be fixed.

The only thing he could do was sleep. He reached towards the nightstand and retrieved one of the bottles of sleeping medication. Each was labeled with a different brand name, but they all contained the same dark purple shapes inside of them. Those things were supposed to knock him out, to give him a brief reprieve from the dark. He pried open one of the bottles and emptied out six oblong shapes. He tore three more apart and added their contents to the pile.

Within minutes, he had amassed forty or fifty pills — enough to fit into his hand. He needed to sleep, like how he needed to breathe and to eat. Almost every night, his body deprived him of it. It was terrified. If Huxley was sleeping, that meant that he wasn't alert, he wasn't listening, he wasn't watching the things around him. His brain was convinced that, at any moment, somebody would appear in the shadows cast by the window or in the empty bathroom. He never knew what they would do, but the idea of them alone was enough to trigger a primal part of his brain. Huxley needed to override it.

His footsteps were silent as he rummaged through his equipment. Documents, photographs, printed-out emails all flew past him until finally he found it: a plastic sandwich bag. He bit open the seal.

Slowly, gently, he crushed the pills in his hand. Dust fell immediately, most landing in the bag and the rest clinging to the other pills as some last ditch attempt to escape their fate. There was a little bit of pain, but he couldn't feel anything anymore, so he kept going. He squeezed his hand, pulverizing all of the pills into a mound of purple dust.

Huxley's thighs shivered as he gazed at what he had created. He was scared to hold it, as if just touching it would be enough to make him unconscious. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, he thought. Every cell in his body was chanting in unison, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep. One taste would stop those thoughts and David and Emma and the mission and the entire goddamn Site. It would all stop, at least for a few hours.

Maybe more.

He wasn't sweating anymore, but his face was still cold and wet. He shivered. The bag fell into his lap as he debated whether to consume the entire bag all at once or throw it away and pretend that nothing happened. His mind was at war with itself, one side convinced that its choice was correct while the other was just as adamant that that choice was wrong.

The moonlight bounced off of the bag, making the plastic look like glass at certain angles. It weighed heavy on his weak body. He could almost feel it slowly starting to break his bones. It was weak and pathetic, but still had enough strength to destroy him. He opened it. The dust was soft, and broke apart easily in his fingers. He let it fall back into the bag, then scooped it up again, then let it fall. It only took him a few more seconds to make his decision.

He swallowed.

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