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Carrying a thick folder in one hand, and a shot glass in the other, the veteran operative strode smugly into a lab that smelled strongly of beets. Here, dark plastic trays of scrawny plants were parked at odd angles around an examination table in the center of the room. A starched lab jacket had been draped thoughtfully over one corner, and it fluoresced in the ultraviolet light that leaked from the apex of a tabletop ziggurat nearby.

The owner of the jacket was wan and rather dry, like the plants he studied. He worked a large touchscreen attached to the science whatsit, rearranging cartouches of gene sequences in a dazzling Three-card Monte. He noted the intruder only with his peripheral vision, and spoke softly as he continued to tickle his puzzle.

"No beverages in the lab, please. We've got deadly toxins in here."

This is probably my favorite part of the job, thought the agent. His gray dress uniform rarely came off the hanger, but he never failed to wear it when he got to give "horrorientation" to some promising egghead. Three rows of ribbons seemed to do a lot of the talking for him. The first two rows were even genuine.

"Dr. Blodgett, you're in early today. That's helpful."


"I have news. You're off ACRES."


"As of now, Syril is taking over SCP-1717 Rho."

The scientist froze one hand, mid-swipe, and looked over - his brow furrowing only slightly deeper. "Essie-pee what now?"

"That's the Foundation's formal designation for your research. You've been reassigned."

Blodgett blinked, opened his mouth once, then closed it. His nostrils flared as he sucked in a deep breath. "Reassigned? Is this the budget thing? There's nothing to — I can't — "

"It's not like that. You'll be working on a more urgent project. You've done good work here, but there are bigger fish to fry, and we think you're up to the task."

"Bigger fish than global poisoning and/or starvation?" he scoffed. "This team has made tremendous progress. To disrupt our research at this critical stage is madness. 'This is the most important study ever undertaken by Symbiosys, perhaps by mankind.' Those aren't my words. Those are the words of Director Kim."

"Yeah, well, as they say, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Kim was only El-Three, and therefore not actually a director. Not really. But now you've been promoted to El-Two - the Foundation only promotes from within, by the way. You can leave your work just as it is. Someone else will clean up, and we need to begin immediately. You've got a hell of a day ahead of you." Railroading them invariably made it sweeter.

A quizzical eyebrow. "I'm sorry — el-two? The foundation?"

"Think of us as the, uh, holding company for Symbiosys Capital Partners. That should get you through the first hour."

"Your badge is a color I haven't seen before. Who are you exactly?"

"My name is Ussein. I'm your tour guide through the looking-glass. For the rest of the afternoon, I’ll be permanently altering your world-view." For emphasis, he rapped the glass down on the polished stainless steel surface beside Blodgett's hand. "It's easier if you have a belt before we get started."

"This is outrageous. I need to speak with Kim."

"As a matter of fact, he'll be our first stop, bu-ut —” he drew out the last word out in a coy, reverberating bass, "speaking with him will be difficult, as Dr. Myung Kim is currently being plucked in pulpy bits from a tumblethorn. He was a fair administrator, I’ll tell you, and will be missed. As a researcher, on the other hand, he was never particularly methodical or, frankly, careful. Honestly, we're hoping that some fresh blood will improve the safety record around here. Shall we begin?"

Ussein watched carefully. His victim's confusion and anger momentarily gave way to disbelief, then stirred in fourteen months of half-formed suspicions and fragments of overheard jokes about a strange job in a strange place. Five stages of grief in five seconds.

Finally, obligingly: Blodgett gasped, paled, and made The Face. In response, the tiny remaining juvenile corner of Ussein's brain fist-pumped, and whispered, Yes!

"Here's your new badge. And you'll really be wanting the drink. Trust me - that whiskey is literally out of this world."

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