The Drooling Path: Part 4
rating: +19+x

Hotel, motel.


As usual, James was awakened by an explosion. He didn't understand why MTF Nu-7 always had to do these drills or tests or whatever it was they were doing at such an ungodly hour. People kept telling him he'd get used to the rattling of his apartment walls, but he doubted he'd ever be able to sleep through it. Grumbling under his breath, James stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast.

The explosions had abated some by the time he finished his bagel, but James was too awake by then to get back to sleep. He hated having his Saturday morning ruined like that, but hopefully he'd have time for a nap later. At least he'd managed to avoid his roomates. He took a warm shower to shake off the lingering grogginess of disrupted sleep, then settled in for a relaxing day of binge-watching. While he was loading a Doctor Who DVD into his Playstation, James remembered the stolen CD in his desk. His eyes glided over to the desk for a moment, but he shook his head and pushed thoughts of SCP-058 aside. Today was a day off.

Despite that, James found it increasingly difficult to focus on the extraterrestrial misadventures of Britain's favorite time traveler. Now that he wasn't quite as worried about the CD, the other events of yesterday were starting to weigh heavier on his mind. In particular, he was concerned about Dr. Scott. It wasn't uncommon for a researcher to crack under the stresses of life at Area-14, but it was usually someone relatively new like James himself, not an experienced scientist like Dr. Scott. Of course, if the appearance of his office was any indication, Dr. Scott had been on the edge of sanity for a long time. Dr. Johnston had always been of the opinion that Scott was nuts, but James had just chalked it up to the bitter rivalry between the two scientists. He was too afraid to ask why they hated each other so much, but figured it was probably an outgrowth of their general dislike for the assignment. Area-14, he'd been told, was often a punishment detail, the place where people who'd screwed up badly enough to get reassigned were sent instead of being fired. Dr. Johnston, he knew, had been reassigned from Area-12 after a failed 682 termination, something to do with cherry petals. James didn't know much about Dr. Scott's past, but he doubted that anyone would work on SCP-058 - or anything else at Area-14, for that matter - voluntarily. James just hoped he'd be able to transfer somewhere nicer, like Site-17, once he was a proper Researcher and not just an assistant. They had Safe class anomalies over there. No man-eating ogres, no voice-mimicking lizards, no giant parasitic spiders, and certainly nothing like 058 - just a bunch of low-risk humanoids. They didn't even have a nuclear failsafe! And best of all, Site-17 wouldn't have a Mobile Task Force drilling in the parking lot at the crack of dawn. Over there, he'd be able to sleep.


Conrad had seen pictures of the Atherton while making his reservation, but in the long hours since then his imagination had distorted it into a vast, ominous mansion like The Shining's Overlook Hotel. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed when it turned out to be just as normal and boring as every other hotel he'd ever stayed at. He stood awkwardly in the lobby for a while, dully surveying its predictable modern furnishings with dry, puffy eyes.

He was sure that, if not for the powerful aching of his joints and the ear-splitting drone of Electric Wizard, he'd have fallen asleep during the four-hour drive to State College and died in an embarrassingly non-anomalous fashion, surrounded by Steak 'n' Shake bags. He'd had a garlic steakburger for lunch on his way out of Pittsburgh, and again for dinner shortly after arriving in State College. It wasn't good for his health (or his breath), but neither was anything else about this trip.

Well, except maybe the pistol he'd purchased from a Trader Jerry's less than thirty minutes ago. The man at the counter had looked at him funny, probably suspecting from Conrad's demeanor that he was planning to do something stupid and dangerous, but he hadn't cared enough to ask questions. The background check worried Conrad, not because he had a criminal record, but because he feared some Foundation webcrawler would notice the purchase and send a Task Force after him. There wasn't much he could do about that, though.

Conrad only realized he'd been standing there for too long when the woman at the desk called out to him.

"Welcome to the Atherton Hotel!" Jess said. "How can I help you?"

Conrad's head creaked around to her, a young black woman holding a wide but somewhat confused smile as she surveyed the strange old man who'd wandered into her lobby. Now he wandered up to her desk. "Checking in," Conrad croaked, his voice heavy with jet lag and sleep deprivation.

"Name?"

"Scott."

Jess pulled up his reservation on the computer, then frowned.

"What?" Conrad asked.

"You're the guy who asked for 710."

"Yes. Is there a problem?" Conrad mused at how cruelly ironic it would be if the hotel had made some bureaucratic flub and given the room to someone else.

Jess looked cautiously behind her. The door to George's office was closed, and she could faintly hear him talking. He must've been on the phone.

"What is it?" Conrad asked again, more irritably this time. He was surprised when Jess leaned over the counter toward him.

"Why do you want that room?" she asked, quietly.

"Why does it matter?" he asked, looking confused.

"There's something…weird about it."

"Weird how?"

"I don't know. People always want to stay there, but they always leave after one night. And this morning…" she looked back at George's office again, then leaned in even closer and lowered her voice almost to a whisper. "One of the maids saw something in there that scared her so bad she quit."

"What did she see?" Conrad whispered, eyes wide.

She shook her head. "Not sure. Something on the TV."

"Hmm…" Conrad said. He briefly wondered if it had been anything to do with Ronald Reagan.

Jess looked at him suspiciously. "You already knew that room was weird, didn't you?"

"No," he lied, unconvincingly.

Leaning back, Jess crossed her arms. "Then why'd you want that one specifically?"

"Um," he stammered. Conrad hadn't expected an interrogation. "I read a really persuasive review." That wasn't technically a lie, but Jess still didn't buy it.

"FBI?" she asked.

"Um." He obviously couldn't admit to the existence of the Foundation, but he could certainly throw the UIU under the bus. "Something like that, yeah."

Jess did buy that one, perhaps because she'd watched too much of The X-Files. "Well it's about time," she said. "There's something very wrong up there."

"Well," he said, straightening up slightly for dramatic effect, "I intend to get to the bottom of it. Thanks for the heads-up."

"Don't mention it. Here's your key."

"Thanks." He took the card and started off towards his room, but Jess suddenly called out after him.

"Hey, uh-" she looked back at the computer screen for a second, "-'Conrad'?"

"Yeah?"

"Be careful," she warned. He just nodded in reply, then continued off down the hall. Jess watched him go. She was glad that someone in the know had finally come to investigate the place, but there was something in his bloodshot, baggy eyes that she didn't like.


James didn't make many trips outside his room during the day, usually only to grab a snack or visit the suite's shared, and therefore disgusting, bathroom. He made a trip to the Site cafeteria for dinner, where he kept his head down and ate as fast as possible to make sure no one would try to talk to him. Not that he really expected anyone to try.

By the evening, James had grown tired of Doctor Who and spent almost an hour flipping idly through his various books and digital media before collapsing, defeated and bored, on his bed. There was nothing to watch, nothing to play, nothing to read, not even anything to listen to.

Wait.

James's eyes glided back over to his desk drawer, where the 058 CD had lain forgotten all day. Was he really so bored that he'd risk exposure to a memetic hazard? Surely a few more episodes of stale British sci-fi would be preferable to that. Less interesting, of course, but far safer.

Then again, James reassured himself, the containment procedures said that as long as he didn’t listen for more than thirty minutes he’d be fine. Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but he felt sure that any dangerous memetic properties of 058's poetry would’ve been mentioned somewhere in the file. That’s why, with some trepidation, he placed the CD in his computer’s disc drive and got ready for a disturbing evening.

At first, James just sat there with his eyes closed, drinking in the surreal stream-of-consciousness imagery, but that soon proved too disturbing to tolerate. To help mitigate the chills running up and down his spine, James opened FATE and dedicated approximately half his attention to exploring its infinite, randomly generated dungeon. Only later would it occur to him that this had been a mistake, as FATE took up the whole screen, obscuring the clock that otherwise might have warned him he’d gone past the thirty-minute mark. His avatar was locked in mortal combat with a group of venomous wyverns when something in 058’s gibbering caught his attention. He wasn’t consciously aware of what it was, since he’d been distracted by the game, so he paused FATE and rewound the CD a few seconds.

Unexpected finality comes not as a colorful vehicle, but in a gray that knows not to stay before. I have crawled the trees with venom swings to blind of the drooling path that flows electricity from eye to the evening. There is no more than salvation in the bald mind of a husk that drinks his only kings.

James couldn’t quite place what made this particular nonsense stand out from the rest of it. He played it a second time, then realized it had sounded familiar because this was the same part that had played when he’d listened to it in the office. Then James noticed the time.

“Oh shit,” he said, reaching for the eject button. He froze halfway there, though, because he’d suddenly remembered something else. When Dr. Scott freaked out, James had been on his way back to Dr. Johnston’s office from the restroom. The trip hadn’t brought him especially close to Dr. Scott’s office, but the elderly researcher had made quite a bit of noise during his episode. He’d been shouting one phrase in particular, one that James hadn’t attached any significance to until now: “the drooling path”.

James plucked out his headphones and leaned back in his chair. The faint sound of Mark and Carl good-naturedly arguing about something drifted in through his door, but he paid them no heed. What about “the drooling path” had made Dr. Scott flip out like that? Momentarily forgetting his concerns about memetic contamination, James opened Firefox and Googled it. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it definitely hadn’t been a hotel review. He clicked on the link, curious as to how a mildly disturbing phrase like “drooling path” would end up in such a mundane place. He Ctrl+F’d his way down to the review in question and was initially disturbed to find it nearly as nonsensical as what he’d just been listening to. As he read it, though, it started to make more sense. Kaylee M. had just recommended the bed so many times because it was really comfortable. He sighed, thinking about how nice it’d be nice to relax into a meandering menace beside some crisp blue hydrogen. And James couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a toucan-man! Maybe he should just call in sick tomorrow and go stay at a hotel.

James’s suitcase was half full before it occurred to him that what he was doing didn’t make any sense. First of all, he hated hotels. The very idea of sleeping in a bed that’d been slept and screwed in by hundreds or thousands of strangers made his skin crawl. Second, he couldn’t just “call in sick”. Research assistants were allowed to leave Area-14 on the weekends, but they still faced serious punishment if they weren’t back by curfew. And third, what the Hell was a toucan-man?!

“James?” Mark asked. James was surprised to find himself back in the living room, dragging his suitcase behind him.

“Huh?” he asked, disoriented. Mark and Carl were playing MtG on the coffee table again, but they’d both stopped the game to look at him. Specifically, they were looking at him like he was a crazy person.

Which, James thought, he might be.

“Where are you going?” Mark asked.

“You don’t look so good,” Carl added.

“I’m, uh…” where was he going? State College, Pennsylvania? Why on Earth would he do that?

“Dude?” Mark stood up. “I think you might wanna sit down for a second.”

“No…” James said, hesitantly. “I…I don’t want to sit down, I want to go – I want to go to bed and specifically the bed and specifically the bed.” What? What was he saying?

Mark was now approaching him. “Here,” he said, guiding James toward one of the chairs in the dining room. James didn’t let go of the suitcase until he sat down. “Lemme get you some water.” James sat there in the chair, dazed, while Mark got him a glass of crisp blue hydrogen from the sink.

“Hey man,” Carl spoke, still seated in the living area, “you’re drooling.”

“Drooling?” James asked, raising a hand to his lips to wipe away the thick strand of saliva that dangled from his chin.

“Uh, here,” Mark said, handing James the water. James looked at it, and something about the nice, clear water in the nice, clear glass finally dragged him back to his senses.

“Mark?” he asked, taking the glass with one trembling hand.

“Yeah dude?”

“I, uh…I don’t feel so good.”

“Yeah, you don’t look good either. What happened?”

“I…” he began but stopped himself. James didn’t have any firsthand experience with cognitohazards, but he’d learned about them as part of his training. He was pretty sure Mark had just saved him from one. “I don’t know.”

“What’s the suitcase for?” Mark asked, taking a seat next to his roommate. “Were you gonna leave?”

Instead of answering, James took a big sip of water.

“I think the pressure’s got to him,” Carl opined. “I heard Dr. Scott blew up yesterday too.” That wasn’t the case – at least, James didn’t think it was – but he was grateful to Carl for the excuse.

“Yeah?” Mark asked, surprised.

“That’s what I heard,” Carl repeated.

“Yeah,” James gasped, swallowing a mouthful of water. “He was listening to 058’s tapes, started screaming.”

“Shit,” Mark remarked. “What they’d do to him?”

“Mandatory vacation, I think.” James shook his head back and forth a little to clear it.

“What’s going on with you?”

“I – I dunno. I guess I just – see, I’m on 058 too, and I read some of the transcripts today…I guess it just got to me a little bit.”

Mark nodded. “Well, no wonder. That thing’s fuckin’ scary.”

“You have no idea.”

Mark placed a hand on James’s shoulder. He meant it as a consoling gesture of comraderie, but it only made James more uncomfortable. “It’s alright, dude. This is a tough job. Hell, I puked when they showed me the 939 tapes.”

“Yeah, me too,” Carl added. “That was messed up.”

James nodded and took another sip of water. “Thanks, Mark.”

“Hey, don’t mention it.” Mark patted him on the shoulder once, then let go and leaned back.

“Feelin’ better?”

“Yeah. Just got kind of a headache.” One that was getting steadily worse.

“Aright. You wanna join us?” he asked, pointed at Carl, who brandished his handful of cards.

“Nah,” James grunted, “I think I’m just gonna go to bed.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Get some sleep.” Mark stood up, patted James’ shoulder again and went back over to Carl. The two of them watched as James carefully got to his feet and dragged himself and his suitcase back into his room. Once the door was closed, he sat heavily on the bed. Had he really been hit with a cognitohazard? He didn’t dare look at the review again to make sure. Mark’s thick-headedness had saved James this time, but if he had another fit like that they’d call a containment team for sure. Then again, maybe that’d be for the best. If James had really been compromised by that review, he could be dangerous. But he didn’t want to get put on “mandatory vacation” like Dr. Scott.

James’s eyes suddenly widened. What if Dr. Scott’s breakdown had been caused by the same hotel review? What if, after hearing 058 say “the drooling path”, he’d Googled it and found the same thing that James did? And now he was on vacation? He could be on his way to that hotel right now! James didn’t know what would’ve happened to him if he’d gotten there, but he knew he didn’t want it to happen to Dr. Scott.

He whipped out his phone to dial Area-14's emergency hotline, but the sudden movement sent his head spinning. He closed his eyes and waited for everything to stop moving before trying to look at his phone again, but by then the headache had worsened, radiating out from his forehead and into both eye sockets. It wasn't the worst headache he'd ever had, but it was accompanied by a resurgence of dizziness and a new wave of exhaustion. These must have been more aftereffects of that cognitohazard; now that the adrenaline had worn off, he was finally feeling the brain strain.

Determined to overcome the pain, the dizziness, and the tiredness (A man's life was in the balance!), James still tried to call the hotline. But the numbers blurred and wavered before his eyes, sending his stomach rolling, and all he could do was collapse limply to the bed, clutching his head with one hand and letting the phone fall from the other. It lay there on the blanket, briefly forgotten, while James assured himself that he'd feel much better if he just closed his eyes for a second.

It was already helping. The mattress and pillow, which normally felt stiff, flat, and uncomfortable, now seemed to gently cradle his aching head and limp body. It seemed like he'd never slept in a bed and especially the bed and especially the bed that was so soft and cosy. But, he distantly realized, he was falling asleep now. One last panicked impulse rose to the surface, fighting to remember Dr. Scott and the phone lying just beyond his twitching fingertips, but it, too, was swallowed up by sleep.


James awoke. He didn't open his eyes just yet, but he could still feel the pale light of the TV hitting his eyelids, just as clearly as he could hear the faint muzak, playing a song he almost remembered. He sat up groggily, lifting the cozy hotel sheets off of himself in the process. How had he forgotten to turn off the TV? He rubbed his gritty eyes with one hand and reached for the remote on the nightstand with the other. He was just about to turn it off when the music was suddenly interrupted by a voice he almost recognized.

"There's a hole in the wall at the bottom of the floor," it said. Then, before James could press the power button, the TV turned itself off. He sat confused in the dark for a moment, thinking perhaps he'd just accidentally pressed the button or something, but then he heard the noise: a low, rhythmic thumping, like the slow beat of a massive heart. It was coming from the direction of the TV. Strangely unbothered by this, he calmly sat up against the headboard and reached for the lamp. The light didn't reveal anything new, but the heartbeat continued.

Like a man in a trance, James slid his bare feet into the cheap sandals he used as shower shoes and went to see what was the matter. The sound seemed to be coming from the wall behind the TV stand. Without the slightest hint of fear or worry, he squatted down beside the stand and pushed it aside. The heartbeat stopped immediately, because James had found its source: an uncovered ventilation duct, scarcely more than a foot wide, extending deeper into the wall. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he crawled inside.


Conrad noticed Room 710's odd, asymmetrical placement immediately. This, combined with its incongruous number, made him wonder if it had always been part of the building. Perhaps these unusual traits were another example of failed mimicry, like the garbled language of the online review. But the room looked normal enough otherwise, at least from the outside. There was no palbable sense of menace oozing from the edges of its white-painted door, only the weird sensation of familiar unfamiliarity common to all hotels.

Still, though, Conrad was afraid. This was what he'd trekked across the country for. This was the culmination of years of research. This was the most dangerous thing he'd ever done.

This was the drooling path.

Conrad looked carefully down the hall in both directions. Then, seeing no one, he reached for the door handle. His trembling hand moved with fearful slowness, as if the handle might suddenly lash out and bite it, but no such thing occurred. It turned like any other handle would, but the door stayed firmly shut.

After an embarassingly long time spent staring dumbly at the handle Conrad realized the door was still locked. The tension suddenly dissipated, and Conrad had to laugh at himself while he fished for the key. He unlocked it, steeled himself with a deep breath, and carefully pushed upon the door. Just like everything else so far, Room 710 looked completely ordinary - bathroom, closet, TV, two queen beds, and the usual assortment of miscellaneous, impractically small hotel furniture. Even after the door shut behind him, Conrad didn't feel or see anything unusual about the drab, slightly outdated furnishings. The place wasn't even dirty; they must have sent someone else in after the woman who'd quit, someone who hadn't been so frightened by whatever was in here. Something on the TV.

Before he could investigate that, though, he needed to pay the bathroom a visit. Conrad casually threw his travel bag on the nearest chair and went to relieve himself. He saw himself in the mirror while he was washing his hands, and had to look away from the desperate madman he saw there. He reminded himself that he wasn't nuts, just determined.

Conrad's investigation began, of course, with the TV. He half expected a mutilated Ronald Reagan to appear on the screen as soon as he turned it on, but was greeted instead by "Music Choice: Country". Conrad wasn't a fan of Toby Keith, but he was too focused on his mission to dig for a rock or metal channel. He wasn't here to headbang.

The hotel had the usual obscenely large channel package, overflowing with infomercials, sitcoms, and pages and pages of pay-per-view movies, including a selection of pornography with unpleasantly descriptive titles. He felt sorry for the parents of any children who stumbled across that during their vacation. Conrad was so distracted by the porn that he almost missed what he'd been looking for.

It sat there at the bottom of the guide, at a place that shouldn't have been possible - channel "000," abbreviation "RMN". It only showed one program, unhelpfully labeled "untitled," which seemed to last all day until it aired again at midnight. A press of the "info" button revealed that the channel's full name was "roomnews," but provided no other information. Conrad's heart was pounding, and his finger was itching to press the "select" button, but he stopped himself. Before exposing himself to whatever aired on roomnews, he would need to take some precautions. With his eyes closed, he ran through the basic protective mental exercises he'd learned in memetics training. Nothing fancy, just a little bit of autohypnosis to fortify the mind. It wouldn't stop the worst hazards, but it would block the weakest ones and buy him some time against most everything else. Hopefully he wouldn't need it.

Once he was ready, Conrad hesitatantly pressed the button but kept his eyes closed, so that he'd only have to face it one sense at a time. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't the mellow elevator music that he heard. Conrad's eyebrows furrowed in confusion, but he made sure to mute the TV before he opened his eyes. His eyes were just as disappointed as his ears, though, when they beheld nothing more exciting than a picture of a sailboat. He unmuted the TV, wondering if the sound and visuals might meld together into something different, but still only heard the same elevator music.

He stared at the screen for a long time, hoping that something would change, but had no such luck. Roomnews was odd, sure, but it certainly wasn't enough to make someone quit their job on the spot. Jess said it had been something about the TV, though, so Conrad stepped forward to examine the device itself. It looked just like any other TV, at least from the front. He peered over the top and saw nothing out of the ordinary. It was very close to the wall, though, so if he wanted a proper look he'd need to move it. He slid it carefully forward and turned it as far to the side as the available space permitted, then peeked around the side to see if anything else would come to light.

As it turned out, something did.

"Aha!" he cried, upon seeing the little red bump stuck to the back of the TV, near the bottom where it hadn't been visible from above. It was a small dome, no wider than his thumbnail. It glistened wetly in the light, resembling nothing so much as a massive pimple. He began to reach for it, but then he remembered the biohazard protocols that are drilled into everyone at Area-14 and stopped himself. Instead, he carefully moved his head closer to squint at it up close. It wasn't moving, but there was a shiny trail of thick, transparent slime oozing out from under it and running down the back of the set. The goop seemed to evaporate before it reached the bottom, though, since none of it dripped onto the table.

"Hmm," he said. If that mucus was seeping from under it, that meant it wasn't necessarily attached to the TV. Maybe it could be pried off. Conrad stepped back and scanned the room for anything he could use as a decent substitute for gloves. Maybe he could peel that weird plastic wrapper off of one of the coffee cups? No, that would be too slippery. Instead, Conrad hurried to the bathroom and grabbed one of the provided washcloths. Then he returned to the TV and, with extreme care, placed the cloth over the boil. He gripped it through the paper, gritting his teeth against its disgusting, half-solid texture, and carefully wedged his fingers under it. He wiggled it slightly back and forth, careful not to exert too much pressure lest he accidentally rupture it. Then, with a loud, wet pop, it separated from the plastic.

Immediately, the mellow muzak was replaced by a blast of white noise. Conrad leaned over to see the screen, which was now displaying only static. Then he looked back at the fleshy growth in his hand, the part of it that had been attached to the TV now visible in the folds of the washcloth. It wasn't much to look at - just a smooth, slimy expanse of red flesh - but it must have been creating roomnews somehow. This suspicion was confirmed when Conrad re-checked the guide, from which that channel was now missing.

"Interesting," he muttered. He looked down at the boil again, but it remained inert. What was this thing? Why did it create such a seemingly harmless channel? How was that connected to the hazardous reviews? There was still a piece missing.

Conrad eyed the plastic cups for the coffeemaker. If a containment team were here, they'd take a sample of the growth and run a battery of tests on it. But he couldn't do that here, and he didn't feel like taking it with him in such a flimsy container. It would be too easy to lose, and then that analysis might never happen. Or he might accidentally touch it, and find out the hard way if that mucus was toxic.

With that unpleasant thought in mind, Conrad decided he'd best put the nasty thing down before its slime soaked through the cloth. After some internal deliberation, he decided to just put it back on the TV. The television was still the center of this mystery, and he hoped that it might do something interesting if he reattached the growth.

He was not disappointed. The boil adhered back to the plastic on contact, and roomnews immediately came back online. It wasn't playing music anymore, though. As 058's haunting voice slithered out of the speakers, a chill slithered up his spine. Not just because he'd found that horrible voice in such an unexpected place, or because it indisputably confirmed the connection between 058 and this hotel room, but because it was actually making sense.

"I have something to tell you," said from the voice, and in that moment Conrad had no doubt that it was speaking directly to him. "What?" he asked, breathless, but the voice on the TV, the voice of 058, the voice of darkness, had not paused for a response.

"Something that might just change your life," it continued. "It certainly changed mine."

Realizing now that the TV, 058, it wasn't actually addressing him, Conrad scrambled across the room to where a pen and notepad sat beside the phone. He wished he'd had a recorder ready, but frantic note-scribbling would have to do.

"You work too much. All the time, in fact. Why? You don't enjoy it. Who would? There's nothing enjoyable about spending your life locked up in the worst combination of military base and hospital imaginable, wondering what will kill you first. Will some horrible monster break out of its cage and tear you limb from limb? Or maybe the cleanup crew wasn't as thorough as they should've been, and there's still a little bit of some horrible pathogen smeared on a patch of wall you brushed against this morning. Or maybe you'll get lucky, and your bosses will order a nuclear strike before the horrors you study can get to you."

A wave of cold dread settled on Conrad as he realized that his first impression had been correcting - it was, in fact, talking to him.

"It's hard, knowing that the O5 Council thinks you're just as disposable as the men in orange jumpsuits and would do away with you just as quickly if the need arose. It shouldn't be this way, should it? They said you'd be saving the world. Keeping people safe from things they weren't meant to know, things that would drive them insane if they did, things like the one that took your wife away. But that was a lie. Heroes have better things to do than sit in disorganized offices, poring over endless files and recordings and searching for an answer that doesn't exist."

"Sometimes, your mind gets so exhausted from listening and reading that your body forgets it hasn't moved all day and you become tired enough to sleep. So you shuffle in a daze back to your miserable little apartment, in a different miserable corner of the same miserable base as your miserable little office. A herd of cattle is being unloaded from a truck and led to a drab, gray warehouse that looks just like your office building. The Foundation doesn't waste resources on giving them a nice place to live, since they'll all be fed to the creatures in the basement before the end of the month. You don't watch as the dumb animals are led to their deaths, because it's occurred to you more than once that your accommodations aren't all that different from theirs - just a small, dirty box inside a larger, dirtier box. At least the cows are too dumb to know they're suffering."

"Your apartment is cold. Worse, it's quiet. This place feels even less like home than your office. You strip off your dirty clothes and collapse on the bed, hoping the worn-out covers on the wobbly bed you bought from an IKEA in Fishkill, New York five years ago will keep you warm enough to sleep. Before you close your aching, bloodshot eyes, you look over at a picture of your wife, still visible in the thin rays of sunlight cutting through the flimsy blinds. You tell yourself you love her, that you always did and always will, but that's just because, deep down, you know that no living woman would have the crazy old man you've become. Then you try to sleep, but it doesn't work because they're firing artillery again over in the part of the base where Nu-7 trains and the explosions keep rattling your windows. You lie there and stare at the ceiling and try not to think about the life wasting away around you and within you until nothing remains but a dull-eyed scarecrow with a head full of nonsense."

Conrad was shaking, but he didn't know if it was with anger or fear or something else entirely. He tried to keep his hand steady, so he could write the hurtful words as clearly as he heard them.

"You've got to get out of here."

"Put on some clean clothes and haul yourself out of bed. Tell the area director you're taking a vacation. Take your deteriorating car away from that cold, lifeless apartment and the dingy gray rectangle you call a workplace and go. Leave behind the files, the recordings, the monsters, and the towering walls. This place is a prison, but you can leave for the weekend. You don't have to tell them you're not coming back."

"There's only one place to go: a hotel. Not a motel; the rooms there are just as tiny and dirty as the one you're escaping. You need something nicer, a place where you can feel like a brand new person. Like a real person."

"Aren't hotels wonderful? A nice, warm room all to yourself, kept neat and clean and stocked with toilet paper by someone you never have to see or talk to if you don't want to. They even make the food, served up every morning and evening in a shiny, modern buffet for you and all your fellow travelers. You can wonder who they are, and how they got here. Perhaps they walked empty down drooling path, just like you."

Conrad quickly underlined that dreadful phrase, though in his haste he almost crossed it out instead.

"Here at the hotel, you are whole. The wallpaper and the paintings on it are so brightly colored, so much kinder than the bare walls of that horrible place up in the mountains. The bed is soft and comfortable, with clean, warm covers on it. The pool is just the right temperature and free of noisy children, so you can float around in peace and take some of the weight off your bad knees. You feel younger than you've been in decades. You could stay here forever, eating scones and nachos and popcorn and drinking from the minibar and sleeping in that wonderful bed. And perhaps you should stay forever. Once you leave, everything will go back to normal. The wasting away of your body, your mind, and your career. The emptiness. The sadness. The blackness. The darkness. The hotel will stay with you, though. Stay with the hotel, be the hotel. You are it is everything you are the hotel. Ascend."

Then the voice paused. Conrad's head whipped up to look at the screen, desperately hanging on for anything else, any other clues, no matter how much they hurt. But all it had left to say was

"Won't that be nice?"

Then, absurdly, that same damn muzak song started playing again. Conrad gaped at that stupid sailboat for almost a minute, until he could no longer deny that the monologue was over. Then he finally allowed himself to sob, only once but very loudly. He clasped his free hand to his eyes, holding back tears. Somehow, the thing that voice belonged to had known everything about him, right down to the hidden personal despair that had sent him on this insane quest in the first place. He didn't know what he'd expected, but it certainly hadn't been a verbal beatdown from SCP-058. The second half of the monologue was almost as perplexing, seeming to be nothing more than yet another disturbing advertisement for the hotel.

But, as they teach you on your first day with the memetics divison, first impressions are often misleading. Steeling himself against the mockery within, Conrad carefully combed back over his hastily scrawled transcript, searching for any clues he might've missed the first time. There was the reference to the ever-present Path, of course, though it was just as difficult to decipher. Of more note, however was the phrase "walked empty"; Conrad didn't need to reference 1981's document to recognize that phrase from one of its transcripts. He recognized "The emptiness. The sadness. The blackness. The darkness." from 1981 as well, confirming that it was connected much more closely with 058 and the hotel than he'd initially suspected.

Still, Conrad doubted the lump he'd pried off the TV was the source of the whole anomaly; if that little clot of flesh and mucus had been capable of churning out cognitohazards and giant flame-spewing cow-heart-scorpion-things he'd have been dead by now. But it was definitely part of the same anomaly, which meant that the…entity writing the hazardous reviews was most likely the same one ultimately responsible for roomnews. Maybe that was 058 itself, though the hotel anomalies indicated much greater intelligence than the "heart of darkness" seemed to possess. More likely, Conrad surmised, the being that created these things was simply broadcasting its voice through both the boil on the TV and the monstrous heart back at Area-14 - and maybe RONALD REAGAN CUT UP WHILE TALKING, too. Perhaps the owner of that voice was the dark, hooded figure that did the cutting in that video. Conrad had tried to talk to that figure once, but it hadn't had much to say then - just a big red "I SEE YOU" that Conrad still saw in his nightmares. Then it had never reared its hooded head again, and Conrad had been banished to that miserable base in the mountains that even roomnews agreed was a dump. For a moment, he wondered if both SCP-058 and the hotel had been that same entity's convoluted attempts to respond to him, but quickly dismissed that selfish notion. 058 had killed hundreds of people, long before Conrad arrived, and anyone could've stumbled across that review. Jess had even said that people stayed in Room 710 all the time. No, this anomaly didn't care a thing for him. He was just the first one to put all the pieces together.

Well, not all of them. He had more answers now than when he'd started, but even more questions. Questions like "Where did that boil come from?" and "Was this the voice of SCP-1981-1?" and "What is that fucking song?" and "How does this thing know the intimate details of my past?" It knew about his job, the Foundation, what had happened to Allison, even his private existential dread. It even knew where he'd bought his furniture!

Wait. No it didn't.

Conrad read over his notes again. Fishkill, New York? Conrad had never been there, not to any part of the state. And he hadn't bought his bed from IKEA either. The Foundation had provided it. How, with everything it knew about him, had it made that mistake? And such a specific error…

Perhaps it hadn't been an error at all. Conrad turned off the TV with its increasingly annoying music and got out his laptop. He wasn't the least bit surprised by what Google maps found in Fishkill.

It was time for a trip to IKEA.


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