Young Foundation
rating: +44+x

“Dad, Dad, we want to play the freeze game!”

Simon smiled, blue eyes wrinkling at the corners. “Again, Rachel?”

Rachel nodded. She stood in the doorway of his office, eyes wide and hopeful. He looked over his shoulder at her and gave an exaggerated sigh. The blue overalls she’d just changed into were somehow already speckled with brown mud.

“Well, alright,” he said, with mock reluctance. He put his computer to sleep and rose from his chair. “I’ll get the mask and meet you in the backyard in three minutes. Better hurry!”

With a squeal of delight, Rachel dashed off.

A few minutes later Simon was walking out the back door, wearing the mask that went with this game. It was cement grey, covered in black and red blotches, with two green circles around the eyes. The mask was hot, and the narrow eye holes made it hard to see, but the game wouldn’t be half as effective without it.

Outside his three children were standing on the back stoop. Alex, the oldest, was smiling, but he was tense and ready, like an arrow waiting to be released. Luke was studying a bug on the ground but gave his dad a quick smile. Luke liked the game the least, but was always up for whatever his siblings were doing. Rachel was still bouncing with excitement, but was staring out at the sprawling patch of woods in front of them with a remarkably unchildlike look of calculation. Simon found that the most gratifying.

He adjusted the mask so that he could see a little more clearly. “Alright! Close your eyes while I hide!”

Rachel, Luke, and Alex all dutifully squinched their eyes closed. It only took a few seconds for Luke to poke Alex, and the two boys began to go at it until Rachel shushed them. Simon chuckled and jogged away.

Past the patch of grass that served as the backyard proper was something approximating a forest. A patchwork of trees blocked most of the light and kept the ground perpetually covered in brown leaves. A small stream with a bank deep enough for a person to hide in wove its way across the property. Old, stubborn bushes snatched up whatever light was left over for the trees. Simon contemplated hiding in one, but angled towards the riverbank. Hiding in thorn bushes was always an effective surprise, but he rarely enjoyed it. Instead he jumped into the riverbank, crouched under a cluster of overhanging roots, and yelled, “Ready!”

Far above him the children started moving forward. They were attempting to walk in a triangle. Luke faced backwards, stumbling a bit as he went, while Rachel and Alex each kept their vision angled to the sides. It was by no means a perfect formation; every few seconds someone would trip and they would disperse, dissolving into nervous laughter before reforming their triangle. Simon waited, watching from behind a dense bush that clung to the edge of the bank.

When the three giggling children reached the edge of the riverbank, Simon began to climb out, keeping the bush between them. On the other side of the bush, Alex and Rachel clambered down the steep muddy bank, keeping careful watch to either side. By the time they splashed brown water, Simon had climbed the six foot bank and was creeping around the bush. The two children in the river were too short to see over the bank, and the second Luke turned to check his footing Simon lunged at him, bursting out of the bush and tagging Luke before the child realized he was there. Luke let out a wail of delighted despair and let himself slide down the bank, coming to a stop with his eyes closed and his tongue out.

Rachel and Luke spun, fixing on their father. Simon made himself go absolutely still.

“Blinking!” Rachel said. Her voice was high and nervous, but she was smiling as she blinked. A second later Alex mirrored her, also blinking.

“Walking!” Rachel said, and began to stumble backwards, sloshing through the creek, never taking her eyes off her father. She fell once, landing in the stream but got up again.

“I think we’re gonna win,” Alex said, smug.

By now Luke had gotten bored of playing dead and climbed to his feet, and was scrambling up the bank to stand next to his Dad. “Not uh! We never win with just two!”

Alternating their movements backwards and carefully timing their blinks, the two remaining children moved until their backs were to the edge of the muddy slope. “Climbing!” Alex said, and turned and began to climb.

Simon watched his daughter’s face, studying it intently. Her eyes never wavered, but her nose wrinkled for a second, and Simon tensed. The second his daughter sneezed, he pushed off, covering the two feet to the edge of the stream bed. Rachel’s eyes snapped back open and she squealed. Simon smiled behind his mask. He could still move unnaturally fast, despite his age. Good to see not all of his training had been subsumed by his transition to being an egghead.

“Done!” Alex yelled, turning to face his father. Rachel clambered up afterwards while Alex held his eyelids open with his fingers. Simon had to stifle a laugh.

Once she was up, the two began backing up in sync, still facing their Dad and never blinking at the same time.

They were halfway to the small shed that represented safety when their careful strategy fell apart. As they backed up, Rachel tripped on an old, rotting log in her path. She let out a small yelp of surprise, grabbing her brother’s arm to steady herself, and fell over backwards.

Simon started moving before either of them hit the ground, leaping almost ten feet across the small stream and flinging himself up the bank. As the two children struggled madly to right themselves, he ducked soundlessly into one of the bushes. By the time the children were upright, they had lost track of him, and both were looking the wrong way when Simon flopped out of the bush, tagging both of them.

They squealed in shock and outrage and tumbled to the ground. Simon sat down heavily and pulled off the mask. The warm summer air felt cool on his face and he blinked in the cheery sunlight. Beside him, his two children pantomimed dramatic deaths next to him, finally falling motionless on either side of him.

Then Rachel’s eyes shot open and she grinned at him. “Again, again! This time we’ll win!”

“How do you think of these things?” Mary’s arms circled Simon from behind, chin tilting up to nuzzle his neck. Simon reached down to take her hands in his and let his body relax against her. She was warm from the sunlight and still smelled of the outdoors.

They stood on the deck, looking down into the backyard, completely transformed from its normal wildness. Instead of the usual bushes and overgrown grass, a series of plywood walls stood forming an interlocking series of rooms large separated by crude doors. From their vantage point they could just see their children working diligently in one of the furthest rooms. The room had a number of lamps in it, and Rachel and Alex were manipulating them at Luke’s direction. The door to the room was padlocked, and a small silver key hung on a peg next to it.

“Just things I come up with,” he murmured, watching his three children working together, dividing up tasks with the ease of a decade of teamwork. He was constantly amazed at their ability to tackle problems with nearly no communication, each knowing their role. He pursed his lips. Maybe next time he’d find a way to make them each solve the sorts of puzzles they were weakest at.

His wife brought him back to himself. “Well, the kids love it. Luke told me that his friends were begging their parents for an escape room for their birthdays. What are they doing now?” His wife asked from her perch on his shoulder.

“Before they can move on to the next room, they have to arrange it so no shadows fall in a certain spot. It’s quite hard. It took me nearly an-” He sighed as Alex whooped and grabbed the key from where it hung on a peg and jammed it into the lock. “-hour,” Simon finished dryly, looking at the timer on the deck. The children had been in the maze for 29 minutes. He was going to have to start making these harder.

Alex unlocked the door while the other two stood back. Very slowly, he peered around it, limiting his vision then yelled, jerking his head back.

Mary squinted. “What’s that on the wall? Is that the symbol from the other game you guys play?”

Simon nodded, pleased. “The rule is if you see the entire symbol, you’re out.” The three children, hands over their eyes, trooped into the room, using careful, limited glances to verify that every wall had the symbol painted on it. “They’ll have to locate the key without being able to see.”

Mary turned him around, facing him away from the kids and met his eyes. The sunlight made her face glow and her eyes light up as she looked at him. “I swear, the amount of time you put into these things.” She paused. “The three of them seem like they can do anything. I’ve seen some of the neighborhood kids. They fight and bicker amongst themselves. They have trouble even making the smallest decisions. Our children, well, I don’t know how to say it. They’re more mature. They work together. Have you seen them play sports? No one will let all three of them on the same team. Doesn’t even matter what the game is.”

She gave him a smile and a long kiss. He closed his eyes and pulled her to him. Here in the quiet house things seemed to stand still, warm and full of sunshine. Then she pulled away. “It gives me hope. That they’ll stay a family, even after they grow up and move away.”

He smiled. “When they leave their old and decrepit parents behind?”

She swatted him. “You’ll be decrepit. I plan on being young forever.”

Below him there was another celebratory cry and unmistakable click of a padlock.

“Look, Dad, I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

Simon frowned. They sat in the living room, Luke perched on the couch, his father sitting in an easy chair angled across from him. The room was sparsely decorated, but the furniture was rich, solid oak, old and well taken care of. A grandfather clock slowly ticked away on the wall.

“Luke, we had a deal.” He said, keeping his voice even.

“Yeah, I know Dad,” Luke shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “I don’t care about the deal anymore. I don’t enjoy it. You can take away my allowance or not let me go to parties or whatever, it just freaks me out, you know? I don’t get why this is so important to you.”

Simon studied his son. It was hard to believe how fast he was growing. He was nearly as tall as Simon was. His sandy hair was short and spiked in a way Simon found unbearable, but that seemed to be the fate of all parents, someway or another. He had his mother’s bright blue eyes and he met his father’s gaze fearlessly, at odds with his uncertain tone.

Simon started to demand, to order his son to suck it up and go back to the shooting range with his siblings, when something stopped him. Alex had taken to it well enough, and Rachel was already winning state marksmanship competitions. But Luke…Luke had always hated it. Simon let out a breath, the words dying on his tongue.

The little games they used to play had fallen away over the years, and it had taken more and more work to corral them into doing the things they used to enjoy. Meditation, escape rooms, games of tag, memorization. All of them were gone now, slowly trampled down by the inevitable march into adolescence. Shooting had been the last thing he could get all three of them to do together, and even that had cost him dearly in a combination of bribes and threats.

Simon suddenly felt very old, and very tired. He looked up again, and saw Luke looking at him expectantly. There was some fear there, and a sort of proud, defiant courage. Even defeated that courage made him want to smile, at least a little.

“Of course. Don’t worry about it. Rachel and Alex can quit too if they want.” The words hurt to say, but less than he thought. He felt the familiar flicker of anxiety at the idea of his children, out in the world and defenseless. There was always a chance things would work out, that all of this was for nothing. That the world they lived in would stay safe and comfortable. There might never be another containment breach.

But he had never been very good at self deception.

The screams hit them like a wall of sound.

Seconds earlier everything had been normal. Alex had just thrown a jalapeno from his Chipotle at Rachel; she had caught it in her mouth, turning slightly red as the juice hit her tongue. Then the other end of the mall erupted with fear.

Before anyone else in the food court reacted, the three were on their feet staring in the direction of the sounds. At the edge of the food court was an overlook, a giant hole in the mall floor looking down onto the patrons below, and past that the mall turned ninety degrees. The screams were echoing around the bend.

Then the other patrons began to react, adding their own confusion and alarm to the cacophony.

“Shooter?” Alex asked. He and Rachel both had their weapons out, for once grateful for their dad’s insane rule that they always carry them. Rachel nodded and kicked over the table, crouching behind it and drawing a bead around the bend. Luke was already moving backwards towards cover, unarmed as he was. Alex knew what his job was. He took a deep breath and started forward, gun raised.

This was just like the drills, he told himself. Just like all the active shooter training they had done. His pulse was pounding in his ears, but his hands were steady. Up until he made it to the other side of the railing surrounded overlook and could look around the corner. Then they started to tremble violently.

The hallway between the shops was littered with bleeding and broken bodies. There were dozens of them, rent and covered in gashes. The whole hallway seemed like it was painted a dull, oozing red. In the middle of the corridor, an olive skinned man shot forward and slit a woman’s throat as she screamed. He wore black, flowing robes, and Alex could barely make out tattoos covering his skin. The woman was almost halfway to the ground when the man threw himself forward, effortlessly catching another fleeing patron and stabbing him in the back. Christ the man was fast. Alex didn’t know it was possible to move so fast. Even his dad, who could move uncannily quickly, couldn’t have done that.

Then fear drove all of that away and Alex opened fired, emptying the entire magazine into the Middle Eastern man. He was a hundred feet away and moving fast, but Alex could see the man’s body recoil slightly as at least some of the bullets slammed into his chest and shoulders. The killer barely even stuttered at the impact, and grey eyes snapped up to lock onto Alex’s. He looked…excited. Like he was happy to see Alex. Then the blood soaked figure started sprinting directly towards him. Alex’s gun clicked on empty, and he turned to run.

“Rachel, body armor, move right,” Luke shouted desperately as Alex scrambled back from the railing. Alex had never heard his brother sound more scared. He glanced over his shoulder to where Rachel was running, face completely white, trying to line up on the man. A second later, the robed man was in view, moving almost too fast to see. Right before he hit the railing he took a flying leap, sailing out over the gap. And Rachel’s high caliber glock started pounding.

Rachel clenched her teeth, trying not to wince as her gun roared. I did not do all that stupid practice for nothing, she thought. She was going to deal with this. It didn’t matter that the man was somehow sailing across a forty foot gap in the mall’s floor; her entire world had narrowed down to his head as she began to pull the trigger. The first two shots missed completely as the man sailed past, but she adjusted. The third shot blew his jaw off in mid-air, flinging it away. She could hear Alex’s gun firing again in the distance, but ignored it. The robed man landed and Rachel’s fourth shot hit him in the side of the head, snapping it to one side. Then he straightened and a dark blade materialized in his hand as he leapt for Alex.

Rachel didn’t wonder about how he was still on his feet. She snapped off another shot, then another, both smashing into the man’s skull. One of Alex’s bullets took him in the eye even as his knife plunged into Alex’s forearm near the elbow and ripped all the way down to his hand. Rachel fired again, and this time part of the man’s skull exploded, bone and brain spraying. Very slowly, he turned his head towards her. His remaining grey eye met hers, and he nodded with what looked like approval. Then he collapsed to the ground.

All at once, the world came rushing back to her. There was a ringing in her ears, but her brother’s screams cut through it, high and thin. Luke was already sprinting towards Alex, ripping off his belt as he went. Luke had been terrified, shaking behind his pillar, but now there were no thoughts. All of this was reflex. Someone was in danger. He had never been a fighter, but first aid? That he could do. He was at his brother’s side in a few seconds and slapped the belt around Alex’s ruined arm.

Rachel shook her head. She was on her knees now, and a distant part of her mind registered that she was throwing up. Everything was too white, too bright. Then there was another sound, a buzzing in her pocket. Automatically she reached down and picked up her phone. Her phone. She should call the cops. An ambulance?

“Hello?” Her voice sounded hollow.

“Rachel. Are your siblings there?” Something was different about her dad’s voice. A few feet away Luke glanced over at her as he worked on Alex. Mercifully Alex had passed out now.

“Yes,” she told her father. “Something-something terrible has happened.”

“Is everyone alive? Where are you? Put me on speaker.”

The mall was eerily quiet now, everyone having fled, or…something. Her dad’s voice sounded small in the silence. She hit the button. “We’re alive. We’re at the mall.”

“Fuck. That’s the closest possible—okay, listen. I don’t have much time.” There was something chattering in the background of the call. More gunfire? Rachel’s hand was shaking. “Get to the car as fast as you can. There’s a trunk in the back under the tarp with weapons and medical supplies. The code for the trunk is 9007.” There was a high pitched squeal, then her father was back. “Get on 70 West and start driving. Don’t stop for anything.” She heard a scream in the background, and more gunfire. “Do you hear me? Don’t stop until the car is out of gas, and then you keep driving. When Mom’s back from her trip, she’ll find you.”

“Dad,” Luke shuffled towards the phone, still on his knees. “What’s happening?”

“I love you,” he said, and the call ended. Rachel stared down at the phone. Luke did too, then his gaze snapped up.

“You heard him,” he told Rachel. With an effort he shrugged Alex over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “Let’s move.”

Luke started jogging towards the exit, moving as fast as he could with the load. He didn’t want to look behind him at Rachel’s vacant, shattered expression. He didn’t want to think about the corpses, or the fact that their assilant’s body had melted away in front of them. They had practiced this too; putting things out of their mind in order to act. Fuck. Had their dad known? Known this would happen? Had all of that weirdness been for a reason? Put it out of your mind, he told himself. Can’t think about it. Have to get to the—

There was a statue.

He was in the stairwell, Rachel behind him, and at the bottom was a statue, a beige cylinder with an oblong head maybe five feet tall and short stubby arms. He frowned and blinked, and suddenly it was on the landing. It had…it had a strange red and black pattern around its face. And green eyes.

“Do you see this?” Luke asked. He was trembling again. He had thought he had run out of fear.

“Yeah,” Rachel said in that strange, detached voice. “I see it.”

“Walking,” Luke said, moving as carefully as he could down the stairs, keeping his eyes on the statue.

“Blinking,” he heard from behind him, and he kept his eyes open. There was a horrifying nostalgia to it. Blood ran down one of his arms from Alex.

“Walking,” Rachel said, moving down the stairs. The statue stood inert in the center of the landing.

“We don’t know it’s dangerous,” he said. His voice was higher than he was used to.

“Of course it’s dangerous,” Rachel said, voice soft. “We can do this. We’ve done this a hundred times. I’ll watch it, you go.”

Trying not to look away, Luke edged around it. The thing’s arms were only a foot away from him, but it stayed still. Seconds later he was at the bottom of the stairs, watching it as Rachel navigated around it. When she reached him, the two backed out of the stairwell, eyes still on it. Once they were out, Luke slammed the door closed, still peering through the window. They kept their eyes on the mall door until they had backed out into the parking lot towards where they had parked their car. Nothing moved.

At the car, Luke unceremoniously dumped Alex in the back seat while Rachel watched the mall entrance. Once Alex was in, Luke circled around to the back of the car. The corner of the trunk had always been filled with old junk, tool boxes and the like. He located the ragged green tarp, ripped it away to reveal a battered silver case the size of a small instrument. He hauled it out of the trunk and tossed it into the back seat, following it clumsily. Luke barely had time to steady himself as Rachel threw herself into the driver’s seat and the car peeled out of the parking lot.

They didn’t speak as Luke flipped open the case. It was organized into compartments, like it had been custom made to hold these contents. There were four guns, one of the kind each child favored, and a duplicate of Rachel’s. A box of what looked like ammo. A small bottle that held three pills and was labeled “Cures anything; use sparingly.” Several thick bundles of hundred dollar bills. A first aid kit. A phone with a sticky note taped to it with the words “Read me first” printed in his father’s neat, precise handwriting. A number of sealed packages, each with a neat handwritten label. And a stack of manilla envelopes with a symbol printed on each one, a circle with three arrows pointed inwards. Each folder had the letters “SCP” stamped on the front, followed by a four digit number.

“What’s in there?” Rachel asked, voice still flat and hollow. They were on the highway now, and she was weaving in and out of traffic, going almost 90.

“It’s like a spy kit from a TV show.” Luke grabbed one of the guns, checked the magazine, and slipped the holster around his waist. He met Rachel’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “As insane as this is,” Alex’s voice was harsh, strange even to his own ears, “Our childhood is starting to make a lot more fucking sense.”

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