- The Ethics of Ethics
- Recurring Appendix Infection
- All Roads
- Maybes and Could Bes
- Undifferentiated Vomit Bucket
Dr. Marsh entered the testing chamber at 4:42 exactly. Five minutes after Mosiah's arrival; nearly fifteen after what they'd agreed. That was deliberate disrespect. That was shocking disrespect.
It meant that he was trying to put Mosiah on the back foot. Exactly what Mosiah had been attempting—except that Mosiah wasn't the subject of an internal review, and
Item #: SCP-XXXX
Object Class: Euclid
Special Containment Procedures: Hospital databases are to be filtered and checked against records for phenomena related to the various SCP-XXXX strains. Active cases of SCP-XXXX-1 may be treated with amnestics and, in the event of recurring appendicitis, the surgical removal of the cecum; active cases of SCP-XXXX-2 will require a full-scale local quarantine and the possible implementation of sanitation protocols. In the event that a tracked region experiences a sudden concentration of SCP-XXXX occurrence, or the emergence of a new strain, appropriate samples are to be extracted prior to the enactment of Sanitation Protocol T-Haruspex. 05 approval is required before enactment of this protocol in population centers exceeding 15,000.
Samples of SCP-XXXX are kept at Site-██ under standard biological containment protocols. D-72514 has been established as a baseline carrier for SCP-XXXX-1, and is to be held on-site indefinitely to meet testing needs.
Description: SCP-XXXX is the collective designation for a pair of viruses related to the vermiform appendix, which solely affect humans but may be carried in a dormant state by certain members of the order Rodentia. Both are spread by touch or contact with infected bodily fluid, though they vary in their pathology and rate of transmission. Unconfirmed cases date back in Foundation records to 17██; verified documentation has only emerged within the last fifty years.
SCP-XXXX-1 is characterized by its extremely high rate of infectivity, and by its dormancy except under certain conditions which are at present incompletely understood. So long as an infected subject is in possession of their appendix, it has no determinable effect; in the event that the appendix is removed, however, SCP-XXXX-1 will cause it to regrow in approximately ██% of subjects1. The effect will recur in afflicted subjects regardless of the number of previous removals, and, so long as the cecum is intact, will progress beyond the expiration of the subject. Predictive modeling has proven ineffective in determining which subjects will experience the effect. Research into how this growth is produced, even in dead tissue, is ongoing.
SCP-XXXX-2 is believed to be a mutated strain of SCP-XXXX-1. Early symptoms are identical to those of SCP-XXXX-1, barring a longer growth period2 and a lower rate of occurrence. In its later stages, however, SCP-XXXX-2 causes the material comprising the appendix to become infectious, triggering its unrestrained growth from the point of its attachment to the cecum. Given sufficient time, this infection has proven capable of saturating and eclipsing the internal structure of the subject. Affected tissues are “converted”, rather than destroyed, and—insofar as the internal material of the subject retains its integrity—maintain rudimentary and superficial elements of their function and form. As these structures reach their saturation point, however, the growth of the infection becomes undifferentiated, and it will expand throughout the body cavity, extruding through the rib cage and, eventually, the orifices and epidermis of the subject. Extruded materials have an extremely high rate of viral transmission, and contact is sufficient to trigger immediate secondary infection.
Extended testing has found that the expansion of an SCP-XXXX-2 infection is geometric, with the accumulated mass of an infectious growth doubling roughly every three days. How this rate of growth is sustained, even given limited or no access to new tissue, is still under study, and may constitute a separate anomaly; see Dr. ████'s proposal on the harnessing of bio-energy.
SCP-XXXX-1 was first identified by the Foundation in 1946, following a routine survey of medical records in the United States Armed Forces. The first confirmed occurrence of SCP-XXXX-2 was in 20██, in ████████, France, where reports of missing persons and seismic disturbance in the area of the ████████ Mémorial Cimetière resulted in the discovery of a large mass extending nearly 13 kilometers beneath the township. Following sanitation protocols, a non-incinerated sample of the mass was analysed, and subsequently designated the initial active instance of SCP-XXXX-2. (See Incident Report SCP-XXXX-2-A.)
Site-36 Observation Log ██/██/2009 - ██/██/2009
|01@00:00||Commencement of observation of chamber containing approximately 1000 specimens of SCP-831. Chamber is airtight, consisting of painted steel walls, floor and ceiling (15 cm thickness) and C8-rated observation window. Chamber is unfurnished except for commode, three steel buckets respectively containing wood pulp, sucrose solution and water.|
|01@13:08||Personnel D-334 enters chamber to top off contents of steel buckets. Prior to this time, specimens had not engaged in activity other than feeding on wood pulp and sucrose solution, and breeding. D-334 inadvertently fails to retreive steel paper clip that falls from her shirt pocket while refilling buckets.|
|01@13:09||A number of specimens of SCP-831 advance toward the paper clip, then carry it to a corner of the room where specimens of SCP-831 commence altering it.|
|01@13:43||Paper clip is repurposed as scraping implement. Specimens commence scraping floor and walls of chamber and retreiving metal and paint filings.|
|01@23:26||Scrapings result in a small pile of metal filings (no more than 10 grams).|
|02@00:00||Due to reproduction, chamber observed to contain approximately 2,500 live specimens of SCP-831.|
|02@16:04||Size of piling of metal filings estimated at approximately 400 grams. Paint chips and scrapings are accumulated in separate pile. Some specimens of SCP-831 observed to engage in mastication of metal scrapings and paint scrapings.|
|03@00:00||Chamber observed to contain approximately 5,000 live specimens of SCP-831.|
|03@01:23||Pile of scrapings is a mound approximately 11 cm in height. Metal scrapings have been moved to the interior of the pile of paint scrapings.|
|03@21:24||Pile of scrapings continues to increase in size as specimens continue to transport metal and paint fragments to it. Activity in the interior of the pile of paint scrapings is unobservable, but thermal imaging indicates the presence of a heat source within (presumably friction or body metabolism of SCP-831).|
|04@00:00||Due to reproduction, chamber observed to contain approximately 12,000 live specimens of SCP-831 (excluding any that may be obscured from view in the interior of the pile).|
|04@08:10||Personnel D-334 enters the observation chamber at the direction of Dr. ██████ and intentionally scatters the pile of paint and metal scrapings. Pile is observed to contain at least 1,000 specimens of SCP-831 and eleven metal objects, some of which are similar to the original scraping implement and some of which resemble picks and chisels. One of these instruments is retreived. Analysis shows that the instrument, a sharp metal cone approximately 1 cm in length, 1 mm maximum diameter, is composed of the same metal as the metal floor scrapings.|
|04@13:44||Specimens begin to chip ceramic from commode in observation chamber, using previously documented instruments.|
|05@00:00||Chamber observed to contain approximately at least 22,000 live specimens of SCP-831. The pile of paint scrapings has been reconstructed.|
|06@00:00||Chamber observed to contain approximately 40,000 live specimens of SCP-831.|
|06@13:23||Containment breach of [DATA EXPUNGED] at Site-36 interferes with observation for approximately 122 minutes. Upon re-commencement of observation, the steel buckets and the commode in the chamber are missing. Dr. ██████ directs that from this point forward, wood pulp, water and sugar solution that are introduced to the containment chamber are to be spilled on the floor rather than contained in a vessel.|
|07@00:00||Chamber observed to contain approximately 100,000 live specimens of SCP-831.|
|07@11:15||Personnel D-334 enters the observation chamber at the direction of Dr. ██████ and intentionally scatters the pile. Pile is observed to contain a rudimentary crucible, a small mechanism resembling a lathe, and other objects of indeterminate function. There are several deep holes bored into the floor of the chamber. Dr. ██████ orders the reinforcement of the ceiling, walls and floor of chamber with additional layers of steel and concrete.|
|08@00:00||Number of specimens in chamber is estimated at approximately 240,000 live specimens. Containment chamber contains several mounds of varying sizes consisting of scrapings and the bodies of living and dead specimens.|
|09@00:00||Number of specimens in chamber is sufficient to fill the chamber to a depth of approximately 2 cm, although specimens are unevenly distributed. Although observation of the colony's implements is problematic due to the number of specimens, there is evidence of a number of crucibles and forges, calibrated for different temperatures, a number of lathes in various sizes, and taps and dies. Chamber also contains a spool of approximately 40 meters of narrow gauge steel wire.|
|09@15:30||Specimens construct bellows, glassblowing equipment, and several objects of unknown function.|
|10@00:00||Number of specimens in chamber is estimated to be at least 400,000.|
|10@03:20||Personnel D-334 enters chamber at direction of Dr. ██████ and intentionally attempts to disturb large mound of specimens with wooden rod. Apparatuses referenced at 09@15:30 are demonstrated to be airguns with flechette-shaped ammunition. D-334 is struck several times in the head and neck and collapses, following which specimens swarm over D-334. Dr. ██████ directs that the body remain in the chamber and that the delivery of wood pulp, sucrose solution and water cease.|
|10@23:25||Electrical failure in observation chamber deactivates lighting and prevents observation for approximately 35 minutes.|
|11@00:00||Number of specimens in chamber is estimated to be at least 600,000. Upon restoration of lighting, body of D-334 is missing. A textile blanket, apparently constructed of human hair and fibers from D-334's uniform, covers several mounds within the observation chamber, obscuring them from view.|
|11@15:54||Personnel D-118 and D-536 enter chamber at direction of Dr. ██████ with directions to remove the blanket. D-118 and D-536 are wearing body armor. D-118 suffers painful electrical shock upon touching the blanket and retreats. D-536 successfully removes blanket and both personnel leave the chamber. Colony is observed at this point to have constructed numerous items of glassware, several basins filled with various liquids and solid matter, several inflated bladders containing unknown gasses, objects resembling machine tools, and various other objects of indeterminate function. Specimens appear to be engaged in the construction of lens-grinding and chemical refining equipment. The blanket, upon analysis, contained concealed wiring and small batteries. Foundation personnel are investigating how batteries of that size could generate the observed voltage.|
|11@21:23||Lighting fails in observation chamber. Subsequent analysis shows that the lighting failed due to an electrical short generated from within the chamber. Observation is prevented for approximately 18 minutes.|
|12@00:00||Number of specimens within chamber appears to have stabilized at approximately 800,000. Upon restoration of lighting, much of the colony is obscured from view by an igloo-shaped ceramic shell. Thermal analysis indicates that the colony has constructed a number of internal combustion engines running on unknown fuel. Analysis of objects within chamber indicates that several objects within the chamber, of indeterminate function, are composed of alloys containing copper, zinc, tin, nickel and lead, which are not present in the chamber's walls but which may be found in electrical wiring and piping in the facility, or which may have been on D-334's person. Dr. ██████ directs additional reinforcement of the chamber's integrity, and extermination of any specimens of SCP-831 found outside the chamber.|
|12@15:53||Personnel D-054, wearing body armor and appropriately equipped, enters chamber with sledgehammer at direction of Dr. ██████ with directions to break ceramic shell and expose its contents. D-054 is attacked by "several fast-moving flying objects" and retreats without damaging the shell. D-054 is also struck by several flechettes which fail to penetrate his armor. Upon analysis, the flechettes are found to be coated with a corrosive substance containing unknown enzymes.|
|12@23:25||Lighting in the chamber fails again, for 22 minutes, apparently due to electromagnetic pulse generated from the interior of the chamber. When lighting is restored, observation is obscured due to the application of an opaque lacquer-like coating to the interior of the observation window.|
|13@04:05||Personel D-033, wearing body armor and appropriately equipped, enters the chamber at direction of Dr. ██████ with directions to scrape the coating from the window. D-033 is advised not to disturb the ceramic shell. Approximately 3 minutes after entering the chamber, D-033 is immobilized by a flypaper-like substance and anesthetized, apparently by means of intravenous injection. Before observation is again obscured by reapplication of the coating (apparently by means of a sprayer located above the observation window), observation indicates that specimens are engaged in the purification of wafer-grade silicon and the construction of complex electronics. Radio signals emanating from within the chamber are detected and recorded.|
|13@22:06||Lighting in the chamber fails again. Specimens are in the process of applying an opaque and sound-insulating gel to the observation window when Dr. ██████ orders the termination of observations due to concerns that SCP-831 may have escaped containment. Specimens in chamber asphyxiated and remains incinerated. Remainder of Site-36 inspected, and specimens of SCP-831 found in adjacent chamber isolated. Objects found in containment chamber are undergoing analysis. These objects include, among many other objects of indeterminate function: the ceramic shell, a hole-boring machine with carbide drill bits, a number of vacuum tubes, a motor rated at approximately 55,000 watts, an argon gain medium, precision lenses and other laser components, several hexagonal printed wire boards with chemically etched circuitry, glass vessels of various substances including nitroglycerin, acetone, FMOC-D-Alanine, and 5 Amino 1H Tetrazole (5-AT), an apparatus apparently used to synthesize crystals, a cyclotron, and an apparatus resembling a microwave telecommunications broadcasting tower, with a broadcasting antenna pointing upward. Chamber is evacuated except for the installation of a microwave receiver in the chamber, tuned to the same signal as the presumed broadcasting tower. Remains of D-334 and D-033 are not recovered but DNA analysis identifies that many of the objects in the room are composed, in part, from their remains.|
|128@14:03||Microwave receiver in chamber receives signals from an unknown source. Signal was recorded and is undergoing analysis.|
Item #: SCP-XXXX
Object Class: Euclid
Special Containment Procedures: Containment Area XXXX-1 has been established in a 2 km radius around SCP-XXXX, operating under the pretext of an archaeological dig. An associated no-fly zone is also in effect. The surface area corresponding to SCP-XXXX's zone of effect has been fenced and clearly marked. Personnel are prohibited from entering this area at any time.
Human subjects which trigger SCP-XXXX are to be subdued upon exiting the marked area. Fauna triggering SCP-XXXX are to be euthanized and disposed of on-site.
No exterior paths are to be created or allowed to form anywhere on-site. Personnel are advised to vary their daily routes through the area to avoid facilitating the creation of unintentional paths.
Description: SCP-XXXX is a buried roadbed with an associated phenomenological effect in the region of ███, Serbia. The primary active zone, measuring roughly 4 meters by 3 meters, is centralized in the partial remains of a building located on site, within a larger inert zone measuring roughly 40 meters by 6 meters. The zone as a whole has been designated SCP-XXXX-A. A river in the nearby foothills experiences semi-annual flooding, which currently poses no threat to the site; evidence indicates that this flooding used to be much more severe, and may account for the limited size of the present affected area.
The active zone of SCP-XXXX is defined as any surface point overlaying the buried road which appears to provide a definable path allowing continuous ease of movement, or any point beyond the containment boundary which presents a route connecting to surface area within it. Points overlaying the area of the roadbed which do not present as a navigable route are considered inert, and will not trigger the active effect in humans. Due to the subjective nature of the triggering effect, on-site personnel are not to distinguish between the two zones.
SCP-XXXX-B through -L, henceforward triggered instances, are emergent personalities created when any individual enters an active zone of SCP-XXXX. To date, eleven (11) distinct personalities have been identified, individual instances themselves further denoted by the number of identified previous duplications. As of ██/██/██, seven (7) such instances are extant, and are presently being held at Site ██ in ████████. (For further information, consult attached documentation.)
The behavior of triggered instances can be broken down into four stages.
Stage One: Subject suffers what appears to be a tonic-clonic seizure, spontaneously losing consciousness and falling to the ground before entering convulsions. Removing a subject from the active zone at this stage will not prevent the onset of further symptoms.
Stage Two: Upon regaining consciousness, the subject will be violent and disoriented. Personnel are advised that subjects in this stage may be extremely dangerous. For the majority of subjects, stage two will terminate without intervention before the fifteen-minute mark; a calculated ██% of those afflicted, however, will remain in a frenzied state until expiration.
Stage Three: Stage three is characterized by the emergence of a random triggered instance of SCP-XXXX, and is of variable duration; the briefest recorded time before progression to stage four is three (3) minutes, while the longest to date is over six (6) years. The emergent personality erases any memory of the subject's previous identity, and may exist simultaneously with duplications of the same personality in different subjects. Awareness of surrounding and experience does not persist between duplications. Instances uniformly exhibit a strong compulsion to expand the active zone of SCP-XXXX. While experimentation has provided a template for each personality’s behaviors, researchers are advised that subjects may act unpredictably.
Stage Four: The subject gradually begins to show signs of severe mental fatigue, progressing from an increasing lack of response to external stimuli to unconsciousness, coma, and, eventually, death. Stage four has thus far proven irreversible. Scans have indicated highly increased brain activity in stage four, proceeding through coma to the moment of actual expiration.
The use of amnestics has thus far proven ineffective in modifying these symptoms, as subjects immediately lapse into stage four.
SCP-XXXX was discovered in 19██ during an inquiry into a "haunted construction site" in the foothills near ███████, Serbia. Unusually high concentrations of deceased fauna were found in the area, originally believed to be connected with the behavior of affected laborers. Initial documentation stated that the effect was limited to a hallway remnant of the destroyed building site; upon the loss of a member of the security detail outside this area, further examination was conducted with ground-penetrating radar, which led to the discovery of the buried roadbed and the institution of present containment protocols.
Note: The list has been constructed during the study of several dozen triggered instances, and is believed complete. Instances are listed according to the order in which they were identified as a distinct personality.
SCP-XXXX-B: Instance identified as Ausonius Culleolus, a Latin pedes (foot soldier) of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Primarily fluent in Latin. Generally non-communicative and prone to violent outbursts. No extant instances.
SCP-XXXX-C: Instance identified as Statilius Fortunatus, a Gallic pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Fluent in Latin. Primarily communicative on the subject of instance XXXX-D, with whom instance appears to have been in a relationship. Prone to violent outbursts. No extant instances.
SCP-XXXX-D: Instance tentatively identified as Bucculeius, cognomen unknown, a Roman pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Instance rarely progresses to stage three and remains largely incoherent in that state; identified by interviews with instance XXXX-C indicating a severe limp in the left leg, correlating to exhibited behavior. No extant instances.
SCP-XXXX-E: Instance identified as Donaris, an auxiliary attached to the Legio IV Flavia Felix as a servant. Some fluency in Latin. Speaks an unknown dialect believed to be the extinct Dacian language. Cooperative. One extant instance. Currently assisting Dr. ██████ in reconstructing the Dacian language.
SCP-XXXX-F: Instance identified as Otacilius Memor, a North African Decanus (non-commissioned officer) of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Fluent in Latin. Generally communicative and amiable, though instance XXXX-F-4 initiated the single containment breach associated with the project before being terminated. Two extant instances.
SCP-XXXX-G: Instance tentatively identified as Silius Florus or Florianus, conflict arising from a differing report from instance XXXX-F. Served as a pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Identification uncertain; determination based on an instance which repeated the name "Silius Florus" for two hours before progressing to stage four. One possible extant instance; see notation for instance XXXX-K.
SCP-XXXX-H: Instance tentatively identified as Vezina, an auxiliary attached to the Legio IV Flavia Felix as a servant. Usually sullen and non-communicative, but passive. Not fluent in Latin; identified by use of an unknown Dacian dialect corresponding to the one used by instance XXXX-E. One extant instance.
SCP-XXXX-I: Instance tentatively identified as ███████████ of ████████. Appeared fluent in Hellenistic Greek. Only one verified instance in stage three; see attached addendum. No extant instances.
SCP-XXXX-J: Instance identified as Vedius Lactantius, a North African pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Some fluency in Latin. Instance is highly non-communicative on all subjects excepting the status of its family. One extant instance.
SCP-XXXX-K: Instance tentatively identified as Canutius Sabinus, a Latin pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Entirely non-communicative. Identification hypothesized based on correlation of mannerisms to report from instance XXXX-F. As this is non-determinative, identification remains speculation. One possible extant instance; see notation for instance XXXX-G.
SCP-XXXX-L: Instance identified as Caninius Postumus, a Gallic pedes of the Legio IV Flavia Felix. Fluent in Latin. Highly aggressive towards female researchers, but otherwise docile. One extant instance.
During examination of the site using ground-penetrating radar, a stone tablet measuring roughly 1 square meter was identified near the roadbed. After determining that it was outside both the active and inert zones of the phenomenon, authorization was given for a crew of D-Class personnel to excavate the tablet. The tablet displays no anomalous properties, and remains cataloged at Site ██ as SCP-XXXX-M. The first inscription is in Latin script and appears to have been hastily carved, lacking the precision and depth of lettering typical to roadside inscriptions in the Roman Empire. Inscription is as follows:
I see their fires approaching. The Emperor does not understand roads either, it seems. They go both ways.
I commend this route to Hermes Psychopompos.
███████████ of ████████
The date inscribed on the tablet indicates that it was written over ten years after the latest estimates for ███████████ of ████████'s death. A secondary inscription, also in Latin script, appears on the tablet. It overlaps the prior inscription on the lower right side, and is much rougher and shallower. Computer modelling and reconstruction from context indicates it reads as follows:
A. Culleolus commends you to his cock, Greek.
An incomplete skeleton (designated SCP-XXXX-N) was also found in proximity to the tablet, and is believed to be that of ███████████ of ████████. Damage on the ribs and the bones of the upper forearms of the body are consistent with repeated stab wounds. No other bodies have been found in proximity to the site.
Note: This interview was conducted on ██/██/██, two years after the Foundation assumed control of the site. The subject, previously D-11549, a woman of Latino descent, had progressed from stage two rapidly. All interviews are initially conducted in Latin by junior researchers according to an outlined script, and include a preliminary visual exercise to aid in relaxation and adjustment of the subject; site protocol at the time did not call for Dr. ██████'s supervision during interviews, excepting interviews of instances of XXXX-E persisting beyond one week.
Interviewer: Research Assistant █████
Interviewed: D-11549, now believed to be an instance of ███████████ of ████████
█████: Hello, friend. My name is Vibius Galenus.3 I'm sure you're very confused right now, but if you will help me to look at some pictures, I'm sure we'll soon be able to sort some things out for you. Could you direct your attention to this tablet in my hand?
D-11549 is unresponsive as █████ presents the first notecard. Standard procedure in such cases is to instead present the subject with a piece of notepaper with several reconstructed Dacian characters on it. After thirty seconds elapse during which D-11549 does not react, █████ produces this notepaper and presses it into the subject's field of view.
█████: I'm sorry, I know this is very difficult. We're trying to help you. Do these symbols have any meaning for you? Do you speak Latin?
D-11549 remains unresponsive. █████ presents the second notecard of the original visual exercise. If a subject has not made an observable response by the fifth notecard, they may be remanded to isolation for further study.
█████: It would be a good thing if you were to examine the tablet with me. Is Latin your native language? Where are you from? Please take a moment to look at the tablet. You are not as far from home as you think.
D-11549 (in Greek): I can feel the girl buried beneath me. She is a poor foundation. This is…the gods have made an apt judgment for my pride.
█████: I'm sorry? I only speak Latin. Can you speak Latin?
D-11549 reaches up and taps her head with one index finger.
D-11549 (in Greek): I meant that I should be able to walk the road forever. But I did not understand. Men travel on the road. How does the road travel?
█████: I'm sorry, I don't speak that language. Could you tell me your name? Is it Donaris?4
D-11549 (in Latin): Tell the Emperor it goes both ways. I am sorry for the people it paves over.
D-11549 remained uncommunicative from this point out. Junior Researcher █████ terminated the interview and returned the subject to their cell. D-11549 entered stage four approximately twenty (20) minutes later, and expired within the hour. Subsequent review of the interview tape by Dr. ██████ yielded a translation of D-11549's input; protocols have since been updated to require Dr. ██████'s immediate presence during all first interviews. No further instances of XXXX-I have been successfully identified.
http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/buildbaseswwii/bbwwii2.htm — good picture here
It is April seventy-two, and morning is coming.
The suit stands in what has been a house. He smokes. The house smokes. The sky is raining ashes.
The man at his feet is holding someone. He rocks softly. The person in his arms rocks with him. His eyes are raining tears.
“Please,” he says.
The suit looks at the man. “It’s just business,” he says. He drops his cigarette in the gasoline and the sun rises early.
A girl draws deeper into what has been a home and turns into a shadow. She clutches a stuffed ram and is silent. She watches, and waits, and she does not cry.
May eighty-one, and light drips like honey from the leaves.
The wind cracks with anger. A bottle has vanished from a stump. In the nearby field a bull lifts its head, stares dumbly at the sun and returns to its grazing.
A can jumps and dies. The woman who has been a girl turns to watch the man come up the path. He looks away, into the forest.
“I’m asking you,” he says. “Please.”
The woman turns back. Tin blossoms as a flower and falls to the ground.
In the woods the shadows are moving. They move with the wind. They touch each other, congregate. They say the only things shadows know to say.
March of eighty-three, and the tide plays in bright accents across their faces.
Fish slither in grease cleaner than air. Girls who are yet girls laugh and point at deep things. Hollow skin unfurls, draws beautiful patterns in nothing.
A woman trades words with a man. They are quieter than the water. The other man waits in the corner, his arms crossed without happiness.
The woman turns to the man. “Please,” she says. It does not sound like a plea.
Money evaporates and becomes names.
The fish are left alone. Shadows dance along the empty carpet with their shape. If they were like their masters, they would live in a world they did not touch. But they do not have masters.
This is June eighty-three, and the sun is watching this room.
A man who has been a twin stands against the wall and waits. Soon he will be a twin again. The man in front of him waits also.
Paper hisses as files are opened and discarded. Drawers are catalogued with interest. The third man in the corner does not wait for anything.
The man against the wall licks his lips. “Please,” he says.
The woman does not hear him. She examines names, touches dates and places, takes folders where she has room and notes where she does not.
Shadows leap from rafter to rafter behind the walls. They gather, breed and copulate. They do not care what happens just outside. They are not interrupted.
August of eighty-three, and light pounds like thunder against the windows.
A woman hunches against a computer and tries a different way of hurting. Green light tattoos itself against her face. Numbers ripple and eddy, become imperatives from the pattern of their motion.
The man looks at his watch, and looks nervously out the door. Time bleeds.
A gate is opening someplace else. Barriers are falling. The woman leans in. “Please…”
The last wall crumbles. Men have died and been maimed and impoverished without their knowledge. The office becomes a pyre, the fire roaring like the lion of the crest it consumes.
The shadows jump and dance against the walls. They cling to the flames like lovers.
July of eighty-four, and the windows are like dimming eyes.
The suit sits and drinks with another man. They discuss politics and religion while they wait to have their conversation. The other man speaks first, and so loses.
“She is like her father,” the suit replies. There is a smile on his face but his voice does not carry it. “She is…hotheaded.”
They order. The suit selects a crab from the tank, looks in its eyes as if it might understand what he’s done to it. “Please,” he adds politely to the waiter.
Their food comes. Many more words are shared before each leaves but they eat in silence.
The light washes shadows from their bones. Darkness hangs from the suit but it was there first. He is the reflection.
November of eighty-six, and the sky runs like a river from the desert.
The dust trembles. An eagle dips below the clouds to watch. Dunes burst in a thousand tiny plumes, as if kissing the air.
The suit moves like sand and drifts away. The woman chases him. Behind her, the man reaches up from where the stone drinks him.
“Please,” he says, and she does not hear. She fires many more times but there is nobody there.
By the time she returns it is too late. Rocks crack silently in the heat of the falling sun. The woman lowers her head, and for one more time is a girl again.
Her shadow clings to her like a refugee from some morning holocaust. She is its benefactor. The shadow she manages to save.
September of eighty-eight, and evening lays bloated against the rooftops.
The boy in the fedora does not understand where he works. The suit watches dispassionately. “I could give them all back to you.” There is no emotion in his voice. “You know I can.”
The woman finishes and sits across from him. She puts the gun on the table between them and rubs a stain from her sleeve. When she speaks the smoke touches her lips like she breathed it. “I don’t want them back. I want to be paid for them.”
“Scream,” she says. "Please."
It takes him a very long time. By the time he does, there is not much left of it to do.
Outside the woman’s shadow stretches, beckons towards things she has forgotten. She does not come. Soon it has melted away.
October eighty-nine, and day has drained from the world.
The woman stares at the wall and weighs scales that are not there. The liquid is like fire in her throat. When the phone rings she answers to silence it.
A voice speaks to her. Her doubts give rise to disdain, anger that burns hotter than the liquid. She sneers into the receiver and puts it back.
“Please,” she says.
She does not move. After a moment she drinks the rest of the liquid. Gasping, she rises to refill it.
The shadows whisper in the corners of the room. They navigate with care over the debris, huddle quietly where they will not be seen. Night is coming and they are dying.
February ninety-one, and the clouds are like gaps in the firmament.
The wall stares. She avoids its eyes, and drinks. The liquid hits its marks like an archer.
Faces bubble up in her. She remembers conversations, warm arms, words that didn’t mean anything. She remembers the holes where there could have been more.
“Please,” she says, and they do not leave her.
After a time the woman leaves the bottle. She takes the phone in its stead. She does not watch what she does with it.
The last shadow drips from her fingers. It will not see the light again. For a moment it yearns, and then gutters and vanishes.
December ninety-nine, and the sun has never touched this place.
A memory that has been a voice speaks to the suit. The secrets it tells are for someone else. It finds no purchase in this room.
The memory stops, and recedes back into nothing. The air is still.
The suit motions. “Again, please.”
The voice returns. It betrays the one who remembers it. The suit pours herself water, and drinks.
There are no shadows here. It is too dark to hold them.
January two-thousand, and dusk has been murdered and buried.
The suit stands in what has been a house. Her hands are empty. Her eyes are empty. She is waiting.
The man does not look up. The other figures stand around him, silent and heavy as the hands of a clock. He looks at his feet.
“Please,” he says.
The suit looks at him. When he does not say more she shrugs. “It’s just business.”
A stuffed goat sits in the closet. Shadows stir on it, and touch its eyes.
But maybe they are just shadows.
Item #: SCP-1434
Object Class: Euclid
Special Containment Procedures: As SCP-1434 is already extant in every known code of jurisprudence, containment is limited to management of press coverage, appropriate legal action in cases likely to create new precedent, and lobbying and other forms of pressure on political actors. Every effort is to be made to ensure that major instances of SCP-1434 remain in effect in their entirety. In the event that Foundation needs would be better met by a suspension of SCP-1434 in any locality, the pursuit of "paper bag" policies aimed at limiting enforcement are preferable; under no circumstances are attempts to be made at repeal or nullification of SCP-1434 without O5 authorization. Mobile Task Force Nu-7 (aka "Legal Eagles") are tasked with monitoring and maintaining instances of SCP-1434.
Description: SCP-1434 is a memetic effect which compels groups of variable sizes to institute an ordinance, regulation, tribal code, convention, statute, rule, agreement, contract, edict or law (depending on iteration) that mandates a sentence of life imprisonment for the crimes of murder and rape, as represented by the relevant chargeable offense of the greatest extremity. (Since ██/██/██, all instances of SCP-1434 also proscribe [REDACTED], and institute identical penalties for its perpetration; see addenda.) Its original version, Pub.l. ███-███, was signed into law in the United States on ██/██/██, following standard lobbying efforts in cooperation with the National Correctional Employees Union. No anomalous properties were detected until a week later, when Foundation assets in ████████ reported marches in protest of an almost identically-worded act. Subsequent investigation determined that the law had spread to over ██ countries in the time since the original's passage; a cursory legal review by Foundation attorneys confirmed the law to be unconstitutional under ████████'s civil code, and a task force was formed to identify the source of the legislation and to track the passage of similar laws. Within a month the law was in force globally, both in recognized national bodies and in subsidiary and non-governmental social structures.
With the exception of the original version, every instance of SCP-1434 has been implemented spontaneously, either by impromptu legislative vote, governmental edict, unscheduled popular referendum or any number of other appropriate means. Instances of 1434 are numbered 1434-1 through 1434-████ in the order of their discovery. For simplicity, all parties involved with the passage of an instance of 1434 are designated 1434-X-1; as attempts to clearly identify proponents of 1434 have proven difficult in several contexts, and as the actual groups described are by nature amorphous and inconstant, the parties so designated vary in structure between locales and over time. The mechanism by which 1434 influences support for itself remains unclear, as do the criteria according to which individual members of 1434-X-1 express infection. In all instances where SCP-1434 was implemented following a popular vote, exit polling revealed support in over 70% of those voting. Localities where public resistance to the measure remains intense reported significant anomalies in voter turnout; subsequent referendums in these locales have returned similar results, though the demographic make-up of those voting does not always remain constant.
Though its transmission appears to be memetic in nature,Though the mechanism of its transmission is only partially understood, SCP-1434's purview seems limited to the establishment of the relevant law and its force in legal proceedings; apart from its apparent capacity to alter voting patterns, it does not appear to impact the ability or desire of individuals to commit the enumerated crimes, or the ability or desire of law enforcement officials to apprehend and prosecute perpetrators thereof. No measurably consistent change in crime rates has been detected across afflicted political entitites, and all typical means of eluding capture or preventing a successful conviction have proven effective. MTF Nu-7 have reported plea bargaining to lesser offenses to be sufficient to prevent SCP-1434 from triggering. The [REDACTED] portion of the statute remains effectively inert; with one exception, almost all known jurisdictions have ignored it as a matter of course. (See Document 1434-0121.) The solitary instance in which it was brought to court in the United States ended with the charge dismissed during preliminary hearings due to lack of evidence.
The conditions for triggering the manifestation of SCP-1434 are not clear. Though its presence in national political bodies is uniform, infections in other classes of organization (clearly identifiable by the [REDACTED] provision) are inconsistent. Several organizations without the authority to enforce the statute, including Goldman-Sachs and the Boy Scouts of America, have written it into their charters, while organizations of seemingly comparable nature and scale (such as Wells Fargo & Company and the GSUSA) do not. Several militia and paramilitary forces in North Africa and the region of the Middle East recognize it according to equally opaque criteria: The ███ and ████ have both instituted policies to its effect, while ███████, despite a near-identical political structure and an overlapping membership population, has not. Over ██ tribal bodies have adopted the law in ███████████ since its appearance there, even in communities where [REDACTED] is not a practiced form of hygiene.
D-Class personnel recruited under the auspices of 1434 are not exempt from assignment to any SCP, barring other personal disqualifications.
1434-███ manifested approximately three weeks after the initial appearance of the anomaly, passing into law following Emergency Decree ██-████ of the ████████ military junta. Initial resistance to the law was weak, due largely to stricter ordinances already in place and the general efficacy of the ████████ police and military apparatus in quashing political unrest. All signs indicated a typical iteration of 1434, with the afflicted parties all belonging to the ████████ governing body, similar to instances in ████ and ██████. When the "[REDACTED]" statute manifested four weeks later, public interest remained low; judicial officials of the junta, however, began enforcing the statute aggressively, overwhelmingly targeting members of the ████ religious minority, who [REDACTED] as a matter of course during weekly sacraments.
Pre-existing tension with the ████ religious minority swiftly escalated into open unrest, with mass arrests, rioting, and attacks against government outposts breaking out in several locations across the country. This organized political agitation rapidly degenerated into guerilla violence, with reports of large-scale executions carried out by both sides in ██████ and the region of the ████████████ foothills. Pressure from humanitarian groups and the UN, as well as a threatened embargo led by the US and Russia, rapidly made sustained prosecution of the campaign impossible for the ████████ junta, and on ██/██/██, by mediated agreement and predicate on a cessation of hostilities, [REDACTED] was decriminalized.
Fighting erupted in the capital city, to that point untouched by the violence, almost immediately, with several previously unknown and apparently spontaneously formed political factions taking up arms with the stated intent of removing the junta from power. Mass defection from the military (over 70% of standing forces) followed within a day, with the rebels displaying unusually effective inter-factional coordination in their attacks on the remaining government forces. The make-up of these dissident organizations varied significantly, following no consistent demographic pattern, barring the cohesive resistance group already formed by members of the ████ religious minority.
A UN-brokered peace led to the surrender of the junta and the establishment of the █████████ governing body, comprising leading figures from the ███ and several other revolutionary groups, the former comprised of members of the ████ religious minority. Order was maintained under the auspices of the Provisional Army of ████████ until the initial draft of the constitution was made public, at which time it was discovered that [REDACTED] was to remain criminalized under the new terms of ████████'s government. Subsequent investigation determined that ████ dogma had substantially evolved over the prior month to treat [REDACTED] as an act of mandated anathema, with the formal weekly sacrament restyled as contrition.
Addendum ██/██/██: All personnel assigned to Site ███ are forbidden from bringing written materials not immediately related to their tasks on-site, are forbidden from removing any paperwork or otherwise transmitting any written materials off-site, and are to keep their reports and all other written correspondence succinct, professional, precise and non-speculative. All administrative work not directly pertaining to SCP-███ is to be performed at a separate facility at least 100 miles from Site ███ and any other active containment site; as part of a larger Foundation-wide directive, all future political interventions are to be planned and executed with identical restrictions. Request to upgrade SCP-███ to Keter approved; containment procedures are to be be updated.
Addendum ██/██/██: Based on its own distinctive qualities, and particularly with an eye to the nature of its creation, I am requesting SCP-███-A be given a separate designation. We don't need any more mutations. — Dr. ███████
Addendum ██/██/██: Approved. SCP-███-A reclassified SCP-1434. — O5-█
Addendum ██/██/██: Am I the first person to actually look at this spread pattern? Did somebody just accidentally put a slide from a CDC powerpoint in 1434's file? I am requesting an epidemiologist be assigned to my staff. — Dr. █████
Addendum ██/██/██: Although it will remain fully in effect, Internal Protocol ████-█ is not to be enforced by any personnel without direct authorization from 05 Command.
Addendum ██/██/██: In light of 1434's various instantiations during full Antarctic whiteout-not to mention the direct, unignorable points of correspondence to the afflicted outposts' home countries—I’m no longer convinced this has a biological trigger. Point in fact, I’m no longer convinced people are the host at all. Despite the spread patterns we've found no evidence of a bug, not even in subjects apparently under the active influence of 1434. I don't know what to call this anymore; there's no pathogen here, and memetic transmission has been conclusively ruled out. So if there's a virus, and we aren't the host…then what are we? I am requesting an anthropologist be assigned to my staff, for lack of anything better. Maybe a meta-ethicist. Have we got one of those? — Dr. █████
Inquiry C-56084Incident Report 1434-0672
Investigating Officer: Agent █████
Psychological testing of the surviving children shows none of the warning signs for deviance, and investigation into their backgrounds has uncovered similarly normative home environments. No abusive parents, no missing pets, no disciplinary problems at school. Particular attention was paid to ██████ ████; again, no triggers for sociopathic tendencies, nothing to suggest an attachment disorder. It appears he learned how to tie the knots from his older brother, an Eagle Scout. Subjects all range from between 4 and 6 years old, victims inclusive. Subjects were engaged in a game of “Cops and Robbers” on the outskirts of the █████████ Natural Preserve at the time of the incident. Interviews with the survivors indicate that the three victims “killed” another player, prompting the institution of apparently pre-agreed penalties. I will note here that the wounds on the victims are consistent with attempting to escape the ropes but not with a struggle against assailants; it appears they let themselves be tied up voluntarily. The remaining children relocated to a nearby field and played tag before going home individually. The bodies of the victims were found two mornings later. A little bit of nibbling by the rats but the drainage pipe appears to have shielded them from larger animals, if not the water, the wind or the cold. I’ve tested the rope, the pipe, the kids, their clothes, checked records on disappearances in and nearby the preserve going back twenty years, all zero. No signs of anomalous activity. Pending further developments I’m closing this file.
Note: I’m not sure why anybody thought this was worth investigating; nothing unusual about the corpses themselves or the local mortality rate. It’s just kids being kids. They’re not really old enough to have a useful concept of murder. In the future, more specific instructions on what I’m looking for might be helpful. – Agent █████
Item #: SCP-XXXX
Object Class: Euclid
Special Containment Procedures: SCP-XXXX is to be secured at all times by two (2) on-site security personnel, one stationed in the parking lot immediately adjacent to the front entrance and one stationed outside the exterior gate of the rear loading bay area.
Description: [Paragraphs explaining the Description]
Addendum: [Optional additional paragraphs]
Dull fluorescent-lit bulk purchase furniture and wallpaper uncleaned since they’d shot the first Kennedy. There’d been a fly buzzing around, the last time he’d been in here; he wondered idly if it had weekends off. This is what he’d signed up for. This seedy, run-down, deliberate ugliness. Whatever their mandate, the Foundation was capable of beautiful honesty. It was a put-on, of course—a shady real estate firm or a crooked bookkeeping LLC or a used car dealership fronting a prostitution ring or whatever—but that in no way detracted from its tangible realness. This was how the world felt with its clothes off. He enjoyed that. A great deal.
He leaned forward and put the folder on the desk. A fly had started hissing anxiously about over the carpets. Things felt right.
“So just me and a car and not a req chitty in sight.” The man across from him sat back and gave a blank smile. “Is this low profile, or is this nobody-gives-a-shit?”
“How long have we known each other, now? Twenty years?”
“Do I get to keep my pistol, or should I take my pants off and do it naked?”
The handler ran some fingers through his thinning hair. There were great sweat stains in the armpits of his shirt, taut and straining like sinew as the cheap fabric went tight over his gut. The smile didn’t move on his face. Hadn’t in years. Teeth barely showing as they always did, not in a threatening way, just there, like he had decided they gave him an air of verisimilitude and decided to leave them that way forever. For all Grim knew he was hiding a pharyngeal jaw back there. Maybe it was possible to guess what he was thinking based on subtler tells, like nostril dilation or the temperature of his skin. Probably he could communicate with spiders.
He offered a grin of his own, warm and unpracticed and forthright. Prey animals never win staring contests, anyway. “Maybe you can give me a hint.”
“Perhaps it’s a bomb, and we have decided to assassinate you.”
“Should I be so lucky.”
He sighed, scratched his cheek idly. Time to shave again. The fly buzzed up around his head and he waved it away calmly, sent it spinning across the room, humming like it was coming apart. The handler gave an impassive nod, as if to say: I’m going to eat that soon. Grim pictured him slurping a little pair of wings in between those glassy yellow teeth. It was hilarious, but he stopped grinning.
“If this is some evil outside shit and I start growing tentacles after, I’m going to find out your real name, I’m going to come to the place where you live, and I’m going to gut you slow.”
“I do so love an empty threat.” Blank smile. “Enjoy beautiful Montana.”
The car they’d assigned him was the standard Blend-In, a few years off model, a boring color and appropriately worn for its age, fresh tires, civilian plates, seatbelts and passenger airbags and probably rust protection, everything in working order but no satellite radio. He smoked and kept the station on whatever the local talk shitshow was.
He weaved along the highways lazily, ate one of the sandwiches he’d packed. Pickle and chicken breast. The day faded on him. He switched the radio. There was a county-sized fire raging in some national park above him, an uncontrolled monster chewing up trees and children and dogs all alike. He looked east and, sure as they said, he saw it: A hulk of smoke looming dumbly over the mountains, ash from some alternate sun extinguished, bloated and taut like a birthing spider or a tumor. Crude and hideous where it hung sewn to the sky. He breathed it a cousin and tossed his cigarette in minor tribute.
When he crossed the state line he pulled off onto the service roads and checked the handling on the car, spinning and dragging it through clouds of dust, throwing it across country lanes that were like bridges over the corn, his headlights whipping through the dark and casting cloudy shadows that melted gratefully back into nothing. The first night he slept in the car—in the front seat, as a minor sop towards safety, his feet tangled in the pedals like the roots of a tree.
He woke up the next day parked behind a Kodak factory, the seatbelt half over his shoulder and his neck burningly gently on the left side. The window was cold against his face. He got out with a sigh, threw his back into a few satisfying contortions and then bent to touch his toes. The sun was only half up, grey light spilling quietly over the mountains, the air slightly damp like it was thawing. He went and sat on the hood and lit a cigarette. Empty space. Slight dull hills of green and yellow spread away from him like he’d triggered a wave, rippled with increasing brevity before terminating somewhere at the granite feet of the range. A few houses sprinkled liberally over the near distance. A gas station. A little bit of movement along the roads, lonely cars snaking in the distance like beads trembling down a wire. Nothing else that he could see.
He sighed, elicited another crack from his neck. Time to open the trunk.
Not much to look at. A black suitcase, neat and empty-faced with unimpressive bronze clasps and an almost-leather handle; it had slid around in transit, lay disconsolate against the driver’s side of the car like it was cowering. He smoked lightly and stared at it. Wouldn’t be hard to open, unless it was the thing, and that was one of its things. Otherwise, easy. He could pick the lock or shoot the hinges off or put it against a tree and hit it with a rock like a caveman. He plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and flicked it to the asphalt. After another moment he shut the trunk and got back in the car and started driving again.
He stayed to the west of the mountains, kept the windows rolled down and enjoyed the feel of the sun against his face. Hot and dry. For the first half hour he fiddled with the radio with a kind of idle restlessness, classics to hip-hop to country to a morning revue notably populated by a soundboard, keeping his hands busy by running a thumb over the wood inlay on the dashboard. An unusual touch of class for a company car. Eventually he settled on a superchurch broadcast, leaned back in his seat and lit another cigarette and spent fifteen minutes trying to guess the denomination until the station bannerline came on and he laughed. Traffic stayed thin; he pushed the car up to 85 and kept his eyes open for low billboards or conspicuously large scrub. Didn't want to get any points on his license, now did he?
Coming north out of the basin he stopped for gas and picked up a bag of M&M’s inside, paid in cash and made the forgettable kind of eye contact with the clerk. They had a real bell on the door, ringing merrily as he left like they were trolling for Christmas charity, or trying to lure the coyotes in. The sound disappeared into the little bush-spotted desert.
Outside he leaned cheerfully on the trunk and watched traffic pass. Evening was coming on. The sun dipped towards the horizon, skylit cars against the shoulder of the road, rendered them iconic, like something Ford would have shot. Minivans and trucks and beaters and sedans, little half-visible puffs of dust stirring uneasily behind them, anxious to follow but unwilling to commit. He opened the M&M’s, sat back in the car and popped a few in his mouth. He ran his fingers over the wood inlay again. The door was open, his legs stuck angularly out like buttresses. The keys were in his pocket still. He rubbed his fingertips together. He had another handful of M&M’s. He stared at the dashboard.
He angled the bag on the bottom of the sill carefully, open towards him so he could grab more candy if he wanted. When the phone started ringing he dug in his pockets for another cigarette, pulled one out of the pack with his lips and was fumbling for the lighter when it picked up.
“Eyyyyyy, guef ‘oo.”
He got the flame in one snap, puffed the cigarette and took it out of his mouth.
With an awkward movement he pinned the phone against his ear with one shoulder, hunching over to accommodate the position, his neck squealing in protest. The phone smelled like old nicotine and beer. He threw more chocolate down his throat.
“Yeah. We don’t pick the names, right?” He listened, chuckled. “Yeah. I got a favor to ask you.”
They talked. Threats and pleas and recriminations. A crisis of conscience, perhaps, in a little gray office half the country away. Blackmail tended to move in circles after a while. He doubted he could tell the Foundation anything they weren’t already aware of. They seemed to know everything about everything, excepting the shit they concerned themselves knowing about. But they couldn’t have their pawns being seen to get away with treason. Grim saying something would be enough, and the voice on the other end of the line, unsophisticated thinker might he be, had figured that out quite a few phone calls ago.
The day was starting to wind down. In the desert it could happen fast. A sedan pulled up beside the pumps, disgorged a blonde in a jean skirt. Grim tilted his head to get a better view, only half-listening to the other end of the line, drawing away from the pay phone to watch her as she went into the station. She glanced in his direction and he smiled. He spoke a first name and a bank account number into the receiver and then he leaned back and after another moment he smiled again.
“I’m guessing something out of 12, somewhere around there. Sometime in the past, ahhh, let’s say a week? Yeah. Yeah.”
He waited. The cicadas were starting to warm up and he was sweating, the cigarette in his fingers suddenly uncomfortably dry, hot and unpleasant. He dragged it again anyways. The bell on the station door rang and he leaned out to watch the blonde again.
“Ahuh. Alright, then, talk.”
She glanced back at him once and he had the smile waiting for her, broad and charming and gushingly insincere. He waggled his eyebrows. She turned with a look of disgust and got in the car.
He fell back against the pay phone and shut his eyes. The M&M’s were more or less empty; he dumped the rest of the bag in his mouth and then let it off to what there was of the wind, watched it drift lazily over the pavement before vanishing out into the scrub. He ran the back of his hand over his forehead, wiped the sweat off on his shirt. “Could they carve it down? Wittle it or whatever? Turn it into a table, chair, some shit like that? Would that change anything? What would they do with the leavings?”
He blew another cloud of smoke. It curled open slow, thick drifts of it twisting in complex patterns that caught the dying sunlight, pulled apart like warm bread. “And no difference as far as who gets put on the chopping block? It doesn’t need to, I don’t know, use anybody in particular?” He used the construction without thinking about it. The sun finally slipped off the edge of the horizon, bruise-red clouds swirling after it like blood soaking down a drain. He stood listening for a few more minutes, shaking his head and smiling. The station lights snapped on, buzzing and popping irritably, casting a sickly white fog that dissolved into the night. When he flicked the cigarette away and hung up he was whistling.
The superchurch broadcast degenerated into static twenty minutes down the road, got replaced four stations over with a grainy beards-and-thunder Asa Hawks type, ranting about various sacraments and making liberal and inaccurate paraphrase of scripture. Grim rolled the windows down and drummed his fingers against the side of the car, grinning as the wind whipped through his hair. Periodically he would reach over and pat the dashboard inlay affectionately. He would drive through the night, he figured; the thermos of coffee he’d brought was cold by now, but he didn’t feel like sleeping. The preacher’s howling warbled unpleasantly as it was sucked out of the window.
“A time for all things,” Grim echoed. He believed the Bible the man was misquoting was the New International Version. Perhaps he'd just lost his copy. “What if I'd rented another car, you schmucks?” He turned the volume up.
When he pulled over into the motel parking lot the sun was somewhere just behind pouring its grease over the sky again, starting that long slow process of congealing into a new day; he couldn’t see it yet but he could smell it, way out there past the mountains. He flicked the last cigarette out the window and dropped the mirror to see what he looked like. Shit, it seemed. Maybe it was just the lighting. Bags under his eyes like he was on trucker crank. Once upon a time he would have probably felt the way he looked—back in the army, maybe, when his insides were still soft—but he’d had years enough that ghoulishness was just something to be worn, like you’d wear a hat. He was too weary to get tired.
Another few years and it would start moving back in the other direction again, he supposed. He reached for the thermos and found the seat next to him empty. He remembered: Laughing at some malformed rendering of Ecclesiastes 9:11, taking a great swig from the freezing metal mug and finding it empty, heaving it out onto the highway and howling like an animal.
“Oh well,” he sighed, “what the Hell.”
The parking lot was chilly and dark and empty, barren like it was still cooling from some long-forgotten cataclysm. When he shut the car door the night popped like he’d broken a tangible membrane. He was out of the desert but the plains looked just as dead at night: Flat and ineffable, dull green life melting unenthusiastically into a hollow soup of shadows. Nothing to grab onto. The motel looked like the kind of run-down shithole where they ended up tracking the serial killer, but the woman at the front desk took his name for the register and even asked for ID. He offered up Jim Swain—it matched the ID and the ID matched him—and a hundred dollar bill that she changed with an emphatically impersonal sort of irritation. He asked about the greasy spoon across the street and received a lackluster review.
“But nobody wants to eat there anyway,” she noted. He wondered if he was coming off as suspicious, decided that she was just the kind of person who enjoyed adding ugly details to things. That seemed fair enough to him.
He looked both ways crossing the road, for no particular reason. A van blasted past about twenty feet ahead of him, dragged a solid wind behind it, ruffled out the ends of his jacket. Other than that the world was empty. The diner—“Joe’s” or “Budd’s” or “Dave’s” or “Jim’s” in neon, he forgot the name almost as soon as his eyes passed over it—was in the bleak mood, greenish lights only half-on and doing nothing to leaven the intense sensation of abandonment about the whole enterprise. It was the only other thing for perhaps a hundred miles and but for the waitress it was as desolate as it could be.
She looked up from her book when the bell rang, slipped a napkin in it to mark her page and left it on the counter. She was on the paying side of the register, legs crossed in a cheap primary colors dress. She had a nice smile and offered about half of it to him with naked irony and didn’t stand up and said, “Morning, stranger.”
He looked around. Quiet as winter, linoleum gleaming, the red-leather booths waiting to be filled with unconvincing gaiety. Other than her the place really was empty; no sounds from the back and he could see the abandoned kitchen through the wait counter. He’d grown up in places like this. Or hollows like this, anyways.
“All we got is eggs and bacon, with the grills off. And coffee.”
“Eggs and bacon and coffee,” he nodded, putting his hands behind him and drawing a satisfying pop out of his back. “Burnt and burnt and scrambled.”
“Can’t scramble coffee. You can sit where you like.”
“Alright.” He looked around again. “If I sit in this booth here will you talk to me, or do I have to sit up at the counter? My back is killing me.”
She gave him that same little half-smile as she walked around to the kitchen. Pretty, he noticed, though not apocalyptically so. “What makes you think I’ll talk to you if you sit at the counter?”
He gave his spine another crack and went to the cigarette vendor. A collage of indecipherable brands leered back at him. As far as smoking went he was agnostic; he just wanted something to do with his hands and it all tasted like shit anyhow. After a minute he punched buttons at random until a pack came out—Pall Malls—and started fumbling with the cellophane as he went to his seat.
“You aren’t gonna smoke, are you?” She was just visible over the bottom of the wait counter, yelling a bit to be heard past the sizzle of the bacon. He stuffed them in his pocket with one last crackle of cellophane and leaned his head back.
She waited until the food was ready to bring him the coffee, laying them out together with a single sharp click of glass on Formica. By the time he had his eyes open she was reading her book again. He dug half-heartedly into the eggs, found to his surprise that they weren’t bad. The bacon looked like it had been damned. He sipped the coffee and double-checked for cameras. Nothing.
“This isn’t as awful as I was expecting it to be.”
She didn’t look up from her book but he could see that bit of smile crinkling her eyes.
“You want some bacon?”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
He put his fork down and stared at her for a few seconds. “Bullshit.”
“What is it about being a cliché that makes people so forward with me?”
He grinned and had more coffee. “What are you reading?”
“Something trashy, I guess.”
She replaced the napkin and put the book back on the counter. The smile really was very tolerable. Mid-20s’, he was guessing.
“How old are you?”
“I don’t think you appreciate how bad you look under fluorescent lights.”
“They don’t have those in my motel room.”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t even try to set that one up. You just gave that to me.” They sat there smiling at each other.
When they were done she rolled off him and they curled the sheets up in separate little fiefdoms, close enough for some body heat to leak between them but not much more than that. A bit of her hair was still touching his shoulder. Neither of them moved to adjust it.
“Those eggs were terrible.”
She looked over at him and smiled. “Naw, don’t shit me. You said they were okay.”
“Well…” He shrugged. “The girl at the motel here didn’t seem to have a high opinion, anyway.”
“Who, Janet? She doesn’t know anything. And I wouldn’t call her a girl, she’s probably as old as you are.”
“What?” He feigned gentle outrage. “How old do you think I am?”
She stretched the word out with exaggerated delight. “Oooold. Maybe you should’ve brought Janet back here instead, now I think about it.”
“I heard someplace that you were a better cook.”
They lay quietly a while. The fan threshed air on them in sheets, the cheap plastic bouncing unsteadily on its anchor.
She yawned, stretched her arms and her legs out so the blankets went taut against her body.
She giggled. “Janet just likes being a bitch, anyhow. She’s…she likes it.” She twisted against the mattress, relishing the word.
“What’s so wrong with that?”
“That question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it?”
“Hell, I think it’s fair.” He scratched his stomach. “Least you know she’s being honest. Not often somebody’s an asshole to you under false pretenses.”
“Oh, you must be one of those…straight shooter types, aren’t you.” She poked him in the arm. “You sing your song, asshole.”
“Mm. So what do you have over in that greaseshack that’s actually edible?”
“Well…we’ve got good ribs. Or decent, I guess, for where we are. You know, nowhere.” She gestured vaguely out the window. “Do a pretty good business on them. Birds seem to like them.”
“The birds do?”
She nodded. “We do a half-rack, we do a full rack, and we do a double rack and you get a baked potato and either fries or garlic bread with that for free. Don’t look at me like that, I’m a waitress.” He wiped the smirk off his face with one hand. “Lots of people order the double rack because, you know, they think free fries. But they never finish that shit. So we end up throwing out whole trashbags full of these damn half-eaten ribs…”
“And the birds pick away at your dumpster and clean the rest of it off.”
“Yeah. They take them up on the roof there, crows mostly, just peck away at them till they’re all gone. Somebody has to go up there about once a month with a hose and wash it off, sweep all the little bones back into the garbage. About the creepiest thing you ever saw.”
He grinned at that. The cigarettes were still in his coat pocket, half-unwrapped and begging to be smoked; he considered getting up to grab them and dismissed the idea as quickly. He didn’t want to move. Something about that unsettled him. He cracked his neck.
“So what’s this about you being a cliché.”
She laughed, then; he looked over at her and she was really laughing, eyes all lit up at the ceiling, body shaking pleasantly under the covers. The fan above them made another slow useless circle, spilling cool air over the covers. Sunlight, at last, had definitively arrived, soaking through the cheap blinds of the room. Grim felt like he was swimming in it. The fabric painted it a pleasant light-blue, turned the room into a little aquarium.
“This is just so, you know…this is seedy as fuck.”
She looked at him. The door to the bathroom framed her face nicely, sideways against the covers, and he reached over and brushed her hair.
“I’m a waitress in nowhere and I’m hooking up with dudes that drive through my diner. Dirty old dudes, even, you know.”
He let the playful jab pass without comment. “And you think that makes you a cliché?”
“Come on. This is literally…trashy magazine kind of shit.” A hand coming out from under the sheets to grapple with the words, painted nails clawing as though defensively. She waved, reached, shrugged and sighed, let the hand fall on top of the blanket. “You know what this is.”
“Yeah. So how does that make you a cliché? You do things other than this, don’t you?” She was shaking her head, face twisted up in that ironic little half-smile again.
“It’s a cliché even to be talking about how clichéd this is.”
“This is a hard little game to win, isn’t it.”
She eyeballed him sourly on that one, the corners of her mouth twitching a bit, the ugly death spasm of that smile. She was, he decided, much more beautiful when she was unhappy.
“Well then what is this, to you?”
He smacked his lips and looked back up at the ceiling, pretending to think.
“You think I think you’re a whore.” She raised her eyebrows. “Or else you think that I think you’re going to throw your arms around me and beg me to take you out of here, or else that I don’t care about you either way and I was just using you for a lay. You’re trying to find a mold for it.”
Her teeth were on her lower lip. She narrowed her eyes at him. Like she was studying him, academically, almost; for the first time since he’d met her he saw her trying to assess what was going on in somebody’s head besides her own.
“Rose-“ and he paused on the name a moment, not unkindly, and she remembered, probably, that she hadn’t bothered to ask him his-“I think this was very real.”
She worked her elbow under her and stared down at him, playful twist coming back to her face, triumphant.
“So you’re in love with me, is what you’re saying now?” Doting, in a mocking way.
He laughed a little. He sounded old, he realized; when it was just his voice he was used to it, but when he laughed he could hear all the damn cigarettes in his lungs. “God no. I’m saying this was real. That you met a stranger in the shithouse diner you work at and walked across the street and fucked me and you don’t know my name. That’s all. You don’t need to be coy about that.”
They lay there staring at each other a moment.
“Why are you going on about this cliché shit for? You’re never going to see me again. You can be mean if you like. Of course this was seedy. The hell else would we do it? The whole point of something like this is that you don’t have to care after. You can be honest about it. So stop caring. This doesn’t make you any kind of person in particular.”
The fan making its mopey little whub-whub-whub sound, the occasional car zipping past outside with a crackling drone. The air coming down off the ceiling ruffled the edges of the paper coasters under the glasses by the bedside. He’d left them upside down, hadn’t touched the room. She was frowning at him.
“This was honest.” Skeptical, almost.
“This was honest.” He nodded. “This is too shitty to be not honest. How often do you get this, out here? Enjoy it a bit. Stop putting yourself on.”
She lay down on his chest and he wrapped an arm around her. “You’re fucking weird.” He ran a finger through her hair. “Shit. I kind of like you.”
“The ugly moments. That’s what counts. That’s the only time you can be sure you aren’t lying.”
“Who says shit like that?”
He smiled. Sunlight, fan, cars, paper. The toilet ran for a moment, cheap plumbing. Despite himself he found this moment comfortable. Not just comfortable: enjoyable. He knew he was alone but he couldn’t feel it, right then. He didn’t say anything. They stayed like that a while and he thought of other women and other motel rooms. There was a tide starting to drift against him. He didn’t understand why. The sun tried different angles, struggled to wrench open the window outside. Time passed.
She spoke first. Drowsy.
“I hate myself. I want you to take me out of here. I want anybody to take me out of here.”
“It’s not funny anymore. I don’t want to have to make fun of myself any more. There’s more than this.”
“There isn’t. But hate is good.” Her breathing on his chest. Steady and slow. If he had that part of himself still he might’ve fallen asleep with her. Something in him wanted to anyways; phantom itch, the throb of what isn’t there. He held her. “Hate is good, because you learn with hate.”
He talked quietly. She was almost out. “I wanted…when I was your age, they told me I had to build myself up. That I had to become something. The adult version of what I was.” She didn’t respond. He stroked her hair softly. “I lost so many years on that. Nobody ever tells you that you keep being young. You don’t change into something. You just realize what you are, so you get better at pretending. I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to lie like they did. None of this is…real.”
He could hear his own breathing. He sounded fucking absurd.
“We play people and we all know what’s really going on. I wanted to be sincere but I couldn’t find anything. I just wanted to be sincere.” The anger was there, now. That little kernel of fire that he always kept smoking in his chest was brightening. It built into a loop, made him angrier. He didn’t need it now. Why was it coming now? What was he planning to do? He’d brought her here, hadn’t he? It was already set up.
“You stop hoping it’ll be more than it can be and that’s when you see it. None of the rest of it is real. I never had the kind of strength where I wanted to fake it.”
That fucking fan and that fucking sunlight and those fucking cars and the way she breathed on him.
“Evil. It’s all there is left out there. The last great sincerity is evil.”
She moved on his chest, brushed his neck with her fingers as she shifted her weight around. Asleep but she didn’t know it yet. She exhaled softly against his shoulder. Her voice came as a whisper.
“You sound like a whacko.”
Later, he put on his clothes and looked down at her. It was noon somewhere out there, the sun powering its way inside angry and sharp, trying to burn the quiet out of the world. The blinds put shadows on the walls that you could trim your nails on. He walked to the bed and stood over her, watched her breath. He wasn’t worried about waking her up; nothing about him woke people up.
He had come to terms with what he was going to do. That made this a wash but he could be angry again later. The moment wasn’t over, yet, if he really wanted. A dozen people could drive past and not a one of them would really think to see it. But it’d be its own kind of put on. He’d know, still. What he’d done.
Something for himself: Five hundred dollars on the bedside table, stuffed under the glasses so they crinkled with the air off the fan like paper coasters. He wondered how cheap she would feel seeing that money. The faces on the bank notes stared up at him with weird, distended eyes, bloated and heavy and green, like they were going to slide off the cotton fiber and run all over his shoes. The door was solid and the hinges should’ve creaked but it closed silkily behind him and he vanished like a thought.
A hundred miles down the road he pulled off into the emergency lane and started screaming and beating his fist against the dashboard until his knuckles bled. Traffic zipped past him, blurs of color and sound, sickly kaleidoscope paintjobs flashing through the window and covering the innards of the car like they were pouring from his head. He sat there listening to himself pant. Bottling what was left over, and there was always so, so much that was left over. He’d smeared blood all over the place; a thin streak of it ran from the odometer down to the gear shift, black and dry and cooking in the magnified heat.
The wood paneling on the dash was clean, spotless even, striking past the gore like it had been installed afterwards. He stared at it and a smile broke back out over his face and he started driving again.
By nightfall he was up into the last shudders of the flat ground, the final few echoing ridges before the whole thing threw up its hands and said, fuck it, let’s be mountains already. It was a truck stop. Blaring damn-the-night stadium sun-gushers around the pumps, light chemically hot and pounding against the pavement like it meant to tunnel through. The truckers all parked on the far side of the diner. Dark, here; this part was for jamming up hookers in the cab, fat men breathing through their noses while they traded greasy paper bags, arthritis-thickened fingers flicking elbows with a sound like dense jerky while they fished for veins. Grim rolled through the little maze of steel with his lights off.
He parked too close to the 18-wheelers and then he went and stared into the diner from the outer darkness. He smoked the first of his Pall Malls. A few likely candidates. He could see them all through the windows. They were lined up under the lights like rotisserie chickens. That one with his arms close in to his body, holding his elbows gingerly, too sweaty in this night. A few lank-haired bums, eyes bright and shifting. He wasn’t looking for one that wouldn’t be missed. He had other preferences tonight. That loud one in the corner, he couldn’t hear him from here but he could practically see his voice.
Or…ah. Much better.
Late 50s, meat packed into denim, a high-and-tight that probably hadn’t crawled back down his head since Vietnam. Eating alone with his face slack and his eyes sucking up darkness. Grim took the cigarette out of his mouth and grimaced.
“This tastes like dogshit.”
He spoke to nobody in particular. He took another few drags and then he flicked it away and went in.
The bell—did they have the same one in every fucking building this side of the Rockies? was it following him?—rang him in and he paused a moment to absorb the crowd. He was dressed in the same wrinkled spook-show suit he was wearing when he’d left Texas. He looked like he’d come to audit them. In an honest world they would have jumped on top of each other to get the first swing. But this was civilization. He had to do all the hard work.
“You got an open seat, Devil Dog?”
The man was face-deep in a practical continuum of chili, his eyes hammered to the bowl like he was trying to frighten it. He came up for air slow. It was painted on him, red and greasy and slick and somehow bestial; he looked like he had just dragged it in off the tundra. Table manners were usually one of the first things to go. The man stared at him a moment. However much else of the killer might pour out of them, one part always stayed. Right there, right next to the spinal column. What looked at Grim was purely mechanical: It was just a process, a social function running interference for something poorly contained thereunder.
Grim liked this man.
Ten minutes later he stood up from the table and excused himself discreetly. The trucker had left five before that, face carefully blank. He’d said goodnight in a very calm, low tone of voice, polite, unnoticeable. He’d left his money on the table for the waitress. The kind of leaving where you’re already thinking about witnesses. Grim eyeballed the bill on his way out. The man didn’t tip well. He walked into the darkness.
The bell rang behind him. He swerved to go through the maze of trucks, taking the long way towards his car. He didn’t think about the syringe in his coat pocket or the pistol tucked against the small of his back. They were details for later.
He was moving before he heard it; in the elaborate chapel formed by the trucks sound moved like a snake through water, smooth and slick, all ripple and insinuation and self-reference, and it wasn’t to be trusted. You could hear it before it was even happening, and then it might not. So it was some deeper reflex that had Grim dodging, sensing the hit before it was coming and twisting to avoid it—and then, what the hell, he ate it anyways, a fist like something from the deep ocean clipping him over the shoulder and sending him spinning into the side of a truck. He could hear the breath hissing out through the man’s teeth. “Faggot-“
—and then he was drifting under a finely judged overhand and bringing his knuckles into the man’s guts, once, twice, three times, that doughy fat-muscle barely registering against his hand. He slid away from a hook and ended up catching it against his elbow, the blow rattling up his arm and turning everything south of his shoulder dead numb. He laughed. He put his fist in the man’s face and this time the Marine stepped back and looked at him, something almost civilized creeping into his expression: Are you fucking crazy? There was blood seeping out of his nose. It looked like chili.
They went for each other again, the sound of their breath like pounding waves against the steel, harsh and sharp and frenzied, sucking itself from their lungs. Echoes like it was whispering at them. Grim slipped another hook, traded a pair of jabs to the rim of the man’s jaw for a hit that took him square in the belly. He kicked, probing low, aiming to catch the man on the back of the knee. Too slow.
They moved in close, grappled a few seconds; Grim twisted an elbow into the man’s hip, heard him cry out. He was almost clean again. He could feel her rinsing out of his skin. In the dark he saw movement and then something caught him in the belly again, hard.
The wind rushed from his body. He rushed after it. There was a whistling in his ears. The Marine was staggering away from him, now, hands up, warding instead of angling for a hit, winning the fight but perceiving at last that there was some different momentum in play.
Grim loved him. He followed him.
They compared punches. Blood and spit. A tooth popped out into the darkness, his or the Marine’s, he couldn’t tell, he didn’t care. They spun in a blur of hot shadow. For a second he was okay. He felt right. There was a moment he shook her from him, broke loose from what she represented, remembered where he fit and what the world was made of. He felt okay-and then he smelled her hair again and he almost did the son of a bitch right there, snarled like a beast, put the jarhead’s knee the wrong way out and brought him down against a tire and twisted like he was going to turn the man into parts. He could hear the moan of the rubber under his hands. Practically taste the blood.
He did taste blood.
He swallowed, slowly. The Marine went down to the pavement limp and Grim stood over him and watched him breath.
“Oh, hey, Isaac, I almost forgot. Don’t open that, alright?”
Grim stared at him in silence. The Marine was hard to pick out as a person in the trunk. He was just a shape: Denim folded so and so, angular in a few ways that were strange, an odd hue of tenderized purple. A pile of dirty clothing, maybe. That was all. More listless than the dead. Grim had never seen a corpse to have bad posture. Air hissed from the man’s nose, in, out, in, out, ragged and unsteady. He’d be out a long time. A very long time, Grim would say, if he believed in very long times. The needlemark against the side of the trucker’s neck was still bleeding. Grim was a gentle touch, usually, but, well, what the hell? There wasn’t likely to be a complaint.
He sniffed and flicked the cigarette away. They really were awful. He reached for another.
“Listen, I was just kidding.” He gave the man the sign of the cross with his lighter, puffed a few times and blew smoke into the trunk. “I’ll ride with it up front. That thing slides around you’ll get bruised all to hell, you know? That plus I wouldn't trust a jarhead to watch my goddamn toothbrush.”
After another moment’s consideration he grabbed the suitcase. Driving through the night again; he wanted nothing more than to put his eyes closed but there was something of a deadline, now. He’d been rougher on the trucker than he’d intended to be. God only knew what was going on under the ribs in there. It would be embarrassing as hell to turn up without a date.
Besides, he’d feel better without sleep in him. Was harder to think without sleep. Until he got this fucking girl out of his veins he didn’t particularly care to do thinking. For the moment he was feeling good again. Frenzied.
Nothing. Listless meat.
He sighed and looked into the sky, untroubled by the class C felony lying in his trunk. A cold wind came off the plains, swirled into his jacket and held him gingerly. He let his eyes unfocus and thought.
There was a storm brewing in the distance. The night furrowing dark and hateful, black on black like pits in heaven, spitting white fire at the ground as if in anger. Grim watched it, awed by its beauty, immediately unimpressed by its insistence on turning up. Lightning crawled along the sky with segmented insectile malevolence. A poor attempt by the world to imbue this act with metaphor, recast it with gothic significance as though there were meaning to be squeezed from his work. Light throbbed in the clouds with the idiot ambivalence of a heart, cast out shadows as sudden orphans. Flashes burst under the horizon in paroxysms of mortality.
Grim stared at cracks in being that reiterated and bred and multiplied with urgency, fervor, flashing again before their ghosts had faded so they grew together like spiderwebs, like splintered glass, like refractions in an impossible bug-god eye. Patterns that his mind struggled to impose with hopeless self-loathing. He looked into nothing and smiled out of spite for a universe that he knew did not exist.
He leaned into the trunk and whispered.
“God was wrong.”
“You look like Hell, mister.”
Grim took a break from digging through his pockets to eyeball the kid. Scrawny as a scarecrow; Grim hadn’t been any thicker at that age but he wasn’t eating regular then. The boy didn’t look starved so much as spatially unenthusiastic, somehow too lazy to grow any deeper into the world. If it wasn’t for the bolt in his nose he would probably have picked up and blown away in a breeze. Grim shook his head.
“You should see the other guy.”
Shit if his hand didn’t hurt though. Something in there was broken; he’d wrapped it with a bandage out the first aid kit but every time his knuckles cracked back open the fucking thing took damp with blood and started chafing. It had already frayed enough to be catching in his keys. He was starting to think it would’ve been easier just to amputate.
“Did you kill ‘im or something? I can’t see somebody getting much more beat up than that without you killin ‘em.”
Grim chuckled. There, he had the fucking wallet loose, anyways. “Nah, I barely touched him. Worth seeing, though. Son of a bitch had to be ten feet tall. What do I owe you again?”
“Twelve-fifty. And, uh, can I see some ID? For the cigarettes?”
Grim looked into the kid’s eyes, trying to determine if he was making some weak joke. After a moment he shook his head and threw it down on the counter. Abraham Something, now, he’d swapped after the motel. It seemed appropriate. At the kid’s nod he swept it back up into his hand and replaced it. Motes bled into the air through the holes punched by sunlight, and he watched them, blinking slowly and sighing.
He’d driven the night. Eyes tired and hot. It had not seemed to end. He’d felt furtive, senselessly clever, lowing periodically at the meaningless protean shapes of the darkness, giddy with triumph as though he’d found a way to bury the sun in the horizon. Beaten it. It had risen, eventually, to find him crawling along the spine of the mountains, navigating vast protusions of rock like notches of bone splitting the ground’s skin. He hadn’t seen it at first, beyond the peaks; but light had washed through the canyons like a new river, surged through and around and over him like a dam had burst, and he had known.
Great stone monuments that had loomed barren in the darkness sprouted forests green and breathing, day putting the land pregnant with sudden life. A great fecundity thrown up from nothing. It leaked into his skull, brought him out of his night reverie with a scorching pain that wasn’t wholly physical. His pursuer was still creeping around behind the mountains when he pulled into the valley, but he could see its detritus all around him, bright and clean and wet. The gas station practically glowed in the damp. Under the shade of the soft morning clouds it seemed to make everything as one, a singular thought struck into being beneath the sky. The highway ran through its soft flesh like bone, a cohesion, part of some inchoate god.
Grim felt unwelcome here. He felt lied to by this bloodless prettiness. It was insincere. There were things rotting under that gentle rippling skin, and he was going be touching them.
“You know the area pretty well?” His change rattling on the counter.
“Sure. Born and raised ‘round here.”
“I’m just looking for directions, don’t depress me.”
The kid scratched the side of his nose, sniffed.
“Where you wanna go?”
“Looking for Ash Mountain.”
“You know it?”
“You sure you want Ash Mountain? Ain’t really good for climbing any. Don’t even think you can get up there nowabouts, the Geo Survey shuts it all up in the spring.”
Grim stared at him. He bit the wrapper off the jerky, tore a hunk away with his teeth and started chewing slowly.
“Well what you do is, you take the highway here north for about, uh, an hour, depends how you drive, until you pass on by the Bear Lip Trail, and they got a sign there, and you take the exit just past that. You stick on that ‘till you’re just past of Fort Benton? And then you take that second left, once you’re out of Fort Benton, you just stick on the main road in Benton, you’ll pass a Denny’s on the way out, you take that second left after the Denny’s going towards Fatewell. Keep going on that about another twenty miles, you just stick with the signs that say Fatewell…uh, are you okay remembering all this?”
He wrenched off another piece of meat and kept giving the kid that dull-eyed look. Goddamnit but his jaw hurt. He used to eat this shit for breakfast. Pour it on his cereal like milk. Maybe it had been his tooth that got knocked out, and he just hadn’t found which one yet.
“Uh…so eventually you’re gonna start seeing White Sulphur Springs on the signs, you start following that instead. Just stick on the signs. It’ll take you up beside a river. You keep on going that way until, you’re gonna see this old mill on the far side of the river, on the left, real old? You take the next bridge over the river after that, and then you follow that down far enough, eventually you get to it. On the left in there. There’s a sign. You get to Sulphur Springs means you missed the bridge.”
He wondered what the handler was doing right now. Sitting alone in a darkened office, deactivated, mouth closed to indicate that he’d gone into a power-saving mode. Spiders dragging flies to his lips in a crude pantomime of worship. Or he was trying to eat his own tie, maybe.
“I don’t come back, you make sure they round up a search party for me and look real good.” The kid gave an uncertain little chuckle and touched the bolt in his nose again. Grim frowned at him.
The bell rang behind him as he walked back to the car, perfectly clear in the wet morning air. He stopped by the trunk to tap out a cigarette. Damp rocks popped and crackled under his feet, thick dew turning their groans damp and audible. The sun was finally visible, now, just peeking at him over the shoulder of the nearest mountain, like it was shy. He kept his eyes on it as he lit up and dragged. Fucking thing had been looking for him for hours, running its palms over the snow-washed mountaintops, rooting around in the scree by the side of the highway, reaching past wind-bent trees with thin golden fingers. Dumb as anything could be. Found him eventually just the same. Sheer dim-witted tenacity. Probably there was a metaphor in that. An 18-wheeler rushed past him in a blaze of mist, set the birds to hooting like idiots.
“I lied to that girl, Isaac.” He looked down at the trunk. “I need to go make that right. She shouldn’t think things are like that.”
“You okay, mister?”
He glanced over his shoulder. He hadn’t even heard the bell ring again. The kid was standing by the open door, hand still on the pushbar like he might startle back inside any second.
He turned back to the Blend-In and spat by one of the tires. “Name of the car.”
They stood there quietly a moment. His Pall Mall tasted like beef jerky. It wasn’t an improvement but at least it was horrible in a new way.
“The hell do you want?”
“Just you can’t smoke out here. The pumps.”
He glanced back again, his eyes straining a bit at the tension in his neck. He felt light-headed.
“You want one?”
“I ain’t old enough.”
Grim shook his head. He spat.
It’d been three days since he’d slept.
“The problem isn’t that I left her.” His voice raised to be heard over the mindless gargle of the radio. “The problem is that she thinks I left her because I was being honest with her. In what I did. She thinks I was doing a different kind of leaving her.” He sniffed. He drummed his fingers lazily on the wheel.
“I can’t have that.”
The rain had started an hour out from the station, opened without preamble, pounding against the hood hard and heavy like the clouds were dripping nails. No warning, no rumbling sky or deepening shadows; something had been torn open up there and now its guts were spilling out. But for that it still seemed like a beautiful day. Mountain weather. It had a tendency to mood swings. He’d been expecting it but it was unwelcome, just the same. If it kept up he’d end up walking in it, sooner or later, and he hadn’t brought a heavier jacket than what came with the suit.
“Being honest, it’s not a question of what she thinks so much as why. It’s that I know it was me left her with the impression, and that reflects on who I am, what I believe. I…went out of my way.” Waving his hand, explanatory. The colors had started to blur and run outside, the rubbery squeal of the windshield wipers only dragging them back into discrete lines for a moment or two. Neon road markings bled gracelessly out into the pavement. The trees seemed caught in perpetual motion, the same leaden shade of green washing out of them, between them, catching a second in the open before retreating to their borders and repeating the process anew. It gave off the disquieting sensation that they were rearranging themselves.
“That makes it my responsibility. I can’t shy from that. How you deal with people matters. That’s when it’s easiest to lie. Even if you don’t mean to.” He glanced in the rearview mirror as if checking for understanding. “And you know how I feel about lying, right, Isaac?”
The roads were getting dangerous under the weight of the water, tight blind curves on damp pavement, rockslides trembling overhead like rattlesnake tails. It calmed him. He’d been driving in a straight line for days. The prospect of the control being ripped out from under him—or of the car being torn apart like tissue—broke the monotony a bit.
He squinted at the road sign, an effervescent bit of geometry in the chaos outside. White Sulphur Springs. There was a momentary sense of dislocation as he took the turn, a slightly nauseous feeling that he could’ve chalked up to lack of sleep. He’d been expecting something like that. He’d memorized the maps well enough to know that something went wrong with the roads around here, turned the geography dreamlike. It hadn’t seemed to bother the kid any. Whatever the Foundation had pulled loose here—if they were the ones that had pulled it loose—the locals had clearly learned to navigate around it. Maybe it only happened if somebody was headed towards the damn mountain. And wasn’t that a comforting thought. He cracked the window just enough to flick the cigarette outside, wiped the rain off the back of his hand onto the dashboard. The wood paneling was dry before it ever had a chance to be wet.
He reached and fiddled with the radio again, pure habit, the signal degenerated into static since earlier that morning. He’d left it on, turned it up; occasionally he switched stations, not in the hope of finding something coherent but just to hear different kinds of electric hissing. High pitches, low pitches, one that whistled and whined as it hacked out sound, like marbles caught in a centrifuge. Occasionally something like lyrics or a chord would bulge through the static, a face pressing blank and eyeless against thin plastic, struggling to break through. Voices crackled in empty space. Dead noise drowned the car like water.
“You don’t like the music just pipe up. I value your candor. Honestly, that’s what attracted me to you in the first place.”
The sky, so crisp and blue just an hour ago, was starting to turn a sickly grey, finally owning up to the deluge it was pouring on him. In the dimming light the peaks on either side of him looked like metal, the jutting rock above the treeline turned by alchemy into steel or chipped porcelain. They fogged into the clouds, melted upward without distance, like the whole of the firmament was something hard and tangible that he could touch if he could only reach so high. It was disorienting to look at. It felt like he was staring at the surface of a river from the bottom.
And speaking of: Mimi Brown’s River, a puke-green roadside sign declared, and Grim could see it now, yes, pouring from some hidden rocky alcove below and behind him to follow the highway like a lost puppy. He glanced down at it, half-benevolent. It meant he was close. In the strange indirect light it looked pale, dead-eyed white, like sour milk. Not much longer now.
He drummed his fingers on the wheel and frowned. Sniffed once. There was blood crusted in his nose, thick and stinging. He glanced at the suitcase, the first time since he’d brought it up front. Looking at it didn’t excite any real curiosity in him. He hadn’t touched it except to move it. He already knew what was in there, even if maybe he didn’t. There was still the open possibility that the handler had been telling him the truth with that dumb-eyed little joke, that they really had sent him all the way out here with a bomb to kill himself. Bellerophon’s letter, addressed to nobody and bound in imitation leather. Senseless way of doing things, of course, but when had the Foundation ever made sense?
It was the same thing either way. He had his own canaries. He knew what it was. An amusing thought: His contact had got it wrong, mistaken some incidental site shuffle for the job. Maybe it wasn’t a double-cross. Maybe this was a driveaway for somebody’s cousin in the sticks.
He cracked his back again. He didn’t give a shit. Smoke moved around his head in ugly coils, mixed incestuously with the gaseous sounds pouring from his radio.
No, not much longer now at all.
Ash Mountain itself proved particularly unimpressive. Horrible things often were, in his experience. As a venue for a haunting he supposed the mill he’d passed would be more popular among the local high school kids; he could easily see some enterprising young shithead conjuring up a Scooby-Doo villain to fill that rotting wood carcass and frighten the sophomores. Something something miner’s ghost something. The real show, apparently, was an uninspiring hump of dirt and spray-on trees three miles down the river, threatening only for the possibility of Lyme disease.
Gothic foreboding belonged generally to frauds or the kitsch unnatural, in his experience, the territory of feigned anomalies and eye-rolling genuine articles. Most defamations of reason had the decency to be relatively low-key. There was something sadly quotidian about impossible horrors, after a while. The mind did convulse at certain dread apparitions, certain incomprehensibilities, things that bent the limits of the real with nauseating ease. But they were still, after all, only real, and that inevitably bred disappointment. It takes something out of facing down the ontological certainty of evil when the job comes with dental coverage.
The most grotesque artifacts were often the worst offenders, the tension between their implicit claims on a moral universe and the mundanity of their paperwork swiftly becoming unsustainable. It was possible to feel contempt for something even as it drove you insane. Most of the agents he knew had gone through a Lovecraft phase, if not before their recruitment then shortly thereafter. It never lasted.
The road curled lazily around the base of the mountain, slid gradually out of sight from the main drag and up into the flesh of its host like a tick. He took it slow. Whatever this was wasn’t likely to be a threat outside the boundaries of containment, but they had, after all, sent him up here for a reason. And what was the old joke? “Scream Cry Pray”? He rolled down the window and tucked his pistol against the side of his leg. Had stopped raining, anyways. The air smelled like wet grass and bark, earthy in a ripe way. Gravel cracked like glass under the tires as the pavement ended.
Here it was. He rolled the car to a slow stop. An old pipe gate crossed what there was of the road, wreathed in chains like it had been sentenced there. He left the car running and approached it cautiously on foot. The static flowed out after him, lapped around the back of his shoes like tide. An observer would have judged him to be unarmed. He ran his eyes over the length of the gate, tracking the dull coils of the chains to their source, hidden away in the tangle. Just one padlock holding the thing together. He looked to either side. This wasn’t much of an obstacle: The posts it hung from terminated at the edges of the road, gave way to unruly shocks of grass and empty space. Could walk right by this thing. He reached down and popped the lock, dragged the gate open carefully. He made a point of keeping his hands clearly in the open. When nothing happened he turned his back on the road and got in the car.
“Geological Survey, huh.” His eyes lost focus for a moment. He let himself try to untangle the scrawny forest ahead of him, sifting cautiously through the damp foliage and sweating rocks and unkempt underbrush for anything like movement or outline. Something was…not just what it was but what it wasn’t. Wrong in the wrong way. He wished he could smell something as tangible as blood on the wind.
With an abrupt jerk he shifted into gear and started driving. The gate slid by, rusting metal sticking from the ground like splinters in skin. His eyes raked over the dashboard and he let out a noise of mock surprise. “Shit, look at that! Here we are and I got half a tank left. I get fucked on rentals every time.” The open gate drifted away behind him.
He wrapped himself up in the scrawny woodland, pulled slowly along through the balding weald and made a lazy survey as he went. Wildlife, what sounded like birds chirping and a few signs of deer rub against the trees; that could be construed as a good thing, reassuring, though of course there were no guarantees. He’d spent enough time around wild animals to know that they were just as stupid as people. The sun was drifting away from him, splintering weakly through the foliage as it faded into a bloody paste. He rolled the windows back up. Even without the radio hissing static he couldn’t hear much of anything, the popping of rocks beneath the wheels absurdly sharp in the mountain air.
The outpost revealed itself gradually, by insinuation, a momentary glimpse of brickwork, a ripple in the flow of the mountain, a blocky shadow distantly visible through the foliage. He saw it in scraps. The road snaked towards it cautiously, dipping closer and closer before snapping abruptly off and retreating back into wilderness, a simulation of animal fright necessitated by the sweeping banks of rock that rolled down the mountain like fat. He watched it while it was there for the watching. An ugly throwback to a time when architecture was something to stop wolves getting at you. The scar of order receded into nothing as he navigated the layered coils of switchback, wreathing around the peak like a snake constricting a stump.
And then, by some trick of navigation or broken geography, he was on it, pulling out from a wretched copse of trees and rolling to a stop in front of the outpost-cum-fortress. He considered it evenly over the passenger’s seat. He put the car in park.
This far up the road degenerated into hard-packed dirt, and it hissed and geysered in foetal spouts under his shoes as he walked closer. Static boiled from the open door behind him like steam. The building was made squat and tough, stone built into angles that spoke to an expectation of centuries. It clung to the mountain with a tenacity that suggested it meant to outlast it. There weren’t any proper windows; a narrow strip of glass circumnavigated the structure in stuttering ribbons near its roof, rippled in and out of the brickwork like a sea serpent cresting the surface of the water. A tile of glass that looked more than bulletproof was set in the only door at eye level, a square of darkness cut into an industrial block of steel meant for a prison, not a forest.
A scratchy lot was etched into the ground adjacent to the facility, just enough space to keep the pair of government-plated Explorers parked there from sliding off the ridge. He figured it for a six-man team, cycling shifts of three, one squad holding down the nest while the other patrolled whatever it was out here that was worth patrolling. A truck for each group, contingency for an escape or a mechanical failure. The one closest to him sat open. The driver’s side door was agape, seats dark and rigid like teeth in some unhinged jaw. In the cooling light of the sun he could see mosquitoes moving in waves around the rearview mirror.
He’d come up here half-prepared to shoot these men. So they’d gone inside to get drinks, maybe, just forgotten all about the car, were relaxing somewhere past that four-inch thick steel door with the lights off and their keys hanging in the ignition…
The static cut out behind him.
He couldn’t properly be said to have moved but he had the gun trained on the Blend-In. The car dangled off the barrel of the pistol as if harpooned, small and soft against the monument of looming earth behind it. He stood stock still. There was no sound. The wind stirred but it touched him only silently, suddenly mute, leaves caressing each other with quiet fingers and tumbling into vacuum. It was a painting; nothing breathed or could breath. He watched the car and waited patiently for the shadows to swallow him.
When nothing happened he insinuated himself closer, popped the passenger side door and skittered back. He jerked like a puppet, clean, smooth movement that broke haltingly into violence. His key was still in the ignition; the dim glow of the station frequency winked at him over the gearshift, a sickly green graffiti against the muted tones of dashboard. He put a few paces of distance between him and the car and began to circle it. In this line of work there weren’t any guarantees that gunfire would be useful but he figured he’d play the odds.
Empty. He scanned the woodland around him, looking for holes where something could hide. Nothing that he could see but he knew what that was worth. He crouched and swept the bottom of the car, back squealing in protest. Dirt and rocks. He pocketed his keys and then opened the rest of the doors, one by one, moved the seats back and forth, checked the glove compartment and rifled through his registration. He looked at the engine and there wasn’t anything wrong with that either. He glanced back at the Explorer, gaping like it had been sucked empty.
The Marine was still unconscious in the trunk. His pulse wasn’t as strong as it could be but that wasn’t a long-term problem; he would make it as far as he needed to. Grim holstered the pistol, got back behind the wheel and reclined lazily, one leg dangling out the door. The wilderness sang and yelped and breathed around him. He turned the car back on and the radio crackled into life, guttural sounds like something digesting. So. Some odd but meaningless error in the electronic guts of the car, a glitch in one of the high-tech gizmos they stuffed into all imported vehicles. Nothing to worry about. No cause for concern.
Disorientation. There wasn’t a moment he imagined himself in an afterlife; he’d seen far enough past death to know he was still breathing. Instead he felt a dislocation from his body. Confusion, not quite sure if his eyes were open. Something like daylight wrung through dirty water filtered into his vision, vague and squeezed past eyelids or a canopy of trees. He couldn’t tell. He lifted his head. Information washed over him in incoherent scraps, not attached to any particular sort of perception, seen or heard or intuited or imagined. He was laid out on the hood of the car, resting against what remained of the dashboard. The windshield was gone. Something sticky and hot clung to his neck, to the back of his suit down to his knees. To his head. The branches made desultory movements above him, around him, leaves plucking loose and fluttering to the earth with little bird noises, ragged scratching sounds as they dragged into the dust or along the roof of the Toyota. A robin twittered somewhere in the woodland. Grim opened his mouth and tried to find words. The sun leaked through the treetops in a brackish mist, picked out grimy spires of dust and motes where it wasn’t blocked by foliage. There was something vaguely intimate in the moment. Something religious.
“Uh,” he said, and let his head fall back.
His skull hurt like hell. He supposed he’d have to get to that in a minute. Never wise to start with the miracles when taking stock. Instead he considered what he looked like. Spread-eagled and limp in the shattered mouth of a car like some post-modern Christ facsimile. Apropos, he supposed. Or the victim of an unusually mean frat prank. A trophy, a prize deer slung over the hood of some gawping hillbilly. Look at that, got me an accountant, gotta be more’n a hunnert-thirty pounds on him. Or, no, better: A totem, the worn dead, a token of power fashioned from a slain champion and shown at a place of vantage to quail the enemies of this war god Toyota. He had grappled with the unnatural for a long time. His vocabulary of humiliations was inventive. The car, itself, had thrown him down, and meant to bear him forth as some spiritual channel of dread. He’d seen stranger.
With a grunt of effort he turned and spat over the hood. A string of drool ran down the side of his face and stuck to the paint, shook from his lips in a thick strand like sap. Whatever life had been stuffed into the car was sucked out; at this point it was, at best, a hollowed reliquary, and Grim had never been squeamish about sacrilege. He squirmed onto his side and leveraged an elbow under his stomach. Shot himself in the head. He had shot himself in the fucking head. It wasn’t quite that he was upset to still be alive. Not quite, anyways. But he felt cheated. He had been very earnest when he pulled that trigger. This felt like he was being called a liar.
His mind starts to wander. The world is a blur of color and motion in front of him, entrancing, something to be watched instead of lived in. Memories come back in an undifferentiated fog, soak into him like ether through gauze. He remembers murders he has done before. The murders come first. Men from countries and cultures he can no longer remember, if he knew them then. Faces stamped with horror or mute, useless defiance. He remembers details, the color of somebody’s eyes, a pair of earrings; scars, the way they bared their teeth, scraps of a whole that is lost or muddled or at best half-invention. Some of the strange ones come to mind. A man kicked screaming into a fungus that hungered. A girl he had to drown three times before it stuck. The panicked gasping of a friend as he hacked at a frost that grew on him and the ice healed its wounds over like scar tissue. He remembers a few names. The children are a blur, too conceptual, too abstract to coalesce into a recollection. Never a person with an identity but a child. They are forgotten.
He remembers going to work, after he had left the battlefields and the unlit parking lots and the cold concrete hallways behind. His first job: A clock that started singing when its owner died. More. Office buildings with flesh under the wallpaper. A hundred dirty bars chasing leads or conducting interrogations disguised as interviews. Months of hunting that led to children playing with flashlights in the dark. A red lake. Infectious words. Monsters that turned out to be bears or wolves or everyday psychopaths. A lizard that walked through gunfire like it was wind and shrieked hate until he wet his pants. Things that had to be locked under oceans or that shouldn’t exist or that didn’t but could kill you anyways. He remembers paperwork.
More. Things deeper under the skin, and there is not much deeper than the job. His hands move themselves on the wheel, body slipping into automated process as his focus drifts.
He lay where he’d been dropped and waited for something to happen. Slowly, tentatively at first, he began to process it. He’d died. Not some temporal fuck-up or a breakage of time; he had put a gun to his head and killed himself. The blood still clung like grease in his hair. He had been dead, no argument dead, and now he was back alive again. The anger sparked in his chest and he reached for it, clutched at it like a baby clutching for its bottle. It wasn’t there. A shadow, the ghost of what he wanted. Something else poured into him in its place and he shut his eyes and bore it. Dead and alive again. He was Christ.
Nothing felt different.