Clef

General Bowe's paternal great-grandfather had died at Gettysburg. He'd marched under General Armstead during Pickett's famous doomed charge, had been one of the brave Confederate soldiers to cross the stone wall, had been shot in the gut by a damned dirty Yankee, stood his ground as his comrades-in-arms retreated, and used his last breath to bayonet a filthy Irishman right in the heart. It was a story passed down on his father's side of the family as an example of the courage and bravery of the Bowe bloodline.

As it happened, General Bowe's maternal great-grandfather had also died at Gettysburg. He'd been a member of the 69th Pennsylvania, under Colonel Joshua T. Owen. He'd shot a filthy slave-owning rebel scum in the belly and stood at the center of the heaviest fighting at the Angle, but when the enemy retreated, he hadn't noticed that the damned Johnny Reb wasn't quite dead. The cowardly Southerner had bayoneted him in the heart as he leaped over the fence.

There was no way of knowing whether General Robert Ulysses Abraham Jefferson Bowe's great-grandfathers had really killed each other at the Battle of Gettysburg, but it would have made sense. General Bowe was a man at war with everything, including himself. A scholar who had chosen a career as a military man. A scientist who studied the unscientific. A soldier without a war to fight.

9/11 had been the worst day in American history for many people not for General Bowe. For the General, the worst terrorist attack on American soil had meant a chance to put into action the plans he'd had since he'd begun negotiations with the Foundation. The last few years had been very good for General Bowe. Multiple successful operations overseas had resulted in increased funding for the Bowe Commission's projects, as well as the entire Department of Paranormal Warfare.

And now things were going to shit.

"First," he said, as the leader of the Overseer Council sat down across from him, "You need to assure me that what's going on at Yellowstone isn't a terrorist attack, and that it's going to be taken care of."

The Overseer replied, "Yellowstone is not a terrorist attack. It is more an accident in weapons development testing. The situation will be solved within the next 24 hours."

"Good," General Bowe said. "I'll hold you to that." He jotted down a note on a pad of sketch paper. "Damage report."

The Overseer said, "Yellowstone Mountain is currently in temporal flux. Aside from that, we are still trying to sort out the damage. Due to the CK-Class restructuring, all of our Special Containment Procedures databases have desynchronized. China, Korea, Japan, and Russia branches are all showing different file numbers for different objects. We're currently sorting them out by using the American database as a baseline, and affixing a suffix to the foreign branches' desynchronized entries…"

"I disapproved of your organization having foreign outposts," General Bowe reminded the Overseer. "I was afraid that something like this might happen."

The Overseer said chidingly, "You were concerned about the security of our foreign offices. This is hardly the same thing."

"Nevertheless, it is the opinion of the Bowe Commission that the Foundation's foreign offices now represent an unacceptable security risk." General Bowe turned to the next page on his sketch pad, jotted down another note. "Following the end of this current crisis, you will present a plan to decommission them and consolidate your anomalies in the American containment sites within no more than five years."

The Overseer said annoyedly, "We were promised oversight of our own operations—"

"That was before you idiots blew up Yellowstone Mountain," General Bowe interrupted. "And before you lied to us about the state of your weapons division."

The Overseer flinched. "We have…"

"I know about Project Olympia," General Bowe interrupted again. "Your scientists created a line of production-model super-soldiers and didn't tell us. I've read about the capabilites of the Olympia line. Do you know how many American special operations soldiers have died since the start of the war? Do you know how many lives could have been saved?"

The Overseer was silent.

"Your Foundation's had its fun for long enough. Time to put on your big boy pants and get some actual work done," General Bowe said. He folded up his sketch book and got to his feet. "I'll be in touch regarding the consolidation of Foundation assets into the DPW tomorrow afternoon. That is all."

The General left the office without saying goodbye or asking for a salute.

The Overseer remained in its seat after he had gone.


"This idea sucks," Adrian said.

"It was the best we could do," Bill explained. "Now get ready."

Adrian took a deep breath, revved the engine, and clutched the steering wheel tightly as he stared straight into the granite cliff face.

The answer, as it turned out, had been fairly simple. Going in using the front door was out of the question: too many hostiles roaming the halls. On the other hand, there was the reality destabilization… and the fact that for the past couple of hours, Yellowstone Mountain was replaced with an empty field of geysers and hotsprings for about thirty seconds every thirty minutes.

Beatrix had done the math. A vehicle that traveled at approximately thirty miles per hour should barely have enough time to travel through the solid granite and appear in an empty hallway… it was kind of like driving through a bunch of swinging pendulums, if the pendulums were universes and the metaphor was a little less forced.

Adrian glanced at the other passengers in his humvee. Beatrix was in the back seat, hunched over her submachinegun. Bill rode shotgun, SAW across his lap. Effie and Vincent also sat in the back seat: Effie standing by to jump into the turret and man the .50 caliber machine gun if things went bad.

Assuming, of course, that things hadn't gone bad already.

"Ten seconds," Bill said, and Adrian gripped the steering wheel even more tightly. "Five. Four. Three. Two…"

Adrian put the vehicle in gear just as Bill said "Two," started accelerating as Bill said "One," had a horrible moment when he thought that the timing was off and they were about to drive straight into a granite wall, and then the mountain disappeared and they were driving along a flat volcanic plain. Adrian ignored the other vehicles behind him, ignored everything but the broken road before him and Bill's voice counting down, "eight, seven, six, five, four, three…" and then the flat plains disappeared, and they were driving through a broad, empty hallway with flickering fluorescent lights and blood all over the ground, and then Adrian hit the brakes and they hit the far wall and the vehicle went CRUNCH.

"CONTACT RIGHT!" Bill shouted. He wrestled his SAW out the passenger-side window and fired off three short bursts. Vincent was screaming something, then Adrian heard the staccato chatter of Beatrix's submachinegun, and then came the low, steady thud of the .50 opening up, and then silence.

Adrian glanced out the right side of the vehicle. Something big, grey, and humanoid lay on the ground, now riddled with bullets and breathing its last. At the front of its head, where a face should have been, was… nothing.

A bloody, wet gurgle from the back. Adrian turned and immediately wished he hadn't. Vince was slumped against the door, twitching and gasping. The entire front of his head, from his ears forward, was just… gone.

Effie drew her pistol from a gore-covered thigh holster and fired once. Vince stopped moving.

Adrian swallowed hard. "S… sound off," he shouted, into the darkened hallway.

"This is Car Two!" came a shout from behind him. "Frederickson! Everyone's fine, but the back end of the car's stuck in the wall!"

Shit, Adrian whispered. The timing must have changed. He took a deep breath before asking the question no one wanted the answer two. "Car Three?"

A long pause. "I can see their front bumper sticking out of the wall," Frederickson said. "That's it." Silence for the space of five heartbeats. "How about you?"

Adrian glanced over at the back of the humvee. Beatrix was wiping off her bloodied face with a shaking hand, while Effie and Bill wrestled Vince's still body out of the back seat. "… one casualty," he said. "It's Vince. Fatal."

Another heartbeat's worth of silence. "Shit," Frederickson said. "All right, what's the plan?"

"Can you see us?" Adrian asked.

"Yeah, I can see your tail lights."

"Then disembark and grab what you can. Move your squad up and we'll proceed from here on foot."

"Roger. Moving," Frederickson said.

Adrian rubbed his upper lip, despair setting in. One minute into the mission, and Team Iris had already suffered five casualties out of their original fourteen. Even for Pandora's Box, those were not good figures.

He checked his carbine, slung it over his shoulder, and climbed out of the driver's side door. Something squished under his foot as he stepped out of the car, and he shone his flashlight down to see what it was.

It was a face. Not Vince's. Someone else's. Adrian allowed himself a moment of revulsion before closing his eyes and doing his breathing exercises.


There are a lot of different ways to think about skulking through a monster-ridden facility in the middle of a temporal flux event. One is "nightmare." Another is "death trap."

Omega-7 used the term "Movement through hostile terrain." Single-file line, weapons raised, checking and double-checking every corner and intersection. Communicating only through hand gestures, taps on the shoulder, and squeezes on the leg. Just another series of corridors and doorways to be checked, cleared, and moved through.

They encountered no further hostiles, although they could, on occasion, hear growls, grunts, and screams from deeper inside the facility. The odd flickering and fuzziness faded away as they proceeded further and got closer to the Scranton Reality Anchors at the heart of the base. All in all, the movement was quick, professional, and by the numbers.

What they found at the end of it, though…

The thing laying outside Security Station Nine resembled a hugely obese human being, albeit one that was over nine feet tall and covered in oozing sores and tumors. A large number of rotting, disintegrating corpses lay all around it, most of them dressed in the uniforms of Mobile Task Force personnel.

One of the least decomposed was an older man with ginger hair, shot with silver. Squire had died in close contact with the monster. His corpse still held a tarnished knife in one hand. The other was sunk wrist-deep into the rolls of fat around the creature's neck.

"They were attacked shortly after you entered the facility," a low voice said in an unfamiliar accent. "Unfortunately, they were all dead by the time I arrived."

The nine surviving members of Mobile Task Force Omega-7 turned to face the figure stepping out of the shadows. He was very tall and handsome, and his arms were made of steel.

"Cain," Beatrix breathed. She lowered her weapon. A moment later, at a gesture from Adrian, the rest of Omega-7 followed.

"I would not approach the corpse too closely, if I were you," the tall, Semitic-looking man said. "Even dead, the noxious fumes could prove fatal."

"Team, fall back by the numbers," Adrian ordered. "Masks on. Rally at Conference Room Six."

He spared Squire one last look as the team retreated. The old man's body had dissolved into slime, leaving only a goo-covered skeleton behind.


"All right," Adrian said to his squad leaders, as the rest of the team took up rest positions inside the room. "Let's review the situation. Liquids?"

"Full canteens and camelpaks all around," Beatrix said. "Untainted, plenty of reserves."

"Ammunition?"

"Full loads, plus spares on my team," Frederickson said.

"Effie and Bill down one magazine each. Reloaded from Vince, picked up his spares," Beatrix added.

"All right. And we've got no casualities worth carrying to speak of. KIAs are leave-in-place. As for mission-essential equipment…" Adrian scoffed and shook his head. "At this point, guys, I'm not sure what our mission is any more. Team Able is down, presumed KIA. The nine of us aren't going to make it much further into the site. I'll be honest: if this were any other mission, I'd call us combat ineffective, scrub it, and pull out."

"But it's not any other mission," Beatrix pointed out. "This is it. We're all that's left."

"Right," Adrian said grimly. "So I'm taking suggestions for ideas on what we should do next."

"Has anyone suggested… you know. Asking the ancient Sumerian whatchamacallit?" Frederickson asked.

All three of them turned to regard SCP-073. He alone had not entered the conference room, and was standing in the hallway outside, calmly looking down the darkened corridors, his steel hands clasped in front of him in an oddly demure fashion.

Adrian and Beatrix exchanged a look. "It's worth a shot," Beatrix admitted.


"Yes," Cain said. "I do have some advice on what you can do to rectify this situation."

"All right," Adrian said. "Why didn't you say something before?"

"You did not ask," Cain replied. "An answer is of no use if the question is not asked."

"All right," Adrian repeated. "Well, I'm asking now. What do we do?"

"That would depend on your definition of the word 'we,'" Cain said. "If by 'we,' you refer to your squad in general… most of them will be of no use. Aside from you and your lover, the rest may as well leave the facility. If by 'we,' you refer to you, the woman, and I… that is an answer I do not wish to give. Suffice to say that we three are required to right what has gone wrong, and that additional persons would be both superfluous and unnecessary."

"… I'm not sure," Frederickson said, after a long pause, "But I think me and the rest of Team Iris were just told to fuck off and let you and Beats handle the rest."

"It would appear so," Adrian said, sighing. "Beats?"

"… the way I see it," Beatrix said, "Cain's the only one who has any ideas, which means he's already one step ahead of the rest of us. I say we do as he suggests."

"… all right," Adrian said. "Then we're decided. Frederickson? You're in command now. I suggest you take the rest of the team and retreat to our starting point. There should be an exit in… about fifteen minutes…"

"Begging your pardon, sir, but all three humvees are fucked. No way we can run fast enough to make it outside the mountain before it resolidifies," Frederickson pointed out. "I'm thinking we head to the front entrance, see if we can fight our way out that way."

"That's going to take you through the thickest areas of hostile activity," Adrian pointed out. "Odds aren't good."

"Better than trying to run a quarter-mile in thirty seconds," Frederickson said. "Besides, maybe we can keep some of them off of you guys."

Adrian nodded. "All right," he said. "Beats and I will pare down to long arm, one extra magazine each, plus liquids and first aid. We'll leave the rest of our supplies for you. Try going through Alpha sector instead of Bravo: it's a bit of a longer route, but Bravo takes you right past some of the Keter-class containment units. Good luck, Freddie."

"Good luck, sir," Frederickson replied. He swallowed hard, eyes brimming with unshed tears. "And if you'll allow me to say so… it's been an honor to serve with you."

"Likewise," Adrian said coolly. "All right, call the team over and let's get started…"


"Adrian?"

"Hm?" Andrews tore his eyes away from the monstrous creature lurching along the path before them. Part ram, part slug, part flower-garden, it tilted its bandaged head from side to side as it glided with unnatural grace through the shattered hallways. Three nude women danced in slow circles around the horned figure, dressed only in copper helmets adorned with ribbons that fluttered in the wind of their passage.

Beatrix sighed. "Give me an honest assessment. Do you really think we're going to survive this?"

Adrian glanced at Cain, who was walking about twenty feet ahead of them, just a few feet behind the surreal procession. One of the nude figures approached the tall, olive-skinned man, her every motion speaking of the promise of sensual delights: Cain simply smiled and nodded his head in acknowledgement, and the figure retreated, head bowed in respect. "If I didn't," he said at last, "It wouldn't do us any good to prepare for that. So let's say that I do think we're going to survive this, and move from there?"

Beatrix nodded slowly, as if this were the response she'd expected. "Remember that conversation we had last night? About three months in Europe versus ten minutes on the moon?"

Adrian smiled fondly. "Yeah," he said, eyes misting up.

"… I was just thinking, we're probably due a bunch of leave after this," Beatrix said, stepping carefully along the carpet of rose petals strewn in the wake of the bulbous beast. "Three months in Europe wouldn't be out of the question. Want to come with me?"

"Yeah," Adrian repeated.

"… maybe we could make it our honeymoon," Beatrix said.

"… yeah," Adrian said. He reached out a hand, found hers, and squeezed tightly.

Up ahead, the odd procession paused at an intersection, turned right, and continued to dance, never missing a beat. Adrian, Beatrix, and Cain continued straight on, into the darkness.

It was not long before they reached a tall, steel door, with the symbol of three inward-pointing arrows within two circles painted upon its gunmetal-grey plates. Cain stepped up to a security console at one side of the door, pressed his palm against a scanning plate. There was a loud click and a series of crunches as the door's locking mechanism released. "From here," Cain said, "I will follow you. It is necessary that the two of you enter first."

"Is this a prophecy?" Adrian asked.

"An inevitability," Cain replied.

Beatrix nodded. "Shall we?"

She and Adrian walked to the door together, placed their hands against the handles, and pushed

There was a loud crack. A high-pitched whirring sound, like a dentist's drill.

A six-foot tall woman made of steel and wires burst through the door, grabbed Beatrix Maddox by the head, and twisted it like a chicken's, to the sickening crack of breaking bone.


And elsewhere in the facility, surrounded by the dead and dying, a stone cube opened up, and a tall, naked man with scarlet tattoos all over his olive skin emerged once more into the world.


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