rating: 0+x

L4 Senior Researcher Matthew Turner went through his morning with no idea he was going to be part of somebody's first bag job.

He was just putting away his lunch when the auditors barged into his office, wearing grim faces and cheap suits. The big one in front tugged aside his lapel, showing the Internal Security badge clipped above his shoulder holster. An outraged protest died in Turner's throat as he realized what was going on.

"Come on, now," the shabby man said, as Turner went for his own sidearm. The agent grabbed the researcher's desk with both hands and flipped it, sending it and Turner clattering to the floor together. He put a foot onto the scientist's neck, casual about it. He drew an enormous handgun and smiled.

"Game face," the agent mouthed to the one-eyed woman behind him. She nodded, steadying herself, then walked over and threw the lock on the office door. She got on one knee next to Turner and slipped his Foundation-issue Beretta out of its rig, wobbling as she leaned on the prosthetic hooks jutting from her right sleeve.

"What is this?" Turner demanded lamely. "What are you doing here?"

The doctor popped beads of sweat as the giant crouched over him, slipping a pair of handcuffs from his coat pocket. "My name's Agent Friendly. I've come to make a deal."

"Let's get this out of the way," L.B. boomed. "There's not much to it. The Ethics Committee decides what's acceptable. We make people accept it. The real question is, what makes you right for this job?"

"I believe in doing the right thing at all costs," Mo said.

"Hm. Decent answer," L.B. voice rumbled over the hoots and jeers from the peanut gallery. His bristling grey mustache made it impossible to tell if he was smiling or not as he stared her down across the battered steel table. With the spotlight in her face, she couldn't see the rest of the team at all. "But how do you know what the right thing is, Doc?"

"You're going to tell me, sir."

That shut them up for a minute.

They cuffed Turner and hauled him back into his chair, mumbling swears. Agent Friendly righted the desk and sat on its edge. Took off his coat and lit a cigarette.

"The deal is," he said, rolling up his sleeves. "You're gonna talk with my associate, here. An' as long as it's goin' well, I'll stay on this side of the room here and just leave y'all to it. Take it away, Doc."

"Great." Mo took a step forward. Her heart was pounding, the whole thing was insane, she wasn't a comic book G-man, she was a doctor of medicine — but she took a deep breath and recommitted yet again. "Well, Doctor Turner, I suppose I'll start by offering you the chance to tell us where Vanessa Zavala is. I promise you, that would be the easiest thing for everyone."

"Who?" Turner looked over to her, genuine confusion on his face. Ash dropped off his cigarette and rolled down the front of his lab coat.

"D-172-2009." She pulled a photo from her jacket pocket. She handed it to him, revealing another one behind it. "And Cynthia Johnson, D-171-7465." He took the second one, eyes widening as confusion turned to horror. "Laura Anderson, D-172-5863, whom you misappropriated two days ago." She tossed the third picture into his lap. "Who did you deliver them to? Where did you meet?"

She watched him go pale, saw him almost retch but pull himself back from the edge. He looked up at her cautiously. "I want a lawyer. I need to see a lawyer."

"We'll be fine," she soothed, ignoring the agent's chuckling behind her. "We have to sort this out for ourselves. Together. This whole thing must be really frightening for you. The audit, and now us… but on the other hand, you can't cross whoever you're stealing these women for, right?"

His eyes narrowed. She met his gaze and held it, pulse thumping in her ears, hoping that the roiling horror of her graft scars would intimidate him. It wasn't enough.

"Fuck you, you mouthy cunt. And you, tough guy. You just let this bitch speak for you?"

Before she could brush off the insult, Agent Friendly swung forward, gun butt arcing perfectly into Turner's jaw with a wet crunch. Mo winced; Turner moaned, dribbling curses and chips of teeth. Her heart skidded out of control when he looked up, blood soaking his chin, a split in his lip she could see all the way through. Her vision tunneled to a pinhole. Her legs swayed. She grit her teeth, willing herself not to faint.

"Look what'cha did now, y'asshole," Friendly chastised. "You've upset the lady."

She got on top of her blood pressure, took control of her screaming nerves. Got herself together. She could see Turner doing the same, his face hardening even as he sniffed back tears of pain.

"Agent, please," she said. She pulled over another chair and sat across from Turner. "Agent Friendly is very good at what he does, but this, today, this is my interview. Violence doesn't suit me, and this doesn't seem like the time to learn."

"I'm no rat. You'd have to fucking kill me," he spat, words bubbling through his wound.

"I'm sure you're right, which is why I'm taking a different approach. I think what you need right now is some help." She reached into her jacket and pulled out a syringe, laying it on her lap. Turner side-eyed it, determined not to show fear. "I used to be a neurochemist, Doctor Turner. Back in the early days of memory treatment. This is a little something we stumbled on by accident."

She clamped the syringe in her prosthetic and uncapped the needle, gazing with pride at its tip. "We never gave it a name, officially, but we used to call it a class-X amnestic."

She leapt to her feet. Turner flinched; Agent Friendly started forward, clenching his massive fists, and Turner sagged back down into his chair. "Agent, if you would please hold the Doctor at gunpoint while I give him the injection?"

"Of course, ma'am."

"Great." She stepped over to Turner, put her hook gently on his shoulder. "You've probably heard how class-C amnestic is like truth serum during the first stages of treatment. It's a side effect of the synapses disconnecting. People can't keep track of what's going on at all — you should hear some of the things they say in there."

She smiled, scarred lips twisting all wrong. Her victim looked up at her, pale, eyes wide.

"We can't give you a full class-C here, obviously. We'd need gas tanks and an I.V., and a medical team to run it. But this little syringe has everything that actually dissolves the neural structures."

She crouched next to his chair. Placed her hook gently against his neck and pressed, just enough to make the veins pop up. Steadied the needle.

"The rest of that stuff just stops it from being permanent." She exhaled and touched it to his skin.

"Wait," he gasped.

"You have to pick a name," L.B. said as he showed her to her office. "Protects you from monsters, human and otherwise. This is where you do paperwork. You're going to hate it, but if you don't do it right, I have to kick your ass into line."

"I can handle paperwork," she said. "My name can be Doctor Castle."

"That's too close to your old one," L.B. said. "You need something totally different. Considering what you used to do —" And he told her what the crew had suggested.

"That's…" she frowned. "That's in extremely poor taste."

"That's why it's perfect," he said.

"That was some quality bullshit, Doctor Parts," Agent Friendly laughed a few minutes later, as they pulled a black cloth bag over Senior Researcher Turner's head. "'Class-X amnestic,' that's rich."

"Call it a burst of inspiration," she said. "Thanks for the pentathol." The fear of what she would have had to do if her lie failed was still there, copper on her tongue. The stress left an empty feeling in her heart.

"Never seen it used like that," the agent admitted, dragging turner to his feet. Muffled sobbing sounds came from under the hood. "What'd you have done if he called your bluff?"

"Tortured him," she said, and the truth of it echoed through the hollow place inside her. "Where do we go from here?"

"We do the walk'a shame outta here. Security's gonna pick him up an' take him to the brig at __, where he'll be debriefed the rest of the way. Meantime, we're gonna send the names he gave us over to Rho-99, then Rho-99'll start roundin' people up. Still won't get all the women back, an' that's too bad, but the jackasses we take in oughta make up for it an' then some." He clapped Turner on the shoulder, making him stumble. "Not to mention this one right here."

"Fuck you and your raggedy-looking bitch," Turner said, and Mo ignored him.

They took their battered Foundation-issue sedan and headed north across the desert. They drove until dark and checked into a cheap motel, Friendly heading into his room with an old detective novel and a "g'night, Doctor."

She nodded, adjusting her eye patch, and faced outward across the scrubland. She looked wistfully toward her room, D-class mugshots and broken lips all snarled up in her head, then sighed and headed off for a walk.

They had a cheap breakfast in a roadside diner, Mo reviewing the stack of thick folders in front of her while Agent Friendly browsed the newspaper and smoked. "You nervous?" he asked, casually.

"About what?" She shoved her pen aside. Taking notes was still an exercise in frustration, even after months of practice writing left-handed.

"S'posedly, Miller's an O5's nephew, or somethin'. Gotten people terminated for crossin' him, or so they say." He scratched his graying stubble and looked over at her, unreadable.

"We're all professionals. We're all on the same team. And either way, I'm not going to be intimidated out of doing my job."

He was still looking at her. "You know," he said at last, "that face'a yours is a real asset in this line'a work. You're usin' it well."

She turned away, startled. She started to blush, felt it creeping up around the grafted patches.

The director was expecting them. This was a policy discussion, not an interrogation. A formal meeting, requested, civil; just reasonable people talking about work.

"I can't kill any more babies," Director Steven Miller said, misty eyes set in determination.

"There's no shame in requestin' a transfer, Doctor," Agent Friendly said. "They tend to be gentle about that with assignments like this one. They'll even set you up with a class-B, take at least a few months'a this off your shoul-"

"I meant, I can't let any more babies be killed." Miller looked Friendly straight on.

"Ah. Well, that'd be different."

"Agent, I know… I know what you're here for. But please consider our proposal." He looked at the researchers sitting to his left and right, gathering support, and then placed a presentation folder on the table. "This document outlines updated procedures for SCP-2845. The department of applied ontology estimates the chances of success at over ninety percent, in every one of their analyses."

"Updated how?"

"We want to replace the Omphalos procedure. The rest of the ritual will remain intact, but with the climactic release of energy achieved through proscribed sexual activities between personnel. Instead of murdering children. We'll also be offering our own blood, and the team will maintain an ascetic lifestyle when not actively engaged in containment. We predict that the energy output during the ritual cycles, combined with the sacrifice of the rest of the team's joy in life, will be sufficient to keep the entity contained."

Agent Friendly lit a cigarette, ignoring the folder. "It sounds like a great read, it really does, but ninety percent is not gonna be nearly good enough for the Committee. You know that."

"We have to try."

The agent grunted. "I'm gonna let my colleague take it from here. Doctor P., would you mind?"

Mo cleared her throat. "Certainly, Agent F. Thank you." She looked across the table, taking in the guarded, hopeful expressions of the people across from her. "I've been reviewing your research here. SCP-X is the most dangerous anomaly I've ever heard of. Our supervisor tells me it's the most powerful entity the Foundation has ever encountered, full stop. I understand that Dr. Dell's established procedures rely on a resonance of belief from both sides-"

"Dell was a lunatic," Miller interrupted. "His methods may have worked, but they're far from-"

"Excuse me," Mo said, rapping the table with her hook. The director looked uncomfortably at his supporters. Friendly raised an eyebrow in what she hoped was approval.

"Thank you," she continued. "As I was saying, my understanding is that the current procedures work, at least in part, because they they've already been working. Is that correct?"

"That's… yes, that's technically accurate, but-"

"So what happens if the new procedure fails, and the link with the old ones is broken?"

"We've developed a contingency plan. We'll keep the children outside the safe zone during the transition. If containment fails…" his eyes were strangely blank as he forced the words out. "The established resonance with infanticide and cannibalism should render the Deer susceptible to recontainment by a cluster performance of the Omphalos procedure. A mass sacrifice." His voice cracked, and she could see his hand trembling. "But we don't expect it to come to that. We expect to give those children their lives back."

She sighed.

"I appreciate what you want to do. That you want to save people. That's what we're all here for." She smiled, feeling her cheek distort, part of her enjoying how they glanced away in discomfort.

"There are over a hundred people stationed at this site. There's a very real chance that your plan will kill them all. And fail to save the infants. And, if recontainment fails, that could be the end. For everyone." She turned her eye on each of them in turn, seeing them wilt, though she couldn't tell whether it was her voice or just her scars that did it. "We cannot give all those lives for your conscience."

He pushed the file closer to her. "In here are signed declarations by all our personnel that they accept the risks of this operation. The few who wouldn't sign, we've suspended. We're paying them from our own savings while they wait for their transfers. We appreciate your input, but we intend to move forward with-"

"That'd be mutiny," Friendly cut in. "It'd be out of our hands. You know what happens then."

"The Fun Police," Miller said, voice heavy with disdain. "I know all about them. So that's it, then? Why even come here, if you're just going to threaten us with your goon squad?"

"We'll have this analyzed," Mo promised, taking the folder. "If Ontology says it will work, maybe they can make a plan to do it safely. Someday. For now, the Ethics Committee has determined that the current procedures are to continue."

He looked over at her, a sad defiance in his eyes. "Please understand. We have to do what's right. Whatever it takes."

"You already are," she said gently, gathering up the files. "And thank you for that. Now, please stay here with Agent F. while I call the internal security office. We'll have to administer loyalty examinations to everybody who signed this."

//"This is your final test," Agent Grunt said as he led her through the musty hallway to their basement storage room. He silently pushed the door open. Tied to a chair, lit starkly by a bare lightbulb, was an unconscious man in underwear.

"Caught him stealing." Grunt handed her a revolver. "L.B. wants you to kill him."

Her palms started sweating. She felt hot and cold at the same time. "Right now? Here?"

"Now," Grunt confirmed.

The gun felt awkwardly heavy. She could feel her hand throbbing around it with the beat of her heart. Her ears started to ring.

"I can't," she said.

"Yeah, you can," the agent answered, stroking his beard as he leaned impassively against the doorframe. "We need to know you got the balls for this."

She thought about things that she'd done that were worse than this, and the reasons why. She thought about what she was protecting. She remembered what she had to lose.

She raised the gun. Her stomach writhed inside her. Her blood felt thin.

She pulled the trigger and it clicked harmlessly.

It seemed insane to her later, but the first thing she did was try to fire again, and then a third time. Some kind of momentum had taken hold, but the bullets were all duds. She felt a scream rise in her chest and held it back. She spun around, glaring at Agent Grunt, too short of breath for accusations.

The agent shrugged. "You passed."//

"There's one more thing," Friendly puffed, leaning against the car. The sun setting over the mountains behind him turned the endless dust and rocks into a field of gold. "Two'a the kids're unaccounted for."

They pulled into a dim bar, run-down patrons sagging on their stools. The clatter of pool balls and clinking of change mingled in the air with years of stale smoke. Even with her hook and patch, nobody gave them a second look.

Friendly made his way to the phone in the back and put in a dime, then had the operator connect him to the police records department, reading a badge number off a list he pulled from his wallet. A few minutes and a "you have a wonderful night, ma'am," later, he hung up.

"Well, records office confirms it," he said. "Director Miller's unmarried sister lives with her two adopted children in Laughlin. Jus' an hour away. Ages match our two missin' kids."

She turned that over in her head, didn't like it at all. "What are we going to do?"

"Jus' check in."

"And if she has them?"

"What L.B. sent us to do," he said, lighting another one. "Take back what's ours."

"Most of the job'll be like this," Friendly said as the car bumped along through the blackness. "Comin' down on people who jus' wanted t'do somethin' nice for once."

"Someone has to hold the lines in place," Mo said, and he grunted in what she hoped was agreement.

The desert rolled by, stars twinkling like nothing was wrong. They followed a long driveway to a modest wooden house, tricycles laying in the sand outside.

"Here y'go, Doc. Your show, remember?" She studied his face, but in the dark it gave nothing away.

"This is a test," she said. "More hazing. You're trying to see how far I'll go."

"All that shit's over," he said softly. His lighter clicked open and sparked to life, and she saw pity flickering in his eyes. "You're one'a us now. This's jus' what we do." He lit a smoke and snapped the flame out.
She nodded, checked her pockets, stepped out of the car. Moonlit plains stretched away in every direction. She'd never felt more exposed. Turner's sister had seen the headlights, of course; her silhouette hovered nervously in the doorway as Mo walked up.

"Lauren Turner?" Mo asked, tugging her lapel.

"What's happened?" the woman demanded, trembling. "Did something happen to Steven?"

"Don't worry," Mo said, forcing a smile. "He's okay." Her pulse hammered; she felt it in her chest, in her neck, in the empty socket under her patch. She took a deep breath. "I'm here to talk about your children."

Lauren started to weep, covering her face with her hands, begging incoherently. Mo ignored her.